Chapter 5

Tristan needed a way in.

The infanzones had claimed a corner of the hold and were entertaining the sole foreigner they’d decided was worth their time, mere feet away but far beyond his reach. The thief did have to admit the Malani they’d picked was a fearsome specimen, with two inches of height on him and a build hinting she could handle that saber she was dragging around. Unlike the noblewoman he was unlikely to get invited for refreshments, however, so he’d have to find another angle. Fortunately one was there for the taking: the infanzones had brought attendants with them. Six people in all, and one would be his key.

The soldiers, as soldiers did, went to dice the moment their masters ceased paying attention. Even the grim-faced Malani huntsman in Villazur service went, joining a tall man in Ruesta colours and the man Tristan would kill before this was all over: Cozme Aflor, thrice accursed and may the fucking devils of Pandemonium eat him whole. There had already been a game going near the mass of crates in the back of the hold, so after the soldiers joined Tristan simply did the same. The welcome was lukewarm until he flashed some coppers, which were in short supply. Most were playing for buttons or trinkets.

“We’re playing Augur,” a dark-haired woman enthusiastically told him. “No matches, Sacromonte rules.”

“Which are nonsense,” a scarred Malani complained. “Why would the Lovers’ Stars make you lose?”

Considering most the circle was Sacromontans, she won herself a few unfriendly stares with that.

“We call them the Rat King’s eyes,” Cozme smiled, stroking his beard. “He is not a god whose attentions are kind.”

Tristan smirked. It was an old legend that the Rat King had been but a pack of rats, once, but that they had devoured one of the Manes – those great pristine gods so beloved of the infanzones – and become a deity even those old things feared. There were a thousand gods worshipped and bargained with in the mud of the Murk, but few as beloved as the Rat King. He was as a patron to the lost and beggared, those who dwelled in shadow and filth. Not the kind of god that would look well upon the likes of Cozme Aflor.

“It’s the usual way,” the same dark-haired woman insisted. “Play or leave.”

The grizzled Malani sighed but picked up the dice, dropping them in a wooden cup before shaking it. Tristan had played Augur before, it was the simplest of dicing games, and so he was not afraid of losing too badly. He was not here to win anyhow. Betting low, he made sure to stay in the game as the dicers began to chat. The pushy dark-haired one who’d lit up at the sight of his coppers was called Aines, and now he recognized her from earlier. She was the woman married to the dust addict. Said man was napping, which spared him the sight of his wife losing badly at Augur.

Gods but Tristan had never seen someone so genuinely terrible at a game of chance.

He was grateful for it, as her emptying pile of buttons loosened tongues. Winning always put folk in a fine mood. Information slowly trickled in. The huntsman come with the Villazur was named Sanale, though he spoke little save when the other Malani addressed him in some foreign tongue. Tristan knew a little Umoya, but whatever they spoke only seemed to have so much in common with the best known tongue out of the Isles. Inyoni, the older woman with the scars who’d complained about the rules earlier, was a great deal chattier in everyone’s shared Antigua. The thief asked casually about the other two Malani she’d come with earlier in the day, soon surprised at easily getting an answer he’d figured he would have to finesse out.

“The boy’s my nephew,” Inyoni said. “I’m coming along to keep an eye on him.”

“Family is the most important thing,” Aines agreed.

The man in Ruesta colours rolled his eyes at them. This one was called Recardo, and though he was not as large as the Aztlan legbreaker it was a close thing. Closely shaved, he had the kind of well-proportioned face that Tristan knew was considered handsome. He was also, to put it in a single word, a shit.

“Women’s talk,” Recardo mocked before pushing a copper on a bet below four.

Aines bet two buttons on above nine, solid odds she had somehow already lost thrice on.

“There’s no need for rudeness,” Cozme drawled, pushing his own bet on eight precise.

He liked to look like a good man, Cozme Aflor. Tristan had been young but he remembered that much. The others on the List had been demanding, often rude, but Cozme had always been kind with his father. Told him with a smile that it would be over soon, that he just needed to get through it. He’d still had that same smile on his face when pulling the trigger. The thief’s gaze must have lingered, for the bearded man glanced at him curiously. There was not a speck of recognition on the Cozme’s face, not that he had expected one. He’d been but a child when they last met. Tristan smiled, burying his hatred deep.

“What is it like, working for infanzones?” the thief asked, feigning fascination.

Cozme did not hide his smugness.

“Exhausting, but rewarding in its own way,” he claimed. “Though in truth I serve not the brothers but one of their uncles, so they must listen to me in all things.”

Tristan doubted that very much but nodded as if admiring. Recardo, who’d been listening to them, laughed.

“The perks are shit when working for the Cerdan,” the big man said. “Now me? I get to look over Lady Isabel and her pretty little maids, there’s a real prize.”

It was not the first time tonight he mentioned the maids, which he seemed to be laying claim on to an entirely disinterested audience. The huntsman Sanale eyed the other man, then muttered something to the other Malani. Tristan smothered a smile when he recognized the words in Umoya, which translated to something like ‘crow-meat’. A grinning Inyoni rolled the dice, a three and five. Aines cursed disbelievingly, Cozme smirking as he claimed the pot. Recardo looked none to pleased at having lost, his coppers thinning.

“We ought to get the valet in there,” the big man said. “Go get him, Cozme.”

“Gascon attending to the brothers is why I can sit here in peace,” the bearded man replied, shaking his head. “Besides, he’s not as bad with money as you think.”

And like that Tristan had what he wanted: names and faces for all six attendants. Recardo seemed like the kind of man that would be easy to get talking when plied with liquor and flattery, but entirely too unreliable to be used. Neither Sanale nor Cozme could be his key either. The Malani was quiet and distant while Tristan was not sure how well he’d be able to hide his hatred if he spent too long around the other man. That left the personal servants. Since the Cerdan valet was even now polishing the boots of the brothers, Tristan’s gaze moved to the Ruesta handmaids. It’d have to be one of them.

Now he just needed to get rid of one last problem.

“Four radizes on below five,” Fortuna demanded in his ear, draped over his shoulder. “This one’s a win, I can feel it in my bones.”

Tristan grimaced. He could not risk even a whisper, not so close to so many people. Irksome when he was itching to point that she did not, in fact, have bones.

“Come on,” Fortuna insisted. “When have I ever steered you wrong?”

Every single time he’d gambled, he silently replied. He put two coppers on six exact instead.

“Wait, no, you’re right,” she muttered. “This is better. All in, Tristan. Bet everything.”

Fortuna, as befitting of the Lady of Long Odds, only had two stratagems in games of chance: doubling down or going all in. He ignored her, which proved warranted when a moment later two fives were rolled and he lost his coppers. He then used the loss as a pretext for retreat, forcing himself to ignore Fortuna’s indignant howling.

“We had them, Tristan,” the goddess bellowed. “Our luck was turning around, I’m sure of it. We just needed to keep at it a little longer.”

