Her eyes slowly fluttered open at the sound of voices around her. People were shouting in excitement.
“I’ll be right back.”
Cyra sat up as Vitalis climbed out of the carriage. She stretched her arms out, knocking the thick fur blankets off of her. Vitalis insisted on them, saying she had no idea how cold Vialya could be, and she needed them as she was adapting to the weather. Cyra let him fuss over her because she knew if helped him feel better. She didn’t tell him when she was actually cold. She didn’t like to give him the satisfaction of being right, that much hadn’t changed.
“Prince Vitalis!” People were calling out as stood in the castle courtyard. Cyra watched him through the carriage window. Vitalis certainly didn’t look like the same man who had left Vialya. While he could never possibly be as tan and golden as Cyra was, he certainly was a tanner contrast to the rest of his people.
The castle doors flew open, and Queen Regan’s feet couldn’t move fast enough. She flew down the steps and crashed into her son She wrapped her arms around him and pulled his head to her shoulder. He quickly wrapped his arms around his mother and buried his head in her shoulder. He shook slightly as Queen Regan quietly sobbed, “Oh, my son, my son. You came back to me.”
“I’m home. I’m home,” Vitalis said. He looked down at his mother, smiling. “I promised I would come back safe, and I did.”
Cyra used her hands to scoot herself towards the carriage door. She had an idea. She didn’t want to be made a spectacle off so soon, so while everyone was watching Vitalis and his mother, she could quietly get out, and Helmuth could help her get inside.
She pushed the door open with one hand, and with the other, she reached outside of the carriage and held onto the roof. With a grunt, she lifted herself up with one arm and swung herself out of the carriage. Her limp legs brushed the steps, but did nothing.
Helmuth was at her side, catching her free arm, and whispering to the other guards to grab her chair.
It was rolled underneath her as she let go of the carriage and fell back into the chair. It rolled slightly from her momentum. She murmured in Vialyan, “Thank you.”
“Of course, your highness,” Helmuth said with a smile.
Cyra rolled her eyes as she adjusted the thick skirt covering her dead legs. Her eyes flickered down to see small, clumps of a whitish powder building up on the ground. She shivered as more fell from the clouds. Snow. Cyra remembered it from Vitalis’ mind. She leaned forward, bending over and digging her hand into the snow. The cold sent shocks up her arm as some of it melted into water at her touch. It was soft, but almost crunchy in her hands as it was packed tightly together.
“I sent Helmuth after you the second I heard about the shahdokht. Are you alright?” Queen Regan asked as she ran her hands over Vitalis’ shoulders.
An ache settled further into Cyra’s chest at the thought. She rolled her chair forward slightly, and the wood creaked in the cold.
Vitalis pulled away from his mother and turned to Cyra. “I’m fine, actually, it’s only because of Cyra that I’m here.”
Helmuth pushed Cyra’s chair through the snow and up to the queen. Cyra swallowed thickly as everyone’s eyes turned to her. She supposed there was no hiding behind others anymore.
“Cyra, you were the shahdokht’s bodyguard, weren’t you?” Queen Regan asked politely. Confusion shone in her eyes, but Cyra was relived she didn’t see any of the disdain or disgust in her that she always saw in the shah.
“I was, your highness,” Cyra spoke with a heavy accent, but she had been steadily improving her Vialyan on their journey. “I became Prince Vitalis’ bodyguard during his time in Sardes. I would curtesy, or bow, or kneel to show my respect, but as you can see…”
“Did this…” Regan’s eyes flickered to Cyra’s legs and back to her face. “Did this happen because you were protecting my son?”
“I suppose that’s one way to look at what happened,” Cyra said, cryptically. She may have no choice in being the center of attention, but she wasn’t about to dive into that story in front of everyone.
Vitalis said, “Cyra saved my life countless times. She’s very humble about it.”
“You have a to explain to me, my son. Perhaps we should head inside and get out of the cold before you tell me about just what insanity possessed you during your trip.” Queen Regan gave her son a stern look before gesturing to the castle.
Cyra kept a calm, polite expression on, but groaned and swore in her head as she looked at the steps.
Vitalis muttered to her in Sardesi, “Stairs will be the death of us both.”
Cyra struggled to hide a snicker of laughter.
* * *
Queen Regan had a meal prepared, but rather than it being a big feat like she had hosted the first time Cyra was there, it was a small, quiet affair with just Helmuth and a couple she vaguely remembered, but had heard much about from Helmuth and Vitalis, Aeary and Prentiss.
A family affair, Cyra assumed. This was all the family Vitalis had left, but to Cyra it felt like the largest family she’d ever seen.
As Vitalis pushed her chair into place, he took a deep breath. “Mother, Aeary, Prentiss, may I formally introduce Cyra of Sardes, my fiancée.”
