Jane knew the intruder was a god. Not because they had met before (they hadn’t), nor because he exuded the aura of one accustomed to being obeyed—nor, even, because gold magic poured off him like water from a fountain. No, Jane knew this man was a god because she had spent a full morning staring at his effigy in the palace temple. His name was Sidor, the God of War and Chaos… and why he was in Jane’s tent right now was anyone’s guess.
Had Jane been alone, she might have backed away, closed the tent flap, and pretended she hadn’t seen him. But the azdaja spoiled that plan. Before Jane could sneak away, the winged snake launched herself from her basket and coiled around Jane’s shoulders, hissing.
Sidor’s eyes swiveled toward them.
“Come in,” he said pleasantly.
“Er—if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather—”
Sidor rolled his eyes, and the next moment, Jane was inside the tent—or perhaps the tent had expanded so that it surrounded them both. Sidor rose from the pallet, eyes on her.
“So this is the avtorka that Divna has been raving about!” He looked her up and down and then sneered, as though he found her immensely disappointing. “You took your time getting here. I had almost run out of things in your tent to rummage through.”
Jane squinted against the dazzle radiating off Sidor’s armor. She tried to focus on Sidor’s face, but that was equally unnerving. His eyes were like the ocean, ever-changing, flashing with a light that was both mesmerizing and dangerous. His body seemed tightly wound—feral. Jane forced herself to meet his gaze, though part of her wanted to cower in a corner.
She’d met gods before—or rather, she’d met goddesses: Sidor’s two sisters, Divna and Avdotya. Sidor most resembled Divna in appearance—both tall, golden, and imposing—but Divna had never unsettled Jane in quite the way Sidor did now.
“Why are you here?” Jane asked. She tried to make her voice firm and aloof. But it was hard to sound dignified while unwinding a fretful azdaja from her shoulders. Jane couldn’t remember ever seeing the winged snake so agitated. As Jane watched, the azdaja angled her face toward Sidor’s arm—
“Whoa, there!” said Jane. The thought flashed through her mind that Nikolay would be exceptionally displeased if she returned his snake to him as a barbecued mess of godly wrath. “Settle down—”
Sidor reached forward. The azdaja lunged, and Jane cried a warning. But the azdaja’s strike missed Sidor. The snake tried to pivot, but before she could swivel around to bite Sidor, the god rapped her sharply on the head.
The azdaja went limp, coils spilling across Jane’s hands.
“There.” Sidor sounded satisfied. “That is how you deal with a pest.”
“What did you do to her?”
“I sent her to sleep.”
Jane’s tent had been designed with convenience in mind. It folded into a tidy square that was perfect for stuffing into a pack on a wyvern’s saddle. Unfortunately, magical enhancements only got you so far, and the tent was small. Its tiny proportions made Sidor look even larger and more imposing as he advanced.
“I don’t believe we’ve ever had so short an avtorka before,” he drawled. “Then again, I could be mistaken. It has been awhile since the last avtorka came through.”
“Why are you here?” asked Jane.
“Is it not proper that I should want to meet the Avtorka before her final godstest?” There was something off about Sidor’s inflections, as though he was deranged, drunk, or some combination of both. “Avdotya and Divna have both had their turns with you. How did you find their godstests, may I ask?”
“Fine,” Jane said shortly.
It was a lie; Casimir had died during Jane’s last godstest, and she wouldn’t forgive that anytime soon. But Sidor was the very last person with whom she wanted to discuss Casimir’s death.
Her thoughts must have shown on her face, however, for Sidor let out a dark chuckle. “I’m not much a fan of Divna’s lessons either,” he murmured. “Perhaps we could arrive at an arrangement that would make your last godstest more palatable.”
“Arrangement—what sort of arrangement?”
“A mutually beneficial arrangement,” drawled Sidor, “to satisfy my boredom while negating your imminent demise.”
His eyes glittered, impatient and businesslike. If Jane hadn’t been unsettled before, she was now. Her eyes skittered off of his, looking down in sudden consternation to where one of his hands was toying with the lacings on her workout clothes. She jerked herself backward, aghast, and felt his arm pull her closer in a vise-like grip.
“Hold still, foolish girl,” said Sidor sharply.
“Let go of me!”
His hand clamped tighter on her wrist, until his grip was almost bruising.
Jane screamed and lashed out—a sharp kick, panicked, fueled by terror. Perhaps hours of drills with Olesya had finally paid off—perhaps she was just lucky—but her kick struck home. Sidor growled and released her with a hiss.
Jane scrabbled for the kladenet at her waist and aimed its point directly at Sidor’s heart. “Get back,” she said. “Stay away—”
Sidor’s face was dark with disappointment; disgust blazed in his eyes. “You,” he hissed. “You are nothing like Eloise. I was a fool to think you might be half the woman she was! But less a fool than you are, to dismiss me in such a manner.”
Jane’s grip on the kladenet tightened. It was hard to think over the sound of her ragged breathing, the roar of blood in her ears. She knew the woman Sidor spoke of: Kir’s mother, her adopted uncle’s daughter, who had been trapped in this world years ago after failing her godstest.
“Of course I’m not Eloise!” she said. “We’re two completely different people! I’ve never even met her.” He took a step forward, and she raised the kladenet again. “Don’t—” she said shakily. “I don’t know why you’re here or what you want, but don’t come one step closer, or—or else—”
Sidor’s lip curled. In a fluid motion, he reached forward and slapped the kaldenet out of Jane’s hands. It clattered to the ground.
