The first night Kaz Brekker walks into The Menagerie, Tante Heleen thanks Ghezen with every blackened piece of her fractured heart. Brekker is Per Haskell’s finest lieutenant and if she was any judge of power, he was one to keep an eye on even if the rest of the Barrel bosses scoffed at him. Influential allies were always highly valued when you were in the business of pleasure.
She lines up all of her finest girls with a snap of her fingers, has them smile and twinkle at him in the hopes of catching a scrap of his attention. Heleen nearly laughs at way her girls watch the wide set of Brekker’s slender shoulders with hungry eyes, simpering for his attention as overtly as they dared. He certainly was pretty, far prettier than the likes that usually graced their halls, even if a tad too crippled for her taste. But, she’s sure he’d have been very popular at The Anvil if he wished it. The cane was a nice finishing touch.
However, to Heleen’s mounting horror, Brekker seems to be solely interested in her. And not in any way that she might’ve enjoyed.
Instead of lining her pockets with kruge and filling her girls with spend and secrets – for she had foolishly hoped that Brekker would like to talk when he was satiated – he only threw handfuls of coin at her, far less than what her best girls would’ve charged, and demanded information. Which council member visited most often? Which ones were married? Which girls did they choose? Did they have favorites? Were they kind?
Tante Heleen wants to turn him away, she really does. After all, she runs a respectable business and her clientele would surely suffer if she doesn’t guard their secrets well enough. But Brekker is persuasive, and exceptionally charming when he wants to be. Sometimes he compliments her necklaces, or tells her he only wants her to buy something pretty with the kruge he gives her.
Why don’t you buy me something pretty then? She asks him once, decked in all her finery and fixing him in place with a sharp look.
But Brekker had only smiled, sharp and blood-thirsty, as he curled his fingers tighter around that damned cane. Remember that nothing is free, sweetheart. Remember our deal.
He never so much as glances at any of her girls.
Heleen all but resigns herself to this little arrangement. Perhaps the Barrel would never learn more about its bastard. Perhaps this was all Kaz Brekker wanted in life: other people’s secrets and gold. Maybe he didn’t care much for women, though she found that hard to believe.
Then, one fine, summer evening, everything changes as things often do.
The heat in Ketterdam is unbearable and Heleen has decided to have her girls take turns fanning clients with damp sheets while they conducted their business. It put a damper on those that didn’t wish to be watched, but ultimately, it was a small price to pay for the enhanced comfort.
Kaz Brekker was dressed down, having abandoned his full black suit for a simple white linen shirt and dark suspenders. Were it not for those saint-forsaken leather gloves, Heleen thinks she would’ve bedded him herself. But perhaps the gloves were part of the act, maybe Brekker preferred to fuck with them on, like how some men preferred their girls partially clothed. A tantalizing whisper rather than an open buffet.
“I don’t have anything new for you,” she sighs. The heat seems to be wafting from the very ground and her head pounds with it. “I’ll send word for you when my Lynx talks. She’s with a Merch as we speak.”
Something in Brekker’s jaw seems to tighten. “I’m not here for information,” he says. His voice sounds colder than usual.
Heleen straightens, her eyebrows flying to her hairline despite herself. “Oh?” she can’t keep the surprise out of her voice. “Then what brings you to my humble abode tonight, Mister Brekker?”
The silence stretches for a heartbeat too long. Brekker never looked outright unnerved, but something about him tonight smells skittish – the same energy from new girls on their first night.
“I’m here for – a girl.”
Heleen almost squeals, clapping her hands together. “Wonderful! Which one shall I have sent up for you? Of course, as my favorite client you’d have the pick of the – ”
“I know which one I want.” There was steel embedded into his tone. “The Suli girl. The Lynx. I’ll take her as soon as she’s available.”
Tante Heleen prided herself on understanding men, but this was an odd choice if she’d ever heard one. Kaz Brekker’s reputation had only just begun to take root in the Barrel, and somehow she’d assumed that someone so drenched in infamy and mystery would’ve preferred someone less ordinary. Perhaps a red-headed Kaelish mare or a doe-eyed Zemeni fawn. Her Lynx was a little wisp of a thing, small-framed and slender. Usually popular with the older gentlemen who liked the reminder of youth rather than the supple curves of womanhood.
“I’m afraid my Lynx is quite popular tonight,” Heleen rises from her seat, letting her robes drape behind in a swath of lace as she slid closer. Brekker looks away from her as she approaches. “But I can guarantee you a reservation in exchange for a little something extra. Consider it a favor.”
