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Chapter no 11 – Zoya

King of Scars

‌PREPARATIONS FOR NIKOLAI’S GRAND tour of the miracle sites required days of planning by the king’s staff. Provisions had to be secured, vehicles made ready for the changing weather, appropriate clothing packed, and letters sent to noblemen and governors in the towns they intended to visit. Zoya found herself snapping at everyone even more than usual. She knew the talk was that she was in one of her moods, but the perks of ruling included permission not to slather her words in honey. She did her job. She did it well. If her students and servants and fellow Grisha couldn’t endure a few curt replies in exchange, they were in the wrong damn country.

She might have been able to relax if everyone didn’t move so slowly. But eventually the wagons were packed, the coach prepared, and outriders sent ahead to scout the condition of the roads for the royal procession. The specific itinerary for the trip would be kept secret, but soon Nikolai’s people would know their king was traveling and they would come out in force to see their golden war hero.

Zoya wasn’t sure what to think of the monk’s stories of the thorn wood or the twins’ talk of the Priestguard and the obisbaya. Part of her said that it was foolish to pin their hopes on such a mission, on the ramblings of a fanatic who clearly believed in Saints and all the pomp and nonsense that went with them.

She told herself the journey would be good for the crown and Nikolai’s standing, regardless of what they found. She told herself that if it all came to nothing, they would find some other way to get through the next few months, to appease their allies and keep their enemies at bay. She told herself that the real Nikolai was still in control, not the monster she had seen that night in the bell tower.

But Zoya had survived by being honest with herself, and she had to acknowledge that there was another fear lurking inside her—beneath the anxieties that accompanied the preparations for this journey, beneath the ordeal of looking into the eyes of the demon and seeing its hunger. She was afraid of what they might find on the Fold. What if the genuflecting twits who worshipped the Starless One were actually right, and these bizarre occurrences heralded the Darkling’s return? What if he somehow found a way back?

“This time I’ll be ready for him.” Zoya whispered the words in the dark, beneath the roof of the chambers the Darkling had once occupied, in the palace he had built from nothing. She wasn’t a naive girl anymore, desperately trying to prove herself at every turn. She was a general with a long body count and an even longer memory.

Fear is a phoenix. Words Liliyana had spoken to her years ago and that Zoya had repeated to others many times. You can watch it burn a thousand times and still it will return. She would not be governed by her fear. She did not have that luxury. Maybe so, she thought, but it hasn’t kept you from avoiding Nikolai since that night in the bell tower. She hated this frailty in herself, hated that she now kept Tolya or Tamar close when she was chaining the king to his bed at night, that even in meeting rooms she found herself on guard, as if expecting to look across a negotiating table and see his hazel eyes glimmer black. Her fear was useless, unproductive—and she suspected it was something the monster might enjoy.

When the morning of their departure finally arrived, she packed a small trunk. Unlike the luggage the servants had prepared for her kefta and traveling clothes, this one would be locked. It held Nikolai’s shackles, reinforced twice over and with a new locking mechanism it had taken her hours to master. The weight of them was reassuring in her hands, but she still breathed easier when Genya and David arrived in her chambers.

Zoya peered at the tiny bottle Genya handed her. It was fitted with a glass stopper. “Is this enough?”

“More than enough,” said Genya. “Give him one drop immediately before sleep, a second if you have any trouble. Any more than that and there’s a good chance you’ll kill him.”

“Good to know. Regicide isn’t on my list of preferred crimes.” Genya’s lips twitched in a smile. “You’re saying you’ve never wanted

to kill Nikolai?”

“Oh, I have. I just don’t want him to sleep through it.”

Genya gave her another bottle, this one round and red. “Use this to wake him in the morning. Just uncork it and place it beneath his nose.”

“What is it exactly?”

“A distillation of jurda and ammonia. Basically a very fast-acting stimulant.”

“That isn’t exact at all,” said David. “It utilizes—” Zoya held up a hand. “Exact enough.”

