Chapter 8: Whispers in the Dark

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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."

"I... um..."

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."

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