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Chapter no 20 – ‌Nina

King of Scars

‌ADRIK WAS FURIOUS—still glum, but furious. It was like being yelled at by a damp towel.

“What were you thinking?” he demanded the next morning. They’d walked out to the southern part of town, with Leoni and the sledge in tow, ostensibly to try to make sales to local hunters and trappers. But they’d stopped near an old tanning shed so that Adrik would have privacy to let Nina know just how disastrously she’d behaved. “I gave you direct orders. You were not to engage, certainly not on your own. What if you’d been captured?”

“I wasn’t.”

Leoni leaned against the cart. “If Hanne hadn’t stepped in to help, you would have been. Now you’re in that girl’s debt.”

“I was already in her debt. And have you forgotten she’s Grisha? She won’t talk. Not unless she wants to put herself in danger.”

Adrik glanced up at the factory looming over the valley. “We should destroy this place. It would be a mercy.”

“No,” Nina said. “There has to be a way to get the girls out.”

Adrik looked at her with his moping, melting-candle expression. “You know what parem does. They won’t come back from this. They’re as good as dead.”

“Stop being such a head cold,” Nina retorted. “I came back from it.” “From one dose. You’re telling us these girls have been dosed for

months.”

“Not with ordinary parem. The Fjerdans are trying something new, something different. It’s why Leoni got sick but didn’t get a real reaction. It’s why my own addiction didn’t get triggered again.”

“Nina—”

She seized his arm. “The Second Army knows more now than we did when I took parem, Adrik. They’ve made progress on an antidote. It’s possible the Fabrikators and Healers at the Little Palace could help them.”

Adrik shook off her grip. “Do you understand what you’ve done, Nina? Even if they decided last night was nothing more than a bit of miscommunication, they’re going to increase security in that factory. They may report the breach to their superiors. We need to leave this town while we still can, or we risk compromising the entire Hringsa network and any chance Ravka has of acting on the information you learned. You didn’t even get a sample of the drug they’ve developed.”

She hadn’t had the chance—and she’d been too shaken to think clearly. But she wasn’t going to make the girls on the mountain pay for her mistake.

“I won’t do it, Adrik. You can leave me here. Tell the king I deserted.” “Those women are going to die. You can make up any happy ending you want, but you know it’s true. Don’t ask me to sacrifice the hope of

the living for the comfort of the dead.”

“We aren’t just here to recruit soldiers—”

Adrik’s blue gaze sharpened. “We are here on orders from the king. We are here to salvage the future of our people. Ravka won’t survive without more soldiers, and the Grisha won’t survive without Ravka. I saw the Second Army decimated by the Darkling. I know what we’ve lost and how much more we stand to lose. We have to preserve the network. We owe it to every Grisha living in fear.”

“I can’t leave them behind, Adrik. I won’t.” They brought me here. They were the reason she’d finally been able to lay Matthias to rest. The voices of the dead had called her back to life with their need. She would not fail them. “Leoni,” she pleaded. “If it were you up there, someone you loved …”

Leoni sat down on a fallen tree trunk and looked up at the fort. “Leoni,” said Adrik, “we have a mission. We can’t compromise it.” “Both of you be quiet,” Leoni said. “I won’t be pulled this way or that

because you say so.” She closed her eyes, turned her face to the winter sun. After a long while, she said, “I told you I almost died as a child, but I never told you it was from drinking poisoned well water. The zowa healer who helped me perished in order to save my life. She died pulling

the poison from my body.” Leoni opened her eyes, a sad smile on her lips. “Like I told you, poisons are tricky work. So now I wear two jewels.” She touched her hands to the golden stones woven into the twists of her hair on the left. “Topaz for strength, for my mother who gave me life and raised me to be a fighter.” She turned her head slightly and light caught on the three purple gems in her twists on the right. “Amethyst for Aditi Hilli, the Fabrikator who returned my life to me when I was careless and might have lost it.”

“Hilli?” said Adrik. “You were related?”

“No. I took her family name, and I swore I would honor her sacrifice, that I would make something of the life she gave to me.” She bobbed her chin toward the factory. “If we’re not here for the girls on that ward, then what are we doing here?”

Adrik sighed. “You do know this is my command. We don’t put things to a vote.”

Leoni smiled, that brilliant, thousand-sunrise smile. Adrik sucked in a breath as if he’d taken a blow to the gut. “I know,” she said. “But I also know you fought beside Alina Starkov. You got your arm torn off by a shadow demon and kept fighting. You didn’t come to this country to play it safe, Adrik.”

“Leoni,” Nina said. “Have you ever had Kerch waffles?” Leoni’s brows rose. “I have not.”

“Well, I’m going to make you a stack so tall you have to climb over it.”

“I didn’t know you could cook.”

