Chapter 1: Deals with Demons
Dark tents, the thrum of over-eager bodies, men and women in painted costumes. Nikolai smiled to himself as he looked at the display before him, and couldn’t help but feel at home. After growing up in a household with a father who was on the border of being a rake, and a mother who thought herself a queen, his childhood felt like a constant dance of endless parties that swirled around painted clowns and false tricks.
He took a deep breath and inhaled the sharp smell of sweat, popcorn, and sugar interlaced with the smoke that had become a permanent feature of the London sky. He could practically taste the excitement and the mystery in the air, and he wished that he could join the smiling crowd who “oohed” and “ahhed” at the displays of the sideshow and the decorations set up. But he couldn’t. Tonight wasn’t the night for his attention to be captured by the mystery of the Cirque de Lie. He kept his gaze low and on the people surrounding him. He strained to spot any sign of the messenger that was supposed to meet him. He took his pocket watch out to mark the time.
He’s late , he thought snapping his watch shut.
Nikolai had no choice but to follow the line of people inside the big top tent and search the stands for the section printed on his ticket. That’s when a raggedy boy ran up to him. A small silver crow pin was fastened to the side of his cap.
“Note for ya, Mister.” He said, shoving a scrap of paper into Nikolai’s hands.
Nikolai nodded and dropped a few shilling into his waiting palm before moving to the side, away from potential prying eyes. By the dim lantern light, he squinted and deciphered the untidy and familiar scrawl.
“West end tent, half-past midnight, don’t be late, don’t be followed. -K”
Nikolai smiled at the brevity, then made sure to light the note up with the set of matches he had in his coat.
The note caught and was soon nothing more than another pile of ashes trampled into the packed dirt floor.
The lights began to dim, and string music struck up from an unseen section of the stage. Nikolai found his seat, and let himself relax slightly. The beat of strong drums reverberated through the space, and in a flash of smoke and a bang, Kaz Brekker, Ringmaster of the Cirque de Lie, emerged from the fog resplendent in his signature suit and top hat. The crowd roared in delight. Nikolai just smiled.
Yes, tonight was all about business, but Kaz did put on a spectacular show, and he would be a fool to not enjoy himself.
It was the circus after all.
The tents at the west end of the encampment were cloaked in shadows. To Nikolai’s understanding, this was where the performers and crew members retired for the night. But as of right now, the canvas stood empty and stoic, betraying no movement or life.
The sounds of the dispersing crowd had all but faded into the night, and the comforting glow of the lantern light was nowhere to be found.The only thing that gave Nikolai any sense of life was the large, hulking form of a man in front of the grandest tent in the space.
Nikolai opened his mouth to state his intent, but the man just gave him a once over and jerked his head towards the tent.
“He’s expecting ya, sir.” He said gruffly.
Nikolai nodded, and stepped into the dark tent. A warm fire blazed in the center of the room where an opening had been made to let out the smoke, and sitting in a large desk right by it was the man of the hour.
“Lantsov,” Kaz rasped as a greeting.
“Mr. Brekker.” Nikolai said back, not waiting for an invitation to take a seat in front of the oak table. “Fantastic show as always.”
He huffed, neither confirming or denying the statement.
“You’re running for chairman of the city council.” Kaz hadn’t looked up from whatever he was reading. “You’re losing.”
Nikolai chuckled, “I hope you didn’t waste any of your good spies for that bit of information, Brekker. That’s not a secret.”
“No, it’s not. But what is secret is the fact that you’re a Red sympathizer.”
Kaz’s dark eyes met Nikolai’s, and he fought the urge to tense at the accusation.
“Rumors and speculation are hardly good basis for fact.”
“Yet they all have a little bit of truth hidden within their folds.” The young man leaned away from his desk, sinking further away from the light of the fire. “It’s also the reason why you’re losing to the likes of your idiot older brother and that eccentric duke’s son.”
“I didn’t take you as a politics man.”
“I’m not. I tend to be on the side of those who could be most useful.”
Nikolai raised his eyebrows at that. When he didn’t say anything, Kaz continued.
“Talk like that might get you support from the suffragettes, the factory workers, and some of the quieter nobles, but that means practically nothing. Those kinds of rumors only alienate you from the other councilmen, and those are the bastards that apparently matter.” Nikolai didn’t bother ask where he got that information. Kaz always had a way of knowing things that he shouldn’t. It made him a terrifying enemy, and an indispensable ally. “What you need is the police chief’s endorsement to sway the vote to you.”
“I might just fire Zoya as my campaign manager, and hire you instead.” he said, grinning.
Kaz’s face remained still. “I doubt Nazyalensky would let you live if you were to deliver that kind of news.” He shrugged. “Besides, you couldn’t afford me.”
“Yes, I suppose you’re right.” Not being able to sit still, Nikolai got up and started to pace in front of the desk, “Don’t think you’ve concocted some brilliant plan, Brekker. I know that I need the police chief’s endorsement, but the fact of the matter is that Rollins hates me.”
“Rollins hates anyone with a spine.” There was a sharper edge to Kaz’s words that had Nikolai looking back at him. A brief flash of absolute murder flickered in those dark eyes, before returning back to its indifference. Had he imagined that?
“I suppose this has something to do with the information you have for me tonight.”
This time it was the boy who grinned, a sharp and wicked thing that would make hardened soldiers flee. “You were always a smart one.”
Kaz got up and limped over to where Nikolai was. He caught sight of the crow head cane supporting most of his weight. Not for the first time, Nikolai wondered what had happened to the boy who was four years his junior. He was far too young to have fought in the War, but the haunted look in his eyes always reminded Nikolai of the older soldiers he sometimes paid visits to. He had never asked about Kaz’s past, but he highly doubted that he would answer honestly anyway.
“Here.” Kaz handed him a sheet of parchment. He squinted and read the contents of the note.
“A shipment of Parem? In London?” Nikolai said incredulously. While the use of opium, cocaine, and morphine ran commonly enough in the streets, there have been whispers of a newer and more intoxicating drug being distributed amongst the slums and the coast.
Kaz nodded grimly. “Rollins is supervising the shipment and distribution himself.”
“If people knew...that would ruin him.” Realization flashed through Nikolai’s mind, and he almost laughed outright. “You want him ruined.”
“I want him eviscerated.” Another flash of that feral emotion, disappearing just as fast. “But I’ll settle for ruin for now. With him gone whoever’s the next in line to take the position could be more in your favor.”
“Why?” Nikolai said crossing his arms, giving his companion a long look. If Kaz had any sort of ulterior motive, his face betrayed nothing. “Why help me?”
He shrugged. “You and I have a shared interest for the moment, and like I said, you’re useful to me. Like I can be useful to you.”
“You sure know how to woo a man, Brekker.” Kaz gave him a blank stare, and Nikolai sighed as he fought the urge to run his hand over his face. “So you want to help me get elected?”
“Not necessarily, but I can run Rollins out of office.”
“I’m assuming that the future of a better London isn’t going to be payment enough?” Nikolai paused and weighed the cost in his mind. Zoya would hate him for even considering Kaz’s help. “Usual bounty for exposing corrupt politicians is five thousand pounds, I’ll give you ten.”
“I’m not in the business of doing charity, Lantsov. Rollins has been re-elected three times with no one stopping him, and I’m getting rid of an official that’s been a pain in your ass for the last year. I’ll take thirty.”
“Thirty thousand pounds?!” Nikolai exclaimed. “What makes you think I have that kind of money?”
“I could ask for more if we are basing this off of what I know of your inheritance.” He rested his hands on his cane, giving Nikolai a self-satisfied smile.
Nikolai scowled. Thirty thousand pounds was a lot, but then again how much did he spend on travel and campaign expenses in the last month? And what did that get him? An overzealous mob who could promise him nothing. Thirty thousand pounds could get him an endorsement, and on top of that Rollins’s reign of terror would finally come to an end. Surely, the benefits outweighed the cost.
Kaz Brekker was a man who dealt in tricks and secrets. He was an untrustworthy showman with a strong likelihood to ruin Nikolai’s reputation. However, he could be the only solution to this situation. Zoya’s glare surfaced in his mind, and Nikolai pushed the image away. He’d deal with her reaction later.
“You have a deal, Brekker.” Nikolai extended his hand. “Thirty thousand pounds to expose Rollins and help my campaign.”
“One last thing,” Kaz’s smile was a razor blade and Nikolai had a sinking feeling that he was the one to get more out of this bargain. “If we’re jumping into bed together, I’m going to need you to trust me.”
Nikolai felt his brow furrow. “As a rule, I don’t usually trust people whose livelihoods depend on tricks.”
“You’re going to have to make an exception. No questions. No pestering. Just your trust that I’ll get the job done.”
Nikolai opened his mouth to clarify, but thought better of it. Some things were best left to mystery, and when the hammer came down, he had an inkling that he would rather be kept in the dark to whatever Kaz was planning.
“Fine.” Nikolai thought for a moment, flicking at a nonexistent piece of dust on his suit.
“One last thing: I’m going to need an invite to that big fancy party you have tomorrow at Smeet’s house.”
“Be careful, Brekker, any more conditions and I’ll start to think you’re cheating me.” The younger man didn’t respond. “And why, pray tell, do you need to go to the house of one of the most sought out lawyers of the city?”
“I thought you’d trust me.”
“A decision I am currently regretting.” Another pause, and Nikolai sighed, “Alright. I’ll make the arrangements.”
“The deal’s the deal then.”
They shook hands, and Nikolai fought the shudder that tingled at the back of his neck.
What was it that his mother said when he was a child?
“Be careful of quick demons for they make deals in the dark and then eat your heart in the sun.”
Kaz left the main section of his camp as soon as Nikolai left. His leg was aching again. It was always worse in London. It was as if the injury remembered its origins and was making sure to remind Kaz that it was his fault for its misery.
He rubbed at the place above his knee before he crossed a hidden slit in his tent that led to the dining area. There were few things Kaz learned during his time with Haskell, but the one that really stuck was the need for a ringleader to have space. Haskell had settled for a medium sized tent furbished with liquor and whatever old men filled their time with. Kaz didn’t want to settle. He made himself an entire space that guaranteed separation and privacy.
The sounds of his most trusted crew members eating and drinking did little to relax him, but it was a familiar sound at least.
“Ah, the mighty ringmaster makes an appearance.” Jesper grinned. He was still wearing the sparkling green pants that was part of his costume, but his exposed brown chest glinted warmly against the lanterns lit in the space. Kaz didn’t miss the way Wylan’s eyes kept straying over to his friend’s display of skin, and Kaz rolled his eyes at the slight blush that was staining his cheeks.
“Fahey, put on a shirt will you?” Kaz said dropping down to the chair at the head of the table. He needed everyone to focus on what he was going to say, and if Jesper caught Wylan staring, that was going to be a whole other headache he didn’t want to deal with.
Instead of following directions, Jesper just grinned and leaned forward on the table. “I don’t mind you staring, Kaz.”
He returned a blank stare. “Well I mind that Van Eck won’t be able to concentrate, so just do it.”
Wylan’s face turned a deeper shade of red. “I wasn’t looking!”
Jesper just gave him a wolfish grin before picking up a discarded shirt.
“What’s so important this couldn’t have waited until tomorrow?” Nina yawned from her place by Matthias’s shoulder.
“We have a job.”
“Like another performance?” Wylan squeaked in an attempt to regain his composure.
Before Kaz could respond, a warm voice materialized behind him. “Kaz just had a meeting with Mister Lantsov.”
It was no surprise Inej had been spying on him, she wasn’t his best spy for nothing after all.
“Ooh…” Nina crooned fixing Kaz with an amused smirk, “Which Mister Lantsov? The stuck-up stupid one or the handsome, Communist one?”
Matthias’s eyebrows sunk down at the mention of Nina’s description, Kaz was surprised his scowl could deepen further. “The man who claims to be able to fix the class gap and makes false promises to the poor?”
