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Chapter no 14

Six of Crows

In the cramped little surgeon’s cabin, Nina tried to put Inej’s body back together, but she hadn’t been trained for this type of work.

For the first two years of their education in Ravka’s capital, all Grisha Corporalki studied together, took the same classes, performed the same autopsies. But then their training diverged. Healers learned the intricate work of healing wounds, while Heartrenders became soldiers – experts at doing damage, not undoing it. It was a different way of thinking about what was essentially the same power. But the living asked more of you than the dead. A killing stroke took decision, clarity of intent. Healing was slow, deliberate, a rhythm that required thoughtful study of each small choice. The jobs she’d done for Kaz over the last year helped, and in a way so had her work carefully altering moods and tailoring faces at the White Rose.

But looking down at Inej, Nina wished her own school training hadn’t been so abbreviated. The Ravkan civil war had erupted when she was still a student at the Little Palace, and she and her classmates had been forced to go into hiding. When the fighting had ended and the dust had settled, King Nikolai had been anxious to get the few remaining Grisha soldiers trained and in the field, so Nina had spent only six months in advanced classes before she’d been sent out on her first mission. At the time, she’d been thrilled. Now she would have been grateful for even another week of school.

Inej was lithe, all muscle and fine bones, built like an acrobat. The knife had entered beneath her left arm. It had been a very close thing. A little deeper and the blade would have pierced the apex of the heart.

Nina knew that if she simply sealed Inej’s skin the way she’d done with Wylan, the girl would just continue to bleed internally, so she’d tried to stop the bleeding from the inside out. She thought she’d managed it well enough, but Inej had lost a lot of blood, and Nina had no idea what to do about that. She’d heard some Healers could match one person’s blood to another’s, but if it was done incorrectly, it was as good as poisoning the patient. The process was far beyond her.

She finished closing the wound, then covered Inej with a light wool blanket. For now, all Nina could do was monitor her pulse and breathing. As she settled Inej’s arms beneath the blanket, Nina saw the scarred flesh on the inside of her forearm. She brushed her thumb gently over the bumps and ridges. It must have been the peacock feather, the tattoo borne by members of the Menagerie, the House of Exotics. Whoever had removed it had done an ugly job of it.

Curious, Nina pushed up Inej’s other sleeve. The skin there was smooth and unmarked. Inej hadn’t taken on the crow and cup, the tattoo carried by any full member of the Dregs. Alliances shifted this way and that in the Barrel, but your gang was your family, the only protection that mattered. Nina herself bore two tattoos. The one on her left forearm was for the House of the White Rose. The one that counted was on her right: a crow trying to drink from a near empty goblet. It told the world she belonged to the Dregs, that to trifle with her was to risk their vengeance.

Inej had been with the Dregs longer than Nina and yet no tattoo. Strange. She was one of the most valued members of the gang, and it was clear Kaz trusted her – as much as someone like Kaz could. Nina thought of the look on his face when he’d set Inej down on the table. He was the same Kaz – cold, rude, impossible – but beneath all that anger, she thought she’d seen something else, too. Or maybe she was just a romantic.

She had to laugh at herself. She wouldn’t wish love on anyone. It was the guest you welcomed and then couldn’t be rid of.

Nina brushed Inej’s straight black hair back from her face. “Please be okay,” she whispered. She hated the frail waver of her voice in the cabin. She didn’t sound like a Grisha soldier or a hardened member of the Dregs. She sounded like a little girl who didn’t know what she was

doing. And that was exactly how she felt. Her training had been too short. She’d been sent out on her first mission too soon. Zoya had said as much at the time, but Nina had begged to go, and they’d needed her, so the older Grisha had relented.

Zoya Nazyalensky – a powerful Squaller, gorgeous to the point of absurdity, and capable of reducing Nina’s confidence to ash with a single raised brow. Nina had worshipped her. Reckless, foolish, easily distracted. Zoya had called her all those things and worse.

“You were right, Zoya. Happy now?” “Giddy,” said Jesper from the doorway.

