King of Scars (King of Scars Duology #1)

Nina was surprised to glimpse signs of the Saints here, in places she knew were not dedicated to the Hringsa network. She had seen them on the road too—altars bearing the symbol of Sankta Alina instead of Djel’s sacred ash tree, an icon of Sankt Demyan of the Rime perched in a shop window, two thorny boughs crossed above a door to signify the blessing of Sankt Feliks. There had been talk of miracles and strange happenings throughout Ravka, and it seemed new fervor for the Saints had taken hold in Fjerda as well. It was risky to be so public about heresy with soldiers close by, but perhaps these were small acts of rebellion for the townspeople who resented the military men standing watch up at the factory.

The convent was located on the northern outskirts of town, almost directly down the slope from the factory. It was a round slab of milk-white stone with a turreted roof that made the building look like a tower in search of a castle. The large chapel it abutted was constructed of sturdy, rough-hewn logs and fronted by an entrance of ash branches woven into complicated knots.

They left their sledge in the stables and rang the bell at the convent’s side door. A young woman in the embroidered pale blue pinafore of a novitiate answered, and a moment later they were meeting the Wellmother. The older woman wore dark blue wool and had a round, apple-cheeked face, her skin deeply lined, as if it had been pleated into neat, pallid folds instead of wrinkled by age.

Nina made the introductions, explaining that she was serving as a translator for a merchant couple selling their wares, and asked if they might stay somewhere on the property while exploring the area.

“Do they have any Fjerdan at all?”

“Bine,” said Adrik. Some.

“De forenen,” added Leoni with a smile. We’re learning.

“And where is your husband?” the Wellmother asked Nina.

“Gone to the waters,” Nina said, dropping her eyes to the silver ring on her hand. “May Djel watch over him.”

“Not a soldier, then?”

“A fisherman.”

“Ah. Well,” she said, as if dissatisfied with such a bloodless death. “I can give you and the Zemeni woman rooms on the bottom floor near the kitchens. But her husband will have to stay in the stables. I doubt he’d be much harm to the girls,” she said with a glance at the pinned sleeve of Adrik’s coat, “but even so.”

It was the kind of thoughtless comment people often made around Adrik, but all he did was smile pleasantly and offer up payment for the week with his remaining hand.

The Wellmother instructed them on the routine of the convent as she led them through the dining hall and then down to the stable. “The doors are locked at ten bells every night and are not reopened until the morning. We ask that you keep to reading or silent meditation at that time so as not to disturb the girls at their studies.”

“Are they all novitiates?” Nina asked.

“Some will become Springmaidens. Others are here to be educated until they return to their families or husbands. What are you transporting under there anyway?” the Wellmother asked, lifting the corner of the tarp attached to the sledge.

Nina’s instinct was to slap the woman’s hand away. Instead, she stepped forward eagerly and reached for the ties securing the tarp. “This couple has invented a new form of rifle loader.”

Right on cue, Leoni drew a colorful pamphlet from her coat. “They’re affordably priced, and we’re projecting big sales in the new year,” she said. “We’re looking for a few small investors. If you’d like a demonstration—”

“No, indeed,” the Wellmother said quickly. “I’m sure they’re most impressive, but I’m afraid the convent’s finances are simply too tight for, uh … speculative ventures.”

It never failed.

“We serve our meals at six bells following morning prayers—which you are of course encouraged to join—and in the evening again at six bells. Bread and salt are available in the kitchens. Water is rationed.”

“Rationed?” asked Nina.

“Yes, we draw from the well at Felsted, and that requires quite a journey.”

“Isn’t Gjela closer?”

The Wellmother’s plump lips pursed. “There are many ways in which we show service to Djel. The trip provides good opportunity for quiet contemplation.”

River’s gone sour up by the old fort. So the Wellmother didn’t want her charges drinking from this tributary of the river, but she also wasn’t willing to discuss it. It was possible the Springmaidens were just laundering soldiers’ uniforms, but it was also likely they knew what was happening at the factory.

As soon as the Wellmother had gone, Adrik said, “Let’s walk.”

