Scott Lynch created a sensation with The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies... and now it's been six years without a new Lynch book. At last, he's back with a third Gentleman Bastard novel. The Republic of Thieves comes out October 8, and we've got an exclusive chapter from the middle of the book!
THE BOY WHO CHASED RED DRESSES
Time passed, days and months chaining together into years, and Jean Tannen joined the Gentlemen Bastards. In the summer of the seventy-seventh Year of Perelandro, two years after Jean’s arrival, a rare dry spell came over the city-state of Camorr, and the Angevine ran ten feet below its usual height. The canals went gray and turgid, thickening like blood in the veins of a ripening corpse.
Canal trees, those glorious affectations that usually roamed and twirled on the city’s currents with their long float-threaded roots drinking the filth around them, now bobbed in sullen masses, confined to the river and the Floating Market. Their silk-bright leaves dulled and their branches drooped; their roots hung slack in the water like the tentacles of dead sea-monsters. Day after day the Temple District was shrouded in layers of smoke, as every denomination burned anything that came to mind in sacrifices pleading for a hard, cleansing rain that wouldn't come.
In the Cauldron and the Dregs, where the lowest of the low slept ten to a room in windowless houses, the usual steady flow of murders became a torrent. The duke’s corpse-hunters, paid as they were by the head, whistled while they fished putrefying former citizens out of barrels and cess-pits. The city’s professional criminals, more conscientious than its impulsive killers, did their part for Camorr’s air by throwing the remains of their victims into the harbor by night, where the predators of the Iron Sea quietly made the offerings vanish.
In this atmosphere, in the hot summer evening heavy with smoke and the stink of a hundred distinct putrefactions, the temple roof was out of the question for meetings, so Father Chains let his five young wards gather in the dank coolness of the glass burrow’s kitchen. Their recent meals, by Chains’ orders, had been lukewarm affairs, with anything cooked brought in from stalls near the Floating Market.
They had come together that week, as a complete set, for the first time in half a year. Chains’ interwoven programs of training had taken on the complexity of an acrobat’s plate-spinning act, as his young wards were shuffled back and forth between apprenticeships in assorted temples and trades, learning their habits, jargon, rituals, and trivia. These excursions were arranged by the Eyeless Priest via a remarkable network of contacts, extending well beyond Camorr and the criminal fraternity, and they were largely paid for out of the small fortune that the citizens of Camorr had charitably donated over the years.
Time had begun to work its more obvious changes on the young Gentlemen Bastards. Calo and Galdo were dealing with a growth spurt that had given their usual grace a humbling dose of awkwardness, and their voices were starting to veer wildly. Jean Tannen was still on the cherubic side, but his shoulders were broadening, and from scuffles like the Half-Crown War he had acquired the confident air of someone well versed in the art of introducing faces to cobblestones.
Given these evident signs of physical progress around him, Locke was secretly displeased with his own condition. His voice had yet to drop, and while he was larger than he’d ever been, all this did was maintain him in the same ratio as before, a medium child surrounded on all sides by the taller and the wider. And while he knew the other boys depended upon him to be the heart and brains of their combined operations, it was a cold comfort whenever Sabetha came home.
Sabetha (who, if she objected to being the only Gentle-lady Bastard, had never said so out loud) was freshly returned from weeks of immersive training as a court scrivener’s apprentice, and bore new signs of physical progress herself. She was still taller than Locke, and the natural color of her tightly-plaited hair remained hidden by a brown alchemical wash. But her slender figure seemed to be pressing outward, ever so slightly, against the front of her thin chemise, and her movements around the glass burrow had revealed the hints of other emerging curves to Locke’s vigilant eyes.
Her natural poise had grown in direct proportion to her years, and while Locke held firm sway over the three other boys, she was a separate power, neither belittling his status in the gang nor overtly acknowledging it. There was a seriousness to her that Locke found deeply compelling, possibly because it was unique among the five of them. She had embarked upon a sort of miniature adulthood and skipped the wild facetiousness that defined, for example, the Sanzas. It seemed to Locke that she was more eager than the rest of them to get to wherever their training was taking them.
“Young lady,” said Father Chains as he entered the kitchen, “and young gentlemen, such as you are. Thank you for your prompt attention to my summons, a courtesy which I shall now repay by setting you on a path to frustration and acrimony. I have decided that you five do not fight amongst yourselves nearly enough.”
“Begging your pardon,” said Sabetha, “but if you’ll look more closely at Calo and Galdo you’ll see that’s not the case.”
“Ah, that’s merely communication,” said Chains. “Just as you and I speak by forming words, the natural, private discourse of the Sanza twins appears to consist entirely of farts and savage beatings. What I want is all five of you facing off against one another.”
“You want us to start. . . hitting each other?” said Locke.
“Oh, oh, I volunteer to hit Sabetha,” said Calo, “and I volunteer to be hit by Locke!”
