The Bluebell was a sturdy old cog, its sail painted the black of the Watch.
Tristan was the first to arrive, which went against him. The sailors on watch were asleep at their posts, napping on crates yet to be loaded, and they’d not been pleased to be woken up. Even less pleased had been their officer, a one-armed crone named Celipa who’d had to be fetched from her bed since she was the one with the roster.
“You look like you’re fresh off the street, rat,” she glared.
“You have the eyes of an eagle, tia,” Tristan flattered. “A rat is what I am, and like one I will disappear quietly into your hold should you let me.”
Her mood was not improved, sadly, and neither was his since Fortuna was now snickering behind him.
“If his name isn’t on the roster, throw him into the sea,” Celipa ordered her men. “I don’t care if you beat him first. Or take his cabinet.”
By the unpleasant smiles on the face of those two well-built sailors, he would be beaten bloody given half a chance. Charming. It was still better than to stay out in the Murk and risk the Hoja Roja catching his tail. They wouldn’t stop at bruises.
“Who are you supposed to be, rat?” the crone asked.
“Tristan Abrascal,” he charmingly smiled.
She was, again, visibly unimpressed. Her lips quirked into a nasty little number as she trailed her finger down the roster, sneaking an expectant glance at him, but then she froze.
“On there, yes?” Tristan pressed.
The old woman looked him up and down, disbelieving.
“Whose brat are you?” Celipa asked. “You must have blood in the black.”
“My blood is buried shallow, tia,” Tristan replied, smiled turned sharp. “May I come aboard or not?”
The crone snorted, but he knew put-on when he saw it. Something had spooked her.
“Go on, then,” Celipa said. “Down in the hold, you can claim a cot if it’s on the ground.”
“Much obliged,” the thief smiled.
She turned to spit into the waters of the Shoal.
“If I see you try to get into a crate, rat, you’ll get that beating you just ducked,” the crone warned.
It was not the warmest welcome Tristan had ever received, but it was far from the worst. The cog was mostly empty, its crew out in the city, but an armed man pointed him down the two sets of stairs to the hold after eyeing him suspiciously. There were a few sailors sleeping on cots down there, but otherwise it was only a few crates and empty room. Cogs were trading vessels, but this one looked made to ferry men instead. Tristan stepped about quietly, looking for an empty cot with a wall at its back. Fortuna had been pleased with the amusement of watching him get browbeaten earlier, but now that it had passed the goddess was remembering to be offended on his behalf.
“At her age,” Fortuna mused, “it would take only a slip to break her hip.”
“So I can sprain an ankle before taking the trials?” Tristan murmured, careful not to wake a sailor as he shrugged off his cabinet’s leather straps and set it down. “I think not.”
The luck always went hardest after him when it was used to hurt another.
“Every slight should be avenged, no matter how small,” Fortuna said, tone disapproving.
He rolled his eyes at her. Even destitute gods breathed arrogance, never learning the beggar’s virtues. It was in their nature, Tristan had come to suspect, and the nature of gods did not change. Fortuna was the same now as when he’d first met her, nothing more than a terrified boy on the run. The years they’d shared had changed her not a whit.
“I’ll think on it,” he lied.
“Sometimes I think your blood is cold as a lizard’s,” she complained. “Does nothing move you to revenge?”
Tristan smiled without joy, thinking of the five names carved into the marrow of his bones. His List.
“Only the one thing,” he answered. “And it is very far from this boat.”
He cast a look around after, wary of having spoken so long into what others would see thin air. The few sailors down here were still asleep, to his relief. Talking at the unseen was a good way to out yourself as a contractor – or a lunatic, though admittedly some days that line was razor thin. Fortuna sighed, then gestured for him to settle down in the cot. She would, as she’d had for years, keep watch over his sleep. He smiled again, meaning it this time, and slipped under the bedding. Back to the wall and a goddess watching over him, the thief fell straight into slumber.
Tristan woke to the sound of a man coughing.
“Company,” Fortuna whispered into his ear.
It could not have been more than a few hours since he fell asleep, early in the morning. Yet the light of a lantern – the cold glow a sure sign the oil was mixed with palestone powder to lend an echo of the Glare’s pale light – was licking at the sides of the hold, held up by a bearded sailor ushering in a ragged band. The one who’d coughed was the first to limp into sight, a toothless old man still clutching his mouth. He was jostled aside by a scowling mass of a man whose leather vest left the arms exposed, revealing intricate patterns of ink. Menor Mano, Tristan recognized, eyeing the tattoos. This one had been a legbreaker.
