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Chapter no 10

Six of Crows

Over the next day, Inej saw Kaz begin to move the pieces of his scheme into position. She’d been privy to his consultations with every member of the crew, but she knew she was seeing only fragments of his plan. That was the game Kaz always played.

If he had doubts about what they were attempting, they didn’t show, and Inej wished she shared his certainty. The Ice Court had been built to withstand an onslaught of armies, assassins, Grisha, and spies. When she’d said as much to Kaz, he’d simply replied, “But it hasn’t been built to keep us out.”

His confidence unnerved her. “What makes you think we can do this? There will be other teams out there, trained soldiers and spies, people with years of experience.”

“This isn’t a job for trained soldiers and spies. It’s a job for thugs and thieves. Van Eck knows it, and that’s why he brought us in.”

“You can’t spend his money if you’re dead.” “I’ll acquire expensive habits in the afterlife.”

“There’s a difference between confidence and arrogance.”

He’d turned his back on her then, giving each of his gloves a sharp tug. “And when I want a sermon on that, I know who to come to. If you want out, just say so.”

Her spine had straightened, her own pride rising to her defence. “Matthias isn’t the only irreplaceable member of this crew, Kaz. You

need me.”

“I need your skills, Inej. That’s not the same thing. You may be the best spider crawling around the Barrel, but you’re not the only one. You’d do well to remember it if you want to keep your share of the haul.”

She hadn’t said a word, hadn’t wanted to show just how angry he’d made her, but she’d left his office and hadn’t said a thing to him since.

Now, as she headed towards the harbour, she wondered what kept her on this path.

She could leave Kerch any time she wanted. She could stow away on a ship bound for Novyi Zem. She could go back to Ravka and search for her family. Hopefully they’d been safe in the west when the civil war broke out, or maybe they’d taken refuge in Shu Han. The Suli caravans had been following the same well-worn roads for years, and she had the skills to steal what she needed to survive until she found them.

That would mean walking out on her debt to the Dregs. Per Haskell would blame Kaz; he’d be forced to carry the price of her indenture, and she’d be leaving him vulnerable without his Wraith to gather secrets. But hadn’t he told her that she was easily replaced? If they managed to pull off this heist and return to Kerch with Bo Yul-Bayur safely in tow, her percentage of the haul would be more than enough to buy her way out of her contract with the Dregs. She’d owe Kaz nothing, and there would be no reason for her to stay.

Sunrise was only an hour away, but the streets were crowded as she wended her way from East to West Stave. There was a Suli saying: The heart is an arrow. It demands aim to land true. Her father had liked to recite this when she was training on the wire or the swings. Be decisive, he’d say. You have to know where you want to go before you get there. Her mother had laughed at this. That’s not what that means, she’d say. You take the romance out of everything. He hadn’t, though. Her father had adored her mother. Inej remembered him leaving little bouquets of wild geraniums for her mother to find everywhere, in the cupboards, the camp cookpots, the sleeves of her costumes.

Shall I tell you the secret of true love? her father once asked her. A friend of mine liked to tell me that women love flowers. He had many flirtations, but he never found a wife. Do you know why? Because women may love flowers, but only one woman loves the scent of gardenias in late summer that remind her of her grandmother’s porch. Only one

woman loves apple blossoms in a blue cup. Only one woman loves wild geraniums.

That’s Mama! Inej had cried.

Yes, Mama loves wild geraniums because no other flower has quite the same colour, and she claims that when she snaps the stem and puts a sprig behind her ear, the whole world smells like summer. Many boys will bring you flowers. But some day you’ll meet a boy who will learn your favourite flower, your favourite song, your favourite sweet. And even if he is too poor to give you any of them, it won’t matter because he will have taken the time to know you as no one else does. Only that boy earns your heart.

That felt like a hundred years ago. Her father had been wrong. There had been no boys to bring her flowers, only men with stacks of kruge and purses full of coin. Would she ever see her father again? Hear her mother singing, listen to her uncle’s silly stories? I’m not sure I have a heart to give any more, Papa.

The problem was that Inej was no longer certain what she was aiming for. When she’d been little, it had been easy – a smile from her father, the tightrope raised another foot, orange cakes wrapped in white paper. Then it had been getting free of Tante Heleen and the Menagerie, and after that, surviving each day, getting a little stronger with every morning. Now she didn’t know what she wanted.

Just this minute, I’ll settle for an apology, she decided. And I won’t board the boat without one. Even if Kaz isn’t sorry, he can pretend. He at least owes me his best imitation of a human being.

