Nina stood in the hall, clothes still half-off, face flushed. One hand was outstretched towards the fleeing figure at the end of the passage; the other was holding her new red kefta closed over her breasts, shirt sliding off her shoulders despite her efforts to keep it up. Behind her, in the room, Genya was shuffling around after her own clothes, searching for the last bit that would let her put on her armour. The older woman was unfazed as Nina panicked in the corridor.
Inej had already disappeared, there and gone before Nina could say a word.
Inej stood at the helm, watching the ship before them sink as it burned. They had caught sight of it in the night, Specht shaking her awake with quiet excitement.
The ship was crewed by the same captain that had taken Nina prisoner all those years ago. He had survived the sinking of one ship to go on and transport more Grisha prisoners to Fjerda for execution. Inej had been hunting him for months. Other slavers had perished in the meantime, but it was still this man, the last of the crew that had caged her wonderful, beautiful, courageous, passionate Nina, that Inej had set out to find and kill as her final mission.
The Wraith cut through the waves, slim hull rocking with the turbulent ocean. Inej shifted her weight, thinking of the ship beneath her as the wire she used to walk, or the slick roofs of Ketterdam at night. The few prisoners rescued from the slavers were huddled together on her deck, confused and grateful and afraid. Most were Grisha, and once the wreckage of the slavers’ ship had sunk they would be brought wherever they wanted to go.
Inej kept her hood up as she spoke to the freed prisoners, told them they would be given safe passage to Os Kervo and from there they could go wherever they wished, completely free. The hood’s shadow hid her satisfied smile from her crew and their new guests, although Specht was giving her a knowing grin of his own. They'd clearly spent too much time around Kaz.
Inej shook her head at the memory of Kaz and walked down to her cabin, waving to Specht to take the helm. Her first mate waved back and started calling out orders to prepare the sails for the voyage to Os Kervo. The sounds of her crew hoping to and pulling the creaking ropes soothed her. Inej could not wait to see Nina again. And now, having avenged not only herself but also her lover, Inej could finally return home triumphant.
Inej let the smile stay on her face, washing her bloody hands in her small basin, praying to her Saints that they would understand the reason she'd had to keep killing, if only for a while.
Nina watched as the snow blanketed the land, covering the last signs of Matthias’ grave. The snowfall had come sweeping in and only Zoya’s quickly erected bubble had kept the small group safe from the howling northern wind. Nina shivered, loath to leave Matthias alone so soon, but there was no way to survive the storm if they didn't return to some proper shelter. He was with Djel now.
Genya wrapped her arm around Nina’s shoulders and pulled the young woman closer. The redhead shifted her large cloak to cover Nina, pressing close as they shuffled through the ever-deepening snow towards the cave where they had stayed the night before. Zoya was behind them, following their path with a small bubble of air pressing outwards, keeping the worst of the growing storm at bay.
They eventually made it to the relative safety of the small cave. Zoya took up a position at the mouth, leaning against the wall to support herself. Her raised arms held the air pressure in check outside the entrance and kept the snow from piling up in front of them, trapping them inside. It would be a long night for the Squaller.
Inej watched Nina climb into the corpseboat and cling to Matthias’ cold body. The Heartrender’s words rang in her head, echoing the emptiness she felt at their victory.
Small ways to save each other, indeed. This was one of the biggest moments in Inej’s life. She swore to herself that she would purge the seas of the slavers and other vermin that had plagued their lives, brought them to this point where even in their victory they were brought low.
For Nina. She would do it for the beautiful girl who had finally gotten it all only to have it ripped from her. Somehow. She would make it work. She had to. For Nina.
Nina huddled in the back of the cave, cold stone at her back. The tiny fire, barely offering more light and warmth than a candle flame, couldn't keep the chill from her body. Genya passed a small cup of broth to Zoya, helping the woman sip as she kept her arms held in front of her. The raven-haired woman had found a way to rest one arm on the wall of the cave, but her right arm had become exhausted by the hours of keeping them safe. Genya placed her own shoulder beneath Zoya’s arm and let her rest, if only for a few moments.
