“I thought I told you to wait half a bell for Lily?” Her nephew rasped as she approached the corner just before ‘Sadie’s Inn & Tavern’.
“Fuck off with your commands.” Emilia shrugged, already noticing the slightly gentler hold Kaz had on his cane, the looser mold of his jawline. Still sharp, but less muscle was being funneled into grinding his teeth. He’d regained some calm, evidenced in the way he stood.
At her comment, his mouth moved into a crescent of a grin. It was the only apology he’d offer for his rudeness, and it was all the groveling Emilia would accept. It was an easy understanding that she was grateful for.
Inej was beside him, perched on the back of a bench. She smiled in greeting.
“Besides,” Emilia began. “I doubt Lily would be happy to see that anyone was waiting out there for her when she herself is apparently undecided on whether to attend this… gathering.”
Kaz nodded slowly, back pressed against the bricks behind him. A few paces away, a couple spilled out of Sadie’s. The woman tumbled in the man’s arms, both of them laughing and clearly intoxicated. The three of them went unnoticed as the drunkards slurred and limped toward the dark town square beyond.
Emilia tied each of her thoughts down, like the unforgiving laces of a whale bone corset. She refused to think of Adrie.
Silly woman, you aren’t that broken hearted girl anymore. That girl died under a country porch awning, a lantern spotlighting her despair.
Emilia had gotten good at it, pretending Adrie was a figment of a past life. She’d become skilled in casting Adrie’s green eyes in the specter silver of a memory, never to be lifelike again.
How long had it been since she’d seen her in town? Surely, at least six months. Emilia avoided the Hudsons’ like the Saints evaded Ghezen.
It was better that way.
Now, as Emilia sat down on the bench next to Inej’s booted feet, Kaz lurking behind them, she turned her mind to more pressing matters.
She’d need to prepare a syringe for Milan Arkten tomorrow morning.
Her parting gift for her nephew still needed last minute stitching. She didn’t want to allow herself to ponder on that goodbye. Still, her chest tightened in panic that she hid under the guise of adjusting her coat.
Elle, will I have to let him go for good? Is that what he’ll want after all this? Elena. Sister. Was this hello a well-tailored tailcoat of a farewell?
Kaz had said nothing of it. Not since they’d sat on the porch and ripped themselves apart to reveal tattered innards coated in the same blood. That hadn’t felt like an ending of their family.
It had felt like the hesitant peek of a green sprout in spring. A terrifying beginning with all the possibility of death and all the promise of lively beauty.
Emilia clipped at her thoughts with the ruthlessness she harnessed for each design. Nothing that wasn’t serving a purpose needed to be cut. Beauty was a purpose. Pockets were a purpose.
Sewn shut pockets and infinitely looping thoughts were useless. Pointless noise she couldn’t afford to lend an ear to. Not when this voyage Kaz and Inej had shared with her stood to be so important.
Not just for Inej. Not just for the people she stood to rescue from the immoral flesh trade. But for the world. For Kerch and Ravka.
What if what Inej Ghafa accomplished, with the help of her nephew, could begin to tear down the backwards beliefs of an entire world? What if a war could be prevented, and a corrupt society could be stopped before it laid even one more brick into its foundation?
Emilia wasn’t sure exactly why Lily had become enraged with Kaz, but she knew they needed her. Kaz needed to make amends, somehow. Not for the past, if that were even possible, but rather for the single argument this evening.
If Emilia were honest with herself, she loathed asking Lily to put herself into the Ravkan crown’s line of sight. All Lily had ever wanted was a normal life. She’d never had a particle of want for the confines of the Grisha military on a foreign coast. She’d also never wanted to be a pawn to Kerch’s own government, all those mercher’s in their badly tailored suits and twisted little politics.
Emilia breathed in the night air, glanced up as Inej drug a small throwing blade across a cloth, the metal glinting clean under the streetlight. With a peek over her shoulder, Emilia caught a second shine. A coin bumped over Kaz’s knuckles as he stared out into the evening, eyes far away.
The soft click of heeled shoes against the dirty flagstones alerted the three of them to approaching company.
