King of Scars (King of Scars Duology #1)

“It’s a long story,” said Nikolai, and demanded Tolya set him down.

Zoya wanted to hold tight to Genya, take in the flowery scent of her hair, ask her a thousand questions. Instead, she stepped back and said, “What happened here?”

“The dagger is Fjerdan,” said Tolya.

“Maybe so,” said Nikolai. “But it was wielded by a Shu girl.”

“What do you mean?” said Tamar as she worked frantically to restore the girl’s pulse. “She was attacked too.”

“Is it her heart?” Zoya asked.

“No,” said Tamar. “That would be beyond my skill. The dagger struck a little too far to the right.”

“Can you save her?” asked Genya.

“I don’t know. I’m just trying to stabilize her. It will be up to our Healers to do the rest.”

“I saw it all happen,” said Nikolai. “She attacked him—me? Him. Then turned the blade on herself.”

“So the Shu are trying to frame Fjerda?” said Tolya.

Genya’s tears began anew. She knelt and put her hand to the impostor’s cheek. “Isaak,” she murmured.

“Who?” said Zoya.

“Isaak Andreyev,” Nikolai said quietly, kneeling by the body. “Private first class. Son of a schoolteacher and a seamstress.”

Tolya brushed his hand over his eyes. “He didn’t want any of this.”

“Can you restore his features?” asked Nikolai.

“It’s harder without blood flow,” said Genya. “But I can try.”

“We owe that at least to his mother.” Nikolai shook his head. “He survived the front. He was meant to be past harm.”

Genya bit back a sob. “We … we knew we were putting him in danger’s way. We thought we were doing what was right.”

“The princess is breathing,” Tamar said. “I need to get her to the Corporalki in the Little Palace.”

“This makes no sense,” said Genya. “Why not just murder the king—or the man she believed was king? Why try to kill herself too? And why would a princess sacrifice herself to do the job?”

“She didn’t,” said Nikolai. “Get me fresh clothes. I’ll return to the party to close out the festivities. I want to have a word with Hiram Schenck. He’s the highest-ranking member of the Kerch Merchant Council here, yes?”

“Yes,” said Genya. “But he isn’t happy with you.”

“He’s about to be. For a time. Keep the doors to the conservatory locked, and leave Isaak’s body here.”

“We shouldn’t—” Tolya began, but Nikolai held up a hand.

“Just for now. I swear he will have the burial he deserves. Bring the Shu delegation to me in my father’s rooms in one hour’s time.”

“What if Princess Ehri’s guards raise the alarm?” asked Genya.

“They won’t,” said Zoya. “Not until they know their plan has succeeded and the king is dead.”

Nikolai rose, as if his wounds no longer pained him, as if the horrors of the last few days had never been, as if the demon inside him had been conquered after all. “Then long live the king.”

Two hours later, the festivities had dwindled to a few happy drunks singing songs in the double-eagle fountain. Most of the guests had gone to their beds to sleep off their indulgences or had snuck off to some quiet corner of the gardens to indulge in more.

Zoya and the others had returned to the conservatory, and when Nikolai entered he was dragging along a terrified-looking Shu guard. She had a pinched, homely face and wore the uniform of the Tavgharad, her long black hair tied in a topknot.

“Mayu Kir-Kaat,” said Tamar. “What is she doing here?”

At the sight of the body on the floor beside the lemon trees, the guard began to shake. “But he …” she said, staring at the dead king and then back at Nikolai. “But you—where is the princess?”

“What a fascinating question,” said Nikolai. “I assume you’re referring to the girl we found with a dagger in her chest just half an inch shy of her aorta—due to luck or a lack of follow-through, you be the judge. She is currently recovering with our Healers.”

“You must return the royal princess to our care,” sputtered the guard.

“She is no such thing,” said Nikolai sharply. “And the time has come and gone for such deceptions. An innocent man died tonight, all so you could start a war.”

“Is he going to explain any of this?” whispered Genya. Zoya was wondering the same thing.

“Gladly,” said Nikolai. He gestured toward the guard. “I’d like all of you to meet the real Princess Ehri Kir-Taban, favored daughter of the Shu, second in line to their throne.”