Abuela had taught him that gods always craved something. It was in their nature: they were aether given face through mankind’s touch, leaving them with hungers that they could only satisfy through men. It was what gods got from contracts, a way to sate those hungers, and the same reason that if he listened to Fortuna he would bet on bad dice until he was destitute. It was that one in a hundred thousand victory she craved, the Long Odds come true. To her losing a thousand times for that single unlikely win would be nothing more than suffering through overcooked greens to get at a juicy side of pork.

“We’ll try again later,” Tristan murmured, pretending to be brushing his knee so he could hide his mouth.

“You always say that,” Fortuna pouted, “but then we never do.”

She was pouting, so the storm had passed. She’d stay snippy about it for a bit then before the turn of the hour entirely forget. With that seen to, he turned his attention back to the handmaids. Both were near their mistress, who was playing at court with the other nobles and ignoring them so long as she did not need anything fetched. One, a short dark-haired woman whose name he had learned was Beatris, was finishing up mending a coat with needle and thread. The other, a redhead whose name was Briceida – information obtained through Recardo’s boasting he would get her in bed – was paging through a book with a bored look. Tristan got closer but not enough to earn more than an indifferent glance from either, waiting for an opportunity.

It came when Beatris began to put away her needle in a neat box, a sight he answered by immediately borrowing luck.

The ticking began in the back of his mind, a clock’s moving gears, and a heartbeat later the box slipped through the maid’s hands. Needles and threads spilled all over the floor, the woman letting out a horrified gasp, and even as he rose to help her Tristan released the luck he’d borrowed. Fortune snapped back, lightly so for the lightness of what he’d taken, but it returned with unerring aim. A wooden bobbin rolled under his foot and he slipped with a started yelp, falling forward. Tristan landed on his knees, only a hand keeping his face off the bottom of the hold, and did his best to ignore Fortuna’s hysterical laughter.

“Sweet Manes, are you alright?”

Sighing, the thief looked up at Beatris’ face – she was trying to hide her amusement but failing – and dragged himself back up.

“Nothing was wounded save my pride,” he wryly replied. “Would you like a hand?”

“That is kind of you to offer,” the maid said, sounding surprised. “It would be appreciated.”

The threads had rolled away in every direction and needles were hard to pick out in the gloom of the hold, so it was genuine work to get them back. The other maid ignored them as they scuttled about, at first, until finally she closed her book with a loud sigh and got up. Brushing back red curls, she bent and picked up a single bobbin of blue thread as Beatris was reaching out for it. It was dropped into the box almost contemptuously before Briceida turned a sneer on the both of them.

“Careful the vagrant doesn’t pocket some of Lady Isabel’s things, Beatris,” the redhead said, then her lips quirked cruelly. “Though maybe he’ll cut you in so you can finally afford a decent dress.”

“I’ll take responsibility if there is a mishap, Briceida,” Beatris curtly replied.

“Drop things less, then,” Briceida advised. “Your breeding is showing.”

And on that parting shot she flounced away, leaving dark-haired Beatris struggling not look furious. It passed after a moment and the maid turned an apologetic look on the thief.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“What for?” Tristan snorted. “She seems a horrid bitch.”

A gamble, but he liked his odds. Beatris’ mouth closed but she was not quite able to silence the laugh startling its way out of her throat. Under Tristan’s smiling gaze the maid convulsed a few times, then erupted into giggles.

“She really is,” Beatris admitted. “You’d think she were a king’s daughter instead of a drapier’s.”

Ah, Tristan thought. So it was like that. Drapiers were wealthy men and the pressing reason one’s daughter would be serving as handmaid to a lady was so she might use that foothold in noble circles to marry up. Meaning Briceida was a maid only until she found better, while Beatris would be a servant for life. Their status – and treatment – would be starkly different. Good for him, though. An enemy, especially a common one, would make it easier to forge ties.

“My sympathies,” the thief told her, finding he meant it.

The dark-eyed maid looked up at him for a moment, then hummed. Bringing her hand to the side of her dress as if to straighten it, she discreetly curled her fore and middle fingers. The thief hid his surprise at the sight of the Mark of the Rat being made, pretending to scratch at his sideburns while returning it. Beatris smiled.

“Had a feeling you might be,” she said.

“Born in Feria,” he told her.

Feria District was of the nicer parts of the Murk. He’d not stayed there – without his father, there had been no affording the rent set by the Cerdan – but telling Beatris he’d cut his teeth in rougher places like Araturo and Cayerar would do him no favours. The dark-haired maid’s smiled grew more genuine.

“I am as well,” she told him. “The north end, near Araturo.”

“East for me, around Weeper’s avenue,” he shared.

She looked impressed, though she should not have been.

“Before they prettied it up,” he clarified.

These last few years the noble House of Cerdan had cleaned up some of the many streets they owned in Feria. Mostly so they could raise the rents, throwing out the old tenants and replacing them with wealthier migrants that couldn’t find rooms in the ever-overcrowded Quays. A lucrative racket, by all reports.

“Figures,” Beatris drily said, eyeing him up and down.

He grinned back. Tristan was cleaner than most, for a dirty thief would not be allowed into anywhere worth robbing, but he still had filth under his fingernails. He’d not bathed in a few days even if his clothes were clean. Not so for the maid, who even smelled faintly of lilac. Before he could tease her about that, an interruption bowled them over. Lady Isabel Ruesta was barely taller than Beatris and just as dark-haired, but she was hard to mistake for the other. The infanzon had an indolence about her particular to those that’d never done a day’s work in their life.  

“It was lovely of you to help Beatris,” the Ruesta told him, smiling and laying a hand on his wrist. “May I have your name, sir?”

It was an effort not to allow distaste to show on his face.

“Tristan,” the thief smiled back. “It is my honour to meet you, Lady Ruesta.”

The infanzon tittered.

“Call me Lady Isabel,” she insisted. “It is the least I can do for someone who so gallantly helped my maid.”

She shot Beatris a look of condescending fondness.

“She is not usually so clumsy, I swear to you.”

Beatris bent her head before her mistress, murmuring apologies that were airily dismissed. Practice kept Tristan’s smile from growing visibly stiff.

“It must be the ship,” the thief said. “Journeys have their difficulties.”

The noble brat nodded.

“Too true,” she said, smile brightening. “Yet they are so very exciting!”

She patted his arm again.

“I do hope to see more of you, Tristan,” the Ruesta said. “We shall talk again.”

She flounced off as suddenly as she had flounced in, returning to her nest of nobles. The grey-eyed thief waited until she was settled to turn to Beatris and roll his eyes.

“Would it be rude,” he said, “to offer my sympathies twice?”

The dark-haired maid blinked, then turned an intense gaze on him.

“No,” she slowly said. “But you mean-”

Beatris hesitated.

“Did you not find her charming?”

“The opposite,” Tristan frankly replied.

Beatris’ face twisted in surprise, to his own. She bit her lip.

“Forgive me for the indiscretion,” the maid said. “But are you perhaps…”

She gestured vaguely, but the meaning itself was clear enough. It was not particularly polite to ask strangers if they were homosexual, however, so he cocked an eyebrow.

“Why would that matter?”

Beatris bit her lip again, then leaned closer.