Lily appeared; coat tucked neat around her. Her red hair trickled over her shoulder and shimmered copper. Her hands were tucked into her pockets, elbows set at sharp and nervous angles.
Elena’s locket hung out of her collar, the tarnished silver barely even catching the light. It was dulled with age, just as Emilia’s was.
Elena had given her a matching locket for their shared eighteenth birthdays. Once, when she’d first spotted the heart on Lily’s throat, Emilia had been disappointed that Elle hadn’t been buried with hers, that Bram had clearly overlooked it.
Now, Emilia was thrilled of it. Jordan had given it to Lily, and Emilia knew his mother would have condoned it if she’d been alive. Lily had never confided if Jordan had put anything within its tiny chamber, but once, Emilia had caught the red head snapping the piece shut, blue eyes shining more sea than dry sky.
Emilia’s own locket held nothing. Her sister had meant for it to be that way.
“Symbolic, sister.” Elena grinned in their childhood bedroom, sunlight playing chess across the sheet of her dark hair. Emilia had been sitting at their vanity, Elena on the bed. Emilia had been cast in comfortable shadow, her twin in the warm sunshine.
“It doesn’t feel like much of a gift to tell me I have nothing in my heart, Elle.” Emilia had snorted, opening and closing the little locket that matched the one Elena already wore on her throat.
“That’s not what it means!” Elena kicked Emilia’s ankle with her own, indignant and giggling.
“What does it mean then, little sister?” Emilia smirked.
“By nine minutes, you witch!” Elena huffed, a pearly smile decorating her rouged cheeks.
“It’s far more complex than an empty locket.” Elena began, reaching forward and unlatching the heart in Emilia’s hands. “It means we both have the power to open our hearts and close them, we will never be powerless in that. Even if Mam and Da wed us off. We choose. But….
“We can never shut our hearts to each other. We share the same one.” Elena was looking down, smiling at the little treasure.
Emilia stared at her sister. Her sister who knew Emilia never wanted to be forced to love a man; how trapping that love had felt, even in only sheer idea. Her sister, who loved Emilia for exactly who she was and had never once shared their parents twisted outlook.
Elena, her twin, who had never once shut Emilia out of her heart.
It was in that silly little bedroom, clutching cheap hearts, that Emilia had first believed in her own worth.
Emilia blinked when Adrie stepped up beside Lily, cheeks reddened by the breeze.
“I want Adrie’s opinion on whatever you all have to ask of me. No, she didn’t ask me to hear what you have to say. I value her opinion and asked her myself to come. Unprompted. If someone dares to suggest I’ve been manipulated as a grown woman one more time, I’ll turn you to bones for the foreseeable future.” Lily spoke soft and quiet, low enough that any nearby ears beyond their own group would not be able to catch her words.
Kaz was standing straight now, frustration lingering on his every silent exhale. Inej looked contemplative, nervous. Lily
“I know you don’t know me, but I am trustworthy.” Adrie spoke to Kaz and Inej.
“Vouch for her.” Lily said to Emilia, leaving no question mark hanging. Adrie shifted uncomfortably, tucking a lock of tawny gold behind her ear.
Emilia felt Kaz’s eyes on her profile, picking her expression apart for signs he could interpret.
“I told you what we have to share is as sensitive as what you shared with us, and you expect us to trust a stranger?” Kaz rasped, dark eyes narrowed. His signing followed.
Lily took an angry step forward. “Inej, when have we previously had the pleasure of acquaintance before this evening?”
Inej cleared her throat. “Never.”
“Show me the courtesy I showed you, Kaz Rietveld.” Said Lily, “Trust me the way I trusted you, even when I had no reason to do so.”
Kaz’s face twisted in aggravation. “Fine.”
“Shall we, then?” Emilia asked, carefully keeping her gaze away from Adrie. She’d thought she’d seen her once and for all tonight. It was too much to see her again.
“You didn’t vouch for her.” Kaz stated. “Can you vouch for her, Aunt Emilia?”
Not the ‘aunt’.
Emilia looked up, eyes accidentally landing on Adrie’s. Once, she’d known those eyes in every light and every emotion.
Once, those eyes had saved her life from a sea away.
“I can.” Emilia said slow yet confident. Adrie’s lashes fluttered on a startled blink.
