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if it’s harmed, it’s harmed me, it’ll harm, i’ll let it in
BON IVER

 

 

 

“What do you call two crows on a branch?”

Inej is seated alone, shrouded in shadow, a drink in front of her she will not touch. She sits in the corner – the door, the entire bar, opened in front of her exacting eye-line. The Barrel is still the Barrel, even in the absence of all the old bad actors. Even when grasped in the ruling fist of Kaz Brekker.

She listens in to the men perched at the bar. “What do you call two crows on a branch?” the one asks.

She slips away amidst their preemptive laughter, unnoticed. It’d be far more remarkable if they had seen her. They don’t. The streets of the Barrel are winter-slick under her silent feet.

She already knew the punchline.

 

 

 

Inej had returned earlier that evening. The Wraith is docked in her berth; her crew had scattered like shrapnel once they reached Kerch shore.

Inej had walked the cold night up from the harbor, the stench passing from fish and dirty water to the familiar lung-blackening smoke. She traveled down East Stave, passed the gambling district. The halls had changed hands and changed names, but they were always open for business and the promise of luck. Inej had stopped in at the tavern positioned at the very edge of the Barrel. The Nest. The rare neutral territory to be found in the Barrel, or Ketterdam at-large. A place free of allegiances, or that had been the idea. Kaz’s idea. Kaz owned the place, but in the last two years Kaz had come to own a great many places, in the Barrel and beyond.

New gangs had cropped up in the Barrel after Kaz assumed power. The Dime Lions died out without Pekka Rollins, and the power vacuum left in his wake was overwhelmed by internal squabbling and in-fighting, back-stabbing and long-expected betrayal. With the Dime Lions’ absence came the Gold Sabers and then the Ironguard, and when both of them proved no match for Kaz Brekker and his crows, his Dregs, the Scorched Earth boys and the Nine Blades. The two men who had been at the bar belonged to the Blades, a young enough crew to be dangerous, if only for their eagerness.

She walks now, the cobblestone streets slick with ice but her practiced feet do not slip. The kruge she has in her pockets are bone cold so she presses her fingers to the coins, liking the bite and the chill. The Barrel is at its most inhospitable and unforgiving in winter and this is the season Inej likes it best: all pretenses gone.

But the city becomes smaller each time she returns. She climbs, walks now along the lips of buildings her feet and her hands and her body knows better than anything but the high wire. She scampers along, the cold making her hands as close to clumsy as she’s ever been, rusty, unpracticed, but still agile.

She only stumbles once when she reaches the Slat.

 

 

 

In the Komedie Brute, there is a character, mostly forgotten: The Dread Pirate King. The Dread Pirate King was a creature of the undead who did not know, or refused to know, that he was dead. His minor act of the story was dominated by his waylaid attempts to return home for his long dead love each winter. His story was a depressing one, and therefore unwanted. There was little to no beauty to him, and less comedy, so that made him less interesting.

Swim the distance! he would call. And his skeleton crew would reply, The tide won’t take you home!

 

 

 

Inej taught her hands new callouses aboard the Wraith. No longer the quick flash and untrusting thrust and parry of the blade, but the rope, coiled in her hands. Teaching herself to be steadfast, to hold tight.

Everything Inej knew about being a leader she had gleaned from watching other men, pickpocketing their secrets, finding how their methods fit on her own slight frame. Specht made for a good first mate, allowing her to grow into the role as captain. She kept an eye out for Nina in her travels. She never found her, which meant that Nina did not wish to be found.

She had left her parents. Their reunion had been short-lived and bittersweet. She was a different girl now. A woman. She had never considered how difficult it would be to look in their eyes knowing she had killed another. There was not a word and not a saint to preserve her, to save her, from the tangled knot of grief and restlessness she felt when she saw them. So she did not tell them. She did not tell them the details of the slavers and the hold of the ship, she did not tell them about Tante Heleen and the early days of terror and locked limbs and the suffocating yield of a featherbed in silks beneath her weight and another’s. They did not know her as the Wraith and she intended for them to never know her as this. Their arrival, as much-wanted as it had been for years on years, had felt a bit like a performance cut short. The final act still had yet to be performed. Her ship waited in the harbor. There was work left for her to do; her penance was not served. She will never tell Kaz of this. It is yet another kindness mutated between them. But then, she knows, she will never need to tell him – he has always been able to read her. He has always known her. 

So Inej left. So the Wraith made its maiden voyage, two years ago.  Vellgeluk – that island teeming with smugglers and slavers. It had been the Wraith’s first stop.

 

 

 

Kaz stayed in the Slat. There were minor renovations, but it kept its dilapidated not-quite-charm. Retained its familiarity. A bit like walking back through time, Inej thinks, as she gracefully drops down through a third-floor window. She has never once entered the Slat via the front door and she has no intention of breaking her streak now.

