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Chapter 3

It felt strange to be digging through trash with a pocketful of coin.

With a potential job—a legitimate job—only a day away, she figured it would be smart to hold on to the cheese she’d pocketed earlier. Catching actual rats and calling on her trained pets were two very different things. If she wanted to ensure her success, some high quality bait was a good first step.

But her little dummies still needed to eat.

She knew she was in a fortunate position to not need to scavenge for her own meals like so many others, but she still wasn’t afforded the luxury of splurging on much of anything. She got by, was comfortably, but always wanted more. Better clothes wouldn’t just be nice to own, but would allow her to be more presentable towards potential clients. Then she would get jobs more frequently and maybe even be able to do legitimate ratcatching full time, no scams needed.

Isha dug through discarded waste wearing a pair of old leather butcher’s gloves. They were oversized for her small hands, reaching nearly to her elbows, but they got the job done. For a “dirty street kid,” Isha kept her hands remarkably clean. One of the many tips from Freamon she had taken to heart.

Life on the street isn’t easy, but getting sick makes things exponentially worse. And as Freamon had so often preached, one of the easiest ways to stay healthy was to keep your hands clean. Gloves help, but nothing beats soap. Though it was rarely easy to come by.

Supposedly hunters had devised an easy recipe for making soap while out in the wilds that used the fat drippings from cooked meat and coals from a fire. Somehow. But she wasn’t exactly cooking up steaks and bacon over a campfire on a regular basis, so even access to the ingredients was next to impossible.

Washing your hands with hard alcohol—no cider or beer or anything like that—is said to help clean fairly well, but if you’ve got booze to spare, you might as well just trade it for some actual soap. Even the worst barter would get you way more uses of soap than you would wasting good hooch. And while soap may be a hot commodity, nothing comes quite as close as people’s need for alcohol.

Having cobbled together a suitable amount of scraps, Isha made her way back home to her little urchin hidey hole.

It wasn’t much more than a crawlspace, the gap between the sloped roof of a two-story inn and the flat roof of the single-story shop it shared a wall with. It was like a triangular tunnel, the opening at the front of the buildings hidden behind a large sign advertising the shop’s name. The empty space between the curve of the letters let in ample light while still keeping the inside concealed. The opening at the back of the buildings, her entrance, had originally been wide open, but Isha had since cobbled together a false wall to cover it. It wasn’t incredibly convincing, but the inn stood across from another tall building, creating a tight alleyway between them. Nobody would offer the spot a second glance.

Isha climbed up between the two walls, using ledges and haphazardly placed bricks as leverage. Doing so used to be awkward for her, but she knew any sort of ladder would have been much too conspicuous. Now, she knew the perfect route, had solved the puzzle. She had become so accustomed to it, in fact, that she now made it up with ease even with her toolbox hanging heavy from the rope around her waist. She reached the flat roof of the shop, crouching down to conceal her movements, and entered through her false wall.

She was home.

It wasn’t much, but it was hers. She could only just barely stand at the tallest side. Standing up against the wall to keep it out of the way was her bed, a cot made of woven reeds tightly suspended in a simple wooden frame. Across from it was a tarp covering the rest of her worldly belongings. Most were stacks of storage crates with all manner of random building materials: scrap wood, the remainder of her mesh wire, a collection of empty glass jars and various other scrap materials she thought it useful to hang on to. Urban driftwood.

Next to all this, situated atop a small discarded dresser, sat a large cage housing the rest of her little rat family. They scurried and squeaked as she lifted the tarp.

“Hello, my little dummies,” she said with a loving warmness in her voice. They reminded her of Ewan’s dogs. Every time she returned they all seemed so happy to see her again. Rats weren’t as emotive, but she knew they missed her, too.

“Your sister was being quite difficult today.”

She sat her toolbox on the ground then reached into her shirt to undo the buckles of her back sheath. She hadn’t needed to pull her knife in quite some time, but having it at the ready was a relieving feeling. The bands that looped over her shoulder and around her waist had been cut, shortened and stitched back together to fit her small frame. It wasn’t originally made to fit someone as small as her, but her adjustments worked surprisingly well.

“I know, I know. I gave her a shot, but I guess that trust was misplaced.”

She held conversations with her rats often, always a smile on her face even if she were pretending to be disappointed or angry. Sometimes she did get angry, but it always quickly subsided. She just couldn’t be mad while looking at their cute little faces.

“It’s not her fault, though. So don’t any of you go blaming her. We got the job done in the end and that’s all that matters.”

One by one, she lifted the day’s crew out of the toolbox cage and placed them back with their brothers and sisters.

One of the recent improvements she made to their cage was the feeding area, a second platform with a solid base to prevent their food from falling into the bedding of soft wood-shavings below. Before they were fed, though, the usual training was in order. Practice makes perfect.

