Chapter no 10 – Nina

King of Scars

‌DUSK HAD FALLEN by the time she pushed to her feet.

The sky looked more gray than purple, wounded like a deep bruise, and the air felt moist against her cheeks. Snow had begun to fall in gentle drifts.

It didn’t stay gentle for long.

Nina had never seen a storm come on so fast. The wind blew hard, and snow blurred the whole world white. Gruzeburya. Even the Ravkans had a name for this wind. The Brute. Not for the cold it brought but for the way it blinded you like a thug in a dirty fight. Nina was torn between trying to follow the sound of the river back to camp and being afraid she might stray too close to the banks and fall in.

She trudged on, squinting against the white. At one point she thought she heard Adrik’s voice calling to her, glimpsed the bright yellow flag they’d raised above the tent, but a moment later it was gone.

Stupid, stupid, stupid. She had not been made for such places. Nina wouldn’t survive a night without shelter in this weather. She had no choice but to continue on.

Then, like a miracle, the wind lifted, the curtains of snow seemed to part, and she saw a dark shape in the distance. The camp.

“Adrik!” she cried. But as she drew closer, she saw no flag, no tent, only the swaying bodies of a copse of trees—and in the snow before them, a slight indentation. She’d walked in a circle. She had returned to Matthias’ grave.

“Well done, Zenik,” she sighed. She was only eighteen years old, so why did she feel so tired? Why did everything behind her seem bright and everything before her look bleak? Maybe she hadn’t come here to

bury Matthias and claim her new purpose. Maybe she’d come out here to the ice, to this cold and unforgiving place, to die.

There would be no Saints to greet her on a brighter shore. Grisha didn’t believe in an afterlife. When they died, they returned to the making at the heart of the world. It was a thought that brought her little comfort.

Nina turned back toward camp. There was nothing for it but to start marching again. But before she could take a step, she saw them—five hulking shapes in the snow. Wolves.

“Of course,” she said. “Matthias, your country can kiss my fat Grisha ass.”

The wolves prowled around her in a circle, surrounding her, cutting off any route of escape. Low growls rumbled from their chests. Wolves were sacred to the drüskelle. Maybe they’d sensed Matthias’ presence. Or maybe they’d sensed Nina, a Grisha, an enemy. Or maybe they sensed a nice juicy meal.

“Just go,” she said in Fjerdan. “I don’t want to hurt you.” I don’t want to die.

Matthias had been forced to fight wolves during his year at Hellgate. Djel had a strange sense of humor. Nina flexed her fingers, felt her bone daggers ready to be called. They would work as well on an animal as a human. She hurled off her cloak, feeling the cold bite into her but freeing the bone shard armor at her back. She was a Saint surrounded by her relics.

Two wolves leapt. Nina’s hands shot out and the bone shards flew true, piercing the animals’ bodies in two clean, hard strikes. The wolves yelped and landed in the snow, motionless. The sound broke her heart. At least they were clean deaths. In the end, maybe that was all anyone could hope for.

But the others were closing in already. There was something odd about the way they moved. Their eyes glowed almost orange and they hunched and twitched as if animated by something more than hunger. What was wrong with them? There was no time to think.

They lunged. Nina struck out. This time her aim was less sure. One wolf fell, but the other pounced, landing on her with a weight that sent her tumbling into the snow.

Its jaws closed over her forearm, pain lancing through her. The wolf stank of something strange. She screamed.

Nina heard a loud snarl and knew she was about to die. All those pretty words for Matthias. Who will speak for me?

Then, in a blur, something smashed into the body of the wolf, freeing her from its weight. Nina rolled, clutching her bleeding arm to her chest, gasping for air. She plunged her arm into the snow, trying to get the wound clean. Her body started to shake. It was as if the wolf’s bite had carried poison. Nina felt a heart-stopping rush go through her. She saw death all around—Matthias’ body in the ground below, a graveyard to the north, an outbreak of plague farther on, the entropy of the earth, the decay in everything. The chorus screamed inside her head.

