The sun had tipped away from its zenith and was making its way toward the western horizon. The lakeside city of Lashain basked in the new spring warmth, having too recently spent several months huddling in on itself in protest against the wet and dismal winter. Now that it seemed dry feet and fewer layers were in the offing, it was as though the whole city had shaken off a pall. In the small squares that periodically interrupted the orderly grid of streets, people took to the streets for no other reason than to reassure themselves that outdoors was a place they were allowed to be.
Uptown, in a strip of park hugged between the lakefront and a street packed with alchemy shops and cute little boutiques, the ranks of Lashani nobility came to parade their fine manners and even finer titles. Too cold, still, for the bathing parties who would gather to traipse into the Amathel en masse for the water's supposed healing properties, the park was a genteel, yet still public, place where those with recently purchased titles could come to see and be seen. They strolled, arm in arm or simply congenially close, most of them with no particular destination in mind.
At first glance, no one would have paid the two men any notice. One large, one small, their clothing was impeccable, not a thread out of place to catch the attention of any eye that passed over them. They weren't walking any faster thanthe rest of the aimless throng, yet they moved inexorably east to where the park ended and the street's cute boutiques faded into shops peddling more esoteric wares.
The big man walked with a deliberate, steady gait, like a bipedal draft horse. His friend, by contrast, zig-zagged on the path, turning to walk backward for a span of steps, then turning front again, his hands animated as he spoke. They looked like a mastiff and a spaniel out for a walk on the same leash.
"I've got it," said Locke, spanning an imaginary marquee in the air with his hands. "I'm Vonn Tam Tanzer. A crude, spitting, punch-you-in-the-face kind of sailor who's looking to contact the spirit of his dead paramour, Dagnella."
Jean's expression didn't change, but his eyes flicked left to Locke's face, then front again. "Somehow I'm not sure you could sell that," he said. "Seeing how you've never punched anyone in the face if you had any other alternative, and you look it." He lowered his voice and added, "Also, I can't believe you let us leave the rooms without having your alias nailed down."
"I couldn't stay cooped up in there another minute." Locke dismissed the whole idea with a wave of his hand. "Besides, sometimes you just have to throw yourself out of the frying pan and wait for the fire to spark some inspiration."
"Do you?" Jean wondered aloud, but Locke had moved on.
"Okay, fine, Vonn's no good. But consider this— D'Agnon Black, undercover agent of the Verrari Archon who was raised on an orange farm by thirty former prostitutes and one blind priest. Needs to resurrect the priest to find out where he buried the treasure he stole from the local chapter house all those years ago." Locke adopted a different walk, his shoulders sloping, his gait turning duck-footed. Jean would almost believe he'd spent years on a farm— but Chains had never let them spend longer on anything than it took to learn how to pretend they were experts.
"And in this scenario, am I also an undercover agent of the Archon, or a fellow ward of the prostitutes?" Jean asked, returning the polite nod given him by a young woman in a cornflower-blue gown. She sat on a bench beside the path, a book folded open in one lace-gloved hand; pretty, just the image of idle pleasure for the wealthy that Lashain was famous for.
"No," said Locke, see-sawing his head back and forth in a moment's consideration before plowing on, "You're Gasparo Gritti— a man who solved every crime but one: the murder of his wife, Giulia Gritti. His only clue to solving the murder lies in the reports of the man in the yellow tunic seen fleeing the scene of the crime. We met up when.."
He trailed off at Jean's dark look. "Okay, fine. You come up with the aliases, then," he said, sweeping a hand out in a gesture of magnanimity that did nothing to detract from the tight set to his jaw.
Jean sighed. This mercurial mood of Locke's had lasted since Karthain; Jean was just about ready for it to be over. "I'm just saying, maybe don't reinvent the wheel if we don't have to. This is supposed to be the easy part."
Locke said nothing for a moment-- then, something inside him seemed to relax, and he nodded. "You're right. Of course you are. Old favorites it is— Fehrwight and Graumann again, do you think? Same backstory, different mission?"
"Fine by me," said Jean mildly. Easy and boring would satisfy him just fine— this just needed to go well. Expose the necromancers for the frauds they were, proving to the Lashani demibaron that Messrs. Fehrwight and Graumann were morally upright citizens just trying to do right by the citizens of Lashain; take the large sum said demibaron was offering to put spiritualists like the Brothers Cabal out of business; skip town and never be seen here (or anywhere within a day's ride of Karthain) ever again.
It should go off without a hitch. But long experience had taught Jean never to equate should with would— especially where Locke Lamora was concerned.
Preoccupied, he didn't realize Locke had stopped walking until he almost crashed into him, pulling up just short of bowling his friend into the street. "We're here," said Locke, looking up at the door of the shop he'd stopped in front of.
Jean would have walked straight past it the first time— painted an unobtrusive black, the sign hung above it was a simple black oval painted in cream with an ornate letter C. The narrow window to one side would normally have displayed a selection of the shop's wares meant to entice prospective buyers inside; this one contained only a human skull on what looked like a porcelain cake stand.
Jean snorted. "Subtle."
