The sun has well cleared the rooftops of the Videnza when a boy tugs a snug-fitting cap over his hair and steps out into the streets. His hands are empty but there's a heavy purse in the inner pocket of his well-tailored coat, and he looks up at the woman beside him with an anxious face. "None of that," she says, her speech colored with a thick Vadran accent. Her hair is elaborately coiffed under her hat and the night-sky blue of her bustled gown offsets her pale skin perfectly; she is the picture of a noblewoman on holiday, stepping out with her young servant for an easy day of shopping.
Beneath the velvet and linen and two cravats, Bug writhes. It's hot and itchy and only like to get worse as the day goes on-- and it will go on, he knows. He's worried he won't remember the accent-- and listening to her speak it is no good, because she's supposed to be a Lady of Quality-- he heard the capitals when Jean teased her about it yesterday-- and he's just a servant, which means different accents and different bloody idioms and oh Thirteen, his head is going to burst with all he's stuffed in it. And there's nary a bit of help to be had from any quarter, either. He's got to do this on his own, he thinks. He knows better to think he'll get an easy pass because he's young, and new at this.
Beside him the young woman walks serene and sedate, her profile artistic, skin totally clear of spots. She didn't get an easy pass for being a girl, he knows. Wouldn't have taken one even if it had been offered-- and that's how he's got to think, now that he's a Gentleman Bastard.
"Keep your head up," she murmurs in perfect Vadran. "Even the lowliest Vadran is better than a Camorri. Or at least if you're Vadran, you think so."
"Yes, my lady," he replies, flushed with a lightning-quick stab of pride at the smile she gives him. His Vadran's passable, he assures himself, and tries to remember to keep his chin high.
Their first stop is a fine dressmaker's shop, where he stands with his back against the wall and reminds himself to be silent. When she opens her mouth it is not Sabetha Belacoros who speaks, but Contessa Siriana de Bartolet; there is nothing of Sabetha in her cool gaze, and Bug tries in vain to watch her without watching. How does she do it, he wonders-- put on another person like it's nothing more noteworthy than changing a shoe or a hat.
He's watched Locke get into costume, and for the Bastards' garrista it's as much about the trappings as it is his state of mind. Bug knows Locke's a good false-facer-- better than Jean or the twins by far-- but Sabetha puts him to shame. Strip her of her finery and roll her in the mud, and she could still convince the Yellowjackets to escort the Contessa de Bartolet back to her rooms at the inn without more than a minute's fuss.
Bug thinks the lesson might be in how she gets everyone to fawn all over her. They bring out shawls and ribbons, gloves, slippers and more girls' clothes than Bug ever wanted to see in his life. She disdains the fine spidery lace from Lashain, turns up her nose at the Talishani silk scarf embroidered with doves (though that, he knows, is genuine; Sabetha wouldn't be caught dead in anything with embroidery), picks and chooses and dismisses her way through the best of the shop's wares while the women scurry and scamper and scrape to serve her.
Bug's seen the vaults inside the temple, of course, he knows the Gentlemen Bastards are rich; but he's still new at this, and he has to fight not to let his eyes fall out of his head when she drops five full crowns on a pair of gloves. She snaps her fingers for him to hand over the purse and counts out the coins, letting them fall into the shopkeeper's hand with the same carelessness as she tossed him a copper yesterday morning to run and get her a pastry hot from the baker's wagon.
They exit the shop and Bug doesn't have to remind himself to stand tall. Sabetha-- Contessa de Bartolet-- speaks without looking at him. "How much did I pay for those?"
Bug glances at her, unsure; did she think his memory so poor? The moment's hesitation earns him an extra bite in her voice as she snaps, "In volani, boy." He winces; the Vadran currency, of course. He wastes another half minute cursing himself for not learning the conversion without the aid of the determiner's box, then tries the math on his own.
"Fifteen volani... eleven solari?"
"Close enough, without the box," she allows, still talking out of the corner of her mouth, nothing marring the appearance of her idly perusing the shopfronts around her. "But still-- Jean can run you through it again tonight, before dinner."
