“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.