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Read The First Three Chapters Of The Crown's Fate

It’s been almost a year since The Crown’s Game left us with a book hangover we won’t soon forget. When we last saw Vika, Nikolai and Pasha the drama was at an all-time high and everyone’s futures were so uncertain and there was just SO MUCH going down in Imperial Russia that we were not ready for it to end. We’ve had to spend all year sighing over Nikolai and wondering WTF was going to happen next.

LUCKILY the sequel THE CROWN’S FATE is almost here and we will finally get to find out what happened to everybody and how on earth they move on from the events surrounding the end of the game. You can get a sneak peek at the first three chapters right now before it hits shelves on May 16th.

 

CHAPTER ONE

Vika Andreyeva was a confluence of minuscule bubbles, streaming through the wintry dusk. For a few moments, she gave herself up to the thrill of the magic, to the escape of evanescing. I am the sky. I am the wind. I am freedom, unleashed.

As soon as Vika rematerialized on the Kazakh steppe, though, solid reality replaced the joy of being everything, yet nearly nothing. She was here to work, to carry out an official assignment as Imperial Enchanter. She sighed.

Only half an hour earlier, she had appeared at the royal stables, where Grand Princess Yuliana Romanova had been grooming her horse. Or rather, a stable boy was grooming her horse, brushing its chestnut mane, while Yuliana pointed out every tiny knot.

The boy didn’t see Vika appear in the corner of the farthest stall, but Yuliana’s sharp eye missed nothing.

“Leave me,” the grand princess said, shooing the stable boy away. He jumped and skittered off, well trained not to linger against Yuliana’s wishes.

When he was gone, she turned to Vika and said, “Baroness Andreyeva, it would be preferable if you entered the room—or the stable—the proper way, by being admitted and announced by the guards. Like everyone else.”

Vika cast Yuliana a sideways glance. “My apologies, Your Imperial Highness. It’s just that, you see, I’m not ‘like everyone else.’” She crossed her arms.

Yuliana huffed.

“I’m here because your messenger said you wished to see me?” Vika curtsied with more than a touch of sarcasm. Hay clung to the hem of her dress as she rose. She noticed but left it there. Vika had grown up in a forest; it seemed strange, almost, not to have bits of mud and leaves clinging to her.

Yuliana arched a brow at the hay. “I need you to do something.”

No How are you? Or Thank you for coming. Not that Vika was surprised.

“What is it?”

“Manners, s’il vous plaît,” Yuliana said.

Vika dipped her head and allowed it to bob down heavily. “Of course, Your Imperial Highness. I am at your service.”

Yuliana rolled her eyes. “My brother and I need you to go to the Kazakh steppe.”

“Pardon?” Vika jerked her head upright.

“Are you deaf now, too, along with being impertinent? I said, we need you to go to the Kazakh steppe. The last time Pasha was there, talk of another rebellion was underway. We need to find out if their plans have developed any further, but our traditional means of gathering intelligence via scouts is slow. However, you could evanesce to the steppe and come back all in the same day. We’ve never had information so fresh.”

But Vika was hardly listening. She couldn’t go. That was where Nikolai, Russia’s only other enchanter, was from, and now he was gone because he’d lost the Crown’s Game. . . .

How can I possibly walk through the steppe, as if it were just another place? Vika’s heart stomped to the beat of a mazurka, painfully aware of the wrongness of each solitary move without Nikolai as her partner.

She shook her head. “I don’t want to go. You can’t send me there.”

Yuliana had marched up to Vika, kicking hay in every direction. “I can, and I will. You’re the Imperial Enchanter. Do your job.”

Which was how Vika found herself on the steppe now. She gave herself another moment, not only to recover from evanescing—it always took a few seconds to get reoriented—but also to brace herself for facing this place that reminded her too much of what—whom—she’d lost only two weeks ago.

