Chapter 4

They were waiting for her at Fishmonger’s Quay.

Every street had a pair of redcloaks watching passers-by, forcing any hooded or veiled to show their faces before they were let through. Angharad, keeping to the alleys, saw how they compared the faces to small pieces of parchment. She was only able to get close enough to see it was a drawing, but that told her enough: her hunters knew what she looked like and where she was headed. Worried, Angharad decided on patience. She spent one of her last three silver arboles on a ratty room and a meal at an inn two blocks off the edge of the Quay, figuring she would have a better shot come night.

After the streetlights dimmed and the guardsmen tired she would make a run for the Bluebell. She got directions to the ship at the cost of breaking a second arbol to buy sailors ale with coppers, then settled in to wait. The naps she took on the straw mattress were intermittent, somehow leaving her more tired than when she’d begun, all the more so when she was jolted out of the last by angry shouts. Awake in an instant, she drew her saber and made for the door. Cracking it open just enough to peer through, she saw a gaggle of redcloaks whose officer was loudly arguing with the innkeeper and his pair of toughs.

“-paid up for the month, you don’t get to come in here and hassle my patrons,” the innkeeper was snarling.

 Angharad did not hold out hope: one side had swords and muskets, the other clubs. The argument would last only so long as the Guardia officer let it. She stole a glimpse ahead, saw they would be taken utterly by surprise and steadied her breath before bursting out. Defence is delay. The redcloaks had swords out but not before she got a head start, only two at the back going for their muskets instead. Angharad kicked a table in the closest man’s leg, tripping him as he shouted curse, then ducked low as a shot whizzed past her head. A stolen glimpse told her there was no ambush ahead so she ran out into the night, boots thumping against the pavestones.

The redcloaks followed.

In a city so large as Sacromonte it should have been the easiest thing in the world to lose them, but for all that she could steal away for slices of an hour the enemy always caught up to her. They never seemed to know exactly where she was, but neither were they far off. Contractor, Angharad shivered in realization. They had hired someone whose spirit-given gift could find her. Knowing of it was little help, the hours stretching into a torment of constant running and hiding.  She was exhausted, as much from the flight as the constant drawing on her own contract to avoid ambushes.

The Fisher was not as some other spirits, whose prices were constant: she had sworn a single oath in return for his gift. Yet that did not mean taking glimpses was not tiring, slowly turning her thoughts feverous. It felt as if her brain was swimming in warm water, pressure slowly building behind her eyes. How long could she last? She did not know, but salvation came without warning at morning’s cast. Just as the streetlights returned to their full glare the redcloaks fell behind. No longer was their hunt aimed, instead stumbling about as if she were no longer tracked.

Relief brought tears to her eyes and she crawled into dark alley smelling of trash and human filth to collapse behind a pile of broken planks. What felt like a heartbeat after she woke to the sound of movement, drawing her saber, but before her was no man. It was a red-eyed rat, large as a cat and watching her unblinkingly. Behind it, scrawled on the wall, she saw a bloody mark she had missed in her earlier exhaustion: seven rats whose tails were tied in a knot, itself swallowing up a skull. It was raw work, little more than outlines, but somehow she knew exactly what she was looking at the moment she saw it. Swallowing loudly, Angharad dropped her blade. It clattered loudly against the ground.

“Manifold apologies, honoured elder,” the noble hurriedly said. “I did not mean to disturb your shrine.”

The red-eyed rat watched her still, unmoving. An apology would not be enough. Grimacing, Angharad slowly reached for her abandoned saber and pressed her palm against the edge. It cut shallowly but drew blood, enough she was able to hold out her hand and drip red on the stone before her. After the third thick droplet fell the great rat finally moved, darting forward to lick at the red while Angharad let out a relieved breath. Her offering had been accepted; rare were the spirits that would turn on you immediately after accepting a gift.

In the moment that followed the noble felt her blood cool, as if a cold tide were washing through her veins. The Fisher’s presence filled her. He felt neither angry nor worried, only… expectant. The spirit was watching, and the red-eyed rat stilled for a moment before licking up the last of her blood.

“Good manners,” it praised in a voice that was like a like a thousand chitters threaded into a single, desperate scream.

Angharad struggled to keep her horror off her face, a struggle that she lost when the massive rat suddenly began to retch. It convulsed, as if dying, and spewed out what she thought to be red bile. Only the bile was in the shape of a rat. The Fisher’s approval rose at the sight and his presence withdrew, shivers strumming down her spine in his wake. That moment of distraction was enough for the red-eyed rat to be gone from her sight, leaving only the scrawled mark on the wall and the bloody little abomination at her feet. Sheathing her sword, Angharad rose tiredly and pressed the cut on her palm closed. She would have taken the time to dress it if not for the blood rat beginning to scurry away.

Gritting her teeth, the dark-skinned noble cast aside her hesitation and followed the boon the spirit had granted her.

It stayed always in the corner of her eye, moving so quick that she could not spare so much as a glance at her surroundings as she followed. Weaving through a maze of dirty alleys she ran, slowly coming to realize that she was being led in the direction of Fishmonger’s Quay. The little creature kept away from the glow of lamplights and palestone pillars, its path labyrinthine, but through shadow after shadow Angharad was led to an end. The stink of sewage filled her nostrils, making her gag, and as she had a dry retch she saw the little blood rat glancing at her once before scurrying to the edge of a sewer gate.

There it broke apart, turning into drops of blood that slid into the cloying vileness.

