Kaz Brekker and Inej Ghafa speak in a language that is so visibly intimate, we see it in their effortless means of trusting one another with armor, their ability to bounce back after arguments in moments of transparency, and ultimately, the undeniable ways in which they both need each other.
Serious question, does anyone read chapter twenty-six without having a full-fledged, chaotic breakdown themselves? If you do, teach me your ways because actual footage me of me reading this is always this screaming cat. This is also top-tier in any hurt/comfort bandaging scene that’s ever been written. Nothing compares and nothing ever will. Period.
People so often equate intimacy to sex or physical touch, but intimacy is an ever-present tether, a lodestone that moves, heals, and adores every part of another’s soul. It’s always present in a myriad of ways, connecting two people even while they are physically distanced from one another. In the shadows, with burnings embers of fire, wherever the place, whatever the situation, where intimacy resides, it’s perpetual.
To reference another author, it’s so easy to appreciate the way Taylor Jenkins Reid sums up intimacy: “Intimacy is about truth. When you realize you can tell someone your truth, when you can show yourself to them, when you stand in front of them and their response is you’re safe with me,’ that’s intimacy.”
In a book like Crooked Kingdom that is essentially love stories interwoven into a glorious heist, no two people are as intimate as Kaz Brekker and Inej Ghafa. The invisible thread they are bound through even while they bottle up their emotions and ground themselves in the mission at hand is the glimmer of hope that’s lingering all throughout the novel.
Hope in a couple with trauma that stacks higher than all the kruge in the world, but that’s part of the magic Leigh Bardugo wrote with that I still can’t find the right words to grapple with.
Intimacy, even in the absence of physical touch or delicately healing language, is the very thing that differentiates Kaz and Inej from most couples, and it’s something we even see in Shadow and Bone’s first season where their conversation in “The Unsea” solidifies the distinct closeness between them.
Chapter twenty-six of Crooked Kingdom is, in every sense of the word, the most intimate moment throughout the novel because their attachment is exhibited through both their desires. It is embers of built up adoration coming alive in a single moment where two people try to give in and connect the pieces within them that continuously gravitate toward one another.
It starts slowly and full of uncertainties, but it starts with a need on Kaz’s end. It starts with the plan; it starts with the Wraith’s sovereignty. But the high stakes and inevitable possibility of death leads to something more.
It starts with Kaz finally giving Inej the freedom he had long promised her in spite of how desperately he’d rather keep her by his side. And that’s just it—if nothing else happened in this moment, if he didn’t push through to help bind her wounds, this would have still been strikingly intimate and reflective of the heart that’s buried deep beyond the supposed monster’s scheming face.
Intimacy with Kaz and Inej is the thorough understanding of just how important boundaries are for the other person. They might not know all the sensitive details, but they know enough to respect what the other wants. And Kaz Brekker has always understood the importance of Inej Ghafa’s agency. He has always understood that her freedom from the Menagerie and paying off her indenture had to be priority. And so, he liquidates all his assets—he sets her free, and even if he were a different kind of man, one whose body could stomach more right now, her agency would still come first.
Inej Ghafa cannot be bound to another person or a place, but she is still a girl whose heart wants to be adored by the boy in front of her. And thus, there are no words for what he’s done for her—there are no words for her to thank him, instead she turns it back to him, she tries to help him in what might be his final few moments by attempting to once again instill hope in him.
She tries to crack through the barricades within and asks about whether or not his brother deserved what had happened to him. Because this is always how it is with the two of them, Kaz bites with his words, Inej processes and pushes back.
It’s part of their crooked language, which works for them in both the TV series and in the books.
It turns into a discussion about protection, a duty to do right by certain people, to help and to be of use, only Kaz makes it clear, as vaguely as he can, that he blames himself every time something happens to her. He blames himself for the blood on her body and suddenly, without thinking, he brings the words I can help you back around to her. (And they’re words she understands the profound weight of.)
He tries. She tries.
The picture this scene paints so often floors me because Kaz is standing between her legs, eye level, as close as they’ve ever been and while he could have put his gloves back on to make the process easier, he pushes forward because he wants to try. Because as much as flesh on flesh is a severe aversion, he has clearly always desired intimacy with Inej in more ways than one. He is after all, still a human being with those desires coursing through him in spite of the tremendous trauma that shadows him.
It starts off methodically, compared to violence because he needs to make it easier for himself, and as always, Inej’s voice brings him out of the waves and the haunting vapors of drowning. In her means of anchoring him on land, she proves that she isn’t his weakness, but rather, she is his strength. She has always been, and she will always be.
And thus, in helping her with her wounds and working through physical trepidations, they’re both helping each other internally as well.
If he could tell her everything, he would. He wants to. If he could touch her in all the ways she deserves to be touched, he would. He wants to. Chapter twenty-six proves that they both want to be closer because neither can fully process just how much the other means to them. Nothing destroys Kaz the way seeing Inej in any sort of pain does, and we see the manifestation of this truth in Shadow and Bone’s “The Heart is an Arrow” as well.
