Home > King of Scars (Nikolai Duology #1)(3)

King of Scars (Nikolai Duology #1)(3)
Author: Leigh Bardugo

Once his hands were free, the king peeled the ruined shirt from his body. He used the linen and water from the flask she handed him to wash the blood from his chest and mouth, then splashed more over his hands and ran them through his hair. The water trickled down his neck and shoulders. He was shaking badly, but he looked like Nikolai again—hazel eyes clear, the damp gold of his hair pushed back from his forehead.

“Where did you find me this time?” he asked, keeping most of the tremor from his voice.

Zoya wrinkled her nose at the memory. “A goose farm.”

“I hope it was one of the more fashionable goose farms.” He fumbled with the buttons of his clean shirt, fingers still shaking. “Do we know what I killed?”

Or who? The question hung unspoken in the air.

Zoya batted Nikolai’s quaking hands away from his buttons and took up the work herself. Through the thin cotton, she could feel the chill the night had left on his skin.

“What an excellent valet you make,” he murmured. But she knew he hated submitting to these small attentions, hated that he was weak enough to require them.

Sympathy would only make it worse, so she kept her voice brusque. “I presume you killed a great deal of geese. Possibly a shaggy pony.” But had that been all? Zoya had no way of knowing what the monster might have gotten into before they’d found him. “You remember nothing?”

“Only flashes.”

They would just have to wait for any reports of deaths or mutilations.

The trouble had begun six months earlier, when Nikolai had woken in a field nearly thirty miles from Os Alta, bloodied and covered in bruises, with no memory of how he’d gotten out of the palace or what he’d done in the night. I seem to have taken up sleepwalking, he’d declared to Zoya and the rest of the Grisha Triumvirate when he’d sauntered in late to their morning meeting, a long scratch down his cheek.

They’d been concerned but baffled. Tolya and Tamar were hardly the type to just let Nikolai slip by. How did you get past them? Zoya had asked as Genya tailored away the scratch and David carried on about somnambulism. But if Nikolai had been troubled, he hadn’t shown it. I excel at most things, he’d said. Why not unlikely escapes too? He’d had new locks placed on his bedroom doors and insisted they move on to the business of the day and the odd report of an earthquake in Ryevost that had released thousands of silver hummingbirds from a crack in the earth.

A little over a month later, Tolya had been reading in a chair outside the king’s bedchamber when he’d heard the sound of breaking glass and burst through the door to see Nikolai leap from the window ledge, his back split by wings of curling shadow. Tolya had woken Zoya and they’d tracked the king to the roof of a granary fifteen miles away.

After that, they had started chaining the king to his bed—an effective solution, workable only because Nikolai’s servants were not permitted inside his palace bedchamber. The king was a war hero, after all, and known to suffer nightmares. Zoya had locked him in every night since and released him every morning, and they’d kept Nikolai’s secret safe. Only Tolya, Tamar, and the Triumvirate knew the truth. If anyone discovered the king of Ravka spent his nights trussed up in chains, he’d be a perfect target for assassination or coup, not to mention a laughingstock.

That was what made travel so dangerous. But Nikolai couldn’t stay sequestered behind the walls of Os Alta forever.

“A king cannot remain locked up in his own castle,” he’d declared when he’d decided to resume travel away from the palace. “One risks looking less like a monarch and more like a hostage.”

“You have emissaries to manage these matters of state,” Zoya had argued, “ambassadors, underlings.”

“The public may forget how handsome I am.”

“I doubt it. Your face is on the money.”

Nikolai had refused to relent, and Zoya could admit he wasn’t entirely wrong. His father had made the mistake of letting others conduct the business of ruling, and it had cost him. There was a balance to be struck, she supposed, between caution and daring, tiresome as compromise tended to be. Life just ran more smoothly when she got her way.

Because Nikolai and Zoya couldn’t very well travel with a trunk full of chains for inquisitive servants to discover, whenever they were away from the safety of the palace, they relied on a powerful sedative to keep Nikolai tucked into bed and the monster at bay.

“Genya will have to mix my tonic stronger,” he said now, shrugging into his coat.

“Or you could stay in the capital and cease taking these foolish risks.”

So far the monster had been content with attacks on livestock, his casualties limited to gutted sheep and drained cattle. But they both knew it was only a question of time. Whatever the Darkling’s power had left seething within Nikolai hungered for more than animal flesh.

“The last incident was barely a week ago.” He scrubbed a hand over his face. “I thought I had more time.”