She pulled the whistle out of her shirt and gave it a blow. Immediately, Mick, Little Stu, Chunks and most of the other rats scurried up the ramp and sat at attention. Most, but not all. While they patiently awaited their prize, the rest either ignored her or lagged behind, following the herd but not yet making the connection between the whistle sound and feeding time.

All in due time. Part of the process.

Isha opened the latch on the side of the cage just above the feeding tray and dumped her scavenged goods into the waiting mousey maws below. Those that hadn’t paid attention found a sudden interest and raced up the ramp to join the swarm. It wasn’t much of a swarm, only nine in total, but they made up for their numbers with the enthusiasm at which they devoured those garbage scraps.

Mini was the last to reach the rest, getting only crumbs compared to the others. It was almost like she was punishing herself. It felt a little cruel, but the better she did at following Isha’s commands, the better she would eat. She was subjecting Mini to fending for herself, but it’d be no different if the girl were scavenging through trash on her own.

It was another lesson Isha had learned from Freamon: if you have to fend for yourself, only rely on the reliable. There are only so many pies on the proverbial window sill. If you keep stealing from the same place, you’re bound to get caught. Finding more reliable means to stay fed is the very lifeblood of those living on the street. In Mini’s case, the most reliable source of food was Isha. Mini just needed to learn that fact.

Isha hung her whistle from a bent nail in the underside of the sloping roof above the cage like it was on display. The whistle had sentimental value, of course, but it was also one of her only belongings. She didn’t have much else, both due in part to her lack of means to own much of anything to begin with, but also her reluctance to keep much more than she could carry with her day to day.

Her accommodations were temporary at best, she knew, and could be all swept away like sand in the wind. Any day someone could spot her makeshift shelter and just like that she would lose everything she’d built, as sparse as that may be. But by keeping it sparse, she was limiting the potential for disappointment when that eventually happened.

She took a seat on an upturned crate and unfolded the handkerchief she had wrapped around the cheese she took from the shop. Each piece was marked with rat-sized bites all over. She took a slender knife from her toolbox and began carving out the nibbled bits, shaving off slivers of cheese like she was whittling a spinning top or a small figurine. She popped the abstract shape that was left into her mouth, chewing slowly as to appreciate the flavor. Even if it was the cheap, generic stuff, it was still damn good cheese.

She hadn’t bothered taking any more of the stinky expensive stuff. Not only would it have been an unnecessary liability, but only Mini seemed partial to the stuff. None of the other rats seemed to care much for it, and Isha certainly didn’t either.

She picked out another piece of rat-bitten cheese and began whittling away once more, careful to save all the shavings as any remaining cheese would be usable for the job tomorrow. As the pile of shavings grew in her lap, Isha let her mind wander. The sun would already be setting soon, but it was the first time all day Isha was finally able to sit and think. It hadn’t hit her until just then, but tomorrow would mark the first actual ratcatching job she’d had since starting her scam some months back.

She’d done a number of legitimate jobs before then, but it wasn’t exactly easy to keep the work regular. She didn’t have a shop people could come by and simply request her services. It was more luck than anything. Right time, right place. Randomly asking shops if they had a rodent problem. Unreliable. When you’re the one planting the rats there in the first place, however, you knew exactly who to ask and when.

It felt a little silly to bring any of her rats along with her, but Isha figured they could still come in handy. She didn’t need them as plants, but they were pretty great at finding the gaps and holes other rats were using to get in. Plus, rats were social creatures. Like during feeding time, when one group seems to know where to find food, others are sure to follow. She hoped that by sending in hers, the others would follow them back out when it came time to eat.

She just needed to choose the right rats for the job.

Mini clearly wasn’t ready, so she wasn’t going again. Mick, Little Stu and Chunks all did wonderfully, but she didn’t want to overdo it with any of them. She decided to keep Mick and Little Stu. Chunks was getting a bit too chunky. Soon enough he wouldn’t be able to fit through the cracks that other rats did.

She needed two others then. Through trial and error, she found that four seemed to be the magic number. Big Stu and Cheeps were both still much too new. Jangle had been responding well to training lately, but with this being Isha’s first legitimate paid gig, she was unsure about bringing any that hadn’t proven themselves in an actual job before. That left Gonzo and Sliver. Sliver was getting old, but damn was he reliable. More importantly, he was an alpha. If Isha wanted rats to follow suit with any of hers, Sliver was the one. Any time she brought a new rat into the mix, he seemed to take charge.

She leaned back against the wall, pleased that things seemed like they were finally starting to take off. Between the extra she earned from the last job and what she could reasonably expect to charge tomorrow, she wouldn’t need to pull any more scams for another month if she stretched it. Not that she would even consider taking things easy.

