Mihrab came by twice a day, once before he went to meet Prince Vitalis and after he was done for the day. Cyra made it clear that she didn’t like that he was leaving Vitalis alone at night. Mihrab brushed her off, telling her there were guards in the hall. Cyra decided not to tell him it wasn’t someone getting in she was worried about; it was Vitalis getting out.
Cyra also asked him why Vitalis hadn’t come back to see her. The man had a tendency towards nervous breakdowns when she was injured. She expected to see him every once in a while with annoying questions about her health and recovery and even worse, offers to get her anything she needed. Mihrab brushed off that concern of hers as well. He said the prince was too busy.
Cyra supposed that made sense. Why wouldn’t he come see her unless he simply was too busy? Still something felt off about it. Either way, it stung. She had thought even if he was busy he would make sure she was okay. She’d always been under the impression he cared at least a little. Well, maybe more than a little.
Maybe there was something wrong with him. What if he wasn’t alright?
Mihrab insisted he was fine, just focusing on his work.
Cyra was worried, but she tried not to let it bother her too much. She would be alright soon and back at his side. She would figure out what was going on then.
Fortunately, the physician gave Cyra a clean bill of health after a week and a half. Cyra had listened to him and hadn’t pushed herself too hard, knowing it would only prolong her recovery. Her highest priority was getting back to Vitalis’ side.
What Cyra didn’t want to admit, even to herself, was how utterly terrified she was of losing feeling in her legs again. She never wanted to experience that fear, that pure helplessness ever again.
The second she was cleared, Cyra headed off to Captain Artunis’ office. With a quick knock, Cyra was told to enter.
Captain Artunis blinked in surprise, but her face softened with a smile. “Cyra, you’re back on your feet already?”
Cyra smirked. “I am. You can send someone to see the physician, but he’ll tell you the same. I’m ready to return to my post.”
Artunis frowned, shuffling a few papers. “I don’t have one for you yet, Mihrab assured me wouldn’t be back for another week.”
Cyra pinched her lips. That didn’t make any sense. “I mean to return to my old post as Prince Vitalis’ bodyguard.”
“I’m afraid that’s not what Prince Vitalis and Mihrab told me. Prince Vitalis told me you were released from him permanently so you could recover and take a less demanding post. He was quite clear that Mihrab would be his guard from now on.” Artunis set her papers down and stood. “They also assured me that they would tell you.”
Mihrab was going to be Vitalis’ guard?
He’d replaced her permanently?
That couldn’t be right.
Cyra murmured something to Captain Artunis before hurrying out the door.
She was going to get answers.
At first, she made her way through the palace slowly, working through the confusion clouding her head.
They’d been through so much. She’d thrown herself into the fire for him more times than she could count. She caused a rockfall and fell into a coma she didn’t think she’d wake from in order to make sure he escaped Ano.
Just what did he think he was doing throwing her aside?
Her pace increased as anger and hurt started clawing through her. He couldn’t do this.
She wouldn’t let him.
Prince Vitalis was in for a rude awakening if he thought he could get away with this.
She threw his door open, slamming it against the wall.
Vitalis’ head shot up from where he sat at his desk. His hands shook slightly, rattling the ink pot in his hand. His face turned a ghostly shade of white.
He was seeing someone he never expected to see again.
Her eyes flared as she slammed the door shut.
He dropped the ink. The glass shattered on the floor, spilling ink across the stone.
“Why is Captain Artunis telling me you made Mihrab your bodyguard, replacing me permanently?”
Vitalis covered his face with his hands, pulling at his hair. He swore in his native language. He switched back to Sardesi as he looked up, saying, “Because he is. You’re not my bodyguard anymore.”
“Why not?” Cyra stormed up to his desk, towering over him for once. “Explain it to me why after all the times I’ve taken your punches, endured all the talk about being your whore, nearly died several times for you, why are you throwing me aside?”
“It’s not like that.” Pain shot through his features. He bowed his head. “There’s nothing I can say. I’m not the one you need to speak to.”
“Try again!” Cyra hit the desk, forcing his eyes back to hers. He wasn’t saying something, and it was eating him alive. “I’m not talking to anyone else. I’m asking you.”
“I’ll need a few more words than that.” Cyra leaned across the desk.
Vitalis eyes shone with a new intensity she’d never seen in him before like a dam broke. Pain and anger were in his eyes now. Resentment marred his face.
“Mihrab made me swear not to see you ever again if I wanted his help to break you out of the coma. He was furious when he found out what had happened. He blames me, told me it was my fault you were in that coma, and he was right. Imagine how furious you would be with me if you were in his position. I dragged you into this. Mihrab and I agreed, seeing you lying there as if you were already dead, that you didn’t need to be involved further. Mihrab wasn’t exactly thrilled with those rumors about us either, just adding more to his very good list of reasons why I can’t be around you anymore, for your own sake.”
