The Rest is Riddles

Chapter 5: Ardent Princes and Ailing Tsars



Jane dropped into a nervous curtsy. Her favorite fantasy novels should have prepared her for this moment. But it was one thing to dream about dashingly handsome princes in books, and a whole new level of awkward to meet one in person.

“Avtorka!” The prince’s eyes gleamed with excitement. “Allow me to extend my most heartfelt welcome. I am Prince Kir of House Tsarmita. I hope you will find your stay at Segilach enjoyable!”

His face was disappointingly average, although his features were improved by his hair, which framed his cheeks in sandy locks. He raised Jane’s hand to his lips in what Jane’s favorite authors would have described as a swoon-worthy gesture. Jane felt more awkward than ever. What were you supposed to do while your hand was being kissed? What were you supposed to say?

She glanced helplessly at Nikolay, who smirked.

No help there.

“Um… thank you, Your Highness. It’s… an honor to be here?”

The words felt silly, but the prince did not seem to notice. He beamed at her.

“You have no idea how long I have waited for this day,” he said.

“Er, what day is that?”

“Why, the day I would finally get to meet our newest and loveliest Avtorka!”

From any other man, the words would have sounded cheesy or sarcastic, but from Prince Kir, they were enthusiastically sincere. He barreled on. “I’m afraid Father’s in a meeting of some importance or he would be here to greet you, but he has bid me to escort you about the palace in the meantime!”

“I’m sure our new Avtorka is tired after her long ride,” said Nikolay.

“Of course!” said Prince Kir, the picture of earnest apology. “How very foolish of me! Please take the time to get yourself settled. We shall meet again later!”

He hurried away, and Nikolay led Jane up the steps to the palace entrance. Jane fought not to laugh. Kir reminded her of an over-eager puppy, all wagging tail and huge eyes. She glanced at Nikolay. “Prince Kir… Is he always so—”

“Yes?”

Jane blinked. She was no expert on reading her companion’s mercurial changes in temper, but she thought Nikolay seemed on edge.

“So eager,” she finished.

His eyes narrowed. “Yes.”

“Oh. Okay.”

They entered the main hall. “Tread carefully,” said Nikolay. A second later, Jane saw why. The hall looked like the aftermath of a serious bombing. The floor was mess of dust, glass shards, and fallen stones the size of wyverns. In the room’s center, an enormous chandelier lay on its side, a lifeless shell of its former glory.

“What happened here?”

“We are a country at war.”

“And—the enemy-the Kan…Kanachskiy?”—If she was going to be here awhile, she’d better learn the lingo—”they made it all the way here?”

“There was a surprise attack a few days ago. A powerful Kanachskiy sorcerer made it past our defenses. I suppose our mages did not have time to clean up the damage yet. They have been stretched thin these days.” Nikolay waved a dismissive hand.

That did not sound good. Jane wanted to ask if Somita was winning or losing the war and what would happen if the enemy made it past their defenses again. But she did not dare ask now, not when Nikolay’s eyes looked so stormy.

Her new room was lavishly furnished, five-star-hotel worthy, and her first reaction was to be afraid that she might break something. Her concern was not alleviated by the appearance of a servant at the door the moment Nikolay left.

“Avtorka.” The girl bowed. “The tsar sent me to help you change into garb more suited for your station.”

Jane, who had managed to stain even her most resilient shirts, watched in consternation as the girl produced from her closet an assortment of dresses with long, ballooning sleeves. They were far fancier and bustier than the dress she’d received from the temple women.

“Erm,” said Jane, prodding the fabric with caution, “what’ll happen if I wreck one of these?”

“The tsar says no price is too high to ensure the Avtorka’s happiness.”

If possible, her sense of well-being shrank further. The tsar must really want something important to go to all this trouble. Jane let the serving woman help her into a dress, grimacing as she glimpsed her reflection. Clearly, Mir was unused to tiny half-Asian women with A cups. There was too much loose space in the region of her chest, and the amount of fabric at the dress’ base made it a serious tripping hazard. She looked like a teen playing dress-up for a Renaissance faire.

