Home > King of Scars (Nikolai Duology #1)(11)

King of Scars (Nikolai Duology #1)(11)
Author: Leigh Bardugo

I’ll find a way. All his life, Nikolai had believed that. His will had been enough to shape not only his fate but his own identity. He had chosen what he wanted people to see—the obedient son, the feckless rogue, the able soldier, the confident politician. The monster threatened all of that. And they were no closer to finding a way to drive the thing out than they had been six months ago. What was there to do but keep moving? Lesser animals whined and struggled when they’d been caught in a snare. The fox found a way out.

“David, did you sleep here last night?” Nikolai asked.

The Fabrikator frowned. “I don’t think so.”

“He spent the night here,” Nadia clarified. “He didn’t actually sleep.”

“Did you?” asked Nikolai.

“I … dozed for a bit,” Nadia replied evasively.

“I’m taking you home to Tamar.”

“But I need her for the fuel tests,” David objected.

“And I’m taking you home to Genya,” added Nikolai.

“But—”

“Don’t argue, David. Makes me want to blow something up to assert my authority. I need the Triumvirate together. And I’m going to need you and Nadia to start work on a new prototype of the izmars’ya.”

Nadia brushed her blond hair from her eyes. “I can start now, Your Highness.”

“Don’t go running off to display your excessive competence just yet. I want you to make sure this particular prototype doesn’t work.”

David began rolling up his blueprints, carefully arranging his pens and instruments. “I don’t like it when he doesn’t make sense.”

Nadia raised her brows. “I assume Your Highness has a reason?”

I always do. He would drag the drowning man to shore kicking and screaming if he had to—no matter what the demon demanded.

“I’m going to stage a little play,” said Nikolai, already imagining a moonlit lake and all the glorious chaos he intended to incite there. “That means I need the right props.”

GÄFVALLE.

The closer they drew to the town, the harder it was to ignore the rustling whispers in her head. Sometimes Nina could swear she heard voices, the dim shapes of words just beyond understanding. Other times the sound dwindled to the rush of wind through reeds.

Tell them, my love.

But what was there to tell? The sound might be nothing. It might be an auditory hallucination, some remnant of her bout with parem.

Or it might be the dead, drawing her on.

The town itself was located in the shadow of a low mountain range, beneath the hulking shape of what had once been a fort and then a munitions factory lodged into the cliffside high above it. It didn’t take long to realize that the old factory had been recommissioned for something new—the traffic of wagons and men traveling in and out of the facility made that clear—but for what?

There were no proper inns, only a public house with two guest rooms that were already occupied. The owner told them that the convent up the hill sometimes boarded lodgers.

“Ladies at the convent there take in washing for the soldiers,” he said. “They don’t mind having a few extra hands around for chores.”

“Must be busy these days with the old factory running,” said Nina in Fjerdan. “Good for business.”

The owner shook his head. “Soldiers came in about a year ago. Didn’t hire any locals, poured their filth into the river.”

“You don’t know that,” said a heavyset woman shelling peas at the bar. “The river was full of runoff from the mines before the soldiers started up the smokestacks again.” She cut a long glance at Nina and the others. “Don’t pay to speak trouble to strangers.”

They took the hint and headed out to the main street. It was a surprisingly pretty town, the buildings small and snug, their roofs peaked, their doors brightly painted in yellow, pink, and blue.

Leoni gazed up the mountain to where the old factory loomed, its big square buildings pocked with dark windows. “They could just be manufacturing rifles or ammunition.”

Adrik’s expression was bleaker than usual. “Or some of those new armored tanks they’re so fond of.”

“If that’s the case, we’ll have some intelligence to pass along to the capital,” Nina said. She hoped that wouldn’t be all.

Nina was surprised to glimpse signs of the Saints here, in places she knew were not dedicated to the Hringsa network. She had seen them on the road too—altars bearing the symbol of Sankta Alina instead of Djel’s sacred ash tree, an icon of Sankt Demyan of the Rime perched in a shop window, two thorny boughs crossed above a door to signify the blessing of Sankt Feliks. There had been talk of miracles and strange happenings throughout Ravka, and it seemed new fervor for the Saints had taken hold in Fjerda as well. It was risky to be so public about heresy with soldiers close by, but perhaps these were small acts of rebellion for the townspeople who resented the military men standing watch up at the factory.

