The Rest is Riddles

Chapter 14: Realities of War

Jane awoke, shivering, to the sight of Nikolay roasting a partridge.

She bolted upright—and narrowly missed braining her head on a rock. Nikolay shot her a cool look and turned his gaze back to the fire pit.

Jane looked around.

They were ensconced in a narrow cave. Judging by the angle of the sunlight that was filtering in through the front, it was close to midday. A few feet away from her, on one of the rocks that lined the mouth of the cave, the azdaja lay sunning herself, her body coiled, white wings outstretched. Nikolay sat in the sunlight just beyond the cave’s opening. The smoke from his campfire was winding its way lazily upward, through the trees and out of sight. A light breeze tossed the forest, ruffling the azdaja’s feathers and Nikolay’s hair.

Were it not for the fact that she’d just been subject to a kidnapping, Jane might have found the scene almost idyllic. Given the present circumstances, however, she felt only rage mixed with panic. Her mouth was dry; her head ached; her body was cold and sore from sleeping on rocks. She swallowed a few times—whatever spell Nikolay had used to keep her asleep had left a bitter taste in her mouth—and said coldly:

“What have you done?”

The words came out more nervous than she’d intended.

Nikolay turned the partridge on its side. “I brought Kir to a safe location, ordered him to return to Sengilach, out of the war zone, and then I transported you here. We have a ways to go before we reach Mount Naridnya and the Book of Truths. It was too far to teleport all at once.”

Jane wished he didn’t sound so reasonable. Fear twisted her stomach. “Are the others at Dalnushka alive?”

“Most survived the attack. I couldn’t let you rejoin them… for obvious reasons.”

“Are they searching for me?” Hope sparked in Jane’s mind.

“If they are, they’ll never catch up. I made sure to leave no trace of where we might have gone.”

The flicker of hope faded. “I’m surprised you’re telling me this,” she said coolly. “I’d have thought you’d want to keep me unconscious until you use the Dragon’s Egg Potion to mind-control me and force me to write in the Book of Truths for you.”

“Without giving you food or water? A dead Avtorka is a useless Avtorka.”

He conjured a plate and handed her a leg of partridge. Jane, suddenly ravenous, snatched the plate from his hands, but she paused before she took a bite. The faster she ate, the sooner Nikolay might force her to go back to sleep.

She watched Nikolay hand the azdaja a cut of the partridge. The winged snake ate it in one greedy swallow, hissing with pleasure.

Jane twisted the meat between her fingers, fighting the urge to ball her hands up into fists. “You don’t have to do this, you know. Surely we can come to an agreement… some sort of compromise. If you just want a Writing to free you from your Oath spell, I can give you that. You don’t need to use the Dragon’s Egg Potion to control me. I’ll write exactly what you want me to write.”

Will you?”

Nikolay shot her an inscrutable look.

“Your right hand,” he said. “Why do you bear the mark of a Kanachskiy god?”

Jane froze. Of all questions he might have asked her, that had to be the last one on her list.

He has Magesight, she remembered sickly. He probably saw my hand glowing from the very beginning, when he first encountered me in the cave.

“Sidor gave me that mark,” she said. “I have no idea why.”

“Sidor,” Nikolay repeated, his voice cold.

He doesn’t believe me. The sick feeling intensified. And there was no way to prove it, not when she had no idea why Sidor had given her the mark in the first place. The azdaja had been there, but the azdaja had been unconscious for most of Sidor’s visit—that wouldn’t be enough to help her—

“Kir was confused when I asked him about it,” said Nikolay. “He has never been the most observant… though I suppose he had other things on his mind this past week. You didn’t have the mark when you visited my cell, so I assume you must have got it en route to Dalnushka. Did you meet a Kanachsky spy amongst the Riders, perhaps get tricked or blackmailed?” He was watching her carefully. “Or is it really as you say, and Sidor”—his lip curled—”is the reason you have the mark?”

“It was Sidor. I don’t understand why he put it there. I know it doesn’t make sense since—since he was supposed to have helped imprison Velos a long time ago.” She thought back to the tapestries Olesya had shown her. “But I swear I’m telling the truth.”

He continued to watch her, assessing, his eyes narrowed in thought.

“I think you actually are telling the truth,” he said finally. “It doesn’t change anything, since I can’t take the risk, but I don’t think you are lying. It does raise certain… questions.”