If she hadn’t been running late, she would have looped around West Stave or simply travelled over the rooftops – that was the Ketterdam she loved, empty and quiet, high above the crowds, a moonlit mountain range of gabled peaks and off-kilter chimneys. But tonight she was short on time. Kaz had sent her scouring the shops for two lumps of paraffin at the last minute. He wouldn’t even tell her what they were for or why they were so necessary. And snow goggles? She’d had to visit three different outfitters to acquire them. She was so tired she didn’t entirely trust herself to make the climb over the gables, not after two nights without sleep and a day spent wrangling supplies for their trek to the Ice Court.

She supposed she was daring herself, too.

She never walked West Stave alone. With the Dregs at her side, she could stroll by the Menagerie without a glance towards the golden bars on the windows. But tonight, her heart was pounding, and she could hear the roar of blood in her ears as the gilded façade came into view. The Menagerie had been built to look like a tiered cage, its first two storeys left open but for the widely spaced golden bars. It was also known as the House of Exotics. If you had a taste for a Shu girl or a Fjerdan giant, a redhead from the Wandering Isle, a dark-skinned Zemeni, the Menagerie was your destination. Each girl was known by her animal name –leopard, mare, fox, raven, ermine, fawn, snake. Suli seers wore the jackal mask when they plied their trade and looked into a person’s fate. But what man would want to bed a jackal? So the Suli girl – and the Menagerie always stocked a Suli girl – was known as the lynx. Clients didn’t come looking for the girls themselves, just brown Suli skin, the fire of Kaelish hair, the tilt of golden Shu eyes. The animals remained the same, though the girls came and went.

Inej glimpsed peacock feathers in the parlour, and her heart stuttered. It was just a bit of decoration, part of a lavish flower arrangement, but the panic inside her didn’t care. It rose up, clutching at her breath. People crowded in on all sides, men in masks, women in veils – or maybe they were men in veils and women in masks. It was impossible to tell. The horns of the Imp. The goggling eyes of the Madman, the sad face of the Scarab Queen wrought in black and gold. Artists loved to paint scenes of West Stave, the boys and girls who worked the brothels, the pleasure seekers dressed as characters of the Komedie Brute. But there was no beauty here, no real merriment or joy, just transactions, people seeking escape or some colourful oblivion, some dream of decadence that they could wake from whenever they wished.

Inej forced herself to look at the Menagerie as she passed.

It’s just a place, she told herself. Just another house. How would Kaz see it? Where are the entrances and exits? How do the locks work? Which windows are unbarred? How many guards are posted, and which ones look alert? Just a house full of locks to pick, safes to crack, pigeons to dupe. And she was the predator now, not Heleen in her peacock feathers, not any man who walked these streets.

As soon as she was out of sight of the Menagerie, the tight feeling in her chest and throat began to ease. She’d done it. She’d walked alone on

West Stave, right in front of the House of Exotics. Whatever was waiting for her in Fjerda, she could face it.

A hand hooked around her forearm and yanked her off her feet.

Inej regained her balance quickly. She spun on her heel and tried to pull away, but the grip was too strong.

“Hello, little lynx.”

Inej hissed in a breath and tore her arm free. Tante Heleen. That was what her girls knew to call Heleen Van Houden or risk the back of her hand. To the rest of the Barrel she was the Peacock, though Inej had always thought she looked less like a bird than a preening cat. Her hair was a thick and luscious gold, her eyes hazel and slightly feline. Her tall, sinuous frame was draped in vibrant blue silk, the plunging neckline accented with iridescent feathers that tickled the signature diamond choker glittering at her neck.

Inej turned to run, but her path was blocked by a huge bruiser, his blue velvet coat stretched tight across his big shoulders. Cobbet, Heleen’s favourite enforcer.

“Oh, no you don’t, little lynx.”

Inej’s vision blurred. Trapped. Trapped. Trapped again. “That’s not my name,” Inej managed to gasp out. “Stubborn thing.”

Heleen grabbed hold of Inej’s tunic.

Move, her mind screamed, but she couldn’t. Her muscles had locked up; a high whine of terror filled her head.

Heleen ran a single manicured talon along her cheek. “Lynx is your only name,” Heleen crooned. “You’re still pretty enough to fetch a good price. Getting hard around the eyes though – too much time spent with that little thug Brekker.”

A humiliating sound emerged from Inej’s throat, a choked wheeze.

