Search

Chapter no 8 – Nina

King of Scars

‌“I DON’T LIKE LEAVING LEONI BEHIND,” said Adrik, his solemn voice like the tolling of a particularly forlorn bell. “They’re hardly friendly at the convent, and she doesn’t speak the language.”

Nina and Adrik had made their way out of the valley, the sledge pulled behind their two mounts, a hard wind at their backs. Nina rode sidesaddle, her heavy skirts gathered behind her. She wasn’t much of a rider to begin with, and this concession to Fjerdan sensibilities was one of the most challenging elements of her cover.

As they traveled farther from the town, the whispers rose in her head as if in protest. Now that she knew the dead had brought her to Gäfvalle, the sound seemed to have grown clearer, the high, sweet voices of the lost tugging at her thoughts. She hadn’t told Adrik and Leoni about the graves at the factory yet. The incident by the eastern gate had left her too shaken.

“Leoni will be fine,” said Nina, turning her attention to Adrik. “She’s resourceful and she knows how to lie low. Besides, we’ll be back by midday tomorrow.” Adrik said nothing, and Nina added, “Cosseting her isn’t going to win you any points.”

The chill had made Adrik’s skin rosy beneath his freckles, and he looked a bit like a sulky actor whose cheeks had been rouged for a play. “She’s a soldier under my command. I would never cross that line.”

“She won’t be under your command when this mission is over, Adrik, and it’s obvious she likes you.”

“She does?” He sounded disconsolate over the news. Nina wasn’t fooled.

She adjusted the straps of her pack. “To my great astonishment.”

“You like me too, Zenik. Must be my sunny outlook.”

“Adrik, if the choice is between taking orders from you or Zoya Nazyalensky, you’re always going to win.”

His breath plumed in the cold air. “I used to be completely in love with her.”

“Weren’t we all? Even when she’s slicing you in two with a few well- chosen words, it’s hard to focus on anything but how good she looks doing it.”

“Appalling,” Adrik mused. “I once saw a student set fire to his own hair because he was so busy looking at Zoya. She didn’t even spare him a second glance.”

Nina fixed Adrik with a contemptuous stare, and in her most disdainful Zoya voice drawled, “Someone throw a bucket on that idiot before he burns down the palace.”

He shuddered. “That was far too convincing.” He consulted his map as they reached a crossroads. “Zoya was nice enough to look at,” he said as he led them farther west. “But there was more to it. She was the only one who treated me the same after I lost my arm.”

“Horribly?”

“She couldn’t have shown me more contempt. Her insults were a lot easier to bear than Nadia constantly fussing over me.”

“That’s what sisters do. I assume. You were just as much of a mother hen when we all came back from the Fold.” They’d both been children really. Nina had been a student at the Grisha school when they were all evacuated to the orphanage at Keramzin. But Adrik had begged to go with his sister, to fight beside the Sun Summoner. He hadn’t been there when the Darkling took Nina and the other students hostage.

“I wasn’t worried about you,” said Adrik. “If you’d all died and I’d been the only one to leave school, can you imagine how tiring it would have been to live with the guilt?”

Nina made herself laugh, but she knew all about guilt. She often wondered why she’d survived so much—capture by the drüskelle, shipwreck, Kaz Brekker’s mad heists, and the ordeal of parem. She was the only known Grisha to have lived through a dose of the drug. What had made that possible? Was it that particular strain of jurda parem? Was it her desire to spite Jarl Brum and his witchhunters by surviving? Chance, fortune, fate. She didn’t know what name to give to it. Sometimes it felt like Matthias had kept her in this world through the

sheer force of his will.

I failed you, Matthias. I wasn’t strong enough to save you.

Little red bird, every day you choose the work of living. Every day you choose to go on. There is no failure here, Nina.

“Zoya’s a better leader than I expected,” admitted Adrik. “Even if I’d never tell her so.”

“Can you imagine? You might as well ask her if she wants to snuggle.

General Zoya Nazyalensky does not need or want our approval.”

They fell into silence as the sun rose higher in the sky, the sledge rumbling over the ground. If it snowed, they would have to change the runners, but hopefully they would be back to Gäfvalle before the weather turned. It was a meager funeral procession, and Nina couldn’t help but think Matthias deserved more. Something full of pomp and ceremony, a funeral fit for a hero even if his people believed he was a traitor.

I have been made to protect you. Even in death I will find a way.

His voice was too clear now, too strong. Because this was their final parting. Because once Matthias was in the ground, he would belong to Djel.

She wasn’t sure she could do it. She couldn’t bear the thought of abandoning his body to the cold earth, to the dark.

