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Chapter no 13 – Nina

King of Scars

‌NINA AND HANNE TOOK TURNS DOZING, shoulders pressed together, making a show of sleeping as their “guards” stood by. When both of them were in danger of giving in to exhaustion, they asked each other questions: favorite sweet, favorite book, favorite pastime. Nina learned that Hanne loved cream buns filled with vanilla custard; had a secret taste for the gruesome novels popular in Ketterdam, the gorier the better, though translations were hard to find; and that she was fond of … sewing.

Sewing?” Nina had whispered incredulously, remembering the way Hanne had ridden into the clearing the previous night, rifle at the ready. “I thought you liked hunting and brawling and …” She wrinkled her nose. “Nature.”

“It’s a useful skill,” Hanne said defensively. “Who darned your husband’s socks?”

“I did, of course,” Nina lied. Though soldiers were supposed to learn their way around a needle and thread, she’d never managed it. She’d always just gone with holes in her socks. “But I didn’t enjoy it. The Wellmother must approve.”

Hanne rested her head against the wall. Her hair had dried in thick, rosy brown waves. “You’d think that, wouldn’t you? But apparently needlework is for ladies and sewing should be left to the servants. So should knitting and baking.”

“You can bake?” said Nina. “You have my attention.”

In the morning, Nina beamed at the men crowded into the room and insisted that they make sure to visit Lennart Bjord’s house on their way through Overüt.

“Why can’t we escort you now?” asked the bearded man. “We’d be delighted, of course,” Nina said through gritted teeth.

To Nina’s surprise, Hanne chimed in, “We didn’t think you’d want to stop over with us to do our penance with the Women of the Well. But how wonderful! I understand the sisters there are happy to perform the skad on any male visitors for only a small fee.” Nina had read about the skad. Enduring it was a stamp of Fjerdan manhood but also occasionally a death sentence. It required a three-month vow of celibacy and ritual purging with lye to cleanse the spirit.

The bearded man blanched. “We’ll take you to the outskirts of Gäfvalle, but then we have duties … uh … elsewhere.”

“Yes,” added the man with the tufty brows. “Many duties.”

“Where exactly will we find Lennart Bjord’s house?” another asked as he followed them outside. A thick layer of snow had covered the ground, though Nina could already see some of it melting away with the rising sun. The hard wind had dwindled to a soft breeze. The Brute must have tired himself out.

“Just head to the main square in Overüt,” Nina said. “It’s the grandest house on the boulevard.”

“Look for the one with the biggest gables,” added Hanne. “The pointiest in town.”

“Is that your horse?” he said. “Where is your sidesaddle?”

“It must have been lost in the snow,” said Nina, glad Hanne rode bareback and they didn’t have a man’s saddle to explain. “We’ll just walk him to Gäfvalle.”

When they were well out of view of the lodge, they mounted Hanne’s horse.

“The skad?” Nina asked, resting her hands lightly at Hanne’s lean waist as their thighs braced together.

Hanne glanced over her shoulder and cast Nina a surprisingly wicked smile. “My religious education should be good for something.”

They circled back toward camp, and now that the snow had stopped they had no trouble spotting the yellow flag and Adrik’s tent.

He waved to them, and Nina knew his relief that she had survived the storm was real, even as he made a great show of seeming incensed about Hanne’s trousers.

“I thought the Zemeni didn’t care about such things,” Hanne grumbled.

“His wife is Zemeni. He’s Kaelish, and he’s concerned about why you were out on your own. Actually … what were you doing out here yesterday?”

Hanne tilted her face up to the sky, closing her eyes. “I needed to ride. When the weather is about to turn is the best time. The fields are empty then.”

“Won’t you be in trouble for spending a night away from the convent?”

“I volunteered to fetch fresh water. The Wellmother will just be glad she doesn’t have to tell my father his daughter died of exposure in the middle of a storm.”

“And your friends? They didn’t come with you?”

