Rough hands threw Inej into the dark, and she caught herself on her knees, hands against cold, rough stone. The heavy iron door shut behind her with a resounding clang, the hefty lock lurching into place. And, for the first time in weeks, she was alone with her mind. Her heavy breathing echoed off the dungeon’s stone walls.
It had been over ten years since the raid on the Ice Court. An entire decade. In the grand scheme of all of her capers, the Ice Court still ranked in the top five, but had certainly been bumped out of the top slot years ago. She rarely thought about it anymore. And rarely thought about the boy who’d somehow pulled it all off.
But Fjerda had not forgotten. And now Fjerda had come to collect.
Inej pushed herself up to her feet, trying to take stock of herself in the dim light. She felt naked without her knives. Her black hair, which she’d chopped to her shoulders years ago, hung in dirty strings, mangled and knotted from the weeks she’d spent in a holding cell in Djerholm. She was sure her grey prison clothes were starting to smell.
She hadn’t thought of the boy who’d broken into the Ice Court in years, but now, more than ever, she wished she could get her hands on him.
“Inej.” Like something from a dream, that old, familiar grating voice, like stone against stone, called from the dungeon’s dark shadows, and Inej thought for a moment she might have lost her mind. She squinted into the darkness.
Son of a bitch. Kaz Brekker himself.
He limped into the thin line of flickering torch light that seeped in from the hall. How many years had it been? His hair was longer, his angles sharper, the taper of his shoulders to his waist clearly that of a man’s and no longer a boy’s. He was in prison clothes, too, old and new bruises blooming across his face and the scruff on his jaw. He had a new scar across his lip she’d never seen before.
“You.” Of all the faces she thought she might see inside a Fjerdan prison, this was the last she expected. She couldn’t believe the Fjerdans would put them together.
But then, she supposed it mattered very little to them where prisoners awaited their death sentence.
“Hello, Wraith,” Kaz rasped.
Her heart slammed against the inside of her ribcage. Her cheeks felt hot and buzzing. Kaz Brekker. Kaz Brekker.
Kaz fucking Brekker.
“You.” When she found her voice again, the rage came out in a growl. She could barely see straight. She would kill him. She would kill him right here. She crossed the cold stone floor in three quick steps and threw all of her weight into slamming an arm across his chest, throwing him up against the dungeon’s cold wall.
“You son of a bitch.” She bared her teeth and seized fistfuls of his scratchy prison shirt. “You implicated me. You sold me out.”
“You know I did no such thing.” Kaz kept his hands, his bare hands, out to the side, his dark eyes as imperceptible, as cold and unfeeling as ever. He wasn’t fighting her, and how she hated him for it.
“They blew up The Wraith,” she snarled in his face. She was out of tears to cry. All that was left was blinding, white hot rage. “You’ve cost me everything. You better start begging me for your life, or you’re not going to live to hang tomorrow.”
“I didn’t give them anything.” In the dark, Kaz’s eyes grew wider. He believed her. He knew she could strangle him with her bare hands.
“Then how come you’re the only one here?” Inej wasn’t loosening her grip, not for a moment. She should have never trusted Dirtyhands to run a clean job. “Who else could have tipped them off?”
“If I was going to sell you out, don’t you think I’d do a better job bargaining than this?” Kaz was beginning to raise his rasping voice. “Do you think I’d still be waiting to die tomorrow? Don’t you think I know enough to have prevented this?” And he held up his left hand to the light. There, at the end, were two bloody, bandaged stumps where his pinky and ring finger had been.
Inej faltered. She started to loosen her grip.
“If it wasn’t you, then who was it?” She was still seething.
“I don’t know,” Kaz said. “And believe me, I’d love to know. I’ll plaster Ketterdam with his innards when I find out.”
Fine. The truth mattered little anymore anyway. She released him with one last angry shove and stormed to the other side of the dungeon.
