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Chapter no 19

Six of Crows

It was too much. He hadn’t anticipated how difficult it would be to see his homeland for the first time in so long. He’d had over a week aboard the Ferolind to prepare, but his head had been full of the path he’d chosen, of Nina, of the cruel magic that had taken him from his prison cell and placed him on a boat speeding north beneath a limitless sky, still bound not just by shackles but by the burden of what he was about to do. He got his first glimpse of the northern coast late in the afternoon, but Specht decided to wait until dusk to make land in hopes the twilight would lend them some cover. There were whaling villages along the shore, and no one was eager to be spotted. Despite their cover as

trappers, the Dregs were still a conspicuous group.

They spent the night on the ship. At dawn the next morning, Nina had found him assembling the cold weather gear Jesper and Inej had distributed. Matthias was impressed by Inej’s resilience. Though she still had circles beneath her eyes, she moved without stiffness, and if she was in pain, she hid it well.

Nina held up a key. “Kaz sent me to remove your shackles.” “Are you going to lock me in again at night?”

“That’s up to Kaz. And you, I suppose. Have a seat.” “Just give me the key.”

Nina cleared her throat. “He also wants me to tailor you.”

“What? Why?” The thought of Nina altering his appearance with her witchcraft was intolerable.

“We’re in Fjerda now. He wants you looking a little less … like yourself, just in case.”

“Do you know how big this country is? The chance that—”

“The odds of you being recognised will be considerably higher at the Ice Court, and I can’t make changes to your appearance all at once.”

“Why?”

“I’m not that good a Tailor. It’s part of all Corporalki training now, but I just don’t have an affinity for it.”

Matthias snorted. “What?” she asked.

“I’ve never heard you admit you’re not good at something.” “Well, it happens so rarely.”

He was horrified to find his lips curling in a smile, but it was easy enough to quell when he thought of his face being changed. “What does Brekker want you to do to me?”

“Nothing radical. I’ll change your eye colour, your hair – what you have of it. It won’t be permanent.”

“I don’t want this.” I don’t want you near me.

“It won’t take long, and it will be painless, but if you want to argue about it with Kaz …”

“Fine,” he said, steeling himself. It was pointless to argue with Brekker, not when he could simply taunt Matthias with the promise of the pardon. Matthias picked up a bucket, flipped it over, and sat down. “Can I have the key now?”

She handed it over to him and he unshackled his wristsas she rooted around in a box she’d brought over. It had a handle and several little drawers stuffed with powders and pigments in tiny jars. She extracted a pot of something black from a drawer.

“What is it?”

“Black antimony.” She stepped close to him, tilting his chin back with the tip of her finger. “Unclench your jaw, Matthias. You’re going to grind your teeth down to nothing.”

He crossed his arms.

She started shaking some of the antimony over his scalp and gave a rueful sigh. “Why does the brave drüskelle Matthias Helvar eat no meat?” she asked in a theatrical voice as she worked. “’Tis a sad story

indeed, my child. His teeth were winnowed away by a vexatious Grisha, and now he can eat only pudding.”

“Stop that,” he grumbled.

“What? Keep your head tilted back.” “What are you doing?”

“Darkening your brows and lashes. You know, the way girls do before a party.” He must have grimaced because she burst out laughing. “The look on your face!”

She leaned in, the waves of her brown hair brushing against his cheeks as she bled the colour from the antimony into his brows. Her hand cupped his cheek.

“Shut your eyes,” she murmured. Her thumbs moved over his lashes, and he realised he was holding his breath.

“You don’t smell like roses any more,” he said, then wanted to kick himself. He shouldn’t be noticing her scent.

“I probably smell like boat.”

No, she smelled sweet, perfect like … “Toffee?”

Her eyes slid away guiltily. “Kaz said to pack what we needed for the journey. A girl has to eat.” She reached into her pocket and drew out a bag of toffees. “Want one?”

Yes. “No.”

She shrugged and popped one in her mouth. Her eyes rolled back, and she sighed happily. “So good.”

