In her shock, Jane nearly lost her grip on the rock. Only a lightning-fast grab at the corbels saved her from testing her makeshift rope harness.
“Ssshhh,” the azdaja hissed in her ear. “Ssshhhh, it’sss okay, it’sss just me.”
As fast as she could, Jane edged back along the ledge until she was out of view of the window. She glared at the winged snake. “Don’t do that!” she said. “I almost fell!”
“Are you going to tell Nikolay I’m out here?”
With surprise, Jane realized the azdaja looked terrified. Her wings fluttered anxiously, and her forked tongue flickered against Jane’s cheek.
“Do you intend to ssstop him?”
“Nikolay iss foolissssshhh! The fireflower draught Zakhar bringsss is probably tainted with poissson. Kanachskiy magesss are known for their ssslow-acting venomsss! Yet Nikolay isss blinded by the promissse of freedom. I told him, I ssssaid, ‘That man is bad newssss’, but he only sssmiled. He’ssssss going to die!” She twined around Jane, looping across her torso in agitated coils. “We have to ssssssssssssstop him!”
“Okay, okay!” Jane tried, as best she could, to disentangle the azdaja before she constricted Jane’s neck in her panic. “I’ll help you-I’ll help you! Just-calm down a bit, all right?”
The azdaja settled, though her tongue still flicked rapidly.
Jane relaxed-as much as it was possible to relax while perched on a two-inch ledge beside a precipice with a snake wrapped around her torso – and tentatively patted the azdaja’s scales. “I hope I can stop Nikolay,” she said. “That’s – er – I guess that’s one of the reasons why I’m lurking out here. But if I manage to stop him, will you do me a favor in return?”
“I need the dragon’s egg potion Nikolay’s been brewing. Do you know where it is?”
“It isss hidden in the rightmossst cabinet above the fireplace!” said the azdaja. “Do you want me to fetch it?”
“No,” said Jane. “Wait here. I need to think about what to do.”
Warily, she edged back toward the window and peered through. Nikolay and Zakhar seemed to have come to an agreement. Jane saw Nikolay’s mouth move, although he spoke so quietly, she didn’t hear what he said. Then Zakhar extended his arm with the potion, and Nikolay reached out to take it –
Jane didn’t want to think about what would happen if Nikolay broke his Oath successfully. His Oath-spell meant he couldn’t do anything that would cause the tsar’s death. But once the Oath was broken, he’d be free to do whatever he wanted, and that included telling Zakhar how to break the spell protecting Sengilach from the sudok. Sudok would overrun the palace, killing everyone inside…
She had to stop this.
As Nikolay raised the vial to his lips, she panicked. “STOP!” she yelled, and she hurled herself through the open window. The rope caught her mid-leap, and she overbalanced, careening into the empty cauldron, which clattered to the floor. Air exploded from her lungs as she hit the ground.
Nikolay lowered the potion. He and Zakhar turned to look at her. Nikolay looked surprised; Zakhar, amused.
“Erm.” Jane said. She struggled to her feet and loosened the rope, then gestured awkwardly at the glittering potion in Nikolay’s hand. “Don’t drink that.”
Yeah, she probably should have thought this through a bit more.
“Is this who I think it is?” said Zakhar.
“Why shouldn’t I drink it?” said Nikolay at the same time.
They glanced at each other suspiciously, then looked at her.
“The Oath-potion’s poisoned,” said Jane. “Think about it. This man -” (she gestured at Zakhar) “-has no reason to keep you alive!”
Nikolay raised an eyebrow. He looked more annoyed than surprised by her statement. “Your concern for me is touching.”
“My concern for you is nonexistent, actually. But your azdaja – Augh!”
Hooks of pain shot through Jane’s abdomen. Magic pulled her backward, in a tug so forcefully swift that Jane’s vision went gray. She doubled to the floor, fighting not to retch.
Jane looked up slowly. Zakhar studied her face with an unhealthy amount of interest. “The newest avtorka,” he said, and his voice was cold and cruel as knives. “Avtorkas do have a habit of meddling in things that don’t concern them. I think I shall take you with me when I leave.”
