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On the Just Sea We Sail

Chapter Text

Kaz was sitting in his office, as he so often did these days. The rain outside didn’t only meddle with his increasingly worsening mood, but it also made his leg ache horribly, turning the climb to his room from a horrible, painstaking task into an impossible one. The Dregs also seemed to be hit with the melancholy of the weather because they not only screwed up one perfectly simple task, they screwed up two.

A vicious fight broke out last night in the Crow Club, chasing away whatever customers were unfortunate enough to be there to witness it, and it was started by none other than a few drunk members of his own gang. And a week before they let dozens of very well-fed pigeons slip through their incompetent fingers and right into enemy territory, giving them the joy of plucking easy cash from oblivious rich farmers.

They were mistakes that he couldn’t afford, not because he couldn’t take the insignificant monetary loss, but because slip-ups were more often than not accompanied by more slip-ups, and if he had to take any more of this stupidity he was sure someone was going to find themselves on the wrong side of his cane.

But he had to admit it wasn’t just the Dregs that were feeling out of their element, he did as well. Pieces of elaborate information fitting into plans were as always moving around in his head, yet unformed thoughts sat aside, waiting for him to make some sense of them, to give them shape and form and weight, but not all of it was veiled over by impatience and tints of worry.

She was supposed to be back by now.

Those few words pushed everything aside and demanded he give them his constant, undivided attention. He was by now used to Inej being gone for months on end, to that special corner in his head that was always dedicated to thought of her and only her, to the tightening of his heart whenever she sailed away from view on that ship of hers and the easing of it in relief when she showed up on the window of his room or when he saw a letter asking him to come to the Van Eck mansion on his desk, but this was different. She was gone nearly a year now with no message to speak of, not even the short and simple ‘No mourners, no funerals. W.’ that she sent when she was gone for longer than she anticipated.

He stood up slowly, heavily leaning on his cane as he put on his coat and hat and headed for the exit. The Dregs didn’t even try the bare minimum of dragging him into conversation that they usually would, and Kaz didn’t care if that was because they were afraid of his wrath after their failures, or because they too weren’t in a mood to play friendly, he just didn’t want to associate with anyone right now.

The rain refused to stop like Inej’s saints themselves had decided to punish the city for its sins, and the already screaming pain in his leg turned to agony with every step. Still, he went on, heading away from the noise coming from inside gambling dens and pubs and towards the docks.

He slowed down when he passed by the Menagerie, or what it used to be. He remembered when it fell apart, when it could no longer hold the financial debts that he had caused when he had Nina put the fake plague there, and when Kaz put in... certain efforts into making sure it will never recover. He also remembered the pure shock and that satisfying fear and damnation on Tante Heleen’s face when she was forced to put those tortured souls into Inej’s hand for a pitiful amount of money just to survive herself, the way Inej watched her from above even short as she was. She looked fierce and fearless and so undeniably, breath-takingly beautiful, almost as if she was more than human. But that night in the Slat she collapsed in his room, trembling and weeping until she was but only an 18 year old girl who had to face her biggest nightmare and had no courage left in her small body. That time he could not ignore her tears, so he sat by her, staring out into the night through the window until her hiccups receded and she fell into fitful sleep.

Now it was just a pile of burned, black remnants of a building it used to be. When they watched it burn from a nearby roof, she squeezed Kaz’s hand like that was the only thing keeping her tied to this plane of existence, and even when water started crashing in his head, threatening to break the dams he had been building piece by painful piece, he said nothing.

He walked on toward the 5th Harbour, not even knowing why he was going there. It was as if some foolish part of him, the happy, hopeful boy inside of him that reared his small head when he was unwanted, expected to see Inej clinging to the mast with that smile worth all the stars on her lips, waving at him, calling his name, as if her sole presence would stop the storm raging on Ketterdam. Even sensing his stupidity, he couldn’t stop his legs taking another and another and another step.

It was in moments like this, when desire to see her, be near her, even touch her, that he would have sold everything he owned if she would just sit on the windowsill looking at him with sun in her hair again, if she would just be close enough for him to get that familiar feeling, that innate knowledge she was there.

The harbour was as he knew it would be. Ships tumbling on the surface of the unsteady sea, barely contained by the Council of Tides, one or two tourists stupid enough to still be outside in this weather running for cover, grey clouds rumbling. He allowed himself one tiny moment of outward weakness, a shout swallowed by the storm, and then he straightened up, breathed in and turned around to go back to his empty office and the Slat devoid of the Wraith.

***

Inej spit out blood onto the wooden planks of the ship, holding her bruised stomach. Threads of black hair stuck to her face wet with sweat and rain, but even without them obstructing her view, she couldn’t see from the tears that blurred the swaying floor below her.

“Do you not tire of this daily routine?” asked the man who stood somewhere to her left. She knew him as Derry Pollet, one of the most prominent slave traders in the True Sea. He caught whoever he came upon, regardless of their ethnicity and gender, which made hunting him down an almost impossible task. He not only had no pattern in prey, but also in which ports he stopped in, which pubs he visited, which places he frequented. Pollet sold his catch to whoever offered most, filled up on supplies and was back on the water in a matter of a couple days.

It took Inej two years and dozens of favors returned before she managed to find him, and even then everything went right to Hell. She didn’t expect him to have so many people, so many weapons, and she definitely didn’t count on the five Grishas he employed that no living soul knew of.

The next kick hit her broken arm and she winced, barely containing the scream in her lungs.

“Come now, Wraith of the Sea, I am sure we can come to an agreement.”

She wanted to tell him what he can do with his proposal, but didn’t dare open her mouth. She feared that if she did, she would either start shouting, or much worse, crying.

One of the ruffians, whichever got the task to abuse her this time, kicked her again. She would say nothing, and as became her habit when she wanted to escape the pain of reality, she thought of Kaz. The sharp plane of his face, those unreadable eyes that would every so often soften when they were alone, the way his hair just barely curled in the wind, the scars on his hands.

She didn’t regret going after Pollet, not one bit, but she did regret that she didn’t have more time to scout and think of a solid plan and two instead of jumping right into action. If she had, he may now be in custody, the poor people on this ship free, and she would be catching up with Kaz on how his operations were going, sharing information they had gathered on their respectable fronts that the other is in need of.

And maybe they could be sitting on the roof of Wylan’s home, fingers entwined, leaning on each other, watching the stars and slowly relaxing, getting used to the proximity after all that time they were apart. She would slowly press her lips to his throat then, breathing him in, waiting, until he either moved away if it got too much or, the outcome she preferred, he’d kiss her. Some days they would kiss for a few minutes, others one or both of them couldn’t stand any contact, but their slow progress seemed to bring both of them happiness.

Another kick, even though it was losing on intensity, shot Inej back into reality. She wasn’t sure how long she was already a captive on the Illion, Pollet’s ship, but from the days she managed to count it must have already been at least a month and a half, maybe two. She prayed even now, after so long, that her crew made it to land safely, along with the damaged Wraith and the few people that helped them in a previous job and asked for a ride back to Kerch. Dorian could fix the ship, Oliander would take care of the injured and Freya, the Grisha that insured they made good time when the winds weren’t on their side, could take them to where they needed to go.

If they survived the stormy sea, they’d get back on their feet, and Loe, her first mate, would take over the jobs they had already planned. She trusted her with the lives of all those people suffering right now, waiting to be reunited with their loved ones and freedom.

“Very well then. Jung, cut her up.”

Inej scrambled backwards, awakening terrible aches with every movement. She was starved, tired, beaten, and her body refused to cooperate. She urged it, begged, cursed, but no muscle moved anymore.

Jung yanked her healthy arm up painfully, flicking open a small knife and pressing it into yet untainted skin just below her elbow. The place tattoos would mark who you belonged too.

A new kind of panic set in, an old one she hasn’t felt in years. It shook her body, put her mind into a frenzy, awakening animal instincts that made her trash her body with new-found energy, a futile attempt at getting away. When Jung let her go, she curled into a ball, closing her eyes.

“You have time to think about how you are going to behave tomorrow. Then I afraid we are going to have to start doing this seriously- your feet, maybe, or fingers. I wonder which will go first.” She heard Pollet say, in a voice so similar to Tante Heleen’s that she tried to shut her eyes even tighter. It was that almost apologetic voice, like he felt sorry he had to do this but she simply left him no other choice.

Now look what you made me do, Little Lynx.

Inej wished with all her heart she had her knives now. Their familiar weight would ground her, running her fingers over them and naming them one by one, a silent prayer, would give her strength. But she only had the cold, receding steps of her captors and the slam of the door that held her hostage in this small, dark space. Soon her slow breathing - more like a wheezing really - , was the only company she had.

She didn’t know how long she lay there motionless, mind blank, before she crawled over to where the small bowl of water lay. She slowly gulped, taking breaks after each time she swallowed to give her stomach time to get used to it. She still held an annoying aversion to it ever since a week ago they tried to get information out of her by almost drowning her in a bucket of sea water.

She had to get out of here, and had to do it very soon. All the plans she had made when left alone were only half-finished, bordering with those of an amateur, but she had no choice. Pollet was going to start upping his game, and she couldn’t afford to lose what he wanted to take, or any chance of escaping would go down the drain.

She dug out a piece of glass she snatched from a pile when the boy who was bringing her food ‘accidentally’ fell down and broke his captain’s mug that shouldn’t even had been on that tray in the first place from a crack in the boards, along with a thin pick Kaz had gifted her that was weaved through her shirt for emergencies. There were supposed to be two, but the other must have fallen off during the fight.

It wasn’t much, but it was something. Enough, if her Saints looked upon her.

Sankta Alina, Sankt Petyr, Sankta Marya, Sankta Anastasia, Sankt Vladimir, Sankta Lizabeta.

She rested her back on one of the walls and started thinking. She was Inej Ghafa, Wraith of the Seas, Hunter of Slave Traders, the Ghost Ship Captain, and she will find her way back home.

Chapter Text

“Excuse me?” Kaz said, barely containing rage simmering below the cool facade he always kept on. He wanted to hit the grim man in front of him badly and wipe the look off of his face that said ‘None of this is my fault, it must be someone else’s’. His gloved hand squeezed the crow head on top of his cane like he desired nothing more than to shatter it to dust.

“His wife saw me, all right? I couldn’t get the information on when the exchange was happening.”

“Not only did you not manage to get the information.” Kaz uttered quietly, almost pleasantly. “But you also alerted him that someone was looking into what his dealings, so now he will insure precautions, if he doesn’t put a stop to his business entirely.”

“He is greedy, he won’t be able to stop so close to achieving his goal.”

There was no point explaining to Roeder that in a man like the one they were hunting cowardice and paranoia took preference even over money. If he sniffed so much as a whiff of trouble, he would temporarily back away from the game, and Roeder’s mistake smelled as strongly as aged whiskey.

And while the respectable Ravkan merch tanned his respectable face in the Southern Colonies, his money will still make ways to the pockets of a certain Derry Pollet. Kaz had put too much of his energy and time into putting a plan to take Mr. Holland down in an unsuspicious manner to let the golden opportunity go down in flames.

“Go and find out what the Fjerdan ambassadors are up to, and try to be more discreet this time.”

He waited for Roeder to disappear, closing the doors behind him, before he raised his hand to massage his temple. The Dregs couldn’t and wouldn’t be tied to this, but yet another error made him as close as he would get to skittish. He was tired, irritable, and was getting so desperate after another week with no news that he was pathetically close to sending out word that he was looking for her.

That would by all means be impossible, stupid and impulsive, of course. If anyone learnt that the feared and respected captain of the Wraith still had the connection to Kaz Brekker she had when she worked with him, it would cause trouble. Some knew she was the same Wraith who had made the Barrel her home, and baring witness to her skills and hearing the hushed, barely spoken rumours she was a part of breaking into the Ice Court only urged them to silence. For now, that is. If and when they thought they could get something out of knowing of the arrangement, a lot of them would gladly sweep caution under the rug and go for it.

So he swallowed the darkening ball of despair in his throat yet again and went out to do the job himself. He already had the plan of the house in his head, the ins and outs, the locks on the doors, which members spent time in which rooms at which point of day.

Holland wasn’t home tonight. Like every Wednesday from ten o’clock to nearly two the following morning, he was stuck in a gambling den with his rich friends, choking on tobacco smoke and putting hands on whichever girl the place put to work at the moment. His wife was sitting in her parlor, gossiping with her sister and neighbors’ wives about her husband, when he was going to be gone, if it seemed like he was to get them even more money, and so foolishly and unknowingly revealed his deals.

If she saw Roeder like he said she had, her first reaction, according to Kaz’s intuition, would be to run to her guests and let them fuss about her. It would be hours before she thought to call her husband, if she did that at all. Her friends would gush about how they too had seen a burglar, or how an acquaintance of theirs had, and how they wished that the city would be rid of those criminal rats. And while they did that, one of them was going to break into their house, do what thieves did best and disappear without leaving a trace.

It was almost pathetically easy to gain access to Holland’s office. The task that took him the longest was leaving the room in the same mess he had found it in. Papers were scattered all over the desk, along with mugs, some still filled with what smelled to Kaz like a dangerous mix of herbal tea and rum. There were even clothes in the corner, a heap of red cloth that was wet with what could be canal water.

He let those pieces of information sizzle in his brain, and he was about to leave with the papers he had come for when he spotted a half opened envelope on the edge of the desk. Something about it pulled at him even from afar and he had no reason at all to resist the temptation.

After he had made sure that no one was approaching the room, he made his way over.

He took the curiousity in his hand, noting the ripples of water in a corner, and let its contents spill into his hand. Then the world swayed sideways and took his heart with it, starting the buzzing in his ears. On his glove sat a neat pile of shiny black hair, a few inches long. Hair was an odd thing to mail to someone, but what choked him up was the piece of cloth that tied it together. The pattern of it was intricate, blue waves with small crows that held cheery purple flowers in their beaks, and unique to the shawl he had gifted Inej two years ago for her twentieth birthday.

He couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe. Everything around him was a blur of colours, a reality painted wrong. He only became aware he was shaking when he nearly dropped the bundle of hair. A switch turned on inside him, the same one that had when he was a child gripping his brother’s corpse to get away, to stay alive, and he put it back the way it was. He practically had to tear his arm away from it, from that piece of her no one had a right to own, but he managed to get to the window, lock it behind him and make his way to the ground.

He still had enough sense to keep to the shadows and avoid the street lamps that would reveal him to passerbys and inquisitive inhabitants of the district, but he stumbled on a bridge near the Slat and almost fell into the dark water. Thoughts easily slipped by his shaken defenses and brought on old memories, terrifying him to the core. He had to grip the unsteady railing to get back the feeling of ownership over his own body.

He imagined Inej’s voice so words she had said at one moment or another spilled over each other, leaving them all devoid of meaning. It didn’t matter, however, as the sole tone of it calmed his wildly beating heart and trembling hands. Kaz, she would say comfortingly. Just his name, just a reminder he was here and now and alive and something more than a drowning child whose name there was no one left to remember.

Come on, come on, he urged himself as he stood back up and turned to the Slat.

He rushed into his office expecting the room to be empty and ready for him to sit down and think, only to find Jesper pacing in the limited space with his long strides, hands behind his back, usually bright face creased with worry and gloom. His eyes widened with short-termed relief when Kaz barged in.

“Oh, thank Ghezen, I thought you would stay out there forever. There’s a huge problem.” He hesitated just a second, as if he was debating if telling Kaz what he had waited there over an hour to inform him of was a good idea. “It’s about Inej.”

Dark hands clenched his gut, dripping with malice and fury. Kaz was glad for it, for that familiar and often blinding, but always distracting accomplice that made him want to burn the world around him. That raw rage that now made him push Jesper against the wall by his collar was something that woke discomfort in him on a normal occasion, an anomaly that made him miss important details that he couldn’t afford to miss, a phantom that threatened to drive sense and whatever scraps of humanity he had left from him.

“Where is she?”

Jepser gripped Kaz’s wrist, trying to push him back, but he didn’t reach for his guns. “Calm down, Kaz. Choking me to death isn’t going to help anything.” He wheezed out, hoping he won’t have to take a swing at his friend.

As if it finally dawned on him, Kaz let him go and took a step back. “What do you know?”

“Loe and Oliander are at the mansion. Oliander is out of it and half dead. Loe is beaten up pretty bad, but she’s conscious and talking. She said... she said they caught trace of some guy they were chasing, and made a pass at him, but he surprised them and almost killed them all and destroyed the ship. Inej covered everyone’s back until they could get away. She was captured.”

Jesper’s shoulders sank even further. His hands came to rest on his guns, as if seeking comfort from the cold, valuable metal.

“When?” Kaz asked with all the calm he could gather. To think he would need to be cool, calm and collected, and to plan he would need to think.

“I don’t know, I didn’t stay long enough to find out. I came here as soon as she said they got Inej.”

“We’re going, now.”

They walked out at an unnervingly slow pace. Jesper said nothing until they were out of the rowdy and loud building, though he almost skipped instead of striding, like most of his nervousness concentrated in his feet.

“Wylan called the doctor, one of those discreet, hush-hush medics that don’t gossip to anyone about their patients. He’s keeping an eye on both of them and trying to help them as much as he can. You know he took an interest in medicine as of late, so I have to read to him for hours about the most boring of things, but as usual he’s catching on pretty quickly.”

Kaz ignored Jesper’s rambling and instead made way to the Van Eck mansion. The scenery quickly changed from the ruin, despair and impropriety of the Barrel to fancy houses that hid all those same, core, human sins behind pretty walls and expensive clothes. That was Ketterdam for you, so small that all of that was packed next to each other, like a piece of work made by an ironic artist. Cheap and extra practically on top of one another, both worlds pretending the other is a mile away rather than an inch.

He got through the unlocked front door and headed for the living room. There on the couch half-lied, half-sat Loe Ji Kien, Inej’s first mate. Her brown hair was a tangled, soaked mess, pulled back carelessly to reveal her bloodshot light brown eyes. An ugly bruise made home on one side of her strong, square chin, but the fading mix of sour colours was nothing compared to the pattern of healing wounds and blemishes on her revealed arms, stomach and calves.

Kaz felt sorry for her state. He had known her for a while now, though they only met a dozen or so times over the years she worked with Inej. She was born and raised in Shu Han, in some faraway village that probably counted no more than a few hundred residents, and when her parents died she found a job on one of the ships, dressing as a boy, until she earned enough trust and trusted enough to give her identity to a captain who accepted her and helped her make a name for herself.

Or so she told him.

There was more to that story, Kaz didn’t doubt, but there was always more to everyone’s tales.

Still, what she looked like now couldn’t matter as much as the pressing questions in his throat. He wished selfishly that it was Inej there. He would rather have her injured and at arm’s reach, than somewhere across the damned ocean that had taken her.

“Ji Kien.” He called out.

Her head whipped around and she sat up fully despite the protests of her red-haired host seated on the arm of the sofa. “Brekker.” Her raspy voice replied.

Kaz dragged one of the parlor chairs and sat right in front of her, so their eyes were level with each other. He laid his cane over his knees, wishing in some far corner of his mind he could stretch his leg and rest it after all the heatless strain he had put it under the past few weeks.

“Who has her?” he asked, though something inside him already told him he knew the answer.

“Pollet.”

The dark pit in his stomach opened up and swallowed him whole. He had this feeling for months, this sense of inexplicable dread that would wash over him at oddest of moments, like something was terribly off. Inej had told him that fear meant something was coming, and now he understood that perfectly.

He dug his fingers into the wall of that pit, dragged himself up by his nails until he could gulp air again. He oiled his brain up and leaned back, squashing whichever emotions might’ve seeped through his indifferent mask, still not taking his eyes away from Loe’s.

“Tell me everything, from the beginning.”

Chapter Text

Nina collapsed to the ground, spent completely. Her whole body felt cold, the kind of cold that no blanket or cup of hot chocolate could make disappear, the kind of cold that only came from using her powers. Controlling fifty-three corpses at the same time, making them do completely different movements simultaneously for an extended period of time, was draining. Sure, there  was that euphoria and heightened sense of self when she let her skills free, but it also tired her in a way little else could.

“That was great.”

She recognized the voice behind her immediately, yet didn’t feel much necessity to move from the position she was in to look at her ex-commander. “Zoya. I didn’t know you would watch my training today.”

That was true. Zoya Nazyalensky didn’t make it a habit to visit Nina when she was working with her trainer, a serious though somewhat absent-minded man in his forties that Zoya had picked herself, but when she did come she alerted Nina beforehand.

“I didn’t intend to, but I got curious about your progress. I’m impressed. Then again, you rarely disappoint, Zenik. “ Nina scoffed at that and sat, switching so she could be eye-to-eye with her as she continued. “I don’t doubt that with a month more of this pace, you could control twice as many bodies with this precision.”

Nina moved her sweaty hair from her face, careful to leave her voice nonchalant as she replied, “You know I am off to Fjerda in a week.”

Zoya’s lips tightened and eyes narrowed, transforming her usually beautiful features into a less-than-pretty sight, and that was enough to channel her thoughts on that topic even without having spoken. She had disapproved of her relation to Matthias, but she also acknowledged it and would never oppose to Nina visiting his grave, at least not out loud. Seeing as that was the case, it was best that she knew nothing of the other engagements her subordinate had in the foreign country.

Nina reluctantly stood up and was about to leave under the excuse she had to go take a bath, which wasn’t a lie- she had every intention of floating around the hot water and after leave for a nice, double serving of waffles drowning in honey-, when Zoya spoke.

“A letter arrived for you a few hours ago.”

The brown-haired woman perked up at that, her green eyes lighting up. The only one who sent her occasional letters directly to the palace was Inej, and her heart filled with relief at the notion of it. She had been living with this unease in her gut for months, a feeling that something was wrong, and the complete lack of mail only amplified it. Inej had never before missed to send her some news, even if she only managed to tuck the envelope in someone’s hands once in two or three months.

But it must have been just her horrid imagination. Her friend must have gotten caught up in one of her jobs and had to lay quietly in wait somewhere, and now she was writing to tell everything was okay and she was safely tucked up in the Van Eck mansion back on Kerch, eating and sleeping to her heart’s desire before she went out on another job. She never spoke too much about details that would be dangerous if the mail was ever intercepted- she left those stories for when they met up-, but Nina was more than content reading at times half-coded messages.

Except it wasn’t Inej’s handwriting on the back of the envelope. It was messy, something you would have to be generous to call words and not an incomprehensible twist of scribbles, and vaguely familiar. From where, Nina couldn’t remember, so she tore it open and her eyes went directly to the signature in the bottom right corner.

Kaz Brekker, it said, same barely decipherable style.

All relief was gone, replaced by fear. Kaz had never written her, not once, though she did sporadically meet with him at the Slat when she was there, sometimes to exchange information, and sometimes, as odd as it still struck her, just for something normal people would call a social call. The fact he was now could mean nothing good.

She skimmed the contents and her heart sank. As if what was scrawled there would change, she read it again more carefully.

She lifted her eyes and met analyzing blue eyes. There was curiosity there, as well as dark caution that Zoya always carried with her, a sort of ever-present, hardly-noticeable underlying suspicion she held for everyone but Nikolai and Genya. It was something Nina didn’t mind; when you lived your life the way Grishas had, seen what they saw, you happened to pick up a few dark pieces on your way.

“I need to go to Kerch. First thing in the morning.” Nina hesitated, then asked, “I’ll need a boat, since mine won’t be coming for at least three days.”

She expected Zoya to protest or at least ask her an expected ‘Why?’, but she only nodded. “All right. I will tell Julius that you will have to take a leave.”

Her mind already on the packing and Inej, more precisely how they were going to get her back, Nina just sighed and threw a “Thank you. I owe you.” over her shoulder as she hurried out.

Just before she was out of ear reach, she heard Zoya murmur behing her back: “Don’t you just.”

***

Jesper was pacing in the parlor. Wylan was used to him doing that when he was nervous or under stress, as he was to the way his hands moved to the handles of his pistols, moving over their uneven and beautiful surface, went to his hair, fiddled with the buttons on his half-opened shirt, went back to the pistols. At the moment, he was as annoyed with him as he wanted to pull him in for a tight hug to try and calm him down.

They helped Loe retreat to a bedroom where she fell asleep instantly on the covers so that Wylan had to ask his housekeeper to fetch an extra blanket for her. Oliander was still in a critical state with the doctor by his side, as well as newly arrived members of Inej’s crew Wylan had only seen a couple times- a well-versed mechanic, Dorian, a very grim Grisha going by the name Freya and a burly, scarred man whose name no one mentioned, nor did he introduce himself.

Kaz had long since locked himself in the maps room, and Wylan had a feeling that if anyone tried to bother him now he would rip them open and break their bones, one by one, in front of them. Not that he had any desire to try and get inside, not with the air he had about him, the same dangerous, borderline insane energy that surrounded him on that ship half a decade before when he dug out a man’s eye and threw his overboard to die in horrible pain without a bat of his eyelashes.

His interrogation of Loe had been near ruthless, as if he didn’t care she was hurting all over and could barely breathe with her injuries, but he had at one point come to terms with the fact that was simply how Kaz Brekker was, and that beyond all that brutality, viciousness and cruelty, he had his own, often terrifying, form of honour and justice.

What was surprising was that Loe didn’t seem to mind. She answered every question with concise, to-the-point answers. They seemed to have some sort of understanding that Wylan was glad he would never personally share with Kaz.

“Jesper.” Wylan finally said sharply, after another one of his train of thoughts was swiped into the air and thrown into the other dimension by the hurricane that was his boyfriend.

Jesper turned to look at him, the same fidgety look in his eyes that took over his whole body. His lips quirked into that recognizable smile, the one he had when he was about to crack one of his jokes to distract himself and others from the gloomy elephant in the room, but Wylan stood up and crossed the space between them, cutting him off.

The look in his partner’s eyes when Wylan pressed his hands to his cheeks was that of a startled deer, a very tall and handsome one. Immediately upon touching his lips to those soft ones he adored, Jesper pulled him in for a soft kiss that quickly turned impatient and hungry. Wylan’s hands sneaked under Jesper’s shirt, forgetting completely where they were and that he had meant to comfort only, running his hands over his boyfriend’s spine, caressing the muscles under his fingers. The lack of contact between them when they had to take a breath became almost unbearable, aggravatingly unnecessary when all he wanted was Jesper.

“Ahem. Ah, sorry to interrupt.”

Wylan nearly jumped out of his skin, staggering backwards so that Jesper had to hold him upright. He felt embarrassed for a moment, as if they were kissing for the first time in the middle of the street, not for a thousandth time in their own home, but the laugh that rumbled in Jesper’s chest was worth it.

Dorian stood in the doorway, seemingly as embarrassed about catching them as Wylan was about being caught. Her short black hair was tangled and somewhat white where dried sea salt got caught and her dark eyes were bloodshot, but still sharp. Odd scraps of clothing hung to her, as if she couldn’t bother finding matching colours, or even her own size.

“How can we help you?” Wylan asked, trying his best to straighten out the shirt Jesper had ruffled discreetly. It was futile as he made a sure guess his hair was out of its tie and a complete disaster.

“We were wondering if we could stay here tonight, to look over Oli and Loe. If not, that’s okay, we can-“ she hurried on to add, but Wylan interrupted her.

“No, no, it’s perfectly alright. You can stay here as long as you like and use the remaining guest bedroom.”

“You can use ours too if you need rest.” Jesper added after a shared look with Wylan.

“Oh, no, that won’t be necessary, but thank you for offering. I can share the room with Loe, and Freya can take the remaining one. Mr.P has... other arrangements.” She said. “He’ll be back though. We will all do whatever we can to get the boss back. Anything, really. We have no plan yet, but we have some ideas.”

Jesper glanced towards the hall that led to the maps room. “The plan is taken care of, I am sure. Kaz works fast.” He turned his dark eyes back to Dorian’s. “And since you will be working with us, I should warn you that he isn’t exactly polite, but if there’s anyone who can get Inej back, it’s him.”

Dorian’s eyes widened in surprise. “Kaz as in Kaz Brekker? Dirtyhands? Boss of the Dregs?”

“That’s the one.” Wylan said carefully, reminding himself that he didn’t know these people. They were strangers to him, with secrets he didn’t know, but hopefully the trust Inej put in them was justified. “Why?”

“No special reason, he’s just pretty famous around here, almost like a myth. It’s like having a genius demon on your side. Is he truly as terrible and as brilliant as they say?”

“Twice as, on both accounts.” Jesper replied, but without the same excitement Wylan could hear in  Dorian’s voice.

“I think we should all rest now.” Wylan said, even though he felt unsettled and knew he couldn’t fall asleep if he tried. “As soon as Kaz is done weaving his web, there will be little time for it.”

“Of course. Good night.” After they bid her goodnight in return, she was gone.

“Come on, we should take your advice and go to bed too.” Jesper urged him, putting one hand around his waist.

Despite his previous thoughts on the matter, Wylan looked in the direction of the room Kaz had occupied. “Is it really all right to just leave him there? Maybe we can give him some coffee, or tea, or, I don’t know, a blanket.”

“Look at you, a merch and a good host all of a sudden. Where were these manners when I asked you to give me your share of dessert the other night?” Jesper joked, then his face turned serious as he practically dragged Wylan up the stairs. “He’s Kaz. You know him well enough by now to realize that it’s best- the only option, really- to just leave him be. And with Inej gone like this... well, you know. He becomes unbearable.”

Unbearable is a nice word for it, Wylan thought, yet said nothing. But that night, when Jesper was fast asleep beside him, the image of a screaming man violently missing an eye was the only thing he could see behind his eyelids.

Chapter Text

Inej had a pretty good idea where on the ship she was. When the air didn’t smell of mold, it reeked of gun powder, which meant she was most likely next to the magazine, in a small part of it altered to hold only one person. She guessed he had used it to put uncooperative members of his crew in, probably when he was still beginning his ‘career’ and wasn’t surrounded by people who wouldn’t betray him for anything, rotten men- and women, as Inej found out the hard way- who only cared for money and had their own sort of twisted loyalty to Pollet.

The door had two locks that were so small that even when someone was with a lantern in the next room, the light barely got through. Two of his men passed by every two hours, talking and laughing like they had no worries in the world. They conversed in Zemeni, and since their accents were Kerch, she supposed that Pollet had told them not to communicate in a language she understood when near hear. That was smart of him, but she already counted on him being smart.

Her plan was simple and near suicidal. Still, when you worked with Kaz, you got used to situations where everything relied on your skills and how much whichever gods you prayed to cared that you stayed alive.

She will wait until the patrol had gone, pick the locks, find the captives which were in the cargo hold (she hoped), release them and then somehow escape with them, leaving chaos behind her so Pollet and his crew couldn’t follow. How she was going to do the second part of that, she had no idea. Improvisation was yet again to be her best friend.

Inej almost snorted at how ridiculous it all was. There were more things that could go wrong in that fabrication than could go right. She was going to need the support of all her saints and then some. Maybe she could borrow the grace of whichever deities of malice bowed to Kaz.

As she listened for the guards, she thought about where Pollet could’ve put her knives. She would need them, need to feel their familiar weight in her hands to gather the courage and calm for the task ahead of her required, even more than she would need them for practical use. They were the thing connecting her to who she was, the thing that made her feel like a whole person in times when the world wanted her to shrink into something less than.

If Pollet was anything like Tante Heleen, a hypothesis he gave her reason to suspect, he would keep them close to him as some sort of a trophy, which meant they would be in the Captain’s cabin. Getting there wouldn’t be easy, but she nevertheless had to pass by to get to the Navigation room and see where in the damned sea they were. Once on the open water she’d have to work without much more than a compass she was hoping to grab from somewhere, but for it to have any use she would have to know where the nearest shore is.

 And there the guards are, she thought when she heard the familiar chatter. Today, however, their voices seemed strained, as though they were considering a question regarding a heavy topic and couldn’t agree on the answer. For the first time she wished she could understand what they were saying. She knew a few words in Zemeni that she had learned on her travels and from Nina, but not nearly enough to put together the meaning of a conversation. Still, she paid close attention, trying to remember the sound of them in case it proved useful later.

Soon they left. Usually they would hang around for a bit, not in any hurry to be anywhere else. The change in pace unsettled her, but when she counted the passing of five minutes, she nevertheless gave her full focus to the lock.

It turned out it was a lot harder to crack a lock with only one working arm than Inej thought. Time ticked away dangerously, making cold sweat settle at the small of her back. She couldn’t afford to wait for the next shift to pass. By then she would risk the sun coming out, and that would roll her chances of getting away to a pitiful, morose zero.

She sighed in relief when the hinges groaned as the door opened. It was still dark like she was at the bottom of a particularly deep pit. The smell of gunpowder burned her lungs, confirming her previous suspicions. She crawled slowly to the other side of the room, trailing along the frame of the exit when she got to it until she managed to pull it open too.

She rested her side on of the boxes for a moment, breathing heavily. He broken limb wept at any minor movement while the rest of her throbbed, demanding she just lay on the floor and sleep the pain away. Instead, she stood up and looked through the crack.

The coast was clear so she slipped through. She sneaked past water casks tied by ropes and an intricate set of pumps that were more complicated than any she had seen before. Inej wondered why he needed water pumps when he had more than enough Grishas on board to handle it, but that was a question to answer if she lived through this.

There were murmurs now that could be heard. Carefully, Inej hit behind on the nearby barrels and looked over it.

And they there were. A dozen or so people sat huddled in a cage, silent. The murmuring was coming from a bony and tall dark-skinned woman. She held a small, quivering girl in her arms, her eyes near the girl’s ear as she sang quietly. Inej was too far away to discern the words, but by the way she slowly trailed her hands down the child’s hair, her guess was it was a lullaby of some sort.

For a moment Inej could only crouch there, watching the woman and what was possibly her babe. She remembered her own mother, the way she would rush into Inej’s room at night and calm her cries with soft caresses and whispered words of comfort.

Nightmares had plagues her night after night after she was reunited with her parents, horrible dreams that varied but nevertheless always ended with her mother and father meeting their end, shouting for her even though she never managed to find them. Inej found unspeakable happiness when she was near them in daylight, yet for some reason her mind would deal her horrors in the dark. The only thing that chased them away was laying her head on their chest and hearing their heartbeat, that insistent rhythm that assured her they were furiously alive.

Saints, how she missed her parents.

Inej shook that heartache away with the movements of her head, setting her head on the course again. If all these years taking down monsters had taught her anything, it was that you didn’t succeed in your missions by letting fear and memories lead the way. You needed courage, as well as cool blood to settle the fires of justice burning under your skin, demanding urgency that would trip on itself and only manage to cause damage.

She listened for nearing sounds. Nothing. Slipping out soundlessly from behind her shelter, she neared the cage. One of the captives yelped rather loudly before putting his hands over his mouth, his eyes wide like that of a man who had seen... well, a man who has seen a ghost.

She didn’t really blame him. She must look horrendous at the moment, like a girl with badly chipped hair pulled into a messy and dirty braid who has just dragged herself out straight from Hell.Her clothes were in tatters, wet with new and dry with old blood, mixing with several layers of muck.

“Who are you?” demanded the woman from before. All the softness has disappeared out of her dark eyes, replaced with caution and fierceness.

“Help.” Inej said, taking the improvised tools from where she had put them in the tied strap at her waist.

“Your arm is broken.” Murmured another. Inej lifted my head for a moment and met light blue eyes. They looked sad, but it could have just been the way the woman’s light eyebrows were positioned. “You need someone to set it.”

Inej concentrated on the lock again, leaning on the cage with her hurt shoulder to try and keep herself balanced. “There’s no time.”

Oddly enough, it clicked open after only a couple minutes of her messy handiwork. This lock was by far less complicated than the one keeping her trapped in the dark room. Seems like Pollet didn’t expect anyone would dare try to escape. And, truth be told, they probably wouldn’t if Inej hadn’t interfered. The padlock was put in a way that even Kaz would struggle with finding an angle at which to crack it, and even if they got out, where would they go?

Some were hesitant, but still got out of the tight cage. When you saw freedom in front of you, you will seek it despite the fact it might hold more danger than captivity.

Inej saw the sad-eyed woman approach her from the corner of her eye. She jerked when the blonde matron put her hands on her broken arm, more from the surprise of it than pain.

“You helped us, now let me help you.” She said. Inej knew she was a Healer when she felt the feeling of her power Inej had become quite accustomed to. Oli always insisted he take care of everyone’s injuries, no matter how small and insignificant they might have seemed, so she felt his fingers on her skin more times than she could possibly count.

There was a sudden flash of agony before the pain receded to a tolerable throbbing. Inej could again move her arm, though it was stiff. It was definitely far better than having it dangling uselessly by her side and she almost sighed as some of the underlying sense of helplessness dissolved.

The woman swayed, catching the end of the cage to steady herself. “The effect won’t last long, an hour only. Maybe two, if you’re lucky. It will hurt like nothing once the clock has ticked away, but you can use it until then.”

“Thank you, truly. What’s your name?”

“Mira.”

Inej nodded, giving her a wide grin before she turned to the rest of the group. “Is there anyone here who can fight?”

It was a shot in the dark and Inej wasn’t sure she expected anyone would answer. However, the tall, wary one raised her arm.

“I am able to wield almost every weapon and I am well-versed in martial arts.”

For whatever reason, Inej didn’t doubt her words were true- something in the way she was told Inej she jokes seldom and lies even less often than that. Inej wondered briefly how she got captured in the first place and her eyes strayed to the small girl hanging onto her skirts, half hidden from view.

“I can fight too. Kind of.” Exclaimed another girl. She looked reluctant and like she wanted to kick herself for speaking. “I am a Heartrender, but not particularly good at it.”

“That’s alright. Any ability is valuable.” Inej assured her. The girl looked to be about fifteen, maybe sixteen, and reminded Inej of Wylan when Kaz had first involved him outright in one of his schemes, young and ignorant and someone who was safe their whole life and should remain so. Inej didn’t want to involve children into this, but she doubted she had a choice. Having both her arms again, for however long that lasted, was a great advantage, yet she was weak, malnourished and anything but at the top of her game.

“I will go and get our coordinates. See if you can find any weapons in here, and do it as quietly as you can. Nobody should come here for at least an hour. Be on your guard either way. The passage will be guarded by...”

“Iris.”

“By Iris. It should be the only way to get down here. “ Inej pointed to the wooden square in the roof some feet away. “But Pollet might have other ways to get here, so, again, be careful.”

A young man piped up then, nose raised in the air and arms crossed. “And what makes you the boss here?”

Inej scanned his pale face and clothes that signaled wealth, posture that said he was used to being listened and getting whatever he wanted. He was one of those young men who would saunter into the Lid, thinking he owned the place and was above everyone else, gamble to seem decadent and leave with his pockets several hundred pounds lighter, unaware how easy of a target he was. Kaz considered them even easier marks than the ignorant, foolish tourists, with their arrogance and unearned confidence.

“Do you know how to fight? Do you know how to steer a ship? Have you spent years hunting down people like the one who got you here? Do you know everything that can be known about Derry Jacob Pollet? Do you have any sort of a plan to get out of here or abilities to execute it?”

Embarrassed color filled his face. Inej kept her eyes on his, holding them hostage. “I am Inej Ghafa and I am going to do everything I can to free all of you. I am not your boss, but if you value your life, you will get over your pride and listen to me.”

“The Wraith of the Sea.” The young girl suddenly spoke, stepping away from Iris. Her big eyes filled with wonder. “You’re the Ghost Ship Captain, aren’t you?”

“That’s right.” Inej answered. She would’ve crouched to be level with the child, but she didn’t want to test the limits of her battered body before she had to.

“Ghezen. Wow.” A red-haired girl gaped, talking for the first time. “You’re, like, a legend. The woman who frees slaves and serves god’s judgement.”

Inej felt slightly uncomfortable. When she was the Wraith of the Barrel, most people knew and feared her, but that was somehow better than the hope she saw now. If she failed them...

She won’t, she promised herself. That was no way to think, especially not now. She had a plan, however vague, she had steps to follow, she had people staring at her, expecting her to save them. She would waver and break, but not before this is over.

Saints give me strength to help these people.

“We will find the weapons.” Iris said. “Then what?”

Despite her inner talk, she was glad for the distraction. “You wait until I come back.”