For a long time, she thought the silence was preferable. She didn’t want to even look at him. She was furious with him, but, even more frightening, memories long buried had bubbled to the surface while she’d had him in her hands. She’d spent many years letting go of what she’d wanted from him, what he could not give. She’d built a life for herself, with other lovers who had come and gone. All of it now at the bottom of the sea. And now the cruelest irony of it all: now she would spend her final hours with the only thing she’d wanted and never could quite claim for herself.
The Saints must really hate her.
But eventually the great, yawning silence of the dungeon became too much. The bleak unknown of what was to come struck her deep down in her gut. She needed distraction. Kaz had been good for that, at least.
“How’d they get you anyway?” she said, finally. This would at least be a good story.
“There’s not much to tell,” Kaz said, to her dismay. “The Fjerdans struck an extradition treaty with Kerch. And the Kerch have wanted to get rid of me for a long time.” She could see the glint of his wicked smile even in the dark. He would be proud of being hated by an entire country, the bastard.
“So, what – they just extradited you?” She raised an eyebrow. Seemed like an anticlimactic end for the Bastard of the Barrel.
“Hauled me out of my office, put me on the next boat to Fjerda,” Kaz summarized, with a cavalier shrug. Somehow, she doubted he really felt so unruffled about it. But she’d stopped trying to know the truth of Kaz Brekker long ago. Some vaults were best left locked.
“The Fjerdans blew up The Wraith?” Kaz asked. Inej stiffened.
“We’re not talking about that,” she said, flatly.
“I’m glad the old girl was still in sailing shape to the last,” Kaz commented, and then, a little more pointed: “I’d often wondered what happened to her since you stopped writing.”
Inej narrowed her eyes at him.
“Really? We’re doing this? Right here?” Her lip curled back in a sneer.
“Is the venue not good enough for you?” Kaz rasped back. “Would you like me to call the waiter over -- see if he can find us better seating?”
“You are such an ass.”
“You appreciated that about me once.”
“I have never.” Inej leaned forward, hoping he’d catch the barbs in her voice. “Once I thought there might have been something underneath all of your assholery.”
“I got tired of digging for treasure and only returning with pennies.”
And she leaned back against the dungeon wall again. She glared at the door, willing it to open again and take her away from this ghost of her past. But of course it wouldn’t. Not until the gallows were ready.
“Interesting.” She couldn’t help rolling her eyes when Kaz’s voice echoed again.
“What?” she barked, irritated.
“I lived in fear so long of being hated by you,” he said. “I would have moved heaven and earth to avoid it. And yet I find I like it better than being ignored.”
“Good to know.” She would keep quiet then. She wouldn’t even look at him. She didn’t want to look at him anyway, how the prison clothes clung to the muscles of chest or how his coffee-black gaze could still seem to pierce right through her. Looking was doing her no good at all.
“Was your crew on The Wraith when she met her end?” But Kaz wasn’t going to be ignored, apparently. “Or family? Friends?” He paused. “Or a lover?”
“I think most made it to the row boats,” she said, and then corrected herself for the sake of her heart. “I think all of them made it to the row boats.” She’d seen them dotting the waves just before the Fjerdan ship took aim.
“Do you think your lover survived?” Kaz asked. She glanced his direction, against her better judgment, to see he was aimlessly picking at dirt under his nails, like he barely cared at all.
“Yes,” she lied. Let him think there was a lover. “I think he did.”
“Should I let him do the honors of rescuing you?” Kaz lifted his eyebrows, still preoccupied with the dirt on his fingers. “Or are you not willing to risk his failure?”
Inej’s heart skipped.
“Are you saying you have a plan to get out of here?” She was feeling the tiniest shred of hope for the first time in weeks. If anyone could do it, it was Kaz Brekker. He’d done it once before.
“Maybe.” He sounded noncommittal. “We’ll see.”
Inej grit her teeth. She couldn’t help shooting to her feet, pacing in her furious energy.
“This,” she seethed. “This right here. This is why I stopped writing.”
“Go on,” Kaz frowned. In the torchlight, she could see the muscle in his jaw tick. Good. Maybe there was still emotion in there after all.
