Cyra shot up from the sofa. Vitalis was staring at her from his desk. She pushed her hair out of the way. “Yes?”
“Is everything alright?” Vitalis set his notes down.
Cyra drummed her fingers on her knee, a habit she had recently picked up thanks to Vitalis. “If you had to choose between your own happiness and what’s better for your country which would you choose?”
Vitalis furrowed his brow. “Anything that’s good for Vialya should make me happy.”
“But what if what made you happy, say someone you loved wasn’t good for your country. You’re not exactly free to marry whoever you want, you’re royalty.” Cyra said. She stood up.
“Tough question. I can’t say what I would do for sure until I knew the particulars.” Vitalis tapped his quill against the desk. “I’d like to believe I’m noble enough to make that sacrifice; I can be a rather selfish creature.”
“I don’t think that’s the word you meant to use.” Cyra eyed him, remembering Sardesi wasn’t his native language, and that no matter how good he was at it, he could still mess it up.
Vitalis blinked. “What did I say?”
“You said selfish, which is to be sort of greedy, only doing things for your own benefit at the cost of others, but I think you meant selfless. You haven’t done a single selfish thing since I’ve known you,” Cyra said, leaning against the desk.
Vitalis smiled slightly. “Believe me, I’ve done plenty of things purely for me own benefit. But this isn’t about me, is it? This is about Shahdokht Soray.”
“I would tell you, but I don’t even know what’s going on. I’m worried about her.” Cyra crossed her arms loosely.
“Of course you are. She’s like the sister you never had, right?” Vitalis said, sitting back in his chair.
Cyra paused. Should she tell him? She tapped a finger against one of his papers. She kept her eyes down. “You know, she didn’t use to be.”
“You weren’t always close?” Vitalis asked, frowning.
Cyra took a deep breath. “No, Soray and I were always close. It was always me, her, and my actual sister, Mandana.”
Vitalis stared in confusion for a moment, before realization softly settled in his eyes. He said, “She died, didn’t she? After you touched the Ruins’ Tree.”
Cyra nodded. Her throat closed up. She shouldn’t have said anything. She should have just stayed quiet.
Vitalis just had to be so easy to open up to.
She hadn’t even told Ano all that had happened with Mandana, just a few details here and there. It had taken her years to even be comfortable enough to reveal small things to him, but with Vitalis it just sort of happened.
“Do you want to help me with this?” Vitalis asked softly. Cyra smiled; he was good.
Cyra pulled up a chair as Vitalis explained he was putting together an alternate trade and tax proposal, but wanted her help proofreading his Sardesi. Cyra took the chance to get her mind off Soray and Mandana.
* * *
The next day’s meetings went by terribly slowly. It took all of Cyra’s self-control and patience to stand still and stoic. Her hands shook and shifted every so often, but that was all Cyra could let herself do with the building nervous energy in her. Whatever deal Soray had accepted would be announced later and Cyra was horribly afraid to hear it, yet needed to know if her cousin would be alright. Cyra’s nails bit into her hands. She couldn’t shake the feeling that whatever it was, was a very bad idea.
“I think Sizia can accept this agreement, Prince Vitalis.” The Sizian delegate nodded and set Vitalis’ proposal down.
Vitalis gave him polite smile and nod. “I’m glad we were able to reach an agreement.”
Vitalis sat down, sending Cyra a short, concerned glance. Cyra knew he was picking up on her anxiety, but why was he worried about her? Soray was the one they should be concerned about.
“Does anyone else have any more business to address today?” the shah asked the delegates. After a moment, everyone concluded their matters for the day had been handled. The shah rose to his feet. “I have a happy announcement to make. If my daughter and heir, Shahdokht Soray would come here.”
Soray came into the room, putting on a brave face. She stood at her father’s side, with a serene look that Cyra knew was fake. It was the look Soray always had when she wanted to cry, but knew she couldn’t. The shah beamed at his daughter. “My daughter is now engaged.”
Whispers broke out among the delegates. Cyra’s hands fell to her sides. She certainly hadn’t heard that right. A hand took hers.
Someone rose from the table. The shah spoke over the noise. “For the first time in our history, two royal lines will finally become one. Shahdokht Soray is engaged to marry the Median heir, Anoshiruvan.”
Cyra blinked stupidly, watching Ano, her Ano, reach Soray, taking her hand and pressing a kiss into it.
Her stomach churned at the sight. This… this wasn’t happening. Ano and Soray couldn’t be engaged!