Genya ran her fingers over the carved surface of the trunk. “The process won’t be easy on him. It will be a bit like drowning every night and being revived every morning.”

Zoya wrapped the bottles in cotton and placed them gently in the trunk, but as she moved to lock the lid, Genya laid a hand over hers.

“We’ve made the sedative as strong as possible,” she said. “But we don’t really understand what we’re trying to control. Zoya, you may not be safe with him.”

Zoya knew that better than anyone. She’d seen the horror that lurked inside Nikolai too closely to deny it. “What would you suggest I do?”

To Zoya’s surprise, Genya said, “I could go.”

David pressed his lips into a hard line, and Zoya knew that they’d discussed it, that Genya meant it. An unwelcome lump rose in her throat, but all she did was raise a brow. “Because you’re so good in a fight? Nikolai needs warriors with him.”

“The nichevo’ya left their mark on me too, Zoya. I understand the pull of this darkness.”

Zoya shook her head and drew her hand away, pocketing the key. “You aren’t prepared for this kind of fight.”

A knock came and they turned to see Tolya’s massive frame filling the doorway to the common room. “The coach is ready.” He called back over his shoulder, “And Tamar is late!”

“I am not late,” said Tamar from behind him. “My wife is just in a sulk.”

Zoya peered past Tolya’s shoulder and saw Tamar holding Nadia’s hand, clearly trying to coax her out of her gloom.

“I have every right to a sulk,” Nadia said. “You’re leaving. My brother is somewhere in Fjerda, and I’m being asked to build a prototype of a submersible that doesn’t work for a party I don’t want to attend.”

“I’ll be back before you know it,” said Tamar. “And I’ll bring you a present.”

“It had better be new goggles,” said Nadia.

“I was thinking of something more romantic.”

David frowned. “What’s more romantic than goggles?”

“We’re ready,” said Zoya. She handed Tolya the trunk. “Genya, report to me frequently on the replies we receive from the hopefuls and the preparations for security. I’ll send messages through our network on the road.” She hesitated. She had the awful urge to hug Genya … and for once she indulged it.

She felt Tolya’s disbelieving stare, felt Genya stiffen in surprise, then hug her back.

“Be safe,” Zoya whispered. Be safe. As if those words could cast some kind of spell.

“The only danger to me will be an overabundance of menu planning,” said Genya with a laugh. She drew back, and Zoya was both horrified and touched to see tears in Genya’s amber eye. “Do you really believe a cure is possible?”

“I have to. Ravka can’t endure another power grab, another coup, another war. Nikolai is insufferable, but he’s the only option we have.”

“He’s a good king,” Genya said. “I know the difference. Bring him back to us whole.”

“I will,” Zoya promised, though she didn’t know if it was a promise she could keep.

“And be careful, Zoya. Ravka needs you too.”

Zoya felt a suspicious prickling behind her eyes and hurried out the door before the situation became more maudlin than she could abide.

They traveled in luxury, surrounded by outriders and soldiers who carried the double-eagle flag. Yuri was kept in the coach, sequestered with Tolya as they scoured old scrolls and religious texts for information on the obisbaya. Another coach had been devoted to the books they’d gathered from the libraries at the Grand Palace and the Little Palace— and a few Tamar had obtained by stealth from the catacombs of the Priestguard—scholarly treatises bound in leather, crumbling hymnals, even old children’s books, illustrations of what might have been a thorn wood curling at the borders of their yellowing pages.

Though Yuri had wrung his hands and protested in querulous tones, he

had been convinced to set aside his black robes for the brown roughspun of an ordinary monk so he could travel with them anonymously. He’d given in readily enough. Yuri believed that the secret agenda of this trip

—the visits to the miracle sites and the Fold—was to determine whether the Starless One should be made a Saint and a church built on the site of his martyrdom.

“But for that to happen,” Nikolai had warned, “I need to know everything you can determine about the obisbaya—the ritual, the location of the thorn wood, this whole notion of purification.”

