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Chapter 9

Isha traipsed through the streets of the Strip with a lightness in her step and anticipation in her heart. She was nervous, yes, but more excited. It felt similar to how she felt the night before the tea shop job in a way, but still different, unique.

She used the streets themselves to distract her from her own nervous thoughts, hopping up steps and over short dividing walls, balancing along the thin brick dividers, making the city into her own personal obstacle course. This became less and less realistic the closer she got to the Strip.

The vendors that populated the Strip during the day had all long shut down, well before the sun went down. Now, most of the restaurants and nightlife entertainment had opened up. Food carts zigzagged through streets growing busier by the moment. The scent of spiced meats being grilled wafted out of nearby buildings to mix with plumes of fruity-smelling smoke. Tables spilled out into the street, bringing with them the sounds of clashing dinnerware and conversations being practically screamed across tables.

To some, the cacophonous amalgamation of sounds could be jarring, but Isha had grown to enjoy it. The city felt alive. Not just the people in it but the city itself, the lively dissonance the sound of the city breathing life through it’s packed-dirt-and-cobblestone lungs.

The smell, on the other hand, could use some improvement.

Isha was getting close to her destination. If she hadn’t already realized it herself, the feeling in her chest was sure to remind her. Just around the bend, the old, sand-weathered awning would be coming into view.

Isha knew exactly where the shop was. In fact, she was already quite familiar with the place. She didn’t have the heart to tell Sev; he’d seemed so excited about it. As she would be if she were introducing the place to someone for the first time. She couldn’t take that away from him. Besides, it was one of her favorite places. She wasn’t about to give Sev any excuse to choose another place. She wouldn’t dare jeopardize the opportunity to enjoy some of the absolute best damn shawarma in the entire city.

While she didn’t frequent the place enough to know the couple by name or anything, any time she had some extra coin in her pocket—which was starting to become a much more common occurrence—she was likely to spend it there. For someone who didn’t frequently have an abundance of coin to spare, that was high praise. It was that good, enough to risk going hungry tomorrow to enjoy it today. It even looked pretty. Curry, on the other hand—depending on where you got it—could taste incredible while still looking like diarrhea over rice. But their shawarma was picture perfect, with a taste to match.

Tonight seemed busier than usual for the shawarma shop. Even before spotting the sign, Isha noticed the crowd of people waiting in line. It stretched almost all the way across the street, creating a choke point and impeding foot traffic. And just beyond the mob of hungry, but patient people stood Sev, casually leaning against the front wall of the lifeless shop across the street.

He did his hair, Isha thought to herself, suddenly feeling special, only for it to immediately be replaced with nervousness. Should I have done my hair?!

Too late to act, but never too late to worry.

Sev hadn’t noticed her approaching, thus preventing the awkwardness that would have been the two of them staring at each other as she slowly made her way to meet him. That painful back and forth of breaking eye contact and meeting each other’s gazes over and over until they were finally close enough to speak to one another.

Sev also hadn’t noticed the irritable and likely jealous man pushing a food cart, curving his way around the crowd. Isha was too far away to hear what the man yelled at Sev as he pushed his way past, but she could only imagine it wasn’t anything nice. Sev, irritated and bewildered, raised his arms to the side, the universal symbol of incredulousness.

That’s when she saw it. In his hand, Sev was holding a single flower. He’d had it concealed behind his arm, just as Lyria had taught her to hold a dagger to keep it hidden. It wasn’t the only lesson relevant to her date that Lyria had given her. “If he tries anything funny,” her mentor had said, “a quick knee right between the legs should be enough. If not, jab and twist.” The woman had a dark sense of humor, she was finding.

Isha had no worries of ‘anything funny’ happening, seeing as how her date was apparently a godsdamned gentlemen.

She only caught a brief glimpse of the flower, but it looked to be a soft, yellowish orange color. Even if it were a dull beige she’d be over the moon by the gesture. She just hoped she could play it off like it was still a surprise. She was already worried about needing to pretend she hadn’t been to the shawarma place before.

Chill the fuck out, Isha, she thought to herself. He’s probably just as nervous as you.

She had no way of knowing, but the assumption helped.

Sev met her gaze, his entire face betraying his excitement. His eyes widened, his brows arched high, his smile stretched into a big, toothy grin. Isha gave him a wave in return, smiling back just as wide.

“You look nice,” he said. “Glad I got my hair done, too.”

Was he making fun of her? Is he disappointed? A swarm of nervousness crept up her back, nipping at her neck. Was that supposed to be a playful, little insult to keep her on her toes? Or like when kids would push each other into the sand because they lacked the maturity to properly express—or even understand—their feelings?

