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Chapter no 14 – Zoya

King of Scars

ZOYA HAD SPENT LITTLE TIME IN Kribirsk since the war. There wasn’t much cause, and it held too many bad memories. In the days when Ravka had been split from its western coastline by the Shadow Fold, Kribirsk had served as the last place of safety, a town where merchants and bold travelers outfitted their journeys and where soldiers might spend a final night drinking away their terror or paying for comfort in a lover’s arms before they boarded a sandskiff and were launched into the unnatural darkness of the Fold. Many never returned.

Kribirsk had been a port, but now the dark territory known as the Unsea was gone, and Kribirsk was just another small town with little to offer but a sad history.

Vestiges of the town’s former glory remained—the jail and barracks, the building that had once housed officers of the First Army and where the Triumvirate had first met with Ravka’s new king. But the sprawling encampment of tents and horses and soldiers was no more. It was said you could still find unspent bullets in the dust, and occasionally scraps of silk from the black pavilion where the Darkling had once held court.

Though the darkness of the Fold and the monsters that populated it were gone, the sands were not, and the shifting ground could be tricky for wagons to navigate. Merchants traversing Ravka still came to the drydocks to book passage on sandskiffs, but now guards were hired to protect cargo from marauders and thieves, not from the threat of the flesh-eating volcra that had once terrorized travelers. The monsters had vanished, and all that remained was a long, barren stretch of gray sand, eerie in its emptiness. Nothing could grow in the lifeless terrain that the Darkling’s power had left behind.

The businesses of Kribirsk were the same as they’d always been—

inns, brothels, outfitters—there were just fewer of them. Only the church had changed. The simple whitewashed building with its blue dome had once been dedicated to Sankt Vladimir. Now a blazing golden sun hung over the entry, a sign that the building had been reconsecrated to Sankta Alina of the Fold.

It had taken a long time for Zoya to think of Alina as anything other than a rival. She’d resented the orphan girl’s gifts, envied her position with the Darkling. She hadn’t understood what power meant then or the price that any of them would be forced to pay for it. After the war, Alina had chosen a life of peace and anonymity, bought with the charade of her death, but her name and her legend had only grown. Zoya was surprised to find she liked seeing Alina’s name on churches, liked hearing it spoken in prayers. Ravka had given too much of its love to men like the Darkling, the Apparat, even the Lantsov kings. They owed a little of it to an orphan girl with no dress sense.

Though the symbol crowning the church’s entry had changed, its outer walls remained the same. They were covered in the names of the dead, victims of the Darkling’s slaughter of Novokribirsk, Kribirsk’s sister city, the town that had once lain almost directly across the Shadow Fold. Sun and time had faded the painted script so that it would be nearly illegible to anyone who did not hold the names of the lost in their hearts.

One day those words will fade to nothing, Zoya thought. The people who mourned the dead would be gone too. I’ll be gone. Who will remember them then? Zoya knew that if she walked to the southwest corner, she would find the names of Liliyana Garin and her ward. But she would not make that walk, would not trace those clumsy letters with her fingertips.

After all this time, she still had not found an end to her grief. It was a dark well, an echoing place into which she’d once cast a stone, sure that it would strike bottom and she would stop hurting. Instead, it just kept falling. She forgot about the stone, forgot about the well, sometimes for days or even weeks at a time. Then she would think Liliyana’s name, or her eye would pause on the little boat painted on her bedroom wall, its two-starred flag frozen in the wind. She’d sit down to write a letter and realize she had no one to write to, and the quiet that surrounded her became the silence of the well, of the stone still falling.

No, she would not turn that corner of the church. She would not touch her fingers to those names. Not today. Zoya nudged her horse’s flanks

with her heels and turned her mount back toward town.

Zoya, Tamar, and Nikolai took up residence in a boardinghouse inauspiciously named the Wreck, which had been built to look like a large ship run aground. Zoya remembered it bustling with soldiers and merchants in its heyday and the terrible accordion player who had played from morning until night on the stoop to lure travelers from the road. At least he was long gone.

Tolya was billeted across the street with the monk. Together, the twins were too noticeable, and this particular stop on the royal itinerary was being kept a secret. They’d sent the great golden coach and its glittering outriders to Keramzin. There, the party would be welcomed by the couple who ran the orphanage and who they knew could be trusted with the secrets of the crown.

Zoya found her bath lukewarm and the meal of squirrel and stewed turnip unappetizing, but she was too tired to complain. She slept and dreamed of monsters.

In the morning, she woke Nikolai with the red bottle of stimulant, and they settled in his sitting room to tackle the business of the day. Later, they might find an ancient thorn wood buried in the sands, but Ravka required constant attention, and this morning that meant matters of state could not wait.

