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I was younger then, take me back to when I found my heart and broke it here

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It wasn’t until she stepped off the boat onto the docks of Ketterdam that Nina Zenik realized she hadn’t really expected to ever come back. She had been dodging Jesper, Wylan and Inej’s requests to come back because they missed her by saying she needed more time to figure everything out. It wasn’t until her boots hit the sea-softened boards of Fourth Harbor that she realized those had just been excuses to get them off her back. She had never meant to come back to the city that had taken Matthias from her and didn’t quite understand why she’d come back now.

She stood on the dock lost in this new understanding as the other passengers of the cargo boat she’d ridden from Ravka pushed by her. Why was she here? Why would she willingly have returned to the place that Matthias had died after all this time? It wasn’t like she expected it to be any less vile now than it had been when she was seventeen. She had half a mind to hop the next boat leaving and get out, but common sense stopped her. She was here now and she wasn’t a bad enough friend to just leave without at least saying hi.

She also found that she didn’t want to go straight to the Van Eck mansion. If she saw Jesper and Wylan now while she wasn’t sure why she had come here in the first place she might forget that she didn’t want to be here. Before she faced them she needed to be reminded exactly what kind of place Ketterdam was and why she’d left, and she knew the perfect place for that.

~~~~

The Slat had not changed in the years she’d been gone. Nina wasn’t sure why she’d expected Kaz to actually fix the place up after getting his hands on four million kruge , because now that she thought about she couldn’t think of a good reason why he would have. After a moment of simply looking up at the building, she shoved aside a hearty dose of déjà vu and let herself in.

The atmosphere of the Dregs’ hideout had not changed. There were still people lounging around, drinking and talking and flirting and playing cards. It was still a disreputable cesspit just like it had been when Nina had hung out here, but there was now not a single familiar face. The realization was so startling Nina stopped in her tracks. She hadn’t come to Slat for warm fuzzy feelings, but she had expected to see Pim and Keeg and Anika and all the other girls and boys she had laughed and plotted and flirted with as a teenager. The sea of unfamiliar faces that turned to look at her made her unexpectedly sad.

After a moment a blonde boy in his late teens detached himself from a cluster of people and stalked towards her. He puffed his chest out in a way that was vaguely ridiculous. “This is Dregs territory,” he said, “What do you want?”

“I’m here to see Kaz Brekker,” Nina said. “Tell him that Nina Zenik is here.” She almost added that Kaz would definitely want to see her, but stopped herself. She hadn’t actually spoken to Kaz, even in letters, since she’d left Ketterdam. The only reason she knew that someone hadn’t managed to kill him was because Inej, Jesper and Wylan talked about him in their letters.

The boy snorted in a way that he probably thought was intimidating. “Yeah, no dice. We don’t let just anyone see the boss.”

“I’m a member of the Dregs,” Nina said. “I’ve been away for a couple years, but now I need to see Kaz.”

“I don’t believe you,” the boy said.

Nina heaved a sigh and pushed up her sleeve to bare the Dregs crow and cup on her forearm. She’d thought about finding a Corporalnik who still had their regular powers to remove it for years, but it had never felt right, now she was glad she hadn’t. “Here,” she grumbled. “Believe me now?”

“No,” the boy said sounding pleased that he got to be so contrary. “You either had someone tattoo that on you in preparation for this or you’re a traitor. Either way you’re going to be dead.”

Nina tensed, preparing for a fight. She’d come here wanting a reminder of why she didn’t want to stay in Ketterdam, and it appeared she was going to get more of one than she’d anticipated. “Listen, you little-”

“Espen!” a familiar voice called out. “What’s going on?”

Nina and the boy both turned to see a blonde woman standing in the entrance to the office that had once been Per Haskell’s. It took Nina a moment to recognize Anika, who had somehow always remained a teenager in her mind. Anika had shaved both sides of her head and pulled the remaining hair on the top of her head back in a ponytail. She glared at them both. It was the look of someone who was used to being obeyed.

“This woman is trying to see the boss,” the boy said. “She has a Dregs tattoo so she’s either an impostor a traitor. I say we kill her.”

Anika’s gaze turned to Nina and her pale eyebrows rose. “Nina Zenik?” she asked.

Nina grinned. “The very same.”

