The Rest is Riddles

Chapter 10: Illusions of Romance

Jane dreamed.

She stood in a small room surrounded by mirrors, which covered every inch of wall. Instead of her reflection, each mirror showed a different place. One looked into a narrow dungeon cell with a prisoner crouched at the bottom. Beside it, a wide, square mirror reflected a stone temple bathed in moonlight. The temple clung to the side of a mountain, and if Jane squinted, she could just make out a winding trail of stairs carved into the cliff’s edge

That’s where the Book of Truths is kept.”

Jane turned.

The speaker was short, round, and golden, with a face like a cherry and a body to match. Every part of her body glowed, as though she radiated sunbeams. Curls like birthday ribbons spilled across her shoulders. Her hair, combined with the many wide frills on her dress, gave Jane the impression of a layer cake gone horribly wrong.

“Don’t you know to bow before your goddess?” said the woman crossly.

Jane bowed. Her head was fuzzy with sleep.

“Sorry. Where am I?”

“In the home of the gods—isn’t it obvious? I am Avdotya, the goddess of love.”

Jane rubbed her eyes. She felt slow and bewildered, like the time she’d borrowed a suitemate’s Ambien to help her sleep. She tried to dredge up what she’d read about the gods the previous day. Avdotya was one of the major goddesses, second only to the Mother Goddess, Divna. The book said she was tetchy, vain, and quick to anger.

The goddess conjured a pouf and settled onto it with an aggrieved sigh. Her plump fingers twirled her hair. She studied Jane with impatience, like an exterminator studies a mouse.

“Is—” Jane pinched her forearm, hoping the pain would wake her up faster. “Is this my first godstest?”

“Oh, no. That’s not going to be for another few weeks! My sister Divna ordered me to meet you now, to ‘help me make an informed decision about which option I should pick for your godstest’ or some nonsense. She’s probably spying on us right now.”

There was a whining, petulant note to Avdotya’s voice that made Jane uneasy. The glare in the goddess’ eyes suggested she wanted to be here almost as little as Jane did.

Jane’s eyes shifted again to the mirrors. She tried to find the mirror with the stone temple on the mountainside, but there were too many. The image of a trench caught her eye. Men in dark uniforms sat around a magical fire, sharing drinks.

Avdotya clicked her tongue. “It is rude to ignore your goddess!”


“Not much for talking, are you? I don’t know what Divna sees in you. Did you ever do anything interesting back home, aside from study, study, study? Did you date boys? Fight crime? Save your dying sister? Brood over some dark drama that occurred in your past?”


“I guess not!” Avdotya threw up her arms. “And you have no romantic interest in the crown prince? None whatsoever? If you had any decency, you could at least give me that much!” She collapsed backward on the pouf, her many skirts billowing. “What about Nikolay?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Nikolay? Black-haired sorcerer with an attitude problem? He’s been teaching you magic; I thought you’d have learned his name by now-”

“I know who he is.” Jane stifled a yawn. “He left me on a rooftop this morning.”

“I’ll put him down as a maybe, with concern for abusive tendencies!” Avdotya sniffed. “Really, who else is there at this point? Casimir is out of the question, Drazan is married, and the tsar is much too old. Olesya is single, if you are interested in women—are you interested in women, may I ask?”

Jane gaped at her. Perhaps she was dreaming after all. The visit was already so surreal, she wondered if some of the healing ointments Casimir gave her earlier had been accidentally suffused with LSD. “I’m interested in getting back to Earth alive!”

Her voice was too loud. It echoed off the mirrors.

Avdotya’s gaze darkened, and Jane felt her well-being slip several notches.

“Sorry,” Jane said. “That is—I didn’t mean to offend you.”

The door opened, and an old woman sidled in. A colorful knit shawl covered her head and neck. Beneath the shawl Jane made out features-a withered nose and wrinkled forehead and wry, sprightly eyes. She carried a tray with what looked like tea and croissants.

