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you are where i am (but never at the same time)

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Kaz’s leg cries out against it, but he takes a circuitous route back from the Menagerie. It’s a long walk back to the Slat even if he goes directly - “as the crows fly,” Jesper likes to joke – but he hasn’t gambled his good standing with Per Haskell for nothing. There’s a spider-shaped hole in Kaz’s arsenal that Miss Ghafa is going to fill, and for that, it’s time she sees how far Ketterdam stretches when you’re not tied to the end of Heleen van Houden’s leash.

Never something for nothing, though.

There’s also the small matter of the girl’s hunched shoulders, the set line of her jaw, the compulsion that stirs from somewhere deep inside Kaz, who also squirms at human flesh, telling him to put as much space as possible between them and the whorehouse.

So he pushes on, Ketterdam’s least enthusiastic tour guide, pointing out the places that need to become as familiar to Inej as the back of her hand. The Exchange, the Kooperom, the disused harbour that he has plans for. Gradually, they move further away from lecherous smiles and pawing hands. They’re deep in the underbelly of the city, where con artists and bruisers at least have the decency to own up to what they are.

They don’t make small talk. There are no garbled thank-yous or impassioned promises to repay faith, to earn trust. Greed may be Kaz’s lever, but silence is a canal rat’s master; and no one survives in the Menagerie by running their mouth.

Slowly, Inej’s chin rises and her hands emerge from the pockets of the coat Kaz lent her. Her kohl-rimmed eyes start seeing avenues worth exploring, nooks and crannies and the tall roofs of mercher houses that jut into the skyline, and a spider is born where a lynx dies.

-

The tailor offers a few choice words to whoever’s fucking waking him up at twelve and a half fucking bells, mouthing off until he sees the crow-headed cane rapping on his window.

“Couldn’t have waited til morning, eh, Brekker,” he growls, but only a fool closes the door on Dirtyhands.

“It’s twelve and a half bells, Jansen. It is the morning,” Kaz says coolly. “Sort her out.”

Inej floats across the shop floor, her silks looking even more ridiculous next to the endless bolts of staid mercher black. Feet that step but don’t tread; hands that touch but don’t disturb. Not even a swinging shirt on a hanger to suggest that someone ran their fingers over a starched collar just moments before.

I’m already a ghost.

Jansen approaches with a tape measure and it takes Inej a second too long to let the old man come closer and measure her waist, to unbutton her cuffs and glimpse the feather tattoo embedded in her flesh. Neither Kaz nor the tailor miss the hesitation.

“Lot of effort to go to in the middle of the night. Wouldn’t have thought you’d need to hide a Stave girl at your end of town, Brekker,” he says with a smirk.

Red marks blossom across his cheek as Inej slaps him.

She glances at Kaz as Jansen stumbles and suddenly they’re back in the Menagerie. I can help you. Kaz’s eyes are flat and black, but no reprimand comes. Jansen mutters an apology, Inej holds her arms out, and Kaz says nothing.

“There are no second chances in the Barrel,” he’d warned her on the walk over. “Give worse than you get. Take with both hands. Make them wish they’d never thought of crossing you.” At least he knows she’s a quick learner.

Jansen works quickly after that, memorising measurements and pulling out a selection of dark clothing to get Inej through the next couple of days. A purple-swathed Suli slave disappears behind a heavy velvet curtain, and raw potential re-emerges in trousers and an over-sized shirt. There’s not much that can be done here about the delicate silk slippers she’s wearing, but her hair is coiled fiercely at the nape of her neck and her eyes brook no softness.

Jansen asks what he should do with the cloth left pooled on the floor, and Inej’s answer is immediate.

“Burn it,” she says in a low voice, and Kaz’s words from earlier echo in his ears.

“You’re obviously dangerous. I’d prefer you never became dangerous to me.”

-

Kaz could walk the streets of Ketterdam backwards and blindfolded and he’d still know every corner, every bank and greasy kitchen and whorehouse that he passed. The city has sunk so far beneath his skin that it would take more than a Corporalnik to dredge it from his system.

Which is just as well, since he spends the walk back to the Slat focused on Inej, and not on where he’s putting his feet.

In a shirt and trousers, she’s no longer the girl who floated down the corridor with bells on her feet and an offer of help. She’s an asset, Kaz tells himself, the much-needed addition to his arsenal. Spiders can’t spin webs when they’re wrapped in gossamer, and there are a thousand glossy strands to the web he’s weaving.

