No matter how far she sails into unknown waters, however many nights she spends with no coastline in sight and only the wake from a slaver’s schooner to guide her, The Wraith stays pitch black. Inej makes sure of it.
“Got an image to keep up,” Specht had said with a grin the first time they’d noticed paint fading along the hull, the cracks setting in from use and weather. Inej’s mind had flown to Kaz and the sharp, dark lines of his suits, how he dressed like a mercher because to him the difference between business and theft was the edge of a coin, and she had silently agreed.
The Wraith glides across seas in pursuit of unvarnished slaver ships with gaudy sails, her lacquer matching murky depths and questionable morals; and her captain finds that freedom tastes like salt spray and stale crackers.
Inej revels in it.
The days are hard and the nights uncertain. When storms toss the ship and Inej simply prays that her Saints are in merciful moods, she wonders what business a Suli acrobat suited to scaling city rooftops has in chasing men across the tides. When they catch up with a ship and the girls in the cargo hold are all dead, when they fight slavers and her crew is injured, when they face kidnapped girls who curse them and say whatever they were going to is better than what they left behind, she wonders if there’s a point to it all.
But on good days, when the sun gilds the sea and the course is smooth, when crying parents and daughters are reunited at the harbour, when she hears Tante Heleen is close to bankruptcy, Inej sees the magic in what she does.
That is what girls like her do. Girls who do not come from magic, who cannot trace kings and queens back into their bloodline. They wring the magic from the everyday, from the mundane, from the sheer glory of being alive and being free.
There’s a balance to be struck between protecting girls whose eyes are unaccustomed to sunlight and whose bones push through their tired flesh, and opening the slavers up on the top deck from sternum to bowels, letting blood and filth leak out of them as their cries fade into whispers carried over the water. There’s a balance between being righteous and vengeful, merciful and destructive. When one girl stands proudly, her head held high as her would-be vendor dies in front of her, and another cowers in the corner when Inej tries to offer a warm bed for the night, Inej knows that she hasn’t found it yet.
Another reason for keeping the ship black, she thinks.
When she leaves a slaver ship with a skeleton crew, no captain or first mate but enough men to see it into harbour and for the news to spread, is that a kindness or cruelty? When unemployed sailors prowl around empty berths, looking for a charter or some way to make quick coin, and their wives refuse to sell to the crew that comes in on the black ship, who then is the monster?
We are all someone’s monster, Inej thinks. But common consensus seems to have marked her out as the one children hunt for under their beds, the one men see once and never again, the one leaving freshly-dug graves and full Reaper’s Barges in its wake.
All actions have reactions, and Inej’s are costly ones. But once a Barrel rat, always a Barrel rat, and Ketterdam’s turf wars have taught her well. Like it or not, the city birthed her as much as it did Kaz, turned an acrobat into a spider, armed her with knives and survival. The Wraith is more than a ship and when slavers try to jump her down an alleyway in an outpost of Novyi Zem, the sole survivor runs from the fray, telling stories of a girl allied with the darkness, whose knifework is something unholy, who will stoop to nothing and do anything, everything.
Inej’s shadow grows and it lurks in the corner of her dreams. Sometimes it has pale skin and hair like a flame and boasts of royal blood. Come morning, it takes time for Inej to remind herself that kingly lineage dripped down the Ketterdam drains and mingled with the blood of ordinary men. Sometimes her shadow is a tall blonde woman sparkling with jewels, her hands offering fine silks in her manicured hands and her eyes promising a lifetime of captivity.
On the worst nights, her shadow is Kaz with an uncomplicated grin on his lips and his hands uncovered, saying all manner of impossible things.
Daybreak chases the shadows away and there’s cleansing in the fresh air that whips past her face and tangles her hair, in the salty water that slops over the sides of the ship and draws out the dried blood as it recedes. The water hears and understands, Inej thinks, and she hopes that holds true when the sea is as black as her ship, as her hair, as the garb she has taken to wearing.
Whispers reach Ketterdam of a ship that goes where others won’t, black as a nightmare and silent as death. Of a captain who hunts slavers and frees girls, turning the sea red and leaving wives without husbands, children without fathers. The Wraith terrifies and emboldens, and if the Merchant Council benefits from cargo ships unloading more freely in the harbour; if the pleasure house owners grumble about their depleted stocks of young girls; if prospective clients are forced into more reputable gambling dens, there aren’t many in the city who complain.
The whispers and rumours reach the East Stave, and the Crow Club is proud of its Wraith.
But it’s been months since The Wraith docked in berth twenty-two and Kaz grows more restless, more intolerant with each passing week. Not that he ever oozed geniality, but the Dregs have learned to distinguish between degrees of short-temperedness, learned to scarper when the thump of his cane comes within earshot.
“Why can’t he just admit that he misses her. We all miss her,” Wylan grumbles after a particularly dire meal, where a simple question set Kaz off and now there’s a knife sticking out of the mahogany dining table. Jesper fixes him with a look.