It was a humiliating epiphany, but he knew he could have watched her eat all day. This was one of the things he’d liked best about Nina – she savoured everything, whether it was a toffee or cold water from a stream or dried reindeer meat.

“Eyes now,” she said around the candy as she pulled a tiny bottle from her case. “You’ll have to keep them open.”

“What is that?” he asked nervously.

“A tincture developed by a Grisha named Genya Safin. It’s the safest way to change eye colour.”

Again she leaned in. Her cheeks were rosy from the cold, her mouth slightly open. Her lips were bare inches from his. If he sat up straighter, they’d be kissing.

“You have to look at me,” she instructed.

I am. He shifted his gaze to hers. Do you remember this shore, Nina?

he wanted to ask, though he knew she must.

“What colour are you making my eyes?”

“Shhh. This is difficult.” She dabbed the drops onto her fingers and held them close to his eyes.

“Why can’t you just put them in?”

“Why can’t you stop talking? Do you want me to blind you?” He stopped talking.

Finally, she drew back, gaze roving over his features. “Brownish,” she said. Then she winked. “Like toffee.”

“What do you intend to do about Bo Yul-Bayur?”

She straightened and stepped away, her expression shuttering. “What do you mean?”

He was sorry to see her easy manner go, but that didn’t matter. He glanced over his shoulder to make sure no one was listening. “You know exactly what I mean. I don’t believe for a second you’ll let these people hand Bo Yul-Bayur over to the Kerch Merchant Council.”

She put the bottle back in one of the little drawers. “We’ll have to do this at least two more times before we get to the Ice Court so I can deepen the colour. Get your things together. Kaz wants us ready to leave on the hour.” She snapped the top of the case closed and picked up the shackles. Then she was gone.

 

 

By the time they bid their goodbyes to the ship’s crew, the sky had turned from pink to gold.

“See you in Djerholm harbour,” Specht called. “No mourners.” “No funerals,” the others replied. Strange people.

Brekker had been frustratingly tight-lipped about how exactly they were going to reach Bo Yul-Bayur and then get out of the Ice Court with the scientist in tow, but he’d been clear that once they had their prize, the Ferolind was their escape route. It had papers bearing the Kerch seal and indicating that all fees and applications had been made for representatives of the Haanraadt Bay Company to transport furs and goods from Fjerda to Zierfoort, a port city in south Kerch.

They began the march from the rocky shore up the cliff side. Spring was coming, but ice was still thick on the ground, and it was a tough climb. When they reached the top of the cliff, they stopped to catch their

breath. The Ferolind was still visible on the horizon, its sails full of the wind that whipped at their cheeks.

“Saints,” said Inej. “We’re actually doing this.”

“I’ve spent every minute of every miserable day wishing to be off that ship,” said Jesper. “So why do I suddenly miss it?”

Wylan stamped his boots. “Maybe because it already feels like our feet are going to freeze off.”

“When we get our money, you can burn kruge to keep you warm,” said Kaz. “Let’s go.” He’d left his crow’s head cane aboard the Ferolind and substituted a less conspicuous walking stick. Jesper had mournfully left behind his prized pearl-handled revolvers in favour of a pair of unornamented guns, and Inej had done the same with her extraordinary set of knives and daggers, keeping only those she could bear to part with when they entered the prison. Practical choices, but Matthias knew that talismans had their power.

Jesper consulted his compass, and they turned south, seeking a path that would lead them to the main trading road. “I’m going to pay someone to burn my kruge for me.”

Kaz fell into step beside him. “Why don’t you pay someone else to pay someone to burn your kruge for you? That’s what the big players do.”

“You know what the really big bosses do? They pay someone to pay someone to …”

Their voices trailed off as they tromped ahead, and Matthias and the others followed after. But he noticed that each of them cast a final backwards glance at the vanishing Ferolind. The schooner was a part of Kerch, a piece of home for them, and that last familiar thing was drifting further away with every moment.

