The Don Salvara Game
LOCKE LAMORA'S RULE of thumb was this: a good confidence game took three months to plan, three weeks to rehearse, and three seconds to win or lose the victim's trust forever. This time around, he planned to spend those three seconds getting strangled.
Locke was on his knees, and Calo, standing behind him, had a hemp rope coiled three times around his neck. The rough stuff looked impressive, and it would leave Locke's throat a very credible shade of red. No genuine Camorri assassin old enough to waddle in a straight line would garrote with anything but silk or wire, of course (the better to crease the victim's windpipe). Yet if Don Lorenzo Salvara could tell a fake strangling from the real thing in the blink of an eye at thirty paces, they'd badly misjudged the man they planned to rob and the whole game would be shot anyway.
"Can you see him yet? Or Bug's signal?" Locke hissed his question as lightly as he could, then made a few impressive gurgling sounds.
"No signal. No Don Salvara. Can you breathe?"
"Fine, just fine," Locke whispered, "but shake me some more. That's the convincer."
They were in the dead-end alley beside the old Temple of Fortunate Waters; the temple's prayer waterfalls could be heard gushing somewhere behind the high plaster wall. Locke clutched once again at the harmless coils of rope circling his neck and spared a glance for the horse staring at him from just a few paces away, laden down with a rich-looking cargo of merchant's packs. The poor dumb animal was Gentled; there was neither curiosity nor fear behind the milk-white shells of its unblinking eyes. It wouldn't have cared even had the strangling been real.
Precious seconds passed; the sun was high and bright in a sky scalded free of clouds, and the grime of the alley clung like wet cement to the legs of Locke's breeches. Nearby, Jean Tannen lay in the same moist muck while Galdo pretended (mostly) to kick his ribs in. He'd been merrily kicking away for at least a minute, just as long as his twin brother had supposedly been strangling Locke.
Don Salvara was supposed to pass the mouth of the alley at any second and, ideally, rush in to rescue Locke and Jean from their "assailants." At this rate, he would end up rescuing them from boredom.
"Gods," Calo whispered, bending his mouth to Locke's ear as though he might be hissing some demand, "where the hell is that damn Salvara? And where's Bug? We can't keep this shit up all day; other people do walk by the mouth of this damned alley!"
"Keep strangling me," Locke whispered. "Just think of twenty thousand full crowns and keep strangling me. I can choke all day if I have to."
Everything had gone beautifully that morning in the run-up to the game itself, even allowing for the natural prickliness of a young thief finally allowed a part in his first big score.
"Of course I know where I'm supposed to be when the action starts," Bug whined. "I've spent more time perched up on that temple roof than I did in my mother's gods-damned womb!"
Jean Tannen let his right hand trail in the warm water of the canal while he took another bite of the sour marsh apple held in his left. The forward gunwale of the flat-bottomed barge was a choice spot for relaxation in the watered-wine light of early morning, allowing all sixteen stone of Jean's frame to sprawl comfortably--keg belly, heavy arms, bandy legs, and all. The only other person (and the one doing all of the work) in the empty barge was Bug: a lanky, mop-headed twelve-year-old braced against the steering pole at the stern.
"Your mother was in an understandable hurry to get rid of you, Bug." Jean's voice was soft and even and wildly incongruous. He spoke like a teacher of music or a copier of scrolls. "We're not. So indulge me once more with proof of your penetrating comprehension of our game."
"Dammit," Bug replied, giving the barge another push against the gentle current of the seaward-flowing canal. "You and Locke and Calo and Galdo are down in the alley between Fortunate Waters and the gardens for the Temple of Nara, right? I'm up on the roof of the temple across the way."
"Go on," Jean said around a mouthful of marsh apple. "Where's Don Salvara?"
Other barges, heavily laden with everything from ale casks to bleating cows, were slipping past the two of them on the clay-colored water of the canal. Bug was poling them north along Camorr's main commercial waterway, the Via Camorrazza, toward the Shifting Market, and the city was lurching into life around them.
The leaning gray tenements of water-slick stone were spitting their inhabitants out into the sunlight and the rising summer warmth. The month was Parthis, meaning that the night-sweat of condensation already boiling off the buildings as a soupy mist would be greatly missed by the cloudless white heat of early afternoon.
