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Chapter no 20

Six of Crows

can smell them. Nina batted at her hair and clothes as she lurched through the snow, trying not to retch. She couldn’t stop seeing those bodies, the angry red flesh peeking through their burned black casings like banked coals. It felt as if she was coated in their ashes, in the stink of burning flesh. She couldn’t take a full breath.

Being around Matthias made it easy to forget what he really was, what he really thought of her. She’d tailored him again just this morning, enduring his glowers and grumbling. No, enjoying them, grateful for the excuse to be near him, ridiculously pleased every time she brought him close to a laugh. Saints, why do I care? Why did one smile from Matthias Helvar feel like fifty from someone else? She’d felt his heart race when she’d tipped his head back to work on his eyes. She’d thought about kissing him. She’d wanted to kiss him, and she was pretty sure he’d been thinking the same thing. Or maybe he was thinking about strangling me again.

She hadn’t forgotten what he’d said aboard the Ferolind, when he’d asked what she intended to do about Bo Yul-Bayur, if she truly meant to hand the scientist over to the Kerch. If she sabotaged Kaz’s mission, would it cost Matthias his pardon? She couldn’t do that. No matter what he was, she owed him his freedom.

Three weeks she’d travelled with Matthias after the shipwreck. They hadn’t had a compass, hadn’t known where they were going. They hadn’t

even known where on the northern shore they’d washed up. They’d spent long days slogging through the snow, freezing nights in whatever rudimentary shelter they could assemble or in the deserted huts of whaling camps when they were lucky enough to come across them. They’d eaten roasted seaweed and whatever grasses or tubers they could find. When they’d found a stash of dried reindeer meat at the bottom of a travel pack in one of the camps, it had been like some kind of miracle. They’d gnawed on it in mute bliss, feeling nearly drunk on its flavour.

After the first night, they’d slept in all the dry clothes and blankets they could find but on opposite sides of the fire. If they didn’t have wood or kindling, they curled against one another, barely touching, but by morning, they’d be pressed together, breathing in tandem, cocooned in muzzy sleep, a single crescent moon.

Every morning he complained that she was impossible to wake. “It’s like trying to raise a corpse.”

“The dead request five more minutes,” she would say, and bury her head in the furs.

He’d stomp around, packing their few things as loudly as possible, grumbling to himself. “Lazy, ridiculous, selfish …” until she finally roused herself and set about preparing for the day.

“What’s the first thing you’re going to do when you get home?” she asked him on one of their endless days trekking through the snow, hoping to find some sign of civilization.

“Sleep,” he said. “Bathe. Pray for my lost friends.”

“Oh yes, the other thugs and killers. How did you become a drüskelle, anyway?”

Your friends slaughtered my family in a Grisha raid,” he’d said coldly. “Brum took me in and gave me something to fight for.”

Nina hadn’t wanted to believe that, but she knew it was possible. Battles happened, innocent lives were lost in the cross fire. It was equally disturbing to think of that monster Brum as some kind of father figure.

It didn’t seem right to argue or to apologise, so she said the first thing that popped into her head.

Jer molle pe oonet. Enel mörd je nej afva trohem verretn.” I have been made to protect you. Only in death will I be kept from this oath.

Matthias had stared at her in shock. “That’s the drüskelle oath to Fjerda. How do you know those words?”

“I tried to learn as much about Fjerda as I could.”

“Why?”

She’d wavered, then said, “So I wouldn’t fear you.” “You don’t seem afraid.”

“Are you afraid of me?” she’d asked.

“No,” he’d said, and he’d sounded almost surprised. He’d claimed before that he didn’t fear her. This time she believed him. She tried to remind herself that wasn’t a good thing.

They’d walked on for a while, and then he’d asked, “What’s the first thing you’re going to do?”

“Eat.”

“Eat what?”

“Everything. Stuffed cabbage, potato dumplings, blackcurrant cakes, blini with lemon zest. I can’t wait to see Zoya’s face when I come walking into the Little Palace.”

“Zoya Nazyalensky?”

Nina had stopped short. “You know her?” “We all know of her. She’s a powerful witch.”

