Chapter 25: A Better Tomorrow

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The cold autumn sky reflected the castle's mood. Gray clouds hung low to the ground, and the air was heavy with impending rain.

The corpses of the fallen, most mangled beyond recognition, lay on a pyre of oak and birch. A priest spoke funeral rites. Jane watched the pyre take light, smoke rising toward the sky in dark clouds, as the white robes of the fallen fluttered in the flames.

Beside her, Casimir's younger brother wept. So did Prince Kir and Drazan.

Jane wanted to cry too, but she felt numb, like the godstest had hardened her heart, turning it brittle and cold as winter leaves. She stayed silent throughout the ceremony. Only when the priest's intonations had ended and people were filing back to the castle did she at last step forward to lay a handful of paper birds by the pyre.

Perhaps you would have liked them more than lilies, she thought.

It felt cruel that they couldn't even see his face to say a last goodbye, crueler still that Phillip had not woke up yet. He had never properly reunited with Casimir—and now Casimir was gone, his rooms bare, his body nothing but ash on the wind...

Kir followed Olesya back to the castle. He walked like a man half-dead, his body bowed, head bent. Jane stayed put a moment longer. She watched the rain seep into the paper birds. Fog dusted the flowers surrounding the pyre until they were sodden and heavy.


She turned. Drazan watched her sadly, General Nadja by his side. Jane looked past them, far ahead to the path where Prince Kir still walked alone, robes clutched around him. He moved slowly, like he waded through water.

Jane studied him silently. She watched him push open the palace door and slosh inside. She watched the door swing shut behind him.

"If you want another minute, we can wait."

"No." Jane looked up at General Nadja and held out her hand. "I can see the tsar now. Let's go."

The knowledge of the tsar's condition had not prepared Jane for Tsar Fyodor's frailty. His face was pale; his limbs shook. Still, his blue eyes, so like and yet unlike Kir's, were sharp and aware.

"You asked to see me?" she said.

He stared at her for a long moment, studying her face until Jane felt uncomfortable with the keenness of his gaze. What secrets did he read in her expression? What was he looking for?

Eventually he said:

"You have done very well, and I thank you. Soon, Somita will owe you a great debt."

Jane stared at the floor. It's not fair, she thought. Putting so much pressure on a single person. Because if I don't succeed, then it's all my fault again.

She reached for the plate left by the tsar's servant and toyed with an olive. "What happens now?" she asked.

"Sengilach is no longer safe." The tsar adjusted himself in his chair. "The Kanachskiy have found their way to the capitol once. They will try again. We must retaliate, bolster our army and restore the magical defenses at Dalnushka."


"Olesya, Drazan, and Kir will be your teachers from now on. You will travel with them to Dalnushka to fight back against the Kanachskiy. You will leave tomorrow."

Jane tensed.

"Isn't Dalnushka... occupied by the enemy?"

The tsar shot her a weary, but meaningful glance.

He's sending me straight into the war zone. Panic clawed at her insides. Is he hoping to speed up the next godstest?

But she couldn't deny that she longed to finish her godstests, to get off this planet with its battles and wars and gods of gold and ruin. "Sir... Your Highness..." She twisted a napkin between her hands, trying to put her thoughts into words. "Do you know why the godstests exist?"

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