Since the kiss on the morning after their wedding, Inej’s husband had never touched her intentionally again.
He would take her arm or hold her hand all the time in public, but only through several thick layers of clothes. A careful distance was always maintained in their bed, and he never sought to lie with her as a man and wife did.
This was odd, to Inej’s way of thinking, but she was too grateful to question it. A life of celibacy may not have been ideal, but it was far better than a life of cruel and punishing conjugal duties, or a life of whoring.
Inej found herself growing relaxed in the weeks following their wedding. Her life fell into a routine. Rise in the mornings and dress, while Kaz pointedly stared at the opposite wall, or went downstairs to grab them cups of steaming coffee. Then the two of them would spar for a half hour or so, and then their day would begin.
Inej would go downstairs and tidy up after the various criminals who made the Slat their home, often joined by Jesper, and then spend the rest of her morning reading, polishing her knives, or keeping up with some of the household chores.
She would go out in the afternoons, often taken places by Kaz. On the few days that he did not have somewhere to go with her, she would visit Nina at the White Rose, or invite her to come to the Slat.
And in the evenings, she would settle into bed side by side with her husband. They would read for a while in the lamplight, and then scrunch down together into the warmth of their bed, a careful channel of distance left between their bodies.
Every so often Inej would wake in the night to a freezing cold room. As gently as she could, she would climb over Kaz's sleeping body and stoke the fire back up, crouching before it until the feeling came back into her fingers and toes, and then crawling back over Kaz to settle into bed and sleep the rest of the night through.
One night, about three weeks after the wedding, she woke freezing only to find that there was no more wood for the fire. She desperately searched through the room, looking for extra blankets. She finally found a spare quilt stored in the trunk at the edge of the bed. She spread it over their normal quilt, careful not to disturb Kaz before pulling on a spare pair of woolen stockings and a cardigan to wear with her nightgown. She climbed back into bed and tucked herself into a little ball, trying to suppress her shivers so she wouldn't wake her husband.
It took her ages to fall back asleep. She couldn't focus on anything except how cold she was. She found herself inching slowly closer and closer to the sleeping form in the bed beside her, but she was alert enough to prevent any accidental touching. She didn't know why Kaz chose never to touch anyone, but she wouldn't go pushing that boundary.
It didn't matter in the end, though, because when she opened her eyes to the pale light of morning, there was a body curled around her own.
She tensed at the realization, before recognizing the smell of Kaz's soap.
His chest was pressed up against her back. His hips cradled hers, and one leg was thrown over both of her own. One arm rested below her head, under her pillow, and the other was wrapped firmly around her middle. She stared for a moment, looking at the bare hand that lay against the fabric of her nightgown.
Slowly, using every skill she possessed as the Wraith, she slipped out of his arms, careful not to wake him. She winced as the cold air hit her skin, after the comfort and warmth of his embrace, but hurried to dress and leave the room nonetheless.
Inej always found it strange to return to the Crow and Cup. Now when she arrived she came in through the front, as a patron, rather than in through the back as a barmaid.
Tom was always decidedly displeased to see her, although Daishya gave her free drinks.
She generally only came to the pub with Kaz and his friends. One frosty evening an angry Fjerdan man who had recently been blackmailed into Kaz’s employ knocked on her door.
“Yes?” she said, opening it to find the Fjerdan, Matthias, awaiting her outside.
“The demjin told me to bring you to the Crow and Cup,” Matthias said. “He asked if you wanted to invite your friend Nina. Jesper, Anika, Wylan, and Rotty will also be coming.”
“Oh,” she said. “Of course, just give me a few minutes to gather myself. Can we stop by the White Rose and collect Nina?”
The man nodded, looking uncomfortable as she touched up her makeup and changed into a less comfortable pair of shoes.
He chauffeured her to the White Rose, where Nina was acquired, and then accompanied them into the Crow and Cup. The others were already there, with the exception of her husband, and appeared to have made a good start to the drinking.
Nina cried out greetings and merged into the small crowd easily. She had taken to the Dregs like a fish to water, and Inej was now convinced that Nina loved Jesper more than she did Inej.
She hung back a little at first, Matthias at her shoulder, but it was difficult to remain on the outskirts of their little gang under the combined forces of Jesper and Nina. Before she knew it there was a drink in her hand, and she was laughing along to a story Wylan was telling.
The door to the pub banged open suddenly, and they turned as one to see Kaz framed in the doorway, cutting his most imposing figure in his all black suit and his crow’s head cane.
He loomed ominously, but there was something excited about his manner. He did not look angry, despite his perpetual scowl, but rather he seemed to be surrounded by a joyous sort of anticipation.
