The Rest is Riddles

Chapter 20: Try

They landed faster than Nikolay had expected—with a sickening, jolting lurch.

His Oath-scar was burning with pain again. Nikolay coughed against the lingering taste of the Dragonsleep and scrambled to his feet. Mountains met his eyes: unfamiliar snowcapped peaks that dominated the horizon. Frost laced the air, and a dusting of snow shimmered on the nearby trees.

Neither the dragon nor the avtorka’s sister were in sight.

The avtorka struggled upright, coughing. “SANDRA!” She cupped her hands around her mouth, as though that would help them find her missing sister. “SANDRA! SANDRA!”

“Your sister and the dragon are not here,” said Nikolay. “Keep shouting like that, and you’ll attract worse monsters.”

She whirled on her heel, and Nikolay was treated to the full force of her glare. They were close enough that strands of her hair whipped his face. Her eyes were still red-rimmed, and now sooty, with traces of tears; she looked a complete mess.

“Explain to me”—her voice dripped with rage—”how I ended up back on this world, in the middle of nowhere. With you.”

At least her gift of tongues had returned, so he didn’t have to mime things at her. Although on reflection, he almost preferred not being able to understand her.

“Believe me,” he seethed, “getting attacked by that dragon was the last thing I wanted.”

His words were interrupted by another fit of coughing. His vision blurred. The pain in his arm was blinding. Damn it, damn it all, his powers were still gone. He needed magic. In his old state, the Dragonsleep would never have affected him the way it was doing now.

The avtorka hugged her shoulders and then—without asking permission—wrapped Nikolay’s cloak around her arms. “The scene shifted, didn’t it?” Her voice was small. “The dragon and Sandra must’ve ended up in one place, and we ended up in another. Something similar happened when I first arrived on Mir. I think portals between my world and this one are inherently unstable. Do you know where we are?”

“I haven’t the faintest idea,” Nikolay said shortly. “But if we don’t get off this mountain and find shelter, we won’t be alive to care.”

The magic that should have helped him catch his bearings was lost to him now. Nikolay reached desperately, seeking some hint, some thread of the magic that had once come to him as easily as breathing. It was like searching a desert for a drop of water. Nothingness stared back at him where once there had been power.

His stomach churned.

“How long d’you think we have until the dragon finds us again?” said the avtorka.

“She ought to sleep for another month.”

Even as he said the words, he grimaced.

Another month. He wasn’t sure he even had another month.

“Down there,” said the avtorka, who was no longer looking at him, but scanning the area furiously. She pointed. “Smoke. There’s probably a village or town.”

“Or a dragon.”

Her jaw tightened. “Even getting roasted by a dragon would be preferable to freezing to death out here.” There was a hidden undercurrent to her voice that suggested she would very much have liked to add: Alone. With you.

She dug around in the pocket of Nikolay’s cloak, pulled out a knife—his knife—and began strapping it to her arm.

Anger flared in his chest. Before she could react, he leaned forward and plucked the knife from her hand.

“I think you’ve helped yourself to enough of my belongings today,” he said coldly. “Don’t you?”

He had expected some resistance: a retort, a glare.

He had not expected her to leap back as though stung, or to whirl on him with her hands outstretched.

Magic blazed around them—her magic, slamming into him full force. He stumbled backward and might have fallen if he hadn’t caught himself against a boulder.

“No,” she said. Her voice shook. “I’m not letting you anywhere near the dragon’s egg potion or your knives until I’m quite sure you won’t attack me. I hope you understand.”

The knife grew hot beneath his fingers, singing his skin. He dropped it with a hiss, then watched, helpless, as it sailed across the distance that divided them.

If he wasn’t still so ill, he might have resisted. Might have ambushed her as she was returning the knife to its sheath, or launched a scathing retort aimed to wound her.

But there suddenly seemed no point to it.

His rage fizzled out as fast as it had sparked, leaving him as weary and lost as he’d felt in the attic on Earth.

His head still ached, and his Oath-scar burned, and on top of all that, he was freezing. He hadn’t thought in years about all the small cantrips he layered on himself: spells to guard against the elements, to dampen the pain of the Oath-scar, to hide his tracks when he was walking so his steps could not be traced. The spells were designed so that he didn’t have to think about them—magical scaffolds that, once built, allowed the user to siphon a little of his magic to keep them running at all times.

Now, they were gone, and he chafed at their absence.