“She has a contract,” the dark-eyed maid whispered. “I don’t know the terms, but it seems to charm people – only those that are attracted to her, though, at least I think.”

The thief felt sick at the realization that the fucking infanzon had been turning a contract on him the entire time she was pretending to play nice, jaw clenching. It couldn’t give her too much control over others, he knew, else she would be in breach of the Iscariot Accords and the Watch would have purged the entire Ruesta family. Yet the thought that she had been seeking to influence his mind was still nauseating. He hid his anger, lest someone notice it, but there had been no avoiding the maid’s eyes. It’d be safer to concede an answer to keep her on side, he decided.

“I do not deal in attraction,” Tristan told her. “Not physical, at least.”

“Asexual?” Beatris asked.

He shrugged. The thief had never much cared to put a name to his inclinations – or lack thereof – but he supposed it fit well enough. He’d caught feelings once or twice over the years, but it had not changed his distaste for sex. For all that he’d remained vague, Beatris significantly warmed to him after. Was she truly so desperate for company that would not be charmed by her despicable mistress? It must be so, for as the two of them sat near the nobles’ travelling trunks the dark-haired woman gossiped away at him with great eagerness. Tristan swallowed a smile of triumph when the talk turned to the infanzones.

“She’s been stringing along the Cerdan brothers for about a year now,” Beatris noted. “Making them fight for her attention, knowing they want her hand in marriage to settle their inheritance dispute.”

“The brothers are at odds?” Tristan casually asked.

“Hate each other, more like,” Beatris snorted. “The only reason they’re taking the trials is to chase Lady Isabel. If it weren’t for Cozme Aflor coming along to keep them in line, I’d be worried about them trying to bump each other off.”

“He was boasting about them having to listen to him earlier,” the thief shared.

“He’s full of shit,” the maid replied. “I talked with the maids of a Cerdan cousin when Lady Isabel last called on Lord Augusto and they told me word in the house is that he’s being sent as punishment. He used to be in high favour but botched some kind of affair with House Ragoza.”

“He’s here to make sure they both come back,” Tristan surmised.

“The poor bastard,” Beatris agreed. “It’s cruel to play with them so, but I can understand why the lady doesn’t want to marry them. Remund was a real bastard even before he got his contract, but the talk since he got it is worse.”

He cocked his head to the side.

“Apparently he trains using it on servants,” she murmured. “Some sort of light he can make shackles with, but it burns the skin. One showed me marks.”

How was it, Tristan wondered, that even knowing they were monstrous he was still angered at hearing of the petty cruelty of Cerdans?

“And the elder brother’s as bad?” he asked.

“I still have family in Feria,” Beatris said, “and they passed on rumours. He was placed in charge of the Cerdan properties there a few years back, rents and such, and he’s got a… reputation.”

The implication there was an ugly one. Tristan wished it was the first time he had heard it spoken, or that it had even the slightest chance of being the last.

“How bad?”

“It’s said he doesn’t force the girls into bed,” the maid admitted. “But he’ll hold off on collecting a debt or a rent if he’s kept company.”

Kept company. What a gentle way to put it. They were both children of the Murk, so they knew well that in life some choices were not really choices at all.

“Pieces of work,” Tristan said, the hatred in his voice old and lovingly tended to. “I’m almost rooting for Ruesta to make them bare knives.”

“She won’t,” Beatris said, shaking her head. “For the same reason I know she won’t marry either: she’s keeping her reputation pristine so she can get the husband she does want. An older cousin on her mother’s side, from a branch of the Livares.”

Tristan’s brow rose. The House of Livares was one of the founding families of Sacramonte. Isabel Ruesta did not lack for ambition, to seek marriage into even one of the lesser branches.

“She’ll need more than contract to win that,” he opined.

Beatris nodded.

“It’s why she decided to take the trials,” the maid said. “The cousin is taking them as well, gone over on the first ship. She’ll be pursuing him throughout the whole mess.”

“While playing with the Cerdans the whole time,” Tristan muttered. “Infanzones. Like it won’t be dangerous enough already.”

“She’ll pick up a few others to toy with,” Beatris predicted. “Already she’s sunk her hooks into that poor Malani girl.”

“The one with the saber?”

“That’s the one. Some kind of fallen noble from the Isles, I think,” the maid shrugged. “Already smitten and getting used to prick the brothers.”

“At least she looks like she can handle a blade,” Tristan said. “Another sword arm can’t hurt on the Dominion of Lost Things.”

“I suppose,” she doubtfully replied.

“Though I expect you’d be safer than most without,” the thief said, tone carefully idle. “I’d be surprised if the infanzones hadn’t made a pact to share their soldiers.”

He hoped not, for it would complicate getting at Cozme and the Cerdans, but that was not the way of the world. Nobles always closed rank, hid each other’s vileness.

“All but Lady Villazur,” Beatris absent-mindedly confirmed. “She’s been putting off answering. But safety is a… relative thing.”

The dark-haired maid turned an anxious but hopeful look on him. Tristan had been asked enough favours by the more desperate than he to recognize when someone was about to do it.

“I saw you dicing earlier,” Beatris said. “Did you perhaps chat with a man named Recardo?”

The large Ruesta soldier, Tristan thought. The same who’d been warning everyone off Lady Isabel’s two maids, since he had a ‘claim’ on them.

“You came up,” the thief said, not beating around the bush. “He seemed very certain his advances would be accepted.”

“I’m worried,” the dark-eyed maid quietly said, “that he’s certain because he won’t care if I am accepting.”

Tristan stilled.

“You are a lady’s handmaid,” he slowly said.

“I’m not a drapier’s daughter, Tristan,” Beatris tiredly replied. “He wouldn’t dare on Ruesta grounds, but out here? I’m just some girl plucked out of the Murk because I resembled Lady Isabel when we were children. So long as he does it out of sight…”

She must have been body double as well as a handmaid, he thought. Only now Beatris was shorter and broader than Isabel Ruesta, so her value had taken a sharp dive: the two resembled each other no more than any other pair of dark-haired women close in age.

“So you’re looking to make friends,” he said.

“I can be useful to you too,” Beatris firmly retorted. “I already proved it with all the things I’ve been telling you, haven’t I? Besides, I’m a way for you to get in with their group and that’s exactly why you’ve been sniffing around.”

He eyed the maid, a smile tugging at his lips unbidden.

“A proper rat you are,” Tristan praised. “Name your terms.”

She straightened her back.

“Keep an eye out for me when he’s prowling,” the maid said. “If I’m sent out alone, make an excuse to follow. I don’t expect you to win a fight against a soldier, but if you just delay him long enough I can run…”

Then she could get back to the others and make a ruckus. Lady Isabel would have to act if confronted with such a situation, else she would lose all honour and her reputation would be ruined. Who would serve a noble that did not protect her own handmaids? Still, more likely Beatris was betting on Recardo not being willing to take the risk of trying anything if there was a witness given the consequences of getting caught. A practical solution. Only he needed a little more from her.

“I’ve made another friend,” Tristan said. “A former soldier. I want him to be invited as well.”

The maid hesitated.

