“This has to be the dumbest idea you’ve had since you agreed to come to Sardes!” Cyra hissed as she quietly shut the door behind her.
“You’re only this harsh when you’re worried about me, so, thank you.” Vitalis smiled over his shoulder. Vitalis moved to the immaculately clean desk. “Besides, the only place proof would be is here in his room.”
“And if we get caught?” Cyra asked, slowly joining him at the desk.
“They’re all too busy at the one last celebration. Ano’s beside his fiancé, and he’s not going to do anything in public, or he would have already. It’s the perfect opportunity to get proof.” Vitalis pulled out the papers in the drawers.
“I’m telling you—”
Vitalis slammed his hand on the desk. “And I’m telling you the wedding is tomorrow! You’re the one who insisted we need proof for the shah; that’s the only way we can stop this. Do you really want that wedding to happen?”
Cyra glared at him. He was right, but that was the last thing she wanted to say at the moment. “No, I don’t want it to happen.”
“You certainly aren’t acting like it. What are you so hung up on?” Vitalis asked.
Cyra pursed her lips. She was afraid. Cyra was afraid that they would actually find proof. She still didn’t want to be right. There was still a part of her that wanted to be wrong, to believe Ano was innocent and it was just some sort of misunderstanding. She was even more afraid of the consequences of being proven right.
“Just, do your searching. I’ll keep an eye out, to be safe,” Cyra muttered.
Vitalis eyed her, and Cyra got the impression he knew exactly what she wasn’t saying. He didn’t press her on it, and that was enough for her.
He quickly poured over the documents while Cyra moved back to the door to keep watch. She knew from previous experience she wouldn’t be any help.
Vitalis took his time, glancing her way every so often. He meticulously ran his fingers over the lines of the pages, mouthing the words.
Cyra leaned her ear to the door. Footsteps sounded, but they passed right by them. Cyra stepped back, picking her at her necklace absentmindedly.
“Cyra,” Vitalis whispered, raising his hand. Cyra hesitantly moved away from the door. She hurried to his side and peered over his shoulder. He raised a sheet up. “I think I might have found something. Some of these are in a language I’ve never encountered before. But there is something, some scrap of a torn up letter—”
Cyra shushed him as she heard something in the distance. Her necklace almost seemed to tighten on her neck.
She paused and heard footsteps approaching. The footsteps slowed, and Cyra quickly glanced around the room. She grabbed Vitalis and whispered, “Someone’s coming!”
Everything blurred and hazed for a moment. She had no idea how, but Cyra had somehow managed to shove Vitalis inside a wardrobe right before the door open.
Cyra spun around, keeping her hands on the doors, holding it shut.
Ano squinted at her and gestured helplessly at the open hallway behind him. “Cyra—I, uh, didn’t expect you. What are you doing here?”
Cyra rushed forward to meet him and to keep him away from Vitalis’ hiding place. She caught him by the shoulders right after he shut the door. “I needed to see you. This is the first time I’ve been able to get away from Prince Vitalis to see you alone.”
“That prince of yours has been keeping you on a pretty tight leash. Hasn’t he?” Ano hummed. His fingers brushed her shoulder. It felt odd since he was wearing gloves, and Ano never wore gloves. “Just what does he want with you all the time?”
“He’s paranoid,” Cyra said. The lies spilled out of her. She’d say anything that she thought would help her keep Ano’s attention. Her heart raced as he stared down at her. She kept going, saying, “He’s terrified that he’ll be attacked again. He thinks someone might try and kill him at the wedding. Anytime I try to take a step away he grabs me, keeping me away from you.”
“He sounds… demanding.” Ano’s voice lowered. “You should relax while I’ve still got you. You need it.”
Cyra forced a smile. “Just seeing you is relaxing me.”
Ano smirked. “I think I can do better than that.”
He stepped towards his desk. He grabbed the papers sitting out, and put the them away. He quickly pulled out two wine glasses and a bottle. Cyra was about to protest, but it had already been poured and the glass put in her hand.
Ano took a sip of his. “Go on, it’s the highest quality wine here in Sardes. I picked it up on my travels.”
Cyra eyed it for a moment. She had a pretty good guess of who had poisoned her now that she could see things clearly. It also meant the wine in her hand was mostly likely poisoned, but she had just watched Ano take a drink of it, surely he wouldn’t poison himself. Still… it was a risk. But there was no possible way Cyra could walk out of here without convincing Ano she did drink from it.
Struggling to steady her hand, Cyra lifted the glass to her lips. She tipped it back, and let the wine hit her lips. However, she did not drink. She let the wine fall back into the glass, hoping that would convince him and praying that the poison had to be ingested to take effect.
Ano took another drink before setting his glass down. “See? Don’t you feel better?”
Cyra nodded mutely, setting her glass down. She swallowed thickly, resisting the urge to rub her throat.
“Now, what do you want to talk about?” Ano hummed, leaning in.
Cyra could feel Vitalis’ gaze from between the cracks of the wardrobe. She turned so Ano faced away from Vitalis. Her mind raced to come up with something. “At the… uh… engagement ball. You—you said your offer still stood. I, uh, want to accept.”
