King of Scars (King of Scars Duology #1)

“I’ll settle for the advantage of surprise.”

Zoya raised the sands for cover and let herself plummet in a flash to the thorn wood. As Elizaveta had talked, Zoya had drifted to the far side of the circle, to the bier on which the Darkling’s perfectly preserved body rested. She had the briefest moment to take in the beautiful face, those elegant hands. Zoya had loved him with all the greedy, worshipful need in her girlish heart. She had believed he prized her, that he cared for her. She would have done anything for him, fought and died for him. And he had known that. He had cultivated it as he had cultivated his own mystery, as he had nurtured Alina Starkov’s loneliness and Genya’s desire to belong. He used us all, just as he is using Elizaveta now. And I let it happen.

She would not let it happen again. She lifted her arms.

“No!” cried Elizaveta.

“Burn as you were meant to,” Zoya whispered. She thrust her arm down, and, as easily as if she were summoning a soft breeze, lightning flowed in a precise, earsplitting crack. It struck the bier in a blaze of sparks and blooming flame. Zoya saw a shadow emerge from the fire, as if trying to flee the heat.

“What have you done?” Elizaveta screamed. She hurtled at the Darkling as the thorn wood tried to lift him to safety, away from the blaze.

But Zoya focused the heat of her flames until they burned blue as Juris’ dragon fire. The thorn wood began to collapse in on itself.

Stalks twisted around Zoya’s ankles, but she gathered her sparks and burned them away, singeing herself in the process. Fire was going to take some practice.

Elizaveta had thrown herself on the pyre to try to retrieve what was left of the Darkling’s body. Zoya knew that though the flames might cause Elizaveta pain, they would not stop her. Only Elizaveta’s own power turned against her would be enough to end a Grisha that ancient. Zoya had just a few minutes to act.

She found Yuri running from the flames and snatched the glowing thorn from his hand. “I’ll deal with you later,” she snarled, swiping two dunes to surround him in a strong gust. They buried him to the neck.

The remnants of the shadow creature hovered between Nikolai and the blaze of the Darkling’s bier as if unsure. It was barely visible now, its wings shredded, its clawed hands hanging limply by its sides. She drove the glowing thorn back into the place where its heart should be.

Nikolai came to consciousness with a gasp. “Take it out of me,” he rasped, ducking his head toward his chest where the real thorn was lodged. “End him.”

And what if I end you too? There was no time to hesitate. Zoya yanked free the thorn. Nikolai howled as black blood poured from his chest. Zoya was slammed backward by the lashing trunk of a tree.

All around her, the thorn wood burst into bloom as Elizaveta rose shrieking from the Darkling’s final funeral pyre. She was a swarm of bees. She was a meadow in blossom. She was a woman mad with grief. The thorn wood twisted around Zoya’s wrists, binding her tight as Elizaveta hurtled toward her, locusts streaming from her mouth, her hands extended, reaching for Zoya’s throat.

It’s all right, Zoya thought. I saved Nikolai. I kept Elizaveta confined to the Fold. She had stopped the Darkling at last. Let Elizaveta take her heart. But Juris’ voice roared within her, and she could almost see his sneer: I gave up my scales for this? We are the dragon. We do not lie down to die.

Zoya felt the branches squeeze tighter. The thorn wood was Elizaveta’s creation. But the sap within it flowed like blood, like a river moved by tides.

Elizaveta screamed her rage, and the buzz of insects filled Zoya’s ears.

Zoya focused on the sap running through the branches of the thorn wood, the sap that had drowned her again and again, and she pulled.

The stalks turned, the vicious spikes of their thorns jutting toward Elizaveta too quickly for her to change course or shift form. Her body struck the lances of the thorns with a dull, wet thud. She hung, bare inches from Zoya, impaled on the claws of her own creation.

Zoya twisted the thorns and watched the light vanish from Elizaveta’s eyes. She could have sworn she heard the dragon snarl his approval.

Ravka might fall. The Grisha and the Second Army might scatter. But the world would be safe from Elizaveta and the Starless One.

