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Chapter 7

When asked what her specialty was, what the reason was for being recruited, Isha couldn’t think of a definitive answer. Erryk could read people like pages of an open book. Jessa had apparently been trained as an actress, which when combined with her quick-witted imagination, translated to an impressive level of deception. Sev was not only a skilled pickpocket, but the guy was a natural conversationalist, which only helped to distract people even more.

It took Isha receiving her first official assignment for the club for her to realize just what it was that Faerris and Lyria saw in her, what her specialty truly was: infiltration.

One of the difficult aspects of what the Whispers were working to accomplish was the mere fact that they needed to work undetected. The more aware the public was to their presence, the harder their jobs became. Exponentially so. So while they were more than equipped to smash a few windows or brute force their way past obstacles, subtlety and subterfuge were infinitely more important skills.

Her mark was a man named Cheem, a trade and barter magnate. “Import/export” was the term he liked to use, which was just a fancy way of saying he owned a pawn shop. Secretly, though, it was much more than that.

The Broker, as he liked to be called, dealt with all manner of goods. His real business primarily focused on fleecing stolen items. His specialty, however, was in the procurement of rare or hard-to-obtain and oftentimes illegal items. A middleman, and a well-paid one at that. He probably didn’t know the true importance of half of them, but none of that mattered to him. They were important to others. And that gave them value.

Given his secret trade, the man was untrusting and careful. Getting into his back room would be nearly impossible under normal circumstances. Isha, however, was an unassuming child. She didn’t even need to slip past the man. She was invited.

“The little rat bastards are back this way,” Cheem said with an irritated huff, his cheeks flushed in contrast with his otherwise pallid complexion. Either he was always that red or the mere thought of rats caused him to boil with rage. Or maybe he was just always angry.

He turned his back to Isha and ambled his way towards the back of the store, a metal ring of keys clipped to his trousers jangling with every step. He took a heavy drag of his cigarette and blew the smoke out towards the ceiling, as if doing so would keep the stench of smoke from seeping into the merchandise. Fat chance at that.

They passed shelves and displays of an odd array of merchandise, with no rhyme or reason to their order or location in the store. One set of shelves exhibited an assortment of musical instruments: a guitar, viola, flute and a lone snare drum. Leaning against the wall underneath them were several bags of golf clubs and random sporting goods. One display, encased in glass, held both a variety of jewelry—ranging from necklaces and rings to brooches and gem-encrusted hair clips—and a collection of small ceramic sculptures of gnomes.

Cheem shoved the back door open with a grunt, revealing another arbitrary collection of goods. Boxes and crates filled the shelves lining the walls.

“The buggers’ve been shittin’ all ‘round the wall there,” the man said, clearly fed up. Holding his cigarette between his fingers, he pointed to one of the rare areas of the wall not covered with shelving.

Oh, you mean the floor just under the window? Imagine that.

“Don’t touch none of the merchandise. You break anything, it’s coming outta your pocket, you hear me?”

“Yessir,” Isha said with a slight bow and a nod. “I may need to move some things around to get to the walls, though. That’s where rats tend to hide.”

“Whatever. Just don’t go opening up anything or messing with my goods. Some of the stuff back there ain’t worth much, but I’d lose my head if something were to happen. Don’t think you’d get off with only a stern fuckin’ warning neither.” He took another drag of his cigarette, squinting his eyes while he did it. “Right then.” He blew the smoke out, a parting gift before he left the room and shut the door behind him.

Isha immediately waved the smoke away with her hand, her brows curling into a scowl. The job—and even moreso, the client—was already a stark contrast to the tea shop. No time to complain, though. She had work to do.

Isha had planted the rat droppings, but she knew a little poop likely wouldn’t be enough to convince the distrustful man to bring in a ratcatcher—a stranger—and allow them to snoop around their business. She had to employ her rats. And with this being her first job for the club and all, she had to bust out the best of the best: Mick, Chunks, Little Stu and Gonzo.

Sliver was still her alpha rat, but since she wasn’t actually looking for other rats, she didn’t need his particular specialty. She was hesitant to replace him with Chunks; his size didn’t exactly allow for quick getaways if Cheem were to spot him. But she wasn’t as worried about the man spotting any of them and killing them himself. She was worried about not being able to gather them all up in time without getting caught. And Chunks always responded to her call immediately, the very first to come running when peanut butter was on the menu.