“That very one.” Kaz agreed, taking a long sip from a glass of wine. “And we’re going to help him.”
Chapter 2: Overture
Nikolai was good at a great many things- horse riding, wooing women whose names rhymed with Roya, killing men half a kilometer away with nothing but a standard-issue rifle- but, as of this moment, he was finding it difficult to keep a pleasant smile on his face as the businessman he was talking to kept ranting about the “deplorables” who worked in his factory.
“Those little rats are always trying to steal from me! Just last week, the foreman caught a girl with three spools of thread hidden in her purse! The nerve of them! I employ them, pay them, feed them-”
“Pardon me,” Nikolai interrupted. The man stopped, his face red with either exertion or rage. Nikolai gave him an apologetic smile. “It looks like Miss Nazyalensky requires my attention.”
Before the older man could say another word, he hastily retreated to the edge of the room where Zoya Nazyalensky stood imperiously. Her navy gown, probably a Parisian import courtesy of her aunt, glimmered under the chandeliers. Her gloved fingers worried her curled hair absentmindedly until her sharp eyes locked with Nikolai’s. He would have liked to think her frown lightened by the slightest degree, but it was probably his imagination because she was still furious with him for the deal he made with Kaz Brekker.
A young man, too young to have seen war, came scurrying up to them and offered a flute of champagne to Zoya. She thanked him and waved him off, but even with such brief interaction, his face instantly transformed into one of a lovesick boy. Nikolai’s grip on his own glass tightened.
“Another of your aunt’s chosen suitors?”
“Yes. A young lord from up north.”
“I think I rather like him. He’s charming. Not too overbearing, cares for me, listens to my advice .”
“I’ll be campaigning on that side of the room. I suggest you do the same on this side. Mister Eden is quite eager to talk to you about your promises to the labor unions.” She said hurriedly, not giving him any chance to speak. She swept away from him leaving the faint smell of flowers and champagne in her wake.
Nikolai stayed rooted to his spot for a few moments longer, contemplating what he’d have to do to earn her forgiveness. Perhaps some new jewels, or another outing to the airfield. His wallet already felt lighter.
Sighing, he placed his empty glass on a passing waiter’s tray and turned back to the crowd, ready to mingle. He’d barely taken two steps before Mister Eden approached, a hopeful look on his face. His well worn suit was noticeably patched in several places and the other party-goers seemed to avoid him like the plague.
“Nikolai, my boy!” The older man shook his hand enthusiastically. “I’m elated that you’ve decided to campaign for chairman of the council. Finally, we’ll have someone that cares for workers’ rights and the poor!”
Nikolai wished he would keep his voice down. While it was true he cared about those issues, they weren’t exactly with people who held those same views. Cornelius Smeet was a well-known lawyer to the wealthy- he helped them get away with whatever they wanted, for a price of course. Nikolai had no idea how Mister Eden, a well-known union organizer, got on the invite list. He’d publicly decried at least half of the factory owners in the room.
“Of course, Mister Eden. I’d be happy to discuss policy with you later, but-”
“And your brother! Nothing but a puppet for the young and rich. No backbone or moral compass. No sense for what’s really going on in the world. It’s a miracle you share the same blood.”
Nikolai sighed as he caught sight of a familiar, annoying figure.
Speak of the devil, he thought, as Vasily arrived with his usual entourage of flashily dressed friends. His brother spotted him instantly and started making his way over, an arrogant smirk already on his face. Other guests trailed after him, no doubt wanting a glimpse at the spectacle that was about to take place.
“Hello, brother. I see you’ve been busy associating yourself with...the proletariat?”
Nikolai took a deep breath, then pasted on his most polite smile. “Vasily. It’s been a while since we’ve seen each other. How long has it been?”
Vasily flicked a piece of dust off his sleeve. “Too long. You haven’t attended many social events this season. Could you be here only because of the rumours of Russian agents? I shudder to think of the red tide infecting even English politics.”
A few of the ladies at his side gasped dramatically and started fanning themselves vigorously. Nikolai could feel tension starting at the base of his neck. The surest sign of an oncoming headache. “Russian agents? Here? How preposterous. I stand for labor reform. Not a massacre like the Bolshevik Revolution. I still desire a peaceful London.”
“You talk of labor reform as if it is nothing. What do you think will happen after that? Before we know it, those brutes will be taking money out of our pockets and tossing it directly into the slums? No, what we need is better enforcement of neighborhood borders. We don’t need the dregs of society leaking into our beautiful parks and homes, now, do we ladies?”
“Of course not, Lord Lantsov,” a girl agreed as she batted her eyelashes.
Nikolai raised an eyebrow at the title. “Lord? Last I checked, Father is still alive and kicking.”
“Just getting used to the title, little brother.” Vasily made an obvious show of looking around before turning back to Nikolai, “Anyways, where’s that Miss Nazyalensky that’s always hanging off your arm? I heard her aunt has been searching for an appropriate gentleman for a husband for her, and as it happens I’m looking for a wife. Mother seems to believe she is a great candidate. Of course, if one were to look past her mixed parentage, that is.”
His fist started moving of its own accord, but before any damage could be done to Vasily’s insufferably smug face, Zoya materialized by his side and laid a restraining hand on his forearm.
“Mister Lantsov. What a pleasure.” The way she ground out those words made it clear his presence was anything but that. His gaze raked her from head to toe, then back up, his smirk never leaving his face. Nikolai felt the sting of Zoya’s nails as they dug into his sleeve.
“The pleasure is all mine, Miss Nazyalensky.” He gave her a quick bow, and straightened once more, somehow looking more snobbish, “I won’t pretend that we haven’t been talking about you. As I understand, you’re ardently looking for a husband. What would you say to giving me that honor?”
There was a high pitched ringing in Nikolai’s ears as he took a step forward. The temptation to punch his older brother was almost too much to resist. Nikolai contemplated on what exactly he would give to be given that chance right then and there. His entire inheritance probably, maybe his seat on the city council, or even his left arm. But luckily for his imbecile of a brother, movement at the edge of the room drew Nikolai’s attention away.
Kaz Brekker and his crew had arrived.
“Jesper, you’re in the kitchens. I want to know what the servants know. Inej, sneak up to the study when you have a chance. Find what we discussed earlier. Nina- look for the mark. Matthias, go with her,” Kaz ordered as they ascended the steps to Smeet’s mansion. The house loomed in front of them like a castle that housed dragons. The structure was massive and ornate and Kaz hated every inch of it. Everything from the marble steps to the oak doors was nothing but excess bought at the expense of the poor.
“And me?” Wylan practically squeaked. Kaz sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. The boy’s American accent would stand out anywhere in London’s high society. “Go with Inej. Learn a thing or two about how to pick locks. Don’t speak to anyone, we don’t need more questions.”
He nodded vigorously. Jesper peeled off, presumably to find the servant’s entrance. Nina and Matthias moved closer together and through the doors. Kaz genuinely hoped they’d be convincing with the ridiculous cover story they crafted. Their task was an important one, and if they failed to establish contact with their mark, he’d need a new plan to deal with Rollins.
Inej placed her hand lightly in the crook of his elbow and his heart skipped a beat as he fought back the wave of nausea and the briefest flash of giddiness.
“Sorry,” she muttered in her lightly accented English. “Don’t want to look out of place.”
“It’s fine.” Mentally, he was already counting down the seconds to when she’d leave and he’d no longer feel like he was drowning. His hands were clammy under his gloves.
They stepped through the open doors and were immediately assaulted with bright lights, loud music, and shrill laughs. Inej said something about visiting the washroom, or the coat room, he wasn’t sure, then she was gone with Wylan trailing after her like a lost puppy. The heat that had come from her hand still lingered on his arm, and he suppressed a shudder-- whether it was from relief or the absence of her warmth, he didn’t know. Kaz took a moment to compose himself, then straightened up and put his “business face” on.
The first person Kaz picked out from the sea of well-dressed figures was Nikolai himself. As he watched, Nikolai’s neutral face contorted into rage and his arm pulled back menacingly, ready to swing at whichever idiot got him so riled up. To Kaz’s disappointment, a petite woman in navy pushed her way through the crowd and stopped him. Zoya Nazyalensky, one of the usual thorns in Kaz’s side. Tense words were exchanged and Nikolai looked ready to come to blows again, but then his eyes locked with Kaz’s. He looked like he could use some help, so naturally, Kaz turned around and started walking in the opposite direction. Lantsov could solve his own problems.
As Kaz started walking through the room, he felt the stares of people trailing after him, but he wasn’t sure if it was out of curiosity about his cane or recognition as the ringmaster of the Cirque de Lie. No one moved to talk with him and Kaz preferred it that way. He stuck to the edge of the room and made sure to carefully catalog each face and detail. He circled London’s finest collection of pigeons for nearly an hour before he saw someone interesting.
Near the piano in front of the window was Heleen van Houden. Diamonds flashed around her neck and arms, no doubt purchased with profit from her side job as a madam. Luckily, Inej was already gone and hadn’t seen Heleen. He didn’t need his favorite spy freezing up on him. Mentally, he bumped Heleen up on the list of people he wanted to see go down with Rollins. Inej would be even more useful to him if she didn’t have past traumas haunting her. He told himself he had no other reason for wanting to be rid of Heleen.
He brushed past Nina and Matthias who were conversing with a man he’d never seen before, but knew. A red handkerchief stuck out of his breast pocket. The lyrical cadences of Russian drifted over and Kaz let his mouth curl in a small smile. Things were going to plan.
“...and my son! He’s going to graduate early from King’s College! Soon, he’ll be taking my place!” a chillingly familiar voice chortled. Kaz felt his blood freezing as he mechanically turned towards Pekka Rollins, the man responsible for ruining his life.
He had grown fatter since Kaz had last seen him. A heavy gold pocket watch could be seen peeking out from his waistcoat, an obvious sign of wealth. Kaz’s grip on the head of his cane tightened. One solid swing right at the base of the skull could do it. He’d get away cleanly in the pandemonium, the nearest police station was almost a kilometer away. The Cirque de Lie would just move on to another city and none would be the wiser.
A light touch at his elbow had Kaz flinching away, but it was only Inej.
“I got what you wanted.”
Kaz gave her a nod. Across the room, Nina and Matthias also seemed to be wrapping up their conversation with sincere handshakes. Jesper was probably already waiting for them outside.
“Time for us to make an exit.”
“Stand watch,” Inej instructed Wylan. He nodded and immediately stood straight backed against the door to Smeet’s study. She sighed. “Look natural. Whistle if someone’s coming.”
He nodded eagerly and Inej stepped inside. It was musty and dark, and as her eyes adjusted, she found a lamp on the desk. Switching it on revealed walls of bookshelves, each stuffed with ledgers and loose papers. The desk itself also had several loose pages on it and several drawers. Inej carefully sifted through the papers.
A bank memo about a servant’s pay. A receipt from an automobile purchase. A letter to a Mr. Issacs. Inej frowned as she recognized the name. She quickly memorized its contents to the best of her ability so she could copy it down later. Arjun would be interested in it.
She moved on to the drawers. The top drawer held nothing but writing implements and scraps of paper. The second had tallies of what looked like household expenses and those of his wife and child. The third was locked with what seemed like a Schuyler lock. Inej fished a lockpick out of her pocket and got to work. She could almost feel Kaz’s gloved hands guiding hers as she went through the familiar motions of working a lock’s tumblers. A few moments later, she’d removed the lock and was sorting through stacks of papers. She scanned each one quickly, looking for Rollins name. She didn’t want to think about what she’d have to do if she couldn’t find the right papers in there.
She spotted a “Mr. R” and opium mentioned in the same line. Heart racing, she skimmed the rest of the document- yes, this was exactly what she needed. She grabbed a pen from the desk, pulled down a glove, and starting writing. Fifth Harbor. The Prince of the New World. Fifty crates of Parem July 20th.