Minding her manners, Angharad offered the sewer gate a shaky bow of thanks before covering her mouth. She carefully stepped to the edge of the alley, eyes squinting at the lamplight’s glow she had somehow grown unused to. Dealing with spirits was never simple as you might wish. For the first few glances she was lost, until she peered further out and saw a pair of bored redcloaks inspecting everyone passing through the street. Only, Angharad saw, she was already past them. Heart beating in relief and excitement, the noble turned to the sewer gate and bowed again.

“I will remember this favour, honoured elder,” she promised.

In the heartbeat that followed a gun was cocked behind her and Angharad Tredegar was duly reminded that dealing with spirits was never simple as you might wish.

“Don’t move,” a woman’s voice harshly ordered in Antigua. “Turn around and show me your-”

If she ran for it-

(The ball tore through her back, a line of burning pain.)

-Angharad threw herself to the side, the shot catching the edge of her coat. In a single smooth spin she unsheathed her saber and faced the redcloak, who judged she would not be able to reload in time and dropped her musket in favour of the straight sword at her hip. The noble timed her breaths with her steps, her body moving with the fluid grace of years of practice. There was no need to steal a glimpse of the future when she could see it writ in the lay of her enemy’s movements. The redcloak’s blade came free, striking out, and Angharad calmly twisted her wrist to deny the blades contact before snapping it back into place. Her back foot pushed her forward in a clean, textbook strike that opened the redcloak’s throat.

The other woman fell down with a wet gurgle, the sound drowned out by the Guardia killers already coming this way. Angharad ran for it, the directions she’d bought last night just enough for her to avoid charging off in the wrong direction. This cursed hovel of a city had no signs, as if Sacromontans expected all to know their way around. The docks were close, only a few blocks away, but the ruckus had seen people empty the streets so Angharad could see the redcloaks running after her. Only a dozen, at first, but more were coming from seemingly every street. She hurried, sweat pouring down her back as she struggled to stay out of musket range – shots kept sounding, keeping the pulse of fear in her belly alive – and finally reached the long stone dock she’d had described to her.

An old cog was waiting at the end of it, its sails painted black like all the Watch’s ships, and Angharad felt her spirit rally. Close, so close now and… The shot came from closer, the window of some warehouse behind, and though she threw herself down in time it was straight into a pile of crates. Mercifully empty, she thought even as her aching shoulder toppled two into the water, but she got tangled in the net keeping them together. Ripping her way free cost her precious time, the pack of baying hounds nipping at her heels reaching the dock.

Stop her,” a man shouted. “Manes be my witness, if you keep fucking missing her-”

The Bluebell was a mere thirty feet away but the Guardia were so close she could almost feel them breathing down her neck. Half-turning, she saw a man reaching for her arm and twisted away but then there was a shot and… and the redcloaks stopped cold. It’d come from the front of her, Angharad realized belatedly, and there she found a grizzled old woman holding a smoking pistol in her only hand. She’d unloaded in front of the redcloaks, a warning shot.

“Angharad Tredegar?” the old woman called out.

“Yes,” the noble replied, the word half a sob of relief.

“We’ve been waiting for you, girl,” the blackcloak grunted. “Get on the bloody ship, we’re going to miss the tide.”

Angharad took a hesitant step towards the Bluebell, then saw her hesitation reflected on the face of the redcloaks looking at her and was emboldened to take a second. Before she could take a third a Guardia officer pushed his way to the front of the pack, a moustachioed young man whose shoulders were dripping with ornate braids and medals.

“What are you idiots doing?” the man shouted. “Take aim, she’s-”

“She’s under the protection of the Watch, boy,” the old woman interrupted from above. “Turn around before this gets unpleasant.”

Angharad slowly took another step back, trying not to draw anyone’s attention as she was uncomfortably aware that there was no cover at all on the dock: it was all bare stone. There were at least a dozen muskets in the crowd and with that many people aiming at her a glimpse would not be able to save her life.

Boy?” the young man repeated, turning red. “It’s captain to you, you old bitch, and you best disappear back into your ship before I-”

Angharad took another step back but this time she was noticed and half a dozen muskets were turned on her. Yet in the time that’d passed the blackcloaks had not been idle and now sailors leaned over the side of the ship to aim their own muskets down at the redcloaks. She counted nine, a number that had her stomach clenching. Were there not more sailors on the ship?

“Before you what?” the old woman sneered. “You so much as take a shot at us, boy captain, and it’s a war you’ll have on your hands.”

“A war I’ll win,” the mustachioed man retorted. “I have the numbers to storm your ship if you do not desist.”

He seemed confident, and as Angharad glanced as the still-swelling numbers of redcloaks – more were still coming from the backstreet – she had to admit he was right. Not all of them had firearms, but all were armed and there had to be forty by now. The blackcloak laughed scornfully at the threat.

“And what do you think’ll happen, after?” she asked. “Once word gets to the Rookery that Sacromonte has broken the Iscariot Accords, that you attacked a Watch ship in the discharge of its duties?”

A ripple of unease went through the guardsmen.

“Our orders are absolute,” the officer flatly replied.

“They’ll recall every company from Broken Gates to the Weeping Light, boy,” the one-armed blackcloak said, “to burn this fucking city to the ground. To make an example of Sacromonte.”

She scoffed.

“Only whoever owns you won’t want that war on their head,” the blackcloak said. “So instead what’ll happen is that they’ll send all your heads to the Rookery in a basket as an apology before denting their treasury for reparations.”

Unease turned to dismay, a few guardsmen even taking a step back. The officer’s face was bright red with anger but he had no answer.

“I wonder how the infanzones will like paying up for your mistake,” the old woman added with a nasty little smile.  “Surely they’re forgiving souls? They wouldn’t take it out on your families after you die.”

