Prologue: The Lion for Good Luck
The crunch of fresh snow under Arthur Hawkins’ boots was deliberately quiet, a soft and rustling sound easily mistaken for padding fauna. His breath was let out in soft exhales too slight to fog the air around him. Although his eyes should have been peeled for prey, his gaze constantly sought out the navy coats of the Tsar’s closest hunters. His heart pounded in his throat when he’d catch sight of one. As a company, they’d left to find an elusive creature that had stolen the Tsar’s attention, with Arthur as an honorary guest. Arthur could not help but think, however, that he was the true target of today’s hunt.
It always happened that the man nearest him was Sergei Vinogradov, the Tsar’s right hand. The Ruka, they called him, or else just ruka when they spoke Imrauvian. He carried an Orcadian weapon, curiously enough, and this was a fact that put Arthur on edge. Truly, most things about Imrauov did.
Arthur’s visit to Imrauov was an unexpected one. He’d come at the request of the Orcadian Ambassador Annalise Cuthbert. She believed she could make peace between the two perpetually-squabbling countries. Arthur, on the other hand, thought it mad. Upon voicing his contention, however, Annalise had smiled playfully, as she was wont to do, and pulled close to Arthur in the safety of solitude. He’d been the only one to come so close as to clearly see the lioness’ freckles, her soft laugh lines from smirking.
“I do not fear Imrauov,” she’d said, forcefully straightening the tie Arthur hadn’t noticed had come askew, “and no Orcadian should ever have to.”
He longed for the warmth of that encounter as he crept through Imrauov’s wilds, eyes peeled for a creature they’d described as “blood against snow.” The Tilki, as they’d named it, took the form of a fox and was known for its rich crimson coat. It was far from Arthur’s place to ask why the tsar wished to hunt the creature— but iron-fisted Imrauov law couldn’t stop him from wondering. He’d briefly considered the possibility that the Imrauvian aristocrats wished him dead of the cold.
It was the first and coldest month, Heminary, and he’d been given thin furs no more protective than his Orcadian uniform. If this was a test, however, damned if Arthur Hawkins would not rise to it. They could take his frostbitten extremities for all he cared, but he wouldn’t be caught dead beseeching an Imrauvian. He gritted his teeth hard against the biting cold that wept into his boots and seeped into his bones, holding tight to his rifle that was so very unlike the Fedorovskiy rifles every man but he and Sergei carried. Theirs were built to function in the freezing wasteland that Imrauov had proven to be. Arthur was pulled from the warmth of his bitter thoughts by a soft voice, speaking Orcadian with a noticeable accent.
“I think we will be turning back for today,” the man said, and Arthur turned to face none other than Tsar Taras Mikhailovich Musinov. He was not an imposing man, by any means— a fact which was sourly whispered throughout Imrauov. He was tall and very slim, with thinning blonde hair, a firm nose and starflower-blue eyes. This close, Arthur could just make out his smile lines, which crinkled when he’d gotten the Orcadian’s attention. Arthur gave the queen’s salute, a curt and formal meeting of his index finger and brow.
“Of course, sir,” he said. Tsar Musinov laughed.
“There is no need for that,” said the tsar, tilting his head with a smirk. He approached his steed, tied tightly to a coniferous tree with the rest of them. “I am not your king.”
The tsar mounted his horse with the fluidity of lightning after untying her. She was a horse of the icelands, a tall and beautiful thing that could match the wind for speed, and the tsar looked most magnificent when he was astride her. They suited each other, both fast, thin, and regal. He looked around him as the company rejoined, mounting their steeds and preparing to leave. There was only one missing.
“Where is Sergei?” the tsar asked. As if in response, there were several resounding gunshots nearby, spooking the horses into a sudden din of whinnying. Taras calmed Alyona in moments with a distracted pat of her neck. Without wasting another second, he spurred her into motion, racing in the direction of the sound. Behind him were the thundering hooves of his cavalry, and Arthur struggled to mount his overly-tall steed to keep pace. With an uncomfortable hop, Arthur slid into the saddle, clutching both his gun and his mount with equal trepidation.