Brekker swallows. “I take her tonight.” He reaches into his pockets, pulling out a fat wad of bills, far too many for a single night with that wretched bitch.
Heleen’s eyes widen at the clump of bills. “Mister Brekker, I’m afraid – ”
“Per Haskell sent me to pay off her indenture. Inej Ghafa will begin a new contract under him and any authority you have over her will be terminated.”
Heleen sits back on her desk. She feels like her legs have been cut out from under her. Per Haskell? Per Haskell never left the Barrel – Saints, he was barely seen in the Barrel – and he certainly had never visited any of her girls. Maybe he’d heard something? A boastful story? A tale of her Lynx’s alleged beauty?
She sweeps her gaze over Brekker’s face, takes in the hard line of his mouth, the slated darkness in his eyes. No, she muses, realization striking her all at once, this wasn’t about Per Haskell at all.
It’s curiosity that makes her humor him.
She takes his money.
She brings him her little Suli Lynx.
Predictably, the girl takes one look at Brekker and nearly cowers. Dirtyhands certainly had a reputation. And while Heleen had never lined up her Lynx up for him before, she’s sure all of her girls were aware of Kaz Brekker every time he so much as toed the entrance at The Menagerie. The distress in the girl’s face is as clear as daybreak at the mention of being bought by a certain Per Haskell, even if the name likely meant nothing to her. Heleen watches Kaz Brekker out of the corner of her eyes as she speaks, making a show of twisting the knives of fear and uncertainty deep into her precious girl. “Perhaps he’ll share you with his errand boy, Mister Brekker.”
And – oh.
Just as she’d predicted, there’s no hiding the way Brekker’s expression darkens, no hiding the way his eyes go flat with anger or the way his jaw clenches so hard Heleen can practically hear his teeth rattling. He clutches at his cursed cane with renewed fervor and allows his gaze to sweep over the girl once, twice, then once again for good measure, some unspoken swell of emotion rising in his throat –
This little bitch had done it.
Tante Heleen doesn’t know how and she certainly doesn’t know when. All she knows is that Brekker’s voice is colder than a Fjerdan snowstorm when he speaks next. “Are we done?”
Perhaps her luck was changing after all.
Anika’s been with the Dregs for eight months when she first hears that Kaz had bought a girl from that awfully tacky West Stave brothel, The Menagerie.
At first, she thinks it’s just another story, and only the Saints knew which stories were true when it came to Brekker. But the Slat is abuzz with the sordid details. She hears it whispered between initiates on jobs, at the tables of the Crow Club, from the runners at Fifth Harbor, and even murmured from some of the tradesfolk at the Exchange. If this was just another rumor, it certainly was a persistent one.
Anika tries not to pay it much attention - after all, Kaz doesn’t pay her to gossip – but one morning, she walks into the Slat kitchen after a late night only to find a pretty Suli girl standing over a large pan of eggs.
The girl is small, fully dressed in boots and trousers, but a large black shirt billows around her shoulders. One of Kaz’s shirts.
The girl turns to her then, shoots her a doe-eyed smile as she reaches for another plate. “Hungry?”
Anika feels her heart melt. “Please.”
She tracks the way the girl gathers utensils with the silent movements of someone who has spent their life trying to disappear. The only sound in the kitchen comes from the soft clack of silverware on plates. The hour is still early and most of the Dregs are still in bed, high off of drink and blood.
“Thank you,” she says as a steaming plate is placed in front of her. The girl gives her a single nod, twisting her fingers in her large shirt in what Anika knows is nerves.
The room is silent for a moment as they both take a seat to eat.
“Are you – the girl Kaz brought back from – ?”
The girl flinches sharply and Anika wants to take the words back at once.
“Yes,” the girl keeps her head bowed, eyes fixed firmly on her plate. “My name is Inej.”
Anika swallows, eyeing the beginnings of a scar, whitened with time, that she can see on Inej’s collarbone. She’s not particularly hungry anymore, but forces herself to take another bite. Anika’s seen the dead-eyed girls in the West Stave brothels before, but never this close up, and the sight makes her stomach turn over in steep revulsion. “Good to meet you,” she clears her throat. “I’m Anika. I work for Kaz.”
A wry smile flits across Inej’s mouth, so quick that Anika would’ve missed it had she so much as blinked. “Don’t we all?”
The words create a swoop of white-hot fury that licks at the underside of her stomach. Anika always knew Kaz’s limits were few and far between, but was he truly capable of this? Was he really no better than any other man in the Barrel, a man that bought and sold women like they were exotic toys to be collected and discarded? Sex work was rampant in Ketterdam, likely always would be, but it was one thing to visit a girl at a brothel, to pay someone who sold themselves willingly for a quick fuck, and entirely another thing to enter the slave trade yourself.