“I was starting to think you were dead,” Anika said without any intonation to suggest how she felt about being proved wrong. “Where have you been?”

Nina didn’t see the point in lying about it. “Ravka and Fjerda,” she said. “I’ve been taking care of some stuff.”

“And now you’re here,” Anika said, still tonelessly.

“I am,” Nina said. “Can I see Kaz?”

Anika thought about it for a moment, then nodded. “He’s not working on anything major right now. Get over here.”

The boy spluttered. “What? She just admitted to abandoning the gang! She’s a traitor! She deserves to die!”

Anika fixed him with a glare. “Espen, which one of us is the top lieutenant of this gang?”

The boy looked like he was going to keep arguing for a while, then his shoulders slumped. “You are,” he grumbled.

“Good, and I say she can see Kaz,” Anika said. “Come on, Nina.”

Nina crossed the room, ignoring the weight of the Dregs’ eyes on her back. Anika rapped her knuckles on the door, then opened it and started inside. “Boss? You’ll never believe what the tides brought in.”

Nina stepped into the room after Anika. “Hey, Kaz.”

Nina had only been in Per Haskell’s office a handful of times, but she remembered that it hadn’t looked this much like an office when the old man had used it. The shelves were lined with books and papers. The windows were closed with heavy black shades and several oil lamps lit the room. The large desk was covered with papers and ledgers and a few scattered weapons and lockpicks.

Kaz Brekker sat in the large chair behind the desk. He too had aged in a way that Nina hadn’t expected. She had never found him attractive--even if you ignored his many scars he was decidedly average-looking--but now he looked even more macabre than he had at seventeen. He’d lost baby fat Nina hadn’t even realized he had, his face going even more hollow and sharp and pale. His eyes were still and sharp and shark-like as ever, though, and Nina’s sudden reappearance in his life only got a raised eyebrow.

“Nina,” He said looking her up and down in a firm, apprazing way. “It appears reforming drüskelle suits you.”

“Kaz,” she mimicked. “It appears being a Barrel Boss doesn’t suit you. You look like a ghoul. Do you eat?”

Kaz grinned, it was a thin, knife-like flash of teeth. “Occasionally.”

“Espen was advocating for killing her as a traitor,” Anika said to Kaz. “I had to pull rank on him again. We need to do something about that kid.”

“I know,” Kaz said. “I’m working on it.”

“We should strip him of his rank,” Anika said. “A couple weeks cleaning the gambling houses might be just the attitude adjustment he needs.”

“I’d do that,” Kaz replied a little tightly, “if I didn’t know that all it would do was drive him to another gang. He’s a far better spider than either Roeder and Minna are; if he were to start running with the Razorgulls or something we’d have a real problem.”

“We can’t just do nothing,” Anika said. “He barely listens to me anymore, how long do we have before he stops listening to you too?”

“I said I was working on it,” Kaz growled. “Now I’d like to have a conversation with Nina. Go get Gustaaf’s report. He should have just gotten back from the docks.”

“Fine,” Anika nodded. “I’ll be back.”

Nina waited until the door closed behind the other woman before she spoke, “Who’s Gustaaf?”

“Member of the Dregs.” Kaz said. “Why do you care?”

“Aside from Anika and you, I haven’t seen anyone I know,” Nina said. “What happened to everyone?”

“Roeder’s probably sleeping; he was working last night,” Kaz said. “Pim oversees all our gambling dens now. He’ll be in to report in another hour or so.”

Nina waited for a minute to see if he was going to go on, but he didn’t. “Well?” she asked. “What about Keeg? Dirix? Rotty? Specht?”

“Specht works for Inej,” Kaz said. “The rest are dead.”

“What?” Nina gaped. “All of them?”

Kaz nodded sharply.

“Don’t you ever let anyone retire?” Nina asked, shock making her voice quieter than she would have liked.

“No one retires in the Barrel, Nina dear,” Kaz said. “We don’t live long enough.”

There was a long pause, then Nina forced herself to change the subject before she thought about that to much. “So I see you’ve taken over Per Haskell’s office,” she said lightly. “Does that mean you’re living in his rooms too?” She gestured at the closed door to what had once been Per Haskell’s private apartments.

“Those are storage,” Kaz said. “The mere thought of sleeping in that man’s bed is enough to give you some kind of raging disease or parasite.”

“He wasn’t that dirty,” Nina said, but she couldn’t keep from smiling.

Kaz shrugged. “So why are you here, Nina? Last I heard you were in Overüt.”

That had been the last place Nina had been and Kaz said it so casually that it took her a minute to remember that he wasn’t supposed to know that. She never told Inej, Jesper and Wylan where she was, so there was definitely no way that Kaz Brekker could--

“Wait, have you been keeping tabs on me?” she asked.