Let me go to my god.

She wished Inej were here beside her, that the Wraith were somewhere in all this silence. Nina longed for her stillness, her kindness. She was grateful to Adrik, but he hadn’t known Matthias. And he didn’t really know Nina either. Not anymore.

When at last they reached the fork of the river, they set up camp, a simple canvas tent lined with animal skins to keep the cold out. They made a fire, watered their horses, and sat down to a plain meal of tea and salt cod that Nina had to force herself to swallow. If anyone passed by, Adrik and Nina planned to say they were on their way to Malsk to show off their wares. The sledge was stocked with plenty of rifle loaders. But Nina doubted they’d have to offer any explanations. Like so much of Fjerda, this place was desolate and empty, the little towns like flowers, unlikely blooms in the snow.

Adrik took a flask from his pocket, poured a small amount of black fluid into a copper cup, and contemplated it skeptically.

“What is that exactly?”

“I just know it’s distilled from pine tar. One of the fishermen said it

was good for fighting the cold.” He took a sip and instantly began coughing and pounding his chest. “Saints, that’s disgusting.”

“Maybe they just mean it kills you, so you don’t have to worry about the cold anymore.”

“Or maybe they just like selling overpriced misery to tourists.” He offered her the flask, which Nina was quick to decline. For a while they sat staring at the waters of the river rushing past. At last he said, “You never told me how he died.”

Nina wasn’t certain what to say. Or if she wanted to say anything at all. The specifics of the Ketterdam auction were unknown to most in Ravka even among the Grisha, and Nina doubted Adrik would be thrilled to discover she’d been running with a gang of criminals. “I don’t really know. We were … working together in Ketterdam. The worst of the mission was over. We thought we were all safe. But then Matthias showed up, bleeding. He’d been shot.” He’d found his way to her, despite the fatal wound, despite the pain he was in. For one last kiss, for a final goodbye. “There were drüskelle in the city, and they certainly had their reasons for wanting Matthias dead. But we all had prices on our heads. People were hungry for our blood, and the streets were a holy mess.”

She could still see his blood staining his shirt, feel the soft stubble of his nape beneath her fingertips. His hair had just begun to grow out properly, thick and golden. “He wouldn’t tell me who was responsible,” she said. Matthias hadn’t wanted to burden her with that. He’d known she would strike out in her grief. But he should have understood that the mystery of his death would punish her. She’d thought her new mission working with the Hringsa in Fjerda, getting Grisha to freedom, would help ease her grief and her guilt, but she felt no better than she had at the start of it all. “It eats at me.”

“I know that feeling.” Adrik took another sip from his flask and winced at the taste. “Vengeance was all that drove me at the end of the war. I wanted the Darkling to pay for my arm, for the lives of my friends. I wanted him dead.”

“And you got your wish.”

“And yet my arm didn’t grow back. None of my friends came back to life.”

“I could help with that,” Nina said, and was relieved when Adrik laughed his dry, reluctant chuckle. Some Grisha blanched at any mention

of her new power. She’d been a Heartrender once, felt the pulse of the world beating along with her heart. Parem had changed her. Nina had felt like a fraud sitting beneath the golden dome in the Little Palace, wearing her red kefta. She could no longer manipulate the living, hear the flow of their blood or the song of their cells. But the dead did her bidding—and she supposed she did their bidding too. She’d come to Gäfvalle, after all.

Nina finished the last of her tea. She could sense Adrik waiting. She knew it was time. Maybe laying Matthias to rest would be the thing to help free her heart from this burden. She only knew she could not go on this way.

She rose. “I’m ready,” she said, though she knew it wasn’t true. They rode out from camp, following the river.

Tell me a story, Matthias. She needed to hear him now, needed to know some part of him would remain with her. Tell me about your family.

Tell me about yours, Nina. Why did you never speak of them?

Because she’d never known them. She’d grown up in a foundling home not unlike the orphanage at Keramzin. There were no records of Nina’s parents. She was one more child who had arrived without papers or history. Keletchka, as they called itfrom the fruit crate. She’d been given the name of one of the home’s patrons and had worn donated clothes that arrived tied up in big sacks and smelling of the chemicals they were boiled in to make sure they were free of lice.

Were you unhappy, Nina? No, Matthias.

It wasn’t in your nature, even then.

It is now, she thought. Whatever spark had burned in her was no match for this grief.