“Go,” he whispered harshly, a cloud of warm breath following it. He did not ride like an Imrauvian, and so the horse’s pursuit was hesitant, confused. It wasn’t long before the only remnants of the tsar’s company were gunshots and shouting. Arthur’s heart hammered in his chest again, certain— so completely certain— that he would soon be subject to regicide. The panic of this, the fear of its consequences, were more than he was prepared to face. He wasn’t sure if it was relief he felt when he saw the true meaning of the chaos.
To call them wolves wouldn’t have done them justice. They were gorey bones with greying fur that clung to them in patches. Their maws were dominated with dark teeth, dull like iron and they moved in a way that was deeply unsettling, a quiet shuddering walk which shouldn’t have been possible with their clear deformities. Arthur was, for a moment, without words. It was only when he’d caught the attention of one particular monstrosity that he instantly reacted, pulling up his gun, pressing it into his shoulder and firing.
The wolf recoiled, snarling when it had recovered and starting for the legs of Arthur’s steed. He fired again, but too late— the beast sunk its metal teeth into the horse’s leg as fast as iron plummets in blood. Arthur’s mount let out an unholy noise of pain, the sound half scream and half whinny as it tried to pull away to no avail. Within minutes, Arthur was on the ground, blinded by pain and shock. Survival pushed him to his feet, and sheer instinct brought his rifle to his shoulder again, the agony of standing barely registering in that moment of terror.
He fired, and this time the wolf went down mid-lunge, twisting away violently with the momentum of the bullet and lying motionless in the snow.
Now that the immediate danger had passed, he noticed a distinct looseness in his ankle that made him slightly queasy to put weight on. The leg his steed had landed on was burning with pain, but thankfully didn’t seem broken. The state of his ribs, however, seemed to be a different story. He took in a rattling breath, aiming his rifle now at the writhing horse’s head and enacted his mercy upon it.
The fight ahead had begun to quiet, and Arthur noticed a few of the tsar’s men standing warily, looking around with their guns prepared to fire. A few feet away a blue-coated figure lay face-down in the snow, blood melting the snow around him, too motionless to be alive. Within the ring of stone-faced soldiers was the tsar, looking concerned and speaking in quick Imrauvian to Sergei, who stood at his side. Arthur’s Imrauvian was shoddy, but manageable.
“Why are they here?” the tsar said as soldiers began to double-up on horses. Arthur was quietly glad to see he wasn’t the only one who’d lost a steed. Alyona, miraculous creature that she was, remained calm and unscathed beneath Taras as though everything hadn’t just gone to hell.
“Perhaps it takes some time, my king,” Sergei replied. Taras let out a sharp breath through his nose, scanning the forest for more of the beasts.
“If I have to sacrifice one of my people to ensure safety, I expect safety,” Taras said, the closest Arthur had ever seen him to anger. When he caught sight of Arthur, limping towards the coterie, his anger melted away to concern.
“Mister Hawkins,” the tsar said urgently, riding to his side and speaking Orcadian once more. “You are hurt?”
“I’ve only rolled my ankle, sir,” Arthur replied. “Nothing time won’t heal.”
“How fortunate,” Sergei intoned.
“Fortunate indeed,” Taras echoed. “Sergei. Assist Mister Hawkins onto Alyona. I’ll hurry him back to Musinow— you lead the company back.”
Before Arthur could protest, Sergei had dismounted, taking his place by Alyona and lacing his fingers to provide Arthur a step up onto the horse. Arthur, far from the sort of man who’d disobey a king, stepped gingerly into Sergei’s large hands and briefly caught the green-eyed man’s gaze. His brows were heavy, and he had a face that was ruggedly handsome and sullen. Light brown hair peeked from beneath his military cap.
