“You have got to be fucking kidding me,” Jean said.
Naked from the waist up, wearing an extraordinary apparatus of black leather straps, a metal frame, sharp spikes, shards of Elderglass, blades, buckles, glass tubes, whips, pulleys, rough ropes, hooks, and needles, Locke gave Jean a slow but courtly quarter-bow that concluded with a flourish of his left hand.
The flourish tugged at a strap that jerked on a lever that jabbed a long, vicious spike into Locke’s bare back. He let out a realistic choked gasp, and a rivulet of equally realistic blood trickled down. Jean sniffed. Coppery, meaty: not realistic, real.
The blood was caught by a glass funnel, then spiraled down a clear tube, reminding Jean of the blood roses of the Garden Without Fragrance. At the end of the glass tube, the blood passed through an alchemical filter that drained its color. The filter turned scarlet, and the now-clear liquid sizzled as it dripped over Locke’s belly, leaving pink streaks on his skin. The sharp vapors of acid stung Jean’s nostrils and the back of his throat.
Locke moaned in agony and started to writhe, then visibly forced himself to hold still, lest he set off the apparatus all over again. Biting his lip, his face pale and sweating, he trembled slightly, then raised eyes brimming with unshed tears to regard Calo and Galdo, who were playing the marks.
“Sulamenodeth, Goddess of Suffering, accepts the offering of my agony,” Locke said, his voice weak and shaking. “She will bless your household and keep it free of suffering for six months’ time.”
The act was so convincing that some gullible organ in Jean’s belly twisted with empathy. But the rest of him was filled with honest admiration.
He’d come a long way from being a soft merchant boy. He could kill men with a hatchet or anything else that came to hand, including his hands. But despite all of Father Chains’ teaching, Jean knew that he could study for a hundred years and not be able to pull off this stunt, or any of the magnificently shameless acting and improvising that Locke did as a matter of course, as if it was nothing.
The very thought of doing what Locke did— not locking himself into an undoubtedly dangerous apparatus, but making himself look hurt and even, somehow, bringing tears to his eyes, well enough to fool a suspicious mark— made Jean feel slightly nauseated with sympathetic stage fright.
Though Locke’s face remained damp and ashen, the tension that spoke of a tight control of pain smoothed out, and he gave Jean a jaunty wink. “Now hand over a bag of your most valuable possessions to the Gentleman Bastards.”
“Anything for your oh-so-convincing agony, acolyte!” cried Calo, shoving a rattling, clanking, unwieldy canvas bag into Locke’s hands.
“Bless it, bless it!” added Galdo. “By the way, acolyte, is it true that the final initiation into Sulamenodeth’s mysteries consists of fucking a life-size clockwork statue of the blessed bitch Goddess that occasionally, at unpredictable intervals, bites someone’s cock off?”
“I take it you lost yours some other way, then?” Locke inquired.
Moving with exquisite care, he slowly shuffled to the altar, holding the bag before him. The needles and spikes and whips and canes and droppers poised over him quivered ominously, only waiting for a careless movement to inflict agony.
Jean watched, fascinated, wondering what would happen if Locke were to trip. It looked as if he’d be sliced into manageable pieces faster than the Sanza brothers could dice an onion.
Locke made it to the altar, which consisted of a black plinth upon which an equally black box was set.
“Bless these valuables, Sulamenodeth, these riches which bring only suffering in their wake,” he murmured, placing the bag into the black box. “To have riches is to suffer in the mind, in constant fear of losing them. To lose riches is to suffer in the body and experience the pain of deprivation. Wealth is suffering. Bless this supplicant’s suffering.”
With that, Locke removed the bag from the box. Again with the painfully cautious shuffle, he returned to his place.
“Take your bag of blessings,” he said, handing it over to Calo. “Do not open it for six months. In that time, all suffering that comes to you and yours will be drawn to the bag and trapped within it, unable to inflict itself upon you. After that time, well, you know where to find me… if I have not yet broken beneath the weight of my service.”
Locke swayed as if faint, which tensed a wire that jerked on a whip that cracked across his shoulders. He let out a truly pathetic whimper, sagged lower, and then, with a visible effort and a grunt, straightened himself. “Farewell. The blessings of Sulamenodeth go with you.”
Calo hefted and jingled the bag. “Thank you, acolyte. It’s clearly the same bag, weighs the same, and clinks the same. I’m certain no switch could possibly have been performed!”
Galdo pressed a small coin purse into Locke’s trembling hands. “The temple fee, acolyte. Perhaps you can install a few more Elderglass teeth in Sulamenodeth’s clockwork cunt.”