He fell silent, frowning down at the partridge. He hadn’t eaten much of his own meal at all; his hand was digging into the skin of his forearm, and a faint sheen of sweat matted his brow. Good, Jane thought viciously. She hoped the tsar’s illness, and his Oath-spell, was hurting him.

“If you believe me,” she said, trying to mask her desperation, “then let me write in the Book of Truths without the influence of the Dragon’s Egg Potion—”

His eyes snapped back to her. “I told you,” he said, with the air of one explaining that two plus two makes four. “I can’t take the risk. If you are telling the truth, and Sidor left you with Velos’ mark, that still doesn’t explain what the mark is for, or how it might be influencing you.” He eyed her narrowly. “Relax, Avtorka. You will only have to write the words I tell you to write, and then you will be free. I am not planning to kill you.”

“No,” said Jane stiffly. “Killing me wouldn’t give you the Writings you want, would it?”

Her heart raced. Terror swamped her.

“How many?” she said. “How many writings—”

Nikolay toyed with his partridge. He did not answer.

Jane’s hands were white; her nails dug into her palms. “You just need the one Writing. You just need your Oath reversed—what more do you—”

Nikolay stared into the fire, saying nothing. Jane felt colder than ever.

“Two Writings,” she said. “I’ll do two Writings, whatever you want—surely you don’t need all three.”

Nikolay shot her a cool, pitying look.

The bottom dropped away from Jane’s stomach. She felt like she was falling; it felt even worse than when the sudok had dragged her from the wyvern—

“Even you wouldn’t be so heartless,” she whispered.

It was the wrong thing to say. Nikolay’s eyes narrowed. He smiled—a cruel, broken grimace. Jane did not know if she had ever seen an expression quite so bitter as the one that faced her now.

“I come from a long line of heartless people,” he said. “Besides, I can’t exactly let you write whatever you want. Not if there’s a chance you are under Velos’ influence, or acting as a Kanachskiy spy.”

Tension curdled the air. It was cold, so very cold.

Jane clenched her fists, fighting back panic.

“I saved your life.” Her voice shook slightly. “I could’ve let you drown. Maybe I—”

—should have.

“You didn’t let me drown,” he said, “because you needed me to finish your godstest. Just like I didn’t let Sidor take you because I needed you to finish your godstest. It doesn’t count as altruism when saving someone’s life falls within your own best interest, I’m afraid.”

Jane’s voice shook. “Not everybody does things because it’s useful to them, you know.”

A flicker of doubt crossed his face. It was gone almost as soon as it had appeared, leaving her wondering if she had imagined it. He closed his eyes for a moment.

“There are only three Writings.” He suddenly looked very tired. “Three Writings… to end the war, to fix the kingdom, to cure the tsar, to break my Oath spell… and that’s not to mention the charges of treason placed on my head. How do you suggest I send you home, while still accomplishing all of this? If you have any brilliant ideas, I would love to hear them.”

“I thought you didn’t care about Somita.” Her hands trembled. “Back there, in the cave, you were ready to let Dalnushka crumble, so long as you broke your Oath-spell!”

“Does it count as caring, wanting the war to end? Wanting to live in comfort, out of the constant threat of death?” His voice was musing. “I suppose it would be a bonus if I’m hailed as the savior of Somita… although I’m not deluded enough to think that might happen.”

He met her eyes. “Do not despair. You’ll be looked after. Avtorkas are treated well in Somita, particularly Avtorkas who’ve passed their godstests. And you’ll have your brother… though, given his track record, I’m not sure that’s a bonus.”

Jane gritted her teeth, terror making her head spin.

It wouldn’t happen, she wouldn’t let it happen. She had come too close to lose everything now. She had earned those Writings; they were hers. She would have to find some way to escape.

She stared at him, furious, frantic. “You know what I think?” she said, her voice shaking. “I think you’re just using the mark on my hand as an excuse. You would have taken my writings regardless—you were planning to before this—it’s why you made the Dragon’s Egg Potion in the first place.”

“Be that as it may, that doesn’t change your fate.”

How can the gods let this happen? Jane wondered. If they truly cared about ensuring that the Avtorka wrote in the Book of Truths, they ought to escort the Avtorka directly to the Book of Truths, or place the Book closer to the location of the third godstest! Although, knowing the gods, they were probably watching this new ‘spectacle’ as avidly as they had watched Jane’s godstests.