Locke shrugged. "They're selling themselves as necromancers; they don't have to be subtle." The brass handle clicked under his thumb, and the black door swung inward on silent hinges.
Whatever Jean had expected the inside of the shop to look like based on the outside, it wasn't this... this decadence. The walls were papered in cream-and-crimson damask, and the black-painted floor could only be seen at the edges of the room, peeking out from beneath a carpet so thick it swallowed the sound of their footsteps entirely. To one side of the compact room stood a hip-high counter on which a copper register squatted; to the other, a matching loveseat and armchair upholstered in thick black-and-white stripes, gathered near a Restoration-era coffee table painted the same glossy black as the door.
"Not what you were expecting?" asked a new voice from the corner. Jean turned, startled; there was a man standing behind the counter who he'd swear hadn't been there a second before. His clothes were a lot louder than his entrance had been; a purple and silver suit with a black vest, black hat sporting purple feathers, and a cane tucked under one elbow. The elder Cabal, Jean thought; his expression was schooled into a smile as tidy as his appearance. Cabal the younger had a reputation for not possessing the muscles needed in order to smile.
"I wasn't sure what to expect," Locke said, adopting an air of wide-eyed tourist fascination along with Fehrwight's Vadran accent. "This is my first time in a necromancer's shop. I did think— perhaps a bit more black?"
"We try not to go in for cliches around here," said a second voice, more brusque, as its owner brushed through the curtains carrying a tea tray. "The skull in the window more than gets the message across, don't you think?"
Johannes Cabal wore the blue optics their sources had described as just one of his many eccentricities. His black-on-black attire stood in stark contrast to his light hair; he was as stark beside his brother's as a hearse beside a carnival wagon. They looked somewhat alike, but not very.
"It's how we knew we had the right place," Locke chirped, nodding. "Allow me to introduce myself— Lukas Fehrwight— and this is my man, Graumann."
Johannes Cabal had set the tea tray down on the coffee table and joined his brother behind the counter. He didn't move to take Locke's hand when he stretched it out. "What brings you to Lashain, Master Fehrwight?"
Locke didn't falter (Fehrwight's face fell for a moment, but that was no more Locke than the anxiety or the accent) just tucked his hand away and launched into a lengthy response which would have tested the patience of even the most scrupulous listener. At length, the Cabal brothers exchanged glances, then faced front again in eerie unison that gave Jean the first trickle of unease.
"Forgive me for interrupting," said Johannes, who didn't seem that sorry. "But let's cut to the chase, shall we, Master Fehrwight?"
Taken aback, Locke barely had time to begin letting Fehrwight stammer a reply before Horst picked up the thread of the conversation.
"You came to us because Demibaron de Thou wants us denounced as frauds, as the start of a campaign to rid Lashain of the spiritualist plague that has the whole town gripped in a frenzy. Once de Thou is buying what you're selling, you'll fleece him for all he's worth and skip town— have I got everything?" he asked his brother, who nodded, his eyes never leaving Locke's face.
Stunned, Jean was trying to decide if he should go for the knife hidden in his sleeve before or after they tried to make an exit without threats of violence. But then Johannes cocked his head to one side, still staring at Locke like a raven considering whether you were dead enough to nibble on. "I'm curious— have you given up going by Locke Lamora entirely? Smart move— the Bondsmagi may have left Karthain, but there's no guarantee that name won't come back to haunt you."
Locke grinned, and Fehrwight dropped away from his face like a memory. "The Bondsmagi haven't had much luck using my name against me so far," he said, dropping the accent. "I'm curious how you learned it, though."
Johannes shrugged. "We could talk about that. Or we could talk about something that would actually be of use to you."
Jean folded his arms across his chest. "Like what?" He wasn't about to take any deal these two put on the table— it smacked of the Archon, of Patience, of being stuck between a firing squad and a bay full of sharks, and he didn't like it one bit.
But Cabal was speaking only to Locke. "You can't denounce us as frauds, Master Lamora, because we aren't frauds. But if you want de Thou's money, by all means try to find a way to take it that doesn't involve us. On the other hand, if you're interested in employing us for one of the many services we provide— for example, recalling memories of a past life?"
Jean sucked in a breath of shock that was echoed by a soft sound behind them, the black door clicking shut. He glanced back, then did a double take as he recognized the pretty girl in the blue dress from the park. The book she'd been reading was tucked under one arm; this close, he could see the skull embossed on its cover. An icy shudder crawled down Jean's spine and he experienced vertigo, then claustrophobia; he sensed the jaws of a trap closing around them. Forget stuck— they were already in the bay of sharks, and had been too stupid to realize it before their toes were already getting nibbled.
Cabal didn't look at the girl as she crossed the room and took up a perch on the striped armchair, reaching for a biscuit off the tea tray. He was still paused mid-sentence, waiting— for what? Locke's expression didn't change, but the necromancer seemed to find what he was looking for anyway, because at length he shrugged and gestured to the sofa. "We'd be happy to discuss that instead."
There was silence in the room, and Jean held his breath. Locke didn't look back as he crossed to the sofa and sat down.