It was a shorter trip back to Vitalis’ mind as she was growing ever more familiar with its unique feel. It was quickly becoming as familiar as Mihrab’s or Soray’s, and that concerned her.
The cool snow beneath her was a nice change from the heat flooding her skin from what she’d just done. Cyra had never seen snow or felt it for herself, but Vitalis’ memories and love of it were strong enough that she could feel it through him.
Cyra’s legs buckled, and she quickly sat down to stop her fall. Vitalis sat next to her. “So that was…”
“Awful,” Cyra said, pulling her knees up.
“I was going for impressive,” Vitalis said. “At least we know for certain Lord Belum is involved. He’s financing the cult because that man, well the cult as a whole, has promised to reward him if they succeed.”
“But succeed at what? What is this cult’s endgame?” Cyra frowned, dragging her fingers through the snow.
“I’m not sure.” Vitalis leaned his head back. “I think we should move onto a different topic.”
“What do you have in mind?” Cyra sat up.
“Well, is there any way to fix, well, this mess?” Vitalis gestured to the strange melding of castle, cell, and forest that made up his mind.
Cyra nodded. She turned to face him. “Lay down and close your eyes. Now, Prince Vitalis, tell me, where do you go when you need to think? What’s your sanctuary?”
Vitalis breathed deeply. Cyra watched his chest rise as his lungs filled with air. He took a few moments to think.
The ground shifted. The rolling metal under her faded away. Branches and logs took their place while snow began falling harder, covering the ground. The stone wall untangled itself from the trees and evened itself out.
Cyra shuddered and Vitalis sat up, opening his eyes. He looked at the forest around them. “So, this is my dreamscape as you call it?”
With a quick glance around, Cyra responded, “Yes, so, tell me what is this?”
Vitalis smiled, leaning against a log. “We are just behind Elista’s castle where it borders a small forest. If my mother is being too much, or when I just need space, I come here. They’ve never figured out this is where I disappear to. It drives my mother nuts.”
“You’re a grown man who’s just traveled to a foreign country. I think you’re exaggerating.” Cyra quirked an eyebrow at him.
“You only saw the queen for a few days, trust me, I know her. She’s probably sick with anxiety right now. I had to fight and argue with her for weeks to get her to agree to let me be Vialya’s delegate.” Vitalis rolled his eyes. He shifted closer to her. “You know, she never let me leave Elista until I was eighteen, and even then we were only gone for a day.”
“Then she doesn’t know? Why you’re really here?” Cyra frowned, propping her elbow up against the log.
“No!” Vitalis shook his head. “No, if she knew what I was really here to do, she would have sooner locked me up than let me go. Although she does enough of that anyway. I honestly don’t think she sees me any differently than she did back when we were both in that cell.”
Cyra wasn’t really sure how to respond. She settled for saying, “That explains what the metal was that used to be in your mind. Even if you don’t consciously remember the time you spent in a cell as a baby, your mind does, and it’s become associated with how you feel. In some ways, you also feel as though you never left.”
Vitalis dropped his gaze, clasping his hands together. “That’s frighteningly accurate. I suppose I am a man stuck in the past.”
“Why?” Cyra asked.
Vitalis shook his head with a smile. “I’m sure you’ve got your guesses. The tragedy of Mari Annette. She saved my life, and what happened to her… She was taken as a baby. Demons stole her life, hurt my kingdom, so my mother made it her mission to stop it from happening again to our people, but I felt like there was more. I don’t want that to happen to anyone. I own Mari my life and my kingdom, the least I can do is try and protect others for her memory’s sake.”
Cyra opened her mouth, but before she could say anything, a voice whispered through the trees. Cyra and Vitalis froze. The branches and leaves shuddered.
The voice grew louder, but the words were Vialyan and too hard for Cyra to make out. Someone was walking towards tem from between the wall and the trees. It was a young woman, likely no older than Vitalis, maybe even slightly younger. She was short, with long tangled black hair.
As the woman came continuously closer, Cyra could see harsh, dark red tattoos running across her face and down her neck to her arms. The woman ignored Cyra, passing her by to kneel in front of Vitalis. Her image blurred slightly.
Vitalis gaped at her. It was Mari. Vitalis’ mind had pulled together all his old, buried memories of her from when he was a baby. He was somehow remembering this.
Cyra was deathly still and silent.
“Ri…” Vitalis whispered, a higher pitched child’s voice echoed his own. “Mari.”
