Chapter no 9 – Nikolai

King of Scars

‌“WE CAN CALL THEM BACK,” said Genya, pacing before the fire. “It’s not too late. We send messengers and just tell the girls and their families there’s been a change in plans.”

They’d gathered in the war room this morning, and Nikolai had called for coffee instead of tea. He’d developed a taste for it during his university days in Ketterdam. Though, between his exhaustion and the headache that had plagued him since the incident in Balakirev the previous night, he wouldn’t have minded something stronger in his cup.

The incident. What a generous turn of phrase. Tolya had filled him in on every grim detail of his little display in the bell tower. He’d almost murdered one of his most valued generals, one of his only true friends, the person who had helped him to steer this cursed ship of a country for two years, who had kept his secrets and whom he had trusted to do so without question. He had almost killed Zoya.

“We’ll tell them the king is unwell—” continued Genya. “That is the last thing we tell them,” said Tamar.

“Then we tell them there’s been an outbreak of cholera or a massive sewage leak,” said Tolya.

Tamar threw up her hands. “So our choices are looking indecisive, weak, or like the capital is swimming in excrement?”

Zoya had been silent through the meeting thus far, hovering by the samovar with crossed arms. Keeping her distance. He knew he needed to apologize to her, but for once in his ridiculous life, he was completely at a loss for words. And before he could wrestle with that particular failure, there was the problem of the party he had so cleverly planned—the one the demon within him seemed intent on crashing.

Nikolai took another sip of bitter coffee, hoping it would clear his

head. “I think we may have a resource we didn’t have before.”

As if she could read his thoughts, Zoya’s gaze snapped to his. “If you say that hideous flagpole of a monk, I will—”

“Marvel at my ingenuity? Plant a fond kiss upon my cheek? Put up a plaque to my genius?”

“I will put a plaque on the palace wall commemorating this date as the morning on which Nikolai Lantsov took leave of his senses. The boy is a lunatic, a zealot. He worships at the feet of the man who started a civil war and murdered half of the Second Army.”

“He worships an ideal. It’s something we’ve all been guilty of at one time or another.”

Zoya turned away, but not before he saw the hurt on her face. Zoya Nazyalensky did not flinch, but the pain had been unmistakable. Nikolai wanted to stop the meeting and just … he didn’t know what exactly, but he did know that the correct response to almost killing someone was not to try to score points off them the next day.

“Then by all means,” said Zoya, “let’s welcome a former member of the Priestguard into the war room and put our future in his grubby hands.”

“Isn’t she lovely when she agrees?” Nikolai asked, and savored Zoya’s scowl. It was so much better than seeing that stark, wounded look and knowing he had caused it. But a moment later, he was kicking himself as Tolya escorted the monk into the war room and Zoya’s grim expression turned to bemusement.

“Your Highness,” said Yuri stiffly. He was so tall he had to duck entering the room, and so slender he looked as if he might turn sideways and get carried away by a draft. “I was warned of your glib tongue. You talk of breaking bread, but I spent last night confined to what amounts to a cell—”

“The Iris Suite? My aunt Ludmilla decorated it herself. Overly fond of the color puce, but cell seems a bit ungenerous.”

“The color is fine. It is the armed guards that offend my sensibility. Is this how you treat all of your guests?”

“Tolya,” whispered Nikolai, “I think he’s calling you bad company.” He leaned back and rested his elbows on the arms of his chair. “Yuri, you have enemies. Those guards were there for your protection.”

Yuri sniffed. “My followers will not stand for this.”

And that was why Nikolai had sent bread, smoked cod, and some very

fine kvas to the people camped outside the city, compliments of the crown—men with full bellies complained less. In truth, Nikolai had meant to see to Yuri yesterday, but the afternoon’s business had gotten the better of his time. And as for the night, well, that had certainly gotten the better of him too.

“Yuri, may I introduce—”

“No, you may not. I wish to speak on the matter of the Starless One and—” Abruptly Yuri straightened. His eyes widened and his jaw went slack as he looked around the room and seemed to finally register where he was. He clasped his hands like a soprano about to sing. “Oh,” the monk gasped. “Oh. It’s you. It’s all of you. I …” He turned to the members of the Triumvirate and bowed deeply. “Moi soverenye, it’s an honor.” He bowed a second time. “An absolute honor.” Down he went again. “A dream, really.”