“I would also volunteer to be hit by Locke,” said Galdo.
“Quiet, you turnip-brained alley apes,” said Chains. “I don’t want you boxing with one another. Not necessarily. No, I’ve given you all a great many tasks that have pitted you against the world, as individuals and as a group, and for the most part you’ve trounced my expectations. I think the time has come to pry you out of your comfortable little union and see how you fare in competition against one another.”
“What sort of competition?” said Jean.
“Highly amusing competition,” said Chains, raising his eyebrows. “From the perspective of the old man who gets to sit back and watch. It’s been three or four years of steady training for most of you, and I want to see what happens when each of you tries to pit your zest for criminal enterprise against an opponent with a similar education.”
“So, uh, just to be clear,” said Calo, “None of us are going to be fighting Jean?”
“Not unless you’re inconceivably stupid.”
“Right," said Calo. “What’s the plan?”
“I’m going to keep you all here for the rest of the summer,” said Chains. “A break from your apprenticeships. We can enjoy the marvelous weather together, and you can chase each other across the city. Starting with—” He lifted a finger and pointed it at Locke. “You. Aaaaaaand. . .” He slowly shifted his finger until it was pointed at Sabetha. “You!”
“Um, meaning what, exactly?” said Locke. Butterflies instantly came to life in his stomach, and the little bastards were heavily armed.
“A bit of elementary stalking and evasion, on Coin-Kisser’s Row. Tomorrow at noon.”
“Surrounded by hundreds of people,” said Sabetha coolly.
“Quite right, my dear. It’s easy enough to follow someone when you’ve got the whole night to hide in. I think you’re ready for something less forgiving. You’ll begin at the very southern end of Coin-Kisser’s Row, carrying a handbag with an open top. Inside the bag will be four small rolls of silk, each a different color. Easily visible from ten or twenty feet away. You’ll take a leisurely stroll up the full length of the district.
“Somewhere in your wake will be Locke, wearing a jacket with a certain number of brass buttons, also easily counted from a fairly narrow distance. The game is simple—Locke wins if he can tell me the colors of the silk. Sabetha wins if she crosses the Goldenreach Bridge from Coin-Kisser’s Row to Twosilver Green without revealing the colors. She can also win if Locke is clumsy enough for her to count the number of buttons on his coat. Each of you wishing to report to me will have only one chance to be accurate, so you can’t simply keep guessing until you get it right.”
“Hold on,” said Locke, “I get one way to win and she gets two?”
“Perhaps you can try burning down the Goldenreach Bridge,” Sabetha said sweetly.
“Yes, she gets two,” said Chains, “and fortunately for Camorr, the bridge is made of stone. Sabetha has a package to guard, and must, as I have said, move at a leisurely pace, with dignity. No running or climbing. Locke, you’ll be expected to cause no scenes, but your freedom of movement will be less restricted.”
“You’re not to physically touch one another. You may not simply cover up the silk or the buttons. You may not have your opponent harmed or restrained in any fashion. And neither of you may call upon any of the other Gentlemen Bastards for help.”
“Where do we get to be, then?” said Galdo.
“Safely at home,” said Chains, “sitting the steps in my place.”
“Oh, balls to that, we want to see what happens!”
“One thing the contest does not need,” said Chains, “is a chorus of gawkers stumbling along for the duration. I’ll be nearby, watching everything, and I promise to give you a very lively account upon my return. Now—” he produced two small leather bags and tossed them to Locke and Sabetha. “Your operating funds.”
Locke opened his bag and counted ten silver Solons.
“You’ve got all night to think about what you’re doing,” said Chains. “You may come and go as you please. Don’t feel compelled to buy anything, but if you do, the coins I’ve given you are your absolute limit.”
“What’s this all for?” said Locke.
“To put you on the spot, and thereby—”
“I think,” said Sabetha, “he meant to ask, what’s in it for the winner?”
“Ah,” said Chains, “Of course. Well, other than acquiring a vast sense of personal satisfaction, the winner will hand their dinner chores over to the loser for three nights. How’s that?”
Locke watched Sabetha, and when she nodded once, he did the same. The girl already seemed to be lost in thought, and Locke felt a touch of apprehension beneath his rising excitement. He had every confidence in his own skills, as they had fetched him everything from coin-purses to corpses without much difficulty, but the full extent of Sabetha’s abilities was unknown to him. Her absences from the temple had been lengthier than those of any of the boys, and out there in the wider world she could have learned an infinite variety of nasty surprises.
Sabetha excused herself a few minutes later and vanished into the night, off to make whatever arrangements she thought were necessary. Locke followed in haste, throwing on the white robes of an initiate of Perelandro, but by the time he reached the hot, smoky air of the Temple District’s central plaza, she had long since vanished into the shadows. Might she be waiting out there, watching, hoping to follow him and learn what he was up to? The thought gave him a brief pause, but the unhappy fact was that he had no concrete plans at all, so it really didn’t matter whether or not she dogged his heels all night.
