Teeth shattered most satisfyingly under her boot, the mantic whimpering as it fled. Angharad added a flourish to her wrist purely for effect, spearing the spirit from behind and nailing it to the deck before setting a fang-strewn boot on its head and ripping her saber clear. She flicked the ichor off the blade, eyes scanning the lower deck for enemies. Her comrade-in-arms did the same from her left, his own sword slick with black blood.
“We’re past the worst of it,” Cozme Aflor decided. “The gun ports are closed.”
How the scavengers had managed to get the cannon holes open in the first place was a mystery, though not one it was her duty to solve. She would settle for gladness at the mantics no longer crawling through them like a tide of vermin. Though the fighting was still hard above, where the Saint had fled, it seemed that the lower deck was near swept clean. The last stragglers from the hold had barricaded the door and now the same blackcloaks that’d stormed the deck to close the ports were gathering around the hole in the floor to take shots with their muskets.
It wouldn’t be enough to clear the numbers that’d gathered down there, but it would thin the herd.
“And with few dead,” Angharad said. “I must admit to having underestimated watchmen.”
Even seasoned Malani crews would have panicked at the sheer number of spirits that’d climbed the ship, but the men and women of the Watch had responded with calm discipline. They’d formed into squads, put their back to a wall and swept forward with powder and steel.
“You’re not so bad yourself, Tredegar,” the older man grinned.
With his salt and pepper beard and roguish smile the Cerdan soldier might have set another woman’s heart aflutter but here he was very much barking up the wrong tree. He was a loyal retainer and skilled at arms, however, so Angharad refrained from rolling her eyes. He’d proved a good man by standing in the defence of others and that earned him consideration.
“My skills have not rusted,” she simply replied. “And yours are worthy of praise: we did not let a single one through.”
Through to where was made plain by her glance back, where the ship’s arsenal had been turned into a cutter’s room. The Bluebell’s surgeon – Angharad hoped she was no Liergan doctor, for those were known to be deadlier than the plague – was seeing to the wounded, her door guarded by only a pair of blackcloaks. More were unneeded, given the veritable phalanx of passengers that’d gathered to take up the duty as well. Near a dozen in all, protecting not only the wounded but also the cowardly: of the infanzones only Lady Ferranda had stayed out the surgeon’s workroom to fight.
Lady Isabel was to be forgiven, given that she was no trained fighter and capable enough to serve as the surgeon’s assistant besides, but the Cerdan brothers had shamed themselves by hiding. By the occasional looks of contempt thrown their way by their shipmates, it had done their reputation no favours. There are no true nobles in Sacramonte, Angharad reminded herself, trying to temper her own scorn. Long gone were the days of the Second Empire, with only the dust of greatness remaining. Besides, she would not let her growing interest in Lady Isabel unfairly sour her opinion of those courting her.
She was no longer a girl, to think that her every rival must be a sot or a devil.
“Good work all around,” Cozme affably agreed. “Now we just need to settle in and wait for the Watch to clear the upper deck.”
Shouts above punctuated the sentence, followed by musket shots. The fight there had been raging before the first mantic ever set foot in the hold and by the sound of it had yet to abate. Angharad paused at the man’s words, weighing the demands of honour. She was a guest and so owed protection by her hosts, which did not demand she fight on behalf of the Watch. Yet she also owed them a personal debt for the way they had defended her at the docks when the Guardia came to take her, and it would be the height of ingratitude to stay her hand when she could return the courtesy.
The words exact are a sword, Anga, her father had once told her, so when wielding them you must hold on tight to the spirit of honour lest it slip your grasp. She had never loved her father’s lessons, for they were of men’s things – landholding and intrigue, squabbles about estate boundaries and cattle drinking rights – but he had been wise in his own way. Softer than Mother, who’d been born harsh and whittled sharp by a life out at sea, but in matters of honour she thought him wisest. Vesper would be a fairer place if more acted like him and Angharad would not dishonour the grave she’d dug him by betraying his teachings now.
“If there is a fight to be had, my blade will not shy from it,” she said, squaring her shoulders. “It has been a pleasure, Master Aflor.”
