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Chapter no 18 – ‌Nina

King of Scars

‌THAT NIGHT, NINA STAYED AWAKE as Leoni’s breathing turned deep and even. Sleep tugged at her, but she plaited her hair in the dark and waited, hoping to hear sounds of activity drift through the narrow window above her bed. Sure enough, just after midnight, she heard low voices and a cart being loaded. Nina stood on tiptoe and saw lanterns lit in the laundry and the Springmaidens carrying stacks of what she assumed was clothing wrapped in paper and string.

Nina hurried to the convent dining hall—a place with a strict schedule that she knew Hanne could always count upon to be empty at specific times. If an unhappy novitiate was looking for a safe spot to stash clothing, this would be an obvious place for it. She got on her knees and made her way around the perimeter of the hall, lightly rapping her knuckles against the slate tiles of the floor. She’d nearly given up hope when her knock returned an odd, echoing thunk. Hollow.

She wedged her fingers under the tile and pulled it up. Boots, military- issue trousers, two hats, a gun belt, and—thank the Saints—a long pale blue pinafore and white blouse. Nina yanked them over her clothes, pinned her braids into a messy crown, and slipped into the kitchens, where a long search revealed the cook’s key beneath a flour tin. By the time she’d unlocked the kitchen door and made it out to the yard, the Springmaidens were shutting the doors to the wagon and on their way.

Nina knew where they were headed, so she didn’t bother with the road, cutting through the trees and taking a more direct route to the main entrance of the old fort instead. She also knew she was being reckless. She should have included Adrik and Leoni in her plans. She should have waited to perform more reconnaissance. But here was the reality: They

couldn’t stay in Gäfvalle much longer without drawing suspicion. The Women of the Well could lose their access to the fort at any time. And, if Nina was honest with herself, she needed to act. She needed to know why those whispers had brought her to this place and what had happened up on that hill. The dead hadn’t spoken to Adrik or Leoni. They had called to Nina—and she intended to answer.

She set a fast pace, picking her way through the trees, checking her direction against the lights of the factory in the distance.

Despite the sadness and anger she’d carried with her to Fjerda, she could admit that she liked traveling in this country. She liked seeing the ordinary business of Fjerdan lives, remembering that they were people and not monsters, that most of them longed for prosperity and peace, a good meal, a warm bed to sleep in at night. But she also knew the prejudices so many of them carried, that they still believed Grisha deserved to be burned on a pyre. And she could never forget what the Fjerdan government was capable of, the suffering she’d endured at the hands of the drüskelle who had starved her in the hold of a ship, the nightmare of the Grisha cells at the Ice Court, where Jarl Brum had tried to turn her kind into weapons against themselves.

Nina reached the rocks overlooking the main entrance in time to see the convent cart arrive and the gates open. She stumbled down the slope to the road, sliding on her heels and nearly losing her balance completely. The shape of the body Genya had given her still felt strange, and she’d never had a talent for stealth.

Moving through the shadows of the trees that lined the road, she saw the last of the Springmaidens pass through the doors, burdened with their stacks of clothing. Only then did she step onto the road and scurry up to the doors, breathless.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I fell behind.”

“That’s your problem,” said the guard. “Do you know how heavy these doors are? You can wait out here for your sisters.”

“But… but …you don’t understand …I had to… I had to use the necessary,” Nina whispered in tones of great agony.

“The what?”

“I had to … to relieve myself.” The guard looked instantly distressed. Bless the Fjerdans and their peculiar prudishness. “I had to urinate.” Nina lingered on the word. “In the trees.”

“That … that’s no concern of mine,” he sputtered.

Nina forced tears to her eyes. “But I had to gooooo,” she wailed. “And they’re going to be so muh-mad.”

“Oh, in Djel’s good name, don’t cry!”

“I’m so so-sorry,” Nina sobbed. “I just don’t want to get yuh-yuh yelled at again.”

“In, in!” said the guard hurriedly, unlocking the bolts and dragging the door open to usher her inside. “Just stop that!”

