Actions

Work Header

I Don't Ever Trust, But I Still Choose You

Chapter Text

Kaz

“Mama! Papa!” Inej cried to her parents down the dock, her voice hovering in the tenuous place between laughter and tears.

They were rushing towards each other, Inej’s mother slightly in front of her husband. They collided in a tight embrace, first mother and daughter, then the father’s arms surrounding them both. All three were crying and clutching at each other.

Kaz followed at a more sedate pace. He felt like an intruder on the family reunion, but Inej had asked him to stay, so he would stay. Still, he stood a respectful distance away, knuckles white on the head of his cane.

Inej’s mother was crying, tears streaming unheeded down her face as she put her hands on either side of her daughters face. She spoke quickly in Suli but Kaz recognized the timber of her words as one of Inej’s prayers, a prayer of thanksgiving. Mr. Ghafa was gripping his daughter’s upper arm as if he was afraid she might vanish if he didn’t hold on with all his strength.

Kaz looked down at his shoes and took the opportunity to pull his leather gloves from a pocket inside his coat and pull them back on his hands. Eventually one of them would notice him again and introductions and handshakes would be exchanged. He wanted to be ready when that happened.

Several minutes passed, filled with tears and words Kaz did not understand. Then, with great sniffs Inej pulled away slightly from her mother’s embrace to wipe the tears from her face. She was still holding the spyglass in one hand, now thrown around her mother’s shoulder.

“Mama, Papa,” she said again, this time continuing in Kerch. She sniffling slightly. “I want you to meet my friend, Kaz. Kaz Brekker.”

Her parents tore their eyes from their daughter’s face to look at the boy standing off to the side.

“The Mr. Brekker who paid for our voyage from Ravka?” Inej’s father asked after a moment, switching languages into slightly accented Kerch.

Kaz didn’t miss Inej’s quick look of surprise before giving a stiff nod. “It’s a please to meet you Mr. and Mrs. Ghafa. I—“ Kaz cut off abruptly with a grunt of surprise as Mrs. Ghafa threw her arms around him and kissed both of his cheeks.

Kaz barely had time to stiffen and Inej to cry, “Mama!” before she released his arms and took his hand in both of hers, pressing another quick kiss to the leather-gloved back.

“You have reunited us with our daughter, Mr. Brekker. We owe you a debt that we can never repay.”

Kaz swallowed and tried to think of something to say, still reeling from the feelling of her embrace and the warmth of her hands radiating through his gloves. He was spared, however from trying to formulate a response by the intoxicating sound of Inej’s laugh.

“For Saint’s sakes, Mama. Don’t tell him that!” she said from her place in her father’s arms, a teasing glint in her eyes. “He’ll never let you forget it!”

“I assure you, Mrs. Ghafa. There is no debt between us,” he said, regaining his wits. “Any of us,” he added, looking up at Inej, so that she knew he meant it. He would not accept payment from the Ghafa’s. Not for the ship, nor their transportation, nor anything else.

Inej’s smile dimmed but it was replaced by something else in her eyes that he could not identify. It was something tender, warm and intense that he wasn’t used to seeing there.

Mrs. Ghafa patted his hand and finally released it to once again be near to her daughter. His glove still held some of her warmth around his hand.

“You must meet Wylan and Jesper too,” Inej said to her parents, still speaking in Kerch, presumably for Kaz’s benefit.

“Of course,” Mr. Ghafa said. “We want to meet all of your friends and hear about what has happened to you in the last three years. Everything that has happened.”

His voice was nothing but kindness and gentleness but Kaz didn’t miss the cloud pass over Inej’s face.

“So much has happened, Papa,” She said quietly, “I’m not sure I’m strong enough to tell the story.”

“Then we will lend you our strength.” Mr. Ghafa’s voice was deep and calm as a lake on a still spring morning, reassuring but brokering no argument. He would know what he daughter had experienced.

Inej nodded. “After breakfast.”

She took her mother and father’s hands so they flanked her and turned toward the city. They looked the perfect picture of a family. All straight-backed and brown skinned, walking into the crooked streets of Ketterdam. But they took only a few steps before she stopped again.

“Kaz?” she said, turning back to him when the familiar thump of his cane did not follow the three acrobats. Come with us, her eyes said, but Kaz didn’t trust his heart not to put words there she didn’t intend.

“You should spend time with your parents,” he said instead of following her, fighting the hints of doubt that wanted to enter his voice.

