King of Scars (King of Scars Duology #1)

“Kerch bridal prospects aside, we need to escape before Schenck can question me more closely about the izmars’ya.”

Zoya cursed. “So the twins were right—there was a leak at our old research facility.” The izmars’ya were ships that traveled beneath the surface of the water. They would be vital to Ravka’s survival as the Fjerdan navy grew, especially if Nikolai could arm them as he had planned.

“It seems so. But the Kerch don’t know how far along we are, at least not yet.”

Those words did little to cheer Zoya. The Kerch already had enough leverage against Ravka. Schenck wouldn’t have raised the topic of the izmars’ya with the king lightly. What did he intend to do with this new intelligence?

Another sharp whistle sounded from outside the carriage, two quick notes—Tolya’s signal that they were approaching the gatehouse.

Zoya knew there would be some confusion among the guards. No one had seen the coach ride out, and it bore no royal seal. Tolya and Tamar had kept it at the ready well outside the duke’s estate just in case Nikolai slipped his leash. She’d gone to find them as soon as she realized he was missing.

They’d gotten lucky tonight. They’d found the king before he’d strayed too far. When Nikolai flew, Zoya could sense him riding the winds and use the disruption in their pattern to track his movements. But if she hadn’t gotten to that farm when she had, what might have happened? Would Nikolai have killed that boy? The thing inside him was not just a hungry animal but something far worse, and she knew with absolute surety that it longed for human prey.

“We cannot go on this way, Nikolai.” Eventually they would be found out. Eventually these evening hunts and sleepless nights would get the best of them. “We must all do what is required.”

Nikolai sighed and opened his arms to her as the coach rattled to a stop. “Then come here, Zoya, and kiss me sweetly as a new bride would.”

So much for propriety. Thanks to Zoya’s late-night visits to make sure the king was safely restrained in his chambers, the gossip was already thick that their relationship was more than political. Kings took mistresses, and worse things had been rumored about leaders before. Zoya just hoped the Schenck girls were the open-minded sort. The king’s reputation could withstand a bit of scandal; it would not survive the truth.

Zoya took a second flask from the pack and dabbed whiskey at her pulse points like perfume before handing it to Nikolai, who took a long swig, then splashed the rest liberally over his coat. Zoya ruffled her hair, let her kefta slip from one shoulder, and eased into the king’s arms. The charade was necessary, and it was an easy role to play, sometimes too easy.

He buried his face in her hair, inhaling deeply. “How is it I smell like goose shit and cheap whiskey and you smell like you just ran through a meadow of wildflowers?”

“Ruthlessness.”

He breathed in again. “What is that scent? It reminds me of something, but I can’t place what.”

“The last child you tried to eat?”

“That must be it.”

The door to the coach flew open.

“Your Highness, we hadn’t realized you’d gone out tonight.”

Zoya couldn’t see the guard’s face, but she could hear the suspicion in his voice.

“Your king is not in the habit of asking for anything, least of all permission,” said Nikolai, his voice lazy but with the disdainful edge of a monarch who knew nothing but easy gratification.

“Of course, of course,” said the guard. “We had only your safety in mind, my king.”

Zoya doubted it. Western Ravka had bridled under the new taxes and laws that had come with unification. These guards might wear the double eagle, but their loyalty belonged to the duke who ran this estate and who had thrown up opposition to Nikolai’s rule at every turn. No doubt their master would be thrilled to uncover the king’s secrets.

Zoya summoned her most plaintive tone and said, “Why aren’t we moving?”

She sensed the shift in their interest.

“A good night, then?” said the guard, and she could almost see him peering into the coach to get a better look.

Zoya tossed her long black hair and said with the sleepy, tousled sound of a woman well tumbled, “A very good night.”

“She only play with royals?” said the guard. “She looks like fun.”

Zoya felt Nikolai tense. She was both touched and annoyed that he thought she cared what some buffoon believed, but there was no need to play at chivalry tonight.

She cast the guard a long look and said, “You have no idea.” He chortled and waved them through.

As the coach rolled on, Zoya felt the faint tremor of Nikolai’s transformation still echoing through him and her own exhaustion creeping over her. It would be too easy to let her eyes close, to rest her head against his chest and give in to the illusion of comfort. But the price for such indulgence would be too high. “Eventually the monster will be found out,” she said. “We’ve had no luck in finding a cure or even a hint of one. Marry. Forge an alliance. Make an heir. Secure the throne and Ravka’s future.”

“I will,” he said wearily. “I’ll do all of it. But not tonight. Tonight let’s pretend we’re an old married couple.”

If any other man had said such a thing, she would have punched him in the jaw. Or possibly taken him to bed for a few hours. “And what does that entail?”

“We’ll tell each other lies as married couples do. It will be a good game. Go on, wife. Tell me I’m a handsome fellow who will never age and who will die with all of his own teeth in his head. Make me believe it.”

“I will not.”

“I understand. You’ve never had a talent for deception.”

Zoya knew he was goading her, but her pride pricked anyway. “How can you be so sure? Perhaps the list of my talents is so long you just haven’t gotten to the end.”

“Go on, then, Nazyalensky.”

“Dearest husband,” she said, making her voice honey sweet, “did you know the women of my family can see the future in the stars?”

He huffed a laugh. “I did not.”

“Oh yes. And I’ve seen your fate in the constellations. You will grow old, fat, and happy, father many badly behaved children, and future generations will tell your story in legend and song.”

“Very convincing,” Nikolai said. “You’re good at this game.” A long silence followed, filled with nothing but the rattling of the coach wheels. “Now tell me I’ll find a way out of this. Tell me it will be all right.”

His tone was merry, teasing, but Zoya knew him too well. “It will be all right,” she said with all the conviction she could muster. “We’ll solve this problem as we’ve solved all the others before.” She tilted her head up to look at him. His eyes were closed; a worried crease marred his brow. “Do you believe me?”

“Yes.”

She pushed away from him and straightened her clothes. Falsehoods were inevitable, maybe even necessary between a husband and wife. A general and her king could ill afford them.

“See?” she said. “You’re good at this game too.”





NINA CLUTCHED HER KNIFE and tried to ignore the carnage that surrounded her. She looked down at her victim, another body splayed out helpless before her.

“Sorry, friend,” she murmured in Fjerdan. She drove her blade into the fish’s belly, yanked up toward its head, seized the wet pink mess of its innards, and tossed them onto the filthy slats where they would be hosed away. The cleaned carcass went into a barrel to her left, to be cleared by one of the runners and taken off for packaging. Or processing. Or pickling. Nina had no idea what actually happened to the fish, and she didn’t much care. After two weeks working at a cannery overlooking the Elling harbor, she didn’t intend to eat anything with scales or fins ever again.

Imagine yourself in a warm bath with a dish full of toffees. Maybe she’d just fill the bathtub with toffee and be really decadent about the endeavor. It could become quite the rage. Toffee baths and waffle scrubs.

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