“Thank you, thank you,” Nina said, bowing and sniveling until the door shut behind her. She wiped her nose and took a good look around. The factory was quiet, already closed down for the night. Somewhere, she knew men would be playing cards or settling in to sleep. Others would be keeping the watch.

Nina hurried through the entryway that led to a vast central chamber full of heavy machinery, hulking and silent in the watery moonlight from the windows. The next room revealed massive vats, but it was impossible to tell what they might contain. She laid her hand against the side of one of them. Still warm. Were they smelting metals here? Mixing dyes?

The next room held the answer: tidy, endless stacks of stubby, bullet- shaped cylinders the size of pumpkins—row after row of ammunition for tanks. Were they really just making munitions up here? Were the poisons in the river some corrosive by-product from the assembly lines? But if so, why had the wolf’s bite sent a bolt of lightning through her blood? It didn’t add up.

Nina wasn’t sure where to go next. The factory felt much larger now that she was inside it. She wished she had Inej’s gift for spywork or Kaz’s gift for scheming, but she only seemed to have Jesper’s gift for bad decisions. She knew the eastern wing was unoccupied and in disrepair, so the Springmaidens had probably headed toward the western wing, the domestic heart of the fort, where the soldiers would eat, be billeted, and train when they were not operating the factory. If she were Inej, she could climb into the eaves and probably glean some excellent intelligence. But she was not a tiny soundless shadow with a gift for knifework.

It wasn’t too late to go back. She’d confirmed this was a munitions factory, a military target for Ravka’s bombers if war came. But the whispers had not ceased their rustling, and they did not want her to leave. She closed her eyes and listened, letting them guide her footsteps

to the right, into the dark quiet of the abandoned eastern wing.

Every part of her protested that she was wasting her time as she made her way down the corridor. This wing of the factory was deserted. She’d seen no lanterns lit in the windows at dusk, and the roof of the far corner was slumped in where it had given way to snow or time and never been repaired. But the voices drew her on. Closer, they whispered, young voices and old. They had a different quality now—clearer, louder, the memory of their pain vibrating through every word.

The dark was so complete she had to edge along the walls, fingers trailing over uneven brick, hoping she wouldn’t stumble into some neglected piece of machinery and land on her rump. She thought of that ruined roof. Had there been some kind of accident at the factory that had led to the wing being abandoned? Were those the graves she’d sensed? Had women worked the line here and been buried on the mountain? If so, she’d find nothing but old misery in this place.

Then she heard it—a high, thin wail that raised the hair on her arms. For a moment, she wasn’t sure if the sound was in her head or had come from somewhere deeper in the eastern wing. She was too well acquainted with the dead to believe in ghosts.

Does it matter where it’s coming from? she thought, heart racing. What would an infant be doing in the ruined wing of an old factory? She forced herself to continue moving along the wall, listening, ignoring the ragged sound of her own breathing.

At last she saw a dim slice of light beneath a door up ahead. She paused. If there were soldiers on the other side of the door, she had no way to justify her presence there. She was too far from the main body of the building to pretend she’d simply gotten lost.

She heard a noise behind her and saw the swaying circle of a lantern approaching. Nina pressed herself against the wall, expecting to see a uniformed soldier. Instead, the lamplight caught the profile of a woman dressed in a Springmaiden’s pinafore, braids piled atop her head. What was she doing so far from the others?

As the Springmaiden pushed through the door, Nina glimpsed another dark hallway, the gloom of it heavy between lanterns set at distant intervals. Nina gathered her courage and trailed the Springmaiden inside. She followed as closely as she dared, her heart thumping hard in her chest as sounds began to float back to her from the darkness ahead—the low murmurs of women’s voices, someone singing what sounded like a

lullaby, and then a sweet, high-pitched sound of delight. A baby laughing.

The whispers in Nina’s head rose again, less angry than longing. Hush now, they said, hush.

The Springmaiden passed through an archway into … a dormitory. Nina sank into the shadows by the arch, not quite believing what she saw before her.

Women and girls lay in narrow beds as the Springmaidens moved among them. Beyond them, Nina glimpsed a row of bassinets. The room was otherwise bare, the dusty ruin of the factory wing cleared of equipment. The windows had been papered over in black—to prevent any lamplight from leaking outside and raising questions.

