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Generated: May 30, 2022 6:39 PM
Post last updated: May 30, 2022 6:47 PM
a rough and tumble free for all
kaz ellie and fate inej cause problems on purpose (and on accident)
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Kaz really hates this place. Not just because it's competition, which it is, but because the Menagerie is one of the biggest representations of Old Ketterdam, the Ketterdam she's fighting to destroy. It's a brothel run on slave labor, indentures that are impossible to pay off, debts that last forever taking advantage of the young, the naive, the displaced.

It reminds her of where she could have ended up herself.

She'll never let that happen.


For now, though, she has business here. Though in practice she runs the Dregs, de facto is not de jure, and the old man who still claims leadership has relationships he wants to keep up even if he's too creaky to go trotting all over the Barrel himself.

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The menagerie is better appointed than most of the establishments along West Stave, heaping on plenty of Kerch-style gaudiness. It's designed like an enormous gilded cage, with columns wrapped in what the proprietess certainly wants tourists to think is gold foil. The front gate opens into a gaudy parlor, where Kaz is made to cool her heels while a slip of a girl dressed as a songbird goes to inform Madame Tante Heleen she has a guest. 

There's a few other girls out and about, all of them dressed in animal themes. Various songbirds are the maids and messengers and secretaries, scurrying here and there, and then there's an assortment of exotic animals - the Menagerie's central attractions, foreign girls taken from far away lands, their identities reduced to an animal and an exotic stereotype. There's only two of the primary girls out - a Shu girl with bones like knives in a dress of shiny red sequin-scales and a Ravkan girl with a half cape with black fur along the ruff and a skimpy outfit that would probably kill her in an actual Ravkan winter. The Ravkan girl is glancing at Kaz, obviously curious, but most of their attention is focused on attracting actual customers. 

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She tugs her gloves on more snugly and crosses her hands over the head of her cane, leaning against the wall.

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There's a whisper by her side, a soft, "I can help you."

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She doesn't flinch. She's been on the street too long to flinch.

She still didn't notice anyone approaching.


"Who says I'm looking for help?" She counts to three before turning to look at her mysterious interlocutor.

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A tiny, skinny girl, all angles - she's probably not the youngest here (that'd be one of the songbirds), but she's almost certainly younger than Kaz. Though her thinness, the clear signs of too little to eat look recent, not like she grew up hungry and stunted, and there's a tight cord of muscle underneath it all.

(She's wearing the outfit of the Suli Lynx, though she looks uncomfortable in it.)

"Your gaze," she says, softly, "And the way you move. You're looking for something." There's nothing flirtatious about her tone, none of the coy attempts to lure clients in that echo up and down this part of the West Stave. She sounds almost threatening.

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"And how could you help someone who's looking for something?"

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"I'm good at secrets."

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"That comes with the trade." But this girl has uncommon talent at sneaking, at least. Kaz's eyes flick up and down her body. Are those... bells on her ankle? Impressive.

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She looks mullish and uncomfortable about Kaz examining her, but doesn't twitch or say anything about it. (She's still not making noise except for when she's speaking - more whispering - and no one seems to have really registered that she's talking to Kaz, despite all the eyes Kaz draws wherever she goes. That might have something to do with how she's positioned tucked into the lee of a column, back to a bit of mural that echoes her purple silks - she'd be difficult to see from most angles, and she wouldn't stand out from most others.)

"I'm better at secrets - than anyone."

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"Everyone's got something to sell. But I'm not buying, today."

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She tilts her head -

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And the door to Tante Heleen's private offices opens, and the songbird Kaz had been talking to flits out and towards her.

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She straightens up off the wall, cane clacking on the floor as she turns to the approaching messenger.

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"Madame Tante Heleen is ready to see you now, ma'am," she says, curtsying.

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"Show me in, then."

Kaz glances over her shoulder once the girl's turned around again.

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The girl from earlier is gone. (Kaz didn't hear her leave.)

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And, oblivious, the songbird leads her on.

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After the business is done, Kaz goes back to the Crow Club to review the books. See how much spare cash she has rolling around.

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Two days later, Inej may notice Kaz is once again waiting outside of Heleen's offices, a sheaf of paper under one arm and her cane tapping idly as she waits.

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She's in pain and worn thin and doesn't want to talk to anyone because if she does she'll use that little jagged ceramic piece she pocketed earlier and it'll just all be worse, so she doesn't approach, just wedges herself in the rafters where she can watch what's going on, can move quickly to spy on the meeting again. (Kaz can, if she looks very closely, see the shadow of her; she's keeping an eye on the other girl. No one else reacts to her.)

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The meeting seems to in regards to Kaz buying out the indenture of one of the Menagerie's girls. Haggling over the price, Heleen trying to see if she can or needs to add a non-compete clause to the contract and Kaz parrying her efforts to do, inquiries about the use Kaz intends to put her to which are likewise parried (though the implication is for personal use)...

And when the contract is finally signed and the money exchanged, Heleen rings for one of the songbirds to fetch the Lynx.

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She slips back to her rooms when Heleen calls for her, heart pounding in her chest.

(She doesn't know what the other girl's buying her for. If she wants the help Inej offered - if she wants to use Inej - well, a single person can't be harder to kill and vanish from than fighting her way out of the Menagerie, worst comes to worst, and Inej has never actually learned to fight but she's sneaky and she knows it - )

She comes as she's bid, head down so Heleen can't see the hatred in her eyes.

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"You're leaving with me," Kaz says. "Is there anything in your room you want to bring with you?"

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"No."

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"Good."

She scrapes together her half of the papers and levers herself out of her chair. "Follow me."

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She keeps her gaze away from everyone - doesn't send Tante Heleen a murderous glare even though she wants to - and follows. (She's even mostly disguising how much pain moving's putting her in. Probably no one except Kaz will notice.)

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Kaz is very familiar with moving being pain. She doesn't have a whole lot of sympathy to offer.


Their first stop is a secondhand clothes shop. "You need a new outfit," she says.

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Tight, wary nod. "What kind?" she asks, voice quiet - the way it's tightly leashed now just barely audible.

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"Twenty kruge worth." She gestures at the racks. "Go wild."

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She eyes Kaz, almost skeptical - then slips into the racks, checking prices with a quick efficiency, sorting through clothes - softness is effectively unattainable here, useless anyways - and building herself a subdued, modest wardrobe with a challenge in her eyes every time she glances at Kaz. (One of mottled dark colors, one with many places to hide things, one that won't make excess noise or stand out in a crowd.) (She hits twenty kruge exactly.)

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Kaz doesn't watch her pick things out, only checks the total at the end and pays, also securing the use of a curtained-off area in the back for Inej to change.

She walks her back in that direction. "We can sell your costume here too," she says quietly. "Unless you'd rather burn it."

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She probably would get more than nothing for it - she'll need to pay off her indenture - she's already twenty extra in debt, plus however much the woman paid to buy Inej on top of her existing indenture if she feels like slapping that on which she probably will -

 

She wants to burn it.

 

"How much would I get for it?" she asks, just as quietly. "And how much will I be earning for my work for you?" (It's almost a test.)

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"Maybe ten. Another couple for the bangles, at a different shop. For what you'll earn, well... Secrets are valuable. If you find ones I can use, you won't be hurting for cash."

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Inej is in a lot of debt. Every penny makes her nervous, makes her want to look over her shoulder for a trick - her debt's only grown since Tante Heleen purchased her -

She's in enough debt that even twenty kruger feels... Small. Like a drop in the ocean trying to sweep her away.

 

"I'll burn them."

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"Fair enough. I'll be outside when you're done." She turns to walk back to the door.

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She goes to get changed, tucking her clothes and the bangles into a tight bundle (she'll need to find somewhere else to burn them; she wants somewhere quieter, more solemn). She's done quickly, at least.

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Good.

Their next stop is a waffle house. Kaz orders a plate for each of them.

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" - Is the money you're spending on me coming out of my indenture?"

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"Your indenture is your indenture. I'm not adding to it, and I'm not charging interest. I expect that you'll pay that money back, but this is me investing in making you better able to do that."

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This is possibly too good to be true.

"Why?"

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"Because I'm a kind and generous person. Are you going to eat your waffles or not?"

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"No such thing." Still, she starts eating her waffles.

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Good. Shame to let a waffle go cold. Kaz also starts eating.

