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It's late and you're still staring at the light

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The Barrel was near silent save for the unrelenting blaring of the plague siren. Most Barrel rats didn’t have the luxury of knowing that the plague was a hoax or of being able to flee the city like the merchers, so they hunkered down and waited to either get lucky or die.

Kaz’s stomach was in knots and had been since the sirens had first started going off. He’d thought that knowing the plague wasn’t real would soothe the irrational fear of the plague that was on his list of unpleasant souvenirs from the Queen’s Lady Plague, but it appeared that fear ran deeper than logic just like all his other fears.

The main room of the Slat was empty when he let himself inside. He could hear some shuffling and low voices up above, but all in all it was the most silent he had ever seen the Slat. No one had bothered to clean up the blood on the stairs from his fight with Per Haskell’s goons. He would order someone to do that tomorrow. Tonight Kaz let himself into Per Haskell’s office and checked the room and the living quarters behind just in case someone was lying in wait to get revenge on Per Haskell’s downfall.

The rooms were empty so he locked the door behind him and looked around. The detritus of Haskell’s pathetic life surrounded him. Useless papers piled the desk and the floor. Model boats were placed haphazardly on top of everything along with mugs of lager, some of which may have been sitting in the room for longer than Kaz had been in the Dregs. The living quarters were no better.

Kaz’s lip curled in disgust. Years in the Barrel had desensitized him to most disgusting things, but something about Per Haskell’s cave made his skin crawl. He really didn’t feel like dealing with this; his whole body was sore and his head hurt right between his eyes. The thought of cleaning up Haskell’s mess right now was horrible, but the thought of leaving it the way it was was even worse. He needed to take care of some of it.

He opened the office window—no lock, he’d have to remedy that in the morning—and started pitching mugs into the alley. When he was done with that, he kindled a fire and began feeding the model ships and papers to it.

“You need sleep,” Inej said.

Kaz looked over his shoulder. Inej was perched on the windowsill, watching him. He wasn’t exactly surprised to see her in that he’d known she was there just as he always did, but he was a little surprised that she’d bothered to follow him to the Slat at all. “I thought you were spending the night with Jesper and Wylan,” he said. They’d never discussed it, but that was the assumption he’d made when he’d left the Van Eck mansion.

“I wanted to make sure you didn’t stay up all night doing something ridiculous like cleaning Per Haskell’s office,” she said.

“It’s my office now,” Kaz pointed out, though he couldn’t think of it as anything other than the old man’s either.

“And it will still be like this tomorrow,” Inej said, hopping off the windowsill and coming to stand before him. “Come on. When was the last time you slept?”

He had her. Kaz tried not to grin. “Before Nina and I left to get her cells.”

Inej just looked at him. “As in through the night, Kaz.”

Kaz wasn’t even sure what the answer to that was.

Inej smiled a smile at was somewhere between fond and exasperated. “That’s what I thought. Come on, let’s go upstairs. Unless of course, you’re going to risk Haskell’s bed. I wouldn’t. I’ll bet those sheets haven’t been changed in the entire time I’ve been alive.”

Kaz knew they weren’t that old, if only because the Slat hadn’t been the Dregs’ headquarters for as long as Inej had been alive. “Don’t you need sleep too, Wraith?” he asked instead of pointing that out.

“Of course,” she said. “And I will sleep as soon as I know that you’re not going to pull another all-nighter.”

“I’m not going to pull another all-nighter,” Kaz said fully aware he was probably lying.

The look Inej gave him said that she knew that too. “Then come upstairs and prove it.”

Perhaps he would have kept arguing with her if he didn’t have quite so much of a headache. Perhaps he would have kept arguing if he could think of a single part of his body that didn’t hurt. Neither of those was true. He heaved a sigh. “Fine, lead the way.”

The made their way up the stairs towards Kaz’s attic rooms. Even though he’d told Inej to lead, she hung back by his side, letting him set the pace. He tried not to be annoyed.