She flipped through the papers one more time, looking for the last piece of information Kaz requested- there. She pulled a bank statement out. Wylan let out a flat whistle. Damn .
She quickly stuffed the paper down her glove and tossed the rest back into the drawer, then relocked it. She’d just straightened her dress when the door to the study opened, revealing a confused housekeeper. Wylan was nowhere to be seen.
“Why are you in here? The party is downstairs, miss.”
Inej opened her mouth to speak, but before a single word could come out, the housekeeper’s eyes widened in understanding. “Oh you poor dear, you don’t speak English, do you? Let me guide you back.”
Inej nodded mutely and thanked her in her worst English.
Kaz lounged in his seat at the head of the table, his crew sitting in a line to his left. Nikolai sat at the other end, his own group seated on Kaz’s right. He mentally tallied their combined assets.
Inej Ghafa was sitting on his left, her eyes scanning the room silently. She had come from India a few years ago for schooling and had gotten in a rough spot before Kaz had pulled her out. She proved herself extremely capable, not only on the wire, but as his best spy. It’s what made her the Cirque de Lie’s best acrobat and his most trusted crew member, and if there were rumors that she was involved with an Indian liberation front of some sort, he didn’t pry as long as it didn’t affect his profits.
Next to her was Jesper Fahey, a sharpshooter. Kaz wasn’t too sure how he ended up as part of his old troupe, but he was all too eager to leave their previous employer and join Kaz’s show when he decided to branch off from Haskell. Some would call it the height of foolishness to have a suspected Indian nationalist and a stuntman who also had some connections to a Nigerian nationalist group, but Kaz didn’t care. Or if he did, he made sure not to show it.
Seated beside Jesper was Wylan van Eck, the youngest member of their crew. An American immigrant, who had yet to become accustomed to the gritty English streets, but he was a quick learner. Kaz paid him to run most of the pyrokinetics for the show.
Then came Nina Zenik, one of Kaz’s best finds from the London slums. A Russian defector that no one trusted with anything more than having their fortune told. More often than not, her “rubbish” fortunes turned out to be true, a fact that allowed her to continue to be in Kaz’s employ despite nasty rumors about being a Communist.
And Matthias Helvar...a decent man who’d had the misfortune to come across Nina while fleeing eastern Europe. He’d do anything for Nina, which meant he’d do anything for Kaz.
Nikolai cleared his throat. “Mister Brekker. What do you have for us?”
Kaz nodded at Inej and she withdrew some papers from her pocket. “We have confirmed the fact that Rollins is the one behind this new Parem market. I found old cargo manifests and suspicious transactions involving his bank accounts.”
Zoya Nazyalensky snorted. Kaz turned his attention to the raven haired beauty. She was a little younger than Nikolai, and if his sources were correct, had served alongside him in the Great War. Currently his campaign manager while fighting for the female vote in her spare time.
“Old receipts won’t help us. Even if we publish them, he can claim they’re faked. He’s done it enough times himself to know that.”
Kaz waved a hand dismissively. “Of course. But we also have information about a new incoming shipment. Fifty crates.”
“Fifty?!” exclaimed Genya Safin. “The hospital will be overrun with addicts and those who overdosed.”
He smiled indulgently at the nurse. She’d been a medic during the War, and apparently a damn good one. He’d come across her name several times in the newspapers.
“That’s why we’ll intercept the shipment, catch him red-handed, and effectively ruin him for life.”
“July 20th,” Nina mused aloud. “The timing’s a little tight, isn’t it, Kaz?”
“Not if we follow the plan. If you all do as I say, we’ll all be able to watch Rollins and his cronies hauled off to jail right before the sun rises on the twentieth. Then we can see his pretty blonde head,” Kaz pointed his cane at Nikolai, “Seated as chairmen. Everyone wins.”
“And what is your plan?” David Kostyk asked hesitantly. His hand found Genya’s and their fingers twined above the table, in plain sight. Kaz tried not to roll his eyes. David really should learn to keep emotions hidden in a den of thieves and thugs.
“That’s for me and my crew to know,” Kaz replied with a tight lipped smile. “Can’t have any potential leaks. You nobles should continue on as you were and no one will suspect a thing. Understand?”
Zoya looked ready to argue, but Nikolai put a hand on her arm. “We understand. Whatever it takes to get the job done, Brekker.”
“Excellent. We’ll be in touch.”
Chapter 3: Masters of Illusion
There were many wonderful things about the Cirque de Lie. The acrobatics. The stunts. The sights. The sounds. The food. Its tents held the promises of a night that could be spent in a dream, one that ended too soon and left you wanting for more and more.
In a time before Kaz had taken up the mantle of ringmaster, he used to be one of the participants of this dream. He used to wonder and gape at the contortionists, the dancers, and especially the illusionists. He could remember so clearly watching coins and cards disappear and reappear. He watched as the masked man unveiled a previously empty stool to reveal a beautiful woman holding a rabbit. He marveled at the mastery, and some small part of him wanted to believe it was magic.
But then his parents died, and the streets became his home. Then he learned what real magic was-- it was making pennies disappear from ladies’ purses, wallets and watches vanishing from gentlemen’s coats, bread and apples seemingly appearing out of nowhere. Desperation and starvation were Jordie and Kaz’s first ringmasters.
“Wylan, I need two more Parem substitutes tonight, and tell Pim and Anika to meet me in my tent. I need them to be escorts tonight. And I want you to supervise the First-Class box tonight.”
The younger boy’s eyes widened with each instruction given. It was becoming more habit to rely on the American in his crew. While Kaz trusted Inej for the more important bits of information, he trusted Wylan to just do what he was told-- not out of some sort of blind obedience but because he was entirely too predictable, and Kaz liked that better than a yes man.
“I just gave you two bottles last night,” Wylan said, dusting his stained hands against his apron. He was working on a new fireworks display. He said something about mixing pigments to create more colors or something to do with the chemicals to prolong the burn, Kaz wasn’t sure.
“I didn’t need the tally,” Kaz snapped, but as he turned to leave Wylan caught his attention again.
“Kaz….umm...I don’t think it’s such a good--”
Sighing, Kaz turned around quickly, “Wylan, do I look like some sort of drug addled fool?”
He didn’t wait for the boy to answer.
“No. I’m not. Just do what you’re told and give me those vials before Jesper finishes his act.”
Without another word, Kaz left Wylan’s lab and strode back down the path towards the Hall of Mirrors. It was the quickest way to his tent and promised more privacy. At least that was the theory.
He more or less felt Inej pick up his trail from Wylan’s tent and he waited a long while before he stopped inside the entrance to the hall of mirrors before he spoke.
“Anything you want to say, Wraith?”
“Wylan’s just trying to help you, you know?” He heard her voice, but she had yet to appear. A true feat since he was surrounded by a dozen reflections of himself, but he couldn’t catch the barest glimpse of even her shadow.
“Wylan should mind his own business.”
“Why are you asking for Parem substitutes? You can’t possibly be trying to sell that off as the real thing. Especially not with your Lantsov association.”
Kaz rested his gloved hands against his cane, not speaking until Inej appeared right in front of him. He might be the master illusionist, but she never failed to be the true artist of disappearing.
“I don’t need to explain myself, Inej. Not to Wylan, and certainly not to you,” he said.
She crossed her arms over her chest. “I have risked a lot to stay on with you, Kaz. I have a right to know whether or not you might destroy everything just because you’re playing around with Parem.”
“Then leave,” he said simply.
“You know I can’t.” She scowled. “It’s tricky enough getting into this blasted country, and to get out, especially when you have coppers scenting out Indian nationalists, is a bloody nightmare.
Kaz shrugged, secretly pleased, “Then I guess you’re stuck trusting me, unless you can find another troupe that chooses to ignore certain political affiliations.”
“What are you doing with the Parem substitutions?” she reiterated, a touch of anger still coloring her voice.
“All will be revealed in due time.”
“Kaz, if you’re using—”
“For God’s sake, it’s not for me,” he snapped. “Now, if you find that so hard to believe, I might need to find another acrobat.” The pair stayed in a heated silence for a few moments until Kaz knew she wasn’t going to say any more. “I need you to pull out all the stops tonight. We have a few special guests coming, and it would be poor form to not give them the best show possible.”
Inej stared at him, a question lurking in her warm brown eyes. “You need me to play Acrobat, again?”
Kaz shook his head. “I need you to play what you’re good at, which is being the Wraith. Leave the theatrics and charming to Nina, I need you in the shadows.”
“What am I looking for?”
“The elder Lantsov’s closest associates and then Rollins’ closest distributors.”
She raised an eyebrow. “That’s not the kind of information you get over a standard meet and greet, Kaz.”
He grinned at her. “I guess you’ll have some leg work to do. Maybe even make suspicious visits to a certain Indian liberation leader that happens to be close neighbors to our dear friend Mr. Lantsov.”
A silence stretched between them-- Inej’s brown eyes challenging the endless dark depths of Kaz. After a moment, she finally sighed and stepped away from him.
“I didn’t hear a please.”
Kaz raised a hand to his chest in mock supplication. “Oh my dearest star, please would you be a dear and use your marvelous abilities to spy on our enemies and bring me in the information I so desire?”
Inej was a woman of few words, and as she walked away she displayed just that as she raised a middle finger against his laughter.
Ever since the Great War, Zoya has had to make adjustments in her life, starting with reluctantly agreeing to her aunt’s insistence of her finding a husband and ending with Nikolai’s ridiculous impulses to find help in the dirtiest of places. She sat down on the filthy bench with a sniff, and curled her nose in disgust when Nikolai offered her what looked like sticky popcorn.
“Don’t tell me you don’t like caramel,” he teased, popping a few pieces into his mouth. “I know for a fact that you have a jar of it hidden under your bed.”
“What I do or do not have under my bed is none of your concern,” she huffed, pushing away the snack. “What should be your concern is the fact you will be stuck in this sectioned off area with your competitors under the disgusting little hands of Kaz Brekker. Do you realize what this could do to public opinion of you?”
Nikolai munched silently for a few moments. “I’m sure the odes to my good looks won’t be worse for wear. And as for my competitors….you know what they say about keeping your enemies close and all of that.”
“You’re not taking this seriously,” she said flatly, looking out onto the rapidly filling stands. From where Kaz Brekker had assigned their first class section, they would be able to have a clear view of any and all the acts without the obstruction of other attendants.
“On the contrary, I am taking this quite seriously, why else would I go to Brekker for help?”
“You could have just trusted me,” she hissed, feeling a surge of indignance rise in her temper.
Nikolai sighed. “I do trust you, Zoya. You know that. But we are losing badly, and running out of options. The vote is coming up, and if we don’t do something about Rollins then all will be lost, and we’ll either have Kirgin’s indifference or my brother’s arrogance. Which would you rather have?”
She knew he was right, but her pride wouldn’t let her admit it. Thankfully they were saved from answering as Pekka Rollins himself arrived with his son in tow.
“Ah, Mr. Lantsov, Miss Nazyalensky, what a wonderful surprise.” He gave an oily smile and held his hand out for Nikolai.
He shook it gracefully and offered a smile of his in return, “Mr. Rollins what a pleasure.” His eyes moved to the young man who stood hesitantly by his side. “And a good evening to you, Alby.”
The boy shook Nikolai’s hand and stepped back behind his father. Alby Rollins was a boy of eighteen, and currently attending one of the most prestigious schools in the country if Zoya remembered correctly. He had inherited his father’s strong jaw and nose, but despite his height there was still a softness about him that made his youth so apparent. He kept looking to the entrance of their section where two very imposing figures leaned against a wooden pillar. One a girl with blonde hair and the other a boy who looked like the size of a wall. Both wore plain clothes, but Zoya almost swore she had seen them somewhere else before.
“I had no idea that we’d be sharing this space,” Rollins continued.
