Main Crooked Kingdom: A Sequel to Six of Crows
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GOOD but why the long chapters and extreme description of stuff
still love it though
still love it though
05 August 2021 (07:37)
This book was the PERFECT conclusion to this duology! The resolution to the events of the last book and ESPECIALLY the characters developments make this book so unique, all the characters stories ended perfectly suiting them and their personal journeys - Kaz and Inej in particular. The conclusion to Kaz's revenge plotline were absolutely outstanding and it just perfectly shows how much he's changed since the beginning of book 1. I also liked how we got Wylan's POV in this book and his romance with Jesper was so cute! I liked seeing Jesper break away from Kaz a bit since he was borderline in love with him and almost completely dependant on him and start solving his own problems without assistance. Matthias and Nina's relationship while ending in tragedy had so much symbolism behind it and his death was a creative way of showing someone's past coming back to haunt them and how one can never truly escape their past.
16 August 2021 (10:51)
the ONLY regret i have about reading this duology is that i won't be able to read it for the first time again
20 August 2021 (13:55)
Tbh, the best book I read this year.
14 October 2021 (06:20)
This book deserves all the stars just for that bathroom scene alone. The things it made me feel, good God.
17 November 2021 (16:37)
www.orionbooks.co.uk/indigo/ Contents By the Same Author Part One Forsaken 1 Retvenko 2 Wylan 3 Matthias 4 Inej Part Two A Killing Wind 5 Jesper 6 Nina 7 Inej 8 Matthias 9 Kaz 10 Jesper Part Three Brick by Brick 11 Inej 12 Kaz 13 Nina 14 Wylan 15 Matthias 16 Jesper Part Four The Unexpected Visitor 17 Inej 18 Kaz 19 Matthias 20 Inej 21 Kaz 22 Nina 23 Wylan Part Five Kings & Queens 24 Jesper 25 Matthias 26 Kaz 27 Inej 28 Jesper 29 Nina 30 Kaz 31 Wylan 32 Inej Part Six Action & Echo 33 Matthias 34 Nina 35 Inej 36 Jesper 37 Kaz 38 Matthias 39 Nina 40 Matthias 41 Wylan 42 Jesper 43 Kaz 44 Inej 45 Pekka Cast of Characters Acknowledgments Dedication Copyright If you liked this, you’ll love… ALSO BY LEIGH BARDUGO THE GRISHA TRILOGY Shadow and Bone Siege and Storm Ruin and Rising THE SIX OF CROWS DUOLOGY Six of Crows R etvenko leaned against the bar and tucked his nose into his dirty shot glass. The whiskey had failed to warm him. Nothing could get you warm in this Saintsforsaken city. And there was no escaping the smell, the throat-choking stew of bilge, clams, and wet stone that seemed to have soaked into his pores as if he’d been steeping in the city’s essence like the world’s worst cup of tea. It was most noticeable in the Barrel, even more so in a miserable dump like this one—a squat tavern wedged into the lower floor of one of the slum’s grimmest apartment buildings, its ceiling bowed by weather and shoddy construction, its beams blackened by soot from a fireplace that had long since ceased to function, the flue clogged by debris. The floor was covered in sawdust to soak up spilled lager, vomit, and whatever else the bar’s patrons lost control of. Retvenko wondered how long it had been since the boards had been swept clean. He buried his nose more deeply in the glass, inhaling the sweet perfume of bad whiskey. It made his eyes water. “You’re supposed to drink it, not snort it,” said the barkeep with a laugh; . Retvenko put his glass down and gazed at the man blearily. He was thick necked and barrel chested, a real bruiser. Retvenko had seen him toss more than one rowdy patron into the street, but it was hard to take him seriously dressed in the absurd fashion favored by the young men of the Barrel—a pink shirt with sleeves that looked fit to split over huge biceps, a garish red-and-orange plaid waistcoat. He looked like a dandified soft-shell crab. “Tell me,” said Retvenko. His Kerch wasn’t good to begin with, and it was worse after a few drinks. “Why does city smell so bad? Like old soup? Like sink full of dishes?” The barman laughed. “That’s just Ketterdam. You get used to it.” Retvenko shook his head. He didn’t want to get used to this city or its stink. His job with Councilman Hoede had been dull, but at least his rooms had been dry and warm. As a treasured Grisha indenture, Retvenko had been kept in comfort, his belly full. He’d cursed Hoede at the time, bored with his work shepherding the merchant’s expensive cargo shipments across the sea, resenting the terms of his contract, the foolish bargain he’d made to get himself out of Ravka after the civil war. But now? Now he couldn’t help thinking of the Grisha workshop at Hoede’s house, the fire burning merrily in the grate, brown bread served with slabs of butter and thick cuts of ham. After Hoede had died, the Kerch Merchant Council had let Retvenko take on sea voyages to pay his way out of the indenture. The money was terrible, but what other options did he have? He was a Grisha Squaller in a hostile city with no skills but the gifts with which he’d been born. “Another?” the barman asked, gesturing at Retvenko’s empty glass. Retvenko hesitated. He shouldn’t waste his money. If he was smart with his pennies, he would only need to rent himself out for one more voyage, maybe two, and he’d have enough money to pay off his indenture and buy himself a ticket to Ravka in a third-class berth. That was all he needed. He was due on the docks in less than an hour. Storms had been predicted, so the crew would rely on Retvenko to master the air currents and guide the ship calmly to whatever port they needed to reach. He didn’t know where and he didn’t care. The captain would call coordinates; Retvenko would fill the sails or calm the skies. And then he would collect his pay. But the winds hadn’t picked up yet. Maybe he could sleep through the first part of the voyage. Retvenko tapped the bar and nodded. What was a man to do? He deserved some comfort in this world. “I am not errand boy,” he muttered. “What’s that?” the barman asked as he poured out another drink. Retvenko gave a dismissive wave. This person, this common lout, could never understand. He toiled away in obscurity. Hoping for what? An extra coin in his pocket? A warm glance from a pretty girl? He knew nothing of glory in battle, what it was to be revered. “You Ravkan?” Through the muzzy blur the whiskey had created, Retvenko came alert. “Why?” “No reason. You just sound Ravkan.” Retvenko told himself to relax. Plenty of Ravkans came through Ketterdam looking for work. There was nothing on him that said Grisha. His cowardice filled him with disgust—at himself, the barman, this city. He wanted to sit and enjoy his drink. There was no one in the bar to jump him, and despite the barman’s muscles, Retvenko knew he could handle him easily. But when you were Grisha, even staying still could mean courting trouble. There had been more rumors of disappearances in Ketterdam recently—Grisha vanishing from the streets or their homes, probably snapped up by slavers and sold to the highest bidder. Retvenko would not let that happen to him, not when he was so close to buying his way back to Ravka. He downed his whiskey, slammed a coin on the counter, and rose from the barstool. He left no tip. A man could work for a living. Retvenko felt a little unsteady as he headed outside, and the moist stink of the air didn’t help. He put his head down and set his feet toward Fourth Harbor, letting the walk clear his head. Two more voyages , he repeated to himself, a few more weeks at sea, a few more months in this city. He’d find a way to make it bearable. He wondered if some of his old friends might be waiting for him in Ravka. The young king was said to be handing out pardons like penny candy, eager to rebuild the Second Army, the Grisha military that had been decimated by the war. “Just two more trips,” he said to no one, stamping his boots against the spring damp. How could it be this cold and wet this late in the year? Living in this city was like being trapped in the chilly armpit of a frost giant. He passed along Grafcanal, shivering as he glimpsed Black Veil Island tucked into the water’s bend. That was where the Kerch wealthy had once buried their dead, in little stone houses above water level. Some trick of the climate kept the island shrouded in shifting mists, and there were rumors that the place was haunted. Retvenko hastened his steps. He wasn’t a superstitious man—when you had power like his, there was no reason to fear what might lurk in the shadows—but who liked to walk by a graveyard? He burrowed deeper into his coat and made quick time down Havenstraat, keeping alert to the movements in every twisting alley. Soon he’d be back in Ravka, where he could stroll the streets without fear. Assuming he got his pardon. Retvenko squirmed uncomfortably in his coat. The war had pitted Grisha against Grisha, and his side had been particularly brutal. He’d murdered former comrades, civilians, even children. But what was done could not be undone. King Nikolai needed soldiers, and Retvenko was a very good soldier. Retvenko nodded once to the guard stashed in the little booth at the entrance to Fourth Harbor and glanced over his shoulder, confirming he hadn’t been followed. He made his way past the cargo containers to the docks, found the appropriate berth, and stood in line to register with the first mate. Retvenko recognized him from past voyages, always harried and ill-humored, scrawny neck poking from the collar of his coat. He held a thick sheaf of documents, and Retvenko glimpsed the purple wax seal of one of the members of the Kerch Merchant Council. Those seals were better than gold in this city, guaranteeing the best berths in the harbor and preferred access to the docks. And why did the councilmen garner such respect, such advantage? Because of coin. Because their missions brought profit to Ketterdam. Power meant something more in Ravka, where the elements bent to the will of the Grisha and the country was ruled by a proper king instead of a cadre of upstart merchants. Admittedly, Retvenko had tried to depose that king’s father, but the point remained. “We’re not ready for the rest of the crew just yet,” the first mate said as Retvenko gave his name. “You can keep warm in the harbormaster’s office. We’re waiting on our signal from the Council of Tides.” “Good for you,” Retvenko said, unimpressed. He glanced up at one of the black obelisk towers that loomed over the harbor. If there were any chance that the high and mighty Council of Tides could see him from their watchtower, he would have let them know exactly what he thought with a few choice gestures. They were supposedly Grisha, but had they ever lifted a finger to help the other Grisha in the city? To help those down on their luck who might have welcomed a bit of kindness? “No, they have not,” he answered himself. The first mate winced. “Ghezen , Retvenko. Have you been drinking?” “No.” “You stink of whiskey.” Retvenko sniffed. “Little bit whiskey.” “Just dry out. Get yourself some coffee or strong jurda . This cotton has to be in Djerholm in two weeks’ time, and we aren’t paying you to nurse a hangover belowdecks. Understood?” “Yes, yes,” Retvenko said with a dismissive wave, already heading toward the harbormaster’s office. But when he was a few steps away, he flicked his wrist. A tiny whirlwind caught the papers the first mate was holding, sending them flying over the docks. “Damn it!” he shouted as he went scrambling over the wooden planks, trying to capture the pages of his manifest before they blew into the sea. Retvenko smiled with grim pleasure, then felt a wave of sadness overtake him. He was a giant among men, a gifted Squaller, a great soldier, but here he was just an employee , a sad old Ravkan who spoke broken Kerch and drank too much. Home , he told himself. Soon I’ll be home. He would get his pardon and prove himself once more. He would fight for his country. He would sleep under a roof that didn’t leak and wear a blue wool kefta lined with silver fox fur. He would be Emil Retvenko again, not this pathetic shadow. “There’s coffee,” said the clerk when Retvenko entered the harbormaster’s office, gesturing toward a copper urn in the corner. “Tea?” “There’s coffee.” This country. Retvenko filled a mug full of the dark sludge, more to warm his hands than anything. He couldn’t bear the taste of it, certainly not without a healthy dose of sugar, which the harbormaster had neglected to supply. “Wind blowing in,” said the clerk as a bell clanged outside, shaken by the rising breeze. “I have ears,” Retvenko grumbled. “Don’t think it will amount to much here, but once you get out of the harbor—” “Be silent,” Retvenko said sharply. He was on his feet, listening. “What?” said the clerk. “There’s—” Retvenko put a finger to his lips. “Someone