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The Joker and the Thief

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In the stories Locke's grandma used to tell, castles were the places where heroes rescued princesses — or returned a princess after rescuing her — and they were the place the king and the queen and any associated princesses lived. Princes, too, in theory, but both Locke and his grandmother preferred the stories about miller's sons and penniless orphans inheriting the kingdom thanks to a good heart, a king's gratitude, and a king's smitten daughter. Grandma never spent a whole lot of time on the castles themselves, but his mental image, from the illustrations, was kind of tall and pointy, all spires and pennants and turrets. There'd generally be both forests and mountains in the vicinity. He certainly didn't think of castles as a sequence of squat gray boxes in the middle of a desert.

Figaro Castle wasn't just a big house for a king. It was a town; a very compact town, but the largest in the Figaro desert, and the main hub of trade for the area. Early in the morning, before the desert heat kicked in, the gates of the castle saw a line of travelers — merchants, nomads, farmers, and the occasional oddball like Locke himself without an obvious cargo or reason for being there. His cover was the sheaf of convincing-looking blueprints he carried, rolled-up, under his arm, and the merchant-like getup, complete with turban, that almost all desert travelers wore. Figaro was known to be something of an industrial hub. The manufacturing was done in South Figaro, but the designs all came from the capital, and when Locke came to the front of the line, that would be his explanation. He was an engineer, a designer of machinery looking for work here. Machinery, he reminded himself. Not gadgets or gizmos. Sound technical. Sound educated. Don't let them look at the blueprints too long, either, in case the forgery isn't as good as the price you paid for it. And for hell's sake don't look jittery.

The line was his best friend there. By the time he reached the front of it, nerves had been replaced by boredom, irritation, and discomfort, because it was no longer early morning and the heat felt like a weight bearing down on him. The guards didn't look much happier than he did, when he reached them; they gave his blueprints a cursory glance, gave him a cursory search for weapons, and stamped his fake identification papers without comment.

And there he was in Figaro. Or rather, in a vast stone courtyard just past the checkpoint. There were a few stores, stone buildings with signs painted on the walls, many more little kiosks and stalls, and peddlers who'd just spread out their wares on blankets along the walls. A paradise for a light-fingered traveler without other business here. After a moment, Locke realized that the buyers were a mix of the castle's residents and its visitors; the travelers were all covered up, protecting themselves from sun and sand, while the locals wore far less. They could always duck into the shade or under cover. The merchants in the storefronts were residents, too, no doubt. Locke had started browsing, reflexively, looking for anything interesting, but he wasn't here to chase legends or find hidden gems; he was here to dig up whatever he could about the Figaro war machine, while pretending to be an engineer looking for work.

The rumors about Figaro were a mess. There'd been some kind of succession drama a few years back, when the last king died, and the new king's brother had disappeared after that, though people around South Figaro said he was living somewhere in the vicinity. Since then young king Edgar had ruled unopposed, which made him sound like a ruthless sort who'd banished his own brother; but then all the other reports were that the young king was an idiot, irresponsible, too focused on skirt-chasing to pay any attention to running the country. Ruthless and incompetent could go together, Locke supposed, but it didn't seem likely.

And then there were the rumors that the machines on the market — household appliances, farming equipment, a new kind of steam engine — were just the tip of the iceberg, that the engineers of Figaro had far more up their sleeves. The factories shipped some parts back to the castle, unassembled, and the people who built the civilian equipment said some of the parts that went into those crates didn't look like anything they ever handled. The stories the drunkest and craziest told held that the castle itself was practically a weapons lab, that it sat atop a massive war machine, that decades ago the castle had been fitted out to go underground. Locke wasn't totally sure how that gibed with the king's stupidity, but it was the castle, and not the king, that worried Banon.

His first priority was to find a place to stay. Disappearing into a crowd was great and all, but some things could only be accomplished by sneaking.

