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Sugar Water

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'So, do you want to tell me why you dragged me out into the back room of a gambling den — not, I might add, a gambling den under our control — at the crack of dawn, when all sensible denizens of Ketterdam are either staggering back home, or safely tucked away in their beds?'

Inej wasn't tired, exactly, but she did feel Matthias owed her an explanation. The rest of the Dregs were holed up in one of Kaz's safehouses, a drafty attic perched on top of a rickety building in the heart of the Barrel, sleeping in fitful shifts while they waited for some goods to be delivered to the warehouse next door. Kaz had some complicated scheme to nab the goods — Zemeni spices and furs from Fjerda — out from under the noses of the sleepy guards set to keep watch. Inej didn't think being out in the gambling den with Matthias was part of the plan.

The big Fjerdan glanced around the room, as if to reassure himself that they really were alone. Inej noticed that he looked slightly embarrassed.

'I wanted to talk with you about what we should get Nina for her name-day,' he said.

'Oh, that's all!' said Inej in relief. 'I'd been worried you were having doubts about Kaz's latest scheme, or were going to tell me your conscience was troubling you and you needed to return to Fjerda immediately to end Fjerdan persecution of the Grisha, or whatever magic Nina worked on you during your resurrection had gone wonky, or something else equally portentous and terrible, but gifts...gifts I can handle.'

Matthias shuffled awkwardly in his chair. The gambling den was garishly and tastelessly decorated in clashing, lurid purple and orange fabrics, and Matthias looked incongruously monochrome and out of place.

'I thought we could get her something edible,' he said.

Inej considered his idea.

'The way to Nina's heart is certainly through her stomach,' she said.

'Exactly! But I don't want to just get her a plate of waffles and a cup of hot, spiced wine — that's nothing special. That's what we'd do to celebrate a successful job, or if Jesper managed to hang onto his gambling winnings for more than a couple of hours and felt like being generous, whereas we want to celebrate ... well, Nina. She deserves so much more than that!'

'You're not wrong,' said Inej.

The more she thought about it, the more she liked Matthias' idea. The two of them, brought together by their shared feelings for Nina (and hers for them), had initially settled into an awkward arrangement where each accepted the other, and their place in Nina's heart. No one was more surprised than Inej and Matthias when they realised that their baffled bewilderment at each other was turning into something else entirely, and no one more pleased than Nina to discover that what the pair felt for her had extended into the same feelings for each other. And now, several months on, Inej found herself once again reflecting with happiness on her satisfaction with her choice, glad to be working with Matthias on something other than crime. Although now she thought about it, a little crime might be just what their plans for Nina needed.

'I think I have an idea,' she said. 'If it all works out, it will be the perfect present. Nina will be delighted! There's just one tiny hitch.'

'Which is?' asked Matthias, looking concerned.

'It's not, in the strictest sense, entirely legal,' Inej replied.

*

Several days later, after the gang had successfully relieved the warehouse they'd been watching of its delivery of spices and furs, and handed the goods off to the buyer, Matthias and Inej loitered in a more upmarket corner of Ketterdam than their usual haunts. It was a freezing evening; steam rose from the icy canals, and people hurried home, not keen to linger outside in the cold.

The shop in front of Inej and Matthias was a bakery, and every inch of its vast display window was decorated lavishly with examples of its wares. There were tottering towers of cake, covered with ornate icing and delicate pink and white edible roses. There were biscuits that looked like leaves, cascading in waves across the front of the window, set next to tiny cakes — each one only a mouthful — arranged in colourful configurations. Dominating the display area were elaborate gingerbread constructions designed to look like famous and distinctive Ketterdam buildings. There were also spun sugar creations in every conceivable shape — animals, trees, shells, boats, dancing people, and even a pile of gleaming coins.

'I robbed this place a few years back as part of a job for the Dregs, back when we still answered to Per Haskell. Their security was lax, and they were naive enough to leave their daily takings in the shop overnight. Let's hope they learned nothing from being visited by me back then, and that it will be easy to get in and out undetected.'

Matthias no longer experienced the old pull of his conscience at being asked to do legally questionable things, although he did wonder for a moment why giving Nina a name-day gift had to involve breaking into one of the most expensive bakeries in the city. He didn't worry about being caught: Inej might be reckless, but she was good at what she did, and if there was a way into the bakery, she would find it.

'What do you need me to do?' he asked Inej, his breath visible in the cold night air.

'I should be able to get in and out on my own,' she replied, 'but what I really need is for you to use those preternatural senses of yours to keep a close watch on the area. The shop is closed, there's only one entrance, and no one is due to come back before the bakers start lighting the ovens for bread in the middle of the night, but if anyone does come back, make a loud nuisance of yourself and complain that some order of cakes wasn't delivered. Pretend you're the underling of a self-important mercher, and he's sent you to chase up the dessert at a dinner party he's hosting.'

