Authors: Scott Lynch
By the time the Sanza brothers fell into step beside one another and began moving toward the rendezvous at the Temple of Fortunate Waters, Locke and Jean were already a block away, approaching from another direction. The game was afoot.
For the fourth time in as many years, in quiet defiance of the most inviolate law of Camorr’s underworld, the Gentlemen Bastards were drawing a bead on one of the most powerful men in the city. They were headed for a meeting that might eventually divest Don Lorenzo Salvara of nearly half his worldly wealth; now everything depended on the Don being punctual.
BUG WAS in a perfect position to spot the foot patrol before anyone else did, which was according to the plan. The foot patrol itself was also in the plan, after a fashion. It meant the plan was blown.
“You’re going to be top-eyes on this game, Bug,” Locke had explained. “We’re deliberately making first touch on Salvara on the most deserted street in the Temple District. A spotter on the ground would be obvious a mile away, but a boy two stories up is another matter.”
“What am I spotting for?”
“Whatever shows up. Duke Nicovante and the Nightglass Company. The king of the Seven Marrows. A little old lady with a dung-wagon. If we get interlopers, you just make the signal. Maybe you can distract common folk. If it’s the watch, well—we can either play innocent or run like hell.”
And here were six men in mustard-yellow tabards and well-oiled fighting harness, with batons and blades clattering ominously against their doubled waistbelts, strolling up from the south just a few dozen paces away from the Temple of Fortunate Waters. Their path would take them right past the mouth of the all-important alley. Even if Bug warned the others in time for them to hide Calo’s rope, Locke and Jean would still be covered in mud and the twins would still be (purposely) dressed like stage-show bandits, complete with neckerchiefs over their faces. No chance to play innocent; if Bug gave the signal, it was run-like-hell time.
Bug thought as fast as he ever had in his life, while his heart beat so rapidly it felt like someone was fluttering the pages of a book against the back of his lungs. He had to force himself to stay cool, stay observant, look for an opening. What was it Locke was always saying?
He needed to catalog his options.
His options stank. Twelve years old, crouched twenty feet up in the periphery of the wildly overgrown rooftop garden of a disused temple, with no long-range weapons and no other suitable distractions available. Don Salvara was still paying his respects to his mother’s gods within the Temple of Fortunate Waters, and the only people in sight were his fellow Gentlemen Bastards and the sweat-soaked patrol about to ruin their day.
Twenty feet down and six feet to Bug’s right, against the wall of the crumbling structure on which he squatted, there was a rubbish pile. It looked like mold-eaten burlap sacks and a mixed assortment of brown muck.
The prudent thing to do would be to signal the others and let them scurry; Calo and Galdo were old hands at playing hard-to-get with the yellowjackets, and they could just come back and restart the game again next week. Maybe. Or maybe a screwed-up game today would alarm someone, and lead to more foot patrols in the coming weeks. Maybe word would get around that the Temple District wasn’t as quiet as it should be. Maybe Capa Barsavi, beset by problems as he was, would take an interest in the unauthorized disturbance, and turn his own screws. And then Don Salvara’s money might as well be on the bloody
, for all that the Gentlemen Bastards could get their hands on it.
No, prudence was out. Bug had to
. The presence of that rubbish pile made a great and glorious stupidity very possible.
He was in the air before another thought crossed his mind. Arms out, falling backward, staring up into the hot near-noon sky with the confident assurance of all twelve of his years that death and injury were things reserved solely for people that weren’t Bug. He screamed as he fell, in wild exaltation, just to be sure that he had the foot patrol’s unwavering attention.
He could feel the great vast shadow of the ground
up beneath him, in the last half second of his fall, and at that instant his eyes caught a dark shape cutting through the air just above the Temple of Fortunate Waters. A sleek and beautiful shape, heavy, a bird? A gull of some sort? Camorr had no other birds that size—certainly none that moved like crossbow bolts, and—
Impact with the semiyielding surface of the rubbish heap walloped the air out of his lungs with a wet
and snapped his head forward. Sharp chin bounced off slender chest; his teeth punched bloody holes in his tongue, and the warm taste of salt filled his mouth. He screamed again, reflexively, and spat blood. His view of the sky spun first left then right, as though the world were trying on strange new angles for his approval.
