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Chapter 1

“Eight drachmae?!” The man raised his voice, recoiling at the number he was given. “Why not just charge me a whole silver!”

“Never said eight,” Isha replied. “Seven drachmae, six lira.”

“Practically the same thing.”

“It’s not. Besides, you don’t pay it all right now. Half upfront. So only”—she did some quick math in her head—“three and eight.”


“Hey, poison is expensive. If you want the job done right—and clean—it’ll cost you.”

“How do you even know where to buy such a thing?”

“It’s just a matter of knowing the right people. It’s not the easiest thing to come by, but that’s what makes it a little costly.”

The man stroked the greying hairs of his short-trimmed beard in silence, contemplating his options. He wore fine silk pants and an elaborately stitched vest adorned with gleaming silver buttons. Judging by his clothes alone, one might assume eight drachma was a pittance to a man of his apparent stature. The fact that Isha was standing in the middle of the successful cheese shop that he owned even more so.

“What about this stuff?” Isha asked as she reached for a triangular wedge of cheese. It looked more like cake than cheese, the surface a cloudy white like powdered sugar.

“Don’t touch that!” he said, waving his hand back and forth between Isha and the cheese. “Do try and keep your fingers off the merchandise, please. It’s expensive and I’ve lost enough stock already.”

“How much is it then? One drachma?”

“Not that much. Only nine lira, that.”

“Practically the same thing,” Isha retorted, mimicking the man’s words from before. “You sell just three of these and you’ve nearly covered the upfront already.”

“Not gonna sell shit with you standing here.”

Isha didn’t respond. She knew enough men like him to understand that it never mattered what the price was. He was always going to complain. The trick, she learned, was picking an initial price that was reasonable enough to not have him dismiss her outright. There would be some haggling, of course, but that was all part of the process. She just needed to wait for his counter offer.

“Fine,” he relented. “Three and eight.”

Or perhaps there wouldn’t be any haggling after all. Could she have squeezed him for even more? It wasn’t likely. She was already on the higher end. Maybe he just wanted her out of his shop. The dirty clothes she wore were a stark contrast to the man’s attire, rags by comparison. He could simply want their transaction to be concluded as fast as possible. Either that or he thought it beneath him to haggle with a teenager.

“Three and eight,” Isha replied with a nod.

He unstrung the coin purse on his hip and began counting out three drachmae and eight lira. From the sound of it, he had plenty more coin to spare.

“Is poison really necessary?” he asked, still unsure of the deal he was about to make.

“Simple traps are no good. You’ll catch plenty—and I’m more than happy to only charge you for services rendered if that’s your preference—but you’d need me again in a tenday, maybe even less. Thing is, rats like hiding in walls. Breed in there. Take their stolen goods back to their little rat families. Poison will always be your best bet unless you wanna tear your walls down bare, which’ll cost you a hell of a lot more than a few drachmae.”

It wasn’t uncommon for shop owners to hire street kids like Isha to catch rats infesting their cellars and basements. Most of these well-off business owners wouldn’t dare be caught conversing with anyone of such a lower social standing under normal circumstances. But at least for a moment, Isha was no longer a street kid. Not an urchin or orphan or whatever other names people would call kids like her. No, she was a ratcatcher. A proper tradeswoman offering her much needed services. She had skills that he needed. And that gave her leverage.

“Besides,” she continued, “I’m already charging you cheaper than usual.”

“That price was cheaper?”

“Less the cost of bait. Would be a waste when you’ve got a shop full of cheese right here. And don’t worry, I’ll only be using what the rats have already got to, just the contaminated stuff.” She almost accidentally said they were his rats, not the rats. They most certainly were not his rats, but men like him didn’t seem to appreciate the implied blame. “Can’t be sold, obviously, but the rats already seem to have taken a liking to your product. Makes for perfect bait.”

“True enough,” he said, agreeing with her but also clearly pondering the possibility of somehow still selling cheese that rats had been chewing on.

He counted the coins in his hand again. Three drachmae and eight lira. It was still a small amount to the man, but he hesitated to let it go. That seemed to be how things went when it came to money. When you barely have any, you hate when you have to spend it. When you have a lot of it, you still seem to hate when you have to spend it. But maybe that was why rich people stayed rich.

The man held his hand forward, fist gripped around the coin. Isha extended her open palm to receive her payment, but he held his hand closed.

“I need some assurances,” he said with a bravado that didn’t at all match with a man who was worried that a little girl was going to steal his pocket change. “How do I know you won’t just run off with my money? What’s to stop you from taking this, not actually buying any poison, and just never returning?”

“Fair question.”

It wasn’t.

