Home > King of Scars (Nikolai Duology #1)(6)

King of Scars (Nikolai Duology #1)(6)
Author: Leigh Bardugo

Hilbrand led her to his office, shut the door behind them, then ran his fingers along the far wall. A click sounded and a second, hidden door opened onto the Fiskstrahd, the bustling street where fishmongers did their business and where a girl on her own might avoid the notice of the harbor police by simply disappearing into the crowd.

“Thank you,” Nina said. “We’ll be sending more your way soon.”

“Wait.” Hilbrand snagged her arm before she could slip into the sunshine. He hesitated, then blurted out, “Are you really her? The girl who bested Jarl Brum and left him bleeding on a Djerholm dock?”

Nina yanked her arm from his grip. She’d done what she had to do to free her friends and keep the secret of jurda parem out of Fjerdan hands. But it was the drug that had made victory possible, and it had exacted an awful price, changing the course of Nina’s life and the very nature of her Grisha power.

If we’d never gone to the Ice Court, would Matthias still be alive? Would my heart still be whole? Pointless questions. There was no answer that would bring him back.

Nina fixed Hilbrand with the withering glare she’d learned from Zoya Nazyalensky herself. “I’m Mila Jandersdat. A young widow taking odd jobs to make ends meet and hoping to secure work as a translator. What kind of fool would pick a fight with Commander Jarl Brum?” Hilbrand opened his mouth, but Nina continued, “And what kind of podge would risk compromising an agent’s cover when so many lives are on the line?”

Nina turned her back on him and waded into the human tide. Dangerous. A man who lived his life in deep cover shouldn’t be so careless. But Nina knew that loneliness could make you foolish, hungry to speak something other than lies. Hilbrand had lost his wife to Brum’s men, the ruthless drüskelle trained to hunt and kill Grisha. Since then, he’d become one of King Nikolai’s most trusted operatives in Fjerda. Nina didn’t doubt his loyalty, and his own safety relied on his discretion.

It took Nina less than ten minutes to reach the address Hilbrand had given her, another cannery identical to the buildings bracketing it—except for the mural on its western side. At first glance, it looked like a pleasant scene set at the mouth of the Stelge: a group of fishermen casting their nets into the sea as happy villagers looked on beneath a setting sun. But if you knew what to look for, you might notice the white-haired girl in the crowd, her profile framed by the sun as if by a halo. Sankta Alina. The Sun Summoner. A sign that this warehouse was a place of refuge.

The Saints had never been popular among the people of the north—until Alina Starkov had destroyed the Fold. Then altars to her had begun to spring up in countries far outside Ravka. Fjerdan authorities had done their best to quash the cult of the Sun Saint, labeling it a religion of foreign influence, but still, little pockets of the faithful had bloomed, gardens tended in secret. The stories of the Saints, their miracles and martyrdoms, had become a code for those sympathetic to Grisha. A rose for Sankta Lizabeta. A sun for Sankta Alina. A knight skewering a dragon on his lance might be Dagr the Bold from some children’s tale—or it might be Sankt Juris, who had slain a great beast and been consumed by its flames. Even the tattoos that ran over Hilbrand’s forearms were more than they seemed—a tangle of antlers, often worn by northern hunters, but arranged in circular bands to symbolize the powerful amplifier Sankta Alina had once worn.

Nina knocked on the cannery’s side door, and a moment later it swung open. Adrik ushered her inside, his glum face pale beneath his freckles. His features were pleasant enough, but he maintained a relentlessly defeated demeanor that gave him the look of a melting candle. Instantly, Nina’s eyes began to water.

“I know,” said Adrik dismally. “Elling. If the cold doesn’t kill you, the smell will.”

“No fish smells like that. My eyes are burning.”

“It’s lye. Vats of it. Apparently they preserve fish in it as some kind of local delicacy.”

She could almost hear Matthias’ indignant protest: It’s delicious. We serve it on toast. Saints, she missed him. The ache of his absence felt like a hook lodged inside her heart. The hurt was always there, but in moments like these, it was as if someone had seized hold of the line and pulled.

Nina took a deep breath. Matthias would want her to focus on the mission. “They’re here?”

“They are. But there’s a problem.”

She’d thought Adrik seemed more morose than usual. And that was saying something.

Nina saw Leoni first, bent over a makeshift crate desk beside a row of vats, a lantern near her elbow, her ordinarily cheerful face set in hard lines of determination. The twists of her hair were knotted in the Zemeni style, and her dark brown skin was sheened with sweat. On the floor next to her, she’d cracked open her kit—pots of ink and powdered pigments, rolls of paper and parchment. But that made no sense. The emigration documents should have been long since finished.

