Cyra pretended to take a sip from her drink. With the way her stomach was rolling and pitching, she wasn’t about to put any alcohol into the mix. Across from her, a significantly dressed down Vitalis was carefully taking a drink. As long as no one looked too closely, they wouldn’t realize he was upper class. He blended in with the crowd as best as a Vialyan could. It helped that Cyra was there rather than being alone. Fewer people stared at him with a Sardesi at his side.
Cyra and Vitalis occasionally exchanged a few words as they watched the room. Vitalis switched to his own native language, saying, “Watch the man at that back table, he’s alone.”
With a small nod, Cyra subtly turned in her seat to do so. The man was definitely in his forties. He was watching the door, eyeing anyone who entered. His fingers drummed against the table. He didn’t touch his drink.
“He’s nervous, worried, and waiting for someone.” Cyra muttered into her cup, stumbling through the Vialyan language.
“Exactly,” Vitalis said, finishing his drink. He caught the attention of the server. After getting another drink, he set down several coins too many. He switched back to Sardesi and said, “The man at the back, who’s he waiting for?”
“Oh, Babak? He’s waiting on his friend Arman to see if Arman found anything today. Their kids have been missing for a while now.” The server stepped away someone else catching his attention.
Cyra and Vitalis waited until Arman arrived and talked with Babak for a moment before they headed to the table.
Their hushed, hurried conversation slowed as Cyra and Vitalis approached. They eyed Vitalis warily. Vitalis said, “I mean you no harm. I’m trying to find someone as well, as I understand you’re looking for people too?”
“Our children, my daughter, his son,” Babak said hesitantly. “And you?”
“My sister. The three of us traveled to Shiraz, looking for a new start, but not too long after we came here, she disappeared without a trace.” Vitalis face dropped, turning dark and sad. Cyra was surprised at just how good he was at lying.
“That’s what happened to our children,” Arman said. “My son went out on an errand and never came back.”
“My daughter went to look for him when she heard he hadn’t come back. She was sure he just got held up talking. She didn’t come back either,” Babak said, clenching his fists.
“They weren’t missing separately?” Vitalis asked.
“Yes, we can’t find a sign of them anywhere in the city it’s been weeks. We have no idea where they went, if someone took them.” Arman shook his head.
“How long ago, precisely?” Vitalis leaned forward. His fingers trembled slightly. It made Cyra wonder if he’d ever put on a façade with her.
“It was about a month ago. I remember a day or two before it happened, a bunch of those royals or whatever arrived, like the Median tribe,” Babak said with a sigh.
“That’s around the time when my sister went missing. Did they say anything or do anything odd before then?” Vitalis asked. He played the worried big brother so well for an only child.
“No, not at all everything seemed fine.” Arman bowed his head. “That’s why we’re so worried we haven’t gotten anywhere since then.”
“My sister didn’t say anything either before she left, it was a complete shock. Thank you, though, if I find her, or your children, anything at all, I’ll let you know.” Vitalis rose with a sad look.
“We would appreciate it, what’s your name?” Babak asked.
“Vitalis said, “My name’s Vitya.”
Cyra gave them a small nod as they turned around to leave. Once they stepped outside, Cyra asked, “Vitya?”
Vitalis face colored pink for a moment. “My father’s name, actually, Vitaliy, but my mother liked to call him Vitya.”
“I assume it’s no coincidence your name is Vitalis?” Cyra whispered as he pulled his collar up.
“No, it’s not, a variant of my father’s name.” Vitalis smiled painfully.
“So, I guess the secret’s out,” Cyra mused, remembering the night in the portrait gallery.
“What secret?” Vitalis blinked and shot her a look.
Cyra smirked. “The Vialyan royal family is really just a bunch of bleeding hearts and romantics.”
“You got all of that from my name?” Vitalis asked.
“No, don’t you remember? Oh, what was it you said about your uncle and Mari Annette?” Cyra snapped her fingers. “It was something dreadfully sappy, like about how much you wished to love someone like those two did.”
“I can’t believe you remember I said that.” Vitalis gaped at her.
“You were a mystery. I was paying attention to anything that might give me a clue about you.” Cyra shrugged, thinking nothing of it.
“And you?” Vitalis asked. At Cyra’s blank look, he shook his head. “Are you a ‘bleeding heart romantic’?”
