“Are we going to start over again every single time?”
“Hush, Faiza.” Zara’s voice sounded close again, hovering above his head. Soft and warm as usual, but dampened by concern.
“I won’t hush,” her sister argued, a spark of fire echoing in her words. “We don’t have time to do this whenever he chooses not to believe.”
“That’s not the problem.” A very warm hand touched his cheek, a gentle reminder he couldn’t simply lie on the hard ground and pretend not to hear the conversation. “It’s accepting what he’s seen. He already believes.”
No matter how he wanted to deny it, insist this was all a fever dream brought on my something he’d caught in an unseasonable rain. He’d worked too hard, exhausted himself and fallen into a nightmare. Any minute, he would wake.
But Zara had it right. He believed. A dream could explain the odd jumps in time, the sense of being in two places at once. Maybe even the heavy weight of dread like a beast perched atop his chest, but it couldn’t erase the certainty that all of this was real.
“Come on, Tolya.” Zara’s voice again, breath dancing against his ear as she bent closer. “The world needs you.”
He sat up abruptly, twisting to avoid knocking heads with her. He pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes until the darkness stopped lurching around him and he felt less like he might be sick if he admitted to being awake.
“You’re not the type to hide from this. You never have been,” Zara pressed as she settled beside him on the ground, shoulder grazing his. Under other circumstances, he might have taken comfort from the brief contact. Now, he fought the urge to jerk away, spine stiffening as his hands fell and his eyes opened.
The hesitation before her next words spoke volumes she might never admit aloud. “You don’t have to be afraid of me. I’m still the same girl you’ve always known.”
“You’re not.” The words came out sharp and fast, like a weapon meant to keep space between them, no matter how close she sat. Tolya turned his head and frowned at her, looking for traces of the goddess who’d shone beneath her skin a few moments before. “Some part of you must be, because you still look like my friend, but she--you--have a goddess inside you. How can you claim to be the same?”
For a moment, there was genuine hurt in Zara’s eyes. It was gone in the next, replaced by a determination he’d rarely seen in anyone, much less his quiet, accommodating friend. “The hows and whys and when exactly don’t matter now. Those are things we can talk about when the crisis is past. Until then, we have more important things to figure. Like how to stop Ajayi and wake your grandmother.”
She stood, then, and held her hands out for him to take. Despite the tight set of her shoulders, her grip was gentle as he climbed to her feet. “You’re not the type to sit and mope,” she told him. “Not when something really needs doing. There’s nothing more important to be done than this.”
“What, you mean saving the world?” Tolya felt his own smile twist wryly as he slipped his hands free from Zara’s and paced a few steps away. “I believe,” he echoed, “but I’m not sure I believe I can do that much. One man against the gods?” The odds were almost too overwhelming to contemplate. “I’m not sure even my grandmother has that much faith in me.”
“She did. She does. We all do, Tolya,” Zara promised quietly, then padded closer, a faint smile that promised at dimples but never quite delivered reappearing. “Do you really think Meilani would have agreed to help you if she didn’t believe you were worthy of her time?”
There was a point there, a weighty, alarming vote of confidence. Following hard on its heels came a sickening wave of suspicion. He narrowed his eyes. “Why does she believe in me? I’m nothing extraordinary. I haven’t won any wars or saved any lives. I haven’t done anything any other man couldn’t do. So why me?”
Zara changed again, too quickly to protest, Meilani coming over her like the sun cresting a hill. “You survived,” the goddess argued. “Against all odds, you survived.”
“That’s not getting any less weird, by the way,” Tolya muttered before he could stop the words.
Meilani arched one of Zara’s eyebrows and cocked her head, uncomprehending.
He waved a hand vaguely toward her. “Taking Zara over like that. Eavesdropping.” When she kept staring, he clarified: “It bothers me.”
“Oh.” She frowned. “Would you rather I left her body?”
Panic flared beneath Tolya’s ribs. “No!” He remembered that last image of Vasil’s blade piercing Zara’s body, feared what it had done to her too much to let it stand. “No,” he repeated more moderately. “I’ll get used to it. I’ll have to, won’t I?”
“Not forever,” Meilani promised. “I am not a thief. Nor do I make a claim to own what was freely given.” She smiled, not quite Zara’s smile, but close enough that the tightness in Tolya’s chest eased. “She invited me in and I accepted. I am her humble guest.”
Humble. Tolya nearly snorted aloud but managed to hold his disbelief in check. Barely. “Then forgive my discomfort, though I’m sure you can understand.”
She tilted her head again. “I do my best to think as you would while in your world.” Her attention shifted away, turning inward it seemed, and then came back to him, surprise brightening already glowing cheeks. “Shall I let her speak with you as well?” Her voice changed with the next words, two voices speaking at the same time, overlain on one another. Exactly in sync, exactly the same words, but two different voices. “Would that comfort you?”
Tolya flinched and laughed, the unexpected sound coughed out. “No! Please, no.” He held up a hand to stop her from saying anything else. “You’re frightening Faiza,” he added, having caught the other woman’s sudden stiffening. “One voice is fine, as long as you promise she can hear me. And that you’re not keeping her from saying anything she needs to say.”