 

Or, possibly, by wandering, entirely by chance, through an unmarked but also unlocked door and down a flight of stairs. Into a room that roared with noise that finally resolved itself into the sounds of machinery, more machinery than he'd ever encountered in one place. Jackpot, he thought, trying not to let the face-splitting grin he could feel beneath the surface make it onto his face. It wasn't everything he needed, after all. He couldn't even hear himself think, let alone make sense of the control panel in front of him, the cryptically labeled switches and levers, or the exposed wiring he could see where someone had removed and set aside a panel. Still, this was good, he'd gotten access early to something promising, something they hadn't even been certain existed. Access he probably wasn't supposed to have, so it was time to get the hell out. He'd come back later, when he knew the schedules the guards kept.

He spared enough time for a longing glance at the next door — closed doors always made him curious — and that was where he went wrong, because the door opened, and a young blond man in a grease-stained shirt emerged. "Hello," he said, sounding surprised. "How did you get in here?"

"Through the door and down the stairs," Locke said, flippant, and the other man frowned. Oops. "I was looking for the facilities," he lied, trying to dial it back to "uncertain traveler." "I didn't see any signs or anything saying I should keep out — what is this?"

"The engine room, of course," the blond man said. "How do you think we get running water to run, especially out here?"

"Y'know, I never really thought about it," Locke said, without thinking. Shit. No. His cover — at least he'd left the blueprints in the rented room while he scoped out the place. "That explains it, then. Sorry to intrude!"

"Wait," the man said, and his tone stopped Locke dead, even though Locke's usual reaction to commands and people who gave them was to keep moving in the opposite direction, ideally picking up speed as he did so. "Who are you?"

"Me?" Locke put on his most ingratiating smile. "I'm just a traveler."

"The hell you are." The blond man was advancing on him, and Locke made some swift calculations. The tone of the conversation had taken a turn for the worse, but he didn't want to make a break for it until it was unsalvageable.

"Did I, ah, did I do something to upset you?" Locke asked. He was pretty sure he was still smiling, fixedly, but that kind of worked. He was just an innocent traveler who'd stumbled into the lair of an unpredictable and alarmingly quick-tempered mechanic. Half of that was actually true, so maybe if he emerged from this unmaimed he'd even be able to convince the authorities.

"Who sent you?"

"No one sent me. Unless you mean my family, telling me to find better-paying work or else—"

"Who sent you?"

"No one sent me! What's going on here? I'm sorry I disturbed you, but I swear it was an accident." Maybe it was time to run. There were still crowds to get lost in. Did this guy have a hidden weapon? Who would he run into up the stairs?

"Was it Banon?"

"What?" How did this grease monkey even know that name? Locke folded his arms over his chest. "Who are you?"

"Quiet. I'm asking the questions here. If not Banon, who?"

"Who's Banon?"

"Don't insult me," the blond man said. "Narshe has a non-aggression pact with the Empire, our dearest ally." That sarcastic emphasis was interesting. "Kohlingen's military still hasn't recovered, Doma's too distant— Banon's the only option."

"So, uh, what if this Banon did send me? Whoever he is."

"If he did..." The blond man was standing uncomfortably close, looming, and Locke drew himself up as tall as he could, which wasn't nearly as tall as the other guy, or as tall as he wanted. The other man smirked at him, then turned away, walked a few paces, turned back. His profile looked distinctly familiar, and very striking — like it belonged on coins. "If he did, I might have a message for you to take back to him."

"What?" An extremely unpredictable quick-tempered crazy mechanic, Locke revised. A mechanic who apparently thought he had important things to say to Banon. Who looked just like the king and acted like he owned the joint. Think, Locke told himself. This guy was important, clearly, though surely he wasn't the actual king, maybe some kind of royal cousin or something, and he had at least an inkling of what Locke was doing here. The words he was using said a lot, too. If. Might. They were in the realm of keeping things deniable, now, and Locke might as well forget about cover and start thinking about keeping quiet under interrogation, keeping himself from giving anything away.

"Pay attention, son," the no-way-in-five-hells-he-was-the-king said, and Locke immediately bristled. This guy was barely any older than he was.

"You might have a message," Locke said. He'd been paying plenty of attention, thank you very much. "And you might not. Or you might just be following me back to wherever I'd take that message, so you could turn whoever I take messages to over to your dear ally, right?"