“You do not,” he said coldly, “command a god.”
He twisted a lock of her hair around his fingers. Jane yelped with pain.
“Nothing like Eloise,” he mused, letting go. “Still, perhaps amusing enough in your own right. Perhaps I shall keep you—keep you here, with me, until I grow bored of you. It would be appropriate punishment, for daring to wave a sword in my face.”
“You’re mad,” Jane said, realizing a second too late that if Sidor truly was mad, then accusing him of madness was pretty much the opposite of what she should have done.
“It is easy to confuse madness for other afflictions,” said Sidor, “like being out of one’s mind with boredom, or too disinterested to care about the outcome of my actions. Divna tells me I should spend my time preparing your next godstest, but even that seems so tedious.” His face hovered very close to Jane’s; she was assaulted by a whiff of alcohol so strong she almost gagged. “My sister tries to teach avtorkas lessons with her godstests—so terrifically wholesome; so utterly useless. The Book of Truths doesn’t need you to learn lessons. You just need to pass our godstests—the test could be climbing a ladder, for all the Book cares!”
Keep him talking, Jane thought. No one had responded to her scream; Sidor must have used magic to block the sound from leaving. Keeping him distracted was her only option. That, and boring him so thoroughly that he left.
“The Book of Truths?” she asked distractedly. “How does it—”
“Are they keeping avtorkas so much in the dark that you have no idea why we’re testing you?” Sidor’s tone was derisive. “The Book of Truths is the key to your dreams and your future, little mouse. Write a sentence, any sentence, in the Book of Truths, and it will alter the fabric of this world.”
“I’ve been wondering about that.” Jane’s brain was cloudy with panic, but her mind and her lips seemed to be oddly disconnected, for she found her voice was surprisingly steady. “Are there limits to what I could write? Can the gods write in the Book of Truths? If so, why didn’t you use the Book to save Eloise—”
“Do not speak her name!”
Jane took a step backward at the venom in Sidor’s tone. His eyes flashed with rage, but that rage quickly dimmed, and when she dared look at him again his eyes were cold, and frighteningly blank.
“I could do anything,” he seethed. “I could write you out of existence, if the option of writing in the Book was not denied me. But lowly gods such as myself and Avdotya cannot write in the Book of Truths.” He sounded very bitter. “Only Divna and the avtorkas can. And we cannot control your writings.”
“Because the Rules forbid it!”
The way Sidor uttered the word ‘rules’ suggested that he was talking about no mere insignificant rule, but a much weightier and more important entity than its uncapitalized cousins.
Sidor shifted, his voice growing tighter. “Do you have an endless supply of questions, little mouse?”
“It would be difficult to have an endless supply of questions,” Jane said reasonably. “I certainly wouldn’t trust myself to try. But I do have a couple others. What are the Rules? How can they be powerful enough to prevent even the gods from writing in the Book of Truths? And why did Divna try to teach me lessons if those lessons don’t matter?”
What are you doing? screamed her brain. You’re supposed to be trying to play meek, convince him that you’re boring and shallow so he’ll allow you to pass your next Godstest instead of keeping you here indefinitely as he just not-so-subtly hinted—
Shut up, thought Jane. I want to hear what he’s going to say.
Sidor was smiling, a wide, unhinged smile that did not reach his eyes. “I often forget,” he said, “just how little information avtorkas are given when they first arrive on Mir. But then, humans are pitifully lacking in their understanding of the cosmos. You’re missing the biggest question of all, of course. Which is the question of where did the Book of Truths come from to begin with?”
“Er,” said Jane. “Where did the—”
“I have no idea! If I knew that question, I would be making my own Book of Truths; I wouldn’t be standing here, bored beyond measure, while an arrogant avtorka hurls questions at me.” His hooded eyes drifted toward her again, the corners of his mouth quirking down in a frown. “In answer to your last question, my stupid sister Divna thinks herself the world’s savior, some kind of builder of heroes, like the Greek mythology she so dearly loves. She’s a megalomaniac, she’s let power get to her head, and she criticizes us for being cruel—As for your other questions, I’ve told you too much already; you should be grateful for the small pieces I’ve let slip.”
The thought crossed Jane’s mind that Sidor was either unnaturally prone to distraction, or he was allowing her to distract him for unknown reasons. Perhaps he was conflicted about his purpose in the tent. Or perhaps this entire visit was some kind of a test. In which case, Jane was almost certainly failing…
Sidor’s eyes snapped back to hers, his expression brooding. He cocked his head to the side, as though hearing something far away. A cold, tense expression entered his eyes, his jaw hardened, and for a moment his face looked almost ugly. His sudden mood changes were giving Jane whiplash. If this were a test, she was having a hard time keeping up with any of it.
He approached her again, and for a moment, he so reminded her of a tiger that Jane half expected him to snarl. Her eyes squeezed shut. She could hear her heart pounding. This was it, this was the end, she had only managed to distract him so long—
His lips hovered next to her ear, his hands tangling up in her hair, pulling it back. Jane felt his hand press tightly against her palm, felt a searing rush of pain. “A parting gift for you,” he whispered—
And then he vanished, in a rush of air.
Silence filled the tent, which seemed so much larger now that Sidor was gone.
Shakily, Jane opened her palm.
An unfamiliar symbol blazed in the center of her hand, night black, a circle bisected by what looked like two pitchforks.
For a moment, Jane stared at it blankly. Then she turned toward the azdaja, who was stirring in its corner.
“Did you understand any of that?” she asked.