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Chapter no 12

Six of Crows

Before Inej had ever set foot on the high wire or even a practice rope, her father had taught her to fall – to protect her head and minimise the impact by not fighting her own momentum. Even as the blast from the harbour lifted her off her feet, she was tucking into a roll. She hit hard, but she was up in seconds, pressed against the side of a crate, her ears ringing, her nose singed by the sharp scent of gunpowder.

Inej spared Kaz and the others a single glance, then did what she did best – she vanished. She launched herself up the cargo crates, scaling them like a nimble insect, her rubber-soled feet finding grips and footholds.

The view from above was disturbing. The Dregs were outnumbered, and there were men working their way around their left and right flanks. Kaz had been right to keep their real point of departure a secret from the others. Someone had talked. Inej had tried to keep tabs on the team, but someone else in the gang could have been snooping. Kaz had said it himself: Everything in Ketterdam leaked, including the Slat and the Crow Club.

Someone was firing down from the masts of the new Ferolind. Hopefully, that meant Jesper had made it to the schooner, and she just had to buy the others enough time to make it there as well.

Inej ran lightly over the tops of the crates, making her way down the row, seeking her targets below. It was easy enough. None of them

expected the threat to come from above. She slid to the ground behind two men firing at Nina, and said a silent prayer as she slit one throat, then the next. When the second man dropped, she crouched beside him and rolled up his right sleeve – a tattoo of a hand, its first and second fingers cut off at the knuckle. Black Tips. Was this retribution for Kaz’s showdown with Geels, or something more? They shouldn’t have been able to raise these kinds of numbers.

She moved on to the next aisle of crates, following a mental map of the other attackers’ positions. First, she took down a girl holding a massive, unwieldy rifle, then skewered the man who was supposed to be watching her flank. His tattoo showed five birds in a wedge formation: Razorgulls. Just how many gangs were they up against?

The next corner was blind. Should she scale the cargo containers to check her position or risk what might be waiting for her on the other side? She took a deep breath, sank low, and slipped around the corner in a lunge. Tonight her Saints were kind – two men were firing on the docks with their backs to her. She dispatched them with two quick thrusts of her blades. Six bodies, six lives taken. She was going to have to do a lot of penance, but she’d helped even the odds a bit in the Dregs’ favour. Now, she needed to get to the schooner.

She wiped her knives on her leather breeches and returned them to their sheaths, then backed up and took a running start at the nearest cargo container. As her fingers gripped the rim, she felt a piercing pain beneath her arm. She turned in time to see Oomen’s ugly face split in a determined grimace. All the intelligence she had gathered on the Black Tips came back to her in a sickening rush – Oomen, Geels’ shambling enforcer, the one who could crush skulls with his bare hands.

He yanked her down and grabbed the front of her vest, giving the knife in her side a sharp twist. Inej fought not to black out.

As her hood fell back, he exclaimed, “Ghezen! I’ve got Brekker’s Wraith.”

“You should have aimed … higher,” Inej gasped. “Missed my heart.” “Don’t want you dead, Wraith,” he said. “You’re quite the prize. Can’t

wait to hear all the gossip you’ve gathered for Dirtyhands, and all his

secrets, too. I love a good story.”

“I can tell you how this one ends,” she said on an unsteady breath. “But you’re not going to like it.”

“That so?” He slammed her up against the crate, and pain crashed through her. Her toes only brushed the ground as blood spurted from the wound at her side. Oomen’s forearm was braced against her shoulders, keeping her arms pinned.

“Do you know the secret to fighting a scorpion?”

He laughed. “Talking nonsense, Wraith? Don’t die too quick. Need to get you patched up.”

She crossed one ankle behind the other and heard a reassuring click. She wore the pads at her knees for crawling and climbing, but there was another reason, too – namely, the tiny steel blades hidden in each of them.

“The secret,” she panted, “is to never take your eyes off the scorpion’s tail.” She brought her knee up, jamming the blade between Oomen’s legs.

He shrieked and released her, hands going to his bleeding groin.

She staggered back down the row of crates. She could hear men shouting to each other, the pop of gunfire coming in smatters and bursts now. Who was winning? Had the others made it to the schooner? A wave of dizziness rolled over her.

