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Chapter no 19 – ‌Zoya

King of Scars

‌ZOYA HAD THOUGHT THEY would be led to new rooms that would serve as their living quarters. Instead, Juris and Grigori departed, and with a wave of Elizaveta’s hand, the table and chairs dropped into the floor. A moment later, new walls rose around them. The sand twisted and arched, forming three doorways around a central chamber—all of it the lifeless, sun-leached color of old bone.

Zoya was not sure how much more of this she could stand. The world felt like it had been torn open.

“I wish we could offer more comfortable accommodations,” said Elizaveta. “But this is a place of few comforts. Rest if you can.”

Zoya’s room looked like a bedchamber in a castle of old: pointed windows, heavy leather-backed chairs that sat before a vast fireplace, a huge canopied bed hung with velvet curtains. And yet there was no glass in the windows. There was no leather, no velvet. It was all that fine- grained sand, every item, every surface wrought in the same driftwood hue. The fire that burned in the grate flickered blue like that horrid dragon’s flames. It was a phantom room. Zoya’s hand went to her wrist. She needed to talk to Nikolai.

She opened the door—though it was hard to even think of it as a door when it hadn’t existed moments before.

Nikolai stood in the archway of a chamber identical to hers.

“It’s like looking at a sketch of something grand,” he said, turning slowly to take in his new quarters. He ran a hand over the gray sand mantel. “Luxurious in its details but devoid of anything that would actually make you want to stay here.”

“This is a mistake,” said Zoya. Her head hurt. Her heart hurt. She had to keep her fingers from wandering continuously to her wrist. But she

needed to think clearly. There were larger things at stake than what she’d lost. There always were.

“Where’s Yuri?” he asked.

“Probably genuflecting somewhere. Nikolai, is this a bargain we want to make?”

“We came here for a cure, and now we’ve been offered one.” “You could die.”

“A risk we’ve long been willing to take. In fact, I believe you offered to put a bullet in my head not so long ago.”

“We have less than three weeks before the party in Os Alta,” she protested.

“Then I will have to master the monster in that time.”

“You saw what they can do. What if we shatter the bounds of the Unsea and unleash them on Ravka? Are you willing to make that gamble?”

Nikolai ran his hands through his hair. “I don’t know.”

“And yet you agreed to dance at the first asking like a boy at a country ball.”

“I did.”

And he didn’t sound remotely sorry about it. “We can’t trust them. We don’t really even know who they are.”

“I understand that. Just as you understand that is the choice we must make. Why are you fighting it, Zoya?”

Zoya leaned her head against the edge of the window and looked out at the nothing beyond. Had the Saints been staring at this same empty view for hundreds of years?

“If these are the Saints,” she said, “then who have we been praying to all this time?”

“Do you pray?” Nikolai couldn’t conceal his surprise. “I did. When I was young. They never answered.” “We’ll get you another.”

“Another … ?” It took her a moment to understand what he meant. Without realizing it, Zoya had let her hand return to the place where her amplifier had been. She forced herself to release her wrist. “You can’t get me another,” she said, her voice thick with scorn. Good. Better that than self-pity. “It doesn’t work that way. I’ve worn that cuff, those bones, since I was thirteen years old.”

“Zoya, I don’t believe in miracles. I don’t know who these Saints

really are. All I know is that they’re the last hope we have.”

She squeezed her eyes shut. Elizaveta could be as gracious as she liked. It didn’t change the fact that they’d been abducted. “We’re prisoners here, Nikolai. We don’t know what they may ask of us.”

“The first thing will be to banish your pride.”

Nikolai and Zoya jumped. Juris stood in the doorway. He was in human form, but the shape of the dragon seemed to linger over him.

“Come, Zoya Nazyalensky, little storm witch. It’s time.”

“For what?” Zoya bit out, feeling anger ignite inside her—familiar, welcome, so much more useful than grief.

“For your first lesson,” he said. “The boy king isn’t the only one with something to learn.”