“And if you don’t?”

Inej looked at those serious eyes, the tight mouth, the too-early wrinkles that spoke of a hard life rather than age. Nothing she thought of seemed right to say. Get back in the cage, steal a boat, get lead into your heart because the alternative is so much worse.

Run, run, run.

“Then you send the mightiest prayer you can think of and do what needs to be done, because there will be no one else who will.”

Chapter Text

Samuel Rickety was in the best of moods. He had a wonderful night out with mates that involved barrels full of excellent, aged drink and a few rounds of an amicable game of cards. The night wasn’t his for winning, but the few bills he left on the table didn’t put him in a bad state of mind. He had genuinely laughed as his old, crooked friend got his money, sure as the dead he was cheating through his nose.

Rickety was humming and now let a short roar of laughter at the memory. That bastard would, he knew with certainty, cheat his own mama out of every last penny she owned if he saw the opportunity. But damn them all if he wasn’t one charming son of a bitch.

His hands were unsteady when he tried to unlock the doors to his humble apartment and it took him five tries to get inside. Even that amused him. He swayed and laughed again, him mind now only on the bed and knocking out on it. Tomorrow, there would be a terrible headache, a morning spent trying to get himself back into shape enough to at least look through his mail, but for now there was only drunken happiness and thoughts of the comfort of his cot.

It took his hazed brain several minutes to realize the apartment was dark as midnight, only illuminated by the dimmed light coming through the open exit. He was sure he left the lamp on. He always left it on. His alarm bells were just slowly coming alive when the door creaked closed.

Fear and adrenaline cut in, clearing the fog enough to sharpen his senses to the danger. And there was danger in the air, a dark mass of terror hanging in the air, reaching with its greedy fingers for him.

“Who is there?” His voice shook as he tried to see something through the all-encompassing black. He felt its eyes on him, and no matter how much he mocked the existence of demons by daylight, he now shook in his shoes wet from the recent shower.

“Hello, Rickety.” A lamp came alive slowly in his small seating space. And there sat something worse than a demon, a man who all that is dreadful and wicked bowed down to, a monster with razor-sharp teeth covered in human skin and sensible clothes.

Rickety ran to the door, knocking over something that broke with a loud screech. He tried the knock and found it was locked. With quivering hands, he searched the ring of keys he always kept in his pocket, safely tucked away, but there was no trace of the silver one that opened his front door.

“Looking for this?” Kaz called out, holding his hand up. The silver gleamed like the morning star in his gloved hand. “Do sit down, Mister Rickety. And if you have any thoughts of calling for help, I would advise against it. It wouldn’t benefit either of us- you would be a dearly departed, and I would have to waste time disposing of your body.”

Knowing better than to argue, he did as he was told, resting on the farthest end of the sofa, as far away as he could. Which turned out not to be very far at all, since he never invested in particularly long furniture. He didn’t want to look at those dark, empty eyes, so instead he stared at the other gloved hand that lay on the intimidating cane.

He had never seen it from up close, and he never had any wish to see its polished surface and intricate carvings on its head. He made sure that whatever business he did kept him out of Kaz Brekker’s way. Yet it seems he wasn’t as careful as he had foolishly believed, and some mistake brought this monster here tonight. Or perhaps it was just a cruel twist of fate.

It didn’t really matter, Rickety thought miserably, because either way he was stuck in this appalling dream and there was no way out.

“Now we can talk like businessmen.” Kaz said, drawing Rickety’s eyes to his own again. There was something gruesome in there, something that was adept at extracting a man’s secrets and hopes, leaving only despair behind. It would shatter everything you are, all the walls you built, and use the parts to strengthen its web. Then it was over. You were over. Once he laid his eyes on you, your strings were his to pull in whichever ways he desired.

Absently Rickety thought that the rest of the world was lucky it hasn’t yet caught Kaz Brekker’s full attention as much as Ketterdam was unlucky for catching it. They had little idea of what lived in the shadows of this goddamned city.

“I will be frank because I have very little patience at the moment. I am after information.”

Rickety’s shoulders cautiously relaxed. He had information. He could give it and then maybe he would be free and feign that this surprise visit never happened.

“Derry Pollet.”

Any pretense of relaxation faded. Rickety hung him head and covered his eyes.

 

Kaz saw the moment man in front of him was going to start denying as clearly as he could see everything else on his face- panic, dread, drunken misery. He leaned forward so only a couple feet were left between them and lowered his voice.

“We can do this the hard way, Rickety, or the easy way. Both fit me equally, but one of them is going to hurt you a lot more than it is going to hurt me. The choice is yours.”

Samuel’s eyes filled with tears when he raise his head again, shaking it, “I-I can’t. I can’t, I can’t. He will kill me if I say anything.”

“Pollet isn’t here now, I am, and dying at my hands is equally, if not more... uncomfortable. Answer a few questions and I will be out the door. No one will ever know I was ever here. Or I will leave you with broken bones and send word out that Samuel Rickety is a traitor. Everyone will have heard by first light and you will have to crawl your way out of here after all your customers are done with you, none of them willing to leave you whole in the case it was their secrets you sold.”

Now the man was weeping and Kaz straightened in surprise disgust. Drunk or not, someone who couldn’t rein in their emotions to this level didn’t survive a tick of the clock in the Barrel. Kaz wondered how this scum of the earth had earned the barest of trust from someone as smart and weathered as Pollet was.

Maybe there was some hardened mask on him in the sunlight that presented toughness that wasn’t underneath, maybe Pollet had no choice but to work with him since Kaz and Inej destroyed the Menagerie and hunted down some of the most prominent human traders in the city and made sure they would be in no state to run their businesses again.

Flying this low under the radar was a good idea, when you considered the circumstances. Kaz was so busy dealing with the big fish months would have gone by before he decided to dig this deep, hadn’t Inej been captured.

A different kind of wave dragged at him when he thought of her. He spent the last couple days avoiding it, but it was mostly futile. No plan in his head could leave out the mention of her, since all of them were differently polished ideas of how he was going to get her back so he can help her take Pollet down once and for all. But until she was safe again, he refused to let the monstrous wave take him under.

“Information, Rickety. Now. My patience is running thin.”

“He- he is due in three days’ time. Kerch. He is coming to Kerch next.” Rickety sniffed, pulled out a handkerchief out of his pocket and blew his nose rather loudly. “I am to meet him then in the second harbor at midnight to discuss the trade, take the cargo and give it to whoever offers the most. I take ten percent of the proceedings and the rest goes to Pollet.

“I don’t know anything else, I swear. I don’t know his great criminal plans or anything. I am just a bystander, an innocent man doing business.”

Kaz chuckled without humor. “Yes, of course. Referring to people as if they were thing and selling them is-“

“I don’t sell them!” Rickety shouted, all caution forgotten in the face of what he saw as just rage. “I am an honest and moral man! I just make honest money, like everyone else! And they’re mostly just women. It’s not like there would be much of another use for them otherwise.”

Revenge served-cold taught you many things, but the most important one is patience. Dark, fire-proof patience that protected that rotting core from striking too early and taking long-term satisfaction out of the deed. Now it slowly wrapped around his rage and nursed it in its arms, promising it great gifts if it waited.

“Be very careful, Rickety. Words have a distressing tendency to catch up with us when we least expect it.” Kaz said clearly and quietly, then changed the course again. “How many men does Pollet have on board?”

“Forty, maybe fifty, I’m not sure.” Rickety muttered, sitting still like a shocked doll, pale-faced. “I never approached his ship. I know he has at least a couple Grishas on board. I saw them once even though I think I wasn’t supposed to.”

“Tidemakers?”

Rickety shook his head, eyes still blurred. “No. One was Inferni, a terrifying woman all in black. The other was a Squaller, or so it seemed. A short, burly man with a long beard.”

That explained how they managed to out-fight Inej and her crew. Kaz wasn’t aware of the existence of Grishas on the Illion, and if Inej’s words were anything to go by, she wasn’t either. They suspected he might have Tidemakers, but no evidence pointed to him employing any other class.

He examined the man in front of him and decided he could get nothing else out of him. He may not have been anywhere near innocent, but he was just the smallest piece in a complicated machination. 

Kaz stood up and Rickety flinched. He doubted the despicable coward in front of him needed any reminder to stay silent, but he wasn’t willing to possibly put Inej’s life at the mercy of the mental workings of the creature.

“You will keep up your end of the deal with Pollet and act as if nothing happened. If you even breathe a word of this conversation to anyone, I will drag that nice nephew of yours from the college he is attending in Ravka and torture him before your very eyes. I will find you in whichever hole you bury yourself in and make you regret the moment you came into this world. Do you understand me?”

Rickety let out a short whine Kaz interpreted as a ‘yes’.

“Good. Sweet dreams, Mister Rickety.”

As Kaz was departing, the only sounds that could be heard were the clicks of his cane and the uneven breaths of Samuel Rickety behind him.

 

Chapter Text

“Yes, which is why I am saying we can’t trust him!”

“Being cryptic and a genius are nothing but a plus in his column! And he has an actual plan!”

“That none of us has heard yet! We can very well help her on our own!”

“Jesper said that he makes excellent plans that work!”

“Why, of course, if Jesper said so then it must be so!” cynicism dripped from every word.

“He’s a nice person and Inej trusts him, which you would know if you weren’t refusing to talk to Loe!”

“It doesn’t matter if he’s a nice person! We make great plans too and they work!”

“Yes, I saw how your plan worked when it got the Captain trapped!”

Oli just wanted to float under and avoid the pain he knew was waiting for him on the surface. It dripped through it like poison through cracks, sizzling through the comfort of drugs. He didn’t mind when the two women were shouting over him- when you work as a medic you get used to being cursed six ways to Sunday and constant noise the injured produced-, but that awkward, painful silence demanded his attention.

“Girls, please, must you argue over my deathbed?” he murmured. They heard him nonetheless in the quiet and rushed closer.

“Oli! You’re alive!” Dorian shouted at the same time Freya told him that he was hardly dying and to stop whining. She tried her best to retain her usual bored tone, but some of the happiness still seeped through.

“Believe me, I haven’t started on the whining yet.” He said. “Can I have some water?”

“Yes, of course. I’ll just be a moment.” Having said that, Dorian practically fell over her feet to run out of the room. When the door was closed, he turned to Freya. “Where the hell are we?”

“Van Eck house. After the attack we got back on the ship and almost crashed on the west shore before Loe and I managed to steer us to Ketterdam.” Absently, she pushed back hair that had gotten into Oli’s eyes. “We are lucky to be alive, if you want the truth.”

How many of us aren’t?, he wanted to ask. He didn’t. The dead would stay dead no matter how long he waited, so he saw no point adding to his own misery just yet. “What were you arguing about?”

Freya’s jaw set and her eyes hardened. At times like that Oli thought more than ever that she was like the sea she commanded, expressive in her rage and calm in her regular life, beautiful and wild under all that tame she projected. “Kaz Brekker.”

Oli furrowed his brows, which brought on a wave of pain so he was forced to relax his face again. “As in gang leader Kaz Brekker? Why were you arguing over him of all people?”

“Because, apparently, he is the only person authorized to make plans to rescue Inej. Kaz is this, Kaz is that, Kaz is resourceful, Kaz is amazing, Kaz is the best. Kaz is a genius, Freya, let him control everything.” She said, mimicking Dorian. “It is unbelievable. We don’t even know this guy and we are putting the captain’s fate in his hands, at the words of a couple of merchants- excuse me, kind and very polite merchants-, that the Captain stays with when we are in this stupid city. Who is to say she isn’t running a long con against these possible criminals and sleeps with a knife under her pillow while here?”

“It is imaginable that she knows Brekker- the Captain, that is. Think about it.” Oli told her, though personally he felt like doing anything but that with the migraine raging in his head. He suspected it was only thanks to his powers that he was conscious and talking at the moment instead of resting with the dead. “She gets information off of someone, and why would a member of the underground known for his indifference towards human suffering suddenly decide to help a captain of a ship hunting slave traders?”

“She would never associate with the likes of him.”

Oli sighed. For all her qualities, Freya knew to hang onto her assumptions like a starved mule to food. “We don’t know what he’s like, just like we don’t know a lot of her contacts. The Captain is open about many things, but when she doesn’t want you to know something she will take that secret to her grave. She has history with this city we know very little of, and that history could easily involve Brekker.”

Something near a whine escaped him when he wiggled, trying to get comfortable. Since it was pain bringing him discomfort and not the miraculous mattress below, it didn’t help. He decided that perhaps if he kept talking he could ignore it, but it was only a temporary solution. In a little while someone is going to have to pump him full of drugs again or he might just go mad.

“Look, why don’t you simply talk to Loe? She is a lot more knowledgeable that us. Or, if you don’t want to do that, “ he continued when he saw the look on her face that clearly said how much she was against the idea, “just talk to Brekker directly.”

“Maybe I would if he wasn’t gone all the time. He sneaks around like a demented cat. All those disappearances are extremely suspicious, don’t you think? He’s probably running around having the time of his life while we all sit here like ignorant chickens, expecting a miracle out of him.”

Oli was likely the only person alive- well, currently just mostly alive, if he was to be honest- who knew how much Inej meant to Freya. How much guilt sat on her chest. Inej had given her a new life, which to her was equal to saving it, and for that she made an oath to protect and serve her captain for as long as she was needed. He had an inkling Inej didn’t know the true depth of Freya’s gratitude, but she knew the Tidemaker was committed to their cause and had a good heart, and that was enough.

The Captain told all of them that they were free to leave the Wraith whenever they felt the need, as long as they informed her of their departure, but that was all but impossible. Inej Ghafa was like a star in a sea of black, a fierce, kindhearted and brave warrior, and once you heard the dedication and strength with which she spoke, or saw her take down an enemy with all the grace of a goddess, you wanted nothing more than to be near her, even if just to catch a glimpse. She was the shortest person on the whole ship, yet you never noticed it. She held attention and exuded power, things that meant everything when combined with her instinct to care for others and innate tenderness.

He decided that he didn’t have the energy it took to talk Freya out of despising someone she had yet to interact with, and that the responsibility she felt for Inej’s imprisonment which drove her to those feeling of rage would no doubt crash on her full force if she tried to face them head on right now. Freya was nothing if not durable, but remorse was a disease one could hardly cure, and one that dug its claws into you the quickest and left the deepest of scars.

So instead, he asked: “How long was I out of it?”

Freya cracked a smile and her face lost some of its sharpness. “Almost a week, you lazy bastard.” She caught his bandaged hand and squeezed gently, careful not to hurt him. “You worried all of us senseless, you know.”

“Yeah. Sorry.” He squeezed back despite the pain. 

“For the first couple days the doctor said you wouldn’t make it. I told him that was gibberish.”

“I am sure you put it less politely than that.”

“Maybe.”

He was about to say something else when the door all but broke when Dorian barged in, glass in hand. “Sorry it took so long. I stopped to take to Loe, then when she told me that Kaz is calling for a meeting in an hour I got so utterly excited I spilled the whole thing on the carpet, then I had to go refill it and Ms Kolich was in the kitchen so I had to exchange a few words because she is real friendly. I scored some cookies too.”

As if to prove it, she held up her hand and the plate in it. Delicious looking chocolate cookies balanced dangerously on top of it, making Oliander’s mouth water at the smell they spread around. They must have come out straight from the oven. Oh how he wished he had the stamina to fool himself into believing his stomach could hold them down.

“Can I please get the water now?” he asked jokingly, attempting to diffuse the tension in the room that gathered with sickening speed as soon as Dorian finished talking. “My throat is so parched I think even a dessert would run from it in fear.”

“Right, here you go. Just drink slowly or you’ll be ill.” Dorian warned.

He tried to smile at her but it turned to a grimace as Freya helped him sit up. “I am a Healer, remember? I know a trick or two.” Despite his words, he wanted to gulp it all down at once, that blessed, lukewarm beverage.

“Do you want me to call for the doctor? You don’t look very well.” Offered the dark haired girl. Oli thought her eyes looked almost fatally young then, like those of a wide-eyed child who saw its knee bleeding. It was so easy to believe she was just a seventeen year old then, a teenager who grew up surrounded by love and kindness and just for the first time noticed the cruelty of the world around her, but the truth was rarely easy.

“Not just yet. I can hold a bit longer. Do you know where Brekker is?”

“Uh, yeah, I think he is in the maps room. He reserved it for planning so no one goes in, but I was a bit tempted to snoop around. I didn’t.” She added quickly. “I was just tempted. I don’t think he’d appreciate it if anyone went through his space, or, well, what he made into his space. Jesper said it too.”

Oli hesitated. Then he figured what the hell, he might as well ask her. “Do you get a bad feeling? About Brekker.”

Now Freya piped in, again all cynicism and mockery. “I told you, she think he is glorious and so perfect.”

When Dorian was about to retort something that was going to plunge them both into another pointless debate that would shame both their intellects, Oli interrupted. “I am not asking Dorian fascinated with legends and stories and dragons, I am asking Dorian that works for the Ghost Ship Captain and looks through people to what they are before she destroys them.”

Dorian was like a coin, he often thought. She had two distinctively different sides tied to each other, both always present but controlled. Now it flipped. Her face lost its childishness, for which he was sorry even if he saw it as a necessity.

He needed the opinion of the sensible woman she was becoming and the untrustworthy that lurked beneath the surface, not one of the kid in her that found beauty in everything. Oli admired her for the latter as much as the former, for remaining soft and protecting that softness with all she had, because that was a sign of true resilience.

“Not in the way you think. There is something twisted in him, something pitch black that drives people to fear. Somewhat like if you were unarmed in a forest with a hungry wolf checking you out from two feet away. He isn’t snarling or growling yet, and he isn’t attacking, but you are aware with all your being that he might any moment. An animal instinct, really. Except he is also human, and humans are bigger beast than any beast ever could, so you fear him even more.

He is pretty hard to read and I only talked to him a little. The sole thing I am sure of is that he cares about finding Inej. More in a manner where he cherishes her than where he sees her as a business associate. If he is genuine about anything else, it is buried pretty deep.”

“Kaz Brekker cares for no one.” Freya said grimly under her breath so only Oliander could hear her as Dorian continued talking.

“What is more important is Loe knows him and trusts him, and knows with certainty Inej did too. I asked her how I can be sure and what their connection- the captain’s and Kaz’s- was, but that is apparently in-confidence information.”

“We are business partners.” said a raspy voice from the doorway.

Oli turned his head so abruptly he almost knocked himself right back unconscious. However, the nausea fell second when curiousity reared its head. For years he had wondered what the infamous Dirtyhands looked like.

First thing he noticed, not without surprise, was that Kaz Brekker was younger than him. His face was blank and adorned with more than one scar, his dark eyes old and weathered, but he was definitely at least half a decade younger than Oli.

Then Oli surveyed the dark, expensive clothes, the slick gloves that hid the thief’s hands and the crow-head cane. He felt unease from across the room and understood without doubt what Dorian had meant, that feeling of... other about Kaz that trumped age and his disability. Some would think that Brekker was an easy target because of his limp, but those would be fools. If Kaz Brekker wasn’t ten times as dangerous as the street ruffians Oli has had the regret of encountering, he would eat his own hand.

Freya’s hands came up on instinct, and even as she saw who it was she didn’t lower then. Kaz didn’t seem to particularly mind, like he expected the reaction. Still, Oli nudged her with his elbow, a hard task even though she was right beside him. He didn’t think threatening someone was a particularly good way to start a friendly conversation.

“Good day.” Oli said as loud as he could, which wasn’t really loud at all.

Kaz returned the greeting. Oli wondered briefly if he should offer the pale man a seat, but there was only one chair and Dorian was sitting in it, so he said nothing about it.

“What do you want?” Freya spit out. She had lowered her hands at Oli’s silent request. The fists she formed weren’t amiable either; however, sometimes you had to settle for what you could get.

“A great many things, Tidemaker. Which of them is of interest to you?”

Nothing showed on his face or in his voice, but Oli got a feeling Kaz didn’t like Freya any more than she liked him. If he didn’t know Freya as well as he did, Oli’d wonder if they had some sort of an old grudge against each other.

Freya bared her teeth. Oli wished he could stand in between them. Since even sitting was torturous, he settled for speaking. “I heard you have a plan to rescue our captain. Any chance I can hear some of it now? I don’t think I will be awake and aware in an hour.”

Kaz looked at him for a long moment. “Pollet is coming to Kerch in two days’ time to trade the captives. During the trade, Ji Kien and I will infiltrate the Illion and get Inej out.”

“Just the two of you?” Freya demanded. Oli suspected than if he had said that everyone was going, she would demand to know why everyone was going. “So what, you can knock Loe out and trade her to Pollet for some quick cash? I don’t trust you as far as I can spit, Brekker. You don’t just do things out of the goodness of that piece of coal you refer to as a heart.”

Kaz Brekker cares for no one.

Her words rang inside his head, raising discomfort in Oliander. It didn’t sound like prejudice, it sounded like true hatred. Freya truly believed what she said. The possibility that she was hiding something from him was like a needle popping Oli’s lungs, so he didn’t entertain it.

“Wouldn’t it be easier to wait until the buyers take the captives to another location?” asked Dorian, like Freya hadn’t said a thing.

Oli could’ve sworn Kaz looked enraged for a moment at what Freya had said, but he answered Dorian like he hadn’t heard anyone else speak. “Inej won’t be among them. She is too dangerous to just be let go, and Pollet knows it. If she’s alive and manages to escape her new captors, she’d be back on the sea hunting him, armed with new information about him and the Illion. As soon as they’re anchored, he’ll kill her- if he hasn’t done so already.”

“And what will the rest of us do?” Dorian inquired “I am sure we can be of help.”

“You and the Tidemaker will do an errand in the University District. Jesper and Wylan will provide you with the necessary clothes. Lambert stays here.”

Oli wanted desperately to be involved, but he was weak as it is, and when they got the Captain back, she might need his help. It made sense that he stays here.

“I will see you in half an hour in the parlor.” Having said that, he left.

“’I will see you in half an hour in the parlor’. What an arrogant son of a mother. Like he thinks he can just say something and everyone else will follow along without question. Why did he come here anyway?”

Oliander had a feeling Kaz was going to ask him something and then thought better of it. He said nothing out loud. Freya would just say it was part of Kaz’s articulate plotting. Oli suspected it might have been more than that, perhaps even personal, but now he wouldn’t find out.

“We will go to the parlor. Even you have to be the least bit curious what our task in the University District is, if nothing else. And he has a plan to save the Captain. A well-thought-out one.”

“I don’t doubt that.” Freya retorted bitterly. “He doesn’t move a finger if it won’t somehow benefit him.”

Dorian didn’t argue that point.

Freya turned her head to stare grimly out the window, like she was seeing something only visible to her. “Trust my word, we will regret this before it’s done.”

Oliander wasn’t sure anymore she wasn’t right.

Chapter Text

Loe assessed her face in the small bathroom mirror. Bruises on her face were starting to ease off, morphing from dark purple to yellow and green. They still hurt when she didn’t get proper rest, but at least the migraines she’d had before they’d gotten to Ketterdam disappeared. She still got headaches, though, bearable ones.

She had to give it to the long-haired, quiet doctor their hosts employed. He was efficient and didn’t make much of a fuss, nor did he ask about the deep scars on her body as most would. Not that she’d have answered, but it was one annoyance less to care about.

And most importantly, he kept Oli alive. He looked horrible, blond hair still stuck at odd angles with dry blood and dirt, but alive was what was important. After Reo bled out on her arms and three brothers, boys barely old enough to be referred to as men who boarded the Wraith to witness some action and get back to Kerch after they were extremely helpful at a previous job, died in that storm along half a dozen other innocent people, the last thing she wanted was to bury another dead friend.

Loe wound the soft towel around herself tightly, stepping barefoot into the hall. When the ever-cheerful Ms Kolich told her she had prepared her a warm bath, Loe wept with happiness on the inside and in the process forgot to take her newly-washed and repaired clothes with her. Since getting all the blood out and sewing back the tears took time, they had generously given her extra clothes, but they were either dresses or pants that didn’t fit well or sit comfortably.

She felt truly grateful for their hospitality; still, she needed her attire back, needed to feel the leather on her skin and the weight of her weapons on her hips. She felt off without them, like somehow a part of a carefully crafted building inside her was carved out and the rest was left to sway in the wind. She thought of Inej, without doubt stripped of her knives, and felt grief and sympathy at that.

Loe had found proper fighting clothes- sizes too small for her- in the closet, put away with care, and a spare pair of leather shoes like the ones Inej had in her cabin. Her Captain preferred boots when they were onboard the Wraith and in the countryside, but whenever they were in a city, in need of information, Inej would put them on and disappear as swiftly as the wind. Loe had tried to follow her once out of curiousity, but once the Ghost Ship Captain’s feet touched solid ground, she was uncatchable. Not that was much different when she was in battle at sea.

Loe knew some of Inej’s past, she knew she was forced into indenture at a young age, she knew she used to work with Kaz under the name that was now her ship’s, she knew she had parents in the city who sometimes retreated to the countryside when their daughter was gone, she knew that she slept in the Van Eck house when in Ketterdam, but however open Inej was, there were parts of her, rooms full of mysteries that Loe wasn’t sure anyone but Inej had access to, pockets hiding dark secrets.

Her first mate thought that all of them were privy to their own private horrors, so after that impulsive and useless chase, she left it alone.

She opened the room, closed it behind her and locked it out of habit. The bath calmed her aching body, yet they also left her jittery. There were no long, hot and indulging baths on a ship, and that’s where she belonged. When they were anchored she always felt slightly out of her element. She slept in whichever hotel room Mr.P secured for them, but during the day she found a way to get out onto the sea that called to her, howled in her blood.

Having dressed, she lifted the mattress and took the badge that lay there. Slowly setting it down again, she sat on the bed and traced the delicate and complicated design of knives, snakes and bears on it covered still in blood. Loe had yet to have the time to wash it. Wasn’t sure she was ready for it, she admitted to herself. This was all that was left of Reo, a piece of metal and her blood on it.

For a moment Loe let the dam open, let the suppressed pain and grief and anger flood her. She folded over, clutching the badge hard, hard, until she felt it dig into her skin like the teeth of the infuriated and desperate animal sitting on her chest. Her heart was tearing itself apart behind her broken ribs, calling out for a young red-headed woman with sun in her eyes that was no more.

A silent scream crawled up her throat, leaving her panting like she had run a mile. The grip of her scarred hands on her wet hair was that of a broken soul, desperate, desperate. Then it stopped and she breathed air back into her lungs, closing that door again.

Like a last drop of the tide of weakness, she pressed her lips to the badge, smearing them with the remains of her lover’s dry blood, before she put it with care back in its hiding place. She stood up and rolled her shoulders, put her swords in their place, regaining her balance.

The hallway was empty and quiet. She guessed Freya was by Oliander’s side, hoped Dorian was resting although she doubted it. When their young, talented mechanic wasn’t looking over Oli and hanging around the house, exploring, she was in the harbor fixing their ship with a fanatic’s devotion. The Wraith survived so far, but it needed quite some repair after all the tragedy that hit it.

Loe decided against visiting Oli and went downstairs, heading for the kitchen. It was empty; Ms Kolich must have gone out. The dedicated housekeeper left a few sandwiches on a plate and a bottle of what appeared to be wine. Loe took a couple sandwiches and a glass of water, sitting down at the small table to look out the window. The weather was miserable, unsurprisingly. The weather here was always miserable.

Wylan walked in when she was on her second sandwich, longish fiery red hair tied back, eyes nearly black with fatigue. He clearly hadn’t noticed her because when she greeted him, he jumped up like someone shot him.

“Hello. Sorry, I didn’t see you there. Anything I can do for you?”

“You’ve already done more than anyone could dare hope for. I can’t thank you enough.” Loe  paused for a second. “Are you alright?”

Wylan tried for a smile, didn’t fully succeed. “As alright as anyone can be, under the circumstances. I wish there was more I could do, help in some way. Blow up Pollet, maybe. “

“Blowing him up would certainly be satisfying, but I suppose we will have to settle for whatever Brekker’s brain came up with.”

“Which will probably be him blowing up Pollet.”

“I wouldn’t put it past him. You know him better than I do, anyhow.”

Wylan sat on the remaining chair, snipped off a small piece of bread. “I am not sure I do. Longer, yeah, but not better.”

“You worked with him before.” Loe stated matter-of-fact. “You have some insight into how he thinks.”

“Not really.” Wylan barely restrained himself from rubbing his eyes. He felt so damn tired. “He schemes. He tells you only what he thinks is necessary you know for you to serve your purpose in whatever plan he weaved, and keeps everything else for himself. I don’t think he ever tells even Inej the whole of it, and he’s in love with her.”

Loe stared at him, completely astonished, blurted out, “I beg your pardon?”

Wylan just looked at her blankly, mind slow with weariness, blinked. “You didn’t know?”

Even as her brain had trouble processing the piece of information, she considered it. It wasn’t impossible. The world was an odd place; all sort of odd relation were formed. And when she looked past what they appeared to be on the outside, a good woman and an evil man, at the shades of grey that shaped them, she could see it. After all, they weren’t myths, they were people of flesh and blood- at times terrifying people of flesh and blood-, people with fears and dreams and hatred and kindness and darkness in them.

Still, despite all the rationalizing, her mind was still struggling to catch up as she absently took another bite of the ham sandwich, chewed, swallowed.

“I didn’t, no. I imagine not many people do.”

“I imagine the same. I only know because they spend a lot of time here, and they act differently towards each other. It’s just little things no one would notice if they weren’t paying attention.”

“And you do. Pay attention, I mean.”

Eyelids drooping, he nodded. He squished the bread from before on the table. “I care about them. I owe them both my life, and even if I didn’t, they’re still my friends. I want them to be happy.”

Loe had a feeling he wouldn’t be telling her this if he wasn’t just barely staying awake, so she didn’t inquire further. “You should get some sleep, Wylan.”

“Jesper said the same. You’re both right. Probably. I stayed up the whole night perfecting this new explosive I am working on. You can never go wrong with blowing something up.” He muttered as he stood up, heavily leaning on the table. “Oh, and try some raspberry juice. It’s excellent.”

Having pushed the bottle of what she had assumed was wine closer to her, he stalked out again, murmuring something under his breath. She felt sympathy for him even though she didn’t know him that well and they weren’t. Inej’s absence took a toll on all of them.

Setting the empty glass aside, Loe stood up. Her coat, clean and mended as the rest of her clothes, hung neatly on the coat hanger in the entrance hall. It came nearly to her ankles, long enough to cover her swords and dark enough to slither through shadows unnoticed. She used to have a brighter coat, bright blue like the sky with purple pockets, but it was destroyed in the struggle.

Light rain fell on the quiet streets. Lack of noise disturbed her until she heard the church bells and realized most everyone must be at service, especially the rich hypocrites who prayed to the holy on Sundays and did the unholy on Mondays.

Even the Barrel was mostly calm this time of day. The late players had already gone home to pass out on their beds, while the early ones had yet to rid themselves of their money. She spotted a few street thieves and people huddled into corners, shielding themselves from the insistent rain. Nobody approached her, which was a small relief. She wasn’t in the mood for a fight, not in the state she was in.

The sounds in the Lid settled her- finally, something normal. Sailors and workers shouted over each other, hauled things left and right, cursed when they dropped something, cursed at the downfall, cursed just for the hell of it. She went for the berth twenty-two where Dorian and Freya managed to anchor the Wraith.

The ship wasn’t particularly large, but it was well-equipped and had everything they needed. A merchant had once offered Inej a bigger and maybe even better ship, Loe remembered. Inej turned down him down without a thought, and if she had asked Loe for her opinion, the brown-haired woman would’ve told her that she agreed fully with that decision. Maybe it was sentimental, but every scratch and marvelously repaired hole in that ship, every added thread on their Kerch flag and sails, every layer of paint on the name was proof of their battles, struggles, victories and losses.

Each of them knew the insides of that warship, which cannons knew to be temperamental at times, which boards below deck creaked. Loe wouldn’t give it, and the memories it preserved inside every crook and nook, up for anything in the world.

She passed by the mess of people and climbed aboard with ease. The feeling of walking across the deck was as familiar to her as the pattern of creases on her palm, completely smoothing the abrasions to her calm.

She noted that Dorian was well into repairs. The main mast was almost back to its former glory, fixed with wood a shade lighter than the original. Another scar, thought Loe, another story. She just hoped this one wouldn’t end tragically.

Loe had the keys to the Captain’s cabin though Inej kept it unlocked most days, in case someone needed something from her, so she went in. Louis would sometimes sit in there with her, when there was spare time, bright eyed with the grin of a child that he was while Inej taught him letters and simple math. Loe once peeked in through the open door, wanting to ask something of Inej, and found them in the middle of one of their classes.

Inej’s hair had been mercilessly tied as it always was in a braid down her back, but her posture was more relaxed, devoid of that tenseness that sat on Inej’s shoulders like an obnoxious, heavy bird. Her coat was hung on the back of her chair, falling off of it on one side. Louis had scrunched his eyebrows, muttering the letters under his breath, and when Inej told him he had written the word well, they both had a smile on their faces.

Louis, poor young Louis whom she had herself found lying on his back below deck, dagger in his neck, empty eyes staring at the ceiling, a terrified expression forever marring his face.

Sighing, Loe closed and locked the doors, moving away from the room without giving it much of a look. She haunted the ship, noting the damage and the supplies they lacked. It felt a bit off thinking about lime when people were dead and some still in danger of dying, but she couldn’t help it. It was her job and a habit.

At last she settled in the navigation room, one of the places spared ruin on the ship, light brown eyes fixed to the map, compass in hand, mind on the vast sea and the men sailing it who have taken everything from her. As the need for retribution burned in her heart, she started quietly humming under her breath the very first sailor song she ever learned, about a pretty sailor and the mermaid who ripped him apart.

***

“Fucking rain, I swear.” Nina muttered under her hood. She wasn’t feeling loving at the moment. Her best friend was in danger, suffering without doubt- and for the last two month, no less-, the sea was so rowdy on the way to Ketterdam that even she who sailed often and had several years worth of experience felt seasick, and now this fucking rain. It wasn’t even proper rain you could shield yourself from, it was that light bitch that wind flicked left and right and you ended up soaked no matter how you held your umbrella.

She had thanked Tillie, the Tidemaker who had worked day and night to get them here as soon as possible, and the clearly mad captain of the tiny vessel who agreed to test the waters when he knew they were this wild. Tillie, being an easy-going person, just said ‘no problem’ and continued chewing the wood bark as she did. Nina wanted to ask if she was sure it wasn’t toxic, but decided that the woman probably knew what  she was doing.

They parted ways at the docks and now she was on her way to the Van Eck Mansion, soaked, annoyed and worried.

Fuck the rain, she thought again, and fuck Kaz Brekker who only gave her the barest of information. She would’ve considered he did it in case someone intercepted the letter if he hadn’t boldly signed it with his full name. Fucking Kaz and his fucking secrecy.

Five years, five fucking years and he still had to do everything his fucking way.

It crossed her mind she might’ve been a little too harsh in her judgment of fucking Kaz Brekker, but she couldn’t bring herself to care at the moment. She wanted Inej safe and sound and a good dose of waffles dripping with syrup she had missed in her haste to get to Kerch.

And Matthias. She always wished for Matthias.

Shaking her head and that train of thoughts with it, she wound through the streets. She hadn’t been here for two years, maybe even more. The city was same and different both. A few buildings changed, some were completely new, but the atmosphere was invariable; tourists, thieves and rich merchants doing their respective parts to uphold the status quo, pigeons, alley cats and the passive hoarder who couldn’t care less until it was him getting plucked.

Nina stopped in her tracks when she saw the carriage in front of the house. It was elegant and well-built, which rose suspicion immediately.

Her shoulders relaxed a little when she recognized the lackey, a short man always slouching, and then completely when she noted the people who got out. All three of them were busy chattering and their laughter rolled across the air, unfitting for the weather and the mood it brought.

Red blonde hair of the woman in the bright, fancy dress escaped her simple yet stylish hairdo when she tilted her head backwards in mirth. Next to her, two people in less intricate attires shared her happiness.

Wylan’s mother and Inej’s parents. Nina’s heart sank. If they were so cheerful, they can’t know about Inej. Yet. When they found out, it’ll break their hearts. She closed her eyes a moment, collecting her bearings, opened them again.

“Mr and Mrs Ghafa, Ms Hendriks.” She called out. Nearing them, she lowered her hood so they could see her properly. They haven’t run into each other in a long time, but she knew Inej’s parents well and they should remember her even if Marya didn’t.

“Nina.” Mrs Ghafa beamed at her. “What a nice surprise! We just ran into Marya on our way here and she gave us a ride. The most lovely woman alive.”

“Oh, nonsense.” Marya retorted, a bit shyly putting a strand of hair behind her ear. “You two are the most delightful. However could I not indulge myself in more time in your company?”

“You flatter us far too much.” Mr Ghafa said, chuckling.

Even under the circumstances, Nina was happy to see them all. Marya looked better, too, her eyes not glazed over anymore like she was trapped staring at something no one else could see. The Ghafas earned a few more subtle wrinkles, but they looked fresher and even fuller of life than before, if that was even possible.

Nina wondered if she should tell them right away, get it over with. Before she could form the words and find the courage to say them, Wylan’s mom turned to her.

“Let’s go inside before you catch a cold, dear.” Marya urged, motioning with her head towards the door. The lackey opened it and closed it after they were inside, leaving his slouching form outside. Nina noticed the extra coats on the hanger as she hung her own and offered to take the others’ as well.

There was a small crowd in the parlor. Inej’s first mate, her carpenter, her Tidemaker, the odd silent man who was Inej’s sailing master, Wylan and Jesper. There were two big maps carefully laid out in the center of the room on a table that didn’t look like it belonged there, maybe dragged in from the library. On them sat an untouched plate of waffles, but as Nina surveyed the room, she no longer felt tempted to eat them.

The grief in the room was like a living thing and even the blind man would see the misery in the way everyone sat. The carpenter aka mechanic- Dorian, Nina corrected herself-, was talking to Loe in hushed tones. Nina always thought her a cheerful girl. There was none of that now, like even she lost the will for it.

Wylan looked like he hadn’t slept a wink in days. His head leaned on Jesper’s shoulder, eyes barely open, while the sharpshooter’s fingers entwined with his on the sofa. Jesper’s free hand played with the lace on the pillow beside him, twisting it over and over again absently, his foot tapping, tapping, tapping on the floor.

Freya slumped in the armchair, staring into space like she would rather be anywhere else but here. Nina assumed the sailing master shared her sentiment, but couldn’t quite tell anything from his expression.

“Mother!” Oddly enough, it was Wy who noticed them first. He jumped to his feet, almost hitting the table as he went to her. As he hugged her, their hair touched together, a doubled sea of red silk. When Nina saw them the first time they were the same height, but now Wylan was taller, having grown some climbing the steps to adulthood.

A familiar voice sounded through the room, instantly gaining attention of everyone present.

“Good, Nina, you’re finally here. Now we can…”

Well, this was certainly something you didn’t see often. Kaz Brekker, the boss of the Dregs, Dirtyhands, well and truly stunned. He stood in the doorway, hand still on the glove he was adjusting, frozen in place as he stared at Inej’s parents. But even that astonishment didn’t surprise Nina as much as his looks had. He was still lanky, but he seemed older, more mature, a shadow of a beard on his face. Those small things that had still stuck to them when they were teenagers, remnants of childhood, were gone.

“Kaz. It’s wonderful to see you.” Mrs Ghafa’s smile wavered a little as she took in her surroundings, the heaviness in the air. She sensed at last something was wrong, very wrong. “Is Inej up in her room? We’d like to see her very much. He missed her terribly- she got held up longer this time and never came to visit, so we headed down here ourselves.”

Kaz snapped out of whatever trance he was in and interrupted the beginning of what was going to turn into rambling. “Inej isn’t here.”

“Oh, well, if she’s out finishing some business we can-“

“Derry Pollet captured her two months ago.”

“What?” Rychele stumbled back. “What?”

“Whatever do you mean? Who’s Derry Pollet?” Arda asked, fear dancing in his eyes.

“A slave trader. There was a battle and we lost.” Loe added since Kaz never answered, her voice grim.

