The cold autumn sky reflected the castle’s mood. Gray clouds hung low to the ground, and the air was heavy with impending rain.
The corpses of the fallen, most mangled beyond recognition, lay on a pyre of oak and birch. A priest spoke funeral rites. Jane watched the pyre take light, smoke rising toward the sky in dark clouds, as the white robes of the fallen fluttered in the flames.
Beside her, Casimir’s younger brother wept. So did Prince Kir and Drazan.
Jane wanted to cry too, but she felt numb, like the godstest had hardened her heart, turning it brittle and cold as winter leaves. She stayed silent throughout the ceremony. Only when the priest’s intonations had ended and people were filing back to the castle did she at last step forward to lay a handful of paper birds by the pyre.
Perhaps you would have liked them more than lilies, she thought.
It felt cruel that they couldn’t even see his face to say a last goodbye, crueler still that Phillip had not woke up yet. He had never properly reunited with Casimir—and now Casimir was gone, his rooms bare, his body nothing but ash on the wind…
Kir followed Olesya back to the castle. He walked like a man half-dead, his body bowed, head bent. Jane stayed put a moment longer. She watched the rain seep into the paper birds. Fog dusted the flowers surrounding the pyre until they were sodden and heavy.
She turned. Drazan watched her sadly, General Nadja by his side. Jane looked past them, far ahead to the path where Prince Kir still walked alone, robes clutched around him. He moved slowly, like he waded through water.
Jane studied him silently. She watched him push open the palace door and slosh inside. She watched the door swing shut behind him.
“If you want another minute, we can wait.”
“No.” Jane looked up at General Nadja and held out her hand. “I can see the tsar now. Let’s go.”
The knowledge of the tsar’s condition had not prepared Jane for Tsar Fyodor’s frailty. His face was pale; his limbs shook. Still, his blue eyes, so like and yet unlike Kir’s, were sharp and aware.
“You asked to see me?” she said.
He stared at her for a long moment, studying her face until Jane felt uncomfortable with the keenness of his gaze. What secrets did he read in her expression? What was he looking for?
Eventually he said:
“You have done very well, and I thank you. Soon, Somita will owe you a great debt.”
Jane stared at the floor. It’s not fair, she thought. Putting so much pressure on a single person. Because if I don’t succeed, then it’s all my fault again.
She reached for the plate left by the tsar’s servant and toyed with an olive. “What happens now?” she asked.
“Sengilach is no longer safe.” The tsar adjusted himself in his chair. “The Kanachskiy have found their way to the capitol once. They will try again. We must retaliate, bolster our army and restore the magical defenses at Dalnushka.”
“Olesya, Drazan, and Kir will be your teachers from now on. You will travel with them to Dalnushka to fight back against the Kanachskiy. You will leave tomorrow.”
“Isn’t Dalnushka… occupied by the enemy?”
The tsar shot her a weary, but meaningful glance.
He’s sending me straight into the war zone. Panic clawed at her insides. Is he hoping to speed up the next godstest?
But she couldn’t deny that she longed to finish her godstests, to get off this planet with its battles and wars and gods of gold and ruin. “Sir… Your Highness…” She twisted a napkin between her hands, trying to put her thoughts into words. “Do you know why the godstests exist?”
Surprise traced its way across Tsar Fyodor’s face, surprise and an odd sort of understanding.
“My wife wondered that as well,” he said thoughtfully. “She couldn’t seem to understand that the godstests are the gods’ will. The gods chose you specifically because you are worthy of changing the course of the world.” He made it sound like it was the simplest, most natural thing in the world. “It is written in our holy scripts.”
“But why?” said Jane. “None of this makes any sense. It’s a ridiculous system.”
“Kir and Casimir told me you are fond of logic.” The tsar sighed. “Like the dragons and the azdaja, you look to see sense in all things. You seek order and truth and knowledge, but knowledge is not the same as wisdom. When you reach my age, you will understand that some parts of life are easily dissected, discernible, concrete. But the rest, dear girl, is riddles. And some riddles are not meant to be solved.”
She trailed off, staring at him. The tsar shot her a meaningful look.
And suddenly Jane felt uneasy. She had an ominous sense that she ought not continue this line of questioning. But there was one thing she had to know—
“What happened to your wife?” she said. “Why did she fail her last godstest?”
