Cyra helped pull Vitalis up to his feet as he began taking in the desert sand around them. He smiled and was about to say something when he froze, catching sight of the Ruins’ Tree. He stiffened and said, “You centered your dreamscape around a cursed tree?”
“Exactly,” Cyra said, ducking her head.
“Cyra!” A shrill voice crackled through the air. A figure moved through the branches.
Cyra started running towards the tree. Vitalis quickly followed her. The sand shifted under their feet, forcing Cyra to reach behind her and catch Vitalis’ arm so they both didn’t fall. They didn’t slow, only stumbling to a stop at the base of the tree. Cyra gaped through the branches at the little girl. “Mandana?”
The girl jumped into Cyra’s arms. Cyra caught Mandana, struggling to keep a hold on her as the girl shifted to stare at Vitalis. Her eyes were wide as she took him in. “Who’s he?”
Cyra stuttered, still trying to wrap her mind around the fact Mandana was there. She said, “Uh, Mandana, this is Vitalis, the Vialyan prince.”
Mandana leaned in and whispered, “Is that why he looks so odd and sickly?”
Vitalis raised an eyebrow as Cyra nearly dropped her sister. Cyra gave up on holding her and set her sister on the ground. She rubbed her forehead. “I don’t understand, Mandana. How are you here? You never appear if I have someone else here.”
At that, Vitalis’ expression shifted, darkening. He knew who she was referring to.
“You mean that other guy? I don’t like him.” Mandana crossed her arms.
Cyra crouched so she was at eye level with her sister. “Mandana, that was Ano. Don’t you remember him?”
“Anoshiruvan? Of course I remember him, but why would you let him in your mind? Why would he want to?” Mandana shrugged. “I can tell you don’t want me here, some sort of grown up stuff.”
Mandana flickered out of existence. Cyra dropped to the ground, burying her head in her hands. “That’s it. Even my own imaginary sister knew better than I did. You must think I’m insane.”
The sand shifted beside her, and she could feel Vitalis’ presence. “You watched me interact with a dead woman I only barely knew as an infant. I don’t think you’re insane.”
Cyra laughed bitterly and looked up, shaking her head. “Well, sane or not, you know all my dirty secrets. I see my dead sister in my head, and she talks to me. The place that I, somehow, consider my sanctuary is the cursed tree that not only caused her death, but was also the scene of her death.”
“I’d be more concerned if it hadn’t affected you,” Vitalis said. “Have you ever talked to anyone about what happened? Surely Mihrab doesn’t agree with you, thinking it’s your fault because of the tree.”
“Mihrab and I occasionally mention it, but no, we don’t really talk about it,” Cyra said, lifting her hand slightly. Her hands shook. “I, uh, never actually told him I touched the Ruins’ Tree, not when he had warned me not to as well. He knows I go to the tree in the garden, but he doesn’t believe in the curse.”
“If he doesn’t agree about the curse, why would he warn you?” Vitalis asked, placing his hand on her shoulder.
“You, with all your books and knowledge, are still a bit behind in terms of magic.” Cyra noticed herself leaning into him. “Sometimes magic leaves behind this residual air, sort of. It can seep into the ground or into objects, this doesn’t make something cursed. I believe your own kingdom has a few places like that, considering all the battles that happened in Vialyan during the Banishment War.”
“I think I understand, so the Ruins’ Tree absorbed the residual magic that was left in the old capital, but why do you think it’s cursed and he doesn’t?” Vitalis shifted closer, keeping his hand on her shoulder.
“Because residual magic, even demonic, doesn’t make something cursed. What would make it cursed was if a demon used a spell to enchant the tree, with say a spell that caused those who touched it to suffer. We have no record of it happening, of a demon ever doing it. In all our history, curses and enchantments are a strictly human magic.” Cyra dragged her fingers over the roots of the tree. “Mihrab holds to that belief, as do many of the other intellectuals in Sardes who have magic or study it. Even if it’s not cursed, it’s not smart for people with magic to spend a lot of time around the tree, demonic magic is toxic to human magic.”
“And knowing that, you still find this death tree to be your sanctuary?” Vitalis moved so he sat across from her, forcing her to look at him.
Cyra smiled, but there was no light, no happiness in her. Her face was hollow. “Maybe I believe death follows me. Maybe I think I’m cursed.”
Her fake smile fell. “Now just what does that say about me?”
