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Chapter no 2 – Zoya

King of Scars

‌THE STINK OF BLOOD HUNG heavy in the coach. Zoya pressed her sleeve to her nose to ward off the smell, but the musty odor of dirty wool wasn’t much improvement.

Vile. It was bad enough that she had to go tearing off across the Ravkan countryside in the dead of night in a borrowed, badly sprung coach, but that she had to do so in a garment like this? Unacceptable. She stripped the coat from her body. The stench still clung to the silk of her embroidered blue kefta beneath, but she felt a bit more like herself now.

They were ten miles outside Ivets, nearly one hundred miles from the safety of the capital, racing along the narrow roads that would lead them back to the estate of their host for the trade summit, Duke Radimov. Zoya wasn’t much for praying, so she could only hope no one had seen Nikolai escape his chambers and take to the skies. If they’d been back home, back in Os Alta, this never would have happened. She’d thought they’d taken enough precautions. She couldn’t have been more wrong.

The horse’s hooves thundered, the wheels of the coach clattering and jouncing, as beside her the king of Ravka gnashed his needle-sharp teeth and pulled at his chains.

Zoya kept her distance. She’d seen what one of Nikolai’s bites could do when he was in this state, and she had no interest in losing a limb or worse. Part of her had wanted to ask Tolya or Tamar, the brother and sister who served as the king’s personal guards, to ride inside the carriage with her until Nikolai resumed his human form. Their father had been a Shu mercenary who had trained them to fight, their mother a Grisha from whom they’d both inherited Heartrender gifts. The presence of either twin would have been welcome. But her pride prevented it, and she also knew what it would cost the king. One witness to his misery was

bad enough.

Outside, the wind howled. It was less the baying of a beast than the high, wild laugh of an old friend, driving them on. The wind did what she willed it, had since she was a child. Yet on nights like these, she couldn’t help but feel that it was not her servant but her ally: a storm that rose to mask a creature’s snarls, to hide the sounds of a fight in a rickety barn, to whip up trouble in streets and village taverns. This was the western wind, Adezku the mischief-maker, a worthy companion. Even if that farm boy told everyone in Ivets what he’d seen, the townspeople would chalk it up to Adezku, the rascal wind that drove women into their neighbors’ beds and made mad thoughts skitter in men’s heads like whorls of dead leaves.

A mile later, the snarls in the coach had quieted. The clanking of the chains dwindled as the creature seemed to sink farther and farther into the shadows of the seat. At last, a voice, hoarse and beleaguered, said, “I don’t suppose you brought me a fresh shirt?”

Zoya took the pack from the coach floor and pulled out a clean white shirt and fur-lined coat, both finely made but thoroughly rumpled— appropriate attire for a royal who had spent the night carousing.

Without a word, Nikolai held up his shackled wrists. The talons had retracted, but his hands were still scarred with the faint black lines he had borne since the end of the civil war three years ago. The king often wore gloves to hide them, and Zoya thought that was a mistake. The scars were a reminder of the torture he had endured at the hands of the Darkling—and the price he had paid alongside his country. Of course, that was only part of the story, but it was the part the Ravkan people were best equipped to handle.

Zoya unlocked the chains with the heavy key she wore around her neck. She hoped it was her imagination, but the scars on Nikolai’s hands seemed darker lately, as if determined not to fade.

Once his hands were free, the king peeled the ruined shirt from his body. He used the linen and water from the flask she handed him to wash the blood from his chest and mouth, then splashed more over his hands and ran them through his hair. The water trickled down his neck and shoulders. He was shaking badly, but he looked like Nikolai again— hazel eyes clear, the damp gold of his hair pushed back from his forehead.

“Where did you find me this time?” he asked, keeping most of the

tremor from his voice.

Zoya wrinkled her nose at the memory. “A goose farm.”

“I hope it was one of the more fashionable goose farms.” He fumbled with the buttons of his clean shirt, fingers still shaking. “Do we know what I killed?”

Or who? The question hung unspoken in the air.

Zoya batted Nikolai’s quaking hands away from his buttons and took up the work herself. Through the thin cotton, she could feel the chill the night had left on his skin.

“What an excellent valet you make,” he murmured. But she knew he hated submitting to these small attentions, hated that he was weak enough to require them.

Sympathy would only make it worse, so she kept her voice brusque. “I presume you killed a great deal of geese. Possibly a shaggy pony.” But had that been all? Zoya had no way of knowing what the monster might have gotten into before they’d found him. “You remember nothing?”

