Life in the Barrel wasn't boring.
Dangerous? Of course.
The few Grisha hiding in Ketterdam risked their lives on a daily basis, everyone eager to use or trade or kill them for their power. Being a Fabrikator was extremely useful, but there was no trust to be found in the clientele. Anyone could sell her out at any point for kruge, or less.
People from all walks of life found themselves in the gambling dens and whorehouses, strolling past rickety signs and locked doors, the streets filled to the brim with desperate tourists (you'd be surprised how many there were).
The closest to "normal" resided in the University District, but even that wasn't safe. Nowhere was, not really.
Ketterdam was a lot of things, but boring wasn't one of them.
Nevertheless, Ilse wasn't sure what to make of her latest customer.
The kruge was legitimate, at least.
A convenient byproduct of her power was identifying counterfeit bills, a skill she took advantage of with the local businesses. Ilse had a shift at the Emerald Palace tonight, in fact.
"Well?" Her client rasped, their voice like the clash of stone against brick.
He couldn't have been older than fifteen, maybe sixteen. His cheeks were gaunt with malnutrition and grime, but something in the boy's eyes reminded Ilse of her time in Ravka.
It was a familiar darkness, a deep-seated hunger for something that could never fill, only take.
Ilse was careful to keep her gaze from wandering, though she noted the way the boy subtly favored his left side. She shrugged, rising to her feet.
From the open window behind her, the music of the Barrel drifted inside: rough voices, the faint trickle of water, and the thud of fists against skin. Her room was directly behind the Anvil, near the canal. Blocking out the noise was second-nature.
"This is enough." She left the kruge on the table, keeping it in view as she stepped forwards.
A gunshot echoed from the alley, and neither of them flinched.
It confirmed what she already suspected; the kid, her client, was Barrel-born. Where else did you develop that kind of greed, that callous caution?
Ilse paused several feet away when the boy tensed, fists curling until his spindly fingers paled.
Maybe his hair had once been brown, but the dirty strands hung black across his face, almost concealing the razor-sharp gleam in his narrowed eyes.
Keeping her hands at her sides - Barrel rats often had claws - she added, "Did you want any particular design for the head of the cane?"
She hadn't asked how he injured himself, or why he wanted a cane specifically weighted to double as a weapon, strong enough to break bone. The 'why' was obvious, she supposed.
As if to prove her point, a second gunshot rang out, followed by the scuffle of feet and the flutter of scattered birds. Although the boy never took his eyes off of her, she could tell he noticed far more than he let on.
Good. It would serve him well.
For a split second, those dark eyes flitted to the window, returning to her just as quickly.
"A crow." The boy said firmly, unwavering, "Shape it into a crow's head."
She wondered if he wanted the beak sharp enough to cut through flesh.
Fighting back a smile, Ilse nodded. "That I can do. Anything else?"
The boy shook his head, expression unmoving.
"Well then," Ilse didn't bother trying for a handshake, not wanting to risk injury or the loss of any valuables stored on her person, "It looks like we have a deal, Mr. Brekker."
She didn't care whether the name was real or not; it suited the hungry boy standing before her, fists clenched and glaring like he planned on burning the world down.
"The deal is the deal." He replied, and Illse actually smiled this time. She would keep an eye on this one.
After a moment of consideration, she turned to her desk, pulling something from the second drawer.
Without any warning, she tossed the object at the boy.
His hand snapped out like a rattlesnake, eyes dropping to the black leather. He studied the gloves before glancing up at her, a wordless question on his cracked lips.
"Consider it part of the deal." Illse shrugged again, fingers brushing the stack of kruge. "I can't stand the sight of them anymore."
He studied her warily before nodding, tucking the gloves slowly into the pocket of his ripped trousers.
"Don't worry, kid," She couldn't help but add, that same smile tugging on her lips, "You'll grow into them."
The Barrel was a stubborn and treacherous place, full of greed and gunshots, blood debts and silken lies.
Nevertheless, Ilse wouldn't place a bet on its survival; young Kaz Brekker was in town, and nobody was safe.
Not with her steel-lined cane in hand, at least.