She didn’t need to track down Freamon and barter for half a jar of peanut butter this time around. The Whispers gladly provided her requested provisions. A full jar, fresh and creamy. She unscrewed the cap and dipped a finger in for a taste herself. Simply sublime. Chunks and the rest of her rats were sure to enjoy it.

The peanut butter was so fresh she found herself struggling to roll it into balls. They kept losing their shape, an unforseen downside to having access to food that wasn’t on the verge of going stale. She never tried to use anything so fresh before. It could take hours or even days for the peanut butter to get to the point of holding shape.

She needed to improvise. She considered just putting a glob of it on the floor, but she needed to give them something they could hold onto inside the cage. She had no idea how they might react if they didn’t get what they had been trained to expect. She couldn’t risk finding out.

Perhaps if she rolled it around in the dirt on the floor? That would likely thicken it up a bit, but she’d also be feeding her rats dirt. She couldn’t bring herself to do that to them.


Isha pulled her tray of tools out of her toolbox, removed the empty cage, tilted the toolbox and gave it a good shake. Shards of old, dried peanut butter and crumbs pooled in the corner. Her rats weren’t the cleanest of eaters and remnants of their past treats had fallen through the cage and coated the bottom of the toolbox. Mixing that into the peanut butter would surely do the trick. She had no idea how sanitary it would be, but rats also ate trash. And at least it wasn’t dirt.

With four peanut butter balls that now held their shape much better sitting on the floor before her, she pulled out her whistle and gave it a blow. As expected, Chunks was the first to come out, barreling in a straight line towards her. Her rats wouldn’t be able to help her sniff out what she was searching for this time around, so into the cage they would immediately go, safe and sound. She quickly scooped Chunks up, his small mousey claws gripping tightly around his treat.

Little Stu was the next to find his way into the open room, but before he made it all the way to Isha and the remaining treats, Isha heard the jangle of Cheem’s keyring as he lumbered towards the back door.

Not now, not now!

She wasn’t ready. Everything was out in the open. If he walked in now, he couldn’t not know something was up. She panicked, struggling to think of what to do. She quickly but carefully lowered Chunks and the cage back into the toolbox and replaced the tray of tools over top. The rest she would have to come up with a convincing lie for.

Cheem stopped at the door, but Isha heard no sounds of the man reaching for his keys. Instead, he was interrupted by a familiar voice coming from the front of the store.

“Afternoon, sir!” Sev proclaimed, loud enough for Isha to hear in the back.

“What is it, kid? Whaddya want?” Cheem barked back.

“Came into some coin and it’s burning a hole in my pocket.” Isha’s judgment might have been clouded by her gratefulness for Sev’s timeliness, but he sounded so confident. Cocky even. And it worked like a charm. He didn’t apologize for his rudeness, but Cheem’s tone switched immediately. Nothing like a little coin to change a man’s mood.

“Well you came to the right place then! Looking for anything in particular? If I ain’t got it here, I know where I can get it.”

“I’d be interested to see what kind of knives you might have, if any.”

“If any,” Cheem repeated with a laugh. From the sound of it, his collection was huge.


Sev’s interruption had made for the perfect distraction, busying Cheem for more than enough time and allowing Isha to collect her remaining troupe. With all four rats hidden and packed away, she still needed to find what she came for.

Faerris had a way of talking where he skirted around the matter at hand, delivering exposition before getting to the meat of the matter. Only after expounding upon the details of Cheem’s business dealings did he mention a shipment the club was interested in.

“This shipment, you want me to steal it?” she had asked.

“No. It’s already gone.” He hadn’t been giving her a task to complete so much as he was telling her a story. “Long left his shop, now beyond the Spire walls. I wanna know what it was, who it came from, who it was headed to.”

Cheem couldn’t afford to make mistakes when handling items that so often were the property of the types of people that not only do not tolerate mistakes, but punish said mistakes with a clenched fist. As such, he kept records.

Where could they be, where could they be?

All she was told was they were somewhere in the back room. Cheem was a simple man, but he wasn’t dumb, so it would have to be in an area not visible from the window. That cut out all but a corner of the room. A wall safe would be the most secure option. If so, the entire back wall wouldn’t work as there simply wasn’t room for a safe, which really only left one option.

Against Cheem’s wishes, Isha moved box after box and crate after crate, searching for creases or false panels behind the shelves. If there were a wall safe, it would have to be in a somewhat easily accessible location. Moving an entire shelf to get to it seemed highly unlikely. And judging by his storage methods, he was much too lazy for anything like that.

