Chapter no 8

Six of Crows

Jesper stared at Wylan. “Of course you’re a Councilman’s kid.” He burst out laughing. “That explains everything.”

He knew he should be angry at Kaz for holding back yet another vital piece of information, but right now, he was just enjoying watching the little revelation of Wylan Van Eck’s identity go careening around the room like an ornery colt kicking up dust.

Wylan was red faced and mortified. Nina looked stunned and irritated. The Fjerdan just seemed confused. Kaz appeared utterly pleased with himself. And, of course, Inej didn’t look remotely surprised. She gathered Kaz’s secrets and kept them as well. Jesper tried to ignore the pang of jealousy he felt at that.

Wylan’s mouth opened and closed, his throat working. “You knew?” he asked Kaz miserably.

Kaz leaned back in his chair, one knee bent, his bad leg stretched out before him. “Why do you think I’ve been keeping you around?”

“I’m good at demo.”

“You’re passable at demo. You’re excellent at hostage.”

That was cruel, but that was Kaz. And the Barrel was a far rougher teacher than Kaz could ever be. At least this explained why Kaz had been coddling Wylan and sending jobs his way.

“It doesn’t matter,” said Jesper. “We should still take Raske and leave this baby merch on lockdown in Ketterdam.”

“I don’t trust Raske.”

“And you trust Wylan Van Eck?” Jesper said incredulously. “Wylan doesn’t know enough people to cause us real trouble.”

“Don’t I have some say in this?” complained Wylan. “I’m sitting right here.”

Kaz raised a brow. “Ever had your pocket picked, Wylan?” “I … not that I know of.”

“Been mugged in an alley?” “No.”

“Hung over the side of a bridge with your head in the canal?” Wylan blinked. “No, but—”

“Ever been beaten until you can’t walk?” “No.”

“Why do you think that is?” “I—”

“It’s been three months since you left your daddy’s mansion on the Geldstraat. Why do you suppose your sojourn in the Barrel has been so blessed?”

“Lucky, I guess?” Wylan suggested weakly.

Jesper snorted. “Kaz is your luck, merchling. He’s had you under Dregs protection – though you’re so useless, up until this minute none of us could figure out why.”

“It was perplexing,” Nina admitted.

“Kaz always has his reasons,” murmured Inej.

“Why did you move out of your father’s house?” Jesper asked. “It was time,” Wylan said tightly.

“Idealist? Romantic? Revolutionary?”

“Idiot?” suggested Nina. “No one chooses to live in the Barrel if he has another option.”

“I’m not useless,” Wylan said.

“Raske is the better demo man—” Inej began.

“I’ve been to the Ice Court. With my father. We went to an embassy dinner. I can help with the plans.”

“See that? Hidden depths.” Kaz tapped his gloved fingers over the crow’s head of his cane. “And I don’t want our only leverage against Van Eck cooling his heels in Ketterdam while we head north. Wylan goes with us. He’s good enough at demo, and he’s got a fine hand for sketching, thanks to all those pricey tutors.”

Wylan blushed deeper, and Jesper shook his head. “Play piano, too?” “Flute,” said Wylan defensively.


“And since Wylan has seen the Ice Court with his very own eyes,” Kaz continued, “he can help keep you honest, Helvar.”

The Fjerdan scowled furiously, and Wylan looked a little ill. “Don’t worry,” Nina said. “The glower isn’t lethal.”

Jesper noted the way Matthias’ shoulders bunched every time Nina talked. He didn’t know what history they were chewing on, but they’d probably kill each other before they ever got to Fjerda.

Jesper rubbed his eyes. He was low on sleep and exhausted after the excitement of the prison break, and now his thoughts were buzzing and jumping at the possibility of thirty million kruge. Even after Per Haskell got his twenty percent, that would leave four million for each of them. What could he do with a pile of scratch that big? Jesper could just imagine his father saying, Land yourself in a pile of shit twice as big. Saints, he missed him.

