Home > King of Scars (Nikolai Duology #1)(17)

King of Scars (Nikolai Duology #1)(17)
Author: Leigh Bardugo

“Saints,” Zoya said as she stared down at the portrait. “The likeness—”

“Striking, I know.” Only the eyes were different—tiny daubs of blue instead of hazel—and the beard, of course. But looking at the miniature was like gazing into the future, at a Nikolai grown a bit older, a bit graver, with lines at the corners of his eyes.

Zoya hurled it into the fire.

“Zoya!” Nikolai shouted, lunging toward the grate.

“What kind of fool are you?” she spat.

He reached his hand out, but the flames were too high, and he recoiled, his rage igniting at the sight of the tiny canvas melting in its frame.

He whirled on her. “You forget yourself.”

“That portrait was as good as a loaded gun pointed at your heart.” She jabbed her finger into his chest. “Ravka’s heart. And you would risk it all for what? Stupid sentiment?”

He seized her hand before she could jab him again. “I am not one of your boys to be trifled with and lectured to. I am your king.”

Zoya’s blue eyes flashed. Her chin lifted as if to say, What is a mortal king to a queen who can summon storms? “You are my king. And I wish you to remain my king. Even if you’re too daft to protect your claim to the throne.”

Maybe so, but he didn’t want to hear it. “You had no right.”

“I am sworn to protect you. To protect this realm. I had every right.” She yanked her hand from his. “What if Magnus Opjer came to this palace? Or was invited to some banquet with you in Kerch? All it would take is a single glance for people to know—”

“They already know,” Nikolai said, feeling suddenly weary. “Or they’ve guessed. There have been whispers since before I was born.”

“We should consider eliminating him.”

He clenched his fists. “Zoya, you will do no such thing. I forbid it. And if I find you’ve acted without my consent, you will lose your rank and can spend the rest of your days teaching Grisha children how to make cloud animals.”

For a moment, it looked like she might lift her hands and raise a storm to blow the whole palace down. But then she bobbed a perfect curtsy that still somehow conveyed her contempt. “Of course, moi tsar.”

“Are you really so ruthless, Zoya? He is an innocent man. His only crime was loving my mother.”

“No, his crime was bedding your mother.”

Nikolai shook his head. Leave it to Zoya to cut right to the truth. Of course, he had no way of knowing if there had ever been love between his mother and his true father, but he hoped there had been something more than lust and regret.

He plucked his wineglass from his abandoned dinner tray and drank it to the dregs. “One day you will overstep and I will not be so forgiving.”

“On that day you may clap me in irons and throw me in your dungeons.” She crossed the room, took the glass from his hands, and set it on the table. “But tonight it is you who wears chains.”

Her voice was almost kind.

Nikolai released a sigh. “After the business of this evening, it will be a relief.”

He unlocked his bedchamber. Servants were allowed access to clean only under Tolya and Tamar’s supervision and only once a week. He had no personal valet and attended to his own bath.

Though it had become his nightly prison, the room itself was a sanctuary, maybe the only place in the palace that truly felt like it belonged to him. The walls were painted the deep blue of the sea, and the map above the mantel had been taken from the cabin he’d once occupied as Sturmhond, when he’d disguised himself as a privateer and sailed the world’s oceans aboard the Volkvolny. A long glass stood propped on a tripod by the bank of windows. He couldn’t see much through it—the stars, the houses of the upper town—but even having it there gave him some sense of peace, as if he might one day put his eye to it and see the heaving shoulders of a great gray sea.

“Salt water in the veins,” one of his crewmen had told him. “We go mad if we’re too long onshore.” Nikolai would not go mad, at least not from being landlocked. He had been born to be a king, even if his blood told a different story, and he would see his country to victory again. But first he had to make it through the night.

He sat down at the edge of the bed, removed his boots, and clamped the iron fetters around each of his ankles, then lay back. Zoya waited and he was grateful for it. It was a small thing to be the one to chain himself, but it allowed him to keep control for a short time longer. Only when Nikolai had fastened the fetter to his left wrist did she approach.


He nodded. In these moments, her ruthlessness made it all a bit more bearable. Zoya would never indulge him, never shame him with pity.

She tugged on the special lock that David had rigged. With a sudden clanking whir, three chains shot across his body at the knees, midriff, and shoulders. He was strong when the beast came upon him, and they could take no chances. He knew this, should be used to the experience of restraint, and still all he wanted was to struggle.