cries out.” The sound had come from where the ship was docked. “It’s just gulls. Sun’s coming up soon and—” Retvenko raised a hand, and a gust of air slammed the clerk back into the wall. “I said be silent .” The clerk’s mouth dropped open as he hung pinned to the slats. “You’re the Grisha they got for the crew?” For Saints’ sake, was Retvenko going to have to pull the air from this boy’s lungs and suffocate him into quiet? Through the waxy windows, Retvenko could see the sky beginning to turn blue as dawn arrived. He heard the squawking of gulls searching the waves for breakfast. Maybe the liquor was muddling his mind. Retvenko let the clerk drop to the ground. He’d spilled his coffee, but he didn’t want to bother with another cup. “Told you it was nothing,” said the clerk as he dragged himself to his feet. “Didn’t have to get all heated up.” The clerk dusted himself off and got resettled behind the desk. “I never met one of you before. Grisha.” Retvenko snorted. The clerk probably had and simply didn’t know it. “You get paid pretty good for the voyages?” “Not good enough.” “I—” But whatever the clerk was going to say next was lost as the door to the office exploded in a hail of splinters. Retvenko’s hands went up to shield his face. He ducked and rolled behind the clerk’s desk for cover. A woman entered the office—black hair, golden eyes. Shu. The clerk reached for a shotgun Retvenko saw strapped beneath the desk. “They’ve come for the payroll!” he shouted. “Ain’t no one taking the payroll.” Retvenko watched in shock as the gangly clerk stood like some kind of avenging warrior and opened fire. By all that was holy, nothing could motivate the Kerch like cash. Retvenko peeked around the desk in time to see the shotgun blast strike the woman directly in the chest. She was thrown backward and collided with the doorjamb, crumpling to the floor. He smelled the sharp burn of gunpowder, the metallic tang of blood. Retvenko’s belly gave a shaming lurch. It had been a long time since he’d seen someone shot down in front of him—and that had been in a time of war. “Ain’t no one taking the payroll,” the clerk repeated with satisfaction. But before Retvenko could reply, the Shu woman wrapped her bloody hand around the door frame, hauling herself to her feet. Retvenko blinked. Just how much whiskey had he had? The woman marched forward. Through the remains of her tattered blouse, Retvenko saw blood, flesh pocked with buckshot, and the glint of what looked like metal. The clerk fumbled to reload, but the woman was too fast. She grabbed the gun from his hands and swatted him down with it, knocking him sideways with terrible force. She tossed the gun aside and turned her golden eyes on Retvenko. “Take payroll!” Retvenko shouted, clambering backward. He dug in his pockets and tossed his nearly empty wallet at her. “Take what you want.” The woman smiled slightly at that—with pity? Amusement? Retvenko did not know. But he understood that she had not come for the money at all. She had come for him. And it didn’t matter if she was a slaver or a mercenary or something else entirely. She would face a soldier, not some cowering weakling. He leapt to his feet, muscles responding reluctantly to his demands, and shifted into fighting stance. His arms arced forward. A howling wind swept through the room, tossing a chair, then the clerk’s desk, then the steaming coffee urn at the woman. She batted each item away with little interest, as if she were brushing aside stray cobwebs. Retvenko focused his power and shoved both his hands forward, feeling his ears pop as the pressure dropped and the wind swelled in a surging thunderhead. Maybe this woman couldn’t be stopped by bullets. Let’s see how she fared against the fury of a storm. The woman growled as the gale seized her, hurtling her back through the open doorway. She seized the jamb, trying to keep hold. Retvenko laughed. He’d forgotten how good it felt to fight. Then, from behind him, he heard a loud crack , the shriek of nails torn free and rending timber. He looked over his shoulder and caught the briefest glimpse of the dawn sky, the wharf. The wall was gone. Strong arms seized him, clasping his hands to his sides, preventing him from using his power. He was rising, sailing upward, the harbor shrinking beneath him. He saw the roof of the harbormaster’s office, the body of the first mate in a heap on the dock, the ship Retvenko had been meant to sail on—its deck a mess of broken boards, bodies piled near the shattered masts. His attackers had been there first. The air was cold on his face. His heart pounded a ragged rhythm in his ears. “Please,” he begged as they soared higher, unsure of what he was pleading for. Afraid to move too suddenly or too much, he craned his neck to look at his captor. Retvenko released a terrified moan, somewhere between a sob and the panicked whine of an animal caught in a trap. The man holding him was Shu, his black hair pulled into a tight bun, his golden eyes narrowed against the rush of the wind—and from his back emerged two vast wings that beat against the sky, hinged, gracefully wrought in looping silver filigree and taut canvas. Was he an angel? A demon? Some strange mechanical come to life? Had Retvenko simply lost his mind? In the arms of his captor, Emil Retvenko saw the shadow they made cast upon the glittering surface of the sea far below: two heads, two wings, four legs. He had become a great beast, and yet that beast would devour him. His prayers turned to screams, but both went unanswered. W hat am I doing here? That thought had run through Wylan’s head at least six times a day since he’d met Kaz Brekker. But on a night like this, a night when they were “working,” it rose and fell in his head like a nervous tenor practicing his scales: WhatamIdoingherewhatamIdoingherewhatamIdoing here. Wylan tugged at the hem of his sky-blue jacket, the uniform worn by the waiters of Club Cumulus, and tried to look at ease. Think of it as a dinner party , he told himself. He’d endured countless uncomfortable meals at his father’s house. This was no different. In fact, it was easier. No awkward conversations about his studies or when he planned to start classes at the university. All he had to do was stay quiet, follow Kaz’s instructions, and figure out what to do with his hands. Clasp them in front? Too much like a singer at a recital. In back? Too military. He tried just dangling them at his sides, but that didn’t feel right either. Why hadn’t he paid better attention to the way waiters stood? Despite Kaz’s assurances that the second-floor parlor was theirs for the night, Wylan felt certain that at any minute a real member of the staff would enter the room, point at him, and shout, “Impostor!” Then again, Wylan felt like an impostor most days. It had been just under a week since they’d reached Ketterdam, almost a month since they’d left Djerholm. Wylan had been wearing Kuwei’s features for most of that time, but whenever he caught a glimpse of his reflection in a mirror or a shop window, it took a long moment to realize he wasn’t looking at a stranger. This was his face now—golden eyes, wide brow, black hair. His old self had been scrubbed away, and Wylan wasn’t sure he knew the person who remained—the person who was standing in a private parlor in one of the Lid’s most luxurious gambling dens, caught up in another of Kaz Brekker’s schemes. A player at the table lifted his champagne glass for a refill, and Wylan darted forward from his perch against the wall. His hands were shaking as he took the bottle from the silver ice bucket, but there were some benefits to the years he’d spent at his father’s social functions. He at least knew how to pour a proper glass of champagne without it foaming over. Wylan could almost hear Jesper’s mocking voice. Marketable skills, merchling. He dared a glance at Jesper now. The sharpshooter was seated at the table, hunched over his cards. He wore a battered navy waistcoat embroidered with small gold stars, and his rumpled shirt shone white against his dark brown skin. Jesper rubbed a tired hand over his face. They’d been playing cards for more than two hours. Wylan couldn’t tell if Jesper’s fatigue was real or part of the act. Wylan filled another glass, focusing on Kaz’s instructions. “Just take the players’ orders and keep one ear on Smeet’s conversation,” he’d said. “It’s a job, Wylan. Get it done.” Why did they all call it a job? It didn’t feel like working. It felt like missing a step and suddenly finding yourself falling. It felt like panic. So Wylan took stock of the room’s details—a trick he’d often used to steady himself whenever he arrived someplace new or when his father was in a particularly foul mood. He inventoried the pattern of interlocking starbursts that formed the polished wood floor, the shell-shaped nodes of the blown-glass chandelier, the cobalt silk wallpaper flocked with silver clouds. No windows to allow in natural light. Kaz said none of the gambling dens had them, because the bosses wanted players to lose track of time. Wylan watched Kaz deal another hand to Smeet, Jesper, and the other players at the round table. He wore the same sky-blue staff jacket as Wylan and his hands were bare. Wylan had to fight not to stare at them. It wasn’t just the strangeness, the wrongness of seeing Kaz without his gloves, it was that his hands seemed animated by a secret machinery Wylan didn’t understand. When he had started to learn figure drawing, Wylan had studied anatomy illustrations. He had a good grasp of musculature, the way bones and joints and ligaments fit together. But Kaz’s hands moved as if they’d been made for no other purpose than to manipulate cards, long white fingers flexing in easy rhythm, the shuffle precise, each turn economical. Kaz had claimed he could control any deck. So why was Jesper losing so badly? When Kaz had outlined this part of the plan at the hideout on Black Veil, Wylan had been incredulous, and for once, he hadn’t been the only one with questions. “Let me get this straight,” Nina had said. “Your grand scheme is to give Jesper a line of credit and make him play cards with Cornelis Smeet?” “Smeet likes high-stakes Three Man Bramble and blondes,” said Kaz. “So we’re going to give him both. I’ll deal the first half of the night, then Specht will take over.” Wylan didn’t know Specht well. He was a former navy seaman, a member of the Dregs who had piloted their ship to and from the Ice Court. If Wylan was honest, between the grizzled jaw and the tattoos that ran halfway up Specht’s neck, he found the sailor slightly frightening. But even Specht had looked concerned when he said, “I can deal cards, Kaz, but I can’t control a deck.” “You don’t have to. From the time you sit down, it will be an honest game. The important thing is to keep Smeet at the tables until midnight. The shift change is when we risk losing him. As soon as I stand up, he’s going to start thinking about moving on to another game or calling it a night, so you all need to do everything you can to keep his ass firmly planted at that table.” “I can handle it,” Jesper said. Nina had just scowled. “Sure, and maybe for phase two of this plan I can masquerade as a jurda parem dealer. What could possibly go wrong?” Wylan wouldn’t have put it that way exactly, but he agreed. Strongly. They should be keeping Jesper away from gambling dens, not encouraging his love of risk. But Kaz hadn’t been moved. “Just do your job and keep Smeet thoroughly enthralled until midnight,” he’d said. “You know what’s on the line.” They all did. Inej’s life. And how could Wylan argue with that? He felt a pang of guilt every time he thought about it. Van Eck had said he would give them seven days to give up Kuwei Yul-Bo—then he would begin torturing Inej. They were almost out of time. Wylan knew he couldn’t have prevented his father from double-crossing the crew and kidnapping her. He knew that, but he still felt responsible. “What am I supposed to do with Cornelis Smeet after midnight?” Nina asked. “Try to talk him into spending the night with you.” “What?” Matthias had sputtered, red flooding his face all the way up to his ears. “He won’t say yes.” Nina sniffed. “Like hell he won’t.” “Nina—” Matthias growled. “Smeet never cheats at cards or on his wife,” Kaz said. “He’s like half the amateurs strutting around the Barrel. Most of the time he’s respectable, scrupulous—strict economies and half a glass of wine at dinner. But once a week he enjoys feeling like he’s an outlaw matching wits with the high rollers on East Stave, and he likes a pretty blonde on his arm when he does it.” Nina pursed her lips. “If he’s so moral, then why do you want me to try to—” “Because Smeet’s rolling in coin, and any self-respecting girl from West Stave would at least make the effort.” “I don’t like this,” said