Nikolai suppressed a groan. Just what had he brought upon himself? Zoya and Genya exchanged a baffled glance, and even David looked up from his work long enough to frown in confusion.

“Do stop that,” Zoya said. “You look like an oil derrick.” “Commander Zoya Nazyalensky,” Yuri said on a strangled breath.

“Yesterday … I didn’t realize. I thought you were just—”

“One of the king’s lackeys?” Zoya ignored Yuri’s protests and said, “You do realize every member of this Triumvirate fought against your beloved Starless Saint in the civil war?”

“Yes, yes, of course.” The monk pushed his wire-rimmed spectacles up the bridge of his long nose. “I do. But, well, David Kostyk, the great Fabrikator who forged the first amplifier worn by Sankta Alina herself.” David looked at him blankly and returned to his reading. “Zoya Nazyalensky, who was one of the Darkling’s most favored soldiers.” Zoya’s lip curled. “And then, of course, Genya Safin, the First Tailor, who bears the marks of the Darkling’s blessing.”

Genya flinched. “Blessing?

“I beg your pardon?” said Zoya, already raising her hands either to summon a storm or to wring Yuri’s neck. Tamar reached for her axes. Tolya actually growled.

Nikolai rapped his knuckles against the table. “That’s enough. Everyone, stand down. Yuri, you are trespassing in territory you cannot begin to understand.”

Despite his height, the monk looked like little more than a gawky

child who had broken his mother’s favorite vase. “I … Forgive me. I meant no offense.”

Slowly, Genya stood, and silence fell around her. “How old are you, Yuri?”

“Eighteen, moi soverenyi.”

“When I was a year older than you, the Darkling set his monsters on me, creatures born of the power you venerate so much. They had a taste for human flesh. He had to force them to stop.”

“Then he was not so cruel—”

Genya held up a hand, and Nikolai was glad to see Yuri shut his mouth. “The Darkling didn’t want me to die. He wanted me to live—like this.”

“More fool him,” said Nikolai quietly, “to let such a soldier survive.”

Genya gave the barest nod. “Think twice before you use the word

blessing, monk.” She sat and folded her hands. “Proceed.”

“Just a moment,” David said, planting a finger on the page to mark his place in his book. “What was your name?”

“Yuri Vedenen, moi soverenyi.”

“Yuri Vedenen, if you upset my wife again, I will kill you where you stand.”

The monk swallowed. “Yes, moi soverenyi.”

“Oh, David,” Genya said, taking his hand. “You’ve never threatened to murder anyone for me before.”

“Haven’t I?” he murmured distractedly, placed a kiss on her knuckles, and continued reading.

“I am … Forgive me, I am overwhelmed.” Yuri sat, then rose again, as if he couldn’t help himself. “To think I’m in rooms built by the Starless One himself.” He touched his fingers to the black seams that marked the Shadow Fold on the map. “It is … it is too glorious to contemplate. Is this cowhide?”

“Reindeer, I believe,” said Nikolai. “Remarkable!”

“Wait,” said Zoya, blue eyes slitted. “You said the Starless One himself. Not his ancestors.”

Yuri turned from the map with a smug smile on his lips. “Yes, I did. I know there was only one Darkling, one man of great power who faked his death many times. A precaution against small minds who might have feared his extraordinary power and his long life.”

“And how did you arrive at this theory?” asked Nikolai.

Yuri blinked. “It’s not a theory. I know. The Darkling revealed as much to me in a vision.”

Zoya’s brows rose, and Nikolai had to fight the urge to roll his eyes.

Instead he tented his fingers and said, “I see.”

But Yuri’s smile just deepened. “I know you think me mad, but I have seen miracles.”

And that was exactly why Nikolai had brought him here. “You said something the other day, that the Age of Saints was upon us. What did you mean?”

“How else do you account for the miracles taking place throughout Ravka?”

“So it begins,” muttered Zoya.

“We’ve heard the stories,” said Nikolai mildly. “But there are rational explanations for these occurrences. We live in difficult times, and people are bound to look for miracles.”

