Mihrab had no choice but to accept Cyra would be guarding Vitalis as well. Things had been… odd at first. Mihrab had been clearly displeased all day. Vitalis was trying to find his footing again with Cyra. He just wasn’t sure what he could say anymore now that she knew the truth. How were supposed to act around the woman you loved who didn’t love you back?
Cyra didn’t know, which is exactly why she acted just as she did before everything had happened.
She didn’t love him, but she couldn’t deny that she cared about him. He was her friend; she didn’t want to lose him.
She just wanted him to be comfortable with her again.
Everything else would wait until after Ano.
It was much easier to bury everything and focus on their work. Emotions, feelings, love… it was too much on top of everything else.
Cyra was still trying to wrap her mind around the fact all of her memories of Ano were lies. Her dreams at night were getting darker. They were sick and twisted.
She would watch someone with her face do awful things. Most mornings the memories would fade, but some nightmares stayed.
Cyra tried to bury those too.
Vitalis was scratching out something on paper as Cyra flicked through an old book that talked about the Banishment War. Mihrab stood at the window, watching the two of them.
Cyra’s eyes had begun to glaze over when there was a knock at the door.
“Enter,” Vitalis said, looking up from his papers. He pushed his hair back as one of the younger servants stepped into the room.
“The shah has sent me. He requests your presence as soon as possible.” The young boy bowed. “I’m to lead you to him when you’re ready, sire.”
Vitalis shot Cyra a glance. She heard him. He was asking her what the shah wanted. Cyra shrugged as she put the book down. She had no idea.
Mihrab pushed off the wall.
“Lead us there.” Vitalis stood up, gesturing to the door.
The boy nodded and bowed. Vitalis moved towards the door. Cyra climbed to her feet, sticking to Vitalis’ side. Mihrab trailed after them. Cyra shot him a questioning look. He simply shook his head, but Cyra could tell he had a few ideas about what was happening.
Cyra pursed her lips and turned to Vitalis. She kept an eye on him for a moment, observing. His fingers were twitching, and his eyes landed everywhere except her.
She shifted away from him slightly. He still needed space. Cyra fell back a few steps, letting him take the lead.
It was a long, quiet walk before the servants opened the doors to the throne room. The three of them walked in, but to Cyra’s surprise the shah wasn’t the only one there. He sat on his throne with his wife sat beside him.
She was a pretty little thing. She’d been young when the shah married her, and she was still young even after having her children.
Soray hadn’t been very close to her, but Soray had made an effort to be close to her much younger siblings.
Her half-brother stood at his mother’s side, only seven and holding the hand of his five year old sister. They were both dressed in mourning clothes and had red-rimmed eyes. One look at them told Cyra they understood exactly what had happened.
The toddler in the Shahbanu’s lap was also dressed in her little mourning clothes, but her head was twisting around and her legs kicking. She did not understand.
The shah’s advisors stood off to the side, only two or three. Cyra recognized them; they were the ones the shah trusted more than anyone else.
Vitalis stood before the shah, inclining his head. He bowed only slightly, showing respect without implying himself as inferior or subservient to the shah.
The little toddler shot out of her mother’s lap. She ran across the room as fast as her little legs could.
Cyra was frozen. Her feet were rooted to the ground as the toddler wrapped her arms around Cyra’s legs. The little girl squealed happily, “Soray!”
Cyra stared at the shah with wide eyes. His wife had paled, gripping her throne tightly. The shah just stared back at her, like he too was seeing someone else in her place.
Mihrab was moving towards her when the little girl tugged at Cyra’s leg. Cyra looked down into her wide, hopeful eyes. “Up?”
Before she even knew it, she had swept the little girl up into her arms. The girl wrapped her little arms around Cyra and buried her head in Cyra’s hair. She made a content sigh and said, “Missed you, Soray.”
Cyra hummed as she held her. Her legs were shaking, and hurt had begun tearing at her heart again. She’d been doing as alright as she possibly could have. She’d been ignoring it, not thinking about it. Anytime her brain started to stray that way, started to move in the direction that Cyra should have been the body left behind, Vitalis’ words would echo in her head. Don’t you dare. Don’t even think it. So she didn’t, or well, she tried not to think about Soray at all then because she couldn’t think her name without feeling guilt started to claw at her throat.