Nina started and looked up to see him rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet. “Who’s Zoya?” he asked.

Nina slumped back in her chair. “No one. A member of the Grisha Triumvirate.”

“Fancy. The ones who run the Second Army?”

“What’s left of it.” Ravka’s Grisha soldiers had been decimated during the war. Some had fled. Most had been killed. Nina rubbed her tired eyes. “Do you know the best way to find Grisha who don’t want to be found?”

Jesper scrubbed the back of his neck, touched his hands to his guns, returned to his neck. He always seemed to be in motion. “Never gave it much thought,” he said.

“Look for miracles and listen to bedtime stories.” Follow the tales of witches and goblins, and unexplained happenings. Sometimes they were just superstition. But often there was truth at the heart of local legends –people who had been born with gifts that their countries didn’t understand. Nina had become very good at sniffing out those stories.

“Seems to me if they don’t want to be found, you should just let them be.”

Nina cast him a dark glance. “The drüskelle won’t let them be. They hunt Grisha everywhere.”

“Are they all charmers like Matthias?” “And worse.”

“I need to find his leg shackles. Kaz gives me all the fun jobs.” “Want to trade?” Nina asked wearily.

The frenetic energy of Jesper’s lanky frame seemed to drop away. He went as still as Nina had ever seen him, and his gaze focused on Inej for the first time since he’d entered the little cabin. He was avoiding it, Nina

realised. He didn’t want to look at her. The blankets shifted slightly with her shallow breaths. When Jesper spoke, his voice was taut, the strings of an instrument tuned to a too-sharp key.

“She can’t die,” he said. “Not this way.”

Nina peered at Jesper, puzzled. “Not what way?” “She can’t die,” he repeated.

Nina felt a surge of frustration. She was torn between wanting to hug Jesper tight and scream at him that she was trying. “Saints, Jesper,” she said. “I’m doing my best.”

He shifted, and his body seemed to come back alive. “Sorry,” he said a bit sheepishly. He clapped her awkwardly on the shoulder. “You’re doing great.”

Nina sighed. “Not convincing. Why don’t you go chain up a giant blond?”

Jesper saluted and ducked out of the cabin.

Annoying as he was, Nina was almost tempted to call him back. With Jesper gone, there was nothing but Zoya’s voice in her head and the reminder that her best wasn’t good enough.

Inej’s skin felt too cool to the touch. Nina laid a hand on each of the girl’s shoulders and tried to improve her blood flow, raising her body temperature very slightly.

She hadn’t been completely honest with Jesper. The Grisha Triumvirate hadn’t just wanted to save Grisha from Fjerdan witchhunters. They’d sent missions to the Wandering Isle and Novyi Zem because Ravka needed soldiers. They’d sought out Grisha who might be living in secret and tried to convince them to take up residence in Ravka and enter service to the crown.

Nina had been too young to fight in the Ravkan civil war, and she’d been desperate to be part of the rebuilding of the Second Army. It was her gift for languages – Shu, Kaelish, Suli, Fjerdan, even some Zemeni –that finally overcame Zoya’s reservations. She agreed to let Nina accompany her and a team of Grisha Examiners to the Wandering Isle, and despite all of Zoya’s misgivings, Nina had been a success. Disguised as a traveller, she would slip into taverns and coach houses to eavesdrop on conversations and chat with the locals, then bring the peasant talk back to camp.

If you’re going to Maroch Glen, make sure to travel by day. Troubled spirits walk those lands – storms erupt out of nowhere.

The Witch of Fells is real, all right. My second cousin went to her with an outbreak of tsifil and swears he’s never been healthier. What do you mean he’s not right in the head? More right than you’ll ever be.

They’d found two Grisha families hiding out in the supposed fairy caves of Istamere, and they’d saved a mother, father, and two boys –Inferni, who could control fire – from a mob in Fenford. They even raided a slaving ship near the port in Leflin. Once the refugees had been sorted, those without powers had been offered safe passage back home. Those whose powers had been confirmed by a Grisha Examiner were offered asylum in Ravka. Only the old Heartrender known as the Witch of Fells chose to remain. “If they want my blood, let them come for it,” she’d laughed. “I’ll take some of theirs in return.”

