Chapter 10: Illusions of romance

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Jane dreamed.

She stood in a small room surrounded by mirrors, which covered every inch of wall. Instead of her reflection, each mirror showed a different place. One looked into a narrow dungeon cell with a prisoner crouched at the bottom. Beside it, a wide, square mirror reflected a stone temple bathed in moonlight. The temple clung to the side of a mountain, and if Jane squinted, she could just make out a winding trail of stairs carved into the cliff's edge –

"That's where the Book of Truths is kept."

Jane turned.

The speaker was short, round, and golden, with a face like a cherry and a body to match. Every part of her body glowed, as though she radiated sunbeams. Curls like birthday ribbons spilled across her shoulders. Her hair, combined with the many wide frills on her dress, gave Jane the impression of a layer cake gone horribly wrong.

"Don't you know to bow before your goddess?" said the woman crossly.

Jane bowed. Her head was fuzzy with sleep.

"Sorry. Where am I?"

"In the home of the gods – isn't it obvious? I am Avdotya, the goddess of love."

Jane rubbed her eyes. She felt slow and bewildered, like the time she'd borrowed a suitemate's Ambien to help her sleep. She tried to dredge up what she'd read about the gods the previous day. Avdotya was one of the major goddesses, second only to the Mother Goddess, Divna. The book said she was tetchy, vain, and quick to anger.

The goddess conjured a pouf and settled onto it with an aggrieved sigh. Her plump fingers twirled her hair. She studied Jane with impatience, like an exterminator studies a mouse.

"Is –" Jane pinched her forearm, hoping the pain would wake her up faster. "Is this my first godstest?"

"Oh, no. That's not going to be for another few weeks! My sister Divna ordered me to meet you now, to 'help me make an informed decision about which option I should pick for your godstest' or some nonsense. She's probably spying on us right now."

There was a whining, petulant note to Avdotya's voice that made Jane uneasy. The glare in the goddess' eyes suggested she wanted to be here almost as little as Jane did.

Jane's eyes shifted again to the mirrors. She tried to find the mirror with the stone temple on the mountainside, but there were too many. The image of a trench caught her eye. Men in dark uniforms sat around a magical fire, sharing drinks.

Avdotya clicked her tongue. "It is rude to ignore your goddess!"

"S-sorry."

"Not much for talking, are you? I don't know what Divna sees in you. Did you ever do anything interesting back home, aside from study, study, study? Did you date boys? Fight crime? Save your dying sister? Brood over some dark drama that occurred in your past?"

"Um..."

"I guess not!" Avdotya threw up her arms. "And you have no romantic interest in the crown prince? None whatsoever? If you had any decency, you could at least give me that much!" She collapsed backward on the pouf, her many skirts billowing. "What about Nikolay?"

"I'm sorry?"

"Nikolay? Black-haired sorcerer with an attitude problem? He's been teaching you magic; I thought you'd have learned his name by now –"

"I know who he is." Jane stifled a yawn. "He left me on a rooftop this morning."

"I'll put him down as a maybe, with concern for abusive tendencies!" Avdotya sniffed. "Really, who else is there at this point? Casimir is out of the question, Drazan is married, and the tsar is much too old. Olesya is single, if you are interested in women – are you interested in women, may I ask?"

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