Queen Regan nodded, showing little surprise and no actual emotion. Aeary and Prentiss exchanged a surprised look before giving her kind smiles.
“It’s our pleasure to be formally introduced,” Aeary said.
Cyra gave them a polite nod. Her throat was too tight for her to speak. All her fears and doubts came rushing back. They wouldn’t approve. They would never accept her as Vitalis’ wife, despite all of Vitalis’ and Helmuth’s reassurances, the pit in her stomach would not go away.
“As happy as we are to have you, Cyra. I would like to know exactly what happened. I remember you very differently from your time here before, Queen Regan said.
Cyra swallowed, “You mean when I was able to walk and stand behind Soray, and now none of that is possible for me.”
“I’ll start from the beginning.” Vitalis interrupted. Regan hid a smile. Cyra took that as a good sign. “The shah reached out to me, asking for my help and confidentiality in dealing with a demonic cult he feared had taken root in his court.”
Vitalis told the truth to his family about everything. His mother was clearly displeased he had kept it secret and not gone to her for help, but she didn’t interrupt. Aeary and Prentiss were absorbed in the story, wearing concerned expressions.
Vitalis explained why he had picked Cyra to trust and ask her for assistance, how she had saved his life in the mountains even though she hated him. He talked about their investigation. He hesitated every time the demon came up, and Cyra would finish that part of the story.
She couldn’t change the past, and while it did still bother her the way the demon had used her, it was part of her past and who she was. She couldn’t pretend it hadn’t happened.
When Vitalis reached the part of Soray’s death, Cyra stayed silent. A heaviness fell over them all. Everyone had a heavy heart, knowing what had happened. It felt like it had happened a lifetime ago in some ways, but Cyra felt the pain just as she had the second she watched it happen.
Vitalis voice softened and cracked when he talked of how Cyra had sacrificed herself so he could get away.
His voice was strained as he explained how he had struggled trying to carry her out of the well, losing her grip and falling back, trapped at the bottom until Mihrab and the guard found them.
His eyes watered when he said he thought she was dead.
Cyra reached over, took his hand, and whispered in Sardesi, “I came back to you.”
They relived how Vitalis had snapped Cyra out of the coma the demon had her trapped in. In a distant, broken voice, Cyra softly described how she had been stuck reliving her sister’s death and her own at the demon’s hands. She had lost count of how many times she had died.
When Cyra and Vitalis had been traveling back to Vialya, she confided in him how much she hated being unable to dream anymore. She had no dreams or nightmares ever since she had survived tearing the demon out of her head. Cyra had told Vitallis she would almost rather be stuck reliving her death again every night over the empty, restless sleep she got.
She also explained to the Vialyans how the demon had already possessed her at that point, getting into her head. Vitalis talked about how they continued hunting down the demon, how Cyra went into the demon’s head, lead them to the desert.
It had been over a month since that night in the desert, where the gaps in her memory were. Vitalis took over again, explaining how he had dug his way out of the ruins, almost buried alive.
Regan looked like she would be sick as Vitalis described it. Cyra never liked hearing it either, hearing what he had to go through alone. She was just grateful he was alive.
Cyra also let Vitalis explain how the demon had injured her legs. Her fists tightened, and her knees ached. She rubbed her knuckles over her legs as Vitalis finished the long story.
Everyone sat in silence. Vitalis took Cyra’s hands, forcing them to still.
Queen Regan gave her son a glare that let everyone know she would be chewing him out in private for what he had kept from her, for the danger he’d put himself in, but as her gaze turned to Cyra, she smiled softly. She caught Cyra’s eyes and said, “Thank you for everything you’ve done to protect my son.”
“I love him,” Cyra said. For once, for once in her ridiculously long journey, it was finally as simple as that.
“I’m happy to hear that, and I’m honored to call you family,” Regan said, rising from her seat and walking to Cyra’s side. She knelt by Cyra and looked at Vitalis. “I’m so glad you two found each other and made it back. Not everyone is so fortunate, and I’m so grateful that it at least happened for you, my son. You both have my blessing.”
“Thank you for the warm welcome, your highness,” Cyra said softly, shocked at how kind and warm the queen was to her. Was this really the Iron Queen whose name was enough to make even the shah hesitate?
“You can just call me Regan, Cyra, or mother, if you’re ever ready. You’re family now.”
Vitalis wrapped an arm around her, and she leaned into him. Aeary and Prentiss gave her their own warm smiles and welcomed her to their small family.
As they moved to lighter subjects, a strange feeling settled over Cyra. She could see snow falling outside even though it was dark and late at night.
Cyra was home. With Vitalis at her side and cold air settling into her skin, she was finally home. Vialya was home.
She had Vitalis and his love, and his mother was kind and good to her. She realized that even though she’d lost all of her family in Sardes, she had a new one.
Cyra was at peace.