"I'm not a kind person at all. They call me Dirtyhands for a reason. But I intend to turn this city on its head, and I think you can help me do that."

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She hums, and, between hungry bites: "You have a grudge, don't you?"

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"Everyone does. Some are more willing to act on theirs than others."

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"Oh, good. For a second there I'd worried you might be on a moral crusade."

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"Do I look like I have a death wish?"

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"You look like you might attract death wishes."

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"I charge extra for that."

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...Why does that make her want to shiver. (It does make her feel warm, for equally mysterious reasons.)

"You make a habit of satisfying girls' wild dreams?"

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"Not usually."

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"...You seem - good at it."

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"Depends on what sorts of dreams you have, I suppose."

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Smile. "It's a secret."

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"One of your collection?"

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"The most valuable part."

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"They can't take all your treasures."

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"...I don't have anything they can take that matters anymore, anyways."

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"For now."

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"I'll value my freedom when I have it, I suppose." But she doesn't intend to give it up ever again, no more easily than she'll give up her secrets.

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"A thing to cherish," Kaz agrees.

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"Not something that comes cheap, here."

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"This is Ketterdam. If something is cheap, you're getting ripped off."

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Slow smirk. "And you're probably getting ripped off with interest if it's expensive."

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"Exactly."

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"Makes it hard to know when you actually have something."

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"It takes a bit of talent."

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"And security."

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"Room to think safely."

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"To figure out what you have or don't have."

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"That's the first step."

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"And what's the second?"

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"Fight to protect it, and take back what you lost."

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"A plan I can get behind."

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"Good."

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"Is that what you're looking for?"

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"In part, yes."

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"Are you going to make me guess at the other parts?"

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"You seem like you enjoy ferreting out secrets."

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"I do."

"Are you sure you want to challenge me that way?"

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"Call it your first test."

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"I won't fail."

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"I hope not, Inej."

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Bright grin! 

"Most people aren't this eager for me to know their secrets," she teases. 

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"Maybe they're less confident that they know what all of their secrets are."

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"Maybe they're more afraid of what I could do."

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"Their loss is my gain."

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"Gonna use me to scare your enemies, too?"

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"If possible."

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"Bet I can figure out 'scary.'"

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"I'll give you advice if you need it."

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"Possibly not need... But I'd certainly like."

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"I'll see what I can do."

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"I can't wait for my first lesson, then."

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"Not here. After you're done eating, we'll go to the Crows Club."

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"That's an establishment you run?"

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"It is. A gambling den."

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"That'll be a change of pace for me..."

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"I'm considering expanding operations, if you'd rather not learn how to deal cards."

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"I'd like to learn, at least, though - " 

Light shrug. "I'll focus on being sneaky at first."

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"Whatever you think you'll do best at."

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...Hum. "I'll do well at a lot," she says, confidently, "And I want to learn every skill I'm bad at."

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"That can be arranged."

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Almost shy grin. 

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"Ready to go?"

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"Yeah, let's."

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Then back out to the bustle of the streets, and off to the club.

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The Crow Club is just beginning to pick up in steam for the night, people arriving to try their luck at the tables. (It's not the most popular place, not the most profitable, not yet, but it's doing well and getting better.)

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And a familiar face is hanging out near the door, waiting for the more exciting games to start and providing extra security and an extra friendly face for new pigeons in the meantime.

"Hey boss," Jesper says as Kas and Inej enter. "Where've you been?"

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"Recruiting," she says. "Jesper, this is Inej. Inej, this is Jesper. Don't let him teach you to count cards, he doesn't know when to fold."

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"Duly noted."

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"Hey, I'm good at counting! But what's life without a little risk?"

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Tiny giggle. 

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"Longer."

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"Not always the case around here."

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"It is if you use your head."

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"I prefer multiple kinds of backup." He pats one of the revolvers on his hip.

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"Don't put any more holes in my plaster."

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"It's been forever since I did that, boss."

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"And yet, the time has not come that you are permitted to do it again."

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"How would someone get permission to put holes in your walls?"

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"By presenting an extraordinarily compelling case that the process of doing so would net more value than is lost to the damage and repair cost."

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"I'll hold off unless I have such a case, then."

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"Good."

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"It'd be rude to inconvenience you too much."

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"Poor etiquette."

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"Very ungrateful."

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"Glad to hear you're not that sort of person."

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Smirk.

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Then they can move along to the offices, and Kaz starts getting Inej settled in.

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She settles in quickly - tells Kaz many of the secrets she already knows - starts acquiring more at a decent clip. She asks intelligent questions, too, of Kaz and the other Dregs and apparently everyone who'll talk to her, builds a better picture of the world around them and what Kaz might need. 

(That helps her with figuring out Kaz's secrets.)

She learns, too - sleight of hand, gets Jesper to show her how to shoot, gets another Dreg to teach her to knife fight, observes the Crow Club and its comings and goings, asks about the business side of things - or at least starts on lessons. 

And, one late night that's beginning to consider trundling into morning, she shows up on Kaz's windowsill. The crows she feeds aren't awake yet - she shows up here a lot though, and she settles on the sill like normal, fully content to make herself at home. 

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Kaz is bent over a desk, writing.

"You might as well come in and shut the window. It's getting drafty."

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She slips in, latching the window behind her. "You don't like the fresh Ketterdam air?"

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"Not when it hasn't rained in a week and a half."

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She laughs. "Another reason for my mask." (She's started wearing a shawl around her head, part of it hiding most of her face, whenever she's on business.)

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"I think it suits you."

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"Gives me an air of mystery."

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"When anyone manages to see you."

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"A pretty rare occurrence."

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"That is what I pay you for."

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"You pay me for a lot of things."

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"And you've been worth it."

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Very wide grin. "I've been working on a few of your secrets too," she teases Kaz.

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"Is that what you've come here for tonight?"

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"Can't I just want to see your pretty face?"

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Kaz puts her pen down and turns fully to face Inej.

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She takes a long moment to examine Kaz.

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She's dressed in her usual dark clothing, with tall boots, long leather coat and gloves even here indoors.

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"Your face is still very pretty," she teases, trying to push down her light blush. 

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"Is it, now?"

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"More 'always' than 'now.'"

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Hum.

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She giggles. 

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"But I'm not entirely sure that's a good enough reason to interrupt me..."

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"You didn't have to acknowledge me sitting there, you know."

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"...I wanted the window closed."

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"And closed it is." Tiny smile. "And I'd be happy to sit here and watch you - though if you feel like chatting... I wouldn't mind seeing how accurate some of my conclusions have been on you."

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"Ah, so you want to share the secrets you've found. Very well."

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She leans against the desk next to Kaz. "You hate Pekka Rollins," she murmurs, voice soft like she's sharing a secret Kaz doesn't know (like she knows everywhere in Ketterdam leaks). 

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"Nobody likes Pekka Rollins."

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"You hate him specifically," she says, not looking at Kaz. Then: "I think you hate him the way I hate Tante Heleen."

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"...Very close."

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"I want to destroy her."

 

"And - you've been - " Soft, almost shaky breath, and she glances back at Kaz. "I want to help you destroy him."

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"That's what I've been working towards."

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"Then let me help."

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"You have been."

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"I want to do more."

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"So it's a promotion you're looking for."

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Awkward shrug. "I don't know? I..." She looks away again, seems uncomfortable. "One of us should - get to see our demons destroyed. I - don't know if the way I can help more is - promotion shaped or not."

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"Hm."

"I think we could go after them both."

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She breathes in sharply, clearly surprised. "I - you'd help me?"

(She sounds very vulnerable. More vulnerable than she wants to.)

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"I would."

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Soft breath. "I - thanks." She tries to regain her composure, but, well. It's been pretty shot. 

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Kaz abruptly turns away.


"You're welcome."

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That gives her room to breathe, to let her face do emotion things and then get back in order. (She shouldn't feel this strongly about Kaz. It's dangerous, and the little voice that wants to offer Kaz whatever you ask of me is even worse.)

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Kaz herself is having some trouble getting her emotions under control, judging by the way her gloved hands are clenching, not entirely hidden from view by her body.

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She wouldn't know. She isn't looking at Kaz, either. 

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Probably that's for the best.

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After a long, long moment - "Trying to out-compete Tante Heleen would be - hard for me."

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"We could just kill her."

