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The Heart is a Muscle

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Kaz couldn’t help but feel that life was better when he didn’t need a reason. 

He still liked to believe that he didn’t, and for the most part he was right. After all, it had been well over a year since Pekka Rollins had last shown his face in Ketterdam, and in his absence the Barrel had become one big pigeon, ready for the plucking. And pluck it he had

While the city had been paralyzed with fear of plague, while businesses were struggling to stay afloat and the other gangs were too wary to make their presence felt, Kaz flooded the streets with Dregs and kruge, buying up valuable buildings and businesses and terrorizing into submission those who insisted they weren’t for sale. There was effectively no limit on what could be accomplished with enough money, time, and manpower, and those were three things Kaz suddenly had in spades. If he could think it up he could do it, and if he could do it, he did.  

In mere months he had become the undisputed King of the Barrel. The Blacktips and Razorgulls had formed an alliance near the end of the summer in a last-ditch effort to resist his takeover, but while it allowed them to maintain some pockets of their former territory they were, at worst, a recurring nuisance, and at best a good reason for the honest businesses of the Barrel to keep paying Kaz for Dreg protection. 

Oh, it was good to be on top. It was good to be filthy rich. It was good to have his orders taken without question, his every whim obeyed with no more than a “yes sir” or a “right away sir.” 

He didn’t need a reason for anything .

Most of the time. 

“Tell me you’re joking,” Jesper said, slack-jawed. “You’re—he’s joking, right Wy?”

Both merchlings were staring at him across the giant mahogany table, waiting for him to explain himself. “She hasn’t slept in that room since before the Ice Court,” he said, annoyed to find he still knew how to explain himself. “I saw no reason to keep wasting the space.”

Jesper’s grey eyes were wide as the dinner plates Mieke was clearing from the table.“But… but it’s Inej’s room!”

“It was ,” Kaz corrected. “And that was always a temporary arrangement. The Slat is Dregs property.”

Wylan looked between him and Jesper, shifting nervously. “Well, it’s… it’s not like any of her things were still there, right? She does stay here whenever she’s home.”

Jesper turned to him, aghast. “Whose side are you on ?”

Wylan raised his hands. “There are no sides , Jesper.”

Kaz sat back in his chair as Mieke set a slice of orange frangipane cake in front of each of them. They were decorated with little orange blossoms wrought in buttercream. “Wylan’s right. Those rooms are mine to do with as I see fit, and all of Inej’s belongings are long gone.” He didn’t mention that he had checked personally for anything Inej might have left behind, or that he had second-guessed his decision a little when he saw her name scraped into the back of the headboard of the small cot, right alongside the names of all the other Dregs who’d once called that room their own. But there had been no trace of her besides those four letters carved into the wood, and his mind was not so easily changed.

“Well, yeah, but…” Jesper’s voice trailed off, and Kaz was sure he was trying to come up with yet another sad argument. “I… I liked to visit her room, when I was in the Barrel. It made me miss her less.”

He nearly rolled his eyes. “Well. If only I had known that you liked to spend two minutes of every month standing in an abandoned room, I would have left it alone.” He skewered a forkful of cake, giving Jesper a hard look. “Standing around being sentimental isn’t going to bring her back any faster. I’ve been running the Slat for years without needing your input to do it , so let me do my job.”

He didn’t miss the look exchanged between Jesper and Wylan, but he didn’t know what exactly it meant, and he didn’t care. Of course they missed Inej. She’d been gone nearly seven months by far her longest journey away and letters were always scarce when she was at sea. 

Scarce, a voice mocked. Not non-existent.

Kaz wasn’t sure if any letters had come for the Merchlings, but he knew with absolute, crushing certainty that none had come for him. He wasn’t surprised. Things hadn’t gone as planned back on that chilly morning in March when he’d seen her off at berth twenty-two, and he could still see her braid swinging as she’d stomped furiously up the gangplank, disappearing without so much as a word of goodbye. He remembered thinking, even through the haze of his own anger, that he liked how her dark hair looked, swishing across her back like that. 

The memory left a bitter taste in his mouth, almost destroying his appetite. And when he noticed the twin looks worn by Wylan and Jesper across the table, watching him, his stomach turned, finishing the job. “Can I help you?” he snapped. A pity. Jelga was a whiz in the kitchen, and he was actually really enjoying that cake. 

Wylan cleared his throat, carefully considering what he wanted to say. Good . Kaz thought, gritting his teeth, bracing for it. He always was the smarter of the two.