“I’ve never seen you with your hair down before. I like it.”

Oh, he’s being serious.

Isha usually kept her hair tied up and back. Working with rats and sparring with Lyria demanded it. But with training done, she had taken out her hairpins and let her tight, voluminous curls spill out. It was hardly even a conscious choice. She was rushed. She hadn’t even had a chance to wash it. But Sev seemed to like it and that was all that really mattered. Crisis averted.

“Oh! I, uh... got something for you,” he said with a hesitated yet playfully deceptive tone.

Here it comes. Act surprised.

She didn’t need to act. The flower was even more beautiful than she thought it would be, with dark orange streaks down the middle of the petals that fanned out into a soothing yellow. It wasn’t a typical flower, but a cactus pear blossom. It had no stem, still attached to the nub of cactus it grew from.

“Don’t worry, I took out all the prickly bits.”

Since the flower had no stem like most flowers, Sev had pierced the cactus nub with a green-colored wooden skewer with a length of wire wrapped around it to look like a leaf.

“It reminds me of you.”

“Pretty but prone to stabbing?” She didn’t let him answer. “Thanks, Sev. It’s beautiful.”

“I’m pretty sure you can pop that guy in a pot with some dirt and it’ll keep growing. I mean, if you even wanted to.”

“I might do just that.” Flower in hand, Isha turned towards the waiting throng that was the shawarma line. It had barely moved, but at least the line hadn’t grown since she got there. “Shall we? I’m starving.”

Isha let Sev talk the place up while they waited, acting as if it was all new information to her. He spoke about the couple who ran the shop, the wife handling things at the front: talking to customers, taking orders and wrapping everything up in perfectly neat little paper packages. She hadn’t thought about it before, but it reminded her of Scratches and his origami, each fold crisp and precise. The couple prided themselves on presentation. The husband worked in the back of the small shop, close enough that he didn’t have to yell to add his two liras to the conversations his wife would have with customers, preparing the food as delicately as his wife packaged them afterwards. Wrapping up a mixture of meats and vegetables and slathering it in sauce didn’t exactly lend itself to a clean presentation, but the man somehow made it work. He was an artist.

It was all old information to Isha, but she enjoyed waiting amongst the crowd, an excuse to stand close to the boy, the smell of long-cooking meats and spices concealing the funk of their surroundings. Time flew past and Isha suddenly found only a few people stood between them and the sizzling aroma of their waiting dinners.

“So what would you suggest then?” she asked, nodding at the woman taking orders

“There aren’t a ton of choices, really. It’s a limited menu, chicken or lamb. I suggest the lamb. Bread or a wrap. Definitely get the wrap. And then unless you don’t like onions or cucumber or something, I’d just get it with everything. Especially the white sauce, it’s amazing. House specialty, secret recipe.”

It wasn’t like there were a ton of options to choose from, but it was exactly what she would normally order. Bonus points for Sev. Not only was this the spot she would go to and splurge with what little money she had, but she wouldn’t dare spend her hardfought coin and purposely choose to get anything less than her exact favorite.

With only one group ahead of them, Isha could practically taste their meal, the scent of meats spinning on the tall skewers inside snaking their way directly into her nostrils and teasing her senses. The woman scribbled down the orders from behind a raised window, just slightly higher than the crowd, giving her a sense of importance or authority.

It was common to refer to the couple who ran the shop as ‘old,’ but it was hard to say for sure. Isha guessed they were maybe in their fifties, give or take a few decades. The woman’s dark hair, pulled tight into a bun, was streaked with lines of grey. Yet her tawny skin showed no signs of age, untouched by the sun, protected from the harsh desert sun by the battered awning.

While discerning the woman’s age, their eyes met and the woman gave her a soft smile. Isha, however, was overcome with yet another bout of worry. She could feel the sweat in the lines of her palms and began fidgeting in place as she wiped her hands against the coarse cloth of her pants.

Isha had been playing things off as if she had never been here before, but what if the sweet, old lady recognized her? What if she said something? She never had before. She’d hardly done a thing to suggest she remembered Isha at all. She probably saw hundreds of people every day and Isha couldn’t have stood out that much. But what if?

Fingers crossed.

“Evening, ma’am!” Sev said with excitement. “Two wraps with lamb, please. Everything, with sauce.”

“Quick and to the point, I like it. You got it. Two wraps, lamb, everything, with sauce.”

She wrote down their order on a slip of paper and clipped it to a line beside her, flinging it back to where her husband was already diligently putting their order together.

“Anything else, young man? Can I interest you in some falafel or a side salad?”

“No thanks, that’s all.”

“Alright then. That’ll be one and four.”