The twins walked out of the stuffy basement. Jean kept a wary eye on the exit, knowing what was coming. More or less. But his attention kept getting pulled to Locke and his extraordinary apparatus, which Locke was now carefully extracting himself from.
“This is a bitch and a half to get out of,” Locke remarked, unbuckling strap after strap. It came apart piece by piece, not as a whole. “At least, it is if you don’t want to slice yourself open on the parts that are actually sharp."
“How does it work?” Jean asked.
“There’s a scale and a set of standard weights inside the box,” Locke said absently, dismantling the tube-and-funnel apparatus. “I weigh the bag the mark brings, remove the contents, and replace them with miscellaneous junk of similar shapes and enough wrapped weights that it feels the same.”
“I meant the Flagellator of Sulamenodeth,” Jean said with a grin.
Locke, now free of the flagellator, fished a damp cloth from the box and wiped off the blood and “acid burns,” careful not to disturb the multitude of fake scabs and scars. “The blood is real— from a butcher. The spike collapses.”
Locke demonstrated, pushing the spike slowly against his hand. It slid backwards, giving the appearance of piercing his skin. “The whip cracks above my back, not against it. The filter is cotton. All it does is soak up the blood. The acid is vinegar, released from a concealed reservoir. I painted a little alchemical soda on my belly— it reacts with the vinegar to foam and sizzle and leave pink streaks. The rest of it is a real flagellator. It’s just rigged so it quivers dramatically but doesn’t actually work.”
“Better you than me,” said Jean. “I can’t imagine keeping a straight face through all that moaning and crying. How do you make yourself cry, anyway?”
“It’s simple,” said Locke. “I just—”
A stealthy footstep alerted Jean to the “ambush by the mark's outraged relatives.” He spun around, coming face to face with the Sanza twins, Calo armed with a short staff, Galdo with a knife. Jean twisted Galdo’s wrist, forcing him to drop the knife, and ducked a blow from Calo’s staff.
“You thief!” howled Calo.
“You fraud!” shrieked Galdo.
“I told you not to open the bag,” Locke remarked, stepping back. “Keep it clear of the apparatus, everyone. It’s fragile and expensive.”
Galdo took a swing at Jean, who caught his arm and tossed him to the floor. Taking advantage of the distraction, Calo stepped to the side to attack. Jean pretended not to see until the last moment, when he whipped around and kicked Calo in the belly.
But though Jean had meant the kick to be light, merely pushing him back, Calo rushed in just as Jean kicked out. Jean’s kick connected with more force than he’d intended, knocking Calo into Locke. Calo only staggered, but Locke’s foot came down on a tiny pool of spilled vinegar. He slipped, threw out his hand, and fell hard.
There was a sickening snap, like a dry branch breaking. Locke didn’t scream or moan or writhe around the floor. Jean heard a quick exhale, and then nothing. Locke lay still, his face a blank. Then he rolled over, still without making a sound, and looked down at his right wrist as if it didn’t belong to him.
Locke without the energy for melodrama frightened Jean. He dropped down by Locke’s side. “Your wrist?”
“Is it broken?” Jean asked.
Locke nodded again, his lips pressed tight together.
“Great fucking timing, Calo!” Galdo exclaimed. “The mark’s coming in half an hour. Locke, can you do it one-handed?”
Locke chewed on his lower lip, glancing from the flagellator to the black plinth.
“No,” he said at last. “We’ll have to abort.”
“Can’t one of the twins take your place?” Jean asked.
They shook their heads in unison.
“I told the mark about the miracle-worker of Sulamenodeth, and Galdo was the stranger who coincidentally overheard our conversation and corroborated it,” Calo explained. “He’d recognize us. We can’t even stay in the basement.”
“Well, fuck,” said Jean. “Quick, let’s pack the flagellator and get out of here.”
A familiar gleam came into Locke’s eyes. If Chains had been there, he would have recognized it and told Locke that whatever he was plotting, he should scale it back by fifty percent and drop whatever bit he was most proud of.
“Galdo, splint my wrist,” Locke ordered. “Calo, loan me your jacket. I’ll wear it to hide the splint. Jean…”
“Oh, no,” said Jean, scooting backward. “No, no, no. Absolutely not. I’m here to be the muscle!”
Galdo was already binding Locke’s wrist with a long iron spoon and some strips of cloth that he’d pulled from the black box.
“The switch is easy,” Locke said. “Chains has taught you much harder tricks.”