Whatever. It would have to do. She remembered the prince had said something about meeting her later. She had nothing better to do, so she set off to find him.

She spent the next fifteen minutes attempting to get her bearings in a building that reminded her of a corn maze. Each corridor she turned down had so many offshoots, she quickly lost count. Just when she was sure she would soon reach the courtyard where she’d first met the prince, she found herself in front of her bedroom again.

How…?

She tried again, a different route this time, and achieved the same result. The third time this happened, Jane grew certain the castle was trying to mess with her head. There was no logical way she could be back at her suite; she had gone downstairs and not come back up any—

“Having trouble?”

She turned. Prince Kir stood behind her. He looked concerned.

“Your castle,” said Jane, “has an unfortunate sense of humor.”

“Ah yes,” he said vaguely. “It likes to play tricks on strangers. I’m glad I found you before you got lost in a secret passage—I mean, there aren’t too many of those in this castle—in fact, rumors of their existence have never been confirmed—but they may exist, and if you fell into one, we’d have a hard time getting you out. Probably my brother would have to help me, since he’s the only one who could figure out how. May I escort you outside, my lady?”

Jane blinked. “I don’t think I followed all of that, but yes,” she said. “Your Highness—”

“Please, just Kir!” he cried. “‘Your Highness’ sounds stuffy, Crown Prince Vetrov is too formal, and Vetrov by itself is too confusing since there are three of us—”

“Kir, then.” Good job, Jane. You’re on first-name terms with a crown prince alreadynot too shabby. Perhaps he could give her some answers she hadn’t gotten from Nikolay. “Can you tell me more about the godstests?” she asked pleasantly.

“You’ll have to ask Father. He knows all the details, and he already has lots of ideas for what he would like you to ask the gods after you pass the tests and gain the power to Write in the Book of Truths. I’m… afraid I don’t know much about the process.”

“I see.” Jane fiddled with her sleeves. “Do you know if there’ve been any previous Avtorkas who succeeded in passing their Godstests?”

“There was a man in the Magicore who succeeded! And my mother, she came from Earth too, but she failed her second Godstest—or maybe it was her third? I wasn’t born then. Not that you would be able to meet her—I mean, I’m sure she’d love to meet you if she wasn’t dead—it tends to make communication a challenge—”

“Just to be clear,” said Jane, who was still having reality struggles, “when people die here, they are really dead? There’s no, like, necromancer person who can bring a dead person back, or—I dunno, communicate with the afterlife or something…”

“Is that how it is in your world?” said Kir. “Incredible!” And before Jane could correct him, he barreled on. “Dead people are unequivocally dead here, I mean you have the occasional soul who fakes his death for insurance purposes or as an unfunny sort of practical joke, but for the most part the dead are solidly dead. It’s probably good for you to know this, as it will help you make a more informed decision when it comes to saving Father. I say, your hair is really quite a fascinating shade and consistency! Do you do something to make it so straight?”

Talking to Prince Kir was like trying to keep up with a car that was whizzing down a highway and occasionally jettisoning scraps of flotsam. It was a struggle not to get hit in the face by the flotsam, and every time Jane allowed it to distract her, the prince pulled ahead even more. She tried to remember what she had wanted to ask him next. Oh yes. The Kanachskiy and why they were at war.

“Your Highness,” Jane began, but before she could ask about the attack in the forest, the prince leapt forward and beckoned her toward a fountain. “We will sit easier here!” he exclaimed. “Do you know that these fountains are…”

And then he was off again. Jane resigned herself to not getting answers out of Prince Kir anytime soon. She allowed her thoughts to wander.

It was now incredibly obvious why the tsar was so eager to please her. He thought Jane would be granted certain powers after passing her godstests, and he intended to use those powers to his advantage. What sort of things would he ask for?

