King of Scars (King of Scars Duology #1)

He’s faring worse than he’s letting on, thought Zoya. Nikolai was always freer with compliments when he was fatigued. It was true, she did look splendid, even after a harrowing night, but Zoya knew the king couldn’t care less about her appearance.

They heard a sharp whistle from outside as the carriage slowed.

“We’re approaching the bridge,” Zoya said.

The trade summit in Ivets had been essential to their negotiations with the nations of Kerch and Novyi Zem, but the business of tariffs and taxes had also provided cover for their true mission: a visit to the site of Ravka’s latest supposed miracle.

A week ago, the villagers of Ivets had set out behind Duke Radimov’s ribbon-festooned cart to celebrate the Festival of Sankt Grigori, banging drums and playing little harps meant to mimic the instrument Grigori had fashioned to soothe the beasts of the forest before his martyrdom. But when they’d reached the Obol, the wooden bridge that spanned the river gorge had given way. Before the duke and his vassals could plummet to the raging whitewater below, another bridge had sprung up beneath them, seeming to bloom from the very walls of the chasm and the jagged rocks of the canyon floor. Or so the reports had claimed. Zoya had put little stock in the tales, chalked them up to exaggeration, maybe even mass delusion—until she’d seen the bridge for herself.

She peered out the coach window as they rounded the bend in the road and the bridge came into view, its tall, slender pillars and long girders gleaming white in the moonlight. Though she’d seen it before and walked its length with the king, the sight was still astonishing. From a distance, it looked like something wrought in alabaster. It was only when one drew closer that it became clear the bridge was not stone at all.

Nikolai shook his head. “As a man who regularly turns into a monster, I realize I shouldn’t be making judgments about stability, but are we sure it’s safe?”

“Not at all,” admitted Zoya, trying to ignore the knot in her stomach. When she’d crossed over it with the twins earlier that night, she’d been too focused on finding Nikolai to worry about the bridge holding up. “But it’s the only way across the gorge.”

“Perhaps I should have brushed up on my prayers.”

The sound of the wheels changed as the coach rolled onto the bridge, from the rumble of the road to a steady thump, thump, thump. The bridge that had so miraculously sprung up from nothing was not stone or brick or wooden beam. Its white girders and transoms were bone and tendon, its abutments and piers bound together with ropy bundles of gristle. Thump, thump, thump. They were traveling over a spine.

“I don’t care for that sound,” said Zoya.

“Agreed. A miracle should sound more dignified. Some chimes, perhaps, or a choir of heavenly voices.”

“Don’t call it that,” snapped Zoya.

“A choir?”

“A miracle.” Zoya had whispered enough futile prayers in her childhood to know the Saints never answered. The bridge had to be Grisha craft, and there was a rational explanation for its appearance, one she intended to find.

“What would you call a bridge made of bones appearing just in time to save an entire town from death?” asked Nikolai.

“It wasn’t an entire town.”

“Half a town,” he amended.

“An unexpected occurrence.”

“The people might feel that description falls short of this marvel.”

And it was a marvel—at once elegant and grotesque, a mass of crossing beams and soaring arches. Since it had appeared, pilgrims had camped at either end of it, holding vigil day and night. They did not raise their heads as the coach rolled by.

“What would you call the earthquake in Ryevost?” Nikolai continued. “Or the statue of Sankta Anastasia weeping tears of blood outside Tsemna?”

“Trouble,” Zoya said.

“You still think it’s the work of Grisha using parem?”

“How else could someone create such a bridge or an earthquake on demand?”

Jurda parem. Zoya wished she’d never heard the words. The drug was the product of experimentation in a Shu lab. It could take a Grisha’s power and transform it into something wholly new and wholly dangerous, but the price for that brief bit of glory was addiction and eventually death. It might make it possible for a rogue Fabrikator to shake the earth or for a Corporalnik to make a bridge out of a body. But to what end? Could the Shu be using Grisha slaves to destabilize Ravka? Could the Apparat, the supposed spiritual counselor to the crown, be involved? Thus far, he had only declared that he was praying over the incidents and planned to stage a pilgrimage to the sites. Zoya had never trusted the priest, and she had no doubt that if he could find a way to stage a miracle, he could also find a way to use the spectacle to his own advantage.

