King of Scars (King of Scars Duology #1)

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.”