While the amount of coin was a decent chunk of change for any street kid, running off with it would only ever be a short term gain. She’d be lying if she said she hadn’t thought about it, but it was nothing more than the immediate gut reaction to going from penniless to suddenly having a handful of coin without ever actually doing the job. But that would simply be petty theft, not even counting as a scam. There was nothing clever about it, nothing fulfilling. Besides, she’d gotten into enough trouble by not keeping her impulses in check already. And the actual job was getting easier and easier every time.

“I’m trying to build a reputation. I wanna be the girl people come to when they need their rat problems taken care of. But to ease your worries, I’ll leave all my stuff here.” She lightly kicked the dingy metal box at her feet. “All my supplies and tools. Took me ages to gather it all up. Worth a whole lot more than a few drachmae, I’ll tell you that much.”

He eyed the box, a tall metal toolbox with most of its paint chipped away, the padding from its handle long gone and several dents surrounding the outer casing. It was old and discarded, but served her purposes just fine.

“Open it up,” he said, directing her with a jab of his chin.

She obliged, her heart beating noticeably faster, revealing an unorganized and mismatched collection of various tools. A small crowbar, dozens of loose nails wrapped in twine, several various sized knives, a mortar and pestle, a couple wooden shims, an icepick, a pair of long tweezers, a long and thin piece of metal with a hook at the end, a mallet that’s edges were starting to fray, even a pair of needle nose pliers. She had amassed quite the collection. And only half of it was stolen.

“You’ve got yourself a deal,” the man said, dumping the handful of coins into Isha’s waiting palm. “One last thing, though.”

He turned and walked towards the rear of the shop, beckoning for her to grab her tools and follow. He opened the door to the dark storage room in the back and stood in the doorway.

“I’d appreciate it if you would use the back door for now on. That way you can slip in and out without, uh, disturbing potential customers. I don’t need dead rats being carried through the store while I’m trying to make a sale.”

“Can do. Shouldn’t be a problem.”

Isha set her toolbox on the ground as he moved to the back of the room. He lifted the latch keeping the door locked and opened the door to the alley behind, holding it open for her to leave. Such a gentleman, she thought, surprised at the act of kindness.

“I’ll leave it unlocked,” he whispered.

She smiled as she passed him, a smile that only grew wider as she walked down the alleyway. The guy must really trust her.

That was a mistake.

The streets of Rah’qet were just as busy as usual. Never a dull day when there’s money to be made. On the other side of the city, the Strip was likely in full swing. People would be densely packed between stall after stall, a bazaar that stretched for several blocks. It was much calmer on Isha’s side of the city, but only relatively so. People still milled about the streets as they went about their lives, some just more hurried than others.

Sometimes Isha would stop herself to think that each and every one of these people weren’t just the background noise of her own life, but were living their own lives full of excitement and disappointment, romance and heartbreak, choice and consequence. Everyone was the star of their own lives, just as she was to hers. But Isha liked to remind herself now and again that she was surrounded by other stories from differing perspectives. Storylines that interwove with one another, even if only briefly.

One man had a story that was likely interwoven with the entire city. Everyone knew Freamon. It was hard not to. While he might not be much more than a passing cameo for some, Freamon’s story was tightly entangled with the stories of nearly every street kid in all of Rah’qet, Isha included.

For the urchins of the Outer Ring, life wasn’t easy. Many turned to less petty crime, some to drugs, few found themselves well-equipped for mercenary work, but their lives were not typically long and fulfilling. It was why Isha was working so diligently to make herself well-known as the best ratcatcher in the city, trying to find footing to climb out of her hole.

Freamon was different.

Living on the street wasn’t easy. Most struggled just to get by day to day. But Freamon thrived. His friendly, bubbly personality wasn’t just a facade he put on to garner the kindness of passersby like so many beggars. He was genuinely happy. Not just comfortable, but in his element. He was the right kind of clever that life on the street afforded him an ease and freedom he couldn’t find anywhere else. And he tried. But “normal” life just never took for him. He was made for the streets.

His natural propensity for street life wasn’t the only thing that made him a unique figure amongst the other street orphans. One other major difference was much more obvious: he wasn’t a kid. His joking answers would vary wildly if asked, but Isha suspected he was somewhere around his late 30’s to early 40’s. Isha wondered if he could even be considered an orphan if he was old enough to have kids of his own. For all she knew, he very well could be the father to some of the actual orphans.

Given his peculiar station in life, he quickly became a sort of mentor to the young street kids. He looked out for his own, not only dispensing wisdom but also acting as an intermediary for barter amongst them. He became their middle man, helping to foster a strange sense of community amongst the street kids while simultaneously alleviating one of their most basic problems.

Steal a loaf of bread and it’ll go stale before you can finish it. Bring it to Freamon and he’ll trade half of it for some peanut butter another street kid brought to him. Then you’ve got sandwiches for both of you and plenty to spare for more barter.