And that was the shot that sounded the rout. Another officer, older but with only half as many gaudy medals, took the captain aside and spoke in a hushed voice. It was a done deal anyhow, the rank and file already putting away their weapons. Whatever loyalty they had it did not stand stronger than the prospect of having their heads cut off. For all that was she was grateful, Angharad could not help but feel a thread of contempt. True soldiers would not have balked in the face of threats. It was the weakness of Sacromonte that it did not have proper ruling nobles, a weakness that trickled all the way down.

“I’ll remember this,” the captain snarled, tearing away from the other redcloak.

“And we’ll remember you, boy captain,” the blackcloak called back. “You ought to be a lot more worried about that.”

The Guardia cleared out in haste, as if ashamed of being seen driven away, and Angharad at last let out her breath. She’d made it. The old woman called out for her to hurry and she raced up the ramp, seeing that hidden behind side of the ship there’d been another dozen sailors. They were putting away muskets and orbs of metal bearing fuses that Angharad recognized as zhentianlei, those dreaded Tianxi grenades. No wonder the one-armed woman had not feared the redcloaks: packed tight as they had been on the docks, without cover, it would have been a slaughter. The noble offered said blackcloak a short bow of gratitude.

“My thanks for your protection, my lady,” Angharad said. “I will not forget it.”

“The name’s Celipa, and I’m no lady of any kind,” the old woman snorted. “You owe me nothing, girl. You’ve got blood in the black and you’re kin of Osian’s besides.”

She blinked.

“You know my uncle?”

“We were both part of the hunt for the Hull-Eater,” Celipa told her, then tapped the stump of her missing arm. “After a thrall took a bite he helped set me up on the Bluebell.”

Angharad choked. The Hull-Eater, as in the great spirit whose claws rent ships apart and whose army of crazed thralls had famously turned some ancient fortress into a den of horrors? Its death a few years ago had been widely celebrated back home, but Uncle Osian had never so much as hinted he’d been involved. She could hardly imagine a man her mother had always considered – however fondly – to be useless in a fight anywhere near such a monster. At loss about anything to say, the noble got out something about how her uncle was a dutiful man while Celipa herded her across the deck towards broad stairs descending into the belly of the cog.

“I’ll be two days before we get to the Dominion,” Celipa quietly said. “Use the time to find allies, Tredegar. Loners always die early in the second trial.”

It would have been ungrateful of her to demand that a woman who’d saved her life address her properly as Lady Angharad, so the noble bit down on the sentence before it could leave her lips. Instead she nodded her gratitude at the advice before traversing the lower deck – the kitchen, dormitories for the crew and the arsenal – to make her way to the hold at the bottom. There she found the travellers she would share a journey with, having haphazardly claimed corners and cots. All eyes were on her from the moment she entered, the cost of being the last to arrive, but she kept her back straight. It would not do to show weakness.

A sweeping look at the hold told her there had to be more than twenty people in there, but what drew and kept her eye was the well-dressed quartet being attended to at the back of the hold. Two men and two women. The men’s close looks and identical red and blue cloaks outed them as kin, but the other two were dissimilar: one tall and lean, her short blond hair pulled in a bun while the other was a sultry dark-haired beauty with beautiful green eyes. Nobles, she instantly knew. Infanzones, as Sacromontans called them. The beauty met Angharad’s eyes, smiling sweetly, and then addressed an older girl at her side in servant’s livery.

A few steps later the handmaiden was offering Angharad an elegant curtsy, bowing her head.

“Lady Isabel invites you to introduce yourself, my lady,” the girl said.

Angharad acknowledged her with a polite nod, gathering herself for a moment before approaching her fellow nobles. The men looked bored at her approach, one of them even seeming irritated, but Lady Isabel’s smile was yet sweet and her leaner companion looked curious. As the invited party, Angharad introduced herself first.

“Lady Angharad Tredegar of Llanw Hall,” she said, lightly bowing. “At your service.”

“How genteel,” the green-eyed beauty exclaimed, putting a hand to her heart. “I am Lady Isabel Ruesta, Lady Angharad, but you must call me Isabel.”

“It would be my very great pleasure,” Angharad replied, struggling to keep her gaze off the flattering cut of Lady Isabel’s dress.

Most her lovers had been cut more from the cloth of the other noble lady here than lovely Isabel’s, but Angharad could appreciate beauty in all its forms. Including form-fitting dresses of yellow brocade. As a willful distraction, she turned to the woman by Lady Isabel’s side.

“Lady Ferranda Villazur,” the lean woman introduced herself, tone cool. “A pleasure.”

Angharad returned the courtesy, though she was barely done speaking when one of the men cut in.

“You have the Malani look but the name does not fit,” the noble drawled. “Strange.”

Angharad’s expression grew stiff and the implied accusation of being an impostor.

“That is, Remund, because she is not Malani,” the other man scoffed. “These are Pereduri names.”

He then offered her a bow and a practiced smile. At second look he looked older than the rude one, his face sharper and more refined.

“I am Lord Augusto Cerdan,” he said. “Please forgive my brother’s rudeness, Lady Angharad. He never did learn his courtesies.”

“It is nothing, Lord Augusto,” Angharad briskly replied, her mood soured.

It was soured even further by Lord Remund’s appraising gaze on her.

“Ah, Peredur,” the infanzon said. “I had quite forgot about it. You’re not much paler than the other Malani, though. I expected more of a difference.”

Angharad’s jaw clenched. Peredur was not like the other isles of the Kingdom of Malan. It was nearly impossible to conquer without a great fleet so Angharad’s ancestors, unlike the Malani, had not swept across the island in a storm of iron and flame. They had instead settled the land and allied with the ancient dwellers of Peredur, twined the blood and slowly grown into a single people. And the ancient Pereduri had been men of pale skin, so to this day some ignorant souls expected Angharad’s people to be much paler than the Malani. The polite ones, anyway.

