There have been days since 2007 when I didn’t think I’d ever see this book on my desk. Not many days (there was a part of me that never quite lost faith) but some. Days when we’d had to delay again. Days when I’d spoken to Scott on the phone and heard a man adrift and, let’s be frank, hurting. Days when I wasn’t able to speak to Scott. Days when I and editors in the USA, France, Germany, Spain would speak, hope again but never quite know.
But here it us. There’s a finished copy of The Republic of Thieves on my desk. And I am so thrilled. Not for us. But for Scott. Because while this book is important to me, to Gollancz, to Scott’s publishers and to his readers who have waited with such patience and kindness (THANK YOU!) I know that it is nowhere near as important to me and to us as it is to Scott.
Scott – congratulations. It’s here. You bloody did it. And I just know people are going to love it. And yes – there are copies on the way to you now
We are also delighted to share the prologue with you here on the Gollancz blog.
The Republic of Thieves is out where all good books are sold on the 10th October 2013. Prologue begins after the form. Happy Reading!
Prologue : THE MINDER
Place ten dozen hungry orphan thieves in a dank burrow of vaults and tunnels beneath what used to be a graveyard, put them under the supervision of one partly crippled old man, and you will soon find that governing them becomes a delicate business.
The Thiefmaker, skulking eminence of the orphan kingdom beneath Shades’ Hill in old Camorr, was not yet so decrepit that any of his grimy little wards could hope to stand alone against him. Nonetheless, he was alert to the doom that lurked in the clutching hands and wolfish impulses of a mob—a mob that he, through his training, was striving to make more predatory still with each passing day. The veneer of order that his life depended on was insubstantial as damp paper at the best of times.
His presence itself could enforce absolute obedience in a certain radius, of course. Wherever his voice could carry and his own senses seize upon misbehavior, his orphans were tame. But to keep his ragged company in line when he was drunk or asleep or hobbling around the city on business, it was essential that he make them eager partners in their own subjugation.
He molded most of the biggest, oldest boys and girls in Shades’ Hill into a sort of honor guard, granting them shoddy privileges and stray scraps of near-respect. More importantly, he worked hard to keep every single one of them in constant deadly terror of himself. No failure was ever met with anything but pain or the promise of pain, and the seriously insubordinate had a way of vanishing. Nobody had any illusions that they had gone to a better place.
So he ensured that his chosen few, steeped in fear, had no outlet save to vent their frustrations (and thus enforce equivalent fear) upon the next oldest and largest set of children. These in turn would oppress the next weakest class of victim. Step by step the misery was shared out, and the Thiefmaker’s authority would cascade like a geological pressure out to the meekest edges of his orphan mass.
It was an admirable system, considered in itself, unless of course you happened to be part of that outer edge—the small, the eccentric, the friendless. In their case, life in Shades’ Hill was like a boot to the face at every hour of every day.
Locke Lamora was five or six or seven years old. Nobody knew for certain, or cared to know. He was unusually small, undeniably eccentric, and perpetually friendless. Even when he shuffled along inside a great smelly mass of orphans, one among dozens, he walked alone and he damn well knew it.
Meeting time. A bad time under the Hill. The shifting stream of orphans surrounded Locke like an unfamiliar forest, concealing trouble everywhere.
The first rule to surviving in this state was to avoid attention. As the murmuring army of orphans headed toward the great vault at the center of Shades’ Hill, where the Thiefmaker had called them, Locke flicked his glance left and right. The trick was to spot known bullies at a safe distance without making actual eye contact (nothing worse, the mistake of mistakes) and then, ever so casually, move to place neutral children between himself and each threat until it passed.
The second rule was to avoid responding when the first rule proved insufficient, as it too often did.
The crowd parted behind him. Like all prey animals, Locke had a honed instinct for approaching harm. He had enough time to wince preemptively, and then came the blow, sharp and hard, right between his shoulder blades. Locke smacked into the tunnel wall and barely managed to stay on his feet.
Familiar laughter followed the blow. It was Gregor Foss, years older and two stone heavier, as far beyond Locke’s powers of reprisal as the duke of Camorr.
“Gods, Lamora, what a weak and clumsy little cuss you are.” Gregor put a hand on the back of Locke’s head and pushed him along, still in full contact with the moist dirt wall, until his forehead bounced painfully off one of the old wooden tunnel supports. “Got no strength to stay on your own feet. Hell, if you tried to bugger a cockroach, the roach’d spin you round and do you up the ass instead.”
Everyone nearby laughed, a few from genuine amusement, the rest from fear of being seen not laughing. Locke kept stumbling forward, seething but silent, as though it were a perfectly natural state of affairs to have a face covered with dirt and a throbbing bump on the forehead. Gregor shoved him once more, but without vigor, then snorted and pushed ahead through the crowd.
Play dead. Pretend not to care. That was the way to keep a few moments of humiliation from becoming hours or days of pain; to keep bruises from becoming broken bones or worse.
The river of orphans was flowing to a rare grand gathering, nearly all the Hill, and in the main vault the air was already heavier and staler than usual. The Thiefmaker sat in his high-backed chair, his head barely visible above the press of children, while his oldest subjects carved paths through the crowd to take their accustomed places near him. Locke sought a far wall and pressed up against it, doing his best impression of a shadow. There, with the welcome comfort of a guarded back, he touched his forehead and indulged in a momentary pout. His fingers were slippery with blood when he took them away.
