Either you want to be dashing thief Locke Lamora, or you wish he loved you the way he loves his boon companions Jean and Sabetha. It's the delightfully tangled relationship between the three of them that takes center stage (sometimes literally) in Scott Lynch's latest Gentleman Bastard book, The Republic of Thieves.
If you're new to the series, it began back in 2006 with The Lies of Locke Lamora, a swashbuckling fantasy saga set in a multilayered world with a vague resemblance to Renaissance Europe. Locke, Jean and Sabetha are all orphans, raised in the criminal underworld of their Venice-like city of Camorr, and trained to be the creme de la creme of thieves. Mysterious redhead Sabetha is largely absent in the first two volumes; away on training missions or just missing. We mostly hear about her through Locke, who's desperately in love with her. Jean, the stalwart muscle man, mostly puts up with the drama. Mostly.
As The Republic of Thieves opens, Locke and Jean are on the run after an epically failed con job. Locke has been poisoned, and he's on the verge of death when a mysterious magician approaches him with a deal: She'll remove the poison if he'll help her fix an election in her home city of Karthain. The twist? The opposition party has hired their own dirty trickster: Sabetha.
In this excerpt, Locke and Jean are on the way to visit a Karthain city official, in an attempt to counter one of Sabetha's moves against them — but she's still a step ahead. The Republic of Thieves will be published Oct. 8.
It was a cool, mist-haunted morning. Water trickled down every window, and the pavements were slick. A few minutes before eight, Locke and Jean hustled Nikoros, who looked as though sleep had been scarce, into a carriage. Locke gnawed indelicately at half a loaf of bread stuffed with cold meat from the party. This breakfast was disposed of by the time they made their first stop of the morning, at Tivoli's, to reinforce the coins in their purses with a few hundred comrades.
Next, they rattled north to the Casta Gravina, the old citadel of Karthain, whose interior walls and gates had been knocked down years before to make more room for a government that didn't have to fear anything so mundane as a hostile army at its doorstep. The plazas and gardens were so beautifully laid out that the fog might have been just one more decoration, artfully conjured and shaped by crews of overambitious groundskeepers.
"Magistrates' Court," said Nikoros, leading the way out of the carriage. "I know the place. If you want to make any money in my business, you'll end up party or witness in your share of lawsuits."
Locke and Jean followed him across a circular plaza, into the clammy silver mist that opened a few paces ahead of them and swallowed their carriage an equal distance behind. The fog echoed faintly with the sounds of the city coming to life — doors opening, horses and wheels clattering, people shouting to one another.
"Clerks' office is just over here," said Nikoros.
"OOF!" A woman came out of the fog to Locke's left before he could react. She collided with Locke, steadied herself against him, and was then snatched away rather ignominiously by Jean.
"Gods above!" she cried. The voice was creaky, middle-aged, Karthani.
"It's fine, Master Callas, it's fine," said Locke. He patted his purse and papers, verifying their undisturbed state. The collision might or might not be innocent, but the woman seemed to be no pickpocket.
"A thousand apologies. You startled us, madam," said Jean, releasing the woman. She was a few inches shorter than Locke, broad and heavy, dressed in a dull but expensive fashion. Her gray-dusted brown hair was pinned up under an elegant four-cornered cap, and her face was lined with whatever cares had chased her through life. Locke prayed silently that they hadn't just upset one of the very clerks they might want to suborn.
"It's you who startled me, looming out of the fog like a pack of highwaymen!"
"I wouldn't call it looming, madam. Some of us simply aren't built for looming," said Locke.
"You, perhaps not, but I could plant your big friend in the street to shade the roof of my house." She readjusted her coat with a sharp tug and went on her way, scowling. "Good day, oafs."
"Nikoros," said Jean, "was that anyone important?"
"Never seen her before."
"Well, let's get inside before we trip over someone we can't afford to offend," said Locke.
The office of the clerks wasn't particularly large, but it was comfortably appointed. The purgatory of quiet halls and empty chairs outside the clerical chambers looked like a decent place to fall asleep in. Capability Peralis, a round and attractive woman on the kinder side of forty, was scratching away at papers behind her desk when Locke, Jean, and Nikoros entered her chamber.
"I'm sorry," she said, irritably tossing thick dark ringlets out of her eyes as she looked up. "No appointments before half ten. Where's the hall secretary?"
