Home > King of Scars (Nikolai Duology #1)(7)

King of Scars (Nikolai Duology #1)(7)
Author: Leigh Bardugo

She rubbed her arms, trying to dispel the sudden cold that settled into her. She wished Hilbrand hadn’t mentioned Jarl Brum. Despite all she’d been through, it was a name that still had power over her. Nina had defeated him and his men. Her friends had blown Brum’s secret laboratory to bits and stolen his most valuable hostage. He should have been disgraced. It should have meant an end to his command of the drüskelle and his brutal experiments with jurda parem and Grisha prisoners. And yet somehow, Brum had survived and continued to thrive in the highest ranks of the Fjerdan military. I should have killed him when I had the chance.

You showed mercy, Nina. Never regret that.

But mercy was a luxury Matthias could afford. He was dead, after all.

It seems rude to mention that, my love.

What do you expect from a Ravkan? Besides, Brum and I aren’t done.

Is that why you’re here?

I’m here to bury you, Matthias, she thought, and the voice in her head went silent, as it always did when she let herself remember what she’d lost.

Nina tried to shake the thought of Matthias’ body, preserved by Fabrikator craft, bound up in ropes and tarp like ballast, hidden beneath blankets and crates on the sledge that waited back at their boardinghouse. She’d sworn she would take him home, that she would bury his body in the land he loved so that he could find his way to his god. And for nearly two months they had traveled with that body, dragged that grim burden from town to town. She’d had countless opportunities to lay him to rest and say her goodbyes. So why hadn’t she taken them? Nina knew Leoni and Adrik didn’t want to raise the issue with her, but they couldn’t be thrilled to be members of a months-long funeral procession.

It has to be the right place, my love. You’ll know it when you see it.

But would she? Or would she just keep marching, unable to let him go?

Somewhere in the distance, a bell rang, signaling the end of the workday.

“We’re out of time,” said Adrik.

Leoni didn’t protest, just stretched and said, “Come dry the ink.”

Adrik waved his hand, directing a warm gust of Squaller air over the documents. “It’s nice to be useful.”

“I’m sure you’ll come in very handy when we need to fly kites.”

They exchanged a smile, and Nina felt a stab of irritation, then wanted to kick herself for being so unfair. Just because she was miserable didn’t mean everyone else should be.

But as they all set out toward the docks with the fugitives in tow, Adrik began giving them instructions, and Nina felt her temper spike again. Though he was her commanding officer, she’d lost the habit of taking orders during her time in Ketterdam.

Leoni and Adrik led the way to the Verstoten. They were conspicuous but in a way that fit with the tumult of the harbor—a Zemeni woman and her husband, a merchant couple with business on the docks. Nina slipped her arm through Enok’s and hung back slightly with her new family, keeping a careful distance.

She rolled her shoulders, trying to focus, but that only served to sharpen the edge of her tension. Her body felt wrong. Back in Os Alta, Genya Safin had tailored her to the very brink of what her skills would allow. Nina’s new hair was slick, straight, and nearly ice white; her eyes were narrower, the green of her irises changed to the pale blue of a northern glacier. Her cheekbones were higher, her brows lower, her mouth broader.

“I look uncooked,” she’d complained when she’d seen the milky depth of her new pallor.

Genya had been unmoved. “You look Fjerdan.”

Nina’s thighs were still solid, her waist still thick, but Genya had pushed back Nina’s ears, flattened her breasts, and even changed the set of her shoulders. The process had been painful at times as the bone was altered, but Nina didn’t care. She didn’t want to be the girl she’d been, the girl Matthias had loved. If Genya could make her someone new on the outside, maybe Nina’s heart would oblige and beat with a new rhythm too. Of course, it hadn’t worked. The Fjerdans saw Mila Jandersdat, but she was still Nina Zenik, legendary Grisha and unrepentant killer. She was still the girl who craved waffles and who cried herself to sleep at night when she reached for Matthias and found no one there.

Enok’s arm tensed beneath her fingers, and she saw that two members of the harbor police were waiting at the gangway that led onto the Verstoten.

“It’s going to be fine,” murmured Nina. “We’ll see you all the way onto the ship.”

“And then what?” Enok asked, voice trembling.

“Once we’re out of the bay, I’ll take a rowboat back to shore with the others. You and your family will travel on to Ravka, where you’ll be free to live without fear.”

“Will they take my boys? Will they take them away to that special school?”

“Only if that’s what you wish,” said Nina. “We’re not monsters. Not any more than you are. Now hush.”