Zoya spent a few hours going over her correspondence. She sent Genya and David a coded missive with the essentials of the khergud attack and instructions to double the sorties patrolling the skies around Os Alta. The capital was exposed, and she hated to think what might happen if the khergud attacked the Grisha school. Any assault on the Little Palace would be considered an overt act of war, and she doubted the Shu would dare it, but Zoya didn’t intend to take chances.

She sent similar missives to Grisha stationed throughout Ravka, with instructions to be vigilant night and day and requests that their First Army liaisons post additional soldiers in towers and high lookouts. It would have been more expedient to have the Grisha at the outposts make the requests directly, but protocol was protocol. Some part of her would always resent this dance, but these gestures existed to preserve the dignity of the people involved. The Grisha did not want to be vulnerable, and the First Army wanted to maintain their authority.

Once Nikolai had breakfasted, they worked side by side, largely in silence, only occasionally consulting each other.

“One of Tamar’s sources claims there are rumors a member of the Shu royal guard wants to defect,” said Zoya, reading through the file Tamar had left her.

“A member of the Tavgharad? That would be quite the coup.”

Zoya nodded. “The party will be the perfect opportunity to make contact.”

“Are you saying my Festival of Autumn Nonsense was a brilliant idea after all?”

“I said no such thing. But we’ll make sure you have plenty of time to flirt with the Shu princess and that Tolya and Tamar have a chance to interact with the royal guard.”

“For the prospect of that kind of intelligence, I can certainly develop a passion for the playing of the khatuur.

“What if it’s only twelve strings and not eighteen?” “I’ll endeavor to hide my disdain.”

Zoya set the file aside and said, “Would you have Pensky requisition more soldiers at Arkesk for lookouts?” He was the First Army general Zoya dealt with most. “I think they could be particularly open to khergud attack.”

“Why don’t you write him yourself?”

“Because I’ve sent him two troop requests in the last month, so it would be better if this ask came from you.”

Nikolai grunted, a pen between his teeth, then yanked it free and said, “I’ll write to Pensky. But does that mean we should reassign the Grisha near Halmhend? And can you requisition me a napkin? I’ve spilled tea all over this note to the Kaelish ambassador.”

Zoya sent two napkins fluttering over the side table and dropped them into a pile beside Nikolai’s elbow. She was grateful for the quiet this morning, the easy return to routine.

There were times like this, when they worked side by side, when the rhythm between them was so easy that her mind would turn traitor. She would look at the tousle of Nikolai’s gilded head bent over some correspondence or his long fingers tearing into a roll and she would wonder what it would be like when he finally married, when he belonged to someone else, and she lost these moments of peace.

Zoya would still be Nikolai’s general, but she knew it would be different. He would have someone else to tease and lean on and argue over the herring with. She’d made men fall in love with her before, when

she was young and cruel and liked to test her power. Zoya did not desire; she was desired. And that was the way she liked it. It was galling to admit that she wasn’t at all sure she could make Nikolai want her, and more galling to think that a part of her longed to try, to know if he was as impervious to her beauty as he seemed, to know if someone like him, full of hope and light and optimistic endeavor, could love someone like her.

But even when her mind played these unkind games, Zoya knew better than to let them go too far. Her careful dealings with the First Army, her monitoring of Grisha matters all over Ravka, made it perfectly clear that

—even if Nikolai had seen her as something more than an able commander—Ravka would never accept a Grisha queen. Alina had been different, a Saint, treasured by the people, a symbol of hope for the future. But to Ravka’s common folk, Zoya would always be the raven- haired witch who ruled the storms. Dangerous. Untrustworthy. They would never give up their precious golden son to a girl born of lightning and thunder and common blood. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. A crown was well and good, and sentiment made for moving melodramas, but Zoya had learned the power of fear long ago.

A sharp rap at the door drew Zoya from her reverie, and she found Tamar and Tolya in the hall—their uniforms concealed beneath heavy, nondescript coats—bracketing Yuri, his earnest face half hidden by a scarf. They would all travel to the Fold in disguise: high-collared coats and cloaks of peasant roughspun.

“Why can’t we ever go undercover as wealthy people?” Zoya complained, taking the hideous cloak Tamar had brought her and fastening it over her kefta.

“A silk merchant and his glamorous model?” Nikolai asked.

“Yes. I’ll even play the merchant. You can be my handsome muse.” “Zoya, did you just call me handsome?”

“All part of the act, Your Highness.”

