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Chapter no 36 – Nikolai

King of Scars

‌THE THORN WOOD WAS BLEEDING. The sap that flowed from its trunks was no longer gold but red, as if with Elizaveta’s death it had died too. Its stalks began to shrivel, its thorns wilting. Nikolai pulled himself free, and the blood from his hands and legs dripped onto the sand. His chest throbbed, and yet the only sign that he’d driven a spike through it was a star-shaped scar. One more to add to his collection.

In the distance, he could see the great palace crumbling, its spires collapsing. What will be left? he wondered And how were he and Zoya going to get free of this place?

He stumbled over to her. She lay on a wilted bed of thorn trees and red quince blossoms, her hair splayed around her face. Before her, a dark pile of dead bees was heaped amid the branches. Sankta Elizaveta. Only a few feet away, he saw a mound of bones, both bear and human, blowing away to ash. Would this whole world crumble to dust?

He knelt beside Zoya and checked her pulse. It was steady. He was surprised to see two fetters of black scales at her wrists.

“Zoya,” he said, shaking her gently. “Commander Nazyalensky.”

Her lashes fluttered and she looked up at him. Nikolai reared back. For a moment, he thought he’d seen … No, that was impossible. Zoya gazed at him with vibrant blue eyes.

“Are you all right?” he asked. “Fine,” she replied.

“You’re sure?”

“Which one of us gets to kill the monk?” “You’re fine.”

He helped her to her feet and they made their way to where Yuri lay buried up to his neck in sand. At some point the rat had fainted. Blood

trickled from his nose.

Nikolai sighed. “I hate to say it, but we’re going to have to let him live. I need all the information we can garner on the Cult of the Starless and how the Saints brought us here. I think it may have been Elizaveta who unlocked my chains the night I got free from the palace.”

“How?”

“She said their power could extend beyond the Fold, but only where the people’s faith was strongest. Yuri was at the palace that night. Maybe Elizaveta used him to send her vines or her insects past my guards.”

Zoya snorted. “You’re the one who invited him in.”

“You can choose our next dinner guest. I want answers, so the monk lives. For now.”

“Perhaps some light torture, then? Or you could just let me kick him in the head for the next hour.”

“I’d like nothing better, but I’m not feeling my best, and I’d prefer not to die in these clothes. We need to see if we can find our way out of here.”

Zoya pulled the dunes away from Yuri, and they dragged him onto his back. They bound his hands with strips of fabric from Zoya’s kefta and gagged him for good measure.

“Nikolai,” Zoya said, laying a hand on his arm as she summoned a pallet of air on which to carry the monk. “Did it work at least? Are you free?”

Nikolai winked at her. “As free as I’ll ever be.”

He didn’t have the heart to tell her he could still feel the monster somewhere inside him—weakened, licking its wounds, but waiting for the opportunity to rise again.

Whatever power had bound them in permanent twilight had died with the Saints. Nikolai and Zoya had been walking less than an hour when they saw the first twinkle of stars.

They continued on, despite their wounds and their fatigue, until at last they saw lights in the distance, and eventually the dead gray sands of the Fold gave way to soft meadow. Though Nikolai would have liked nothing better than to foist himself on the hospitality of a farmer, they couldn’t risk discovery. They took shelter in an old equipment shed. It was damp and uncomfortable, but it was either that or rest beneath the branches of a plum orchard, and Nikolai had no desire to be anywhere

near a tree.

It was a pleasure to close his eyes and feel sleep fall over him. He would never take it for granted again.

Zoya set out before dawn for Kribirsk and returned more quickly than expected with horses, a pack full of traveling clothes, and a young Grisha Healer to see to Nikolai’s wounds.

“I’m sorry, Your Highness,” the boy apologized as he sealed the punctures in Nikolai’s hands. “This will most likely leave a scar. I’m still training.”

“A roguish scar?” asked Nikolai. “Well … a deep one?”

“Just as good.”

When he was done, Zoya sent him on his way. “Speak of this to anyone and I will consider it treason.” She trained her hard gaze on the boy and said, “That is a hanging offense.”

He stumbled backward through the doorway. “Yes, Commander. Of course, Commander.”

Zoya frowned and shook her head. “I swear they come through training softer and softer. One little glare and he was about to call for smelling salts.”

Nikolai said nothing. This time there’d been no mistaking it. When Zoya had glared at the boy, her eyes had flashed silver, and her pupils had turned to slits. For a moment, he had been looking into the eyes of the dragon. Just what had Zoya done to get them free? That question would have to wait until they were safely back at the palace.