Lacking any better ideas, he decided to tour Coin-Kisser’s Row and refresh his memory of the district’s landmarks.
He hurried along with a brisk step, fingers interlaced within the sleeves of his robe, pondering. He trusted his clerical guise to shield him from inconvenience and harm (for he was keeping to better neighborhoods), and so he remained caught up in the whirl of his own thoughts as his feet carried him down the full length of Coin-Kisser’s Row, then back up again.
The great counting-houses were shuttered for the night, the bars and coffee shops all but empty, and the reeking canal had little of its usual drunken pleasure traffic. Locke stared at the monuments, the bridges, and the long deserted plazas, but no fresh inspiration fell out of the sky. When he returned home, somewhat discouraged, Sabetha had not yet returned.
He fell asleep still waiting to hear her come back down the glass tunnel from the temple above.
Coin-Kisser’s Row at noon lay sweltering beneath the molten bronze sun, but the upper classes of Camorr had fortunes and appearances to maintain. The empty plazas of the previous night had become a lively pageant of over-dressed crowds, which Locke and Sabetha now prepared to join.
“I give you the field,” said Chains, “upon which you two shall fight your mighty battle, wherein one shall stand tall, and the other shall end up with the dishes.” Chains was ascending the unforgiving heights of fashion in a black velvet coat and pearl-studded doublet, with three silver-buckled belts taut against his belly. He wore a broad-brimmed black hat over a curly brown wig, and he had enough sweat running down his face to refill at least one of the city’s canals.
Locke was dressed far more comfortably, in a simple white doublet, black breeches, and respectable shoes. Chains was holding Locke’s jacket, with its telltale number of buttons, until Sabetha was sent on her way. For her part, Sabetha wore a linen dress and a simple jacket, both of a darkish red that was nearly the color of cinnamon. Her hair and face were concealed beneath a four-cornered hat with hanging gray veils, a fashion that had come rapidly back into vogue in the heat and foulness of recent weeks. Chains had carefully studied and approved these clothes—Locke and Sabetha could pass for servants dressed moderately, or rich children dressed lazily, and would be able to pursue their game without suspicion or interference so long as they behaved.
“Well, daylight’s burning,” said Chains, kneeling and pulling the two children toward him. “Are you ready?”
“Of course,” said Sabetha. Locke merely nodded.
“Young lady first,” said Chains. “Twenty second head start, then uncover your satchel as we discussed. I’ll be moving along in the crowd beside you, looming over your performance like a merciless god. Cheating will be dealt with in a thoroughly memorable fashion. Go, go, go.”
Chains held fast to Locke’s upper right arm as Sabetha moved off into the crowd. After a few moments, Chains spun Locke around, lifted his arms, and slipped the coat onto him. Locke ran his fingers up and down the right lapel, counting six buttons.
“I stretch forth my arm and cast you into the air.” Chains gave Locke a little shove. “Now hunt, and let’s see whether you’re a hawk or a parakeet.”
Locke allowed the push to carry him into the flow of the crowd. His initial position seemed good. Sabetha was about thirty yards away, headed north, and her cinnamon dress was hard to miss. Furthermore, Locke couldn’t help but notice that the patrons of Coin-Kisser’s Row formed an ideal crowd for this sort of work, tending to move together in small, self-aware clusters rather than as a more sprawling chaos. He would be chasing Sabetha down narrow avenues that would temporarily open and close around her, and even if she made good time she wasn’t likely to be able to hide in the blink of an eye.
Still, Locke was as uneasy as he was excited, feeling much more parakeet than hawk. He had no plan beyond trusting to skill and circumstance, while Sabetha could have arranged anything. . . or had she merely snuck off into the night for a few empty hours to make him think that she could have arranged anything? “Gah,” he muttered in disgust, at least wise enough to recognize the danger of second-guessing himself into a panic before she even made her move.
The first few minutes of the chase were uneventful, though tense. Locke managed to close the distance by a few strides, no mean feat considering Sabetha’s longer legs. As he moved, the peculiar chatter of the Row enfolded him on all sides. Men and women blathered about trade syndicates, ships departing or expected back, interest rates, scandals, weather. It wasn't all that different from the conversation of one of the lower districts, in fact, save for more references to things like compound interest rates. There was no shortage of talk about handball and who was screwing whom.
Locke hurried on through the din. If Sabetha noticed him creeping up on her, she didn’t speed up. Perhaps she couldn’t, not while staying ‘dignified,’ though she did sidestep here and there, gradually moving herself further and further away from the canal side of the district and closer to the steps of the counting houses, on Locke’s left.
