Chapter no 6

Six of Crows

The sick feeling in Nina’s stomach had nothing to do with the rocking of the rowboat. She tried to breathe deeply, to focus on the lights of the Ketterdam harbour disappearing behind them and the steady splash of the oars in the water. Beside her, Kaz adjusted his mask and cloak, while Muzzen rowed with relentless and aggressive speed, driving them closer to Terrenjel, one of Kerch’s tiny outlying islands, closer to Hellgate and Matthias.

Fog lay low over the water, damp and curling. It carried the smell of tar and machinery from the shipyards on Imperjum, and something else –the sweet stink of burning bodies from the Reaper’s Barge, where Ketterdam disposed of the dead who couldn’t afford to be buried in the cemeteries outside the city. Disgusting, Nina thought, drawing her cloak tighter around her. Why anyone would want to live in a city like this was beyond her.

Muzzen hummed happily as he rowed. Nina knew him only in passing – a bouncer and an enforcer, like the ill-fated Big Bolliger. She avoided the Slat and the Crow Club as much as possible. Kaz had branded her a snob for it, but she didn’t much care what Kaz Brekker had to say about her tastes. She glanced back at Muzzen’s huge shoulders. She wondered if Kaz had just brought him along to row or because he expected trouble tonight.

Of course there will be trouble. They were breaking into a prison. It wasn’t going to be a party. So why are we dressed for one?

She’d met Kaz and Muzzen at Fifth Harbour at midnight, and when she’d boarded the little rowboat, Kaz had handed her a blue silk cape and a matching veil – the trappings of the Lost Bride, one of the costumes pleasure seekers liked to don when they sampled the excesses of the Barrel. He’d had on a big orange cape with a Madman’s mask perched atop his head; Muzzen had worn the same. All they needed was a stage, and they could perform one of those dark, savage little scenes from the Komedie Brute that the Kerch seemed to find so hilarious.

Now Kaz gave her a nudge. “Lower your veil.” He pulled down his own mask; the long nose and bulging eyes looked doubly monstrous in the fog.

She was about to give in and ask why the costumes were necessary when she realised that they weren’t alone. Through the shifting mists, she caught sight of other boats moving through the water, carrying the shapes of other Madmen, other Brides, a Mister Crimson, a Scarab Queen. What business did these people have at Hellgate?

Kaz had refused to tell her the specifics of his plan, and when she’d insisted, he’d simply said, “Get in the boat.” That was Kaz all over. He knew he didn’t have to tell her anything because the lure of Matthias’ freedom had already overridden every bit of her good sense. She’d been trying to talk Kaz into breaking Matthias out of jail for the better part of a year. Now he could offer Matthias more than freedom, but the price would be far higher than she had expected.

Only a few lights were visible as they approached the rocky shoal of Terrenjel. The rest was darkness and crashing waves.

“Couldn’t you just bribe the warden?” she muttered to Kaz. “I don’t need him knowing he has something I want.”

When the boat’s hull scraped sand, two men rushed forward to haul them further onto land. The other boats she’d seen were making ground in the same cove, being pulled ashore by more grunting and cursing men. Their features were vague through the gauze of her veil, but Nina glimpsed the tattoos on their forearms: a feral cat curled into a crown –the symbol of the Dime Lions.

“Money,” one of them said as they clambered out of the boat.

Kaz handed over a stack of kruge and once it was counted, the Dime Lion waved them on.

They followed a row of torches up an uneven path to the leeward side of the prison. Nina tilted her head back to gaze at the high black towers of the fortress known as Hellgate, a dark fist of stone thrusting up from the sea. She’d seen it from afar before, when she’d paid a fisherman to take her out to the island. But when she’d asked him to bring her closer, he’d refused. “Sharks get mean there,” he’d claimed. “Bellies full of convict blood.” Nina shuddered at the memory.

