Home > King of Scars (Nikolai Duology #1)(9)

King of Scars (Nikolai Duology #1)(9)
Author: Leigh Bardugo

Tell them the truth, Nina.

Nina rubbed her arms. You’re like a dog with a bone, Matthias.

A wolf. Did I ever tell you about the way Trassel would destroy my boots if I didn’t tie them up in a branch out of his reach?

He had. Matthias had told her all kinds of stories to keep her distracted when she’d been recovering from the influence of parem. He’d kept her alive. Why hadn’t she been able to do the same for him?

“Curses, spoiled rivers,” continued Nina. “If it’s nothing, we head south and I’ll buy you both a good dinner.”

“In Fjerda?” said Adrik. “I won’t hold you to it.”

“But if I’m right …”

“Fine,” Adrik said. “I’ll send word to Ravka that we need to establish a new port, and we’ll head to Gäfvalle.”

The whispers quieted to a gentle murmur.

“Nina …” Leoni hesitated. “There’s open land out there. Beautiful country. You could find a place for him.”

Nina looked out at the dark water, at the lights glittering on shore. Find a place for him. As if Matthias were an old armoire or a plant that needed just the right amount of sun. His place is with me. But that wasn’t true anymore. Matthias was gone. His body was all that remained, and without Leoni’s careful maintenance, it would have long ago given way to rot. Nina felt the press of tears in the back of her throat. She would not cry. They’d been in Fjerda two months. They’d helped nearly forty Grisha escape Fjerdan rule. They’d traversed hundreds of miles of barren field and snowy plain. There had been plenty of places to lay Matthias to rest. Now it had to be done. It would be done. And one of her promises to him would be fulfilled.

“I’ll see to it,” she said.

“One more thing,” said Adrik, and she could hear the command in his voice, so different from his usual dismal tone. “Our job is to find recruits and refugees. Whatever we discover in Gäfvalle, we are not there to start a war. We gather intelligence, open communication, provide a path to escape for those who want it, and that’s all.”

“That’s the plan,” said Nina. She touched her fingers to the spikes of bone in her gloves.

But plans could change.

DESPITE ZOYA’S PROTESTS, Nikolai had refused to remain in Ivets. The beginnings of a plan had formed in his mind, and he didn’t want to waste another day languishing at a trade summit. He wasn’t interested in Hiram Schenck or his marriageable daughters, and the next time Nikolai conversed with a member of the Kerch Merchant Council, it would be on his own terms.

To that end, though he had plenty of business awaiting him in the capital, his first stop had to be at Count Kirigin’s. He needed to collect a bit of information along with his most valued Fabrikator—and, as a rule, if one had the opportunity to visit a pleasure palace, one should. Especially if said pleasure palace served as cover for a secret laboratory.

The elder Count Kirigin was a West Ravkan merchant who had made vast sums of money trading arms and intelligence—and anything else that wasn’t nailed down—to Ravka’s enemies. But his son had served with Nikolai in Halmhend, and in exchange for getting to keep his considerable fortune as well as avoiding the disgrace of being stripped of his title and seeing his father thrown in jail forever for treason, the younger Kirigin had pledged both money and fealty to the crown. A more than reasonable bargain.

Nikolai’s demands had been unorthodox: Kirigin was already a bit of a rake. Now he was to live decadently, spend wildly, and maintain a reputation as a notorious libertine and social climber. The young count had taken to the role with zeal, staging elaborate parties renowned for their debauchery and doing his best to buy his way into the homes of Ravkan nobles who possessed more illustrious titles and older if less plentiful fortunes. He dressed absurdly, drank excessively, and dithered about with such stupid good cheer that his name had become synonymous with both wealth and buffoonery: Oh, the Gritzkis’ son is a terror and unlikely to make much of himself, but at least he’s not a Kirigin.

This was why, when Kirigin bought a vast swath of land just east of Os Alta, no one blinked. Of course Kirigin wants to be close to the capital, they whispered in sitting rooms and salons. Trying to curry favor with the king and the old families, no doubt. But what man of sense and breeding would ever let his daughter near that upstart? And when Kirigin commissioned some Zemeni mastermind to design a pleasure compound for him like none ever seen on Ravkan soil—complete with earthworks that required the hiring of thousands of men to dig a valley where there had been none before, a wine cellar said to stretch for a mile underground, and a vast lake that required Grisha Tidemakers to fill it and took days to cross by boat? Well, no one batted an eye. They shook their heads when Kirigin took up hot-air ballooning and laughed behind their hands when the meadows where he launched excursions were so frequently plagued by fog. Wasteful, grotesque, obscene, they chorused. And all hoped for invitations to one of Kirigin’s spectacular fetes.

