Chapter 24: Unlikely Choices

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He hated every inch of her.

His head still swam from the fog of myriad potions, but it had cleared enough for him to latch on to this one, unyielding thought, which he clung to like an anchor.

He had heard some of what had been going on around him as they worked, and had surmised their plan to transfer his Oath-spell over to Jane. To make him trade one prison for another.

And now, she was staring down at him. Her eyes glowed brown in the firelight, uncertain, afraid. Her hair, blacker than his own, swung back and forth like a curtain, framing her too-thin face.

He loathed her uncertainty, which grated on him at the best of times. He despised her face, which was too long and narrow. He hated—

Her blood on his Oath scar.

"I-is it working?"

Her voice wavered. Her hand came to rest on his shoulder. He hated this, too. The hand that clutched his shoulder now was the exact same hand that had Written the words that had doomed them.

If the Oath-spell had to be transferred, it should have been onto Kir.

Not her.

His scar blazed with pain.

Kir was probably dead by now. Which left Jane, his only option. Swapping out one prison for another—would that be his fate? Would he live all his life in dread, waiting for the moment Jane died—for in all honesty, he had minimal confidence in her ability to stay alive given their present circumstances—and brought him down with her?

Or would Lidea find some way to transfer his Oath-spell to a new person when Jane died? And so on and so on, until Nikolay met his own ignominious end?

"I don't think it's working," Jane gasped. He saw her face, damp with sweat, disappear from his field of view. "This really hurts..."

"He doesn't even have any magic. How can he be rejecting it?" Lidea said. "The little fool."

The sorceress' face swam into Nikolay's view. The sight of her face would have made him flinch away if he'd had an ounce of strength left to flinch with. "Now, see here," she said. "It's time to stop acting childish. It's not like we're trying to bind you to a monster. If you don't let us do this now, you'll be dead in the next hour. Do you want to die?"

To pass on into nothingness, to cease to exist...

Was he ready to cease to exist?

To become nothing?

He was already nothing. No one. The tsar was dead, or almost there. If Kir was not dead, Kir would be soon. And he hadn't seen hide nor hair of the azdaja since arriving back on Mir. There was no one left, and the ache built and built in his chest until he could barely breathe.

As a god, Nikolay might have saved them. As a god without powers, he could not even save himself.

Everything around him was destroyed, again and again and again, because that was what he was, an agent of destruction, like his father...

"Speak to him." He heard Lidea's voice, distant, and the next second the avtorka's face was above his again.

"I... I don't know what more there is to say." There were tears in her eyes, whether from pain or some other emotion he didn't know. "It's really not our choice to make. It's his." She dashed the tears from her eyes, and then gasped, as though wracked with a fresh wave of pain.

And Nikolay knew, suddenly, though he didn't know how: She doesn't want to be bound to me, any more than I want to be bound to her.

Jane whimpered. In the strange magical state, he felt her collapse on the bed, shuddering.

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