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Chapter no 6 – Nikolai

King of Scars

‌NIKOLAI AND TOLYA BROUGHT David and Nadia back to the capital by way of the underground tunnel that stretched from the Gilded Bog all the way to the grounds of the Grand Palace—fifteen miles of travel far beneath the surface of the earth. Poor Tolya muttered to himself the entire way. In verse.

Nikolai would have liked to spare Tolya and his own ears the trauma of the journey, but his head of security had insisted he was fine. Besides, Nikolai had received word that the crowd of pilgrims camped outside the city walls had grown in recent days and that some were demanding an audience with the king. All he needed was for an overzealous zealot to hurl himself beneath the hooves of one of the royal riders. Nikolai didn’t intend to make any martyrs today.

They emerged behind a noisy manmade waterfall not far from the royal stables, the path to it monitored by two of Nikolai’s most trusted palace guards. In their white-and-gold uniforms, dark hair parted neatly on the side, both of their faces cast in the solemn disinterest of soldiers at attention, the guards might have been brothers, but they couldn’t have been less alike in disposition. Trukhin was always laughing and full of bravado; Isaak was so shy he often struggled to make eye contact.

The guards registered no surprise as Nikolai’s party appeared from between the hedges.

“Trukhin,” Nikolai said. “What excitement did I miss on my travels?” Trukhin’s stern expression gave way instantly to an easy smile.

“Welcome back, Your Highness. Not much to report here, though an Inferni did set fire to the woods behind the lake.”

Sounds like Kuwei. Nikolai admired the Shu boy’s gift for mayhem. Especially because the young Inferni was Zoya’s problem to manage.

“That doesn’t sound too bad.”

Trukhin’s grin turned rueful. “I believe the minister of defense was caught in the blaze. But he suffered no injuries.”

“As long as no one set fire to the minister of finance. Cav anenye?” Nikolai asked Isaak in Zemeni. He had discovered the guard’s gift for languages during his service at Halmhend and encouraged Isaak to foster those talents.

Isaak bowed slightly. “Your accent is coming along nicely, Your Majesty.”

“Don’t coddle me, Isaak.”

The guard cleared his throat. “Well, the Zemeni word for day is can, not cav. Unless you meant to ask how my donkey is going.”

“I wish your donkey well, but you should always feel free to correct me when I make mistakes.”

“Yes, Your Highness,” Isaak said uncomfortably.

“Don’t worry,” said Nikolai as they turned their backs on the gardens and headed toward the Grand Palace. “It doesn’t happen often.”

Easy words. Old words. Harder to prove true with every passing day. Through the trees, Nikolai glimpsed the gilded terraces of the Grand

Palace, stacked like the frosted layers of the world’s most expensive tea cake. His ancestors had enjoyed an excess of everything—except good taste. But he would not be stopping there just yet. He veered left toward the Little Palace instead, passing through the woods and emerging to the sight of its golden domes, the gleaming blue lake with a tiny island at its center visible just beyond.

Nikolai had spent plenty of time here, and yet there was something about this place—the soaring towers, the ancient wooden walls inlaid with mother-of-pearl and carved with every manner of flower and beast. He always felt he was traveling into foreign territory, leaving the new world behind for someplace where dark bargains might be struck. He should probably stop reading novels.

Grisha were everywhere in their brightly colored kefta—uniforms Tolya and Tamar had resolutely refused to wear, opting for the olive drab of First Army soldiers instead. The twins kept their arms bare, their deep bronze skin tattooed with the markings of the Sun Saint.

Zoya and Genya were already waiting in the war room. “You’re late,” said Zoya.

“I’m the king,” said Nikolai. “That means you’re early.”

For most state matters, the Grisha Triumvirate attended Nikolai at the Grand Palace, in the same room where he met with his ministers and governors. But when they needed to talk—really talk without fear of being overheard—they came here, to the chambers the Darkling had built. He was a man who had excelled at keeping secrets; the war room had no windows and only a single entrance that couldn’t be accessed without breaching the Little Palace itself. The walls were lined with maps of Ravka made in the old style. They would have enchanted Nikolai as a child—had he ever been allowed anywhere near the place.

“We’re in trouble,” Nikolai said without preamble, and settled himself in a chair at the head of the table with a cup of tea perched on his knee.

“Saying we’re in trouble is like saying Tolya is hungry,” replied Zoya, ignoring Tolya’s scowl and pouring herself tea from the samovar. “Am I supposed to be surprised?”

