The Crown's Fate

Page 7


Because the truth was, if Nikolai had died, Vika would have been all right. But if she had lost the Game and he had survived—if the crossed wands that scarred their collarbones had incinerated her, with his dagger in her heart—Nikolai could not have endured it.
And yet, although he regretted nothing of giving his life for her, his horse now took several steps toward where Vika had stood—which meant it was actually Nikolai who did so, for it was his will that created and directed everything in this dream. It was as if an unseen force kept him and Vika tied to each other, and wherever she went, he wanted to follow.
His sacrifice ought to have been reward enough. But it wasn’t, and now he wanted not only for Vika to survive and win the Game, but also for himself to be able to live a life with her afterward. Nikolai frowned. I’m not as noble as I’d thought.
Or perhaps nobility was overvalued.
Then again, if there was anyone who could make more of the cards that life had dealt him, it was Nikolai. He’d always been resourceful. He’d always found a way.
His golden eagle swooped down and perched on his arm. It tilted its head, as if asking for Nikolai’s thoughts.
“I’m going to free myself from here,” Nikolai said. He would not remain trapped in this strange purgatory between wakefulness and dream forever. “I’ll get out. I swear it.”

Later—or was it the next day? it was impossible to tell—Nikolai hovered in the shade of a yurt as a young couple strolled by. In reality, they were sitting on a Dream Bench. But here, they were touring the Kazakh steppe in summer, arm in arm as they gawked at the colorful zigzag patterns on the wide, round tents and licked their lips at the zhauburek kebabs roasting over the fire. The tribe who populated the dream could not see them; it was, for visitors, like walking through a museum exhibit. A moving diorama. And so, because they had no expectation of being seen, the couple did not notice that Nikolai had noticed them.
He had an idea about how to escape the bench. Nikolai’s mother had resurrected herself from ante-death by leeching energy from maggots and worms belowground. Nikolai was not as badly off as Aizhana had been, but his state was a variation of ante-death nonetheless. Perhaps he needed more energy if he had any hope of returning to his former self. At the very least, I want out of this damned steppe dream. To be in the same world as Vika. He slunk up behind the visiting couple and reached in the man’s direction.
And yet Nikolai hesitated before he actually touched the man. It wasn’t as if he would hurt him. Nikolai would take only small quantities of energy from each visitor, and they would simply feel like they needed a nap upon returning to reality. (Which was a bit ironic, given that they were asleep while visiting the dream.) But even this harmless act of siphoning off the slightest energy reeked of dishonor. There was something filthy about it, like Nikolai was stealing. And even worse, it pricked at his pride that he couldn’t fix himself on his own.
But it must be done. Nikolai swallowed his distaste and rested his fingers on the nearest visitor’s back.
The man didn’t even flinch, for Nikolai’s touch weighed nothing. The man’s energy, though, was more than nothing. It was a thin rivulet of richness straight into Nikolai’s core. He let out a quivering breath as the infusion of energy radiated inside him.
This, the man felt on the back of his neck, like a wisp of a breeze. He twitched away and looked over his shoulder. But there was no one and nothing there, only a yurt half-hidden by shade. He and the woman left soon after that.
Good riddance, Nikolai thought, although truth be told, he knew it wasn’t the couple but that filthiness he felt that he wanted to be rid of. As if the man and woman disappearing would mean Nikolai’s memory of how low he’d stooped would disappear, too.
Obviously, it did not. Nikolai leaned a little more heavily against the side of the yurt.
“Don’t look so grim,” a woman said as she materialized in front of him. Or what had been a woman, eighteen years ago, before she’d been buried in that damnable state between life and death. Now resurrected, she was more walking ghoul than human.
“Aizhana,” Nikolai said. She hadn’t visited him before, but he purposely kept his surprise out of his tone. He didn’t want her to think he was excited to see her when he was, in fact, quite the opposite.
Click, click, click. She clacked her long fingernails together. “When will you start calling me Mother? Or Mama?”
Nikolai cringed. “Never.”
She grimaced, exposing yellow teeth and rotten gums. Her black hair was missing in places, and the rest hung stringy and limp around the sallow skin of her face (where she had skin). And she’d stunk of week-old fish and putrefied flesh before Nikolai had surrounded her in an invisible bubble, back when he was still whole and had complete use of his magic. Nevertheless, her stench remained contained. Not everything about me has been consigned to shadow, he thought. It was some consolation to know that the enchantments he’d cast in the past still existed.
The only thing remotely human about Aizhana was her eyes, which glowed golden and defiantly alive. “I thought you were capable of looking beyond the superficial,” she said.
“I am,” Nikolai said. “It’s not because of your appearance that I refuse you. It’s because you killed my father.”
She flashed him a ghastly grin. “I’m glad you have come around to believing that the tsar really was your father.”
“A lot of good that information does me.” Nikolai turned and began to walk away from the village, back to the open grassland where his eagle waited.
Aizhana limped straight through the fire over which the villagers cooked their dinner (it was only imaginary fire, after all) and followed Nikolai. “You would be back on the reality side of the Dream Benches by now if you would just kill the visitors who come here. You would have a great deal more energy that way. Taking the tsar’s life—as well as those of his guards and a few others along the way—is how I am so strong.”
Nikolai glared over his shoulder at her but kept walking. In fact, he picked up the pace.
For a barely living woman with one crippled leg, Aizhana was awfully fast. It was, as she’d said, the energy from the lives she’d stolen.
And perhaps it’s also that, as a shadow, I’m awfully slow. Nikolai frowned.