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Death, magic, and winter. A bitter cycle that Marzenya spins with crimson threads around pale fingers. She is constant; she is unrelenting; she is eternal. She can grant any spell to those she has blessed, her reach is the fabric of magic itself.
—Codex of the Divine, 2:18
The calming echo of a holy chant filtered down from the sanctuary and into the cellars. It was late afternoon, just before Vespers, a time where psalms to the gods were given up in an effortless chorus.
Nadezhda Lapteva glared up at the mountain of potatoes threatening to avalanche down over the table. She twisted her knife hard against the one in her hand, narrowly missing skin as she curled the peel into a spiral.
“A cleric’s duty is important, Nadezhda,” she muttered, mimicking the dour tone of the monastery’s abbot. “You could change the tide of the war, Nadezhda. Now go wither in the cellars for the rest of your life, Nadezhda.”
The table was covered in potato peel spirals. She hadn’t anticipated losing her entire day to remedial labor, yet here she was.
“Did you hear that?” Konstantin acted like she hadn’t spoken. His paring knife hung limp in his fingers as he listened.
There was nothing but the service upstairs. If he was trying to distract her, it wasn’t going to work. “Is it our impending death by potato avalanche? I can’t hear it, but I’m certain it’s coming.”
She received a withering look in response. She waved her knife at him. “What could it possibly be? The Tranavians at our doorstep? They have seven thousand stairs to climb first. Perhaps it’s their High Prince and he’s finally decided to convert.”
She tried to be glib, but the idea of the High Prince anywhere near the monastery made her shiver. He was rumored to be an extremely powerful blood mage, one of the most terrifying in all of Tranavia, a land rife with heretics.
“Nadya,” Konstantin whispered, “I’m serious.”
Nadya stabbed her knife into yet another potato as she glanced at him. It was his fault they were down here. His pranks, conjured from a mixture of boredom and delirium after early morning prayers, had been innocent at first. Switching out the monastery’s incense with lemongrass, or snipping the sanctuary’s candlewicks. Minor offenses at best. Nothing to deserve death by potato.
Filling Father Alexei’s washing bowl with a red dye that looked like blood, though, that was what had done them in.
Blood wasn’t a thing to be made light of, not in these times.
Father Alexei’s rage didn’t end in the cellars. After they scaled Potato Mountain—if they scaled Potato Mountain—they still had hours’ worth of holy texts to copy in the scriptorium. Nadya’s hands were already cramping just thinking about it.
“Nadya.” Her knife slipped off course as Konstantin nudged her elbow.
“Damn it, Kostya.”
My perfect streak of fifty-four intact spirals, ruined, she thought mournfully. She wiped her hands on her tunic and glared at him.
His dark eyes were focused on the closed door that led upstairs. There was nothing but the—
The potato slipped from her fingers, falling to the dusty floor. She hadn’t noticed when the service above had stopped. Kostya’s fingers dug into her sleeve but his touch felt distant.
This can’t be happening.
“Cannons,” she whispered, somehow making it more real by saying the word aloud. She shifted the grip on her knife, flipping it backward as if it were one of her thin-bladed voryens and not a half-dull kitchen blade.
Cannons were a sound every child of Kalyazin knew intimately. It was what they grew up with, their lullabies mixed with firing in the distance. War was their constant companion, and Kalyazi children knew to flee when they heard those cannons and tasted the iron tinge of magic in the air.
Cannons only meant one thing: blood magic. And blood magic meant Tranavians. For a century a holy war had raged between Kalyazin and Tranavia. Tranavians didn’t care that their blood magic profaned the gods. If they had their way, the gods’ touch would be eradicated from Kalyazin like it had been from Tranavia. But the war had never reached farther than the Kalyazin border. Until now. If Nadya could hear the cannons, that meant the war was slowly swallowing Kalyazin alive. Inch by bloody inch it was seeping into the heart of Nadya’s country and bringing death and destruction with it.
And there was only one reason why the Tranavians would attack a secluded monastery in the mountains.
The cellars shook and dirt rained down. Nadya looked at Kostya, whose gaze was flint-eyed but fearful. They were just acolytes with kitchen knives. What could they do if the soldiers came?
