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A Spiritual Successor to author Naomi Novik's previous novel, Uprooted. While the two books don't share a setting, their tones and themes overlap significantly, with this book being very loosely based on the stories of Rumpelstiltskin, Bluebeard, and Hansel and Gretel.

Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders, but her father is not a very good one. Free to lend and reluctant to collect, he has left his family on the edge of poverty - until Miryem intercedes. Hardening her heart, she sets out to retrieve what is owed, and soon gains a reputation for being able to turn silver into gold.

One night Miryem boasts of this near the woods, and this draws the attention from none other than the King of the Staryk, a race of ice demons who kill any who hunt their pure white animals, plunder gold from the people, and freeze any and all who wander too close to the woods. He gives Miryem a challenge: three times over, turn his silver into gold. If she fails, her life is forfeit. If she succeeds, she shall become his queen. It's a seemingly impossible task, and one that alerts her to the true scope of his plans for his world and hers.

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While Miryem struggles to earn the gold she needs to avoid the Staryk's wrath, her neighbor, Wanda, fights to find a way to deal with her violent, drunken father and his clear intent to marry her off for a bride price. Elsewhere, the noblewoman Irina is betrothed to the handsome king Mirnatius and learns that he may be harboring a dark secret.


This work contains examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Gorek routinely beats his daughter Wanda and his two sons, though he doesn't beat Sergey as much because Sergey is almost as big as him. He's so terrible that his son Stepon is acutely puzzled when Mr. Mandelstam enters a room and things don't immediately turn violent, because in Stepon's mind "father" is inextricably linked with "beating." Gorek even tries to sell Wanda for a bride-price of one gallon of booze a week.
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  • Accidental Bargaining Skills: The Staryk are such ardent Debt Detesters that a badly wounded Staryk refuses help until Sergey sets a price for saving his life. An increasingly confused Sergey demands one major favour after another until the Staryk accepts and compliments him on driving a hard bargain.
  • Accidental Hero: Gorek burying his dead wife and sons who didn't survive infancy under a tree behind their farm was a natural action, done without any deeper intent, but their life force ended up embedding a certain amount of magic into that tree, helping grant requests that his children pray to it for.
  • Achilles' Heel:
    • Heat, for the Staryk. Miryem's coach driver is shown to be terrified at the sight of a hearth-fire, and when Chernobog is released into the Staryk mountain, the people he attacks literally melt.
    • Although the demon Chernobog craves ice and cold, what he can't stand is sunlight—which the Staryk trap within gold. So when he gets himself covered in silver coins, Miryem changes it all at once.
  • All First-Person Narrators Write Like Novelists: Averted. Miryem, Irina, Magreta, and Mirnatius are all educated and use varying levels of polish in their internal monologues, distiguished by their individual personalities (Mirnatius, for example, is witheringly sarcastic in almost every line). Wanda and Stepon, who are illiterate when the story begins, use simpler vocabulary and a much more basic way of describing the events around them.
  • Alcoholic Parent: Gorek became a full-blown drunk after his wife's death, which drove him deep into debt, caused him to mismanage his farm, and exacerbated his neglect and abuse of his children. Wanda is quietly furious to realize that they live in poverty because he spends huge amounts of money on liquor, and the last straw comes when he tries to marry her off in exchange for a weekly supply of booze.
  • Altar Diplomacy: Irina and her father both understand the political significance of arranging the correct matches.
  • Alternate Aesop Interpretation: In-Universe with Miryem's telling of the Rumpelstiltzkin story at the start of the book. She doesn't name him, but says that the real story is of a miller's daughter who borrowed money so she could buy jewelry and woo a lord, who got her pregnant and then went off to his Arranged Marriage. So she accused the moneylender of being in league with the Devil in order to keep her jewels and dower herself to a blacksmith as a father for her child. (By the events of the rest of the story, and the townspeople making a point to tell it to her and laugh, the implication is that the real "Rumpelstiltzkin" was Jewish like her family.) Miryem says that however it's told, ultimately it's a story about getting out of paying what you owe.
  • Ambiguous Disorder: Chapters from Stepon's perspective reveal that he has an aversion to loud noises, trouble understanding other people, and a tendency to hyperfocus.
  • Ambiguously Bi: Mirnatius. His internal monologue reveals that he's been interested in both men and women over time. He isn't interested in his male cousin Ilias, but only because Ilias writes embarrassingly bad poetry and his death would be more noticed than that of a maid or footman.
  • Anti-Villain: The Staryk King's motivation for causing an eternal winter is to starve Chernobog and free his people from the threat of being devoured by fire. When he and Miryem find a different way to protect his people from Chernobog, he takes it.
  • Always Chaotic Evil: Played With for the Staryk. They've earned themselves the reputation, with all their raids and kidnappings, and Miryem's family finds it hard to believe any of them are worth saving. But Miryem points out she met at least three good individuals among them, and that Children Are Innocent; even if the unseen masses supported the actions of the knights, it was out of an attempt at self-preservation from Chernobog. If he was defeated and a proper contract drawn up, she's certain the Staryk would be no more evil than anyone else. And she's right.
  • Apology Gift: Possibly combined with Buy Them Off, Mirnatius mentions sending payments to loved ones sometimes after Chernobog kills someone through him.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: Miryem's father references the story of Sodom and Gomorrah when he asks "Are there even ten righteous among them?" to stop her from trying to save the Staryk from Chernobog. Unfortunately for his peace of mind, this hardens her resolve, because she knows there are at least three.
  • Asskicking Equals Authority: Literally in the Duke's case. He got his present position during the war that made Mirnatius' father tsar by defeating the previous Duke of Vysnia's forces in battle. He still personally drills his men daily and other nobles who want their sons to have good martial skills send them to be fostered by him.
  • As the Good Book Says...: Miryem uses this twice to rationalize her plans.
    • Miryem compares her situation to that of Judith in Deuteronomy after she hatches the plan with Irina to feed the Staryk King to the tsar's demon Chernobog. She feels it even more strongly when the King tells her that the reason he had her transmute all that silver to gold was to trap spring and summer within it, causing the unending winter that is freezing Lithvas to death.
    • Miryem and her father both refer to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah when she decides to save the Staryk from Chernobog. Urging her to reconsider, her father asks if there are even ten righteous Staryk — the number God agreed would move him to spare the city. Miryem says she knows at least three, and that's enough.
