King of Scars (King of Scars Duology #1)

Ravka was many things to him: a grand lady who required constant courting, a stubborn child unwilling to stand on its own, and most often, a drowning man—the more Nikolai struggled to save it, the harder it fought. But with the help of the scientists and soldiers at the Gilded Bog, he might just drag his country to shore yet.

“Your Highness!” Kirigin said as he swept down the stairs to greet Nikolai. His orange hair had been arranged in a sleek coiffure, and he was turned out in a violet coat and gold brocade wholly inappropriate to the hour. Beside Tolya dressed in stolid olive drab and mounted on his towering stock horse, Kirigin looked like an actor in the wrong play. “How can I be expected to prepare the best entertainments when you give me no notice of your arrival?”

“Ah, Kirigin,” said Nikolai, ignoring the formality of the count’s bow to embrace him and slap him on the back. “I know you like to improvise.”

“A visit to the wine cellar is the perfect place to start. Do come inside.”

“Tolya and I would prefer to have a ride around your grounds. Will you be stocking game for the season?”

“Of course, Your Highness. We must have sport to keep us warm this winter, and if not, the three hundred bottles of Kerch brandy I’ve laid my hands on should do the trick.”

For Saints’ sake. Nikolai sometimes worried that Kirigin had taken to his role as a reprobate with a little too much enthusiasm. “Just don’t get the entirety of my cabinet soused,” he said. “I need a few coherent ministers on hand.”

“Of course, of course,” said Kirigin, peering down the drive, the hope clear on his face. Poor fool.

“Zoya has gone directly to the capital.”

Kirigin cleared his throat. “It’s of no matter to me. I just wondered if I should have that cordial she likes waiting. Is Commander Nazyalensky well?”

“Pretty as a picture and brimming with spite.”

“She is lovely, isn’t she?” said Kirigin dreamily. “I’ll leave you to it, then. And if you would … send her my regards?”

“All Saints,” rumbled Tolya. “She’d have you for breakfast.”

The count grinned. “Might not be such a bad way to go, eh?”

“Kirigin, old friend,” said Nikolai, “you’re a good fellow. Why not find yourself a nice girl who likes hunting and can feel warmly toward a wastrel?”

Kirigin shuffled his feet like a schoolboy. “I just can’t help but feel that Commander Nazyalensky’s icy demeanor masks a tender spirit.”

Tolya snorted. “She’ll pulp your heart and drink it.”

Kirigin looked aghast, but Nikolai suspected Tolya was right. He’d come to recognize the bizarre phenomenon of Zoya’s beauty, the way men loved to create stories around it. They said she was cruel because she’d been harmed in the past. They claimed she was cold because she just hadn’t met the right fellow to warm her. Anything to soften her edges and sweeten her disposition—and what was the fun in that? Zoya’s company was like strong drink. Bracing—and best to abstain if you couldn’t handle the kick.

Nikolai hoisted himself back into the saddle. “Commander Nazyalensky’s icy exterior masks an even icier interior, but I will most certainly let her know you wish her health.”

He nudged his horse into a trot and Tolya followed suit. They made their way along the white gravel path that ran parallel to the eastern side of the main house. Through the windows, Nikolai heard music from the parlors and gaming rooms. He glimpsed bodies swathed in silk and jewels and saw a man wearing nothing but an admiral’s hat and beating a large pot with a spoon as he ran down the hall.

Tolya’s scowl was deep enough to sow seeds in. “The crown shouldn’t be associated with such displays.”

“Perhaps not,” conceded Nikolai. “But the Ravkan people like their leaders with just a touch of the unseemly about them. They don’t trust a man of too much virtue.”

Tolya narrowed his golden eyes. “And you really trust a man of so little?”

“I know you don’t approve. But Kirigin has played the part I’ve asked him to. He may not be the brightest fellow, but he’s loyal.”

“He can’t possibly think Zoya would spare him her time.”

“Let us pray she never does. Poor Kirigin would be better off trying to waltz with a bear.”

