Chapter no 7

Six of Crows

Matthias was dreaming again. Dreaming of her.

In all his dreams he hunted her, sometimes through the new green meadows of spring, but usually through the ice fields, dodging boulders and crevasses with unerring steps. Always he chased, and always he caught her.

In the good dreams, he slammed her to the ground and throttled her, watching the life drain from her eyes, heart full of vengeance – finally, finally. In the bad dreams, he kissed her. In these dreams, she didn’t fight him. She laughed as if the chase was nothing but a game, as if she’d known he would catch her, as if she’d wanted him to and there was no place she’d rather be than beneath him. She was welcoming and perfect in his arms. He kissed her, buried his face in the sweet hollow of her neck. Her curls brushed his cheeks, and he felt that if he could just hold her a little longer, every wound, every hurt, every bad thing would melt away.

“Matthias,” she would whisper, his name so soft on her lips. These were the worst dreams, and when he woke, he hated himself almost as much as he hated her. To know that he could betray himself, betray his country again even in sleep, to know that – after everything she’d done –some sick part of him still hungered after her … it was too much.

Tonight was a bad dream, very bad. She was wearing blue silk, clothes far more luxurious than anything he’d ever seen her in; some

kind of gauzy veil was caught up in her hair, the lamplight glinting off of it like caught rain. Djel, she smelled good. The mossy damp was still there, but perfume, too. Nina loved luxury and this was expensive –roses and something else, something his pauper’s nose didn’t recognise. She pressed her soft lips to his temple, and he could swear she was crying.


“Nina,” he managed.

“Oh, Saints, Matthias,” she whispered. “Please wake up.”

And then he was awake, and he knew he’d gone mad because she was here, in his cell, kneeling beside him, her hand resting gently on his chest. “Matthias, please.”

The sound of her voice, pleading with him. He’d dreamed of this. Sometimes she pleaded for mercy. Sometimes there were other things she begged for.

He reached up and touched her face. She had the softest skin. He’d laughed at her for it once. No real soldier had skin like that, he’d told her – pampered, coddled. He’d mocked the lushness of her body, ashamed of his own response to her. He cupped the warm curve of her cheek, felt the soft brush of her hair. So lovely. So real. It wasn’t fair.

Then he registered the bloody wrappings on his hands. Pain rushed at him as he came fully awake – cracked ribs, aching knuckles. He’d chipped a tooth. He wasn’t sure when, but he’d cut his tongue against it at some point. His mouth still held the coppery taste of blood. The wolves. They’d made him murder wolves.

He was awake. “Nina?”

There were tears in her beautiful green eyes. Rage coursed through him. She had no right to tears, no right to pity.

“Shhhh, Matthias. We’re here to get you out.”

What game was this? What new cruelty? He’d just learned to survive in this monstrous place, and now she’d come to heap some fresh torture on him.

He launched himself forward, flipping her to the ground, hands fastened tight around her throat, straddling her so that his knees pinned her arms to the ground. He knew damn well that Nina with her hands free was a deadly thing.

“Nina,” he gritted out. She clawed at his hands. “Witch,” he hissed, leaning over her. He saw her eyes widen, her face getting redder. “Beg me,” he said. “Beg me for your life.”

He heard a click, and a gravelly voice said, “Hands off her, Helvar.”

Someone behind him had pressed a gun to his neck. Matthias didn’t spare him a glance. “Go ahead and shoot me,” he said. He dug his fingertips deeper into Nina’s neck – nothing would deprive him of this. Nothing.

Traitor, witch, abomination. All those words came to him, but others crowded in, too: beautiful, charmed one. Röed fetla, he’d called her, little red bird, for the colour of her Grisha Order. The colour she loved. He squeezed harder, silencing that weak-willed strain inside him.

“If you’ve actually lost your mind, this is going to be a lot tougher than I thought,” said that raspy voice.

He heard a whoosh like something moving through the air, then a wrenching pain shot through his left shoulder. It felt like he’d been punched by a tiny fist, but his entire arm went numb. He grunted as he fell forward, one hand still clamped around Nina’s throat. He would have fallen directly onto her, but he was yanked backwards by the collar of his shirt.

