It was like everyone’s heart was suddenly illuminated by silver fire. The dancers below them were a forest of twinkling lights—some bright, others dimmer—all joyously, brilliantly silver. Jane closed her eyes, but still she could still see them against the back of her eyelids, an intricate network of silver dots twirling and whirling upon the dance floor. She opened her eyes again.
“What… is this?”
“You see this all the time?”
“If I want to.”
Jane looked beyond the dancers, to the opposite balcony. Silver fire glittered across the trellises, dancing around the ivy which tumbled in brilliant waterfalls past the balcony edges. The lights floating over the hall were almost dazzling in their brightness. Jane’s eyes fell on the azdaja, and she was startled to see that the winged snake glowed soft red, almost pink.
“It’s beautiful,” she whispered.
“Look closer,” said Nikolay.
She followed his line of sight down to the dance floor again. Kir had rejoined the tsar on the dais. Jane squinted, and her magical view zoomed in suddenly, as if she was looking through binoculars.
And that was when she saw it.
Kir’s heart was silver fire, like the other dancers in the hall. But… the harder Jane stared, the surer she was… flecks of gold glittered around Kir. They spiraled around his head like faery dust. And the tsar…
Jane frowned. The tsar’s entire body was riddled with gold—it was everywhere—tendrils coiled inside his stomach and heart and lungs-
“What is that?”
She turned to Nikolay and had to throw up a hand to shield her eyes, so blazingly bright was the light from his magic. Blinking stars from her vision, she looked down. Her eyes fell on the Oath-spell which twisted around Nikolay’s arm, now in brilliant silver vines.
Nikolay’s hand left her arm. The magic light faded, and Jane felt a strange sense of loss. The hall seemed suddenly drab in comparison.
She tore her gaze away from the Oath-spell. Frowned at Nikolay.
“What do the different colors mean? Most people were silver… but the azdaja was red… and why was there gold in some people, but not others?”
She had the oddest sense he was trying to tell her something, but for the life of her, she didn’t know what. “Kir’s head was gold…” she said. “And the tsar…”
Nikolay said nothing. His eyes bored into her. In them, she saw despair, and bitterness, and a loneliness so profound it seemed to swallow him.
A braver person might have probed deeper. Asked him what had made him this way, so bitter and horrible, how the scar on his arm had come about, and why. Offered to work toward a solution.
Discussed her Writings in the Book of Truths.
Later, Jane would think back on this moment and wonder if this was when it all went wrong. Not falling from the tower, nor the fiasco with the dragon, but this one moment of relative clarity on the balcony, when she could have reached out—
Instead, she said:
“I have to go. My brother’s sick. I shouldn’t be out here celebrating.”
“Blood always wins in the end.” His voice was light, sardonic. “Doesn’t it, avtorka?”
“I wouldn’t know,” said Jane. “I’m adopted. But replace ‘blood’ with ‘family’, and I suppose it’s true.”
She started down the steps.
Five days after her Godstest, Phillip still had not woken, and Jane was losing hope that he would heal on his own. Curing him using the Book of Truths seemed more and more necessary—but Jane worried he might not even live long enough for that.
Casimir worked night and day on a cure, and it became commonplace to see him in the library in the wee hours of morning, poring over old, dusty tomes, brow furrowed in thought. In her spare time, Jane joined him, though she worried her limited knowledge of magic made her more hindrance than help.
She was more use making potions, which required more technical skill than magical knowledge. Unfortunately, none of the potions they tested had much effect. Two sea-snake potions did nothing at all, and the third—the most experimental of the three—caused Phillip to cough and wheeze. Healers swarmed around Phillip, stabilizing him, as Jane hung back, shaking. Finally, the head healer, annoyed by Casimir’s hovering, forced him and Jane out of the room.
“We’ll tell you if he changes,” she said firmly. “Now, go get some sleep! You’ve been awake since yesterday. I wouldn’t let you touch me in your state, much less a patient!”
But instead of heading back to his chambers, Casimir strode to another part of the healers’ wing. Jane, more worried for him now than for Phillip, followed as he gathered supplies and added them to his satchel. He tied the satchel closed and turned to her.
“Come.” His face was tight. “Since we can do no more for Phillip; we might as well use our talents somewhere else.”
“D’you think…” Jane said slowly; he seemed really upset. “D’you think maybe if we used something else in the potion…? Wyvern parts? Dragon eggs?”
“Potions take on the attributes of their creatures of origin,” said Casimir. “Dragon parts are only useful for potions of control, and there’s nothing particularly useful about a wyvern.”
Before Jane could puzzle through what he’d said, he seized her arm. Jane felt the familiar squeezing sensation constrict her, and a minute later they were standing in the Kanachskiy boy’s cell.
“You again,” said the boy.