Hanne kept her gaze on the white horizon. “It’s a game to them. A childish bit of dress-up, a chance to be daring. For me …” She shrugged. It was survival. There was something solitary in Hanne. Nina couldn’t pretend to really understand it. She loved company, noise, the bustle of a crowded room. But for a girl like this? To be forever trapped in the convent, watched by the sisters, and constantly forced to perform pious Fjerdan womanhood? It was a dismal thought. Even so, Hanne’s presence at the convent meant she might be a source of information about the factory. Though she was only a novitiate, she had to hear about

the Springmaidens’ visits up the mountain.

“Ride with us a little longer,” Nina said to Hanne as she mounted her own horse.

Hanne looked like she wanted to bolt, but Nina knew the other girl didn’t want to risk offense when she was still desperate to ensure Nina’s silence.

“Come on,” Nina urged gently. “I won’t keep you long.”

They set a moderate pace, Adrik trailing them with the sledge. “How old are you anyway?” Nina asked.

Hanne’s jaw set, her profile sharp against the silvery sky. “Nineteen.

And yes, that’s old for a novitiate.”

So Nina was right; they were almost the same age. “You aren’t ready to take vows.” Hanne gave a curt shake of her head. “But you can’t go home.” Another shake of the head. “So what, then?”

Hanne said nothing, her gaze fixed on the snow. She didn’t want to talk, or perhaps she felt she’d already said too much.

Nina cut her a sidelong look. “I can tell you’re eager for a last chance

to ride before you go back.” “Is it that obvious?”

“I can see it in the way your eyes stray to the horizon, the way you hold the reins.” Nina hesitated, then added, “The trick of acting is to believe the lie yourself, at least a little. Acting begins in the body. If you want to convince anyone of anything, you start with the way the body moves. It tells a thousand stories before you ever open your mouth.”

“And what stories am I telling?”

“Are you sure you want to know?” It was one thing to see the truth of someone. It was another to speak it back to them.

“Go on,” said Hanne, but her hands were tight on the reins.

“You’re strong, but you’re afraid of anyone seeing it, so you hunch and try to make yourself smaller. You’re only at ease when you think no one is watching. But then …” She reached out and tapped Hanne’s thigh. “Then you’re glorious.”

Hanne shot her a wary glance. “I know what I look like.”

Do you? Nina would have liked to tell Hanne that she could stroll into Os Alta, all six feet of her, with her chestnut-dipped-in-strawberry-syrup hair and her copper-coin eyes, and a thousand Ravkan courtiers would write songs to her beauty. Nina might be the first. But that would lead to a few questions.

At least she could offer Hanne something. “I won’t tell anyone what you are.”

Hanne’s eyes turned hard. “Why? They’d reward you. Informing on Grisha carries a weight of silver. Why would you be that kind?”

I’m not being kind. I’m earning your trust. But I won’t sentence you to death if I can help it.

“Because you dove in to save my life when you might have ridden by,” Nina said, then took the leap. “And because I don’t believe that Grisha power makes you evil.”

“It’s a sin,” Hanne hissed. “It’s poison. If I could rid myself of it, I would.”

“I understand,” said Nina, though every part of her wanted to protest. “But you can’t. So the question is whether you want to hate what you are and put yourself at greater risk of discovery, or accept this thing inside you and learn to control it.” Or abandon this Saintsforsaken country altogether.

“What if … what if I only make it stronger?”

“I don’t think it works that way,” said Nina. “But I know that if Grisha don’t use their power, eventually they begin to sicken.”

Hanne swallowed. “I like using it. I hate myself every time, but I just want to do it again.”

“There are some,” Nina said cautiously, “who believe that such power is a gift from Djel and not some kind of calamity.”

“Those are the whisperings of heretics and heathens.” When Nina didn’t reply, Hanne said, “You never told me what happened to your sister.”

“She learned to contain her power and found happiness. She’s married now and lives on the Ravkan border with her handsome husband.”

“Really?”