“Not, now Lidea,” Avdotya snapped. “Can’t you see I’m busy? Give it to Sidor, if he’s done sulking in his room.”

The old woman left, with an apologetic glance at Jane.

Avdotya sighed. “I tire of this foolery. Your first godstest, my godstest, will be soon, and since Divna didn’t give me the option of stranding you on a desert island with one of your possible love interests, this one will be boring… as usual. You’ll probably die – honestly, I don’t care one way or another at this point. Divna, can you please send her back now? I’m so sick of this—”

“Wait—” said Jane.

A gold haze surrounded her. The room with mirrors faded, replaced by the darkness of her bedroom in the palace. Jane sank onto her bed, rubbing her eyes.

It was a long time before she fell back to sleep.


When she opened the door in response to Kir’s knock the next morning, the prince’s face collapsed into a relieved smile. “You’re all right!” he said. “I was afraid you’d be angry! You looked ready to murder us yesterday after that fall. I’ve had words with my brother, strong words! So has Father! It won’t happen again. Are your hands better? Divna, they were bleeding quite horribly yesterday-I’m so sorry-”

Not for the first time, she marveled at how different the two brothers were. The fact that Kir had bothered to apologize when he hadn’t been at fault spoke volumes for his personality.

Avdotya’s words about Kir came back to her, and chills shivered across her spine. Her memories of the previous night were admittedly vague, but in the cold light of day, the encounter seemed sinister. The goddess had spoken of the crown prince-of love interests-of Jane’s possible death…

Kir watched her with a worried frown.

Jane forced a smile. “Thanks for being so concerned.” Her hands felt clammy. She wiped them on her training clothes. “I’m okay-Casimir healed me up yesterday.”

“You have no romantic interest in the crown prince? If you had any decency, you could at least give me that much…”

Jane stared up at Kir’s unassuming face with its freckles and overlarge nose. It wasn’t an ugly face. His eyes, at least, were kind. She tried to feel something—a spark of attraction, a flicker of desire—but she felt only awkwardness and mild embarrassment. It was like trying to feel romantically attracted to the neighborhood corgi.

Ah well. Here goes nothing. “I’ve been wondering.” She clasped her hands to hide their shaking. “Why did you kiss me the first day I was here?”

Kir beamed at her. His face glowed like a beacon.

“Ever since I was young,” he said, “I hoped my true love would be an avtorka. Mother and Father were both very happy… before Mother passed away.”

His expression was painfully hopeful.

Jane felt a stab of guilt. She shouldn’t do this-she really should not do this-it was wrong; it was deceptive; she was not a nice person-

If I don’t pass my godstests, I’ll never go home. And a happy examiner is a generous examiner…

Jane reached forward and took Kir’s hand. It was a tentative gesture. She hadn’t dated much back home, unless you counted a few awkward excursions to ice cream shops with fellow nerds from high school…

His palm was warm against hers. His radiant smile made her insides twist with guilt.

It’s only until I finish my godstestsAfter that, I can apologize for pretending to like him. It’s not like I’ll be staying in Mir, anyway; any romance here is doomed to fail when I return to Earth…

“Tell me about your mother,” she said as they strode, hand in hand, toward the practice courts. “What was she like?”

“She died when I was four… but I remember her a little. She had gold hair and amber eyes. They say she was the most beautiful woman on the continent, and even the gods were in love with her! She was very brave and good at magic – everyone in the palace adored her -”

“She seems like a wonderful woman.” Privately, Jane thought she sounded like a Mary Sue, but Kir undoubtedly had a distorted view of her. “I wish I could have met her. If you don’t mind my asking… how did she die?”

“There was an accident in the palace. A magical explosion.”

“An enemy attack?”

Kir hesitated. “From Kanach,” he said finally, but Jane wondered if there was more to the story than he was letting on. “The explosion killed her.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It was many years ago. I could take you to visit her grave sometime, if you like.” His forehead wrinkled. “Sorry! That was a stupid suggestion – you probably want to go somewhere that’s actually romantic! There are many better places, like the astronomy tower, or the Magicore rooftop -”

“I’d love to see your mother’s grave.”