Jane’s head snapped up as a thought suddenly struck her. “Sidor will come after you for attacking him, you know,” she told Nikolay coldly. “Divna didn’t say anything about protecting you from his wrath. I hope he does come after you; it would serve you right.”

Fear flickered in his eyes for a moment, before his expression smoothed over. He shrugged.

“Thank you for the reminder. I’ll make sure to guard against that with one of my Writings. Another thing to add to the list.”

“I’m going to relieve myself,” said Jane. She stormed toward the darkness at the back of the cave.

She had hoped that she might find a passage at the back of the cave through which she could escape. To her dismay, however, the cave was quite shallow.

Think. There had to be some way out of this, if she only thought hard enough. Perhaps she could try to teleport out of the cave—

No. If she tried to master teleportation magic in her current state, she would end up in an even worse predicament than she was in already. Nikolay and Casimir had both stressed how dangerous that sort of magic was if you didn’t know what you were doing.

As she paced the back of the cave, pondering her next move, a sly voice slid over her senses.

Well, well.” It was the same familiar voice that she’d been hearing on and off, the one that had shown her the vision, the one that seemed linked to the mark on her hand. “You seem to have found yourself in a bit of a pickle.

“Can you help me?” Jane whispered. She regretted it almost immediately. It was a terrible idea, asking for help from a mysterious voice that probably belonged to a mysterious god that Sidor had connected her to for gods-knew-what-sort-of-nefarious-purpose.

And yet, if there was some way out of this miserable situation that didn’t involve her staying on Mir… some way that would allow her to get off this world, to go home… She remembered what she’d seen in the Pool of Dreams, and the bottom dropped out of her stomach.

Even now, her mom might be dying of cancer…

“You’re Velos aren’t you?” she said. She paced around the cave as she spoke, shoving rocks into her pocket. The idea of hitting Nikolay with one of them was almost laughable, but at the moment, they were the only weapons she had. “You’re the fourth god—the one that Sidor and Avdotya and Divna imprisoned. I saw the picture on the tapestry in the temple at Dalnushka.” She swallowed. “What are you hoping to get out of this? Why are you talking to me? Are you trying to control me to write in the Book of Truths for you as well?”

A god cannot control an Avtorka or Write in the Book of Truths himself,” Velos said smoothly. “It is against the Rules. And I want the same thing that you want. To make the gods pay for their crimes.

“How d’you intend to—”

“Sssssly girl,” hissed a voice, and Jane almost jumped out of her skin. The azdaja was watching her pick up rocks with narrowed eyes.

Jane swallowed. She wondered if she’d heard any of the conversation between herself and Velos. Though even if she had, what did it matter? It wasn’t like her situation could get much worse.

“I’m just trying to protect myself.” She grabbed another rock defiantly, ignoring the azdaja’s displeased hiss. “Why do you follow him?” Jane asked exasperatedly. “What did Nikolay ever do for you?”

“He sssssaved me as a nessssst-egg, when I was sssmall.” The azdaja coiled around her soothingly.

“He’s trying to stop me from ever going home.”

“Sssso ssstay here.”

“I have to go home! My family needs me.”

She glanced at the mark on her hand, but Velos was silent. It seemed he wasn’t inclined to speak unless they were alone, and now the azdaja had made that impossible. Perhaps it was for the best. She wasn’t sure she trusted any gods to help her, much less a Kanachskiy god who might be in league with Sidor.

She wished she had her kladenet, some sort of weapon. All she had were her wits, for all the good that did her against the Dragon’s Egg Potion. Jane wondered if she would be conscious while he controlled her, or if she’d just sleep through the whole thing. If she were conscious, it would be so much worse.

Zakhar had fought back against the Dragon’s Egg Potion. Could she do the same? She didn’t know if she was as strong-willed as Zakhar, but surely she was at least as strong-willed as Nikolay, which was what mattered if he was the one who was trying to control her. She had survived the Pool of Truths where he had failed. That had to count for something, didn’t it?

There was a crunching of gravel, and a second later, Nikolay came into view. “What are you plotting?” he asked. “If you are going to attempt to transport yourself out of here, I would advise against it. That spell has a way of going wrong if you’re not adept at magic.”

“I’m not plotting anything,” said Jane. An idea came to her. “How are you going to protect yourself from Sidor?” she said. “What are you going to make me Write?”

Impatience flashed in Nikolay’s eyes. Emboldened, Jane said, “I bet you haven’t actually figured it out yet.”