Zoya did not want to go with the dragon, but she made herself follow him down the twisting halls of the mad palace. She told herself she’d be able to learn more about the ritual Nikolai was expected to endure and determine the Saints’ true motives. The stronger voice inside her said that if she got to know Juris, she could find a way to punish him for what he’d taken from her. She was too aware of her pulse beating beneath the skin of her bare wrist. It felt naked, vulnerable, and utterly wrong.

Still, as much as she would have liked to give her thoughts over to revenge, the path they were taking required all her attention. The palace was vast, and though some individual rooms seemed to have specific characteristics, most of the hallways, stairs, and passages were wrought of the same glittering, colorless sand. It didn’t help that no matter where you were inside the massive structure, you always had the same view: a wide gray expanse of nothing.

“I can feel your anger, storm witch,” Juris said. “It makes the air crackle.”

“That word is offensive,” she said to his back, soothed by the thought of shoving him down the long flight of stairs.

“I can call you whatever you like. In my time, witch was the word men used for women they should steer clear of. I think that describes you very well.”

“Then perhaps you should take your own advice and avoid me.”

“I think not,” said Juris. “One of the only joys left to me is courting danger, and the Fold offers few opportunities for it.”

Would he even tumble if she pushed him, or just sprout wings and

float gently to the bottom of the stairway? “How old are you anyway?” “I’ve long since forgotten.”

Juris looked to be a man of about forty. He was as big as Tolya, maybe larger, and Zoya could imagine he must have cut a daunting figure with a broadsword in his hand. She could see a tracery of scales over his shaven scalp, as if his dragon features had crept into his human body.

Her curiosity got the better of her. “Do you prefer your human form?” “I have no preference. I am both human and dragon always. When I

wish to read, to argue, to drink wine, I take the form of a man. When I wish to fly and be free of human bother, I am a dragon.”

“And when you fight?”

He glanced over his shoulder and his eyes flashed silver, the pupils slitting as he smiled, his teeth slightly too long and predatory for his human mouth. “I could best you in either form.”

“I doubt that,” she said with more confidence than she felt. If she’d still had her amplifier, there would have been no hesitation.

“Do not forget I was a warrior in my first life.”

Zoya raised an unimpressed brow. “Sankt Juris who slew the dragon was really a Grisha who made it his amplifier?” She knew the story well; every Ravkan child did—the warrior who had gone to best a beast and fought it three times before finally vanquishing it. But now she had to wonder how much was legend and how much was fact.

Juris scowled and continued down the stairs. “Amplifier. Like that pathetic bauble you clung to so desperately? When I slew the dragon, I took his form and he took mine. We became one. In the old times, that was how it was. What you practice now is a corruption, the weakest form of the making at the heart of the world.”

In the old times. Was there truth, then, in the stories of the Burning Thorn? Had those monks not been ordinary men but Grisha who had taken the shapes of beasts to better wage war against Ravka’s enemies? Had both the Grisha theorists and the religious scholars gotten it so wrong? Zoya didn’t know. Her tired, battered mind couldn’t make sense of it.

They entered an enormous chamber that looked at once like a cavern and the great hall of an ancient castle keep wrought in black stone. A crest hung on one high wall above a fireplace tall enough for Zoya to stand in. The crest showed three six-pointed stars and was of the type Kaelish families used, though Zoya did not know their iconography well

enough to identify which name Juris might have once claimed. One wall had been left entirely open to the elements, the wide horizon of dead sand visible beyond. The jagged overhang made Zoya feel a bit like she was looking out at the world through the opening of a cave. Or the mouth of a beast whose belly she had made the mistake of wandering into.

“What is it you want from me?” she asked.

“When I pass into the mortal world, my magic will go with me, but my knowledge need not. You will carry it.”

“What an honor,” she said without enthusiasm.

“All of the rules the Grisha have created, that you live by, the colors you wear. You think you’ve been training to make yourself stronger, when really you’ve been training to limit your power.”

Zoya shook her head. First this oversized lizard had robbed her of the amplifier she’d earned with her own blood, and now he was insulting the training she’d dedicated her life to. She’d taken her education at the Little Palace seriously, the theory she’d read in the library, the poses and techniques she’d learned in Baghra’s hut by the lake. She’d practiced and honed her abilities, forged her raw talent into something more. There had been other Etherealki who had started with more natural ability, but none had worked as hard. “You can say that, but I know that training made me a better Squaller.”