She thought of the cubs in the snow, of Liliyana shelling hazelnuts by the fire, of the Hall of the Golden Dome back at the Little Palace, crowded with Grisha, laughter echoing off its walls before the Darkling attacked. She thought of Nikolai facing the demon, the thorn like a dagger in his hands.

This time I saved you, she thought as she collapsed. This time, I got it right.

IT WOULDN’T BE SAFE FOR THE GRISHA women and their children, or for Adrik and Leoni, to remain in G?fvalle, no matter how the townspeople felt. The surviving soldiers at the factory would rally. Troops would be sent to impose order in the aftermath of the disaster. They all had to be gone before then.

In the chaos, Hanne returned to the convent to restore her features and change back into her pinafore, pretending to be just as startled as the others at the terrors visited upon the town. No one could find the Wellmother, so it was easy for Hanne to slip away once more and return to the crossroads, where she found Nina instructing a young fisherman who had agreed to drive the wagon to port.

Nina had known this reckoning was coming, and as soon as the fisherman had gone to see his sister resettled in the wagon, she turned to face Hanne’s anger.

But Hanne was calm. Her voice was steady. “I haven’t been asking the right questions, have I? I asked what you were, not who.”

Nina had changed back into one of Mila’s dresses. She smoothed her hands over the heavy skirts. “I think you know.”

“Nina Zenik.” Hanne’s copper eyes were hard. “The girl who maimed my father. The Corpsewitch.”

“Is that what the Fjerdans are calling me now?”

“Among other things.”

“I’m an agent working for the Ravkan government. I came to this country to free people like you, people with Grisha power living in fear.”

“Why didn’t my father recognize you?” Hanne asked.

“I was tailored before I came here. This,” Nina said, gesturing to herself, “isn’t me.”

“Is anything about you real?”

“The skills I taught you. Everything I told you about the way this country works, about the corruption at its core.” Nina took a breath and tapped her hand to her heart. “This is real, Hanne.”

Hanne looked away. “You used me.”

“I did,” said Nina. “I won’t deny it.”

Hanne’s gaze swung back to Nina. She folded her arms. “You’re not sorry, are you?”

“I’m sorry for the hurt I caused. I’m sorry to have lost your trust. But we are soldiers, Hanne, warriors born. And we do what has to be done. There were lives at stake. There still are. I don’t believe this is the only place where your father’s men are experimenting on Grisha.”

Hanne swallowed, and Nina knew she was remembering the girls in their beds on the ward, the babies in the cribs, their suffering. “There are more?”

“More bases. More factories. More laboratories. I won’t pretend that all Grisha are good. Or all Ravkans. They aren’t. Maybe I’m not. All I know is that what your father and his men are doing is wrong. They have to be stopped.” She laid her hand on Hanne’s shoulder, afraid she might pull away. “We could stop them.”

Hanne looked up at the factory, at the wagon full of prisoners, at the great ash towering over the road with its finger-bone branches. She ran a hand over her shorn scalp, the stubborn lines of her face more pronounced without the thick cloud of her hair to soften them. When her gaze returned to Nina, there was new fire in her eyes. “Save them all,” she said.

Despite the sorrows and dangers of the day, despite the challenges that lay ahead, Nina felt a new lightness overtake her. “Save them all.”

“But Nina,” Hanne said. “No more lies.”

“No more lies,” she agreed, and Nina wished, with all her heart, that could be true.

“What do we do first?” asked Hanne.

“We see to your father.”

“I won’t kill him.”

Nina felt a smile curling her lips. “That is the very last thing I’d have you do.”

When Hanne had gone to drag the still-unconscious Brum up the hill into the woods, Adrik turned to Nina.

“No more lies?” he said.

“Eavesdropping, Adrik?” She looked over his shoulder. “Is Leoni in the wagon? Is she all right?”

“She is. No thanks to you. Leoni didn’t make a mistake with the fuses. You caused that accident,” he said. “You rigged those explosions to blow the dam. You put me and Leoni and countless innocent civilians at risk.”

It was true. She’d done a contemptible thing. So where was her regret?