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

Written By: Evelyn Skye

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

Evelyn Skye




DEDICATION


For Reese—

You are the reason I believe in magic.



The Crown’s Game is an old one, older than the tsardom itself. It began long ago, in the age of Rurik, Prince of Novgorod, when Russia was still a cluster of tribes, wild and lawless and young. As the country matured over the centuries, so, too, did the game. But always, always it retained its untamed fierceness.

For the winner of the game, there would be unimaginable power.

For the defeated, desolate oblivion.

The Crown’s Game was not one to lose.





CHAPTER ONE


OCTOBER 1825


The smell of sugar and yeast welcomed Vika even before she stepped into the pumpkin-shaped shop on the main street of their little town. She resisted the urge to burst into Cinderella Bakery—her father had labored for sixteen years to teach her how to be demure—and she slipped into the shop and took her place quietly at the end of the line of middle-aged women.

One of them turned to greet her but shrank away when she saw it was Vika, as people always did. It was as if they suspected that what ran through her veins was not blood as in the rest of them, but something hotter and more volatile that might burn any who came too near. Her wild red hair with its streak of jet black down the center likely did nothing to settle the women either. The only thing “normal” about Vika was her dress, the pretty (albeit rumpled) green gown her father insisted she wear whenever she went into town—minus the dreadful yellow ribbon that cinched her waist too tightly, which she’d rather conveniently “lost” in Preobrazhensky Creek.

Vika smiled at the woman, though it came out as half smirk. The woman huffed at Vika’s impudence, then turned forward again in line.

Vika allowed herself a full smirk now.

When all the women in line had been served and had fled the bakery—fled from me, Vika thought with a shrug—Ludmila Fanina, the plump baker behind the counter, turned her attention to her.

“Privet, my darling Vee-kahhh,” Ludmila said, drawing out her name in operatic song. She was the only one on Ovchinin Island—besides Vika’s father—who met Vika’s eyes when she saw her. The baker continued singing, “How are you this fine morning?”

Vika applauded, and Ludmila bobbed in an awkward curtsy. She bumped into a tray of oreshki cookies, and the caramel-walnut confections teetered on the edge of the counter. Typical Ludmila. Vika furtively charmed the tray to keep its balance.

“Ochen kharasho, spacibo,” Vika said. I’m very well, thank you. She spoke in Russian, unlike the aristocrats in Saint Petersburg, who preferred the “more sophisticated” French. Her father might have been nobility (Baron Sergei Mikhailovich Andreyev, to be exact), but he wanted his daughter to grow up truly Russian—hiking through birch forests, playing the balalaika, and having an almost religious zeal for buckwheat kasha with mushrooms and fresh butter. It was why they lived on this rural island, rather than in the imperial capital, because Sergei swore that living on Ovchinin Island kept them closer to the heart of their country.

“And how are you?” Vika asked Ludmila.

“Oh, quite well, now that you’ve brought a ray of sunshine into my shop,” the baker said in a normal voice. “The usual for Sergei?”

“But of course. It’s the only thing Father will eat for breakfast.”

Ludmila laughed as she fetched a Borodinsky loaf, the dense Russian black bread that was Sergei’s daily staple. She wrapped the bread in brown paper, creased the corners, and tied it with cotton twine.

Vika paid and tucked the bread into her basket, which contained a few sausages from the butcher and a jar of dill pickles from the grocer two streets down, where she had stopped earlier. “Thank you,” she said, already halfway outside. She adored Ludmila, but the bakery walls were too thick, and the air too humid, like sitting in a sauna for a few minutes too long. It was much better to be outdoors, where there were no boundaries placed on her. “See you tomorrow.”

“Until then, Vee-kahhh,” Ludmila sang, as the door to the bakery swung shut.

Vika stumbled as she hurried up the narrow dirt path that wound through the hills of Ovchinin Island and into the woods. She was supposed to maintain a practiced calm when she was out where people could see her, but it was difficult. Sergei said it was because Vika was like a jinni whose bottle was too small to contain her. One day, I’ll create a world where there are no bottles at all, she thought.

For now, she wanted to get back to her father, and to the challenge he’d designed for her. As Vika crossed the perimeter of the forest, she leaned forward, muscles set yet relaxed, like a veteran racehorse on the starting line.

Two more years, she thought. Two more years of training, and my magic will be powerful enough to serve the tsar and the empire. Maybe then her figurative jinni bottle would finally be big enough.

Vika jumped over logs and wove through moss-covered rocks. As she hurdled over Preobrazhensky Creek, which burbled as if it had its own lesson to hurry to, she spotted her father, sitting on a log. His tunic and trousers were muddy from his morning spent digging up valerian root. There were leaves in his beard. And he was whittling a chunk of wood. Never had a baron looked so much like a peasant. Vika smiled.

“The bread smells delicious,” Sergei said, angling his nose at Vika’s basket.

Evelyn Skye's Books