Matthias felt some small measure of sympathy, but as they trekked through the morning, he had to admit he enjoyed seeing the canal rats shiver and struggle a bit for once. They thought they knew cold, but the white north had a way of forcing strangers to reevaluate their terms. They stumbled and staggered, awkward in their new boots, trying to find the trick of walking in hard-crusted snow, and soon Matthias was in the lead, setting the pace, though Jesper kept a steady eye on his compass.

“Put your …” Matthias paused and had to gesture to Wylan. He didn’t know the Kerch word for ‘goggles’ or even ‘snow’, for that matter. They weren’t terms that came up in prison. “Keep your eyes covered, or you

could damage them permanently.” Men went blind this far north; they lost lips, ears, noses, hands, and feet. The land was barren and brutal, and that was all most people saw. But to Matthias it was beautiful. The ice bore the spirit of Djel. It had colour and shape and even a scent if you knew to seek it out.

He pushed ahead, feeling almost at peace, as if here Djel could hear him and ease his troubled mind. The ice brought back memories of childhood, of hunting with his father. They’d lived further south, near Halmhend, but in the winters that part of Fjerda didn’t look much different from this, a world of white and grey, broken by groves of black-limbed trees and jutting clusters of rock that seemed to have risen up from nowhere, shipwrecks on a bare ocean floor.

The first day trekking was like a cleansing – little talk, the white hush of the north welcoming Matthias back without judgement. He’d expected more complaints, but even Wylan had simply put his head down and walked. They’re all survivors, Matthias understood. They adapt. When the sun began to set, they ate their rations of dried beef and hardtack and collapsed into their tents without a word.

But the next morning brought an end to the quiet and Matthias’ fragile sense of peace. Now that they were off the ship and away from its crew, Kaz was ready to dig into the details of the plan.

“If we get this right, we’re going to be in and out of the Ice Court before the Fjerdans ever know their prize scientist is gone,” Kaz said as they shouldered their packs and continued to push south. “When we enter the prison, we’ll be taken to the holding area beneath the men’s and women’s cellblocks to await charges. If Matthias is right and the procedures are still the same, the patrols only pass through the holding cells three times a day for head counts. Once we’re out of the cells, we should have at least six hours to cross to the embassy, locate Yul-Bayur on the White Island, and get him down to the harbour before they realise anyone is missing.”

“What about the other prisoners in the holding cells?” Matthias asked. “We have that covered.”

Matthias scowled, but he wasn’t particularly surprised. Once they were in those holding cells, Kaz and the others would be at their most vulnerable. It would take only a word to the guards for Matthias to put an end to all their scheming. That was what Brum would do, what an honourable man would choose. Some part of Matthias had believed that

coming back to Fjerda would return him to his senses, give him the strength to forsake this mad quest; instead it had only made his longing for home, for the life he’d once lived among his drüskelle brothers more acute.

“Once we’re out of the cells,” Kaz continued, “Matthias and Jesper will secure rope from the stables while Wylan and I get Nina and Inej out of the women’s holding area. The basement is our meet. That’s where the incinerator is, and no one should be in the laundry after the prison shuts down for the night. While Inej makes the climb, Wylan and I scour the laundry for anything he can use for demo. And just in case the Fjerdans decided to stash Bo Yul-Bayur in the prison and make life easy on us, Nina, Matthias, and Jesper will search the top level cells.”

“Nina and Matthias?” Jesper asked. “Far be it from me to doubt anyone’s professionalism, but is that really the ideal pairing?”

Matthias bit down on his anger. Jesper was right, but he hated being discussed in this way.

“Matthias knows prison procedure, and Nina can handle any guards without a noisy fight. Your job is to keep them from killing each other.”

“Because I’m the diplomat of the group?”

“There is no diplomat of the group. Now listen,” Kaz said. “The rest of the prison isn’t like the holding area. Patrols in the cellblock rotate every two hours, and we don’t want to risk anyone sounding an alarm, so be smart. We coordinate everything to the chiming of the Elderclock. We’re out of the cells right after six bells, we’re up the incinerator and on the roof by eight bells. No exceptions.”

