The Crown's Game (The Crown's Game #1)(10)


by Evelyn Skye

“Of course. But one piece of advice,” Nikolai said as he glanced again at Pasha’s too-shiny shoes. “If you’re going to sneak out, you’ll need better disguises. For one, your boots. And . . . well, to be honest, everything you’re wearing is much too nice. Even the holes in your trousers are symmetrical. I could help, though. I know a thing or two about clothing. . . .”

They had been best friends ever since.

Now, on Ovchinin Island, Nikolai sensed his friend’s same fatigue with the pomp and protocol of court life.

Pasha sighed. “Oh, I don’t care what we hunt. Grouse, pheasants . . . Pick one and set the hounds off into the woods with the rest of them.” He gestured a gloved hand at the preening noblemen and horses behind him. “Then you and I can go off in search of adventure.”

Nikolai laughed. Pasha only participated in half the hunts that were organized for him. The other half he spent wandering through unexplored forests, skipping rocks in rivers, and dozing to the music of rustling leaves. For Pasha’s sake, Nikolai hoped the tsar lived forever. Pasha would wilt if he were ever locked behind the Winter Palace’s doors, forced to actually live like the royal he was born to be.

“Hey-o!” Nikolai called behind him to Anatoly Golubin, son of one of the visiting barons from Moscow. “His Highness has decided we hunt for grouse today. He wishes your party to head for the north, while we shall head to the east. You can take the hounds.”

Anatoly grunted unhappily from his horse. But the men bowed as Pasha dug his heels into his horse and took off toward the eastern woods. Nikolai followed.

They slowed the pace of their horses as they entered the woods, but soon the forest floor grew so dense with greenery and fallen trees that they had to dismount entirely. They secured their horses to a couple of sturdy maples and pushed forward on foot.

“Any idea where we’re going?” Nikolai asked as he walked around a log in his path.

“None whatsoever,” Pasha said. He made a show of balancing on the log Nikolai had sidestepped, then hurdled over a boulder.

Nikolai clapped in mock applause.

Pasha laughed. “You’re just jealous that you weren’t born as graceful as I.”

“Oh, you want a demonstration of grace?” Nikolai hopped onto a jagged rock and leaped onto another, landing on one foot. Then he slipped off the mossy face of the rock and nearly twisted his ankle in the gravel.

Pasha hooted. Nikolai grimaced. Perhaps the Romanovs really were blessed with more grace. Or at the very least better balance.

“Don’t pout, Nikolai. You can’t be the best at everything.” Pasha grinned as he pulled Nikolai off the ground.

I’m not, Nikolai thought. Far from it.

But it was impossible to sulk as they continued through the forest, which, like many that dotted the Russian countryside, was full of slender white birches with delicate leaves that glittered yellow in the autumnal sun. A creek burbled through the grass, and Nikolai was again struck by what a marvelous decision coming to Ovchinin Island had turned out to be.

A pheasant shot out of the bushes and into the air behind them. Nikolai’s gun wasn’t loaded, but he snatched a pebble from the ground and hurled it at the pheasant. It dropped out of the sky as if it had been hit by a bullet.

Pasha jogged over. “Did you just do what I think you did?”

“Er . . . yes?”

“Incroyable,” Pasha breathed. “And you say you aren’t good at everything. There are moments when I wonder if you aren’t entirely human.”

Nikolai flinched, although the comment shouldn’t have bothered him, for he hadn’t used any magic to hit the pheasant.

“I wish I could be you sometimes,” Pasha said.

“No, trust me, you don’t.” Nikolai climbed through the shrubs, retrieved the bird, and stuffed it into a sack.

“I do, but I won’t argue with you.” Pasha inhaled deeply, then sank down onto a patch of dry moss, closed his eyes, and leaned his head back against a nearby log. “How glad I am to be out of the palace. I think when I inherit the throne, I shall abdicate immediately.”

Nikolai perched on the log next to him. “You’d do no such thing, and you know it.”

“Ah, but I can dream.” Pasha opened his eyes. “The pressure is not only from my father these days. It’s also my mother. She thinks it urgent that they find me a wife.”

“I know more than a few who are willing.” Nikolai nudged the prince with his boot. Every girl in the Russian Empire would sell her soul to be the tsesarevich’s Cinderella.

Pasha responded by yanking Nikolai’s boot straight off his foot.

“Hey!”

Pasha laughed and hurled the boot into the shrubbery. “You know I want more from a wife than a girl fawning at my feet.”

“Well, all I want is a boot to cover my feet.” Nikolai hobbled through the grass and rocks in the direction his shoe had disappeared.

Then the peace of the morning was shattered by a crash of thunder. It was so violent, it shook the leaves on the birches and vibrated through the ground. Nikolai and Pasha both leaped up.

Nikolai lurched through the bushes, struggling to pull on his boot while squinting at the sky. It was still bright blue, save for a black cloud above the easternmost side of the forest. A sharp bolt of lightning split the azure, and for a moment, Nikolai wondered whether it could ever be pieced back together again.

“We need to take cover,” he yelled over the next crack of thunder.

Another bolt of lightning flashed, and this one struck a tree in the distance, black smoke instantly feathering into the sky. Then, in a brief period of quiet, a girl’s scream carried from the east with the wind. Nikolai leaned in the direction from which it came. It did not sound like a call for help. It sounded like . . . a battle cry.

No sooner had her scream left the air than thunder and lightning stormed down in rapid succession. There was no rain, though, only fire, bursting from the lightning to the trees until the sky to the east was obscured by orange and yellow and black.

“The girl! We have to help her!” Pasha said.

“Stay here. I’ll go.” He couldn’t let Pasha run straight into the center of a storm like that. What if something happened to him?

But Pasha was already running deeper into the woods.

“Damn it.” Nikolai chased after him. But his boot was unlaced, and he tripped in a puddle of mud. Pasha hurtled onward and disappeared between the trees.

Eleonora Bianchi | Gerald McRaney | Descargar