Inej checked her knives, silently reciting their names as she always did when she thought there might be trouble. It was a practical habit, but a comfort, too. The blades were her companions. She liked knowing they were ready for whatever the night might bring.
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 storefronts 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 Harbor, 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 rock salt 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 the ambassador 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 sink 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 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?”