Chapter 25: An End to Running

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They buried the tsar in the forest behind Lidea's house the next day. Jane warmed the frozen earth with magic, and then she, Nikolay, and General Nadja dug.

Nikolay's movements were awkward, his hands more used to magic than a shovel. His expression was cold and distant; a vacant frigidity seemed to have fallen over his features, and he moved as if he walked through water. He did not weep, but after General Nadja sang the funeral rites, he stepped into the forest, and they did not see him for many hours, until finally, as the shadows were falling around the house again, he returned, his knuckles bruised and bloody.

"How many trees did you abuse?" Lidea clucked. Nikolay stared at her blankly, and she shook her head and spread ointment on his hands.

Jane watched him stride to the bedroom and shut the door.

She turned her attention back to the mirrors that lined Lidea's wall, trying to quash the unease creeping down her spine.

Nikolay hadn't spoken a word to her since the night before. In fact, he'd barely even looked at her as they dug into the frozen earth that would become his father's resting place. Jane tried not to read too much into this. The tsar had just died, and it made sense that Nikolay might be even less chatty than usual.

But she couldn't tamp down the nagging suspicion that beneath his grief about the tsar, he was furious about their new... situation, and the tenuous truce they'd established during his illness had crumbled to dust.

She didn't want to think about the previous night. The tsar's transfer of power to her, the unnerving sensation of his thoughts in her mind (there is good in Nikolay still, though you may have to dig deep down to find it). The sick dread that had overcome her when she'd realized Lidea had been toying with her life, that she would have died if Nikolay hadn't agreed to transfer his Oath-spell to her.

She didn't want to think about any of it.

But she had to think about it. Because she was tired of being used, tired of hiding and running and cowering, of going through the motions to fulfill her selfish wish of going home.

Going home was not her goal anymore.

She needed to fix things. To set things right. To find her sister and fulfill her promise to the tsar and do whatever she could to put Somita back together. And if that meant she never saw Earth again—well, so be it. But she would not be able to set things right until she started using her brain again.

Everybody in this world has their own agenda. It was not a cynical thought, but a pragmatic one. Nikolay, the tsar, even Lidea. I can't trust any of them, not completely. Lidea was the gods' caretaker. I wonder if that's why she would've killed me to save Nikolay's life. Because he's technically a god and I'm not.

A flash of gold in a nearby mirror caught her eye.

Jane's head snapped up so fast she almost gave herself whiplash. She sprang out of the armchair, almost upending her cup of tea in her haste.

"Sandra!"

She had almost given up hope of catching sight of her sister in one of Lidea's mirrors. She'd watched so many scenes from all over the kingdom, had leapt up at the sight of so many blonde women, only to be disappointed when none of them turned out to be Sandra.

This time, it was different.

Her sister had seen better days. Her once-cheery pink t-shirt was tattered and stained, and her hair looked as though it had gotten into a battle with a pigpen and lost. But she was alive, and—to Jane's profound relief—she did not appear to be fatally injured.

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