King of Scars (King of Scars Duology #1)

At the same instant, Zoya felt the dragon’s claws pierce her chest. She cried out, the pain like the fork of a lightning bolt, splitting her open. She felt her blood soaking the silk against her body, a sacrifice. Juris released a heavy sigh and shut his glowing eyes. Zoya pressed her face to his scales, listening to the heavy thud of his heart, of her own. Was this death, then? She wept for them both as the rhythm began to slow.

A moment passed. An age. Juris’ claws retracted. She could hear only one heartbeat now, and it was her own.

Zoya felt no pain. When she looked down, she saw her kefta was torn, but the blood flowed no longer. She touched her fingers to her skin. The wounds Juris had made had already healed.

There was no time for mourning, not if Juris’ sacrifice was to mean something, not if she had any hope of saving Nikolai and stopping Elizaveta. Zoya would have her revenge. She would save her king.

She grabbed a dagger from the wall. Before her tears could begin anew, she scraped the scales from the ridge that ran over Juris’ back.

But what was she to do now? She wasn’t a Fabrikator. That was Elizaveta’s gift.

Are we not all things?

Zoya had broken the boundaries within her order, but did she dare challenge the limits of the orders themselves?

Anything worth doing always starts as a bad idea. Nikolai’s words. Terrible advice. But perhaps it was time to heed it. She focused on the scales in her hand, sensed their edges, the particles that comprised them. It felt alien and wrong, and she knew instantly that this work would never be natural to her, but in this moment her meager skill would have to be enough. Zoya let the scales guide her. She could feel the shape they wanted to take, could see it burning clearly in her mind like a black wheel—no, a crown. Juris. Pushy to the last. She shoved the image aside and forced the scales to form two cuffs around her wrists instead.

As soon as the scales touched, sealing the bond, she felt Juris’ strength flow through her. But this was different than it had been with the tiger. Open the door. She could feel his past, the eons both he and the dragon had lived flooding through her, threatening to over-whelm the short speck of her life.

Take it, then, she told him. I am strong enough to survive the fall.

She felt Juris’ restraint, felt him draw back, protecting her and guiding her as he had done over the past weeks. As he always would.

The dragon was with her. And they would fight.

OVER THE GUARD’S SHOULDER, Nina saw the fishermen turn their heads toward the sound of a crying baby.

Hurriedly, the guard tried to slam shut the doors.

“Help!” cried Nina. “Help us!”

“What’s going on over there?” said one of the men.

Bless Fjerda and its belief in helpless girls. They were taught from a young age to protect the weak, particularly women. That kindness didn’t usually extend to Grisha, but the dead had spoken, and Nina intended to let them keep speaking.

Another baby began to cry. “That’s it, kid,” Nina whispered. “Do your thing.”

Now the fishermen were moving up the side of the hill toward the checkpoint.

“This is none of your concern,” said the guard, finally succeeding in closing the wagon doors.

“What do you have in there?” a voice asked.

Nina peered through the slats. Hanne and Adrik had been yanked from the wagon and were flanked by armed men. The crowd of locals around the cart was growing.

“Just a shipment for the factory,” said the guard.

“So why is the wagon headed down the mountain?”

“Get this wagon turned around and get going,” the guard growled to the soldiers now perched in the driver’s seat. The reins snapped and the horses took a few tentative steps forward, but the fishermen had moved into the road, blocking the wagon’s path.

“Show us what’s in the wagon,” said a large man in a red cap.

Another stepped forward, hands spread in an open, reasonable gesture. “We can hear babies crying. Why are you trying to take them to a munitions factory?”

“I made it clear that it’s none of your concern. We do not answer to you, and if you insist on interfering with the business of the Fjerdan military, we are authorized to use force.”

A new voice spoke from somewhere Nina couldn’t see. “Are you really going to open fire on these men?”

Nina moved to the other side of the wagon and saw more of the townspeople had gathered, drawn by the commotion at the checkpoint.

“Why wouldn’t they?” said a woman. “They already poisoned our river.”

“Be silent,” hissed a soldier.

“She’s right,” said the tavern owner Nina recognized from their first day in town. “Killed that girl up at the convent. Killed Gerit’s cattle.”