She had dressed in the blue wool kefta that most Etherealki wore in cold weather, silver embroidery at its cuffs and hem, gray fox fur at its collar. She showed little sign of fatigue despite the days and nights of travel that had brought them back to Os Alta. Zoya was always a general, and her impeccable appearance was part of her armor. Nikolai glanced at his perfectly shined boots. It was a trait he respected.

“But this is particularly delicious trouble,” he said.

“Oh no,” groaned Genya. “When you talk that way, things are always about to go horribly wrong.” Her kefta was Corporalki red, only a shade darker than her hair, its cuffs embroidered in dark blue—a combination worn only by Genya and her regiment of Tailors. But the cuffs and hem of Genya’s kefta were also detailed with golden thread to match the sun emblazoned over her eyepatch in remembrance of Alina Starkov. Nikolai had added the sun in ascendance to his own Lantsov heraldry, a gesture he could admit had been driven by the need to court public opinion as much as by personal sentiment. Still, it sometimes felt like Alina was trailing them from room to room, her presence as tangible as the heat of a summer sun, though the girl was long gone.

Nikolai tapped his spoon against his cup. “David and Nadia are close to perfecting the weapons system on the izmars’ya.”

David didn’t bother to look up from the reading he’d brought with him

—a treatise on osmotic filters that Nikolai had found most helpful. “You’re right, Genya. This must be very serious trouble.”

Genya cocked her head to the side. “Why do you say that?”

“He’s starting with the good news.”

Nikolai and Zoya exchanged a glance, and Zoya said, “Hiram Schenck approached the king at the trade summit in Ivets. The Kerch Merchant Council knows about our underwater fleet.”

Tamar pushed back her chair in frustration. “Damn it. I knew we had a leak at the old facility. We should have moved to Lazlayon sooner.”

“They were going to find out eventually,” said Tolya.

David mumbled, “There are peaceable applications for the submersibles. Research, exploration.”

He’d never liked to think of himself as a maker of weapons. But they couldn’t afford to be so naive.

Tamar leaned against the wall and propped up her heel. “Let’s not pretend we don’t know what the Kerch intend to use our sharks for.”

Hiram Schenck and the merchants of the Kerch Council claimed they wanted the izmars’ya as a defensive measure against their Shu neighbors and the possibility of Fjerdan blockades. But Nikolai knew better. They all did. The Kerch already had a target in mind: Zemeni ships.

The Zemeni had been building up their navy and establishing their own trade routes. They no longer needed Kerch ports or Kerch vessels, and for the first time, the mighty Kerch, who had ruled the seas and the world’s trade undisputed for so long, had competition to worry about. Not only that, but the Zemeni had advantages the Kerch couldn’t match

—extensive farmland, timber, and mines of their own. If Nikolai was honest, he was jealous of the way the young country had thrived. This was what a nation could do without enemies at their borders, unburdened by the constant threat of war.

But if the Kerch Merchant Council obtained the plans to Ravka’s fleet of sharks, there would be no quarter for Zemeni ships. They could be attacked anywhere, and the Kerch would regain their monopoly of the seas—a monopoly that had made them one of the wealthiest and most powerful nations in the world, despite their tiny size.

“The Zemeni have been strong allies,” said Tolya. “They’ve lent us aid, stood with us when no one else would.”

Tamar folded her arms. “But they can’t forgive our loans. The Kerch control Ravka’s debt. They could cripple us with the stroke of a pen.”

Nikolai contemplated the map before him. Shu Han to the south. Fjerda to the north. Ravka caught between them. If Ravka couldn’t maintain its borders, his nation would become little more than a

battleground between two great powers—and Nikolai had promised his people peace, a chance to rebuild. Both the Fjerdans and the Shu possessed vast standing armies, while the Ravkan army was depleted from years of waging war on two fronts. When Nikolai had taken command of Ravka’s forces after the civil war, he had known they could not match their enemies’ numbers. Ravka could only survive by using innovation to stay one step ahead. His country did not want to be at war again. He did not want to be at war again. But to build flyers, ships, or weapons in any quantity that would matter, they needed money and access to resources that only Kerch loans could provide. The decision seemed simple—except no decision was ever simple, even if one was willing to put thoughts of honor and allies aside.

“You’re both right,” Nikolai said. “We need the Zemeni and we need the Kerch. But we can’t choose two partners in this dance.”

“All right,” said Zoya. “Who do we want to go home with when the music stops?”