“You love to withhold, don’t you?” she growled at him. “Withholding information, withholding money, withholding friendship, withholding love. Sometimes I think you love withholding more than you love kruge.”
“So, you are still thinking about me sometimes,” and a smile began to quirk at the edge of his mouth.
“Stop it,” Inej spat. “I will smack that stupid look right off your face.”
“You do that.” And Inej startled when Kaz pushed off from his side of the dungeon and took three steps towards her. Her breath caught. “Go on,” he was saying, growing closer. “Hit me. You hate me; I know you want to. Stop being so withholding, and hit me.”
It was like he was sucking the wind out of her sails. Every nerve in her body felt as if it was standing on end when he drew near, so near she could feel the warmth of him radiating towards her. She could feel his breath, see his pulse in the sinew of his neck, the way the torchlight cast shadows across the muscle beneath his collarbone. She hated him. She hated him so much. She hated that after all these years and all these other lovers she could still feel this way, still be drawn into his orbit as if no time had passed at all.
He bent his head, and she held her breath. Why wasn’t she moving? Why couldn’t she respond? His head was tilting, and she was staring into the deep wells of his eyes, rimmed in thick lashes. How could someone so cruel have such beautiful eyes?
Then he stopped, his nose inches from her cheek.
“I got tired of your self-righteousness,” he whispered there, and her face burned like never before. He straightened himself once again with that shit-eating smirk, like he’d gotten all the information he needed. Well, so had she.
So she did it.
She smacked him across his bruised jaw, hard enough that his face turned with the blow.
What did it matter? They were dying tomorrow anyway.
But he looked back at her with eyes that burned with something she couldn’t decipher, and she couldn’t think straight. She bit back the apology that was already threatening her lips.
“Better,” he rasped, looking satisfied. He really did prefer not to be ignored.
He turned to limp back to the other side of the dungeon. Inej closed her eyes, trying to clear her mind of the image of him so close to her.
“They took your gloves,” she heard herself say. She wouldn’t apologize, but maybe she wouldn’t ignore him.
“I don’t wear gloves anymore,” Kaz replied, leaning against the stone wall again with a heavy sigh.
This was perhaps the most surprising news all day.
“You don’t?” she said. “How long?”
“Three years, give or take,” Kaz replied. Inej was trying to mentally calculate how long since her last letter when he went on. “Turns out being a twenty four year old virgin is not conducive to maintaining Barrel boss status. Barrel thugs are not particularly open-minded about leadership qualities. I got help. It was that or lose the Dregs.”
“Oh.” Inej had no idea what to say to that. She didn’t particularly like thinking about the boy who’d trembled when he softly kissed her neck having a string of conquests. But then, that wasn’t fair, was it? She hadn’t remained chaste, either.
“Good for you,” she found herself replying. Did she mean it? She supposed she did. This was awkward.
To her surprise, Kaz let out a strange, rasping chuckle.
“What?” She frowned.
“I’d once imagined this conversation with you happening a thousand different ways, but never this one,” he said, dryly. “This particular outcome evaded me.”
“Quite a feat,” Inej remarked. “One point to Fjerda.”
“We’ll see,” Kaz shrugged again, and the only reason she didn’t slap him was because she already had.
“You never would tell me your mind,” she said. “As if, after all we went through, you still couldn’t trust me. And I had tried so hard for so long for your trust, Kaz. That was a brutal realization, the day I understood that about you.”
“It was never a matter of trust.” Kaz glared at her from across the room. “At any given moment, I am thinking of no less than twelve things. Do you have any idea how exhausting it is to pick through all of that and determine and communicate the pertinent information to the situation and avoid revealing alarming, possibly irrelevant information that will only upset everyone if I did explain everything happening in my mind? If everyone would just trust me--”
“Oh, so it’s just that you think I’m too stupid to be privy to your mind.” Inej rolled her eyes. “Well, that’s much better.”
“That is not what I said,” Kaz groaned. He rolled his head back to stare at the ceiling, exasperated.