"The secretary has been taken advantage of by my excessive natural and financial charms," said Locke, who'd been charming to the tune of a month's salary. "I'm sure you can sympathize."
Locke settled smoothly into one of the chairs before Peralis' desk, and Jean casually drew the door shut. Nikoros stood off to one side and pretended to admire the walls.
"I've no idea who you think you are, sir—-"
"Last night," said Locke, "a warrant was signed and sent out from this office, a warrant concerning Josten's Comprehensive Accommodations."
"If you're Josten's counsel, you know bloody well when Public Proceedings are held!"
"What I know," said Locke, "is that some miracle caused the records for the payment of Josten's ardent spirits license, which is perfectly sound, to be misplaced. I'd like that miracle reversed. I do understand that miracles are expensive."
Sighing inwardly at the artlessness of this approach (there was no time to waste on subtlety), Locke swept a hand across the desktop, leaving a comet-like trail of gold coins.
"Is that meant to impress me?" said Peralis softly, fiercely. Oh, her version of Offended Honest Public Functionary deserved applause! "Attempted bribery of a civic official. You'll shed your boldness when you're chained to an interrogation cell wall."
"Good gods, that's lovely," said Locke. "I'm really sorry that I simply don't have time to play this game with you. That's your annual salary right there on the desktop. I propose to give you six more payments just like it, one per week until this election is over. All I ask is that no further complications to Deep Roots party business be specially conjured by you or your staff. Nothing more."
"Well," she said, dropping her facade of outrage, "what if another benefactor is willing to provide additional funds in a contrary direction?"
"Notify us," said Locke. "We'll match anything you're offered. I don't even want you to take action against that other benefactor; merely refrain from taking action against us. Make up excuses. Imply that you're under scrutiny, that further accommodations are temporarily impossible. Surely you can see it's a sweet arrangement where you're concerned."
"It's not without its temptations," she mused.
"Quit being coy. Just say yes and earn a fortune."
"Well, then — yes."
"I have your word this warrant concerning Josten is a misunderstanding, and the record in question is going to be found, by the happiest happenstance, as soon as I leave this office?"
"You may safely consider the matter settled."
"Good. If it remains settled next week, I'll call again with more decorations for your desk. Now, if you'll excuse us, we have a tight schedule of pushing boulders up hills."
"You know," said Nikoros quietly as they left the Second Clerk's office, "not to criticize, but if no particular tact is required in these matters, I've a hundred Deep Roots men and women who can make these calls in their official capacities—-"
"No," said Locke. "When it comes to just laying out money, leave our official friends out of it. Save them for areas in which their authority is needed. There's no point in blunting our tools in the wrong applications."
"Well," said Nikoros, "you're damned impossible to argue with, Master Lazari."
"Not impossible," said Jean placidly. "About as intractable as a tortoise with its ass on fire, though."
"If we're going to catch up to the opposition," said Locke, "we've got to step boldly at every—-"
"There he is! There's the man who stole my purse!" cried a familiar voice as Locke emerged once again onto the fog-shrouded plaza.
The middle-aged woman stood there, flanked by two men in pale blue coats reminiscent of the one worn by Vidalos. These men wore studded leather vests beneath them, however, and had clubs hanging from their belts.
Gods. So it hadn't been an innocent collision after all.
"Your pardon, sir," said one of the guards, stepping forward, "but I must ask to see your pockets."
"A black silk purse," said the woman, "with the initials 'G.B.' in red in one of the corners. Seven ducats in it. Or at least there were!"
Locke patted himself down hurriedly. Yes, there was a slender new weight in the lower left inside pocket of his rather excellent new coat. He hadn't noticed the addition; he'd been so satisfied with verifying that nothing had been removed. Stupid, clumsy, amateurish—-
"I say," he sputtered, "this is an intolerable accusation! How dare you, madam, how dare you! And how dare you, sir, suggest that a gentleman might be turned upside-down and shaken like a common cutpurse!"
"Be reasonable, sir," said the guard. "The lady has a precise description of what was taken, and surely proving that you don't have it is worth a moment of your time—-"
"It is a liberty beyond comprehension! This is Karthain, not the lawless wilds!" Into his furious gesticulations, Locke worked a number of quick hand signals for Jean's benefit. "I take great ... I take the most ... I take take take ... arrrrrggggggggh!"