  • Aw, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: Mirnatius and Irina originally marry only because Chernobog forces Mirnatius to propose and Irina's father welcomes the massive step up in society he gets from Irina being the tsarina. They spend most of their time together arguing, with Irina secretly plotting to have Mirnatius deposed and Mirnatius being fully aware of it. Irina's bargain with Chernobog includes protecting those she loves - and she declares Mirnatius as her husband in the climax by placing her ring on his finger, breaking Chernobog's hold over him. In return, Mirnatius is described as looking at her "as though she were the most beautiful thing in the world."
  • Badass Boast: The Staryk King stays defiant even when chained and depowered and facing prolonged torture:
    "Though you feast upon me to the end of days, I will never unlock my kingdom's gates, and you will have nothing of me that you do not steal."
  • Beauty Is Bad: All the heroic characters are physically plain or unremarkable — Irina is a disappointment to her father because she isn't pretty enough to improve her marriage prospects — whereas Mirnatius is a highly antagonistic Pretty Boy. It's implied to be a Glamour from the demon he was bound to in the womb.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Contemplated by Miryem at one point, as she gets a better look at Staryk society and imagines one wishing upon the wrong power to deal with people who never lie and always pays their debts would be stuck among them.
  • Big Bad: The Staryk King is both Miryem's personal antagonist, first threatening her life and then kidnapping her for his Queen, and the source of the encroaching winters that threaten the entire nation. Zig-zagged when he joins forces with Miryem against Chernobog.
  • The Big Bad Shuffle: The Staryk King's actions are revealed to be an effort to fight Chernobog, the demon Mirnatius's mother bound him to when he was in her womb. It's powerful enough to threaten all of both the Staryk and humanity, so the humans decide to release and join forces with the King to bring Chernobog down.
  • Big Brother Instinct: Initially averted, with Wanda being distant towards her brothers, although when it comes to it she saves Sergey from being killed by Staryk magic by praying to their mothers tree, and afterwards all three become more protective of each other. Stepon also shows a decent amount of little brother instinct in that scene, running to get help when Sergey gets sick, and wordlessly persuading Wanda to help him.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: The townsfolk in general, but Oleg in particular for trying to murder Miryem out of greed and antisemitism. It's hinted that although he enjoyed an excellent reputation among his neighbors, he was abusing his wife behind closed doors.
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: Miryem has much difficulty negotiating with the Staryk Lord and getting information out of him because he refuses to treat her like someone born and raised in a society not so radically focused on holding up your end of an agreement and giving people what they're owed. Hence, even though neither of them want to go through with it, he insists on marrying her when she succeeds at turning his silver into gold. This is only further complicated by how people in the Staryk Land don't just give up on things of value even if they don't want them, and will give what is owed/deserved even if the owed party doesn't want the payment. Such as a wife's right to have sex with her husband. Miryem has to announce that she'll gladly trade info for not having sex to avoid being deflowered by an ice demon. The Staryk are also horrified at the ease to which humans address each other by name, not realizing that it doesn't put them in danger of binding.
  • Bridal Carry: Miryem receives this treatment from the Staryk King after she saves him from being devoured by Chernobog.
  • Cain and Abel: Many suspect Mirnatius of having murdered his kind-hearted older brother for the throne. Subverted when Mirnatius admits that Chernobog killed him against his wishes and that his brother, despite being the one who taught him Cruelty To Animals, was the only person he truly loved.
  • The Chessmaster: Irina. Neither Wanda nor Miryem can be called stupid by any sane measure, but the young Tsarina habitually thinks numerous steps ahead and focuses on maneuvering those of enough power to be useful into arrangements of her... not so much liking as convenience.
  • The Chains of Commanding: Irina is well aware of these. Later in the work, Miryem is too.
  • Children Are Innocent:
    • Meeting Flek's daughter is what makes Miryem realize that the Staryk aren't just fearsome, unknowable raiders, and it's why she defies Irina to save them from Chernobog.
    • Stepon's narrative segments show him as this; he's a small boy who is perceptive to the feelings of people around him, and he just wants the people he cares about to be safe, but he doesn't understand why things are happening.
    • Zigzagged with the village children, several of whom bully Stepon, and seem just as antisemitic as their parents.
  • Color-Coded Castes: The Staryk King wears pure white, whereas his subjects wear progressively more and darker shades of grey in decreasing order of rank.
  • Converting for Love: Miryem tells the Staryk Lord she won't marry anyone who doesn't respect her religion and customs. He's more than willing to convert.
  • Cynicism Catalyst: As a child, Miryem is well aware that the townspeople are deliberately, contemptuously taking advantage of her father's generosity. Then her mother falls badly sick soon before the midwinter celebrations. When they still pretend they have nothing to spare, even while obviously preparing for their feasts, Miryem realizes that they fully intend to destroy her family through poverty, crushes her empathy towards them, and takes them for every penny they owe.
  • The Dandy: Mirnatius, and by extension anyone in his inner circle, is known for never wearing the same outfit twice. It's because Chernobog has a habit of destroying his clothes, and being seen as vain is the easiest way to explain where all of his outfits go—in truth, most of Mirnatius' clothes are made with magic.
  • Debt Detester: Another feature of Staryk society. Anything given must be returned with something of equal value. Even after being run through with a spear, the King won't assent to Sergey's help until Sergey asks a boon of him.
  • Deal with the Devil: The Tzar, Mirnatius, is in one of these, although eventually we find out that he was not the one who made the deal: his mother was, selling her unborn child for the demon's power. He is forced to share his body with a fire demon who uses magic to manipulate those around him and who got him the throne by killing his father and beloved half brother.
  • Death by Sex: Chernobog consumes anyone who tries to sleep with Mirnatius, so Mirnatius goes to a lot of effort to keep his bed empty.
