Father Chains had been dead for six weeks. Jean had barely left his room for five.
“Do you need me to put a slot in the door so we can shove your meals through it?” Locke asked, banging on the door. “Need me to change your piss pot?”
“I could throw it at your face.” Jean’s voice was muffled.
“At least I’d know you’re still alive! Gods, I miss Chains too, but hiding in your room like a boy discovering his hand won’t bring him back.”
“There’s no need to worry, Locke, I haven’t turned into you.”
If Jean wouldn’t put up with Locke’s moods, he wouldn’t put up with Jean’s. Locke took out a pick and slid it into the keyhole.
“Don’t you dare!”
The final tumbler clicking into place, Locke kicked the door open. He caught Jean at his desk, rising quickly so he could obscure Locke’s view of whatever was behind him.
“What are you hiding?” Locke asked. Every time he moved his head, Jean adjusted how he was standing.
“My grieving process.”
Locke quickly glanced to the right, catching a glimpse of paper. “Is that a manuscript?”
“It’s a play in the style of Lucarno.”
“I didn’t know you wrote.”
“I didn’t, until five weeks ago.” Jean stepped forward until he was looming over Locke. “Now leave, so I can finish it, then stuff it in a drawer and never look at it again.”
“What’s it about?”
Jean sighed. “An evil witch reincarnates herself in the body of a beautiful young princess and falls in love with her loyal bodyguard.”
That was not the heist story with an occasional opening for a stage fight Locke was expecting. “Can I read it?”
“You’ll find it boring.”
“Then I’ll lie and say it’s the most incredible play I haven’t slept through.”
Turning back to his manuscript, Jean carefully assembled some fifty pages and handed them over to Locke. “Here’s the first two acts. If you spill anything on them, I’ll have your balls for ink pots.”
“What if it’s a little spill? Is that worth just one ball?”
Jean put his hands on Locke’s shoulders and spun him around. “Out. Never pick the lock on my door again.”
Locke walked into the kitchen, which still had the wreckage of an old dinner on the counter. Forgotten anchovies stared up at him, nestled with wilted artichokes. It’d been days since anyone had tried to cook anything; Locke kept going to a nearby stand that was probably feeding him rats in oil. After pouring himself some wine, he made himself comfortable at the table. Drinking always improved the theater.
SCENE I. Therim Pel. A royal bedroom.
Enter EVIL WITCH.
Such a lovely thing! Ah, to be the daughter of an emperor. To know that all the glories of the world are mine, at but the flick of my wrist. Her birth is wasted on her, and mine to take.
Mother? Is that your voice I hear? I swear I feel an evil chill.
Mother? No! ‘Tis your doom!
Impressively, Jean had written in Throne Therin. He was even using a period hand, a trick Father Chains had taught him when—damn. Locke tried to lose himself in the play, or at least the wine. Jean hadn’t been wrong about Locke finding it boring.
SCENE V. Therim Pel. Another royal bedroom.
(whispered) He loves the princess, not me! And yet I could die of my love for him. Fortissio, my heart, forgive me for coming to this world as a shadow!
Just as if he were reading a real Lucarno, Locke found himself nodding off. He skimmed the rest of the pages. Even unfinished, Locke could tell that the witch and the bodyguard would die tragically right after consummating their love. The timeless message would be about not cheating death by possessing someone else’s body, or maybe something a little more general, like honesty. Even Lucarno had never sounded so much like Lucarno.
The play was a masterpiece. Locke stood up, accidentally knocking over his wine. He caught it just in time to prevent total disaster, but there was a damning splash of red over Fortissio’s love confession. “Fuck me,” Locke hissed. Picking up the manuscript, he ran back to Jean’s bedroom and pounded on the door.
“Open up, Jean, so I can kiss you!”
The door flew open. Jean’s eyes flicked over the manuscript. “Is that a fucking wine stain?”
“It’s part of the provenance!” Locke waved the manuscript in Jean’s face. “You’ve created the first new Lucarno in hundreds of years.”
“It’s not—” Pausing, Jean raised his eyebrows. “You want to pass it off as real.”
“How much would you pay for a genuine, miraculously recovered missing play? A thousand crowns? Ten?”
“A missing Lucarno would be priceless,” Jean replied.
“Twenty!” Locke began speaking in rapid patter. “As soon you’re done, I’m dipping the whole thing in coffee and setting a corner on fire.”