She tried at least, but she couldn’t really stop the pain. No matter what Cyra did, no matter what happened next and in the rest of her life, she would miss Soray.
It was strange.
Vitalis was supposed to be the temporary one. He was going to leave Sardes, and Cyra would return to Soray’s side.
But it had all gone wrong.
“I never saw it before, but you look a lot like her,” the shah said quietly, watching Cyra hold his daughter.
“She was beautiful, your highness,” Cyra said, shaking her head. She didn’t look anything like her beautiful cousin. The poor toddler was just confused and missing her big sister.
Cyra made for a poor substitute.
She chose the wrong moment to look at Vitalis. He was staring at her. Awe flitted through his eyes. A soft smile played on his lips. He had the look of a man from the desert seeing a river for the first time.
Warmth flooded through her, conflicting with the lingering aches left in her heart.
“She was, but I didn’t summon you three here to try and talk about that.” The shah shifted his gaze to Vitalis. Vitalis reluctantly pulled his eyes away from Cyra and faced the shah. All the amazement, warmth, and maybe even love in his gaze had been wiped away. “I called you here so that we can discuss how to best handle this new situation.”
There was something odd in the shah’s voice, a darker edge than he really should be using when speaking to a foreign prince. Cyra could tell Vitalis had picked up on it as well. He eyed the shah. “What do you have in mind?”
“For you, Prince Vitalis? Nothing. Your work is done. I just wanted to thank you for what you’ve done for me and my people.” The shah stared down at Vitalis, but his voice was too cold for anyone to believe he was actually grateful.
“My work isn’t done.” Vitalis squared his shoulders. “There’s a demon loose in your land, and the cult you asked me to stop is still out there!”
“I asked you to secretly investigate them. I never thought you would try and rush headfirst into danger. I expected Vialya’s only heir to value his own life more.” The shah gave Cyra a cold, piercing stare. She stepped back, tightening her hold on the little girl who was completely oblivious to everything around her. “I expected one of my best guards to protect you better. I expected the woman I trusted my daughter to wouldn’t let you do something like that.”
“Leave Cyra out of this!” Anger flared in Vitalis’ eyes. “Cyra ran headfirst, poisoned and weakened, into a group of those cult members, pushing past them in an attempt to save Soray’s life! She caused a rockfall and went into a coma to make sure I came out of there alive!”
His words sent sharp pangs through her as she recalled that horrific night. The little girl whimpered at the yelling and gripped Cyra tighter.
“You should have never gone. You should have reported it to me, and I would have sent people who were qualified to stop them.” The shah moved his gaze back to the prince.
“There wasn’t time,” Vitalis argued. “That demon is still out there, and we’re running out of time again! You can’t expect me not to be involved. I came here to see this through to the end.”
“You should go home. Go back to Vialya. Go back to your mother, your people.”
Vitalis…would he really leave?
It was a fact, Cyra knew that. Vitalis would leave; he would go back to Vialya. It was as certain as the sun rising and falling.
However, just because Cyra knew it didn’t mean she realized it. Just because the sun would rise and fall didn’t mean Cyra would see it. The night was so long sometimes.
“No.” Vitalis shook his head. “No. I won’t leave until this threat is finished.”
“This is my country, not yours. It’s my decision. I decide when you are a guest or when you are an intruder.” The shah rose from his throne.
“That’s not an advisable stance.” Vitalis stood his ground. “Call me an intruder and send me back to Vialya, you lose us as an ally. Nothing would bind our countries together.”
The shah’s eyes flared. “You wouldn’t dare.”
Vitalis narrowed his eyes. “I haven’t signed our treaty, and I won’t, not until the demon and cult are gone.”
The two men fell silent, at a stalemate. Cyra was deathly still as the child shifted, getting comfortable. Mihrab watched the scene with bated breath.
“You can’t leave the palace, not until you’re leaving for Vialya. I can’t have your death on my conscience or on my soil. The Iron Queen would bring war on us before your body was cold in the ground,” the shah said.
Vitalis glanced at Cyra quickly. She gave him a tight nod. Vitalis turned back to the shah. He said, “If you won’t let me continue, who will go after the demon?”