He looked better than before. Her temporary fear—that Casimir had come to the prison to inflict damage on the boy—vanished as Casimir opened up the healing satchel.
The boy’s eyes darted toward Jane. “Who’s she.”
“That’s none of your business,” said Casimir mildly.
Recognition crept into the boy’s eyes. He must have remembered Jane’s face from the forest. “Avtorka.” Disgust tinged his voice. “You sentenced me to this hell.”
“We’re here to heal you,” Jane said blankly.
“You think you can win me over with kindness?” Without warning, he lunged toward her. Jane skittered backward, but not before he managed to tear a corner of her dress. “You Somitan devil!”
Casimir straightened. “Behave,” he said sharply.
“Behave? She is an abomination, just like the commander—”
“The religion of Velos teaches that women are lesser than men and shouldn’t fight in the army,” Casimir told Jane in an undertone. “…Among other things.”
“How delightful,” said Jane.
The boy glared at her, his face a rictus of anger. Beneath the fury, his eyes looked fevered, haunted. Jane could not endorse his beliefs, but she could pity the haggard desperation in his face, the parts of his mind that were haunted by nightmares and terror. She sat down, careful not to sit too close.
“What makes you so convinced I’m an abomination?” she asked. “I’m pretty sure I’m a normal person, just like you.”
The boy’s eyes met hers, hard and blue. “It is known,” he spat. “I should not have to explain myself to a demoness such as you.” He closed his eyes and began to mutter words that sounded like some kind of prayer.
Jane waited for him to finish. “I’m just trying to understand…”
“You will not convince me. That is what the priests told me you would say! Trying to tempt me with flesh- ”
“Whoa,” said Jane, backing up, “whoa, hang on a minute—nobody’s trying to tempt anybody with anything here!”
“I intend to live for eternity in the paradise Velos promised us.”
The boy’s eyes were bright with conviction. Jane looked away. Her gaze fell on his arm, and she blinked. His left forearm bore an elaborate scar, similar to Nikolay’s…
“Let’s go,” said Casimir sadly. He held out his hand. Jane took it, and they whirled away.
Casimir was silent as they strode back to his rooms. “He’s very ungrateful,” Jane observed. “Why is he so obsessed with Velos, anyway?”
Casimir sighed. “The Kanachskiy see Velos as their one true god. Some are brainwashed from an early age to worship him. They take Oaths to serve Kanach and Velos for the rest of their lives. The sorcerers who run Kanach exploit fanaticism and use it for their benefit. That’s why the official title of Zakhar—their leader—is ‘Mouth of Velos’. It is how he keeps his power. The Kanachskiy believe Zakhar hears divine messages sent from Velos himself.”
Jane thought of Zakhar and grimaced. It seemed entirely consistent with his character. “Somita has gods,” she said. “Avdotya and Divna and Sidor…”
“Our legends say that our gods imprisoned Velos, years ago. That hasn’t stopped the Kanachskiy sorcerers from using Velos’ name to wield power.”
“Well, that’s just peachy.” Jane shuddered. “I hope Somita wins the war.”
Nikolay canceled her magic lessons for the next few days, claiming illness. Casimir was also in no fit state to teach magic, so Drazan took over her magic lessons, while her combat classes with Olesya and Kir continued.
Jane couldn’t help but notice that Kir was immensely distracted during training. His apparent sleeplessness had increased, and his rambling was off the charts. This proved quite useful for gathering information, but rather less useful for learning combat. Kir nearly dropped his sword several times, and once, when she asked him about the situation in Dalnushka, he seemed almost on the verge of fainting.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” said Jane, the second time this happened. “You really don’t look well. Maybe we should go to the hospital wing—”
“No, no. I just want to sit for a minute. I’ve got a bit of a headache. Sit with me-please, Jane.”
He leaned against a tree. She settled beside him on the grass.
“I’m sorry for being so distracted,” said Kir. “I’m worried about Dalnushka. This war is terrifying, especially with Father and Nikolay so ill. Is there anything else you want to know? I might not have much time in the next couple days, what with all that’s going on.”
Jane felt a wave of sympathy. When you got down to it, Kir was just an average person, with an average amount of brains and leadership and magic, trying to do his best in a situation he was wholly unprepared for. If the tsar and Nikolay died, he would be crowned king, in the middle of a war which they seemed to be losing.
She didn’t blame him for being terrified.
She certainly was.
“It’s going to be okay.” The words rang hollow, and she wondered if it was Kir or herself she was trying to convince. She sucked in a breath. “There was, in fact, something I wanted to ask… Do you happen to know anyone who’s really skilled with diagnosing curses? We still don’t know what’s wrong with Phillip. We could use all the help we can get.”