“I’m sure you were looking forward to a nice evening with your son, and the men who are quite big….fans of yours,” Nikolai said just as Kirgin and Vasily appeared at the other entrance with the American boy, Wylan, leading them in.
“Compliments of Mr. Brekker,” Wylan said as he made sure the adults settled into the space, “He invites you all to a private dinner after the show. If there is anything you need, an associate will be right outside to get it for you.”
“We’ll start with whiskey, boy,” Vasily said offhandedly.
“As you wish, sir.” Wylan nodded and bowed out.
Rollins, who had already forgotten what Nikolai was talking about, turned his attention to his son who whispered something into his father’s ear. Zoya watched as Rollins gave his son a firm nod, and the young man disappeared with the two thugs in tow.
“Should have known you would be here, Nikky,” Vasily said joining their group, “You always had a taste for oddities.”
Vasily’s muddy brown eyes glanced briefly at Zoya, and she saw a muscle twitch at Nikolai’s jaw. It was a good thing, because as long as she concentrated on soothing his temper, then she won’t have to focus on her own.
“You’ve met Kirgin, I’m assuming,” Vasily continued, gesturing towards the round faced man by his side.
Kirgin startled at the sound of his name, too busy staring at Zoya’s chest, before smiling up at Nikolai.
“I believe I’ve had the honor at my last birthday party,” he said, his cheeks dimpling.
Nikolai mirrored the expression. “That was quite an affair. I had hoped we would be friends rather than rivals.”
“There’s really no reason that we cannot be both,” he said.
Nikolai opened his mouth to respond, but Vasily finally took notice of Pekka Rollins watching the exchange with interest.
“Ah, good evening Mr. Rollins. I wasn’t expecting you here at a show like this.”
Rollins shook Vasily’s hand jovially. “My son insisted when he saw that I had been sent tickets by a messenger this morning. He really insisted we go. Although it seems, I have been used, since he seems to have run off with some friends.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Zoya muttered.
Pekka Rollins turned a sharp eye on her, but she just smiled in return.
“Speaking of, what are you doing here, Vasily?” Nikolai broke in.
The elder Lantsov grinned, “Why it seems I was sent a special invitation by Kaz Brekker himself. He said it would be an honor having a man such as myself be in attendance of tonight’s show. I hear that he has recently acquired a new act.”
Zoya frowned. New act? Brekker didn’t say anything about a new act at their meeting. Was this some new ploy that was supposed to get something out of Rollins or Vasily? Or was it just some new gimmick for his tacky show?
She looked to Nikolai for clarification but he looked just as confused as she was. And maybe she would have asked for a private word with him so that they may try to determine what Brekker might be playing at, but the swell of violins started from an unseen orchestra and slowly all the torches in the space were being blown out by an unfelt wind.
Nikolai, Zoya, and the rest of the men in their private section took their seats just as a flash and a bang exploded in the middle of the ring, with Kaz Brekker rising from the ashes. The crowd applauded. Her companions sat back. Zoya leaned forward eyes squinting at the young ringmaster, determined to pick apart his illusions. The Cirque de Lie was about to begin.
Chapter 4: A Thin Wire
The show was going off without a hitch- Wylan’s pyrokinetics in the beginning hadn’t set off any fires, thank God, and Jesper was in the middle of the same sharpshooter routine he pulled off every night. Kaz felt a satisfied smile creep onto his face as Jesper had an audience member toss two coins into the air and he easily shot a hole clean through both of them.
Grinning, Jesper pulled a chain out of his pocket, strung the coins on it, and presented the token to a blushing lady. She batted her eyelashes as she pressed the necklace to her chest. They had a brief exchange Kaz couldn’t make out, then Jesper was back in the middle of the ring, ready to dazzle the crowds with another trick. Kaz mused that he had done Jesper quite the favor, because if Wylan wasn’t holed up in his lab at this moment, the American boy would not be happy.
Jesper was reaching the end of his act, and Kaz realized that the acrobatics were next. He used his cane to push himself off his chair, then limped off to the backstage area to check if she had all that she needed. Before he was able to push the curtain aside and enter it, however, Wylan ran up to him, face flushed.
“What’s done?” Kaz drawled. He didn’t have the patience to deal with the boy’s theatrics.
“The parem substitute. This batch is exactly what you asked for- odorless and colorless and in a powder rather than a liquid.” He offered two vials of it to Kaz, which he took and inspected. The work looked impeccable, as usual. He slipped them into the inner jacket of his coat.
“Good. Go back to the show, make sure Rollins and the others are comfortable.”
With a quick nod, he scurried off. Kaz moved to part the tent flap, but it suddenly flew open to reveal Inej. Her acrobat’s costume of purple silk and rhinestones glittered in the light from the torches that lit the circus grounds. A crown of flowers topped her inky black hair, but her expression was anything but regal- her eyes were blazing and her lips were pulled into a disapproving frown.
“Kaz Brekker, you better know what you’re dealing with if you’re going to mess around with parem.”
“I told you, it’s not-”
“Not for you? I’m well aware of what you claim. Just know that I will not pick up after you if your whole scheme goes sour.” With that declaration, she stormed off towards the main tent. Kaz scowled and trailed her. Why did she have to make everything so difficult with her goddamn morals?
Kaz was greeted with the final gunshots of Jesper’s act as he re-entered the main tent. The crowd erupted into thunderous applause and Jesper took bow after bow, pivoting after every one so he could see each guest. He always was a crowd favorite. Kaz waited for him at the edge of the ring and gave him a nod as he exited.
“Good work, Jesper. Go get some rest.”
“Will do, Kaz.” With a triumphant whoop, the taller boy ran off, presumably to find Wylan.
Kaz took a deep breath, then tilted the brim of his hat downwards and entered the ring. The whoops and bleacher stomping of the audience filled him with a familiar thrill that he never got tired of. He basked in it for a few moments more, then spread his arms wide, cutting the applause short.
“And now, ladies and gentlemen, our headlining act! The lovely acrobat from the banks of the Ganges River! Miss Inej Ghafa!”
A spotlight snapped on and focused on Inej’s slim figure perched on a platform high above them. She took a few steps forward, then there was nothing between her and the dusty ground but a thin metal wire Kaz could barely see. She looked weightless, as if the rules of gravity no longer applied to her. If anyone was worthy of flight in their grey world, it would be Inej.
Kaz backed out of the ring as the audience was focused upwards. The music began to swell and Inej started her act as she usually did, three steps forward on the wire and a sweeping bow for the audience below.
The music picked up its pace and Inej responded. She took several running steps and executed a perfect aerial, her long hair following her arc of motion. Despite her grace, Kaz frowned. She’d never done that trick on the high wire before. He’d barely even seen it in practice, when the wire was mounted lower and she had a net. Another run and twirling jump had Kaz gripping the head of his cane tightly. She was being reckless.
The crowd ooh’d and ah’d as she completed jump after jump without hesitation. Then Kaz saw a quick moment of doubt in her movements as she paused in her routine- a spike in the music, the shrill whine of a violin, then Inej was bending backwards for a blind flip- Kaz didn’t know what went wrong. Perhaps she slipped, or wasn’t able to stick the landing. Regardless, he saw her bobble for a moment- flowers from her crown drifted over the audience as they shrieked, whether out of fear or in delight. Kaz was halfway out of his seat before Inej quickly righted herself and was once again arching through the air in a beautiful flip Kaz had never seen before.
The music came to a rousing finish and Inej paused in the middle of the wire, arms outstretched as if she could gather the cheers of the entire tent as they gave her a standing ovation. Kaz could not decide whether to clap politely or plan the tongue lashing he’d have to give her about doing stupid things that could lead to disfigurement or death.
Thankfully, Inej didn’t draw out the applause and left quickly, forcing Kaz to focus on his current job. He strode out into the ring again and rapped his cane on the ground.
“From the snowy wastes of Finland, watch as he displays the strength of a hundred men! Be prepared to be wowed by Matthias Helvar, the White Wolf!”
Inej pulled pins out of her hair as she strode briskly back to the dressing tent. Her act had went well today, despite trying new tricks she hadn’t attempted before. The Cirque de Lie would be the talk of London this week, she’d made certain of it.
Five minutes later, the silk and rhinestones of her costume had been replaced with familiar leather and soft cotton. Inej made sure the knife sheathed at her waist was secure, then once again made her way to the main tent. The acrobat was gone and discarded, and all that remained was a weapon and spy.
One of Kaz’s child pickpockets was waiting for her at one of the side flaps. “We loosened the pegs here, Miss Inej,” he whispered conspiratorially.
Inej thanked him and he scrambled off, presumably to do another one of Kaz’s neverending list of tasks. Inej carefully lifted the heavy canvas and slipped into the darkness within. She ended up right under the first class stands. She could see the shine of well oiled shoes and the hum of incredulous voices. A quick peep through a gap in the stands revealed that Matthias was currently tossing barrels on top of each other to form a pyramid. Inej was familiar enough with his act to realize that she had plenty of time to gather some intelligence for Kaz and maybe even Arjun.
She listened carefully and tried to identify who was who in her section. She needed to find Rollins, then pray that he would let something slip to Vasily. The beaded blue train had to belong to Zoya Nazyalensky, and Inej’s hunch was confirmed as she berated Nikolai for flirting too much with some giggling girls from a neighboring stand. Inej smiled at that and moved further away, trying to pick up on Rollins’ nasally tone.
“Another thousand pounds? Consider it done.”
Inej’s ears perked and she took a few steps to the left. She could see two pairs of men’s shoes.
“I’m throwing another soiree in a fortnight, Mister Rollins. I would be delighted if you came. It’s for my closest supporters only, very exclusive.”
“Also,” Vasily said with a hushed voice. Inej moved as close as she dared and strained her ears. “What’s the progress on our, ah, Nikolai solution?”
Solution? They couldn’t possibly be talking about- Inej glanced down the bench, where Nikolai sat. She gritted her teeth and clenched his hands if solely to keep them from drawing her knife and killing them. They truly were the lowest scum of society, to be plotting a man’s assassination while the target was no more than ten meters away.
“I’ve paid the men from Birmingham. Arjun Chandra and the Indian Liberation has been set up as the fall man.”
Inej almost didn’t hear the next few sentences as her mind reeled from shock. It was like misstepping on a high wire without a new to reassure everything would turn out fine. Arjun’s cover had been blown. He had to flee, or the coppers would kill him, but only after they beat the name of every other Liberation member out of him. She had to go warn him, get him out of this blasted country-
“Next Monday. By noon, it will be done. Best if you start writing a moving statement now,” Rollins chortled.
Out of obligation towards Kaz, Inej stayed there until intermission and heard every single, terrible thing the men had planned to make their lives even easier. Armed men would do a drive-by shooting of Nikolai’s office in the early morning while he was sure to be there, working. Vasily would easily win his campaign if Nikolai wasn’t there to oppose him, and as a bonus, they’d clean out the Indian Liberation circuit working in London.
As soon as the first bells of the intermission signal rung, Inej was dashing out of the tent. She found Benny, the pickpocket who’d helped her earlier.
“Paper and pen, now.”
The bewildered boy did as she asked and she scribbled out a quick coded message to Kaz, telling him of what she’d learned. She covered the scrap with tightly cramped writing, then handed it back.
“Give that to Kaz, without delay. Tell him I’m visiting my Eastern friend.”
She didn’t wait for a reply before she turned and started sprinting towards Arjun’s safe house. At this hour of night, there probably wouldn’t be any passenger ships departing for India, but if she could find a cargo ship, maybe a spice trader, then Arjun would have a chance.
She found her favorite balcony and swung up in one smooth motion so she could run on the rooftops instead. Below her, suspicious looking characters milled about and she could catch the occasional glow of a lit cigarette. She remembered her first week alone in this city after she’d been thrown out from Heleen’s finishing school for insubordination. She didn’t have a cent to her name and didn’t know anyone except Arjun. Technically her handler, but more like an older brother. He’d arranged a meeting with Kaz and had gotten her her current job. He was her one link back to her past, the one who reminded her of why she was here in the first place. For country, for family, for pride.