“Come with us,” she said, dropping her father’s hand to reach back to him.

He opened his mouth to argue, but couldn’t find the words. So he nodded stiffly and limped along next to her father.

Chapter Text

Jesper

Jesper hadn’t heard from Kaz after leaving the Slat to live with Wylan in the grand Van Eck house. That is until very late last night when Wylan had come into his room with a note and a confused expression. He’d read the letter aloud and the instructions to prepare an extra room for guests and have waffles ready by six bells the next morning.

There had been some discussion over the mystery guests, whether it would be Kaz himself, someone in need of a home that could not be provided in the Slat or someone less savory. Wylan had insisted on setting aside rooms for Inej, Nina and Kaz should they ever choose to use them, although they both found the last possibility extremely unlikely. It would take a miracle to get Kaz to live in anything even approaching comfort. It might ruin the persona he had built for himself.

They had told the housekeeper about the room and the waffles and talked until they fell asleep curled up together on Jesper’s bed. Together trying to imagine who the mystery guests might be. But neither suggested that the visitors would be turned away.

They pulled themselves up early the next morning and came downstairs. Shortly after the chimes announcing six bells faded, the scrape of a key had been heard in the lock. They both skittered toward the door to see who would come through their front door, only to be shocked by the sight of Inej flanked by two Suli strangers and, two steps behind them, none other than Kaz himself.

The two adults were unmistakable. Although the woman’s dark braid was shot with silver stemming from her temples and the man’s thick hair was completely white, they had Inej’s kind, dark eyes and held themselves as straight as the barrel of a gun. But most tellingly, Inej’s face was split into a wide, bright smile. She looked younger like that, face unchecked by the careful distance and secrecy she usually kept pulled around her like a winter coat.

She’s happy, Jesper thought. Maybe happier than I’ve ever seen her before.

-------

After introductions and formalities and kisses on the cheeks from the newcomers they moved to the dining room. They were all seated around the large oak table, eating waffles and talking amiably about everything but what might actually be important.

“And where are all your parents?” Mrs. Ghafa asked eventually, unaware of the quicksand she just stepped into.

The easy laughter vanished in a moment. Jesper saw Wylan swallow and look down at his hands, slightly sticky with syrup.

“Wylan’s mother is upstairs,” he offered before the pause could get to awkward. “My mother passed away years ago but my father still lives in Novyi Zem.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Mrs. Ghafa said in her low, calm voice so much alike her daughter’s. “It must be hard for you to be away from him.”

Jesper shrugged. “I’m happy here.” He said simply, taking one of Wylan’s hands. Mrs. Ghafa’s eyes follow the movement, but she keept whatever insights she might draw from the action to herself.

“Should we say hello to your mother then?” Mrs. Ghafa asked Wylan, giving the distinct impression that the question held more weight than her light tone would imply. Wylan swallowed audibly.

“The house belongs to Wylan,” Kaz said simply. The rough rasp of his voice a surprise from the end of the table where he had been silently eating his waffles and generally not participating in the conversation despite the Ghafa’s attempts to draw him in.

“His mother is ill and his father is,” Kaz paused, maybe to choose his words or maybe for dramatic effect, “indisposed.”

“He’s in prison.” Wylan said, his voice unsteady but his jaw set in determination. “He’s not…” he broke off to clear his throat before continuing, “not a very good person anymore.”

“Or ever,” Jesper added under his breath only to feel Wylan’s elbow in his ribs.

“He double-crossed Kaz,” Inej said simply. “The stupidest thing he could have done.”

The Ghafa’s nodded like that made perfect sense although Kaz had been the perfect gentleman since their arrival.

“And what about your parents, Mr. Brekker?” Mrs. Ghafa’s eyes snapped back to Kaz with interest and Jesper had the distinct impression that the whole conversation had been aimed at getting an answer to this question.

“Mama,” Inej said softly, a light rebuke or warning perhaps, but she didn’t try and retract the question either.

Jesper’s head swiveled to look at Kaz as well. It was a question he’d had for years with little success. He wondered which of Kaz’s many evasions he’d try to use on the Ghafas and whether they would work.

Jesper watched as Kaz swallowed a gulp of his coffee.

“Dead,” he said simply, much to Jesper’s surprise. “They died a long time ago, I’m afraid.”

Mrs. Ghafa nodded slowly, as if she’d expected this answer. “I am sorry for your loss,” she said, “For all of you,” she added, looking around the table. “But who has been taking care of you all, if not your parents?”