After a few moments, the influx of orphans trickled to a halt, and the Thiefmaker cleared his throat.
It was a Penance Day in the seventy-seventh Year of Sendovani, a hanging day, and outside the dingy caves below Shades’ Hill the duke of Camorr’s people were knotting nooses under a bright spring sky.
“It’s lamentable business,” said the Thiefmaker. “That’s what it is. To have some of our own brothers and sisters snatched into the unforgiving arms of the duke’s justice. Damned deplorable that they were slackards enough to get caught! Alas. As I have always been at pains to remind you, loves, ours is a delicate trade, not at all appreciated by those we practice upon.”
Locke wiped the dirt from his face. It was likely that his tunic sleeve deposited more grime than it removed, but the ritual of putting himself in order was calming. While he tended to himself the master of the Hill spoke on.
“Sad day, my loves, a proper tragedy. But when the milk’s gone bad you might as well look forward to cheese, hmm? Oh yes! Opportunity! It’s unseasonal fine hanging weather out there. That means crowds with spending purses, and their eyes are going to be fixed on the spectacle, aren’t they?”
With two crooked fingers (broken of old, and badly healed) he did a pantomime of a man stepping off an edge and plunging forward. At the end of the plunge the fingers kicked spasmodically and some of the older children giggled. Someone in the middle of the orphan army sobbed, but the Thiefmaker paid them no heed.
“You’re all going out to watch the hangings in groups,” he said. “Let this put fear into your hearts, loves! Indiscretion, clumsiness, want of confidence—today you’ll see their only possible reward. To live the life the gods have given you, you must clutch wisely, then run. Run like the hounds of hell on a sinner’s scent! That’s how we dodge the noose. Today you’ll have a last look at some friends who could not.
“And before you return,” he said, lowering his voice, “each of you will do them one better. Fetch back a nice bit of coin or flash, at all hazards. Empty hands get empty bellies.”
“Has we gots to?”
The voice was a desperate whine. Locke identified the source as Tam, a fresh catch, a lowest-of-the-low teaser who’d barely begun to learn the Shades’ Hill life. He must have been the one sobbing, too.
“Tam, my lamb, you gots to do nothing,” said the Thiefmaker in a voice like moldy velvet. He reached out and sifted through the crowd of orphans, parting them like dirty stalks of wheat until his hand rested on Tam’s shaven scalp. “But then, neither do I if you don’t work, right? By all means, remove yourself from this grand excursion. A limitless supply of cold graveyard dirt awaits you for supper.”
“But . . . can’t I, like, do something else?”
“Why, you could polish my good silver tea service, if only I had one.” The Thiefmaker knelt, vanishing briefly from Locke’s sight. “Tam, this is the job I got, so it’s the job you’re gonna do, right? Good lad. Stout lad. Why the little rivers from the eyes? Is it just ’cause there’s the hangings involved?”
“They—they was our friends.”
“Which means only—”
“Tam, you little piss-rag, stuff your whining up your stupid ass!”
The Thiefmaker whirled, and the new speaker recoiled from a slap to the side of his head. There was a ripple in the close-packed orphans as the unfortunate target stumbled backward and was returned to his feet by shoves from his tittering friends. Locke couldn’t suppress a smile. It always warmed his heart to see a bullying oldster knocked around.
“Veslin,” said the Thiefmaker with dangerous good cheer, “do you enjoy being interrupted?”
“N-no . . . no, sir.”
“How pleased I am to find us of a like mind on the subject.”
“Of . . . course. Apologies, sir.”
The Thiefmaker’s eyes returned to Tam, and his smile, which had evaporated like steam in sunlight a moment before, leapt back into place.
“As I was saying about our friends, our lamented friends. It’s a shame. But isn’t it a grand show they’re putting on for us as they dangle? A ripe plum of a crowd they’re summoning up? What sort of friends would we be if we refused to work such an opportunity? Good ones? Bold ones?”
“No, sir,” mumbled Tam.
“Indeed. Neither good nor bold. So we’re going to seize this chance, right? And we’re going to do them the honor of not looking away when they drop, aren’t we?”
“If . . . if you say so, sir.”
“I do say so.” The Thiefmaker gave Tam a perfunctory pat on the shoulder. “Get to it. Drops start at high noon; the Masters of the Ropes are the only punctual creatures in this bloody city. Be late to your places and you’ll have to work ten times as hard, I promise you. Minders! Call your teasers and clutchers. Keep our fresher brothers and sisters on short leashes.”
As the orphans dispersed and the older children called the names of their assigned partners and subordinates, the Thiefmaker dragged Veslin over to one of the enclosure’s dirt walls for a private word.
Locke snickered, and wondered who he’d be partnered with for the day’s adventure. Outside the Hill there were pockets to be picked, tricks to be played, bold larceny to be done. Though he realized his sheer enthusiasm for theft was part of what had made him a curiosity and an outcast, he had no more self-restraint in that regard than he had wings on his back.
This half-life of abuse beneath Shades’ Hill was just something he had to endure between those bright moments when he could be at work, heart pounding, running fast and hard for safety with someone else’s valuables clutched in his hands. As far as his five or six or seven years had taught him, ripping people off was the greatest feeling in the whole world, and the only real freedom he had.
“Think you can improve upon my leadership now, boy?” Despite his limited grip, the Thiefmaker still had the arms of a grown man, and he pinned Veslin against the dirt wall like a carpenter about to nail up a decoration. “Think I need your wit and wisdom when I’m talking out loud?”
