Drazan looked considerably less amused than before.
“After the sudok left,” said Agrafena. “Kanachskiy sorcerers teleported into Dalnushka. But there weren’t enough of sorcerers to hold Dalnushka properly. We killed the sorcerers and freed the survivors hiding in the caves.”
“And by ‘freed’, you mean you kidnapped them?”
“Many of them did not wish to stay,” Agrafena snapped. “You had failed to protect them, and the sorcerers and the sudok might return at any moment. By the grace of our generosity, we fed them, clothed them, and transported them to safety on our wyverns. Some were so grateful they swore fealty to us immediately.”
Olesya bowed politely. “Thank you for protecting them, Your Highness. We are grateful that you saved them.”
“Your gratitude means nothing to us, Commander, only your actions. Are you prepared to agree to my terms?”
“No,” said Olesya.
Agrafena looked shocked. Jane wondered if she had ever heard the word ‘no’ before.
“I do not have the authority to bargain on behalf of the entire country of Somita,” Olesya continued smoothly. “However, I will relay your requests to His Majesty—”
“Where is your avtorka?” Agrafena said loudly.
“The avtorka is not—”
Agrafena’s eyes found Jane. “Is this her?” she interrupted, and before anyone could answer, she strode forward and knelt.
“Avtorka,” she said. “Your power is known across the continent. I beg you to please grant one wish for my people, the Free Kingdom of Tulunsk. Grant us protection from the threat of Kanach and Somita.”
Jane glanced at Drazan, entirely at a loss. She didn’t know nearly enough about this ‘Free Kingdom’ to make that kind of promise; plus, unless she was very much off in her counting, her writings in the Book of Truths were already accounted for.
“Enough,” Olesya snapped, stepping in front of Jane. “You cannot simply barge in here demanding things left and right and then demand our avtorka’s writings too.”
“I can do as I please,” Agrafena said haughtily. “I am Princess Agrafena of the Free Kingdom of the Tulunsk, and I have two hundred of your people as my captive.”
“And what if I told you we don’t care about those captives?” Olesya shrugged coolly. “Perhaps we have neither sufficient housing nor sufficient food to take them back.”
Jane suspected Olesya was bluffing, but Agrafena apparently didn’t. For the first time since her arrival, she looked entirely out of her element, like a tortoise tossed into a lake. “I… ah…” She glanced helplessly at the rider on the sapphire dragon, then rallied herself. “Well, you should care!” She stomped her foot. “They’re your people!”
“‘Should’ and ‘do’ are different things, Princess.”
The princess stared, open-mouthed, at Olesya. Then a smile—considerably less certain than before—crossed her lips.
“I don’t believe you,” she said. “I think you do care about them after all. And to punish you for not taking me seriously, for every day you delay answering my terms, one of your people will lose a finger. And if you take too long, a hand!”
She flounced onto her wyvern. “Come!” she called imperiously.
Soon, she and the rest of her riding party were no more than specks in the distance.
“Well that’s something you don’t see every day,” Drazan muttered. “I guess this explains the mystery of the missing civilians, at least.”
“She’s got no right to go chopping fingers off innocent people!” Jane said, nettled. Agrafena rubbed her entirely the wrong way, like a brattier version of her sister Sandra. “What is this ‘Free Kingdom’, anyway? I’ve never heard of it.”
Olesya pursed her lips. “The Free Kingdom of Tulunsk lies to the north of us—more a series of clans than a kingdom really. Some of their customs are barbaric. The weak babies are taken into the woods and left to die. And they have a bizarre custom of choosing their ruler through popular vote.”
“How’d she get elected?” Drazan asked.
“She didn’t,” said Olesya. “Only the sons and daughters of the current leader can get elected. As they grow up, the children try to impress the people with what they manage to accomplish.”
“So she’s doing all this to convince her people that they should elect her?”
“Probably.” Olesya raised her eyes skyward. “I could write to her mother—the current queen—but knowing how their elections work, she probably won’t interfere. I suppose we should come up with a plan, before our people start losing digits.”
“She won’t really take fingers,” said Drazan doubtfully.
Olesya snorted. “Never underestimate a teenager—especially when said teenager believes it’s their duty to save the world.”
The news of Princess Agrafena’s visit spread like wildfire. By noon, it was all anyone could talk about, with some exceptions; the azdaja was too busy catching mice to care, and Yefim’s idea of talking was mostly limited to grunts.