A door had been propped open, and another member of the Dime Lions led Nina and the others inside. They entered a dark, surprisingly clean kitchen, its walls lined with huge vats that looked better suited to laundry than cooking. The room smelled strange, like vinegar and sage. Like a mercher’s kitchen, Nina thought. The Kerch believed that work was akin to prayer. Maybe the merchant wives came here to scrub the floors and walls and windows, to honour Ghezen, the god of industry and commerce, with soap and water and the chafing of their hands. Nina resisted the urge to gag. They could scrub all they liked. Beneath that wholesome scent was the indelible stench of mildew, urine, and unwashed bodies. It might take an actual miracle to dislodge it.

They passed through a dank entry hall, and she thought they would head up into the cells, but instead they passed through another door and onto a high stone walkway that connected the main prison to what looked like another tower.

“Where are we going?” Nina whispered. Kaz didn’t answer. The wind picked up, lifting her veil and lashing her cheeks with salt spray.

As they entered the second tower, a figure emerged from the shadows, and Nina barely stifled a scream.

“Inej,” she said on a wavering breath. The Suli girl wore the horns and high-necked tunic of the Grey Imp, but Nina recognised her anyway. No one else moved liked that, as if the world were smoke and she was just passing through it.

“How did you even get here?” Nina whispered to her. “I came earlier on a supply barge.”

Nina ground her teeth. “Do people just come and go from Hellgate for fun?”

“Once a week they do,” said Inej, her little imp horns bobbing along with her head.

“What do you mean once a—” “Keep quiet,” Kaz growled.

“Don’t shush me, Brekker,” Nina whispered furiously. “If it’s this easy to get into Hellgate—”

“The problem isn’t getting in, it’s getting out. Now shut up and stay alert.”

Nina swallowed her anger. She had to trust Kaz to run the game. He’d made sure she didn’t have any other choice.

They entered a tight passageway. This tower felt different from the first, older, its rough-hewn stone walls blackened by smoking torches. Their Dime Lion guide pushed open a heavy iron door and gestured for them to follow him down a steep staircase. Here the smell of bodies and refuse was worse, trapped by the sweating moisture of salt water.

They spiralled lower, into the bowels of the rock. Nina clung to the wall. There was no banister, and though she could not see the bottom, she doubted the fall would be kind. They didn’t go far, but by the time they reached their destination, she was trembling, her muscles wound taut, less from exertion than the knowledge that Matthias was somewhere in this terrible place. He is here. He is under this roof.

“Where are we?” she whispered as they ducked through cramped stone tunnels, passing dark caves fitted with iron bars.

“This is the old prison,” Kaz said. “When they built the new tower, they left this one standing.”

She heard moaning from inside one of the cells. “They still keep prisoners here?”

“Only the worst of them.”

She peered between the bars of an empty cell. There were shackles on the wall, dark with rust and what might have been blood.

Through the walls, a sound reached Nina’s ears, a steady pounding. She thought it was the ocean at first, but then she realised it was chanting. They emerged into a curving tunnel. To her right were more old cells, but light poured into the tunnel from staggered archways on the left, and through them she glimpsed a roaring, rowdy crowd.

The Dime Lion led them around the tunnel to the third archway, where a prison guard dressed in a blue-and-grey uniform was posted, rifle slung across his back. “Four more for you,” the Dime Lion shouted over the crowd. Then he turned to Kaz. “If you need to leave, the guard will call for an escort. No one goes wandering off without a guide, understood?”

“Of course, of course, wouldn’t dream of it,” Kaz said from behind his ridiculous mask.

“Enjoy,” the Dime Lion said with an ugly grin. The prison guard waved them through.

Nina stepped under the arch and felt as if she’d fallen into some strange nightmare. They were on a jutting stone ledge, looking down into a shallow, crudely made amphitheatre. The tower had been gutted to create an arena. Only the black walls of the old prison remained, the roof long since fallen in or destroyed so that the night sky was visible high above, dense with clouds and free of stars. It was like standing in the hollowed-out trunk of a massive tree, something long dead and howling with echoes.