Inej usually sent his letters to the mansion, since the post tended to be more reliable for addresses along the Geldstraat than for ones deep in the Barrel. By the look on Wylan’s face, it seemed it hadn’t escaped their notice that all those months had come and gone with no letters to be passed along. 

He abandoned the cake, pushing back from the table and buttoning his jacket. 

“Kaz, man, don’t ” Jesper began. 

“Thank you for dinner,” he said coldly. “Pass my compliments on to Jelga.”

He saw himself out without waiting for a response. These Monday night dinners were usually a welcome respite from the business of the Barrel and the responsibilities of being leader of the Dregs, but these unwelcome interrogations were like ground glass on his nerves. They had wanted out, and they had gotten out. What did they care what he did with the Slat now that they had their mansion? They hadn’t spoken up when he tore the place apart to install miles of copper piping carrying hot water even as far as the attic, or when he’d gotten rid of the old, smelly gas lights and replaced them with new and brighter ones, or when he’d done the same with the soot-stained windows that whistled in a bad storm. The allocation of bedrooms should be the same—absolutely none of their concern.

Of course he knew the reason they did care; it was carved into the headboard of a little bed on the third floor. 

He had first thought of repurposing the room last summer after the renovations were finished, but decided against it. Inej had been on her second journey at that point, and some part of him foolishly thought that maybe she might still want to stay there when she returned, even if just once in a while. So like a hopeless idiot he’d kept it empty, even after it became clear she had no interest in revisiting the tiny room that had been her home for the years she’d been with the gang. She always stayed in her pretty blue room with the Merchlings and he could hardly blame her for that. What was a small cot and a thin mattress in a cramped and noisy wedge of the Slat compared to waiting maids and Kaelish lace curtains and fresh flowers on her nightstands? The Slat held none of those luxuries, and no amount of renovation would change her nightmares of the days when she’d lived there.

He had thought it was a good idea last May when Wylan invited Inej to stay at the Van Eck mansion after Kuwei’s auction —an invitation extended to her parents when they arrived in Ketterdam. Mr and Mrs Ghafa had happily taken them up on their offer, leaving their suite at the Geldrenner and moving into the spare room beside Inej’s. Jesper and Wylan had been only too happy to play the gracious hosts to the reunited family, and Kaz was happy to let them , joining in whenever he could. The weeks had been full of picnics, tours of the city, and dinners that usually turned into entire nights spent in one of the parlours. 

The grandest of these events was the party they’d thrown on the twenty-sixth of May, for Inej’s seventeenth birthday. The guest list was small, but they spared no expense for decoration, food, or drink. The five-course meal was enough to make Kaz seriously consider hiring Jelga out from under them—he could afford to keep her now that the Kruge from their latest job had come rolling in, and was already developing a ravenous appetite for the finer things. 

They’d stayed up well into the night celebrating; Inej had tried to teach Jesper and Wylan a traditional Suli dance that proved much too complicated for either of them, though privately Kaz thought that being good at the dance couldn’t have made them enjoy themselves any more. Mrs. Ghafa laughed so hard at their antics that she had to stop playing, but once she picked her fiddle up again Inej and her papa took over the dancefloor. They performed the dance flawlessly, as far as Kaz could tell, and were rewarded with thunderous applause from the Merchlings and their staff when it was over.  

Kaz had never seen Inej so happy as then, holding her papa’s hand and curtseying politely.

She found him later in the room that had once been Jan Van Eck’s office, inspecting the newly-installed safe in the wall. The room had come a long way since he and Wylan had fallen through the floor, but there was still a lot that needed done. All the furniture had been removed to do the repairs, leaving the room a gutted shell, just waiting to be refinished and made useful again. 

Inej closed the door behind her, moving soundlessly across the exposed sub-floor. Kaz knew all her silences; this one had been almost shy. 

“Do you know what else today is?” she asked.

He turned—he should have tried to prepare himself to see her, but even after an entire evening spent watching her it probably wouldn’t have helped. 

The top of her hair was braided and wrapped in a knot, the bottom half loose, reaching her waist. She was in Suli silks of course, but not the translucent, low-cut imitations she’d worn at the Menagerie. These were authentic, dyed a rich, deep blue, and even though her face shone and her hair stuck to her neck with perspiration the high-quality silk floated about her body like it weighed no more than air.

He couldn’t find his voice. He knew he was staring, knew that the look in his eyes might frighten her. She’d told him of how it felt to be on the receiving end of such hunger, and the last thing he wanted was to hurt her. But to look at her with anything less than the unbridled awe he felt seemed wrong in ways he couldn’t explain. 

He nodded. 