“Yes, but did it make you a better Grisha?” “Isn’t that what I just said?”

“Not quite. But I began in ignorance as deep as yours and—just like you—with nothing but the wild wind at my fingertips.”

“You were a Squaller?” Zoya asked, surprised. “There was no name for what I was.”

“But you could summon?” she pushed.

“I could. I did. It was one more weapon in my arsenal.” “In what war?”

“In countless wars. I was hero to some. Others would have called me an invader, a barbarian, a sacker of temples. I tried to be a good man. At least, that’s what I remember.”

How men liked to recount their deeds.

“Not all of us take to nobility as well as your king.”

Zoya strolled the perimeter of the room. There was little to look at. Other than the weapons collected on the wall, everything was black stone

—the mantel of the great fireplace where blue flame leapt and danced, the decorations atop it, the crest upon the wall. “If you expect me to damn Nikolai for his goodness, you’ll have to wait awhile.”

“And if I tell you Ravka needs a more ruthless ruler?” “I’d say that sounds like the excuse of a ruthless man.” “Who said anything about men?”

Was that this creature’s game? “You wish me to steal my king’s throne? You mistake my ambitions.”

Juris rumbled a laugh. “I mistake nothing. Do you really believe you were meant to spend your life in service? You cannot tell me you have not contemplated what it would mean to be a queen.”

Zoya picked up a tiny agate horse on the mantel, one of a herd of what might be hundreds that flowed over the stone. Was this how Juris spent his eternity? Using fire to fashion tiny reminders of another life? “As if a queen does not live her life in service too. I serve the Grisha. I serve Ravka.”

“Ravka.” He rolled the in a growl. “You serve a nation of ghosts. All those you failed. All those you will continue to fail until you become what you were meant to be.”

All those you failed. What did he know about anything? Zoya set down the horse and rubbed her arms. She didn’t like the way the dragon talked. His words rattled around inside her, made her think of that falling stone, that empty well, that endless hollow. Do not look back, Liliyana had warned her once. Do not look back at me. Zoya hadn’t listened then, but she’d learned to heed those words.

“Finish your story, old man, or set me free to go find a glass of wine and a nap.”

“You’ll find no wine here, little witch. No sleep either. No respite from oblivion.”

Zoya gave a dismissive wave. “Then set me free to find more interesting company.”

Juris shrugged. “There is little more to tell. A ravening beast came to our land, burning everything in its path, devouring all those who dared oppose it.”

Idly, Zoya touched her finger to the ball of a mace on the wall. Juris must have had the weapons with him when they were trapped on the Fold. “I always thought the dragon was a metaphor.”

Juris looked almost affronted. “For what?”

“Heathen religion, foreign invaders, the perils of the modern world.” “Sometimes a dragon is just a dragon, Zoya Nazyalensky, and I can

assure you no metaphor has ever murdered so many.”

“You’ve never heard Tolya recite poetry. So the great warrior went to meet the dragon in his lair?”

“Just so. Can you imagine my terror?”

“I have an inkling.” She would never forget her first sight of Juris with his vast wings spread—and she wanted to know how he’d bested the beast. “What did you do?”

“What all frightened men do. The night before I was to meet the dragon, I went down on my knees and prayed.”

“Who does a Saint pray to?”

“I never claimed to be a Saint, Zoya. That is just the name a desperate world gave me. That night I was nothing more than a scared man, a boy really, barely eighteen. I prayed to the god of the sky who had watched over my family, the god of storms who watered the fields and fed on careless sailors. Maybe it is that god who watches over me still. All I know is something answered. When I faced the dragon and he breathed fire, the winds rose to my command. I was able to snatch his breath away, just as you tried to do with me. Twice we clashed and twice we retreated to see to our wounds. But on the third meeting, I dealt him a fatal blow.”

“Juris in triumph.” She would not do him the courtesy of sounding impressed.