Around her, masked and veiled men and women crowded onto the terraced ledges, stamping their feet as the action proceeded below. The walls surrounding the fighting pit blazed with torchlight and the sand of the arena floor was red and damp where it had soaked up blood.

In front of the dark mouth of a cave, a scrawny, bearded man in shackles stood next to a big wooden wheel marked with what looked like drawings of little animals. He’d clearly once been strong, but now his skin hung in loose folds and his muscles sagged. A younger man stood beside him in a mangy cape made from a lion’s skin, his face framed by the big cat’s mouth. A garish gold crown had been secured between the lion’s ears, and its eyes had been replaced with bright silver dimes.

“Spin the wheel!” the young man commanded.

The prisoner lifted his shackled hands and gave the wheel a hard spin. A red needle ticked along the edges as it spun, making a cheerful clattering noise, then slowly the wheel came to a stop. Nina couldn’t quite make out the symbol, but the crowd bellowed, and the man’s shoulders drooped as a guard came forward to unlock his chains.

The prisoner cast them aside into the sand, and a second later Nina heard it – a roar that carried even over the excited baying of the crowd. The man in the lion cape and the prison guard stepped hurriedly onto a rope ladder and were lifted out of the pit to the safety of a ledge as the prisoner seized a flimsy-looking knife from a bloody bunch of weapons lying in the sand. He backed as far away from the mouth of the tunnel as he could get.

Nina had never seen a creature like the one that crawled into view from the tunnel. It was some kind of reptile, its thick body covered in

grey-green scales, its head wide and flat, its yellow eyes slitted. It moved slowly, sinuously, its low-slung body sliding lazily over the ground. There was a white crust around the broad crescent of its mouth, and when it opened its jaws to roar again, something wet, white, and foaming dripped from its pointed teeth.

“What is that thing?” Nina asked.

Rinca moten,” said Inej. “A desert lizard. The poison from its mouth is lethal.”

“It seems pretty slow on its feet.” “Yes. It seems that way.”

The prisoner lunged forward with his knife. The big lizard moved so quickly Nina could barely track it. One moment the prisoner was bearing down on it; the next, the lizard was on the other side of the arena. Bare seconds later, it had slammed into the prisoner, pinning him to the ground as he screamed, its poison dripping over his face, leaving smoky trails wherever it touched his skin.

The creature dropped its weight on the prisoner with a sickening crunch and set about slowly mauling his shoulder as he lay there shrieking.

The crowd was booing.

Nina averted her eyes, unable to watch. “What is this?”

“Welcome to the Hellshow,” said Kaz. “Pekka Rollins got the idea a few years back and pitched it to the right Council member.”

“The Merchant Council knows?”

“Of course they know, Nina. There’s money to be made here.”

Nina dug her fingernails into her palms. That condescending tone made Kaz so slappable.

She knew Pekka Rollins’ name well. He was the reigning king of the Barrel, the owner of not one but two gambling palaces – one luxurious, the other catering to sailors with less to line their pockets – and several of the higher-end brothels. When Nina had arrived in Ketterdam a year ago, she’d been friendless, penniless, and far from home. She’d spent the first week in the Kerch law courts, dealing with the charges against Matthias. But once her testimony was complete, she’d been unceremoniously dumped at First Harbour with just enough money to book passage back to Ravka. Desperate as she’d been to return to her country, she’d known she couldn’t leave Matthias to languish in Hellgate.

She had no idea what to do, but it seemed rumours of a new Grisha Corporalnik in Ketterdam had already circulated through the city. Pekka Rollins’ men had been waiting for her at the harbour with the promise of safety and a place to stay. They’d taken her to the Emerald Palace, where Pekka himself had leaned heavily on Nina to join the Dime Lions and had offered to set her up in business at the Sweet Shop. She’d been close to saying yes, desperate for cash and terrified of the slavers who patrolled the streets. But that night, Inej had crawled through her window on the top floor of the Emerald Palace with a proposal from Kaz Brekker in hand.

