King of Scars (King of Scars Duology #1)

THE STINK OF BLOOD HUNG heavy in the coach. Zoya pressed her sleeve to her nose to ward off the smell, but the musty odor of dirty wool wasn’t much improvement.

Vile. It was bad enough that she had to go tearing off across the Ravkan countryside in the dead of night in a borrowed, badly sprung coach, but that she had to do so in a garment like this? Unacceptable. She stripped the coat from her body. The stench still clung to the silk of her embroidered blue kefta beneath, but she felt a bit more like herself now.

They were ten miles outside Ivets, nearly one hundred miles from the safety of the capital, racing along the narrow roads that would lead them back to the estate of their host for the trade summit, Duke Radimov. Zoya wasn’t much for praying, so she could only hope no one had seen Nikolai escape his chambers and take to the skies. If they’d been back home, back in Os Alta, this never would have happened. She’d thought they’d taken enough precautions. She couldn’t have been more wrong.

The horse’s hooves thundered, the wheels of the coach clattering and jouncing, as beside her the king of Ravka gnashed his needle-sharp teeth and pulled at his chains.

Zoya kept her distance. She’d seen what one of Nikolai’s bites could do when he was in this state, and she had no interest in losing a limb or worse. Part of her had wanted to ask Tolya or Tamar, the brother and sister who served as the king’s personal guards, to ride inside the carriage with her until Nikolai resumed his human form. Their father had been a Shu mercenary who had trained them to fight, their mother a Grisha from whom they’d both inherited Heartrender gifts. The presence of either twin would have been welcome. But her pride prevented it, and she also knew what it would cost the king. One witness to his misery was bad enough.

Outside, the wind howled. It was less the baying of a beast than the high, wild laugh of an old friend, driving them on. The wind did what she willed it, had since she was a child. Yet on nights like these, she couldn’t help but feel that it was not her servant but her ally: a storm that rose to mask a creature’s snarls, to hide the sounds of a fight in a rickety barn, to whip up trouble in streets and village taverns. This was the western wind, Adezku the mischief-maker, a worthy companion. Even if that farm boy told everyone in Ivets what he’d seen, the townspeople would chalk it up to Adezku, the rascal wind that drove women into their neighbors’ beds and made mad thoughts skitter in men’s heads like whorls of dead leaves.

A mile later, the snarls in the coach had quieted. The clanking of the chains dwindled as the creature seemed to sink farther and farther into the shadows of the seat. At last, a voice, hoarse and beleaguered, said, “I don’t suppose you brought me a fresh shirt?”

Zoya took the pack from the coach floor and pulled out a clean white shirt and fur-lined coat, both finely made but thoroughly rumpled—appropriate attire for a royal who had spent the night carousing.

Without a word, Nikolai held up his shackled wrists. The talons had retracted, but his hands were still scarred with the faint black lines he had borne since the end of the civil war three years ago. The king often wore gloves to hide them, and Zoya thought that was a mistake. The scars were a reminder of the torture he had endured at the hands of the Darkling—and the price he had paid alongside his country. Of course, that was only part of the story, but it was the part the Ravkan people were best equipped to handle.

Zoya unlocked the chains with the heavy key she wore around her neck. She hoped it was her imagination, but the scars on Nikolai’s hands seemed darker lately, as if determined not to fade.

Once his hands were free, the king peeled the ruined shirt from his body. He used the linen and water from the flask she handed him to wash the blood from his chest and mouth, then splashed more over his hands and ran them through his hair. The water trickled down his neck and shoulders. He was shaking badly, but he looked like Nikolai again—hazel eyes clear, the damp gold of his hair pushed back from his forehead.

“Where did you find me this time?” he asked, keeping most of the tremor from his voice.

Zoya wrinkled her nose at the memory. “A goose farm.”

“I hope it was one of the more fashionable goose farms.” He fumbled with the buttons of his clean shirt, fingers still shaking. “Do we know what I killed?”