Booted feet running on cobblestones; the creak and rattle of weapons in harness. A ruddy middle-aged face with two drooping sweat-slicked moustaches inserted itself between Bug and the sky.
“Perelandro’s balls, boy!” The watchman looked as bewildered as he did worried. “What the hell were you doing, screwing around up there? You’re lucky you landed where you did.”
There were enthusiastic murmurs of agreement from the yellow-jacketed squad crowding in behind the first man; Bug could smell their sweat and their harness oil, as well as the rotten stench of the stuff that had broken his fall. Well, when you jumped into a streetside pile of brown glop in Camorr, you knew going in that it wouldn’t smell like rosewater. Bug shook his head to clear the white sparks dancing behind his eyes, and twitched his legs to be sure they would serve. Nothing appeared to be broken, thank the gods. He would reevaluate his own claims on immortality when all of this was over.
“Watch-sergeant,” Bug hissed thickly, letting more blood spill out over his lips (damn, his tongue burned with pain). “Watch-sergeant…”
“Yes?” The man’s eyes were going wider. “Can you move your arms and legs, boy? What can you feel?”
Bug reached up with his hands, casually, not entirely feigning shakiness, and clutched at the watch-sergeant’s harness as though to steady himself.
“Watch-sergeant,” Bug said a few seconds later, “your purse is much lighter than it should be. Out whoring last night, were we?”
He shook the little leather pouch just under the watch-sergeant’s dark moustaches, and the larcenous part of his soul (which was, let us be honest, its majority) glowed warmly at the sheer befuddlement that blossomed in the man’s eyes. For a split second, the pain of Bug’s imperfect landing in the rubbish heap was forgotten. Then his other hand came up, as if by magic, and his Orphan’s Twist hit the watch-sergeant right between the eyes.
An Orphan’s Twist, or a “little red keeper,” was a weighted sack like a miniature cosh, kept hidden in clothes (but never against naked skin). It was traditionally packed full of ground shavings from a dozen of Camorr’s more popular hot peppers, and a few nasty castoffs from certain black alchemists’ shops. No use against a real threat, but just the thing for another street urchin. Or a certain sort of adult with wandering hands.
Or an unprotected face, at spitting distance.
Bug was already rolling to his left, so the spray of fine rust-colored powder that erupted from his Twist missed him by inches. The watch-sergeant was not so lucky; it was a solid hit, scattering the hellish-hot stuff up his nose, down his mouth, and straight into his eyes. He choked out a string of truly amazing wet bellows and fell backward, clawing at his cheeks. Bug was already up and moving with the giddy elasticity of youth; even his bitterly aching tongue was temporarily forgotten in the all-consuming need to run like hell.
Now he definitely had the foot patrol’s undivided attention. They were shouting and leaping after him as his little feet pounded the cobbles and he sucked in deep stinging gulps of humid air. He’d done his part to keep the game alive. It could now go on without him while he gave the duke’s constables their afternoon exercise.
A particularly fast-thinking watchman fumbled his whistle into his mouth and blew it raggedly while still running—three short bursts, a pause, then three more.
Oh, shit. That would bring every yellowjacket in half the city at a dead run, weapons out. That would bring
. It was suddenly deadly important that Bug slip the squad at his heels before other squads started sending spotters up onto roofs. His anticipation of a merry chase vanished. He had perhaps a minute and a half to get to one of his usual cozy-holes and pull a vanish.
Suddenly, his tongue hurt very badly indeed.
DON LORENZO Salvara stepped out of the temple portico into the stark bright dampness of high Camorri noon, little imagining the education a certain boy thief was receiving in the concept of
too clever by half
just across the district. The trilling of watch-whistles sounded faintly. Salvara narrowed his eyes and peered with some curiosity at the distant figure of a lone city watchman, stumbling across the cobbles and occasionally bouncing off walls, clutching his head as though afraid it was going to float off his neck and up into the sky.