The older man’s face betrayed nothing of his thoughts as he nodded back politely. He did not offer to accompany her, nor had she expected him to. It would have been improper of him, as his life was not his own to risk: he had come here as the retainer of the Cerdan brothers, to put his flesh between peril and their own. Parting ways without further ado, Angharad tightened her grip around her sword and made for the stairs. Half a squad of blackcloaks was already there, the noblewoman’s earlier benefactor – Celipa, the one-armed sailor – leading them. The grizzled officer was in talks with a blond young man and Angharad caught the tail end of it without meaning to.
“-rave of you, but that thing’ll chew you up,” Celipa said. “Best you just stay out of the way. The captain will make his move soon.”
“I am not entirely helpless, tia,” the young man replied. “Besides, aid appears in great need.”
“Having a contract doesn’t make you a fucking god, boy,” Celipa retorted. “It makes you meat with a fancy trick.”
“Then let him come with me,” Angharad cut in as she approached. “I assure you, my lady, I am far helpless.”
The grizzled woman turned on her a gimlet eye.
“I already told you I’m not a godfucking lady, girl,” Celipa grunted, then sighed. “But I know that stubborn look on your face. Bloody Tredegars.”
She muttered something about blackpowder and ramming under her breath, then glared at them half-heartedly before stomping up the stairs. Angharad smoothed away a smile, having been reminded of the old sea dogs her mother liked to keep around. However loud the bark, they were never quite as dour as they liked to pretend. Turning to the man, she looked him up for a weapon – a short hatchet, touched by ichor in a way betraying use – even as she offered her hand.
“Lady Angharad Tredegar,” she introduced herself.
Introductions were in order if they were to fight side by side.
“Brun of Sacromonte,” the man replied, shaking it.
He had a common look about him, Angharad thought, but there was a steadiness to his bearing that was calming. His grip was firm, a sign of good character.
“Hurry up, you two,” Celipa called out.
The man’s lips twitched, a sentiment she fully returned, and they passed the rest of the watchmen to join Celipa and another where they were kneeling near the top of the stairs. It was not, however, a blackcloak that waited there. A long musket laid along the line of the floor, the mysterious stranger that’d approached Angharad earlier keeping her silver eyes on the ruckus above. From where she stood Angharad could see little more than the dark sky and the flashing lights of lanterns but the woman, Song, was positioned to see it all.
“She’s taken another two shots and whatever the captain’s doing to the sea seems to be working,” Song announced without ever looking away. “She’ll scuttle back up the mast soon so we should run out on my mark.”
“The two of you best listen to her,” Celipa turned to say. “It’ll do wonders for your lifespan.”
“You will be joining the fray as well, then?” Angharad asked, looking past her.
“We need to put the Saint down as quickly as possible,” she said. “The longer she’s about the higher the chances she tears up sails.”
For the daughter of a famous explorer Angharad admittedly knew shamefully little about seafaring, but she knew enough to predict what might happen to a sailing ship bereft of sails.
“Get ready,” Song murmured.
Angharad tensed, legs coiling.
The three of them ran out onto the deck, right into Hell’s bastard cousin. A sweep of twenty blackcloaks had holed up in the Bluebell’s forecastle, muskets out and scything through anything that approached, but the remainder of the deck was bloody chaos. Strands of some sort of oily webbing were crisscrossing the length of the floor, some even hanging from the masts, while mantics threw themselves at a squad of blackcloaks with blind fury. They must have been chased out of the aftercastle, which had been ripped apart, and now the corpses of scavengers and sailors were messily strewn across the deck. Blackpowder clouds billowed thick as claw and blade clashed half-blind in the shivering lantern light, spirits and men furiously slashing at each other.
“SAINT UP THE MAST!”
Angharad saw no trace of the rampaging spirit they were being warned about, or indeed of much of anything at all. It was like stepping into an angry beehive.
“Don’t walk on the webbing,” Song shouted into the din. “It attracts them.”
“To the forecastle,” Angharad shouted back. “We can plan from there.”
“I’ll take the front,” Brun volunteered.