“It’s to your advantage as well,” he pressed. “Two of us watching out for you, one more pair of hands if Recardo tries his luck – and a pair trained in fighting at that.”

The promise of someone that might be able to handle the large Ruesta soldier in a fight was what tipped the decision, Tristan decided as he watched her. The dark-haired maid nodded, first with hesitation but then briskly the second time.

“They’ll start looking around for people to grow their numbers tomorrow,” Beatris said. “I attended to Lady Isabel this morning while they discussed it. I’ll make sure you and your friend get in.”

“Then we have a bargain,” Tristan replied. “On my oath, may a hundred gods bite me should I break it.”

Beatris returned the promise in kind. It was said that in ancient times the great sages of Liergan had known how to make such oaths binding, but even if the tale was true the words had long outlived the learning. Now it was simple ceremony. Before they parted ways, Tristan lightly laid a hand on her arm to stop her.

“I have a wonder,” he said.


“If a great misfortune was to strike Recardo,” Tristan asked with the softness of a feather, “would you then also consider our bargain upheld?”

Beatris breathed in sharply, dark eyes searching his face. She hesitated for a long moment, only for her back to straighten again.

“The hungry bite, the beggared snatch,” she softly quoted back.

The cornered fight, Tristan finished. So went the Law of Rats, and though they might have left the Murk the Murk had not left them. She did not need to speak the word for him to hear the agreement. Nodding his understanding, he bade her a silent farewell. Closing his eyes as he listened to her footsteps moving away, Tristan made himself go over the conversation again. He had made no obvious mistakes or betrayed his interest in seeing half the infanzones aboard dead, he decided. A victory then, however uneasy it made him. He would have to ponder a way to get rid of Recardo if the opportunity came.

The pact between the nobles to share their soldiers meant killing the man would be useful anyhow.

Now he only needed to sell the bargain he’d struck to Yong, on whose behalf he had also bargained, but he did not anticipate conflict there. The soldier had plainly told him he sought only to get to the third trial, nothing else mattering to him. Using the infanzones for safety, at least for a time, would be a boon. The Tianxi was laying slumped in a corner and reeking of booze when Tristan found him, but his eyes were open and he was studying the lay of the hold.

“Alliances are forming,” Yong said, tone slurring. “Look.”

The thief sat before following the pointed finger, wrinkling his nose at the smell of liquor. His ally, however drunk, was correct. Groups were forming. The first around that disturbingly perfect-looking Aztlan that came recommended. The large legbreaker from the Menor Mano was sitting with him, as was the pair from Asphodel: both the young noble with acne and the gaunt exhausted man Tristan had been warned about. Leander Galatas, here on recommendation by the Navigator’s Guild and might hold knowledge of Signs. The twins were eyeing them up as well, visibly considering tying themselves to that crew even as they spoke with the Aztlan woman he knew nothing about.

On the opposite end of the hold another alliance was coming together, looking a lot more convivial. The two younger Malani that Inyoni was keeping an eye one were chatting with the pair of Ramayans that’d also come together, the lot of them all close in age and well-dressed. Inyoni’s nephew looked nervous, always looking around as if expecting to be jumped, but all four were armed and even the chubby-cheeked Ramayan boy looked like he knew how to handle his pistol. With a veteran like Inyoni behind them, they would be a crew to reckon with. Three forces, Tristan mused. The infanzones and their attendants, Tupoc Xical with his recruits and this band of five.

The rest, he suspected, would be leftovers. The oldest two on the boat were seated close but not talking and no one had approached them. Meanwhile the married couple was arguing in a low voice and Marzela… where was Marzela? Probably hiding in some corner. Looking for Brun, Tristan was unsurprised to see the man Fortuna had warned him about landing on his feet. He was chatting with a flattered-looking Briceida, not a trace of sneer on the redhead maid’s face. That left only the Raseni whose name he had never learned and the well-armed Tianxi recommended by the Rookery, the two of them talking when he glanced their way.

A conversation soon ended, though, and they went different ways.

“Did you get anything out of the maid?” Yong asked.

“A bargain,” Tristan murmured. “We watch her back against the Ruesta guard and she gets us in with the infanzones.”

The Tianxi solider let out a whistle that was a little too loud, drawing eyes to them. Tristan pushed down a squirm of discomfort.

“Good work,” Yong praised. “I was thinking we’d have to work our way in with Tupoc’s crew but the nobles are a better horse to ride.”

“He approached you?” Tristan asked.

“Came around,” the drunk said. “But he’s gathering killers and I don’t want to be one of them unless I know why.”

The thief grunted in agreement.

“He’s not the only one that got curious,” Yong continued. “The Raseni’s been keeping an eye on you all afternoon.”

Tristan forced himself not to look at her and give the game away.

“She speak to anyone so far?”

“That Tianxi girl that walks like she’s done Republic drills,” the soldier began to list. “Brun, that terrified girl you rubbed elbows with. Oh, and the Ramayan gunslinger – but only before the pair started cozying up with the Malani.”

Looking for allies? If so, she was not doing well. The thief glanced her way and found she was standing alone. It was hard to tell anything about her, given the way Raseni dressed whenever they left their city-state. The woman wore a grey dress that went down to knee-high boots, embroidered leather gloves and layered grey veils that reached halfway down her torso and were kept in place by a painted wooden circle atop her head. The only opening was for the eyes, a dull copper mask carefully worn there to keep everything covered except the eyeholes.

It was said the folk of Rasen thought their island the only untainted land in all of Vesper, hiding their bodies outside it so they would not lead evil back to their home. All Tristan could tell about the Raseni was that she was about of height with him, tall for a woman, and that those gloves and boots were worn from use. The boots in particular were – the thief stilled.

“Yong,” he murmured. “Look at the Raseni’s boots.”

“They do look comfortable,” the Tianxi agreeably replied

“What colour would you say the stitches are?”

The soldier shot him a strange look.

“Dark blue?” he finally said, shrugging.

So they were. Tristan had not met many Raseni, but back when he’d run messages for a Roja frontman near the docks he’d learned a few things about them. Like the way they never wore anything blue below the belt, since it drew the attention of evil gods. There was no way a Raseni religious enough to observe full veiling would not know that. Which means I’m not looking at a Raseni. Hitching himself up, the thief brushed his trousers clean before walking away from a baffled Yong. Unhurried, Tristan crossed the hold until he reached the false Raseni and leaned against the wall to her left.

“I do not believe,” the stranger said, “that we have been introduced.”

No accent. Her Antigua had that cadence to it common to those who’d learned the language late, but nothing about the way she spoke hinted about where she was from. It was, he mused, an aggressively unaccented way of speaking and so almost certainly practiced. He didn’t immediately reply, instead leaning his head back against the wall. When he finally spoke, his tone was barely above a whisper.

“I am trying to think,” the thief said, “of a reason for why you’d pick Rasen of all places as way to hide your identity. I can’t seem to find one.”

He looked up at the ceiling, the play of shadows lined by the lantern lights.

“In Old Saraya masks are worn by certain trades,” he said, “and surely hair dye would have been easier than going around in a full Raseni veiling if you only sought to hide your identity.”