Anika’s about to open her mouth to offer Inej platitudes, a plot of escape even, when the door to the kitchen swings open once more and Kaz Brekker himself enters. If he has just woken, he shows no signs of it. Despite the early hour, Kaz is already dressed in his preffered attire - a crisp black suit, immaculately groomed – with his hair slicked to perfection.
“Anika,” he nods a greeting at her fleetingly before his eyes slide from Inej to the pan of eggs still on the stove. “Is this for me, Inej?”
Inej shrugs, but her eyes raise to rest on Kaz as he moves to stand between her chair and a stack of plates on the counter. There’s a strength to Inej now that Anika hadn’t seen at first, almost like Kaz’s presence seems to bolster her resolve. “If you’d like.”
And then – Saints.
Kaz’s eyes soften, his mouth quirking up at the corners in a manner Anika is sure no one else in all of Ketterdam has ever seen. She feels like she’s been bludgeoned, like she’s intruding on a deeply personal moment. Whatever the real story behind this girl was, it was more complicated than the scant few words being thrown around the Barrel.
Kaz puts a gloved hand on the back of Inej’s chair. “You’re not required to cook anyone breakfast. That’s not why you’re here.”
Something passes between them, a conversation without words. Inej smiles. “I know.” Despite the sense of challenge in her voice, her shoulders are relaxed, knees almost brushing Kaz’s legs. Anika would’ve never dared to get that close to Brekker, not if she still valued her life. Or her kneecaps. “Besides, who’d want my eggs when Kooperom is right down the street?”
Kaz looks down at Inej for a moment longer before he seems to remember that the two of them are not alone. “Anika,” The sudden hardness in his voice nearly makes her jump, but that’s the Kaz Brekker she knows, all business and stern orders. “I want you to take Inej down to the docks today. Show her where we store our shipments, the stadwatch patrol routes, and introduce her to our runners. I want her to be able to find her way around Fifth Harbor for a job tomorrow.”
Anika blinks. “Job?”
Kaz looks at her like she’s a blithering idiot. A far cry from the tender eye-contact he’d shared with Inej only a moment before. “A job,” he clarifies, raising a smooth eyebrow, “unless you’d like to go in blind without a spider.”
“Oh,” Anika replies dumbly. “Yeah of course, I’ll take her out as soon as she’s ready.”
Kaz pats the back of Inej’s chair once more before he turns to reach for a plate. “Good.”
Anika glances at Inej again, takes in the sheet of long, black hair that clung loosely around her bronzed collarbones, the wide brown eyes that were far too gentle for the Barrel, the simple grace with which she held her fork.
If this is what Kaz Brekker liked in a woman, Anika doesn’t think anyone else would ever stand a chance.
Jesper promises himself that he’ll take his feelings for Kaz Brekker to the grave.
It wasn’t like he could help it. The complicated little bastard was far too charming for his own good. And, as much as Jesper tried to distract himself with pretty boys and even prettier girls, he always ended up hooked by Kaz’s deep eyes, the dark swatch of his hair against pale skin, the way those gloved fingers curled around his cane with so much purpose.
But all of that was surface-level.
Kaz was brilliant. His mind never stopped working and his words could cut through Jesper like a knife. Truthfully, he didn’t know if Kaz even liked men – or women for that matter. Or perhaps he liked both. Hell, Jesper barely knew anything about Kaz because Kaz was as tightlipped about what he liked as he was about who he was.
The worst part was, even if Kaz didn’t return his feelings, Jesper had hope. Foolish, blind, dangerous hope to be sure, but hope nonetheless that if perhaps, Jesper was able to pull himself into some semblance of a better man, then maybe Kaz would glance his way with something other than careful deliberation.
Somedays, he really thinks it’s time for him to move on. Maybe Jesper could bag a Merch, someone rich, who would love him enough to pay off his gambling debts and whisk him off to live in a fancy mansion with servants and room-service.
The idea almost makes him snort.
He’s sitting at an empty card table, nursing his third drink, and eyeing the cards being played at a nearby table when Kaz’s cane appears in his line of sight.
“Saints,” he mutters humorlessly, “give a guy a little warning, won’t you?”
But Kaz doesn’t quip back at him like he always does. Jesper glances up at the lack of response. Kaz is paler than usual, eyes hard around the corners.
