Search

Chapter no 17

Six of Crows

Jesper felt about ready to hurl himself overboard just for a change in routine. Six more days. Six more days on this boat – if they were lucky and the wind was good – and then they should make land. Fjerda’s western coast was all perilous rock and steep cliffs. It could only be safely approached at Djerholm and Elling, and since security at both harbours was tight, they’d been forced to travel all the way to the northern whaling ports. He was secretly hoping they’d be attacked by pirates, but the little ship was too small to be carrying valuable cargo. They were an unworthy target and they passed unmolested through the busiest trade routes of the True Sea, flying neutral Kerch colours. Soon, they were in the cold waters of the north, moving into the Isenvee.

Jesper prowled the deck, climbed the rigging, tried to get the crew to play cards with him, cleaned his guns. He missed land and good food and better lager. He missed the city. If he’d wanted wide open spaces and silence, he would have stayed on the frontier and become the farmer his father had hoped for. There was little to do on the ship but study the layout of the Ice Court, listen to Matthias grumbling, and annoy Wylan, who could always be found labouring over his attempts to reconstruct the possible mechanisms of the ringwall gates.

Kaz had been impressed with the sketches. “You think like a lockpick,” he’d told Wylan. “I do not.”

“I mean you can see space along three axes.” “I’m not a criminal,” Wylan protested.

Kaz had cast him an almost pitying look. “No, you’re a flautist who fell in with bad company.”

Jesper sat down next to Wylan. “Just learn to take a compliment. Kaz doesn’t hand them out often.”

“It’s not a compliment. I’m nothing like him. I don’t belong here.” “No arguments from me.”

“And you don’t belong here, either.” “I beg your pardon, merchling?”

“We don’t need a sharpshooter for Kaz’s plan, so what’s your job –other than stalking around making everyone antsy?”

He shrugged. “Kaz trusts me.”

Wylan snorted and picked up his pen. “Sure about that?”

Jesper shifted uncomfortably. Of course he wasn’t sure about it. He spent far too much of his time guessing at Kaz Brekker’s thoughts. And if he had earned some small part of Kaz’s trust, did he deserve it?

He tapped his thumbs against his revolvers and said, “When the bullets start flying, you may find I’m nice to have around. Those pretty pictures aren’t going to keep you alive.”

“We need these plans. And in case you’ve forgotten, one of my flash bombs helped get us out of the Ketterdam harbour.”

Jesper blew out a breath. “Brilliant strategy.” “It worked, didn’t it?”

“You blinded our guys right along with the Black Tips.” “It was a calculated risk.”

“It was cross-your-fingers-and-hope-for-the-best. Believe me, I know the difference.”

“So I’ve heard.” “Meaning?”

“Meaning everyone knows you can’t keep away from a fight or a wager, no matter the odds.”

Jesper squinted up at the sails. “If you aren’t born with every advantage, you learn to take your chances.”

“I wasn’t—” Wylan left off and set down his pen. “Why do you think you know everything about me?”

“I know plenty, merchling.”

“How nice for you. I feel like I’ll never know enough.”

“About what?”

“About anything,” Wylan muttered.

Against his better judgement, Jesper was intrigued. “Like what?” he pressed.

“Well, like those guns,” he said gesturing to Jesper’s revolvers. “They have an unusual firing mechanism, don’t they? If I could take them apart

—”

“Don’t even think about it.”

Wylan shrugged. “Or what about the ice moat?” he said, tapping the plan of the Ice Court. Matthias had said the moat wasn’t solid, only a slick, wafer-thin layer of ice over frigid water, thoroughly exposed and impossible to cross.

“What about it?”

“Where does all the water come from? The Court is on a hill, so where’s the aquifer or aqueduct to bring the water up?”

“Does it matter? There’s a bridge. We don’t need to cross the ice moat.”

“But aren’t you curious?”

“Saints, no. Get me a system for winning at Three Man Bramble or Makker’s Wheel. That I’m curious about.”

Wylan had turned back to his work, his disappointment obvious. For some reason, Jesper felt a little disappointed, too.

 

 

Jesper checked on Inej every morning and every night. The idea that the ambush on the docks might simply be the end of her had shaken him. Despite Nina’s efforts, he’d been fairly sure the Wraith wasn’t long for this world.

But one morning, Jesper arrived to find Inej sitting up, clothed in breeches, quilted vest, and hooded tunic.

Nina was bent over, struggling to get the Suli girl’s feet into her strange rubber-soled slippers.

“Inej!” Jesper crowed. “You’re not dead!” She smiled faintly. “No more than anyone.”

