Chapter 7: Magic Lessons

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Nikolay led Jane out of the mess hall, up a wide flight of stairs, and then up a second, narrower spiral staircase without a railing. The stairs were dusty and silent, the only sound their footsteps and Jane's occasional gasps for air. Thin pillars of sunlight lanced through the darkness from arrow slits in the wall.

Jane's muscles ached from her earlier beating on the practice courts. Every inch of her protested the climb. But each time she tried to pause for breath, Nikolay's magic dragged her forward, painfully, unrelentingly, and she knew she had to keep moving.

After the sixth twist of the staircase, she'd had enough of being stoic. "Are we—almost there?" she gasped. "Please—"

Nikolay shot her a disgusted look. "If you cannot even manage one more flight, I could levitate you."

Jane remembered the man he'd levitated during the battle, the one he had dropped to his death. Her stomach gave a terrified lurch. It did not help that she had just glanced over the edge of the staircase and they were very, very high up. "No—no," she panted. "Just—a little rest. Please?"

Nikolay continued walking, and for a moment Jane thought he would ignore her. But then, to her relief, their pace decreased marginally, and Jane was able to pant her way behind him up the remaining flight of stairs.

The stairs ended in a tiny landing beside a chestnut door. Unfamiliar symbols decorated the wood around the handle. In the soft light from the window, the runes shimmered as though dusted with silver. As Jane gasped for breath, Nikolay tapped a complex pattern around the handle. The door swung open soundlessly.

"Welcome," said Nikolay, in a cold, insincere voice that told Jane she was by no means truly welcome, "to my study."

The room was nothing like the dark stairs they had just left. It was large, airy, and circular. Light streamed through tall windows, bathing the room in a soft golden glow. On the sunniest side, a jungle of hanging plants in silver planters cast labyrinths of shadow on the floor. Next to the plants sat a wall of shelves, replete with jars whose substances glittered or oozed or glowed fiery crimson; beside the shelves, a series of tall bookcases threatened to collapse beneath mountains of books, which spilled over onto an ornate armchair. Jane guessed the gold-gilt ladder on the opposite side of the tower lead to an auxiliary bedroom, a sky loft of sorts, though she was not tall enough to say for sure. All manner of strange things hung from the ceiling on the east side-bunches of roots, polished white stones that gave off faint, pinkish light, and what looked to be a mummified parrot in the corner by the loft. Jane was reminded of her Uncle Bauer's study, except with creepy preserved things instead of electronics.

Uncle Bauer's study was always cold, too. Jane shivered and peered out the nearest window. Below them lay the city of Tolsk, a forest of copper roofs and narrow houses, and beyond that, rolling hills and green farmland, the long river sparkling on its lazy course from the mountains. It was the same view she had seen during her ride to Somita by wyvern, without the sulfurous, smoky breath.

She put a hand on the window-glass, about to ask Nikolay if she could close it, but a warning hiss made her freeze. A cobra lay coiled on the armchair at her side, forked tongue tasting the air with obvious interest. It had scales the color of cedar, and large, golden pupils, which were currently trained directly on her.

"An azdaja," Nikolay said, as though the word was supposed to mean something to her. His back was to her; he seemed to be chalking marks on the floor. "She won't bite. I rescued her as a baby. Her venom's quite useful in potions."

It was the least-comforting attempt at reassurance Jane had ever heard. But the cobra did not seem inclined to chase her. It eyed Jane demurely from its chair, half-hiding behind two whitish pieces of cloth—no, those are wingsthis creature has wings

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