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"I want her to suffer."

Then, lightly, viciously: "We could torture her to death, but then she'd stop hurting."

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"We could find a Corporalki. Then you could torture her halfway to death multiple times."

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Giggle! "An interesting proposal."

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"We have options."

Kaz turns back around.

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She does, too.

"Good."

"I - don't think I'd like being the madame of a pleasure house, even if I was stealing her empire out from under her in the process."

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"I suppose this is a bad time to say that was one of the directions I was planning on expanding the Dregs' activities in."

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She goes only a little quiet, but - more pensive than anything. 

"What are you planning to - do with it?"

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"Attack places like that by taking their workforce."

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"How?"

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"Either by buying them out, like you, though hopefully earlier in their career, or by getting to them before people like Heleen can."

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She glances away a little bit. 

"Would - their terms be like mine've been?"

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"For the ones with indentures already. For the others... I think there are better ways to attract and keep employees."

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"I like my terms."

"But - could they go work somewhere other than the - pleasure house? So long as they're still paying off their indenture."

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"I don't see why not. That's an advantage of the diversified business structure I'm building."

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Smile. "It is."

"Though you'll need someone to play the madame - or master, I guess - of the house if you're going for a classy place. Someone guests can feel really special for buying the time of."

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"I suppose that will have to be me, then."

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Wow that is a very interesting thought.

But. Kaz doesn't look very happy about it. 

"You could - subcontract it, probably?"

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"There aren't a lot of people I'd trust with it."

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She doesn't have any right to tell Kaz that Inej doesn't want her to have to do things Kaz doesn't want to. But she wants to say that. 

"It's - tough to do right I think, if you don't like it," she says instead. "Clients notice. And they don't care if some whore isn't into it - or the madame can just match up girls to the client's preferences there - but - that's a really different dynamic, if you're in charge."

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"I suppose I'll have to practice, then."

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"...Maybe there's a way of doing it that you'd like?" she says instead of 'you can practice on me,' because Inej is pretty sure she'd have a panic attack if Kaz started practicing sex on her and also because she doesn't want to have sex for utilitarian reasons ever again. She keeps wanting to say a lot of stupid stuff lately, though. 

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"I'm sure there must be. Somewhere in the variety of human experience."

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Tiny squirm.

" - I know a lot of - what those experiences are. And yeah there's a - lot."

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"Perhaps you could write me a list."

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- Telling Kaz seems - maybe okay in a way showing would be hard. 

(And Inej wants to see Kaz's reactions. Wants to know what she likes, what she doesn't like, what her secrets are here.)

"I can," she says. "I can - just tell you, too, if you'd rather."

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"...Whichever you're comfortable with."

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" - Either."

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"...Just tell me."

It'll be like sterilizing a cut. Just get it over with.

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She glances at Kaz, then partly away, then - 

"A lot of powerful people enjoy letting go," she says, quietly. "Being brought to their knees, so long as they think it's just in play. A lot have - secret shames, of being submissive or masochisic. And you're terrifying in - a way a lot of people find alluring."

"You wouldn't have to even touch them. You can tell them what to do to themselves. You can restrain them and threaten them, just talk until they're a quivering mess."

"You could command others. Sit back and tell some girl how to touch them, orchestrate the scene."

"You could use tools, and just those - you could tie them up and whip them - if you have a Corporalki on staff you could go farther than even that."

"You could beat them more - primally. Give the pigeons who want to go slumming a taste of the brutality of the Barrel, in a nice controlled setting. Never take your clothes off, like you're just roughing them up normally."

"You could restrain them, and have every touch be under your control, at your pace, have them entirely at your mercy."

She's maybe having to consciously keep her breathing controlled. 

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Kaz's breath hitches at a couple points.


"Those- certainly are ideas."

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"Could do more than one thing," she murmurs.

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"Mm. I'll probably have to."

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Tiny smile. "Did any of those appeal, or should I go on in other directions?"

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"I liked- the ones about control."

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Slight breath in.

"It's a good niche."

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Tiny smile.

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Slightly less tiny smile back. 

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"I think it's a niche I could inhabit."

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"You'd be good at it."

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"I appreciate the vote of confidence."

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"My judgment is impeccable, so."

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"Of course."

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She giggles. 

"There's - a lot more I could advise you on, about running that kind of business."

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"That would be welcome. The quicker and more effortlessly this is a success, the better."

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Grin! "Well... Architecturally, having intentionally placed peep holes helps with quite a few things... And it's good to have attractions, a reason to stick around other than the sex... And you'll want a theme, too."

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"I was thinking of extending the gambling the Crows Club does now."

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"You wouldn't even need a new building, then."

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"A significant cost savings. Though I do have plans to buy out the neighbors."

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"We can work our way up."

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"That's the idea."

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Grin. 

"You'll be pretty busy, running the gambling side and the brothel side..." Tiny smile, then: "Do you want help with any of that?"

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"I would."

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"I don't know that I'm - interested in - much of the social stuff yet, but - a lot of the behind the scenes is just another kind of secret."

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"Interesting way of looking at it."

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"I'm an interesting woman."

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"I won't argue that."

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"Because you're a smart woman."

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"You need some kind of advantage to survive in Ketterdam."

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"Something you excel at, then."

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"Fortunately so."

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Grin!

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"Did you want to start discussing details now?"

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"Yeah, I do."

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Kaz reshuffles the papers on her desk and gestures Inej over.

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She sits more comfortably and starts looking through what Kaz hands her. 

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Quasi-legal accounting is a whole lot like hiding and uncovering secrets, from a certain point of view.

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It's certainly interesting enough, and Inej has a good head for it. 

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Seems like they'll be up all night, then.

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Not unusual for her. 

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That's how it goes in this line of work.

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It's a good thing they're creatures of the night, then. 

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Maybe the causation goes the other way- but it still works.

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"I think you'd be staying up and sleeping in late no matter what."

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"Is that what your deductions have told you?"

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"It's been hinted at, here and there."

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"Hm. Clever."

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"We are."

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"I'll not argue."

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Giggle. "And wise, too."

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"You flatter me."

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"That, or I'm just honest, or I'm teasing you. Or all of those at the same time."

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"You're getting trickier."

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"Your bad influence, surely."

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"You don't find value in it?"

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"Now, who says I don't find value in being bad?"

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"You'd be using a different definition of the word than most."

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"Hm, I think many people would call sneaking and spying, gambling and whoring pretty damn bad..."

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"Not in this part of town."

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"We're a bad lot."

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"The dregs of the barrel."

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"The last ones left when the barrel's drained, at any rate."

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"Indeed."

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Broad grin. 

And: details of how they'll build up their empire? 

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Lots of those.

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A lot goes into keeping the wheels moving in the right direction. 

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Or moving at all, even.

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They're up to the challenge.

Relatedly: Inej has opinions about what the right direction for a pleasure house is. (She - concedes that this is Kaz's house, and that Kaz is running the project, but...)

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Kaz is willing to entertain advice. She does not as yet have strong opinions about many details.

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She at least mostly focuses on stuff where she's got a relevantly somewhat-more-expert opinion than Kaz. (She's not that bad at couching moral opinions in business terms.)

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(Business terms are definitely the right way to go. Kaz is already compromising for morals in some places, and too much more for its own sake would be luxury beyond affordance.)

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(They can get pretty far at least with a system based on attracting and retaining the best employees. But Inej recognizes that they need to make compromises here.)

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It's a place to start, anyway.

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Yeah. 

They have a pretty big distance to go.

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One step at a time.

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And more steps forward than back. 

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That is the hope.

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A bit more than hope, she'd say. 

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Whatever word you want to use for it.

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Something they need resources for, regardless. 

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Yeah.


Kaz continues running the numbers over the next few weeks. She can get some small things started, test the water with strip poker games and similar, but... To really get this enterprise off the ground, she needs more cash.

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Something big, too - and ideally quick, since savings have a way of running down... If they can get a big job, though, that could bring both enough cash and some bonus chatter about their crew...

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A job would be just the thing, yeah.

Kaz will keep her ears open.

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Inej will, too - her ears and eyes and every little trick that brings Ketterdam's secrets into her keeping. 

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Kaz is counting on it.

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And about a month later, in the middle of a heavy rainstorm - when Kaz goes up to her private rooms, the window is cracked open. (It's not too difficult, now, for her to spot Inej lurking in the folds of the curtains. Inej keeps trying to hide, though, treats it like a game.)