He strode in, grabbing a beer that had just been poured for a waiting dockman from Tom’s hand on his way past, and approached their little party. He raised his glass high and wrapped an arm around Inej’s waist.
“To taking Pekka down!” he proclaimed, which was greeted by a round of hooting and hollering from the other dregs present. “Brick by fucking brick,” he snarled, before downing half his stolen beer in one.
He slammed the pint down onto the table, turned to Inej, caught her face between both his gloved hands, and pressed his lips to her forehead. He released her quickly, but wrapped an arm back around her and tucked her into his side. He held her close and bent to murmur into her ear.
“This city will be ours, my darling. I swear it.”
Occasionally, Kaz would still be out when Inej went to sleep. He would arrive back in the early hours of the morning, sometimes beating the sun by only minutes. He was always careful not to wake her as he came in, changing into his nightclothes in the dark and sliding as gently as possible into their bed.
Which is why it came as such a surprise when the door slammed open a little past midnight, and her husband lurched into the room.
He had a hand pressed to his stomach, and blood was trailing on the floor in his wake. She sat bolt upright in bed, staring at him for a moment.
“Could I get a hand here, love?” he said, his voice even raspier than usual from pain.
Inej darted out of the bed, grabbing his arm and easing him down to sitting in the warm impression left by her body.
She pried his hands away from the wound, but all she could see was a tear in his shirt and dark blood seeping out of a hole in his stomach. Hurriedly, she pressed his hands back to the wound.
"Stay there, Kaz" she said. "I'll be back in a second."
She raced across to the bureau, where she kept her sewing box. She grabbed the whole thing and hurried back to his side. He had tipped backwards on the bed while her back was turned, and was laying perpendicularly across it, but his eyes were open and his hands were still pressed to his stomach.
She used her scissors to cut the bottom of his shirt open, pulling the ends of it up and revealing his pale belly.
"What happened, Kaz?" She asked as she used the shirt to wipe some of the blood off his skin.
"I got fucking shot," he said. "I thought that would be obvious."
"Hey," she said, worry making her feel brave. "Be nice to the girl who's about to stick a needle in you."
"About to what?" He rasped, but she cut him off.
"Is the bullet still in there?" She asked.
"No," he said. "I managed to get it out downstairs."
"Good," she said, and then splayed one hand flat against his abdomen and dug the needle in with the other.
His head thumped backwards on the bed and he turned an even paler shade of white. Sweat beaded on his forehead, and his gloves hands clenched into fists at his side.
She would have said it was from the pain, but he did not cry out, and he didn't try to fight her off. There was something else going on, but she shook it out of her head. She could only focus on one thing right now, and that was fixing the hole in her husband's stomach.
It was over fairly quickly, and she was tying off her knot before she had even realized she was done.
"Kaz?" She said.
He forced his eyelids open, but otherwise did not respond.
"I'm just going to run downstairs for a minute," she said. "I'll be back before you know I'm gone. Stay awake, Kaz."
He blinked slowly at her and she flew away from his side, darting down into the kitchen where she found a bottle of vodka and raced back upstairs with it tucked under her arm.
Kaz appeared to have collected himself somewhat. He made a small grunt as she splashed the vodka over the wound, but helped her to cut up the remains of his ruined shirt for bandages.
"You're awfully good at this," he said quietly, as they tore the fabric into strips.
"Customers at the Menagerie have all sorts of tastes." She said. It was blunter than she normally would have been, but she was tired and shaken from the night's events. "I've had to stitch up girls many times before. Twice, I've had to stitch up myself."
His hands stopped tearing, and she looked up to find him staring at her, an expression on his face she hadn't seen before.
"Hurry up," she said. "We might be able to get another three hours of sleep before morning."
Inej wrenched her shoulder on her first official job for the Dregs.
All in all it was a rousing success, but it made the next several days a tedious succession of discomforts whenever she moved.
She bit her lip and muddled through, though. Putting her hair up in the morning was the worst part.
It wasn't until she returned to their room that evening that she let it all wash over her. She'd been holding the pain back all day so the others wouldn't see it.
She allowed herself to lean back against the closed door and grab her shoulder. She screwed up her face and let a pained noise escape her lips.
Then she counted to three, took a deep breath, and opened her eyes to find Kaz staring straight at her.
Damn, she had thought he was still out on a job.
"Good evening, Inej," he said softly. He sounded almost concerned.
"Kaz," she said, evenly. Maybe they could pretend that nothing had happened.
"Are you alright?"
