Chapter 5: Ardent Princes and Ailing Tsars

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Jane dropped into a nervous curtsy. Her favorite fantasy novels should have prepared her for this moment. But it was one thing to dream about dashingly handsome princes in books, and a whole new level of awkward to meet one in person.

"Avtorka!" The prince's eyes gleamed with excitement. "Allow me to extend my most heartfelt welcome. I am Prince Kir of House Tsarmita. I hope you will find your stay at Segilach enjoyable!"

His face was disappointingly average, although his features were improved by his hair, which framed his cheeks in sandy locks. He raised Jane's hand to his lips in what Jane's favorite authors would have described as a swoon-worthy gesture. Jane felt more awkward than ever. What were you supposed to do while your hand was being kissed? What were you supposed to say?

She glanced helplessly at Nikolay, who smirked.

No help there.

"Um... thank you, Your Highness. It's... an honor to be here?"

The words felt silly, but the prince did not seem to notice. He beamed at her.

"You have no idea how long I have waited for this day," he said.

"Er, what day is that?"

"Why, the day I would finally get to meet our newest and loveliest Avtorka!"

From any other man, the words would have sounded cheesy or sarcastic, but from Prince Kir, they were enthusiastically sincere. He barreled on. "I'm afraid Father's in a meeting of some importance or he would be here to greet you, but he has bid me to escort you about the palace in the meantime!"

"I'm sure our new Avtorka is tired after her long ride," said Nikolay.

"Of course!" said Prince Kir, the picture of earnest apology. "How very foolish of me! Please take the time to get yourself settled. We shall meet again later!"

He hurried away, and Nikolay led Jane up the steps to the palace entrance. Jane fought not to laugh. Kir reminded her of an over-eager puppy, all wagging tail and huge eyes. She glanced at Nikolay. "Prince Kir... Is he always so—"


Jane blinked. She was no expert on reading her companion's mercurial changes in temper, but she thought Nikolay seemed on edge.

"So eager," she finished.

His eyes narrowed. "Yes."

"Oh. Okay."

They entered the main hall. "Tread carefully," said Nikolay. A second later, Jane saw why. The hall looked like the aftermath of a serious bombing. The floor was mess of dust, glass shards, and fallen stones the size of wyverns. In the room's center, an enormous chandelier lay on its side, a lifeless shell of its former glory.

"What happened here?"

"We are a country at war."

"And—the enemy-the Kan...Kanachskiy?"—If she was going to be here awhile, she'd better learn the lingo—"they made it all the way here?"

"There was a surprise attack a few days ago. A powerful Kanachskiy sorcerer made it past our defenses. I suppose our mages did not have time to clean up the damage yet. They have been stretched thin these days." Nikolay waved a dismissive hand.

That did not sound good. Jane wanted to ask if Somita was winning or losing the war and what would happen if the enemy made it past their defenses again. But she did not dare ask now, not when Nikolay's eyes looked so stormy.

Her new room was lavishly furnished, five-star-hotel worthy, and her first reaction was to be afraid that she might break something. Her concern was not alleviated by the appearance of a servant at the door the moment Nikolay left.

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