A boy wearing a guard’s uniform stood before him, dark eyes glittering, a pistol in one hand, a walking stick in the other. Its handle was carved to look like a crow’s head, with a cruelly pointed beak.

“Get hold of yourself, Helvar. We’re here to break you out. I can do to your leg what I did to your arm, and we can drag you out of here, or you can leave like a man, on two feet.”

“No one gets out of Hellgate,” Matthias said. “Tonight they do.”

Matthias sat forward, trying to get his bearings, clutching his dead arm. “You can’t just walk me out of here. The guards will recognise me,” he snarled. “I’m not losing fighting privileges to be carted off Djel knows where with you.”

“You’ll be masked.”

“If the guards check—”

“They’re going to be too busy to check,” said the strange, pale boy.

And then the screaming started.

Matthias’ head jerked up. He heard the thunder of footsteps from the arena, cresting like a wave as people burst into the passageway outside

his cell. He heard the shouts of guards, and then the roaring of a great cat, the trumpet of an elephant.

“You opened the cages.” Nina’s voice was shaky with disbelief, though who knew what might be real or performance with her. He refused to look in her direction. If he did, he’d lose all sense of reality. He was barely hanging on as it was.

“Jesper was supposed to wait until three bells,” said the pale boy.

“It is three bells, Kaz,” replied a small girl in the corner with dark hair and deep bronze Suli skin. A figure covered in welts and bandages was leaning against her.

“Since when is Jesper punctual?” the boy complained with a glance at his watch. “On your feet, Helvar.”

He offered him a gloved hand. Matthias stared at it. This is a dream. The strangest dream I’ve ever had, but definitely a dream. Or maybe killing the wolves had finally driven him truly mad. He’d murdered family tonight. No whispered prayers for their wild souls would make it right.

He looked up at the pale demon with his black-gloved hands. Kaz, she’d called him. Would he lead Matthias out of this nightmare or just drag him into another kind of hell? Choose, Helvar.

Matthias clasped the boy’s hand. If this was real and not illusion, he’d escape whatever trap these creatures had set for him. He heard Nina release a long breath – was she relieved? Exasperated? He shook his head. He would deal with her later. The little bronze girl swept a cloak around Matthias’ shoulders and propped an ugly, beak-nosed mask on his head.

The passageway outside the cell was chaos. Costumed men and women surged past, screaming and pushing each other, trying to get away from the arena. Guards had their guns out, and he could hear shots being fired. He felt dizzy, and his side ached badly. His left arm was still useless.

Kaz signalled towards the far right archway, indicating that they should move against the flow of the crowd and into the arena. Matthias didn’t care. He could plunge through the mob instead, force his way up that staircase and onto a boat. And then what? It didn’t matter. There was no time for planning.

He stepped into the throng and was instantly hauled back.

“Boys like you weren’t meant to get ideas, Helvar,” said Kaz. “That staircase leads to a bottleneck. You think the guards won’t check under that mask before they let you through?”

Matthias scowled and followed the others through the crowd, Kaz’s hand at his back.

If the passage had been chaos, then the arena was a special kind of madness. Matthias glimpsed hyenas leaping and bounding over the ledges. One was feeding over a body in a crimson cape. An elephant charged the wall of the stadium, sending up a cloud of dust and bellowing its frustration. He saw a white bear and one of the great jungle cats from the Southern Colonies crouching in the eaves, its teeth bared. He knew there were snakes in the cages as well. He could only hope that this Jesper character hadn’t been foolish enough to set them free, too.

They plunged across the sands where Matthias had fought for privileges for the last six months, but as they headed towards the tunnel, the desert lizard came pounding towards them, its mouth dripping foaming white poison, its fat tail lashing the ground. Before Matthias could think to move, the bronze girl had vaulted over its back and dispatched the creature with two bright daggers wedged beneath the armour of its scales. The lizard groaned and collapsed on its side. Matthias felt a pang of sadness. It was a grotesque creature, and he’d never seen a fighter survive its attack, but it was also a living thing. You’ve never seen a fighter survive until now, he corrected himself. The bronze girl’s daggers merit watching.