The noblewoman blinked at the courageous offer – there was no telling what lay on the other side of the powder smoke – and before she could answer the man was moving. They could do little but follow, hurrying as much as they could without stepping onto webbing. There were snarls from the side of she ship, a pair of mantic leaping over the railing. Brun’s hatchet split one’s head open before it could even bring up its claws, the butt of Song’s musket catching the other in the flank and smashing it down onto the deck. The Tianxi reached for the sword at her side but Angharad move quicker. A calm thrust through the dazed spirit’s soft skull finished it.
“We need to keep moving,” Song said, but not before offering a nod of thanks.
They’d caught the attention of the musketmen on the forecastle, enough that when they emerged from a choking cloud of powder a few shots were sent their way to clear their path. Angharad cursed as claws ripped at the back of her boots and scratched her heel, kicking at the spirit’s face until its eyes popped wetly. A pair of blackcloaks even came their way swords in hand, a gaunt man she recalled having seen in the hold accompanying them, and the three cleared their way through a pack of snapping mantics to join them.
“No,” Song suddenly shouted. “Galatas, your-”
There was an unearthly screech from above as Angharad’s eyes went to the gaunt man, seeing a moment too late what Song had noticed: the edge of his left foot was touching webbing. Half a hundred mantics turned their way in the moment that followed, though it was the whip-fast shape that landed on the deck that made Angharad’s breath catch in her throat. She’d not had a good look at the Saint before, when it fled up, but now she beheld the full horror in trembling lantern light. A girl’s body with nine burst-out spindly legs, the torso a nightmare of melded flesh and a once-human head now marred by huge wet eyes. Ribs peeked out of her flesh, webbing leaking out of them, and Angharad almost retched at the sight.
There was a reason the Sleeping God’s diviners taught that spirits and men should never share a single flesh.
“Run,” Song hissed.
Shots sounded, but too slowly. Before the powder blew the Saint had already impaled one of the blackcloaks and thrown aside the other like a sack of radishes, the fool who’d touched the webbing tripping as he tried to hurry backwards. Two musket shots tore through the Saint’s torso, tearing bloody holes, but she just shook off the blackcloak she’d impaled and casually ripped through the other one’s shoulder.
“Salt munitions,” a voice called out from the forecastle.
The Glare-drenched salt, Angharad knew, was as poison to most spirits. But the spirit was already moving, ready to scuttle back into the smoke and dark to ready for the snatching of more lives, and so she made her decision. Honour had its demands. She grabbed Song’s shoulder before the other woman could run.
“Get the wounded to the forecastle,” she ordered. “Have Brun help.”
“What are you-”
Angharad did not look back, striding out saber in hand. The Saint looked about to finish the blackcloak with the stomach wound, so the Pereduri calmly stepped on the strand of webbing before her. The Saint paused, neck twisting sharply to look back, and Angharad felt her stomach drop. Death, she had courted death, and now it was coming on blood-drenched legs to take her. Her body moved by rote, back straightening as the flat of her saber lightly tapped her left shoulder in a duellist’s salute. She glimpsed-
(The legs tore through her belly, turning to open her up)
-and stepped lightly to the right, pivoting even as the spirit screeched and slashing at its back. Leathery flesh parted under good Pereduri steel, splashing ichor even as the Saint lashed out blindly. Left leg, Angharad thought, catching the twitch early. A step back, leaning away, and the pointed tip passed half an inch below her chin. She threw her weight forward, pushing with the back leg, and struck with the strength of her entire body. The saber carved through the leg she’d aimed at, one of the four the Saint was standing on, and the maddened spirit tipped back. A glimpse-
(Over the shoulder, the tips of the legs going through Angharad’s eyes)
-and she slid down under the Saint as front legs twisted over the spirit’s shoulders, nailing the deck where she’d just stood. Landing in a crouch, she left a shallow cut on the spirit’s chest as she rose. From the corner of her eye she caught the twitch a moment before the Saint moved, pivoting to sweep from the right with three legs. Angharad simply stepped out of the swing, air whipping about her face, and she felt the dread drip out of her heartbeat by heartbeat. Eight legs left, the Saint coming at her relentlessly, and yet there was nothing to fear. She was back home, doing the Reprimand in the fighting yard.