“I don’t want to argue about this.” Inej waved her arms, wildly. “I do not want to spend my last night in the world arguing about this meaningless shit. Saints, you always did this. You could always drag me into the most absurd, infuriating situations--”
“Oh, please,” Kaz rolled his eyes. “You loved it.”
“I absolutely did not--”
“You love it even now.” Kaz gave a careless gesture. “You love it, and you hate that. I see the way you keep looking at me.”
Inej nearly reached for her knives before remembering they’d been taken by Fjerdans.
“I do not like who you’ve become,” she spat at him.
“You have no idea who I’ve become.” Kaz folded his arms over his chest, the crow and cup tattoo rippling over the muscles of his forearm. He smiled, crookedly. “You have no idea what I can do, what I’ve learned, who even I am anymore, and it’s driving you mad. You could be planning your escape right now, and instead you can’t stop arguing with me.”
“Maybe I am planning my escape,” she hissed. She would not – would not – think about what he could do, what he had learned. “Maybe you’re not the only one capable of thinking of more than one thing.”
Kaz narrowed his eyes at her, working his jaw. It took her but a moment to recognize it; it had been so long. He was scheming.
Oh, Saints, save her. She’d missed that look.
“All right, then,” he said at last. “In honor of our last night in the world: I will tell you one full and honest truth. Whatever you want to know.” She opened her mouth. “On one condition.” Of course there was a catch. “I require one truth from you first. What do you say?”
“It’s always a deal with you, isn’t it, Brekker?” She shook her head. “What you are describing is what most people call friendship.”
“But we’re not really friends anymore, are we?” Kaz cocked his head. “I don’t claim to know much about friendship, but I think friends see each other more than once every five years. At best, we’re distant relatives.”
“We are definitely not that.” Inej really hoped he didn’t see her that way.
“We’re whatever you need to tell your lover to make him feel comfortable.” Kaz brushed it away. She’d already forgotten she’d lied to him about a lover. That wasn’t good.
“Well?” Kaz was raising his dark eyebrows at her.
“The deal is the deal,” she said, with a relinquishing shrug.
“Wonderful.” Kaz stepped away from the dungeon wall, his arms still crossed, and leaned towards her. “Did you ever love me?”
“Oh, for Saint’s sake!” Inej threw up her hands. Of all the things he could have asked.
“I suppose you don’t care much to know about the escape plans, then,” Kaz shrugged.
“You withholding son of a bitch. What makes you think I’m going to answer that question?”
“Your avoidance is saying a lot as it is.”
Inej squared back her shoulders, breathing hard in her fury. At least, she thought it was fury. She glared at him, seeing all the traces of that cocksure street rat she couldn’t get enough of once. The one she’d wanted so badly to touch and hold and love. His sharp jawline, his wide shoulders, his soft dark hair. Damn him, damn him. Why couldn’t he have just let her love him then?
She drew in a shaky breath. They were dying tomorrow anyway.
“You were my first love,” she confessed. It hurt her more than she thought it would to say it. Her shoulders slumped a little. “And no matter who else has warmed my bed, you have always held that title in my heart. Letting you go was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.”
Kaz’s lips parted slightly, surprised. He stared at her, the rise and fall of his chest deepening.
“Then why did you?” he asked after a moment. But Inej swallowed hard and slowly shook her head.
“The deal was only one truth,” she said, softly. Her throat felt tight, and her chest hurt. She was not going to risk letting his cool indifference hurt her again.
Kaz looked away, biting the inside of his cheek. He tightened his arms over himself, his biceps swelling. The very picture of what she’d felt from him all those years ago. Guarded. Closed off. Withholding. Beautiful and yet so far out of reach.
“Your question, then,” he said, stiffly.
She should have asked of the escape. She’d been preparing to ask of the escape. Why did he have this kind of power over her still?
“Why didn’t you let me help you?” Her voice was low, and he looked up in surprise. He’d expected her to ask of the escape, too. “The way you sought help three years ago--”
“Give or take,” Kaz interrupted, looking dazed.