“You want to shoot us, go ahead,” said someone. “I don’t think you have enough bullets for us all.”

“Stay back!” cried the guard, but Nina heard no gunfire.

A moment later, the wagon doors were pried open once again.

“What is this?” said the man in the red cap. “Who are these women? What’s wrong with them?”

“They’re … they’re sick,” said the guard. “They’ve been quarantined for their own good.”

“There’s no disease,” said Nina from the shadows of the cart. “The soldiers have been experimenting on these girls.”

“But they’re all … Are they all pregnant?”

Nina let the silence hang, felt the mood of the crowd shift from suspicion to outright anger.

“You’re from the convent?” the man asked, and Nina nodded. Let this miserable pinafore and these awful blond braids lend her a bit of credibility.

“These prisoners are not women,” sputtered the guard. “They’re Grisha. They are potential threats to Fjerda, and you have no right to interfere.”

“Prisoners?” the man in the red cap repeated, his face troubled. “Grisha?”

The crowd moved forward to stare at the women and girls. Nina knew the power of the prejudice they carried with them. She’d seen it in Matthias, felt the weight of it. But she’d also seen that burden shift, that seemingly immovable rock eroded by understanding. If that could happen for a drüskelle soldier who had been raised to hate her kind, she had to believe it could happen for these people too. The girls in this wagon were not powerful witches raining down destruction. These were not faceless enemy soldiers. They were Fjerdan girls plucked from their lives and tortured. If ordinary people could not see the difference, there was no hope for anyone.

“Cille?” said a young fisherman pushing forward through the crowd. “Cille, is that you?”

A frail, sallow-skinned girl opened her eyes. “Liv?” she said weakly.

“Cille,” he said, tears filling his eyes as he climbed up into the wagon, his head banging the ceiling. “Cille, I thought you were dead.” He knelt, gathering her up in his arms.

“Get down from there immediately,” commanded the guard.

“What did you do to her?” the young fisherman cried, his cheeks wet, his face nearly purple with rage.

“She is Grisha and a prisoner of the—”

“She’s my sister,” he roared.

“Is that Idony Ahlgren?” the man in the red cap asked, craning his neck.

“I thought she went to Djerholm to serve as a governess,” said a woman.

Nina glanced up at the factory. How much time had elapsed? “Ellinor Berglund,” she said. “Petra Toft. Siv Engman. Jannike Fisker. Sylvi Winther. Lena Askel.”

“They took Cille!” cried the young fisherman. “They took all of them!”

A shot rang out. The checkpoint guard stood holding his rifle in the air.

“That is enough! You will clear the road or we will—”

Boom. The first explosion rocked the mountain.

All eyes turned to the factory.

“That sounded a lot bigger than it was supposed to,” said Leoni.

Boom. Another blast, then another. Right on time.

“Sweet Djel,” the red-capped man said, pointing up toward the old fort. “The dam.”

“Oh Saints,” said Leoni. “Something’s wrong. My proportions must have been off, I—”

Another boom sounded, followed by a terrifying roar. All of a sudden people were screaming and running down the hill. The young fisherman took his sister in his arms and leapt from the back of the wagon.

“We have to get out of here!” he yelled.

“There’s no time,” said the man with the red cap.

Nina and Leoni clambered out of the back of the wagon. High above, dark columns of smoke rose from the flames at the factory. But far more frightening was the wall of water rushing toward them. The dam had shattered, and a snarling wave frothed and foamed down the mountain, uprooting trees and crushing everything in its path.

“Maybe it will lose momentum,” said the fisherman, hugging his sister close.

“Move!” shouted Leoni. “That water is loaded with poison! Anyone it touches is done for.” The guilt and fear on her face hurt Nina’s heart, but this was the way it had to be. Fjerda didn’t need mercy. It needed miracles.

“We did this,” said Hanne. “We have to stop it.”

Some of the townspeople were scrambling up the hillsides, but the wave was coming too fast.

“Get behind me!” Adrik yelled at the crowd.

“Now!” Nina commanded in Fjerdan when the people hesitated.

“Leoni,” Adrik said as the people crowded in, forming a wedge behind him. “Can you do it?”