“If you’re spouting depressing Suli wisdom, then you must be feeling better.”

“Don’t just stand there,” Nina groused. “Help me get these things on her feet.”

“If you would just let me—” Inej began.

“Do not bend,” Nina snapped. “Do not leap. Do not move abruptly. If you don’t promise to take it easy, I’ll slow your heart and keep you in a coma until I can be sure you’ve recovered fully.”

“Nina Zenik, as soon as I figure out where you’ve put my knives, we’re going to have words.”

“The first ones had better be ‘Thank you, oh great Nina, for dedicating every waking moment of this miserable journey to saving my sorry life.’”

Jesper expected Inej to laugh and was startled when she took Nina’s face between her hands and said, “Thank you for keeping me in this world when fate seemed determined to drag me to the next. I owe you a life debt.”

Nina blushed deeply. “I was teasing, Inej.” She paused. “I think we’ve both had enough of debts.”

“This is one I’m glad to bear.”

“Okay, okay. When we’re back in Ketterdam, take me out for waffles.”

Now Inej did laugh. She dropped her hands and appeared to speculate. “Dessert for a life? I’m not sure that seems equitable.”

“I expect really good waffles.”

“I know just the place,” said Jesper. “They have this apple syrup—” “You’re not invited,” Nina said. “Now come help me get her

standing.”

“I can stand on my own,” Inej grumbled as she slid off the table and rose to her feet.

“Humour me.”

With a sigh, Inej gripped the arm that Jesper offered, and they made their way out of the cabin and up to the deck, Nina trailing behind them.

“This is foolishness,” Inej said. “I’m fine.”

You are,” replied Jesper, “but I may keel over at any moment, so pay attention.”

Once they were on deck, Inej squeezed his arm to get him to halt. She tilted her head back, breathing deeply. It was a stone grey day, the sea a bleak slate broken up by whitecaps, the sky pleated with thick ripples of

cloud. A hard wind filled the sails, carrying the little boat over the waves.

“It feels good to be this kind of cold,” she murmured. “This kind?”

“Wind in your hair, sea spray on your skin. The cold of the living.” “Two turns around the deck,” Nina warned. “Then back to bed.” She

went to join Wylan at the stern. It didn’t escape Jesper that she’d moved to the point on the ship furthest from Matthias.

“Have they been like that the whole time?” Inej asked, looking between Nina and the Fjerdan.

Jesper nodded. “It’s like watching two bobcats circle each other.”

Inej made a little humming noise. “But what do they mean to do when they pounce?”

“Claw each other to death?”

Inej rolled her eyes. “No wonder you do so badly at the tables.”

Jesper steered her towards the rail, where they could make an approximation of a promenade without getting in anyone’s way. “I’d threaten to toss you into the drink, but Kaz is watching.”

Inej nodded. She didn’t look up to where Kaz stood beside Specht at the wheel. But Jesper did and gave him a cheery wave. Kaz’s expression didn’t change.

“Would it kill him to smile every once in a while?” Jesper asked. “Very possibly.”

Every crew member called greetings and well wishes, and Jesper could sense Inej perking up with every cheer of “The Wraith returns!” Even Matthias gave her an awkward bow and said, “I understand you’re the reason we made it out of the harbour alive.”

“I suspect there were a lot of reasons,” said Inej. “I’m a reason,” Jesper offered helpfully.

“All the same,” said Matthias, ignoring him. “Thank you.”

They moved on, and Jesper saw a pleased grin playing over Inej’s lips.

“Surprised?” he asked.

“A bit,” she admitted. “I spend so much time with Kaz. I guess—” “It’s a novelty to feel appreciated.”

She released a little chuckle and pressed a hand to her side. “Still hurts to laugh.”

“They’re glad you’re alive. I’m glad.”

“I should hope so. I think I just never quite felt like I fit in with the Dregs.”

“Well, you don’t.” “Thanks.”

“We’re a crew with limited interests, and you don’t gamble, swear, or drink to excess. But here’s the secret to popularity: risk death to save your compatriots from being blown to bits in an ambush. Great way to make friends.”

“As long as I don’t have to start going to parties.”

When they reached the foredeck, Inej leaned on the railing and looked out at the horizon. “Did he come to see me at all?”

Jesper knew she meant Kaz. “Every day.”

Inej turned her dark eyes on him, then shook her head. “You can’t read people, and you can’t bluff.”

Jesper sighed. He hated disappointing anyone. “No,” he admitted. She nodded and looked back at the ocean.