“I wanted to help you with all of it,” Inej went on. “You never let me get anywhere near close enough. And I couldn’t – I couldn’t--” She swallowed the lump building in her throat. “I couldn’t waste my life trying to heal someone who didn’t want to be healed. Why didn’t you want to heal?”
“You had been through enough.” Kaz was blinking hard. “You’d spent far too many years overburdened with men’s needs. I wanted to be near you, and I hated myself for wanting to be near you, because you deserved to be free of me. Of everything like me.”
“You let me go, too.” Inej lifted her chin, slightly. She felt relieved to be rid of the burden of guilt, a guilt she hadn’t realized she’d been harboring.
“I thought you might come back.” Kaz’s gaze drifted to the floor. “I hoped you would. You never said you wouldn’t. But months turned into years. You were happier wherever you were, with whomever you’d found. And I tried everything I could think of to get you out of my system. I’ve deprived myself of nothing, of no one I’ve wanted since you. Make no mistake: I wanted to heal.”
“And did you?” Inej’s voice felt like a croak. “Get me out of your system?” She wished she could slow her racing heart.
“The deal was only one truth,” Kaz replied, grating and dark.
And for a long while, the only sound in the dungeon was the monotonous dripping of leaking water, collecting in a pool in the stone. They were each rooted to where they stood, hardly daring to breathe or move. It was as if the air itself around them might shatter if they did.
“Inej.” Kaz spoke first.
“Yes?” Surely, he could hear the way her heart was beating.
“I have lived longer than I thought I would,” Kaz began. She heard him swallow once. “I’ve seen many men die. I am not afraid of death. I have done many things that have warranted it. The only thing I have ever feared is not having enough – of anything, you name it. Please indulge me one last truth.”
“Do you really have a lover?”
Inej was starting to tremble. If she moved now, she could not be sure what she would do next. She wasn’t sure what telling him the truth would do, but she was sure it could not be good. Some vaults are best left locked, she reminded herself again and again. Some vaults are best left locked.
But the pull of his eyes. The desire in his breath. Every longing she’d locked away was pounding at the vault door, demanding release.
They were dying tomorrow anyway.
“No,” she said in a whisper. Oh, what have you done?
And the dam broke. The air shattered. Kaz crossed to her in two swift steps, and she knew she was a goner before he even pulled her into his arms. She was reaching for his jaw, for his hair, pulling his mouth to hers. He made a gasping, growling sound deep in his chest when his lips slid over hers, and her whole body felt alight at the sound. Lips over teeth over tongues, she demanded what she’d too long been denied.
He was shoving her against the stone wall, cold at her back. He held himself up with his bandaged, damaged hand against the wall at the side of her head, and then began slipping his good hand under the hem of her scratchy prison top. She shivered when his bare hand skimmed her waist. She’d wanted this, oh how she’d wanted his hands, for years, and now she could feel every callus, every scar, every nail scraping, raking up her back.
“I hate you for taking so long,” she gasped when she pulled back. She buried her fingers into his hair as his teeth grazed up her neck. One of his hands was trailing down her back, scooping below her ass cheek.
“I hate you for not writing,” he rasped back, and bit her ear. She gasped and took his mouth again, letting him run his tongue along hers. She raked her hands over his shoulders, down the etched muscles of his torso, before dipping her hands underneath. He let go of her only long enough to pull the shirt off over his head, his hair mussed and slipping in his dark eyes. She wrapped her fingers in the hem of her own shirt and ripped it off over her head.
“This is a terrible idea,” she panted. Kaz pressed against her fully, his chest against hers, his hips aligned with hers.
“This is the best idea,” he disagreed, with a shake of his head, and slid one hand up her rib cage, cupping her breast. The bandage of his left hand brushed her jaw; he held her face in one hand and kissed her hard, again and again. She tried to hold back a moan against his lips when he began to draw circles around her nipple with his thumb. And then he was pulling back and working unrelenting kisses down her throat, pulling at the small of her back to lift her body towards him as he bent his head toward her breasts.
