"Ajayi's spy has a name you know," the other man sneered, twisting where he sat. By shifting his weight and wiggling around, he managed to face Tolya and lifted his chin defiantly. "It's Tehu. And they brought me because they think I'm their prisoner." He smirked. "The more likely answer is Ajayi thinks it's funny to leave me here for a while. When she wants me, I'll be gone, and there's nothing you can do."
Tolya surged toward him without thought or clear intent. He wanted to get a hand on him, to jerk him to his feet and make him explain what had happened and how and why he deserved to live.
Zara got in his way. She stepped into his path smoothly, forcing him to pull up short. Zara. Not the goddess. The glow had faded. Her eyes were green and the hand she laid against his chest, above his heart, didn't burn with heat. It was a simple, gentle, staying touch.
"He's not worth it," she told him. "If you give in to your temper and hurt him, they win. They'll use all of your aggressions against you, turn those who still believe in you to their side."
The weight of her hand calmed him. Beneath her palm, his thundering heartbeat slowed down. He drew in a breath, held it, and exhaled slowly, aware of how close she stood. "He shouldn't be here. If Ajayi uses his eyes--"
"She'll know where we are," Zara finished for him, her faintest smile once more touching her mouth. "We kept him blindfolded on the journey out here. We'll cover his eyes again when we head back. If the dark goddess wants to spend the time in between searching for every abandoned stone house in the empire, let her. It doesn't hurt us to distract her. It certainly won't strengthen her hold at home."
Eyebrows lifting ever so slightly, Tolya asked, "When did you become such a wise tactician?"
"When a goddess took her over and started using Zara at her whim." Tehu sounded, looked, far too smug. "Don't believe all that mumbling about how they keep each other informed. And don't think your helpful goddess is any less likely to pull strings and manipulate than my mistress. They are sisters, after all."
"You don't know anything about sisters," Faiza all but snarled.
"Don't I?" Tehu countered. "I have a family. Sisters, too. Three of them. Always arguing." He frowned thoughtfully. "I wonder why Meilani chose to use Zara's body and not yours, Faiza. Not pretty enough? Or is it that you're just not as smart?"
"Enough." Zara closed her eyes. When she opened them again, she remained in control, but her smile was full of apology rather than warmth. Dropping her hand, she turned to face the other two, stepping toward them and the fire. "You were obviously the annoying little brother," she guessed. "Pulling hair and stealing shoes because you thought it was funny."
"Fun, not funny. There's a difference," Tehu said.
"There's not, because neither of them are," Zara answered. "Stop trying to pull us apart. It won't work and I don't want to hear it while we eat." She sat on a bit of broken stone beside him, and reached for the stirring spoon in a pot Tolya hadn't noticed, hidden beside the fire.
"Of course." Tehu ducked his head, for the moment, every inch the obedient boy. "But if you don't want to have to feed me, I'll need my hands." He held them up in front of him. A thick strip of leather bound them together at the wrists.
"And if you don't want to starve, you won't try to bite me." Faiza sat at his other side.
"Come and sit," Zara prompted when Tolya waited a little too long. She set the pot into the fire itself and kept on stirring. "You have to eat. It's not much, but it's what we've got."
Tolya shook himself and went to join them. Without the benefit of another chunk of rock, he simply sank to the ground across the fire from the snitch. From there, he could seem them all and watch Tehu more directly. "What do we have?" he wondered, since he clearly hadn't helped with the hunt.
"Lizard," Faiza reported, nose crinkling. "And a few roots."
"Scraps," Tehu added, the challenge in his eyes unmistakable. "Certainly nothing fit for someone like you to eat, prince. You'll be gagging on a leg bone before long, just you wait."
Tolya met Tehu's gaze and let a smile touch his lips. "It's a wonder you're still talking." PRoof that Zara'd been in charge. "It makes me wonder how exactly they caught you. Someone with your oh-so-sharpened wit should have been able to avoid a pair of girls pretty easily, I would think."
Faiza broke into a bright grin. Zara ducked her head a little, but not enough to hide the widening of her smile.
And Tehu, predictably, stopped grinning. "Don't forget, little princeling, they had a goddess on their side."