He winces again, making a mental note to stuff his pockets with meat pies when he passes through the market on his way home. If he's not getting the squid the Sanzas bought this morning for dinner, he's damn well not going to starve.
Sabetha dismisses him when they return to the inn, and Bug changes back into his threadbare clothes, fleeing out the servants' door in grateful glee. He's across to the Old Citadel with barely a thought, turning his feet north toward the Temple District with the farmers' market in mind.
He's barely crossed into the nest of stalls that make up the Temple Market when something warm and wet hits him in the back of the neck. He darts immediately into the shade of a booth and scrubs his hand over the back of his neck; it comes away full of orange pulp and seeds.
His eyebrows drawn down, he runs back out into the lane and looks around for a telltale sign-- black curls, hooked noses, smug smiles-- and knows that when he finds them it's only because they let him.
"Bastard," he mutters as Calo (or Galdo, he can't be arsed to care) hops down from a wagon and claps him on the back.
"You say that like it's an insult," he says cheerfully, letting another handful of pulp smear across the back of Bug's neck, talking over him as he splutters, wiping the sticky stuff off his skin. "Now. Chains sent us to meet you on your way home--"
"And we just knew Sabetha would've sent you on your way hungry and with the threat of no dinner looming over your head," the other twin says, materializing out of nowhere on Bug's other side.
"So we thought we'd collect you before you got handsy on any of these fine people's produce," finishes the first twin, biting into an apple-- and if he paid for that apple, Bug thinks, he'll eat his own boot for dinner.
"Handsy," Bug repeats, shaking his head, and the right twin (Calo, because he felt like it) jostles him with his elbow, pinning him more firmly between his and Galdo's bodies.
"Now, say you should manage to slip free," Galdo goes on, "and have your run of the market, and duck back to the House of Perelandro before us--"
"Why then," continues Calo smoothly, "we would shrug our shoulders and tell old Chains we couldn't find you--"
"Because who would admit to being given the slip by a nine-year-old scrap of a boy who can't even dodge a well-aimed handful of orange pulp? Not the brothers Sanza, for true." Galdo's grin bares more of his teeth than is really necessary, Bug thinks; he's already caught on to the game they want to play, and is trying to figure out how to get out from between them.
Get back to the temple before they do and he'll keep whatever he nicks from the stalls he passes on the way-- he'll get a reprieve from the twins' heckling, and might even get dinner without having to sing for it.
"It's not like I could give you the slip anyway," he mutters, doing his best to sound like the sullen and untractable boy he was when they took him in less than a year ago. "There's two of you and you're way bigger."
"He's right, Calo," says the one Bug had been calling Calo in his head. "We are bigger--"
"And smarter," Galdo agrees with a nod, steering them carefully through the market. The path through the stalls winds like a drunk snake from one side to another, everything a precarious balance just waiting to be tipped, and Bug doesn't have to wait long for his chance. Ahead there's a group of children younger than him playing with sticks and a leather-skinned ball, and just as they draw level the ball goes careening out of the circle, one little girl running after it, braids and ribbons flying.
The twins stop short to avoid running her over, and Bug has twisted out of their grasp before he's conscious of directing his muscles to move. He flies through the circle of children, trusting the Sanzas' collective good nature not to trample them in an effort to catch him, and darts behind a merchant cart in search of a wall.
He emerges beyond the cart to find Calo standing there, grinning fiercely with the thrill of the chase, and Bug steps back and feels the sun-warmed softness of fruit against his back. He grabs one in each hand-- peaches, he sees as he lets them fly-- and Calo catches one but not the other, which splats wetly into his face, and Bug is gone again, evading the brush of fingers against the collar of his shirt as Galdo closes in.
Under the legs of a Gentled horse, over a basket of soft red wool wound into skeins, he rounds a bend and-- Thirteen take them, how are they getting ahead of him so fast? A twin to each side, and if not for years of running from gods knew what in the Cauldron, he'd be caught.
He darts between their grasping hands, smooth as silk, one hand snaking out to grab a meat pie off the edge of a cart as he makes for the wall, the ivy crawling up it-- too light to bear the weight of a full-grown man, but a nine year old? He's halfway up the wall before he hears the Sanzas' footsteps come to a halt, and pauses at the top to look down, grinning, his chest heaving.