It had hit her then: For the drüskelle, Zoya was a little like Jarl Brum – cruel, inhuman, the thing that waited in the dark with death in her hands. Zoya was this boy’s monster. The thought left her uneasy.

“How did you get out of the cages?” Nina blinked. “What?”

“On the ship. You were bound and in cages.”

“The water cup. The handle broke and the lip was jagged beneath. We used it to cut through our bonds. Once our hands were free …” Nina trailed off awkwardly.

Matthias’ brow lowered. “You were planning to attack us.” “We were going to make our move that night.”

“But then the storm hit.” “Yes.”

A Squaller and a Fabrikator had smashed a hole right through the deck, and they’d swum free. But had any of them survived the icy waters? Had they managed to make their way to land? She shivered. If they hadn’t discovered the cup’s secret, she would have drowned in a cage.

“What do drüskelle eat?” she asked, picking up her pace. “Other than Grisha babies?”

“We don’t eat babies!”

“Dolphin blubber? Reindeer hooves?”

She saw his mouth twist and wondered if he was nauseous or if maybe, possibly, he was trying not to laugh.

“We eat a lot of fish. Herring. Salt cod. And yes, reindeer, but not the hooves.”

“How about cake?” “What about it?”

“I’m very keen on cake. I’m wondering if we can find some common ground.”

He shrugged.

“Oh, come on, drüskelle,” she said. They still hadn’t exchanged names, and she wasn’t sure they should. Eventually, if they survived, they would reach a town or village. She didn’t know what would happen then, but the less he knew about her the better, in any case. “You’re not giving up Fjerdan government secrets. I just want to know why you don’t like cake.”

“I do like cake, but we’re not permitted sweets.” “Anyone? Or just drüskelle?”

Drüskelle. It’s considered an indulgence. Like alcohol or—” “Girls?”

His cheeks reddened, and he trudged forward. It was just so easy to make him uncomfortable.

“If you’re not allowed sugar or alcohol, you’d probably really love

pomdrakon.”

He hadn’t taken the bait at first, just walked on, but finally the quiet proved too much for him. “What’s pomdrakon?”

“Dragonbowl,” Nina said eagerly. “First you soak raisins in brandy, and then you turn off the lights and set them on fire.”

“Why?”

“To make it hard to grab them.”

“What do you do once you have them?” “You eat them.”

“Don’t they burn your tongue?” “Sure but—”

“Then why would you—”

“Because it’s fun, dummy. You know, ‘fun’? There’s a word for it in Fjerdan so you must be familiar with the term.”

“I have plenty of fun.”

“All right, what do you do for fun?”

And that was the way they went on, sniping at each other, just like that first night in the water, keeping each other alive, refusing to acknowledge that they were growing weaker, that if they didn’t find a real town soon, they weren’t going to last much longer. There were days when their hunger and the glare off the northern ice had them moving in circles, backtracking, faltering over their own steps, but they never spoke of it, never said the word lost, as if they both knew that would somehow be admitting defeat.

“Why don’t Fjerdans let girls fight?” she asked him one night as they’d lain curled beneath a lean-to, the cold palpable through the skins they’d laid on the ground.

“They don’t want to fight.”

“How do you know? Have you ever asked one?” “Fjerdan women are to be venerated, protected.” “That’s probably a wise policy.”

He’d known her well enough by then to be surprised. “It is?”

“Think how embarrassing it would be for you when you got trounced by a Fjerdan girl.”

He snorted.

“I’d love to see you get beaten by a girl,” she said happily. “Not in this lifetime.”

“Well, I guess I won’t get to see it. I’ll just get to live the moment when I knock you on your ass.”

This time he did laugh, a proper laugh that she could feel through her back.

“Saints, Fjerdan, I didn’t know you could laugh. Careful now, take it slow.”

“I enjoy your arrogance, drüsje.”

Now she laughed. “That may be the worst compliment I’ve received.” “Do you never doubt yourself?”

“All the time,” she’d said as she slid into sleep. “I just don’t show it.”

