Cyra watched Vitalis anxiously pace around the room. She crossed her legs, keeping her mouth shut as Vitalis furiously muttered under his breath. Vitalis had already tried discussing details with her, but Cyra wasn’t about to get into it with him when he was still clearly in shock and struggling to puzzle through the events.
Cyra hardly understood it herself. It had been such a surreal experience. One moment Ano had her wrapped her around him, and she was completely under his spell. Then just a glimpse of Vitalis had shocked her out of it, and she was pulled after him. A whirlwind later, Belum was dead, and Cyra was ready to join him if it meant Vitalis wouldn’t.
Why did he spare her?
The thoughts spun around her head, but she found nothing. Her stomach turned at the thought of him. He sickened her.
It was only when Cyra’s eyes began to drop from exhaustion that Vitalis finally took a seat across from her. She shuddered when she noticed the admiration had not gone from his gaze. He asked, “Why did you do it?”
Cyra blinked, shifting in her seat. “Do what?”
“That assassin was aiming at your heart, you know that right? You wouldn’t have survived.” Vitalis stared at her. “Why are you so willing to die?”
Cyra stared at her lap. “It’s my job. It’s what I was born for. If it’s you or me, I die every time. Your life is more important than mine, always.”
“Do you really believe that?” Vitalis leaned forward. “That your life is somehow worth less than mine?”
Cyra looked up. “You asked me to be your bodyguard. Are you trying to tell me you somehow don’t believe the same?”
At her comment, Vitalis face paled, and Cyra was surprised as she had forgotten just how ghostly white he could turn. He muttered quietly, “I suppose I never thought about it like that.”
Cyra didn’t say anything back. She let him sit in his thoughts a moment longer until he spoke up again. “But, you still attacked that man who killed the assassin. What were you thinking?”
“He was a threat to you. Didn’t you realize that was the man from Belum’s memories?” Cyra crossed her arms. “I don’t know why he killed the assassin that was clearly from the cult, but I recognized him. Just his presence was suffocating.”
Vitalis shook his head. “I suppose I was too focused on you. I wasn’t really paying attention to him.”
Something dawned on his face and he asked, “You were very close to him. Were you able to notice any distinct details about him? Anything at all?”
Cyra shook her head, sitting up. “No, but he should have one distinct feature now, a long cut on his arm.”
Vitalis’ eyes lit up. “Then at the next meeting we just have to see who’s hiding their arm from sight, and we’ll have a new list of suspects, and maybe some answers. Just why would a man involved in the cult I’m trying to take down stop that assassin? I can’t figure it out.”
“Well, I feel better since it’s been baffling me as well, but just how are you going to find out whether or not someone is just wearing long sleeves or our man who’s hiding a cut?” Cyra asked stifling a yawn.
Vitalis pursed his lips. “There are a few I’ve been keeping an eye on, and if someone is trying to hide an injury, their body language will give them away. There’s no possible way from them to hide that from me.”
Cyra’s lips twitched in a small smile. “You’re very confident.”
“I know what my abilities are and what my limitations are,” Vitalis said with a smile.
“I’d doubt you, but your skill in perception is actually rather intimidating. I’ve never met anyone who can read people like you do.” Cyra admitted.
“Well, I’ve never met anyone who can read me like you do,” Vitalis said.
* * *
Cyra could read Vitalis alright. She read the shock and surprise on his face well enough when the next day Anoshiruvan walked into the meeting chambers in a loose, sleeveless shirt. Vitalis quickly smothered his expression, but from the way his lips pursed and his fingers tapped, Cyra knew he was almost even disappointed to see Ano was not their mystery man.
Cyra spent a few minutes stewing over a bit of indignant hurt that Vitalis didn’t believe her when she told she would know if Ano was involved, but she eventually pushed it away. Vitalis had told her going in that everyone was a suspect. She couldn’t be too upset with him, not when now they both knew for certain Ano couldn’t be their man in the cloak.
Anoshiruvan’s clear, golden tan arms flashed through the air as he talked and passed treaties around. No scratches or scars. They were perfect and smooth as Cyra had always known them to be.