A girl who couldn’t be more than sixteen was being walked up and down the length of the corridor by a Springmaiden. Her feet were bare and she wore a light gray gown that stretched over her jutting belly.

“I can’t,” she moaned. She looked unspeakably frail, the thrust of her stomach at odds with the sharp knobs and angles of her bones.

“You can,” said the Springmaiden, her voice firm as she led the girl by her elbow.

“She needs to eat,” said another of the women from the convent. “Skipped her breakfast.”

The Springmaiden tsked. “You know you aren’t to do that.” “I’m not hungry,” panted the girl between heavy breaths.

“We can either walk to help the baby come or I can sit you down for some semla. The sugar will give you energy during the birth.”

The girl began to cry. “I don’t need sugar. You know what I need.”

A tremor passed through Nina as understanding came. She recognized that desperation, that deep hunger that sank its teeth into you until all you were was wanting. She knew the need that turned everything you’d ever cared for—friends, food, love—to ash, until all you could remember of yourself was the desire for the drug. The wasted body, the dark hollows beneath her eyes—this girl was addicted to parem. And that meant she must be Grisha.

Nina peered down the row of beds at the women and girls. The youngest looked to be about fifteen, the oldest might have been in her thirties, but the ravages of the drug made it hard to tell. Some cradled small bumps beneath their thin blankets, others hunched over high, protruding stomachs. A few might not have been pregnant—or might not

have been showing yet.

Nina felt her body tremble, heard the thunder of her heartbeat in her ears. What was this place? Who were these women?

Help us. Could these be the voices she had heard? But none of the women were looking at Nina. It was the dead who had summoned her. Justice.

The door behind Nina opened again, and as one, the patients in their beds turned their heads like flowers seeking the sun.

“She’s here!” cried one of them as the Wellmother swept in. She was pushing a cart. The women began to rise from their beds, but the Wellmother gave a short, sharp “Be still!” They sank back obediently against their pillows. “There will be no rushing or shoving. You will get your injection when we come to you.”

Nina eyed the rows of syringes on the cart and the ruddy liquid inside them. She wasn’t even sure if it was parem, but she felt the pull of the drug, could swear she smelled it on the air. A year ago she would have clawed her way to those syringes without a second thought for revealing herself. She’d fought hard to break free from the addiction and had learned that using her new power helped. Now she focused on that power, on the current of that cold and silent river. She needed all the sense and calm she could summon because none of what she was seeing made sense.

Grisha under the influence of parem were beyond powerful. They could accomplish things that were otherwise unimaginable even with the most extraordinary amplifier. Jarl Brum had attempted to experiment on Grisha with the drug in the hope of turning them into weapons to be used against Ravka—but always under carefully controlled conditions. His Grisha captives had been confined to specially built cells that prohibited them from using their power, and the parem had been mixed with a sedative to try to make the prisoners more compliant.

These women weren’t even in restraints.

The Wellmother moved down the line, handing syringes to the sisters, who injected the orange concoction into waiting arms. Nina heard a few sobs, a low, contented groan, a grumbled “She always starts on that end. It isn’t fair.”

The pregnant girl being walked along the aisle said, “Please. Just a little.”

“Not so soon before the baby comes. It could put you both at risk.”

The girl began to cry. “But you never give it to the mothers after the babies come.”

“Then you’ll just have to get pregnant again, won’t you?”

The girl cried harder, and Nina didn’t know if it was hunger for the drug or dread at what the Springmaiden was suggesting that made the girl cover her face and weep.

The women fell back in their beds, fingers flexing at their sides. The fire in the lanterns leapt. A gust of wind shifted a stack of bedsheets. Mist gathered over one girl’s bed—she must be a Tidemaker. But they were all docile, gave not a single sign of defiance. Grisha on parem didn’t behave this way. It was a stimulant. Had the drug been combined with another substance? Was this what had poisoned the wolves? If Nina somehow managed to steal a syringe, would Leoni be able to discern what new atrocity the Fjerdans had concocted? And how had the girls survived long enough on the drug to bear children, maybe multiple children?