Jane tamped down another burst of anxiety and tried to distract herself with the view. The fountain behind the prince bothered her. Water appeared out of thin air twelve feet above their heads and fell to the bowl in gravity-defying, swirling patterns that were surely guided by magic.

Pretty, but scientifically quite problematic…

Jane tried to get a better look, but Prince Kir shifted and blocked her view. He leaned closer. At first, she assumed he was trying to be gallant by brushing seed fuzz from her hair. She had only just noticed that his face was fast approaching hers, when he kissed her lips with surprising firmness.

Jane froze. The kiss was so unexpected that at first, she did not register what had happened. Her mind went blank, as though her brain had just been scrubbed clean with a cloth.

And then it hit her that she was under an unwelcome kissing attack by a man she had just met.

Jane yelped. She batted Kir’s arm out of the way and scrambled out of reach. Her hand found a rock; she held it aloft.

“Not one step closer,” she warned the prince. “Stay back!”

“Oh dear, did I offend you?” Kir looked distraught. “I hope you are not angry! It’s just, I’ve been waiting for you to arrive for so long. I quite forgot myself.”

“You can’t go around kissing strange women without permission!”

“I don’t, normally… Like I said, I’ve been anticipating your arrival for quite some time.”

Jane frowned, wondering what part of their conversation she’d missed in the moments before Kir kissed her. It troubled her that Kir was eyeing her like she was the crazy person instead of the other way around. Jane thought this was unfair, not to mention extremely sexist.

“I say,” said Kir. “Are you making that shield with your own magic? It is most enthralling.”

“Okay,” said Jane, backing up another step. “You’re officially crazy.”

“I’m not. Look!”

“I’m looking. I don’t understand what you-”

And then, she broke off, because she saw it. The air around her was different-bright and silver and gleaming-twinkling in a myriad of colors, much like the soap bubbles she had played with as a child. It encased her from all sides, this twinkling light, and as Jane reached out to touch it, it tingled against her fingers, familiar and pleasant, brimming with warmth.

Her magic.

Her very own creation. She had made this shield.

“Perhaps you are not as hopeless as I feared.”

Jane jumped; she had not seen Nikolay arrive. The sorcerer walked up to Jane, glanced dispassionately at her magic bubble, and flicked it with a finger. It dissolved into gold mist, and Jane almost cried out at the loss of it.

“You will need to learn to make a stronger shield than that to succeed in your godstests.” Nikolay glanced at Kir and frowned.

“What’s up?” said Kir lightly. “Do I have something on my face?”

“… No.” Still, his eyes lingered on the prince’s face, as though puzzled. At last, he turned to Jane. “The tsar has finished his meeting with the envoy from Chyansk and awaits your arrival.”

~*~

Tsar Fyodor of Somita reminded Jane of a bird.

A dying pigeon, to be precise.

His face carried a gray, cheeselike pallor, and his sinewy hands trembled on his cane. Something Prince Kir had said in the gardens flickered in Jane’s mind-something about his father being ill…

“Your Highness, I present to you our most holiest Avtorka, genius scholar of Earth, speaker to the gods, and Future Writer in the Book of Truths, Jane Huang.” Nikolay’s voice bordered on sarcastic.

“Thank you, Nikolay, you may leave us.”

Nikolay gave a bow just shy of mocking and swept from the room.

Jane’s eyes roamed the room. The décor was gorgeous at first glance, but on close inspection, the marble floors were scuffed years of use, and no amount of satiny wall hangings could quite conceal the fading paint in the background.

Perhaps they couldn’t afford new paint. They were at war.

“Grape?” said the tsar, proffering a small bowl.

“Erm, no thanks.” Jane clasped her hands. “Your Highness… um… thank you for your hospitality. If it’s not too much trouble, could you explain to me how I might return to my world? My parents must be worried by now, and I have an internship coming up…”

“Sit down,” said the tsar. “Are you sure you won’t have a grape?”