“And then what?” asked Wylan.

“We cross to the embassy sector roof and get access to the glass bridge through there.”

“We’ll be on the other side of the checkpoints,” said Matthias, unable to keep a hint of admiration from his voice. “The guards on the bridge will assume we passed through the embassy gate and had our papers scrutinised there.”

Wylan frowned. “In prison uniforms?” “Phase two,” said Jesper. “The fake.”

“That’s right,” said Kaz. “Inej, Nina, Matthias, and I will borrow a change of clothes from one of the delegations – and a little something extra for our friend Bo Yul-Bayur when we find him – and stroll across the glass bridge. We locate Yul-Bayur and get him back to the embassy.

Nina, if there’s time, you’ll tailor him as much as possible, but as long as we don’t trigger any alarms, no one is going to notice one more Shu among the guests.”

Unless Matthias managed to get to the scientist first. If he was dead when the others found him, Kaz couldn’t hold Matthias responsible. He’d still get his pardon. And if he never managed to separate from the group? A shipboard accident might still befall Yul-Bayur on the journey back.

“So what I’m getting from this,” said Jesper, “is that I’m stuck with Wylan.”

“Unless you’ve suddenly acquired an encyclopedic knowledge of the White Island, the ability to pick locks, scale unscalable walls, or flirt confidential information out of high level officials, yes. Besides, I want two sets of hands making bombs.”

Jesper looked mournfully at his guns. “Such potential wasted.”

Nina crossed her arms. “Let’s say this all works. How do we get out?” “We walk,” Kaz said. “That’s the beauty of this plan. Remember what

I said about guiding the mark’s attention? At the embassy gate, all eyes will be focused on guests coming into the Ice Court. People leaving aren’t a security risk.”

“Then why the bombs?” asked Wylan.

“Precautions. There are seven miles of road between the Ice Court and the harbour. If someone notices Bo Yul-Bayur is missing, we’re going to have to cover that territory fast.” He drew a line in the snow with his walking stick. “The main road crosses a gorge. We blow the bridge, no one can follow.”

Matthias put his head in his hands, imagining the havoc these low creatures were about to wreak on his country’s capital.

“It’s one prisoner, Helvar,” said Kaz. “And a bridge,” Wylan put in helpfully.

“And anything we have to blow up in between,” added Jesper. “Everyone shut up,” Matthias growled.

Jesper shrugged. “Fjerdans.”

“I don’t like any of this,” said Nina.

Kaz raised a brow. “Well, at least you and Helvar found something to agree on.”

 

 

Further south they travelled, the coast long gone, the ice broken more and more by slashes of forest, glimpses of black earth and animal tracks, proof of the living world, the heart of Djel beating always. The questions from the others were ceaseless.

“How many guard towers are on the White Island again?” “Do you think Yul-Bayur will be in the palace?”

“There are guard barracks on the White Island. What if he’s in the barracks?”

Jesper and Wylan debated which kinds of explosives might be assembled from the prison laundry supplies and if they could get their hands on some gunpowder in the embassy sector. Nina tried to help Inej estimate what her pace would have to be to scale the incinerator shaft with enough time to secure the rope and get the others to the top.

They drilled each other constantly on the architecture and procedures of the Court, the layout of the ringwall’s three gatehouses, each built around a courtyard.

“First checkpoint?” “Four guards.” “Second checkpoint?” “Eight guards.” “Ringwall gates?”

“Four when the gate is nonoperational.”

They were like a maddening chorus of crows, squawking in Matthias’ ear: Traitor, traitor, traitor.

“Yellow Protocol?” asked Kaz. “Sector disturbance,” said Inej. “Red Protocol?”

“Sector breach.” “Black Protocol?”

“We’re all doomed?” said Jesper.

“That about covers it,” Matthias said, pulling his hood tighter and trudging ahead. They’d even made him imitate the different patterns of the bells. A necessity, but he’d felt like a fool chanting, “Bing bong bing bing bong. No, wait, bing bing bong bing bing.”