His other hand took her shoulder, gently pulling her forward. “It says that you are exactly who I have believed you to be from the start.”
“And who is that?” Cyra blinked. Heat filled her cheeks at how close he was to her.
“The strongest woman I have ever met.”
Cyra shrank back from him. The look in his eyes was unlike she’d ever seen before, well in anyone other than Vitalis. “Don’t give me too much credit. I don’t deserve it.”
Vitalis’ face flashed, and Cyra knew her words and how she pulled back hurt him. He opened his mouth, but Cyra was far too drained to go into an argument about herself. With a word and a short burst of magic, they both left her dreamscape.
* * *
His hand tightened around hers as she woke up. Cyra kept her eyes shut. Vitalis said, “Cyra, you might be done with this conversation, but I’m not.”
She twisted and wrenched her hand out of his grip. As she rolled over, turning her back to him, she said, “Talk at me all you want, but it won’t do you any good. I appreciate it, I do, but I really just need some time.”
He didn’t say anything for a moment. His hand brushed her shoulder. Cyra stayed still. Vitalis sighed.
There was the sound of clothes rustling, and Cyra assumed Vitalis stood up. “I can respect that, and thank you for showing me your dreamscape. It means a lot you trust me that much.”
“You trusted me first,” Cyra whispered.
There was no response. Did he even hear her?
* * *
As each day went by, it seemed Cyra had more and more problems. The first that was eating at her was Mandana. Why had Mandana appeared before Vitalis and never Ano? Why did Mandana remember Ano being in Cyra’s head? Mandana wasn’t her own entity. Cyra had long come to terms with the fact that Mandana was head, and the image Cyra interacted with was just her own memories constructing her, as Cyra wasn’t good at letting go of people. Everything Cyra knew, Mandana should, theoretically, know as well. Mandana wasn’t a separate person or personality, she was just a way to cope.
Mandana said she didn’t like Ano, but that didn’t make sense to Cyra. Her memory of Mandana didn’t include any strong feelings about Ano. As children, Mandana liked Ano as much as they all did, not particularly strongly, but she certainly didn’t hold any dislike.
The whole thing made Cyra uneasy. She kept it to herself though. She was too busy helping Vitalis to bring it up. Getting to the cult was their priority as time was running out. Cyra could sort out her ghost’s dilemma later.
Cyra and Vitalis made their way back to Roya when they reached a dead end. Vitalis was determined to identify one of the men at court as the Inner Circle member who stole Roya’s baby. Cyra agreed it was the best course of action.
Roya let them in quicker the second time around. She seemed almost happy to see them again. Maybe not happy, but relieved.
As they sat down on the floor, Vitalis carefully asked, “Roya, we were hoping you might be able to tell us a little bit more about the man who took your baby.”
Roya’s face fell. She shook her head. “I’m afraid I told you all that I remember.”
Vitalis sent Cyra a meaningful look. “If you’re willing, there might be—”
Cyra cut him off. “No, Prince Vitalis. Roya said it happened at night. We wouldn’t be able to see anything she hadn’t.”
“Alright.” Vitalis nodded, deferring to her. “Roya, did you notice any particular details about the man? Any description of him?”
Roya frowned. “Well, I already told you I couldn’t see much of him. He was wrapped up in black, but he wasn’t particularly tall, maybe only a little taller than Cyra. I can only assume he was Sardesi, maybe Median, but that doesn’t help much either. There wasn’t really anything distinctive other than his voice. It was probably the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard.”
Vitalis nodded, and was about to say something when there was a sharp knock on the door. They all froze as a feminine voice called out, “Hello? I’m looking for Roya. Are you in there?”
“Go hide!” Roya hissed, rising to her feet. Cyra quickly pulled Vitalis up to his feet.
Where could they hide? There was only one room! There was no closet or back door!
Her head whipped around as the knocks resumed.
“I know someone’s in there. I heard your voice.”
A window! Cyra pushed open the rickety, broken shutters. As Vitalis quickly climbed through, Cyra had never been more grateful Vitalis was no warrior. He had none of their muscular bulk, as he barely fit through the window as he was.
Roya cracked the door as Cyra shot through the window. Vitalis caught her and pulled her down below the window sill. Cyra twisted, pushing Vitalis lower, so she kept him out of sight. She kept her head dangerously close to the window so she could hear. She angled her head carefully, so she could see what was happening.
“Roya’s not—” Roya started when she froze at the woman in her doorway.