One of the first times she had returned to the Barrel, the entire Slat had stunk of wet paint and varnish, and Inej found herself with a solid gray strip up the side of her thigh.

“If all of Ketterdam had been dipped in wet paint,” Kaz had drawled, watching her, those careful eyes, “how much of your mystery would we have lost.”

“I would adapt,” she said.

“I have no doubt,” he said.

Kaz still keeps his office here. He had always abided by the idea of hiding in plain sight. Why keep his home base a secret. The best card to play, he liked to say, is the one you show them first.

“Or the one hidden up your sleeve,” Jesper would add, just loud enough for Kaz to hear and glare.

It’s easy enough to sneak back into his office, old habits as stubborn as the both of them. He is wearing the gloves again. It’s the first thing she notices – the black leather like second skin.

Inej shifts out of shadow; she lets him see her. His glance over the page in her direction is small but she catches it.

“What business?”

“Kaz Brekker,” she says.

 

 

 

Inej never learned how to build a home, but rather bridges. The only place she ever felt home in the Barrel was the space between buildings, taking that skyline and making it the closest thing to known.

The Barrel was always a place best designed for personal reinvention, voluntary or otherwise. You learned to survive or you made your way to the Reaper’s Barge – voluntarily or otherwise.

The tide won’t take you home!

 

 

 

Kaz is all angles and always with an angle to play.

Each time they see each other after months apart, it’s like they have to relearn how to navigate one another. There is always a brief glimmer of self-satisfied surprise that makes itself known along the flat line of Kaz’s mouth that he buries just as quickly. As if he feared the time before was the last. As if he feared eventually she would not return.

So they circle each other without even moving. Each time she returns to him is the same, but different. They change in each other’s absence, they become more impatient. The silence in his office is deafening.

Inej crosses her arms over her chest and studies him. Kaz is still all about austerity, even with the money. No flash, no ring to kiss. The same cane, the same dark tailored suits with matching vests. He doesn’t dress like the boss he had become in the Barrel. He doesn’t need to – he had already bled for it. He still does his own dirty work though, still Dirtyhands. He still stands by the belief that any allowance would be seen as a personal weakness. Perhaps. Survival teaches useful skills but also ones that unmake a man.

He ignores her, and she can feel her frustration rise, twinned with something like disappointment. “Has it finally come to this then? You’ve run out of anything worth saying?” His face is that sharp mask that makes men who have met him call him a ghoul. Kaz drops the ledger he was reading onto this desk and he rises. Inej might hold her breath; she might not admit to that. But Kaz diverts his approach before he can reach her and collapses down on to the old sofa along the opposite wall.

“You walk a fine line, Wraith.” There it is: the familiar textured tone of his voice; touch without touch as it washes over her.

She steps towards him. “You should know better. That’s all I have ever walked.”

 

 

 

Early on in her days with the Dregs, she fell.

This is what she learned:

You climb up, but if you fall, the Barrel will be waiting. The Barrel was there to break you. She had been bound to the ground for three weeks following, nursing a limp that looked like a mummer’s mockery of Kaz’s. She did stretches in her small room, all but climbed the walls. It wasn’t fear that she had felt, being trapped in the Slat, the Barrel, the Dregs (with Kaz), but a restlessness. A hum that settled in her bones, electric and pulsing, that made her fingers and her toes twitch.

This is what she learned, trapped: never let a thing break you here. Never let a thing hold you down and keep you. Never let a man – Never let Kaz – Never

 

 

 

“I’d prefer you never became dangerous to me,” Kaz had said to her. Prince of the Underworld and he took her and he made her dangerous, too. Or maybe all he had done was open that door and she followed, stepped through and down. Down, down, down.

He believed her dangerous because he had made her that way.

He had given her armor to match his own.

 

 

 

If Inej hates Kaz for anything, it's that the only time her body reveals an absence of elegance, of poise, is with him. How peculiar it is to belong to someone in ever way but the physical. How strange to elect to belong to another. She knows his body as well as her own in every way save for touch.

Inej thinks about touching him all the time. She remembers the feel of his gloves on her hands in the heat of the incinerator as she climbed – touch without touch – and she remembers his hand joined with hers as they looked upon her ship for the first time.

Now, alone with him, she sits beside him. She rests her hand on his knee, the bad leg, her touch tentative and feather-light. She can feel the heavy wool of his trousers – worn at the knee, the fabric thinner. She can feel the harsh curve of bone. Kaz doesn’t move so neither does she.