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Kaz uses her cane to hook the window closed from the far side.

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"Don't like the sound of rain?" Inej asks, stepping out of her shadow slightly to loom behind Kaz.

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"The damp isn't good for documents." Or her knee.

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"I'll be more careful next time, then."

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"Thank you."

"What is it tonight?"

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"A lead on a big job," she says, teasingly. "The kind we've been waiting for."

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"Finally. What's the mark?"

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More seriously: "The job's from Dreesen. He wants a team to fetch something from East Ravka for a million kruge, negotiations to start midnight tonight. But he won't say what, and he's operating fast and in secrecy - he's trying to get a jump on the other merchers, I bet. High risk, high reward, high chance of competition."

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"East Ravka, huh. I guess a million kruge might be enough to pay me to cross the Unsea."

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"We'd need a good crew, and a good cheat."

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"Who else is after this job?"

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"Pekka Rollins, I'd bet - I haven't managed to get direct confirmation yet, but the head of Dreesen's new private security, a Zemeni man - Tendo, gambles at Rollins' clubs."

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"Shit."

"Well, I don't want him rolling in a million fucking kruge."

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"Yeah."

"We could sabotage his bid, if nothing else."

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Nod.

"I need more information."

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"I'll get it for you."

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"Meet me downstairs at eleven with whatever you get."

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"Sure thing, boss."

"Any problems with me borrowing Jesper?"

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"As long as you don't break him."

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"I'll be careful with him, promise."

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"Good."

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"I try not to break your toys."

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"Most of the time."

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She sticks her tongue out at Kaz.

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"Go on, then. We're on a deadline."

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She laughs and slips out (the door, so she can leave without opening the window to the rain).

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Kaz follows her down a decorous few minutes later, to send for information from her other sources.

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Information trickles in - some from Inej, some from other sources - 

There are no clear leads on a safer or quicker way across the Fold; going around would take months. Dreesen is holding a prisoner, too - one Inej carefully confirms hasn't been registered. Also - Dreesen is requesting a Heartrender from the Orchid, and Pekka Rollins knows. 

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Then she needs to get to that Heartrender first.

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Go straight to her, while Rollins wastes time going through her boss. 

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That's the way. To the Orchid.

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The Orchid's Heartrender is a woman named Milana - and Inej knows her in a distant sort of way. An hour of her time, especially during the slower season, isn't beyond what they can afford, and she doesn't object at all to working and being paid under the table. 

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Perfect. (And Pekka Rollins can feel free to eat shit, when he finds out.)

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They'll need to move quickly once they have her. 

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They will.

But they'll make it work.

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They always do. 

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Then to the Orchid to pick up their Grisha hireling, and off to see what the merch Dreesen needs her for.

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It's not yet midnight - and Dreesen's private security isn't too keen on them crashing the party. Tendo's standing in the courtyard, and he calls out, "You're not invited."

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"We aren't? I was under the impression Dreesen asked for a Heartrender. But if he's changed his mind, we'll take our party elsewhere."

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"You're not the only ones able to find a Heartrender."

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"You're not here working for Pekka Rollins. Is your debt to him really worth that much?"

She underarms a small pouch over to him. It jingles.

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He catches it, weighs it in his hand - and steps aside. 

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Inside, then.

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The interior door guards are also unimpressed - but their group can push their way past to a frowning Dreesen. "Meetings haven't started yet," he says. 

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"I heard you wanted a Heartrender in advance of the meetings."

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"Then the Heartrender may stay."

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"I'm the one paying for her. I need to supervise."

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"Ladies," he says, voice condescending, "I cannot permit interference with negotiations for contracts."

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She smiles sweetly. "The only reason an upstanding citizen such as yourself would require the private services of a Heartrender is if you don't yet have all the information you need to negotiate the contract you are proposing and are trying to get it out of someone in a hurry. I imagine everyone who shows up at midnight will be rather disappointed if you can't actually tell them what it is you wish to pay them a million kruge to do. Some of the more unethical sorts might consider that it would be best to save the effort and cut directly to the money."

She taps her cane on the floor. "The deal I am offering you is very simple. I allow you the use of this Heartrender to obtain your information, and in return, my crew gets the job. No other parties."

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"I can't just accept the first applicant."

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"Think of it as the only applicant, if that helps soothe your conscience."

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He frowns at them. Then, grouchily: "You have shown exceptional... Eagerness."

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"Forward thinking and adaptability."

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Harrumph. "Very well."

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"Then shall we begin?"

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"Very well."

He leads them to the basement of his mansion - where his security are guarding a scrawny man tied to a chair, a heavy bag over his head. The man's shaking. 

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So it is an interrogation.

Kaz gives Milana the nod to go ahead.

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She eases off his hood - he's been tortured, clearly - and she kneels beside him, closes his wounds and slows his heart, eases his mind and promises him freedom if only he'll say what he saw - 

 

- He's Alexei, a cartographer in Ravka's army. They were crossing the Fold. The volcra came, and one dragged him off the sand skiff, but a bullet took it out and it dropped him - he ran - 

And then the world was light. 

 

And in that light - 

 

Her name is Svetlana Starkov, the newly revealed Sun Summoner.

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A Sun Summoner.

Huh.


That could change the balance of power on the True Sea.

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Yes.

And Dreesen wants her brought to him. 

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For a million kruge.

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Yes.

Alive, you see, and not so badly injured she can't use her powers at all. 

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Kaz will make it happen.

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Cruel smile. "Good."

"Do you have any other questions for our Alexei here?"

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"None that he's capable of answering."

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"Very well." 

And, almost idly - he signals one of the guards to shoot Alexei right between the eyes. 

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Seems like a mercy, in his condition.

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(Inej still tenses, ever so slightly.)

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And after that - it seems the only thing to discuss is the logistics of the actual contract. 

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There's a standard set of terms for this sort of thing in the Barrel- which Kaz is familiar with, of course.

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He wants the Sun Summoner quickly, on top of that, or as quickly as can be managed, and in great secrecy. 

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Fine. She can work with that. It won't be her crew that leaks.

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Off with them, then. 

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Back to the Crow Club.

Kaz will suggest that Malina stick close until they can confirm what's happened to the Orchid.

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She's fretting, worried about going over time, stubborn about needing to be back - but they can convince her in the end.

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Good. One less dead girl tonight.

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Yeah. 

(But... They need to decide what they're doing about this mission, Inej knows - just as she knows that Ketterdam leaks, and that Kaz keeps her own counsel, and that morals have been too expensive more often than not...)

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Kaz wants to speak to Inej alone about that, actually.

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She'll do her best to make sure Kaz's room isn't leaking first, then. (Luckily, Inej has already done a thorough survey of places to spy on Kaz's rooms from.)

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Kaz waits for her to finish, then-

"Obviously we're not bringing the Sun Summoner, if she exists, here."

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Relieved sigh.

"What are we doing instead?"

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"...I'm still working on that."

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"I'd like to help."

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Sigh. "I'm open to suggestions."

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"Well... Are we prioritizing getting paid anyways, keeping anyone else from completing this mission, specifically keeping the Sun Summoner out of a mercher's hands..."

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"I think... our priority has to be stopping anyone else. I made a strong play to get the job exclusive, and if someone else winds up with the payout, my reputation will never survive. And that will jeopardize everything I've built so far."

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Serious nod. "It'd be worse than us just outright violating the contract, I think? People double cross each other over contracts all the time, given all the secrecy here it'd wouldn't be any harder for Dreesen to point fingers at us if we did everything correctly than if we didn't, and we could twist the he said she said to our favor."

" - Dunno if it'd be worse than selling out. Like, Ravka would probably pay up for information on any efforts against the Sun Summoner, and also giving them that seems pretty likely to piss off at least the merchers."

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"If it's discovered that we gave them the information intentionally."

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"And we are very good at secrets..."

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"And then the Ravkans would do our work for us, stopping anyone from taking their Sun Summoner."

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"And we'd still get paid, and 'Ravkan attack dogs stopped us' isn't a particularly embarrassing reason to fail a job."

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"Mm."

"I think that's workable."

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Smile. "It's one plan, at least."

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"Yeah. For now- we need to get ready for a trip, and do what we can to pull the ladder up after us here."