But part of her wanted to turn around and stride right back to the safe house when she saw that one of the guards was Birgir’s champion thug, Casper. She tucked her face into her coat collar.

“Zemeni?” Casper asked, glancing at Leoni. She nodded in reply.

Casper gestured to Adrik’s missing arm. “How’d you lose it?”

“Farming accident,” Adrik replied in Fjerdan. He didn’t know much of the language, but he could speak bits and pieces without a Ravkan accent, and this particular lie was one he’d told many times. Nearly everyone they met asked about his arm as soon as they saw the pinned sleeve. He’d had to leave the mechanical arm David Kostyk had fashioned for him back in the capital because it was too recognizable as Grisha handiwork.

The guards asked them the usual series of questions—How long had they been in the country? Where had they visited during their stay? Did they have knowledge of foreign agents working inside Fjerda’s borders?—then waved them through with little ceremony.

Now it was Enok’s turn. She gave his arm a squeeze and he stepped forward. Nina could see the sweat beading at his temple, feel the slight tremor in his hands. If she could have snatched the papers away and given them to the guards herself, she would have. But Fjerdan wives always deferred to their husbands.

“The Grahn family.” Casper peered at the papers for an uncomfortably long time. “Indentures? Where will you be working?”

“A jurda farm near Cofton,” said Enok.

“Hard work. Too hard for the old father there.”

“He’ll be in the main house with the boys,” said Enok. “He’s gifted with a needle and thread, and the boys can be runners until they’re old enough for the fields.”

Nina was impressed by how easily Enok lied, but if he’d spent his life hiding as a Grisha, he must have had plenty of practice.

“Indentures are difficult to come by,” mused Casper.

“My uncle secured them for us.”

“And why is a life breaking your back in Novyi Zem so preferable to one spent doing honest work in Fjerda?”

“I’d live and die on the ice if I had my way,” said Enok with such fervor Nina knew he was speaking the truth. “But jobs are scarce and my son’s lungs don’t like the cold.”

“Hard times all around.” The guard turned to Nina. “And what will you do in Cofton?”

“Sew if I’m able, work the fields if need be.” She dipped her head. She could be subtle, damn it. No matter what Zoya thought. “As my husband wishes.”

Casper continued to look at the papers, waiting, and Nina nudged Enok with her elbow. Looking as if he might be sick all over the docks, Enok reached into his pocket and drew out a packet stuffed with Fjerdan currency.

He handed it to Casper, who lifted a brow. Then the guard’s face broke into a satisfied smile. Nina remembered him watching the gulls tear at the Grisha chained in the sun, their beaks bloodied with bits of skin and hair.

Casper waved them through. “May Djel watch over you.”

But they hadn’t set foot on the gangway when Nina heard a voice say, “Just a moment.”

Birgir. Couldn’t they catch a bit of luck? The sun hadn’t even set. They should have had more time. Enok’s father hesitated on the gangway next to Leoni, and Adrik gave Nina the barest shake of his head. The message was clear: Don’t start trouble. Nina thought of the other Grisha fugitives packed into the hold of the ship and held her tongue.

Birgir stood between Casper and the other guard. He was short for a Fjerdan, his shoulders sloped like a bull’s, and his uniform fit so impeccably that Nina suspected it had been professionally tailored.

She kept behind Enok and whispered to the boys, “Go to your grandfather.” But they didn’t move.

“It was a hard day’s travel for all of us,” Enok said to Birgir amiably. “The boys are eager to get settled.”

“I’ll see your papers first.”

“We just showed them to your man.”

“Casper’s eyes aren’t nearly as good as mine.”

“But the money—” protested Enok.

“What money was that?”

Casper and the other guard shrugged. “I don’t know about any money.”

Reluctantly, Enok handed over the papers.

“Perhaps,” said his father, “we could reach a new arrangement?”

“Stay where you are,” ordered Birgir.

“But our ship is about to depart,” Nina tried from behind Enok’s shoulder.

Birgir glanced at the Verstoten, at the boys tugging restlessly on their father’s hands. “They’re going to be a handful cooped up for a sea journey.” Then he looked back at Enok and Nina. “Funny the way they cling to their father and not their mother.”

“They’re scared,” said Nina. “You’re frightening them.”

Birgir’s cold eyes traveled over Adrik and Leoni. He smacked the indenture papers against his gloved palm. “That ship isn’t going anywhere. Not until we’ve seen every inch of it.” He gestured to Casper. “There’s something off here. Signal the others.”

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