“Careful,” the sailor warned the big man in a low voice. “Any fighting on the Bluebell will get you shot and thrown overboard. No warnings, no second chances.”
The legbreaker’s scowl deepened and he glared at the sailor.
“Keep walking, blackcloak,” he said.
The sailor snorted, reaching for the pistol at his side.
“You’re one of the paid seats, not the recommended,” he replied. “Mouth off to me again and I’ll put a shot between your eyes.”
The big man’s face contorted in anger, laying bare his broken nose and the flat Aztlan look of his face, but with a snarl he turned away and stalked off.
“Thought so,” the sailor muttered, then turned a cool gaze on the rest. “The same rules apply to you lot. Don’t make me say it again.”
None of those remaining seemed inclined to challenged him. A pair that must be a couple, given how closely they held each other, shied away from the sailor’s gaze as if afraid of being hit while a girl around Tristan’s age looked like she might start crying. It made the two who seemed unconcerned with argument stand out all the more. A bespectacled old woman looking half asleep and past paying attention to much of anything, then to her left a Tianxi of middle age who looked unimpressed. Tristan studied the cast of the man’s shoulders and the way he stood ramrod straight, lips thinning. Soldier.
“Go on, then,” the sailor grunted. “Find somewhere to sleep. The rest will arrive in a few hours.”
They shuffled in tiredly, revealing the last three who’d stood behind. A blond youth with the City’s look about him, looking at his surroundings with polite curiosity, and a pair of short Tianxi twins in their forties. Women both, their dark hair kept in low ponytails with the side of their heads shaved. The cut would have outed them as Meng girls even if their smiles had not revealed blue-tinted teeth. It was a custom of Meng-Xiaofan members to chew strands of dewroot, a sweet-smelling herb said to soothe pains and sharpen wits – at the price of dyeing teeth and sometimes even tongues blue.
As the newcomers settled across the hold, some of them waking disgruntled sailors, one of the twins caught him looking and shot back a quick once-over that led into a snort. She leaned close to her sister for a whisper, the two of them then turning to offer him that Meng grin of porcelain in white and blue. Tristan straightened, muscles tensing as they moved towards him and the blue open robes in Tianxi style they wore over practical City tunic and trousers trailed.
“Pinch me, Ju, I must be dreaming,” the closest twin grinned. “Look at what we’ve got here.”
The other twin looked him up and down, making a show of it.
“Back to the wall, dirty fingernails and a crow’s nest for hair – oh my, Lan,” she snickered. “Smells like rat in here, doesn’t it?”
“She’s not wrong,” Fortuna conceded, ever the traitor.
Yet Tristan’s shoulders loosened, for all that the words were close to insult. It was to be that kind of a conversation; he was back on familiar grounds. Putting on a wicked look, he snorted back. Sniffing the air theatrically, he the gasped in surprise.
“And here I thought it smelled like dust and floating corpses,” he told them. “But I suppose it might just be that foul herb you’ve been chewing.”
There was no need for either side to make the Sign of the Rat, not when the two had the Meng look good as a branded and they’d sized him up in a breath, but it was worth establishing neither were mere mud from the Murk: they were proper gutter, from the wrong side of men’s laws. The tacit admission on his part he knew the main trades of the Meng – drugs and paid deaths – visibly put the sisters in a good mood. Only a fool would talk of trust between rats, but the gutter was a shared tongue. The thief invited them to sit, smile still on his face, and noted the elegant fold of their legs as they did. Sellers, he decided, or someone facing the front. That kind of presentation was learned.
“Tristan,” he introduced himself.
“You have our names,” Ju said.
Not likely the real ones, but he was hardly offended. It was only good sense on their part and he might have tried the same if he’d not had his own written true on the Watch’s passenger list.
“So I do,” Tristan said. “And the pleasure of your company, at an unexpected hour no less.”
He got twin inscrutable looks at the implied question there.
“More interesting is that you were already here, Tristan,” Lan replied. “We were given a precise hour to arrive, see, after coin talked.”