Yuri’s eyes had lit at that last word. “Purification,” he’d repeated. “A return to true belief. The faith of the people restored.”

Zoya knew Nikolai hoped the monk’s research would lead them to a ritual that might purge him of the monster, but even if they were somehow successful, she had to wonder where all of it would end.

“What are you going to do with him when this is over?” she’d asked Nikolai. “The people will revolt outright if you actually try to make the Darkling a Saint. You could start a holy war and give the Apparat the perfect chance to challenge you outright—and he’ll do it beneath Alina’s banner.”

“We’ll find a way to compromise,” Nikolai had said. “We’ll set Yuri up in a nice snug hermitage to prepare a treatise on the Darkling’s good works with all the books he wants. We’ll tell him the matter has to be put before the people. We’ll send him to the Wandering Isle to spread the gospel of the Starless One.”

“That sounds suspiciously like exile.” “You say exile, I say extended holiday.”

“We should send him to Ketterdam to preach to Kaz Brekker and the rest of those reprobates,” suggested Zoya.

Nikolai winced. “He’d certainly get his martyrdom.”

The king hadn’t toured the country since immediately after the Darkling had been vanquished, when he’d stepped into the gap left by his exiled parents and onto the throne. Instead of remaining in the capital as the aristocracy had expected, Nikolai had taken to the roads and the skies, traveling without rest. Zoya had barely known the king then, and she certainly hadn’t trusted him. She’d understood that he was their fractured country’s best hope of survival, and she could admit that he’d shown ingenuity during the civil war, but he was also a Lantsov, and his father had brought nothing but misery to Ravka. For all Zoya knew at the

time, the new king might be little more than a handsome, fast-talking catastrophe in the making.

But Nikolai had done what so many men had failed to do: He’d surprised her. He had shored up Ravka’s borders, negotiated new loans with Kerch, reestablished their military outposts, and used the fleet he’d built in his secret life as the privateer Sturmhond to keep the Fjerdans stymied at sea. He had visited cities and towns, distributing food, talking to local leaders and nobility, marshaling every ounce of his appeal to win their support and cement public opinion in his favor after the destruction of the Fold. When he had finally returned to Os Alta, he had created a new flag with the sun in ascendance behind the Lantsov double eagle and been crowned by the Apparat in the newly built royal chapel. Zoya had felt the stirrings of what might have been hope.

She had been hard at work with the Triumvirate, trying to reassemble the Second Army and make a plan for its future. Some days Zoya had felt proud and full of excitement, but on others she’d felt like a child masquerading as a leader. It had been harrowing, thrilling to know that they were all standing at the precipice of something new.

But now, as they traveled from town to town, Zoya understood that the task of unifying Ravka and building a new foundation for the Second Army had been the easy part. Dragging the country into the future was proving harder. Nikolai had spent his life waiting to govern and learning how to do it, but while Nikolai craved change, Ravka fought it. His reforms to the tithing and land ownership laws had led to grumbling among the nobility. Of course the serfs should have rights, they protested, eventually. The king went too far and moved too fast.

Zoya knew Nikolai was aware of the resistance that had grown up against him, and he intended to use this trip to help defeat it. The days were given to travel and winning the commoners through spectacle and gifts of coin or food. In the evenings, their party took up lodging in the homes of noblemen and local governors and joined grand dinners that went late into the night. After the meals, Nikolai would sequester himself with the head of the house, talking through reforms, requesting aid, smoothing feathers ruffled by the peril of change. Sometimes Nikolai would ask Zoya to join them when all she wanted was to fall into bed.

“Why should I bother?” she grumbled at Baron Levkin’s dacha in Kelink. “Your charm is enough to carry the day.”

“They need to see my general,” he said.