Jane’s heart sank.
It hit her suddenly that nobody knew she was up here. She had told Casimir in her note where she was going, but she didn’t even know if he’d read it. If Zakhar decided to teleport her away, no one would stop him. There was a good chance no one would be able to trace where he took her…
“That seems unnecessary,” said Nikolay. “Taking the avtorka, I mean.”
Jane looked up, surprised, but he was not looking at them at all; his attention seemed fixed on the potion. Jane saw a flicker of silver glint across the vial. He brought the cap up to his nose and sniffed. “She failed her godstest, after all.”
“Sentimental about losing your pupil to Kanach?”
“Hardly.” Nikolay’s hand closed around the potion, blocking it from view. “But I am curious why a disgraced avtorka matters to you.”
“Call it an abundance of caution… from having played this game before.”
Jane’s hands reached for the kladenet at her side. But Zakhar was too fast. With a wave of his hand, he sent magic crashing toward her, freezing her, binding her in place. Silver stung her wrists and ankles. She tried to fight the bonds, but her magical stores were almost dry.
She had Nikolay to thank for that.
Zakhar turned away. His narrowed eyes tracked Nikolay across the room. “You told me earlier the avtorka was nowhere to be found. What else have you lied about, I wonder?”
“Probably less than you.” Loathing flickered across Nikolay’s face for a moment, but it was replaced so quickly by cool indifference that Jane wondered if she had imagined it. “Shall we get on with things? Let’s not draw out this meeting longer than it needs to be. What was next?”
“You drink the fireflower potion, break your Oath, and tell me the spell to break Sengilach.”
“And the poison in the potion?”
“…If there is a poison, you will get the antidote once you tell me the spell to break Sengilach.”
Jane’s stomach sank. So that was the plan. Nikolay had agreed to drink the potion first to break his Oath-spell. And Zakhar had put poison in the potion to ensure that Nikolay would stay true to his word and break the protection charms on Sengilach.
Nikolay frowned at the potion.
Slowly, carefully, he raised it to his lips.
The azdaja shot toward him in a burst of wings and fangs and teeth. Jane jumped with the shock of its appearance. The azdaja fluttered around Nikolay’s head in a panic, looping her coils over his shoulder, hissing frantically. “Sssssstupid human! What if there’ssss a poison? What if he doessssn’t give you the antidote? Sssstop! Sssssssssstop!”
“Really, no need to be melodramatic,” Nikolay murmured – but the harder he tried to disentangle her, the harder her coils tightened around his arm. “Oh, really!” he snapped.
He waved a hand and a glittering barrier appeared between him and the azdaja. Ignoring the azdaja’s wail of despair and Jane’s cry of anger, Nikolay raised the vial to his lips.
Tipped it back.
Some of the pallor left his face, replaced by a bright, healthy look that Jane found wholly unnerving. He straightened and wiggled his fingers. A smile crossed his lips.
He turned to Zakhar. “You want Sengilach’s protection spells broken now, I suppose?”
“If you tell him,” Jane said desperately, “you’ll kill everyone here! Do you want that on your conscience, Nikolay?”
Nikolay ignored her. He spoke a series of strange-sounding syllables. They seemed to resonate with power, seemed to echo again and again in her head, burning themselves into her brain.
“There is your payment,” said Nikolay. “Are we done?”
Jane blinked. The syllables of the magic spell still echoed around them; Nikolay’s voice now sounded harsh against the remnants of their melody.
Zakhar laughed. Rather than preparing to leave, he seemed to be relaxing. “Much as your lies amuse me,” he said, “I would prefer you to say the real spell, the one that will actually bring down the magic barrier.”
Nikolay’s face went very still.
“What gave it away?”
“I know the cadence of a protection-spell when I hear one, even one uttered in Dragonstongue.” Zakhar licked his lips. “The real spell, sorcerer.”