An implied question of her own, with an offered trade tacked on. Given how little he knew of this whole business, the thief had no qualms in trading: it could only be to his advantage. As was only proper between rats, he paid up front.
“A teacher had my name placed on the list,” he told them. “I am uncertain if it is reward or punishment.”
One of the twins – Ju – had a small nick in the skin near her left ear, he noticed. Looked a little deep for a shaving miss, which was interesting, but mostly it would let him tell them apart in a pinch. Both sisters grimaced.
“A hard teacher, if they might think the Dominion of Lost Things a reward,” Ju said. “But also not just anyone, if they could get you on this ship with only their word. We paid for it, see. We need the prize.”
He chewed the inside of his cheek. The ‘prize’ to passing the trials, aside from not dying a horrible death, was to be inducted straight into the ranks of the Watch. They must have had death dogging their shadow, to believe being part of the Meng-Xiaofan would not be enough to assure their safety.
“I have left a burning bridge behind myself,” he carefully admitted. “Unknowingly, I earned the Roja’s ire.”
Lan leaned in, suddenly grinning again.
“Well now, that makes you a friend to these poor sisters,” she said. “No admirers of ours, the Hoja Roja. Not since we were sent to open a shop in the Murk.”
Tristan cocked his head to the side, curious, and lightly traced a finger across his throat. Ju shook her head.
“Merchandise,” she told him. “Dust, whalechew and pipe poppy.”
He let out a low whistle.
“The Roja runs the parlours for those in the Murk,” he said. “I thought the Meng stuck to the docks?”
“Noise was made back in the Republics that we should cut out the middlemen,” Lan said, tone bitter. “We warned against it, told them it was a mistake, but why listen to us? We just live here.”
“Then when the Roja went blood-mad, they cut their losses,” Ju cursed. “The lizard sheds the tail in the tiger’s jaws, they told us.”
It was Tristan’s turn to grimace. Reading between the lines, the Meng-Xiaofan had cut loose the people they’d sent into the Murk as an ill-fated attempt to cut into the Hoja Roja’s trade. Tossed in their heads as appeasement so knives could be sheathed and business return to usual.
“There can’t be many of you left,” he said.
“Two,” Lan replied, tone curt.
And he was looking at them. No wonder they were desperate enough to take the trials as a way out. It was grim talk and he was at a loss as to where to go from there. With grace that only further convinced him they’d had front-facing roles, the twins guided the conversation away from the pit.
“You’d think that for the ramas we paid the accommodations would be nicer, at least,” Ju sighed, looking around.
Tristan hid his surprise. A gold rama was worth three silver arboles, each of which were worth thirty-four copper radizes: he’d only rarely had truck with arboles, much less their golden sisters. And so he sniffed a detail of interest, for though he could believe sisters that’d been in the Meng could scrape together ramas the twins were not the only one who’d come tonight. The thief’s gaze moved to the remainder of the ten that’d been guided in, skimming over the legbreaker and the woman with spectacles, lingering instead on the toothless old man, the shivering girl and the couple. The latter’s clothing was threadbare, shabby. All were thin. Tristan doubted they could scrape a silver together between the lot of them.
“There are other ways to get in,” he deduced.
Lan followed his gaze to the old man and she chuckled.
“That one you have wrong,” she said. “We saw him settle with our own eyes, though he paid in books instead of coin. You’re not wrong about most the rest.”
“They’re paid for,” Ju smiled, mirthless. “It’s for bets, you see. How far they’ll get, how well they’ll do. Large sums by large men.”
Tristan’s hands clenched. An old and familiar anger flared in his belly.
“Palace side?” he asked.
Lan shook her head.
“Gutter,” she said. “The Menor Mano went heavy this year, I hear, but there’s others.”
The anger simmered down. It was not infanzones making sport of gutter lives, only monsters doing as monsters did. The thief hummed, considering the arrivals with fresh eyes.
“So who was I wrong about?” he asked.
Ju cocked a plucked eyebrow.
“Burned a bridge, you said,” she invited.
Fair, Tristan thought. He’d gotten more from them than the other way around.
“Robbed someone out on a contract for the Orelanna brothers,” he said. “It ended in a corpse.”
He saw the shift in the way they sat, the rise in wariness but also the birth of a degree of respect. He’d been a resource, before. Now he was a potential asset.
