“You don’t have to go.” Vitalis’ voice was muffled through the door.
Cyra leaned against the cool wood. She stood outside Vitalis’ room, waiting for him to finish getting ready. It had been two weeks since Soray’s engagement had been announced, and the shah was throwing an engagement ball for her.
Cyra turned, putting her forehead on the wood, listening to the faint sounds of Vitalis moving around. Her head was already beginning to pound and her heart throbbed. “You know I have to go.”
Vitalis replied, “No, I have to go because I’m a royal guest. You should take the night off. You shouldn’t come tonight.”
“Prince Vitalis, if you’re going, I’m going. It’s as simple as that. I’m your bodyguard, you’re not going to a public event without me,” Cyra said, despite the heavy feeling wrapping around her heart.
“I can’t exactly stop you,” Vitalis said. She heard a shuffle. “Do you trust me enough to let me walk there on my own?”
Cyra glanced down at her dusty outfit. She’d have to leave to change into something presentable anyway. “Should I take that as a hint to go change as well?”
“Do you even own a dress?” Vitalis half-heartedly joked.
Cyra snorted, appreciating the attempt. “You’ll see when I meet you outside the ballroom.”
“If you show up in your normal outfit, I’ll have to ask for a new bodyguard.”
“You wouldn’t,” Cyra said, pushing off the door. “I’ll meet you there, don’t get killed.”
As she began to walk away, she thought she heard a faint, “You’re right.”
Cyra did indeed have a single dress. It had been her mother’s. When Mihrab and Cyra had to go through her things after she passed, Mihrab had wanted Cyra to keep her mother’s clothes. Cyra begrudgingly let him persuade her, both them had thought Cyra could grow into them. When Cyra did have the mind to see if they fit, she found she had outgrown them all except one. Even then, the one that did fit, barely did so. The waist was tight and pinched slightly. The hem was a little short, falling around her ankles rather than her feet like it was meant to. At least her daggers couldn’t be seen where she had slid them under the skirt onto her ankles. Well, the tip of the sheath could be seen if someone looked closely, but only Mihrab and Soray would notice. They were the only ones who knew she would put them there. If Soray kept a weapon on her, she did the same, a small dagger at her ankle.
Her mother didn’t have an extravagant taste, even if she could have afforded it, which she couldn’t. It was a simple dress with a plain cream skirt and gold trim around the bodice. The sleeves cinched uncomfortable around her broad shoulders, but loosened around her arms.
Cyra kept it only because she knew Mihrab would start a fight if he found out. It wasn’t worth the argument when she could just let it gather dust.
Although, as Cyra glanced at herself in the mirror, she wished she had thrown it out. It was an ill-fitting dress, meant for a shorter, more delicate woman. Years of training and combat as well as her father’s genetics made it certain she was not that woman.
Cyra wanted to take off the bracelets and the necklace Ano had given her, but her hands wouldn’t do it. She hadn’t taken them off ever since Ano had given them to her, not even the day the engagement had been announced. Cyra let her fingers drop, something in the back of her mind insisted she kept them on. They were the only jewelry she had.
She would take them off, just not that night.
Cyra piled her hair on her head in a loose simple style. It would quickly fall if one pin shifted, but Cyra had never been good at doing her own hair. It was different from how she normally pulled her hair back, so it was good enough.
Deciding that she had put in all the effort she could find to put in her appearance, Cyra left her room.
Cyra reached the empty hallway in front of the door to the ballroom. She self-consciously wrapped her arms around herself as she waited for Vitalis. Royalty or not, if he tried to tease her about her mother’s dress, she would deck him.
“May I have the pleasure of escorting you inside, miss?”
Cyra turned and a harsh laugh escaped at the sight. She covered her mouth, but she could not stop the laughs that shook her. It was the first time she’d laughed since she heard of the engagement. Maybe even the hardest she had laughed in a long time, probably years. She certainly had never laughed like this with Ano.
Vitalis waved his hand. “Go on, enjoy it while you can.”