With great care, Arthur mounted Alyona behind the king, understandably hesitant to hold to him. However the Imrauvians were, if nothing else, a hospitable people, and the king himself refused to have an Orcadian embassy soldier bouncing carelessly on the back of his horse. He started off in the direction of Musinow, the Tsar’s City, and said in firm Orcadian, “hold on.”
Considering the speed Alyona was going, Arthur didn’t need to be asked twice. He held tight to the king and closed his eyes to focus on ignoring the pain of his shifting ribs.
It was a week after the hunting incident and Arthur was still sporting bandages on his ankle. He’d managed to dislocate it and now sported a lengthy scar along the pale skin beneath his boot. In addition to this, he was nursing several broken ribs that made breathing an ordeal, but he never said so much as a word about any of it. Primarily because if he did, Annalise would ruthlessly tease him.
There was to be a feast that evening in the Kremlin at the very top of Karcerov, the northmost state of Alekhova. Alekhova itself was the largest country in the Imrauvian empire and had within it four other states: Rostislav, the empty, Baranovy, the police state, Onisimsk, the neutral, and Praskovya, the home to rebels.
However cold Karcerov could be, being so far north, the winters were unbelievably beautiful— especially in Musinow. As Annalise and Arthur approached the Kremlin in their carriage sent from the embassy, a soft snow was falling. It glowed prettily in the up-lighting of the palaces before settling down to frost the cupolas at their peaks. The limestone palaces, bedecked with long statues of lean, beautiful women— the late Tsar Onisimsk’s wives— were surrounded on all sides by a monolithic wall that was bore similarly snowy icing.
A procession of Orcadian soldiers marched ahead of their opulent carriage that boasted the fierce golden lion of the ruling house. Annalise glanced out the curtained carriage window at the tower that dwarfed the two other palaces.
“A literal ivory tower,” she murmured, pulling her furs close around herself. Arthur let out a small snort.
“They’re quite exclusive, these Imrauvians,” he said. “Very secretive, too. I don’t think we’ll be getting much out of them today.”
“You’re so optimistic, Arthur,” Annalise said, pulling her gaze from the tower with a smile. “I hear Tsar Taras is far kinder than his father. I think we’ll make some real ground.”
“Taras is toothless,” Arthur said honestly, “compared to Mikhail.”
Annalise turned her attention out the window again, her breath fogging the glass.
“That’s certainly what I’m hoping for, yes.”
There was an unspoken fear between the two of them, one that settled in the carriage. To call the Imrauvians secretive was an understatement: they were lockboxes, steel traps, iron automatons. The upper Imrauvian class learned kindness to mask what lay beneath. They baited with honey, and poisoned with flowers. There was a saying in Orcadia: trust a salesman before an Imrauvian.
The carriages came to a halt within the Kremlin walls. There were gardens outside, with countless blooming violets and still more statues. One was of a mounted Onisimsk, seated atop his rearing steed. This was the prominent statue, set in the middle of the cobblestone road that led to the Winter Tower. It was surrounded by a planter of frost-hardy flowers.
And there were Imrauvians. Countless Imrauvians. Arthur observed them coolly, noticing that Sergei Vinogradov was, in fact, among them outside. The road was completely flanked by the tsar’s regiment of soldiers, the Hussar. Standing at the entrance to the carriage, Arthur could just see several Imrauvian nobles through the window. He knew them all, of course, with how much time he’d spent with the tsar.
There was Aleksandr Vinogradov, the Head Minister of Imperial Affairs, standing beside Arseniy Vitsin, who headed Foreign Affairs. He knew Annalise would be quietly happy to see Arseniy there: he was the kindest man they’d ever met, Imrauvian or otherwise. Arseniy had a fascination with animals and told them once about all the animals they kept at the zoo in Fedorov.
What happiness Arseniy might have warranted was dampened by Aleksandr. He had cold black eyes, a trim dark beard, and neatly combed ebony hair. He immediately noticed Arthur’s attention through the window and their gazes met for a moment, two stone-faced soldiers daring the other to act. Annalise, too, seemed preoccupied with Aleksandr’s presence, her normally proud features growing a little pale.