The tsar pierced her with a look. “I do not know. I’m not sure if any mortal knows. There were gaps in her memory, you see. She suffered a great deal before she came to live with me as queen. When I asked her, sometimes she would say she didn’t remember. And then, sometimes, she spoke in riddles. She told me she flew too close to the sun.”
Jane stared at him.
“Is there anything else?” he said.
She touched the paper in her pocket, then opened her mouth. Sentences assembled and disassembled themselves in her head.
At last, she said, “Thank you. I should visit my brother before I start packing.”
The infirmary was full to bursting, but Phillip still had a corner to himself. She sat down beside him with mixed feelings. Her brother deserved a chance at happiness, had stayed in Somita to be with Casimir. “I’m sorry,” she told his still body. But he kept on breathing slowly and evenly, as if she hadn’t spoken. He didn’t wake.
“He should wake soon,” said Tatyana, the head healer, resting a hand on Jane’s shoulder. “The curse leaves him gradually. I think his eyes should open in two or three more days. We’ll know then.”
Jane nodded. She squeezed Phillip’s hand one more time, and she let herself out.
There was one more person she needed to see before she could sleep.
The high-security pit cell where they had put Nikolay was slightly larger than Jane’s former cell, but just as barren.
Nikolay’s eyes glittered through the darkness. His wrists were bound by thick, black shackles that seemed to absorb the light, and Jane didn’t need magesight to see the faint etching of silver runes that encircled them.
“Miss me already?” he said as she stepped closer. “Or did you come here to gloat?”
Jane shook her head. She reached into her pocket and took out the piece of paper she’d received in the tower.
She didn’t know why she felt the need to check it again. She’d already memorized what it said. At the very bottom, beyond the lengthy list of rules describing wyvern powers and mage strengths and what she was supposed to do to Zakhar, scribbled in writing that was almost impossible to decipher, was a sentence. A sentence that Jane had stared at, long into the night, reading and rereading to make sure she understood right.
“Kir is your traitor.”
“I don’t like you,” said Jane. She refolded the paper and tucked it back into her pocket. “In fact, you’re one of the few people I’ve ever truly hated –”
“Spare me the lecture.”
“—but. I’ve been thinking about a lot of things, and a few things stand out to me.”
His eyes tracked her through the darkness.
“Your speech to me in the pit cell was a bit unnecessary, wasn’t it? Normally, you would have just taken my magic and left—you’re that sort of person. But you spent so much time explaining your plan, it was almost like you wanted me to believe you were the villain.”
Nikolay’s eyes gave nothing away, but the tautness in his face told Jane what she wanted to know. She drew a breath.
“There’s only one person you would have wanted to protect. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. ‘Blood always wins in the end‘—isn’t that what you told me once?
“Kir wanted to save your life. He was terrified you and the tsar would die and leave him alone to rule Somita. Suppose—hypothetically—that Zakhar approached him, offered him that fireflower potion in exchange for… almost nothing. A few scraps of information here and there, nothing worth crying over. Isn’t that always how it starts?
“And then Zakhar asked for a bigger thing. A paper from the Imperial Vault, with a magic spell. The secret to breaking the barrier at Dalnushka. Maybe Kir didn’t understand the significance; maybe Zakhar bamboozled him with magic somehow, and he wasn’t thinking straight. Regardless, Kir sent him the information, by freeing the Kanachskiy soldier and giving him the parchment to take to Zakhar. Am I on the right track so far?”
Nikolay’s face was very still.
Jane smiled without any real happiness. “Shortly after that happened, you discovered what Kir did. You told him to forget it ever happened, that you’d take care of it yourself. You stole my magic to cover his tracks and get me imprisoned. You hoped that if the people investigating the Kanachskiy’s disappearance bothered to look past the obvious answer—that I did it—they’d conclude it was you, not Prince Kir. You made sure Kir got sent away, and you told me that dramatic story in the pit cell. And when Zakhar came to demand the way to enter Sengilach, you made sure you were the one to confront him.”
“Once I started thinking Kir might be involved, it made so much more sense. It explained the argument I overheard between the two of you in your tower. And the timing of the Kanachskiy soldier’s disappearance was weird. Even if you freed him the second you stole my magic, there wouldn’t have been time for him to fly all the way from Sengilach and reach Dalnushka on the day of my godstest.”