Vitalis was, dressed head to toe, in traditional Sardesi clothing, and Cyra had never seen it look more ridiculous than it did on the Vialyan prince. She had never seen him in anything other than the Vialyan clothes he brought with him.
Cyra fanned her face, trying to stifle her laughter. Vitalis certainly did not suit those clothes.
He raised his arms slightly and asked, “What? You don’t think I look extremely dashing in this?”
She did not. It was far too big for him. The purple kandys coat he wore barely stayed on his shoulders, looking as though it would fall at a moment’s notice. The excess fabric was gathered in at the sides and front, but still spilled over more than usual or was appropriate. While the trousers he wore were supposed to be long and tucked into his boots, there was far too much bunched up fabric to be tucked in properly.
Cyra’s laughter slowed, and she caught her breath. Vitalis grinned. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you laugh so much.”
She couldn’t help her lingering smile. “I don’t think I have either.”
Vitalis gave her an extravagant, over the top bow, dislodging the kandys coat around his shoulders, but it fortunately caught on his arms. “I’m happy to have been the cause.”
As he straightened up, he seemed to finally notice her different attire. His eyes went wide and softened. A smile played on his lips. “So, you do have a dress.”
Cyra shrugged, fisting her hands in the skirt. “Just the one, I’m afraid.”
“It’s beautiful,” Vitalis said, stepping towards her. “You look amazing, much better than I do.”
Cyra shifted her weight on her feet. She lowered her gaze. “We should go inside.”
Vitalis’ face shifted, but he nodded. He rapped on the door once, and two servants on the other side began to push the doors open. He glanced back at her, slightly offering her his arm.
Cyra ignored it and fell into step behind him. She was his bodyguard; it would be unseemly to be at his side like an equal. All the talk about them already… from what Cyra had been hearing, and from what Ano said, it gotten worse. The talk was increasing more than she expected. It would be better if she didn’t draw attention to herself, especially if Vitalis was around. She told Vitalis his reputation wouldn’t be hurt, and she didn’t want to be proven wrong. She didn’t care what they said about her, but Vitalis didn’t deserve to be gossiped about like that. He was a better man than that.
Prince Vitalis was announced to the ballroom. Several of the dignitaries approached him, making polite conversation about the negotiations how they were finally reaching the end soon. There were only a few more treaties that had to be done before the negotiations were finished.
Cyra kept to the edge of the room, keeping an eye on Vitalis. She listened to him as he estimated that the negotiations would finish right around the time of the wedding, and the left over time would be devoted to the celebrations.
Cyra’s heart clenched, hearing it. It seemed as though there was no time left. The wedding would be in a week and a half, and then around two and a half weeks later the Century Storm would blow in, and the dignitaries would begin to leave after that. Soray and Ano would be married and Prince Vitalis would have finished digging up the cult and be back in Vialya.
The thought hadn’t fully hit her until just that moment, watching Vitalis move in his element.
Cyra had always been completely and fully aware of the fact he was a prince, but seeing it was another thing. Prince Vitalis would leave Sardes for Vialya. Once they finished this business with the cult, he would be gone.
It would be Cyra and Mihrab once again. He would be all she had left.
She was too absorbed in her thoughts that it wasn’t until halfway through the announcement that she realized Soray and Ano were being presented to the room.
The sight of them took her breath away. Soray was more beautiful than Cyra had ever seen her before. Soray must have had a dress made for the occasion. The layers flowed off her, brightening her face. The blues and purples rolled off her like water. The skirt would catch the light, and it was clear that there were sapphires and diamonds sewn up the skirt and bodice. Her elegant crown sparkled and shown in the candlelight, filling the room with more light.
Soray was the very definition of radiant beauty.