“Offloading a new Lucarno wouldn’t be easy.”
“Haven’t you been itching to do something that doesn’t involve a pen?”
“No,” Jean muttered, though Locke could see his resolve already wavering.
“Would you rather go to the whorehouse?”
“And run into Calo and Galdo?” Jean grimaced. “There’s no woman beautiful enough to distract me from the Sanza nose.”
“Then pull off the greatest forgery in the history of theater with me. Give people the show they never knew they wanted.”
“You don’t know enough about Lucarno to sell a play that never existed.”
“But you do!” Locke took hold of Jean’s shirt, imploring him in proper theatrical fashion. “We’ll reverse our usual roles. You, the intellectual forced into selling your most treasured possession, by me, your slimy, greedy friend.”
“So, we’d be playing ourselves.”
“It’s just the sort of thing to get the two of us warmed up to crime again.”
As he took the manuscript back, Jean said, “Admit you were bored.”
“Transcendently bored! It felt like people had been performing it badly for centuries.”
Finding the right mark was all a matter of location. Gamblers were always desperate, but Jean pointed out that they needed someone with more discerning taste, who had a reputation for selling what had never been for sale. That brought them to the parlor of Cadenza Vidalin, the youngest scion of a notable merchant house, collector of imperial Therin engravings and owner of a box seat at the Spectacle Theatre.
Cadenza didn’t bother greeting them, though she did gesture for Jean and Locke to sit. She looked around thirty, and dressed in a particularly dour shade of blue. “Tell me about your mysterious play,” she said.
“It’s of incalculable historical value,” Locke replied.
“You know, every time I’ve heard something described like that, it’s been shit.”
“It is,” Jean declared, “a handwritten edition of a lost Lucarno.”
Cadenza’s expression remained unchanged. “I would be more confident in the legitimacy of a printed folio.”
“There were no printing presses in Therim Pel,” Jean said.
“No, but surely there would have been incunabula of a true Lucarno.”
Locke was totally lost. Fortunately, Jean wasn’t. “And had any of them survived, the play would have been performed a hundred times over by now. The hand-copied nature of the manuscript testifies to its rarity.”
“I may be willing to follow your logic,” Cadenza said. “How did you get it?”
“Inherited,” Locke answered. “My good friend here, Rolf, comes from a very old and eccentric family in Tal Verrar. When his uncle died with no heirs, he gave everything to Rolf with a single condition … that the trunk this manuscript was held in be destroyed. Thankfully, Rolf was not fond enough of his uncle to obey his wishes.”
“It’s possible the play was ignored,” Jean said, pained, “because it wasn’t his best work.”
“You’re already trying to sell me shit, which is interesting.”
“Even Lucarno’s worst bout of indigestion would be the talk of Camorr,” Locke replied.
Cadenza held out her hand. “Well then, let me see it.”
With great ceremony, Jean took the manuscript out of his valise. The first thing Cadenza did was feel the weight of the paper and frown. “A little early for paper, but not impossible,” she said. Locke tried to hide his impatience as Cadenza perused the pages. “Oh, here’s a wine stain. It reads enough like Lucarno that you couldn’t prove it illegitimate. How much are you asking?”
Locke grinned. “Fifteen thousand crowns. We need the money quite quickly, so we’re willing to undersell.”
“I won’t pay that much for this.” She also couldn’t afford to pay that much for it, if Jean’s estimation of her accounts was correct.
“You have connections who would, and we’d let you take home five thousand as a brokerage fee. Though the play can’t leave our hands until the sale, of course.”
Cadenza looked from the play, to Jean, and then leveled her full suspicion on Locke. “Give me a week to feel out a buyer—I don’t want this ‘Lucarno’ associated with me, should it prove a fake.”
“It’s not a—” Jean began.
“Absolutely not a fake, but we understand,” Locke replied. “You must protect your own interests.” He snatched the manuscript away. “As must we.”
They took their leave of Cadenza, and stepped into the brisk winter cold as Falselight descended on Camorr. Locke always spent the season, brief as it was, vaguely miserable. Flipping up his collar, he asked, “Do you think Cadenza saw through us?”
“Probably. We should’ve put the damn thing on vellum, not that I was up for it.”
“The play’s not that bad, you know,” Locke said.
“I do know. You have no taste.”
