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Chapter 10

“Wait, you know Freamon?” Isha asked, surprised. She placed a teapot half-filled with lukewarm water on the table between her and Sev.

“Course, little mouse,” he replied with his best impression of the man. “Everybody knows Freamon’s name.”

They shared a laugh. Sev didn’t quite have the scratchy voice down, but he nailed the inflection. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Of course Sev knew Freamon. What street kid didn’t?

“Say what you will about the guy,” Sev continued, “but the man can source pretty much anything. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t even know what witch hazel was, but he found some.”

Sev pulled out a small bag and shook it around, softly rattling its contents.

“He’s always been my go to supplier—wait, what do you mean ‘say what you will’ about him?” Isha found herself suddenly defensive of the man. To her, Freamon was more than just a source of advice or goods. He was her friend.

“You know the guy. He likes to think of himself as a mentor to all the street kids, the wise elder offering a guiding hand. But if he were so wise, why was he still living on the street? Is he really as wise as he likes to think of himself, or is he just wise when compared to the people he surrounds himself with: uneducated children?”

“You mean uneducated children like you and me once were? Ones he taught how to fend for themselves? Clever bastard probably single-handedly gave half the street kids in the city the means to survive just from his offhanded tidbits of advice alone.”

“True, I’ll give him that. He did help a lot of us find our footings, showed us the basics of getting by. He has this innate trickiness about him that works for life on the street. But of all his advice, most of it needed to be taken with a grain of salt. He’s clever enough to comfortably get by on the street, but none of his schemes ever elevated him beyond that. He may have a fancy cart and the respect of a veritable army of homeless kids, but after all these years, he’s still on the street.”

“Did you ever think that maybe he prefers it that way? It’s just the way he likes it.”

“Does he, though? Is he complacent, or is he scared to leave his comfort zone, as uncomfortable as it may be?”

“Some people are made to be artists, some are meant to be philosophers. I think Freamon was always meant to be Freamon. I don’t even think that’s his real name. Free man? He gave himself that name.”

“Speaking of nicknames!”

“Oh boy. Are you really sure you wanna do this?”

“Listen, I know nicknames are something you usually earn, and not for a while, relegated to the higher ups. But look at Jessa. She started getting called Tiptoes after what? A day even?”

“Yeah, the same day Jatham was trying to force his own nickname. And that sure as hell hasn’t caught on.”

“The difference there is that Jessa wasn’t trying to get one.”

“And you’re not?”

“I won’t make it seem like I am. That boorish oaf Jatham couldn’t have been more obvious about it. You need to be subtle about these things. Don’t go chasing after it. Make it easy, set the stage so to speak, but let it come to you.”

“Okay.” Isha threw her hands up, defeated. “If you say so.”

“So how do we get started?”

“Well, toss the witch hazel into the pot and let it soak for a bit while we prep everything else.” Sev did as he was told and emptied the bag of what looked like slender wood chips into the teapot. “We’ll eventually boil and steep it like it was actual tea for a bit, but let’s make the ink for now.”

With that, the two diligently got to work.

Neither of them had ever prepared tattoo ink, but the process didn’t seem all that foreign to Isha. As part of her initiation into the Whispers, Isha was tasked with preparing tea for Faerris. Grinding sticks of charcoal into a fine dust with her mortar and pestle wasn’t all that dissimilar to grinding up dried flowers and tea leaves.

Sev retrieved a small flask of clear alcohol he had also sourced from Freamon. From what they had learned, a little water would be added to it, but that was only if it was pure. With Freamon’s procurement methods, especially regarding alcohol, it was difficult to trust the purity.

“Only one way to be sure!” Sev said with a grin as he poured two small shot glasses. He only filled them to half, enough to get a good taste but not so much they would waste their very limited supply. “Cheers!”

It burned Isha’s throat even worse than the stuff Jatham had strongarmed her into drinking after her initiation. The two both began coughing, tears welling in their eyes.

“Think it’s good,” Sev choked out between slow gasps of air.

“You two alright back there?” Miral called out from his post at the front entrance. Bryggen popped his massive head out from around the corner, his miniature-looking reading glasses perched delicately on the bridge of his wide, bent nose.

Isha still couldn’t quite talk, instead relegated to nodding her head and waving Bryggen away.

“Yeah!” Sev croaked. “Fine!”

The main chamber of the sanctum was relatively empty, a rare occasion for the club. It offered the two unhindered access to the small wood burning stove in the corner of the room and, more importantly, privacy to work. In the moment, Isha was just glad no one else was around to see the two of them bent over and crying after taking half a shot of alcohol. They were preparing to give Sev a tattoo to help him earn a title amongst their secret mercenary club peers. Now was not the time to show their inexperience.

The alcohol, with more than a few drops of water, was added to the charcoal powder and mixed into a fine paste. Isha made sure not to stir it too vigorously, like she was mixing honey into a cup of tea that was filled just a bit too full. Sev placed a small amount of beeswax in a spoon and held it over a candle to melt it down. Isha had become accustomed to separating honey from beeswax for Faerris’ tea, only the last time she kept the wax instead of discarding it. Once melted, Sev slowly added the wax to Isha’s mixture, thickening it just slightly.

