Authors: Scott Lynch
Locke moved to stand beside the Thiefmaker on his high-backed throne; the throng of newcomers rose and milled about until larger, older Shades’ Hill orphans began collaring them and issuing simple instructions. Soon enough, Locke and the master of Shades’ Hill were as alone as they could hope to be.
“My boy,” the Thiefmaker said, “I’m used to having to train a certain reticence out of my new sons and daughters when they first arrive in Shades’ Hill. Do you know what
The Lamora boy shook his head. His greasy dust-brown bangs were plastered down atop his round little face, and the tomato stains around his mouth had grown drier and more unseemly. The Thiefmaker dabbed delicately at these stains with one cuff of his tattered blue coat; the boy didn’t flinch.
“It means they’ve been told that stealing things is bad, and I need to work around that until they get used to the idea, savvy? Well, you don’t seem to suffer from any such reticence, so you and I might just get along. Stolen before, have you?”
The boy nodded.
“Before the plague, even?”
“Thought so. My dear, dear boy…you didn’t, ahhh, lose your parents to the
, now, did you?”
The boy looked down at his feet and barely shook his head.
“So you’ve already been, ahhh, looking after yourself for some time. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, now. It might even secure you a place of some respect here, if only I can find a means to put you to the test….”
By way of response, the Lamora boy reached under his rags and held something out to the Thiefmaker. Two small leather purses fell into the old man’s open palm—cheap things, stiff and stained, with frayed cords around their necks.
“Where did you get these, then?”
“The watchmen,” Locke whispered. “Some of the watchmen picked us up and carried us.”
The Thiefmaker jerked back as though an asp had just sunk its fangs into his spine, and stared down at the purses with disbelief. “You lifted these from the fucking city watch? From the
Locke nodded, more enthusiastically. “They picked us up and
“Gods,” the Thiefmaker whispered. “Oh, gods. You may have just fucked us all superbly, Locke-after-your-father Lamora. Quite superbly indeed.”
“HE BROKE the Secret Peace the first night I had him, the cheeky little bastard.” The Thiefmaker was now seated more comfortably in the rooftop garden of the Eyeless Priest’s temple, with a tarred leather cup of wine in his hands. It was the sourest sort of secondhand near vinegar, but it was another sign that genuine negotiations might yet break out. “Never happened before, nor since.”
“Someone taught him to charm a coat, but didn’t tell him that the yellowjackets were strictly off-limits.” Father Chains pursed his lips. “Very curious, that. Very curious indeed. Our dear Capa Barsavi would so love to
such an individual.”
“I never found out who it was. The boy claimed he’d just taught himself, but that’s crap. Five-year-olds play with dead fish and horse turds, Chains. They don’t invent the finer points of soft-touching and purse-cutting on a whim.”
“What did you do about the purses?”
“I flew back to Catchfire watch station and kissed asses and boots until my lips were black. Explained to the watch-captain in question that one of the newcomers didn’t understand how things worked in Camorr, and that I was returning the purses with interest, begging their magnanimous apologies and all the gracious etcetera etceteras.”
“And they accepted?”
“Money makes a man mirthful, Chains. I stuffed those purses full to bursting with silver. Then I gave every man in the squad drink money for five or six nights and we all agreed they would hoist a few to the health of Capa Barsavi, who
needn’t be, ahhh, troubled by something as inconsequential as his loyal Thiefmaker fucking up and letting a five-year-old breach the bloody
“So,” the Eyeless Priest said, “that was just the very first night of your association with my
mystery windfall bargain boy.”
“I’m gratified that you’re starting to take a possessive bent to the little cuss, Chains, because it only gets more colorful. I don’t know quite how to put it. I’ve got kids that
stealing. I’ve got kids that don’t think about stealing one way or another, and I’ve got kids that just
stealing because they know they’ve got nothing else to do. But nobody—and I mean
—has ever been hungry for it like this boy. If he had a bloody gash across his throat and a physiker was trying to sew it up, Lamora would steal the needle and thread and die laughing. He…steals
“Steals too much,” the Eyeless Priest mused. “Of all the complaints I never thought I’d hear from a man who trains little thieves for a living.”