They whispered quietly to each other. Zoya couldn't look back at Nina, but it was obvious enough by Genya’s glances and careful words. Nina ignored them, staring at the flame and doing her best to ignore the fact that this is where Matthias’ body had lain last night.
It had taken days for them to reach the Little Palace, and a few more to truly prepare Matthias for burial. Days of barely any sleep, no appetite and empty loss. Despite being surrounded by old friends and in the only home she had truly had before the Dregs, Nina felt alone. She missed Inej, her comforting presence like a shadow and the love they shared that had gotten them through so much.
Nina still couldn't weep for any of the friends she would never see again.
Riding a horse should not have been strange to Inej, but it was. Maybe it was all the boats on Ketterdam’s canals, the time sailing the True Sea on The Wraith that threw off her balance on the animal. It might have been returning to the land of her Saints after everything she'd done for Kaz, to stay alive - all the blood she'd shed.
Reminded of Kaz, Inej sighed. He was still Kaz. That just meant that she'd not seen him truly without his armour the few times she'd made it back to Ketterdam for supplies or to visit Wylan and Jesper. Inej couldn't blame Kaz. She too still feared touch. Still, sitting on the windowsill of his office, in his space, feeding his crows and sharpening her knives while he was out on a job was peaceful. And somehow, he knew even when she'd thought she left no trace. They would always circle around each other and Inej did not fear them changing what they were to the other.
The reminders of her ship and of Kaz brought her thoughts inevitably to her parents. Inej had been elated to see them again after so long apart. It had been nerve wracking, Inej desperate and shameful and full of tears as she talked to her parents about her past. While her parents had not fully understood and forgiven her yet, they did not deny her the cause she wanted to keep fighting for. They had eventually returned to their Suli caravan, promising to keep in touch as best as they could, and Inej felt like she had more than one home to return to, when she was done her mission.
The sway of her horse going over an uneven patch of road shook Inej out of her thoughts. A small chip of rock clattered from under the hooves and rattled down the paving stones. Inej fingered Sankt Petyr, feeling safe in the knowledge that even now, at the end of her mission to rid the seas of slavers, her Saints were with her.
Her nerves were simply getting to her. It was finally a time of safety for her, and if not everyone had made it out of their madness alive, may the Saints keep Matthias, at least she still had the rest of her friends. Her nervousness was probably simply based on the fact that she was finally headed to the Little Palace.
Maybe it was simply the thought of seeing Nina and Kuwei again.
It had been more than two years since they'd escaped Ketterdam, the secret of jurda parem in tow. Kuwei had done his best to learn Ravkan and Kerch, sending short letters to Jesper that the sharpshooter passed on to the rest of the core Dregs, Kaz’s Dregs, to share his progress on finding the cure for parem. He'd had some success, but kept his missives short and secret. Inej hoped that she could see how far he'd really gotten with it when she'd gotten to Os Alta.
Her heart fluttered at the thought. She'd finally see the place that had shaped Nina, given her the strength to be the incredible woman that had stolen Inej’s heart as surely as Kaz and Ketterdam had swept her off her feet the day he'd saved her from Tante Heleen.
Her horse, perhaps sensing her excitement, picked up the pace. Inej let it canter, smile on her face as it carried her towards Nina and peace.
Nina huddled against Genya, shivering in the dark of the cave. The Tailor’s body felt like it was the only point of warmth or solace in Nina’s life, buffeted by storm after storm as it was. Nina clung to it with the same kind of determination that had carried her through parem, through getting Inej back and their destruction of the Van Eck Empire. It was all she had left.
Soft lips kissed the top of her head, and something in Nina finally broke. It didn't matter that Zoya was standing at the mouth of the cave and would be aware of everything. It didn’t matter that the woman next to her was much older than the one she wanted to be with.
Kuwei found Inej hiding in an old hut in the woods on the grounds of the Little Palace, next to a long-dead stove. The Wraith was as slim and silent as ever. It was only the fact that Kuwei had found the hut to be a refuge himself that he had even come across his old friend.
“I am sorry,” he spoke quietly, taking his usual seat on the bed.
Inej did not move at first, simply staring into the broken stove as if the fire still burned in its depths. It was several long moments of silence before the Suli girl moved from the small stool to sit beside Kuwei on the small bed, the old wood creaking under the added weight. The Shu boy waited in silence, knowing better than to prod the Wraith into providing any kind of answer.
