The mark Sidor had left on her palm prickled unpleasantly. It was so light it almost blended in with her skin, barely visible unless you were looking for it–some sort of rune, with three intersecting lines, and a fourth off to the side. Jane had prodded and pinched it, even gone so far as to scrub at it with some water from her canteen, but nothing she did seemed to make any difference. Eventually she gave up trying to scrub it off her hand and lay back on her pallet, trying to sleep.
But sleep eluded her. It was hard enough trying to rest on a bed on the hard earth, without having to worry that a deranged deity might pay you another visit. Several times, she thought about waking Drazan or Nadja to tell them what had happened, but she resisted the urge. After all, what was the point? It wasn’t like two battle mages would be much use against a god.
If she hadn’t distracted him, what would Sidor have done? The thought filled her with unease. Her last godstest was coming up, and she couldn’t help but worry about what further nastiness Sidor had up his sleeve. Somewhere in their earlier encounter had been a threat–veiled but present–to not let Jane pass her third godstest.
To keep her on Mir forever.
She’d never gotten a solid answer out of anyone–neither the tsar, nor Nikolay, nor Kir–about what had really happened to Eloise Bauer, her adopted uncle’s daughter who had ended up on Mir and failed her godstests. The tsar had spoken cryptically when they’d last met, something about Eloise flying too close to the sun…
Jane finally gave up on sleep. She left a snoring azdaja in her sleeping bag, grabbed a book from her pack, and went to sit by the fire. It had to be almost midnight, and most of the other Riders were asleep in their tents. Two lonely Riders kept watch on opposite sides of the camp. Jane slid over to join the Rider who occupied one of the low-slung logs by the fire pit.
“Mind if I sit here?” she said.
He started. “Oh! Yes! Of course! I mean… no problem, Avtorka.”
He was young for a Rider, perhaps fifteen–little more than a boy, really. He fidgeted under Jane’s gaze, his eyes shining with barely-concealed awe.
“I’ve seen you around before,” she said slowly.
“Y-yes.” He cleared his throat. “Yes, um, I’m Alexei. Casimir’s younger brother.”
Now that she studied him, the family resemblance was clear. Dark brown hair framed softer features; his gray eyes seemed kind, but also melancholy. His expression had turned sad at the mention of his brother.
“I’m so very sorry,” she whispered.
He nodded, staring into the darkness. Jane twisted blades of grass between her fingers and gazed at the sky. The moon was high, a waxing gibbous, bright enough to drown the out stars. Wind sighed through the trees, blending with the chatter of crickets, tickling her hair. For the first time since Sidor had appeared in her tent, Jane felt her nerves begin to settle.
The fire was starting to die. Alexei fetched another log and coaxed the flames to life, his eyes hidden behind a shock of hair.
“Have you been a Rider long?” Jane asked.
He glanced at her, startled, as though he couldn’t believe she was choosing to speak to him.
“It’s okay,” Jane said hurriedly. “You don’t have to tell me-”
“Um,” said Alexei, “this is actually my first real mission–outside of defending the castle, I mean.” He winced and added, “Just because it’s my first mission doesn’t mean I don’t know anything. I’ve been training for two years now and had very good teachers.”
“I wasn’t trying to imply that at all,” Jane said hurriedly. “I’m sure you’re very good. Did you always know you wanted to be a Rider?”
Alexei nodded. “I wanted to be a Rider since I was little, but our parents didn’t agree. They said they’d already let Casimir leave and they weren’t going to let me go too. And he was so much older that it was hard to argue. But… I got my way in the end. I’ve been training for the last two years. I want to help people, like Casimir did. Even if I’m not cut out to be a healer…”
His voice trailed off.
“Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to say so much.”
“A great man once told me,” Jane mused, “that it’s more important to be your own person than to try to live up to the memory of someone else.” She smoothed her fingers over the edges of her textbook, unseeing. “You don’t have to be a healer to do great things. I know you’ll make Casimir proud, and-and he was lucky to have you as a brother.”
When she looked up, Alexei was staring at the ground.
“Do you think,” he said slowly, “we are all threads on a tapestry, interwoven, a nexus of entwined fates, where everyone’s pattern affects every other, and everything happens for a reason? Because of the will of the gods, or Fate, or… who-knows-what-else?”
Jane said nothing.
“It is easier to believe he died because he had to,” Alexei continued. “That there was a reason he died. But… just because a thought comes easily doesn’t make it true. I think Casimir told me that once.”