Being out with Jean again felt like waking up for the first time in weeks.
Four days later, a messenger came to the rented rooms of Rolf and his avaricious friend Maurizio. The letter announced that Cadenza had found a potential buyer, and that they were to meet her at her home that night, dressed for a masque.
“That makes things easier,” Locke said. “Less chance of being recognized. I think I’ll go as a weasel.”
“I don’t trust masques. Half the time, they’re an orgy.”
“What are you getting that idea from? Lucarno? We’ve never been to an orgy.”
“How do you know I haven’t been to one?”
“Have you?” Locke asked.
“It won’t be an orgy.”
They went back to the House of Perelandro to choose from Chains’s old collection of costumes. All of them would be out of fashion, which suited Rolf and his attractively meager purse.
A sign of a Sanza visit was in the sink—a new set of leftovers, and an empty brandy bottle.
“At least they’re still alive,” Locke remarked, holding his nose away from the scent of mussels going off.
“No, I think the mussels are dead.”
“May Aza Guilla guide the wasted to a gentle rest.”
Locke put on the promised weasel, while Jean was stuck with the only costume big enough for him. It was a brilliant red velvet, with sleeves full enough to fit the Wicked Sisters. The mask was a skull, with thin black silk covering the eyeholes. Hopefully, their potential buyer wasn’t shy of giving a vast sum to a walking bad omen. The fact that Jean had to fit his optics underneath the mask did little to make him less imposing. Jean stowed the manuscript in his costume, adjusting his belt to hold everything together tightly.
A servant in a berry tarte costume greeted them at Cadenza’s door and dashed off to fetch her. Cadenza appeared shortly, dressed as a shark rising out of the water of her skirts. A hook in her upswept hair completed the look. She pursed her lips as she took in their costumes.
“That’s not very fitting for an orgy,” she said to Jean. She nodded at Locke. “Yours will do.”
He must have misheard. No one conducted business at orgies. Locke certainly didn’t want to conduct business at an orgy, which probably had more sweaty, straining bodies than a public bath. “Pull the other one. Where are we really going?”
“An orgy. Don’t worry, you don’t have to participate.”
“This isn’t something I wanted to be right about,” Jean whispered as they joined Cadenza in the carriage.
“Glad we’re covered head to toe … who knows what people will be flinging around.”
“Oil, mostly,” Cadenza said.
“Great,” Locke replied. “Will the orgy attendants be upset if I fill up a flask as I go? Unless it’s not the edible kind.”
Cadenza smiled. “Everything at a proper orgy, my dear, is edible.”
“And is our buyer,” Jean asked, voice and mask creating an exasperated spectral visitation, “going to be in the middle of the orgy?”
“He’s merely hosting.” Cadenza pulled the carriage’s curtains shut. “But he wishes to remain anonymous, hence the timing.”
“Nothing awkward at all about walking through an orgy filled with strangers,” said Locke.
“As opposed to an orgy with friends and your fifty best acquaintances?” Cadenza asked.
“At least I’d know who had the clap!”
“If you’re so concerned for your cock,” Cadenza said, “don’t fuck anyone. If you’d rather be left completely alone, you could pretend to be a couple. Or openly be a couple—I don’t presume to know your relationship.”
For a moment, Locke had the rare feeling of not knowing what the hell to say. Would lovers be more convincing than friends? Could Locke convince Cadenza they weren’t lovers? Or should he let Cadenza keep drawing her own conclusions about Rolf and Maurizio? He felt … flanked.
“It’s complicated,” Jean replied, fixing the hole in their backstory with two words.
Jean and Locke were best friends; that was as uncomplicated as it got. Was it uncomplicated? Locke hadn’t known what to do with himself while Jean was locking himself up in his room. They were best friends: inseparable, and incredibly good at working together. Jean made up for Locke’s weaknesses (fighting), and Locke made up for Jean’s (lying). It was a wonderful partnership. And if Locke sometimes had dreams about Jean sucking his cock, that was just a funny little thing about sleep.
Locke leaned against the sides of the carriage, crossing his arms and pretending to nap so he wouldn’t have to speak to anyone.
After about half an hour, the carriage stopped in an enclosed courtyard. Locke took a quick look at their surroundings, dissatisfied that he recognized none of the distant roofs. Chains would’ve known exactly where they were.