“No, your honor! Forgive me!”
“Veslin, jewel, don’t I always?” With a falsely casual gesture, the Thiefmaker brushed aside one lapel of his threadbare coat and revealed the handle of the butcher’s cleaver he kept hanging from his belt. The faintest hint of blade gleamed in the darkness behind it. “I forgive. I remind. Are you reminded, boy? Most thoroughly reminded?”
“Indeed, sir, yes. Please . . .”
“Marvelous.” The Thiefmaker released Veslin, and allowed his coat to fall over his weapon once again. “What a happy conclusion for us both, then.”
“Thank you, sir. Sorry. It’s just . . . Tam’s been whining all gods-damned morning. He’s never seen anyone get the rope.”
“Once upon a time it was new to us all,” sighed the Thiefmaker. “Let the boy cry, so long as he plucks a purse. If he won’t, hunger’s a marvelous instructor. Still, I’m putting him and a couple other problems into a group for special oversight.”
“Tam, for his delicacy. And No-Teeth.”
“Gods,” said Veslin.
“Yes, yes, the speck-brained little turd is so dim he couldn’t shit in his hands if they were stitched to his asshole. Nonetheless, him. Tam. And one more.”
The Thiefmaker cast a significant glance at a far corner, where a sullen little boy leaned with his arms folded across his chest, watching other orphans form their assigned packs.
“Lamora,” whispered Veslin.
“Special oversight.” The Thiefmaker chewed nervously at the nails of his left hand. “There’s good money to be squeezed out of that one, if he’s got someone keeping him sensible and discreet.”
“He nearly burnt up half the bloody city, sir.”
“Only the Narrows, which mightn’t have been missed. And he took hard punishment for that without a flinch. I consider the matter closed. What he needs is a responsible sort to keep him in check.”
Veslin was unable to conceal his expression of disgust, and the Thiefmaker smirked.
“Not you, lad. I need you and your little ape Gregor on distraction detail. Someone else gets made, you cover for ’em. And get back to me straightaway if anyone gets taken.”
“Grateful, sir, very grateful.”
“You should be. Sobbing Tam . . . witless No-Teeth . . . and one of hell’s own devils in knee-breeches. I need a bright candle to watch that crew. Go wake me up one of the Windows bunch.”
“Oh.” Veslin bit his cheek. The Windows crew, so-called because they specialized in traditional burglary, were the true elite among the orphans of Shades’ Hill. They were spared most chores, habitually worked in darkness, and were allowed to sleep well past noon. “They won’t like that.”
“I don’t give a damn what they like. They don’t have a job this evening anyway. Get me a sharp one.” The Thiefmaker spat out a gnawed crescent of dirty fingernail and wiped his fingers on his coat. “Hell, fetch me Sabetha.”
The summons came at last, and from the Thiefmaker himself. Locke padded warily across the dirt floor to where the master of the Hill sat whispering instructions to a taller child whose back was turned to Locke.
Waiting before the Thiefmaker were two other boys. One was Tam. The other was No-Teeth, a hapless twit whose beatings at the hands of older children had eventually given him his nickname. A sense of foreboding scuttled into Locke’s gut.
“Here we are, then,” said the Thiefmaker. “Three bold and likely lads. You’ll be working together on a special detail, under special authority. Meet your minder.”
The taller child turned.
She was dirty, as they all were, and though it was hard to tell by the pale silver light of the vault’s alchemical lanterns, she looked a little tired. She wore scuffed brown breeches, a long baggy tunic that at some distant remove had been white, and a leather flat cap over a tight kerchief, so that not a strand of her hair was visible.
Yet she was undeniably a she. For the first time in Locke’s life some unpracticed animal sense crept dimly to life to alert him to this fact. The Hill was full of girls, but never before had Locke dwelt on the thought of a girl. He sucked in a breath and realized that he could feel a nervous tingling at the tips of his fingers.
She had the advantage of at least a year and a good half-foot on him, and even tired she had that unfeigned natural poise which, in certain girls, makes young boys feel like something on the order of an insect beneath a heel. Locke had neither the eloquence nor the experience to grapple with the situation in anything resembling those terms. All he knew was that near her, of all the girls he’d seen in Shades’ Hill, he felt touched by something mysterious and much vaster than himself.
He felt like jumping up and down. He felt like throwing up.
Suddenly he resented the presence of Tam and No-Teeth, resented the implication of the word “minder,” and yearned to be doing something, anything, to impress this girl. His cheeks burned at the thought of how the bump on his forehead must look, and at being teamed up with two useless, sobbing clods.
“This is Beth,” said the Thiefmaker. “She’s got your keeping today, lads. Take what she says as though it came from me. Steady hands, level heads. No slacking and no gods-damned capers. Last thing we need is you getting ambitious.” It was impossible to miss the icy glance the Thiefmaker spared for Locke as he uttered this last part.
“Thank you very much, sir,” said Beth with nothing resembling actual gratitude. She pushed Tam and No-Teeth toward one of the vault exits. “You two, wait at the entrance. I need to have a private word with your friend here.”
Locke was startled. A word with him? Had she guessed that he knew his way around clutching and teasing, that he was nothing like the other two? Beth glanced around, then put her hands on his shoulders and knelt. Some nervous animal in Locke’s guts turned somersaults as her gaze came level with his. The old compunction about refusing eye contact was not merely set aside, but vaporized from his mind.
Two things happened then.
