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Chapter no 44

Six of Crows

As the schooner sped south, it was as if the whole crew was sitting vigil. Everyone spoke in hushed tones, treading quietly over the decks. Jesper was as worried about Nina as anyone – except Matthias, he supposed – but the respectful silence was hard to bear. He needed something to shoot at.

The Ferolind felt like a ghost ship. Matthias was sequestered with Nina, and he’d asked for Wylan’s help in caring for her. Even if Wylan didn’t love chemistry, he knew more about tinctures and compounds than anyone in the crew other than Kuwei, and Matthias couldn’t understand half of what Kuwei said. Jesper hadn’t seen Wylan since they’d fled the Djerholm harbour, and he had to admit he missed having the merchling around to annoy. Kuwei seemed friendly enough, but his Kerch was rough, and he didn’t seem to like to talk much. Sometimes he’d just appear on deck at night and stand silently beside Jesper, staring out at the waves. It was a little unnerving. Only Inej wanted to chat with anyone, and that was because she seemed to have developed a consuming interest in all things nautical. She spent most of her time with Specht and Rotty, learning knots and how to rig sails.

Jesper had always known there was a good chance they wouldn’t make this journey home at all, that they’d end up in cells in the Ice Court or skewered on pikes. But he’d figured that if they managed the impossible task of rescuing Yul-Bayur and getting to the Ferolind, the

trip back to Ketterdam would be a party. They’d drink whatever Specht might have squirreled away on the ship, eat the last of Nina’s toffees, recount their close calls and every small victory. But he never could have foreseen the way they’d been cornered in the harbour, and he certainly couldn’t have imagined what Nina had done to get them out of it.

Jesper worried about Nina, but thinking about her made him feel guilty. When they’d boarded the schooner and Kuwei explained parem, a tiny voice inside him said he should offer to take the drug as well. Even though he was a Fabrikator without training, maybe he could have helped to draw the parem out of Nina’s system and set her free. But that was a hero’s voice, and Jesper had long since stopped thinking he had the makings of a hero. Hell, a hero would have volunteered to take the parem when they were facing down the Fjerdans at the harbour.

When Kerch finally appeared on the horizon, Jesper felt a strange mixture of relief and trepidation. Their lives were about to change in ways that still didn’t seem real.

They dropped anchor, and when nightfall came, Jesper asked Kaz if he could join him and Rotty in the longboat they were rowing to Fifth Harbour. They didn’t need him along, but Jesper was desperate for distraction.

The chaos of Ketterdam was unchanged – ships unloading their cargo at the docks, tourists and soldiers on leave pouring out of boats, laughing and shouting to each other on their way to the Barrel.

“Looks the same as when we left it,” Jesper said.

Kaz raised a brow. He was back in his sleek grey-and-black suit, immaculate tie. “What did you expect?”

“I don’t know exactly,” Jesper admitted.

But he felt different, even with the familiar weight of his pearl-handled revolvers at his hips and a rifle on his back. He kept thinking of the Tidemaker woman, screaming in the drüskelle courtyard, her face speckled black. He looked down at his hands. Did he want to be a Fabrikator? To live as one? He couldn’t help what he was, but did he want to cultivate his power or keep hiding it?

Kaz left Rotty and Jesper at the dock while he went to find a runner to take a message to Van Eck. Jesper wanted to go with him, but Kaz told him to stay put. Annoyed, Jesper took the chance to stretch his legs, aware of Rotty observing him. He had the distinct sense that Kaz had

told Rotty to keep him under watch. Did Kaz think he was going to bolt straight to the nearest gambling hall?

He looked up at the cloudy sky. Why not admit it? He was tempted. He was itching for a hand of cards. Maybe he really should get out of Ketterdam. Once he had his money and his debts were paid, he could go anywhere in the world. Even Ravka. Hopefully, Nina would recover, and when she was back to herself, Jesper could sit down with her and figure it out. No commitments right away, but he could at least visit, couldn’t he?

A half hour later, Kaz returned with a message confirming that representatives from the Merchant Council would meet them on Vellgeluk at dawn the following day.