When she touched her fingers to the wound at her side, they came away wet. Too much blood. Footsteps. Someone was coming. She couldn’t climb, not with this wound, not with the amount of blood she’d lost. She remembered her father putting her on the rope ladder the first time. Climb, Inej.

The cargo containers were stacked like a pyramid here. If she could make it up just one, she could hide herself on the first level. Just one. She could climb or she could stand there and die.

She willed her mind to clarity and hopped up, fingertips latching onto the top of the crate. Climb, Inej. She dragged herself over the edge onto the tin roof of the container.

It felt so good to lie there, but she knew she’d left a trail of blood behind her. One more, she told herself. One more and you’ll be safe. She forced herself up to her knees and reached for the next crate.

The surface beneath her began to rock. She heard laughter from below.

“Come out, come out, Wraith! We have secrets to tell!”

Desperately, she reached for the lip of the next crate again and gripped it, fighting through an onslaught of pain as the container under

her dropped away. Then she was just hanging, legs dangling helplessly down. They didn’t open fire; they wanted her alive.

“Come on down, Wraith!”

She didn’t know where the strength came from but she managed to pull herself over the top. She lay on the crate’s roof, panting.

Just one more. But she couldn’t. Couldn’t push to her knees, couldn’t reach, couldn’t even roll. It hurt too much. Climb, Inej.

“I can’t, Papa,” she whispered. Even now she hated to disappoint him. Move, she told herself. This is a stupid place to die. And yet a voice in her head said there were worse places. She would die here, in freedom, beneath the beginnings of dawn. She’d die after a worthy fight, not because some man had tired of her or required more from her than she could give. Better to die here by her own blade than with her face

painted and her body swathed in false silks.

A hand seized her ankle. They’d climbed the crates. Why hadn’t she heard them? Was she that far gone? They had her. Someone was turning her onto her back.

She slid the dagger from the sheath at her wrist. In the Barrel, a blade this sharp was known as kind steel. It meant a quick death. Better that than torture at the mercy of the Black Tips or the Razorgulls.

May the Saints receive me. She pressed the tip beneath her breast, between her ribs, an arrow to her heart. Then a hand gripped her wrist painfully, forcing her to drop the blade.

“Not just yet, Inej.”

The rasp of stone on stone. Her eyes flew open. Kaz.

He bundled her into his arms and leaped down from the crates, landing roughly, his bad leg buckling.

She moaned as they hit the ground. “Did we win?”

“I’m here, aren’t I?”

He must be running. Her body jounced painfully against his chest with every lurching step. He needed his cane.

“I don’t want to die.”

“I’ll do my best to make other arrangements for you.” She closed her eyes.

“Keep talking, Wraith. Don’t slip away from me.” “But it’s what I do best.”

He clutched her tighter. “Just make it to the schooner. Open your damn eyes, Inej.”

She tried. Her vision was blurring, but she could make out a pale, shiny scar on Kaz’s neck, right beneath his jaw. She remembered the first time she’d seen him at the Menagerie. He paid Tante Heleen for information – stock tips, political pillow talk, anything the Menagerie’s clients blabbed about when drunk or giddy on bliss. He never visited Heleen’s girls, though plenty would have been happy to take him up to their rooms. They claimed he gave them the shivers, that his hands were permanently stained with blood beneath those black gloves, but she’d recognised the eagerness in their voices and the way they tracked him with their eyes.

One night, as he’d passed her in the parlour, she’d done a foolish thing, a reckless thing. “I can help you,” she’d whispered. He’d glanced at her, then proceeded on his way as if she’d said nothing at all. The next morning, she’d been called to Tante Heleen’s parlour. She’d been sure another beating was coming or worse, but instead Kaz Brekker had been standing there, leaning on his crow-head cane, waiting to change her life.

“I can help you,” she said now. “Help me with what?”

She couldn’t remember. There was something she was supposed to tell him. It didn’t matter any more.

“Talk to me, Wraith.” “You came back for me.”

“I protect my investments.”

Investments. “I’m glad I’m bleeding all over your shirt.” “I’ll put it on your tab.”

Now she remembered. He owed her an apology. “Say you’re sorry.” “For what?”

“Just say it.”

She didn’t hear his reply. The world had grown very dark indeed.

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