Kaz lets out a long rush of breath, falling into a seat beside him. He looks worn and exhausted, and the sight sends a pang through Jesper’s heart. “Kaz?” He wants to reach out, put a hand on Kaz’s shoulder. Maybe even on his dick too if Kaz would allow it. But it’s a well-known fact that Kaz doesn’t tolerate such weakness. Jesper’s seen enough broken fingers in the Slat from those that dared.
“Inej put a knife through one of the stadwatch officers at the Exchange tonight.”
Kaz blew out a breath of air. “And he didn’t make it.” His mouth lifts in a wry, bitter expression. “I had to threaten her to get her to walk away.”
Jesper blinks. “Oh, shit.”
Kaz grunts, gesturing to one of the Crow Club bouncers for a drink.
“Where’s Inej now?”
“Last I checked, she was up in her room crying.”
Jesper frowns, watches Kaz polish off two shots of Kerch brandy. “Should I make sure she’s okay?”
“No. Anyone that can’t stomach a little blood isn’t someone I want working for me.”
His frown deepens. “I hope you didn’t say that to Inej.”
Kaz looks away, gesturing for another shot.
“Jes,” Kaz raises his glass, waiting until Jesper clinks it with his own before he downs that too. Jesper isn’t looking forward to the grouchy, hungover bastard that’ll likely grace his presence tomorrow.
“Why would you say that to her?”
Kaz shrugs. “It’s the truth. If she wants to be coddled she’s in the wrong line of work.”
His words hang heavy above Jesper’s chest. He’s not sure what he expected. Kaz has always shown callous disregard for the feelings and wants of others, but sometimes, in between the harsh words and barked commands, Jesper likes to think that there’s a heart under there that might beat for him with even a fraction of what Jesper feels for Kaz.
He absentmindedly watches a bad hand being played at the table closest to them. One of the men rises in a fury, flipping his chair loudly. Jesper’s fingers twitch for the safety of the cards. The lights and sounds of the club are a familiar white noise, easy to get lost in.
“I know you’re here.” Kaz says all of a sudden. His words sound thick on his tongue, the brandy settling in for the night.
Jesper furrows his brow. “What?”
Kaz raises his cane and pointedly jabs it over his shoulder. Jesper spins around and nearly falls out of his chair. Inej is standing behind them with hunched shoulders, hands hooked around opposite elbows. Her nose is ruddy even under her bronze complexion and her eyes are still swollen with residue tears.
“Hey Inej,” Jesper says as gently as he can manage. “You feeling okay?”
Inej shrugs, scraping out a chair from across them to take a seat. She cradles her chin with her palms. “I’ve been better,” she admits quietly.
Kaz keeps his back to her for a moment longer before he, too, turns to face her. “Wraith,” he nods, but his tone is odd. If it were anyone else, Jesper would’ve said that it sounded gentle.
Inej knits her fingers together, still trembling. “Kaz.”
Jesper almost excuses himself then. He’d much rather spend his time at one of the card tables, hopefully making a small fortune, than listen to Kaz and Inej get into another one of their infamous disagreements. Jesper’s been by Kaz’s side longer than almost any of the younger Dregs, but even he didn’t have the courage to speak to Kaz the way Inej did. He doesn’t know if it makes her incredibly brave or exceptionally stupid – probably a bit of both.
But then, Kaz does the unthinkable.
He pulls a deck of cards from his coat with a heavy sigh, spreading a set in his hands after a quick shuffle. His hands are always deft, as clever as his mind, even with the gloves. “Pick a card,” he demands.
Jesper shoots him an incredulous look, wondering if Kaz had cracked his head on the job, but Kaz pointedly ignores him. He keeps his eyes firmly planted on Inej.
“Any card?” she asks. Now, she’s biting back a smile.
“Any card,” Kaz deadpans. “Pick a card, any card.”
“Are you going to make it disappear?”
“Only if you say please.”
And Inej giggles, her eyes squishing up into half-moons. “Never,” she grins widely, “Barrel boys don’t deserve manners because they don’t have any to begin with.”
Jesper glances between the two of them. Something hot and sticky and ugly is rearing its head in his chest. He tries to shove down the monster, but it only jeers at him, sitting on his chest and knocking the very air from his lungs.
Kaz raises a single, unperturbed eyebrow. “Please my darling Inej, treasure of my heart, won’t you do me the honor of picking a card, any card.” He stretches his arms out across the table so the cards are closer to her face.
Inej picks a card.
And Jesper thinks that perhaps it really is time he finds a Merch to keep him comfortable. He’s clearly wasted enough time on Kaz Brekker.
Stay in Ketterdam, he had said to her, stay with me.
And then he’d bought her a ship.
