King of Scars (King of Scars Duology #1)

Nina gave her head a shake. This place was slowly driving her mad. Her hands were perpetually pruned, the skin nicked by tiny cuts from her clumsy way with the filleting knife; the smell of fish never left her hair; and her back ached from being on her feet in front of the cannery from dawn until dusk, rain or shine, protected from the elements by nothing but a corrugated tin awning. But there weren’t many jobs for unmarried women in Fjerda, so Nina—under the name Mila Jandersdat—had gladly taken the position. The work was grueling but made it easy for their local contact to get her messages, and her vantage point among the fish barrels gave her a perfect view of the guards patrolling the harbor.

There were plenty of them today, roaming the docks in their blue uniforms. Kalfisk, the locals called them—squid—because they had their tentacles in everything. Elling sat where the Stelge River met the Isenvee, and it was one of the few harbors along Fjerda’s rocky northwest coast with easy access to the sea for large vessels. The port was known for two things: smuggling and fish. Coalfish, monkfish, haddock; salmon and sturgeon from the river cities to the east; tilefish and silver-sided king mackerel from the deep waters offshore.

Nina worked beside two women—a Hedjut widow named Annabelle, and Marta, a spinster from Djerholm who was as narrow as a gap in the floorboards and constantly shook her head as if everything displeased her. Their chatter helped to keep Nina distracted and was a welcome source of gossip and legitimate information, though it could be hard to tell the difference between the two.

“They say Captain Birgir has a new mistress,” Annabelle would begin.

Marta would purse her lips. “With the bribes he takes he can certainly afford to keep her.”

“They’re increasing patrols since those stowaways were caught.”

Marta would cluck her tongue. “Means more jobs but probably more trouble.”

“More men in from G?fvalle today. River’s gone sour up by the old fort.”

Marta’s head would twitch back and forth like a happy dog’s tail. “A sign of Djel’s disfavor. Someone should send a priest to say prayers.”

G?fvalle. One of the river cities. Nina had never been there, had never even heard of it until she’d arrived with Adrik and Leoni two months ago on orders from King Nikolai, but its name always left her uneasy, the sound of it accompanied by a kind of sighing inside her, as if the town’s name was less a word than the start of an incantation.

Now Marta knocked the base of her knife against the wooden surface of her worktable. “Foreman coming.”

Hilbrand, the stern-faced foreman, was moving through the rows of stalls, calling out to runners to remove the buckets of fish.

“Your pace is off again,” he barked at Nina. “It’s as if you’ve never gutted fish before.”

Imagine that. “I’m sorry, sir,” she said. “I’ll do better.”

He cut his hand through the air. “Too slow. The shipment we’ve been waiting for has arrived. We’ll move you to the packing room floor.”

“Yes, sir,” Nina said glumly. She dropped her shoulders and hung her head when what she really wanted to do was break into song. The pay for packing jobs was considerably lower, so she had to make a good show of her defeat, but she’d understood Hilbrand’s real message: The last of the Grisha fugitives they’d been waiting for had made it to the Elling safe house at last. Now it was up to Nina, Adrik, and Leoni to get the seven newcomers aboard the Verstoten.

She followed close behind Hilbrand as he led her back toward the cannery.

“You’ll have to move quickly,” he said without looking at her. “There’s talk of a surprise inspection tonight.”

“All right.” An obstacle, but nothing they couldn’t handle.

“There’s more,” he said. “Birgir is on duty.”

Of course he is. No doubt the surprise inspection was Captain Birgir’s idea. Of all the kalfisk, he was the most corrupt but also the sharpest and most observant. If you wanted a legal shipment to get through the harbor without being trapped forever in customs—or if you wanted an illegal bit of cargo to avoid notice—then a bribe for Birgir was the cost.

A man without honor, said Matthias’ voice in her head. He should be ashamed.

Nina snorted. If men were ashamed when they should be, they’d have no time for anything else.

“Is something amusing?” Hilbrand asked.