“When I’m rich,” Jesper said behind him. “I’m going somewhere I never have to see snow again. What about you, Wylan?”

“I don’t know exactly.”

“I think you should buy a golden piano—”

“Flute.”

“And play concerts on a pleasure barge. You can park it in the canal right outside your father’s house.”

“Nina can sing,” Inej put in.

“We’ll duet,” Nina amended. “Your father will have to move.”

She did have a terrible singing voice. He hated that he knew that, but he couldn’t resist glancing over his shoulder. Nina’s hood had fallen back, and the thick waves of her hair had escaped her collar.

Why do I keep doing that? he thought in a rush of frustration. It had happened aboard the ship, too. He’d tell himself to ignore her, and the next thing he knew his eyes would be seeking her out.

But it was foolish to pretend that she wasn’t in his mind. He and Nina had walked this same territory together. If his calculations were right, they’d washed up only a few miles from where the Ferolind had put into shore. It had started with a storm, and in a way, that storm had never ended. Nina had blown into his life with the wind and rain and set his world spinning. He’d been off balance ever since.

 

 

The storm had come out of nowhere, tossing the ship like a toy on the waves. The sea had played along until it had tired of the game, and dragged their boat under in a tangle of rope and sail and screaming men.

Matthias remembered the darkness of the water, the terrible cold, the silence of the deep. The next thing he knew, he was spitting up salt water, gasping for breath. Someone had an arm around his chest, and they were moving through the water. The cold was unbearable, yet somehow he was bearing it.

“Wake up, you miserable lump of muscle.” Clean Fjerdan, pure, spoken like a noble. He turned his head and was shocked to see that the young witch they’d captured on the southern coast of the Wandering Isle had hold of him and was muttering to herself in Ravkan. He’d known she wasn’t really Kaelish. Somehow she’d got free of her bonds and the cages. Every part of him went into a panic, and if he’d been less shocked or numb, he would have struggled.

“Move,” she told him in Fjerdan, panting. “Saints, what do they feed you? You weigh about as much as a haycart.”

She was struggling badly, swimming for both of them. She’d saved his life. Why?

He shifted in her arms, kicking his legs to help drive them forward. To his surprise, he heard her give a low sob. “Thank the Saints,” she said. “Swim, you giant oaf.”

“Where are we?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied, and he could hear the terror in her voice. He kicked away from her.

“Don’t!” she cried. “Don’t let go!”

But he shoved hard, breaking her hold. The moment he left her arms, the cold rushed in. The pain was sharp and sudden, and his limbs went sluggish. She’d been using her sick magic to keep him warm. He reached for her in the dark.

Drüsje?” he called, ashamed of the fear in his voice. It was the Fjerdan word for witch, but he had no name for her.

Drüskelle!” she shouted, and then he felt his fingers brush against hers in the black water. He grabbed hold and drew her to him. Her body didn’t feel warm exactly, but as soon as they made contact, the pain in his own limbs receded. He was gripped by gratitude and revulsion.

“We have to find land,” she gasped. “I can’t swim and keep both of our hearts beating.”

“I’ll swim,” he said. “You … I’ll swim.” He clasped her back to his chest, his arm looped under hers and across her body, the way she’d been holding him only moments ago, as if she were drowning. And she was, they both were, or they would be soon if they didn’t freeze to death first.

He kicked his legs steadily, trying not to expend too much energy, but they both knew it was probably futile. They hadn’t been far from land when the storm had hit, but it was completely dark. They might be headed towards the coastline or further out to sea.

There was no sound but their breathing, the slosh of the water, the roll of the waves. He kept them moving – though they might well have been paddling in a circle – and she kept both of them breathing. Which one of them would give out first, he didn’t know.

“Why did you save me?” he asked finally. “Stop wasting energy. Don’t talk.”

“Why did you do it?”

“Because you’re a human being,” she said angrily.