A baby began to cry in one of the tiny cribs. A Springmaiden snatched a bottle from the bottom of the cart and picked up the infant, quieting it. “There you go, sweetheart,” she crooned.

Nina pushed back against the wall, afraid her legs might give way. This could not be. But if the mothers were ingesting parem … then the babies would be too. They would be born addicted to the stuff. Perfect Grisha slaves.

Nina shuddered. Was this Brum’s work? Someone else’s? Were there other bases that had been given over to these experiments? Why did I think these nightmares stopped at the Ice Court? How could I have been so naive?

Her gaze fell on a woman lying in a daze, face nearly as pale as her pillow. A young girl lay in the bed next to her. Nina gripped the wall to steady herself. She recognized them. The mother and daughter from the Elling docks. Birgir had sent them here. Nina wished she’d killed him more slowly.

Was this what had become of the Grisha women who hadn’t made it to the safe house in Elling? Were they in this room right now? Girls go missing from Kejerut. Not just any girls. Grisha.

A bell sounded somewhere in the factory. The Wellmother clapped her hands, and several of the Springmaidens gathered to follow her.

“Have a good night, Marit,” she said to one of the uniformed women

as she left. “We’ll have a shift in to relieve you tomorrow night.”

Nina slipped in behind them as they left the dormitory. She kept to the gloom, trying to steady herself and think of the task ahead—getting out of the factory. But her mind felt fractured and wild, crowded with the images of that room.

Help us. The voices of the dead. The pain of the living.

Ahead she could see the Springmaidens approaching the guards at the main door.

“Did your straggler find you?” she heard one of the guards ask the Wellmother.

“What straggler?”

“I don’t know, braids, pinafore. Looked the same as the rest of you.” “What are you talking about? We’re all very tired and—”

“Line up for a head count.” “Is that strictly necessary?” “Line up.”

Nina did not wait to hear the rest. She set off at a sprint, back down the hall toward the eastern wing, trying to keep her footsteps light. The main entrance wasn’t an option anymore. If the guards discovered an extra Springmaiden had—

A bell began to sound, different from the last, high and shrill. An alarm.

Lights came on all around her, the sudden glare blinding.

She wasn’t going to make it back through the dormitory to the eastern gate.

Nina slid behind a dusty hunk of machinery as two guards stormed past, guns at the ready.

She looked up. Several of the windows here were broken, but how to reach them? And what was on the other side?

No time to debate the issue. By now the guards and the Wellmother knew that a rogue Springmaiden or someone dressed in a convent pinafore had infiltrated the factory. Nina had to get down the mountain and back to the convent before anybody found her bed empty. She scrambled atop the old piece of equipment and reached for the window ledge, struggling to haul herself up. She managed to wedge her foot between two bricks and shove her body onto the stone ledge.

Through the broken glass, she could see the twinkling lights of the town in the distance, patches of snow on the forest floor far below.

She heard footsteps and saw another squad of armed soldiers charging through the eastern wing on heavy boots.

“Lock down the perimeter,” one was saying. “We’ll search in a grid and work our way back toward the central hall.”

“How do we even know someone is here?” another complained. If they looked up—

But they continued on, conversation fading. Nina took one last glance out the window.

“No mourners,” she whispered, and launched herself through the broken glass.

She fell fast and hit the ground hard. Her shoulder and hip screamed at the force of the impact, but Nina stifled any sound as she rolled down the slope, unable to stop her momentum. She tumbled into the tree line, struck the base of a pine, and forced herself to shove to her feet.

She made herself take a moment to get oriented, then ran, dodging through the trees, keeping her hands up to try to stave off the slicing branches, trying to ignore the pain in her side. She had to get back to the convent and inside before the Wellmother returned. If she didn’t, Leoni and Adrik would be taken unawares, and all their covers would be blown.

She came to a stream and charged through, shoes squelching in the shallows, then plunged down the next hill.

There, the convent—its windows still dark, though she could see lanterns in the stables, the chapel yard, the dish of scraps she had left out for Trassel.

Nina ran, lost her footing, righted herself, half falling now, trying to get down the mountain. When she reached the edge of the trees, she slowed, angling to the south so she could avoid the stables.

