Rest in peace, Mr. Clark.
In personal writing news, another chapter on a mystery chapter is finished. Go me! This is a collaborative project, so that means I'm off the hook on it, for a little while. Doesn't mean I'm done writing though. I have more stuff in the pipes. Don't we all? More stories, more books, and more ideas than most of us will ever, ever commit to the page.
But let's not dwell on that. Let's dwell on the words that exist, shall we? :) There they are, under the jump.
He expected to walk from scene to scene now. When Tolya passed through his grandmother's doorway, he realized, he was sure he'd find himself in the audience hall as he had the first time he'd met Marina.
Her father would be there, proud and severe. Grandmother would be waiting, a blanket of green and gold draping her knees, her posture picture-perfect despite the wheels on her chair. There would be talks, he'd sign the paper and the scribe would guide Marina's hand, watching over her as she wrote out her name with painstaking care. The match would be made.
But it wasn't the audience hall or the waiting emissaries from Kerensh. It was Zara, who stood beside him in the barren, abandoned room, and slid her hand into his. It was just the two of them.
She nodded. "I know. But that wasn't the important part. What you need to see is what came before, and how you were tricked into taking the wrong path." She squeezed his hand and stepped toward the dark doorway. He followed. She didn't give him a choice. "Remember the rain?"
* * *
It was generally considered bad luck for the skies to open up in the wake of a celebration. When Tolya's impending marriage had been announced, the cheer from the listening crowd was muted by the sharp clap-and-roll of a thunderburst. Rain began to fall a moment later. And yet the people of Hightower and Kerensh were happy, their spirits unchanged by the weather.
They walked in the middle of a stream of staggering revelers. No one seemed to notice them, and yet somehow they veered out of the path, collapsing against one another or leaning suddenly on a friend's shoulder, safely out of the way.
"Stay close to me," Zara warned, tightening her grip on his hand. "Not everyone here is a friend."
As if on cue, Vasil wandered into sight, his steps significantly more steady than the men and women he passed. He clutched a wineskin in his right hand, his knuckles white around the neck, like he'd crush the grapes all over again. His jaw was set and when his shoulder collided with another's, he didn't stop or look back.
"Here." Zara tugged Tolya sideways, into the alcove in front of a shop door. "We'll watch from here."
"Can they see us?" None of the men passing by would meet Tolya's gaze.
"They can't," she answered with a nod at a drunken man who half-mumbled a song as he scuffed by. "But she might."
"Hush! And watch."
Vasil paused directly before them. He lifted the wineskin to his mouth like he'd drink, but stopped and scowled at the soft leather. He made a low noise and thrust it roughly toward a small man in a tattered vest. "Here. It's yours. I don't want it anymore."
The ragged man paused, considered the wine now in his hands, and a grin split his face. "Thank you, sir. I'll be warm tonight. My the kindness done a stranger fatten your wallet in turn." He clutched the skin against his chest and scuttled off into the darkness and rain.
Vasil snorted at his back. "May I never grow wealthy," he countered under his breath. "Riches are the curse of the dull of mind and weak of heart."
"You don't mean that."
Tolya flinched in time with Vasil. The voice came from behind them. A figure folded from the shadows as he turned. It was thin, almost skeletal, and very tall. It moved like a puppet, knees jerking up and tugged forward for each step. As it stepped into the light on the street, it became an unfortunately-favored man.
Vasil's posture was abrupt bravado, shoulders back and chest pushed forward. He lifted his chin. "Where did you come from?"
The man—no, gangly boy—glanced at the sky. The rain tapered off and a patch of cloud cover drifted away from the moon. It shone in his eyes for a moment, flashing silver. "From my mother and father, I imagine, like you and everyone else."
Vasil squinted. "Do I know you?"
The boy pushed past Vasil, fabric of his sleeve brushing Vasil’s hand. Vasil shook it like he was trying to get rid of something. The long-limbed stranger hitched up a hit and sat on the lip of a nearby vacant barrel. "Everyone knows me," he answered, grinning widely. "Tehu, that's my name. And you're Vasil. Everyone knows you, too."
Vasil scowled. "I don't need any more medicine, if that's what you're here for. I won't need any at all anymore." He paused for breath, chest swelling full. "Most who know me know better than to surprise me in the dark. You're lucky I wasn't on patrol."
Tehu's grin split impossibly wider. "You have eyes like a cat, Vasil. If your thoughts had been on yourself, and not on Marina's skirts, you'd have seen me coming and had me pinned to the earth before I'd said a word."
Vasil's shoulders hitched. "What are you talking about?"
Tehu laughed and the hairs at the back of Tolya's neck stood on end. "Marina."
Anger flashed through Vasil's expression. He balled his fists. "What about her?"
Tehu's hands, immaculately clean, lifted in a gesture of defense. "Nothing more than an observation. She distracts you, makes you careless and no matter what you say you'd give up everything you have for her if she asked."
Vasil hesitated a moment, then nodded once. "She knows that all she has to do is say the word. Ask, and I would ... it hardly matters. What do you want?"
"Would you give her your life?" Tehu grinned again. Leaning forward, he propped an elbow on his leg and his chin on his balled fist, moon-bright eyes steady in their regard of the older man. "How far you've fallen, chieftain's son."