He’s spent godknows how many hours over the last few weeks and months analysing his crew, looking for chinks in the armour and the soft underbelly. He knows their hidden talents, their flaws and debts; who they send money home to at the end of the month and whether they’re partial to brown hair or blonde. And he knows they stack up poorly compared to other crews in this hellhole. They can break bones and pierce flesh with the best of them, but somehow Pekka Rollins is always two steps ahead and Kaz is tired of playing catch-up.

But this girl is going to change everything. He knows it without knowing why, knows the game will never be the same once she enters on his side as a player.

And in Ketterdam, either you control the game, or you don’t bother playing.

The floorboards rattle and Kaz rolls his eyes. “First rule of gambling,” he calls through the open door of his office.

Day or night, the Slat is a hive of activity, full of dirty, desperate people living on top of one another, drinking, scheming, brawling, screwing.

But the fourth floor, that sacrosanct space where Kaz decides which strings to pull and the legend of Dirtyhands comes home to rest, is silent as a morgue.

Until Jesper comes by.

Most people try and soften their steps as they approach, hoping a light tread holds some currency with Dirtyhands. But not Jes. The whole building judders as he bounds up three flights of stairs, his garish waistcoat brightening dark corners as he climbs.

“Control the game, blah blah blah. Spare me the sermon, Kaz, it’s been a long enough night already” Jes says, striding into the room and throwing himself down in the vacant chair. His pistols glint in their holsters, a pearl-handled reminder of his value to the Dregs as he comes to barter.

“Is it that time of the month already,” Kaz asks wryly, not bothering to look up from the books he’s balancing, and Jesper huffs.

Most new recruits don’t warrant any special treatment, any intervention on Kaz’s part. As long as some poor sod can show some sign of value - be it brains, brawn or balls – the Dregs will likely take them in. Beggars can’t be choosers and fresh faces hold currency in this line of work, when the Stadtwatch can’t be sure if they’ve seen the thieving reprobate in their cells before or if they’re thinking of some other skivstain. Desperate people come to the Crow Club looking to prove themselves, and the crow and cup tattoo awaits those who live up to their potential.

Subject, of course, to the illusion of Per Haskell’s approval. His name on their contracts, his name on the envelopes they begrudgingly stuff their monthly cut in, his name on the door while his lieutenant runs the show. As far as Haskell’s concerned, more bodies means a larger crew, which means more jobs done, more cash in his pockets and more beer in his gut, and less time spent getting his own hands dirty.

And Kaz, to date, has been content to leave it as such. To get into the thick of it hands and come home to doff his cap to the man behind the curtain. He doesn’t plead with Per Haskell or challenge his decisions; gives a bit of lip when it’s irresistible but otherwise knows to hold his tongue. He’s built up a line of credit with the old man that he isn’t keen on running through, not when he knows from experience that a good name and a bed to come back to can make or break a man on the Staves.

But this girl, this whisper in lilac, is different. A threat to Kaz, in more ways than one.

And for her, he’s doing something unprecedented.

“It’s not much,” Jes says, interrupting Kaz’s thoughts. “Just a couple of- wait, you’re doing the books? Someone’s skimming? Or more Crow Club shares? I’ll buy if you stake me, take it out of my share of the next haul.”

Kaz fixes him with a look. “We’d have to rob the main vault of the Gemensbank for you to be in credit after the next job.”

“Rude.”

“Accurate.”

“So what’re the books for then?”

Kaz says nothing.

Every unanswered question is a little punch to the gut, a papercut that makes Jesper wince and then won’t stop bleeding. A reminder that behind every joke and close shave he and Kaz share together, the man is a locked vault inside a windowless room.

He makes to leave and finally Kaz looks up.

“New recruit,” he says. “An expensive one. The old man’ll want to see it’s worth the investment. And Rotty’s out on a job tonight, near the Church of Barter. Tell him I’ve brought you in. Try and keep yourself in the black.”

They’re near the Slat now and Kaz is already picturing the improvements he’s going to make in the months to come. From now on, they’ll all be in the black.