“Mihrab,” the shah said, turning to Cyra’s brother. Mihrab dropped to one knee. “I am giving you this investigation. I am tasking you with hunting down this demon and breaking up this cult. Prince Vitalis will share with you the information he has. You can have any of the guards to take with you as you hunt them down, any, except for Cyra.”
Cyra nearly dropped the girl, but quickly steadied her as she gaped at the shah.
The shah gave her a cold, dark look. “Cyra, you will stay as Prince Vitalis’ bodyguard. This time, however, I expect you will take his safety more seriously. If anything happens to him, you’ll be the one to pay the price.”
Cyra nodded stoically. Nothing would happen to Vitalis. She wouldn’t let it, couldn’t let anything happen to him.
Even if the shah wasn’t commanding it, even if Vitalis had never asked her to, Cyra would still put his life before her own. Vitalis’ life mattered more to her than anything else.
“Nothing will happen to Prince Vitalis. I swear on my life,” Cyra said, bowing slightly, being careful not to jostle the girl too much.
“I’ll hold you to that.” The shah waved his hand at Vitalis. “Prince Vitalis, Cyra, you two may go. Mihrab, stay so we can discuss the details of your task.”
Cyra carefully walked up towards the shah and the shahbanu. Cyra silently passed the girl back to her mother. Fortunately, the little girl has fallen asleep, making it eaiser.”
“Thank you,” the shahbanu whispered softly.
Cyra only nodded and began to walk away. As she made her way back to Vitalis, she heard the five year old girl asked, “Mother, that wasn’t Soray. Who was she? Why does she look like her?”
Cyra didn’t bother stopping to listen to the answer. She didn’t care how the shah’s wife would describe her.
She wasn’t Soray; that was all they cared about.
Vitalis waited until she was at his side before starting to leave. He stuck to her side, not letting her fall back. Vitalis didn’t show any emotion, but Cyra knew he was hiding a storm inside.
It wasn’t until they were gone and heading back to his room did his anger start to take over his face.
“You said you wanted to be by my side. You said catching the demon is our priority. Are you still with me?” Vitalis asked, staring at her with a burning intensity.
“Of course.” Cyra matched his gaze. “We’re still going after him, right?”
* * *
Vitalis’ mood had hardly improved by the time Mihrab came to his door, saying the shah sent him to take Vitalis’ notes.
There had been a few moments where he had simply glared at Cyra’s brother. She worried Vitalis would try and send Mihrab away, causing more trouble with the shah. However, he did, eventually, sigh and step aside so Mihrab could come inside.
“You know what I’m here for. I need all the information you can give me.” Mihrab looked at the papers sitting on the desk. “We all want the same thing, please, don’t be difficult.”
“Why do you assume we’d be difficult?” Cyra asked, picking up the papers.
“Because I know you, Cyra.” Mihrab walked up to her. “I know you both want to try and handle this, but just remember what happened last time. You’ll both be better off in the palace, safe.”
“Maybe,” Cyra hummed, shuffling the papers together. “But we know he won’t stay away from the palace. He’ll be back. Do you really want to go after him without me?”
“Considering the last time you tried you ended up in a coma?” Mihrab said, shooting Vitalis a glare. “Yes, I want you to stay far away from this.”
Mihrab started for the door. He gave Vitalis another dark look. “The shah may have threatened her over your life, but if you drag her into anymore stupidly dangerous situations, if I see so much as another black eye or scratch or anything, I’m the one you have to answer to.”
He left, and with a quick glance at Vitalis, Cyra followed her brother into the hallway. She shut the door behind her. “What happened wasn’t his fault. It’s not fair to make him responsible for me.”
“This cult investigation should have gone to me in the beginning. Vitalis should have gone to me for help from the beginning. He went to you, and he gave you no choice but to join him.” Mihrab clenched his fists, wrinkling the papers in his hands. “He’s the one who decided to go after the demon himself rather than go back to the palace. His call, his fault.”
“It was my choice to help him. That’s on me. Vitalis asked me, not you, because of my magic. It’s useful. I brought him to the cavern because we were out of time.” Cyra crossed her arms.
“Well, it’s out of your hands now. I’ll handle it before anyone else gets hurt. That demon’s not getting back in this palace.” Mihrab reached down, and his fingers brushed his sword’s hilt.
“Don’t be over confident. Ano… he’s not what I ever expected a demon to be like.” Cyra warned him.