“She’s not.” This time, Zara spoke alone, though the glow about her remained. “She’s sharing everything, I promise, Tolya. It’s just easier to let her have the body.” There was a genuine version of her smile. “You can’t imagine how difficult it is to win a war of wills with a god.”
“No, I can’t. And I’d rather not, thank you,” Tolya added on the next breath and with a glance toward the room’s low ceiling. “Just in case.”
Meilani laughed this time, a soft sound that lifted the hair on Tolya’s arms. “There is no god waiting to possess, little prince. I give you my word.
“Good.” Tolya nodded. “Then let’s go back to where we were. What do you mean, I survived? Lots of people survive.”
The goddess made a thoughtful sound. “I suppose that’s true in a sense. But not like you, Tolya. Were you aware that you were meant to die?”
He smirked. “I had that understanding when Vasil cut me.”
“No, not then,” she quickly countered. “When you were small. When your parents were killed.”
Tolya had long since gotten over the death of his parents, or so he told himself. In the current circumstance, though, they were ever present, the ghosts that haunted his thoughts. The reminder of their assassinations caught him and his breath off guard. “No,” he answered, though his lips and teeth tingled. “I didn’t know. Most of us don’t. Mortals, I mean.” He paused, uncertain whether he wanted to know, and yet needing the truth. “Why didn’t I? Was it one of you?”
“No.” Meilani smiled again. “What is happening now, all of this,” she explained with a gesture at herself, “is not our habit. You mortals live your brief lives and we take notice where we will, but we do not interfere.” Her chin lifted. “But we have never seen a child with your abilities.”
Tolya waited for an explanation. When she didn’t elaborate, he shook his head, meaning that he didn’t understand. She still kept silent and so he prompted, “What abilities exactly?”
“You have been adjusting your own fate from almost the moment you were born.”
Another silence stretched between them. Meilani looked expectant. Tolya simply felt lost. “I don’t understand.”
“Neither do we,” she admitted, sounding almost delighted by her confusion. “Other men have tried to beg and pray and barter their destines away. You simply change yours. To what end, no one can say, because no one can predict you, other than to think you must have something very important to do.”
Slowly but surely, understanding crept in. “Like save the world,” he guessed again. The phrase was beginning to feel familiar and that alarmed him. “If that’s really what we’re trying to do.” The very idea still seemed to large, to impossible to be real. The urge to wave all of this off as a dream reared itself again. “How could I have known I’d grow up to do something like this? I was a baby when my parents were killed. I can’t imagine I had much of a sense of the future.”
“And yet somehow you did. You have caused quite a lot of conversation among my family, Tolya, I can promise you that.”
Great. The gods themselves had been watching his every move, discussing his potential while he’d been, what? Blindly walking toward a bad end? Dragging his family and his friends in with him? “You might have said something sooner,” he muttered. “Given me a few clues that things were going the wrong way.”
“Weren’t you listening?” Meilani asked. “This is the path you have chosen. Where it leads, only you know.”
"I was listening. I'm just having trouble making it make sense." No man controlled his own fate. Such things were in the hands of the gods. Everyone knew that. A man might, if he got lucky, managed to shift his fate a little, nudge it toward one direction, better or worse, by what he did, but control the direction entirely? Nonsense. Impossible.
As impossible as standing and talking with the glowing goddess of the sunrise in his friend's body.
Lips pressed into a tight line, Tolya stuffed the refusal down. If Meilani wanted him to believe he had a say in what came next, he would pretend to believe until the lie became his truth. He would try, anyway.
"Then if we're going anywhere, we're going back to Hightower. We can't win this fight from the middle of nowhere, and I'm not leaving Grandmother alone." Walls could topple, guards could be killed or change their allegiances, but Ilsabeta was his constant. He needed her.
"Well, now that that's all decided, could one of you untie me?" The stranger's voice was sharp and nasal, piercing in comparison to the softness of Zara and Meilani's words. Tolya didn't have a name to put to the speaker, but he'd heard the voice before, while he drifted, while they traveled. He met Meilani's gaze, then stepped sideways to see past her, attention settling on the figure of a small man hunched by the fire.
Faiza stood closest to him, arms folded tightly across her waist as she scowled down at the top of his head. Under the weight of that look, Tolya might have bent his shoulders, too. If the goddess had possessed the younger sister instead of Zara, with that temper shining through her eyes, the man--the prisoner--would have been set ablaze.
He would have been thin and pale in any situation. In comparison to the women, who were well-fed and healthy, he was doubly so. Judging by the width of his shoulders and the length of folded leg, he'd stand no taller than a child at his full height. There was a glint of something in cold blue eyes, though, that gave away the lie behind a youthful face. He wasn't nearly as young as he looked.
Or entirely unknown. It took another moment before the memory snapped into place, but when it did, it straightened Tolya's spine. "You..."
"Me," the boy -- little man -- echoed, the corner of his mouth twisting up into an ugly smile. "Took you long enough to come to your senses. Even longer to remember. I'm not so sure you're the hero they're looking for after all. At the very least, the world's savior should be able to think on his feet."
"He can't be here. Why is he with us?" Tolya jerked his attention back to Meilani. "Why in the gods' names would you bring Ajayi's spy along?"
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