She could hear Vitalis yelling at her in her mind, but she couldn’t think of anything else. She’d say anything to protect Vitalis.
“Really? What changed your mind?” Ano stepped forward, backing Cyra into the desk. “The Vialyan not all you expected he would be?”
Cyra braced her hands against the desk, leaning back. “Vitalis and I were never like that. I’ve always been faithful, Ano. It’s always been you.”
Fire lit in Ano’s eyes, and for a moment, Cyra could have sworn she saw them turn red before fading to brown. The next thing she knew, she bent over the desk as Ano forced his lips to hers. One hand was holding her head in place while the other ran down her side. Cyra’s hands fumbled to get a hold of the desk, but she couldn’t move. Ano’s legs pressed against hers as he leaned in further.
Every time he touched her it felt like he was pressing a burning coal in her skin. Pain shot up her back, paralyzing her. She wanted to do something, was going to do something, but then…
Then the pain faded. Everything fogged over like it always did when she kissed Ano. It all began to blur. Ano moved to kissing her neck, and Cyra just shuddered. Her arms gave out underneath her and went limp.
Cyra didn’t understand what was happening, but it felt like it always did with Ano. She couldn’t breathe of think. Ano consumed her like everything she used to be was now him.
Ano slowly pulled away and took her face in his hands. He stroked her cheek and instantly, her head was filled with memories of Ano. She saw the first time he ever got her to smile. Then it was the first time he whispered her name, taking her hand, holding her, kissing her, comforting her. Before her eyes it was every single moment that Ano had ever made her feel so loved.
Cyra found herself leaning into his touch and shut her eyes. All her pain and anger and distrust faded away. It was all replaced with the love she felt for him long before his engagement had been announced. She remembered the love that she felt, how he made her feel more loved than anyone had before.
“I’ve got to go, but I’ll be back for you soon,” Ano whispered.
When she opened her eyes, Ano was gone. Her legs gave out, and she collapsed to the floor. The wardrobe creaked, and Cyra buried her head in her hands. Her hands were wet. She couldn’t look at Vitalis. She just couldn’t handle the awful look she knew would be in his eyes.
What was wrong with her?
“Cyra, please, say something.”
She shook her head. Vitalis gently touched her shoulder.
With a deep, shuddering breath, Cyra said, “You will think me the worst of fools.”
Cyra lifted her head and blinked. She stared at Vitalis’ concerned face. She whispered, “Something’s wrong with me.”
“What? What is it?” Vitalis took her hand.
“I don’t know why, Vitalis, but I just can’t stop.” Cyra pulled away from him. Her eyes were wide as she was horrified with what she was about to say.
“Somehow, I still love him, and I hate myself for it.”
Vitalis’ face fell like he had just taken a blow to the stomach. “Cyra, I—”
“Just, don’t say anything, please.” Cyra carefully forced herself up to her feet. “We should go. We don’t have time for this. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything. Please, forget it.”
Vitalis hurried to her side, but fortunately stayed quiet. As they left the room, however, Cyra could feel his gaze on her. It was almost worse because she could imagine everything he wanted to say. She really did not want to hear it.
Cyra began burying everything tearing up her head. Her ridiculous, insane feelings and emotions had to wait. She couldn’t focus on that. There were so many things that were more important than her.
She kept her head bowed. Her hand rubbed at her chest.
It scared her how seriously she considered tearing her heart out so she wouldn’t have to face the fact she was still somehow in love with a man like Ano.
* * *
“Here’s the most recent map of Shiraz. If you want, I could—”
“Cyra, you’re shaking,” Vitalis said, staring at her hands.
Cyra glanced down to see the paper rattling in her hands. She quickly dumped the map onto the library table and clasped her hands behind her back. Cyra said, “I can dig up some older maps, if you like, but this one is probably our best bet.”
“You haven’t said anything about yourself, Cyra. You’re not alright,” Vitalis said, reaching for her arm.
Cyra backed away. “We have to focus. There’s only hours left.”
Vitalis’ hand fell, and he nodded. With a sigh, he turned to the map. He leaned over the table, and Cyra joined him. She quickly explained the layout of the city, and they set to work on figuring out the location of where the cult would be gathering.
Cyra pointed out all the locations with historical and magical significance. Vitalis narrowed down their options until they only had a handful left.
Cyra dug out more maps and history for Vitalis’ reference, but despite the time they spent going over it and arguing the evidence, the could not narrow it down to one.
“You’ve said it yourself, Cyra.” Vitalis gestured to the maps. “You know Ano better than anyone else. Where is he most likely going to lead this cult?”
“Do I know him?” Cyra snorted, fighting the pang in her chest. She loved him and hated him all in the same breath, but she didn’t know him. “It seems I know nothing about him.”
“Still, Cyra, there must be something he’s let slip,” Vitalis urged.
Cyra searched her brain once again. Vitalis was right, there was something. Cyra knew there was something she was missing. The answer was in her head, but she couldn’t reach it. There was a block. Something in her head was keeping her from the answer.
She groaned and rubbed her forehead. Then, an idea occurred to her. “I can’t remember it, if it’s there, but there’s someone who knows. That man Sanaz went and saw.”