She shot a tight smile at him.
"Fine," she said. "Just a bit sore."
He nodded, and she crossed to the bureau, shrugging gingerly out of her cardigan and reaching for a hanger to put it on.
Kaz's gloved hand appeared on her wrist, stopping her reaching, and he took the cardigan from her. He hung it up, and then circled around behind her. She felt his fingertips at the back of her neck and froze, like a rabbit caught in a hound's path.
"I'm just going to help with your buttons," he murmured in her ear.
Nonetheless, she remained utterly frozen as his clever fingers worked their way down her back, feeling her dress gape open in their wake.
He stepped away after reaching the small of her back.
"Let me know if you need help with anything else," he said, and then returned to his book and his chair by the fire.
She slipped out of the dress and foundation garments, and then slithered into a nightgown, wincing at the movement.
She reached up to pull the pins from her hair, but her shoulder screamed in protest.
She would have just left it up and dealt with the consequences in the morning, but her bobby pins were digging into her scalp and, well, he had offered.
"Kaz," she said, turning to face him. "Could you help me with my hair?"
He looked a little startled, but nodded in agreement, so she scooped up her hairbrush and crossed over to him.
They stared at each other for a moment, unsure of what to do next. He spread his legs a little, and gestured to the floor between his feet.
"Maybe it would be best if you sat there?" He said, coughing a little to clear his throat.
She did, settling crosslegged in between his knees.
"What do I do?" He said, sounding a little baffled.
"Feel around the bun," she said. Their room was small, but it felt as though she were speaking too loud given how little space there was between them. "Pull out any pins you feel."
He did as he was told, and her hair started to flop down around her shoulders in chunks.
His fingers were gentle and probing, but the stitching on his gloves snagged and pulled at the individual strands of her hair, causing her to wince frequently. She tried to hide it. Kaz was helping her, and she didn't want to make him feel bad.
"Now what?" He said, when the last of the pins had been removed.
She handed the hairbrush to him.
"Run your fingers through it and see if you find any knots. If you do, brush gently at them from the bottom up to detangle them. Once all the knots are gone, just brush it all out."
He got to work running his hands through her hair, but the gloves caught and pulled. He sighed in irritation and his hands disappeared from her head for a moment. She was about to offer to do it herself when he dropped the gloves into her lap and continued on without a word.
She gently plucked the gloves up and held them in her hands. She remembered hearing a poem once, about how a girl poured her soul into her looking glass. If Kaz had ever put his soul into an object, she thought, it would have been these gloves. Holding them felt like holding a piece of him.
His fingers were cool and gentle against her scalp, and he worked dilligently to comb the tangles away.
"Alright," he said again. "What do I do now?"
"Do you know how to braid?" She asked.
"No," he said.
"That's alright then," she said. "I can sleep with my hair down."
"Not after all that trouble I just went through to comb it," he said, sounding a little affronted. "Besides, I don't want to wake up with a mouthful of your hair in the morning."
"Okay," she said, trying to work out how she could explain braiding to him. "Separate my hair into three strands."
He did, laying each of the side strands over her shoulders and leaving the middle one loose down her back.
"Good," she said. "Now pick up the one on the left in between your left thumb and pointer finger."
"Now take the strand on the right and cross it over," she said. "Hold it in between your pointer and your middle finger in your left hand.
"Left?" He asked to confirm.
"Left," she agreed, and felt a corresponding tug as he pulled her hair across.
"Now," she said, holding her hands out in front of her and miming the motions to keep track of what he was doing. "Pick up the middle strand and hold it between your thumb and pointer finger on your right hand. Then fold the left piece over and hold it between your pointer and middle fingers in your right hand so it becomes the new middle piece."
He did, and she could feel the base of a loose braid forming at the nape of her neck.
"Good, now fold the right piece over into the middle, and then the left piece, and just keep going," she said. "Just keep alternating folding the side strands into the middle."
He worked diligently behind her, cursing occasionally. He had to unwind a bit of it once when he lost the pattern, but he produced a passable braid after not too much effort. It was loose, and lacked structural integrity, but all she had to do was sleep in it.
"How do I keep it from unraveling?" He asked when he reached the bottom.
"There's a bit of leather twine wrapped around the handle of my brush," she said. "Tie it off with that?"
There was a gentle bit of tugging, and she got the impression that he was tying a knot far more complicated than a simple hair tie required, but she kept quiet on the matter.
"Thank you, Kaz," she said, reaching over her shoulder to hand him his gloves.
"You're welcome," he said, and his bare fingers brushed over hers as he plucked them from her grip