It was true enough. The nobles still thrilled to tales of warfare and the strength of the Second Army. But Zoya also knew that her presence— tart-tongued and sour as it might be—changed the atmosphere in the room, made the conversation seem less a negotiation than a friendly exchange. It was another reason Nikolai desperately needed a queen. So she did her best to paste a smile on her face and be pleasant, and occasionally offered a word regarding the Grisha forces if anyone thought to ask. It exhausted her.

“How do you do it?” she spat at Nikolai one night as they left a particularly productive session with a duke in Grevyakin. He’d begun the conversation determined to reject Nikolai’s suggestion to use his fields for cotton farming, calling for a return to the old ways. His entire home was full of peasant woodcrafts and handwoven textiles, the props of a simpler time in which a serf might be counted upon to create pretty objects for his master and politely starve in silence. But two hours and several glasses of strong spirits later, the old duke was roaring with laughter at Nikolai’s jokes and had agreed to convert two more of his farms to cotton. Another hour gone and he promised to allow a new mill and cotton gin to be built on his property. “How do you change their minds and make them thank you for the experience?”

Nikolai shrugged. “He has a noble’s disdain for commerce but likes the idea of himself as a great benefactor. So I simply pointed out that, with all of the time and money his workers will save, they’ll have more hours to devote to the ornament he loves so much. His estate might become a beacon for artists and craftsmen—the new world sustaining the old instead of replacing it.”

“Do you really believe that?”

“Not at all. His serfs will get a taste of money and education and start thinking about building lives and businesses of their own instead of praying for their master’s patronage. But by then it will be too late. Progress is a river. It cannot be called back once it leaps its banks.”

“That wasn’t what I meant anyway,” Zoya said as Tolya led them to the chambers where Nikolai would be lodging. “How do you do this?” She waved a hand from the crown of his golden head to his perfectly polished boots. “Days on the road, bare hours of sleep.” She dropped her voice to a whisper. “Being drugged every night and playing host to some kind of immortal evil inside you. But still you manage to look fresh and contented. I bet, if the duke had asked, you could have spent another

hour playing cards and telling war stories.”

“That’s what the job requires, Zoya. Ruling is not just about military victories. It’s not even about setting fair laws and seeing them enforced. It’s about these moments, the men and women who choose to put their lives and livelihoods in our hands.”

“Just admit that you need to be loved as much as they need to love you.”

“Luckily, I’m very lovable.”

“Less so by the moment. You don’t look remotely fatigued. It’s not normal.”

“I think fatigue suits you, Zoya. The pallor. The shadows beneath your eyes. You look like a heroine in a novel.”

“I look like a woman about to step on your foot.”

“Now, now. You’re managing remarkably well. And the smiling hasn’t killed you yet.”

“Yet.”

Tamar was waiting at the door to Nikolai’s rooms. “Any trouble tonight?” Nikolai asked her. At their previous stop, Tamar had caught a servant skulking about the king’s chambers and digging through his belongings, presumably on his master’s orders.

“Nothing,” she said. “But I’ll do another search of the house just in case and have a look inside the duke’s study later tonight.”

The old duke seemed to have been won over, but if he’d had contact with Nikolai’s opponents in West Ravka or with one of the Lantsov pretenders, they needed to know.

Once Nikolai had removed his boots and settled on the bed beneath a grotesque painting of Sankta Anastasia curing the wasting plague, Zoya pulled the tiny bottle from her pocket.

Nikolai shuddered. “Whatever David and Genya concocted, it feels less like sleep than being punched in the jaw.”

Zoya said nothing. The sedatives they’d given him in the past had been simple potions that had made him softly blurry and often left him snoring before Zoya had departed the room. But with this new brew, Nikolai dropped into unconsciousness in the space of a breath—and he did not look like he was sleeping. His stillness was so complete she found herself pressing her fingers to the hollow beneath his jaw, seeking out the molasses-slow beat of his pulse. Dosing him was like watching him die every night.

“All I know is it’s strong enough to shut you up,” she said. She raised the bottle but kept it just out of reach. “Tell me how you manage it. How do you survive all of this glad-handing and unending performance?”