This was wrong. Soray and Ano looked wrong, standing next to each other. Cyra should be at his side. There must be some explanation, something that declared this was just a joke.
Her chest burned. The people around her blurred and moved, and all she could focus on was Ano’s smiling face. Was he… was he happy? How long had this been happening?
Was she breathing?
Cyra’s brain couldn’t grasp this. It was too much. She felt sick to her stomach.
She shook her head. Had she forgotten to breathe? Vitalis. Where was Vitalis?
He was walking away from Ano and Soray, having paid his respects. A dark look was on his face.
Cyra couldn’t do this. This was too much. There were too many people. She coughed; she was suffocating. Even if she wanted to, she couldn’t breathe.
Where was the door?
Her feet began moving. Cyra blindly stumbled through a door. She couldn’t feel her legs, couldn’t feel anything. What was happening?
Cyra made it a few steps down the hall before the numbness wore off.
Ano. Anoshiruvan, the man she’d been with for four years now… the man she loved, who was supposed to love her back, was now going to marry her cousin.
Her heart twisted and all the air left her lungs. Sharp, harsh pain wracked her chest. Her legs almost buckled, but Cyra launched herself into a run.
She ran and ran, trying to outrun the burning pain in her heart. She was trying to outrun the crushing, suffocating hurt wrapping itself around her throat.
She ducked her head, closing her eyes. She knew the way by heart. She poured all of her concentration into her steps, praying it would help stop the almost crippling pain.
Time and place flew by her until she flung herself out the door, stumbling and skidding. Her legs gave out, and she crashed to her knees. As she pitched forward, her hand flew up to catch her, but they tore open against the rough bark of the Ruins’ Tree.
Her shoulders shook, and her cheeks were wet. When had that happened?
She scratched at her eyes. She wasn’t going to do this. Pain she could not control. Tears, however, were much in her power. Cyra wasn’t going to be so weak as to cry!
She hissed when pain shot through her face. Her black eye; she had forgotten about it. As if she couldn’t feel like any more of an idiot.
Footsteps slowed behind her. There was a shuffling sound, and Cyra could feel him behind her. Fingertips brushed her shoulder, and when she didn’t recoil, his hands and his arms quickly filled themselves with her. He pulled her away from the tree and turned her to face him. He pulled her to him with one arms wrapping around her back and the other cradling her head.
Cyra held her breath; she refused to cry especially in front him. She refused, but his gentle voice and soft touch broke her resolve.
“Let me help you.”
Cyra didn’t let people help her. She really only had three people left in her life. With Soray, it was Cyra’s duty to help her. With Mihrab, there was too much between them for him to be able to help her without turning into a parent with a lecture. With Ano—Ano, just his name hurt.
Vitalis. Cyra was supposed to be helping him, but he was there. For some reason beyond Cyra’s comprehension, he was there, offering to help her time and time again.
Wasn’t it about time she let him?
Cyra dropped her arms and let her head fall onto his shoulder as sobs still clawed their way out of her throat.
Vitalis didn’t say anything. He just rested his head on top of hers and held her. He waited until her sobs slowed to shaking, rattling breaths.
Once she caught her breath, she sat up, pulling back to look at him.
Vitalis opened his mouth, “Cyra, I—”
Cyra blinked, and she was being painfully hauled to her feet as Vitalis was jerked away from her. She opened her mouth, gaping at the last man she wanted to see. New pain shot through her, but everything stopped when Ano crashed his lips to her. He backed her up into the tree, harshly pushing her back into the bark.
Fog wrapped itself around her mind. She just couldn’t think. Her mind refused to move. She was stuck. Haze hid any thought that could have been in reach. Even if she could think of what to do, would she have been able to do it?
Heat, burning, scorching heat flooded her. It was the same awful fire that threatened to leave her nothing but ashes.
Kissing him was agony. Sweet agony, but crippling nonetheless.
It was over in seconds, but it left the kind of pain that lingers for a lifetime.
“What do you think you’re doing? Get off of her!”
Vitalis pulled Ano away. Cyra quickly caught her weight by grabbing the trunk of the tree. Her mind began clearing. That was—
“Cyra, nothing has changed.” Ano pushed past Vitalis, grabbing her shoulders tightly. “My feelings for you are the same. I love you like I always have, like I always will.”
“Everything has changed!” Cyra grabbed her pounding head. “You say that you love me, but do you really? This is the first time you’ve ever even said it! How can you love me when you’re engaged to my cousin?”