"It's possible."

"Or you might just be bluffing, and you're really just a dangerous lunatic who happens to look a lot like the face on the coins."

"The guards let you in despite your cover story and your faked blueprints," he said, and Locke was pretty sure he turned pale. There was definitely a feeling of blood draining away somewhere. Maybe into the floor. "We don't hire engineers here. We've been watching you since you came through the gates. What's your real name?"

Locke swallowed hard. "How'd..." He cleared his throat. "Did they steer me down here? The guards?" So the crazy greasemonkey king could evaluate him, question him; use him to get a message to Banon, or to bait a trap for Banon and all the Returners. That seemed pretty risky, considering this was their king and all, but he had been patted down on entry. Maybe King Edgar was a hands-on kind of dangerous lunatic.

"No, that was just luck. You were going to be arrested whenever you tried to leave the castle. The fact you headed straight here just confirmed you were spying."

It was hard not to laugh. Luck. He'd never been very good at luck. Grandma always said things work out the way they're meant to work out, which hadn't been much of a comfort the last couple of years, but if Locke had found himself a king of Figaro who wanted to get in touch with Banon, like to help somehow? "What kind of message would you have for Banon?" Locke asked. "You know, hypothetically."

The king eyed him suspiciously, probably worried about his change of tone, the fact he was smiling now.

"Just out of curiosity," Locke elaborated.

"Curiosity. Naturally."

"Because I'm not saying I was spying, but I was snooping, and I was absolutely looking for something like this, all the secret machinery people talk about it," Locke continued, laughter bubbling up through his voice, "but I had no idea I'd find it down here. I thought I'd find either a storage cellar or a privy."

"And entirely by chance..." The king was smiling too, a broad, infectious grin.

"Completely."

"It's too convenient," the king said, briskly, the smile disappearing. "You didn't come here under your own power. Curious travelers ask questions, they pester the guards and staff; they don't sneak in with forged papers."

"I am really determined."

"But if you were an Imperial spy, trying to trap me, surely you'd be better-trained."

"Hey!" Locke wasn't a spy any more than he was a thief, but he didn't appreciate having his skills maligned. "I think I did a pretty damn good job, all things considered. For someone who's not even a spy."

"Surely the Returners aren't so desperate..." He trailed off, leaving Locke fuming but speechless; he'd babbled enough and didn't need to start telling King Edgar about the Returners' military situation or their plans. Surely Figaro's not so broke it needs the king working on the machinery, he thought, spitefully. "Unless they really are. I don't suppose you'll cave and admit your link to them just to satisfy your curiosity?"

"Well, if I was involved in some kind of cloak-and-dagger thing, it'd probably depend on the message." He cleared his throat. "You know, like I asked earlier."

"What kind of message," the king repeated thoughtfully. "Telling you that requires a certain amount of trust on my part, just as delivering it would take some on yours. How would you propose we clear this impasse?"

"You're asking me? How'm I supposed to get a king to trust me? I can barely get cops to trust me."

"I wonder why. You seem like such an upstanding citizen." Before Locke could protest that, too, the king continued, "You'd be an incredibly incompetent spy if you hadn't sorted it out by now, but I'm Edgar." He wiped some of the engine grease on his hand off on his shirt and extended it for a handshake, which was something of a relief because Locke didn't know if you were supposed to bow to kings or what.

"Locke Cole," he replied, taking the king's surprisingly calloused, grease-stained hand.

"Good to meet you," the king said, pleasantly, and without any change in tone, continued, "Teo, if you'll show Mr. Cole here to his cell?"

A guard Locke hadn't heard entering the room approached from behind as Locke turned, taking his arm gently but firmly, for all the world like Locke was a wealthy gentleman who'd had too much to drink at a nice restaurant and started bothering the other guests. "This way, please," he said politely, and Locke, caught up in exactly the kind of social nicety he'd used himself to pick pockets, went along quietly. He'd be investigating the prison cells of Figaro, then. He hoped their locks weren't as advanced as their weapons seemed to be.