"The rooftop's only half the battle, Bug," calls one, while the other salutes him with a dramatic bow.
"See you back at the temple-- unless we get there first," the other shouts, and they dart away nearly as fast as Bug himself. He starts running, rooftop to rooftop. The pie is warm in his pocket and the sun is hot overhead, and as he leaps from one building to another, Bug almost feels like he's flying.
He isn't a hundred yards from the temple when the Sanzas catch him.
As if it weren't indignity enough being marched into the House of Perelandro with meat pie splattered all over himself, Bug finds he's barely allowed time to change his gods-damned shirt before meeting Jean for his daily lesson in soft talk. Just because Bug's part of a gang with a garrista twice his age doesn't mean he's immune to getting picked on, and there's only one person who's going to give him a good education in defending himself.
As Chains had so aptly put it, the Sanzas are more likely to talk their way out of fights than actually fight them, and Locke can't brawl his way out of a rotten paper bag. Sabetha has already schooled him on the anatomy of hurting someone bigger if they grab hold of him; but when it comes to straight-up fisticuffs, the strong arm of the Gentlemen Bastards is the best teacher around.
He's waiting for Bug on the roof of the temple, where they'd begun to practice when the weather was fair. Jean's a bigger man than most, and to Bug's eyes he's especially intimidating-- or would be, if he didn't know him. Still, for all they're friends and brothers, he's not afraid to give Bug a thumping if he's not paying attention.
He starts almost right away, before Bug's even had time to toe his other boot off, tossing him the two short staves they use to warm up and swinging his own two straight at Bug's head. He barely gets his own up in time, set off balance by one bare foot, but he knows he'll regret a sore skull too much to throw anything less than his full weight behind it. Jean pulls back suddenly and Bug stumbles forward, turning the momentum into a roll that brings him up facing Jean's back-- but the big man's already turning fast, gods, he's faster than he should be for someone his size, and Bug has to step back double-quick to avoid the staves as they swish through the air.
"Not bad," Jean says, not even a little winded, giving Bug a second's respite which he uses to get rid of his other boot. "You're getting better at thinking on your feet-- that tuck was good."
"Thanks," says Bug, still wary; he's learned better than to let his guard down by now. Still, the next attack comes faster than he was expecting, and from a different quarter-- Jean cuts the staves to one side, using the momentum of his body to carry him over, one foot swinging round in a high kick that would've sent Bug flying if he hadn't ducked just in time; straightening, though, he catches Jean's fist on the backswing, a hard smack to the upper arm. He yelps, but doesn't let the stick fall from his hand.
"Good," says Jean, and drops, sweeping his foot out intended to cut both of Bug's from beneath him; he jumps well clear and brings the staves down in a sharp V toward Jean's arm-- naturally, the cut is blocked, but it's close. "Better," Jean grunts, hopping to his feet. "A bit less like a six-year-old girl than last week. Now drop those, and hit me." He tosses the sticks away and brings his fists up, bouncing on the balls of his feet.
Anyone seeing Jean Tannen in the street would never expect this, Bug thinks, watching how lightly he steps, how fast his feet take him from one place to the next.
It's one way he showcases what the Gentlemen Bastards do best-- take advantage of being underestimated.
He moves in quick and Bug dodges, slipping under his arm and punching him in the kidney. It doesn't wind him the way it would someone smaller, but it makes him grunt and twist sideways, following Bug's darting steps and coming in fast with a series of hits that take all of Bug's skill to deflect and dodge-- and even then, some of them still hit home.
"Not bad," Jean says, grinning, "but I said hit me, not dance around me like a doña at a society ball." And he's moving again, forcing Bug to move with him. The sun bakes down on them and there's scarcely a breeze, scarcely a sound but for the rasp of their breathing, the sharp smacks of feet and fists.
He catches Jean's down-swinging wrist on his forearm and it feels like a sledgehammer-- but already he's spinning away, ducking in to pop his fist toward Jean's crooked teeth. Jean blocks it, but wasn't planning on Bug's left fist, which hits him square in the solar plexus. "How's that for a hit?" he crows, and only has a split second to look surprised as Jean grabs him by the arm and flips him over onto his back.