“You manage it every day at the Little Palace, Zoya. For all your bluster, I know you don’t always feel clever or strong, but you make a good show of it.”

Zoya tossed her hair over one shoulder. “Maybe. But I’m always me. You change like light over water. These moments, these interactions, they only seem to feed you. What’s your secret?”

“The secret …” Nikolai mused. He held out his hand, and she dropped the silver vial into his palm. “I suppose the secret is that I cannot stand being alone.” He uncorked the concoction. “But there are some places no one can go with us.”

He touched the bottle to his tongue, and Zoya snatched it from his hand as he fell backward, plummeting into the dark before his head reached the pillow.

Zoya traveled with the outriders. Sometimes Nikolai rode in the coach with Tolya and Yuri, but mostly he stayed astride one of his white horses, bracketed by his guards, Tamar following a discreet distance away. He did not wear the full military regalia and sash that his father had favored but instead the olive drab coat that was standard-issue for soldiers of the First Army. He’d earned the respect of the military by serving in the infantry before becoming an officer, and the medals he wore pinned to his chest were not ceremonial but battle-won.

In every village and town, Zoya watched as the king worked his particular kind of magic. Even the way he sat his horse changed depending on the crowd he greeted. Sometimes he was relaxed, at ease in the saddle, the sun gilding his hair and gleaming off his perfectly polished boots as he smiled and waved to his beloved subjects. Sometimes he was somber and heroic, standing atop stages and on balconies to address crowds as they prayed in their churches and gathered in their town squares. Though he and Zoya took pains to hide the urgency of their mission, they rode hard each day and never spent more than a single night in any location. They had allotted three weeks for this journey. Whatever they did or didn’t discover on the Fold, they’d be back in the capital to prepare for the festival with time to spare.

In Ryevost, where the great earthquake had struck, Nikolai stripped

down to his shirtsleeves to work side by side with the men of the town, moving rubble and raising beams. He stood on the site where the great stone seal of Sankt Lubov had split, spewing forth a tide of tiny silver hummingbirds that had circled the town square in a whirring cloud for a fortnight before dispersing. He vowed to build a new church there, paid for with Lantsov gold.

“And where will all the money actually come from?” Zoya asked that night.

“The Kerch? My wealthy new bride? Maybe the Apparat can sell off a fancy altarpiece.”

But she now saw what he had intended when he conceded to the Apparat’s request for new churches. The Apparat would get these houses of worship, more places to lodge his spies and loyalists, but the people would not think of the priest when they said their prayers and heard the church bells chime. They would think of their golden king and whisper of the day he’d come to their village.

“I grew up in a place like this,” Zoya said as they entered the next bleak backwater. “Hopeless. Hungry. Desperation makes people do ugly things, and it is always the girls who suffer first.”

“Is that why you push so hard for the new factories we’re building?”

Zoya gave the barest shrug. “A broad back is needed to lift an axe or move a stone, but it doesn’t take strength to pull a lever or push a button.”

She could sense Nikolai’s scrutiny. “I’ve never known you to have much sympathy for the common people.”

I was common enough once. Liliyana and Lada were common. “It has nothing to do with sympathy. For the Grisha to thrive, we need a strong Ravka.”

“Ah, so you’re just being practical, of course.”

She could hear the skepticism in his voice, and she didn’t appreciate it one bit. But it was hard not to look at these muddy streets, the gray houses with their warped roofs and slanting porches, the tilting spire of the church, and not think of Pachina, the town she’d left behind. She refused to call it home.

“Do you know what changed everything in my village?” She kept her eyes on the road, rutted with holes and broken rocks from the previous night’s rain. “The draft. When the war was so dire that the crown was forced to start taking girls as well as boys to fight.”

“I thought the draft was seen as a curse.”