“Only a little,” Kaz said with another shrug. He didn’t even pretend to be ashamed. “Inej, Jesper and Wylan have been worried about you.”

“And have you?” she ventured after a moment.

Kaz gave her a flat look that clearly said, “Would you expect me to admit it if I have?” After a moment he looked away and said breezily, “How long have you been here, anyway? It’s funny, I would have thought the first thing Jesper and Wylan would have done after you showed up at their door was send a messenger to me.”

“Actually, my ship just landed,” Nina admitted. “I haven’t seen them yet.”

“So you came to see me before anyone else?” Kaz raised an eyebrow. “Please tell me this isn’t the part where you confess your undying love to me.”

“Do you want me to?”

Kaz snorted. “Ghezen, no.”

Nina cracked a smile. “Good, because I’m just here so you can be a colossal bastard and remind me why I’m not staying.”

Kaz gave her a look, all humor gone. He didn’t look offended, just calculating. “Any particular reason that you’re here hoping I’ll convince you not to stay?”

“The others will want me to stay,” Nina said. “They’ve been begging me to come back for years and now that I’m here I don’t think they’ll let me leave again. But I can’t. There’s too many ghosts here.”

She wasn’t sure why she was being so honest with Kaz Brekker of all people, but he just nodded. “You’re not wrong about the ghosts,” he said slowly, pointedly not looking at her. “What do I need to do to convince you that you don’t want to stay?”

“To be honest your toadie out there was more convincing than I was expecting,” Nina admitted.

“Espen?” Kaz asked. “He has that effect on people. He makes me want to arrange an unfortunate accident for him in a dark alley on the best of days.”

“Then don’t you do that?” she asked. “It can’t be because of morals, because we both know you don’t have any.”

“Two reasons,” Kaz said. “One: he is my best spider. The three I’ve got now only barely do the job as well as Inej did. Espen’s the best of the three, and I rely on my reputation for knowing everything that goes on in this city. Two: If I kill him and people figure out it was me, it’ll look like I was scared of him and that would be bad. Of course,” he shrugged, “he’s well on his way to doing something that I’d be required to kill him for by the unofficial code of the Barrel, so perhaps I should start looking for more spiders.”

Nina looked at him for a minute until he asked, “What?”

“You’re thinking out loud,” she said. “You never used to do that.”

“Don’t worry, I still don’t share my plans.”

“Saints forbid your minions actually know what’s going on.”

Kaz smiled but didn’t comment. “Now that we’ve established that Espen is better at convincing people they don’t want to stay in Ketterdam than I am,” he said instead. “I’ll walk you to Jesper and Wylan’s.”

Nina raised an eyebrow at him. “You don’t have to pretend to be a gentleman, Kaz. You’re not fooling anyone.”

“I haven’t been outside yet today,” Kaz said. “And I’d like to take a look at the Crow Club and couple other things. Pim is good at his job, but he only notices about half of what he should.”

He braced his palms on the desktop and levered himself to his feet. It was a stiff, creaky, painful-looking motion that would have been at home on an old man.

Nina looked away before he could see her worry and sympathy, and slid her hands into her pockets. They were both empty. She patted her clothes looking for her wallet, but it was gone.

“What’s wrong?” Kaz asked. He was fully upright now, leaning surreptitiously on his cane.

“I lost my wallet,” she said. “That’s weird. I had it when I left the ship.”

Kaz snorted. “You probably got pick-pocketed. How much did you lose and what way did you walk to get here?”

When she finished explaining, he crossed to the big safe in the wall and opened it. He counted out a number of kruge and held them out to her. “What’s this for?” She asked

“The borders of Dregs territory have expanded since last time you were here,” Kaz said. “You were in our territory practically the whole way here. That means that the person who pick-pocketed you probably works for me. Consider this getting your money returned.”

“Oh,” Nina took the stack of kruge . “Thanks.”

“And don’t expect this kind of generosity again,” Kaz said closing the safe. “Remember how to hold on to your wallet.”

Nina folded the money and stuck it into the wraps over her breasts. She’d like to see someone try to steal it from there. Then she looked up at Kaz. It was more of a look up than it had once been.

“Wait a minute,” she said. “You’re taller. Have you grown?”

Kaz gave her a look. “Teenagers tend to.”

“You mean to tell me,” Nina said slowly, “that you led us on the biggest heist of the century then figured out how to take down two of the most corrupt men in Ketterdam and you were still growing?”

Kaz gave her a long-suffering look. “Come on, Nina. Let’s get going.”

