The Rest is Riddles

Chapter 23: Specter of Death

Previously on The Rest is Ruins:

“We could attempt a transfer of sorts. Oath-spells such as this one, where one person swears to obey or protect another, can sometimes be… bamboozled. The spell can be convinced to recognize a different person as the one to be protected. I’ve seen it done before. In this case, the trick would be to convince Nikolay’s Oath-spell to recognize another person, someone who isn’t the tsar—ideally someone young and not dying—by modifying that person’s magical signature to match the tsar’s. Nikolay’s brother would have been the logical choice, since Kir is the tsar’s true son and direct blood relative, but unfortunately, Kir is now a captive in Kanach, which somewhat limits our options…”

“Kir was taken captive?” Jane covered her mouth. “No…”

“Yes,” Lidea said. “My mirrors showed him in one of the Kanachskiy pit cells, just last night. But that’s not the point here.”

Her eyes tracked Jane, and Jane had an odd feeling, like she was missing something very obvious—

And then it hit her.


“No,” she said, stumbling backward. “Oh, no. No, that’s a terrible idea.”

“Why?” said Lidea.

Jane fought to suppress a hysterical laugh. It came out anyway, half-deranged. “Because. Nikolay wouldn’t want that at all. He’d never agree. He hates me.”

“Many people do things they wouldn’t normally agree to when faced with the specter of death,” Lidea said mildly. “You are young, and—unlike the tsar—you have a long life ahead of you. You are also an avtorka. You have king’s blood, and you have power. There is a decent likelihood we could successfully transfer the tsar’s magic onto you.”

Jane sucked in a breath. “I don’t want Nikolay’s protection for the rest of my life.” The thought of him trailing her, a constant sneering shadow at her back, made her shudder. “I need to find Sandra and go back to Earth! I can’t stay on Mir. Also, if it were that easy, why didn’t Nikolay transfer the spell onto Prince Kir years ago?”

“I never said it was easy.” Lidea fixed her with a look. “I reached out to the tsar once, years back, but with the wars and political instability, the timing was never right. You see, for the spell to work, the tsar will have to transfer all his magic to you, and Nikolay’s Oath-scar will have to accept you. The tsar will probably die in the process. If Nikolay’s Oath-scar has not accepted you before then, he’ll still die, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. Nothing is guaranteed. But since Writing in the Book of Truths is no longer open to us, it’s the only option that has some hope of saving him.”

Jane bit her lip.

Lidea went back to stirring her potion. “Think on it carefully,” she said. “If you choose not to try the transfer, and the tsar dies, the kindest course would be to offer Nikolay the opportunity to end things. It is truly tortuous, to die of a broken Oath.”

Jane wanted nothing more than to hide in her room after that, but she had promised Nikolay she’d come back. So an hour later she sat in his room again, reading.

Her throat was beyond sore. She had never wished so much for a cell phone. Preferably one with Audible installed. But there was only her, and her voice.

Nikolay seemed to drift in and out of consciousness. Despite Lidea’s potions, his more lucid moments seemed to be marked by intense pain. Not that he was very outspoken about this—Jane was surprised at how stoic he was being—but his posture was hunched, his eyes glazed. He still occasionally sent her pleading looks when she paused in her reading.

Eventually, she reached the end of the novel. She closed the book gently, wondering if she should hunt for a new one. Shadows filled the room. The sun had gone down behind the mountains. Jane prodded the fire and then touched Nikolay’s forehead. At her touch, his eyes flickered open.

“How are you?” she asked, not sure she wanted to hear the answer.

He let out a pained sound that was half laugh, half grimace and turned his head away. His eyes looked suspiciously bright, as though even his best efforts couldn’t quite serve to hold back a hint of tears, and the muscles in his jaw were clenched.

“I’ll get another potion,” she said, but his hand reached out to grab her arm. His eyes found hers, fevered.

“Kir,” he said. “Tell Kir… I’m sorry. I failed him.”

The words were hoarse, almost desperate, the words of a man who knew that he didn’t have much time. Jane’s heart hammered in her chest. She thought about fetching Lidea, but his grip on her was too strong to leave, and she rather suspected Lidea was already doing all she could to keep him alive.