“Only flashes.”

They would just have to wait for any reports of deaths or mutilations.

The trouble had begun six months earlier, when Nikolai had woken in a field nearly thirty miles from Os Alta, bloodied and covered in bruises, with no memory of how he’d gotten out of the palace or what he’d done in the night. I seem to have taken up sleepwalking, he’d declared to Zoya and the rest of the Grisha Triumvirate when he’d sauntered in late to their morning meeting, a long scratch down his cheek.

They’d been concerned but baffled. Tolya and Tamar were hardly the type to just let Nikolai slip by. How did you get past them? Zoya had asked as Genya tailored away the scratch and David carried on about somnambulism. But if Nikolai had been troubled, he hadn’t shown it. I excel at most things, he’d said. Why not unlikely escapes too? He’d had new locks placed on his bedroom doors and insisted they move on to the business of the day and the odd report of an earthquake in Ryevost that had released thousands of silver hummingbirds from a crack in the earth. A little over a month later, Tolya had been reading in a chair outside the king’s bedchamber when he’d heard the sound of breaking glass and burst through the door to see Nikolai leap from the window ledge, his back split by wings of curling shadow. Tolya had woken Zoya and they’d

tracked the king to the roof of a granary fifteen miles away.

After that, they had started chaining the king to his bed—an effective

solution, workable only because Nikolai’s servants were not permitted inside his palace bedchamber. The king was a war hero, after all, and known to suffer nightmares. Zoya had locked him in every night since and released him every morning, and they’d kept Nikolai’s secret safe. Only Tolya, Tamar, and the Triumvirate knew the truth. If anyone discovered the king of Ravka spent his nights trussed up in chains, he’d be a perfect target for assassination or coup, not to mention a laughingstock.

That was what made travel so dangerous. But Nikolai couldn’t stay sequestered behind the walls of Os Alta forever.

“A king cannot remain locked up in his own castle,” he’d declared when he’d decided to resume travel away from the palace. “One risks looking less like a monarch and more like a hostage.”

“You have emissaries to manage these matters of state,” Zoya had argued, “ambassadors, underlings.”

“The public may forget how handsome I am.” “I doubt it. Your face is on the money.”

Nikolai had refused to relent, and Zoya could admit he wasn’t entirely wrong. His father had made the mistake of letting others conduct the business of ruling, and it had cost him. There was a balance to be struck, she supposed, between caution and daring, tiresome as compromise tended to be. Life just ran more smoothly when she got her way.

Because Nikolai and Zoya couldn’t very well travel with a trunk full of chains for inquisitive servants to discover, whenever they were away from the safety of the palace, they relied on a powerful sedative to keep Nikolai tucked into bed and the monster at bay.

“Genya will have to mix my tonic stronger,” he said now, shrugging into his coat.

“Or you could stay in the capital and cease taking these foolish risks.”

So far the monster had been content with attacks on livestock, his casualties limited to gutted sheep and drained cattle. But they both knew it was only a question of time. Whatever the Darkling’s power had left seething within Nikolai hungered for more than animal flesh.

“The last incident was barely a week ago.” He scrubbed a hand over his face. “I thought I had more time.”

“It’s getting worse.”

“I like to keep you on your toes, Nazyalensky. Constant anxiety does wonders for the complexion.”

“I’ll send you a thank-you card.”

“Make sure of it. You’re positively glowing.”

He’s faring worse than he’s letting on, thought Zoya. Nikolai was always freer with compliments when he was fatigued. It was true, she did look splendid, even after a harrowing night, but Zoya knew the king couldn’t care less about her appearance.

They heard a sharp whistle from outside as the carriage slowed. “We’re approaching the bridge,” Zoya said.

The trade summit in Ivets had been essential to their negotiations with the nations of Kerch and Novyi Zem, but the business of tariffs and taxes had also provided cover for their true mission: a visit to the site of Ravka’s latest supposed miracle.

A week ago, the villagers of Ivets had set out behind Duke Radimov’s ribbon-festooned cart to celebrate the Festival of Sankt Grigori, banging drums and playing little harps meant to mimic the instrument Grigori had fashioned to soothe the beasts of the forest before his martyrdom. But when they’d reached the Obol, the wooden bridge that spanned the river gorge had given way. Before the duke and his vassals could plummet to the raging whitewater below, another bridge had sprung up beneath them, seeming to bloom from the very walls of the chasm and the jagged rocks of the canyon floor. Or so the reports had claimed. Zoya had put little stock in the tales, chalked them up to exaggeration, maybe even mass delusion—until she’d seen the bridge for herself.

