Lunch was considerably less lonely than breakfast. Casimir introduced Jane to everyone at their table. Some faces were new—a female Lieutenant named Nadja and a young Rider called Alexei—but Jane recognized the green-eyed Rider, Drazan, whom she had met just before the Kanachskiy attack. He and Casimir were friends; they had studied magic under the same teacher. It was hard not to be amused by their conversation, which consisted mostly of Casimir’s dry humor alternating with ridiculous stories from Drazan. The most impossible of these stories was a wild tale involving a boating expedition, several pints of alcohol, a sea serpent, and exploding salmon, and it all took place during their time training in the Magicore—which was apparently where most mages did their training-under what sounded like the most boring teacher imaginable.
“She wasn’t as horrible as Drazan makes her sound.” Casimir’s smile was faintly reproving. “Certainly she did not deserve to be covered in fish guts, nor to have a sea snake knock her off the boat.”
“Is all magic training this exciting?” said Jane, whose head was beginning to spin.
Lieutenant Nadja grinned. Her round face, spiky updo, and jagged, scaled armor gave Jane the unfortunate impression of a pineapple ready for war. “It can be. My magic flat-out refused to appear unless I was in danger. I gave poor, sweet Professor Petrov a hell of a time devising ways to put me in danger without my brothers trying to beat him up.”
But did he throw books at your head, or try to break your fingers?
Jane glanced toward the high table at the front of the hall, where Prince Kir sat with the tsar. Nikolay was nowhere in sight, but that was scant relief. Her earlier lesson had left a bad taste in her mouth, and she could not imagine going back to his workroom tomorrow. Perhaps she could petition the tsar for a different teacher. Would he refuse her outright? Nikolay, at least, might be pleased; he clearly would love to be rid of her…
“I saw you training on the practice courts with Prince Kir this morning,” Drazan said brightly, and Jane realized, to her chagrin, that he’d mistaken her distracted gaze for interest. “The prince is a very nice young man with many excellent qualities. A little naïve – and he tends to chatter a lot when he’s nervous – but a fine man all around -”
Lieutenant Nadja leaned around him. “Excuse this tactless moron who calls himself my husband. You arrived here yesterday, and I’m sure you were bombarded with lessons and meetings and gods know what else. You probably have ten thousand things on your mind more important than romance.”
Like keeping my fingers intact and figuring out how not to die during a series of tests I’m wholly unprepared for. Yes, that pretty much sums it up. Jane shot the lieutenant a nervous smile. “The prince seems nice enough, I guess”—Aside from an unfortunate tendency towards surprise kissing!—”but I think he’s more interested in me than the other way around. I can’t figure it out. We only met a day ago.”
“The crown prince has led a sheltered life.” Casimir’s voice was quiet. “His mother, Queen Eloise, was an avtorka. She and the tsar loved each other very much, and she died when he was very young. Perhaps Prince Kir has a fairy-tale ideal of how an avtorka should be, and that colors his interactions with you.”
And if I can’t live up to that ideal, will he hate me for it? She glanced toward the table where the crown prince sat, enthusiastically chattering with one of his courtiers. He seemed too kind and harmless to hate her. He would be disappointed, perhaps, but not hateful.
“Queen Eloise failed her godstests, didn’t she?” Jane helped herself to more chicken, trying to keep her voice light. “She came from my world and couldn’t go home?”
Nadja glanced at Casimir.
“Some avtorkas choose to stay here.” Casimir folded his napkin carefully and met Jane’s eyes. “Some avtorkas choose to return home. And some… some, unfortunately, have the choice taken from them. Regardless of what happens, while they are here in this world, they are cared for and they are offered as much safety as Somita can provide.”
Regardless of what happens, you will be safe.
Jane wished she felt reassured, but Somitans seemed to have a vastly different understanding of the word “safe” than people back home. Most people in the mess hall were under forty. Even the tsar was not that old by Earth-standards-she would peg his age at forty-five or fifty at most.
A country at war. Does no one here live to grow old?
She had to get home. Her parents and Uncle Bauer and Sandra must be so, so worried…
Movement at the high table caught her eye. Jane tensed. Nikolay had arrived, and just like before, Jane had not seen him enter. He sat down at the high table and said something to Prince Kir, who laughed.
Jane looked away, toying with her spoon. Suddenly, she didn’t feel hungry, even though her cabbage soup was one of the better meals she had come across all week.
“Maybe I don’t understand the rules of succession properly… But if Nikolay is Prince Kir’s older brother…”
Casimir speared a potato but did not bring it to his mouth. “Queen Eloise gave birth to Nikolay before she wed the tsar. The tsar, in his kindness, brought Nikolay up as his son. But he is not a direct descendent of the tsar, so he cannot inherit the throne.”
“Who was Nikolay’s father?”
Silence descended upon their table. Jane felt it press down on her, felt a sudden chill. The silence was heavy with meaning, and she knew some current of thought was passing around the table, through the others’ heads. Whatever it was, she was too new to Somita to understand it.
“No one knows,” said Nadja. “I think.”