He’d assumed they’d cross the arena and head back up into the stands to avoid the crowds clogging the passageway, possibly just storm the stairs and hope to make it through the guards who must be waiting at the top. Instead, Kaz led them down the tunnel past the cages. The cages were old cells that had been turned over to whatever beasts the masters of the Hellshow had got their hands on that week – old circus animals, even diseased livestock in a pinch, creatures culled from forest and countryside. As they raced past the open doors, he glimpsed a pair of yellow eyes glaring at him from the shadows, and then he was moving on. He cursed his deadened arm and lack of weapon. He was virtually defenceless. Where is this Kaz leading us? They wended past a wild boar feeding on a guard and a spotted cat that hissed and spit at them but did not draw near.

And then, through the musk of animals and the stink of their waste, he smelled the clean tang of salt water. He heard the rush of waves. He slipped and discovered the stones beneath his feet were damp. He was deeper in the tunnel than he’d ever been permitted to go. It must lead to the sea. Whatever Nina and her people intended, they really were taking him out of the bowels of Hellgate.

In the green light from the orbs carried by Kaz and the bronze girl, he spotted a tiny boat moored up ahead. It looked like a guard was seated in it, but he raised a hand and waved them forward.

“You were early, Jesper,” Kaz said as he nudged Matthias towards the boat.

“I was on time.”

“For you, that’s early. Next time you plan to impress me give me some warning.”

“The animals are out, and I found you a boat. This is when a thank you would be in order.”

“Thank you, Jesper,” said Nina.

“You’re very welcome, gorgeous. See, Kaz? That’s how the civilised folk do.”

Matthias was only half listening. The fingers of his left hand had started to tingle as sensation returned. He couldn’t fight all of them, not in this state and not when they were armed. But Kaz and the boy in the boat, Jesper, looked to be the only ones with guns. Unhook the rope, disable Jesper. He’d have a gun and possession of the boat. And Nina can stop your heart before you’ve taken hold of the oars, he reminded himself. So shoot her first. Put a bullet in her heart. Stay long enough to watch her fall and then be done with this place. He could do it. He knew he could. All he needed was a distraction.

The bronze girl was standing just to his right. She barely reached his shoulder. Even injured, he could knock her into the water without losing his footing or doing her any real harm.

Drop the girl. Free the boat. Disable the shooter. Kill Nina. Kill Nina. Kill Nina. He took a deep breath and threw his weight at the bronze girl.

She stepped aside as if she’d known he was coming, languidly hooking her heel behind his ankle.

Matthias let out a loud grunt as he landed hard on the stones. “Matthias—” Nina said, stepping forward. He scrambled backwards,

nearly landing himself in the water. If she laid hands on him again, he’d

lose his mind. Nina halted, the hurt on her face unmistakable. She had no right.

“Clumsy, this one,” the bronze girl said impassively. “Put him under, Nina,” commanded Kaz.

“Don’t,” Matthias protested, panic surging through him. “You’re dumb enough to capsize the boat.”

“Stay away from me, witch,” Matthias growled at Nina. Nina gave him a tight nod. “With pleasure.”

She lifted her hands, and Matthias felt his eyelids grow heavy as she dragged him into unconsciousness. “Kill you,” he mumbled.

“Sleep well.” Her voice was a wolf, dogging his steps. It chased him into the dark.



In a windowless room draped in black and crimson, Matthias listened silently to the strange words coming out of the pale, freakish boy’s mouth. Matthias knew monsters, and one glance at Kaz Brekker had told him this was a creature who had spent too long in the dark – he’d brought something back with him when he’d crawled into the light. Matthias could sense it around him. He knew others laughed at Fjerdan superstition, but he trusted his gut. Or he had, until Nina. That had been one of the worst effects of her betrayal, the way he’d been forced to second-guess himself. That doubt had almost been his undoing at Hellgate, where instinct was everything.

He’d heard Brekker’s name in prison, and the words associated with him – criminal prodigy, ruthless, amoral. They called him Dirtyhands because there was no sin he would not commit for the right price. And now this demon was talking about breaking into the Ice Court, about getting Matthias to commit treason. Again, Matthias corrected himself. I’d be committing treason again.