First, he fell in love—though it would be years before he realized what the feeling was called and how thoroughly it was going to complicate his life.
Second, she spoke directly to him for the first time, and he would remember her words with a clarity that would jar his heart long after the other incidents of that time had faded to a haze of half-truths in his memory:
“You’re the Lamora boy, right?”
He nodded eagerly.
“Well, look here, you little shit. I’ve heard all about you, so just shut your mouth and keep those reckless hands in your pockets. I swear to all the gods, if you give me one hint of trouble, I will heave you off a bridge and it will look like a bloody accident.”
It was an unwelcome thing, to suddenly feel half an inch tall.
Locke dazedly followed Beth, Tam, and No-Teeth out of the darkness of the Shades’ Hill vaults and into the late-morning sunshine. His eyes stung, and the daylight was only part of it. What had he done (and who had told her about it?) to earn the scorn of the one person he now wanted to impress more than any other in the world?
Pondering, his thoughts wandered uneasily to his surroundings. Out here in the ever-changing open there was so much to see, so much to hear. His survival instincts gradually took hold. The back of his mind was all for Beth, but he forced his eyes to the present situation.
Camorr today was bright and busy, making the most of its reprieve from the hard gray rains of spring. Windows were thrown open. The more prosperous crowds had molted, shedding their oilcloaks and cowls in favor of summery dress. The poor stayed wrapped in the same reek-soaked dross they wore in all seasons. Like the Shades’ Hill crowd, they had to keep their clothes on their backs or risk losing them to rag-pickers.
As the four orphans crossed the canal bridge from Shades’ Hill to the Narrows (it was a source of mingled pride and incredulity to Locke that the Thiefmaker was so convinced that one little scheme of his could have burnt this whole neighborhood down), Locke saw at least three boats of corpse-fishers using hooks to pluck bloated bodies from under wharves and dock pilings. Those would sometimes go ignored for days in cool, foul weather.
Beth led the three boys through the Narrows, dodging up stone stairs and across rickety wooden foot-bridges, avoiding the most cramped and twisted alleys where drunks, stray dogs, and less obvious dangers were sure to lurk. Tam and Locke stayed right behind her, but No-Teeth was constantly veering off or slowing down. By the time they left the Narrows and crossed to the overgrown garden passages of the Mara Camorrazza, the city’s ancient strolling park, Beth was dragging No-Teeth by his collar.
“Damn your pimple of a brain,” she said. “Keep to my heels and quit making trouble!”
“Not making trouble,” muttered No-Teeth.
“You want to cock this up and go hungry tonight? You want to give some brute like Veslin an excuse to pry out any teeth he hasn’t got to yet?”
“Nooooooo.” No-Teeth stretched the word out with a bored yawn, looked around as though noticing the world for the first time, then jerked free of Beth’s grip. “I want to wear your hat,” he said, pointing at her leather cap.
Locke swallowed nervously. He’d seen No-Teeth pitch these sudden, unreasonable fits before. There was something not quite right in the boy’s head. He frequently suffered for calling attention to himself inside the Hill, where distinctiveness without strength meant pain.
“You can’t,” said Beth. “Mind yourself.”
“I want to. I want to!” No-Teeth actually stomped the ground and balled his fists. “I promise I’ll behave. Give me your hat!”
“You’ll behave because I say so!”
No-Teeth’s response was to lunge and snatch the leather cap off Beth’s head. He yanked it so hard that her kerchief came as well, and an untidy spray of reddish-brown curls tumbled to her shoulders. Locke’s jaw fell.
There was something so indefinably lovely, so right, about seeing that hair free in the sunlight that he momentarily forgot that his enchantment was expressly one-way, and that this was anything but convenient for their task. As Locke stared he noticed that only the lower portion of her hair was actually brown. Above the ears it was rusty red. She’d had it colored once, and it had grown out since.
Beth was even faster than No-Teeth once her shock wore off, and before he could do anything with her cap it was back in her hands. She slapped him viciously across the face with it.
Not placated, she hit him again, and he cringed backward. Locke recovered his wits and assumed the vacant expression used inside the Hill by the uninvolved when someone nearby was getting thrashed.
“Stop! Stop!” No-Teeth sobbed.
“If you ever touch this cap again,” Beth whispered, shaking him by his collar, “I swear to Aza Guilla who numbers the dead that I will deliver you straight to her. You stupid little ass!”
“I promise! I promise!”
She released him with a scowl, and with a few deft movements made her red curls vanish again beneath the tightly drawn kerchief. When the leather cap came down to seal them in, Locke felt a pang of disappointment.
“You’re lucky nobody else saw,” said Beth, shoving No-Teeth forward. “Gods love you, you little slug, you’re just lucky nobody else saw. Quick, now. At my heel, you two.”
Locke and Tam followed her without a word, as close as nervous ducklings fixed on a mother’s tail feathers.
Locke shook with excitement. He’d been horrified at the incompetence of his assigned partners, but now he wondered if their problems could do anything but make him look better in Beth’s eyes. Oh yes. Let them whine, let them throw fits, let them go home with nothing in their hands. Hell, let them tip off the city watch and get chased through the streets to the sounds of whistles and baying dogs. She’d have to prefer anything to that, including him.
They emerged at last from the Mara Camorrazza into a whirl of noise and confusion.