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Serious nod. "We need a way across the Fold, and information on who else is moving, how, when, and what their resources are."

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"There are Ravkan refugees in Ketterdam. I know I've seen some that are western. I can track them down."

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Nod. "And some of the brothels have Ravkan girls."

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"They may know something."

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"Or at least know where the leads aren't."

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"That can help too."

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"A lot of angles to attack this from - and we'll want to get enough general information to switch plans if we need to."

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"Knowledge is always the most versatile weapon."

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"Then we're one of the most dangerous pairs in the Barrel."

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"Indeed we are."

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"Then here's to keeping it up."

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Then to work.

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To work indeed. 

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Kaz has contacts to tap, a babysitter for the club to set up, Milana to sort out...

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And Inej has competition to spy on. (Carefully, given their main competition is in fact Rollins.)

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If she can find out which ship he intends to use, she can pay someone to firebomb it.

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Sadly, Inej can't make her own bombs... Though she can plant the explosives just fine. 

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Ideally, they'd be leaving before him.

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"Fair enough."

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"Worth trying, still."

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"Yeah; but we might want to have someone else place the bombs after we leave."

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"Yes."

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"Do we have someone lined up for demolitions?"

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"A couple freelancers. No one on a permanent basis."

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"We'll want someone quiet, for this. No chance of leaks..."

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"And hired through intermediaries."

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Nod. "For planting the actual bombs, if nothing else."

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"If you check the Rats' Nest for a new face, I'll see if Jesper has a line on a new chemist."

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"Will do, boss."

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"Good."

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Grin!

To that, then? 

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Yep.

Kaz goes to find Jesper.

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"Hey boss, what's up?"

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"I need a new bombmaker. Do you have anything lined up?"

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"There's this girl I've had my eye on - she's working with the dyers right now, some kind of run away rich kid."

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"That's promising."

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"She's dumb about the Barrel - I haven't had to step in yet or anything, but it's only a matter of time until she gets herself in trouble, so."

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"The target's a ship, so we need something with a lot of fire. Let her know that if the results impress us, she could be looking at steadier, less dirty work."

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"On it."

"What's our timeline like?"

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"Within the week."

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"I'll be quick on convincing her, then. We giving her supplies or anything?"

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"Nothing traceable."

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"I'll see what I can manage - guessing I should be discreet about this?"

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"If possible."

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"I'll do my best, boss."

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"I trust you will."

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Grin! "Can't let you down, then."

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"There's a good boy."

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He trips.

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Kaz laughs.

"Watch yourself."

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He recovers his footing. "So, uh, what?"

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"Find the bomber. Get the fire. Don't let anyone catch you."

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"Will do, then."

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"Good."

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Off their separate ways, then? 

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Division of responsibilities and all that.

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He'll catch up to her later, then. 

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If he can keep his feet.

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Kaz's the only one who's swept him off them so far. 

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See that he keeps it that way.

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"Might be a tall order..."

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"It's a little late to begin disappointing me, Jesper."

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"Not one to share?"

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"Only under carefully controlled circumstances."

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"And what are those?"

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She taps her cane. "A private room, an intimate atmosphere," tap tap, "everyone lined up neatly..."

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Serious nod. "I can arrange that sometime, boss."

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"Perhaps after our trip, Jesper."

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"When we get the money for the pleasure house?"

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"Yes."

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"I'm always happy to help out, of course."

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"That's why I keep you around."

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Broader grin. 

"I'll get this done nice and quickly then."

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"Go on, then."

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And he heads off.

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And Kaz continues making other preparations. Need to find a ship, find some Ravkans to question, pack up the essentials...

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The Ravkans are wary of strangers - but she does at least know where they live, and coin and friendliness can go a long way towards getting some stories, especially from the older women. Most of them aren't from East Ravka - crossing the Fold is for the desperate and insane, and most of those who are from the east went through Fjerda or (more commonly) Shu Han, willingly or not. 

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There's got to be someone who's crossed the Fold, though. Or stories about people who have.

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It takes a bit, but... She gets a few hints. An older woman who was brought across by force as a young girl, stolen by slavers and stranded in Ketterdam even after she paid off her indenture - a very old man who never answers questions about why he crossed - two deserters, soldiers who crossed the Fold soon after signing up and then ran rather than cross back - and connected to them by some rumors, a woman who's about thirty, rumor has it a thief who seems to think she pissed off the Darkling personally, who's been trying to save up for a ship all the way out of the True Sea, past the Kadvar Straits and to the wide world outside. It sounds like the soldiers deserted a few years ago, but the woman is a more recent arrival; still, they seem set to leave together. The older woman - the ex-slave - reportedly wishes to return to Ravka, at the very least to the Western coasts, but can't afford passage, and the old man is supposedly a recluse.

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Are there any kind of commonalties to their experiences crossing?

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Well, the ex-slave doesn't really know a lot of what happened - she was bound and gagged under a tarp on a tiny sandskiff, and she doesn't remember much of the experience. The old man refuses to answer questions.

The two soldiers came across on a skiff - larger, one of Ravka's - that was attacked when they were nearly out of the Fold. The soldiers can be prodded to give the Official Information on crossing - no lights, no speaking, no making noise - no unnecessary movement, those permitted to walk about wear soft shoes and step lightly - the fewer people on the skiff, the less likely you are to get attacked, but most have a minimum number they need to operate, and of course the army doesn't travel light.

The thief is very squirrely about how she got across, and there's a hunted look in her eyes. 

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(Kaz is usually pretty good at figuring out how to get even the most uncooperative to talk to her.)

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It takes a while - and some alcohol, and some seemingly careless display of exactly how uninvolved Kaz is with the 'right side' of the law - and a brightly lit room with few shadows -

 

The woman's a horse thief. A good horse thief, one of the best if she says so herself, and she's from West Ravka - and she'd heard that the horses bred and trained by the Darkling fetch an emperor's ransom - 

 

The story comes out of her in fits and jolts.

She obviously didn't steal a trained war horse. But one young enough to be ridden technically, even if not yet broken to the saddle all the way - one not yet trained - they're hard to steal, damn hard, but doable for someone like her, though she only escaped with the one horse. 

And it's not exactly well known, but if you're in the business of smuggling horses - it's humans what set off the volcra. Human voices, human footsteps. Can't tell a human just by their breath she guesses, but if you keep quiet and your feet never touch the ground, if you never take a step yourself - the volcra ignore you. 

Normal animals are too damn terrified of the fold, and some smugglers manage to break horses or donkeys or what-have-you to it, but that's risky, you'll end up with a terrified animal not useful for much else which might bolt out from under you at any moment. Smugglers like that don't have much better chances than an army sandskiff, but better than most people trying to cross solo, so some think it's worth it. 

The horse she stole acted like it might as well have been out for a mid-afternoon stroll when she rode it into the fold. It didn't much like her, but it didn't successfully throw her so - 

 

Anyways, she sold the damn thing and ran, and she didn't get a fraction what it's worth but she swears there's been something nipping at her heels, chasing her in the shadows ever since. She needed to escape, fast.

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(...Interesting. A way across that doesn't run so much risk, maybe, and if they can track that horse down- it could be their in.)

Kaz pushes a little on getting the details of the horse, the identity of the buyer. Hints that she might have the connections to get the thief further away...

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That gets a bit more out of her - the buyer was in West Ravka, and she wouldn't be surprised if he's fool enough to still be there. A wealthy man, of course, not even directly associated with a military...

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That's very helpful.

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And she'd like help with keeping running.

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Kaz gives her the name of a ship and captain that's heading south. Mention her name and the captain will give her passage at least past the straits.

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She's extremely grateful.

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She can pay Kaz back if she's ever in the True Sea again.

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She doubts she's coming back.

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Well. Keep it in mind.

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Sure, whatever. 

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Then back to check on her other assets.

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Inej has gotten leads on a spider to plant the bombs.

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Jesper's late getting back, but - he thinks he's brought their new chemist around. 

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Good progress on all fronts, then.

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Definitely. 

They'll be ready to leave, soon. 

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The sooner, the better.

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Do they have a ship lined up? 

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Three berths on a regular trader.

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"Let's get to it, then."

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Kaz nods. "Indeed."

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Inej, of course, takes to the shadows on the rooftops as they travel. 

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Which leave Kaz and Jesper to watch the crowd from street level.