Jesper, Per Haskell, the other gangs in the Barrel might not know it, but Kaz has been playing with one hand tied behind his back for too long. Greed might be his lever but it’s intel that tells you how much pressure to apply, how to stroke an ego and when to puncture it. It’s intel that keeps Pekka Rollins in his Emerald Palace while Kaz lies awake at night, dreaming of tearing it down. And intel’s hard to gather when your arrival is preceded by the knocking of a cane.

But no more.

Sure, there are less painful ways of getting what he wants. The Barrel’s overrun with would-be spiders, kids who’ll slit throats for a chance to run alongside Dirtyhands and make something of themselves. Any one of them could be toughened up, fed up and set loose on the pigeons down by the harbour.

Except Kaz has never backed down from pain and he isn’t about to start taking the easy route. Those kids reek of a desperation that would only lead to trouble. They’re too green, too ripe for turning by another gang once their bellies are full and they have Kaz Brekker’s secrets to barter with.

They’re too close to being the boy he’d once been, and there’s only room for one Dirtyhands in Ketterdam.

The desperation he’d sensed about Inej was different. It had preyed on his mind long after he’d left the Menagerie last night, settling over his thoughts like some untraceable perfume.

I can help you.

Kaz is far too familiar with Heleen van Houden’s little games to think that Inej wandered her way into those silks. But, at the very least, Heleen’s girls are fed and showered and the carpets are plush underfoot; they’re for Ketterdam’s connoisseurs, men as rigid as their starched cravats. No dirty, louse-ridden whore for them. The dark corners of the Staves are filled with girls who would walk open-eyed into the Menagerie if it meant a bed, a hot meal and only semi-regular beatings, yet Inej had risked all of that to emerge from the shadows.

I can help you.

A Suli girl in a Kerch whorehouse who’d chosen to ally herself with Dirtyhands, the Bastard of the Barrel? A girl who floats down corridors and is carried away on the air? A girl who needs him, as much as he needs her.

The old man will be pleased, he thinks, and something dreadful coils in the pit of his stomach at the image of Per Haskell sizing Inej up, weighing the expense of his investment in her against the potential benefits.

A rogue thought slides into Kaz’s head. It’s no different from the slaver’s auction. Just a different kind of servitude.

He swears when he steps in a puddle, and muddy water splashes over his boots.

Inej’s slippers are pristine.


Back in the Slat, with Inej in a room downstairs and the Dregs’ questions floating up through the cracks in the floorboards, Kaz sits and schemes. Caveat emptor; there’s a nagging thought at the back of his head that he’s been played, that he’s bought into the snake oil he’s so good at producing himself.

A silent spider is just what his crew needs, but now that she’s in situ, the question’s been flipped: she might be what the crew needs, what Dirtyhands needs, but is she what Kaz needs?

Why didn’t he hear her?

Why?

Inej Ghafa did to Kaz Brekker what Dirtyhands does to people across Ketterdam, and the thought is both terrifying and intoxicating.

-

When the melee’s at an end and someone’s on their knees, whether bloody-nosed Barrel scum or a merch’s servant in torn livery, the question is inevitably asked.

How? How did you know?

And Dirtyhands crouches beside them, drops his voice to a stage-whisper. I nurture problems, he says. I cherish locks. I cradle them and hold them tight and listen to their mechanical heart-beats. I probe people for a weak point. I search for the place where everything balances on a knife-edge. And then I break them.

The Dregs, the Stadwatch, the other gangs in the Barrel feast on the hyperbole, the drama. They listen slack-mouthed to words that Kaz pulls from thin air, then go back to their drink and with every retelling of the story, Kaz becomes a little more sly, more vicious, more mystical. His words are poetry and he’s the monster with the silver tongue.

Amazing, really, how even bruisers and cut-throats can be as gullible as pigeons. They listen and they buy into the legend because life in the Barrel is cruel and a child’s fascination with magic, with what disappears from one hand and appears in another, never fades. Because Dirtyhands does the impossible in a city of mist and morals. Because it’s easier to accept the rhetoric than the misdirection, to accept that a cripple in gloves tugs on a hundred strings they’ll never see.

The reality, though, is of long nights spent in front of a grimy mirror, walking kruge across cracked knuckles, slipping cards into decks and cutting them with surgical precision, rebuilding pilfered locks from touch alone.

The reality is of hard work, all done in the name of preventing surprises, and Kaz tells himself that it’s no different with Inej, that it’s a question of finding an angle from which to neutralise this slip of a Suli girl, this unknown who silences bells.

