Home > King of Scars (Nikolai Duology #1)(16)

King of Scars (Nikolai Duology #1)(16)
Author: Leigh Bardugo

“Nikolai,” Zoya said quietly, “you said the monster is getting stronger. If that’s true, this may be your best chance.”

Your only chance. The words hung unsaid.

Ravka needed a queen. Nikolai needed an heir.

And yet every part of him rebelled at the thought of marriage. He did not have time to properly court someone with so much work to be done. He did not want to wed someone he barely knew. He did not dare reveal his secrets to a stranger. The danger to the woman he chose would be too great. All good reasons. All convincing excuses. But the monster had set the clock ticking.

Nikolai looked around the room. These people knew him as no one else did. They trusted him. But the demon lurking inside him might change all that. What if it grew stronger and continued to erode his control, to eat at the will that had guided him for so long? Abomination. He remembered the way Genya had shuddered. What if he was the drowning man and it was Ravka he would drag down with him?

Nikolai drew in a long breath. Why put off the inevitable? Surely there was something to be said for the firing squad instead of slow torture. “We’ll need to come up with a list of candidates,” he said.

Zoya grinned. “Done.” She really was ready to be rid of him.

“You’re going to manage this like a military campaign, aren’t you?”

“It is a military campaign.”

“My ministers and ambassadors will have their suggestions too.”

“We’ll invite them all,” said Genya, drawing pen and ink toward her, unable to disguise her excitement. “We can house everyone at the palace. Just think of all the dinners and teas and dancing.”

“Just think of all the dinners and teas and dancing,” said David glumly.

Genya set her pen aside and seized his hands. “I promise to let you hide in your workshop. Just give me five events and one banquet.”

“Three events and one banquet.”

“Four.”

“Very well.”

“You’re a dreadful negotiator,” said Nikolai. “She would have settled for two.”

David frowned. “Is that true?”

“Absolutely not,” said Genya. “And do shut up, Your Highness.”

“We’ll need to run additional checks on all palace security,” Nikolai said to Tolya. “Anticipate that every servant, every guard, every lady-in-waiting will be a potential spy or assassin.”

“Speaking of which,” said Tamar. “Dunyasha Lazareva is dead.”

The Lantsov pretender. “Who got her?”

“Not one of ours. All I know is they found her splattered on the cobblestones outside the Church of Barter after the auction.”

Troubling. Had she been in Ketterdam to hunt him? She wasn’t the only pretender to the Lantsov throne. Every few months it seemed a new person cropped up to declare that they were a lost Lantsov heir, someone who insisted they’d escaped the Darkling’s slaughter of the royal family, or who claimed to be a by-blow of Nikolai’s father—which, given the old king’s behavior, was entirely plausible. Of course, Nikolai might very well have less right to the Ravkan throne than half of them. He was the greatest pretender of them all.

“There will be another,” said Zoya. “Someone else to claim the Lantsov name. All the more reason to produce an heir and secure the throne.”

“I said I would choose a bride, and I will,” Nikolai said, trying not to sound quite as petulant as he felt. “I’ll even get down on one knee and recite some love poetry if you like.”

“I could make some selections,” offered Tolya, looking genuinely happy for the first time since they’d gone underground at the Gilded Bog.

“An excellent idea. Keep it short and make sure it rhymes.”

Nikolai looked again at the old map of Ravka—violent, hopeless, unappeasable in its constant need. Ravka was his first love, an infatuation that had begun in his lonely boyhood and that had only deepened with age. Whatever it demanded, he knew he would give. He’d been reckless with this country he claimed to love, and he could no longer let his fear dictate Ravka’s future.

“Send the invitations,” he said. “Let the great royal romance begin.”

The rest of the day was spent in meetings with ministers, making plans for roads and aqueducts they could not afford, writing letters to the Kerch to request extensions on their loans, and finishing correspondence with everyone from the ruling Marchal of the Wandering Isle to the admirals in his navy requesting funds for repairs to the existing Ravkan fleet. All of it required concentration, finesse, and infinite patience—and all of it was less onerous than the work of finding a queen. But eventually evening came and Nikolai was forced to face Zoya and her army of prospective brides.

Nikolai and his general worked alone in his sitting room, a fire crackling in the tiled grate. The chamber still bore his father’s stamp—the double eagle wrought in gold, the heavy carpets, the curtains so laden with brocade they looked as if they could be melted down and pressed into coins.