Vitalis slammed his hand on the table. “You’re right! We have to go now then.”
Cyra nodded, and they both hurried to the door, leaving a mess behind. There was no time to stop. How much time had they wasted already?
Vitalis took her arm and helped her keep up with him as her legs shook slightly. The question was on the tip of his tongue, but he did not ask. They both knew she wasn’t alright, but they didn’t have time to talk about it.
Even if they did, where would Cyra begin?
A harsh, angry voice forced Vitalis and Cyra to stumble to a stop. They spun around to see Soray hurrying after them, except she was in an extravagant, layered wedding dress.
“What are you two doing?” Soray demanded. Her hair was a mess, falling around her shoulders, knotted and tangled. She lifted the skirt of dress and marched towards them.
Cyra had never seen such anger and pain on her cousin’s face before.
“Shahdokht Soray, what are—” Prince Vitalis began.
Soray cut him off, glaring at Cyra. “Cyra, why have you been avoiding me? I haven’t seen you since the engagement ball, and now I’m told no one can find you or Prince Vitalis for my wedding that starts in two hours? I need you for this!”
“Soray, I’m sorry, but I can’t,” Cyra said, backing away from her.
“What does that mean? Instead of coming to my wedding, you’re running around with Vitalis?” Tears were forming in her eyes. “I’ve ignored what everyone has been saying about you two. I knew you wouldn’t do that to me, but it looks like I was wrong! You really are his whore, aren’t you?”
“Shahdokht Soray!” Vitalis barked, catching Cyra’s shaking shoulders.
Soray huffed, laboring over each breath. “Stay out of this, Vitalis!”
Cyra couldn’t stop shaking. Her vision blurred from the water welling up in her eyes. She leaned into Vitalis, shaking her head. “Please, believe me, Soray, those rumors are just rumors. I swear what the court has been saying, there’s nothing further from the truth!”
“Look at yourself! You two are never apart! You’re always running off together. At my engagement announcement and at the ball! Now, you’re doing it again. Running off with him instead of coming to my wedding. And you knew! Ugh! You knew from the start I wanted him to court me, that I thought I might love him! And now you’ve gone behind my back and become his whore. How could you?” Soray sobbed. Tears spilled out her eyes as she tore at her skirt.
Cyra pushed Vitalis away. “Will you listen to me? I’m not his whore! I’m just his bodyguard!”
“Then why have you been avoiding me? Why won’t you come to my wedding? I can’t marry Ano without you there!” Soray reached for Cyra’s arm.
Cyra backed into a wall, feeling her heart clench. She whispered, “Because I love him.”
Soray froze. Vitalis stared at the floor, clenching his jaw. Soray asked, “What did you say?”
Cyra sighed. She hated him. She hated herself. Ano had done this to her. He tricked her into giving him her heart, and she still couldn’t get it back. “Ano. I’m in love with Ano.”
Soray blinked. “Oh.”
Soray stepped back and was silent for a moment. She dropped her skirt and shook her head. “How did I miss that?”
“Cyra,” Vitalis whispered, reaching for her. She let him touch her shoulder. Cyra blinked at him and shook her head. There wasn’t anything to say. What could he say? What did you say to a woman who was in love with a lie? What did you say when she knew she was wrong, but couldn’t help it?
“I don’t want to marry him,” Soray said slowly. She grabbed Vitalis’ arm. A desperate longing filled her eyes. A hopeful half-smile started to twinge on her lips. “Vitalis, you can help us. If you talk to my father, you can convince him to break the engagement. Cyra can be with Ano, and you can—”
“I can’t do that,” Vitalis said pulling his arm out of her grasp.
Cyra took a shuddering breath, and Vitalis’ hand slid into hers. She shook her head. “Soray, I wish there was something we could do, some way to stop this, but do you really believe your father will just call this all off at the last second because you’re getting cold feet? If we had something tangible, maybe he would, but we don’t.”
“Tangible?” Soray blinked past her tears. “What’s going on? What do you mean?”
“We don’t have time to explain, Soray. We have to go, now.” Vitalis started to pull Cyra along with him. “I’m so sorry.”
Soray’s face screwed up in anger as she realized they were leaving. Cyra turned her back to so she could keep up with Vitalis. Soray yelled after them, “Fine! Just stay away from me then! Leave me to a lifetime of unhappiness! Just remember it’s your fault what happens now!”
Her words cut Cyra to the core. Vitalis kept a firm grip on her, holding her up and steadying her as they ran. Cyra threw one last glance over her shoulder, and her heart broke, seeing Soray standing there in the hallway, alone, sobbing silently.
“Cyra, we have to focus. If we want to help her, we need proof,” Vitalis said, squeezing her hand.
Cyra nodded. “I know, I know, but I can’t help but feel this dark air, like, like the Ruins’ Tree.”
“Don’t think like that. If we can just stop what the cult has planned for tonight, find definitive proof against Ano, then we can help Soray. We can do this. It’ll be alright.” Vitalis reassured her.
Cyra pursed her lips and increased her pace, fighting the rising, dark, toxic feeling polluting her. She didn’t believe him, and it terrified her.