“I know you think I am, but I didn’t used to be.” Cyra rolled her eyes. “I wouldn’t even say that much now. Soray’s always been the romantic.”
“Really? What did you used to be like then?” Vitalis asked as they turned onto a new street.
“You could say I didn’t believe in it. There was no one I was interested in pursuing anything with, especially as I’m a bastard’s daughter and a royal guard. Someone pursuing a relationship with me hypothetically of course, no one tried, would likely want to get married and have kids at some point. I would have to give up my position as a guard to do so. Of course, none of that has changed, but I didn’t believe a relationship would be worth giving that up. Not to mention, very few men are like you.”
Vitalis eyes widened and he stuttered, “Me? What do you mean?”
“Very few men meet women who are continuously rude, disrespectful, and just awful to them and decide they want her good opinion,” Cyra said. “I don’t deceive myself. I’m no hag, but I’m no great beauty, not standing beside Soray. I’m not kind. I’m not pleasant. As you’ve noticed, I can be quite the pain. Romance and relationships just weren’t in my plans for the future. I thought I’d lost my mind when I began considering it.”
“You’re wrong,” Vitalis said, staring down at her. “You’re not awful. You just don’t trust easily, I don’t either. Believe me, you’re not as bad as you think you are.”
Cyra sent him a look. Her eyebrows quirked, and she frowned. She didn’t believe him. He was just being nice. She could see it in the way he rubbed his neck, looking like he desperately wanted to say something else.
“So, I’m guessing your mother turned you into a romantic?” Cyra asked, changing the topic, noticing how uncomfortable Vitalis seemed.
“Yes, you could say that.” Vitalis blinked, relaxing slightly. “The thing she always emphasized the most in stories about her and my father, and in stories about Dainan and Mari, was the kind of love they had. It always stuck with me. I’ve known for a long time I’ve wanted to love someone so deeply, so selflessly like that.”
“Well, all I can do is wish you luck that you’ll find that.” Cyra smiled. “If only you and Soray could have worked out, she’s always wanted that too. But whoever you find that with, I’m sure she’ll be amazing.”
“Right, thank you.” Vitalis dropped his gaze. “If I find it.”
They continued making their way through the roughest parts of town. Any time someone tried to give them any trouble. A dark look from Cyra forced them to back off. They followed a few more leads. They didn’t find out much more than they did from Babak and Arman. It was slowly growing later into the night, and Cyra told him she would take him back to the palace willingly or not. She didn’t tell him part of the reason she wanted to go back was because of the growing nausea and pain tearing up her stomach. Vitalis reluctantly agreed, but insisted on following their last lead through.
Cyra knocked on the door, hoping it wouldn’t collapse under her fist. It creaked and shuddered but stayed upright. Vitalis stood at her shoulder.
There was some shuffling in the house, but no response.
Vitalis called out, “Hello? We’re looking for Mahdi?”
“Maybe we shouldn’t—” Cyra started.
Vitalis ignore her, stepping forward. He knocked again. “We need to talk to you, it’s about your missing daughter.”
The door was flung open. Cyra pushed Vitalis behind her, swaying slightly. An older man, who clearly was not entirely sober, glared at them. “Don’t you dare come here about that! She’s not missing, fool got her killed. I’m sure.”
“Who got her killed?” Vitalis asked, seizing on the information.
“The cad who tricked her into marrying him!” Mahdi snarled. “He was no good, but no one ever listens for me! I told her that Median lowlife would just hurt her. Now, go away! There’s no use trying to find her.”
“Please, just hear me out,” Vitalis said. His face softened and fake tears welled up in his eyes. “My sister—”
“I don’t want to hear it!” Mahdi snarled, and he stepped closer. Cyra didn’t like the look in his eyes. She shifted, pushing Vitalis back further. “She’s been gone for two years! Let me get on with my life.”
Vitalis tried to step forward, and Mahdi snapped. He stumbled forward, clumsily swinging his fist. Cyra kept Vitalis out of his range. Even angrier once he missed, Mahdi swung again and a wave of nausea hit Cyra. His fist landed a hit, snapping Cyra’s head to the side.
Pain crashed through her senses. Her eye swelled, throbbing. Cyra clutched her head as her legs shook beneath her. Her stomach pitched, twisting.
A hand caught her arm, steadying her. Cyra quickly regained her balance and pulled Vitalis away. She held her eye with one hand and gripped Vitalis’ sleeve with the other.
