Home > King of Scars (Nikolai Duology #1)(8)

King of Scars (Nikolai Duology #1)(8)
Author: Leigh Bardugo

Casper reached for his whistle, but before he could draw breath to blow, Nina’s arm shot out. Two slender bone shards flew from the sheaths sewn into the forearms of her coat—everything she wore was laced with them. The darts lodged in Casper’s windpipe, and a sharp wheeze squeaked from his mouth. Nina twisted her fingers and the bone shards rotated. The guard dropped to the dock, clawing at his neck.

“Casper!” Birgir and the other guard drew their guns.

Nina shoved Enok and the children behind her. “Get them on the boat,” she growled. Don’t start trouble. She hadn’t, but she intended to finish it.

“I know you,” Birgir said, training his gun on her, his eyes hard and bright as river stones.

“That’s a bold statement.”

“You work at the salmon cannery. One of the barrel girls. I knew there was something wrong about you.”

Nina couldn’t help but smile. “Plenty of things.”

“Mila,” Adrik said warningly, using her cover name. As if it mattered now. The time for bribes and negotiations was over. She liked these moments best. When the secrets fell away.

Nina flicked her fingers. The bone shards dislodged from Casper’s windpipe and slid back into the hidden sheaths on her arm. He flopped on the dock, his lips wet with blood, his eyes rolling back in his head as he struggled for breath.

“Drüsje,” Birgir hissed. Witch.

“I don’t like that word,” Nina said, advancing. “Call me Grisha. Call me zowa. Call me death, if you like.”

Birgir laughed. “Two guns are pointed at you. You think you can kill us both before one of us gets a shot off?”

“But you’re already dying, Captain,” she crooned gently. The bone armor the Fabrikators had made for her in Os Alta was a comfort and had proven useful more times than she could count. But sometimes she could feel death already waiting in her targets, like now, in this man who stood before her, his chin jutting forward, the brass buttons on his fine uniform gleaming. He was younger than she’d realized, his golden stubble patchy in places, as if he couldn’t quite grow a beard. Should she be sorry for him? She was not.

Nina. Matthias’ voice, chiding, disappointed. Perhaps she was doomed to stand on docks and murder Fjerdans. There were worse fates.

“You know it, don’t you?” she went on. “Somewhere inside. Your body knows.” She drew closer. “That cough you can’t shake. The pain you told yourself was a bruised rib. The way food has lost its savor.” In the day’s fading light she saw fear come into Birgir’s face, a shadow falling. It fed her, and that strange sighing inside her grew louder, a whispering chorus that rose, as if in encouragement, even as Matthias’ voice receded.

“You work in a harbor,” she continued. “You know how easy it is for rats to get into the walls, to eat a place up from the inside.” Birgir’s pistol hand dipped slightly. He was watching her now, closely—not with his sharp policeman’s eyes but with the gaze of a man who didn’t want to listen, but who had to, who must know the end to the story. “The enemy is already inside you, the bad cells eating the others slowly, right there in your lungs. Unusual in a man so young. You’re dying, Captain Birgir,” she said softly, almost kindly. “I’m just going to help you along.”

The captain seemed to wake from a trance. He raised his pistol, but he was too slow. Nina’s power already had hold of that sick cluster of cells within him, and death unfurled, a terrible multiplication. He might have lived another year, maybe two, but now the cells became a black tide, destroying everything in their path. Captain Birgir released a low moan and toppled. Before the remaining guard could react, Nina flicked her fingers and drove a shard of bone through his heart.

The docks were curiously still. She could hear the waves lapping against the Verstoten’s hull, the high calls of seabirds. Inside her the whispering chorus leapt, the sound almost joyful.

Then one of Enok’s boys began to cry.

For a moment, Nina had stood alone with death on the docks, two weary travelers, longtime companions. But now she saw the way the others were watching her—the Grisha fugitives, Adrik and Leoni, even the ship’s captain and his crew leaning over the railing of the ship. Maybe she should have cared; maybe some part of her did. Nina’s power was frightening, a corruption of the Heartrender power she had been born with, twisted by parem. And still it had become dear to her. Matthias had accepted the dark thing in her and encouraged her to do the same—but what Nina felt was not acceptance. It was love.

Adrik sighed. “I’m not going to miss this town.” He called up to the ship’s crew. “Stop staring and help us get the bodies on board. We’ll dispose of them when we reach open water.”

Some men deserve your mercy, Nina.

