Cyra hacked, swishing more water around her mouth. She spat it out, desperately trying to clear away the harsh burn left in her mouth. Cyra let her hair fall back into her face as she moved away from the foul smelling sick bowl.
Someone knocked at her door.
Cyra held her stomach as it pitched and rolled. She tried to stand, but thought better of it as her legs wobbled. With a groan, she slid back down the wall. Her head swam. She weakly said, “Come in.”
The door opened and several people stepped in. Her brother’s face filled her vision. His hand pressed into her forehead.
“What’s wrong with her?”
That was a woman, Soray.
Mihrab took her face in his hands and twisted carefully from side to side. He asked, “Cyra? Can you talk?”
“Yes, yes.” Cyra sat up. “I’m alright.”
“She’s not alright. I don’t know if she can stand up, and she might be running a fever. She’s really sick,” Mihrab said.
Cyra grabbed the wall and started climbing to her feet. She braced herself against the wall. Soray stood by the dresser while Vitalis stood in the doorway. “She wasn’t feeling well last night, but neither of us thought much of it. She insisted she was fine, but whatever this is could be what was bothering her.
Mihrab took her arm and supported her weight. “When was the last time she ate?”
Vitalis could only shake his head slightly. “I’m not really sure. She ate a brief lunch with me when the meetings stopped early. She drank water, and that was all. She might have eaten after she left me for the day.”
“I did,” Cyra said, letting Mihrab sit her on her bed. “I ate a little.”
“Food poisoning? Or do you think she’s really sick with something else?” Soray asked, joining them at her bedside.
“I’m no doctor, but I would say sick. At the very least, she’s in no position to work today, Prince Vitalis,” Mihrab said, laying Cyra back on her bed.
Cyra swatted at his hands. “I’m not sick. I just got dizzy and lightheaded. I’ll be fine in a moment.”
“Sick sisters don’t get to make decisions on their health.” Mihrab shot her a look. “I get to make the calls here. You know that’s how we do this.”
“Mihrab, I have to work. Prince Vitalis—” Cyra rolled over, catching a glimpse of the prince still hovering in the doorway.
“Cyra, you don’t to guard me today. You need rest,” Vitalis spoke up.
“I don’t have anything important today, I can stay here and look after her.” Soray sat on the bed. “Prince Vitalis, you can have Mihrab as your guard for the day.”
“Are you sure, shahdokht? What if you fall ill?” Mihrab asked, rising to his feet.
Soray brushed him off, sending them away. The prince cast one last look over his shoulder before Soray shut the door. Cyra could not force herself awake any longer than that.
* * *
When Cyra opened her eyes, Soray hurried to her side. Soray pushed Cyra’s hair back, replacing the damp cloth on her with a fresh one. Soray asked, “How are you feeling?”
“Fine, Soray.” Cyra pushed herself to a sitting position. She held her stomach as it groaned and rolled. “How long have I been asleep?”
“A few hours, it’s past midday now.” Soray fussed with the blankets, straightening them out. “Are you hungry? Can you keep anything down?”
“Not hungry,” Cyra said. Just the thought of eating anything made her feel sick again.
Were her memories right? Had Vitalis really come by that morning?
“How did you all know to come check on me?” Cyra leaned her head back.
“Prince Vitalis, you were late, and he was worried so he came to me and Mihrab. We knew you wouldn’t be missing without a good reason, so we all came to check on you.” Soray sat on the bed. “You’re sick, so I’m going to be nice, but I am a bit put out you haven’t come to see me or tell me you would be Prince Vitalis’ bodyguard.”
“Sorry, shahdokht,” Cyra murmured. She tucked her hair back. “The prince is a busy man. I was surprised when Artunis removed me from your side.”
“Well, you do deserve a break from me, but I hope you and Prince Vitalis find some time to spend with me.” Soray took Cyra’s hand.
“Maybe you can arrange something with Prince Vitalis,” Cyra said, rolling her head to the side. “Something that could give him a break from all this.”