“Cyra, are you alright?” A hand started to push her hair back. She swatted his hand away, pushing him forward.
“I’ll be fine, but I will tell you this is why I didn’t think we should do this. When you’re dealing with this, some people don’t cope well, and bringing it up causes them to react violently. Imagine what he would have done to you if I hadn’t been there.” Cyra hissed as she shifted her hand over her throbbing eye, struggling to stay balance and fight her nausea.
“Me? You’re the one who’s going to have a black eye!” Vitalis stuck close to her, watching her knees as every so often they shook. “You shouldn’t have taken that punch.”
“I’m your bodyguard, of course, I did. Ugh, can we just get back before we start getting into another argument?” Cyra asked unable to focus on more than her eye and her sick stomach.
“Whatever you’d like,” Vitalis said with a sigh. He took her arm, steadying her. Cyra just didn’t have the energy or patience to insist she didn’t need his help.
It was a long walk back to the palace and an interesting climb back up the wall that involved Vitalis hovering over her, and Cyra insisting she could climb by herself. After she crawled over the window sill, she stumbled down to her knees, wincing. Vitalis hurried after her, helping her up until he managed to get her to lay down on the sofa. A moment later he helped her set a cold, damp cloth on her swollen eye.
“You know you’re the worst person to have in an emergency.” Cyra kept her good eye on him as he flittered about. “You’re starting to make me nervous.”
“Are you comfortable?” Vitalis asked.
Cyra sat up, pressing the cloth into her eye. “Yes, it’s just a black eye. I’m not dying.”
“Don’t think I didn’t notice your nausea. You could still throw up at any moment.” Vitalis shot her an unamused look as he set an empty bowl beside her to use just in case. Cyra had to admit, she didn’t realize he had picked up on that.
“And, I need to say something important, and you’re not going to like it. So yes, I’m selfishly trying to make you more comfortable so you won’t try to kill me.” Vitalis smiled, straightening up.
“It can’t wait until morning? It must be past midnight at this point, and you still have meetings to attend to tomorrow.” Cyra leaned against the back of the sofa.
“I’ve been hoping you would come to this thought on your own, which is why I’ve put off saying anything directly, but after today I have to say something.” Vitalis kneeled in front of her, still coming close to her eye level. “You have to consider the possibility, promise you’ll hear me out.”
“Prince Vitalis, I trust you. I promise I’ll listen.” Cyra pulled the cloth away, setting it aside so she could give him her full attention.
Vitalis quickly took her hand. “You have to admit the evidence we have is pointing to his. It’s highly likely that Anoshiruvan, maybe the Median tribe as a whole, is part of this cult.”
Cyra sucked in a sharp breath, jerking her hand out of his. Her brain began spinning. That was insane. Ano? Part of a cult? The boy she had known her entire life? That was too much. It wasn’t possible. Vitalis was wrong.
“Prince Vitalis, I know you don’t like him, but isn’t this going too far?” Cyra pushed her back into the seat. Her stomach rolled, and her heart burned. “Ano isn’t always the best of men, and you two seem to bring out the worst in each other, but to accuse him of being part of this cult?”
Hurt flashed across Vitalis face. “Are you even going to listen to me?”
“This is insane! I have known Ano my entire life! I would stake my life on his character.” Cyra shot to her feet. Her eyes burned and she struggled to stay relatively calm. “While you’re at it, you might as well start accusing Soray and Mihrab!”
“We have to look at the evidence! The Median tribe has always been around when these people go missing. That’s not a coincidence!” Vitalis rose to his feet as well.
“I’ll believe that, but just in case you weren’t aware, the Median tribe consists of more people than just Ano!” Cyra glared at him.
“Anoshiruvan is at the top, if the Medians were involved he would know and be involved himself!” Vitalis said.
“You clearly don’t understand how they work! You may have done a lot of reading, but I have twenty three years of experience with the Median tribe!” Cyra straightened her back to her full height, frustrated at how Vitalis was still taller than her. “They are no small desert family! They are almost a small nation in their own right! Almost royalty, descendants to the dynasty in power before Soray’s!”
“They’re exempt from suspicion because of their blood?” Vitalis crossed his arms.
“Well, you wouldn’t dare accuse Soray of being involved, would you? To her father, the shah?” Cyra narrowed her eyes.