Tamar tapped her heel against the wall. “It has to be the Kerch.”

“Let’s not make any rash decisions,” said Nikolai. “Pick the wrong partner and we could be in for a disappointing night.”

He removed a vial of cloudy green liquid from his pocket and set it on the table.

Zoya drew in a sharp breath and Genya leaned forward. “Is that what I think it is?” asked Zoya.

Nikolai nodded. “Because of the information we gleaned from Kuwei Yul-Bo, our Alkemi are close to perfecting an antidote to parem.”

Genya pressed her hands together. There were tears in her single amber eye. “Then—”

Nikolai hated to quell her hope, but they all needed to understand the reality of the situation. “Unfortunately, the formula for the antidote requires huge amounts of jurda stalks. Ten times the number of plants it would take to create an ounce of jurda parem.

Zoya picked up the vial, turned it over in her hands. “Jurda only grows in Novyi Zem. No other climate will sustain it.”

“We need an antidote,” said Tamar. “All of our intelligence points to the Shu and the Fjerdans being closer to developing a usable strain of parem.

“More Grisha enslaved,” said Zoya. “More Grisha used as weapons against Ravka. More Grisha dead.” She set the vial back on the table. “If

we give the Kerch the plans to the izmars’ya, we’ll lose Novyi Zem as an ally and our chance to protect our Grisha—maybe the world’s Grisha— from parem.” With a tap of her finger, she set the vial spinning in a slow circle. “If we say no to the Kerch, then we won’t have the money to adequately arm and equip the First Army. Either way we lose.”

Genya turned to Nikolai. “You’ll make a diplomatic trip, then. Visit the Kerch, visit the Zemeni. Do that thing you do where you use too many words to say something simple and confuse the issue.”

“I’d like nothing better than another opportunity to talk,” said Nikolai. “But I’m afraid I have more bad news.”

Genya slumped in her chair. “There’s more?”

“This is Ravka,” said Zoya. “There’s always more.”

Nikolai had known this moment was coming, and yet he still wished he could make some kind of excuse and bring the meeting to a halt. So sorry, friends. I’m needed in the greenhouses on a matter of national security. No one else can prune the peonies. Though everyone here knew what had been happening to him, it still felt like a dirty secret. He did not want to let the demon into the room. But this had to be said.

“While Zoya and I were away, the monster took hold of me again. I broke free at the duke’s estate and made a delightful sojourn to a local goose farm.”

“But the sleeping tonic—” Genya began.

“The monster is getting stronger.” There, now. He’d said it. Not a bit of waver to his voice, not even the barest note of worry, though he wanted to choke on the words.

Genya shuddered. Better than anyone, she understood the darkness living inside Nikolai. It was tied to the nichevo’ya, to the very monsters that had terrorized her. The Darkling had set his shadow soldiers upon her when she betrayed him. She had lost an eye to his creatures, and their bites had left her body covered in scars that could not be tailored away. Nikolai still marveled at the particular cruelty of it. The Darkling had known that Genya valued beauty as her shield, so he had taken it from her. He had known that Nikolai relied on his mind, his talent for thinking his way out of any situation, so he’d let the demon steal Nikolai’s ability to speak and think rationally. The Darkling could have killed either of them, but he had wanted to punish them instead. He might have been an ancient power, but he certainly had a petty streak.

“David,” Genya said, her skin pale beneath her scars. “Is that

possible? Could it be getting stronger?”

David brushed his shaggy brown hair back from his eyes. “It shouldn’t be,” he said. “Not after it was dormant for so long. But the power that created the presence inside the king wasn’t ordinary Grisha power. It was merzost.”

“Abomination,” murmured Tolya.

“Are we calling it a presence now?” asked Nikolai. “I preferred ‘monster.’ Or ‘demon.’ Even ‘fiend’ has a nice ring.” The monster is me and I am the monster. And if Nikolai didn’t laugh at it, he was fairly sure he’d go mad.

“We can name it Maribel if it suits you,” Zoya said, pushing away her empty cup. “It doesn’t matter what we call it, only what it can do.”

“It matters if we’re misunderstanding its nature,” said David. “You’ve read Grisha theory, Morozova’s journals. Grisha power cannot create life or animate matter, only manipulate it. Every time those limits are breached, there are repercussions.”

