The Rest is Riddles

Chapter 19: The Fallen City

As if to add insult to injury, the mirror continued to show her the destruction of the Lanskoye villagers. Dazed, despairing, Jane could only watch as the sudok slaughtered commoners and soldiers, riders and children.

Her eyes ran with tears, and still the images came—sudok decapitated riders, devoured flesh. Their claws and tongues ran with blood, their lethal fangs were steeped in it. Any normal predator would have been satiated, but the slaughter seemed to galvanize the sudok further. They didn’t slow down after eating—didn’t fall into contented sleep.

They kept going.

They hurried along the path toward Dalnushka, teeth gleaming, eyes glowing, legs pounding the earth. Occasionally, one pawed at the ground, only to unleash a shriek of frustration as its claws met rock. Had Jane not been numb with horror, she might have wondered what they were trying to do.

As the fortress came into view, the sudok slowed. They prowled, forked tongues testing the air, but they seemed reluctant to touch the gray walls. One sudok—a massive beast with blood-streaked haunches—extended a snout to probe the fortress walls—

—and crumbled to dust as its snout made contact.

The sudok screamed in rage—shrill, lancing cries that sent birds scattering from the canopy. The magic mirror shivered and bucked. Jane’s hands flew up to shield her ears, but still she could hear it—the sudok seemed to tear the air to pieces with their cries. They screamed and screamed, pacing the bounds of the fortress, digging their claws into the earth in agitation.


As one, the sudok stopped screaming. They turned.

A man strode from the forest. Long robes billowed around a tall, cruel figure with hair like shadows. His face caught the light, and Jane swallowed.


“You will not get in there yet,” Zakhar murmured. “Patience… that is key. We won’t get in without the ancient words, and that spell is still several hours away… but when it gets here, Dalnushka will be yours.”

He smiled up at the fortress. Jane felt sick. She recognized the look in his eyes. It was the look of someone who believed everything in the world should belong to him.

Behind her, the door swung open.

Jane turned. Nikolay, it seemed, had found her — perhaps Kir had asked him to look for her when she never showed up to morning practice. He strode into the room, but stopped dead at the sight of the mirror.


Jane shook her head. Guilt crashed over her again, crushing her, making her gasp for breath. She couldn’t deal with this now—she didn’t want to speak to him—didn’t want to speak to anyone. Wordlessly, she strode past him, out the door, away from the room, the mirror, the carnage—away from the scene of her failure—

But she couldn’t escape. Dazed, dizzy with guilt and dread, she stumbled down the steps, trying to block out the images of blood and terror and death—but they followed her, sliding through her mind, tenacious and unrelenting as a cancer.

Worthless, the voice whispered. Useless. Extra. Your parents shouldn’t have adopted you, they should have left you in the care of your drug-addled mother, you didn’t deserve this life; you didn’t deserve your upbringing. You thought you could be like Phillipha, ha, ha!

She crumpled to the ground, biting back sobs.

Phillip would die. Phillip would die, and all of Somita would die, and it was her fault—

The afternoon brought no respite, only grim horror. Word of her failure blazed through the castle. No doubt Nikolay had informed the tsar of what he’d found in the tower. Jane might have dreaded the others’ reactions, if she hadn’t felt she deserved them.

She excused herself from dinner early, unable to bear the tsar’s disappointment, Drazan’s silence, Olesya’s anger. She sank into her bed, buried herself beneath the comforter, and gave in to her despair.

And so it went for several days. She lay in bed, desolate and dazed, rising only to pee and to eat, as the world around her spun on. Again and again, her mind forced her to relive all the ways she’d gone wrong.

People knocked on her door, but she ignored them, cocooned in blankets. One voice sounded angry and even smashed something against her door. Jane ignored them, too, and eventually they went away.

She thought occasionally about visiting Casimir. Once—in a moment of clarity—she dug through her pockets for the paper bird he’d given her. But it was nowhere to be found. Probably she’d lost it during her godstest, or in the pit cell treating the Kanachskiy boy. She supposed it was for the best. Casimir probably hated her—and besides, he was busy with Phillip. She didn’t deserve his time.

When she got sick of huddling beneath her covers, Jane stared out the window. Outside, soldiers bustled about with unusual purpose. Dully, Jane wondered why.

Was it because of the war?

She probably should have cared, since Somita was her permanent home now, but she could barely summon any interest.