The next morning, they picked their way across an ice field splintered by jagged crevasses, keeping to the solid expanses between the deadly rifts, and arguing about Nina’s sleeping habits.

“How can you call yourself a soldier? You’d sleep until noon if I let you.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“Discipline. Routine. Does it mean nothing to you? Djel, I can’t wait to have a bed to myself again.”

“Right,” said Nina. “I can feel just how much you hate sleeping next to me. I feel it every morning.”

Matthias flushed bright scarlet. “Why do you have to say things like that?”

“Because I like it when you turn red.”

“It’s disgusting. You don’t need to make everything lewd.” “If you would just relax—”

“I don’t want to relax.”

“Why? What are you so afraid will happen? Afraid you might start to like me?”

He said nothing.

Despite her fatigue, she trotted ahead of him. “That’s it, isn’t it? You don’t want to like a Grisha. You’re scared that if you laugh at my jokes or answer my questions, you might start thinking I’m human. Would that be so terrible?”

“I do like you.” “What was that?”

“I do like you,” he said angrily.

She’d beamed, feeling a well of pleasure erupt through her. “Now, really, is that so bad?”

“Yes!” he roared. “Why?”

“Because you’re horrible. You’re loud and lewd and … treacherous.

Brum warned us that Grisha could be charming.”

“Oh, I see. I’m the wicked Grisha seductress. I have beguiled you with my Grisha wiles!”

She poked him in the chest. “Stop that.”

“No. I’m beguiling you.” “Quit it.”

She danced around him in the snow, poking his chest, his stomach, his side. “Goodness! You’re very solid. This is strenuous work.” He started to laugh. “It’s working! The beguiling has begun. The Fjerdan has fallen. You are powerless to resist me. You—”

Nina’s voice broke off in a scream as the ice gave way beneath her feet. She threw her hands out blindly, reaching for something, anything

that might stop her fall, fingers scraping over ice and rock.

The drüskelle grabbed her arm, and she cried out as it was nearly wrenched from its socket.

She hung there, suspended over nothing, the grip of his fingers the only thing between her and the dark mouth of the ice. For a moment, looking into his eyes, she was certain he was going to let go.

“Please,” she said, tears sliding over her cheeks.

He dragged her up over the edge, and slowly they crawled onto more solid ground. They lay on their backs, panting.

“I was afraid … I was afraid you were going to let me go,” she managed.

There was a long pause and then he said, “I thought about it. Just for a second.”

Nina huffed out a little laugh. “It’s okay,” she said at last. “I would have thought about it, too.”

He got to his feet and offered her his hand. “I’m Matthias.” “Nina,” she said, taking it. “Nice to make your acquaintance.”

 

 

The shipwreck had been more than a year ago, but it felt as if no time had passed at all. Part of Nina wanted to go back to the moment before everything had gone wrong, to those long days on the ice when they’d managed to be Nina and Matthias instead of Grisha and witchhunter. But the more she thought about it, the more surely she knew there had never been a moment like that. Those three weeks were a lie that she and Matthias had built to survive. The truth was the pyre.

“Nina,” Matthias said, jogging up behind her now. “Nina, you need to stay with the others.”

“Leave me alone.”

When he took her arm, she whirled and clenched her fist, cutting off the air to his throat. An ordinary man would have released her, but Matthias was a trained drüskelle. He seized her other arm and clamped it to her body, bundling her tight to him so she couldn’t use her hands. “Stop,” he said softly.

She struggled against his hold, glaring up at him. “Let me go.” “I can’t. Not while you’re a threat.”

“I will always be a threat to you, Matthias.”

The corner of his mouth pulled up in a rueful smile. His eyes were almost sorrowful. “I know.”

Slowly, he released her. She stepped back.

“What will I see when I get to the Ice Court?” she demanded. “You’re frightened.”

“Yes,” she said, chin jutting up defiantly. There was no point denying

it.

“Nina—”

“Tell me. I need to know. Torture chambers? A pyre blazing from a

rooftop?”

“They don’t use pyres at the Court any more.”

“Then what? Drawing and quartering? Firing squads? Does the Royal Palace have a view of the gallows?

“I’ve had enough of your judgements, Nina. This has to stop.”