The servant who greeted them was out of costume, and looked bored. Probably just a normal day for him. “You’re late,” he said. “You’ll have to use the side entrance.”
As they traveled down the unfinished hallways for the mansion’s staff, Locke stayed close to Jean. The mask kept Locke from reading his friend’s face, and he was relying on Jean to cover for any knowledge he was missing.
“Your buyer,” Locke said, running his hand along the expensive wallpaper that marked the start of the mansion proper. “Is he often a patron of the arts?”
“Yes,” Cadenza replied. “And you’ll never know who he is.”
“Don’t touch the wallpaper,” the servant huffed.
If Cadenza hadn’t told him about the orgy, Locke might have never noticed. They passed by their share of costumed nobles, but they went by without a word, though several made a point of walking very slowly past Jean.
“You could be quite popular, Rolf,” Cadenza said.
“He’s not that handsome with the mask off,” Locke muttered. “It’s just making him mysterious.”
Cadenza chuckled. Before Locke could reply, the night finally took a turn for the orgiastic. A drunk, naked woman came out of a nearby doorway, supported by a man without breeches on, and another one without a shirt.
“Oh my,” she drawled, running her hand over Jean’s bicep. “I love a man with some flesh on his bones.”
“Perelandro’s peppered anus,” Locke said, yanking Jean away, “he’s not on the dinner menu.”
“Beg your pardon,” she replied, waving at him while her men guided her down the hall. “Hope your asshole unclenches soon, sir.”
“Peppered anus?” Jean asked. “What the hell was that?”
“Lady and gentlemen,” the servant announced, turning the handle on a door, “we’ve reached my master’s study. Please watch your language.”
The study was decorated with imperial Therin paintings, vases, bronzeware, and any convincingly preserved scrap that may have come from Therim Pel. Their host was of unmemorable build, dressed hardly better than one of his servants and wearing a completely blank mask, its eyeholes the only detail. Guards were stationed all over the room, both in front and behind. Locke looked nervously to Jean, but the skull revealed nothing. If the buyer was anything but paranoid, they’d stepped into shit.
“Thank you for coming,” said the buyer. “My methods of doing business are eccentric, I know.”
“Where’s the money?” Locke asked.
Clasping his hands behind his back, the buyer replied, “Where’s the Lucarno?”
Jean loosened his belt and took the manuscript out of his costume. “The crowns, please.”
A guard stepped forward with a chest. Opening it up, he revealed a gleaming assortment of coins and ran his hand through them to show that there was no false bottom. Jean exchanged the Lucarno for the chest.
“We’ll take our leave,” Jean said. “It was a pleasure.”
The buyer leafed through the manuscript, pausing at the wine stain. “It’s as I thought. Interesting thing about the Throne Therins is that they preferred beer to wine.”
Cadenza grabbed Locke tightly enough to knock the breath out of him. “Don’t move,” Cadenza whispered, holding a dagger to his throat.
“Jean!” Locke called out. Jean drew the Wicked Sisters as all six of the guards readied for a fight.
“Your companion’s worthless to us,” Cadenza told Jean. “I’ll slit his throat the moment you try to fight.”
“You wrote the Lucarno, didn’t you?” asked the buyer. “It’s excellent work. I want more. Unfortunately, a collaborative relationship costs more than I can currently afford. I am willing to make a small compromise … if you write me another, I’ll spare your friend and release you from the prison cell I’m putting you in. It’s uncomfortably cold and damp at this time of year.”
Cadenza cut Locke off by shoving the hilt of the dagger against his windpipe.
“What will you do with my friend?” Jean growled.
“House him with you, of course,” the buyer answered. “It’s only right to keep your motivation where you can see it.”
“And how long will I have to write the play?”
“Forever, potentially. But only a week if you want your friend to live. I only need two Lucarnos—any more than that would make people suspicious. Cadenza and I have every intention of releasing you two when you’re finished. We’re greedy, not bloody-minded, and any attempt to expose us would expose yourselves as well. We may even give you a small cut if you’re very, very, good.”
“That means no escape attempts,” Cadenza added.
“Don’t agree to it,” Locke said, struggling to breathe under the hilt’s pressure. “You can take them.”
Jean set down the Sisters. “Hurt him, and I’ll strangle you all.”
Cadenza knocked Locke’s mask off and shoved a soaked cloth against his face. “Good night, ‘Maurizio.’”