“The Shadow Fold,” said Nikolai. The swath of darkness crawling with monsters had split Ravka in two, until Alina Starkov had destroyed it during the civil war. But the wound remained—a wasteland of dead sand where nothing green took hold, as if the Darkling’s power had leached the very life from the land. Merzost had created the Fold, the creatures inside it, as well as the Darkling’s shadow soldiers—and it was the same power that the Darkling had used to infect Nikolai.

David shrugged. “That power is unpredictable.”

“We don’t know what may happen next,” said Nikolai. “Usually a thrilling proposition, less so when a demon may take over my consciousness and try to rule Ravka by gnawing on my subjects.” How did the words come so easily—even as he contemplated losing his mind and his will? Because they always had. And he needed them. He needed to build a wall of words and wit and reason to keep the beast at bay, to remember who he was.

To rid himself of the monster, Nikolai had allowed himself to be subjected to extreme heat and cold. He had brought in bewildered Sun Summoners to use their power on him with no discernible result except the sensation that he was being gently roasted from the inside. His agents had scoured libraries the world over and retrieved the journals of the legendary Fabrikator Ilya Morozova after months of excavation in the rubble of the Spinning Wheel—all with nothing to show for it but

frustration. That frustration had led him to Ivets, to the bone bridge, in some futile attempt to draw a connection between the darkness within him and the strange happenings around Ravka. Maybe he’d been hoping the Saints would present him with a miracle. But thus far, divine intervention had been in short supply.

“So you see the problem,” he said now. “I cannot travel without risking exposure, but I cannot stay in hiding at the capital without drawing suspicion and risking Ravka’s future with the Zemeni and the Kerch. Did I not promise particularly delicious trouble?”

“I’m sorry,” said Genya. “Exactly what is delicious about this?”

“The way we’re going to get out of it.” Nikolai slouched back in his chair and stretched his legs, crossing them at the ankle. “We’re going to throw a party.”

“I see,” said Zoya. “How drunk am I expected to get before this all starts looking better?”

“I fear there isn’t enough wine in all of Kirigin’s cellars,” conceded Nikolai. “And I regret to say we’ll need to be sober for this. The Kerch, the Zemeni, the Fjerdans, and the Shu—we’re going to bring them all here. We’re going to stage a little performance so that they know Ravka and its king are in perfect health.”

“Is that all?” said Zoya. “Will you be taking up juggling as well?” “Don’t be ridiculous,” Nikolai replied. “I already know how to juggle.

Literally and figuratively. We’ll renew our alliance with the Zemeni—” “But the Kerch—” Genya began.

“And we’ll give the Kerch a secret look at our prototype of the

izmars’ya.”

“We will?” asked David.

“It will be an utter catastrophe, of course. Perhaps a nice explosion, some flying metal. Maybe we can pretend to drown a few sailors. Whatever will convince the Kerch our sharks aren’t seaworthy and buy us the most time.” Nikolai could almost feel the demon recede, feel its claws retract, driven back by the prospect of a course of action. “We’re going to get all of those diplomats and merchants and politicians under our roof. We get everyone talking, and then we listen. Zoya, we’ll need your Squallers to create an acoustic map so we have ears everywhere.”

“I don’t like that,” said Tolya.

“I knew you wouldn’t,” said Nikolai.

“It isn’t ethical to spy on one’s own guests.”

“And that is why your sister is the head of my intelligence network. Kings need spies, and spies can’t afford to fiddle about with ethics. Do you have a problem with overseeing an eavesdropping campaign, Tamar?”

“Not in the least.” “There you have it.”

Tamar considered. “I like the idea of tackling them all at once, but what possible reason could we have for bringing our enemies and allies beneath this roof that won’t draw even more suspicion?”

“We could celebrate your Saint’s day,” said Genya enthusiastically. “Sledding, bonfires—”

“No,” said Nikolai. “I don’t want to wait for the Feast of Sankt Nikolai.” He certainly couldn’t count on the demon to delay. “The party will take place six weeks from now. We’ll call it … the Festival of Autumn Nonsense or something like that. Celebrate the equinox, gifts of the harvest, very symbolic.”

Six weeks?” exclaimed Genya. “We can’t possibly organize an event of that size in such a short time. The security concerns alone—”

Nikolai winked at her. “If I had anyone but Genya Safin in charge, I might be worried.”

Zoya rolled her eyes. “She doesn’t need your flattery. She already thinks enough of herself.”

“Let him go on,” said Genya. “David never gives me pretty compliments.”

“Don’t I?” asked David. He patted his pocket absently. “I have the list of your good qualities you gave me somewhere.”