Even though, Ano had been eliminated from Cyra’s mind as their culprit, she still picked up on the same prickly, edgy impatience and anxiety Vitalis was exuding as he carefully studied everyone around them. Cyra stayed so close to him every second that she was almost always brushing against him or just a hair away from it.
She had learned her lesson. She was never going to let Vitalis wander off by himself again. As long as she was near him, the assassins were never going to get close. She wouldn’t let them.
At the end of the day, the shah rose and told everyone he had an important announcement. Cyra and Vitalis exchanged a glance, and as Vitalis face took a grim turn, Cyra knew what the shah was about to say.
“Lord Belum was found yesterday, dead in an alleyway. His death has been ruled as a tragic incident, a mugging, as he had no guards with him and was dressed down, we do not believe his attacker knew his identity.”
Questions were asked. The shah assured everyone security would be increased nonetheless. There was more muttering. More reassurances. The shah asked them all to either take their own guards with them when leaving the palace or approach the captain of the guard.
The second the meeting was over, Cyra was subtly maneuvering Vitalis out of the meeting chambers, and hurrying him back to his room. As her arm brushed against his, forcing him to keep pace with her, she asked, “How could they rule it an accident? He had an arrow in his chest.”
Vitalis lowered his voice. “After you left last night, I sent the shah a note, explaining what truly happened. He’s covering for us.”
Cyra wasn’t thrilled he’d done that without telling her, and she was bothered by the fact he’d been able to even do so. His security needed to be tighter at night.
As she left him later, she had a word with the guard on duty in his hallway. The guard, after seeing the shah’s brand, apologized profusely and assured her he would take care.
Her new proximity to Vitalis did not go unnoticed. The next day, as they were leaving, Cyra heard whispers about her and Vitalis, things she was grateful he did not hear as well. He was too preoccupied studying body language and those who covered their arms. He didn’t hear how she was slowly changing in their eyes from the shah’s dog to the Vialyan’s tramp. Cyra heard, but it did not matter.
His safety came first.
She would not let her irresponsibility endanger him again. He would no longer be without her for more than a second if that was what it took.
* * *
They needed a new plan. Now that Belum was out of the picture, and Vitalis had gotten no further in determining the identity of their mysterious man, it seemed like they were back where they had started. It had been odd, but even though he spent hours, days even, studying all the men in the meeting chambers, Vitalis hadn’t been able to decisively narrow down who was hiding a cut on their arm.
Cyra had been less concerned with that, willing to let Vitalis handle it, as she stuck by his side every day. She was never more than a step away from him from sunrise to sundown.
Vitalis had begrudgingly shifted his focus back to his own desk, working on a new angle. When he revealed to her he intended for them to go back into the city, she glared at him and shut him down before he even finished talking.
Bewildered, Vitalis backed off and waited until the next day to try and explain his plan again.
It had been twice something had happened when Cyra wasn’t there. She wasn’t about to risk it happening again. She certainly wasn’t about to let him go into the city again, not so soon after that strange attack.
“That’s it!” Vitalis threw his papers onto his desk and got up from his chair. Cyra leapt up from her own seat. Vitalis rushed to the door.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Cyra nearly stepped on his feet as she kept close to him.
“Anywhere you’re not!”
Cyra’s hand caught the door, slamming it shut. She tilted her head, hating the way his words dug under her skin. “I don’t believe you are.”
“Yes, I am.” Vitalis pulled at the doorknob. “You’re my bodyguard, not my nanny, and certainly not my shadow!”
“Yes.” Cyra narrowed her eyes. “And you’re not going to so much as breathe unless I’m there to witness it. It’s for your safety.”
“I’d love to breathe, but you’re suffocating me!” Vitalis jerked the door, but it only rattled against Cyra’s weight. “You’re smothering me. We haven’t made any progress because you refused to let me do anything. Why are you acting like this?”
