The second the door shut, Cyra went completely limp. She fell into Vitalis as tears pricked her eyes again. Vitalis pulled her, facing her to him. He let her head fall to his shoulder.
He began rubbing circles into her shoulders as she shook. Cyra didn’t sob or bawl. It was just a soft, quiet cry. It was a broken cry born of the cold weight from the knowledge she would never be the same. She was mourning for the life Ano had taken from her.
The tears fell until Cyra was certain she had cried out all the water in her. Her shoulders stilled. A minute later, he breath evened out.
“What do I do now?” Cyra turned her head to look up at Vitalis. He twisted so he was facing her, but she was still leaning into his shoulder. His fingers idly rubbed her arms. Cyra whispered, “Where do I go from here?”
“No one can answer that except for you,” Vitais said. He stared at her with a kindness and warmth Cyra had only seen in him. “Things are different, you are different, but you are still the only one that can decide your future.”
“I’ve never decided my future, not really.” Cyra absentmindedly reached towards her knees where the feeling faded. She swore she could feel pricks and aches of pain in her ankles, but she knew that was all in her head. “When I joined the guard, it had been Mihrab’s choice at first, and I followed. I was young; he and Soray were all I had, and Soray, sweet as she was, was above me. The guard was the only option I thought I had. Then, protecting Soray became my life. I was always supposed to protect her until it took my life. I wasn’t supposed to outlive her. Ever since she died, I’ve been living a life I’m not sure I should have.”
“That’s the woman I met in Vialya, but that’s not who you are now.” Vitalis ran his hand down to her elbow, causing her hands to still. “Neither of us are who we were in Vialya. I’m not the same. You’re not the same, Cyra, and that’s alright. It’s alright to go a different direction in life than you thought you would.”
“Vitalis, once I started to cope with Soray’s death, and what that meant, protecting you and stopping the demon was all I could focus on. I knew that you would leave, and it would go back to me and Mihrab working in the guard. Without him…” Cyra’s voice broke. “Without my legs… I can’t even do that. I don’t know who I am if I’m not a warrior, a guard, a protector. If I can’t protect people, protect you…”
“You’re so much more than just a bodyguard, Cyra. It kills me that you only see yourself as that.” Vitalis brushed her hair out of her face, forcing her to look at him. “I know it’s a lot to take in at once, this and Mihrab. I just want you to know that I’m not leaving Sardes for a little while. It’s going to be few more weeks until an escort from Vialya will arrive. I want to help you through this.”
“Thank you,” Cyra sighed. She couldn’t explain it, not to Vitalis who had always been smart and active. Losing her legs… she lost her strength everything she had ever built for herself in her life. It was just gone. Her mind was still chaotic and lost, but she had Vitalis, at least for a little while. “For as long as I still have you, I appreciate it.”
“For as long as you’ll have me,” Vitalis said with a pained smile. He adjusted his position slightly. His eyes shone as he asked, “Have I told you about the time I snuck out of the castle on the last night of the Sunset Festival?”
* * *
“And what exactly is that?” Cyra asked, wrinkling her nose at the odd thing Vitalis had just wheeled into her room.
The nurse that had held the door open said, “It’s a chair with wheels. We’ve had a carpenter working on it ever since we knew you had lost feeling in your legs. It’ll help you move around easier without having someone carry you. Prince Vitalis found a few sketches and plans for one in the archives in the library.”
Cyra gaped at him for a moment. That had been what he was up to? Vitalis had been visiting her, but he’d often been distracted or distant. His visits were filled with him telling stories about his childhood in Vialya, but he never said anything of substance. Cyra had been a little worried, but now she hoped all of that had just stemmed from him keeping the work on the chair a secret.
Vitalis turned the chair so the seat faced her bedside. He shook his head. “I didn’t do much. I just remembered reading about an uncle or great uncle of the shah’s who had one made for himself in his later years. Finding the sketches was easy after that.”
Cyra glanced down at the chair. It was a strange looking thing, and she didn’t like it.
“Do you want to give it a try?” Vitalis asked. “You’ve been stuck in that bed for a week and a half. You could use some air.”