Her search was proving difficult. Isha expanded her investigation along the back wall and in areas all too visible by the window, but still came up short. She found nothing.

She rested her chin on her knuckles and stared at the ceiling. There’s no way he’d just have a box or something. Hidden or not, that would simply be too easy to steal. It had to be a safe of some sort. The tapping of her foot against the tiled floor counted the precious seconds she spent racking her brain trying to divine the location of this damn safe.

Maybe it wasn’t in a wall, but the floor.

Back to the corner she went, this time moving around the boxes and crates on the bottom shelves, looking at the shelves themselves rather than the wall they obscured. One such crate, constructed of wood and sealed shut, was surprisingly light. So light that it had to be empty. She pulled it off the shelf.

Lo and behold, the shelf panel it sat upon was split in two. It was cut very clean, almost imperceptibly so. The panels didn’t shift much within the shelf, but enough that Isha caught the misaligned wood grain between the edges of the two panels. Had she not been specifically looking for just such a thing, she imagined she never would have noticed.

Yet when she pulled the panel out, it revealed a whole lot of nothing. Dust mites, dirt and hair atop the patterned tile floor. Nothing more. She set the panel back into place.

Isha had no clue how she missed it the first time around—perhaps she had been looking too closely—but she noticed dozens of sideways scratches on the panel’s surface. The scratches, she noticed, continued onto the other panel where another crate sat.

It was much, much heavier than its neighbor, but Isha was able to slide it to the side and lift it’s panel to check what was underneath. The tiles on the floor were all quite large, but the tile underneath the panel was even larger, sized perfectly to the shelf. It’s size also disrupted the pattern of the other tiles. She pulled one of the thin knives from her toolbox. Wedging it between the tile, she easily pried it loose and lifted it from the floor.


Before her sat a floor-mounted safe that featured not one, but two locks.

Isha pulled her thieves’ kit out of her back pocket, another gift from the club. She untied the leather straps and unfurled the kit, revealing a small set of practical tools. A small file, a pair of pliers, a set of narrow-bladed scissors and most importantly a set of lock picks of various sizes. Lyria—the woman she had previously only known as ‘L’—had been teaching her how to pick a lock.

She wasted no time and immediately got to work, fiddling with the innards of the first lock, guided by nothing more than feeling and intuition. She was still fairly new, but her practice had paid off. With a bit of frustration, the first lock popped open.

With the pop, however, came a ticking sound.

Fuck, there’s a timer.

She hurriedly began trying to pick the next lock. Her fingers suddenly felt less dexterous, her heartbeat quicker, her throat tight. The ticking was ominous and steady, yet revealed nothing about how much time remained. It was mocking her. Not knowing how much time she had left was somehow even worse than not knowing what might happen if the countdown hit zero. Her imagination didn’t even bother suggesting any number of horrible scenarios; her focus was on the ticking.

The constant fucking ticking.

She could feel the sweat beginning to accumulate on her brow, in the creases of her elbows, on the palms of her hands.

Tick, tick, tick, CLICK!

She turned her head to the side, shutting her eyes tight as she braced for who knows what. She nearly gasped out loud as she did, but thankfully caught herself. Sev could only distract from so much.

But nothing happened. Nothing, except the ticking had stopped. And not due to the timer. She hesitantly opened her eyes and peered down at the safe. She did it. Both locks were undone. The safe was open.

Isha put her lockpicks back into her pocket and slowly opened the safe. She’d never seen so much coin in all her life. Actual gold even. And not just coins, but full bars.

Her gut was telling her to take it all and flee the city. Tempting, yes—almost overwhelmingly—but she had a rule to never steal while on the job. Faerris and Lyria both had said as much. Demanded it. There was simply no point in sneakily attaining secret information if they left obvious clues that the man’s coffers had been plundered. Also, as the most obvious culprit, it’d put a great big target on her back.

She suppressed the urge and tried to disregard the life changing amount of gold while she looked through the rest of the safe’s contents. An old letter in an envelope, a folded up charcoal drawing of a mother and her son, and the thing she was really after: his ledger.

While it wasn’t exactly a specialty like pickpocketing or lockpicking, another skill Isha had that made her perfect for the job was her ability to read. She knew many of the kids on the street couldn’t, but was surprised to learn it was a problem among the adult populace of Rah’qet as well. Ironic, given that inside the Spires were the brightest minds in the entire empire. Even within a club as prestigious as the Whispers, illiteracy was a fairly common hindrance. But it gave her an advantage, so she became a valuable source of information gathering.