It was indeed unseasonably fine hanging weather, and the normally dreary neighborhood around the Old Citadel, the duke’s seat of justice, bustled like a carnival. Common folk were thick on the cobblestones, while here and there the carriages of the wealthy rattled through the mess with hired guards trotting alongside passing out threats and shoves as they went. In some ways, Locke already knew, the world outside the Hill was much like the world within.
The four orphans formed a human chain to thread their way through the tumult. Locke held fast to Tam, who clung in turn to Beth. She was so unwilling to lose sight of No-Teeth that she thrust him before them all like a battering ram. From his perspective Locke glimpsed few adult faces; the world became an endless procession of belts, bellies, coattails and carriage wheels. They made their way west by equal parts luck and perseverance, toward the Via Justica, the canal that had been used for hangings for half a thousand years.
At the edge of the canal embankment a low stone wall prevented a direct plunge to the water seven or eight feet below. This barrier was crumbling but still solid enough for children to sit upon. Beth never once loosened her grip on No-Teeth as she helped Locke and Tam up out of the press of the crowd. Locke scrambled to sit next to Beth, but it was Tam that squeezed up against her, leaving Locke no means to move him without causing a scene. He tried to conceal his annoyance by adopting a purposeful expression and looking around.
From here, at least, Locke had a better view of the affair. There were crowds on both sides of the canal and vendors hawking bread, sausages, ale, and souvenirs from boats. They used baskets attached to poles to collect their coins and deliver goods to those standing above.
Locke could make out groups of small shapes dodging through the forest of coats and legs—fellow Shades’ Hill orphans at work. He could also see the dark yellow jackets of the city watch, moving through the crowd in squads with shields slung over their backs. Disaster was possible if these opposing elements met and mixed like bad alchemy, but as yet there were no shouts, no watch-whistles, no signs of anything amiss.
Traffic had been stopped over the Black Bridge. The lamps that dotted the looming stone arch were covered with black shrouds, and a small crowd of priests, prisoners, guards, and ducal officials stood behind the execution platform that jutted from the bridge’s side. Two boats of yellowjackets had anchored in the canal on either side of the bridge to keep the water beneath the dropping prisoners clear.
“Don’t we has to do our business?” said No-Teeth. “Don’t we has to get a purse, or a ring, or something—”
Beth, who’d taken her hands off him for all of half a minute, now seized him again and whispered harshly, “Keep your mouth shut about that while we’re in the crowd. Mouth shut! We’re going to sit here and be mindful. We’ll work after the hanging.”
Tam shuddered and looked more miserable than ever. Locke sighed, confused and impatient. It was sad that some of their Shades’ Hill fellows had to hang, but then it was sad they’d been caught by the yellowjackets in the first place. People died everywhere in Camorr, in alleys and canals and public houses, in fires, in plagues that scythed down whole neighborhoods. Tam was an orphan too; hadn’t he realized all this? Dying seemed nearly as ordinary to Locke as eating supper or making water, and he was unable to make himself feel bad that it was happening to anyone he’d barely known.
As for that, it looked to be happening soon. A steady drumbeat rose from the bridge, echoing off water and stone, and gradually the excited murmur of the crowds dropped off. Not even divine services could make Camorri so respectfully attentive as a public neck-snapping.
“Loyal citizens of Camorr! Now comes noon, this seventeenth instant, this month of Tirastim in our seventy-seventh Year of Sendovani.” These words were shouted from atop the Black Bridge by a huge-bellied herald in silk-and-sable plumage. “These felons have been found guilty of capital crimes against the law and customs of Camorr. By the authority of his grace, Duke Nicovante, and by the seals of his honorable magistrates of the Red Chamber, they are here brought to receive justice.”
There was movement beside him on the bridge. Seven prisoners were hauled forward, each by a pair of scarlet-hooded constables. Locke saw that Tam was anxiously biting his knuckles. Beth’s arm appeared around Tam’s shoulder, and Locke ground his teeth together. He was doing his job, behaving, refusing to make a spectacle of himself, and Tam was the one that received Beth’s tenderness?
“You get used to it, Tam,” Beth said softly. “Honor them, now. Brace up.”
On the bridge platform the Masters of the Ropes tightened nooses around the necks of the condemned. The hanging ropes were about as long as each prisoner was tall, and lashed to ringbolts just behind each prisoner’s feet. There were no clever mechanisms in the hanging platform, no fancy tricks. This wasn’t Tal Verrar. Here in the east, prisoners were simply heaved over the edge.
“Jerevin Tavasti,” shouted the herald, consulting a parchment. “Arson, conspiracy to receive stolen goods, assault upon a duke’s officer! Malina Contada, counterfeiting and attendant misuse of His Grace the Duke’s name and image. Caio Vespasi, burglary, malicious mummery, arson, and horse theft! Lorio Vespasi, conspiracy to receive stolen goods.”
So much for the adults; the herald moved on to the three children. Tam sobbed, and Beth whispered, “Shhhh, now.” Locke noted that Beth was coldly calm, and he tried to imitate her air of disinterest. Eyes just so, chin up, mouth just shy of a frown. Surely, if she glanced at him during the ceremony, she’d notice and approve. . . .
“Mariabella, no surname,” yelled the herald. “Theft and wanton disobedience! Zilda, no surname. Theft and wanton disobedience!”
The Masters were tying extra weights to the legs of this last trio of prisoners, since their own slight bodies might not provide for a swift enough conclusion at the ends of their plunges.
“Lars, no surname. Theft and wanton disobedience.”
“Zilda was kind to me,” whispered Tam, his voice breaking.
