All things considered, Vasil should have been glad to go. He'd been longing for the warmth of home. He craved the strength of the sunlight, unimpeded by the close-built buildings that blocked out the streets of Kerensh. He missed the whistle of wind past his ears, the scent of warm long-grass in the afternoons and the perfume of the Day's End flower that only bloomed at sunset in the height of summer.
Homesick. He exhaled a breath, mouth twisting into a tight, wry line. That was the feeling he'd been fighting. Not hope for the future, as he tried to tell himself. Not eagerness to share the life he'd known with the woman he'd hoped to make his wife. It was plain and pure homesickness.
Going back wouldn't be the same as going home. There was no home to return to, no family waiting to greet him with smiles and open arms. His mother was dead, worn down by too many expectations and too little help. She'd always been a tiny creature. Vasil was taller by a full hand by the time he'd turned ten, but when the coughing started, she got even smaller. They saved for medicine and traveled into the nearest city to find a healer who would treat her for free, but nothing could save her.
When she died, his father disappeared into the streets. Perhaps he'd found a place to hide out at the edges of the plain, close enough to the open lands he loved but far from the places where he'd built a life with her. At least he stayed out of the gambling tents and smoking den; Vasil looked there.
Now and then he would catch Vasil or one of his brothers in an alleyway, press a sack of coins into their hands and be gone again before they could ask how he'd earned them. He never stayed, and one day, he simply stopped turning up at all.
Vasil's brothers were all married, with families and troubles of their own. They'd been close enough, gotten along well, but this mission for the goddess was bound to bring trouble. They didn't deserve to share in the misery she had planned, no matter how much he might have liked their company.
Or any company, for that matter. The trip back would take a full three days, and that only if he moved fast and slept briefly. With a good horse and enough food in his bags, he would only have to stop for water. He knew where the springs and rivers lay between here and there, so he wouldn't wander needlessly. Still, three days with only his thoughts to accompany him would make even a pleasant trip daunting.
His thoughts, of course, would be filled with Marina. The real Marina, not the one being worn by the dark goddess now. His Marina was warm and gentle. Her smile always made him smile in return. There was no hint of malice in it, no chill in her eyes. His Marina had memorized him by the touch of her fingertips, she said. She didn't need to see him as others did to love him twice as much. She was the reason he would follow the goddess's orders, do anything she asked so she would keep her promises.
He snorted and shook his head in disgust, startling the horse he saddled. The dun swiveled an ear toward him and stomped a hoof, then shook its head and snorted as well. Not an echo. A protest. It snapped Vasil out of his downward-spiraling thoughts all the same. Animals knew when to interrupt, when to demand attention and care from the humans surrounding them.
He chuckled and patted the horse's shoulder solidly. "Sorry," he murmured, going back to the business of tightening the girth with a gentler hand. "It's not you. It's me being a fool. What sort of man wants to change the woman who loves him? Having her should be enough."
It was. It would be, even if Ajayi went back on her word. As long as she returned Marina to him alive, he would find a way to make her happy.
Enough of this. He had no more time to waste. As usual, Vasil planned to travel by moonlight. With the city around Hightower under constant patrol now, it would be difficult enough to leave without notice when there were shadows to use to cloak him from sight. He glanced at the sky and the half-full moon looking back. Just enough light to see his way through the streets, but not so much it might reflect from a buckle and give him away. Perfect.
He untied the horse's reins from the hitching post and tossed them over his neck, then swung up into the saddle smoothly and twined the lengths through his hands. He clucked once, lowly, and the horse lifted his head, alert and responsive. That was good. No, better.
Buying a horse untested was a risk in any situation, but there hadn't been time to inspect the animal in nearly the detail a good plainsman should. The gelding had good feet, solid muscle and a bright, intelligent eye. His owner had praised both his epeed and his agility, but it was the beast's endurance Vasil would test.
"Come on then," he mumured, leaning forward to pat the horse again, this time at the base of his neck. "It's a long ride and a short time. Run for me."
It took the barest touch of heel to hide and the gentle pressure of a rein against his neck to spin them down a for-now abandoned street. Vasil could feel muscle bunch beneath his thighs even before he clucked once, quietly, and gave the horse his head. They bolted to and past the edge of the city.
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