After the rest of the night on the steppe, the next day the bogatyrs and the Goryadons return to Volinka. Gena insists on having the Goryadons visit the hetman’s home and identify the captive; so that he can be freely surrendered to the Mountain of Steel, and then they spend the night at the Moon and Stars.
They take the false Goryadon with them and ride the next morning. In two days, they reach the Mountain of Steel again. The tent city has largely dispersed, but Yerek is still camped nearby, and greets his rescuers. The safe return of Vashtil is cause for celebration, and the Goryadons are very interested in the tale of his abduction. The High Swordfather himself interrogates the captive, who — somewhat surprised — elaborates on the plot to distract the town long enough to delay potential pursuers. With luck, the Hammer-Saint would have been mostly to Trakengrav before anyone discovered the truth.
The High Swordfather places his hand on the captive’s brow and delivers a powerful binding: he is to go out use his hands to make things, until he has balanced out everything that he’s helped destroy. The former Black Snowflake shudders, and turns to obey. “Give him some tools,” says the High Swordfather. “And a coat!” adds Gennadiy.
Once the modest feast is complete, the bogatyrs discuss their next plans. They go over several possibilities, but now that Anfisa has an errand in Tyurin from Hetman Tarska himself, she takes Mika’s side. The four agree to use the deck of portals to travel to the Throne’s domain next.
The next morning they collect Yerek and tell him to get his things together. They ride an hour to the east without telling the scout their purpose. Yerek is astonished when the Throne card produces a gateway in the air, swirling in whorls of gold. With a little persuasion, he follows the bogatyrs as they step through.
They arrive at a crossroads in hilly land, where a pair of caravans are arguing over right-of-way. Anfisa has Kostya push his way through, which only confuses the snarl further. Gena manages to get the two caravans sorted, with the bogatyrs ahead of both. Yerek, who has been looking around him in wonder, proclaims that they’re 12 miles south of Tyurin itself.
As they begin making their way north, a crested white owl flies from the city’s direction toward the group. It lands on Kazimeer’s saddle pommel and intones in a sonorous voice, “Kazimeer. It is well you are here. Contact me when you have the leisure.” The owl then takes flight back for Tyurin. Kazimeer recognizes the voice — Otr Grimbrow, a sorcerer in the Vizier’s employ who was dispatched as envoy and advisor to the Golden Tsar.
The group reaches the outer gates of Tyurin, where they pay the small entry fee and converse with the guards. Gena asks about inns and receives a few recommendations — the Tsar of Destiny, the Golden Sun, the Red Banner, the Wounded Bear, the Tsar’s Nightingale. Anfisa stresses that the inn must be willing to cater to her bear.
Anfisa heads to the Westhill district to deliver Tarksa’s message. She finds Hetman Kolvitsa Featherteeth in a training arena called the Iron Theater, giving lessons to several of the city’s young warriors. Kolvitsa reads the message, then regards Anfisa. “This tells me that I’m to test you.” Anfisa shrugs and responds that she’s ready at any time.
Kolvitsa directs one of the swordsmen to hand Anfisa a pair of practice sabers. Five of the students then surround her. She starts out with an almost lazy attack, forcing one of her opponents to retreat and nurse his bruised knuckles. Then the other four attack, demonstrating the coordination they’ve learned. Anfisa takes a number of painful blows before she rallies. She unleashes a spiraling storm of blows, scattering the remaining four and leaving them groaning on the mat.
“Hm,” says Kolvitsa. “Let me know when you’re settled in a place to stay.”
Upon Anfisa’s return the bogatyrs decide to take lodging in the Silver Saddle, an establishment in the Low Tyurin district that reputedly has excellent stabling. Anfisa turns Kostya over to a scarred, eight-fingered Volyar to be groomed, and heads for the bathhouse.
Gennadiy and Mika both head out to gather rumors, although in different circles. Gena visits a few taverns, particularly those catering to soldiers and merchants. He hears that the dashing young captain Miyar Byelnikov represents the Knight’s counsel in Tyurin, and also that there’s a fair amount of mercenary work as various aristocrat families pay to undercut their rivals.
Mika circulates in her signature subtle fashion. She hears tales of a talking serpent that escaped the tsar’s menagerie; of a thief-lord’s treasure hidden somewhere in the walls of the Solemnity Prison; of Tsar Barakir’s plans to go on pilgrimage to Valgrad and pay respect to the Sun when spring comes. Whenever she talks to someone of the Golden Tsar himself, the response is usually respectful. If the person in question managed to recently see Tsar Barakir in person during an address, their respect increases to reverential tones. The evident power of the Throne card and its aura of regal charisma gives Mika some pause. However, its influence is not omnipresent, judging by the rumors of dissent — the thick cluster of aristocrats is wearing away at some of the populace, who have little love for the Golden Tsar and his hangers-on.
Kazimeer travels to the palace, answering Otr’s summons. The guards escort him in, where he draws some curious looks from the palace’s residents and staff, and take him to Otr’s quarters. The somber sorcerer greets Kazimeer warmly enough, and asks to hear of his travels. Kazimeer shares his stories, then asks after the news of Tyurin. Otr tells him of rumors of the Cult of the Mad Star, rooted somewhere within the city’s upper crust — the ranking priest Seer Rostov is doing his best to investigate. A young girl, apprentice to a moneylender, has shown recent talent, though the precise nature of her gift is as yet unmeasured. And finally, Kazimeer takes particular interest in Otr’s tale of an arcane gate said to be hidden in one of the Summer Bridge’s arches. The gate is said to open when the heavens are right, but the stories surrounding it are very imprecise.
Once he leaves the palace, Kazimeer makes his way to the Summer Bridge. But by that time, night has truly fallen, and his conjured lights are too erratic to allow him to conclusively identify any subtle marks that might identify the gate. He returns to the Silver Saddle, where the other bogatyrs have also reconvened to discuss their options.