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Chapter no 16 – Isaak

King of Scars

‌ISAAK WAS TRYING VERY HARD not to sweat through his uniform, and the effort was only making him sweat more. It was not so much the pain of transformation that bothered him but the proximity of Genya Safin as she moved her fingers over the lines of his nose and brow. He’d been sequestered with her for nearly two days in a practice room usually occupied by the Corporalki. It had no windows, and its single door was always guarded by one of the Bataar twins. The light for Genya’s careful work came from the vast skylight above, the glass so clear it could only be Grisha made.

Isaak had little to do but stay as still as possible, stare at Genya, and let his mind wander down the path that had brought him to this incomprehensible situation. Had it begun with his father’s passing? With the draft? Had it begun during the northern campaign, when he’d served under Nikolai Lantsov? His prince had been just past eighteen, only a few months older than Isaak himself. Isaak had come to admire his commander, not just for his bravery but for the way he could think himself out of a tight situation. He never forgot a name, never failed to ask after an ailing relative or the progress of a healing wound.

After the battle of Halmhend, the prince had visited the infirmary to speak to the wounded. He had spent hours there, chatting by each soldier’s bedside, charming every nurse, raising spirits. When he’d sat down beside Isaak’s cot, filled Isaak’s water glass, and gone so far as to lift the glass to Isaak’s lips so he could drink, Isaak had been so overwhelmed he’d had to remind himself how exactly one swallowed water.

They’d talked about Isaak’s childhood, his sisters, and Isaak found himself telling the prince all about his father, who had been a tutor in the

house of Baron Velchik. Isaak hadn’t spoken of his father’s death in years and had never told anyone about how his life had changed in the wake of that tragedy, how his family had been forced to leave the baron’s estate and take up residence in a tiny rented room above a dressmaker’s shop, where his mother had done her best to feed and clothe Isaak and his sisters by taking in piecework.

The prince had praised Isaak’s gift for languages and suggested he cultivate the talent now that it was time for Isaak to leave the front.

“I’m not sure that’s something my family can afford,” Isaak had admitted with some shame. “But I will certainly consider it, Your Highness.”

He’d returned home and begun looking for work as soon as he was able. Months passed as Isaak took on odd jobs and waited for his body to heal so that he could return to active duty and the pay his family so desperately needed. Then, one evening, he arrived home to find his mother waiting for him with a letter. He’d spent a long day shoveling manure, for which he’d earned all of six eggs, which he’d carried home gently cradled in the folds of his shirt. He nearly dropped them all when he saw that the letter in his mother’s hand was stamped with the pale blue wax of the prince’s double-eagle seal.

Dear Isaak,

Delighted to see we both survived my leadership. If you’d like to leave your village and make the arduous journey to Os Alta, there’s a job waiting for you in the royal guard at the Grand Palace. It will require a great deal of standing up straight, not looking bored through the most tiresome events man can conceive, opening doors, and keeping your buttons shiny, so I would not blame you if you’d prefer literally any other occupation. But if you’ve the courage to face such horrors, you will also find my own tutors happy to school you in the languages of your choosing. I hope you will select Shu, Kerch, and Zemeni, as they are the languages that might best serve a prince or a king, but you are certainly welcome to indulge your taste for Kaelish poetry. I did, and my stomach’s been aching since.

With fondest regards, Nikolai Lantsov, Grand Duke of Udova,

Prince of Ravka, etc.

Isaak’s mother and sisters had gathered round to touch the fine, heavy paper and press their fingers to the tracery of the wax seal. His mother had wept both because her son was leaving and because the prince had done them this great honor. Positions in the palace guard were usually reserved for war heroes and the sons of lesser noblemen.

As for Isaak, he had spent the rest of the week patching holes in the roof that their landlord refused to repair, and when the work was done, he’d kissed his mother and his baby sisters and promised that he would write to them as often as he was able. He’d put on his army boots and his much-darned coat and set out for the capital.

Isaak had enjoyed his work at the palace, the quiet of Os Alta after the chaos of war and the hardships of home, the pleasure of learning languages in his off-hours. With the wages he sent home every month, his family was able to move into a snug cottage with a garden large enough to grow vegetables, and a north-facing window where his mother could do her sewing in the sun.

It was not always easy. He had known little more than the confines of his small town and the routine of the army, and he was not sure what he found more intimidating: the dishes with their golden filigree, the ladies in their jewels, or simply the sight of Second Army soldiers in their red, blue, and purple kefta moving about the grounds. But in time he’d found his place and adapted to the rhythms and requirements of palace life. When the Darkling had staged his attack on the throne, Isaak had taken up arms to support the Lantsov name. And when Prince Nikolai had become King Nikolai, he’d stood at attention in the newly rebuilt chapel and watched his king crowned with pride in his heart.