“What do you care what Mihrab thinks or wants? So what if he doesn’t like it? I knew what I was getting into. I knew those rumors would start, and I heard them long before you did, and it never bothered me. I knew this endeavor could kill me. It’s my decision to keep going, not yours, not Mihrab’s.” Cyra clenched her hands into fists. “Try again.”
Vitalis eyes flared again as more pain shone in the light. “How can I possibly ask you to fight that demon? You fell in love with him.”
“I fell in love with a lie. The man I loved was an illusion, an act. There was never a man, just a demon and his lies. He has to be stopped,” Cyra said. Her heart twisted. It still hurt; it would always hurt. “I agreed to be with you until the end, Vitalis. I’m not going to stand aside and watch. You’re not facing him without me.”
“You could die!” Vitalis shot out of his seat, looking down at her.
“If I die, it will be because it will ensure you won’t.” Cyra met his gaze and hardened her voice. “I’d die a thousand times so that you can live.”
Warmth flashed across his face, but as he read hers it faded. He turned away from her and rushed towards the window. His voice shook slightly. “You really need to stop saying things like that.”
“What? Why?” Cyra carefully moved around the desk.
There was a long breath. Vitalis stared up at the moon shining through the window.
“It’s killing me.”
Barely a whisper, but she heard it. She shifted slightly as Vitalis’ voice grew louder. “It’s killing me to hear you say those sort of things, to give me hope when… you keep saying them, and I just get the smallest hope that maybe, just maybe, but every time I look at you I know it’s not there. Please, please stop giving me hope when there is none.”
Cyra whispered back. “What are you talking about? What does this have to do with anything? Why don’t you want me to be your bodyguard anymore?”
“I can’t keep doing this.” Vitalis gripped the window sill. “I can’t keep watching you put yourself in harm’s way for me. You can’t die for me. I can’t let anything happen to you.”
“I’m just a bodyguard, Vitalis.” Cyra stepped closer. “That hasn’t changed. Why are you changing your perspective now?”
Vitalis’ head and shoulders dropped. A bitter laugh shook him. “Don’t make me say it, please, just don’t.”
“Say what?” Cyra’s voice rose. Her hand slammed against her side. Her patience was wearing thin as her frustration with how Vitalis’ had slid around the real conversation grew.
Vitalis spun around. Pain and passion, anger and frustration rolled off him. There were tears in his eyes.
Cyra regretted saying anything.
“I’m in love with you!”
Cyra backed away from him until she stumbled onto the sofa.
She can’t have heard that right.
That just wasn’t true. It couldn’t possibly be true.
“Cyra, I love you. I’ve loved for you so long now, and I can’t keep watching you try to die for me!”
Cyra looked at the floor. She didn’t want to see his face.
His appeared in front of her. Cyra’s breath caught in her throat. Slowly, Vitalis kneeled in front of her. He whispered, “I love you, and I can’t believe it took me so long to say it.”
Cyra shut her eyes so she couldn’t see the pain in his face. She couldn’t bear to catch a glimpse of the last flecks of hope in his eyes.
Most of all, Cyra couldn’t look at the face of a man who loved her.
She refused to let her mind ruin Vitalis by comparing it to all the looks Ano had given her.
A hand brushed hers. “Say something, anything.”
Her shoulders shook as she breathed out, “What could I possibly say?”
“Then look at me, zvezda moya.”
Cyra carefully opened her eyes as Vitalis held her hands.
Thinking on it for a moment, she realized it was actually incredibly obvious. She should have seen this coming, like so many other things. Cyra should have been smarter.
How could she not have noticed?
The answer was, of course, because she would have never even thought to look for it.
How could the Vialyan prince love her?
She was nothing compared to him. He was royalty, and she was a bodyguard. She was rude and disrespectful. She wasn’t beautiful or kind or pleasant, or anything.
All she had was the fact she was useful.
Vitalis deserved so much better than just useful.
However, that wasn’t the worst part, and they both knew it.
Cyra watched it in Vitalis’ face as the last speck of hope faded from his eyes, and his face turned to a pained resignation.
He bowed his head, resting it on Cyra’s knees. He shook slightly with another bitter laugh, “Mihrab called me out on it. He might have suspected for a while, but he knew when I insisted you stay in my room while you were in a coma. I wanted to keep an eye on you. I wanted to be the first to know when you woke up. The selfish part of me wanted to be the first face you saw when you did. I wanted to look after you since it was all my fault anyway.”
“I think Ano knew it too,” Cyra whispered, thinking back over how Ano and Vitalis had always been short with each other.
“Yes, well, his presence always did turn me into a jealous fool.” Vitalis pulled away, rising to his feet again. “You were too good for him, even if he had just been human.”