Understanding came as Nina’s eyes adjusted and she saw the figures huddled in the shadows—a bearded man in a muskrat-colored coat and a far older man with a thick thatch of white hair. Two little boys peeked out from behind them, eyes wide and frightened. Four fugitives. There should have been seven.

Leoni glanced up at Nina, then at the fugitive Grisha, offering them a warm smile. “She’s a friend. Don’t worry.”

They didn’t look reassured.

“Jormanen end denam danne näskelle,” Nina said, the traditional Fjerdan greeting to travelers. Be welcome and wait out the storm. It wasn’t totally appropriate to their situation, but it was the best she could offer. The men seemed to relax at the words, though the children still looked terrified.

“Grannem end kerjenning grante jut onter kelholm,” the older man said in traditional reply. I thank you and bring only gratitude to your home. Nina hoped that wasn’t true. Ravka didn’t need gratitude; it needed more Grisha. It needed soldiers. She could only imagine what Zoya would make of these recruits.

“Where are the other three?” Nina asked Adrik.

“They didn’t meet their handler.”

“Captured?”

“Probably.”

“Maybe they had a change of heart,” said Leoni, opening a bottle of something blue. She could always be counted on to find a positive outcome, no matter how unlikely. “It isn’t easy to leave all you love behind.”

“It is when all you love smells of fish and despair,” Adrik grumbled.

“The emigration papers?” Nina asked Leoni as gently as she could.

“I’m doing my best,” Leoni replied. “You said women don’t travel alone, so I wrote up the indentures as families, and now we’re short two wives and a daughter.”

Not good at all. Especially with kalfisk crawling all over the docks. But Leoni was one of the most talented Fabrikators Nina had met.

In recent years, the Fjerdan government had begun to watch their borders more closely and prohibit travel for their citizens. The authorities were on the lookout for Grisha attempting to escape, but they also wanted to slow the tide of people traveling across the True Sea to Novyi Zem seeking better jobs and warmer weather, people willing to brave a new world to live free of the threat of war. Many Ravkans had done the same.

Fjerda’s officials especially didn’t like to let able-bodied men and prospective soldiers emigrate and had made the necessary papers almost impossible to fake. That was why Leoni was here. She was no ordinary forger but a Fabrikator who could match inks and paper at a molecular level.

Nina pulled a clean handkerchief from her pocket and dabbed Leoni’s brow. “You can manage this.”

She shook her head. “I need more time.”

“We don’t have it.” Nina wished she didn’t have to say so.

“We might,” Leoni said hopefully. She had spent most of her life in Novyi Zem before traveling to Ravka to train, and like many Fabrikators, she had never seen combat. Fabrikators hadn’t even been taught to fight until Alina Starkov had led the Second Army. “We can send word to the Verstoten, ask them to wait until—”

“It’s no good,” Nina said. “That ship has to be out of port by sunset. Captain Birgir is planning one of his surprise raids tonight.”

Leoni let out a long breath, then bobbed her chin at the man in the muskrat-colored coat. “Nina, we’ll have to pass you off as his wife.”

It wasn’t ideal. Nina had been working at the harbor for weeks now, and there was a chance she’d be recognized. But it was a risk worth taking. “What’s your name?” she asked the man.

“Enok.”

“Those are your sons?”

He nodded. “And this is my father.”

“You’re all Grisha?”

“Just me and my boys.”

“Well, lucky you, Enok. You’re about to acquire me as a wife. I enjoy long naps and short engagements, and I prefer the left side of the bed.”

Enok blinked and his father looked positively scandalized. Genya had tailored Nina to look as Fjerdan as possible, but the demure ways of northern women were far more exhausting to master.

Nina tried not to pace as Leoni worked and Adrik spoke quietly to the fugitives. What had happened to the other three Grisha? Nina picked up the discarded emigration documents, priceless sets of papers that would never be used. Two women and a girl of sixteen missing. Had they decided a life in hiding was better than an uncertain future in a foreign land? Or had they been taken prisoner? Were they somewhere out there, scared and alone? Nina frowned at the papers. “Were these women really from Kejerut?”

Leoni nodded. “It seemed simpler to keep the town the same.”

Enok’s father made a sign of warding in the air. It was an old gesture, meant to wash away evil thoughts with the strength of Djel’s waters. “Girls go missing from Kejerut.”

Nina shivered as that strange sighing filled her head again. Kejerut was only a few miles from Gäfvalle. But it all might mean nothing.

   
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