To Nikolai’s surprise, the young monk sat down at the table and leaned across it, his expression earnest. “Your Highness, I know you are not a man of faith. But the people believe these happenings are not just phenomena in search of explanation. They believe they are the work of Saints.”

“They are the work of Grisha,” said Zoya. “Possibly the Shu. Possibly your dear friend the Apparat.”

“Ah,” said Yuri. “But some people believe all of the old miracles were the work of Grisha.”

“Then call it the Small Science and dispense with all of this superstition.”

“Would that make it easier to accept the divine?” Yuri asked, his spectacles glinting. “If I call these works the ‘making at the heart of the world,’ would that help? I’ve studied Grisha theory too.”

Zoya’s eyes were hard as gems. “I’m not here to debate theology with a mop handle.”

Yuri sat back, his expression beatific. “The Saints are returning to Ravka. And the Starless One will be among them.”

“The Darkling is dead,” Genya said, and Nikolai did not miss the white knuckles of her clasped hands. “I watched his body burn.”

Yuri cast a nervous glance at David and said, “There are some who believe the Darkling did not die on the Fold and is simply awaiting his

chance to return.”

“I was there too, monk,” said Zoya. “I saw him burn away to ash atop a funeral pyre fed by Inferni flame.”

The monk closed his eyes briefly, pained. “Yes. Of course. That was his martyrdom, and his body was destroyed. But the Darkling’s power was extraordinary, ancient. It may be gone, or it may still live on in the world and his spirit with it.”

Zoya pressed her lips together, folding her arms tightly against her body, as if to keep away the cold.

Nikolai did not like what he was hearing. A scrap of that ancient power still resided within his own body—and if last night was any indication, it was growing stronger by the day.

“You think all of these separate incidents, these supposed miracles, are related to the Darkling?” he asked.

“No!” exclaimed the monk. He leaned even farther forward. In a moment, his chin was going to make contact with the table. “I know they are.” He rose and gestured to the map behind them. “If I may?” He looked around, darting right and left, robes flapping like the wings of a deranged bird.

This is what the Darkling’s acolytes look like?” whispered Zoya. “If we’d left a body, he would be turning in his grave.”

“Aha!” Yuri said, finding the small cloth flags that could be pinned to the hides. The maps were pocked with tiny holes where former leaders had planned military campaigns.

“The earthquake at Ryevost, the statue at Tsemna, the roof of myrrh at Arkesk, the bleeding walls in Udova, the roses in Adena.” One after another he listed the supposed miracles as he put pins on the map. Then he stood back. “They began here, far along the coasts and mountains and borders, but day by day, the occurrences have become more frequent, and they’ve drawn closer to—”

“The Fold,” said Nikolai. The pattern was clear, a radiant star-burst with its heart dead center in the Unsea.

“Saints,” breathed Zoya.

“Is that where—” Genya began.

“Yes,” said Nikolai, though he didn’t remember much of the final battle. He’d been infected with the monster already, fighting with it for control of his consciousness. And winning far more often than he was now. He’d been lucid in long flashes, even in his transformed state, and

had sought out help from Alina. He had even tried to aid their forces in that last confrontation.

The miracle sites were closing in on the same central spot, the place where the Fold had once been, where the Darkling had made his last stand—where he had faced Alina Starkov and died by her hand. Victory. At least that was what it had looked like at the time—a country united, the possibility of peace, and Nikolai suddenly and swiftly purged of the demon that had battled him for control. He had believed the darkness within him had been vanquished at the moment of the Darkling’s death. He had believed the war was over.

And yet the monster had risen up to take hold of him again. Had the demon always been there, troubling his dreams, his constant companion, awaiting its moment? Or had something woken it?

Nikolai looked at the pins splayed over the map. Was there a pattern, or was Yuri seeing what he wanted to? And was this seemingly guileless zealot playing a deeper game?

“Forgive me, Yuri,” Nikolai said. “But your goal is to have the Darkling recognized as a Saint by the Ravkan church. You have every reason to try to tie these occurrences to the Starless One.”

“I have no reason to lie,” said Yuri. “Only days ago a sign appeared on the Fold, a lake of black rock, a sun in eclipse.”