“You see what I endure.”

“I need to keep Genya happy,” said Nikolai, “or she may turn on me.” “may turn on you,” said Zoya.

“Oh, that’s unavoidable. But you’re immune to compliments.”

Zoya lifted a shoulder. “Then I suggest gifts of jewels and cash.” She rose, and he could see her mind at work, the general contemplating her attack. She paced slowly before the map, the Fold appearing and disappearing behind her. “If we’re going to bring these powers here, we need to have a better reason than a festival of gourds and wheat sheaves.”

“Zoya,” Nikolai warned. He knew exactly what she was thinking. “This is the perfect opportunity for you to find a bride.”

“Absolutely not.”

But Zoya had the smug look of a woman who had won an argument before it had begun. “As you said, you can no longer travel, so it’s essential that prospective brides come to you.”

He shook his head. “I cannot take a bride. The risks are too great.” “That’s exactly why you must,” said Zoya. “We can bring these

powers together. I even believe you have the charm and guile to outmaneuver our enemies. But how much time can you buy us? Six months? A year? Then what, Your Highness?”

“It is an ideal reason to bring them all here,” said Genya.

Nikolai grimaced. “I knew you would turn on me. I just didn’t think it would be so soon.”

“Nikolai,” Zoya said quietly, “you said the monster is getting stronger.

If that’s true, this may be your best chance.” Your only chance. The words hung unsaid. Ravka needed a queen. Nikolai needed an heir.

And yet every part of him rebelled at the thought of marriage. He did not have time to properly court someone with so much work to be done. He did not want to wed someone he barely knew. He did not dare reveal his secrets to a stranger. The danger to the woman he chose would be too great. All good reasons. All convincing excuses. But the monster had set the clock ticking.

Nikolai looked around the room. These people knew him as no one else did. They trusted him. But the demon lurking inside him might change all that. What if it grew stronger and continued to erode his control, to eat at the will that had guided him for so long? Abomination. He remembered the way Genya had shuddered. What if he was the drowning man and it was Ravka he would drag down with him?

Nikolai drew in a long breath. Why put off the inevitable? Surely there was something to be said for the firing squad instead of slow torture. “We’ll need to come up with a list of candidates,” he said.

Zoya grinned. “Done.” She really was ready to be rid of him. “You’re going to manage this like a military campaign, aren’t you?” “It is a military campaign.”

“My ministers and ambassadors will have their suggestions too.” “We’ll invite them all,” said Genya, drawing pen and ink toward her,

unable to disguise her excitement. “We can house everyone at the palace. Just think of all the dinners and teas and dancing.”

“Just think of all the dinners and teas and dancing,” said David glumly.

Genya set her pen aside and seized his hands. “I promise to let you hide in your workshop. Just give me five events and one banquet.”

“Three events and one banquet.” “Four.”

“Very well.”

“You’re a dreadful negotiator,” said Nikolai. “She would have settled for two.”

David frowned. “Is that true?”

“Absolutely not,” said Genya. “And do shut up, Your Highness.” “We’ll need to run additional checks on all palace security,” Nikolai

said to Tolya. “Anticipate that every servant, every guard, every lady-in- waiting will be a potential spy or assassin.”

“Speaking of which,” said Tamar. “Dunyasha Lazareva is dead.” The Lantsov pretender. “Who got her?”

“Not one of ours. All I know is they found her splattered on the cobblestones outside the Church of Barter after the auction.”

Troubling. Had she been in Ketterdam to hunt him? She wasn’t the only pretender to the Lantsov throne. Every few months it seemed a new person cropped up to declare that they were a lost Lantsov heir, someone who insisted they’d escaped the Darkling’s slaughter of the royal family, or who claimed to be a by-blow of Nikolai’s father—which, given the old king’s behavior, was entirely plausible. Of course, Nikolai might very well have less right to the Ravkan throne than half of them. He was the greatest pretender of them all.

“There will be another,” said Zoya. “Someone else to claim the Lantsov name. All the more reason to produce an heir and secure the throne.”

“I said I would choose a bride, and I will,” Nikolai said, trying not to sound quite as petulant as he felt. “I’ll even get down on one knee and recite some love poetry if you like.”

“I could make some selections,” offered Tolya, looking genuinely happy for the first time since they’d gone underground at the Gilded Bog.

“An excellent idea. Keep it short and make sure it rhymes.”