Three days after her godstest, someone knocked on her door. At first, Jane ignored the sound like she had all the others, but the knock grew louder. Eventually it stopped, and Jane was just about to relax back on her bed, when a weird clicking noise resounded from the doorknob.

The door opened.

“I — sorry for breaking in,” said Prince Kir.

He looked almost as awful as Jane felt. Wisps of hair rose from his head in all directions, and purple shadows had set up shop beneath his eyes.

“I — I was worried; no one’s seen you for ages…”

He was so unlike his usual self that Jane—whose first inclination had been to close the door in his face—paused.

“Kir?” Her voice sounded hoarse, unused.

Kir sucked in a breath and forced a painful smile.

“I should have visited you before this. You’ve been suffering. I’m so sorry. I’ve been… dealing with some things.” He took one of her hands in his. “Come with me. Let’s… go for a walk. You need to get out of the palace for a bit. We both need to get out of the palace.”

Jane froze. She didn’t want to go outside, didn’t want to face the people who must hate her. She wanted to hide from the world for as long as she could.

He seemed to notice her silent withdrawal. “If you’re worried that people will be mad, they’re too busy,” he said. “They won’t notice.”

“Too busy?” she echoed. “Busy… why? Are they sending troops… to help Dalnushka?”

“Gods.” Kir leaned his head against the doorframe. “Gods, haven’t you heard? Dalnushka is gone. All of it—everyone—slaughtered. The Kanachskiy got the secret to Dalnushka’s magic, and they broke the protective charms on Dalnushka…” His voice trembled. “The sudok got in… and now, everyone in the fortress is dead.

For a moment Jane stood, frozen. Then she did the only thing that seemed reasonable under these circumstances. She laughed. Kir stared at her, bewilderment clouding his features, his eyes damp with tears.

“It’s not funny.”

“I know,” Jane gasped. She didn’t know why she was laughing. Perhaps it was because she had struggled so hard to save the villagers at Lanskoye, and it hadn’t mattered, none of it had mattered, because now all of Dalnushka was dead-dead-dead, despite her efforts, despite the godstest, despite everything. It was all kinds of ironic.

Jane got a grip on herself and straightened. Kir was eyeing her with an expression devoid of his usual earnestness.

“Come on,” he said. “You’ll go mad from staying in here too long. Let’s go to the pond.”

He took her hand again, and Jane realized he was shaking. He had friends, she remembered, friends who were stationed at Dalnushka. Friends who had probably died there.

Wait,” said Jane. She twitched her fingers, pulling a concealment charm around them. “All right,” she said. “Let’s go.”

As promised, Kir led her to a quiet meadow outside the palace. He tried to keep up a stream of chatter as they walked, but something about his speech was different. His eyes were tortured, full of unspoken grief. Every so often, he broke off, lost in thought.

Jane would have been more concerned for Kir, if she hadn’t been so preoccupied with a fresh wave of guilt and terror. If the sudok were past Dalnushka, they were probably marching toward the capitol. If Jane had passed her godstests, they would have been able to stop them, but she hadn’t, and now all of Somita would suffer.

“What?” said Jane. She realized Kir was expecting a reply.

“I said, let’s row one of those boats.”

“Oh. Okay.”

Kir pulled out oars and settled himself in the belly of the boat. Jane got in and stared at the water, unseeing. The weather was gorgeous; sunlight glanced off the water in dazzling bursts. The sight they made was picture-perfect—prince plus lowborn girl on a sun-kissed lake, a romance from a fairytale—except Jane felt nothing towards Kir, save a friendly sense of concern.

Perhaps she was a failure at this, too.

After a few minutes’ silence, Kir spoke. “I… know this is not the best timing, but an army is coming—word is, it’ll reach the capitol soon—and I don’t know if any of us will be alive in a couple days. It probably won’t matter, but I want you to know you’re a very special person, and I care about you very much, and I’ll do everything I can to make sure you’re safe.

“You don’t have to respond,” he added, as she opened her mouth. “I may be… slow sometimes, but I like to think I can read people, and I’m fairly certain you don’t see me in quite the same way. And that’s okay.” He smiled bracingly. “You shouldn’t feel forced to like someone just because they like you.”

Jane closed her mouth, and to her surprise, she burst into tears.