~~~~

The rest of the Barrel had changed drastically, but also remained exactly the same as always. Drunk and stupid pigeons stumbled around even in broad daylight getting conned out of all their worldly possessions. The members of the gangs strutted around in their Barrel flash trying to look impressive. Everyone, no matter how drunk, got out of Kaz’s way when they saw him coming.

They didn’t talk, but it wasn’t necessarily an awkward silence. Kaz was obviously deep in thought and not actively trying to be rude, so Nina just surveyed her old haunting grounds, noticing how all Pekka Rollins’s gambling dens had been taken over by the Dregs and the way that even the building that had once housed the Menagerie didn’t exist anymore.

“You’ve really made some changes to the place,” she said when she couldn’t take the silence anymore.

Kaz jerked back into awareness of her without a hint that he had been thinking of anything else. “Yes,” he said. “All in all, things are going-” Then something caught his attention, and he trailed off, gaze focused on something off to his right.

Nina followed his gaze but only saw people going about their normal days. “Kaz?” she asked.

“You remember where the Van Eck mansion is don’t you, Nina?” Kaz asked in a hyper-focused tone of voice. “I’ll meet you there; I have something I need to look into first.”

“I can help,” Nina said. “What did you see?”

Kaz looked at her for a moment, his eyes dark and calculating. “It might be good to have a face he doesn’t know,” he said. “Come on.” He pulled his hat down over his and hiked up his cane so the the head was in his armpit and mostly hidden from view. Then he set off down a side street, his limp more pronounced without the aid of the cane.

Kaz moved fast, but cautiously, leaving Nina to half walk half jog after him. The street was still pretty busy, so Nina couldn’t tell exactly who they were following. They’d gone quite a ways when Kaz suddenly grabbed the back of her coat and hauled her into an alley. He shoved her aside then peaked around the corner again.

“You could have just told me where to go,” Nina grumbled, but he was ignoring her, watching something happening the street intently.

After a minute Kaz turned back to her. “Okay,” he said. “The person we’ve been following is called Barend Meijer. He’s doing some dirty business that I’m trying to gather information about. He’s about to go into the inn down the street. You should be able to just walk in and figure out who he’s meeting with.”

