Kaz had sent Inej to investigate the premises after hours. The washroom had no other entrance, no windows or vents, and even Inej hadn’t mastered the art of squeezing herself through the plumbing. Yet the Zemeni ambassador was dead. Kaz hated a puzzle he couldn’t solve, and he and Inej had concocted a hundred theories to account for the murder—none of which satisfied. But they had more pressing problems tonight.
She saw him signal to Jesper and Big Bolliger to divest themselves of weapons. Street law dictated that for a parley of this kind each lieutenant be seconded by two of his foot soldiers and that they all be unarmed. Parley. The word felt like a deception—strangely prim, an antique. No matter what street law decreed, this night smelled like violence.
“Go on, give those guns over,” Dirix said to Jesper.
With a great sigh, Jesper removed the gun belts at his hips. She had to admit he looked less himself without them. The Zemeni sharpshooter was long-limbed, brown-skinned, constantly in motion. He pressed his lips to the pearl handles of his prized revolvers, bestowing each with a mournful kiss.
“Take good care of my babies,” Jesper said as he handed them over to Dirix. “If I see a single scratch or nick on those, I’ll spell forgive me on your chest in bullet holes.”
“You wouldn’t waste the ammo.”
“And he’d be dead halfway through forgive,” Big Bolliger said as he dropped a hatchet, a switchblade, and his preferred weapon, a thick chain weighted with a heavy padlock, into Rotty’s expectant hands.
Jesper rolled his eyes. “It’s about sending a message. What’s the point of a dead guy with forg written on his chest?”
“Compromise,” Kaz said. “I’m sorry does the trick and uses fewer bullets.”
Dirix laughed, but Inej noted that he cradled Jesper’s revolvers very gently.
“What about that?” Jesper asked, gesturing to Kaz’s walking stick.
Kaz’s laugh was low and humorless. “Who’d deny a poor cripple his cane?”
“If the cripple is you, then any man with sense.”
“Then it’s a good thing we’re meeting Geels.” Kaz drew a watch from his vest pocket. “It’s almost midnight.”
Inej turned her gaze to the Exchange. It was little more than a large rectangular courtyard surrounded by warehouses and shipping offices. But during the day, it was the heart of Ketterdam, bustling with wealthy merchers buying and selling shares in the trade voyages that passed through the city’s ports. Now it was nearly twelve bells, and the Exchange was deserted but for the guards who patrolled the perimeter and the rooftop. They’d been bribed to look the other way during tonight’s parley.
The Exchange was one of the few remaining parts of the city that hadn’t been divvied up and claimed in the ceaseless skirmishes between Ketterdam’s rival gangs. It was supposed to be neutral territory. But it didn’t feel neutral to Inej. It felt like the hush of the woods before the snare yanks tight and the rabbit starts to scream. It felt like a trap.
“This is a mistake,” she said. Big Bolliger startled; he hadn’t known she was standing there. Inej heard the name the Dregs preferred for her whispered among their ranks—the Wraith. “Geels is up to something.”
“Of course he is,” said Kaz. His voice had the rough, abraded texture of stone against stone. Inej always wondered if he’d sounded that way as a little boy. If he’d ever been a little boy.
“Then why come here tonight?”
“Because this is the way Per Haskell wants it.”
Old man, old ways, Inej thought but didn’t say, and she knew the other Dregs were thinking the same thing.
“He’s going to get us all killed,” she said.
Jesper stretched his long arms overhead and grinned, his teeth white against his dark skin. He had yet to give up his rifle, and the silhouette of it across his back made him resemble a gawky, long-limbed bird. “Statistically, he’ll probably only get some of us killed.”
“It’s not something to joke about,” she replied. The look Kaz cast her was amused. She knew how she sounded—stern, fussy, like an old crone making dire pronouncements from her porch. She didn’t like it, but she also knew she was right. Besides, old women must know something, or they wouldn’t live to gather wrinkles and yell from their front stoops.
“Jesper isn’t making a joke, Inej,” said Kaz. “He’s figuring the odds.”
Big Bolliger cracked his huge knuckles. “Well, I’ve got lager and a skillet of eggs waiting for me at the Kooperom, so I can’t be the one to die tonight.”
“Care to place a wager?” Jesper asked.
“I’m not going to bet on my own death.”
Kaz flipped his hat onto his head and ran his gloved fingers along the brim in a quick salute. “Why not, Bolliger? We do it every day.”
He was right. Inej’s debt to Per Haskell meant she gambled her life every time she took on a new job or assignment, every time she left her room at the Slat. Tonight was no different.
Kaz struck his walking stick against the cobblestones as the bells from the Church of Barter began to chime. The group fell silent. The time for talk was done. “Geels isn’t smart, but he’s just bright enough to be trouble,” said Kaz. “No matter what you hear, you don’t join the fray unless I give the command. Stay sharp.” Then he gave Inej a brief nod. “And stay hidden.”
“No mourners,” Jesper said as he tossed his rifle to Rotty.
“No funerals,” the rest of the Dregs murmured in reply. Among them, it passed for “good luck.”
Before Inej could melt into the shadows, Kaz tapped her arm with his crow’s head cane. “Keep a watch on the rooftop guards. Geels may have them in his pocket.”
“Then—” Inej began, but Kaz was already gone.
Inej threw up her hands in frustration. She had a hundred questions, but as usual, Kaz was keeping a stranglehold on the answers.
She jogged toward the canal-facing wall of the Exchange. Only the lieutenants and their seconds were allowed to enter during the parley. But just in case the Black Tips got any ideas, the other Dregs would be waiting right outside the eastern arch with weapons at the ready. She knew Geels would have his crew of heavily armed Black Tips gathered at the western entrance.
Inej would find her own way in. The rules of fair play among the gangs were from Per Haskell’s time. Besides, she was the Wraith—the only law that applied to her was gravity, and some days she defied that, too.
The lower level of the Exchange was dedicated to windowless warehouses, so Inej located a drainpipe to shinny up. Something made her hesitate before she wrapped her hand around it. She drew a bonelight from her pocket and gave it a shake, casting a pale green glow over the pipe. It was slick with oil. She followed the wall, seeking another option, and found a stone cornice bearing a statue of Kerch’s three flying fishes within reach. She stood on her toes and tentatively felt along the top of the cornice. It had been covered in ground glass. I am expected, she thought with grim pleasure.
She’d joined up with the Dregs less than two years ago, just days after her fifteenth birthday. It had been a matter of survival, but it gratified her to know that, in that short time, she’d become someone to take precautions against. Though, if the Black Tips thought tricks like this would keep the Wraith from her goal, they were sadly mistaken.
She drew two climbing spikes from the pockets of her quilted vest and wedged first one then the other between the bricks of the wall as she hoisted herself higher, her questing feet finding the smallest holds and ridges in the stone. As a child learning the high wire, she’d gone barefoot. But the streets of Ketterdam were too cold and wet for that. After a few bad spills, she’d paid a Grisha Fabrikator working in secret out of a gin shop on the Wijnstraat to make her a pair of leather slippers with nubbly rubber soles. They were perfectly fitted to her feet and gripped any surface with surety.