She took a very deep breath. This is part of my duty. All my life, I’ve wanted nothing more than to be Imperial Enchanter, and this is what it entails. I can do this. But it was a victory tinged with bittersweet.

She took another long inhale.

Before she left Saint Petersburg, Vika had transformed her appearance to blend in more easily with the Kazakhs, changing her hair from red to black, and her clothes from a puff-sleeved gown to a tunic-like koilek, a collared dress, and a heavy shapan overcoat made of sheepskin.

A few paces from the dark corner where she hid, the tented marketplace bustled. There were tables piled high with nuts, and bins of spices. Stalls selling fur-lined boots, and others boasting silver jewelry, all intricately patterned and inlaid with red, orange, and blue stones. There was a table that specialized in all manner of dried fruit, and everywhere there were people, smiling and inspecting goods and bargaining.

A girl walked by, carrying a tray of enormous rounds of bread. They must have just come out of an oven, for their yeasty warmth filled the air. The smell, which reminded her of Ludmila Fanina’s bakery at home, comforted Vika and pulled her out of her brooding.

Besides, brooding didn’t suit Vika. It was more Nikolai’s disposition than hers, and she was actually incapable of being melancholy for long before something inside her itched to move along. The one time she’d submerged herself in sorrow, after Father’s passing, she’d come out of it more agitated than ever, and she’d nearly destroyed Nikolai’s home in response, only to become mortified with regret halfway through. Vika would not make the mistake of wallowing again for too long. She clenched her fists and stashed away the swirl of emotions that surrounded her thoughts of Nikolai, as hard as putting away those feelings could be.

The bakery girl set down the tray at a stall a few yards away and began unloading the loaves onto the display. A crowd of women immediately surrounded the table, drawn to the fresh bread like garrulous seagulls to a picnic, and started yammering for the girl’s attention.

Ludmila would love to try Kazakh bread.

Brilliant! Vika’s eyes brightened. It would give her something to focus on other than Nikolai.

She conjured a few Kazakh coins in her palm. Then she evanesced the money into the bakery girl’s till and in exchange, evanesced a round of bread all the way back to Ovchinin Island, where both Vika and Ludmila Fanina lived. The loaf would arrive at Cinderella Bakery, Ludmila’s shop, still warm and steamy. Vika sent a brief letter with the bread, even though she was quite sure Ludmila would know who’d sent it.

And now back to the task at hand.

Vika left the bakery stall and walked around the perimeter of the marketplace. The only flaw in Yuliana’s plan was that unless the people were speaking Russian or French, Vika wouldn’t understand what they were saying.

But why can’t I?

Being the only remaining enchanter in Russia did mean Vika could ask more of the empire’s magic, since she no longer had to share it. And she’d always been able to understand animals, like her albino messenger rat, Poslannik, by casting an enchantment over them. It had simply never occurred to her to translate another human language, because she’d needed only Russian, rudimentary French, and the speech of wolverines and foxes on Ovchinin Island.

As Vika walked, she began to conjure a dome, of sorts, to surround the entire marketplace. The enchantment began on the ground, like a shimmering veil of liquid crystal rising from the dirt. At least, that was how it appeared to her, for Vika could see the magic at work.

The enchantment trickled upward toward the sky, flowing as if it were not subject to the rules of gravity. It climbed the outside of the marketplace, then arched over the tops of the tents, enclosing the shoppers and vendors and their goods inside.

But not really. The dome wasn’t solid; the people couldn’t see it or feel it, and they could enter and exit as they pleased. Vika’s magic would only capture the scene, and then she’d be able to take the enchantment back to Saint Petersburg to replay it for Yuliana and Pasha, who could walk through the memory dome as if they themselves had been here.

It also included an enchantment to allow Vika to understand Kazakh. Or an attempt at an enchantment like that, anyhow. If she could listen in, she could better root out whether there were any new developments in the region’s unrest.