“That’ll get a man killed, sure enough,” Lan amiably said.
Ju cleared her throat.
“The pretty blond, he’s the other one that paid his way onboard,” she said. “His name’s Brun.”
It took a moment for Tristan’s eye to find the youth in question, as he was tucked away between crates. Back to the wall, with an angle on most the room that let him look in without being seen in return. Not exactly shopkeeper’s habits, these. Brun caught his look, offering a smile in reply. The thief looked away first.
“That one’s dangerous,” Fortuna murmured, leaning against the wall. “And he’s got someone with him. They’re loud.”
Tristan stiffened. Someone, to the Lady of Long Odds, would mean someone like her. Another god. He’d known there would be others with contract on the ship, but it was not a pleasant surprise.
“Someone to be careful of,” the thief warned the twins.
They traded a look, then Ju nodded thanks for the warning. They did not ask why he would give such warning. Asking about someone’s contract was the cat-killing sort of curiosity.
“They let in the desperate at night,” Lan said, “but the rest will be coming soon. The real contenders.”
“The infanzones,” Tristan evenly said. “They have seats promised to them under old accords.”
Even a rat like him knew that, mostly because the infanzones themselves trumpeted it about. The yearly trials on the island were a way for young aristocrats to prove themselves skillful and daring, to jostle with each other for pre-eminence. The names of those who had gone and how far they’d made it were made public, spread around by criers at the Vermilion Festival every year. Rumour had it that making it as far as the third trial could get you bumped up in the line of succession.
“Fifteen,” Ju agreed. “Mind you, noble asses won’t even fill half of those. They bring guards and servants.”
He wrinkled his nose. Another pack to steer clear of.
“They aren’t worth a worry,” Lan dismissed. “Nobles will play it safe, make it to the beginning of the third and then take the way out.”
There were two of those. The trials on the Dominion of Lost Things were meant to forge recruits for the Watch, but your average infanzon had no intention of renouncing titles and wealth to join the blackcloaks. So instead they took the paths of retreat the Watch had arranged on the island, safe places where a participant could desist from going any further.
“It’s the recommended candidates that’ll be dangerous,” Lan continued. “They’re here for the prize and they won’t be afraid to kill to make it.”
Tristan thinly smiled and the older woman looked somewhat abashed. He was, after all, almost certainly one of these recommended candidates.
“I hear most are foreigners, usually,” the thief said, returning the earlier grace.
“Heard that too,” Ju hastily agreed. “Though I’m not sure how many there will be.”
“There’s at most a hundred seats open every year,” Lan noted, “and we heard seventy-three were filled this time. There are two ships, though, and one sailed off yesterday.”
The other twin cocked a brow at him.
“Did you get a look at the passenger list?”
Tristan shook his head.
“But I saw it being read,” he told her, “and it can’t have been too long. Around thirty names.”
The twins hummed. Like him they were curious as to how numerous their batch would be. The conversation drifted after that, staying friendly but of light nature. Neither side had more they were interested in trading, and it was too early in the venture to begin talking of the kind of alliances that would mean life or death when bodies began dropping. The twins took their leave before long, going around the hold to gladhand the others – the couple in particular, he noted. He ought to do the same, feel out the others for enmities and alliances. The large bruiser was asleep and not the kind of man he’d want to work with besides, so he had a frank look at the others.
The two greyhairs were out of the running for now. The toothless old man was still coughing, looking half a step into the grave, and though the old woman seemed spry she bore spectacles. Should those be broken, she might well be half blind. Disinclined to work the couple when the twins were already at it, Tristan considered the last three. ‘Brun’ was to be avoided, Fortuna’s warning heeded, which left the girl shivering in a corner and the Tianxi with a soldier’s bearing. The girl first, he decided. Her curly brown hair trembled with the rest of her when he sat down close, offering a smile that she visibly forced herself to return. She flinched when he rested his back against the wall. With that pointed chin and those wet eyes, she looked like a terrified bird.
“Tristan,” he introduced himself.
“Marzela,” she replied.
The thief had held little truck with sympathy – either given or received – since burying his mother, but he knew how to feign the appearance of it well enough.
“Rough night?” he gently asked.
The girl had a full-body shiver, swallowing loudly.