Nina never could figure out how Inej had managed to scale six rain-slick storeys of stone in the middle of the night, but the Dregs’ terms were far more favourable than those offered by Pekka and the Dime Lions. It was a contract that she might actually pay off in a year or two if she was smart with her money. And Kaz had sent the right person to argue his case – a Suli girl just a few months younger than Nina who had grown up in Ravka and who had spent a very ugly year indentured at the Menagerie.

“What can you tell me about Per Haskell?” Nina had asked that night. “Not much,” Inej had admitted. “He’s no better or worse than most of

the bosses in the Barrel.” “And Kaz Brekker?”

“A liar, a thief, and utterly without conscience. But he’ll keep to any deal you strike with him.”

Nina had heard the conviction in her voice. “He freed you from the Menagerie?”

“There is no freedom in the Barrel, only good terms. Tante Heleen’s girls never earn out of their contracts. She makes sure they don’t. She—” Inej had broken off then, and Nina had sensed the vibrant anger coursing through her. “Kaz convinced Per Haskell to pay off my indenture. I would have died at the Menagerie.”

“You may still die in the Dregs.”

Inej’s dark eyes had glinted. “I may. But I’ll die on my feet with a knife in my hand.”

The next morning, Inej had helped Nina sneak out of the Emerald Palace. They’d met with Kaz Brekker, and despite his cold ways and those strange leather gloves, she’d agreed to join the Dregs and work out of the White Rose. Less than two days later, a girl died at the Sweet

Shop, strangled in her bed by a customer dressed as Mister Crimson who was never found.

Nina had trusted Inej, and she hadn’t been sorry for it, though right now she just felt furious with everyone. She watched a group of Dime Lions prod the desert lizard with long spears. Apparently, the monster was sated after its meal; it allowed itself to be herded back to the tunnel, its thick body moving side to side in a lazy, sinuous roll.

The crowd continued to boo as guards entered the arena to remove the prisoner’s remains, tendrils of smoke still curling from his ruined flesh.

“Why are they complaining?” Nina asked angrily. “Isn’t this what they came here for?”

“They wanted a fight,” said Kaz. “They were expecting him to last longer.”

“This is disgusting.”

Kaz shrugged. “Only disgusting thing about it is that I didn’t think of it first.”

“These men aren’t slaves, Kaz. They’re prisoners.” “They’re murderers and rapists.”

“And thieves and con artists. Your people.”

“Nina, sweet, they aren’t forced to fight. They line up for the chance. They earn better food, private cells, liquor, jurda, conjugals with girls from West Stave.”

Muzzen cracked his knuckles. “Sounds better than we got it at the Slat.”

Nina looked at the people screaming and shouting, the barkers walking the aisles taking bets. The prisoners of Hellgate might line up to fight, but Pekka Rollins made the real money.

“Helvar doesn’t … Helvar doesn’t fight in the arena, does he?” “We aren’t here for the ambience,” Kaz said.

Beyond slappable. “Are you aware that I could waggle my fingers and make you wet your trousers?”

“Easy, Heartrender. I like these trousers. And if you start messing with my vital organs, Matthias Helvar will never see sunshine again.”

Nina blew out a breath and settled for glowering at no one. “Nina—” Inej murmured.

“Don’t you start on me.”

“It will all work out. Let Kaz do what he does best.” “He’s horrible.”

“But effective. Being angry at Kaz for being ruthless is like being angry at a stove for being hot. You know what he is.”

Nina crossed her arms. “I’m mad at you, too.” “Me? Why?”

“I don’t know yet. I just am.”

Inej gave Nina’s hand a brief squeeze, and after a moment, Nina squeezed back. She sat through the next fight in a daze, and the next. She told herself she was ready for this – to see him again, to see him here in this brutal place. After all, she was a Grisha and a soldier of the Second Army. She’d seen worse.

But when Matthias emerged from the mouth of the cave below, she knew she’d been wrong. Nina recognised him instantly. Every night of the past year, she had fallen asleep thinking of Matthias’ face. There was no mistaking the gilded brows, the sharp cut of his cheekbones. But Kaz hadn’t lied: Matthias was much changed. The boy who looked back at the crowd with fury in his eyes was a stranger.