Emilia pulled her eyes away and met Kaz’s gaze.
His lips were thinned, dark brows pinched.
“Alright.” Kaz said, then. “Inej?”
Emilia ignored the flare of pride behind her sternum. That light and simple word from Kaz had meant three heavy and more complicated ones. ‘I trust you.’
The suli woman looked between Emilia, then Adrie and Lily.
“Alright.” Inej whispered, standing up from the bench. Her blade was once again hidden somewhere on her person, probably long before Adrie and Lily could have seen it. Then, the small woman’s voice changed, lowered. “Don’t make me regret it. What we have to discuss means everything to me, and I will come for you if damage to this trust comes to pass.”
Emilia swallowed. Kaz only nodded his agreement.
“I don’t know what that means.” Lily answered.
“You don’t want to find out.” Kaz mumbled, signing to Lily in tandem. “Even if you do not agree to help us, the information we share cannot be spoken of again. Do you understand? We of course agree to the same terms regarding your abilities, Lily.”
Lily and Adrie both nodded, albeit hesitant in the wake of Inej’s not-so-veiled threat.
“The deal is the deal, then.” Kaz rasped, one leather hand outstretched to Lily.
Lily took a deep breath, reached forward, and made a deal.
“The deal is the deal.” She signed slowly, her voice hushed and trembling.
The words lingered in the air around them like the threat of a storm.
For Emilia, it was welcome. A heavy atmosphere kept her hope tethered to the ground.
Their group of five pushed through the creaky old doors to Sadie’s tavern to find the place filled. Men laughed and tipped back glasses. Staff balanced heavy trays of ale and plates between the little wooden tables, all with a dexterity Inej didn’t even think she could emulate.
Dice shook in cups from a large table near the front, filled with men and women alike. It was loud, in that hushed sort of way. Nothing stood out, no conversation safe from bleeding into the next. Life buzzed around, clinking and laughing.
Warmth kissed Inej’s cheeks from the roaring hearth and the people alike, she immediately craved the removal of her spring coat. Behind the bar, Sadie was pouring two, no three, drinks in a line. Expert wrist movements led not a single drop of spirits to waste.
“Excuse me,” Emilia mumbled as she shoved silently through the wide tavern toward the bar, leaving them all to loiter in the entry square.
Kaz was stoic beside her, eyes burning in the golden light. His gaze was fixed on the back of Lily’s head. Adrie shifted on her feet uncomfortably as several people waved at her, all from different tables. She said polite hellos over the din but made no move to leave her place. She uttered her kind excuses when a woman tried to invite her over for a game of cards, honey southern voice easy despite the clear ridge her shoulders cut beneath her coat.
Inej could see Emilia at the bar, leaning forward and sharing hushed words with Sadie. After a moment, she gestured them over. Inej and Kaz walked around the perimeter of the room, both of the same mind to avoid as many clusters of people as possible. Lily and Adrie had no such qualms and navigated the sea of tables easily, right through the crowd.
Sadie didn’t greet them, already hard back at work. Instead, Emilia guided all of them toward an empty table set in the farthest corner of the room, set into an alcove beneath the stairs. It was more of a booth of sort, two wooden benches along a rectangle table. But it was more private than any other space in the tavern, and for that Inej was only grateful.
They weren’t really going to discuss these plans here, were they? Inej whispered as much to Kaz as they trailed behind his aunt and the others.
“No. Absolutely not.” Kaz whispered in return. “I doubt that’s what Emilia’s angle is either.”
“What’s her angle, then?” Inej hummed softly.
“Food and drink makes every living human less irritable. I’m ‘hangry’ remember?” The corner of Kaz’s mouth lifted in a smirk. Inej nudged his shoulder with a tiny laugh.
“Yes, well. I think I could use a glass of kvas after the past two bells myself.” She muttered. She felt Kaz’s hand smooth over her lower back, a touch of comradery.
“I’m still buzzed off the Lakeshine, mera nadra.” He winked as they both side stepped a haggard looking waiter, his tray of empty dishes balanced precariously on one forearm, a wiggling stack of glasses in his other hand.