He kept his eyes on Brekker. He was keenly aware of Nina watching him from the other side of the room. He could still smell her rose perfume in his nose and even in his mouth; the sharp flower scent rested against his tongue, as if he were tasting her.

Matthias had woken bound and tied to a chair in what looked like some kind of gambling parlour. Nina must have brought him out of the stupor she’d placed him in. She was there, along with the bronze girl.

Jesper, the long-limbed boy from the boat, sat in a corner with his bony knees drawn up, and a boy with ruddy gold curls doodled aimlessly on a scrap of paper atop a round table made for playing cards, occasionally gnawing on his thumb. The table was covered with a crimson cloth flocked with a repeating pattern of crows and a wheel similar to the one used in the Hellshow arena but with different markings had been propped against a black lacquered wall. Matthias had the feeling that someone – probably Nina – had tended to more of his injuries while he was unconscious. The thought made him sick. Better clean pain than Grisha corruption.

Then Brekker had started talking – about a drug called jurda parem, about an impossibly high reward, and about the absurd idea of attempting a raid on the Ice Court. Matthias wasn’t sure what might be fact or fiction, but it hardly mattered. When Brekker finally finished, Matthias simply said, “No.”

“Believe me when I say this, Helvar: I know getting knocked out and waking up in strange surroundings isn’t the friendliest way to start a partnership, but you didn’t give us many options, so try to open your mind to the possibilities.”

“You could have come to me on your knees, and my answer would be the same.”

“You do understand I can have you back at Hellgate in a matter of hours? Once poor Muzzen is in the infirmary, the switch will be easy.”

“Do it. I can’t wait to tell the warden your ridiculous plans.” “What makes you think you’ll be going back with a tongue?” “Kaz—” Nina protested.

“Do what you want,” Matthias said. He wouldn’t betray his country again.

“I told you,” said Nina.

“Don’t pretend to know me, witch,” he snarled, his eyes trained on Brekker. He wouldn’t look at her. He refused to.

Jesper unfolded himself from the corner. Now that they were out of the Hellgate gloom, Matthias could see he had deep brown Zemeni skin and incongruous grey eyes. He was built like a stork. “Without him, there’s no job,” said Jesper. “We can’t break into the Ice Court blind.”

Matthias wanted to laugh. “You can’t break into the Ice Court at all.” The Ice Court wasn’t an ordinary building. It was a compound, Fjerda’s ancient stronghold, home to an unbroken succession of kings and queens,

repository of their greatest treasures and most sacred religious relics. It was impenetrable.

“Come now, Helvar,” said the demon. “Surely there’s something you want. The cause is righteous enough for a zealot like you. Fjerda may think they’ve caught a dragon by the tail, but they won’t be able to hold on. Once Bo Yul-Bayur replicates his process, jurda parem will enter the market, and it’s only a matter of time before others learn to manufacture it, too.”

“It will never happen. Yul-Bayur will stand trial, and if he is found guilty he will be put to death.”

“Guilty of what?” Nina asked softly. “Crimes against the people.” “Which people?”

He could hear the barely leashed anger in her voice. “Natural people,” Matthias replied. “People who live in harmony with the laws of this world instead of twisting them for their own gain.”

Nina made a kind of exasperated snorting sound. The others just looked amused, smirking at the poor, backward Fjerdan. Brum had warned Matthias that the world was full of liars, pleasure seekers, faithless heathens. And there seemed to be a concentration of them in this room.

“You’re being shortsighted about this, Helvar,” said Brekker. “Another team could get to Yul-Bayur first. The Shu. Maybe the Ravkans. All with their own agendas. Border disputes and old rivalries don’t matter to the Kerch. All the Merchant Council cares about is trade, and they want to make sure jurda parem remains a rumour and nothing more.”

“So leading criminals into the heart of Fjerda to steal a valued prisoner is a patriotic act?” Matthias said scornfully.

“I don’t suppose the promise of four million kruge will sway you either.”

Matthias spat. “You can keep your money. Choke on it.” Then a thought came to him – vile, barbaric, but the one thing that might allow him to return to Hellgate with peace in his heart even if he didn’t have a tongue in his head. He tilted back as far as his bonds would permit and focused all his attention on Brekker. “I’ll make a deal with you.”