Matthias. Jesper had smiled his reckless gunslinger’s grin. “To be fair, Matthias, you don’t like much.” “Keep Smeet at Club Cumulus from eight bells until midnight,” Kaz said. “That’s four hours of play, so stay smart about it.” Nina was certainly doing her best, and Wylan didn’t know whether to be impressed or concerned. She was dressed in a sheer lavender gown rigged with some kind of corset that pushed her cleavage to alarming heights, and though she’d lost weight since her battle with parem , there was still plenty of her for Smeet to grab onto. She’d settled her rump firmly on his knee, arm around his shoulder, and was cooing prettily in his ear, her hands caressing his chest and occasionally slipping beneath his jacket like a beagle searching for treats. She stopped only to order oysters or another bottle of champagne. Wylan knew Nina could handle just about any man and any situation, but he didn’t think she should have to sit half-dressed in a drafty gambling parlor, perched on some leering lawyer’s lap. At the very least, she was probably going to catch cold. Jesper folded yet again and blew out a long, exasperated breath. He’d been losing slowly for the last two hours. He’d kept his bids cautious, but neither luck nor Kaz seemed to be on his side tonight. How were they supposed to keep Smeet at the table if Jesper ran out of funds? Would the other high-stakes players be enough of a lure? There were a few of them in the room, lingering by the walls, watching the game, each hoping to nab a seat if someone cashed out. None of them knew the real game Kaz was running. As Wylan leaned down to refill Nina’s glass, he heard Smeet murmur, “A card game is like a duel. It’s the little cuts and slashes that set the stage for the final killing stroke.” He glanced across the table to Jesper. “That lad is bleeding all over the table.” “I don’t know how you keep the rules straight in your head,” Nina said with a giggle. Smeet grinned, clearly pleased. “This is nothing compared to managing a business.” “I can’t imagine how you do that either.” “Sometimes I don’t know myself,” Smeet said on a sigh. “It’s been a hard week. One of my clerks never came back from his holiday, and that meant I was stuck shorthanded.” Wylan nearly dropped the bottle he was holding; champagne splashed onto the floor. “I’m paying to drink it, not wear it, boy,” snapped Smeet. He wiped at his trousers and muttered, “That’s what comes of hiring foreigners.” He means me , Wylan realized as he backed away hurriedly. He didn’t know how to make the reality of his new Shu features sink in. He couldn’t even speak Shu, a fact that hadn’t worried him until two Shu tourists with a map in hand had waylaid him on East Stave. Wylan had panicked, made an elaborate shrugging gesture, and bolted for the servants’ entrance to Club Cumulus. “Poor baby,” Nina said to Smeet, running her fingers through his thinning hair and adjusting one of the flowers tucked into her silky blonde tresses. Wylan wasn’t sure if she’d actually told Smeet she was from the House of the Blue Iris, but he certainly would have assumed so. Jesper leaned back in his seat, fingers tapping the handles of his revolvers. The movement seemed to draw Smeet’s eye. “Those guns are remarkable. Real mother-of-pearl in the handles, if I’m not mistaken,” Smeet said in the tones of a man who was rarely mistaken. “I have a fine collection of firearms myself, though nothing in the line of Zemeni repeating revolvers.” “Oh, I’d love to see your guns,” Nina cooed, and Wylan looked at the ceiling in an attempt to avoid rolling his eyes. “Are we going to sit here all night?” Wylan tried to hide his confusion. Wasn’t the whole point to get him to stay? But apparently Nina knew better, because Smeet’s face took on a slightly mulish cast. “Hush now. If I win big, I may buy you something pretty.” “I’ll settle for some more oysters.” “You haven’t finished those.” Wylan caught the quiver of Nina’s nostrils and thought she might be drawing a fortifying breath. She’d had no appetite since she’d recovered from her bout with parem , and he didn’t know how she’d managed to slurp down nearly a dozen oysters. Now he watched her swallow the last of them with a shudder. “Delicious,” she managed with a glance at Wylan. “Let’s have some more.” That was the signal. Wylan swooped in and picked up the big dish laden with ice and discarded shells. “The lady has a craving,” Smeet said. “Oysters, miss?” Wylan asked. His voice sounded too high. “Buttered prawns?” Too low. “She’ll have both,” said Smeet indulgently. “And another flute of champagne.” “Marvelous,” Nina said, looking slightly green. Wylan rushed through the swinging door to the servants’ pantry. It was stocked with plates, glassware, napkins, and a tin tub full of ice. A dumbwaiter took up a large section of the far wall, and there was a trumpet-shaped speaking tube next to it to allow the staff to communicate with the kitchen. Wylan set the dish of ice and shells on the table, then called down to the kitchen for oysters and buttered prawns. “Oh, and another bottle of champagne.” “What vintage?” “Uh … more of the same?” Wylan had heard his father’s friends talk about which wines made for good investments, but he didn’t quite trust himself to choose a year. By the time he returned to the parlor with Nina’s order, Kaz was standing up from the table. He made a gesture as if he was dusting off his hands—the sign that a dealer had finished his shift. Specht sat down, a blue silk cravat tied at his throat to hide his tattoos. He shook out his cuffs and called for players to ante up or cash out. Kaz’s eyes met Wylan’s as he vanished into the pantry. This was the moment. According to Kaz and Jesper, a player often thought his luck was bound to the dealer and would stop play at the shift change. Wylan watched in distress as Smeet stretched and gave Nina’s bottom a firm pat. “We’ve had a good run,” he said, glancing at Jesper, who was staring dejectedly at his meager pile of remaining chips. “We may find fatter game elsewhere.” “But my food just came,” pouted Nina. Wylan stepped forward, unsure of what to say, only knowing that they had to delay Smeet. “Is everything to your liking, sir? Can I offer you and the lady something more?” Smeet ignored him, hand still hovering over Nina’s backside. “There’s finer vittles and better service to be had all over the Lid, my dear.” A big man in a striped suit approached Smeet, eager to snag his seat. “Cashing out?” Smeet gave Jesper a friendly nod. “Looks like we both are, eh, lad? Better luck next time.” Jesper didn’t return the smile. “I’m not done here.” Smeet gestured to Jesper’s sad stack of chips. “Certainly looks like you are.” Jesper rose and reached for his guns. Wylan clutched the bottle of champagne in his hands as the other players pushed back from the table, ready to grab their own weapons or dive for cover. But all Jesper did was unsling his gun belt. Gently, he laid the revolvers on the table, fingers brushing over their high-gloss ridges with care. “How much for these?” he asked. Wylan tried to catch Jesper’s eye. Was this part of the plan? And even if it was, what was Jesper thinking? He loved those guns. He might as well cut off his own hand and throw it into the pot. Specht cleared his throat and said, “The Cumulus isn’t a pawnshop. We accept cash and credit from the Gemensbank only.” “I’ll stake you,” Smeet said with studied disinterest, “if it will get the game moving again. One thousand kruge for the guns?” “They’re worth ten times that.” “Five thousand kruge .” “Seven.” “Six, and that’s only because I’m feeling generous.” “Don’t!” Wylan blurted. The room went silent. Jesper’s voice was cold. “I don’t remember asking for your advice.” “The insolence!” said Smeet. “Since when do waiters involve themselves in game play?” Nina glared at Wylan, and Specht’s tone was furious with disbelief when he said, “Gentlemen, shall we get this game rolling again? Ante up!” Jesper shoved his revolvers across the table to Smeet, and Smeet slid a tall stack of chips over to Jesper in return. “All right,” said Jesper, his gray eyes bleak. “Deal me in.” Wylan stepped back from the table and disappeared into the pantry as quickly as he could. The dish of ice and shells was gone, and Kaz was waiting. He’d thrown a long orange cape over his blue jacket. His gloves were already back in place. “Kaz,” Wylan said desperately. “Jesper just put his guns up.” “How much did he get for them?” “Why does that matter? He—” “Five thousand kruge ?” “Six.” “Good. Not even Jesper should be able to run through that in less than two hours.” He tossed Wylan a cape and mask, the trappings of the Gray Imp, one of the characters of the Komedie Brute. “Let’s go.” “Me?” “No, the idiot behind you.” Kaz picked up the speaking trumpet and said, “Send up another waiter. This one managed to spill champagne on some high roller’s shoes.” Someone in the kitchen laughed and said, “You got it.” They were down the stairs and out the servants’ entrance bare moments later, their costumes allowing them to move anonymously through the crowds of East Stave. “You knew Jesper would lose. You made sure of it,” Wylan accused. Kaz rarely used his cane when they were roaming parts of the city where he might be recognized. But despite his lopsided gait, Wylan had to jog to keep up with him. “Of course I did. I control the game, Wylan, or I don’t play. I could have made sure Jesper won every hand.” “Then why—” “We weren’t there to win at cards. We needed Smeet to stay at the tables. He was ogling those guns almost as much as Nina’s cleavage. Now he’s feeling confident, like he’s in for a good night—if he loses, he’ll still keep playing. Who knows? Jesper may even win his revolvers back.” “I hope so,” said Wylan as they hopped onto a browboat crowded with tourists and headed south down the Stave. “You would.” “What’s that supposed to mean?” “Someone like Jesper wins two hands and starts to call it a streak. Eventually he loses, and that just leaves him hungrier for the next run of good luck. The house relies on it.” Then why make him walk into a gambling den? Wylan thought but didn’t say. And why make Jesper give up something that meant so much to him? There had to be another way to keep Smeet playing. But those weren’t even the right questions. The real question was why Jesper did it all without hesitating. Maybe he was still looking for Kaz’s approval, hoping to earn back his favor after Jesper’s slip had led them into the ambush at the docks that had nearly cost Inej her life. Or maybe Jesper wanted something more than forgiveness from Kaz. What am I doing here? Wylan wondered again. He found himself gnawing on his thumb and forced himself to stop. He was here for Inej. She’d saved their lives more than once, and he wasn’t going to forget that. He was here because he desperately needed the money. And if there was another reason, a tall, lanky reason with a too-strong taste for games of chance, he wasn’t going to think about that right now. As soon as they made it to the outskirts of the Barrel, Wylan and Kaz ditched their capes and sky-blue jackets and wended their way east into the Zelver district. Matthias was waiting for them beneath a darkened doorway on Handelcanal. “All clear?” Kaz asked. “All clear,” said the big Fjerdan. “The lights went out on the top floor of Smeet’s house more than an hour ago, but I don’t know if the servants are awake.” “He only has a daily maid and cook,” Kaz said. “He’s too cheap for full-time servants.” “How is—” “Nina is fine. Jesper is fine. Everyone is fine except for me because I’m stuck with a gang of hand-wringing nursemaids. Keep a watch.” Wylan shrugged apologetically at Matthias, who looked like he was considering dashing Kaz’s skull against a wall, then hurried along the cobblestones after Kaz. Smeet’s home also served as his office, and it was located on a dark street with sparse foot traffic. The lamps were lit along the canal and candles burned in some of the windows, but after ten bells, most of the neighborhood’s respectable citizens had already retired. “Are we just going in through the front door?” “Use your eyes instead of running your mouth,” said Kaz, lockpicks already flashing in his gloved hands. I am , Wylan thought. But that wasn’t strictly true. He’d taken in the house’s proportions, the pitch of its gabled roof, the roses beginning to bloom in its window boxes. But he hadn’t looked at the house as a puzzle. With some frustration, Wylan could admit this was an easy solve. The Zelver district was prosperous, but not truly wealthy—a place for successful artisans, bookkeepers, and barristers. Though the houses were well built and tidy, with views of a wide canal, they were tightly packed together, and there were no grand gardens or private docks. To access the windows of the upper