Locke woke up nauseated, his throat raw like he’d gargled with sharkskin. The warm and solid presence at his right side was Jean, who looked of a hell of a lot better off than Locke. His failed struggle against Cadenza had bloodied his lip and punched his pride in the gut.
He looked away to survey their cell. It was as cold and damp as promised, with a narrow, tall window and a solid iron door, with a grille for passing food. Wind howled through the latrine, promising to freeze his balls off the next time he had to shit. Locke groaned and hugged his knees, resting his chin on them.
“You could’ve taken them all on and won,” he muttered.
“Yes, and you’d be dead. I couldn’t hit Cadenza without risking you.”
A point, but not a convincing one. Locke trusted Jean more than that. “You should have.”
“Losing Chains was enough,” Jean said firmly. “We’ll get out of this.”
“I don’t see any bloody exits.”
Rising to his feet, Jean held out his hand to pull Locke out of his huddled sulk. “Help me check the window.”
Locke clambered onto Jean’s shoulders and peeked out the window. There was just enough light left for him to see the sheer sides of the mansion and the fatal drop to the cobblestones. Even worse was how isolated their cell was; it was unlikely any servants would pass within shouting range.
“Well,” Locke said, hopping down, “if we get desperate enough, I can crawl through the latrine and find the Sanzas.”
It’d been two weeks since the last confirmed Calo and Galdo sighting, when Locke had caught them raiding the kitchen for more wine.
“They may notice we’re gone before then,” said Jean.
“I doubt it.” Locke frowned. “They were with Chains even longer than we were.”
Crossing his arms, Jean replied, “The old man wouldn’t have wanted us acting like this.”
“Good thing he’s too dead to be disappointed,” Locke snapped. “We should’ve been able to pull this off. That fucking wine stain.”
“He was talking out his ass,” said Jean. “They drank wine in Therim Pel, as well as anything else they could get their hands on. He just made a lucky guess on the forgery.” Jean looked to the small writing desk with a supply of paper, pens, and ink that was in the opposite corner from the latrine. “I should get started on the ‘Lucarno.’”
While Jean went to the work of keeping them alive, Locke focused on getting them out. Every nook and cranny in the cell was inspected for signs of weakness. He examined the single cot in the room, tearing a hole in it so he could feel up every shred of stuffing. The cot might have been big enough for Jean, if he were a smaller man, although Locke had no intention of sleeping separately, not with as fucking cold as it was.
Locke pulled himself up to the window again by digging his toes into the wall, so he could pointlessly yell at servants from out the window. “I’ll make you a rich man!” didn’t work, if they heard him at all. The cell was simple, but secure. Still, breaking out would have been easy, if someone hadn’t found every hidden pick and weapon on Locke’s body, and even taken his belt. They’d done the same to Jean. Cadenza or the buyer must have connections with the Right People, which Locke would tell Barsavi the moment they escaped.
Even if Locke and Jean had wanted to cooperate, the buyer wouldn’t keep to his word. It was easier to just kill them and dump the bodies, rather than trusting that mutual dishonor would be enough to keep them silent. Had Jean and Locke been locked up two months ago, he’d have been confident they’d get out. Chains would never let them rot in a cell for long, and the Sanzas would have been protecting them from the shadows. But Chains was dead, and maybe the Bastards had gone with him.
Locke had always expected to go out on a grand scheme, rather than failing at a simple con just because he was distracted. Even Sabetha’s departure hadn’t cut so deeply. At least everyone left had stuck together, and she was still alive, somewhere. Locke sat in the center of the cell and angrily threw loose pieces of brick at the metal door.
“If you’re going to have a tantrum,” said Jean, “could you at least do it in tune? I have a week to imitate a master of the form.”
Nothing happened. Jean kept working on his play, finishing a rough draft within a few days. He wouldn’t let Locke see it and described it as ‘catastrophic.’ Twice a day, candles, food, and water were shoved through the grille. The food wasn’t terrible—it was simple stuff from the servants’ table. Their buyer must not keep enough hostages to bother fixing properly disgusting prison food. On the third day, the buyer demanded to see the manuscript. Jean fed half the pages through the grille.
“I hope this is a draft,” the buyer said.
“It’s a draft,” Jean replied. “I edit, unlike that hack Wrentray.”
“Make sure that you do.”