Nina remembered the first time she’d seen Matthias in a moonlit Kaelish wood. His beauty had seemed unfair to her. In another life, she might have believed he was coming to rescue her, a shining saviour with golden hair and eyes the pale blue of northern glaciers. But she’d known the truth of him by the language he spoke, and by the disgust on his face every time his eyes lighted on her. Matthias Helvar was a drüskelle, one of the Fjerdan witchhunters tasked with hunting down Grisha to face trial and execution, though to her he’d always resembled a warrior Saint, illuminated in gold.

Now he looked like what he truly was: a killer. His bare torso seemed hewn from steel, and though she knew it wasn’t possible, he seemed bigger, as if the very structure of his body had changed. His skin had been gilded honey; now it was fish-belly white beneath the grime. And his hair – he’d had such beautiful hair, thick and golden, worn long in the way of Fjerdan soldiers. Now, like the other prisoners, his head had been shaved, probably to prevent lice. Whichever guard had done it had made a mess of the job. Even from this distance, she could see the cuts and nicks on his scalp, and little strips of blond stubble in the places the razor had missed. And yet, he was beautiful still.

He glared at the crowd and gave the wheel a hard spin that nearly knocked it off its base.

Tick tick tick tick. Snakes. Tiger. Bear. Boar. The wheel ticked merrily along, then slowed and finally stopped.

“No,” Nina said when she saw where the needle was pointing.

“It could be worse,” said Muzzen. “Could have landed on the desert lizard again.”

She grabbed Kaz’s arm through his cloak and felt his muscles tense. “You have to stop this.”

“Let go of me, Nina.” His gravel-rough voice was low, but she sensed real menace in it.

She dropped her hand, “Please, you don’t understand. He—”

“If he survives, I’ll take Matthias Helvar out of this place tonight, but this part is up to him.”

Nina gave a frustrated shake of her head. “You don’t get it.”

The guard unbolted Matthias’ shackles, and as soon as the chains dropped into the sand, he leaped onto the ladder with the announcer to be lifted to safety. The crowd screamed and stamped. But Matthias stood silent, unmoving, even when the gate opened, even when the wolves charged out of the tunnel – three of them snarling and snapping, tumbling over one another to get to him.

At the last second, Matthias dropped into a crouch, knocking the first wolf into the dirt, then rolling right to pick up the bloodied knife the previous combatant had left in the sand. He sprang to his feet, blade held out before him, but Nina could sense his reluctance. His head was cocked to one side, and the look in his blue eyes was pleading, as if he was trying to engage the two wolves circling him in some silent negotiation. Whatever the plea might have been, it went unheard. The wolf on the right lunged. Matthias crouched low and spun, lodging his knife in the wolf’s belly. It gave a miserable yelp, and Matthias seemed to shudder at the sound. It cost him precious seconds. The third wolf was on him, knocking him to the sand. Its teeth sank into his shoulder. He rolled, taking the wolf with him. The wolf’s jaws snapped, and Matthias caught them. He wrenched them apart, the muscles of his arms flexing, his face grim. Nina squeezed her eyes shut. There was a sickening crack. The crowd roared.

Matthias kneeled over the wolf. Its jaw was broken, and it lay on the ground twitching in pain. He reached for a rock and slammed it hard into the poor animal’s skull. It went still and Matthias’ shoulders slumped. The people howled, stomping their feet. Only Nina knew what this was

costing him, that he’d been a drüskelle. Wolves were sacred to his kind, bred for battle like their enormous horses. They were friends and companions, fighting side by side with their drüskelle masters.

The first wolf had recovered and was circling. Move, Matthias, she thought desperately. He got to his feet, but his movements were slow, weary. His heart wasn’t in this fight. His opponents were grey wolves, rangy and wild, but cousins to the white wolves of the Fjerdan north. Matthias had no knife, only the bloody rock in his hand, and the remaining wolf prowled the arena between him and the pile of weapons. The wolf lowered its head and bared its teeth.