"And so did you," Tolya answered. "I mean, if as you say, Ajayi thinks this is all fun and games, then clearly she steered you toward them. Pushed you into their arms?"
"We found him in the stable," Faiza reported cheerfully. "Hiding beneath a wagon. He did draw a dagger, but then Zara took it from him, and that was that." She gave the now-grim-faced man a nudge. "He's a terror."
"If I had my hands," he warned.
"But you don't and you won't so you might as well stop whining." Her attention flickered to Tolya, full of conspiratorial glee. "I tried to tell Zara she should cover his mouth but she was afraid he'd choke on his tongue if he got angry. I say we'd be better off."
Zara's sister lifted a shoulder, letting the scold roll off. "You can be the polite one. I'll tell the truth." That said, she rose and left the house, a wash of cooler air making the flames dance before the door closed again.
Zara slanted a glance Tolya's direction, then looked to the pot she stirred again. "They've been at each other like this since we left Hightower. The minute Tehu realized we didn't plan to kill him, actually."
"Because you're fools," Tehu muttered.
"Because, despite your threats and talking, you haven't done anything to deserve death."
"Except picked the wrong side."
Zara lifted her head and looked at him. "Is that a reason for death?"
Eyebrows climbing, he looked to Tolya and back before his expression lightened with incredulity. "Is that a serious question? Is she--do you mean that? Have you not been paying attention? We did try to kill you. That's what enemies do."
"And look how far it's gotten you. All of us." The door opened and Faiza returned, carrying a small stack of rough-hewn wooden bowls.
Tehu rolled his eyes dramatically. "Right, I'd almost forgotten. Meilani chose the girl who doesn't believe in war to be her champion."
"There's a difference between believing in war and liking it," Zara pointed out, taking the bowls Faiza offered. She scooped a small amount of the soup they'd scraped together into each and passed them around, handing the first to Tolya. "And a bigger difference between liking it and wishing the war stories had stayed that way. Stories."
Tolya gave her a brief sympathetic smile. Goddess inside her or not, this part of Zara hadn't changed. As he grew up, he'd been put through training. He knew how to fight, how to defend himself and his lands. He'd been taught and drilled on tactics and strategies, how to command a force of soldiers and when to retreat.
Zara had none of that training. She refused to play even simple games if it meant one side ganged up on the other. He'd seen her shoo a flock of servants into action and watched her create order out of panicked chaos on feast days, but draw a sword or lift a shield and she wanted nothing to do with it.
"Stories don't want to stay that way for us, do they? Thanks." The soup was hot and smelled good enough to eat. His stomach growled in response to the scent and he tried to remember exactly how long it had been since he'd last eaten anything other than broth and stale water.
Tehu made a revolted noise after Faiza fed him a spoonful. "That's a hasty thank you. Taste it first."
"Fine. You don't have to have more, then," Faiza spat at him. Tolya didn't miss the hesitation before she took a spoonful for herself, but she didn't protest and the face she made was slight as she swallowed.
Tolya ignored the spoon, tipped his bowl and drank.
The soup -- it was too thin to count as stew -- was edible, at best. He'd made the right choice in eating it fast, but he felt certain it would stay down. That was the point, wasn't it? Not to please the palate but fill the stomach, to keep them going so they could go home and set things right.
Which meant they had to get back to civilization. Which meant they had to have somewhere to go.
"How far did the fighting spread?" Tolya asked once he'd swallowed the last grisly bit of meat that had been in his bowl. He set it aside, not at all sure he wanted to study the dregs left at the bottom too closely. "I only remember the courtyard teeming. Where Ajayi's soldiers anywhere else?"
Zara and Faiza looked at one another, almost seeming to share a thought, then Zara shook her head. "We left in a hurry, but all of her men seemed to be intent on Hightower itself. No one tried to stop us when we left the city." She paused a moment then asked, "What are you thinking? Who do you mean to ask for help?"
"Someone who can feed us. House us. Someone with plenty of men." Tolya looked to Tehu. "How well do you know the river paths?"
The skinny man held up a hand, palm forward. "Like the marks on my hand. I grew up along the river. We have to know our ways."
As he suspected. Tolya nodded. "Good. Then if you want your hands unbound, you'll take us back to Kerensh." Gaze shifting back to Zara, he explained, "We're going to Barad Dur."
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