“It’s getting worse.”

“I like to keep you on your toes, Nazyalensky. Constant anxiety does wonders for the complexion.”

“I’ll send you a thank-you card.”

“Make sure of it. You’re positively glowing.”

He’s faring worse than he’s letting on, thought Zoya. Nikolai was always freer with compliments when he was fatigued. It was true, she did look splendid, even after a harrowing night, but Zoya knew the king couldn’t care less about her appearance.

They heard a sharp whistle from outside as the carriage slowed.

“We’re approaching the bridge,” Zoya said.

The trade summit in Ivets had been essential to their negotiations with the nations of Kerch and Novyi Zem, but the business of tariffs and taxes had also provided cover for their true mission: a visit to the site of Ravka’s latest supposed miracle.

A week ago, the villagers of Ivets had set out behind Duke Radimov’s ribbon-festooned cart to celebrate the Festival of Sankt Grigori, banging drums and playing little harps meant to mimic the instrument Grigori had fashioned to soothe the beasts of the forest before his martyrdom. But when they’d reached the Obol, the wooden bridge that spanned the river gorge had given way. Before the duke and his vassals could plummet to the raging whitewater below, another bridge had sprung up beneath them, seeming to bloom from the very walls of the chasm and the jagged rocks of the canyon floor. Or so the reports had claimed. Zoya had put little stock in the tales, chalked them up to exaggeration, maybe even mass delusion—until she’d seen the bridge for herself.

She peered out the coach window as they rounded the bend in the road and the bridge came into view, its tall, slender pillars and long girders gleaming white in the moonlight. Though she’d seen it before and walked its length with the king, the sight was still astonishing. From a distance, it looked like something wrought in alabaster. It was only when one drew closer that it became clear the bridge was not stone at all.

Nikolai shook his head. “As a man who regularly turns into a monster, I realize I shouldn’t be making judgments about stability, but are we sure it’s safe?”

“Not at all,” admitted Zoya, trying to ignore the knot in her stomach. When she’d crossed over it with the twins earlier that night, she’d been too focused on finding Nikolai to worry about the bridge holding up. “But it’s the only way across the gorge.”

“Perhaps I should have brushed up on my prayers.”

The sound of the wheels changed as the coach rolled onto the bridge, from the rumble of the road to a steady thump, thump, thump. The bridge that had so miraculously sprung up from nothing was not stone or brick or wooden beam. Its white girders and transoms were bone and tendon, its abutments and piers bound together with ropy bundles of gristle. Thump, thump, thump. They were traveling over a spine.

“I don’t care for that sound,” said Zoya.

“Agreed. A miracle should sound more dignified. Some chimes, perhaps, or a choir of heavenly voices.”

“Don’t call it that,” snapped Zoya.

“A choir?”

“A miracle.” Zoya had whispered enough futile prayers in her childhood to know the Saints never answered. The bridge had to be Grisha craft, and there was a rational explanation for its appearance, one she intended to find.

“What would you call a bridge made of bones appearing just in time to save an entire town from death?” asked Nikolai.

“It wasn’t an entire town.”

“Half a town,” he amended.

“An unexpected occurrence.”

“The people might feel that description falls short of this marvel.”

And it was a marvel—at once elegant and grotesque, a mass of crossing beams and soaring arches. Since it had appeared, pilgrims had camped at either end of it, holding vigil day and night. They did not raise their heads as the coach rolled by.

“What would you call the earthquake in Ryevost?” Nikolai continued. “Or the statue of Sankta Anastasia weeping tears of blood outside Tsemna?”

“Trouble,” Zoya said.

“You still think it’s the work of Grisha using parem?”

“How else could someone create such a bridge or an earthquake on demand?”

Jurda parem. Zoya wished she’d never heard the words. The drug was the product of experimentation in a Shu lab. It could take a Grisha’s power and transform it into something wholly new and wholly dangerous, but the price for that brief bit of glory was addiction and eventually death. It might make it possible for a rogue Fabrikator to shake the earth or for a Corporalnik to make a bridge out of a body. But to what end? Could the Shu be using Grisha slaves to destabilize Ravka? Could the Apparat, the supposed spiritual counselor to the crown, be involved? Thus far, he had only declared that he was praying over the incidents and planned to stage a pilgrimage to the sites. Zoya had never trusted the priest, and she had no doubt that if he could find a way to stage a miracle, he could also find a way to use the spectacle to his own advantage.

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