Gena, Anfisa, and Kostya flee into the woods, carrying the wounded bodies of their comrades, Gullet following close behind. A few of the Ruin’s warriors make to pursue, then choose not to split their forces and fall back to support their bleeding, furious leader. Anfisa obscures the trail, and finds a place for them to lie low. Gullet vanishes into the woods and soon returns with an ally — a young leshy by the name of Cousin Ferntoes, who helps treat Mika’s wounds and then guides the group to the river. There the Winged Pike meets them, warned by more of Gullet’s contacts.
Kazimeer and Mika are conscious and mobile by the time the riverboat carries the bogatyrs back to High Miska. Huntmaster Koden meets them at the docks, where they tell him the short version of the conflict. He offers condolences on their defeat, and has them sent to the healing wing of the royal palace. There the tsaritsa’s healers — a strange, snowy woman and a married pair of domovoi and domovikha — speed them to full health in a matter of days. During that time, Huntmaster Koden visits them again several times, gathering more details on the story. On one visit, he’s accompanied by his young daughters, who engage immediately with Kostya, and determine that the clearly intelligent yet mute bear must be cursed.
Koden tells the bogatyrs that Tsaritsa Silverchild will see them tomorrow, in a morning audience. A servant brings clean, fine clothes for the bogatyrs, and others polish and repair armor and other gear. Mika takes some offense at the gesture, and rubs ash back on her armor before going to bed.
The group attends the audience promptly the next morning. The court has fewer courtiers in attendance than might otherwise be expected, though some are clear dignitaries — in particular, Ivar Tyurinov, the young nephew of Tsar Barakir Tyurinov, representative of the Throne. The noble youth is clearly rattled as the bogatyrs enter, for although Kazimeer, Anfisa, Gennadiy, Kostya, and even Gullet are opted for courtly decorum, Mika wears the full regalia of her priesthood. Her face is painted half black, half in skull makeup, and Ivar steps out almost reflexively to protect the tsaritsa. Mika favors him with a wink, which does nothing to ease his nerves.
The bogatyrs get their first look at Tsaritsa Kascha Silverchild. The Miskan tsaritsa is only eighteen, pretty but not beautiful, with silvery eyes and a silver crescent-moon mark on her brow. She wears a royal dress that Mika easily disdains as “provincial.” To her right is Huntmaster Koden; to her left, a heavily scarred woman in medium armor who carries not only a blade, but a quiver of arrows with no bow to be seen.
The court herald announces the bogatyrs. He describes their deeds in service to Miska — the discovery and capture of the treacherous seer Wotanfel, the reduction of the Euryale’s influence in Witchfeather Gorge, the diplomatic errand that secured the loyalty of the Blue Scar ogres, and the courageous attempt to drive out the forces of the Ruin.
The tsaritsa speaks then, with warmth in her voice. She names the bogatyrs friends of Miska, and forthwith honorary road-wardens of the land with all attendant privileges. The courtiers bow or salute the bogatyrs, and then the tsaritsa rises. “Please, adjourn with me,” she says. She leaves the audience hall with her bodyguard, Huntmaster Koden, and a pair of guards.
The bogatyrs follow her to a wide tower within the palace, daylight entering through the windows, plants growing in pots, and a small fountain bubbling. A servant brings fresh drinks for the adventurers, and the Moon invites them to sit and talk.
The tsaritsa asks for the full story of the bogatyrs’ time in Miska, in their own words. Gena is honored to oblige — “happy” not being quite the right word. He tells of their experiences from arriving near Honeythorn and battling the ghost of the Shrike Knight to the forced retreat near Raintowers. Gennadiy is uncharacteristically humble near the end of the tale, admitting that they challenged more than they could defeat.
The Moon thanks them for their efforts in a kind tone. She expresses sympathy for their pain and loss, but tells them that it wasn’t completely in vain. When Grandmother Yedza came to Tyurin and warned the assembly that the Ruin was moving to Miska, the old witch didn’t do so from the goodness of her heart. Koden clarifies that it was a distraction. Because the bogatyrs took on the challenge of the Ruin’s warband, many of Miska’s own champions were available to resist the Euryale’s cunning attempt to gain a foothold in the south of the nation. Certainly it’s a blow that the Ruin will now possess the Black Chalice — but it might have been even worse for the realm.