“What a great idea! As soon as you’re better, I’ll bring it up.” Soray scooted closer. “Is there anything I can get for you?”
Cyra shook her head and sunk back into her pillow. Soray pulled the blankets up over her, saying, “Get some rest. I’ll be here when you wake.”
* * *
Harsh pounding knocks forced her eyes open again.
Soray was at the door, opening it. Without waiting, Prince Vitalis rushed into the room. His hair was wild, tousled as though he’d been tearing at it. Something was clenched in his fist, but Cyra couldn’t quite see it.
She shot up, about to speak when the movement sent her stomach into a frenzy. She leaned over the bed, retching into the sick bowl, Soray had ready.
Vitalis punched forward, pulling her hair out of her face.
Cyra coughed and heaved as he rubbed her shoulders. When she had finished, Vitalis passed Cyra a cloth to wipe her mouth. He also brought a glass of water to her to try and soothe her throat.
“Prince—? What?” Cyra stuttered as he helped her sit back.
Mihrab was at the door, and confusion colored his face. He said, “Shahdokht, may I have a word? The prince needs to discuss something with his bodyguard.”
Soray’s face twisted in a mixture of confusion and concern. She nodded and clasped her hands together to keep them from shaking. The two stepped out of the room, shutting the door.
“I didn’t mean to startle you, my apologies,” Vitalis spoke softly. Even kneeling be her beside, he was at eye level with her. “How do you feel?”
“What’s in your hand?” Cyra sat up, ignoring the way her stomach protested.
Vitalis unfolded a piece of paper and handed it to Cyra. Cyra blinked a couple times before she was able to read the messy scrawl.
Worse will happen if you stay, Vialyan.
“Worse…” Cyra muttered. She passed the note back. “Were did you find this?”
“In my room, after the meetings,” Vitalis said, sliding the note into his pocket. “Coincidentally, Lord Belum did not attend today.”
“You think he left it?” Cyra asked.
“It makes sense doesn’t it?” Vitalis shifted his weight, leaning closer.
“Belum is a spineless fool. He would never be able to write a note like this. He might have put it in your room, but he didn’t write it. It’s not his handwriting anyway.” Cyra waved her hand dismissively.
“Do you really think the leader of the cult wrote this?” Vitalis whispered.
Cyra nodded. She gestured to herself. “The author is also most likely responsible for the state I’m in. Belum’s too much of a coward to try and come after me. He’s probably more scared of the shah’s dog than he is of you.”
“So someone at court is pulling Belum’s strings? Or do you think it’s someone outside of court?” Vitalis watched her carefully.
“No idea, you’re supposed to the smart one. This is your mystery to figure out,” Cyra said, laying her head back. “I’m just the bodyguard.”
“I don’t think you’re ‘just’ anything.” Vitalis smiled. He gently touched her arm before standing up. “I’ll leave you to recover, and be careful what you eat from now. I can’t imagine you’re keen on this happening again.”
“I’m not,” Cyra groaned. “I’ll be there on time in the morning.”
* * *
Cyra slept the rest of the night. She wasn’t accustomed to a deep, dreamless sleep. Not dreaming always left her feeling off balance with her magic. However, Cyra couldn’t regret it when she woke up feeling better than she had in weeks.
If Cyra wasn’t all that a proper guard should be, there would have been a spring in her step as she walked with Vitalis to the council chambers.
For the first few days after her recovery, Vitalis didn’t have them do anything other than attend the meetings.
On the third day, Cyra whispered to him as they walked, “I’m perfectly recovered, sire. Whatever you’ve got up your sleeve, I’m ready.”
“I’m aware.” Vitalis glanced down as her. “I think you need to be paying more attention to these meetings.”
Cyra didn’t respond as they went inside. Pay more attention? What was she missing?
What were they doing, sitting in on meetings that don’t concern Vitalis when they could be trying to figure out who Lord Belum was working for?