  • Deconstruction: At the end of the book, Chernobog is defeated and both Lithvas and the Staryk are safe. But although Miryem's neighbors make friendly noises as a result of her father forgiving their debts, no one thinks they've magically lost their prejudice, and the ones who have been particularly hostile remain so. Rather than return to their old house, the Mandelstams join Wanda and her brothers in making the witch's hut a large family home.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance:
    • Miryem and her family are Jewish, which means the townsfolk shun them, cheat her father, upcharge them in the market, and try to pass off shoddy goods. Their antisemitism goes from fairly passive to outright aggressive once Miryem starts collecting the money they're legally owed. It's implied that her father's passiveness when it comes to moneylending is because he doesn't want the villagers to see him as a Greedy Jew... but they regard him as such anyway even though he's actually generous to a fault. Miryem's mother is also terrified of the Staryk tracks not just because of the Staryk themselves, but because during one raid a few years ago the Staryk happened to ignore a village that had a number of Jewish families living there—and now there are no more Jews in that village.
    • Magreta, who is otherwise a sympathetic character, is privately antisemetic thanks to events early in her life. Her father kept borrowing money due to his alcoholism and gambling, which pushed Magreta into service, and a friend of hers had to pawn a beloved heirloom to pay for an abortion; Magreta blames the Jews for conducting these transactions and not her loved ones for making choices that led to financial emergency. (This was a common way for Christian rulers to have a banking system that permitted the charging of interest, which Christians couldn't do, while also having a handy scapegoat around to blame everyone's poverty on when it became convenient.)
    • Wanda and Sergey have to flee for their lives after they accidentally trip Gorek into the fire and he dies, even though he probably would have beaten her to death, because even self-defense is not considered justification for killing your father.
    • Marriages are generally of the Arranged Marriage or Marriage of Convenience type, with dowries and bride-prices. Miryem's cousin Basia does genuinely like her fiance Isaac a great deal, but it's noted that the ideal marriage is one where both parties bring resources to each other's family and the love grows from being friendly to each other.
  • Dimensional Traveler: Only the Staryk King and high nobility are able to open the road between the mortal realm and the Land of Faerie, until the Staryk silver gives Irina just enough magic to transport herself there through reflections. Crucially, Chernobog craves the power of the Staryk world, but can't reach it unaided.
  • Endless Winter: The Staryk's world is like this. Their King's goal is to do this to the human world as well, as the colder Earth is, the stronger the Staryk King's palace is.
  • Everyone Has Standards: After learning that Mirnatius was given to Chernobog as a "promissory note" while his mother was pregnant, Irina finds a strange comfort in knowing that for all the Duke's faults as a father, she can be sure that he would never have sold her to a demon for his own gain.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: Chernobog grows bewildered and frustrated with Irina in front of her enduring refusal to enter into a contract with him, only asking for the demon to "leave me and mine alone".
  • Exact Words:
    • At one point, the Staryk challenges Miryem to turn the contents of three of his treasure chambers from silver to gold. After spending a massive amount of time changing just one, she gets her servants to empty out all the silver from the largest vault while she changes the second. As the Staryk said, she had to change 'everything in the chambers'.
    • This is how much of the magic in this setting works. For example, it doesn't matter how Miryem comes by it, but she manages to take three large amounts of silver and come back with equal amounts of gold. This gives her the power to transform silver into gold.
    • Irina asks nothing from Chernobog, only that he leave "me and mine alone." Because she is the tsarina, this means that he can't touch anyone in the country of Lithvas. That also includes her husband once he leaves his body, because her rights to him as his wife legally override his mother's contract.
  • Family of Choice: The Vitkus children—Wanda, Sergey, and Stepon—are basically adopted by the Mandelstams starting from when Wanda begins working in their house. Miryem's parents include her and Sergey in the family meals without even thinking of it and tell Stepon that he can stay under their roof so long as they have one to stay under. When Miryem's father arranges the tsarina's pardon for Gorek's death, Wanda, Sergey, and Stepon quickly decide they want the Mandlestams to live with them in the witch's hut, and that's what they end up doing.
  • The Fair Folk: The Staryk. Cold and unknowable, they steal gold and ruthlessly kill anyone who steals from them while raiding with impunity, and they can induce forgetfulness to such a degree that Miryem's parents barely remember her after she's taken away by the King. They also ascribe to a rigid Blue-and-Orange Morality that mortals have a difficult time comprehending, and they themselves are baffled by everyday mortal concepts like thanks.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: As in Uprooted, the nations involved are drawn from medieval Eastern European counterparts. Lithvas is Lithuania, mentions of the Khan in the east indicate that there's a counterpart to the Mongols, Mirnatius and one of the guards are descendents of the Tatars, and Miryem's community are Ashkenazi Jews.
  • The Farmer and the Viper: It's well-known that a wounded Staryk knight murdered the family who nursed him back to health, even at the cost of his own life. It's revealed to be Deliberate Values Dissonance: the Staryk are magically compelled to repay their debts, so saving one's life without negotiating a price is effectively claiming them as an eternal slave, a Fate Worse than Death to them.
  • The Fettered: The Staryk King, ultimately; it's just that his fetters operate on a totally different wavelength of morality than human ones. For example, he wants to use the nut from the snow-tree that the Vitkus siblings have to open a path back to his kingdom—but when they tell him that the tree was awakened when their siblings and mother were buried beneath it, he acknowledges that they have a greater right to it and doesn't take it by force.
  • First-Person Smartass: When we finally see inside Mirnatius’s head we see an incredibly cynical figure frustrated with most of those around him and thinking all the things he knows better than to say out loud.
  • Forced into Evil: Mirnatius was forced into villainy by a Deal with the Devil his mother made before he was even born, binding a demon into him that he has no way to keep from feeding as long as he lives.
  • Genre Savvy: Irina recognizes the similarity of being married to the tsar to Scheherazade's own marriage to a monstrous husband, but she doesn't want to beg nightly for her life over quite so long a period of time. (However, she does seem to forget that Scheherazade got herself married to the sultan as part of a deliberate plan.)
  • Good Is Not Nice: A mild variant with Miryem. She isn't a loan shark, only charging a fair amount of interest and giving people fair prices for whatever they offer to her as payment, but it's known that her grandfather is wealthy and powerful, and she has the ledgers to prove what she is owed. She's not above threatening to get the law involved if it means getting what she is owed, and has Gorek's daughter, Wanda, pay off his debts by working for her, first as a maid and then also as a debt collector. This turns out to be a blessing for Wanda.
  • Good Is Not Soft: Irina is extremely empathetic, caring even about dead squirrels, and would lay down her life for her people. Or, if she must, condemn the people of a different kingdom to genocide.