It hadn't been the nicest thing to do, no, and worse, it was risky. But so were the other alternatives. Edgar couldn't take a chance on the young man getting away at a time like this. He could be a Returner, young and untrained and exactly as transparent as he seemed. He could be an Imperial spy, trying to smoke out Returner sympathies in Gestahl's puppet king. Or he could be a free agent, spying for the Returners for now but willing to change sides for a generous Imperial payoff.

Edgar needed time. He couldn't go on like this; bending the knee kept Figaro off the Empire's plate for now, but sooner or later, Gestahl's eyes would turn toward Edgar's kingdom. The Empire's expansion had to be stopped, or better, reversed; but Edgar couldn't risk his people's lives and his kingdom's autonomy on a whim, a hope that a snooping pickpocket was in the right man's pay. And he couldn't keep entertaining the ambassadors and signing the treaties of the people who'd murdered his father, not for the rest of his life. He had to do something, and if he was lucky, if Locke Cole was what he seemed, an opportunity had fallen into Edgar's lap. And his dungeon.

But it all seemed too good to be true. Would the Returners really send a spy — a young, untested spy — to investigate Figaro? The idea that Figaro would root out the exiles' resistance group for its ally struck Edgar as absurd, but perhaps the Returners would feel differently. Perhaps. If that was so, how to convince the boy that Edgar truly meant to offer his assistance to them?

He didn't have any answers by nightfall, but that didn't change his plans. He had all the information the guard could dig up on his... prisoner? Guest? Locke Cole was a wanted thief in Narshe and South Figaro, for a string of larcenous offenses and cons, nothing violent. He looked and sounded like someone from Kohlingen; Returner involvement was a distinct possibility, ever since the Empire had leapfrogged over Jidoor and marched up the western coast as far as Kohlingen, but not a certainty. Nor was there any way to guess from a dry file of warrants and interrogations how deep any Returner loyalties ran.

In the end, he'd need to take a risk, one way or another, and hope it paid off. Hope that, if Locke Cole went to the Empire to report Edgar's scheming, it wouldn't be worth Gestahl's time or effort to invade, not yet. Hope there was honor among thieves, and loyalty. Because he couldn't take it much longer, smiling at the ambassador's party and wondering how they'd gotten the poison into his father's wine, shaking Gestahl's hand during a state visit and wondering how it felt to give the order.

He knew what he had to do; he'd known it ever since he saw Teo coming down the stairs and asked him to arrest the intruder. He strapped on his sword, grabbed the little folding crossbow prototype, and pulled his cloak around his shoulders. He needed to go speak to Locke Cole again.


The King of Figaro went around his castle more heavily armed than some men Locke had known who claimed to kill people for money. Then again, he was meeting with a spy — an alleged spy, anyway — he'd just let out of a prison cell. And now here they were atop something with stone deals that might, for all Locke knew, be battlements; a perfect spot to just chuck somebody over the edge. He guessed they were both at risk here, but the king was a head taller than him; Locke didn't think much of his chances in a heaving-people-over-walls competition.

The king didn't say anything when he reached the top of the stairs, after Locke, just walked over to a wall and snuffed out the lantern. Locke frowned at the sudden darkness; he'd been hoping to get himself situated first. He closed his eyes, opened them again — he couldn't remember the proper order, whether keeping them closed helped or not, so best not to be totally blind — and waited for them to adjust. After a moment, he shuffled over to a spot of his own at a wall perpendicular to the king's choice. Edgar still hadn't said anything, and Locke couldn't abide silence, so finally he cleared his throat and said, "So, uh."

"You must have a lot of questions for me."

"Kind of!" He had the distinct impression the king was silently laughing at him. He didn't like this guy very much, not least because of the surprise-prison thing. "First of all, putting a guy in a cell isn't the best way to earn his trust."

"I needed to be sure you didn't make your exit before we had a chance to speak privately."

"You could have asked."

"If I can't trust you not to go to the Empire to tell them their alleged ally is secrety conspiring against them, how can I trust you to stay within my castle's walls?"

"Believe me, your majesty, taking information to the Empire is the last thing I'd ever do."

"No matter the payoff?"

