The Crown's Game (The Crown's Game #1)(6)


by Evelyn Skye

And so Nikolai began the painstaking sorting. The first book was a Russian dictionary; the books on the shelf behind it were all labeled with the same classification number. You may slide back. It obeyed and slotted itself neatly in place. The next several books were similarly in their corresponding spaces. Apparently, they had just been taken off the shelves to be perused, but the patrons had put them back correctly.

After forty-five minutes, though, Nikolai had not found a single misplaced book. He rubbed the back of his neck. Perhaps this strategy wasn’t any good. Perhaps the charm he’d cast on the books was faulty. But it was creeping toward four in the morning now, too close to when the city would wake, and Nikolai couldn’t start all over. He had to press on before he was discovered.

The next book floating off its shelf was a manual on the cultivation of wheat. But it had been placed beside economic treatises, which was clearly wrong even without comparing the numbers on the spines. “Finally,” he said aloud. Nikolai directed the wheat manual several aisles down to its brethren.

One down, four to go.

But a pair of voices sounded from around the corner of Sadovaya Street. Nikolai inhaled sharply, then darted around the other corner of the library and pressed himself against the wall.

It was a couple of fishermen staggering home—or perhaps to the docks on the banks of the Neva River—after a long night at a tavern. They stopped a mere foot from where Nikolai stood holding his breath and every muscle. One of the drunkards unfastened his trousers and relieved himself on the streetlamp. The other laughed and undid his trousers, too, but he aimed his stream at the other man’s.

“You motherless bastard!” The first fisherman waved his own stream like a stuttering liquid saber at the other’s. A urine duel commenced.

Deuces! Were they eight years old?

The fishermen convulsed with laughter as they “battled” with their stinking yellow swords. Nikolai plastered himself flatter against the wall as the second drunkard’s aim grew even worse and came within inches of Nikolai’s boots.

Finally, they finished and tottered on their merry, unfettered way. Only when their sloppy footfalls receded did Nikolai allow himself to exhale.

He worked at a quicker tempo thereafter and found three more books in the wrong sections. Only one misplaced title remained. But Nikolai was no longer the only person on the street. It was now a quarter after five, and others had begun trickling past. Nevsky Prospect was, after all, one of the busiest streets in the city. And those people had begun casting strange glances at the well-dressed young gentleman who stood as if in a trance on the corner of Nevsky Prospect and Sadovaya Street.

A flower girl across the street eyed him. She waved over a man carrying several crates of apples.

Now or never, Nikolai thought. There were only thirty or so books that needed to be checked. He was not powerful enough to handle the movement of an entire library of books, but surely he could handle thirty? He clasped his hands even tighter in front of him and murmured, almost to himself, “Return to your proper places! All of you!”

Inside the library, two dozen books shot straight back into their spaces. Five or six, on the other hand, whizzed through the air, a couple nearly colliding with each other, and weaved their way through the library, back to their correct rooms, correct aisles, correct shelves.

Nikolai dropped his arms to his sides and blinked when it was done. All he could do now was hope that the misfiled books he’d found included the five Galina had shuffled herself.

The apple man set down his crates and began to march toward Nikolai. Nikolai spun on his heels and hurried down the street. “You! Sir!” the apple man yelled, not at all polite despite his use of the word “sir.”

Nikolai did not turn around. Instead, he careened around a corner and darted into an alleyway. He checked around him—left, right, up, down—to make sure no one was watching from a doorway or window. Then he passed his hand over the length of his body from head to toe and cast over himself the illusion that his gentlemanly clothes were actually those of a working man. Top hat to crushed bowler hat. Frock coat to suit of coarse flannel. Cravat to stained handkerchief. And so on, down to the frayed laces of his worn brown boots. When Nikolai emerged from the alley, the apple man ran right by him.

Nikolai exhaled for the thousandth time since Galina had dragged him out into the night.

And now, finally, he could go home and sleep. That is, if Galina did not have another surprise there waiting for him.

CHAPTER FIVE

Yuliana glided down the halls of the Winter Palace, past white columns and crystal chandeliers and all manner of gold gilt on the walls. If she were any other fifteen-year-old girl, she would run, but she was the grand princess of Russia, and royalty did not run. Well, actually, her older brother, Pavel Alexandrovich Romanov, was running down the hall ahead of her, even though it was unbecoming of a crown prince.

But Yuliana was not Pasha—that was what his family and closest friends called him—in almost every way. Yuliana cared about economics and politics (she was carrying an enormous, rolled-up map at this very moment), and Pasha cared about hunting and reading. He was quick to smile and chatty with all the servants, whereas she had the propriety to maintain the hierarchy of her royal rank. And his hair was always a mess! No, Yuliana was nothing like Pasha, and thank goodness for that. The Russian Empire needed at least one Romanov in this generation with her head screwed on straight.

Pasha waited for her at the heavy gold doors that marked the entrance to their father’s study, not even out of breath. Two members of the Tsar’s Guard stood at attention, one on either side. They had likely already bowed to Pasha—he was the tsesarevich, after all—but they bowed again when they saw Yuliana.

“Is Father occupied?” she asked one of the guards.

“He is meeting with the tsarina, Your Imperial Highness.”

“Then we’ll come back later,” Pasha said.

“No, we won’t.” Yuliana shoved open the doors before her brother or the guards could protest. Not that they would. They’d long ago learned that it was better to allow Yuliana her own way than to suffer her wrath.

The tsarina jumped in her armchair at the sound of the doors flinging open, then burst into a fit of coughs. The tsar merely looked up from his desk and sighed. “Yuliana, how many times have I asked you to have the guards announce you properly? Look what you’ve done to your mother. Elizabeth,” he said to the tsarina, “are you all right?”

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