There was such a small spark of hope in his eyes, and that was the only reason Cyra nodded.
Vitalis immediately adjusted the chair and reached for her arm. Cyra reached for the arms of the chair as Vitalis slid his arm around her back as he held the chair steady with his other hand. Cyra grunted, struggling to lift her weight up with just her arms. In the corner of her eye, she saw her legs tangle together. The nurse quickly straightened them out as Cyra twisted, finally able to shift herself into the seat.
Cyra huffed, leaning into the back of her chair. Her arms were sore just from that. Cyra supposed some of that was from the fact she had been bed ridden for so long. She’d have to talk to the nurse or physician if there was anything she could do about it. Her legs she couldn’t change, but she’d be damned if she let the rest of her end up useless as well.
“You alright?” Vitalis asked, hovering around the back of the chair.
“I’m fine, it was just weird,” Cyra muttered, running her hands over the arms of the chair.
“It’ll get easier the more you do it,” Vitalis assured her.
Cyra swallowed and nodded. Vitalis and the nurse explained how the chair was supposed to work. The huge, ugly wheels were purposefully made so tall that Cyra could push them and roll herself around.
Vitalis rolled her around the room so she could adjust to the feeling. It was uncomfortable at first, sort of like riding in carriage. Cyra had never liked carriages, always preferring to ride her own horse.
After a few minutes, Cyra tried wheeling herself around the room, but it wasn’t easy. The wheels were bulky, and if she wanted to turn it ever slightly, it required a lot of effort.
She hissed and muttered curses under breath as she fought with the chair. Her frustration only made things harder for herself, but knowing that only made her angrier with herself and the stupid chair.
“It’s alright. You’ll get it,” Vitalis said, taking her hands off the wheels. “How about I take you out of here for a bit, just to take a breath and get a change of pace?”
“Sure, anywhere that’s not here,” Cyra sighed, sinking into the chair.
“Just be careful, and if she gets tired, just bring her back.” The nurse opened the door for them.
“Yes, ma’am,” Vitalis said as he wheeled Cyra out of the room.
As he pushed her down the hall, Cyra hesitantly asked, “How far away is your escort home. I’m sure your mother is eager to have you back.”
“I’d say they probably left last week. I wouldn’t expect them to be here for another two or three weeks. I’m enjoying Sardes while I can,” Vitalis said, keeping his pace slow.
Every day that Vitalis visited her, Cyra remembered the promise she had made to herself in the desert. She tried to work up the courage to tell him. She wanted to tell him. He deserved to know just how much he was loved, but her voice failed her every single time. Fear closed her throat and her heart sunk at the idea the knowledge would only cause more pain for both of them.
Vitalis was leaving, and she had known that from the start. He would leave her, and yet they had both been foolish enough to fall in love regardless. Vitalis would hurt more knowing she loved him as he was leaving. Cyra didn’t want to hurt him anymore than she’d already had. She would suffer in silence, watching him go rather than place a burden on his shoulders.
“I’m sure you’ll be happy to head home. You’re the Vialyan prince, as much as you like Sardes, it’s not your home.” Cyra folded her hands into her lap.
“Do you think of Sardes as your home?” Vitalis asked, coming to a stop. He moved in front of her so she could see him.
The answer should have been yes. Of course, Sardes was her home. But… that wasn’t right. When she’d been little, home had always been sister’s laugh and her mother’s touch. When she’d gotten older, tougher, colder, home had become Soray’s smile and her love of life. Home had become Mihrab’s caring, but stern looks, and the rare moments they both let down their walls for each other. What was home without them?
At her silence, Vitalis knelt so he could look her in the eyes as she sat. “Cyra, I know you love to interrupt me, but just let me say what I need to say.”
Cyra bit her tongue. Was this an early goodbye? It had to happen she supposed, but she always thought of Vitalis as one who would fight it. Maybe he was trying to save himself some heartache, getting it off his chest. Cyra understood. It didn’t matter how much she loved him, how much he loved her. They had to be practical. He was a prince who had to go home. She was a bastard’s daughter. She wasn’t even a bodyguard anymore. She was just crippled.