Nikolai looked again at the old map of Ravka—violent, hopeless, unappeasable in its constant need. Ravka was his first love, an

infatuation that had begun in his lonely boyhood and that had only deepened with age. Whatever it demanded, he knew he would give. He’d been reckless with this country he claimed to love, and he could no longer let his fear dictate Ravka’s future.

“Send the invitations,” he said. “Let the great royal romance begin.”

The rest of the day was spent in meetings with ministers, making plans for roads and aqueducts they could not afford, writing letters to the Kerch to request extensions on their loans, and finishing correspondence with everyone from the ruling Marchal of the Wandering Isle to the admirals in his navy requesting funds for repairs to the existing Ravkan fleet. All of it required concentration, finesse, and infinite patience—and all of it was less onerous than the work of finding a queen. But eventually evening came and Nikolai was forced to face Zoya and her army of prospective brides.

Nikolai and his general worked alone in his sitting room, a fire crackling in the tiled grate. The chamber still bore his father’s stamp— the double eagle wrought in gold, the heavy carpets, the curtains so laden with brocade they looked as if they could be melted down and pressed into coins.

Zoya’s list went on and on, girl after girl, a march of willing maidens. “The brides are meant to be cover for our meetings with the Kerch and

the Zemeni,” he said. “Perhaps we could make this an opening gambit, less an engagement than a prelude to an engagement.”

Zoya straightened the papers before her. “Two birds with one stone, Your Highness. It’s a matter of efficiency. And expectation. You need a bride, and right now, you’re still a worthy prospect.”

“Right now?”

“You’re still young. You have all of your teeth. And Ravka’s military hasn’t yet been trounced into the ground. Your hesitation is distinctly unkingly. It isn’t like you.”

It wasn’t. He excelled at decisions. He enjoyed them. It was like clearing the deadfall from a forest so that you could see an open path. But when he thought of choosing a wife, the branches crowded in on him and he found himself glad to be left alone in the dark. Perhaps not alone, precisely. He very much enjoyed the quiet of this room, the warmth of the fire, and the steel-spined harpy seated across from him.

Zoya snapped the paper she was holding to get his attention. “Princess

Ehri Kir-Taban.”

“Second in line for the Shu throne, yes?”

“Yes, and one of our most ideal prospects. She’s young, amiable, and wildly popular among her own people. Very gifted on the khatuur.

“Twelve strings or eighteen?” “Why does it matter?”

“It’s important to have standards, Nazyalensky. Are you so sure the Shu will send her?”

“The invitation will be to the royal family. But given the way the people adore Princess Ehri, I suspect her older sister wouldn’t be sorry to see her out of the country. If they send one of the younger sisters …” She shrugged. “We’ll know they aren’t serious about an alliance. But a Shu bride would free us from the need for Kerch gold.”

“And how long do you suppose Ravka would remain independent after such a marriage? The Shu wouldn’t need to invade. We’d be hand- lettering an invitation.”

“There is no perfect choice,” said Zoya. “Who’s next?”

She sighed and handed him another dossier. “Elke Marie Smit.” Nikolai glanced down at the file. “She’s barely sixteen!”

“She’s from one of the most powerful families in Kerch. Besides, Alina was only a few years older when you threw away the Lantsov emerald on her.”

“And so was I at the time.” Thinking of Alina always smarted. He knew he’d been a fool to propose to her. But at the time he’d been more in need of a friend than a political ally. Or at least it had felt that way.

Zoya leaned back and cast him a long look. “Don’t tell me you’re still mourning the loss of our little Sun Saint?”

Of course he was. He’d liked Alina, maybe he’d even started to love her. And maybe some arrogant part of him had simply expected her to say yes. He was a king, after all, and a passable dancer. But she’d known the Darkling better than anyone. Maybe she’d sensed what was festering inside him. Years had passed, and yet her rejection still stung.

“Never had a gift for pining,” Nikolai said. “Though I do like to show off my profile by staring mournfully out of windows.”

“Elke Marie Smit’s parents will still marry her off, probably to some merchant. I’m sure she’d be better pleased with a king.”

“No. Next?”

“Natasha Beritrova,” said Zoya. “The Baroness Beritrova?”

Zoya looked studiously at the paper. “That’s the one.” “She’s fifty.”

“She’s a very well-off widow with lands near Caryeva that could prove essential in any southern campaign.”

“No, Zoya.”

Zoya rolled her eyes but picked up another paper. “Linnea Opjer.” “No.”