'And you'll hear me and know to get out quickly — wait, if there's only one entrance, how are you going to get past this hypothetical baker or shop-assistant?'

'Who said I was going to go through the door?' said Inej, and, after a swift check of her knives, she was racing up the wall of the building, climbing with ease until she reached the wide chimney that Matthias presumed was attached to the vast baking ovens at the back of the shop. He turned to scan the street, and by the time he'd looked back up at the roof, Inej had vanished.

Matthias sighed, and cast his senses outwards until he had an awareness of every living being within a wide radius of the bakery. His resurrection by Nina had brought him back transformed: his drüskelle training had already given him a strong sense of his surroundings, but after his miraculous return from the dead it was as if his skin hummed and crackled, sensing subtle changes in the air as people pressed on the edge of his awareness, miles away. His hearing became unnaturally sharp, and his sight in darkness rivalled that of any cat. At first this had been unnerving, as if he couldn't tell where he ended and other people began, but after a while he adjusted, helped by Nina until he was able to turn these additional senses on and off at will.

After what seemed like an hour, but which was probably only several tense, anxious minutes, Inej reappeared on the bakery roof, weighed down by a heavy black bag which Matthias presumed was full of whatever she'd just stolen. As soon as Inej had dropped silently to the ground, the pair moved off, stalking swiftly through the empty streets, their feet carrying them back to the Barrel, and safety.

*

The next afternoon, Inej had arranged to meet Matthias in yet another abandoned, dilapidated warehouse — this one under the control of the Dregs. He was running late, and ended up having to double back a couple of times after taking wrong turns — despite all the years he'd lived in Ketterdam, its twisting, narrow alleyways could still confuse him. When he finally stumbled through the warehouse's entrance, Inej was suspended halfway between the ceiling and the floor, swinging her way between a complex arrangement of ropes, winches and pulleys.

'Good, you're here,' she called down from the heights. 'You can make yourself useful by stoking the fire in the corner, and making sure the sugar mixture stays liquid — but don't let it bubble over!'

'What are you doing, Inej?' asked Matthias in complete bafflement.

'I'm making a spun sugar sculpture,' she replied, tumbling halfway down one of her ropes at breakneck speed, armed with baking equipment.

Matthias left her to it, and went to tend to the fire.

Over a period of several hours, Inej's creation took shape. It was extraordinarily ambitious, slowly filling the whole warehouse with structures that were taller than many buildings in Ketterdam. Some sections were sturdy and opaque, while others were as fine and delicate as spools of silken thread, and looked as if a puff of wind would blow them away. There were avenues of sculpted trees, and the curve of a river that somehow managed to look like it was frozen, in spite of the warm, golden colour of the sugar. There were domed building — great palaces and houses of worship, their windows soaring and decorated in an elaborate, interwoven design. There were defensive walls, and statues, and fountains whose water appeared to have turned to ice, and roads leading away from the spun sugar buildings.

Finally, after multiple trips down to the bubbling mixture on the fire, followed by speedy ascents back up the ropes, and journeys in which she swung effortlessly from one corner of the ceiling to the other, Inej was finished. She slid down a rope, spinning to the floor, and looked around with satisfaction.

'Do you recognise it?' she asked Matthias, brandishing a miniature painted image, which Matthias realised she'd been using as a reference for the extraordinary city she had made.

'Is it ... is it Os Alta?' he asked.

He had never been to the Ravkan capital, but there was something in the domes of the buildings, and the great concentration of palaces that suggested to him the city that Nina always said was the most beautiful place she had ever seen, the beating political heart of Ravka.

'It is indeed,' said Inej. 'At least I hope that's what it will look like to Nina. All I had were a few childhood memories and this printed picture to guide me, and who knows how accurate a representation they will turn out to be.'

'Did you know how to make spun sugar sculptures before tonight?' asked Matthias.

'No, but this morning I managed to corner a young apprentice baker — don't worry, he doesn't work for the bakery we burgled — in that seedy gambling den we were scoping for Kaz last month, and got him to explain the process. To be honest, I wasn't sure it would work, especially on this large scale, but in the end, it was just acrobatics — and I can handle acrobatics!'

The sun was beginning to sink in the sky.

'We will have to guard this place until tonight, when we'll unveil it for Nina's name-day,' said Inej.

'I'm astonished you were able to get all this time off from Kaz to make sculptures from sugar and water,' said Matthias.

'Oh, Kaz is fine with us doing this. Well, he wouldn't have been if it'd just been intended for Nina, but I managed to convince him that we could sell tickets to it as a thrilling artistic spectacle. We'll get some musicians in, a couple of wine-sellers, and charge for entry like a street carnival. The tourists will love it!'