Nina watched Kaz closely and saw the exact moment his face shifted. The scheming face.

“We’ll get her back. “ he said, looking closely at the two like he was assessing his toolbox. “And you’re going to help me do it.”

 

Chapter Text

Having two working arms felt like freedom again, a breath of hope, no matter how short-lived the effect was. Tired, malnourished and beaten had nothing against being fully in control of your body. She was used to broken bones by now, but still it always felt like someone had cut off her lifeline when she couldn’t move with skill as usual, like fate has managed to wrap its ropes around her once more and death was nearer than ever before.

She crawled up and closed the entrance behind her carefully. Trusting Iris would handle things down there, she faced forward and pushed the worry for people whose lives were in her hands to the back of her mind. She had to only think of her goal and nothing but, or else she would make a mistake she couldn’t afford.

There was soft light here, the beautiful gold of a slow sunset. It made even the canons standing like dangerous omens near the opening appear... not less harmful, she thought. The chaos they could wreak was in every inch of the polished black surface. Rather than that, they looked... divine, Inej decided. Vengeful gods waiting to smite whomever was in their way.

Despite the circumstances, ease bloomed in her heart as she listened to the crashing of waves on the hull, the howling wind, the call of the... mews? Scrunching her eyebrows, ears alert for any noise behind her, she crept to the opening and looked outside. She wished for her spyglass, but made do with her eyes.

And there in the distance, like a scratch in the beauty of the horizon, was a small black line. Inej stared at it unblinking, not daring to look away. Land. She was looking at land, finally. They were close to it, too, a day or two away at most. The chances of her plan went up from zero in a hopeful twist of fate. A lot of luck was still needed, but it was no longer an impossible feat. A small being made of sheer bliss danced in her chest, cheering with joy at the thought she could see her parents, her friends, Kaz.

“I don’t think this is a good idea, man. Having her onboard a ship this long? Boss should’ve killed her weeks ago.”

Quick as lightning, Inej pressed her back to the side of the cannon. Her heartbeat was ringing in her head like warning bells, demanding she do something. She willed herself to calm down as she had so many times before and breathed quietly.

Another voice piped in, amused, “Yeah, yeah, you’ve been saying that since we captured her. If you woke me dead of night I could recite them back. And again, say I, what harm could she possibly do? She’s barely a woman, green as grass, and tied up. Ya know it’s no use questioning the boss, he kens what he’s doing. It’s a waste of energy.”

“You haven’t seen what she can do, Alair. She’s not human.” The man’s voice fluttered with fright and turmoil. Inej couldn’t pinpoint his age- he sounded young and old both.

Alair just laughed, like his colleague’s anxiety had no grounds. “Come now, Clock. You seriously believe that?”

“I was on the ship she attacked four years ago. She sneaked in past two dozen guards, slit the Captain’s throat and destroyed the ship completely from the inside. I saw her.” Clock insisted, voice rising. They were getting perilously near Inej’s hiding place. She gripped the sharp pick in her hand, feeling the cold metal dig into her skin. “And she was but a child then. Imagine what she’s capable of now.”

Alair sounded a bit miffed when he spoke next, like he wasn’t having a conversation he wanted to have. “It was just beginner’s luck.”

“And all the other people she had taken down since? All the slave traders dead or mysteriously gone?”

“Luck, luck.” Alair said. “All just luck. Maybe it wasn’t even her, she just took others’ glory. I’m warning ya, Clock. If you continue saying things like that, some might think you’re implying that the boss is incompetent to deal with a small pest. And you know what questioning means.”

Alair came into Inej’s view. He was tall and burly, as most of Pollet’s men were, with short dark hair and tanned skin. He wore a simple white shirt rolled to the elbows and light brown pants. A short coat in the same shade hung over his shoulder, like he had intended to put it on and then forgot.

“Treason. I get it. But I still don’t think this is a good idea.” muttered Clock.

“Think whatever, man, just keep it to yourself. She’ll be gone soon anyway, as soon as we’re anchored in Kerch.”

There was a short silence before Alair said, “Let’s go back up. Poker gets bitchy when he doesn’t get his share of sleep.”

Inej almost started to relax, thought she might’ve gotten out of this one without a struggle, when she met Clock’s eyes. She had a humble part of the second as he stared astonished and she used it. Adrenaline in her veins, she jumped on Alair’s back and slit his throat. He fell down with a gurgle, hands automatically flying to the wound even as vital blood left his system.

She was already pushing Clock to the ground and trapped his arms with her legs, gagging his mouth so he couldn’t shout- not that he looked like he could. He watched her still in shock, like a man who had seen a ghost. Or, well, the Wraith.

“This can go down two ways; one, I kill you and strip you of your clothes and life both; two, you strip yourself in silence, I knock your out and you live a few years yet. Which is it going to be?”

When Clock motioned that he option two with a couple nods of his head, she made to move, but first whispered to him. “You scream, you’re dead. They may kill me too or they may not- I am voting for not-, and either way you die. Understood?”

The skinny man below her nodded frantically, eyes wide like the Moon. He wasn’t very old at all, it turns out, maybe some years over forty, but his bones still stuck out everywhere like he wasn’t fed much. Inej let him go and stood up slowly, pick at the ready.

She probably should’ve killed him, his crimes already unforgivable since he was working with Pollet, but she didn’t want to get blood on his clothes if she could avoid it. And she saw nothing in his eyes that said he had the courage to call out nor the devotion to his captain to die for him.

When he stripped to his underpants, revealing more bony limbs, she asked, “Where are my knives?”

“In his quarters- he put them in a big metal box in the corner.” Clock said, voice shaking.

“And the boats?”

“What?”

“Where are the escape boats?”

“Hung on the side, as always.”

She expected that answer, but wanted to check either way. There were many questions on her mind- where is everyone right now, how many Grishas were there, how could she best avoid them- yet no time to ask them. Her first hour had already ticked away.

As promised, she knocked the frightful man unconscious with a well-aimed punch. She dragged him and the dead man behind the cannons and out of sight. There wasn’t much she could do about the blood, but she mopped up most of it quickly with Alair’s coat. Unless you came near you wouldn’t see it, and by the time the guards went by again to check on the prisoners, they will (according to plan) already be out of here.

She put on the shirt and pants which fit her almost as if they were made for her exactly. She pulled her hair under the cap and hoped she looked as much as Clock as she could, or at least that she wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb if anyone noticed her.

She crossed the mostly-open space and sneaked into the infirmary at the end of it, having heard no sound from the inside. A man seemingly suffering from a bad case of a lost fight lay on the bed, breathing unevenly but nonetheless asleep. Inej glanced longingly at the medical supplies that would be invaluable if they made it to the open sea, decided as she often did in a split moment she couldn’t afford someone checking in on the injured man and noticing them gone.

The window was closed but unlocked. She opened it and climbed out, closing it behind her with one hand. The wind whipped her back as she climbed up and up and up carefully. Her broken arm trembled, sweat leaked down her back, but she managed it step by step.

The boat was marvelously crafted, she admitted, but time weathered down even the best fitted boards, leaving small cracks in between them when Inej fitted fingers and toes. Temperature was dropping quickly with the sun, making her shiver.

Finally, she was looking through a clear window into the Captain’s cabin.  She saw no one, and with no time to spare, unlocked it and dropped in.

It was exceedingly large and richly adorned for a room on a boat. The bed, nailed to the floor, was like a pool of blue silk amidst a woven carpet. There was a desk and boxes filled with paper, neatly arranged, colorful quills, ornaments that cost more than the ammunition, a wardrobe undoubtedly filled with upscale, fashionable clothes. Among others, he camouflaged like a predator, but something told her he appreciated the extravagant and wore it in private, or at least had it just for the sake of owning it.

She saw the metal box Clock had mentioned in the corner, picked the lock unusually fast. And there they were, all six of her knives. She picked them up, cradled them in her arms, before dropping them in her considerable pockets, enjoying their weight.

She blinked in surprise when she noticed the shawl they lay on, the one Kaz had given her two years ago. She was sure it had flown into the air, forever lost at sea. Tears that welled in her eyes were sudden and unwanted, so she pushed them down. Using her right hand, she tied Sankta Alina to her forearm with the cloth strongly to assure she was parted from neither again.

Climbing down was far easier than climbing up. She was armed again, no longer vulnerable, fully herself at last. The wounded man was sleeping still, whimpering. Inej quickly made her way to the square entrance, knocking in a pattern of three-five-two as she had promised Iris before jumping down and landing in a crouch.

She had forgotten how dark it was here, like in a tomb. It took her eyes a few moment to adjust to it and survey her surroundings.

Iris was lowering a gun, staring at Inej with that odd unreadable stare of hers. Inej saw that the tall woman wasn’t the only one armed- she had managed to find something for everyone, from guns like her own to heavy metal pipes. Her own child carried a small knife like she wasn’t particularly sure what to do with it.

“We’re a couple days away from Kerch.” Inej started. She didn’t need to capture anyone’s attention- they were all already looking at her. “I’m going to make a diversion and let down the boats. You make a hole big enough for everyone to get through here without raising suspicion. As soon as you see the boats, get down into them by rope and start rowing with all you have.”

“How will you make a diversion?” asked Mira, at the same time that Iris said, “I’ll take care of it.”

Inej nodded at Iris, then turned to Mira. “I’ll set explosives on the other side of the ship, and while the crew is busy dealing with that, you get into the boats and start sailing.”

“You’ll make it too, right?” asked the small girl, gripping the knife like it was her lifeline.

“I will. Don’t worry about me.” She looked each person in the eye. To people you led it didn’t matter whether you truly had confidence, but whether you could look like you did. “We don’t have much time. Follow Iris’s lead and get out of here. If I by some chance don’t get to you in time, go to the Barrel and find Kaz Brekker. Tell him I sent you; he’ll help.”

 

Making an explosive wasn’t that hard at all, especially not when you had the whole magazine at your disposal and some basic training in putting it together provided from a friend. The dark had almost completely swallowed the world by the time she put them in place, the stars the only source of light since the Moon was hidden behind clouds.

As the first explosion detonated, attracting screams and attention, she was crouched in the dark, lowering the boats to the water as quickly as possible. Her arm had started aching again, bringing Mira’s promise of immense pain to mind. Concentrated on her task, Inej didn’t find it hard to ignore the warning.

When the second one hit the water, she breathed out in cautious relief. Another explosive went off, wreaking further destruction to a side of the ship, rocking in to the side before the strong waves straightened it again.

One of her legs was over the side of the boat. She was ready to climb down and swim to the boats she counted on already getting away and towards Kerch. Just a step away from disappearing, a voice came from behind her.

“Tell me, Miss Ghafa, did you truly believe I would let such a valuable guest leave without saying goodbye?”

The Moon peeked out, illuminating the line of his shoulders, strands of his brown hair, the shiny outline of the metal pistol, the calm victory in his eyes. He looked completely unbothered, gun in unmoving arms aimed at her heart. Hazel eyes dark in the shadows radiated power.

Inej stood up, thoughts whirling in her head, running into each other. Fight, escape, fight, escape, cut your own throat, escape, fight, escape, escape, escape.

“Not at all, Mr Pollet. Bad manners are below you.” She raised her hand to throw the knife still in her hand, taking aim with her quivering muscles as fear and memories gripped her throat against her will, Pollet’s face flickering between his own and Tante Heleen’s, a two-headed monster only capable of inflicting pain.

The monster smiled, “Not always, my dear. Not always.”

A shot sounded through the air.

Chapter Text

After they all got their tasks, the group dispersed. Nina saw Loe get into the maps room with Kaz, heard the click of the lock turning as she got back into the living room from the kitchen. Dorian trailed up the steps, only to come down a couple minutes later and leave the house, putting on her coat as she went. Freya disappeared off to somewhere, and since Nina noticed she was fuming during the whole strategizing part, she imagined the Tidemaker can’t have been in a good mood.

Inej’s parents were led upstairs by Marya, her arm comfortingly wrapped around their side. Tears streamed down her father’s face, but her mother was silent, staring at nothing. Nina couldn’t even begin to imagine, with all the love she held for Inej, the way they felt. Losing a child once was horrible, but losing them a second time, just as you convinced yourself that having them near was not an illusion, that they were safe and everything was going to be alright? It must have devastated them, reopened and widened a wound barely healed.

She went into the kitchen as much for the glass of water she drank as to take a breath, sit down on a chair and look out at the shit weather. She let her mind empty for a while, let all the emotion seep out of her skin without her giving them a thought. Pain and grief and loss washed over her freely, but she was somewhere else, in a blank room that knew none of them.

Jesper still sat in the parlor. Nina would’ve thought her friend was asleep, his head tilted back and eyes closed, if it wasn’t for the fact his fingers spun his ring round and round and round. She hesitated, unsure if she should interrupt the silence or retreat quietly. She didn’t know where exactly she would retreat to, but that didn’t matter much right now.

Jesper make the decision for her, turning to look at her, an exhausted smile on his face. “It takes some circumstances to drag you to visit us, huh?”

"What can I say, otherwise you're just not worth the effort.” Nina replied, seating herself across from him.

He looked drained and like a half dozen carriages ran over him in the past half hour, yet that reckless, untamed energy surrounded him as always. Nina had a feeling he would rather be outside, running, fighting, shooting everything in his sight, even gambling, that be seated in the still, colorful parlor. She didn’t blame him; if she had a choice and no sense, she too would choose to feel the adrenaline in her veins, washing away the feeling of uselessness and the knowledge of hours they would have to face yet until they could get some action.

“How’s it going?” Jesper asked, half-jokingly, trying to lighten the mood a bit and break the silence that had fallen.

“Just excellent- my best friend is kidnapped, I missed my yearly visit to my late boyfriend’s grave, I’ve been in this city for a few hours and I am already tired of the rain. How’s that for a start?” She huffed out a laugh. Her life was, if nothing, never without a few dozes of craziness. She wished Inej was here now so they could snuggle into blankets, eat until their stomachs hurt and talk and cackle about all the ridiculousness fate threw at them until morning.

Jesper tilted his head like he was considering it. “Well, I suppose it’s acceptable- for a start. You could work on it some.”

“I could stab myself in the gut and bleed out onto this lovely carpet. Then I can add its tragedy to my list.”

“Not a bad idea. I could stab myself too, so our blood mixed. More drama.”

“It’s a plan.”

Wylan came in then, all but falling face down onto the floor. “Mama put Mr and Mrs Ghafa in her room. She’s going to take care of them.” He looked at them and the whispers of smiles dancing on their lips with a pang of curiosity. “What are you talking about?”

“Gutting ourselves.” Nina said. Wylan looked like someone who needed a month of sleep and a barrel full of happiness. “Wanna join? Three is a better number than two.”

“No way.” Wylan said, sitting down beside Jesper and absently leaning towards him and taking his hand. “You’ll just wait until we died and then make us run into church during service and dance naked in front of the whole city, forever ruining the minds of poor children.”

“Busted.” Nina fake-sighed with exasperation, like her plan was ruined. “What about, I make you dance naked, but I also dance naked?”

“You two would enjoy dancing naked in public, so it’s not much of a bargain.” Pointed out Wylan, making his boyfriend laugh. Jesper draped his arm around Wylan’s shoulders, pulling him closer. Nina smiled softly. She was genuinely glad they had each other, that they had someone they could be so at ease around with no reserve, that two friends she cared about a lot found the comfort only love could bring.

“I can no longer stand to listen to these insults to my person. I’m leaving.” Nina exclaimed dramatically, swishing her hair so the length of it fell down her back. “See you at dinner. There is going to be a dinner, right?”

Both men laughed at her worried face. Her appetite wasn’t back yet, so she was mostly faking it, but she appreciated the reaction either way.

“Yes, of course. Who are we to deprive the great goddess Nina Zenik of her food?” Wylan said, a small light in his eyes in contrast with the dark circles under them.

“Better remember it in case you dare entertain the thought of not feeding me.” She said, swirling around and exiting the room. Still unsure of where to go, she shrugged on her coat and went out into the garden.

A silhouette sat on the bench under a mostly-bare tree. Nina recognized Inej’s first mate, wanted to call out but ended up silently leaning on the side of her house, watching her, trailing her eyes over the curve of her slightly crooked nose- probably broken long ago, Nina mused-, the line of her strong chin and cheekbone, the curl of her generous eyelashes.

Someone could call Loe’s hair brown like they would Nina’s, but they were nothing alike. Loe’s was like a mash of colors, from chestnut to cocoa to honey to butter, bleached from the sun where she always kept it up and dark where it was hidden. Nina noticed a deep, jagged scar on the side of her neck, an old wound healed badly.

There had been a passing thought or two of how mesmerizing Loe Ji Kien was; Nina often ran into beauty and her mind always acknowledged it, fleetingly appreciated it. Something, however, about the scene in front of her made her breath catch in her throat.

The sky was that murky shade of light, a contrast to objects that seemed darker against it. Loe’s hair was down, stuck to her face at places where raindrops had fallen. Her eyes were closed, head tilted towards the sky, like she was the one commanding it to rain on her, like she controlled the unbending nature. Not even the disappearing bruises could mar her allure. Her hands were on her thighs, fingers intertwined like she was praying.

Thunder growled like raging gods, announcing an approaching storm, and somewhere in the distance a crow cawed. The bird’s screech surprised her out of her trance, making her flinch. A branch snapped under her foot and Loe’s eyes turned to hers.

There was just a split second before Loe’s walls went back up that she was vulnerable, and Nina saw the same deep pain she felt mirrored in the light eyes. It was the kind of pain only a loss of someone you loved more than you did the whole wide world could cause. In that second Nina felt like they were tied in the same web, like that agony tied them together, two sides of a coin, but then it passed and she thought herself silly for that sudden, strong emotion curling in her gut.

“Hey. Sorry I sneaked up like this.” Nina said, leaning back on the wall casually even though she felt awkward, something that rarely happened. “I wanted some clean air.”

“It’s alright. I wished for the same.” Loe retorted, her face completely unreadable.

“I’m going to warn you there’s not enough clean air on the whole of Kerch to counteract the annoyance that is Kaz Brekker.”

Loe’s lip curled in a small smile. Nina had to work hard to return her gaze to those light brown eyes. “He is a hard man to deal with, sometimes.”

Nina rolled her eyes. “Tell me about it. And you’re too polite- he’s always a pain in the ass.”

“You can put it that way too.” Loe moved a bit to the left and motioned with her hand to the freed up space. “Why don’t you sit down? You are dirtying your coat.”

Nina complied, very aware of the other woman’s presence beside her. She smelled like rain, wet wood and faintly of roses and coffee. It was an odd mix, one that didn’t bother Nina one bit. “How is he?”

Though she said nothing for several moments, Nina sensed Loe knew who she was talking about. Nina hadn’t intended to ask that, it just left her lips before she could think about it. Kaz Brekker was an ass, an idiot and a bastard, but he was still Nina’s friend. She was one of the few people who realized what Inej meant to him and what chaos this situation wreaked in him, one of fewer still who cared if he was alright.

“I don’t know.” Loe answered finally. Nina felt a pang of disappointment despite not expecting a different answer. “It was just some time ago that Wylan told me of their relationship, so that puts a whole new perspective in place. I had suspected they were close, it even crossed my mind once or twice, but I just dismissed it as improbable. Inej hides few things, but they are well-hidden.”

Nina couldn’t help but agree. Inej told her most everything, yet some things she always kept to herself, particularly profound pain and burdens she didn’t want to put on Nina’s shoulders. She knew it and she let Inej be. They all had their secrets and loss they thought no one else could understand or bare.

“I think-“

There was a piercing scream. They jumped up from their seat, Nina raising her hands and Loe pulling a knife out from her boot, both out of habit. A woman came running towards the house, mouth agape, eyes wide with horror, dress barely in more than tatters.

She collapsed to the ground a few feet from the front door. An arrow with blood red feather fletching stuck out from her back. A piece of cloth was tied to it, large enough for Nina to see what was written on it in night black ink clearly from where she stood.

TRAITOR.

Thunder roared above.

***

Kaz dropped by the Slat after he finished his talk with Loe and she left, her lips pressed in a tight line. He didn’t think there would be any trouble- at least, not one out of the ordinary-, but he still had to make sure all his things were where he had last put them and the Dreg’s affairs were in order.

He exchanged a few words with Anika in his office, just enough to give her instructions which to pass onto everyone else. Listening to Roeder’s tiring report that revealed nothing he didn’t already know made him twitchy, but he considered it best to get it over with. It also gave him a chance to discreetly inquire about any new arrivals and suspicious happenings, which too, thankfully, revealed nothing of interest.

He was closing in on the house when he felt something was off. Pool of blood mixed with rain backed up his suspicions. Thinking over his options, he stepped aside the red puddle and opened the front door, again naively unlocked. He smelled roasting meat, heard humming from the kitchen now that the walls drowned out the sounds of the storm about to crash any moment outside.

Kaz saw Ms Kolich dancing to her own rhythm as she busied herself with preparing dinner. She was completely unaware someone was watching her. He imagined that he could approach her and put a knife to her throat, and she would have no inkling of it until she was dead on the cold floor.

People like her baffled him even as he used their obliviousness and weaknesses to get what he wanted from them. They truly believed they were safe and nothing wrong could come their way in a world that knew no mercy and no safety. They slept with no nightmares and no fears, they didn’t wake at the smallest of sounds, weapon in hand, adrenaline in blood, ready to fight.

Shaking his head a little, he passed by the kitchen and headed upstairs. Oliander’s bed was empty; tangled sheets lay at the foot of it, blood and dirt hanging to them. Bandages, water and medicine sat on the bedside table, proof as everything else in here was of an injured.

He climbed down the stairs, making a grimace as pain shot through his leg. He knew it would only get worst until the weather eased off, so he grit his teeth and worked through it.

Like all layouts of places he had broken into over the years, or had intended to break into, the one of the Van Eck Mansion stayed in his head so he had no trouble finding the entrance to the basement. When he opened the door, familiar voices filled his ears.

Everyone but Freya and the large, nameless man was gathered around a pile on the floor than smelled horridly, like mud and gore and cheap, too-strong parfume. Nina was talking with Olivander, pale-faced and seated in a chair he barely hung onto. Dorian seemingly casually put a hand on his shoulder, but Kaz could see by the strain of her muscles she was the only thing holding Olivander upright.

Kaz made his presence known by clicking down the stone steps with his cane. He put on his usual face, pulling the pain as he always did behind it.

“What’s that?” he asked, wishing he too could sit somewhere and stretch his sore, aching leg.

“A dead body.” Nina said. “She came running towards the house, screaming like, well, someone shot an arrow through her back. I walked her in here before she raised attention.”

“That was super weird, in case that’s not obvious.” commented Oliander, in the same rough, tired, quiet voice.

“I think it’s wicked.” Dorian said, eyes gleaming at the prospect of someone moving around corpses like toys.

“Wicked and weird.” Rectified Nina, a strained smile on her lips. Kaz knew her power wasn’t something many knew of, and guessed it wasn’t something she liked sharing over tea and biscuits.

Ignoring their chatter, Kaz crouched by the body and examined the arrow placed next to it, the writing on it. Bracing his weight on his healthy leg, he rolled her over, stood back up.

“Diana Northwood.” He said and everyone fell silent.

“You know her?” Jesper asked, hands playing with his precious guns that were back to being strapped by his side. He didn’t look at Kaz when he asked it, instead gazing at the dead woman with pity.

 “She was an informant working in the White Rose I occasionally used. In exchange for money, she told me the babbling of her customers that might prove useful.”

A thought was fluttering in the back of his mind, something very, very important, but exhaustion made his brain slow and he couldn’t catch hold of it.

“Do you think that’s why they killed her? Because she betrayed information to you?” Wylan asked. Kaz looked at him and felt a strange jolt of déjà vu. For a moment two pictures danced in front of him, one of a skinny, timid boy the cruelty of his father had deprived of a childhood and a roof over his head, who could barely glance at violence, the other of a man who stood tired but with confidence, studying the body like it was just another problem to be solved, another puzzle to be put together.

Kaz decided that if he didn’t get sleep soon, he was certainly going to go mad, and promised himself he would lay down for a couple hours when he got the chance. He didn’t want to waste time, didn’t want to sleep, didn’t want to dream, but that was cowardly and emotional and it could cost Inej her life if he couldn’t think clearly.

“Not necessarily.” Kaz answered. “She worked for others beside myself. Any of them could have screwed up and told somebody, or she did so herself.”

Frowning, Nina crouched as Kaz had, lifting a piece of the ruined dress before she tore it off completely with no warning.

“By the gods, what are you...“ Oliander started to say, then trailed off when Nina wiped the blood with the tatters and what she saw was obvious to everyone.

All over Diana’s stomach were written words, messy, in several different languages running over each other. The ones in Kerch all said ‘PEACEMAKER’.

Nina muttered something under her breath, speaking words Kaz couldn’t understand, then announced, “They all mean the same thing- ‘The one who brings peace’ or ‘The peacemaker’. Help me roll her to her back.” She said to Jesper who complied.

The words on the back were dug in deeper, almost to the bone. Hate was oozing out of every gash. Nina translated, which was unnecessary since a word written over half her back was hint enough: REVENGE.

“This makes no sense.” Oliander said, awakening a few hums of agreement. Kaz’s eyes were, however, fixed on Dorian’s thoughtful face. He saw her fighting the same battle as him, trying to recall something just out of reach.

“Someone did this while she was still alive, the poor thing.” Nina murmured, closing the woman’s eyes with the back of her hand, the first one to remember to do so. “Then they shot her and sent her this way. It wasn’t a coincidence she came here- someone kept her awake and aware long enough for her to get here.”

“Someone with a gift like yours?”

Nina considered then shook her head at Jesper’s question. “I don’t think so. Then again, I’ve never met someone with powers like my own. To my knowledge, all victims of jurda parem died from the addiction.”

Jurda parem?” Oliander asked at the same moment that Dorian exclaimed: “Kaz.”

“What about him?” Nina was bemused as she stared at the dark-haired girl and the grimness that overtook her eves.

“No, I mean- Kaz. The peacemaker.”

“No offense, but I don’t think that’s quite the right word to describe him.” Jesper retorted, but it had already clicked in Kaz’s head.

“She’s indicating my name means ‘peacemaker’.”

“Well, there’s irony for you.” Jesper muttered. Wylan shot him a look.

“Then I guess it was a message to you after all. What-“ Nina started to ask, then stopped herself. What kind of a secret could she have told to deserve this? Kaz saw she recalled people killed other people over stolen pennies, or for no reason at all, because this was the Barrel they were talking about and it knew no sympathy nor clemency.

Kaz was already thinking about all the information she had sold over the years, but nothing stood out. Besides, she didn’t tell him anything directly, she did so through the runners as were the rules. Someone had gone through considerable trouble to find out that a certain piece of information went to him.

And then the bird inside his head he had been trying to get a hold of slammed straight into his face.

Inej.

Diana Northwood was the one who told him where to find Samuel Rickety. Rickety was the key to getting Inej back, maybe not the main, but nevertheless an important one.

Even as he thought it, he was running up the steps and outside into the storm that had taken full swing. Rain soaked him in a matter of moment, matting his hair to his forehead. Trees let out groans, barely holding on against the strong wind. Lightning pierced the now dark sky, like a fiery rip in the sky. He knew Jesper and Nina were behind him, but he didn’t care.

He tried to move fast while also keeping out of sight of anyone crazy enough to be out in this weather, which proved to be a hard task. Not that it mattered. When he got to the small apartment, he would find Rickety’s corpse in the middle of his living room, throat slit, a knife dug into his heart, the same angry words written on his skin.

He will have been staring at the ceiling with terrified eyes for the last five hours, stone cold dead.

Chapter Text

“I need a favor.”

“Go away. I’m sleeping.”

Loe pulled the sheets from under the groaning man hard, tumbling him to the floor. He cursed in the language of her blood, rubbed the back of his head as he sat up to stare at her with dark, accusing eyes. The brown-haired woman watched him from where she stood, soaked boots and dripping coat, unsympathetic.

“What the fuck do you want, Bolormaa?”

The mention of her name sent a jolt of nostalgia through her. Nobody had called her that in a really, really long time. It was her own choice to leave it behind, one she hadn’t regretted. Nevertheless, it was nice to hear it said out loud; she believed that even when you buried parts of your past, you were never supposed to bury memories with them.

“Get up. I won’t talk to you while you’re writhing on the floor, Nergüi.”

“You’re the reason I’m on it.” He muttered begrudgingly, but stood up nonetheless. Neither him nor Loe cared he was near naked as he walked over and leisurely spread his lithe body on a chaise by the window, lifting his leg onto it. Loe preferred to remain standing.

“So, are you going to tell me why you interrupted my rest? Have you finally realized how boring sailing is and come to beg me to teach you to do something more worthy to do with your time?”

She glanced at the room, the silk sheets, the expensive furniture and even more expensive trinkets on them, the intriguing carvings that signalized, as everything else here did, wealth and taste, turned her disinterested look to him. “A game at pully hawly with desperate rich women whose husbands can’t satisfy them? I think I’ll pass, thanks.”

His eyes gleamed, like he wasn’t mad just seconds ago because she had woken him up. Loe had been used to his fluidness, witnessed it many times in the past, yet still the speed with which he changed his mood, like discarding clothes that bored him, managed to surprise her. “It’s not just women I cater to.”

“Diana Northwood.” She said clearly, wiping the smile off his face. She had a feeling that if she hadn’t gotten straight to the point, she would’ve tangled herself in a completely ridiculous conversation; Nergee had a talent for pulling you into plays of his own design until you wanted to pull your hair out and he was cackling in the corner.

“What about her?”

“She’s dead.”

He flinched, but didn’t look otherwise taken aback. “That’s a shame.”

“You knew she was going to die.” It wasn’t a question. She saw the truth, clear as day, on his face.

Nergüi looked away, not denying it. “She was involved with some bad people, wanted to make extra money on the side. I told her to leave it, warned it won’t end well. She didn’t listen. I expected she would end slaughtered in some alley one day. That’s what happens to everyone who sticks their nose too deeply into the mud looking for gold. Who got to her?”

“I don’t know.” Loe said, pacing to clear her mind.

She had stayed silent, pulled into a dark corner of the basement, inconspicuous as she watched the examination of Diana’s body, the reveal of the etchings on her skin, the meaning of them. She had been pondering what she should do, the familiar, pal face on her mind, when Nina came in, dripping all over the floor, explained to her what had happened.  

The Loe headed to Nergüi’s place without a moment’s thought. She hadn’t visited him in seven years, hadn’t intended to break the chain of no visits, but there was no one else she could ask for help, no one who wouldn’t request clarification or reasons. No one she trusted.

He looked beautiful still with his dark skin, sharp cheekbones, ravishing mouth and hair that reached to his shoulders, just barely brushing it. She had thought fleetingly when they first met how he looked like something out of this world, a statue come alive that some forgotten god of the past made on one of his good days.

“You have someone.” He said, breaking the silence and her deep thoughts, past and present weaving in her mind. The tone of his voice said he hesitated to say it and still wasn’t sure it wasn’t a mistake.

“How do you know that?”

He looked away again- he did so whenever he felt whatever he was thinking and what he felt would show too clearly in his eyes, she knew-, then back at her. “I asked around some years back when I found out you were working for that girl, the young captain. I wanted to know if you were happy. Reo, right? Reo Janine Coule.”

Leo shut her eyes tightly, as if by doing that she would shut out the pain at hearing that name with it. Opened them. “I was happy. She’s dead now.”

Jié'āi shùnbiàn.”

She acknowledged it with a nod. For a moment she saw that if this was another time, if this happened before what divided them, he wouldn’t have to say the words of condolences, however sincere they sounded; she would hug his close, close, close, cry on his shoulder until she couldn’t cry anymore, let him comfort her, would’ve drawn strength from that acceptable vulnerability and another’s strong shoulders holding her burdens for a while.

The picture, breakable as the thinnest of glass, vanished into air like smoke.

“I need your grifting specialties.”

If he was in any way moved by her request, he didn’t show it. “What kind of grifting are we talking about?”

“A slave-trader is coming to town to trade the goods. You’re going to pretend you heard about it from your good pal who, being currently indisposed, asked you to take over the job for him. Do the nastiest of the nasty pretenses, but like you think you aren’t involved that much, just a bystander making a living. Details to follow.” She paused. “If you’re in, I can compensate you for your time.”

“I doubt you could afford me.” He joked, shaking his head. He was serious when he spoke next. “You wouldn’t be asking if it wasn’t important, so it’s free of charge. A favor, as you said. When is this affair to take place?”

“Midnight, day after tomorrow. If that changes, I’ll notify you. Now, as for the plan...”

***

Breakfast was mostly quiet. Whatever jokes Jes and Nina usually would’ve come up with to lighten the air felt improper in the presence of Inej’s parents, so almost all of the talking was done by his mother. Wylan suspected she was the one who dragged Mr and Mrs Ghafa down to the dining room, and the only reason they ate anything.

Nina stuffed her plate full of waffles and was making good time on them, and Dorian wasn’t far behind. Jes was lost in his thought, occasionally brushing Wy’s leg on accident as he tapped, tapped, tapped. An abandoned waffle sat on his plate and he stabbed at it until it was in crumbs.

Wylan guessed Freya was by Oliander’s side; apart from the period of few hours yesterday, she didn’t move away from his bed. Mr. P was somewhere else, but he was always somewhere else. Kaz and Loe were missing too. For Kaz that was the usual state of things- since their house had filled with Inej’s crew he had only eaten with them twice, and both those times Wylan figured he had an ulterior motive. Loe, however, never missed meals.

Mrs. Ghafa –Rychele, she told him a thousand times he could call her Rychele- suddenly pushed from the table, expressionless. “I will retreat to my room now. Thank you for the food.”

Marya looked like she was going to say something, then sighed and went back to her meal. Arda looked after his wife, face miserable.

Fighting with himself, Wylan stood up and went after her. When he looked at Rychele Ghafa walking, he was always reminded of Inej, just less cautious and alert, the way his friend would’ve been had it not been for Barrel and the life it made her lead. Her mother’s steps were slower now, pulled with grief, but somehow still graceful.

“Rychele. Can I show you something?”

She looked at him blankly, shrugged and followed him. He opened the door to the room that was Inej’s and was a little surprised to have found almost no evidence Loe was living there at all. Apart from the faint scent in the air and a knife on the bedside table, everything was as Inej had left it.

Wylan opened the wardrobe and, after a bit of digging, pulled out a finely wrapped object, presenting it to Rychele. “She was knitting you a sweater- she just finished it last time she was here. She said it was colder in the South and you might need it. She was going to start on Arda’s when she came back. She wanted to give them to both of you at the same time, but...”

Rychele sat on the bed like her legs couldn’t hold her anymore. Care she put into opening the foil to reveal a dark blue sweater broke Wylan’s heart a little. At first the woman was silent. She wasn’t very old at all, he knew, and usually he saw her as younger than her age, but at that moment she seemed all but ancient, years of worry and pain fully revealed on her face.

It was only when she burrowed her face in the material, shoulders shaking, that she broke down. Unsure what to do, feeling useless now more than ever before, he sat next to her and gently rubbed her back, a mix of taut muscle and bone.

Arda walked in some time later. Rychele had barely moved before, but twisted to look at him, said something in Suli, voice broken. The look they were sharing was intimate. Wylan, feeling like he was intruding, stood up and quietly said he had something to see to. As he walked out the door he turned one last time. Arda had taken his place and was whispering something in her ear. They held onto each other, fingers gripping at the other’s clothes like if they didn’t hold on tightly enough they would shatter.

Wylan felt restless, like he might cry or hit something or scream. He wondered briefly if this raw urge was what had driven Jesper to seek comfort in gambling, if looking at the wheel spin or cards go managed to tame it, make him forget it.

Jesper had been pulled towards the East Stave several times after the first year or so, couldn’t resist it, but Wylan had only found out about those trips after they had happened, after that had happened.

The image came vividly into his mind, like it hasn’t been almost three years since it happened: Jesper stumbling into their bedroom, the noise jolting Wylan awake, his expression half wasted-happy, half wretched in the clear moonlight, the way guilt crept in through the cracks.

Wylan had been shocked beyond belief before a toxic mix of betrayal, anger and pity set in. He knew it wasn’t fair then, knew it wasn’t fair now. Addiction was like sickness, and when he had made a business partnership with Jesper, when he silently asked him to stay not for the job but because he loved him, he had taken on part of the responsibility.

Jesper had dealt with the need horrendously, trying to keep it to himself out of shame rather than ask for help, but there were signs, signs Wylan didn’t notice because he was so wrapped up in the idea that finally, finally, everything was perfect. He lived with a man who he trusted and who never once judged him and who made his heart flutter at the oddest of moments, he was good at his job, he had a roof over his head, a parent who was a bit lost but who he knew loved him.

But life wasn’t easy and it wasn’t perfect and things didn’t just fall into place. You had to work for okay and for calm and sometimes, no matter how hard you tried, you got neither. Then you breathed in, you cleared your head and you gave it another try because the people you were fighting for were worth it.

He jumped up when a hand touched his shoulder, looked up into recognizable, concerned grey eyes.

“Are you alright? You just stood that, looking like someone gutted you or-“

That wild restlessness drove him to push Jesper against a wall, pressing his lips tightly to his, holding him by the lapels. Here he felt the familiar spark, the harmony and chaos working with and against each other, the beat of Jesper’s heart, like the mad music of the fairies in the stories his mother read him sometimes, when he put his hand against it.

He moved away, breathing hard as Jesper did.

“Okay. Yeah, okay. Any special occasion I should know about so I can mark it on my calendar?”

Wylan laughed. He felt amusement and adoration as he gazed at the bewildered look on Jesper’s face. Not caring that he might give Jesper a cardiac arrest with too much affection, he wrapped his arms around Jesper’s ever-slim frame and pulled him closely. He rested his head in the crook of Jesper’s shoulder, breathing in gunpowder and faint scent of waffles.

“Are you sure everything’s okay? You aren’t dying or something, right?”

Jesper’s arms were warm on his back, giving Wylan an overwhelming sense of safety. “I kiss and hug my boyfriend, so I must be dying?”

“You kiss and hug your boyfriend suddenly, so you must be dying.”

“I am not dying. I was just thinking about the day and how much I love you.”

Jesper tensed. He didn’t need to be told what day was being referred to. When he started to pull away, Wylan only held him tighter. It felt necessary to not let him go, not let him be all alone in his head again.

“I love you.” He repeated, leaning back slightly so he could catch Jesper’s eyes, make him see the truth in his. “I love you. I am here. You can talk to me.”

Silence, then: “I love you too.”

Jesper appeared to be laid back, always on the balls of his feet leisurely awaiting a brawl, laughing and joking around, seemingly never filtering his speech, unaffected by the world. Wylan knew different. Jesper was probably the easiest to break person he knew, and there were words he only said when he meant them, voice faltering and brittle and dazes, like ‘I love you’.

Neither noticed Nina until she coughed loudly and said “Kaz is back and he told me to tell you to meet him in the maps room.”

“Then let’s not keep him waiting.”

Wylan was surprised and glad when Jesper took his hand as they climbed down the stairs. He gave it a squeeze of acknowledgment.

Loe was already in the room when they entered, but what took Wylan aback was that Kaz looked rested- or, well, as rested as Kaz can look- and even weirder was that he could see it. It was a brief, barely noticeable difference; his eyes were even clearer than usual, the shadows under them more like shadows and less like bruises, his skin not so deathly pale.

Wylan was glad. He rarely worried about Kaz- Kaz Brekker wasn’t a person one could really worry about, or if they could, it was hard to remember to do so-, but when he did, he had a fleeting sense that one day the ferocious, made-of-steel man in front of him would fall apart, not from any injury or man, but from sheer exhaustion and his own need to drive himself without ever stopping.

“Miss Ji Kien has information to share.”

Kaz looked like he had already heard the information and wasn’t at all pleased with it. Since he was passing it on anyway, Wylan guessed that the disliking had come from having to pass on a string or two to someone else.

“I’ve found someone to replace Samuel Rickety. He’s up to the task and there is no chance he will give us away. This way you won’t have to make up a whole new plan and we can just go with the old one, few things altered.” The last thing was aimed at Kaz, who said nothing.