“Oh, for all the Saints and their suffering, Nikolai. Now you’re just being difficult. She’s twenty-three and, by all accounts, beautiful, even- tempered, has a talent for mathematics—”

Nikolai flicked a piece of lint from his cuff. “I’d expect nothing less of my half sister.”

Zoya stilled. She glowed like a painted icon in her kefta, the firelight clinging to her like a halo. He swore no woman had ever looked better in blue. “So it’s true, then?”

“As true as any story,” Nikolai said. The rumors of his bastardy had circulated since well before his birth, and he’d done his best to make peace with them. But he’d only ever spoken the truth of his parentage to one person—Alina Starkov. Why was he telling Zoya now? When he’d told Alina, she’d reassured him, said he would still make a great king. Zoya would offer no such kindness. But still he unlocked the top of his desk and removed the miniature his mother had passed along to him. She’d given it to him before she’d been forced into exile, when she’d told him who his father really was—a Fjerdan shipping magnate who had once served as emissary to the Grand Palace.

“Saints,” Zoya said as she stared down at the portrait. “The likeness

—”

“Striking, I know.” Only the eyes were different—tiny daubs of blue instead of hazel—and the beard, of course. But looking at the miniature was like gazing into the future, at a Nikolai grown a bit older, a bit graver, with lines at the corners of his eyes.

Zoya hurled it into the fire.

“Zoya!” Nikolai shouted, lunging toward the grate. “What kind of fool are you?” she spat.

He reached his hand out, but the flames were too high, and he

recoiled, his rage igniting at the sight of the tiny canvas melting in its frame.

He whirled on her. “You forget yourself.”

“That portrait was as good as a loaded gun pointed at your heart.” She jabbed her finger into his chest. “Ravka’s heart. And you would risk it all for what? Stupid sentiment?”

He seized her hand before she could jab him again. “I am not one of your boys to be trifled with and lectured to. I am your king.”

Zoya’s blue eyes flashed. Her chin lifted as if to say, What is a mortal king to a queen who can summon storms? “You are my king. And I wish you to remain my king. Even if you’re too daft to protect your claim to the throne.”

Maybe so, but he didn’t want to hear it. “You had no right.”

“I am sworn to protect you. To protect this realm. I had every right.” She yanked her hand from his. “What if Magnus Opjer came to this palace? Or was invited to some banquet with you in Kerch? All it would take is a single glance for people to know—”

“They already know,” Nikolai said, feeling suddenly weary. “Or they’ve guessed. There have been whispers since before I was born.”

“We should consider eliminating him.”

He clenched his fists. “Zoya, you will do no such thing. I forbid it. And if I find you’ve acted without my consent, you will lose your rank and can spend the rest of your days teaching Grisha children how to make cloud animals.”

For a moment, it looked like she might lift her hands and raise a storm to blow the whole palace down. But then she bobbed a perfect curtsy that still somehow conveyed her contempt. “Of course, moi tsar.”

“Are you really so ruthless, Zoya? He is an innocent man. His only crime was loving my mother.”

“No, his crime was bedding your mother.”

Nikolai shook his head. Leave it to Zoya to cut right to the truth. Of course, he had no way of knowing if there had ever been love between his mother and his true father, but he hoped there had been something more than lust and regret.

He plucked his wineglass from his abandoned dinner tray and drank it to the dregs. “One day you will overstep and I will not be so forgiving.”

“On that day you may clap me in irons and throw me in your dungeons.” She crossed the room, took the glass from his hands, and set

it on the table. “But tonight it is you who wears chains.” Her voice was almost kind.

Nikolai released a sigh. “After the business of this evening, it will be a relief.”

He unlocked his bedchamber. Servants were allowed access to clean only under Tolya and Tamar’s supervision and only once a week. He had no personal valet and attended to his own bath.

Though it had become his nightly prison, the room itself was a sanctuary, maybe the only place in the palace that truly felt like it belonged to him. The walls were painted the deep blue of the sea, and the map above the mantel had been taken from the cabin he’d once occupied as Sturmhond, when he’d disguised himself as a privateer and sailed the world’s oceans aboard the Volkvolny. A long glass stood propped on a tripod by the bank of windows. He couldn’t see much through it—the stars, the houses of the upper town—but even having it there gave him some sense of peace, as if he might one day put his eye to it and see the heaving shoulders of a great gray sea.

“Salt water in the veins,” one of his crewmen had told him. “We go mad if we’re too long onshore.” Nikolai would not go mad, at least not from being landlocked. He had been born to be a king, even if his blood told a different story, and he would see his country to victory again. But first he had to make it through the night.