The moment the buyer was out of hearing, Jean kicked the door. “That condescending, tasteless sack of pig’s spit. He makes me pull down the moon, then complains his ass is cold because it’s not as hot as the sun.”
“You should add him to your play and make him die choking on oil at an orgy,” Locke said.
“But oil’s a lubricant.”
“Not if you have enough of it.”
Jean gave him a weak smile, then went back to working on the ‘Lucarno.’ They hardly spoke during the day, which left Locke bored enough to look longingly at the latrine. Would swimming in freezing shit really be worse than spending another day with nothing but the noise of Jean’s pen scratching at paper?
Locke tried the old trick of faking a fit, foaming at the mouth while Jean yelled that he was dying. A woman came to the grille and told them that nature had to take its course. Likewise, Jean’s imitation of a heart attack got no help. The same woman came back and told them that if they came down with one more malady, she’d put them out of their misery with poisoned food.
When Jean grew too tired to write, they slept back-to-back on the cot, using their doublets for the worst blankets. If Jean stirred in his sleep, which he often did, his ass shoved Locke to the floor. So, Locke turned around, fixing the ass problem and the Locke-being-cold problem, but introducing a new problem: Locke enjoyed it, even with Jean’s morning wood poking at him. They didn’t discuss it. Discussing it might mean choosing the ass problem over the cock problem, and Jean’s cock had yet to push Locke out of bed.
On the fifth night, Locke was startled out of his deep, rewarding study of moonlight over brick by Jean putting his hand on Locke’s elbow.
“What do we have?” Jean asked.
Jean hadn’t moved his hand yet; it was just there, doing nothing, drawing all of Locke’s attention. “Two more days until I have to crawl through a latrine.”
“Or two days left before bad writing gets you killed.”
Laughing, Locke said, “You don’t think I’m immortal? After everything I’ve bullshitted my way out of?”
“If you were immortal, you wouldn’t lose so many fights.”
Not eager to have a conversation where neither of them was facing each other, Locke turned around. There was just enough room if Locke hiked his leg over Jean’s. “Those are wins, not losses. You always come to save me.”
“Maybe that’s why Cadenza thought we might be a couple.”
The nice thing about being in near darkness was that Jean probably couldn’t tell that Locke was blushing. “She was fucking with us, Jean.”
“What was the point?” Jean sighed, looking more at the ceiling than at Locke. “I kept thinking of you while I wrote. The protagonist’s a moody orphan who’s scheming her way through high society, and her best friend never leaves her side. The Sanzas crept in, Sabetha, even Chains. I wrote about all of them, but you’re different.”
Jean couldn’t be going where Locke thought he was going with this. They were close, but that was because they complemented each other so well. They were certainly unusually close right now, practically glued together to fit on the same undersized cot.
There was such a long, awkward pause that Locke nearly turned over to fail at sleep again before Jean continued.
“The play has to be a tragedy for the plot to work,” Jean said. “Orazio and Mara each die to protect the other, without ever revealing their true feelings.”
Locke had admitted his feelings to Sabetha many times, before things went completely sideways. Orazio and Mara had had the right idea from the start.
“Why’d you start a tragedy?” asked Locke. “Lucarno wrote comedy and romance, too.”
“Because you might die, and I’d rather join you than go on alone.”
“You’d still have the Sanzas,” Locke replied, desperately searching for a way to avoid the feeling Jean was about to express. Locke wished himself an even greater share of emotional denseness. Jean was only trying to make Locke feel better about their situation, with the small cot and the frustrating cell and the potential death in two days. Jean would never actually follow Locke to his death, because that was stupid, and Jean was smart.
“They’re not you, Locke. How many times do I have to say it? Reject me if you want, but at least respond to what I’m saying.”
Locke wanted to gnash his teeth. Rejection was not a concept he liked to think about, ever. He tucked his head under Jean’s chin, which was out of the ordinary, but not as much as continuing to look at Jean while he talked about rejection. “You’re telling me the plot of a play,” Locke mumbled. He felt Jean’s breathing quicken.
“Are you going to make me confess?”
Confession was even worse than rejection. You had to have the confession before the rejection, and now there was going to be one of the damn things hanging around, like an innocent lamb scampering into a slaughterhouse. Locke didn’t want the confession, except he really, really did.
“Yes,” Locke replied, “because you’re being too damn indirect about something so important that I’m about to jump into a shitpit to avoid listening to you circling the point for another second.”