Kir twirled a dandelion between his thumb and forefinger. “You could try Nikolay. He hates healing, but he had to study Kanachskiy spells from a young age for his training as a battlemage. He’s read lots of books on weird curses. Other than that… pretty much everyone else who could help is already working in the Healing wing…”
Jane stared at the ground. Light filtered down through the trees, casting each blade of grass in a golden glow. In the peaceful morning sun, it was hard to believe war was on the horizon.
“Why does Nikolay dislike your father?” She toyed with a leaf, holding it up to the light. “Did… did your father force Nikolay to get that Oath-scar? Is that why?”
For a long time Kir was silent, and Jane wondered if she had asked something taboo. She was about to open her mouth, to apologize for being too nosy, when he said:
“I don’t know.”
Jane glanced at him, surprised. “But you’re so close to Nikolay.” (As close as anyone got to Nikolay, anyway-but Jane hadn’t missed the fact that Kir seemed like the only person Nikolay actually cared for). “And your father…”
“They’ve never told me what happened. Father said it was Nikolay’s story to tell, and Nikolay won’t say.” His expression was pained. “I don’t even know when he got it, just that he’s had the scar a long time, I think since we were kids.” He shrugged. “As for why Nikolay and Father don’t get along…”
“That’s because he’s an ungrateful brat.”
They both jumped.
Olesya stood a few paces away, hands on her hips, mouth tense with annoyance. She looked more severe than usual, and her long braids were wrapped around her head in a rigid coil. “Why are you lounging about out here? Seriously, you two. There’s a war going on!”
Kir sprang up, mumbling apologies.
Jane stayed still. She stared at Olesya’s exposed forearm, at the twisting scar wrapped around the commander’s skin, encircling her wrist and decorating the back of her hand. She had noticed it during some of her previous lessons but had never given it much thought. Now, with the visit to the Kanachskiy prisoner’s cell weighing heavy on her mind, Jane felt suddenly unnerved.
“Your scar…” she began.
“Get up.” Olesya shoved a staff into Jane’s hand. “Assume your position. Good.”
Jane assumed position, but her eyes didn’t leave Olesya’s arm. Olesya sighed and rapped Jane on the head with her staff.
“If the tsar was worried I was a spy, do you think he’d let me lead his Riders?”
“Er… well, there is a spy somewhere in the palace.” Jane shrugged. “And by definition, a good spy is someone who’s able to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes…”
“You make a terrible detective.” Olesya swung, and Jane blocked-barely. Olesya shook her head. She tried to sweep the staff under Jane’s legs to trip her, but Jane blocked again, just in time.
“Better,” Olesya said. She studied Jane’s face and then said:
“The border town where I grew up was on the edge of Kanach. Kanach invaded when I was fifteen. All children over ten were commanded to take Oath spells, to swear to only use their magic in the service of Kanach.”
She gestured at Jane to pick up her staff and assumed a fighting stance again. “I was forced to take the Oath, and ordered to marry one of the soldiers—spoils of war, they called it. Had I married him, I would have been forced to take another Oath, to forever be an obedient little slave, but—higher!—I rebelled. I took my younger sister with me, and under cover of darkness we deserted, crossed the mountains, and asked Dalnushka for sanctuary.”
“And-what happened?” Jane gasped from the ground.
“You let your guard slip.”
Jane scrambled to her feet. “I mean, what happened after? How did you survive breaking your Oath?”
“I never broke my Oath.”
“I stopped using magic after I came to Somita.”
Jane stared at her.
Olesya smiled grimly.
“I asked Dalnushka’s mages to seal my powers, so I would never accidentally break my Oath. Was it hard, being a Rider without magic? Yes. Would I take this life over life in Kanach, regardless? Yes. You have no idea what it’s like there.” Olesya shoved the staff back into Jane’s hands. “So stand tall, avtorka. Assume your position, and make your strikes count.”
A swarm of healers surrounded Phillip when Jane returned to the hospital wing. Her heart sank. She waited until the chaos of healers had ebbed, and then pulled the head healer, Tatyana, aside. “What happened?” she asked.
“Your brother woke briefly, but he was in terrible pain. He began to convulse, so we put him back into a magical sleep.” Tatyana bit her lip and led Jane to a chair. “I’m so very sorry to say this, but… your brother is not doing well. Whatever magic the Kanachsky did-it wears on him terribly. His organs are starting to fail, his kidneys and his liver. If that happens… there are some things we can do to extend his life, but…”
Jane swallowed the lump that rose in her throat. “I understand,” she whispered.
Long after her visit with Phillip was over, and her tears had finally dried, Kir’s advice from earlier floated to the front of her mind.
She pulled out the note Nikolay had sent at the beginning of the week. Classes canceled. Ill. Do not disturb. He hadn’t even deigned to sign it, apparently assuming she would know who sent it from the handwriting alone.
