King of Scars (King of Scars Duology #1)

“Nothing at all,” she whispered.

He felt a jolt, as if she’d shoved him, and looked down. Something was sticking out of his chest. His mind made sense of the shape as the pain hit. A dagger. The white handle was carved with a wolf. He heard a furious rapping against the glass, as if a bird were trying to get into the conservatory.

“Why?” he asked as he slid to the ground.

She fell with him, going to her knees, her tears flowing freely now. “For my country,” she said as she wept. “For my brother. For my queen.”

“You don’t understand,” he tried to say. A laugh emerged from his lips, but it sounded wrong, like a bubble popping.

“Forgive me,” she said, and yanked the dagger from his body.

Pain flooded through him as he felt the warm gush of blood from his wound.

She pressed a soft kiss to his lips. “My only comfort is that you never could have been mine. But know that I would have gladly been yours.”

“Ehri,” he moaned as the world began to go dark.

“Not Ehri.”

From somewhere he could hear shouting, the sound of hurried footfalls running toward them.

“Everyone mourns the first blossom,” she recited softly.

Who will weep for the rest that fall?

Isaak watched, helpless, as she grasped the dagger and drove the blade into her own heart.

NINA DRESSED WITH CARE. Her gown was palest lavender, modestly cut, perfectly suited to Mila Jandersdat’s coloring and generous figure. She wore no jewelry. What baubles could a poor widow afford? But a Fjerdan woman’s greatest adornment was her virtue. Nina smiled at the girl in the mirror, the expression sweet and guileless.

She smoothed her flaxen hair into a tidy braided crown that would have made the Wellmother proud and found her way to the solarium. The great glass windows were ringed with frost, and through them she could see the ice moat and beyond it, the glittering spires of the White Island. The Ice Court was as dazzling as she remembered.

She heard footsteps behind her and turned to see Jarl Brum approaching, his wife on his arm. They were a remarkably handsome couple, tall and fine-boned.

“Enke Jandersdat,” he said warmly. “My savior. Please allow me to introduce you to my wife, Ylva.”

Nina curtsied. “It is my greatest honor.”

Brum’s wife took Nina’s hand. Her thick chestnut hair fell nearly to her waist, and she wore a gown of gold silk that made her brown skin glow like autumn. Nina could see where Hanne had come by her beauty.

“The honor is mine,” said Ylva. “I understand my husband owes his life to you.”

Once the wagon was long gone, Nina and Hanne had awakened Brum. They’d told him that they’d come running after the explosion and found his body by the side of the road. He was lucky to have escaped the waters and the disaster at the factory with little more than a bad bump to the head. Whatever suspicions Brum had held regarding Mila Jandersdat, they’d been cured by the fact that she had remained in G?fvalle when the Zemeni couple and the Grisha prisoners had fled.

Nina and Hanne had waited patiently at the convent while Brum had returned to the factory to see who had survived and put everything he could to rights—and, Nina suspected, to make sure there was no evidence of his failures. An industrial accident that had resulted in the deaths of valued captives was one thing, but a successful Grisha escape attempt after his humiliation at the Ice Court the previous year would have spelled disaster for his career. And it was very important to Nina that Jarl Brum did not lose his favored position in the Fjerdan hierarchy. For the plan she had in mind, she would need every one of his connections and every bit of his access to highly placed bureaucrats, military commanders, and noblemen.

“I did nothing,” Nina said to Ylva. “It was Hanne who showed true courage.”

“And that is another debt we owe you,” Ylva said. “Jarl tells me you are responsible for the remarkable change in our daughter.”

“I cannot take praise for that! I credit your own influence and the steady tutelage of the Wellmother, may Djel watch over her.”

The Brums nodded solemnly, then Ylva’s face broke into a wide smile.

“Hanne!” she exclaimed as her daughter entered the room.

The truth was that Nina deserved plenty of credit for Hanne’s transformation. She’d taught her to dress to suit her long, lean figure; taught her to stand with her shoulders back and walk with a lady’s grace; and of course, Nina had taught her to act. As for Hanne’s trust, she would find a way to earn it and maybe even be worthy of it. Somehow.