The familiar modest townhouse came into view. Inej slowed her pace. The house was dark, but Arjun did always go to bed early. She dropped onto the second floor windowsill and made quick work of the lock.
The inside of the house was quiet. The room she’d entered wa the guest room and it looked like no one had disturbed it for a while. A thin layer of dust clouded the air as she brushed her fingers against the nightstand.
The creak of floorboards had Inej drawing her knife. She trained her eye on the door as if daring it to open. One slash at the throat, then if that didn’t work, stab and twist in the abdomen-
Arjun. Inej sheathed her knife and opened the door. Arjun’s relieved face greeted her.
“Thank god. I was about to send for you. I’ve been made. We need to go, now.” He talked quickly as he practically ran down the stairs. Inej followed, puzzled.
“We? Was I exposed as well?”
“No, but it’s only a matter of time. It’s hard to say how I’ve been made, and who knows how long it’ll take them to figure out that you’re connected to all of this.” He started to rush through the house, stuffing various papers in a bag over his shoulder. “There’s a ship in the harbor from our comrades disguised as a spice trader. It leaves tonight, and if we hurry I’m sure they won’t mind one more passenger.”
They reached the foyer of the house. A single candle that burned on the table illuminated the packed bags resting on the floor.
“We don’t have time to go back to the circus for your things, but--”
“Arjun, this is too sudden, I can’t just leave-”
He went on as if Inej hadn’t spoken. He grabbed her hands instinctively tugging her closer to the door. “I’ve already taken care of our circuit. Our mission here is done. We can go back home. You can go back home. Don’t you want to see your parents? ”
“I do. But…Arjun…There’s going to be an assassination- I can’t just-”
He threw his hands up in frustration. “Hang these white men and their petty squabbles. Let them fight themselves. It is not our job to help them.” His gray eyes stared into Inej’s. “What do you have left here?”
Inej opened her mouth then closed it. Her thoughts circling around her parents then to back to the circus. Her parents’ smiling faces then back to Jesper and Nina laughing with her as they ate a meal together. Her old life in India then back to working with Wylan as he suggested more stunts for her act. Her home then back to an infuriating boy with a cane and a crooked kingdom set inside a striped tent. She slipped off the thin wire that held her aloft.
In the distance, the church bell rung the eleventh hour.
The crowd was collectively holding its breath. Even Nikolai felt his grip on the seat tighten as Kaz moved towards the grand finale of his act. The heavy material that lay flat on the surface couldn’t have been hiding a trap door. Nikolai knew the layout of the grounds where the Cirque de Lie was set up. There’s nothing but hard packed dirt, and yet with a flourish and a spark, Kaz twisted the heavy material and out appeared three large boxes decorated in the circus’ colors. With dramatic flair that could rival a film star’s, he kicked open the boxes to reveal that they were weighed down with heavy lead pipes, a fact that made his feat all the more impressive.
The people roared and Nikolai joined them. He would have to ask Brekker how he did that. That is, if he chose to tell him the truth.
“You’re acting like a child,” Zoya said as she got up from her seat and smoothed out the wrinkles in her dress.
“You mean I’m properly appreciating magic,” he corrected, brushing off popcorn kernels from his suit.
“You mean tricks?” she countered.
Nikolai opened his mouth to counter her point when Wylan reappeared at the entrance.
“If the gentlemen and the lady would follow me,” he asked formally. “Mr. Rollins, will Alby be joining us?”
“I suppose not,” Rollins sniffed, “He seems to have disappeared.”
“I’m sure he’ll turn up, sir,” Wylan responded stiffly, his brassy accent stark against Rollins’s polished one.
Nikolai and Zoya were the last ones to exit the closed off section. Vasily and Rollins followed Wylan closely, but Kirgin fell back to walk beside them.
“Truly spectacular show tonight, don’t you think?” he asked, clapping Nikolai’s back good-naturedly. If he was any other man, the behavior would have been suspicious. But Kirgin had always been a simple man with a penchant for debauchery and any sort of title that would make him seem a little more honorable. Up until this election, he was a dear friend of Nikolai’s.
“It was indeed,” Nikolai responded absentmindedly. He watched as Vasily bent down to whisper something in Rollins’s ear.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen that particular acrobatic routine done before and I was just at last night’s show!” Kirigin continued, not seeming to notice Nikolai’s inattention.
“You go to the circus often, Kirgin?” Nikolai asked, surprised.
At this the other man gained a bit of a flush and side-eyed Zoya before leaning in towards Nikolai conspiratorially. “I find the circus’ company a bit more….flavorful than regular women….”
Nikolai forced a smile. “No need to say anymore.”
“And when your brother invited me for another night I could hardly resist,” he said at a normal level.
“Why did he invite you along?” Zoya asked, wedging her way into the conversation.
Kirgin’s face brightened even more. “I haven’t the faintest, Miss Zoya. Something about smoothing over relationships and good shows of faith.”
While he was busy staring at Zoya, her eyes caught Nikolai’s and they held each other’s gaze in an unspoken question.
If Vasily brought Kirgin along to show the people that there was no bad blood between them then that couldn’t have been a coincidence. Either Vasily was overconfident and bringing Kirgin was merely part of him flaunting the fact victory was almost his. Or his brother knew something he didn’t.
“Welcome, welcome!” A woman’s cheery voice greeted them at the entrance of a large circus tent and Nikolai forced his mind into the present.
Nina Zenik had changed out of her performance clothes and in its place she wore a low-cut red dress that clung to her in all the right places. The glitter that made her sparkle under the firelight during her act was still lightly dusted onto her face and shoulders, casting her skin in a beautiful glow. She made eye contact with each of the guests, but let her startling green eyes linger obviously on Rollins.
“We hope the gentlemen and lady enjoyed tonight’s show,” Nina purred as she and Wylan helped get them seated around the large wooden table ladened with different foods and drink, “And we hope that tonight’s supper can measure equally.”
Nikolai was seated to the left of the head of the table with Zoya to his right and an empty seat directly in front of him. Next to Zoya was Nina who was giving her utmost attention to Rollins. Vasily was across from him sitting directly next to Matthias—who looked like he was ready to snap his plate in half with every giggle out of Nina’s mouth. Kirgin was placed next to Jesper closer to the end of the table and, from what Nikolai could see, the pair were already chatting away.
As the company sat, waiting for their illustrious host to make an appearance, Nikolai couldn’t help but marvel at the strategy of their placements. With Rollins and Vasily far enough from the head of the table and properly engaged with the rest of the circus cast, whatever conversation Nikolai and Zoya night have would be protected.
“Hope you enjoy the food,” a dark voice said suddenly. Kaz emerged from another entrance of the tent. He wasn’t wearing his dark red coat when he came and sat by Nikolai. He was dressed more in the fashion of respectable gentlemen with a dark coat and a simple vest. His gloves were still on.
“It’s a bit rude to keep your guests waiting, is it not Mr. Brekker?” Vasily asked, looking down his nose as Kaz leaned back in his seat.
“Unlike pretending to run your father’s business, running a circus is quite complicated, Mr. Lantsov. It must take up a bit more of one’s time when the show ends.”
Twin spots of red appeared on Vasily’s cheeks, but before he could spit out whatever retort was on his tongue, Kaz had already moved his attention to Rollins. And Nikolai was sure that he didn’t make up the darkness that flickered over the depths of Kaz’s eyes. While he looked at Vasily like he was a child to be pushed away, he looked at Rollins like a cat playing with a mouse.
“I hope you find the food to your satisfaction, Mr. Rollins,” he said. To his credit, his voice didn’t betray an ounce of the malevolence his eyes held.
The man tore his attention away from Nina to give Kaz a patronizing smile.
“I’m sure it’s of a fine enough quality for common people.”
Nikolai felt Zoya stiffen beside him.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked calmly, which was never a good sign. Nikolai had had to apologize to enough people who’d suffered Zoya’s wrath to know.
“Let’s not pretend that the circus business is so ludicrous that it would have the finest of foods.” Rollins smiled as if that made it better.
“Not everyone has a taste for richer foods,” Nikolai said. He painfully remembered the days after he got home for the war. His parents had thrown him a luxurious party. All of his schoolmates were there, drinking to his survival and to their victory. And as far as the eye could see were cakes and meats drenched in rich sauces and dips.
He could clearly remember himself painfully smiling through the crowd while pretending that every loud noise or every bang of a chair didn’t make him tense-- always waiting for the next gunshot or attack. Then someone had pressed a plate of food into his hands and he’d had no choice other than to take at least a nibble to be polite. Years of eating hard bread and watered down soup had made his tongue a hard and unrelenting thing that only ate to live. His mouth was not prepared for the assault of the spices or the density of the food.
It was a miracle that he had excused himself gracefully enough to throw up in the bathroom where a soft knock had interrupted his retching.
“It’ll get better,” Zoya had said quietly, slipping into the bathroom. Nikolai had been too sick to even tease her about what other people might say if they had seen her. She had placed a wet towel against the back of his neck, cooling the burning there. “The first time my aunt had tea, I could barely keep my eyes from watering when I ate the cake she ordered.”
“I hate them,” Nikolai had grumbled, his head pressed against the edge of the sink. “I hate that they eat and drink as if it were easy. As if there is always going to be food. Dominik--”
“Wouldn’t want you sulking,” Zoya had said crouching down to where he was. Her dress had been silver and it wrinkled as she knelt beside him. She had forced him to turn his head to look at her and he steadied his racing heart in the blue of her eyes. “Forget about them-- You don’t have to be who they want you to be anymore.”
He had barked out a laugh. “Of course, I do. Which of us has been lying to their aunt that they’re looking for a husband amongst that lot?”
Zoya rolled her eyes. “That’s not what I mean and you know it. You were almost blown out of the sky, Nikolai.” He winced as a memory of fire and thunder flashed in his mind. “You should have died, but you didn’t.” She was holding his face now. “And that means everything after I picked you out of the sky is extra. Every heartbeat, every moment you have right now is extra life and that means you can do whatever the fuck you want with it.”
Nikolai remembered those words so vehemently. He remembered the moment they fully sunk in and took root in his mind. The small seed grew into a tree of possibilities and had given Nikolai enough strength to walk back out of that bathroom with a smile on his face and a determination that belonged to a renewed man.
A renewed man, but a man who never forgot the pains of the old life.
"Forgive my brother, Mr. Rollins,” Vasily interjected. “It seems his tastes have been much affected by the war.”
“What would you know about it?” Nikolai asked struggling to keep his voice in control. “I don’t remember you fighting in the trenches.”
“A gentleman never forgets his manners.”
“And an ass never seems to stop being one,” Zoya retorted, loudly enough that Jesper had to use a coughing fit to cover his laughter.
“Anyways,” Nina drawled, breaking the tension by pulling Rollins’s attention back to her. “May I interest you, Pekka, in a fortune reading? I don’t do it for free for just anyone you know? Kaz over there makes me charge normal guests two pence each fortune.”
“I don’t know, Miss Zenik,” he purred disgustingly as his hands wandered a bit too low on her back. “I’m really not one to believe in all that hocum.”
“Oh, just give it a try.” She winked at him as she pulled out a deck of tarot cards from her sleeve. “You never know, you may like it.”
Nikolai wanted to watch as Rollins finally gave in and Matthias looked like he wanted to lay him flat, but Kaz chose that moment to lean into his ear.
“Watch your back, and Nazyalensky’s too. Things might get a little get messy on your end, Rollins and your brother are planning something.”
“What?” Nikolai couldn’t help but let out a cough of surprise.
“Local gang is involved. That’s all we have for now. I’ll send a couple of my guys to trail you tonight.”
“I’m assuming your acrobat is on the hunting grounds,” Nikolai said gesturing to the empty seat in front of him.