So he sulks and probes, and thinks that the way to fight a shadow is to throw the room into darkness. He listens to the ticking of the second hand on his timepiece, screws his eyes shut and isolates the screeches of the crows, works out where each one is from the scratching of their claws on the window frame. Twice in his life, people have snuck up on him unannounced, and Kaz doesn’t intend there to be a third time.

Occasionally, the same jumped-upon victim left wounded on the floor has a follow-up question.

Why crows, they ask.

Because if you saw a bunch of crows circling around you, you’d run like hell, comes the smart-ass reply, usually from one of Per Haskell’s chosen bruisers, and Kaz stays silent on the matter.

The truth is less romantic. Because they remember. Because they screech and caw and don’t shut up. Because they always want more, and they don’t stop until they get it.

Now that he’s heard Inej, he won’t forget the sound of her.

-

The next morning, Inej wakes before Kaz. The shoe-box of a room that she’s been allocated in a rickety old house tells her that it all really happened, that she let the Bastard of the Barrel talk her out of a whorehouse and into Saints-know-what. It’s just before sunrise, when girls on the early shift at the Menagerie would be schooling their sadness into more pleasing expressions for the men who come by for a little pre-work satisfaction, and Inej’s newfound freedom is terrifying.

The entire city is within her reach, and part of her never wants to leave this dusty room.

A strange thumping on the ceiling tells her that Kaz’s room is directly above. Odd that a cripple should choose – or choose to keep – the room at the top of the house. Inej knows enough about Kaz Brekker to know that his cane isn’t so much a hindrance as a strength, but she comes from circus folk and Sulis at that, and close quarters are unforgiving on secrecy.

Three sharp raps on the door and Inej opens it to find Brekker on the threshold, dressed in the same staid black as he was last night. She’s seen merchers come and go from the Menagerie, entering by back doors and always in the shadows, and half of them don’t wear their suits as easily as this canal rat does.

“You’re coming with me,” he says, imperious at six bells in the morning, and while part of Inej wonders if he’s ever said ‘please’, another is glad he doesn’t.

The men who asked nicely were the ones who thought it bought them extra something in return, who thought a pleasant word let them get away with anything. The man who’d bitten her breasts until they’d bled and got off on the sharp breaths drawn through gritted teeth had thanked her as he’d dressed again and left.

“Where are we going,” she asks.

“Sightseeing.”

Another boy waits downstairs for them, a dark-skinned Zemeni who’s all limbs, clad in a rainbow of colours and fiddling with the revolvers at his hips.

“Inej Ghafa, Jesper Fahey,” Kaz says by way of introduction as he leads them out, and the rock-salt rasp that Inej had thought might be the product of drink is unmistakeable.

They fall into step behind Kaz and Jesper makes no secret of his appraising glances. This is the girl Kaz bartered his reputation on, this girl who walks on stone like she’s walking on air. This girl is going to steal people’s secrets for Kaz, while all Jes is good for is shooting off- at the lip and at the hip.

Maybe if her hair wasn’t so tightly coiled, she might relax a bit, crack a smile. They’re almost at the Kooperrom now and trying to keep light conversation going between the three of them is like pulling teeth.

“Obviously it was your sense of humour that sealed the deal for Kaz,” he says when the silence has stretched on for long enough, desperate to see what - if anything - gets a rise out of the girl.

Nothing, and then-

“That and my singing voice,” Inej replies, and now Jesper’s the one chuckling, all too aware of how quickly Kaz exits the Crow Club when some poor sod turns to song.

“We can duet some time,” he says, “I know a ditty that Kaz loves.”

-

Later that month, Kaz sits behind his desk, gloves off, shirt loose at the neck, the Crow Club’s accounts open before him and his mind elsewhere entirely.

The Slat feels different, and it’s got nothing to do with the warm spring air that settles like heavy breath over East Stave. It’s Inej, he knows it. He can think around any problem, any lock and vault, but the morning sun is bleeding on the horizon by the time he works out why.

I took her up on her offer, he realises as the crows appear on his window sill, ready for their morning preen and feed. She offered me help and I accepted.

Greed is Kaz’s lever, the dirty hand behind Dirtyhands. And Kaz had seen a girl that walked like the wind and all that he could achieve with her beside him.

Greed had worked its magic on him and as Inej sleeps, Kaz watches his city come alive around him.