“He’s right. You can’t go on this way.” Jesper was standing in the snow with the others. How long had they been there? Had they seen her attack Matthias?

“Stay out of this,” Nina snapped.

“If you two keep fighting, you’re going to get us all killed, and I have a lot more card games I need to lose.”

“You must find a way to make peace,” said Inej. “At least for a while.”

“This is not your concern,” Matthias growled.

Kaz stepped forward, his expression dangerous. “It is very much our concern. And watch your tone.”

Matthias threw up his hands. “You’ve all been taken in by her. This is what she does. She makes you think she’s your friend and then—”

Inej crossed her arms. “Then what?” “Let it go, Inej.”

“No, Nina,” Matthias said. “Tell them. You said you were my friend once. Do you remember?” He turned to the others. “We travelled together for three weeks. I saved her life. We saved each other. When we got to Elling, we … I could have revealed her to the soldiers we saw there at any time. But I didn’t.” Matthias started pacing, his voice rising, as if the memories were getting the better of him. “I borrowed money. I arranged lodging. I was willing to betray everything I believed in for the sake of her safety. When I saw her down to the docks so we could try to book passage, there was a Kerch trader there, ready to set sail.” Matthias

was there again, standing on the docks with her, she could see it in his eyes. “Ask her what she did then, this honourable ally, this girl who stands in judgement of me and my kind.”

No one said a word, but they were watching, waiting.

Tell them, Nina,” he demanded. “They should know how you treat your friends.”

Nina swallowed, then forced herself to meet their gazes. “I told the Kerch that he was a slaver and that he’d taken me prisoner. I threw myself on their mercy and begged them to help me. I had a seal I’d taken from a slaving ship we’d raided near the Wandering Isle. I used it as proof.”

She couldn’t bear to look at them. Kaz knew, of course. She’d had to tell him the charges she’d made and tried to recant when she was begging for his assistance. But Kaz had never probed, never asked why, never chastised her. In a way, telling Kaz had been a comfort. There could be no judgement from a boy known as Dirtyhands.

But now the truth was there for everyone to see. Privately, the Kerch knew slaves moved in and out of the ports of Ketterdam, and most indentures were really slaves by another name. But publicly, they reviled it and were obligated to prosecute all slavers. Nina had known exactly what would happen when she’d branded Matthias with that charge.

“I didn’t understand what was happening,” said Matthias. “I didn’t speak Kerch, but Nina certainly did. They seized me and put me in chains. They tossed me in the brig and kept me there in the dark for weeks while we crossed the sea. The next time I saw daylight was when they led me off the ship in Ketterdam.”

“I had no choice,” Nina said, the ache of tears pressing at her throat. “You don’t know—”

“Just tell me one thing,” he said. There was anger in his voice, but she could hear something else, too, a kind of pleading. “If you could go back, if you could undo what you did to me, would you?”

Nina made herself face them. She had her reasons, but did they matter? And who were they to judge her? She straightened her spine, lifted her chin. She was a member of the Dregs, an employee of the White Rose, and occasionally a foolish girl, but before anything else she was a Grisha and a soldier. “No,” she said clearly, her voice echoing off the endless ice. “I’d do it all over again.”

A sudden rumble shook the ground. Nina nearly lost her footing, and she saw Kaz brace himself with his walking stick. They exchanged puzzled glances.

“Are there fault lines this far north?” Wylan asked. Matthias frowned. “Not that I know of, but—”

A slab of earth shot up from beneath Matthias’ feet, knocking him to the ground. Another erupted to Nina’s right, sending her sprawling. All around them, crooked monoliths of earth and ice burst upwards, as if the ground was coming to life. A harsh wind whipped at their faces, snow spinning in flurries.

“What the hell is this?” cried Jesper.

“Some of kind of earthquake!” shouted Inej.

“No,” said Nina, pointing to a dark spot that seemed to be floating in the sky, unaffected by the howling wind. “We’re under attack.”

Nina crawled on hands and knees, seeking some kind of shelter. She thought she might well have lost her mind. There was someone in the air, hovering in the sky high above her. She was watching someone fly.