“Alright,” Nina said, peaking around the corner. “Which one is he?”

“The one in the green coat,” Kaz pointed out a man with greasy hair and rat-like mustache who was just ducking into the inn, carrying a package wrapped in oilcloth. The cut of his clothes was Kerch, but not quite what someone from Ketterdam would wear. He wasn’t from the city.

“I want that package if we can get it,” Kaz said.

“Alright,” Nina said. “Do you want me to just steal it?”

“No,” Kaz said. “We don’t want him to know I’m onto him. I just need a couple minutes to look through it.”

“Do we need a plan?” Nina asked.

“Go in after him,” Kaz said. “I’ll create a distraction, then it’s your job to, make sure he leaves that package.”

“Alright,” she said and headed into the street.

This part of Ketterdam was disreputable even by Barrel standards. The cobblestones looked like they hadn’t been replaced ever and vanished periodically into mud puddles. One of the buildings Nina passed was so unstable that the whole thing creaked and swayed ominously whenever someone climbed to the second floor. The sides of the street were inhabited by beggars and drunks. It took Nina a few minutes to realize that there were a not inconsiderable number of bodies lying against the buildings as well. She made a mental note to ask Kaz whose territory this was; she was willing to bet that it wasn’t the Dregs.

Nina was also aware that she was gathering a lot of attention. She wasn’t wearing a kefta --that would have been ridiculously stupid--but her clothes were distinctly Ravkan. People were sizing her up and seeing nothing more than a naive foreigner who had lost her way. Some of the men in practical had what they were thinking printed clearly across their faces. Nina reached to her waist and uncorked one of the bottles she kept for just this purpose. Any man who dared to touch her would get a face full of bone shards.

Perhaps she was telegraphing her intentions somehow, because she reached the door to the inn without incident. The inside of the inn was even more disgusting than the street. People were congregating around listing and mismatched tables eating and drinking from plates and mugs that looked like they’d never been washed. The whole place smelled like someone had dumped ale and urine all over the floor and let it fester.

She crossed the room and sat down at the bar so she could study the room without looking like a lost foreigner. She flipped a coin to the bartender and got an ale in a mug so dirty her fingers came away smudged with grime when she touched it. She bit back a look of disgust. Yeah, she wasn’t drinking that.

It only took her a couple seconds to find Meijer. He was sitting in a booth with a large, ill-kept man that Nina actually knew. It was Markus Visser. He was an intermediary who found slaves for pleasure houses, including the House of the White Rose where Nina had once worked as the resident Grisha. She was disappointed; she’d been hoping someone would have killed him by now. Fortunately, while she knew Visser, he didn’t know here so she didn’t need to worry about him recognizing her.

She watched the two men for a few minutes. They were talking quietly with the package on the table between them, it looked like they weren’t planning to go anywhere for awhile. Nina got up off her stool and ambled towards them, acting like she was lost in thought. She wasn’t sure how long it would take Kaz to create his distraction and she wanted to be near the target when it happened.

Suddenly there was a huge commotion coming from the kitchen. Someone dressed in dark clothes darted into the room and yelled, “Help! Come quick! There’s a fire in the kitchen!”

Visser scrambled to his feet and was out the door in an instant. Saving his own skin, probably. Meijer looked around wildly for a moment, fingers tightening on the package, and Nina saw her opening. She lunged over and grabbed his arm, not caring that she dropped the disgusting mug on the floor. “Sir,” she said in her most simpering tone. “Please go help up out the fire! I don’t want this place to burn down!”

The man shook her off violently, but headed for the kitchen.

Nina snatched the package but before she could move, a pair of black gloved hands took it from her. She looked up to see Kaz. “Where did you come from?” she asked.

He smiled but didn’t say anything as he opened the package and began paging through the loose sheets of paper inside. Each was printed with what looked like some kind of order form. Kaz looked at each one for only a second or two before moving onto the next.

“Are you even reading any of that?” Nina asked.

