Home > King of Scars (Nikolai Duology #1)(13)

King of Scars (Nikolai Duology #1)(13)
Author: Leigh Bardugo

Leoni brought the horse to where Nina was standing with the tall girl. “Any idea what spooked him?” she asked in Zemeni.

Nina translated, but the tall girl didn’t respond, she just narrowed her coppery eyes. “What are you doing out here?”

“Other than saving your friend’s life?” Nina replied mildly.

“I hardly think she would have died.”

“No? Just bled until she passed out from her concussion or until that horse trampled her into a coma?”

“We had it under control,” she insisted. Then she glanced up at the trees. “You came from the northern woods. There’s nothing up there.”

“So we soon learned. We’re new to these parts. Is exploring considered a crime in Gäfvalle?”

“There’s a vantage of the factory up that way.”

“Ah!” said Nina, and turned to Adrik and Leoni. “The building we saw was some kind of factory.” Best to keep to their ruse in case any of these women spoke a little Zemeni. She turned back to the tall one. “We thought it looked a bit like a fort. What is it they make there?” she asked innocently.

“It isn’t my business and I doubt it’s yours. You’re staying at the convent?”

Just how much did this girl know, and why was she so hostile? Maybe she was a soldier’s sister, raised to be suspicious. Nina’s hands twitched, and she felt the bone shards shift. She didn’t want to hurt this girl, but she would if she had to. The last thing they needed was someone running home to talk about the strangers in the woods who had been spying on the factory. Then the tall girl clenched her fists and said, “I … Will you not tell the Wellmother you saw us here?”

Suddenly, the girl’s defensiveness made more sense. The stolen uniforms. The excursion into the woods in the middle of the day. She had been trying to go on the attack, but she was legitimately frightened of being discovered.

“You’re novitiates?” Nina asked.

“We’re all being educated at the convent. Some will marry. Some will become Springmaidens and give their lives to Djel.” She didn’t sound like either prospect excited her.

Nina adopted a more serious mien and realized it was Matthias’ manner she was mimicking. “Riding astride, wearing trousers, cavorting in the woods with no chaperone … It would be irresponsible for us not to say something to the Wellmother, especially given the generosity of our hosts.”

The tall girl turned ashen, and Nina felt a stab of guilt. If she really was close to Nina’s age, she was too old to be a novitiate. All of them were. Were these the outsiders, then? The girls who hadn’t been chosen for brides? What happened to Fjerdan women who didn’t find a place as wives or mothers? Ravka was broken in many ways, but at least there Nina had been allowed to train as a soldier, to become what she was meant to be.

Free to fight and die alongside your men?

Yes, Matthias. Free.

What would he have made of these girls in their stolen clothes?

“Where did you get those uniforms?” Nina asked.

“The laundry. The soldiers send their clothes to the convent for cleaning.”

“Then you’re a thief too,” said Nina. She might feel for these girls, but she wasn’t about to break cover for them.

“We were only borrowing them! It was a lark. We won’t do it again.”

Nina doubted that. This wasn’t the first or the last time these girls would “borrow” uniforms or horses. From a distance, they could maintain the ruse that they were soldiers out to train and roam the countryside with a freedom they would never otherwise enjoy. But at what risk? Nina couldn’t imagine the punishment if they were discovered.

“What say you, Adrik?” Nina asked, deferring to the man in the party as a proper Fjerdan girl would—even if he was a foreigner.

Adrik cast a judgmental eye over the novitiates, pretending to consider. “Very well. Let us not speak of this day.”

Nina nodded to the tall girl, whose shoulders sagged in relief. The others looked relieved too as they pulled their injured friend onto a saddle.

“Get her home and healed,” Nina said with the prim superiority of a student who would never, ever break the rules. “You should say thanks tonight in your prayers to Djel that he would tolerate such recklessness in his servants.”

The tall girl bowed. “Djel jerendem.” She mounted her horse.

“And we had better not see you out here again!” said Adrik in clumsy Fjerdan.

“No, sir. Of course not,” said the girl, but as she turned, Nina glimpsed the defiant spark in her copper eyes. The others might be cowed, but not this girl. She had a different kind of heart. She would ride. She would hunt. She would fight when she could. And that was how she would stay alive.

When the novitiates had gone from the clearing, Nina said, “They’re not going to talk.”

“No,” said Adrik. “They were clearly terrified that we’d be the ones to speak to the Wellmother. Let’s fill our canteens. We can take the samples back to the stables.”

But Nina wasn’t quite ready to leave the mountain. The whispering had started again, and she wasn’t going to ignore it this time. “I want to take another look at the factory.”