Lies. If they did make land, she’d need a Fjerdan to help her survive, someone who knew the land, though clearly she knew the language. Of course she did. They were all deceivers and spies, trained to prey on people like him, people without their unnatural gifts. They were predators.

He continued to kick, but the muscles in his legs were tiring, and he could feel the cold creeping in on him.

“Giving up already, witch?”

He felt her shake off her exhaustion, and blood rushed back into his fingers and toes.

“I’ll match your pace, drüskelle. If we die, it will be your burden to bear in the next life.”

He had to smile a little at that. She certainly didn’t lack for spine.

That much had been clear even when she was caged.

That was the way they went on that night, taunting each other whenever one of them faltered. They knew only the sea, the ice, the occasional splash that might have been a wave or something hungry moving towards them in the water.

“Look,” the witch whispered when dawn came, rosy and blithe. There, in the distance, he could just make out a jutting promontory of ice and the blessed black slash of a dark gravel shore. Land.

They wasted no time on relief or celebration. The witch tilted her head back, resting it against his shoulder as he drove forward, inch by miserable inch, each wave pulling them back, as if the sea was unwilling to relinquish its hold. At last, their feet touched bottom, and they were half swimming, half crawling to shore. They broke apart, and Matthias’ body flooded with misery as he dragged himself over the black rocks to the dead and frozen land.

Walking was impossible at first. Both of them moved in fits and starts, trying to get their limbs to obey, shuddering with cold. Finally he made it to his feet. He thought about just walking off, finding shelter without her. She was on her hands and knees, head bent, her hair a wet and tangled mess covering her face. He had the distinct sense that she was going to lie down and simply not get back up.

He took one step, then another. Then he turned back. Whatever her reasons, she’d saved his life last night, not once, but again and again. That was a blood debt.

He staggered back to her and offered his hand.

When she looked up at him, the expression on her face was a bleak map of loathing and fatigue. In it, he saw the shame that came with gratitude, and he knew that in this brief moment, she was his mirror. She didn’t want to owe him anything, either.

He could make the decision for her. He owed her that much. He reached down and yanked her to her feet, and they limped together off the beach.

They headed what Matthias hoped was west. The sun could play tricks on your senses this far north and they had no compass with which to navigate. It was almost dark, and Matthias had begun to feel the stirrings of real panic when they finally spotted the first of the whaling camps. It was deserted – the outposts were only active in the spring –and little more than a round lodge made of bone, sod, and animal skins. But shelter meant they might at least survive the night.

The door had no lock. They practically fell through it.

“Thank you,” she groaned as she collapsed beside the circular hearth.

He said nothing. Finding the camp had been mere luck. If they’d washed up even a few miles further up the coast they would have been done for.

The whalers had left peat and dry kindling in the hearth. Matthias laboured over the fire, trying to get it to do more than smoke. He was clumsy and tired and hungry enough that he would have gladly gnawed the leather off his boot. When he heard a rustling behind him, he turned and almost dropped the piece of driftwood he’d been using to coax the little flames.

“What are you doing?” he barked.

She had glanced over her shoulder – her very bare shoulder – and said, “Is there something I’m supposed to be doing?”

“Put your clothes back on!”

She rolled her eyes. “I’m not going to freeze to death to preserve your sense of modesty.”

He gave the fire a stern jab, but she ignored him and stripped off the rest of her clothes – tunic, trousers, even her underthings – then wrapped herself in one of the grimy reindeer skins that had been piled near the door.

“Saints, this smells,” she grumbled, shuffling over and assembling a nest of the few other pelts and blankets beside the fire. Every time she moved, the reindeer cloak parted, revealing a flash of round calf, white

skin, the shadow between her breasts. It was deliberate. He knew it. She was trying to rattle him. He needed to focus on the fire. He’d almost died, and if he didn’t get a fire started, he still might. If only she would stop making so much damn noise. The driftwood snapped in his hands.

Nina snorted and lay down in the nest of pelts, propping herself on one elbow. “For Saint’s sake, drüskelle, what’s wrong with you? I just wanted to be warm. I promise not to ravish you in your sleep.”