She had a name to make for herself. A reputation to build.

The harsh desert sun rose above the city’s skyline, the shadows of the Spires casting a blanket of cooling shade across a section of the city like a great sundial. As if Isha needed a reminder how godsawful early it was. Bright and early, just like the man said, when the air still held onto the chill from the previous night.

Still, Isha happily trudged through the streets, determination in her steps. In one hand, her toolbox, concealing her four coworkers for the day. In her other, a length of rope hooked onto a couple of cage traps slung over her shoulder. Springs traps would be so much easier, poison even more so. Her clients never cared either way. Unless, of course, making them care resulted in some extra coin.

Isha was used to the more affluent people of Rah’qet looking down on street kids like herself, seeing them as nothing more than disposable labor. But her rats—her partners—were anything but disposable.

Plus, they were really cute.

Isha had been putting off finishing the second trap, but the sudden job had finally lit a fire under her ass to get it done. She was going to actually need to catch rats for once. Even then, she dawdled and took her time and didn’t finish until late into the night, tinkering away long after the sun had gone down.

She didn’t dare start a fire or light up a lantern inside her hidey hole for fear of being spotted, so she worked by the light of the moon. It didn’t make the meticulous task of bending and weaving patches of her wire mesh any easier.

She let out a heavy, audible yawn that stopped her in her tracks. She blinked open her squinting eyes to find a thick wooden sign not three doors down, swinging in the gentle breeze. Field and Forest. As she approached, she noticed the sign was detailed with intricately carved images of leaves and flowers.

The door to the shop swung open and the man from the previous day—her new best friend—stood in the doorway, a steaming cup in his hand. A familiar aroma followed him, a mixture of flowers and earth. Field and forest.

Ohh, it’s a tea shop. That makes sense.

“Right on time,” the man said, almost surprised. “I appreciate the punctuality. Please, come in.” He stepped aside, holding the door open and motioning for her to enter.

Without a word, Isha readjusted the cages on her back and walked up the couple of wooden steps that led inside.

When thinking about the kinds of places ripe for catching rats, she hadn’t thought twice about the prospect of rats chewing on tea leaves. Dried up flowers didn’t sound like much of a meal to her. But now that she thought about it, it made perfect sense. If scent was what drew rats towards sources of food, they’d probably love a place like this.

As did she.

Stepping into the shop felt like walking into a forest meadow in the middle of the desert, the blend of aromas a lovely change of pace to the dry dusty air Rah’qet was accustomed to. The interior of the shop embraced the idea, but subtly so. Colorfully-patterned linens were draped across every visible countertop, table and shelf. Atop them sat candles that had never been lit, teacups that weren’t too showy and dozens of small potted plants—just enough to break up the monotony. Lattice windows let in plenty of light, illuminating the white-painted stone walls between dark timber frames. The walls were bare, with no signage or artwork of any kind decorating the place. The entirety of the shop was designed with a singular focus in mind: the product.

It wasn’t a tea room. There was no seating to be found, no place for people to congregate. Just a single large room showcasing the goods for sale. Through a beaded curtain, Isha spotted a small kitchenette: a wash basin, teacups hanging from a pegboard, two kettles sitting next to what must be a fireplace or furnace. It was functional, but certainly no kitchen.

“Pardon me for not formally introducing myself. My name is Faerris. Welcome to Field and Forest.”

He extended a hand to shake, a gesture Isha wasn’t accustomed to. Maybe he noticed how clean she kept her hands, but most of her clientele never dared lower themselves to her level. It was a gesture she didn’t know how much she would appreciate.

“Isha.” She gripped his hand tight, looked him in the eyes and gave him a polite nod.

“A pleasure, Isha. Please, if you’ll follow me.”

He led her to the back room, slightly smaller than the cheese shop’s, but more organized. The back wall was lined with small crates and boxes, all meticulously labeled. The wall beside her was dominated by a shelf that resembled a massive spice rack. Instead of normal shelves, though, it was lined with what Isha could only describe as pockets, individual bucket-like holsters each holding a tan canvas bag roughly the size of her head.

The delightful mixture of aromas in the store proper was even more apparent in the unventilated back room. It was almost overwhelming. It was no wonder the man carried the scent with him everywhere he went.

“So,” Isha said as she bent down to place her toolbox on the floor and set the cages beside it. “You have a rat problem.”

“I do?” the man answered as if he didn’t hire a ratcatcher to deal with exactly that problem.

Isha swallowed hard as she suddenly realized she was in a dark room with a strange man guarding the only exit. It was so early in the day, there weren’t many people on the street. If she screamed, would anyone hear?

She stood and placed her hands at her sides, bracing her back as she stretched.

“Is that not why I’m here?” she asked in a casual half-joking manner.

Her fingers grazed the butt of her knife, ready.


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