Home > King of Scars (Nikolai Duology #1)(5)

King of Scars (Nikolai Duology #1)(5)
Author: Leigh Bardugo

“We’ll tell each other lies as married couples do. It will be a good game. Go on, wife. Tell me I’m a handsome fellow who will never age and who will die with all of his own teeth in his head. Make me believe it.”

“I will not.”

“I understand. You’ve never had a talent for deception.”

Zoya knew he was goading her, but her pride pricked anyway. “How can you be so sure? Perhaps the list of my talents is so long you just haven’t gotten to the end.”

“Go on, then, Nazyalensky.”

“Dearest husband,” she said, making her voice honey sweet, “did you know the women of my family can see the future in the stars?”

He huffed a laugh. “I did not.”

“Oh yes. And I’ve seen your fate in the constellations. You will grow old, fat, and happy, father many badly behaved children, and future generations will tell your story in legend and song.”

“Very convincing,” Nikolai said. “You’re good at this game.” A long silence followed, filled with nothing but the rattling of the coach wheels. “Now tell me I’ll find a way out of this. Tell me it will be all right.”

His tone was merry, teasing, but Zoya knew him too well. “It will be all right,” she said with all the conviction she could muster. “We’ll solve this problem as we’ve solved all the others before.” She tilted her head up to look at him. His eyes were closed; a worried crease marred his brow. “Do you believe me?”

“Yes.”

She pushed away from him and straightened her clothes. Falsehoods were inevitable, maybe even necessary between a husband and wife. A general and her king could ill afford them.

“See?” she said. “You’re good at this game too.”

NINA CLUTCHED HER KNIFE and tried to ignore the carnage that surrounded her. She looked down at her victim, another body splayed out helpless before her.

“Sorry, friend,” she murmured in Fjerdan. She drove her blade into the fish’s belly, yanked up toward its head, seized the wet pink mess of its innards, and tossed them onto the filthy slats where they would be hosed away. The cleaned carcass went into a barrel to her left, to be cleared by one of the runners and taken off for packaging. Or processing. Or pickling. Nina had no idea what actually happened to the fish, and she didn’t much care. After two weeks working at a cannery overlooking the Elling harbor, she didn’t intend to eat anything with scales or fins ever again.

Imagine yourself in a warm bath with a dish full of toffees. Maybe she’d just fill the bathtub with toffee and be really decadent about the endeavor. It could become quite the rage. Toffee baths and waffle scrubs.

Nina gave her head a shake. This place was slowly driving her mad. Her hands were perpetually pruned, the skin nicked by tiny cuts from her clumsy way with the filleting knife; the smell of fish never left her hair; and her back ached from being on her feet in front of the cannery from dawn until dusk, rain or shine, protected from the elements by nothing but a corrugated tin awning. But there weren’t many jobs for unmarried women in Fjerda, so Nina—under the name Mila Jandersdat—had gladly taken the position. The work was grueling but made it easy for their local contact to get her messages, and her vantage point among the fish barrels gave her a perfect view of the guards patrolling the harbor.

There were plenty of them today, roaming the docks in their blue uniforms. Kalfisk, the locals called them—squid—because they had their tentacles in everything. Elling sat where the Stelge River met the Isenvee, and it was one of the few harbors along Fjerda’s rocky northwest coast with easy access to the sea for large vessels. The port was known for two things: smuggling and fish. Coalfish, monkfish, haddock; salmon and sturgeon from the river cities to the east; tilefish and silver-sided king mackerel from the deep waters offshore.

Nina worked beside two women—a Hedjut widow named Annabelle, and Marta, a spinster from Djerholm who was as narrow as a gap in the floorboards and constantly shook her head as if everything displeased her. Their chatter helped to keep Nina distracted and was a welcome source of gossip and legitimate information, though it could be hard to tell the difference between the two.

“They say Captain Birgir has a new mistress,” Annabelle would begin.

Marta would purse her lips. “With the bribes he takes he can certainly afford to keep her.”

“They’re increasing patrols since those stowaways were caught.”

Marta would cluck her tongue. “Means more jobs but probably more trouble.”

“More men in from Gäfvalle today. River’s gone sour up by the old fort.”

Marta’s head would twitch back and forth like a happy dog’s tail. “A sign of Djel’s disfavor. Someone should send a priest to say prayers.”

Gäfvalle. One of the river cities. Nina had never been there, had never even heard of it until she’d arrived with Adrik and Leoni two months ago on orders from King Nikolai, but its name always left her uneasy, the sound of it accompanied by a kind of sighing inside her, as if the town’s name was less a word than the start of an incantation.

Now Marta knocked the base of her knife against the wooden surface of her worktable. “Foreman coming.”

Hilbrand, the stern-faced foreman, was moving through the rows of stalls, calling out to runners to remove the buckets of fish.

“Your pace is off again,” he barked at Nina. “It’s as if you’ve never gutted fish before.”

Imagine that. “I’m sorry, sir,” she said. “I’ll do better.”