“I shouldn’t be here,” she burst out, unable to help herself. “It’s not even my debt, but they said…”
“You were forced to come,” Tristan said.
Marzela nodded, eyes shining with tears.
“I haven’t seen either of my parents in years, but the moneylenders said it didn’t matter,” she whispered. “The law says it’s my debt too.”
“Did you try to flee?” he asked, eyes studying her closely.
Now that he was closer to the girl, he could tell there was something… off. More than just fear. She kept flinching without obvious reasons for it, like she could hear or see something he could not.
“They had pistols,” Marzela replied.
You’d have had a better chance with bullets than the trials, Tristan thought. You should have run. Her hands were trembling still, one rubbing her forearm as if to calm herself, and that was what let him put it together. She wasn’t just rubbing but tracing a pattern with a finger. Something complex, a symbol of some kind with intricate lines. Again and again she traced it, never noticing even as she told him that she’d been promised the debt would be written off if she survived the first trial. Tristan smiled and nodded at all the right places, mind spinning. Marzela had a compulsion, a tic. One of the most obvious signs someone had just come into a contract and their god had strong hold on them.
The thief ought to know, it’d taken years for him to unlearn the habit of flipping a coin that did not exist.
“It’ll be all right,” Tristan comfortingly lied. “We will be many on the island. With arms and numbers there will be some safety.”
Marzela twitched again, beginning to look at the ceiling before she stopped herself. A contract that enhanced her senses, perhaps? Whatever it was, she seemed to be drawing on it at all times and that was dangerous. First to herself, but in time perhaps to others as well. The thief suggested she try to sleep before rising back to his feet, but neither of them much believed in her promise to try. Tristan then moved towards the soldier, who’d settled against a crate and was pulling at a copper flask. The smell of liquor – cheap and strong – wafted up as soon as he approached, the Tianxi offering up a sardonic smile.
“My turn, is it?” the man said. “At least you’re not quite as obvious about it as the twins.”
Tristan sat down slowly, as to be sure he would not be provoking a man he now saw was armed. The sword sheath across the Tianxi’s lap was empty, but there was the bulge of a pistol tucked under his coat. And my life for a sparrow’s that he’s got more knives than I do tucked away.
“We’ll be sailing out soon,” Tristan replied, caught out but unrepentant. “Before we do I would know the lay of the land.”
“Practical of you,” the man said, not offended in the slightest. “What’s your name, boy?”
“Yong,” the other said, offering a nod of a greeting.
Tristan returned it, wary of this stranger who was putting away rotgut like water but whose eyes were still sharp.
“You’ve nothing to worry of me, Tristan,” Yong plainly said. “I was not sent here to play red games.”
The thief’s eyes narrowed. A lie, at least in part, for the twins had told him of those who’d paid their way onto the ship and Yong had not been one of them. Deciding that the man’s easy temperament allowed for a gamble, he decided to press.
“Yet someone sent you,” Tristan said. “Your seat was bought by another.”
The Tianxi grimaced.
“Those two tell you that, did they?” he said, jerking his chin towards the twins. “You’d best be careful not to trust them too much.”
Tristan trusted no one at all, save perhaps Fortuna, but saw no need to tell the man as much.
“And why’s that?”
Yong lowered his voice.
“Do you know why they’re talking to the couple so much?” he asked.
Tristan shook his head.
“The husband, Felis, he’s got scales on the arm and he’s been…”
Yong trailed off, mimicking scratching his arm, and the thief could not entirely hide his revulsion. Skin flakes that looked like scales and incessant scratching were symptoms he was familiar with, as would be any child of the Murk’s: the man was a dust addict. The twins would not have missed that, not with dust being one of the merchandises the Meng-Xiaofan pushed. If he goes into withdrawal and they have dust on them, they good as own him, Tristan thought.
“There’s no clean shoes in the Murk,” the thief finally said, quoting half an old saying.
Shit clings to all our soles, the other half went. It was not absolution or forgiveness, but blame was like misery: one of those rare things there always seemed to be enough of to go around. Best to be careful with it, and with the Tianxi as well. It was why he’d phrased his answer to have a hanging question.
“All I need is to get to the third trial,” Yong bluntly said. “I’ve no interest in anything else.”
“Not even a black cloak?” Tristan casually asked.
