Jane felt like she had been punched in the stomach. "Sorry," she said. "Can we back up a step. We are talking about Nikolay, as in the Nikolay who brought me here a few minutes ago? You mean that Nikolay? He's your son?"
Tsar Fyodor arched an eyebrow.
Jane sucked in a breath.
"Not... that there's anything wrong with that. He's a – you both seem like – Well, you guys don't look much alike, that's all."
The tsar was still looking at her. Not just looking, but looking, a piercing, unnerving stare that seemed to bisect Jane with its intensity. As she tried to meet his eyes, Jane could begin to imagine how he and Nikolay might be related after all. "What's wrong with Nikolay?" she asked, in a much smaller voice than before.
"I am dying," said the tsar bluntly.
Jane swallowed. "I'm sorry to –"
"Nikolay, unfortunately, is bound to me by an Oath-spell he took in childhood to protect me from all harm. If I die, he will die along with me, due to his failure to fulfill the terms of the Oath."
"Well, that doesn't seem like it was very well thought out. Is there nothing that can save him?"
"The Oath was a blood Oath."
"You'll have to explain what that –"
"It means that it was sealed in blood, and that it cannot be broken, short of interference from a higher power... or both our deaths."
Jane frowned at him. "So, you're telling me that the two of you bound your lives together, despite the fact that you were obviously very different ages, and you never expected there might be problems with this?"
She heard a muffled cough and saw Kuzma, the tsar's page boy, watching her with unmitigated horror as he shuffled back into the room. Jane realized she'd essentially told the tsar he was an idiot to his face. Oops. But it felt good to speak her mind. Like most of the U.S., Jane was fed up with leaders in high places who didn't think before they acted.
At least the tsar had the decency to look remorseful. "It was a terrible thing," he said quietly. "Nikolay was much too young to take an Oath of such magnitude. It should never have happened." Jane wondered what he was not telling her - how it had come about, how Nikolay had been coerced into taking on such a spell. She thought about asking, but there was a finality to the tsar's tone that told her more information was likely not forthcoming.
She frowned at her hands. "These... Writings in the Book of Truths sound immensely powerful. Not to be rude, but... morally and ethically, aren't I supposed to help as many people as possible, instead of just one person?"
"You will be saving many lives by bringing peace to Somita. Hopefully more than enough lives to satisfy your moral and ethical quotas." He folded his hands, leaning closer. "Anyway, we speak in hypotheticals. You have not even begun training for your godstests yet. The tests can be... harsh. Who knows what the next months will bring?"
He looked at her again, and Jane felt suddenly uneasy. True, he needed her, but she needed his protection just as much, perhaps even more...
"So," said the tsar, "In exchange for your agreement –"
Excuse me? I haven't agreed to anything yet!
" –you will receive the finest in preparation for the godstests. My younger son Kir will teach you swordfighting, and Commander Olesya of the King's Riders will teach you hand-to-hand combat. Nikolay and my personal healer, Casimir, will teach you battle magic and healing spells."
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Updates weekly! Straight-A student Jane Huang cares only about acing her classes and getting into college... until a terrifying encounter with an otherworldly monster plunges her into the mysterious world of Mir. To return to the home she loves...