The Crown's Fate

Page 27


I feel the same way, Vika thought. Composed on the outside, but a bundle of nerves on the inside. Yuliana had insisted that Vika could not appear by Pasha’s side wearing her favorite green dress. It was, apparently, “an out-of-date eyesore” that was “an affront to the empire.” So now Vika wore a tightly corseted blue gown, as pale as Pasha’s uniform was dark. The contrast, Yuliana had insisted, was necessary. Everything in how they presented themselves to the public had been calculated down to the last thread by the grand princess. Vika had actually suggested she conjure a dress like the blizzard she’d worn to Pasha’s birthday masquerade, but Yuliana had quickly squashed the idea. Vika was to demonstrate magic to the people, but not too much, or they would be frightened rather than reassured. (However, Yuliana had approved the use of magic to keep the carriage unseasonably warm, which would negate the need for heavy overcoats and better show off the outfits she had meticulously chosen. Vika had rolled her eyes.)
Their carriage arrived at the beginning of Nevsky Prospect, the very same boulevard where Vika had tamed the statue of Peter the Great. People already spilled out from shop fronts and leaned over their apartment balconies and windows, for word of the tsesarevich’s procession had come well in advance of Pasha’s arrival. But a collective gasp echoed along Nevsky Prospect as the citizens realized who else rode in the carriage beside their prince. Some of the windows slammed shut. Shouts sliced through the frigid air: “Witch!” “God have mercy upon us!” “Burn her!”
“I suppose Yuliana didn’t announce that I’d be in the procession,” Vika muttered.
“Sorry,” Pasha said.
Of course he’d known. But from the crowd’s reaction, Yuliana had probably been right to omit that part. Even Vika had to concede that.
Pasha’s Guard slowed their horses. Gavriil, the captain of the Guard, shouted, “His Imperial Highness, the Tsesarevich, Pavel Alexandrovich Romanov!”
The people, who would ordinarily fall to their knees and cheer for Pasha, remained eerily silent.
Unfazed—at least outwardly—Pasha rose in the carriage, which now moved at a tortoise’s pace. He offered his hand to Vika.
She tilted her head in question.
“Stand with me,” he said quietly. A soft smile reached his eyes.
Vika hesitated. But the cuff tightened around her wrist.
This was what I wanted, she reminded herself. To be Imperial Enchanter. To be free to use my magic without limit or having to hide.
But was that what being Imperial Enchanter really was? Vika looked at the bracelet. It marked her accomplishment. It also shackled her to less freedom than she’d had before. She hadn’t imagined that achieving her greatest desire would come true, but with the precise opposite of what she’d wanted: to fly without bounds.
She slipped her gloved hand into Pasha’s. Her breath caught at both the softness and steadiness of his fingers, and for a brief moment, she remembered the maple grove on Letniy Isle, where they’d almost shared a kiss. Of course, it wasn’t that she wanted that now. Far from it. But the memory was a sudden reminder of Pasha before the tsar’s death turned him and everything else horribly sideways. It was easier to take his hand when Vika remembered that he was just a boy—a golden-haired prince, but still, a real boy beneath the royal facade.
“My dearest citizens,” Pasha said, his voice as bright and intoxicating as one of Saint Petersburg’s sunlit summer nights, “I know some of you have recently witnessed magic, which may seem unreal and frightening. I understand your fear, for evil can come from such power. But you have nothing to worry about, because magic has always been with us. Enchanters have existed throughout all of Russia’s history; they have been quiet advisers to the tsars and defenders of our empire.
“Today I have the honor and pleasure of introducing you to my Imperial Enchanter, Baroness Victoria Sergeyevna Andreyeva. Although I hope she doesn’t mind if I simply introduce her as Vika.”
“Vika . . .” Whispers of her name passed over hundreds of lips, like a haunted wind blowing through the boulevard. Vika shivered, despite the enchantment to keep the carriage warm.
“There is no reason to fear her, or magic itself,” Pasha continued. “With Vika by my side, our empire is stronger against its enemies, and that will mean peace, prosperity, and happiness for all of you.”
His grip on Vika’s hand tightened.
Vika did not squeeze back. Who am I that I succumb so easily to a lie?
And yet it was what was necessary to restore calm. Being Imperial Enchanter—and being part of the machinery of the tsardom—compromised Vika’s natural compulsion to speak the brash truth. Her skin crawled, as if allergic to what she had to do.
“I want to see the witch up close!” A little girl, around seven years old, broke free of her mother and ran toward the carriage. Pasha’s Guard and their horses immediately closed ranks around the carriage.
Her audacity reminded Vika of herself at that age.
“Let the girl through,” she said.
The Guard looked to Pasha, who thought for a second, then nodded. The Guard parted slowly, and Ilya slipped off his saddle to take the little girl by the hand. He led her to the carriage and motioned for the mother to follow.
The woman trembled, paralyzed over what had just happened and what to do.
After all, Vika thought wryly, her child has just approached a very dangerous witch.
“She’ll be all right,” Pasha said loudly so the woman could hear. Then he leaned over the side of the carriage to be closer to the girl.
The girl pointed at Vika. “What I want to know is, what if she does bad magic?”
Vika’s fingers twitched, a reflex of defiance—or perhaps defensiveness—yearning to prove everyone here wrong. She clutched her hands into fists to still them.
The crowd listened intently, as if their fates were in the hands of this little girl’s words. They held their breaths for Pasha’s response.
He shook his head solemnly. “Vika won’t do any bad magic. But you are a very brave and perceptive girl to ask. What’s your name?”
“Lena.” The girl peered at Vika like at an exotic animal in a circus cage, menacing but fascinating all the same. “How do you know for sure she won’t be bad?” Lena asked Pasha. “Mama said Vika is a hag riding the devil’s broom into Saint Petersburg.”