She smiled grimly at the marketplace before her. I hope this works, she thought, for if it did, she could capture scenes in other places, like the borders where the Russian and Ottoman empires chafed at each other. Such information would be invaluable.

She also hoped it failed, because spending the rest of her days alone, spying at the edges of the empire, would be no life at all.

The dome enchantment glistened lazily under the winter sun, its liquid crystal walls ebbing and flowing as the magic soaked up every word and action taking place within its confines. Vika picked up bits and pieces of the conversations. “Two pairs of boots . . .” “That’s too expensive for a leg of lamb . . .” “But Aruzhan hates dried apricots—”

But then there was a lurch at the top of the dome, and Vika gasped as ripples stuttered over the surface of her enchantment, and a hole broke open into a jagged crack. Her power stumbled, as though the flow from Bolshebnoie Duplo—Russia’s magical source—had suddenly been blocked. The sparks that normally danced through her fingertips were snuffed out.

What?

Her chest tightened, as if the air were being wrung from her lungs. The ripples threatened to build into something more, to cascade down the sides of the dome, undoing it all.

Vika opened her arms to the air, palms up, and labored to catch her breath while attempting to control the enchantment. She pulled on the magic that already existed, attempting to draw it up and over to patch the crack at the top of the dome. It was like tugging on fabric that was already stretched too tight; there wasn’t enough of the magic to go around.

But then, as quickly as it had hitched, the power flowed smoothly through Vika again. She was almost certain it wasn’t her doing—the magic had hardly budged when she pulled on it—but somehow, the ripples on the dome flattened into a serene surface, flowing over the crooked tear at the top to make it whole.

She dropped her arms by her sides, sweat beading on her forehead. What could have possibly caused a hitch like that in the magic? Her power had never faltered so completely before.

Fatigue suddenly trampled her, like being run down by a carriage pulled by half a dozen spooked horses.

And Vika laughed at herself, for in her head, she could hear what Ludmila would say, what she had been saying: Too much work and not enough cookies. You need to take care of yourself, my sunshine. Rest and eat more sweets.

Rest. Vika shook her head. There was no such thing as rest for an Imperial Enchanter, certainly not one at Yuliana’s constant command.

But that doesn’t mean there can’t be more cookies. Vika’s stomach growled.

She evanesced a few more coins to the nearby bakery stall. A moment later, a chakchak cookie appeared in her palm, a cluster of fried dough piled together with syrup and walnut bits. Vika took a crunchy, honeyed bite.

She smiled. Popped the rest of the cookie into her mouth. And sent money for a handful more.

Being Imperial Enchanter wasn’t all bad.

 

CHAPTER TWO

Once she finished capturing the scene on the steppe—and having heard nothing that would imply an immediate threat from the Kazakhs—Vika evanesced back to Saint Petersburg, to the banks of the frozen Neva River. Behind her, an enormous statue of the legendary tsar Peter the Great sat atop a bronze horse and watched over the capital he’d built, this glorious “Venice of the North.” The city’s bridges were dark at this hour, their holiday garlands that sparkled in the daytime now swallowed by the night, with only an occasional streetlamp casting ghostly halos upon the snow-covered cobblestones. And all the people of the city were fast asleep. All but Vika, of course.

To anyone else, midnight was silent. But to Vika, who could feel the elements as if they were a part of her soul, the darkness was full of sound. Water beneath the thick ice of the river, sluggish and near frozen, but still stirring. Winter moths flitting through the chilly air. Bare branches, bending in the wind.

She wouldn’t be able to sleep for a while, if at all, not after spending the last few hours immersed in the steppe. Heavens, how she missed Nikolai. For a brief period of time during the Crown’s Game, there had finally been someone else who could do what she could, who understood what it was like to be one—or two—of a kind, who knew who she truly was.

So instead of going home, Vika looked out at the frozen river in front of her, in the direction of the island she’d created during the Game. The people of Saint Petersburg had dubbed it Letniy Isle—Summer Island—for Vika had enchanted it as an eternally warm paradise.