Arthur jerked her from her thoughts with a gentle hand to her arm.
“Ambassador,” he said softly, “we mustn’t keep them waiting.”
“Certainly not out there,” she said. She stood and gathered her fine furs about her shoulders. “They’ll be icicles before we can negotiate.”
“They’re already icicles. They’re just very good about hiding it.”
“Arthur,” Annalise said in a joking reprimand, gently bumping his arm. “Let’s pretend we’re not judgmental Orcadians, if just for a day.”
“I’ll do my best to manage the whole day, Ambassador.”
They stepped out of the carriage, Arthur holding Annalise’s arm. The cold wind swept into the space between Arthur’s collar and his neck. It was freezing, like letting a cube of ice slip into ones garments on a warm day. Only today was far from warm.
“Good Lady Cuthbert,” Aleksandr said with a bow. Arseniy smiled, taking Annalise’s hand.
“Ambassador Cuthbert, daughter of Charles and Victoria, the finest specimen of Orcadian in Dimarchai,” he said, bending to kiss her digits, his short auburn beard gently scratching her knuckles. Annalise smiled in return.
“Good Arseniy Illarionovich,” she said, bowing— for a lady of Imrauov bows like a man. “They have yet to make an Imrauvian so quality as a Vitsin.”
“Treason,” murmured Arseniy with a small smirk.
“Would you like to come inside, good lady?” Aleksandr interrupted.
“Please, yes, I’d like that.”
“Follow me,” he said, in that brusque Imrauvian way. He led Annalise and Arthur towards the palace ahead, their shoes sloshing in the white snow, much softer than the snow in the forest. They had a company of Orcadian Bruisedarks in tow, keeping an eye on their Ambassador at Arthur’s insistence, their white bandoliers in stark contrast with their crimson uniforms, their bayonets gleaming in the white light of the evening snow and the lights from within the tower.
As they walked, a man approached, his hair a charming blend of dark brown and fox-auburn. He smiled and immediately Arthur tensed. He was dressed in a dark uniform, with silver buttons, red embroidery and had black gloves and a cavalry sword at his hip. He bowed before Annalise and the party came to a brief halt.
“Good evening. My name is Matvei Kintsel,” he said, taking Annalise’s hand and kissing it. Arthur’s hand twitched, resisting violence. “I will be taking care of you, my dear.”
“Ambassador Cuthbert, if you would,” Annalise said. Matvei’s eyebrows raised and he let out a soft chuckle.
“Forgive me, Ambassador. I presume too much. I am not often in contact with the upper class—especially not those so stunning as yourself.”
Arthur noticed a faint Lourdesian accent, a lilt to his speech that was so common in the language of Lourdois.
“Minister Kintsel is our Head of Internal Affairs,” Aleksandr explained, resuming his walk towards the tower. This information wasn’t anything new to the Orcadians, but Annalise played a very good pupil. They ascended the stairs, the warm light of the palace’s grand hall ushering out onto the steps. “As he said, it is his duty to protect you.”
That was one benefit to Imrauvian politicking: They did not speak Orcadian with complete fluency. What secrets might have been concealed in Imrauvian were revealed by their unfamiliarity with the language. As Arthur expected she might, Annalise confronted the man.
“Protect me? From what?”
“Ah,” said Aleksandr, “from rebels. From those who are not so… urbane as we are.”
“Civilized,” explained Arseniy, in aside to Annalise. He then smirked. “He presumes too much.”
“I quite noticed,” Annalise said.
They stepped into the warm grand hall, glittering with affluence. Crystal chandeliers hung from the darkwood ceilings, and the halls were littered with eager-looking waitstaff with ruffled white shirts and pressed black skirts. There were still more Hussars lining the walkways and Arthur had to admit that they made him somewhat nervous.
“This event is well-guarded,” he said to Matvei.