Mari smiled down at him. Despite her dark, twisted appeared, Mari radiated light and love, so much that even Cyra could feel herself getting lost in it. “You’ll get there. You’re a smart boy.”
Distant laughter, Vitalis’ when he was a child, resonated.
Mari’s face changed. Cyra noticed the dark circles under her eyes. Suddenly, everything about her now spoke of exhaustion and strain. Just looking at her made Cyra feel like she held the world on her shoulders. She sighed, “Can you make me a promise? It’s more for my sake than yours, little one. Promise me that when you grow up, you will protect others. That what happened here won’t happen again.”
She was gone just as suddenly and strangely as she had appeared.
Vitalis dropped his head and was holding himself up by his hands. He was shaking.
Cyra carefully approached him fighting her own sense of exhaustion as she ran out of magic. She reached out, hesitating. She heard his broken, shuddering breaths. She gently touched his shoulder.
Vitalis rose to his knees, pushing his hair back. He stared at Cyra with a look of utter bewilderment that she didn’t believe had ever graced his face before. “I remember her.”
“You never forgot her, not really,” Cyra said. Her voice was shaking as her magic was fading in strength. Her own emotions were rising as her ever tight control wavered.
His mind was humming, and Cyra could honestly say that she had never truly known a person better than she did in that moment. “I understand now, why this matters so much to you. Why she matters so much to you.”
Vitalis continued to gape at her.
“I’m sorry,” Cyra whispered. This was the first time she had ever said those words to him and really, truly meant them in the fullest sense of their meaning. Once she had wanted to be worthy of Vitalis’ trust, but sitting there, after what she had seen of him that day, Cyra knew that was too lofty a goal. As she thought of everything Vitalis had said and done since she met him, she was overwhelmed with shame at how she had responded. The truth of her own words and actions had never set in until she was face to face with the pure goodness of his character.
“I’m sorry for the way I was in Vialya. I was awful to you. I insulted you, disrespected you, unjustly blamed you, your people, and blamed Mari. I’m so sorry.”
“I never held it against you. Not once.” Vitalis took her hand. “Your apology’s accepted. It was accepted before you ever offered it.”
Cyra’s magic was completely and utterly exhausted. She could no longer hold either of them in his dreamscape, not even for another second.
* * *
Cyra could feel her legs, but they refused to move. She pulled herself to a sitting position, letting go of Vitalis hand.
Vitalis rolled over, sitting up as well. He rubbed his head. “Did that really just happen?”
Cyra nodded, struggling to move with just her arms. “Yes.”
Her heart sunk as she stared at him. It was always a dangerous thing, being in someone’s mind, talking to them in such a way. Every action became intimate and personal. Every word was tied to one’s true self. It was exponentially harder to lie, hide, or put distance between each other.
It was becoming far too easy to forget her place. He was foreign prince. She was his bodyguard. That was all.
Cyra got her legs underneath her. She shakily stood. Her head swam and the room spun. Her vision darkened. She pitched forward; her legs crumpled under her weight.
Pain exploded in her head as it slammed into the side of Vitalis’ desk. She cried out, grabbing the side of it. She blinked, trying to force her vision to clear.
“Cyra!” Vitalis gripped her shoulders, pulling her to her feet, helping her again into a chair.
She swatted at his hands, forcing him to give her space. She buried her head in her hands. She’d used up all her energy. It had drained her completely. It would be a few days before her magic would recover enough for her to return to the dreamworld.
“Talk to me, are you alright?” Vitalis asked, and Cyra felt him hover around her.
“I’m fine.” Cyra rubbed her temples, fighting the ache building. “I just used a lot of energy. Give me some space, and I’ll be fine.”
“What caused it?” Vitalis did as asked, stepping away from her.
“It takes quite a sum of magic to bring you with me, adding that to what I did to Belum while we were in his mind…plus returning to your head…” Cyra leaned her head back, letting her hair fall over the back of the chair.
“Would it have been easier for you to have gone back to your head?” Vitalis asked.
Cyra stiffened. “No. I still have to use magic regardless of whose mind it is.”
“I see,” Vitalis said. He paused a moment before hesitantly asking, “May I ask what your dreamscape it? Your sanctuary?”
Cyra forced herself to her feet. That was too much. She needed to get out. “You may not.”
Hurt flashed across his face as he studied her cold demeanor. “So, we’re just going to pretend that didn’t happen? Do you always do this?”
