Index | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5
Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10
Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14

Chapter Three

Bright moonlight lit the way through the alleys of Kerensh. Vasil knew them well and Tolya stumbled behind. No matter how much noise he made, the other man never turned or looked back. It was as if he didn't hear. As if Tolya wasn't there.

They traveled away from the warehouse docks, past the taverns and inns to the other end of town, where Kerensh's nobility lived. They were mostly minor lords in service to Talton. He himself was a distant cousin of Empress Ilsabeta's. Occasionally, someone of greater importance came to visit. Those times were heralded by grand celebrations in this end of town. It was easy to get lost in them. Tolya thought it would be easier still to be ignored.

Tonight the streets were empty and quiet. Vasil must have timed the night watch, known that they would all be in the barracks, trading stories and boasting about their imagined glories. That, after all, men had in common. No one confessed to shortcomings in mixed company.

No one watched Vasil scale the trellis of the Lord Sheriff's home or saw him slip through the opened doors on the balcony. Tolya levered himself over the railing after and pressed into the shadows at the corner, just in case. He could see through a gap in the curtains. It was enough for now.

"Marina?" Vasil's voice was a whisper: she would hear if she was present.

"Here."

How could he have missed her? She sat by the window just to his right, chin tilted up as moonlight spilled over her face, eyes closed. She looked in that moment, Tolya thought, like an expensive doll. Smiling, Vasil crossed the room in two long strides and knelt beside her. "I would have come sooner," he began, "but..."

"But Barad kept you," she finished for him, her own pale expression warming with a smile. Only when her head was turned completely away from the window did she open her eyes. They were sightlessly white.

She offered Vasil one hand, the other moving unerringly to his cheek. Amused, she explained, "I can smell him on you."

Vasil chuckled and pressed a kiss into the palm of her hand. "I'm not surprised. I can smell him." The blind, it was said, compensated for their loss with an increase in the other senses. It stood to reason, then, that smells would be easier to recognize. "I hoped that you'd stay awake just a little longer."

"Could I sleep, on a night like this, Vasil? It must be so beautiful. I can feel the moonlight on my skin, cold." Her eyebrows drew together. "You weren't seen, were you?"

Manners prompted Tolya to announce himself, let them know that they had company. Whatever this dream was bade him keep his peace.

"No, no," Vasil answered, "of course not. I'm careful, I swear it." He pressed the hand he held to his other cheek, head cradled for a moment between them, then straightened again. "Are you feeling better? Is the medicine helping at all? I can bring more..."

Marina sighed. "I can hardly take half of what you give me. I don't dare take any during the day, when there are nurses forever in and out. If they knew..."

"They'd understand," he insisted for what must have been the hundredth time, judging by his tone. "Marina, they'd understand that all you're trying to do is get better. Do they want you to be sick, for the rest of your life?"

Frustration furrowed her brow. "They call it a witch's cure, a poor man's cure, Vasil. They'd never understand."

He laughed, equally frustrated. "It is a poor man's cure, Marina. Does it matter if it makes you well? The Idreni have used d'thalan powder for ages. If it might help..."

She reached for his hands again, curling her fingers around his. Squeezing both hands tightly, she said, "When. When it helps, then you and I will go to them and explain what's happened. I will tell them that you are my guardian and they will love you as I do."

He bowed his head, resting his forehead against her knuckles. Silent, he stayed that way a long moment then he lifted his head again, smiling. "You're certain that you can't run away with me?"

Marina dropped his hands though her face was alive with amusement. "I can't, and I won't. What would I do? Live in a warehouse with dirty children and rats?" Vasil's smile faltered and she, somehow, felt it. "Oh, Vasil. I was only teasing. Dear, dear love, you know that I'd never say anything to hurt you in earnest, don't you?" Silence. "Vasil?"

He hesitated before he nodded. Tolya frowned. What thought was it that made him take a breath before he spoke? "I know. I'll find a way to take us both home."

She smiled like a delighted child, and leaned closer to him. "Tell me again about your land, Vasil. Where we'll go when I'm well?"