“We take care of each other,” Kaz said simply.

“Is that what you have been doing, Inej?” Mr. Ghafa’s low voice asked, turning to his daughter. “All these years? Here is Ketterdam, living with your friends?” His voice was almost painfully hopeful. Everyone at the table knew that such a rosy path was unlikely in this city. But the father obviously hoped that his daughter had not suffered too much.

“Yes,” Wylan piped up, not fooling anyone. “We live here and my father’s—I mean my trade business supports us…”

Jesper lightly squeezed his hand to make him stop. “You’re a terrible liar, Wy.”

Inej took a deep breath and straightened her shoulders. “Do you mind if I borrow your sitting room for a while?” she asked Wylan, her voice steady despite the tension in her shoulders.

Wylan nodded and Inej stood, straight and silent as ever. Her parents rose as well, mirroring their daughter’s poise and grace. Inej’s fingers traced lightly over the white tablecloth for a moment, as if considering her next move.

“Kaz,” she said quietly, “I might need you to tell the parts—“ she broke off and took another deep breath. “About the Menagerie. If I disappear—“

“Whatever you need,” Kaz said, getting to his feet as well.

Jesper raised his eyebrows at Wylan. Wylan looked even more shocked. Apparently, today was a day for miracles.

Chapter Text

Inej

Inej wasn’t sure why she needed Kaz, only that she did.

Her heart and mind were a clamor of conflicting desires. She never wanted to leave the safety of her parents arms again, but she couldn’t stand to be there knowing the lies she told them. They were lies of omission, true, but lies nonetheless. Still, she knew that her parents would not look at her the same way once they knew the truth. How could they? Once they knew the people she had killed and those who had shared her bed, how could they look upon her with so much hope and care?

It was these fears that drove her to the settee in the Van Eck drawing room, pulling Kaz down beside her. Seated like this, pressed together on the two-person couch, her parents were forced to take the armchairs, keeping them an arms distance away.

Kaz had set aside his cane, hat and coat and he looked oddly delicate now, sitting beside her in his shirtsleeves and vest. His body was angled toward her as much as possible on the small sofa, holding her hand and keeping his bitter-coffee eyes trained on her face. His gloves were still on, but somehow she knew that it was due to the relative strangeness of her parents rather than to hide his hands from her. He held her hand so tightly that she could feel the little slits in the fingertips, little absences of contact from the leather covering the rest of her hand.

“When I—“ Inej began before stopping abruptly.

She took a deep breath, fighting against the anxiety bubbling up inside her chest. She felt Kaz’s fingers flex against her own

“When I was taken,” she began again. “I didn’t know what was happening at first, but there was a woman. A woman who bought me.”

Her mother made a little gasping sound and Inej flinched. If she didn’t like this part of the story, it was only going to get worse.

“She forced me to…to work in The Menagerie,” Inej was staring at her knees now, too ashamed to look her parents in their eyes. She knew that she’d had no choice, but now, in front of her parents, she felt the hot burn of shame and disgust all over again. She squeezed Kaz’s hand and he squeezed back.

“A Menagerie?” Her father asked, voice calm but tight, like he was fighting to keep it so. “Like where they show off exotic animals?”

A tiny choked noise escaped her against her will. The hand Kaz wasn’t holding flew up to her mouth, trying too late to stop the noise. She stared harder at her knees.

“The Menagerie is a pleasure house,” Kaz explained softly when it became clear that Inej wasn’t going to continue. The rough rasp of his voice was low and gentle as he put into words what she could not. “People go there to have—“ he broke off, clearly choosing his words, “To rent certain services from people unlucky or desperate enough to provide them.”

Inej realized that she held Kaz’s fingers in a vice-like grip and tried to loosen her hold, but his grip was just as tight.

Inej’s parents said nothing and she was too afraid to look up and gauge their expressions. She didn’t want to see their disgust and revulsion for the life she had been forced into.

“Heleen Van Houden bought young girls and boys from slavers and claimed them as indentures, working off impossible debts for travel, room and board,” Kaz continued. If you didn’t know him his voice would have sounded impassive, but Inej could hear the edge to his words. “She specialized in catering to men with… a taste for women from other countries. The only way to escape that kind of contract is for someone else to buy out the contract and slowly work off the debt in other ways.”

Inej heard a soft thump and she opened her eyes, not sure exactly when she’d closed them, or when she’d begun to cry. She glanced up to find her father on her knees before her. He carefully took her free hand and press it to his face. Inej could feel the rough hairs of his mustache and the wet lines of his tears. She choked on a sob.

