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 Five

Ilsabeta's smile faded away instantly. "Zara is not for you."

Tolya likewise studiously did not look at Zara as she left. He refused to look at his grandmother now. "That wasn't your decision to make," he answered, jaw tight.

Ilsabeta smoothed a hand over the blankets around her, affecting an interest in the lay of the fabric. "A decision of such importance cannot be put off forever, dearheart. You will be emperor before you know it, and I simply..."

Tolya turned his head away from the window, a sharp gesture tempered by practiced restraint. "Have the doctors come to see you, grandmother? Have they brought you some news that you have not yet shared with me?"

Ilsabeta's eyebrows rose but she answered patiently, "No, Tolya."

"Then stop. Every time I see you, you're reminding me that I'll be emperor soon. If there's no danger of your dying tomorrow, then stop. Please," he added belatedly.

Silence reigned for an uncomfortably long moment. "Tolya, come and sit with me," Ilsabeta invited, patting the bed beside her.

"I'd rather stand."

"You're being an unreasonable child," she snapped in a moment's frustration. Closing her eyes a moment, she composed herself and tried again. "Tolya, please. Humor me?" Her smile was warm as she extended her hand toward him.

He stood unmoving near the window for another moment then sighed, shoulders dropping as he gave in. He took her hand before sitting beside her, eyes troubled as he met hers. Their eyes were the same color and yet hers were so much older, so much wiser.

She drew his hand onto her lap and held it in her own. "Orant d'Alir stands on the verge of great things, Tolya. News has come from our emissaries to Vhaalmont that an alliance is likely. Nikol says that he has found a fleet willing to sail to the south across the Deep to see what there is to see. There is no better time to be emperor than now. No," she said, stopping him as he took a breath to protest. "Hear me out and then you may speak, mm?

"The people, your people, deserve to share in the wealth of good fortune that awaits us. They need a strong leader who will share in their triumphs and joys and who will carry them on his shoulders through their struggles and hardships. They deserve to be led by a strong young man who is at the beginning of the best Turnings of his life, a man who will grow with them and change as he must change.

"I am an old woman, Tolya, and I am tired. Being in this bed," she added, "is not helping. I find myself sleeping when I would rather be out in the gardens or riding with you across the hills. Still, I have learned to be obedient, and if the doctors want me here, here I will stay." She uncurled a hand to touch his cheek fondly. "I would not add to your burdens by playing the troublesome child. I would, though, like to live the rest of my days free of less pleasant tasks. Signing documents and saying as I have said every Planting for Turnings that we may, yes, have a Festival? Trivialities that should be yours."

Despite himself, Tolya laughed.

Ilsabeta's eyes closed, pleased. "I love the sound of your laughter," she murmured. Eyes opening once more, she let her head rest against the pillows piled behind her. She chose her next words carefully. "The Lady Marina is a true lady, Tolya. She may be the daughter of a sheriff, but that does not invalidate her bloodline or breeding. Dverik comes from an old family and though he chooses not to occupy them, his holdings are rich. We would do well, Talton tells me, to draw Kerensh closer to us. We will all benefit."

Tolya studied her hand against the bedclothes. "Zara says that she's been ill."

Ilsabeta breathed a quiet sigh. "She has," she admitted. "I asked about that myself. Why marry my handsome young man to a woman who may leave him widowed and childless before a Turning passes. The answer is this: Lady Marina is strong and healthy now. The fever with which she was afflicted has passed and for most purposes she is as she was: a vibrant young woman, well-schooled and full of grace. Talton has seen to that himself. He loves her as his own, you know."

Tolya remained unconvinced. "For what purposes is she not herself, grandmother?" Now he lifted his gaze to meet hers again.

"Oh, Tolya," she murmured. "You've already decided against her, no matter what I say, haven't you? Very well; the fever left her blinded." At his expression of dismay, she reached forward quickly and caught his hand. "Her mind is sound, as are her wits. She is a skilled speaker, Tolya, with a voice that men are said to stop to hear even when the fire of battle roars in their ears."

And she belonged to someone else. Someone who'd killed him for her, if the nightmare memory on the balcony was true. Still, he smiled. "There hasn't been a battle in Kerensh since before your time, Empress. Flattery is not always truth."

A glimmer of amusement sparkled in Ilsabeta's eyes. "True, true." She released his hand, saying, "Meet her, Tolya. That's all I ask. Before you refuse her, do me the courtesy of meeting her." She paused a moment, then added, "If you truly object, you need not take her. You may have whomever you choose." Another pause, and she gave him even more.

"If you wish to be something other than emperor, I'll write to Nikol and have him come home. You could take his lands by the Deep, though I can hardly imagine you on the deck of a ship. No more than I can imagine Nikol stuck on land with nothing more than the lake to console him. I only wanted you to have the throne to keep your father's dream. He was so proud of you. He often imagined the great feats that you would do, when you had grown."

"Grandmother," Tolya interrupted quietly. "You don't need to write to Uncle Nikol. Let him keep his lands and live as he chooses. I want to be emperor. I just didn't want it to come so soon." Now he took a moment's pause. "And I will meet with the Lady Marina as you've asked."

Ilsabeta heaved a great sigh, content. "The Turnings come faster and faster as we grow and grow, my dear. I sometimes have trouble remembering when one Turning has ended and another begun. We will have celebrations for you, though, that will not soon be forgotten. When you are an old man with sons and grandsons to comfort you, the days to come will be like a bright jewel in your memory. Anything that your heart desires, you will have."

Perhaps not anything.

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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