The Sins on Their Bones

Read an Excerpt From Laura R. Samotin’s The Sins on Their Bones

We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from The Sins on Their Bones by Laura R. Samotin, out from Random House Canada on May 7th.

Dimitri Alexeyev used to be the Tzar of Novo-Svitsevo. Now, he is merely a broken man, languishing in exile after losing a devastating civil war instigated by his estranged husband, Alexey Balakin. In hiding with what remains of his court, Dimitri and his spymaster, Vasily Sokolov, engineer a dangerous ruse. Vasily will sneak into Alexey’s court under a false identity to gather information, paving the way for the usurper’s downfall, while Dimitri finds a way to kill him for good.

But stopping Alexey is not so easy as plotting to kill an ordinary man. Through a perversion of the Ludayzim religion that he terms the Holy Science, Alexey has died and resurrected himself in an immortal, indestructible body—and now claims he is guided by the voice of God Himself. Able to summon forth creatures from the realm of demons, he seeks to build an army, turning Novo-Svitsevo into the greatest empire that history has ever seen.

Dimitri is determined not to let Alexey corrupt his country, but saving Novo-Svitsevo and its people will mean forfeiting the soul of the husband he can’t bring himself to forsake—or the spymaster he’s come to love.

Dimitri pulled the velvet dressing gown tighter around his bare chest to ward off the chill from the nighttime breeze.

As he moved, vodka sloshed out of the goblet he held, splashing onto the cobblestones of the street below. He drained the rest of the alcohol in one long swig, then let the crystal drop from his fingers in a tinkle of shattering glass. A disgruntled shout sounded from below, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. Perched on the roof of the townhouse as he was, it wasn’t like anyone could scale up the facade to reprimand him.

Although at this point, it would’ve been preferable to face an angry citizen of Wilnetzk—maybe even preferable to get into a light fistfight—than to be alone with his thoughts for one second longer.

You always were a weak one, Alexey murmured in his ear, the memory of his voice low and smooth as silk. You never had what it takes to rule.

Dimitri wished he had thought to bring the entire bottle onto the roof with him. Copious amounts of vodka were the only thing that would silence Alexey’s voice on nights like this, the only thing that would stop him from feeling like his beating heart was being ripped out of his rib cage and devoured.

The window creaked and Dimitri jumped, half expecting Alexey to be leaning over the sill, his shirtsleeves rolled up in that familiar, intoxicating way of his, pointing a pistol at his head.

But it was only Annika who slipped through, her silk dressing gown whispering over the shingles. “Moy Tzar,” she said, dipping her chin, as if he still sat on a throne. As if they weren’t two best friends, perched on the roof of a shabby townhome in a disgusting, backward city, all because his piss-poor choices had led them here.

“Are you here to tell me off for being on the roof?” He tried unsuccessfully to stop his teeth from grinding together.

“I’m here to find out why you’re not in bed,” she replied. “I could hear the creaking of the roof from the second story of the house. Not to mention the little explosion you just created.” She winced and shame washed through him. His highest-ranking general, the woman who had led his armies, his brightest and best soldier, still hated sudden loud noises almost a year after the end of the war.

Her long, dark curls whipped across her copper skin in the icy wind, and he reached out to brush them behind her ear in apology. She leaned into the touch, then nudged him over so she could scoot off the window ledge and onto the roof proper.

“Couldn’t sleep,” Dimitri replied. “Nightmares. I needed fresh air.”

“Most people who can’t sleep and need fresh air take a walk, not sit on the roof like an overgrown crow.” Her tone was light and teasing— she was always cheerful, even when he wanted her to rage at him— but she threaded her hand through his and gave it a squeeze. Annika had always looked out for him, even when he didn’t want to be looked after. Even when giving him a little push off the roof would bring such an easy end to all their troubles. They could bury his corpse and perhaps then he would finally find a moment’s peace.

She looked at him, furrowing her brow. “The nightmares. Was it him?”

“Always,” Dimitri said. “It’s always him.” He pulled a match and a cigarette out of his dressing gown’s pocket. Disgusting habit, he heard an echo of his father’s voice say. Not befitting a member of the royal family.

Dimitri dragged the end of the cigarette against his lips, then lit it with shaking fingers and inhaled. It was a delicious way of saying fuck you to his father’s memory. The old bastard shouldn’t have gone and died if he hadn’t wanted his third son to shit on his memory.