Ano, oh, Cyra’s heart simultaneously twisted in pain and shuddered in excitement at the sight. He also was presenting a perfect image to the whole room. Unlike Vitalis, Ano’s clothes fit him perfectly. His kandys coat was made to fit him perfectly around the shoulders. His sleeves ended right at his wrists, showing his hands tucked away in flawless gloves. Ano didn’t normally wear gloves, but it was a special occasion. His collar also rose higher than normal, wrapped up his neck. His clothes were also decorated extravagantly with jewels and patterns. A crown sat on his head. He looked like he could already be the shah.
They were everything a royal couple should be.
Cyra’s heart was shaking, and she could feel every intense sharp crack tearing at it.
Why had she ever let herself believe she could possibly have Ano? He was clearly born to be royalty, and Cyra was born to be a guard.
She’d been such an idiot let him convince her. He’d said a few things and made a few kind gestures, and Cyra just handed him her heart. Why hadn’t she been more careful? Why had she let him in?
Why did this have to hurt so much?
Her hand found her necklace, wrapping her fingers around it. It was some twisted form of comfort, and Cyra just didn’t understand herself.
“Cyra.” A hand caught her elbow. She turned to see Vitalis looking down at her. She heard his question without him having to speak.
She dropped her necklace and let her hands fall to her side. “I’m alright. We should probably go say something to them.”
“Alright,” Vitalis said. His mouth was drawn tight, and his forehead creased. He probably didn’t believe her.
Cyra didn’t blame him.
He could spot a liar.
She wouldn’t believe herself either.
Vitalis led the way, and Cyra kept a step or two behind him. It took a moment before they reached the couple as everyone else wanted to give their congratulations as well.
Soray and Ano didn’t even see them approach. Once Vitalis bowed, Soray’s peaceful expression was torn away, leaving an ache to take over her features.
“May I offer my sincerest congratulations, Shahdokht Soray?” Vitalis said politely.
Soray’s gaze dropped to the floor. “Thank you.”
Cyra stepped forward, taking her hand. She curtsied clumsily and whispered, “I hope you’ll be very happy, Soray.”
She straightened, and Vitalis steadied her by grabbing her elbow. He started to pull Cyra away, but a soft, melodic voice stopped them. “Prince Vitalis, I don’t think I recognized you in those clothes.”
Cyra stiffened, and her heartbeat thrashed. Vitalis’ face flashed darkly before he turned to face Anoshiruvan. Vitalis smoothed his face into a perfect disinterested civility. “Is that a compliment? I’m afraid I’ve rather stood out in my time here, being the only Vialyan in the palace.”
“No.” Ano’s face darkened as well. “Upon a second look, no one would believe you belonged. You’ll always stand out, and that is not a compliment. But, if I were you, I wouldn’t worry about it too much.”
Cyra wrapped an arm around her stomach. She really wasn’t in the mood to watch this fight.
Vitalis kept his composure. “I hope for your sake that wasn’t a threat.”
“Threat?” Ano laughed. “Aren’t you self-centered? I can’t imagine why I would want to threaten you.”
Vitalis opened his mouth, but Ano ignored him completely. He stepped closer to Cyra. His gaze shook her and kept her frozen in place as he leaned in slightly. He lowered his voice, and his hand ran up her arm. “My offer still stands.”
Vitalis hand wrapped around hers, and Cyra was jolted out of her almost trance like state. She broke away from Ano and shook her hand out of Vitalis’ grip.
“Prince Vitalis, we should go. We shouldn’t take all of their time.” Cyra’s voice shook and was so soft Vitalis had to lean in to hear her.
Vitalis nodded, and they both left. Vitalis sent her a few concerned looks over his shoulder as they reached the edge of the room. Cyra kept her gaze lowered, watching the tip of her daggers’ sheath peek out from under her skirt.
Neither of them said anything. What was there to say that they had not already discussed? This marriage was out of their hands. Cyra knew she could no more stop it than she could stop the sun from rising.
It wasn’t long before music started. Cyra forced her gaze up so she could keep an eye on Vitalis when he was dancing, but to her surprise, he stayed by her side. Cyra turned to him. “Aren’t you going to dance, sire?”
