Home > King of Scars (Nikolai Duology #1)(4)

King of Scars (Nikolai Duology #1)(4)
Author: Leigh Bardugo

But the real question, the question that had brought them to Ivets, was whether these strange happenings around Ravka were tied to the dark power that sheltered inside Nikolai. The occurrences had begun right around the same time as Nikolai’s night spells. It might be a coincidence, but they had come to Ivets in the hope of finding some clue, some connection that would help them rid Nikolai of the monster’s will.

They reached the other side of the bridge, and the reassuringly ordinary rumble of the dirt road filled the coach once more. It was as if a spell had lifted.

“We’ll have to leave Duke Radimov’s today,” said Nikolai. “And hope no one saw me flapping around the grounds.”

Zoya wanted to agree, but since they’d made the journey … “I can double your dose of Genya’s tonic. There’s another day left in negotiations.”

“Let Ulyashin handle them. I want to get back to the capital. We have samples from the bridge for David. He may be able to learn something we can use to deal with my …”

“Affliction?”

“Uninvited guest.”

Zoya rolled her eyes. He spoke as if he were being plagued by a bilious aunt. But there was an important reason for them to stay in Ivets. She had been wary of the trip, skeptical of the bridge, fearful of the risks, but she’d also known the trade summit presented them with a good opportunity—a certain Hiram Schenck and his two marriageable daughters.

She tapped her fingers against the velvet seat, uncertain of how to proceed. She’d hoped to orchestrate a meeting between Nikolai and the Schenck girls without him realizing that she was meddling. The king did not like to be led, and when he sensed he was being pushed, he could be just as stubborn as … well, as Zoya herself.

“Speak, Nazyalensky. When you purse your lips like that, you look like you’ve made love to a lemon.”

“Lucky lemon,” Zoya said with a sniff. She smoothed the fabric of her kefta over her lap. “Hiram Schenck’s family accompanied him to Ivets.”

“And?”

“He has two daughters.”

Nikolai laughed. “Is that why you agreed to this trip? So that you could indulge in your matchmaking?”

“I agreed because someone has to make sure you don’t eat anyone when your uninvited guest gets peckish in the middle of the night. And I am not some interfering mama who wants to see her darling son wed. I am trying to protect your throne. Hiram Schenck is a senior member of the Merchant Council. He could all but guarantee leniency on Ravka’s loans from Kerch, to say nothing of the massive fortune one of his pretty daughters will inherit.”

“How pretty?”

“Who cares?”

“Not me, certainly. But two years working with you has worn away my pride. I want to make sure I won’t spend my life watching other men ogle my wife.”

“If they do, you can have them beheaded.”

“The men or my wife?” said Nikolai.

“Both. Just make sure to get her dowry first.”

“Ruthless.”

“Practical. If we stayed another night—”

“Zoya, I can’t very well court a bride if there’s a chance I may turn her into dinner.”

“You’re a king. You don’t have to court anyone. That’s what the throne and the jewels and the title are for, and once you’re married, your queen will become your ally.”

“Or she may run screaming from our wedding bower and tell her father I began by nibbling on her earlobe and then tried to consume her actual ear. She could start a war.”

“But she won’t, Nikolai. Because by the time you two have said your vows, you’ll have charmed her into loving you, and then you’ll be her problem to take care of.”

“Even my charm has its limits, Zoya.”

If so, she had yet to encounter them. Zoya cast the king a disbelieving glance. “A handsome monster husband who put a crown on her head? It’s a perfect fairy tale to sell to some starry-eyed girl. She can lock you in at night and kiss you sweetly in the morning, and Ravka will be secure.”

“Why do you never kiss me sweetly in the morning, Zoya?”

“I do nothing sweetly, Your Highness.” She shook out her cuffs. “Why do you hesitate? Until you marry, until you have an heir, Ravka will remain vulnerable.”

Nikolai’s glib demeanor vanished. “I cannot take a wife while I am in this state. I cannot forge a marriage founded on lies.”

“Aren’t most?”

“Ever the romantic.”

“Ever practical.”

“Kerch bridal prospects aside, we need to escape before Schenck can question me more closely about the izmars’ya.”

Zoya cursed. “So the twins were right—there was a leak at our old research facility.” The izmars’ya were ships that traveled beneath the surface of the water. They would be vital to Ravka’s survival as the Fjerdan navy grew, especially if Nikolai could arm them as he had planned.