“The gods know it,” said Beth. “Hush now.”
“For crimes of the body you shall suffer death of the body,” continued the herald. “You will be suspended above running water and hanged there by the necks until dead, your unquiet spirits to be carried forth upon the water to the Iron Sea, where they may do no further harm to any soul or habitation of the duke’s domain. May the gods receive your souls mercifully, in good time.” The herald lowered his scroll and faced the prisoners. “In the duke’s name I give you justice.”
Drums rolled. One of the Masters of the Ropes drew a sword, in case any of the prisoners fought their handlers. Locke had seen a hanging before, and he knew the condemned only got one chance at whatever dignity was left to them.
Today the drops ran smooth. The drumroll crashed to silence. Each pair of hooded yellowjackets stepped forward and shoved their prisoner off the edge of the hanging platform.
Tam flinched away, as Locke had thought he might, but even he was unprepared for No-Teeth’s reaction when the seven ropes jerked taut with snapping noises that might have been hemp, or necks, or both.
“Ahhhhhhh! Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh! AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!”
Each scream was longer and louder than the last. Beth clamped a hand over No-Teeth’s mouth and struggled with him. Over the water, four large bodies and three smaller ones swung like pendulums in arcs that quickly grew smaller and smaller.
Locke’s heart pounded. Everyone nearby had to be staring at them. He heard chuckling and disapproving comments. The more attention they drew to themselves, the harder it would be to go about their real business.
“Shhh,” said Beth, straining to keep No-Teeth under control. “Quiet, damn you. Quiet!”
“What’s the matter, girl?”
Locke was dismayed to see that a pair of yellowjackets had parted the crowd just behind them. Gods, that was worse than anything! What if they were prowling for Shades’ Hill orphans? What if they asked hard questions? He curbed an impulse to leap for the water below and froze in place, eyes wide.
Beth kept an arm locked over No-Teeth’s face yet managed to somehow squirm around and bow her head to the constables.
“My little brother,” she gasped out, “he’s never seen a hanging before. We don’t mean to cause a fuss. I’ve shut him up.”
No-Teeth ceased his struggles, but he began to sob. The yellowjacket who’d spoken, a middle-aged man with a face full of scars, looked down at him with distaste.
“You four come here alone?”
“Mother sent us,” said Beth. “Wanted the boys to see a hanging. See the rewards of idleness and bad company.”
“A right-thinking woman. Nothing like a good hanging to scare the mischief out of a sprat.” The man frowned. “Why ain’t she here with you?”
“Oh, she loves a hanging, does Mother,” said Beth. Then, lowering her voice to a whisper: “But, um, she’s got the flux. Bad. All day she’s been sitting on her—”
“Ah. Well then.” The yellowjacket coughed. “Gods send her good health. You’d best not bring this one back to a Penance Day ceremony for a while.”
“I agree, sir.” Beth bowed again. “Mother’ll scratch his hide for this.”
“On your way then, girl. Don’t need no more of a scene.”
“Of course, sir.”
The constables moved away into the crowd, which was itself coming back to life. Beth slid off the stone wall, rather gracelessly, because No-Teeth and Tam came with her. The former was still held tightly, and the latter refused to let go of her other arm. He hadn’t cried out like No-Teeth, but Locke saw that his eyes brimmed with tears and he was even more pale-looking than before. Locke ran his tongue around the inside of his mouth, which had gone dry under the scrutiny of the yellowjackets.
“Come now,” said Beth. “Away from here. We’ve seen all there is to see.”
Another passage through the forest of coats, legs, and bellies. Locke, feeling excitement rise again, gently clung to the back of Beth’s tunic to avoid losing her, and he was both pleased and disappointed when she didn’t react at all. Beth led them back into the green shadows of the Mara Camorrazza, where quiet solitude reigned not forty yards from a crowd of hundreds, and once they were safely ensconced in a concealed nook she pushed Tam and No-Teeth to the ground.
“What if another bunch from the Hill saw that? Gods!”
“Sorry,” moaned No-Teeth. “But they . . . but they . . . they got kill—”
“People die when they get hanged. It’s why they hang them!” Beth wrung the front of her tunic with both hands, then took a deep breath. “Recover yourselves. Now. Each of you must lift a purse, or something, before we go back.”
No-Teeth broke into a new fit of sobs, rolled over on his side, and chewed his knuckles. Tam, sounding more weary than Locke would have imagined possible, said, “I can’t, Beth. I’m sorry. I’ll get caught. I just can’t.”
“You’ll go without supper tonight.”
“Fine,” said Tam. “Take me back, please.”
“Damn it.” Beth rubbed her eyes. “I need to bring you back with something to show for it or I’ll be in just as much trouble as you, understand?”
“You’re in Windows,” muttered Tam. “You got no worries.”
“If only,” said Beth. “You two need to pull yourselves together—”
“I can’t, I can’t, I can’t!”
Locke sensed a glorious opportunity. Beth had saved them from trouble on the embankment, and here was an ideal moment for him to do the same. Smiling at the thought of her reaction, he stood as tall as he could manage and cleared his throat.
“Tam, don’t be a louse,” said Beth, completely ignoring Locke. “You will clutch something, or work a tease so someone else can clutch. I’ll not give you another choice—”
“Excuse me,” said Locke, hesitantly.
“What do you want?”
“They can each have one of mine,” said Locke.
“What?” Beth turned to him. “What are you talking about?”