“Indeed, yes! We want to assure that the Lady Annalise is receiving our best service.”
Matvei held out his arm as they approached the vast stairway leading to the tsar’s quarters.
“I insist, my dear,” he said, lowering his voice. Although it’d been said amiably, there was an edge to it that Arthur didn’t like. Annalise took his arm, giving him a thin smile, and Arthur stayed close behind.
“Will you be introducing me to the Tsar?”
“Absolutely,” he said. “And then we can begin negotiations about our alliance. I must admit, it will be quite a relief, to have such powerful friends to the south.”
“We share those concerns, truthfully,” she said.
Matvei lead her up the stairway, followed closely by the Orcadian Bruisedarks. The Midnighters of the King made it quite obvious that Orcadia didn’t trust Imrauov as far as they could throw them. The fact that Arthur never lost sight of Matvei for a moment made that rather clear as well.
They ascended the rich wooden stairs, and Arthur found his attention momentarily stolen by the gilded embellishments along the walls and ceiling. There were dark frescoes decorating the walls, paintings of times past; horses and kings and furs and wolves.
“You have quite a history,” Annalise murmured. Arthur felt a touch uncomfortable with Annalise so close to Matvei and so far away from himself and the other Bruisedarks.
“Of course,” Matvei said, turning his head to look at the frescoes. “This, my dear, is the staircase that every Imrauvian tsar must climb to the coronation room.”
They reached the top of the stairs and Matvei brought his free hand to a lovely carved lion on the top of the stair rail.
“Every king in Imrauov has touched this lion before being coronated,” he said, “for good luck—for fierceness.”
“The lion is known for fierceness,” Annalise said. Matvei chuckled.
“Yes, it is. The good people of Orcadia chose a wonderful symbol.”
“We like to think so,” Annalise said, with a smile that was all politeness.
At the top of the stairs was a small room, and when he took pause to think, he could imagine the tsars standing in that space, awaiting the moment that would change their lives forever— awaiting the throne that so often wore them into madness. It was so dim in this room, with its dark wood and low lighting, as if designed for introspection.
Two Hussars strode to the double doors to the coronation chamber, opening them and permitting a view of the sprawling and beautiful room beyond. The walls were again gilded, there was a long, U-shaped oaken table in the middle of the room and a series of chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. There were also several gold-framed, monolithic paintings of the past Tsars.
Onisimsk, the Mad. Maksim, the Brave. Ivan, the Dragon. Mikhail, the Feared. And there, standing before the long table, flanked by Hussars and nobility, was Taras, the Great.
His nose was long and sharp, contrasting with the petite, upturned nose of his Dolvari wife. Both had bright blue eyes, but they looked impossibly lovely on Empress Sarangerel, her thick brown hair braided low and tied back behind her neck, the braids embellished with gold thread. Both tsar and tsarina smiled, and Arthur found himself feeling strangely welcomed in spite of Matvei and Aleksandr’s closeness. Instantly, Annalise bowed, and Matvei followed suit.
“Please,” said Taras, his Imrauvian accent gentle but still noticeably present. His voice, too, was quite soft and endearing as it had been out in the woods. “You are our guest, Mistress Cuthbert. I kindly ask that you rise.”
Annalise straightened and approached with Matvei, pulling her arm away from the man and stepping up to the King and Queen herself.
“I cannot overstate my honor at being here,” said Annalise. “My entire life, I’ve wanted our countries to ally.”
“We’ve heard of your work as Ambassador,” Sarangerel said. “You’ve kept yourself quite busy, for a woman with boys.” Annalise couldn’t help but smile, and Arthur smiled as well.
“I assume you speak from experience?”
Sarangerel groaned and Annalise only laughed.
“If you’ll notice, he’s not here,” she said, gesturing to the table where the other nobility had proceeded to wait by their chairs for the tsar to be seated. Sure enough, the heir apparent’s seat was empty. “Our Yura decided chapter books were better company.”
