King of Scars (King of Scars Duology #1)

It took them a little longer to find David Kostyk, since the Fabrikator worked in every division of the laboratory. But eventually they discovered him hunched over a set of blueprints by the vast tanks where the latest prototypes of their new submersibles were being built in miniature. The sleeves of his purple Fabrikator’s kefta were threadbare, and his poorly cut brown hair gave him the appearance of a shaggy dog deep in thought.

Through the glass, Nikolai saw the most recent version of his izmars’ya, his underwater fleet. On land, they looked clumsy: wide, flat, and ungainly, like someone had taken a quality piece of metal and pounded it into a winged pancake. But beneath the surface, they became something elegant, sinuous predators that glided through the depths, their movements guided by Tidemakers, their crews provided with breathable air through a combination of Squaller power and a filter that had taken Nikolai and David the better part of a year to perfect. The real challenge would be arming the fleet. Only then would his ships become a true school of sharks. After that? It wouldn’t matter how many warships Ravka’s enemies built. The izmars’ya would be able to move through the world’s oceans unseen and attack without ever surfacing. They would change the face of naval warfare.

David looked up from where he was consulting with Nadia Zhabin over the pendulum-and-valve system they were developing for missile targeting. “They’re testing the surface engines today,” he said.

“And good morning to you, David.”

“Is it morning?”

“The sunrise was my first indication,” said Nikolai. “How do the new missiles look?”

“We’re still trying to get them to maintain course,” said Nadia, her pale, pointed features tinged blue from the light reflecting off the tank. She was a Squaller who had fought beside the Sun Summoner with her younger brother, Adrik, but she’d shown her true potential in weapons design. She’d been integral in the development of the izmars’ya. “I think we’re close.”

Though the inventor in Nikolai thrilled at the news, his enthusiasm was tempered by the conversation he’d had with Hiram Schenck back in Ivets. He could practically feel the Kerch breathing down his neck, and it wasn’t a sensation he relished.

Nikolai had two rules for his Nolniki—the scientists and soldiers who labored at the Gilded Bog, his Zeroes who were neither First nor Second Army but both. Above all else, be thieves. Take the work of their enemies and turn it against them. It didn’t matter if Ravka got to the technology first as long as they found ways to make it better. The Fjerdans had developed an engine to drive wagons and armored tank battalions, so the Ravkans had made it powerful enough to move massive ships. The Fjerdans had built steel aircraft that didn’t require Squaller skill to pilot, so Ravka’s Fabrikators stole the design and constructed sleeker flyers in safer, lighter aluminum. The second rule? Be fast. Fjerda had made huge leaps in military technology over the last year—how he did not yet know—and Ravka had to find a way to keep pace.

Nikolai tapped the blueprints on the table. “If the fuel tests for the surface engines go well, how long until the izmars’ya are operational?”

“A matter of weeks,” said Nadia.

“Excellent.”

“But we can’t put anything into production without more steel.”

“And you’ll have it,” Nikolai promised. He could only hope he was telling the truth.

“Thank you, Your Highness,” Nadia said with a smile and a bow.

Somehow she still had faith in her king, but Nikolai wasn’t sure if he found her ready confidence reassuring or worrisome. He had always found a way to keep the rusty, ramshackle machine that was Ravka grinding along—by finding that extra bit of money when they needed it most, making the right alliance at the right time, cobbling together some invention that would make their meager standing army a match for the vast forces commanded by the enemies at their borders. For Nikolai, a problem had always presented an opportunity no different than the one offered by a Fjerdan engine. You stripped it down to its parts, figured out what drove it, then used those pieces to build something that worked for you instead of against you.

The demon disagreed. The demon wasn’t interested in problem-solving or statecraft or the future. It was nothing but hunger, the need of the moment, what could be killed and consumed.

I’ll find a way. All his life, Nikolai had believed that. His will had been enough to shape not only his fate but his own identity. He had chosen what he wanted people to see—the obedient son, the feckless rogue, the able soldier, the confident politician. The monster threatened all of that. And they were no closer to finding a way to drive the thing out than they had been six months ago. What was there to do but keep moving? Lesser animals whined and struggled when they’d been caught in a snare. The fox found a way out.

“David, did you sleep here last night?” Nikolai asked.

The Fabrikator frowned. “I don’t think so.”

“He spent the night here,” Nadia clarified. “He didn’t actually sleep.”

“Did you?” asked Nikolai.

“I … dozed for a bit,” Nadia replied evasively.

“I’m taking you home to Tamar.”

“But I need her for the fuel tests,” David objected.

“And I’m taking you home to Genya,” added Nikolai.

“But—”

“Don’t argue, David. Makes me want to blow something up to assert my authority. I need the Triumvirate together. And I’m going to need you and Nadia to start work on a new prototype of the izmars’ya.”

Nadia brushed her blond hair from her eyes. “I can start now, Your Highness.”

“Don’t go running off to display your excessive competence just yet. I want you to make sure this particular prototype doesn’t work.”

David began rolling up his blueprints, carefully arranging his pens and instruments. “I don’t like it when he doesn’t make sense.”

Nadia raised her brows. “I assume Your Highness has a reason?”

I always do. He would drag the drowning man to shore kicking and screaming if he had to—no matter what the demon demanded.

“I’m going to stage a little play,” said Nikolai, already imagining a moonlit lake and all the glorious chaos he intended to incite there. “That means I need the right props.”





G?FVALLE.

The closer they drew to the town, the harder it was to ignore the rustling whispers in her head. Sometimes Nina could swear she heard voices, the dim shapes of words just beyond understanding. Other times the sound dwindled to the rush of wind through reeds.

Tell them, my love.

But what was there to tell? The sound might be nothing. It might be an auditory hallucination, some remnant of her bout with parem.

Or it might be the dead, drawing her on.

The town itself was located in the shadow of a low mountain range, beneath the hulking shape of what had once been a fort and then a munitions factory lodged into the cliffside high above it. It didn’t take long to realize that the old factory had been recommissioned for something new—the traffic of wagons and men traveling in and out of the facility made that clear—but for what?

There were no proper inns, only a public house with two guest rooms that were already occupied. The owner told them that the convent up the hill sometimes boarded lodgers.

“Ladies at the convent there take in washing for the soldiers,” he said. “They don’t mind having a few extra hands around for chores.”

“Must be busy these days with the old factory running,” said Nina in Fjerdan. “Good for business.”

The owner shook his head. “Soldiers came in about a year ago. Didn’t hire any locals, poured their filth into the river.”

“You don’t know that,” said a heavyset woman shelling peas at the bar. “The river was full of runoff from the mines before the soldiers started up the smokestacks again.” She cut a long glance at Nina and the others. “Don’t pay to speak trouble to strangers.”

They took the hint and headed out to the main street. It was a surprisingly pretty town, the buildings small and snug, their roofs peaked, their doors brightly painted in yellow, pink, and blue.

Leoni gazed up the mountain to where the old factory loomed, its big square buildings pocked with dark windows. “They could just be manufacturing rifles or ammunition.”

Adrik’s expression was bleaker than usual. “Or some of those new armored tanks they’re so fond of.”

“If that’s the case, we’ll have some intelligence to pass along to the capital,” Nina said. She hoped that wouldn’t be all.

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