There was no falling sensation this time. No falling asleep and waking up somewhere else. Zara lifted a hand and brushed it down over Tolya's eyes, fingertips stroking the bridge of his nose as she might gentle a horse.
When he opened them again, he sat astride one, galloping headlong across one of the fields that surrounded Hightower. Disoriented, he struggled for balance and to keep his seat, and felt a strong arm banded around his waist, keeping him up right. He looked back over his shoulder, looked down to see who held him in the saddle, and saw nothing but his legs, his lap and his riding clothing.
But he heard her as surely as if she sat behind him, whispering in his ear. "Remember, Tolya. Remember this day." Then she was gone.
He shivered, suddenly cold despite the layers he wore, and drew the horse up to a halt. It was Vazjhan, the dappled grey stallion he'd been given as a boy. He snorted and pranced sideways, eager to run again, but soon enough he was still, heaving sides the only proof of their aborted race.
Tolya was out of breath too. His chest ached, his ribs burned. He didn't understand any better for having talked to Zara at all. How would reliving everything save the world? If it was even possible, why would anyone believe that such a responsibility belonged to him? He was just a man.
"Tolya! Prince Tolya!"
The voice was faint and far away. Tolya twisted in the saddle until he spotted the man, riding like a pack of demons were at his horse's heels.
He was out of breath and flushed, cheeks a vibrant red, when he drew up beside Tolya and doubled over, hands on his ribs, to suck in great gasps of air. He mumbled an apology and did his best to straighten up, though it was clear he still had a stitch in his side.
"The Empress," he managed when he sat up again, "has asked for you. She says it's important. I'm to escort you back myself."
Tolya's fingers twitched tighter on the reins. Vazjhan sidestepped, picking up on the tension in his legs. "Is she well?"
The servant frowned a little. "Seemed to be," he answered. "A little red in the face." The frown deepened. "Now that you mention it, she was a bit worked up."
Tolya touched his heels to Vazjhan's sides and the stallion sprang forward, leaping into a gallop again. "Escort me if you can keep up," Tolya shouted over his shoulder as he rode.
Vazjhan had barely stopped when Tolya swung down, reins left to dangle rather than being handed over to the waiting groom. He crossed the stable yard with long strides, servants running at his heels. This one tried to persuade him to mop his brow, that one to straighten his riding jacket and comb his hair. He left them all at the base of the stairs as he mounted them two at a time.
Remember the day, Zara had warned. What did that mean, and why couldn't he? Why, if he was meant to put the pieces of a puzzle together, were his thoughts so scattered, full of gaps and needless fluff?
He was scowling when he reached his grandmother's suite. He noticed that no one lingered around the doors, as there had been in the past when Ilsabeta's health had taken a turn for the worst. No one had met him at the top of the staircase to assure him that things would be 'all right'. It didn't stop him as he threw the chamber doors open and skidded, almost literally, into his grandmother's room.
Ilsabeta was propped quite high in her bed, so much color in her cheeks and mirth in her eyes that she looked the picture of health. That alone gave Tolya pause. He stopped and composed himself, squared his shoulders and tried to steady his breathing as he started across the room. He tugged his gloves off as he walked. "You wanted to see me, Grandmother?"
She could hardly contain her glee. "Come here, come here quickly, Tolya!" She held a hand out until he'd taken it and perched on the edge of the chair always at her bedside. "I have news. Wonderful news for you."
Tolya was still at a loss to explain her exuberance. "News?"
She let go of his hand and reached for a piece of parchment half buried in the blankets and pillows around her, grinning ear to ear. "Listen." She read aloud, "All duty to her excellency, Empress Ilsabeta, yes yes.." She skipped over formalities and brightened again. "Here! Oh, Tolya, listen."
She took a quick breath. "On the occasion that I write, honored beyond all words, I have signed my name to the agreement between Lord Talton and yourself on the marriage between Prince Tolya, your grandson, and Lady Marina, my daughter. Such a blessing is more than I could have hoped. I await your return response gratefully. All duty, and, Tolya, it's signed, Lord Sheriff Dverik. Lord Dverik, do you hear, dear one? His daughter is a gem. I had so hoped he would agree."
Marina. Tolya felt as if he'd taken an elbow to the stomach. So that was it. That was why he was supposed to remember. Oh yes, he did. This day, all of his irresponsible fancies came crashing down and he was forced to grow up. He could do nothing but stare mutely at his grandmother while his mind raced.
Ilsabeta's pale eyebrows drew together. "Are you all right?" She waved the hand that held the fateful parchment. "Zara? Come quickly! Bring water for Tolya, my dear. I think we've surprised him!" The empress' broad smile returned.