From under his tunic, Locke produced two leather purses and a fine silk handkerchief, only mildly stained.
“Three pieces,” he said. “Three of us. Just say we all clutched one and we can go home now.”
“Where in all the hells did you—”
“In the crowd,” said Locke. “You had No-Teeth . . . you were paying so much attention to him, you must not have seen.”
“I didn’t tell you to lift anything yet!”
“Well, you didn’t tell me not to.”
“I can’t put them back,” said Locke, far more petulantly than he’d intended.
“Don’t snap at me! Oh, for the gods’ sake, don’t sulk,” said Beth. She knelt and put her hands on Locke’s shoulders, and at her touch and close regard he found himself suddenly trembling uncontrollably. “What is it? What’s the matter?”
“Nothing,” said Locke. “Nothing.”
“Gods, what a strange little boy you are.” She glanced again at Tam and No-Teeth. “A pack of disasters, the three of you. Two that won’t work. One that works without orders. I suppose we’ve got no choice.”
Beth took the purses and the handkerchief from Locke. Her fingers brushed his, and he trembled. Beth’s eyes narrowed.
“Hit your head earlier?”
“Who pushed you?”
“I just fell.”
“Of course you did.”
“Seems to be troubling you. Or maybe you’re ill. You’re shaking.”
“I’m . . . I’m fine.”
“Have it your way.” Beth closed her eyes and massaged them with her fingertips. “I guess you’ve saved me a hell of a lot of trouble. Do you want me to . . . look, is there someone bothering you that you want to stop?”
Locke was startled. An older child, this older child, of all people, and a member of Windows, was offering him protection? Could she do that? Could she put Veslin and Gregor in their place?
No. Locke forced his eyes away from Beth’s utterly fascinating face to bring himself back down to earth. There would always be other Veslins, other Gregors. And what if they resented him all the more for her interference? She was Windows; he was Streets. Their days and nights were reversed. He’d never seen her before today; what sort of protection could he possibly get from her? He would keep playing dead. Avoid calling attention to himself. Rule one, and rule two. As always.
“I just fell,” he said. “I’m fine.”
“Well,” she replied, a little coldly. “As you wish.”
Locke opened and closed his mouth a few times, trying desperately to imagine something he might say to charm this alien creature. Too late. She turned away and heaved Tam and No-Teeth to their feet.
“I don’t believe it,” she said, “but you two idiots owe your supper to the arsonist of the Narrows here. Do you understand just how much hell we’ll all catch if you ever breathe a word of this to anyone?”
“I do,” said Tam.
“I’d be very put out to catch any at all,” Beth continued. “Any at all! You hear me, No-Teeth?”
The poor wretch nodded, then sucked his knuckles again.
“Back to the Hill, then.” Beth tugged at her kerchief and adjusted her cap. “I’ll keep the things and pass them to the master myself. Not a word about this. To anyone.”
She kept her now-customary grip on No-Teeth all the way back to the graveyard. Tam dogged her heels, looking exhausted but relieved. Locke followed at the rear, scheming to the fullest extent of his totally inadequate experience. What had he said or done wrong? What had he misjudged? Why wasn’t she delighted with him for saving her so much trouble?
She said nothing to him for the rest of the trip home. Then, before he could find an excuse to speak to her again once there, she was gone, vanished into the tunnels that led to the private domain of the Windows crew, where he could not follow.
He sulked that night, eating little of the supper his nimble fingers had earned, fuming not at Beth but at himself for somehow driving her away.
Days passed, longer days than any Locke had ever known, now that he had something to preoccupy him beyond the brief excitement of daily crimes and the constant chores of survival.
Beth would not leave his thoughts. He dreamed of her, and how the hair spilling out from beneath her cap had caught the light filtering down through the interlaced greenery of the Mara Camorrazza. Strangely, in his dreams, that hair was purely red from edge to root, untouched by dye or disguise. The price for these visions was that he would wake to cold, hard disappointment and lie there in the dark, wrestling with mysterious emotions that had never troubled him before.
He would have to see her again. Somehow.
At first he nurtured a hope that his relegation to a crew of troublemakers might be permanent, that Beth might be their minder on an ongoing basis. Unfortunately, the Thiefmaker seemed to have no such plans. Locke slowly realized that if he was ever going to get another chance to impress her, he’d have to stick his neck out.
It was hard to break the routines he’d established for himself, to say nothing of those expected of someone in his lowly position. Yet he began to wander more often throughout the vaults and tunnels of his home, anxious for a glimpse of Beth, exposing himself to abuse and ridicule from bored older children. He played dead. He didn’t react. Rule one and rule two. It almost felt good, earning bruises for a genuine purpose.
The lesser orphans of Streets (that is, nearly all of them) slept en masse on the floor of crèche-like side vaults, several dozen to a room. When his dreams woke him up at night Locke would now try to stay awake, to strain his ears to hear past the murmuring and rustling of those around him, to detect the coming and going of the Windows crew on their secretive errands.
Before he’d always slept securely in the heart of his snoring fellows, or against a nice comforting wall. Now he risked positions at the outer edge of the huddled mass, where he could catch glimpses of people in the tunnels. Every shadow that passed and every step he heard might be hers, after all.
His successes were few. He saw her at evening meals several times, but she never spoke to him. Indeed, if she noticed him at all, she did a superb job of not showing it. And for Locke to try and speak to her on his own initiative, with her surrounded by her Windows friends, and they by the older bullies from Streets . . . no presumption could have been more fatal. So he did his feeble best to skulk and spy on her, relishing the fluttering of his stomach whenever he caught so much as a half-second glimpse. Those glimpses and those sensations paid for many days of frustrated longing.