floors, he and Kaz would have had to break into a neighboring home and go through two sets of locks instead of one. Better to risk the front door, to simply act as if they had every right to be there—even if Kaz was carrying picks instead of keys. Use your eyes. But Wylan didn’t like looking at the world the way Kaz did. And once they’d gotten their money, he’d never have to again. A bare second later, Kaz pressed down on the handle and the door swung open. Immediately, Wylan heard the patter of paws, claws on hard wood, low snarls, as Smeet’s pack of hounds rushed the door, white teeth flashing, growls rumbling deep in their chests. Before they could realize someone other than their master had come to call, Kaz pushed Smeet’s whistle between his lips and blew. Nina had managed to slip it from the chain the lawyer always wore around his neck, then tucked it beneath an empty oyster shell for Wylan to whisk into the kitchen. There was no sound from the whistle—at least not one that Wylan could hear. It’s not going to work , he thought, imagining those huge jaws tearing into his throat. But the dogs skittered to a halt, bumping into one another in a confused tangle. Kaz blew again, lips pursing in time with the pattern of a new command. The dogs quieted and flopped to the floor with a disgruntled whine. One even rolled over on its back. “Now why can’t people be this easily trained?” Kaz murmured as he crouched to oblige the dog with a belly rub, black-gloved fingers smoothing the short fur. “Close the door behind you.” Wylan did and stood with his back pressed to it, keeping a wary eye on the pile of slavering hounds. The whole house smelled of dog—damp fur, oily hides, warm breath moist with the stink of raw meat. “Not fond of animals?” Kaz asked. “I like dogs,” Wylan said. “Just not when they’re the size of bears.” Wylan knew the real puzzle of Smeet’s house had been a thorny one for Kaz to solve. Kaz could pick just about any lock and outthink any system of alarms, but he hadn’t been able to come up with a simple way around Smeet’s bloodthirsty hounds that wouldn’t leave their plan exposed. During the day, the dogs were kept in a kennel, but at night they were given free run of the house while Smeet’s family slept peacefully in the richly appointed rooms of the third floor, the staircase closed off by an iron gate. Smeet walked the dogs himself, up and down the Handelcanal, trailing after them like a tubby sled in an expensive hat. Nina had suggested drugging the dogs’ food. Smeet went to the butcher every morning to select cuts of meat for the pack, and it would have been easy enough to switch the parcels. But Smeet wanted his dogs hungry at night, so he fed them in the mornings. He would have noticed if his prized pets had been sluggish all day, and they couldn’t risk Smeet staying home to care for his hounds. He had to spend the evening on East Stave, and when he returned home, it was essential that he find nothing amiss. Inej’s life depended upon it. Kaz had arranged for the private parlor in the Cumulus, Nina had caressed the whistle from beneath Smeet’s shirt, and, piece by piece, the plan had come together. Wylan did not want to think about what they’d done to obtain the whistle commands. He shivered when he remembered what Smeet had said: One of my clerks never came back from his holiday. He never would. Wylan could still hear the clerk screaming as Kaz dangled him by the ankles from the top of the Hanraat Point Lighthouse. I’m a good man , he’d shouted. I’m a good man. They were the last words he’d spoken. If he’d talked less, he might have lived. Now Wylan watched Kaz give the drooling dog a scratch behind the ears and rise. “Let’s go. Watch your feet.” They sidestepped the pile of dog bodies in the hall and made their way quietly up the stairs. The layout of Smeet’s house was familiar to Wylan. Most businesses in the city followed the same plan: a kitchen and public rooms for meeting with clients on the ground floor, offices and storage on the second floor, sleeping rooms for the family on the third floor. Very wealthy homes had a fourth floor for servants’ quarters. As a boy, Wylan had spent more than a few hours hiding from his father in his own home’s upper rooms. “Not even locked,” Kaz murmured as they entered Smeet’s office. “Those hounds have made him lazy.” Kaz closed the door and lit a lamp, turning the flame down low. The office had three small desks arranged by the windows to take advantage of the natural light, one for Smeet and two for his clerks. I’m a good man. Wylan shook off the memory and focused on the shelves that ran from floor to ceiling. They were lined with ledgers and boxes full of documents, each carefully labeled with what Wylan assumed were the names of clients and companies. “So many pigeons,” Kaz murmured, eyes scanning the boxes. “Naten Boreg, that sad little skiv Karl Dryden. Smeet represents half the Merchant Council.” Including Wylan’s father. Smeet had served as Jan Van Eck’s attorney and property man ager for as long as Wylan could remember. “Where do we start?” Wylan whispered. Kaz pulled a fat ledger from the shelves. “First we make sure your father has no new acquisitions under his name. Then we search under your stepmother’s name, and yours.” “Don’t call her that. Alys is barely older than I am. And my father won’t have kept property in my name.” “You’d be surprised at what a man will do to avoid paying taxes.” They spent the better part of the next hour digging through Smeet’s files. They knew all about Van Eck’s public properties—the factories, hotels, and manufacturing plants, the shipyard, the country house and farmland in southern Kerch. But Kaz believed Wylan’s father had to have private holdings, places he’d kept off the public registers, places he’d stash something—or someone—he didn’t want found. Kaz read names and ledger entries aloud, asking Wylan questions and trying to find connections to properties or companies they hadn’t yet discovered. Wylan knew he owed his father nothing, but it still felt like a betrayal. “Geldspin?” asked Kaz. “A cotton mill. I think it’s in Zierfoort.” “Too far. He won’t be keeping her there. What about Firma Allerbest?” Wylan searched his memory. “I think that one’s a cannery.” “They’re both practically printing cash, and they’re both in Alys’ name. But Van Eck keeps the big earners to himself—the shipyard, the silos at Sweet Reef.” “I told you,” Wylan said, fiddling with a pen on one of the blotters. “My father trusts himself first, Alys only so far. He wouldn’t leave anything in my name.” Kaz just said, “Next ledger. Let’s start with the commercial properties.” Wylan stopped fiddling with the pen. “Was there something in my name?” Kaz leaned back. His look was almost challenging when he said, “A printing press.” The same old joke. So why did it still sting? Wylan set the pen down. “I see.” “He’s not what I would call a subtle man. Eil Komedie is in your name too.” “Of course it is,” Wylan replied, wishing he sounded less bitter. Another private laugh for his father to enjoy—an abandoned island with nothing on it but a broken-down amusement park, a worthless place for his worthless, illiterate son. He shouldn’t have asked. As the minutes ticked away and Kaz continued reading aloud, Wylan became increasingly agitated. If he could just read, they’d be moving twice as fast through the files. In fact, Wylan would already know his father’s business inside out. “I’m slowing you down,” he said. Kaz flipped open another sheaf of documents. “I knew exactly how long this would take. What was your mother’s family name?” “There’s nothing in her name.” “Humor me.” “Hendriks.” Kaz walked to the shelves and selected another ledger. “When did she die?” “When I was eight.” Wylan picked up the pen again. “My father got worse after she was gone.” At least that was how Wylan remembered it. The months after his mother’s death were a blur of sadness and silence. “He wouldn’t let me go to her funeral. I don’t even know where she’s buried. Why do you guys say that, anyway? No mourners, no funerals? Why not just say good luck or be safe?” “We like to keep our expectations low.” Kaz’s gloved finger trailed down a column of numbers and stopped. His eyes moved back and forth between the two ledgers, then he snapped the leather covers shut. “Let’s go.” “Did you find something?” Kaz nodded once. “I know where she is.” Wylan didn’t think he imagined the tension in the rasp of Kaz’s voice. Kaz never yelled the way Wylan’s father did, but Wylan had learned to listen for that low note, that bit of black harmony that crept into Kaz’s tone when things were about to get dangerous. He’d heard it after the fight at the docks when Inej lay bleeding from Oomen’s knife, then when Kaz had learned it was Pekka Rollins who had tried to ambush them, again when they’d been double-crossed by Wylan’s father. He’d heard it loud and clear atop the lighthouse as the clerk screamed for his life. Wylan watched as Kaz set the room to rights. He moved an envelope a little more to the left, pulled a drawer on the largest file cabinet out a bit farther, pushed the chair back just so. When he was done he scanned the room, then plucked the pen from Wylan’s hands and set it carefully in its place on the desk. “A proper thief is like a proper poison, merchling. He leaves no trace.” Kaz blew the lamp out. “Your father much for charity?” “No. He tithes to Ghezen, but he says charity robs men of the chance at honest labor.” “Well, he’s been making donations to the Church of Saint Hilde for the last eight years. If you want to pay your respects to your mother, that’s probably the place to start.” Wylan stared at Kaz dumbly in the shadowy room. He’d never heard of the Church of Saint Hilde. And he’d never known Dirtyhands to share any bit of information that wouldn’t serve him. “What—” “If Nina and Jesper did their jobs right, Smeet will be home soon. We can’t be here when he gets back or the whole plan goes to hell. Come on.” Wylan felt like he’d been bashed over the head with a ledger and then told to just forget about it. Kaz cracked opened the door. They both stopped short. Over Kaz’s shoulder, Wylan saw a little girl standing on the landing, leaning on the neck of one of the massive gray dogs. She had to be about five, her toes barely visible beneath the hem of her flannel nightgown. “Oh Ghezen,” Wylan whispered. Kaz stepped out into the hall, pulling the door nearly shut behind him. Wylan hesitated in the darkened office, unsure of what he should do, terrified of what Kaz might do. The girl looked up at Kaz with big eyes, then removed her thumb from her mouth. “Do you work for my da?” “No.” The memory came at Wylan again. I’m a good man. They’d ambushed the clerk coming out of the Menagerie and hauled him to the top of the lighthouse. Kaz had held him by his ankles and the clerk had wet himself, screaming and begging for mercy before he’d finally given up Smeet’s whistle commands. Kaz had been about to reel him back up when the clerk had started offering things: money, bank account numbers for Smeet’s clients, and then—I’ve got information on one of the girls at the Menagerie, the Zemeni. Kaz had paused. What do you have on her? Wylan had heard it then, that low, dangerous note of warning. But the clerk didn’t know Kaz, didn’t recognize the change in the rough scrape of his voice. He thought he’d found a wedge, something Kaz wanted. One of her clients is giving her expensive gifts. She’s keeping the money. You know what the Peacock did to the last girl she caught holding out on her? I do , Kaz said, his eyes glinting like the edge of a straight razor. Tante Heleen beat her to death. Kaz— Wylan had attempted, but the clerk kept talking. Right there in the parlor. This girl knows she’s cooked if I tell. She sees me for free just so I keep my mouth shut. Sneaks me in. She’ll do the same for you, your friends. What ever you like. If Tante Heleen found out, she’d kill your Zemeni , said Kaz. She’d make an example of her to the other girls. Yes , the clerk gasped eagerly. She’ll do anything you want, everything. Slowly, Kaz began to let the man’s legs slide through his grasp. It’s terrible, isn’t it? Knowing someone holds your life in his hands. The clerk’s voice rose another octave as he realized his mistake. She’s just a working girl , he screamed. She knows the score! I’m a good man. I’m a good man! There are no good men in Ketterdam , Kaz said. The climate doesn’t agree with them. And then he’d simply let go. Wylan shuddered. Through the crack in the door, he saw Kaz squat down so he could look the little girl in the eye. “What’s this big fellow’s name?” Kaz said, laying a hand on the dog’s wrinkled neck. “This is Maestro Spots.” “Is that so?” “He has a very fine howl. Da lets me name all the puppies.” “Is Maestro Spots your