Chapter 1: An Enemy to All is a Friend to None

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They had only been riding for two days, and already Nikolay wished he had bound himself to anyone—literally anyone—other than Jane.

Hair clung to his face in sodden strands. He clutched the reins, grimly contemplating his wet clothes as he fought not to slide off their wyvern. In front of him, holding fast to the wyvern's neck, the object of his ire stared down at the forest below, squinting against the driving rain.

"Just a little farther," she muttered. "A little more, and then we can stop for the night. I thought I saw..."

Frowning, Nikolay pushed his soggy bangs out of his eyes and tried not to think about how cold he was, how soaked his boots were, and how the water was probably seeping into their packs, rendering their food inedible.

He supposed he should feel grateful. Cold and drenched he might currently be, but at least he wasn't dead. And he so easily could have been. It was thanks to Jane that he wasn't two meters underground like the tsar. It was also thanks to Jane that the pain in his Oath-scar, which had been a near-constant companion for the past four years, had finally vanished.

He appreciated that side of things. Truly, he did.

It was the 'suicide mission' aspect he took issue with.

If he'd had access to his magic, their mission might have been feasible. Maybe even the slightest bit... enjoyable, provided things ended up going their way.

If he'd had magic, he could have cast a drying charm on them in half a second—probably less.

As it was, he was forced to resort to... this.

The folding raingear Lidea had given them was otherworldly, made of a strange shiny fabric he'd never seen before. Jane had called the contraptions "ponchos" and grimaced at the sight of them, which ought to have sent up red flags from the beginning. The devices shielded them from the worst of the rain, but they had the unfortunate side effect of trapping any water that got underneath, leaving everything uncomfortably moist. This, combined with the fact that the ponchos came in a lurid shade of purple, had put Nikolay in a rather sour mood.

At least, Nikolay thought grimly, the azdaja isn't here to bear witness to this humiliation.

After the battle on Mount Naridnya, Nikolay had been convinced the azdaja was dead, and he'd spent the week after the fight alternately contemplating his own impending death, wondering what had happened to Kir, and berating himself for bringing the winged snake to Mount Naridnya in the first place. Now that Nikolay knew she was alive, he'd be damned if he let her anywhere near certain danger again. Besides, he reasoned, winged snakes and missions into enemy territory didn't exactly agree—particularly when the winged snake in question had a habit of constricting her companions at the first sign of trouble.

And so, barely a day after the azdaja had found them, Nikolay had insisted she leave them to seek shelter in Lidea's house.

The azdaja had taken his command about as well as he had expected-which was to say, not well at all.

"Ssssso I am to be relegated to ssssome disssstant houssse while you sssssaunter off into danger!" she'd spat, her feathered wings fluttering in agitation. "Forsssssed to remain on the sssssidelinessss again, becaussssse you have desssssided I'm a burden!"

"That's not what I'm saying at all," Nikolay had told her in his most placating voice. (Which, if he was being honest with himself, was not terribly placating. He was not used to having to placate people. Why bother, when it was far easier to glare and watch them flee in terror?) "It's too dangerous-"

"Dangeroussss!" The azdaja had zoomed around the campsite, looping around several tree trunks before swooping back toward him. "Dangerousssss! Ha!" In her agitation, she almost singed herself on the campfire; she threw her coils out of the way just in time. "Thisssss issss jusssst like when you made a deal with Zakhar and kept it a sssssssecret," she hissed. "And jussst like when you ssssent me off to Dalnusssssshka with Jane. Alwayssssss, you act alone! Alwaysssss, you do not trusssst me enough to keep me by your ssssside! Even when you needn't do ssssso, even when you could lean on otherssssss, you choosssse to work alone!"

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