“You didn’t say anything when I asked if Sardes was your home. So, I guess I have another question.” Vitalis shifted so he was on one knee. “Will you marry me?”
Cyra’s mind froze. She must have heard him wrong. He couldn’t possibly… They couldn’t get married. He was out of his mind. The heir to the Vialyan throne couldn’t marry her. He deserved a princess.
Cyra couldn’t let him do this. She loved him too much to let him do this.
“Vitalis, you can’t—”
“I love you. I’m asking you to marry me because I love you and the thought of going back to Vialya without you… the thought of never seeing you again… I can’t bear it.” Vitalis took her hand and ran his fingers over hers. “I want you to come with me. I want you to marry me… and I know you don’t love me, you’re not in love with me. I don’t care about that. I just…”
Vitalis took a deep breath. “Throughout all of this… you have been so focused on protecting everyone, focused on taking care of me. I want to take care of you. I know it’s not the same. It’s not the same as marrying for love, but I love you. Even if you never love me the same way, at least you’ll be loved and cared for and protected. I want to give that to you.”
Awe filled her at his words.
“You’re asking me to marry you even if it means you’ll never have someone love you like you love me?”
“Yes, because you matter more to me than any other hypothetical person. I love you, and I want you in my life,” Vitalis said.
He was afraid; Cyra saw it in his eyes. He was remembering the last time he had put himself out there and how poorly it had ended for him. Yet, there he was doing it again.
“Vitalis, you…” Cyra gaped at him. She wanted to say yes. Cyra wanted nothing more than to marry Vitalis, to tell him how much she loved him. It would be so easy, but someone had to be practical. Fear wrapped around her heart. She had to see herself for who she was and for who Vitalis was. “You’re a prince, and no matter how much you love me, how much I… what would your people think if you brought home a crippled, Sardesi nobody and proclaim her their future queen? I would never be accepted as your wife, a princess, a future queen. Your people, your court, your mother would never accept me. And even if by some miracle the did, I can’t rule! I’m a bodyguard— was a bodyguard. I don’t know the first thing about how to be a ruler!”
Vitalis moved up slightly, holding her shoulders. “My people will love you, my court will love you. You’re strong and smart. You know better than most nobility how to manage court, when to ignore them, how to put up with them. You saved my life so many times, my people could never hate anyone who has shown such selflessness and loyalty. And, my mother, she was never meant to be queen either. She wasn’t raised to rule. Do you really think so little of yourself, of me and my people?”
“I think the world of you, but don’t see me for what I am not. I’m not Soray. You’ll only hurt yourself if you marry me.” Cyra grabbed the wheels of her chair and rolled back slightly. “No matter what you say, I’m not Vialyan, and I’m not even royalty. Your country could never respect you or a marriage if it has me in it. Other countries won’t respect you either. The shah won’t respect you.”
“My country respects and reveres a woman who was used to be their end. Mari had no right to rule. There wasn’t a drop of Vialyan blood in her. Demons wore her face, and her hands were forced to cause the suffering of my people. Now, we see her as a hero. She was a foreign ‘nobody,’ and maybe if it had happened in Sardes, things would be different. But, in Vialya, she was our queen. My people had no idea what was truly going on in the castle, all they had was my mother’s word that Mari was more than what she seemed. That she was worthy of the title of queen. Don’t you see? You are just as worthy of the title, and anyone who doesn’t think so doesn’t understand what makes a Vialyan queen.”
“Why won’t you listen to reason?” Cyra shouted. Frustrated tears pricked her eyes. Why did he have to make this so much harder than it had to be?
“Because the ‘reason’ that you keep insisting on is ridiculous! Don’t you know me better than that? Do you really think me so selfish, so foolish as to ask you to enter a marriage where you would face constant ridicule and slander? Do you really think I would subject you to the same kind of awful rumors the Sardesi court has spread about you? Do you think me so bad a ruler that I would put my wants and desires over what is best for my country? I have been thinking about this ever since I realized I loved you. I have looked at this from every angle, and I am convinced, entirely through your own actions and person that there is no one else who could be a better fit as Vialya’s future queen.” Vitalis’ voice rose slightly as hurt and frustration shone on his face. He rose slightly, following her as her chair rolled. He caught the chair arms, stopping her from backing away.
