As those of you who have been to my book events know, the first version of The Crown’s Fate was quite different from the one that was eventually published. The deleted scene below is from that early manuscript. It includes a character you love, and another one who didn’t make the final cut. It’s also set in a place that you’ll recognize as one I later repurposed for another scene in The Crown’s Fate.
In this version of the story, Nikolai had just returned to Saint Petersburg in his shadow form. Vika managed to trap him, but then he animated the bronze statue of Peter the Great and his horse. The bronze horseman whisked Nikolai out of the city, but along the way, Nikolai got ornery, and the statue punched him and knocked him out. When Nikolai wakes, this is what happens…
DELETED SCENE FROM THE CROWN’S FATE
The next time Nikolai woke, the cylindrical cell was bathed in sunlight. He squinted as he looked upward, at least two hundred feet, likely more, where the entire ceiling seemed to have vanished. Instead, a circle of bright azure shined down on him, completely oblivious to his misery. Or perhaps it was well aware of it, but shined down because of his misery. To spite him.
Nikolai cursed. Sunlight or not, he was still trapped in what appeared to be an oubliette of sorts. He still had no idea where he was. And he still had no idea what would become of him.
But the walls. “It can’t be…” Nikolai ran his fingers over more crags and bumps. He’d never seen or touched lava rock before, but this certainly fit his understanding of it. “Am I inside a volcano?”
He pressed his ear against the wall.
What he expected to hear, he didn’t know. What did a volcano sound like? Did lava make sound as it flowed? He leaned against the rock for another minute but heard nothing.
Suddenly, the walls around him began to rumble. What the devil? He pushed away from the wall and used what little magic he had to conjure a shield around himself. It sputtered out almost immediately. Merde.
The wall across from him began to melt, from black, pock-marked stone into something red that stunk of sulfur. Lava. Nikolai pressed himself against the rock behind his back. The entire cell hissed and steamed, and the melting wall emitted heat in furious, undulating waves. Nikolai’s hand went instinctively to his collarbone, where the crossed wands used to be, the closest memory and experience he had to being burned alive.
Perhaps he was in hell. Perhaps he really was a demon, as Pasha’s soldiers in Peter’s Square had accused him, and the statue had taken him away and imprisoned him where he truly belonged.
The wall across from Nikolai was now entirely red. The curtain of lava roiled and cascaded to the ground like a furious waterfall. It spilled across the floor of the cell, moving faster than something as thick as lava should, its fiery tentacles flickering and reaching to consume Nikolai’s feet.
This is how I finally die.
And then the lava stopped, only an inch from the toes of Nikolai’s boots, their molten tongues still hungry, but suspended.
The wall in front of him had melted away completely, and a tiny girl only half Nikolai’s height—and possibly half his width—stood framed by what remained of the black rock. Her spindly arms crossed over her chest and her hip cocked to the left, as if she’d been standing outside that entryway for ages, waiting for the lava to melt the wall. And her wild hair was red with a streak of black, like a volcano erupting in flame and ash. Like Vika.
She screwed up her face at him, the delicate features bunching up like a petulant child’s. “Never saw a nymph before?”
“I…” Nikolai blinked as he took in this girl, this nymph, before him. No, he’d never seen a nymph before. He’d thought they were extinct. But that wasn’t why he was flummoxed. What he wanted to know was, was she somehow related to Vika?
“I would have thought you’d be more articulate.” The nymph spat on the ground, although what came from her mouth wasn’t ordinary spit, but liquid flame. It hit the black rock with a splat and burned off immediately. “You’re dressed as if you ought to be more articulate.”
That was when Nikolai realized the nymph wasn’t wearing any clothes, but rather, was covered only by a thin layer of soot. Fire blazed through parts of Nikolai that ought not be kindled, given that he was trapped against a wall with lava threatening him a mere inch away. He averted his eyes from the nymph’s curves and focused instead on the embers on the ground where she’d just spit.
“Hmm. You’re much more restrained than the last boy I had in here.”