He’d do it. Avoiding feelings and proving a point were worth far more to him than being free of effluvia.
“I’m giving you space to misinterpret me,” said Jean.
Locke pushed himself up on one arm. Jean looked worried, as he so rarely did, because he had never been in this situation before. But Locke knew what it was like to confess to a friend and hope that he hadn’t just ruined everything, that there might still be a friendship left behind. Except there wasn’t any walking back from it—you just had to jump and hope for a soft landing.
“I don’t want to!” Locke said. “I love you, too. We both already knew that, though we don’t talk about it. So, what’s different now? You want to fuck me? Good.”
Now that Locke had shoved things out into the open, Jean smiled. “You’re ruining the romantic setup.”
“Then make me shut up. Romantically.”
Jean slid his hand against the back of Locke’s neck, as Locke leaned down so their lips met. They started slow, unlike Locke’s rabbiting heart. He was kissing Jean, and if everything ended in disaster, Locke would probably move to Tel Verrar and drink his way through a few thousand crowns. Gods, Jean was good with his tongue.
The twine holding up the cot’s mattress sounded about to snap as Jean wrapped his arm around Locke’s waist to keep him from falling off the damn bed like he’d done a dozen times before. After pulling up Jean’s shirt, Locke slid his hand down his breeches, feeling his friend’s cock swelling under his fingers with the first stroke. Jean groaned and shifted forward, nearly pitching Locke out of bed.
“I’ve got you,” Jean said, as Locke clung to him with his free hand.
“We need to change position,” Locke replied. “I don’t favor landing on the floor cock-first.”
Jean thought for a moment. “You should get on your hands and knees.”
“Only if you’ve been hiding a nice flask of extra virgin this whole time, and I’m not feeling much other than dick down here.”
“I’m not sticking anything up your ass.”
Locke took his hand out of Jean’s breeches. “Why not?” Locke had a fine ass—well, he hadn’t checked it in the mirror lately, but he was reasonably fit and healthy. He’d penetrate himself, if he could. There was a man down by the Snare who’d fuck himself for five coppers, according to the Sanzas.
“Unless you’ve changed your mind,” Jean said softly, “trust me for a few seconds and drop your breeches.”
“Fine,” Locke huffed.
Locke nudged Jean out of the way so he’d have room to go on his knees. It was a relief to tug his breeches down, because despite the cold air and feeling awkward as hell, his cock was painfully hard. He rested his head between his crossed arms, flushing as Jean’s warm hand pushed Locke’s shirt up and then trailed down his side.
“Keep your thighs together,” said Jean.
The next thing Locke heard was Jean shoving down his own breeches and spitting in his hand. Jean held Locke by the hips, gently. Locke wanted more than that—he wanted to feel a little of the strength that had kept him safe for years.
“Don’t go easy on me,” Locke mumbled.
“Whatever pleases you,” Jean replied, tightening his grip until Locke’s hips throbbed and his shoulders relaxed.
Jean slowly pressed his spit-slickened cock between Locke’s thighs. “Oh,” Locke gasped. He felt Jean’s belly push against his ass as he gradually started thrusting harder, his cock brushing against Locke’s balls as he guided Locke’s hips into the right rhythm. “Shit. Fuck!” Jean wrapped his hand around Locke’s dick and started to jerk him off. “Oh fuck,” Locke groaned, burying his head against the mattress as he thrust into Jean’s hand.
“Shh,” Jean said, slowing down. “That woman will think you’re faking death again.”
“I don’t—ah, fuck you, Jean—sound like I’m dying.” Locke was more aware than ever of how big Jean’s hands were, as he palmed Locke’s cock and dragged blunt nails down his shoulder. He couldn’t hold back a whimper when Jean pinched his nipple.
“You sound even better than I thought you would,” Jean said, “and I’ve had years of practice imagining this.”
Locke bit down on his lip, wondering how damn long Jean had wanted him. His thighs were getting wet, soaked by pre-come and Jean adding more spit. It thrilled him, to feel both used and adored, and he started grinding back against Jean’s cock.
“Perelandro’s sake, Jean, I wish you were fucking my ass.”