“Laugh now,” the Thiefmaker said. “Here’s the kicker.”
MONTHS PASSED. Parthis became Festal became Aurim, and the misty squalls of summer gave way to the harder, driving rains of winter. The Seventy-seventh Year of Gandolo became the Seventy-seventh Year of Morgante, the City Father, Lord of Noose and Trowel.
Eight of the thirty-one Catchfire orphans, somewhat less than adept at the Thiefmaker’s
tasks, swung from the Black Bridge before the Palace of Patience. So it went; the survivors were too preoccupied with their own delicate and interesting tasks to care.
The society of Shades’ Hill, as Locke soon discovered, was firmly divided into two tribes: Streets and Windows. The latter was a smaller, more exclusive group that did all of its earning after sunset. They crept across roofs and down chimneys, picked locks and slid through barred embrasures, and would steal everything from coins and jewelry to blocks of lard in untended pantries.
The boys and girls of Streets, on the other hand, prowled Camorr’s alleys and cobbles and canal-bridges by day, working in teams. Older and more experienced children (clutchers) worked at the actual pockets and purses and merchant stalls, while the younger and less capable (teasers) arranged distractions—crying for nonexistent mothers, or feigning illness, or rushing madly around crying “Stop! Thief!” in every direction while the clutchers made off with their prizes.
Each orphan was shaken down by an older or larger child after returning to the graveyard from any visit outside; anything stolen or gathered was passed through the hierarchy of bruisers and bullies until it reached the Thiefmaker, who ticked off names on an eerily accurate mental list as the day’s catch came in. Those who produced got to eat; those who didn’t got to practice twice as hard that evening.
Night after night, the Thiefmaker would parade around the warrens of Shades’ Hill laden down with money pouches, silk handkerchiefs, necklaces, metal coat buttons, and a dozen other sorts of valuable oddments. His wards would strike at him from concealment or by feigned accident; those he spotted or felt in the act were immediately punished. The Thiefmaker preferred not to beat the losers of these training games (though he could work a mean switch when the mood was upon him); rather, they were forced to drink from a flask of unalloyed ginger oil while their peers gathered around and chanted derisively. Camorri ginger oil is rough stuff, not entirely incomparable (as the Thiefmaker himself opined) to swallowing the smoldering ashes of poison oak.
Those who wouldn’t open their mouths had it poured into their noses while older children held them upside down. This never had to happen twice to anyone.
In time, even those with ginger-scalded tongues and swollen throats learned the rudiments of coat-teasing and “borrowing” from the wares of unwary merchants. The Thiefmaker enthusiastically instructed them in the architecture of doublets, waistcoats, frock coats, and belt pouches, keeping up with all the latest fashions as they came off the docks. His wards learned what could be cut away, what could be torn away, and what must be teased out with deft fingers.
“The point, my loves, is not to hump the subject’s leg like a dog or clutch their hand like a lost babe. Half a second of actual contact with the subject is often too long by far.” The Thiefmaker mimed a noose going around his neck and let his tongue bulge out past his teeth. “You will live or die by three sacred rules: First, always ensure that the subject is nicely distracted, either by your teasers or by some convenient bit of unrelated bum-fuckery, like a fight or a house fire. House fires are
for our purposes; cherish them. Second, minimize—and I damn well mean
—contact with the subject even when they are distracted.” He released himself from his invisible noose and grinned slyly. “Lastly, once you’ve done your business, clear the vicinity even if the subject is as dumb as a box of hammers. What did I teach you?”
“Clutch once, then run,” his students chanted. “Clutch twice, get hung!”
New orphans came in by ones and twos; older children seemed to leave the hill every few weeks with little ceremony. Locke presumed that this was evidence of some category of discipline well beyond ginger oil, but he never asked, as he was too low in the hill’s pecking order to risk it or trust the answers he would get.
As for his own training, Locke went to Streets the day after he arrived, and was immediately thrown in with the teasers (punitively, he suspected). By the end of his second month, his skills had secured him elevation to the ranks of the clutchers. This was considered a step up in social status, but Lamora alone in the entire hill seemed to prefer working with the teasers long after he was entitled to stop.