“Is this routine?” Nikolai managed to ask despite his pulse throbbing in his throat. “Locking people up and…”
Nikolai flushed even hotter than he already was in this room full of lava. He couldn’t bring himself to finish aloud what he’d been thinking, that this nymph imprisoned men to seduce them before she killed them, like a volcanic siren who toyed with her prey before luring them to their fiery deaths. Nikolai shuddered at the heat that flashed through him.
But a small part of him welcomed it.
The nymph grinned. She had hundreds of teeth, all of them thin and sharp, like needles. “Let’s just say the last boy I had here could not keep up with me.” She laughed and tossed her hair, which leapt every which way as if there were wind in the room, even though there was not. Nikolai could not help but look at her again, although he willed himself to focus solely on her face and not the rest of her body.
“Who are you?” he asked, keeping his voice as measured as possible for a boy under the influence of both duress and a near-naked female.
She scowled. “I don’t think you’re in a position to ask questions.” The nymph gestured at the lava simmering at Nikolai’s feet. “Who are you, and why did you storm my volcano?”
Nikolai furrowed his brows. “I didn’t storm your volcano. I woke up a prisoner here.”
“You did storm my volcano, with your metal soldier and that beast of a horse. Do you deny attacking my volcano?”
“I neither deny nor confirm,” Nikolai said. “I was unconscious.”
The nymph pursed her lips and took a moment to look Nikolai up and down. Mostly up, seeing as he was standing on his tip toes, still plastered against the wall, to avoid the magma at his feet. And it only took a moment, for there wasn’t much to see. He was, after all, just a shadow of a boy, covered by an overcoat.
“What are you?” she asked.
“I’m not sure,” Nikolai answered, quite honestly.
“Are you human? Or something else?” She moved closer to him, walking on top of the lava with her bare feet and wiggling her toes as it flowed around them, as if she were stepping on the plushest of Persian rugs. “At first, I thought you might be dangerous, given your thunderous arrival. But you don’t seem terribly dangerous. More a curiosity than a threat.” She stopped right in front of him. She poked a tiny finger at his chest, which was the highest she could reach.
Nikolai jerked back, although he didn’t go far, for he was already against the rock. The nymph’s touch was a spark. Not the same as the warm, heart-pounding kind when he touched Vika, but something sharper and more aggressive, like a skewer hot from laying on the coals.
She reached to touch him again. Nikolai concentrated all the energy he had left and conjured a shield. It wavered, but he held it tight, his entire body quivering under the strain.
Her finger hit the shield, and she yelped. It couldn’t have hurt her—at least, Nikolai hadn’t meant it to—but her eyes widened and her mouth dropped. She stepped back several paces onto the lava. “What are you? Who sent you here?”
“I’m just a boy.”
“You’re more than a boy.”
Or less than one, Nikolai thought, as he looked at his shaking silhouette of an arm. He only had enough power to hold the shield a minute more.
“Mere boys don’t have magic,” the nymph said.
“Mere boys also aren’t shadows,” Nikolai said. “I’m an enchanter. What did you think I was?” For before today, Nikolai hadn’t known that anyone else magical existed outside of Vika, Galina and himself. But now there was this nymph, who, even if she couldn’t use magic like his, could at least get the lava to do her bidding, and she hadn’t seem fazed when she’d thought he was only a shadow. Well, she had imprisoned him and thought he might be dangerous. But the point was, she hadn’t seemed all that surprised that such a thing as a shadow could exist without a body to go with it, so there must be more to the magical world than what Nikolai knew.
“An enchanter,” the nymph whispered. She stared at him. She didn’t seem to have heard Nikolai’s question.
He held his breath as he waited for the nymph’s next move.
Her eyes glistened now like polished obsidian, and the lava around her cooled. The stink of sulfur dissipated. “My sister was an enchantress.”
Nikolai’s hold on his shield slipped, and it flickered out.
“You didn’t think nymphs had sisters?”