Grisha Squallers could control current. She’d even seen them play at tossing each other into the air at the Little Palace, but the level of finesse and power it took to maintain controlled flight was unthinkable – at least it had been, until now. Jurda parem. She hadn’t quite believed Kaz. Maybe she’d even suspected him of outright lying to her about what he’d seen just to get her to do the job. But unless she’d taken a blow to the head she didn’t remember, this was real.

The Squaller turned in the air, stirring the storm into a frenzy, sending ice flying until it stung her cheeks. She could barely see. She fell backwards as another slab of rock and ice shot from the ground. They were being corralled, pushed closer together to make a single target.

“I need a distraction!” shouted Jesper from somewhere in the storm. She heard a tinny plink.

“Get down,” cried Wylan. Nina flattened her body to the snow. A boom sounded overhead, and an explosion lit the sky just to the right of the Squaller. The winds around them dropped as the Squaller was thrown off course and forced to focus on righting himself. It took the briefest second, but it was enough time for Jesper to aim his rifle and fire.

A shot rang out, and the Squaller was hurtling towards the earth. Another slab of ice slid into place. They were being trapped like animals in a pen, ready for the slaughter. Jesper aimed between the slabs at a

distant stand of trees, and Nina realised there was another Grisha there, a boy with dark hair. Before Jesper could get off a shot, the Grisha rammed a fist upwards, and Jesper was thrown off his feet by a shaft of earth. He rolled as he fell and fired from the ground.

The boy in the distance cried out and dropped to one knee, but his arms were still raised, and the ground still rumbled and rocked beneath them. Jesper fired again and missed. Nina lifted her hands and tried to focus on the Grisha’s heart, but he was well out of her range.

She saw Inej signal to Kaz. Without a word, he positioned himself against the nearest slab and cupped his hands at his knee. The ground buckled and swayed, but he held steady as she launched herself from the cradle of his fingers in a graceful arc. She vanished over the slab without a sound. A moment later, the ground went still.

“Trust the Wraith,” said Jesper.

They stood, dazed, the air strangely hushed after the chaos that had come before.

“Wylan,” Jesper panted, pushing to his feet. “Get us out of here.”

Wylan nodded, pulled a putty-coloured lump from his pack, and gently placed it against the nearest rock. “Everybody down,” he instructed.

They crouched together in a cluster as far away as the enclosure would permit. Wylan slapped his hand against the explosive and dove away, careening into Matthias and Jesper as they all covered their ears.

Nothing happened.

“Are you kidding me?” said Jesper.

Boom. The slab exploded. Ice and bits of rock rained down over their heads.

Wylan was covered in dust and wearing a slightly dazed, deliriously happy expression. Nina started to laugh. “Try to look like you knew it would work.”

They stumbled out of the corral of slabs.

Kaz gestured to Jesper. “Perimeter. Let’s make sure there aren’t more surprises.” They set off in opposite directions.

Nina and the others found Inej standing over the body of the trembling Grisha. He wore clothes of olive drab, and his eyes were glassy. Blood spilled from the bullet wound in his upper thigh, and a knife jutted from the right side of his chest. Inej must have thrown it when she’d escaped from the enclosure.

Nina kneeled beside him.

“I need a little more,” the Grisha mumbled. “Just a little more.” He grabbed at Nina’s hand, and only then did she recognise him.

“Nestor?”

He twitched at the sound of his name, but he didn’t seem to know her. “Nestor, it’s me, Nina.” She had been at school with him back at the Little Palace. They’d been sent to Keramzin together during the war. At King Nikolai’s coronation, they’d stolen a bottle of champagne and got sick by the lake. He was a Fabrikator, one of the Durasts who worked with metal, glass, and fibers. It didn’t make sense. Fabrikators made textiles, weapons. He shouldn’t have been capable of what she’d just

witnessed.

“Please,” he begged, his face crumpling. “I need more.”

“Parem?”

“Yes,” he sobbed. “Yes. Please.”

“I can heal your wound, Nestor, if you stay still.” He was in bad shape, but if she could stop the bleeding …

“I don’t want your help,” he said angrily, trying to push away from her.