“I don’t know what you’re on about, but I should go. My work is done for the night.” Cyra stepped towards the door.
Vitalis caught her arm. “You don’t get to walk out on this. You’ve been in my head. I’ve told you more about myself than I have anyone else. Doesn’t that mean anything? Can you not even share the smallest part back with me? We’re friends.”
Cyra frowned, masking the way his words were digging under her skin. “That is where you are mistaken. I am your bodyguard, your servant. You may share with me what you wish; I swear to keep it in confidence, but I cannot do the same. I can be your confidant, but you cannot be mine. I cannot be your friend, sire. You are a prince.”
Vitalis grip loosened, but he stepped closer. “Let me convince you how wrong you are.”
Cyra brushed past him towards the door, wobbling only slightly. “On this matter, I will not be swayed. Please remember your place above me as I remember mine.”
* * *
To say Cyra wasn’t thrilled would be an understatement. Honestly, now that she knew Vitalis was far more intelligent than she gave him credit for, this baffled her. A sensible man who has had at two attempts on his life would exercise some caution!
Unfortunately, he did not, and that is how Cyra found herself walking the city streets with Vitalis, Soray, and Mihrab.
She hung back a few steps back as was proper, staying with Mihrab. Although, as she watched Soray, maybe she wasn’t giving Soray enough credit for her part in this. She was going to be an excellent ruler; she made it impossible to refuse her.
When she had her mind set on something, Vitalis in this case, she wasn’t about to let a little thing like ‘no’ stand in the way.
Vitalis laughed at something Soray said. Well, it looks like Soray didn’t have to try very hard. Cyra couldn’t blame him too much especially after things had settled into an awkward, cold stalemate between them. It didn’t help he was also increasingly antsy and frustrated at their lack of progress with tracking down the man in Belum’s memories. She worried he was going to propose they do something very stupid soon because he wasn’t thinking clearly. Of course he would accept the offer of fresh air and pleasant company.
Vitalis had been bringing up every subject he could think of to get her to relax and talk to him. Cyra refused to engage and would only discuss business. There was only one personal subject Vitalis had yet to try, Ano, and considering how close they always came to fighting about it, she didn’t expect him to.
“Cyra,” Mihrab said. He kept his voice low so the royals and passersby wouldn’t hear. “I wanted to ask you something.”
“What is it?” Cyra’s eyes flickered between her brother and the oblivious royalty.
“What is going on with Prince Vitalis?” Mihrab glanced at him, darkening his gaze.
Cyra forced her stiff shoulders to relax. Mihrab couldn’t suspect a thing. She had to be utterly convincing. “What do you mean?”
“I’ve been meaning to ask you for a while, so don’t you dare play the fool.” Mihrab shot her a knowing look. “You’ve been snapping at the prince for weeks, but now we’re in Sardes, Prince Vitalis wants you as a bodyguard, and you haven’t left his side for a moment? Do you know what everyone has started saying? Especially those who hear rumors that you always stay very late with Prince Vitalis in his room? Tell me, what’s going on, and be honest. If you want these rumors to die down, you have to tell the truth.”
“Prince Vitalis asked me to be his bodyguard on account of him already trusting me because I protected him in the mountains. I’ve resolved to take my job seriously, and be a professional, so I set aside my dislike. Prince Vitalis and I actually get along fairly well, as well as we can being of such different classes.” It was mostly almost entirely true, and that’s all that mattered to Cyra.
Cyra kept her voice normal, ensuring there was no awkward strain to it. Rumors, however, what to say about these rumors? “As for those rumors, all I can say is that there is no truth to them, I’m sure you know that. Those rumors would start simply because I am a woman whose job places her in the path of powerful man.”
“Do you believe he needs more protection?” Mihrab glanced over his shoulder, routinely sweeping the area.
“No,” Cyra said a little too quickly. “Prince Vitalis would not accept any additional security.”
“Why not? It’s in his best interests.” Mihrab shot a look towards Vitalis who was telling Soray a story.
“I don’t know.” Cyra shrugged, glancing around the market place as well. “We don’t talk about a whole lot, just enough to be amicable. I’m there to keep him safe, not interrogate him.”
“Cyra, come here!” Soray called her over, turning back to them. Cyra reluctantly stepped between Soray and Vitalis.
Soray linked their arms together. “I’m trying to convince Vitalis here, he absolutely must visit one of the tailors here and get some traditional Sardesi clothing.”