“My dear, brave girl,” he said softly in Suli. “I should have protected you better from these things. I wish I could wipe away these sufferings from your heart.”

Another sob tore its way free of Inej’s throat and she slid off the sofa into her father’s arms. She closed her eyes and let the tears come. Her father’s arms held her tightly to his chest, safe and warm. Her mother’s hands ran through her hair as she joined them on the rug.

These were the things she had longed for those nights in the Menagerie and then again afterward whenever she allowed herself to dream of home. The wish for the safety and love of her parents surrounding her had torn at her heart for years. But now, all she could feel was the space between them. All she had changes since she was the girl whose problems could be fixed in her parents’ embrace. She sniffed and opened her eyes. Her father’s eyes above her were wet with tears, overflowing with emotion. To her side, her mother’s strong hands were stroking her arm and her hair Her hands smoothing themselves in and out of her line of vision. Kaz was still seated on the sofa nearby, slightly apart from the tangle of Ghafa’s on the floor.

“How did you escape?” Her mother asked softly after a few minutes.

Inej shook her head, trying to explain that she didn’t, not exactly. “I tried to run away. Tante Heleen… she beat me so badly I could barely move.”

Her mother let out another involuntary, pained noise.

“When I was well again, they put bells on my ankles so I couldn’t do it again. But Kaz was there.”

Her father’s face snapped up to glare at Kaz, his eyes full of anger and betrayal, suddenly believing that had taken advantage of his daughter. Which, she supposed he had, just not in the ways that her father was thinking.

“No, Papa,” Inej said with a wet chuckle, “Kaz was there for information, not… not people. He convinced Per Haskel to pay off my indenture. In exchange, I joined a gang called the Dregs and found out secrets for them. I walked over the rooftops like tightropes and found out terrible things that terrible people wanted to do. And we tried to stop them when we could.”

Inej could see Kaz’s hand flex on the sofa cushion. It was a rose-colored version of events to be sure, but it wasn’t untrue either.

“You helped our daughter to escape?” her mother asked Kaz after a pause.

“I offered her another option,” Kaz corrected, but the older woman didn’t seem to care about the semantics. She rose quickly, with a dancer’s grace, and moved around her husband and daughter still huddled on the floor to take Kaz’s hands. She brought the backs of his palms to her lips and kissed them. Kaz looked utterly shocked at the state of affairs and unsure how to proceed. It wasn’t an expression she’d seen on him many times before. Inej decided that she liked it.

“You helped Inej escape a fate that we could not protect her from,” her mother said softly to Kaz. “You have our gratitude.”

“It was a purely strategic decision, I assure you,” he said demurely, but his cheeks were flushing ever so slightly pink.

“So you joined these Dregs,” she said, releasing Kaz, turning to Inej and taking a seat on Wylan’s plush carpet again. “What happened next?”

Inej ducked her head again.

“I’m not sure the Saints could ever forgive me for all the things I’ve done, Mama,” she admitted quietly.

“If they don’t, they don’t bloody well deserve you,” Kaz growled, his face hardening into the mask most people associated with him.

Inej’s mother chuckled softly, gently placing her fingertips on her daughter’s chin to tilt it up until their eyes met. “If you did your best, with good intentions in your heart, then no one can blame you. Not even the Saints.”

Inej wasn’t sure that her intentions had always been good, but she felt relieved anyway. It felt like a pardon, like a stay of execution for her soul.

A few more tears slipped out only to be wiped away by her mother’s soft thumbs as she cupped her daughter’s face.

Inej took a deep breath and told her parents everything.

Chapter Text

Kaz

Kaz limped in the door to the slat, leaning heavily on his cane. All he wanted was to go straight up the stairs and sleep for a week. But there were accounts to be settled and reports to compile, so instead he directed his feet to the door of his office.

He had been at the Van Eck mansion until late last night, talking with Inej and her parents. He had explained Inej’s role in the Dregs and the series of events that had led up to and continued after the Ice Court job, eventually leading to their arrival in Ketterdam. Inej had held his hand while she explained how she wanted to hunt slavers on the sea. How she wanted to find justice for girls like her stolen from their families. Kaz had been there mostly as a hand to hold, occasionally chiming in when she was overwhelmed or unable to give a full account of events. It shouldn’t have exhausted him so much, it wasn’t physically taxing, but he felt drained nonetheless.