“Lies,” hissed the guard.

Nikolai seized her hand. “First of all, no member of the Tavgharad would allow a man to snatch her wrist like the last sugared plum.” The guard gave a belated tug to try to get her hand free. “Second, where are her calluses? A soldier should have them on the pads of her palms, like Isaak. Instead, they’re on the tips of her fingers. These are the calluses you would get from playing—”

“The khatuur,” said Zoya. “Eighteen strings. Princess Ehri is a master.”

“So they planted an assassin in place of the princess in order to get close to the king,” said Tamar. “But why would she try to kill herself off too?”

“To cast more suspicion on the Fjerdans?” asked Genya.

“Yes,” said Nikolai, “and to give the Shu a reason to go to war. Ravka’s monarch dead, a member of the Shu royal family slain. The Shu would have every excuse they needed to march their armies into our leaderless country and use it as a base to launch an attack on Fjerda’s southern border. They would arrive in force with no intention of ever leaving.”

Now the guard—or rather the princess—closed her eyes as if in defeat. But she did not weep and she did not tremble.

“What was to become of you, Princess?” Nikolai asked, releasing her hand.

“I was to have a new name, a quiet life in the countryside,” she said softly. “I have never cared for politics or life at court. I would be free to pursue my music, fall in love where I wished.”

“What a lovely picture you paint,” said Nikolai. “Were it not a danger to my country’s future, your lack of guile would be charming. Did you really believe your sister was going to leave you to rusticate in some mountain village? Did you actually think you would survive this plot?”

“I have never wanted the crown! I am no threat to my sister.”

“Think,” Zoya snapped, losing patience. “You are popular, adored, the daughter everyone wants on the throne. Your death is the thing meant to rally an entire nation to war. How could your sister let you live and risk discovery? You would be nothing but a liability.”

The princess lifted her pointed chin. “I do not believe it.”

“Your guards have been secured,” Zoya said. “I suspect one of them had orders to make you disappear before you ever made it to your pastoral retreat. You can question them yourself.”

Ehri somehow lifted her chin higher. “Will I face trial or simply be executed?”

“You should be so lucky,” said Nikolai. “No, I have a far worse fate for you in mind.”

“Am I to be your hostage?”

“I’m not much for pet names, but as you like.”

“You truly mean to keep me here?”

“Oh, indeed. Not as my prisoner but as my queen.”

Zoya was surprised at the way those words pricked at—what? Her heart? Her pride? She had known this end was inevitable. It was the course she had fought and harangued for. So why did she feel like she’d left her flank open yet again?

“Our engagement will earn me a glorious dowry,” said Nikolai, “and your popularity among your people will keep your sister from harassing our borders.”

“I will not do it,” said Ehri, her face ferocious—the countenance of a queen.

“It’s that or execution, my dove. Think of it this way: You won’t be hanged, but the price is a life of luxury and my sparkling company.”

“You might consider the gallows,” said Zoya. “Quicker and less painful.” It felt good to say the words, to tease him while she still could.

Nikolai nodded to Tolya and Tamar. “Get her back to her chambers and keep a close eye on her. Until we announce the royal engagement, there’s a good chance she’ll try to bolt or kill herself.”

“What do we do with the injured girl?” said Genya once the princess had been escorted out of the conservatory and the twins had returned.

“Keep her under heavy guard at the Little Palace. Even wounded, she’s a member of the Tavgharad. Let’s not forget that.”

“Did the real Mayu ever really mean to defect?”

“I think so,” said Tamar. “She has a brother, a twin. I think he was taken to be trained for the khergud. She may have hoped to get both of them out of Shu Han.”

“Kebben,” said Tolya, resting a hand on his sister’s shoulder. It was a word Zoya didn’t know. “If she was found out, maybe she used her own life to barter for her brother’s freedom.”

“Should make for an interesting chat once she’s conscious,” said Nikolai. He knelt once again by Isaak. “I’ll write a letter to his mother tomorrow. We can at least give him a hero’s pension and make sure his family wants for nothing.”

“And the body?” asked Tolya quietly.