“I think she’s trying to tell me she doesn’t like my wardrobe,” Vitalis joked, brushing his arm against Cyra’s.
Soray shook her head with a smile. “That’s not at all what I’m saying! I’m saying that you might want Sardesi formal wear in case we hold a celebration for something, like maybe the Century Storm. I’m sure my father will want to do something for it. Cyra please back me up here.”
“Wearing traditional Sardesi clothing would be making quite a statement.” Cyra pulled her arm close to her side.
“What kind of statement?” Vitalis asked.
“It would be a way to show you’re serious about building a close relationship between Sardes and Vialya,” Soray said casually.
Vitalis glanced at Cyra. She shrugged; she’d given him fair warning about Soray’s intentions.
“How about I just consider it for now?” Vitalis said and flickered his eyes to Soray.
Soray’s smile dropped a moment before she recovered. “Alright, how about instead I help you find a gift to bring back to your mother?”
They turned to head towards a store when Cyra spotted someone across the square. Soray and Vitalis had just entered the building as Cyra locked her gaze with Ano’s. The look he was giving her… it meant he had something important to say. There was a pulling inside, telling her to go him.
“Cyra?” Mihrab asked.
“Go on, I think someone should stay at the entrance.” Cyra gestured to the door.
Mihrab eyed her, but went inside.
Cyra waited a moment before ducking into the crowd before she could stop herself. She was beating herself up for leaving Vitalis and Soray, but she genuinely had no control. She couldn’t fight this.
Ano’s hand took hers the moment she was close enough. They hurried to a small alleyway. Cyra kept an eye on the square.
“Ano, what’s wrong?” Cyra breathed, her gaze shifting constantly between him and the crowd.
Anoshiruvan took her face in his hands, pulling her into a kiss. Cyra instinctually threw herself into it. One arm wrapped around his waist as she buried the other in his hair. Ano’s hands gripped her waist. He pushed her, and Cyra stumbled backwards against a wall.
Heat scorched through her. Fire spread across her skin as Ano’s touch. She pulled him ever closer as she kept trying to lose herself in him. Cyra’s brain stopped working, and everything was all about the painful pleasure that always came when Ano kissed her. Everything he did, every little movement, touch, and pressed of their lips sent Cyra reeling. All he had to do was kiss her, and she was captivated under his spell.
Ano began moving past her mouth, grabbing her neck, twisting her head away from the street, and pressing dark kisses to her jaw and neck.
Cyra gasped as her heart thundered. She’d been doing something before this, hadn’t she? Was it important? She murmured, “Ano…”
His head lifted. His hair was mussed and his eyes clouded. “Hmm?”
Cyra couldn’t remember what she’d been about to say. Her mind was hazy. Why couldn’t she remember why she was in the city anyway? Wasn’t she with someone? Wait, had there been something she meant to ask Ano?
“You know,” Ano whispered, kissing the corner of her mouth. “I don’t think we do this nearly as often as we should.”
Cyra rolled her head back. She smiled, about to give in completely and forget what she couldn’t remember, but then she saw the market square.
Was that Lord Belum heading down an alley on the opposite side? Wait, hold on, there was a man following him. Vitalis?
Cyra began untangling herself from Ano, keeping her eyes on Vitalis. What was he doing?
“Cyra, don’t go.” Ano grabbed her arm. “I haven’t spent any time with you in ages. I’m sure your charges are fine. We’re in the most public, safest square in Shiraz.”
Cyra’s heart twisted in pain as he kissed her again, running his fingers over her shoulders. Oh how she wanted to stay. However, Vitalis seemed to be doing something either incredibly smart or incredibly stupid. Regardless, her duty was to be with Vitalis no matter how much she loved Ano.
Cyra spun, quickly kissing him before hurrying away. She said over her shoulder, “I can’t. I’m sorry, Ano. We’ll talk later.”
She paused at the edge of the alley. She winced at Ano’s dark look as he followed her. With a sigh, she said, “I love you.”
Then, Cyra ducked into the crowd before Ano could distract her again. She ducked, weaving her way around everyone, crossing the square in record time. Cyra struggled to keep up as Vitalis constantly shifted just out of her sight.
What was he doing going after Lord Belum alone?
“—know who he is, so make this easier on yourself and tell me!”