“Who is it?” Nina asked, seating herself into an armchair over which Kaz’s coat was draped. Kaz glared at her. Nina ignored him.

“An old friend of mine. What’s important is that I know I can trust him, and that he knows what he’s doing. I know you can dig out who he is, but you’ll only waste precious time.” Loe said, again speaking to Kaz. “I trust that you know what you’re doing, and I haven’t asked what you intend Freya and Dorian to do in libraries while we’re fighting, nor have I asked you to reveal the crucial parts of your plan. I have faith. Have faith in return.”

Wylan saw no change on Kaz’s face, yet he knew he would find out who the mysterious person was. Kaz Brekker didn’t work on faith, he worked on luck and violence and brilliance and always had a backup plan. And this was Inej’s life they were talking about, not just another job. Kaz would leave nothing he could control up to chance.

“We’ll do as we agreed. Jesper, you and Specht are backup, Zenik-“

“Will drag a bunch of corpses over roofs and hope that we don’t all plummet to our death. Or, well, that I don’t plummet to my death. They’d just plummet.”

“Right.”

“That’s that then. Now we just wait.” Loe said.

“Now we just wait.” Nina agreed.

Chapter Text

The sea was so cold, all-encompassing, never-ending, deep as the misery of life, yet at the same time calming. You were amidst the storm, the wind was carrying you further and further and further away. Everything but the wild of it, the power of it, disappeared. You were aware you were going to crash, the ground was going to break your fragile mortal bones, but it didn’t matter. For the first time ever something else had full control of your fate. You needn’t make any more choices.

You were truly and well free.

Distantly, as blood turned the water around her red, Inej thought she heard singing, an assembly of beautiful, high notes. She closed her eyes and smiled.

***

Nina was surrounded by bodies, carefully arranged so as not to be seen from below. They stank like rotting flesh did, of something sweet and disgusting. In the half-hidden moonlight she had been able to see that most of them were missing pieces here and there where the rats had bitten through their flesh. She had, after all, startled a number of them when she raised the dead and they skittered away.

She hoped that no one would notice a large pile of corpses prepared for burning went missing. It would raise a lot of questions and there would be panic, even greater so since it’s been only so many years since the false plague. It may not have caused any deaths, but fear was an easy emotion to cause.

Nina smoothed down her hair, flexing her fingers which were freezing even inside the warm gloves. She was perched up on the roof, looking between the place where the ship was to be anchored and the sky. It had been clear, emptied from days of insistent rain, but dark clouds were beginning to gather again. She hoped they would get over with this before the downfall began.

This wasn’t the ideal spot for the task, either. The stadwatch was paid well to guard this district and their patrols were frequent if not regular. She supposed that since Pollet had intended to trade here, he had Rickety or someone like that bribe them while he did business, but if he didn’t, they would all be in trouble.

A light flashed. Loe would make the sign every now and again, reminding everyone looking she was in position and there were no unplanned happenings on her side.

Nina had avoided the woman for the past few days, not fully knowing why. Something about her drew her in, demanded she look at Loe and admire her beauty, touch the scarred skin and shaded hair and uneven nose. It was unsettling. Nina had no issue with passion, never failed to pursue her desires when they showed themselves to her, but this was different. Not being able to understand why drove her to frustration, so she kept away.

Maybe it was the promise of something more that pushed her unconsciously away. It couldn’t be like the flings she’s had over the years with people she had no ties with and with whom she’d parted ways, never looking back. It wasn’t that she felt like she was betraying Matthias and what they had had either- the time, the memories were in her heart always, and she’d never let guilt mar them-, it was that the possibility of having something like that when you’d lost it once was terrifying.

Nina shook her head, feeling silly and off the rails. Maybe it was Inej’s absence that had her thinking so thoroughly about a relationship with a woman she barely knew; at least, that was the option she preferred.

It was almost an hour past midnight. No ship yet. It was truly arrogant of Pollet to make such a precise meeting when the sea was often hard to navigate, even with Tidemakers on your side.

She wished Jesper was by her side to pass the time, or Wylan. She would even settle for Specht, though he wasn’t as much fun as the former too. She was getting so desperate she’d even like Kaz’s grumpy company.

Jesper had already signaled half an hour ago, and so had Specht. She wasn’t sure where Wylan was now; she imagined he was in the same place as before, making final preparations with his explosives. Kaz had stayed silent so far, lurking in the shadows. Nina couldn’t see him, but she simply knew he was there, like one would sense a grim reaper.

Nina glanced towards the horizon, automatically now more than she expected to spot anything, and at last saw the outlines of the Illion. A twitchiness overcame her at the thought of Inej so very close, the kind when you had endured prolonged hardship and were feeling weary and impatient just a few steps from your goal. Breathing in deeply calmed her down; she sharpened her eyes and tuned her senses. Checking the connection with the bodies, feeling the pull of the cord and the wash of the unearthly cold, she flexed her fingers again.

She noticed with a start that the ship was damaged. It had a few protruding holes surrounded by irregular black powder, clear remnants of a small but efficient explosion. Someone had attempted to cover them, a Durast’s work most like, Nina assumed, inspecting it as best as she could from so far away in the humble light of the moon. They, for whatever reason, didn’t finish their work.

The ship was nearing but its progress was painfully slow, making Nina want to jump from the roof and just drag it herself. As she contemplated the option half-seriously, a silhouette stepped into the moonlight.

It must have been Loe’s mystery aid, and he struck her immediately. A man whose allure and sharp cheekbones you would have to be blind not to notice, he must have been in his late twenties, maybe early thirties, she couldn’t really tell. His beauty was that of fairies from the folk tales, so grand it was almost terrible.

Black hugged his form, a plain assembly of a thief who didn’t belong to a gang and hence avoided bright colors and attention they bring. Much unlike Kaz’s merchant clothes that got subtly richer every time she saw him, Nina compared with a smile, ones whose only purpose was to antagonize and make fun of actual merchants, their greed and hypocrisy. Slick and dramatic with a tad of cruelty, just Brekker’s style.

The man seemed restless, unsettled. Nina hoped it was truly all an act, and trusting Loe it must have been. It was an impressive feat- he paid attention to the smallest details, making tiny gestures a nervous person would make absently, twisting a shining ring on his finger, tapping against his thigh. It took her a moment to work out that he was acting even before the Illion was in the harbor in case someone was watching from the deck.

He straightened, slouched, repeated it subtly a couple times as the ship was being anchored and five people made way onto land. Nina lowered further and squinted, concentrating on the newcomers.

The small convoy was led by a tall woman with long blond hair that reached to her waist and shone ghost pale under the moonlight. She was dressed elegantly and in no way appropriately for a life on a ship, draped in a tight gown of liquid silver that hugged her sharply slim figure. Nina knew her for an Inferni the moment she laid eyes on her, but it didn’t take a genius to figure that out- the blonde’s hands were by her body, barely outstretched, a flame weaving through her spider-thin fingers.

A woman and a man- she could only assume their gender- stood by her side, both draped in embroidered monochrome cloaks, one in red, the other green. Nina could see only the bottom of their faces, barely so. The man was smiling, showing teeth, while the woman’s mouth was pulled into a grim, tight line.

The remaining two were burly men dressed in simple, fairly regular sailor clothes the color of sand. Nina imagined they were there simply for the group to appear more threatening, but it wasn’t impossible they were good fighters too. Nevertheless, if all three of the others were Grishas, and something told her her hunch was right, they were the ones to look out for.

“What is the meaning of this? Where is Samuel Rickety?”

Nina jolted when she heard the Fjerdan accent in the blonde’s stiff demand. She knew that there were Grishas born and raised in Fjerda too, of course she did, the lucky ones who never learned of their powers or those protected by their families who were kept a secret, but it still surprised to hear the lilt of people who hated them on the tongue of the hated, one of her own.

The beautiful man shrank further. He was taller than the woman in front of him, but now he seemed tiny and insignificant. “I- I am replacing him. He asked me to- He is sick. A horrible fever overtook him.”

Inferni woman drew closer, putting her hand so near his face the flames illuminated the sharp planes in red. “Are you truly trying to trick us, fool? Do you want me to turn you to ashes?”

“I swear! I swear!” The man raised his hands in the air as he cried out, dropped them as quickly. The cloaked woman had stepped forward, but she made no further attempt to approach. “I am telling the truth! Samuel got sick and he asked I take his place! He said I could have twenty percent of his pay if I did the job- it’s little, but I really need the money. There are some really bad people I owe in the Barrel.”

“Not just a fool, a gambling fool. No debt in the Barrel you can pay off with that little green. Better flee the city and start praying.” The smirking cloaked man said.

“I-I can’t. He’ll find me- they say he can find anyone anywhere. I am not so dumb to try to outplay the boss of the Dregs.” He said, somehow managing to sound both offended and scared at the same time.

The cloaked man threw his head back in a roar of laughter, revealing a square, scarred face and dark hair. “You owe Kaz Brekker. A dead fool you’ll be.”

“As I said, I need the money.” Loe’s contact said primly, on the verge of trembling. “That’s why I took Samuel’s offer. I oversee the business transaction, get my cash and then we can all go home. What do you say?”

The blonde seemed to contemplate it, still playing with fire. As clouds began to gradually cover the moon, it was glowing brighter and brighter in the oncoming darkness. The three men looked upon him mockingly, caught in his net. The figure in red stood silent and still as a statue, not making her thoughts known.

“What’s your name?”

“Albert. Vor Hees. Albert Vor Hees.”

“I accept your proposal, Vor Hees. I warn you now, if you lied to us or betray us, I’ll find you and burn all you love and you with it. Understood?”

“Y-yes.”

It only occurred now to Nina that ‘Albert’ probably had a job, a place he lived, people he interacted with. He was putting his whole life on the line with this job, not just his time and safety. If this went badly, he would have to leave everything behind and change his face, or stay hidden forever where they won’t dig him out from to get their revenge.

Albert looked appropriately scared with the threat. The blonde motioned with her fingers in the air and in response there was movement on the deck. Two more burly men- Pollet really seems to have found himself a hell of a crew- dragged three tied up people between them.

Nina’s anger sparked back to life when she saw one of them was but a child, a girl barely twelve. It was only because she was looking at her that she saw a shadow pass by quickly, gone before Nina could judge who it was.

When she moved her eyes back to Albert, she noticed his hand was fisted by his side. It was the first trace of real emotion he had shown all night. As if feeling her gaze and realizing it, he shoved it in his pocket.

“Anneke will be pleased with the merchandise, as will the de Kikker.” Nina saw the barest twitch of his shoulder when the tied girl choked out a sob.

“De Kikker?” the no-more-cloaked man asked, a scar above his eyebrow moving with it when he raised it. Inferni woman looked annoyed he had spoken again, but said nothing when Albert turned to explain.

“He’s new in town. They say he’s collecting women and intends to open a new bordello in the West Stave, where Menagerie used to be prior to Haleen’s… untimely demise.”

“And just how does he intend to do that? The whole Barrel knows Dirtyhands laid claims to it years ago.”

“He has already made steps to ensure that Kaz Brekker will not stay on his throne for much longer.” Everyone looked to the cloaked woman, surprised as Nina she had spoken. She was little more than a shadow now, the moonlight almost gone, yet her cloak shone like blood  and danger.

“Then he’s mad. Brekker will squash him under his feet.”

“He’s barely a man, and youth is easy to direct as you want.”

“He’s a demon. Don’t underestimate him.”

As the argument continued on, the cloaked woman stayed silent. She had said all that she wanted to say, and it didn’t seem like she was in a hurry to speak again.

“Porter, Tabor, escort Mr Vor Hees and the goods to the buyers.” The blonde had taken money from Albert, counting it in a few quick seconds and handing him back two notes. The two men still holding the prisoners nodded and stepped forward, dragging the bruised and sniffling people with them.

“This way.” Albert motioned towards the dark streets.

“Remember my warning, Vor Hees. I keep my word.”

His face shone grimly under the newly-lit lamps Porter and Tabor kept in the air. “So do I. This way, gentlemen, they’ll meet us in-“

An explosion rang through the air and Nina whirled in time to see the side of the ship blow up like it was hell, heaving debris towards the shocked people. As she pulled hard on her power, throwing corpses over the side of the roof and in front of the tied women, she saw Albert was already ahead of her and was pushing them all to the ground.

Either something went wrong, or it was a planned disaster of Kaz’s. Nina climbed down the ladder down the side of the building, listening to the shouting and screams as she tried not to plummet to her death on the unsteady metal. When her feet touched the ground, she ordered the corpses to climb down. Under the circumstances, they were too slow, making sweat tickle down her back as she held on and tried her best to usher them in a quicker manner.

Shots followed the shouting. Knowing she simply couldn’t wait anymore, Nina had the remainder of the dead bodies just fall to the ground and run forward, her steps behind them, disregarding the ones whose legs were broken in the fall.

They were swaying like drunkards. She grit her teeth and squeezed her fists tighter and tighter until she distantly felt her nails piercing skin.

Lamps must’ve been broken in the struggle and now only the blonde’s furious flames illuminated the docks. Nina caught glimpse of Albert fighting the two guards from before. It looked like he was holding his own at first glance, but it only took her a couple seconds to realize he must’ve been injured and the wound was slowing him down. His face was bleeding and he got rid of the coat.

Nina sent a wave of her misshapen army towards the two men, burying them underneath the dead. Albert glanced from her to the corpses, eyes wide, then inclined his head in gratitude and ran to where the captives were huddled near a pile of boxes. Nina considered going after him to help, but a next set of explosions caught her attention.

The blonde was concentrated on Loe who, despite her commendable speed, caught a few hits. Her entire right arm was smoking. She sent corpses still standing for her, and even to her eyes they were a horrid sight, dozens of people missing flesh and limbs lurching and wobbling like crushed insects.

The sky rumbled overhead and the air hummed with electricity. A squaller, Nina thought immediately with anxiety as she looked up. And a powerful one at that.

“Nina! Watch out!”

She turned at Wylan’s voice; a bullet just barely missed her side and grazed her arm, leaving a trail of fire behind. The man fell to the ground in the next moment, a gaping hole in his forehead seeping blood onto the wet pavement.

Wylan had attracted attention, and just managed to duck behind a container as a shower of bullets went his way. Shots sounded and the men fell one by one, by what she figured was Jesper’s hand. An explosive appeared a moment later, blowing under their feet and leaving smoke a beautiful shade of purple behind.

Figuring they could take care of that, Nina once again raised the fallen. Her arm burned, but she was insistent to ignore her. The blonde woman was on the ground, presumably unconscious or dead, and Loe was nearby, crouched amidst the lifeless, reloading her gun with efficient speed.

Green cloak was easy enough to spot, both for his garment and the fact there was a knife through his throat that struck him to one of the containers. Red cloak, however, was nowhere to be seen. Wondering where the woman was as she struggled to keep hold of her unwilling soldiers left her mind as lightning struck, illuminating the whole world in white.

A dark skinned woman stood on the boat like a goddess, a storm raging around her. Her eyes, dark as midnight, were looking straight at Loe. They were frozen like that as the battle continued all around, stuck in the moment between heartbeats. Then Loe started forward, like a puppet whose strings a child pulled to fast and they snapped.

“Loe, don’t!” Not thinking, Nina ran forward, jerking the knife from green cloak’s throat and throwing it at the Squaller woman. It was, however, too late- Loe had already been flung back and was flying quickly towards the ground. As Nina held her hands out, she noticed a grass green light on the sky from the corner of her eyes.

Loe collided with the corpses, falling to the ground unmoving. Nina raced to her, adrenaline barely keeping her on her feet as exhaustion over using so much power at once threatened to bring her down. The woman raised herself to her knees, spitting out blood, then tried to stand up, swaying.

Nina made it to her, knocking them both over in her unstoppable speed.

“Let me go!” Loe screamed, hitting Nina with her elbow as she tried to break free. “Let me go! I want to skin that bitch!”

“You can’t do anything now!” And neither could she. She had only enough strength to stay conscious now. It was hard not to damn herself because she couldn’t do more, she couldn’t fight on. Her sight shifted left and right, but she held on.

“I said let-me-go! She killed her! I saw it! She killed my-“ Loe’s voice broke, and so did a part of Nina’s heart in sympathy. “Please let me go. Please.”

“You dying too won’t help.” Nina looked around for Kaz, but it was hard to see anything with the wind that started lashing everywhere and in the flashing light that left you blinded one moment and in the dark the next. “Where’s Inej? Did you get her out?”

There was a brief pause while Loe’s breathing calmed down. In the next flash Nina noticed her eyes were closed tightly as she tried to get control over herself back.

“I don’t know. I haven’t seen Brekker since we split ways, and then the explosion happened so I went to help others.” Loe had to shout to be heard over the storm, even with their proximity. It seemed she had put herself together for now and stopped fighting, though the fire still burned in her eyes and her voice radiated barely suppressed rage.

Another bolt of lightning illuminated the world, and to her horror Nina saw Jesper and Wylan were surrounded. Wylan was without his bag and only had a knife in his hand. Jesper held his hands out and looked unmistakably like a Grisha, and even with the fright in her heart she felt a ting of pride. His beloved guns were nowhere in sight.

She was letting Loe go, trusting that she had calmed enough to be left to her own device, so she could attempt to help, even if she had to crawl in the tilting reality. Then the heavens were covered and they were thrown into darkness.

“Derry Pollet and comrades, step down or we will be forced to intervene.” A booming, flat voice called out. Nina smelled the salt and came to a stupefying conclusion at the same time Loe whispered, now able to be heard in the sudden silence, “It’s the sea.”

The humongous wave hovered above in warning. It seemed almost like the world was flipped upside down. Nina found the sensation dizzying.

And maybe she was imagining it, but it sounded to her almost like the voice was speaking the words through gritted teeth, unhappy that they were saying what they were saying.

“Since when does the Council of the Tides get involved in common affairs?”

Chills ran down Nina’s back. Her head whipped towards the unsettling sound even though she couldn’t see. Loe tensed beside her.

“Do not question our judgment, Pollet, lest you want your ship to end at the bottom of the harbor. Our terrain, our rules.” Came an answer after a pause; it felt like the whole world was holding its breath while waiting for a god to announce their verdict.

“You heard the Council. We’re leaving.”

“Sensible choice, Pollet.”

“I am a sensible man.”

It was both forever and oddly quickly that the wave disappeared, revealing the Moon, and the Illion was gone from sight. And there was Kaz at last, leaning heavily on his cane as he walked out of the retreating fog.

Nina ran towards him, which in her state amounted more to clumsy, slow stumbling. She halted when she was close enough to see his face. It looked more vulnerable than she had ever seen it, even covered in proof of battle- blood, grime, dirt- and old scars. It was so pale beneath he resembled one of the corpses. His eyes, however, were what truly terrified her- they were eyes of a lost child, not an invulnerable man.

“What is it? Where is Inej?”

“Inej?” he whispered, unmoving.

“Kaz? Where is she?” Nina could hear her own voice trembling.

“Inej is dead.”

In the next moment, as sudden and jolting as glass breaking, he collapsed

Chapter Text

Kaz kept to the shadows as he crept closer to the boat, gritting his teeth against the pain in his leg. He saw Ji Kien when she ran over the space between where she was hiding and the boat, pressed her back to the wood, swift as a shadow. He kept one eye on the conversing crowd as he did the same.

The night was on their side. Clouds gathered close to each other, hiding the moon from view. The darkness was a perfect cover for climbing onto the boat, the man presenting as Albert Von Hees a perfect distraction for the crew. Even the few people he had spotted on deck earlier seemed entranced by his performance.

He had to admit Ji Kien’s friend had admirable skill and was beyond good at what he did; he wondered again what kind of connection they had for Albert, who had never before done anything to earn Kaz’s attention, to get involved in this matter. Not knowing was clawing at Kaz continually, and had he already put wheels into motion to find out as much as could be found out about the mysterious man. It irritated him he had missed such a useful asset, and even more that he wasn’t sure he could’ve made Albert a deal he couldn’t refuse even if he had been aware of the man before.

Quiet and speed were invaluable now, and he couldn’t help but think of Inej for she was nothing if not the embodiment of both. If she were here it would’ve been her doing the job, and she would’ve already been inside the ship, soundlessly, halfway through the mission, whereas it took him what seemed like a small eternity he couldn’t afford to get to Ji Kien and give her the sign. She nodded, acknowledging his motion, and was gone to the left as Kaz went to the right.

When he almost tripped, only managing to catch hold of himself a moment before an irreparable disaster ensued, he cursed his leg mentally. It was his fault for overexerting it, though, as well as not giving it the proper attention and rest the old injury demanded. There had just been too many things to do, too many wires to pull, too many players to engage, too many plans to polish.

Inej had once murmured, voice grave, he would work himself straight into the grave and may not live to see twenty five. He didn’t think she had meant to say it aloud for she looked surprised after, but it struck him as a morbidly probable outcome. 

Kaz mentally chided himself. Now wasn’t the time to think about the pithy of his existence, or the past. There was a job to be done. And when he figured he was as close as he could get, he crouched, took off his coat, slowly throwing it over his head, breathed in deeply and slipped into the water.

It was freezing and suffocating, both facts which he tried his best to ignore. Panic seized his throat nonetheless, almost making him drop his cane into the depths of the harbor. As if that wasn’t enough of an issue, the flood of memories threatening to pull him under forever, his leg was being beyond uncooperative so instead of helping him move, it was excess baggage.

He was breathing shallowly when he finally caught onto the rough wood of the ship. A hand appeared above him, a shadow moving against other shadows, barely visible. Kaz climbed up a step, two, caught it his and pushed off as it pulled him up.

Shedding the coat that stuck like slimy hands to him was a relief, as was again being on steady if slightly rocking surface. Ji Kien seemed to have a lot less trouble with the transition, her breathing already calming as she quickly and expertly, with the precision and ease of someone who had done it a thousand times, let her hair down, twisted it so water dripped onto the boards below and re-tied it into a strong bun.

As he stood up, dripping and soaked as she was, Kaz for a moment regretted not wearing lighter clothes. However you turned it, he would have to leave his beloved coat. Making peace with it, he bundled it up and hid it in a crate filled with wine that, on the basis of smell only, appeared to be of good quality.

“Let’s go.”

Kaz let Ji Kien lead the way. He had layouts of all sorts of ships in his heads from research he did, but Loe seemed more confident in where she was going, and experience triumphed over studies. Not to mention her being able to feel her way forward in the dark- they couldn’t risk a lamp, after all- was invaluable. He needed his cane, the usual clicking sound now muffled with a few layers of cloth glued to the bottom, just to move and couldn’t use it for anything but.

When lamps came their way and they hid behind crates, Kaz debated the pros and cons of killing the two men grumpily talking in Zemeni right then and there. A couple seconds later, before Kaz could come to a decision, a hand lay on his forearm in a ‘Hold it’ motion. He felt the touch through the wet shirt to his skin and jerked away, working to calm the sudden raging in his ears by digging his fingers into his thighs until he all but felt the bruises forming. It was enough time for the men to pause, exchange a couple more words, and leave the way they came.

When they were left in the dark once more, Loe whispered, “They said that the boss told them to go back up and keep an extra eye on the deal. I wasn’t sure if you knew Zemeni, so I figured I’d signal either way.”

Still not fully himself, trapped between nightmare and reality, Kaz just nodded mutely. Then, remembering she couldn’t possibly see him, said hoarsely and quietly, “It was a good call. We need to hurry up either way.”

Loe confirmed it and in a couple minutes they were in front of- or rather above- a trapdoor. When she found it wouldn’t move, she shifted aside and Kaz took over. He took of his gloves and stuffed them into his pockets, not willing to lose any time anymore, no matter how insignificant it may be. Moving along the edges with his fingers, he found the lock. Once he had the lock picks in his hands, the door opened in only a small number of seconds.

Climbing down the rope she had previously secured didn’t seem to be much of a problem for the esteemed Loe Ji Kien, and soon she was tugging it once, then twice, their simple sign for ‘It’s clear”. Unlike her, Kaz had some trouble and his legs almost gave way beneath him when they touched the ground rather ungracefully.

Lighting a lamp was now unavoidable. The dark in here was everywhere, as if you were inside some terrible, other creature. They had chosen two small ones and now lit one of them so the dim light let you in on just the next few feet.

“It’s a cage.” Loe murmured the obvious, voice grave filled with old rage, like she had seen like scenes many times before but they still managed to make her furious. Kaz couldn’t help but share the sentiment. Resentment quickly built in his stomach, a disease you could never get rid of completely.

Hearing from Inej the horrors she had seen, whispered in the dead of night when the whole world was asleep and unaware and such things were easier to speak of, was bad enough, but seeing for himself a part of what was used to tear people away from their families, friends and lives was a whole lot worse. He despised Pollet and people like him already, a hatred that seemed to leave little place for it to grow, but this still did the job.

“Was she kept here?”

“No.” Kaz answered instantly. “Pollet’s not a fool. Inej would have made her way out of a cage like this in days, even hours. Wherever she was and is, it’s not here.

“Get back up as agreed, search the second level. I’ll take care of this.”

Hesitating for a split second, she nodded. “Alright. Good luck.”

He just nodded and continued forward. A nagging feeling was making headway through his whole body, a rising sense of dread he couldn’t shake of and couldn’t afford to reward with his attention right now. Something was off in here, seriously off.

Taking a couple steps forward, he cursed silently and turned around, marching back to the cage. Since he couldn’t crouch- his leg was already screaming like a petulant child with every movement-, he leaned forward and examined the ground. A couple feet away he spotted a somewhat rusty padlock and...

This time he did crouch, despite the pain, only long enough to lift the shining object. Yes, it was definitely his lock pick-or, rather, one of those he had gifted to Inej if she were ever to need them. They had barely visible scratches on one side, five neat lines for, he knew, five years of her freedom. He gripped the metal in his bare hand, pressing it to his chest for a brief moment so he felt the cold of it before he placed it carefully inside his pocket.

So she had managed to escape and she freed the prisoners. That would’ve been the first thing she would’ve done when she got out of whatever prison they had kept her in. That was Inej Ghafa- Captain Inej Ghafa, Kaz corrected himself- for you. Always putting others’ lives before her own.

He could see clearly how it had played out, the big picture at least. Get out, unlock the captives, work with them if it was at all possible and utilize whatever strengths they possessed, set off the explosions as a distractions, steal the boats and sail away into the dark.

But if she had gotten them out, if she had accomplished to get out and away, why did he still feel like his heart was sinking, like the world was tilting sideways?

Clutching the lamp tighter as he picked it up again, he quickly moved down the empty hall. There was blood here, barely visible spots here and there. Though his stomach turned, he didn’t stop to examine them. And then he was in the magazine and pushing open the door and-

No one who knew Kaz Brekker would say he hadn’t been through some things in his life and seen more than his fair share of terror. No one who knew of him would say he didn’t wreak his own share of it. He had beaten people to death, he had murdered in cold blood, he had cheated and grifted and stolen and done all that in streets that showed the lowest of humanity, the worst side of man. And yet none of it prepared him for the sight in front of him.

The floorboards were so drenched in blood they had changed their color and he could all but feel the pain radiating in the air, the horror of what had come to happen in this room. Light shone left and right as his hands trembled, as he extended his arm to lean on the doorframe.

“Looking for something, boy? I doubt you will find it there.”

Kaz turned ever so slowly and stared down straight into deep hazel eyes, lit alive by the strong lamp the man held in his hand. It didn’t take him a blink of an eye to realize he was standing in front of Derry Pollet, who was very inconveniently aiming a gun at his heart. His other arm lay limply at his side.

“Well, well, what do we have here.“ Now Pollet laughed. “I was certainly expecting someone, maybe that bitch that worked with her and managed to get away, or that silly prick who plays doctor, but definitely not Kaz Brekker himself.”

“You know what they say about surprise- if someone catches you by it, it means you didn’t anticipate the possibility, which just makes you a moron.”

The smile melted off of Pollet’s face for a split second, then came back almost before it was gone. “Witty, witty. So then, why would you bother coming here, wasting your time? Let’s see, let’s see... It was obviously for the little arrogant whore, but why would- Heh, isn’t this interesting.”

His eyes zeroed in on Kaz’s hand resting on the crow head, still shaking slightly despite his better judgment, went back to Kaz’s.

“Word on the street is Dirtyhands isn’t afraid of anything, which is just bullshit, since everyone is afraid of something. But if you aren’t afraid, you’re mad, and that just makes me curious.”

“Do you know what I’m curious about? That nice little wound on your shoulder.” Kaz never broke eye contact, just continued steadily gazing forward, and spoke lazily, all but dragging his words. “A knife wound, isn’t it? Now, many people have good aim, but very few have such an excellent one that they would manage to disable your arm with only one strike. I happen to know a woman with such an ability, and something tells me you two might be acquaintances as well.”

As Pollet opened his mouth, barely-contained anger sparkling in the hazel, Kaz went on, “And let me give you an advice, since I’m feeling some undeserved pity. Staring a thieving bastard into his eyes while he’s rattling off a monologue is just downright stupid.”

Moving quickly, fueled by adrenaline, Kaz hit Pollet’s hand with his cane, making him drop his gun, and in a couple heartbeats had him pressed against the wall, knife to the throat.

“Now we can talk like proper gentlemen. Where is Inej?”

Pollet raised his eyebrows, smile fluttering on his lips. “It’s truly fascinating. You have a poker face most gamblers would give half their lives for, and yet the only way to make it more obvious you are besotted with the Wraith would be to should it from the rooftops and send letters to every soul in the city.”

“Are you going to answer my question,” Kaz said, voice still calm despite the storm raging inside his head, and pressed the knife with more force so a line of blood trickled down his throat, “or will I have to cut off your fingers, one by one, beforehand? Perhaps your ears too? What do you think?”

“There is no reason for threats, kid, I’ll gladly tell you.” Pollet didn’t look at all phased, which made Kaz uncomfortable further. He knew what the man was doing, but somehow it had effect either way. No wonder he had done what he had done for so long, and so well. “I’ve been in the business for over two decades, and every now and then some goody-two-shoes will appear and try to, you know, do good. They perish soon after, murdered or retired, unable to take the burden. Still annoying, but all jobs have some downsides.

“Then, half a decade later, a new one appears, and she turns out damn more annoying that all others. So good, they say, she’s like a shadow, a ghost. A Wraith, someone had called her. Whatever. Sinking all the shiny colleagues, always having just a sliver more information than she should’ve been able to have. And I figured she’d disappear, but there she is ruining business left and right, inconveniencing me and becoming more and more famous as time moves on.

“One day she chooses to attack me, and what do you think, she loses. Most her friends die, some get away, and I capture her. And it turns out she’s even more interesting than the rumors said. I did all sorts of things to her for weeks and weeks, and she wouldn’t tell zip about her sources and secrets.

“It was all fun for some time, some entertainment- you know how dull life can get on the wide sea-, but then it just got boring and we were near Kerch anyway, so work was waiting. And then the bitch escapes, let’s my precious goods go, and thinks she can just get away with it.”

Pollet’s lips thinned in rage, an emotion Kaz had far surpassed by then. He had to work hard, really hard to keep his hand steady, to not slaughter Pollet like a pig and slowly cut him up into pieces that he would arrange around his office. He desperately needed to know the end of the story, needed it like he needed air and like he would need revenge in a little.

“She blows up my ship, too. But she's weak this time as well, too sentimental, too soft, and stays behind while the slaves run. So I shot her.” Pollet grinned now, feral animal-like. “It was the most magnificent of sights. The bullet went right through her chest, and she looked so surprised, and then she fell into the water. I doubt she was alive by then.”

Kaz couldn’t move. He wasn’t even sure he was breathing anymore.

“And it seems like I should shoot your advice right back at you, Mr. Brekker.”

It was only instinct that had Kaz jerking back so the dagger made a shallower hole and didn’t have him bleeding out to death on the floor in under a minute. He managed to wrench it out of Pollet’s hand and was moving in when another alarm signaled in his head and he ducked behind crates, all but dragging his leg with him. The toe of his shoe barely got away as a large explosion sounded, the bright flames visible even behind Kaz’s closed eyelids.

He coughed and dragged himself to his knees, half crawling, half walking on unsteady legs that gave way under him every couple seconds. Then, when he had made to the other side of the ship, he dug out a vial of acid he got from Wylan and, putting his gloves back on, sprayed it onto wood as carefully as he could. He was numb now, moving through the motions. There was a job to be done. When something got screwed up, it was his role to shift the plan and get them out of the corner.

There was a job to be done. That was all that was important now.

When a big enough hole opened up, sizzling wood falling away, Kaz lifted one of the crates and heaved it through it. Then, pulling out a pack of matches and a small but strong firework, he lit the end of a wire and stuck his hand through the gap. His hand jerked when it shot into the sky with the distinct sound.

Piling craters on top of each other was a little harder, but he did it nonetheless. He was vaguely aware of the mess outside, the shouting and screaming, then the thunder and booming voices as he got out the same way he came in, this time even numbed to the sensation of the water around him. He almost drowned, not because he was deadly-afraid like usually, but because he struggled to care enough to more his limbs and stay afloat.

He pulled himself onto the dock flooded with fog, staggered, not really knowing where he was going. If he had been paying attention to anything, he would’ve noted the flood soaking his shirt and running down his face, the faintness he was feeling, the tremors going through his body, the fog’s retreat.

Nina came into view and he thought, Wow, Zenik, you need a doctor. She demanded something and he was aware of his mouth moving, answering her question, but he didn’t really hear any of it. Then he felt the ground shifting, felt it coming closer and closer as dark swallowed him.

Chapter Text

The first thing she was aware of was pain, mind-numbing pain, pain that tore through skin and flesh and bones and had knives digging into every inch of you, awakening each nerve you possessed. In the hazy world that surrounded her time was inestimable; she was floating in it, drowning in agony.

She wondered if this was hell, if from now on every endless second would feel exactly like this until she no longer remember a time where torment wasn’t the only reality. If the Saints were sitting somewhere where she couldn’t see them, watching it, and thought it an appropriate punishment for all her sins.

Then she was being pulled over a rough surface that all but shredded her, retching out sea water onto the ground when the movement finally stopped, coughing and spitting until her throat was dry as the desert and aching. All of that still fell short of the agony below her ribs and anguish spreading through her arm that made her scream hoarsely until the dark swallowed her again.

Next she was looking at a terrible face, eyes of dark, ocean blue and pupil-less, skin scarred and covered with night black hair that stuck to it in soaked, somewhat wavy wires, and half-rotten seaweed. Thinking it was nothing more than just another element of the nightmare she was in, Inej let her eyelids fall shut. Something slimy and finger-like slid over her temples; a gurgle that sent goosebumps over her suffering form sounded over her. It stopped and a soothing song started, a calming melody ringing near her ears, throwing her back into blessed oblivion.

She would wake up now and again, barely aware of what was going on, cold cloth on her face, faraway voices, before she went beneath once more, driven by pain her consciousness couldn’t bear. Everything was spinning too fast, she was sick, it hurt, hurt, hurt.

When she came to next, she was staring at a dark ceiling. Rain pattered on the roof, a pacifying, natural symphony that threatened to lull her back to sleep. Fighting against it with all her might even as a part of her wanted the comfort of oblivion, she counted as her chest rose and fell, rose and fell. Rose. Fell. Rose. Fell.

I am alive.

The thought was sudden and jolting. It stopped her count at sixty-four, almost making her lose sight of the number. Even the seemingly insignificant change in her inhale-exhale rhythm caused a sharp flash of pain; she tried to calm down by continuing her counting, concentrating only on the flowing numbers.

Just as she was about to pass the three hundred bar a door creaked open. Her body stilled and her senses sharpened automatically- not that it would be any help. She was completely vulnerable, unable to move so much as a muscle without a warning tug of pain. If whomever the slow, heavy steps approaching belonged to had any ill intentions, she would powerless to do anything to defend herself.

Maybe so, Inej thought stubbornly, angrily, with a hint of desperation as she bit down the agony of moving her hand and searched for her knives under the covers, but I still have the option of not being caught alive. I won’t be held captive again. Never again. Never again.

Never again.

Panic seized her chest when her wandering fingers found nothing but torn clothes and soft material she would’ve identified as bandages if she paid attention to it. Where were they? It felt like an obvious detail was slipping her mind, but she couldn’t catch hold of it. She felt naked, exposed, desperately seeking her knives to ground herself.

“There, there, it’s all right. No need to be afraid.” The voice was calm, quiet and a tad shaky. Inej stopped her frantic search and blinked in surprise when an unexpected face appeared in view.

It looked like the bark of an ancient tree, all wrinkled with skin stretched over high cheekbones, saggy where age had pulled it down. Blue eyes dominated it, sparkling like a child’s might, young despite the weathered face. Inej spotted small green earrings that shined dimly on the woman’s ears. Then the momentary shock dispersed and she remembered her previous concern.

“My knives. Where are my knives?” Her voice was weak and raspy and scratchy, barely recognizable. Shagreen was scraping her throat with every syllable, turning talking into a small torture of its own.

“Your knives?” the woman looked confused a moment, then said “Ah, they were all yours. I put them in the kitchen cabinet with the other cutlery. It isn’t good for such sharp things to be left outside where someone might cut themselves. The shawl is yours too then, I assume?”

“Yes, it-“ Inej coughed. A pained whimper escaped her. “It was a gift.”

“It’s a fine one. The material is absolutely lovely, and...” She clapped her hands together out of the blue. “Oh, dear. Silly me, I completely forgot. Sam reminded me too, that you need to some water as soon as you were up, and there I went and forgot.”

“I need my knives, please.” Inej rasped as the woman went out of view and busied herself somewhere near Inej’s head. Her cheery voice seemed sincere, letting Inej’s heart calm some. However, she still wanted the weight of her daggers in her hands, needed it like she needed to breathe.

“We’ll get to everything as soon as you have had some water, agreed? So don’t talk anymore now, you’ll be even worse for wear. We need to lift you a bit so you can drink. Is that alright?”

Inej entertained the possibility of it being a trap, then swept it aside. If they wanted her dead, there were a lot simpler ways to do away with her than poison in her cup. A small smile had her lips curling when she was reminded of Nina. It passed almost as it came and she grew serious.

“I can take it.”

Even with what she said and even though she prepared herself for it, the pain had her whole body screaming like a tantruming child. Waves of agony crashed around her ribs, her arm, her elbow. It took all her energy just to not choke on the water and stay quiet, then more so to stop the exhausted panting when she was back to lying. Tears welled in the corner of her eyes. When she tried to blink them away, one of them trickled down her face.

The woman waited patiently for Inej to calm, meandering around the room and shuffling things, all the while humming a sweet tune. By the Inej’s breathing calmed, she felt as drained as she ever had. The woman went back to her side.

“I’m Hilde, just so you know. You don’t have to tell me your name if you don’t want to.” She added as an afterthought, smiling. “I’ll get you your knives now, if you still wish so for them.”

Inej nodded and went back to staring at the ceiling, eyes drooping, and thought of the kind of people who would put a weapon in a complete stranger’s hand and trust that person not to stab them to death. She closed her eyes tightly for a couple of moments, trying to rein in the oncoming tears, opened them when the door groaned on Hilde’s way in.

Hilde had wrapped the knives carefully in the recognizable, colorful shawl and placed the bundle on Inej’s chest carefully. She couldn’t stop the few tears of gratitude escape now as her insides settled and the world righted again. She put her good arm over the bundle, holding it tightly like one might a precious child, slipping her hand in it to graze her fingers over the familiar sharp blades and chiseled edges of the handles.

“I’ll get you some food if you’ve nothing against it- something small, so you don’t get sick. You must be starving.”

As Hilde began to exit the room, not waiting for an answer, Inej turned her head slowly to look after her. She said, voice as steady as it was going to get, “Inej. My name is Inej.”

Hilde glanced at her, grinned kindly. Inej thought she saw a glimmer of recognition, but it was gone so soon she couldn’t be sure. “Thank you for entrusting me with your name. It’s very nice to meet you, Inej. I’ll be back soon.”

But when Hilde stepped back into the room barely ten minutes later, smoking bowl of soup in her hands, Inej had already fallen asleep, bruised face lax, one arm firmly holding her knives to her heart. Hilde smiled and closed the door softly behind her.

