Vasil had hurried back over the railing and down the trellis. He had gotten no more than three steps toward home, however, when a voice called out.
"You there! What do you think you're doing?"
One of the benefits of being in Barad's confidence was knowing all of the back alleyways, safe houses, and hidden passageways in the maze that was Kerensh. Vasil could outrun this guardsman and lose him in the space of five blocks. The guardsman would then report what had happened to his officers who would report it to the Lord Sheriff, and the Lord Sheriff, in his current fit of pique, would have yet another reason to send a detail after Vasil. There would undoubtedly be trouble.
Vasil instead turned to the guard holding his left arm against his chest as if it might not work properly, dropped his gaze and crept forward as if expecting to be beaten. He had watched the street dogs play this game for years; he had mastered the act it in its human form. Street mongrel, indeed. "Nothin', good sir," he slurred, thickening his already distinctive accent. "Jus' wishin' t'give th'Lady Marina a bit of cheer on a nasty night."
The guardsman was fortunately predictable. Lip curling in derision, he stopped where he stood, coming no closer to this obvious wretch of a man. He waved a hand at him instead, shooing him off. "Get on with you. Lady Marina has no use for street muck like you. Go on, get!"
"Please, sir," Vasil had whined. "Jus' one moment, that's all I'll be, t'ask th'Lady's blessin'."
"I'll bless you with my boot," the guard threatened, taking a step forward as his hand dropped to rest on the pommel of his sword.
Vasil slinked backward three steps, ducking his head and hunching his shoulders. He seemed about to retreat entirely when he changed his approach. "How about yourself then, sir? Surely a man as fortunate as you, lucky to have your place in the watch an' all, surely you could spare a little comfort to your fellow man?"
The guard snorted. "You're disobeying my order. Off with you or I'll take you to the Lord Sheriff direct."
Vasil dared a momentary smile, hint of tooth flashing in faint light. "Duty's helped by a nip now an' then isn' she, sir?"
The sword slid free of its scabbard with a rasp of metal on hard leather. "That's enough," the guard shouted and stepped forward purposefully.
Vasil took off like a shot through the streets and alleys, disappearing into shadow before the guard had a chance to take even one more step after him.
"It was clever. You have every right to be pleased with yourself for such an act of cunning. It drew me to you."
Vasil started out of his slouch against the balcony railing. The moment of disorientation that came with focusing on the present faded with his next heartbeat. He hadn't heard Ajayi join him, but even if he hadn't been lost in memory, he had no doubt that the goddess could sneak up on him if she chose.
He didn't bother wondering what she commented on. He'd learned quickly that his thoughts and dreams weren't private when she willed them not to be. If she wanted to see his darkest fantasies, she needn't ask permission. She wouldn't. Hadn't.
He drew himself up. He was taller than she was, wearing Marina's body. Vasil took a little comfort from that. "It was an act," he insisted. "Nothing special. I've used it before. I just got lucky that I hadn't met that particular watchman before."
Ajayi laid her hand against his arm. It was cold, almost painfully so, and sent a chill racing through him. She seemed not to notice his shiver. Perhaps she didn't care. "Clever," she said again. "I don't choose my allies lightly, beloved."
"Don't." It was a little rebellion and all Vasil dared, but it was important. "I'm not doing this to become your consort. You promised you'd give Marina back to me."
"So you remind me at every opportunity," the goddess said as she drew her hand back again. "Do it again and I may suspect that you don't believe me when I give my word." She turned milk-white eyes toward him and arched a dark eyebrow. "It's important that we have trust between us, don't you think?"
Muscle clenched in Vasil's jaw, but he nodded. She had a point. He had to believe that she would honor her promises. He had to do what she asked so he could live his life in peace with Marina by his side. They'd go back to Tal-Idren and live in his village. He'd take his father's place and they'd be happy for the first time since they'd met.
"How romantic," Ajayi commented wryly. "But don't look to your happy ending just yet. I have a task for you."
He'd been waiting for those words, wondering whether he was meant to be more than her executioner. He inclined his head formally. "I'm yours to command. What should I do?"
Ajayi heaved a dramatic sigh. "Since my sister's decided to get involved, there will be a battle. For now, we have the upper hand." She gestured at those gathered beneath the balcony. "The longer her light is gone from the sky, the easier it is to recruit more to our army. But I need a special sort of warrior. One who knew the shadows before this battle began." She paused and studied him, sizing him up, then stepped closer. "I need you to go to Efairil Keep."
Vasil stiffened. Efairil Keep lay in the wasteland, days away from even the scattered trading outposts that sprang up between the kingdoms of the world. It was there that the assassins and murderers of the world congregated. There were stories about those banished to the place but never tales about their return home. It owed no allegiance to any king or emperor. It was not the sort a place a man walked into alone.
"Of course not," Ajayi promised, reading his thoughts without invitation again. "You will have an escort. Ten men, hand picked. They will see you in, they'll wait for you, and bring you back to me."
Vasil swallowed and cleared his throat. "And who am I to seek out?"
Ajayi smiled. It was a cold, calculating shift of expression. Vasil's heart seemed to stutter to a brief halt. "His name is Kartha. Tell him that his Lady is calling in his debt." Her eyebrows lifted and her expression smoothed again. She knew Marina's expressions well. "Do that for me?"
There was no chance he would refuse. Couldn't, not with Marina's body and soul at stake. "I will," he sword. "I'll find this Kartha and bring him to you. And when I have, you'll let Marina and I go."
Ajayi smiled again, but this one was more sincere. "The moment you're safely back, Marina is yours." She turned on her heel without waiting for him to say anything else. She glided rather than walking. Vasil watched her go.
Then he summoned up every ounce of courage he had. He'd need it to walk into the Keep. He'd need it to get out, protection of a goddess or not.
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