She heard the sound of hoofbeats and peered along the road. She saw the wagon, the driver whipping his horses hard. The Wellmother was returning from the factory, and Nina knew they would be searching the rooms within minutes.

Nina pulled off her muddy shoes, slid inside the kitchen, locked the door, and shoved the key beneath the flour tin. She hurried to her bedroom, already dragging her ruined clothes over her head.

“What’s going on?” Leoni asked groggily as Nina stumbled into the room and hurriedly shut the door behind her.

“Nothing,” whispered Nina. “Pretend to be asleep.”

“Why?”

Nina heard doors slamming and voices in the convent entry. She yanked off her clothes, wiped her face and hands clean with the inside of her blouse, and stuffed the whole sodden mess into the trunk at the foot of her bed. “I was here all night.”

“Oh, Nina,” groaned Leoni. “Please tell me you were just getting a midnight snack.”

“Yes,” said Nina, wiggling into a night rail. “A very muddy one.”

Nina threw herself under the covers just as the door sprang open and light from the hall flooded the room. Nina made a pretense of startling awake. “What is it?” Two Springmaidens stormed inside, pinafores rustling. Nina could hear voices in the dormitories above them, the clatter of doors opening and girls being woken from their sleep. At least we’re not the only ones under suspicion, thought Nina. Maybe they think a student snuck out to visit a soldier in the factory barracks.

“What’s going on?” asked Leoni.

“Be silent,” snapped one of the Springmaidens. She held up her lantern, casting her gaze around the room.

Nina saw it in the same moment the Springmaiden did—a smudge of mud on the floor near the base of her bed.

The Springmaiden handed her companion her lantern and threw open the trunk, rummaging inside. She pulled out the filthy pinafore and blouse.

“Why do you have a novitiate’s uniform?” the Springmaiden demanded. “And why is it covered in mud? I’m going to get the Wellmother.”

“There’s no need.” The Wellmother stood in the doorway, round face stern, hands folded over the dark blue wool of her pinafore. “Explain yourself, Enke Jandersdat.”

Nina opened her mouth, but before she could say a word, Hanne appeared behind the Wellmother. “The clothes are mine.”

“What?”

“They’re mine,” repeated Hanne, looking ashen and lost, her hair flowing in thick, ruddy waves over her shoulders. “I went riding when I was not supposed to and took a fall from my horse.”

The Wellmother narrowed her eyes. “Why would you hide them here?”

“I knew my dirty clothes would be discovered in my room, so I

planned to wash them myself.”

“And somehow the widow Jandersdat didn’t notice a heap of muddy clothing in her trunk?”

“Mila said she would hide them for me until I could see to them.” The Wellmother eyed the soiled pinafore. “The mud seems fresh.”

“I went riding only this morning. You’ll see the clothes are my size, far too long for Mila. It is my fault, not hers.”

“Is this true?” the Wellmother asked Nina. Nina looked at Hanne.

Is it?” the Wellmother demanded. Nina nodded.

The Wellmother huffed a frustrated breath. “Finish the search,” she instructed the Springmaidens. “Hanne, I cannot begin to express my disappointment. I will have to write to your father immediately.”

“I understand, Wellmother,” Hanne said, her misery clear. It was no performance. She had risked her future at the convent to save Nina.

“And you, Enke Jandersdat,” said the Wellmother. “Your role here is to instruct Hanne in the Zemeni language, not to enable her disruptive behaviors. I will have to reconsider this whole arrangement.”

“Yes, Wellmother,” said Nina contritely, and watched as the woman shuffled Hanne down the hallway, closing the door behind her.

Leoni flopped back on the pillows. “Please tell me whatever you learned inside the factory was worth it.”

Nina lay back, adrenaline still flooding her body. “It was worth it.” But she’d seen the look in Hanne’s eyes as the Wellmother led her away

—she was going to want answers.

Nina thought of the punishment Hanne would take, what a letter home to her father might mean. She owed Hanne—maybe her life. She most certainly owed her the truth.

Help us.

But there was no way Nina could give it to her.

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