King of Scars (King of Scars Duology #1)

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.”

“I 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.”