Inej smiled at Kaz, but she knew the both of them were regressing into the harshness they’d need to get through any further conversation and an entire meal. Kaz straightened his tie as they rejoined the group.
Kaz slid into the bench first, ignoring the way Emilia, Lily and Adrie stood somewhat awkwardly before the alcove. Inej followed suit, as did Adrie and Lily on the other side, Lily closest to the wall across from Kaz.
Inej glanced up as Emilia’s eyes flicked between the two options before her. Inej scooted over to make room, plastering her to Kaz’s side. Adrie would be next to Kaz’s aunt if she had to sit on the other side.
Emilia raised a brow at the cramped quarters, eyes grazing the room for a chair to steal. There weren’t any nearby.
“Don’t worry he likes me in his lap.” Inej said without thinking.
Lily pulled a face that lingered somewhere between amusement and disgust. Emilia was already laughing as she settled down on the bench, close enough that her delicate fragrance tickled Inej’s nose. Roses and something darker, more like evergreen or expensive wood polish.
Inej glanced at Kaz, who had closed his eyes in the wake of her joke.
“Your face will get stuck like that.” Emilia said to Lily. The red head groaned.
“Sorry,” Inej smiled sweetly. Adrie fiddled with her hands in her lap, silent.
Lily waved Inej off as Kaz grumbled. For the first time, Inej saw Lily grin. Straight white teeth and pretty cheeks. Dazzling, if Inej had to name it. She’d seen her half-smirk, nearly laugh. This was the first genuine smile Inej had seen.
“It’s alright, Inej. It brings me joy to see the boy I knew being tortured a little bit.”
Kaz glared at Lily from his corner, but Inej felt his hand wrap around her thigh beneath the table.
“Glare all you like, Kaz. It’s hard to be intimidated by someone you had to coax down from a tree when he was five and got too scared to come down.” Lily signed and spoke.
“You said you’d never say anything about that!” Kaz rasped, voice more dismayed than Inej thought she’d ever heard. She’d never heard his tone crack like that, the remnants of embarrassment from his childhood coating his throat.
Inej couldn’t help it. She laughed.
“Saints, really?” Inej asked.
“Don’t.” Kaz glared at Lily, and she smirked right back at him. Yet, Inej saw a spark in her fiancé’s eyes. It was only a piece of golden confetti in the smoke of his irises, but it shined all the same. It was fondness, despite his displayed irritation.
Inej didn’t think Lily had forgiven Kaz, nor did she think Kaz had truly spoken to Lily about much of anything… But it felt like a pause to the arguments. A fragile truce for the space of a meal.
Emilia was muffling laughter beside Inej, too. Adrie had yet to speak, but Inej noticed the way her eyes flicked up when Kaz’s aunt made the sound.
“Fine, I won’t. Some other time then, Inej.” Lily smiled at her again and Inej could only relax into the moment of calm, where they could all pretend to be normal people, having normal conversation.
Before another word could be spoken, a lively old waitress was before them and offering water and a platter of cheeses and breads. None of them bothered to ask for a list of the menu for the evening.
“Specials for the whole table.” Emilia took the lead. “And a bottle of red kvas. Throw in a whiskey, too.”
“Make that two.” Kaz added.
Inej looked over the room, and it was then that she noticed how people were glancing at their group from the corner of nosy eyes. She realized that head turned discreetly, observing. Conversation did not die, and certainly the room did not quiet. But it was unsettling, here in Lij.
In Lij, for a moment, they’d just been Kaz and Inej.
“It’s not you they’re staring at, the lot of nosy chickens.” Adrie said, clearly noticing how Inej’s gaze had drifted. The woman’s soft lilt jolted the entirety of the table’s eyes to her.
“It’s me.” Adrie said quietly, cheeks burning pink. “I ain’t been in town much lately. Haven’t eaten a meal here in a year.”
Inej wanted to ask why, but she saw Lily’s freckled face twist. Then, the red head reached for Adrie’s hand and wrapped her own around it with a clear squeeze.
Inej watched as Adrie’s eyes closed, expression painful. Emilia was still beside her, watching.
Inej heard Grief pull out a chair at this table, just to keep the mortician company. For whom Grief was a ghost of, Inej didn’t know. She only knew his signature in the corners of the woman’s eyes that glittered silver.