***

It surprised Inej to find she couldn’t remember her dream when she finally awoke, more so that it hadn’t been another nightmare. She was starving and thirsty, her body still hurt, but she also felt oddly rested and her mind was the clearest it has been since she had fallen into the sea.

Naturally she tried moving; it was immensely hard and took terrible effort, making her muscles whine. She still sighed in relief that they listened to her properly unlike last time. Her legs made the most protest as she bended them so she could, with the help of her so-so healthy arm, sit up, prop herself against the rough headboard and look around.

The room was small and appeared lived-in and comfortable. A humble desk sat across from the bed she was in, cluttered with paper and knick knacks that had no utility but that people kept around because they simply didn’t know what to do with them. A rectangular window was open wide above it, letting in the shy morning sunlight and the smell of yesterday’s rain. Birds chattered cheerfully, in turn singing their waking song.

A colorful carpet dominated the floor while the walls were covered in a weird yet charming mix of amateurish drawing of cows and rabbits, framed landscapes and messy formulas written directly onto the white paint. On her left, in a corner, was a rather impressive bookshelf, organized in the same messy-but-I-know-where-everything-is manner. The rest of the space was filled with a bright blue, sturdy chair (at the foot of the bed), a small bedside table (an arm’s reach away, containing a half-burnt-out candle, a miniature bronze statue of a cat and a glass of fresh water), an array of various hand-stitched dolls arranged like soldiers against the wall and a rather large dresser (threatening to topple onto the desk).

It was the single most peculiar and lovely room Inej had laid eyes on in her life. And that was saying something seeing as she used to live, a small eternity ago, with people who were used to living so near each other that their belongings always weaved together, creating an unmatched mix of different styles and interests.

Her parents, probably missing it, made the insides of their home in the country as colorful as can be, arranging all sorts of clutter and ornaments around. She understood it too for she felt at home whenever she was there, amidst the barely controlled, ecstatic chaos. The Wraith was a home too, the planks as familiar to her as the back of her hand, the crew her family, but there was nothing that could rival an afternoon spent with her parents, playing silly games and talking about nothing at all.

Her short-termed peace came to an end, replaced with extreme longing. She wished to see her parents so badly it felt like a hole in her heart, to embrace them and laugh with them. Just one night where she could lay her head on her mother’s lap while the stars twinkled outside, have her soothe as only a mother could, would heal all those invisible scratches she often wasn’t even aware of.

“You are one tough girl, Inej.” The woman standing at the door held a ceramic plate in her hands. Dozens of delicately weaved, dark braids fell past the clean white shirt and teased the plain brown trousers. “I’m Samantha, but you can just call me Sam. Everyone else takes the liberty, anyway.”

Despite the woman’s laid-back tone, Inej found herself tensing. On top of the sudden appearance of the stranger, the fact she hadn’t noticed the door open didn’t sit well in her stomach.

Striding over with purpose and setting the plate filled with what to Inej at the moment smelt like the most delicious food on the bedside table, nudging the glass aside in the process, Sam extended a hand. “I’m the granddaughter doctor-in-training that saved your life. Pleasure to finally be speaking to the patient.”

Inej took the offer, acknowledging the calloused palm not unlike her own. “It’s nice to meet you, and thank you.”

Sam’s eyes lazily moved downwards and she spotted the knives still in Inej’s lap. She laughed and went to drag the blue chair over as she did, settling down into it. “That’s Gran for you. She’s waaay too trusting. Though in her defense, you don’t look too intimidating at the moment.”

Despite her caution, Sam’s manner had a smile dancing over Inej’s lips. “I don’t feel too intimidating either.” Then, a bit more seriously, she said, “I need to thank her too. I can’t remember if I have.”

“It’s alright, you’ll have plenty of opportunities- as soon as she’s back from her morning walk. Now,” Sam pushed the plate onto Inej’s lap, disregarding the daggers around, and handed her a shiny silver fork. “Eat. I still have to redress your wounds later. It would be easier to do before your meal, but you look like you’ll stab me if I you don’t get something into yourself.”

Not arguing the point and saying her thanks, Inej dug in. Trying to take it slow wasn’t easy, not with such exquisite foo, but reminding herself that she would throw all of it up if she went too fast helped.

Sam sat in silence while she ate, only handing her a glass of water to sip in between bites of wonderfully cooked chicken and soft, baked potatoes.

“I meant what I said before.” She said when she disappeared with Inej’s plate and came back with a medical bag, taking out bandages and jars filled with creams. “You’re crazy tough. When I found you you were washed ashore, pale as death and with those knives around you. How did you end up there anyway?”

Inej tried her best to ignore Sam’s hands on her body, pulling the shirt up and working with quick fingers. Then her brows furrowed as she looked at clothes than were definitely not her own.

Sam noticed her stare and said, “I had to cut up your clothes to deal with your wounds- what was left of them anyway. I threw all of it away though Gran thought maybe we should keep them. You couldn’t do anything with them.” She stopped applying cold liquid for a moment to glance at Inej. “I hope they didn’t have sentimental value.”

“No, it’s alright. They were just clothes.” She did love them, but clothes were replaceable, even her precious boots and coat. Besides, most clothes she had on belonged to Pollet’s sailor, and she would be lying if she said she didn’t feel a little relieved they weren’t on her anymore. “You saved me. That’s more important.”

“That’s what’s interesting and what puzzles me.”

Sam paused for a moment, focusing on carefully tying the bandage close. Her dark eyes were cool and calm and Inej didn’t doubt for a moment one day she would make an excellent doctor.

“You had a bullet wound that should’ve killed you a couple minutes most after it pierced your flesh, a broken arm and too many to count bruises, cuts and additional injuries. Even if you had had immediate medical attention- which you obviously didn’t- you would have most likely died.

“So question is: why are you sitting here in my room after you had devoured Gran’s get-well-soon breakfast, and not being buried underground by the kind people of this village?”

“I don’t know.” Inej said, and she wasn’t lying. She truly had no idea.

Sam had moved on to her arm when she spoke. “My fanciful guess is something saved you beforehand- luck, miracle, a mysterious, non-human helping hand.”

“Your guess is as good as mine.”

Inej contemplated Sam’s words. There were many things unclear in this whole situation, even with the somewhat crazy theory she had in her mind. She exhaled, deciding to leave the questions unanswered for now. Her head started hurting at the intense concentration, anyhow.

Stretching her fingers idly, she asked, “What is this village with kind people who were supposed to bury me?”

“Wittebloem, Kerch.” Inej scrunched up her eyebrows, trying to recall if she had ever heard of the place. Sam added, “Some fifty miles from Ketterdam, South-West. If that helps any.”

“Fifty miles?” It could’ve been worse, Inej assured herself. She could’ve been hundreds of miles away, or in another country altogether, though since the two women she had met spoke clear Kerch, that was unlikely. “Alright. Do you know anyone who has a carriage, or who’s going that way later today? I’ll pay them as soon as I’m there. I’ve no money here.”

Sam’s busy hands came to a holt as she stared at Inej in silence, then said, “Huh?”

“I asked if-“ Inej started to repeat, but Sam cut her off, a controlled flame steadily building in her eyes.

“Whoa there. You aren’t actually thinking of travelling, right?” Her voice was still calm, only sharper around the edges - a doctor’s voice scolding an unreasonable patient. “I said you’re tough, and you are recovering unusually fast, but thinking you can travel in your state is ridiculous.”

Knowing she could easily sound childish if she went about it wrong, Inej continued calmly , “I’ll survive it.”

“No, you won’t, not without inflicting more damage on yourself. It’s barely been a week since you were shot.”

“I’ve been through worse. I need to get there as soon as possible.”

Sam’s eyes were unyielding as she finished tying the last bandage, tightening it a bit tighter than necessary. “You couldn’t even stand right now without falling unconscious from the pain, much less walk and go anywhere.”

Inej was a calm, controlled person. It was that calmness and control that had gotten her through every crisis and every trouble and every memory. It was both irritating and alarming she was in such a condition that that control was near crumbling. Thankfully, before anything else happened, now familiar heavy steps had both hers and Sam’s head turning.

“I am glad to see you’re feeling better.” Hilde said. Sam gave way so her grandmother could sit down. Inej could see clearly from the absent-mindedness and swiftness of the gesture it was a habit of theirs. “And that you’re so cheery.”

“Thank you.”

“Now, you must have someone waiting on you, if you’re in such a hurry to get back.”

“I do.”

She thought of her parents in the countryside, Wylan and Jesper checking the harbor to see if she was back, Nina who awaited her letter in the castle, hard at work training her powers. Her crew was still somewhere out there, breathing as she was, she could feel it in her bones. Revenge waited too, black ropes that started in the pit of her stomach and sneakily grew, patiently standing by until they would be needed.

And Kaz. Kaz was waiting for her.

She wondered if he had figured out something was wrong by now, if he had smelled trouble from his orderly office and pulled the cords of the intricate web running throughout the city, one he all but owned, to find out what it was. He could realize, given some time and thinking, it was Pollet who cause her belatedness.

She hated the smallest seed of doubt about him caring that still existed inside her. Their somewhat strained relationship that caused her to set off a week earlier than planned was her fault, after all, not his. He had done nothing in the months she had been there last to earn her distrust- quite the opposite, really. He proved he cared so many times, and didn’t deserve the doubt.

So he would suspect, because he cared, and he would wonder, and he would dig it out, and then-

It felt like all blood froze inside her. She clutched her stomach, trying to find her breath. Worried questions and demands she answer just bounced off of her without her acknowledgement.

What if he did dig it out? What if he dug it out and, Kaz being Kaz, schemed to go and look for her? What if his plan went south like hers had and something horrible happened to him? What if he died?

She couldn’t bear even the thought of there not being a Kaz in this world anymore, of never again being able to look into those dark eyes, of never again seeing his slightly hunched figure as he wrote the afternoon away, of never again feeling his skin against hers as they looked at the starry night together, letting the nightmares wash over them, understanding each other without uttering a single word.

“Inej!”

Sam shouted her name with such force that Inej jolted and returned to reality. It took some doing to suppress the ever-growing urgency in her, the feeling that pushed her to go, go, go. Looking into Sam’s eyes helped her calm in, hide it.

Here was a woman she had known for less than a couple whose integrity and strength of character she could see already. A woman who cared, as her grandmother did, so deeply for others she would never let her leave the wonderful room if Inej made even a sliver of the plan forming in her head leak.

“It’s alright, I just felt a bit sick.” She answered Sam’s insistent questions, where did it hurt, did she have a headache, then said, “I think I just need to rest a little more and I’ll be fine.”

“You see now why you can’t leave now, right?”

Inej locked their gazes together. “Yes, I do. Thank you for caring.”

“Sleep is the best medication in these cases, isn’t it? ” Hilde said, rising from her chair and patting Inej’s shoulder before she turned to leave, guiding Sam out. “We’ll let you be. I’ve brought some more water, and if you need anything, anything at all, just call out. Come on now, Sammy, let’s go. There is much work to get to?”

When they were out the door and closed them, Inej drank a sip from the glass and lay down again. As she wasn’t completely lying about the fatigue, it wasn’t long after she closed her eyes that she was sound asleep.

***

She shot out of the dream filled with blood and screaming and into the dark. Cold sweat gathered at the small of her back and her breathing was frantic as she tried to get out of the dream’s grasp and fully return to reality.

Gathering her knives as quietly as she could with her healthy arm, she moved until her bare toes touched the cold floor. Breath in, breath out as she packed up the scattered daggers back into the shawl, tying it tightly so it wouldn’t open. And here we go...

Her knees buckled when she shifted her weight to her legs and she toppled ungracefully to the floor. Another fifteen, sixteen, seventeen breaths and she gripped the edge of the bed, said a quick prayer and tried to stand up again, gritting her teeth against the pain in her side.

This time her legs held her. They shook, but they held her. Since she had to use one arm to prop herself up and the other was useless, she held the bundle with her teeth.

It seemed to take forever to get to the door, even longer to open them. By the time she managed it an ache settled into her whole body.  Even such a simple task caused exertion and she had to stop and rest, back against the wall.

Only when she caught her breath and looked aside did she realize that she exited directly into the dining room, that there was a large, lit candle on and that someone sat by it, eyes fixed on Inej, a small smile on her lips.

Exhaling and moving the daggers to her now free hand, Inej simply asked, “How did you know?”

“Someone must be waiting on you, as I said. You don’t look like a girl who’d let people wait on her too long.” Hilde answered, matter-of-factly. She stood up then, a long coat draped over her arm and an equally worn satchel in her hand. “I’ve no carriage, but we have a healthy horse we can borrow you.”

“I don’t even know how to begin to show my gratitude. I will pay you back, I-” Inej started, but Hilde just shook her head.

“Sit down a moment.” When Inej did as she was asked, Hilde continued, “One night some four years back, a terrible thing happened. A dozen girls disappeared from the village, leaving their families, their friends, the whole community to search for them, and eventually grieve for them when we could not find them. I knew every single one by name and character, I knew their parents and had been friends from childhood with some of their grandparents. It hit hard.

Then, no more than a month later, there they are, returned to us. Somewhat in a bad shape, starved and scared, but alive and breathing. It was a miracle. One of them, Jude- she has a tongue for telling stories still-, sat us down and weaved a tale about a group of outcasts saving them from the dark ship. They were led by a Suli girl who moved like the wind, draped in a dark coat, and had six beautiful daggers she showed Jude later on her request.

Her name was Inej Ghafa.”

There was a short silence, then Hilde added, “So you owe us nothing. We are the ones in your debt.”

“I don’t do what I do so others would be indebted to me.” Inej said quietly, shifting her head to look at the dancing flame. “A man in debt is so far a slave. I won’t enslave anyone, in any way. You don’t owe me anything either.”

Another silence ensued. Inej found a smile on Hilde’s face when she looked at her, wise and happy and sad all at once.

“You’re a good woman, Inej. I hope whoever has your heart deserved and cherishes it, as they should.

“Come on now, you ought to leave before Sammy gets up or you’ll never leave this house.”

After she had helped her get into the large and warm coat and draped the satchel over her shoulder so it wouldn’t fall of, Hilde aided her in climbing onto a friendly brown horse called Paard that was tied a few feet from the entrance. Darkness lifted enough she could see the outline of the house.

“There is a boy in Ketterdam named Ian who will return Paard here if you give him a few coins, as soon as he is rested.”

“I will find him.” Inej promised, adjusting in her seat so she could hold the reins with one hand without losing balance. The satchel fit oddly well in contrast to the hanging coat she had to adjust so it wouldn’t get in her way.

Hilde nodded, “You have food for him and yourself in the bag, as well as a compass and a map should you need them. He can take the whole trip at once if you don’t push him too hard and let him set the pace. You take care now, dear.”

“I will. Thank you, for everything.”

“And thank you too.”

Inej didn’t expect to hesitate, but here she was. She found a part of her wanted to stay here and get to know them better. Maybe someday she would return, when this whole mess was over, if she end up dying.

“If you need help, send a message for Wylan Van Eck in Ketterdam. He’ll pass it on to me.”

“Of course.”

“This is goodbye, then.”

“It would be, yes. Until next time, Inej Ghafa.”

Inej nodded, gripped the reins harder and propelled the horse forward into the first light of the breaking dawn.

Chapter Text

The parlor was dead silent, and it had been so for the past half hour. Loe stared at the magnificently painted ceiling, at the intricate swirls and curls of robed, indistinct human figures and detailed lines that shaped mythical monsters, at the sight of whom any child would have nightmares for weeks. The artist didn’t seem to be an overly cheery guy, seeing as so far she hadn’t managed to find a single face that didn’t have the expression of a man damned; however, that was understandable- not one of the poor folk was out of immediate peril, so there wasn’t much reason for them to smile.

She felt the pressure of a sofa pillow on her thigh, created by Nina’s head resting on it. The Grisha’s hair spilled over the blue laced surface in a way that could only be described as majestic, somehow still resembling untainted silk despite the night’s unfortunate adventures.

Her eyes were closed now, covered with a strand of hair that had sneaked onto her face when she had last turned in her sleep, but Loe remembered clearly the green of them, the intense emotions swirling in their depths when she had held Loe down at the harbor. For a moment when she had been unguarded, made vulnerable by the flood of pain and grief that didn’t let her catch her breath, a thought had passed through her head: How lucky must be those whose last sight is this unparalleled beauty. It had made her feel odd, even guilty afterwards, but at that time it was an undeniable truth and she couldn’t control the way her heart had beat faster, the way her body ached for closeness.

Even now a part of her wanted to run hand over Nina’s arm, to feel if her skin was still cold as it had been or if the heat of the fireplace had warmed it up. She wanted to move her hair out of her face. She wanted to have those eyes on her again, to see that determination light a spark in them. She wanted...

Sighing, Loe let her head fall back and shut her eyes.

When they had arrived it had been, well and truly, a mess. A quiet house was raised on its feet in seconds when they barged through the door, Wylan barely managing to pinpoint the keyhole in the dark with shaking hands. They had been beaten and bruised and bleeding with three terrified, newly-freed and forever scarred souls in tow.

Oli had come running down the stairs, quickly taking charge of the situation. He motioned for everyone to gather in the parlor and wait while Nergüi and Jesper carried unconscious Kaz upstairs. The lackey pulled on his boots and coat and hadn’t bothered further before he charged out of the house- so he could get the doctor, as Loe later found. Ms Kolich worked with surprising efficiency, a clear contrast to her usual slow and relaxed manner, lighting candles and getting the medical supplies, dragging in warm blankets and pillows and sandwiches with jugs of warm milk.

The food and beverages had worked even better than Loe could’ve ever thought. The captives- Liana, Ji and Opal, Loe recalled their names- fell asleep huddled together not long after they ate a couple sandwiches. Nina soon followed suit and, as she had been sitting next to Loe on the sofa, she simply lay down and fell asleep there.

It didn’t bother Loe much, save for the fact it made her want, as she knew she wouldn’t be able to go under in quite some time, not after she had had to tell Dorian and Freya the terrible news when they had come back hours after them, not when she still couldn’t even begin to wrap her mind around them herself.

She had grieved many times in her life, and she knew this mild deceptive abyss where the brain simply refused to even entertain the idea of loss. It had lasted for weeks after she had lost Reo. She just went about her days, doing what had to be done, moving on from task to task, while the sentence Reo is dead floated above her head, not even brushing her as it did so. It was as if her brain expected that Reo was always around the corner, not far enough to miss, not close enough to see. And then one day, one completely normal, ordinary day, she was in the middle of tying her boots when it hit her. She lay weeping on the floor for hours, clutching the edge of her bed for support, until there were physically no tears left in her.

She hated it, hated it even more than active grief that hurt like hell that would come after. It always felt so insensitive, like she was spitting on the dead, but no matter how much she shouted that her captain was dead, that there was no more Inej walking and breathing and thinking on this earth, it didn’t pierce the bubble.

“He’s going to be okay.”

Wylan stood in the doorway, blood evident on his hands and in a shirt than must’ve been clean until not long ago. His disheveled hair stuck to his forehead and his neck like testament of struggle. The black circles under his eyes were more prominent than ever, almost extending to his cheeks.

“That’s good, at least.” Loe said hoarsely and softly. She felt so drained, she wasn’t sure she would’ve been able to raise her voice even if she had wanted to. “Come, sit down. You really need to.”

The redhead shook his head and absently removed a curl from his forehead, uselessly as it fell in the same place not a second later. He didn’t bother with it again, just put him hands in his pockets, then took them out once more and let them hang by his side. “I can’t. If I do, I’ll fall asleep, and there’s so much to be done.”

“There’s nothing more than can be done tonight. If you don’t sit down, you’ll collapse, Wylan. Either way you won’t be doing anything more until you rest some.”

She must have changed her tone because Nina dlightly stirred beside her. It happened so fast that she wasn’t even aware of it- her hand lifted on its own accord, instinctively, and passed over Nina’s hair gently. She froze even as Nina calmed again and slowly, very slowly, returned her hand to her lap.

Wylan either didn’t notice or didn’t care, for he made no comment of it. Complying with her request, he lowered himself into one of the armchairs. Almost immediate after he muttered ‘Don’t let me fall asleep’, he was out of it.

Suddenly overcome with a need for fresh air and movement, Loe carefully got up so as not to alert Nina. In passing she lifted one of the blankets from the table and draped it over Wylan’s sleeping form. She couldn’t help but observe how child-like and defenseless he looked in sleep- when awake he had an edge to him, something that resonated a man much more used to hardships than he seemed at first glance, but like this he was another person who barely passed his twentieth year. Running her hand through her hair, she quietly trailed out of the room.

To say her body ached with each steps would be an understatement. It hurt like someone had tightened her muscles to the maximum and thought it a fun pastime to poke and pull on them, and when they weren’t satisfied they poured some nicely put together acid.

She did her best to ignore the pain as she made her way up the stairs, deciding in a split second she should go out on the balcony than head outside. As demeaning as it was, she wasn’t sure if her willpower would be strong enough to get her back inside if she went into the garden, no matter how much she would’ve preferred the cold wood of the bench. Luckily for her and her tortured body, her ego had rarely got in her way before, and was unlikely to do so now.

Assuming that if there was only one terrace -the one she had noticed before in the countless hours she sat and pondered in the garden- it would be connected to the master bedroom, she headed straight there. The door opened nearly soundlessly into an empty, dark room. She pulled back the heavy, satin drapes and, stifling the feeling she was invading, opened the glass doors.

Moonlight illuminated what immediately struck her as a lived-in space. There were shelves full of books in leather binds and jars of all sorts of colorful powders, what appeared to be a gun cabinet, a very large wardrobe, a man-sized mirror. Someone- Jesper, Loe assumed- piled clothes messily on the armchair in the corner. A man’s portrait hung in the corner, hidden away from her point of view so she almost missed it. Curiosity overrode her ‘don’t stick your nose into other people’s business’ and had her drawing closer to it.

She took an instant dislike to the portrayed man. There was something cold in his blue eyes that even the still nature of a picture couldn’t hide, a kind of callousness that she hated. They were usually the kind of people who hid their insatiable greed under layers and layers of arrogance and entitlement, who would sell you out for a piece of silver and think nothing bad of themselves for it.

She blinked in shock and leaned back, then looked closer again. However, no matter how she changed her angle, the uncanny resemblance to Wylan remained. The man’s hair was different, blonde rather than fiery red Wylan shared with his mother, but the eyes were undeniably the same- color, at least. What was in them could never be compared to thoughtless kindness and silent reliability in her host’s.

So why did Wylan Van Eck have a picture of his father here? It made her furrow her brows. If her first impression was wrong and he was a good parent with deceptive features, then why not put him in a more prominent place usually kept for dead ancestors, like above the fireplace or in the hall?

Now that she thought about it, there wasn’t a single picture of this man anywhere in the house, at least as far as she had seen. There were pictures of Wylan and his mother, younger and older, of Jesper and Wylan and Inej and Nina, of some men who were probably merchant colleagues, even of a beautiful, youthful woman with a small, fair-haired girl in her arms and a pregnant belly, but no Van Eck Senior.

She turned around and noted that the mirror was almost exactly opposite the portrait. If you stood in front of it, you could clearly see the picture in the reflection behind you. So, for whatever reason, Wylan wanted his father to see him every morning he stood there, tying his tie before he started his day. Out of spite? Was he seeking approval? To know that, she would have to ask the man himself, and she didn’t think it would be a very pleasant discussion, so she tried to set her curiosity aside.

The door opened suddenly and Loe jolted, but it was just Mrs Ghafa. All the insignificant guilt of being caught prying disappeared when she saw Rychele’s tear-streaked cheeks and red-rimmed eyes.

“Mrs Ghafa.” She opened her mouth, then closed it again. She tried to say something else, but words well and truly left her. Here was a grieving mother in front of her whose presence had caught her off guard, and she knew there were no words, no words at all to even begin to ease the pain she must be feeling.

“I wanted some air.” Rychele said quietly, hoarsely, stepping into the room. She was draped in a bit of a shabby, but nonetheless appealing sweater, and wore slippers. A shadow of an absent smile crossed her face. “It seems you had the same idea.”

Loe lifted her arms, let them fall down again, not even knowing what she had intended to do. She crossed the room slowly and joined Rychele at the railing, gripping it with one hand so the cold of it dug into her palm. If this were a mother of one of the captives whose child they hadn’t managed to save, words of comfort would be coming to her naturally, but this wasn’t a stranger, it was Inej’s mother, Inej’s.

“Can I... Can I get you anything?” The question sounded empty even to her, but she felt it was beyond necessary to break the silence that was starting to choke her.

“No, but thank you. Do you think,” Rychele continued suddenly, making only a small, sharp pause, “it’s insane that I don’t feel like she’s dead? Not truly. Not in my heart. “She laid a hand on her chest as she said it, pressed. “It was like all those years before, when they stole her from us. I felt in my heart she was still alive, if not happy. I didn’t dare say it to Arda, not when there was no hope and he suffered a little less every day, but it was there.”

“I don’t think it’s insane.” Loe answered quietly, thinking of how grief knew to spin and deceive you.

“I don’t feel she’s dead. How can I properly grieve Inej when I don’t even believe it?”

“Give it time, Mrs Ghafa. Time is supposed to heal all wounds- or so they say.” Loe murmured, looking into the moonlit dark.

Rychele turned her head to look at Loe. “Do you truly believe in that?”

“No, I don’t. Some pain no time can heal. But we have to hang onto that, because if we don’t, if we don’t believe that one day we will breathe it without it sitting on our chest, how are we supposed to keep living?”

A sigh. A shuffle. Then Rychele said, “I worry for him.”

Loe’s eyebrows scrunched up and she instinctively glanced at the older woman, “Mr Ghafa?”

Rychele chuckled softly, quietly, “I always worry for Arda- and how could I not?- but I meant Kaz. Poor, dear Kaz.”

Loe hadn’t known Brekker too long, only a few years in passing, certainly not too intimately, yet she could with all confidence state that no one had ever used ‘poor’ and ‘dear’ to describe him, alone or combined. She wasn’t sure they ever used it in the same sentence, even, unless it was along the lines of, Poor souls left damaged and damned after having a regular conversation with Kaz Brekker.

“He has a good heart.” Mrs Ghafa continued. Loe could do nothing but stare at her in complete astonishment. “He’ll do a good thing and spend considerable time making it so it seems he did a bad one. But I believe that under all the cynicism and pride is a man with a good heart who has been dealt bad cards in life. Losing Inej, though he would never admit it, will hurt him unbearably.”

Loe still had trouble connecting anything of what Mrs Ghafa said to the man she and the rest of the world knew. It felt that there must be some truth in it, or that at least once there had been. But Loe couldn’t help but wonder if burying that goodness deeper, deeper, deeper, didn’t at one moment make it completely disappear.

“She was the best woman I knew.” Loe said, breaking another lengthy period of silence they had fallen into. They had stared out at Ketterdam and watched the sea of stars above them.

“She was the best child anyone could’ve wished for, too. I’m the luckiest mother alive to have gotten a chance to see her grow up, even if I missed a part of it.”

Loe answered nothing. It once again didn’t seem like there was anything to be said, so she pushed away from the railing and turned so her back rested against it. It took a few seconds until she got into a position that didn’t send pain shooting all the way down to her toes.

“You should go rest. I’ve kept you too long.”

“It’s alright. The fresh air will do me good.” Even having said that, Loe felt Mrs Ghafa was right. But before she retreated to sleep on some couch or the first available piece of the carpet, there was something left to be done. She had meant to do later, at some other occasion, but now was the perfect moment for it.

She dug her hand into one of her large pants pockets, still covered in her blood and grime- there had been time to change, but it hadn’t seemed worth the energy and discomfort- and pulled out an old, scratched emerald earring.

She didn’t always carry it with her and rather kept it safely tucked into a box in her room aboard the Wraith, but before the trying task that was the saving mission, she had thought it might bring them some luck and retrieved it from the ship. It didn’t end up doing much good, obviously. She felt some sadness over parting with it, but it was worth it.

“Here, for you.” When Loe moved her fist towards Mrs Ghafa, Rychele automatically extended her hand and Loe dropped the earring onto her open palm. “Cap- Inej gave me this after our first job together.”

Taking a deep breath, Loe continued, “We had lost a couple of people we were supposed to save, and I was sitting in the crow’s nest, cursing myself for not doing more, for not being able to do the it right, for not being faster. She had offered me a job when I wasn’t in the best place, and here I was, having screwed up and disappointed her, and people ended up dead.

“Then she went up to me. I hadn’t heard her, naturally, because she’s Inej, and almost fell out with how hard I jolted. I still wasn’t used to her silent way of getting about back then. Anyhow, she scooted in besides me and offered me the earring.

“ ’A woman named Juliet gave me this last year.’ She had said, ‘I brought back her child to her- a little girl, barely twelve years old. I was devastated at the time, exhausted inside and out. Barely a day before I watched a man- a good man- bleed out right in front of me and I could do nothing to stop it.

“ ’But here was a mother crying in front of me in joy, hugging the girl to her tightly like she might never let her go, and thanking me over and over again. Before we left she gave me this earring, said it had been a present when her daughter was born. She got it for giving life to the girl, and I would get it for saving it.’”

Loe lifted her hand to move hair that fell into her eyes. Rychele stared at the earring, but Loe could tell she was listening to her intently. “She looked so... I can’t even explain it- no explanation would to it justice, really. Inej could look so otherworldly sometimes, like she saw more than you did, knew more than you did- and I imagine she did. She turned to look at me and her eyes were both kind and serious, a combination I often saw in them after.

“ ‘ We can’t save everyone, Loe. You have to remember that, and you have to accept it, or grief will eat you alive. Don’t forget them, but don’t let them be the only thing in your head. Let this remind you that there is good with all the bad, that there are going to be people who are alive and well and free because we got them out before it was too late.’

“And she just jumped down and left me up there, speechless and clutching it like it was my lifeline. I think she would want you to have it. To remember the good with the bad.”

Rychele’s voice broke when she whispered ‘Thank you’ and gently hugged Loe before walking out, shoulders trembling, leaving Loe with the starry sky and the emptiness in her chest. She closed her eyes and breathed in the cold air, letting it fill her lungs until they burned in sync with her heart.

***

Nina almost missed the knock on the door. She was feeling drowsy and her feet seemed too heavy for her body as she slugged towards the kitchen, in desperate need of a glass of water. What she really wanted was coffee, but she would probably scorch herself making it, so she would have to give it up for now.

Loe wasn’t there when she awoke, and it had her letting out a breath of relief. She didn’t think she could talk with her, not now, not when dawn was breaking and Inej was dead and what happened only a couple hours ago couldn’t be ignored any longer. So she needed water and she needed the fact that she would never be able to hug her best friend again disappear, and she was only going to get one of those things.

Just as she had covered her eyes with her palms and pressed, trying to keep the tears that threatened to rear their head away and moved further towards her goal at the same time, someone was increasing their somewhat polite knocking to outright banging.

Deciding that Ms Kolich was either getting some well-deserved sleep or was busy elsewhere, Wylan was knocked out and Jesper nowhere nearby, she unwillingly dragged herself towards it. It had crossed her mind briefly it might be trouble, but she honestly didn’t have the energy to debate it with herself, so she went to unlock it. If it was someone unwelcome, she’d just hit them over the head with the candelabra in the hall. Or maybe she’d hit herself. Them then herself, she decided, therefore ending everyone’s misery with a couple blows.

She found herself looking up and into dark eyes resembling wet ground. When she shifted her head she saw several more pairs of ragged eyes, all staring at her with expectancy, some with curiosity, some with blankness exhaustion brought on, some like they were contemplating hitting themselves over the head with the candelabra too.

“Good morning?” Nina managed, loosely still holding the knob in her hand. She was distantly aware of it, but that part of her brain didn’t see any reason to move it.

“I’m Iris and these are the former captives of the Illion.” The woman said in a matter-of-fact and to-the-point voice. “We are looking for Kaz Brekker.”

“He’s not currently available.” She answered, then thinking it a stupid product of her still dazed brain and she sounded like an eighty-year-old uptight assistant of a public notary, said, “I’m Nina.”

As she mused how suddenly ending it at that must have sounded odd too, Iris continued, “We were sent to him by the Ghost Ship Captain.”

Nina stared at her blankly. “Inej sent you? Inej sent you. That actually makes sense. Uh, okay, come on in.”

“Thank you.”

It didn’t take long even in her current state to notice the whole party was malnourished, tired and in need of medical attention, in some cases desperately. She steered them towards the parlor, trying to walk a little faster than she had before, but not quite succeeding. Their joined footsteps must have been loud because Wylan jolted awake in his armchair, making the blanket slip onto the floor in the process due to the sudden movement.

“I’m up! Up. I’m not sleeping.” He rubbed his eyes, then just stood, mouth agape, staring at the group crowding the doorway like he was looking at a school of fish painting a rainbow over the sky while shrimp watched over them and criticized.

“Inej sent them from the Illion. They were looking for Kaz.”

Wylan’s face deflated immediately at the mention of their friend, though some of the confusion still remained, “Well, welcome, despite the circumstances. We’re a bit crowded at the moment, but if you find some space around here, it’s yours.”

“It’s his house.” Nina piped in.

“Yeah. I’m Wylan. Wylan Van Eck.” He added, almost as an afterthought. “You must have been through a lot, and I imagine you have a very long and complicated story to tell. I think everyone will be interested in hearing it, but first to ought to rest. I’ll see if I can find some food.”

He started for the door and ran straight into Jesper walking in. They automatically, absently touched each other, a hand on Wylan’s shoulder to steady him, a caress down Jesper’s arm. The way they always drew near each other, the way they looked at each other, had given Nina some envious moments before even as she felt truly happy that two people she considered very close had each other and such a connection.

“You alright?”

“Yeah. We have more guests.”

Jesper finally broke eye contact and glanced around. “Oh. I’ll tell Ms Kolich to set the table for uh... fourteen more. And, uh, there is a letter waiting in the study.”

They shared a meaningful glance, then Wylan just sighed.

“Later. It’s not important. I was just going to get some water for everyone.”

“I’ll help.” A young girl piped in and everyone turned to her. She seemed to be the most energetic among the tired people-or, well, the only one energetic. “I’m Joe. You can’t possibly carry everything yourself, so I can help.”

“I’ll take you up on that.” Wylan said, cracking a small smile. “Thank you.”

“No problem.” Joe seemed absolutely delighted with having been given a task and all but skipped towards the red-haired man. Then she glanced back at Iris and flashed a full smile. “I’ll be right back, mom.”

“I’ll be here.” Iris answered off-handedly, but Nina didn’t miss the way she looked after her daughter until Joe was out of sight, nor the way she gripped her clothes before relaxing again with visible strain.

“You need help, too, with those injuries.” Nina said, motioning with her head towards Iris’s hands that seemed rubbed raw. Whatever she had spent the last few doing can’t have been pleasurable. “I’ll get the rubbing alcohol and the bandages. But first, please sit down.”

Iris passed a quick look over Nina’s form, not even attempting to hide the fact she was evaluating her with it. “You don’t look too well yourself.”

Nina tried to smile, couldn’t quite get her lips to curl properly. “We had an eventful evening. I still haven’t gotten to the bath, unfortunately. “

Seemingly satisfied with the answer, Iris went to sit on the floor. Everyone else had already collapsed down. A blonde, soft-looking woman had approached the awoken Liana and was making conversation, which Nina found impressive with how- understandably- guarded she was.

She headed straight for the medical cupboard Ms Kolich had shown her once upon a time, completely having forgotten any thought of getting water. She dug through it, muttering under her breath while she gathered the supplies. When she turned around her heart stopped, then restarted as she breathed out.

“Sorry. Didn’t mean to scare you.”

“It’s alright... Albert.” She realized it was the first time she was looking at him close-up. He didn’t seem much better for wear than she did, but even the dirt and the blood couldn’t mask his beauty. It was the objective kind of beauty where you couldn’t not acknowledge it, the kind your average eccentric artist would jump off the balcony to be able to paint or sculpt. “For curiosity sakes, are you still going by that or will you share your actual name with me?”

“How could I possibly refuse such a minor request from the woman who saved my life? I’m Nergüi.”

 “Nina.” She extended her hand to accept his and successfully dropped everything she was holding so it loudly toppled to the floor and spilled everywhere.

“Let me help.”

“Thanks. Dire age seems to have caught up with me and rendered me incapable.”

Nergüi laughed, piling everything on his hands, “No one escapes the clutches of time, that much is true. You’re a great Grisha, by the way.”

“Thanks. You’re a great actor.”

“Guilty.”

They walked in comfortable silence, which Nina found refreshing. Most silences in the past few months had been anything but comfortable, with Zoya’s rising tenseness the cause of which Nina didn’t know, then with Inej’s disappearance. Nergüi broke it by saying, “I’m sorry about your friend.”

“I am too.”

“I didn’t know her, but from what Bol- Loe said. “he corrected himself, “She sounds like a truly admirable woman.”

“She was. The kindest, most wonderful person I knew. Though don’t get me wrong, she could be scary like nothing. Gave even me the shivers sometimes.”

“Admirable and scary. An unbeatable combination.”

When she felt her eyes filling even as her lips curled in a nostalgic smile, she decided it was time to switch the topic.

“How’s Kaz doing?” she asked,. “I haven’t been up to check up on him yet.”

“The doctor and Oliander said he was going to be alright in a couple weeks. If he rests, of course.”

Nina scoffed, “I highly doubt he will.”

“Yeah, he definitely won’t. “ Nina jolted and looked up at Loe who had spoken. “Or so I figure.”

Inej’s first mate had changed into a clean white shirt and dark pants, but remained barefoot. Her still-wet hair was pulled into a simple bun at the top of her head, which would’ve given her a serious look if it wasn’t for the fatigue and misery clear on her face. Her eyes were alert and awake, probably the product of whatever rest she had managed to get. One of her hands rested in her pant pocket while the other hung by her side.

“Albert.”

“It’s alright, I told her my name.” Then quickly and unexpectedly, his tone turned grim and challenging. “Did you?”

Loe’s eyes froze, but she didn’t look surprised with the question. Nina looked between her and Nergüi, judging that there was something deeper to this discussion. Then he sighed and the temperature in the room returned to normal, “Never mind. Loe. I’ll see you in a bit, Nina.”

“What was that?” Nina wondered, all but bit her tongue when she realized she said it out loud. 

“Stress gets to us all, I suppose,” Loe answered nonchalantly, “What do you need all those bandages for anyhow? Did someone fall down the stairs while I wasn’t around?”

Nina glanced at her in surprise. “You don’t know?”

“Know what?”

It didn’t take long to explain, seeing as she still didn’t know the biggest part of it. By the end Loe looked even more tired, like all the renewed energy she got from a wash, coffee Nina found she had drunk (lucky) and fresh clothes seeped away.

“So Inej sent them to Kaz?”

“Apparently. She probably figured that if they survived they would look like they do and would raise a lot of questions heading for a rich sector, so she assumed they’d fare better in the Barrel.”

“They don’t look better for wear for having gone there, that’s for sure. But I suppose they didn’t have much of a choice.”

Loe pushed herself off of the wall she had rested her shoulder against and repeated what Iris had told her before: “You don’t look so good yourself.”

Nina raised an eyebrow, “Now that’s what every woman likes to hear.”

Cracking the smallest of smiles, Loe pushed her other hand into the pocket. The hall was narrow enough that a few unconscious moves brought them close enough that Nina could clearly see the different shades playing war in Loe’s eyes, turning them into the most beautiful battlefield she had ever seen.

Another step forward and their bodies would collide. Another step forward and she would feel Loe’s warmth, her beating heart, the rhythm of her breathing. Another step forward and they’d maybe never be able to take one back again. And it would take no effort, no effort at all, to touch the other woman’s face, to pass her fingers over Loe’s cheekbones and strong, slightly crooked nose, then over the jaw that she had good cause to guess had seen many strong punches, then over the line of her neck down to her collarbones. Nina’s hand tingled with the thought as they stood in silence for a few moments, analyzing each other’s eyes, neither of them making a move.

Then Loe stepped back and air flew between them again. “I can take over with the fugitives. You go and have a nice, relaxing bath, or at least change. You’ll feel better.”

“I’ll do that. Make sure nothing dramatic happens while I’m away- I couldn’t bear it.”

