"You must wake up, Tolya. If you die here, everything that we have done, have tried to do, will be for nothing." Bitterly cold hands touched his cheeks and temples, encouraging him not to open his eyes, but rather to squeeze them more tightly shut.
"Let him die," another voice suggested. "If it weren't for him, none of this would have happened. None of us would be here now. Let him go. It's what she wants."
"You will be quiet," the first voice snapped. "Or should I cramp your tongue and swell your throat until you have no breath to speak?"
A squeak of protest was all that the threat earned in response.
Another voice, another woman, suggested, "Here, Zara. Try this. If you can wake him, make him drink, it will help."
Zara. Tolya knew that name, but Zara was . . . gone, wasn't she?
"He hears us," Zara said, turning back toward him. "I can feel him waking."
A cup, hard and warm, pressed against his bottom lip, urging it away from the dryness of the upper. His lips were chapped; he could feel them crack with that slight movement. "Drink, Tolya," Zara murmured. "Please. You are needed, now more than ever. Please," she said again, voice dropping into a whisper as sweet liquid, almost too hot to bear, washed over his lips and trickled down his chin.
"Tolya, listen to me . . ."
"The stories say that Meilani was born when the first spark of love blossomed into flame in the hearts of the Creator and the Mother of All Things. From their battles had come the mountains and the valleys, the trees and the rocks. From Deion's mind came the animals, in one thousand colors and shapes. From Karasha's tears came the rivers and the seas.
"But from their hearts together came Meilani. Beautiful Meilani, with hair of flame and eyes of gold, ever-burning and ever-warming our lands and our hearts, to remind us that even the all-powerful can feel.
"From Meilani came the first of us, the mortals; the best of us, her blessed children. Filled with her light and her love, they lived, built, and learned how to live in this new world. She loves us still. It is why she rises each morning and lingers with us through the day. She triumphs and sorrows, with us, as any proud mother...
"Tolya, are you listening to me?"
Tolya opened his eyes, startled away from the last lingering threads of . . . what? A dream? He stood at a window in his grandmother's room, high above the lake below. Early morning light was shifting from rosy hues to pure gold, reflected on the lake's bobbing surface. Where had he been, just then?
He startled again. Was it the water that encouraged him to drift and blurred the line between dreams and waking thought? Tucking his arms formally behind his back, he squared his shoulders and started to turn. Away from fancy and back to duty, but there was something there that held him, watching the shifting of light off the little hollows in wind-stirred waves. "Yes, Grandmother, of course. The story of Meilani's birth. It's... beautiful."
Ilsabeta's voice was thick with affection. "Not as beautiful as the water, hm? Go. Go on," she insisted, when he opened his mouth to protest. "Outside, and enjoy the day. If it calls to you, do not deny it."
Tolya glanced over his shoulder at the window, and felt the same stirring in the pit of his stomach that must have convinced him to look in the first place. "Something caught my eye, that's all. I'll pay more attention." He forced his attention back. "Forgive me."
Ilsabeta laughed. "I can still remember how hard it was to sit and wait for lessons to be over when lessons were where I least wanted to be." Tolya crossed to her bedside as she shifted in her nest of pillows and blankets. He tucked a pillow into the curve of her back, and was rewarded with a quietly pleased sigh.
"My fine caretaker." Her hand rested against his briefly, as light and dry as a sheet of parchment. She patted his knuckles, twice, then lifted an elegantly admonishing finger. "You must learn to listen to your heart."
Tolya's protest was cut off by a twitch of that finger, side to side. "You are too busy preparing to be Emperor, my darling. You expect that the weight of the world will be placed on your shoulders when the crown is lowered onto your brow, and you have made certain that you are strong and steady enough to carry that weight."
Tolya frowned. "You yourself told me that being Emperor was an important thing, Grandmother."
Ilsabeta nodded. "So I did." Her hand rested on his again, and she curled delicate fingers around his. "But have I not also told you that it is important to be happy beyond all else? Tolya, ruling an empire is never an easy task. There will always be troubles and concerns and things that make you question every moment of the day. There is also time to breathe and live. To enjoy the life you have been given. There is even," she added, eyes dancing, "time to do nothing at all. You must embrace the blessings of your position as well as the burdens."
She laughed and shook her head, tugging on his hand until he sat on the edge of the bed. "You are a young man, Tolya," she reminded him another time. "Be a young man. You will bring a new life to us as a people, that fades as I fade."
"You're not fading, Grandmother."
"Tch. Practiced but untrue words. I am not getting any younger, dear one. You and I both know it. Now." She patted him lightly on the knee. "Go. Come back and see me when you've exhausted yourself, and tell me everything. I love nothing more."
Tolya stood with a faint shake of his head. "I hope, for your sake, that you love something more than my rambling, Grandmother, but I am loathe to disobey your commands." A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth as he bent and kissed her on the forehead, then took a step backward and bowed more formally. "Is there anything else?"
Ilsabeta made shooing motions with her hand. "Go, go, before you find an excuse to stay. Go." She was silent, watching him leave, until the instant before he stepped through the door. "Tolya..."
He turned to face her again. It still sometimes startled him, how fragile she looked, propped in blankets and silks. Ilsabeta had been both mother and father to him from the time he was six years old. She had never been a large woman, had always seemed somehow less real than some of her attendants, but he remembered her hair being a rich, shining brown. Now, health and time had conspired to spin it purely silver. There were more wrinkles, and her hands had thinned, but her heart still beat with the strength and warmth that he remembered, no matter what the physicians might say.
Her eyes, too, remained unchanged, bright sapphire sparks of life that never condemned and always understood. "Yes, Grandmother?"
"That smile. It becomes you."