favorite?” asked Kaz. She appeared to think, then shook her head. “I like Duke Addam Von Silverhaunch best, then Fuzzmuzzle, then Maestro Spots.” “That’s good to know, Hanna.” Her mouth opened into a little O. “How do you know my name?” “I know all children’s names.” “You do?” “Oh, yes. Albert who lives next door and Gertrude on Ammberstraat. I live under their beds and in the backs of the closets.” “I knew it,” the girl breathed, fear and triumph in her voice. “Mama said there was nothing there, but I knew it.” She cocked her head to one side. “You don’t look like a monster.” “I’ll tell you a secret, Hanna. The really bad monsters never look like monsters.” Now the little girl’s lip trembled. “Did you come to eat me? Da says monsters eat children who don’t go to bed when they’re told.” “They do. But I won’t. Not tonight. If you do two things for me.” His voice was calm, almost hypnotic. It had the coarse rasp of an over-rosined bow. “First, you must crawl into bed. And second, you must never tell anyone you’ve seen us, especially your da.” He leaned forward and gave Hanna’s braid a playful tug. “Because if you do, I’ll slit your mother’s throat and then your father’s, and then I’ll cut out the hearts of all these sweet slobbering hounds. I shall save Duke Silverhaunch for last so that you will know it’s all your fault.” The little girl’s face was as white as the lace on the neck of her nightgown, her eyes wide and bright as new moons. “Do you understand?” She nodded frantically, chin wobbling. “Now, now, no tears. Monsters see tears and it only whets their appetites. Off to bed with you, and take that useless Maestro Spots along too.” She skittered backward over the landing and up the stairs. When she was halfway up, she cast a terrified glance back at Kaz. He raised one gloved finger to his lips. When she was gone, Wylan slipped out from behind the door and followed Kaz down the steps. “How could you say something like that to her? She’s just a child.” “We were all just children once.” “But—” “It was that or snap her neck and make it look like she fell down the stairs, Wylan. I think I showed remarkable restraint. Move.” They picked their way past the rest of the dogs still flopped down in the hallway. “Incredible,” Kaz said. “They’d probably stay like that all night.” He blew on the whistle and they leapt up, ears pricked, ready to guard the house. When Smeet returned home, all would be as it should: hounds pacing the ground floor; office intact on the second floor; wife snoozing comfortably on the third floor, and daughter pretending to do the same. Kaz checked the street and then waved Wylan outside, pausing only to lock the door behind them. They hurried down the cobblestones. Wylan peered over his shoulder. He couldn’t quite believe they’d gotten away with it. “Stop looking around like you think someone’s following you,” Kaz said. “And stop scurrying. You couldn’t look guiltier if you were performing the role of Thief Number Three in a penny play on East Stave. Next time walk normally. Try to look like you belong.” “There isn’t going to be a next time.” “Of course not. Keep your collar up.” Wylan didn’t argue. Until Inej was safe, until they’d gotten the money they’d been promised, he couldn’t make any grand ultimatums. But there would be an end to this. There had to be, didn’t there? Matthias gave a high birdcall from the other end of the street. Kaz glanced at his watch and ran a hand through his hair, ruffling it wildly. “Right on time.” They rounded the corner and slammed directly into Cornelis Smeet. M atthias kept to the shadows, watching this strange play unfold. Cornelis Smeet tipped, losing his footing, hat sliding from his nearly bald head. The boy who had run into him stepped forward, offering assistance. The boy was Kaz, but he was not Kaz. His dark hair was mussed, his manner flustered. He kept his eyes averted, his chin tucked into his collar as if hopelessly embarrassed—a green youth, respectful of his elders. Wylan hovered behind him, shrunken so deeply into his coat Matthias thought he might actually disappear. “Watch where you’re going!” Smeet huffed indignantly, resettling the hat on his head. “Terribly sorry, sir,” Kaz said, brushing the shoulders of Smeet’s jacket. “Curse my clumsiness!” He bent to the cobblestones. “Oh dear, I think you dropped your wallet.” “So I did!” Smeet said in surprise. “Thank you. Thank you very much.” Then, as Matthias watched in disbelief, Smeet opened his billfold and drew out a crisp five-kruge bill. “There you are, young man. Pays to be honest.” Kaz kept his head down but somehow managed to convey humble appreciation as he murmured, “Too kind, sir. Too kind. May Ghezen be as generous.” The portly lawyer went on his way, hat askew, humming a little tune, oblivious to the fact that he’d just run directly into the card dealer who had sat across from him for two hours in Club Cumulus. Smeet arrived at his door and pulled a chain from his shirt, then frantically patted his waistcoat, searching for his whistle. “You didn’t put it on the chain?” asked Matthias as Kaz and Wylan joined him in the dark doorway. He knew such tricks were well within Kaz’s abilities. “Didn’t bother.” Smeet rooted around in his shirt, then fished out the whistle and unlocked the door, humming once more. Matthias could not fathom it. He’d kept his gaze trained on Kaz’s gloved hands as he’d fussed over Smeet, but even knowing that Kaz intended to return the whistle, Matthias hadn’t been able to detect the moment of deception. He was tempted to drag Smeet back and make Kaz perform the trick again. Kaz neatened his hair with his fingers and handed the five kruge to Wylan. “Don’t spend it all in one place. Let’s move.” Matthias ushered them along to the narrow side canal where he’d moored the rowboat. He tossed Kaz his cane, and they clambered down. Kaz had been wise not to allow himself the use of his walking stick this night. If someone noticed a boy with a crow’s head cane lurking around the offices of Cornelis Smeet at an unusual hour, if an offhand mention of that fact somehow reached Van Eck’s ears, all their work would be for nothing. To get Inej back, they would need surprise on their side, and the demjin was not the type to leave anything to chance. “Well?” Matthias asked as the boat slid along the dark waters of the canal. “Hold your tongue, Helvar. Words like to ride the water. Put yourself to use and help work the oars.” Matthias fought the urge to snap his oars in half. Why was Kaz incapable of keeping a civil tongue? He gave orders as if he simply expected everyone to follow his commands, and he’d been twice as insufferable since Van Eck had taken Inej. But Matthias wanted to get back to Black Veil and Nina as fast as possible, so he did as he was bid, feeling his shoulders flex as the boat moved against the current. He put his mind to keeping track of the landmarks they passed, trying to remember street and bridge names. Though Matthias studied a map of the city every night, he had found Ketterdam’s knots of alleys and canals nearly impossible to untangle. He’d always prided himself on a good sense of direction, but this city had defeated it, and he frequently found himself cursing whatever mad hand had thought it wise to raise a city from a swamp and then arrange it without order or logic. Once they passed beneath Havenbridge, he was relieved to find his surroundings becoming familiar again. Kaz tipped his oars, steering them into the murky waters of Beggars’ Bend, where the canal widened, and guided them into the shallows of Black Veil Island. They tucked the boat behind the drooping limbs of a white willow and then picked their way up through the graves that dotted the steep bank. Black Veil was an eerie place, a miniature city of white marble mausoleums, many carved into the shape of ships, their stone figureheads weeping as they cut across an invisible sea. Some bore the stamp of Ghezen’s Coins of Favor, others the three flying fishes of Kerch that Nina said indicated a member of the family had served in the government. A few were watched over by Ravkan Saints in flowing marble robes. There was no sign of Djel or his ash tree. Fjerdans would not want to be interred above the earth, where they could not take root. Almost all the mausoleums had fallen into disrepair, and many were little more than piles of slumped rock overgrown with vines and clusters of spring flowers. Matthias had been horrified at the idea of using a cemetery as a safe house, no matter how long it had been abandoned. But of course, nothing was sacred to Kaz Brekker. “Why don’t they use this place anymore?” Matthias had asked when they’d taken over a vast tomb at the island’s center as their hideout. “Plague,” Kaz replied. “The first bad outbreak was more than a hundred years ago, and the Merchant Council prohibited burial within city limits. Now bodies have to be cremated.” “Not if you’re rich,” Jesper added. “Then they take you to a cemetery in the country, where your corpse can enjoy the fresh air.” Matthias hated Black Veil, but he could acknowledge it had served them well. The rumors of hauntings kept squatters at bay, and the mist that surrounded the twisting willows and stone masts of the graves obscured the occasional lantern light. Of course, none of that would matter if people heard Nina and Jesper arguing at the top of their lungs. They must have returned to the island and left their gondel on the north side. Nina’s irritated voice floated over the graves, and Matthias felt a surge of relief, his steps quickening, eager for the sight of her. “I don’t think you’re showing proper appreciation for what I just went through,” Jesper was saying as he stomped through the cemetery. “You spent a night at the tables losing someone else’s money,” Nina shot back. “Isn’t that essentially a holiday for you?” Kaz knocked his cane hard against a gravestone and they both went quiet, moving swiftly into fighting stances. Nina relaxed as soon as she caught sight of the three of them in the shadows. “Oh, it’s you.” “Yes, it’s us.” Kaz used his cane to herd them both toward the center of the island. “And you would have heard us if you hadn’t been busy shouting at each other. Stop gawking like you’ve never seen a girl in a dress before, Matthias.” “I wasn’t gawking,” Matthias said with as much dignity as he could muster. But for Djel’s sake, what was he supposed to look at when Nina had irises tucked between … everything. “Be quiet, Brekker,” Nina said. “I like it when he gawks.” “How did the mission go?” Matthias asked, trying to keep his eyes on her face. It was easy when he realized how tired she looked beneath the cosmetics she’d applied. She even took the arm he offered, leaning on him slightly as they made their way over the uneven terrain. The night had taken a toll. She shouldn’t be traipsing around the Barrel in scraps of silk; she should be resting. But the days until Van Eck’s deadline were dwindling, and Matthias knew Nina would allow herself no comfort until Inej was safe. “It’s not a mission; it’s a job,” Nina corrected. “And it went splendidly.” “Yeah,” said Jesper. “Splendidly. Except that my revolvers are currently collecting dust in the Club Cumulus safe. Smeet was afraid to walk home with them, the hopeless podge. Just thinking of my babies in his sweaty hands—” “No one told you to wager them,” said Kaz. “You dealt me into a corner. How the hell else was I supposed to get Smeet to stay at the tables?” Kuwei poked his head out of the huge stone tomb as they approached. “What did I tell you?” Kaz growled, pointing his cane at him. “My Kerch isn’t very good,” protested Kuwei. “Don’t run game on me, kid. It’s good enough. Stay in the tomb.” Kuwei hung his head. “Stay in the tomb,” he repeated glumly. They followed the Shu boy inside. Matthias loathed this place. Why build such monuments to death? The tomb was constructed to look like an ancient cargo ship, its interior carved into a vast stone hull. It even had stained-glass portholes that cast rainbows on the crypt floor in the late afternoon. According to Nina, the carvings of palm trees and snakes on the walls indicated that the family had been spice traders. But they must have fallen on hard times or simply taken their dead elsewhere, because only one of the vaults had a resident, and the narrow passages on either side of the main hull were equally empty. Nina pulled the pins from her hair, shucked off the blonde wig, and tossed it on the table they’d set in the middle of the tomb. She slumped into a chair, rubbing her fingers along her scalp. “So much better,” she said with a happy sigh. But Matthias could not ignore the almost greenish cast to her skin. She was worse tonight. Either she’d run into trouble with Smeet or she’d simply overexerted herself. And yet, watching her, Matthias