Chapter 1: Shackled

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The only light that entered Nikolay's pit cell was a treacherous gleam high above—a hint of stars, blue sky, and stars again that marked the dragging nights and days. Most of the light smothered itself out on the way down, and only shadows lurked at the bottom.

Had his plans succeeded, Nikolay wouldn't have been among those shadows anymore. He would have been far away, most likely in a Dalnushka, seeking the key to distilling the potion he'd won off Zakhar—the potion that might save his life, if he could filter its poison in time. But the best laid plans have a habit of going awry—in Nikolay's case, more often than most. This time, it had come in the form of a manacle upgrade: a newer model, stubbornly impervious to the key he'd squirreled away under the flagstones as insurance, and when he'd tried to pick the lock, his tools had melted in his hands.

Apart from the manacles, the secret fail-safes Nikolay had built into the pit cell to escape imprisonment had worked perfectly. The password-protected flagstone beneath the straw-covered floor had opened to reveal an emergency vault stocked with food, blankets, lock-picks, and a key that would have been sufficient to open Magic Manacle Version 1.0. There was also a self-concealing knife which might (Nikolay couldn't remember) have been laced with a nefarious, fast-acting poison.

The first visitors to his cell—the avtorka and that insufferable battle-mage whose name Nikolay couldn't remember—had stayed out of reach of his knife. Then had come Kir, sobbing and so obnoxiously grief-stricken that Nikolay had snapped at him to go away.

After that, there was a long stretch of time where no one visited at all. Long enough that Nikolay, ever the pessimist, began to wonder if the castle had fallen to another attack.

Each minute chafed, the slow ebb of time that matched the seconds ticking precariously away from his life. The pain of his Oath-scar crashed over him, sinking through the cracks in his composure, flooding his mind. It was fire, it was ice, it was salt on an open wound. That was what the potions and his magic had kept at bay, and now, bereft of both, he was only a shadow of a person, curled in on himself, captive to his pain.

It wasn't until the fourth day, as he stared up at the distant sky, trying to distract himself from the burning in his arm, that the sharp Crack! of a teleportation heralded a visitor.

Nikolay struggled to his knees. His Oath-scar throbbed. On the opposite side of the cell, he heard Healer Tatyana's voice, questioning. There was a rumble of response, and another crackle of teleportation.

Nikolay tensed, a hand on his knife.

The tsar of Somita stepped into the light.

The tsar stood straight, but he moved slowly, his pale eyes sunken, his breathing steady. Nikolay knew what lay beneath that composure—the burning in his arm wouldn't let him forget. He collapsed back against the wall, grimacing with mixed agony and annoyance, as the tsar's footsteps shuffled across the flagstones. There was the pop of a vial being uncorked. Glass pressed against Nikolay's lips, and the familiar scent of a healing draught met his nostrils.


Nikolay thought about refusing, but not seriously; he was too far gone for that. Gradually, the pain in his arm eased. When he could breathe without gasping, he raised his head.

"I don't suppose you could leave some more potions down here?" he rasped. "Otherwise, you might as well kill me and be done with it. Unless you're planning to free me from these chains...?"

The tsar didn't move.

"I thought not." Nikolay leaned back. "Very well. Kill me now, please. Tell Kir he can have my solar, but he's not to touch the mandrake in the back room. For a creature that's mostly leaves and flowers, it can be quite vicious when provoked."

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