Too casually, he realized with a silent curse as Yong’s eyes narrowed.
“Might put one on if it’s offered,” the man said. “You?”
Honesty or vagueness? Honesty, he finally decided. Their interests were not at odds and it was always best to stay on the good side of men with pistols and knowledge of how to use them.
“I don’t have a choice,” the thief admitted. “I’m in it to the end.”
“Seems like we might have a thing or two in common,” Yong casually said.
The offer hung in the air. It was too early to commit to alliances, Tristan knew, and yet did not decline. What were the odds he’d get a better offer? He was a rat, not the kind of sought-after soul that would be able to pick out their companions when the real recommended arrived. He wants something, the younger man decided. I’m fit and I look like I might be able to handle myself in a fight, but he might get better if he holds out until the others begin to arrive. Which meant Yong wanted something that a rat was in the best position to give. Far from unsettling him, Tristan found the thought a reassuring one. An ally without a use was just fodder. The suspicion that he wouldn’t just be a body to throw in harm’s way settled his doubts.
“It seems like we do,” the thief agreed.
The Tianxi smiled.
“Good,” he said. “Then I have a suggestion to make.”
Tristan’s brow cocked. So now came the price.
“I obtained the name of a sailor on this ship who likes gifts,” Yong said.
Someone that could bribed. Always useful.
“And what would be gotten, for that gift?” Tristan asked.
“To sit in a corner as the rest of the travellers board,” the Tianxi said. “Being given names and stories by our friend.”
For a heartbeat, Tristan wondered how he was being had. He was being sent to learn information that might well save his life, so why would Yong ever allow someone else to learn it in his stead? It made no sense, unless… He’s a bought seat, Tristan realized. They won’t let him out of the hold even for a bribe. But I’ve got a recommendation, so they just might. It wasn’t a rat that Yong had been after but someone who the blackcloaks wouldn’t confine to the bottom of the boat.
“I like him,” Fortuna decided. “He’s clever.”
Yong pulled at his copper flask again, the stench of liquor spreading. He’s also likely a drunk, Tristan thought, not that the goddess would consider that a black mark on anyone’s record. But a drunk was something he could work with, so he would.
“Let’s get our friend that gift, then,” the thief smiled, and the soldier smiled back.
Lucia looked rather straight-laced, for a woman taking bribes. Her face was stern in that way that people became stern when they were uncomfortable and looking to take it out on someone else.
“You’re going to be peeling potatoes,” the sailor told him. “So sit on the bench and shut up.”
As Lucia easily had a stone on him in muscles and belly fat while Tristan had a fondness for avoiding arguments with people who’d be able to snap his neck, he dutifully sat on the bench and shut up. The sailor passed him a peeling knife and dropped a misshapen potato onto his lap, grunting in satisfaction when he began to deftly peel away. He was three in – a pittance, compared to the barrel of hundreds they were working through – when she finally deigned to address him.
“They’ll be coming in two batches,” Lucia said. “The foreigners first, most at once, and then the noble brats.”
Though she was still glaring at him like he’d emptied her pockets instead of the very opposite, Tristan’s fondness for the sailor could not help but mount. Anyone who held the infanzones in such open contempt could not be entirely bad. He’d caught her wording, though, and a question made it to the tip of his tongue. There it lingered, long enough the woman noticed.
“Out with it,” she grunted.
“You said foreigners,” he said. “Not recommended.”
She nodded, looking approving for the first time since they’d met.
“Most years we only take in foreigners that got recommended,” Lucia agreed, “but this one’s different. Some seats were handed out for companies to sell.”
Tristan brow furrowed.
“The better question, boy,” the sailor replied, whittling away at the potato skin, “is why you’re on this ship when last month one full of recommended from Sacromonte sailed straight for the Rookery.”
His brow furrowed even deeper. The Rookery was the common name for the great island-fortress that was the seat of the Watch, said to be as a city of blackcloaks. Watchmen were trained there in a great war camp.
“I’m the only one from the city to take the trials,” Tristan slowly said.
“That’s got a recommendation, anyway,” Lucia shrugged.
