Nikolai meets Galina for the first time

The following is a deleted scene from an earlier draft of The Crown’s Game. It’s where Nikolai first meets Galina and was the original opening of the book.

If you’ve read The Crown’s Game, you’ll notice that some of this material was later incorporated into the story, but alas, other parts were left on the cutting room floor. However, you get to read it now… Enjoy!

June, 1814 — Kazakh Steppe

Seven-year-old Nikolai Karimov squinted at a strange woman who appeared on the horizon of the Kazakh steppe. She didn’t arrive slowly, ploddingly, with an entire caravan of mules and coaches lugging supplies for the long trip to the dry savanna. Rather, she simply appeared at the border of Asia and the Russian empire. One minute, the sky was uninterrupted blue. The next, it was disrupted by the silhouette of a woman in clothes unlike any Nikolai had ever seen. A dainty hat perched atop carefully coifed brown curls. A voluminous gown made of iridescent purple fabric that shimmered in the sweltering midday sun. And preposterously high-heeled boots that looked like an accident waiting to happen on the uneven terrain of the steppe.

An accident, that is, if the woman were actually walking. Nikolai twisted the hem of his tunic as he studied her. He focused at the space between the ground and the soles of her tiny feet and discovered that there was, indeed, a space between, if only inches. She levitated and merely moved her legs to create the illusion of walking. And she did so without seeming aware of it, as if the movement had been a part of her for decades. Nikolai grinned and puffed his chest. The other children in the village wouldn’t have noticed. They would simply have thought the woman was preternaturally graceful.

When she floated to a stop in front of him seconds later, she stooped—although still hovering—and asked, “C’est toi que je cherche?”

Nikolai tilted his head, and the fringe of his dark hair fell in his face. He could not understand the woman’s gibberish.

The woman muttered something to herself. Then she spoke again, this time in halting Russian, as if she had learned it by eavesdropping on others but not actually speaking it herself. “Eto ti?” Are you the one I’m looking for?

Nikolai screwed up his face at her pronunciation. Although his father had been Russian—he was a soldier passing through on his way to an army campaign near Mongolia— his mother had been Kazakh, and Nikolai was accustomed to the Kazakh-tinged Russian spoken here on the steppe.

“I am the Countess Galina Zakrevskaya,” the woman said, “and I have come for you. Where are your parents?”

“Mama died when I was born,” Nikolai said without regret. He had not known her, so he had not had the opportunity to form an attachment. “And Father is also long gone.”

Galina nodded, as if she had expected as much. “Then you are all alone?”

“I have the village.” Nikolai pointed behind him at the cluster of colorful yurts, round tents decorated with brightly colored patterns woven in a rainbow of zigzags and stripes.

“I doubt they will mind one less mouth to feed,” Galina said. “But first, let me be sure you are what drew me here.”

She snapped her long fingers, and a needle and spool of black thread appeared between her thumb and index finger where none had been before. Then she twirled it in the air like a lasso and flung it at Nikolai’s face. He didn’t have a chance to dodge before the needle pierced his cheek and sewed his mouth shut, in the same zigzag pattern as bedecked one of the yurts nearby.

Nikolai tried to scream, but because his lips were sealed, the sounds came out only as a muffled moan. What had she done? He clawed at the threads binding his mouth, but to no avail. They were there—he could feel the tight criss-crosses cutting into his lips—but they weren’t, because they didn’t really hurt, and every time he tried to pry them off, his fingers pressed only to his own skin. Tears streamed down his soft cheeks.

“Can you fix it?” she asked, arms crossed over the bodice of her gown. “Or shall I leave you like this for the rest of your days?”

Nikolai’s breath was ragged. He kept scratching at the threads. Then he screamed again, but this one was even more pitiful than the first and came out as a mere whimper.

“Oh, no, a tantrum won’t resolve a thing.” Galina swept her arm in the air behind her, and a velvet armchair materialized. She lowered herself into its deep cushions and settled in. “If this is going to take a while, I’ll make myself comfortable.” A steaming cup of tea on a gilded saucer manifested itself in her hands.

Nikolai glanced over his shoulder at the village, but no one was coming to his aid. Of course they weren’t. They all hated him, he knew it. No one appreciated his jokes, like when he muted the musician’s dombra so no sounds emitted from its guitar-like strings, or when he turned the other children’s suppers from rice into sand. His abilities frightened them, rather than thrilled them. They’d probably be glad to see his mouth sewn shut.

