Chapter 8: Rules of Succession

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Lunch was considerably less lonely than breakfast. Casimir introduced Jane to everyone at their table. Some faces were new—a female Lieutenant named Nadja and a young Rider called Alexei—but Jane recognized the green-eyed Rider, Drazan, whom she had met just before the Kanachskiy attack. He and Casimir were friends; they had studied magic under the same teacher. It was hard not to be amused by their conversation, which consisted mostly of Casimir's dry humor alternating with ridiculous stories from Drazan. The most impossible of these stories was a wild tale involving a boating expedition, several pints of alcohol, a sea serpent, and exploding salmon, and it all took place during their time training in the Magicore—which was apparently where most mages did their training-under what sounded like the most boring teacher imaginable.

"She wasn't as horrible as Drazan makes her sound." Casimir's smile was faintly reproving. "Certainly she did not deserve to be covered in fish guts, nor to have a sea snake knock her off the boat."

"Is all magic training this exciting?" said Jane, whose head was beginning to spin.

Lieutenant Nadja grinned. Her round face, spiky updo, and jagged, scaled armor gave Jane the unfortunate impression of a pineapple ready for war. "It can be. My magic flat-out refused to appear unless I was in danger. I gave poor, sweet Professor Petrov a hell of a time devising ways to put me in danger without my brothers trying to beat him up."

But did he throw books at your head, or try to break your fingers?

Jane glanced toward the high table at the front of the hall, where Prince Kir sat with the tsar. Nikolay was nowhere in sight, but that was scant relief. Her earlier lesson had left a bad taste in her mouth, and she could not imagine going back to his workroom tomorrow. Perhaps she could petition the tsar for a different teacher. Would he refuse her outright? Nikolay, at least, might be pleased; he clearly would love to be rid of her...

"I saw you training on the practice courts with Prince Kir this morning," Drazan said brightly, and Jane realized, to her chagrin, that he'd mistaken her distracted gaze for interest. "The prince is a very nice young man with many excellent qualities. A little naïve - and he tends to chatter a lot when he's nervous - but a fine man all around -"

Lieutenant Nadja leaned around him. "Excuse this tactless moron who calls himself my husband. You arrived here yesterday, and I'm sure you were bombarded with lessons and meetings and gods know what else. You probably have ten thousand things on your mind more important than romance."

Like keeping my fingers intact and figuring out how not to die during a series of tests I'm wholly unprepared for. Yes, that pretty much sums it up. Jane shot the lieutenant a nervous smile. "The prince seems nice enough, I guess"—Aside from an unfortunate tendency towards surprise kissing!—"but I think he's more interested in me than the other way around. I can't figure it out. We only met a day ago."

"The crown prince has led a sheltered life." Casimir's voice was quiet. "His mother, Queen Eloise, was an avtorka. She and the tsar loved each other very much, and she died when he was very young. Perhaps Prince Kir has a fairy-tale ideal of how an avtorka should be, and that colors his interactions with you."

And if I can't live up to that ideal, will he hate me for it? She glanced toward the table where the crown prince sat, enthusiastically chattering with one of his courtiers. He seemed too kind and harmless to hate her. He would be disappointed, perhaps, but not hateful.

I hope.

"Queen Eloise failed her godstests, didn't she?" Jane helped herself to more chicken, trying to keep her voice light. "She came from my world and couldn't go home?"

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