Gennadiy voices his anger at the Donjon’s band of Forgiven tricking them and setting the Ruin after them before they were ready. As he voices the possibility of opposing Tsar Gorinstal, Anfisa off-handedly mentions that the group intends to unify the Deck anyway — much to the chagrin of her comrades.
After a hasty back-and-forth, the bogatyrs explain that they’ve been thinking on the possibility that the Vizier’s representative mentioned at the recent Tyurin summit. They have been investigating ways to unify the Deck, even though they know it may make an enemy of practically every single cardholder. The loyalist forces of Lokva would lose great power — particularly the Knight, the Sun, the Comet, and the Moon — but Gorinstal would lose the ironclad loyalty of his troops, the Skull, Flames, and Euryale would all be greatly reduced, and perhaps some of the outside forces such as the Fool and Void would give up on Lokva altogether.
Tsaritsa Silverchild surprises everyone in the room when she says she would be at peace with such a solution. While Koden and her bodyguard protest, she elaborates. “I want to think that Miska would be strong without the card protecting it,” she says. “And… I do not want to hold the Moon long enough that I would be seduced by the power.”
Her subordinates are clearly not willing to immediately cede the point, but the tsaritsa overrules them and continues the discussion. The bogatyrs speak of many possible plans and possibilities, though they do not yet have a solid plan of action by the end of the audience. Over the course of the conversation, Kostya admits to being a human under a curse, which attracts the tsaritsa’s attention. She offers to send assistance — in Miska, they have a regrettably long history dealing with curses. Finally, she ends the audience, but invites the bogatyrs to remain in Miska for as long as they require to heal, train, and prepare.
Thus begins the bogatyrs’ winter in Miska. The first week, Anfisa and Kostya meet the tsaritsa’s curse-breaker, an aged orc woman named Grisha. Grisha casts a lengthy ritual over Kostya, determining what she can of the curse. She states that she’s learned the escape clause that would break the curse — for a beautiful girl to fall in unrequited love with Kostya. He admits that it would be a difficult task; Anfisa verifies that her brother would have trouble not returning a beautiful and sincere girl’s feelings. Grisha then commits to undoing the curse the more difficult way. On the night of the new moon, she gives Kostya a ritual bath, and then leads him to the chapel at dawn. Anfisa has difficulty not flinching when the orc woman pulls a knife and slashes across Kostya’s throat — but there’s no blood, and then the wiry old adept pulls the bearskin away, revealing the man beneath. Kostya and his sister embrace, both human, for the first time in years.
Gennadiy and Mika start out their winter gaining a drinking companion in the form of Malyetta the Sparrow, a deserter from Gorinstal’s army who found asylum in Miska. Malyetta has been hoping for a chance to get some form of revenge on her former lord for some time, and finds sympathetic allies in both Gena and Mika. Mika’s promises of vengeance are very much to Malyetta’s liking, and the Sparrow makes a gift of an enchanted cloak to the young priestess. She also shares what information she has that might still be useful, helping Gennadiy with plans to recover what’s left of his treasures from Gorinstal.
Kazimeer asks the whispering book a new question: “Who is the nearest person who knows the true meaning of the comet that appeared above Valgrad before the Disastrous Draw?” The book whispers a name: Magister Topova Alimevna Biresia. Kazimeer recognizes the title, as does Gennadiy — she was a scholar, lecturer, and professor at the Grand University in Valgrad. However, she was also reputed to have perished when Valgrad fell. Kazimeer begins research to learn more, and determines that she might still be in the University — only not in the reclaimed section. He begins making inquiries about contacts in Valgrad.
In the following weeks, Mika leaves the capital and heads downriver to the Spider Marshes. The Namalukii priestess has felt the first flashes of doubt regarding her own mental stability, and chooses to retreat to the bleak haunts to meditate. Gennadiy, anticipating that the fighting may worsen instead of abate if the Deck is unified, offers his help in preparing Miska’s defenses against potential invasion. He even passes on some of his weapons, including the firebrass axe, to Miskan champions who might make use of them.
Kazimeer and Anfisa decide to return to Schuka and guide Holak into the Kosvodd. The two are just as curious about Pelza Threetoes and the manse of Vilivin the Dreamer; for his part, Gullet is not, but he tags along all the same. The bellicose wolverine has taken a liking to Anfisa, and has (very informally) agreed to accompany her on her travels, especially now that Kostya is relearning how to fight as a human.