Jane swallowed. She was suddenly overwhelmed with memories, flashbacks to a time–eight years earlier–when her brother Phillip had vanished without trace. Her mother had turned to religion, her father had buried himself in work, and Jane and Sandra had been left to make sense of the tragedy themselves, in whatever way they could. Pages of diary entries later, a much younger Jane had decided her brother’s ‘death’ was not fair, was not fated, was nothing but random and unlucky chance. It just seemed far more likely than an all-powerful being caring enough to call all the shots.
But that was Earth, and this was Somita. What did Fate and free will mean here, in this land of myths and magic, where the gods shaped the fate of the powerless, where some events might be truly unavoidable-be it through gods, or fate, or whatever else?
“I don’t know if I-” she began, but then she broke off. She couldn’t tell Alexei about her grievances against the gods, not now. It wasn’t just that she didn’t know Alexei well enough, though that was part of it. It also didn’t feel right, shifting the conversation over to half-formed accusations against gods he probably worshipped.
“Avtorka?” said Alexei.
The cry of a wyvern shattered the forest.
Grateful for the reprieve, Jane leapt to her feet, almost catapulting her textbook into the fire in her haste. Alexei fumbled for the sword at his belt.
The sound came again, closer this time. Drazan barged from his tent, half-dressed, his hair tousled. “Are fanged thingies attacking?” he asked, gazing blearily at the sky.
Drazan’s eyes widened. Before Jane could finish her sentence, he charged at her and Alexei, caught them both around the middle, and dragged them to the ground. The three of them landed in an undignified heap in the underbrush.
Barely a second later, a wyvern crashed into the place where they’d just stood. Grumbling and wheezing, it crashed about deliriously, squashing the fire flat with its massive feet. It spun once-twice-and then finally, with a disgruntled whimper, it flopped on its side and lay still.
Jane scrambled to her feet, coughing and spitting out pine needles. Green spots dazzled her vision; she stumbled forward blindly. All she could see was the after-imprint of the fire, shadow-mirages of way it had lit the wyvern’s scales from below-
Out of the corner of her eye, something moved.
Jane scrabbled for her magefire, wishing for a weapon.
“Sorry!” said a familiar voice. “I’m so sorry. I wasn’t expecting-the wyvern, she just fainted-”
Jane squinted through her magelight.
Kir gaped at the three of them. In the dim light, he was almost impossible to see, but his face looked drawn with worry. “Are you all right?” he said. “I didn’t mean-please tell me you’re okay-”
“Show yourself!” Olesya’s voice snarled through the darkness. There was a clatter of feet over the rocks, the sound of bowstrings being drawn-
“Stop!” Jane shrieked. “Stop, don’t shoot!”
Drazan hurled himself at Kir. The pair of them narrowly missed getting hit by an overexuberant arrow, which thudded into a tree inches from Drazan’s back.
“Sidor’s hairy testicles,” Drazan muttered, offering a hand to help Kir stand up. “It’s all right, Olesya,” he called. “It’s all right-it’s the prince!”
“Oh,” said Olesya. A torch flared to life, illuminating the grim faces of Olesya and the other Riders who’d just hurried toward them across camp. “Well, why didn’t you say so?”
“I just did-”
Olesya pushed past Drazan. “Your Highness.” She bowed to Kir. “Is everything all right? Is the castle under attack? Has Sengilach…”
She trailed off.
Horror settled over Jane, a cold trickle down her spine. She knew the others were thinking the same thing as she was, from the way Alexei flinched backward and Drazan’s muffled curse.
“What?” Kir looked from face to face, then shook his head, flapping his hands. “No! No. No, no, no, the palace is just fine. And so is my father. Everyone is perfect. All okay, all still alive, I mean except for the ones who already-erm. My father-I mean the Tsar of Somita-he just ordered me to come with you. For… moral support…”
“All alone? With no one else accompanying you? Riding your wyvern half to death from exhaustion in order to get here?”
Kir squirmed under her gaze. “I was-it was hard to catch up-”
Olesya sighed. “It’s all right, everyone!” she called over her shoulder. “False alarm. Yosef and Drazan, get that wyvern out of the fire pit and check its vitals. Alexei, prepare a tent for the prince. Everyone else, back to bed.” She shot another, searching glance at Kir and sniffed. “We’ll talk more in the morning.”
The Riders trundled back to their tents, yawning, except for Alexei, who scrambled to his feet, looking energized. Jane thought about helping him pitch the tent, but he seemed to have it under control. Instead, she made her way across the root-strewn earth toward Prince Kir.
He looked up as she approached, his eyes glinting in the light of her magefire. Even through the darkness, he looked thinner, hollowed out, like a man who had not slept or eaten in days.
“It’s-good to see you,” he said. “Sorry again about-you know-” He fluttered a distracted hand at the wyvern that Drazan and Yosef were still trying-unsuccessfully-to revive.