But it wasn’t as if anyone in the village looked over at him and made the conscious choice to ignore him. As Nikolai waved his arms at them, he realized they didn’t see him or the mysterious levitating woman at all. The village women busied themselves around the fire, slicing onions and dicing sheep meat for the evening’s kuyrdak, while the children ran around a blindfolded boy, laughing and screaming while fleeing from the “blind wild goat.” And the men were not home, for they were off herding and milking the yaks and sheep. Not that any of them would have been able to help anyway.

But the Galina woman had said Nikolai could fix this himself, hadn’t she?

Yes, she had. And he could. He knew he could, even if he’d never touched someone else’s magic before. He just had to think of it as a trick of his own doing. Or, rather, like a trick of his own that had gone awry that now needed to be undone. Like when he was younger, and he enchanted all the village’s dishes to wash themselves so that the women would have more time to play games with him (since the children would have nothing to do with Nikolai), but he accidentally charmed the suds a bit too vigorously and they scrubbed holes into the plates. When things like that happened, he simply had to come up with another workaround.

What would he do if he’d inadvertently stitched something shut?

He’d cut it.

So Nikolai grit his teeth behind his sewn lips and lifted his hand into the air. He pointed his pinkie finger and drew a rudimentary knife in the air. No sooner had he finished drawing the tip of the blade, than the knife gleamed silver against the blue sky. He directed it toward his mouth and gestured for it to cut loose each of the stitches.

Slash, slash, slash.

When the last stitch was sliced free, Nikolai commanded all the short threads into the air, and the knife minced them up viciously until nothing but black thread dust lingered. Then he blew on them as hard as his little lungs could, sending them like a cloud of angry gnats toward Galina’s face. That’ll show her.

The knife, he pocketed for use another time.

Galina laughed and snapped her fingers. The cloud of thread burst into confetti and fluttered to the dry grass and dirt below. “Your mother was a mystic?”

Nikolai sputtered, both because he was taken aback by how quick the woman’s reflexes were, and because his mouth was still growing accustomed to its regained freedom. “A f-f-faith healer.”

“Hmm. Interesting. And yet she could not heal herself on her deathbed.”

Nikolai glared, and the knife leapt out of his back pocket, poised at his shoulder to attack.

“Oh, no need for histrionics, I was merely making an observation.” Galina rose from her armchair, and it faded away like a mirage evaporates in the summer heat. “There’s a game I want to teach you, back in St. Petersburg. The one with the best magic wins. You’ll come with me, yes? I’ll trade two horses to keep you.” She whistled—come to think of it, it was more a shrill, shrieking slash through the steppe air than a whistle—and a pair of sturdy Adaev horses galloped toward her from the distance, one chestnut and one dappled white.

Nikolai did not waste any energy contemplating whether to stay or go. Of course he would go with her. Why not? Nikolai had no parents here, the other children were spooked of him, and the adults viewed him as a burden, not a mystical resource. If he left with Galina, she would show him what he could do with his gifts. And she’d promised him a game.

But it was rather offensive that she considered him worth only two horses, however fine they might be. Besides, his people had had a rough winter, and wolves had decimated their stables. Even if his village didn’t like him, it didn’t mean he couldn’t make sure they were taken care of before he left. After all, they had fed him and clothed him and taught him some things. “Four,” Nikolai said, stamping his boot for emphasis. “Four horses.”

An amused smile crept across Galina’s face. Did she think he was being presumptuous? (But what did it matter? He already knew he was presumptuous, because the village women were forever scolding him for it.) Nikolai stood a little taller.

“Two horses,” she said. “And two sheep.” She whistled again, and two sheep ran from the horizon to Nikolai’s side.

They baa-ed at him, and he reached up to pet the closest one. It was thick with wool and several times his size. Not exactly four Adaev horses, but still, four animals. And the village could always use more sheep. He turned to Galina. “Kharasho.” All right.

She offered him her hand, and he took it, pressing his small and calloused one against her delicate, smooth one. Together, they walked across the grassland toward the yurts. The animals followed.

It was the last Nikolai would see of the steppe for a very long time.