He sat down at the edge of the bed, removed his boots, and clamped the iron fetters around each of his ankles, then lay back. Zoya waited and he was grateful for it. It was a small thing to be the one to chain himself, but it allowed him to keep control for a short time longer. Only when Nikolai had fastened the fetter to his left wrist did she approach.

“Ready?”

He nodded. In these moments, her ruthlessness made it all a bit more bearable. Zoya would never indulge him, never shame him with pity.

She tugged on the special lock that David had rigged. With a sudden clanking whir, three chains shot across his body at the knees, midriff, and shoulders. He was strong when the beast came upon him, and they could take no chances. He knew this, should be used to the experience of restraint, and still all he wanted was to struggle.

Instead, he kept his easy demeanor and offered up his right wrist to Zoya. “And what are your plans for the evening, darling jailer? Headed to a secret rendezvous?”

Zoya blew out a disgruntled breath as she bent to fasten the last fetter and check the security of the locks. “As if I have the time.”

“I know you go somewhere late at night, Zoya,” he prodded. He was curious but also eager for distraction. “You’ve been seen on the grounds, though no one seems to know where you go.”

“I go a lot of places, Your Highness. And if you keep prying into my personal life, I’ll have some suggestions as to where you can go.”

“Why keep your dalliance a secret? Is he an embarrassment?” Nikolai flexed his fingers, trying to even his breathing. Zoya turned her head and the lamplight caught the crescent of her cheekbone, gilding the dark waves of her hair. He’d never quite managed to make himself immune to her beauty, and he was glad his arms were chained to the bed or he might have been tempted to reach for her.

“Keep still,” she snapped. “You’re worse than a child given too many cakes.”

Bless her poison tongue. “You could stay, Zoya. Entertain me with lively tales of your childhood. I find your spite very soothing.”

“Why don’t I ask Tolya to soothe you by reciting some poetry?” “There it is. So sharp, so acerbic. Better than any lullaby.” As the last

lock clicked home, her sleeve slid back, revealing the silver cuff that circled her wrist, pieces of bone or what might have been teeth fused with the metal. He had never seen her without it and wasn’t even sure if it could be removed. He knew a bit about amplifiers. He had even helped Alina secure the scales of the sea whip, the second of Morozova’s legendary amplifiers. But he could admit there was a whole universe he didn’t know. “Tell me something, Nazyalensky. David said transgressing the boundaries of Grisha power has repercussions. But doesn’t an amplifier do just that? Is parem any different?”

Zoya brushed her fingers over the metal, her face thoughtful. “I’m not sure parem is so different from merzost. Like merzost, the drug requires a terrible sacrifice for the power it grants—a Grisha’s will. Even her life. But amplifiers are something else. They’re rare creatures, tied to the making at the heart of the world, the source of all creation. When an amplifier gives up its life, that is the sacrifice the universe requires. The bond is forever forged with the Grisha who deals the killing blow. It’s a terrible thing, but beautiful as well. Merzost is—”

“Abomination. I know. It’s a good thing I have such a fondness for myself.”

“All Grisha feel the pull toward merzost, the hunger to see just what we might do if we had no limits.”

“Even you?”

A small smile touched Zoya’s lips. “Especially me. Power is protection.” Before Nikolai could ask what she meant, she added, “But the price for that particular kind of power is too high. When the Darkling tried to create his own amplifiers, the result was the Fold.” She held up her arm, the cuff glinting in the lamplight. “This is enough for me.”

“The shark teeth worn by the twins,” mused Nikolai. “Genya’s kestrel bones. I’ve heard the stories behind all of them. But you’ve never told me the tale of the amplifier you wear.”

Zoya raised a brow. In the space of a breath, the contemplative girl was gone and the distant general had returned. “Steel is earned, Your Highness. So are stories.” She rose. “And I believe you’re stalling.”

“You’ve found me out.” He was sorry to see her leave, whatever guise she wore. “Good night, Commander.”

“Good night, King Wretch.”

He would not beg Zoya to stay. It was not in his nature to plead with anyone, and that was not the pact they shared. They did not look to each other for comfort. They kept each other marching. They kept each other strong. So he would not find another excuse to get her talking again. He would not tell her he was afraid to be left alone with the thing he might become, and he would not ask her to leave the lamp burning, a child’s bit of magic to ward off the dark.

But he was relieved when she did it anyway.

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