Inej knew the moment Kaz entered the Slat. His presence reverberated through the cramped rooms and crooked hallways as every thug, thief, dealer, conman, and steerer came a little more awake. Per Haskell’s favoured lieutenant was home.
The Slat wasn’t much, just another house in the worst part of the Barrel, three storeys stacked tight on top of each other, crowned with an attic and a gabled roof. Most of the buildings in this part of the city had been built without foundations, many on swampy land where the canals were haphazardly dug. They leaned against each other like tipsy friends gathered at a bar, tilting at drowsy angles. Inej had visited plenty of them on errands for the Dregs, and they weren’t much better on the inside –cold and damp, plaster sliding from the walls, gaps in the windows wide enough to let in the rain and snow. Kaz had spent his own money to have the Slat’s drafts shorn up and its walls insulated. It was ugly, crooked, and crowded, but the Slat was gloriously dry.
Inej’s room was on the third floor, a skinny slice of space barely big enough for a cot and a trunk, but with a window that looked out over the peaked roofs and jumbled chimneys of the Barrel. When the wind came through and cleared away the haze of coal smoke that hung over the city, she could even make out a blue pocket of harbour.
Though dawn was just a few hours away, the Slat was wide awake. The only time the house was ever really quiet was in the slow hours of
the afternoon, and tonight everyone was buzzing with the news of the showdown at the Exchange, Big Bolliger’s fate, and now poor Rojakke’s dismissal.
Inej had gone straight from her conversation with Kaz to seek out the card dealer at the Crow Club. He’d been at the tables dealing Three Man Bramble for Jesper and a couple of Ravkan tourists. When he’d finished the hand, Inej had suggested they speak in one of the private gaming parlours to spare him the embarrassment of being fired in front of his friends, but Rojakke wasn’t having it.
“It’s not fair,” he’d bellowed when she’d told him Kaz’s orders. “I ain’t no cheat!”
“Take it up with Kaz,” Inej had replied quietly.
“And keep your voice down,” Jesper added, glancing at the tourists and sailors seated at the neighbouring tables. Fights were common in the Barrel, but not on the floor of the Crow Club. If you had a gripe, you settled it outside, where you didn’t risk interrupting the hallowed practice of separating pigeons from their money.
“Where’s Brekker?” growled Rojakke. “I don’t know.”
“You always know everything about everything,” Rojakke sneered, leaning in, the stink of lager and onions on his breath. “Isn’t that what Dirtyhands pays you for?”
“I don’t know where he is or when he’s getting back. But I do know you won’t want to be here when he does.”
“Give me my cheque. I’m owed for my last shift.” “Brekker doesn’t owe you anything.”
“He can’t even face me? Sends a little girl to give me the boot? Maybe I’ll just shake a few coins out of you.” He’d reached to grab her by the collar of her shirt, but she’d dodged him easily. He fumbled for her again.
Out of the corner of her eye, Inej saw Jesper rise from his seat, but she waved him off and slipped her fingers into the brass knuckles she kept in her right hip pocket. She gave Rojakke a swift crack across the left cheek.
His hand flew up to his face. “Hey,” he said. “I didn’t hurt you none.
It was just words.”
People were watching now, so she hit him again. Regardless of the Crow Club rules, this took precedence. When Kaz had brought her to the
Slat, he’d warned her that he wouldn’t be able to watch out for her, that she’d have to fend for herself, and she had. It would have been easy enough to turn away when they called her names or sidled up to ask for a cuddle, but do that and soon it was a hand up your blouse or a try at you against a wall. So she’d let no insult or innuendo slide. She’d always struck first and struck hard. Sometimes she even cut them up a bit. It was fatiguing, but nothing was sacred to the Kerch except trade, so she’d gone out of her way to make the risk much higher than the reward when it came to disrespecting her.
Rojakke touched his fingers to the ugly bruise forming on his cheek, looking surprised and a bit betrayed. “I thought we was friendly,” he protested.