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And, as they're cutting through a deserted part of the shipyards - 

Several men step out of the alleyways in front of and behind them.

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Oh here we go.

Kaz tightens her grip on her cane.

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Jesper sighs and loosens his revolvers in their holsters. "Evening, gentlemen."

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They close around the two, weapons - clubs, mostly - drawn. 

"Where's your little shadow?" one of their apparent leaders calls, and - yep, he's one of the Dime Lions.

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"I'd've thought you people would have learned to figure that out before showing yourselves by now." She tilts her head. "But then, I suppose you are Dime Lions. I need to manage my expectations."

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There are, perhaps, slightly fewer of them than most might bring to a beat down like this - six shapes moving in the shadows, including the leader, and he is, perhaps, now noticing this. 

"I'd've thought you'd know not to cross Pekka Rollins," is all he says.

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"Rollins is a sore loser."

"Let's get this over with, then." She flips her cane over and spins it around (which is Jesper's signal).

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And he draws his revolvers - fires a shot from each as he does, flips them up into his hands - 

And one of their opponents gets a very terrifyingly close line across his temple, blood pouring into his eyes, and the would-be spokesperson collapses as his kneecap suffers a most unfortunate fate. 

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They still have four opponents rushing them - 

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(Make that three. A thin line lashes out from the shadows one of them rushes by, and he tumbles to the ground, feet tangled up.)

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Kaz strikes out with her cane, the heavy head crunching the first's nose and impacting the groin of the tough behind her on the backswing.

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Jesper laughs and dodges out of the way of a club and gets off another shot - elbow this time - and starts getting distance. 

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Inej is very briefly busy with keeping her own opponent down. 

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Right now it's about making them feel like their pay isn't worth the pain or their lives. Which is something Kaz can be persuasive about.

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Jesper, too; he's outright having fun, which, well.

No one wants to take a club to a gun fight, especially not against someone like that. 

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Inej knows pain, too - 

They're not actually killing any of the Dime Lions tonight, but no need to let them know that, and leaving behind a couple of bloody, shaken street toughs isn't exactly an overwhelming challenge. 

The Dregs still pick up some bruises - Inej has a split lip under her scarf, and an angry bruise on her upper arm. They still have significantly fewer bruises than their enemies.

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Kaz's limp is much more pronounced on the rest of the walk to the ship- But she is still moving.

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Inej fades back into the shadows - and Kaz gets a feeling she's being watched over. 

They aren't ambushed again on the way to the ship at least, and they can settle into their berths without additional drama. The ship won't sail until after daybreak, but - interfering with trade would be a step out of the normal lines, and Rollins might hesitate to poke that beast.

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With any luck, yeah.

Here's to a quiet voyage.

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They seem likely to get that, at least - both quiet and somewhat boring and cramped. Inej spends her days above decks or in the rigging, entertains herself talking to the sailors (forcing herself to get over the remembered terror of being in the dark hold of a ship).

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Kaz stands by the rail, watching the waves slip past.

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And Jesper plays cards with the sailors (and gathers a lot of gossip).

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At least one of them is doing something productive.

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Inej drops down beside her that afternoon, and - "Let me show you how to climb the rigging," she says, quietly.

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"I don't climb."

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"That's why I want to teach you," she says. "And ropes are easier to learn on than buildings."

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"That's not going to make falling any better."

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"I won't let you get hurt. Promise."

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Kaz glances around at all the working sailors.

"I don't think that's something you can promise."

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She doesn't exactly lean on Kaz, but - she's closer at least. "Then when we hit shore," she says, voice soft, "Let me get some rope, and I'll teach you to climb somewhere more - controlled. And you can teach me to pick locks."

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"Lockpicking is a useful skill."

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"It is," she says. "And if there's any locks on this boat... You could start me on it sooner rather than later, you know."

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"I'll take a look."

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"Thanks."

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"Is that something you wanted now?"

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"If you're up for it."

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She pushes herself off the railing. "I'll go check the hold."

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"Can I help look?"

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"If you like."

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To that, then.

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Kaz finds an old padlock and a set of shackles.

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The shackles are kinda interesting in another way.

So, lock picking! Inej has extremely minimal experience with this, honestly.

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First thing to learn is the tools. This is Kaz's set, there's the wrenches, picks, hooks, and rakes. Each has a purpose, depending on what type of lock you're working on.

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She listens attentively, and tries to guess at the purpose of a few.

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The basic principles aren't too tricky to grasp.

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Good - Inej will get the basics pretty quickly, then.

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Then it's time to move on to actually getting the picks into the locks. Kaz works through one to demonstrate, then relocks it and passes it over for Inej to try.

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It takes her a few tries and come corrections and advise and a lot of time to get it.

"This is harder than it looks," she says, sighing heavily.

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"If it were easy, everyone would do it."

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"And smiths would just invent better locks."

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"Some say this has already happened."

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"I'd be surprised if it hadn't."

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"Oh, it has. No doubt about that."

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"And then the Barrel invents better thieves."

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"A wonderfully symbiotic relationship."

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"Especially as we pull ahead of the crowd."

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Kaz taps the lock. "You should try again, then."

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"Yes, boss."

She gets it faster, this time. 

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Good.

Time to switch, so she doesn't get too locked in on just the one.

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Yeah, that slows her back down. 

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As expected.

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She's still a fast learner though - she's pretty solidly at 'talented amateur' on these locks at least by the end of their session. 

And she talks as she goes, tries to draw stories of times Kaz has encountered notable locks - of impressive heists in general - out of her. 

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Merchers always get rich quicker than they get wise. If you keep an eye on the trading boards, you can pick up a lot of good targets. Her favorite is seeing how many times she can knock over the same house before they finally get some decent locks in- then doing it once more just to remind them who's in charge.

Her favorite things to steal are paintings. You can't beat the value to weight of a good artist. And people don't care where it's coming from, only that it's going to them. You can always flip a painting.

Though if she happens across a DeKappel, she usually keeps it for herself for a couple months. The man had an incredible eye for landscape composition.

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"I've seen the works in your office. They're lovely."

Tiny smile, and - 

"I want to learn to paint like that," she says, almost like a confession. 

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"You can buy a tutor, when we're rich."

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"Maybe even the best possible use for my share."

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"That's up to you, of course."

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"And then I could make custom pieces for your pleasure house."

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"You wouldn't want to sell any for yourself?"

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"I think I'd like still being able to see my pieces when I want," she says, then shrugs. "And I dunno how I'll feel about selling, or how much I'll even want to do..."

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"It could help pay your indenture," Kaz says quietly.

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"Rate I've been going - I've got about nine and a half years left on the payment plan, and my cut would drop that by four years if I put it all towards the indenture." Inej, of course, isn't getting an even share. A hundred thousand kruge as a share is still pretty damn generous, though. (Kaz is generous with her a lot.) "And if I end up even halfway skilled - twelve or thirteen thousand kruge a year isn't odd for a good artist. So I could probably knock another one to two years off with that pretty easily. More if I get famous. And you've said I should start earning more with my missions for you soon, on top of - anything extra I bring in."

 

 

"Nine and a half years isn't - it doesn't sound bad. Not if it's with you."

(She hasn't been thinking about this explicitly yet. Just that - there's a lot of other things she could spend money on or do with her life.)

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Kaz is briefly speechless.


"Well, good."

 


"You're a useful tax write-off, you know. Besides- everything else."

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Tiny smile. "I know."

Then: "Haskell won't cause trouble for you if - I don't pay it off faster?" (The indenture is in Kaz's name - but Inej has spied more than enough to realize the Dregs' nominal true boss, Per Haskell, loaned her the money to buy Inej.)

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"All Haskell cares about is a steady drip of free money to gamble with. As far as he's concerned, the longer that goes on, the better."

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Nod.

"So - I'm not going to worry too much, about - paying my indenture to you down quickly."

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"If- that's what you want."

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She glances away extremely awkwardly. 

 

 

"It is."

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Well. That's settled, then.

Good.


"Done with these locks for now?"

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"I think it'll help to practice on them again tomorrow, but - yeah."

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Kaz will go tidy them away, then.

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Hmm... Now they need to figure out some other way to entertain themselves...

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She could show Kaz how well her card skills are coming along.

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Sounds like fun. (And the answer: faster than she's been letting on at the club, of course.)