"Wow," he says when he can breathe again and the stars have quit clinging to the edges of his vision.
"I know," says Jean, taking his hand and helping him up.
Bug brushes himself off and looks up at Jean. "Again?" He's both hopeful and nervous; he's sore already, but it's a good sort of ache, and he knows the longer he keeps at this, the less it'll hurt.
Jean cracks his knuckles, swinging his arms out and rolling back his shoulders with a grin. "Again."
Bug hasn't been inside more than half an hour before he hears Locke yelling from the kitchen. "Can't I just get five minutes to myself?" he mutters, hopping off his bed and dragging his feet up toward the sound of Locke's bitching.
He sticks his head into the kitchen, warm and brightly lit; the hearthslab is smoking with a bucket of water standing by to reheat it. "Locke, what d'you want?" He knows he's half whining, and doesn't much care. Whatever Locke wants with him can't be important-- they haven't got anything to do tonight beyond eat until they're stuffed and see who can cheat who best at cards.
"Come here," Locke stands at the counter, chopping something on the wooden cutting board. As he draws closer he sees it's the squids for dinner; three of them, gutted and cleaned, losing their tentacles one by one under the blade of Locke's knife.
"I thought Calo and Galdo were cooking tonight," he says, hanging back in the doorway, wary of getting drafted into kitchen duty. His stomach grumbles and he presses his hand into it.
"They were, until you failed to elude them in the marketplace and thereby lost the bet I put on you this morning. So now you and I are cooking." He glances at Bug, who just glares back until finally he quails, rolling up his sleeves (though not without also rolling his eyes at Locke behind his back).
"Fine. What are we making?"
"Stuffed squid. Mushrooms, peppers and garlic are over there--" he points with the tip of his knife to a different stretch of counter, on which sit piles of vegetables-- "so get to slicing."
Bug moves toward the pile, snagging a few knives one-handed out of the block and pulling a stool up to sit on while he slices. There are round yellow peppers and twisty dark red ones, two kinds of mushrooms and fat cloves of garlic, and thanks to the twins he knows the right way to cut each pepper, how to slice the mushrooms thin as vellum, to crush the garlic with the flat of the knife before dicing it-- knives have many uses, he's found, and he doesn't mind admitting he likes this way of wielding them better than the one he grew up on.
"So," says Locke as he starts slicing the tentacles into strips, glancing at Bug briefly to make sure he's paying attention, "it's dead the stroke of midnight and I'm at the edge of Mara Camorazza waiting to meet a fellow-- and by meet, I do mean rob," he adds, grinning at Bug's answering eyeroll. "You're fifty yards off making sure I have a clear path to run away on when I'm done, only here comes an old drunk swaying like a birch in a breeze and singing for all his lungs are worth. What do you do?"
The boy's eyes narrow and he feels his face screw up in part confusion. "You mean other than clock him on the side of the head with an Orphan's Twist and let him sleep it off?"
Locke reaches for a pan above the cooking slab, shaking his head. "Well see and you go to do that, but maybe suddenly the drunk's not so drunk anymore, he's got you by the wrist and maybe it's a knife to your throat or maybe it's a bit of mustard under that tatty cloak he's wearing--" Mustard, Bug thinks, Yellowjackets. Damn, I didn't think of that. But Locke is talking more-- "and so now not only are you caught, but I've no scout. I can't make my smash-and-grab because now I've got to get you free. See it?"
Bug nods, and Locke (who does love the sound of his own voice) waves one hand ineloquently in the air while the other sloshes a generous dollop of Jereshti olive oil into the pan, and goes on. "Most other places I'd say you're right-- but in Mara Camorazza you've got to be on your toes. Different scenario," he announces, sweeping the contents of the cutting block into the pan where they immediately start to sizzle. "At Falselight, I'm looking to make first touch with a mark who's meeting me at the Sisal Two-Step pub in the Razona. Calo and Galdo and Jean are inside, Sabetha's going to play the part of convenient distraction, and you're in a second-story window watching the outside of the inn."