No, not really. Any sister of mine would be a Heartrender waging war on your ignorant, shortsighted government. “Yes,” Nina lied. “I remember a great deal from the lessons she received. There was some concern that I might have a latent … corruption, and so I was taught alongside her. I may be able to help you learn to control your power too.”

“Why would you ever take such a risk?”

Because I intend to pump you for information while I do it and knock some sense into you at the same time. After all, Nina had managed to get through to one thickheaded Fjerdan. Maybe she’d prove to have a talent for it.

“Because someone once did the same for my sister,” she said. “It’s the least I can do. But we’ll need a pretext for spending time together at the convent. How do you feel about learning Zemeni?”

“My parents would prefer I continue to work on my Kerch.” “I don’t know Kerch,” Nina lied.

“I don’t wish to owe you a debt,” Hanne protested.

She’s afraid of her power, Nina thought. But I can take away that fear.

“We’ll find a way for you to make it up to me,” she said. “Promise.

Now go, get a last ride in before the next snow comes.”

Hanne looked startled, almost disbelieving. Then she dug her heels into her horse’s flanks and took off at a hard gallop, body low, face turned to the wind, as if she and the animal were one, a hybrid creature born of the wild. How few people had been kind to Hanne that she would be so surprised by a small gesture of generosity?

Except you’re not being generous, Nina reminded herself as she nudged her own mount forward. You’re not being kind. She was going to

use Hanne. If she could help her in the process, so be it. But Nina’s duty was to the lost girls on the mountain, the women in their graves. Justice.

All Nina could do was throw this girl a rope. Hanne would have to be the one to seize it.

An hour later, Nina and Adrik entered the stables at the convent. They’d been gone one night, but to Nina it seemed as if a long season had passed. Her mind felt overburdened with emotion and new information. Matthias. Trassel. Hanne. The women buried at the factory. The puncture marks throbbing on her forearm. She’d been attacked by wolves, for Saints’ sake. She needed a hot bath, a plate of waffles, and about twelve hours of sleep.

Leoni waved when she saw them. She was perched on a low stool in a shadowy corner of the stables, hidden from the curious eyes of passersby by a few of the crates Nina and Adrik had left behind. She’d set up a small camp stove, and the space around her was littered with the pots and glass vials she must have been using to test the water samples.

“I thought you’d be back sooner,” she said with a smile.

Adrik led his horse to a stall. “Nina decided to have an adventure.” “A good one?” asked Leoni.

“An informative one,” said Nina. “How long have you been at this?” “All night,” Leoni admitted. She didn’t look well.

“Let’s go to town for lunch,” said Nina. “I can’t handle another meal of convent mush.”

Leoni stood, then braced her hand against the wall. “I—” Her eyes rolled back in her head and she swayed sharply.

“Leoni!” Nina cried as she and Adrik rushed to her side, just managing to reach her before she collapsed. They laid her gently back beside the camp stove. She was soaked in sweat and her skin felt like fire.

Leoni’s eyes fluttered open. “That was unexpected,” she said, and then she had the gall to smile.

“This is no time to be in a good mood,” said Adrik. “Your pulse is racing and you’re burning up.”

“I’m not dead, though.”

“Stop looking on the bright side and tell me when this started.”

“I think I botched the testing,” said Leoni, her voice thready. “I was trying to pull the pollutants from the samples, isolate them. I may have

absorbed some into my body. I told you poisons are tricky work.”

“I’ll take you back to the dormitories,” said Nina. “I can get clean water—”

“No. I don’t want the Springmaidens getting suspicious.”

“We can tend to her here,” said Adrik. “Get her settled behind the sledge. I can make a fire and brew clean water for tea.”

“There’s a tincture of charcoal in my kit,” said Leoni. “Add a few drops. It will absorb the toxins.”

Nina arranged a bed of blankets for Leoni out of sight of the main courtyard and tried to make her comfortable there.

“There’s something else,” Leoni said as she lay back.

Nina did not like the gray tinge to her skin or the way her eyelids fluttered. “Just rest. It can wait.”

“The Wellmother came to see me.”