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Then maybe she's ready for a few more of Kaz's dirty tricks.

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Bring it.

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All right, then. Here goes.

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She laughs in delight whenever Kaz beats her or tricks her, at some of the more clever or difficult tricks - she wants to learn slight of hand, wants to do some of those 'magic tricks' with her knives. 

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She's halfway there with her sneaking, honestly. Sleight of hand is about managing attention.

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Should be an easy skill to learn, then. 

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They'll see.

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Well, Kaz has been a good teacher so far...

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And Inej an apt student.

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Grin!

They'll have no trouble, then. 

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No more than usual.

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And Inej does, in fact, pick this up faster than the lock picking. Some level of existing familiarity with the concept helps, of course, as well as the fact that she can see what Kaz is doing, and the relevant mechanisms aren't hidden away. 

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Excellent.

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Inej is pretty excellent, true. 

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She shouldn't get too cocky, though.

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"You'll have to keep me well calibrated, then."

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"I will be watching closely."

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"You always do."

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"Part of the job."

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"I think you'd be watching even if it wasn't your job."

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"Maybe."

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Smile. 

Learning this stuff isn't a bad way to pass the trip.

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Keeps the mind occupied.

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Something they need; there's only so much gossip they can get here, and the sea looks much the same day to day (though Inej has charmed a sailor into explaining navigation by the stars to her, and another into explaining sailing during the daylight hours). 

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Hopefully that won't prove too useful to their future endeavors.

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"The stars might!"

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"I wouldn't mind sticking to where we can follow the streets, after this."

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Giggle.

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"I'm a city girl, really."

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"I wasn't raised as one, but - Ketterdam has a charm or two."

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"Once you dig deep enough."

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"And look in exactly the right places."

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"If you get very lucky, the charms will find you."

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"I'm a pretty lucky girl then."

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"Must be."

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Grin!

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Kaz laughs.

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And, soon enough, the shores of West Ravka come into view. 

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Finally.


First order of business is tracking down the man who bought the stolen horse.

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More difficult without their usual contacts, especially since he'll be hiding from the law as well. 

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Well, they have what that thief gave Kaz, and Jesper's pretty good at getting people to gossip at him...

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And there can't be that many people who have both the willingness and ability to buy it.

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Look for the richest bastards around. 

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Yep.

And work it from the other end, find the people who are typically selling these sorts of goods.

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"I make a more convincing horse thief than rich dandy," he says knowingly. "Dashing, daring, quick on the draw..."

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Kaz nods. "Poor dinner table etiquette..."

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"Put my boots on the table, and don't know which fork is which."

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"Best we keep you belowstairs. Just don't go mistaking a draft horse for a racer."

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"I know enough about horses to avoid that."

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"Then you'll be at least a little convincing."

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"Long enough to keep the con running."

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"Which way do you want to go?" she asks Inej.

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" - I think I'll pass as a thief better. Suli aren't often rich around - this area."

(There's an echo of an urge in her - to find her family, at least discover what happened to them. But it's not a strong urge, and it passes from her mind quickly.)

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"Leaving me all alone to find off the grasping horde, then."

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"Well, if you're pretending to be some rich mercher, I could pass as your maid..."

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"That'd help with getting information from inside the household."

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"And we have Jesper on the horse thief angle already."

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"That's a good spread between the three of us, then."

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"Excellent."

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So a quick pass through town then, to get a feel for how people are dressing and acting, then they can start assembling their identities and costumes.

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One of Inej's favorite parts. 

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That'll make this easy, then.

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And the challenging parts just make it more interesting. 

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Time to bend a new city to their will.

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See how many interesting pies they can dip their fingers in. 

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There's opportunity for a few quick cons on the Ravkan locals, but soon enough they find their target.

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Stealing a horse is different from their usual heists - and Inej is the only one to have ever properly ridden one at all like this. Jesper has worked with plow animals, of course - but Inej has ridden spirited beasts before, ones used to the energy and speed of performance. 

Which means that, when the guards catch a glimpse of Inej attempting to lure the stallion with his gleaming black coat out of his stall, she simply climbs to the top of the half wall and jumps on his back. He rears - snorts angrily as his front hooves touch the ground - she laughs and adjusts her balance with him - 

And he bursts out of the doors she left open, running down the hapless guards with a powerful scream. Inej has no saddle nor bridle on him - she doesn't need it, nor does she need him trying to bite her while she puts them on - and she simply declines to fall off as he leaps over a fence - breaks into a gallop - slows to weave among trees - 

Inej is still laughing when they approach the meeting space. It's a good ways off - she insisted on that, even if it meant backup would be far - and he's run himself tired enough that he doesn't even make a threatening gesture at Kaz and Jesper, just huffs and stops in front of the watering trough she asked Jesper to find and fill. 

She jumps nimbly off his back, gives him a friendly pat, and asks Kaz - "Did you get the combs and treats and all?"

(A horse needs to be groomed after a good run like that, and anyways, she wants to check and clean his hooves while he's too busy drinking to attack her about it.)

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Kaz does not like the teeth on that beastie. Though Inej rides it well.

"In the bag," she says, proffering it.

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"Thank you," she says, sincerely, and gets out the grooming supplies she'll need first and very carefully approaches the stallion again, making sure he sees her coming and that she's not moving like a threat. 

(He lets her comb him without any attempted murder, so, score!)

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"...So we're riding that across the Fold."

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"I know! Isn't he beautiful?"

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"Are we all going to fit?"

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"I think so, if we get cozy. He's a big boy."

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"If you say so."

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"Horses can smell fear, you know."

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"I'm properly cautious."

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"I think he likes reckless girls." She pats him where she's just finished brushing down his flank. "Don't you boy?" He snorts and eyes her. 

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"I'll let you be his friend, then, and I'll just be along for the ride."

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"I'll convince him of your excellence."

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"Work quickly. We need to be moving before they catch up."

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"I will."

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Jesper goes on guard in the meantime.

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And Inej works - perhaps not quickly enough for Kaz's nerves. The horse is spirited and suspicious, and there's only so much his fledgling liking for Inej can do.

Still, Inej gets all three of them on him before they're found - this by necessity requires convincing him to kneel, since he's a massive horse and won't tolerate anything even resembling a saddle. 

They are now very, very far off the ground. Inej has positioned herself in front, and - "Hold on tightly," she tells the other two. 

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Fuck fuckfuckfuck she doesn't like this.

Kaz grips Jesper's waist tensely. Hopefully this doesn't take too long.

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Jesper's the only one of them tall enough that the horse is almost a reasonable height, and he's not scared of horses or anything - but the thought of where they're going and Kaz's own nerves have him on edge, too.

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Which has the horse on edge! He prances a bit, huffing, and Inej pats him (and squeezes Jesper's hands where they're wrapped around her waist). "It's okay boy," she says, voice gentle and soothing. "You'll be home soon."

Then - forward. They're far enough from the Fold that they have some opportunity to practice riding together - but perhaps not far enough for comfort, and they can't really safely dismount and camp and rest. 

(This is going to be a very, very exhausting ride.)

"Anyone have things they want to say before we go in?" Inej asks, softly, as the top edge of the Fold comes into view as they crest a wooded hill.

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"Let's just get this over with," Kaz says, voice tight.

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"...Yeah."

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"Okay." Deep breath, and they crest the hill, revealing the billowing cliffs of the Fold before them, stretching out to the north and south as far as the eye can see, reaching for the sky like it's trying to grasp the sun. 

The horse pricks up his ears and whinnies at the sight of it, and Inej has to lightly discourage him from going towards it too quickly - she's keenly aware of the other two, Kaz especially, perched precariously on the horse's back. Still, he has a distinct spring in his step as he plunges into the shadows.

The darkness reaches out for them like the grasping, hungry hold of a creature desperately clawing for food. It envelopes them quickly, and the sound of wind dies - the feeling of wind dies - the light dies - and the horse's hoof beats and their breath and their pounding hearts and the ringing in their ears become the only sounds in existence, distorted and muffled as they are. 

The horse whickers and slows, and then starts nosing around like he suspects the Fold of hiding treats. Inej squeezes his sides gently, body stiff, and he huffs and starts moving again. 

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The darkness is more complete than any she has known. (Any since...)

(She shoves that thought down firmly.) (Only a slight hitch in her breath to give her away.)