"Why am I always the lookout?" Bug interrupts, a bit annoyed, passing Locke the fist-sized bowl full of diced garlic.
"Because you're lookout-sized," Locke says, "and until you grow into your boots, we're going to be needing you high up." A slight furrow appears between his eyebrows, and Bug knows better than to argue with him. Locke reaches for the bowl of mushrooms and yellow pepper and prompts, "Now, the Two-Step." Bug sighs. "You're in a window, you see the mark come into the pub as planned, but after Sabetha goes in behind him you start to see a few men gathering in the alley below. They don't look like they mean anyone any good, and you know if we miss this touch with our mark we're out a few hundred crowns. What's your first move?"
Bug's eyes narrow to slits as he cuts the top off the small red pepper; he's got to be careful not to touch the inside or he'll regret it later, when he inevitably forgets not to rub his eye or his nose and gets a faceful of fire for his trouble. He turns his mind to Locke's question. "Try and hear what they're saying." He knows what Locke's retort will be, so he goes on quickly, "And when I can't, I'll go down and loiter outside the bloody alley looking like a homeless orphan until I can hear what they're saying."
"And when we don't have a lookout to tell us what else is going on outside, what then?" Locke tosses the vegetables into the pan and the air fills with the aroma of spices and fresh fish; Bug moves to wash his hands, trying to ignore the complaining of his empty stomach.
"Isn't the point of a lookout to make sure you don't get any surprises?" he counters.
"It's one," Locke agrees, taking the pan off the heat and starting to spoon the stuffing into the squid heads. "The other reason we have one is so if something does get fucked, we've got a pair of eyes who can tell us where and how so we can try and figure out why."
Bug watches as Locke lays the stuffed heads into a dish, standing back as he throws more water on the slab to heat it anew. When it smokes, he puts the glass dish in the center and stands back, wiping his hands off.
"Well you asked what I'd do," Bug says. Locke steps toward the big table, possibly with the intent of sitting down, and an idea flashes through Bug's mind so fast he hasn't even articulated it before he's moving toward the table as well, trying to look casual. "Guess my answer is I'd do--" he pretends to trip and stumbles into Locke; they go careening into the table, and with a sharp tug the little bag around Locke's neck comes free. He's not trying to hide it; mostly he's proud he managed to get a touch on his garrista without getting his wrist caught mid-grab. So he opens his hand right away, the bag with the shark's tooth (the death price, he's heard the story from the twins) held out on his palm.
"--something unexpected," he finishes, flushed and grinning.
Locke looks down, and Bug sees his eyes go wide, sees a momentary flash of something-- not anger, but maybe genuine shock-- cross his face before it smooths out, and he holds out his hand for what Bug's got caught in his.
"I'm sorry," he says suddenly, dropping it quickly into the outstretched hand and ducking his head. "I just thought-- surprise them, piss them off so much they don't know what to do, or--" he subsides. "I don't know."
"It's fine," Locke says, his expression clearing as suddenly as it had clouded over. "I should've-- damn it," he says, surprising Bug with a little laugh, "what are we teaching you except how to break the rules?" He shakes his head, slipping his hands into his pockets. "You're a natural, Bug."
"...Thanks?" says Bug, cautious, still not sure he's not about to get cuffed.
"Don't. It's going to mean a world of trouble, especially if you tweak the nose of the wrong person. But at least when you do-- and I'm sure you will, sooner or later-- it'll be nothing more than following the fine tradition the rest of us begun when we were your age."
Locke seems to realize he's on the verge of going off on a tangent, but thankfully there's the sound of footsteps on the stairs and Chains bustles in, making an inordinate amount of noise for a man who can move silent as the wind when he wants to. "Smells good," he says, not looking at either Locke or Bug as he moves around the kitchen, looking busy but not actually doing anything.
Locke grins at Bug, then; the lesson's over, and he's done a good job. Now if he can just make it to the part of the evening where he actually gets to eat, Bug thinks, the day will be an all-around triumph.
By the time the squids are done cooking, Chains needs help setting the table and Bug doesn't even bother protesting. He comes to stand by the priest at the open china cupboard, staring at the contents. As Bug came to stand near his elbow, he turned with an absent smile. "Hold out your arms," he says, and Bug knows this ritual well.
