Sail Upon the Land
The buckwheat waffle in front of her looked like it belonged on a queen's gilded plate. A tiny sugared violet floated in a shallow pool of thick lavender syrup in each square, so that her fork and knife would break several dams at once and cause a sort of flood. She grinned wolfishly down at her plate, hungering for that destruction almost as much as for the flavor of good food, and blinked the lingering tears out of her eyes. She could eat Matthias's favorite waffles every morning, noon, and night, but he would still be dead.
Matthias had had terrible taste in waffles. Flowers were for wearing, not eating, after all, and there was no food as satisfying as malt waffles just starting to lose their crispness under a flowing tide of spicy cinnamon syrup.
That was what Inej had ordered, twice over, once she sat down, and Nina pushed the purple horrors away and drew close one plate with a waffle that had red crisscrossed lines over it, smiling at her friend.
Inej looked settled now, maybe even a bit rounder in the cheek, as if the sea air had restored her appetite. She had always had that aura of being entirely self-contained, like she knew down to the last hair's breadth how much room she took up in the world and how she could stretch or expand or shrink to master any other space she desired. And she did it without magic.
Magic wouldn't solve Inej's one big problem anyway. How Kaz had resisted Inej for so long, Nina had no earthly idea.
"So, Wylan and Jesper have been sorting themselves out - really, Wylan has the touch to keep Jesper from being crazy for anything but him - but Kaz has been looking like the world's ended and no one had the grace to put him out of his misery on their way out," Nina said, then licked the last drop of syrup from the heavy silver tines of her fork.
Inej's lips were stained scarlet from the same stickiness and they stretched into a smile, the utter graciousness of her face not diminishing one bit. "I'll see for myself soon enough," she said. So Inej had resolved to put her past behind her and write her own future; Nina only hoped Kaz had the brains to let her take him along for the ride.
"You won't, though," Nina said, wondering if any Grisha could duplicate the satin of Inej's skin, if Tailoring could be so advanced. "He'll lose that hangdog expression the moment he sees you and catches his breath." Feeling strangely defiant, she stuck her fork in the puddled mess of her first waffle, upright like it was a flag and a symbol of triumph.
Inej's smile grew one devilish inch so that she looked like a conqueror. "I'll see him long before he sees me," she pointed out, and Nina had to laugh.
♠ ♡ ♠
It was odd, to walk these dirty streets like she owned them.
She had to shift her balance, find her center again once she was back on dry land, even in Ketterdam, where the land was slashed through by canals. Sankta Marya and Sankta Anastasia were still hidden along her outer thighs, concealed by the overlong tunic, but Sankta Lizabeta was kissed by air and matched by a sword on the other side of her belt, a sword that meant she had to swagger a bit to keep its slim sheathed length away from others' inconvenient skirts and petticoats.
Turning the corner, she saw the best waffle house Ketterdam could muster. The views weren't much but the food was better than the district promised; there might have been a Grisha in the kitchen of Matryoshka. There was definitely a Grisha sitting at the best table in the front window: Nina, curls tumbling to her shoulders in a lovely riot that all of Tante Heleen's arts and devices could not match. Nina was sitting faithfully at the appointed hour in a frock that looked like sunshine and smiling up at her, an improbably purple and perfumed waffle in front of her. Inej clasped her shoulders - more bowed than they should be, she was still mourning Matthias - and bent to kiss her cheeks.
Once she got a bit of spice in her, Nina blossomed again, losing that drawn look and appearing more as she should, like a minor deity of mischief. Her dimples winked and flashed in her creamy skin, and her voice alone was enough to call up pictures in Inej's mind of each comrade she named: sweet Wylan, then saucy Jesper, and then, finally, Kaz. Wylan's wide eyes and Jesper's joker's grin faded away before Kaz's face, the lines of melancholy carved deep. She could see the gloves encasing his hands and hear the antagonistic thud of his cane against the floor. Inej swallowed, thinking about all the kinds of armor he wore.
Nina's mind was clearly running along a similar track, albeit a more profane one. "I've never seen leather finer than Kaz's damned gloves. When you know what they feel like against your skin, you must tell me." Her tone was light and teasing, and Inej felt a wave of gratitude crashing over her. Nina was not only willing to share the bounty of her experience, but also sounded entirely sure that Kaz would be amenable to any play Inej should choose to make. Even better, Nina understood that running slavers to ground and righting certain wrongs made Inej feel ready to create a future better than her past.
"They're like a veil, concealing and revealing at once. Kaz evidently took his lessons from the good book, all those temptresses angling for thrones with their diaphanous cloths," Nina went on, pausing only to sip her drinking chocolate delicately.
Inej's breath caught in her throat, a choked laugh that turned into a gasp at the thought of Kaz, veiled and ready to be bared for her.
Nina did her the kindness of turning temporarily deaf and continuing her musing. "He would look rather fetching in a crown, that naughty minx," she said, and laughed and batted away the napkin Inej balled up and threw at her. "You can't tell me I'm wrong!" she crowed triumphantly, and Inej loved her entirely.
♠ ♡ ♠
There was an ache in his hand from clutching too tightly at his cane. When he reached the dim sanctuary of his room, he set the cane carefully down - throwing it would only mean he'd have to limp to fetch it, most likely at the worst possible moment - and bent to begin the struggle of getting his boots off. Finally barefoot, he let his head sink low, rolling his shoulders as his chin dipped to touch his chest.