Locke could see her satchel from time to time, hanging casually from her right shoulder, and it seemed that with perfectly innocent little gestures she was managing to keep it mostly forward of her right hip, conveniently out of sight. Was that the game, then? Without using his arms or hands to directly conceal his row of brass buttons, Locke began making sure that his various twists and turns in the crowd were always made with his left shoulder turned forward.
If Chains (occasionally visible as a large lurking shape somewhere to Locke’s right) had any objection to this sort of mild rules-bending, he wasn’t yet leaping out of the crowd to end the contest. Squinting, Locke spared a few seconds to glance around for unexpected hazards, then returned his gaze to Sabetha just in time to catch her causing a commotion.
With smooth falseness that was readily apparent to Locke’s practiced eye, Sabetha ‘tripped’ into a huge merchant, rebounding lightly off the massive silk-clad hemispheres of his posterior. As the man whirled around Sabetha was already turning in profile to Locke— curtseying in apology, concealing her satchel on the far side of her body, and no doubt peering straight at Locke from under her veils. Forewarned, he turned in unison with her, the other way, giving her a fine view of his buttonless left side as he pretended to scan to his right for something terribly important. Perfect stalemate.
Locke was just too far away to hear what Sabetha said to the fat merchant, but her words brought rapid satisfaction, and she was hurrying off to the north again before he’d even finished turning back to his own business. Locke followed instantly, flush with much more than the day’s stifling heat. He realized they’d covered nearly half the southern district of Coin-Kisser’s Row; a quarter of the field was already used up. Even worse, he realized that Sabetha was indulging him if she even bothered trying to count his buttons. All she really had to do was keep him stymied until she could dash across the final bridge to Twosilver Green.
She continued veering to the left, closer and closer to a tall counting house, a many-gabled structure fronted by square columns carved with dozens of different representations of round-bellied Gandolo, Filler of Vaults, god of commerce. Sabetha moved up the building’s steps and ducked behind one of those pillars.
Another trap to try and eyeball his jacket? Tautly alert, carefully keeping his precious buttons turned away from Sabetha’s last known position, he hurried toward the pillars. Might she be attempting to reach the inside of the counting-house? No, there she was—
Two of her! Two identical figures in cinnamon-colored dresses and long dark veils, with little bags slung over their right shoulders, stepped back out into the sunlight.
“She couldn’t have,” Locke whispered. Yet clearly she had. During the night, while he’d been fretting up and down the dark streets, she’d arranged help and a set of matching costumes. Sabetha and her double strolled away from the carvings of the fat god, headed north toward the Bridge of the Seven Lanterns, the halfway point of their little contest. For all the opportunities he’d already seized in his short life to dwell upon Sabetha’s every feature, both of the girls looked exactly alike to him.
“Tricky,” said Locke under his breath. There had to be some difference, if he could only spot it. The bags were probably his best chance—surely they would be the hardest elements of the costumes to synchronize.
“Blood for rain!” boomed a deep voice as Locke re-entered the crowd. Bearing down on him came a procession of men in black and gray robes. Their mantles bore emblems of crossed hammers and trowels, marking them as divines of Morgante, the City Father, the god of order, hierarchies, and harsh consequences. While none of the Therin gods were ever called enemies, Morgante and his followers were undeniably the least hospitable to the semi-heresy of the Nameless Thirteenth. Morgante ruled executioners, constables, and judges, and no thief would willingly set foot in one of his temples.
The black-robed procession, a dozen strong, was pushing along an open-topped wagon holding an iron cage. A slender man was chained upright inside it, his body covered with wet red gouges. Behind the cage stood a priest holding a wooden switch topped with a claw-like blade about the size of a finger.
“Blood for rain!” hollered the leader of the priests once again, and initiates behind him held baskets out to the passing crowd. It was a mobile sacrifice, then—for every coin tossed into a basket the caged prisoner would receive another painful but carefully measured slash. That man would be a resident of the Palace of Patience, worming his way out of something harsh (judicial amputation, most likely) by offering his body up for a few weeks of cruel use. Locke had no further thoughts to spare the poor fellow, for the two girls in dark red dresses were vanishing around the far left side of the procession. He ducked wide around the opposite side, just in case another ambush was in the offing.
The girls weren’t troubling themselves—they were headed straight for the Bridge of Seven Lanterns, and were close enough that Locke dared not close the gap. While the bridge was wide enough for two wagons to pass without grinding wheel-rims, it was narrow indeed compared to the plaza, with nowhere to duck and dodge if the girls tried anything clever. Locke matched their pace and trailed them like a kite, fading back to a distance of about thirty yards. Halfway to the end of the contest, and he hadn’t actually gained a foot!