Instead, he kept his easy demeanor and offered up his right wrist to Zoya. “And what are your plans for the evening, darling jailer? Headed to a secret rendezvous?”

Zoya blew out a disgruntled breath as she bent to fasten the last fetter and check the security of the locks. “As if I have the time.”

“I know you go somewhere late at night, Zoya,” he prodded. He was curious but also eager for distraction. “You’ve been seen on the grounds, though no one seems to know where you go.”

“I go a lot of places, Your Highness. And if you keep prying into my personal life, I’ll have some suggestions as to where you can go.”

“Why keep your dalliance a secret? Is he an embarrassment?” Nikolai flexed his fingers, trying to even his breathing. Zoya turned her head and the lamplight caught the crescent of her cheekbone, gilding the dark waves of her hair. He’d never quite managed to make himself immune to her beauty, and he was glad his arms were chained to the bed or he might have been tempted to reach for her.

“Keep still,” she snapped. “You’re worse than a child given too many cakes.”

Bless her poison tongue. “You could stay, Zoya. Entertain me with lively tales of your childhood. I find your spite very soothing.”

“Why don’t I ask Tolya to soothe you by reciting some poetry?”

“There it is. So sharp, so acerbic. Better than any lullaby.” As the last lock clicked home, her sleeve slid back, revealing the silver cuff that circled her wrist, pieces of bone or what might have been teeth fused with the metal. He had never seen her without it and wasn’t even sure if it could be removed. He knew a bit about amplifiers. He had even helped Alina secure the scales of the sea whip, the second of Morozova’s legendary amplifiers. But he could admit there was a whole universe he didn’t know. “Tell me something, Nazyalensky. David said transgressing the boundaries of Grisha power has repercussions. But doesn’t an amplifier do just that? Is parem any different?”

Zoya brushed her fingers over the metal, her face thoughtful. “I’m not sure parem is so different from merzost. Like merzost, the drug requires a terrible sacrifice for the power it grants—a Grisha’s will. Even her life. But amplifiers are something else. They’re rare creatures, tied to the making at the heart of the world, the source of all creation. When an amplifier gives up its life, that is the sacrifice the universe requires. The bond is forever forged with the Grisha who deals the killing blow. It’s a terrible thing, but beautiful as well. Merzost is—”

“Abomination. I know. It’s a good thing I have such a fondness for myself.”

“All Grisha feel the pull toward merzost, the hunger to see just what we might do if we had no limits.”

“Even you?”

A small smile touched Zoya’s lips. “Especially me. Power is protection.” Before Nikolai could ask what she meant, she added, “But the price for that particular kind of power is too high. When the Darkling tried to create his own amplifiers, the result was the Fold.” She held up her arm, the cuff glinting in the lamplight. “This is enough for me.”

“The shark teeth worn by the twins,” mused Nikolai. “Genya’s kestrel bones. I’ve heard the stories behind all of them. But you’ve never told me the tale of the amplifier you wear.”

Zoya raised a brow. In the space of a breath, the contemplative girl was gone and the distant general had returned. “Steel is earned, Your Highness. So are stories.” She rose. “And I believe you’re stalling.”

“You’ve found me out.” He was sorry to see her leave, whatever guise she wore. “Good night, Commander.”

“Good night, King Wretch.”

He would not beg Zoya to stay. It was not in his nature to plead with anyone, and that was not the pact they shared. They did not look to each other for comfort. They kept each other marching. They kept each other strong. So he would not find another excuse to get her talking again. He would not tell her he was afraid to be left alone with the thing he might become, and he would not ask her to leave the lamp burning, a child’s bit of magic to ward off the dark.

But he was relieved when she did it anyway.

ZOYA ROSE WHEN THE SKY WAS STILL DARK. She would see to the morning’s business before she made the walk to the Grand Palace to unlock Nikolai. A week had passed since they’d arrived back at the capital, and to her relief, the king’s monster had made no more appearances.

Tamar and Nadia were already waiting in the common room outside her chambers, seated at the round table that had once belonged to the Darkling’s personal guard. Nadia was still in her blue dressing gown, but Tamar was in uniform, arms bare, axes glinting at her hips.

“Reports of two more khergud attacks,” said Tamar, holding up a sheaf of papers covered in tight scrawl.

“I need tea,” said Zoya. How could the world be falling apart before sunrise? It wasn’t civilized. She poured herself a glass from the samovar and took the documents from Tamar’s hand. There were more spread across the table. “Where did they strike this time?”

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