The Rest is Riddles

Chapter 7: Nightmares

All around her, Riders were bursting from their tents, trying to pinpoint the source of the noise. Jane pushed past them and ducked through the flap to Kir’s tent.

Kir lay on his bed roll, thrashing and whimpering and shouting and flailing. Jane’s initial fear—that he was being attacked—quickly gave way to relief.

Ignoring Drazan, who had burst into the tent behind her, Jane reached forward and shook Kir’s shoulder. “Kir!” she said. “Kir, wake up.”

He gasped into wakefulness, tears streaming down his face. “Kanach,” he gasped. “Dalnushka—the protection spell—”

“Shh,” said Jane. Despite her soothing tone, her gut churned with unease. Other Riders had surrounded the tent, poking their heads in sleepily to check on their prince, and she was sure it couldn’t be doing any good for the company’s tenuous morale for them to see Kir in this state. “It was only a nightmare,” she called out to the crowd. “It was just a nightmare—everything’s fine—”

“C’mon,” she told a still-sniffling Kir in an undertone. “Let’s get some fresh air; it’ll do you good. Up we go—”

With a reassuring nod toward Drazan, she pulled Kir up and then half-led, half-carried him past the forest of tents, through the battered great hall doors, and onto the balcony that overlooked Dalnushka’s ruins. Once she was certain they were out of the other Riders’ range of hearing, she sat Kir down in a crevice near the rustling wyverns and perched on the rock beside him.

“What happened?” she said.

In the silvery moonlight, Kir’s face was wan. Sweat clung to his brow, and shadows haunted the spaces beneath his eyes.

“I was dreaming,” Kir gasped. “I saw them all. All the people, the men and women and children, the ones whose bodies we burned today. They looked at me—they asked me why—”

He dissolved once again into sobs.

“I can’t bear it anymore.” He lifted his tear-streaked face to her. “I have to tell the others. Tell them it was me, let them punish me as they will.”

“You can’t.”

“I have to—”

Kir!” Jane put her hands on his shoulders. “You’re an honest person, and that’s a good thing. Honesty is one of the most important qualities you can have. But right now, we’re in the middle of a war, and you’re the Prince of Somita, and they’re looking to you to set a good example. I don’t care how awful you feel, you can’t tell them.”

He shook his head.

Listen.” She grabbed his hands. “Telling them might make you feel better, but it won’t help anyone else. Right now, the people need to trust their leader. Keeping silent is your punishment, and it’s a worse punishment than if you were to be honest and beg for forgiveness.”

“But they need to—to know the truth—”

“And they will. Eventually, when the time is right. After we figure out the real truth behind why you did what you did. I know you, Kir—you’re a good person. You would never willingly endanger so many lives.”

At this, Kir’s face crumpled even further. He buried his face in his hands. “But I d-did, though! That’s what’s so awful! Zakhar sent Nikolay a message; he said he’d cure Nikolay in exchange for the key to breaking the protection spell on Dalnushka. Nikolay w-wanted nothing to do with it, he knew n-not to trust Zakhar, but I s-saw the message and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It’s like from that moment on, an—an obsession filled my head, and I j-just couldn’t stop mulling over how Nikolay might be s-saved so easily, by doing such a little thing, and if I didn’t do this Nikolay would d-die. The thought just played over and over. It was all I c-could think about.

“And then the time came when I knew I had to decide, and—and it’s just awful. It was like my m-mind was trapped in some sort of… haze. I remember breaking into the treasury, giving the rune to the prisoner and him free, I remember thinking at the time that I had to, that I had to save Nikolay. I was so sure I was doing the right thing, up until a few minutes after I set the prisoner free, and by then it was too late—”

Jane was becoming more convinced by the moment that Zakhar was to blame for Kir’s betrayal. Had Zakhar somehow warped Kir’s mind through the message he’d sent Nikolay? It seemed like exactly the sort of nefarious thing the Kanachskiy sorcerer would do. “The message,” she said, “Did you sense anything sinister from it? Any kind of… dark magic?”