Even so, Nikolai thought neither Zoya nor Tolya gave the young count enough credit. Kirigin’s affability and lack of ambition hid a good heart. He was an honorable man with romantic ideas of duty to his country and profound shame over the way his father had conducted himself—something with which Nikolai could sympathize. Nikolai was acutely aware of his own father’s reputation. It was one of the many reasons he kept his public visits to Lazlayon to a minimum. From the moment he’d contemplated taking the throne, Nikolai had known he would have to be a better man than his father and a better king than his brother could have ever hoped to be. Vasily had been killed by the Darkling, and Nikolai had done his best to grieve for him, but the truth was that his brother’s untimely death had proved quite timely indeed.

Nikolai was pleased to see two groundskeepers emerge from the hedges as soon as he and Tolya left the gravel path. Kirigin’s entire staff, from scullery maid to groom to head housekeeper, was made up of the king’s spies.

“Any falcons in the skies?” Nikolai called, using the code that would allow them to pass without triggering security protocols.

“No, but we hear there are foxes in the woods,” one of the men replied, and they returned to their work.

The codes changed each week and were just one of the ways they kept the real business of the Gilded Bog secure.

The southern shore of the lake was heavy with unnatural mist, and only when he and Tolya had passed through the haze did they see the docks bustling with both Grisha and First Army engineers. The waters were arrayed with the latest prototypes of Nikolai’s hydrofoil fleet. The real fleet would be constructed at a hidden base on Ravka’s coast—small gunners and huge transportation ships that could carry everything from troops to aircraft. Assuming Nikolai could somehow find the money to finance the project. Not even Kirigin was rich enough to modernize an entire navy.

Nikolai would have liked to stay and watch the tests, but he had other priorities today. He and Tolya tethered their horses by one of the moss-covered grottoes and entered the caves. The air should have been moist, but the grotto was not a real one, and the humidity in the labs and the passageways inside was strictly regulated by Squallers. Nikolai found the appropriate notch in the stone by a cluster of fake salt lilies and punched his thumb into the divot. The stone shifted, revealing a brass chamber. He pulled a lever, the door clanked shut, and he and Tolya were descending, down, down, six stories into the earth to Kirigin’s infamous “wine cellar.” It could be reached from hidden elevators located throughout the property.

“I hate this part,” muttered Tolya. “Feels like being buried.”

Nikolai knew Tolya had almost been killed in a cave-in during his time with the Sun Summoner. “You should wait above. Watch them test the new engines. I could use a report on their success.”

He tightened the knot that restrained his long black hair, and folded his huge tattooed arms. “Tamar says fears are like weeds. They grow wild if left unattended.”

Well and good for Tamar—Tolya’s twin was essentially fearless. “So forcing yourself underground is a bit of light gardening?”

Tolya gritted his teeth. “If I don’t face it, I’ll never get over it.”

Nikolai chose to hold his tongue. If the sweat on Tolya’s massive brow and his clenched jaw were any indication, these excursions beneath the earth were doing him no good at all. But the war had left all of them with wounds, and Tolya had the right to tend to his as he saw fit. Nikolai flexed his fingers in his gloves and thought of the black scars staining his fingers. Would I have the courage to look the monster in the eye? He truly didn’t know.

When the doors to the elevator opened, they exited to another brass chamber, their passage blocked by a thick steel door. Nikolai set to opening the Schuyler combination locks he’d learned about from a certain master thief in Ketterdam. A moment later, the door swung open and he was home.

The laboratories were separated into four main divisions, though all of them worked together as needed: artillery and body armor, naval warfare, aerial warfare, and the labs devoted to trying to develop both an antidote to jurda parem and a strain of the drug that might allow Grisha to heighten their powers without making them addicts. His first stop was always the labs. He spoke briefly to his Alkemi to confirm what he’d suspected regarding the antidote based on their last report, and collected a tiny vial of the stuff to share with the Triumvirate. Nikolai wanted something concrete to dangle before his advisers, given what he intended to propose.

previous 1.. 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 ..92 next