“It’s a phase,” Taras said quietly. “I had one, myself.”
“Would that my boys were so interested in chapter books and not rugby.”
“Perhaps we should trade,” Sarangerel said with a smirk. “But I warn you, the ones that read are the most trouble of all. They think they know more than you do.”
Annalise laughed, moving with the tsar and tsarina to the table. Arthur trailed behind and observed the party carefully, combing over anything that might be out of place.
An elderly waiter pulled back a chair for the tsar and his wife, a more spritely man pulling back a chair for Annalise and Arthur. They were dressed in handsome livery— gloves, breeches, tall socks and lacquered black shoes.
“Do you want to know why we use this kind of table?” Sarangerel asked Annalise conspiratorially as the waiters began serving zakuski— rare caviar and mushrooms, cucumber salad, and vodka. “It’s because we don’t like talking to the people at the ends.”
“Sarangerel,” Taras said with a frown. Annalise only laughed again and Arthur’s eye was drawn to the ends of the table: all Vinogradovs, like Matvei the smooth-talker, Kazimir the crazy-eyed, and Aleksandr the cold-hearted.
“If I may say, I certainly don’t blame you,” Arthur said.
When they’d finished partaking of their zakuski, the party was served their first course: a thick, creamy soup with rich meat pies, then a course of fish—a Dviena sterlet in champagne sauce, then chicken in thick gravy, then beef and partridge. Taras had a considerable amount of fortified wine over the course of their meal, and so had grown quite voluble throughout the night.
“Is Yura still not down here?” He asked. “He won’t see our Orcadian guests?”
Arthur’s eyes were on the doorway to the tsar’s living quarters when he heard Annalise chuckle in a wine-soaked haze of post-eating. There was a strange quality to it that made him turn to look. Taras was still picking at his food, not wanting to finish before his more leisurely guests. Annalise, on the other hand, was swaying strangely, her eyes becoming glassy.
“I don’t suppose you’ve had a little much to drink,” Arthur murmured to Annalise, but she didn’t respond, only giving him a vague smile. It was at this time that Arthur became concerned. “Annalise?”
Again, the Ambassador did not respond, instead falling back against her chair, her movements sluggish as if she was no longer sure how to conduct her arms.
“Tsar Musinov—,” Arthur began, but he didn’t need to. As soon as he was about to draw attention to Annalise, the woman began to stand, a hand to her forehead, her eyes a hundred yards away. The tsar began to panic, standing from his seat in an instant and trying to catch Annalise’s attention. Without warning, the Ambassador dropped to the floor, prompting a gasp from any dinner guests who happened to see, and the tsar went into a fit, frantically calling anyone and everyone who could possibly relinquish him of responsibility. As if he were the one with a loved one on the floor.
Arthur watched in wordless horror, his skin growing white as he saw their greatest fears come to fruition. Annalise Cuthbert lie on the ground, her body jerking as several waitstaff dropped to their knees to assist. Tsar Taras, still panicked, called for a doctor. Arthur could feel his heart slowing as the terrible realization sunk in: He would be returning home alone. The Cuthbert boys would be without a mother.
He turned numbly to look at the entrance of the reception hall, the world a blur around him. There he saw the young prince, his blonde hair carefully slicked against his head, his cold blue eyes staring at perhaps not their first corpse. He stared in the way a boy might stare at a dying crow, with only passing interest. Feeling Arthur’s gaze, his eyes flicked up to meet the Orcadian’s.
Arthur couldn’t read in the boy’s expression how he felt about what was happening before him, but there was such a gravity in the look that he was aware that the boy knew the repercussions. In that one look, Arthur could tell that Prince Yura was well aware of the hell that awaited his parents following the incident. It took days for Arthur’s emptiness to subside enough for him to realize even where he was or plan what he could possibly do from this point, forward. There wasn’t much that came to mind, but he knew one thing for certain.
He would make these godless Imrauvian dogs rue the day they’d ever allowed poison to touch Orcadian lips.