“Inej is….out there. But don’t worry that pretty little head, Lantsov. We’ll try to get you out alive and on top.”
“Kaz Brekker, did you just call me pretty?”
The younger man smirked at him and leaned away, leaving Nikolai to turn this piece of news over in his mind. Vasily was willing to hurt him? He could expect some of that behavior from Rollins, but his own brother? Maybe a small part of Nikolai wanted to believe that despite all their differences, there could still be a way for Vasily to be the older brother that he used to admire. Looking at his smug face from across the table, he knew that he was being naive. Vasily was a selfish prick at birth, he didn’t stop being one in his adult life.
“Oh my dear, how wrong your little spirits are.” Rollins had somehow gotten even closer to Nina’s side, and brushed the hair at the back of her neck off her shoulder. “Are you sure you heard them correctly?”
“Why yes of course I heard them correctly.” Nina smiled as she brushed her hand across his chest. “The cards very clearly say that your closest friends are the esteemed Mister Buckley, Lord Cavenaw, and Mister Kantor.”
“No, no, no.” A knuckle on her cheek, a dangerous look in his eyes. It was a disgusting display that Nikolai was surprised Kaz allowed for one of his closer circus performers. “You wound me, my dear. I’ll have you know that I run with a finer circle of gentlemen, not the riffraff you described. Why, I just dined last night with Lord Chamberly, Lord Terrence, and Lord Christansen. Fine men that keep this city running.”
And keep you in office , Nikolai thought as he took a sip of his wine. Rollins had half the city’s politicians in his pocket. Keeping the rich where they were and leaving the poor to suffer and suffer. But his reign of terror was ending. With Kaz’s plan he could change everything. He just had to survive long enough to get elected.
Nina needed a hot, rose petal bath. She needed one this instant with a plate of chocolate dipped strawberries and a glass of champagne. It’s what she deserved after a long night of flirting with that awful man and his cheap cologne. But what she had instead was a half-empty bottle of vodka the kitchen staff saved for her.
She understood why bad men did terrible things, but why did they also have terrible taste in scents? Rollins’s disgusting musk clung to her clothes and despite her attempts to breathe through her mouth, nothing was helping.
Matthias was silent the whole way as he walked her back to her tent, and she almost wanted to tease him about having a lot of restraint tonight, but that also would make her remember the hot sweat of Rollins’s palm on her cheek. She swiped a sleeve across her cheekbone, trying to get rid of the phantom touch, but all that accomplished was wafting his scent right into her nose. She grimaced.
“Are you going to be alright?” Matthias stopped her at the entrance and placed both hands at the sides of her face.
“Of course, I am,” Nina scoffed, leaning into one of his palms. “And you shouldn’t worry so much. You sound like a fussing mother.”
“I know you hate those jobs,” he said instead bringing her closer, shifting his arms to wrap around her waist.
“ You hate those jobs, Matthias. I just hate awful pigs who don’t know how to properly dress themselves.”
“Your insults are weak tonight.” He placed a kiss between her eyebrows.
“I can get nastier if you want me too, my love,” she said sleepily.
“You should rest. I will see you tomorrow.” He kissed her sweetly and let her go, and Nina couldn’t have loved him more. It had been a long road to get the sweet, soft-hearted boy hiding behind the large group of muscles to come out, and the wait had been worth it. Matthias knew when to give Nina space and when to love her gently. He knew what her favorite snacks were when she was upset or when she was happy. He was everything she deserved.
Nina watched Matthias turn out of view before starting to walk inside her tent, but not before she heard the sound of sniffles coming from inside.
“Inej?” Nina cried incredulously. Her eyes adjusted to the dim lamplight, and still she had to blink a couple of times before she could comprehend the sight sitting on her bed. Inej hadn’t changed from her dark leather and cotton and was hugging her knees to her chest as tears slid down her cheeks. “What’s wrong?”
“Arjun left.” Inej said it so quietly that Nina was glad she had moved to sit on the bed beside her. “His cover is blown. My whole unit is gone. Everything fell apart.”
Nina knew that Inej had something to do with the Indian liberation. She never spoke much about it or gave her details, but Nina was Inej’s closest friend and she knew how much that work was worth to her. But it was more than that, Nina realized, because Inej was crying and with a little more silence Nina knew why.
“You didn’t go with him,” Nina said. Inej didn’t say anything. “I thought you’d always planned on going home.”
Inej didn’t confirm or deny Nina’s statement, but her tears came faster. Nina didn’t want to push. So instead she waited, which was never really one of her strong suits.
“I- I almost did,” she said shakily, “I went as far as the pub. Then I couldn’t. I looked back and I saw the tops of the circus tents and I thought of you and Wylan and Jesper and Matthias and--”
She cut off abruptly, but Nina understood.
“Kaz?” She wasn’t trying to finish her sentence. Nina had asked an all encompassing question that went beyond the list of people that had become part of this mismatched family that had somehow banded together.
“I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you what a bad idea having feelings for Kaz Brekker are considering you’re one of the smartest people I know. But are you sure about this?”
“I- I don’t know Nina. It’s not just about Kaz.” Her voice hitched on his name, but she continued talking. “There’s so many of my people still trapped here. And I’m just supposed to give up because of one man? I’m just supposed to stop caring because someone decided that it wasn’t safe anymore?”
The tears stopped and with every word Inej’s voice got stronger.
“This is the last job, Nina,” she declared, finally taking a deep breath. “After this scheme with Lantsov, I’m-- I’m going to quit the circus.”
“What are you going to do?” Nina asked, already unscrewing the top of the vodka bottle.
“I want to do more for my people. I want them to stop living like second rate peasants just because of the color of their skin. I can do more. I know I can.”
“Oh you will,” Nina said, smiling and pouring her a drink in one of the glasses on her bedside table. “Because you’re Inej Ghafa the greatest acrobat and wraith to ever live. You can do anything you want.”
Inej finally smiled and took the glass.
“And Kaz?” Nina tried after taking a drink. The vodka left a pleasant burn in the back of her throat.
Inej’s smile dropped slightly. “I don’t want to talk about that-- at least for now-- Can we just drink and pretend we can do anything?”
Nina laughed and toasted Inej’s glass. “My dear, we don’t have to pretend at all.”
Two chapters left! Due to real life obligations and also the increasing length of the final chapters, there'll be two week waits between each chapter from now on. Hang tight!
Nikolai sighed as he signed another piece of paperwork. This early in the morning, there weren’t any other workers in his campaign office. Frankly, it was a bit too quiet for Nikolai’s liking. He would have come in later today, but he needed to get things in order just in case this whole plan fell apart. At least Zoya was due to arrive soon and he had something to look forward to, and with any luck, she would bring him one of the pastries from down the street.
Humming tunelessly, he tried to focus on the dense lines of text in front of him, but his mind kept wandering to Kaz’s scheme that was to take place the next night. He’d had David do some sleuthing on his own, and it only confirmed how well-connected Kaz was. Rollins did indeed have a ship set to dock the next night. But any information about its crew or cargo was nonexistent. Nikolai didn’t like the idea of Kaz holding all the cards, but it wasn’t as if he had another choice. Not if he wanted to make some real change in London.
A squeal of tires came from the end of street and the hair on the back of his neck stood up. No one should be in a hurry at this time of day. He stayed still for a moment as the sound of the car got closer, years of survival instinct telling him to move, to get out. Time slowed to a crawl as a black car drove towards the office, then came to a stop right in front of the big window that proudly proclaimed it as Lantsov property. The backseat door opened. Just before the first bullet pierced the glass, Nikolai had already flipped his desk over and crouched behind it as glass and metal sprayed over his office. The barrage of gunshots was almost comforting, a welcome return to the battlefield.
Just another rich boy looking for some glory, eh? His commander had smiled, not unsympathetically, as he patted Nikolai on the shoulder.
No, sir. I’m here to fight against fascism.
Jesus, that’s even worse. Another idealist.
Another scene flashed to mind. Dominick, broken and bleeding in the trench as a medic tried to save him. His last desperate words to Nikolai drowned out by another volley of gunfire, then a cold silence that cut to the bone.
A flash of another moment. Zoya, eyes blazing as she put pressure on a wound in his side. Live. You’re not allowed to die on me, Lantsov. I order you to live.
It was that memory that pushed Nikolai back to the present. Bullets were still flying everywhere so he stayed put. The desk was good enough cover for now, but he’d have to move as soon as the assailant needed to reload.
There was a lull and Nikolai didn’t hesitate before launching himself to the side. The door to the hallway was already open, all he had to do-
There was another round of gunfire. There was a brief, burning pain in his right arm, but Nikolai had so much adrenaline running through him that it was quickly pushed aside in his mind. He made it to the hallway. He leaned against the wall, praying to whatever deity that would listen to let it end. The rhythm of the gun as it spat out bullet after bullet engraved itself into his brain until he couldn’t think of anything else.
Count the rounds, you understand me boy? If there’s even a second of delay of you loading the machine gun, there’s no dinner for you tonight!
Nikolai’s finger had bled from the freezing metal, but he’d done his job. The gunner never had to wait for him to finish loading the gun. And then the gunner had been killed, some German sniper. Nikolai was pressed to the mud floor, the stench of rot and wet thick in nostrils. There was the same dead silence, occasionally punctuated with frantic shouts as they tried to locate the sniper, tried not to die, tried to live.
Nikolai was still trying to live. The gunfire stopped and he heard a car door slam shut. Without thinking, he stumbled to the front door and threw it open. The car was already turning onto another street, he couldn’t distinguish a single detail.
“Nikolai!” a familiar voice shrieked. Zoya?
Warm hands were on his face, shoulders, arms as she practically screamed at him. His ears were ringing, he couldn’t hear her. His eyes were focused on where the black car had turned the corner and vanished. He wasn’t familiar with the specific car, but he was sure he’d seen the model around. Who could have- Kaz’s warning popped into his head. Kaz had known. Kaz Brekker, the man who knew everything. Kaz Brekker, who could easily have pulled the strings. Distantly, Nikolai’s logic screamed at him to consider why Kaz would do such a thing, but fear and shock were thundering in his blood to even consider the question. Kaz Brekker was the man who had the world dancing on his palms, he didn’t need a reason.
“Kaz- It was Kaz, Zoya, we have to go now-”
Her blue eyes were wide and filled with panic as he tugged at her arms. “Nikolai, you’re hurt, you’re bleeding, just please calm down, let me help you-”
“It was Kaz! I know it!” he roared.
“You’re not making sense! Please, let’s go inside and get you cleaned up-”
“It was him! He did this! We’re not safe here, we have to- the circus Zoya, he’ll be there. Are you coming with me?”
Inej lounged on Kaz’s chair, legs thrown over an armrest. It was more of a throne really, a fact that she never stopped teasing him for. Colonizers and their need for big symbolic chairs that were no more comfortable than sitting on the cold hard ground.
She played with her knife, tossing it in the air and catching it. She was supposed to meet with Kaz and tell him on no uncertain terms of her intentions. After this job, she was going to leave, for good this time. What she was trying to ignore was the unexplainable flutter of nervousness that went through her everytime she rehearsed those words in her mind. Would Kaz be disappointed? Indifferent? Maybe-
There was a commotion at the front with several raised voices that brought her out of her contemplations. Then Nikolai Lantsov stormed in, Zoya close at his heels. His entire right sleeve was drenched in blood and his arm hung stiffly at his side. Zoya looked distraught.
Nikolai looked around wildly before his eyes focused on Inej. She didn’t like the look in his eyes- he usually looked kind, if not a little calculating, but at the current moment, unhinged was the only word she could use to describe him. She sheathed her knife and pushed herself off the chair.
“Can I help you, Mister Lantsov?” she asked carefully.
“Kaz- that scheming bastard, where is he?!” he demanded. Inej flinched at his tone.
“Kaz is out running an errand. I can take a message for him.”
