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Chapter 11

Isha was much too young to really remember her mother before she passed. She had but a single memory of the woman and it wasn’t a particularly pleasant one: being scolded for sneaking out of the house on her own to join the other older kids as they climbed all over the taller buildings nearby. And even then, she didn’t really remember her. She remembered being embarrassed, looking down at someone yelling at her for leaving without permission. She knew the person had been her mother, but she couldn’t remember what she looked like, what she sounded like, what she was wearing or saying. Only that she had been there to reprimand her.

After her mother passed, her father did a respectable job raising his daughter on his own. Cooking, however, was never quite his forte. She remembered in detail much more vivid than the memory of her mother how much she hated eating certain vegetables. She could crunch down on fresh carrots and snap peas all day, eating them raw, but she absolutely hated brussel sprouts. And of course it had been one of her father’s favorite dishes.

Years down the line, even before her father fell ill, she slowly learned to appreciate them. “Your palette is maturing,” he’d say. Whatever that meant, Isha grew fond of her father’s brussel sprouts. He doused them in olive oil, covered them with salt and spice, then baked them until the leaves turned crisp. They slowly became one of her favorites as well.

In much the same way, Isha was starting to enjoy the process of being tattooed. In the beginning, the sensation was akin to an unfamiliar method of torture. And while it was still painful, she was learning to appreciate the experience. It was almost a good sort of pain. Exciting. And for a good cause, even if Sev’s goal was slightly cringeworthy.

“So you’re set on Spider, huh?” Isha asked.

“Yeah. You don’t think it’s lame do you?”

Honestly, maybe it was just a bit, but it was also very appropriate for the MC, fitting right alongside Sparrow and Chameleon. It was a hell of a lot better than Spoons. But like Spoons, it really comes down to whether or not the person likes it. And if Spoons likes his name, Isha wasn’t about to suggest otherwise. Sev seemed set on Spider, so Spider it was.

“No, not at all. It fits, you know? And since we’re kind of relying on others to choose it, it’s an obvious choice. I just hope they run with the idea.”

Sev had been mentoring with a man named Saba, the pickpocket of the club. His sleights of hand were legendary, once stealing an expensive bracelet—a family heirloom if the stories were true—right off a woman’s wrist, then slipping it into the pocket of her newly hired guard, all in one passing encounter.

As part of Sev’s personal initiation with Saba, the man had slipped a live tarantula into Sev’s pocket without him noticing. Done in front of a large group within the club, it was fairly humiliating at the time. Sev hoped that by owning the prank and making it his own—and doing so with his first tattoo, one done with painstaking attention to detail—would leave enough of an impression to squeeze a title of his own out of the situation.

“And if they can somehow justify calling Lyria the Sparrow,” Isha continued, “then you’re a shoe-in for Spider.”

“Oh?” he asked, practically begging for more information. It was the first time Sev stopped to look up from the tattoo. Hope is a powerful lure.

“You’ve surely caught her feeding birds, right?”

“Once or twice, yeah. I figured that’s where the name came from.”

“It did. She had been trying to train birds as messengers or something. But she never tried with sparrows. And none of it even worked anyways. The woman they call the Sparrow not only never used the bird they’ve named her after, but the whole experiment was a failure.”

She was merely regurgitating information, but it still made her feel smart, in the know. Sev had taught her so much, shown her so much, but she knew all about Lyria’s title and had been the one to learn the ins and outs of tattooing. This day was hers.

“Wow, really? I might have better chances than I was giving myself credit for after all!”

“First things first. Let’s finish this puppy up”—she nodded towards her still unfinished tattoo—“and then we can plan for your celebration.”

Sev got back to work, but was clearly distracted by the good news, making even slower progress than he had been.

“Lyria’s crows,” Isha continued, trying to distract Sev away from his own distracted thoughts, “they kinda just kept coming back. Same time every day, making noise if she forgot to feed them.”

“Impatient little shits.”