“We both failed.” She tried not to think about the fact that Kir was probably being tortured in some Kanachskiy prison, hundreds of miles away. “We both failed… it wasn’t just you. I’ll tell him the truth. About what really happened.”

If I ever see Kir again.

Nikolay shifted with a hiss, as though getting comfortable was impossible, and glanced up at her. She wondered what he saw. Probably not much. The room was dark, and his eyes seemed to be having trouble focusing.

“You… were a mistake,” he mumbled hoarsely. “I ruined you, and it ruined everything…”

He was clearly not in his right mind. Jane tried again to pry his fingers away from her wrist, but for a dying man, he was surprisingly strong. “That’s all I’m good at, you see,” he mumbled. “Everybody suffers… everything I touch…”

“Nikolay,” Jane said, a little harsher than she had intended. His eyes flew open, honed in on her.

“What am I saying?” he said.

“I’m not sure.”

“I was dreaming… I think. Curse these pain potions. I can’t… seem to think straight.”

She watched him pinch the bridge of his nose, as though attempting to collect his thoughts. Eventually, he seemed to give up and leaned his head back against the pillow with a grimace.

“Are you… enjoying watching me die, avtorka?” he rasped.

“No,” Jane answered. “This is honestly the last place I want to be right now.”

It was true. She would have been happy never to see him again, but she didn’t want to watch him die.

Nikolay, however, didn’t seem to appreciate her honesty. At her words, his grip on her wrist tightened, locking her even more firmly in place.

If it had been anyone else, Jane would have thought he was frightened. Scared she would leave him to die alone. But she knew how Nikolay’s mind worked, how spiteful he was, and she thought it far more likely that he simply wanted to force her to endure this torture with him, as payback for her writings in the Book of Truths.

With a sigh, Jane knelt down on the floor beside the bed. “I may not want to be here, but I’m here,” she said, “and I’m not going to leave unless you send me away.”

“Why?” he managed.

“Because…” Jane frowned at the fireplace, searching for words. “If a dragon swoops from the sky and I die tomorrow, I don’t want to be ashamed of how I treated you today.”

He loosened his grip on her arm as though stung. Jane reclaimed her hand and massaged her wrist, staring into the crackling fire.

When she turned back to look at him, Nikolay was watching her.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.

His voice was quiet, half obscured by the pillow, but the words were unmistakable. Jane gaped at him, wondering if she ought to get Lidea—perhaps the pain potions she’d been giving him had actually caused him to go mad. As the silence stretched, his eyes found hers. The firelight caught his irises briefly, coloring them deep amber. His face contorted in a grimace.

“Don’t misunderstand. I still hate you. You ruined everything, and I hate you for it…. I can be sorry and still hate you… surely that’s allowed?” He coughed again, weakly, and scrubbed a hand across his face. “I wish you had stayed on Earth… I wish I hadn’t involved you with the dragon. I wish…”


His eyes refocused on her, and he seemed to think better of whatever he’d been about to say. He shook his head with a wince, then looked away.

“I don’t… want to die,” he said roughly.

This one admission terrified Jane more than anything else he could have said. For she doubted he would ever have admitted this if he wasn’t actually dying.

Nikolay seemed almost as surprised by his own declaration as she was. He shifted on the bed with a hiss, which abruptly erupted into a fit of coughing. This time it lasted longer than any of his previous coughing spells, and when he was done, the pillow was flecked with red. He stared down at it, dazed and a little horrified. “Did that… all come from me?”

“Don’t look,” Jane said quickly. She grabbed a spare blanket and tucked it under his head, over the dollops of crimson now staining the pillow. “There. That’ll do for now until we can get the pillow cleaned.”

His eyes caught hers for a moment, and her stomach clenched at the barely-disguised dread in his gaze.

It felt wrong, seeing him so weak—like she was witnessing something she shouldn’t, something private. She didn’t want to see him vulnerable. She wanted to keep the image of him in her head as the cruel, arrogant sorcerer who had mind-controlled her, lied to her, and left her on a tower.

It was easier to hate him that way.