She pressed snow to her cheeks, trembling, trying to clear her thoughts, but when she opened her eyes, she wondered if the poison had fractured her mind. Two wolves were fighting in the snow—one gray, the other white and far larger. They rolled, and the white wolf clamped its jaws over the throat of the gray but did not bite down. At last, the gray slumped and whimpered. The white wolf released its hold and the smaller wolf recoiled, slinking away, tail tucked between its haunches.

The white wolf turned on Nina, blood on its muzzle. The animal was huge and rangy, but it didn’t twist or shake the way the grays had. Something had been infecting them, something that had gotten into Nina’s bloodstream, but this creature moved with the natural, unerring grace of wild things.

The white wolf stalked toward her. Nina pushed up onto her knees, holding out her hands to ward it off, reaching for another bone shard with her power.

Then she saw the scar that ran along its yellow eye. “Trassel?”

The wolf’s ears twitched.

Matthias’ wolf? It couldn’t be. He’d once told her that when a drüskelle died, his brothers gave his isenulf back to the wild. Had Trassel come to find the boy he’d loved, to be united with him even in death?

“Trassel,” she said gently. The wolf cocked his big head to the side.

Nina heard hoofbeats. Before she could fathom what was happening, a girl rode into the clearing.

“Get back!” she cried, galloping her horse between Nina and the white wolf.

It took Nina a moment to understand what she was seeing—the tall girl from the convent. This time she wore leather trousers and furs, and

the reddish-brown tumble of her hair streamed down her back, held away from her face by two long braids. She looked like a warrior queen—a sylph of the ice straight out of Fjerdan legend.

She raised her rifle.

Trassel backed away, snarling.

“No!” Nina screamed. She hurled a bone shard at the girl, striking her shoulder. The rifle shot went wide. “Run!” Nina yelled at Trassel in Fjerdan. The wolf snapped his jaws as if in argument. “Djel commenden!” Nina shouted. Drüskelle words. Trassel huffed once, then turned and loped into the storm, giving her a last betrayed look as if he couldn’t believe she’d ask him to abandon a fight.

“What are you doing?” the tall girl demanded, yanking the bone dart from her shoulder and tossing it into the snow.

Nina howled her rage. Matthias’ wolf, his troublemaker, his Trassel had somehow found his way to her, and this blundering podge had driven him off. She seized the girl’s leg and yanked her from the saddle.

“Hey!” The girl tried to shove Nina away, clearly surprised by her strength. But Nina had been trained as a soldier. She might not be built like a Fjerdan warrior, but she was plenty strong.

“You scared him away!”

“That was a wolf,” the girl shouted back in her face. “You know that, right? He already bit you once. Just because he follows some of your commands—”

“He didn’t bite me, you ass. It was the other wolf!”

“The other … are you out of your mind? And how do you know

drüskelle commands anyway?”

Nina found hot tears running down her cheeks. She might never see Trassel again. What if Matthias had sent him to her? Called him here to help her? “You had no right!”

“I didn’t mean to—”

“It doesn’t matter what you meant!” Nina stalked toward her. “Careless, foolish, thoughtless.” She didn’t know if she was talking to this girl or herself anymore, and she didn’t care. It was all too much.

She shoved the other girl hard, swept her leg behind her ankle. “Stop it!” snarled the girl as she toppled.

But Nina could not stop. She wanted to get hit. She wanted to hit back.

She grabbed the girl by her collar.

Nina grunted as sudden pain seized her chest. It felt like a fist around

her heart. The girl had her hands up, something between terror and exultation in her copper eyes. Nina felt her body grow heavy; her vision blurred. She knew this feeling from her training as a Corporalnik. The other girl was slowing Nina’s heartbeat.

Grisha,” Nina gasped. “I didn’t … I don’t.”

Nina pushed her own power against the other girl’s, felt her living, vibrant force waver. With the last bit of her strength, Nina flicked her fingers and a bone shard flew from its sheath at her thigh. It struck the girl in the side, not hard—it bounced into the snow. But it was enough to break her concentration.