Appreciative little shits. They weren’t great at delivering messages, but they did start leaving her piles of coins, each bird adding a lira to the pile, one by one.”

“No way. I call BS. No way they were paying her for feeding them.”

“It wasn’t payment, at least not with such an obvious understanding of what it was they were bringing her. I think they just like shiny things. They were just leaving a gift for their human. A token of appreciation.”

“She sure they weren’t just claiming the place for themselves? Nesting or whatever?”

“No, no nests. Never... roosted? Do crows roost? Whatever the terminology is, that’s not what they were doing. These birds came by to leave her coins. They were leaving them for her. They remember her face.”

“Really? That makes ‘em sound kinda smart. Why couldn’t they deliver messages?”

“They do seem pretty smart. Maybe they’re just shit at taking directions. But they just kept coming back, so she kept feeding them. Now she just kinda keeps ‘em around. They bring her some coin every now and then and all it takes is her tossing them a few breadcrumbs, so might as well, right?”

Jatham walked into the main chamber once again, glaring at the two still huddled around their corner table. For a moment, Isha thought he would approach them yet again, still seething from before, but any plans he might have had were interrupted as a heavy pounding came from the main door of the sanctum. Calm as ever, Miral checked the peephole before silently instructing Bryggen to let in whoever was on the other side.

In rushed three Whispers members, none of whom Isha knew by name. One was heavily wounded, supported by a man and woman on either side. He held a handful of rags stained dark red to his side. The three rushed through the chamber and down one of the hallways, leaving a wave of tension in their wake.

Neither Isha nor Sev were sure how to react. Jatham, however, did. If the man had been stabbed, Jatham might know a thing or two about dealing with it. Though Isha assumed he’d know more about giving wounds then treating them. Still, Jatham followed after the wounded man, leaving Isha and Sev in silence.

A helpful prick.

Not knowing what else to do, Sev and Isha turned their attention back to the tattoo. Time passed mostly in silence, Sev intently focused on the task at hand. As the hours slipped by, more and more members returned to the sanctum. Another man came back bloody and in immediate need of stitching up. Isha and Sev weren’t privy to what the job was, but whatever it had been it apparently hadn’t gone as smoothly as they hoped.

Though plans rarely do.

The commotion served as an effective distraction and before Isha knew it, Sev was done, shading and all. Rags streaked with black and red laid piled on the table next to them, making it look like Isha had been the third casualty in whatever went wrong with the rest of the club’s plans.

Isha’s wounds were nothing compared to the two that were rushed in, hers shallow and delicate where the others’ were life-threatening. Isha would still need to heal, but where the others would be left with scars, she would have art. And an impressive piece at that. For never having tattooed before, Sev did a remarkable job. It seemed the hands of a pickpocket were well-suited for the fastidious work of tattooing.

They had considered basing the tattoo on a tarantula, but decided the detail required for a million tiny hairs would be much too difficult. Their second choice, a black widow, would have been easy, but from what they knew about the process of making colored ink they didn’t want to even bother. Instead, they settled on something a bit more generic. Nothing specific. No hairs, no colored markings. Just a plain, black spider.

The shading is what really made the tattoo. The abdomen looked round and it’s legs had shape, almost as if it were a real spider sitting upon her arm. Isha had seen the whole process and even she was impressed with the final result.

Several forlorn-looking members meandered about the sanctum, distressed from the activities of the night. Isha’s finished tattoo was just the distraction they needed. Both she and Sev had initially planned to not show the tattoo to anyone, giving the reveal of Sev’s own tattoo the extra spotlight, but they had already garnered a growing crowd. Even Jatham peered over the shoulders of others to catch a quick glimpse.

None were overwhelmingly amazed—which is to be expected of such a somber crowd—but the feedback they gave was nothing but positive. Jatham didn’t seem to care, only curious. He said nothing positive or negative, giving nothing more than a huff before he turned to leave.

“Wait a tic,” said a woman bending down to get a closer look. “Aren’t spiders supposed to have eight legs?”