“Roya!” The woman threw her arms around Roya. “I can’t believe I finally found you!”
Roya pushed the woman off and backed away. Roya’s hands were shaking as she asked, “How did you find me, Sanaz?”
“It took a bit of leg work, but someone pointed me this way when I mentioned I’m an old friend.” Sanaz stepped further into Roya’s home. Roya reached for something behind her.
“If this is an attempt to force me back—”
“No! I don’t want to force you back. I want you to choose to come back.” Sanaz smiled. “We need you. All of us are being called here to Shiraz. Our time is coming.”
It was Vitalis’ grip on her that kept her from leaping back inside. Sanaz was the key they’d been looking for. She could lead them to the cult!
Roya shot the window a glance. “What do you mean? What are you all doing in Shiraz?”
“I can only tell you if you come back, Roya, but I’m here because I’m trying to help. You don’t want to be on the wrong side. If you come back, you will certainly live a better life than you are here in this shack,” Sanaz pleaded.
Roya moved away again. “You should go.”
“I can see you need time, alright.” Sanaz backed away towards the door. “Just, keep your eyes open. In three days, when you hear what has happened, you’ll see how you need to come back.”
Sanaz started out the door. “Big things are about to happen.”
The door shut, and Cyra scrambled to her feet. Vitalis hurried to his feet as well. He began saying, “We should—”
“—follow her,” Cyra finished the sentence, pulling Vitalis along as they hurried to the street. Cyra ducked her head as she spotted Sanaz pulling up a hood as she weaved through the streets.
Cyra let Sanaz stay a fair amount ahead of them, but the woman didn’t leave her sight. Cyra kept a hand on Vitalis’ arm, making sure didn’t lose him. They slid in and around the small crowd still walking through the streets.
“Keep your head low, you stick out enough as you are,” Cyra whispered. There weren’t too many Vialyans in Shiraz, and his height didn’t help him become any less noticeable.
Sanaz cast a glance over her shoulder in their general direction.
Cyra swore in her head, now she would notice if she saw the Vialyan again. Then, an idea hit her.
She slid her arm around Vitalis’ waist and pulled his arm around her shoulders. He jolted under her fingers, but kept walking as Cyra pressed herself to his side. She leaned her head into the crook of his shoulder, whispering, “Keep your head down by mind. You’ll be less noticeable. If she sees us, she’ll just think we’re a couple lost in each other rather than paying attention to her.”
“You seem pretty confident we can pass as a couple in love,” Vitalis said into her hair. His breath brushed her ear, and she shuddered.
Cyra kept one eye on Sanaz while she turned her head. She spoke into his neck, “I happen to know you’re very good at putting on an act.”
“I know I’ll have no trouble passing as a man in love.” Vitalis hand carefully shifted from her shoulder to her waist, fitting her even more tightly to his side. His head shifted so it rested on hers. “What about you?”
Cyra really didn’t like the weight in his voice. She shivered slightly. “Just focus on your own acting.”
Vitalis just hummed in response, and Cyra could feel the vibration in his chest.
As they walked, Sanaz would look back every so often, but she never took notice of Cyra and Vitalis. Sanaz began slowing down, and Cyra took note of where they were. It struck her that it seemed extremely familiar. Had she been there before?
Sanaz stopped at a rickety door, looked around, and knocked.
The street seemed so familiar. Cyra had been there before; she knew she had. However, for some odd reason, she couldn’t make the connection in her mind. That was the strange thing, the frightening aspect, Cyra didn’t normally forget things. She could remember enough about her sister who had been dead for over ten years to give enough detail to recreate her image and personality in her head. She should know why this street was familiar.
Cyra spotted an alleyway nearby. She pulled Vitalis down it, hurrying to the back of the building Sanaz entered. It was a small, cramped building. It looked like it might collapse at a moment’s notice.
She let go of Vitalis and walked up to the building. She could see a few holes at the top. Cyra figured she might be able to hear or see something if she could get up there.
She shushed Vitalis and started climbing. She struggled to find foot holds, but her hands were able to find enough purchase to pull her up. Cyra peered through the largest hole she could get close to. She could see part of a man, the top of what looked like a poor excuse for a desk, and a door across the room.
The door opened, and Sanaz was led in by an older Sizian man.
That’s when she remembered why everything was familiar. It couldn’t possibly be— but the evidence was there as she began to remember part of that day so long ago. It was all there. Her own memories that she was slowly grasping were condemning, but maybe there was an explanation. Maybe this wasn’t what she thought it was.