He clutched his heart in mock despair and turned to the others. “We’ll take our first trip slowly. Do we know exactly where we’re going? The Fold doesn’t have many landmarks.”

“The followers of the Starless Saint will be waiting,” said the monk, practically dancing. “They know where he fell. They remember.”

“Do they?” Zoya retorted. “I don’t recall any of them being there. If they had been, they would remember all of the names of the dead, not just your precious Darkling.”

“I was at the drydocks earlier,” said Tamar quickly. “There’s talk of a new encampment about ten miles due west.”

“I told you,” said Yuri.

Nikolai must have sensed Zoya’s desire to snap every bone in the monk’s body, because he stepped between them and said, “Then that’s where we’ll start. Yuri, you will remain with us and you will not interact with the pilgrims.”

“But—”

“I do not want you recognized. I don’t want any of us recognized. Keep in mind what’s at stake here.” He placed a hand on Yuri’s shoulder and shamelessly added, “The very soul of a nation.”

At least if Zoya vomited it would be on this awful cloak.

A skiff had been readied for them at the drydocks—a wide, flat craft on chubby sled rails designed to bear the weight of cargo over the sands. These old vehicles were built for silence since sound had risked drawing the attention of the volcra—and constructed cheaply since they were so frequently destroyed. The skiff was little more than a platform with a sail.

Two junior Squallers stood at the ready by the mast, looking eager and ludicrously young in their blue kefta. It was an easy assignment for students preparing to graduate—far from the fighting but where they could practice their languages and get the feel of following commands. Tolya stood at the prow. At the stern, Zoya and Yuri flanked Nikolai. Tamar stood guard at the monk’s other side, in case he was compelled to try to commune with his fellow zealots.

Zoya kept her shawl up but watched the Squallers closely as they lifted their arms and summoned air currents to fill the sails. It was hard not to think of her early days in the Second Army, of the terror of her first crossing, surrounded by darkness, holding her breath and waiting to hear the shriek of the volcra, the flap of their wings as they came seeking prey.

“They’re listing left,” she muttered to Nikolai as the skiff surged forward over the sand.

“They’re doing their best, Zoya.”

Their best won’t keep them alive, she wanted to bark. “I watched my friends die on these sands. The least these young dullards can do is learn to pilot a half-empty skiff across them.”

Saints, she hated being here. Nearly three years had passed since the

destruction of the Fold, but a strange quiet remained at its borders, the stillness of a battleground where good soldiers had fallen. The glass skiffs the Darkling had used to enter the Fold had long since been plundered and picked apart, but the wreckage of other vessels lay scattered over the many miles of the Fold. Some people treated the snapped masts and broken hulls as shrines to the dead. But others had scavenged what they could from them—timber, canvas, whatever cargo the lost skiffs had carried.

And yet as they traveled deeper into the gray sands, Zoya wondered if the reverent quiet at the edges of the Unsea had been pure imagination, the ghosts of her past clouding her vision. Because as they journeyed farther west, the Fold came alive. Everywhere she looked, she saw altars dedicated to the Sun Saint. Ramshackle businesses had sprouted like pox over the sands: inns and restaurants, chapels, peddlers selling holy cures, pieces of Alina’s bones, pearls from her kokoshnik, scraps of her kefta. It made Zoya’s skin crawl.

“They’ve always liked us better dead,” she said. “No one knows what to do with a living Saint.”

But Nikolai’s gaze was trained on the horizon. “What is that?”

Far ahead, Zoya could see a dark blot. It looked like a shadow cast by a bank of heavy cloud, but the sky above was clear. “A lake?”

“No,” said Yuri. “A miracle.”

Zoya considered pushing him over the railing. “If I pointed to a leaky faucet you’d say it was a miracle.”

Yet as they drew closer, Zoya saw the shape on the horizon was not a body of water but a gleaming black disk of stone, at least a mile across, perfectly round and shiny as a mirror.

A rattletrap village of tents and makeshift shelters had grown up around the stone circle. There were no signs of the Sun Saint here, no golden icons or images of Alina with her white hair and antler collar. Zoya saw only black banners painted with the two circles representing the sun in eclipse. The Darkling’s symbol.

This is the place where the Starless One fell,” said Yuri, reverence in his voice.

Was it? Zoya couldn’t be sure. The battle was a memory of violet flames and fear. Harshaw bleeding on the ground, the skies full of volcra. “Centuries before,” Yuri continued, “the Starless One stood on this very spot and challenged the rules that bound the universe. Only he

dared to try to re-create the experiments of the Bonesmith, Ilya Morozova. Only he looked to the stars and demanded more.”

“He dared,” said Zoya. “And the result of his failure was a tear in the world.”