It was a mad spirit coming at her from all angles instead of swinging stones, yet it was just the same. Watch, listen and move. Be as the wave, unhurried yet inexorable. A shot clipped the Saint’s shoulder and the spirit pivoted, but Angharad clicked her tongue and thrust shallowly into the creature’s side. For pain, for attention.
“Eyes on me,” she chided, and the spirit turned back with a skittering shriek.
A glimpse told her a mantic was to come upon her from behind, but also what would follow. Angharad moved to the side of a puncturing leg, pivoting and slashing at the Saint’s back even as the head of the scavenger come for her burst into gore: the blackcloaks on the forecastle were covering her back. The Saint bent back, wildly scrabbling forward with half a dozen legs, but the Pereduri took to the left and ducked under a lateral blow that would have shattered her ribcage. It was not just aiming poorly, she realized as the spirit struggled to turn while she slashed at her back legs, but not aiming at all. Like the stones swinging at the end of ropes that she had trained with back home, the trajectory of the Saint’s blows did not change after they began. She’s faster than her own senses can follow.
That made her predictable, Angharad thought with a wolfish smile, and she knew how to punish predictable.
Left, blindingly and blinded quick, the point ripping into the wood as Angharad stepped back. Right, as the twitch had told her, but a spirit that could not even control its own strength could hardly control the distance: the Pereduri dove forward, letting the Saint’s swing offer up two of the legs jutting out of her chest cleanly. With a heave and grunt, Angharad cut through the base of both as the spirit let out a deafening screech. She went wild, legs hacking at the front of her, but Angharad had already slipped to the left. Musket fire lit up the night, tearing smoking holes into the Saint’s back, and the spirit shuddered in pain. Salt shots, Angharad thought.
The Saint turned towards the forecastle, legs convulsing, and leapt. Only the gaunt man from earlier was there, elbowing watchmen aside as he traced something in the air and the billowing darkness of the Gloam formed into a Sign that merely glancing at had Angharad nauseous. At the apex of her leap, the Saint hit thin air as if it were a solid wall and let out a shrieking moan of surprise as she tumbled back down in a sprawl.
“FINISH IT!” a blackcloak shouted.
Musket fire bloomed and Angharad sprang towards the downed Saint, black-slicked blade raised high. Others came too, watchmen with pikes and swords as well Brun and a graceful Aztlan man wielding a spear. They hacked at the spirit’s legs while she flailed in pain from the musket fire pouring down from above, Angharad only joining the fray reluctantly. For all that she knew this was no true honour duel, the disparity in numbers still made the business feel disreputable. She thrust into the spirit’s back, dipping away from a flailing blow, and as she did noticed that webbing was trailing across the deck in thick rivulets.
Frowning, Angharad took another step back and realized that the oily trails were connecting with the earlier ones, spreading somehow, and that mantics were flocking to the web.
“Something’s wrong,” the noblewoman called out, “the Saint is-”
Her words were good as drowned out by the musket fire, but even that racket was chased out when the Saint’s death throes bloomed into a sky-piercing shriek. She staggered away from the sound, ears ringing, and watched in horror as the Saint’s wounds began to close and fresh legs burst out from the stumps. All over the ship mantics were melting into the webbing, flesh dissolving. The Saint rose, crushing a pair of blackcloaks with a casual swing as Angharad kicked a scavenger that’d snuck up to her side, but the gaunt man from earlier was back. Cheeks flush with colour he traced that same foul Sign between the spirit and the blackcloaks, only this when the Saint struck there was a crack.
A scream, then the Sign shattered and Angharad saw the man’s forearm turn into blackened pulp.
“No,” the Pereduri shouted, seeing their victory turn to ash.
(Sweeping her legs)
-and leapt above a swing, just in time for the edge of a blow to catch her shoulder and smash her back down in a spinning crash. She saw it coming then, too quick for a glimpse to help at all, the two legs coming down to nail her belly to the deck. Only there was a musket shot and the very tip of a leg blew as it came down, the stump smacking into the other and nudging it just to the side of Angharad’s ribs. It tore through her freshly mended coat instead, the Pereduri catching sight of a pleased smile under silver eyes before she hurried to rip her way free. Song had saved her life, somehow landing that preposterous shot.