“We’ve eaten and you’ve not begun speaking.” Adrie broke the silence after nearly half a bell, by Kaz’s count. The silverware and wobbling glasses of spirits had been enough to hold the awkwardness at bay, but Kaz knew it was coming. He would have preferred to stay silent until they were all well out of this establishment. He’d planned to direct Adrie and Lily to follow himself, Emilia and Inej back to the farm.
“Why would we?” Emilia asked, swallowing the last of her whiskey.
Adrie’s eyes bugged out of her face, head whipping between Lily and his aunt, as if to say, ‘do you hear this?’.
“We will not be speaking of the matters at hand in public. We cannot, both for Lily’s sake and our own reasons.” Kaz rasped. Inej’s hand was rubbing along his leg absently, warm and comforting. He wanted to focus on that, wanted to simply say ‘fuck it’ and take her home and damn the consequences and the mission.
He could not. He was a master of his craft, even out of practice. Clearly, his aunt was, too. This was the long game. They’d plied their mark with food and drink, kept suspense tucked tight between each exchanged word. Now, they were hooked.
Part of Kaz hated how easily he could label Lily Arbor as a mark. A component to a scheme.
The other part was glad of it. Kaz Brekker didn’t want to dive headfirst into the sentimental. Kaz Brekker wanted to get the job done and get paid. Of course, the payment in this instance was the safety of Inej and Nina, everyone aboard the Wraith.
It was the largest haul Kaz had ever had dangling in front of him. It wouldn’t slip between his fingers. It couldn’t.
“This is ridiculous.” Adrie growled lowly. “We should have just gone back to the morgue, then. We’re a bunch of sitting hens, afraid to show our eggs. Let’s just crack them and be done with it.”
“What?” Adrie snapped.
“Nothing.” Emilia shook her head. “I just prefer to keep my eggs close until I want to cook them.”
Adrie rolled her eyes arms crossed against her chest.
“Shall we return to the Morgue, then?” Lily asked softly.
“No.” Kaz shook his head adamantly. “You’ll come to the house. We have the information needed to explain our situation there.”
“All the way out to the Rietveld property?” Adrie looked affronted. “It’s nine bells, for Ghezen’s loving sake!”
Kaz sent Emilia a look from the corner of his eye over the back of the bench, right over Inej’s head.
His aunt seemed to understand.
“It’s not an easy situation. A late night won’t kill anyone.” Emilia said gently.
“Alright.” Lily nodded slowly before Adrie could respond. The two women shared a look that resulted in a deep sigh from Adrie’s lips.
“Fine. Let’s go, then. We’ll have to retrieve a horse or two.”
Moments later, Emilia had left a decent stack of kruge on the table and the lot of them were wading through the mess of tables and bodies cluttering Sadie’s.
That’s where it all went south.
Inej was shrugging on her coat beside him in the small entry way, he reached forward to slip her braid out of the back, completely focused on the conversation ahead.
Lily was already waiting outside the door that Emilia held open. Kaz could see some men smoking outside the tavern, a couple walking across the quiet street.
Adrie was fixing her own coat, back turned on the room of rowdy patrons.
Then, a voice rang out.
“Your husband has been dead, what? Six months? And you’re already whoring around with your old lover, Adrie? Should’ve known.” A man shouted from a table just a few feet away.
Kaz dropped Inej’s braid, shocked. He caught her eye as they both turned. The man in question was ruddy in the face, rotund in every way. His hair line was hidden behind at least a seven-head rather than a forehead. He had to be at least fifty, or the drink had aged him significantly.
Adrie winced, spine curving. She shrunk, curled in on herself. Kaz saw her face, pinched and red. With embarrassment or hurt, Kaz wasn’t certain.
“Em, don’t.” Adrie whispered a plea when the front door dropped shut with a slam. Her words didn’t matter, ultimately.
Kaz flicked his eyes up, but all he caught was a flash of black curls and a well pressed coat. Then, the man’s head was pushed against the table, slammed nearly as hard as the door. The room quieted; silverware clinked as it dropped to plates.
