Chapter 1: Unwelcome visitors

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The scar on Nikolay's forearm was thin and white, with intricate offshoots that branched like fractals across his skin. It ran from the crook of his elbow all the way down his arm, stopping just before his hand, where it wrapped around to encircle his wrist like a shackle. No sword or knife could have produced such a scar – only magic.

Right now, the scar was burning.

It had begun as a slow tingle, like a nerve in his arm was asleep, and quickly progressed to full-on fire – a searing, red-hot pain that sent him crashing to his knees on the balcony floor. A sense of doom pressed in on him, tight and stifling, like the air of a cave.

Nikolay knew what the pain meant. He had felt it many times before.

The tsar of Somita was in danger, and the Oath-spell on Nikolay's arm compelled Nikolay to protect him.

Fighting back nausea, he crouched down upon the marble tiles of the castle balcony. Sounds from the party below washed over him, boisterous and loud. He clutched his arm and rested his head against the cool stones of the balcony floor.

When the pain had subsided enough so that he no longer wanted to die, he summoned a pain potion, uncorked it, and drank it. Then, using one of the balcony's scuffed pillars for support, he pulled himself to standing with a groan.

Below him, on the floor of the great hall, men and women danced and drank. It was the first time in months that the castle had hosted a party, and the crowd was in high spirits. Soldiers sang and tossed back ale. Wyvern-riders traded stories and lit candles for the fallen. Shouts echoed off the pillars, the walls, and even the upper balcony where Nikolay stood. On the dance floor, Nikolay's brother, Crown Prince Kir, leapt about like a jackrabbit, whirling ladies into waltzes with no care for peoples' toes. Nikolay knew this, because he had recently been down there with him, before he had escaped to the shelter of the balcony on the pretext of a headache.

His lips twisted. He knew the source of the crowd's excitement. Two days ago, the castle soothsayers had predicted the arrival of a new hero from Earth. Now, the country celebrated because they thought the newcomer might end the six-year war between Somita and Kanach.

They already assume we've won the war, the idiots. Nikolay found their optimism intolerable. Somita was still at war, and this so-called hero, the avtorka, had not even arrived yet. If not for his brother's urging, he would not have come to the feast tonight. He would have stayed in the shelter of his tower, a cup of tea at his side, and a book in his lap.

His Oath-scar throbbed another note of warning. Nikolay's eyes flicked to the dais, where sat Tsar Fyodor Vetrov, his stepfather. The tsar's posture was stiff, and his expression was neutral as water. His illness must be paining him. But he did not seem in any immediate danger, as far as Nikolay could tell. Nonetheless, Nikolay reinforced the magical barrier that shielded the tsar from attack. The burn of the Oath-spell lessened, though it still hummed, a guilty presence at the back of his mind. If the Oath-spell had been able to speak, it would have said:

"The tsar is not safe yet..."

Nikolay's gaze traveled past the tsar, past the dance floor where his brother spun with wild abandon, toward the back of the hall, where the tsar's elite Riders kept watch. Commander Olesya, the head of the Riders, scanned the room casually. If she had noticed anything wrong, she showed no sign. And nothing seemed amiss among the guests.

He stepped to the edge of the balcony. Baskets on the railing supported a waterfall of ivy, which draped down to taste the open air. The many plants and magical decorations could not quite disguise the paint, chipped and peeling, or the blank spaces left by statues – sold, to pay for war. Beyond the baskets, the castle's great chandelier descended from the ceiling, bathing the room in a steady glow.

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