He was shivering by the time they reached the tree line. He could not remember a time when he’d felt this cold. The void where his magic should have been was a dull, hollow ache in his chest. Was this how the common people felt—those born with lesser magic—or Olesya, who had had her powers locked away?

How did they bear it?

The smell of woodsmoke grew stronger as they descended the mountain. At last, they rounded a corner, and a small cabin came into view, nestled up beneath two oak trees. The structure was sparsely adorned, but it was surrounded by a feeling of power, ancient and immutable, that would have unsettled Nikolay if he’d had the wherewithal to care.

The avtorka, oblivious to danger, strode to the front door and knocked.

No answer.

She turned the handle. The door was unlocked. The room beyond was small and cozy, with a crackling hearth-fire.

“It’s—it’s not wrong if we just warm ourselves in here for a bit, surely?” she said uncertainly. And then, as if deciding his response was not worth waiting for, she stepped inside.

Nikolay followed suit.

The room that greeted his eyes was warm, cozy, and largely unremarkable. Three well-used armchairs circled a small fireplace, which blazed with a merry golden glow. Beyond the armchairs stood a tall bookshelf, heaped with all manner of colorful tomes. The other end of the room, where they had just entered, housed a coat rack and a small jungle’s worth of plants.

If not for a few dozen scrying mirrors lining the walls, a casual observer might have been forgiven for thinking the cottage was unmagical.

Nikolay ignored the mirrors. He stumbled into the armchair nearest the fire and sank into it. Without the cold to numb it, the pain from his Oath-scar returned full force. Nikolay gritted his teeth. His head pounded worse than ever.

He closed his eyes.

Perhaps he was more tired than he thought, for when he opened his eyes again, the light outside had faded. Someone had placed a blanket across his front, but he was as cold as ever, and his head still ached. His arm felt like someone had massaged it with hot pokers.

The avtorka looked up as he shifted in his chair. She sat across from him on the opposing armchair, a blanket across her legs, a book in her lap. “You’re awake.”


She did not seem too pleased by this. Perhaps she’d secretly been hoping that he wouldn’t wake up at all.

“Who—” He broke off in a fit of coughing.

“…lives here?” she finished for him. “The owner of the house came by while you were asleep. Her name is Lidea, and she’s a powerful sorceress.”


Nikolay struggled to his feet. This was a mistake. The motion made his head spin, and he almost overbalanced. He sat down again quickly.


He had not thought about Lidea in years.

Some called her a lesser goddess; others called her the mother of gods. Nikolay knew her for what she was—a particularly powerful mage who served the gods’ bidding and whims. She was a woodland witch of sorts, an oddball who preferred to keep to herself and use her magic sparingly. She had not fought in any wars; she was not on anyone’s side except perhaps the gods’; and for many years he had allowed himself to forget about her existence.

His mother had brought him to see Lidea once. It had been a long time ago, perhaps a few years before she died. He remembered the old woman’s sharp eyes as she looked down on him pityingly; remembered her kindly voice telling his mother, “No, I would not try to bind his powers. That’s a recipe for discontentment.” And then, frowning, “You also still have powers, do you not? Why not use them to weave a protective charm on Kir, if you’re so worried he might get hurt by accident?”

“You really don’t look good,” said the avtorka.

Nikolay blinked, and the memory faded.

“We should not be here.”

“It’s all right,” she said. “She already knows who we are, and she’s very nice—nicer than either of us deserve, really.”

He tried to rise again, but magic pushed him back into his chair, holding him firm. He opened his mouth, but whatever he was going to say was cut short by another fit of coughing. The coughs were deep and racked his whole body, and when he drew his hand away, his skin was flecked with blood.

“Drink this,” said a voice at his shoulder. Nikolay looked up, into the oldest, greenest eyes he’d ever seen. The dread must have shown on his face, for she clucked her tongue. “Yes, I am Lidea, so-called mother of the gods. Now, drink. It might help the pain a bit.”

A wrinkled hand came to rest on his forehead, and the same hand touched his Oath-scar. Nikolay flinched.

“Hmm,” said Lidea. “Not good.” She glanced at something behind Nikolay, something he couldn’t see, and then back down at Nikolay. “You’ve got a nasty couple days ahead of you, love.”

“Is he very sick?” said the avtorka.

“Oh, it’s worse than that.” Lidea sighed, and Nikolay hated the pity in her voice, hated it more than anything he’d ever hated in his life. “You see… the tsar is dying.”


