To find himself back in his body, back in the warmth of daylight and pacing through the halls of Hightower was no less jarring the second time it happened. He jolted to a halt, breath leaving him in a sharp hiss that startled a maid. For a moment it wasn't certain that she'd manage the careful balance of tea-tray and cups she carried, but Tolya's hand at her elbow steadied her. He murmured a quiet apology, she returned an uncertain curtsey, and they parted ways again.
He had dreamt of Zara, but when? Had he slept at all? Was this walk through Hightower the dream, or was the chill touch of her fingers reality? Could either dream feel so real, and still be a dream? His strides lengthened as he made his way toward the end of the hall and the archway that lead to the lakeside path.
Was it so odd, after all, to dream of Zara? True friends were something the Emperor-to-be had never known. Certainly there had been other children his age, children of nobles who were permitted to speak familiarly with Tolya, but he had remained aloof. As they had grown, they had all sworn their allegiances to him, promising never to betray him or the Empire, but none of them could honestly claim to know him.
None save Zara.
"Tolya," she called again, voice bubbling over into bright laughter. She lifted her skirts out from underfoot and jogged the little distance to his side. He watched her approach with an odd mix of relief and dread, and only belatedly remembered to offer her his arm.
She curled delicate hands around his elbow, and begged a moment to catch her breath. "What are you thinking about," she asked when she could. "It's not polite to make a lady run, you know?" Her tone was light, teasing.
There was a sudden pain in Tolya's heart, and he struggled with the impulse to stifle it with his hand. Instead, he forced his attention toward the lake. "Nothing, Zara. It's nothing. It's good to see you well."
"You've hardly looked at me at all," she chided, and freed a hand from his arm to touch his chin. She urged him to turn his head toward her by the touch of warm fingers. Warm. "How do you know that I'm well?"
She had to be real. There was the smile Tolya remembered, wide and bright and genuine. Gem-green eyes sparkled with good humor, and a pale golden eyebrow twitched playfully upward, a silent prompt. Yes, those darker images, those were the dream. The nightmare.
Tolya exhaled a breath he'd forgotten, and smiled in return. "If you weren't well, you'd say so. You're not the sort to keep secrets. Especially when the secret will earn you some little bit of sympathy and spoiling."
She laughed. "Is that so? Am I so terrible?" She leaned against him. "One day, I'll surprise you, Tolya. You think you know me, but you'll see."
"Surprise me? How? By not being well?" Tolya's smile faded, so he shook his head and started down the path again. "That would break my heart."
Zara's grip on his arm tightened a little more. "You have a very strong heart, Tolya." She had sobered too, and Tolya glanced down at her, brow furrowed, to catch her in a rare moment when her own smile had gone. She shook her head a little, concern stealing over her features briefly, then ducked her chin to consider the path. When she looked up again, her smile had returned. "Whoever wins your favor will be well-protected indeed."
Tolya stopped in his tracks. "Something's happening, Zara." He waited for her to look up again, then swallowed and went on. "Something's wrong."
Zara's forehead wrinkled. She smiled, but it was a hesitant, practiced thing. "Something like what?"
Tolya pressed his lips together and looked away again, shaking his head. "I can't say for certain. Something's changed, or will change, or is changing." Again he looked down and was surprised to see that she looked a little frightened. He reached for the hand tucked into his elbow, and squeezed her fingers lightly. "It may be that I'm just not getting enough sleep." Allowing himself a wry smile, he explained, "I can hardly tell when I'm dreaming anymore."
Zara's gaze lingered too long. There was both concern and sorrow in her eyes and she shook her head. The mirth was gone, replaced by a shimmer that might have heralded tears. "You tire yourself, that's all. If I took on the world's concerns with the zest that you have, I'd be confused, too."
"Isn't that my duty? Isn't it the duty of any emperor to be certain that his lands, that his people are safe? That they prosper?" He started forward again, Zara's hand trapped between his ribs and his arm.
Zara matched his pace for three long strides before speaking again. "You've been with your grandmother."
Muscle tightened across his shoulders and he felt his chin lift. "Of course I have. I'm with her every day, as she requests."
"As you choose." She stopped, tugging her hand free.
Tolya stopped as well and turned a precise about-face, eyebrows lifting. He tucked his arms formally behind his back, and tilted his head at her, an invitation to continue.
With a faint nod, she gathered her skirts and padded closer. When she reached him she let the skirts drop, folded her hands together at the waist, and took a breath. "We must all die one day, your Highness."