Inej casts a sidelong glance through the narrow door way where Kaz was hunched over a map they’d thrown over his desk. The night was warm, the faint breeze from the window doing little to ease the suffocating heat that had encroached upon them. She feels exhausted, worn away by the emotional toll the last few days have taken on her psyche.
He’d bought her a ship.
And yet, why didn’t it feel like freedom?
“You’re staring.” Kaz’s eyes remain fixed on the map, a pale hand reaching across the parchment to mark yet another harbor in Novyi Zem.
Inej tilts her hip up against the washbasin. “I’m tired.” It feels like admitting defeat.
Kaz looks up then. The buttons of his shirt are done all the way up to his throat, bad leg leaning against the table in what Inej knows is an attempt to ease the pain. His dark eyes trace her frame in a way that makes her shiver. “You’re welcome to stay here.” The words are said quickly, like they’d been punched out of him.
“Jesper’s expecting me.”
“Ah,” Kaz turns away, unseeing eyes blinking back down at the map. If he’s disappointed, it doesn’t show. “Better be on your way then. We can finish up in the morning.”
But Inej doesn’t move.
She lets the silence hang between them, thick and heavy in its intensity. Suddenly, all she can think of is all the times she was in his place, standing near the table and watching as he shucked off his vest and shirt to run a wash cloth over the tight, corded lines of his abdomen. He hasn’t done it in a while, not since before the Van Eck job.
In the end it’s simple frustration that makes her do it. Inej faces the mirror above the washbasin and crosses her arms at the hem of her tunic. The shirt slips off her shoulders with one smooth tug. She feels naked even in her wrappings, especially since her knives have long been discarded for the night, glinting from their position on the floor by Kaz’s feet.
Kaz’s eyes are back on her in an instant. Inej swallows, planting him in the corner of her gaze as she silently undoes her trousers, letting them pool on the floor. She leans down, collects both articles of discarded clothing, and tosses them on his bed. When she silently reaches for his washcloth, Kaz breaks his silence.
His voice makes her jump.
When she blinks up in the mirror, Kaz is standing a few paces behind her. His head is cocked slightly to the right and his hands are loose by his sides, but Inej can see the tension that pulls the muscles of his body taut. She tries to stamp down her embarrassment when his gaze scorches up the back of her legs and past the swell of her ass. She waits until her eyes meet his in the mirror before she responds. “Really warm night. You don’t agree?”
Kaz snorts. His eyes glitter in the low light as she soaks the cloth in cool water, fingers trembling when she bends to run it up over her calf. He’s silent as Inej finishes with both her legs, skin prickling with the lingering, cool dampness. She straightens, rubbing the cloth up one trembling arm when –
“Take it off, Inej.”
She spins to face him, clutching the basin with both hands as her heart leaps to her throat. “Excuse me?”
Kaz averts his eyes. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to – “
“No, Kaz – ”
Kaz falls silent. He’s waiting for her to speak, she realizes dimly. The moments tick by as she struggles to formulate a sentence.
Then, she sees the pale line of Kaz’s throat bobble. He nods down at her wrappings. “Take those off.” His voice is very quiet now. “But only if you’d like to.”
Men have wanted to see her naked before. Rich men, with pockets full of kruge, each wanting something from her that she didn’t want to give. Fear coats bitter in the back of her throat, and for a moment, Inej thinks she’s going to black out from the stench of it. But, even now, even under the layers of bitterness and terror, something sweet rises up along her tongue, ferocious in its intensity.
Desire for the sweet boy who stands before her, hands bare by his side. There are no expectations in his eyes, only the same fear mirrored back at her. She takes a deep breath and unfurls the last of her clothes.
The silence in the room is deafening. All she can hear is the thundering of her pulse, the roar of her own blood in her ears. “Kaz,” she says, and it comes out as little more than a strangled syllable. A cry for help, a tender caress, and a benediction all wrapped into the name of the person Inej trusts most in this world.
Kaz steps forward even though his eyes never leave her face. “Inej,” he murmurs. His voice pokes hot iron into the back of her spine. “Darling.”
She shivers. Inej doesn’t think she’ll ever tire of hearing her name in his mouth.
Finally, his gaze drops, hungry and fierce, as he takes in her bare breasts and the peak of her dark nipples. Steadily, he devours a path down past her stomach, tracing the curve of her waist, the curl of hair between her legs. She can see the way he drinks in her damp skin, cataloguing every scar, every blemish with rapt attention. When he seems to have had his fill, his eyes sweep back up to catch her own once more.
Somehow, she finds her voice. “Come here.”