His face broke into a relieved smile. “Really?”

“Yes.” The noose of guilt tightened around her throat, until she felt like it might choke her. She didn’t meet his eyes. “It’ll have to be later, though. The sun’s almost up! We should probably do some practicing before Olesya gets here.”


After the drama of the previous day, Jane dreaded facing Nikolay, but he greeted her with surprising cordiality when she arrived for their afternoon lesson. Of course, ‘cordiality’ from Nikolay meant glares and some impatient sighing, but she’d take what she could get.

“Just to clarify,” she said, as she sat down beside him. “There will be no more rooftop excursions today? Or rooftop equivalents, like launching me off a wyvern… attacking me with an angry horde of swordsmen… slipping poison into my drink and forcing me to save myself…”

Don’t tempt me.” His fingers drummed against his armrest. “I think I have impressed you with your own mortality enough for one week. Practice levitation until you get tired, and then you can leave.”

Prince Kir must have yelled at him something awful. Guilt twisted her insides again. Surprise kissing attacks notwithstanding, Kir was not a bad human being.

Nikolay settled back in his chair. A cauldron simmered next to him; it gurgled with brown liquid. He stirred it absently with magic and flipped the pages of his book, pausing every-so-often to scratch the azdaja beneath the chin. When it became clear he had no interest in watching her, Jane shrugged and commenced trying to levitate herself.

It was by far the most successful lesson she’d had in Nikolay’s tower. By the end of it, she could raise herself a foot off the ground, high enough to touch the plants that hung from his ceiling. She resisted the urge to cheer as she collapsed, panting, in the chair by Nikolay’s desk. She still had to figure out how to actually stay aloft…

“Do you know how soon most godstests happen, after an avtorka arrives on Mir?” she asked Nikolay. “How much time I’ll have to learn all these things?”

He didn’t look up from stirring. “From what I’ve read, the tests occur when the gods decide the avtorka is ready.”

“How will I know-”

“You will know.”

Jane stared at the simmering cauldron. The potion had gone from brown to green and now gave off a distinctly fishy odor. “How will I know,” she repeated, “that it’s the gods who are testing me, and not just you messing with my head?”

The ghost of a smile flickered over his face. A second later, the smile was replaced by a spasm of pain. The azdaja hissed and curled protectively around his arm. Nikolay murmured something and disentangled the azdaja with surprising tenderness. He reached for a potion on his workbench and quaffed it in one swallow.

Jane watched him thoughtfully. “I… heard your father’s getting sicker,” she said. “Is that why you’re-like this?”



“The tsar is not my true father. He adopted me when I was young.”

Jane shrugged, trying to keep her expression neutral. “Just because he’s not your real dad doesn’t mean he doesn’t care for you as much as Kir. My parents -”

Jane broke off. It was hard, even now, to push thoughts of her family from her mind. She had never been without communication with her mom for this long. Over the past few days, Jane had often found herself reaching for the pocket where she’d stashed her battery-dead cell phone, only to draw her hand back.

“My parents didn’t think they could have kids.” She shook her head. “They were wrong, of course, but they adopted my older brother Phillip before they realized, when he was just a baby. And-” She smiled ruefully. “He was definitely their favorite.”

Sometimes, I think they loved him more.

She glanced at Nikolay’s unmoved face and toward the azdaja, who was now coiled around Nikolay’s leg. “I don’t know what’s made you so bitter toward your – toward the tsar,” she said, “but he seems to be doing a lot right now to keep you alive.”

He snorted. “Don’t be fooled by his seeming concern. Everything the tsar does is for the good of Somita and Kir. The country would fall to pieces if it lost both me and the tsar, so he asked you to break my Oath. He intends for me to live on to continue our glorious fight with the Kanachskiy, as the sole battle mage who can truly deter them.”

He really thinks a lot of himself. “I don’t suppose it’s possible,” said Jane, “that the tsar cares for both you and your brother simultaneously?”