There was something in his face, the way his eyes flashed sent her reeling. With her, ever since he sat down and told her what he was really doing, every word and action seemed so genuine. Even in his anger, even when he lashed out, his face screamed that he just wanted her cooperation, her honesty.
Then it all came spilling out.
“Because it’s my fault!” Cyra slammed her fist against the door. “I should have stayed with you! Then we could have confronted Belum together, and I would have been able to spot the assassin and take him out before any real danger existed! If I hadn’t seen you out of the corner of my eye and left when I did…”
Cyra lowered her head feeling all her buried guilt and shame rush back. She cleared her throat. She had to be honest with Vitalis, even when it showed her in a bad light. “If I hadn’t left Ano when I did, you would be dead.”
“Ano?” Vitalis backed away from the door. “What were you doing with him?”
“Stop.” Cyra held her head, feeling like an idiot thinking about it. “Please, I’ve been beating myself up over it. It was stupid and dumb, and I will not let it happen again no matter how much I love him.”
Vitalis rolled his eyes. “Ah, of course, you’re in love with him. And he just happened to be there to distract you.”
Cyra’s eyes flared. “You and I both saw his arms the next day, he’s not that man!”
“He could still be involved, anyone could! What were you thinking rushing to him the second I’m not around?” Vitalis crossed his arms.
“When you’re not around?” Cyra spat. She grabbed his arm and forced him to face her. “Two seconds ago you were yelling about me smothering you, and now you’re acting like I’m the one who can’t be trusted to be on their own! I’m not the one who’s almost been killed twice, saved only because someone else was willing to step in front and sacrifice themselves for you! I’m sorry, but you asked, and that’s the truth! I’m not letting you out of my sight, so it won’t happen again.”
“You think that’s going to help? The only way to stop the assassins is to stop the cult.” Vitalis leaned forward, but his shoulders relaxed slightly. “We have to stay focused on our mission, and we can’t let this set us back.”
“I’ll back off if you promise me you won’t ever run off alone. If you need me spying, keep Mihrab or someone else with you. If you’re alone, you will be attacked again. Don’t do anything important without letting me know,” Cyra stuck out her hand. “And, I’m going to stay here during the night, for my own peace of mind and yours. This way I know you’re not sneaking off a night investigating without my protection, and you know I’m not running off with Ano. These are my conditions.”
“Staying here, at night?” Vitalis inhaled sharply. “Out of the question.”
“How is it any different than when I’ve been spending half my nights here taking you to the dreamworld?” Cyra gestured to the sofa. “I wouldn’t put you out at all. I’ll sleep there, and knowing you’re protected better at night will mean I’m more lenient during the day.”
“I meant more about your reputation.” Vitalis ran his hand through his hair. “Won’t there be talk about it? People will think something is going on that isn’t.”
“Prince Vitalis, I am the daughter of a royal bastard. I have no social standing or respect to be ruined by any false rumors about why I’m your bodyguard. There is no reputation to ruin, and people will talk regardless of whether I spend my nights here or elsewhere. The simple fact is that I am woman working in close quarters with a powerful man, there were always going to be rumors. It will not affect me, and you’re a foreign prince, no one will care much what you do.” Cyra put a hand on her hip.
Vitalis gaze darkened and his face twisted like someone was pulling teeth from him. “Will your lover be as understanding of you staying here?”
“He trusts me.” Had he ever said that? That didn’t matter. Cyra knew he trusted her; he didn’t have to say it. “Once I explain that it’s needed for your safety, he might not like it, but he will understand the rumors are false.”
Vitalis dropped onto his bed, waving his hand. “Fine, have it your way. You’re exhausting to argue with.”
“Good.” Cyra sat down again, pleased with the compromise they had reached.
“I’m touched my safety means so much to you.”
“Don’t be. Your safety is my job. I’m not doing this as a friend. I’m doing this as a professional, and that is all we will be.” Cyra leaned back. It was a lie.
Vitalis sat up, giving her a soft look. “That’s one battle that you’ve already lost and you know it.”
How did he do that?
Vitalis’ power of perception would be utterly terrifying is she was his enemy. Actually, Cyra turned her gaze away, ignoring the warmth in her chest. His abilities were terrifying even as an ally.
