Home > King of Scars (Nikolai Duology #1)(10)

King of Scars (Nikolai Duology #1)(10)
Author: Leigh Bardugo

Nikolai hoisted himself back into the saddle. “Commander Nazyalensky’s icy exterior masks an even icier interior, but I will most certainly let her know you wish her health.”

He nudged his horse into a trot and Tolya followed suit. They made their way along the white gravel path that ran parallel to the eastern side of the main house. Through the windows, Nikolai heard music from the parlors and gaming rooms. He glimpsed bodies swathed in silk and jewels and saw a man wearing nothing but an admiral’s hat and beating a large pot with a spoon as he ran down the hall.

Tolya’s scowl was deep enough to sow seeds in. “The crown shouldn’t be associated with such displays.”

“Perhaps not,” conceded Nikolai. “But the Ravkan people like their leaders with just a touch of the unseemly about them. They don’t trust a man of too much virtue.”

Tolya narrowed his golden eyes. “And you really trust a man of so little?”

“I know you don’t approve. But Kirigin has played the part I’ve asked him to. He may not be the brightest fellow, but he’s loyal.”

“He can’t possibly think Zoya would spare him her time.”

“Let us pray she never does. Poor Kirigin would be better off trying to waltz with a bear.”

Even so, Nikolai thought neither Zoya nor Tolya gave the young count enough credit. Kirigin’s affability and lack of ambition hid a good heart. He was an honorable man with romantic ideas of duty to his country and profound shame over the way his father had conducted himself—something with which Nikolai could sympathize. Nikolai was acutely aware of his own father’s reputation. It was one of the many reasons he kept his public visits to Lazlayon to a minimum. From the moment he’d contemplated taking the throne, Nikolai had known he would have to be a better man than his father and a better king than his brother could have ever hoped to be. Vasily had been killed by the Darkling, and Nikolai had done his best to grieve for him, but the truth was that his brother’s untimely death had proved quite timely indeed.

Nikolai was pleased to see two groundskeepers emerge from the hedges as soon as he and Tolya left the gravel path. Kirigin’s entire staff, from scullery maid to groom to head housekeeper, was made up of the king’s spies.

“Any falcons in the skies?” Nikolai called, using the code that would allow them to pass without triggering security protocols.

“No, but we hear there are foxes in the woods,” one of the men replied, and they returned to their work.

The codes changed each week and were just one of the ways they kept the real business of the Gilded Bog secure.

The southern shore of the lake was heavy with unnatural mist, and only when he and Tolya had passed through the haze did they see the docks bustling with both Grisha and First Army engineers. The waters were arrayed with the latest prototypes of Nikolai’s hydrofoil fleet. The real fleet would be constructed at a hidden base on Ravka’s coast—small gunners and huge transportation ships that could carry everything from troops to aircraft. Assuming Nikolai could somehow find the money to finance the project. Not even Kirigin was rich enough to modernize an entire navy.

Nikolai would have liked to stay and watch the tests, but he had other priorities today. He and Tolya tethered their horses by one of the moss-covered grottoes and entered the caves. The air should have been moist, but the grotto was not a real one, and the humidity in the labs and the passageways inside was strictly regulated by Squallers. Nikolai found the appropriate notch in the stone by a cluster of fake salt lilies and punched his thumb into the divot. The stone shifted, revealing a brass chamber. He pulled a lever, the door clanked shut, and he and Tolya were descending, down, down, six stories into the earth to Kirigin’s infamous “wine cellar.” It could be reached from hidden elevators located throughout the property.

“I hate this part,” muttered Tolya. “Feels like being buried.”

Nikolai knew Tolya had almost been killed in a cave-in during his time with the Sun Summoner. “You should wait above. Watch them test the new engines. I could use a report on their success.”

He tightened the knot that restrained his long black hair, and folded his huge tattooed arms. “Tamar says fears are like weeds. They grow wild if left unattended.”

Well and good for Tamar—Tolya’s twin was essentially fearless. “So forcing yourself underground is a bit of light gardening?”

Tolya gritted his teeth. “If I don’t face it, I’ll never get over it.”

Nikolai chose to hold his tongue. If the sweat on Tolya’s massive brow and his clenched jaw were any indication, these excursions beneath the earth were doing him no good at all. But the war had left all of them with wounds, and Tolya had the right to tend to his as he saw fit. Nikolai flexed his fingers in his gloves and thought of the black scars staining his fingers. Would I have the courage to look the monster in the eye? He truly didn’t know.