“Are you accusing me of something?”

“You’re wearing blue under the belt,” Tristan plainly said. “Raseni do not.”

“Not unless we have been exiled,” she replied.

A tense moment passed.

“Did you think I’d buy that?” he curiously asked.

A sigh, then she shuffled on her feet.

“I should have sprung for the boots without stitches,” she muttered.

He hummed. Her eyes were blue, he glimpsed through the slits of the copper mask.

“You’re not going to introduce yourself?” she asked.

“You’ve kept an eye on me all day,” the thief said. “You already know my name.”

A guess, but one he liked his odds on. She did not deny it.

“So the Tianxi’s your ally,” the stranger said. “Thought as much.”

“You had to be looking close to notice that,” he said. “What is it you’ve been looking at us for?”

“I haven’t decided yet,” she lightly replied. “Besides, that’s ahead of us. Here and now I would like to offer you a deal.”

He cocked his head to the side.

“Your silence,” the veiled woman offered, “for knowledge that might save your life.”

Tristan eyed her searchingly but there was no face to read, only dull copper and cloth. It might end up useful leverage to out her as an impostor, he considered, but it was not certain. Most here did not have a reason to care. Better to get something certain than hold on to something he might never use. And if she told him something useless? Then he would still have learned something, only about her.

“Agreed,” he replied.

“The noblewoman picked up by the infanzones,” the stranger said, “has ten silver lines tattooed on her left arm.”

“So she’s a Malani swordmistress,” Tristan frowned.

They were dangerous folk, he’d heard, feared even by the bloodthirsty champions of Aztlan warrior societies.

“No,” the woman said. “It’s on the wrong arm, in the wrong colour. She’s a Pereduri mirror-dancer.”

Wasn’t Peredur part of the Kingdom of Malan? One of the islands.

“There’s a difference, I take it,” the thief said.

“Swordmasters gain their lines in honour duels. Bloody fights, but deaths aren’t common. On the High Isle, to win a line you’re taken to the shore on a specific day of the year.”

“To duel?”

“In a manner of speaking,” she said. “There’s a kind of lemure there called grey mirrors. They prey on lone travellers and fishermen, taking their form and then eating the body to gain some of its memories.”

Tristan’s disbelieving gaze, against his will, went to the noblewoman they were talking about. Blissfully unaware of the attention, she was telling a story to the Villazur.

“You can’t be serious.”

“They wait until the mirror takes the form of the one trying for the line,” the stranger evenly said, “then toss it a sword of its own, for fairness. They win or die, facing themselves year after year.”

If the Mala- the Pereduri could only take such a trial once a year and she had ten stripes, she must have begun when she was still a child. Ten, eleven? Young.

“Don’t ever face that woman sword in hand,” the stranger warned, “unless you are looking to die.”

That was knowledge well worth a secret kept, and Tristan did not hide his appreciation. He’d come out ahead in this bargain, perhaps even a little too much. Best to even the scales, lest he be in the stranger’s debt.

“The Ruesta girl has a contract that charms others,” he murmured. “Though there are restrictions.”

The veiled woman stayed a silent for a moment.

“That,” she finally said, “could be trouble.”

It was obvious enough he did not bother to voice agreement. Besides, he’d got what he came here for and more. It was time to take his leave.

“Since you have my name,” Tristan said, “it would only be fair for me to receive yours.”

She shot him a considering look, as if debating what she would use.


“It’s been worthwhile, Sarai,” he said, inclining his head.

“So it has,” she agreed. “We’ll speak again on the island.”

Surprisingly, he found himself looking forward to it. He’d barely taken a step away from the veiled woman when he heard a gunshot, body tensing as he went for his knife. He realized a moment later that it had come from the decks above, though he’d not been the only one alarmed: there were several others on their feet and just as wary. A second later another shot sounded, then what had to be a dozen more. They did not stop.

“We’re under attack,” Cozme Aflor shouted. “Arm yourselves!”

Pirates? Surely not, for what kind of a fool would attack a Watch ship when they carried few goods and were certain to be full of soldiers? Even as the travellers of the hold went for their weapons, Tristan’s gaze swept through them again as instinct had him counting the heads. Shit, the thief thought. Marzela was still missing. The same terrified girl he was certain had been drawing on her contract compulsively since coming onboard. A sinking feeling in his stomach, Tristan brushed past the pair of Ramayans and climbed atop one of the crates in the back. He heard a man’s voice laughing, asking if he was going to hide, but he ignored it as he crawled forward.

The back of the hold was a tightly packed mass of crates, but over one’s edge Tristan saw some sort of cloth peeking out. Cursing again he crawled closer, seeing then it was not cloth at all. It was some sort of webbing, like a spider’s. And behind that crate, nesting among threads of webbing, was horror. What had been Marzela barely clung on to human shape, milky blind eyes having grown all over her head while spindly legs ending in claws had ripped their way out of her sides and torso. She held herself in her own arms, the skin webbed together, and when a noise of terrified disgust ripped its way out of Tristan’s throat she suddenly twitched. She’s waking up. Milky eyes swam into focus and the thief threw himself back.

“SAINT,” he shouted. “SAINT IN THE HOLD!”

He didn’t even see what hit him, a keening sound filling his ears as pain exploded across his back and he tumbled through a broken crate. Fuck, his shoulder. Tristan rose out of a spill of seeds just in time to see the Saint scuttling through the hold while half a dozen people fired at it, carelessly slapping down the Aztlan legbreaker when it stood in her way. The god wearing Marzela let out a moaning sound when shots tore at its flesh, but it would take more than musket balls to put it down. Not that it seemed inclined to stay at the bottom of the ship: bleeding black ichor, the monster climbed up the wall to the ceiling and ripped its way clean through the wood.

“Oh spirits,” someone moaned.

Even as it climbed through the hole, the Saint let out another keening moan before disappearing. A moment later Tristan got a glimpse of what the blackcloaks had been shooting at all this time. Mantics. Of all the bloody things, it was mantics. Leering creatures barely two feet long, dragging themselves on long clawed hands as their disturbingly humans faces bared fangs. Only the scavengers were gone wild, spilling down into the hold by the dozens and savagely going for those closest to them. Tristan backed away from the mess, watching as Tupoc Xical calmly finished putting together a spear and harpooned the closest lares without batting an eye.

Violence broke the spell of surprise, the rest of the hold exploding into action. Keeping an eye on the infanzones, Tristan saw that they were already moving towards the upper deck. Looking to the blackcloacks to save their necks, no doubt. But they were leaving fighters behind, only Cozme heading up with them, and the cold place in the back of his mind saw the opening. The mirror-dancer was sticking close to Isabel Ruesta, and since the infanzones were sharing soldiers that meant… The thief moved towards his medicine cabinet. While mantics kept slithering down and fighting sounded above, he discreetly grabbed a small vial from the upper right compartment and felt out the lining of the door.

There were long needles, just like he’d learned in Alvareno’s Dosages, and he palmed one.