* * *
With a wince, Cyra lifted her hand to block the glare of the sun. Vitalis was tugging at his collar and sweat was beginning to gather at his temple. He looked at Cyra. “This is unbearable, how do you do it?”
Cyra smirked. “You’re the one who didn’t want to be locked up. Being outside means you get to experience the height of summer heat in Sardes. Be grateful we didn’t end up traveling through the desert during this time.”
“Can’t handle the heat, Prince Vitalis?” Ano asked from where he and Soray were admiring the flower bushes in the front that were in full bloom.
Since Vitalis and Cyra essentially ditched Soray in the city, Soray had insisted they all spend time together in the palace to make up for it. She extended the invitation to Anoshiruvan, wanting to catch up with her old friend as well.
Mihrab lingered at the entrance. Even after all these years he had no wish to be in the garden. Cyra couldn’t blame him.
“I’d like to see how well you would do in Vialya’s dead winter where there’s so much snow no one can leave their homes without risking losing a limb.” Vitalis glared at Ano.
Since did Vitalis lose his temper so easily?
Well, he had snapped at her earlier, and he already didn’t like Ano…
Cyra subtly took his elbow, and he relaxed under her touch.
“I don’t believe that’s possible. I have no intentions of ever going to Vialya.” Ano looked at Soray and smiled. “Sardes is all I need.”
Soray’s worried expression faded slightly. “That’s a shame Ano, it’s a beautiful country. I would love to see it again.”
“Cyra,” Ano turned to her with a knowing smile. Cyra knew just exactly what he was going to ask, she just didn’t understand why. “You’re among friends, what is your opinion of Vialya?”
Vitalis glared at Ano and his arm tensed under her hand. Cyra shifted her weight slightly, looking between them. What were these two fools doing?
She looked at Vitalis a moment before switching her gaze to Ano’s. “While the country did not immediately endear itself to me, upon consideration and reflection, I believe Vialya to be a much better country than I gave it credit for.”
Ano opened his mouth with a sly look, but Vitalis cut him off. “I wouldn’t give it another thought, Anoshiruvan. I don’t see why you would ever have the occasion to visit.”
Soray shot Vitalis a confused look. “Well, that’s an odd thing to say. Ano is essentially royalty in his own right. If Vialya were to host an event, like a wedding, and Sardes was invited, surely that invitation would include Ano.”
Soray had the subtly of the desert sun.
“Well, I know my mother had no intentions of getting married, so I don’t believe it will be an issue.” Vitalis started walking towards the back of the garden. He avoided the only tree in the garden, the Ruins’ Tree. Cyra followed him, ducking around the tree in the middle as well.
“Prince Vitalis?” Soray called after them, and hurt seeped into her voice.
“Don’t worry about them, shahdokht. Tell me what you’ve been up to it has been far too long since we’ve seen each other.” Ano offered Soray his arm. She reluctantly took it.
“He’s a real snake, you know that right?” Vitalis said, wiping at the sweat on his forehead, stumbling over the word ‘snake.’
“Do you mean a snake charmer?” Cyra asked, frowning.
“No, he’s just a snake.” Vitalis stepped under some shade provided by the palace walls.
Cyra leaned against the wall. “You don’t know him well enough. I think he’s just upset I haven’t been able to spend time with him. He hasn’t been to Shiraz in two years, and now that he’s here I’m too busy to see him. I don’t think this is about you.”
“Fine, I’ll drop it if you admit he’s not the saint you act like he is,” Vitalis said, rubbing his head.
“Ano’s not perfect.” Cyra said. She turned so she was staring at him. “But neither are you.”
Vitalis gave her a pained look. “I never said I was, but this isn’t about me. You’re not worshiping the ground I walk on, are you?”
Cyra rolled her eyes. “Don’t we have more important things to discuss?”
Vitalis shut his eyes a moment before saying, “You won’t like what I have in mind.”
“Probably not, but try me,” Cyra said, pushing her hair off her shoulders.