“What happened?” Adrik said, kneeling beside her with a steaming cup of tea. “Here, try to take a sip. Did one of the novitiates talk about seeing us in the woods?”

“No, one of them died.”

Nina stilled. “The girl who fell from her horse?”

“I didn’t realize her injuries were so serious,” said Adrik.

“They weren’t,” said Leoni, sipping slowly. “I think it was the river.

She was in the water for a while, and she had an open wound.”

“All Saints,” Adrik said. “What the hell are they doing up at that factory?”

“I don’t know, but—” Nina hesitated, then plowed ahead. “But there are graves all over that mountain. Behind the reservoir, all over the factory yards. I felt them everywhere.”

“What?” said Adrik. “Why didn’t you tell us? How do you know?”

Leoni’s eyes had closed. Her speeding pulse seemed to have slowed a bit—a good sign.

“Is there more clean water?” asked Nina. “We should try to ease the fever. And will you see if there’s some carbolic in her kit?”

“Why?” Adrik asked as he fetched his canteen and the disinfectant. “Is she wounded?”

“No, I am. I got bitten by a wolf last night.” “Of course you did.”

Nina shrugged off her coat, revealing her torn and bloodied sleeve. “Wait,” said Adrik. “You’re serious?” He sat down beside Leoni and

rubbed his temples with his fingers. “One soldier poisoned, another attacked by wolves. This mission is going swimmingly.”

Nina pulled a length of cloth from the sledge and tore it in two. She used one half to make a compress for Leoni and the other to clean and bind the wound on her arm.

“Then that girl Hanne rescued you from a wolf attack?” Adrik asked. “Something like that.” Nina wasn’t ready to talk about Trassel. The

last thing she needed was Adrik’s skepticism. “I think it’s possible there was parem in the bite.”

What?

Nina glanced at Leoni, whose eyelids fluttered. “I can’t be sure, but the wolves weren’t behaving normally. It felt like parem.

“Then your addiction—”

Nina shook her head. “I’m okay so far.” That wasn’t entirely true. Even the suggestion of parem was enough to make her feel the pull of that animal hunger. But the edge of need seemed duller than she would have expected.

“Saints,” said Adrik, leaning forward. “If it’s in the water and Leoni was dosed with it—”

“Leoni isn’t acting like a Grisha exposed to parem. She would be clawing at the walls, desperate for another dose.” Nina knew that all too well. “But her other symptoms are similar to exposure, and enough parem could kill someone without Grisha powers, like the novitiate.”

“It wasn’t parem,” Leoni mumbled. “I don’t think.” “I thought you were asleep.”

“I am,” said Leoni. “There’s something corrosive in the water.” “Can you drink some more tea?” asked Adrik.

She nodded and managed to push up to her elbows. “I haven’t isolated it yet. Why didn’t you tell us about the graves when you found them, Nina?”

“You’re sure you don’t want to go back to sleep?” Nina asked, then sighed. She looked down at the folded compress in her hands. “I don’t know why. I think … They led me to the eastern entrance.”

Who led you?”

Nina cleared her throat and patted Leoni’s brow gently with the cloth. “I heard the dead … speak. I heard them all the way back in Elling.”

“Okay,” Leoni said cautiously. “What exactly did they say?” “They need our help.” My help.

“The dead,” repeated Adrik. “Need our help.”

“I realize I sound like I’ve gone loopy, but we need to get inside that factory. And I think I know someone who can help.”

Nina brought Leoni back to the dormitories before nightfall and got her tucked into bed. Her fever had broken and she was already feeling better—further proof that whatever she’d found in the water was not parem. So what was wrong with those wolves, and what had been in their bite? And what had killed the novitiate?

She took a plate of kitchen scraps out to the woods and set them at the base of a tree in the silly hope that Trassel might find his way to her again. They’d probably be eaten by some ungrateful rodent.

Standing at the edge of the forest, Nina looked up at the factory, its lights glowing gold in the gathering dusk, the windows of the eastern wing dark. She thought of the twisting roots of Djel’s ash, carved into the walls of the reservoir.