Emilia’s hand was pressed into the side of the man’s face, and she held him there. No one moved to stop her. Kaz’s mouth parted.
“You fuckin’ Bitch!” The man bellowed; his nose burned scarlet in anger. Emilia didn’t let up, her face was blank, cold. Her eyes radiated enough, though. She didn’t even react to his insult, didn’t let her gaze wander around the room. She met no eyes, let no one take her attention away.
Kaz took a step forward when the man began to struggle, he heard Lily behind him, she stepped back up next to Inej. Adrie was taking shallow breaths, not even turned around.
Kaz heard the click of a safety switching off. It rang through the room and his eyes immediately began to search for the weapon, his own hand drifting beneath his blazer to his pistol.
He saw the glint of metal in the last place he expected it. His aunt’s hand, the barrel pressed against the man’s scalp.
“You have a funny way of paying your respects to a grieving widow, Erkin. That’s not very southern hospitality of you, is it?” Emilia smirked. Erkin did not thrash again, only breathed hard against the table.
“Now you listen, Erkin. If you don’t, I’ll take an ear to whisper my words to at a closer distance.” Emilia said lowly.
Kaz held his cane tight. If anyone even stepped toward Emilia, he’d swing. He didn’t give a damn. He knew Inej had a hand wrapped around Sankt Petyr beneath her coat, too.
The best part, Kaz thought, was that he didn’t think his help was needed. Emilia was his aunt. He was her nephew. This blood, he recognized. Theirs was concocted of the same unyielding demand for respect.
Her threat would be something he’d recall next time he wanted to make a mercher piss himself in private, too.
“You will offer your condolences for a good man, who loved his wife, to a wife who loved her husband. You were friends with Mr. Hudson, weren’t you? How do you think he’s feeling right now, out there in the dirt, knowing you trudge all over his name and marriage?” Emilia continued, digging the barrel of her little pistol in deeper. He jerked under Emilia’s hold.
“I know, Erkin. I know. This is quite unfortunate. I truly do wish you hadn’t just admitted to the entire town that your dick is as shriveled as your manners, being held down by little me, after all. I mean come on; your poor wife doesn’t even feel it anymore. Oh, right. She left, didn’t she? Last month. Sad news that is.”
“How did you know that?” Erkin cried through a sniffly groan of pain. Kaz imagined his neck to be aching already, what with the position. Good.
Emilia leaned down close to him. She smiled, sinister and slow. “Your sister told me in the middle of the night.”
He croaked obscenities as Emilia shoved off him, her pistol already tucked neatly back into her pocket. She began to walk away when Erkin reached out a hand to snag her coat, howling about her indecency.
Erkin’s wrist never made its target. It had been a good while since Kaz had shattered bone with a cane. He’d missed the satisfying crunch, the vibration all the way up to his palm that came with a perfect snap.
Erkin fell out of his chair, screaming and clutching his limb. Kaz was aware of the eyes on him. He couldn’t let his identity be tied back to Ketterdam, and he swallowed the real words he wished to impart on Erkin, who had clearly thought to assault Emilia in return.
Voices began to whisper. Kaz heard Emilia gasp as she turned around.
Kaz found his mark in the sea of enraptured faces. This was big drama for Lij. If this had been in the Crow Club, people would still be ordering drinks, oblivious to a little brawling. Just a Tuesday in the Barrel.
“Sorry for the blood, Sadie. I just reacted.” Kaz pulled a small smile toward the bar keep, as innocent as he could manage. “I don’t like men who treat women so rudely, I just used… well, what I had.” He shook his head for impact, boyish and surprised at his own action. He shifted his cane between his hands, acting sheepish.
Sadie waltzed forward from the mess of tables; she shook her head as she tossed her bar rag over her shoulder. “No, darlin’. He don’t tip. I woulda shot him if he’d laid a hand on our girl here.”
“You’re lucky Mr. Rietveld is so kind, Erkin. You old sod. Get the hell outta my tavern.”
“Thank you, Sadie.” Emilia grinned elegantly. “We’ll be going too, considering that was our goal in the first place.”
Sadie raised a disbelieving brow at Emilia. “Now you, I know you brawl. But I forgive ya none the less. He’s rude. Are you alright Mrs. Hudson?” Sadie asked over Emilia’s shoulder.