Jane frowned. There were many things she wanted to say, but “It’s okay” was not among them. She had barely seen Kir since Casimir’s funeral; she’d made a point of avoiding him ever since she’d learned the truth of his betrayal. Looking at him now, the silence shattered by the wyvern’s disgruntled whimpers, Jane had to fight the urge to shake his shoulders.
He seemed not to notice her annoyance. “I hope you’ve been well,” he said, filling the void with chatter as was his specialty. “It’s been so odd with everything going on! What with the battle, and the second godstest and Nikolay in prison, and-Casimir-” He broke off, his voice cracking, and then seemed to rally himself. “I’ve got some good news for you, at least! Your brother is awake!”
For a moment, Jane forgot her irritation.
“Is”-she swallowed-“Is he-”
“He’s all right. He woke early yesterday, apparently just for a few minutes, but the healers said he spoke to them, and Healer Tatyana thinks he’s sane, and she’s the head of all the healers so she must know-”
Jane leaned against a tree, turning away so Kir couldn’t see her face as he continued to babble.
Phillip was okay-he was actually okay-she could not remember ever feeling so thankful. Mixed with this was regret. She had been so close to seeing him awake-and he must be devastated at the news of Casimir’s death. If only she’d been able to stay in Sengilach another day-
“Did he ask about me? Do you know how he took the news about… Casimir?”
“I don’t know.” Kir’s smile faltered. “I didn’t actually see him in person.”
If Phillip didn’t hate her, she should find some way to send him a message. She’d heard that General Nadja was taking some Riders back to Senglach when they arrived at Dalnushka, to report their findings to the tsar. Perhaps Nadja would be willing to carry a message for her…
Her attention snapped back to the prince. “Please tell me that’s not why you rode out here to join us,” she said. “I’m grateful to know that Phillip is okay, but it was a stupid thing to do, flying out here all alone in the middle of a war.”
“I had to come,” said Kir. He blinked at her, wide-eyed and miserable. “It was just-I couldn’t just sit around, waiting to hear if you’d pass your godstest-I need to help-I need to see-”
“…what happened to Dalnushka?” Her voice was cold.
Jane felt a stab of guilt, and then felt annoyed at herself for feeling guilty. Kir didn’t deserve her pity. Kir had passed messages to the enemy, Zakhar. He had been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of innocent lives in Dalnushka. He might be dense, he might be ignorant, but Jane could not believe he was that stupid. He must have had some idea what horrors his actions might cause…
A thought itched at the back of her mind. Again, she heard the words Nikolay had spoken to her in his cell:
“The fault is not all his.”
Jane studied Kir, noting the dark circles beneath his eyes, the way his hands trembled. The easiest answer was that Zakhar had bamboozled him, but that didn’t seem right. If that the answer, why hadn’t Nikolay just come out and said it?
It was like when you observe mold on the pie in your fridge, but still need to draw the connection between this pie is covered in fungus and this pie is probably past its expiration date.
“Did you at least tell the tsar you were leaving?” she asked.
Kir swallowed. “I left a note in his study,” he said in a small voice. “I’m sure he’ll find it.”
“Did you really-”
Jane broke off, sighed. Whatever ignorance or other factors had contributed to Kir’s mistake-and perhaps Zakhar really had bamboozled him-he was obviously miserable and making poor decisions.
“You have to stay close to someone from now on, all right?” she said. “Myself or Olesya or Drazan, or one of the Riders. Probably not me-I’m still fairly useless.”
She considered it for a moment, and then wrapped her arms around Kir. He still seemed distracted, but he leaned into her embrace.
“Tent’s ready,” Drazan called. “Come sleep, Your Highness.”
Jane watched him go. Her eyes met Drazan’s across the camp. Beneath his jovial expression, he looked as worried as she did.
Dazed from lack of sleep, Jane was barely able to focus the next morning. She had eventually managed to fall into an uneasy doze, but had been woken repeatedly by nightmares—dreams of caverns, and sudok, and a sly godwith cruel eyes. In the overcast daylight, Prince Kir hardly looked any better. His head was bowed, his shoulders stooped; he walked like an old man, hunched and trembling. The Riders eyed him worriedly as they passed. She understood their fears. His presence was practically the opposite of morale-boosting.
Jane was so distracted by her preoccupation with Kir, and so foggy from lack of sleep, that she barely registered Drazan’s continued attempts to talk to her from his wyvern. It was only when his voice bellowed “INCOMING!” that her head jolted up, so fast she almost sprained her neck.
A dragon-a huge, golden dragon-was zooming toward her and her mount at breakneck speed.