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Chapter no 16

Six of Crows

Everything hurt. And why was the room moving?

Inej came awake slowly, her thoughts jumbled. She remembered the thrust of Oomen’s knife, climbing the crates, people shouting as she dangled from the tips of her fingers. Come on down, Wraith. But Kaz had returned for her, to rescue his investment. They must have made it onto the Ferolind.

She tried to roll over, but the pain was too intense, so she settled for turning her head. Nina was drowsing on a stool tucked into the corner by the table, Inej’s hand grasped loosely in her own.

“Nina,” she croaked. Her throat felt like it was coated in wool.

Nina jolted awake. “I’m up!” she blurted, then peered blearily at Inej. “You’re awake.” She sat up straighter. “Oh, Saints, you’re awake!”

And then Nina burst out crying.

Inej tried to sit up, but could barely lift her head. “No, no,” Nina said. “Don’t try to move, just rest.” “Are you okay?”

Nina started to laugh through her tears. “I’m fine. You’re the one who got stabbed. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. It’s just so much easier to kill people than take care of them.” Inej blinked, and then they both started laughing. “Owwww,” groaned Inej. “Don’t make me laugh. That feels awful.”

Nina winced. “How do you feel?”

“Sore, but not terrible. Thirsty.”

Nina offered her a tin cup full of cold water. “It’s fresh. We had rain yesterday.”

Inej sipped carefully, letting Nina hold her head up. “How long was I out?”

“Three days, almost four. Jesper is driving us all crazy. I don’t think I’ve seen him sit still for more than two minutes together.” She stood up abruptly. “I need to tell Kaz you’re awake! We thought—”

“Wait,” Inej said, grabbing for Nina’s hand. “Just … can we not tell him right away?”

Nina sat back down, her face puzzled. “Sure, but—” “Just for tonight.” She paused. “Is it night?”

“Yes. Just past midnight, actually.”

“Do we know who came after us at the harbour?”

“Pekka Rollins. He hired the Black Tips and the Razorgulls to keep us from getting out of Fifth Harbour.”

“How did he know where we were leaving from?” “We’re not sure yet.”

“I saw Oomen—”

“Oomen’s dead. Kaz killed him.” “He did?”

“Kaz killed a lot of people. Rotty saw him go after the Black Tips who had you up on the crates. I believe his exact words were, ‘There was enough blood to paint a barn red.’”

Inej closed her eyes. “So much death.” They were surrounded by it in the Barrel. But this was the closest it had ever come to her.

“He was afraid for you.”

“Kaz isn’t afraid of anything.”

“You should have seen his face when he brought you to me.” “I’m a very valuable investment.”

Nina’s jaw dropped. “Tell me he didn’t say that.” “Of course he did. Well, not the valuable part.” “Idiot.”

“How’s Matthias?”

“Also an idiot. Do you think you can eat?”

Inej shook her head. She didn’t feel hungry at all.

“Try,” urged Nina. “There wasn’t much of you to begin with.” “I just want to rest for now.”

“Of course,” Nina said. “I’ll turn down the lantern.”

Inej reached for her again. “Don’t. I don’t want to go back to sleep yet.”

“I could read to you if I had anything to read. There’s a Heartrender at the Little Palace who can recite epic poetry for hours. Then you’d wish you had died.”

Inej laughed then winced. “Just stay.”

“All right,” said Nina. “Since you want to talk. Tell me why you don’t have the cup and crow on your arm.”

“Starting with the easy questions?”

Nina crossed her legs and planted her chin in her hands. “Waiting.” Inej was quiet for a while. “You saw my scars.” Nina nodded. “When

Kaz got Per Haskell to pay off my indenture with the Menagerie, the first thing I did was have the peacock feather tattoo removed.”

“Whoever took care of it did a pretty rough job.”

“He wasn’t a Corporalnik or even a medik.” Just one of the half-knowledgeable butchers who plied their trade among the desperate of the Barrel. He’d offered her a slug of whisky, then simply hacked away at the skin, leaving a puckered spill of wounds down her forearm. She hadn’t cared. The pain was liberation. They had loved to talk about her skin at the House of Exotics. It was like coffee with sweet milk. It was like burnished caramel. It was like satin. She welcomed every cut of the knife and the scars it left behind. “Kaz told me I didn’t have to do anything but make myself useful.”

Kaz had taught her to crack a safe, pick a pocket, wield a knife. He’d gifted her with her first blade, the one she called Sankt Petyr – not as pretty as wild geraniums, but more practical, she supposed.

Maybe I’ll use it on you, she’d said.

He’d sighed. If only you were that bloodthirsty. She hadn’t been able to tell if he was kidding.

Now she shifted slightly on the table. There was pain, but it wasn’t too bad. Given how deep the knife had gone, her Saints must have been guiding Nina’s hand.