  • Good Parents: The Mandelstams. Both of them love their daughter very much and are deeply unhappy that Miryem feels driven to go out and collect the debts they're owed. They also treat Wanda, Sergey, and Stepon as though they were their own, welcoming Wanda and Sergey to the table when they're working as servants, and being the only people willing to shelter them after they kill their father in self-defense. In the end, the three of them wind up living with the Mandelstams in the cottage.
  • Good with Numbers: The reason Miryem's father became a moneylender is because he is technically quite good at math, so he was apprenticed to a moneylender as a young man—he just doesn't have the temperament to deal with the social aspects of the job, like actually collecting debts. Miryem suspects that what he really wanted to be was a rabbi, as a thoughtful and deeply caring man who knows the Torah very well, but he had too much difficulty reading to do so.
  • Graceful Loser: The Staryk King doesn't hold any rancor towards Miryem for tricking him into the mortal world and dooming him to the ravages of Chernobog. It's not different than what he was doing himself, and he's also come to think that he has criminally underestimated and undervalued her.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: Both sides are willing to commit genocide to save themselves from Chernobog; the Staryk and their king don't care if their Endless Winter kills humans because, as far as the king knows, they willingly made Chernobog their tsar. Irina opens a portal for Chernobog to the Staryk kingdom, because the Staryk have been starving her kingdom to death and this handles both problems—the Staryk will die, ending said winter, and she'll have enough time to trap and destroy Chernobog. She's more regretful than the Staryk king, mostly over the deaths of the children, but less willing to negotiate.
  • Guile Hero: All three of the protagonists. Miryem takes over her father's accountbooks and in the span of a winter brings her family out of poverty, then uses her wits to save herself from certain death at the hands of the Staryk. Irina realizes that she's been married to a literal demon, but manages to keep herself safe long enough to talk pragmatism and sense into him and makes a much better tsarina than he is tsar. Wanda, the uneducated peasant girl, squirrels away the money she and her brother are paid so that they can one day escape their abusive father, and learns how to do accounting so she can collect when Miryem is away.
  • Handshake Refusal: Miryem doesn't try shaking hands with Wanda the first time they make an agreement because she assumes Wanda will either refuse or not mean it because Miryem is Jewish and Wanda is Christian. Wanda, for her part, doesn't expect it because she's so poor and lowly compared to Miryem. Later, Miryem does impulsively stick her hand out when striking the deal that will let Wanda keep working for the Mandelstams until she's earned enough to leave Gorek, and Wanda, though shocked, returns the gesture sincerely.
  • Heroic Bystander:
    • The chambermaid in the Duke's manor dumps an ash-bucket onto Chernobog to finally extinguish him.
    • Earlier, despite the moment coming completely out of nowhere for him and involving forces many wouldn't mess with, one of the Duke's guards rallies several people to help bind the Staryk King.
  • Hidden Heart of Gold: Miryem is justifiably bitter towards the townspeople and is implacable with her debtors, for fear they'll go back to taking advantage of her. However, she treats Wanda well, teaches her on the job, and helps her and her brothers out when she realizes they're in need.
  • Hired Help as Family:
    • Irina's Old Retainer Magreta is also her Parental Substitute who raised her from infancy, since her father the Duke has little interest in her. They care deeply for each other and each risks her life to protect the other at some point.
    • Miryem's parents become protective of Wanda and her brothers and gradually take them into the home and provide other protection.
  • I Did What I Had to Do:
    • Miryem takes over collecting the townspeople's debts to try and save her mother from dying of illness brought on by malnutrition and a hard winter. It works, and she keeps at it (due to not wanting the progress the family made go to waste if she proves "weak" in front of debtors), despite both her parents trying to talk her out of it.
    • Irina takes no joy in the fact that her plan for saving the kingdom from an eternal winter means that all Staryk, including innocent children, will be devoured by Chernobog. Knowing that Mirnatius had no say in being bound to it, she is also not joyful at all when planning to out him as a witch and burning him at the stake.
  • I Gave My Word: The Staryk people honor contracts and deals above all else; once their word is given or a bargain struck, it must be upheld, even if neither party wants to. Miryem exploits this to get the Staryk King back into the mortal world because she promised to dance at her cousin's wedding, and he naturally regards this as a life-or-death matter.
  • I Have Your Wife: Mirnatius decides to threaten Irina through her nurse Magreta. Irina manages to delay through Reverse Psychology, and then hides her through the mirror.
  • I Just Want to Be Normal: Mirnatius never wanted the throne and loved his brother; he would have been happy living a life devoid of politics in which he could be an artist. Chernobog had other plans.
  • I Know Your True Name:
    • This is the cornerstone of binding magic. Staryk only give their names to those they trust the most. The book ends with Miryem learning of the Staryk Lord's name when he signs a wedding contract with her.
    • The Staryk are routinely shocked with how easily humans speak their names, especially when Miryem nicknames her Staryk servants just to have something to call them. At one point, the King tries to invoke this on her, and she has to tell him that mortals aren't actually subject to that kind of binding.
  • Impossible Task: The heart of how High Magic works in the Staryk world. Taking on a seemingly-impossible challenge and making it possible creates magic; by claiming the power to turn silver into gold and successfully proving it three times when challenged makes it a real magical gift. But to fail in such a task is death...
  • Incest-ant Admirer: Ilias to Mirnatius, much to the latter's annoyance. Mirnatius doesn't seem particularly bothered by the fact that Ilias is his male cousin, so much that if Ilias ever did manage to sneak into his bedroom, Chernobog would kill him, and covering up the death of a royal cousin would be harder to cover up than any of the commoners Chernobog usually kills.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: Miryem's mother develops a chest infection during a particularly lean and bitter winter. This is what drives Miryem to start collecting—the money she brings in pays for medical care, warmer clothes, home repairs, and a servant so that her mother can rest and recover. It's made quite clear that her mother was dying before Miryem started making her rounds, and this saved her.