Matthias dove left. The wolf lunged, sinking its teeth into his side. He grunted, and hit the ground hard. For a moment, Nina thought he might simply give in and let the wolf take his life. Then he reached out, hand scrabbling through the sand, searching for something. His fingers closed over the shackles that had bound his wrists.

He seized them, looped the chain across the wolf’s throat, and pulled, the veins in his neck cording from the strain. His bloody face was pressed against the wolf’s ruff, his eyes tightly shut, his lips moving. What was he saying? A drüskelle prayer? A farewell?

The wolf’s hind legs scrabbled at the sand. Its eyes rolled, frightened whites showing bright against its matted fur. A high whine rose from its chest. And then it was over. The creature’s body stilled. Both fighters lay unmoving in the sand. Matthias kept his eyes closed, his face still buried in the creature’s fur.

The crowd thundered its approval. The ladder was lowered, and the announcer sprang down, hauling Matthias to his feet and grabbing his wrist to raise his hand in victory. The announcer gave him a little nudge, and Matthias lifted his head. Nina caught her breath.

Tears streaked the dirt on Matthias’ face. The rage was gone, and it was like some flame had gone out with it. His north sea eyes were colder than she’d ever seen them, empty of feeling, stripped of anything human at all. This was what Hellgate had done to him. And it was her fault.

The guards took hold of Matthias again, pulling the shackles from the wolf’s throat and clapping them back on his wrists. As he was led away, the crowd chanted its disapproval, clamouring “More! More!”

“Where are they taking him?” Nina asked, voice trembling. “To a cell to sleep off the fight,” Kaz said.

“Who will see to his injuries?”

“They have mediks. We’ll wait to make sure he’s alone.”

I could heal him, she thought. But a darker voice rose in her, rich with mocking. Not even you can be that foolish, Nina. No Healer can cure that boy. You made sure of it.

She thought she would leap from her skin as the minutes burned away. The others watched the next fight – Muzzen avidly, flexing his fingers and speculating on the outcome, Inej silent and still as a statue, Kaz inscrutable as always, scheming away behind that hideous mask. Nina slowed her own breathing, forced her pulse lower, trying to calm herself, but she could do nothing to mute the riot in her head.

Finally, Kaz gave her a nudge. “Ready, Nina? The guard first.” She cast a glance at the prison guard standing by the archway.

“How down?” It was a Barrel turn of phrase. How badly do you want him hurt?

“Shut eye.” Knock him out, but don’t actually hurt him.

They followed Kaz to the arch through which they’d entered. The rest of the crowd took little notice, eyes focused on the fighting below.

“Need your escort?” the guard asked as they approached.

“I had a question,” said Kaz. Beneath her cape, Nina lifted her hands, sensing the flow of blood in the guard’s veins, the tissue of his lungs. “About your mother and whether the rumours are true.”

Nina felt the guard’s pulse leap and sighed. “Never can make it easy, can you, Kaz?”

The guard stepped forward, lifting his gun. “What did you say? I—” His eyelids drooped. “You don’t—” Nina dropped his pulse, and he toppled forward.

Muzzen grabbed him before he could fall as Inej swept him into the cloak Kaz had been wearing just moments before. Nina was only mildly surprised to see that Kaz was wearing a prison guard’s uniform beneath it.

“Couldn’t you have just asked him the time or something?” Nina said. “And where did you get that uniform?”

Inej slid the Madman’s mask down over the guard’s face, and Muzzen threw his arm around him, holding him up as if the guard had been drinking too much. They deposited him on one of the benches pressed against the back wall.

Kaz tugged on the sleeves of his uniform. “Nina, people love to give up authority to men in nice clothes. I have uniforms for the stadwatch,

the harbour police, and the livery of every merch mansion on the Geldstraat. Let’s go.”

They slipped down the passageway.