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Inej stays perfectly still and calm, the deep rhythm of her breath unchanging. 

(The horse isn't afraid, and walks calmly if somewhat undirectedly into the dark. Inej is tense, trying to push him to keep going forward, but - she's realizing suddenly that she has no way to navigate here, no real way to keep the horse going straight across the Fold.)

(Her skin prickles like eyes on her.)

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Kaz doesn't like this. Doesn't like the dark, doesn't like the close, doesn't like the horse, doesn't like how she has no way to influence the situation until it's over.


Why did she think this was a good plan.

A million kruge seems like it's a long, long way off right now.

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Inej's heart starts beating faster, her breath comes heavier, and she tries to control it - her breath at least - and she doesn't know why, it's freezing here and she and Jesper both are clammy with sudden sweat - 

(There's more than just them here. The eddies of minds, of secrets flow about them. Dark, old secrets, like desicated flesh scraping along Inej's skin wherever she's touching another creature - her bare skin is the worst but it's all alive and crawling - )

(Inej usually knows when she's being watched. She's definitely being watched.)

She takes deep even breaths - forces herself to - keeps one hand on the horse's neck, one soothingly rubbing over Jesper's shaking hands, and she pushes them forward into the swallowing dark. 

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It's too dark.

The air is too still.

The horse's hooves are too loud.

Jesper is too close.


Nothing's coming for her. She can't stop what's coming for her. Nothing's coming for her, and she can't stop it.

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(There's wind on her face in the perfectly still world, sounds of wingbeats in her ears - nothing there - there's an angry murmur threaded through the land, darkness pressing against her with a furious question in its billowing depths. There's whispers of revenge, of an old betrayal.)

(The cold sinks into her, looks for her heart, her mind. Inej shivers.) 

The horse picks up his pace - stops meandering, starts a smooth quick gait, moving purposefully onward. (The dark tries to grab them back. It doesn't want to release them, Inej's mind informs her. It wants them to stay, to make a noise so it knows where they are, and the sound bubbles up alive in her chest.)

She keeps her teeth clenched together so tightly her jaw feels on the verge of breaking, and she doesn't make even one sound. 

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Kaz is very, very good at being quiet.

 

She's had lots of practice.

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So has she. 

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And - as the darkness wears on their minds, long after Inej has started seriously questioning herself - before any of them break (she'll never break) - 

The darkness parts, wisps of smoke in the blinding light, wind catching their hair and rustling tall grasses.

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Oh thank fuck.

"Inej," Kaz says. Her voice comes out croaky. "Tell the horse to stop."

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She - tries. 

It's probably not even her efforts that get the horse to stop. He seems more curious about the grass than anything. 

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Good enough. Kaz is getting off the horse now.

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A move possibly a little complicated by how Jesper starts sliding, boneless, once she's no longer supporting his weight even in part. (Once the terror has lifted.)

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Ah shit. She tries to catch him as best she can, hissing when the weight hits her bad knee.

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Inej twists, helps catch him - taps the horse, which kneels grumpily.

They can get everyone off without too many more injuries, at least. 

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There's that.

Kaz gets the water out of the bag and takes a drink.

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She settles Jesper to the ground, snaps her fingers in front of his face. "Hey, we're out," she says. "We're safe."

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He starts shaking more. 

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"Inej. He needs grounding. Touch."

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"Yes boss," she says, quietly, and wraps her arms around him tightly. 

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That gets him to move a little - he uncurls, clings to Inej.

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She shifts them, moves into his lap so she's touching more of him. 

(She's shaking, too.)

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(Kaz doing more here would hurt more than help.)

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He calms down eventually - starts making little noises first. Then - 

"...Sorry, boss."

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"You survived, so I'll forgive you."

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Pained chuckle.

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"We're only halfway done, Jes. No time to die yet."

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"No mourners."

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Squeeze. "No funerals."

And stand? 

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He's still a bit shaky, but - yeah, stand.

"Let's get away from here."

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"Good plan."

Did they go in a straight enough line that they can identify some landmarks?

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There's not a lot of landmarks out here, unfortunately - there's a smudge of mountains to the south, close enough they're probably in the southern half Ravka, though. 

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Great.

"North. Hopefully we'll hit Kribirsk before too long."

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" - Do we have to walk next to that?" He shivers and gestures at the Fold without looking. 

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"Not right next to it. We should keep it in sight."

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"We can keep it petty barely in sight, though."

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"Better than it could be, I guess."

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"Let's get moving. We're burning daylight."

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" - Yeah let's not be in the open when the sun sets."

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Tight nod. 

She whistles the horse over - luckily he follows them gamely enough - and they can all set out. 

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And hopefully not encounter any trouble.

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Not a lot wants to get this close to the Fold, and the border is long enough they're immensely unlikely to meet other smugglers even if someone crossed at the same time. 

Kribirsk isn't a very big town, and the low attempts at hills nearly block it from view. Its buildings are all white washed and splashed with color, like that can keep back the looming darkness, and the church at the center has clearly seen a new influx of wealth. 

There's places for them to stable the horse, in theory, though his stature might draw eyebrows here, and there's a heavy military presence in the city at all times. 

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That's what the bribe money is for.

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Ravka's military is significantly harder to bribe than the stadwatch - 

But not impossible if it comes to that. And stablehands are downright easy, and with the sun setting early here as the Fold swallows its light, they're approaching the city in deep enough shadow that no one can get that good a look at their horse anyways. 

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Just as planned.

They'll have to be out early, too, but just in case they'll set another rendezvous for Inej to book out with the horse if they have to.

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Tight nod. 

She'll sleep in the stable's loft tonight, then. 

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Hopefully it won't be necessary. But.

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Yeah. 

Where will Kaz and Jesper be? 

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Second floor of the inn across the street. Third window from the end.

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"I'll keep an eye on you guys, too."

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"I'm pretty good at standing watch, you know."

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"No harm in having more eyes. This isn't known territory."

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Nod.

"I'll feel better with Inej watching my back, anyways."

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Tiny blush! 

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"He likes being the center of attention."

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"He's very good at it."

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"You should both still try to get some rest."

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"Yes, boss."

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"We'll see you in the morning."

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"See you both."

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Then off to their separate beds.

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The night's quiet.

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Great.

Much as she hates herself for this, they need to be up and leaving by dawn or earlier. Try to keep the streak going.

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Inej has no problem waking up early. 

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Jesper isn't entirely happy - but yeah, he can do it.

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Out of town before the military catches wise, then.

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It looks like there's only one major road from here, and it runs straight to Os Alta - two hundred miles away. They'll be traveling a while.

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Nothing's ever easy. At least it's definitively away from the Fold.

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A good argument! 

(Getting back across will be... Difficult, unless they feel like taking the long way around.)

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Maybe they'll have a shiny escort, if they play their cards well enough.

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That would be pretty fun. 

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"I've heard the Sun Summoner is the most beautiful woman in the world."

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"I doubt that."

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"We'll get ourselves lined up with her and have Jesper judge."

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"But what if it turns out I'm the most beautiful woman in the entire world?"

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Considering hum. "We might need a panel of judges then..."

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"Or a broader range of candidates."

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"Nah, I don't think so."

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"So confident."

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"I've seen a lot of the most beautiful women money can buy. We're more than a step above."

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"I suppose you do have experience in the relevant domain."

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"An expert on beauty."

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"Just so."

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"And my expert judgment is that between us three and the Sun Summoner, we definitely have the most beautiful woman in the world."

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"We'll see."

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"Trust but verify?"

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"That's the idea."

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"Well, I think verifying whether one of us is the most beautiful woman in the world is definitely a reasonable and intelligent course of action."

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"What benefits do you see us gaining thereby?"

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"Well, you're founding a brothel... It'd be a good advertising line."

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"Unless the Sun Summoner turns out to be the winner."

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"Maybe we can recruit her, then."

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"I doubt she wants to emigrate to Ketterdam."

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"It's a very - okay not lovely, but it's definitely very a city."

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"Full of people who want to force her into debt slavery. Or worse. She might prefer army life."

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"Maybe we can get her to review us instead..."

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"Maybe wait until after we meet her."

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"Doesn't hurt to dream!"

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"Just don't get too lost in your fantasies."

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"I'll keep my head in the present."

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"Good."

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"There's plenty of excellent sights here, after all."

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