“Victoria was my twin,” the nymph said. She swirled her fingertip in a pool of lava that was still liquid, like an ordinary girl might do in a puddle of water. “Fraternal twin. Our mother was a volcano nymph, and our father, a human. Somehow, I was born one hundred percent nymph, and my sister, one hundred percent human. My mother had to send Victoria away, because human girls cannot thrive inside volcanoes. Or so I was told.” The nymph screwed up her face and jabbed at the lava puddle.
Nikolai froze. “Vika” was the diminutive form, the nickname, of “Victoria.”
“I think I know her,” he said as gingerly as possible, so as not to fan the flames of whatever was agitating the nymph.
She startled and leaped up, lava still dripping from where her finger had played in it. “You know her?”
Nikolai nodded slowly. “She goes by Vika.”
The nymph bounded across the room again until she was directly in front of Nikolai. Fire flared at her feet. “Tell me about her!”
Nikolai jerked back against the wall, and the rough rock scraped into the skin at the back of his neck.
A smile twisted its way onto the nymph’s face. “You’re afraid of the fire again. You don’t have your magical barrier anymore, do you?” She pointed her toes and stuck a flaming foot out in Nikolai’s direction. He tried not flinch, but instinct got the better of him.
She laughed and danced in place, like a creature from a fairy tale who was drunk on her own mischief.
“Retract some of this lava so I can stand properly,” Nikolai said, puffing out his chest in as much bravado as he could muster, “and I will tell you about Vika.”
The nymph grinned that impish smile again. “Oh, so the prisoner is negotiating now, is he?”
“The prisoner has information you want.”
“I have other ways of getting what I want.” She looked up at Nikolai. Then she pressed her soot-covered body against him and slid her hand up his chest, her touch hungry and hot—but not scalding—this time.
Nikolai could feel every inch her, warm even through his coat. Every single sizzling curve. Every heated rise and fall of her chest. His heart pounded traitorously beneath her hand.
This isn’t right, he thought. She’s Vika’s sister.
And yet, Vika didn’t want him, did she? She’d trapped him in a box and let Pasha’s soldiers attempt to arrest him. But here was a girl who needed and wanted him. In more ways than one.
A pedestal of lava boosted the nymph so her face was level with Nikolai’s. Her fingers slid up to run through his hair, then rested on the nape of his neck.
Nikolai drew an involuntary breath. The nymph was actually alluring, other than her alarmingly sharp teeth. The shape of her face was soft, her cheeks, slightly blushed, and her lips were plump and pink beneath a dust of ash. The darkness in Nikolai’s veins flared awake, and although he was a shadow, the very corporeal ache of lust spread throughout him.
“What is it you want to know about Vika?” Nikolai whispered.
The nymph leaned into him again, this time so her mouth just grazed his ear. “Nevermind,” she crooned. “You smell delicious. I think I’d rather get to know about you.”
It seemed like a very bad idea. And a very good one.
The nymph pulled back then, the magma carrying her toward the exit, as if the tide were suddenly receding. “I’ll send you a proper bed. And some food.”
Nikolai tried to move toward her, but the lava around his feet was still too hot to traverse. “Wait—”
“I’ll be back,” she said, as the archway in the wall began to morph again from lava into solid rock.
Nikolai could hardly keep up with what was happening. What had happened, and how quickly he’d lost his head. And how little he cared. He just wanted to feel the nymph against him again, with nothing but a thin layer of ash and his clothes between them. “What’s your name?” he asked, as she began to disappear through the closing door.
“I’m Nikolai,” he called out, as the wall finally sealed.
Then he sank to the ground. He could still feel the heat of Valentina’s touch, and he yearned to have it back, if only just another taste.
He knew he was being an idiot, thinking not with his head, but with, well, other parts. But Nikolai couldn’t help it, for he was an eighteen-year-old boy, dammit, and one who had been alone and abandoned and rejected for most of his life.
And he had asked the statue to take him somewhere he was wanted, hadn’t he? The darkness in Nikolai’s blood stirred again.
Yes, he thought. At least here, in the volcano, I am wanted.