Chapter no 17 – ‌Nikolai

King of Scars

‌THE SKIFF WAS ABANDONED, and the sands carried Nikolai, Zoya, and Yuri to the giant palace, the dunes sliding beneath their feet in a way that made Nikolai’s stomach lurch. He prided himself on adapting easily, but it was one thing to implement a new technology, adopt a new fuel, or dare to wear shirtsleeves at dinner without a waistcoat. It was quite another to see your understanding of the natural world smashed to bits in an afternoon.‌

“You look unwell, boy king,” rumbled Juris, who had resumed his dragon form.

“A novel means of transport. I don’t suppose you’d consider carrying us on your back.”

The dragon huffed. “Only if you’d like to return the favor.”

Nikolai had to crane his neck to take in the palace as they approached. He’d never seen a structure so vast. It would have taken a regiment of engineers working for a thousand years to imagine such a creation, let alone see it built. The palaces and towers were clustered around three major spires: one of black stone, one of what looked like glowing amber, and one of what could only be bone. But there was something wrong about the place. He saw no signs of life, no birds circling, no movement at the many windows, no figures crossing the countless bridges. It had the shape of a city, but it felt like a tomb.

“Is there no one else here?” he asked.

“No one,” said the shifting grotesque in a chorus of baritone voices punctuated by the growl of a bear. “Not for almost four hundred years.”

Four hundred years? Nikolai looked to Zoya, but her gaze was distant, her hand clasped around her bare left wrist.

The sand rose, lifting them higher, and Nikolai saw that the three

spires surrounded a domed structure, a mass of terraces and palaces and waterfalls of cascading sand that shimmered in the gray twilight.

They passed beneath a large arch and into a wide, circular chamber, its walls glinting with mica. The sand beneath their feet became stone, and a round table swelled up from the floor, its center a milky geode. Elizaveta gestured for them to sit in the stone chairs that emerged beside it.

“I fear we can offer you no food or drink,” she said. “We’ll settle for answers,” said Nikolai.

Yuri knelt on the stone floor, his head bowed, nattering in what Nikolai thought was liturgical Ravkan, since he could only pick out an occasional word—promised, foretold, darkness.

“Please stop that,” Elizaveta said, her bees humming in distress. “And please, sit.”

“Leave him be. He’s abasing himself and enjoying it,” said Juris. He folded his wings and settled onto the floor a good distance from Yuri. “Where to begin?”

“Custom dictates we start with who the hell are you?” “I thought we’d already covered that, boy king.”

“Yes. But Sainthood requires martyrdom. You all look very much alive. Unless this is the afterlife, in which case I am sorely underdressed. Or overdressed. I suppose it depends on your idea of heaven.”

“Does he always talk this much?” Juris asked Zoya, but she said nothing, just gazed up at the flat expanse of colorless sky above them.

“We all died at one time or another and were reborn,” said Elizaveta. “Sometimes not quite as we were. You can call us what you like, Grisha, Saints—”

“Relics,” said Juris.

Elizaveta pursed her lips. “I don’t care for that term at all.”

Yuri released a small, ecstatic sob. “All is as was promised,” he babbled. “All I was told to hope for—”

Elizaveta sent a vine curling over his shoulder like a comforting arm. “That’s enough,” she said gently. “You’re here now and must calm yourself.”

Yuri grasped the vine, pressing his face into the leaves, weeping. So much for the great scholar.

“Where are we exactly?” Nikolai asked.

“In the Shadow Fold,” said one of the mouths of the grotesque who had introduced himself as Grigori. Sankt Grigori. If Nikolai recalled

correctly, he’d been torn apart by bears, though that hardly explained his current condition. “A version of it. One we cannot escape.”

“Does any of this matter?” Zoya said dully. “Why bring us here? What do you want?”

Juris turned his slitted eyes on her, his tail moving in a long sinuous rasp over the floor. “Look how the little witch mourns. As if she knew what she had lost or what she stands to gain.”

Nikolai expected to see Zoya’s eyes light with anger, but she just continued to stare listlessly at the sky. Seeing her this way, devoid of the spiky, dangerous energy that always animated her, was more disturbing than any of the bizarre sights they’d encountered. What was wrong with her? Had the amplifier meant so much? She was still strong without it. She’d be strong with both arms tied behind her back and a satchel of lead ball bearings weighing her down.

“I wish we could have brought you elsewhere, young Zoya,” said Elizaveta. “We had power before the word Grisha was ever whispered, when the extraordinary was still called miracle and magic. We have lived lives so long they would dwarf the history of Ravka. But this place, this particular spot on the Fold, has always been holy, a sacred site where our power was at its greatest and where we were most deeply connected to the making at the heart of the world. Here, anything was possible. And here we were bound when the Darkling created the Fold.”

“What?” Zoya asked, a spark of interest at last entering her eyes.

“We are woven into the fabric of the world in a way that no other Grisha are, the threads tightened by years and the use of our power. When the Darkling tampered with the natural order of the world, we were drawn here, and when his experiment with merzost failed, we were trapped within the boundaries of the Fold.”

“We cannot leave this place,” said Grigori. “We cannot assume physical form anywhere but here.”

“Physical form,” Juris sneered, and thumped his tail. “We don’t eat. We don’t sleep. I don’t remember what it is to sweat or hunger or dream. I’d chop off my left wing just to hear my stomach growl or taste wine again or take a piss out a window.”

“Must you be so vulgar?” Elizaveta said wearily.