A sudden strangling terror gripped her heart. She shot to her feet, trying to breathe. Something was crushing her chest.
“I love you like I always have, like I always will.” Ano’s voice crooned in her ear.
Cyra blinked and for a moment Ano’s face appeared, taking the place of Vitalis’.
Cyra scratched at the necklace tightening around her throat. She shot to her feet, choking out, “I c—can’t—”
Cyra kept reaching for her throat as she stumbled out of the room. She shut the door behind her, and air eased into her lungs.
Vitalis called out from the other side, “Cyra, what’s wrong?”
“A—Air,” she coughed, rubbing her throat. She leaned against the door, resting the back of her head on the wood. “I just needed some air.”
She heard him shift and the door rattled slightly. He was pressing his forehead into the door. “Did you really have no clue as to how much I love you?”
Cyra shuddered. “In hindsight, I feel like an idiot for not realizing it. I mean there were moments, but the truth? It never occurred to me. I thought I had Ano’s love so I never looked for it anywhere else. I guess I assumed I was lucky enough just one person looked at me like that, trying to imagine another was beyond me.”
“You don’t give yourself enough credit.”
“I guess there’s a lot I was wrong about.” Cyra looked down to see her wrists shaking against the door.
“Well, it’s not like I was right about everything,” Vitalis laughed with a sad edge. There was a pause.
“You aren’t going to say it, are you?”
“Don’t make me say it, please, don’t.”
She heard his hands scrape over the wood.
“Then say the opposite.”
“Do you really want me to lie to you?” Cyra rolled her head. “Stop, it’ll only make this worse.”
“If you can’t tell me the truth, then lie. Lie, give me hope. Let me hear it just once. Protect me, please.”
“Vitalis, I will protect you from every other threat in this life, but I can’t protect you from myself.”
“Then I have no hope.”
Cyra took a deep breath and turned so her forehead was pressed against the door. He would make her say it. It would hurt, but it had to be done.
“I don’t love you.”
“Do you still love him?”
“I don’t even think I know what love is.” Cyra let out a half sob, shaking. She didn’t love him; she couldn’t. There was so much happening, so much pain and suffering. Cyra had no idea where to even begin dealing with the mess that was left of her after Ano and Soray. “I don’t even think I know how to love anyone.”
“Cyra, if you just give me—”
“No.” Cyra snapped, slamming her fist on the door. Those words terrified her. She couldn’t let him ask for a chance. If she heard those words… Cyra was so afraid she would say yes. She wanted to give him a chance, and that was the scariest thing of all, because she could love him. Cyra could fall in love with him, and that was too dangerous. She wasn’t in a good place to love him. She wasn’t good for him. They’d both end up getting hurt.
There was too much. His confession was too much on top of everything else they had to deal with it. Vitalis may not like it, but the best way to deal with these sort of things was to bury it.
The door opened slightly, and Vitalis’ hand found hers. She took another shuddering breath and said, “You can’t. Our priority has to be finishing what we started. Catching Ano is all that matters. If you let anything get in the way of that, my life included, I will never forgive you.”
“I swear on my life—”
“No. Not your life, never your life. If only one person walks away from this, it’ll be you, Vitalis.”
“I swear on my name as Vialya’s Crown Prince, we’ll find this demon and kill him.”
“And I’ll be your guard? By your side every step of the way?”
“I wouldn’t want you anywhere else.” Vitalis gently turned her to face him with a smile. “We will, however, have to get past Mihrab first.”
“He’s my brother, not my father, and you outrank him anyway. He can’t do anything to you.” Cyra let go of his hand. “If you want me to be your bodyguard, he can’t stop you.”
Vitalis smiled. “Easy for you to say. You brother is terrifying.”
“Not to me he’s not.” Cyra hesitantly returned the smile. “I can take him even in my sleep.”
* * *
Cyra broke it to him the next day when he came to her room.
Mihrab had yelled and paced. He had lectured and glared.
Cyra just stood there and took it.
Was it really a wonder she never told him about Ano?
Once he had fallen silent, fuming and catching his breath. Cyra crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow. She asked, “Are you done?”
“Will you stay away from Vitalis?”
“Vitalis chose me over you in the beginning, and he’ll choose me now. I’m here to see this through to the end. Neither of us asked for or need your approval,” Cyra said coldly.
“You know he—”
“I do,” Cyra said. Her tone was even and calm. She found it easier to just accept what had happened last night and move on. It only had to be a big deal if she let it. She was good at burying things, people and emotions. Vitalis could learn to as well.
Mihrab’s eyes flashed and narrowed. “And you—”
“I do not. Nothing has changed. Vitalis and I will continue on as we were with or without you.”
Mihrab stared at her in amazement. “You two make an odd pair.”
Cyra shrugged and headed towards the door. “I suppose we do.”