But she shuddered as she remembered the end of the Game. Nikolai had attempted to kill himself, but the knife Galina gave him was charmed to “never miss,” and by that, she’d meant “never miss the target that Galina intended.” So when Nikolai plunged the dagger into himself, it had actually pierced through Vika. And to keep her from dying, he’d siphoned his own energy to her.

Vika closed her eyes as the echo of both Nikolai’s and Father’s deaths reverberated through her bones. Two incredibly important people had given their lives for her. She was unworthy of the sacrifice.

I would have stopped them if I’d known what they were doing.

But that was why neither had let her know.

The wind nipped more bitterly around her. Father was gone for good, but Nikolai . . . Well, she’d seen him—or a silhouette that looked like him—in the steppe dream. There was an entire series of enchanted park benches on Letniy Isle; a person need only sit on one of the Dream Benches and he or she would be whisked away into an illusion of Moscow, Lake Baikal, Kostroma, or any of the other dozen places Nikolai had conjured. Each bench was a different dream.

Was Nikolai still there now, in the steppe dream? Vika had gone back every day since she’d seen him that single instance last week, but he had not reappeared. Yet the benches themselves still existed, which meant his magic hadn’t been extinguished. Perhaps that meant Nikolai was still, somehow, alive, too.

Then again, Vika could feel the old magic inside the statue of Peter the Great behind her, and that had been created decades ago by an enchanter who’d died in the Napoleonic Wars.

But hopefully the shadow boy Vika had seen was a scrap of life that Nikolai had managed to hold on to for himself. Not quite enough to be real, but enough to be more than a dream.

“If you’re still in the bench, I’ll find a way to get you out and make you yourself again,” Vika said.

As she uttered the promise, her chest constricted. But it wasn’t the invisible string that tethered her to Nikolai as enchanters; this pull on her chest was a different sort.

Vika pressed her gloved hand to her left collarbone, where the scar of the Game’s crossed wands had once burned.

Before the end of the Game, Nikolai had said he loved her.

It was possible Vika loved Nikolai, too.

But she didn’t have much chance to contemplate her feelings, for behind her, heavy footsteps approached the statue of Peter the Great.

Vika’s pulse sped up. Had someone seen her evanesce here? Ordinary people couldn’t know about magic. A long time ago, they had believed, and there had been witch hunts. Hysteria. Not to mention that the more people believed in magic, the more power Bolshebnoie Duplo generated, which in turn meant that enchanters were a greater threat to the tsar because they could possibly usurp him. It was why the Crown’s Game and its oath had been conceived, to ensure that any enchanter would work with the tsar, not against him, and why common folk’s belief in magic had to be suppressed.

After all she had survived, Vika didn’t want to meet her end on a flaming pyre.

The footsteps drew closer. Vika darted away from the embankment and ducked behind the Thunder Stone, the massive slab of granite at the base of Peter the Great’s statue.

A minute later, a young fisherman stumbled into view. He was singing.

No. Slurring.

Thank heavens, Vika thought as she relaxed against the Thunder Stone. He probably didn’t see me anyway, and even if he did, he won’t remember in the morning.

But then the boy reached the statue and stopped.

Oh, mercy, she thought. Anyone but him.

Vika lightened her steps as she inched around the Thunder Stone to a spot where he wouldn’t see her.

Because he might have worn a fisherman’s cap, but he was no ordinary drunk.

He was Pavel Alexandrovich Romanov—Pasha—tsesarevich and heir to Russia’s throne.

 

CHAPTER THREE

It was too late to be evening, yet too early to be morning, when Pasha tripped his way into Peter’s Square. There was nothing princely about him at the moment, for he hadn’t shaved in the fortnight since the end of the Game, and he wore a tattered coat and a threadbare fisherman’s cap, which had come from the secret chest where he stored his disguises. There was also the matter of the entire bottle of vodka he’d gloriously—or perhaps, ingloriously—drunk on his own, and as he came to rest against the base of the statue of Peter the Great, reality was a bit slippery for Pasha to hold on to.