Kaz tapped his cane on the polished wood floor.

“Take out your pen and proper paper, Wylan. Let’s put Helvar to work.”

Wylan reached into the satchel at his feet and pulled out a slender roll of butcher’s paper followed by a metal case that held an expensive-looking pen and ink set.

“How nice,” Jesper noted. “A nib for every occasion.”

“Start talking,” Kaz said to the Fjerdan. “It’s time to pay the rent.” Matthias directed his furious gaze at Kaz. Definitely a mighty glower.

It was almost fun to watch him pit it against Kaz’s shark-like stare.

Finally, the Fjerdan shut his eyes, took a deep breath and said, “The Ice Court is on a bluff overlooking the harbour at Djerholm. It’s built in concentric circles, like the rings of a tree.” The words came slowly, as if speaking each one was causing him pain. “First, the ringwall, then the outer circle. It’s divided into three sectors. Beyond that is the ice moat, then at the centre of everything, the White Island.”

Wylan began to sketch. Jesper peered over Wylan’s shoulder. “That doesn’t look like a tree, it looks like a cake.”

“Well, it is sort of like a cake,” Wylan said defensively. “The whole thing is built on a rise.”

Kaz gestured for Matthias to continue.

“The cliffs are unscalable, and the northern road is the only way in or out. You’ll have to get through a guarded checkpoint before you even reach the ringwall.”

“Two checkpoints,” said Wylan. “When I was there, there were two.” “There you have it,” Kaz said to Jesper. “Marketable skills. Wylan is

watching you, Helvar.”

“Why two checkpoints?” Inej asked.

Matthias stared at the black walnut slats of the floor and said, “It’s harder to bribe two sets of guards. The security at the Court is always built with multiple fail-safes. If you make it that far—”

We, Helvar. If we make it that far,” corrected Kaz.

The Fjerdan gave the barest shrug. “If we make it that far, the outer circle is split into three sectors: the prison, the drüskelle facilities, and the embassy, each with its own gate in the ringwall. The prison gate is always functioning, but it’s kept under constant armed surveillance. Of the two others, only one is ever operational at any given time.”

“What determines which gate is used?” asked Jesper.

“The schedule changes each week, and guards are only given their postings the night before.”

“Maybe that’s a good thing,” said Jesper. “If we can figure out which gate isn’t running, it won’t be manned or guarded—”

“There are always at least four guards on duty even when the gate isn’t in use.”

“Pretty sure we can handle four guards.”

Matthias shook his head. “The gates weigh thousands of pounds and can only be operated from within the guardhouses. And even if you could raise one of them, opening a gate that isn’t scheduled for use would trigger Black Protocol. The entire Court would go on lockdown, and you’d give away your location.”

A ripple of unease passed through the room. Jesper shifted uncomfortably. If the expressions on the others’ faces were any indication, they were all having the same thought: Just what are we getting into? Only Kaz seemed unfazed.

“Put it all down,” Kaz said, tapping the paper. “Helvar, I expect you to describe the mechanics of the alarm system to Wylan later.”

Matthias frowned. “I don’t really know how it works. It’s some kind of series of cables and bells.”

“Tell him all you know. Where will they be keeping Bo Yul-Bayur?”

Slowly, Matthias rose and approached the plans taking shape beneath Wylan’s pen. His movements were reluctant, as wary as if Kaz had told him to pet a rattler.

“Probably here,” the Fjerdan said, resting his finger on the paper. “The prison sector. The high-security cells are on the topmost floor. It’s where they keep the most dangerous criminals. Assassins, terrorists—”

“Grisha?” Nina asked. “Exactly,” he replied grimly.

“You guys are going to make this really fun, aren’t you?” asked Jesper. “Usually people don’t start hating each other until a week into the job, but you two have a head start.”

They cast him twin glares, and Jesper beamed back at them, but Kaz’s attention was focused on the plans.

