Chapter 4: Interwoven

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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.

Like Eloise...

Jane shivered.

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."

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