'It sounds as if you've got it all figured out,' said Matthias, overwhelmed. 'Do you want to watch here for a few hours, and I'll go and get us some food, and relieve you on guard duty after that? Then you can go off and fetch Nina.'

Inej nodded. She was already casting a critical eye over the spun sugar city, wondering if it could be improved.

*

Inej had done the best she could with the bare, stark warehouse space in the time she had available after relieving Matthias. She'd lit torches on all the walls, and thrown a tattered — but still bright and striking — Ravkan carpet across the entrance to the room. She'd left a space free for the musicians and wine-sellers who would be showing up later in the evening, after they'd opened the warehouse to paying customers. And she'd used the winches, ropes and pulleys still in place from her time constructing the spun sugar city to climb into the heights once more, this time to clean and polish the warehouse's grimy windows until they were gleaming.

When Matthias brought Nina through the door at last, he had covered her eyes with his hands. Nina was making her irritation with this loudly known, but Matthias wouldn't relent until the pair of them were standing in a part of the room with a good view. Inej hurried silently to their side, as Matthias uncovered Nina's eyes.

Nina blinked in the torchlight, slowly taking in the spectacle before her. Inej gripped Matthias's hand, suddenly anxious about how their gift would be received. He pulled her to his side reassuringly, gesturing surreptitiously at Nina. Nina was gazing at Inej's handiwork in silent wonder.

'You ... you made me Os Alta,' she said, moving from her vantage point to get a better view of the sugared palaces, avenues and decorative gardens. Her face, when she turned back to them, was alight with love and happiness.

'Did we get it right?' asked Inej, at which Matthias interrupted.

'You, Inej, not we. This was all your idea and effort, from the planning to the location, equipment and actual crafting of the city. All I did was guard work!' he said.

Nina had clearly heard this protestation of humility from Matthias, but she was too impatient to explore the recreation of her beloved Ravkan city to tease him about it, rushing around to view it from every angle. Her voice floated back to the others as she disappeared behind a spun sugar fountain.

'You got it right, down to the tiniest details, Inej — the shape of the windows in the Little Palace, the placement of the trees and lakes and statues in the parks, the sweep of the walls around the city — everything is perfect. You have brought me a piece of my home, and stuck it in a Ketterdam warehouse: a little transplanted piece of Ravka, just like me.'

Inej and Matthias let Nina explore their gift at a leisurely pace, watching her in the torchlight as she she walked around and around Inej's handiwork, craning her neck to get a full view of the tallest buildings, dropping to the floor to look at how Inej had managed to make the raw materials of her construction evoke frozen water, feasting her eyes on the bare branches of Inej's sculpted trees. At last she had had her fill, and bounded joyfully back to Inej and Matthias, her eyes bright and her smile wide.

'I can't believe you did this all for me!' she said.

'We know what it is to miss home — or rather, we are well aware of the complex mixture of guilt and satisfaction that is always with you after you make the decision to leave your former home behind. There's a happiness in knowing you're living somewhere because you made the choice to do so, to live in the chaos, mess and seediness of Ketterdam, surrounded by exiles and misfits just like you. But there's always that slight twinge of guilt about your own happiness, and you carry the places you've left behind with you forever. Making the decision not to return can sometimes weigh heavily on your mind. We know you feel this because we feel it too,' said Inej, still hand in hand with Matthias.

Nina threw herself at the pair, drawing them both into her arms with a sudden fierceness. Although Nina was rarely at a loss for words, Inej's understanding of the complicated sea of emotions common to all three of them had left her speechless. She tried to show them what she felt without words. Her lips, when she kissed them — stooping to reach Inej and then stretching to kiss Matthias — tasted of sugar and caramel.

'You ate some of it, didn't you?' said Matthias, his arm still around Inej and his hand tangled in Nina's hair.

Nina, who was somewhat distracted, didn't answer for several moments. And then, trailing kisses along Inej's jawline and across to Matthias's cheek, she admitted the truth.

'I may have had a tiny nibble on the Little Palace. But don't worry, nobody will notice. Have some yourselves if you'd like.'

And so the trio broke off some of the window-frame of the Little Palace, eating it between kisses, laughing at the idea of explaining that they had eaten the Ravkan capital, until they collapsed in a joyful heap against the wall, giddy with sugar and love and each other.

The rest of the Dregs — tasked with helping the wine-sellers set up, guarding the entrance, and taking cash from the paying guests — were due to arrive at any moment, but for now the three of them were alone. Eventually they were going to have to move: Matthias to a vantage point at the entrance, to use his newfound abilities to listen out for any threats or dangers, Nina to the door to beguile the guests as they entered the room, and Inej to the heights to keep a watchful eye on proceedings. The noise and bustle of Ketterdam's nightlife was just starting to seep into the building. The light of the moon shone through the window, making the sculpted spun sugar sparkle and gleam. Nina fed pieces of her city to the two people she loved most in the world.