“Since we lost our one palace lead.” Vitalis looked up. “I think we should go investigate these missing people reports that have starting coming in here in Shiraz.”
“We are absolutely not doing that.” Cyra crossed her arms.
“So, is it just impossible for you to agree with me on something?” Vitalis huffed, leaning back.
“If you’re constantly throwing out unnecessarily risky ideas, then yes.” Cyra glanced over her shoulder. Ano and Soray were slowly ambling towards the center of the garden. Their heads were close together. Soray giggled. Cyra lowered her voice. “You know these missing people will take us to the absolute worst parts of the city. These are places that I don’t want to go by myself.”
“You’ll have me,” Vitalis offered a smile.
“Forgive me for saying this, but that does nothing to help me feel better about this.” Cyra gave him a pointed look. “There’s a reason I’m your bodyguard. I protect you not the other way around.”
“You seem to think I’m helpless.” Vitalis looked almost offended.
“Three assassination attempts. Three.”
“Fair point,” Vitalis said, “but I think this is our best chance. If we can figure how the cult is getting these people and why, wouldn’t that be half the battle?”
“And if you got killed because I’m only one person and could very well fail in protecting you? Then we’ve lost the war.” Cyra’s gaze absentmindedly flickered to Soray and Ano. Soray was leaning against a tree as Ano leaned in telling her a story.
“I came here knowing I could possibly die before seeing my goal through.” Vitalis lowered his gaze. “What’s important is doing all we can, and that means helping these missing people.”
“Do you realize what you’re saying?” Cyra asked. “And just who would take your place?”
“Excuse me?” Vitalis narrowed his eyes.
“You have no siblings, no cousins either. Just who are you condemning to the Vialyan throne if you die?” Cyra hardened her gaze as well. Had he no idea just what his position was?
Vitalis blinked. “I suppose, well, there has to be someone in line.”
“And you don’t know who they are? How could you know then if they would be a suitable replacement? You’ve been raised to be king one day, they haven’t. Your life is bigger than just yours,” Cyra paused and sighed. “I understand your mother may have been very over protective, and now you think I’m doing the same, but did you ever consider that as the only heir your life just might be that important?”
“Maybe you have a point, but I’m not made of glass. I know what I can handle,” Vitalis said.
“Still, is it worth the risk?” Cyra rubbed her neck unable to explain it was more than just that. If he died on her watch, the thought sent her reeling. She couldn’t let anything happen to him. “Look, how about I go investigate these reports alone, and you stay here, relatively safe?”
“Prince Vitalis!” Soray called out to them. “Come take a look over here. You won’t find these flowers anywhere else in the world.”
Vitalis and Cyra exchanged a look before rejoining the other two. Soray quickly dropped Ano’s arm to take Vitalis’ arm. Vitalis politely let her show him the flowers, trying to be friendly. However, from the way his fingers twitched and his shoulders tensed, he wasn’t entirely done talking to Cyra.
Cyra watched them only slightly amused by Soray’s poor attempts to catch Vitalis’ attention. Fingers brushed Cyra’s waist, causing her to jump. Ano stood beside her with a slight smile. Cyra tugged at the hem of her shirt. Vitalis’ eyes flashed back to her, narrowing at how little space there was between her and Ano. Cyra was a bit insulted, but she had a hard time holding his suspicious behavior against him. She hadn’t exactly been on her best behavior with Ano. It was almost like being near him just made any logic leave her head.
“Maybe you and I could come back here, just us.” Soray smiled leaning into Vitalis.
“I don’t know,” Vitalis said, carefully pulling away from Soray. He slowly made his way back to Cyra. “I’m rather swamped with all these trade negotiations, doing all of it by myself.”
Soray’s expression dropped. “Right well if you can ever spare the time, I’d appreciate it.”
Soray headed towards Mihrab and they both disappeared back into the castle.
Vitalis sighed and shook his head. He turned to say something, but stopped when he saw Ano. Ano grinned. “Might I borrow your bodyguard for a moment? It won’t take long.”