She tried calming him, lowering his pulse, but she was afraid of stopping his heart. “Please, Nestor. Please be still.”

He was screaming now, fighting her. “Hold him down,” she said.

Matthias moved to help, and Nestor threw up his arms.

The ground rose in a rippling sheet, thrusting Nina and the others back.

“Nestor, please! Let us help you.”

He stood up, staggering on his wounded leg, pulling at the knife buried in his chest. “Where are they?” he screamed. “Where did they go?”

“Who?”

“The Shu!” he wailed. “Where did they go? Come back!” He took a wobbling step, then another. “Come back!” He fell face forwards into the snow. He didn’t move again.

Nina rushed to his side and turned him over. There was snow in his eyes and his mouth. She placed her hands on his chest, trying to restore his heartbeat, but it was no good. If he hadn’t been ravaged by the drug,

he might have survived his wounds. But his body was weak, the skin tight to his bones and so pale it seemed transparent.

This isn’t right, Nina thought miserably. Practising the Small Science made a Grisha healthier, stronger. It was one of the things she loved most about her power. But the body had limits. It was as if the drug had caused Nestor’s power to outpace his body. It had simply used him up.

Kaz and Jesper returned, panting. “Anything?” asked Matthias.

Jesper nodded. “A party of people heading south.” “He was calling out for the Shu,” Nina said.

“We knew the Shu would send a team to retrieve Bo Yul-Bayur,” said Kaz.

Jesper looked down at Nestor’s motionless body. “But we didn’t know they’d send Grisha. How can we be sure they aren’t mercenaries?” Kaz held up a coin emblazoned with a horse on one side and two crossed keys on the other. “This was in the Squaller’s pocket,” he said, tossing it to Jesper. “It’s a Shu wen ye. The Coin of Passage. This is a

government mission.”

“How did they find us?” Inej asked.

“Maybe Jesper’s gunshots drew them,” said Kaz.

Jesper bristled and pointed at Nina and Matthias. “Or maybe they heard these two shouting at each other. They could have been following us for miles.”

Nina tried to make sense of what she was hearing. Shu didn’t use Grisha as soldiers, and they weren’t like the Fjerdans; they didn’t see Grisha power as unnatural or repulsive. They were fascinated by it. But they still viewed the Grisha as less than human. The Shu government had been capturing and experimenting on Grisha for years in an attempt to locate the source of their power. They would never use Grisha as mercenaries. Or at least that had been the case before. Maybe parem had changed the game.

“I don’t understand,” said Nina. “If they have jurda parem, why go after Bo Yul-Bayur?”

“It’s possible they have a stash of it, but can’t reproduce his process,” Kaz said. “That’s what the Merchant Council seemed to think. Or maybe they just want to make sure Yul-Bayur doesn’t give the formula to anyone else.”

“Do you think they’ll use drugged Grisha to try to break into the Ice Court?” Inej asked.

“If they have more of them,” said Kaz. “That’s what I would do.”

Matthias shook his head. “If they’d had a Heartrender, we’d all be dead.”

“It was still a close thing,” replied Inej.

Jesper shouldered his rifle. “Wylan earned his keep.” Wylan gave a little jump at the sound of his name. “I did?” “Well, you made a down payment.”

“Let’s move,” said Kaz.

“We need to bury them,” Nina said.

“The ground’s too hard, and we don’t have the time. The Shu team is still moving towards Djerholm. We don’t know how many other Grisha they may have, and Pekka’s team could already be inside.”

“We can’t just leave them for the wolves,” she said, her throat tight. “Do you want to build them a pyre?”

“Go to hell, Brekker.”

“Do your job, Zenik,” he shot back. “I didn’t bring you to Fjerda to perform funeral rites.”

She lifted her hands. “How about I crack your skull open like a robin’s egg?”

“You don’t want a look at what’s inside my head, Nina dear.” She took a step forward, but Matthias moved in front of her.