“Make sure no one comes back,” Kaz said paging without pause. “I don’t know how long it will take them to put that fire out.”

“You really set the kitchen on fire?” Nina asked.

“Yes,” Kaz said. He was halfway through the stack of papers by now. “Keep your eyes on the-”

Before he could say anything else, an arm shoved Nina out of the way and onto a table. Meijer was back. Before Nina could do anything, the man had turned on Kaz, knocking the papers out of his hands. “Who do you think you are?” he growled, confirming what Nina had suspected. Meijer was new to Ketterdam; that was the only explanation for someone involved in something illegal in this city not recognizing Kaz Brekker.

“I was just curious,” Kaz said in a confused, higher-pitched voice that didn’t sound anything like his own. “What is this stuff?”

Meijer struck Kaz across the face, then wrapped a bare hand around his throat and shoved him against a wall. Kaz twitched visibly and his hands opened and closed spasmodically.

Nina scrambled off the table and stepped towards Meijer, raising her hands to summon her bone chips. Then hands grabbed her from behind, and she was trapped in a violent hug. The reek of unwashed male and cheap ale enveloped her.

“Let the man do his business, little lady,” her captor slurred in her ear.

Nina struggled against him and tried to keep an eye on Kaz and Meijer. Meijer still had Kaz pinned against the wall and Kaz didn’t seem to be fighting back. Nina couldn’t figure out why, but she didn’t have time to contemplate it. Fortunately, the drunk who had captured her hadn’t realized she was raising her hands because she was Grisha so he hadn’t tried to pin her hands. She twitched her wrists, only now she wasn’t controlling the bone shards, her focus was on what she’d seen in the street outside.

Half a dozen animated corpses burst into the inn. They glommed around Nina and the drunk, ripping her free. The drunk screamed and fled. Nina sent a corpse after him just to further beat in the lesson about assaulting women, then directed the rest of the corpses towards Kaz and Meijer.

The corpses obeyed, ripping the two men apart with their cold, dead hands. Kaz stumbled and fell, curling into a ball with his arms wrapped around his head. Nina couldn’t tell if he was hurt or not, and there wasn’t time to find out. Smoke was now pouring steadily out of the door to the kitchen. Evidently, no one had managed to put the fire out.

She twisted her hands, and one of the corpses turned away from beating up Meijer with the others and heaved Kaz over its shoulder. Nina made another motion and the corpse followed her as she darted out of the inn by the back door into the alley leaving Meijer behind. He’d probably survive, because she would get to far from the corpses to control them long before the entire inn burned down, but at least this way he couldn’t follow them.

Nina ran for a couple blocks until the shouting about fire had died down and she was sure no one was following. Then she stopped and had the corpse set Kaz down. She carefully guided the corpse to the side of the alley and had it lie down as reverently as possible. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “Rest in peace,” and she let the corpse go still.

Behind her she heard retching. She turned to see Kaz on his hands and knees, vomiting onto the dirty cobblestones. His gloved fingers were digging into the cracks between the stone and his entire body was shaking violently.

“Kaz?” Nina asked. “Are you alright?” She hurried over, reaching for his shoulder.

Before she could touch him, Kaz pulled out a knife and lunged at her. She stumbled backwards, fell and landed on her butt against one of the alley walls. Kaz pressed the tip of the knife against her throat, but didn’t touch her beyond that. His eyes were wild and Nina could feel him trembling through the knife.

“If you ever let one of those things touch me again,” Kaz said in a trembly, rasping snarl. “I will cut you into so many pieces no one will be able to identify you. Do you understand?”

“Kaz,” Nina said, trying to ignore the way the knife pressed into her throat as she spoke. “I don’t understand why you’re so upset. I just wanted to get us out of there. Are you sick?” She reached for the handle of the knife, but he jerked back out of her reach taking the knife with him.

“Don’t touch me!” he shrieked. His hands were shaking so badly that he almost dropped the knife.