They pushed through their exhaustion and rode hard the rest of the day. Occasionally, Nikolai felt a jab in his chest, as if the thorn were still lodged there. Yuri sat silent and shivering in his bindings, his hood pulled low over his face.

They soon learned that whatever had happened on the Unsea had been felt throughout Ravka, maybe beyond. Earthquakes had been reported as far north as Ulensk and as far south as Dva Stolba. Nikolai knew there would be other consequences. Three of the world’s most powerful Grisha had died, and the ritual had definitely not gone as planned.

Before they entered Os Alta, Zoya bound Nikolai’s hands and attached ropes to the bridles of his and Yuri’s horses so they would both look like prisoners as she led them through the lower town, across the great canal, and onto the broad boulevards that would take them up the gentle slope

and through the golden gates to the palace. They saw no mourning banners, no flags flown at half-mast. No one was rioting in the streets. Either Nikolai was decidedly less popular than he’d hoped, or somehow Genya and David had managed to keep his disappearance a secret.

Nikolai felt torn between anticipation and dread. When Zoya had gone to Kribirsk, he’d ungagged the monk and had quickly understood that, as bad as things were, they were going to get much worse. Open the door. He’d done it, and something terrible had stepped through.

And yet, at his first glimpse of the crowned double eagle perched atop the gates and the gilded rooftop of the Grand Palace in the distance, his heart lifted. He was home. He had survived, and even if he wasn’t cured, somehow he and Zoya and the others would find a way to move forward. The demon inside knew him well, but now Nikolai knew the demon too.

Zoya rode up to the guards on duty, tossed back her hood, and said, “Open for your commander.”

The guards instantly came to attention. “Moi soverenyi.”

“I am weary and I have prisoners to present to the other members of the Triumvirate.”

“Do they have papers?”

“I will take responsibility for them. But if you make me wait any longer for a hot bath, I will also take responsibility for your slow death.”

The guard cleared his throat and bowed. “Welcome home, Commander.”

The gates swung open.

It was clear some kind of big party was in progress. The walkways were lit with lanterns and music floated down from the sparkling windows of the Grand Palace.

“Is it possible they actually went through with it all?” Zoya said in disbelief.

“How can you throw a ball for a king who isn’t here?” Nikolai asked. They couldn’t possibly have attempted to tailor someone to take his place, could they? There wouldn’t have been time to train him, especially for an event with so much riding on it.

“Maybe they dressed up a scarecrow and put your crown on its head,” said Zoya.

“I should adopt that strategy at council meetings.”

They weren’t sure what might be waiting for them inside, so they

checked the monk’s bindings and gave him a drop of Genya’s sleep concoction for good measure. They stashed him behind a hedge and agreed to split up until they found a member of the Triumvirate or someone they could speak to without causing an uproar.

Nikolai made his way along the southern flank of the palace, keeping to the shadows as music drifted back to him from the party inside. He glimpsed movement in the conservatory. A couple meeting for an assignation? He’d leave them to it. He hastened along the glass wall dotted with miniature orange trees and was about to turn the corner when he saw … himself.

A bolt of panic shook him, his mind racing with confused thoughts. What if he wasn’t Nikolai anymore? What if he was just the monster? What if he was still caught in the twilight Fold and this was all a dream? He looked down at his hands—scarred but human, without claws. I am Nikolai Lantsov. I am here. I am home.

He looked back through the glass. The other him was standing amid the fruit trees and fountains of the conservatory, medals glinting from the pale blue sash across his chest. So this was why there was no panic in the countryside or cities, no flags of mourning raised. They’d used his plan. Genya had tailored some poor sap to play the role of the king.

Nikolai was at once thrilled and insulted. To think that someone could take his place so easily, well—a lesser man might have found it humbling. And yet his mind couldn’t help but spool out the possibilities. He could have this actor sit through state dinners and the openings of orphanages and concert halls. Nikolai could be in two places at once. But what was his new twin doing away from the other guests?

The answer presented itself in an elaborate green gown and emeralds

—a girl. A very pretty girl in what appeared to be very expensive jewels. Was this the princess Ehri Kir-Taban? There were no chaperones in sight. His stand-in was pacing, talking rapidly. Nikolai couldn’t hear what he was saying, but to his great horror, it looked very much like a declaration of love. What was this pretender getting them into? And had Genya and David sanctioned such a thing? This was the moment for a well-timed interruption, but exactly how was Nikolai supposed to accomplish that

without upending the whole charade?

Maybe I’m wrong and they’re discussing matters of state, Nikolai thought hopefully.

At that moment, the couple strode toward each other. The false king of

Ravka took the princess in his arms. She tilted her face up to his, her eyes sliding closed, her lips parted. That was when Nikolai saw the knife in her hands

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