“Stop,” he said. “I’ll do it. I’ll help you dig the grave.” Nina stared at him. He took a pick from his gear and handed it to her, then took another from Jesper’s pack. “Head due south from here,” he said to the others. “I know the terrain, and I’ll make sure we catch up to you by nightfall. We’ll move faster on our own.”

Kaz looked at him steadily. “Just remember that pardon, Helvar.” “Are we sure it’s a good idea to leave them alone?” Wylan asked as

they moved down the slope. “No,” replied Inej.

“But we’re still doing it?”

“We trust them now or we trust them later,” Kaz said.

“Are we going to talk about Matthias’ little revelation about Nina’s loyalties?” asked Jesper.

Nina could just make out Kaz’s reply: “Pretty sure most of us don’t have ‘stalwart’ or ‘true’ checked off on our résumés.” For all that she

wanted to pummel Kaz, she couldn’t help being a bit grateful, too.

Matthias walked a few steps away from Nestor’s body. He heaved the pick into the icy earth, wrenched it free, plunged it in again.

“Here?” Nina asked.

“Do you want him elsewhere?”

“I … I don’t know.” She gazed out at the fields of white, marked by sparse groves of birch. “It all looks the same to me.”

“You know our gods?” “Some,” she said. “But you know Djel.” “The wellspring.”

Matthias nodded. “The Fjerdans believe all the world is connected through its waters – the seas, the ice, the rivers and streams, the rain and storms. All feed Djel and are fed by him. When we die, we call it felöt-objer, taking root. We become as roots of the ash tree, drinking from Djel wherever we are laid.”

“Is that why you burn Grisha instead of burying them?” He paused, then gave a brief nod.

“But you’ll help me lay Nestor and the Squaller to rest here?” He nodded again.

She took hold of the other pick and attempted to match his swing. The ground was hard and unyielding. Every time the pick struck the earth it sent a rattling jolt up her arms.

“Nestor shouldn’t have been able to do that,” she said, her thoughts still churning. “No Grisha can use power that way. It’s all wrong.”

He was quiet for a moment, and then he said, “Do you understand a little better now? What it’s like to face a power so alien? To face an enemy with such unnatural strength?”

Nina tightened her hold on the pick. Nestor in the grip of parem had seemed like a perversion of everything she loved about her power. Was that what Matthias and the other Fjerdans saw in Grisha? Power beyond explanation, the natural world undone?

“Maybe.” It was the most she could offer.

“You said you had no choice at the harbour in Elling,” he said without looking at her. His pick rose and fell, the rhythm unbroken. “Was it because I was drüskelle? Were you planning it all along?”

Nina remembered their last real day together, the elation they’d felt when they’d crested a steep hill and seen the port town spread out below.

She’d been shocked to hear Matthias say, “I am almost sorry, Nina.” “Almost?”

“I’m too hungry to really be sorry.”

“At last, you succumb to my influence. But how are we going to eat without any money?” she asked as they headed down the hill. “I may have to sell your pretty hair to a wig shop for cash.”

“Don’t get ideas,” he’d said with a laugh. His laughter had come more easily as they’d travelled, as if he were becoming fluent in a new language. “If this is Elling, I should be able to find us lodging.”

She’d stopped then, the truth of their situation returning to her with terrible clarity. She was deep in enemy territory with no allies but a drüskelle who’d thrown her in a cage only a few weeks earlier. But before she could speak, Matthias had said, “I owe you my life, Nina Zenik. We will get you safely home.”

She’d been surprised at how easy it was to trust him. And he’d trusted her, too.

Now she swung her pick, felt the impact reverberate up her arms and into her shoulders, and said, “There were Grisha in Elling.”

He halted midswing. “What?”

“They were spies doing reconnaissance work in the port. They saw me enter the main square with you and recognised me from the Little Palace. One of them recognised you, too, Matthias. He knew you from a skirmish near the border.”

Matthias remained still.

“They waylaid me when you went to speak to the manager of the boarding house,” Nina continued. “I convinced them I was under cover there, too. They wanted to take you prisoner, but I told them that you weren’t alone, that it would be too risky to try to capture you right away. I promised I would bring you to them the next day.”

“Why didn’t you just tell me?”