felt something in him ease. At least now she looked like Nina again, her brown hair in damp tangles, her eyes half-shut. Was it normal to be fascinated by the way someone slouched? “Guess what we saw on our way out of the Lid?” she asked. Jesper started digging through their food stores. “Two Shu warships sitting in the harbor.” She threw a hairpin at him. “I was going to make them guess.” “Shu?” asked Kuwei, returning to where he’d spread his notebooks over the table. Nina nodded. “Cannons out, red flags flying.” “I talked to Specht earlier,” said Kaz. “The embassies are full up with diplomats and soldiers. Zemeni, Kaelish, Ravkan.” “You think they know about Kuwei?” Jesper asked. “I think they know about parem ,” said Kaz. “Rumors, at least. And there were plenty of interested parties at the Ice Court to pick up gossip about Kuwei’s … liberation.” He turned his gaze on Matthias. “The Fjerdans are here too. They’ve got a whole contingent of drüskelle with them.” Kuwei sighed mournfully, and Jesper plunked down next to him, giving him a nudge with his shoulder. “Isn’t it nice to be wanted?” Matthias said nothing. He did not like to think about the fact that his old friends, his old commander, might be only a few miles from them. He wasn’t sorry for the things he’d done at the Ice Court, but that didn’t mean he had made peace with them either. Wylan reached for one of the crackers Jesper had dumped on the table. It was still disconcerting to see him and Kuwei in the same room. Nina’s tailoring had been so successful that Matthias often had trouble telling them apart until they spoke. He wished one of them would do him the courtesy of wearing a hat. “This is good for us,” said Kaz. “The Shu and the Fjerdans don’t know where to start looking for Kuwei, and all those diplos making trouble at the Stadhall are going to create some nice noise to distract Van Eck.” “What happened at Smeet’s office?” Nina asked. “Did you find out where Van Eck is keeping her?” “I have a pretty good idea. We strike tomorrow at midnight.” “Is that enough time to prepare?” asked Wylan. “It’s all the time we have. We’re not going to wait for an engraved invitation. What’s your progress on the weevil?” Jesper’s brows shot up. “The weevil?” Wylan removed a small vial from his coat and set it down on the table. Matthias bent to peer at it. It looked like a bunch of pebbles. “That’s a weevil?” He thought of weevils as pests that got into grain stores. “Not a real weevil,” said Wylan. “It’s a chemical weevil. It doesn’t really have a name yet.” “You’ve got to give it a name,” said Jesper. “How else will you call it to dinner?” “Forget what it’s called,” Kaz said. “What matters is that this little vial is going to eat Van Eck’s bank accounts and his reputation.” Wylan cleared his throat. “Possibly. The chemistry is complicated. I was hoping Kuwei would help.” Nina said something to Kuwei in Shu. He shrugged and looked away, lip jutting out slightly. Whether it was the recent death of his father or the fact that he’d found himself stuck in a cemetery with a band of thieves, the boy had become increasingly sullen. “Well?” Jesper prodded. “I have other interests,” Kuwei replied. Kaz’s black gaze pinned Kuwei like the tip of a dagger. “I suggest rethinking your priorities.” Jesper gave Kuwei another nudge. “That’s Kaz’s way of saying, ‘Help Wylan or I’ll seal you up in one of these tombs and see how that suits your interests.’ ” Matthias was no longer sure what the Shu boy understood or didn’t, but apparently he’d received the message. Kuwei swallowed and nodded grudgingly. “The power of negotiation,” Jesper said, and shoved a cracker in his mouth. “Wylan—and the obliging Kuwei—will get the weevil working,” Kaz continued. “Once we have Inej, we can move on Van Eck’s silos.” Nina rolled her eyes. “Good thing this is all about getting our money and not about saving Inej. Definitely not about that.” “If you don’t care about money, Nina dear, call it by its other names.” “Kruge? Scrub? Kaz’s one true love?” “Freedom, security, retribution.” “You can’t put a price on those things.” “No? I bet Jesper can. It’s the price of the lien on his father’s farm.” The sharpshooter looked at the toes of his boots. “What about you, Wylan? Can you put a price on the chance to walk away from Ketterdam and live your own life? And Nina, I suspect you and your Fjerdan may want something more to subsist on than patriotism and longing glances. Inej might have a number in mind too. It’s the price of a future, and it’s Van Eck’s turn to pay.” Matthias was not fooled. Kaz always spoke logic, but that didn’t mean he always told truth. “The Wraith’s life is worth more than that,” said Matthias. “To all of us.” “We get Inej. We get our money. It’s as simple as that.” “Simple as that,” said Nina. “Did you know I’m next in line for the Fjerdan throne? They call me Princess Ilse of Engelsberg.” “There is no princess of Engelsberg,” said Matthias. “It’s a fishing town.” Nina shrugged. “If we’re going to lie to ourselves, we might as well be grand about it.” Kaz ignored her, spreading a map of the city over the table, and Matthias heard Wylan murmur to Jesper, “Why won’t he just say he wants her back?” “You’ve met Kaz, right?” “But she’s one of us.” Jesper’s brows rose again. “One of us? Does that mean she knows the secret handshake? Does that mean you’re ready to get a tattoo?” He ran a finger up Wylan’s forearm, and Wylan flushed a vibrant pink. Matthias couldn’t help but sympathize with the boy. He knew what it was to be out of your depth, and he sometimes suspected they could forgo all of Kaz’s planning and simply let Jesper and Nina flirt the entirety of Ketterdam into submission. Wylan pulled his sleeve down self-consciously. “Inej is part of the crew.” “Just don’t push it.” “Why not?” “Because the practical thing would be for Kaz to auction Kuwei to the highest bidder and forget about Inej entirely.” “He wouldn’t—” Wylan broke off abruptly, doubt creeping over his features. None of them really knew what Kaz would or wouldn’t do. Sometimes Matthias wondered if even Kaz was sure. “Okay, Kaz,” said Nina, slipping off her shoes and wiggling her toes. “Since this is about the almighty plan, how about you stop meditating over that map and tell us just what we’re in for.” “I want you focused on what we have to do tomorrow night. After that, you’ll get all the information you want.” “Really?” asked Nina, tugging at her corset. Pollen from one of the irises had scattered over her bare shoulder. Matthias had the overwhelming urge to brush it away with his lips. It’s probably poisonous , he told himself sternly. Maybe he should take a walk. “Van Eck promised us thirty million kruge ,” said Kaz. “That’s exactly what we’re going to take. With another one million for interest, expenses, and just because we can.” Wylan broke a cracker in two. “My father doesn’t have thirty million kruge lying around. Even if you took all his assets together.” “You should leave, then,” said Jesper. “We only associate with the disgraced heirs of the very finest fortunes.” Kaz stretched his bad leg out, flexing his foot slightly. “If Van Eck had that kind of money on hand, we would have just robbed him instead of breaking into the Ice Court in the first place. He could only offer a reward that big because he claimed the Merchant Council was putting city funds toward it.” “What about that chest full of bills he brought to Vellgeluk?” asked Jesper. “Bunk,” said Kaz, disgust in his voice. “Probably quality counterfeits.” “So then how do we get the money? Rob the city? Rob the Council?” Jesper sat up straighter, hands drumming eagerly on the table. “Hit twelve vaults in one night?” Wylan shifted in his chair, and Matthias saw the disquiet in his expression. At least someone else in this band of miscreants was reluctant to keep committing crimes. “No,” said Kaz. “We’re going to make like merchers and let the market do the work for us.” He leaned back, gloved hands resting on his crow’s head cane. “We’re going to take Van Eck’s money, and then we’re going to take his reputation. We’re going to make sure he can never do business in Ketterdam or anywhere in Kerch ever again.” “And what happens to Kuwei?” asked Nina. “Once the job is done, Kuwei—and any other convicts, Grisha, and disinherited youths who may or may not have prices on their heads—can lie low in the Southern Colonies.” Jesper frowned. “Where will you be?” “Right here. I’ve still got plenty of business that requires my attention.” Though Kaz’s tone was easy, Matthias heard the dark anticipation in his words. He had often wondered how people survived this city, but it was possible Ketterdam would not survive Kaz Brekker. “Wait a minute,” said Nina. “I thought Kuwei was going to Ravka.” “Why would you think that?” “When you sold your Crow Club shares to Pekka Rollins, you asked him to send a message to the Ravkan capital. We all heard it.” “I thought it was a request for aid,” said Matthias, “not an invitation to bargain.” They had never discussed giving Kuwei to Ravka. Kaz considered them with some amusement. “It was neither. Let’s just hope Rollins is as gullible as you two.” “It was a decoy,” Nina moaned. “You were just keeping Rollins busy.” “I wanted Pekka Rollins preoccupied. Hopefully, he has his people trying to chase down our Ravkan contacts. They should prove difficult to find, given that they don’t exist.” Kuwei cleared his throat. “I would prefer to go to Ravka.” “I’d prefer a pair of sable-lined swimming trunks,” said Jesper. “But we can’t always get what we want.” A furrow appeared between Kuwei’s brows. The limits to his understanding of Kerch had apparently been reached and surpassed. “I would prefer to go to Ravka,” he repeated more firmly. Kaz’s flat black gaze fastened on Kuwei and held. Kuwei squirmed nervously. “Why is he looking at me this way?” “Kaz is wondering if he should keep you alive,” said Jesper. “Terrible for the nerves. I recommend deep breathing. Maybe a tonic.” “Jesper, stop,” said Wylan. “Both of you need to relax.” Jesper patted Kuwei’s hand. “We’re not going to let him put you in the ground.” Kaz raised a brow. “Let’s not make any promises just yet.” “Come on, Kaz. We didn’t go to all that trouble to save Kuwei just to make him worm food.” “Why do you want to go to Ravka?” Nina asked, unable to hide her eagerness. “We never agreed to that,” Matthias said. He did not want to argue about this, especially not with Nina. They were supposed to set Kuwei loose to live an anonymous life in Novyi Zem, not hand him over to Fjerda’s greatest enemy. Nina shrugged. “Maybe we need to rethink our options.” Kuwei spoke slowly, choosing his words with care. “It’s safer there. For Grisha. For me. I don’t want to hide. I want to train.” Kuwei touched the notebooks in front of him. “My father’s work can help find—” He hesitated, exchanged a few words with Nina. “An antidote for parem .” Nina clasped her hands together, beaming. Jesper tipped back farther in his chair. “I think Nina may be about to burst into song.” An antidote. Was that what Kuwei had been scribbling about in his notebooks? The prospect of something that might neutralize the powers of parem was appealing, and yet Matthias couldn’t help but be wary. “To put this knowledge in the hands of one nation—” he began. But Kuwei interrupted. “My father brought this drug into the world. Even without me, what I know, it will be made again.” “You’re saying someone else is going to solve the riddle of parem ?” Matthias asked. Was there truly no hope this abomination could be contained? “Sometimes scientific discoveries are like that,” said Wylan. “Once people know something is possible, the pace of new findings increases. After that, it’s like trying to get a swarm of hornets back into their nest.” “Do you really think an antidote is possible?” Nina asked. “I don’t know,” said Kuwei. “My father was a Fabrikator. I am just an Inferni.” “You’re our chemist, Wylan,” said Nina hopefully. “What do you think?” Wylan shrugged. “Maybe. Not all poisons have an antidote.” Jesper snorted. “That’s why we call him Wylan Van Sunshine.” “In Ravka, there are more talented Fabrikators,” Kuwei said. “They could help.” Nina nodded emphatically. “It’s true. Genya Safin knows poisons like no one else, and David Kostyk developed all kinds of new weapons for King Nikolai.” She glanced at Matthias. “And other things too! Nice things. Very peaceable.” Matthias shook his head. “This isn’t a decision to be made lightly.” Kuwei’s jaw set. “I would prefer to go to Ravka.” “See?” said Nina. “No, I do not,” said Matthias. “We can’t just hand such a prize over to Ravka.” “He’s a person, not a prize, and he wants to go.” “Do we all get to do what we want now?” asked Jesper. “Because I have a list.” There was a long, tense pause, then Kaz ran a gloved thumb over the