“I’ve told you before, you’re cuter when you’re smart,” he says, savouring the blush he’s still able to rouse in the merchling’s cheeks. “Because he’s Kaz Brekker, Bastard of the Barrel, and he’d sooner chop off his good leg than admit he might be afflicted by something as mundane as feelings.”
But Kaz’s admission comes at night, when he permits himself to sleep and Inej pops up in his dreams, the girl whose dark eyes and warm hands are home. His fingers fondle the loose ends of her braid, where her hair curls like bracken no matter how many times he runs fingertips through it. In dreams, he says he’s doing what he can for her, trying to be the good man she deserves by tracking consignment routes and waging war on the gangs that take a little too much interest in young girls. In dreams, he kisses her and touches her in ways that wouldn't be possible when awake, not without feeling the water lap at his ankles, dragging him down.
In dreams, she sits on his windowsill and feeds the crows as the sun rises behind her.
He wakes in a cold sweat, alone under a dark sky.
The Kerch ship doesn’t bother trying to outrun The Wraith, and the newest member of Inej’s crew grins. “They’re fools,” he says, and finds that no one laughs along with him.
“Bravery is looking a demon in the eye and telling him what he is to his face,” Inej says, and when Specht says that doesn’t sound like one of her usual Suli proverbs, Inej keeps her gaze on her target and tells him it’s not.
The Kerch crew recognise her and Specht, of course, and the fight is bloodier than usual. Fighting foreigners is one thing, fighting Barrel rats entirely different. Mocking crow calls turn to squalls as her knives set to work. It’s butchery, pure and simple, and when she hauls herself to her feet, breathing hard and looking out over the wrecked bodies of Ketterdam’s worst, even Specht has a hollow look in his eyes.
A dying boy sits propped against the masthead and Inej doesn’t need Specht’s half-formed sentence to know that he’s a Dime Lion, or that he was one once. The tattoo is obvious enough, his face recognisable even if she can’t remember his name. Some instinct within her pushes Inej forward, some unspoken connection forged between those who fight for livelihood and life in the Barrel, even if they come from different sides; but the Lion’s face contorts into a snarl.
“Brekker’s Wraith,” he mumbles, blood bubbling at the sides of his mouth, and the hatred in his eyes is clear. “Dirtyhands’ little spider. Look at you now. Dirty hands. Dirtyhands.”
Inej sends others to free the girls from the Kerch ship, but scrubbing at her nails only brings fresh blood to the surface. In dreams that night, Kaz stands with his back to her, too far away to touch no matter how far she stretches. Crows circle overhead, squeaking and cawing and fixing their beady eyes on her. ‘Dirtyhands’ rings out like a litany, Dirtyhands Dirtyhands Dirtyhands, and when the rising sun leaks through the portcullis, Kaz turns around at last. But his face is her face and his gloves are not black leather but a thick coating of crimson blood, and Inej’s scream wakes the whole ship.
Back in Ketterdam, Kaz feels the wind changing.
Berth twenty-two is no longer vacant and there’s nothing like the feel of Ketterdam underfoot, the smell of it in the air. The news buzzes through the Barrel and up to the Financial District, and Inej allows herself to be crushed by Wylan and Jesper, breathless from their run and grinning wildly. She’s not sure whether she expected Kaz to be there or not, not sure how she feels about this welcome party of two, but plague wards are still up around the Menagerie and Wylan puts on a sumptuous dinner that evening. The minute the hot running water hits her, Inej thinks this might be the closest she’ll get to paradise.
Paradise and sweet, dreamless sleep end soon enough, though.
It’s almost painful to push the duvet away just before daybreak, to rouse herself from a mattress that feels like it could swallow her whole, but crows remember kindness and they feed in the early mornings. She leaves through the usual window, her Saints strapped to her and a pocket full of crumbs. If ever there were a time for a Heartrender to slow her pulse, this would be it.
The window is open and the crows not alone in awaiting her arrival.
“What business, Wraith,” Kaz asks from his desk chair, and Inej smiles at his practiced indifference as she swings in over the threshold. She guesses he’s been out of bed for as long as she has- he’s tried to smooth his hair down, but it’s mussed from sleep and his eyes are soft.
She settles herself into the chair opposite his. “Good morning, Kaz.”
The awkwardness lasts for as long as it takes Kaz to lay his bare hands on the desk and shuffle them forward, inch by inch, willing himself to let his knuckles brush hers, to let their hands entwine as they did before. When they finally touch, when Kaz feels Inej locked around him, the relief and release are palpable.
“You were waiting for me,” Inej says. “Yet you didn’t come to the harbour.”
Kaz raises an eyebrow. “Would you like banners and a street parade next time? I’m sure Wylan would be only too happy to provide fireworks for the occasion.” A false answer. A terrible answer, but perhaps better than the truth. I didn’t know where we stood. You might have changed, found another, one who can hold you without wanting to die.
