Chapter 12: Unwanted Offerings

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It was like a bomb had just detonated. Jane was thrown to the ground, momentarily deafened. A terrible stench filled the cavern. The air was hazy with yellow dust; Jane inhaled and choked. The dragon was screeching, but its roar seemed distant against her shattered eardrums.

An arm squeezed her waist in an iron grip. She lurched away in the familiar drag of a teleportation.

Jane sucked in air and tried not to puke.

They landed on a rocky shoreline. Jane's mind felt thick, foggy. Her lungs were on fire. She choked and gasped for air, a rushing in her ears; every breath hurt, it was like trying to suck in air through a straw – her vision was narrowing –

She felt a hand on her back and a rush of magic. A second later, her breathing eased. She crouched on the rough ground, sucking in great gasps of air. Her heart felt like it was trying to pound its way out of her chest.

"Idiot," Nikolay hissed. "Why didn't you get out of range of the explosion as I told you?"

He was right in front of her, but his voice sounded far away. Jane had to focus on his lips to figure out what he was saying.

"Come on," he said, and he heaved Jane to her feet. She sagged against him, dizzy.

In the distance, the dragon screamed, a cry that was half wail, half roar.

Nikolay cursed and grabbed Jane around the middle. They teleported. When Jane at last dared to open her eyes, they had returned to Nikolay's solar. The room spun. Jane sagged, not caring that she was allowing Nikolay to half-support her.

"I had just solved the puzzle." Her voice sounded weird, almost like she was underwater.

"What?" Nikolay pushed her into a chair. Jane collapsed onto it, shaking.

"I had the answer to the riddle." Her voice sounded less awful now. Her hearing was starting to return. "There were three possibilities; the dragon was going to kill me if I lied, or if I told the truth, she was going to give me my freedom, or give me a treasure, right? Death, freedom, or treasure – I was going to get one of those three. So I was going to tell her 'You will not give me treasure.' She couldn't have killed me, because that would've made my statement true, and she couldn't have given me treasure, because that would've made my statement false, so her only choice would've been to set me free. You didn't have to barge into the middle of things and – and drag me out of there like I was some sort of damsel in distress!"

Nikolay raised an eyebrow. "Even if you had answered the riddle correctly, the dragon would never have let you go. She would have found a loophole. Dragons always do."

He had just confirmed the fear that had lurked in her mind in the cave.

Even so –

"If you hadn't distracted me, I might've been able to add in a clause about a way to stop myself from dying. There is a way to do it. I think. There must be... maybe if... no... I think it would have to be two clauses, maybe an 'exclusive or' –"

"If you had found some way around that loophole, there would have been others. Dragons are fiendishly clever at logical thinking. Stop trying to find an alternate solution, Jane. It's pointless."

Jane dragged her mind away from the lure of puzzle-solving. "Speaking of 'pointless' – that basically characterizes this trip. The dragon has no magical chalice that can cure the tsar."

Something about Nikolay's unusual buoyancy sent a shiver down Jane's spine. He didn't look dejected. On the contrary, the look on his face was almost triumphant, in a way that set Jane's teeth on edge.

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