“Not right now, I’d rather be right where I am, zvezda moya.” Vitalis clasped his hands behind his back and watched the dancers.
“Do you even enjoy dancing? I remember you skipped out on the last ball.” Cyra thought back to the first night back in Shiraz. Oh, how things had changed.
“I do enjoy dancing, but not excessively. I will dance when there is someone I want to dance with, but I don’t dance simply for dancing’s sake.” Vitalis turned to look at her.
Cyra hummed in response. Ano led Soray onto the floor. They began dancing to a joyful, upbeat song. A smile was pulled from Soray. Ano’s eyes lit up. They may not have wanted to marry each other, but they were old friends. They always got along so well.
And that there was what was eating Cyra alive. Soray just might fall in love Ano, and he with her. Cyra may not be thrilled with him and all that had happened, but she’d known him for so long. There were some things about a person that just didn’t change. Soray still had a chance at love. Soray, always perfect. Soray the beautiful, the princess, the heir to a nation.
The first person who ever chose Cyra over Soray was Ano. The first person to ever see her in Soray’s shadow was Ano. When they were younger, Ano could have easily grown close to Soray and loved her beauty, her kindness, her sweet heart. Cyra wouldn’t have blamed him. But somehow, Ano looked at Cyra. Cold, closed off Cyra who would never recover from losing her father, her sister, and her mother. Cyra whose life was committed to protecting Soray’s. Cyra who never let anyone else close because she knew she couldn’t take losing anyone else. Ano had seen her and made her feel like it was worth the risk.
And now, the one man who had chosen her over her cousin, was going to marry Soray instead.
It hurt. It was as simple as that, yet vastly more complicated. Cyra’s heart felt like ragged shreds in her chest when she saw Soray and Ano together. Her stomach would turn, and nausea would swoop in.
Ano had really been the only thing she ever truly wanted and to lose him to the girl who had everything was tearing her up in ways she had never imagined possible.
She blinked and water had filled her eyes. She quickly wiped it away and turned to Vitalis. He stared at her like he was in pain as well. “Yes, Prince Vitalis?”
“We don’t have to stay.” He offered her his hand. “I’ve made my appearance. Besides, I’ve got a better idea of what we should do. Come with me?”
Cyra glanced around to make sure no one was watching them. She hesitantly took his hand, whispering, “Where you go, I go.”
Vitalis smiled softly. Without another word, he hurried her out of the ballroom, blocking her sight with his shoulders so she couldn’t see Ano.
Once they were out of the room, Vitalis increased his pace. Cyra hurried to match it, accidentally bumping against him. She asked, “Where are we going?”
Vitalis shot her a teasing look. “I thought you would have figured it out by now.”
Cyra glanced around them, but they had to turn down a few more hallways before Cyra recognized the path. Within minutes, Cyra and Vitalis reached the palace gardens.
He hesitantly dropped her hand as she stepped forward, drinking in the coolness of night. She took in the stars and the sky a moment before turning back to Vitalis, asking, “Why would you want to come here?”
“Because it’s where you wanted to go. Am I wrong?” Vitalis asked as he admired the night with her. “You instinctually came here when you were upset.”
“Yes, yes I did,” Cyra said, staring at the Ruins’ Tree.
Music faintly filled the air. Vitalis shifted, and Cyra turned to face him. Prince Vitalis dipped into a deep bow. He offered her his hand and looked up at her. He smiled. “Will you be so kind as to share a dance with me?”
Heat flooded her face and her heart stuttered. In one simple movement, Vitalis had shown her more respect than anyone else had in her entire life. She ducked her eyes. “I’m afraid my dancing is not at your level. I’d probably kill your feet.”
“If you don’t want to, just say so.” Vitalis straightened up, but kept his hand extended. The look in his eyes was new to Cyra. He looked so nervous, so unsure. “I can teach you how to dance, if you’d like. You’re free to step on my feet at any time.”