“Look at that,” Kaz said, holding the paper out for Jesper to read. Beneath the details of the meet it said, Congratulations. Your country thanks you.

The words left a funny feeling in Jesper’s chest, but he laughed and said, “As long as my country pays cash. Does the Council know the scientist is dead?”

“I put it all in my note to Van Eck,” Kaz said. “I told him Bo Yul-Bayur is dead, but that his son is alive and was working on jurda parem for the Fjerdans.”

“Did he haggle?”

“Not in the note. He expressed his ‘deep concern’, but didn’t mention anything about price. We did our job. We’ll see if he tries to bargain us down when we get to Vellgeluk.”

As they rowed back to the Ferolind, Jesper asked, “Will Wylan come with us to meet Van Eck?”

“No,” Kaz said, fingers drumming on the crow’s head of his cane. “Matthias will be with us, and someone has to stay with Nina. Besides, if we need to use Wylan to twist his father’s arm, it’s better that we not show our hand too early.”

It made sense. And whatever discord existed between Wylan and his father, Jesper doubted Wylan wanted to hash it out in front of the Dregs and Matthias.

He spent a restless night tossing in his hammock and woke to a muggy grey dawn. There was no wind, and the sea looked flat and glassy as a millpond.

“A stubborn sky,” murmured Inej, squinting out towards Vellgeluk. She was right. There were no clouds on the horizon, but the air felt dense with moisture, as if a storm was simply refusing to form.

Jesper scanned the empty deck. He’d assumed Wylan would come up to see them off, but Nina couldn’t be left on her own.

“How is she?” he asked Matthias.

“Weak,” said the Fjerdan. “She’s been unable to sleep. But we got her to take some broth, and she seems to be keeping it down.”

Jesper knew he was being selfish and stupid, but some petty part of him wondered if Wylan had deliberately kept away from him on the journey back. Maybe now that the job was complete and he was on his way to his share of the haul, Wylan was done slumming with criminals.

“Where’s the other longboat?” Jesper asked as he, Kaz, Matthias, Inej, and Kuwei rowed out from the Ferolind with Rotty.

“Repairs,” said Kaz.

Vellgeluk was so flat it was barely visible once they were rowing through the water. The island was less than a mile wide, a barren patch of sand and rock distinguished only by the wrecked foundation of an old tower used by the Council of Tides. Smugglers called it Vellgeluk, ‘good luck’, because of the paintings still visible around the base of what would have been the obelisk tower: golden circles meant to represent coins, symbols of favour from Ghezen, the god of industry and commerce. Jesper and Kaz had come to the island before to meet with smugglers. It was far from Ketterdam’s ports, well outside the patrol of the harbour watch, with no buildings or hidden coves from which to stage an ambush. An ideal meeting place for wary parties.

A brigantine was moored off the island’s opposite shore, its sails hanging limp and useless. Jesper had watched it make slow progress from Ketterdam in the early dawn light, a tiny black dot that grew into a hulking blot on the horizon. He could hear the sailors calling to each other as they worked the oars. Now its crew lowered a longboat packed with men over the side.

When their own longboat made shore, Jesper and the others leaped out to pull it onto the sand. Jesper checked his revolvers and saw Inej touch her fingers briefly to each of her knives, lips moving. Matthias adjusted the rifle strapped to his back and rolled his enormous shoulders. Kuwei watched it all in silence.

“All right,” Kaz said. “Let’s go get rich.”

“No mourners,” Rotty said, settling down to wait with the longboat. “No funerals,” they replied.

They strode towards the centre of the island, Kuwei behind Kaz, bracketed by Jesper and Inej. As they drew closer, Jesper saw someone in a black mercher’s suit approaching, accompanied by a tall Shu man, dark hair bound at the nape of his neck, and followed by a contingent of the stadwatch in purple coats, all carrying batons and repeating rifles. Two men lugged a heavy trunk between them, staggering slightly with its weight.

“So that’s what thirty million kruge looks like,” said Kaz.