When the doors to the elevator opened, they exited to another brass chamber, their passage blocked by a thick steel door. Nikolai set to opening the Schuyler combination locks he’d learned about from a certain master thief in Ketterdam. A moment later, the door swung open and he was home.

The laboratories were separated into four main divisions, though all of them worked together as needed: artillery and body armor, naval warfare, aerial warfare, and the labs devoted to trying to develop both an antidote to jurda parem and a strain of the drug that might allow Grisha to heighten their powers without making them addicts. His first stop was always the labs. He spoke briefly to his Alkemi to confirm what he’d suspected regarding the antidote based on their last report, and collected a tiny vial of the stuff to share with the Triumvirate. Nikolai wanted something concrete to dangle before his advisers, given what he intended to propose.

It took them a little longer to find David Kostyk, since the Fabrikator worked in every division of the laboratory. But eventually they discovered him hunched over a set of blueprints by the vast tanks where the latest prototypes of their new submersibles were being built in miniature. The sleeves of his purple Fabrikator’s kefta were threadbare, and his poorly cut brown hair gave him the appearance of a shaggy dog deep in thought.

Through the glass, Nikolai saw the most recent version of his izmars’ya, his underwater fleet. On land, they looked clumsy: wide, flat, and ungainly, like someone had taken a quality piece of metal and pounded it into a winged pancake. But beneath the surface, they became something elegant, sinuous predators that glided through the depths, their movements guided by Tidemakers, their crews provided with breathable air through a combination of Squaller power and a filter that had taken Nikolai and David the better part of a year to perfect. The real challenge would be arming the fleet. Only then would his ships become a true school of sharks. After that? It wouldn’t matter how many warships Ravka’s enemies built. The izmars’ya would be able to move through the world’s oceans unseen and attack without ever surfacing. They would change the face of naval warfare.

David looked up from where he was consulting with Nadia Zhabin over the pendulum-and-valve system they were developing for missile targeting. “They’re testing the surface engines today,” he said.

“And good morning to you, David.”

“Is it morning?”

“The sunrise was my first indication,” said Nikolai. “How do the new missiles look?”

“We’re still trying to get them to maintain course,” said Nadia, her pale, pointed features tinged blue from the light reflecting off the tank. She was a Squaller who had fought beside the Sun Summoner with her younger brother, Adrik, but she’d shown her true potential in weapons design. She’d been integral in the development of the izmars’ya. “I think we’re close.”

Though the inventor in Nikolai thrilled at the news, his enthusiasm was tempered by the conversation he’d had with Hiram Schenck back in Ivets. He could practically feel the Kerch breathing down his neck, and it wasn’t a sensation he relished.

Nikolai had two rules for his Nolniki—the scientists and soldiers who labored at the Gilded Bog, his Zeroes who were neither First nor Second Army but both. Above all else, be thieves. Take the work of their enemies and turn it against them. It didn’t matter if Ravka got to the technology first as long as they found ways to make it better. The Fjerdans had developed an engine to drive wagons and armored tank battalions, so the Ravkans had made it powerful enough to move massive ships. The Fjerdans had built steel aircraft that didn’t require Squaller skill to pilot, so Ravka’s Fabrikators stole the design and constructed sleeker flyers in safer, lighter aluminum. The second rule? Be fast. Fjerda had made huge leaps in military technology over the last year—how he did not yet know—and Ravka had to find a way to keep pace.

Nikolai tapped the blueprints on the table. “If the fuel tests for the surface engines go well, how long until the izmars’ya are operational?”

“A matter of weeks,” said Nadia.


“But we can’t put anything into production without more steel.”

“And you’ll have it,” Nikolai promised. He could only hope he was telling the truth.

“Thank you, Your Highness,” Nadia said with a smile and a bow.

Somehow she still had faith in her king, but Nikolai wasn’t sure if he found her ready confidence reassuring or worrisome. He had always found a way to keep the rusty, ramshackle machine that was Ravka grinding along—by finding that extra bit of money when they needed it most, making the right alliance at the right time, cobbling together some invention that would make their meager standing army a match for the vast forces commanded by the enemies at their borders. For Nikolai, a problem had always presented an opportunity no different than the one offered by a Fjerdan engine. You stripped it down to its parts, figured out what drove it, then used those pieces to build something that worked for you instead of against you.

The demon disagreed. The demon wasn’t interested in problem-solving or statecraft or the future. It was nothing but hunger, the need of the moment, what could be killed and consumed.

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