Zoya expelled an exasperated breath. “Or a geological anomaly.”

Yuri poked his bony finger at the map. “This is not just where the Starless One passed from this life. It is a place of ancient power, the very place the Darkling first ruptured the world and created the Fold.”

“You can’t possibly know that,” Zoya said with a dismissive wave.

“It was the subject of my studies in the Priestguard. It’s all in the texts.”

“Which texts?” she asked, and Nikolai wondered if she was deliberately trying to bait the monk.

The Book of AlyoshaThe Sikurian Psalms. You can see it illustrated in the Istorii Sankt’ya.”

“A children’s book?”

“It was a holy site,” insisted Yuri. “The place where Sankt Feliks was pierced by the apple boughs, an ancient place of healing and glorious power where men came to be purified.”

Nikolai sat up straighter. “Purified of what exactly?” Yuri opened his mouth, closed it. “I misspoke—”

“No, he didn’t,” said Tolya. “He’s talking about the obisbaya. Aren’t you, monk?”

“I … I …”

“I hate to admit my ignorance,” said Nikolai. “It’s so much more fun for people to discover it on their own. But what exactly is the obis … bumpy?”

“No idea,” said Zoya. Genya shrugged, and even David shook his head.

To Nikolai’s surprise, it was Tamar who spoke.

“The obisbaya,” she said. “The Ritual of the Burning Thorn. Do you know how the Priestguard were first created?”

“Those are children’s stories,” said Zoya scornfully. “Possibly,” Tolya conceded.

“Tell me a story, then,” said Nikolai.

Tamar folded her arms. “Why don’t you do the honors, monk?”

Yuri hesitated, then said, “It begins with the first Lantsov king, Yaromir the Determined.” He shut his eyes, his voice taking on a more confident, even cadence. “Before him, the territory that would become Ravka was little more than a collection of warring provinces led by squabbling kings. He subdued them and brought them together beneath his double-eagle banner. But the invasions from Fjerda to the north and Shu Han to the south were relentless and put the young kingdom in a constant state of war.”

“Sounds familiar.” Nikolai knew this story from his own childhood classrooms. He’d always found it disheartening that Ravka had been at war since its birth.

“There was no Second Army then,” Yuri continued. “Ravka’s soldiers fought and died just as other men did. But as the legend goes, Yaromir built an altar atop a hill in Os Alta—”

“The site of the first royal chapel,” said Tolya.

Yuri nodded. “The young king prayed to all of the Saints who would hear him, and the next day, a group of monks arrived at his door and offered to fight by his side. They were not ordinary monks. When they went into battle they could take on the shapes of beasts. They fought not as men but as all manner of creature—wolf, dragon, hawk, bear. The king had heard stories of these monks but hardly believed they were true until he saw these miracles for himself.”

“Always with the miracles,” grumbled Zoya.

“Yes,” said Yuri, opening his eyes, fervor burning in them like a brand. “Always. The monks agreed to fight for the king. They asked for neither gold nor land but only that one of them would always remain at the king’s side so that Ravka would forever be devoted to the worship of the Saints. The monks plunged into battle and sent the enemies of Ravka scattering, pushing them back and forming the borders that would hold, more or less, for thousands of years.” Yuri’s voice rose, caught in the telling of his tale, all hesitation gone. “But the battle lasted so long that when it was over and it was time for them to return to their human forms, they could not. Their leader brought them to the site of an ancient thorn wood, and there they endured a dangerous ritual: the obisbaya. Those who survived became men once more and their leader took his place beside Yaromir. Eventually, the priest who held the office closest to the king was given the title of Apparat, and the holy soldiers that surrounded him became the Priestguard.”

“Some people claim the first Priestguard were Grisha,” said Tolya.

Tamar touched her fingers to the shark’s tooth at her neck. “In that version, the animals they became were the first amplifiers. Their spirits made the monks’ powers stronger.”

Nikolai studied Yuri. The story was strange, no doubt, and likely more fiction than fact. Even so … “A ritual to purge beast from man. What exactly did it entail?”

Yuri pushed his spectacles up his nose, the confident scholar vanishing with a single gesture. “I’m not sure. There were … are conflicting texts.”