  • Innocent Bigot: Wanda casually thinks of the Mandelstams as "servants of the Devil" and unsettles Mr. Mandelstam by asking if the song of prayer he sings is a magic spell, because that's what everyone else in town thinks of Jews. But as they treat her much better than anyone else in her life has, she soon sheds this belief, and later gets a sense of how difficult it is for them to live there when she visits the Jewish quarter of Visnya with the Mandelstams and feels acutely out-of-place.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Jerk:
    • Gorek, Wanda's father, can in many ways be described as the polar opposite of Miryem's father. Miryem's father would go hungry so his wife and daughter could eat and was happy to help his wife with women's work to make things easier for her; his only fault was that he was too kind to collect on the debts people owed him unless they desperately needed the money. Gorek is a domestic abuser who gambles away money he could use to feed his starving family, and would have pimped his daughter out to the village men had Miryem not unknowingly saved her by arranging for Wanda to work as a housemaid for her family to pay off his debts.
    • Much of the townsfolk are like this, coming up with any excuse to avoid paying Miryem's father the money they owe him even though he only comes to collect when his family desperately needs the money, and he only collects from those who visibly have the money to spare. They don't care about them when the family is close to starving (Miryem even notes she would not be sad to leave them for the Staryk king because they would have stood by and watched as she buried her mother and left her devastated father to be an unassuming quiet mouse in her grandfather's house, and that even if the Staryk king would freeze her, at least he doesn't play the good neighbour), and when Miryem starts to collect money, suddenly in their eyes the Mandelstam family is the picture of their "greedy Jew" stereotype. They also don't lift a finger to help Gorek's children even though they know how he treats them.
  • Jesus Taboo: The majority religion is never actually named as Christianity, nor the midwinter festival as Christmas, but the fact that it has the same relationship with Judaism that medieval Christianity did and Irina's references to the Holy Mother mean that it isn't anything else.
  • Kick the Son of a Bitch: The way that Gorek dies is really unpleasant—he accidentally trips and falls backward into the hearth, and tips a pot of boiling hot oats onto his face on the way down. But after everything he's done to Wanda and her brothers, it's hard to feel sorry for him.
  • Kissing Cousins: Ilias is in love with his cousin, Tsar Mirnatius. Mirnatius is well aware of this, but isn't interested.
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia: Everything related to the Staryks tend to fade from people's memory when the Staryks are not right there. After the King takes Miryem away to be his bride, Stepon outright forgets the Mandelstams have a daughter, in spite of her employing her siblings.
  • Lie Back and Think of England: Gender-flipped with the Staryk King, who feels duty-bound to take his new wife Miryem to bed even though both of them are disgusted by the prospect. He only stops when she trades her "rights" to his body for a different favour.
  • Lightning Bruiser: The Staryk King combines this with Authority Equals Asskicking thanks to his Super Strength and magical Healing Factor. In his first fight against Chernobog, he effortlessly dodges every blow and repeatedly punches his enemy across the room; in his second, he holds his own despite having recently been impaled.
  • Little "No": Several times over (along with some Big "NO!"'s) late in the book. Stepon characterizes it as the no you say when the person you were dealing with was going to do something so awful that the punishment for refusing them was less painful than if you stood by and let them do it. Such as standing by and watching Gorek beat Wanda to death, or Wanda refusing to let the Staryk King take Miryem because he couldn't do anything worse to her than take Miryem away.
  • Loophole Abuse: Miryem buys herself some time to think by telling the Staryk King that she must observe Shabbos, and if he wants her to do what he demands then he'll extend her deadline by that much. Miryem notes that you're not only allowed but required to break Shabbos to save a life, including your own, but since the Staryk king doesn't know that then she'll gain the time she can.
  • Love Epiphany: Wanda has a filial one when she's sheltered in the house of Miryem's grandfather, feeling useless and out-of-place among the family and their servants, and undeserving of the generosity she's been shown. Miryem's mother dispels such notions by pointing out not only all that Wanda did for them, but that in spite of life under the terror of Gorek, she and her brothers kept each other strong and didn't become like Gorek when they easily could have. It's the first time Wanda truly understands that she's being given unconditional love, and that it's what she feels herself towards the Mandelstams and the younger brothers she used to resent.
  • Love Revelation Epiphany: Magreta loves Irina like the child she never had but had never been sure it was returned because of Irina's quiet, almost stoic personality. It's not until Magreta is taken to the tsar's household as a hostage that she sees how frightened Irina is over Magreta's safety.
    "Oh, it was a strange way to be happy."
  • The Man Behind the Man: Irina as tsarina. When she learns that magic exists and that her husband gets away with whatever he wants with the help of a demon, she reminds him that unless he can snap his fingers and make money and goods this will do him little if there's a famine or he runs out of money. She also suggests that if his powers have a limited range he'll be just as vulnerable as anyone else to stray arrows on the battlefield. Once she's ensured her immediate safety, she sets about cleaning up the political mess caused by Mirnatius' neglectful rule, which has left the nobility a scant few inches away from revolt. Although he's as acerbic about it as he is about everything, Mirnatius doesn't interfere with any of the decisions she makes.
  • Marital Rape License: The concept of a spouse being entitled to the other's body is in force both in the human and the Staryk world. The Staryk king obviously does not want to do this and immediately takes Miryem's deal for questions in lieu of her "marital rights", but he doesn't mention his until she succeeds in her task—ironically, his newfound respect for her means she's less safe. She makes sure to specify that "no taking unwilling women" includes herself when she makes her second pact with him later on.
  • Marry for Love:
    • Miryem's mother did this, and willingly remains with her husband in poverty even though she could go back to her rich father's house any time she chose, because he is a good and kind man who just wound up in the wrong line of work.
    • The Duke of Visnya, Irina's father, loved his first wife—although Irina believes that he's annoyed by this fact, because it went counter to his usual practice of doing nothing without gaining something in return.
  • Maternal Death? Blame the Child!: At first, Wanda doesn't love her brothers in part because her mother was constantly pregnant, each birth sapping her (and most of the children dying in infancy) until she died, although it was the birth after Stepon's that proved fatal.
  • Meaningful Appearance: The Staryk King wears pure white clothes to match his hair and his power over winter. It's later revealed to be a sign of rank — the lower-class the Staryk, the darker grey they wear.
  • Mercy Kill: The Staryk King tells Miryem to do this when Chernobog is coming and it seems she will not be able to free him in time. She refuses.
  • Missing Mom: Farm girl Wanda and noblewoman Irina both lost their mothers to childbed. Irina's father the Duke remarried, and with two healthy young sons he pays little attention to a fairly plain daughter not likely to snare a useful marriage. Wanda's father... is worse.