“Are you sure they’re just dreams?” Annika plucked the cigarette out of his fingers. “Just nightmares and not portents?” She fingered the bone amulet she wore around her neck, the one she always claimed kept demons at bay, the one she clung to as she warred with her fear and guilt before every battle. Her family may have been followers of modern Ludayzim like Dimitri, but she still clung to some of the old ways, the ones with their roots in folktales and superstition. He’d never had the heart to point out that even with all her rituals and charms and protections, everything was still fucked to hell anyway.

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The Sins on Their Bones
The Sins on Their Bones

The Sins on Their Bones

Laura R. Samotin

She brought the cigarette to her own lips, the tip glowing like a star in the dark when she took a drag. It was the only star that Dimitri would see tonight, with the fog and soot that always hung over Wilnetzk. One couldn’t see the stars here, not like home.


Ever since the end of the war, ever since he had exiled himself, the thought of home was like a bullet lodged next to his heart, one beat away from killing him.

Dimitri bit the knuckle of his left index finger. His hand felt so light now, without his wedding ring. So empty. Wrong. “It’s not a warning,” he said, letting out a long, slow breath. “I’d know the difference between a nightmare and a missive from the Lord, Anna. These are fueled by regrets, not the hand of God.”

Annika handed him back the cigarette with a long-suffering sigh. “It’s not your fault, you know. Scream, cry, rage at the Almighty. Let yourself fall apart. You are allowed to grieve. You are allowed to let the pain of this bring you to your knees and lay you bare. It’s been a year, Dima, and I’ve never once seen you fall to pieces.” The pity in her eyes made him flinch. “You’re going to have to forgive yourself eventually. It’s been long enough.”

“Pray tell,” he bit back, “how long is it supposed to take to forgive oneself for dooming one’s country to the rule of a raving madman, killing hundreds of thousands in a war that one lost— badly— and then running off like a puppy with its tail tucked between its legs to save one’s own sorry hide?” He stubbed the cigarette out on the back of his own hand and relished the searing burn. He felt so little worth feeling, these days, that sometimes pain was a relief.

“Not all of us can have good taste in who we bring to bed,” Annika mumbled under her breath.

And suddenly, Dimitri wasn’t on the roof of a townhouse in Wilnetzk. He was in the palace library, lying on the floor, his feet propped up on a stack of books, his knees falling open, his desire evident, heat coiling in his belly at Alexey’s predatory gaze. Alexey’s hand on his chest, pinning him down, the other opening his vest and then his shirt button by button, trailing a line of kisses down to his waistband that left him burning. Alexey’s mouth on him, his fingers curled into Alexey’s hair as he silently urged him for more…

Dimitri shook his head, clearing the ghost of old desire from his body. The last time he had seen Alexey, they were standing on opposite sides of a bloody battlefield. His pistol had been raised, aimed right at Alexey’s heart, and he had failed to shoot. Because even if Alexey had become something worse than a man, all Dimitri could think about was how he had looked into Alexey’s warm brown eyes, said words he had never said to anyone else, and thought, This is the man I will let claim me for his own.

Dimitri sighed. He really needed that bottle of vodka.

“Come inside,” Annika urged. “You’re no good to anyone if you fall off the roof in a drunken stupor and break your neck.”

“I’m no good to anyone now, neck intact,” Dimitri grumbled, but he followed her back through the window and into his bedroom, with its small, rickety bed and roaring fire and the striped wallpaper that was peeling in places from age and damp.

She shoved a plate of blinis in his face, which she must have brought up from the kitchen. “Eat,” she said. “You’re melancholic, and by the holy name of God, we all know why, but at least don’t be sad on an empty stomach. That’s simply pathetic.”

He took a blini off the silver platter and popped it in his mouth, the hot cheese filling searing his tongue. It tasted like ash— like everything did these days— but he forced it down anyway. He made an obscene moaning noise just to see her smile and held her eyes as he licked his fingers one by one. He could at least try to seem normal, just for Annika, considering how often she sought him out and tried to cheer him up, even knowing that such a thing was impossible.

“Don’t be unseemly,” she warned. “I have more knives within reach right now than you have balls to cut off, Dima.”

“Tzar,” he corrected with a halfhearted wink. If he couldn’t have anything else in life, he could still have this, taunting Annika gently until she rolled her eyes and huffed a laugh. Pretending, for half a heartbeat, that everything was still okay.