“Alright,” Nina said holding up her hands. “I won’t touch you, but can you tell me if you’re okay?”

“I’m fine,” Kaz snarled, struggling to his feet. “We should to go.” He tried to walk, but stumbled and almost fell, catching himself against the opposite wall. She him breathing; the gasps were loud, fast and frantic.

“Kaz,” she said quietly. “Maybe you should sit down.”

“Didn’t you hear me?” Kaz shouted. “I’m fine! Let’s move!”

“You’re hyperventilating,” Nina said. “You’re going to pass out. You need to calm down.” She hated her inability to help. Before the parem she would have been able to lower his heart rate and ease his breathing herself, now she could do nothing but watch him struggle for breath.

“Kaz,” she repeated. “Please sit down.”

Much to her surprise, he actually listened, sliding down the wall to sit on the damp cobblestones with his knees drawn up and his forehead pressed against them. Nine stayed against the other wall, watching him until his breathing quieted and his muscles began to relax.

“Are you okay now?” she asked, making her voice level and quiet so as not to set him off again.

“I’m fine,” Kaz said, uncurling but not looking at her. “That was nothing.”

They both knew he was lying.

~~~~

Kaz had hidden his cane before going into the inn so they had to double back to retrieve it and avoid the commotion around the now burned-out husk of the inn. Once they were done with that, they continued on to the Van Eck mansion. They didn’t speak, and though Kaz was twitchier than usual, he had himself surprisingly well in hand.

The Van Eck mansion was yet another thing that hadn’t substantially changed since the last time Nina had seen it. She was a little surprised Jesper hadn’t convinced Wylan to paint the whole exterior lime green. Kaz marched right up to the front door and knocked. They were admitted by a servant girl who obviously knew who Kaz was and was extremely uncomfortable with it.

The servant lead them upstairs to an office where Jesper and Wylan were seated at the desk looking at paperwork. They both looked up when Kaz and Nina came in,

“Look who turned up at the Slat,” Kaz said, monotone, gesturing at her.

Their faces lit up. “Nina!” Jesper cried and within moments both men had crossed the room and thrown their arms around her. Nina was surprised to feel her eyes filling up with tears. She hadn’t realized she missed them so much.

“When did you get back?” Wylan asked when they pulled apart.

“This afternoon,” Nina said. “I wasn’t sure where to find the rest of you so I went to Slat.” That wasn’t really true, but she didn’t want to admit to wanting to be reminded why she wasn’t staying.

“Hear that, Kaz?” Jesper asked. “You’re predictable.”

Kaz had floated over to the desk and was paging through the papers sitting there. He flinched when Jesper addressed, a small but visible tightening of muscles. “I’ll do my utmost to remedy that,” he said stiffly.

Jesper’s lips pressed together in concern, he and Wylan exchanged a significant look. “Have you two had supper yet?” Wylan asked after a moment.

“No,” Nina’s stomach growled.

“Good, we haven’t eaten yet either,” Wylan said. “You can have supper with us.”

“Actually,” Kaz began. “I need to-”

“Nope,” Jesper interrupted. “You’re staying, no arguments.”

Kaz stared at them for a moment then looked away and heaved a sigh. “Fine, but I’ll need some paper and a pen; I need to write a letter.”

“Done,” Jesper said. “Good to have you here, Kaz.”

“I’ll go tell the cook there will be two more for dinner,” Wylan said and left the room.

Jesper, Nina and Kaz relocated to the downstairs parlor. Jesper procured paper and a pen and Kaz retired to a corner and began writing at lighting speed in what appeared to be an extremely complicated code.

Jesper leaned in close to Nina and jerked his head at Kaz. “Is he okay?” he breathed.

“I think he’s fine now,” Nina murmured. “He...wasn’t before.”

“What happened?”

“I used my powers on some corpses,” Nina said. “I had one carry him, and I think that’s what set him off.”

Jesper nodded. “That’ll do it.”

“Do you know why he reacted like that?” Nina asked.

Jesper rocked a hand back and forth. “Inej told us some things so we could keep an eye on him while she’s gone. Not all of it, a lot of its really private, but some.”