He smiled in response and helped her to her feet. Once standing, he turned her so that they both faced the moonlit window and curled his arms snugly around her waist. "My land is called Tal-Idren," he murmured. Though he leaned forward, Tolya didn't have to strain to hear. "It lies beyond the borders of Orant d'Alir. My people live among the sands, hunting and building there. It is a free life, where men are equal and trusted until they have done wrong. The women are beautiful, but none as beautiful as you. You would be a queen among them, a jewel.

"Children grow strong there and they know the value of life, great and small. Meilani kisses the plains, Marina. You should see the way they blaze with golden fire when the sun sinks. The life is sometimes hard but the rewards are greater than any Kerensh could ever offer."

He sighed, shook his head again, and went on. "I will take you there, someday soon." He rested his forehead against her hair, eyes closed.

She shivered lightly. "It sounds magical, Vasil. I wish we could go there now."

"We can."

She slumped in his arms, almost imperceptibly. Uncurling his arms from her waist, she stepped silently to her bed, navigating without sight. "We cannot," she said once she'd settled on the mattress' edge. "Without my father's permission, we can't go anywhere."

He followed and sat beside her. "I'll go to him and ask his permission, Marina. The change would do you good. The river is no place for you."

She smiled sadly. "Kerensh is all I have ever known, Vasil. It is my home."

"No," he insisted, quiet. "Your home is with me. There."

"My dear heart, we will be together, one day. For now, promise me that you won't see my father. Not without my consent. Not before I've spoken to him myself. You know how he feels about Barad and the warehouses. About all of you. If he didn't have you locked away for trespassing, he'd certainly have you followed when you'd gone."

Vasil set his jaw. "I know."

"Then promise. Please, Vasil."

Again he hesitated. Tolya knew why this time. Promise not to follow his heart when he was so clearly in love? It was a fool's mistake. He knew that all too well. If she had asked anything else, he wouldn't have hesitated a moment. He would travel the world over to get her the smallest thing that she desired. No doubt he'd told her so many thousand times.

But she'd asked and love made men weak as much as it made them strong. He wouldn't refuse. Couldn't. could not refuse.

Vasil bowed his head. "I promise."

She laid a hand as pale as porcelain against his skin, touched his chin and lifted his head. Sightless eyes somehow sought out his own. "Stay with me? We have the night, still."

He answered her with a kiss. As their lips touched, the darkness of the room blazed into day. Tolya lifted a hand to shield himself, ducking away from bright light. The world seemed to spin around him and he closed his eyes.

The sound changed first, quiet conversation replaced by shouts and horns. When he opened his eyes, he found himself on the balcony at Hightower. He gripped the marble balustrade, waiting for dizziness to fade, but it didn't help. Nor did it make sense of the chaos in the courtyard below.

People scattered in all directions, tripping over one another as they tried to get away. He watched a woman, child in arms, knocked down and feared she might be trampled until a man doubled back for her and pulled her to her feet. The decorations that had been placed around the flagstones were knocked askew and some of the pennants missing, torn from their posts.

Dark clad men-women, too-battled with his guards. Metal rang on metal and more bodies fell. They were being slaughtered, but by whom? And why?

"There's the thief."

The man's voice came from behind him. Tolya turned and faced Vasil again. Here. In the castle? He was dressed in black like the marauders below. He carried a wicked-looking blade already dripping red.

"Did you think you could hide up here, watching, and no one would see? Did you think that your men would save you?" Vasil smiled, an ugly shift of expression. "You take and take and expect us to just accept your whims. Well, not any more, little prince. You took Marina from me. I claim your life."

He lifted the sword over his head, muscle tensing in his arms for the downswing. As it began to fall, Tolya shouted, "I don't want her!"

#

Tolya bolted upright on his makeshift bed. His pulse pounded hard enough to make his fingertips throb. Pain seared his ribs, as if Vasil's blade had really touched him. He peeled his shirt back and spotted the dressing. It was clean, no ichor seeping through, but his skin still burned beneath the bandages. The line between the dream and reality blurred even more. He scrubbed a hand over his face, the beginnings of a beard scratching his palm. How long, how many days had he been drifting like this, in and out?