The less polite liked to imply that the ancient Pereduri had been hollows, darklings. Utter madness. The isles were drenched in the light of the Glare, no hollow could have lived there without burning! Besides some savage tribes encountered in the colonies had proved that some peoples of light skin were not soulless, turned pale not by the embrace of the Gloam but simply born with such flesh. Yet it suited some to imply the people of Peredur were descended from slaves and savages, the same hordes that allied with devils to bring about the Old Night.

“Alas,” Angharad frigidly replied, “it seems I must disappoint.”

“Remund,” Lady Isabel chided, gently slapping his arm. “Be nice.”

“Oh, I suppose,” Lord Remund groused. “The pleasure is all mine, Lady Angharad.”

Isabel seemed more amused than anything, which brought a glimmer of satisfaction to the younger Cerdan’s eye that Angharad recognized. Ah, she thought. Perhaps her appreciative gaze had not been as subtle as she thought. From the corner of her eye she saw Lord Augusto eyeing the Lady Isabel and his brother with evident displeasure before brushing it away with a forced smile. He made a chiding comment about immaturity, injecting himself between the two. Angharad almost winced.

“It appears your coat was scuffed,” Lady Ferranda said, drawing back her attention. “A traveling misfortune?”

The other woman’s steady gaze lay where the stray shot had caught her overcoat earlier. Angharad had no intention of mentioning her troubles to these strangers, fellow nobles or not, but then she suspected that Ferranda Villazur was well aware she was not looking at a simple scuff.

“There was a mishap with my trunk,” Angharad replied, carefully avoiding a lie. “I will be travelling light.”

“Oh,” Lady Isabel gently said as she drew away from the brothers, “that simply won’t do. Lady Angharad – or may I call you Angharad?”

Charmed, she returned the Sacromontan’s smile.

“Of course.”

“Then call me Isabel, Angharad,” the beauty firmly offered again. “My maids can take care of mending your coat, they are very clever with their hands.”

She hesitated for a moment, but the bandage she had put over her wound on yesterday should not show under her shirt. Besides, it would be suspicious to refuse.

“I would be much obliged,” she said, shrugging off her coat.

“Beatris,” Isabel called out, summoning another handmaid. “Do mend Lady Angharad’s coat for her, would you?”

“Of course, my lady,” the dark-haired maid replied, curtsying before she approached.

She took the coat when Angharad offered it. Isabel slid a look a Lady Ferranda.

“You really should have brought a maid, Ferra,” she said. “Your man does not look like he knows how to use a needle.”

“Sanale serves a different purpose,” Lady Ferranda replied. “I can take care of my own affairs, Isabel.”

“There is no need for that hired sword, I assure you,” Lord Remund smiled. “I will be seeing to our safety, as will our good Cozme. One of the finest soldiers in Cerdan service, second only to my own finer blade.”

“If only your rapier were half as swift as your boasts,” Lord Augusto mildly said. “Though he speaks true, Lady Ferranda, that it is our duty as sons of Cerdan to see to your safety through this trial. We must never abandon woman in need.”

“How kind,” Lady Ferranda replied, her tone savagely even.

She did not seem impressed, Angharad thought, but then it was not on her that Augusto’s eyes had lingered. Lady Isabel smiled back at the older Cerdan, but in the following moment let out a little noise of surprise before flowing forward. Warm fingers grasped Angharad’s left arm, pushing up the sleeve of her shirt and baring the ten silver lines tattooed there over dark skin.

“A tattoo,” Isabel said, her touch soft. “What might it mean, Angharad?”

The looks the Cerdan brothers sent her were distinctly unfriendly. Lady Ferranda cut in before she could gather her wits enough to answer.

“Swordmistress,” the tall woman said, breathing out in surprise. “Those are the marks of a Malani swordmistress.”

They would have been, were they black and on Angharad’s right arm instead, but after that early buffoonery from Remund she was disinclined to explain the nuance.

“It is a similar tradition,” Angharad simply said.

Suddenly the Cerdans looked rather more wary of her. Wary enough to try to send her away, she figured, but whatever intention there might have been it immediately came to naught. Lady Ferranda’s eyes lit up at her admission, leading into the first smile Angharad had seen out of the other woman.

“You must stay with us, then,” Ferranda Villazur firmly said. “I happen to have a great many questions about such practices.”

Much as Angharad was used to the company of other nobles, she was also used to her family’s title being among the lesser in the room. Though Mother had been wealthy and of some renown as a captain, Llanw Hall was no great estate. Compared to the great izinduna families some of her tournament competitors had come from, the House of Tredegar had been ants. It had therefore been a skill worth cultivating to be able to tell who the powerful people in a room were. Playing court with the four infanzones let her fall back into the habit and it was, if not comfortable, then at least a little nostalgic.

The House of Cerdan, she learned, was by far the greatest of the noble lines involved here. Though it was not one of the founding families of Sacromonte, who traced their descent back the heyday of the Second Empire and good as ran the city, it was not far below them. While Augusto and Remund were not of the main line, they were great-nephews to the lord of the house and therefore not men to discount.

They also despised each other.

Watching them descend into thinly veiled snapping for the third time in an hour, Angharad cocked an eyebrow at Lady Ferranda. The tall noblewoman sighed, waiting until Isabel leaned forward to play peacemaker between the brothers before she answered.

“There is an inheritance involved,” she murmured. “Remund is younger but has obtained a contract. Marrying well would settle the victor.”