A shadow of something dark passes over his face. His hands turn into fists by his side. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” he says, and his voice has lost some of the roughness from before.
Logically, she knows it’s a warning. But it still feels like a rejection.
Inej turns away at once, mortified. “Right.” She twists the washcloth in her hands, all of her senses coming back to her in full force. Foolish. “Sorry. I wasn’t thinking.” The hot trickle of embarrassment is thick in the back of her throat, stripping every word naked in its astuteness. “I should go.”
“You don’t have to leave.” Kaz’s voice is quiet, but firm. “I already told you that you’re welcome to stay here tonight.”
“And I’m grateful for the offer,” Inej cuts him off, hurrying towards her discarded clothing. “But like I already told you, Jesper’s waiting for me and we’re both clearly – ”
“Inej please.” The words draw her up tight and she freezes in place. Kaz Brekker never begs, not for anyone. She hears him let out a sound of quiet frustration. “Did I do something wrong?”
“No,” she shakes her head, pulls her shirt over her bare chest with jerky movements. “I’m the one who should be apologizing. I didn’t mean to push you to do something you weren’t ready for. I – I wasn’t thinking, I’m sorry.”
Kaz takes a seat on the edge of his bed, stretching his bad leg out in front of him. His eyes remain on the floor. All of a sudden, he looks like a boy. “What did you want me to do?”
She doesn’t have an answer for him. To come closer. To touch me. To be near. To wait for me. To care. Her tongue feels like sandpaper in her mouth.
His voice is very soft when he speaks again. “You don’t have to wait for me when you’re out at sea.”
Inej’s heart drops like lead. “What?”
Kaz runs a hand through his hair, hunching over to press his palms into his eyes. “If some ridiculous fellow-pirate wants to whisk you off to dinner, Inej, you are more than welcome to join him. Encouraged even. Don’t say no on account of me.”
She takes a seat beside him. Dimly, she wishes she’d pulled on her trousers too. “But I don’t want to go to dinner with some ridiculous fellow-pirate. I want to go to dinner with you.”
Kaz lets out a hurt, bitter sound. “With me?”
Inej grits her teeth. “Whatever pity party you’re throwing yourself right now, stop. We both knew what we were signing up for when – “
“Did we?” Kaz turns to her. His hair has come undone, feathering loosely across his forehead. His eyes are wide with a kind of terror Inej has seldom been privy to.
She twists her mouth against the sudden urge to cry. “I won’t go then.”
Kaz looks stricken for a moment. “To dinner?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he snaps, and Inej can hear the panic bleeding into his words. “Do you know how much kruge I sunk into that ship? Don’t you dare back out now.”
Inej swallows, traces the sharp features of the absolutely impossible man that’s seated beside her. The strong slope of his nose, the wicked curve of his mouth, the pale freckled skin that she wants to map out with her tongue someday. “I can’t go without knowing if you’ll miss me,” she admits at last, ashamed.
Her words still the air for a few frightening heartbeats.
Then, Kaz laughs. “Inej,” he murmurs, knocking his shoulder against hers. “Darling. I will miss you every day from the moment the sun comes up to the moment it sets. You have my word.”
And despite everything, Inej finds herself biting back a smile. At the sight of it, Kaz puts a hesitant arm around her shoulders. He doesn’t draw her close, but he also doesn’t pull away when Inej leans towards him.
“What about after the sun sets?”
“Well its hardly fair of you to expect me to miss you while I’m dreaming of you.”
She hums. “I’ll miss you too, Kaz.”
Kaz relaxes against her. Then, slowly, Inej feels him rest his cheek on her hair. “That was my plan all along,” he concedes, huffing a breath of light laughter. “To buy you a ship, so that even when you’re away, you’ll think of me.”
Inej rolls her eyes, but knows he’s only half-joking. “I don’t even know why I put up with you.”
“Because you adore me.”
Inej feels some sharp emotion stab at the back of her throat. There’s an unspoken question in the words. When she nods gently, Kaz relaxes further, his free arm coming to loop around her front until he’s holding her fully.
“And because I adore you as well.”
When Kuwei returns from Ravka as Nhaban, the first thing he does with his newfound anonymity is visit the Crow Club. The last he was in Ketterdam, he hadn’t had much time to experience the city or partake in any of its wondrously nefarious pastimes. He’d even brought kruge specifically for the purpose of lining Kaz’s pockets as a thank you for having the guts to lock him in a grave while entire governments hunted for him.
Besides, wherever Kaz was, Jesper was likely to be close.