Tolya slipped farther into confusion as Zara appeared, color high in her cheeks though her smile was far more reserved than Ilsabeta's. She carried a tray with a pitcher of water and glasses for all.
Upon seeing Tolya's expression, she angled toward him. As she bent to set the tray aside, she murmured, "You're supposed to be celebrating and delighted, not staring like a fish out of water."
He caught her wrist and held her, though she tugged her arm and her smile faltered. "I remember the day. I've seen it. We can move on." He pitched his voice low, so his grandmother wouldn't hear.
Zara frowned, confusion that echoed his now in her eyes. "Move on from what, Tolya?" She answered in kind. There was not a hint of comprension in her eyes. There was worry, concern to spare, but no understanding.
He let her go. "Nothing. I was mistaken. The quick ride back must have muddled my mind." But she'd been here before, hadn't she? His Zara. The one who knew that this was all just memory, little more than a pageant being played out for his sake. How was he to tell the two of them apart?
"Here." Still frowning, Zara poured a glass of water. She pressed it into his hand, fingers brushing his and lingering a moment too long. Then she poured a second for Ilsabeta and retreated a respectful distance. Ilsabeta held the glass, but didn't drink.
"It was meant to be a surprise, my love," she told him, concern clear in her tone. Though she didn't look at her, she gestured to where Zara waited. "Perhaps you might fetch salts, Zara, and the physician?"
Tolya blinked and forced his thoughts back to the present, such as it was. To this day, again. He cleared his throat and drank down half the glass of water then climbed to his feet. He held the empty glass out toward Zara, who took it with the faintest of smiles but refused to meet his eye. "I'm fine," he told his grandmother. "The physician isn't necessary. I apologize. I'm just catching up with the news." He clasped his hands tightly behind his back.
Ilsabeta studied him. Silver eyebrows tugged together and the lines around her mouth deepened. Tolya tried to soften his posture, but it was that he could do to keep himself from shaking. His shoulder felt stiff and his back ached from standing in such a formal, unforgiving way. His fingers were so tightly balled into fists that his knuckles must have been white. "You are not pleased with our news."
Tolya wished he could laugh. He paced to the window instead. This was his place of refuge in the room, it always had been. It had lost its ability to calm him, though. It's not real, he told himself. None of this is happening. He closed his eyes, willing himself to wake up again. Zara could explain it rather than putting him through these painful days.
But when his eyes opened, he was still before the window, looking out over the water below to the land beyond the far shore. He heaved a quiet sigh. Remember the day. No doubt that meant he should play the part, too.
So he glanced over shoulder and found both women, as he knew he would, watching him with vaguely troubled if expectant expressions. He managed a smile. "It's very good news," he allowed. He added a moment later, "I suppose." A moment after that he asked, "Have I even met Lady Marina?"
Ilsabeta allowed, "It has been some time. Lord Talton often brought her to visit when you were younger. You and she were dear friends, if I recall. She is the daughter of the Lord Sheriff of Kerensh," she added hopefully.
"I don't remember her," Tolya announced.
Zara offered more cautiously, "I'm certain that you will, once you've met her again, Highness. She's been ill for some time and Hightower's not had the pleasure of her company. She's a very pleasant young lady, I'm told."
"How long have you been planning this?" The words were out and he couldn't take them back.
Zara's gaze snapped up to meet his, surprise and hurt clear in their jeweled depths. "I haven't..." she began.
"Lord Talton suggested it," Ilsabeta interjected. "Two or three months ago, I think."
"And you never told me?" Tolya continued to stare hard at Zara.
Ilsabeta smiled to cover her discomfiture. "How could she have told you when she knew nothing of it herself?" She was silent until Tolya's eyes fixed on her, and then her smile broadened. "I meant it as a gift, Tolya. First your wedding, then your crowning. I've had reports of her studies. She will make you a good wife and an excellent Empress." Seeing that Tolya's expression had darkened further, the smile faltered. "You're still not happy."
Tolya's jaw worked, thoughts roiling, as he spoke. "You never thought to consult me? About whom I might choose to marry?"
Ilsabeta's eyebrows darted upward. "Tolya, I considered every possibility and chose the woman who would be best suited to you, afford you the greatest security in days to come." She stole one last sidelong glance at Zara then straightened against the pillows and suggested, "That will be all for now, my dear. I'll send for you later." Her smile was warm and sincere.
Zara gathered up tray, pitcher and glasses with silent relief. She curtseyed once and slipped through the doors to the hallway without so much as one look back.
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