It was like a bomb had just detonated. Jane was thrown to the ground, momentarily deafened. A terrible stench filled the cavern. The air was hazy with yellow dust; Jane inhaled and choked. The dragon was screeching, but its roar seemed distant against her shattered eardrums.
An arm squeezed her waist in an iron grip. She lurched away in the familiar drag of a teleportation.
Jane sucked in air and tried not to puke.
They landed on a rocky shoreline. Jane’s mind felt thick, foggy. Her lungs were on fire. She choked and gasped for air, a rushing in her ears; every breath hurt, it was like trying to suck in air through a straw—her vision was narrowing—
She felt a hand on her back and a rush of magic. A second later, her breathing eased. She crouched on the rough ground, sucking in great gasps of air. Her heart felt like it was trying to pound its way out of her chest.
“Idiot,” Nikolay hissed. “Why didn’t you get out of range of the explosion as I told you?”
He was right in front of her, but his voice sounded far away. Jane had to focus on his lips to figure out what he was saying.
“Come on,” he said, and he heaved Jane to her feet. She sagged against him, dizzy.
In the distance, the dragon screamed, a cry that was half wail, half roar.
Nikolay cursed and grabbed Jane around the middle. They teleported. When Jane at last dared to open her eyes, they had returned to Nikolay’s solar. The room spun. Jane sagged, not caring that she was allowing Nikolay to half-support her.
“I had just solved the puzzle.” Her voice sounded weird, almost like she was underwater.
“What?” Nikolay pushed her into a chair. Jane collapsed onto it, shaking.
“I had the answer to the riddle.” Her voice sounded less awful now. Her hearing was starting to return. “There were three possibilities; the dragon was going to kill me if I lied, or if I told the truth, she was going to give me my freedom, or give me a treasure, right? Death, freedom, or treasure—I was going to get one of those three. So I was going to tell her ‘You will not give me treasure.’ She couldn’t have killed me, because that would’ve made my statement true, and she couldn’t have given me treasure, because that would’ve made my statement false, so her only choice would’ve been to set me free. You didn’t have to barge into the middle of things and—and drag me out of there like I was some sort of damsel in distress!”
Nikolay raised an eyebrow. “Even if you had answered the riddle correctly, the dragon would never have let you go. She would have found a loophole. Dragons always do.”
He had just confirmed the fear that had lurked in her mind in the cave.
“If you hadn’t distracted me, I might’ve been able to add in a clause about a way to stop myself from dying. There is a way to do it. I think. There must be… maybe if… no… I think it would have to be two clauses, maybe an ‘exclusive or’—”
“If you had found some way around that loophole, there would have been others. Dragons are fiendishly clever at logical thinking. Stop trying to find an alternate solution, Jane. It’s pointless.”
Jane dragged her mind away from the lure of puzzle-solving. “Speaking of ‘pointless’—that basically characterizes this trip. The dragon has no magical chalice that can cure the tsar.”
Something about Nikolay’s unusual buoyancy sent a shiver down Jane’s spine. He didn’t look dejected. On the contrary, the look on his face was almost triumphant, in a way that set Jane’s teeth on edge.
“You weren’t really looking for a magic chalice, were you?” she said.
“What…” Jane balled her hands into fists, trying to steady her breathing. “Exactly what did my distraction help you steal?”
For a moment, she thought Nikolay wasn’t going to tell her, but then he shrugged and opened his bag. An oblong object met her eyes, scaled and shining. It took Jane a moment to realize she was looking at a dragon egg.
“Dragon eggs have many uses in potions. I didn’t tell you because it was safer if you had no idea what our real objective was.”
Jane remembered the furious, despairing wail she had heard as they were leaving the cave. “The dragon will come after you for stealing it. Won’t she?”
“She’ll come after you. I was careful to leave no magical signature that might have been traceable to me.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” Nikolay continued cheerfully, “The Dragonsleep powder I left in her cave is particularly potent against dragons. It won’t kill her, but that dose given at such close proximity will likely cause her to sleep for a few months. And by the time she wakes up, you will be gone from Mir—assuming you manage to complete your godstests and return to Earth. All in all, no harm done, hm?”
Words failed her. Jane balled her hands into fists and resisted the urge to send a fireball whirling toward Nikolay’s face.
“Next time you’re in need of a convenient distraction,” she seethed, “leave me out of it.”
She stormed out the door.
She didn’t know if the spinning in her head was from the aftereffects of the Dragonsleep or from pure, unadulterated rage. Probably, it was the latter. She could not believe how thoroughly she had been played. If she didn’t complete her godstest, she would soon be a dragon’s breakfast, and Nikolay had said the words so pleasantly—as if he was discussing the weather—
And she had fallen blindly into Nikolay’s trap, because—because—well, because although Jane could complete logic puzzles as easy as breathing, apparently she was incapable of applying the same sort of logical reasoning to real-life situations…
I hate him. I hate him—he doesn’t deserve help—
She buried her face in her hands.
Was it even worth going to the tsar, at this point? The damage was done; the dragon had already seen her, and nothing anyone had said to Nikolay thus far had made him any less awful.