Adrie nodded, already halfway to the door. She didn’t say a word as she left, Lily on her heels. Inej waited for him and Emilia by the door, eyes following each face in the crowd.
Sadie clapped her hand over Kaz’s shoulder and tossed a rag at Erkin, still on the ground. The men around him hadn’t even dared to help him up. Remarkably, Kaz managed to stay still until her fingers left his coat. He released a silent breath.
“Mop up your blood and get out.” Sadie smiled sweetly. Then, she clapped her hands together loudly. “Back to business, show’s over! A round on me for the interruption!” She yelled to the room, marching back to the bar.
Just like that, Lij returned to their chatter. Drinks began to pour before Kaz could even turn around.
Emilia was already gone from sight, but Inej held the door for him as they made their way into the brisk evening air.
“Saints.” Inej breathed as they stepped away from the tavern. Kaz nodded beside her, already mentally making an addition to his to-do list. Clean this false cane of Erkin’s blood. He was glad he’d broken skin with his swing, but he preferred a pristine weapon.
Emilia was standing a few paces away, puffing her pipe.
“That was fun.” Kaz snickered darkly when she shot him a look.
“Later. Let’s get back to the house.” Emilia mumbled. Kaz could see now that she was still angry. He knew why, and he wouldn’t press her on it. Adrie had been insulted.
Kaz had killed men for daring to speak to Inej in anything but a respectful tone of voice. He didn’t regret it.
“Where are Lily and Adrie?” Inej asked, peering into the dim light.
“They’ll meet us there.” Emilia said quietly, her usual bite lacking in her voice.
“Are you alright?” Inej asked her.
Emilia swallowed. “Fine.” She marched across the street, heading for her horse at the waiting post.
Inej sighed, but Kaz took the time to slip his gloves off. He pulled her hand into his as they walked.
He hadn’t noticed until the air kissed the skin of his fingers, but he’d longed to take his gloves off for hours. His hands had sweat.
He’d not felt that before.
Relief when he took his gloves off, in the middle of a town. Even in the quiet night, it felt… good.
The Rietveld farmhouse loomed ahead of her. Of course, she’d seen it countless times over the years since Jordan and Kaz had departed.
This was the first time she’d approached it to find a light on the porch lit, just as she’d remembered from her girlhood.
They’d already arrived then. Kaz and Inej. Emilia too, most likely.
Lily arrived last.
Adrie had shaken her head outside of the tavern, made quiet excuses, and marched away, arms wrapped tight around her chest.
Lily had wanted to go after her, back to their morgue.
She hadn’t, in the end. She’d instead accepted that she had to do this alone, just as Kaz had asked her to in the beginning.
Instead, she’d rented a horse in town and rode at a breakneck speed, eyes on the fireflies weaving between the stalks of wheat, a field of stars to match the cosmos above her.
In her mind, she’d only been able to see the emerald sea of her dreams. She could see Jordie’s face, older now, maybe like Kaz in some ways. More like Bram in others.
What if this thing Kaz needed her help with could lead her to… something else beyond the mundane life she’d allowed herself to fall into? She wasn’t unhappy. It wasn’t as if she’d lingered in sadness since her thirteenth year.
She’d loved. She’d gotten an education. She’d worked. She’d made a friend or two along the way.
But still, that sea haunted her dreams. Calling her to find the colors in the waking world, begging her for something.
Lily tied her horse to the post in front of the house, a bucket of water already waiting.
She stared up at the house, golden light leaked from the windows.
In one, she swore she saw Jordan’s face, warm and sad all at once. She froze, stricken.
He signed to her.
“You promised you’d always take care of him if I couldn’t.”
“I did promise.” Lily signed to the ghost of her first love. “I promised on every finger.”
When Lily knocked, the door was opened by the ghost’s little brother, taller now than the distance he’d once climbed from the ground, too scared to jump down.
“I’ll coax him down again, Jordie.” Lily signed in her mind. “I promise.”
She walked inside the house, and for the first time in a decade, she inhaled the scent of Jordie Rietveld. It felt like two fingers and a thumb. The sign for 'I love you."