“So the men have taught you much at sea,” he says, snide, a deliberately cruel thing to say to a girl who came up through the worst of the Kerch brothels, and he knows it. Inej does not take her hand away because she knows, too: the gloves, so the men have taught you much, the unyielding cadaver-stiff carriage of his body – it’s all armor. She has spent enough time alone these last months to have given consideration to dismantling it all. She wants to know what Kaz looks like bared to her. She wants him to know he can trust her; he can come undone.

She squares her shoulders and twists to face him.

 

 

 

After her first kill, Kaz had ignored her. Inej heard his approach nights later, heard him before she saw him, the syncopated drag-thump of his bad leg and his cane. She continued to pray, ignoring him as he had ignored her.

“Does it bring you peace?” he had asked, standing at a lean in her doorway. Where she had expected mockery she found only a flat, confused curiosity.

“Not yet,” she had said.

 

 

 

The last time she saw him, Kaz had been drunk. Kaz drunk wasn’t like other men when drunk: he folded into himself, every part of himself rebelling against the drink. He held himself that much more self-contained, that much more cautious. It defeated the purpose, she always thought, if a purpose could be found in the bottom of an empty glass. There must be a purpose; how else did you explain the Barrel? But Kaz drunk was a half-cocked weapon, caustic and cruel, lashing out at anything in preemptive self-defense.

Inej had reached for him, and any spark of physical intimacy was shut down by Kaz.

“I’m alive and I am here.” That had been what Inej had wanted to say, but instead she said nothing. She sat there with her cold hands and her too-fast heartbeat and watched Kaz’s retreating back. “Don’t you know I’m alive and yours.”

 

 

 

Kaz had put himself back together wrong. He was the most cautious man she knew; he was a cautionary tale. Inej refused to be the same. The tide can’t

 

 

 

“I sometimes wonder. What might have happened if you had stayed.”

He is sitting beside her and Inej charts the ungiving cut of his jaw, the hollows of his cheeks, the darkened circle under the eye she can see. Her hand is still on his knee. She wants to raise it higher. She wants to know how the muscle of his thigh would quiver beneath her.

“Do you,” she says. The words are as careful and sharp as the blades she keeps.

“You know I tolerate nothing more than necessity.” A non-sequitur, but she follows.

“Then I should leave,” she teases.

“Quite the opposite.”

There is a tide change to the room, the same way the Wraith would encounter a calm, the sky darkening in the distance. There is the knowledge of what comes next.

Into the quiet, Kaz says, “I don’t know what much more you need for me to prove,” and then he stops; the words would be a tell. Would provide him no extraction. A narrow line forward with no way back.

“I don't want proof, Kaz,” Inej says; her voice is soft, but firm. “I don't want negotiations. I simply want.”

There is a pause before either of them moves, a choreographed dance they are learning the moves to with each stumbling step forward.

His fingers slide through her thick hair, stilling, as if a decision is being made, courage marshaled, simply want, when they reach her scalp. Inej breathes heavy and even, only losing her rhythm when the full width of his hand cradles her skull. His gloved fingers catch, knotted, and pull at her hair. Her neck bends to him.

She has always known: Kaz is more wolf than crow – all teeth and aching hunger. How do you teach a wolf not to bite? You give him your hand. You bare your throat.

 

 

 

Kaz has a new Spider. Inej had followed her, one night. She was good but not great which made her easy to track. She was small, compact and lithe, like Inej, but she was pale, her black hair short and cropped, her eyes harsh and suspicious when Inej finally caught her alone. She couldn’t have been any older than Inej had been when the Dregs took on her contract.

She had watched the girl, shadowed her movements. The Spider favored her left, implying an old injury or a defect of anatomy or a pistol in her pocket. Inej had yet to unlearn the lesson taught by Kaz: how to see each person met as a potential mark. How to find weaknesses first, before humanity.

When Inej finally got her alone – cornered in an alley Inej knew well (it had been here that she had met her first bloodshed as a member of the Dregs, a deep cut along her eyebrow that bled mercilessly rewarded by a swift slash along a reaching wrist), she slid a fast hand along the girl’s left side.

“Learn knife work,” Inej had told the girl. Kaz’s Spider. Her own shadow. “For one thing, it’s quieter.”

She took the pistol with her.

 

 

 

Inej had been with the Dregs for an entire year before she ever saw the mark on the inside of Kaz’s forearm. The Barrel was stinking in the heat of summer, and in the privacy of his own office Kaz had rolled his shirtsleeves. He had removed his gloves first, a wet slap as he threw them down onto the desk before him. She watched him, silent and observant as if she might report back to Kaz about himself. He rolled his limp sleeves neatly and carefully, that same punch of anatomical fascination she still gets when she sees his bare hands at work.