Tolya closed his eyes. "Don't."
"I will," she insisted. "Your grandmother has led a long and full life. How many women can say that they have been Empress twice in one lifetime? She bore three strong, healthy sons. They ruled and rule as benevolently as she ever did. They passed her warmth and strength on to their children. She is as adored now as she was fifty Turnings ago."
She paused to take a breath and Tolya opened his eyes. There were tiny lines drawn between her eyebrows, lines he'd never noticed before. There was a weary set to her shoulders and her gaze never lingered on his as it had in the past when she lectured. He struggled not to frown, smothering the impulse before her gaze flickered across him again.
"She has taught you well, and you will rule as success --"
Tolya stepped forward and clapped a hand over her mouth, softening the movement with a faint, forced smile. "I don't," he emphasized with a lift of his eyebrows, "want to hear this."
Zara plucked his hand away. "You will rule as successfully as she has and, gods willing, have as long a reign but you will have to do it without her holding your hand." Her pulse beat visibly in the hollow of her throat once her words had run out.
Tolya frowned. "She doesn't hold my hand."
"She does," Zara countered. "Not because she believes that you need it, but because you cling to her so tightly. She does because she knows you're afraid."
"I'm not -- "
Zara clapped her hand to his mouth this time, amusement suddenly dancing in her eyes again. "You are. You know it, I know it, and the empress knows it, too." As she withdrew her hand, her voice softened. "I meant what I said, Tolya. You try to take on the world's worries. I'd be frightened, too."
Tolya made a sound that was half-laughter and half-dismissal. He offered Zara his arm again. "You'd say I had enough to worry about on my own, then."
"More than enough," she agreed, once more in step. "Once the Crowning is over, then choose something else to concern you." She glanced up at him. "Maybe that's what feels so wrong. You've worried yourself to distraction."
"No." He was absolutely certain of that. For an instant. He sighed, shoulders sagging before Turnings of lessons straightened them again. "Perhaps." Sunlight glinting off the lake's surface dazzled his sight as they rounded a curve in the path and the lake came into full view. "I'm not ready, Zara. Not nearly ready."
Her fingers curled in the crook of his elbow. "You are ready, Tolya. You've been ready all your life. You mustn't give up now."
Silence stretched out between them as they walked on. Broken by the sound of pebbles grated under his heels and the rustle of Zara's skirts, it was comfortable, but there was still something out of place. Something worried at the back of Tolya's mind, as if he'd forgotten something or missed an appointment. Something . . .
Zara's fingers tightened on his arm again. "No matter what, Tolya, nothing matters so much as going forward. There's no more time for dwelling on the past. What-ifs don't solve anything, they only cause more problems. Face each challenge as it's presented, and when it's solved, let it go, and move on. There's so much to do."
"What is this slop?!" A wooden bowl slammed into the far wall and clattered to the floor, snapped neatly in half. Its contents had splattered not only the wall and the table beneath its flight, but the people seated around the table as well. "Where is Vasil? Find him! Bring him to me!"
Yet again the world had spun, and Tolya was left to gather his bearings as best he could. The lapping of the lake was replaced by the uneasy murmur of hushed voices. Zara was gone again.
He stood now in the corner of a dining hall, away from the table and perhaps out of sight. No one glanced toward him, but the smoke from poorly vented torches gave the room a sort of haze that might have hidden him, at least a little, there in the corner's shadows. The smoke certainly did nothing to help clear his head.
"Have you all gone deaf? Vasil. Bring him here, and bring him here now!" The man punctuated his demand by slamming a fist on the edge of the table hard enough to topple a few cups of wine. As pairs of those seated rose and scurried for the door, Tolya took a hesitant step forward.
Barad Dur had a temper that was something of a legend among the lower classes of Kerensh, a river town just beyond the eastern border of Hightower. No matter what the officials in the Proper might have decided in a cozy council meeting over drinks, Barad controlled the rivers.
He controlled the trade along the rivers too. When and what merchants could and could not ship over the water and how much of a profit Kerensh made. He was a shrewd businessman for all of his baser qualities. Hightower had never had reason to investigate a lack of cronets from the city. Hightower had never had to send one of its own constables in to keep the peace. Barad liked it best that way.
Beneath the shoddy cover of a public shipping industry, Barad ran a private but no less well known market of his own. If the merchants were forbidden to trade in rivereel skins for a week, it was certain that Barad's market was selling skins by the bundle. Crystalfruit, expensive no matter who was trading, was often only available in
Barad's warehouses, at just a little more than their usual cost.