Nikolay shot her the blankest of stares.

Oookay. Time to switch subjects before I get all my fingers broken. “What are the terms of your Oath?” she asked, in a much smaller voice than before.

“I protect the tsar. If I fail to protect him – if he dies from any cause – then I die. I feel every second he is in danger; it reaches through my Oath scar like a knife.”

Jane swallowed. “That’s… that’s actually really awful.”

“Oath-spells often are.” His voice was mocking. “The world is full of unfairness, Avtorka. Do I need to throw you off another rooftop to drive that lesson home to you?”

She took a step back.

Leave,” he said. “I’ve had enough of your questions for one day.”

He sank down in his chair. Before closing the door, she chanced a glance over her shoulder. He lay curled up against the armchair, unmoving, fingers pressed against his forearm.


Life settled into an exhausting routine. In the mornings, Jane practiced combat with Kir and Olesya; afternoons were spent with Nikolay and Casimir. There was barely time for anything except studying, meals, and sleep, but Jane was used to that.

What she wasn’t used to was hand-to-hand combat. It was hard to undo twenty years of ingrained pacifism, and Jane firmly believed violence was wrong. Disagreements should be solved by communication and compromise, and in extreme cases, a savage attorney – not by bludgeoning your enemy with a fist, and certainly not by dismemberment and death.

Jane knew she frustrated Commander Olesya, who could not understand why Jane’s strikes were so tentative and her defense so hesitant. Some days, Jane even frustrated herself. She wanted to be an adequate fighter; she wanted, most importantly, to Not Die during her godstests; but her learning curve was steeper than Mount Everest and twice as soul-crushing. Someday, Jane reminded herself, someday, I’ll be back on Earth, where brute strength is less important, and whacking your enemy into unconsciousness isn’t a fundamental tenet of survival.

She progressed faster at magic. Nikolay mostly ignored her during lessons, which had miraculous effects on her learning. By the end of the first week, she had mastered levitation and shielding; by the middle of her second week, she got the hang of incinerating objects at a distance and was beginning to work on concealment charms. Nikolay was not impressed. “These are things any child could do,” he said, “but I suppose, in essence, you are a child to magic.”

Casimir was more reassuring. “You are progressing well,” he told her. “Certainly given that you only just began your training. You have a natural healing skill.”

Two weeks into her stay at the palace, she walked into Nikolay’s solar to find his armchair empty, the cauldron bubbling sluggishly beside it. She called Nikolay’s name. No one answered.

Skin prickling, she turnedjust in time to see a knife whiz toward her from the shadows.

She leapt sideways. The knife thudded against Nikolay’s desk. She called up a shielding spell and bolted for the door.

A second knife bounced off her shield spell, followed by a third. Before she could reach the exit, a wall of flames erupted in front of her and blocked her view of the door. As Jane skidded to a halt, she heard a fourth knife clatter against the floor.

Throwing caution to the wind, Jane dove through the flames. Her foot caught on something soft, and she crashed to the floor. Air left her lungs in a blast of pain. A moment later, the sharp cold of a knife pressed into her neck.

Above her, someone sighed. The sound was familiar enough to make her eyes narrow.

Never drop your shielding spell,” said Nikolay. “Even if you fall.”

The blade retracted, and Jane scrambled to her feet. The wall of flames vanished, leaving no trace.

She dusted herself off, then reached for the nearest fallen knife and tested it with a finger. The blade was dull, at least. How nice of him. She set the knife down on the table. “You must be feeling better.”

He looked better. His face was a healthier shade, and his cheeks were more fleshed out, less hollow. She realized she hadn’t seen him quaff a single pain potion the day before.

“One of the tsar’s treatments resulted in some improvement.” He shrugged. “It is a temporary fix, but not a cure.”

He twirled the knife in his hand and shot a sideways glance at her. Her stomach twisted with unease. She did not like the way his lips danced in the sunlight.