She would not waste the chance she’d been given, the noblewoman swore, and was gritting her teeth to throw herself back into the melee when suddenly a door burst open. The room under the forecastle, Angharad saw, which had been locked and barred all this time. The captain’s quarters. Now it was wide open and a fat, dark-skinned man in a Watch cloak strode out, strands of Gloam following him like eager pups. The Saint struck at the captain but found the same Sign it had twice faced waiting. Only this time it was the spirit’s leg that was pulped when it hit thin air, and the captain calmly began to circle the Saint as he traced the same symbol anew.
Once, twice, thrice more the Saint broke herself on seemingly nothing until she was caught in a four-sided box.
“Grenades,” the captain ordered.
Angharad watched as half a dozen watchmen on the forecastle took out, lit and threw the Tianxi metal orbs over the lid of the invisible box the captain – a member of the Guild of Navigators, he had to be – had formed. Seconds later, before the Saint could think of trying to climb out, there was a blinding thunder and ichor sprayed all over transparent panes of nothing. The fat captain frowned, then spat to the side as the smoke dispersed and revealed nothing more than twitching shreds of meat.
“Salt her and box the remains,” he called out. “Peiling Society still has that bounty up on incomplete Saints.”
Angharad swallowed. Incomplete. That spirit had been incomplete? Sleeping God, putting down Saints wasn’t even considered the most perilous duty of the Watch. The blackcloaks fanned out from the forecastle in good order, a squad tending to the broken spirit’s remains, and as the noblewoman scanned the deck for dangers she saw that the fight was done. What mantics had not been devoured by the Saint were fleeing hastily, scuttling back into the dark waters. Few of the watchmen bothered to strike at them, and none with muskets. They were saving their powder, Angharad thought. And just like that, with nary a cheer from the victors, the battle was over.
Most looked punch-drunk at the suddenness of the end, though it did not prevent a few of the younger sailors from crowding her. The dark-skinned noble blinked, taken aback by the excited chatter. She had, it seemed, impressed through her duel with the Saint.
“It was like nothing I’ve seen before,” a boy that could not be older than fourteen said. “They’d be mad not to want you in the Skiritai!”
Angharad was only passingly familiar with the Circles, the seven societies within the Watch where only the most elite watchmen were inducted, but she had heard of the Skiritai Guild. ‘Militants’, its members were called, or even more bluntly ‘Swords’. They were the finest warriors of the Watch, which made the boy’s words a weighty compliment.
“I have had fine training, but I claim little experience with the horrors of the Old Night,” Angharad demurred.
“You must have a damned impressive contract,” a fair-haired woman her age said. “It was like you moved to dodge it before it even struck!”
Angharad’s lip thinned. Inquiring of contracts was impolite, and to the watchwoman’s honour she coughed in embarrassment. There might be a time where the Pereduri would be forced to speak of her contract with the Fisher, but even then she intended to hold back the truth and claim her gift was one of quickened reflexes. Lying sat ill with her but she had little choice. Foretelling contracts were strictly forbidden in the Kingdom of Malan, the High Queen’s decree punishing them by death, and one day Angharad must return home to take vengeance. The secret must keep, however dishonourable the keeping of it.
She was saved from the need to answer by the arrival of comrades-in-arms, the young blackcloaks retreating to give them privacy. Brun of Sacromonte, steady soul that he had proved to be, came to her while wiping his hatchet clean of fresh ichor. He’d not shied from fighting. Song, her long dark hair held in a plaited braid, had slung her musket on her back. She was pristine, save for a smudge of grease on her chin. Angharad wasted no time in acknowledging the truth, offering the Tianxi a deep bow.
“I owe you my life,” the Pereduri said. “I am in your debt.”
“And we are all in yours,” Song replied, shaking her head. “If you had not held on against the Saint until Captain Sfiso arrived there would be a great many more corpses on the floor.”
Angharad disagreed, for her life had been saved in the specific while she had only helped in the general sense, but she would not make an argument of it. One’s honour lay in one’s hands, not the eyes of others. She would remember the debt and repay it regardless of what Song might say.