“You think that was my choice?” Ano gasped, hurt filling his voice. He leaned in closer. “My father arranged it all with the shah. I had as much say in this as you did.”
“You didn’t choose to get engaged?” Cyra repeated, trying to follow what he was saying.
“Don’t tell me you’re actually buying this!” Vitalis interrupted, hitting his hand against his side.
Ano ignored him and cupped Cyra’s face. His voice was so melodic, almost hypnotic. “Soray’s father only took two wives and no concubines, but after I marry Soray and become shah, no one would bat an eye at us.”
Cyra blinked. Anger and hurt tore at her heart again. “You’re asking me to be your concubine while you’re married to my cousin?”
“It’s the only way we can be together,” Ano said, pulling her closer. Cyra tried to step back, but he wouldn’t let go. Panic flew into her eyes.
“Let her go.”
Vitalis grabbed Ano and jerked him away. He stepped in front of Cyra, blocking Ano from getting to her.
Ano glared at him. “I don’t believe this is your conversation, Vialyan.”
“I believe it is.” Vitalis clenched his hands into fists. “I’m not about to stand by and watch you hurt her.”
“Get out of my way. Cyra doesn’t belong to you.” Ano’s face twisted darkly.
“She deserves better than you!” The words exploded from him, as if Vitalis just couldn’t hold them back even further. Vitalis used his height to his advantage, looking more intimidating than he usually did. “She deserves better than to be some afterthought of yours. She deserves better than to be some concubine you can do whatever you want with and toss her aside when you’re done!”
“In case you didn’t know, Vialyan, Cyra’s just a guard. Some bastard’s daughter. She would never receive a better offer than the one I’m giving her. Being my concubine would be the highest positon she could receive.” Ano crossed his arms. “You know that everyone’s been talking about just what you two have been doing behind closed doors. Concubine is actually quite the step up from the terms everyone else is using. The Vialyan’s whore is actually the nicest one I heard.”
Something snapped. Vitalis lunged forward, crashing his fist into Ano’s jaw, sending him stumbling back.
The sound broke Cyra out of her daze. She lunged forward, catching Vitalis’ arm before he could swing at Ano again. She pulled him away from where Ano was rubbing his bruising jaw.
Vitalis stilled, and the tension in his shoulders slowly disappeared. He unclenched his hands and turned to Cyra. “He called you—”
“Don’t, Vitalis,” Cyra breathed. “This isn’t a battle for you to fight.”
Ano spat, laughing. Cyra stepped in front of Vitalis and took a deep, shuddering breath. Ano grinned.
“Anoshiruvan,” Cyra blinked, trying to hide the tremor in her voice. “You have a fiancé, my cousin. You should forget about me and focus on her. There was never a future for us, and there certainly isn’t one now.”
Cyra hurried to the door, feeling Vitalis’ arm brush hers as he kept pace. Neither of them said anything as they walked back to Vitalis’ room. Cyra kept her head bowed.
At one point, Vitalis’ hand brushed hers, and Cyra jerked away like it was fire. She sped up. After Ano… she didn’t want to touch anyone. She didn’t want to be touched. Isolation seemed better for a moment.
Once they reached his room, Cyra hurried through the door and rushed to the sofa. Her legs wobbled as she sunk into the seat, burying her head in her hands. She took several deep breaths.
“Do you…” Vitalis cleared his throat. “Do you want to talk about it?”
Cyra couldn’t help the harsh, bitter laugh that clawed out of her throat. “The last thing I want to do right now is talk about Ano with you.”
“Fair point. Is there anything I can do to help you?”
Cyra looked up to see Vitalis, taking a seat beside her. She needed to be distracted. She needed to keep her mind occupied so her thoughts wouldn’t drift back to what had happened. Slowly, an idea occurred to her.
She blinked at Vitalis. “Tell me a story, some Vialyan legend I would have never heard.”
Vitalis stared at her a moment before nodding. “Alright, I think I know of one.”
He settled in and opened his mouth. Cyra quickly stopped him and said, “Tell it to me in your language. Tell it in Vialyan.”
Vitalis hummed for a moment before switching to his own native tongue. As he started the story, he took care to pronounce each word clearly and carefully for Cyra’s sake. Every so often Cyra would have to ask him what a word meant in her language, and Vitalis happily explained.
He talked long into the night, weaving a beautiful story from his home. It was an old Vialyan story about winter. Cyra was soon lost in the world of tall forests and white snow. She could see frozen lakes and feel crisp air on her skin. Cold, frosty stars flittered between the tree branches, and the moon lit the ground.