She peered out the coach window as they rounded the bend in the road and the bridge came into view, its tall, slender pillars and long girders gleaming white in the moonlight. Though she’d seen it before and walked its length with the king, the sight was still astonishing. From a distance, it looked like something wrought in alabaster. It was only when one drew closer that it became clear the bridge was not stone at all.

Nikolai shook his head. “As a man who regularly turns into a monster, I realize I shouldn’t be making judgments about stability, but are we sure it’s safe?”

“Not at all,” admitted Zoya, trying to ignore the knot in her stomach. When she’d crossed over it with the twins earlier that night, she’d been too focused on finding Nikolai to worry about the bridge holding up. “But it’s the only way across the gorge.”

“Perhaps I should have brushed up on my prayers.”

The sound of the wheels changed as the coach rolled onto the bridge,

from the rumble of the road to a steady thump, thump, thump. The bridge that had so miraculously sprung up from nothing was not stone or brick or wooden beam. Its white girders and transoms were bone and tendon, its abutments and piers bound together with ropy bundles of gristle. Thump, thump, thump. They were traveling over a spine.

“I don’t care for that sound,” said Zoya.

“Agreed. A miracle should sound more dignified. Some chimes, perhaps, or a choir of heavenly voices.”

“Don’t call it that,” snapped Zoya. “A choir?”

“A miracle.” Zoya had whispered enough futile prayers in her childhood to know the Saints never answered. The bridge had to be Grisha craft, and there was a rational explanation for its appearance, one she intended to find.

“What would you call a bridge made of bones appearing just in time to save an entire town from death?” asked Nikolai.

“It wasn’t an entire town.” “Half a town,” he amended. “An unexpected occurrence.”

“The people might feel that description falls short of this marvel.”

And it was a marvel—at once elegant and grotesque, a mass of crossing beams and soaring arches. Since it had appeared, pilgrims had camped at either end of it, holding vigil day and night. They did not raise their heads as the coach rolled by.

“What would you call the earthquake in Ryevost?” Nikolai continued. “Or the statue of Sankta Anastasia weeping tears of blood outside Tsemna?”

“Trouble,” Zoya said.

“You still think it’s the work of Grisha using parem?”

“How else could someone create such a bridge or an earthquake on demand?”

Jurda parem. Zoya wished she’d never heard the words. The drug was the product of experimentation in a Shu lab. It could take a Grisha’s power and transform it into something wholly new and wholly dangerous, but the price for that brief bit of glory was addiction and eventually death. It might make it possible for a rogue Fabrikator to shake the earth or for a Corporalnik to make a bridge out of a body. But to what end? Could the Shu be using Grisha slaves to destabilize Ravka?

Could the Apparat, the supposed spiritual counselor to the crown, be involved? Thus far, he had only declared that he was praying over the incidents and planned to stage a pilgrimage to the sites. Zoya had never trusted the priest, and she had no doubt that if he could find a way to stage a miracle, he could also find a way to use the spectacle to his own advantage.

But the real question, the question that had brought them to Ivets, was whether these strange happenings around Ravka were tied to the dark power that sheltered inside Nikolai. The occurrences had begun right around the same time as Nikolai’s night spells. It might be a coincidence, but they had come to Ivets in the hope of finding some clue, some connection that would help them rid Nikolai of the monster’s will.

They reached the other side of the bridge, and the reassuringly ordinary rumble of the dirt road filled the coach once more. It was as if a spell had lifted.

“We’ll have to leave Duke Radimov’s today,” said Nikolai. “And hope no one saw me flapping around the grounds.”

Zoya wanted to agree, but since they’d made the journey … “I can double your dose of Genya’s tonic. There’s another day left in negotiations.”

“Let Ulyashin handle them. I want to get back to the capital. We have samples from the bridge for David. He may be able to learn something we can use to deal with my …”

“Affliction?” “Uninvited guest.”

Zoya rolled her eyes. He spoke as if he were being plagued by a bilious aunt. But there was an important reason for them to stay in Ivets. She had been wary of the trip, skeptical of the bridge, fearful of the risks, but she’d also known the trade summit presented them with a good opportunity—a certain Hiram Schenck and his two marriageable daughters.