Bonsoir, Your Imperial Majesty,” Pasha said from the Thunder Stone. Towering above him, an enormous bronze Peter looked out across the dark river, while his horse trampled a serpent, symbolizing the enemies of the tsar and Saint Petersburg. Legend had it the statue was enchanted, that it would always protect the people and the city.

“Quiet out tonight,” Pasha said. “Looks like it’s just you and me, tsar and . . . future tsar.” He’d hesitated because he’d almost called himself a tsar, too. But Pasha was technically still only the tsesarevich, the heir to the throne, until the official coronation in Moscow next month.

This felt right, though. Tsar and future tsar. Pasha laughed and lowered himself down to the snowy ground. He rested his head against the Thunder Stone.

“Do you ever wish you could go back in time and do things over?” Pasha asked the statue. He tilted his head farther back until he was looking up at the underbelly of the horse, as well as in the general direction of the bronze tsar. Snow fell into Pasha’s eyes. The horse snorted.

Pasha startled. “Did your horse just—?”

But after a few moments of definite silence (he must’ve imagined the horse making a noise—damn it, how much had he drunk again?), Pasha returned to leaning against the stone. “No, I suppose you never felt that way. You’re Peter the Great. You’re great by definition. Whereas I will be, what? Pasha the Unshaven.” He waved his arms dramatically in the air. “Pasha the Unprepared. Pasha the Dreadful, who never apologized to his best friend before sending him to his death.” He exhaled loudly. “I just wish I could have a second chance. I would . . . I don’t know what I would do. But I know I wouldn’t demand the end of the Game. There must have been some other way.”

“Be careful what you wish for, Your Imperial Highness,” a voice said.

Pasha jumped to his feet and whirled. He looked at Peter the Great, eyes wide. “Did you say something? O-or . . . was it you again?” He shifted his focus to the horse.

A girl came from around the other side of the Thunder Stone. Her red hair flamed beneath the dull brown of her fur hat. “Are you talking to the statue?”

Pasha blinked at her. It took a few seconds for his addled head to process what had happened. Of course. The voice had belonged to a girl. And not just any girl. To Vika, his Imperial Enchanter.

“I’m not talking to the statue,” Pasha lied. How long had Vika been there, on the other side of the Thunder Stone? Might as well add “Pasha the Insane” to his list of illustrious monikers.

Vika came closer but stopped several yards away from him. Ever since the end of the Game, she’d maintained her distance. Pasha winced at the memory that the girl he’d once almost kissed now despised him.

“I mean it when I say you ought to be careful what you wish for,” Vika said.

“Why? What could happen?”

“Anything. Or nothing. I don’t know. But I’ve told you before, magic comes tied with many strings. Wishes, I’d imagine, are a bit like magic. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

But Pasha smiled at her admonition. She could have left him here, babbling to Peter the Great and possibly making a grave magical mistake. But she took the time to intervene. She actually talked to me, voluntarily. That was progress. He thought back to the last time they’d spoken, a week after the end of the Game. She’d been in the steppe dream, and Pasha had come to find her, to apologize. She’d dismissed him.

And then another week had passed and he hadn’t seen or heard from her at all. Now here she was, in the middle of the night, watching over him like an Imperial Enchanter would. Or perhaps even like a friend.

Pasha looked at the expanse of snow between them. Maybe the distance could be shortened, both figuratively and literally. He took a step toward her and tripped in the snow.

Damn alcohol. It was probably closer to samogon—homemade moonshine—than real vodka. That’s what I get for drinking in an unfamiliar tavern, he thought. But he couldn’t go back to the Magpie and the Fox. Too many memories of him and Nikolai there.

When Pasha got up, he held on to the Thunder Stone for balance. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your company?”