  • Mother Makes You King: A rare case where the king in question doesn't want to be king. Mirnatius would've never become Tsar if not for his mother binding him to demon while he was still in her womb. The only problem with that is that it led to him being abused and forced to serve that demon every night, on top of it killing his father and half-brother, both of whom he truly loved.
  • Mundane Luxury: Wanda finds sharing her new employers' supper enough reason to be silently overjoyed when she overhears it would take four years before her father's debt is paid off.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: Wanda regards arithmetic on paper and exchanging lower coin denominations for higher ones to be a form of magic (for that matter, she is not that much less impressed by literacy), and is disbelieving when Miryem teaches her how to do it herself.
  • Mundanger: The threat of antisemitic violence is always present, sometimes with immediate danger or prejudice, but even when it isn't, Miryem and her family always have the possibility in the back of their minds. When the Staryk King first takes notice of Miryem, her mother is less afraid of the Staryk themselves than their human neighbors finding out that the Staryk are talking to them. She recalls how one Staryk raid years ago happened to skip a village with a high Jewish population, and now there are no more Jews in that village (with the implication being that their neighbors committed a pogrom afterwards). Miryem takes this warning more seriously than the strange and inhuman threat of the Staryk.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Miryem briefly has this reaction when she finds out that the gold is the key to stealing the spring from the world and that her transmutations have been extending the winter. She again has this reaction when she realizes that defeating the Staryk King could also mean that the innocent Staryk commoners could also become food for Chernobog. She has no guilt about the King or the other nobles who have been killing and raiding for gold, but she can't stand the idea of the children being punished.
  • Mystical White Hair: The Staryk have powerful magic, particularly related to winter, and pure white hair. One half-Staryk child inherited both the hair and a tiny bit of power, and his child got only a skunk streak.
  • Nice Guy: Miryem's father is this to a fault. He lent out his wife's sizable dowry and his kindness kept him from collecting on it when they needed it, and he'd only collect—without interest—when they were going to starve. His wife and daughter stay with him despite Miryem's grandfather being wealthy and willing to take them in because he treats them with nothing but love and respect.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: Three different cases of this leads to multiple days being saved!
    • Firstly, the Staryk King tasking Miryem with turning his silver into gold results in her having it turned into jewelry and sold. This jewelry winds up in the hands of Irina, and its magic allows her to use mirrors as portals to the Staryk's world. She's able to hide there from a demon her husband harbors which intends on devouring her life force.
    • Then, Gorek's drunken rage at Wanda's refusal to accept the marriage he arranged for her provokes her brother into action to save her. Gorek dies in the struggle. The two of them escape to the woods and hide in a cabin that turns out to be connected to the Staryk's realm as well, and some of the things they make and food they cook wind up in the other world's reflection of the cabin. This winds up saving Irina and her nanny when they're close to dying in the cold. They also are in the perfect place to find their younger brother and Miryem's parents when they're stranded in the woods.
    • And on top of all of this Irina winds up returning the favor to Miryem, as they meet up in the Staryk's realm and hatch a plan to save the world and get the demon to leave Irina alone by feeding it the Staryk Lord. Things don't work out as planned, but ultimately Chernobog is defeated and the Staryk Lord stops his raids on the human world.
  • Nice to the Waiter: Miryem is subdued about it at first, but shows care and kindness towards Wanda and Sergey when they come to work for her family, and wins their trust in turn. In the Staryk realm, she gives substantial gifts to her servants, both intentionally and unintentionally, and they grant her their Undying Loyalty.
  • Nobility Marries Money: The Duke of Vysnia's second marriage was to a rich widow who, likewise, bargained the total independence she could have had to raise her place in society. Their marriage appears to be an amiable and pragmatic one, with both being well-satisfied with the arrangement.
  • No Name Given: The Staryk King refuses to give his name even under torture because it has power not only over him, but over all his subjects.
  • Obstructive Code of Conduct: Part of the Staryks' general Blue-and-Orange Morality. For example, they cannot give or receive gifts, seeing them as devastating insults or signs of weakness (even the concept of "thanks" is disdainful to them), which means that when a Staryk is mortally wounded, they cannot accept the unbidden help of those around them without bartering first, choosing instead of kill their would-be helper and die in the process themselves, something we hear both from Miryem's recollection of a family who attempted to help a Staryk knight (only two children were left alive, and that was because they were hiding), as well as what happens when Sergey attempts to aid the Staryk King, who almost kills him until Miryem convinces the two to deal first.
  • Oh, Crap!: Oleg's reaction to realizing the gold he was about to steal was earmarked for the Staryk is not exactly a stoic one. This is fully justified, as their magic takes his life shortly afterwards.
  • Old Retainer: Magreta is Irina's nurse and lifelong Parental Substitute. As a new servant to Irina's father, she started tending to the infant Irina to make herself useful, but promptly fell in love with her. It's reciprocated; Irina goes to great personal lengths to keep Magreta safe, including defying Chernobog.
  • Our Elves Are Different: The Staryk are ice elves who live in a snowy other realm connected to-yet-apart from the "sunlit" mortal lands. They function via Exact Words and Orange And Blue Morality like most Fair Folk-style elves, but they also cannot leave their kingdom except in winter, and even then only their King and other high nobility can. They also melt when they're injured, have an aversion to heat, and can be healed with magic ice.
  • Out, Damned Spot!: After a guilt-ridden Irina returns from unleashing Chernobog on the Staryk, her nursemaid tries to help her wash her "filthy, bloody" hands, clearly invoking this trope.
  • Parental Abuse: Gorek hits his children whether they please him or displease him, when they speak up, and when they don't. The way the Mandelstams treat Miryem confuses Wanda and Stepon at first because it's utterly foreign to their experience of a parent.
  • Parental Neglect: The Duke has Irina occupy the highest, most remote rooms of his house after his second marriage produces two boys. With her looks unlikely to attract a useful husband, he treats her like a useless item that he's put in the attic.
  • Parental Substitute: Magreta gives Irina all the affection of a mother. Initially she started caring for Irina after her mother's death so the duke would see her as still useful enough to employ, but she quickly came to love Irina as though she was her own daughter.