“Yes,” said Jane.

Tsar Fyodor shrugged. He popped another grape in his mouth and then waved his hand at his page boy, who grabbed the bowl of grapes and hurried from the room.

“Kuzma. Good lad, a bit dim.” Despite the almost translucent pallor of his skin, the tsar’s eyes were wiry, keen and bright. “So,” he said. “You want to go home. That can be arranged, but with some difficulty. You see, it is the will of the gods, Written in the Book of Truths itself, that everyone who enters Mir from your world is granted Avtorka’s status. When Avtorkas enter Mir, they are given a series of tests called the Godstests, to ensure their valor, their strength, and their spirit. At the end of the Godstests, they are allowed to write three things in the Book of Truths. It is a great honor. Although,” he added keenly, “I doubt you care as much for honor as you do about getting back to your world in one piece.”

“Pretty much,” said Jane. “It’s just that my internship this summer is kind of important to my future career; I’m thinking about applying to med school, and they like to see that you have some clinical experience…”

Her voice trailed off. The tsar watched her with tolerant fascination bordering on amusement.

“I’m afraid,” he said, “the only way for you to get back to your home world is for you to successfully complete your three Godstests and Write your return in the Book of Truths.”

“Tell me more about these tests?”

“They take different forms for different Avtorkas.” Tsar Fyodor shrugged. “Some say they test your greatest weaknesses. Nikolay tells me that you are a brilliant scholar in your home world?”

“…erm. I wouldn’t go that far…”

“Do not be embarrassed; it can only help you. The Godstests test your intelligence, stamina, and magical ability. Most who have taken them have succeeded, or at least have not died… but the tests are not easy. Passing them requires substantial preparation, especially for one who has never before trained in magic.”

Jane gulped. “Has anyone from Earth ever not taken the tests?”

“If so, it was before my time.” He eyed her thoughtfully. “You could petition the gods; they might let you bypass the godstests and live out the rest of your life here. One can live quite a good life in Somita, you know. Our healers have made substantial advances recently. If you don’t die in the war, your life expectancy might be fifty, even sixty years old! We also have a good postal system now, not to mention our recent advances in sewage drains.”

“Er… I think I’ll do the Godstests, if it’s all the same…”

“Splendid!” The tsar looked alarmingly satisfied. Jane wondered if she had been played. “For someone of your intelligence, the preparation will come easily. We will assist you, of course. It is a great honor to have the gods’ chosen grace us with her presence, and many in the palace will be eager to help. However, in exchange for our royal assistance, I would ask a boon.”

Here it comes.

“Your last Writing will be to send you back to your home world,” Tsar Fyodor said. “But that leaves you with two additional Writings. Most avtorkas use their spare Writings for the greater good, to benefit the ones who have helped them in some meaningful way.

“First,” said the tsar, “and this should not come as any great shock to you, I would ask you to help Somita. Make this country strong again. Fortify its borders from outside attack. Kanach grows too strong. Each year, we fight against her; each year, we lose more territory. Bring peace to my country.”

World peace. Jane wanted to bash her head against the wall, but she settled for rubbing the bridge of her nose with her finger. Hey, Uncle Bauer, so you know how I fell into a fantasy world a few days ago? No I don’t have fun stories from my journey, just a series of awful clichés…

“For your second Writing,” the tsar began.

Does he have everything planned out?

Jane waited, but the tsar seemed more hesitant about this request than the first. He toyed with the tassels on his robe.

“I ask you this,” he said finally, “not as a ruler but as a father. Please use one of your Writings to help my son.”

“Kir?” she asked, puzzled.

“No, not that son.” The tsar met her eyes. “I ask you to help my oldest son. Nikolay.”

 

Dun dun dun! Thanks so much for reading this far! If you enjoyed the chapter, don’t forget to hit the little star. If you hated it, please tell me why in the comments (I don’t bite—I swear!)


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