King of Scars (King of Scars Duology #1)

“Remind me to never make you mad, Zenik,” she said over the rattling of the cart wheels.

Nina shrugged. “Just don’t do it by a graveyard.”

“What’s happening?” asked one of the girls drowsily.

“Nothing,” said Nina. “Close your eyes. Rest. You’ll get another dose soon.”

A moment later, the air filled with the clamor of bells. Someone at the factory had sounded the alarm. There was no way they were going to make it through the checkpoint, but they couldn’t stop now.

They careened down the hill. Brum lay beneath a blanket, his body rolling this way and that as the cart jounced over a ditch.

Nina leaned forward and pulled on Hanne’s jacket to get her attention.

“Slow down!” she shouted. “We can’t look like we’re running.”

Hanne pulled back on the reins and glanced over her shoulder at Nina. “What are you?” She didn’t sound scared, just angry.

“Nothing good,” said Nina, and sank back to her seat in the wagon. Explanations and apologies would have to wait.

The wagon slowed and she peered through the slats. They were coming up on the checkpoint. She had known the timing had to be right, and now—


The wagon rolled to a stop. Through the slats, Nina saw a group of Fjerdan soldiers, rifles at the ready. Behind them, a little farther down the hill, a long line of men and boys were headed to the fishery to work. They carried their lunch pails and chatted in easy conversation, barely sparing a glance for the guards or the wagon.

“We are operating under orders from Commander Brum,” said Hanne gruffly. “Let us through!”

“You will stand down or you will be shot.”

“We’re transporting—”

“Commander Brum came through here nearly an hour ago. He said no one was to pass without his direct say-so.” He turned to another guard and said, “Send someone up to the factory to find out what’s going on.”

Then he disappeared from view. A moment later, the doors to the cart swung open.

“Djel in all his glory,” the soldier said as the early-morning light fell on the women packed into the wagon. “Seize the drivers! And get these prisoners back up the mountain.”

The baby in Leoni’s arms began to wail.

ZOYA DID NOT SCREAM. She stifled her panic as the sap rose over her rib cage and ceased her pounding on the golden sphere. She could not comprehend what she was seeing. Three years ago, she had watched the Darkling’s body burn to ash. She had whispered her aunt’s name as he had vanished in the heat of Inferni flames beside the body of Sankta Alina.

But it had not been Alina Starkov who lay on that pyre, only a girl tailored to look like her. Had the Darkling’s supporters used the same trick?

She did not understand the extent of what Elizaveta intended, only that Nikolai would not live through it. And that Yuri had betrayed them, the pious little wart. You always knew what he was, she scolded herself. You knew at which altar he chose to worship. But she had ignored him, dismissed him, because she had never truly seen him as a threat. And maybe because she hadn’t wanted to see her own foolish idealism reflected in his fervent eyes.

She watched Yuri approach the shadow creature that hovered like a strange ghost in front of Nikolai. She had sensed the Darkling’s presence that night in the bell tower, but she hadn’t wanted to believe he could return.

Blind. Naive. Selfish. Zoya held her breath as Yuri reached for the glowing thorn—but suddenly the monster was attacking the monk. She looked at Nikolai’s body splayed against the thorn wood like an insect pinned to a page. His eyes were closed. Could he be controlling the creature?

There was no time to think on it. Zoya had tried to batter the sphere with the power of the storm to no avail. Now she focused on the sap that made up its walls, sensing the small parts that comprised it, the way its matter was formed. She was no Tidemaker. Before Juris this would have been beyond her. But now … Are we not all things? She concentrated on forcing those tiny particles to vibrate faster, raising the temperature of the sap, disrupting the structure of the sphere. Sweat poured from her brow as the heat rose and she feared she’d cook in her own skin.

In a single moment, the sphere’s structure gave way. Zoya cast the scalding liquid away on a gust of air before it could burn her skin, and then she was running, letting the wind carry her over the sands to the palace.

What are you running to, little witch? To Juris. To help. But what if the dragon already knew what Elizaveta intended? What if he was watching her from his black spire even now and laughing at her naiveté?

The wind faltered. Zoya’s steps slowed. She gazed up at the black rock. How long could Nikolai use the monster’s form to keep Yuri and the Saint at bay? Was Zoya racing toward an ally or walking into a trap, squandering valuable time? Another betrayal. She wasn’t sure she could bear it. But she would have to. She wasn’t powerful enough to face Elizaveta on her own. She needed the dragon’s wrath.

There was no time to trouble with the palace’s winding passages, and she doubted she could find her way. Instead she let the storm lob her up, high into the sky and the mouth of Juris’ cavern.

The room was empty. The fire in the grate had gone out.

That was when she saw the body. Juris lay on the floor in his human form, his broadsword discarded next to him. The gleam of his black scale armor seemed dull in the flat twilight.

“Juris!” she cried. She slid to her knees beside him.

He opened his eyes. They flickered silver, the pupils slitting.

“That Elizaveta,” he said on a wheezing gasp. “Such an actress.”

“What happened? What did she do to you?”

He released a sound that might have been a laugh or a moan. “She offered me wine. After hundreds of years. Honey mead made from fruit born of her vines. She said she had been saving it. It was sweet, but it was not wine.”

She looked at his charred lips, his blackened tongue, and understood. “It was fuel.”

“Only our own power can destroy us. My flames burned me from the inside.”

“No,” Zoya said. “No.” Her heart was too full of loss. “I’ll get Grigori. He can heal you.”

“It’s too late.” Juris seized her wrist with surprising force. “Listen to me. We thought we had convinced Elizaveta to give up her power, but that was never her intent. If she breaks free of the bounds of the Fold, nothing will be able to control her. You must stop her.”

“How?” Zoya pleaded.

“You know what you must do, Zoya. Wear my bones.” She recoiled, but he did not release his grip. “Kill me. Take my scales.”

Zoya shook her head. All she could think of was her aunt’s resolute face. Zoya had been responsible for her death. She could have stopped the Darkling, if she’d looked closer, if she’d understood, if she hadn’t been consumed by her own ambition. “He doesn’t get to take you from me too.”

“I am not your aunt,” Juris growled. “I am your teacher. You were an able student. Prove to me that you are a great one.”

She could not do it. “You said it was a corruption.”

“Only if you give nothing of yourself in return.”

The truth of that hit her, and Zoya knew she was afraid.

“A little faith, Zoya. That is all this requires.”

A bitter laugh escaped her. “I don’t have it.”

“There is no end to the power you may obtain. The making at the heart of the world has no limit. It does not weaken. It does not tire. But you must go to meet it.”

“What if I get it wrong all over again?” What if she failed Juris as she had failed the others? Her life was crowded with too many ghosts.

“Stop punishing yourself for being someone with a heart. You cannot protect yourself from suffering. To live is to grieve. You are not protecting yourself by shutting yourself off from the world. You are limiting yourself, just as you did with your training.”

“Please,” Zoya said. She was the thing she’d always feared becoming: a lost girl, helpless, being led up the aisle of the chapel in Pachina. “Don’t leave me. Not you too.”

He nudged his broadsword with one hand. “Zoya of the lost city. Zoya of the garden. Zoya bleeding in the snow. You are strong enough to survive the fall.”

Juris released a cry that began as a scream and became a roar as his body shifted from man to dragon, bones cracking, scales widening, until each was nearly the size of her palm.

He enfolded her in his wings, so gently. “Now, Zoya. I can hold on no longer.”

Zoya released a sob. To live is to grieve. She was a lost girl—and a general too. She hefted the broadsword in her hands and, with the power of the storm in her palms, drove the blade into his heart.