“And what about our witch hazel tea?” Sev asked. “Is that ready?”

“Oh, right. I guess we could start boiling it now. Make sure nobody drinks it, though. From what Lyria told me, it’ll give you—and I quote—‘a serious case of the shits.’ So maybe we should keep an eye on it.”


He grabbed the tea kettle and walked over to the stove. The sanctum was so empty they could have used the actual kitchen if they wanted, but the industrial-sized oven would have been overkill for heating up a teapot. The much smaller wood burning stove in the main chamber would more than suffice.

For being located entirely underground, much of the Whispers sanctum was kept relatively warm. Several of the main rooms and halls were heated with smaller wood burning stoves, each of which were affixed with large metal tubes that ran up into the ceiling—through the solid rock no less—to allow the smoke to escape. Isha didn’t know the exact locations where they all led, but she knew they were all safehouses used by the club from time to time. A random tube jutting out of the ground spewing smoke would be sure to stoke the curiosities of passersby, but nobody would expect anything funny if the tubes discreetly connected to the chimneys of several houses and other buildings.

It was both the most mundane and impressive feat of engineering Isha had ever seen.

“So we boil this for a while, let it steep and then that’s it?” Sev asked.

“That’s it. Apparently,” Isha said with a shrug. “Remember, I’ve never done any of this before.”

“I trust you.”

“I wouldn’t.”

Sev was smitten, as was she, though Isha knew better to not blindly put her trust in everything between the two of them. Neither of them would ever lie to one another, would always protect one another, but in cases where neither of them knew what they were doing? She knew their intentions would be just, but there’s a big difference between understanding something on paper and putting that into action. Lyria had given her the step-by-step, but neither she nor Sev had any hands-on experience.

“Are you really sure you wanna do this?” she asked him.

“Yes! Isha, it’s alright. You don’t need to be scared, it’s just—”

“I’m not scared. It’s just... Shouldn’t we practice this at least once? Make sure we’ve got it down? Get our mistakes out of the way to make sure the real thing is impressive?”

“We could maybe find some pig hides from a butcher, I guess. Probably’d have to pay for something like that. Or we could make a date of it and hunt one down ourselves!”

It wasn’t the most romantic date idea, but the simple thought of her boyfriend taking her on a date set her heart aflutter. She still found herself captivated by the concept of being in a real relationship. She had a boyfriend. And he was cute.

That said, hunting pigs sounded fucking awful.

“Have you ever been hunting, Sev? ‘Cause I sure haven’t.”

“Well, no. Maybe scratch that idea. What do you suggest we do then?”

“How about... instead of me tattooing you, you give me the tattoo first. A trial run, so to speak.”

“You’d do that for me?”

“Of course.”

It didn’t take long for Isha to regret the decision.

“Fucking hell, Sev! That hurts like shit!”

Isha knew getting tattooed would involve at least a little pain, that much was obvious. But unlike getting punched or twisting one’s ankle, it didn’t come in a flash that slowly subsided. It was constant. The pain never reached unbearable levels, but the unceasing poke-poke-poking was testing her patience.

“Sorry! I’m trying to be as gentle as possible, I swear.”

The process was arduous at best. Dot by dot, Sev moved the tattoo needle beside the last and poked a new freckle of ink into her skin. The needle wasn’t much more than a slender length of wood with a thin nail driven through the end. He tapped the nail with another slender length of wood wrapped with cloth at the end like the tiniest marimba mallet.

On the table beside them sat several shot glasses filled with ink and increasing amounts of the witch hazel brew mixed together, giving them an array of diluted greys to shade and detail the tattoo. At the pace they were going, though, it would be hours before they reached that point.

For each dot, Sev dipped the needle back into the shot glass with the darkest hue, coating the nail in fresh, undiluted ink. Isha was fairly certain it wasn’t necessary to do so often as the needle carried more than enough ink for several dots. But while Sev’s slow and methodical technique might not have been necessary, it did result in surprisingly consistent line work. For first timers, they were doing an unexpectedly competent job.

At least that’s what Isha was feeling from the couple of lines Sev had been able to complete—not nearly enough for it to resemble much of anything—before they were rudely interrupted.

“Well, well, well, what have we got here?” Jatham mockingly asked as he strolled towards the two.

There was a part of Isha that was glad for the interruption. It gave her a break from being stabbed over and over again. On the other hand, it was Jatham. And he was never a welcome guest. Plus, she kind of wanted to keep pushing forward and get the tattoo over with. Progress was dragging along, but pause now and they would lose whatever momentum they had built up.

Isha and Sev were seated at the corner of a small table against the wall, a spot specifically chosen to try and avoid just such contact. Jatham straddled the edge of Isha’s chair, standing much too close for comfort, peering over her shoulder to spy the beginnings of ink along Isha’s forearm. Sev, whether consciously or not Isha couldn’t tell, held her hand.