“For some,” Zoya conceded. “But for others of us it offered an escape, a chance at something other than being someone’s wife and dying in childbirth. When I was little, before my powers emerged, I dreamed of being a soldier.”

“Little Zoya with her bayonet?”

Zoya sniffed. “I always had the makings of a general.” But her mother had seen only the value in her daughter’s beauty. Zoya’s face had been her dowry at the tender age of nine. If not for Liliyana, she would have been bartered away like a new calf. But could she blame her mother? She remembered Sabina’s raw hands, her tired eyes, the gaunt lines of her body—perpetually weary and without hope. And yet, after all these years, Zoya found no scrap of forgiveness for her desperate mother or her weak father. They could rot. She gave her reins a snap.

Zoya and the rest of Nikolai’s party rode through the barley fields and inspected the new armaments factory, endured the singing of a children’s choir, and then had tea with the local council and the choirmaster.

“You should poison the choirmaster for inflicting that atrocity on us,” Zoya grumbled.

“They were adorable.” “They were flat.”

Zoya was forced to put on a little demonstration of summoning for the local women’s group and resisted the urge to blow the town magistrate’s wig off his head.

At last they were permitted to ride out with the governor and see the great swath of forest that had supposedly been felled in a single night. It was an eerie sight. The smell of sap was heavy in the air, and the trees had fallen in perfect lines all the way to the crest of a hill that overlooked a tiny chapel dedicated to Sankt Ilya in Chains. The trees all lay in the same direction, like bodies laid to rest, as if pointing them west toward the Fold. They’d let Yuri emerge from the coach to stretch his legs and see the supposed miracle site, Tolya towering over him like the one tree that had refused to fall. According to Tolya, they’d begun to piece together a text that might well be the original description of the obisbaya.

“Has it ever occurred to you,” Zoya said, watching the skinny monk talk animatedly to a beleaguered-looking Tolya, “that this is all contrivance? That the Apparat and the monk are not enemies at all? That

they both wanted you away from the safety of the capital, and that they’ve gotten just that for their trouble?”

“Of course it has,” said Nikolai. “But such displays are beyond even the Apparat’s considerable reach. It pains my pride to say it, but there may be something at work here that’s bigger than both of us.”

“Speak for yourself,” she said. But looking out at the felled trees, she felt as if an invisible hand were guiding them, and she did not like it. “I don’t trust him,” Zoya said. “Either of them.”

“The Apparat is a man of ambition, and that means he can be managed.”

“And our monk friend? Is Yuri easily managed as well?”

“Yuri is a true believer. Either that or he’s the greatest actor who ever lived, which I know isn’t possible.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Because I managed to smile through that choir concert, so clearly am the greatest actor who ever lived.” Nikolai nudged his horse with his heels. “On to the next town, Nazyalensky. We hope or we falter.”

Zoya was grateful when they rode into Adena, their last stop before the Fold. Soon they would have answers or they would be headed home. At least she’d be free of the anticipation and the fear of what they might find when they reached the Unsea.

The village was like all the others except for the pretty lake it overlooked. This time they’d been greeted by an off-key band and a parade of livestock and giant vegetables.

“That squash is as wide as I am tall,” Nikolai said beneath his breath as he smiled and waved.

“And twice as handsome.”

“Half as handsome,” he protested.

“Ah,” said Zoya, “but the squash doesn’t talk.”

At last they rose from their seats on the bandstand and made their way to the church. For once, the locals did not follow. Zoya, Nikolai, Yuri, and the twins were left to walk the path out of town with only the local priest for company.

“Are there no pilgrims?” Tolya asked him as they left the outskirts of town.

“The pilgrims are kept to the confines of the village,” said the priest. He was an older man with a tidy white beard and spectacles much like

Yuri’s. “Visitors are only permitted access to the site under supervision and at certain hours. The cathedral is being repaired, and we wish to preserve Sankta Lizabeta’s work.”

“Is it so very fragile?” asked Yuri.

“It is extraordinary and not something to be picked apart for souvenirs.”

