The Crown's Game (The Crown's Game #1)(11)

by Evelyn Skye

Nikolai glared at his laces, and they whipped into action and secured themselves in a double knot. Then he sprinted as fast as he could, weaving through bushes and leaping over fallen trees, pushing deeper into ash-thick air with every stride.

By the time he caught up, Pasha was already at a standstill, not a hundred feet from the edge of the flames.

“What is this?” Pasha pointed at the ring of blazing fallen trees before them, a perfect circle.

“I don’t know,” Nikolai said. But there was no way this could have been an accident of nature. He spun around, searching. Something had done this on purpose. Someone. He could feel the otherness weighing on the air, thick and heavy. And again, that taste of cinnamon tinged with the portent of death. Nikolai swiped at his mouth as if that would obliterate the taste and foreboding.

The pile of fiery tree trunks began to move, lifting from the center. He and Pasha both staggered back and drew their hunting knives, and Nikolai positioned himself between Pasha and the inferno. He would not lose the future tsar of the Russian Empire without a fight, although what he was fighting, he hadn’t a clue.

The fire grew hotter and burned at such reckless speed, the branches in the middle of the pile collapsed to embers the instant a flame licked them.

Then, as the blaze devoured the remaining length of the trees, lashing its way out to the edge of the circle, a small figure rose from the center, itself engulfed in flames.

“You see, Father,” a girl’s voice said calmly, almost cheerfully, “I told you I’d master it today. Fight fire with fire, not water or ice.” Then she whistled a short tune, and the fire on her arms, her torso, her skirt, snuffed out. The only flames left were on top of her head, a wind-tossed mess of loose red curls, and one lock of black. She whistled again, and the fire on the fallen trees went out as well.

Pasha stepped backward onto a leaf. It crunched, ever so softly, but the girl whirled around. “Who’s there?”

Nikolai and Pasha stood frozen, and not just metaphorically. She had iced their feet to the ground.

“Who are you?” Pasha whispered as he gaped at the cinder-smudged girl.

She stared at them for another moment. Then she spun on her heel and fled, a streak of red hair and gray dress dashing into the woods and disappearing into its shadowed depths.

But Nikolai didn’t need her to tell them who she was. He already knew. He had never seen the girl before, but she had to be the one.

The other enchanter in the Game.


The tsar’s message came to Sergei as the lightning storm in the forest ended. The note, on imperial stationery, was brief but clear:

Bring your enchanter to Bolshebnoie Duplo on 13 October.

The Crown’s Game will then commence.

What? The Crown’s Game? Sergei sagged onto the threshold of the cottage. It couldn’t be. All this time, he’d assumed Vika was the only enchanter. He’d sent word to Galina when he discovered Vika’s abilities, but she’d never informed him that she had an enchanter in her tutelage as well. He clenched his fists. So typical of his sister!

His anger was short-lived, though, for he did not have the energy to devote to it. Besides, what could be done about it now?

Because Galina had kept from Sergei that she, too, had a student, there’d been no reason for Sergei to think another enchanter existed. It was the way it was supposed to be—when the Imperial Enchanter died, his or her magic returned to Russia’s wellspring, and there it recharged and eventually sought out another vessel in which to grow. It was rare that more than a single enchanter existed at once. As far as Sergei knew, it had happened only a handful of times in the thousand years since Russia was born. And he’d immersed himself so completely in the small sphere of his and Vika’s life here on Ovchinin Island that he hadn’t paid attention to whether another enchanter’s “otherness” lingered in Russia’s air.

But now my Vikochka is not just one, but one of two, Sergei thought. And he knew how the Game always ended: there was only room enough for one Imperial Enchanter, for he or she needed access to the full force of Russia’s magic. And therefore, the magic killed the loser of the Game.

Sergei sat paralyzed, his trousers covered in dirt. How can this be? Especially when I thought I still had two years to train her, to spend with her. Now I have only three days. . . .

And worse yet, how could he tell Vika, when he could hardly handle the truth himself?

He needed time to think. He looked to where the lightning storm had just abated. And he hiked into the woods in the opposite direction.


Nikolai stumbled into the kitchen at the Zakrevsky house immediately upon returning from Ovchinin Island. His eyes searched the room, but there was no one around. Perhaps Galina had decided to lunch at a restaurant with some of her society friends, as she often did, and the staff had been able to take a break. Thank goodness for all his mentor’s ridiculous obligations.

Nikolai fumbled for a glass of water and drank it greedily. A good portion of its contents sloshed onto his woolen breeches. He filled another glass and gulped that down, too, before he dropped into the lone wooden chair in the corner.

A few minutes later, a servant girl walked into the kitchen with an armful of freshly laundered aprons. She started when she saw Nikolai and nearly dropped the aprons on the dusty stone floor. Then she tossed them onto the countertop and hurried to kneel at his side. “Nikolai, you’re shaking! Are you all right? Did something happen on the hunt?”

Nikolai rubbed his face with both hands. He could tell Renata what he’d seen. Besides Galina, Renata was the only one who knew of his abilities. Not that he’d shared them with her purposely. Two years ago, he had forgotten to lock his bedroom door while he was reassembling a music box with his mind—these disassembly and rebuilding projects had begun when he was a child as lessons from Galina—and Renata had walked in with clean linens for his bed while the music box’s cranks and gears were suspended in midair.

“Oh!” she had said. “Forgive me, Master Nikolai, I—I—”

The pieces of the music box had gone clattering onto the desk. He’d snatched them up and stuffed them into the pocket of his waistcoat. “It’s not what it seems.”

She looked down at the scuffed toes of her boots. “That they were floating of their own accord? Of course not, Master Nikolai.”

“I could make you forget what you saw.” He raised a finger to his temple.

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