But he surprised her by saying, “Perhaps I should have felt triumphant. It’s what I expected. But when the dragon fell, I knew nothing but regret.”

“Why?” she asked, though she had always felt sorry for the dragon in Juris’ story, a beast who could not help his nature.

Juris leaned his big body against the basalt wall. “The dragon was the first true challenge I’d ever known as a warrior, the only creature able to meet me as an equal in the field. I could not help but respect him. As he sank his jaws into me, I knew he felt just as I did. The dragon and I were the same, connected to the heart of creation, born of the elements, and unlike any other.”

“Like calls to like,” she said softly. She knew that feeling of kinship, of ferocity. If she closed her eyes, she would feel the ice on her cheeks, see the blood in the snow. “But in the end, you killed him.”

“We both died that day, Zoya. I have his memories and he has mine. We have lived a thousand lives together. It was the same with Grigori and the great bear, with Elizaveta and her bees. Have you never stopped to wonder how it’s possible that some Grisha are themselves amplifiers?” Zoya hadn’t really. Grisha who were born amplifiers were rare and often served as Examiners, using their abilities to test for the presence of Grisha power in children. The Darkling had himself been an amplifier, as had his mother. It was one of the theories for why he had been so

powerful. “No,” she admitted.

“They are connected to the making at the heart of the world. In the time before the word Grisha had ever been spoken, the lines that divided us from other creatures were less firm. We did not just take an animal’s life, we gave up a part of ourselves in return. But somewhere along the way, Grisha began killing, claiming a piece of the power of creation without giving anything of ourselves. This is the pathetic tradition of your amplifiers.”

“Should I feel shame for claiming an amplifier?” Zoya said. He had no right to these judgments. How often had Zoya cried? How many futile prayers had she spoken, unable to rid herself of that stubborn, stupid belief that someone would answer? “It must be easy to ponder the universe, safe in your palace, away from the petty, brutal dealings of man. Maybe you don’t remember what it is to be powerless. I do.”

“Maybe so,” said Juris. “But you still wept for the tiger.”

Zoya froze. He couldn’t know. No one knew what she had done that night, what she had seen. “What do you mean?”

“When you are tied to all things, there is no limit to what you may know. The moment that bracelet dropped from your wrist, I saw it all. Young Zoya bleeding in the snow, heart full of valor. Zoya of the lost city. Zoya of the garden. You could not protect them then, and you cannot protect them now, not you and not your monster king.”

Do not look back at me. The well within her had no bottom. She tossed a stone into the darkness and she fell with it, on and on. She needed to get out of this room, to get away from Juris. “Are we done here?”

“We haven’t yet begun. Tell me, storm witch, when you slew the tiger, did you not feel its spirit moving through you, feel it take the shape of your anger?”

Zoya did not want to speak of that night. The dragon knew things he

could not know. She forced herself to laugh. “You’re saying I might have become a tiger?”

“Maybe. But you are weak, so who can be certain?”

Zoya curled her lip. She kept herself still though the rage inside her leapt. “Do you mean to goad me? It will take more than the slights of an old man.”

“You showed courage when we fought—ingenuity, nerve. And still you lost. You will continue to lose until you open the door.”

He turned suddenly and lunged toward her, his body growing larger, blotting out the light as his wings spread. His vast jaws parted and flame bloomed from somewhere inside him.

Zoya threw her arms over her head, cowering.

Abruptly the flames banked and Juris stood looking at her in his human form. “Have I chosen a weakling?” he said in disgust.

But now it was Zoya’s turn to smile. “Or maybe just a girl who knows how to look like one.”

Zoya stood and thrust her hands forward. The storm thundered toward him, a straight shot of wind and ire that knocked Juris from his feet and sent him tumbling, skating along the smooth stone floor and right out of the cave mouth. Weak. A fraction of the strength she had commanded with her amplifier. But he rolled over the edge and vanished, the surprise on his face like a balm to Zoya’s heart.

A moment later the dragon rose on giant wings. “Did I break your will when I broke your silly bauble?”