“Did you know?”
The faint accusation in her tone spoke of the violence Inej was capable of, the sharpness of her blades glittering in her eyes and behind her words. Kuwei swallowed nervously. He nodded once, quickly, hoping that honesty would protect him where Nina’s lies had failed to keep her safe.
Inej gasped, pain lacing the involuntary sound.
Kuwei didn’t think about it, he reached out an arm and hugged the young woman that had saved his life more times than he could ever hope to repay the favour. Inej stiffened and Kuwei thought she would pull back. Then the arms came around him. Inej’s grip tightened and he felt the strength that was holding Inej together break.
Kuwei was not surprised to learn that Inej cried silently, it was nothing less than he would have expected from her. He was surprised that tears were falling from his own eyes. When he was with the Dregs, hiding in that forsaken graveyard, watching the friends plan to get Inej back, how desperate Nina was to get her back, he would not have expected this to be the result. He mourned with Inej, saddened that for once, it was not forces outside his friends’ powers to control that were tearing them apart.
Eventually, the tears stopped for the both of them and Inej looked up at Kuwei with a small but blinding smile. Kuwei smiled back, wiping the tears from his face with the sleeve of his kefta. They leaned into each other, and Kuwei struck his flint, sending a small flame to rest in the remains of the stove. The light was suddenly bright in the cottage and Inej flinched. Their eyes slowly adjusted to the glow. Inej sighed, cuddling close to her friend.
Ravka suddenly didn’t feel like the home it had promised to be. Not even returning to her parents’ caravan felt safe anymore. Inej’s breathing picked up, fists clenched tight around the handle of one of her knives. Kuwei let the wave of anger pass before he asked softly.
“What will you do?”
Inej’s silence was answer enough. Kuwei’s heart broke a little more.
Nina couldn't say the first kiss was unexpected. After all, they'd just made it out alive against all possible odds, and nothing could possibly stop them now.
The kiss wasn't anything big, just a quick, open-mouthed press of lips against lips as the tank rumbled down the street. It was doubtful any of the boys even noticed it had happened; too busy whooping and celebrating even as they sped down the streets on the stolen machine.
The kiss held all the promise of what was to come.
Inej watched the sun set on the horizon, waves lit up in red and gold. The sky was a shimmering violet curtain and the ice sparked in the shifting light. It was a beautiful, remote sight and it reminded her of Kaz in the fire of a burning building, escaping from the Dime Lions’ territory with documents and gold that served one of his many nefarious purposes. Inej let her heart tighten in her chest, felt the love and the flutter of fear and embraced the thoughts in acceptance of their meaning.
This far north it was cold, impossibly so, but Inej did not let that stop her from her mission. She had sworn to herself, but more importantly to Kaz and to Nina, that there would be no more slavers on these seas before she would rest with them again. She had started out unfamiliar with the sea, but now it was a part of her just like the wire. It was as eager as Inej to be free of the taint such vile men brought to the wide expanse of water that promised freedom to all those who dreamed of it.
The scum they had been chasing on their route this far north were not precisely slavers. It had given Inej cause for concern to deviate from her own discipline in this way – that is until she'd seen what the band of mercenaries and bounty hunters did to the people they collected for pay. It was gruesome and depraved and Inej could not shake the memories of the Menagerie when it was brought to her attention by her crew.
Inej was suddenly very keen to have them meet her blades, after learning of their crimes.
Specht continued to help her learn how to handle her ship. She had insisted that she learn how to do everything she could, which seemed to make Specht happy. Although the friendship between them wasn't quite the same as it was with the rest of the crew from the heist at the Ice Court, Inej found herself relying on him for companionship as well as a mentor on the seas. He had played a part on the periphery throughout and Inej trusted him.
The morning her crew had called the first sighting of the mercenaries’ ship, Inej had felt a thrill shake her body. It was the feeling of standing on the edge of the platform under the dome of the large tent, before going out on the wire. The rush of air falling past her before the net caught her tumbling body in the dark of night filled with the stink of blood and sugar and saltwater. The anticipation was the feeling of running across a rooftop to get to the second shooter before he shot Kaz. Lightning sang under her skin.