More days, more weeks passed in the hazy forever now of childhood time. Those bright brief moments he’d spent in Beth’s presence, actually speaking to her and being spoken to, were polished and re-polished in Locke’s memory until his very life might have begun on that day.
At some point that spring, Tam died. Locke heard the mutterings. The boy was caught trying to lift a purse, and his would-be victim smashed his skull with a walking stick. This sort of thing wasn’t uncommon. If the man had witnesses to the attempted theft he’d probably lose a finger on his weaker hand. If nobody backed his story, he’d hang. Camorr was civilized, after all; there were acceptable and unacceptable times for killing children.
No-Teeth went soon after that, crushed under a wagon wheel in broad daylight. Locke wondered if it wasn’t all for the best. He and Tam had been miserable in the Hill, and maybe the gods could find something better to do with them. It wasn’t Locke’s concern anyway. He had his own obsession to pursue.
A few days after No-Teeth got it, Locke came home from a long, wet afternoon of work in the North Corner district, casing and robbing vendor stalls at the well-to-do markets there. He shook the rain from his makeshift cloak, which was the same awful-smelling scrap of leather than served him as a blanket each night. Then he went to meet the crowd of oldsters, led by Veslin and Gregor, who shook down the smaller children each day as they came in with their takings.
Usually they spent most of their energy taunting and threatening Locke’s fellows, but today they were talking excitedly about something else. Locke caught snatches of the conversation as he waited his turn to be abused.
“. . . right unhappy he is about it . . . one of the big earners.”
“I know she was, and didn’t she put on airs about it, too.”
“But that’s all Windows for you, eh? Ain’t they all like that? Well here’s something they won’t like. Proves they’s as mortal as we is. They fuck up just the same.”
“Been a right messy month. That poor sod what got the busted head . . . that little shit we used to kick the chompers out of . . . now her.”
Locke felt a cold tautness in his guts.
“Who?” he said.
Veslin paused in mid-sentence and stared at Locke, as though startled that the little creatures of Streets had the power of speech.
“Who what, you little ass-tickler?”
“Who are you talking about?”
“Wouldn’t you like to fucking know.”
Locke’s hands had formed themselves into fists of their own accord, and his heart pounded as he yelled again at the top of his lungs, “WHO?”
Veslin only had to kick him once to knock him down. Locke saw it coming, saw the bully’s foot rising toward his face, growing impossibly in size, and still he couldn’t avoid it. Floor and ceiling reversed themselves, and when Locke could see again, he was on his back with Veslin’s heel on his chest. Warm coppery blood was trickling down the back of his throat.
“Where does he get off, talking to us like that?” said Veslin mildly.
“Dunno. Fuckin’ sad, it is,” said Gregor.
“Please,” said Locke. “Tell me—”
“Tell you what? What right you got to know anything?” Veslin knelt on Locke’s chest, rifled through his clothes, and came up with the things he’d managed to clutch that day. Two purses, a silver necklace, a handkerchief, and some wooden tubes of Jereshti cosmetics. “Know what, Gregor? I don’t think I remember Lamora here coming home with anything tonight.”
“Nor me, Ves.”
“Yeah. How’s that for sad, you little piss-pants? You want dinner, you can eat your own shit.”
Locke was too used to the sort of laughter that now rose in the tunnel to pay any attention to it. He tried to get up and was kicked in the throat for his trouble.
“I just want to know,” he gasped, “what happened—”
“Why do you care?”
“Please . . . please. . .”
“Well, if you’re gonna be civil about it.” Veslin dropped Locke’s takings into a dirty cloth sack. “Windows had themselves a bad night.”
“Cocked up proper, they did,” said Gregor.
“Got pinched hitting a big house. Not all of ’em got clear. Lost one in a canal.”
“Beth. Drowned, she did.”
“You’re lying,” whispered Locke. “YOU’RE LYING!”
Veslin kicked him in the side of his stomach and Locke writhed. “Who says . . . who says she’s—”
“I fuckin’ say.”
“Who told you?”
“I got a letter from the duke, you fuckin’ half-wit. The master, that’s who! Beth drowned last night. She ain’t coming back to the Hill. You sweet on her or something? That’s a laugh.”
“Go to hell,” whispered Locke. “You go to—”
Veslin cut him off with another hard kick to the exact same spot.
“Gregor,” he said, “we got a real problem here. This one ain’t right in the head. Forgot what he can and can’t say to the likes of us.”
“I got just the thing for it, Ves.” Gregor kicked Locke between the legs. Locke’s mouth opened, but nothing came out except a dry hiss of agony.
“Give it to the little shit-smear.” Veslin grinned as he and Gregor began to work Locke over with hard kicks, carefully aimed. “You like that, Lamora? You like what you get, you put on airs with us?”
Only the Thiefmaker’s proscription of outright murder among his orphans saved Locke’s life. No doubt the boys would have pulped him if their own necks wouldn’t have been the price of their amusement, and as it was they nearly went too far.
It was two days before Locke could move well enough to work again, and in that interval, lacking friends to tend him, he was tormented by hunger and thirst. But he took no satisfaction in his recovery, and no joy in his return to work.
He was back to playing dead, back to hiding in corners, back to rule one and rule two. He was all alone in the Hill once again.
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