Nina checked the lashings of the tarp and they headed up the side of the mountain, setting a leisurely pace and making a show of chattering loudly in Zemeni. They paralleled the road that led to the factory, but they took time to point out birds and stop at vistas overlooking the valley. Three tourists out for a walk and nothing more.

“Will you be all right in the stables?” Leoni asked as they made their way through a grove of pines.

“I’ll manage,” said Adrik. “A one-armed lecher can still prey upon the horses. The Wellmother never thought of that.”

Leoni laughed and said, “It’s the wolves who go unseen that eat the most sheep.” Adrik snorted but he looked almost pleased.

Behind them, Nina rolled her eyes. If she was going to be forced to continue a mission with two people starting this dance of cautious compliments and sudden blushes, it might well kill her. It was one thing to find happiness and lose it, quite another to have someone else’s happiness thrust at you like an unwanted second slice of cake. Then again, she’d never refused a second slice of cake. This will be good for me, she told herself. Like green vegetables and lessons in arithmetic. And I’ll probably enjoy it just as much.

Eventually they picked their way to a gap in the trees that overlooked the entrance to the factory. At the sight of it, the rustling of voices rose in her mind, louder than the wind shaking the pines. Two soldiers were posted at the huge double doors, and there were more stationed along the parapets.

“It was a fort before it was a factory,” Nina said, pointing to what looked like old niches carved into the stone walls. A large reservoir sat behind the main building, and she wondered if the water was used for cooling whatever machinery was operating inside.

“It’s a good strategic vantage, I suppose,” said Adrik in his dreary voice. “High ground. A safe place to shelter in an attack or when the river spills its banks.”

The might of Djel, thought Nina. The Wellspring, the wrath of the river.

Two smokestacks belched gray-blue smoke into the late-afternoon sky as they watched a covered wagon roll up to the gate. It was impossible to tell what passed between the guards and the driver.

“What do you think is in that wagon?” asked Adrik.

“Could be anything,” said Leoni. “Ore from the mines. Fish. Bushels of jurda.”

Nina ran her hands over her arms and glanced at the smokestacks. “Not jurda. I would smell it.” Small doses of ordinary jurda had helped her to survive her ordeal with parem but had left her with an acute sensitivity to it. “What do you think?” she asked Adrik. “Do we stay?”

“I think I want a look inside that fort, but I’ll settle for knowing what the hell they leaked into the water.”

“It could be from the mines,” said Leoni.

“If it were the mines, the fishermen would have rioted to have them shut down. Fear is keeping the townspeople quiet.”

“Let’s draw samples of the water,” Leoni said. “If I can isolate the pollutants, we might be able to figure out what they’re doing inside the fort.”

“You’re equipped for that?” Adrik said.

“Not exactly. I came prepared to forge documents, not test for poisons. But I could probably rig something up.”

“If I told you we needed magical dust to make me vomit peppermints, you’d probably say you could rig something up.”

“Probably,” Leoni replied with a grin. “I’d just have to try.”

Adrik shook his head in disbelief. “I’m getting tired even contemplating it.”

“I’ll need time,” said Leoni, and Nina saw a troubled shadow pass over her face. “Poisons are tricky work.”

“We can’t stay here too long without drawing suspicion,” said Adrik. “There’s not enough trade passing through to justify it. And I don’t want us snowbound if a bad storm hits.”

“I know,” Nina said. She had pushed them to come here, and she hoped they had more to find than a recommissioned munitions factory. “Give it a week.”

A silence followed, and Nina sensed the shared concern that passed between Leoni and Adrik.

Leoni touched Nina’s hand gently. “Nina …” she began, and Nina knew what she was going to say.

The whispering rose in her head again, but Nina ignored it. Instead, she looked out at the valley, at the dense forest, the gleaming tributary slicing through the trees like a glittering chain in a jewel box, the tidy little town bisected by the road. It did not feel like enemy territory here. It felt like a quiet place where people came to build their homes and try to make a life for themselves, where the business of soldiers and wars was nothing but an intrusion.

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