Cyra’s eyebrows rose. She glanced at Vitalis. His jaw clenched and she could practically feel the word ‘no’ coming from him, but then something changed. A thought passed over his face. Vitalis hesitantly nodded. “As long as she agrees.”
“Alright…” Cyra furrowed her brow at him. What was he doing? In what world would Vitalis agree to let her be alone with Ano?
“I’ll go on ahead,” Vitalis said, hurrying out of the garden. That was suspicious. Why was he leaving her?
He was gone before she could ask him. Ano quickly ran his hand across her shoulder. Cyra stepped back unthinkingly.
“What is this about Ano?” Cyra asked, shifting her weight anxiously. She needed to get back to Vitalis. He shouldn’t be alone.
“We barely see each other anymore. That prince of yours is practically keeping you locked up.” Ano took her arm again, gently moving his hand up to her face.
Cyra shook her head, forcing his hand to drop back to her shoulder. “Trust me it’s not like that at all. He needs me, Ano, to keep him safe. I can’t just neglect my duty to be with you, not anymore.”
“Are you saying you don’t want to be with me at all?” Ano’s face darkened.
Fear shot through her heart. She grabbed his hand. “No! No, not at all! Of course I want to be with you! I just can’t actually spend time with you until this matter with Prince Vitalis is resolved. I love you.”
Ano smiled, but something in his eyes hesitated. Had he been hearing the rumors? He couldn’t believe them, could he? No, he knew her better than that.
Ano kissed her, wrapping his arms around her. Cyra leaned into, and he deepened the kiss. Everything blurred together, and Cyra wasn’t really even aware of anything.
Ano pulled away, leaving her feeling rather dazed. He said as he walked away, “I can’t wait to have you all to myself again.”
Cyra stared at him, smiling. It almost felt like she was waking up. She swayed on her feet for a moment, feeling a wave of dizziness. Her stomach rolled, and she coughed.
Wasn’t there something important to do?
She ignored the odd turn of her stomach and began hurrying after Vitalis. Her run shook her out of the daze Ano put her in, and before she knew it she was at Vitalis’ door.
She opened the door and froze when she didn’t see him. “Prince Vitalis?”
Cyra leapt into action, searching the room for him or any sign he’d been there. Had he even come back to his room? Had he been kidnapped rather than killed?
She pulled open the doors of the wardrobe, swatting at the clothes. Cyra frantically checked under the desk and bed, but she saw no sign of her charge.
Her heart drowned out all other noise. It was pounding and thrashing erratically. If she couldn’t find him…
Wait, the curtains hadn’t been closed when she and Vitalis had left earlier.
She bolted over to it and threw open the curtains. The window was open. Cyra grabbed the sill, early pitching herself out as she leaned over.
“If those assassins don’t kill you, I will!” Cyra nearly screeched when she spotted Vitalis at the bottom of the wall where he was climbing down.
Vitalis grip fumbled as he looked up at her. His face colored red. “I was hoping you would take longer.”
“Do you have any sense of self-preservation?” Cyra threw her leg over the sill, getting ready to climb down as well.
“If I said yes would you believe it?” Vitalis said as he jumped down, landing neatly.
“No, because you clearly don’t seeing how you never listen to me!” Cyra clambered after him. Her heart was calming now that she knew he was safe.
“Well we can’t always get what we want,” Vitalis said with a strange twinge in his tone. He crossed his arms as he waited for her. It didn’t take Cyra long to join him on the ground as she was an expert climber. Once she was safe distance, she jumped down.
She wobbled slightly as she regained her balance. “Except for you.”
Vitalis rolled his eyes. “I do not; you seem to be pretty good at making sure of that.”
Cyra did a mocking bow. “Only doing my best, sire.”
Vitalis laughed, “Come on, we’ve got some people to find.”
“Don’t think I’m done yelling at you for trying to ditch me,” Cyra muttered as they made their way around the palace and towards the city.
“At least I know you’d sooner run after me than stay with Ano.” Vitalis grinned. Cyra glared at him, uncomfortable with the fact he was right.