Locke spasmed and sputtered. His eyes rolled back in his head, and he stumbled forward moaning, clutching at the approaching guard. Alarmed, the man reached for his club. While Nikoros watched in mute bewilderment, Jean sprang between Locke and the guard.
"For pity's sake!" Jean hissed. "Don't pull that cudgel, he's having a fit!"
"Nnnnnggggggggghhhhh," said Locke, spraying flecks of spittle and waving his head about furiously.
"He's cursed," said the other guard, making a gesture against evil with both of his hands. "He's got a spirit influence on him!"
"He's not cursed, you damned simpleton, it's an illness," said Jean. "Whenever his emotions run high, there's a chance he'll have a fit, and I dare say you, madam, have brought him to this state!"
In a manner that seemed perfectly accidental and natural (Jean's interference was nothing less than expert), Locke broke away from Jean and the guard. Lurching like a marionette whose puppeteer was dying of some convulsive poison, he tumbled sobbing against the woman, who shrieked and pushed him away. Locke wound up on his back with Jean crouching protectively over him as he babbled, twitched, and kicked at the air.
"Stand back," said Jean. "Give him some air. The fit will pass. In a moment he'll be calm."
Locke, taking the hint, gradually reduced the severity of his symptoms until he was only gently shuddering and mumbling.
"If you really must render such low treatment to a gentleman," said Jean, "I suggest you examine his pockets now, while he's not entirely himself."
The guard Locke had initially stumbled against knelt down beside him and, carefully, as though Locke might leap back up at any moment, went through Locke's coat.
"Private papers and a purse not matching your description," he said, standing up. "Madam, I'm afraid it's just not there."
"He must have discarded it inside," she cried. "Search the building!"
"Now, this is beyond all propriety," said Jean. "My friend is a gentleman and a solicitor, and you insult him with these ridiculous -accusations!"
"He's a pickpocket," said the woman. "He ran into me to steal my purse!"
"This man is a convulsive," Jean bellowed. "He has fits half a dozen times a day! What the hell kind of pickpocket do you think he'd make? Twitching and trembling and falling over? Gods!"
"Madam," said the guard standing over Locke, "he doesn't have your purse, and you must admit a gentleman with, ah, twitching fever hardly seems a likely cutpurse."
"Check his friend," she said. "Check the big one."
"I'll gladly hand my coat over," said Jean, slowly and coldly, pretending to come to a realization. "Yet I must insist that you do the same, madam."
"Yes," said Jean. "I understand what's going on now. I marvel that I didn't grasp it before. There is a pickpocket at work, sirs, but one wearing a lady's dress rather than a gentleman's breeches."
"You foreign slime!" shouted the woman.
"Constables, no doubt you've been in the company of this woman since she approached you with her complaint. I'd check, if I were you, to make sure of your own purses."
The guards patted themselves down, and the one standing over Locke gasped.
"My coin bag!" he said. "It was right here in my belt!"
"You may examine me at length," said Jean, extending his arms with his empty palms up. "But I must insist that your more fruitful course of action would be to examine my accuser."
The guard nearest the woman put a hand on her shoulder, mumbled apologies, and gingerly sifted her coat pockets while she screeched and struggled. After a moment, he held up a small leather coin bag and a black silk purse.
"Stitched with the initials 'G.B.'!" he said.
"But it was missing!" she cried. "It was nowhere to be found!"
"What about my coin bag, eh?" The first guard snatched the leather purse from his partner and shook it at her. "What's this doing in your pocket?"
"I'm bloody confused," muttered the other guard.
"You're meant to be," said Jean. "Forgive me for saying so. I've seen this act before. Our harmless-looking friend here has been plucking purses. Clearly she meant to frame my friend for her deeds, even while plying her trade on you, sirs. Thus, when you and any other victims discovered your light pockets, you'd have a culprit already in hand, ready to soak up all the blame. I can only imagine she tried and failed to plant her purse on my friend. Perhaps age is catching up with you, madam?"
"Lying bastard," she shouted, trying and failing to fight off the firm grip of a guard. "Lying, thieving, pocket-picking foreigner!"
"Right, you," said the first guard, taking her other arm. "I don't like being taken advantage of. Gentlemen, would you like to come inside with us and register your complaint as well?"