She settled down again, on the carpet beside the bed, resting her back against the mattress. “My parents are both doctors,” she said at length. “Non-magical healers in my world. They see their share of death. Sometimes, they bring people back to life after their hearts stopped. I asked mom once, if she really thought there was a place you go when you die… a heaven, a hell, or something in between.”

It had happened around the time Phillip had left. Long months of waiting for his return had turned her hope of seeing him again into something bordering on despair. She had been starting to think of her brother as dead and trying to understand what that meant.

“My mom had talked to people who she’d brought back from the verge of death, and sometimes she’d ask if they remembered anything from the time when their hearts had stopped. Their answer was… no. It didn’t matter if they were good or bad people, religious or atheistic. Death for those she talked to was just like… a dreamless sleep, one that lasts forever. Without any of the burdens or pains that come with being alive.”

Jane paused. She had the sudden, awkward realization that death on Mir might be different, that there might, in fact, be souls that stuck around even after your body was dead, that—

Casimir might still be alive…

“Was that… supposed to make me feel better?” Nikolay let out what almost sounded like a chuckle; it quickly morphed into a hacking cough. When he was done, he settled back against the pillow looking, not annoyed, but resigned. “I’d almost… rather you’d told me a happy fantasy about us all getting reincarnated as squirrels. At least then there might be… some hope of fixing things. Eternal sleep after death means you had just one chance to… get everything right. And if you wasted that chance…”

His words hung on the air between them like a ghost.

Jane was silent. She remembered what her mom had told her, even before they’d had that conversation about death. Don’t aim to be good because you fear going to hell, Jane. Strive to be good because you only get one shot at life, and you have a duty to make that chance count.

She hadn’t really tried her best to make it count so far. Had she? She’d just gone along, trying to please everyone, her father, her teachers, without really giving thought to what she wanted. She’d spent all her time in Somita desperate to get home, not because she really felt happy at home, but because she needed to get back to her internship and finish her classes. She hadn’t even tried to like Mir; she hadn’t really tried to appreciate the experience of seeing a new place or having magic. She’d spent most of her time on Somita as a passive spectator—first to Nikolay’s “lessons”, then to the tests thrown at her by the so-called gods—only rarely attempting to forge her own path. And when she had, she had inevitably gotten things wrong—but at least it had been something, something she could claim ownership of.

And now she was back on Mir, where she had a second chance.

To set things right.

To correct her mistakes.

To be more than a passive spectator.

This world was real, just as real as her own, and its people were real, and she’d doomed many of them, but she could start by saving the life of the man dying next to her. And then she would go and find Sandra, and then try to rescue Prince Kir…

Nikolay was coughing again. He looked utterly wretched, hunched above the pillow. Flecks of blood dotted the blanket again.

Jane placed a hand on his shoulder and squeezed it slightly. “Just… just hang on for a little bit longer, okay? Lidea is working on something. To keep you alive. I don’t know if it will work, but… I hope it will. You have to hold on.”

A frown creased his brow, but he nodded, then slumped back against the pillow. After a minute, his eyes fluttered shut. For a terrible moment, she thought he had died, but then she noticed the rise and fall of his chest; he was just sleeping.

There was a stamping and jangling of wyvern’s reins, and then a rap on the door, loud and frantic. “I’ll be back soon,” Jane whispered, and she hurried to the front of the house.

In the doorway, General Nadja supported the stooped, wrinkled form of the tsar of Somita. Jane tried not to gasp when she saw him. There was practically nothing left of the man anymore; he was all skin and sinew.

“The castle was attacked,” Nadja said. Her right arm was bloody, and her face in the twilight was ashen. “It’s over. Somita is fallen. Sengilach and Dalnushka may still stand against the sudok, but the enemy forces are pressing in, and sooner or later the Kanachskiy forces will topple the defenses. How long can they last without food or fresh water? And the tsar…”

She turned her face away, a hand to her mouth, as though trying to hide her grief.

“Set him down,” said Lidea. She hurried forward with her collection of potions. “We’ll deal with one problem at a time. Jane, help me levitate him into the next room. Nikolay—”

General Nadja’s mouth hardened. “Let him die,” she hissed. “I have no doubt that traitor is partly to blame for this.”

