Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price--and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly ...(more)
Kaz Brekker didn't need a reason. Those were the words whispered on the streets of Ketterdam, in the taverns and coffeehouses, in the dark and bleeding alleys of the pleasure district known as the Barrel. The boy they called Dirtyhands didn't need a reason any more than he needed permission - to break a leg, sever an alliance, or change a man's fortunes with the turn of a card.
Of course they were wrong, Inej considered as she crossed the bridge over the black waters of the Beurscanal to the deserted main square that fronted the Exchange. Every act of violence was deliberate, and every favour came with enough strings attached to stage a puppet show. Kaz always had his reasons. Inej could just never be sure they were good ones. Especially tonight.
She saw Kaz and the others gathered near the great stone arch that marked the eastern entrance to the Exchange. Three words had been carved into the rock above them: Enjent, Voorhent, Almhent.
Industry, Integrity, Prosperity.
She kept close to the shuttered shop fronts that lined the square, avoiding the pockets of flickering gaslight cast by the streetlamps. As she moved, she inventoried the crew Kaz had brought with him: Dirix, Rotty, Muzzen and Keeg, Anika and Pim, and his chosen seconds for tonight's parley, Jesper and Big Bolliger. They jostled and bumped each other, laughing, stamping their feet against the cold snap that had surprised the city this week, the last gasp of winter before spring began in earnest. They were all bruisers and brawlers, culled from the younger members of the Dregs, the people Kaz trusted most. Inej noted the glint of knives tucked into their belts, lead pipes, weighted chains, axe handles studded with rusty nails, and here and there, the oily gleam of a gun barrel. She slipped silently into their ranks, scanning the shadows near the Exchange for signs of Black Tip spies.
"Three ships!" Jesper was saying. "The Shu sent them. They were just sitting in First Harbour, cannons out, red flags flying, stuffed to the sails with gold."
Big Bolliger gave a low whistle. "Would have liked to see that."
"Would have liked to steal that," replied Jesper. "Half the Merchant Council was down there flapping and squawking, trying to figure out what to do."
"Don't they want the Shu paying their debts?" Big Bolliger asked.
Kaz shook his head, dark hair glinting in the lamplight. He was a collection of hard lines and tailored edges - sharp jaw, lean build, wool coat snug across his shoulders. "Yes and no," he said in his rocksalt rasp. "It's always good to have a country in debt to you. Makes for friendlier negotiations."
"Maybe the Shu are done being friendly," said Jesper. "They didn't have to send all that treasure at once. You think they stuck that trade ambassador?"
Kaz's eyes found Inej unerringly in the crowd. Ketterdam had been buzzing about the assassination of theambassador for weeks. It had nearly destroyed Kerch-Zemeni relations and sent the Merchant Council into an uproar. The Zemeni blamed the Kerch. The Kerch suspected the Shu. Kaz didn't care who was responsible; the murder fascinated him because he couldn't figure out how it had been accomplished. In one of the busiest corridors of the Stadhall, in full view of more than a dozen government officials, the Zemeni trade ambassador had stepped into a washroom. No one else had entered or left, but when his aide knocked on the door a few minutes later, there had been no answer.
When they'd broken down the door, they'd found the ambassador facedown on the white tiles, a knife in his back, the taps still running.
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 gunbelts 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 humourless. "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 started; 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 suspected 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 steps.
"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."
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