The convent was located on the northern outskirts of town, almost directly down the slope from the factory. It was a round slab of milk-white stone with a turreted roof that made the building look like a tower in search of a castle. The large chapel it abutted was constructed of sturdy, rough-hewn logs and fronted by an entrance of ash branches woven into complicated knots.

They left their sledge in the stables and rang the bell at the convent’s side door. A young woman in the embroidered pale blue pinafore of a novitiate answered, and a moment later they were meeting the Wellmother. The older woman wore dark blue wool and had a round, apple-cheeked face, her skin deeply lined, as if it had been pleated into neat, pallid folds instead of wrinkled by age.

Nina made the introductions, explaining that she was serving as a translator for a merchant couple selling their wares, and asked if they might stay somewhere on the property while exploring the area.

“Do they have any Fjerdan at all?”

“Bine,” said Adrik. Some.

“De forenen,” added Leoni with a smile. We’re learning.

“And where is your husband?” the Wellmother asked Nina.

“Gone to the waters,” Nina said, dropping her eyes to the silver ring on her hand. “May Djel watch over him.”

“Not a soldier, then?”

“A fisherman.”

“Ah. Well,” she said, as if dissatisfied with such a bloodless death. “I can give you and the Zemeni woman rooms on the bottom floor near the kitchens. But her husband will have to stay in the stables. I doubt he’d be much harm to the girls,” she said with a glance at the pinned sleeve of Adrik’s coat, “but even so.”

It was the kind of thoughtless comment people often made around Adrik, but all he did was smile pleasantly and offer up payment for the week with his remaining hand.

The Wellmother instructed them on the routine of the convent as she led them through the dining hall and then down to the stable. “The doors are locked at ten bells every night and are not reopened until the morning. We ask that you keep to reading or silent meditation at that time so as not to disturb the girls at their studies.”

“Are they all novitiates?” Nina asked.

“Some will become Springmaidens. Others are here to be educated until they return to their families or husbands. What are you transporting under there anyway?” the Wellmother asked, lifting the corner of the tarp attached to the sledge.

Nina’s instinct was to slap the woman’s hand away. Instead, she stepped forward eagerly and reached for the ties securing the tarp. “This couple has invented a new form of rifle loader.”

Right on cue, Leoni drew a colorful pamphlet from her coat. “They’re affordably priced, and we’re projecting big sales in the new year,” she said. “We’re looking for a few small investors. If you’d like a demonstration—”

“No, indeed,” the Wellmother said quickly. “I’m sure they’re most impressive, but I’m afraid the convent’s finances are simply too tight for, uh … speculative ventures.”

It never failed.

“We serve our meals at six bells following morning prayers—which you are of course encouraged to join—and in the evening again at six bells. Bread and salt are available in the kitchens. Water is rationed.”

“Rationed?” asked Nina.

“Yes, we draw from the well at Felsted, and that requires quite a journey.”

“Isn’t Gjela closer?”

The Wellmother’s plump lips pursed. “There are many ways in which we show service to Djel. The trip provides good opportunity for quiet contemplation.”

River’s gone sour up by the old fort. So the Wellmother didn’t want her charges drinking from this tributary of the river, but she also wasn’t willing to discuss it. It was possible the Springmaidens were just laundering soldiers’ uniforms, but it was also likely they knew what was happening at the factory.

As soon as the Wellmother had gone, Adrik said, “Let’s walk.”

Nina checked the lashings of the tarp and they headed up the side of the mountain, setting a leisurely pace and making a show of chattering loudly in Zemeni. They paralleled the road that led to the factory, but they took time to point out birds and stop at vistas overlooking the valley. Three tourists out for a walk and nothing more.

“Will you be all right in the stables?” Leoni asked as they made their way through a grove of pines.

“I’ll manage,” said Adrik. “A one-armed lecher can still prey upon the horses. The Wellmother never thought of that.”

Leoni laughed and said, “It’s the wolves who go unseen that eat the most sheep.” Adrik snorted but he looked almost pleased.

Behind them, Nina rolled her eyes. If she was going to be forced to continue a mission with two people starting this dance of cautious compliments and sudden blushes, it might well kill her. It was one thing to find happiness and lose it, quite another to have someone else’s happiness thrust at you like an unwanted second slice of cake. Then again, she’d never refused a second slice of cake. This will be good for me, she told herself. Like green vegetables and lessons in arithmetic. And I’ll probably enjoy it just as much.

   
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