There’s poison in this place. She could almost taste it, bitter on her tongue. But just how deep does it go?

The next morning, Nina was pleased to find a summons to the Wellmother’s office had been slid beneath their door. Nina was to meet with her and Hanne after morning prayers to discuss the possibility of language lessons. So Hanne did want to learn more about her Grisha gifts—even if it was only to control them.

Of course, Adrik had been wary of her plan.

“We’re better off using our time to gather intelligence here and in the neighboring towns,” he complained. “Fjerda is gearing up for something. With the right information, our forces may be able to waylay a wagon or shipment or shut this place down entirely, but not if the Fjerdans catch wind of our activities and move their operations. You don’t know how easy it is to ruin your cover, Nina. This is a dangerous game.”

Nina wanted to scream. She’d been a spy for Zoya Nazyalensky on the Wandering Isle. She’d spent a year on her own in Ketterdam doing jobs for Kaz Brekker. She’d infiltrated the Ice Court as a girl from the Menagerie. She might be new to this particular game, but she’d played for high stakes plenty of times.

“I can manage this, Adrik,” she said as calmly as she could. “You know she’s our best possible asset. We can find out what’s happening in that factory. We don’t need someone else to do it.”

“What do we really know about this girl?”

“She’s Grisha and she’s miserable. Aren’t we here to save people exactly like her?”

“From what you’ve told me, she doesn’t want rescue.”

“Maybe I’ll change her mind. And in the meantime, I can get access to the rest of the convent.” Nina and Leoni were quartered in a room abutting the kitchens and locked off from the bulk of the building and the dormitories. “The Springmaidens are the only locals allowed into the factory. I may actually be able to figure out a way to get us inside.”

“You’ll take no action without my say-so,” said Adrik. “And first you have to get past the Wellmother.”

Nina left Adrik and Leoni in the stables and crossed the courtyard to the chapel, passing through the heavy door covered in its elaborate knots of ash bough. The sweet, loamy scent of the timber walls enveloped her, and she took a moment to let her eyes adjust to the gloom. The air was cold and still, the pews lit by the glow of lanterns and weak sunlight from a few slender windows set high above the transept. There was no altar, no painted scene of Saints—instead a massive tree sprawled across the apse of the chapel, its roots extending to the first row of pews. Djel’s ash, fed by the Wellspring.

Whose prayers do you hear? Nina wondered. Do you hear the words of soldiers? Of Fjerdan Grisha locked in Jarl Brum’s cells? The whispers in her head seemed to sigh—in regret? In longing? She didn’t know. She smoothed her skirts and hurried down the side aisle to the Wellmother’s office.

“Enke Jandersdat,” the older woman said when Nina entered, addressing her by the title widow. “Hanne tells me you’re willing to offer lessons in Zemeni. I hope you realize the convent cannot provide a tutor’s fees.”

Hanne remained silent, dressed in her pale blue pinafore and tidy white blouse, eyes on her impractical felt slippers. Her ruddy brown hair had been neatly braided and twisted into a tight corona on her head. The uniform didn’t suit her. Nina had the urge to seize the pins from Hanne’s braids and see all that glorious hair come down again.

“Of course,” said Nina. “I would require no payment. All I ask is that you let us partake of your hospitality a bit longer and, if you have a copper cookpot, that my employers might have the loan of it.” Leoni felt sure she could continue her experiments safely now that she knew what

she was dealing with, but copper instruments would be a help.

“It seems a too-generous offer,” said the Wellmother, her lips pressed into a suspicious line.

“You’ve caught me,” said Nina, and saw Hanne’s eyes widen. Saints, if Hanne intended to continue living in this wretched country, she was going to need an education in deception. Maybe an internship in Ketterdam. Nina hadn’t been caught at anything, but she could tell the Wellmother thought she had some kind of angle, so she intended to give her one. “The truth is that I cannot continue my work as a guide much longer. The travel is a hardship, and at some point I need to seek a more permanent position to provide for myself.”