The Bridge of Seven Lanterns was plain solid stone, no unnerving toy left over from the long-vanished Eldren. Its parapets were low, and as Locke moved step by step up the gentle arch he was offered a fine view of dozens of boats moving sluggishly on the canal below—a view he ignored, focused as he was on the slender red shapes of his two rivals. There was no wagon traffic at the moment, and while Locke watched, the dress-wearers separated, moving to opposite sides of the bridge. There they paused, each one turning her body as though she were gazing out over the water.
“Hell shit damn,” muttered Locke, trying for the first time in his life to emulate the lengthy chains of profanity woven by the few adult role models he’d ever had. “Pissing shit monkeys.” What was the game now? Stall him indefinitely and let the sun cook them all? Looking for inspiration, he glanced around, and then back the way he’d come.
A third girl in a cinnamon-red dress and gray veil was walking straight toward him, not twenty yards behind, just at the point where the cobbles of the plaza met the bridge embankment. Locke’s stomach performed a flip that would have been the highlight of any court acrobat’s career.
He turned away from the newcomer, trying not to look too startled. Crooked Warden, he’d been stupid not to check the whole area where Sabetha had picked up her first decoy. And now, yes, his eyes weren’t merely playing tricks—the two girls in front of him were slowly, calmly, demurely edging in his direction. He was trapped on a bridge at the center of a collapsing triangle of red dresses. Unless he ran like mad, which would signal to Chains and Sabetha alike that he’d broken character and given up, one of the girls would surely manage to count his buttons.
Sweet gods, Sabetha had outwitted him before he’d even woken up that morning.
“Not done yet,” he muttered, desperately scanning the area for any distraction he could seize. “Not yet, not yet.” His vague frustration had flared up into a sweat-soaked terror of losing—no, not merely losing, but failing by such an astounding degree in his first contest against a girl he would have swallowed hot iron nails to impress. This wouldn’t just embarrass him, it would convince Sabetha that he was a little boy of no account. Forever.
As it happened, it wasn’t fresh and subtle inspiration that saved him—it was his old teaser’s reflexes, the unsociably crude methods he’d used to create street incidents back in his Shades’ Hill days. Barely realizing what he was doing, he flung himself down on his knees against the nearest parapet, with his brass buttons scant inches from the stone. With every ounce of energy he possessed, he pretended to throw up.
“Hooouk,” he coughed, a minor prelude to a disgusting symphony, “hggggk. . . hoooo-gggghhhhkkk. . . HNNNNNN-BLAAAAAARGH!” The noises were fine, as convincing as he’d ever conjured, and he pushed hard against the parapet with one shaking arm. That was always a great touch; adults fell hard for it. Those that were repulsed would back off an extra three feet, and those that were sympathetic would all but tremble.
He stole quick glances around while he moaned, shuddered, and retched. Adult passers-by were swinging wide around him, in the typical fashion of the rich and busy—there was no profit in attending to someone else’s sick servant or messenger boy. As for his red-dressed nemeses, they had all halted, wavering like veiled apparitions. Approaching him now would be suspicious and dangerous, while standing there like statues would rapidly invite needless attention. Locke wondered what they would do, knowing he had merely succeeded in restoring a stalemate, but that was certainly better than letting their trap snap him up.
“Just keep retching,” he whispered, and did so—as far as plans went, it was perhaps the worst he’d ever conceived, but it now it was up to someone else to make the next move.
“What goes?” A woman’s voice, brimming with authority. “Explain yourself, boy.”
That someone else was, as it turned out, wearing the mustard-colored jacket of the city watch.
“Lost your grip on breakfast, eh?” The guardswoman nudged Locke with the tip of a boot. “Look, just move along and be sick at the end of the bridge.”
“Help me,” whispered Locke.
“Can’t stand on your own?” The woman’s leather fighting harness creaked as she crouched beside him, and her belt-slung baton tapped the ground. “Give it a minute—”
“I’m not really sick!” Locke beckoned to her with one hand, concealing the gesture from everyone else with his body. “Bend down, please. I’m in danger.”
“What the hell are you on about?” She looked wary, but did come closer.
“Don’t react. Don’t hold this up.” In an instant, Locke had his little purse of silver coins, thusfar unspent, transferred from his right hand to her left. He pushed the woman’s fingers gently closed over the bag. “That’s ten solons. My master is a rich man. Help me, and he’ll know your name.”
“Gods be gracious,” the woman whispered. Locke knew that bag of silver represented several months of her pay. Would she bend for it? “What’s going on?”
“I’m in danger,” Locke muttered. “I’m being followed. A man wants the messages I carry for my master. Back on the plaza south of here, he tried to grab me twice.”
“I’ll take you to my watch station, then.”
“No—there’s no need. Just get me to the north side of this bridge. Pick me up and carry me, like I’m being arrested. If he sees that, he won’t wait around. He’ll go tell his masters the watch has me, and once we’ve gone a little ways, you can just let me go.”
“Let you go?”
“Sure, just set me down, let me off with a warning, talk to me sternly.”