“I d-don’t remember.” Kir hiccoughed. “Nikolay d-didn’t say anything; he just scowled a lot and then set it on fire after he’d realized I’d read it—”

Typical, Jane thought. If Zakhar had bespelled Kir through the message, and the message was gone, it would be all the harder to prove Kir was innocent. What had Nikolay been thinking, setting the message on fire? Unless Kir hadn’t actually been bespelled by the message, but something else…

Or maybe Nikolay had just set fire to the message in a fit of rage, without considering the consequences. That seemed painfully likely, given what she knew of his character.

Jane rubbed her forehead. Wind whipped her hair; goose pimples were starting to creep up her arms. They were very exposed, out here on the balcony, and she was starting to wish she had brought a blanket.

She turned back to Kir and cupped his tear-stained face in her hands. “Kir, look at me,” she said firmly. “What happened with Dalnushka—I don’t think it was entirely your fault. We’ll get to the bottom of this, I promise. But for now, you have to try to act as normal as you can. All right?”

Kir looked away, his eyes on the ground. He was shivering, Jane realized. “I—I’ll try.” He swallowed. “I don’t—I don’t want to go back to sleep right now—”

“Then we’ll stay out here together for awhile. And tomorrow—if you insist on helping out, maybe Drazan can find a task for you that involves something other than cataloging corpses.” She patted his shoulder. “Wait here for me. I’ll be right back. I’m going to get us some blankets.”

Jane eased herself out of the alcove. She had barely rounded the corner when she almost collided with Drazan’s retreating back.

They locked eyes, and she swallowed. She waited for him to say something, to ask.

But all he said was:

“The crown prince is very lucky to have you as a friend.”

He clapped her on the shoulder and walked away.


The following morning, Drazan transferred Kir to work in the lower levels of the fortress, with the Riders who were helping clear out the rocks that were blocking off the underground tunnels. Jane wanted to go with Kir—she still didn’t trust what he might let slip if he was left with the other Riders—but Drazan had a special task for her instead.

“We found the missing battle mages,” he told her. “The other hundreds of civilians are still missing… but the battle mages… well…” His voice trailed off in telling silence. “Their bodies are piled in the northwest tower, along with a whole heap of scrolls. Some weird magic ceremony I don’t recognize. I want to know if you can read the runes on the scrolls. You have the avtorka’s gift of tongues.”

Jane, feeling uneasy, asked the azdaja to accompany Kir to the tunnels. Then, with a last, anxious glance toward Kir’s retreating back, she followed Drazan out the charred double doors to the great hall, and up the tower staircase.

Alexei was already at the tower when they arrived. His dark eyes scanned the room, sweeping back and forth as though seeing something the others couldn’t. He stared especially long at the heap of dead mages in the center, their red uniforms darkened with blood.

“Anything?” said Drazan.

Alexei shook himself, as though coming out of a trance. “There are traces of magic here,” he said. “I think someone did a powerful magical working on the mages awhile back. But I don’t recognize the spell. Some of the magic is on the scrolls, but almost all the rest of the magic is around the mages, and it’s drifting—er, sort of drifting out and away from them.”

“Show me,” said Drazan.

Alexei put a hand on Drazan’s arm and closed his eyes.

“Ah,” said Drazan, squinting sagely at what Jane assumed must be invisible silver somethings. “Yes. Yes, I see.”

“What does it mean, though?”

“I have absolutely no idea.”

Jane watched Alexei and Drazan thoughtfully, an idea taking shape at the back of her mind. But before she could ask Alexei the question she wanted to, Drazan beckoned her forward. “The scrolls?” he said.


Jane strode to the pile of scrolls a few feet from the bodies. Each scroll was small, barely the size of her hand, and there were at least as many scrolls as there were bodies. Cautiously, she picked one up. Its back was coated in a sticky brown resin that clung to her hands.

“What’s it say?” said Drazan.