Six heavy china plates, on top of those six bowls, and he turns and totters toward the table, sliding them gently onto its polished surface. Above his head the celestial chandelier twinkles, its spheres moving in gentle orbit, and he takes a second to look up and marvel at how far he is from the Cauldron, how far he'd never dreamt he could get.
"Home's sweet, isn't it," Chains says behind him, and Bug turns, hands already outstretched to receive the silverware.
"Better one than I ever had before," he says quietly as he starts to lay the heavy pieces beside each plate; fork, spoon, knife, just so. He can say these things to the old priest, who knows them anyway, he's fairly sure.
"You remember that. It's all well and good to live a rich life, to steal the fine china and the fancy jewelry. But you're a Gentleman Bastard and your loyalty's to those of us that live in this house." Bug starts to say he knows, but then stops, realizing abruptly that he's never quite heard Chains say exactly this before. Not in this many words, at least, and he pauses to think why.
"You wanted to wait and see if I'd get along with everyone," he says slowly, resuming his careful placement of the silverware while his mind whirls.
Chains nods. "If you hadn't, you'd still have a place here, but... not the same one you do now."
"You wouldn't have taken me in if you didn't think I'd fit," he protests, and Father Chains shrugs.
"Shocking as it may seem to you, Bug, my guesses and hunches aren't always right. There were times years ago I thought I'd have to foster Sabetha out for good. And if you weren't a Gentleman Bastard at heart, I'd be planning the same for you."
"But... why are you telling me this?" Couldn't you still end up wrong? he wonders, but doesn't ask aloud.
"Because you're ready to hear it." Chains grins. "Because lucky for all of us, you seem to be just what we never knew we were missing." That seems to be all the information he's getting out of the priest tonight; he passes Bug a pile of napkins, freshly washed, and turns to holler down the stairwell that dinner's served.
They all come to the table then, Calo and Galdo from the depths of the cellar with wine bottles under each arm, Sabetha wandering in from her room tying her hair back with idle fingers, Jean from the upper temple where he'd been closing up for the day. They take their seats at the big witchwood table while Locke brings out the dishes, fragrant steam curling from under their covers. He drops a quick kiss on Sabetha's head, and Bug joins the twins in pantomiming gagging, knowing he's too far away to get smacked in the head for it.
Calo uncorks the wine and Galdo passes it to Chains, who fills six glasses to the brim and passes them around, keeping one for himself. Bug doesn't protest when the fat priest only gives him three fingers' worth; tired as he is, he'd be piss-drunk after any more than that, and he doesn't fancy puking his guts up tomorrow morning.
When Chains passes him the bottle, though, he shoots him a sharp, quizzical look. Chains just smiles, gesturing to the empty glass that sits at the center of the table. "Our blessing, Bug. Be quick, or the food will cool."
Bug's seen them all do this before, but never held the bottle in his hands. He wills them not to shake as he pours, filling the glass to the brim and not a drop spilled.
"A glass poured to air for the one who sits with us unseen." By now Bug can recite this by heart. He thinks he can guess why he's the one saying it tonight; they put him through his paces today, and it serves only to remind him how much he has to be grateful for-- and Chains knows it. Bug clears his throat and continues. "Patron and protector, the Crooked Warden. Father of Necessary Pretexts, keep us in your care."
"We give thanks for deep pockets poorly guarded," the rest intone, and Bug glances around the table, trying not to feel so stupidly happy; Locke's eyes meet his as he passes, and he winks, teasing Bug's grin out of its hiding place.
"Thanks for watchmen asleep at their posts," he says, and they reply, "Thanks for the city to nurture us and the night to hide us."
Finally Bug looks to Chains, who is already sliding a second smaller glass to the middle of the table. "We pour a glass to air for absent friends," he says after he tops off the little cup, adding with an impish smile, "though everyone who's my friend is at this table."
They all grin at him then, except Chains, who tries to look miffed. "That'll do, boy," he says dryly, and Bug takes up his glass to clink it against the rest as they toast to the fellowship of their strange little family.
He gets served first, and doesn't even have to answer a question before he gets to eat.