The sad part was that they were. Inej liked Rojakke. But right now, he was just a frightened man looking to feel bigger than someone.
“Rojakke,” she’d said. “I’ve seen you work a deck of cards. You can get a job in almost any den. Go home and be grateful Kaz doesn’t take what you owe him out of your hide, hmmm?”
He’d gone, a bit wobbly on his feet, still clutching his cheek like a stunned toddler, and Jesper had sauntered over.
“He’s right, you know. Kaz shouldn’t send you to do his dirty work.” “It’s all dirty work.”
“But we do it just the same,” he said with a sigh. “You look exhausted. Will you sleep at all tonight?”
Jesper just winked. “Not while the cards are hot. Stay and play a bit.
Kaz will stake you.”
“Really, Jesper?” she’d said, pulling up her hood. “If I want to watch men dig holes to fall into, I’ll find myself a cemetery.”
“Come on, Inej,” he’d called after her as she passed through the big double doors onto the street. “You’re good luck!”
Saints, she’d thought, if he believes that, he really must be desperate. She’d left her luck behind in a Suli camp on the shores of West Ravka. She doubted she’d see either again.
Now Inej left her tiny chamber in the Slat and headed downstairs by way of the banisters. There was no reason to cloak her movements here, but silence was a habit, and the stairs tended to squeak like mating mice. When she reached the second floor landing and saw the crowd milling below, she hung back.
Kaz had been gone longer than anyone had expected, and as soon as he’d entered the shadowy foyer, he’d been waylaid by people looking to congratulate him on his routing of Geels and asking for news of the Black Tips.
“Rumour has it Geels is already putting together a mob to move on us,” said Anika.
“Let him!” rumbled Dirix. “I’ve got an axe handle with his name on it.”
“Geels won’t act for a while,” said Kaz as he moved down the hall. “He doesn’t have the numbers to face us in the streets, and his coffers are too empty to hire on more hands. Shouldn’t you be on your way to the Crow Club?”
The raised eyebrow was enough to send Anika scurrying away, Dirix on her heels. Others came to offer congratulations or make threats against the Black Tips. No one went so far as to pat Kaz on the back, though – that was a good way to lose a hand.
Inej knew Kaz would stop to speak to Per Haskell, so instead of descending the final flight of stairs, she moved down the hallway. There was a closet here, full of odds and ends, old chairs with broken backs, paint-spattered canvas sheeting. Inej moved aside a bucket full of cleaning supplies that she’d placed there precisely because she knew no one in the Slat would ever touch it. The grate beneath it offered a perfect view of Per Haskell’s office. She felt slightly guilty for eavesdropping on Kaz, but he was the one who had turned her into a spy. You couldn’t train a falcon, then expect it not to hunt.
Through the grate she heard Kaz’s knock on Per Haskell’s door and the sound of his greeting.
“Back and still breathing?” the old man inquired. She could just see him seated in his favourite chair, fiddling with a model ship he’d been building for the better part of a year, a pint of lager within arm’s reach, as always.
“We won’t have a problem with Fifth Harbour again.”
Haskell grunted and returned to his model ship. “Close the door.”
Inej heard it shut, muffling the sounds from the hallway. She could see the top of Kaz’s head. His dark hair was damp. It must have started raining.
“You should have asked permission from me to deal with Bolliger,” said Haskell.
“If I had talked to you first, word might have got out—” “You think I’d let that happen?”
Kaz’s shoulders lifted. “This place is like anything in Ketterdam. It leaks.” Inej could have sworn he looked directly at the vent when he said it.
“I don’t like it, boy. Big Bolliger was my soldier, not yours.”
“Of course,” Kaz said, but they both knew it was a lie. Haskell’s Dregs were old guard, conmen and crooks from another time. Bolliger had been one of Kaz’s crew – new blood, young and unafraid. Maybe too unafraid.