crease of his trousers and said, “Nina, love, translate for me? I want to make sure Kuwei and I understand each other.” “Kaz—” she said warningly. Kaz shifted forward and rested his hands on his knees, a kind older brother offering some friendly advice. “I think it’s important that you understand the changes in your circumstances. Van Eck knows the first place you’d go for sanctuary would be Ravka, so any ship bound for its shores is going to be searched top to bottom. The only Tailors powerful enough to make you look like someone else are in Ravka, unless Nina wants to take another dose of parem .” Matthias growled. “Which is unlikely,” Kaz conceded. “Now, I assume you don’t want me to cart you back to Fjerda or the Shu Han?” It was clear Nina had finished the translation when Kuwei yelped, “No!” “Then your choices are Novyi Zem and the Southern Colonies, but the Kerch presence in the colonies is far lower. Also, the weather is better, if you’re partial to that kind of thing. You are a stolen painting, Kuwei. Too recognizable to sell on the open market, too valuable to leave lying around. You are worthless to me.” “I’m not translating that,” Nina snapped. “Then translate this: My sole concern is keeping you away from Jan Van Eck, and if you want me to start exploring more definite options, a bullet is a lot cheaper than putting you on a ship to the Southern Colonies.” Nina did translate, though haltingly. Kuwei responded in Shu. She hesitated. “He says you’re cruel.” “I’m pragmatic. If I were cruel, I’d give him a eulogy instead of a conversation. So, Kuwei, you’ll go to the Southern Colonies, and when the heat has died down, you can find your way to Ravka or Matthias’ grandmother’s house for all I care.” “Leave my grandmother out of this,” Matthias said. Nina translated, and at last, Kuwei gave a stiff nod. Though Matthias had gotten his way, the dejection on Nina’s face left a hollow feeling in his chest. Kaz checked his watch. “Now that we’re in agreement, you all know what your responsibilities are. There are a lot of things that can go wrong between now and tomorrow night, so talk through the plan and then talk through it again. We only have one shot at this.” “Van Eck will set up a perimeter. He’ll have her heavily guarded,” said Matthias. “That’s right. He has more guns, more men, and more resources. All we have is surprise, and we’re not going to squander it.” A soft scraping sounded from outside. Instantly, they were on their feet and ready, even Kuwei. But a moment later Rotty and Specht slipped into the tomb. Matthias released a breath and returned his rifle to where he kept it, always within arm’s reach. “What business?” asked Kaz. “The Shu have set up at their embassy,” said Specht. “Everyone on the Lid is talking about it.” “Numbers?” “Forty, give or take,” said Rotty, kicking the mud from his boots. “Heavily armed, but still operating under diplomatic flags. No one knows exactly what they want.” “We do,” said Jesper. “I didn’t get too near the Slat,” said Rotty, “but Per Haskell’s antsy, and he’s not being quiet about it. Without you around, work’s piling up for the old man. Now there are rumors you’re back in the city and had a run-in with a merch. Oh, and there was some kind of attack at one of the harbors a few days ago. Bunch of sailors killed, harbormaster’s office turned into a pile of splinters, but no one knows details.” Matthias saw Kaz’s expression darken. He was hungry for more information. Matthias knew the demjin had other reasons for going after Inej, but the fact remained that, without her, their ability to gather intelligence had been severely compromised. “All right,” said Kaz. “But no one’s connected us to the raid at the Ice Court or parem ?” “Not that I heard,” said Rotty. “Nope,” said Specht. Wylan looked surprised. “That means Pekka Rollins hasn’t talked.” “Give him time,” said Kaz. “He knows we have Kuwei stashed somewhere. The letter to Ravka will only keep him chasing his tail for so long.” Jesper tapped his fingers restlessly on his thighs. “Has anyone noticed this whole city is looking for us, mad at us, or wants to kill us?” “So?” said Kaz. “Well, usually it’s just half the city.” Jesper might joke, but Matthias wondered if any of them really understood the powers arraying against them. Fjerda, the Shu Han, Novyi Zem, the Kaelish, the Kerch. These were not rival gangs or angry business partners. They were nations, determined to protect their people and secure their futures. “There’s more,” said Specht. “Matthias, you’re dead.” “Pardon?” Matthias’ Kerch was good, but perhaps there were still gaps. “You were shanked in the Hellgate infirmary.” The room went quiet. Jesper sat down heavily. “Muzzen is dead?” “Muzzen?” Matthias could not place the name. “He took your place in Hellgate,” Jesper said. “So you could join the Ice Court job.” Matthias remembered the fight with the wolves, Nina standing in his cell, the prison break. Nina had covered a member of the Dregs in false sores and given him a fever to make sure he was quarantined and kept from the larger prison population. Muzzen. Matthias should not have forgotten such a thing. “I thought you said you had a contact in the infirmary,” said Nina. “To keep him sick, not to keep him safe.” Kaz’s face was grim. “It was a hit.” “The Fjerdans,” said Nina. Matthias folded his arms. “That’s not possible.” “Why not?” Nina said. “We know there are drüskelle here. If they came to town looking for you and made noise at the Stadhall, they would have been told you were in Hellgate.” “No,” said Matthias. “They wouldn’t resort to such an underhanded tactic. Hiring a killer? Murdering someone in his sickbed?” But even as he said the words, Matthias wasn’t sure he believed them. Jarl Brum and his officers had done worse without a twinge of conscience. “Big, blond, and blind,” Jesper said. “The Fjerdan way.” He died in my stead , Matthias thought. And I didn’t even recognize his name. “Did Muzzen have family?” Matthias asked at last. “Just the Dregs,” said Kaz. “No mourners,” Nina murmured. “No funerals,” Matthias replied quietly. “How does it feel to be dead?” asked Jesper. The merry light had gone from his eyes. Matthias had no answer. The knife that had killed Muzzen had been meant for Matthias, and the Fjerdans might well be responsible. The drüskelle. His brothers. They’d wanted him to die without honor, murdered in an infirmary bed. It was a death fit for a traitor. It was the death he had earned. Now Matthias owed Muzzen a blood debt, but how would he ever pay it? “What will they do with his body?” he asked. “It’s probably already ashes on the Reaper’s Barge,” said Kaz. “There’s something else,” said Rotty. “Someone’s kicking up dust looking for Jesper.” “His creditors will have to wait,” said Kaz, and Jesper winced. “No,” Rotty said with a shake of his head. “A man showed up at the university. Jesper, he claims he’s your father.” I nej lay on her belly, arms extended in front of her, wriggling like a worm through the dark. Despite the fact that she’d been as good as starving herself, the vent was still a tight fit. She couldn’t see where she was going; she just kept moving forward, pulling herself along by her fingertips. She’d woken sometime after the fight on Vellgeluk, with no sense of how long she’d been unconscious and no idea where she was. She remembered plummeting from a great height as one of Van Eck’s Squallers dropped her, only to be snatched up by another—arms like steel bands around her, the air buffeting her face, gray sky all around, and then pain exploding over her skull. The next thing she knew she was awake, head pounding, in the dark. Her hands and ankles were bound, and she could feel a blindfold tight across her face. For a moment, she was fourteen, being tossed into the hold of a slaver ship, frightened and alone. She forced herself to breathe. Wherever she was, she felt no ship’s sway, heard no creak of sails. The ground was solid beneath her. Where would Van Eck have brought her? She could be in a warehouse, someone’s home. She might not even be in Kerch anymore. It didn’t matter. She was Inej Ghafa, and she would not quiver like a rabbit in a snare. Wherever I am, I just have to get out. She’d managed to nudge her blindfold down by scraping her face against the wall. The room was pitch-black, and all she could hear in the silence was her own rapid breathing as panic seized her again. She’d leashed it by controlling her breath, in through the nose, out through the mouth, letting her mind turn to prayer as her Saints gathered around her. She imagined them checking the ropes at her wrists, rubbing life into her hands. She did not tell herself she wasn’t afraid. Long ago, after a bad fall, her father had explained that only fools were fearless. We meet fear , he’d said. We greet the unexpected visitor and listen to what he has to tell us. When fear arrives, something is about to happen. Inej intended to make something happen. She’d ignored the ache in her head and forced herself to inch around the room, estimating its dimensions. Then she’d used the wall to push to her feet and felt along it, shuffling and hopping, searching for any doors or windows. When she’d heard footsteps approaching, she’d dropped to the ground, but she hadn’t had time to get her blindfold back in place. From then on, the guards tied it tighter. But that didn’t matter, because she’d found the vent. All she needed then was a way out of her ropes. Kaz could have managed it in the dark and probably underwater. The only thorough look she got at the room where she was being held was during meals, when they brought in a lantern. She’d hear keys turning in a series of locks, the door swinging open, the sound of the tray being placed on the table. A moment later, the blindfold would be gently lifted from her face—Bajan was never rough or abrupt. It wasn’t in his nature. In fact, she suspected it was beyond the capabilities of his manicured musician’s hands. There was never any cutlery on the tray, of course. Van Eck was wise enough not to trust her with so much as a spoon, but Inej had taken advantage of each unblindfolded moment to study every inch of the barren room, seeking clues that might help her to assess her location and plan her escape. There wasn’t much to go on—a concrete floor marked by nothing but the pile of blankets she’d been given to burrow into at night, walls lined with empty shelves, the table and chair where she took her meals. There were no windows, and the only hint that they might still be near Ketterdam was the damp trace of salt in the air. Bajan would untie her wrists, then bind them again in front of her so that she could eat—though once she’d discovered the vent, she’d only picked at her food, eating enough to keep up her strength and nothing more. Still, when Bajan and the guards had brought her tray tonight, her stomach had growled audibly at the smell of soft sausages and porridge. She’d been woozy with hunger, and when she’d tried to sit down, she’d tipped the tray from its perch on the table, smashing the white ceramic mug and bowl. Her dinner slopped to the floor in a steaming heap of savory mush and broken crockery and she’d landed ungracefully next to it, barely avoiding a face full of porridge. Bajan had shaken his dark, silky head. “You are weak because you don’t eat. Mister Van Eck says I must force-feed you if necessary.” “Try,” she’d said, looking up at him from the floor and baring her teeth. “You’ll have trouble teaching piano without all your fingers.” But Bajan had only laughed, white grin flashing. He and one of the guards had helped her back into the chair, and he’d sent for another tray. Van Eck could not have chosen her jailer better. Bajan was Suli, only a few years older than Inej, with thick black hair that curled around his collar and black gem eyes framed by lashes long enough to swat flies. He told her he was a music teacher indentured to Van Eck, and Inej wondered that the merch would bring a boy like that into his house hold given that his new wife was less than half his own age. Van Eck was either very confident or very stupid. He double-crossed Kaz , she reminded herself. He’s leaning heavily into the stupid column. Once the mess had been cleaned up—by a guard; Bajan didn’t stoop to such work—and a new meal procured, he’d leaned against the wall to watch her eat. She’d scooped up a lump of porridge with her fingers, allowing herself only a few awkward bites. “You must eat more than that,” Bajan chided. “If you make yourself a bit more obliging, if you answer his questions, you’ll find Van Eck is a reasonable man.” “A reasonable liar, cheat, and kidnapper,” she said, then cursed herself for replying. Bajan couldn’t hide his pleasure. They had the same routine at each meal: She picked at her food. He made small talk, peppering his