“I must,” said Juris. “Making you miserable is my sole entertainment.” Grigori settled into the shape of what looked like three bear heads topping the body of a single enormous man and folded two sets of arms.

“We endured this endless twilight because we believed our purgatory would end with the Darkling’s death. He had many enemies, and we hoped he might have a short life. But he lived on.”

“And on,” grumbled Juris.

“He survived and became nearly as powerful as one of us,” said Grigori.

The dragon snorted. “Don’t flatter him.”

“Well, as one of us in our youth,” amended Elizaveta. “Then at last the time came when the Fold was destroyed and the Darkling was slain. And yet our bonds did not break. We remained prisoners. Because the Darkling’s power lives on. In you.”

Nikolai’s brows rose. “So naturally I must die. This is all very civilized, but if you wanted to murder me, why not get on with it during the battle?”

Juris snorted again, steam billowing from his huge nostrils. “That was hardly a battle.”

“Then during that delightful cocktail party where you chased us down and tried to set fire to my hair.”

“We cannot kill you, boy king. For one thing, we know the unrest it would cause your country, and we do not wish to see more people die if it is not necessary. Besides, even in your death, the power might well survive. No, the Darkling’s curse must be burned out of you.”

“Obisbaya,” said Nikolai. “The Burning Thorn.” Elizaveta nodded. “Then you know the old ritual.”

“It is true, then,” cried Yuri. “All of it. This is the site of the thorn wood where the first Priestguard came.”

“Congratulations, Yuri,” Nikolai said. “Looks like you do get to put me on a pyre.”

“Pyre?” asked Grigori.

“No pyre,” said Elizaveta. “The thorn wood is older than all of us, older than the first magic. It is the wood from which the first altars were made and from which the walls of the Little Palace were constructed. I can raise it from the roots that survive beneath the Fold to begin the ritual, but then it will be up to you to summon the monster from inside and slay it.”

“You created those miracles,” said Zoya. “The bridge, the roses, the earthquake, the bleeding statues, the black disk, all of them, to bring us here.”

“The Age of Saints,” Yuri declared. “Just as he promised.”

Elizaveta’s vine curled a bit more tightly around the monk’s shoulders. “Our power can still reach beyond the limits of the Fold, but only in the places where we are still worshipped.”

“A Grisha’s power doesn’t rely on faith,” Zoya said angrily. “Are you so sure, little witch?” asked Juris.

Zoya looked directly at him, her gaze unflinching, and Nikolai knew she was planning a thousand punishments for the dragon. He felt a rush of relief at the promise of retribution in her eyes.

But he couldn’t afford to get caught up in the mechanics of Grisha power. “You say you want me to summon the monster, but the thing inside me doesn’t follow orders.”

“Then you must teach it to,” said Juris.

Elizaveta clasped her hands and roses bloomed over her wrists, enveloping her fingers. “Once the thorns rise, they will pierce your body. If you don’t vanquish the shadow inside you, they will burn you from the inside out.”

Quite a bit like Sankt Feliks of the Apple Boughs after all. Suddenly, the pyre didn’t sound so bad. “Thank goodness I’m not ticklish.”

“What are the chances he’ll survive?” Zoya asked.

Roses flowered over Elizaveta’s shoulders. “As Juris said, we have no wish to destabilize Ravka.”

“That isn’t an answer.”

“It is … perilous,” Elizaveta conceded. “There are means we can use to prepare you for the trial, but I cannot promise you will emerge unscathed.”

“Or that you will emerge at all,” said Juris.

Elizaveta sighed. “Is it necessary to cast this in the least favorable light?”

“It’s best they know.”

Nikolai shifted on the stone chair. It had not been made for comfort. “So after you skewer and roast me and I wrestle with my actual demons, what happens?”

“The Darkling’s power will be eradicated once and for all. The boundaries of the Unsea will break. Life will return to the Fold, and we will be free.”

“Free to do what exactly?” Zoya asked. It was the right question. She might be mourning her lost amplifier, but she was always a general. And

perhaps Nikolai was too desperate for a cure to think like a king. Maybe power of the kind they’d just witnessed should be contained.

“Don’t you know, little witch?” said Juris. “Great power always has a price.”

Elizaveta gave a single nod of her head. “When we leave the bounds of the Fold, we will be mortal once more.”

“Mortal?” Zoya asked.

“Otkazat’sya, you would say. Without Grisha power. Humans who will live brief lives and die permanent deaths.”

Zoya’s eyes narrowed. “Why would you give up such power?”

“Do not think it is an easy choice,” said Elizaveta, some bitterness in her voice. “We have spent hundreds of years in debate over it. But we cannot go on in such a way. This is what the universe demands for freedom from this half life.”

“One eternity is enough,” said Juris. “I want to walk the world once more. Return to the shores of my homeland. Maybe fall in love again. I want to swim in the sea and lie in the sun. I want to age and die and pass into realms I have never explored.”

“You should understand,” said Grigori. “It is not just your life at risk, but your country as well. If we fail, if you cannot endure the ritual, we might create another tear in the world and cause this blighted place to overspill its shores.”

“But that may happen anyway,” said Elizaveta. “Everything is connected, tied to the making at the heart of the world. As the power within you grows stronger, there’s no way to tell what kind of chain reaction it might trigger.”

“You will want to discuss it,” said Grigori. “But make your choices quickly. Merzost is unpredictable, and every day the monster inside you takes firmer hold.”

“There’s nothing to discuss,” Nikolai said. They had their answers, and time was short. “When do we begin?”

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