Sev reached inside his coat, but Isha gently placed a hand to stop him. “Please, let me.” she said as she reached for her own coin.

“What? No, it’s okay, I’m paying.”

“I just got paid extra for the job. Plus, aren’t I the one who owes you?”

“First date?” the woman asked, casually leaning against her hand out of the window.

“How could you tell?” Sev asked, slightly embarrassed.

“Hah!” she let out a loud guffaw. “How could I not? The way you two’re looking at each other, squabbling over who pays all polite like. The both of you seem pretty nervous, too. Her especially.” The woman leaned out of the window to peer over the ledge. “Look at that! She’s even got a damn flower in her hand that I can only assume you gave her.”

“Aww,” her husband let out a little coo from the back of the shop.

“Let her pay, boy. It’s a good sign. She ain’t just using ya for a meal. She likes you.”

And that was that. He listened, Isha paid, and in no time the woman’s numerous and varied bracelets she wore around her wrists were clanging together as she handed them two perfectly wrapped packages, sealed with a knowing wink.

Isha couldn’t wait to sit down and start eating. She had worked up quite the appetite during her training session with Lyria and it had only grown more intense with time. She knew it was considered rude to inhale one’s meal during a date, but she was starting to think she might have to do just that.

“So, should we find a spot to sit down, or...?”

“Actually, I have just the place in mind. It... may be a bit of a ways away, though. I hope that’s okay? It’ll be worth the trek, I swear!”

Gods, she wanted to eat. But it was hard to be annoyed knowing the guy had a whole plan involved in their date. The cuteness had better make up for delaying her from her meal.

“Lead the way!”

It didn’t take long for Isha to regret the decision. The trek could only have been further away if this mysterious spot of Sev’s was in a neighboring barren. Out of the Strip they walked, past the consolidation of commercial buildings and warehouses and into the more residential areas. Further around the Spires they went, clear to the opposite side of the city from where the shawarma shop was situated, into the more affluent area of the city.

They passed by restaurants far too fancy for Isha to even dream of splurging for and specialty shops whose names she wasn’t sure were even in the common tongue. Elaborate villas and multi-storied estates, playhouses and high end boutiques. Taverns that served only wine and would politely ask you to leave if you were to ever refer to them as such.

Isha knew all this not because she had spent any amount of time in this part of town herself, but because Sev pointed out each and every place. He was showing off, trying to impress her.

“Sev, did you grow up rich or something? I don’t think I’ve ever even stepped foot in this part of town.”

“Hah, no, not at all. I was poor as shit. Rich kids don’t make for good pickpockets, I’d think.”

It was an oddly relieving confession.

“This part of town,” he continued, “just happens to be prime hunting grounds, so to speak. I don’t know about most people, but I only started thieving because I was desperate. I actually tried begging when I was younger, but the only people ever willing to give up some coin were people scraping by themselves. Rich folk keep the tightest grips around their purses.”

“Don’t I know it,” Isha said, feeling every word Sev spoke deep in her bones.

“Turns out, lots of the same people unwilling to help a starving kid aren’t the most moral folk around. I don’t necessarily believe in karma, but you treat people like commodities, you’re painting a target on your back whether you know it or not. And lemme tell you, soon as I started stealing from those assholes I felt a whole lot better than swiping some bread from a family on their last bit of coin.”

His silence revealed his example might be a bit more than just that, a shame he still carried with him. A shame that she knew all too well herself.

“That’s why I was so excited to join the Whispers,” he exclaimed, still in hushed tones. “They were doing exactly what I was striving for. Taking a set of skills relegated to less than honorable means and doing something good with it. That’s all I wanted. That and maybe making up for some of my own misdeeds along the way.”

“Sev?” He’d kept his gaze straight ahead during the whole confession, perhaps too afraid or worried how his tale would be taken, but turned to meet Isha’s eyes now. “I think I know just how you feel.” He seemed so relieved, like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders. “That kinda reminded me of my first job, actually.”


“Well, it was hardly a ‘job.’ I usually just say that to make myself seem more important. But there’s this rich asshole who runs a warehouse back around the way we came. I figured stealing from him would have a relatively small impact, what with him being rich and all. Plus, he sucks, so...”

“So what did you steal? Anything fancy?”

“Well, uh, no. I stole... chicken wire?”

“Hahaha, really?”

“Yeah, I wanted to use it to make some cages, so I grabbed an entire roll of the stuff. Damn thing was such a pain in the ass to carry I almost got caught. I had to run at one point and climb onto the roofs, but it was too cumbersome to carry so I just stashed it and took off.”

“If only you had me there to show you the way around up there.”

“Would’ve been an absolute blessing. I eventually looped back to where I stashed the stuff... in a crate of restaurant compost.”