He’d snuck out when everyone was getting ready for sleep and spent the rest of the night and early morning prowling the streets, checking on the buildings he owned and making sure all was in order. He had met with card dealers and bouncers, servers and clients, kept up with all the work that he had neglected the day before.

It was hours past sunrise when he finally reached to his office door and was surprised to find it ajar. He could hear soft voices coming from inside. First, the familiar low timber of Jesper’s laugh, then the softer voice of Mrs. Ghafa.

He pushed the door open slowly with the end of his cane. Jesper was leaning back in one of the two guest chairs facing Kaz’s desk, balancing precariously on the back two legs and wobbling ominously. Mrs. Ghafa sat primly in the other. The two were chatting happily while between them, Kaz could see a dome-covered plate siting on his desk. Inej was curled lazily in the windowsill, her eyes already on him even while the other two continued to talk.

Kaz cleared his throat noisily to get their attention. Jesper, predictably, fell over. Mrs. Ghafa turned to face him, her face splitting into a large smile. Kaz wasn’t sure when the last time he had seen someone have that reaction to his presence. Even Inej wasn’t that happy to see him.

“Mr. Brekker,” Mrs. Ghafa said, picking up the domed plate and removing the lid. “I have brought you a cake.”

Kaz really didn’t know what to say to that. He opened his mouth like a fish before catching himself and snapping it closed again. Luckily, Jesper’s muffled swearing as he righted his chair and sat back down in it, covered Kaz’s momentary loss of words.

“You didn’t have to do that,” he said.

“Nonsense,” she said, ushering him over to his own desk.

“Then you should at least start calling me Kaz,” he said brusquely, the clunk of his cane against the floorboards emphasizing his words.

“And you should call me Soora,” Mrs. Ghafa said, unperturbed. “Inej do you have a knife?”

That was a stupid question. It was like asking if a bird had wings. But, again, Kaz kept his mouth shut.

For her part, Inej just nodded, and handed her mother the knife at her belt. She started setting out plates for them all from one of Per Haskel’s cabinets he hadn’t had the chance to clear out yet. Mrs. Ghafa—Soora—began cutting the cake.

The cake had pure white icing which when cut revealed soft spongy cake layered with dried fruit, nuts and more sugar. While the ingredients had obviously come from the Van Eck house, the recipe looked to be Suli. Kaz could only assume that Soora had gotten up early this morning with the express intent of making this cake for him.

The sentiment was sweeter than the cake, and Kaz wasn’t sure how to deal with that. So he did the only thing he could do. He ate the cake.

----------

The second time he found Mrs. Ghafa—Soora—at his door, a week later, she was alone. She didn’t come empty handed, however.

Kaz invited her into his office again and was immediately given a large piece of flatbread stuffed with lentils and spices that made his nose itch. Kaz rarely let himself sit down for anything approaching a formal lunch and it was surprisingly pleasant to eat with her and chat idly.

“Have you lived in Ketterdam all your life, Kaz?” Soora asked conversationally, tearing him off another piece of bread.

Kaz knew that this was why she had come—an interrogation. A very polite and delicate interrogation, but the goal was to extract information he was reticent to give, so an interrogation nonetheless.

He realized that it was against the rules of these sorts of polite interrogations to eat the offered food if you didn’t plan on giving anything in return. But he liked Inej’s mother. He liked her quiet ways and gentle smiles and the way they contrasted with her full heart and steel backbone. She was what Inej might have been in another life. A life where she wasn’t snatched from Ravka and brought to the Barrel. A life where Kaz would never have met her, but also a life where she might have been happier than he could ever make her.

“I’ve been here since I was a child,” Kaz said, carefully choosing words that true, even if they were misleading.

“You’re still a child,” she pointed out.

“I’m as old as the earth,” Kaz responded, hoping to throw her, but she just chuckled.

“Experience will do that to a person,” she said. “But you are still young, you do not realize how much older you can be.”

Kaz doubted that, but he knew better than to argue with Sulis determined to give you a piece of their “wisdom.”

Kaz took another bite and watched Soora square up her next question. The smart thing would be to change the game, start asking her questions and put her on the defensive. But he didn’t really want to. He liked the feeling that came with being trusted by Inej’s parents, however misplaced that trust might be. He’d let her ask her questions. He’d evade answering where he could, and lie where he couldn’t, but he wouldn’t shatter this woman’s idea of him. Not today at any rate.