Cyra did as Vitalis had suggested. She followed every word, but it was all about border trade between Sizia and Sardes. Sizia wanted Sardes to lower the taxes so Sizia would get cheaper goods. The shah and the northern lords were not so inclined to do so.
It wasn’t until hallway through the meeting the Cyra realized Vitalis wasn’t paying attention to the debate at all. At least, not the way she thought he was.
Cyra peeked at his notes to see it was all about Lord Belum. Essentially, everything Lord Belum said or did was recorded. Who he spoke to in support and those he argued with. He was timid man, so his arguments were few. Another detail Vitalis recorded was who spoke to him in support or to argue with.
What was Vitalis trying to prove?
The day passed, and Cyra watched Belum with Vitalis. Belum’s eyes shifted up and down the table, but never stayed on anyone for more than a second. He didn’t interject, and no one asked him to.
Vitalis and Cyra paused outside the door after the meeting. Lord Belum passed them, hurrying down an empty hallway with his head down. None of the other delegates or royals went that way. Vitalis also made no move to follow either. They waited a few more minutes, but Cyra figured Lord Belum was long gone from wherever that hallway led to.
Cyra turned to Vitalis. She tilted her head in the hallway’s direction.
He responded by shaking his head. They started down a separate hallway to Vitalis’ quarters.
When they were halfway gone, Vitalis spun on his heel back towards where Belum disappeared to. Cyra glanced behind to see a second figure go down the hallway. She asked, “Did you see that? Should we go after them?”
“I saw that, yes.” Vitalis frowned, hardening his gaze. “No, we won’t go after them. I’ve got my own plan. Are you positive you’re back to normal?”
“I’m ready to do anything,” Cyra said, turning back to the prince.
“Good,” Vitalis said as they picked up their pace. “I think it’s time we ask Belum a few things directly.”
* * *
“So, we’re in my head now, how do we get to Belum’s?” Vitalis asked. His feet made an odd crunching sound in the strange snow.
Cyra shivered, brushing the falling snow off her shoulders. “A door should appear here soon.”
Cyra stepped to Vitalis side and pointed at the wooden door hiding behind a tree. She took his arm. “Hold onto me and don’t let go. If you do, I can’t guarantee I’ll be able to find you.”
“Don’t worry, I have no intentions of letting go of you,” Vitalis said, smiling.
Cyra ducked her gaze. She wrapped her arm around his, trying not to enjoy the warmth. They approached the door, and Cyra opened it. She tightened her grip on him and pulled him through the doorway.
Vitalis gasped as they began falling. He quickly grabbed onto her with his other hand, wrapping both arms around her so he wouldn’t lose her.
Cyra stretched one hand out, closing her eyes. She immersed herself in the flow of magic and meeting of minds.
When Vitalis would ask her later, Cyra would tell him she’s not really sure how she did it. Her magic wasn’t as precise and certainly not learned like other kinds. Cyra just knew whose mind she was going to, and as long as her destination was clear, their mind would appear.
They fell through a dark, worn door into Belum’s mind. Cyra’s knees buckled as they landed. Vitalis straightened, loosening his grip on her shoulders. He slid one hand to grab hers as they looked around. Lord Belum stood in the center away from them. It seem as though they were in Belum’s bedroom from his home. Cyra certainly didn’t recognize it, but if she had to guess, it was a fairly common dreamscape.
“This is Belum’s head?” Vitalis whispered. Belum was staring at mirror, still oblivious to them. “Why is it so different from mine?”
Cyra paused, taking in the dark, suffocating fear and magic in the air. “Because he’s got experience with magic. None of his own, but I don’t think we’re the first to have come here.”
“You think some of the cult members have used magic on his head?” Vitalis asked.
“I can feel this sort of, dark, uh, toxic magical residue. I’m not sure what else it could be from.” Cyra walked towards Belum. “Follow my lead.”
Vitalis squeezed her hand and nodded. Cyra was startled at the warm burst in her chest. He really trust her… this was new, but Cyra liked it.
