The only light that entered Nikolay’s pit cell was a treacherous gleam high above—a hint of stars, blue sky, and stars again that marked the dragging nights and days. Most of the light smothered itself out on the way down, and only shadows lurked at the bottom.
Had his plans succeeded, Nikolay wouldn’t have been among those shadows anymore. He would have been far away, most likely in a Dalnushka, seeking the key to distilling the potion he’d won off Zakhar—the potion that might save his life, if he could filter its poison in time. But the best laid plans have a habit of going awry—in Nikolay’s case, more often than most. This time, it had come in the form of a manacle upgrade: a newer model, stubbornly impervious to the key he’d squirreled away under the flagstones as insurance, and when he’d tried to pick the lock, his tools had melted in his hands.
Apart from the manacles, the secret fail-safes Nikolay had built into the pit cell to escape imprisonment had worked perfectly. The password-protected flagstone beneath the straw-covered floor had opened to reveal an emergency vault stocked with food, blankets, lock-picks, and a key that would have been sufficient to open Magic Manacle Version 1.0. There was also a self-concealing knife which might (Nikolay couldn’t remember) have been laced with a nefarious, fast-acting poison.
The first visitors to his cell—the avtorka and that insufferable battle-mage whose name Nikolay couldn’t remember—had stayed out of reach of his knife. Then had come Kir, sobbing and so obnoxiously grief-stricken that Nikolay had snapped at him to go away.
After that, there was a long stretch of time where no one visited at all. Long enough that Nikolay, ever the pessimist, began to wonder if the castle had fallen to another attack.
Each minute chafed, the slow ebb of time that matched the seconds ticking precariously away from his life. The pain of his Oath-scar crashed over him, sinking through the cracks in his composure, flooding his mind. It was fire, it was ice, it was salt on an open wound. That was what the potions and his magic had kept at bay, and now, bereft of both, he was only a shadow of a person, curled in on himself, captive to his pain.
It wasn’t until the fourth day, as he stared up at the distant sky, trying to distract himself from the burning in his arm, that the sharp Crack! of a teleportation heralded a visitor.
Nikolay struggled to his knees. His Oath-scar throbbed. On the opposite side of the cell, he heard Healer Tatyana’s voice, questioning. There was a rumble of response, and another crackle of teleportation.
Nikolay tensed, a hand on his knife.
The tsar of Somita stepped into the light.
The tsar stood straight, but he moved slowly, his pale eyes sunken, his breathing steady. Nikolay knew what lay beneath that composure—the burning in his arm wouldn’t let him forget. He collapsed back against the wall, grimacing with mixed agony and annoyance, as the tsar’s footsteps shuffled across the flagstones. There was the pop of a vial being uncorked. Glass pressed against Nikolay’s lips, and the familiar scent of a healing draught met his nostrils.
Nikolay thought about refusing, but not seriously; he was too far gone for that. Gradually, the pain in his arm eased. When he could breathe without gasping, he raised his head.
“I don’t suppose you could leave some more potions down here?” he rasped. “Otherwise, you might as well kill me and be done with it. Unless you’re planning to free me from these chains…?”
The tsar didn’t move.
“I thought not.” Nikolay leaned back. “Very well. Kill me now, please. Tell Kir he can have my solar, but he’s not to touch the mandrake in the back room. For a creature that’s mostly leaves and flowers, it can be quite vicious when provoked.”
Still, the tsar watched Nikolay, silent, pensive. The creeping gold shadows that riddled his body flickered in Nikolay’s magesight; they had spread since before.
Irritation swamped Nikolay, even as he looked away. He’d hoped the tsar would rage or glare or lecture him. The silence, the disappointment in the tsar’s eyes—these were a different kind of seriousness, one that he didn’t want to face.
A memory sprang to his mind: his younger self, only eleven, standing beneath Kir and another friend as they dueled on wyverns, offering to spot alone in a fit of pride. Kir had tumbled out of range of his magical net, hitting his head on a rock, and Nikolay had scrambled back to the castle in blind panic. It had been the last time he’d begged forgiveness in his father’s arms—the last time he’d cried.
You could tell him now, said a sly voice at the back of his mind. Tell the truth about Kir. See if he believes you. See which son he chooses to support.