“The Shadow Fold,” said Nikolai. “The one place where his power became meaningless. The Saints do love a bit of dramatic irony.”

Zoya cut her hand through the air in irritation. “Not the Saints. This was no divine retribution.”

Yuri turned pleading eyes upon her. “How can you be sure? How can you know that the Fold was not a challenge the Saints set before the Darkling?”

“You said it yourself. He defied the rules that bind the universe, that govern our power. He violated the natural order.”

“But who created the natural order?” insisted Yuri. “Who is responsible for the making at the heart of the world?”

How she envied this boy’s certainty, his visions, his ridiculous belief that pain had a purpose, that the Saints had some kind of plan.

“Why does it have to be a who?” demanded Zoya. “Maybe this is simply how the world functions, how it works. What matters is that when Grisha overreach their power, there is a price. The lesson is built into all our stories, even the tales told to little otkazat’sya children like you.”

Yuri shook his head stubbornly. “The Black Heretic chose this place with care. There has to be a reason.”

“Maybe he liked the view,” she shot back. “Still—” said Nikolai.

She planted her hands on her hips. “Not you too.”

“There are places like this all over Ravka,” he said, voice placating. “Places that have served old gods and new Saints, that have been built and ruined and rebuilt, because people returned to them again and again to worship.” Nikolai shrugged. “Perhaps they’re drawn to power.”

“Or good weather or cheap building materials,” Zoya said in exasperation. She’d had about enough. As soon as the skiff came to a halt, she leapt from the railing.

“Make sure Yuri stays here,” she heard Nikolai instruct the twins as he jumped down after her.

“Welcome, fellow pilgrims!” said a man wearing black robes and a beatific smile.

“Why, thank you,” said Zoya. Nikolai cast her a warning glance that

she happily disregarded. “Are you in charge here?” “I am just one more among the faithful.”

“And you put your faith in the Darkling?”

“In the Saint without Stars.” The pilgrim gestured to the gleaming disk of stone. It showed no imperfections, blacker than any night. “Behold the signs of his return.”

Zoya ignored the shiver that slid up her spine. “And can you tell me why you worship him?”

The man smiled again, clearly elated at the opportunity. “He loved Ravka. He wanted only to make us strong and save us from weak kings.”

“Weak kings,” mused Nikolai. “Almost as vexing as weak tea.”

But Zoya was in no mood for nonsense. “He loved Ravka,” she repeated. “And what is Ravka? Who is Ravka?”

“All of us. Peasant and prince alike.”

“Of course. Did the Darkling love my aunt who died beside countless innocent civilians in Novokribirsk so that he could show the world his might?”

“Leave them be,” Nikolai murmured, laying a hand on her arm.

She shook him off. “Did he love the girl he forced to commit those murders? What about the girl he tossed into the old king’s bed for his own purposes, then mutilated when she dared to challenge him? Or the woman he blinded for failing to offer him unswerving devotion?” Who would speak for Liliyana, for Genya and Alina and Baghra if she did not? Who will speak for me?

But the pilgrim remained unshaken, his smile steady, gentle, maddening. “Great men are often the victims of the lies told by their enemies. What Saint has walked among us who did not face hardships in this life? We have been taught to fear darkness—”

“A lesson you failed to learn.”

“But we are all alike in the dark,” said the pilgrim. “Rich man, poor man.”

“A rich man can afford to keep the lights on,” Nikolai said mildly. He gave Zoya a hard yank on her arm, dragging her back to the skiff and away from the pilgrims.

“Let go of me,” she seethed. “Where is the shrine to my aunt? To Saint Harshaw? To Sergei or Marie or Fedyor? Who will worship them and light candles in their names?” She felt the unwelcome prickle of tears in the back of her throat and swallowed them down. These people did not

deserve her tears, only her anger.

“Zoya,” Nikolai whispered. “If you keep drawing attention, we may be recognized.”

He was right; she knew that. But this place, seeing that symbol on those banners … It was all too much. She whirled on Nikolai. “Why do they love him?”

“They love strength,” he said. “Living in Ravka has meant living in fear for so long. He gave them hope.”

“Then we have to give them something more.”

“We will, Zoya.” He cocked his head to the side. “I don’t like it when you look at me that way. As if you’ve stopped believing.”

“All those lives lost, all we’ve worked for, and these fools are so ready to rewrite history.” She shook her head, wishing she could force out the memories, uproot them forever. “You don’t know, Nikolai. The battle at the Spinning Wheel. Seeing Adrik’s arm torn from his body. His blood

… it soaked the deck. We couldn’t get it clean. The people we lost here. On these sands. You don’t remember. You were the demon then. But I remember it all.”