“Belum,” Cyra said, catching his attention. The man spun around; his hair stuck up in every direction from where he had been tearing at it. Belum’s mouth fell open as confusion wrapped around his face. Cyra continued, “Where did that money go?”
“Money? His face paled. “The shah’s dog and the foreigner. I don’t know what you’re talking about. No money is missing.”
Cyra let go of Vitalis, grabbing Belum with both hands. Even though Belum was taller than her, Cyra was a warrior. She easily jerked him around and slammed his back into a bed post. Vitalis stepped back as Cyra pinned Belum. “We’re in your mind. If you don’t tell me, I will take the information through force.”
That awful magical residue strengthened around them. Cyra glanced around as the magic swelled and tightened, almost suffocating them.
Belum chocked and coughed, “Can’t—I—he—”
Cyra growled and gathered her magic together. Vitalis hurried to her side. His hand touched her shoulder. Cyra closed her eyes.
She tore through the dreamscape, ripping the very fabric of it in two as she dug through Belum’s memories.
Belum was screaming and clawing at her hands.
She wasn’t there to be gentle, but she didn’t enjoy using such violent force. This was different than when she had been in Vitalis’ mind. His mind, for some odd reason had accepted her presence. His mind had willingly responded, showing her what she needed to see. Belum’s mind seemed to have some kind of magic lock, preventing him from saying anything or willingly showing her anything, even if he had wanted to, which was unlikely. Belum clearly didn’t think highly of the shah’s pet.
Still, it was a rather despicable thing she was doing.
Cyra grabbed the memory she was looking for, she could tell because it had the strongest sense of the dark magic in it. She hauled it back to where they were. She threw Belum to the ground as she fell back, gasping and shaking from the effort. Vitalis caught her as the memory played out before them.
It was a dark street, just after midnight. Cyra assumed it was in Belum’s city; they were nowhere in Shiraz.
Belum wore a cloak. He dressed down in simple clothing similar to the kind the assassins wore. He had a hood up, trying to hide his face, but it was clear who he was.
Another man, possibly the cult’s leader, or some other important member, stood in the shadows. He was wrapped in dark, thick clothes from head to toe. Cyra couldn’t see his face, couldn’t see anything about him. He was too well hidden; it was too dark.
Cyra’s legs just wouldn’t stop shaking. She couldn’t seem to move them underneath her. Vitalis had one arm around her waist, holding her up. Cyra’s eyes were locked on the man in the shadows.
Belum nervously approached the man. He said, “I’ve got it here, my lord.”
The man snatched the bag from Belum, pawing through it. “You’ve done well, actually, more than I asked for. This will be quite the sum to try and hide.”
That voice… it wasn’t as deep as she thought it would be, not like Vitalis’ voice was. It was actually rather smooth and melodic, the kind of voice Cyra could fall asleep to. It was familiar and soothing. There was trace of magic in it too. It was pulling at her head, whispering that she should trust this man.
“Worry not, my lord,” Belum simpered. It was a rather revolting display. “The shah treats me as he does a commoner, he won’t notice it in my report. You deserve it more than him, my lord.”
The man laughed at that, and Cyra shuddered. She stepped back into Vitalis’ as if putting distance between her and the voice would lessen its power. His voice was too beautiful, and his laughter too tempting to be the owner of such dark magic.
“I will remember your loyalty when all is said and done. You will be restored to your old place, your rightful place.” The shadowed figure began to walk away. “The times of old are rising again. You made the right choice.”
The memory was over. They were back in Belum’s room. He laid on the floor, completely still. Cyra winced at the sight.
“Can you stand? Are you alright?” Vitalis asked softly.
Cyra nodded, pulling herself out of his grip. She wobbled on her own unsteady feet, but stayed upright. She couldn’t stand to look at the sight of what she had done to Belum. “We should go.”
“To where?” Vitalis hovered at her arm.
“Back to your mind.” Cyra grabbed his arm and hurried to the door. Vitalis kept up, his eyes never leaving her.