“I know what you are, lynx. I know what you’re worth down to the cent. Cobbet, maybe we should take her home now.”

Black crowded into Inej’s vision. “You wouldn’t dare. The Dregs—” “I can bide my time, little lynx. You’ll wear my silks again, I

promise.” She released Inej. “Enjoy your night,” she said with a smile, then snapped open her blue fan and whirled away into the crowd, Cobbet trailing after her.

Inej stood frozen, shaking. Then she dove into the crowd, eager to disappear. She wanted to break into a run, but she just kept moving

steadily, pushing towards the harbour. As she walked, she released the triggers on the sheaths at her forearms, feeling the grips of her daggers slide into her palms. Sankt Petyr, renowned for his bravery, on the right; the slender, bone-handled blade she’d named for Sankta Alina on the left. She recited the names of her other knives, too. Sankta Marya and Sankta Anastasia strapped to her thighs. Sankt Vladimir hidden in her boot, and Sankta Lizabeta snug at her belt, the blade etched in a pattern of roses. Protect me, protect me. She had to believe her Saints saw and understood the things she did to survive.

What was wrong with her? She was the Wraith. She had nothing to fear from Tante Heleen any longer. Per Haskell had bought out her indenture. He’d freed her. She wasn’t a slave; she was a valued member of the Dregs, a thief of secrets, the best in the Barrel.

She hurried past the light and music of the Lid, and finally the Ketterdam harbours came into view, the sights and sounds of the Barrel fading as she neared the water. There were no crowds to bump against her here, no cloying perfumes or wild masks. She took a long, deep breath. From this vantage point she could just see the top of one of the Tidemaker towers, where lights always burned. The thick obelisks of black stone were manned day and night by a select group of Grisha who kept the tides permanently high over the landbridge that otherwise would have connected Kerch to Shu Han. Even Kaz had never been able to learn the identities of the Council of Tides, where they lived, or how their loyalty to Kerch had been guaranteed. They watched the harbours, too, and if a signal went up from the harbourmaster or a dockworker, they’d alter the tides and keep anyone from heading out to sea. But on this night, there would be no signal. The right bribes had been paid to the right officials, and their ship should be ready to sail.

Inej broke into a jog, heading for the loading docks at Fifth Harbour. She was very late – she wasn’t looking forward to Kaz’s disapproving frown when she made it to the pier.

She was glad for the peace of the docks, but they seemed almost too still after the noise and chaos of the Barrel. Here, the rows of crates and cargo containers were stacked high on either side of her – three, sometimes four, on top of one another. They made this part of the docks feel like a labyrinth. A cold sweat broke out at the base of her spine. The run-in with Tante Heleen had left her shaken, and the heft of the daggers in her hands wasn’t enough to soothe her rattled nerves. She knew she

should get used to carrying a pistol, but the weight threw off her balance, and guns could jam or lock in a bad moment. Little lynx. Her blades were reliable. And they made her feel like she’d been born with proper claws.

A light mist was rising off the water, and through it, Inej saw Kaz and the others waiting near the pier. They all wore the nondescript clothes of sailors – roughspun trousers, boots, thick wool coats and hats. Even Kaz had foregone his immaculately cut suit in favour of a bulky wool coat. The thick sheaf of his dark hair was combed back, the sides trimmed short as always. He looked like a dockworker, or a boy setting sail on his first adventure. It was almost as if she were peering through a lens at some other, more pleasant reality.

Behind them, she saw the little schooner Kaz had commandeered, Ferolind written in bold script on its side. It would fly the purple Kerch fishes and the colourful flag of the Haanraadt Bay Company. To anyone in Fjerda or on the True Sea, they would simply look like Kerch trappers heading north for skins and furs. Inej quickened her pace. If she hadn’t been running late, they probably would have been aboard or even on their way out of the harbour already.

They would keep a minimal crew, all former sailors who had made their way into the ranks of the Dregs through one misfortune or another. Through the mists, she made a quick count of the waiting group. The number was off. They’d brought on four additional members of the Dregs to help sail the schooner since none of them really knew their way around the rigging, but she didn’t see any of them. Maybe they’re already on board? But even as she had the thought, her boot landed on something soft, and she stumbled.

She looked down. In the dim glow of the harbour gaslights, she saw Dirix, one of the Dregs who’d been meant to make the journey with them. There was a knife in his abdomen, and his eyes were glassy.

“Kaz!” she shouted.

But it was too late. The schooner exploded, knocking Inej off her feet and showering the docks in flame.

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