“If she was truly suspicious I would have to!” Vitalis shifted defensively.
“Yet, you accuse Ano as being behind something. Say, I follow your logic that Ano would know because he’s so high up, shouldn’t his father be our first suspect? The chief rather than the son you just happen to be against?” Cyra swayed slightly, feeling acid build in her throat. She grabbed the arm of the sofa; her legs refused to hold up her weight.
Vitalis was at her side in an instant, holding her hair back. Cyra screwed her face up, fighting the sick. Her stomach lurched, and she retched into the bowl.
Vitalis rubbed her shoulders as she spat and coughed. Her eyes watered, and her injured eye sent rattling throbs through her head. She slumped against the side of the sofa. Vitalis wrapped an arm around her, helping her up. “I’m sorry. I really shouldn’t have started this fight.”
“I’m not—” Cyra coughed, rubbing her throat. “I’m not fragile. You don’t need to worry about protecting feelings. If you have a problem with Ano, I want to know.”
Vitalis moved the bowl away, helping her sit back down. “You have a black eye, and somehow got sick again. This clearly was the worst time to tell you. You didn’t want to do this; I should have listened.”
“Stop being so gallant,” Cyra said. Vitalis put the damp cloth back to her eye. “I’m not delicate. You’re not some storybook hero, and I’m no damsel. It’s not your job to take care of me.”
Vitalis smiled as he draped a thin blanket over her. “You know some people try to take care of others because they want to, not because it’s their job. It’s not going to kill you to let me help you.”
“It seems as though someone’s trying to kill us both now,” Cyra said. She held her stomach, still unsettled.
“You think it was poison again?” Vitalis asked, staying at her side.
“Well, they’re awfully bad at it seeing how I’m still alive. It’s clearly not lethal, but it’s becoming rather inconvenient.” Cyra rolled her head back. Her eyes fluttered shut.
“Good night, zvezda moya.”
* * *
The next few days had hardly gone better. Vitalis and Cyra had both been bleary eyed and subdued the next morning. It had been an exhaustingly late night, but luckily whatever had caused Cyra to be sick had passed. Vitalis and Cyra agreed to be more careful about what she ate. Cyra was now limiting her diet to only raw, untouched fruit or food she prepared herself. It was a pain, but if it meant Cyra wouldn’t fall ill anymore, it was worth it. She didn’t like being weak and helpless.
She was still sporting the black eye, and she knew she would be for a little while longer.
The meetings had moved onto Vialya’s treaties, requiring Vitalis’ full attention. It was now up to Cyra to take note of anything odd, but they both knew she wouldn’t do as good of a job as Vitalis did. She tried though, and in an attempt to settle some of the lingering bad air around them, she made an effort to take note of any odd things Ano or his father did or said.
She wasn’t convinced, but Vitalis had sounded so certain…Cyra still thought Vitalis’ suspicion was rooted in his dislike of Ano’s personality. Ano’s name hadn’t been personally connected to anything. Besides, Cyra had known Ano since birth, surely she would have noticed if he had gotten involved in a cult. She may not be the smartest person in a room, but she wasn’t stupid.
Maybe she should talk to Ano, see if he had any answers about why the Median tribe’s name was coming up.
Or, Cyra glanced at Vitalis walking beside her. He was rubbing his neck, looking nearly dead on his feet after having argued for two hours straight on a merchant tax his country needed to stay in place.
Cyra wondered if she could get Vitalis to talk to Ano himself in a calm rational manner. Surely that would help answer his questions, and Ano loved her, so he would agree.
She was just about to hesitantly bring the idea forward when a voice called out her name. “Cyra!”
Both Vitalis and Cyra turned to see Soray hurrying towards them. Mihrab was on her heels with a confused expression. The shah was walking away in the opposite direction.
“What’s wrong?” Cyra asked, taking in her cousin’s pinched, distressed expression.
“Cyra, I need to speak with you and Mihrab privately,” Soray said, taking Cyra’s hand. She was staring at the floor, or well, pointedly avoiding looking at Vitalis.
Cyra turned to Vitalis. “I can’t just—”
“Cyra, please, just you,” Soray whispered. She glanced up at Vitalis, and Cyra watched as a flash of dark agony washed over her face before she cooled her expression into one of pained civility. “Prince Vitalis, please let me see my cousin for a moment. This is a private, family matter.”
