"You realize he'll likely kill you."
Tolya tightened his grip on the wagon reins and took a deep breath. Tehu perched beside him on the bench, hands still bound and eyes once more covered, but they still hadn't agreed to stop his mouth. A fact Tolya had quickly come to regret.
"Maybe all of us, just for fun," the boy went on. "It's hard to be certain. Barad's temper is impossible to predict."
It took effort, but Tolya managed not to grind his teeth. "He doesn't have a reason to kill me. My family's always gotten along with Barad and his people." A narrow truth. The reality was more that as long as Barad didn't actively hurt or terrorize people, Hightower tended to look the other way.
"Getting along isn't the same thing as being allies," Tehu pointed out cheerfully. "You're asking him to stand with you against the might of the gods. I don't have many friends who would do that."
Tolya looked sideways at him. "I'm surprised you have any friends. And it's not the might of the gods. It's one god interfering where she doesn't belong and one on his side. Our side."
Tehu snorted. "You can tell the tale as you like. My mistress is still a goddess. And if she wants the rules of the world changed, don't you think some of the rest of them might, too?"
He'd been trying not to wonder just how far this war might go. The boy had a point, irritating as he might be. The fact that Meilani had decided to step into the world, claiming to want to stop her sister, still didn't rest easily on his shoulders. If all she wanted was to stop Ajayi from ruling the world, surely she could have done something from the heavens. She didn't need to take over a human body just to get in the way, did she? She could have left Zara alone.
"Haven't we been through this, little prince?" Zara climbed around the other side of the bench seat, clinging to the back for balance as she swung her leg through open air and dropped onto the wood. She'd always been graceful, but not quite that daring. With the goddess in control of her body, her fears no longer mattered.
Tolya took a breath and willed his shoulders to relax. "Been through which part? You mending Zara's body and keeping her alive, or picking thoughts out of my head without permission?" He dared a glance at her, then smiled just a little. "I wish you wouldn't, by the way."
"Too many ages of listening to prayers. I don't mean to do it. Forgive me."
As if holding a grudge against her would solve anything. He ducked his head. "Of course."
"Fool," Tehu muttered.
They both ignored him. "I don't blame you for being wary," Meilani said. "In your place, I would be just as skeptical, I imagine. If you cannot trust me, however, you should trust Zara. She would never lie to you or do anything at all to put you more in harm's way."
Tolya sighed, tension leaving his shoulders in earnest now. "I know," he admitted. "And I do trust her. She's put hers in you so I will, as well. It's just a lot to take in all at once."
A silence fell between them, one Tehu miraculously observed. The road ahead stretched out smoothly toward the horizon, with nothing and no one else in sight moving toward them. The horses were content to draw them straight ahead without wavering, and so Tolya took the opportunity to take a longer look at the goddess at his side.
This close, without other distractions, Tolya could see other little ways in which the goddess under Zara's skin changed her appearance. Zara's always-careful was even more formal now, every bit as regal as his grandmother's in the middle of court. She looked older, too. Not unkindly aged, but as though time had leapt forward for her and she'd matured into the woman she would be one day. Someone's wife and mother, content in her home, with her family.
Which thought made his chest feel oddly tight. He shook it off, squaring his shoulders and clearing his throat. "Are you the reason why I saw everything?" When she only lifted an eyebrow, he pressed. "Zara doesn't have the power to walk me through my memories. That was you."
Meilani tilted her head. "Yes and no. Zara chose the memories. I simply let her guide me. She insisted that you needed them. That bringing you back from the edge of death without explanation would leave you confused beyond all curing." A hint of mischief danced into her eyes like a spark of flame. "We may have wandered a bit. She wasn't used to choosing just one from a lifetime of so many. The important ones were there, at least. They made you understand."
Another laugh burst free of him, making Tehu flinch and startling a sleepy noise of protest from Faiza as she dozed in the wagon bed. "I don't think I do understand yet, Meilani. From what I've seen and what you've told me, I don't think there's enough time left to understand."
Tehu sucked in a breath before he groaned. "And you're supposed to be the next Emperor? May you rule without challenge so we don't have to hear you complain your enemies to death!"
Tolya entertained a brief fantasy of shoving the boy off the edge of his seat. He saw Tehu, in his mind's eye, bouncing along the road behind the wagon, a tumbling cloud of limbs and dirt as they left the nuisance behind.
Meilani sounded amused when she suggested, "You sound tired, Tehu. Maybe you should sleep."
With the command, the blindfolded man's head dropped onto his chest. A moment later, a faint snoring began.
Meilani shrugged when Tolya looked at her in surprise. The gesture was all Zara, but the smugly satisfied smile was not. "A man needs his rest, and it was better than the fate you had planned for him."
"That was a thought, not a plan," Tolya protested, though he couldn't help grinning at the look she gave him. "It doesn't matter now. I wouldn't dump him while he's sleeping." A ruler couldn't afford to be petty, as his grandmother would have said.
The thought sobered him. Tolya's smile faded away.
"I'm sorry, Tolya." Zara laid her hand against his forearm. Zara, not the goddess. That much was clear by the faint smile she gave him when he met her gaze. "I'm sorry that we've rushed you. That there isn't more time to explain. I'm sorry for... well. A lot of things that I hope I'll be able to fix one day." She squeezed his arm. "We'll get through this. All of us together." She ducked her head to keep his attention when he might have looked away. "You believe me, don't you?"
His laughter this time was soft, more breath than air. "How can you even ask that of me?"
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