Nina spoke Kaelish like a native and loved the challenge of taking on a new identity in every town. But for all their triumphs, Zoya hadn’t been pleased. “Being good with languages isn’t enough,” she’d scolded. “You need to learn to be less … big. You’re too loud, too effusive, too memorable. You take too many risks.”

“Zoya,” said the Examiner they were travelling with. “Go easy.” He was a living amplifier. Dead, his bones would have served to heighten Grisha power, no different from the shark teeth or bear claws that other Grisha wore. But alive, he was invaluable to their mission, trained to use his amplifier gifts to sense Grisha power through touch.

Most of the time, Zoya was protective of him, but now her deep blue eyes flattened to slits. “My teachers didn’t go easy on me. If she ends up chased through the woods by a mob of peasants, will you tell them to go easy?”

Nina had stomped off, pride smarting, embarrassed by the tears filling her eyes. Zoya had shouted at her not to go past the ridge, but she’d ignored her, eager to be as far away from the Squaller as she could get –and walked right into a drüskelle camp. Six blond boys all speaking Fjerdan, clustered on a cliff above the shore. They’d made no campfire and were dressed as Kaelish peasants, but she’d known what they were right away.

They’d stared at her for a long moment, lit only by silvery moonlight. “Oh thank goodness,” she’d said in lilting Kaelish. “I’m travelling

with my family, and I got turned around in the woods. Can one of you help me find the road?”

“I think she’s lost,” one of them translated in Fjerdan for the others.

Another rose, a lantern in his hand. He was taller than the others, and all her instincts screamed at her to run as he drew closer. They don’t know what you are, she reminded herself. You’re just a nice Kaelish girl, lost in the woods. Don’t do anything stupid. Lead him away from the others, then take him down.

He raised his lantern, the light shining over both of their faces. His hair was long and burnished gold, and his pale blue eyes glinted like ice beneath a winter sun. He looks like a painting, she thought, a Saint wrought in gold leaf on the walls of a church, born to wield a sword of fire.

“What are you doing out here?” he asked in Fjerdan.

She feigned confusion. “I’m sorry,” she said in Kaelish. “I don’t understand. I’m lost.”

He lunged towards her. She didn’t stop to think, but simply reacted, raising her hands to attack. He was too quick. Without hesitation, he dropped the lantern and seized her wrists, slamming her hands together, making it impossible for her to use her power.

Drüsje,” he said with satisfaction. Witch. He had a wolf’s smile.

The attack had been a test. A girl lost in the woods cowered; she reached for a knife or a gun. She didn’t try to use her hands to stop a man’s heart. Reckless. Impulsive.

This was why Zoya hadn’t wanted to bring her. Properly trained Grisha didn’t make these mistakes. Nina had been a fool, but she didn’t have to be a traitor. She pleaded with them in Kaelish, not Ravkan, and she didn’t cry out for help – not when they bound her hands, not when they threatened her, not when they tossed her in a rowboat like a bag of millet. She wanted to scream her terror, bring Zoya running, beg for someone to save her, but she wouldn’t risk the others’ lives. The drüskelle rowed her to a ship anchored off the coast and threw her into a cage belowdecks full of other captive Grisha. That was when the real horror had begun.

Night blended into day in the dank belly of the ship. The Grisha prisoners’ hands were kept tightly bound to keep them from using their power. They were fed tough bread crawling with weevils – only enough to keep them alive – and had to ration fresh water carefully since they never knew when they might have it next. They’d been given no place to relieve themselves, and the stink of bodies and worse was nearly unbearable.

Occasionally the ship would drop anchor, and the drüskelle would return with another captive. The Fjerdans would stand outside their cages, eating and drinking, mocking their filthy clothes and the way they smelled. As bad as it was, the fear of what might await them was much more frightening – the inquisitors at the Ice Court, torture, and inevitably death. Nina dreamed of being burned alive on a pyre and woke up screaming. Nightmare and fear and the delirium of hunger tangled together so that she stopped being certain of what was real and what wasn’t.