“I’m not worried about the switch,” Jean protested. “I’m worried about getting into that ridiculous apparatus and pretending to cry well enough to actually fool someone!”
“You can do it,” Locke urged him. “You saw me do it; you know the story. Come on, Jean. We’ll switch places. I’ll be your guard.”
“What about the outraged relatives?” Jean asked. But even as he said it, he realized that he was already agreeing. It was that damned hopeful look in Locke’s eyes, which made Jean feel like he couldn’t let Locke down.
“We’ll be hiding outside,” Calo pointed out.
“And the outraged relatives were never that likely anyway,” said Galdo.
Galdo took a damp cloth and helped Locke remove his scars, scabs, burns, and bruises. With Calo’s help, Locke gingerly got himself into the jacket.
“Cry a river, Jean,” said Calo, heading out the door.
Galdo, following him, called out over his shoulder, “Watch out, Locke! He’ll be taking your place in no time!”
“That’s even less likely than him taking my place,” muttered Jean.
But the door had already slammed behind them.
Locke, though obviously in pain, stood up and quickly began instructing Jean on the con. First he showed Jean how to make the switch; as Jean had thought, it wasn’t difficult so long as you had the use of both your hands. Then he helped Jean replace the blood/vinegar/filter portion of the apparatus.
It was only when Locke began instructing Jean on getting into and operating the flagellator that the butterflies in his stomach transformed into leaping wolf sharks.
“Repeat the invocation to Sulamenodeth,” Locke said.
Jean rattled it off, squirming uncomfortably. The flagellator had been designed for Locke, and not only was it awkward, heavy, alarming, and embarrassing, it was also extremely tight. He could barely breathe, his circulation was getting cut off in several places, and his belly was uncomfortably compressed in some places and forced to bulge out enormously in others.
“Now look like you’re in pain,” ordered Locke.
Jean did his best.
Locke frowned. “Pain, Jean. Not baffled annoyance.”
Jean tried to remember what pain looked like. Did you lower your brows, or squint your eyes? A familiar red haze of anger began to cloud his vision, but at himself, not at Locke. He’d practiced this. He’d practiced it a lot. Not feigning pain, specifically, but feigning in general. And after all that time and effort, he was still terrible. Worse than terrible: he couldn’t even remember where to start.
“And not terrifying rage,” Locke added hastily. “Remember a time when you were injured…”
The red haze faded as Locke calmly coached him, while deftly and one-handedly applying an amazing array of fake wounds, scars, scabs, scrapes, burns, and bruises to Jean's body. They tickled. Finally, Locke pronounced that he’d at least convincingly replicated “constipated and waiting for the dog leech,” which he grudgingly supposed would have to do.
Jean heard footsteps at the top of the stairs.
Locke gave him a wink and an encouraging smile, then moved to his position across the room, wearing Jean's hatchets.
Encumbered by the framework of whips and pulleys, and desperately uncomfortable with his role, Jean looked to Locke for further guidance. But Locke was watching the stairs, not him.
Jean hoped the mark wouldn’t pay much attention to Locke. Jean had seen him slip into the role of a fighter before, but now he stood stiffly rather than relaxed and ready, his shoulders high, his jaw clenched, his gaze fixed on a single point rather than open to encompass as wide a field of vision as possible. His broken wrist must be killing him.
And that, Jean realized, was what pain looked like.
Jean didn’t have to moan and groan and cry. All he had to do was imitate Locke, right now.
As the elderly man came hobbling down the steps, lugging a clanking bag, Jean concentrated on his actual pain— the tight straps, the knot in his belly, his nervous tension— and let his body and face react to it.
“Greetings, acolyte,” the mark said, his eyes bulging a little at the sight of the flagellator. “Oh my. I must say, I’ve always had the greatest respect for the priests of Sulamenodeth. But…”
“We must go farther than usual, to win her most special blessings,” Jean said. If his voice came out high and shaky, it only added to his role. “You will rarely see the Flagellator of Sulamenodeth outside of the most sacred chambers of her temples…”
As the con played out, Jean slowly relaxed, inwardly if not outwardly. The mark suspected nothing. Jean was actually pulling off Locke’s role in a con! He felt as proud as he had the first time he’d managed to bloody Don Maranzalla’s nose. How had Locke known Jean could do it?
Glancing at Locke’s face, set and tight and staring at nothing, Jean realized that Locke couldn’t have known. But Locke had trusted him anyway. He’d given Jean his own role out of nothing but pure blind faith.
As Jean began to lift the heavy bag of junk from the black box, he heard the door at the top of the stairs slam open.