But back then, she hadn’t been unhappy, despite the chores and the boring lessons and the meals that were mostly cabbage. There had always been noise and company and games to play. She had appointed herself the home’s official greeter, welcoming new arrivals, helping to name the new babies, and offering up her rag doll, Feodora, to anyone who might need a friend on their first night in the dormitories.

Besides, the staff always treated her kindly. Come, little Nina, tell us the news, Baba Inessa would say and seat Nina on a stool in the kitchen, where she could suck on a bread crust and watch the women at their

work.

Nina had been just seven years old when she’d met her first tyrant. His name was Tomek, and he changed everything at the foundling home. He wasn’t the tallest or the strongest, he was simply the meanest, willing to strike and bite even the littlest orphans. If someone had a toy, he would break it. When a child was sleeping soundly, he would pinch them awake. He was all manners and dimples when the staff were near, but as soon as they were gone, cruel Tomek would return.

As if they’d just been waiting for a leader, a group of bullies coalesced around him—boys and girls who had always seemed nice enough until they developed a taste for others’ tears. Nina did her best to avoid them, but it was as if Tomek could smell her happiness like smoke from a kitchen fire.

One morning just after the Feast of Sankt Nikolai, Baba Inessa gave Nina an orange to share with the other children. Nina warned them to be silent, but they’d giggled and whooped until of course Tomek had marched over to investigate and snatched it from her hands.

Give it back! she’d shouted as he’d dug his thumbs into the orange’s waxy skin. It’s for everyone!

But Tomek and his friends had just jeered. You’re fat enough already, he’d said, and pushed her so hard she’d fallen on her backside.

Tomek had shoved the whole orange into his mouth and bitten down, laughing as pulp and juice dribbled over his chin. He laughed even harder when, to Nina’s great shame, she started crying.

“Look how red you are,” Tomek said, his mouth still full. “You look like a rotten apple.”

He and his friends crowded around Nina, poking her belly, her arms, her legs. “Look how rotten she is!”

Nina had been scared, but more than anything, she’d been angry. Curled up on the floor, she’d felt something in her shift, a long, luxurious stretch, like a cat yearning toward a sunbeam. All her breathlessness and fear rushed out of her, and it was as if she could feel Tomek’s lungs as they expanded, contracted. She squeezed her fists tight.

“Look how—” Tomek hiccuped. Then his friends hiccuped. It was funny. At first. They stopped poking Nina. They looked at one another and giggled, the sound broken by startled little huffs.

They kept hiccuping. “It hurts,” said one, rubbing his chest. “I can’t stop,” said another, bending double.

It went on that way, all of them hiccuping and moaning long into the night, like an assembly of discontented frogs.

Nina found she could do all kinds of things. She could soothe a crying infant. She could ease her own tummy ache. She could make Tomek’s nose run and run and run until his whole shirt was wet with snot. Sometimes she had to stop herself from doing anything too terrible. She didn’t want to be a tyrant too. Only a few months later, the Grisha Examiners had come to the foundling home and Nina had been taken to the Little Palace.

“Goodbye!” she’d called as she’d run through the halls, saying her farewells. “Goodbye! Write me lots of letters, please! And be nice,” she’d warned Tomek.

“She’s a merry child,” Baba Inessa had told the Grisha woman in her red kefta. “Try not to break her of it.”

No one has, Nina. No one ever will.

I’m not so sure, Matthias. War hadn’t done it. Captivity. Torture. But loss was something different, because she saw no end to it, only the far horizon, stretching on and on.

Nina knew the spot as soon as she saw it—a copse of trees by the riverbank, a place where travelers might come to rest and where the water eddied as if the river were resting too. Here, she told herself as she dismounted and untied a shovel and pick from the sledge. Here.

It took her hours to dig. Adrik couldn’t help with the task, but he used his power to keep the wind from tearing at her clothes and to shelter the lantern when the sky began to dim.

Nina wasn’t certain how deep to dig, but she went on until she was sweating in her coat, until her hands blistered, and then until the blisters broke. When she stopped, panting, Adrik did not wait for her signal but began to untie the tarp on the sledge. Nina made herself help him, forced herself to move aside the boxes and gear that hid their true cargo. Here.

Matthias was wrapped in linen specially treated by the Fabrikators at the Little Palace to preserve him from decay, and reinforced by Leoni’s craft. Nina thought of pulling the linen aside, of glimpsing his cherished face one more time. But she couldn’t bear the idea of seeing his features still and cold, his skin gray. It was bad enough that she had the memory of his blood on her hands forever, the wound beneath her palms, his heart going still. Death was supposed to be her friend and ally, but death had taken him just the same. She could at least try to remember him as he’d

been.