Kaz let her wind up her next question, sipping thoughtfully at the tea he’d brewed her. But before she could say anything, Inej threw open the window and hopped lightly in, slightly out of breath.

“Mama!” Inej said, slamming the window closed behind her. “Did you walk here alone?”

“Yes,” the mother answered, still looking vaguely surprised to see her daughter entering through windows rather than doors.

“What were you thinking?” Inej demanded.

Tension radiated from every line of Inej’s body, she was practically vibrating from anger and worry. Kaz wondered briefly if he should have sent a note to Inej to let her know that her mother was with him. But he hadn’t thought about her worry. He was used to Inej’s competence in the crooked streets of Ketterdam and he had forgotten that her parents were likely not as street-smart as their daughter. They had raised a sweet daughter who cried when she was forced to take a man’s life. It was unlikely that Soora had even thought about the danger she faced walking into the barrel alone.

“I see no reason why I should not walk alone. I refuse to walk with fear in my daughter’s home,” Soora replied, sitting up a little straighter in her chair.

“I am never alone, Mama,” Inej responded, her voice as hard and sharp as one of her knives. “I have my saints with me.”

Soora opened her mouth to argue, presumably that they were her saints as well, but Inej wasn’t finished.

“Sankt Petyr and Sankta Alina,” she said, releasing the knives in question and dropping them onto Kaz’s desk with two loud “thunks.” Soora stared with wide eyes at the weapons.

“Sankta Marya and Sankta Anastasia,” she continued, producing them from her thighs and dropping them in a similarly dramatic fashion on the hardwood desk.

Inej swung her right boot onto the desk next, to reveal and name Sankt Vladimir, which joined the others.

“And you already know about Sankta Lizabeta,” Inej finished, pulling her only visible weapon from her belt. Soora stared at the knives piled on the table, completely still apart from the heaving rise and fall of her chest as she sucked in deep breaths.

“I am never alone, Mama,” Inej repeated, more gently now that her anger and worry had dissipated somewhat. “It’s not safe to be.”

“And you, Mr. Brekker?” Soora asked softly, “Do you travel with weapons or is it only girls who must arm themselves to the teeth?” Her voice was even and calm, but the tension in her neck and shoulders could not be hidden.

Kaz sighed. So much for trying to stay in her good graces.

He pulled his cane from where it was leaning against the wall and added it to pile on the desk.

“I’m a cripple that has managed to piss off half the city and buy the other half. Most all of them would like to see me dead. Of course I’m armed.” He didn’t mention that his reputation was a far more effective weapon than the cane.

Mrs. Ghafa’s fingers ghosted over the face of the crow making up the handle of his cane, then over her daughter’s knives, trying to take in their presence.

Without warning, she stood, brushed off her skirt and strode from the room, leaving the plate with the remnants of their lunch under the pile of weapons on Kaz’s desk. Inej let out a deep sigh and dropped into a chair.

“I’ll make sure she gets back safely,” Kaz said quietly. For all he’d rather stay here and help Inej process what had just happened, her mother was back on the streets, still unarmed and likely even less aware of her surroundings, rattled as she was. Inej nodded and Kaz grabbed his cane to thump after the older woman.

Soora hadn’t had the opportunity to go far. She was less than a block away when Kaz limped out the door and already gaining interested looks from the variety of buskers out on the streets. He walked a little faster and their gazes skittered away, not wanting to interfere with Dirtyhands’ business. He stayed a few paces behind her but she had to know that he was there, from the consistent beat of his cane on cobblestone if nothing else.

She walked in the direction of the Van Eck house. She took a mostly direct route that avoided the truly disgusting streets, presumably the route she had taken with Jesper and Inej just a week ago. She walked with her back straight and a purpose that surprised Kaz. She didn’t seem stunned or reeling as he expected. Instead she strode through the streets like a woman on a mission.

About six blocks from the slat she turned abruptly and opened the door to a pawnshop. A little bell rang merrily as the door brushed its core. She didn’t look back, but held the door open for Kaz and he limped in after her. Despite himself, Kaz was a little glad to know that she’d noticed him. It would be bad indeed if she hadn’t noticed such an obvious tail.

“Hello,” Mrs. Ghafa said politely to the man behind the counter who was staring with wide eyes at the barrel boss that had just entered his store. “I would like to buy a knife please.”

She said it so calmly and matter-of-factly that she might have been asking about a handkerchief rather than a weapon.