The last Kuwei had heard of the sharpshooter, he was living with that wealthy merchant’s son, Wylan – who had helped them pull off Kaz’s harebrained fake auction scheme and Saints exactly how many people did Kuwei owe his life too – in a mansion with servants that waited on him hand and foot. The thought makes Kuwei’s lips twitch with amusement. Hopefully Wylan kept Jesper distracted enough that he didn’t spend his time taking foolish bets.
However, a single glance around the overflowing halls of the Crow Club reveals that Jesper has indeed graced the Dregs with his presence tonight. He’s seated in a low, curved booth that’s tucked into the far corner of the club. From the array of empty shot glasses and tumblers that are stashed on the table before him, he’s clearly enjoying a night off. Wylan – the real Wylan who looks nothing like Kuwei – and Inej are seated to his right and left respectively.
Wylan spots him first. A grin splits his face clear in half at the very sight of Kuwei and he waves him down with wide, drunk motions. Kuwei picks across the crowded room, careful to avoid the clumsy grips of those too drunk to be at a card table, until he too can slip into the booth beside Inej.
“You handsome bastard!” Jesper yells, raising a glass at him, “You couldn’t send us a fucking letter?”
Kuwei grins. “Letter would ruin the surprise wouldn’t it?”
“Kuwei!” Inej smells like jasmine and the sharp bite of whiskey when she puts her arms around his shoulders, pulling him close enough that he has to bend to tuck his head into her neck.
He can’t help the laugh that bursts out of him. “Captain Inej.”
Inej swats at him, still smiling. “Stop,” she complains even though there’s no annoyance in her voice. She jerks her head at Jesper and Wylan. “I get that enough from these two. Just Inej is more than fine.”
“Well hello then, just Inej.” He pulls out of her embrace, lifting one of her slim hands to brush a kiss on her knuckles. Inej pinks adorably, her alcohol stained cheeks going even redder. He winks and she pulls back her hand.
“You’re too young for me,” she laments.
“Hardly. You have maybe a year on me.”
Wylan grunts, clearly unamused. “You know I miss it when you were still pretending your Kerch was bad. What’re they even teaching you out there in the Little Palace?”
“That information is classified.” He peers around the table, finding a lone shot glass still filled with clear liquid that most definitely wasn’t water and downs it immediately. “And I think you all have been in enough trouble with the Ravkan government for me to drag you back into any of it.”
Jesper snorts, polishing off the last of his drink. “If there’s an end to trouble, we haven’t found it yet.”
“Speak for yourself.” Inej rolls her eyes. “Not all of us can be degenerates that leech off of their rich boyfriends.”
“Ah, but my dear Inej,” Jesper leans forward, flicking Inej on the nose even as she squeals at the motion, sinking back further into Kuwei’s side, “don’t forget that my rich boyfriend is also a fellow degenerate. He’s just better at hiding it.”
“You’re all horrible,” Wylan shakes his head, but he’s far too cheerful to sound unhappy.
The night passes in a haze of drinks. Even as the club empties, leaving only the serious betters behind, their corner remains alive with the warmth of laughter and playful banter. At one point, Jesper has an embarrassed Wylan on the top of the table, the two of them clasped together like the couples at fancy Ravkan balls, twirling to the beat of some Kaelish tune that Kuwei has never heard before.
Inej is on her feet clapping her hands along, absolutely crackling with laughter. Kuwei chances an extra glance at her. She’s dressed in a pair of dark, tightfitting pants and a loose olive shirt that looks absurdly soft to the touch. The collar falls open at her chest, brass buttons undone far enough that he can make out the tantalizing edge of her cleavage. With her thick hair loose around her shoulders and sparkling eyes, she looks a vision.
When Kuwei moves to stand beside her and gently reaches for her waist, Inej startles away like she’s been burned. He pulls his hands away at once. “Sorry,” he says, raising his palms. “Just wanted to dance with you.”
Her eyes soften in understanding and she holds out her arm. “Next time, please ask me.”
Kuwei curses himself. He knows better than to reach for women unannounced and unwelcome. Heat prickles up his spine. “I’m sorry,” he repeats with as much conviction as he can muster. He owes Inej his life.
But now, Inej is the one to shake her head in dismissal. She’s smiling again as she clasps their hands together and Kuwei leads her out into an open area of the club. They twirl together with Inej stumbling in his arms, out of breath from laughter as Jesper and Wylan cheer them on from their perch on the table.