Some of the Riders—those who had family in Dalnushka—were particularly upset by the news. But it was Kir who seemed the most affected of them all. He emerged from the tunnels where he had been helping clear rock and made a beeline for Olesya.
“We have to save them!” His voice was impassioned; he looked close to tears. “We must agree to as many of their terms as we can!”
Jane, who was eating lunch a short distance away, watched Olesya set down her map and frown at him.
“Call her back,” said Kir. “I wish to bargain with her!”
“She’ll be back tomorrow,” said Olesya, unruffled. “Mark my words.”
But Kir wouldn’t leave until Olesya had agreed to send a Rider to the princess with a personal message.
Jane knew—or at least, she suspected—that Kir’s guilt would not let him rest until the people were brought to safety. She watched uneasily as Kir headed back to the tunnels, where the mages were still trying to clear a path to the protection spells guarding Dalnushka. At least the prince no longer looked quite as miserable as before. Nevertheless, Jane worried, and when the azdaja returned from catching mice, Jane asked her to follow Kir back to the tunnels again to keep watch.
In the excitement of Agrafena’s arrival, Jane had almost forgotten about the pile of dead battle mages in the north tower. It was only when Alexei came to fetch her from the temple that she remembered her assigned task for the day. As she followed Alexei guiltily back toward the tower, she remembered the question that she’d wanted to ask earlier, before she was distracted by the runes and Agrafena’s arrival.
“Alexei,” she said. “That thing you did before, back in the tower, where you saw the traces of magic floating around the dead mages. Could I learn to do that?”
He shook his head. “I can see only see magic because I have Magesight. It’s pretty rare.”
“But you could show me what you see with your Magesight, like you showed Drazan?”
“Oh yes. That part is easy. D’you want me to show you now?”
“Not yet,” said Jane, thinking of Kir. “Tonight.”
Despite Drazan’s efforts, they were unable to figure out what the Kanachskiy sorcerers had wanted with the dead Somitan battle-mages, or even if the Kanachskiy were responsible for piling the dead mages in the north tower at all. They spent the next few hours cataloguing and transporting the corpses back down the steps to be burned. By the time evening arrived, Jane would have been happy if she’d never had to do another levitation spell again.
At night, as they finally shuffled down the tower steps for the last time, Jane beckoned to Alexei, and together they headed toward Jane’s tent. They had barely been waiting ten minutes before they were joined by Kir, whose hair was frosted in a coat of fine dust. The azdaja trailed after him, hissing irritably.
“Sssstupid human,” she huffed. “Almossst got hissss head bassshed in through his carelessnessss!”
Jane glanced at Kir worriedly, but he seemed unharmed. He glanced around the collection of tents, as though hoping to find Princess Agrafena among the Riders, and when he saw no sign of her, he sat down moodily and tore into a biscuit.
“Do the spell now, Alexei,” Jane whispered.
“Huh?” Alexei’s gaze was trained on Prince Kir. Judging by his awestruck expression, he seemed to have forgotten he had vocal cords. Jane smiled encouragingly.
“Oh. Yeah. Right.”
Alexei took her hand in his.
It was like being back on the balcony with Nikolay the night of the ball—except better. For one thing, the person holding Jane’s hand wasn’t a deranged egomaniac, and for another, she didn’t have to worry about tripping over the hem of her dress and making a fool of herself.
Silver fire danced in her vision. It blazed in Kir’s chest, and Alexei’s, and—Jane glanced down quickly—in her own. Whispers of it flickered over the tapestries, over the tents that lined the floor of the temple, within the magical cooking equipment beside the tents, and—Jane winced—even the magical marbleized toast Kir was eating.
Jane’s eyes shifted toward Kir’s head. There they were again: the tendrils of gold magic she’d seen with Nikolay in the ballroom. They flickered like specks of glitter in the recesses of Kir’s brain, fainter than before, as fine as pixie dust, so subtle a person might not notice on first glance—but once you knew to look out for them, they were unmistakable.
If that magic was indeed the residual tracings of a spell that had bamboozled Prince Kir into committing treason—and Jane saw no reason to think otherwise—then all that was left was to determine who had put them there.
“What does gold magic mean?” she asked Alexei in an undertone. “Do Kanachskiy sorcerers use gold magic instead of silve—”
But Jane broke off. Gold fire had caught the edges of her vision, sharper and brighter than the scattered specks that still danced in Kir’s mind. Jane twisted, trying to locate the source of the fire, then glanced down at her free hand—and froze.