Nina stumbled backward, trying to regain her breath, fingers pressed to her sternum. She hadn’t had Heartrender power used against her for years. She’d forgotten just how frightening it could be.

“You’re Grisha,” she said.

The girl leapt to her feet, knife drawn. “I’m not.”

Interesting, thought Nina. She has power but she can’t control it. She trusts the blade more.

Nina held up her palms to make peace. “I’m not going to hurt you.” Now the girl showed no sign of hesitation. Her body was loose,

relaxed, as if she felt more herself with steel in her hand. “You sure seemed like you wanted to hurt me a second ago.”

“Well, I did, but I’ve come to my senses.”

“I was trying to save your life! Why do you care about a wolf anyway? You’re worse than the drüskelle.”

Now, that was something Nina had never expected to hear. “That wolf saved me from an attack. I don’t know why. But I didn’t want you to hurt him.” This girl was Grisha, and Nina had almost killed her. “I … overreacted.”

The tall girl shoved her knife back in its sheath. “Overreacting is throwing a tantrum when someone eats the last sweet roll.” She pointed an accusatory finger at Nina. “You were out for blood.”

“To be fair, I’ve considered killing over the last sweet roll.” “Where’s your coat?”

“I think I took it off,” Nina said, searching for an explanation for why she would tear off her coat that didn’t involve disclosing her bone armor. “I guess I was going snow-mad.”

“Is that a thing?”

Nina found the coat, already almost buried in wet white flakes. “Absolutely. At least in my village.”

The other girl rubbed her muscled thigh. “And what did you hit me with?”

“A dart.”

“You threw a dart at me?” she said incredulously. “That’s ridiculous.” “It worked, didn’t it?” A dart made of human bone, but some details

were best avoided, and it was time to go on the offensive. Nina shrugged into her damp coat. “You put the guards to sleep at the convent. That’s how you sneak out.”

All the girl’s confidence dissolved, fear dousing her fire like a rogue wave. “I didn’t hurt anyone.”

“But you could have. That’s actually very delicate work. You could land someone in a coma.”

The girl stilled as the wind howled around them. “How would you know?”

But Nina hadn’t spoken without thinking. Grisha power was as good as a death sentence or worse in this country.

“My sister was Grisha,” Nina lied. “What … what happened to her?”

“That’s not a story for the middle of a storm.”

The girl clenched her fists. Saints, she was tall—but built like a dancer, a long coil of wiry muscle.

“You can’t tell anyone what I am,” she said. “They’ll kill me.”

“I’m not going to hurt you, and I’m not going to help anyone hurt you.” The girl’s face was wary. The wind rose, keening. “But none of that will matter if we both die out here.”

The tall girl looked at Nina as if she really had gone snow-mad. “Don’t be silly.”

“You’re saying you can find your way through this?”

“No,” she said, patting her horse’s flank. “But Helmut can. There’s a hunting lodge not far from here.” Again, she hesitated, and Nina could guess at the thoughts in her head.

“You’re thinking of leaving me to the mercy of the snow,” said Nina. The girl’s eyes slid away guiltily. So she had a merciless streak. Somehow it made Nina like her more. “I might not survive. But I might. And then you can be sure I’ll tell the first person I meet about the Grisha Heartrender living in secret among the Women of the Well.”

“I’m not Grisha.”

“You do a remarkable imitation.”

The girl ran a gloved hand through her horse’s mane. “Can you ride?” “If I have to.”

“It’s that or go to sleep in the snow.” “I can ride.”

The girl vaulted into the saddle in a single smooth movement. She offered Nina a hand, and Nina let herself be pulled onto the horse’s back.

“You don’t like to skip meals, do you?” said the girl with a grunt. “Not if I can help it.”

Nina settled her hands around the girl’s waist, and soon they were moving through the growing drifts.

“You can be whipped for using those commands, you know,” said the girl. “Djel commenden. That’s considered blasphemy if a drüskelle isn’t speaking.”