Jesper gave a low whistle. “Hopefully, the longboat won’t sink.”

“Just you, Van Eck?” Kaz asked the man in merch black. “The rest of the Council couldn’t be bothered?”

So this was Jan Van Eck. He was leaner than Wylan, and his hairline was higher, but Jesper could definitely see the resemblance.

“The Council felt I was best suited to this task, as we’ve had dealings before.”

“Nice pin,” Kaz said with a glance at the ruby stuck to Van Eck’s tie. “Not as nice as the other one, though.”

Van Eck’s lips pursed slightly. “The other was an heirloom. Well?” he said to the Shu man beside him.

The Shu said, “That’s Kuwei Yul-Bo. It’s a year since I’ve seen him. He’s quite a bit taller now, but he’s the spitting image of his father.” He said something to Kuwei in Shu and gave a short bow.

Kuwei glanced at Kaz, then bowed in return. Jesper could see a sheen of sweat on his brow.

Van Eck smiled. “I will confess I am surprised, Mister Brekker.

Surprised but delighted.”

“You didn’t think we’d succeed.”

“Let’s say I thought you were a longshot.” “Is that why you hedged your bets?”

“Ah, so you’ve spoken to Pekka Rollins.”

“He’s quite a talker when you get him in the right frame of mind,” said Kaz, and Jesper remembered the blood on Kaz’s shirt at the prison. “He said you contracted him and the Dime Lions to go after Yul-Bayur for the Merchant Council as well.”

With a niggle of unease, Jesper wondered what else Rollins might have told Kaz.

Van Eck shrugged. “It was best to be safe.”

“And why should you care if a bunch of canal rats blow each other to bits in pursuit of a prize?”

“We knew the odds of either team succeeding were small. As a gambler, I hope you can understand.”

But Jesper had never thought of Kaz as a gambler. Gamblers left something to chance.

“Thirty million kruge will soothe my hurt feelings,” said Kaz.

Van Eck gestured to the guards behind him. They hefted the trunk and set it down in front of Kaz. He crouched beside it and opened the lid. Even from a distance, Jesper could see the stacks of bills in palest Kerch purple, emblazoned with the three flying fish, row after row of them, bound in paper bands sealed with wax.

Inej drew in a breath.

“Even your money is a peculiar colour,” said Matthias.

Jesper wanted to run his hands over those glorious stacks. He wanted to take a bath in them. “I think my mouth just watered.”

Kaz pulled out one of the stacks and let his gloved thumb skim over it, then dug down another layer to make sure Van Eck hadn’t tried to bunk them.

“It’s all here,” he said.

He looked over his shoulder and waved Kuwei forward. The boy crossed the short distance, and Van Eck gestured him over to his side, giving him a pat on the back.

Kaz rose. “Well, Van Eck. I’d like to say it’s been a pleasure, but I’m not that good a liar. We’ll take our leave.”

Van Eck stepped in front of Kuwei and said, “I’m afraid I can’t allow that, Mister Brekker.”

Kaz leaned on his cane, watching Van Eck keenly. “Is there a problem?”

“I count several right in front of me. And there’s no way any of you are getting off this island.”

Van Eck pulled a whistle from his pocket and blew a shrill note. In the same moment, his servants drew their weapons and a wind came out of nowhere – a howling, unnatural gale that whirled around the little island as the sea began to rise.

The sailors by the brigantine’s longboat lifted their arms, waves gathering behind them.

“Tidemakers,” growled Matthias, reaching for his rifle.

Then two more figures launched themselves from the deck of the brigantine.

“Squallers!” Jesper shouted. “They’re using parem!”

The Squallers circled in the sky, wind whipping the air around them. “You kept part of the stash Bo sent to the Council,” said Kaz, dark

eyes narrowed.

The Squallers lifted their arms, and the wind wailed a high, keening cry.

Jesper reached for his revolvers. Hadn’t he wanted something to shoot at? I guess this place is good luck, he thought with a rush of anticipation. Looks like I’m about to get my wish.

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