Instead of turning back the way they’d come, they moved counterclockwise around the old tower, the wall of the arena vibrating with voices and stomping feet to their left. The guards posted at each archway paid them little more than a glance, though a few nodded at Kaz, who kept a brisk pace, his face buried in his collar.

Nina was so deep in thought that she nearly missed it when Kaz held up a hand for them to slow. They’d rounded a bend between two archways and were in the cover of deep shadow. Ahead of them, a medik was emerging from a cell accompanied by guards, one carrying a lantern. “He’ll sleep through the night,” the medik said. “Make sure he drinks something in the morning and check his pupils. I had to give him a powerful sleeping draft.”

As the men moved off in the opposite direction, Kaz gestured his group forward. The door in the rock was solid iron, broken only by a narrow slot through which to pass the prisoner’s meals. Kaz bent to the lock.

Nina eyed the crude iron door. “This place is barbaric.”

“Most of the better fighters sleep in the old tower,” Kaz replied. “Keeps them away from the rest of the population.”

Nina glanced left and right to where bright light spilled from the arena entryways. There were guards standing in those doorways, distracted maybe, but all one needed to do was turn his head. If they were caught here, would the guards bother giving them over to the stadwatch for trial or would they simply force them into the ring to be eaten by a tiger? Maybe something less dignified, she thought bleakly. A swarm of angry voles.

It took Kaz a few quick heartbeats to pick the lock. The door creaked open and they slipped inside.

The cell was pitch-black. A brief moment passed, and the cold green glow of a bonelight flickered to life beside her. Inej held the little glass sphere aloft. The substance inside was made from the dried and crushed bodies of luminous deep-sea fishes. They were common among crooks in the Barrel who didn’t want to get caught in a dark alley, but couldn’t be bothered to lug around lanterns.

At least it’s clean, Nina thought, as her eyes adjusted to the gloom. Barren and icy cold, but not filthy. She saw a pallet of horse blankets and two buckets placed against the wall, one with a bloody cloth peeking over the rim.

This was what the men of Hellgate competed for: a private cell, a blanket, clean water, a bucket for waste.

Matthias slept with his back to the wall. Even in the dim illumination of the bonelight, she could see his face was starting to swell. Some kind of ointment had been smeared over his wounds – calendula. She recognised the smell.

Nina moved towards him, but Kaz stopped her with a hand on her arm. “Let Inej assess the damage.”

“I can—” Nina began.

“I need you to work on Muzzen.”

Inej tossed Kaz the crow-headed cane she must have been hiding beneath her Grey Imp costume, and kneeled over Matthias’ body with the bonelight. Muzzen stepped forward. He removed his cloak and shirt and the Madman’s mask. His head was shaved, and he wore prison-issue trousers.

Nina looked at Matthias then back to Muzzen, grasping what Kaz had in mind. The two boys were about the same height and the same build, but that was where the similarities ended.

“You can’t possibly mean for Muzzen to take Matthias’ place.”

“He isn’t here for his sparkling conversation,” Kaz replied. “You’ll need to reproduce Helvar’s injuries. Inej, what’s the inventory?”

“Bruised knuckles, chipped tooth, two broken ribs,” Inej said. “Third and fourth on the left.”

“His left or your left?” Kaz asked. “His left.”

“This isn’t going to work,” Nina said in frustration. “I can match the damage to Helvar’s body, but I’m not a good enough Tailor to make Muzzen look like him.”

“Just trust me, Nina.”

“I wouldn’t trust you to tie my shoes without stealing the laces, Kaz.” She peered at Muzzen’s face. “Even if I swell him up, he’ll never pass.”

“Tonight, Matthias Helvar – or rather, our dear Muzzen – is going to appear to contract firepox, the lupine strain, carried by wolves and dogs alike. Tomorrow morning, when his guards discover him so covered in

pustules that he is unrecognisable, he will be quarantined for a month to see if he survives the fever and to outwait the contagion. Meanwhile Matthias will be with us. Get it?”