“I’m not afraid of you,” he said irritably.

Her grin was vicious. “Then you’re as stupid as you look.”

He stayed crouching beside the fire. He knew he was meant to lie down next to her. The sun had set, and the temperature was dropping. He was struggling to keep his teeth from chattering, and they would need each other’s warmth to get through the night. It shouldn’t have concerned him, but he didn’t want to be near her. Because she’s a killer, he told himself. That’s why. She’s a killer and a witch.

He forced himself to rise and stride towards the blankets. But Nina held out a hand to stop him.

“Don’t even think about getting near me in those clothes. You’re soaked through.”

“You can keep our blood flowing.”

“I’m exhausted,” she said angrily. “And once I fall asleep, all we’ll have is that fire to keep us warm. I can see you shaking from here. Are all Fjerdans this prudish?”

No. Maybe. He didn’t really know. The drüskelle were a holy order. They were meant to live chastely until they took wives – good Fjerdan wives who didn’t run around yelling at people and taking their clothes off.

“Are all Grisha so immodest?” he asked defensively.

“Boys and girls train side by side together in the First and Second Armies. There isn’t a lot of room for maidenly blushing.”

“It’s not natural for women to fight.”

“It’s not natural for someone to be as stupid as he is tall, and yet there you stand. Did you really swim all those miles just to die in this hut?”

“It’s a lodge, and you don’t know that we swam miles.”

Nina blew out an exasperated breath and curled up on her side, burrowing as close as she could get to the fire. “I’m too tired to argue.” She closed her eyes. “I can’t believe your face is going to be the last thing I see before I die.”

He felt like she was daring him. Matthias stood there feeling foolish and hating her for making him feel that way. He turned his back on her and quickly sloughed off his sodden clothes, spreading them beside the fire. He glanced once at her to make sure she wasn’t looking then strode to the blankets and wriggled in behind her, still trying to keep his distance.

“Closer, drüskelle,” she crooned, taunting.

He threw an arm over her, hooking her back against his chest. She let out a startled oof and shifted uneasily.

“Stop moving,” he muttered. He’d been close to girls – not many, it was true – but none of them had been like her. She was indecently round. “You’re cold and clammy,” she complained with a shiver. “It’s like

lying next to a burly squid.” “You told me to get closer!”

“Ease up a bit,” she instructed and when he did, she flipped over to face him.

“What are you doing?” he asked, pulling back in a panic. “Relax, drüskelle. This isn’t where I have my way with you.”

His blue eyes narrowed. “I hate the way you talk.” Did he imagine the hurt that flashed across her face? As if his words could have any effect on this witch.

She confirmed he’d been imagining things when she said, “Do you think I care what you like or don’t like?”

She laid her hands on his chest, focusing on his heart. He shouldn’t let her do this, shouldn’t show his weakness, but as his blood began to flow and his body warmed, the relief and ease that coursed through him felt too good to resist.

He let himself relax slightly, grudgingly, beneath her palms. She flipped over and pulled his arm back around her. “You’re welcome, you big idiot.”

He’d lied. He did like the way she talked.

 

 

He still did. He could hear her yammering to Inej somewhere behind him, trying to teach her Fjerdan words. “No, Hring-kaaalle. You have to hang on the last syllable a bit.”

“Hringalah?” tried Inej.

“Better but – here, it’s like Kerch is a gazelle. It hops from word to word,” she pantomimed. “Fjerdan is like gulls, all swoops and dives.” Her hands became birds riding currents on the air. At that moment, she looked up and caught him staring.

He cleared his throat. “Do not eat the snow,” he counselled. “It will only dehydrate you and lower your body temperature.” He plunged forward, eager to be up the next hill with some distance between them. But as he came over the rise, he halted dead in his tracks.

He turned round, holding out his arms. “Stop! You don’t want to—”

But it was too late. Nina clapped her hands over her mouth. Inej made some kind of warding sign in the air. Jesper shook his head, and Wylan gagged. Kaz stood like a stone, his expression inscrutable.