He was sullen and friendless inside the hill, but teasing brought him to life. He perfected the use of over-chewed orange pulp as a substitute for vomit; where other teasers would simply clutch their stomachs and moan, Locke would season his performances by spewing a mouthful of warm white-and-orange slop at the feet of his intended audience (or, if he was in a particularly perverse mood, all over their dress hems or leggings).
Another favorite device of his was a long dry twig concealed in one leg of his breeches and tied to his ankle. By rapidly going down to his knees, he could snap this twig with an audible noise; this, followed by a piercing wail, was an effective magnet for attention and sympathy, especially in the immediate vicinity of a wagon wheel. When he’d teased the crowd long enough, he would be rescued from further attention by the arrival of several other teasers, who would loudly announce that they were “dragging him home to Mother” so he could see a physiker. His ability to walk would be miraculously recovered just as soon as he was hauled around a corner.
In fact, he worked up a repertoire of artful teases so rapidly that the Thiefmaker had cause to take him aside for a second private conversation—this after Locke arranged the inconvenient public collapse of a young lady’s skirt and bodice with a few swift strokes of a finger-knife.
“Look here, Locke-after-your-father Lamora,” the Thiefmaker said, “no ginger oil this time, I assure you, but I would
prefer your teases to veer sharply from the entertaining and back to the practical.”
Locke merely stared up at him and shuffled his feet.
“I shall speak plainly, then. The other teasers are going out day after day to watch
, not to do their bloody jobs. I’m not feeding my own private theater troupe. Get my crew of happy little jack-offs back to their own teasing, and quit being such a
with your own.”
For a time after that, everything was serene.
Then, barely six months after he arrived at the hill, Locke accidentally burned down the Elderglass Vine tavern and precipitated a quarantine riot that very nearly wiped the Narrows from the map of Camorr.
The Narrows was a valley of warrens and hovels at the northernmost tip of the bad part of the city. Kidney-shaped and something like a vast amphitheater, the island’s heart was forty-odd feet beneath its outer edges. Leaning rows of tenement houses and windowless shops jutted from the tiers of this great seething bowl; wall collapsed against wall and alley folded upon mist-silvered alley so that no level of the Narrows could be traversed by more than two men walking abreast.
The Elderglass Vine crouched over the cobblestones of the road that passed west and crossed, via stone bridge, from the Narrows into the green depths of the Mara Camorrazza. It was a sagging three-story beast of weather-warped wood, with rickety stairs inside and out that maimed at least one patron a week. Indeed, there was a lively pool going as to which of the regulars would be the next to crack his skull. It was a haunt of pipe-smokers and of Gaze addicts, who would squeeze the precious drops of their drug onto their eyeballs in public and lie there shuddering with visions while strangers went through their belongings or used them as tables.
The Seventy-seventh Year of Morgante had just arrived when Locke Lamora burst into the common room of the Elderglass Vine, sobbing and sniffling, his face showing the red cheeks, bleeding lips, and bruised eyes that were characteristic of Black Whisper.
“Please, sir,” he whispered to a horrified bouncer while dice-throwers, bartenders, whores, and thieves stopped to stare. “Please. Mother and Father are sick; I don’t know what’s wrong with them. I’m the only one who can move—you must”—
—“help! Please, sir…”
At least, that’s what would have been heard, had the bouncer not triggered a headlong exodus from the Elderglass Vine by screaming “Whisper! Black Whisper!” at the top of his lungs. No boy of Locke’s size could have survived the ensuing orgy of shoving and panic had not the badge of illness on his face been better than any shield. Dice clattered to tabletops and cards fluttered down like falling leaves; tin mugs and tarred leather alejacks spattered cheap liquor as they hit the floor. Tables were overturned, knives and clubs were pulled to prod others into flight, and Gazers were trampled as an undisciplined wave of human detritus surged out every door save that in which Locke stood, pleading uselessly (or so it seemed) to screams and turned backs.