Then one day, the drüskelle had crowded into the hold dressed in freshly pressed uniforms of black and silver, the white wolf’s head on their sleeves. They’d fallen into orderly ranks and stood at attention as their commander entered. Like all of them, he was tall, but he wore a tidy beard, and his long blond hair showed grey at the temples. He walked the length of the hold, then came to a halt in front of the prisoners.

“How many?” he asked.

“Fifteen,” replied the burnished gold boy who had captured her. It was the first time she had seen him in the hold.

The commanding officer cleared his throat and clasped his hands behind his back. “I am Jarl Brum.”

A tremor of fear passed through Nina, and she felt it reverberate through the Grisha in the cell, a warning call none of them were free to heed.

In school, Nina had been obsessed with the drüskelle. They’d been the creatures of her nightmares with their white wolves and their cruel knives and the horses they bred for battle with Grisha. It was why she’d studied to perfect her Fjerdan and her knowledge of their culture. It had been a way of preparing herself for them, for the battle to come. And Jarl Brum was the worst of them.

He was a legend, the monster waiting in the dark. The drüskelle had existed for hundreds of years, but under Brum’s leadership, their force had doubled in size and become infinitely more deadly. He had changed their training, developed new techniques for rooting out Grisha in Fjerda, infiltrated Ravka’s borders, and begun pursuing rogue Grisha in other lands, even hunting down slaving ships, ‘liberating’ Grisha captives with the sole purpose of clapping them back in chains and sending them to Fjerda for trial and execution. She’d imagined facing Brum one day as

an avenging warrior or a clever spy. She hadn’t pictured herself confronting him caged and starving, hands bound, dressed in rags.

Brum must have known the effect his name would have. He waited a long moment before he said in excellent Kaelish, “What stands before you is the next generation of drüskelle, the holy order charged with protecting the sovereign nation of Fjerda by eradicating your kind. They will bring you to Fjerda to face trial and so earn the rank of officer. They are the strongest and best of our kind.”

Bullies, Nina thought.

“When we reach Fjerda, you will be interrogated and tried for your crimes.”

“Please,” said one of the prisoners. “I’ve done nothing. I’m a farmer.

I’ve done you no harm.”

“You are an insult to Djel,” Brum replied. “A blight on this earth. You speak peace, but what of your children to whom you may pass on this demonic power? What about their children? I save my mercy for the helpless men and women mowed down by Grisha abominations.”

He faced the drüskelle. “Good work, lads,” he said in Fjerdan. “We sail for Djerholm immediately.”

The drüskelle seemed ready to burst with pride. As soon as Brum exited the hold, they were knocking each other affectionately on the shoulders, laughing in relief and satisfaction.

“Good work is right,” one said in Fjerdan. “Fifteen Grisha to deliver to the Ice Court!”

“If this doesn’t earn us our teeth—” “You know it will.”

“Good, I’m sick of shaving every morning.” “I’m going to grow a beard down to my navel.”

Then one of them reached through the bars and snatched Nina up by her hair. “I like this one, still nice and round. Maybe we should open that cage door and hose her down.”

The boy with the burnished hair smacked his comrade’s hand away. “What’s wrong with you?” he said, the first time he’d spoken since Brum had vanished. The brief rush of gratitude she’d felt withered when he said, “Would you fornicate with a dog?”

“What does the dog look like?”

The others roared with laughter as they headed above. The golden one who’d likened her to an animal was the last to go, and just as he was

about to step into the passage, she said in crisp, perfect Fjerdan, “What crimes?”

He stilled, and when he’d looked back at her, his blue eyes had been bright with hate. She refused to flinch.

“How do you come to speak my language? Did you serve on Ravka’s northern border?”

“I’m Kaelish,” she lied, “and I can speak any language.” “More witchcraft.”