Zoya felt a chill creep over her. Something was different in the air here. The insects had gone silent. She heard no call of birds from the surrounding trees as they moved through the cool shadows of the wood and farther from the town. She met Tamar’s gaze and they exchanged a nod. Even at a supposed holy site, the king could be at risk of assassination.

They emerged at the top of a high, mounded hill next to a cathedral surrounded by scaffolding, its golden domes gleaming in the late- afternoon sun. A statue of Sankta Lizabeta stood before the entrance. A riot of red roses had burst through the stone, cracking open her veiled skull. The flowers tumbled over the statue in wild profusion, surrounding its marble skirts in a wide circle like a pool of blood. Their sweet smell pulsed in a thick, syrupy wave that seemed to glow with summer heat.

Yuri’s face was ecstatic. “I wanted to believe. I did believe, but this

…”

Zoya realized he was weeping. “Be silent,” she bit out. “Or I’ll stuff you back into the coach myself.”

“Look,” said Tolya, and she heard new reverence in his voice.

Black tears ran from Lizabeta’s eyes. They gleamed hard as obsidian, as if they’d frozen there or been cast in stone themselves.

In the valley below, Zoya could just glimpse the sprawl of Kribirsk in the distance and the glimmer of the dead white sands that had once been the Shadow Fold beyond. They were close.

Nikolai hissed in a breath, and Zoya looked at him sharply. The others’ eyes were locked on the statue, but before Nikolai could yank the cuff of his glove back into place, Zoya glimpsed the dark veining at his wrist pulse black, as if … as if whatever was inside him had recognized something familiar here and woken. Part of her wanted to draw away, afraid that she would see the demon emerge, but she was a soldier and she would not waver.

“What was Lizabeta’s story?” Nikolai asked. His voice was taut, but the others didn’t seem to notice.

“It is both beautiful and tragic,” Yuri said enthusiastically.

Zoya wanted to knock him into the roses. “Aren’t all martyrdoms built to look that way?”

But Yuri ignored her or simply didn’t hear. “She was only eighteen when raiders came to West Ravka’s shore, pillaging and burning every village they encountered. While the men of her town cowered, Lizabeta faced the soldiers in a field of white roses and begged them to show mercy. When they charged her, she fell to her knees in prayer, and it was the bees that answered, rising from the blossoms to attack the soldiers in a swarm. Lizabeta’s town was saved.”

Zoya folded her arms. “Now tell our king how the people rewarded young Lizabeta for this miracle.”

“Well,” Yuri said, fiddling with a loose thread on his sleeve. “The villagers to the north demanded Lizabeta repeat this miracle and save their town too, but she could not.” He cleared his throat. “They had her drawn and quartered. It was said the roses turned red with her blood.”

“And this is the woman who is supposed to be answering the people’s prayers.” Zoya snapped a rose from its stem, ignoring the horrified gasp of the local priest. Its scent was cloying. Everything about this place set her teeth on edge. It felt as if something was watching her from the domes of the cathedral, from the shadows of the trees. “Why must all of your Saints be martyred?”

Yuri blinked. “Because … because it shows a willingness to sacrifice.” “Do you think Lizabeta was willing to be pulled apart? How about Demyan when he was stoned to death? Or Ilya, chained and thrown into a river to drown?” She was tired of these miracles, tired of the dread riding with her daily, and utterly sick of stories that ended in suffering for those who dared to be brave or strange or strong. “If I were Lizabeta,

I wouldn’t waste my time listening to the whining of—”

Movement on the roof of the cathedral caught Zoya’s eye. She looked up in time to see something massive rushing toward her. It smashed through Lizabeta’s statue, sending petals and shards of stone flying. Huge hands grasped Zoya’s shoulders, digging into her flesh, lifting her from the ground. She kicked her feet, feeling the terrible sensation of nothing beneath her.

Zoya screamed as she was pulled skyward, the rose still clutched in her hand.

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