"I don't take blood money," Locke said, because cursing at a king who could pitch you off a roof was not the best response to an insult. He wished he had a better way than cursing and threatening to make it clear he'd been insulted.

"I see. Thank you," the king said. "That's good to know."

Locke's fists unclenched, slightly, more in puzzlement than because he'd been mollified at all. That was a weird way of doing things. "Normally I don't let men walk away from insulting me," he tried, though the line he'd swiped from a massive, one-eyed fellow in Zozo with a voice like a frog's croak sounded significantly less ominous coming from him.

"I'm sure you don't, but normally you don't get insulted by monarchy, do you? Not that you should take it as an honor, or anything, but surely I'm a special case."

"Are you making fun of me?"

"I wouldn't dream of it."

"You are."

"Only a little. Forgive me. I assure you, I'll do my best to stop."

"Even if I don't kill everybody who insults me, you are seriously testing me, your highness."

"No, it's majesty, you had it right the first time," Edgar said.

"So you brought me up here just to joke around? Couldn't you have saved us both the climb? If you've got something to say, say it."

"You're right," the king said. "I apologize. I truly do want to reach Banon. Please, ask me anything you want to know. I need to convince you I'm sincere somehow."

As annoying as the King of Figaro might be, the reminder that he claimed he wanted to contact the Returners was sobering. "Sincere about what? You just said you wanted to contact the Returners. That could mean anything." Locke folded his arms over his chest. Edgar was a gray shape by now, his features just visible in the moonlight.

"I want to offer my assistance. You've seen some hints of Figaro's level of technology. Think what that could mean for Returner troops facing down most powerful military in the world."

It was hard to think of anything else. The Returners were mostly exiles from the southern cities overrun by the Empire — hence the name, after their desire to return to their homelands, return their countries to the control of their own people — and the vast majority had been civilians. Their experience with weapons mostly entailed hunting bows, if that. "It'd be nice," Locke agreed. "So you're answering questions now?"

"I am. Within reason," he clarified.

"I have to ask — why'd you assume Banon, first thing? When you decided I was a spy?"

"Hope." That was it. One word. Locke waited. It was a good word, sure, but it wasn't enough. The king looked at the sky, then back at Locke. "What do you know about the recent history of Figaro?" Edgar asked.

"Um... the exiled brother, that kind of thing? Not much."

"Exile is... not accurate," the king said.

"Okay..." What did Edgar want him to do? Ask more questions? Sit at his feet for storytime? "Does this all have something to do with the Returners, or the Empire, or... what?"

"It does," Edgar said. "Tell me. Your opinion of me wasn't high before you came here, was it?"

"I didn't really have an opinion of you," Locke said. "I do now."

"The rumor I'm an idiot is very carefully cultivated," Edgar said. "Please tell me you heard that one."

"Oh yeah. Everywhere. You're an idiot and a lecher according to half the kingdom."

"Superb," Edgar said. "It's working."

"How wonderful for you."

"I can tell you're losing patience," Edgar said.

"That'd imply I had any patience to start with. Why don't you just get to the point, your highness?"

"That's... difficult. Where to begin..." He lapsed into silence. Locke desperately needed to heave a mighty sigh to vent his frustration with this king, but making a king lose patience with him was a risky proposition, even if the king had already long since pulled off the reverse.

"My father had a brother," Edgar said. "And his brother tried to kill him. So you can see why the Empire would look at a middle-aged king, widowed, with twin sons, his only other heir disqualified, and see an opportunity. Kings' sons traditionally want the crown, and view each other as rivals for it, yes?"

Locke shrugged, then nodded, unsure if Edgar was even paying attention. It sounded reasonable.

"With the family betrayal fresh in our minds, we'd have even less reason to trust each other after our father died. We were sixteen; we'd have been dependent on regents and advisors under any circumstances. If my father died unexpectedly, they could anticipate a struggle for the throne, with the victor weakened by the conflict, and a court split into factions. A young, weak king, easy to manipulate and control, who could trust very few of those around him. Who'd have no choice but to accept any terms the Empire chose to offer."

Locke nodded again. He'd never cared for this kind of story, court politics and intrigue and backstabbing, but Rachel had loved novels like this.