"He's coming out of the Temple of Fortunate Waters, like he does every Penance Day right around noon. He's got two horses and one man with him, if we're lucky."
"A curious ritual," Jean said. "Why would he do a thing like that?"
"Deathbed promise to his mother." Bug drove his pole down into the canal, struggled against it for a moment, and managed to shove them along once more. "She kept the Vadran religion after she married the old Don Salvara. So he leaves an offering at the Vadran temple once a week and gets home as fast as he can so nobody pays too much attention to him. Dammit, Jean, I already know this shit. Why would I be here if you didn't trust me? And why am I the one who gets to push this stupid barge all the way to the market?"
"Oh, you can stop poling the barge any time you can beat me hand to hand three falls out of five." Jean grinned, showing two rows of crooked brawler's teeth in a face that looked as though someone had set it on an anvil and tried to pound it into a more pleasing shape. "Besides, you're an apprentice in a proud trade, learning under the finest and most demanding masters it has to offer. Getting all the shit-work is excellent for your moral education."
"You haven't given me any bloody moral education."
"Yes. Well, that's probably because Locke and I have been dodging our own for most of our lives now. As for why we're going over the plan again, let me remind you that one good screwup will make the fate of those poor bastards look sunny in comparison to what we'll get."
Jean pointed at one of the city's slop wagons, halted on a canal-side boulevard to receive a long dark stream of night soil from the upper window of a public alehouse. These wagons were crewed by petty criminals whose offenses were too meager to justify continual incarceration in the Palace of Patience. Shackled to their wagons and huddled in the alleged protection of long leather ponchos, they were let out each morning to enjoy what sun they could when they weren't cursing the dubious accuracy with which several thousand Camorri emptied their chamber pots.
"I won't screw it up, Jean." Bug shook his thoughts like an empty coin purse, searching desperately for something to say that would make him sound as calm and assured as he imagined Jean and all the older Gentlemen Bastards always were--but the mouth of most twelve-year-olds far outpaces the mind. "I just won't, I bloody won't, I promise."
"Good lad," Jean said. "Glad to hear it. But just what is it that you won't screw up?"
Bug sighed. "I make the signal when Salvara's on his way out of the Temple of Fortunate Waters. I keep an eye out for anyone else trying to walk past the alley, especially the city watch. If anybody tries it, I jump down from the temple roof with a longsword and cut their bloody heads off where they stand."
"I said I distract them any way I can. You going deaf, Jean?"
A line of tall countinghouses slid past on their left, each displaying lacquered woodwork, silk awnings, marble facades, and other ostentatious touches along the waterfront. There were deep roots of money and power sunk into that row of three- and four-story buildings. Coin-Kisser's Row was the oldest and goldest financial district on the continent. The place was as steeped in influence and elaborate rituals as the glass heights of the Five Towers, in which the duke and the Grand Families sequestered themselves from the city they ruled.
"Move us up against the bank just under the bridges, Bug." Jean gestured vaguely with his apple. "His Nibs will be waiting to come aboard."
Two Elderglass arches bridged the Via Camorrazza right in the middle of Coin-Kisser's Row--a high and narrow catbridge for foot traffic and a lower, wider one for wagons. The seamless brilliance of the alien glass looked like nothing so much as liquid diamond, gently arched by giant hands and left to harden over the canal. On the right bank was the Fauria, a crowded island of multitiered stone apartments and rooftop gardens. Wooden wheels churned white against the stone embankment, drawing canal water up into a network of troughs and viaducts that crisscrossed over the Fauria's streets at every level.
Bug slid the barge over to a rickety quay just beneath the catbridge; from the faint and slender shadow of this arch a man jumped down to the quay, dressed (as Bug and Jean were) in oil-stained leather breeches and a rough cotton shirt. His next nonchalant leap took him into the barge, which barely rocked at his arrival.
"Salutations to you, Master Jean Tannen, and profuse congratulations on the fortuitous timing of your arrival!" said the newcomer.
"Ah, well, felicitations to you in respect of the superlative grace of your entry into our very humble boat, Master Lamora." Jean punctuated this statement by popping the remains of his apple into his mouth, stem and all, and producing a wet crunching noise.
