Vasil leapt across the short space between himself and the boy on the barrel, his fingers finding purchase in the material of Tehu's tunic. He hauled him bodily off his perch and close enough that Tolya imagined they could feel one another's breathing. "Who are you," he growled. "Who sent you? What do you want?"
Moonlight flashed in Tehu's eyes once more. Tolya stole a glance at the sky and took a breath to speak. "Zara."
"I know," she murmured, squeezing his hand again. "The moon is behind him now."
Tehu's voice was of the same quality as his body, thin and wiry, impossible to ignore. "I can help you," he said, "but not if you're going to beat me. We could be friends instead. I can show you how to get everything you desire. Everything that you deserve." He glanced down at Vasil's hands on his clothing, then lifted his gaze again. "You have to listen, first."
Vasil shook the boy and hauled him even closer so that they nearly touched noses. "Start talking. Fast. I'm not in the mood for secrets and games." He released Tehu with a firm backward shove to put space between them.
Tehu pinwheeled his arms for for balance, but the grin remained. "You're as strong as she said. Good. You'll need to be, body and mind." He dusted his tunic off absently and straightened up. "My mistress sent me to you to make an offer. A bargain."
Vasil's lip curled. "I don't bargain."
"Ah, but you might, for this prize." Tehu padded back to the barrel and once more sat on its rim. "There's a battle mounting in another place. Two great powers stand against one another, neither able to defeat the other, eternally in balance and so it has gone since the beginning of time."
"Beginning of time," Vasil echoed. "I'm not getting involved in a clan feud."
"Clan feud?" Tehu's dark eyebrows lifted. "Oh, no, Vasil. This is much more important than a feud. Clans come and go, chieftains die and are born, new clans replace the old. Think on a grander scale. Forget thieves and merchants. My mistress is eternal."
"Your mistress hires long-winded fools," Vasil answered wryly. "Is there a point to all this mystery?"
Tehu's smile took on an edge no longer born of pure amusement. "Mind your tone. It's my word that saves or condemns you. You'd do well to be nice to me."
"I haven't tried to gut you, have I? What more kindness do you want?"
"Don't hurt him, Vasil." Tolya startled again. Marina's voice echoed from behind where he and Zara stood. Like Tehu, she slipped past them without hesitating.
Vasil whirled toward her, his posture softening. "Marina? You shouldn't be here." Brow furrowing, he asked, "How did you get here? It's dangerous..."
A porcelain hand preceded Marina as she slid free of shadow and into plainer sight. "Tehu brought me," she answered. "Take my hand?"
Vasil reached forward immediately, fingers closing around hers. "If your father notices that you're gone there'll be trouble for both of us." He touched her cheek, hissed and yanked his hand back. "You're cold! It's too cold out here for you."
Tolya frowned, taking in the nap of her cloak. "Zara," he murmured again. "She's not wet."
Marina smiled. "So sweet, to be so concerned. I'm not cold, Vasil. I hardly feel the chill at all, and Father's been taken care of." She left him no time to object, insisting, "We're safe. I had to come. I knew you wouldn't trust Tehu, and I might not have gotten another chance."
"I nearly had him convinced," Tehu muttered behind the couple. "You didn't have to come out." He tucked his arms across his chest petulantly.
Marina tugged one hand free of Vasil's, lifting it to brush her fingers against his cheek. "I could not bear to hide from my dear one another moment, Tehu. He understands. Don't you, Vasil?"
Vasil kissed her palm and leaned forward to rest his forehead against her own. "Better to have you here where I can take care of you than hiding in shadows where there's no one to see."
Tehu cleared his throat. "Well, then, may I go on?"
"Of course." Marina smiled indulgently.
"Thank you," the boy responded, voice thick with sarcasm. "My mistress makes an offer. Your assistance for hers, Vasil. Do as she asks and she promises that you and your Marina will never be separated again."
Vasil glanced only briefly over his shoulder. "Never?" He chuckled quietly. "If your mistress has that kind of power, I'll do anything she asks."