And Lady Isabel Ruesta would be, Angharad deduced, a very good marriage indeed. Not only was she a great beauty but she was the sole daughter of the Ruesta, a house of undistinguished descent but which happened to be very wealthy. No wonder the brothers went at each other like rabid dogs whenever one drew her attention over the other.

“Poor Isabel,” Angharad sympathized.

Lady Ferranda shrugged. She was a woman of few words and tread with care around the others. Unsurprising, given that the Villazur were the least of the three houses by a fair throw. She had been quite frank about her intent to use a strong performance in the trials to gild her family’s name and bring it back into the eyes of her fellow infanzones, perhaps even securing an advantageous husband. She had been preparing for this venture for years, going as far as to obtain the services of a man called Sanale which she claimed to be a Malani huntsman.

“Where from?” Angharad idly asked.

Given the reputation of Malani marksmen, it was not an uncommon claim even among those who’d never so much as seen the Isles.

“Does it matter what particular island tossed him out?” Remund chuckled, rolling his eyes.

“Uthukile,” Lady Ferranda replied, ignoring him.

Angharad leaned back in the seat she had been offered, taking a look at the elaborate beadwork hanging off this Sanale’s cloak where he sat among the servants. She could not see his face, but the colours of the beads were distinctive to the Low Isle. It seemed a credible claim.

“I was taught they are the finest shooters and trackers in Malan,” the noble acknowledged.

And therefore all of Vesper, though it would be impolite so say as much. Terrible seafarers, however. Mother had always mourned so few took to ships given how good they were with muskets. Lady Ferranda straightened, visibly pleased, and Isabel pouted.

“You take it all too seriously, Ferra,” the dark-haired woman claimed, then daintily rose to her feet. “And I must admit I grow weary of this dreary hold. Shall we go for a walk?”

Augusto, the older Cerdan, wasted no time in mimicking her and offering his hand.

“Too right,” he said, “you and I can-”

“No need, brother,” Lord Remund cut in. “You stay and rest, I will escort our fair lady.”

Lady Ferranda looked as if she had a dawning headache, but she stayed out of it and Angharad decided it might be best for her as well. The Cerdans argued, growing more irritated and worse at hiding it. Isabel then cut through the backbiting by offering Angharad a sweet smile.

“Would you do me the honour, Angharad?” she asked. “I never did get you to tell me of Peredur.”

The glares that earned her felt like they would burn through her clothes, which irritated her enough she accepted out of spite.

“I am at your disposal, of course,” she said, smoothly rising to her feet.

The brothers’ faces darkened, but they were not so impolite as to insist when an invitation had been clearly given and accepted. Angharad offered her arm for Isabel to take and they headed for the stairs, though her eyes strayed to the side as they moved. She’d heard Lord Remund mentioning other Malani earlier but now she was finally seeing them. Seated between crates, talking in low voices, a young pair of youths were tucked away. Behind them a scarred older woman was napping. The man of the pair, narrow-faced but built like a fighter, kept glancing around.  As if looking for something.

Or someone, Angharad realized with a trickle of cold dread. Her pursuers had known she was headed for the Bluebell, for these trials, and tried to stop her getting on the ship. But would they truly stop there when assassins had dogged her steps all the way from Peredur? It had not occurred to her until now that there might be a hired knife waiting for her on the ship. Uncle Osian’s letter had implied that there were few rules during the trials, that much was allowed. Perhaps even murder. The thought had her tensing enough that Isabel noticed. Thankfully, she misinterpreted the reason.

“They can be a little much,” the dark-haired beauty admitted. “It will do me some good to have some fresh air in good company.”

“Have they always been like this?” Angharad asked, grateful for the change of subject.

They rose up the stairs, drawing the attention of the sailors on the lower deck as they passed. No one tried to stop them, as a few hours past an officer had come to tell them it would be allowed for a few travellers at a time to come up for air so long as they stayed out of the way.

“They were sweeter, once,” Isabel wistfully said. “But we all have duties now. It complicates matters.”

Angharad inclined her head. She had never held any interest in men, but the contrary had not always been true. Her status as the heiress to Llanw Hall had sometimes made it a difficult affair to decline without giving offence as a lady. The lives of nobles did not belong to them alone.

“Sometimes I wish I could be free of all this,” Isabel confessed as they went up the last of the stairs. “That I might find love where I please instead.”

As if by fate’s whim, she finished the sentence just as the two of them took to the deck and the sight of it caught in Angharad’s throat. Lovely Isabel in her yellow brocade, with eyes like emeralds and her delicate face framed by dark hair like raven’s wings – all of it with the Trebian Sea spread out behind her as far as the eye could see, waters touched with golden lucent streaks as the great mirrors and devices in firmament above spread shards of the Glare’s light across an entire sea. It was an unearthly sight, one that dried Angharad’s mouth and left her half a babbling fool. She swallowed. Isabel smiled.

“But I must be boring you,” she said.

“Never,” Angharad insisted, cursing herself for the unseemly haste of the reply.

Isabel, if she had noticed, was kind enough not to comment as she led them to the edge of the ship. There they leaned against the side, letting the wind ruffle their hair as the Bluebell sailed across the tranquil waters of the Trebian Sea. It was a strange sight compared to the dark waters around the Isles, where the darkness of the Gloam ran deep. Unlike her own people, the powers that bordered the Trebian Sea had never had to fear a ship disappearing into the dark and returning years later – if at all. The lights coming down from firmament were only thinly of the Glare but they were enough to prevent most storms from forming and, more importantly, prevent sailors from catching Gloam sickness.

Rare were the seamen of this sea who were severed from the Circle by lack of exposure to the Glare, turning into pale hollows without an immortal soul to reincarnate.

“Look, it’s so far already!” Isabel enthused, pointing in the distance.