“Bo Yul-Bayur isn’t dangerous,” he said thoughtfully. “At least not in that way. I don’t think they’ll keep him locked up with the rabble.”

“I think they’ll keep him in a grave,” said Matthias.

“Operate on the assumption that he isn’t dead. He’s a valued prisoner, one they don’t want falling into the wrong hands before he stands trial. Where would he be?”

Matthias looked at the plan. “The buildings of the outer circle surround the ice moat, and at the moat’s centre is the White Island, where the treasury and the Royal Palace are. It’s the most secure place in the Ice Court.”

“Then that’s where Bo Yul-Bayur will be,” said Kaz.

Matthias smiled. Actually, it was less a smile than a baring of teeth.

He learned that grin at Hellgate, thought Jesper.

“Then your quest is pointless,” Matthias said. “There is no way a group of foreigners is going to make it to the White Island.”

“Don’t look so pleased, Helvar. We don’t get inside, you don’t get your pardon.”

Matthias shrugged. “I can’t change what is true. The ice moat is watched from multiple guard towers on the White Island and a lookout atop the Elderclock. It’s completely uncrossable except by way of the glass bridge, and there’s no way onto the glass bridge without clearance.”

“Hringkälla is coming,” Nina said. “Be silent,” Matthias snapped at her. “Pray, don’t,” said Kaz.

“Hringkälla. It’s the Day of Listening, when the new drüskelle are initiated on the White Island.”

Matthias’ knuckles flexed white. “You have no right to speak of those things. They’re holy.”

“They’re facts. The Fjerdan royals throw a huge party with guests from all over the world, and plenty of the entertainment comes straight from Ketterdam.”

“Entertainment?” Kaz asked.

“Actors, dancers, a Komedie Brute troupe, and the best talent from the pleasure houses of West Stave.”

“I thought Fjerdans didn’t go in for that sort of thing,” said Jesper. Inej’s lips quirked. “You’ve never seen Fjerdan soldiers on the


“I meant when they’re at home,” Jesper said.

“It’s the one day a year they all stop acting so miserable and actually let themselves have a good time,” Nina replied. “Besides, only the drüskelle live like monks.”

“A good time needn’t involve wine and … and flesh,” Matthias sputtered.

Nina batted her glossy lashes at him. “You wouldn’t know a good time if it sidled up to you and stuck a lollipop in your mouth.” She looked back at the plans. “The embassy gate will have to be open. Maybe we shouldn’t worry about breaking into the Ice Court. Maybe we should just walk in with the performers.”

“This isn’t the Hellshow,” said Kaz. “It won’t be that easy.”

“Visitors are vetted weeks before they arrive at the Ice Court,” Matthias said. “Anyone entering the embassy will have their papers checked and checked again. Fjerdans aren’t fools.”

Nina raised a brow. “Not all of them, at least.”

“Don’t poke the bear, Nina,” Kaz said. “We need him friendly. When does this party take place?”

“It’s seasonal,” Nina said, “on the spring equinox.” “Two weeks from today,” Inej noted.

Kaz cocked his head to one side, his eyes focused on something in the distance.

“Scheming face,” Jesper whispered to Inej. She nodded. “Definitely.”

“Is the White Rose sending a delegation?” Kaz asked.

Nina shook her head. “I didn’t hear anything about it.”

“Even if we go straight to Djerholm,” Inej said, “we’ll need most of a week to travel. There isn’t time to secure documents or create cover that will bear up under scrutiny.”

“We’re not going in through the embassy,” said Kaz. “Always hit where the mark isn’t looking.”

“Who’s Mark?” asked Wylan.

Jesper burst out laughing. “Oh, Saints, you are something. The mark, the pigeon, the cosy, the fool you’re looking to fleece.”

Wylan drew himself up. “I may not have had your … education, but I’m sure I know plenty of words that you don’t.”

“Also the proper way to fold a napkin and dance a minuet. Oh, and you can play the flute. Marketable skills, merchling. Marketable skills.”