Of all the arrogant…
Jane frowned. Then, with a snort of annoyance, she shoved the message back into her pocket and started up the tower steps.
Nikolay can rest when he’s dead. Phillip needs help, and it can’t wait.
Her resolve had ebbed slightly by the time she reached Nikolay’s solar. A trickle of apprehension was creeping over her. It occurred to her that she had never once called on Nikolay without invitation, and his illness might have put him in a particularly foul mood…
As Jane hesitated, steeling herself to enter, a thread of sound reached her ears. Jane moved closer, until her ear almost touched the door. A heated discussion was taking place in Nikolay’s solar. The conversation wafted toward her in fits and snatches.
“… terrible… had no idea that was… I just thought… I-he promised there was a way to… he said he needed… Nikolay… I’m sorry.”
“…played you for a fool…”
More indistinct mumbling, then Kir’s voice, louder:
“Couldn’t stand… not with Father already dying… I’ll fix this, Nikolay… it’s me, I did this, I’m responsible… I just feel like there’s something wrong with me lately, I’m not thinking straight, nothing makes sense-”
Nikolay’s voice grew louder, more distinct. “Don’t do anything else, understand? I’ll figure this out. In the meantime, just do as I’ve instructed, and it will all be fine.” A pause—perhaps Kir was saying something, Jane couldn’t tell, and then Nikolay’s voice again, very low: “It will be fine, Kir. Trust me.”
Jane, acting on instinct, threw herself against the opposite wall and pulled up her most powerful concealment charm.
A second later, Kir came into view. His eyes were wet with unshed tears. He stared around the landing blankly. For a moment, Jane wondered if he had seen her, but then he took a deep breath—
And with a sharp Crack! he vanished, leaving Jane alone on the landing.
It was Jane’s turn to heave a shaking breath.
What had she just witnessed?
Whatever it was, it seemed too personal, too urgent, for her to barge in on it. And yet, part of her was dying to know what had happened.
She waited several minutes, until she was sure Nikolay would not suspect she’d overheard their conversation. Then she wiped her sweaty palms on the sides of her dress. With more bravado than she felt, she knocked sharply—once, twice—on Nikolay’s door.
It swung open, and Nikolay’s face met hers. Jane didn’t think she’d ever seen him so pale.
“Did you not get my message.”
“I got it. I’m not here for a lesson. I’m here to talk about Phillip.”
Steeling herself, Jane marched past Nikolay, into the room. Absently, she stared at the potion bubbling in the corner. She was quite sure it was the same potion she had seen every time she’d entered his study. Today, it had taken on a silvery, iridescent hue, but the smell permeating the room was the same: a charred, smoky odor that reminded Jane of the dragon’s cave on the cliffside.
“What about your brother?” said Nikolay.
He looked unamused.
“You’re the most powerful mage in the palace.” Also, the resident torture master, but I probably shouldn’t bring that up. “Help Casimir heal Phillip. Make my brother better. Use the dragon’s egg you stole—”
“That won’t help.”
“—or—or more complex spells, dark magic, whatever’s necessary.” Jane steeled herself. “If you heal Phillip, if you truly make him better—I’ll use one of my three Writings to break your Oath spell.”
“You were already going to break my Oath spell.”
“Maybe I won’t anymore.”
His face went terribly still.
“You promised,” he said, and his voice was cold as snow in the mountains.
Jane swallowed. “Technically, I never promised you or your father anything. I asked the tsar for more time to consider, and the next day you started training me.”
She suddenly wished she had not ventured so far inside Nikolay’s solar. If his mood was any indication, he was likely to abandon her on top of another tower-scratch that, on top of an active volcano. With poisonous gases and lava and an army of sudok waiting at the bottom.
But Nikolay didn’t move closer, didn’t summon lightning to strike her down.
He stared at the cauldron, expression pensive.
“There are spells that are keyed to go off at certain times.” He rubbed his arm. “Curse spells, embedded in the groundwork of a prison. They’re meant to stop prisoners getting far after they escape.”
Jane swallowed a relieved sigh. “Casimir said something similar. We think that’s what’s wrong with Phillip. Do you know how to break a curse like that?”
He waved a hand, and a book materialized in his lap. He turned several pages, frowned, and then flipped to a different section. Jane wished she could see the book he was reading. She thought about moving to stand beside him, but didn’t. Better not.
At last, he seemed to find what he was looking for. He set the book aside. “I have several theories, at least.” His eyes glittered. “If the curse is what I think it is… then yes, the curse is breakable.”
“That’s-that’s great news…”
Why did his expression make her feel so unnerved?
“Breaking this curse is not going to be easy.” He frowned at the page, and then shut the book with a snap. “In order to cure your brother, I’ll need something from you in return.”
“What do you need?”
Nikolay met her eyes.
“Your magic,” he said.