Authors: Scott Lynch
Any orphans left after dicing with all of those colorful possibilities were swept up by the Thiefmaker’s own crew, one at a time or in small, frightened groups. Soon enough they would learn what sort of life awaited them beneath the graveyard that was the heart of his realm, where seven score of cast-off children bent the knee to a single bent old man.
“Quick-step, my lovelies, my new sons and daughters; follow the line of lights and step to the top. We’re almost home, almost fed, almost washed up and bedded down. Out of the rain and the mist and the stinking heat.”
Plagues were a time of special opportunity for the Thiefmaker, and the Catchfire orphans had crawled away from his very favorite sort: Black Whisper. It fell on the Catchfire district from points unknown, and the quarantine had gone up (death by clothyard shaft for anyone trying to cross a canal or escape on a boat) in time to save the rest of the city from everything but unease and paranoia. Black Whisper meant a miserable death for anyone over the age of eleven or twelve (as near as physikers could figure, for the plague was not content to reap by overly firm rules) and a few days of harmless swollen eyes and red cheeks for anyone younger.
By the fifth day of the quarantine, there were no more screams and no more attempted canal crossings, so Catchfire evaded the namesake fate that had befallen it so many times before in years of pestilence. By the eleventh day, when the quarantine was lifted and the duke’s Ghouls went in to survey the mess, perhaps one in eight of the four hundred children previously living there had survived the wait. They had already formed gangs for mutual protection, and had learned certain cruel necessities of life without adults.
The Thiefmaker was waiting as they were corralled and led out from the sinister silence of their old neighborhood.
He paid good silver for the best thirty, and even more good silver for the silence of the Ghouls and constables he relieved of the children. Then he led them, dazed and hollow-cheeked and smelling like hell, into the dark steambath mists of the Camorri night, toward the old graveyard on Shades’ Hill.
The Lamora boy was the youngest and smallest of the lot, five or six years old, nothing but jutting bones under skin rich with dirt and hollow angles. The Thiefmaker hadn’t even chosen him; the boy had simply crept away with the others as though he belonged. The Thiefmaker was not unaware of this, but he’d lived the sort of life in which even a single free plague orphan was a windfall not to be overlooked.
It was the summer of the Seventy-seventh Year of Gandolo, Father of Opportunities, Lord of Coin and Commerce. The Thiefmaker padded through the shrouded night, shepherding his ragged line of children.
In just two years he would be all but begging Father Chains, the Eyeless Priest, to take the Lamora boy off his hands—and sharpening his knives in case the priest refused.
THE EYELESS Priest scratched his gray-stubbled throat. “No shit?”
“None whatsoever.” The Thiefmaker reached down the front of a doublet that was several years past merely shabby and pulled out a leather pouch on a fine leather cord; the pouch was dyed the rust red of dried blood. “Already went to the big man and got permission. I’ll do the boy ear to ear and send him for teeth lessons.”
“Gods. It’s a sob story after all.” For an Eyeless Priest, the fingers he jabbed into the Thiefmaker’s sternum struck swift and sure. “Find some other
to shackle with the chains of your conscience.”
“Conscience can go piss up a chimney, Chains. I’m talking
, yours and mine. I can’t keep the boy, and I’m offering you a unique opportunity. A genuine bargain.”
“If the boy’s too unruly to keep, why can’t you just pound some wisdom into him and let him ripen to a proper age of sale?”
“Out of the question, Chains. Limited options. I
just slap him around, because I can’t let any of the other little shits know what he’s, ahhh, done. If any of them had the slightest inclination to pull what he’s pulled…gods! I’d never be able to control them again. I can either kill him quick, or sell him quicker. No profit versus a paltry sum. So guess which one I prefer?”
“The boy’s done something you can’t even mention in front of the others?” Chains massaged his forehead above the blindfold and sighed. “Shit. This sounds like something I might actually be interested in hearing.”
AN OLD Camorri proverb has it that the only constant in the soul of man is inconstancy; anything and everything else can pass out of fashion—even something as utilitarian as a hill stuffed full of corpses.