“If by witchcraft, you mean the arcane practice of reading. Your commander said we’d be tried for our crimes. I want you to tell me just what crime I’ve committed.”

“You’ll be tried for espionage and crimes against the people.”

“We are not criminals,” said a Fabrikator in halting Fjerdan from his place on the floor. He’d been there the longest and was too weak to rise. “We are ordinary people – farmers, teachers.”

Not me, Nina thought grimly. I’m a soldier.

“You’ll have a trial,” said the drüskelle. “You’ll be treated more fairly than your kind deserve.”

“How many Grisha are ever found innocent?” Nina asked.

The Fabrikator groaned. “Don’t provoke him. You will not sway his mind.”

But she gripped the bars with her bound hands and said, “How many?

How many have you sent to the pyre?” He turned his back on her.

“Wait!”

He ignored her.

“Wait! Please! Just … just some fresh water. Would you treat your dogs like this?”

He paused, his hand on the door. “I shouldn’t have said that. Dogs know loyalty, at least. Fidelity to the pack. It is an insult to the dog to call you one.”

I’m going to feed you to a pack of hungry hounds, Nina thought. But all she said was, “Water. Please.”

He vanished into the passage. She heard him climb the ladder, and the hatch closed with a loud bang.

“Don’t waste your breath on him,” the Fabrikator counselled. “He will show you no kindness.”

But a short while later the drüskelle returned with a tin cup and a bucket of clean water. He’d set it down inside the cell and slammed the bars shut without a word. Nina helped the Fabrikator drink, then gulped down a cup herself. Her hands were shaking so badly, half of it sloshed down her blouse. The Fjerdan turned away, and with pleasure, Nina saw she’d embarrassed him.

“I’d kill for a bath,” she taunted. “You could wash me.”

“Don’t talk to me,” he growled, already stalking towards the door.

He hadn’t returned, and they’d gone without fresh water for the next three days. But when the storm hit, that tin cup had saved her life.

 

 

Nina’s chin dipped, and she jerked awake. Had she nodded off?

Matthias was standing in the passage outside the cabin. He filled the doorway, far too tall to be comfortable belowdecks. How long had he been watching her? Quickly, Nina checked Inej’s pulse and breathing, relieved to find that she seemed to be stable for now.

“Was I sleeping?” she asked. “Dozing.”

She stretched, trying to blink away her exhaustion. “But not snoring?” He said nothing, just watched her with those ice chip eyes. “They let you have a razor?”

His shackled hands went to his freshly shaved jaw. “Jesper did it.” Jesper must have seen to Matthias’ hair, too. The tufts of blond that had grown raggedly from his scalp had been trimmed down. It was still too short, bare golden fuzz over skin that showed cuts and bruises from his last fight in Hellgate.

He must be happy to be free of the beard, though, Nina thought. Until a drüskelle had accomplished a mission on his own and been granted officer status, he was required to remain clean-shaven. If Matthias had brought Nina to face trial at the Ice Court, he would have been granted that permission. He would have worn the silver wolf’s head that marked an officer of the drüskelle. It made her sick to think of it. Congratulations on your recent advancement to murderer of rank. The thought helped remind her just who she was dealing with. She sat up straighter, chin lifting.

Hje marden, Matthias?” she asked.

“Don’t,” he said.

“You’d prefer I spoke Kerch?”

“I don’t want to hear my language from your mouth.” His eyes flicked to her lips, and she felt an unwelcome flush.

With vindictive pleasure, she said in Fjerdan, “But you always liked the way I spoke your tongue. You said it sounded pure.” It was true. He’d loved her accent – the vowels of a princess, courtesy of her teachers at the Little Palace.

“Don’t press me, Nina,” he said. Matthias’ Kerch was ugly, brutal, the guttural accent of thieves and murderers that he’d met in prison. “That pardon is a dream that’s hard to hold on to. The memory of your pulse fading beneath my fingers is far easier to bring to mind.”