She tapped her fingers against the velvet seat, uncertain of how to proceed. She’d hoped to orchestrate a meeting between Nikolai and the Schenck girls without him realizing that she was meddling. The king did not like to be led, and when he sensed he was being pushed, he could be just as stubborn as … well, as Zoya herself.

“Speak, Nazyalensky. When you purse your lips like that, you look like you’ve made love to a lemon.”

“Lucky lemon,” Zoya said with a sniff. She smoothed the fabric of her

kefta over her lap. “Hiram Schenck’s family accompanied him to Ivets.” “And?”

“He has two daughters.”

Nikolai laughed. “Is that why you agreed to this trip? So that you could indulge in your matchmaking?”

“I agreed because someone has to make sure you don’t eat anyone when your uninvited guest gets peckish in the middle of the night. And I am not some interfering mama who wants to see her darling son wed. I am trying to protect your throne. Hiram Schenck is a senior member of the Merchant Council. He could all but guarantee leniency on Ravka’s loans from Kerch, to say nothing of the massive fortune one of his pretty daughters will inherit.”

“How pretty?” “Who cares?”

“Not me, certainly. But two years working with you has worn away my pride. I want to make sure I won’t spend my life watching other men ogle my wife.”

“If they do, you can have them beheaded.” “The men or my wife?” said Nikolai.

“Both. Just make sure to get her dowry first.” “Ruthless.”

“Practical. If we stayed another night—”

“Zoya, I can’t very well court a bride if there’s a chance I may turn her into dinner.”

“You’re a king. You don’t have to court anyone. That’s what the throne and the jewels and the title are for, and once you’re married, your queen will become your ally.”

“Or she may run screaming from our wedding bower and tell her father I began by nibbling on her earlobe and then tried to consume her actual ear. She could start a war.”

“But she won’t, Nikolai. Because by the time you two have said your vows, you’ll have charmed her into loving you, and then you’ll be her problem to take care of.”

“Even my charm has its limits, Zoya.”

If so, she had yet to encounter them. Zoya cast the king a disbelieving glance. “A handsome monster husband who put a crown on her head? It’s a perfect fairy tale to sell to some starry-eyed girl. She can lock you

in at night and kiss you sweetly in the morning, and Ravka will be secure.”

“Why do you never kiss me sweetly in the morning, Zoya?”

“I do nothing sweetly, Your Highness.” She shook out her cuffs. “Why do you hesitate? Until you marry, until you have an heir, Ravka will remain vulnerable.”

Nikolai’s glib demeanor vanished. “I cannot take a wife while I am in this state. I cannot forge a marriage founded on lies.”

“Aren’t most?” “Ever the romantic.” “Ever practical.”

“Kerch bridal prospects aside, we need to escape before Schenck can question me more closely about the izmars’ya.”

Zoya cursed. “So the twins were right—there was a leak at our old research facility.” The izmars’ya were ships that traveled beneath the surface of the water. They would be vital to Ravka’s survival as the Fjerdan navy grew, especially if Nikolai could arm them as he had planned.

“It seems so. But the Kerch don’t know how far along we are, at least not yet.”

Those words did little to cheer Zoya. The Kerch already had enough leverage against Ravka. Schenck wouldn’t have raised the topic of the izmars’ya with the king lightly. What did he intend to do with this new intelligence?

Another sharp whistle sounded from outside the carriage, two quick notes—Tolya’s signal that they were approaching the gatehouse.

Zoya knew there would be some confusion among the guards. No one had seen the coach ride out, and it bore no royal seal. Tolya and Tamar had kept it at the ready well outside the duke’s estate just in case Nikolai slipped his leash. She’d gone to find them as soon as she realized he was missing.

They’d gotten lucky tonight. They’d found the king before he’d strayed too far. When Nikolai flew, Zoya could sense him riding the winds and use the disruption in their pattern to track his movements. But if she hadn’t gotten to that farm when she had, what might have happened? Would Nikolai have killed that boy? The thing inside him was not just a hungry animal but something far worse, and she knew with absolute surety that it longed for human prey.

“We cannot go on this way, Nikolai.” Eventually they would be found out. Eventually these evening hunts and sleepless nights would get the best of them. “We must all do what is required.”

Nikolai sighed and opened his arms to her as the coach rattled to a stop. “Then come here, Zoya, and kiss me sweetly as a new bride would.”