He approached and Inej kept her spine straight as he leaned over. His pupils were dilated and the usual warm hazel was replaced by a wide and yawning black. “Always errands with you folk isn’t it? What do you really mean, Ghafa? Thieving? Extortion? Murder?”
He seized her arm and Inej fought the wave of revulsion that rose in her. His grip was strong, forceful. Hard enough to trap her. He leaned in closer and continued talking, but all Inej could see was a faceless man leaning over her, his breath hot on her face as a hand pinned her to the mattress, the other hand creeping under-
“Always so pious, Ghafa, but who knows...” He grabbed her other arm. Inej froze. Her mind went blank and she started to retreat back to the place she used to go when Tante Heleen forced a customer on her. A numbing, unknowing and unfeeling place.
Her hand brushed against her knife and suddenly, Nina’s words came to mind. You’re Inej Ghafa. You can do anything you want.
Without thinking, she grabbed the knife and wedged it under his chin. Someone was yelling in the background- Zoya? Nina? She didn’t know. All she could see was the faceless man, all she could feel was hot breath and strong hands digging into her arms hard enough to leave bruises.
Then the hands are ripped away from her and Nikolai was stumbling back as a shadow stepped between the two of them. Kaz. The expression on his face was terrifying as he swung his cane at Nikolai again, catching him right in the chest. Zoya was suddenly between the two men, trying to keep them apart. Jesper also rushed into the tent and held Kaz back.
“What in the hell do you think you’re doing, Lantsov?” Kaz snarled. His eyes, darker than she’s ever seen, promised murder. “You do not touch Inej. You so much as breathe wrong in her direction-”
“He was shot, Brekker! By some of your goons, no doubt!” Zoya exclaimed.
“And he’ll get a lot worse if he ever lays a hand on one of my performers again.”
Zoya took two steps forward until she’s toe to toe with Kaz. She jabbed a finger at his chest. “You better not have been the one to arrange that shooting. Because if you were…”
Her eyes narrowed and to Inej’s surprise, Kaz took the tiniest of steps backwards. “If either of you are as smart as you claim you are, you’d know that if I wanted to kill you, you’d have been dead before I even took a step into the city. He,” he said viciously as he jerked his chin towards Nikolai, “should look to his own family for answers.”
After that declaration, he turned to Inej, an unspoken question in his eyes. She sheathed her knife and nodded. She was fine, or at least she was going to be.
Satisfied, he turned back to Nikolai. “I may be a liar, but I always follow through on my bargains, We’ll hold up our end, just try not to get killed until then. Jesper, see them out. Make sure Mister Lantsov doesn’t bleed out on our grounds. I don’t want to be held responsible for his death.”
Jesper gave Inej a concerned look, but followed Kaz’s instructions and led Nikolai and Zoya out of the tent. Just before he was pushed out, Nikolai glanced back towards Inej, a hint of an apology lurking in his eyes.
Then it was just Inej and Kaz. He got closer to her and hesitatingly raised a gloved hand. It rested a hair away from her cheek, close enough that she could feel the warmth radiating from his hand but not close enough to feel the smooth leather.
“Are you okay?” His voice was rough. A shadow of his previous rage still lurked in the depths of his dark eyes. Inej swallowed and nodded.
“I will be. He surprised me, that’s all. I’m sorry I pulled a knife on him, it could have compromised the job.”
“Of course. The job.” He dropped his hand and rested it on his cane. Inej noticed a smear of blood on the head probably from when he’d swung it at Nikolai. “Inej-”
“I’m leaving.” The words slipped out of her mouth before she could think. Kaz blinked slowly, once, twice.
“Not immediately, of course. But after this job, I was thinking… I want to do more for my cause-- my people. There’s only so much I can accomplish when I have to masquerade as a circus performer…” Words kept tumbling out her mouth, one after the other. Each one seemed to widen the gap between her and Kaz. His eyes went blank and he took a step back.
“So you don’t want to stay. Here.” Inej almost heard the unspoken with me .
“I do, but-”
“Your life is your own, Inej. You are free to do as you wish. I wouldn’t stop you if you wanted to board a ship bound for the West Indies right now.” He turned around and walked out of the tent. Inej almost reached out to stop him, but she didn’t know what she would say. Did she want him to convince her to stay? Did she want to hear those words? Would she throw away everything that she’s been working for, just on the off chance that Kaz would one day let her in? Inej sighed as she stared at the tent flap, feeling the weight of his words heavy on her shoulders.
This seemed to be the moment their fates would diverge, never to meet again.
“You’ll all disperse, I want it to be just me and Rollins on the ship, understand? We’ll tie up everything with a pretty little ribbon for Lantsov and get our money.”
Kaz received five nods of understanding and he let the corners of his lips curl up. This was the moment he spent years working toward. There wouldn’t be a single brick left of Rollin’s legacy after Kaz was through with him.
“If everything, is clear, then we’re done. Get some sleep, I cancelled tomorrow’s show so we’re not tight on time.”
Nina raised her hand and Kaz bit back a sigh. “Yes, Zenik?”
“The kitchen is low on waffles and I’m going to need some if you want me to cooperate with this insane plan.”
“Fine. Any important questions?”
There were none so Kaz dismissed them all. As expected, Nina left with Matthias and Wylan with Jesper. But he didn’t miss the fact that Inej lingered near the tent flap, a question clearly on her mind.
“Kaz, I didn’t mean-”
“It doesn’t matter.” He grabbed his cane and rose from his chair. He wanted to lie to himself and say that it really didn’t matter if she left or stayed. He wanted to ignore the disappointment that rested heavily against his chest when he imagined her gone. Maybe it was best if she did go. He’d probably recover from it. He took one step forward and a dull pain from his leg shot up. Then Kaz remembered that some things may recover, but it’s rare they ever heal properly. “If you want to leave, then so be it.”
“I don’t.” The admission hung heavy between them. Kaz looked up and found Inej staring at him. She bit her lip. “I like my life here, Kaz. But that’s the problem. If I’m here having fun and thrilling an audience, then who’s helping my country, my people? I don’t want to leave, but with Arjun gone and-”
“You and your lofty morals,” Kaz muttered. He started making his way out of the tent. “Why can’t you ever do something that makes yourself happy?”
He passed Inej and she fell into step next to him.
“This,” she said, gesturing at the circus around them, “makes me happy. And helping my people makes me happy. But I can’t do both. One will always suffer because of the other.”
Kaz nodded. A million little reasons and excuses and bribes were on the tip of his tongue. If he really set his mind to it, he could keep Inej employed at the circus, make sure that the Indian liberation will never have a leg up, and keep her with him. But he stayed silent. Some part of him always knew that this was inevitable. Inej wasn’t made for the painted costumes or the cheap tricks, she was more than that, and who was he to try and put her in a cage?
They neared Inej’s tent. Suddenly, she whirled around, a small, playful smile on her face. He felt his breath hitch at the sight of it. It was rare for Inej to smile these days, especially to smile at him. Her braided hair was glinting against the moonlight, and she was half-shadow herself in her black pants and shirt, but she was beautiful. And Kaz felt his resolve to let her go waver.
“Let’s go stargazing,” she declared. “There’s a good roof near the Lantsov mansion, and it’s a full moon tonight.”
A smile tugged on his own lips. “Is freezing your ass off in London weather your idea of fun, Ghafa?”
“Oh, don’t be such a spoilsport. You can call it reconnaissance, if you want.”
“Why?” Kaz asked. Not really saying no, but wondering all the same.
Inej shrugged. “Because you claim I never do anything to make me happy, while I know for a fact that you never do anything to make yourself happy.”
“What makes you think watching dead stars will make me happy?” Kaz said amused.
“I think you like the quiet. And what’s more quiet than dead stars?”
He agreed reluctantly, and not an hour later, they were sprawled on the roof of London’s wealthy, passing a bottle of whiskey between them. Kaz felt the heat of Inej roll off of her and fill the empty space between them. His stomach curled around itself at her proximity, but he took a deep breath. He inched his hand towards her and brushed the back of her hand with his. She tensed for a moment before turning it to clasp his hand.
Deep breaths . Kaz reminded himself. His gloves were still on, but the memories of Jordie’s warm body surfaced to his mind. The warmth that turned dead next to him. The feel of soft skin that was softer still because of the water. One stupid underwater trick. One that Jordie knew better to do when he was still coming off of a high from Parem. One second too late and Kaz lost his brother and almost his mind.
The feel of someone’s skin after that moment had never been the same. It reminded him of too much, but as he breathed deeply and sat in comfortable silence with Inej he found the terror almost manageable.
Beneath the blanket, he let his fingers intertwine with hers and he clasped Inej’s hand tightly.
One more to go! The last chapter will also probably be uploaded in about two weeks :)
Chapter 7: Finale
Kaz wasn’t always like this. He remembered days when he could still smile even if his stomach grumbled or he felt the biting cold of winter nip at his shoeless feet. He had Jordie. In those days, Jordie was the only solid thing that shielded him from the rest of the world. And before Haskell, Kaz still had that hope that Jordie could pull them out of that dirtied street corner they used to call home. He still had faith that his older brother would always be there to protect him.
Then Haskell came along. Gave them a job as petty thieves. Threw them into a world where the chaos of the circus seeped into your very blood. And while Kaz spent long hours learning tricks and picking locks, his older brother took a less….strategic route.
It wasn’t that Kaz had minded that Jordie had started using. The earlier substances were practically harmless. His brother would eventually stumble back in their tent with that far-off, glazed look in his eye and by the next morning he’d have a headache and get back to work.
That was the before. Then he got sold some Parem. That’s when Kaz’s whole world shifted.
Long nights of watching over his brother as his body shook and convulsed. The drug slowly eating away at the health that was coming back in his cheeks. Kaz had tried so many things to get him to quit. He hid the cursed vials. He took Jordie’s money. He made sure Jordie was so busy with the circus that he couldn’t have time to dose himself up again. But it was to no avail, until Kaz asked him to help with his new act.
“It could be just the two of us. The Rietveld brothers.” Kaz remembered saying. And that had worked. For a time.
Jordie learned how to pick locks. They chained themselves together for the pleasure of circus goers everywhere, and got out as fast as you could blink. For a time, it was enough. For a time Kaz had his brother back. But Parem was an uncomfortable third-wheel that was overstaying its welcome.
That’s why he knew that the underwater trick was not going to work. It was impractical, unnecessary, and Jordie wouldn’t be able to handle it. But his older brother insisted, said something about doing it together. And what did that get both of them? With both of them in chains underwater, and Jordie high out of his mind? It brought Kaz the feeling of his brother’s struggle against his chains and then the stillness only death could bring. It was the feeling of fighting the burning need to breathe as he had to undo both their locks, black spots swimming across his vision as he shoved his brother’s clammy body aside so he could surface and feel the sharp sting of air in his lungs. That was the day Kaz Rietveld died.
And it was also the day he realized that his brother died long before this moment. He had died the instant he accepted that first vial.
Cue in long months of tracking down distributors, drug rings, and it ended up with him on the steps of a wealthy manor, looking through a window to the face of the biggest importer of Parem in London: Pekka Rollins.
He had wanted to gut the son of a bitch right there and then, but something far more sinister had been birthed from Kaz’s mind. And instead, he walked away that night. He walked away with a vow to tear Rollins apart. Brick by brick, limb by limb.
And now as Kaz stared out into the water. The soft grunts of sailors trying to be quiet filled the night air, and there was something almost laughable about the scene. Rollins stood at the bow of the ship talking to various men, while the crew kept looking over their shoulders, looking entirely too suspicious. It was like someone had ripped a page out of a villain’s storybook, and pasted it in front of Kaz. Still, as Kaz watched every fake shipment of cotton being passed from sailor to sailor, he felt his blood thrum with anticipation.
Nikolai shifted nervously beside him. Kaz still hadn’t quite forgiven him for the scare he gave Inej, but given the circumstance of his almost murder he was willing to at least follow through on this deal. Besides, when Nikolai wins, Kaz wins, and that’s all that matters. Despite the nervous energy rolling off of him, he was surprisingly silent, up until he asked, “Where’s your man, Brekker?”