“I remember enough,” he said, and there was an edge to his voice she hadn’t heard before. He laid his hands on her shoulders, his grip hard. “I remember, Zoya, and I promise I won’t let the world forget. But I need you to come back to me. I need my general beside me now.”

Zoya drew in a shaking breath, trying to find some calm, to stop the images from coming. Don’t look back. Don’t look back at me. She saw Liliyana’s teacup sitting on the counter at her shop, smelled the warm orange scent of bergamot.

She couldn’t breathe. Her head felt heavy and blurred as she let Nikolai pull her onto the skiff. The junior Squallers had already left their post to get a better look at the black stone. No discipline at all.

Nikolai signaled to the twins. “Tolya, Tamar, corral those Squallers and get them back here. Then take opposite sides of this big shiny eyesore and walk the perimeter. Find out what you can about when it appeared and how many people come to the site every day. We’ll need to deal with them if we actually want to dig nearby. Zoya and I will take the skiff farther west with Yuri. We’ll reconvene to decide next steps in an hour’s time.”

“I can help,” Yuri protested, watching Tolya and Tamar leap down to the sands. “I can talk to the pilgrims—”

“You’ll remain with us. We’ll travel a little farther on and decide what to do. I don’t know how we’re going to dig here without these people getting involved.”

Yuri pushed his spectacles up his long nose, and Zoya wanted to break them in two. “Perhaps we should get them involved,” he said. “Or we could claim we’re searching for relics from the battle for a museum—”

“That may only incense them,” said Nikolai. “They’ll claim the site is holy and can’t be touched, or they’ll want to dig themselves to locate objects for their altars.”

Zoya didn’t care what the pilgrims wanted. If she had to look at them and their black banners another minute, she thought she might well lose her mind.

She pushed up her sleeves, feeling the weight of the amplifier at her wrist. “Enough politicking. Enough diplomacy. They want darkness? I’ll give it to them.”

“Zoya—” warned Nikolai.

But her anger had slipped its leash, and she could feel the storm rise. All it took was the barest twist of her wrists and the sands shifted, forming ripples, then dunes, rising higher and higher. She saw Genya huddled in her black shawl, her arms thick with scars. She saw Harshaw dead in the sand, his red hair like a fallen flag. Zoya’s nostrils were full of the scent of bergamot and blood. The wind howled, as if it were speaking her rage.

“Zoya, stop this,” Nikolai hissed.

The pilgrims shouted to one another, taking shelter, huddling together. She liked their fear. She let the sand form shapes, a shining sun, the face of a woman—Liliyana’s face, though no one there would know it. The wind screamed and the sands rose in a tidal wave, blocking out the sun and plunging the camp into darkness.

The pilgrims scattered and ran.

“There’s your Saint,” she said with grim satisfaction.

Enough, Zoya,” said Nikolai in the deep shadow her power had cast. “That is an order.”

She let the sands drop. A wave of dizziness struck her, and for a moment the world seemed to flicker and warp. Her knees buckled and she fell hard to the deck of the skiff, frightened by the surge of nausea that had overcome her.

Nikolai seized her arm. “Are you—?” And then he seemed to stumble

too, his eyes rolling back in his head. “Nikolai?”

Yuri vomited over the railing.

“What just happened?” she said, pushing to her feet. “Why—” But the words died on her lips.

Zoya turned in a slow circle. The pilgrim camp was gone, the tents, the gleaming stone. The blue sky had bled away to a gray twilight.

“Where are Tolya and Tamar?” said Nikolai.

Tolya, Tamar, the Squallers, everyone who had been standing near the skiff was gone too.

“Where are they?” Yuri said. “What happened to them? What did you do?”

“I didn’t do anything!” Zoya protested. “It was a little storm. No one was in any danger.”

“Am I having some kind of episode?” said Nikolai, staring into the distance. “Or are you seeing this too?”

Zoya turned to the west. Above them loomed a palace wrought from the same bone-colored sand as the Fold. But it was less a palace than a city, a massive structure that rose in arches and peaks, clouds roiling around its highest spires. There was something in its construction, in its sweeping scale, that reminded her of the bridge at Ivets.

A shriek sounded from somewhere in the distance. Volcra, Zoya thought, though she knew that couldn’t be.

“It’s a miracle,” said Yuri, falling to his knees.

Another shriek sounded, then another, and a rumble of thunder followed as dark shapes seemed to break from the palace, moving toward them at incredible speed.

“It’s not a miracle,” said Nikolai, reaching for his revolvers. “It’s a trap.”

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