Kirigin dubbed his magnificent compound Lazlayon, the Gilded Hollow—though it was so often cloaked in mists and damp that it was usually referred to as the Gilded Bog—and the parties he threw there were indeed legendary. But they were also part of a grand lie, a lie essential to Ravka’s future.

As it turned out, Kirigin’s wine cellar ran for five miles, not one, and it was not a wine cellar at all but an underground bunker devoted to weapons development. The lake was used for prototypes of undersea craft and Nikolai’s new naval warfare ventures. The dense fog that shrouded the valley was frequently helped along by Grisha Squallers to provide cover from prying eyes and Fjerdan air surveillance. The ballooning meadow was in fact an airfield; the elaborate gardens hid two long, straight runways for testing experimental aircraft; and the frequent fireworks Kirigin staged disguised the sound of rifle fire and shelling.

There was, of course, no mysterious Zemeni architect. Nikolai had designed the Gilded Bog himself—though young Count Kirigin’s fortune had paid for its construction. The king visited occasionally as a party guest, to ride or hunt or drink Kirigin’s excellent wines. But more often, he arrived in secret through one of his own private entrances and went immediately to see to the progress of his latest endeavor.

Nikolai always felt a sense of excitement as he entered the Gilded Bog. The palace at Os Alta was full of ghosts. His father’s crimes. His mother’s failings. The memory of his brother’s body bleeding on the floor as the Darkling’s shadow soldiers smashed through the windows of the Eagle’s Nest. But Lazlayon was Nikolai’s creation. Here, for a short time, the demon that ruled his nights and troubled his dreams retreated, held at bay by logic, the hope of progress, and the happy pastime of building giant things meant to explode. But the Gilded Bog was not only a playground for his inventions—it was also where the strengths of the First and Second Armies, of traditional weaponry and Grisha power, would be forged into something new.

Hopefully, thought Nikolai as he and Tolya reached the front steps of the main house. Or it’s where I’ll spend the last of Ravka’s war chest and have nothing to show for it but a pile of rusty propellers and a chilly lake that makes for mediocre sailing.

Ravka was many things to him: a grand lady who required constant courting, a stubborn child unwilling to stand on its own, and most often, a drowning man—the more Nikolai struggled to save it, the harder it fought. But with the help of the scientists and soldiers at the Gilded Bog, he might just drag his country to shore yet.

“Your Highness!” Kirigin said as he swept down the stairs to greet Nikolai. His orange hair had been arranged in a sleek coiffure, and he was turned out in a violet coat and gold brocade wholly inappropriate to the hour. Beside Tolya dressed in stolid olive drab and mounted on his towering stock horse, Kirigin looked like an actor in the wrong play. “How can I be expected to prepare the best entertainments when you give me no notice of your arrival?”

“Ah, Kirigin,” said Nikolai, ignoring the formality of the count’s bow to embrace him and slap him on the back. “I know you like to improvise.”

“A visit to the wine cellar is the perfect place to start. Do come inside.”

“Tolya and I would prefer to have a ride around your grounds. Will you be stocking game for the season?”

“Of course, Your Highness. We must have sport to keep us warm this winter, and if not, the three hundred bottles of Kerch brandy I’ve laid my hands on should do the trick.”

For Saints’ sake. Nikolai sometimes worried that Kirigin had taken to his role as a reprobate with a little too much enthusiasm. “Just don’t get the entirety of my cabinet soused,” he said. “I need a few coherent ministers on hand.”

“Of course, of course,” said Kirigin, peering down the drive, the hope clear on his face. Poor fool.

“Zoya has gone directly to the capital.”

Kirigin cleared his throat. “It’s of no matter to me. I just wondered if I should have that cordial she likes waiting. Is Commander Nazyalensky well?”

“Pretty as a picture and brimming with spite.”

“She is lovely, isn’t she?” said Kirigin dreamily. “I’ll leave you to it, then. And if you would … send her my regards?”

“All Saints,” rumbled Tolya. “She’d have you for breakfast.”

The count grinned. “Might not be such a bad way to go, eh?”

“Kirigin, old friend,” said Nikolai, “you’re a good fellow. Why not find yourself a nice girl who likes hunting and can feel warmly toward a wastrel?”

Kirigin shuffled his feet like a schoolboy. “I just can’t help but feel that Commander Nazyalensky’s icy demeanor masks a tender spirit.”

Tolya snorted. “She’ll pulp your heart and drink it.”

Kirigin looked aghast, but Nikolai suspected Tolya was right. He’d come to recognize the bizarre phenomenon of Zoya’s beauty, the way men loved to create stories around it. They said she was cruel because she’d been harmed in the past. They claimed she was cold because she just hadn’t met the right fellow to warm her. Anything to soften her edges and sweeten her disposition—and what was the fun in that? Zoya’s company was like strong drink. Bracing—and best to abstain if you couldn’t handle the kick.

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