The thought settled over him, churning his gut. He opened his mouth—whether to speak or draw breath he didn’t know—but before any sound could emerge, the tsar spoke, shredding his thoughts like a knife.
“Sifting truth from lies is the job of a ruler. And yet, some truths are better left buried. Wouldn’t you agree?”
His eyes were thoughtful, searching, with a hint of calculation.
All thoughts of telling the truth evaporated like mist, and Nikolay reminded himself, with a sudden sharp anger, that he didn’t trust the tsar, didn’t trust him one inch, hadn’t trusted him ever since Parshin’s Pass.
“My truth is what you see of me.” He smiled, self-deprecating and cynical, an expression he had worn so often it was almost second nature. “I wanted to be free of my Oath-spell. It’s not like I haven’t killed before—many times, on your orders. I’m a vicious murderer. Isn’t that what you always wished from me?”
The tsar didn’t flinch. But Nikolay knew—from the way his brows drew together, from the sudden stiffness in his shoulders—that his words had struck home.
“When,” said the tsar, and there was sorrow in his voice, “did you grow to hate yourself so?”
Nikolay’s eyebrows flew up. “I beg your pardon?”
The tsar shook his head. He wore an odd expression, almost worried. “What did Zakhar say to you when he persuaded you to help him?”
“Oh, you know.” Nikolay waved a hand. “He promised me the Oath potion. Power. Riches. The usual things.”
The tsar studied him—a long, searching look. “Anything else?”
“What else would he have promised me?”
The tsar didn’t answer. He leaned forward and slowly, shakily, reached for the manacles that bound Nikolay’s wrists.
Nikolay recoiled. “What are you doing?”
“Setting you free.” The tsar shrugged. “You’ll trick your way out of here sooner or later even if I don’t, or get up to worse mischief. I know you have a poisoned knife strapped to your arm, and who knows what other smuggled weapons you’ve stashed around the cell. No need to delay the inevitable.”
He inserted the key into the lock.
Nikolay laughed, though inside he was fuming. “Using me again, are we?” he said. “Isn’t it marvelous, how thoroughly useful I am to you?”
“Not at all,” said the tsar. “The choice is yours and always has been.”
“Oh yes,” Nikolay mocked. “What delightful choices you’ve always given me! Bring down the mountain, or lose the war. Steal a dragon’s egg, or risk the fate of the world. Perhaps I should let the avtorka write what she wants; it might be just what we deserve.”
“It might also prove disastrous,” the tsar said mildly. “She thinks too much, and about the wrong things. Perhaps if she had fallen in love with Kir, or if you had seduced her in the beginning as I suggested, we would have more sway over her.”
“Perhaps she won’t pass her third godstest at all,” said Nikolay. “Isn’t that where they all fail? And then what would you have me do? Defeat an army of sudok single-handed? Bring down another mountain on Kanach?”
“Whatever appears reasonable or necessary,” the tsar said.
The second manacle fell to the floor with a clatter.
He leapt from the ground, fueled half by magic, half by fury, and brought his hidden knife up to brush the tsar’s neck.
Both stood for a moment, tense, barely breathing. I could do it, thought Nikolay, half-crazed with adrenaline. But he knew he couldn’t. Even with the pain potion, his Oath-scar still blazed with pain. If he should kill the tsar, whether by accident or on purpose, they both knew what would happen. He would be consumed by his Oath-scar for breaking his Oath, and he would die in the most painful way imaginable. Even the healing draughts would be no help.
“You’ve messed up this time,” he hissed. “I’m not going to help you. I already have an Oath potion; I just need to go to the Pool of Dreams to distill out the poison. I don’t need the avtorka, and I don’t need you. It was stupid of you to trust a traitor.”
The tsar said nothing. Nikolay put the knife away, then grabbed the bag with its pain potions off the floor, slung it over his shoulder, and was just about to teleport away when the rasp of a throat clearing caused him to go still.
“Nikolay,” said the tsar. “If something should go wrong, travel to Lidea’s house. Kir and I will meet you there. And—”
Against his better judgment, Nikolay looked behind him. The tsar’s body was stooped. His eyes held infinite weariness.
“No matter what you see or hear in the Pool of Dreams… I still consider myself your father.”