Two years ago to the day he’d seen her for the first time, dressed in purple and teal in the salon of the Menagerie. He could still picture her perfectly; he could have redrawn every Lynx’s spot on her shoulders, arranged every curled lock of hair exactly where it had fallen. He almost hated himself for it—he knew how miserable she’d been that day, how hopeless, how desperate. It shamed him that he would ever think of that night with anything but disinterest—or better, with disgust—but she’d been so breathtaking he’d never been able to erase the image of her from his mind. 

I can help you .

He wanted to get to his knees, right there in the half-destroyed office, and beg her to help him with everything for the rest of his life. 

It had been her birthday. 

He hadn’t known.

She stepped closer, less shy now. “Thank you,” she whispered. 

He shrugged. “Jesper and Wylan did most of the planning.”

She gave him a little smile, like he’d made a joke. “None of this would have happened without you.”

He had to look away; he was in danger of doing something foolish. “Well, if it’s but-for causation you’re looking for, you might consider thanking your mother.” 

She took another step closer. His body was screaming. Every inch of him felt aflame, half wanting to run, half wanting to grab her and pull her close. 

Slowly, giving him plenty of time to turn away, she put her hand on his shoulder, then lifted onto tiptoe. “May I?”

He had to turn his face, and tilt it down a little. When her lips brushed his cheek he shuddered, but it had very little to do with corpses and bloated flesh and far more to do with a vicious desire coiling in his stomach, begging for more. He wanted to take her in his arms, to hold her face in his hands, to kiss her properly. He wanted to feel her hands curl around the lapels of his jacket, or press against his back, or tangle in his hair. He wanted more.

He couldn’t have more. He’d known that. Not yet

When she pulled away, settling back on her heels, and he found the waters hadn’t risen, he had almost tried anyway. It took all his self-control not to go after all the things he wanted to do with her, but he hadn’t. Instead he’d found the courage to brush a damp curl back from her forehead, and he’d smiled at her. 

Not yet.

“Happy birthday, Inej.”

So no, he didn’t appreciate Jesper and Wylan trying to stick his nose in all he had lost. Not a single letter. They missed Inej, he knew that. But they had no idea

He crossed their property, reaching the boathouse by the Geldcanal and dropping heavily into the gondola. The air was much cooler at night now, and he pulled his coat closed around his chest as he pushed off. He could have taken the streets and walked—or taken the new tunnel, as he had done a handful of times now—but there was a much greater chance of running into someone on the streets, and he really didn’t feel like running into anyone else tonight. The tunnel was terribly convenient, but he’d begun to think it would be better saved for emergencies; precious few of the Dregs knew about it, and he’d like to keep it that way. Besides, he wasn’t headed for the Crow Club tonight. 

The canal was quiet, almost peaceful. The sky was unusually clear tonight, and the light of the moon almost made the lantern at the bow unnecessary. Kaz was half tempted to extinguish it and drift back to the Slat in darkness. He could make it up to his rooms in the attic without anyone knowing he was there, and sleep through all the business he was supposed to be taking care of tonight. The idea certainly had appeal, though he knew he wouldn’t thank himself in the morning, when he had to catch up on everything he’d missed. Much of the Dregs’ business was running like a well-oiled machine at this point, but it moved quickly. Staying on top of all the goings on kept him more than busy, but that was how he liked it. In fact he wouldn’t have minded having some reports to go over now, in the gondola, instead of all this time alone with his thoughts.

He was past fooling himself that it was some mystery why he was angry with the Merchlings tonight. These Monday night dinners had started after the first time Inej set sail, and in those sixteen months he’d left the mansion frustrated with them multiple times. Borderline furious, on occasion. They seemed to love to push his buttons, especially where Inej was concerned. He supposed the only reason it had been so long since the last time they’d made him angry had a lot to do with their reluctance to bring up the Wraith, or why she wasn’t writing him any letters. If only they could have kept their mouths shut. 

If only he could have kept his mouth shut.

It was nearly eighteen months ago that he’d first held her hand on the docks. He thought, in all that time, that they’d made some progress with the demons that hounded them both, even if he was judging rather exclusively by how many more times he’d managed to hold her hand before she first set sail. Sometimes it had been difficult, painful to the point of near-impossibility, but they’d managed. And it had gotten easier, the waters rising a bit less each time his skin touched hers. He didn’t dare think about what that meant, where this all could be leading, and instead forced himself to consider every time her skin touched his as a victory all its own. He was greedy, but he tried so hard not to be. More than that, he’d tried not to hope —no matter what happened, no matter how she made him feel, he would not hope for more. Whatever this was and whatever it amounted to, it would be enough. 