  • Parents as People:
    • Irina's father, the Duke, is a fair ruler who focuses on the big picture and refuses to be courted into rebellion, but he views his daughter largely as a waste of resources because he can't give her a dowry and she's not beautiful enough to tempt any high-ranking lords into marrying without one. She muses that he can give his daughter to an unpleasant and difficult marriage because he put himself through unpleasant and difficult battles to attain his own position. When she demonstrates that she can play the game as well as he can, he expresses his approval of her, and she realizes that this affects her more than she expected.
    • Even the Mandelstams, who are Good Parents overall, are portrayed as flawed in allowing their family to fall into crippling poverty (which nearly kills Miryem's mother), rather than demand their neighbors repay them.
  • Poor Communication Kills: If the Staryk King had bothered to tell Miryem about the threat posed by Chernobog, she probably would have helped him develop an alternative strategy to deal with it, rather than rightfully treat him as an enemy for trying to trap the world in winter. But since Miryem had bargained for him to answer questions, he was loathe to give such information freely.
  • The Power of the Sun: Gold symbolizes the sun in the Staryk land, and the symbolism makes it real. The Staryk King hoards gold to steal summer from the human world, and Miryem uses gold coins to immolate Chernobog.
  • Pre-Asskicking One-Liner: From Miryem, "A friend tells me you aren't fond of the sun." Right before she transmutes every single silver coin coating Chernobog's molten body into gold at once, reducing him to a cinder and forcing him to flee the Staryk mountain.
  • Protagonist Journey to Villain: Miryem's mother fears this when Miryem takes up the debt collection. She and her husband worry that they'll watch Miryem become cold and ruthless, but they can't talk her out of it because Miryem's efforts work. Miryem, for her part, feels no moral qualms about collecting from their bigoted neighbors even if it means accepting payment in prized heirlooms, but she always makes sure to deal fairly and never cheats them the way they've cheated the Mandelstams over the years.
  • Rape, Pillage, and Burn:
    • Magreta, Irina's nurse, narrowly avoided this as a younger woman when the present duke seized his seat—the former duchess locked the women of her household in a basement chamber for their protection. By the time they were found, the soldiers were too tired from battle to do anything but bring them to the duke. He instructed that they be let alone, because "we don't always need to be brutal."
    • Staryk knights have always done this minus the "burn" part; Irina has Staryk blood because her grandmother was raped by a raiding Staryk knight. Miryem puts a stop to this by making a new pact with the Staryk king that they will only kill in defense of their own lands, not raid for gold, and only take willing women.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure:
    • For all his faults as a parent, the Duke of Vysnia is an intelligent and practical man who refuses to start a civil war from ambition and treats the Jewish population of Vysnia with respect rather than discrimination—in fact he respects Miryem's grandfather more for refusing to convert just to get a more comfortable position in society.
    • Miryem's grandfather is a successful banker and the unofficial leader of the Jewish community in Visyna. He combines affection for his family with a healthy sense of practicality (although he'd welcome his daughter back if she chose, he doesn't send money because he knows his son-in-law will soon lose it). When Miryem starts collecting, she goes to him for advice first, and she opens up to him about her problems with the Staryk because she knows he won't panic like her parents would. When she feels guilt over binding the Staryk King, her grandfather lays out her options and what she would risk by trying to free him, but leaves the decision up to her without pushing her down one path or the other.
  • Reluctant Ruler: It becomes clear over the course of the book that Mirnatius is far more interested in beauty than anything resembling statecraft. He did not want the job, nor did he want his half-brother to die, but Chernobog had different ideas.
  • Rescue Romance: It's implied that Mirnatius falls in love with Irina after she tricks Chernobog into leaving him.
  • Riches to Rags: Miryem's mother came from a very wealthy family of Jewish moneylenders. This gets subverted a few chapters in when Miryem takes over collecting the debts her father is owed and they quickly increase their wealth.
  • Rags to Riches:
    • In less than four chapters, Miryem's family has gone from dirt poor to living comfortably thanks to her way with numbers and desire to care for her sickly mother.
    • Then Miryem completes the Staryk Lord's tasks and goes from wealthy commoner to queen. The book ends this way as she's fallen in love with him for real.
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something:
    • The duke won his position through battle and still trains his men daily to be prepared against threats from abroad and from the Staryk.
    • Irina, once she becomes tsarina, sets to work immediately both on the demon problem and the political problems of Lithvas, knowing that the country is a few bad decisions away from civil war. She notes that technically her job is just to produce a tsarevitch, but very few tsarinas actually confine themselves just to that.
    • The Staryk King rides out personally to deal with thieves, conduct raids, and make deals with mortal girls to get gold. After Chernobog's defeat, he also rolls up his sleeves both to act as a healer and to do reconstruction work on the mountain.
  • Rule of Three: "A power claimed and challenged and thrice carried out is true". Miryem claims that she can turn silver into gold, then three times accepts silver coins from the Staryk and trades them up to gold, which grants her the power to literally transmute silver into gold in the Land of Faerie.
  • Saved to Enslave: Since the Staryk are compelled to repay all debts, to save one's life without first setting a price is to claim them as an eternal slave... not that most humans know this. This causes some confusion when humans try to rescue wounded Staryk, who would rather defy the trope at the cost of their own lives.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: Oleg's son and successor Algis abandons Miryem's parents, Wanda, and her brothers in the woods due to Wanda and Sergey being wanted for murder and the threat of the nearby snowstorm and Staryk. He doesn't quite cross into Ungrateful Bastard territory due to the later reveal that he went home quietly and didn't betray them to the villagers.
  • Secret Underground Passage: When the present Duke of Visnya conquered the city years ago, he quietly had a tunnel built out of the Jewish quarter to serve as an escape route as insurance against a day when he was no longer Duke. Miryem's grandfather guessed that it was there and prepared it as his own insurance again a day when the populace turned against their Jewish neighbors; it's utterly dark, but Stars of David are carved into the walls as a guide. Its existence is known only to Miryem's grandfather and the father and son he pays to secretly maintain it. The Duke uses it instead to seal away the Staryk King.
  • Shout-Out: Irina reads a book from her father's study about a sultan and a storyteller.
  • Silver Has Mystic Powers:
    • Staryk silver coins are imbued with their magic, so jewelery forged from them gives the wearer a powerful Glamour.
    • The Staryk King can only be bound by a silver chain.