His voice lulled her to sleep, helping her forget about everything that was weighing her down.
* * *
After that day, Cyra quickly turned back into who she was before she ever got involved with Ano. She knew it was dramatic and not at all a healthy way to cope with her heartache, but Cyra couldn’t bring herself to do anything other than shut the world out.
Cyra refused to speak about anything other than her job or the investigation with Vitalis.
It didn’t matter how much he poke and prodded or nagged, and one day even gave her a complete lecture on the subject, Cyra would only respond with a simple, “Yes, sire.”
Vitalis eventually gave up and let Cyra throw herself in the investigation. Every moment they weren’t in the negotiations, Cyra and Vitalis were furiously hunting down any leads on the missing people. They would hit the streets night after night, following every lead until no more existed.
It was about a week after, well, after Soray’s engagement, that Cyra and Vitalis were searching in a completely new part of town, on the opposite side of where Cyra got her black eye which had only faded slightly.
Cyra knocked on the door of a dingy old house close to the edge of the city. “Hello? Roya? Is anyone here?”
A moment later, the door creaked open. A woman, a few years old than Cyra appeared. She was tired, worn down, and suspicion shone in her gaze as she eyed Cyra and Vitalis. “Roya’s not here right now. What do you want?”
Vitalis stepped forward, saying, “We were hoping she could help us find someone. We don’t want to cause any trouble.”
The door opened further. The woman stared at the daggers at Cyra’s side. “Any weapons you have, you leave them at the door.”
Cyra stiffened, one hand brushing her dagger’s handle. Vitalis touched her shoulder, he whispered softly, “Do it. We’ll be fine.”
Cyra reluctantly took her daggers off her belt. She also obligingly took out a smaller dagger she kept hidden at the ankle of her pant’s leg. Vitalis calmly gave the woman the sword he kept on him. It took another look from Vitalis before Cyra would pass over her weapons.
The woman set them aside and let them into the house. She shut the door, and all three of them sat down on a simple, thing rug. She said, “That’s a lot of fancy weapons for people who don’t want trouble.”
“Just because we don’t want trouble doesn’t mean we aren’t prepared for it,” Vitalis said as he crossed his legs.
“You speak our language very well, foreigner. What is your name?” the woman demanded.
“Vitya, and yours?” Vitalis was still unfailingly polite.
“Who do you want Roya to find for you?”
Cyra kept close to Vitalis. She really didn’t like how edgy and hostile this conversation had gotten so quickly.
“My sister, she went missing a few weeks ago. We heard that Roya might be able to help us know where to start,” Vitalis said, easily slipping into his act.
Vitalis blinked. Cyra’s hand twitched, ready to pull Vitalis away if need by. Vitalis said, “Excuse me?”
“You heard me, get out! Your lies don’t fool me. Tell that bastard I’m not coming back, and he can come kill me himself if he wants!” the woman snapped, leaping to her feet. As she pulled out her own knife, Vitalis and Cyra rose.
Cyra instantly pushed Vitalis back, moving in front of him. Vitalis grabbed Cyra’s shoulders. “So it’s true you escaped the cult!”
“I’ll kill you before you take me back!” The woman slashed at Cyra. Cyra caught her wrist, holding the blade away from her and Vitalis.
“We’re not with the cult! We don’t want to take you back!” Vitalis said, shifting, keeping a hand on Cyra.
“Then what do you want with me? Why’d you lie?” The woman pushed against Cyra, but it was no use. Cyra easily, help her arm in place with one hand. With her free hand, Cyra pried the knife from her fingers and jerked it away.
Cyra kept Vitalis behind her as she now held the weapon. Vitalis spoke over Cyra’s shoulder. “We want to stop this cult. I’m sorry I lied, but I can’t risk telling just anyone why I’m looking for the people who have gone missing. Can we start over?”
Taking his cue, Cyra flipped the knife in her hand, offering the hilt to the woman.
The woman hesitated, but cautiously took the knife. “Alright, I can tell when you’re lying and when you aren’t. You aren’t lying now, so don’t start again or I’ll kick you out. I’m Roya.”
“Then I suppose I better tell the whole truth. If I leave something out, you’ll know.” Vitalis stepped around Cyra. He gave a small bow. “Prince Vitalis of Vialya.”
Roya froze. The knife fell from her hand, clattering to the ground. She gaped at him. “You’re not lying.”