“I was out for a stroll, Your Imperial Highness.”

That was also a post-Game development. Vika refused to call Pasha by name. He tried not to wince again—at least, not too visibly. “Out for a stroll, at this hour?”

Vika furrowed her brow. “Since when do you have the right to judge my comings and goings?”

“I was only curious—”

Vika held up her hand. A cold wind, colder than the one that already bedeviled Saint Petersburg, swirled around her. “You’ve had too much to drink, Your Imperial Highness. I hope you pull yourself together before the coronation. The people will only tolerate the grand princess running the empire for so long.”

Pasha’s insides flared. Perhaps it was indignation. Or perhaps it was the samogon in his stomach. Either way, it was enough to fuel him to stand up straight, without the Thunder Stone’s help.

But it’s true what Vika said, isn’t it? Pasha’s sister, Yuliana, was keeping the country going, attending Imperial Council meetings and receiving ambassadors, while he, the tsesarevich, was sneaking out of the Winter Palace in shoddy disguises and drowning himself in self-pity.

I can act like a ruler, too. The thought sloshed through his head, splashing against the inside of his skull.

“Vika,” he said.

“What?” Her fiery hair whipped in the wind, like a solitary flame in the middle of the snow of Peter’s Square.

She was his flame, though, wasn’t she? She was his Imperial Enchanter.

A sloppy grin plastered itself across Pasha’s face. “I order you to conjure me a midnight snack.”

Vika scowled. “I beg your pardon?”

“You were right, I’ve had too much to drink, and I need some food to soak up the alcohol. And a fire, too, because it’s a bit chilly out here, don’t you think?”

“No, I don’t.” She stomped through the snow until she was only a few inches away from him. She was much shorter than he and had to look up at him, but somehow, she managed to make Pasha feel like he was the one who had to look up at her. Vika had a way of commanding more space than she occupied. “I know that losing your parents must have
been traumatic—God knows I understand that firsthand—”
She paused, but she gathered herself in a fraction of a second. “Yet I’m still me, even after Sergei died. You, on the other hand . . . I don’t know what happened to change you, to make you demand the end of the Game like you did. What happened to the tsesarevich who was so sweet with me, and who was inseparable from his best friend? And now this, ordering me around like a mere kitchen servant . . .”

She glared at him even more intensely, her eyes like emeralds on fire. “I may be your Imperial Enchanter, but I refuse to use magic for inconsequential rubbish like fixing you a snack. Try it again, and I’ll quit. Let’s see how you do on charm alone, without any magic by your side.”

Pasha’s mouth dropped open.

But at the same time, Vika shrieked and grabbed her left wrist. She fell against him, and Pasha caught her as they both stumbled backward, braced by the Thunder Stone.

“Vika, what is it?” All thoughts about himself vanished. She didn’t cry out again, but her entire body shook so hard, the tremors traveled through Pasha’s hands where he held her, into his bones.

Pasha pried her gloved fingers off the left sleeve of her coat. She sucked air through her teeth. He pushed the wool up and away from her wrist.

A bracelet—no, a cuff, a filigree of metallic vines—was wrapped tightly around her and burned and glowed orange like embers against her skin. Atop the cuff, the Russian Empire’s gold double-headed eagle watched her with fiery ruby eyes.

Pasha gasped. He’d been here before, almost like this but in a carriage, with Vika by his side as the scar on her collarbone glowed menacingly bright. And now this bracelet.

“Where did you get that? What is it doing to you?”

“It appeared just now,” Vika said through her teeth. “And it’s burning me, can’t you see?” Her eyes watered as she bore the pain. But she wrenched herself away from Pasha’s grip.

And fell immediately to her knees in the snow.

He moved toward her, arms outstretched.

“Stay back,” she snapped.

He did as he was told. Her tone left no room for debate.