"What they didn't anticipate is that neither of us wanted the throne. My brother lived for his lessons in the martial arts. He loved the mountains. Nothing made him happier than his visits there, training trips with his teacher..." He trailed off. "We both wanted out of here. We didn't want to take over the throne — it felt tainted by Father's murder, like we'd be benefiting from the crime, and we both wanted to live our own lives. We didn't want the responsibilities; we were too young to be ready for them."

The king pulled something small out of his pocket, holding it between thumb and forefinger, then turned it over.

"So we settled it with a coin toss. And he won his freedom. That's why he left. He didn't want to be here anymore, to be reminded of Father, to be expected to play a role in the state funeral and have everyone watching him. He wanted to get away, and I didn't want to force him to stay by my side just so I'd feel better." That must be what he had in his hand, a coin; he flipped into the air, caught it, and tucked it away without looking at it.

"What about you, your Majesty?" The king glanced at him sharply, and Locke elaborated. "He wanted to live in the mountains, do martial arts, I guess? What did you want to do?"

The king turned toward the stone wall, resting his arms atop it. He leaned against it, looking out, for long enough Locke was starting to think he'd just exercised his royal privilege to ignore a mere peasant. With his face turned away, Locke barely heard his answer when he did speak. "The city," Edgar said. "Jidoor, maybe."

"Jidoor?"

Edgar turned back, facing Locke. "I wanted to live in a city, design machinery — I can do that here, but it's not the same. I don't need to, I could spend my free time on Doman paper-folding here, for all it matters. I wanted to open a shop, maybe, or work for a firm. A gunsmith... I was fifteen, sixteen, my ideas were vague. I wanted to make bits of metal work together to do what I asked of them. I wanted to get my hands dirty working with machinery. I'd finish an honest day's work and go out to a cafe, sip espresso and watch the ladies walk by on the street. I'd be just like anyone else, and if I succeeded, it'd be because I'd earned it. There are other engineers here, but I'm the king. No one tells me my ideas are stupid."

"Um... maybe they're not?" Locke said. "I don't know."

"And your cover story was as an engineer." He sounded tolerantly amused, like Locke was a dumbass younger brother, and somehow Locke found it harder to resent now.

"It was a cover story! I was gonna fake it better than this if I thought I had a chance of selling it." The king's story was still on his mind. "So you and your brother were close?"

"We were twins," he said. "Are twins. Yes, we were close. We were always together. Our father —" He stopped, abruptly, then spoke again a moment later. "Family murders and betrayals weren't traditional, for us. When my uncle arranged the assassination, Father couldn't even have him executed. It broke his heart, and then less than a year later—" His voice might have been suspiciously thick, but if he was actually crying, he hid it well.

Locke sighed, not at all stifled this time. Now all the talking in circles and building up and avoiding it made more sense. His own father wasn't much to write home about in retrospect. He had a lot of memories of Dad disappearing for a while, then wandering in, sometimes broke and worse for wear if not actually drunk, sometimes with money of uncertain origin that made Grandma frown and led to a lot of whispered conversations when they thought he was asleep. But as a kid he'd taken it all for granted. He'd loved the grand adventures they had when Dad was around, swiping laundry from clotheslines, apples from trees, toys or candies or cheap jewelry from vendors' stalls and blankets and kiosks, just like the ones he'd seen this morning in the Figaro courtyard. He'd loved the old man for all his failings. And Grandma, with her stories, half-read, half made-up-as-she-went-along; losing her just to old age had been bad enough. And he still couldn't even mention Rachel's name without getting choked up, or angry, or both at once. "And you didn't have any choice but to ally with the Empire, did you?" he said. "It was that or they'd invade."

"So now I'm selling them military technology at a fraction of its worth, and hosting Gestahl's dignitaries, never knowing which of them might have actually poisoned my father."

Locke sighed again. If it was an act, it couldn't have been designed better to hit him where he lived, and he'd just have to hope he wasn't being followed when he went back to headquarters this time. "Yeah, I get it," Locke said. "I understand completely. I'll take your message to Banon."