“Does he know you know?” Nina asked.

“He’s Kaz Brekker, of course he knows,” Jesper grinned crookedly, then sobered. “But we’ve never been able to get him to have a conversation about it with us.”

“But he’s okay, though?” Nina said. “Just to make sure.”

Jesper made a face.

“What?” she asked.

“Wy and I aren’t convinced his health is very good,” Jesper said. “I mean his health’s never been great because he doesn’t sleep or give himself breaks, but last winter he had a really bad chest infection, and we don’t think he ever completely recovered from it. We’re worried about him.”

“Are you two going to just sit over there whispering like schoolgirls?” Kaz asked without looking up. It was impossible to tell if he’d been able to hear anything they were saying, but writing the letter seemed to have calmed him down.

“What are we supposed to do?” Jesper asked. “You’re engrossed in writing a long, coded missive to our beloved Wraith.”

“You’re writing Inej?” Nina asked, getting up and crossing the room to look at the paper. The code really was incomprehensible. “I take it she’s out hunting slavers?” She hadn’t really thought that Inej was here since no one had mentioned telling her of Nina’s arrival, but she’d hoped.

“She might be back in a few weeks,” Kaz said. “Though it’s hard to say; things sometimes come up.”

“So what is this letter about?” Jesper asked, throwing an arm around Wylan’s shoulders as the other man came into the room and kissing him on the temple. “Though, since the things are all in code, you could tell us they were about anything when in reality you’re just raving about how beautiful her hair is.”

Kaz shot Jesper a withering glare. “This is a summary of some information Nina and I found before we came here,” he said.

“Wait, those papers?” Nina said. “But you barely looked at them. You can’t really remember what they said.”

“I remember what they said,” Kaz said flatly. "But I do need to get this down while it’s still fresh; my memory for words is not as flawless as my memory for numbers.”

“What is this information about?” Wylan asked from his place in Jesper’s arms.

“Barend Meijer is part of an organization that specializes in providing slaves that fit parameters requested by buyers,” Kaz explained. “For example, one of the documents Nina and I were looking at is a request for a young Ravkan woman who resembles Alina Starkov. Inej has been trying to track the leadership of this organization for almost a year with little success.”

“And you’re helping her?” Nina asked. “How are you making any money off that?”

“He’s not,” Jesper crowed. “Helping the Wraith in her endeavours to end slavery is his sappy romantic side project.”

“I am not above cutting out your tongue and feeding it to the nearest pack of dogs, Jes,” Kaz said.

Both Jesper and Wylan laughed. “Don’t worry, Kaz, your secret soft side is safe with us,” Jesper teased.

A maid appeared in the doorway. This one was older and looked much less uncomfortable at the idea of the Bastard of the Barrel being in the parlor. “Supper is ready,” she said. “Should I inform Mistress Van Eck, Master Wylan?”

“Yes, thank you, Annemie” Wylan said. He disentangled himself from Jesper and slid his arm through Nina’s. “You’ll get to meet my mother! I’m pretty sure you never have.”

“That will be wonderful,” Nina said, letting Wylan lead her towards the dining room.

“You coming, Kaz?” Jesper asked. “Will that information stick in that genius brain of yours for a little longer?”

“Oh, fine,” Kaz grumbled and Nina looked over her shoulder in time to see him folding the letter up carefully and sticking it into his coat. He levered himself painfully to his feet and reached for his cane before he said, “And Nina?”

“What?” she asked as she and Wylan paused.

“You really should stay until Inej gets back,” he said. “I know she really wants to see you again.”

“But-” Nina stammered. “You were supposed to be the one who-” She cut herself off before she said something she’d regret and gave him a look.

Kaz just grinned and brushed by her and Wylan on his way to the dining room.

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