Shades’ Hill was the first graveyard of quality in Camorr’s history, ideally situated to keep the bones of the formerly well-fed above the salty grasp of the Iron Sea. Yet over time, the balance of power shifted in the families of vault-carvers and morticians and professional pallbearers; fewer and fewer of the quality were interred on Shades’ Hill, as the nearby Hill of Whispers offered more room for larger and gaudier monuments with commensurately higher commissions. Wars, plagues, and intrigues ensured that the number of living families with monuments to tend on Shades’Hill dropped steadily over the decades. Eventually, the only regular visitors were the priests and priestesses of Aza Guilla, who sleep in tombs during their apprenticeships, and the homeless orphans who squatted in the dust and darkness of the ill-tended burial vaults.
The Thiefmaker (though of course he wasn’t known as such just yet) had wound up sharing one of these vaults at the low point of his life, when he was nothing but a miserable curiosity—a pickpocket with nine broken fingers.
At first, his relationship with the Shades’ Hill orphans was half-bullying and half-pleading; some vestigial need for an authority figure kept them from killing him in his sleep. For his part, he grudgingly began to explain to them some of the tricks of his trade.
As his fingers slowly mended (after a fashion, for most of them would forever resemble twice-broken twigs), he began to impart more and more of his crooked wisdom onto the dirty children who dodged the rain and the city watch with him. Their numbers increased, as did their income, and they began to make more room for themselves in the wet stone chambers of the old graveyard.
In time, the brittle-boned pickpocket became the Thiefmaker, and Shades’ Hill became his kingdom.
The Lamora boy and his fellow Catchfire orphans entered this kingdom some twenty years after its founding. What they saw that night was a graveyard no deeper than the dirt piled above the old tombs. A great network of tunnels and galleries had been dug between the major vaults, their hard-packed walls threaded with supports like the ribs of long-dead wooden dragons. The previous occupants had all been quietly disinterred and dropped into the bay. Shades’ Hill was now an ant-mound of orphan thieves.
Down the black mouth of the topmost mausoleum the Catchfire orphans went, down the wood-ribbed tunnel lit by the flickering silver fire of cool alchemical globes, with greasy tendrils of mist chasing at their ankles. Shades’ Hill orphans watched them from every nook and warren, their eyes cold but curious. The thick tunnel air was saturated with the smells of night soil and stale bodies—an odor the Catchfire orphans soon multiplied with their own presence.
“In! In,” cried the Thiefmaker, rubbing his hands together. “My home, your home, and welcome to it! Here we all have one thing in common—no mothers and no fathers. Alas for that, but now you’ll have as many sisters and brothers as you can need, and dry earth over your head. A place…a family.”
A train of Shades’ Hill orphans swept down the tunnel in his wake, snuffing their eerie blue candles as they went, until only the silver radiance of the wall-globes remained to light the way.
At the heart of the Thiefmaker’s realm was a vast, warm hollow with a packed dirt floor, perhaps twice the height of a tall man, thirty yards wide and long. A single high-backed chair of oiled black witchwood stood against the far wall; the Thiefmaker eased himself into this with a grateful sigh.
Dozens of grotty blankets were set out on the floor, covered with food: bowls of bony chicken marinated in cheap almond wine, soft thresher-fish tails wrapped in bacon and soaked in vinegar, and brown bread flavored with sausage grease. There were also salted peas and lentils as well as bowls of past-ripe tomatoes and pears. Poor stuff, in truth, but in a quantity and variety most of the Catchfire orphans had never seen before. Their attack on the meal was immediate and uncoordinated; the Thiefmaker smiled indulgently.
“I’m not stupid enough to get between you and a decent meal, my dears. So eat your fill; eat more than your fill. Make up for lost time. We’ll talk after.”
As the Catchfire orphans stuffed their faces, the Shades’ Hill orphans crowded in around them, watching and saying nothing. Soon the chamber was packed and the air grew staler still. The feasting continued until there was literally nothing left; the survivors of the Black Whisper sucked the last vinegar and grease from their fingers and then turned their eyes warily to the Thiefmaker and his minions. The Thiefmaker held up three crooked fingers, as though on cue.