The pyre had been made on a bluff. Whoever was responsible had tried to build the fire in the shelter of a rock outcropping, but it hadn’t been enough to keep the flames from dying out in the wind. Three stakes had been driven into the icy ground, and three charred bodies were bound to them, their blackened, cracked skin still smouldering.

Ghezen,” swore Wylan. “What is this?”

“This is what Fjerdans do to Grisha.” Nina said. Her face was slack, her green eyes staring.

“It’s what criminals do,” said Matthias, his insides churning. “The pyres have been illegal since—”

Nina whirled on him and shoved his chest hard. “Don’t you dare,” she seethed, fury burning like a halo around her. “Tell me the last time someone was prosecuted for putting a Grisha to the flames. Do you even call it murder when you put down dogs?”

“Nina—”

“Do you have a different name for killing when you wear a uniform to do it?”

They heard it then – a moan, like a creaking wind. “Saints,” Jesper said. “One of them is alive.”

The sound came again, thin and keening, from the black hulk of the body on the far right. It was impossible to tell if the shape was male or female. Its hair had burned away, its clothing fused to its limbs. Black flakes of skin had peeled away in places, showing raw flesh.

A sob tore from Nina’s throat. She raised her hands but she was shaking too badly to use her power to end the creature’s suffering. She turned her tear-filled eyes to the others. “I … Please, someone …”

Jesper moved first. Two shots rang out, and the body fell silent. Jesper returned his pistols to their holsters.

“Damn it, Jesper,” Kaz growled. “You just announced our presence for miles.”

“So they think we’re a hunting party.” “You should have let Inej do it.”

“I didn’t want to do it,” Inej said quietly. “Thank you, Jesper.” Kaz’s jaw ticked, but he said nothing more.

“Thank you,” Nina choked out. She plunged ahead over the frozen ground, following the shape of the path through the snow. She was weeping, stumbling over the terrain. Matthias followed. There were few landmarks here, and it was easy to get turned around.

“Nina, you musn’t stray from the group—”

“That’s what you’re going back to, Helvar,” she said harshly. “That’s the country you long to serve. Does it make you proud?”

“I’ve never sent a Grisha to the pyre. Grisha are given a fair trial—” She turned on him, goggles up, tears frozen on her cheeks.

“Then why has a Grisha never been found innocent at the end of your supposedly fair trials?”

“I—”

“Because our crime is existing. Our crime is what we are.”

Matthias went quiet, and when he spoke he was caught between shame for what he was about to say and the need to speak the words, the words he’d been raised on, the words that still rang true for him. “Nina, has it ever occurred to you that maybe … you weren’t meant to exist?”

Nina’s eyes glinted green fire. She took a step towards him, and he could feel the rage radiating off her. “Maybe you’re the ones who shouldn’t exist, Helvar. Weak and soft, with your short lives and your sad little prejudices. You worship woodsprites and ice spirits who can’t be bothered to show themselves, but you see real power, and you can’t wait to stamp it out.”

“Don’t mock what you don’t understand.”

“My mockery offends you? My people would welcome your laughter in place of this barbarity.” A look of supreme satisfaction crossed her face. “Ravka is rebuilding. So is the Second Army, and when they do, I hope they give you the fair trial you deserve. I hope they put the drüskelle in shackles and make them stand to hear their crimes enumerated so the world will have an accounting of your evils.”

“If you’re so desperate to see Ravka rise, why aren’t you there now?” “I want you to have your pardon, Helvar. I want you to be here when

the Second Army marches north and overruns every inch of this wasteland. I hope they burn your fields and salt the earth. I hope they send your friends and your family to the pyre.”

“They already did, Zenik. My mother, my father, my baby sister. Inferni soldiers, your precious, persecuted Grisha, burned our village to the ground. I have nothing left to lose.”

Nina’s laugh was bitter. “Maybe your stay in Hellgate was too short, Matthias. There’s always more to lose.”

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