“That’d look damned irregular.”
“You’re the watch, you can do what you like and nobody’s going to say anything!”
“I still don’t know. . .”
“Look, you’re not breaking any law. You’re just lending me a hand.” Locke knew he nearly had her; she had already taken his coin, now it was a matter of notching the promised reward up a bit. “Get me off this bridge and my master will double what I’ve given you. Easily.”
The guardswoman seemed to consider this for a few seconds, then rose from her crouch and seized him by the back of his jacket. “You’re not sick,” she yelled, “you’re just making a gods-damned scene!”
“No, please,” cried Locke, praying that he was, in fact, witnessing a purchased performance and not a sudden change of heart. The guardswoman lifted him, tucked him under her left arm, and marched north. Some of the well-dressed onlookers chuckled, but they all moved out of the way as Locke’s improvised transportation carried him away from the scene of his near-humiliation.
He kicked and struggled to keep up his end of the presumed deception. Some of his squirming was only too real, as the woman’s baton handle kept jabbing him in the ribs, spoiling what was an otherwise surprisingly comfortable ride. At least he was being carried with his all-important buttons facing the guardswoman’s side.
Locke scanned his tilted field of vision and saw, to his delight, that the two red dresses in front of him had darted far to the left and were keeping their distance from him and his temporarily tame yellowjacket. Would Sabetha believe he’d really been seized against his will? Probably not, but now she’d have to sort out a new plan of attack with her accomplices, whoever they were.
His own plans were developing speedily as he pretended to fight back against his captor. Once he’d gotten well ahead of the girls, he could cut off their progress to the final choke point, Goldenreach Bridge. And while his ultimate position there would find him once again outnumbered three to one, at least he would have more time to play spot-the-real-Sabetha.
Kicking, snarling, and shaking his fists, Locke was carried at last down the opposite side of the bridge, onto the northern plaza. Here the real powers of Coin-Kisser’s Row were situated, houses like Meraggio’s and Bonaduretta’s, whose webs of coin and credit reached out across the continent.
“Don’t make me knock your teeth in,” his guardswoman growled down at him as a particularly large group of onlookers moved past. Locke could have applauded her theatrical sense; yellowjacket or not, the woman had good instincts. Now, all they had to do was find a decent spot to set him down, and he was as good as—
“Oh, constable, constable, please wait!” Locke heard the soft sound of running feet even before he heard Sabetha’s voice, and he squirmed madly, trying to spot her before she arrived. Too late—she was at the guardswoman’s other side, veil flipped back over her four-cornered hat. She was holding out a small dark pouch in her right hand. “You dropped this, constable!”
“Dropped what?” The woman turned to face Sabetha, swinging Locke into position to look directly at her. Her cheeks were flushed red and, inexplicably, she was letting her open satchel just hang there. Locke stared open-mouthed at the four tidy little rolls of silk tucked therein—red, green, black, and blue.
“You must be mistaken, girl.”
“Not at all. I saw it myself. I’m sure this is yours.” Sabetha pressed the little pouch into the constable’s free hand, precisely as Locke had just moments earlier, and in so doing she moved closer and lowered her voice. “That’s four solons. Please, please let my little brother go.”
“What?” The constable sounded thoroughly mystified, but Locke noticed that she slipped the pouch into her coat with smooth reflexes. He was beginning to suspect that this yellowjacket had some prior experience with making offerings disappear.
“I’m sure he didn’t mean to cause a scene,” said Sabetha, letting a note of desperate worry break into her voice. “He’s not supposed to be out on his own. He’s not at all right in the head.”
“Hey,” said Locke, suddenly realizing that knowledge of the silk colors wouldn’t mean much if he let the situation spin further out of his control. What the hell was Sabetha doing? “Wait just a minute—”
“He’s a total idiot,” Sabetha whispered, squeezing the constable’s free hand. “It’s just not safe for him to be out without an escort! He makes up stories, you see. Please. . . let me take him home.”
“I don’t. . . I just. . . now, look here—”
One or more wheels was clearly about to fly off the previously smooth-running engine of the guardswoman’s thought processes, and Locke cringed. Suddenly a wide, dark shape insinuated itself between Locke’s constable and the cinnamon-red figure of Sabetha, gently pushing the girl aside.
“Ahhhhhhhhh, madam constable, I am so utterly delighted to see that you’ve retrieved the two parcels I misplaced,” said Chains. “You are a jewel of efficiency, excellent woman, a gift from the heavens. I beg leave to shake your hand.”
For the third time in the span of a few minutes, a tiny parcel of coins slipped into the palm of the now utterly dumb-struck watchwoman. This exchange was faster and smoother by far than either of those effected by the children; Locke only saw it because he was being held in just the right position to catch a tiny glimpse of something dark nestled in Chains’ hand.
“Um. . . well, sir, I. . .”