Angharad followed the finger to the sight of two beams of Glare falling from firmament onto a cluster of distant, lesser lights like swords cutting through the dark. Sacromonte, unlike most great cities of Vesper, had not been raised under some blessed machinery of the Antediluvians that doled out light in patterns. It stood under simple pit of Glare. The light that touched the city’s noble districts came from a hole ripped into firmament, coming raw from the unblinking sun that had turned the Old World to ash and dust. 

“You should see the Isles, one day,” Angharad chuckled, shaking her head. “They are all under one great pit whose light covers all but the furthest edges of Peredur and Uthukile. It can be seen from weeks away if there is no Gloam storm hiding it.”

“I would much like to travel, one day,” Isabel smiled, “but surely our corner of Vesper does have some charms?”

Angharad bit down on a very smitten answer by forcing herself to look away. A shape on the horizon delivered her beleaguered spirit a reply that would not make a fool of her. She nodded, pointing at a crooked and half-submerged tower jutting out of the sea in the distance. It glittered with great broken mirrors and aether machinery.

“Certainly, there is nowhere else where so many ancient wonders remain,” Angharad said.

Though many were now broken as the tower must be, their purpose lost to centuries or their intricate mechanisms beyond even the finest craftsmen of Tianxia. The Antediluvians had built their miracles in the ancient times of the First Empire, untold centuries ago, and Vesper had gone through many a ruin since.

“I would have thought fresher delights able to be found,” Isabel told her, tone gone a little tart.

Angharad coughed, embarrassed, as she tried to read the other woman’s face to no avail. The dark-haired beauty sighed, idly laying a hand on Angharad’s arm. The noble cursed the knots in her tongue that were stubbornly refusing to undo. And to think she’d been complimented on an artful seduction by her last lover!

“Tell me of Peredur,” Isabel asked, perhaps taking pity.

Angharad gratefully did, speaking of the stony and barren shores where forests of ships nestled in secret inlets, of the green rolling hills and deep forests that grew as one travelled east. Isabel seemed fascinated, always asking more, and though it all felt like it had only been a moment the ache of her arms against the side of the ship told it had been much longer than that. It was time to take their leave, but Angharad begged off going back down with her companion. She spoke of wanting to have a last look around the deck, though the truth was that she wanted to put herself together.

It was a sweet parting and Angharad closed her eyes, letting out a long breath. She had been much too obvious and was ashamed of herself. It had been improper behaviour for a lady of her breeding and a poor idea besides, given how Isabel Ruesta had some rather insistent suitors after her. Regaining her calm, she opened her eyes to see the ship approaching the ruined tower she’d sighted earlier. In the waters around it, tucked under dark ripples, ghostly shapes were swimming. She squinted, leaning further over the side, and made out a stripe going down a spine that bore the ghostly light and some spindly arms. From the fresh angle she could even see that some of the creatures were swimming besides the ship.


Angharad nearly leapt out of her skin, drawing back and reaching for her blade as she turned towards the woman who’d addressed her. Tianxi, she saw, and wearing her dark hair in a braid down her back. A fair girl no older than Angharad herself but whose silver eyes were unsettling. The more she saw them, the more she grew convinced they were not of a natural shade. The Pereduri noble’s hand stayed close to her sabre’s hilt for the other woman had a weapon of her own: a straight sword in the Tianxi style, a jian.

“I beg your pardon?”

“They’re called mantics, the creatures you’re looking at,” the stranger elaborated. “Lierganen claim they feed on the corpses of sailors who died too young. They are scavengers, however, lares and not lemures.”

Most nations did not speak of the world as Malani and Pereduri did, all spirits under the Sleeping God, but instead used the old Lierganen terms. ‘Lares’, for beasts that partook of aether but were not necessarily hostile to men, and ‘lemures’ for those that hunted mankind out of hatred regardless of need.

“Thank you for the lesson,” Angharad slowly replied.

She even half meant it.

“The interesting thing,” the stranger mused, “is that they are said to avoid ships.”

Angharad frowned.

“Some are following us,” she pointed out.

“And have been for several hours now,” the stranger agreed. “It is the third time I have come up to look.”

The noble took a wary step back. This no longer felt to her as a meeting of happenstance, idle talk between shipmates.

“Who are you?” she asked. “Why are you approaching me?”

“I simply wanted to have a look at the woman shots were fired over,” the Tianxi calmly replied. “As for my name, you may call me Song.”

Angharad’s fingers closed around the hilt of her blade.

“You’ve had your look,” she said.

“So I have,” Song agreed. “And you are as interesting as I thought you might be, so I leave you with a warning.”

The Tianxi made to leave, pausing only before she passed Angharad.

“Do not let yourself think this ship is safe. At this rate, there will be trouble long before we reach the island.”

And on that ominous note, the dark-haired stranger walked away. The noble watched her go, the grip on her sabre loosening only when this ‘Song’ disappeared below deck.

The wind brushed against her face, and Angharad was left wondering if it had always been so cold.

39 thoughts on “Chapter 4

  1. CantankerousBellerophan

    So we’re supposed to hate Angharad. Good to know. She speaks much of the land of her birth and not at all of the people, almost as if she does not think them important. It’s a folly common to nobility in the real world, as well. How many stories written by them speak tenderly of fields and pastures, and speak nothing at all of the people tending them?

    They forget the source of everything they have.