She turned to Cyra. “Don’t tell me you’re royalty too.”
Cyra shook her head. “Not really, unless you count illegitimacy. I’m Cyra, technically, cousin to the shahdokht, but I’m just a bodyguard.”
“So, explain to me how the Vialyan prince and the shah’s niece end up at my doorstep trying to destroy a demonic cult?” Roya asked, rubbing her forehead.
“It’s a really long story, but we’ll just say that I have a personal vendetta against demons, and Cyra’s here because I’m very charming and persuasive,” Vitalis said with a smile.
“Alright, then, how can I help you? I left the cult. I wouldn’t be able to tell you what they’re doing right now. I’m too busy hiding from them.” Roya gestured to her ramshackle house.
“Anything you can tell us about what you remember would be immensely helpful.” Vitalis asked, taking a seat again.
Cyra and Roya sat back down as well. Roya sighed; her face was pained. “I thought I was in love. There was a man. The Median tribe was here in Shiraz around two years ago. I’m sure you remember, Cyra.”
Cyra felt a pang shake her cold heart. She’d been doing so well, forgetting about it all. Two years ago, everything had been so different, so much simpler. It had just been her and Ano. Everything had been right with the world.
“Well, I had a whirlwind romance over the course a month or two, and much to my father’s disapproval, married him right before they were set to leave. I left with his tribe, and everything seemed wonderful, at first. Roya had a wistful look in her eye. “It wasn’t long until he started to pull me into the cult. Anytime we stopped hear a city, he would convince me to come to their meetings. Several of the other Medians would go with us, but we never spoke outside those meetings. At most of the meetings we really just talked about what Sardes was like before the Banishment War. Some of it made sense, but a lot was just strange. It made my husband happy that I went with him. That’s why I did it.”
“Did you ever see the leader of the cult?” Vitalis asked.
“No, if I did, I didn’t know it. I was never important enough to really meet the Inner Circle.” Roya shook her head.
“Inner Circle?” Vitalis asked. Cyra leaned forward.
Roya nodded. “If anyone is the definitive leader, it’s one of them. They’re basically all the important people, the powerful, the rich. If something happened in the cult, they knew about it. They’re the most despicable people in all of Sardes, I’m sure.”
“And you never saw any of them in passing? Never heard any of their names?” Vitalis asked. “Surely, you must have some information about one of them.”
Roya shook her head. “No, no names. I, well, there was one of them that I saw once, but I never got his name, and I never saw his face.”
She paused and looked at her hands. Her voice was faintly wavering as she said, “I had just had my baby. I had become pregnant a few months after my marriage. She was a beautiful, healthy, baby girl. It was a month after I had her that…”
Tears welled up in Roya’s eyes. “She was only a month old, and they took her. I woke up one night, hearing her cry, but she wasn’t there. She wasn’t anywhere. I left my husband, rushing outside following her cries. I don’t know who he was, but he was dressed from head to toe in all black. I had never seen him before not in all my time there. I’m not sure who he could have been other than one of the Inner Circle. He had my little girl, and he was saying something to her. It was the strangest sound I’ve ever heard. It was like he was angry, but his voice was too soothing and sweet. If I didn’t know any better, I would have said he was singing to her. Trying to sing her to sleep or something. I’m not sure, I was too focused on trying to catch up to them. I ran after them, tearing through the Median camp, but he was too far ahead. I couldn’t catch up.”
Roya rubbed at her eyes. “In an instant, they were gone. Everyone told me to forget about it, that if the Inner Circle took my baby, then it was for the best. I searched and searched, but I never found her. No one would help me or listen to me. No one cared, my own husband told me I had to get over it!”
A cold look settled in Roya’s face. “That was the last straw. I couldn’t take it. I refused to be a part of it a moment longer, so I escaped to Shiraz to disappear into the crowd.”
Not really sure what came over her, Cyra reached forward, grabbing Roya’s shoulder. Cyra pulled Roya into a loose, comforting hug. Roya accepted it, trying to control her shaking.
Once Roya caught her breath, Cyra sat back. Vitalis gave Roya a kind, approving smile. “Thank you for sharing all of that with us. You’ve helped us a lot.”
Roya put on a brave face. “I’m happy to help you take down those bastards. If you need anything else, you know where to find me. Just promise me you’ll stop them, no one should have to lose their child like that.”
“I swear on my life,” Vitalis said solemnly.
Not as long as Cyra was around, he wasn’t.