“Just fighting a cold,” she lied. But even Hilbrand’s gruff manner put a pang in her heart. He was broad-shouldered and humorless and reminded her painfully of Matthias.

He’s nothing like me. What a bigot you are, Nina Zenik. Not all Fjerdans look alike.

“You know what Birgir did to those stowaways,” Hilbrand said. “I don’t have to tell you to be careful.”

“No, you don’t,” Nina said more sharply than she meant to. She was good at her job, and she knew exactly what was at stake. Her first morning at the docks, she’d seen Birgir and one of his favorite thugs, Casper, drag a mother and daughter off a whaler bound for Novyi Zem and beat them bloody. The captain had hung heavy chains around their necks weighted with signs that read drüsje—witch. Then he’d doused them in a slurry of waste and fish guts from the canneries and bound them outside the harbor station in the blazing sun. As his men looked on, laughing, the stink and the promise of food drew the gulls. Nina had spent her shift watching the woman trying to shield her daughter’s body with her own, and listening to the prisoners cry out in agony as the gulls pecked and clawed at their bodies. Her mind had spun a thousand fantasies of murdering Birgir’s harbor guards where they stood, of whisking the mother and daughter to safety. She could steal a boat. She could force a ship’s captain to take them far away. She could do something.

But she’d remembered too clearly Zoya’s warning to King Nikolai about Nina’s suitability for a deep-cover mission: “She doesn’t have a subtle bone in her body. Asking Nina not to draw attention is like asking water not to run downhill.”

The king had taken a chance on Nina, and she would not squander the opportunity. She would not jeopardize the mission. She would not compromise her cover and put Adrik and Leoni at risk. At least not in broad daylight. As soon as the sun had set, she’d slipped back to the harbor to free the prisoners. They were gone. But to where? And to suffer what horrors? She no longer believed that the worst terror awaiting Grisha at the hands of Fjerdan soldiers was death. Jarl Brum and his witchhunters had taught her too well.

As Nina followed Hilbrand into the cannery, the grind of machinery rattled her skull, the stink of salt cod overwhelming her. She wouldn’t be sorry to leave Elling for a while. The hold of the Verstoten was full of Grisha that her team—or Adrik’s team, really—had helped rescue and bring to Elling. Since the end of the civil war, King Nikolai had diverted funds and resources to support an underground network of informants that had existed for years in Fjerda with the goal of helping Grisha living in secret to escape the country. They called themselves Hringsa, the tree of life, after the great ash sacred to Djel. Nina knew Adrik had already received new intelligence from the group, and once the Verstoten was safely on its way to Ravka, Nina and the others would be free to head inland to locate more Grisha.

Hilbrand led her to his office, shut the door behind them, then ran his fingers along the far wall. A click sounded and a second, hidden door opened onto the Fiskstrahd, the bustling street where fishmongers did their business and where a girl on her own might avoid the notice of the harbor police by simply disappearing into the crowd.

“Thank you,” Nina said. “We’ll be sending more your way soon.”

“Wait.” Hilbrand snagged her arm before she could slip into the sunshine. He hesitated, then blurted out, “Are you really her? The girl who bested Jarl Brum and left him bleeding on a Djerholm dock?”

Nina yanked her arm from his grip. She’d done what she had to do to free her friends and keep the secret of jurda parem out of Fjerdan hands. But it was the drug that had made victory possible, and it had exacted an awful price, changing the course of Nina’s life and the very nature of her Grisha power.

If we’d never gone to the Ice Court, would Matthias still be alive? Would my heart still be whole? Pointless questions. There was no answer that would bring him back.

Nina fixed Hilbrand with the withering glare she’d learned from Zoya Nazyalensky herself. “I’m Mila Jandersdat. A young widow taking odd jobs to make ends meet and hoping to secure work as a translator. What kind of fool would pick a fight with Commander Jarl Brum?” Hilbrand opened his mouth, but Nina continued, “And what kind of podge would risk compromising an agent’s cover when so many lives are on the line?”

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