“Am I missing a party?” Vasily’s baritone sounded from down the hallway, and he stepped through the doorway and into the light. He was fully dressed, his perfectly fitted navy wool suit muddy around the ankles, his warm bronze skin and dark curls painted gold in the firelight.

“Just a dressing-down,” Annika said. “Moy Tzar was on the roof again, trying his best to die in an accident.”

“Ah,” Vasily said, stepping past Dimitri and trailing fingers across the back of his neck, causing him to shiver. Vasily sank into one of the two sagging armchairs by the fire, taking off his bowler hat and laying it on a side table on top of a collection of half-empty glass tumblers. “Well, if Moy Tzar wants to die, I’m sure he doesn’t want to hear the news out of Novo-Svitsevo.”

Dimitri tried to look disinterested, but he knew Vasily could tell otherwise. Vasily was an exceptional talent, after all, even among the best of spies, and was better at knowing what people wanted than the people themselves. It was why Vasily had been his most trusted confidant, his spymaster, when he’d ruled Novo-Svitsevo. And why he still was, even now that they’d fled to the hell that was the Free States.

So Dimitri acceded, sitting down heavily on his bed. His toes curled involuntarily into the worn antique rug on the floor. He should have put on socks, but it had been a long, long time since he had let his body be comfortable.

Not since that night in bed with Alexey. That last night.

“Do I need to wake Mischka and Lada?” Annika asked around a mouthful of blini.

“Let them sleep, Anna,” Vasily said, unbuttoning his jacket and waistcoat before stretching his arms behind his head. “Bad news is always easier to bear on a full night’s rest.”

Dimitri’s stomach dropped despite the blanket of vodka clouding his senses. “Bad news, you say?”

Vasily’s eyes flashed. “Is there any other kind for us now?” His mouth was drawn, lines furrowed into his brow, the way he’d looked since he’d told Dimitri his spies had stopped reporting back.

“Vasya, the only good news I’m likely to get is that the Lord our God came down from on high to tell me there’s no afterlife, so that when I die, I no longer have to exist,” Dimitri said.

“You didn’t lie,” Vasily said to Annika. “Our darling Dima is in quite the foul mood tonight. Maybe we should snap his neck and put him out of his misery.” He got up and came over to take Dimitri’s chin in hand, angling his face back and forth as if studying it, then kissed him on the cheek. “Though I’d hate to waste such a breathtakingly pretty face, when those lips could start wars and those cheekbones alone could kill a man.”

“Stop being an insufferable flirt.” Dimitri frowned and his chest tightened. The more Vasily flirted, the more dire the situation usually was. “Tell me the news.”

Vasily’s smile wavered and he turned on his heel, then sat down in the chair once more. He pulled out the pack of playing cards he’d carried with him since the war, starting to shuffle the deck in one of his nervous tells. Dimitri’s heart pounded just a little harder at the sight. “I’ve heard a whisper that Alexey Balakin is calling for people to come to Rav-Mikhailburg to volunteer for the army.” He propped his ankle atop his knee. “Which sounds an awful lot like he’s going to be building up his forces again. The tavern was full of panicked men trying to figure out how to buy their relatives remaining in Novo-Svitsevo passage to Lietuva.”

Annika snorted. “As if that would work. The Pretender is calling up armies, but he’s going to let a bunch of peasants cross the border into the Free States? No competent general would let that happen, not when he may need to conscript.”

Dimitri had to admire her. She hadn’t called Alexey by his name since the betrayal. She would have shot him dead on that battlefield if she’d been within shooting range, because unlike him, she’d been raised to kill, and he was a boy still half in love with the man who had ruined his life and his country.

Vasily shrugged. “People will always hope in the face of death. It’s the human condition.” He threw Dimitri a look. “Except our Dima. He’s a master of being alive and utterly devoid of hope. Are you sure you won’t let Mischka try their new tonics on you? Some medication might just hoist you out of your depression.” He tugged on one of his black curls, winding it around his finger as his hazel eyes sparkled in the firelight.

Dimitri ignored the suggestion. “The question is,” he said, throwing a rude gesture Vasily’s way, “what is Alexey planning to do with an army?” He pulled concern from his alcohol-sodden brain like taffy.