She quickly leafed through the ledger, looking only at the listed dates. The transaction for the shipment took place sometime during the span of a tenday, which narrowed down her search by a significant amount. It still left quite a few records to look through.

Nothing in Cheem’s records were coded, which made her search insurmountably easier. She guessed the man didn’t see the point if they were already so well hidden. In no time at all, she found the information she was looking for. A single shipment, high price, headed within the Spires. He even wrote the word ‘Sage’ in parentheses next to the buyer’s name. Thanks, Cheem. The Sage, Issian, had apparently tasked Cheem with the procurement of glass sand, whatever that was. No record of who he got it from sadly, but the rest would have to do.

Issian. Glass sand. 26th. 16 gold.

Issian. Glass sand. 26th. 16 gold.

Issian. Glass sand. 26th. 16 gold.

Isha placed the ledger back inside the safe, locked it back up, replaced the shelf panels and moved the crates back into place. A sense of pride welled within her. Another job complete.

She gathered her things and set out back into the shop. Sev was standing at the counter thoroughly inspecting Cheem’s display of knives. Cheem meandered around the shop, but kept a discerning eye on Sev like he was half expecting the kid to pocket one of them.

He wasn’t wrong.

Cheem perked up as Isha left the room. They approached each other.

“All done?” he asked, his tone hushed.

“Yessir! I, uh, that wobbly shelf should be standing up nice and secure now.” Isha knew she wasn’t as believable a liar as Jessa, so she leaned into it and let her inability work for her, really yukking it up. Using only her eyes, she motioned behind her where Sev was inspecting Cheem’s knife collection.

“Right, yes, the shelves. Thank you. The damn things been really pissing me off lately. Just need a quick inspection and I can let you go.”

Sev brushed past Isha and stood in front of her, interrupting the conversation.

“Pardon, miss. Sir? I believe I found just the knife I’ve been looking for.” He held aloft a blade with a beautiful ivory handle with silver inlays. He kept it loose in his hand, but kept the blade facing Cheem.

“Ah, quite the eye on you. She’s a beaut.”

“I couldn’t help but notice none of the knives in your selection had prices shown anywhere, but I’d be more than willing to pay a full silver for her.”

“A silver?” Cheem gigled under his words. “The raw materials alone would cost more than that! I thought you said you had coin burning a hole in your pockets.”

“I do! Almost two whole silver!”

“Hahahaha! Two whole silver! Almost! Not even two!” Cheem lost it. He grabbed Sev’s wrist and swiped the knife out of his hand. “Get the fuck outta my shop, kid.” He pulled Sev by the wrist and practically tossed him towards the door.

Isha hadn’t planned on having backup for the job, but she felt alone with Sev gone. She missed him. At least the job was over.

“Fucking hell,” Cheem continued, “was wondering when the kid would get lost. Been staring at knives for fucking ages, he was.”

“Well now that we’re alone, I can say your rat troubles are no more. Personal guarantee. Even cleaned up the droppings. If you find any sign they’re back in the next month, I’ll come back and take care of ‘em free of charge.”

“Quite the service.”

“Ain’t free, though. The remaining half, please? Three and four.” She extended her hand, polite but expectant.

“One last thing before you go actually. Left you back there all alone for quite some time. I don’t let anybody back there without searching ‘em afterwards. Lift your arms.”

She knew the man was untrusting, but this was something else. He began patting her sides, looking for anything she might have stolen. On Lyria’s suggestion, she wasn’t wearing her back sheath for her knife. Thank the gods for that. Her thankfulness was cut short as she realized she had made an even bigger mistake.

The thieves’ kit. The lockpicks.

She had them in her back pocket. He’d find them for sure.

Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.

She froze still as he began patting her down, checking her back, patting around her waistband.

She spotted Sev, standing outside, leaning against a wooden pillar of a building across the street. Perhaps if she could motion for him to come rescue her. Again. She made wild eyes at the boy, but he did nothing but smile back. Cheem finished patting down her front pockets and moved to the back. Why wasn’t Sev reacting? She was dead if he didn’t do something right then and there. Cheem’s hands reached her back pockets, but she felt only his hands. Her kit, lockpicks and all, was gone. Across the street, Sev smiled even wider as he subtly pulled the kit out of his sleeve.

That charming little shit picked her pockets.


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the empire
The Howl
The Mazewilds
The Shelf
Shaded Seed
Wayfarer's Ridge
A Gentle Scar
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