He told himself this over and over again, and in the end it had not made one bit of difference.

That morning in March had been exceptionally cold, the weather a nasty combination of rain and snow and wind, and his leg was worse than usual. But as easy as it would have been to blame his foul mood on the early hour, or the weather, or his leg, he knew the rotten tightness that had settled in his stomach was from something else entirely.

It wasn’t the first time he’d seen her off at the docks. Not at all. He was seldom there when she returned, but he had yet to miss even one of her departures. So he was used to the twinges of regret and the cold,  bitter certainty that things were going to be more difficult in Ketterdam without her. He was used to the vague plans to force her to stay that always crept into his mind unbidden, plans that dissipated like the mist over the harbour as he reminded himself that this was her dream, that she deserved it, that he wouldn’t take it away from her.

But that particular morning had been different. That morning the feeling was a hard, dark, ugly thing low in his chest, and it consumed him. He did not want her to go; some part of him was irrationally certain that if she left this time she would not be back, that this time she would finally succeed in shaking Ketterdam from her shoulders like dust on an old coat.

He could remember a time when he thought it would be better for them both once she was gone. He’d seemed to think that being around her less would fade the impact she’d had on him, that while she was out pursuing her dream of catching slavers he would be free to do whatever it was he decided to do in the city, free of distractions.

Was there never another dream?

Standing at berth twenty-two that morning it had hit him like a punch to the gut, what he wanted to do, what his other dream was.

He’d never consciously decided to start talking, and he certainly never intended to say the things he’d said. But she was leaving, and it felt like his insides were being torn out.

“Have you told your parents?”

Inej turned to look at him, already wary. She didn’t have to ask what he was talking about, and she didn’t. When she did speak, her voice was quiet. “No. Not yet.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Not yet? They still think you were nothing more than a spider all those years?”

It made sense to him. Her reasons were as clear and as painfully sharp as shattered crystal. She didn’t tell her parents the truth about her first year in Ketterdam because she didn’t want to, and because she didn’t need to. How much less painful must it be to be back with her family in Ravka, far away from the city that took everything from her, surrounded by people who loved her and who had no idea what she’d been forced to become? How wonderful must it be to get to go back to the girl she once was, the girl she’d never gotten a real chance to be? 

He knew he shouldn’t blame her for wanting to put all this behind her, to turn her back on Ketterdam and pretend that those things never happened. But in his frenzy of grief he’d blamed her for it anyway. 

“I’ll tell them when I’m ready,” Inej said. “Kaz, let’s not

No, let’s , he thought, feeling for some reason like a cornered animal. “What have you told them about me?”

Now she was angry. “What does it matter?” she snapped. “They know you’re the one who found them and brought them to Ketterdam; they know you bought The Wraith , and that you paid off my contract with Per Haskell.”

“All the good, none of the bad,” he snarled. “Why is it so important to you that they don’t know who we really are?” 

When he’d met her parents in May of the previous year, he’d said as little as possible about himself, anticipating that Inej wouldn’t want to tell her parents everything at once, including how she’d come to keep company with someone like him. He’d made every effort to accommodate, to be no more than a young businessman in the city, her friend not her boss, and definitely not Dirtyhands. 

They’d known she’d been stolen by slavers, of course, and had feared the worst outcome for their precious daughter. They had been too afraid to ask, at first, but after a few days Inej had told them that her training as an acrobat had made her valuable as something called a spider, and she’d been purchased by one of the city’s gangs to spy and steal for them. Kaz hadn’t been there when she told the story, but he knew she’d sanitized it, and left his part out almost entirely. It was a wise choice, he’d thought; no need to let the gory details get in the way of a happy reunion. 

Of course they were still horrified to hear she’d been bought by anyone, but their daughter was alive, and that fact couldn’t have made them happier. 

Had he assumed she would tell them the truth eventually? Why? Why was it so important to him? It was none of his business what she did or didn’t tell her own parents... so why had it made him so angry? 

Inej kept her voice steady, though he was able to see how much effort it took. “I will tell them when I’m ready,” she repeated. “I don’t want to fight with you Kaz. Not now, especially not about this.”

But he did want to fight about it. He wanted to fight about something . “Just go, Wraith ,” he practically spat. “I know you can’t wait to get away from here.”

For one long, tense moment, she stared at him. Then she spun on her heel and stormed away, without looking back once. 