Of course, Matthias. Nina watched Enok and his father lift Birgir’s body. I’ll let you know when I meet one of them.

Adrik held his tongue until they were in the little rowboat headed back to shore. They would make land in one of the coves north of Elling and hike back to their lodgings to collect their things.

“There’s going to be trouble when those men are discovered missing,” he said.

Nina felt like a child being scolded, and she didn’t appreciate it. “Good thing we’ll be long gone.”

“We won’t be able to operate out of this port anymore,” added Leoni. “They’re going to tighten security.”

“Don’t take his side.”

“I’m not taking sides,” said Leoni. “I’m just making an observation.”

“Did you want to give up the whole ship? Did you want to give up the Grisha in the hold?”

Adrik adjusted the rudder. “Nina, I’m not angry at you. I’m trying to figure out what we do next.”

She leaned into her oars. “You’re a little angry with me.”

“No one’s angry,” said Leoni, matching Nina’s pace. “We freed a ship full of Grisha from that horrible place. And it’s not like Birgir and his kalfisk goons didn’t have plenty of enemies on the docks. They could have run into trouble with anyone during their surprise inspection. I call this a victory.”

“Of course you do,” said Adrik. “If you can find a way to put a sunny spin on something, you will.”

It was true. Leoni was like cheer in a bottle—and not even months in Fjerda had dimmed her shine.

“Are you actually humming?” Adrik had once asked incredulously when they’d been forced to spend an hour digging their sledge out of the mud. “How can you be so relentlessly optimistic? It isn’t healthy.”

Leoni had stopped humming to give the question her full consideration as she tried to coax their horse to pull. “I suppose it’s because I almost died as a child. When the gods give you another look at the world, best enjoy it.”

Adrik had barely raised a brow. “I’ve been shot, stabbed, bayoneted, and had my arm torn off by a shadow demon. It’s done nothing for my disposition.”

It was true. If Leoni was sunshine walking, Adrik was a doleful storm cloud too put-upon to actually rain.

Now he cast his eyes at the spangle of stars above them as he steered the rowboat toward shore. “The Verstoten will have to be repainted, given new documentation and a new history. We’ll have to shift our operations to another port. Maybe Hjar.”

Nina gripped her oars. King Nikolai had sent the Verstoten to dock and trade in Elling for the better part of a year before Adrik’s team had begun their mission. It was a familiar vessel that had drawn scarce attention. A perfect cover. Had she acted too hastily? Captain Birgir had been a greedy man, not a righteous one. Maybe she’d wanted to see him dead a little too much. But she’d been like this since Matthias died—fine one moment, then ready to snarl and snap like a wild thing.

No, like a wounded animal. And like a wounded animal, for a time, she had gone to ground. She’d spent months at the Little Palace, rekindling old friendships, eating familiar food, sitting by the fire in the Hall of the Golden Dome, trying to remember who she’d been before Matthias, before a glowering Fjerdan had disrupted her life with his unexpected honor, before she’d known that a witchhunter might shed his hate and fear and become the boy she loved. Before he’d been taken from her. But if there was a way back to the girl she had been, she hadn’t found it. And now she was here, in Matthias’ country, in this cold, hostile place.

“We’ll go south,” Leoni was saying. “It’s only going to get colder. We can work our way back here in a few months, when good old Captain Birgir has been forgotten.”

It was a reasonable plan, but the whispering chorus in Nina’s head rose, and she found herself saying, “We should go to Kejerut, to Gäfvalle. The fugitives who didn’t make it to the safe house didn’t just change their minds.”

“You know they were most likely captured,” said Adrik.

Tell them the truth, my love.

“Yes, I do,” said Nina. “But you heard what that old man said. Girls go missing from Kejerut.”

Tell them you hear the dead calling.

You don’t know that, Matthias.

It was one thing to hear her dead lover’s voice, quite another to claim she could sense … what exactly? She didn’t know. But she didn’t think the whispering in her head was just imagination. Something was pulling her east to the river cities.

“There’s another thing,” said Nina. “The women I worked with claimed the river up near Gäfvalle had gone sour, that the town was cursed.”

Now she had Adrik’s attention. What had she once said to Jesper back in Ketterdam? Do you know the best way to find Grisha who don’t want to be found? Look for miracles and listen to bedtime stories. Tales of witches and wondrous happenings, warnings about cursed places—they were signposts to things that ordinary people didn’t understand. Sometimes there was little more to it than local lore. But sometimes there were Grisha hiding in these places, disguising their powers, living in fear. Grisha they could help.

   
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