“You’re smart, Brekker, but you need to learn patience.” “Yes, sir.”
The old man barked a laugh. “Yes, sir. No, sir,” he mocked. “I know you’re up to something when you start getting polite. Just what have you got brewing?”
“A job,” Kaz said. “I may need to be gone for a spell.” “Big money?”
“Very.” “Big risk?”
“That, too. But you’ll get your twenty per cent.”
“You don’t make any major moves without my say-so, understood?” Kaz must have nodded because Per Haskell leaned back in his chair and took a sip of lager. “Are we to be very rich?”
“Rich as Saints in crowns of gold.”
The old man snorted. “Long as I don’t have to live like one.”
“I’ll talk to Pim,” Kaz said. “He can pick up the slack while I’m gone.” Inej frowned. Just where was Kaz going? He hadn’t mentioned any big job to her. And why Pim? The thought shamed her a bit. She could almost hear her father’s voice: So eager to be Queen of the Thieves, Inej? It was one thing to do her job and do it well. It was quite another to want to succeed at it. She didn’t want a permanent place with the Dregs. She wanted to pay off her debts and be free of Ketterdam forever, so why should she care if Kaz chose Pim to run the gang in his absence? Because I’m smarter than Pim. Because Kaz trusts me more. But maybe he didn’t trust the crew to follow a girl like her, only two years out of the brothels, not even seventeen years old. She wore her sleeves long and the sheath of her knife mostly hid the scar on the inside
of her left forearm where the Menagerie tattoo had once been, but they all knew it was there.
Kaz exited Haskell’s room, and Inej left her perch to wait for him as he limped his way up the stairs.
“Rojakke?” he asked as he passed her and started up the second flight. “Gone,” she said, falling in behind him.
“He put up much of a fight?” “Nothing I couldn’t handle.” “Not what I asked.”
“He was angry. He may come back around looking for trouble.” “Never a shortage of that to hand out,” Kaz said as they reached the
top floor. The attic rooms had been converted into his office and bedroom. She knew all those flights of stairs were brutal on his bad leg, but he seemed to like having the whole floor to himself.
He entered the office and without looking back at her said, “Shut the door.”
The room was mostly taken up by a makeshift desk – an old warehouse door atop stacked fruit crates – piled high with papers. Some of the floor bosses had started using adding machines, clanking things crowded with stiff brass buttons and spools of paper, but Kaz did the Crow Club tallies in his head. He kept books, but only for the sake of the old man and so that he had something to point to when he called someone out for cheating or when he was looking for new investors.
That was one of the big changes Kaz had brought to the gang. He’d given ordinary shopkeepers and legitimate businessmen the chance to buy shares in the Crow Club. At first they’d been skeptical, sure it was some kind of swindle, but he’d brought them in with tiny stakes and managed to gather enough capital to purchase the dilapidated old building, spruce it up, and get it running. It had paid back big for those early investors. Or so the story went. Inej could never be sure which stories about Kaz were true and which were rumours he’d planted to serve his own ends. For all she knew, he’d conned some poor honest trader out of his life savings to make the Crow Club thrive.
“I’ve got a job for you,” Kaz said as he flipped through the previous day’s figures. Each sheet would go into his memory with barely a glance. “What would you say to four million kruge?”
“Money like that is more curse than gift.”
“My little Suli idealist. All you need is a full belly and an open road?” he said, the mockery clear in his voice.
“And an easy heart, Kaz.” That was the difficult part.
Now he laughed outright as he walked through the door to his tiny bedroom. “No hopes of that. I’d rather have the cash. Do you want the money or not?”
“You’re not in the business of giving gifts. What’s the job?”
“An impossible job, near certain death, terrible odds, but should we scrape it …” He paused, fingers on the buttons of his waistcoat, his look distant, almost dreamy. It was rare that she heard such excitement in his raspy voice.
“Should we scrape it?” she prompted.