“You smelly little shits!” bellowed a furious female voice. “You pus-filled ass boils!”
Jean lost precious seconds of reaction time while he wondered if this was a test or dry run or prank. But as he looked from the brawny, machete-wielding woman storming very quickly down the stairs to Locke’s open-mouthed horror, he realized that it was exactly what he was supposed to be there to deal with: an outraged relative.
A big, fast, tough-looking, well-armed, outraged relative.
Time seemed to slow as Jean took that in. Locke was a mediocre fighter at the best of times, and he couldn’t fight at all with his dominant hand disabled. The Sanzas were outside and some distance away, ready to create a diversion in case the mark screamed for the yellowjackets. And Jean was locked into an apparatus that he couldn’t fight in and would be cut to pieces in the time it would take to extricate himself.
They were deader than the sausages they’d eaten for breakfast.
Jean began madly unbuckling leather straps. Maybe Locke could talk her down until Jean could get out of the flagellator.
“We are priests of Sula—” Locke began.
“The fuck you are!” The woman contemptuously backhanded him across the face, slamming him into the wall.
Jean winced at the solid thud of Locke’s head hitting the stone. He fell to the ground, not unconscious but clearly dazed.
“Daddy, get out of here,” the woman told the mark.
“They’re piss-chugging con men,” she snapped, striding to the plinth.
With a sweep of one meaty hand, she knocked the black box off the pedestal. Two heavy canvas bags, a scale, a set of weights, and a whole lot of junk went flying.
The mark blinked, then began hastily hobbling back up the steps.
“Don’t forget to fetch back my valuables after you kill them, darling,” he shouted over his shoulder. “They’re in one of the bags.”
Jean was still encumbered by three whips, the glass tubing, a sash of sharp Elderglass fragments, and several vicious blades. He managed to divest himself of one of the blades just before the woman turned to him, raising her machete high.
“No one rips off my—”
With no other choice, Jean lunged at her, left arm lashing out to grab her wrist and block the machete, right fist slamming toward her face.
The weight of the frame slowed him, the straps limited his range of movement, and the Elderglass swung around and slashed into his chest. The woman easily side-stepped him and kicked him viciously in the side. He went down in a tremendous clatter, glass shattering and wood snapping all around him.
The woman once again raised her machete. Jean tried to gather himself to roll, but he knew he’d never be able to get to his feet in time.
What a stupid way to die, he thought. Father Chains will be ashamed of us all.
The woman suddenly ducked. A blade sliced through the air, barely missing her head.
Locke stood behind her, with Jean's hatchets in his hands.
Isn’t his right wrist broken? Jean thought.
“Get out of the fucking flagellator!” yelled Locke.
Jean hastily applied himself to the remaining buckles as the woman spun around, her machete slicing down toward Locke.
Locke leaped backward before the blade could bury itself in his head, and made another swing with the hatchet in his right hand. The woman swept the machete in a backhanded strike, and slammed the blunt side into Locke’s wrist. There was a loud crack, and Locke dropped the hatchet with a yelp.
Now it’s broken, Jean thought grimly.
With a sneer, the woman turned toward Jean. He rolled away, doing who knows how much more damage to himself from the broken glass on the floor. She kicked him again before he could stand, then stomped on his hand when he desperately grabbed for the fallen hatchet.
Locke bolted around her, clutching the other hatchet in his left hand, and slashed it at her face. She ducked and kicked him aside, knocking him down. The hatchet flew out of his hand.
“Fine, little shit,” she said to Locke. “You want to die first? Go right ahead.”
Jean staggered to his feet, one last ridiculous whip still attached to his back and an iron bar from the metal frame in his left hand. As the woman started to turn back to him, he lunged in, ducking a slashing strike from her machete, and struck her neatly behind the ear. She crumpled to the ground.
So did Jean.
The room was tilting, and he saw everything as if he was looking through a slowly contracting tunnel. Locke was half-stumbling, half-crawling toward him.
The hidden door behind the plinth opened, revealing the Sanza brothers.
“The mark’s summoned the yellowjackets! Quick, you’ve got to…” Calo’s voice trailed off.
“What in the name of Perelandro’s hairy balls happened in here?” Galdo exclaimed.
“Long story,” Locke muttered. “Help me carry Jean.”
Jean gritted his teeth. “I can walk.”
Locke’s lips twitched into the shadow of a smile. “Then help me carry the valuables.”
Calo grabbed the bag Locke indicated, and helped Locke to his feet with his other hand. Galdo did the same for Jean.