But the real question, the question that had brought them to Ivets, was whether these strange happenings around Ravka were tied to the dark power that sheltered inside Nikolai. The occurrences had begun right around the same time as Nikolai’s night spells. It might be a coincidence, but they had come to Ivets in the hope of finding some clue, some connection that would help them rid Nikolai of the monster’s will.

They reached the other side of the bridge, and the reassuringly ordinary rumble of the dirt road filled the coach once more. It was as if a spell had lifted.

“We’ll have to leave Duke Radimov’s today,” said Nikolai. “And hope no one saw me flapping around the grounds.”

Zoya wanted to agree, but since they’d made the journey … “I can double your dose of Genya’s tonic. There’s another day left in negotiations.”

“Let Ulyashin handle them. I want to get back to the capital. We have samples from the bridge for David. He may be able to learn something we can use to deal with my …”

“Affliction?”

“Uninvited guest.”

Zoya rolled her eyes. He spoke as if he were being plagued by a bilious aunt. But there was an important reason for them to stay in Ivets. She had been wary of the trip, skeptical of the bridge, fearful of the risks, but she’d also known the trade summit presented them with a good opportunity—a certain Hiram Schenck and his two marriageable daughters.

She tapped her fingers against the velvet seat, uncertain of how to proceed. She’d hoped to orchestrate a meeting between Nikolai and the Schenck girls without him realizing that she was meddling. The king did not like to be led, and when he sensed he was being pushed, he could be just as stubborn as … well, as Zoya herself.

“Speak, Nazyalensky. When you purse your lips like that, you look like you’ve made love to a lemon.”

“Lucky lemon,” Zoya said with a sniff. She smoothed the fabric of her kefta over her lap. “Hiram Schenck’s family accompanied him to Ivets.”

“And?”

“He has two daughters.”

Nikolai laughed. “Is that why you agreed to this trip? So that you could indulge in your matchmaking?”

“I agreed because someone has to make sure you don’t eat anyone when your uninvited guest gets peckish in the middle of the night. And I am not some interfering mama who wants to see her darling son wed. I am trying to protect your throne. Hiram Schenck is a senior member of the Merchant Council. He could all but guarantee leniency on Ravka’s loans from Kerch, to say nothing of the massive fortune one of his pretty daughters will inherit.”

“How pretty?”

“Who cares?”

“Not me, certainly. But two years working with you has worn away my pride. I want to make sure I won’t spend my life watching other men ogle my wife.”

“If they do, you can have them beheaded.”

“The men or my wife?” said Nikolai.

“Both. Just make sure to get her dowry first.”

“Ruthless.”

“Practical. If we stayed another night—”

“Zoya, I can’t very well court a bride if there’s a chance I may turn her into dinner.”

“You’re a king. You don’t have to court anyone. That’s what the throne and the jewels and the title are for, and once you’re married, your queen will become your ally.”

“Or she may run screaming from our wedding bower and tell her father I began by nibbling on her earlobe and then tried to consume her actual ear. She could start a war.”

“But she won’t, Nikolai. Because by the time you two have said your vows, you’ll have charmed her into loving you, and then you’ll be her problem to take care of.”

“Even my charm has its limits, Zoya.”

If so, she had yet to encounter them. Zoya cast the king a disbelieving glance. “A handsome monster husband who put a crown on her head? It’s a perfect fairy tale to sell to some starry-eyed girl. She can lock you in at night and kiss you sweetly in the morning, and Ravka will be secure.”

“Why do you never kiss me sweetly in the morning, Zoya?”

“I do nothing sweetly, Your Highness.” She shook out her cuffs. “Why do you hesitate? Until you marry, until you have an heir, Ravka will remain vulnerable.”

Nikolai’s glib demeanor vanished. “I cannot take a wife while I am in this state. I cannot forge a marriage founded on lies.”

“Aren’t most?”

“Ever the romantic.”

“Ever practical.”

previous 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 ..92 next