He cut his hand through the air. “Too slow. The shipment we’ve been waiting for has arrived. We’ll move you to the packing room floor.”

“Yes, sir,” Nina said glumly. She dropped her shoulders and hung her head when what she really wanted to do was break into song. The pay for packing jobs was considerably lower, so she had to make a good show of her defeat, but she’d understood Hilbrand’s real message: The last of the Grisha fugitives they’d been waiting for had made it to the Elling safe house at last. Now it was up to Nina, Adrik, and Leoni to get the seven newcomers aboard the Verstoten.

She followed close behind Hilbrand as he led her back toward the cannery.

“You’ll have to move quickly,” he said without looking at her. “There’s talk of a surprise inspection tonight.”

“All right.” An obstacle, but nothing they couldn’t handle.

“There’s more,” he said. “Birgir is on duty.”

Of course he is. No doubt the surprise inspection was Captain Birgir’s idea. Of all the kalfisk, he was the most corrupt but also the sharpest and most observant. If you wanted a legal shipment to get through the harbor without being trapped forever in customs—or if you wanted an illegal bit of cargo to avoid notice—then a bribe for Birgir was the cost.

A man without honor, said Matthias’ voice in her head. He should be ashamed.

Nina snorted. If men were ashamed when they should be, they’d have no time for anything else.

“Is something amusing?” Hilbrand asked.

“Just fighting a cold,” she lied. But even Hilbrand’s gruff manner put a pang in her heart. He was broad-shouldered and humorless and reminded her painfully of Matthias.

He’s nothing like me. What a bigot you are, Nina Zenik. Not all Fjerdans look alike.

“You know what Birgir did to those stowaways,” Hilbrand said. “I don’t have to tell you to be careful.”

“No, you don’t,” Nina said more sharply than she meant to. She was good at her job, and she knew exactly what was at stake. Her first morning at the docks, she’d seen Birgir and one of his favorite thugs, Casper, drag a mother and daughter off a whaler bound for Novyi Zem and beat them bloody. The captain had hung heavy chains around their necks weighted with signs that read drüsje—witch. Then he’d doused them in a slurry of waste and fish guts from the canneries and bound them outside the harbor station in the blazing sun. As his men looked on, laughing, the stink and the promise of food drew the gulls. Nina had spent her shift watching the woman trying to shield her daughter’s body with her own, and listening to the prisoners cry out in agony as the gulls pecked and clawed at their bodies. Her mind had spun a thousand fantasies of murdering Birgir’s harbor guards where they stood, of whisking the mother and daughter to safety. She could steal a boat. She could force a ship’s captain to take them far away. She could do something.

But she’d remembered too clearly Zoya’s warning to King Nikolai about Nina’s suitability for a deep-cover mission: “She doesn’t have a subtle bone in her body. Asking Nina not to draw attention is like asking water not to run downhill.”

The king had taken a chance on Nina, and she would not squander the opportunity. She would not jeopardize the mission. She would not compromise her cover and put Adrik and Leoni at risk. At least not in broad daylight. As soon as the sun had set, she’d slipped back to the harbor to free the prisoners. They were gone. But to where? And to suffer what horrors? She no longer believed that the worst terror awaiting Grisha at the hands of Fjerdan soldiers was death. Jarl Brum and his witchhunters had taught her too well.

As Nina followed Hilbrand into the cannery, the grind of machinery rattled her skull, the stink of salt cod overwhelming her. She wouldn’t be sorry to leave Elling for a while. The hold of the Verstoten was full of Grisha that her team—or Adrik’s team, really—had helped rescue and bring to Elling. Since the end of the civil war, King Nikolai had diverted funds and resources to support an underground network of informants that had existed for years in Fjerda with the goal of helping Grisha living in secret to escape the country. They called themselves Hringsa, the tree of life, after the great ash sacred to Djel. Nina knew Adrik had already received new intelligence from the group, and once the Verstoten was safely on its way to Ravka, Nina and the others would be free to head inland to locate more Grisha.

   
Hot Series
» Vampire Academy Series read online
» Crossfire Series read online
» Fifty Shades trilogy read online
» Kate Daniels Series read online
» Black Dagger Brotherhood Series read online
» Cassandra Palmer Series read online
» Rosemary Beach Series read online
» Sea Breeze Series read online
» Too Far Series read online
» Shatter Me Series read online
» Thoughtless Series read online
» Marriage to a Billionaire Series read online
Most Popular
» Nothing But Trouble (Malibu University #1)
» Kill Switch (Devil's Night #3)
» Hold Me Today (Put A Ring On It #1)
» Spinning Silver
» Birthday Girl
» A Nordic King (Royal Romance #3)
» The Wild Heir (Royal Romance #2)
» The Swedish Prince (Royal Romance #1)
» Nothing Personal (Karina Halle)
» My Life in Shambles
» The Warrior Queen (The Hundredth Queen #4)
» The Rogue Queen (The Hundredth Queen #3)