Ylva embraced her daughter as Brum said to Nina, “Hanne tells me she is at last prepared to put aside her foolish ways and find a husband. I do not know what magic you worked on her, but I am grateful. She is so much changed.”

She was perfect before, thought Nina. Or would have been if you hadn’t pruned and plucked at her like an overeager gardener trying to mold an unruly shrub.

Nina smiled. “I think it was only a matter of time before Hanne discovered who she was truly meant to be.”

“You must learn to take a compliment, Mila.” He pressed a kiss to her knuckles. “I hope you will in time.” He clapped his hands together. “Shall we dine?”

Hanne turned to her father, her face happy and serene. She wore deepest russet, and her freckles looked like pollen on her cheeks. Her hair was still closely shorn.

“I’m afraid a number of generals have come to discuss boring matters of war. Vadik Demidov himself will be arriving in the capital soon,” said Brum. Nina hoped so. She intended to learn all she could about the Lantsov pretender and Fjerda’s plans for battle. “We will try not to put you ladies to sleep.”

“We will be happy to talk amongst ourselves, Papa,” said Hanne. “There are new dress designs from Gedringe to discuss.”

He smiled indulgently at her and took his wife’s arm.

As soon as his back was turned, Hanne winked at Nina, her gaze snapping fire.

“Shall we?” she said.

Nina slid her hand into Hanne’s as they followed Ylva and Jarl Brum into dinner.

They would build a new world together.

But first they had to burn the old one down.

ZOYA HEARD THE UPROAR and ran toward it. She’d sensed the wrongness of the night even before she heard Tolya’s shout. She felt it on the air, as if the crackle of lightning she controlled so easily now was everywhere, in everything. It had been that way since she’d claimed Juris’ scales. He was with her, all of his lives, all he had learned, the crimes he’d committed, the miracles he’d performed. His heart beat with her—the dragon’s heart—and she could feel that rhythm linking her to everything. The making at the heart of the world. Had she really believed in it before? Maybe. But it hadn’t mattered to her. Power had been protection, the getting of it, the honing of it, the only defense she could grasp against all the pain she had known. Now it was something more.

Everything was different now. Her vision seemed sharper, as if light limned each object. She could smell the green grass outside, woodsmoke on the air, even the marble—she’d never realized marble had a scent. In this moment, running down these familiar halls toward the clamor in the conservatory, she didn’t feel fear, only a sense of urgency to make some kind of order out of the trouble she knew she’d find.

But she couldn’t have anticipated the mess awaiting her. She closed the doors to the conservatory behind her and clouded the glass with mist in case of passersby. Security had fallen to pieces without her here. No surprise.

Tamar knelt beside a Shu girl with a dagger in her chest. Genya was crying. Tolya, David, and Nikolai, still dressed in his prisoner’s shroud, stood around another body—a corpse that looked very much like the king. Everyone was shouting at once.

Zoya silenced them with a thunderclap.

As one the group turned to her, and instantly they had their hands up, ready to fight.

“How do we know it’s really you?” said Genya.

“It’s really her,” said Nikolai.

“How do we know it’s really you?” Tamar growled, not interrupting her work on the Shu girl. It seemed a hopeless cause. The girl still had color in her cheeks, but the dagger looked as if it had pierced her heart. Zoya refused to look more closely at the other body. It was too hard not to think of Nikolai pinned to the thorn wood, his blood watering the sands of the Fold.

“Genya,” said Zoya calmly. “I once got drunk and insisted you make me blond.”

“Intriguing!” said Nikolai. “What were the results?”

“She looked glorious,” said Genya.

Zoya plucked a bit of dust from her sleeve. “I looked cheap.”

Genya dropped her hands. “Stand down. It’s her.” Then she was hugging Zoya fiercely as Tolya clasped Nikolai in his massive arms and lifted him off his feet. “Where the hell have you been?”