“You’re not really a firebrand, are you, Yuri?”

A smile touched the monk’s lips. “I suppose not.”

“And yet you ended up at my gates, calling me a traitor and a thief.” Yuri at least had the manners to squirm. “What brought you there?”

“The Saints. I believe that.”

Nikolai had his doubts. “Tell me about this ritual.” “Why?” Yuri asked, brow furrowing.

“I am a king. I long for entertainment.”

The monk tugged on his scraggly beard. “I don’t know the details. There are conflicting accounts in the texts, and I don’t … I’m no longer permitted …”

“They’re religious texts, aren’t they?” Nikolai said. “From the Priestguards’ library. You don’t have access anymore.”

“No.” The ache in his voice was palpable. Nikolai thought he

understood. There had been a time when words had been the only place he could find solace. No book ever lost patience with him or told him to sit still. When his tutors had thrown up their hands in frustration, it was the library that had taught Nikolai military history, strategy, chemistry, astronomy. Each spine had been an open doorway whispering, Come in, come inHere is a land you’ve never seen before. Here is a place to hide when you’re frightened, to play when you’re bored, to rest when the world seems unkind. Yuri knew that solace. He had once been a scholar. Perhaps he’d like to be one again.

Nikolai stood. “Thank you, Yuri. You’ve been most helpful.”

The monk rose slowly. “I have? Then will you lend your name to our plea, Your Highness? The Apparat cannot ignore the voice of the king. If you would petition him to—”

“I will think on it, Yuri. You’ve made an interesting argument. For now, I will have you escorted back to your rooms.”

“Then I am a prisoner still?”

“You are a welcome guest whom I don’t want to stray too far. And perhaps I can get you access to some reading materials.”

Yuri paused as if uncertain he’d heard correctly. “My … books?” “Perhaps.”

“That would be … No, I must return to my fellow worshippers outside of the city. You cannot keep—”

“And you will. But we must ask that you enjoy our hospitality a short while longer. While we consider the merits of your case.”

Yuri’s chin lifted. “For the Starless One, I can wait an eternity. But do not play games with me, Your Highness. I did not come to the capital to be laughed at or to dillydally about.”

“Dally, yes; dilly, no,” said Nikolai. “Gave it up in my youth.”

Zoya rolled her eyes, and Tolya shuffled Yuri out the door and into the care of two palace guards.

When Yuri was gone, Nikolai rose to look more closely at the pins on the map. In the wake of the monk’s departure, the silence in the room felt heavy, as if another presence had entered the chamber, something old and nameless.

“The boy is mad,” said Zoya.

“He’s a believer,” said Tolya. “Those aren’t the same thing.”

“And I’d rather a true believer than a man like the Apparat,” Genya added.

“How can you say that?” said Zoya. “He worships a tyrant, a murderer, the man who tortured you.”

Genya sighed. “Can we blame him for being drawn to the Darkling’s strength? We all were.”

“We didn’t know what he was then.”

“Didn’t we?” Genya adjusted her eyepatch. “Yuri is a frightened boy looking for something bigger than himself to give his life meaning. There are people like him all over Ravka.”

“That’s what worries me.”

Tolya sat down beside his sister, and Nikolai caught the look that passed between them. This was not the time to start keeping secrets. “What is it?”

Tolya heaved his great shoulders. “There may be something to Yuri’s story. The Priestguard weren’t always just lackeys for the Apparat. They were holy warriors who served the crown as well. When I was younger I wanted nothing more than to join them.”

“What stopped you?” Nikolai asked. He wasn’t surprised exactly. Both Tolya and Tamar had been raised in the church, and he was well aware that if Alina Starkov hadn’t given Nikolai her blessing as king, the twins would never have pledged themselves as his guards.

“They wouldn’t let me join,” said Tamar. “No women allowed.”

Tolya nodded. “I had to question a holy order that claimed to want warriors but would deny a fighter like Tamar.”

Tamar rested her hands on her axes. “The Saints had a different plan for us.”

“Ah,” said Nikolai. “But what do the Saints have planned now? Zoya, when I got free from Duke Radimov’s estate in Ivets, you found me where?”