When at last he became aware of Inej, he could not guess how long she had been part of the shadows of his room. She was still scentless and silent, and his body relaxed at her very presence. She must have seen that loosening of his limbs, for she moved - too swiftly for him to see - until she was directly behind him and out of his line of sight. Her arms, covered with a soft form-fitting shirt that somehow did not smell of salt air, embraced him from behind. Her lips must have been in his hair; he could feel the soft pressure of her nose and chin against his skull and found that he did not mind. All of his instincts for danger lapsed around her, and the sharp shine in her hand did not register as a weapon until far too late.
It was not a knife. It was a buttonhook. She plied it expertly, teasing each button on his shirt from its corresponding loop, and the air felt like a caress rather than an assault as his chest was bared. One last breath and then his shirt floated to the dusty floor, light as a dollop of whipped cream on a waffle. He closed his eyes and cursed.
That imprecation was enough to make her go still, so still that it seemed like the world must have stopped spinning. He knew she was still there, waiting and breathless, only because he would have felt it if she'd wrenched herself away. "Kaz?" she asked, still not touching him directly.
"Lead," he commanded, but the air around them had shifted, and neither one could fairly claim control now. He spun a quarter-turn on his heels to find whatever lines of her were distinct from the shadows.
He should have noticed the dissipating steam earlier. As he approached the corner of his room separated by the wicker screen and dominated by the big bathtub, he saw that Inej had draped the bath with cloth, a sort of tent that kept the heat close to the copper. Wylan might have grown up with such a bath, a rich man's everyday luxury, but none of the rest of them had gotten closer to it than a dream. Inej had plainly reasoned rightly that warmth eased him; he did not like to think about the evidence she must have of the cold giving his temper dangerous edges, or of the fact that the water must have been punishingly hot when she poured it cleanly in if it was still steaming, however faintly. There was such quiet care in the gesture, the simple act of drawing him a bath and standing by it, waiting for him.
It was too much. Half-bare before her, wholly in love with her, and he still could not touch her or even look directly at her, like she was his personal sun. His hands, still gloved, balled into fists.
"No more," he dictated, demanding rather than requesting a reprieve. No - he could not go on like a coward. He had to do better.
Her eyes were glowing when he deliberately choked his fear and turned to face her fully. The Wraith never let herself be seen, but Inej, in his room, was glorious. All of her armor - clothing and weapons - fell at her feet in a heap of cloth and metal and her body cut through the hot water that closed around her without so much as a ripple.
Her little buttonhook was on the top of the pile of discarded clothing and he kept his eyes on it as he drew his gloves off. That was as far as he could go without losing his sanity completely.
Unfocusing his eyes so that he saw soft shapes and generous colors instead of scars and wounds, he looked at her - the dark and perfectly balanced lines of her - rather than his hands, twitching and flexing like spastic spiders. Drawing near to the cloud of humid air, Kaz spread the fingers of one hand and laid it on the curtain shielding her bath from the coolness of his room, the fabric voluminous enough to bell out like her ship's sails. Inej's eyes were liquid and her mouth was lush and her flesh, when he pressed his hand to it with the cloth still between them, was hot enough to warm his palm.
Everywhere he pressed, the soft fabric stuck to her damp bareness until it was as good as a second skin, but a skin he could touch, caress unthinkingly. She flushed rosy, and his throat knotted tight as his greedy fingers were drawn to the soft darkness of her flesh itself, pushing the cream-colored cloth away from between them. She was warmly, pulsingly alive, entirely vulnerable in front of him as a smile touched her trembling mouth and her eyes shone solely for him. He hadn’t touched anything without his gloves in years that seemed endless, and could not recall if a rose’s petals might feel softer than her skin or if a drumskin could be as tautly responsive as her muscled flesh.
The water rose high when he knelt in the bath, heedless of his clothing, not caring about anything other than trying to match her courage. His hands went everywhere and her arms came up, hesitating and then clinging to his neck and shoulders, her soft cries low and musical in his ear. It was nearly too much - he could just touch, was still not sure he could stand to be touched - but then she sank into his arms in the cooling water. He found himself holding her tightly, as if she might still be lost to him at any moment. Her quiet breaths and rabbiting heartbeat made her seem as beautiful and fragile as blown glass, and he could not summon a single word to his lips.
"Kaz," she said finally, her hand cupping his cheek before she sat up and reached for the blue-and-white striped towels he kept stacked near the sponge. He could read annoyance on her face, was besotted enough to be charmed by it. "We're keeping these draperies, but you need better towels," she said, giving up on the thin cloth and wringing out her hair with sure hands. Her voice, always pleasingly low, now had the throaty quality he associated with her laughter, that sound that had won him out of the realm of living death he’d been in since Jordie died.
Emboldened, he pressed his lips to the underside of her mouth, where one stubborn drop was clinging. She shifted to kiss him properly, then stood, still dripping but unconcerned by how he drank in her glory from this new proximity. Contrary to everything he'd thought he knew about her since he'd first identified her still presence as the most dangerous force at work in his life, she did have a scent. It rose up in the air between them as she stepped out of the tub, leaving him in the tepid water. Her wet feet left tracks all the way to his bed, where she pulled on the nightshirt stuffed under his pillow and curled up comfortably, smiling at him all the while, her eyes joyously bright.
His own must have looked much the same; Inej, in his room, was glorious.
As always, I'd love to hear what you think.
This same entry also appears on Dreamwidth, at http://innie-darling.dreamwidth.org/460311.html.