“No!” The tsar’s voice was weak, old and reedy. “No… you cannot.”

“It’s okay,” Jane said soothingly. Later, she would question if and how any of this was actually okay, but for now—”I’m going to bring you into the next room. All right?”

Slowly, she levitated the tsar into the room where Nikolay lay, while Lidea fetched a second bed.

“We should move fast,” Lidea told her in an undertone, as they settled the tsar onto the mattress. “Neither of them have much longer by the looks of things. Are you agreed to the plan?”

Jane took a deep, shaky breath. “I could still go back to Earth eventually, right?” she whispered. “As long as I took care of myself and didn’t manage to die by accident, Nikolay would be fine?”

Lidea nodded.

“Then—” Jane sucked in a breath and straightened her spine. “Then… yes. Let’s do this.”

She had mentally resolved herself to go through with the plan during the steady shift of the sun across the sky that afternoon, in the shadow of Nikolay’s labored breathing. But she was still afraid. As Lidea began bringing instruments into the room with Nikolay and the tsar, her nervousness grew, until her hands trembled. Lidea swabbed something across Jane’s palm and brought a blade toward her skin. “Little pinch,” she said. Jane knew these were the universal words healers used before something was going to hurt a lot, and she was not disappointed.

Ouch!” she said.

Undaunted, Lidea made a nick in the tsar’s palm and pressed their two cuts together. Jane wanted badly to protest about how unhygienic this was, about the risk of bloodborne pathogens and couldn’t they find some other method, but by then it was too late.

Lidea closed her eyes. A feeling of pressure rose from Jane’s hand all the way to her head. She could feel the tsar’s magic flowing into her, as though Lidea was forcing it up her arm. Her eyes unfocused suddenly, until the room became a blur.

And then, Tsar Fyodor’s voice spoke in Jane’s head, old and thin and reedy.

“Thank you, dear girl,” he said. “Thank you…”

“You shouldn’t be thanking me,” said Jane. She felt like crying. “It’s my fault Somita is under attack. I’m… going to try to make things right again, but I don’t think I deserve your thanks.”

For helping… my son…

Helping? They had gotten themselves into such a tangled mess that she was not even sure what to think of their interaction anymore. Was she here right now out of an actual desire to be here, or simply out of guilt for failing Somita, for not trying to do more?

“There are things I’d like to tell you, but there isn’t enough time. Since Kir has been taken,” said Fyodor, and Jane heard the grief in his voice again, deep like a well, like a passage to the core of the earth, “the two of you may be the only hope of saving Somita. There is good in Nikolay still, though you may have to dig deep to find it. His worst enemy is himself. You must keep Nikolay on a steady course, as best you can. Protect him from himself, in exchange for his protection of you. This I ask, a dying father’s wish.”

“Protect… Nikolay?” He’d probably like that as little as she did, and she had no idea how the tsar possibly expected her to keep him safe. “I—I don’t know.” The pressure was building in her head, and she felt faint with the force of it. “And Somita is…” Probably doomed. “You see, I Wrote the wrong things in the Book of Truths, I can’t Write in the Book again, and Nikolay has no powers anymore. I’ll watch Nikolay, and I’ll try to save Kir, but I…”

“Promise me, Jane…”

The tsar’s voice was fading.

“Promise me…”

“I…” Jane swallowed. “I’ll do what I can.”

Dread settled over her. If she could not Write in the Book of Truths, how could she set things right? What could one person do to stop a war?

Sandra was the new avtorka now. If Jane had not taken away the gods’ powers, Sandra might have been able to Write in the Book of Truths.

But it was Written in the Book of Truths that an avtorka from Earth had to pass three tests set by the gods before they could Write in the Book. Could godstests happen without the gods to run them?

“Jane,” said Lidea.

The blurry glow faded from Jane’s eyes, and the world suddenly snapped back into focus. She was still in the small bedroom, cramped with the number of people crowded into it. “We will attempt the Oath transfer now.”

“It didn’t happen already?” said Jane hazily. She felt dizzy and a little sick.

Lidea shook her head. “You’ve absorbed a great deal of the tsar’s remaining power. Now we will see if we can get Nikolay’s Oath to recognize you instead.”


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