“Why?”

How to answer that? “I … I just think there might be more to see.” The chorus inside her sighed.

Adrik looked skeptical. “Go, but be careful. And do not engage on your own, understood?” Nina nodded, but apparently Adrik saw something he didn’t like in her expression. “Nina, do not engage. If you’re caught, it will put all of our operations here in Fjerda at risk. That is an order, not a request.”

“Yes, sir,” Nina said, and she managed it without a hint of the frustration she felt. Obedience had never been one of her strong points, and she’d been making her own decisions for far too long. But she wanted to be a soldier for Ravka, and that meant learning to do what she was told all over again.

Trassel didn’t like following my orders. I bribed him with bits of steak.

Really, Matthias? Should I just try biting Adrik the next time he annoys me? I am not a wolf. I am a gently bred lady … though steak does sound good.

“Leoni and I will take samples here and at the tributary closer to town,” Adrik said, and Nina was glad he couldn’t read her mind. “Be back before dark.”

Nina headed into the trees, taking her time cutting back to the factory on the off chance she was observed. She didn’t follow the road this time. Instead she listened to the whispers, and she didn’t think she was imagining their excitement as she scaled the mountain, letting them guide her farther east. Their anticipation drove her tired legs onward, the rustle growing louder, the sound of a crowd chattering its excitement before the start of a play. Or perhaps an execution.

It was almost sunset when she finally saw the fort come back into view. Why does adventure always involve so much hiking? she wondered. She’d somehow tracked behind the building so that she was on the far side of it, closest to the eastern wing. At this angle she could see there was a dirt road that led to another gate, two bored-looking guards bracketing it. This part of the factory seemed to have fallen into disrepair. Some of the windows were broken, and she saw no signs of occupation.

She also had a better view of the reservoir, its retaining wall carved into the shape of a giant ash tree, its branches and roots radiating in thick, twisting bulges of hewn stone. No doubt it had been blessed when the dam had been built. Wherever water was used or contained, the Fjerdans said prayers, at mills and in harbors, in the great northern mines where holy words were carved into the ice every season. A round sluice gate sat at the base of the dam, and Nina could see refuse in the mud that surrounded it. Soiling Djel’s waters was considered a crime punishable by death in Fjerda. Perhaps these soldiers weren’t particularly religious.

There was nothing to see here, but the whispering in Nina’s head had risen to a clamor, and now she could hear that the voices were not excited—they were anguished.

Nina reached out with her power, the thing that parem had created within her. She felt the flow of the invisible river that no man could contain. It was death, a cold and inevitable tide, and when she focused, she could sense where it rushed and where it eddied. She let her mind dive into that cold, seeking those voices.

Where are you? she asked the darkness. Who are you?

She gasped as the current seized her, as if to drag her along, to pull her into the deep. The wailing inside her rose like a terrible flood. Death wanted to claim her. She could feel it. And did some part of her want to let it have its way?

Nina, come back.

The water did not feel cold anymore.

It felt kind. Like a welcome.

Nina. Do not give in to the tide.

Nina’s eyes flashed open. The world of the living enveloped her again—birdsong, the wet scent of the soil beneath her boots, the sound of small creatures moving through the brush.

She looked at the hulking shape of the factory and felt a deep chill sink into her bones. The voices had receded, but she could still hear them crying. She knew who they were. Women and girls in the hundreds. All of them dead.

Here, on this mountaintop, Nina was surrounded by graves.

NIKOLAI AND TOLYA BROUGHT David and Nadia back to the capital by way of the underground tunnel that stretched from the Gilded Bog all the way to the grounds of the Grand Palace—fifteen miles of travel far beneath the surface of the earth. Poor Tolya muttered to himself the entire way. In verse.

Nikolai would have liked to spare Tolya and his own ears the trauma of the journey, but his head of security had insisted he was fine. Besides, Nikolai had received word that the crowd of pilgrims camped outside the city walls had grown in recent days and that some were demanding an audience with the king. All he needed was for an overzealous zealot to hurl himself beneath the hooves of one of the royal riders. Nikolai didn’t intend to make any martyrs today.

They emerged behind a noisy manmade waterfall not far from the royal stables, the path to it monitored by two of Nikolai’s most trusted palace guards. In their white-and-gold uniforms, dark hair parted neatly on the side, both of their faces cast in the solemn disinterest of soldiers at attention, the guards might have been brothers, but they couldn’t have been less alike in disposition. Trukhin was always laughing and full of bravado; Isaak was so shy he often struggled to make eye contact.

   
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