“A goose farm on the road to Varena.”

Nikolai touched his finger to the map. “A northeastern path. But every time I’ve gotten loose from the palace, I’ve headed northwest. Each time I’ve taken the same route, just gone a little farther. What if the creature is trying to get to that spot on the Fold? What if it wants to be free of me as much as I want to be free of it?”

“Or what if these supposed miracles are a plan to lure you from the palace?” said Zoya.

“To the Fold? Why?”

Zoya cast up her hands. “I don’t know.”

“The ‘miracles’ began when the demon woke inside me. It may be connected to the Darkling’s power or Yuri may be talking nonsense, but that pattern is real. Something is happening, and it’s connected to this spot on the Shadow Fold.”

“It’s not safe to leave the palace—” Zoya protested.

“There are no safe places. Not anymore.” He’d proven that himself last night. “Genya will mix me a stronger tonic. David will forge thicker chains. I’m going on a pilgrimage.”

“To some mystical thorn wood?” said Zoya. “Even if it once existed, the Fold obliterated everything in its path. There’s nothing there anymore.”

Tolya spoke a long string of words, only a few of which Nikolai could pick out. Then he said, “Lost faith is the roots of a forgotten wood, waiting to thrive once more.”

Zoya narrowed her eyes. “We agreed no poetry during meetings.”

“It’s liturgical Ravkan,” Tolya objected. “It’s from the Book of Alyosha, which you might know if you ever went to church.”

“It’s a wonder I’ve survived this long without such knowledge.” “Tolya,” Nikolai interrupted. “I’m going to need you to find any texts

you can on the obisbaya and anything connected to it. I don’t want Yuri to be the only scholar I can rely on.”

“I’m not a scholar,” protested Tolya.

“You might have been in another life,” said Nikolai.

“What do you mean, the only scholar?” Zoya said. “You can’t possibly mean to travel with the monk.”

Genya shifted in her seat. “It will look like you’re lending support to the Cult of the Starless. I don’t like the message that sends.”

“We’ll make sure Yuri is disguised, and I don’t intend to take a direct route to the Fold,” said Nikolai. “There may be something we can learn at the other miracle sites, and visiting them will give me an opportunity to walk among my subjects before I choose a bride. We have armies massing at both borders, new Lantsov pretenders cropping up to make claims on the throne. Our coffers are empty and our allies are few. I cannot afford to lose the support of the common people. We’re going to need it in the days to come.”

“And what if it all leads to nothing?” asked Genya. “What if the Darkling left you with this curse and there are no answers to be found?”

Zoya laid her fingers flat on the table. “What if Yuri discovers the truth about the monster?”

“Then we pray I can silence him and keep this secret long enough to secure Ravka’s future. Even without an heir, there may be a way to keep the throne safe and make sure the country isn’t left vulnerable.”

“And what exactly is that?” asked Zoya.

“Are you sure you don’t want to try trusting me, Zoya? It’s positively intoxicating.” The idea had come to him the previous week, when they’d arrived from Count Kirigin’s and had been greeted by Trukhin and Isaak.

Zoya pursed her lips. “I don’t like any of this. There’s too much room for disaster.”

Nikolai knew that. They were running out of time, and this journey to the Fold smacked of desperation. He could not deny the fear that clung to him, the doubt it sowed in his heart. What if his mind unraveled and his will with it? What if he attacked one of his friends again and there was no one there to stop him? What damage might he unleash on the people he loved? On the world?

Nikolai could not deny those fears, but he refused to give in to them.

He would not just hand the monster a victory.

He turned to the people assembled before him—his advisers, his soldiers, his family. He needed them to believe, if not in Yuri’s tales, then in Nikolai himself, the person he had been before the Darkling and the war. He straightened the lapels of his velvet coat and winked.

“It’s not exciting if nothing can go wrong.”

He felt the monster recoil. Action. Decision. In moments like these, he felt almost like his old self. If this thing wanted to claim his soul, Nikolai intended to give it a damn good fight—and that battle began here, now, with a refusal to relinquish any bit of his spirit to the terror trying to drag him into the dark. He would do what he had always done: He would charge forward and pray that hope might be waiting like the roots of the thorn wood—just out of sight.

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