So much for propriety. Thanks to Zoya’s late-night visits to make sure the king was safely restrained in his chambers, the gossip was already thick that their relationship was more than political. Kings took mistresses, and worse things had been rumored about leaders before. Zoya just hoped the Schenck girls were the open-minded sort. The king’s reputation could withstand a bit of scandal; it would not survive the truth.

Zoya took a second flask from the pack and dabbed whiskey at her pulse points like perfume before handing it to Nikolai, who took a long swig, then splashed the rest liberally over his coat. Zoya ruffled her hair, let her kefta slip from one shoulder, and eased into the king’s arms. The charade was necessary, and it was an easy role to play, sometimes too easy.

He buried his face in her hair, inhaling deeply. “How is it I smell like goose shit and cheap whiskey and you smell like you just ran through a meadow of wildflowers?”

“Ruthlessness.”

He breathed in again. “What is that scent? It reminds me of something, but I can’t place what.”

“The last child you tried to eat?” “That must be it.”

The door to the coach flew open.

“Your Highness, we hadn’t realized you’d gone out tonight.”

Zoya couldn’t see the guard’s face, but she could hear the suspicion in his voice.

“Your king is not in the habit of asking for anything, least of all permission,” said Nikolai, his voice lazy but with the disdainful edge of a monarch who knew nothing but easy gratification.

“Of course, of course,” said the guard. “We had only your safety in mind, my king.”

Zoya doubted it. Western Ravka had bridled under the new taxes and laws that had come with unification. These guards might wear the double

eagle, but their loyalty belonged to the duke who ran this estate and who had thrown up opposition to Nikolai’s rule at every turn. No doubt their master would be thrilled to uncover the king’s secrets.

Zoya summoned her most plaintive tone and said, “Why aren’t we moving?”

She sensed the shift in their interest.

“A good night, then?” said the guard, and she could almost see him peering into the coach to get a better look.

Zoya tossed her long black hair and said with the sleepy, tousled sound of a woman well tumbled, “A very good night.”

“She only play with royals?” said the guard. “She looks like fun.”

Zoya felt Nikolai tense. She was both touched and annoyed that he thought she cared what some buffoon believed, but there was no need to play at chivalry tonight.

She cast the guard a long look and said, “You have no idea.” He chortled and waved them through.

As the coach rolled on, Zoya felt the faint tremor of Nikolai’s transformation still echoing through him and her own exhaustion creeping over her. It would be too easy to let her eyes close, to rest her head against his chest and give in to the illusion of comfort. But the price for such indulgence would be too high. “Eventually the monster will be found out,” she said. “We’ve had no luck in finding a cure or even a hint of one. Marry. Forge an alliance. Make an heir. Secure the throne and Ravka’s future.”

“I will,” he said wearily. “I’ll do all of it. But not tonight. Tonight let’s pretend we’re an old married couple.”

If any other man had said such a thing, she would have punched him in the jaw. Or possibly taken him to bed for a few hours. “And what does that entail?”

“We’ll tell each other lies as married couples do. It will be a good game. Go on, wife. Tell me I’m a handsome fellow who will never age and who will die with all of his own teeth in his head. Make me believe it.”

“I will not.”

“I understand. You’ve never had a talent for deception.”

Zoya knew he was goading her, but her pride pricked anyway. “How can you be so sure? Perhaps the list of my talents is so long you just haven’t gotten to the end.”

“Go on, then, Nazyalensky.”

“Dearest husband,” she said, making her voice honey sweet, “did you know the women of my family can see the future in the stars?”

He huffed a laugh. “I did not.”

“Oh yes. And I’ve seen your fate in the constellations. You will grow old, fat, and happy, father many badly behaved children, and future generations will tell your story in legend and song.”

“Very convincing,” Nikolai said. “You’re good at this game.” A long silence followed, filled with nothing but the rattling of the coach wheels. “Now tell me I’ll find a way out of this. Tell me it will be all right.”

His tone was merry, teasing, but Zoya knew him too well. “It will be all right,” she said with all the conviction she could muster. “We’ll solve this problem as we’ve solved all the others before.” She tilted her head up to look at him. His eyes were closed; a worried crease marred his brow. “Do you believe me?”

“Yes.”

She pushed away from him and straightened her clothes. Falsehoods were inevitable, maybe even necessary between a husband and wife. A general and her king could ill afford them.

“See?” she said. “You’re good at this game too.”

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