Cyra eyed his hand and before she even knew it, she had taken it. Vitalis beamed and gently tugged her a few steps closer. He took her other hand and set it on his shoulder. His hand rested on her waist and his other hand held her out.
Her face burned even hotter as she stumbled. “Maybe this wasn’t a good idea.”
Vitalis replied, “Trust me, you’ll enjoy this. It’s nothing that bad. It’s just a gliding dance. It’s really popular during the street festivals and peasant dances in Vialya and was just recently introduced to the nobility.”
Cyra swallowed thickly, but she let Vitalis tell her the steps. He slowly started to move, and Cyra watched his feet.
After a few painful minutes of Cyra getting the steps wrong, Vitalis stopped her. She accidentally stepped on his foot, wincing more than he did. She started to step away, knowing this was a bad idea. Vitalis only pulled her closer. Cyra stumbled forward and her head brushed his shoulder.
“Stand on my feet,” Vitalis said as he adjusted his grip on her. His breath brushed against her hair. “It’ll be easier to teach you this way.”
Cyra took a deep breath and carefully shifted her feet over his, being careful she didn’t put too much weight on him. The top of her head brushed his jaw. She could hardly breathe without feeling his breath matching hers. His grip around her tightened as he began moving their feet.
She shut her eyes and gripped his shirt. The weightlessness taking over was sending her reeling.
Then, Vitalis began humming. Cyra knew nothing about music, but she guessed it was a Vialyan tune the dance was supposed to match.
Cyra slowly began enjoying the dance. Vitalis made it easy to relax into his steps. She let go of everything that bad been weighing her down in the ballroom.
She wasn’t just a bodyguard. Vitalis wasn’t a prince. For a moment, they were just young and happy. They were friends, and that was more than Cyra ever expected.
As they came to a stop and their laughter faded, friends seemed too tame a word, but it was the only word Cyra could come up with.
Cyra stepped off his feet, smiling at him. “Thank you, I needed that.”
“You’ve done a lot for me, really, cheering you up is the least I can do.” Vitalis let his finders linger on her hand a moment before pulling back.
“You don’t owe me anything.” Cyra shook her head. “You have shown me more kindness than I deserve.”
“I’m afraid I disagree, Cyra,” Vitalis said. He shrugged his shoulders, drawing attention to his poorly fit clothing. “I can’t believe anyone was able to speak to me seriously tonight.”
“Me either,” Cyra laughed with him. She reached up and tore her hair down, tired of it already. They both started to head back to the palace, and Cyra knew her steps were softer, lighter.
They walked in a companionable silence back to Vitalis’ room. As they reached his door, he hesitantly broke the silence, saying, “You know you never explained it to me.”
“Explained what?” Cyra glanced at him.
“Why do you go to the garden? To the Ruins’ Tree for comfort if it’s cursed?” Vitalis asked as she opened the door to his room.
She supposed it was a fair question. Besides, she had trusted him with so much of herself already. He’d seen her at her weakest, the day of the engagement. She didn’t have anything else left to hide.
With a sigh, she shut the door behind him after he entered.
This would be it, though. She had to draw the line somewhere. She would allow herself this vulnerability, but afterward she had to start protecting herself again.
Prince Vitalis couldn’t be her friend or anything else remotely closer than her superior.
She would have this night, but that was all. Vitalis would leave eventually, any further closeness was just going to hurt her. She’d learnt her lesson from Ano. She never wanted to feel such pain again.
Once this was over, no more.
“Do you remember when you asked me what my dreamscape looked like?” Cyra paused at her sofa, drumming her fingers on the arm. “Actually, it would be easier to show you.”
“You’re really willing to show me? You don’t have to, you know,” Vitalis said, approaching her shoulder.
Cyra nodded. “Yes, you’ve been so honest and open and trusting with me. I want to do this, as long as you want to know.”
“I would be honored,” Vitalis said.
Cyra laid back on the sofa. Vitalis kneeled at her side. He took her hand as she said the incantation. Cyra shut her eyes and let her magic pull them under.