He waits for a retort, perhaps some Suli proverb about the irrelevance of welcomes to transient desert people, but none comes. There’s a tightness in Inej’s gaze, a tenseness in how she holds herself, and his first wild thought is that he’ll kill anyone who’s wronged her, anyone who glanced at her when she didn’t want to be looked at, anyone who put her in a bad mood.
“What business, Inej,” he asks again, concern bleeding through into his voice, and his thumb traces small circles on the back of her hand. In another world, he’d move and pull her close, let her head rest on his chest while he whispered soothing words in her ear. In another world, he’d spring to his feet, bolt out the door and defend her honour like some ridiculous princeling Wylan was probably told about in bedtime stories. In another world, they’d be Kaz-and-Inej in a place of their own somewhere that doesn’t smell like sweat and standing water, where street corners promise sweet treats or geraniums, not retribution and fresh bruises.
In another world. As it is, his scheming mind buzzes with thoughts of what could have possibly gone wrong, what he can do to right the situation and bring the brightness back to Inej’s eyes. Each permutation is more terrifying than the last.
“They call me Dirtyhands,” she finally says, lifting her chin and freeing her hands, and Kaz sees the shame in her ragged breathing, hears it in the slight tremble of her voice. His anger swells. Shame is a beast whose hunger is never sated, and somehow a name has worn away at Inej in a way that nothing has before. His name.
“It’s served me well,” he says, trying for levity and fighting the urge to grab her hands again. “Though if you’re going to use it commercially, I may have to start charging you royalties.”
“It’s not what I wanted, Kaz.”
His mind flashes back to a moment after the bridge, to her admission that Van Eck threatened to break her, to his vow that he would crawl and cross battlefields for her. Words that had been a lunge into the darkness, a chanced jump into the unknown where either salvation or damnation awaited him. The words forming now on the tip of his tongue demanded a different kind of strength.
The bravery to knock something down before rebuilding it, stronger and better.
“No? And what did you think would happen? Did you think slavers would roll over at the sight of you, send their precious cargo out on rowboats for you to pick up while they waved white handkerchiefs? Did you think the men whose lives and wives and snotty-nosed children depend on them snatching up as many bright-eyed virgins as possible wouldn’t fight against you? Did you think you wouldn’t become a bedtime monster, a shadow of death?”
Vitriol comes easily to him, and his words can leave gashes as deep as any knife.
Inej springs to her feet and crosses to the door, her movements silent over the creaking floorboards. Kaz knows he’s goading her but he has never had any comfort to offer, only the cold truth of the way of life they have both chosen, that they are both inextricably tied to. And it will have to be enough.
“I am Dirtyhands,” he says with a wolfish smile and he spreads his hands wide like he’s performing a magic trick, waves them with a flourish of pale skin and long fingers. “I am the Bastard of the Barrel, Ketterdam’s monster, the one with the longest teeth and the sharpest claws and a shadow so big it could block out the Sun. But I am also in front of you with no armour or leather gloves, and whether you are Inej Ghafa or the Wraith or Dirtyhands of the High Seas, it makes no difference to me. This life is difficult, but so are we. And monstrosity is just a matter of perspective.”
Crows peck at the windowsill in the silence that seems to stretch for an eternity. The rising sun bursts through the window and Kaz is a figure of harsh lines and dark fabric set against a blazing background, his sleep-tousled hair ringed by light. Half boy, half monster and all of it misdirection.
“Yes. Yes, you are Kaz Brekker, the Bastard of the Barrel, the worst that Ketterdam has to offer,” Inej says, and then a smile plays at the corner of her mouth. “But you also have an incorrigible flair for the dramatic and for making speeches, and I have gone without waffles for too long. And since Nina isn’t here, you’ll have to do for company.”
Relief courses through Kaz once again, though his bad leg doesn’t miss the opportunity to protest when he stands up.
“Pass me my cane,” he says, more out of habit than actual command, but Inej is unmoved.
“Please, my darling Inej, treasure of my heart, won’t you do me the honour of passing me my cane?” He parrots a phrase used a lifetime ago without thinking it through, and his heart races when his mind catches up to his fast-running mouth. The water rises. For a moment, he thinks she’s going to run, she’s going to mock him, she’s going to cross the gulf between them and kiss him like something out of his dreams.
But Inej just throws the cane to him and the world continues to turn, and a grin threatens to break out and stretch from ear to ear. So Kaz pulls his jacket on, straightens his tie, runs a shaking hand through his hair, and moves towards the door. Inej’s eyes stay locked on his and he pauses in front of her, takes a step forward. And then he kisses her lightly, before he can overthink it, before he can stop himself; and the blush that rises in Inej’s cheeks when he pulls away is glorious.
“Waffles,” he says, and if his voice is a little tight, a little high, a little happy, he can be forgiven.
“Waffles,” Inej says with a little laugh, and it’s only seven bells in the morning but Kaz is already drunk on her.
Two monsters walk through Ketterdam at sunrise, and from a distance they look quite ordinary.