Chains leaned over and whispered a few quick sentences in her ear. Even before he finished, the woman gently lowered Locke to the ground. Not knowing what else to do, he moved over to stand beside Sabetha, adopting a much-practiced facial expression meant to radiate absolute harmlessness.
“Ahhh,” said the constable. Chains’ new offering joined the previous two inside her coat.
“Indeed,” said Chains, beaming. “Blessings of the Twelve, and fair rains follow you, dear constable. These two will trouble you no further.”
Chains gave a cheery wave (which was just as cheerfully returned by the guardswoman), then turned and pushed Locke and Sabetha toward the east bank of the plaza, where stairs led down to a wide landing for the hiring of passenger boats.
“What happened to your little accomplices?” whispered Chains.
“Told them to get lost when I went after that yellowjacket,” said Sabetha.
“Good. Now, shut up and behave while I get us a boat. We’d best be anywhere but here.”
All of the nearby gondolas were departing or passing by, save for one bobbing at the quay, about to be boarded by a middle-aged man of business who was fishing in a coin purse. Chains stepped smoothly past him and gave the pole-man a peculiar sort of wave.
“I say,” said Chains, “sorry to be late. We’re in such a desperate hurry to reach a friend of a friend, and I just knew that this would be the right sort of boat.”
“The rightest sort of right, sir.” The pole-man was young and skinny, tanned brown as horse droppings, and he wore a sandy-colored beard down to the middle of his stained blue tunic. Charms of silver and ivory were woven into that beard, so many that the man actually chimed as he moved his head about. “Sir, I’m apologetic as hell, but this is the gentleman I’ve been waiting for.”
“Waiting for?” The man looked up from his coin-counting, startled. “But you only just pulled up!”
“Nonetheless, I got a previous engagement, and this is it. Now, I do beg pardon—”
“No, no, this is my boat!”
“It pains me to correct you,” said Chains, rendering his appropriation of the gondola final by ushering Sabetha into it. “Nonetheless, I must point out that the boat is actually the property of the young man with the pole.”
“Which it is, already and unfortunately, at this time engaged,” said that man.
“Why. . . you brazen, disrespectful little pack of dockside shits! I was here first! Don’t you dare take that boat, boy!”
Locke had been following Sabetha, and the middle-aged man reached down and grabbed him by the front of his jacket. Equally swiftly, Chains back-handed the man so hard that he immediately let go and stumbled back two paces, nearly falling into the canal.
“Touch either of my children again,” said Chains in a tone of voice unlike anything Locke had ever heard, “and I’ll break you into so many pieces not a whore in the city will ever be able to figure out which wrinkled scrap to suck.”
“Dog,” yelled the man of business, holding a hand up to his bleeding lips, “You scoundrel! I’ll have your name, sir, your name and a place where my man can find you. I’ll have you out for this, just you—”
Chains threw an arm around the man's neck. Wrenching the unfortunate fellow toward him, Chains whispered harshly into his ear—again, just a few sentences. Chains then shoved him away, and Locke was astonished to see how pale the man’s face had become.
“I. . . uh, I. . . understand,” said the man. He seemed to be having difficulty making his voice work properly. “My, uh, apologies, deepest apologies. I’ll just—”
“Get the hell out of here.”
The man took Chains’ advice, with haste, and Chains helped Locke into the boat. Locke sat on a bench at the bow directly beside Sabetha, feeling a warmth in his cheeks that had nothing to do with the sun when his leg brushed hers. As Chains settled onto the bench in front of the two children, the pole-man nudged the gondola away from the quay stones and out into the calm, slimy water of the canal.
At that moment, Locke was as much in awe of Chains as he was of his proximity to Sabetha. Charming yellowjackets, commandeering boats, and making wealthy men piss themselves—all of that, bribes notwithstanding, with just a few whispered words here and there. Who and what did Chains know? What was his actual place in Capa Barsavi’s hierarchy?
“Where to?” said the pole-man.
“Temple District, Venaportha’s landing,” said Chains.
“What’s your outfit?”
“Right, heard of you. Seem to be doing well for yourselves, mixing with the quality.”
“We do well enough. You one of Gap-Tooth’s lads?”
“Spot on, brother. Call ourselves the Clever Enoughs, out of the west Narrows. Some of us have what you’d call gainful employment, spotting likely marks on the canals. Business ain’t but shit lately.”
“Here’s a picture of the duke for a smooth ride.” Chains slapped a gold tyrin down on the bench behind him.
“I’ll drink your health tonight, friend.”
Chains let the pole-man get on with his work, and turned back to Locke and Sabetha, leaning close to them. He folded his hands and said quietly, “Now, what the hell did I just see on Coin-Kisser’s Row? Can either of you translate that into some sort of vaguely logical account?”
“He’s got six buttons,” said Sabetha.