Life had gone on. Isaak had become fluent in Shu, Zemeni, Kerch, and Suli. He earned extra pay working as a translator for the crown, and despite his king’s warnings, Isaak developed a taste for poetry of all kinds.

Then the summons had come. Isaak had been on duty at the entrance to the southern wing when Tamar Kir-Bataar had sought him out. Isaak had been confused and more than a little frightened. It was not every day one was called before the Grisha Triumvirate—though he was relieved to find that Zoya Nazyalensky was still traveling with the king, so he could at least avoid her scathing look of disdain. She could wither a man’s balls

just by raising a brow.

He’d spent scant time in the Little Palace and had never ventured past the Hall of the Golden Dome, but Tamar escorted him through the vast double doors emblazoned with the Triumvirate’s bunched arrows and down winding hallways to a small room lined in elaborate maps of Ravka and the world.

Genya Safin and David Kostyk were there, along with Tamar’s twin, Tolya, who was so tall his head nearly brushed the ceiling and whom Isaak occasionally traded volumes of verse with. He was surprised to see both of the twins—at least one could usually be counted upon to be in the company of the king.

“Captain Andreyev, won’t you sit?” Genya Safin had asked. To his astonishment, she’d served him tea and asked after his health, and only then had she said the words that would change the course of his life: “The king is missing.”

The story that followed had been strange indeed, and Isaak knew he was being told only the barest details: King Nikolai and Commander Nazyalensky had been traveling with the Bataars when they’d vanished from the sands of the Unsea. Though the twins had searched as extensively as discretion would allow, they’d found no sign of them.

“We do not yet know if the king is in need of rescue or beyond it,” Genya said. “But we do know that if our enemies learn of the king’s disappearance, they’re sure to take advantage of our vulnerability. There is no clear line of succession for the Ravkan throne, and it is essential that no one discover we are without a ruler until the king can be found or a strategy put into play.”

“Of course,” Isaak murmured, thinking of the panic it would create among the people.

Genya took a deep breath. “But in two weeks’ time, seventeen princesses, noblewomen, and ladies of worth will arrive in Os Alta, surrounded by their servants and retainers, all of them hoping to meet Nikolai Lantsov and become Ravka’s queen. Unfortunately, we are short one monarch. That is why we need you.”

“Me?”

“To play the role of the king.”

Isaak smiled because he could think of no other way to respond. Though he didn’t understand the joke, he was willing to play along. But Genya Safin did not return his smile.

“It was a contingency plan the king himself conceived in case he was injured or … incapacitated,” she said gently, “though we had no reason to think we would need to act on it so soon or with so little preparation. You were on his list of candidates. You are of approximately the right height. You can speak multiple languages. I believe I can tailor you to look enough like the king that you will be able to fool even the guards who have watched over him for years.”

“Sitting still at least,” said Tolya.

“Correct,” said Genya. “Looking like Nikolai will only be the first challenge. Talking like him, walking like him, and all the rest … well, that would be up to you.”

“I … you can’t mean for me to pretend to be him,” said Isaak. It was unthinkable. Absurd.

“We can,” said Tolya, his massive arms crossed. “We do.”

“Surely the proceedings could be delayed. If the king is meant to choose a queen—”

“The brides could be put off,” said Tamar. “But there are matters of national security that cannot. We have intelligence suggesting that a member of the Tavgharad may be ready to defect. This may be our only chance to make contact with her and learn the locations of valued Shu military assets.”

Tavgharad. The strict translation was “stone fisted,” but Isaak knew the word referred to the elite soldiers who guarded and served the Shu royal family. If one of them was willing to turn traitor, there was no telling what information might be gleaned.

Tamar Kir-Bataar had looked at him with hard golden eyes and said, “Your country needs you.”

But it had been Genya with her scarred mouth who had swayed him when she’d added, “And so does your king.”

Isaak said yes. Of course he had said yes. It was his duty as a soldier and the least he could do for the king who had done so much for him and his family.

So it had begun—the lessons in deportment, in elocution, in how to sit and stand correctly. It was not just that Isaak had to pretend to be a man of wealth and means; he had to pretend to be a king. And not just a king, but a boy king who had become a legend. Nikolai was everything that Isaak was not. Confident, assured, cosmopolitan. Isaak’s only gift was a facility with language—and even that had become something of a

liability, since he spoke Shu better than the king and had a cleaner Zemeni accent.