But they must suspect someone, Jane thought, or they wouldn’t have gone silent–
“Eloise knew, of course,” said Drazan. “So the tsar knows. He must. But I’m guessing he’ll take that secret to his grave.”
“Do you think he’s told Nikolay?” said Nadja.
“Well.” Drazan snorted. “I’m certainly not close enough with him to risk asking.”
Jane’s hands felt clammy. She turned again to where Nikolay sat. His eyes were on her, thoughtful and cold, as though he knew what she’d just asked.
“I… think I’m done with lunch,” said Jane.
Jane continued to practice with Casimir after lunch. She wanted to press on until dinner, but Casimir advised her to rest. “You are still learning,” he said. “Overstraining yourself will do more harm than good. If you must do something productive, let’s visit the palace library so you may read up on the theory of magic.”
Jane’s respect for her new world grew as they wandered the castle library. It was at least as big as the practice court, and its shelves carried an endless sea of tomes with engraved spines, gilt edges, and the rich, dusty book smell Jane loved. A spiral stair cloaked in ivy led to a bright upper level, with desks bathed in sunlight.
Casimir led her to one of the taller shelves and tapped a complicated pattern on a tile beside the shelf. A moment later, three books near the ceiling drifted off the shelves and floated into Casimir’s outstretched hands. Jane studied the covers with interest. The writing looked English to her, though she knew it wasn’t. Apparently, the magic that allowed her to understand spoken Somitan extended to written words as well.
Casimir placed the books on one of the sunlit desks. Then he reached into the pocket of his tunic and pulled out a small paper bird. “I have to return to my healing duties,” he said, “but I will leave this in your care. If you are ever in need of my aid, unfold the bird, and I will find you.”
The concern in his eyes made Jane wonder if he guessed what had happened in Nikolay’s solar.
She thanked him and tucked the bird into her pocket, next to her now-useless cell phone. He left, and she settled down at the long desk and began to read.
Casimir was right. Knowing the theory of spellwork was useful. By the end of the afternoon, Jane at least understood what she was supposed to do, although she was so tired that all her experiments produced only minimal results.
Magic was all about drawing out one’s energy and shaping it to the appropriate task. The same tendrils of energy she pulled out of herself to make fire could also be used to raise a pen in the air, or to cast a protective shield around herself. Accessing those tendrils of energy was like (and here, Jane groaned again) building muscle. It required constant, diligent practice.
Strong emotions could make accessing magic easier and faster, especially for beginners. So, while some mages preferred to train in an undisturbed, meditative state, others found it easier to work magic using emotions like fear as a catalyst.
As she packed away the books, her mind drifted, again, to those moments in the tower. To the hurtful words and sharp pebbles and hurled books.
Perhaps Nikolay had not deliberately tried to sabotage her.
But he didn’t need to be so cruel.
He would have broken her fingers. Jane knew he would have. She had seen it in his eyes. Even if he had been trying to prove a point, she would never trust him again.
It was idiotic on his part, she thought. He needs me to help him break that Oath-spell. Was he such a vindictive, stupid person that he would risk antagonizing her? No matter how she thought about it, it did not compute.
“Can I help you with anything, Avtorka?”
Jane jumped. She had been so lost in thought, she had walked right past the librarian with her stack of books. “I swear I wasn’t trying to steal these!” Smooth, Jane. Smooth. “Do I need to check these books out somehow?”
“The Avtorka may access any book she wishes.” The librarian shot Jane a smile bordering on reverent, which made Jane want to squirm with discomfort. “Perhaps Your Holiness would like to look at the books left behind by previous Avtorkas as well?”
‘Your Holiness?’ I suppose they think the gods chose me…
“Actually…” Jane frowned. “Do you have any books explaining how this whole ‘Chosen One’ thing works, the godly selection process, that sort of thing? I’m still a bit hazy on the details.”
Fifteen minutes later, Jane found herself teetering back to her room under a stack of books that was even taller than before, with epic plans to spend the evening reading up on the mythology of Mir.
Ten minutes after that, she was asleep at her desk.
A servant woman must have found her, for when she awoke the next morning, she was in her own bed, with no idea how she had gotten there. Despite the lengthy rest, she felt like she had barely slept. She almost dozed off at breakfast. Her entire body screamed in pain, and despite Casimir’s healing spells yesterday, she could barely walk for the soreness in her legs.
Kir let her off easy, with a short lap around the practice courts. Olesya was less forgiving. After forcing Jane to do stretches, she gave Jane a series of exercises to practice on top of the ones she’d covered yesterday. Her tolerance for mistakes was low, and Jane left the lesson more bruised and battered than ever.
Still, she would have preferred a double session with Olesya over returning to Nikolay’s tower.
Perhaps this is the day I die, she thought, as she forced herself up the tower stairs, painful step after painful step. In a strange world, far from home. Maybe Casimir will cry at my funeral; he seems like he might. My parents will never know what became of me, just like Phillip—
She swallowed down the icy taste of fear and knocked on Nikolay’s door.
The door opened.