A wave of homesickness engulfed her. Suburban life might boring, but it was home, and there were people who cared about her – her mother and Sandra and Uncle Bauer—and she had friends who didn’t try to kill her, there were no dragons, and there was actual toilet paper instead of those weird magic absorbent leafy things…
It was many hours before she fell asleep that night. When she did, her dreams were filled with dragonfire, with smoke and fury and blue reptilian eyes glaring into her own. She was almost glad when the servants knocked on her door the next morning and announced it was time to get dressed for the temple.
Casimir had warned her Somitans spent the first day of each month praying to the gods in a formal ceremony. Jane didn’t fully understand what this entailed until the maids had stuffed her into uncomfortable shoes and a red dress with a built-in corset, trailing train, and sleeves dragging almost to the ground. She tolerated the servants trying to curl her hair, but drew the line when one of the maids began to pat at her face with some sort of questionable white powder.
“I’m all right, really—also, my hair doesn’t curl well—probably easier if you just leave it down—”
She was still fidgeting when Kir arrived to escort her to the temple. Fortunately, it was such a struggle not to trip that she quite forgot her awkwardness with Kir.
Sengilach’s temple was larger than the temple in Dalnushka, where Jane had first materialized. Its walls were kaleidoscopes of stained glass. Tiny magic flames blazed beneath the windows. At the front of the room towered three golden effigies, illuminated by the rising sun.
Divna, Jane thought. And Avdotya. And… Sidor?
Jane tried to match the effigies to the figures in her dreams. The sculptures were not good likenesses. The middle goddess was surely supposed to be mother goddess Divna, but the sculptor had gotten her face wrong. It was too narrow and pointy. And the Avdotya of Jane’s dreams had been much plumper than the lithe goddess at Divna’s left. Only Sidor was recognizable. The hardness of his gold-lacquered eyes made Jane shiver.
Kir coughed. Jane glanced down. A boy in fancy robes offered her a platter of bread and flowers. “Offerings to the gods?” said the boy.
Hurriedly, Jane selected a bouquet of flowers. She joined the tsar and Prince Kir at the front of the room and watched Kir place his offerings at Sidor’s feet. Feeling silly, Jane set her bouquet of orchids by Avdotya’s dainty gold shoes, then stepped back and knelt beside Kir. Others in the crowd followed suit. Soon, the gods’ feet were heaped high with bread, grain, flowers, and fruit.
The priestly man at the front of the room began to drone, and Jane soon lost track of what was happening. There were so many blessings she lost count: pleas to Divna for good weather, pleas to Sidor for an end to the war. Her eyes wandered. She found Casimir in the audience, along with Olesya and Drazan and Nadja, and a few other Riders she had met during mealtimes.
Nikolay was conspicuously absent.
The uncharitable part of her hoped he was ill.
Kir nudged her and pointed at the priest. Her cheeks heated as she registered what the man was saying.
“…. thank the gods for gifting us with an avtorka who is brave, honest, wise, and gracious in spirit, all the qualities that truly define for a hero of Somita. She is Somita’s great hope for the future. All our dreams hang on her.”
The priestly man beckoned her forward.
Oh NO, Jane thought. Will I have to give a speech?
The priest took her hand and turned her to face the crowd. “Let us all give thanks to the avtorka!” he cried. “Come forth, and bring your gifts!”
Dear God, Jane thought. She would have almost preferred a speech.
One by one, the people in the temple stepped forward, thanked her, and placed a gift at her feet. The gifts were more lavish than the offerings laid at the feet of the gods – bouquets of flowers, boxes in gold and silver lacquer, platters heaped with various delicacies. Some of the people were almost crying with happiness. By the time they had finished, the mountain of gifts almost reached her waistline, and Jane was squirming with discomfort.
“I can’t accept any of this,” Jane muttered to the priest, as the worshippers filtered out of the temple. “Please—please can you just—I dunno—donate all this to the hungry or something?”
The priest bowed. “Your humility is admirable, avtorka,” he said. Jane’s insides squirmed again.
Kir took her arm, beaming. “That was nice of you!”
“There was no way I could’ve accepted those gifts.” The cool courtyard air was a welcome relief on her hot face. “I haven’t done anything yet!”
The path they were on was cobbled. Willows hugged this corner of the castle grounds, shielding it from view.
“My mother’s grave is just beyond this corner,” said Kir. “I was going to pay my respects before lunch. Will you come with me?”
There was no polite way to refuse, so Jane, still uneasy from the embarrassing scene in the temple, followed Kir along the cobbled path. Before long, the path opened out into a series of graves, ancient-looking and laden with ivy. Cracked stone walls surrounded the enclosure.
Kir strode toward the back of the cemetery, where the newest markers stood. He stopped by a small grave, adorned with a polished stone marker. A bouquet of fresh lilies lay at its base. Kir added his roses to the pile carefully.
“She always did like flowers. Spring was her favorite.”
Jane knelt beside him, feeling a strange sort of sadness for this fellow traveler from Earth whose life had ended so tragically young. “I wish I had something—Wait.” She felt around in her hair and plucked out some carnations. “Here.”
“Even numbers for the dead, odd numbers for the living.” Kir rearranged the flowers on the grass. “There. Now we have four for the gravestone and one for your hair.”
He tucked a flower back in Jane’s braid, then gently set the remaining carnations on the grave. “My mother would’ve loved you,” he said. “I wish you could have met her. It’s odd; you don’t look at all like her, but some of your mannerisms remind me a bit—”
But Jane wasn’t listening.
Her eyes were fixed on the headstone, and her hands were starting to shake.