“Don’t worry.” Loe smiled again, this time flashing a short and genuine smile. When Nina’s heart beat a little faster, she pretended not to notice. “I’ll alert you if a herd of cows decides to take over the house, or a Van Eck ancestor comes out the ground screaming and demands the house be returned to him.”

“You have my gratitude, pretty lady.”

Loe dug her hands in deeper. “We’ll hear the story tomorrow. I think that’s best. There’s no hurry and everyone’s far too tired for it today.”

“Alright. See you at breakfast, then.”

“Yes.”

They parted ways. Nina glanced back at Loe’s retreating figure once more before climbing the stairs and
making her mind think of baths and possible drowning rather than how well that shirt clung to Inej’s first mate’s rather wonderful shoulders.

***

The first thing Kaz felt when he awoke was panic. For several moments he didn’t recognize his surroundings, couldn’t figure out where he was or why he was there. Realizing he was in a bed, gun and cane nowhere in sight, didn’t exactly improve his mood. He shifted so he could look around, noting that he was in one of the mansion’s guest rooms, but he still couldn’t see his cane. Then, suddenly, the memories from last night flooded in and he just lay back, staring at the ceiling, not moving a muscle.

There was something heavy sitting on his chest, pressing, pressing, pressing, that brought on short bursts of inexplicable pain and bitter longing. He wanted to take the coward’s way out by closing his eyes and shutting it all out, but it would lead to nowhere, and he wasn’t sure he had the energy nor the will to make himself fall asleep.

It had been easier when Jordie died, he remembered clearly- at least for some time. There had been confusion blanketing over everything, but he had clear goals in front of him- survive, get money, then get more of it. Bring down Pekka Rollins. Don’t let anyone make a fool of you ever again. Always be one step ahead. Don’t die.

And he had achieved every single one of them, yet none of the intellect and skill that helped him do just that managed to save Inej’s life. He will be able to forgive himself for it. He wasn’t nine anymore, he wasn’t naive anymore, he knew the world, it’s ins and outs and darkest alleys, and yet it hadn’t meant anything.

He should’ve known something was up sooner, should’ve done something about it before it was too late. He should’ve known Inej wouldn’t avoid contacting him for that long over something as simple and stupid as the silent argument they had before she had left. He should’ve known.

He couldn’t tell how much time had passed before the door opened. A few minutes, maybe hours, maybe days. On top of the guilt strangling him, his head felt like someone was splitting it open mercilessly and his whole body was a tangle of unrelenting pain. He didn’t feel it was important enough to give it any attention, but he couldn’t fully ignore it either.

When whoever entered starting approaching, making slow, heavy steps, he moved his arms with some difficulty and pushed himself up into a sitting position, deciding he would still rather be dead than talk on his back with anyone.

Or at least he tried. As soon as his torso moved, agony struck from the knife wound like lightning all through him, down to every last nerve. His hand shot to it automatically, pressing against the source of the burning. Gritting his teeth and involuntarily giving up, he settled for a half-sitting position where he leaned back against the pillows. It at least gave him a clear view of the door.

The visitor was the doctor, the same one who had treated Oliander, the same one he vaguely remembered from when he temporarily woke once or twice during his sleep. He had an oval face that had seen some years and his eyes were watery and bland, but held experience and intellect in them. Whatever hair was left on top of his mostly-bald head was the color of wet ash and hung miserably down the top of his ears.

“How are you feeling, Mr. Brekker?”

“Excellent. And how are you, doctor Eel?”

The doctor smiled, crossing the last few feet and taking the chair by the bed. With the proximity between them reduced, Kaz’s hand itched with the need to hold a weapon in. Reason told him the doctor wouldn’t just up and pull out a gun out of his shabby coat or try to strangle him, but his instinct demanded he never be quite this vulnerable around other, and it was making dissatisfied noises that could be mistaken for screaming at the whole situation.

“Wonderful, thank you for asking.” Eel answered casually and cheerily, like he hadn’t heard the pinch of sarcasm in Kaz’s voice. “I’ve come to check up on you before I head back to my office. I have other patients to get to, and I can’t imagine you’ll need me too soon.”

“You got that right. You did your job, I’m not dead, bravo. Now you’re free to go.”

Sighing like he had encountered an argumentative student, Eel leaned back. The chair creaked under his weight, clearly unhappy with the whole ordeal. “And the other reason I am here is to give you my condolences. Inej was a truly remarkable woman.”

Kaz’s heart constricted in his chest painfully at the mention of her name, but he willed the muscles on his face to not move an inch and his breathing to stay calm and even. “Yes, she was. Will you be so kind as to tell Jesper I need to talk to him on your way out?”

Eel sighed again and, face slack with sympathy, stood up slowly. “I will. You are acquainted with the rules- don’t overexert yourself, rest and eat well. I would recommend spending the rest of today tucked up in bed. If you have any trouble breathing or feel unwell, have Mr. Van Eck call for me.”

“Of course. I’ll be sure to avoid dancing over roofs and drinking myself to the point where I fall off of them. Until next time, Mr. Eel, may Hell permit it never comes.” Kaz said pleasantly.

“Take care, Mr. Brekker.” Eel repeated and, in the same moderate, heavy way he came into the room, exited it. When Kaz was sure he was gone he attempted to reposition himself until he felt a bit more comfortable. He concentrated only on his movements and didn’t let his mind wander anywhere else. It wasn’t the time for emotions. Right now the only thing that should exist was the next practical step. If he had to deal with Inej’s death, he would do it later- or better yet, he wouldn’t do it at all. Burying everything deeper, deeper, deeper was, after all, far easier.

By the time Jesper entered, a relieved, hesitant smile on his face, Kaz had pulled himself together.

“Hey.” The sharpshooter said, closing the door behind him and digging his hands into his pockets. Having restricted their movements, he started rocking back and forth on his heels. “I’m glad you’re okay. We were just about to get breakfast downstairs, you know, in the dining room. I-”

“I need my cane.” Kaz interrupted what was sure to turn into a very long rant that would lead nowhere, “Right now.”

“Alright.” Jesper said, turned to the door, turned back, “But you’ll probably want to present at breakfast. Iris is going to tell us, you know, the whole story.”

Kaz lifted his brow, “Iris?”

Jesper seemed reluctant to answer, but then gave in, “She is one of the captives that showed up yesterday. You were still unconscious. She knows what happened to Inej on the Illion, with Pollet.”

Kaz was quiet for a moment, staring at the wall, processing the new information, and in the end said, “I’ll go down, just get me my cane.”

When a few minutes later Jesper was back- he must have announced Kaz would be joining them-, he shifted on his feet, looking at Kaz as he took his time raising to his feet, an uncertain look on his face. “Are you sure you don’t want me to help you? The doctor did say you shouldn’t move too much and all.”

“I can do it, Jesper.” It came out more annoyed than was his intention, but he let it wash over him and made his way out the door. If he had had any energy to spare, he would’ve made himself look more presentable, but as was he would have to make do with the fact he could walk at all and his cane was back in his hand where it belonged. Its weight was reassuring, smoothing over the remaining edges of discomfort its absence brought on.

“Alright. Sure.”

They climbed down the stairs, Jesper all but jumping up and down. He was a ball of nervous energy, even more so than usual, Kaz noted, but made no comment.

The dining room was overflowing with people, like he had never seen it before. Wylan sat on one end of the long table, Nina on his one side and an empty seat Kaz assumed was meant for Jesper on the other. His mother sat across from him, her features a little lost as she twirled the beads of her necklace around her fingers. Mr. and Mrs. Ghafa sat close next the each other, their hands connected between them on the table.

Loe was seated next to Nina. The way they sat, leaning away from each other but still closer than necessary, gave Kaz a pause, but he filed it away for later and moved on.

Dorian was picking on her napkin nervously and her eyes were, like everyone else’s, bloodshot and miserable. Careful not to touch anyone, Freya sat between the mechanic and Oliander, fuming. Then there was a tall, elegant, dark-skinned woman he didn’t recognize, a child sharing her features, an amber-haired woman and one with the lightest blonde hair he had ever seen.

The other side was equally diverse in characters, tall and short, children and adults. The room was filled with murmuring and quiet conversation, no joy in sight. Jesper sat next to Wylan, like Kaz had predicted he would, and he himself took the empty place next to Jesper, adjusting his cane under the table.

“Seems like everyone is here now. If you will, Ms Iris.” Wylan announced, moving his fingers over the glass in front of him. He glanced at Jasper, smiled a quick, tired smile and looked back at the tall woman who had straightened in her seat even further.

Kaz gripped the head of his cane the whole time Iris spoke so it dug into his palm, making it ache even more than before. The pain was almost therapeutic, keeping his focus off of his light-headedness so he could concentrate fully on the story.

It didn’t take long for it to be over. Iris spoke in a clear, comprehensible voice, not omitting any details, but also not wasting unnecessary time on bringing the story to life with poetic descriptions. She told it as one would a report, dispassionately and methodically, with the tightness of her mouth after she was done being the only sign she was at all emotionally connected to the mentioned events.

Most of the table was sniffing, if not outright crying. Nina seemed to be having trouble holding her tears back and was gripping her napkin like a vice. The mechanic was laying on Ji Kien’s shoulder, weeping.

“So you just left her behind?”

He had meant to stay quiet, had meant to keep his own emotions under tight reins, but the question slipped through his gritted teeth. If he were feeling better, if he could have gotten up, if he didn’t feel like death was sitting on his porch, grinning, he would’ve walked out of there and let out the chaos in his head out through the never-failing violence.

But as it was, he had to sit in his seat, a flood closing in and pain no words could describe poisoning his heart.

He watched as Iris’s lips thinned even further as she stared straight into his eyes. Under different circumstances, he might have found that small detail interesting, but now he only felt loathing and fatigue no sleep would fix.

“That girl saved our lives, gave us a chance to live them in freedom and not in captivity. I wasn’t going to waste her sacrifice by going against her wishes and getting us caught again.”

“That’s one hell of an interesting way to say you were afraid to die and took the coward’s way out.”

“Kaz...” Jesper started hesitantly, and Nina said at the same time, much more sternly, “Kaz. That’s enough.”

He paid neither of them any mind and instead watched rage work over Iris’s features that in the end pushed her to her feet.

“You think I’m afraid to die? You think I’m a coward?” Moving her skirt aside, she pulled a sheathed blade out of a holster and reached across to slam it between them on the table. “Try to kill me then and see if I feel dread.”

“I just might.” Kaz retorted, quietly.

“Kaz, you’re crossing a line. I understand we’re all in pain right now, but we need to stay calm. No violence. Ms Iris, please, sit down-“ Wylan tried, but it was to no avail.

“But first you might want to look in the mirror and see what you see there.” Iris said, not even glancing at the red-headed man who looked like he was about to start pulling on his hair at any moment. “Do not pin the guilt on your heart on me, child.”

Having said that, she turned around and walked right out of the room, not even bothering to take the knife with her.

“Breakfast is ready, my dears.” Ms Kolich took that time to walk into the room, carrying a large tray full of fresh bread. Her tone was cheerful but her eyes were red-rimmed, indicating that she might have heard a part of the story as she walked by. “I’ll be right back with the rest.”

“Let me help you, Ms Kolich. I need a breather anyway.” Wylan said, his voice shaking with cold anger.

Jesper caught his forearm as his boyfriend stood up, keeping him in place. “Wy.”

Wylan shook it off. “Not now, Jesper.”

“You just had to say that. Couldn’t have kept quiet for once in your life, could you?” Freya asked. Her cheeks were tear-stained, but she didn’t seem to care. “And now everyone is even more miserable.”

“Why excuse me, next time I’ll be sure not to point out the obvious thing everyone is ignoring.” He retorted, putting extra sarcasm into it.

“Inej is dead.” Loe said calmly, looking between them. “Passing blame isn’t going to help anyone, especially when we know the name of the man who truly deserves it.”

Rationally speaking, Kaz agreed. They had a specific target who had to pay. But the anger and grief in his heart wanted to bite at anyone, anything, everything close-by. So he stood up, heavily leaning on his cane, and went back to the room he had left barely an hour ago, feeling worse than he had before.

And what did listening to Inej’s last known moments achieve? He already knew she was brave, he already knew she had empathy beyond anyone else he had ever met, he already knew she would do whatever it took to protect the innocent. He only felt even more off the rails than before, and that never got anyone satisfactory revenge.

A part of him, a huge part of him, wanted to simply stomp out the front door, but it wouldn’t have taken long before he collapsed and had to rely on someone else for their help, and that would’ve been unacceptable. So he lay in bed, cane next to him, and imagined all the ways he could pull Pollet apart.

***

Three days later, he sat on the bench in the garden and looked at the sky and the setting sun. He avoided meals like the plague, but Ms Kolich never failed to leave him something in his temporary room, and he ate out of the need to stay alive if not for the want of it.

Yesterday had been a rather productive day. He couldn’t drop by the Slate himself, not yet, certainly not in his state, so Jesper unwillingly agreed to get him his papers. He couldn’t afford to lag behind, not anymore. The Barrel was full of dogs, and when they thought they noticed anything suspicious, they sniffed around until they found a weakness they could exploit, and that couldn’t happen. He needed the Barrel as it was and his reputation intact if he was going to do what had to be done.

There hadn’t been any news of Pollet, at least not yet, Kaz thought as he stood up, but he hadn’t really expected them. Whatever hole he had slithered off into, it was a good one. But he would be back, that much was obvious. He would gather his resources and he would heal and he would be back to exert his revenge. There would be no chance of getting the Council of Tides’s help this time, either. He had used up that card.

He would go down either way. If it were a different case, Kaz could’ve waited and he would have dragged it out over years, moving all the figures until the chessboard was ready for him to make his final move. However, Pollet wasn’t Rollins. He was certainly as arrogant, but he wasn’t nearly as stupid, and he didn’t underestimate. He wasn’t a man who thought himself a lion, but a man who was a snake, and who wasn’t below getting away if he noticed the noose was too tight.

His wound ached as he walked, pulling every time he made a step. The irony of the situation was that his leg was better than it had been in months, since it was the first time he ate actual meals and slept somewhat regularly, and since his knife wound took precedence at the moment.

He stopped when he got to the front door and once again looked at the sky, thinking absently how much Inej would’ve loved it. It was one of the rare times it wasn’t raining and there were no cloud in the sky, so the horizon could be seen clearly, in all its glory even he couldn’t deny.

“Kaz.”

He didn’t turn immediately, convinced fully he had imagined the sound. But when he did, he was sure that he had gone absolutely and incorrigibly mad. Completely frozen, he watched as Inej half-ran, half-limped to him. Her skin, sheened in sweat, gleamed like gold in the sunlight. She looked like an injured goddess rising from hell, the fires of it still scorching her back.

“Kaz. You’re alive.” She raised a trembling, bloody hand, touched his face. He would’ve jolted if he didn’t stand completely still, yet to break from the effects of shock that rendered him speechless and motionless. “You’re alive. Thank the Saints.”

Her cheeks were wet and an exhausted smile played on her lips as her hand slipped to his shoulder. She repeated, “You’re alive.”, quietly, her voice swimming in relief. Then, before he could even utter her name, she was toppling to the ground like a puppet whose strings someone had cut. He only barely managed to catch her before she hit it.

Chapter Text

“Here, have another waffle.”

“I can’t. I really can’t. I’ll blow up.” Inej said, holding her stomach that truly felt like it was going to burst from the amount of food she put into it in the last hour alone. “Either way, you deserve that waffle more than I do, Nina.”

“You’re the one who almost died from her injuries, friend.” Nina said, her eyes focused and serious. If it wasn’t for the smile she was barely holding back, fluttering on her lips, it would’ve been almost believable. Nina rested her hands on Inej’s shoulders dramatically, yet gently. “You deserve the waffle.”

“You’re the one who looks like a carriage ran you over recently.” Inej replied, playing into Nina’s little game and keeping her voice sober, “You not only deserve it, Nina, you need it.”

“Girls, girls, please. If neither one of you wants it, just give it to me.” Jesper reasoned cockily, a huge grin on his face. “Everyone here knows I deserve the waffle the most.”

“Greedy people don’t deserve waffles, Jes.” Wylan said somewhat absently, busy opening the shut window to let in the much needed air, cold as it might have been on that cloudy day.

Objectively speaking, there were far too many people crammed into the average-sized room, and most of the oxygen had been sucked out already without anyone noticing. Air or no air though, it didn’t matter to Inej since she simply couldn’t stop smiling.

Her mother was sitting on the bed next to her, carefully so as not to put pressure on Inej’s bruised body, and was lightly trailing her hand down Inej’s hair. Her father was next to the bed in a chair, smiling as she was as he held her hand. The others- Nina, Jesper, Wylan, Loe, Dory, Oli, Freya- rested on mismatched furniture that had been dragged in before, laughing and joking around. Even Wylan’s mom- Marya, as she preferred to be called- was there, knitting away in the corner peacefully.

Inej had felt giddy on happiness from the moment she woke up, like all the weight had been taken from her chest and she was thrown into this other dimension, completely unrelated to the one that had hardly held more than pain and suffering.

More than once, she was convinced she must be dreaming, and that at any moment she was going to wake up and it was all going to disappear. She battled that thought by holding Papa’s hand a little tighter, nuzzling into Mama a little closer, laughing with her friends a little harder.

The first thing she had seen when her eyes opened were her parents, asleep in armchairs. Even in sleep they were a unit, resting on each other, seeking comfort and strength from each other. Just as she went to straighten and reach for them, her mother jerked awake and, after a second of stunned silence, shouted in mirth. In just a few heartbeats, Inej’s room was overflowing with relieved, ecstatic and very, very chatty people.

For the first few minutes she had been swept up in it, still not entirely sure what was happening as her exhausted brain struggled to fully turn on. There had been a lot of crying, then food and water was being pushed her way; concerned questions about how she felt, did it hurt and where, was she dizzy, did she have a headache, rained down on her.

She only managed to get her wits about when Oli reminded everyone, in a strict doctor voice broken with laughing and happiness, to move away, give her some air and quiet down a bit. The peace had lasted only a few seconds before the chatter started up again.

For the next few hours, the room was buzzing constantly with activity.

Iris came to visit with the rest of the ex-captives, smiling like Inej never guessed she could smile, shook her healthy hand and then moved away as Joe peppered her with questions and sounds of the amazement, barely letting anyone else get a word in.

A beautiful man dropped by too, one she’d never seen before, introduced himself in a voice dripping with charm and with elegance, said it was ‘the utmost pleasure and honor to meet a woman such as her’. Inej didn’t miss Nina’s snort, nor the fact Loe rolled her eyes up to the ceiling, and act that contradicted the small smile playing on her lips.

Mr. P was in and out in only a couple minutes, but he, like Iris had, shook her hand in a way that for him meant more than a thousand words. She gave him a nod and he left to get back to the business he always devoted time to whenever they were on shore.

Ms Kolich was in trotting left and right, sniffing into a handkerchief and thanking the Heavens for Inej’s safe return in between helping Nina and her parents stuff her full of food. She kept bringing blankets and tucking Inej in until, fearing suffocation, Inej subtly signaled Wylan to help her. He very discreetly mentioned that there was only a few hours left to lunch and there were a lot of people to feed.

Ms Kolich, flustered that it had slipped her mind, tucked Inej in one more time before she hurried out and down the stairs, muttering a list under her breath.

Due to how hectic it all was, Inej had stopped counting how many times she told her story, backtracking to certain details every time someone came back and missed something. She kept it all as non-violent as she could, but she knew that at some point she would have to sit her crew and her friends down and tell them the full version.

But that point was not now, with her parents, Marya and Ms Kolich around. And definitely not without Kaz, who still hadn’t come by. She ruthlessly drowned out the fact that Kaz hadn’t taken even a moment to visit her as she knew it would bring nothing but misery with it, and she wouldn’t let it muck up the first truly happy day in over two months. She would deal with him and every single complicated emotion the thought of him brought later.

 “Betrayed, by my own boyfriend.” Jesper gasped dramatically, covering his heart, and brought Inej back to reality, “Unforgivable. This is absolutely unforgivable.”

“It’s not like you didn’t have it coming.” Loe said, massaging her knee, making Inej wonder if it was an old or a new injury bothering her.

“I like you, Jesper, but he kind of has a point.” Dorian piped in. The mechanic slipped from her chair sometimes during the whole waffle ordeal, as was her habit, and was now sitting on the floor, polishing an intricately-shaped piece of metal Inej didn’t recognize.

“Wow, okay, now I’m really hurt. You all stabbed me, straight through the heart.” Jesper punched his chest with his fist. “Straight through the heart.”

Wylan came back, having finished arranging the curtains, and sat on the arm of Jesper’s chair. He ran his hand down Jesper’s arm and kissed his cheek lightly, the amused smile never leaving his face. “Aw, poor dear. There, there.”

Jesper shot him a narrowed glare, too serious to be real, and hugged Wylan with one arm, overbalancing him so the red-headed man all but toppled onto him.

“Let me offer you a piece of advice, Jesper.” Rychele said, never stopping the brushing of Inej’s hair. She paid little attention as Wylan attempted to scramble up and straighten his ruffled hair. “Next time you want something, try to be a little more- what’s the word? Ah, yes- inconspicuous about your intentions.”

Jesper whipped his head towards her, mouth agape in comic shock, arm absently thrown over Wylan’s shoulders, “You too, Mrs. Ghafa? Whatever has this world come to?”

“Can’t trust anyone anymore, Jesper, just what I keep saying.” Inej piped in, leaning her head on Rychele’s shoulder. “Next thing you know, you’ll have to doubt everything and everyone.”

“Your dog.”

“Your pants.”

“Your shoes.”

“Your cousin Adeleide.”

Everyone looked at Dorian. Wylan asked, “Who’s cousin Adeleide?”

She gave him a meaningful glance. “Exactly.”

“Alllright, I’m officially completely lost and confused with this conversation.” Oli said, his genuine bafflement causing a wave of laughter.

“Or are you?”

He shook his head and mouthed ‘what’ to Dorian’s cryptic remark, and she replied by shrugging her shoulders.

“I kinda really want that waffle now.” Jesper said, rubbing his eyes. “You owe it to me anyhow, after this terrible betrayal.”

“Technically, Inej offered it to me first, so I’m the one who gets it.” Nina yawned and stretched, “But I’m too tired to eat it, so I’ll give it to you for the right price.”

“I’m listening.”

“You get the waffle, and next time we’re eating them I get five in return.”

“I didn’t know you were a loan shark.” Loe said, leaning back in her chair. “Cute.”

Nina flashed her a grin as Jesper cried, “How is that fair?”

“Take it or leave it, Jesper.” Nina glanced at an imaginary watch. “The offer is only on the table for the next thirty seconds.”

“As a successful businessman, I advise you against this deal, Jes.” Wylan added, taking a band out of his pocket to tie his hair.

Jesper looked at the waffle Nina was holding on a plate and shrugged, “Eh. I’ll take it. Give me the waffle, Zenik.”

Nina handed him the plate and shook his hand. “Pleasure doing business with you, Fahey.”

Freya had stayed mostly quiet, but as chatter was more often interrupted with yawning, she said, “I hate to ruin the fun, but everyone here needs rest before you fall asleep where you’re sitting.”

“You’re right.” Inej agreed, looking around. She herself had been lulled to half-sleep and hadn’t noticed. “You all look like you haven’t slept properly in too long.”

“Who needs sleep? We run on rage and grimness.”

When all turned to him with raised eyebrows, Wylan inclined his head. “Yeah, okay, I see your point.”

“You should rest too, Inej.” Oli said, getting up with Freya’s help and giving Inej a light hug. “We’ll get out of your hair.”

“Come back later. I’m not going anywhere now, that’s for sure.”

He chuckled, “True.”

It took almost ten minutes for everyone to say their goodbyes and trail out of the room, including her father when she said she would like to take a bath before she went back to sleep. Of course, right now a bath meant a wet cloth, her mother and quite some patience, but it was going to have to be enough until she was healthy enough to take a real bath.

Loe and Nina were the only ones who lingered.

“Are you sure you don’t need help?” Nina asked, running a hand through her hair to get it back into place.

“We’re here if you need it.” Loe added.

“We can manage, but thank you either way. You two should get sleep like everyone else, you definitely look like you need it.” When they looked reluctant still, Inej ensured them, “As I said to Oli, I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be alright.”

 “Okay. But call if you need anything at all.”

“I will. I promise.”

“Alright then. I suppose we should take our leave.”

They both started for the door at the same time, crowding in the doorway. The look they shared, the way they tried to far too carefully go around each other, had Inej narrowing her eyes in thought even after they had gone. Was there something going on with them, or was her tired mind reading too much into a few simple gestures?

As Rychele went to warm the water and gather the cloths, Inej was left in the room alone, surrounded with a sudden silence. Her mind concentrated on Kaz again, reminding her he wasn’t quite as easy to get out of her head as she had pretended. His absence was like an important piece of the puzzle was missing.

She hadn’t seen him since she had, dizzy and delirious with the fever, spotted him against the gold of the setting sun. She remembered clearly the way he looked, head tilted back as he stared at the colorful sky with those intelligent, dark eyes that reflected the light in them. There was a fresh cut on his cheek, a scar-to-be, another one to add to his considerable collection.

Though she had been nearly blinded with the flood of relief, she recalled the sharp stab of surprise. It must have been because she hadn’t seen him in so long, but he seemed different. He was still lean as she doubted he had fixed his eating habits in the last year, but he seemed taller, older, broader. He didn’t seem strange, not unrecognizable by any chance, just... different.

And for just a split second, before she had called out, before he had turned to look at her, shock overtaking his features, the curve of his jaw, the way his long, swift fingers, draped in dark gloves, curled over the head of the shiny cane, the way his now-longer hair waved slightly and fell over his forehead, had her insides swirling with warmth.

And now he wasn’t here. With a sigh, Inej closed her eyes and fell back on the pillows.

She had been awake for hours and he didn’t even look in for a moment to check she was alright. It wasn’t like she expected him to sit with everyone and chat away about waffles and silly stuff, or flutter about her side like a worried lover, but he damn well could’ve spared a minute to exchange a few words with her.

She’d heard all about the rescue mission from the others, about how they barely got out of it alive, though they joked to lighten the mood, and decided that she had been right to assume Kaz would do exactly what he ended up doing. They mentioned the Council of Tides, how they had inexplicably come to their aid, but no one knew the reason why.

Nina also told her, in a nonchalant yet careful voice, about the injury Kaz had sustained. It had been a rare moment where they had some privacy with everyone else busy discussing whether goose quills were overrated, but though Nina had given her time to inquire about it, Inej hadn’t. Soon after they were dragged into the argument, and Nina only squeezed her hand once and didn’t mention Kaz again.

The thing was, Inej didn’t want to hear about it from anyone else, she wanted to hear it from him directly. She wanted to believe that what they had built, brick by painful brick, was enough, that it would make him come to her, rather than her having to seek him out.

Then her mind went to the time a year ago, before she had left, and she wasn’t so sure anymore she hadn’t destroyed the carefully engineered construction herself.

She kept quiet as Rychele helped her wash, painstakingly slow, as she redressed the aching bullet wound and aided her in changing out of the clothes she had worn for far too long and into a nightgown. She sat in one of the empty armchairs as her mother changed the sheets, humming a sweet song. Rychele left her to her silence, and only spoke when she climbed onto bed next to her and gently dried her hair with a towel.

“Will you tell me what’s bothering you, sweetie?”

Inej sighed, “Not right now.”

“Alright, then.” Inej knew that though Rychele dropped it for now, she didn’t forget, but that she would wait until Inej was ready to tell her. That trust and patience meant the world to Inej, and it went without saying.

Dropping the towel beside them, Rychele ran her fingers through Inej’s still-wet hair. It was still choppy and uneven, and shorter than Inej had kept it in years.

“I think I can make a braid of it, but I’m not sure how it well it will hold.”

“Can you cut it off?” Inej asked, and even as her heart skipped a beat at the words, she held her ground and stayed still.

“Your hair?” Rychele’s voice took on a worried and mildly shocked tone, “Are you sure?”

“Yes, I am. I have been thinking about it for a while, Mama, it isn’t an impulsive decision.” Inej added, feeling her mother’s hesitation though she was turned with her back to her. “It only gets in the way like this, and I can’t tie it properly, as you pointed out yourself.”

“All right.” Rychele stood up and kissed Inej’s cheek. “I’ll go see if I can get some scissors from Ms Kolich.”

It took her only a few minutes  before she was back with a bowl and a pair of iron scissors. Sitting back down, Rychele asked, “How much of it do you want me to cut off?”

“As much as you need to for it to be straight.”

Her mother took her hair in her hands, lifted it so she could draw a line with her finger on Inej’s back, somewhere on the top half of her shoulder blade. “That’s going to come up until about here. Do you still want me to go through with it?”

If some had asked Inej Ghafa if she was attached to her hair, her answer would’ve been a rather sure ‘no’. But a part of her loved it, loved its weight on her back, loved all the memories of it, all the mornings she would braid it absently and quickly, and felt the same loss it did when it was first chopped up.

“They-one of Pollet’s crew- cut it off more than a month ago; it was about my fourth week there, though it was hard to keep track of time. He hacked at it with a knife carelessly, but deliberately slowly.” Inej took a deep breath. She made it a rule to tell her parents nothing of the pain, of the grief, of all the baggage she lived with, but she had to say it. “I had felt ashamed, vulnerable. It was as if with every strand that fell, they stole another part of me I couldn’t get back, though at that moment they weren’t hurting me physically.”

She turned to look behind her, met her mother’s serious, watery eyes blazing with anger. “They won that battle because I couldn’t stop them from winning it, not then, but I can stop them now. I don’t want them to have that power over me, never again. It’s just hair, Mama.”

“It’s just hair.” Rychele repeated, her voice strong though a single tear rolled down her cheek. Nodding, Inej turned back around and the sound of snipping ensued. It took some time, but when Rychele started humming a soothing song again, it seemed as if only moments passed.

“There.” She said, laying a kiss on the back of Inej’s head. “Done.”

Inej lifted her hand and touched the ends of her hair, shorter than she remembered it being since she was ten.

“You can still braid it.” Rychele assured her, weaving it around her fingers so Inej only felt the barest of tugging. “And it will grow long before you even notice it, I promise.”

“Thank you, Mama.”

“You’re welcome.” A few moments went by, then Rychele said, “Now, will you tell me what was bothering you, or are we still in ‘latwr’ period? You know I don’t like to push you, Inej, but I can feel you hurting, and it hurts me in turn.”

If it were someone else, if it were under different circumstances, Inej wouldn’t have said anything. But all those months away, all those times she was sure she wasn’t going to survive to see tomorrow, all those times she wanted desperately to see and talk to her mother, were still like a fresh wound. So she said, “I think I might have ruined something very, very important.”

“What makes you think that?”

Rychele didn’t ask her what she was referring to, and Inej didn’t offer any details, but they both knew what she was talking about. It wasn’t that her... relationship with Kaz was a secret between them, but it wasn’t something they mentioned often.

Kaz, the Kaz she had fallen in love with, the man with a heart as just and kind as it was ruthless, the man who had committed numerous sins, who understood her own, was a part of the life they avoided talking about, the life that was full of misery and helplessness and fear and pain. There were some memories her parents will never know of, and they were all better off for it.

“The... thing was so nice, and we were going forward, one step at a time. But at one moment I realized that I had stopped walking and my feet were frozen- I couldn’t move anymore, I was stuck. So I acted like a coward, and I ran as fast and as far as I could in the opposite direction. And by doing that, I think I might have destroyed one of the things that meant the most to me.”

“If there’s one thing that has never crossed my mind, it’s that you could ever be a coward, Inej.” Having finished what she was doing, Rychele shifted so she could look at her daughter and softly ran her hands up and down Inej’s healthy arm. “You are the bravest person I know.

“Everyone gets scared sometimes, honey, especially when it comes to emotions. Even you. Life isn’t a race, so take your time. When you can’t move forward anymore, sit down and rest. Call out to the person in front of you and tell them what’s weighting on you.”

 When Inej shivered, Rychele lifted a blanket from the edge of the bed and draped it over her before she continued, “When the groundwork is solid, the building doesn’t fall down from a single hit, no matter how strong it was. You can fix it.”

Inej looked into her mother’s eyes, “And what if I can’t?”

“You can.” Rychele answered, “And you must be really tired if you are so negative all of a sudden. Don’t think too much about it now. Get some sleep, then make a plan with a clear head and a rested heart.”

Her mother tucked her into bed again, making her eyelids even heavier than before.

“I should go wake up everyone who managed to lie down for a bit, I believe lunch will be soon.” When a sharp sound of bell sounded, signalizing that the meal was ready, Rychele smiled. “There it is. I’ll be back as soon as it’s over- unless you want me to stay.”

Inej knew that her mother really would’ve done it, would’ve ignored her growling stomach and held Inej’s hand until she fell asleep, and it made Inej crack a smile as well. “No, I’m alright. Go eat with Papa and the others.”

 “Alright. Just ring the bell if you wake up and need anything. I’ll be back soon.” She repeated as she moved away.

When she was at the exit, Rychele looked at Inej again, “You should know that Kaz carried you up here himself, refused to let anyone near you. He sat by your side the whole night as you fought for your life and only left when he was sure you were breathing and when Doctor Eel promised you would survive. I think you’ll find that nothing is as damaged as you might think.”

Rychele was already halfway out the door when Inej called out, “Mama?”

“Yes?”

“I love you.”

Rychele smiled, murmured ‘I love you too, sweetie’ and closed the door behind her as Inej settled into the pillows, the tightly-coiled wires in her heart relaxing as she fell into a dreamless sleep.

***

Clouds gathered in the sky and hid the moon, so when Inej woke, she woke to the dark and the low grumbling of thunder. She sat up, groggy and rested at the same time, and infinitely relieved that nightmares evaded her for that time. She had to thank the fresh smell of the sheets and the feeling of being clean, completely clean, for the first time in what had felt like years for it.

She fumbled on the nightstand until her fingers wrapped around a cold glass. Her hand was still weak from sleep and she barely managed to avoid spilling water over it as she lifted the glass to her lips and drank slowly. As carefully as she took it, she put it back down.

Her parents were sleeping on a sofa, now the only piece of furniture left in the room- she must have been deeply asleep if she hadn’t noticed when they carried out the rest-, and though they were barely more than shapes in the dark, she could tell they were leaning on each other, like they always did. Not wanting to wake them, Inej slowly shifted and dropped her feet to the floor.

Her knees felt weak and wobbly, even with the considerable rest she had gotten, but she managed to walk to the wardrobe and pull on one of the couple warm robes that hung in there. After she pulled on her slippers, she stood by the bed, breathing quietly as she wondered if she should drown the impulse to go look for Kaz and lay back down. It wasn’t like she knew where he was- he easily could’ve gone back to the Slate, and she certainly couldn’t go there now, not in her condition.

Still she went to the door and slowly cracked it open, only as much as she needed to slip out. The hallways was dead silent, but she could see light shining under one of the guest rooms so she knew that she wasn’t the only one awake.

She passed by it and went for the stairs, letting the railing take most of her weight as she descended like a child might. The thought of how ridiculous she must’ve looked in the oversized, colorful robe and the worn slippers with messy hair that had slipped out of whatever braid her mother had pulled it into had her stifling a laugh.

The downstairs was as quiet as the upstairs had been and equally as dark. Thankfully, Inej knew her way around the mansion blindfolded, and remembering someone mentioned that Kaz had spent most of his time in the maps room, headed for there.

Surprisingly, the door was unlocked. She knocked once, more out of habit than because she expected he would be there, and let herself in. Even before she closed the door behind her, she knew he wasn’t there. Wherever he went, Kaz carried a certain energy with him, a presence you couldn’t ignore, a presence she noticed even when he wanted to go unnoticed.

She walked to the desk and lit an oil lamp that sat neatly at its edge. Apart from the tidiness and the drawn curtains, there was nothing there to signalize Kaz had ever set foot in the room, which explained the unlocked doors. She went to the desk and tried the drawers- locked.

If she had lock picks on her- which she, naturally, didn’t at the moment-, she would’ve opened it and looked through it, simply for curiosity’s sake. Kaz kept most sensitive information he needed inside his head where it couldn’t be compromised or stolen, and though his job, like hers, required paperwork, he wouldn’t keep anything truly important in such an obvious place.

If there was anything in this room that was worth anything to him, he would’ve put it somewhere where it would take even her hours, if not days, to find.

Inej limped to the window, already exhausted after so little time, and reached with her hand to pull the curtains apart and look out the window. The storm was making headway as the wind picked up and the thundering got louder and louder. She cracked the window open and breathed in the smell of the oncoming rain, smiled at the familiarity of it.

Storms were different on the sea than they were in Ketterdam. There, clouds gathering meant real trouble, and when wind started howling and rain pounded over you, pure adrenaline filled your veins. You shouted over the nature that was trying to swallow you whole and shatter your bones, ran over the slippery deck and did all you could before you held onto dear life and prayed to whatever you believed in that you make it through. No training or knowledge could ever prepare you for your first storm, or your second, or your third.

When she was in Ketterdam, with steady ground under her feet, the wind and the rain and the noise didn’t only inspire reverence, dread and respect, but also awe. Once, while the whole Van Eck Mansion was asleep, she walked out in nothing but her nightdress and her coat and just stood there, head raised as rain hit her mercilessly, as the sky let out war cries and the lightning lighted up the dark.

Being surrounded with such power that lived before there was anything alive and that would live after everything has died created an indescribable feeling. It was a reminder of just how small she was in the grand scheme of things, another mortal soul who was born and who will die, but it was also a reminder than despite all that, she could stand amidst that ancient performance and come out of it alive.

She was shot out of her thoughts when a lightning flashed in front of her and illuminated the front lawn. For a split second she was sure she could see a silhouette of a running, cloaked man, but when the flash bathed the world in light once again, a few moments later, there was nothing but stillness.

She stayed there, having closed the window, and watched carefully for any sign it might have been more than a product of her tired mind, until her wounds ached enough that she decided she had to get back to bed or risk not being able to. She put the curtains as she had found them and made her way out of the room, but even when she was back under a pleasantly warm blanket and falling back asleep, the image of the man didn’t leave her head.

***

“Remember, go easy.”

Inej nodded and lifted the heavy iron sword. She didn’t much like them and would have preferred to use one of her daggers that sat in her room, but this was an easier way to gain back strength that she had lost during the endless hours of rest and recovery. Her muscles still protested and her wounds pulled at her if she made too sudden a move, but less so than they had two days ago when they started.

Holding the hilt with both hands, Inej swiped at Loe. Her first mate easily repelled the attack, and countered the couple that came after it. Inej’s left arm trembled slightly, but at least she could use it after a week of both Mira and Oli’s continuous efforts to heal it. Neither seemed particularly happy she was fighting with it so soon, even if it was just training, but made no comment of it out loud.

“You’re letting it drop.” Loe warned, not even breaking a sweat as she danced around the room. Inej suppressed the frustration building inside her and corrected her stance before striking again.

It took all Inej had not to go all-out like she wound in a regular fight; she reminded herself that this wasn’t hard only on her, but also on Loe who must have had equal trouble suppressing her movements. Inej had seen her fight with a sword more than once and knew this wasn’t anywhere near the level she was on usually.

After what felt like a small eternity, Loe called for a pause, sheathed her sword and extended a hand to take Inej’s. She laid both of them on one of the sofa’s they had pushed to the wall when they temporarily transformed the parlor into training grounds and came back.

“What’s next?” Inej asked, still breathing hard. She was curious to see what Loe had in mind next, especially seeing as the last few days all she did was swing the sword around and do some light exercises in her room.

“Maybe we’ll get to see Jesper get beat up.” Nina offered from where she was seated in the corner, eating berries as she watched the show. “That would be fun.”

“Yeah, I think I’ll pass.” Jesper retorted, extending his hand to steal another berry from the bowl Nina had claimed for herself when Ms Kolich brought it for them. “I’d rather not get cut in half by the scary lady with a sword.”

“Be a friend, Jesper, I’m so utterly bored.”

Inej couldn’t really blame her. All of the ex-captives, along with Dorian who claimed she had no reason to stay in the Van Eck mansion, got out of the house and moved to rooms that Wylan volunteered to pay for, inconspicuously and in small groups.