“Well, isn’t it lucky that I still have plenty of time?” Nikolay said. He seized her arm.

Before Jane had time to protest, they were in a new location, beneath the shadow of a mountain. The transportation was sudden enough that Jane sank to her knees, fighting not to retch.

“How far are we from Mount Naridnya now?” she said, when her stomach had stopped roiling.

“Half a day, counting rests.”

“Too bad you’re not powerful enough to take me all the way there now,” she said sarcastically. Perhaps if she could get him off balance, tire him enough, she might stand some chance against him. “We could get this whole thing over with.”

Nikolay tensed, and then relaxed again. “If you’re trying to goad me into expending myself to exhaustion so that you can escape, I’m afraid you’re wasting your time.”

Jane hugged her hands across her chest. The wind whipped her hair. She opened her mouth, to goad him again, but what came out instead was:

“Why do you hate me?”

The moment she said the words, she wished she could revoke them. Stupid, she thought, what a stupid question, exactly the sort of thing that would uncontrollably slip out of a people-pleasing, adopted child’s mouth. But she was being more honest with herself now, she had the Pool of Truths to thank for that, and there it was, some deeper part of her balked at not being liked. The fact that Nikolay had taken such an instant dislike to her had hurt, even though she hated herself for it, even though he was such a disagreeable person who didn’t deserve her emotions. From the very beginning it had hurt, and the fact that he didn’t trust her still hurt—she had told him the truth about Sidor—she’d protected his azdaja for a month—she’d saved his life for crying out loud—and she had seen it earlier, brief flashes where they were on the same side. This was all so damn stupid. If they thought hard enough, surely there was some sort of compromise they could arrive at that would get her home—

There was silence behind her, a long, drawn-out silence, oppressive in its emptiness.

“I don’t,” he said, “hate you. But I don’t trust you, either. Your brother is the reason one of my friends is dead.”

You don’t have any friends, Jane thought, then bit her lip. “What did Phillip do?”

“It’s more in what he didn’t do that was problematic. A godstest he failed, purposefully, by choice, because the life of his dear Casimir mattered more to him than all the fighters dying in Parshin’s Pass.”

“What happened?”

“His godstest was to save the Somitan fighters besieged by the Kanachskiy army in Parshin’s Pass, but he abandoned his purpose and the Somitan troops the moment Casimir was in danger. He could have ended the war eight years ago. Instead—”

His hands, she noticed, were white, shaking.

“Do you know how it feels to bring down a mountain,” he said in a low voice, “not just on Kanachskiy soldiers, but also on top of people you’ve trained with, people who couldn’t get out in time, people who—All because there is no other choice, because the one person who was supposed to save you had abandoned you, and there was no one else left who was powerful enough to do damage control…”

Goosebumps swept over her skin. He was not even looking at her any longer, but away, into the distance. She had never seen him display so much raw emotion before. Perhaps a part of her had convinced herself he was not capable of normal human feelings. She suddenly felt uneasy—like she had just seen a tiny window he hadn’t meant to show her, a window into a bigger swath of pain that was so massive it might very well be endless.

“So in answer to your question…”

The moment passed. His voice hardened, and his eyes, when they met hers, were like ice. “You could say I bear a healthy mistrust of avtorkas. You think you’re better, because you’re the gods’ chosen, but you don’t belong here. You shouldn’t be fighting our wars. You’ve done nothing that makes you deserving to Write in the Book of Truths.”

Any seeds of sympathy she might have had for him vanished, leaving her witheringly angry once more. Nothing? she thought. Those godstests weren’t nothing.

“And you think you deserve it?” she demanded. “Why?”

“Because, unlike you, I’ve lived here all my life. I know what needs to be done to fix things; I’ve seen what—” He broke off. “Enough of this.”

The next teleportation had her retching on the ground.

“What about Eloise—your mother?” She fought back another dry heave. “She was an avtorka. She couldn’t go back to Earth and—and she died here…”

Her voice trailed off. She had meant to use the words to needle him, but the thought of Eloise had sent panic spiraling through her chest again, so much so that she didn’t even bother looking up to witness Nikolay’s expression. She had a sudden vision of Sidor waking up, of him coming after her. Of the dragon waking in its cave. If she didn’t come up with something, she was as good as dead; she had no confidence Nikolay would expend an ounce of effort to keep her alive—and, realistically, what could Nikolay do against a god?

