Chapter 22: A Clash of Villains

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In her shock, Jane nearly lost her grip on the rock. Only a lightning-fast grab at the corbels saved her from testing her makeshift rope harness.

"Ssshhh," the azdaja hissed in her ear. "Ssshhhh, it'sss okay, it'sss just me."

As fast as she could, Jane edged back along the ledge until she was out of view of the window. She glared at the winged snake. "Don't do that!" she said. "I almost fell!"

"Sssorry."

"Are you going to tell Nikolay I'm out here?"

"That dependsss..."

With surprise, Jane realized the azdaja looked terrified. Her wings fluttered anxiously, and her forked tongue flickered against Jane's cheek.

"Do you intend to ssstop him?"

"Er...?"

"Nikolay iss foolissssshhh! The fireflower draught Zakhar bringsss is probably tainted with poissson. Kanachskiy magesss are known for their ssslow-acting venomsss! Yet Nikolay isss blinded by the promissse of freedom. I told him, I ssssaid, 'That man is bad newssss', but he only sssmiled. He'ssssss going to die!" She twined around Jane, looping across her torso in agitated coils. "We have to ssssssssssssstop him!"

"Okay, okay!" Jane tried, as best she could, to disentangle the azdaja before she constricted Jane's neck in her panic. "I'll help you-I'll help you! Just-calm down a bit, all right?"

The azdaja settled, though her tongue still flicked rapidly.

Jane relaxed-as much as it was possible to relax while perched on a two-inch ledge beside a precipice with a snake wrapped around her torso - and tentatively patted the azdaja's scales. "I hope I can stop Nikolay," she said. "That's - er - I guess that's one of the reasons why I'm lurking out here. But if I manage to stop him, will you do me a favor in return?"

"Sssspeak."

"I need the dragon's egg potion Nikolay's been brewing. Do you know where it is?"

"It isss hidden in the rightmossst cabinet above the fireplace!" said the azdaja. "Do you want me to fetch it?"

"No," said Jane. "Wait here. I need to think about what to do."

Warily, she edged back toward the window and peered through. Nikolay and Zakhar seemed to have come to an agreement. Jane saw Nikolay's mouth move, although he spoke so quietly, she didn't hear what he said. Then Zakhar extended his arm with the potion, and Nikolay reached out to take it -

Shit!

Jane didn't want to think about what would happen if Nikolay broke his Oath successfully. His Oath-spell meant he couldn't do anything that would cause the tsar's death. But once the Oath was broken, he'd be free to do whatever he wanted, and that included telling Zakhar how to break the spell protecting Sengilach from the sudok. Sudok would overrun the palace, killing everyone inside...

She had to stop this.

As Nikolay raised the vial to his lips, she panicked. "STOP!" she yelled, and she hurled herself through the open window. The rope caught her mid-leap, and she overbalanced, careening into the empty cauldron, which clattered to the floor. Air exploded from her lungs as she hit the ground.

Nikolay lowered the potion. He and Zakhar turned to look at her. Nikolay looked surprised; Zakhar, amused.

"Erm." Jane said. She struggled to her feet and loosened the rope, then gestured awkwardly at the glittering potion in Nikolay's hand. "Don't drink that."

Yeah, she probably should have thought this through a bit more.

"Is this who I think it is?" said Zakhar.

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