“I’ll say extra prayers tonight.”

“You never told me how you know those commands.” More lies then. “A boy from our town served in the ranks.” “What’s his name?”

Nina thought back to the fight at the Ice Court. “Lars. I believe he passed recently.” And no one wants him back. He’d closed a whip over her and put her on her knees before Kaz Brekker had come calling.

The white world stretched on, frozen and featureless. Now that she wasn’t walking, Nina felt the cold more deeply, the weight of it settling over her. Just as she began to wonder if the girl knew where she was going, Nina saw a dark shape through the snow, and the horse halted. The girl slid down.

Nina followed, her legs gone numb and aching, and they led Helmut to a sheltered space beside the lodge.

“Looks like we aren’t the only ones who had this idea,” she said. There were lights in the windows of the little lodge, and she could hear loud voices from within.

The other girl twisted the reins in her hands, removing her glove to stroke the horse’s nose. “I didn’t realize so many people knew about this place. There are probably men inside who came to wait out the storm. We won’t be safe here.”

Nina considered. “Do you have your skirts in your saddlebag?”

The girl pulled at a knotted belt around her waist, and the folds of her

coat dropped into a skirt that fell into place over her trousers. Nina had to admit she was impressed. “What other tricks do you have up your sleeve? Or skirts, as the case may be?”

A smile flickered over her lips. “A few.”

The door to the shelter flew open, a man with a gun silhouetted against the light. “Who’s out there?”

“Follow my lead,” Nina murmured, then cried, “Oh thank goodness.

We were afraid no one would be here. Hurry, Inger!” “Inger?” muttered the girl.

Nina stomped up to the door, ignoring the gun pointed at her, hoping the man holding it wasn’t drunk or riled enough to shoot at an unarmed girl—or a girl who looked unarmed.

Nina climbed the steps and smiled sweetly at the big man as the other girl trailed her. “Thank Djel we’ve found shelter for the night.” She glanced over his shoulder into the lodge. The room was crowded with men, ten at least, all gathered around a fire. Nina felt tension spike through her. This was a moment when she would have been glad to see drüskelle, who didn’t drink and who were kept to a strict code regarding women. There was nothing to do but brazen it out. “And among gentlemen to protect us!”

“Who are you?” the man said suspiciously.

Nina pushed past him as if she owned the place. “Aren’t we lucky, Inger? Let’s get in front of that fire. And close the door …” She laid a hand on the man’s chest. “I’m sorry, what was your name?”

He blinked. “Anders.”

“Be a darling and shut the door, Anders.”

They shuffled inside, and she met the stares of the men with a smile. “I knew Djel would guide our way, Inger. Surely your father will have a healthy reward in store for all of these fine fellows.”

For a moment, the girl looked confused, and Nina thought they might be lost. But then her face cleared. “Yes! Yes, indeed! My father is most generous when it comes to my safety.”

“And with you betrothed to the wealthiest man in Overüt.” Nina winked at the men gathered by the fire. “Well, I suppose Djel has granted you gentlemen a bit of luck this night too. Now, which of you will stand guard for us?”

“Stand guard?” said a man with tufty orange brows by the fire. “Through the night.”

“Dumpling, I think you’re in a muddle—”

“Lady Inger’s father is most generous, but he cannot be expected to bestow ten thousand krydda on every one of you, so you must choose who is to be the beneficiary.”

“Ten thousand krydda?”

“That was the price last time, was it not? When we were stranded in that amusing spot down south. Although, I suppose now that you are betrothed to the wealthiest man in Overüt, it may be twice the price.”

“Who is this bridegroom you speak of?” the bearded man asked. “You’ve heard of Bernhard Bolle, who made his fortune in smoked

trout? And Ingvar Hals, who owns timberland from the Elbjen to the Isenvee? Well, Lennart Bjord towers above them all.”

“Lennart Bjord?” the bearded man repeated.

“That does sound familiar,” said someone by the hearth. Nina highly doubted that, since she’d made him up mere moments ago.