Everyone decided that it was the necessary thing to do as the neighbors seemed to be getting suspicious, and after a merchant who worked with Wylan dropped by suddenly, almost seeing the couple dozen people Wylan was hiding- which would’ve raised questions that couldn’t be answered-, it was an unanimous verdict that they go that night. Iris promised to keep them updated and to keep an eye on everyone before they could be sent to their homelands.

Something told Inej that even when they found the ships to transport everyone to where they had been taken from, Iris would stay. She didn’t seem like a person who would leave without getting revenge first, no matter how much time and energy it would take.

With almost everyone gone, the house was suddenly much more quiet, especially now. The whole day the sky had been clear, so Oli and Freya were out helping Dorian fix the Wraith. Inej both yearned to see it and feared the day she would. Loe had taken it upon herself to tell Inej of everyone who hadn’t made it, of all those who died in the fight, and afterwards in the storm that had almost sunk the damaged Wraith once and for all.

Inej had cried that night alone, and woke up in the morning determined that she wouldn’t do so again until they took down Pollet. She dreaded seeing her beloved ship devoid of all the people whose names and stories and fears and likes she knew as she did her own, dreaded that she wouldn’t be able to keep the promise she gave herself.

Her parents and Marya were closed off in a room, talking about whatever it was parents talked about, and Wylan was away too, though she couldn’t tell where, which left Nina and Jesper with almost no entertainment in the evening before dinner. For the lack of a better idea, they spent it sprawled on furniture, eating snacks Ms Kolich prepared and watching them training.

“I won’t be beating up Jesper at the moment.” Nina groaned and Jesper grinned with satisfaction. Loe ignored them both in favor of spreading her feet apart and lifting her arms so they protected her face. “I thought that you must be bored from all the sword training and might want to do something else.”

Inej felt all the energy that had dissipated out of her surge back into her body as she too got into a fighting stance, a position to her as natural as breathing. “You’re right.”

They circled each other for a few moments, gauging the distance between them. Loe striked first, a straight-aimed punch that Inej avoided with ease. Slowly and carefully, they moved, doing basic hits and deflecting, nothing too strenuous, but as they warmed up, they unconsciously quickened their movements until they slipped into full-on sparring.

Inej’s body started moving on its own, reflexively ducking and striking, with Loe matching the rhythm, though her style was much different that her own. Loe fought much like a soldier, which wasn’t surprising seeing as her first captain was a retired member of the military, but she added her own twist to it, moving more fluidly than any soldier Inej had ever encountered.

Inej was aware only of the next step, the next move, and anticipating what her opponent would do, though a distant part of her absently noted the sound of exchanged words and a door opening and closing that followed.

The tall brunette was fast on her feet and beyond good, which was one of the things that earned her her position, along with her excellent leadership skills and a knack for dissolving conflict. Inej felt satisfaction at the excitement of a fight even as her muscles strained. She also noted noticed that she wasn’t the only one having troubles- whatever injuries Loe must have endured were taking a toll on her too.

The next movement decided the winner. Loe put too much momentum into the next punch, losing control and going off balance for just a split second. That gave Inej enough room to pull her forward by her forearm, using the power of her own hit, and kick the feet from under her so that Loe fell to the ground with Inej’s foot lightly on the small of her back.

They were both breathing hard when Inej moved back so Loe could roll around and get up. She would’ve offered her a hand, but they were both busy pressing into her side, trying to drown out the pain that radiated from there. Inej tried to stay on her feet, decided it wasn’t worth the effort and sat down.

“Do you think we went a bit too far?” Loe asked, collapsing on the sofa next to Inej.

“Maybe.” Inej replied, curling forward to dim the pain, but a laugh rolled over her lips nevertheless. “It was worth it.”

“I agree, it was a good fight. You’ll just have to do me a favor and remind me of that in ten minutes when the aches really start to set in.”

“That was amazing. “ Nina commented, walking over to them with a half-worried, half-amused look on her face. “Now, how much medical help do you need?”

“I’ll be alright.” Inej said when she was sure that her bandaged were wet with sweat and not blood. The wound was starting to hurt less too, moving from agony to painful throbbing. “I think I’ll just need a good sleep after dinner.

“We should still have Oli or Mira take a look at you.” Loe moved to stand up. “Better be safe than sorry.”

Loe’s legs must not have been fully prepared to take her on because the moment she switched her weight to them, they gave way under her and she fell forward. Nina swiftly caught her, their bodies pressing together as they stared into each other’s eyes, the looks in them telling Inej that she had been right to assume before something was going on between them.

Even more than their eyes, their subconscious movements, Loe’s gentle caress on Nina’s shoulder as she pushed away, Nina holding her waist just a little tighter than was necessary, gave it away. Inej saw pain in it too, the kind of pain she was lucky never to have felt, the pain they both have felt, when you lost someone who was as much part of you as you yourself were.

She remembered the utter panic and the agony of even the thought that Kaz might be dead, how her heart had all but cracked, and knew that the pain of actually losing someone must be near unbearable. Even now, when she was beyond frustrated with him and somewhat wanted to push him off a high building for acting the way he did, she couldn’t imagine a world without Kaz Brekker in it.

“Where’s Jesper?” Inej asked once the two had drawn apart and snapped them to attention.

“Wylan came back some time ago so he went to help him with work.” Nina smoothed down her skirt though the fabric was unruffled. “Dinner should be soon, too. I can’t wait to eat whatever smells so wonderful.”

Inej sniffed the air that was making Nina sigh, felt like sighing herself. The scent of cooked vegetables and baked fish, as well as Ms Kolich’s famous roast goose with turmeric root, made Inej’s stomach growl. There would undoubtedly be leafy green salads and cheese and nuts, as well as sweet pastry for dessert, as well.

“I’ll go take a quick bath, unless you want to have one first.” Inej said, looking at Loe who shook her head.

“I don’t think I would have the will to get out of the bathtub if I went into it, so I’ll just skip it.”

“I’ll help you set it up.” Nina told Inej and moved so Inej leaned on her. She hesitated, then asked Loe, “Do you need help getting up the stairs?”

“No, I can manage. Thank you either way.”

Inej said her goodbyes, and spoke only once they were out of the room and out of earshot, “Loe is nice, isn’t she?”

“I suppose so. She’s brave, and really good at fighting, and has a good heart.” When Inej just stared at her, she asked, “What?”

“Nina, I’ve seen you flirt with people for having only one of those qualities. You even flirt with them if they have no qualities. You flirt with everyone, and everything.”

“I do not.” Nina replied defensively, though her tone was somewhat amused.

“You do. I literally saw you flirt with a tree once.”

“I thought it was someone else! I was drunk, so that doesn’t count.”

“Either way,” Inej continued, trailing her hands across the railing as they climbed up, “My question is, why is it that every time you look at her you look like you want to jump out the window, instead of looking like you want to ask her out?”

“I don’t want to push anything, not her, not myself. She lost someone recently, I can tell.”

“She did. Her name was Reo and Loe loved her deeply. They were together for quite some time-three years if I’m not mistaken-, and losing her must have broken Loe’s heart.” They had made way to her room so Inej sat on her bed, “I’m not telling you to do anything rash or to disrespect the pain you both carry with you, but it’s clear you feel something for each other. My point is, take your time, but don’t take too much of it on account of fear because Saints know none of us ever have as much of it as we think we do.”

Inej thought of all the people aboard the Wraith, people that were her responsibility, that were her friends, gone now, their time cut brutally short, then shoved the thought down.

“I know, and you’re right. I just... I think I’ll need to think about it some more.”

“If you ever need my help, or need to talk to me about it, or anything else, I’ll listen.” Inej reached out and squeezed Nina’s hand. “I’m here for you.”

“Same goes.” Nina replied and sat down next to Inej to take her into a firm embrace before a smile lighted her face and she stood up again, “Now, let’s get to bathing because I don’t think I could survive a single moment of not eating after that bell rings.”

“I’m right there with you.”

***

Dinner dragged out and the dark had completely swallowed the outside world by the time Inej headed to her room. The moon was high and bright in the cloudless sky, illuminating the roofs of Ketterdam. She had stopped by the window downstairs to look at it, automatically scanning for the silhouette she had seen nights before. Though she hadn’t told anyone about it, her eyes still searched for it every time she glanced out the window.

Now she lay on the bed in her nightgown and stared at the ceiling, her mind swirling with a dozen thoughts at once. Everyone else was downstairs, playing a board game Inej had brought Wylan and Jesper as a gift from her travels once, but she declined the offer to join in. She wanted some alone time, something she hadn’t gotten much since coming back.

It wasn’t that she didn’t appreciate everyone’s care and concern- she did, she really did. It warmed her heart that they loved her enough to keep an eye on her, but as of late she was feeling overcrowded, like she couldn’t take a step without running into another person.

Inej rolled on her side, pulling the covers closer. Then there was the matter of Pollet, and the scheme he was involved in that might be much bigger and much more complex than any of them anticipated. Though she had talked to the others about it, she still felt like they were keeping parts of it from her. There really was only one person who would tell her absolutely everything and skip no details in fear it would hurt her, whose knowledge was indispensable for her to start figuring out what was really going on.

There was a soft knock on the door and Wylan’s stepped into the room when she said, “Come in.” The hesitant and unsure look on his face had her straightening in fear there might be trouble.

“What happened?”

“It’s Kaz.”

She shot of bed so quickly she swayed on her feet. “What do you mean? Is he alright?”

“Yes, yes, of course.” Wylan said quickly, waving his hands in the air. “I meant to say, he’s here. Or at least was. I saw him come in, but when I tried to look for him he had disappeared. I thought you might want to know.”

Inej sat on the edge of the bed, the part in her that was worried about him even as she knew that he could take care of himself relaxing. “Yeah, I do. Thank you.”

“Do you want me to help you find him, if you want to talk? He can’t have gone too far.”

“No, I know exactly where he is.”

“I’ll just get back to the game then.” Wylan smiled a little and said, “Good luck” before he turned around and left, closing the door softly behind him.

When he was gone, Inej stood up again and opened the closet, pulling on her climbing gear. She hadn’t worn it in months, and the feeling of the fabric on her body felt nostalgic. She contemplated leaving a message for her mother that would undoubtedly come check up on her, but decided that finding the ink and paper would take too much time.

Her hair, braided by her mother before she had left after dinner, danced in the breeze. The feeling of freedom swept over her as she went out the window and started scaling the wall, as familiar with it as she was with the back of her hand. Her bruises ached and wounds throbbed, but it wasn’t too hard to ignore it.

Most of the roof was steep, made so the endless rain that fell on Ketterdam could slide down it easily, but the edge on the back side of the house was three-foot wide and straight so it was possible to walk on. Provided you weren’t afraid of falling to your death, two-stories down, that is.

That’s where she found him, sitting in his neat coat and suit, his dark hair getting ruffled in the soft wind.

She kept quiet as she walked to him, sat so there were a few inches left between them. He was aware she was there, Inej knew, but he too stayed silent, looking out into the silver-tipped world. His jaw was clenched, a clear sign of frustration.

Inej kept up the silence as she thought how to start the conversation, hoping he would. In the end she said, “Long time no see.”

Despite what his body language conveyed, his tone was indifferent when he spoke, “What are you doing here, Wraith?”

“I waited for you to come to me. You had plenty of chances this past week, but you didn’t take even one.” She touched the stone underneath her, absorbed the cool of it. “I got tired of waiting.”

“I was busy.”

“Too busy to take ten minutes to drop by?” Inej’s voice was deceptively mild as she pulled her leg up and rested her head on it so she could look at him. “Really?”

“Chasing Pollet around has taken a lot of my time. I have other things I need to give my attention to, and I can’t take time away every time someone gets hurt.”

That sentence squeezed her heart even as she knew by the way he flinched slightly, the way his back was rigid and the way he clamped down on the edge like he was holding on to dear life he didn’t mean it. She too squeezed the edge, fighting for control and patience.

“Every time someone gets hurt. Someone.” She stared hard at his profile, willing him to look at her.

His mouth tightened and he stood up. “I have work to get to.”

She watched him turn his back and take one step, then two, as frustration and anger built up in her. It crossed her mind that she could simply let him walk away, and a part of her wanted to do just that, a part that didn’t want any of the heartache Kaz could cause so easily, recklessly.

But she had already let it win once, and it only led to cowardice and more pain.

So she got to her feet as well and said, word dripping with barely-sustained anger she rarely let show, “Don’t you dare. Don’t you dare do that.”

He didn’t look at her when he said, “I beg your pardon?”

“Don’t you dare wear that ‘I don’t give a shit about anyone but myself’.” Inej cursed rarely, but tying rope isn’t the only thing sailors taught her, “Don’t you dare pretend you don’t care. Don’t you dare act like there is nothing between us.”

 “What makes you think I’m acting?”

He’d said it so coldly that for a moment she was stunned completely speechless. When she regained her voice, it was quiet, lethally sharp. “You can go straight to hell, Kaz Brekker.”

“I don’t doubt I will.”

Shaking her head at his reply, she spun around and headed for the edge. She had come up there to make things right, to give them both another chance, but there was nothing that could pierce Kaz’s walls when he was like this, and she wouldn’t tear her own pride and dignity to tatters trying.

“Inej, wait.”  His hand caught her forearm. She forgot sometimes he was a lot faster than he looked at first glance, and quieter when he wanted to be. As soon as she came to a halt, he dropped her arm. “I didn’t mean that. I-“

The expression on his face when she looked at him was pained, vulnerable, an expression she saw rarely. Then, before she could say anything, it disappeared like someone had snuffed out a candle flame, and he moved back again.

“Never mind. Forget I said anything.”

“Don’t do what you had done all those years ago, hiding in your big castle, never letting anyone in. You’re not the man you were five years ago, so stop acting like him.”

“People don’t change, Inej. We are who we are, no matter how much we try to deceive ourselves into thinking we could ever be anything else but.”

“That’s not just stupid, it’s a coward’s excuse.” She wished she could shake sense into him, literally, but she kept her hands by her side, “I’ve watched you change, step by step, choice by choice. You help people now, you save lives.”

“What does it matter? It still wasn’t enough.”

The heat in his words made her step closer, only a breath away. “Wasn’t enough to what?”

“Don’t-“

“Wasn’t enough to what, Kaz?”

“To save you!” He snapped, and his dark eyes burned in the moonlight. “Do you have any idea what I felt when you didn’t come back, when I heard you were taken? When I thought you were dead? It was like someone was ripping out my heart, like I couldn’t breathe, like there was nothing left worth living for because I would never get to see you again, and the knowledge that I had been too late, that I hadn’t done enough, very nearly killed me.”

Inej felt something in her relax even as Kaz’s temper burned like a wildfire in front of her.

“And then you were alive, and I had never in my life felt such relief, or such happiness. But I couldn’t look at you on that bed, covered in wounds and bruises, barely hanging onto life, and not want to rip Pollet apart, rip every single person who had caused you pain to shreds. I wanted it more than I even wanted Rollins crawling on his knees before me.

“I wanted to make Pollet suffer for every moment I know he made you suffer. I can’t be the man you want me to be, Inej.” His voice was a mix of desperation and fury and misery and guilt Inej had never heard before. “I can’t.”

“Is that why you have been avoiding me, because you think I wouldn’t be able to understand or accept that rage and violence? I have never asked of you to be timid, to be peaceful, to not be who you are. You think I don’t want him dead?” She felt fry spread over her features at the memory of all those weeks, all that weakness, all that pain. “You think I don’t want to stab him until the light leaves his eyes?

“I am not innocent, Kaz. I am not a child who sees the world through rose-colored glass. I have watched people die, I have been chained, I have killed, I have had things taken away from me, Saints know more times than I can possibly count.”

His eyes were trained on her, unblinking as she continued, no longer able to stop the flood of words. “I never asked of you to be anything other than who you are. I don’t want an innocent man without scars who doesn’t see the world for what it so often is, I don’t want someone who doesn’t, who couldn’t possibly understand the pain we both carry with us. Who doesn’t know what it is to have lived through what we have lived through.”

Inej reached up carefully and took his face in her hands, felt the sharpness of his face, all edges, on her palms. He closed his eyes and breathed unevenly. His emotions, that mix of panic, longing and satisfaction physical touch always brought, mimicked her own.

They were close enough she could feel the warmth of his body through his open coat, smell the coffee and remnants of morning rain on his clothes and skin. Their lips were just a few inches apart as she watched him under the moonlight, drinking in every nook and scar on his face, all the tiny details that had managed to slip from her memory in the last year.

“I want you, Kaz Brekker. Just like this.” She murmured as she looked into his eyes swirling with emotion, “No more hiding. No more armor. ”

It seemed to Inej like she could hear every single beat of her heart as she waited, anticipating what he would do next. Would he lean in? Would he lean away? Would he just have them stand there, unmoving, at the edge of that roof, breaths mixing, as the night went on around them?

She felt him slightly shift and glanced down to see him taking off his gloves, one finger at a time, painstakingly slowly. Once he had them off and disposed of them in his pocket, his hands, trembling slightly, went to her hair, glided in between the twists and turns of the complex braid her mother had created.

Inej was barely breathing as his head lowered, as his lips brushed her cheek. She slid her hands under his coat and over his wildly beating heart to his back, strong and lean under her fingers. She felt him freeze, felt his quick breath on her skin as he fought with himself, with the tide of terror, and gave them both time to get used to the touch as they each battled the shadows haunting their heads.

When he’d seemed to have calmed down some, he continued trailing soft, gentle, butterfly kissed over one side of her face, then the other. Each felt like a whispered promise, a pained apology, a silent star of yearning. She pulled him closer, tangling her fingers in his hair as he had in hers, enjoying the novelty of its length.

Inej angled her face, hearing his breath hitch again as she pressed her lips to his, ever so lightly. Her heart beat like a festival drum, thousand miles a second, as she slowly increased pressure.

Then suddenly the hair tie, weakened by the movement of Kaz’s hands in her hair, detached from the braid, untangling it so black ink spilled out over his fingers. They both breathed hard like survivors of a shipwreck trying to survive on the wild sea as he leaned away and stared, his hands dropping down.

“Your hair.”

She automatically reached for it and felt the soft ends of it. “Yeah. Mama shortened it a few days ago.”

Kaz took a few strands in his hand and examined them closely. She felt like laughing at the concentrated look on his face. One would assume he was pondering how to solve a complex science problem or break into a heavily-guarded palace rather than inspecting a lock of hair.

Then his mood quickly changed from surprised and curious into dark, and the laugh died in her throat.

“It’s how I knew something had happened to you.” He said, letting the hair fall back into place.

“Huh?”

“The hair. After Roeder fucked up in Holland’s house, I went over there to pick up what I needed myself. In his office I found an envelope with your hair in it, tied in a part of your shawl. I believe it’s safe to assume Pollet sent it.”

Inej furrowed her eyebrows in thought and said, “That’s odd.”

Kaz’s expression morphed from brooding into scheming in the blink of an eye as he pondered her words. Inej could all but see the wheels turning in his head. “Why do you say that?”

Inej lowered herself on the edge again, exhausted all of a sudden though her mind was fully awake and working. “When I got out of my makeshift cell on the Illion, I released the captives and saw that they were armed and ready to escape- which wasn’t too hard with Iris’s help. Then I went to Pollet’s cabin to get my knives. I knew there were other weapons below deck I could use but... I needed them.”

Thinking how he would feel without his cane as he sat beside her, he said, “I understand.”

Inej glanced at him with a small smile that disappeared when she continued. “I caught two members of the crew who noticed me, got one of them to tell me where Pollet kept them, or where he was most likely to keep them at least.

“They were in this metal box in his room, along with my shawl. I wasn’t paying much to it then, but they weren’t the only thing stuffed in it. There were a few jewels, some ties and other articles of clothing, a couple more weapons, even a candle made of black wax.”

“Trophies.”

Inej nodded her agreement, feeling his gaze on her even as she looked out into the night. “So why wouldn’t a man who kept all that keep my hair too? It would have the same value in his eyes that my daggers do, if not a bigger one.

“It wasn’t just my weapon, it was a part of me, and I hadn’t lost it in battle, I lost it tied up, defenseless, beaten, vulnerable, weak- in his eyes.” She added, noticing from the corner of her eye that his hand was gripping his cane so hard his knuckles had turned white.

 “On top of that,” Inej continued, rubbing her arms to try and warm up, “Why would he send it to Holland of all people? Nothing indicates they are anything more than colleagues, and if anything, from the letters you had shown me, it appears that Pollet doesn’t hold Holland in high regards- though he keeps it in the subtext.”

“We are overlooking something.” He said absently, then looked at her. “You’re shivering.”

Inej shrugged, “It’s probably just the fatigue.”

She stared at him in bewilderment as he took off his slick black coat, continued to stare yet when he draped it over her shoulders. Then her lips curved into a small, affectionate smile.

“What?” he asked, eyes narrowed as he adjusted his disturbed cuff.

She let out a short laugh and shook her head, fixing the coat so it wouldn’t fall. It smelled like him and radiated still with his warmth, making her think of his embrace and, oddly, safety. Kaz Brekker was anything but safety, in too many ways to count, but somehow she nevertheless started to feel it around him. “Nothing. Let’s get back to the topic at hand. You’re right, we’re overlooking something.”

 “Something to do with Diana Northwood and Samuel Rickety’s death, and the person who killed them.”

“The others mentioned it, but I want to hear it from you.” She shifted so she could look at him more easily. “Tell me everything, and don’t leave a single detail out.”

***

“I don’t like this, Kaz.” Inej said, and meant it. By the time he had wrapped up the story, her legs had cramped and her wound had started to ache again, but worry and a dark feeling swirling in her stomach kept her in place. “That kind of violence, it has to be really personal. They tortured these people for hours not only so they could kill them, but so they could send you a message.”

“They aren’t the first people in Ketterdam to want my blood.” He replied easily and she could see, though he said nothing, his leg was bothering him by the way he shifted often to try and accommodate it. “Not the first to be willing to kill to try to get back at me, either.”

“But like this?” She shook her head, “This is someone who holds a serious grudge against you.” She hesitated, decided it had to be asked. “Do you think it might be related to Pekka Rollins?”

“It seems unlikely.” He answered, and his voice went ice cold, even after half a decade, at the mention of the man who had robbed him of his childhood and the only family he had had left, “I have given it thought, of course, but it doesn’t fit. If he had showed up, someone would have seen and recognized him, and I would’ve caught word of it. No, last I heard, he was still in the countryside, playing house with his kid.”

He glanced at her, mouth in a tight line, “But I have yet to get word about Heleen Van Houden.”

Inej could’ve sworn her heart stopped and all breath left her body. She pressed her hand to her chest, trying to stop the feeling like something was pressing on it. “You don’t believe she could be involved in this, do you?”

“I don’t, but I also haven’t heard back from the woman assigned to keep an eye on her. I thought you should know.” He explained, but she could see in his eyes the regret for having said anything.

“I should.” Inej hated how that name managed to shake her to her core to this day, even after she had confronted Tante Heleen, even after she had, with Kaz’s gracious help, ran her out of town with her tail between her legs and had the Menagerie burned to the ground. She felt sick to her stomach, not only because of Heleen, but because of the horrid memories of the Menagerie mixing with the memories on the Illion, like two dark snakes feeding each other.

She hadn’t realized she had grasped her elbow, where the uneven, circular scar, crossed out with a straight line, now sat, until she saw Kaz looking at her. Consciously, she dropped her hand and pretended not to have seen his analyzing gaze.

Just when Kaz looked like he was going to say something, words broke through the night, “Inej? Where are you?”

Mama, Inej thought. Rychele must have climbed up to her room as game night and found her gone, which explained the tint of panic in her voice. Inej stood up slowly, giving her legs time to adjust until she was sure she wouldn’t fall off the roof. Kaz did the same, leaning heavily on his cane.

Inej wasn’t used to feeling awkward and lost for words, but she did now as she stood across from Kaz, unsure what to say or do. He still looked at her like there was something on his mind, dark eyes focused and intense.

“We’ll see each other at breakfast then?” she asked, unable to think of anything else.

“I’ll be there.” Kaz replied, voice quiet.

She took off the coat, handed it to him, and missed it the second it was off her shoulders. “I wouldn’t want it to fall off on my way down. So.”

When he said nothing, she turned and began to walk away. Then it flashed before her eyes, the bad way in which they had parted the year before, all those lonely, painful days, months upon months of not being able to see his face, touch his skin, hear his voice.

Inej spun on her heels, overcome with a sudden and intense need. Kaz had just put his coat back on and she only saw the glimpse of surprise on his face before she put her arms around him, hugged him tight. She felt his hands on her back briefly before she broke away, started back, and said with a smile, “Good night, Kaz.”

She heard the reply when she was already on her way down, carried by the soft wind, “Good night, Wraith.”

Chapter Text

Inej found the roof shortly after moving into the Van Eck Mansion.

She loved sleeping in a soft bed, though the baffling sensation had kept her up the first couple nights, she loved eating proper meals that didn’t have to be consumed in some dark, badly-lit place or on the run, she loved that she could talk to her friends and family whenever she wanted (though only a couple of Nina’s letters arrived, and Inej missed her terribly), she loved that she didn’t have to worry that every moment was possible death, loved the freedom from the chains that had tied her down for so long.

She loved all that and more, and she didn’t regret leaving her old life behind and starting on the path of a new one, but sometimes she got this overwhelming need to climb, to be up, over, to feel that rush and wonder of seeing the world from a different perspective.

So it was no surprise that she got restless and, as naturally as breathing, scaled the building until she was on the top. Since that discovery, she wound on the roof almost every night, gazing out at the stars and listening to the faint sound of the sea, her back resting on the rough tiles, arms under her head.

That’s where she was tonight, counting the small, twinkling lights above until her attention wavered and she lost the place she had stopped counting. She had already restarted the task four times, but even as her head filled with numbers, other thoughts occupied her mind.

Sometimes she would imagine that she was swimming amidst the stars, that they were everywhere around her, brilliant, otherworldly, but it was impossible to do that when tomorrow she would be sailing away on her first-ever mission, a fact that took all of her focus.

Determination, excitement and the feeling that she was going to do something great, something that would be bigger that she herself ever was or could be filled her, but her mind didn’t dwell on them, but instead dwelled on that small seed of doubt and nerves that existed.

She had a good, solid crew that she had come to trust, a reliable ships she had gotten to know even more thoroughly that her crew, her own abilities to count on, but a part of her, that small girl of fourteen whose spirit had been dwindling into nothingness, pointed out all the things that could go wrong.

Inej was very aware that she wasn’t just a part of a group anymore, she was a leader of one, and even though she could rely on her first mate, an experienced sailor named Laurens, she would be the one making all the important, possibly life-altering decision, she would be the one people would go to to get their problems fixed, and she would be the one to take the blame for any wrong move that will be made.

Sometimes that knowledge filled her with pride and purpose, sometimes it terrified her.

Then there were her parents, and Wylan and Jesper and Marya and Ms Kolich. She would miss them, she knew, like she missed Nina, and even though she knew she would be busy and she would come back to see them all, her heart ached already at the thought of parting.

She would miss the way they gathered for breakfast in the morning, like a small, odd family, she would miss playing board games in the afternoons and listening to Wylan playing and talking and lying around doing absolutely nothing just because they could.

She would miss Mama and Papa, the way Mama would brush her hair before she went to bed, the way Papa would kiss her forehead, like she was still a small child. It made her feel innocent and normal, like they still lived in the time before she lost both innocence and normalcy, before she saw horror and though, this is my life.

It was only recently, a few weeks ago, that she got them back in her life. Now, the sea would part them again. She thought once or twice about taking them with her, when the selfish need to keep them close was the strongest, and she knew they would agree, but she just couldn’t risk it, risk them.

At least she would get to see Nina soon. Her letters talked about Fjerda, about Matthias’s funeral, done by the sea as Nina knew he would want it, about Zoya’s invitation to come to the palace to train her powers, about the beginnings of her training and about her trainer Julius.

Though they were normal enough, Inej knew there were things Nina hadn’t told her yet, and as soon as she was done with the mission she would go to Ravka for a few days before returning to Kerch. And maybe, if circumstances allowed it, they could visit a waffle place as well.

The thought made Inej smiled. She hoped it would be like the past few weeks have been, a pocket of such joy and wonder that she would keep protected in a small wooden box in her mind from all the horrors that had and would come.

And there would be horrors, that much Inej knew. For a second a picture appeared in her mind, as clear as if it had truly happened, her boat on fire, her people dying, a gloomy, huge figure casting a shadow over her, an unsettling smile on its face.

Inej blinked and the picture faded away, but it left her with a sense of dread that sent goosebumps down her arms and with an untamable restlessness, so she raised herself on her arms before standing up and climbing down.

It wasn’t just that she had to move, but that the roof had become a sort of a sanctuary for her, a place where she could be alone and think, and she refused to let negative emotions and thoughts be what she associated it with in the future.

She was on the ledge of her window in a few breaths, moving so quickly and fluidly any random observer might have mistaken her for just another shadow in the night. Her window was slightly open, exactly how she left it on her way out, and she pushed it open before sliding inside.

Her knife was in her hand in the blink of an eye and she flattened against the wall, calming and quieting her breathing. Her body was ready to fight before her mind even registered the threat fully, a feeling she had gotten used to over the months of working for the Dregs.

And there was a threat- someone was in her room, she knew down to her bones, though it was a moonless night and it was as dark as a grave in it.

She took another low breath, caught a faint, but very, very familiar smell, lowered the knife, tried to shake the adrenaline off by rolling her shoulders. “Kaz, what are you doing?”

“Your reflexes are still on point.” A match flashed, bringing a sharp smell of burning and sulphur, lighted the candle on the bedside table so Kaz came into focus. At her glare, he said, “I didn’t mean to surprise you, Wraith. I rather foolishly assumed you would come in through the door like the rest of us tend to do.”

“Is that what you did?” Inej asked as she walked over to her bed and sat down cross-legged. Kaz remained standing, half shadow, half soft candlelight. It was a nice metaphor for him, she thought, though he so often laughed at sentiment: a boy made of rough darkness and flickering light.

He put his hat down on the chair in the corner of her room, but didn’t bother taking off anything else or making himself comfortable. A part of her felt sadness at the notion that perhaps he would never allow himself any real comfort, not even around those he trusted- as much as Kaz trusted anyone.

He would perform it to unnerve people he wanted unnerved, appear laid-back and relaxed in others’ spaces so they felt like he owned them already, yet he never truly felt it.

“Not really. But then again, I can’t be put in the same category as ‘the rest of us’. It would be demeaning at best.” Kaz said, barely moving as if he were a statue. They were relatively close to each other and they both now felt the terrifying and exalting possibilities closing that gap held, though neither mentioned it.

Inej raised her eyebrows, “That’s not really making me contemplate stabbing you for breaking into my room in the dead of night, with no forewarning, any less.”

“Oh, believe me,” Kaz said, “You wouldn’t want that. I’m not nearly as charming when stabbed.”

“That’s a terrifying thought, a man with no charm becoming even less charming.”

“Now that’s just cruel.” Kaz retorted, though he didn’t look phased.

Instead of replying, Inej went to rest on her arms and stare up at the dark ceiling. She would miss Kaz too, though she still avoided thinking about it. He had changed- the net, getting her parents back, finding her a ship perfect for her, holding her hand, helping her to put together her mission-, and she could see that every step of their relationship took as much effort from him as it did from her, but they were still on ice.

She was giving him a chance, giving them both a chance, but it was all still so new, and there was a lot of history between them that would take some fixing and some time.

“What is it, Inej?”

His voice turned serious and almost openly concerned had her turning her head to look at him. She thought his breath might have caught, but his face revealed nothing so she decided she must have imagined it. “What makes you think something is wrong?”

“You have dark circles under your eyes, you look crestfallen and you haven’t even bothered to take off your shoes.”

“Maybe I haven’t taken them off because someone decided to break in here and interrupted me.” She said, no malice in her voice. Then she scooted over and patted the freed up space. “Sit down.”

Kaz regarded her with that look he had when he was trying to figure out what and why someone was doing something, or how something was working, or how a trick had been done, and a sharp, sudden pang of affection had her heart skipping a beat in her chest.

“I’m not going to pour my heart out to you while you’re standing over there in a dark corner.”

“If I’d known it was going to be a ‘pour your heart and rip your soul out’ kind of moments, I would’ve brought more illumination.” He said, but did what she asked him to nonetheless.

They weren’t touching, yet she felt his warmth. It was occasionally a surprising phenomenon, a reminder that Kaz wasn’t all cold stone and sharp iron, no matter how he often presented himself.

She resisted replying that no one had mentioned ripping out souls and told him what was on her mind.

It felt as odd to be where they were, talking about her worries and her made-of-glass dreams, as it felt normal. They had talked away many, many hours in the past, or just spent them in some manner or another around each other, working, bickering, Kaz mocking her Saints and Inej warning him about the consequences of his less-than-holy behavior.

His breathing was a familiar sound to her, his presence something she was used to. It was different now than it had been- they no longer lived off of a rocky, swaying glass bridge that would collapse at any moment, but were rather building something new, though they still weren’t on completely solid ground.

“You trust your crew, and they trust you. More, they respect you.” He started after she was done talking and the room fell into silence. “You care about people, deeply, and about their happiness and well-being. All of this will make you an excellent leader. Not to mention you’re incredible.”

Inej stared at him. “You’ve never called me incredible before.”

“Haven’t I? My mistake.” His tone was off, and it took her a moment to realize, with a lot of shock, that he was in fact flustered. It was such a contradictory thing for Kaz Brekker to feel, much less show, even the least bit, that she almost didn’t believe it.

“It still doesn’t mean I’ll succeed.” She commented. She would’ve never told that kind of fragile, unsure thought to Kaz before, but she’d already told him anything else that there was no point in leaving it out.

“You will.” At her doubtful look, he repeated, “You will. You’re a skilled fighter, good under pressure, you make level-headed decisions at the moment when necessary, and you are endlessly brave and good. I pity anyone who finds themselves on the receiving end of you concentrated rage.

“And besides,” he continued, his fingers tapping on the head of his cane, “If you ever need help, you’ve got people who’ll be more than willing to provide it.”

Inej thought of Nina with her waffle addiction and newfound, yet-unknown power, of Jesper who could shoot better than anyone ever should be able to, of Wylan with his chemistry knowledge and merchant title, of Kaz who now owned most of the illegal portion of Ketterdam and would certainly acquire more of it, and said, with a smile, “Yeah, I do.”

“I should go. You have to get up at the crack of dawn, after all.”

Being reminded of the time had her yawning and covering her mouth. “I love getting up at the crack of dawn.”

“Your likings are... debatable.”

She scoffed like she’s seen Nina do often, “Thanks.”

Before he could get up, she reached for his hand. She didn’t know she wanted to do it until she felt the softness of high-quality leather under her fingers. They looked at each other as she slid it off and interlaced their fingers together.

This time she was absolutely sure his breath caught at the contact, for his hands were gloveless now, but she held a moment longer before letting go.

“Inej, I...”

Inej continued looking up at him, waiting. He leaned forward, hesitated, then brushed his lips over her cheek, light as a feather. She closed her eyes and said quietly, as she still felt him close, only a breath away, “Come to the docks tomorrow. To say goodbye.”

“I’ll be there.” He promised, voice raspy and quiet as her own.

Yeah, Inej thought, opening her eyes to stare into the dark depths of Kaz’s, you will, because Kaz Brekker always keeps his word.

Chapter Text

It was so dark.

She couldn’t see a single thing, but somehow she felt the bars around her still, felt the cold of the metal radiating off of them, freezing her right down to her bones. And she was alone, so alone. She couldn’t see mom, didn’t feel her warmth next to her, and didn’t hear her soft singing, her comforting words.

There was only her, the bars and the dark.

A clang rang through the air, the ground tilted back, forth, back, forth, before it stilled again. And suddenly there was a person in front of her, a glooming, black-as-midnight figure with big, blank eyes and such long, such sharp teeth.

The rational part of her said: ‘That doesn’t make sense’; you couldn’t see something so clearly in the dark. But it didn’t matter if it made sense or not, in the end, because the creature was there and it was terrifying and she was so very alone.

“You’ve been a bad, bad girl, Joe.” The creature drawled as it crept forward, almost like a spider would, but spiders weren’t that big or that scary, and they didn’t have such sharp teeth.

“I wasn’t, I swear.” Joe whispered, barely getting the words out, like her mouth was sewn shut, even though she wanted to shout.

It was as if the creature hadn’t even heard her- and maybe it hadn’t. “It’s all your fault, bad Joe. If you hadn’t been so stupid, mom wouldn’t have gotten caught, now would she have? Bad, bad girl. And bad girls must be punished.”

“I didn’t mean to.” Joe cried, trying to creep backwards, but there was nowhere to go because the walls were suddenly closing in and pushing her closer to the creature. “I didn’t mean for that to happen.”

“Bad girls must be punished.” The creature repeated, its mouth growing larger and larger and larger.

Joe closed her eyes and whimpered, “I didn’t mean to.”

Just as the creature grinned – and she could tell, even though she wasn’t looking-, and flew at her, stirring air, she woke up with a gasp, her cheeks wet, her breath quick and shallow.

For a blind moment she reached out for mom, desperately needing her presence, and felt heart-stopping panic before she remembered, through a fog, mom mentioning she would be up earlier and away today. So she curled up on her side, alone as she had been in the nightmare, and waited for the tears to stop.

To pass the time, and to chase away the nightmare, she murmured the words of the lullaby to herself, repeating it over and over until she felt well enough to sit up and dry her cheeks with the edge of her nightgown.

The room was empty, which was surprising, but it now filled Joe with relief rather than fear. She didn’t really want anyone to know about her bad dreams, even if they weren’t mom, because they would tell mom out of worry for her. And she didn’t want to make anyone worried; she wanted to make them happy. She really, really liked making people happy.

She shared the space with mom, Mira, Odriana and Nanoek, something she found really exciting. Back home it was only her and mom, and she liked the novelty of noise that three additional women could make, loved how they would sometimes bicker and how they would all laugh and she loved when they sat on their beds and told stories before it was time to sleep.

Joe especially enjoyed Odriana’s stories, as she was so good at telling them. Odriana wasn’t only a very soft- which in turn made her a great hugger-, she also had a strong, captivating voice that would pull you in and make you feel as if you too were a character in the world she weaved with words.

Another thing Joe liked was how different the women were, how they contrasted each other. Nanoek was strong, fearless – much like mom, really-, loved talking back and laughing rowdily, Mira was quiet, more openly kind and she really liked healing people, which was why she was so often at Wylan’s house, helping Inej, and Odriana was open and imaginative and a great hugger (it’s worth mentioning twice, she’s just that great at hugging).

When they talked to each other about grown-up things, they would always sit a bit aside, which Joe didn’t mind, even though it meant she was excluded. She got a chance to watch them, a game Joe never got bored of, and also, she’d deducted long ago that grown-ups just had to grown-ups sometimes.

Joe often couldn’t wait to be a grown-up herself and figure out at last what all those secretive conversations were about, but she also knew that when she was one she would no longer get the last piece of candy or be considered cute all the time, so she wasn’t in too much of a hurry.

As she got dressed, Joe contemplated what to do about the sheets. They were sweaty and mom was bound to notice and ask questions. Joe sometimes wished mom wasn’t quite so observing, because it was so hard to hide things from her, but it was worth having mom as a whole even if it meant Joe could never hope to have any deep, dark secrets.

In the end she flung the window open, moved the curtains aside and hung the sheet on the curtain-holder, or whatever that was called. She would ask Odriana later; she knew a lot of odd, interesting words and might know this one as well.

Joe thought about sitting there and waiting for the sheets to dry, but her stomach was growling, and staring at the fluttering fabric wasn’t likely to fill it. Vowing to remember to put it down as soon as she was done eating so no one saw it, she pulled on her coat, a satisfied smile on her face as she locked the room and tromped down the stairs, because it was a very special coat.

Wylan’s mom Marya, a nice, somewhat odd lady, gifted it to her before they left Wylan’s house. It was a really nice, dark blue color, and Joe fell in love with it at first sight, though it was shabby and a bit old.