That caught Jatham’s attention. He spun back and pushed the crowd aside to get up front and center. He bent down, pointing at each leg as he counted. Isha and Sev did the same. Sure enough, seven legs. How had neither of them caught that? How did nobody else in the crowd catch it? Why did anyone have to?

“Hahahah!” Jatham let out a powerful laugh that pitched his body upright and flung his head back. “You idiots. ‘Course spiders are supposed to have eight legs! Sev here can’t seem to count!” He let another laugh rip.

Isha felt her chest turn hollow, felt the weight of every body looming around her. They all started giggling along with Jatham. And it was real laughter, not the polite kind the man was accustomed to. It made her feel small and empty, similar to the time she had been scolded by her mother, purposely being embarrassed while surrounded by the older kids she looked up to. She could only imagine how it made Sev feel. She looked up to meet his eyes and could clearly see the harrowing worry streak across his face.

“Holy shit!” Jatham continued. “Sev! Can only count to Seven!” He punctuated the words to make it very clear to the crowd just how funny the coincidence was. “That’s what we’ll call you! Seven!”

It was the nail in the coffin. All his work and effort towards getting a nickname and it had backfired in such a poetic fashion.

“Get it?! Seven?!”

Yeah, you insufferable prick, we fucking get it.

It was much too late to get ahead of the situation, own it and make it their own. The deed was done. The sanctum was filled with worried people, anxiously waiting for word about either of the two wounded that were rushed in earlier. None had come. And who knew what else they were dealing with, what losses had been suffered. Like leeches, they latched on to the first thing to bring them any amount of joy, a much needed distraction. That thing just so happened to be to the misfortune of Isha and Sev.

Isha began gathering up their supplies in the heavy cloth they had laid down for their workspace. It was already covered in ink, so spilling a little more was of no concern as she threw everything into the center and balled it all up together. Wordlessly, Sev followed her cue and gathered the rest of their things. But as they stood from the table, one obstacle stood in their way.

“Aww, where you going? Runnin’ home to mommy and daddy?” Jatham didn’t want them to leave. He wanted to savor the moment. He’d been embarrassed by a couple of punk kids. And now he was getting his revenge, in front of a cheering crowd no less. Like the Butcher he so desperately wanted to be, Jatham went in for the kill. He bent down, his face once again close enough for Isha to practically taste the man’s breath, and whispered, “Oh wait, that’s right. They’re dead.”

It was difficult to say which emotion was stronger, the fury or the longing. Mentioning her parents invoked a violent, explosive anger from deep within her that was somehow met in equal force by the palpable loneliness she felt in their absence. Both fueled the same immediate desire raging within her.

Isha thought of her training with Lyria, felt the dagger strapped to her back. It seemed so heavy. Luckily, for both her and Jatham, she was able to hold back on such an outburst, but only because stabbing wasn’t the only thing Lyria had taught her for dealing with ill-mannered men.

“A quick knee right between the legs.”

Jatham buckled over in pain just as Sev shoulder-checked the man as they walked past. He fell to the ground, eyes squinting tight and face pained, not making a sound. Not as if anything could be heard over the crowd’s laughter, now even livelier than before.

With the onlookers’ attention turned, Isha and Sev made for a hasty exit. Stepping past Jatham hunched over on the floor, the two rushed to the main door of the sanctum and found Miral and Bryggen waiting for them, all the locks already undone.

“Leaving?” Miral asked, his voice calm and free from judgment.

“We are,” Isha replied, trying to match his calmness.

“When should we expect your return?”

She didn’t have an answer. She didn’t know how long they’d be gone for. The way he asked the question, it almost sounded like he asked ‘Should we expect your return at all?’ It was almost insulting. Isha wouldn’t let a few unkind words from the biggest asshole in the club put her off. It’d take a whole lot more than that.

Without waiting for an answer, Miral motioned to Bryggen and the boy heaved the door open, nodding knowingly to Isha and Sev as he stepped aside.

The two exited the sanctum hand in hand.