“Try me,” she said, her anger flaring. She was sick of his threats. “My hands aren’t pinned now, Helvar.” She curled her fingertips, and Matthias gasped as his heart began to race.

“Witch,” he spat, clutching his chest.

“Surely you can do better than that. You must have a hundred names for me by now.”

“A thousand,” he grunted as sweat broke out on his brow.

She relaxed her fingers, feeling suddenly embarrassed. What was she doing? Punishing him? Toying with him? He had every right to hate her.

“Go away, Matthias. I have a patient to see to.” She focused on checking Inej’s body temperature.

“Will she live?” “Do you care?”

“Of course I care. She’s a human being.”

She heard the unspoken end to that sentence. She’s a human being –unlike you. The Fjerdans didn’t believe the Grisha were human. They weren’t even on par with animals, but something low and demonic, a blight on the world, an abomination.

She lifted a shoulder. “I don’t know, really. I did my best, but my gifts lie elsewhere.”

“Kaz asked you if the White Rose would send a delegation to Hringkälla.”

“You know the White Rose?”

“West Stave is a favourite subject of conversation in Hellgate.”

Nina paused. Then, without saying a word, she pushed up the sleeve of her shirt. Two roses intertwined on the inside of her forearm. She

could have explained what she’d done there, that she’d never made her living on her back, but it was none of his business what she did or didn’t do. Let him believe what he liked.

“You chose to work there?”

Chose is a bit of a stretch, but yes.” “Why? Why would you remain in Kerch?”

She rubbed her eyes. “I couldn’t leave you in Hellgate.” “You put me in Hellgate.”

“It was a mistake, Matthias.”

Rage ignited in his eyes, the calm veneer dropping away. “A mistake?

I saved your life, and you accused me of being a slaver.”

“Yes,” Nina said. “And I’ve spent most of this last year trying to find a way to set things right.”

“Has a true word ever left your lips?”

She sagged back wearily in her chair. “I’ve never lied to you. I never will.”

“The first words you said to me were a lie. Spoken in Kaelish, as I recall.”

“Spoken right before you captured me and stuffed me in a cage. Was that the time for speaking truths?”

“I shouldn’t blame you. You can’t help yourself. It’s your nature to dissemble.” He peered at her neck. “Your bruises are gone.”

“I removed them. Does that bother you?”

Matthias said nothing, but she saw a glimmer of shame move over his face. Matthias had always fought his own decency. To become a drüskelle, he’d had to kill the good things inside him. But the boy he should have been was always there, and she’d begun to see the truth of him in the days they’d spent together after the shipwreck. She wanted to believe that boy was still there, locked away, despite her betrayal and whatever he’d endured at Hellgate.

Looking at him now, she couldn’t be sure. Maybe this was the truth of him, and the image she’d held on to this last year had been an illusion.

“I need to see to Inej,” she said, eager to have him gone.

He didn’t leave. Instead he said, “Did you think of me at all, Nina?

Did I trouble your sleep?”

She shrugged. “A Corporalnik can sleep whenever she likes.” Though she couldn’t control her dreams.

“Sleep is a luxury at Hellgate. It’s a danger. But when I slept, I dreamed of you.”

Her head snapped up.

“That’s right,” he said. “Every time I closed my eyes.”

“What happened in the dreams?” she asked, eager for an answer, but fearing it, too.

“Horrible things. The worst kinds of torture. You drowned me slowly.

You burned my heart from my chest. You blinded me.” “I was a monster.”

“A monster, a maiden, a sylph of the ice. You kissed me, whispered stories in my ear. You sang to me and held me as I slept. Your laugh chased me into waking.”

“You always hated my laugh.”

“I loved your laugh, Nina. And your fierce warrior’s heart. I might have loved you, too.”

Might have. Once. Before she had betrayed him. Those words carved an ache into her chest.

She knew she shouldn’t speak, but she couldn’t help herself. “And what did you do, Matthias? What did you do to me in your dreams?”

The ship listed gently. The lanterns swayed. His eyes were blue fire. “Everything,” he said, as he turned to go. “Everything.”

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