On an impulse, Kazimeer asks the book another question during the trip: “Who is the nearest entity who knows the true meaning of the comet that appeared above Valgrad before the Disastrous Draw?” The book’s whispered response is Haalvakith. The name is obscure, but Kazimeer identifies it as the devil of hidden meanings, a powerful and unique fiend in the service of Hothos [link]. The question becomes why Haalvakith is near, and not in the shadowy recesses of the Hooded God’s section of Hell. Kazimeer and Anfisa develop a theory that Haalvakith was not only one of the muses of Vilivin the Dreamer, but he might still be present in Vilivin’s manse.
Kazimeer collects Holak in Schuka, while Anfisa asks her Kos contacts for advice navigating the forest. Once prepared, the small expedition goes into the Kosvodd. During the trek, Holak relates what he’s learned of Pelza Three-Toes. She is by repute a mage, a thief, and a scholar, and if the rumors are to be believed, she managed to get into Vilivin’s manse once.
The group finally arrives at an odd dwelling deep in the forest. It seems to be half of a large stone manor house, overgrown with vines, bisected by some unknown force and with its missing half replaced by a crude wood structure that seems as much cultivated as built. Holak knocks at the door, and soon an odd fey woman opens the door — a goat-horned, goat-legged gylion in a shabby once-fine coat. Holak begs her pardon, and explains that they’ve come a long way to talk. The gylion lets the four visitors in, and as she guides them through the front room, they see she’s missing half of a hoof.
The interior of Pelza Three-Toes’ house is even more eclectic. Paintings, tapestries, and hanging art of wildly differing schools and even cultures hangs on the walls. The furniture is just as mismatched, and Kazimeer dutifully sits on an engraved anvil by the overstuffed chair and settee as the bogatyrs settle in for tea.
Pelza tells her guests that the manse of Viivin the Dreamer is trouble. She visited it for a very short time, and would not have wanted to stay longer. She describes how Vilivin had a different studio to paint each card, because the magical power made each room unsuitable for any other purpose. The power of the cards still haunts the manse, as do other things. At Kazimeer’s request, she sketches out a rough layout of the first floor and tells them that the studios come in groups: a card might have been painted across the hall from its opposite number, such as the Knight and Rogue. But the magic is a consistent danger — she lost half her hoof when she cast the teleportation circle to escape, and it closed too soon.
“How would you get in, then?” asks Kazimeer.
She shakes her head. “I wouldn’t. Not again.”
“Is it possible his two muses are still there? The angel and devil?”
Pelza thinks for a minute, very somber. “It could be.”
The winter months roll on. Kazimeer visits the forges in High Miska, putting his skill as an artificer to work — there are foes as dangerous as Mirsha Vozmeyvich in the land, and he decides he will need protective garments of a much stronger weave.
Gennadiy spends some time practicing his old trade as a noble tutor for the tsaritsa. Kascha Silverchild is an attentive student, and asks many questions about the nobles of other cities; Gena suspects her of attempting to deduce how best to detect their schemes.
Anfisa drinks and hunts with the Kos, and spends time with her brother. Irska Redhoof invites her on a dangerous hunt for a blue-scaled lightning-drake, and at the hard-won conclusion, Anfisa affixes the beast’s horn to her trophy vest. Irska is very impressed, and gives Anfisa a fine gift, an enchanted bow with a blacksnake motif.
Mika reconciles, to limited degree, with her mentor in the Spider Marshes. But she spends most of her time on her own, meditating on the tasks her goddess may have set before her. She contemplates vengeance, and ambition, and winter. As the rivers begin to rise with the onset of spring, Mika receives a visitation one chill predawn. A rusalka rises from the river waters that feed into the marshes, and Mika recognizes her as Fair Mirinka, the guardian of Zelezka. The rusalka hands her a corroded box, and within it is an old helm with a partial visor worked to resemble half a skull’s face. As Mika examines the Namalukii relic, Fair Mirinka takes her by the wrists, and pulls her forward, almost into the water. The rusalka leans forward and whispers into Mika’s ear, “Heal Casivir’s wound”. Then she releases the priestess, sinks back into the water, and is gone.
When the winter has finally run its course, the bogatyrs reunite in High Miska. With spring comes the necessity for action, and they are decided: if they are to reunite the Deck and perhaps end the various power struggles in the land, they will have to visit Vilivin’s manse. But first, they must warn the other cardholders on their side. They know where to find the Sun, and perhaps the Knight if she visits — the shattered capital. Valgrad.