“But—” Cyra blinked, struggling to find the words. Vitalis was still in danger. Assassins were still after him! Last time she left him alone he tried to sneak out of the palace by himself!
“Cyra, it’s alright.” Vitalis turned away. His arm brushed hers, and he leaned in. He lowered his voice so only she could hear. “I promise, I will go straight back to the room and stay there. No open windows.”
“I’ll hold you to that,” Cyra said as he started heading towards his room.
Soray quickly grabbed Cyra and pulled her in the opposite direction. Soray didn’t look back, like just the sight of Vitalis was killing her. Just what was going on?
Cyra fell into step with Mihrab as they walked, keeping up with Soray’s furious pace. Mihrab leaned in and asked, “Where’d the black eye come from?”
“I just wasn’t fast enough,” Cyra said vaguely.
“Fast enough for what?” Mihrab asked.
“I wasn’t fast enough to catch myself before I bashed my head on Vitalis’ desk,” Cyra said. It wasn’t an entire lie; she had hit her head on his desk a while ago. She shook her head. “It was his fault, I assure you. He may be a prince, but he certainly can’t clean up after himself. He left his shirt on the ground, and well you can see what happened then.”
Mihrab eyed her. “I’m surprised. You’re not clumsy.”
“I’m not, but I’m not perfect you know.”
When they reached Soray’s room, her handmaidens scurried out after a quick wave. Soray tore her hair down, sending pins scattering across the floor. She began furiously pacing as Cyra moved to Mihrab’s side who only gave her an equally confused look.
“My father—” Soray started, spinning on her foot. “He just—Oh, I don’t know where to start!”
“Start from the beginning. What’s going on?” Mihrab said.
Soray took a deep breath, clasping her shaking hands together. “After the trade negotiations today, my father asked me to come see him for a private meeting.”
Soray bowed her head. “I’m not actually supposed to talk about it. I can’t really tell you what’s happening, but it has to do, in a way, with Prince Vitalis.”
Cyra frowned. Vitalis hadn’t been involved, if he had surely she would know about it.
“From that first night in Vialya, I must admit I found him to be one of the best men I’d ever met.” Soray smiled. “I grew to like him more than I’d ever liked anyone else. I believe I am, or was, close to love. I thought, well hoped that my father endorse such a match, so long as Vitalis cared enough about me to make one.”
“But, shahdokht, you are your father’s heir,” Mihrab protested.
“I tried to convince my father to make my little brother his heir, but he wouldn’t listen.” Soray blinked away tears forming in her eyes. “My father brought to me a different, well, plan I suppose. He’s not forcing me, he would never, but he needs my decision by tonight. If I accept, it will be announced tomorrow.”
“This plan, what is it?” Cyra clenched her fists. Soray couldn’t be considering something that would hurt her?
“All I can really tell you is that if I agreed, I would secure Sardes’ future and my own place as our country’s next leader. I can stop future attempts on my life, on my children’s lives, any attacks that could happen to my siblings. I can stop them before they even begin.” Soray wiped at her eyes. Her shoulders shook. “I would regain loyalties my ancestors lost. I would be able to settle feuds between nobles impartially. Sardes will be in a better place than it has been for decades.”
“But at what cost?” Cyra asked, grabbing Soray by the shoulders. “Why is this hurting you so?”
“It can only happen if I stay in the line of succession. Basically, I have to give up any hope I had of ever being with Prince Vitalis.” Soray stopped pacing. She took a deep breath. “Which I can do. I can let go of my hope, my love, as long as I know I’m doing the right thing. Just tell me that I’m making the right choice. Will you two still stand by me?”
“Our loyalty to you is unconditional,” Mihrab said, dropping to one knee. “I will always be at your side to support you and protect you.”
Cyra dropped to one knee as well. “I will always stand by you.”
Tears streamed down Soray’s face. Through sobs, she gasped, “Thank you.”
Cyra and Mihrab hurried to pull her into an awkward hug. Soray shook, burying her head into Cyra’s shoulder. Cyra rubbed her back, fighting the sinking feeling in her stomach. Something was very wrong about this. Soray shouldn’t have to make this choice. Prince Vitalis didn’t love Soray, and that wasn’t likely to change, but from the way Soray was talking, Cyra feared she was never going to let herself fall in love again.