Marya apologized for it, which was unnecessary because its shabbiness and age was one of the reasons it got a special place in Joe’s heart.

Since then Joe wore it everywhere with pride and thought it was a shame that they didn’t go around the town more. She understood that it was dangerous so she never voiced her desire to flaunt it, but she could still feel at least a little bit sad about it.

The tavern under their room was mostly empty, as was often the case in the mornings, so she immediately spotted Odriana, Nanoek and Emil sitting at a table, quietly chatting. The problem was she also noticed Aart was with them, on the other side of the table, which made her hesitate to bounce over there and greet them cheerfully; she really, really didn’t like Aart.

He was very rude to everyone except mom and Nanoek, and Joe had a theory that that was because he was really afraid of them. She felt a bit bad that it satisfied her when she was alone, but when she was around Aart she didn’t, because not only was he rude, he always looked down on them, like they were below him and were lucky to even be in his presence.

Honestly, she was set on not liking him the moment he was rude to the Ghost Ship Captain all those weeks ago. Can you imagine, acting so arrogant towards the Ghost Ship Captain of all people! Inej Ghafa was a legend, a fearsome woman who would be remembered in history for years to come as the person who hunted down some of the worst slavers and brought them to justice.

Joe was absolutely honored to have met her, even under the terrible circumstances they were in, because she witnessed for herself how amazing Inej was. She escaped her cell, freed them, helped them get away and lived to tell how she escaped the Illion, something that was until then unheard of.

It wasn’t a common thing in her village to talk of slavers and criminals and the like, but such things always interested Joe enough to seek out the knowledge herself, and even amongst the purposefully-oblivious villagers the Illion was an omen of horror, a fate worse than death.

Joe knew that Derry Pollet- it still lifted the hairs on her arms when she heard that name, even if it was only inside her head- wasn’t defeated yet, but she knew that if anyone were to bring him down, it would be the Wraith of the Seas.

And to disrespect such a person, such a hero! It was completely unacceptable.

Before Joe could decide whether to go back to her room and wait until he left, hungry but sustained by righteousness, Nanoek noticed her and waved her over with a smile. Joe was kind of glad, because while righteousness was awesome, so was butter on toast, and she really wanted it.

“Hey, kid.” Nanoek greeted her as she squeezed next to her on the bench. Joe usually didn’t like when people called her ‘kid’ because they used a belittling tone, but Nanoek didn’t. It sounded like a cool thing to be when she said it, so Joe smiled back.

“Good morning Nanoek, Emil, Odri.” Joe greeted, very purposefully ignoring Aart. “I hope you are well today.”

Emil, who kind of reminded Joe of a broom with pretty hair, said, in a faraway, day-dreamy voice that he used more often than not, “Oh, absolutely. The moon was lovely last night. I saw a duck witch under it, and I don’t believe she was very nice, but I didn’t let that ruin my sleep.”

“A duck witch?” Joe asked, curious, “What does a duck witch look like? Do they quack like normal ducks?”

Emil quietly gazed at the ceiling, a relaxed smile on his face, but Joe knew he wasn’t ignoring her, just ‘contemplating’ as Odriana called it, gazing off into space until he came back to the conversation at hand.

When she first met him Joe thought he was a story-teller like Odriana, but later she realized he didn’t make things up, he just explained things he saw, how he saw them, and that sometimes involved duck witches, or consecutive sentences that didn’t sound related to anyone but him.

He rarely looked bothered by anything and was in his head most of the time, which intrigued Joe. She’d only seen him gloomy once, sitting in a chair like a doll, and the look in his eyes, lost, terrified, like he saw more than you did and it was terrible, had sent chills down Joe’s back and she hoped she’d never witness it again.

“This was the first duck witch I’ve ever seen, and she didn’t quack.”

“Maybe it’s because she wasn’t very nice, like you said? Maybe good duck witches quack, but bad ones don’t.” Nanoek offered, sipping on her coffee whose smell was strong enough to make Joe glad she wasn’t the one drinking it.

“Maybe.” Emil said. “She was red.”

“Red?” Odriana inquired, blinking her eyes open, then putting her hand over her mouth as she yawned. “Ghezen, I’m exhausted. Anyway, a red duck?”

“Duck witch.” Joe corrected, and then looked back at Emil. “Did she wear red? Or was her skin red?”

Nanoek said, “Are we talking about blood red here, or more paint red?”

“Seriously?” Odriana turned to look at her, “Some of us are trying to eat here, and talking about blood doesn’t exactly raise appetite.”

“It’s an important detail!” Nanoek defended, “How am I supposed to understand the essence of this evil duck witch if I don’t even know which exact color she was?”

“Just imagine a basic red.”

“It doesn’t work like that.”

Odriana sighed, said, “Okay, Nan.” and pecked Nanoek’s cheek before she took her tea cup in her hands.

“She didn’t wear red, and her skin wasn’t red. She was red.” Emil tried to explain, waving his hands in the air, but Joe doubted Nanoek and Odriana understood what exactly he meant any more than she did.

“Hmm.” Joe tried her best to make sense of it. “You mean, she was a color?”

“Yes. She was red.”

“Is everyone a color?” Joe asked, thinking that maybe asking more questions would lead her to discover what Emil meant.

“I don’t know. I only know that a person is a color if I can see it.”

“Can you tell what colors we are?” Nanoek asked and grinned, “I want to be onyx.”

She pronounced onyx in what Joe would call a fancy tone, and Odriana muttered in her mug, “You only want to be onyx because you like the sound of it.”

Nanoek’s grin widened, “Exactly.”

“You’re blue.” Emil said simply.

“Why blue?”

Emil shrugged, “I don’t know why something is, I just know it is.”

“I’ve once read colors have meanings.” Joe said helpfully, “So maybe you’re blue because you match the meanings?”

“What does blue mean?” Nanoek asked, and it was now Joe’s turn to shrug, because she only remembered that colors had meanings, not what they were.

Joe asked what color she was, excited to know even though she didn’t know what it would mean. Would she be green? Grey? Orange?

“Purple.”

“Purple? Really?” Odriana hummed, “I would’ve gone with yellow. Sunshine yellow, warm and positive.”

“Yeah, I-“

Loud clinking of a knife interrupted Nanoek mid-sentence, and they all turned to look at Aart who had an ugly expression on his face. It reminded Joe of an illustration in a fairy tale book she saw once of a prince who sulked when he didn’t get what he wanted.

“Seriously?!” Aart said, ”How much can you talk? Ducks this, colors that, like you’re stupid children.”

“You don’t have to sit here and listen to us- oh, wait,” Nanoek said, leaning back with a shocked look on her face that Joe could tell was mocking, “yes, you do, because no one trusts you with money, not even the few coins you’d need to pay for a meal.”

Aart went red in the face, “It’s only because you’re all biased and against me. You know I’m better than you and you’re jealous of it.”

“Yes, honey, it’s because the whole world is against an arrogant, rich boy who’s never had to work a day in his life and not because you spent near 100 kruge on a useless scarf.” On a laugh, Nanoek took a sip of her coffee.

“It wasn’t just a scarf! And I’m not a peasant; of course I’ve never had to work.” Aart replied proudly, though it struck Joe as a very stupid thing to say.

“Just spare yourself some embarrassment and go see if Feodor at least can have some use of you, though I doubt it.” Nanoek said, boredom rolling off of her. “And tell him I apologize for sending you.”

Aart looked like he wanted to say something mean, but he seemed to think better of it. With a sniff, he marched out of the tavern and slammed the door behind him so the barmaid sent a glare in his direction before she went back to work.

“Ghezen, he’s insufferable.” Odri sighed.

“I definitely won’t miss him when we board the boats and part ways.” Nanoek retorted.

“We’re leaving already?” Joe asked, her spirit, lifted after Aart had left, deflating. She missed home, she really did, but the village didn’t have people nearly as interesting as Odri and Nanoek and Emil and Mira and the others, and she wasn’t looking forward too much to going back to routines and the never-ending empty space of the countryside.

She actually really enjoyed Ketterdam, though mom had only taken her outside only a few times. She loved how busy the city was, how people were always rushing back and forth; she loved the smell of the sea and gazing at it, something she could never do back home.

The city was filled with endless possibilities, endless people. Joe knew that it wasn’t all good, but she didn’t believe it was all bad either. It flitted through her mind once how wonderful it would be to stay and live here, but it was such an impossible wish she didn’t entertain it again.

“Your mom is still working out the details, but with good weather we’ll be sailing in a week. I wouldn’t count on weather, though, so it will probably be closer to two weeks.” Odri explained.

“That’s so little time.” said Joe, staring at the table.

“I can’t wait to get out of here, to be honest.” Nanoek swallowed the last piece of toast and rested her knife on her plate. “I’m sick of the smoke and the smell of fish and all those swift fingers trying to free you of a wallet.”

“I’ll miss you.” Joe looked up at both of them, barely holding back tears.

They exchanged a glance and Nanoek nodded, so Odri said, “Well, it was supposed to be a secret until we finalized all the arrangements, but if everything goes to plan... Nan and I will be returning with you and your mom.”

“Really?!” Joe jumped up and down in her seat, ecstatic, “You will?”

“Uh-huh.” Nanoek said. “We talked it over with Iris and agreed it would benefit all of us, and your village. It needs more workers, which I’ll apply for, and we’ve also heard it’s in a desperate need of a teacher, which Odri is perfect for.”

“That’s amazing! But... won’t you miss your homes?”

They exchanged another glance, this one somewhat darker, “Not really. They weren’t very good places, and we can’t wait to find a new home, especially if it’s near you two.”

“I can’t wait either! I already thought about how boring it will be, but it can’t be boring with you two! And I’m so glad you’ll be our teacher, Odri! Mr Kaahl is so old and he lacks both imagination and humor- even the nice kids say so too, when he isn’t around. He really should’ve retired years ago, but there was no one to be a teacher instead him.”

“Now that you’re happy again, it’s time to go get you some breakfast. You must be starving.”

Joe moved aside so Nanoek could pass and decided that she really was starving as she turned to Emil. “What about you, Emil? What are you going to do?”

“Oh, I’ll go back to Ravka. My friends are waiting for me.” He said, the faraway look again in his eyes, the relaxed smile again on his face, all seriousness that he had when he talked of the duck witch gone. “We haven’t gragozled in some time.”

Joe wondered if his friends were as weird as he was, then decided it must be so because they too participated in this ‘gragozling’ activity. She had no idea what that word meant, or if it meant anything at all, but then decided the mystery of it was more fun.

“We’ll write to you, right, Odri? And to everyone else?”

“Yes, of course- if they want us to write to them.”

“There you go.” Nanoek scooted in so now Joe was sandwiched between her and Odri, but she didn’t mind as she bit into the sandwich on her plate.

“Anyhow, have you heard?” Odri started, “What Feodor did yesterday...”

 

Joe was just about finished with her meal when the door opened and a curious person entered. At first she couldn’t tell what it was about him that said ‘curious’- he wasn’t too big or too small, too young or too old, too tall or two short. He didn’t have two heads nor was he dressed weirdly.

Still, he had this aura (Joe really liked that word) of a mysterious person, so Joe watched as he walked over to the barmaid and ordered, saying something that made the woman laugh. He turned around briefly, as if surveying the area, so Joe got an opportunity to see his eyes.

They were beautiful like shiny rocks were beautiful, and instantly reminded her of frogs with their clash of green and yellow and brown. She hadn’t seen too many frogs herself- they had more snakes in the village-, but they were pretty memorable, and they weren’t likely to bite you so they were much more fun.

The mysterious man sat at a table alone, which was another thing mysterious people always did in stories, and waited patiently until his food arrived. Joe couldn’t understand how he could eat alone- she always got so bored when there was no one to keep her company.

“Joe!”

“What? What?” she looked up at Odri.

“I called you a few times, but you seemed to be somewhere in your head. What were you thinking about?”

“Oh, nothing in particular.” Joe answered non-committedly. She didn’t want them to know she found somebody around here interesting because they all believed that no one in the city could be trusted, that anyone might be a criminal. Joe didn’t want them to ruin the mysteriousness of the mysterious man, even if they had good intentions.

Odriana took the pitiful evasion in a stride, “Alright then. We’ll be heading out in a bit and meeting with Seera and Lidiya to have a walk around and stretch our legs, maybe look at some curiosities along the way, drop by the library. Would you like to come with us?”

A few minutes ago Joe would have been overjoyed at the idea of spending the time with them, especially if they ended up going by the library, her favorite place in the whole Ketterdam, but now she found something more interesting to investigate that the city.

“No, thanks.” She said. “I think I’ll go back up and read.”

“Are you sure? Iris won’t be back for a few hours more, so you’ll be alone until then.”

“Yeah, I’m sure.”

Objectively she knew she wouldn’t be occupied for so long with the current mystery and would really be alone for most of that time, but she did have a book she could read, one Inej gave her before they left, so she shouldn’t be too bored.

”Don’t go anywhere alone.” Nanoek warned.

Joe agreed and said her goodbyes, strolling to the stairs and climbing enough of them so she was out of sight. She listened until she heard their voices fade away and the door close, and peeked out to check they were truly gone before she walked over to the mysterious man and sat across from him.

“Good morning.” Joe said when he looked up from his tea.

“Good morning to you too.” He answered, though it sounded half like a greeting, half like a question.

“You have interesting eyes. Like a frog.”

“I’ve heard that before.” The mysterious person sipped his tea and watched her, much like a frog would, but didn’t seem bothered. “And who are you?”

“I’m Joe.” She beamed; she loved introducing herself. “But I’m not very interesting, like you are. You have an aura.”

He cocked an eyebrow, took another sip from his tea, “Do I?”

“I mean, you have a mysterious aura. Most people don’t have mysterious auras.”

“And I do?”

“Mhm.”

“Interesting.”

She waited until he finished pondering it and asked, “And why are you here?”

“Because of the mysterious aura, of course. I can’t not investigate it. And because you have frog eyes.”

“It does seem to be something that everyone notices about me- my friends call me the Frog because of them.”

She gaped at him, “You have a cool nickname? That’s awesome! I’ve always wanted a cool nickname, too, but I could never quite make mom call me the Lizard. She thought it was silly.

“But it’s not your name, right? Nicknames aren’t names. Unless your nickname is also your name, but that would be a bit confusing... why would it be called a nickname then, if it’s the same as your name?” Joe blinked, trying to figure it out.

Maybe she shouldn’t have put so much sugar in her tea, after all. At the time it seemed like a great idea, but when she put too much sugar in her tea, she always felt so energized that her brain had trouble catching up to her thoughts.

“You’re right, it’s not my name. I’m Gerwin.”

“Gerwin. That’s an odd name.”

Gerwin laughed, “So is Joe.”

“Joe is my nickname, not my name,” she said, stifling a laugh, “My name is Juane. It sounds too serious for me though, so I convinced everyone to call me Joe. It’s not really a cool nickname like yours, but I like it.”

“It’s a good nickname.”

“So are you going to tell me if you are really mysterious or not? Or if you are, why are you mysterious? Do you have a dragon? Are you a Zowa? Do you cultivate poisons in your free time?”

He looked taken aback, but quickly recovered, “I’m afraid you’re giving me too much credit, I’m not nearly as interesting as you think. I work at the docks- where I’ll have to be in fifteen minutes so I don’t lose my job-, I don’t have a dragon, I’m not a Grisha and I don’t cultivate poisons.

“The most interesting thing I’ve done lately is nearly fall into the canal the other day because I wasn’t watching where I was going. And that’s it.”

“Hmm.” She thought about it, asked, “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.”

“Well, that’s a shame.” She said, though she still didn’t believe it. There was more investigating to be done here, but no good mystery was ever solved in only one conversation.

And Gerwin wouldn’t be a mysterious person if he were to so readily divulge his secrets. She only asked in order to test him. “Alright, then.”

He glanced down at his watch, put it back in his pocket and dug out coins. “I have to go. It was good talking to you.”

“To you too.”

As he walked out he tipped an imaginary hat, smiled and said, “Goodbye, Lizard.”

She grinned, “Goodbye, Frog.”

Joe went back upstairs and put the sheets on, lay down on them, but as she opened the book, before she would get involved in the story, it passed through her mind that a great tale was about to begin and that she would, no doubt, see the Frog again.

Chapter Text

“I’m sick of waiting.”

“Will you stop complaining?” the voice, irritated and testy, echoed in the empty building. “Do you seriously think anyone’s ever accomplished anything by having the patience of a child?”

“I think I don’t give a fuck.” The woman growled, her hands flying through the air. “I haven’t seen my love in weeks! Weeks! You have no idea how hard it has been!”

“Well, Ghezen, I’m so sorry about that.” The man replied sarcastically. “Pollet got bested by people less than half his age, according to my sources the Wraith is back in Ketterdam, and Kaz fucking Brekker is still doing whatever he wants, but no, you’re right, not being able to see your love is the biggest problem here.”

Don’t talk to me like that!” she hissed, “Who do you think you are? Just because you gave yourself some half-assed name, De Kikker, and believe you can get Brekker off the streets doesn’t make you a god.

“Don’t forget who killed that rat Rickety, or who helped you with your little plans with that whore, or who kept those two alive long enough for you to wage your little war with Brekker.”

De Kikker’s face sombered, though he had a tougher time unclenching his teeth, “I haven’t forgotten.”

“Good, because if you had, I would’ve made you a corpse with pleasure and built a statue in my backyard out of your pitiful bones.”

De Kikker gripped the window ledge he was sitting on until the outline etched into his palm and his knuckles turned white. He hated that he needed this woman, hated that without her he might fail. But when he measured his hatred for Kaz Brekker and his need to make him pay against dealing with this vain, needy creature, the hatred always won.

So he took a breath and said, “All I mean is, it isn’t safe for you to see Pollet now. If you were to leave, it would raise suspicion.”

She sniffed, “I’m starting not to care anymore. I cannot lie with my disgusting husband and pretend I enjoy even a moment of his company when all I want is to be in my dearest Derry’s embrace.”

He couldn’t, for the life of him, understand how someone could look at a slaver, a torturer, a destroyer, and see someone attractive and worthy of worship. But they suited each other, he supposed.

In the early days, working with Pollet would always turn his stomach and he could never ignore what Pollet’s ‘calling’. De Kikker couldn’t look at him or think of him without thinking of the crying and the suffering souls, but time had hardened him enough that he could bare it. He could bare anything as long as Brekker got what he had coming for him.

“I’m sure you two will be... reunited soon, but we must take care of some business and get him back on track.” De Kikker said, though he didn’t add that he planned to take Pollet down himself as soon as he got what he wanted. “And that means taking care of the Wraith.”

The woman sniffed again, “How annoying. She should’ve just died at sea.”

“Yes, she should’ve.” And the fact she hadn’t gave De Kikker the chills sometimes, but he didn’t mind them for they reminded him just how tough of an enemy Inej Ghafa was.

He thought she did good work, was an admirable and strong woman, and under different circumstances he would revere her and do what he could to help. But her relationship with Brekker... no, he just couldn’t get over that.

It never occurred to him to feel even a drop of guilt at the thought of getting her out of the way because, in his mind, it was very simple: no one, and absolutely no one, could really be good if they were involved with something as terrible and rotten as Kaz Brekker.

And he knew about her sins, too, about all the people she’s killed, all the secrets she’d sold to Brekker when she still worked for the Dregs. Playing the hero didn’t wash the blood of her past off of her hands.

“Whatever. I’ll be leaving in a few days, whether you like it or not. As I said, I simply can’t stand it.” She adjusted her warm coat around her. It was always a pleasure to run her hands over the smooth fur, to play with the rare, expensive feathers of the Aylesbury she had shipped especially for that coat, to admire the privilege of it all.

“You’ll what? You never said you would be leaving, and especially not so soon.” This was not a part of his plan, “How exactly do you plan on doing that? You can’t just leave the city and have no one notice.”

“Why, you’ll arrange it, of course.” She smiled, though it wasn’t a pleasant expression. “I will sneak out at night and you’ll make it seem like I’ve been kidnapped. Easy as that.”

“That’s not easy! You have at least a dozen servers and maids and staff, if not more!”

She shrugged. “Oh, you’ll think of something.”

Calming down wasn’t an easy feat, but De Kikker’s done it numerous times in his life. To stay invisible it wasn’t enough to only look like you belong, you also had to act it, to be friendly but not too friendly, kind but not too kind, the type of person people think of with a smile but whose face they can’t quite remember.

So he breathed in, and out, and said, “I will. I owe you after all.”

“Of course you do.”

He’ll need to pull some favors, and he didn’t like doing that, but he needed her on his side and in as good a mood as she ever was in. It was worth, just barely, getting some people in and maybe catching Brekker’s eye. It was a big risk, but losing her abilities from his deck would be even more dangerous.

There was a woman he could call, a Grisha of exceptional power. Yes, it could work out. All he would need to do is make it simple, quick and seamless.

“I need to think about it. We won’t be meeting again. I’ll send you a message of when and where, usual route. Be ready.”

She stood up with grace and ordered the hood around her head so it wouldn’t ruin her hair. “I’m always ready. Don’t disappoint me, De Kikker, or you’ll regret it.”

“I won’t.”

***

“Hey.”

Kaz had sensed her come, barely a whisper of movement in the twilight, but still his breath caught when he turned around and laid eyes on her. She was dressed like the Wraith, from dark clothes down to her climbing shoes, but her demeanor reminded him more of Captain Ghafa than the spider of the Barrel; she was still careful, watching out for every sound, but her back was just a little straighter, her eyes just a little sharper, just a little more experienced.

A smile curved her lips upwards, but she seemed weary like she hadn’t in some days. Perhaps she felt the same thing he did, a heaviness in the air, a promise of a soon-to-come conflict. Wherever Pollet was, Kaz didn’t doubt that it wouldn’t be long before he made his move.

“What brings you here, Inej?”

She jumped down and moved away from the window. It was a smart choice- night had yet to fall, and if anyone were to see her rumors would spread around like wildfire and it was the last thing either of them wanted, or needed, right now.

After a moment’s consideration, she sat down on the edge of his desk, brushing a hand over its smooth surface as she spoke, “I need your help with something. Two things, that is.”

He searched her face for some inkling of what those two things could be, but she was as good at keeping her face blank as always. Giving up, he asked, “How can I be of service?”

“I want to go over to Samuel Rickety’s house. I know they already probably carted off his body, but I want to check the scene out for myself, see if I can confirm a theory of mine.”

You don’t need my help with that, he thought, so why are you really here? It was true- she could’ve simply asked Nina or Jesper for the address and gone there herself-, but he didn’t say his thoughts out loud. “And the second?

 “The Wraith.” She hesitated, sighed. “I told myself I wouldn’t go there before I’d finished Pollet, but Dorian told me the repairs were almost done and wanted to hear my opinion. I’m not sure... I can go there alone.”

The last sentence was said slowly, carefully, like the words were foreign in Inej’s mouth. And he imagined they were- Inej, like he, very rarely, if ever, admitted out loud to not being able, to having weaknesses, to needing support. Whatever was troubling her mind about her ship must have been causing her great pain.

 “I’ll go with you.” He opened his mouth to say, I’ll go wherever you need me to go, but it felt oddly vulnerable and intense, too much of both for the situation at hand, so he said, “Let’s head to Rickety’s place first- the docks are still so full of tourists we’d have trouble not tripping over them.”

“I’m sure you wouldn’t mind tripping over a few wallets.” Inej smiled, her eyes twinkling in a way that made him foolishly giddy.

He made an appalled face, hoping that playing along with her joke would keep her smiling, “I’m an honorable businessman, captain. Implying I might pickpocket strangers- who, with how they handle themselves, deserve it- is just hurtful.”

“Captain?” She raised her eyebrows, slipped from his desk. Hair escaped from her braid and fluttered around her face, catching disappearing sunlight so it shined like gold; absently, she moved it behind her ear.

For a second he was so dumbstruck that he couldn’t understand why she was staring at him; then he remembered she waited for a reply so he managed, “You don’t like it?”

“No, it’s...” An emotion he couldn’t decipher passed over her face before she turned around, “Never mind. We should go.”

“Right.”

Kaz indulged himself and sat for a moment longer, watching as Inej disappeared outside. It was always a pleasure, one of the rare ones he allowed himself, to observe her movements, each as precise and swift as the next; they made him wish at times, foolishly, that he could stop time and capture every single one.

He put on his coat, leaving his hat on his desk after a short debate with himself, and headed out. He ignored any and all attempts at conversation with the Dregs, which was their usual dynamic; if they had anything important to say, they could say it in his office. Still, it was like they enjoyed mildly pestering him at all times, just for the heck of it.

Shaking his head at it, he went into the night and made to fix his hat before he remembered he didn’t have it on. Oh, well.

He walked at a leisurely pace, not bothering to keep out of sight or to up his speed. These days, rarely anyone had the guts to try to jump him in the street. Ever since he took down Pekka Rollins and chased out Per Haskell, most people made it their business to get out of his way, not get in it.

Inej kept up with him with ease; he could tell she was close-by, though not exactly where. Probably making steady her way across the roof, now that she was almost fully healed.

The door to Samuel Rickety’s hole was unlocked, as he’d expected. He pushed it open with the end of his cane and entered the den of rather unpleasant aromas. Whatever order Rickety’s pitiful place had been in was completely gone; anything that was worth anything was hauled off and what wasn’t was thrown around and trashed.

Complete dark descended as Inej closed the doors behind her before a flame lit in the lamp she was holding. It danced as she moved it left and right, surveying the surroundings.

“Can I borrow your gloves?” she asked, eyes trained on what was once a bed but was now turned into a heap of dirty, torn rags of all origins and sizes that resembled a bird’s nest.

“If you really have to.”

His tone had her throwing him a glance, “It’s not like you don’t have Saints-know-how-many spare pairs stashed away somewhere.”

“I only have a few, and they’re all equally valuable, Inej. Do you know how much they cost me?”

“Not nearly enough to hurt your budget, I imagine.” Setting the lamp down on the floor, she crossed over to him, took his gloved hands in hers. Her fingers, small and riddled with silver scars, slowly pulled at the leather, inexplicably shortening his breath.

He didn’t even know why he was surprised anymore- he’s been aware for a long, long time that just being around her could make his breath catch and his heart beat faster.

It’s terrified him since the first time he saw her that her beauty, the way her lashes caught the sunlight and made soft shadows on her cheeks, the way her braid danced in the wind, the way she laughed, made him stop in his tracks, and he had yet to decide if being with her, whatever that meant for now, made that panic better or worse.

He almost jumped out of his skin when he felt her breath on his neck, heard her whisper ‘Thanks’, but then she was gone, lamp again in hand, to examine whatever had caught her attention.

When he got his breath back- or, well, most of it-, he turned to look at her as she dug through the mess on the bed. Then she made a satisfied sound and motioned him over.

“Blood, and a lot of it. I’m going to guess this is Diana’s, since you found Rickety on the floor over there.”

“So they were both tortured and killed here. I hadn’t seen that before, it must’ve been covered.” Kaz said, chastising himself for not taking longer to examine the apartment more carefully. “Nina said it was very unlikely that someone with her powers existed without her knowledge, but there’s no way someone with those injuries managed to run all the way to the Van Eck Mansion from here, even without the arrow in their back.”

“Yes. That means we have another corpse witch on our hands, another who survived the effects of the jurda pardem. But there’s another thing- this must’ve been the work of two people.”

“A corpse witch and another party. One probably kept an eye on them while the other tortured, or they took turns.”

Inej nodded, “I don’t know who the other one was. Either way, we have to be careful. There’s not only a powerful Grisha out there who hates your guts, but also someone capable of doing something this horrible.”

Murmuring something Kaz couldn’t make out- probably a prayer- Inej put the mess back the way she found it.

“De Kikker.” Kaz said, caressing the head of his cane.

Inej raised her eyebrows, “What?”

“He’s worth looking into. Word is he’s trying to gain traction in the Barrel, and that he’s not particularly fond of me.”

“You haven’t gone after him yet? It isn’t like you to leave anyone or anything be a secret for too long.”

“I was a bit busy trying to find you, and he’s pretty well hidden. You-“ he stopped himself from asking her if she would look around at the last moment. She wasn’t his spider anymore, and the last thing he wanted to do was make her think it’s how he still saw her.

“No need to ask. I’ll do it. I would’ve done it just for you, but I’ve got a personal interest in this too. We may not know how exactly yet, but Pollet’s involved, and that makes it my problem.”

He wondered if she was aware her hand flew to her elbow, pressing into the fabric before it fell down again. It wasn’t the first time he’d seen her do that, either- almost every time she mentioned Pollet, she’d make that small gesture. He’d wanted to find out what that was about for weeks, but he had yet to get a chance.

“We’ll figure it out. I-“

She felt the danger only half a second before he did. Her dagger was in her hand like lightning, and then the light was out and they were against the wall, quiet as the shadows.

Whoever entered had far less finesse than either of them. They slammed the door open so the sound of it hitting the wall rang through the air, and cursed as they tripped over something. Kaz gauged it to be a man, average height and fat, probably drunk by the sharp smell of booze that followed him in.

A hand shot out and stopped him as he started forward; understanding her cue loud and clear, he stood where he was as Inej closed the door swiftly and soundlessly and found her target as he attempted to light a match, completely unaware of her presence.

“Drop it, now.” Her voice was quiet, soft, yet chilling. Kaz couldn’t see, but he imagined the man pulled out a weapon. “Unless you want me to leave you with a slash on your neck to bleed out on the floor.”

When the man laughed, somewhat shakily, Kaz tightened his grip on the cane. “Well, well, if it isn’t the little Wraith. How has life been treating you?”

“Haskell.” Inej said, surprise ringing through her voice. “What are you doing here?”

“Just on a nice night stroll. It’s nothing worth getting slaughtered over, is it?”

“No, that isn’t.” By his yelp, Kaz could tell she wasn’t amused. “But you know what is? Using us, being a greedy son of a bitch, turning the Dregs against us, almost killing Kaz-“

“Now, Inej.” Kaz interrupted, relighting the lamp Inej had left beside him. “I wouldn’t say they almost killed me. And this lazy piece of crap certainly didn’t. Hey there, Haskell. Care to explain what your pitiful ass is doing back in my city?” He said sweetly when Per Haskell turned to look at him, eyes wide with fear.

“I suppose we aren’t killing him yet.” Inej said, voice level again as she pushed Per Haskell away from herself and went to lean on the door. “I think you’d agree he won’t be running anywhere, Kaz.”

“Oh, I’d love to see him try. I haven’t broken anyone’s kneecaps in such a long time.” Kaz grinned, enjoying himself as all color bleached out of Haskell’s face. “Sit down.”

When he complied, Inej spoke, “Do remind me, Kaz. You did tell him to never show his face around here or else when you took over the Dregs, right?”

“You’ve gotten a lot more talkative, eh?” Per Haskell laughed, but the sound was small, forced.

“I’ve gotten a lot more many things, Haskell.” Inej replied easily. “A lot more skilled at hurting people, for example.”

“You won’t hurt me.”

Kaz glanced at Inej, then turned back to Haskell and laughed in a way that had the old man shrinking back. “You’ve gone mad, then? Is that why you thought it would be a good idea to step foot in Ketterdam again?”

He still looked terrified- coward, as ever-, but he also looked sure of himself. Kaz couldn’t decide why, but he imagined it wouldn’t take long for Haskell to spill. And it didn’t, because he said, “I have leverage. Information that could greatly inconvenience you both if it got out.”

“Is that so?” It was hard not to just smack him with his cane, but patience was a virtue, one that Kaz had crafted to a perfection. The temporary satisfaction of violence rarely brought long-term results. “And what information would that be?”

“I know you two are lovers. And if I leave here hurt or worse, my associates will make sure the whole Ketterdam knows it too.”

Kaz put his hand over his heart and made a shocked expression, “We are? Really, Inej, why hadn’t you told me?”

Haskell seemed unsure for a moment, then that same confidence had him smiling. “Don’t even pretend it’s not true. You’re even wearing his gloves, for Ghezen’s sake.” He said to Inej who only shrugged. “It’s clear as day.”

Kaz shook his head. “I must be getting older, my memory’s failing me. I somehow forgot how much of a moron you are, Haskell. You do realize I not only know all your associates – that is to say, lazy old morons like yourself who’re just stupid enough to consider you valuable company-, but also know all of their secrets too, right?”

Watching all that confidence disappear like brew from a drunk’s pint as Kaz listed names calmly was almost as pleasant as hitting him would have been. By the end of it, Haskell had looked like someone had squeezed him too hard.

“Now that that’s settled... why are you here? In Rickety’s apartment?”

“I... It’s a job. I was told to set it on fire.”

“And who told you to do that?”

“The order’s from De Kikker. He’ll take you down, you know.” Haskell’s mouth curved into an unpleasant grimace some may mistake for a smile. “He’ll put me back in charge of the Dregs, make sure the Barrel is as it should be again. And he’ll get rid of you too, because you picked the wrong side.”

Inej raised her eyebrows. “I’ll look forward to that.”

“How did you get the orders?” Kaz asked, trying to make sense of the situation. Why would someone who had spent a lot of time and energy trying to stay invisible drag someone like Per Haskell all the way back to Ketterdam just to burn a building? It made no sense. In this part of town everyone kept to themselves and avoided trouble like rats avoided light; even if someone had seen who set the fire, they wouldn’t have talked.

“He sent me a letter with some cash, promised much, much more after I finished the job.”

Something started tingling on the back of Kaz’s neck. He knew that feeling, had felt it countless times before in his life- there was going to be trouble. A glance at Inej told him she must have felt it too- her hand was on the hilt of one of her daggers and her eyes were alert.

“Out. Now.”

With the barest nod, she flung open the door, dashed out, Kaz a step behind her. He’d barely made it out the door when from the corner of his eye he saw Per Haskell stand up, and then the world blew up.

Kaz landed on his hands, losing a couple layers of skin when he contacted violently with the street. His ears were ringing like he was standing right next to the bells in the Church, but he reached for his cane that had fallen out of his hand and managed to stand up.

“Inej?”

“I’m here. Come on, we need to get out of plain sight.”

She pulled him along until they wound up in a small alley; the walls of the surrounding buildings were high, and any remnants of light had disappeared so they were left in absolute darkness. Her breath was just slightly uneven, unsurprisingly, and it sounded somewhere close to his left.

“Are you wounded?” She asked quietly.

Loud voices passed by them, accompanied by hurried footsteps, and he waited until they disappeared before he said, “Not fatally. I’ll be a blemish on society for some time yet.”

He heard shuffling before she lit a match, illuminating the space between them. She sighed, murmured ‘Your hands’, then the flame ran out.

After some more shuffling and a dull popping sound, she said, “Give me your hand. Either one.”

A part of him wanted to object out of habit, but he did what she asked. Her touch was gentle, now as pleasant as it was abhorrent, so that he barely noticed the stinging when she splashed water over the torn skin. In confident, quick motions she wrapped cloth tightly around his hand.

“You carry bandages around with you now?” he inquired, as much out of curiosity as the wish to continue listening to her voice.

“Yeah, well.” Letting his hand drop, she took the other one and repeated the process. “Just something I picked up from Oli. He taught me many things about taking care of wounds, too- he may be a Grisha, but he’s as good at regular medical practices as he is at using his powers.”

“Is that so?”

“Mhm.”

They fell into silence. Kaz could tell she was finished tying his wound, but still she held his hand in hers, unmoving. He couldn’t tell what was on her mind- in the dark, he could only hear her breath-, but he could tell she was stalling.

“Do you still want to go to the Wraith?” He asked quietly. “It’s been an eventful evening already.”

“I do.” She sighed and let him go. “If I don’t do this today, I don’t think I’ll get a chance to do it at all, and it has to be done. Here, your gloves.”

“Thank you.”

She waited until he pulled them on, then she dashed out soundlessly. Flexing his fingers before he gripped the head of his cane, Kaz walked out himself and began the lengthy and painful walk to the docks.

***

Dorian had been right, the ship looked almost... well, not new, but repaired. Inej imagined none of them wanted it to look like it had sustained no injuries- to them, every scratch on the Wraith wasn’t only a memory of the adventures and saved lives, but also of the people who were no longer with them.

The beginnings of grief and guilt tugged on her heart even before she stepped onto the ship. Just looking at it was all but unbearable, but some unbearable things you had no chance but to bare.

She heard Kaz behind her, the rhythmical sound of his cane hitting the ground, but she didn’t say anything to him as she boarded her ship. Scenes of the battle played in her head like they happened not months, but hours, minutes, seconds ago. The smell of death, the blood, the helplessness that she barely kept at bay as she fought, the hangman’s determination when she flung herself at the enemy with all she had so others could escape, it was all there as crazed pictures flew through her mind.

It had perhaps been stupid that she hadn’t killed herself just before they captured her- she had talked about it with Loe a few times before, and they both thought it the smartest option-, but in the split second she had to end herself something stopped her, like a hand was laid on her shoulder, urging her to stay alive.

And maybe it was all in her head and she was looking for excuses for that innate, uncontrollable human need to survive, to live to see another day.

She went through the entire ship like a ghost, scenes flashing before her eyes of all the people who had passed through there too, laughing, crying, screaming in frustration, growling in anger, giggling with the innocence of mirth. One face kept surfacing, soft, small, with huge eyes filled with wonder at everything the world had to offer, choking her until she had to get out to or risk suffocating.

“There was a child here for a while. Louis. His name was Louis.” Inej said, her hand at her throat even though she could breathe once again, knowing that Kaz was listening without turning to look at him. “His father was a drunk, beat him every chance he got. I found him sitting at the docks one early morning when we were finalizing preparations to leave, some two years ago, covered in bruises and crying silently.

“I sat down next to him and we talked for a while until Loe shouted we were ready to go. He was the sweetest kid ever, I swear, all big smiles and big dreams. He wanted to become a sailor and see the whole world, so I offered him to travel with us, and he looked so happy I felt something in me I had thought long dead warm.”

She started walking again, trying to pace away the heaviness on her chest. Sran her hand over the mast as she passed, letting the feeling of familiar, sturdy wood ground her.

“He was very hard-working, and he always wanted to help, always wanted to learn something new. Everyone loved him, and he always made the people we saved smile when I know they felt like doing anything but. He was only eight.” She whispered. “Eight.”

Wind was picking up and it had her short braid swinging up and down in tune with the unruly waves. “I know children in the Barrel die twice as young, and often, but to be at least somewhat, if not completely, responsible for a loss of such an innocent child...it’s heartbreaking.”

“You’re not responsible for his death. You’re not.” Kaz repeated in the same voice devoid of doubt when she said nothing. “Whoever, however many people died that day, and in the days after, all of it rests on Pollet. He holds all responsibility for his, and the actions of his men.

You gave that boy a chance, you gave him a life that he otherwise wouldn’t have had. I know you, Inej. Every single person you let on this ship doesn’t only get a job or a free ride back home, they get comfort, acceptance, love. Family.”

Her heart tore at his words so she turned to finally look at him. He carried a lamp he had found somewhere- probably stole it behind some oblivious guard’s back- so it illuminated his face, his hair, reflected in his dark, serious eyes.

His leg must’ve been giving him trouble because he gripped his cane like a vice and he stood so most of his weight didn’t rest. Coat hugging his shoulders still sported traced of dirt from the street and his shoes were scratched, but he looked every bit as elegant and intimidating as he always did.

She approached him quickly, giving him a moment to move away or tell her to stop before she wrapped her arms around him tightly and rested her head on his shoulder. He smelled of night, of sweat and faint cologne and gunpowder and Kaz, a scent that was now unspeakable comfort.

It took him a second before he hugged her back. Warmth enveloped her, chasing off the cold wind.

“Tell me if it gets too much.” She whispered, her hands fisting on his shirt almost without her consent.

“Same goes.”

When the first tear escaped her, Inej wasn’t even aware of it. Then came the second, the third, and suddenly she was weeping, her body shaking and shuddering with grief and loss that she hadn’t allowed herself to truly feel before, her heart hollow and full at the same time.

And when the tears started receding, when her breath came in hiccups, when the I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, running in her head like an endless circle started slowing down, when she was able to think again, she thought, with ease and without question, still buried in Kaz’s neck and feeling the hands on her back run up and down, soothing, comforting,

I love you.