“Redgreenblackblue,” spat Locke.
“Oh no,” said Chains, “Contest’s over. I declare a tie. No slithering to victory on a technicality.”
“Well, I had to try,” said Sabetha.
“That might have been the lesson,” muttered Locke.
“It’s not over until it’s really, really over,” said Sabetha. “Or something. You know.”
“My prize students,” sighed Chains. “Sometimes a contest to chase one another up and down a crowded plaza really is just a contest to chase one another up and down a crowded plaza. Let’s start with you, Locke. What was your plan?”
“Uhhh. . .”
“You know, believe it or not,‘the gods will provide’ is not an actual plan, lad. You’ve got one hell of a talent for improvisation, but when that lets you down it lets you down hard. You’ve got to have a next move in mind, like in Catch-the-Duke. Remember how you managed that affair with the corpse? I know you can do better than you just did.”
“Sabetha’s turn. Near as I could tell, you had him. You were the one in the rear, the one that came out after he chased the first two north, right?”
“Yeah,” said Sabetha, warily.
“Where’d you get the decoys?”
“Girls I used to know in Windows. They’re seconds in a couple of the bigger gangs now. We lifted the dresses and went over the plan last night.”
“Ah, said Chains, “There’s that charming notion I was just discussing, Locke. A stratagem. What did your friends have in their bags?”
“Colored wool,” said Sabetha. “Best we could do.”
“Not bad. Yet all you could manage was a tie with young Master Planless here. You had him in a fine bind, and then. . . what, exactly?”
“Well, he pretended to be sick. Then that yellowjacket came along and collared him, and I. . . I thought it was more important than anything else to go after him and get him loose.”
“Get me loose?” Locke sputtered in surprise. “What do you mean, get me loose? I passed that woman ten solons to get her to pick me up and carry me north!”
“I thought she’d grabbed you for real!” Sabetha’s soft brown eyes darkened and the color rose in her cheeks. “You little ass, I thought I was rescuing you!”
“But. . . why?”
“There was nothing on the ground when I followed behind you!” Sabetha pulled her hat and veil off, and angrily yanked out the lacquered pins in her hair. “I didn’t see any sick-up on the bridge, so I thought that had tipped the yellowjacket to the fact that you were bullshitting!”
“You thought I got collared for real because I threw up wrong?”
“I know what sort of mess you could make back when you were a street teaser.” Sabetha shook her hair out—alchemically adjusted or not, it was a sight that made Locke’s heart punch the front of his rib cage. “I didn’t see any mess like that, so I assumed you got pinched! I gave that woman all the money I had left!”
“Look, I might have. . . I might have stuck my finger down my throat when I was little, but. . . I’m not gonna do that all the time!”
“That’s not the point!” Sabetha folded her arms and looked away. They were moving east now, across the long curving canal north of the Videnza, and in the distance beyond Sabetha Locke could see the dark, blocky shape of the Palace of Patience rising above slate roofs. “You knew you were losing, you had no plan, so you pitched a fit and made a mess of everything! You weren’t even trying to win, you were just sloppy. And I was sloppy to fall for it!”
“I was afraid this might happen, sooner or later,” said Chains in a musing tone of voice. “I’ve been thinking that we need a more elaborate sort of sign language, more than what we flash back and forth with the other Right People. Some sort of private code, so we can keep one another on the same page when we’re running a scheme.”
“No, Sabetha, look,” said Locke, hardly hearing Chains. “You weren’t sloppy, you were brilliant, you deserved to win—”
“That’s right,” she said. “But you didn’t lose, so I didn’t win.”
“Look, I concede. I give it to you. I’ll do all your kitchen chores for three days, just like—”
“I don’t want a damned concession! I won’t take your pity as a coin.”
“It’s not. . . it’s not pity, honest! I just. . . you thought you were really rescuing me, I owe you! I want your chores, it would be a pleasure. It would be my, my privilege.”
She didn’t turn back toward him, but she stared at him out of the corner of her eye for a long, silent moment. Chains said nothing—he had gone still as a stone.
“Sloppy idiot,” Sabetha muttered at last. “You’re trying to be charming. Well, I do not choose to be charmed by you, Locke Lamora.”
She shuffled herself on the bench and gripped the gunwale of the gondola with both hands, so that her back was completely toward him.
“Not today, at any rate,” she said softly.
Sabetha’s anger stung Locke like a swallowed wasp, but that pain was subsumed by a warmer, more powerful sensation that seemed to swell his skull until he was sure it was about to crack like an egg.
For all her seeming indifference, for all her impenetrability and frustration, she’d cared enough about him to throw the contest aside the instant she’d thought he was in real danger.
Across the rest of that seemingly endless, miserably hot summer of the seventy-seventh Year of Perelandro, he clung to that realization like a talisman.
Copyright © 2013 by Scott Lynch. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.