Nikolay hesitated. Jane was sure she wasn’t imagining the uncertainty that flashed in his eyes. His hands dipped into the pockets of his robes. Stilled.
“I will tell you the real spell,” he said. “But you will have to cast it.”
“Cast it yourself,” said Zakhar. “Do it, and I shall give you the antidote to the poison I placed in your Oath-Draught.”
Nikolay opened his mouth. For a moment, Jane though the was going to do it – speak the real words to the protection spell and doom the castle – Her mouth opened to shout at him, don’t –
And then Nikolay’s hand darted forward, lightning-fast; a vial materialized, and Jane watched, frozen with surprise, as an arc of silvery blue liquid flew out, straight towards Zakhar’s face –
Toward his eyes.
Belatedly, Jane realized that Nikolay must be trying to splash Zakhar with dragon’s egg potion, which would allow Nikolay to control Zakhar. But Zakhar was too quick. By the time Nikolay’s potion reached his side of the room, he had relocated, and the potion splashed to the floor. Undeterred, Nikolay withdrew another vial from his cloak and uncorked it. He and Zakhar circled each other.
“You have Lanskoye and Dalnushka,” said Nikolay. “I have a tainted Oath-Draught. Shall we call it even and go our merry ways?”
The azdaja, hissing and ecastatic, looped herself around Jane’s shoulder. Her forked tongue tickled Jane’s ear. “Nikolay mussst have sssshown Zakhar an illusssion!” she hissed. “He probably vanissshed the real Oath-Draught to a sssafe place until he could insspect it, and drank out of a fake vial!”
If Nikolay hadn’t really drunk the Oath-Draught, that meant his Oath to the tsar still held. That was comforting. It meant Nikolay wouldn’t be able to give Zakhar the protection spell to the castle.
But Jane didn’t have long to dwell on this. It seemed Zakhar had no intention of ‘going on his merry way.’ Even in her magic-less state, Jane could feel the waves of power building around him.
Nikolay struck first, lashing out with silver magefire. Almost simultaneously, the azdaja struck Zakhar, lunging at him from behind. Zakhar vanished in a whirl of silver, as did Nikolay. The room filled with dust and shadows.
Jane coughed and cringed and struggled against her bonds. The last thing she wanted was to be caught in the crossfire of a fight between two sorcerers with raging ego issues.
Fortunately, Zakhar’s preoccupation with the battle was working in Jane’s favor. She didn’t have full range of motion in her arms, but she could wriggle her hands. She stretched and stretched against the magical bonds, until she just managed to work her right hand into a position where she could touch the kladenet.
Jane clasped the handle tightly. Warm energy seeped through her. The longer she held the handle, the more she could move. She wriggled against Zakhar’s magic with renewed energy – the sword hummed reassuringly – and finally, she was free.
Jane threw herself on her side – a bolt of silver magefire missed her by inches -and made a beeline for the cabinet where the azdaja had told her to look for the dragon’s egg potion. She tore the door open.
Glass vials met her eyes, row upon row of them, and Jane had to clamp her mouth shut to keep from cheering. All were filled with silver-blue liquid, which sloshed and bubbled as Jane piled them into her carry sack. Jane counted quickly. There were at least forty.
An explosion shattered the room. Compression waves from the blast hurled Jane into the door of the potion cabinet. She clutched her side, whimpering, as the remaining vials on the shelves tumbled to the floor. Debris from the blast rained around her, and the air filled with the familiar stench of poison gas. Jane threw her arm over her mouth, wishing for magic, wishing for anything that might be able to shield her from the burning effects of the gas.
She stumbled forward, trying to find a window. The air was filled with shouts and smoke, and it was almost impossible to see ahead of her. Jane gasped for air, coughing, fighting to find the edge of the room.
Dimly, she heard a voice call, “Halt!” over the din. Other voices reached her ears, not Nikolay’s or Zakhar’s.