“You want me to make Muzzen look like he has firepox?”

“Yes, and do it quickly, Nina, because in about ten minutes, things are going to get very hectic around here.”

Nina stared at him. What was Kaz planning? “No matter what I do to him, it won’t last a month. I can’t give him a permanent fever.”

“My contact in the infirmary will make sure he stays sick enough. We just need to get him through diagnosis. Now get to work.”

Nina looked Muzzen up and down. “This is going to hurt just as much as if you’d been in the fight yourself,” she warned.

He scrunched up his face, bracing for the pain. “I can take it.”

She rolled her eyes, then lifted her hands, concentrating. With a sharp slice of her right hand over her left, she snapped Muzzen’s ribs.

He let out a grunt and doubled over.

“That’s a good boy,” said Kaz. “Taking it like a champion. Knuckles next, then face.”

Nina spread bruises and cuts over Muzzen’s knuckles and arms, matching the wounds to Inej’s descriptions.

“I’ve never seen firepox up close,” Nina said. She was only familiar with illustrations from books they’d used in their anatomy training at the Little Palace.

“Count yourself lucky,” Kaz said grimly. “Hurry it up.”

She worked from memory, swelling and cracking the skin on Muzzen’s face and chest, raising blisters until the swelling and pustules were so bad that he was truly unrecognisable. The big man moaned.

“Why would you agree to do this?” Nina murmured.

The swollen flesh of Muzzen’s face quivered, and Nina thought he might be trying to smile. “Money was good,” he said thickly.

She sighed. Why else did anyone do anything in the Barrel? “Good enough to get locked up in Hellgate?”

Kaz tapped his cane on the cell floor. “Stop making trouble, Nina. If Helvar cooperates, he and Muzzen will both have their freedom just as soon as the job is done.”

“And if he doesn’t?”

“Then Helvar gets locked back in his cell, and Muzzen still gets paid.

And I’ll take him to breakfast at the Kooperom.”

“Can I have waffles?” Muzzen mumbled.

“We’ll all have waffles. And whisky. If this job doesn’t come off, no one’s going to want to be around me sober. Finished, Nina?”

Nina nodded, and Inej took her place to bandage Muzzen to look like Matthias.

“All right,” said Kaz. “Get Helvar on his feet.”

Nina crouched beside Matthias as Kaz stood over her with the bonelight. Even in sleep, Matthias’ features were troubled, his pale brows furrowed. She let her hands travel over the bruised line of his jaw, resisting the urge to linger there.

“Not the face, Nina. I need him mobile, not pretty. Heal him fast and only enough to get him walking for now. I don’t want him spry enough to vex us.”

Nina lowered the blanket and went to work. Just another body, she told herself. She was always getting late-night calls from Kaz to heal wounded members of the Dregs who he didn’t want to bring around to any legitimate medik – girls with stabbing punctures, boys with broken legs or bullets lodged inside them, victims of a scuffle with the stadwatch or another gang. Pretend it’s Muzzen, she told herself. Or Big Bolliger or some other fool. You don’t know this boy. And it was true. The boy she knew might have been the scaffold, but something new had been built upon it.

She touched his shoulder gently. “Helvar,” she said. He didn’t stir. “Matthias.”

A lump rose in her throat, and she felt the ache of tears threatening. She pressed a kiss to his temple. She knew that Kaz and the others were watching and that she was making an idiot of herself, but after so long he was finally here, in front of her, and so very broken. “Matthias,” she repeated.

“Nina?” His voice was raw but as lovely as she remembered. “Oh, Saints, Matthias,” she whispered. “Please wake up.”

His eyes opened, groggily, palest blue. “Nina,” he said softly. His knuckles brushed her cheek; his rough hand cupped her face tentatively, disbelievingly. “Nina?”

Her eyes filled with tears. “Shhhh, Matthias. We’re here to get you out.”

Before she could blink he had hold of her shoulders and had pinned her to the ground.

“Nina,” he growled.

Then his hands closed over her throat.

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