“You loved him,” Mihrab said sharply. Her eyes widened. How did he know?
“I forced it out of the prince, just another thing you kept from me. More importantly, are you alright?”
“I’m as good as I can be. I just can’t believe I let him trick me like that.” Cyra shook her head. She’d been so stupid. “I actually believed he loved me.”
“Do you and Vitalis talk about it?” Mihrab asked. “You might be able to deal with it better, talking to him, since you never wanted me to know.”
Cyra shook her head. “No, we talked about it a little, vaguely, but it’s not an easy topic, not for me, not with anyone.”
“I’m sorry.” Mihrab reached out for her shoulder. “I’m sorry you feared my reaction. I’m sorry I wasn’t there.”
“I didn’t exactly let you try,” Cyra said, leaning into him slightly.
“I haven’t been the brother to you I should be,” Mihrab said, looking down.
“I haven’t exactly been the sister I should be either.” Cyra admitted softly.
“Well, we can fix that.” Mihrab looked up with a small smile. Cyra pulled him into a hug. He said, “This’ll able be over soon. We’ll be okay. Once this is over, we can start to fix this. We’re all we’ve got left.”
“You’ll be the only one I have when the dust settles,” Cyra said into his shoulder. Pain gripped her heart. She ached for everyone she had lost from her legend of a father, to her brave sister, to her sick mother, to her kind cousin, and ending with the man she knew she would lose. She shuddered. Soray was gone, and her…friend? Was that really the right word for him? He was… who was he to her?
Someone she would lose. He was Prince Vitalis of Vialya, and she would lose him.
“Family is forever,” Mihrab said. He squeezed her shoulder. “I don’t mean to be so hard on you or the prince. I just can’t imagine what I would have done if you hadn’t woken up. I don’t know how I would live if I lost you too. If both my little sisters died and all I had done was just watch.”
“That goes for me too. You be careful out there. I’m tired of losing people.” Cyra closed her eyes. She was tired. Ano had been right about that at least, back in that cavern. She was just so exhausted.
“You won’t lose me.” Mihrab pulled away. “You just stay safe here, alright?”
Mihrab’s worried expression softened. “Good, remember, I love you, little sister.”
“I love you too, Mihrab.” Cyra smiled as he started to walk away. She called out after them. “I hope your Vialyan is still good!”
Mihrab stopped, looking down at the pages, but Cyra didn’t stick around to see his reaction. She ducked back inside, hearing him mutter several curses as he realized Vitalis wrote the notes in Vialyan not Sardesi.
She chuckled as she shut the door.
Vitalis was leaning against his desk. “Back when all this was starting, he was the one who liked me, and you hated me.”
“A lot happened to change that.” Cyra shrugged. “I wouldn’t worry about him. He’ll leave you alone. He’ll be too busy chasing Ano.”
“He doesn’t suspect anything, does he?” Vitalis asked.
“Not really, no more than he should knowing us.” Cyra grinned. “I’ll ask his forgiveness later.”
Vitalis unlocked a drawer in the desk. “Do you really think he’ll be slowed down enough? His Vialyan’s better than yours.”
“His conversational is better, but that doesn’t mean he can read it well. He’s also out of practice. It’ll take him some time to make sense of your notes.” Cyra watched Vitalis pull out a stack of papers.
“At least we managed to make copies,” Vitalis muttered, reading his own writing. “We just have to stay ahead of him.”
“If Mihrab or anyone else catches onto the fact we’re chasing Ano, it’s over,” Cyra said, feeling the weight press down onto her.
“The shah will push me to leave, maybe mess with the treaty, but what will he do to you?” Vitalis looked up. Fear slowly worked it’s way through his eyes.
“Who knows?” Cyra asked; she knew. Vitalis didn’t need to though. “It’ll probably be a slap on the wrist, nothing major.”
She held her breath as he stared her down. Vitalis had always been scarily perceptive. Cyra prayed this would be the one time he didn’t see through her lie.
“I won’t make you. I don’t want you to pay the price for us continuing to hunt this demon down.”
“I need to see this through,” Cyra hardened her gaze. “I won’t stand aside. I have to face him.”
“Alright,” Vitalis said quietly, “we better get to work.”
Cyra nodded. She moved to his shoulder, and they both threw themselves into their investigation.
They’d find him one way or another.
She’d find him.