Home > King of Scars (Nikolai Duology #1)(2)

King of Scars (Nikolai Duology #1)(2)
Author: Leigh Bardugo

Dima looked back at the barn. The plank that should have lain across the doors and kept them in place lay smashed to bits in the brush. From somewhere inside, he heard a soft, wet snuffling. Had a wounded animal found its way into the barn? Or a wolf?

The golden light of the farmhouse windows seemed impossibly far away. Maybe he should go back and get help. Surely he couldn’t be expected to face a wolf by himself. But what if there was nothing inside? Or some harmless cat that Molniya had gotten a piece of? Then all his brothers would laugh, not just Pyotr.

Dima shuffled forward, keeping his lantern far out in front of him. He waited for the storm to quiet and grabbed the heavy door by its edge so it would not strike him as he entered.

The barn was dark, barely touched by slats of moonlight. Dima edged a little deeper into the blackness. He thought of Sankt Feliks’ gentle eyes, the thorny apple bough piercing his heart. Then, as if the storm had just been catching its breath, the wind leapt. The doors behind Dima slammed shut, and the weak light of his lantern sputtered to nothing.

Outside, he could hear the storm raging, but the barn was quiet. The animals had gone silent as if waiting, and he could smell their sour fear over the sweetness of the hay—and something else. Dima knew that smell from when they slaughtered the geese for the holiday table: the hot copper tang of blood.

Go back, he told himself.

In the darkness, something moved. Dima caught a glint of moonlight, the shine of what might have been eyes. And then it was as if a piece of shadow broke away and came sliding across the barn.

Dima took a step backward, clutching the useless lantern to his chest. The shadow wore the shredded remains of what might have once been fine clothes, and for a brief, hopeful moment, Dima thought a traveler had stumbled into the barn to sleep out the storm. But it did not move like a man. It was too graceful, too silent, its body unwinding in a low crouch. Dima whimpered as the shadow prowled closer. Its eyes were mirror black, and dark veins spread from its clawed fingertips as if its hands had been dipped in ink. The tendrils of shadow tracing its skin seemed to pulse.

Run, Dima told himself. Scream. He thought of the way the geese came to Pyotr so trustingly, how they made no sound of protest in the scant seconds before his brother broke their necks. Stupid, Dima had thought at the time, but now he understood.

The thing rose from its haunches, a black silhouette, and two vast wings unfurled from its back, their edges curling like smoke.

“Papa!” Dima tried to cry, but the word came out as little more than a puff of breath.

The thing paused as if the word was somehow familiar. It listened, head cocked to the side, and Dima took another step backward, then another.

The monster’s eyes snapped to Dima, and the creature was suddenly bare inches away, looming over him. With the gray moonlight falling over its body, Dima could see that the dark stains around its mouth and on its chest were blood.

The creature leaned forward, inhaling deeply. Up close it had the features of a young man—until its lips parted, the corners of its mouth pulling back to reveal long black fangs.

It was smiling. The monster was smiling—because it knew it would soon be well fed. Dima felt something warm slide down his leg and realized he had wet himself.

The monster lunged.

The doors behind Dima blew open, the storm demanding entry. A loud crack sounded as the gust knocked the creature from its clawed feet and hurled its winged body against the far wall. The wooden beams splintered with the force, and the thing slumped to the floor in a heap.

A figure strode into the barn in a drab gray coat, a strange wind lifting her long black hair. The moon caught her features, and Dima cried harder, because she was too beautiful to be any ordinary person, and that meant she must be a Saint. He had died, and she had come to escort him to the bright lands.

But she did not stoop to take him in her arms or speak soft prayers or words of comfort. Instead she approached the monster, hands held out before her. She was a warrior Saint, then, like Sankt Juris, like Sankta Alina of the Fold.

“Be careful,” Dima managed to whisper, afraid she would be harmed. “It has … such teeth.”

But his Saint was unafraid. She nudged the monster with the toe of her boot and rolled it onto its side. The creature snarled as it came awake, and Dima clutched his lantern tighter as if it might become a shield.

In a few swift movements, the Saint had secured the creature’s clawed hands in heavy shackles. She yanked hard on the chain, forcing the monster to its feet. It snapped its teeth at her, but she did not scream or cringe. She swatted the creature on its nose as if it were a misbehaving pet.

The thing hissed, pulling futilely on its restraints. Its wings swept once, twice, trying to lift her off her feet, but she gripped the chain in her fist and thrust her other hand forward. Another gust of wind struck the monster, slamming it into the barn wall. It hit the ground, fell to its knees, stumbled back up, weaving and unsteady in a way that made it seem curiously human, like Papa when he had been out late at the tavern. The Saint tugged on the chain. She murmured something, and the creature hissed again as the wind eddied around them.