Vika muttered something under her breath. A moment later, a platter of black bread and smoked herring appeared in the air in front of Pasha’s nose. The bread was steaming hot, as if it had just come out of the oven, and the smell was enough to make his samogon-soaked stomach growl. He leaned instinctively toward it.

Then the platter unceremoniously dumped its contents onto the dirty snow at Pasha’s feet. Some of the herring landed on the toe of his boot. “Sacré bleu!” He jerked away, and the herring slid onto the ground, a slimy trail remaining on his shoe.

Vika exhaled, and the tension in her body melted away. The bracelet stopped glowing and turned an innocuous, ordinary gold.

An immediate reaction to her obedience, Pasha realized. He’d ordered her to conjure him a midnight snack. She’d refused. The bracelet had appeared and punished her, but had relented as soon as she complied with his request. Well, technically complied. He hadn’t said anything about the snack being clean.

She looked at him from where she remained kneeling in the snow. “Are you happy now?”

Pasha shook his head. “I . . . I’m sorry. I didn’t know that would happen.”

“You seem sorry quite a bit lately, but only after being horrible.” She climbed to her feet, still glaring.

Since it was the truth, he didn’t try to defend himself. He pointed at Vika’s wrist instead. “Are you all right now?”

“As all right as one can be, I suppose, being literally cuffed to Your Imperial Highness’s service.” She bit her lip, but ferociously, not at all in the coy manner that girls of the court ordinarily bit their lips in Pasha’s presence. “It was foolish of me to think I could simply refuse you or walk away from being Imperial Enchanter.”

“If I had a choice, I would release you from your obligations.” Pasha took a step toward her.

Vika scowled. He didn’t move any closer.

“But you don’t have that power, Your Imperial Highness. The bracelet ensures that I stay. I swore an oath of loyalty to your father at the beginning of the Game and promised to abide by all the rules and traditions that had previously been established.”

Pasha’s brain was still soaked through with samogon, and drawing logical conclusions took great effort. He spoke, but the thoughts came slowly. “And since you won the Game . . . you’re bound by the ancient magic of the oath to serve the tsardom?”

Her shoulders sagged then, as if sadness suddenly weighed her down and crushed her anger beneath it. “Apparently, if I can’t be trusted to act in the interest of the crown, then there are safeguards to ensure that I do so. The roles of tsar and Imperial Enchanter have not survived for centuries by chance.” She transferred her gaze from Pasha to the bracelet on her wrist. Then she yanked her coat sleeve down over the cuff so she couldn’t see it.

Pasha leaned back against the Thunder Stone. Part of him was relieved Vika couldn’t just leave him. He needed her. But part of him hated that she stayed only because she was compelled to, not because she wanted to.

“Well, then, Your Imperial Highness, now that you have your midnight snack . . .” Vika paused, as if to allow Pasha a moment to look at the bread and herring scattered (and now frozen) in the snow. “I should probably be going. As you mentioned, it’s quite late.”

She curtsied. It was terribly formal, with an emphasis on the “terrible” part.

“Wait.” Pasha moved forward, undeterred this time by her glare. “I mean it when I say I’m sor—”

“Don’t bother.” Snowflakes began to spin around her, and within seconds, Vika had dissolved herself so that she, too, was a part of the flurry, and then the wind whipped and carried her off.

Pasha was alone again with the statue. He fell back against the Thunder Stone and ran his hands through his mess of blond waves. His fisherman’s cap fell to the ground—appropriately, into the herring—but he didn’t care enough to pick it up.

“Now I truly wish I could have a second chance,” he said.

Pasha immediately slapped his glove over his mouth. For he’d made another wish, even after Vika had warned him.

And yet, I’d do anything for it to come true, he thought. The samogon made him both wistful and reckless. But why not? There was no risk, not really. Nikolai was dead. Vika hated him. Pasha was not getting a second chance with either.

He kicked the loaf of bread across the square, hung his aching head, and trudged through the snow, back home to the lonely halls of the Winter Palace.


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