Awkwardly, Nina and Adrik rolled his body from the edge of the cart.

It was huge and heavy. He tumbled into the tomb with a horrible thud.

Nina covered her face with her hands. She had never been more grateful for Adrik’s silence.

Lying in the well of the grave, Matthias’ body looked like a chrysalis, as if he were at the beginning of something, instead of the end. He and Nina had never exchanged gifts or rings; they’d had no possessions they shared. They had been wanderers and soldiers. Even so, she could not leave him with nothing. From her pocket, she drew a slender sprig of ash and let it drift down into the grave, followed by a smattering of withered red petals from the tulips their compatriots had placed on his chest when they bid him goodbye in Ketterdam.

“I know you never cared for sweets.” Her voice wobbled as she let a handful of toffees fall from her hand. They made a hollow patter. “But this way I’m with you, and you can keep them for me when I see you next. I know you won’t eat them yourself.”

She knew what came now. A handful of earth. Another. I love you, she told him, trying not to think of the graceless sound of the soil, like the rattle of shrapnel, like sudden bursts of rain. I loved you.

Her eyes blurred from the tears. She couldn’t see him any longer. The earth rose higher. There would be snow soon, maybe even tonight. It would cover her work, a burial shroud, white and unmarred. And when spring came, the snow would melt and find its way through the soil and carry Matthias’ spirit to the river, to Djel. He would be with his god at last.

“Will you take the sledge back to camp?” she asked Adrik. There were still things she needed to say, but only to Matthias.

Adrik nodded and glanced up at the darkening sky. “Just don’t be too long. A storm’s coming.” Good, she thought. Let the snow come soon. Let it cover our work here.

Nina knelt on the cold ground, listening to the hoofbeats of Adrik’s horse fade. She could hear the rush of the river, feel the damp of the earth through the heavy wool of her skirts. The water hears and understands. The ice does not forgive. Fjerdan words. The words of Djel. “Matthias,” she whispered, then cleared her throat and tried again. “Matthias,” she said more loudly. She wanted him to hear her, needed to believe he could. “Oh Saints, I don’t want to leave you here. I don’t want

to leave you ever.” But that was not the hero’s eulogy he deserved. She could do this for him. Nina drew a long, shaky breath. “Matthias Helvar was a soldier and a hero. He saved me from drowning. He kept us both alive on the ice. He endured a year in the worst prison in the world for a crime he didn’t commit. He forgave me for betraying him. He fought beside me, and when he could have abandoned me, he turned his back on the only country he’d ever known instead. For that, he was branded a traitor. But he wasn’t. He believed his country could be more than it had been. He lived with honor and died with it too.” Her voice broke and she forced the waver away from it. She wanted to be dignified in this moment. She wanted to give him that. “He wasn’t always a good man, but he had a good heart. A great, strong heart that should have kept beating for years and years.”

Little red bird, let me go.

She wiped the tears from her eyes. This was the first half of her debt paid. She’d brought him home to the land he loved. There should be something to mark this moment, a bell to toll, a choir to sing for him, something so she knew it was time to say her last goodbye.

But you’re not done yet, my love.

“You and your sense of duty,” she said on a bitter laugh.

The whispers rose inside her head. She didn’t want to hear them now, not here.

Listen, Nina.

She did not want to, but she knew she could hide from them no longer

—the voices of the dead, calling to her, down the mountain, through the town, over the ice. The voices of women, of girls, anguish in their hearts. Something had happened to them on that hilltop.

Help us, they cried. Hear us at last.

The words were clear now, and they were drowning out Matthias’ voice. Stop, she told them. Leave us alone. Leave me be.

But the dead did not relent. Justice, they demanded, justice.

This was no hallucination. It wasn’t madness either. The chorus was real, and they had brought her here for a reason. Nina had hoped her mission with Adrik and Leoni would be enough to start healing. It hadn’t been. But the girls on the mountain would not be denied.

Justice. They had brought her this far—and they needed her to listen to them, not the echo of a love she could not hold on to.

Nina placed a hand to her heart then as the ache inside her broke, the

ice giving way. There was only dark water beneath, the terrible pain of knowing he was truly gone, the awful understanding that she would never hear his voice again.

Because the chorus was real.

But Matthias’ voice was not. It never had been.

“You were never here,” she whispered, the tears coming hard now. “You were never here.” All this time, she had wanted to believe that he was still with her, but it had been her voice all along, talking herself through the silence, forcing herself to do the work of living when all she wanted was to let go.

Goodbye, Matthias.

No one answered. She was alone in the silence.

You'll Also Like