Rage simmered at the back of her mind—rage, tinged with panic. “You were lucky,” she whispered.

“Hm?” He seemed distracted.

“Lucky, back there, with Sidor. And the dragon. You may think you’re powerful, all-knowing, but you’re not nearly as powerful or clever as you think you are.”


“The Pool of Dreams tried to drown you. You didn’t pass any godstests, and you didn’t beat Zakhar. You think you’re so great, but you—”

She broke off. A change had come over Nikolay’s features, as though a storm had settled over his countenance. His eyes blazed. Without another word, he took her arm and pulled them forward again in a dizzying transportation that left stars and spots flashing in Jane’s eyes. This time she really did throw up, hurling the remains of the partridge into the bushes.

Nikolay didn’t seem to care. He stared down at her, and the loathing in his eyes made Jane reel. “Do not,” he said, shaking, “speak of Zakhar in my presence again.”

“Zakhar,” Jane gasped.

There was nothing left to throw up in the aftermath of the third transportation. Jane fell to the ground, clutching her stomach, as Nikolay stalked away.

They had traveled a far distance at this point. Jane knew she was running out of time. Soon he would give her the potion, and after that, she wouldn’t be able to do anything at all.

She had hoped that Nikolay might be more tired after expending all that magic to teleport them, but somehow she was the one lying sick on the ground, while he was still standing upright. Stupid, Jane thought. He was used to fighting, used to expending vast quantities of magic. He probably barely noticed the effects of the transportation spells. He had a lifetime of magical training; her month-long crash-course in using magic seemed laughable in comparison. This was child’s play for him.

Jane tried to fight anyway. She pulled her aching body up and flung a spell after his retreating back. She might as well have been fighting Sidor, for all the good it did her. Nikolay banished her spell with a wave of his hand and dispelled her shield with the other. He transported himself behind her and grabbed her hair, tilting her head back. Jane gasped with pain.

“Enough, Jane.”

The anger had left his voice; he sounded exhausted.

“Let’s get this over with,” he said.

“Please,” she whispered. Please, don’t do this. Please, let me go home.

The look on his face was almost regretful, but it couldn’t cancel out the resolve in his eyes. “You haven’t lived here long enough to understand the realities of war. But someday, Avtorka, you will.” He conjured the dragon’s egg potion into his hand, uncapped it. “And then, when you finally do understand”—the drop went in her right eye, burning—”I’m afraid you’ll wish”—her left eye was next, oh god it burned—”you didn’t.”

Tears streamed down her face. If she could cry, if she could just cry hard enough, perhaps the tears would dilute the potion; perhaps it wouldn’t take effect.

But, like all her other hopes that day, this proved a false one. For, just a second after this thought crossed her mind, she heard Nikolay’s voice in her head.

Sit down, he said.

It was nothing like the stories she had read as a child, with faeries or wizards or witches, where your mind was transported to a state of blissful rapture when they controlled you.

It was a vicious tug of war.

She ought to have expected it, having been on the other end of the Dragon’s Egg Potion twice before, but somehow she hadn’t quite anticipated just how bad it would be. Being the controller instead of the controllee gave you a marked advantage. She realized this now. It felt like there were hooks digging into her mind. Jane tried to push back against them, but the hooks dug in harder, until she would have trembled, had she any ability left to control her movements. He controlled them now. Jane found her limbs shifting, entirely out of control, to lower her onto the outcropping. Some of the mental pressure eased as soon as she was settled, but she could still feel his presence in her mind.

“We should arrive at Mount Naridnya in two hours,” Nikolay said. A thread of strain had entered his voice. A small part of Jane’s mind, the part that wasn’t overwhelmed with terror and panic, was viciously glad of this, glad that this ordeal had managed to draw some reaction from him.

The hours that followed were the worst of her life. Nikolay transported them again three more times; Jane, trapped behind the prison of his hold on her mind, could only watch each transition helplessly, a passive spectator. Each time she tried to push back against his mental hold on her, those hooks tightened, prickling like needles against her consciousness. Jane feared pushing too far. Would her mind be shredded, torn to pieces, if she struggled too hard?

From time to time, the azdaja coiled around her, hissing soothingly. It was scant comfort. Jane wanted to yell at the azdaja, to beg her for help. But there was no chance of that, any more than there was a chance that Nikolay would be swayed from his course.

And then, they were on Mount Naridnya.

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