Not a Saint, Dima realized. Grisha. A soldier of the Second Army. A Squaller who could control wind.

She took the shawl from her shoulders and tossed it over the creature’s head and shoulders, leading her captured prey past Dima, the monster still struggling and snapping.

She tossed Dima a silver coin. “For the damage,” she said, her eyes bright as jewels in the moonlight. “You saw nothing tonight, understood? Hold your tongue or next time I won’t keep him on his leash.”

Dima nodded, feeling fresh tears spill down his cheeks. The Grisha raised a brow. He’d never seen a face like hers, more lovely than any painted icon, blue eyes like the deepest waters of the river. She tossed him another coin, and he just managed to snatch it from the air.

“That one’s for you. Don’t share it with your brothers.”

Dima watched as she sailed through the barn doors. He forced his feet to move. He wanted to return to the house, find his mother, and bury himself in her skirts, but he was desperate for one last look at the Grisha and her monster. He trailed after them as silently as he could. In the shadows of the moonlit road, a large coach waited, its driver cloaked in black. A coachman jumped down and seized the chain, helping to drag the creature inside.

Dima knew he must be dreaming, despite the cool weight of silver in his palm, because the coachman did not look at the monster and say Go on, you beast! or You’ll never trouble these people again! as a hero would in a story.

Instead, in the deep shadows cast by the swaying pines, Dima thought he heard the coachman say, “Watch your head, Your Highness.”

THE STINK OF BLOOD HUNG heavy in the coach. Zoya pressed her sleeve to her nose to ward off the smell, but the musty odor of dirty wool wasn’t much improvement.

Vile. It was bad enough that she had to go tearing off across the Ravkan countryside in the dead of night in a borrowed, badly sprung coach, but that she had to do so in a garment like this? Unacceptable. She stripped the coat from her body. The stench still clung to the silk of her embroidered blue kefta beneath, but she felt a bit more like herself now.

They were ten miles outside Ivets, nearly one hundred miles from the safety of the capital, racing along the narrow roads that would lead them back to the estate of their host for the trade summit, Duke Radimov. Zoya wasn’t much for praying, so she could only hope no one had seen Nikolai escape his chambers and take to the skies. If they’d been back home, back in Os Alta, this never would have happened. She’d thought they’d taken enough precautions. She couldn’t have been more wrong.

The horse’s hooves thundered, the wheels of the coach clattering and jouncing, as beside her the king of Ravka gnashed his needle-sharp teeth and pulled at his chains.

Zoya kept her distance. She’d seen what one of Nikolai’s bites could do when he was in this state, and she had no interest in losing a limb or worse. Part of her had wanted to ask Tolya or Tamar, the brother and sister who served as the king’s personal guards, to ride inside the carriage with her until Nikolai resumed his human form. Their father had been a Shu mercenary who had trained them to fight, their mother a Grisha from whom they’d both inherited Heartrender gifts. The presence of either twin would have been welcome. But her pride prevented it, and she also knew what it would cost the king. One witness to his misery was bad enough.

Outside, the wind howled. It was less the baying of a beast than the high, wild laugh of an old friend, driving them on. The wind did what she willed it, had since she was a child. Yet on nights like these, she couldn’t help but feel that it was not her servant but her ally: a storm that rose to mask a creature’s snarls, to hide the sounds of a fight in a rickety barn, to whip up trouble in streets and village taverns. This was the western wind, Adezku the mischief-maker, a worthy companion. Even if that farm boy told everyone in Ivets what he’d seen, the townspeople would chalk it up to Adezku, the rascal wind that drove women into their neighbors’ beds and made mad thoughts skitter in men’s heads like whorls of dead leaves.

A mile later, the snarls in the coach had quieted. The clanking of the chains dwindled as the creature seemed to sink farther and farther into the shadows of the seat. At last, a voice, hoarse and beleaguered, said, “I don’t suppose you brought me a fresh shirt?”

Zoya took the pack from the coach floor and pulled out a clean white shirt and fur-lined coat, both finely made but thoroughly rumpled—appropriate attire for a royal who had spent the night carousing.

Without a word, Nikolai held up his shackled wrists. The talons had retracted, but his hands were still scarred with the faint black lines he had borne since the end of the civil war three years ago. The king often wore gloves to hide them, and Zoya thought that was a mistake. The scars were a reminder of the torture he had endured at the hands of the Darkling—and the price he had paid alongside his country. Of course, that was only part of the story, but it was the part the Ravkan people were best equipped to handle.

Zoya unlocked the chains with the heavy key she wore around her neck. She hoped it was her imagination, but the scars on Nikolai’s hands seemed darker lately, as if determined not to fade.

   
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