Lidea offered Nikolay a room—a quiet space for himself—but he didn’t want to retreat there. It seemed too much like giving up, like crawling into some forgotten corner of the universe to die. Instead, he remained in the living room, ensconced in one of the chairs by the fireplace, hazily watching Lidea’s scrying mirrors as he drifted in and out of consciousness.

The mirrors took up most of the wall. Nikolay might have been only half-conscious, but he still had the wherewithal to wonder how Lidea had got her hands on so many. Scrying mirrors were useful in theory, but tricky to implement. They required two mirrors, and one had to be physically present at the location of interest.

Judging by the contents of her mirrors, Lidea must have either been very well-connected or an expert at sneaking into places where she didn’t belong. The mirrors showed dozens of different locations, all over Somita and Kanach. Nikolay recognized Dalnushka, Sengilach, the Pool of Dreams, the ruins of the temple that housed the Book of Truths…

Many of the mirrors showed scenes of war. Soldiers, clad in the Kanachskiy blue, clashed with Somitan forces on the plains. Wyverns screamed and sudok clawed their way through Somitan towns, leaving destruction in their wake.

The avtorka watched the carnage with horror. A few times, he glanced her way and saw her eyes full of tears. Far from appeasing him, the sight angered him further. She had no right to wreck all their chances and proceed to act pitiable about it.

“I’ve… really ruined everything, haven’t I?” she said, her voice small.

“Yes.” He felt a small stab of satisfaction as she flinched. “You have single-handedly destroyed Somita and failed in your quest. Now, kindly be quiet so I can die without your whining in my ears.”

“That is cruel,” said Lidea. Nikolay turned, hazily; he had not noticed her approaching. She handed him another pain potion. “Come with me.”

He gazed at her with dread.

“I have been charged with looking after the gods. ‘Mother of the gods’ they call me; that is my life’s purpose. And, seeing as how you are now a god, I suppose that puts you under my care.”

“You’re not really their mother.”

“True,” she said. “I’m more of a nanny. And right now, my nanny senses tell me you need to lie down. Come.”

She stabilized him with a bit of magic, and led him away, down a hallway, to a quiet room toward the back of the cottage.

“Sit.” She pointed at the bed.

He remained standing, more out of irritation at being commanded than because he actually wanted to stay upright. Lidea put her hands on her hips.

“I’ve been watching you for awhile, though you probably haven’t realized.” She affixed him with a glare. “Many things about your behavior have concerned me, but this one bears addressing. While you are under my roof, I would like for you to try to be less cruel.”

“I was born cruel.”

“We both know that’s a lie.” She sighed. “I knew your mother well, you know. She was the sweetest woman.”

His hands trembled. “If you were the gods’ nanny, then why didn’t you stop—”

“A nanny can only do so much. I don’t control the people I’ve raised. Once they’re grown, how they live their lives is up to them. Only a fool blames others for not saving them from their own worst impulses.”

“Spare me the lecture.”

“I’ll stop lecturing you, if you stop being so cruel.

“I don’t know how.”

Lidea threw up her hands. “Just like Sidor! Do you know how incredibly frustrating that answer is? Figure it out, you stupid man! I see the wheel turning and history repeating itself, over and over and over again. What happened in the temple was not Jane’s fault. Put yourself in her shoes for once! You have only shown her unkindness since you met her. You even conspired to set a dragon on her. And then you kidnapped her, controlled her mind, and as good as told her you’d never send her home. Is it any wonder she acted as she did? You’re the villain in her story, and you know it. If there is any hope of things being fixed, of Sengilach not burning and the rest being brought to ruins, you need to learn to be less cruel.”

“Everyone,” he said, he was shaking, perhaps with the fever, or rage, or despair; he did not know what made him say the next words—he knew only that no one would have dared speak to him like this back when he had magic. “Every single person I have ever shown kindness to has died!

He sank onto the bed, his head in his hands. Lidea stood, frozen, at his side.

“Your precious gods did some of that,” he said. “The ones you didn’t discipline properly.”

But he knew the real truth. Knew who was really responsible.

Lidea sat down next to him on the bed. He heard her sigh.

“You can’t push other people away your whole life,” she said.

“Why not? It’s only for a few more days, at this point.”

He felt it even now, a viselike grip at his throat, the feel of his own mortality. The sense of time ticking—ticking—ticking past. It had always been there, somehow, but now it was a flood, a river draining out of him, no matter how he struggled to grasp it.

“Your last days don’t need to be filled with hatred. I’m quite sure Eloise wouldn’t have wanted that for her son.”

He opened his mouth to retort, and then closed it. His head pounded.

Try,” she said.

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