Her grip faltered.
Sanaz was saying something about Roya needing time and something else. Her head was spinning, and her foot slipped. Her hands shook, and she just couldn’t hold herself up. Her hands scraped against the wall, but she couldn’t catch herself.
Vitalis rushed forward, trying to catch her before she fit the ground. Her feet crashed into the ground, and her legs crumped as Vitalis caught her under her arms. He leaned in, asking, “Are you alright? What’s wrong?”
Cyra staggered to her feet, wincing at the sharp pangs in her ankles. Her mind was dazed and foggy. Nothing made sense to her, and yet everything was falling together at the same time. “We should go. Now.”
They hurried back to the streets, and Vitalis kept a hand on her shoulder. Cyra kept her head down, trying to steady her breathing and keep herself together.
She needed to think. If she told Vitalis… no, she couldn’t keep this from him. He needed to know.
But the words wouldn’t leave her mouth. Cyra just couldn’t say it. Her mind was in too much disarray.
Vitalis didn’t speak, or if he did, Cyra didn’t hear him. The rhythmic pounding of her heart was too loud to hear anything else.
Cyra found herself back in Vitalis’ room before she even realized it. She couldn’t remember making it back to the palace. Everything was blurring.
Vitalis was probably the only reason they made it back safely.
He helped her sit down on the sofa, forcing her to look at him. His hands gently rested on her cheeks. He said, “Talk to me, Cyra. What did you hear? You’re scaring me.”
Cyra pulled his hands away, burying her face in her own hands. She shook her head and forced herself to croak out, “I’ve been there before.”
Her voice cracked and shook. “Ano brought me there. Right after we got back to Shiraz, he didn’t tell me what we were really doing there.”
“Oh, Cyra.” Vitalis held her shoulders. “You must see now that Ano—”
“I know, Vitalis,” Cyra said lifting her head. She could barely see through the water welling up in her eyes. Her hands were shaking, and Cyra had no idea whether it was from anger or pain. She didn’t know what to think or believe. Was it all a lie? How long had he kept it from her? Why?
It didn’t make sense. Cyra knew Ano. Or at least, she thought she did.
“Ano, he’s involved with this cult as much as it’s killing me to say it, I can’t think of any possible way to exonerate him. Ano—I can’t deny it. He’s part of this, and I refused to see it.”
“Don’t focus on that. If you keep dwelling on all the pain he’s caused you, you’ll never be able to see past it. He’s not worth it. He’s lied to you, deceived you, used you, the more you continue to let him influence you, the worse it’ll get.” Vitalis caught her gaze. He held her shoulders, keeping her from shaking. “Look, we can finally go to the shah, reveal he’s part of the cult, and he’ll never be able to hurt you again.”
Cyra shook her head. Things weren’t that simple. “Vitalis, this isn’t over yet.”
“What do you mean? What’s wrong?” Vitalis frowned.
Cyra laughed, but it was an awful, grating sound. “What proof do we have? The only reason I believe is Ano is involved is because of one day I spent with him. I’m still having a hard time believing it myself, and its my own memories I’m having a hard time trusting over him! All we have is my word that he visited that building that we know is tied to the cult.”
“That’s enough, you’re the shah’s niece! One of the shahdokht’s closest confidants!” Vitalis said; his eyes burned.
“I’m the shah’s dog, and right now, in the eyes of the court, I’m your whore.” Cyra shook her head. “My word against Ano’s is no contest. Do you think the shah agreed to let him marry his daughter and heir lightly? He’s naming Ano as his heir by letting him marry Soray. If you don’t want to bring Vialya into a war, you need more than my word. You need something that convicts him beyond any shadow of a doubt.”
“Then we’ll get it, it has to exist. We know it does.” Vitalis caught her head again.
“The wedding is in two days!” Cyra grabbed his hand, but rather than pushing him away, she leaned into it.
“We can do it. We’ll find it, Cyra. I swear.”
“What if I’m wrong? I know Ano. Him visiting that building is the only thing that links him to the cult, everything else is vague and circumstantial. Ano’s never given me any indication he’s involved.” Cyra bit her lip.
“Don’t talk yourself out of this. We’ll get proof, and we’ll take it to the shah,” Vitalis said, brushing her hair back. Their breaths fell into synchronization. “Trust yourself on this.”
“How? How are we going to get proof?”