Smiles were not easy to come by, especially not now. Tolya had spent hours in front of mirrors with his nurses, trying to make smiles come naturally, trying to keep them from looking pained. It was common knowledge that the people of Orant d'Alir -- those who had seen him in person as well as those who had only seen him in passing -- felt that he was too solemn, too serious for a young man. There were stories, though, about Tolya as a child.
He'd climbed up on his father's shoulders when he was three, during the appointment of several new lords to the Empire. What should have been a serious, solemn ceremony was transformed by a little boy's laughter into a glittering golden evening of high spirits and good memories.
At five, he stole his mother's best slippers. It was a chill winter morning, and the spirit of preparations for the coming feast had woken him before most of the castle staff. He'd tucked the beaded shoes under his arms, and raced into the back hallways of Hightower Proper, delighted with the feat. He had crept in and out of his parents' bedchamber without being seen at all. In the silence, the Tower was his to command, and the slippers were his scepter and crown.
The silence didn't last. Every servant, lesser noble and important figure in Hightower had been set to looking for him. When he'd been found tucked quietly in a pantry cupboard, he'd been punished not with stern looks and angry words, but with laughter and rains of thankful kisses. He had been the bright future of the empire.
Trouble came in Planting. Not half an army, not even a squad. They were three men, from lands far to the west of Orant d'Alir's borders. They swore their allegiance and professed their desire to be a part of the growing Empire. They quickly won their ways into the hearts of the Emperor and his family.
Life had been good, and perhaps too easy to make the family as cautious as it ought to have been. There had been no wars, no uprisings. Suriven, Tolya’s father, was a benevolent if dedicated man, and he expected those who allied with him to be the same. Marissa, his wife, was an open-hearted soul who never doubted a man's honesty without proof.
But in Planting, a time of new beginnings, three men betrayed an entire empire and brought it to its knees. Suriven and Marissa were slain as they slept, throats cut with pillows pressed over their mouths to muffle their cries of pain and surprise. Tolya had been taken to the edge of the empire and left to die.
The light of the Empire dimmed. Ilsabeta, widowed, took up the mantle of the Empire once more. Jungen had died some Turnings before, and Darya and Nikol, her other sons, were needed at home to quell the tragedy's backlash. Ilsabeta had not yet grown so old that she had been discounted as a ruler. The people still loved her and they blossomed once more under her renewed care.
Ilsabeta's heart, however, was Tolya's. Another empress might have given up the child as lost and gone on without him, but Ilsabeta persevered, rewarding all rumors of sightings of the young heir, false or true. The cost to bring him home was uncounted, but the prize priceless. Less than a Turning after the crimes, Tolya was home where he belonged and on the road to recovery.
"He’s awake again."
Cold. One moment, he could feel the sun on his face, feel the warmth from the flagstones underfoot, and the next? Nothing but needles of icy pain, and the uneven bump-and-roll of travel.
Travel. Where was he going? Where was he being taken?
"He should be sleeping."
"I saw his eyelashes flutter. I thought you'd want to know."
Hazy shapes moved in the fog of sleep that shrouded his eyes. Tolya blinked twice, frowning as he summoned the energy to force his lashes apart and sit up.
Pain lanced immediately through him, dancing across his ribs and stealing his breath. Movement was arrested and reversed as he sank back into a nest of soft blankets. The biting smell of liniment assailed his nose and he coughed. More pain.
"You mustn't try to move, Tolya." Cool fingers brushed his chin as another layer of covers was drawn up over him, tucked across his chest.
Tolya forced his arm to obey his will, freed it from the blankets, and grasped one of those hands in his own. Long, slender fingers, not a callus to be felt. A woman’s hand. His eyes closed, and he swallowed on a dry throat. "Zara."
His forehead wrinkled. "Impossible." He shoved the hand away with all the strength he could muster. He could not afford to hope, not afford to believe, and yet his chest tightened with the stirring of emotion.
"Has he always been this bright? Don't give me that look, you. If he's well enough to remember, how long do you think it'll be before he starts asking questions, starts getting in the way?"
Tolya forced his eyes open once more. Vision still blurry, the shape of the woman above him bobbed and tilted drunkenly. "Questions?"
"Be still," she snapped. She bent closer to Tolya then, blur of features sharpening into focus.
Tolya's heart skipped a beat and his breath caught. It hurt, but he didn't care. The hand he’d tugged free rose again, toward her face. His fingers trembled, betraying his weakness, but he needed to touch her, to know she was more than a fever-dream.
She caught his hand and leaned her cheek against his palm, smiling warmly. "Nothing is impossible, Tolya. Not if you want it enough."
"But how," he asked. "Where? I saw..."
Zara's smile grew pained. "There will be answers soon enough. Now you need to rest. We need you strong."
"We," answered the other voice he remembered. A man's, unpleasant. Tolya turned his head, and could just make out his figure, but could not force his eyes to focus on him. He was too dark, too far away. "Sorry to break up your happy little reunion. I'd be somewhere else, anywhere else, if I could. Believe me."
Tolya once more began to sit up, but Zara laid a hand gently on his shoulder. "Your fever's still high, and your wounds healing." She stole a glance over her shoulder, saying, "He'll be here when you wake up again."
"Not if I have anything to say about it."
"You've had too much to say about it already," Zara answered icily. "Sleep," she told Tolya more moderately. "I'll wake you when we've made camp and supper's done. We'll eat and talk. I promise." She bent over him and kissed his forehead with cool lips. "Sleep."
Tolya's eyes drifted shut against his will. He frowned with the effort of staying awake, but cool fingers eased the creases between his eyebrows away, then trailed over his cheek to his jaw. "I'll be here. I'll always be here," she promised.
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