“Gonna etch each other’s initials inside little hearts, are ya? Adorable.

What’s he even still doing in the sanctum? All the other heavy hitters were out on some important job. She felt like Jatham might be considered the black sheep of the club at this point, but they must really not trust him.

“Hey, Jatham,” Sev said as the man approached, feigning enthusiasm. “Just put a kettle on. Would you like some tea?”

You mischievous little shit.

“Fuck your prissy flower water. I’ll take some of whatever you got in that flask there, though.”

He reached over both of them and nabbed the flask off the table. There wasn’t much more than a sip left, but he drank it just the same.

“Ehh, not bad stuff that. Keep drinking more of this”—he waved around the empty flask and tossed it towards Sev without a care—“and you might get some hair on your chest yet, boy.” He let out a guttural laugh deserved for a much funnier joke.

“So, Sev is giving little Isha her first tattoo, huh?” He left his spot behind Isha and strode around to Sev’s side. “If you ever decide to have a real man show you how things’re done, give ol’ Jatham here a holler.”

The man laid his own forearm over Sev’s shoulder, using him as a prop to showcase his own ink. Surrounded by smaller, simple designs like a pair of dice, a bloody dagger and a ship’s anchor—the latter being a blisteringly odd choice for someone who lived in the middle of the godsdamned desert—one tattoo stood out amongst the rest. Taking up most of his wide forearm, the most prominent tattoo was that of a snake. Dark spots littered its uppermost scales, leading towards the two horns protruding from behind its eyes like an extra set of fangs. It slithered around a human skull, in through one of the eye sockets and out through the mouth. She hated to admit, but it was pretty cool.

To most, such an artistic display would come from a place of pride or reverence. Not to Jatham. Some men feel the need to make up for their lacking personalities by dressing ostentatiously like colorful birds. Others go so far as to carry around bizarre pets for attention. Like colorful birds. Jatham took a different route, covering himself in tattoos, from the knuckles of his hands, up his arms and all the way to his neck.

“Your tattoos are so unique, Jatham.” Isha laid the praise on extra thick. “You really like to show them off don’t you?”

“That I do, little Isha.” Jatham puffed his chest at the compliment, looking at Sev with a knowing smile. He wanted Sev to feel small, it was clear.

“They’ll probably make it pretty fucking easy to identify you after you bungle another job though, huh?” Jab. “How many of those tattoos were done while you were locked up for the last one?” And twist.

The man instantly deflated. He looked around the room, either out of embarrassment to see if anyone else had overheard the insult, or to make sure no one else was nearby to witness the act of violence he was contemplating.

“Identify me after a job?” He leaned in close enough for Isha to smell his breath, like a mixture of rot and sour milk. He lowered his voice, both in tone and volume. “You know what jobs I do, girl?” He dragged his thumb across his neck while making a sound that couldn’t possibly resemble a throat being slit.

It was an empty threat, she knew. Even Jatham wasn’t daft enough to murder a fellow club member in the middle of the sanctum. Such an act would be a death sentence. Still, it wasn’t the most pleasant thing to be told. She felt the courage behind her insults suddenly draining out of her.

“Hah!” He let out a powerful belly laugh, blowing hot air into both her and Sev’s faces. “You two need to lighten up.”

Lighten up? It was one thing to threaten them so directly. It was something else entirely to then play it off like he had been joking the whole time. Like most of the man’s humor, none of it was funny in the slightest.

“Good luck with the tattoo, lovebirds,” he said with another guffaw as he gave Sev a slap on the back—light enough that it could still come off as being done in jest, but hard enough to still hurt—before leaving them to themselves once more.

“What a prick,” Isha muttered as soon as Jatham was out of earshot.

“He’s just jealous.”

“No he isn’t. Or at least not just jealous. You think he somehow wouldn’t still be a prick if he weren’t?”

“Mmm, you’re right. Prick is his baseline. He is currently a jealous prick, but he could very easily become an angry prick or a confused prick.”

“I also think confused might be his baseline as well.” Sev let out a little snickering snort of a laugh. That laugh always made Isha smile because she knew how sincere it was. “You’re right, though. He is jealous. And he’s gonna be even more jealous once you’ve got a title and he doesn’t.”

Without another word, Sev jumped back into things, determined, continuing on with the meticulous process.

Time seemed to pass by strangely from that point on. At first, it seemed like every moment stretched on and on, each poke on her arm a ticking hand of a clock. After a while, though—a long while—the process stopped hurting. She got over it. She was getting used to it, yes. And Sev was getting better at it. But it was more than that.

The physical closeness to Sev, the intimacy of the shared experience, entrusting him with her wellbeing: it all brought the two closer together. She was being wrapped up in his arms without him actually doing so. They stared into each other’s eyes without Sev’s attention leaving his canvas. They held hands while all the boy really did was rest his palm against her wrist as he carefully tapped away, Isha curling her fingers to just barely graze against his.

It was, somehow, nice.


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