“We do not hire outside of the order—”

“Oh no, of course, I understand. But a reference from the Wellmother of Gäfvalle would mean so much to other Fjerdans seeking a teacher for their children.”

The Wellmother preened, her chin lifting. Piety was little defense against flattery. “Well. I can see how that might be a boon. We shall see what good you can do with our Hanne. It’s a bit late for her to be taking up a new language. But to be frank, it’s a relief to see her interested in anything that doesn’t involve a muddy romp in the woods.”

The Wellmother escorted them to an empty classroom and told them they were free to work until lunchtime. “I expect you to keep up with your other work, Hanne. Your father will not like it if you become a burden to this institution.”

“Yes, Wellmother,” she replied dutifully. But as the older woman departed, Hanne cast a black look at the door and slumped into one of the desks.

“She agreed to the lessons,” said Nina. “It could be worse.”

“She considers me one of her failures. Unmarried at nineteen, with no prospects and no signs of a true calling to Djel.”

“Are all of the Springmaidens supposed to be called?” Nina asked as she picked up a piece of chalk and began to conjugate a Zemeni verb on the slate board that covered most of one wall.

“I don’t know. Some say they are, claim to have visions. But I’m not sure Djel is interested in girls like me. Do you really mean to give up your life as a guide?”

“No,” said Nina, trying to keep her chalk letters straight. “I’m not ready to live in one place just yet.” Only when she said the words did she

realize that might be true. She’d been restless in Ravka, and now she wondered if she might be restless anywhere she tried to settle.

Nina took a sheaf of papers from her pocket. “These are rudimentary Zemeni lessons. You’ll need to copy them into your notebook so it looks like we’re actually doing some work.”

“You mean I’m really going to have to learn Zemeni?”

“A little. You don’t have to be good at it.” She gestured to the board. “We’ll start with this verb: bes adawa.” She raised her hands and planted her legs in the first stance each Grisha was taught. “To fight.”

The lesson lasted two hours. Nina started just as her own education had begun at the Little Palace: by teaching Hanne to use her Heartrender power on herself.

“Have you ever tried it?” Nina asked.

“No … I’m not sure. Sometimes, when I can’t sleep, I’ll think of my heart slowing—”

Nina winced. “You’re lucky you didn’t put yourself into a coma.”

Nina talked her through rudimentary breathing techniques and basic fighting stances. She had Hanne slow her own heart, then make it race. She touched only briefly on Grisha theory and how amplifiers worked, and she steered well clear of any talk of jurda parem.

“How do you know all of this?” Hanne said. Her cheeks were flushed from using her power, and her hair had escaped her braids to curl at her temples. “You really learned everything from your sister’s teacher?”

Nina turned her back to erase the board and to hide her expression. It was possible she’d gotten carried away. You don’t know how easy it is to ruin your cover, Nina. She could just imagine Adrik’s singsong What did I tell you?

“Yes,” she said. “I paid close attention. But you’re also a natural. You’re picking up on the work very quickly.” That at least was true. Hanne had an ease with her power that was something special. But her face was troubled. “What is it?” Nina asked.

“That word. Natural.” Hanne ran her finger over one of the sheets where she’d scrawled the conjugation of another Zemeni verb. Her penmanship was tragic. “When I was younger, my father took me everywhere. To ride. To hunt. It was unorthodox, but he longed for a son, and I think he believed there was no harm in it. I loved it. Fighting, horsemanship, running free. But when I got older and it was time to

present me at court … I couldn’t shake it off.”

And why should you have to? Nina thought. She didn’t have any great love for horses and preferred not to run anywhere unless being chased, but at least she was allowed those opportunities.

Hanne folded her arms, her shoulders hunching, looking like she wanted to crumple into herself. “Unnatural, they called me. A woman’s body is meant to be soft, but mine was hard. A lady is meant to take small, graceful steps, but I strode. I was a laughingstock.” Hanne gazed up at the ceiling. “My father blamed himself for corrupting me. I couldn’t sing or paint, but I could clean a deer and string a bow. I could build a shelter. All I wanted was to escape to the woods. Sleep beneath the stars.”