But the strangest of all these processes was the time he’d spent here, beneath this glass dome, sweating through his clothes in the presence of Genya Safin with her single amber-colored eye and her sunset hair. Though Isaak knew she was only performing a task, it was hard not to feel that she was studying him, lavishing her attention upon him, and he’d found himself falling a bit in love with her. It was a silly infatuation. She was clearly in love with David Kostyk, the brilliant Fabrikator who sat silently through many of their sessions, reading from stacks of documents and scribbling on a giant tablet of drafting paper. But her apparent taste for unassuming men made him like her all the more. One of her scars tugged the left corner of her mouth down slightly, and he would catch himself daydreaming about kissing her there. He was rapidly brought back to reality by the sharp poke of her finger to his shoulder. “Sit up straight, Isaak,” she would say, or, “You’re blocking my light, Isaak.”

Sometimes the others came to read to him from a book on Kerch history or quiz him on trade routes while Genya worked. Other times they talked strategy, and he was expected to do nothing but sit there like a lump of clay.

“We can sneak him out of the palace through the tunnels after dark,” Tamar said, twirling one of her axes in a way that made Isaak sweat even more, “then stage the king’s return from his pilgrimage the next morning. It will look like he just made a stop at Count Kirigin’s estate.”

“How do we account for Zoya’s absence?” Tolya asked.

Genya leaned back to examine the work she was doing on Isaak’s chin. “We’ll say she stayed behind to journey to Os Kervo.” She rubbed her eyes and reached for her teacup. “I don’t understand it. No one just vanishes.”

“Leave it to Nikolai to do the impossible,” said Tolya. “Maybe he just wanted a vacation,” said Tamar.

Tolya grunted. “Maybe Zoya finally got sick of him and buried him beneath a pile of sand.” But Genya did not laugh. “Or maybe this was the Apparat’s doing and he’s back in the business of staging coups.”

“If that’s the case,” said David, “he’ll come for us next.” “Thank you, my love. That’s very encouraging.”

Tamar slowed the twirling of her axe. “If the Apparat orchestrated

this, I’d have expected him to make a move to expose the king’s disappearance by now.”

“Either way,” said Tolya, “we’ll have to keep him away from Isaak.

The priest is too canny not to realize the king … isn’t himself.”

Genya slumped down in a chair and rested her head in her hands. Isaak had never seen her look so defeated, and it hurt his heart. “Who are we kidding? This isn’t going to work.”

“It will,” said Tamar. “It has to.”

“He’s already almost identical to the king,” said David, peering at Isaak’s face. “I’d say it’s your best work.”

Genya cast away the compliment with a wave of her hand. “It’s not just the features. It’s the way Nikolai inhabits them, the tilt of his mouth, the cant of his head. We might fool the guests, maybe even a few of the courtiers, but the servants? The royal ministers? People who see him every day, who have dined with him and danced with him? Forget it. This is hopeless.”

“I’m sorry,” Isaak said. He hated to think he was failing his country and his king as well as the talented girl before him.

Genya threw up her hands. “That’s what I mean. Nikolai would never lower his head that way or apologize with such sincerity.”

“I’m sorry,” Isaak said again without thinking, and then winced. “We’re out of options,” said Tamar. “We cancel the party and risk

Nikolai’s absence being discovered, or we take this risk.” “And if we’re found out?” Tolya asked.

“I’m not even sure what we’d be guilty of,” considered David. “Is impersonating a king treasonous if you’re doing it for the king’s benefit?”

Isaak swallowed. Treason. He hadn’t even thought of that.

“We could be handing the Apparat an easy way to eliminate all of the Grisha leadership in a single move,” said Tamar.

Genya released a sigh. “Isaak, I know you’re doing your best, but we’ve asked too much of you. This was madness from the start.”

Isaak hated to see these brave people lose hope. He remembered Nikolai Lantsov perched beside his infirmary bed, thought of his mother’s smile and his sisters’ plump cheeks the last time he’d returned home.

He leaned back, draped an arm over the top of his chair, and said with all the easy, drawling arrogance he could summon, “Genya, my love,

ring for brandy. I can’t be expected to tolerate certain doom when I’m this sober.”

They stared at him.

David tapped an ink-stained finger to his lips. “Better.”

Better?” cried Genya, clapping her hands with glee. “It was perfect!

Do it again.”

Isaak felt a moment’s panic, then arched a brow. “Are you giving the orders now? I hope this means I can indulge in a kingly nap.”

Tamar grinned. Tolya whooped. Genya leaned down and pressed a huge kiss to Isaak’s cheek—and Isaak did what Nikolai Lantsov never would have done.

He blushed.

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