Cyra had no choice but to look him in the eyes as he said, “I’m not trying to force you into this. I would never try to force you to do anything. But, I’m not convinced. You’re hiding something; I can see it on your face.”
Cyra forced her hands to still and flatten against her legs.
“If you tell me the truth, and the truth is you don’t want to marry me… I’ll drop it. But all you have been saying is how I can’t marry you because of everyone else. Just tell me you don’t want to marry me because of you, because you don’t love me, and you won’t marry for anything else.”
“I can’t tell you that,” Cyra said softly, shutting her eyes. His hand brushed her cheek, and she leaned into him. She took a deep breath and whispered, “I love you, Vitalis.”
His hand shook against her skin. She could hear his breath speed up.
“I want to believe that.”
Cyra opened her eyes to see Vitalis had taken a step back. She frowned as fear crawled up her arms. “You want to, but you don’t.”
“I want to believe that you love me, and you’ll agree to marry me and come home with me because you love me, but I don’t believe that. For so long, I struggled with this incessant belief, this hope that if I stayed by your side, helped you, was your friend, you would see me in the same light I see you, but for so long I looked at you, trying to find any sign of love in your eyes. I looked and I looked, and every time I didn’t see it, it broke my heart all over again, and that hope wavered. But then, you would say something, you’d glance my way, and I’d have hope again.” Vitalis kept his gaze lowered. His hands were curled into fists, but they still shook. “And it hurt, it’s as simple as that, and I never blamed you or held it against you, but it was a terrible thing for my heart to be constantly beat down like that. But, there was one moment, one moment when I finally saw it, when I was so sure you finally loved me, but… I was wrong. I imagined it, and I realized I should stop looking. I don’t believe you love me like you think you do.”
“You didn’t imagine it, Vitalis!” Cyra rolled herself forward.
“I did. I told you what you meant to me, zvezda moya. Part of me thought I was dreaming in that moment, and maybe I was. But the strange thing was, even in all my dreams where you finally did love me, you never looked at me like you did that night. It was so close to how you once looked at the demon, except this time you had a light in you that was never present with him,” Vitalis sighed, looking upwards. “I was so sure, but then I woke up. I woke up, and you were gone. I didn’t know what to think. The only thing I could think was that I was wrong. I just saw what I wanted to see. You couldn’t love me and have left me in the desert, alone, to go on a suicide mission.”
He shook his head. “When I caught up to you… I thought Ano must have kidnapped you, or coerced you, or something, but the way you were in the ruins… I realize it was Ano possessing you, but at the time I was so lost and confused.”
“I don’t remember the ruins, Vitalis.” Cyra rolled forward and her limp legs bumped into his.
“The demon trapped me in the ruins by causing a rockfall at the steps as the storm started. His petty revenge I suppose for the rockfall you caused. I was trapped underneath it. Water was flooding in. I thought I was going to die and part of me thought that might be better. It would have been easier to just lay there and die because I didn’t see the point anymore in fighting for someone would never fight for me. When I finally though you loved me as much as I love you, you abandoned me for whatever it was that drove you to him. It was… overwhelming, that final realization you could never love me the way I will always love you.” His voice shook with a pain he had been hiding for so long.
“You gave up, and now, you won’t believe me,” Cyra spoke quietly.
Vitalis nodded, taking deep breaths to steady himself.
“I gave up too.”
“You what?” Vitalis’ eyes shot to her face.
Cyra smiled sadly. “I’ll tell you my story once you finish yours. So, you gave up, what changed your mind?”