Or who? The question hung unspoken in the air.

Zoya batted Nikolai’s quaking hands away from his buttons and took up the work herself. Through the thin cotton, she could feel the chill the night had left on his skin.

“What an excellent valet you make,” he murmured. But she knew he hated submitting to these small attentions, hated that he was weak enough to require them.

Sympathy would only make it worse, so she kept her voice brusque. “I presume you killed a great deal of geese. Possibly a shaggy pony.” But had that been all? Zoya had no way of knowing what the monster might have gotten into before they’d found him. “You remember nothing?”

“Only flashes.”

They would just have to wait for any reports of deaths or mutilations.

The trouble had begun six months earlier, when Nikolai had woken in a field nearly thirty miles from Os Alta, bloodied and covered in bruises, with no memory of how he’d gotten out of the palace or what he’d done in the night. I seem to have taken up sleepwalking, he’d declared to Zoya and the rest of the Grisha Triumvirate when he’d sauntered in late to their morning meeting, a long scratch down his cheek.

They’d been concerned but baffled. Tolya and Tamar were hardly the type to just let Nikolai slip by. How did you get past them? Zoya had asked as Genya tailored away the scratch and David carried on about somnambulism. But if Nikolai had been troubled, he hadn’t shown it. I excel at most things, he’d said. Why not unlikely escapes too? He’d had new locks placed on his bedroom doors and insisted they move on to the business of the day and the odd report of an earthquake in Ryevost that had released thousands of silver hummingbirds from a crack in the earth.

A little over a month later, Tolya had been reading in a chair outside the king’s bedchamber when he’d heard the sound of breaking glass and burst through the door to see Nikolai leap from the window ledge, his back split by wings of curling shadow. Tolya had woken Zoya and they’d tracked the king to the roof of a granary fifteen miles away.

After that, they had started chaining the king to his bed—an effective solution, workable only because Nikolai’s servants were not permitted inside his palace bedchamber. The king was a war hero, after all, and known to suffer nightmares. Zoya had locked him in every night since and released him every morning, and they’d kept Nikolai’s secret safe. Only Tolya, Tamar, and the Triumvirate knew the truth. If anyone discovered the king of Ravka spent his nights trussed up in chains, he’d be a perfect target for assassination or coup, not to mention a laughingstock.

That was what made travel so dangerous. But Nikolai couldn’t stay sequestered behind the walls of Os Alta forever.

“A king cannot remain locked up in his own castle,” he’d declared when he’d decided to resume travel away from the palace. “One risks looking less like a monarch and more like a hostage.”

“You have emissaries to manage these matters of state,” Zoya had argued, “ambassadors, underlings.”

“The public may forget how handsome I am.”

“I doubt it. Your face is on the money.”

Nikolai had refused to relent, and Zoya could admit he wasn’t entirely wrong. His father had made the mistake of letting others conduct the business of ruling, and it had cost him. There was a balance to be struck, she supposed, between caution and daring, tiresome as compromise tended to be. Life just ran more smoothly when she got her way.

Because Nikolai and Zoya couldn’t very well travel with a trunk full of chains for inquisitive servants to discover, whenever they were away from the safety of the palace, they relied on a powerful sedative to keep Nikolai tucked into bed and the monster at bay.

“Genya will have to mix my tonic stronger,” he said now, shrugging into his coat.

“Or you could stay in the capital and cease taking these foolish risks.”

So far the monster had been content with attacks on livestock, his casualties limited to gutted sheep and drained cattle. But they both knew it was only a question of time. Whatever the Darkling’s power had left seething within Nikolai hungered for more than animal flesh.

“The last incident was barely a week ago.” He scrubbed a hand over his face. “I thought I had more time.”

“It’s getting worse.”

“I like to keep you on your toes, Nazyalensky. Constant anxiety does wonders for the complexion.”

“I’ll send you a thank-you card.”

“Make sure of it. You’re positively glowing.”

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