The clerk cleared his throat and focused on her for the first time since they’d entered the shop. “Of course, Ma’am. What kind of knives are you interested in? We have a fine set of dinner knives with real silver handles that just came in…”

“No,” she said firmly, cutting him off. “I would like a knife that…” she paused, searching for the right word in Kerch. For a moment Kaz was worried that she might ask for a stabbing knife, but the woman seemed to collect herself and started again.

“I am interested in a hunting knife, please,” her calm, slightly accented voice seemed at odds with the request.

The clerk’s eyes flicked to Kaz, then back to Soora.

“Um, yes. Right away, Ma’am.”

He disappeared into the back room only to return a moment later with a velvet cushion and five or six knives. Soora’s fingers ghosted over the first knife on the right, with a tortoise shell handle and engraved blade.

“You have very fine taste, madam. That knife belonged to…” the clerk began, eyes flicking to Kaz again.

“I do not care whom it belonged to,” she replied lightly, moving onto the next knife. “Nor how it looks. Its function is more important to me than its form.”

“What do you think, Mr. Brekker?” she asked, in that same light tone, not turning around.

Kaz stepped forward to the counter and surveyed the knives. The clerk swallowed audibly.

“If you truly don’t care about its appearance,” Kaz rasped, “You might consider a switchblade. It would be easier to carry inconspicuously and one blade is just as effective as another.”

He looked up and met Mrs. Ghafa’s eyes for the first time since that afternoon’s questions. She looked resolved, though of what, Kaz couldn’t be sure.

“We have a fine collection of pocket knives,” the clerk said, voice pitched high with nerves. He started pulling different blades from beneath the counter and placing them on the velvet cushion.

Kaz chose a wooden-handle and flicked his wrist, showing Soora how it opened into deadly weapon. He folded it closed again and handed it to her. It took her a few tries but eventually she was able to flick it open as he had. She did the same with a number of switchblades the clerk set before her before settling on one with a polished bone handle and setting it gently on the counter.

The clerk named a price that was much too low for the quality of the knife and Kaz offered to pay, but Mrs. Ghafa waved him off. She laid a few coins on the counter and nodded at the clerk before tucking the knife into her skirts and taking Kaz’s arm.

He had to repress a flinch at the easy movement. Most people knew better than to touch him under the best of circumstances. Then again, the Ghafas were the exception to most all of his rules. Still, Kaz stood there a moment, expecting the cold water to lap at his ankles, but the layers of fabric between their skin seemed to do their job and he stayed firmly in the shop.

They walked out of the shop together to the sound of the little bell and found Inej leaning against a wall outside.

“Mama,” she said gently, “I didn’t mean—“

“I know, Inej,” Soora replied, taking her daughter’s hand without dropping his arm. “And I know there is wisdom in what you say. So now I will have my own Sankt Mikhail to walk with me.”

Inej swallowed thickly and nodded.

“Thank you,” Inej said quietly later, after they’d returned to Wylan’s house and everyone else had already moved into the music room. Kaz gently raised her hand to lips and let them brush for the smallest of moments before he swept out the front door and she slipped into the music with the others.

Chapter Text

Inej

Four weeks passed by like horses on a track. In what seemed like no time at all, Inej chose a crew, readied her ship and prepared for a journey that could last up to four months.

The evenings were filled with good food and conversation in the Van Eck house that Kaz managed to attend more often than not. Her days were spent with her parents, re-learning one another, or at the docks, first choosing, then getting to know her crew. She readied the sails, her cabin and every other place she could think of, delaying the day she would leave the bubble of happiness they’d made in Wylan’s house. She knew could never last, it was better to leave before the bubble burst on it’s own. But it was still tempting to stay in the comfort and contentment for as long as she possibly could.

To escape that temptation, she had set herself a deadline for her departure. Four weeks. Four weeks to laugh with Jesper and Wylan in the music room. Four Weeks to learn every inch of her new ship, slightly finer than she would have chosen for herself, but perfectly proportioned for a small crew to sail the true sea and take on larger slaver ships. Four weeks to live in luxury with her parents, while introducing them to the rooftops of Ketterdam and the people she’d grown to love there. Four weeks to say goodbye to Kaz.

The last was harder than she’d like to admit.