“I’m listening.”

“I won’t go with you, but I’ll give you a plan for the layout of the Court. That should at least get you past the first checkpoint.”

“And what will this valuable information cost me?”

“I don’t want your money. I’ll give you the plans for nothing.” It shamed Matthias to say the words, but he spoke them anyway. “If you let me kill Nina Zenik.”

The little bronze girl made a sound of disgust, her contempt for him clear, and the boy at the table stopped doodling, his mouth falling open. Kaz, however, didn’t seem surprised. If anything, he looked pleased. Matthias had the uncomfortable sense that the demon had known exactly how this would play out.

“I can give you something better,” said Kaz.

What could be better than revenge? “There’s nothing else I want.” “I can make you a drüskelle again.”

“Are you a magician, then? A wej sprite who grants wishes? I’m superstitious, not stupid.”

“You can be both, you know, but that’s hardly the point.” Kaz slipped a hand into his dark coat. “Here,” he said, and gave a piece of paper to the bronze girl. Another demon. This one walked with soft feet like she’d drifted in from the next world and no one had the good sense to send her back. She brought the paper up to his face for him to read. The document was written in Kerch and Fjerdan. He couldn’t read Kerch – he’d only picked up the language in prison – but the Fjerdan was clear enough, and as his eyes moved over the page, Matthias’ heart started to pound.

In light of new evidence, Matthias Benedik Helvar is granted full and immediate pardon for all charges of slave trafficking. He is released on this day,      , with the apologies of the court, and will be provided transport to his homeland or a destination of his choosing with all possible haste and the sincere apologies of this court and the Kerch government.

“What new evidence?”

Kaz leaned back in his chair. “It seems Nina Zenik has recanted her statements. She will face charges of perjury.”

Now he did look at her; he couldn’t stop it. He’d left bruises on her graceful throat. He told himself to be glad of it.

“Perjury? How long will you serve for that, Zenik?” “Two months,” she said quietly.

“Two months?” Now he did laugh, long and hard. His body twitched with it, as if it were poison constricting his muscles.

The others watched him with some concern.

“Just how crazy is he?” asked Jesper, fingers drumming on the pearl handles of his revolvers.

Brekker shrugged. “He’s not what I’d call reliable, but he’s all we’ve got.”

Two months. Probably in some cosy prison where she’d charm every guard into bringing her fresh bread and fluffing her pillows. Or maybe she’d just talk them into letting her pay a fine that her rich Grisha keepers back in Ravka could cover for her.

“She can’t be trusted, you know,” he said to Brekker. “Whatever secrets you hope to gain from Bo Yul-Bayur, she’ll turn them over to Ravka.”

“Let me worry about that, Helvar. You do your part, and the secrets of Yul-Bayur and jurda parem will be in the hands of the people best equipped to make sure they stay rumours.”

Two months. Nina would serve her time and return to Ravka four million kruge richer, never giving him another thought. But if this pardon was real, then he could go home, too.

Home. He’d imagined breaking out of Hellgate plenty of times, but he’d never really put his mind to the idea of escape. What life was there for him on the outside, with the charge of slaver hanging around his neck? He could never return to Fjerda. Even if he could have borne the disgrace, he’d have lived each day as a fugitive from the Kerch government, a marked man. He knew he could eke out a life for himself in Novyi Zem, but what would have been the point?

This was something different. If the demon Brekker spoke the truth, Matthias would get to go home. The longing for it twisted in his chest –to hear his language spoken, to see his friends again, taste semla filled with sweet almond paste, feel the bite of the northern wind as it came roaring over the ice. To return home and be welcomed there without the burden of dishonour. With his name cleared, he could return to his life as a drüskelle. And the price would be treason.

“What if Bo Yul-Bayur is dead?” he asked Brekker. “Van Eck insists he isn’t.”

But how could the merchant Kaz spoke of truly understand Fjerdan ways? If there hadn’t been a trial yet, there would be, and Matthias could easily predict the outcome. His people would never free a man with such terrible knowledge.