He rocked back in surprise. What was Abuela up to? The more he learned the more obscure her motives became. His companion lost interest in the conversation, and with a curt gesture told him to start peeling again. They stayed on the deck for an hour, working away until the others began to arrive. The bulk of the first wave arrived as a group, escorted by a pair of blackcloaks. Tristan watched them carefully from his corner of the deck. Lucia, for all that she seemed to enjoy none of this, delivered on her promises without qualms.
“See the Aztlans?”
Tristan nodded, eyes moving to the only two among the pack whose skin was the light brown common to those from the Kingdom of Izcalli. A woman in her twenties and a boy that couldn’t be older than Tristan himself, eighteen. The boy had pale eyes, but what drew attention to him was how eerily perfect he looked. Every part of his body symmetrical and proportioned, like he’d been sculpted instead of born. It made his skin crawl to look at.
“Don’t know much about the girl, but the boy’s called Tupoc Xical,” Lucia said. “Recommended, he’s some sort of prodigy trained by the Leopard Society. He’s got a contract too.”
Not a likely ally then. Izcalli’s societies were bloodthirsty bastards one and all, always waging their famous flower wars.
“The two Ramayans got recommended because they have family in the black,” the sailor continued, pointing at a pair of youths.
Of the many peoples of the Imperial Someshwar, the Ramayans were those Tristan knew best: they held the great cities on the empire’s south eastern coast, so their trading ships sometimes came as far as Sacromonte. He’d never seen any dressed so colourful as these two, though. The girl of the pair had no less than three pistols at her hips, making her a rather more impressive sight than the chubby-cheeked boy looking like he was about to keel over.
“Then you’ve got the three from our corner of the Trebian Sea,” Lucia grunted.
A girl with unfortunate acne wore the jacket and cravat typical of the Asphodel Rectorate, one of Sacromonte’s closest neighbours, and a Raseni veiled from head to toe in grey was carefully staying away from her. Not unexpected, given that Rasen and Asphodel were said to war with each other incessantly. The last was a tall and thin man with heavy circles around his eyes.
“The man’s from Asphodel too,” Lucia quietly said. “Leander Galatas, a former sailor. Be careful of him.”
Tristan cocked his head to the side, eyes questioning.
“His recommendation came from the Navigator’s Guild,” she said. “Odds are he knows some Signs.”
The thief’s belly clenched. Learned men insisted that the Signs were not truly magic, merely a way for the initiated to manipulate the Gloam, but Tristan had heard stories. Winds called from nowhere, men set alight with but a word. And of those who used the stranger arts going mad, hollowing from the inside as the Gloam devoured them. He silently nodded. The first arrivals disappeared into the belly of the ship but Tristan stayed, waiting as the last four of the foreigners trickled in over the following hour. First a pack of three dark-skinned Malani, a younger pair whose air and clothes screamed ‘money’ with a scarred older woman behind them that had a fighter’s look. A guard, he figured.
“The younger two were recommended,” Lucia said. “I heard there’s a Malani swordmistress coming, but it shouldn’t be one of them.”
The last to arrive was Tianxi, a girl his age with a sword at her hip and a musket slung over her back. Her eyes were a startling silver shade.
“She was recommended by the Rookery,” the sailor provided. “And she’s got a contract for sure.”
The stranger’s eyes swept over the deck, neither hurried nor slow, and for a moment Tristan would have sworn they lingered above his head. Then she walked on, disappearing below deck. Lucia frowned.
“There’s supposed to be one more,” she said, “but at this rate the infanzones will be getting here first.”
Her prediction came true. But half an hour later, Sacromonte’s noble sons and daughters arrived in a colourful procession. There must have been half a hundred people crowding the docks, some mounted but most brought by carriages that servants in livery promptly began to unload. The two carriages at the front did not bear colours he recognized.
“Villazur and Ruesta,” Lucia told him.
Tristan hummed. He knew of the Ruesta, a family sworn to one of the great houses of Sacromonte – though he could not recall which one. Their wealth was famous. He’d never heard of the Villazur.
“The Ruesta girl’s a bloody idiot,” the sailor growled. “Brought three people with her, and would you believe that two of them are maids.”
“The Villazur?” he asked.
“Better,” Lucia conceded. “Got some Malani huntsman, I hear.”
He was about to ask about the rest when the Villazur servants moved aside, revealing a sight that snatched away his breath. Painted on the sides of the last two carriages was a red tree on blue.
“Cerdan,” Tristan hissed.
