The Crown's Game (The Crown's Game #1)(16)

by Evelyn Skye

So a translucent haze surrounded Vika, shifting her appearance to whatever the onlooker expected to see. To the innkeeper at Oredezh, who had assumed the woman accompanying Sergei was his wife, she had looked like a middle-aged woman, with country clothes and rough features to match her husband. To the stable boy who saddled their horses, she had seemed to be a young man, an obedient son to a grumbling father. And to herself, when she had passed by a lake reflecting her image, she had appeared wild and feral, her outside as out of control as her inside. Or perhaps this was how she’d actually looked.

Her father, on the other hand, looked the same as ever, although the bags under his eyes were darker and more pronounced. He had refused to allow Vika to use her own strength to maintain the shroud, insisting she needed to preserve it for the Game. Thus, Sergei had been maintaining the field of energy around her for three days, which was a prodigious stress that pushed the very limits of his abilities. In the privacy of their room at the inn last night, Vika had finally forced him to let go of the shroud so he could get some rest. Only then had he relented. But he’d reinstated the shroud as soon as he’d woken that morning.

Now the oath drew near. What would her opponent see of her appearance? Did he or she have a similar shroud? And if so, what would Vika see?

An hour before the ceremony, a pale yellow carriage appeared on the horizon. It didn’t bounce on the rocky soil leading up to Tikho Mountain, nor did it make any noise. As the carriage came closer, Vika noticed that its wheels didn’t actually touch the ground, although the hooves of the horses did. There was no coachman.

The horses slowed to a walk, and the carriage came to a stop. A series of steps unfolded with a flutter, like an accordion made of paper. Would they be sturdy enough to hold the weight of the occupants as they emerged?

The door cracked open, and a dainty heeled boot issued forth. Like the carriage wheels, its owner did not feel the need to acknowledge gravity. She hovered above the paper steps and floated down. Even then, her feet did not meet the ground.

Vika screwed up her face. She could levitate, too, of course, but it had never occurred to her to do it all the time. It seemed rather vain. Or arrogant. Actually, both.

Upon catching sight of Sergei, the woman tilted her head, keeping her tiny hat perfectly perched on her chestnut curls. She lifted the hem of her voluminous dress and curtsied, albeit somewhat mockingly. “Bonjour, mon frère,” she said. “I would say you haven’t aged a day in the two and a half decades since I’ve seen you, but that would be a blatant lie, so I won’t. You may say that of me, though, if you’d like.”

Sergei stood with his arms folded across his chest, both feet firmly planted in the dirt. “Hello, Galina. You are, indeed, the same as ever, if not in looks, then at least in manner.”

Behind Galina, a boy stepped out of the carriage. He had no real color, and, come to think of it, no real substance either. He was a shadow, but without a solid person to follow around. The boy did touch his shoes to the paper stairs as he descended, but since he was a mere silhouette, his weight hardly mattered. Remarkable. Vika could not tear her gaze from him.

He turned to Sergei first, removed his top hat, and bowed. Sergei grunted but bowed back, unable to justify rudeness to a boy he’d never before met. The shadow then pivoted to Vika and bowed to her as well.

She curtsied, but since he had no facial features, she couldn’t tell whether he saw her curtsy through the shroud.

“Enchanter One,” Sergei said to Vika, “meet Enchanter Two.”

Galina clucked. “On the contrary. Mine is Enchanter One. Yours is Enchanter Two.”

“Absolutely not. My daughter is One.”

“Ah, but I am older than you, little brother, and I believe seniority merits my side being Enchanter One.”

“Well, I—”

“This is ridiculous,” Vika said. “I’ll be Two, and he can be One.” She pointed at the shadow boy. “What does it matter anyway?”

Galina grinned, baring her teeth. “Enchanter One gets the first move.”

Vika scowled. “I know that. I simply meant it doesn’t matter to me if I go first or not.”

Galina frowned at Vika as if the girl were a pebble in her shoe. An inconsequential pebble, given that Galina’s feet didn’t even touch the ground. “A bit of ego on your student, eh, brother?”

No wonder Father doesn’t like her. If I think highly of myself, it’s because it’s well deserved. Vika took a step toward Galina to say as much but stubbed the toe of her boot on a rock and tumbled forward.

The shadow boy caught her by the arm, his grip on her sleeve gentle but firm.

The instant he touched her, his shadow flickered, and his real self flashed through. Vika sucked in a breath.

Oh, mercy, he was handsome, all ebony hair and ink-black eyes and a face so precisely chiseled, Vika could almost picture the blade that had created him. And the sparks that danced through his magic! Goose bumps rose where his hand held her, even though there was a glove and a sleeve between them. Everything inside Vika quivered.

Half a second later, he released her arm, and he was shadow once again.

Vika blinked. Did I imagine him? she wondered, even as she still buzzed from his touch.

But no, he’d been too beautiful. Even Vika’s vivid imagination wouldn’t have been able to come up with that.

“Are you all right?” the boy asked her.

She couldn’t find the correct words—which was, in itself, a miracle, for Vika was rarely without something to say—so she merely nodded.

The boy bowed and stepped back to his original place near Galina. It was as if he didn’t realize what had happened when he and Vika touched. In fact, his retreat was so proper, it appeared to be more about decorum—not keeping his hand on Vika any longer than appropriate, ensuring she was uninjured—than about fear or competition.

Galina sniffed in Sergei’s direction. “I don’t see how you expect her to win if she can’t even keep herself upright.”

Sergei glared. “It’s a marvel your student has such impeccable manners, given his teacher’s complete lack thereof.”

Galina shrugged.

They hadn’t noticed the momentary falter in the shadow boy’s facade. Or in Vika’s composure.

In the distance, the rumble of hooves and carriage wheels announced the tsar’s arrival. The ground shook as he approached. He was preceded, flanked, and trailed by dozens of his Guard.

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