“It seems so. But the Kerch don’t know how far along we are, at least not yet.”

Those words did little to cheer Zoya. The Kerch already had enough leverage against Ravka. Schenck wouldn’t have raised the topic of the izmars’ya with the king lightly. What did he intend to do with this new intelligence?

Another sharp whistle sounded from outside the carriage, two quick notes—Tolya’s signal that they were approaching the gatehouse.

Zoya knew there would be some confusion among the guards. No one had seen the coach ride out, and it bore no royal seal. Tolya and Tamar had kept it at the ready well outside the duke’s estate just in case Nikolai slipped his leash. She’d gone to find them as soon as she realized he was missing.

They’d gotten lucky tonight. They’d found the king before he’d strayed too far. When Nikolai flew, Zoya could sense him riding the winds and use the disruption in their pattern to track his movements. But if she hadn’t gotten to that farm when she had, what might have happened? Would Nikolai have killed that boy? The thing inside him was not just a hungry animal but something far worse, and she knew with absolute surety that it longed for human prey.

“We cannot go on this way, Nikolai.” Eventually they would be found out. Eventually these evening hunts and sleepless nights would get the best of them. “We must all do what is required.”

Nikolai sighed and opened his arms to her as the coach rattled to a stop. “Then come here, Zoya, and kiss me sweetly as a new bride would.”

So much for propriety. Thanks to Zoya’s late-night visits to make sure the king was safely restrained in his chambers, the gossip was already thick that their relationship was more than political. Kings took mistresses, and worse things had been rumored about leaders before. Zoya just hoped the Schenck girls were the open-minded sort. The king’s reputation could withstand a bit of scandal; it would not survive the truth.

Zoya took a second flask from the pack and dabbed whiskey at her pulse points like perfume before handing it to Nikolai, who took a long swig, then splashed the rest liberally over his coat. Zoya ruffled her hair, let her kefta slip from one shoulder, and eased into the king’s arms. The charade was necessary, and it was an easy role to play, sometimes too easy.

He buried his face in her hair, inhaling deeply. “How is it I smell like goose shit and cheap whiskey and you smell like you just ran through a meadow of wildflowers?”

“Ruthlessness.”

He breathed in again. “What is that scent? It reminds me of something, but I can’t place what.”

“The last child you tried to eat?”

“That must be it.”

The door to the coach flew open.

“Your Highness, we hadn’t realized you’d gone out tonight.”

Zoya couldn’t see the guard’s face, but she could hear the suspicion in his voice.

“Your king is not in the habit of asking for anything, least of all permission,” said Nikolai, his voice lazy but with the disdainful edge of a monarch who knew nothing but easy gratification.

“Of course, of course,” said the guard. “We had only your safety in mind, my king.”

Zoya doubted it. Western Ravka had bridled under the new taxes and laws that had come with unification. These guards might wear the double eagle, but their loyalty belonged to the duke who ran this estate and who had thrown up opposition to Nikolai’s rule at every turn. No doubt their master would be thrilled to uncover the king’s secrets.

Zoya summoned her most plaintive tone and said, “Why aren’t we moving?”

She sensed the shift in their interest.

“A good night, then?” said the guard, and she could almost see him peering into the coach to get a better look.

Zoya tossed her long black hair and said with the sleepy, tousled sound of a woman well tumbled, “A very good night.”

“She only play with royals?” said the guard. “She looks like fun.”

Zoya felt Nikolai tense. She was both touched and annoyed that he thought she cared what some buffoon believed, but there was no need to play at chivalry tonight.

She cast the guard a long look and said, “You have no idea.” He chortled and waved them through.

As the coach rolled on, Zoya felt the faint tremor of Nikolai’s transformation still echoing through him and her own exhaustion creeping over her. It would be too easy to let her eyes close, to rest her head against his chest and give in to the illusion of comfort. But the price for such indulgence would be too high. “Eventually the monster will be found out,” she said. “We’ve had no luck in finding a cure or even a hint of one. Marry. Forge an alliance. Make an heir. Secure the throne and Ravka’s future.”

“I will,” he said wearily. “I’ll do all of it. But not tonight. Tonight let’s pretend we’re an old married couple.”

If any other man had said such a thing, she would have punched him in the jaw. Or possibly taken him to bed for a few hours. “And what does that entail?”

   
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