Nadya tugged at the prayer necklace around her neck; the smooth wooden beads felt cool against the pads of her fingers. There were alarms that would go off if the Tranavians breached the seven thousand stairs leading up to the monastery, but she had never heard them. Had hoped she never would.
Kostya grabbed her hand and shook his head slowly, his dark eyes solemn.
“Don’t do this, Nadya,” he said.
“If we are attacked, I will not hide,” she replied stubbornly.
“Even if it means a choice between saving this place and the entire kingdom?”
He grasped her arm again, and she let him drag her back into the cellars. His fear was justified. She had never been in real battle before, but she met his gaze defiantly. All she knew was this monastery, and if he thought she wasn’t going to fight for it, then he was mad. She would protect the only family she had; that was what she was trained for. He ran a hand over his close-cropped hair. He couldn’t stop her; they both knew it.
Nadya tugged out of Kostya’s grip. “What use am I if I run? What would be the point?”
He opened his mouth to protest but the cellar shook so hard Nadya wondered if they weren’t about to be buried alive. Dirt from the ceiling dusted her white-blond hair. In an instant, she was across the cellar and nearing the door up to the kitchens. If the bells were silent, that meant the enemy was still in the mountains. There was time—
Her hand touched the doorknob just as the bells began to toll. The sound felt familiar, as if it was nothing but another call to the sanctuary for prayer. Then she was jarred by the urgent screeching tone they took on, a cacophony of high-pitched bells. No time left. She yanked the door open, running the last few stairs up to the kitchens, Kostya at her heels. They crossed the garden—empty and dead from the bitter winter months—into the main complex.
Nadya had been told the protocol countless times. Move to the back of the chapel. Pray, because that was what she did best. The others would go to the gates to fight. She was to be protected. But it was all formality, the Tranavians would never make it this far into the country, all these plans were simply if the impossible happened.
Well, here is the impossible.
She shoved open the heavy doors that led behind the sanctuary, only managing to move them enough for Kostya and herself to slip through. The tolling of the bells pounded against her temples, painful with each heartbeat. They were made to pull everyone out of sleep at three in the morning for services. They did the job.
Someone slammed into her as she passed an adjoining hallway. Nadya whirled, kitchen blade poised.
“Saints, Nadya!” Anna Vadimovna pressed a hand to her heart. There was a venyiashk—a short sword—at her hip, and another, long, thin blade clutched in her hand.
“Can I have that?” Nadya reached for Anna’s dagger. Anna wordlessly handed it to her. It felt solid, not flimsy like the paring knife.
“You shouldn’t be here,” Anna said.
Kostya shot Nadya a pointed look. In the monastery’s hierarchy, Anna—as an ordained priestess—outranked Nadya. If Anna ordered her to go to the sanctuary, she would have no choice but to obey.
So I won’t give Anna the chance.
Nadya took off down the hall. “Have they breached the stairs?”
“They were close,” Anna called.
Close meant the very real likelihood that they would make it to the courtyard and find the Tranavians already there. Nadya pulled at her prayer necklace, her fingers catching across the ridged beads as she searched for the right one. Each wooden bead was carved with a symbol representing a god or goddess in the pantheon, twenty in all. She knew them by touch, knew exactly which bead to press to attune to a specific god.
Nadya once wished she could blend in with the other Kalyazi orphans at the monastery, but the truth was, for as long as she could remember, when she prayed the gods listened. Miracles happened, magic. It made her valuable. It made her dangerous.
She tugged her necklace until the bead she wanted was at the bottom. The sword symbol carved into it felt like a splinter against her thumb. She pressed it and sent up a prayer to Veceslav: the god of war and protection.
“Do you ever wonder what this would be like if you were fighting against people who also petitioned for my protection?” His voice was a warm summer breeze slipping up the back of her head.
Truly we are fortunate our enemies are heretics, she replied. Heretics who were winning the war.
Veceslav was always chatty, but right now Nadya needed help, not conversation.
I need some protection spells, please, she prayed.
Copyright © 2019 by Emily A. Duncan