“You have my gratitude nonetheless,” Angharad said. “I am only grieved the captain could not come sooner.”
She let an unspoken question hang there, which Brun caught easily enough. The Sacromontan smiled.
“I asked the same,” he admitted. “They tell me Captain Sfiso came so late because he was seeing to the rest of the mantics.”
Angharad’s brow rose.
“He wove Signs around the ship, a ring of wind that kept more of them from climbing aboard,” Song said. “An impressive display. He must be a member in good standing of the Akelarre Guild.”
Though most called that Circle the Navigator’s Guild, its true name was the one Song had used. But its members, known as Navigators, were in some ways the most famous of the Watch so the parlance had stuck.
“He turned the tide as soon as he appeared,” Angharad acknowledged. “Watchmen are not to be trifled with.”
Though it would have been proper to continue with some casual talk, the noblewoman made her excuses not long after. She felt exhausted to the bone and her coat was half a ruin. Making her way below she offered Celipa a nod – returned – before heading to the arsenal, where the ship’s cutter was seeing to the worst of the wounded. Near the door Isabel was catching her breath, the leather apron she wore stained with blood from her time assisting the surgeon. The infanzona saw her coming and a pleased smile tugged at her lips.
“I hear you made something of a stir upstairs,” Isabel said. “Congratulations are in order.”
“I only did my duty,” Angharad said, debating whether or not to play up humility a bit.
Perhaps not. The dark-haired beauty seemed more taken by boldness than the opposite. A gentle touch on her arm, warm through her sweat-stained shirt, jolted Angharad straight out of her exhaustion.
“You’ve ruined your coat again,” Isabel laughed.
“A casualty of war,” she solemnly replied.
“I will have my maids mend it,” Isabel told her, a teasing glint lighting up those lovely green eyes. “Though if you keep making a habit of that, I’ll start wondering if it is all a way to keep me close.”
“Entirely for your protection, of course,” Angharad smirked.
“Protection, hmm?” Isabel mused. “Is that what they call it in Peredur?”
Angharad heartbeat quickened. This was the closest either had come to acknowledging her attraction, and that Isabel did not seem put off in the slightest – she’d even brought it up! – seemed promising indeed. She cleared her throat.
“It is my duty as a peer to teach our customs to all interested,” she smoothly replied. “It would be my very great pleasure to offer… lessons.”
Isabel’s lips twitched.
“I’ll consider it,” she airily replied.
Their moment was interrupted by hoarse scream from the arsenal, Isabel flinching at the loudness.
“I must return to Doctor Balbir’s side,” she said, laying her hand on Angharad’s arm again. “Be well.”
It was an effort not to lean into to the touch, but the noblewoman mastered herself and offered a dignified nod back instead. She watched Isabel disappear past the threshold, feeling giddy as a girl. How long had it been since she’d last been so taken with another? Too long. The unrelenting pursuit of assassins had drained the joy out of her life and it could only be a victory to claw some small piece of it back. In too great a vigour for her original intention of finding a corner to sleep in, Angharad instead strode the length of the lower deck. The Cerdan brothers were seated in a corner, pointedly alone save for their valet, but Lady Ferranda was speaking with a pair of Someshwari.
Angharad joined them for a short chat, exchanging introductions and compliments. The man of the pair, rather rounded in shape and lacking in muscle, was called Ishaan and of noble birth. The other, short and shapely, was named Shalini. They had come together.
“We’ve known each other since were kids,” Shalini said, smiling like one to whom smiles came easy and often. “I couldn’t let him wander off into adventure alone.”
“She’s a much better shot,” Ishaan admitted. “There were plenty who had an eye on her talents back home.”
He looked, Angharad thought, a little guilty at that.
“Serving some dusty old raj as a showpiece champion or going into the Watch with you,” Shalini said, rolling her eyes. “What a difficult choice that was, Isha.”