Kuwei hasn’t had this much fun since he was a boy, chasing kites with his father. Ketterdam had a way of bringing the worst out in her people, but he understands why so many tourists flocked to its harbors. Inej leans into him, clearly dizzy from drink, and for a split second all Kuwei can see is her beauty. And not in the way most men saw beauty – legs, ass, and tits – but beauty in the way her mouth curved up higher on one side than the other, the light splatter of freckles on the bridge of her nose that were no doubt from her time spent at sea, the softness of her hair as it brushed his hand on her waist.
She blinks at his silence, an unspoken question spelled out in her eyes and Kuwei swallows every nerve in his body before he leans in to kiss that lovely mouth. But before he can even get close, he’s unceremoniously jerked backwards. The motion is hard enough to send Kuwei sprawling across the Crow Club’s sticky floors and he ends up on his back, elbows stinging from where they’ve taken the brunt of his weight in the fall.
He tips his head back, mouth already opening to form an irritated retort, when Kuwei finds himself staring up into the smooth, blank face of Kaz Brekker. He hasn’t seen Kaz in well over a year.
“Kaz.” Inej sounds exasperated. She holds an arm out to heave Kuwei to his feet, but Kaz puts the butt of his cane over Kuwei’s heart. The threat is unmistakably clear. And even though Kuwei could easily burn the entire building down around them, it makes his heart hammer just that much quicker.
“Kuwei is visiting tonight.” Inej huffs, but she drops her arm, stepping around Kuwei’s body towards Kaz. “I don’t think the Ravkans would appreciate you sending him back in pieces. Besides, he owes me a dance.”
Kaz’s jaw noticeably tightens.
Kuwei swallows, something dawning in the edge of his consciousness. “Listen, Kaz, I didn’t mean to – ”
The cane pushes harder into his chest at the words and he falls silent at once. Upsetting Kaz Brekker was definitely not on his list of nefarious Ketterdam pastimes.
“I know you didn’t.” Kaz says quietly. His voice is flat and devoid of all emotion. “Because if you did, I’ll make sure you leave Ketterdam as a real corpse this time.”
Inej looks between the two of them, nose wrinkling in clear annoyance. “Kaz,” she groans again, “I already told you, you have to be nice to everyone tonight!”
At her words, Kaz lifts his cane and throws one last withering look in Kuwei’s direction. For a moment, Kuwei doesn’t dare move. At least, not until Kaz has pulled Inej into a kiss, gloved hand resting at the small of her back.
Kaz wakes to the uncomfortable sensation of being smothered.
When he groans, an unhappy sound making itself known in his chest, he feels Inej shift in his arms in clear annoyance. The hour is so early even the crows are silent. “Your hair,” he grumbles. “Inej I’m going to cut your hair.”
“I’ll slit your throat if you dare.”
He groans again, flopping onto his back. “I’ll take my chances.”
Inej huffs a faint breath of laughter. She’s curled around one of Kaz’s pillows, his own tucked neatly under her head. Most of his blankets are wrapped around her shoulders too. He feels exiled in his own bed. “You’ve certainly won against worse odds,” she concedes.
“You’d be wise to remember it,” he mutters, tugging at the blankets. Inej acquiesces, but only a little. “Inej.”
“Ah-ah,” she taunts, “that’s darling to you.”
“I’m going to put a bullet between your eyes,” he tells her solemnly. “And then I’m going to cut your hair.”
Inej lets out a faint huff of laughter. He bets her eyes are still closed. “You love my hair.”
Kaz blinks, suddenly wide awake. He props himself up on his elbow, traces the curve of Inej’s spine. His sudden silence must confuse her, because Inej makes a show of turning to face him. He doesn’t miss how she successfully wedges more of the blanket under her body as she does.
He looks at her furrowed brow and resists the urge to kiss the place where the skin dimples. “I do,” he admits. He feels foreign in his own skin.
Inej looks at him like he’s having an aneurysm. “What?”
“I do love your hair.”
She looks at him another moment. “Okay.”
“Even if it tries to strangle me in my sleep.”
Inej snorts. “I’ll braid it tomorrow night, Kaz.”
“I – ,” Kaz feels something rise in his chest. Some light-soaked joy that seems to emerge only around this wonderful, terrible wisp of a woman. “I love you as well, you know that?”
Now, Inej’s eyes are wide pools of caramel in the breaking dawn, soft and hazy and surprised. “Even if I try to strangle you in your sleep?”
Kaz drops himself back into the bed and firmly pulls his pillow from under her head. He turns away. “Go back to sleep, Wraith.”
“Kaz,” her voice is but a murmur. In it, he can hear the echoes of a thousand nights, some good, some bad, some broken and hopeless, but most importantly, some still to be had. Her fingers brush his bare shoulders. “I love you too.”