Tucking some of Locke’s hair behind his ears, Jean whispered, “As soon as we get back.” Breathing heavily, Jean leaned forward so he could brace his free hand along the far edge of the cot. He fucked Locke’s thighs even harder, making Locke a moaning, babbling mess. Locke bit down on his bunched-up shirt when Jean’s thumb passed over his cockhead, which finally brought him off. He felt drained, light-headed and far too happy to be imprisoned.
Jean grabbed Locke’s ass, feeling him up while he quickly jerked himself off. All those times when Jean had helped Locke climb a wall by pushing on the seat of Locke’s breeches must have been deeply sexually frustrating, just like that time Locke had gotten a hard-on while Jean was carrying him over his shoulder. Jean’s grunt brought Locke back to the present and the feel of a few drops of come hitting his thigh.
“Sorry,” Jean said, wiping sweat off his forehead with his shirtsleeve. “I was aiming for the mattress.”
Locke rubbed his leg clean on the mattress and was about to pull his breeches back up when he heard pounding on the door. His heart nearly stopped as he rushed to get his clothes on and tuck his shirt in properly.
“Are you two finished?” Galdo called out.
Being nearly decent except for his missing doublet, Locke rushed to the door. “We haven’t finished escaping, if that’s what you’re asking,” Locke said, leaning casually against the wall.
“What about the fucking?” Calo said. “I accidentally saw Jean’s cock once and it nearly poked my eye out.”
“We weren’t fucking,” Locke insisted.
“Come down with the catarrh, Locke?” Calo replied. “Impersonating a cat?”
“Don’t worry about us, my friend,” said Galdo. “We forgive you for seducing Jean.”
The Sanzas finally opened the door. They had dressed for a night of respectable company and smelled only faintly of the brothel. Locke felt something awkward coming on, which turned out to be the Sanzas pulling him into a hug. They went for Jean next, nearly knocking the optics off his face as he tried to put them back on.
“Sorry about that,” Galdo said, clearing his throat. “The feelings.”
“We got pent up and stupid without the old man around,” Calo added. “But then we spent nearly a week looking for you two, and it turns out you were just playing tickle the sausage.”
“Did you even have an escape plan?” asked Galdo.
“Crawling through the latrine,” Locke answered, casually trying to make his hair look less tousled.
The Sanzas gasped. “That would take your love of getting into shit too far,” Calo said. “Come on, let’s show your host what happens when he gives the Bastards a romantic time in captivity together. But be sneaky about it—we’ve been avoiding the servants.”
Calo and Galdo had left their buyer-turned-captor tied up in his office, wriggling on the floor with a dirty cloth shoved into his mouth. Locke and Jean looked around at all the fine Therin antiquities and exchanged a grin.
“Sanzas,” said Locke, “pack up the paintings. Jean, you know what to do with someone who tries to fuck us over.”
Jean put the Wicked Sisters back on his belt as the buyer’s eyes widened. He tried to squirm away, but Galdo caught him and pulled him into a sitting position. “How much have you spent on your collection?” Jean asked, cracking his knuckles. “How many years did it take?”
“More than a decade, surely,” Locke observed, taking a bronze statuette of Amadine off the desk. He tested the weight in his hand. Winking at the buyer, he slammed it against a priceless vase. “My hands are so unsteady after all that time in a cell! How awful.”
Locke left not a single breakable artifact unbroken. “Now I’m left with only one more thing to crack,” he said, squatting down next to the buyer and pointing at his crotch with the statuette. “How many crowns are your balls worth?”
The Gentlemen Bastards left the home of the Vadran merchant, ironically also named Rolf, with five thousand crowns in coin and another five thousand in paintings. Locke obediently offloaded his full share to Barsavi, since even the most middling thief could stumble on a windfall now and then. In exchange, Cadenza and Rolf found themselves at the center of a string of truly unlucky events. Shipments were seized by the yellowjackets and discovered to be stuffed full of contraband. Their dockworkers rioted. Half their stock of grain was lost to mold. They hung on for a few months before they had to liquidate their assets and retire to the country in disgrace.
Though the loss of Chains would sting for a while yet, the Bastards moved on. The basement of the House of Perelandro was no longer Sanza-free, the sink became less of a garbage bin, and Jean’s writing career was over. Locke and Jean started sharing a room more often than they didn’t. In response, the Sanzas kept a supply of boots in the hallway to fling at the door when the noise grew too loud.
As for the Lucarno, Jenora’s Players received a package in the mail, and a promise to visit for the first showing.