“Hurry,” Jean mumbled, jerking his head to the side.
The woman he’d knocked out was starting to stir. Though her eyes were still closed, her hand groped toward her machete.
The Gentleman Bastards hastily made their escape. Jean remembered taking a few steps into a tunnel, leaning heavily on Galdo, and nothing more.
He woke up in his own bed, feeling unsurprisingly as if he’d been knocked around, repeatedly kicked in the ribs, had his hand stomped on by a heavy woman with iron-soled boots, and been slashed with broken glass, Elderglass shards, and knives. But his wounds had been tended and bandaged, and after some time contemplating whether he was more dizzy or more hungry, he managed to get up and stagger out in the general direction of the kitchen.
Chains met him in the hallway. “What excellent timing. Come to dinner.”
He led Jean to the dining room, where an equally battered Locke already sat, his right wrist splinted.
Jean blinked at him. “You didn’t actually break your wrist. The first time.”
“It was my idea, Jean,” said Chains. “That is, the sane part of the plan was my idea. I asked Locke and the Sanzas to set it up so you would be forced to step into an uncomfortable role at a moment’s notice, to give you self-confidence and further your education. However, you can thank Locke for the flagellator.”
“But the con was real?” Jean asked.
Locke nodded. “The only part that wasn’t real was that I didn’t actually hurt myself. That machete woman was sure as hell real.”
“There is a distinct irony in how many parts of the various false plots became real in the end,” mused Chains. “One might almost suspect the sadistic hand of Sulamenodeth herself at work.”
Jean supposed he ought to be angry, but he wasn’t. All he could think of was how Locke had risked his life to save Jean. No one had ever done that for him before. Admittedly, no one had ever had cause to, and one could argue that without Locke, Jean would never have been in danger. But nevertheless.
Calo and Galdo came in from the kitchen in a cloud of delicious aromas, bearing platters of crispy roast duck with caramelized oranges and turnips, mussels in a stew with sausages and tomatoes, a salad of fennel, sheep's cheese, radishes, and shaved lemons, and a loaf of steaming, fresh-baked bread.
“Thank you, Locke,” Jean said softly, leaning in to him. “You could have been killed.”
Locke shrugged. “We’re the Gentleman Bastards. We don’t die that easily.”
“If you ever try to talk me into a flagellator again, I’ll test that,” Jean said.
Galdo winked at Jean. “It looked good on you.”
Chains opened a bottle filled with swirling golden smoke. Jean had only seen it a few times before: brandymist, an alchemical liquor halfway between liquid and vapor, lighter than water and heavier than air.
“A glass poured to air for an absent friend,” said Chains, pouring a finger of brandymist. “If Sabetha was here, she’d be laughing her ass off.”
Locke sighed wistfully. “Wouldn’t she just.”
Chains poured another glass for himself. “I can’t pour a toast to a con well-played, since you quartet of clowns fell prey to Locke’s penchant for gratuitous melodrama, nearly got yourselves killed, and lost what was probably a very nice haul indeed.”
“Wait, we lost the haul?” exclaimed Jean. “But Calo took the bag!”
Everyone looked at Locke. Locke looked at the floor.
“I pointed to the wrong bag,” Locke confessed. “Calo lugged a bag of weights and metal junk halfway across the city.”
Chains shook his head sadly. “Locke, Locke, Locke. That is not like you.”
“I was hit over the head,” Locke muttered. “Twice.”
“I blame Calo,” Galdo said cheerfully. “He didn’t look to see what he was carrying. I checked to make sure I had Jean instead of the machete woman.”
Chains once again raised the bottle, and this time he filled four glasses. “But I will pour a toast to the perpetrators of the Goddess of Suffering scam. To Calo and Galdo, who pulled their brothers’ idiot asses out of the fire and managed to escape uninjured, which is more than the other two of you can say. To Jean, whom Locke tells me did a brilliant job in a role he never trained for, and who saved Locke’s life. And to Locke, who will never be a fighter, but fought anyway to save Jean’s life.”
Chains lifted his glass. “And so we drink to courage. We drink to loyalty. We drink to friendship. And we drink to not fucking up quite that spectacularly ever again.”
“To the Gentleman Bastards,” they all chorused.
Jean and Locke lifted their glasses: Locke with his left hand, his splinted right resting in his lap, Jean with his battered right hand, wincing a little; even the tiny amount of pressure necessary to hold the glass steady sent a vicious twinge through his hand.
The brandymist warmed Jean’s throat as he drank to present friends.