“What do you intend to do with this information?” Nikolay’s face was so still, it seemed carved out of stone.
“I…” Jane licked her lips. “Tell them the truth, I suppose.”
Nikolay met her eyes, for once deathly serious. “If the tsar knew his true son, his good son, had committed treason, it would break him. If the people knew the prince of Somita had caused the destruction of their most powerful stronghold, it would break them.”
“Now do you understand?” said Nikolay.
“All of Dalnushka is dead, Casimir is dead, because of what Kir did.”
Nikolay’s face grew, if possible, paler than before. For a moment, he looked like he’d been struck. Jane wondered if this was his first time hearing of Casimir’s death.
He shook himself. Met her eyes again.
“Kir… has learned his lesson. The blame is not all his.”
“Are you saying Zakhar really bamboozled him? But…”
His eyes bored into hers.
Something, some scrap of an idea fluttered, just beyond reach of Jane’s mind. She dug for it, and leapt for it, but still it hovered, just out of reach. Something important, something Nikolay was trying to tell her…
“You don’t want to free me, anyway,” he said, and the mental scrap fluttered away, vanished, beyond all hope of grasping it.
Jane shook herself. She would think of it later, consider it later. “I may not like you—” (Understatement of the year) “—but… if you’re innocent—”
“I may have refused Zakhar when he first came to me with his offer, but don’t think I didn’t consider it. I also framed you for freeing that Kanachskiy prisoner. And let’s not forget the dragon’s egg potion, which I would have used on you at the first opportunity, if I’d thought it would help me break my Oath.”
“So I should leave you in prison. Forget this ever happened?”
For a second, she saw a flicker of uncertainty, entirely unfeigned. Then Nikolay’s expression smoothed over into his customary arrogance.
“You could still free me from my Oath. That would be … incredibly appreciated. If not…” Nikolay shrugged. “I’m afraid you’re of very little use to me. Although I would appreciate it if you would see to my azdaja’s good health. And,” he added, almost bitterly, “make sure my brother doesn’t incriminate himself through his own incompetence.”
Drazan teleported into the cell. “Time’s up,” he said.
Jane nodded. “Azdaja, yes. I’ll think about… the other things.”
Nikolay’s rooms were still and quiet when Jane let herself in through the blown-out door. She spent awhile petting the azdaja, who was coiled sorrowfully in a far corner of the room, and then stared out over the silent ruins of the city.
Jane stared up at the stars. Probably one of these far away stars was her sun. She tried to discern which star it might be, but the constellations here were so different from home, and she couldn’t pick it out which one it might be, or where in the sky, or even if it was even visible in this season.
The azdaja snuggled up to her. “What are you thinking?” she hissed.
“About home. About my third godstest.”
“You would alwaysss have a home here.”
Jane smiled sadly and stroked the snake’s scales. She thought of Phillip, of Drazan, of Kir. She thought about what would happen if she failed, if she was stuck on this world forever. They wouldn’t hate me, she thought. They would understand, I’m sure of it.
“Are you sssscared?” said the azdaja. “That you’ll fail your next godssstessst?”
And Jane realized, with surprise, that she wasn’t. She was nervous, certainly, and the thought of riding straight into a war zone didn’t appeal to her. But that all-consuming fear of failing—that was gone.
“I’m scared of dying,” she admitted. “But… as to whether I pass or fail… it’s no use fretting over the future, is it? I just have to do my best and hope that’s good enough. And… so much of success is really luck, isn’t it? You can try and try and try, and in the end…” In the end, if the gods don’t like you, all your effort won’t be enough. “And that’s not your fault, so long as you did your best and tried your hardest. You’re just unlucky. It doesn’t make you any less of a person.”
A soft snore interrupted her thoughts. The azdaja had fallen asleep. With a smile, Jane tucked the winged snake away in her bag and—with a last, parting glance—left Nikolay’s solar.
It didn’t matter if she wasn’t Phillip, she thought, as she strode down the steps from Nikolay’s tower. She might not be as smart, or as confident, or as accomplished, but she had still managed to kill a sudok and solve a mystery and defeat Zakhar. Perhaps her third godstest would bring worse mysteries, worse monsters, worse villains. She didn’t know when it would be, what it would bring.
But she knew that when it came, she would be ready.