Cyra stumbled into the dark alley. She froze. Vitalis looked unlike she had ever seen. He wasn’t fire or anger, but he was ice. It was the sort of thing Cyra had never really seen before, but knew existed. Vitalis was the harsh, decimating hail of the north, an unforgiving force of nature.
“Cult? Are you insane? How would I know anything about that?” Lord Belum had run into a dead end. Vitalis blocked the only way out. Belum’s head was shooting around. His eyes darted towards the roofs, hysterically searching to something.
“Tell the truth or I’ll have the shah decide to follow up on the money you’ve kept from him.” Vitalis took a step closer.
Belum’s eyes landed on her. His sneer was a poor attempt at hiding his panic. “And you can follow through because you’ve got the shah’s daughter and his dog wrapped around your finger.”
He glared at Cyra. “Actually, I guess you’re just the Vialyan’s bitch now.”
Vitalis’ face twisted in anger. His cold façade broke as he pulled his fist back.
Cyra, however, remained calm and rational. Honestly, Belum’s words shouldn’t upset Vitalis. Sardes’ court had been saying worse things about her for years. Belum’s insults were actually rather mild, and the least of her worries when she spotted a shadow on the roof.
A bow. Two arrows.
Cyra was already sprinting.
The archer took aim. He drew back and released.
Cyra grabbed Vitalis around shoulders and neck. Without a moment of hesitation, she threw him to the ground, twisting so she covered him, shielding him with herself.
The arrow flew through the space they had been, striking Belum. Belum slumped against the wall as another arrow hit him. Cyra lifted her head, watching as the assassin drew another arrow. There was no way she could get Vitalis to his feet in time to move.
She took a breath and waited to take the arrow.
Another figure appeared behind the assassin. The assassin was about to fire, but the figure grabbed his head, twisting his neck so fast, so hard, a loud crack broke across the air. The assassin dropped, and the arrow clattered to the ground.
Cyra forced a dazed Vitalis behind shelter, so no one could attack him. She shot to her feet and pulled her daggers out. She grabbed the side of the building and quickly launched herself up the side and onto the roof.
She came face to face with the man she assumed was the same from Belum’s memories. He was dressed in head to toe in thick, black cloth, even covering his face. He was Cyra’s height, maybe only slightly taller, and he was utterly baffling.
As strange as it was he killed his own assassin, Cyra was no scholar. She was a warrior, and this man was a threat to her charge.
She rushed at him, surprising him and forcing him to defend himself. He drew a traditional Sardesi blade and blocked her attack. Cyra, however, was not one to be deterred.
With a fury she hadn’t even known she possessed, she advanced, swinging and attacking at him, determined he would not go any further. Her opponent, in another strange twist, only defended. He made no aggressive moves towards her, but was able to effectively keep her at bay, a highly disturbing fact to Cyra as few were her equal.
With a grunt, Cyra pushed his sword away with one blade. She twisted, stepping past his blade and almost into his arms like she would a lover. She pressed her back against his front at she caught his arm, twisted it so he cried out and dropped his blade. She slashed down his arm, tearing it open.
The man swore and kicked Cyra’s leg out from under her. She stumbled and nearly fell off the edge of the roof. The figure paused, watching as she knelt before him. He held his arm to him, hiding the long, bleeding cut from her. For a moment, Cyra feared he was about to push her off, but he just stared.
Then he was gone in a flash of dark, sickening magic.
Cyra took a deep shuddering breath before climbing down from the roof, scraping her hands on the side as she was hurrying back to Vitalis. He was staring at her as well, speechless. She quickly looked him over before pulling him to his feet. She kept an arm around him, forcing his head to stay low. She hurried him away, still trying to shield him with her back just in case the man came back.
She finally got him out of the alley and back onto the main street. Cyra threw one last look over her shoulder. No one was there, thankfully.
Cyra let Vitalis straightened up, but she kept one arm locked with his. They disappeared into the crowd. Cyra asked, “Are you alright? Did you get hurt?”
“You were about to take that arrow for me,” Vitalis whispered. His grip tightened, and Cyra let him pull her to his side.
“We should go back to the palace and discuss this there,” Cyra said. She glanced down at herself, she seemed unharmed as well, only because the figure hadn’t attacked her.
“Right,” Vitalis said. He blinked, looking down at her.
Cyra shifted, uncomfortable at the clear, honest admiration and wonder in his eyes. She wished he wouldn’t take these things so personally. Cyra genuinely didn’t believe she deserved, nor wanted, his admiration.