"Creeping shits, man." Locke Lamora stuck out his tongue. "Must you do that? You know the black alchemists make fish poison from the seeds of those damn things."
"Lucky me," said Jean after swallowing the last bit of masticated pulp, "not being a fish."
Locke was a medium man in every respect--medium height, medium build, medium-dark hair cropped short above a face that was neither handsome nor memorable. He looked like a proper Therin, though perhaps a bit less olive and ruddy than Jean or Bug; in another light he might have passed for a very tan Vadran. His bright gray eyes alone had any sense of distinction; he was a man the gods might have shaped deliberately to be overlooked. He settled down against the left-hand gunwale and crossed his legs.
"Hello to you as well, Bug! I knew we could count on you to take pity on your elders and let them rest in the sun while you do the hard work with the pole."
"Jean's a lazy old bastard is what it is," Bug said. "And if I don't pole the barge, he'll knock my teeth out the back of my head."
"Jean is the gentlest soul in Camorr, and you wound him with your accusations," said Locke. "Now he'll be up all night crying."
"I would have been up all night anyway," Jean added, "crying from the ache of rheumatism and lighting candles to ward off evil vapors."
"Which is not to say that our bones don't creak by day, my cruel apprentice." Locke massaged his kneecaps. "We're at least twice your age--which is prodigious for our profession."
"The Daughters of Aza Guilla have tried to perform a corpse-blessing on me six times this week," said Jean. "You're lucky Locke and I are still spry enough to take you with us when we run a game."
To anyone beyond hearing range, Locke and Jean and Bug might have looked like the crew of a for-hire barge, slacking their way toward a cargo pickup at the junction of the Via Camorrazza and the Angevine River. As Bug poled them closer and closer to the Shifting Market, the water was getting thicker with such barges, and with sleek black cockleshell boats, and battered watercraft of every description, not all of them doing a good job of staying afloat or under control.
"Speaking of our game," said Locke, "how is our eager young apprentice's understanding of his place in the scheme of things?"
"I've been reciting it to Jean all morning," said Bug.
"And the conclusion is?"
"I've got it down cold!" Bug heaved at the pole with all of his strength, driving them between a pair of high-walled floating gardens with inches to spare on either side. The scents of jasmine and oranges drifted down over them as their barge slipped beneath the protruding branches of one of the gardens; a wary attendant peeked over one garden-boat's wall, staff in hand to fend them off if necessary. The big barges were probably hauling transplants to some noble's orchard upriver.
"Down cold, and I won't screw it up. I promise! I know my place, and I know the signals. I won't screw it up!"
Calo was shaking Locke with real vigor, and Locke's performance as his victim was a virtuoso one, but still the moments dragged by. They were all trapped in their pantomime like figures out of the richly inventive hells of Therin theology: a pair of thieves destined to spend all eternity stuck in an alley, mugging victims that never passed out or gave up their money.
"Are you as alarmed as I am?" Calo whispered.
"Just stay in character," Locke hissed. "You can pray and strangle at the same time."
There was a high-pitched scream from their right, echoing across the cobbles and walls of the Temple District. It was followed by shouts and the creaking tread of men in battle harness--but these sounds moved away from the mouth of the alley, not toward it.
"That sounded like Bug," said Locke.
"I hope he's just arranging a distraction," said Calo, his grip on the rope momentarily slackening. At that instant, a dark shape darted across the gap of sky between the alley's high walls, its fluttering shadow briefly falling over them as it passed.
"Now what the hell was that, then?" Calo asked.
Off to their right, someone screamed again.
Bug had poled himself, Locke, and Jean from the Via Camorrazza into the Shifting Market right on schedule, just as the vast Elderglass wind chime atop Westwatch was unlashed to catch the breeze blowing in from the sea and ring out the eleventh hour of the morning.
The Shifting Market was a lake of relatively placid water at the very heart of Camorr, perhaps half a mile in circumference, protected from the rushing flow of the Angevine and the surrounding canals by a series of stone breakwaters. The only real current in the market was human-made, as hundreds upon hundreds of floating merchants slowly and warily followed one another counterclockwise in their boats, jostling for prized positions against the flat-topped breakwaters, which were crowded with buyers and sightseers on foot.