He grinned at her, his smile sudden and jarring as a thunderclap, his eyes the near-black of bitter coffee. “We’ll be kings and queens, Inej. Kings and queens.”
“Hmm,” she said noncommittally, pretending to examine one of her knives, determined to ignore that grin. Kaz was not a giddy boy smiling and making future plans with her. He was a dangerous player who was always working an angle. Always, she reminded herself firmly. Inej kept her eyes averted, shuffling a stack of papers into a pile on the desk as Kaz stripped out of his vest and shirt. She wasn’t sure if she was flattered or insulted that he didn’t seem to give a second thought to her presence.
“How long will we be gone?” she asked, darting a glance at him through the open doorway. He was corded muscle, scars, but only two tattoos – the Dregs’ crow and cup on his forearm and above it, a black R on his bicep. She’d never asked him what it meant.
It was his hands that drew her attention as he shucked off his leather gloves and dipped a cloth in the wash basin. He only ever removed them in these chambers, and as far as she knew, only in front of her. Whatever affliction he might be hiding, she could see no sign of it, only slender lockpick’s fingers, and a shiny rope of scar tissue from some long ago street fight.
“A few weeks, maybe a month,” he said as he ran the wet cloth under his arms and the hard planes of his chest, water trickling down his torso.
For Saints’ sake, Inej thought as her cheeks heated. She’d lost most of her modesty during her time with the Menagerie, but really, there were limits. What would Kaz say if she suddenly stripped down and started
washing herself in front of him? He’d probably tell me not to drip on the desk, she thought with a scowl.
“A month?” she said. “Are you sure you should be leaving with the Black Tips so riled up?”
“This is the right gamble. Speaking of which, round up Jesper and Muzzen. I want them here by dawn. And I’ll need Wylan waiting at the Crow Club tomorrow night.”
“Wylan? If this is for a big job—” “Just do it.”
Inej crossed her arms. One minute he made her blush and the next he made her want to commit murder. “Are you going to explain any of this?”
“When we all meet.” He shrugged on a fresh shirt, then hesitated as he fastened the collar. “This isn’t an assignment, Inej. It’s a job for you to take or leave as you see fit.”
An alarm bell rang inside her. She endangered herself every day on the streets of the Barrel. She’d murdered for the Dregs, stolen, brought down bad men and good, and Kaz had never hinted that any of the assignments were less than a command to be obeyed. This was the price she’d agreed to when Per Haskell had purchased her contract and liberated her from the Menagerie. So what was different about this job?
Kaz finished with his buttons, pulled on a charcoal waistcoat, and tossed her something. It flashed in the air, and she caught it with one hand. When she opened her fist, she saw a massive ruby tie pin circled by golden laurel leaves.
“Fence it,” Kaz said. “Whose is it?” “Ours now.” “Whose was it?”
Kaz stayed quiet. He picked up his coat, using a brush to clean the dried mud from it. “Someone who should have thought better before he had me jumped.”
“You heard me.”
“Someone got the drop on you?”
He looked at her and nodded once. Unease snaked through her and twisted into an anxious, rustling coil. No one got the better of Kaz. He
was the toughest, scariest thing walking the alleys of the Barrel. She relied on it. So did he.
“It won’t happen again,” he promised.
Kaz pulled on a clean pair of gloves, snapped up his walking stick, and headed out the door. “I’ll be back in a few hours. Move the DeKappel we lifted from Van Eck’s house to the vault. I think it’s rolled up under my bed. Oh, and put in an order for a new hat.”
Kaz heaved a sigh as he braced himself for three painful flights of stairs. He looked over his shoulder and said, “Please, my darling Inej, treasure of my heart, won’t you do me the honour of acquiring me a new hat?”
Inej cast a meaningful glance at his cane. “Have a long trip down,” she said, then leaped onto the banister, sliding from one flight to the next, slick as butter in a pan.