Isha didn’t need to venture far before she found Freamon, easily spotting his cart in the distance. Or as he liked to call it, his mobile kiosk. Comprised of two discarded produce carts that had been linked together, Freamon’s kiosk was much more than a sum of its parts. He replaced the wheels with sturdier ones from a proper wagon, affixed tall display shelving covered in mesh wire to dissuade sticky fingers from trying anything they would come to regret, even added a collapsible cloth awning to keep the sun at bay. The man had an eye for makeshift engineering.

“Ay, little mouse,” Freamon said as Isha approached. He referred to all the street kids as his little mice. The moniker was a little awkward given her burgeoning profession, but she brushed it off. “Ooh, I know that look. Don’t need to tell Freamon what brings you here today. He can tell! That’s right, written all over your face. Little Isha here looking to dip into Freamon’s special stock, ain’t that right, girl?”

The man could talk.

“Am I that easy to read?”

“Please. A smile on your face, clutching your pocket. Somebody just came into some coin. Plus, you ain’t got nothing to trade. You come to Freamon looking to purchase. And you only ever purchase the one thing.”

The man took out a glass jar, already half empty. Not filled with poison, but peanut butter. Truth be told, Isha had no idea where to buy actual poison. Or how much it would cost for that matter, but neither did the man who owned the cheese shop. Even if she did know, such information wouldn’t be of any use to her. She wouldn’t dream of killing any of her rats.

“I know, I know. Only half full. But it’s all I got left, I’m afraid. Stock moves fast, you know. Little mice come and go as they please.”

“Half’ll do just fine. How much?”

“Since it’s only half... let’s say... three then?”

If she were actually buying poison, three lira would be a steal.

“Three? You charged me four for a full jar last time. And don’t give me any of that supply and demand crap.”

“Did I? Guess you’re right. Alright then. Two lira for the half jar in that case. Fair’s fair.”


Whenever Freamon was dispensing some of his street wisdom or telling stories, he was sharp as a tack. Determining the prices of his various wares, though, and his memory suddenly began to falter. It was all an act, one of the many tricks up his sleeve to eek out a few extra coin here and there.

Isha had caught on fairly quickly. It was hard not to notice given how often they did business, especially when his poor memory resulted in him somehow always pricing things higher than he previously had. “Reminding” him of the fairer price was just part of the process. Like he was giving special deals to his regular customers.

Life on the street being what it is, dealing mostly in pure barter—goods for other goods—would always be the safer option. The threat of being robbed was constant, but half a jar of peanut butter wasn’t nearly as enticing a target as a pocketful of coin. With his high volume of transactions, one might assume that Freamon would be an easy, high-value target. But Freamon had respect. He was a staple of the outer ring. Always friendly, always smiling, always taking care of his own.

Rah’qet was far from immune to the criminal elements prevalent in every major city. Quite the opposite. One of the MCs in the city literally called themselves the Thieves’ Guild. But nobody dared mess with Freamon. It was a line one simply did not cross.

Isha had heard stories of a couple men that tried a few years back, bandits from out of town who apparently had not been informed. Before they even had the chance to do much of anything, a dozen or so of Freamon’s little mice descended upon the two thugs. The story changed depending on who told it, ranging anywhere from the men being cut down on the spot by a swarm of knife-wielding street kids to the two being pummeled by rocks until they were forced to flee. Either way the story went, the lesson was the same: nobody fucks with Freamon.

His little mice looked after him, as he looked after them.

“I gotta ask—Freamon gets curious, you see—but why all the peanut butter? And why you always pay for it in coin? It’s never barter with you. Always just a sale. Where you even get coin to begin with?”

He was suspicious by default. Even towards his little mice.

“For a job.”

“For a job,” he echoed. “Answering with such brevity you’d think she was holding something back. Don’t need to be so efficient with your words around ol’ Freamon, girl. This job, it legit?”

“More or less.” Isha was hired to rid a man’s shop of rats and that’s exactly what she intended to do. That much was true. Granted, the shop didn’t have a rat problem until she planted them there herself, but that was neither here nor there. “Trying to be, at least. Looking to make a name for myself.”

“Making a name for herself, alright, alright. Freamon knows all about that. Everyone from here to the Strip knows Freamon’s name! You play your cards right, play ‘em smart, and one way or another everyone’ll know little Isha’s name.”


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Posted by Matt on 01.13.21
Wow, hey, new book!

So the first novel is officially complete. That's a pretty big milestone (and the perfect time to tell your friends *nudge nudge*). Today's chapter marks the beginning of the first novella, a shorter story in the same universe that focuses on Isha's childhood. Future novellas won't necessarily be this closely related to the main story, but this one is about as close as you can get.

It'll only run for 12 chapters, so it won't be long until we jump back into the main story!
the empire
The Howl
The Mazewilds
The Shelf
Shaded Seed
Wayfarer's Ridge
A Gentle Scar
Tiller's Hamlet