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 Nine

"Ajayi rules here now," Meilani said, answering the question before he could ask. "She took it when you fell. Those are her followers you see. She protects them, cloaks them in her shadows and sends them to do her bidding."

Tolya looked back at her, at Zara's body, bathed in moonlight that now looked somehow sickly. "My grandmother."

"Sleeping. With the soul of the blind girl trapped inside. She will live," she answered before he could ask again, "as long as Ajayi wills it. Until she has what she wants. Then, who can say?"

Tolya clenched his fists. "Then what does she want? Why aren't you doing something about it? You're a goddess, you have the power to stop her, don't you?"

Meilani met his gaze evenly. "She wants the world. She wants to rule it all and bit by bit, town by town, she will have it, if no one stands in her way." She spread her hands. "I have done all I am permitted to do."

He frowned. "Permitted. Permitted by who?"

She shook her head and heaved a sigh, a very human action. "There are rules, little prince, to what a god may or may not do in your world. Even we must answer for the choices and mistakes we make. Saving you was the last thing I could do."

"But you're here," Tolya insisted. "In the world. In Zara's body. Ajayi," he gestured toward the palace, "wants to take over. Why hasn't anyone told her she's not allowed? I don't understand." And his ribs were aching again.

Meilani's jaw set and her gaze brightened, as if she'd burn away her irritation and his. "Ajayi broke the rules. Upset the balance. She will be punished, but the world must be set right. And that, a man must do. The only man who can. It is your task, Tolya. It is your fate."

His fate. To fight a god? He peered down over the edge of stone at the teeming mass below and shook his head. "How am I supposed to stand up to that? She has an army and I have ... what? One of the dark goddess's conspirators who will no doubt backstab me the moment he's given a chance. Zara's sister who is good with needle and thread. A goddess who won't help me and my friend..." He paused there, the next words stuck in his throat. Zara.

Meilani's expression softened. It was slight, but enough. She stepped toward him and laid her hand against his chest, her palm warm enough to feel through the layers of his clothing, seeping into his skin. It made his eyes heavy and he closed them.

The world changed again. Night became day, eerie silence was replaced by the sound of voices raised in celebration. No, not in celebration. They were too shrill, to sharp to be happy. Tolya curled his fingers over the marble balustrade of the balcony and once more looked down into the courtyard where his people, his guests, were being overrun by dark men.

"There's the thief." Vasil's voice, behind him again. Tolya turned to face him and his bloody blade, his heart pounding harder by the second. "Did you think you could hide up here, watching, and no one would see?" The blade rose and started to fall.

Tolya shouted as he had before. "I don't want her!" But there was nowhere to retreat and no room to run. The balustrade was hard against his back and to go forward meant he'd step into the swing of the sword.

Not that it mattered. It hissed as it cut the air, caught in the fabric of Tolya's tunic, across his ribs, and sliced through flesh, leaving hot pain in its wake. Tolya's breath caught and he slapped a hand over the bleeding wound, a useless gesture that only stained his hand and stopped nothing. There didn't seem to be enough air in the world to fill his lungs or let him catch enough breath to keep his vision from spinning. There was certainly not enough strength in his body to keep him from sinking to his knees.

"Tolya? Tolya, no!" He heard Zara before he saw her and tried to warn her to stay away. It did no good, he had no voice and was helpless to watch her run into and ambush. She didn't have time to slow down before Vasil caught her around the waist with his free arm. Though she kicked and struggled, she couldn't pull away. She reached for Tolya, calling his name, oblivious to the fact that Marina—Ajayi—was padding up behind.

The dark goddess in the blind girl's body caught Zara's chin, forcing her to meet those supposedly-sightless eyes. "How tragic," she murmured, "to be separated from the one you love. Wouldn't you say, Vasil?" She didn't glance at him. Vasil kept his peace. "Is that really what you want, Zara? To join your pathetic little prince?"

"Please," Zara whispered, tears streaming down her cheeks.

Ajayi shrugged. "So be it." She let go of Zara's face and backed a step away. The gesture was careless, the words doubly so. "Grant her wish, Vasil. Kill her too."

No! Tolya struggled to push himself up again. Zara!

Vasil acted without hesitation. He turned the blade he'd used on Tolya on Zara too and with a fierce motion pushed it through her body. She made one high-pitched sound, not quite enough to be a scream. She gasped and sagged when he yanked the sword out again, and fell just out of Tolya's reach, green eyes wide and staring at the sky, tears spilling over her lashes and down her cheeks.

No, no no! Tolya dragged himself toward her as Vasil walked away, stepped over her and left them both to die as they would, together. Tolya laced his fingers through Zara's and squeezed her hand. She turned her head toward him briefly, but then her gaze was on the sky again and her lips moved.

"Save him," she whispered. "Bright goddess, save him, please." Her eyes drifted shut and her skin paled but her lips kept moving, repeating the plea over and over again.

Tolya wasn't certain what made him look up. There was no sound, no sense of movement, just a presence and demand for attention. He had to shield his eyes.

For a figure stood over them, a halo of sunlight surrounding her. Her hair was a riot of gleaming curls, all copper-red and burnished brass and polished gold. Her gown was shades of red from rosy pink to flame and made of gauzy material that pooled where her ankles must have been. Her skin was pale, unmarred ivory; her features were perfection for no other word would describe them. A tall woman with a regal bearing and eyes that flashed golden sparks of light.

She knelt beside Zara and stroked her brow. When Zara's eyes fluttered open again, the woman—the goddess—brushed her cheek. "I can save her," she said in a voice like sun-warmed honey. "But you must ask." Her gaze lifted to Tolya's. "I will save her, to save you, to save the world. Only say the word, Tolya. Yes or no?"

His fingers were numb and his arms shaking. The edges of his vision faded to gray. He was dying. Imagining things, he knew. But if it was madness to imagine a goddess descending from the heavens at the end of his life, it was no less madness to do all he could to spare his friend. Zara. Given all his choices, she would have been his wife.

So he pried his tongue loose from the roof of his mouth and swallowed down a mouthful of metal and bile. "Save her," he whispered to the goddess. "Yes."

And she was gone, disappeared without a flare of light or whisper of sound. She was gone and color flooded into Zara's cheeks. She arched off the cool stone balcony, gasping for breath. She sat up as if pushed by hands at her shoulders and heaved a few more inhalation in and out before she turned to look at Tolya again, rosy-tinted gold flecking her eyes' usual green.

"Tolya," she whispered, awe in her expression. "Tolya, stay with me." She curled her hand around one wrist. "Please, you have to stay."

The world went black.

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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