Kaz Brekker is a better man because of Inej Ghafa, and he is stronger because of the unwavering goodness she has brought to his life in spite of the cruel dances they’ve waltzed through in the barrel.
Inej Ghafa is free and armored to live as she chooses because of Kaz Brekker.
Intimacy in Crooked Kingdom is two people sensing every ounce of the other’s emotions through their physicality and expressiveness, and when Inej realizes that he is struggling, she opens up about her own aversions—the armor she’s learned to navigate through after finding home. She talks about how it wasn’t easy for her to be embraced, she talks about Tante Heleen and she talks about the very real, tangible fear that one day, she might see the men who’ve taken from her on the streets.
She revisits her internal wounds, in order to make his aches more bearable, and the tether between them thus grows stronger. (Aches for him that are now both physical and internal because they’re also tied to the pain she’s lived through.)
Because that’s what this is, aversions aside, it’s give and take with the two of them in a language they’ve fortified that no other person could ever possibly understand. Intimacy is shared trauma and vulnerability. Intimacy is the choice to stay.
“If I loved this scene less, I might be able to talk about it more. It’s inexplicably the most intimate moment in all the books because what it touches on goes beyond their physical desires. The desire is clearly existent and there’s so much they both want with every fiber of their beings, but this moment is all about binding the wounds that go beyond the flesh. Kaz’s decision to try comforting her might be driven by the genuine belief that he’s going to die, but it’s fascinating nevertheless, if it’s the last thing he does, he wants to help Inej in some way. And in doing so, they both get a moment, however brief it is, to really open up about their demons in a way that contributes to strengthening their relationship in a moment of vulnerability that solidifies they’ll always try to take the extra step with each other. (If I even dare to start talking about the fact that he tries to kiss her neck of all places, the place she’s actively voiced being haunted by, I’ll never shut up about it.) But there’s something so beautifully healing about Kaz’s lips on a pulse point where even though his haphephobia is triggered, for a moment, he’s closer to her heart in a way he’s never been with anyone else, which concurrently gives Inej a new memory to hold onto.”
Kaz’s pull to Inej’s neck, a space that was previously synonymous with Inej’s worst experience at the Menagerie breaks me in ways I cannot put into words. Because that’s what’s so overwhelming about this, and why it’s so easy to appreciate Bardugo’s deliberate choice to focus on Inej’s neck because not only does it give her a new memory to hold onto, but where it was once tainted, with Kaz it shows the immeasurable intimacy and sincere adoration that’s taut between them. (And he doesn’t even know this story. He has no idea how lips on that very spot have haunted her. Don’t think about how feral he’d get if he ever found out about it, gauging out a man’s eyes will look like child’s play compared to what Kaz would do the vanilla man.)
Again, even if Kaz didn’t suffer from haphephobia, he’s still so different from the men she’s been subjected to because his desires for her are stemmed from how much he adores her spirit. They are stemmed from how seamlessly he’s grown to lean on her, to appreciate her, to care for her. In spite the fact that he doesn’t fully understand it himself, his desires are driven entirely by love.
Inej’s life, happiness, and freedom matters more to Kaz than anything else. Inej’s life is everything to him, and this scene authenticates that fact because even with the obstinate (and jaded) parts of him revolting against his desires, he can’t walk away from her easily.
Go on equates to try—if these are their last moments together, Inej wants the brush of his lips as much as he does. She wants the walls between them to crumble. But even though they are the ones to crumble instead of their demons, even though they both keel over this time, the moment serves as an unspoken promise that they can try again.
They can try again because they want to.
They can try again because they are each other’s deliverance.
Chapter twenty-six is a beautiful showcase of intimacy that acutely enunciates the detail that their healing is tied to each other. As Kaz bandages each of Inej’s wounds, he surrenders a part of his armor and etches his strength onto her as she’s freely given to him all throughout their journey.
Intimacy is the choice to give and take in equal measures. In a scene breakdown for their moment of intimacy in Shadow and Bone’s “The Unsea,” I had said:
“Where they are both skilled and strong on their own, together, they are something else entirely; they are complexities etched into eons of darkness, finally discovering light in the unwavering loyalty and enveloping partnership that’s stirred them profoundly. It’s a moment of shared vulnerability with trepidations aside between two people who have had too much taken from them, but their belief in each other comes as an absolution of sorts.”
It rings true for them in this scene too. Any moment of intimacy they share sets them free from the demons within. Even amidst trying times, together they are always one step closer to a happy ending and two steps away from the darknesses that haunt them.
Together, they are greater than their demons. Someday, she won’t vanish from her body and he won’t drown. Someday, after each of the wounds buried deep within heal, they can find their absolution together.