“He’ll be here. Don’t get your knickers in a twist.” Kaz rumbled. He squinted at his watch, and hoped that the furrow in his brow was disguised in the darkness of the alley.
Matthias was late. He should have been at the end of the dock by now with a squad of coppers. They had rehearsed this. Too early, they would be caught by the sailors. Too late, and their chance of catching Rollins would close on them faster than they could blink.
The seconds ticked by and still Matthias did not signal his arrival. Kaz tightened his jaw and started counting the boxes. If he remembered how many boxes were in that cargo hold, they were close to being done. If Matthias doesn’t show up soon this whole thing was going to topple over before it even began. Then all of a sudden Kaz’s stomach twisted when he caught sight of Rollins walking up to chat with the man standing at the bow of the ship.
Something must have given him away because Nikolai was suddenly at his elbow, craning his head this way and that. “What’s wrong, Brekker? Have we been made?”
“Shut up,” Kaz hissed as he shoved Nikolai back into the shadows. Lantsov was good at many things, but staying hidden was not one of them. “Rollins just showed up.”
The two men whispered to one another and then shook hands. But to Kaz’s horror, his target was starting to walk the gangplank onto land. He was leaving early. He wasn’t going to supervise the loading of the shipment. He was going to get away.
Without a word to Nikolai, Kaz moved out of the shadows and made his way silently to the end of the pier. He may not have Inej’s natural affinity to be invisible, but Kaz was raised a streetrat. No one notices them until it’s too late.
Rollins stepped off the gangplank with a couple of his bodyguards in tow, and Kaz almost smiled at the timing of it all. As they reached their large stack of contraband, Kaz stepped into the dim light of a dying lamp.
The older man flinched at the unexpected greeting, and to his men’s credit, they immediately raised their weapons in defense.
“Mr. Brekker,” he said calmly. “What a surprise. To what do I owe this honor?”
Kaz shrugged, leaning heavily on his cane. “Intercepting your Parem shipment.”
Rollins tilted his head in a mock show of confusion. “I’m sure I have no idea what you mean.”
“I think you do.” Kaz didn’t dare take a step closer, just in case some of his idiots had twitchy fingers, but he did lean in. “Because it takes a criminal to know a criminal, don’t you think?”
“Be careful, Brekker,” Rollins’ voice remained calm and even, but Kaz could sense a shift in the air. His temper was going to get the best of him. “It’s not wise to make unfounded accusations. Especially to police commissioners.”
“It’s not so much unfounded. Because I’m sure given a very thorough search of those cotton shipments, any fool can tell that those boxes have false bottoms.” Rollins’s jaw twitched, and this time Kaz did smile as he continued. “But why oh why, would a police commissioner who has no use for cotton imports considering how well politicians bribe him for his silence, need boxes with false bottoms, you ask? Now that is quite the tale.”
“Brekker, you shut your damn--”
“He needs them because Parem is a bitch of a drug to move across countries,” Kaz continued. “He needs them because they’re the only way to move that much Parem in a short amount of time. He needs them because how else would he profit from drug addicts across this country?”
Rage flashed across Rollin’s face. He’d probably never expected to be caught. “Even if all of that were true, you still have no proof. And who exactly is going to believe you? You’re a pisspoor ringmaster with no name and no good standing. I could have you arrested for slander and in a noose by tomorrow.”
Kaz shrugged again. “You could. But as it turns out, receiving aid from Russian revolutionaries gets you hung faster.”
Rollins’ face was the very picture of confusion. “What the hell are you talking about?”
Kaz opened his mouth to respond, but thankfully the stomp of police boots thundered behind him. He turned around and saw Matthias and Nikolai leading a group of two dozen cops towards them.
“Mr. Rollins,” Nikolai’s announced, strong and sure, “You have been charged for the illegal transportation of Parem and guns with the purpose of arming dangerous persons in London.”
“This is--How dare-- YOU HAVE NO PROOF!” Rollins sputtered.
“On the contrary,” Kaz said, a smirk starting to creep onto his face. He walked calmly to the crates that had already been unloaded. He smashed his cane at the nearest box and the harsh sound of cracked wood splintered the air. Bundles of cotton spilled out, but as Kaz swung his cane down once more, the false bottom shattered and revealed dozens upon dozens of small vials and the glint of stolen weapons.
“That’s-- That’s not mine!” He bellowed.
“According to these ship manifests,” An officer right next to Nikolai said holding up a document. “These weapons have come directly from Russia and are scheduled to arrive at the homes of Mister Buckley, Lord Cavenaw, and Mister Kantor. The payments are coming from you and Tante Heleen!”
Kaz didn’t think it was possible, but Rollins’s face got even paler.
“Under the authority of the crown, I charge you, Pekka Rollins, with--”
The charge was cut off as a gun from Rollins’ men went off. The sound of a gun from the roof behind him immediately shot back, taking down the original shooter. Jesper has always been a good shot, and hopefully making him sit up on the roof wouldn’t be the only good thing that came out of tonight.
But as returning fire came from the rest of Rollins’s men, Kaz ducked to the side, just as a shadow darted forward. He had half a mind to tell Inej to be careful, but that would be useless. Inej would do what Inej did best-- kill to protect. Kaz began to take out his own hidden weapon and start to return his own fire, then to his utter horror, one of the bullets from the enemy went wide and caught an unsuspecting Matthias. Nina’s scream pierced the gunfire and Kaz whirled around to see her lashing out at the men who were close enough to her. Kaz didn’t have a doubt in his mind that she would defend Matthias even if it killed her. And it was damn hard to kill Nina. Another round of other gunshots went off on both sides, and he saw Rollins start to run back towards the ship.
Kaz gave pursuit, and ignored the bullets that whizzed past his head. His vision tunneled to Rollins’s retreating back.
As Rollins stepped onto the ship, Kaz swung his cane at his unprotected back, causing to land flat on his face. He would have laughed if Rollins immediately hadn’t pushed up and grabbed the nearest crowbar as a weapon. Shouts and bullets sounded off in the background, but Kaz barely registered it. All his focus was on the man puffing his chest, and trying to look more intimidating than he was.
“I’ll have your head on a stick, Brekker. Do you know what you’ve cost me?”
“I know precisely what I’ve cost you.” Kaz stepped around him, keeping eye contact, “Your business, your name, and perhaps even your son.”
Rollins shot him a confused look, and just like his grand magic trick, Kaz lifted a heavy canvas tarp, revealing the trembling body of Alby Rollins.
“ALBY!” Rollins roared, forgetting his crowbar, he barrelled towards his son and Kaz stepped aside. “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO HIM?”
He grabbed Alby by the shoulder in an effort to wake him up or maybe hold him like the child he still was, but the boy only continued to convulse.
“I would think you of all people would know what the signs of Parem addiction looks like.”
“You’re right, I didn’t. But it’s not my fault, if your son was the one searching them out. He could have said no to the classmate that seemed too keen on him trying it. He could have said no when he was offered some at the circus or even more continued to say no when those same dealers gave him more and more. He could have said no. But here he is,” Kaz gestured to the crumpled form of Rollins’s son, “Desperate for more, even now.”
“You’re a bastard, Brekker.” Rollins spat. “You’re a sick bastard. What did I ever do to you?! What did my son--”
“The very fact that you don’t know just how poisonous you are is proof enough, don’t you think?”
The older man seemed to have age ten years when he met Kaz’s gaze again, and that’s when Kaz knew he had won. Here was Rollins, broken, defeated, and on his knees.
With a huge roar he tried to lunge at Kaz, but it was almost too easy for Kaz to sidestep and snap his cane down on Rollins’s wrist, breaking it. Rollins let out a howl of pain. He didn’t bother trying to hide his smile as his scream reached his ears. But it was even better to slam his cane down once more and knock the man out entirely. Kaz took his time then. He took his time to look a the blood dripping from where he hit Rollins on the head. The desperation and fear still lingering on his face. It was a sweet sight. Sweeter still when he heard the sound of boots running towards the boat.
By the time the police found Rollins, Kaz was gone standing in an alley and smiling as Rollins was cuffed and led away. Kaz walked behind the policemen and Rollins, noting the blood and dead bodies that littered the deck. From what he could see, most of the fatalities came from Rollins’ side. There were a couple of people nursing injuries, but at last they were still alive.
He spied Nina talking with Genya, and he wondered at how Nikolai was able to get the war nurse there so quickly.
“He’ll be fine, Nina,” Nikolai assured, patting her comfortingly.
“He doesn’t have a choice to be.” Nina’s voice was hoarse from held back tears, but she still managed to smile through it as Matthias breathed raggedly. Blood soaked the front of his shirt, but thankfully, the wound seemed to have stopped bleeding.
“We can take him to the hospital or we can take him back to your house,” Genya said, lifting her hand away from Matthias’ bandages. “Hospitals can be crowded, but we might get blood on your perfect floors, Nikolai.”
Nikolai shrugged, “After what Matthias did for us tonight, a little blood won’t kill me. Zoya might have a fit, though.”
“When does she not,” Genya smirked, then signaled to another two men who carried a stretcher in between them. “David, Tolya, just take him back to the house. I’ll have to go ahead and warn Zoya about the potential mess.”
The men nodded and did what they could to put Matthias’ body gently on the stretcher.
Nina met Kaz’s eyes and he gave her a nod. She gave him a mock salute and followed Matthias away.
Nikolai finally noticed Kaz standing there and gave him a tired smile, “Another job well done, Brekker.”
“Did you ever doubt?”
“When it comes to you, I never can tell.” He chuckled softly and in that space of kinship he extended a hand out. “Thank you for all you’ve done, Kaz. I know this might cost me greatly later, but it’s been a pleasure.”
Kaz returned his smile, and shook his gloved hand. “You’re right about one thing, Lantsov. It will cost you. Until then.”
“Until then.” He let go of his hand and then went to go talk to the police chief.
Kaz watched him go and then was hit with the sudden emptiness in his chest. For years, all he had was Jordie’s ghost driving him to avenge his death. His sole purpose working to bring one man down on his knees. And now….well now Kaz felt like he could float away and never have to touch the ground again. Maybe that’s what he would do. Maybe he would touch the sky only to crash down with it.
“Is that what you did with the Parem vials that Wylan made for you?” Inej’s voice came out of nowhere, per usual. Kaz didn’t respond, letting his silence answer for him. “Kaz, how could you--”
“They were fake,” Kaz said not turning to face her as she stood by him. “I had Wylan make a fake batch of Parem. It’s weak enough to feel the symptoms, but not enough to get addicted.”
“Why--” There was a growing wonder in her voice, and Kaz got scared at the sudden need within him to hear her approval.
“Alby was no use to me dead or gone beyond recognition, Inej,” he said quickly. “No more, no less.”
“Of course,” she agreed, though based on the lilt in her voice, it sounded like she didn’t believe him.
Kaz opened his mouth to argue, but thought better against it. He’ll let her think there was some good on him just for tonight. But he couldn’t resist revealing just one more piece of information.
“When the police start investigating the supposed connection between Tante Heleen and Rollins, they’ll find some rather incriminating documents listing the ill-treatment of children and mis-allocation of funds in her school. She’ll go to jail, and that means,” He caught the hope blooming in Inej’s dark eyes and he couldn’t even deny the warmth that spread through him, “You’re free, Inej. She won’t be bothering you again. You can go home. You can be whatever you want.”
If Inej looked shocked before, she looked like she could topple over at any moment. And despite the small heartbreak that came with the idea of Inej leaving, he steeled himself against it. He always knew that, eventually, she would leave. She was too good for London anyways.
After another wordless moment, she simply gave him a dazzling smile and started walking away. he watched her for a heartbeat, before she quickly turned and gestured to him.
“Let’s go home, Kaz.”