“I don’t think he likes sickbeds,” Jesper said. “Who does?”

“I mean, I think it was hard for him to be around you that way. That first day when you were hurt … he went a little crazy.” It cost Jesper something to admit that. Would Kaz have gone off on that kind of a mad-dog tear if it had been Jesper with a knife stuck in his side?

“Of course he did. This is a six-person job, and apparently he needs me to scale an incinerator shaft. If I die, the plan falls apart.”

Jesper didn’t argue. He couldn’t pretend to understand Kaz or what drove him. “Tell me something. What was the big falling out between Wylan and his father?”

Inej cast a quick glance up at Kaz, then looked over her shoulder to make sure none of the crew was lurking nearby. Kaz had been clear that information even remotely related to the job must be kept among the six of them. “I don’t know exactly,” she said. “Three months ago Wylan turned up at a flophouse near the Slat. He was using a different surname, but Kaz keeps tabs on everyone new to the Barrel, so he had me do some snooping.”

“And?”

Inej shrugged. “The servants at the Van Eck house are paid well enough that they’re hard to bribe. The information I got didn’t add up to

much. There were rumours Wylan had been caught in a sweaty romp with one of his tutors.”

“Really?” said Jesper incredulously. Hidden depths indeed.

“Just a rumour. And it’s not as if Wylan left home to take up residence with a lover.”

“So why did Papa Van Eck kick him out?”

“I don’t think he did. Van Eck writes to Wylan every week, and Wylan doesn’t even open the letters.”

“What do they say?”

Inej leaned back carefully on the railing. “You’re assuming I read them.”

“You didn’t?”

“Of course I did.” Then she frowned, remembering. “They just said the same thing again and again: If you’re reading this, then you know how much I wish to have you home. Or I pray that you read these words and think of all you’ve left behind.

Jesper looked over to where Wylan was chatting with Nina. “The mysterious merchling. I wonder what Van Eck did that was bad enough to send Wylan to slum it with us.”

“Now you tell me something, Jesper. What brought you on this mission? You know how risky this job is, what the chances are that we’ll come back. I know you love a challenge, but this is a stretch, even for you.”

Jesper looked at the grey swells of the sea, marching to the horizon in endless formation. He’d never liked the ocean, the sense of the unknown beneath his feet, that something hungry and full of teeth might be waiting to drag him under. And that was how he felt every day now, even on land.

“I’m in debt, Inej.” “You’re always in debt.”

“No. It’s bad this time. I borrowed money from the wrong people.

You know my father has a farm?” “In Novyi Zem.”

“Yes, in the west. It just started turning a profit this year.” “Oh, Jesper, you didn’t.”

“I needed the loan…. I told him it’s so I can finish my degree at the university.”

She stared at him. “He thinks you’re a student?”

“That’s why I came to Ketterdam. My first week in the city I went down to East Stave with some other students. I put a few kruge on the table. It was a whim. I didn’t even know the rules of Makker’s Wheel. But when the dealer gave the wheel a spin, I’d never heard a more beautiful sound. I won, and I kept winning. It was the best night of my life.”

“And you’ve been chasing it ever since.”

He nodded. “I should have stayed in the library. I won. I lost. I lost some more. I needed money so I started taking on work with the gangs. Two guys jumped me in an alley one night. Kaz took them down, and we started doing jobs together.”

“He probably hired those boys to attack you so you’d feel indebted to him.”

“He wouldn’t—” Jesper stopped short, and then he laughed. “Of course he would.” Jesper flexed his knuckles, concentrated on the lines of his palms. “Kaz is … I don’t know, he’s like nobody else I’ve ever known. He surprises me.”

“Yes. Like a hive of bees in your dresser drawer.” Jesper barked a laugh. “Just like that.”

“So what are we doing here?”

Jesper turned back to the sea, feeling his cheeks heat. “Hoping for honey, I guess. And praying not to get stung.”

Inej bumped her shoulder against his. “Then at least we’re both the same kind of stupid.”

“I don’t know what your excuse is, Wraith. I’m the one who can never walk away from a bad hand.”

She looped her arm in his. “That makes you a rotten gambler, Jesper.

But an excellent friend.”

“You’re too good for him, you know.” “I know. So are you.”

“Shall we walk?”

“Yes,” Inej said, falling into step beside him. “And then I need you to distract Nina, so I can go search for my knives.”

“No problem. I’ll just bring up Helvar.” Jesper glanced back at the wheel as they set off down the opposite side of the deck. Kaz hadn’t moved. He was still watching them, his eyes hard, his face as unreadable as ever.

You'll Also Like