  • The Snark Knight: Any passage narrated by Mirnatius is dripping with condescension, sarcasm, and asperity, frequently referring to his 'beloved tsarina' and his 'beloved master' Chernobog, and with no small amount of withering disdain for his own situation.
  • So Beautiful, It's a Curse: Wanda becomes uncomfortably aware of her physical attributes the first time her father rejects an offer for her hand and does what she can to make herself appear more plain, but she can't stop her figure from filling out or her hair from being thick and yellow. It's pure luck that leads her to get a job in Miryem's house before he starts pimping her out in the market.
  • So Proud of You: Irina's father has ignored her for most of her life. He finally tells her that he is proud of her when she shows she can play the game as well as he can.
  • Spy Speak: This is how the Duke speaks to other nobles who are testing his support for a rebellion—he'll reply by mentioning how merchants from Svetia complain about the tariffs (indicating that Svetia's ruler would be happy to raid the northern ports) or that the Khan's son sacked a city to the east, reminding the people courting him that there are a great many external threats that would happily fall on a kingdom in civil war.
  • Strong Family Resemblance: Irina notes that all of the men from Mirnatius' father's side look like burly woodsmen stuffed into court finery, further emphasizing that his Pretty Boy appearance is not natural.
  • Super Strength: The Staryk can handle great chests of silver and gold without effort, although Miryem's servants are still quite taxed after two days straight of emptying out a huge vault of it.
  • Thin Dimensional Barrier: The witch's hut is built in both the mortal and Staryk worlds; people in one world aren't visible in the other, but changes to the hut or its contents are mirrored in both. This becomes crucial to let the Staryk King reenter his kingdom during spring, when it would be impossible.
  • Third-Party Deal Breaker: The climax has a heroic version when Irina breaks the demonic pact that keeps her husband Trapped in Villainy. His mother sold him into the pact, but Irina argues that a wife's claim to her husband supersedes a mother's claim to her son.
  • Transmutation: Miryem completes the Staryk King's challenge to "turn silver into gold" by trading the silver up to an equal quantity of gold. This gives her the power to literally transmute silver into gold while she's in the Staryk realm, even though she's an otherwise non-magical human.
  • Trapped in Villainy: Mirnatius does what he does because Chernobog will devour him otherwise. Irina feels deeply sad for him when she realizes he would have been much happier illuminating manuscripts in a monastery, and ultimately frees him from Chernobog's service.
  • Uncanny Valleyinvoked: In-universe, the Staryk look almost normal until people look closely and realize just how inhuman they are, which Miryem finds much more terrible than an obvious monster would have been.
  • Uneven Hybrid: Irina has one Staryk ancestor, whose magic attenuated with each generation until she was left with only mild Supernatural Sensitivity. However, the Staryk silver jewelry amplifies that remnant enough to let her travel to and from the Staryk world.
  • Unwanted Spouse: Miryem and the Staryk King become this to each other, thanks to the Staryk's Blue-and-Orange Morality — her completion of an Impossible Task demands no lesser reward than the King's hand, never mind that they despise each other. Zig-zagged at the end, when they choose to be married again in a human ceremony.
  • The Unreveal: Miryem finally learns the Staryk King's name when he converts to Judaism and signs it on their wedding contract. But she cheekily informs the readers that she's not going to tell you.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Miryem is an inversion of this for Wanda, as her demand that Wanda work off her father's debt prevents him from marrying her off for a dowry, and they provide her with dinner free of charge, unaware that she usually goes hungry at home. However, when Miryem finds out that Wanda's father was beating her and that Wanda had hidden her raise from him in order to try and save up enough to escape, Miryem is aghast at how easily it all could have fallen apart if Gorek had complained to her and Miryem had fired back.
  • "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Irina doesn't realize that she only ever wanted her father to be proud of her because she knew from an early age that he never would be. It's not until he becomes proud of her for her clever plan to deal with Chernobog and the Staryk, and she's deeply moved.
  • Wham Episode: Chapter 10. The marriage chapter in which Miryem is taken to the Staryk lands, Wanda's father dies, and we learn that the tsar is harboring a demon that wants to devour Irina.
  • Wham Line: "The Staryk have never stood in the way of spring. It would be well to know: why?"
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Played with. The Staryk King is more of an Anti-Villain, sacrificing humanity to save his people from Chernobog, but Miryem calls him out on how even that justification is flimsy at best as nobody knew that Mirnatius was harboring a demon when they crowned him king, and would have burnt him at the stake if they'd known. Unbeknownst to either of them, Mirnatius has no say in harboring a demon or becoming king, but Chernobog went ahead and killed his family against his wishes. She also reminds him how the Staryk were pillaging human villages well before Chernobog came to power. He ultimately admits she was right and enters a contract to stop their pillaging if Chernobog is defeated.
  • Winter Royal Lady:
    • Irina becomes this thanks to the jewelry made of Staryk silver. Others looking at her describe her pieces as having "winter around her throat" or on her brow, and her own clothing (unless Mirnatius fancies it up) is usually in shades of grey or blue.
    • Miryem is mistaken for one when she turns up at Basia's wedding in the full regalia of a Staryk queen. She feels absurd and uncomfortable in garb that was designed for someone who is made out of ice.
  • Would Not Hurt A Child: The knowledge that there are Staryk children is what drives Miryem to defeat Chernobog.
  • Work Off the Debt: Wanda enters the story when Miryem, unable to get any sort of material payment plan from her father Gorek, sees her and demands she work for her family with her wage applied to the six kopek debt. When Wanda realizes the job is protecting her from her father's abuse and an Arranged Marriage, she purposely draws out her term of service.
  • World's Most Beautiful Woman: Irina looks like this to all without magic when she wears the jewelry forged from the Staryk silver.
  • Worthy Opponent: The Staryk King is not displeased at all when he realizes Miryem had her servants practically empty the third vault. Instead, this trick is what finally makes him respect her and he agrees to escort her to her cousin's wedding with aplomb. Then, when she and Irina succeed in their plan to bind him and allow Chernobog to feed on him, he bows to her, because they're doing to him what he had been doing to them, and have defeated him fair and square.
  • Your Normal Is Our Taboo: With how closely the Staryk guard their names, the Staryk King is honestly taken aback that Miryem's grandfather, who's human and can't be magically bound in the same way, calmly introduces himself while inviting the King inside.

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