“Nothing good,” Annika said. “If Vasya’s other information on Novo-Svitsevo’s trade situation is correct, I would bet every last tolar to my name that the Pretender is going to advance on the Free States. It’s what I would do. He has no route to the sea, not since he blew a hole in his alliance with the one region of Novo-Svitsevo that borders the ocean. It’s not as if he’s going to be able to cut a transport deal to the east with the Urushkins without getting his balls handed back to him on a silver platter with a side of caviar.”

Dimitri blinked to clear the visions from his mind of what he and Alexey had done with caviar.

Annika pushed off the wall and came to stand next to him, resting a hand on his shoulder and using the other to pull his head into her chest. He knew it was supposed to be comforting when she did this, but her touch felt like a weight almost too heavy to bear.

“I would say there’s another war coming,” she said. He felt her heart beat just a little harder at that.

Dimitri shuddered against Annika’s rib cage. He couldn’t stop himself. Not at the thought of more bloodshed, more corpses, or having to walk through more fields littered with broken, mutilated people screaming for mercy. Not at the thought of acres of dead bodies riddled with bullets, so many they couldn’t even bury them all. Not at the memory of the constant, aching fear that he would turn and find his friends in the dirt, bleeding out, torn to shreds by artillery fire or shrapnel. Not at the reminder of the horrific trembling in his hands that wouldn’t go away, no matter how much he drank and pretended and tried to forget that they were all one bullet away from death or worse. He pulled away from Annika, shaking his head.

Vasily leveled a look at Dimitri, one that pinned him in place, anchoring him. “Do you want me to keep investigating? Or would you rather we all sit on our asses and slowly waste away from a diet of vodka and despair, waiting for the war to start?”

Dimitri closed his eyes. Tried to remember what it felt like to hope. Settled for remembering what it felt like to issue commands, to order people to do things that might save the country or might get them killed.

“Do it,” Dimitri said. “But be careful. Alexey hasn’t found us yet, and by God, I’m sure he’s trying. Don’t draw more attention than you need to.” His gut twisted with familiar anxiety at the thought.

Vasily saluted, winked rakishly, and sprang up out of the chair. “Then I’m off to bed, Moy Tzar, so I can be a well-rested spymaster come morning. May I suggest you do the same? Circles under one’s eyes are devilishly unattractive, even on you.”

Dimitri rolled his eyes. Sleep only held dreams of Alexey. Nightmares of his failure. But he could pretend, at least, for what remained of his court. For his friends.

“I’ll go,” he said. “And when I wake up, I’ll try to figure out what the devil is planning on doing to Novo-Svitsevo.”

“That’s Moy Tzar,” Annika said. “See, I told you blinis would help.”

Dimitri couldn’t help but crack a grin. But he didn’t move from where he sat rigidly on the bed. “I’ll stay awake,” he said, nodding to the fire, “to warm up. Just for a bit longer.”

Annika gave him a wary look but didn’t say anything, just spat three times into the fire in one of her endearingly old-fashioned gestures meant to keep him safe from curses and demons and the devil himself. She and Vasily left him alone with the worries haunting his mind.

He ran a finger around one of the glasses sitting on the table next to his bed, then gave in and poured himself another measure of vodka, throwing it back. It burned away some of the guilt that sat on his chest like a demon trying to suck the life out of him. Eventually, the alcohol sunk into his blood enough that his eyelids grew heavy, and he lay back against the pillow.

He reached into the drawer of the nightstand next to the bed, the motion so well practiced that he didn’t need to look to close his fingers around the unadorned metal band hidden there. He thumbed it, the battered gold glinting in the firelight, and slipped it on. He hated that it made him feel whole again, that every time he did this it felt right.

Annika and Vasily, Ladushka and Mischa— they all thought he’d thrown his wedding ring into the Nevka River, that he’d gotten rid of everything that Alexey had given him in a fit of rage after Alexey’s betrayal. But he’d lied to them.

He hated how keeping the symbol of his devotion to his husband should have shamed him, but didn’t.

Dimitri closed his eyes and trailed his left hand down his stomach, ghosting around his navel, inching lower, trying to remember what it felt like when it was Alexey touching him, when it was Alexey holding him and soothing away his fears.

But Alexey would never touch him again. Because Alexey was dead. His Alexey was dead.

And it was all his fault.

Excerpted from The Sins on Their Bones, copyright © 2024 by Laura R. Samotin.

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