“A few things really. There was part of the story about Mari Annette that was always my favorite, my favorite part other than Mari and Dainan falling in love. My mother always loved to tell me how the demons first tried to channel their power through Mari, but they did too much. That amount of power should have killed her, and it almost did. She was almost dead, and in so much pain. She was nearly paralyzed from it. Mari didn’t give up though. She forced herself to her feet and start walking back to the castle. No one was going to come for her. If she wanted to live, she had to do it herself. Every step was agony for her, but she didn’t fall. She told my mother she knew she wouldn’t have gotten back up if she did. I remembered that as the water was filling up the room. I remembered that even though it nearly killed her, Mari didn’t give up. No one was going to come for me. There was no help coming my way.”
Cyra took his hand in hers, giving him a reassuring squeeze. He said, “I couldn’t give up then. Hope was planted in my mind. Maybe I was missing a piece of the puzzle. I just had to get out and find you. I couldn’t give up on you.”
She smiled at that, but he kept his gaze lowered slightly. “On my way to the palace, I convinced myself, again, that you didn’t leave me voluntarily. I just had to save you like you always saved me. In the throne room, I realized you were possessed, but then, in your mind, after I was thrown into the abyss, you found me and saved me, again, like always. I had hope, but that doubt from earlier came back, and I had to know if you chose to leave me, and you said that you left me alone in the desert before the demon possessed you. You can’t love me and leave me.”
Cyra pulled at his hand, causing him to kneel so she could look him in the eye. “There’s something I didn’t tell you, at first because I was terrified and because I didn’t think you would believe me. I barely believe it myself. Do you remember when the demon was trying to pull me into the dreamworld after I had come back from his mind?”
“The night I kissed you.”
Heat rushed to her cheeks, and she nodded. “Sometime in between the demon trying to pull me under and when we stopped kissing, the demon had enough control over me that when I opened my eyes, I saw my own hand raising my dagger to your heart. I had no idea what was happening to me, all I knew was that you weren’t safe with me, and the demon was coming. When we were in the desert, the demon got into my head again, and I dreamed that I had killed you. The demon forced me to watch myself kill you. I knew you couldn’t be near me or else I’d hurt you. The safest place for you was far away from me. I had to leave you, Vitalis, because I love you. I thought I could kill the demon and make it up to you or die trying. I never realized how much pain I had actually been causing, and I’m sorry.”
Vitalis was silent for a moment. His face was unreadable. Cyra let him process her explanation. She’d hurt him, unintentionally, but she’d hurt him nonetheless. It amazed her that even though he’d been hurt, convinced she’d never love him, he still asked her to marry him for her sake, not for his own. He asked her to marry him, expecting nothing, not even her love in return. He was willing to spend every day with the woman who tore his heart apart with each breath she took. He was willing to condemn himself to a marriage where he would never be loved just so he could love her.
“Was that when you gave up?”
“No,” Cyra rubbed her thumb over his knuckles. “I gave up when I saw you fall into the abyss, when I had been sure you were dead. I was ready for the demon to kill me until Soray made me realize what an idiot I was. She gave me hope that somehow, I could find you. If there was even the slightest chance I could find you, I had to. There was no other option. I would rather have died trying to get you back than face the world without you.”
His eyes shone with hope, and Cyra thought that was her favorite look on him. He pressed a kiss to her hand before looking up at her. Love and hope rolled off of him as he said, “Cyra, marry me, please. Say that you’ll marry me for yourself, because you love me, because you don’t want to face the world without me. I can’t leave you here knowing that you love me. I don’t want to go back to Vialya if you won’t be with me.”
She opened her mouth, and she wasn’t even sure herself what she would say. Fear still wrapped around her heart. She still didn’t believe she was worthy of marrying him, of being a ruler of a foreign nation. However, she loved him. Her heart ached and twisted, and the thought of watching him leave her behind for his home while she was stuck in a stupid chair with wheels in the painfully hot sand of Sardes was equally terrifying. “Vitalis—”
“Prince Vitalis!” A young servant ran up to them, cutting her off. “The shah requests your presence immediately.”
“Tell the shah I’ll be there as soon as I take Cyra back to her room,” Vitalis sighed, exhaustion from their conversation settling into his shoulders.
“No, Vitalis, take me with you. I should speak to the shah as well about what happened to me.” Cyra gestured to her legs.
Vitalis frowned, but nodded. He turned her chair around and started rolling her towards the throne room.