It was exhilarating.
By now the mercenaries had caught sight of the approaching vessel. Inej was pleased to hear the panicked shouts of “The Wraith is coming!” from the other crew. She’d only been on the seas for a season; her reputation preceded her already. Inej was satisfied that her efforts were paying off. Fear and panic should be the reaction of every man or woman who had sold another person.
Inej smiled as she sharpened her last blade, Sankta Lizabeta, and offered a prayer to the Saint to guide her quick and true as she protected her crew and all the innocents who were hunted by these vermin.
The order rang out over the water and The Wraith slid next to the mercenaries’ vessel, permitting Inej to slip aboard and find the captain and put an end to his sorry existence. Her Saints were with her and would see her through until she could face her most treasured people free of this mission.
Inej set to work, a shadow on the water under a darkening sky.
Nina sat with the other Grisha in the great hall, picking at the herring and beets in front of her on the fine porcelain plate. She felt no interest in the food, still. Genya, Zoya and the King had all but forbidden her from trying to use her strange connection to death, leaving Nina with nothing to do all day but sit and grieve. She felt herself wasting away, hit by the blows of still having no powers and having Inej arrive unexpectedly while she and Genya had been – well. Occupied. Intimately. Nina hadn’t even known Inej had made it into the room until the cool air from the corridor chilled her skin enough for her to raise her head from where it had been busy tasting Genya.
It had been over two years since Nina had seen the other girl, two years since Matthias had been torn from her and she had left the home she’d made with the Dregs to return her lover to his rest in the cold ice of the north. Two years of limited correspondence, Inej hard to pin down as she devoted herself to ridding the seas of slavers. Two years of near solitude, back home among her people, wasting away as the long empty days stretched before her with everything turned on its head.
It had been nearly two years of Genya’s comforting presence at her side, silent, gentle, kind. Nearly two years of Genya teasing the aches and loneliness from her body and her mind by the sheer force of her will and the touch of too skilled fingers. Nina still longed for the comfort of the other woman, and choked on a laugh.
That was precisely why Inej was gone. Nina had allowed Genya to pull her back into the room, coax her out of her half-fastened clothes and back to bed with the promise of finding Inej and talking to her in the morning. Nina knew it was a fool’s hope that Inej would still be in the city by the time the sun rose. She let herself be swayed anyway.
Nina had been right and there had been no trace of the Wraith anywhere in Os Alta, no matter how fervently Nina searched. Kuwei was no help, as shocked as she was at Inej’s surprise visit and denying any knowledge of where she’d gone. Nina cursed herself for a fool.
The words of their parting echoed in her head. How they had saved each other in all the ways that mattered. How they would meet again. The echoes accused Nina with their persistence. Genya and David sat down beside her. Nina continued to pick listlessly at her food until a servant came to clear it away, more than used to the Heartrender’s particular eating habits by now.
Kuwei sat at another table, talking animatedly to the Grisha around him, gesturing as if summoning something while recounting a tale. At one point the conversation lulled and he gave Nina an accusing look across the hall that pierced her heart and made Nina look away, ashamed.
“Did you have any luck finding your friend?” asked Genya, deftly spooning sour cream onto her herring before taking a dainty bite.
“You know very well I didn’t. She’s… gone. And I… I don’t know what to do.” Nina stood, pushing away from the table and heading out of the hall in the direction of the library, ignoring the look that David gave his wife as the Tailor watched the other woman leave.
David wasn’t sure Nina should see Genya’s satisfied smirk.
The ship rocked beneath them, cooling air lifting Nina’s hair as they stood next to each other at the railing. Inej was staring at the stars, picking out familiar constellations with a smile, whispering the stories to Nina as if she didn’t know them herself. Nina was just glad Inej was around to smile. Her skills had never lain towards Healing.
Nina’s fingers traced along the pulse beating in Inej’s small wrist, felt it flutter at their closeness. It reminded Nina that Inej was still here with her despite the stab wound. She looked over at the smaller girl, tracing dark lashes and delicate bronze skin with a hungry gaze. Inej was sometimes as oblivious as Kaz. She launched into a whispered retelling of her favourite firebird myth, pointing it out in the southern sky.