Nikolay sat in his armchair, the azdaja curled up next to him, a steaming mug of brown tea at his side. The massive book in his lap seemed to take up almost the entire chair. Jane glanced down at the page and caught the words “and stir the potionne clockwise, dripping egge slowly under full moone’s light,” before Nikolay banished the book to a shelf on the opposite wall.
His eyes met hers, and unease crawled over her like a centipede.
“Casimir has politely advised me not to make your life hell today. That should make you happy, hm?”
He smiled. She did not smile back.
He did not seem to care. His palm pressed against his forehead as though it pained him. Jane watched him summon a vial with green liquid from the shelf under his ceiling apothecary. He quaffed the contents in one smooth motion, tossing them back like one might toss a shotglass, and set the vial on the ground.
Jane tried to ignore the way the vial smoked and steamed. “Did you hurt me yesterday to make my magic manifest?”
“One point for the gullible avtorka. Do you want a prize?”
“You would have actually broken my fingers?”
“Casimir would have healed them. I thought putting you in danger would accelerate your magic. Your first magical working appeared when you were under threat. From my brother, of all people!” He laughed, though it was an unfunny sort of sound, brittle, with undertones of madness. “I can’t believe he scares you more than I.”
His demeanor was nothing like the previous day. She saw his left hand dig into his right forearm, so hard it must hurt. His knuckles were white around the cloth, and his nails seemed to gouge into his flesh. His face looked as unhealthy-pale as she had ever seen it, head tilted back in his chair, his eyes closed. Beads of sweat collected on his temple.
He’s ill, she thought. Her shoulders relaxed. An ill Nikolay was less of a threat than a healthy one.
“Your brother doesn’t scare me.” The azadja was no longer next to him; Jane hoped the creature had left out the open window, though she couldn’t be sure. She checked quickly for snakes and then sat on his desk-chair, as far from him as possible without seeming rude. “He surprised me, that’s all.”
“Hmm.” Nikolay smiled, a sardonic, lilting smile that she did not like at all, and then he opened his eyes. “All right, then. Let’s see what Casimir taught you.”
If Jane had expected her breakthrough with Casimir to make the lesson easier, she was mistaken. It was one thing to harness her magic while calm and restful, and another to do so while a sorcerer glowered at you at close range.
The flames she had summoned in Casimir’s presence refused to stay put in Nikolay’s workroom, no matter how she tried. She could find her center now, but as soon as she opened her eyes and saw Nikolay’s cold stare, she faltered, and the flame flickered to nothing in her hands. Closing her eyes did not help. She sensed the judgment in his gaze—knew the real thoughts going on in his head—and it unnerved her, to have her eyes closed with him so near…
“I think it might be better if I practiced alone.”
He raised an eyebrow. Jane’s stomach sank to the level of her toes.
“Do you think,” he said, and she wished she could understand how he made anything so light also sound so perfectly poisonous, “that when the enemy’s sorcerers are after you on their wyverns, chasing you at full speed, bombarding you with magefire, you will be able to tell them, ‘Excuse me, I can’t cast a shield with you breathing fire on my neck. Please turn away and attack another victim’?”
“No,” said Jane.
“But it’s scientifically proven that it’s more effective to learn difficult tasks under calm situations, until they consolidate into skills. Then, when you apply them under pressure, you perform better because you’ve learned them well.”
“Have your world’s ‘scientists’ ever studied magic theory?”
“Have they ever encountered a person with magic?”
“Look,” said Jane, “all I’m saying is it’s worked well for me in the past, all right?”
He regarded her through narrowed eyes. Jane noticed with alarm that the color had returned to his cheeks. He no longer clutched his right arm. She looked again at the smoking vial beside his chair. It must have been some kind of healing draught.
“Very well,” he said at last, in calm, silky tones that made the hairs stand up on Jane’s spine. “Very well, then; let us compromise. You like figuring things out on your own?”
He approached her, heedless of her sudden alarm, and grasped her hand.
Jane yelped. The world seemed to squeeze in around her. Everything contracted, and the breath rushed from her lungs. She had a sense of terrible pressure, the air seemed to tighten against her skin; colors rushed and swirled past her in dizzying spirals—
And then everything reverted to normal, with a jolting, sickening lurch.
Jane could not help herself. She leaned over and retched. When her eyes finally focused, she realized she was staring at a pile of her own sick upon sloped shingles.
They were on the tower roof.
“You learn better figuring things out for yourself.” Nikolay’s eyes glittered. “Get down on your own. That’s your lesson for today.” He leaned closer, as Jane stared down at the sloping roof, trembling. “Be careful,” he murmured. “It is quite a long drop.”
And with a loud Crack! Nikolay vanished, leaving Jane alone on the rooftop.
Man, Jane is having a rough week. And it’s only going to get worse! *cackles gleefully*
Thanks so much to everyone for reading, especially DomiSotto, LikeForRealz, and SheWhoLovesPineapple, and for my dear bf for edits! You rock!
If you enjoyed the chapter, don’t forget to comment and hit that little star!
Questions for you:
Were the interactions at the start of the chapter too info-dumpy?