    I suppose her good manners towards the spirit of the rat might speak well of her, and certainly hints at a capacity to form alliances with our other ratty friend, but I don’t see it. She only ever seems to think of anyone other than nobles either when they are an immediate threat to her, or are in a position to immediately help her. She doesn’t think of them as people. This is obvious when one considers her reaction to the altercation on the docks. She was genuinely afraid of the guard captain’s threat to kill all the sailors on the ship, as if he were some automaton with nothing to protect or lose. She knows the vengeful reputation of the blackcloaks as well as anyone, but did not once consider the possibility that this reputation might weigh on people without lands to lose until it was spelled out for her explicitly. She’s been utterly blinded to humanity by her upbringing. She isn’t going to see how a mere street rat might help her, even one with a contract, unless some contrivance of the trials forces them together.

    Who knows how much luck will be borrowed in contriving that?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Deworld

      “So we’re supposed to hate Angharad. Good to know.”

      Dislike? Maybe. But “hate” is too strong of a word here. She’s yet to do something that would truly warrant it. Characters are allowed to have (and should) flaws, and her flaws are pretty apparent, but it’s how they work around these flaws that make us like or hate them.

      Liked by 4 people

    2. caoimhinh

      Honestly, her good manners toward the spirit do not really seem like a sign of a friendly person but rather simple common sense when dealing with a whimsical supernatural creature capable of killing you or worse. Good manners in front of a spirit seem like simply not being an idiot.

      On your assessment of her, I mostly agree, though I would argue she is not as dark as you are painting her. She is simply an arrogant noble who suddenly found herself thrown into the world, she has a superiority complex and we have already seen how she still struggles to face the reality of not being a noble anymore and her thoughts toward other people show the disdain that nobles cultivate in their children.

      I don’t think we are supposed to hate her, but rather we are supposed to see her grow and stop being conceited.

      She is sort of like a darker version of Trissiny from The Gods Are Bastards.

      Liked by 6 people

      1. CantankerousBellerophan

        To say she has a superiority complex is to imply that her “complex” is at all unusual or maladaptive. But it’s not, is it? She’s been mired in superiority her entire life. Every single person she’s ever spoken more than a few words to has likely displayed exactly that attitude to everyone who wasn’t born into power. Her attitude didn’t come from some personal flaw. She’s part of a system which deliberately creates people like her, for the purpose of perpetuating itself and the systems of power it represents. She’s both far better and far worse than a generic racist (which she basically is right now, for all that her racial lines are between nobility and commoners rather than anything else) because she both never chose to be like this, and will choose to perpetuate this even long after she should have realized the folly.

        You are right to point out that she is no longer part of that system, though. Her deliberately instilled arrogance has suddenly become maladaptive because she’s lost her status. The irony of course is that she hasn’t realized this yet. Her thoughts are so heavily constrained by her upbringing that the mere possibility that noble titles are social constructs rather than physical facts isn’t going to occur to her, probably for a long time. If and when she ever does realize that, it will shatter her entire worldview. So she is also going to resist the revelation, likely until some suitably dramatic moment.


    3. Bookfly

      She is actually fairly likable, competent, and of mostly good character. Honestly every time her flaws raise their ugly head, what I feel is not hate but pity. Any reader of the guide should have a pretty good idea, just how much grief a person with such a painfuly obvious weaknesses, and blindspots is in for in this story.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. Algon33

        *Seducing”, she is seducing the two ladies. And perhaps being seduced. I wonder if the Cedar brothers might be friendly with whoever was trying to kill her in Sacromonte. That could be a potential angle to set her against them, but given that the brothers see her as competition anyhow, and their likely lack of morals, I think it likely that they’ll attack her. Or maybe she’ll attack them because of some predatory behaviour towards Isabel? Lots of ways they could wind up in conflict. Though that doesn’t have to happen before she gets gets in a scuffle with Tristan, or indeed on the boat.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Trebar

        Hmm… a fair point. The four nobles came as a group and clearly have a number of entanglements together, so in some sense I would argue she is still befriending the group and that there will be some conflict that way. You raise a good point that it is specifically the noble ladies, not the noblemen, that she is befriending though. It would not surprise me if that group ends up splitting down the road, after there’s been a good dose of conflict

        Liked by 3 people

  2. edrey

    This is great, i really missed it.
    so i can see some common points with guide. Tristan is like a young Amadeus before his name and the carrion lord´s machine, being born in a corrupt city and no in a farm. Angharad looks like a young Alaya but with a noble birth and with martial inclination instead of intrigue. that said, they are going to a school and not the tower so the character development would be much different.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, this is the thought you were continuing later!

      Yeah, no. The situation has nothing in common. Angharad has nothing in common with Alaya except gender. Like not a single thing. She doesn’t even have enough in common with her to be the anti-Alaya, she’s just completely unrelated, two lines going past one another in 3D space.


      1. edrey

        let me put it this way, its just a trick of perspective.
        Tristan is cold, controled, calculative and asexual, he have a extreme hate for nobles just like amadeus. so what if Amadeus didnt go for the soldier route but for the rogue route, what if he had a mentor like Abuela. then you can see the parallel with tristan.
        Angharad believe in the noble structure and the spirit of whtat its a noble, and have a idealistic view of her homeland and she is proud of it, just like Alaya. in Angharad words “intrigue” is a man thing and her mother had martial inclination. so what if Alaya was more influenced by a martial heritage, what if she was a noble hence she was more protected from the realities of the world.
        the comparison its with a young amadeus and a young alaya, not with the carrion lord and the dread empress. both have extreme experineces and views to the point that i cant even compare them with their younger selfs
        you can take a character, alter some basic points and the end result is way different, someone can say Erratica took inspiration on Trissina of the gods are bastards and its probably true but the development of the character is based on the author’s perspective so its better to look at the author previews work if you want to analyze the current one


      2. Amadeus was always motivated by patriotism though. He always wanted to change the system. Tristan’s take on a similar situation is completely different. Amadeus went for the soldier route for a REASON. He DID have a mentor like Abuela, see all the goblins he hung out with.

