The Crown's Game (The Crown's Game #1)(8)


by Evelyn Skye

“Well, then.”

“You see?” Yuliana said. “I told you it was of the utmost importance—”

“Am I done here?” Pasha asked, looking to the door.

“No,” Yuliana said, at the same time the tsar said, “Yes.”

“Wonderful,” Pasha said. “Then I’m off.” He pushed away from the bookcase and opened the door.

“Don’t forget the Imperial Council meeting this afternoon,” the tsar said.

Pasha paused.

“You will be there, Pasha.”

He turned back to face the tsar. The brightness that usually danced in Pasha’s eyes went out. “Right. Of course I will, Father.”

Yuliana very much doubted Pasha would make an appearance. He’d been on the Kazakh steppe for over a month, which far exceeded her brother’s capacity for official duty. Not that he wasn’t responsible; he was. It was just that Pasha did not like doing things a tsesarevich was supposed to do. Especially in uniform. And under the tsar’s command.

Pasha slipped out of the study to his freedom. The guards again shut the door.

Yuliana scooted to the edge of her chair and picked up the map of the Kazakh territories she’d brought with her. She began to unfurl it on the tsar’s desk.

The tsar raised his hand. “That will be unnecessary.”

Yuliana scrunched her nose. “All right.” She rerolled the map. “Then what are you going to do?”

“I’ll decide after Pasha’s birthday.”

She whacked the map on the edge of the desk. “Father! You can’t sit around and wait. An uprising is brewing—”

“Yuliana.” The tsar rose from behind the desk, slowly, purposefully. With every inch, the shadow on his face grew darker. Every second it took for him to reach his full height felt like a year. “You are not tsar. I am. And that means I am the one who knows best what to do for our empire.”

But Yuliana met his steely glare with her own. “Perhaps you’re right, Father. But let’s suppose, for once, that the day comes when you are no longer tsar. At least prepare Russia for it. At least lay the groundwork to protect Pasha and me.” She marched around to the tsar’s side of the desk, then past him, to the corner of the blue-and-gold rug that covered most of the study’s floor.

“What are you—?”

But the tsar stopped his question as Yuliana rolled up a yard or so of the rug. Beneath it lay a trapdoor in the wood floor. She pulled a couple of pins from her hair and picked the lock within moments. The trapdoor opened with a creak and a puff of stale air.

“Commence the Crown’s Game,” she said as she retrieved a small but heavy chest from the hidden compartment. It looked, amazingly, like it had been painted and lacquered yesterday, as if magic repelled dust from its shiny surface. In fact, it probably did. “Give Russia an Imperial Enchanter, Father, so we can fight if we need to. Do it for Pasha, for his birthday, even if he doesn’t know.”

The tsar gripped the armrests of his chair. “But how do you know about enchanters, let alone that there are two now? That information was closely guarded and limited to myself and those who practice magic themselves. How could you know about the Game?”

Yuliana crossed the rug and set the chest on the tsar’s desk. Inside the chest, the ancient Russe Quill and Scroll lay dormant but ready to record the next Crown’s Game when the need arose. She glanced at her father’s throne-like chair.

“I know many things.” She didn’t tell him that when she was very little, she used to hide in the large cabinet behind his desk and eavesdrop on his conversations, including the ones he’d have with himself when he thought the rest of the palace was asleep, about subjects like enchanters and the Game and a mysterious “tsars’ collection” (which Yuliana had deduced to be a library of ancient texts on magic—and presumably where her father had learned about enchanters and the Crown’s Game in the first place—though she had never been able to locate this so-called “tsars’ collection”).

“Pasha may be heir,” she said to her father, “but when you’re gone—heaven forbid—he won’t be able to rule Russia with charm alone. He’ll need me. And he’ll need an Imperial Enchanter.”

“It’s been peaceful in Russia for years.”

“The peace we’ve known since Napoleon’s end will soon be no more. Pasha’s report is proof. And the Ottomans are rising again in the south. So will you do it? Will you declare the start of the Game?”

The tsar hesitated for a heavy minute.

“Do it for Pasha,” Yuliana said. And she meant it. She loved her brother ferociously, as much as the tsar did. They’d both lay down their lives for him.

“How old are you again, Yuliana?”

“Fifteen, Father.”

“But you act like you’re—”

“Fifty. I know.”

The tsar chuckled. “For Pasha, eh?” He touched his finger to the lid of the wooden chest. It was the one thing that Yuliana had never been able to pick open, and now she understood why: it was governed by magic that would unlock only at the tsar’s touch.

The lid eased itself open, as if lifted by an invisible hand. A long, majestic black feather—plucked from the wing of a sea eagle centuries ago—and a yellowed parchment scroll floated into the air.

Yuliana gasped, for even though she knew of magic, she’d never actually witnessed it. “So does this mean you’ll commence the Game?”

The tsar nodded.

She stared at the Russe Quill and Scroll. They spun lazily above the desk, the records of all past Games and so much of Russia’s history, just hovering. “But we probably shouldn’t tell Pasha,” she said.

The tsar nodded again. “It’s why I’ve never told you about the existence of enchanters and magic. I knew this generation would require a Game. And I didn’t know if the two of you—Pasha, really—would be able to stomach its viciousness.”

But Yuliana could. Her mouth curved up at the corners. Her smile was both a fierce and wistful thing.

CHAPTER SIX

Two days later, Nikolai sat on a palomino mare on Ovchinin Island. He had never been there before, even though it was only an hour’s ferry ride from Saint Petersburg, but when Pasha had asked where they ought to hunt, “Ovchinin Island” had sprung from Nikolai’s tongue before his mind could catch up with the idea. He had no inkling where it had come from.

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