Someone grabbed her from behind. Still blinded by smoke and the gaseous fumes, Jane brought her elbow up and drove it backward, hard into her assailant’s stomach. He let go with a surprised grunt. She stumbled forward, trying to get out of reach, but before she could get two paces, a hand closed around her wrist. She yelled and fumbled for her kladenet.
“It’s all right! Jane, stop! It’s just me.”
She squinted through the dissipating haze of smoke and dust. The familiar features of her teacher swam before her. Jane laughed with relief. “You made it!”
“Why are you here? I thought we agreed you would stay in my rooms.”
Jane ignored him; her mind was caught by a sudden panic. The explosion had thrown her violently against a door – her side was still achingly bruised – and the sack with the dragon’s egg potion…!
Jane tore open the lid of her carry-sack. Vials of silver-blue potion twinkled up at her, and Jane sighed with relief. Two had shattered; the rest were intact. “You can scold me all you want later,” she said. “We have a job to do! I think I know how to defeat the sudok-”
A shout reached her ears.
The smoke was clearing. A circle of battle-mages and Riders had formed in the middle of the room. At the center of the circle were Olesya and Nikolay.
Zakhar was nowhere in sight.
“You,” said Olesya.
Grim fury colored her features as she stalked toward Nikolay. Nikolay’s wrists, Jane noted with relief, were bound by magic shackles.
“Me,” said Nikolay. He was as pale as Jane had ever seen him. A gash trailed down one of his arms; his face and hands bore multiple lacerations from the recent battle. But his voice was high, cold, and so proudly arrogant that Jane wanted to slap him. The azdaja was coiled protectively around Nikolay’s ankles, her tail thrashing in agitation.
“You are under arrest,” Olesya declared. “By royal decree of Tsar Fyodor Vetrov of House Tarmita.”
Nikolay stood, stiff and upright, glaring down at her with scorn. “On what grounds?”
“We know very well who you are,” Olesya snapped. “You’re a traitor, guilty of espionage and treason against the crown. Do I need to review the list of your offenses?”
Nikolay began to laugh again, a low, bitter sound much different from his earlier wild one.
“I bet when the tsar ordered you to arrest me, you jumped at the chance, didn’t you, Olesya? You’ve been dying for an opportunity like this.”
His eyes met Jane’s across the room.
“I suppose you think you’re very clever,” he said.
Jane slid out of Casimir’s grasp to join the circle of battle-mages and riders surrounding Nikolay. “If you didn’t want me repeating what you’d said, you shouldn’t have monologued to the poor, powerless girl in the bottom of the pit cell. Hundreds of people died because of you.”
“And hundreds more will die because you failed your godstest. Did you cry for them, I wonder?”
“Enough!” Olesya’s face was dark with rage. “Lock this foul creature in a pit cell so he can await trial -”
“Wait.” Jane stepped forward. “He took something from me. I want it back.”
Ordinarily, the annoyance in Nikolay’s eyes would have made her shiver, but now – with him chained and surrounded by half a dozen battle mages – Jane felt much less small in comparison.
She reached forward. Trying not to think about blood-borne diseases and contact precautions and Somita’s unfortunate lack of anti-virals, Jane grabbed his blood-slick hand and pulled – strongly, fiercely, self-righteously.
“I want my magic back,” she said.
Power flowed into her, a welcome surge that almost caused Jane to laugh with relief. Nikolay was fighting her, resisting her efforts, but he was bound by magical restraints, and Jane was not. Jane ground her teeth together and renewed her efforts. It was a battle of wills, and she refused to lose.
At last, satisfied, Jane pulled her hand away.
Nikolay watched her coldly, spider-silent. There were many things Jane wanted to say. She wanted to tell him she was glad he was going to prison. That he deserved to be taken down a notch for all he’d done. That she hoped he got convicted, that he’d have time to reflect on what an awful person he was from the confines of a pit cell.
But in the end, all Jane said was:
“Don’t ever take my magic again.”
Nikolay’s eyes narrowed, and a bitter smile crossed his face.
Then battle-mages stepped forward, and with a flash of silver magic, he was gone.