He was surprised to find his anger didn’t feel assuaged by her abrupt departure—in fact it felt hotter than ever. He felt so angry, watching her leave, that he hadn’t truly regretted his words until a month passed, and then another, with no word from her. Every other time Inej had gone back to Ravka she’d sent him a letter. He wasn’t worried for her safety she was still the Wraith, and besides, Jesper had said something at dinner one night about Inej sending them a note from Weddle—but it had been gnawing in the back of his mind that he’d received no letter because he’d really screwed up this time. It was far from the first time he’d been cruel to her it was probably not even the cruelest he’d ever been but something was different now. Since the Ice Court and its aftermath, since buying her a ship and meeting her parents and thinking for the first time that maybe, maybe he could hope for more, something had changed.

Whatever that feeling had been, that primal, cornered-animal fear, that longing , it was new. It was terrifying. 

He pulled the gondola up as close to the Slat as it would go, abandoning it to drift to the rental stall further up the canal. He was eager to get back to work, though he felt sure by this point that just going over the day’s numbers wouldn’t be enough to dull the edge of his frustration. He needed a compelling distraction to really take his mind off it. A distraction, and at least three fingers of whiskey. 

Had he heard of any new, expensive art acquisitions from Ketterdam’s wealthiest? He’d been so busy with all the Dregs’ new businesses that it had been months since he last lifted anything of consequence. Maybe it was time to get his hands dirty again, so to speak. 

As if in answer to an unspoken prayer, Roeder was waiting for him outside his office.

“Despres?” Kaz asked, pulling his keys from inside his suit jacket. He almost sounded eager, which did nothing for his mood. 

Roeder shook his head. “I couldn’t get into the factory. I’ve never even seen locks like those ones.”

Kaz raised an eyebrow, looking pointedly between the spider and the locks on his own office door. “Really?”

Roeder’s eyes were wide, but he nodded. “The guy seems squeaky clean otherwise —I mean we still haven’t found any evidence that any of his workers are slaver-bought indentures but what an honest factory-owner needs locks like that for I can’t for the life of me figure out.”

Perfect, Kaz thought, unlocking the last lock and stepping into his office. It too had been redone with the rest of the Slat, and it bore no semblance of the place where Per Haskell had grilled Kaz about each and every one of his biggest schemes. There were new floors, new panelling, new lights, new chairs, new everything. Most important had been the new locks on the door and on the big window behind Kaz’s desk, which provided an excellent view for anyone standing on the street of the DeKappel on the wall opposite. He’d briefly considered returning the painting to Wylan, since it might technically belong to him, but decided against it. Call him sentimental, but he liked looking at it while he worked. It reminded him of where he’d been, and just how quickly things could change. 

So he didn’t give it back, and instead made some not insignificant effort to ensure it wouldn’t be stolen.

It didn’t sit well with him that someone in the city had locks on their door that might have been better than his. Especially not since that someone was the owner of a mid-sized shoe factory someone who had no apparent need to take such serious measures to protect their privacy. 

Kaz returned the keys to his pocket, hanging his overcoat on the brass hook by the door, beckoning for Roeder to follow him inside. Without needing to be asked, his lieutenant closed the door. 

“What else do you have for me?”

Roeder hesitated. “Well... nothing, really. I took a crack at the locks, but like I said, that didn’t pan out. You know there aren’t any windows in the main room, and all the other windows are nailed shut. It’s… well, it’s a bit above my weight class.” 

Kaz took a seat at his desk, stretching his leg out on the crate he kept underneath for just that purpose. Between the shifting eyes and fidgeting hands, he knew what was on the tip of the spider’s tongue.

Roeder was the gang’s best spider, that much was certain. He’d improved significantly over the past eighteen months, securing his place as one of the most valuable Dregs, period. If his standards weren’t so high Kaz might even have called him good

“When… when is the Wraith home next?”

He looked up from the papers on his desk, fixing Roeder with a hard look. “Whenever she feels like it, I imagine.”

No, Roeder was an adequate spider, and he was useful. But he wasn’t good

He shifted his weight. “Well if not her, I think it’ll have to be you, boss. Unless there’s someone else whose lock-picking you trust? I could take Anika to see if she can make sense of them?”

If there were locks in Ketterdam that Roeder hadn’t seen before, Kaz wanted to take a look personally. And hadn’t he just been thinking he wanted a distraction? A chance to take a closer look at Despres’s factory seemed like just the thing. His paperwork could wait. 

His leg barely protested when he stood again, grabbing his coat and cane and reaching for the door handle. “Aren will be back just before one with the day’s numbers from the races. Tell him to wait for me to get back before he goes out again.”

Roder followed him out. “You don’t want me to come with you?”

Kaz withdrew his keys once more, locking the door behind them. “Why? You said so yourself: this job is out of your depth.”