Every thought of escape, of gallows, of nooses, of death left her entirely when he began kissing her body, as if every inch of her was exulting in this inevitability. She couldn’t imagine now any other outcome than this. From the moment she’d been thrown into his dungeon, this was always where they were headed.
His hands were slipping below her loose trousers when his mouth returned to hers. Her arms were over his shoulders, her fingers gripping the back of his head, digging into his hair. And then she was sliding them over the slopes of his back muscles, hooking her thumbs into the backs of his trousers. He gave a rueful chuckle against her mouth before he let her help him out of his pants. He tore hers off before pressing against her again – naked and warm in the cold, terrible dark.
And still it wasn’t enough to slake the years of pent up desire he’d now unleashed in her. She wasn’t sure anything could ever be enough. Both hands were trailing her ass now, even with the bandage, and, as she panted through kisses, she wrapped her legs around his waist. He lifted her off the floor into his strong arms, his muscles enveloping her, burying one hand in her hair.
“Don’t stop now,” she huffed. “Then I might actually hate you.”
He gave a wicked laugh as he pushed them both against the wall, balancing her on his good leg. His hand left her hair and dipped between them. She was ready. Saints, she’d been ready for years.
She gasped when he guided his length into her, pressing her harder against stone. He gave a faltering moan, his head dropping to her shoulder, and she arched herself onto him. And he began to move within her, holding her ass with her ankles hooked behind his knees.
“I never got you out of my system,” he rasped, breathing hard against her ear. “It’s not possible. Gods, I’ll never stop wanting you.”
“I never wanted to let you go.” She dug her nails into his back, her head falling back against the wall. “It seemed like it was best for both of us.”
“You were probably right.” His gaze was hazy, his breathing labored with every thrust. “But I still hate it. Inej. Oh, Inej.” He breathed her name like a prayer, kissing her again, biting her lip. She dug her fingers into his hair, pulling, desperate, moaning and arching. He was thrusting frantically, mercilessly, so that she clenched her thighs around him, taking him deeper still. When she did, he broke away from her lips with a gasp, his eyes closing, his lips parting, every muscle tensing. It was the face, Inej realized, she’d imagined with every other lover, a face that drove her to the brink of her own pleasure.
And when his release came, Kaz cried out, shuddering against her, and his grip slipped, their naked, slick bodies staggering against the stone wall. For a moment, they held each other close as they caught their breath, shaking in the dark – Inej with her hands on the back of his neck, Kaz with his hands fitted to the curve of her waist.
“Isn’t there a guard outside?” Inej was suddenly realizing, blinking slowly.
“Probably.” Kaz just shook his head, not caring. “He’s probably having the wank of his life right now.”
“Ugh, Saints,” Inej grimaced, desperately wanting to scrub the image from her mind.
“Not a guard,” came a familiar voice from the other side of the door. Inej dove for her clothes. “But do make yourselves decent. I’m tired of plugging my ears out here, and we’ve got places to go.”
“Ah, Sturmhond.” Kaz was sliding his trousers back on. “You’re really cutting it close on the last-minute-rescue this time.”
“I don’t know, old friend,” Sturmhond replied. “Seems like you had just enough time.”
Inej smacked Kaz in the arm.
“You really couldn’t have just said, ‘Sturmhond’s coming to rescue us’?” she glared.
“I didn’t know for sure,” Kaz said, throwing his shirt back on. “I didn’t want to get your hopes up. Best to look death square in the face than go to the gallows expecting a rescue.”
“Wow,” Sturmhond sighed. “I’m really just brimming with delight at all this flattery and gratitude. You’re very welcome. It was no trouble at all.”
A key creaked and thudded in the ancient, heavy lock. The door swung open. Sturmhond waited with a sly, insinuating smirk before motioning for them to come along.
Kaz and Inej shared a coy smile and dashed down the hall. A world of possibility awaited.