Kaz had told her she would take the ink of the Dregs if she wanted it. She was better disciplined than to let her hand fall to the mark left by the Menagerie. She kept her back straight and her shoulders wide; she refused to fall.

“I thought it was – ”

“If you want it,” he said again. His tone brokered no argument. Or so she thought. She would learn, with time. She would learn two things: the first that there were always arguments to be made with Kaz Brekker, and the second – the second – if you want it, he had said, and he had meant it. The second: allowances would be made for her, whether she wanted them or not.

 

 

 

Kaz always tested the people around him – it was the price of his partnership, what masqueraded as his loyalty.

He believed that the secret to gambling was to cheat; it was what he always said – he made bets he thought he knew the outcome to. His reputation of violent recklessness was just another mask worn by Dirtyhands. He was the most cautious man Inej knew. He thought of everything before making his move.

Inej tests him now: she takes her hand from his knee and she draws one finger down the back of his hand, over his gloves. She does it again, more insistent this time; she can feel the moment every muscle coils in Kaz’s body.

“I said that I would have you without armor or not at all,” Inej says.

He meets her eye. “The deal is the deal.” He extends his gloved hands to her.

 

 

 

She used to believe the mythology that surrounded Kaz Brekker was what kept them safe. The mythology endures.

“That boy is a demon.” She had heard one of her own crew say it about him, the surrounding context of the conversation missing, the name Kaz Brekker, the name Dirtyhands, found her like a summoning of her own name, and then the rigger had said it: “That boy is a demon.”

The boy, she did not say, is a street magician, at best. The boy, she thought, is not a boy, but grown; a man. That boy

 

 

 

Inej takes Kaz’s gloves off. She peels them off his hands, one at a time. She lets her hands ghost over the leather first and Kaz’s fingers twitch, but he does not pull away. He does not move. Not when the tips of her fingers briefly stroke the skin low on his wrist, the border between flesh and leather, and not when she bares his hands to her. Kaz is breathing hard, and after that, she is careful not to touch his skin. Wylan may have been their explosives expert, but Inej has always known how to walk the thinnest of lines, thread the smallest of needles. She knows how to skirt her way through a minefield. She knows Kaz. She folds his gloves and slips them in her pocket.

Now, now she traces his hands, the raised ropey veins on the back of his hands, at the bony bend of his wrist. Kaz is still, but he is with her, watchful, breath noisy in the quiet office, a sound almost like a gasp when she finally touches him again. Inej glances up, watches Kaz watch her hands, his hands, the two intertwined as they have always been, if only in spirit. Carefully, carefully – one step forward, do not fall – she raises his hand to her mouth, her mouth parting as the ridge of his knuckles passes over her lips. She can feel Kaz’s hand trembling, and an impatient noise sticks in the back of her throat. She chokes on it, afraid to break the tentative, crackling tension between them.

There is a hesitant beat where neither moves, don’t you know –, she thinks, and then he is on her. His mouth is hurried and desperate, and her own hands tremble to match his.

Inej still carries her knives on her. Sankt Petyr. Sankta Alina. Marya, Anastasia, Vladimir, Lizbeta. Like old friends, stowaways from a different time when she was a different girl. Disrobing is the same act as disarmament.

Bared to each other, Inej’s mouth is close to his and she asks him, voice low, eyes lidded, “What you call two crows on a branch?”

“I know,” he says, his voice a caught rasp (his bare hands caught in hers, her hair, the dip of her waist where bare skin meets her hip) and heady, as if drugged, disinterested in the joke, his gaze dark and focused on her mouth.

“Attempted murder,” she says anyway, eyes too bright, his mouth right there, her breath hot, her pulse leaping in her and he has to feel all of that – he has to feel – he has to know – she has never been more alive.

 

 

  

That first voyage, she scampered up the mast to the crow’s nest, resistant unused muscles burning. She missed the buildings she could scale nightly, wet aged brick beneath her rubber soles. The rooftops and spires she learned as second nature, as easily traveled as the waiting street below. She looked out from atop her own ship. She liked to know what was ahead. She liked the climb.

 

 

 

Kaz had asked her to stay, again. Couched as equal parts suggestion and demand. Sometimes Inej wondered how much Kaz was able to accomplish this way with her, how many times she mistook a command for a choice.

“You could stay,” he had said but he did not look at her.

“No,” she said, “I could not.”

He does not ask her again.

Inej walks the wire. Inej walks a fine line.  Inej returns to the Barrel, then she returns to the sea. It's a very big world and from here, where she stands at the prow of her own ship, all she sees is flat reflected glass. A wide ocean, a big world, a paper thin girl, and the wrought-iron boy of the Barrel. The water laps beneath; no sun, the sky gray to match the sea below, the horizon line smudged, the waiting world endless.

Swim the distance; the tide can take you home.