King of Scars (King of Scars Duology #1)

Nikolai felt torn between anticipation and dread. When Zoya had gone to Kribirsk, he’d ungagged the monk and had quickly understood that, as bad as things were, they were going to get much worse. Open the door. He’d done it, and something terrible had stepped through.

And yet, at his first glimpse of the crowned double eagle perched atop the gates and the gilded rooftop of the Grand Palace in the distance, his heart lifted. He was home. He had survived, and even if he wasn’t cured, somehow he and Zoya and the others would find a way to move forward. The demon inside knew him well, but now Nikolai knew the demon too.

Zoya rode up to the guards on duty, tossed back her hood, and said, “Open for your commander.”

The guards instantly came to attention. “Moi soverenyi.”

“I am weary and I have prisoners to present to the other members of the Triumvirate.”

“Do they have papers?”

“I will take responsibility for them. But if you make me wait any longer for a hot bath, I will also take responsibility for your slow death.”

The guard cleared his throat and bowed. “Welcome home, Commander.”

The gates swung open.

It was clear some kind of big party was in progress. The walkways were lit with lanterns and music floated down from the sparkling windows of the Grand Palace.

“Is it possible they actually went through with it all?” Zoya said in disbelief.

“How can you throw a ball for a king who isn’t here?” Nikolai asked. They couldn’t possibly have attempted to tailor someone to take his place, could they? There wouldn’t have been time to train him, especially for an event with so much riding on it.

“Maybe they dressed up a scarecrow and put your crown on its head,” said Zoya.

“I should adopt that strategy at council meetings.”

They weren’t sure what might be waiting for them inside, so they checked the monk’s bindings and gave him a drop of Genya’s sleep concoction for good measure. They stashed him behind a hedge and agreed to split up until they found a member of the Triumvirate or someone they could speak to without causing an uproar.

Nikolai made his way along the southern flank of the palace, keeping to the shadows as music drifted back to him from the party inside. He glimpsed movement in the conservatory. A couple meeting for an assignation? He’d leave them to it. He hastened along the glass wall dotted with miniature orange trees and was about to turn the corner when he saw … himself.

A bolt of panic shook him, his mind racing with confused thoughts. What if he wasn’t Nikolai anymore? What if he was just the monster? What if he was still caught in the twilight Fold and this was all a dream? He looked down at his hands—scarred but human, without claws. I am Nikolai Lantsov. I am here. I am home.

He looked back through the glass. The other him was standing amid the fruit trees and fountains of the conservatory, medals glinting from the pale blue sash across his chest. So this was why there was no panic in the countryside or cities, no flags of mourning raised. They’d used his plan. Genya had tailored some poor sap to play the role of the king.

Nikolai was at once thrilled and insulted. To think that someone could take his place so easily, well—a lesser man might have found it humbling. And yet his mind couldn’t help but spool out the possibilities. He could have this actor sit through state dinners and the openings of orphanages and concert halls. Nikolai could be in two places at once. But what was his new twin doing away from the other guests?

The answer presented itself in an elaborate green gown and emeralds—a girl. A very pretty girl in what appeared to be very expensive jewels. Was this the princess Ehri Kir-Taban? There were no chaperones in sight.

His standin was pacing, talking rapidly. Nikolai couldn’t hear what he was saying, but to his great horror, it looked very much like a declaration of love. What was this pretender getting them into? And had Genya and David sanctioned such a thing? This was the moment for a well-timed interruption, but exactly how was Nikolai supposed to accomplish that without upending the whole charade?

Maybe I’m wrong and they’re discussing matters of state, Nikolai thought hopefully.

At that moment, the couple strode toward each other. The false king of Ravka took the princess in his arms. She tilted her face up to his, her eyes sliding closed, her lips parted. That was when Nikolai saw the knife in her hands.

ISAAK’S PALMS WERE DAMP. It had not been easy to evade Tolya and Tamar. The twins were seasoned mercenaries with a gift for appearing when they were least wanted.

But at his first glimpse of Ehri in the conservatory, he knew he would have gladly dodged a thousand trained soldiers to be here right now. He had no idea how she had lost her guards or how much time he would have with her before they were discovered. He only knew he wanted to look at her forever. Her gown was the color of green pears, its elaborate folds embroidered with falcons. Emerald combs glittered in the dark fall of her hair.

“Nikolai?” she asked, peering into the dimly lit conservatory.

Isaak, he wanted to beg her to say. What would it be like to hear her call him by his real name?

“I’m here,” he whispered. She turned and smiled, and it was like a fist to his chest. “I wasn’t sure you’d come.”

“I wasn’t sure I’d be able to. My ladies have been fussing over me since sunrise. I didn’t think I’d find a second alone to escape them.”

“I’m glad you did.” That was an absurd understatement, but he couldn’t think of anything else to say.

She took a step toward him, and without thinking, he took a step back, maintaining the distance between them. He saw the hurt on her face and felt like the worst kind of dolt.

“I’m sorry,” he said quickly, though he knew apologies did not come easily to kings.

She clasped her hands in front of her. “Did I … did I misunderstand?”

“No,” he said. “No. But there’s something I need to tell you.” Isaak turned on his heel, pacing in front of the orange trees, their sweet-smelling blossoms clouding the air. He had planned countless things to say, but none of them seemed right in this moment. He was a poor boy from a small town. He was a palace guard. He’d thought he was happy. He had been happy until all this began. But now?

Isaak wished he could take her in his arms and kiss her, but he couldn’t do that when every word he’d spoken to her was a lie. And yet he couldn’t tell her the truth—not when he might put an entire nation at risk.

“Ehri …” he began. “If I were not a king …” he faltered. What was he trying to ask her exactly? He tried again. “What is it you like about me?”

She laughed, and his breath left his chest in a grateful rush at the sound. “Is this a test? Or does your pride just need stroking?”

“My pride is always in need of tender attention,” he said, then cursed beneath his breath. That was Nikolai talking, and he did not want to be Nikolai tonight. “Wait. I’ll tell you what I like about you. Your nerve. Your way with a practice sword. That you always say what you mean. The way you look when you tell stories of your house by the lake.”

She tilted her head, and for a moment an expression of such sadness flashed across her face.

“What is it?” he said, wanting only to wipe whatever had caused her pain from her mind.

“Nothing,” she said. “Only that I wish this moment could last.”

He wanted to tell her it could, but he didn’t know if that was true. He could offer her nothing. And here was the sticky reality: He had no idea what the Triumvirate truly wanted from him. Would they ask Isaak to play this role forever as they ran Ravka? He’d thought there was no way he could be the king they needed, but when he’d dined with Ehri, he’d started to wonder if maybe, with her by his side, he could. Would Genya and the others ever permit such a courtship? If they refused, would he have the courage to stand against them? And even worse, the thought that had kept him awake since that happy night on the island: What if the real king returned and chose Ehri as his bride? Would Isaak have to watch him court and marry her? Would he stand at attention in the chapel at the royal wedding? Would Ehri ever realize that the man she wed was not the man who had stood here in this conservatory, on this night, with his heart full of longing?

“I wish it could last too,” he said. “I wish there was no one in the world but you and me, that there were no countries, no kings and queens.”

He took a step closer, and then she was gliding into the circle of his arms. She was lithe, almost wiry. She was perfect.

“Ehri,” he said as he drew her to him, as she tilted her beautiful face to his in invitation. “Could you love me if I was not a king?”

“I could,” she said, and he didn’t understand why her eyes were suddenly full of tears. “I know I could.”

“What’s wrong?” He cupped her cheek, brushing away the tears with his thumb.