Kaz didn’t say goodbyes. She knew that, and she planned accordingly. She had said goodbye to him a thousand ways over that last week. She said goodbye as she slipped her hand into his ungloved one in Wylan’s sitting room. She said goodbye to him when she left him notes on his desk at the slat about gossip she overheard on the docks. She said goodbye on the nights he came for dinner and charmed her parents with dryly-told stories of Inej’s adventures with the Dregs. She had said goodbye with a line drawn in blood over Pekka Rollins’ heart.

It wasn’t enough. It couldn’t be enough. But it would have to do.

So when her parents walked up to The Wraith’s gangplank with another figure, clad in black and leaning on a cane, Inej was surprised to say the least. Kaz’s bitter-coffee eyes flashed in her direction from under the brim of his hat as he talked with her father. He shook her father’s hand stiffly, and then her mother’s. Inej noted the fair skin of his hands and the leather gloves tucked into his waistcoat pocket.

He didn’t come aboard. He stayed at the end of the gangplank as she greeted her parents and had her second mate help them with their trunks. She half-expected to turn and see him gone, but he still stood, slightly to the side as to not impede the flow of people bringing the final supplies aboard.

She walked lightly down the gangplank to him.

“I have something for you,” he said, the salty rasp of his voice blending musically with the sound of the sea.

“Something more than a boat and my parents?” Inej teased gently.

Kaz looked down and Inej thought he might be smiling, or even blushing. But whatever it was, it was gone from his face when he looked up again, pulling a brown-paper package from his coat pocket.

Inej’s fingertips brushed the boy’s as she took the gift. She still wasn’t used to the feel of his bare skin. Still, she was glad to see that he didn’t flinch at the touch. They hadn’t had much time to experiment with what they might become in the future. But most days they could hold hands without incident. Inej found herself unexpectedly pleased with this development.

She untied the rough brown twine and unfolded the paper to reveal a small compass on a long chain. She smiled at the sight of it. Like all his other gifts, it was practical. Though she already had a good compass aboard, this one was small and light enough to carry on her person. And, like all his gifts, it was beautiful too. The brushed brass casing glinted in the late morning light and the center arrow was painted a bright ruby red. The letters denoting North, South, East and West were not ornate, but stocky and easy to see, and yet, they were painted in the color of a clear blue sky.

“Thank you, Kaz,” she said, wishing that she’d thought to give him something in return.

He shook his head as if to shoo away off her thanks.

“You’ll give the slave ships a reason to fear your name, Captain Ghafa.”

Inej smiled and found herself standing a little straighter at his words.

Then, quick as a hummingbird, he leaned in and brushed his lips against her cheek, as light and fleeting as a brush of wind.

She wasn’t entirely sure, but she thought she heard him say, “be safe,” as he pulled away.

Then he was walking away, cane tapping out an even pattern on the wooden pier as he made his way back to the streets. She wanted to say something more, to shout something to his receding back, but she had nothing to say. She would see him again. She would return as a captain and a force against slavery. She would leave again and return again, again and again.

Inej folded the wrapping paper and stuffed it in her coat pocket. Her fingers brushed against an unevenness on the back of the compass and turned it over to find an inscription there.

To help you find your way home.

Inej smiled, hung the compass around her neck and climbed aboard her ship.

 

They cast off and set sail. Inej’s heart soared to be out on the open sea. Leaning over the side of the ship into the wind, she felt rather than saw her father come up next to her.

“What were you talking to Kaz about on the dock, Papa?” Inej asked after a while, curiosity getting the best of her.

“I was asking if he knew your favorite flowers,” he said, a twinkle in his eye.

“Papa!” Inej scolded.

“I told him I was thinking of buying you a bouquet in the next port,” he replied with a laugh.

Inej shook her head and looked back out at the sea.

“I’m sorry that you did not have boys bringing you flowers,” he said after a pause, voice suddenly sober and heavy.

“I don’t need boys to bring me flowers, Papa.”

“No,” he said softly, “You found one to bring you knives.”

Inej swallowed and looked at her father.

“What did he say?” she asked at some length.

Her father smiled. “He told me to buy you wild geraniums because they are your mother’s favorite, tulips because they remind you of Ketterdam in spring and tuberose to sweeten the smell of your room.”

He paused and the teasing glint reentered his eyes. “And a vase that wouldn’t tip over on a moving ship.”

Inej spent a long time smiling and thinking over those words as her fingers ghosted over the hard outline of the compass tucked into her shirt. Around her the sea rolled and splashed against the sides of her ship. The Wraith slipped through the waves as easily as she had once slipped over Ketterdam’s rooftops. Eventually, she turned and went below decks. She had slavers to catch.