The Crown's Game (The Crown's Game #1)(12)


by Evelyn Skye

She trembled. “No need, sir. I promise I won’t tell a soul.”

“How can I trust you?”

“I read tea leaves, Master Nikolai. I don’t fear what you do.”

Nikolai lowered his finger. “You read leaves?” He’d never met anyone who could do that. Or anyone who’d admit to it. The Russian Orthodox Church had quashed magic as superstition and heresy centuries ago.

“Yes,” Renata said.

“Show me.”

He followed her to the kitchen, and Renata poured him a cup of tea. When he drained it, she studied the gnarled black leaves that remained.

Then she shook her head so violently, her braids lashed across her face. “Perhaps it would be better if you made me forget what I saw in your room, sir.”

Nikolai frowned, then looked from the teacup to Renata and back again. “No. There’s something in those leaves that you’re frightened to relay. Tell me. I won’t hold it against you.”

She swallowed hard.

“I give you my word.” Which, to Nikolai, was a serious thing, because if your word could not be trusted, you were nothing as a gentleman, and that was its own dreadful shame.

Renata nodded. But she took another moment before she spoke, her voice shaky. “You see there is a cluster of leaves on the left, but a single one, isolated, on the right? It means . . . It means you’re lonely.” She hunched over the cup, as if waiting for Nikolai to cuff her. She had been hit on numerous occasions by Galina, for much lesser offenses.

But Nikolai only chewed his lip. “I see.” It was an audacious thing for a servant girl to say, but it was nothing particularly remarkable. Any one of the servants could have made a similar observation; after all, Nikolai spent an inordinate amount of time in his room on his own, doing what, they did not know. “What about the jagged leaf along the bottom?” he asked.

Renata’s eyes widened, and she shook her head, jangling her braids yet again.

“Tell me.”

Nikolai restrained himself from reassuring her not to be afraid. He needed to know what the leaf meant.

“The jagged one represents . . . death. You were born of death, and . . .”

“And what?”

“And death will . . . it will follow you, always. The bottom leaf is the path of your life, and this one is a long and jagged blade.”

Nikolai had shuddered then, and he’d felt as if his heart stopped for more than several beats. But he had been grateful that she was willing to tell him, despite her fear of reprisal. Perhaps the fact that beneath the elegant clothing and practiced airs he was a poor boy from nowhere gave her a reason to have faith in him. In truth, he was as much a nobody as she was. Nikolai had smiled sadly at how clumsily he fit into this life.

So began their friendship, and now they were huddled together in the kitchen once again, as they had been many times in the past.

“Nikolai.” Renata pried his hands from his face. “Tell me. Did something happen on the hunt? Is the tsesarevich all right?”

Nikolai hunched forward, so close to Renata that his head almost rested on hers. “Pasha is fine.”

She released the breath she’d been holding. “And you? Are you all right?”

“That, I do not know.”

“Why not? What happened?”

“I saw her, Renata. I know who the other enchanter is.” A tremor ran through him, although it was disconcertingly hot rather than cold. A true fever chill.

“Is she so formidable?”

“She rose from a bonfire all aflame, as if she were a phoenix.”

Renata’s grip on his hand tightened. “You’re as pale as one of the countess’s porcelain figurines.”

Nikolai slumped farther into the hard wooden chair. How in blazes would he beat the girl when the day for the Game finally came? The girl need only cast one fiery lightning storm like the one on Ovchinin Island, and the tsar would declare it all over.

“Her magic is enchantment beyond my grasp,” he said.

“It isn’t,” Renata said. “You wield fearsome power of another kind. You can see through walls, remember?”

“It’s not the same.”

Renata shook him. “Precisely. Perhaps her power is elemental because she lives on that island. But yours is commanding in a cosmopolitan way. You can manipulate an entire orchestra at the opera, instruments and all. You can rearrange the insides of a clock to make it a microscope. You’ve simply learned to use magic differently.”

Nikolai buried his face in his hands. “I hope you’re right.”

“I hope so, too.” Renata reached up and brushed her fingers through his hair. She had never been so bold before, and Nikolai did not know what to do with the gesture. She let her touch linger, then withdrew her hand and lowered her voice. “And I hope this is not where the jagged leaf in your cup comes to pass.”

CHAPTER NINE

In the library on the far side of the Winter Palace, Pasha paced in front of a leather armchair, his footsteps so fervent, there was already a deep path carved in the burgundy carpet.

“Who was she?” he asked himself aloud. “What was she? Was she even real?” The girl on Ovchinin Island had fled as soon as she spotted Pasha and Nikolai, and the ice at their feet had melted instantly the moment she was gone. Then Nikolai had grabbed Pasha’s arm and rushed them from the woods.

The rest of the hunting party had somehow not seen the lightning storm and fire. It was as if a drape of invisibility had been tossed over the small section of forest in which the flames were contained, and Pasha and Nikolai had happened to be close enough to be inside its folds.

And yet, Nikolai had refused to talk about it. At first, Pasha thought he’d imagined the girl entirely. But all the color had drained from Nikolai’s face—which was how Pasha knew that Nikolai had, in fact, witnessed the same miracle he had—and Nikolai hadn’t uttered a syllable as they sprinted to their horses and galloped out of the forest. Then, once it became apparent that the remainder of the hunting party had seen nothing out of the ordinary, Pasha had been prevented from speaking up, because if he had, they would think he was prone to hallucinations, and that was not an acceptable reputation for a tsesarevich, even one who had no desire to one day be tsar.

Which was how Pasha ended up pacing alone in the palace library, working out the morning’s events on his own. “There was lightning, a ring of fallen trees on fire. . . .”

The Code (AU) | Creed II (2018) | Pays de A à Z