A look told him that Beatris was on her way up with her mistress and that Yong was fine – though visibly drunk, he was reloading his pistol without fumbling – so there was no need to stick his neck out. Better to wait for his moment, and until then take the opportunity he’d been handed. That crone Celipa had promised to see him beaten if he got into the crates, but now one was open and no one likely to be paying attention if he had a look at what was inside the others. Even as he uncorked the vial he’d taken and dipped the needle in the brown, viscous Spinster’s Milk within he snuck into the back of the hold. The vial was tucked away carefully, as was the needle, and he turned his attention to the mystery.

He’d been thrown into seeds earlier, but prying open other crates showed him the rest of the goods. At least two full of muskets, powder and swords, another of trinkets, but there was a lot of food. Some was military rations but also dried meats and a large amount of those cheap seeds, the kind that didn’t come from Glare-crops and so ended up used only to feed poor men and darklings. What does the Watch garrison on the island need with so much food? Something to keep in mind, though he best end this before he was caught. Leaving the cover of the crates, Tristan returned to find the tail end of a fight. Most the travellers had gone up like the infanzones, leaving only a handful behind to hold the stairs as mantics kept slithering in through the hole in the ceiling.

“Tristan,” Inyoni called out. “Hurry, we’re closing the door.”

Clutching his knife tightly, the thief tiptoed around the pack of scavengers being kept at bay by swords and a musket fixed with a bayonet. The noise caught their attention, and unlike the others he’d not earned their fear by piling up a few corpses: they came at him hard. Waddling forward with deceptive quickness the mantics moved to cut him off as he broke into a run, and though he leapt over the first that tried to bite his leg he was caught after he landed. Claws ripped into his trousers and he hissed in pain, slashing at the creature’s eyes. It howled in pain as he ripped through flesh, releasing him just fast enough he was able to run to the bottom of the stairs before the rest could do more than nip at his heels.

“See, I told you he was too slippery to die,” Inyoni drawled, idly slashing away at the mantics.

It held them back, Tristan saw. It wouldn’t have earlier, when the Saint had been there and they were gone entirely rabid. Now they were capable of fear again.

“Too slippery to fight, too,” Recardo grunted.

That got him contemptuous look from the remaining two, Inyoni’s nephew and the acne-ridden noblewoman from Asphodel. Best to nip that in the bud, he still had a use for a decent reputation.

“I was looking to see if the Saint left anything behind,” he lied. “She looks like a spider, so I was concerned of eggs.”

Ah, and away went the contempt.

“Shit,” Inyoni’s nephew quietly said. “Were there any?”

“Couldn’t find some, but I can’t be sure. I didn’t want to risk touching the webbing,” Tristan said, feigning reluctance at the ‘confession’.

“That was wise of you,” the Asphodel noble reassured him. “Nothing come of a Saint is harmless.”

“We can all pat ourselves on the back later,” Recardo cut in. “Let’s close this damn door and bar it shut, we’ve wasted long enough.”

Tristan smoothed away his smile. He’d known the Ruesta soldier would be there. See, every other infanzon would have a sword hand already with them. Cozme for the Cerdan brothers, Sanale for the Villazur and finally the Pereduri for Isabel Ruesta. Recardo was bound to be the one they left behind, and they had to leave someone behind so it wasn’t too obvious they’d abandoned everyone the moment danger arrived. Reputation and honour, yes? So now he only needed to play his part. How fortunate that Recardo was such a prick he hadn’t even had to bait out an insult.

“They’ll attack when there’s fewer of us,” Tristan said. “Like scavengers always do. The last of us will have a fight on their hands.”

Inyoni nodded, about to speak up when Tristan sniffed. He painted offended pride on his face.

“Recardo and I can take the role, if he so doubts I can handle a knife,” the thief said.

There was no argument. None of the others would clamour for the place of danger, and Recardo couldn’t even begin to try wiggling out of this without withdrawing his careless insult from earlier. Which the man would not, because he was a prick. And so as the others began to withdraw up the stairs, Tristan palmed the long needle he had put away earlier. To be safe, he waited until the third time the mantics came after them. He half-slipped on the stairs, drawing the scavengers after him eagerly, and even as he scampered back up the stairs in the chaos he pricked the large man in the fat of the leg. Recardo yelped and glared down, but Tristan withdrew quick enough it looked like a mantic had been at fault.

The thief scampered up, the two of them keeping the creatures away as the others disappeared up the stairs one by one. Tristan waited. Spinster’s Milk was an extract from a breed of lemures commonly known as Caotl’s Spinsters, horse-sized scorpions that’d earned the sobriquet because their venom was not mortal. As if needy spinsters, the beasts instead paralyzed their prey so they could eat them alive bite by bite. So Recardo did not die, as that would have been much too suspicious. Instead he slowed, limbs growing numb, and then made a mistake. When time came to avoid a snap of teeth the large soldier misjudged the length of steps and down Recardo went.

Tumbling down the stairs and into the pack of hungry mantics, who would conveniently eat the evidence.

“Hurry,” Inyoni hissed into his ear, dragging him by the shoulder. “He’s dead, kid, there’s no helping him.”

The thief made sure to protest once that he could still save his beloved comrade Recardo before allowing himself to be talked into abandoning him. He was not an amateur, so he did not smile as the door closed behind him.

One, Tristan Abrascal counted.

43 thoughts on “Chapter 5

  1. arcanavitae15

    Tristan is good at what he does, and that is being a damn good scheming rouge, I really love it. Congrats for one on the kill list for him. Also apparently the other MC got even scarier.

    Liked by 10 people

  2. edrey

    Now that is amazing.
    Tristan is just incredible. the parallels with Amadus are there but its other world so the develpoment would be different. not to mention is the turn of Angharad now. i am really curious on how she will react to the news that she was charmed.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I sincerely hope the “this character is totally like that PGTE character” discussions will die down soon. No shit people are always somewhat like other people, but none of them are Literally The Same Character Transplanted.

      Liked by 10 people

      1. edrey

        You know that creating a story take a lot of effort, time and imagination. Taking the base lines of a beloved character of a another story is normal. the main point here is not the comparison but the expectative we have in the author. its like watching a master painter using the same paint, its going to be a master piece regardless of the similarities.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. No, uh… yeah, no. That’s not how creating stories works. Have you noticed how many characters are in PGTE? How many of them are the same character cloned over?

        No, a writer won’t make the same character twice in different stories unless that’s the specific gimmick (Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicles vs Cardcaptor Sakura and shit like that).

        There’s a better chance of them taking inspiration from a story made by ANOTHER writer than by remaking the same character they themselves have already made.

        Like… no.

        Liked by 5 people

    2. D. D.

      Agreed, he gives off Young Black vibes. A bit kinder, perhaps, but just as willing to dirty his hands and just as capable of manipulating those around him to further his ends.