The mark of Velos glowed straight through the back of her fist, lighting her hand up a brilliant, ominous gold.
Jane yanked her other hand out of Alexei’s, breathing hard, wondering if Alexei noticed, but he was still staring at Kir adoringly. He showed no sign of noticing anything was amiss.
“Er—I’m just going to—” Jane gestured vaguely in the direction of the makeshift bathroom. Then, shoving the hand with Velos’ mark into the recesses of her cloak, she hurried to the balcony.
Once certain she was alone, Jane opened her hand up to stare at the mark on her palm. With the return of her normal, non-magical vision, the mark no longer glowed. It was black, barely visible in the dying light.
“What are you?” she whispered into the darkness.
Laughter whispered across her senses; she had the strangest sense that a presence brushed against the back of her mind. Jane whipped around, but there was nobody there.
“Show yourself,” Jane said. “Stop playing games.”
The whisper came slowly, as though from a great distance, crawling into her mind like a spider. It was the same voice she had heard in the tunnels.
“Do you want to know… who magicked Kir?”
“Gold…” Jane said. “It was someone with gold magic—was it you?”
Again, that laughter, a chuckle Jane knew was not Divna, not Sidor, not any god she’d ever dealt with. “Oh, no… no, not me—I’m just an innocent bystander…”
Had Jane not been almost out of her mind with terror, she might have snorted. Innocent was probably the last word she would have applied to this voice in the darkness.
“You’re smart,” the voice whispered, almost a caress. “I think you can piece it together…”
“Shhh, stop being obstinate… Who else’s magic burns with its goldness?”
Chills swept across her spine. Memories flickered across her mind: the whispers of gold as Divna had materialized in the tower… Avdotya’s sparkling yellow… Sidor, nearly blinding her with his radiance…
The voice chuckled against her ear.
“Which goddess needed Dalnushka to fall? Which goddess’ whole godstest depended on a traitor in Sengilach castle?”
Jane jumped as though she’d been stung. Stifling a scream, she whipped around.
Drazan stood behind her, concern scrawled across his features. “You all right?” he said.
“Um, yeah.” She tucked her fisted hand behind her back. “Sorry, just a little on edge what with all the—you know.”
“Dead mages? Sudok attacks? Impending godstests? Foreign princesses threatening to chop fingers off of random citizens?”
“Yes, all of those,” said Jane distractedly. “Fingers, godstests, you name it.”
Drazan’s expression softened. He patted her shoulder, then coughed and said awkwardly, “If you ever need to get shit off your chest, I’m no Casimir, but I certainly won’t bite your head off like Olesya. You’ve got a lot going on.”
You don’t know the half of it. Jane clutched her fisted hand tighter under her cloak, fighting the urge to laugh hysterically. A part of her wanted to tell Drazan about everything—about the voice, about Kir, about the gods. But what would it do, in the end? Sidor had made it very clear through his little display in the tent a few days ago: mortal magic was nothing against the power of a god…
“In other news,” said Drazan into the silence that followed, “it might please you to learn that a Rider just arrived from the capitol. She brought some letters. One of them is from your brother.”
For a moment, Jane forgot about the creepy voice and the mark on her hand. She leapt forward and snatched the letter from Drazan with shaking hands. She was so preoccupied with opening it, that she barely registered Drazan’s departure.
The letter was brief, written in a messy, almost illegible script. It said simply:
Can’t write much. Hand in bandages. Beware the pool; it targets your weaknesses. Beware of Sidor and his motives. Wait for me before you write in the Book of Truths. DON’T write in the B.o.T. until I get there. Many things to discuss. Phillip.
Jane frowned down at the letter, as though the words might give her some insight into her brother’s mind. But no matter how long she stared at the message, she couldn’t figure out if her brother was angry, defeated, or simply sad.
“Of course I wasn’t going to write in the Book of Truths before talking to Phillip,” she muttered. “If I even get to write in the Book of Truths at all. Will he—would he want to come home with me, if I managed to pass my godstests?”
“You’ll never get home at all,” the voice whispered. “Not if Sidor gets his way…”
For the second time that evening, Jane jumped.
Then, with a half-angry, half-terrified glance at her hand, she folded the letter from Phillip, shoved it into her pocket, and hurried back inside the temple at a run.