No one complained. Suriven, in his wisdom, had passed new laws while he held the Empire's throne. Orant d'Alir saw the abolishment of a class of the destitute, and the construction of a new lower class. No man who was willing to do an honest day's work would go hungry. If a family had too little to eat, by law merchants and businessmen were required to share their wealth with them in exchange for a day's good work.
Barad Dur might have been a hard man and a task master, but he took Suriven's declaration to heart. His warehouses were full of men and their families who had nowhere else to stay. He gave them shelter, food, and protection. In exchange, the men worked. "How hard can one boy be to find? I grow tired of waiting!" His mug of flat ale went crashing into the wall next.
A thin young child pointed toward the kitchen doorway and called out, voice wavering, "He comes, sir. He comes here now."
More to the point, Vasil was being carried bodily by four strong men and he struggled every inch of the way. "I've done nothing wrong," he cried. "Barad! Sir! What have I done?"
Barad leaned back in his chair, wood creaking in quiet protest. He smiled an oily smile, wiped his mouth with a less-than-pristene napkin, and heaved a satisfied sigh. "Let him go."
Vasil was dropped to the floor of the warehouse, and left to lie in a puddle of soup. The four who carried him dusted their hands and turned their backs as one, leaving the room with the same heavy-footed pace they had taken coming in.
Vasil clambered to his feet, brushing ineffectually at the stain sinking into what was once an ivory shirt. "I don't understand, sir," he muttered, daring to look up at Barad through long strands of greasy bangs. "Have I done something wrong?"
Barad grinned, displaying a mouthful of startlingly clean teeth. "Come here, Vasil. Forget your shirt," he ordered at the younger man's continued primping. "Stop shrinking like a mouse and come here. You're safe."
Skepticism clear in his expression, Vasil hesitated then gave in, squaring his shoulders, and stepped to the side of Barad's massive chair.
Barad clapped him soundly on the shoulder with a hand that engulfed Vasil's arm. Barad was huge, no matter who told the tale. Some thought that he was descended from the giants themselves. His skin was darker than those native to Kerensh, and no one was certain where it was that he had lived before the river city. His hair was black as charcoal and thick, not only on his head and in his beard, but on his chest and back, even on the backs of his hands. It was speculated that Barad, even without his clothes, would never go cold in the Frozen months.
Vasil was no little man himself. He was the tallest of the company, and stronger than he seemed, Tolya reasoned. He must be, if he could stand up to Barad's abuses. Broad shoulders and rough features would make him the talk of many of the women of Kerensh, with his tabac brown hair and eyes a foreigner's mottled shade of green. In contrast to Barad, he was nearly hairless, one of the few among the warehouse crew to be clean-shaven.
"Vasil Vasil Vasil..." Barad rocked the man under his hand back and forth as easily as if he were a child. "Do I not pay you well to make certain that we have the best supplies?"
Vasil's expression tightened, instantly wary. "Yes, sir."
"Is it not my duty to see that we are all well-fed and happy?"
Barad's grip tightened, painfully judging by the sudden leeching of color from Vasil's cheeks. "Then why," he asked, showing more tooth than was strictly necessary, "am I served watered-down slop for stew and flat ale to drink? I thought that I could trust you."
Vasil's back teeth clicked together as Barad shook him again. He swallowed before answering, "I brought the best of all that was left, sir. New shipments won't come in until the day after tomorrow, and what was left had been well picked through."
Barad's dark eyes narrowed. "Excuses, Vasil?"
"No, sir, an explanation. You have my apologies for the quality of your meal. I can assure you that within two days, you will eat like the empress herself."
Barad squinted critically, inhaled as if scent would prove whether Vasil spoke the truth or not, and with a grunt, nodded and dismissed him. "Bring me the cook," he bellowed. "Any cook worth her skin can make the worst of the scraps a feast."
Vasil staggered back a step, released. The reach to rub his bruised shoulder was subtle, and masked by the bow he offered, quick and just enough to insure an escape. He hurried through the door Tolya stood beside, without the faintest glimmer of recognition in his eyes, though Tolya was sure he had met his gaze for a moment.
Barad had begun twirling his cutting knife over the backs of thick fingers. No doubt he'd throw it soon. Best then to leave while the leaving was good. Tolya hesitated another moment, then ducked his head and followed Vasil out into the streets.
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