      1. Well. they are alike in the package but not in the content.

        Tristan is not like young Amadeus. Amadeus is more open and expressive. As Anaxarxes said, he is a man easy to get along with and rarely gets offended by anything. His mannerism toward most people is quite warm and charming. And I find that he is quite chill. Like, he hates the Heir for killing his family but he did spare Ime – the one who helped the Heir. He befriended Wekesa even though Wekesa obviously came from money (he can’t even start a fire without summoning a demon). There is a level of appreciation for talent regardless of social class in Amadeus. He will praise Cordelia, Grey Pilgrim, two Callowan rebel leaders, and any other enemies for their remarkable traits or actions completely sincerely. Like, you can feel that if the situation were different, Amadeus would enjoy chatting and working with them. In my interpretation of his character, Amadeus does not hate the nobility but the incompetence, lack of regard for consequences, and the hollow philosophy that seems to embody that social class. If the highborn were not such fuckwits who try to ruin it for everyone, and actually work to help Praes, he wouldn’t try to purge them so hard. He did not even hate Akua for her role in throwing his 40 years of work down the crapper and gave her that match when she passed his character test and changed for the better.

        Tristan has this anger underneath him that is always an action away from boiling over. The hatred toward all nobles regardless of their deeds and virtues. He is prideful and holds a grudge in a way that is similar to Cat at the beginning. Young Amadeus’s reaction to his country’s horrible defeat was to make plans for a new system of government. He killed the Heir in revenge and that was it. Tristan has a hatred for all nobles even ones that have nothing to do with his father’s death. He doesn’t really think about replacing them with a better system, just killing them. I don’t think he will give people a chance as Amadeus did – the spider in Ater was a test. Tristan doesn’t have that kind of large-scale thinking that is the core of Amadeus’s character. He just shares the way that Amadeus likes to approach his problems.

        Two completely different flavors of milk tea. Equally interesting.


    3. yagoldt

      You might as well draw parallels between Amadeus and any other character that has killed someone with a clever little plan.

      They’re different characters, they live in different realities and have different personalities. Tristan so far has been a quick witted and resourceful thief trying not to die and with a wish for revenge, but with some conscience. Not a cold blooded scheming mad man that wants to win despite the rules of the reality he lives in because he doesn’t find them fair.


    1. CantankerousBellerophan

      Wow. I like Tristan. Appropriately disposed towards all who would call themselves noble, understands that all landlords are thieves and parasites, not afraid to kill for the cause of protecting those with whom he has forged common cause. All good qualities for a person to have.

      It’s still clear to me we are meant to see Angharad as reprehensible. Her arrogance blinds her to the fact that she is being softly mind controlled. She wears that arrogance, inherited from her upbringing but still no less vile, on her skin. Seriously, what kind of tradition is it to throw children at malicious shapeshifters, and then make trophies of the act? The kind of tradition which can only arise among those with no regard for humanity, but who also lack any understanding of what danger truly is. She had to face it once a year, as she grew up, and calls this honor. Tristan faced danger every single day, just by being born, and calls this what it is: Justification for violence in kind.

      How does any of this make Angharad reprehensible? We’ve seen her motivations. She wants to return to her home, and to her place in it. She wants to take back what she considers her birthright (as if any birth confers the rights nobles claim). She wants, in short, for her own children, should she have any, to be thrown at malicious shapeshifters, and for this to be their only experience with danger.

      Furthermore, she (and every other noble) is reprehensible for how useless she was. Only one person on the ship noticed the girl missing, drew a connection between that and her likely recent contract, and used this to do anything meaningful to save the ship. Tristan was able to do this because he, unlike the empty shells which call themselves noble, is a human. He noticed another person in distress, and though there was nothing he could do to help, he remembered it when it became important. None of the nobles did that because they are inhuman monsters who failed to even see Marzela as anything more than an object.

      They were incapable of attacking the underlying causes of the problem, because their upbringing made them part of that problem. Almost like nobility in real life.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Deworld

        You’re taking it too personally. Look, we got you don’t like Angharad. Is it really necessary to write essays about it?

        Plus I’m sure Tristan has plenty of skeletons in his closet too. You’re talking about how he was the only one who noticed Marzela, and it may be true, but it’s not like he did anything to help her, didn’t he? He noticed her, noticed how dangerous she may be to others, and proceeded to do nothing about it. He clearly cares about his own back more than anyone’s else. And it’s fine. Every character should have flaws. It’s not right to demonize some of them based on that fact alone.

        Liked by 7 people

      2. jagartha

        I think we’re supposed to, if not hate, at least dislike Angharad. In the first chapter, we discovered briefly Sacromonte from Tristan’s point of view, and right after what we get with Angharad? Insults and prejudices. She calls Sacromote “this shitheap of a city ” (I’m not saying that’s not true but it reveals her personality) and when being called out by merchants, felt “uncomfortable that people – commoners – would call out to her in such a way.” The specification makes clear she makes the distinction between people (her peers, the other infanzones) and commoners.
        In addition, even after learning her uncle burned favors to help her, she still thinks it’s beneath her to participate in the trials and would have asked him to find another solution if she hadn’t been forced to get in the boat by her opponents. She’s not particularly amoral, or a heartless monster but she’s annoying which is a far more terrible sin when it comes to characters

        Besides her so-called honor and her swordmanship, nothing distinguished her from other nobles. Honestly, her desire to regain her privileges is one of her least unpleasant character traits. I’m not expecting someone beneficiating from the system to start to question it out of nowhere, especially in a fantasy setting where information and people’s diverse opinions are not shared equally. She’s the product of her environment nothing more nothing less.

        As for this shapeshifters thing, I think that’s the most useful thing her education provided her. As I said it’s a fantasy setting, it’s still vague but considering she came from a more savage place there’s probably a need for skilled warriors in order to kill powerful monsters. I took it as quite the opposite of a disregard for humanity and a lack of understanding of what danger is, it looks like one of the necessary traditions to protect humanity and acknowledge the danger of horrors. It speaks maybe of a disregard for children’s life, but that’s all.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. edrey

        Angharad is too young, too naive, its too soon to give a judgment. its better to take a few steps back, think with a clear mind and not make comments based in hatred alone.

        Liked by 6 people

      4. Wow.

        Angharad is blind to being softly mind controlled not because of her arrogance but BECAUSE OF THE MIND CONTROL. It necessarily includes an antimemetic component about itself, else it would be worse than useless. Isabel can’t always rely on her targets being “arrogant” or w/e.

        As for her upbringing, Angharad is, simply put, brainwashed. She was raised to believe this was honor and that is WHY it happens. It’s also a way to push her skills to develop, and it’s a horrific one, but it HAPPENED TO HER. Like. It’s not something that happens to others than the justifies to herself, it’s something that happened to HER that she had to reconcile or start believing her caretakers are evil.

        (No child will easily believe their caretakers are evil. Children will readily internalize the most horrific of abuse as “deserved” and “reasonable” and “the right thing to do” given the barest suggestion. Children are suggestible BECAUSE THEY ARE CHILDREN AND STILL LEARNING ABOUT THE WORLD AND RELY ON ADULTS FOR THIS)

        As for Marzela… Literally only one person noticed she was missing, yes. Not “everyone except Angharad”, not even “everyone except the nobles”. Only Tristan, who had actually talked to her and realized what was going on with her contract. NO-ONE ELSE. Why are you chastising Angharad specifically for it?