“But what if he is, Brekker?” “You still get your pardon.”

Even if their quarry was already ashes on the pyre, Matthias would have his freedom. At what cost, though? He’d made mistakes before. He’d been foolish enough to trust Nina. He’d been weak, and he would carry that shame for the rest of his life. But he’d paid for his stupidity in blood and misery and the stink of Hellgate. And his crimes had been meagre things, the actions of a naive boy. This was so much worse. To reveal the secrets of the Ice Court, to see his homeland once more only to know that every step he took there was an act of treason – could he do such a thing?

Brum would have laughed in their faces, torn that pardon to pieces. But Kaz Brekker was smart. He clearly had resources. What if Matthias said no and against all odds Brekker and his crew still found their way into the Ice Court and stole the Shu scientist? Or what if Brekker was right and another country got there first? It sounded like parem was too addictive to be useful to Grisha, but what if the formula fell into Ravkan hands, and they somehow managed to adapt it? To make Ravka’s Grisha, its Second Army, even stronger? If he was part of this mission, Matthias could make sure Bo Yul-Bayur never took another breath outside the Ice Court’s walls, or he could arrange for some kind of accident on the trip back to Kerch.

Before Nina, before Hellgate, he never would have considered it. Now he found he could make this bargain with himself. He would join the demon’s crew, earn his pardon, and when he was a drüskelle once more, Nina Zenik would be his first target. He’d hunt her in Kerch, in Ravka, whatever hole or corner of the world she thought would keep her safe. He would run Nina Zenik to ground and make her pay in every way imaginable. Death would be too good. He’d have her thrown into the most miserable cell in the Ice Court, where she’d never be warm again. He’d toy with her as she’d toyed with him. He’d offer her salvation and then deny it. He’d gift her with affection and small kindnesses then snatch them away. He would savour every tear she shed and replace that sweet green flower scent with the salt of her sorrow on his tongue.

Even so, the words were bitter in Matthias’ mouth when he said, “I’ll do it.”

Brekker winked at Nina, and Matthias wanted to knock his teeth in.

When I’ve dealt Nina her life’s share of misery, I’ll come for you. He’d

caught witches; how different could it be to slay a demon?

The bronze girl folded up the document and handed it to Brekker, who slipped it into his breast pocket. Matthias felt like he was watching an old friend, one he’d never hoped to see again, vanish into a crowd, and he was powerless to call out.

“We’re going to untie you,” said Brekker. “I hope prison hasn’t robbed you of all your manners or good sense.”

Matthias nodded, and the bronze girl took a knife to the ropes binding him. “I believe you know Nina,” Brekker continued. “The lovely girl freeing you is Inej, our thief of secrets and the best in the trade. Jesper Fahey is our sharpshooter, Zemeni-born but try not to hold it against him, and this is Wylan, best demolitions expert in the Barrel.”

“Raske is better,” Inej said.

The boy looked up, ruddy gold hair flopping in his eyes, and spoke for the first time. “He’s not better. He’s reckless.”

“He knows his trade.” “So do I.”

“Barely,” Jesper said.

“Wylan is new to the scene,” admitted Brekker.

“Of course he’s new, he looks like he’s about twelve,” retorted Matthias.

“I’m sixteen,” said Wylan sullenly.

Matthias doubted that. Fifteen at the most. The boy didn’t even look as if he’d started shaving. In fact, at eighteen, Matthias suspected that he was the oldest of the bunch. Brekker’s eyes were ancient, but he couldn’t be any older than Matthias.

For the first time, Matthias really looked at the people around him. What kind of team is this for a mission so perilous? Treason wouldn’t be an issue if they were all dead. And only he knew exactly how treacherous this endeavour might prove.

“We should be using Raske,” Jesper said. “He’s good under pressure.” “I don’t like it,” agreed Inej.

“I didn’t ask,” said Kaz. “Besides, Wylan isn’t just good with the flint and fuss. He’s our insurance.”

“Against what?” asked Nina.

“Meet Wylan Van Eck,” said Kaz Brekker as the boy’s cheeks flooded crimson. “Jan Van Eck’s son and our guarantee on thirty million kruge.”

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