Eyes peaked out of doors at them as they climbed up. The Dregs were looking to get a glimpse of their new leader. Kaz straightened his back and tried to look like he wasn’t relying on a combination of the railing and his cane to get up the stairs. Now was not the time to be looking weak. Tomorrow he would call the Dregs together and make sure they all understood he was in charge now and would not tolerate disobedience. Tonight he just needed to make sure he didn’t mess anything up.

Finally they let themselves into Kaz’s rooms. Kaz had told Inej to lock the door before they’d left the Slat to return to the Geldrenner Hotel, but she must have forgotten to close the window he’d used to get in from the outside because it still stood open. The noise of the the plague sirens, which he’d been able to block out while in Haskell’s office, grated on his nerves. He wished they would turn them off. The scheme was over, the sirens could go off now.

He crossed into his bedroom and began undoing the buttons on his coat. He heard Inej shift behind her and was contemplating saying something biting when she said, “Do you know what happened to Matthias?”

Kaz gritted his teeth. He did not want to think about Matthias. “No,” he said, hoping Inej would get the message.

“Do you have any theories?” she pushed.

Kaz set his coat on the foot of his bed and began undoing his tie. Why was she asking? Why did she want to talk about Matthias? Didn’t she know that the best way to deal with the death of a crew member was just to ignore it and keep moving? Ketterdam would kill you if you let it and the easiest way to let it was the slow down.

“Kaz?” she prompted. He almost couldn’t believe she was so naive.

“I always have theories, my darling Wraith,” he said trying to keep his voice level.

“What are they?” Inej said. “Do you think the Fjerdans-”

The plague siren was still screaming and he did not need the memories of the plague mixing with memories of Matthias and everything else that had happened of that. He wanted the noise to stop.

He didn’t consciously decide to do anything, but the next thing he knew he was across the room slamming the window shut. It didn’t really help block out the sound and it wrenched his leg in a supremely painful way. He caught himself on the windowsill before he could fall. “I hate that siren!” he snarled before he could think better of it.

Inej was staring at him with wide eyes. He realized he’d just inadvertently shown her a weak spot he’d never let on existed before. He knew he didn’t have to worry about that with her, but that didn’t stop him from cringing away from the mere thought of weakness.

As far as he knew none of the other members of his crew had been through a really bad plague outbreak. Sure plague was as common as heat and stench in Ketterdam in the summer, but most of the outbreaks in the last few years had been comparably mild and easily contained. The last time there had been a really bad outbreak of plague in Ketterdam Kaz had been fourteen and still on crutches from breaking his leg. The only other member of the crew who had lived in Ketterdam at the time was Wylan and Kaz was sure the merchling had been spirited away to the safety of a country house for the duration of the threat just like all the children of merchers had been. And that plague hadn’t even come close to the Queen’s Lady Plague. None of the others knew what it was like to walk down the street and see the bodies that the overwhelmed collectors hadn’t gotten to yet. None of them knew what it was like to hear the siren begin to ring over and over again day and night because of some obscure law that said the plague sirens had to ring whenever someone was reported infected or dead of the plague.

“Kaz,” Inej said slowly, like she wasn’t sure how to address his strange behavior. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” he said, not looking at her as he made his way back to his dresser. He’d dropped his cane in his rush to close the window and he had to lean on the the bedframe to keep from falling. “Just tired.” After a moment he went on, “I’ll go to bed. You don’t have to make sure.”

“Are you sure you don’t want me to stay?” she asked.

He could only imagine what that turn of phrase might mean if they were any other people but themselves, but he knew that Inej was just asking if he wanted her to spend the night in his armchair or on his windowsill. She’d made this offer before and he’d never taken it. He didn’t intend to take it now either. He knew himself well enough to know that he’d end up sleeping with his pillow clamped over his ears to block the siren out

“I’m fine,” he repeated. “You can head back to the Van Eck mansion.”

She looked at him. “You’re sure?” That was odd; she’d never questioned him about this sort of thing before.

“I’m sure,” he said before he rethought it and said something he’d regret.

“Okay,” she said. “I’ll see you in the morning, then?”

When he didn’t reply she stole quietly from the room. He tried not to notice that she used the door instead of opening the window again. Once he was sure she was gone he let himself collapse onto his bed.

The sirens kept ringing.