Had he? Without her amplifier, summoning her power was like reaching for something and misjudging the distance, feeling your fingers close over nothing but air. She had always been powerful, but it was the tiger’s life that had given her true strength. And now it was gone. What was she—who was she without it? If they ever got free of this place, how was she supposed to return to her command?

“Choose a weapon,” said Juris. “I’m too tired for this.”

“Give me a worthy fight and you can go hide wherever you like.

Choose a weapon.”

“I am the weapon.” Or she had been. “I don’t need a cudgel or a blade.”

“Very well,” said Juris, shifting smoothly into his human form. “I’ll choose one for you.” He grabbed a sword from the wall and tossed it to

her.

She caught it awkwardly with both hands. It was far too heavy. But she had no time to think. He was already springing toward her, a massive broadsword in his hands.

“What is the point of this?” she asked as he struck her blade with a blow that reverberated up her arms. “I’ve never been any good at swordplay.”

“You’ve spent your life only choosing the paths at which you knew you could excel. It’s made you lazy.”

Zoya grimaced and parried, trying to remember her long-ago education with Botkin Yul-Erdene. They’d used knives and rapiers and even taken target practice with pistols. Zoya had enjoyed all of it, particularly the hand-to-hand combat, but she’d had little cause to practice her skills since. What was the point of using her fists when she could command a storm?

“Not bad,” he said as she succeeded in dodging one of his thrusts. “Using your power has become too easy for you. When you fight this way, you have to focus so entirely on surviving that you stop thinking about everything else. You cannot worry about what came before or what happens next, what has been lost or what you might gain. There is only this moment.”

“What possible advantage is that?” Zoya said. “Isn’t it better to be able to predict what comes next?”

“When your mind is free, the door opens.” “What door?”

“The door to the making at the heart of the world.”

Zoya feinted right and stepped close to deny Juris the advantage of his longer reach. “That is already what I do when I summon,” she said, sweat beginning to drip from her brow. “That’s what all Grisha do when we use our power.”

“Is it?” he asked, bringing his sword down again. The clash of metal filled her ears. “The storm is still outside you, something you welcome and guard against all at once. It howls outside the door. It rattles the windows. It wants to be let in.”

“That makes no sense.”

“Let the storm in, Zoya. Do not summon. Do not reach for it. Let it come to you. Let it guide your movements. Give me a proper fight.”

Zoya grunted as his blade struck hers. She was already breathless, her

arms aching from the weight of her weapon. “I’m not strong enough to beat you without using my power.”

“You do not use it. You are it. The storm is in your bones.”

“Stop. Talking. Nonsense,” she snarled. It wasn’t fair. He was forcing her to play a game she couldn’t win. And Zoya always won.

Very well. If he wanted her to fight without summoning, she would, and she would best him at it too. Then Juris could hang his big ugly head in shame. She charged him, giving in to the thrill of the fight, the challenge of it, ignoring the pain that shivered up her arms as his blade met hers again and again. She was smaller and lighter, so she kept to the balls of her feet and stayed well within his guard.

His blade hissed against the flesh of her arm, and she felt the pain like a burn. Zoya knew she was bleeding, but she didn’t care. She only wanted to know he could bleed too.

Lunge. Parry. Attack. React. React. React. Her heart pounded like thunder. In her blood she felt the roaring of the wind. She could feel her body move before she told it to, the air whistling past her, through her. Her blood was charged with lightning. She brought her sword down, and in it she felt the strength of the hurricane, tearing trees up by their roots, unstoppable.

Juris’ blade shattered.

“There she is,” he said with his dragon’s smile.

Zoya stood quaking, eyes wide. She had felt her strength double, treble, the strength of a whirlwind in her limbs. It shouldn’t have been possible, but she couldn’t deny what she’d felt—or what she’d done. The proof was in the broken weapon that lay at her feet. She flexed her hand around the grip of her sword. The storm is in your bones.

“I see I finally have your attention,” said the dragon.

She looked up at him. He’d stolen her amplifier, broken some part of her. She would repay him for that—and he would help her learn to do it.

“Is there more?” she asked. “So much more,” said Juris.

Zoya dropped back into fighting stance and lifted her blade—light as air in her hands. “Then you’d better get yourself a new sword.”

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