“Where are we going?” Sev asked once the door was closed behind them.

“Away from here.” She hadn’t really thought of where to go before, but the destination was instantly obvious. They needed a safe place, somewhere private. “You take me all over the city. I’ve got a gem of my own I’ve been meaning to share with you.”

Darkness had descended upon the curving streets of the Outer Ring. And with it came an unfamiliar silence. All day long and well into the night, the streets of Rah’qet were lively and buzzing with excitement. At this time of night, though, not even the restaurants and taverns remained open. Only a handful of windows still shared light from within, hardly enough to illuminate the street as Isha led Sev down the familiar roads.

Neither of them had intended to be awake at such an ungodly hour, but between the commotion in the sanctum and the painstaking tediousness of the tattooing, time had quickly slipped past them.

“Sorry,” Sev meekly said, breaking the silence they had been shrouded in ever since leaving the sanctum.

“Don’t you dare apologize.”

“But it was my fault. If only I hadn’t—”

“Nope. Stop all that right now. ‘If only’ will get us nowhere. If only you’d done all eight legs. If only we hadn’t shown it to all those people. If only Jatham wasn’t there, or the one person who noticed. If whatever big job the club was involved in had gone more smoothly, nobody would have been rushing back to the sanctum to regroup or tend to the wounded.”

Isha knew they were partially to blame, but also knew it was mostly due to the culmination of a bunch of things out of their control. It was as if the universe was conspiring against them.

“It’s too late to change any of that,” she continued. “It was just bad timing. That’s all.”

“I guess... I mean, you’re not wrong. It just, it could’ve been such an easy fix. That’s the part that hurts the most, in some weird way. All we had to do was add another leg and voila, perfect spider.”

“I guess we still could.”

“We could. So you won’t have a fucked up tattoo. But the damage is done. I’m Seven now.”

“I know it isn’t the nickname you wanted, but if we’re being completely honest, that actually still sounds kinda cool.”

“They were laughing at me, Isha. All of them. ‘Seven’ will never not be a joke. I wanted a nickname as a sign of respect. Something revered, a badge of pride. That’ll never happen now.”

“You don’t know that. You can’t know that!” Isha wasn’t sure if she believed in her side of the argument or if she were merely saying things to appease Sev’s bruised pride, but realization smacked her across the face with a delightful pain. “Remember who suggested the name in the first place.”

“Jatham,” he groveled, disdain seething from between his lips.

“Yeah, Jatham,” she echoed, hoping Sev would pick up on her clue on his own, though it seemed he was much too worked up to do so..

“Asshole’s probably running through every corridor in the sanctum telling everyone he comes across the hilarious name he came up for me.”

“And that’s exactly why he’ll fail. He came up with it. And you damn well know he won’t let that little fact slip away. He’ll want everyone to know how fucking clever his joke was. So even if he is telling everyone he comes across about it, who the shit is he gonna convince? Nobody listens to him. He’s been trying to get people to call him the Butcher for how long now? Nobody gives a shit. He has no authority.”

“Shit, you’re not wrong there. Best way to get someone to not do something is to beat them over the head with the idea.”

“I can just imagine this lumbering idiot kicking down doors and bursting into rooms where people are bleeding out from stab wounds in their guts. ‘Hurr hurr, did you guys hear my stupid joke?’ Fuck that guy.”

They shared a quiet laugh.

“Isha?” She turned to look Sev in the eyes. He was smiling now. The way he was looking at her, one might think he was in love or something. “Thanks. Sincerely. You have this uncanny ability to just put me at ease. I already feel a million times better.” He squeezed her hand a little tighter. With a blushing smile on her face, Isha squeezed back.

“It’s already pretty late, so what do you say we finish off the last leg tomorrow and stroll back into the sanctum with a finished piece?” she said, showing off the fresh tattoo on her forearm. Deviousness flashed within Isha’s eyes. “Let Jatham puff his chest. Just more for us to deflate.”

“Where are we sleeping tonight then? Where exactly are you taking me?”



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