"Actually," said Jean, "I'd like to get my friend home, if not to a physiker. I daresay this woman's in enough trouble for having lifted your purse. I can be content with that."
"And if you should need anything else from us," said Nikoros, handing one of the guards a small white card, "I'm Nikoros Via Lupa, Isas Salvierro. These men are my guests."
"Very good, sir," said the first guard, pocketing Nikoros' card. "Sorry for the trouble. I hope the gentleman recovers."
"Time and fresh lake air," said Jean, swinging Locke up and supporting him under his right arm.
"Time's the one thing he doesn't have," yelled the woman as the guards dragged her toward the court offices. "And you two know it! You know it! Be seeing you, gentlemen!"
Once all three men were safely ensconced in their carriage and it was clattering away down the street, Locke returned to life and burst out laughing. "Thank you, Nikoros," he said, wiping flecks of spittle from his chin. "That last note of respectability at the end was just what the scene needed to bring everything back down to earth."
"I bloody well rejoice to hear it," said Nikoros, "but what the hell just happened?"
"That woman slipped a purse into my coat when she stumbled into me. Obviously she meant to get me snared for pickpocketing," said Locke. "I checked to see if anything was missing, but like a dolt I didn't think to feel around for unexpected gifts. She nearly had me."
"Who was she?"
"No idea," said Locke. "She works for our counterpart, obviously. And she's a jewel ... Anyone who can live to that age charming coats for a living knows their business. We'll see her again."
"She'll be in a cold dark cell."
"Oh, she'll slip those idiots in about five minutes," said Jean. "There'll be arrangements. Trust us."
"I'm ashamed to admit that I actually thought for a moment that you, uh, were genuinely ill, Lazari," said Nikoros.
"We didn't have any time to warn you. Pitching a fit's a crude bit of theater, but it's surprising how often it works."
"How did you guess she'd lifted that guard's purse?"
"I didn't guess," said Locke with an indulgent chuckle. "I borrowed it when I stumbled against him."
"Then he passed it on to our lady friend, along with her own purse, when he stumbled against her," said Jean.
"Gods above," said Nikoros.
"And don't think she didn't realize it," added Jean. "But there's only so many ways you can arrange to bump tits with strangers before it starts to look fishy."
"Ain't we clever?" said Locke, idly examining his own pockets again. "And I'm pretty sure I still have ... everything. Holy hells!"
There was a folded piece of parchment, sealed with wax, in his left inner pocket. He drew it out and stared at it.
"This wasn't in my pocket when I came out the door," he said. "She ... she stuck me with it while I was slipping her the two purses!"
Jean gave a low whistle as Locke popped the seal and flipped the parchment open in haste. He read the contents aloud:
Messrs. Lazari and Callas
I trust you will excuse the unorthodox means by which this letter finds its way into your hands. Karthani post — masters, enterprising as they are, rarely deliver directly to the interior pocket of a gentleman's coat. I present my compliments, and desire that you should call upon me at the seventh hour of this evening, at the Sign of the Black Iris, in the Vel Vespala.
Your most affectionate servant—-
"Verena Gallante," said Locke in a harsh whisper. His heart seemed to expand and fill his entire chest with its beating. "She wants to ... she wants to see ... oh, gods—-"
He looked out the window, craning his neck furiously to see behind them, into the swirling silvery fog, where of course there was nothing meaningful to be found.
"What is it?" said Nikoros.
"That was no middle — aged stranger," said Locke. "That was her."
"The opposition," said Locke, settling back into his seat, feeling dazed. "Our counterpart. The woman we spoke of."
"It seems that's her present alias."
"Oh my," said Jean. "The initials on the silk purse ... now, that was cheeky."
"Only if we weren't too dense to notice it right away," said Locke.
"I fail to see how 'Verena Gallante' yields 'G.B.'," said Nikoros.
"A private matter," said Locke. "I have ... we have a history with this woman."
"What must we do now?" said Nikoros.
"Now," said Locke, "you can direct our driver to wherever this Master Ratfinder keeps his office, and after we've persuaded him to quit being a nuisance, you and Master Callas can go scrounge up the brutes we discussed yesterday."
"And what about you?"
"I, well ..." said Locke, running one hand over his stubble, "I'll need to go find a barber."
Copyright 2013 by Scott Lynch. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.