Nina tossed down her pick. “Tell you there were Grisha spies in Elling? You might have made your peace with me, but you can’t expect me to believe you wouldn’t have revealed them.”

He looked away, a muscle twitching in his jaw, and she knew she’d spoken truth.

“That morning,” he said, “on the docks—”

“I had to get us both away from Elling as fast as I could. I thought if I could just find us a vessel to stow away on … but the Grisha must have

been watching the boarding house and seen us leave. When they showed up on the docks, I knew they were coming for you, Matthias. If they’d captured you, you would have been taken to Ravka, interrogated, maybe executed. I spotted the Kerch trader. You know their laws on slaving.”

“Of course I do,” he said bitterly.

“I made the charge. I begged them to save me. I knew they’d have to take you into custody, and bring us safely to Kerch. I didn’t know –Matthias, I didn’t know they’d throw you in Hellgate.”

His eyes were hard when he faced her, his knuckles white on the handle of his pick. “Why didn’t you speak up? Why didn’t you tell the truth when we arrived in Ketterdam?”

“I tried. I swear it. I tried to recant. They wouldn’t let me see a judge. They wouldn’t let me see you. I couldn’t explain the seal from the slaver or why I’d made the charges, not without revealing Ravka’s intelligence operations. I would have compromised Grisha still in the field. I would have been sentencing them to death.”

“So you left me to rot in Hellgate.”

“I could have gone home to Ravka. Saints, I wanted to. But I stayed in Ketterdam. I gave up my wages for bribes, petitioned the Court—”

“You did everything but tell the truth.”

She’d meant to be gentle, apologetic, to tell him that she’d thought of him every night and every day. But the image of the pyre was still fresh in her mind. “I was trying to protect my people, people you’ve spent your life trying to exterminate.”

He gave a rueful laugh, turning the pick over in his hands. “Wanden olstrum end kendesorum.”

It was the first part of a Fjerdan saying, The water hears and understands. It sounded kind enough, but Matthias knew that Nina would be familiar with the rest of it.

Isen ne bejstrum,” she finished. The water hears and understands.

The ice does not forgive.

“And what will you do now, Nina? Will you betray the people you call friends again, for the sake of the Grisha?”

“What?”

“You can’t tell me you intend to let Bo Yul-Bayur live.”

He knew her well. With every new thing she’d learned of jurda parem, she’d been more certain that the only way to protect Grisha was to end the scientist’s life. She thought of Nestor begging with his last

breath for his Shu masters to return. “I can’t bear the thought of my people being slaves,” she admitted. “But we have a debt to settle, Matthias. The pardon is my penance, and I won’t be the person who keeps you from your freedom again.”

“I don’t want the pardon.” She stared at him. “But—”

“Maybe your people would become slaves. Or maybe they would become an unstoppable force. If Yul-Bayur lives and the secret of jurda parem becomes known, anything is possible.”

For a long moment, they held each other’s gaze. The sun was beginning to set, light falling in golden shafts across the snow. She could see the blond of Matthias’ lashes peeking through the black antimony she had used to stain them. She’d have to tailor him again soon.

In those days after the shipwreck, she and Matthias had formed an uneasy truce. What had grown up between them had been something fiercer than affection – an understanding that they were both soldiers, that in another life, they might have been allies instead of enemies. She felt that now.

“It would mean betraying the others,” she said. “They won’t get their pay from the Merchant Council.”

“True.”

“And Kaz will kill us both.” “If he learns the truth.”

“Have you tried lying to Kaz Brekker?” Matthias shrugged. “Then we die as we lived.”

Nina looked at Nestor’s emaciated form. “For a cause.”

“We are of one mind in this,” said Matthias. “Bo Yul-Bayur will not leave the Ice Court alive.”

“The deal is the deal,” she said in Kerch, the language of trade, a tongue that belonged to neither of them.

“The deal is the deal,” he replied.

Matthias swung his pick and brought it down in a hard arc, a kind of declaration. She hefted her pick and did the same. Without another word, they returned to the work of the grave, falling into a determined rhythm.

Kaz was right about one thing at least. She and Matthias had finally found something to agree on.

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