“No one dances the minuet any more,” grumbled Wylan.

Kaz leaned back. “What’s the easiest way to steal a man’s wallet?” “Knife to the throat?” asked Inej.

“Gun to the back?” said Jesper. “Poison in his cup?” suggested Nina. “You’re all horrible,” said Matthias.

Kaz rolled his eyes. “The easiest way to steal a man’s wallet is to tell him you’re going to steal his watch. You take his attention and direct it where you want it to go. Hringkälla is going to do that job for us. The Ice Court will have to divert resources to monitoring guests and protecting the royal family. They can’t be looking everywhere at once. It’s the perfect opportunity to spring Bo Yul-Bayur.” Kaz pointed to the prison gate in the ringwall. “Remember what I told you at Hellgate, Nina?”

“It’s hard to keep track of all your wisdom.”

“At the prison, they won’t care about who’s coming in, just anyone trying to get out.” His gloved finger slid sideways to the next sector. “At the embassy they won’t care who’s going out, they’ll just be focused on who’s trying to get in. We enter through the prison, leave through the embassy. Helvar, is the Elderclock functional?”

Matthias nodded. “It chimes every quarter hour. It’s also how the alarm protocols are sounded.”

“It’s accurate?” “Of course.”

“Quality Fjerdan engineering,” Nina said sourly.

Kaz ignored her. “Then we’ll use the Elderclock to coordinate our movements.”

“Will we enter disguised as guards?” Wylan asked.

Jesper couldn’t keep the disdain from his voice. “Only Nina and Matthias speak Fjerdan.”

“I speak Fjerdan,” Wylan protested.

“Schoolroom Fjerdan, right? I bet you speak Fjerdan about as well as I speak moose.”

“Moose is probably your native tongue,” mumbled Wylan.

“We enter as we are,” Kaz said. “As criminals. The prison is our front door.”

“Let me get this straight,” said Jesper. “You want us to let the Fjerdans lock us in jail. Isn’t that what we’re always trying to avoid?”

“Criminal identities are slippery. It’s one of the perks of being a member of the troublemaking class. They’ll be counting heads at the prison gate, looking at names and crimes, not checking passports or examining embassy seals.”

“Because no one wants to go to prison,” Jesper said.

Nina rubbed her hands over her arms. “I don’t want to be locked up in a Fjerdan cell.”

Kaz flicked his sleeve, and two slender rods of metal appeared between his fingers. They danced over his knuckles then vanished once more.

“Lockpicks?” Nina asked.

“You let me take care of the cells,” Kaz said. “Hit where the mark isn’t looking,” mused Inej.

“That’s right,” said Kaz. “And the Ice Court is like any other mark, one big white pigeon ready for the plucking.”

“Will Yul-Bayur come willingly?” Inej asked.

“Van Eck said the Council gave Yul-Bayur a code word when they first tried to get him out of Shu Han so he’d know who to trust: Sesh-uyeh. It will tell him we’ve been sent by Kerch.”

Sesh-uyeh,” Wylan repeated, trying the syllables clumsily on his tongue. “What does it mean?”

Nina examined a spot on the floor and said, “Heartsick.”

“This can be done,” said Kaz, “and we’re the ones to do it.” Jesper felt the mood shift in the room as possibility took hold. It was a subtle thing, but he’d learned to look for it at the tables – the moment a player

came awake to the fact that he might have a winning hand. Anticipation tugged at Jesper, a fizzing mix of fear and excitement that made it hard for him to sit still.

Maybe Matthias sensed it, too, because he folded his huge arms and said, “You have no idea what you’re up against.”

“But you do, Helvar. I want you working on the plan of the Ice Court every minute until we sail. No detail is too small or inconsequential. I’ll be checking on you regularly.”

Inej traced her finger over the rough sketch Wylan had produced, a series of embedded circles. “It really does look like the rings of a tree,” she said.

“No,” said Kaz. “It looks like a target.”

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