He was in a room now. There was a roof and four walls. A single lamp lit the space and the hallway he could see through the open door looked dark. Not Hightower, he knew that much. There was nothing covering bare stone walls. A simple woven mat lay on the floor by the bed, not the thick rugs that had decorated his suite. There was no furniture except for the bed itself and a three-legged stool. Alone? He'd seen Zara. Or dreamed her, possibly.

Light filled the hallway, dim at first but growing stronger the closer it came. Tolya pushed the heavy blankets back and swung his feet to the floor. He might not have a weapon, but he'd meet whoever this was on his feet.

"Tolya?" Zara leaned around the door, then frowned and hurried to him when she saw him standing. "What are you doing up? You need your rest."

Not a dream. She was real. She was real and here and, "Glowing. You're glowing, Zara."

Her lips thinned and she urged him toward the bed. "Sit, at least. If you fall, you'll undo what's healed."

He let her guide him onto the edge of the bed, but when she pulled away he caught her wrist. "You're glowing," he said again. "Why? How? What's happening, Zara?"

Her eyebrows, pale as silvered gold, knitted together and a faint line appeared between them. She nodded, very slightly, and settled beside him. "If you're well enough to get yourself up, there's no reason not to tell. You'll find out sooner or later. Sooner's the better bet."

Tolya had never seen her work so hard to answer a question. She took several breaths and let them go before she spoke again. She twisted her fingers together in her lap and studied them rather than looking at him. When she looked up, he swore her eyes flashed golden.

"You died. We both did. A lot of people lost their lives that day. We couldn't save them all. We tried."

"We?" Tolya thought he heard the clash of blade on blade again.

"It wasn't your fault," she told him earnestly. "You did all we could have expected. More. The odds were so against you and yet you fought. You were so brave. Bringing you back was never in question."

He caught her wrist. He turned her hand over against his free palm. His fingers fit between hers; he laced them together. One corner of his mouth twitched upward. "Flattery. I appreciate it, but you're confusing me. Start over from the beginning?"

Now her eyes were truly green. "That's what we're doing. We're showing you everything. You have to know how it happened. Which mistakes were made and how easily they could be made again."

"You're still saying we. Whose were the voices I heard earlier, when we were traveling? For that matter," he glanced around the room again. "Where are we? How far have we come?"

Zara looked away, gaze flitting over the walls. "My great-grandfather lived here, before he came to Hightower. Now and then a cousin or a nephew stayed within its walls, but most of the time since then, it's been empty. That makes it perfect for hiding. No one will think to look here." She smiled at him. "It's only because of you and your father and your grandmother that it's still here. You're a good luck charm as much as you are our hope."

"But the voices," he pressed. It wasn't like her to avoid a question for so long.

"My sister," she answered too quickly. He didn't miss the sheen of unshed tears in her eyes. She wiped her eyes, though, and they were gone. "Faiza. You remember her, I hope."

"Of course," Tolya answered, nodding slowly. "And?"

"And Tehu." Her lips pursed again, as if she'd tasted something sour. Her fingers tightened on his hand as displeasure hardened into something else. "He serves the dark goddess. Ajayi. We caught him at the last moment. He is our bargaining piece."

"Bargaining for what? From whom?" Tolya gathered himself to stand again. "Take me to them. Explain it all at once. I'll never piece things together if I only learn in broken explanations."

Zara held onto his hand, not letting him move. "They can't help you. I can't, until you've seen it all. Tehu will just distract you. Faiza's too scared to do much more than cook and sing. And we, the goddess and I, need you to be prepared."

"Goddess." Tolya frowned in earnest. He touched her forehead with his free hand. She was warm enough that he jerked his hand back, surprised. "You're sick," he said. "Burning up. You should be the one resting. You're not making sense."

Her smile was sad, but didn't waver. "But I am. The goddess and I," she said again. "We fight for Meilani." This time when her eyes changed, he watched it happen. Green faded to gold and then turned rosy, the color of sunrise, all pinks and reds. "There's a battle coming, Tolya." Her voice echoed now, two pitches, two notes, blended into one." He shivered, but he couldn't look away. "Winning is more important than you know. You have to stop Ajayi, Tolya, before she unmakes the world."

Index | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5
Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10
Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14

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