“Oh no.”

“And by the time I got back, it had already been collected. Getting it back proved to be even more of a pain in the ass then stealing it in the first place.”

“Well, I hope it didn’t ruin the prospect of climbing up buildings for you,” Sev said as he stopped to face an alley between two tall buildings. “Because here we are.” Sev held his hand out, the shit-eating grin across his face somehow still charming. Isha took his hand and into the alley they went.

“We’re actually heading up top. So you’re gonna want to—”

Isha was already scaling the wall, her flower tucked into a pocket. The alley was narrow, much like the gap between the buildings she used to climb up to her hidey hole. Back there she would use the ledges and protruding, poorly-placed brick. The buildings here were made with much more discerning skill, but what they lacked in haphazard brick was made up for with intricate facades. Every inch of the surface was lined and indented with grand-looking details, the perfect holds for her hands and feet.

She stopped to turn and look at Sev, still standing in the alley, watching with amazement.

“You coming or what?”

The two ascended the walls and reached the rooftop with ease. Sev led the way, careful not to make too much noise as they tiptoed across the solid brick. Deeper into the cluster of elaborate villas they went, hand in hand, gingerly crossing the gap from one rooftop to the next. They carefully balanced along a thick center beam that bisected the building in two, one side sloping at a hard angle towards the ground while the other was covered in loose gravel, both of which they wanted to avoid.

At the end of their precarious path, they reached a small gap before a wall of even taller buildings stretched in either direction. Sev leaned over the gap and pressed his back against the wall, cupping his hands and motioning for Isha to use him as leverage. Isha didn’t even think about the gap and how falling would almost guarantee certain death. She simply looked Sev in the eyes, grabbed a hold of his shoulders and brought her foot into his hands.

“Sev?” Isha whispered. “Where the hell are you taking me?”

“Rich folk love to indulge in the arts, but never in public. They don’t like to share. Sometimes, it’s up to us to take it for ourselves.”

She bent down and bounced—one, two, and leap!—and Sev heaved her upwards. She caught hold of the top of the roof and pulled herself up, revealing a wondrous view. Just beyond the line of buildings, the closest of the Spires jutted out of the ground at an angle, concave like a palm frond. A stage had been built into it, creating a natural amphitheater, with a half circle of tiered seating surrounding it. It looked much too difficult for her and Sev to reach themselves, but they wouldn’t need to. Isha could hear the singers practicing onstage clear as day from where she stood.

“Enjoying the view?” Sev asked from below.

“Sev, this is incredible. How’d you find this place?”

“Like I said, I know this city’s rooftops well. Now gimme a hand.”

Perched atop one of the tallest buildings in all of Rah’qet, shawarma wraps in hand, Sev and Isha sat beside one another at the edge, dangling their legs over the sides as they peered down upon their own private opera.

Sev explained that the stage and amphitheater were part of the playhouse they passed earlier. When not putting on plays, the space was used for operas, classically trained musicians or rehearsing for any of the above. So while the venue changed from night to night, there was almost always something going on.

Tonight’s show was merely a rehearsal, but that almost made it feel more special knowing that no other audience was around to enjoy it, not even from a distance. Of all the surrounding buildings that overlooked the stage, Isha couldn’t find a single one with any windows. She and Sev were all alone under the privacy of darkness. The night, the view, the moment: it was all theirs.

Isha didn’t need words to know this place was special to Sev, but he said them anyway. “You know, this place is pretty special to me.” Literally so. “Before the Whispers, I was just toughing it out on the streets like you. I eventually started doing well for myself, but the one thing I couldn’t just steal was a feeling of home, you know? This was the only place that ever really felt like it was mine.”

“I know what you mean. Too well.”

“I’m glad I could share this with you, Isha.”

“Me too, Sev. You know, I have a little spot of my own, hidden away from prying eyes. Maybe I’ll take you there sometime.”

To most people, Isha’s little urchin crawlspace would be a source of shame. It wasn’t a home. She was homeless. But to another ex-street kid like Sev, he might even be impressed by it.

“I’d like that.”

He looked at her with affection, the moonlight reflected in his green eyes. She wanted to share everything with him: her secrets, her fears, her hopes and dreams.

She curled her toes, her feet still dangling over a ledge that would lead to a most certain death if she fell. She hadn’t spared it a thought. She was with Sev. She was safe.

“Okay” was all the response she could muster, loose strands of hair falling to obscure her face as she coyly dipped her head down before returning her gaze to his. Sev leaned over and wiped the hair behind her ear. She felt the warmth of his hand against her cheek, his fingers in her hair. He leaned in closer.

She tilted her head, closed her eyes, and her lips met his.


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