“I was the first to greet them,” said the big man with the rifle. “It’s only right I should get the reward.”

“How is that fair? You happened to be by the door!”

“Now, don’t get too riled,” Nina said with a schoolmarm tsk in her voice as the men began debating who would take the watch. “Lennart Bjord will have a bit of something for everyone.”

Nina and “Inger” settled in the corner, their backs to the wall as the men argued.

“That was pathetic,” the girl seethed, resting her elbows on her knees and tugging her skirt over the toes of her boots.

“I beg your pardon?”

“You made us seem weak. Every time we behave that way, it just makes it easier for men to look at us and see nothing but softness.”

“There is nothing wrong with softness,” Nina said, her temper fraying. She was exhausted and cold, and she’d dug her lover’s grave tonight. “Right now they’re looking at us as two big bags of money instead of two vulnerable girls alone.”

“We weren’t vulnerable. I have my gun, my knife. You have those ridiculous darts.”

“Do you also have twelve arms hidden in that coat? We’re outnumbered.” Nina actually suspected that she could have managed all of them, but only if she intended to reveal her true power, and that would mean putting this girl in the ground tonight too.

“They’re drunk. We would have managed.”

“You don’t enter a fight you can’t win,” Nina replied, irritated. “I’m guessing you’ve had to train in secret, and that you’ve probably never had a real combat instructor. Being strong doesn’t mean being sloppy.”

The wiry girl drew her coat closer. “I hate it. I hate how they see us. My father is the same way. He thinks a woman wanting to fight or hunt or fend for herself is unnatural, that it denies men the chance to be protectors.”

Nina snorted. “It really is a tragedy for them. What does your mother think?”

“My mother is the perfect wife, except she provided my father no sons. She does as he dictates.” The girl sighed. She looked weary suddenly, the thrill of the fight and the storm gone. Her hair—that extraordinary color, like the woods in autumn, chestnut and red and gold

—lay storm-damp and tangled against her brown cheeks. “I can’t blame her. It’s the way the world works. She’s worried I’ll become an outcast.”

“So they sent you to a convent in the middle of nowhere?”

“Where I couldn’t get into trouble or embarrass them in front of their friends. Don’t pretend you think differently. I saw the way you looked at me when you helped us in the clearing.”

“You were dressed as a soldier. I was entitled to a little surprise.” And she’d been dedicated to maintaining her cover, not befriending a Grisha

—one who might be able to get her closer to the factory. “In case you hadn’t noticed, I travel on my own, make my own living.”

“That’s different. You’re a widow.” “You needn’t sound quite so envious.”

The girl rubbed her hand over her brow. “I’m sorry. That was thoughtless.”

Nina studied her. There was something relentless in her features—the cheekbones sharp, the nose rigorously straight. Only the full thrust of her lips gave any hint of softness. It was a challenging face, stubborn in its lines. Beautiful.

“We’re not as different as you might think.” Nina bobbed her head toward the men, who were now arm wrestling for the right to a generous reward that none of them would ever see. “It’s fear that makes your father act as he does, that makes men write foolish rules that say you can’t travel alone or ride as you wish to.”

The other girl bit back a laugh. “Why should they be afraid? The

world belongs to them.”

“But think of all the things we might achieve if we were allowed to do the things that they do.”

“If they were truly afraid, you wouldn’t have to simper and preen.”

Nina winked. “You’ve seen me simper. If I ever decide to preen, you’ll need to sit down for it.”

The girl stifled a snort. “I’m Hanne.”

“Nice to meet you,” Nina said. “I’m Mila.” She’d told countless lies this night, but somehow it felt wrong to give this girl a false name.

“You don’t really mean for us to sleep, do you, Mila?” Hanne’s face was knowing.

“Not a chance. You’re going to keep your hand on your dagger, and I’m going to keep first watch.”

Nina touched her hand to her sleeve, felt the reassuring presence of the bones lining the fabric. She watched the flickering of the fire.

“Rest,” she told Hanne, and realized she was smiling for the first time in months.

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