“That sounds … well, that sounds horrible,” admitted Nina. “But I think I can understand the appeal.”

“I tried to change. I really did.” Hanne shrugged. “I failed. If I fail again…”

Her gaze was bleak, and Nina wondered what grim future she was seeing. “What happens if you fail again?”

“The school was supposed to make me presentable. Good marriage material. If the Wellmother can’t fix me, I’ll never be allowed to go home, never be presented at court. It should have happened two years ago.”

“Would it be so bad not to go back?”

“And never see my parents? Live like an exile?” “Are those the choices?”

“I find a way to fit in, or I take vows and live the rest of my life out here, in service to Djel among Women of the Well.” She scowled. “I wish I was an Inferni instead of a Heartrender.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Nina said without thinking, her pride bristling. How could anyone want to be a Summoner instead of Corporalki? Everyone knows we’re the best Order. “I mean … why would anyone want to be an Inferni?”

Hanne’s bright eyes flashed as if in challenge. “So I could melt the Ice Court from the inside out. Wash the whole big mess into the sea.”

Dangerous words. And maybe Nina should have pretended to be scandalized. Instead she grinned. “The grandest puddle in the world.”

“Exactly,” said Hanne, returning her smile, that wicked edge curling her lips

Suddenly, Nina wanted to tell Hanne all of it. My friends and I blew a hole in the Ice Court wall! We stole a Fjerdan tank! All Saints, did she want to brag? Nina gave her head a shake. This is a chance to gain her confidence, she told herself. Take it.

She sat down at the desk next to Hanne’s and said, “If you could go anywhere, do anything, what would you choose for yourself?”

“Novyi Zem,” Hanne said instantly. “I’d get a job, make my own money, hire myself out as a sharpshooter.”

“You’re that good?”

“I am,” Hanne said without a hint of hesitation. “I think about it every time I ride out. Just disappearing. Making everyone believe I was lost in a storm or that I was carried away by the river.”

Beastly idea. Come to Ravka. “Then why not do it? Why not just go?”

Hanne stared at her, shocked. “I couldn’t do that to my parents. I couldn’t shame them that way.”

Nina narrowly avoided rolling her eyes. Fjerdans and their honor. “Of course not,” she said swiftly. But she couldn’t help but think of Hanne riding into the clearing, rifle raised, braids loose, a warrior born. There was gold in her, Nina could see it, the shine dimmed by years of being told there was something wrong in the way she was made. Those glimpses of the real Hanne, the Hanne who was meant to be, were driving her to distraction. You’re not here to make a new friend, Zenik, she chastised herself. You’re here for information.

“What if the Wellmother casts you out?” she asked. “She won’t. My father is a generous donor.”

“And if she catches you flouncing about in men’s trousers?” Nina prodded.

“She won’t.”

“If my friends and I had been less generous, she might have.”

Now Hanne leaned back and grinned with easy confidence. There you are, thought Nina. “It would have been your word against mine. I would have been dressed neatly in my pinafore and back behind the convent walls before you’d knocked on the Wellmother’s door.”

Interesting. Nina put all the condescension she could summon in her tone and said, “Of course you would have.”

Hanne sat up straighter and jabbed her finger into the surface of the desk. “I know every step that creaks in this place. I know just where the cook stashes the key to the west kitchen door, and I have pinafores and

changes of clothes stowed everywhere from the chapel to the roof. I don’t get caught.”

Nina held up her hands to make peace. “I just think you might consider more caution.”

“Says the girl teaching me Grisha skills in the halls of Djel.” “Maybe I have less to lose than you do.”

Hanne raised a brow. “Or maybe you just think you’re better at being bold.”

Try me, thought Nina. But all she said was, “Back to work. Let’s see if you can make my heart race.”

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