        As for leaving with the rest… Angharad is curently LITERALLY BEING MIND CONTROLLED. If she were to stick to her own company and decide on her own to leave, I’d hold it against her, sure. If she were to regular not mind control stick with the nobles and leave with them, I’d be dubious about it but wait for her own POV to pass judgement on what happened. But with her being SOFT MIND CONTROLLED by the one person without her own sworn bodyguard? Yeah Angharad did what she was told.

        Angharad is a kid. You’re blaming her for not being some kinda visionary savior, and like… no. No-one thinks like you’re suggesting she shoud be thinking, not at her age. She’s a kid whose family was slaughtered. No SHIT she wants things back! It’s not about their social impact and direly wishing for the mirror lemur fighting tradition to be continued! It’s about it being her home and her family and her comfort zone!

        Like… dude.

        Liked by 6 people

      5. Jrbdxa

        I feel like you’re doing a bit, what with the username and comically exaggerated hatred of nobles, but I can’t actually be sure. Thanks for the chuckle, in any case.

        Liked by 2 people

      6. Annya

        I am not so sure I understand where you are coming from but considering how little we know about this world, the systems and what has happened, this feels like a lot of assumptions and projections. It’s a bit too early in the story to be this set on your read of the system and that is not necessary. Yeah, most people would cling to what they know, especially if they have grown up in that environment and never have had a reason or the context to question it. Using moral judgement while satisfying is hardly necessary. Especially when we know practically nothing about the reasons behind the practices. Considering the stories we have read by this author, I do not think it’s wise to assume a simplistic explanation.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Deworld

    “To her losing a thousand times for that single unlikely win would be nothing more than suffering through overcooked greens to get at a juicy side of pork.”

    No wonder she doesn’t have any followers left.

    Liked by 5 people

      1. Algon33

        She just doesn’t know which games favour long odds. So she plays a million games, loses 999,999 times and can’t ever make up for it with her one victory. Now it would be a different story if she were a venture capitalist….

        Liked by 4 people

      2. CantankerousBellerophan

        Wow. I like Tristan. Appropriately disposed towards all who would call themselves noble, understands that all landlords are thieves and parasites, not afraid to kill for the cause of protecting those with whom he has forged common cause. All good qualities for a person to have.

        It’s still clear to me we are meant to see Angharad as reprehensible. Her arrogance blinds her to the fact that she is being softly mind controlled. She wears that arrogance, inherited from her upbringing but still no less vile, on her skin. Seriously, what kind of tradition is it to throw children at malicious shapeshifters, and then make trophies of the act? The kind of tradition which can only arise among those with no regard for humanity, but who also lack any understanding of what danger truly is. She had to face it once a year, as she grew up, and calls this honor. Tristan faced danger every single day, just by being born, and calls this what it is: Justification for violence in kind.

        How does any of this make Angharad reprehensible? We’ve seen her motivations. She wants to return to her home, and to her place in it. She wants to take back what she considers her birthright (as if any birth confers the rights nobles claim). She wants, in short, for her own children, should she have any, to be thrown at malicious shapeshifters, and for this to be their only experience with danger.

        Furthermore, she (and every other noble) is reprehensible for how useless she was. Only one person on the ship noticed the girl missing, drew a connection between that and her likely recent contract, and used this to do anything meaningful to save the ship. Tristan was able to do this because he, unlike the empty shells which call themselves noble, is a human. He noticed another person in distress, and though there was nothing he could do to help, he remembered it when it became important. None of the nobles did that because they are inhuman monsters who failed to even see Marzela as anything more than an object.

        They were incapable of attacking the underlying causes of the problem, because their upbringing made them part of that problem. Almost like nobility in real life.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. Deworld

        Perhaps. Generally, for now, Fortuna is the most interesting character to me. The whole concept of a forgotten goddess being stuck with her only follower is something I personally have never seen before (okay, there was that one amine, but c’mon, that garbage doesn’t count) and I’m really curious where the author takes it.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. CharredCoal

    Damn. I wasn’t doubting it considering his rough upbringing and intro but let it be said, Tristan does not lack grit.

    Straight fucking assassinated a man. A rogue if there ever was one.

    Also, while the reputation was solid from the Poisoner back in Guide, I do so like it when poisons are actually an effective means of dealing with problems. They end up useless or subverted so much.

    Liked by 7 people

    1. Crash

      Especially when it’s a non-lethal poison like this, they tend to get even worse treatment even though they can be so much cooler with their setup.

      Tristan didn’t simply stab a man and watched him choke to death. He stabbed a man so that he could find himself a much less suspicious death and no one will think to look for a needle prick in a body mauled by several monsters. It’s elegant.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Annya

        Idk if you are serious when you said that you have not seen the concept of a god with only a single believer but if you are not coming, “Small gods” should be right up your alley.

        Liked by 3 people

  5. Mirror Night

    Quite frankly I am having trouble keeping track of all the characters and country expys.

    Magic system is interesting I wonder if you are limited to a single contract or if you can get new ones. Rat God seems a rather common tell reminds me of Ratlings from PGTE or Gog A Gog from KSBD.

    I agree with Lil, Tristan doesn’t really seem an Expy of a PGTE without massively stretching. Angharad, I think has more threads. She certainly has Cat’s desire to settle all scores and slights. But has fallen noble backstory and way more skills with a sword….so maybe a Cat and Saint Expy where Akua wins the Civil War. However that is still stretching…I find such attempts and connection a natural reaction so its fun to see what others think about it.

    I do find it funny that Tristan is annoyed by Mind Control when he has luck Manipulation. And if these contract powers are most undetectable I say they are both pretty powerful abilities. And if they can scale to be stronger…that is terrifying.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. arcanavitae15

      I don’t think any of the characters are Expys, they just give me some feelings and vibes previous characters gave me. Luck manipulation is powerful, but I think the problem Tristan has is that the Mind Influencing is very invasive and a lot more immoral than something like luck control.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Isi Arnott-Campbell

        The characters aren’t expys, the countries are. Aztlan, for example is straight up directly named after what the Aztecs called their ancestral lands.

        Liked by 2 people

  6. audriuska12

    Large amounts of food ordered by the Watch, including dried meat and grains. Monsters acting bolder than usual. The whole detail about the Glare pillars (if I remember the name correctly) slowly going dimmer.

    My guess is the Watch is expecting the world to become a lot more dangerous and self-sufficiency a lot more valuable in the not-too-distant future.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. DC

    The use of “ichor” as both the description you’d probably use for the wounded discharge of some kind of spider monster AND in its original meaning as the blood of a god was cute.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Nebride_Pluvia

    Well, it seems that things are going to get rather interesting. I kind of wonder why Tristan wouldn’t warn the girl to stop using her contract if he knew that she would become a danger to all of them.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. the hatred is in voice old and lovingly tended to
    is in > in his

    so she can get the husband she does wants
    wants > want

    wrinkling his nose as the smell of liquor
    as > at

    given the way Raseni dressed whenever the left their city-state
    the > they


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