“Kaz said if I proved myself I could join the Dregs when I was ready.

And I did. But I didn’t take the tattoo.”

Nina’s brows rose. “I didn’t think it was optional.”

“Technically it isn’t. I know some people don’t understand, but Kaz told me … he said it was my choice, that he wouldn’t be the one to mark

me again.”

But he had, in his own way – despite her best intentions. Feeling anything for Kaz Brekker was the worst kind of foolishness. She knew that. But he’d been the one to rescue her, to see her potential. He’d bet on her, and that meant something – even if he’d done it for his own selfish reasons. He’d even dubbed her the Wraith.

I don’t like it, she’d said. It makes me sound like a corpse. A phantom, he corrected.

Didn’t you say I was to be your spider? Why not stick with that?

Because there are plenty of spiders in the Barrel. Besides, you want your enemies to be afraid. Not think they can squash you with the toe of one boot.

My enemies?

Our enemies.

He’d helped her build a legend to wear as armour, something bigger and more frightening than the girl she’d been. Inej sighed. She didn’t want to think about Kaz any more.

“Talk,” she said to Nina.

“Your eyelids are drooping. You should sleep.” “Don’t like boats. Bad memories.”

“Me too.”

“Sing something, then.”

Nina laughed. “Remember what I said about wishing you were dead?

You do not want me to sing.” “Please?”

“I only know Ravkan folk tunes and Kerch drinking songs.” “Drinking song. Something rowdy, please.”

Nina snorted. “Only for you, Wraith.” She cleared her throat and began. “Mighty young captain, bold on the sea. Soldier and sailor and free of disease—

Inej started to giggle and clutched her side. “You’re right. You couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.”

“I told you that.” “Go on.”

Nina’s voice really was terrible. But it helped to keep Inej on this boat, in this moment. She didn’t want to think about the last time she’d been at sea, but the memories were hard to fight.

She wasn’t even supposed to be in the wagon the morning the slavers took her. She’d been fourteen, and her family had been summering on the coast of West Ravka, enjoying the seaside and performing in a carnival on the outskirts of Os Kervo. She should have been helping her father mend the nets. But she’d been feeling lazy, and she’d allowed herself another few minutes to sleep in, drowsing beneath the thin cotton covers and listening to the rush and sigh of the waves.

When a man had appeared silhouetted in the door to the caravan, she hadn’t even known to run. She’d simply said, “Five more minutes, Papa.”

Then they had her by the legs and were dragging her out of the wagon. She banged her head hard on the ground. There were four of them, big men, seafarers. When she tried to scream, they gagged her. They bound her hands and wrists, and one of them threw her over his shoulder as they plunged into a longboat they’d moored in the cove.

Later, Inej learned that the coast was a popular location for slavers. They’d spotted the Suli caravan from their ship and rowed in after dawn when the camp was all but deserted.

The rest of the journey was a blur. She was thrown into a cargo hold with a group of other children – some older, some younger, mostly girls but a few boys, too. She was the only Suli, but a few spoke Ravkan, and they told their own stories of being taken. One had been snatched from his father’s shipyard; another had been playing in the tidepools and had strayed too far from her friends. One had been sold by her older brother to pay off his gambling debts. The sailors spoke a language she didn’t know, but one of the other children claimed they were being taken to the largest of Kerch’s outer islands, where they would be auctioned to private owners or pleasure houses in Ketterdam and Novyi Zem. People came from all over the world to bid. Inej had thought slaving was illegal in Kerch, but apparently it still happened.

She never saw the auction block. When they’d finally dropped anchor, Inej was led on deck and handed over to one of the most beautiful women she’d ever seen, a tall blonde with hazel eyes and piles of golden hair.

The woman had held her lantern up and examined every inch of Inej –her teeth, her breasts, even her feet. She’d tugged on the matted hair on Inej’s head. “This will have to be shaved.” Then she’d stepped back. “Pretty,” she said. “Scrawny and flat as a pan, but her skin is flawless.”

She’d turned away to barter with the sailors as Inej stood there, clutching her bound hands over her chest, her blouse still open, her skirt still hiked around her waist. Inej could see the glint of moonlight off the waves of the cove. Jump, she’d thought. Whatever waits at the bottom of the sea is better than where this woman is taking you. But she hadn’t had the courage.

The girl she’d become would have jumped without a second thought, and maybe taken one of the slavers down with her. Or maybe she was kidding herself. She’d frozen when Tante Heleen had accosted her in West Stave. She’d been no stronger, no braver, just the same frightened Suli girl who’d been paralysed and humiliated on the deck of that ship.

Nina was still singing, something about a sailor who’d abandoned his sweetheart.

“Teach me the chorus,” Inej said. “You should rest.”

“Chorus.”

So Nina taught her the words, and they sang together, fumbling through the verses, hopelessly out of key, until the lanterns burned low.

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