        if Alaya “was a noble and more protected from the realities of the world” well then the only two potentially recognizable things about her character would be (1) her statecraft nerdery (she nerded out over it with Amadeus as a TAVERN GIRL, imagine what it would have been like if she’d been actually taught it) (compare and contrast Angharad who doesn’t seem to have registered that nobles actually rule places), and (2) her social/political/intrigue competence (she managed to scheme her way into power while self-taught and in the lowest possible position on the totem pole, again imagine the terror she would have been if properly tutored and given resources) (compare and contrast Angharad “if I give my legal name instead of the name I actually use with my family that counts as disguising myself, right?”)

        the only real parallel between Amadeus+Alaya and Tristan+Angharad is “clever lowborn boy + badass girl associated with nobility” and like “clever and badass” are pretty fucking common traits for EE’s characters


      3. edrey

        first Amadeus, he didnt have a mentor, that are his words, he only have name-dreams and Hyu for swordmanship. Learning from others is not the same as having a mentor. his patriotism was really interesting, if it couldnt adapt let it die. he cared for the people not the system and he true desire was to win and changing the system was only the how not the why. he didnt love empire that was his words.
        Alaya on the other was a commoner girl, and i talking before the tower, with limted resources and limited education, who has to work in the tavern of his father, her option were limited, no matter how talented.
        their parents and circunstances molded their lives, Amadeus mother was a soldier and Tristan father was a normal man in the city. Alaya was a commoner and Angharad a noble, one has talent with intrigue the other has with the sword. i wont deny their differences but i wont limit the parallels to clever and badass.


      4. Yeah true I was more metaphorical in the sense that he could learn from people like that if he chose to, they WERE around. And wrt your patriotism, LOL. Amadeus did not love the empire as the political entity, he just loved the land of his birth and was willing to give his life and the lives of his loved ones for the people living in it. This is a completely different character from Tristan.

        I fail to see an argument in favor of there being a similarity in your musings on Alaya. The parallels I’m willing to acknowledge are like I said “the lower class boy and the girl associated narratively with nobility”, but that’s kinda high key it, and I don’t think that’s enough to fuel a true comparison in completely different genres.


  3. “came from a hole ripped into firmament, coming raw from the unblinking sun that had turned the Old World to ash and dust. ”

    The other protagonist seemed to phrase it in much the same way. I assume that there’s a tradition or common dogma that repeats the history of the land.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Calvin Jacob

    While I am a little sad that I have to go back to weekly uploads from the bi-weekly uploads the Guide used to have, it is completely overwritten by my massive excitement for this new series


  5. Abnaxis

    Well, if nothing else outed Angharad as a noble; that offering to the rat spirit certainly did.

    I mean seriously, a palm cut? Some of us need to do work with those hands!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. CantankerousBellerophan

      The first time Catherine was horny in a semi-public place was Summerholm. The girl was hanged for treason less than 24 hours later. I would say I hope Angharad has better luck than that, but she’s most likely to go for women who think themselves noble. So I frankly hope all her thirst traps wind up dead, because a world with fewer nobles is always a better one.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. greycat

    Angharad doesn’t see anyone outside of the nobility.

    Tristan doesn’t see the nobility.

    Each of them has a socially created tunnel vision that completely excludes the other’s social class. It should be fascinating once they finally have to interact.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Omnijack

    I am absolutely loving that the two main characters are from such different social standings with such opposing values and personalities. I want to see how long it takes for them to so much as greet each other. Forget the people who are interested in romance, I want a slowburn friendship. I’m hoping these two dorks aren’t anywhere closer than “can barely tolerate the other” by the end of book one.

    In all seriousness though, I do really like that we can see exactly how they perceive the world in their own sections and how because of the stark differences we get to see the events on the isle through different lenses. I think the story would be just as interesting if they opposed each other to the very end of the series, but if they do team up I hope we can continue to see how wildly different their histories colors their views on the challenges of the isle.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. edrey

    let me put it this way, its just a trick of perspective.
    Tristan is cold, controled, calculative and asexual, he have a extreme hate for nobles just like amadeus. so what if Amadeus didnt go for the soldier route but for the rogue route, what if he had a mentor like Abuela. then you can see the parallel with tristan.
    Angharad believe in the noble structure and the spirit of whtat its a noble, and have a idealistic view of her homeland and she is proud of it, just like Alaya. in Angharad words “intrigue” is a man thing and her mother had martial inclination. so what if Alaya was more influenced by a martial heritage, what if she was a noble hence she was more protected from the realities of the world.
    the comparison its with a young amadeus and a young alaya, not with the carrion lord and the dread empress. both have extreme experineces and views to the point that i cant even compare them with their younger selfs
    you can take a character, alter some basic points and the end result is way different, someone can say Erratica took inspiration on Trissina of the gods are bastards and its probably true but the development of the character is based on the author’s perspective so its better to look at the author previews work if you want to analyze the current one


  9. and was dropped her musket in favour of the straight sword
    was dropped > dropped

    but then there was a shot and….
    …. > …

    seeing that hidden behind side of the ship there’d been another dozen sailors
    side > the side

    The brothers’ faced darkened
    faced > faces

    there might be a hired knife for waiting for her on the ship
    for waiting for > waiting for


  10. I don’t know why but I just don’t like Angharad as much as I want to. I should have liked her. She is a warrior, well-mannered, and in a very shitty position. Yet, I just don’t like her that much. Just how she interacts with other nobles and people from a different class irked me. I can’t put my finger on it. She is … entitled perhaps?? The way she talked to people who just literally saved her life is … a little rude and cold, in contrast with how she interacted with other aristocrats.


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