“Your reaction to the ambush just now was… passable, and I’m no longer armchair-bound.” His lip curled. “So… we will do something different for the rest of today’s lesson. I require assistance in a certain, somewhat confidential matter, and your help will be as good as any. Consider it another test of your abilities.”

“If it involves more knife attacks-”

Nikolay shook his head. A smirk played around his mouth. He offered Jane his hand. Jane eyed it warily. His mode of travel was still not her favorite.

“Where are we going?” she asked.

Jane did not like the look Nikolay shot her. She was pretty sure she preferred Sick-and-Exasperated-Nikolay to the Nikolay who saw her as a useful and valuable minion. Whereas the former was merely unpleasant and ill-tempered, the latter had a dangerous charisma about him, which was epitomized in the secretive, almost conspiratorial smile he shared with her now.

“We will be locating a healing chalice for a potion.”

“To help the tsar?”

“Yes.” His lips slashed upward in a grimace. “Usually I leave the healing potions to Casimir, but this is a darker potion than he is comfortable with making. The chalice we need is in the lair of a dragon.”

“A dragon?”

“Dragons are winged relatives of wyverns and azdaja, but far bigger. They reside in the cliffs by the sea and prey mostly on sea serpents. Stealing the chalice from this dragon may turn out to be a two-person task.”

He waited, palm outstretched. Warily, Jane placed her hand in his.

They materialized on the outskirts of a small village tucked into a rocky shoreline. The clamor of gulls mingled with an unfamiliar, singing thrum that made her heart race and her hands tremble with awe. At first, Jane wondered if it belonged to the dragon. Then she saw an enormous, sinuous back cleave the ocean. The melody dimmed as the creature dove back under.

“Sea serpents are harmless, foolish creatures.” Nikolay’s voice was unimpressed. “The dragons bred them for food once. They can’t speak, and they won’t hurt you unless you tickle them with your ship’s pike – as my brother did once for a lark.”

The sea serpent was bigger than most passing ships. Its slender head skimmed above the water. It looked at Jane, chirped softly, and ducked back under. Jane didn’t want to think about the kind of monster that might eat a sea serpent for breakfast.

Jane turned away. She still felt sick from the transportation spell, and the roiling waves made her stomach churn.

They started up a narrow path hewn into the cliffside. For a sick man, Nikolay walked fast. Jane suspected if she fell behind, he would subject her to the horrible, hooking drag of his magic. So she huffed along, glaring up at the cold line of his back, pondering what circumstances could turn a man into nothing more than arrogance and cunning and cruel pride.

At last, when Jane was certain she could go no further, Nikolay slowed. Jane wondered if he had somehow read her mind; and then she heard a rumbling creak ahead, like a groan of rock on rocks. Nikolay turned toward her, a finger to his lips. A whisper of magic told her he had just done a spell – probably a concealment charm to hide them both.

Slow and silent, Nikolay slid forward. Jane followed the line of his finger, which pointed toward the mouth of a large cave, set high in the rock, just visible from their vantage point. Her breath hitched.

She saw only a trickle of smoke threading from the cave, but she heard the dragon – a low, grating rumble from the belly of the cave. The sound eclipsed the cries of the gulls, even the singing of the sea-serpents. When she placed a steadying hand on the rock, the vibrations of the rumble shivered through her bones. Suddenly, the resolve she had felt back in Nikolay’s solar seemed arrogant, almost ludicrous.

Nikolay caught Jane’s arm. “I believe you are skilled at puzzles?” he said, and before Jane could ask him how this was relevant, he whirled her to face him and grasped her shoulders. His amber eyes were alive with delight and cheer and secrecy.

“Let’s see how your training has prepared you to survive a dragon,” he said. “Go to the cavern, find the chalice, and bring it back here.”


Thanks so much for reading! If you enjoyed this chaper, don’t forget to leave a comment or vote! 🙂 If you hated the chapter, please tell me why.

Tip: You can use left, right, A and D keyboard keys to browse between chapters.