Marina reached up to his chin, turning his head toward her once more. Odd the way she seemed almost to look at him as if she could see through the milky gauze of blindness over her eyes. "Be careful, my heart. Make no promises, swear no oaths before you know the full weight of your bond."
Vasil's smile was warm, full of affection. Tolya's stomach twisted anxiously. "There is nothing that any man or woman could ask of me that I wouldn't do a hundred times if it meant that we could be together, Marina."
Tehu licked his lips and flexed his fingers, out of sight. "Swear," he prompted. "Swear to do as my mistress asks. Swear it now."
"It might be dangerous, Vasil. Too dangerous. I'm afraid for you," Marina countered.
"Don't be afraid," he murmured, kissing her palm again. "I'm not."
"Swear," Tehu prompted again, more urgently.
"Patience, little man," Marina snapped, eyebrows drawing together for an instant before her expression smoothed back into a porcelain mask of concern. "You don't know who he serves."
Vasil laid a finger against her lips. "Who could be worse than Barad?" His eyes danced with amusement.
"My time is short," Tehu warned.
Marina's lips pursed beneath Vasil's finger. She lifted a hand and moved his away from her mouth. "He serves a dangerous woman, my heart," she whispered. "No, not a woman, for she knows nothing of mortal flesh."
Now Vasil's brow furrowed. "What are you talking about?" When she simply bowed her head mutely, he looked over his shoulder at Tehu. "Who do you serve, Tehu?"
Tehu grumbled something unintelligible then straightened up and once more cleared his throat. "My mistress is the Lady of the Night, Ajayi."
Vasil's breath caught. "Ajayi." The name was no louder than a whisper.
Marina's voice was likewise quiet. "You see now why I warned you? Why you must be certain of what you want?"
Tehu's voice was louder, sharpened by annoyance. "You want the girl, don't you?"
"Quiet," Marina snapped."
He's right," Vasil answered. "I want the girl. I want you, Marina, but ... Ajayi." He frowned, perplexed, and turned toward the barrel to sit again. "I need to think."
Marina followed him and caught his hand. "Not here. The night is nearly ended and you have not slept, my dear one. Go inside and rest. Think there. Think long and choose carefully."
Vasil summoned up a smile. "You give me good advice. I'll take you home."
Marina shook her head. "It's dangerous. Tehu can take me. I'll be safe." She stood on tiptoes and stole a single kiss from his lips. "Sleep, dearheart. We will speak soon." She slipped away from him, hands outstretched until Tehu stepped forward to take them.
Vasil hesitated a moment before nodding his assent. He leveled a finger at Tehu, warning, "If any harm comes to a hair of her head, I'll hunt you until your last day of life and then beyond. Understand?"
Tehu grinned widely. "Perfectly." He waggled a finger in a sort of farewell. "Sleep well, Vasil. I'll find you again to hear your answer."
"I'll be watching for you," Vasil answered then slipped in through the warehouse door.
Zara held up a hand before Tolya could speak again. "Wait," she whispered, glancing up at him. "Wait."
Tehu's posture slumped for an instant before he turned moonsilver eyes on the woman before him. "What were you thinking?"
Marina's dark hair melted away, shadow-color chased away by a wash of silver that lightened her hair. Sightless white eyes darkened and brightened until they shone a rich emerald green. Marina's clothing melted into a gown of darkest blue and brightest silver silks as the woman herself grew taller and even more slender.
When she spoke it was not with Marina's voice but with a richer alto. "I was and am thinking that we cannot afford to have half of his agreement. I must have him, all or none. There can be no changing of minds or hearts."
"You could have punished him if he'd betrayed you, lady. You've given him time to refuse your offer."
Ajayi smiled slowly. "He won't, Tehu," she purred. "He won't dare. The girl he loves is at stake and speaks on my behalf." She looked down at the boy, her own eyes dancing now. "And if he betrays me, I'll punish you both. See that he doesn't." So saying, she faded into nothingness as if a shadow had passed across the moon, darking her particular beam of moonlight.
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