“I can’t. Not even a little bit. But I’m very good at convincing people to cook for me.”

Adrik yanked his pinned sleeve into place. “The two of you are impossible. And guilty of insubordination.”

Leoni only smiled wider. “We’re splendid, and you know it.”

“Fine,” Adrik huffed. “Since you’re both so determined to compromise our mission, just how are we going to transport a bunch of infants and pregnant women out of this tragedy of a town and get them to a port in the middle of the night?”

Nina looked up at the mountain, at the factory road lolling like a long, greedy tongue, at the guardhouse at its base—the first line of security for the soldiers working above. She remembered the lessons she’d learned in Ketterdam, when she’d run not with soldiers bound by honor but with

liars, thugs, and thieves. Always hit where the mark isn’t looking.

“Easy,” she said. “We do it in the middle of the day. And we make sure they see us coming.”

Nina wasn’t at all sure that Hanne would show up to their next lesson— either because the Wellmother might forbid it or because she didn’t want to speak to Nina again. But she decided to go to the classroom anyway.

On the way, she stopped by the kitchens for fresh scraps and went to the woods to set out another plate for Trassel. Nina took a moment to gather her thoughts, grateful for the quiet of the trees, breathing in the scent of sap, the cold air still fresh with fallen snow. She could admit her foray into the factory had been a catastrophe, but that didn’t change what was happening on the mountain or the opportunity she’d been given. She felt like she was at the start of something bigger than the horrors on that hilltop, that there was more she was meant to do.

“But what?” she murmured. “Enke Jandersdat?”

Nina nearly leapt into the nearest branch. A young woman was standing at the edge of the trees, hands tugging nervously at the skirts of her pale blue pinafore. It took Nina a long moment to realize she’d seen the novitiate before—dressed as a Fjerdan soldier on the banks of the river. Had she heard Nina speak Ravkan?

“Yes?” Nina said.

“I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“A bit of excitement is good for me,” Nina said, as if she hadn’t recently jumped out of a window and fled down a mountain for her life. The girl had blond hair and skin the color of a new peach. She didn’t seem wary at all, just nervous.

“I wanted to thank you and the Zemeni traders for not saying anything about … what you saw by the river. Even after what happened to Grette.”

Grette … She must mean the girl who had died from exposure to the water.

“It was enough of a tragedy,” Nina said.

The girl shivered, as if death had come too close. “Her mother came to collect her body. It was terrible. But if her family knew how she got those injuries? The shame—”

“I understand,” said Nina, then ventured, “Will you ride out again?”

“Of course not,” said the girl earnestly, almost pleadingly. “Never again.”

Nina believed her.

“Tell me,” Nina said, “was it Hanne’s idea to steal the uniforms?” Hanne was essential to Nina’s plan. The more she understood her, the better. And she could admit she was curious too.

The girl worried her lower lip. “I … She …”

“I won’t tell the Wellmother. If I spoke up now, she would wonder why I’d held my tongue for so long. It would do no one any good.”

The thought seemed to put the girl at ease. “Hanne … Hanne takes risks she shouldn’t.” A small smile tugged at her lips. “But it can be hard not to want to follow.”

“Do you ride out with her often?” “Only when she lets us.”

“A great deal to chance for a bit of freedom.”

“It’s not just that,” said the girl. “Hanne … Sometimes people send to the convent for help, and the Wellmother will not grant them aid—for good and proper reasons, of course.”

“Of course. What kind of people?”

“Families who can’t afford an extra pair of hands when someone falls sick.” The girl’s cheeks flushed. “Unmarried women who have … gotten themselves into trouble.”

“And Hanne goes to them?” Nina asked, surprised. That wild, wiry girl with a rifle on her back and a dagger at her hip? It was hard to imagine.

“Oh yes,” said the girl. “She has a gift for it. She’s nursed more than one hopeless case back from the brink and even helped deliver babies— one that got all turned around in her mother’s belly.”

She’s a Healer, Nina realized. She’s using her power and she doesn’t even know it. She remembered Hanne saying of the other novitiates, It’s a game to them. A childish bit of dress-up, a chance to be daring. Nina had thought she understood, but she hadn’t really.

“If you’d told on us,” the girl said, “Hanne would have had to stop.

The Wellmother—”

“I won’t say a word,” said Nina. “I don’t believe Djel could frown upon such kindness.”

“No,” said the girl thoughtfully. “I don’t either.” “I’m sorry about your friend Grette.”

“Me too.” The girl plucked a cluster of pine needles from a branch. “Sometimes … I think Gäfvalle doesn’t want us here.”

“The convent?”

She shook her head, eyes distant. “Girls … any of us.”

Nina wanted to push further, but a bell began to clang inside the chapel.