“Business!” he cried. “Three items of business. You’re here because I
for you. I paid extra to get to you before anyone
could. I can assure you that every single one of your little friends that I didn’t pay for has gone to the slavers. There’s nothing else to be done with orphans. No place to keep you, nobody to take you in. The watch sells your sort for wine money, my dears; watch-sergeants neglect to mention you in their reports, and watch-captains neglect to give a shit.
“And,” he continued, “now that the Catchfire quarantine’s lifted, every slaver and would-be slaver in Camorr is going to be
. You’re free to get up and leave this hill any time you see fit—with my confident assurance that you’ll soon be sucking cocks or chained to an oar for the rest of your life.
“Which leads me to my second point. All of my
you see around you”—he gestured to the Shades’Hill orphans lined up against the walls—“can leave whenever they please, and mostly go wherever they please, because they are under my protection. I know,” he said with a long and solemn face, “that I am nothing especially formidable when considered as an individual, but do not be misled. I have powerful friends, my dears. What I offer is security by virtue of those friends. Should anyone—a slaver, for example—dare to set a hand on one of my Shades’ Hill boys or girls, well…the consequences would be immediate, and gratifyingly, ahhh,
When none of his newcomers seemed appropriately enthusiastic, the Thiefmaker cleared his throat. “I’d have the miserable fucking bastards killed. Savvy?”
They were indeed.
“Which brings us neatly to my third item of interest—namely, all of you. This little family always needs new brothers and sisters, and you may consider yourselves invited—
, no less—to, ahhh, condescend to offer us the pleasure of your
intimate and permanent
acquaintance. Make this hill your home, myself your master, and these fine boys and girls your trusted siblings. You’ll be fed, sheltered, and protected. Or you can leave right now and end up as fresh fruit in some whorehouse in Jerem. Any takers?”
None of the newcomers said anything.
“I knew I could count on you, my dear, dear Catchfire jewels.” The Thiefmaker spread his arms wide and smiled, revealing a half-moon of teeth brown as swampwater. “But of course, there must be responsibilities. There must be give and take, like for like. Food doesn’t sprout from my asshole. Chamber pots don’t empty themselves. Catch my meaning?”
There were hesitant nods from about half the Catchfire orphans.
“The rules are simple! You’ll learn them all in good time. For now, let’s keep it like this. Anybody who eats, works. Anyone who works, eats. Which brings us to my fourth…Oh, dear. Children, children. Do an absentminded old man the favor of imagining that he held up four fingers. This is my fourth important point.
“Now, we’ve got our chores here on the hill, but we’ve got chores elsewhere that
need doing. Other jobs…delicate jobs, unusual jobs. Fun and interesting jobs. All about the city, some by day and some by night. They will require courage, deftness, and, ahhh, discretion. We would so
to have your assistance with these…special tasks.”
He pointed to the one boy he hadn’t paid for, the small hanger-on, now staring up at him with hard, sullen eyes above a mouth still plastered with tomato innards.
“You, surplus boy, thirty-first of thirty. What say you? Are you the helpful sort? Are you willing to assist your new brothers and sisters with their interesting work?”
The boy mulled this over for a few seconds.
“You mean,” he said in a high thin voice, “that you want us to steal things.”
The old man stared down at the little boy for a very long time while a number of the Shades’ Hill orphans giggled behind their hands.
“Yes,” the Thiefmaker said at last, nodding slowly. “I might just mean that—though you have a very, ahhh,
view of a certain exercise of personal initiative that we prefer to frame in more artfully indeterminate terms. Not that I expect that to mean anything to you. What’s your name, boy?”
“Your parents must have been misers, to give you nothing but a surname. What
did they call you?”
The boy seemed to think very deeply about this.
“I’m called Locke,” he finally said. “After my father.”
“Very good. Rolls right off the tongue, it does. Well, Locke-after-your-father Lamora, you come here and have a word with me. The rest of you, shuffle off. Your brothers and sisters will show you where you’ll be sleeping tonight. They’ll also show you where to empty this and where to put that—chores, if you savvy. Just to tidy this hall up for now, but there’ll be more jobs for you in the days to come. I promise it will
make sense by the time you find out what they call me in the world beyond our little hill.”