She didn’t know why she sobbed—perhaps because she’d been so patronizing towards Kir in her thoughts, because she’d used him to appease Avdotya, because Kir deserved better than her, and her mistake had doomed his kingdom and his family…

She felt him wrap his arms around her and the next thing she knew, she was sobbing into his shirt. A part of her realized how ridiculous this was—he had just confessed his unrequited affection for her, but she was the one who was crying… but once she’d started, she couldn’t seem to stop.

Kir patted her awkwardly on the back. “Why are you crying?”

“I messed up,” she whimpered. “I messed up so badly—” I’d be a terrible queen; I’m not the strong, brilliant, kind Avtorka you need me to be…

He laughed, and if Jane hadn’t been so lost in her thoughts she might have wondered at the strangeness of his laughter—it was almost unhinged. “You messed up?” he said. “Jane, I—”

He broke off.

“You did nothing wrong,” he whispered. “Compared to the things I’ve done, you…”


His eyes swung back to meet hers.

“We should go.” His voice was haunted.

It was a much quieter walk back to the castle. Kir said little, staring at the ground, his face a tight mask. Jane hugged her shawl around herself, lost in thought. Clouds blocked out the sun, and the air grew chilly.

Kir stopped before her room.

“If you need me…” he said.

Jane nodded.

A new day came and went. Word filtered to her, mostly through Kir, that the sudok headed toward the capitol, trailed by Kanachskiy foot-soldiers. The battle had picked up on the other front, and Somita was beset from two sides. The palace prepared for war.

Jane remembered Olesya telling her the protections which shielded Sengilach were similar to the ones that had sheltered Dalnushka. Listlessly, Jane wondered if the Kanachskiy would break Sengilach’s protections. If sudok would overrun the palace.

Magefire from 10 battle mages working in concert will kill 1 sudok…

The thought of fighting sudok — of fighting anything right now — made her want to curl up and sleep. But she could call up magefire. She was no battle mage, but she might be of some use. She should make herself useful before she died.

The healing rooms were full to bursting when she finally dragged herself from her room. The battle in the flatlands raged on, and wounded soldiers were returning to the city in droves. Jane slid past the flurry of bodies, into her brother’s bay.

She wondered if it was her imagination, but she thought Phillip’s color was better than before. She sat beside him and smoothed his hair, then buried her face in her hands.

“I screwed up,” she mumbled. “I could really use a brother right now. Please wake up.”

Phillip didn’t answer. Jane sighed. A part of her — a small, foolish part — still clung to the hope that whatever spell Nikolay performed before her godstest had helped Phillip’s curse.

Stupid, really. If Nikolay hadn’t hated her before, he certainly hated her now. Jane wouldn’t put it past him to reverse the healing spell out of spite.

The healing quarters were no longer a pleasant place to be. Healers barked orders to each other across the long room. Moans punctured the air. After a few minutes, Jane crept to the door, intending to slip out as quietly as she’d snuck in. But before she could turn the knob, the door opened, and Jane found herself face to face with one of the last people she wanted to see.

Commander Olesya’s face was pale; the lines across her forehead seemed deeper than they had been a week ago. When her eyes met Jane’s there was no warmth, only accusation, betrayal, and disgust. Olesya shot Jane the coldest glare she had ever seen and strode into the healing quarters.

Jane shivered.

She didn’t bother going to the dining hall for dinner that night, instead choosing the dubious comfort of her rooms. Her sleep was uneasy, marred by visions of black, bloody claws and cruel, crimson eyes. When she woke, the sky to the east was red, and fingers of light were just starting to creep into her room.

She got dressed, splashed her face with water, and listlessly thought about bathing. She had avoided the baths for the past couple days, not wanting to endure the glares of the older palace women whose sons and daughters were being sent to war.

As Jane rummaged around her room, trying to find the Somitan version of a towel, someone rapped on her door.

Jane opened it.

A group of unfamiliar mages in green robes stood outside. Their expressions were grim, their eyes hard.

“What’s going on?” Jane asked.

She wondered if the battle with the sudok had started, if the palace was being invaded and she was being summoned to fight. But this theory was dashed by the mage’s next words, which hit her like a shock of cold water:

“Lady Huang, you are under arrest for treason against the crown.”


And it gets worse! I think that is the theme of this story. And it gets worse…

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Lastly, I leave you my husband’s horrified initial reaction to this chapter:

“The whole keep falls, from just 20 little reptiles?”

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