“Kaz still think of you as an investment?” Nina interrupted, curious to know if Inej knew how enticing she was, but not willing to outright ask the other girl just yet if she found Nina just as distracting.
“Does Matthias still sulk like a lovesick puppy while saying he wants to kill you?” Inej returned, lips curved in a way that made Nina want to kiss them and smear her lipstick all over the darker skin. She wasn’t quite sure how she resisted.
Instead of answering Inej’s question, Nina simply changed the grip she had on the small hand resting in hers and said “We will always have each other, no matter what those two idiots are doing.”
“Always,” Inej promised in return.
Genya was tracing the skin along Nina’s neck, pressing deep into the tissues there. Some healing didn’t come from the power the Grisha wielded and the massage made Nina moan in a happy release of tension. The touch was pleasurable in and of itself, but Nina had to admit that the figure of the woman behind her had just as much to do with the flush of warmth she felt spreading across her skin.
Fingers dipped below the collar of her kefta and Nina shivered. Although she had sometimes flirted with some of the other Grisha, Matthias’ death was still too raw a wound. Kuwei and some of her old friends kept commenting that she was not her usual, bold self. Nina couldn’t bring herself to pretend that her heart wasn’t breaking when she flirted, and so she didn’t.
With Genya it was different. She had been the first shoulder to let Nina cry, to grieve everything she’d lost. It didn’t help that Nina knew Inej was far away, unreachable, and that she’d always admired the beautiful redhead who mentored her.
Nina blushed, something she found herself doing more and more as Genya spent time with her instead of leading the Triumvirate with David and Zoya. If Genya noticed, she didn’t say anything and continued to rub the tension from Nina’s shoulders until the Heartrender was boneless and compliant in the comfortable chair.
That was when Genya pressed lips behind her ear and asked softly, “Are you waiting for someone?”
Nina turned and Genya’s lips tasted of the sticky sweet pastries the cooks still slipped her for breakfast. Inej, Nina thought, but didn’t say as she chased the taste of sugar past red-painted lips.
Inej stood in the shadow beside Kaz’s window, watching the crows peck at the seeds she had spread out for them. The room felt emptier now that his table had moved downstairs, leaving only his bed and bare essentials to fill the attic space. It was dark in the room, but Inej did not mind. It suited her mood.
Specht had taken one look at Inej’s blank face as Kuwei led her to the stables and promptly started saddling a fresh horse, prepared to leave without question. He wouldn’t have minded exploring the grandeur of this strange new place but it was not meant to be.
Kuwei passed him Inej’s things, and between the three of them Inej and Specht were ready to ride in moments. Kuwei gave Inej’s hand a brief squeeze where it sat against the pommel. Inej nodded once. Then they were off in the night, shadows and hoofbeats in the dark.
Inej didn’t remember the ride back across all of Ravka, or telling the crew to set sail for Ketterdam once they’d reached the port in Os Kervo. She just knew that by the time she came back to her senses, days had passed in a blur and she was being led back into the Slat. Specht greeted Rotty and the two quickly set to a game of cards. Inej slipped up the stairs, barely noticing the Dregs practically throwing themselves from her path.
That had been hours ago. By now the news of her return must have reached Kaz, but he stayed away. A return this sudden, this unprovoked, it was new territory for him and he would want as much information as he could get before he tried to solve the problem. Inej snorted, bitter. There was hardly any fixing this problem. Inej had simply stayed away too long.
Tears gathered in the corners of her eyes, and she wiped them away roughly. Kaz was standing a few paces away, just watching her as he always did. His pale face was impassive as he took the last few steps to the window. Inej expected him to perhaps tease her about a proverb or some other annoyance.
She wasn’t expecting the feel of gloved hands on her upper arms, turning her to face him. She was even more surprised when she felt him pull her in against his chest. Inej barely breathed as her own hands instinctively found the material of his jacket and fisted it until it stretched taut over his shoulders, careful not to touch his body more than she had to. Very slowly, she lowered her forehead to his shoulder. When Kaz did not immediately pull away, Inej let out a sob. She didn’t press herself any closer.
Kaz said nothing about the offer of space, or her tears.