“Hang on.” Jane had discovered, during her hours spent researching in the library, that the avtorka’s magical gift of tongues—the same gift that allowed her to understand any language in Mir—was a little bit sluggish when it came to runic translations. At first, the runes looked like nonsense symbols, but gradually, as she stared at them longer, willed herself to focus, they began to take meaning in her mind. “It says… something about sealing… sealing… the soul?”

A shout reached their ears. This was followed by a roar and a whupping of wings. Frowning, Drazan strode to the shattered window.

He leapt back almost immediately. A flock of wyverns soared past, each of them carrying a man or woman clad in gray. They paid no heed to Drazan’s shout of surprise, but continued to head for the temple where the Riders’ wyverns were stabled.

Without a word, Drazan barreled down the stairs toward the open battlements. Alexei and Jane followed close on his heels.

Around them, Riders were crying out in alarm and loading their crossbows. As Jane hurtled forward, trying to keep up with Drazan, a nearby Rider raised a horn to his lips and blew into, nearly deafening her.

“HOLD FIRE!” Olesya bellowed, somehow managing to make her voice heard over the din. “DON’T SHOOT!”

The wyverns and their riders alighted on the battlements. They landed haphazardly, not seeming to care who was nearby. Jane skidded to a halt behind Drazan, who threw out a hand to stop her and Alexei from crashing into an enormous emerald wyvern that had just settled onto the parapet. A few feet behind them, a sapphire wyvern alighted, talons scraping horribly against the stone.

Jane peered past Drazan’s outstretched arm, just in time to see a slim, golden-haired figure dismount from the emerald wyvern’s back. Her clothes were more fur than fabric; a sable pelt comprised the better part of her cloak, and a series of ermine tails ran the length of her leggings. Despite her swagger and the stateliness of her clothing, she looked very young. She couldn’t have been more than fifteen.

As Jane watched bemusedly, she marched up to Drazan. “Are you the leader of these people?” she demanded.

“I—er,” said Drazan.

The girl puffed out her chest. “I am Agrafena, Princess of the Free Kingdom of Tulunsk, and I demand an audience with your leader immediately.”

Jane blinked. She glanced behind them, at the rider of the sapphire wyvern, a burly man with bristling biceps and a mustache that was almost as furry as his tunic. He stared ahead stoically. If he was embarrassed for his princess, he gave no sign.

“Prince Kir is—” Alexei began, but Drazan made furious shushing motions behind his back, and he fell silent.

Olesya shouldered her way through the throng of wyverns to join them. “You may speak to me,” she said. “I am Olesya, Commander of the King’s Riders. What is your purpose here?”

“I wish to bargain with you on behalf of the Kingdom of Tulunsk,” said Princess Agrafena haughtily. She stood with her back ramrod-straight, but it still couldn’t disguise the fact that she was a whole head shorter than Olesya. “I demand that you officially recognize the land from Parshin’s Pass through the North Lake as our kingdom and promise peace with us for the next hundred years. I further demand that you grant us exclusive rights to trading of bear, fox, and mink pelts.”

Drazan coughed. “You don’t say.”

“In addition,” she said loudly, as though to drown out Drazan’s commentary, “I also demand ten thousand gold pieces. And one of your avtorka’s writings in the Book of Truths.”

Drazan looked like he was fighting hard not to laugh. “That’s a lot of demands for one person—”

“With what bargaining power do you make these demands?” Olesya interrupted, with a quick, sharp glare at Drazan.

“Funny you should ask!”

Agrafena snapped her fingers. The burly guard stepped forward and, with a flick of his massive wrist, emptied a bag to the flagstones. Metal clattered against the ground: chains and belts and knives. Jane bent down to pick up the nearest belt. There was a symbol carved in the metal, a symbol that Jane knew she had seen before—

“Your Dalnushka soldiers’ insignia.” Agrafena smiled coldly. “It turns out I have a great deal of bargaining power. Perhaps you will laugh a bit less loudly when I tell you that I hold the lives of two hundred Dalnushkan citizens in my hands.”

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