chatter with pointed questions about Kaz and the Dregs. Every time she spoke, he considered it a victory. Unfortunately, the less she ate, the weaker she got, and the harder it was to keep her wits about her. “Given the company you keep, I’d think lying and cheating would be points in Mister Van Eck’s favor.” “Shevrati ,” Inej said distinctly. Know-nothing. She’d called Kaz that on more than one occasion. She thought of Jesper toying with his guns, Nina squeezing the life from a man with the flick of a wrist, Kaz picking a lock in his black gloves. Thugs. Thieves. Murderers. And all worth more than a thousand Jan Van Ecks. Then where are they? The question tore at some hastily stitched seam inside of her. Where is Kaz? She didn’t want to look at that question too closely. Above everything else, Kaz was practical. Why would he come for her when he could walk away from Van Eck with the most valuable hostage in the world? Bajan wrinkled his nose. “Let’s not speak Suli. It makes me maudlin.” He wore tapered silk trousers and an elegantly cut coat. Pinned to his lapel, a golden lyre crowned with laurel leaves and a small ruby indicated both his profession and the house of his indenture. Inej knew she shouldn’t continue to talk with him, but she was still a gatherer of secrets. “What instruments do you teach?” she said. “Harp? Pianoforte?” “Also flute, and voice for ladies.” “And how does Alys Van Eck sing?” Bajan gave her a lazy grin. “Most prettily under my instruction. I could teach you to make all manner of pleasing sounds.” Inej rolled her eyes. He was just like the boys she’d grown up with, a head full of nonsense and a mouth full of easy charm. “I am bound and facing the prospect of torture or worse. Are you actually flirting with me?” Bajan tsked. “Mister Van Eck and your Mister Brekker will reach an arrangement. Van Eck is a businessman. From what I understand, he is simply protecting his interests. I cannot imagine he would resort to torture.” “Were you the one tied up and blindfolded every night, your imagination might not fail you so completely.” And if Bajan had known Kaz at all, he wouldn’t be so certain of an exchange. In the long hours she was left alone, Inej tried to rest and put her mind to escape, but inevitably her thoughts turned to Kaz and the others. Van Eck wanted to trade her for Kuwei Yul-Bo, the Shu boy they had stolen from the deadliest fortress in the world. He was the only person who had a hope of re-creating his father’s work on the drug known as jurda parem , and the price of his ransom would give Kaz all he had ever wanted—all the money and prestige he needed to take his rightful place among the bosses of the Barrel, and the chance at revenge on Pekka Rollins for the death of his brother. The facts lined up one after another, an army of doubts assembled against the hope she tried to keep steady inside her. Kaz’s course was obvious: Ransom Kuwei, take the money, find himself a new spider to scale the walls of the Barrel and steal secrets for him. And hadn’t she told him she planned on leaving Ketterdam as soon as they were paid? Stay with me. Had he meant it? What value did her life carry in the face of the reward Kuwei might garner? Nina would never let Kaz abandon her. She’d fight with everything she had to free Inej even if she was still in the grips of parem . Matthias would stand by her with that great heart full of honor. And Jesper … well, Jesper would never do Inej harm, but he needed money badly if he didn’t want his father to lose his livelihood. He would do his best, but that might not necessarily mean what was best for her. Besides, without Kaz, were any of them a match for Van Eck’s ruthlessness and resources? I am , Inej told herself. I may not have Kaz’s devious mind, but I am a dangerous girl. Van Eck had sent Bajan to her every day, and he’d been nothing but amiable and pleasant even as he’d prodded her for the locations of Kaz’s safe houses. She suspected that Van Eck didn’t come himself because he knew Kaz would be keeping a close eye on his movements. Or maybe he thought she’d be more vulnerable to a Suli boy than a wily merch. But tonight something had changed. Bajan usually left when Inej had made it clear she would eat no more—a parting smile, a small bow, and away he went, duty dispatched until the following morning. Tonight he had lingered. Instead of taking his cue to vanish when she used her bound hands to nudge away her dish, he’d said, “When did you see your family last?” A new approach. “Has Van Eck offered you some reward if you can extract information from me?” “It was just a question.” “And I am just a captive. Did he threaten you with punishment?” Bajan glanced at the guards and said quietly, “Van Eck could bring you back to your family. He could pay off your contract with Per Haskell. It is well within his means.” “Was this your idea or your master’s?” “Why does it matter?” Bajan asked. There was an urgency in his voice that pricked at Inej’s defenses. When fear arrives, something is about to happen. But was he afraid of Van Eck or afraid for her? “You can walk away from the Dregs and Per Haskell and that horrid Kaz Brekker free and clear. Van Eck could give you transport to Ravka, money to travel.” An offer or a threat? Could Van Eck have found her mother and father? The Suli were not easy to track, and they would be wary of strangers asking questions. But what if Van Eck had sent men claiming to have knowledge of a lost girl? A girl who had vanished one chilly dawn as if the tide had reached up to the shore to claim her? “What does Van Eck know about my family?” she asked, anger rising. “He knows you’re far from home. He knows the terms of your indenture with the Menagerie.” “Then he knows I was a slave. Will he have Tante Heleen arrested?” “I … don’t think—” “Of course not. Van Eck doesn’t care that I was bought and sold like a bolt of cotton. He’s just looking for leverage.” But what Bajan asked next took Inej by surprise. “Did your mother make skillet bread?” She frowned. “Of course.” It was a Suli staple. Inej could have made skillet bread in her sleep. “With rosemary?” “Dill, when we had it.” She knew what Bajan was doing, trying to make her think of home. But she was so hungry and the memory was so strong that her stomach growled anyway. She could see her mother damping the fire, see her flipping the bread with quick pinches of her fingers, smell the dough cooking over the ashes. “Your friends are not coming,” said Bajan. “It is time to think of your own survival. You could be home with your family by summer’s end. Van Eck can help you if you let him.” Every alarm inside Inej had sounded danger. The play was too obvious. Beneath Bajan’s charm, his dark eyes, his easy promises, there was fear. And yet amid the clamor of suspicion, she could hear the soft chiming of another bell, the sound of What if? What if she let herself be comforted, gave up the pretense of being beyond the things she’d lost? What if she simply let Van Eck put her on a ship, send her home? She could taste the skillet bread, warm from the pan, see her mother’s dark braid twined with ribbons, strands of silk the color of ripe persimmons. But Inej knew better than that. She’d learned from the best. Better terrible truths than kind lies. Kaz had never offered her happiness, and she didn’t trust the men promising to serve it up to her now. Her suffering had not been for nothing. Her Saints had brought her to Ketterdam for a reason—a ship to hunt slavers, a mission to give meaning to all she’d been through. She would not betray that purpose or her friends for some dream of the past. Inej hissed at Bajan, an animal sound that made him flinch backward. “Tell your master to honor his old deals before he starts making new ones,” she said. “Now leave me alone.” Bajan had scurried away like the well-dressed rat he was, but Inej knew it was time to go. Bajan’s new insistence could mean nothing good for her. I have to get out of this trap , she’d thought, before this creature lures me with memories and sympathy. Maybe Kaz and the others were coming for her, but she didn’t intend to wait around and see. Once Bajan and the guards had left, she’d slipped the shard of broken bowl from where she’d hidden it beneath the ropes around her ankles and set to work. Weak and wobbly as she’d felt when Bajan had arrived with that heavenly smelling bowl of mush, she’d only pretended to swoon so that she could deliberately knock her tray off the table. If Van Eck had really done his research, he would have warned Bajan that the Wraith did not fall. Certainly not in a clumsy heap on the floor where she could easily tuck a sharp piece of crockery between her bonds. After what seemed like a lifetime of sawing and scraping and bloodying her fingertips on the shard’s edge, she’d finally severed her ropes and freed her hands, then untied her ankles and felt her way to the vent. Bajan and the guards wouldn’t be back until morning. That gave her the whole night to escape this place and get as far away as she possibly could. The passage was a miserably tight fit, the air inside musty with smells she couldn’t quite identify, the dark so complete she might as well have kept her blindfold on. She had no idea where the vent might lead. It could run for a few more feet or for half a mile. She needed to be gone by morning or they’d find the grating that covered the vent loosened on its hinges and know exactly where she was. Good luck getting me out , she thought grimly. She doubted any of Van Eck’s guards could squeeze inside the air shaft. They’d have to find some kitchen boy and grease him down with lard. She inched forward. How far had she gone? Every time she took a deep breath, it felt like the air shaft was tightening around her ribs. For all she knew, she could be atop a building. She might pop her head out the other side only to find a busy Ketterdam street far below. Inej could contend with that. But if the shaft just ended? If it was walled up on the other side? She’d have to squirm backward the entire distance and hope to refasten her ropes so that her captors wouldn’t know what she’d done. Impossible. There could be no dead ends tonight. Faster , she told herself, sweat beading on her brow. It was hard not to imagine the building compressing around her, its walls squeezing the breath from her lungs. She couldn’t make a real plan until she reached the end of this tunnel, until she knew just how far she’d have to go to evade Van Eck’s men. Then she felt it, the barest gust of air brushing against her damp forehead. She whispered a quick prayer of thanks. There must be some kind of opening up ahead. She sniffed, searching for a hint of coal smoke or the wet green fields of a country town. Cautiously, she wiggled forward until her fingers made contact with the slats of the vent. There was no light trickling through, which she supposed was a good thing. The room she was about to drop into must be unoccupied. Saints, what if she was in Van Eck’s mansion? What if she was about to land on a sleeping merch? She listened for some human sound—snores, deep breathing. Nothing. She wished for her knives, for the comforting weight of them in her palms. Did Van Eck still have them in his possession? Had he sold them off? Tossed them into the sea? She named the blades anyway—Petyr, Marya, Anastasia, Lizabeta, Sankt Vladimir, Sankta Alina —and found courage in each whispered word. Then she jiggled the vent and gave it a hard shove. It flew open, but instead of swinging on its hinges, it came completely loose. She tried to grab it, but it slid past her fingertips and clattered to the floor. Inej waited, heart pounding. A minute passed in silence. Another. No one came. The room was empty. Maybe the whole building was empty. Van Eck wouldn’t have left her unguarded, so his men must be stationed outside. If that was the case, she knew slipping past them would present little challenge. And at least now she knew roughly how far away the floor was. There was no graceful way to accomplish what came next. She slid down headfirst, gripping the wall. Then, when she was more than halfway out and her body began to tip, she let momentum carry her forward, curling into a ball and tucking her arms over her head to protect her skull and neck as she fell. The impact was fairly painless. The floor was hard concrete like the floor of her cell, but she rolled as she struck and came up against what seemed to be the back of something solid. She pulled herself to her feet, hands exploring whatever she’d banged into. It was upholstered in velvet. As she moved along, she felt another identical object next to it. Seats , she realized. I’m in a theater. There were plenty of music halls and theaters in the Barrel. Could she be so close to home? Or maybe in one of the respectable opera houses of the