"You knew!" Tolya jerked his hand out of Zara's grip. The Kerensh street faded around them in a moment and left them standing at the doorway of the building's shared courtyard. A fire burned there and the figures seated around it shifted to look their way. "You knew," he accused again. "You let me go ahead with this fiasco and the whole time--"
"No, Tolya, no." Zara reached for his arm but he backed a step, moving out of the way. She let her hands fall, hurt in her ever-changing eyes. "Not then. I didn't know anything. I thought she was just a sickly girl hoping to make a good allegiance. I believed, like you did."
"Zara?" The other woman -- Faiza -- stood up beside the fire. "Is everything all right?"
The man still seated, long arms wound around his legs, snorted loudly enough to be heard over the crack and pop of the fire. "I told you he wouldn't like being shown the truth. Don't blame you, little prince," he sneered. "I don't like being lied to and used any more than you."
Farina kicked at him. "No one asked you."
"But you can't keep me quiet, can you?"
"Please." Zara didn't speak again until Faiza sat. She took a deep breath and laid her hand against Tolya's arm gingerly. "You know me," she told him, summoning up a wan smile. "You've known me all my life. Can you really think that I'd let you walk into a situation that wasn't for the best?"
It wasn't the wound across his ribs that ached this time. It was deeper, a more profound hurt, that made his chest feel tight and his throat burn. His pulse pounded dully in his temples. "I knew Zara," he answered. "I'm not sure I know you."
Her forehead wrinkled and he lifted a hand, smoothing his thumb over the line. He let his fingers drift to her cheek and watched her eyes. "Are you really her, or is this another dream? Why did I see the sunset in your eyes?"
For a moment, he thought she might cry. Tears welled up, making the usual green shimmer. But when she closed her eyes, they didn't spill over. When she opened them again, they were gone. "She watches over us," Zara murmured, steadily meeting his gaze. "She protects us. She makes this possible."
"She." Tolya slid his hand away. "Which she?"
"The bright goddess."
"Meilani." He'd had the hunch already. Having it confirmed made him clench his teeth. There were too many secrets. Too much conspiracy. That another goddess would claim a body, would follow her sister to earth so quickly? It was wrong. It was a set-up. "She's using you."
"What? No. Tolya, you can't say such things." Zara touched his arm again, brow furrowing.
"I can," he insisted. "I am. Like Marina and Vasil, only I won't be fooled. Or controlled. Wherever we were going, the journey's at an end. I'll go no farther until there are answers. That or I'll go back and find them myself."
The two by the fire shifted and muttered to one another behind him. Zara shook her head. "Tolya, don't."
"I already have. If she's really helping, if she's saved me, then she won't hesitate to explain why. If this is some grand conspiracy with Ajayi, then she'll have to strike me down because I won't go along."
Zara's eyes flared to sunrise gold. Her posture straightened so she stood even taller. Her chin lifted. She changed from heart-broken woman to a creature of regal bearing. Though her body and face hadn't changed much at all, Tolya knew that he stood before a god.
"Meilani." What should have been awe hardened into anger. "Is this what we're to expect when we meet our gods? That we become their playthings?" He heard the pair behind him moving, but he hardly paused for breath. "If that's the case, then no, thank you. I renoun--"
Meilani -- or Zara -- held up a hand. "Think, before you speak those words," she warned. The words were edged and dangerous. "Your life was spared when it might have been lost. You should greet me with gratitude, not demands."
The wound across his ribs pulsed a sharp reminder. He curled his fingers against his leg to keep from rubbing it. "Then tell me why you spared me. Tell me something. Dreams of the past are all well and good but they don't explain what we're meant to do."
Meilani studied him, eyes still blazing, and he couldn't help but feel that something important was being decided on the spot. When she lifted her hand, he braced himself on the chance that the answer was to take his life again. He wouldn't beg or ask forgiveness. He'd taken the risk and he would abide by the consequence.
It was a simple gesture and shouldn't have had the power to wipe their surroundings away. They were gone, firelight, dull stone walls, people and all. They stood instead beneath a canopy of stars, bright white and cold against the midnight sky.
There was stone beneath his feet and a building behind, but if this was a balcony, it was a dangerous place to stand. A wind whipped around him, tugging at his tunic sleeves, urging him to step forward and fall. There was no railing to keep him from toppling over the edge and it was a long way down to the ground.
The ground that was moving. No, teeming with bodies, some glinting with armor, all of them carrying sticks or swords and milling around one another like an army of insects. There were hundreds of them, Tolya guessed, filling up a courtyard and overflowing the stone shape to spill over the grass.
They should have made enough noise to deafen him, even up here. There should have been conversations, maybe orders shouted out over the throng. Bodies colliding should make some sound, but there was nothing, save the wind in his ears. They were quiet, far too quiet, for the way they moved, for their numbers. He shuddered. "What is this place?"
But he knew. He knew it in his bones before he turned to look at the tower behind him. His gaze traveled across familiar rooftops and over to the silvered glimmer of the lake that had so often caught his attention. This was Hightower with the pennants and banners torn down. This was his home, but not the place he knew, not with this silent, menancing group of dark men at its gates.
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