Lucia slowly nodded.
“Brothers,” she said, “with a valet and-”
He didn’t hear the rest of the sentence because blood was rushing to his ears. Helping down some noble waste from his carriage was a man that Tristan Abrascal would recognize even if his eyes were plucked out of his head. It’d been years, so the hair was longer and the beard touched with grey, but the burn scar near the ear looked the same. Tristan could still hear the casual drawl, smell gunpowder and blood. Hear his father weep. Cozme Aflor. So that was why Abuela had put him on this ship, sent him into these trials. She was giving him two of the Cerdan and the man whose name was at the bottom of his List.
Fortuna’s hand on his shoulder brought him back to himself.
“-id. Kid.” Lucia said, sounding impatient. “What’s with you?”
“Nothing,” Tristan lied. “Our bargain is done. My thanks.”
The sailor blinked in surprise. He slid the peeling knife into his half-done potato, fingers clenching, and dropped it back into the barrel.
“There’s still one missing,” she said. “We’ll be waiting for her until midday at least.”
“This is enough. One won’t make a difference.”
“Fine,” she grunted. “But you best not come complaining later.”
He shook his head and briskly took his leave, wanting to be in the hold before the nobles arrived. Fortuna walked by his side, red dress trailing on the floor behind her like a river of blood, and Tristan forced his jaw to unclench.
“I was wrong,” he spoke under his breath as he reached the top of the stairs.
“What about?” Fortuna lightly asked.
“There is only one thing that moves me to revenge,” Tristan Abrascal murmured, “but it appears it is not far from this boat after all.”
26 thoughts on “Chapter 3”
Pale Lights isn’t on Top Web Fiction yet! But… you can still support the Guide! Happy reading!
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“… blame was like misery: one of those rare things there always seemed to be enough of to go around.”
I have grown to miss your very quotable lines. Welcome back, and thanks for the chapter!
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Haven’t even read the first chapters, but the prose just sucked me back in. No idea what’s going on, but EE’s at the helm so it’s bound to be a wild ride.
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Hmm, interesting! I was expecting it to be a little while before we started finding out who was on the List and why, and this early reveal whets my appetite for the rest
I guess Tristan won’t see Angharad come aboard though
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Oh boy here we go again!!!
So it begins
have had this marked in my calendar for 6 months now, cannot wait :3 anyone know what the upload schedule will be? :3
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Updates weekly on Fridays. 3 chapters are available in Advance on Patreon.
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Oh boy here we go again!!
Sorry for the double post didn’t show the first time 😅
I’m getting Book 1 vibes. Squire claimants and War College. But we have two protags! Can’t wait to see who else is in the band.
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Yeah I keep wondering if it’s going to be Ju or Lan that uses the crossbow while the other one fights with a a spear…
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AHHHHHHHHHH ITS HERE
I’ve been looking forward to this date for the last 6 months. So glad you’re back and this new story is off to a great start! Good luck dude! Hope you have even greater success with this one.
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So It begins, hype is truly real, Will stick with this to the end.
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Wonderful – the plot thickens. Glad to have an EE serial back in my life.
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Dang! That break felt like years. Glad the chapters are rolling again!
It really sticks me how good the prose and thought processes are so good. That is one of the things I love about EE’s works most of the lines and thoughts are so damn good.
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It’s interesting that we seem to be setting up for something like a death game/recruitment trial, but not just that, because the nobles are clearly not expected to actually die, and not everybody goes on to the final goal our two protagonists are after. This should be cool to see what the dangers actually are, and what different characters are actually after.
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I’m the guy that drew the map of Callow and Praes all those years ago.
Do you want me to try drawing a map for this setting as well?
If you have a rough sketch.
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Great! Thanks for starting up again. Enjoyed the guide.
I’m getting major “Squid Game” vibes at the moment, but it’s still super early in the story. Looking forward to seeing where this goes.
pointing at pair of youths
pair > a pair
“Tristan smiled without joy, thinking of the five names carved into the marrow of his bones. His List.”
You know, right before this, I was thinking about how his lack of revenge motive contrasted with Angharad.
I wonder why Fortuna is so talkative, Angharad’s didn’t seem to talk much, although that might just be circumstantial.
So many people! I’ll have to keep this chapter open on the side to reference who everyone is.