“Can you believe it, m’lord?” Conté had already brought the horses around from the temple’s unobtrusive little stabling grotto. “Drunk as a baby in a beer barrel, and not a heartbeat past noon. Fucking pissant lot of softies, these new goldenrods.” Conté was a sun-wrinkled man of middle years with the waistline of a professional dancer and the arms of a professional oarsman; the manner in which he served the young don was obvious even without a glance at the pair of thigh-length stilettos hanging from his crossed leather belts.
“Hardly up to your old standards, eh?” The don, on the other hand, was a well-favored young man of the classic Camorri blood, black-haired, with skin like shadowed honey. His face was heavy and soft with curves, though his body was slender, and only his eyes gave any hint that he wasn’t a polite young collegium undergraduate masquerading as a noble. Behind his fashionable rimless optics, the don had eyes like an impatient archer hungry for targets. Conté snorted.
“In my day, at least we knew that getting shit-faced was an indoor hobby.” Conté passed the don the reins of his mount, a sleek gray mare little bigger than a pony, well trained but certainly not Gentled. Just the thing for short trots around a city still more friendly to boats (or acrobats, as Doña Salvara often complained) than to horses. The stumbling watchman vanished around a distant corner, vaguely in the direction of the urgent whistling. As it seemed to be coming no closer, Salvara shrugged inwardly and led his horse out into the street.
Here the day’s second curiosity burst upon them in all of its glory. As the don and his man turned to their right, they gained a full view of the high-walled alley beside the Temple of Fortunate Waters—and in this alley two finely dressed men were clearly getting their lives walloped out of them by a pair of bravos.
Salvara froze and stared in wonder—masked thugs in the Temple District? Masked thugs strangling a man dressed all in black, in the tight, heavy, miserably inappropriate fashion of a
? And, Merciful Twelve, a Gentled packhorse was simply standing there taking it all in.
After a handful of seconds lost to sheer amazement, the don let his own horse’s reins go and ran toward the mouth of the alley. He didn’t need to glance sideways to know that Conté was barely a stride behind him, knives out.
“You!” The don’s voice was reasonably confident, though high with excitement. “Unhand these men and stand clear!”
The closest footpad snapped his head around; his dark eyes widened above his improvised mask when he saw the don and Conté approaching. The thug shifted his red-faced victim so that the man’s body was between himself and the would-be interlopers.
“No need to trouble yourself with this business, my
,” the footpad said. “Just a bit of a disagreement. Private matter.”
“Then perhaps you should have conducted it somewhere less public.”
The footpad sounded quite exasperated. “What, the duke give you this alley to be your estate? Take another step and I break this poor bastard’s neck.”
“You just do that.” Don Salvara settled his hand suggestively on the pommel of his basket-hilted rapier. “My man and I appear to command the only way out of this alley. I’m sure you’ll still feel quite pleased at having killed that man when you’ve got three feet of steel in your throat.”
The first footpad didn’t release his hold on the coiled loops of rope that were holding up his barely conscious victim, but he began to back off warily toward the dead end, dragging the black-clad man clumsily with him. His fellow thug stood away from the prone form of the man he’d been savagely kicking. A meaningful look flashed between the two masked bandits.
“My friends, do
be stupid.” Salvara slid his rapier halfway out of its scabbard; sunlight blazed white on finest Camorri steel, and Conté crouched forward on the balls of his feet, shifting to the predatory stance of a knife-fighter born and trained.
Without another word, the first footpad flung his victim straight at Conté and the don; while the unfortunate black-clad fellow gasped and clutched at his rescuers, the two masked thugs bolted for the wall at the rear of the alley. Conté sidestepped the heaving, shuddering Vadran and dashed after them, but the assailants were spry as well as cunning. A slim rope hung down the wall, barely visible, and knotted at regular intervals. The two thugs scrambled up this and all but dove over the top of the wall; Conté and his blades were two seconds too late. The weighted far end of the rope flew back over the wall and landed with a splat in the crusted muck at his feet.
“Fucking useless slugabed bastards!” The don’s man slid his stilettos back into his belt with easy familiarity and bent down to the heavyset body lying unmoving in the muck. The eerie white stare of the Gentled packhorse seemed to follow him as he pressed fingers to the fat man’s neck, seeking a pulse. “Watchmen stumbling drunk in broad daylight, and look what happens in the bloody
while they screw around…”