The girl curtsied quickly. “May Djel keep you, Enke Jandersdat,” she said, and rushed off to her classes.

Nina hurried after. If Hanne did decide to come to class, Nina didn’t want to be late. Adrik had already sent word to the Hringsa network in Hjar to make sure a ship would be waiting—assuming they somehow managed to get the women out of the factory. But if Hanne didn’t come today, Nina would have to seek her out and find a way back into her good graces. She needed Hanne for the plan she had in mind, and, if she was honest with herself, she didn’t much like the idea of Hanne being mad at her.

She had written out half of the day’s lesson in Zemeni vocabulary on the board and was starting to feel like the whole endeavor was futile, when Hanne appeared at the classroom door. Nina wasn’t quite prepared for the anger radiating off of her. She stood in silent fury as Nina clutched the chalk in her hands and tried to think of something conciliatory to say. Hanne’s copper eyes looked like vivid sparks against her cheeks, but Nina knew from experience that You’re beautiful when you’re angry was never a great place to start.

“I didn’t think you’d come,” she began.

“The Wellmother says I may continue my lessons, since she doesn’t want me left idle.”

“That’s won—”

“I didn’t say wanted to continue,” Hanne whispered furiously. “What were you doing at the factory? I want the truth.”

And I wish I could give it to you. All of it. But despite what she’d learned from the girl in the woods, she didn’t trust Hanne that much. Not yet.

Nina gestured her inside and shut the door. She leaned against it. She’d spent last night thinking about how to answer Hanne’s questions. “Do you remember the sister I told you about?” Nina asked. “The one who married and lives in the south?” Hanne nodded. “She was caught.”

Hanne’s fists bunched. “But you said—”

“I don’t know how it happened, but she was caught using her Grisha power, and she was taken by the drüskelle.”

“What became of her husband?”

“He was taken too. And put to death for harboring her secrets. I think they brought Thyra here.”

“They brought your sister to a munitions factory?”

“The factory is only part of the story. Soldiers are keeping Grisha girls in the abandoned wing of the fort. They’re experimenting on them. The Wellmother is helping, along with some of the Springmaidens.”

Hanne folded her arms. “They wouldn’t do that. Discovered Grisha are taken to the Ice Court for trial.”

Trials at which they were never found innocent, at which they were always sentenced to death. But the sentences were rarely carried out. Instead, Jarl Brum had secretly imprisoned those Grisha and subjected them to doses of parem.

“Don’t cover your ears and pretend you don’t know what men are capable of, Hanne. Tell me something: Have girls and women gone missing from Kejerut? From Gäfvalle? From all of the river cities?”

Gone missing?” Hanne scoffed.

“How have they explained the disappearances?” Nina persisted. “Sickness? A sudden decision to take a trip? Wild animals? Brigands?”

“All of those things happen. That’s what living out here is like. Fjerda has hard ways.” Her voice was defensive but also proud.

Still, Nina didn’t think she’d imagined the slight hesitation, the quick flash of fear on Hanne’s face.

“You’ve seen the Ice Court, Hanne.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“Do you really believe it was built by human hands? What if it was Grisha craft? What if Fjerda needs Grisha as much as it hates them?” And as Nina said it, she thought of the new weapons the Fjerdan military had been developing, the sudden leap in their progress. As if they were working with Fabrikators. Maybe they hadn’t managed to weaponize parem, but they’d certainly found new ways to exploit Grisha slaves.

Hanne bit her lip and gazed out the classroom window. She had a smattering of freckles over the bridge of her nose, not golden like Adrik’s, but rosy, the color of ripe persimmon. “There was a girl here,” she said hesitantly, “Ellinor, a novitiate. She always kept to herself. One

morning she was just gone. The sisters told us that she’d secured an offer of marriage and gone to Djerholm. But when I snuck into the woods to ride that day, I saw the Wellmother. She was burning Ellinor’s things.”

Nina shivered. Was Ellinor in that ward? Or was she already in a grave on the mountain?

“And a woman who lived between here and Kejerut,” Hanne said slowly, as if fighting the words. “Sylvi Winther. She … she had just come through a bad illness. She was faring well. She and her husband just packed up and left.”

Had this been one of the women Hanne had tended to in secret? Had she ridden out one cold afternoon and knocked on their door, only to find Sylvi and her husband gone?

“I know you’ve been taught to hate Grisha, Hanne … to hate yourself. But what the Wellmother and those soldiers are doing to those women is unforgivable.”

Hanne didn’t look angry anymore. She looked sick and frightened. “And what are we supposed to do about it?”

Nina thought of Matthias lying bleeding in her arms. She thought of girls lined up like misshapen dolls in the gloom of the old fort. She thought of the way Hanne hunched her shoulders as if she could somehow make herself invisible.

“Save them,” said Nina. “Save them all.”

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