Zoya’s list went on and on, girl after girl, a march of willing maidens.

“The brides are meant to be cover for our meetings with the Kerch and the Zemeni,” he said. “Perhaps we could make this an opening gambit, less an engagement than a prelude to an engagement.”

Zoya straightened the papers before her. “Two birds with one stone, Your Highness. It’s a matter of efficiency. And expectation. You need a bride, and right now, you’re still a worthy prospect.”

“Right now?”

“You’re still young. You have all of your teeth. And Ravka’s military hasn’t yet been trounced into the ground. Your hesitation is distinctly unkingly. It isn’t like you.”

It wasn’t. He excelled at decisions. He enjoyed them. It was like clearing the deadfall from a forest so that you could see an open path. But when he thought of choosing a wife, the branches crowded in on him and he found himself glad to be left alone in the dark. Perhaps not alone, precisely. He very much enjoyed the quiet of this room, the warmth of the fire, and the steel-spined harpy seated across from him.

Zoya snapped the paper she was holding to get his attention. “Princess Ehri Kir-Taban.”

“Second in line for the Shu throne, yes?”

“Yes, and one of our most ideal prospects. She’s young, amiable, and wildly popular among her own people. Very gifted on the khatuur.”

“Twelve strings or eighteen?”

“Why does it matter?”

“It’s important to have standards, Nazyalensky. Are you so sure the Shu will send her?”

“The invitation will be to the royal family. But given the way the people adore Princess Ehri, I suspect her older sister wouldn’t be sorry to see her out of the country. If they send one of the younger sisters …” She shrugged. “We’ll know they aren’t serious about an alliance. But a Shu bride would free us from the need for Kerch gold.”

“And how long do you suppose Ravka would remain independent after such a marriage? The Shu wouldn’t need to invade. We’d be hand-lettering an invitation.”

“There is no perfect choice,” said Zoya.

“Who’s next?”

She sighed and handed him another dossier. “Elke Marie Smit.”

Nikolai glanced down at the file. “She’s barely sixteen!”

“She’s from one of the most powerful families in Kerch. Besides, Alina was only a few years older when you threw away the Lantsov emerald on her.”

“And so was I at the time.” Thinking of Alina always smarted. He knew he’d been a fool to propose to her. But at the time he’d been more in need of a friend than a political ally. Or at least it had felt that way.

Zoya leaned back and cast him a long look. “Don’t tell me you’re still mourning the loss of our little Sun Saint?”

Of course he was. He’d liked Alina, maybe he’d even started to love her. And maybe some arrogant part of him had simply expected her to say yes. He was a king, after all, and a passable dancer. But she’d known the Darkling better than anyone. Maybe she’d sensed what was festering inside him. Years had passed, and yet her rejection still stung.

“Never had a gift for pining,” Nikolai said. “Though I do like to show off my profile by staring mournfully out of windows.”

“Elke Marie Smit’s parents will still marry her off, probably to some merchant. I’m sure she’d be better pleased with a king.”

“No. Next?”

“Natasha Beritrova,” said Zoya.

“The Baroness Beritrova?”

Zoya looked studiously at the paper. “That’s the one.”

“She’s fifty.”

“She’s a very well-off widow with lands near Caryeva that could prove essential in any southern campaign.”

“No, Zoya.”

Zoya rolled her eyes but picked up another paper. “Linnea Opjer.”

“No.”

“Oh, for all the Saints and their suffering, Nikolai. Now you’re just being difficult. She’s twenty-three and, by all accounts, beautiful, even-tempered, has a talent for mathematics—”

Nikolai flicked a piece of lint from his cuff. “I’d expect nothing less of my half sister.”

Zoya stilled. She glowed like a painted icon in her kefta, the firelight clinging to her like a halo. He swore no woman had ever looked better in blue. “So it’s true, then?”

“As true as any story,” Nikolai said. The rumors of his bastardy had circulated since well before his birth, and he’d done his best to make peace with them. But he’d only ever spoken the truth of his parentage to one person—Alina Starkov. Why was he telling Zoya now? When he’d told Alina, she’d reassured him, said he would still make a great king. Zoya would offer no such kindness. But still he unlocked the top of his desk and removed the miniature his mother had passed along to him. She’d given it to him before she’d been forced into exile, when she’d told him who his father really was—a Fjerdan shipping magnate who had once served as emissary to the Grand Palace.

   
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