Angharad shared a glance with Lady Ferranda, the two amused by the obvious affection between the pair. Making gentle sport of them would have been a pleasant way to pass the time, but the Pereduri caught sight of two men towering over another across the deck and frowned. Two Aztlan, one a bear of a man with a broken nose and the other the graceful spear-wielder she’d glimpsed above, were flanking a dark-haired man standing by some sort of cabinet. Were they taking advantage of the Watch’s distraction to break hospitality? Making her excuses with the others, Angharad strode over briskly. All three turned to her.
“Good evening,” the noblewoman flatly said. “Does there happen to be some trouble?”
The big man scowled at her.
“Fuck off, Malani,” he said. “We’re just-”
“Be polite to our friend here, Ocotlan,” the other Aztlan interrupted. “Good evening, Lady Tredegar.”
“And to you,” Angharad reluctantly replied.
The big man had not liked being interrupted but he did not argue. He stood, Angharad thought, as if he were wary of his younger companion.
“Tupoc Xical,” the pale eyed Aztlan introduced himself, offering a hand. “Formerly of the Leopard Society.”
The noblewoman shook it, manners demanding as much, but her eyes sought out the dark-haired loner. He had the Sacromontan look about him, his scruffy dark hair and tan skin paired with deep grey eyes. He was also rather disheveled and very obviously of common birth. He met her gaze with mild curiosity and little else.
“Tristan,” he introduced himself. “A pleasure, my lady.”
“Shared,” Angharad replied, more politely than truthfully. “Am I to understand there is no argument between you gentlemen?”
“None at all,” Tupoc smiled. “I was only discussing a book with Tristan here. We seem to share an appreciation for Alvareno’s Dosages.”
“Indeed?” Angharad pressed, suspicious.
There was something familiar about the Aztlan’s polite manner.
“Master Tupoc was requesting medicine for a friend,” Tristan added. “It is my pleasure to help the brave souls that fought above.”
Suspicion lingered but the Sacromontan looked to be speaking honestly. The dark-haired man knelt to open his cabinet, revealing some sort of intricate medicine box within. Taking out two small vials, one half-full and the other empty, he palmed a fat syringe and began to extract from the full.
“You’ll need to dilute it with water,” he informed Tupoc, “else your friend Leander will fall into stupor. Two measures, preferably.”
The Aztlan nodded.
“Leander fought with us earlier,” the pale-eyed man told Angharad. “His arm was wounded when his Sign was broken by the Saint.”
Galatas, Angharad deduced, must have been the gaunt man’s surname.
“Is he not in the doctor’s care?” she asked, surprised.
“The doctor won’t be following us on the island, Malani,” the big man grunted. “Do you think the arm’s going to grow back?”
The Aztlan was leering at her most unpleasantly but she must admit he had a point.
“The stump will be tended to and cleaned, but something will be needed for the pain when we journey across the island,” Tupoc said. “You have my thanks, Tristan.”
The grey-eyed man smiled widely and happily. What a kind soul, Angharad thought. He must be a physician’s apprentice to take such joy in helping others. He did have a meticulous air to the way he moved, as if measuring every gesture.
“The honour is mine, Master Tupoc,” the Sacromontan replied, then rose to his feet.
His clothes, though clean, were shabby. The edge of his shirt was touched with ichor, a sigh he’d not been helpless in the fight.
“I should go see if the surgeon’s stocks are running low with anything,” Tristan said. “With so many wounded it is a distinct possibility.”
“Praiseworthy,” Angharad replied, impressed.
“Indeed,” Tupoc smilingly agreed.
The grey-eyed man took his leave, taking his medicine cabinet with him, and Angharad’s eyes turned to the lingering pair of Aztlans. As she had suspected, they still had business with her. One of them, anyway. The large man with the broken nose and the garish tattoos she dismissed, for all the muscle in the world would not change that he held himself with fear of Tupoc Xical. Said man, she realized after taking a longer look, seemed somehow… unnatural. His skin was without a single blemish, his face and limbs perfectly proportioned. It was as if some Tianxi artist had drawn a man rather than anything born of a woman’s womb. Yet it was the eyes that unsettled her most, pale things that they were.
“I am impressed,” Tupoc plainly said, “by the way you handled the Saint.”
“I could not have slain her without aid,” Angharad replied.
“Neither could most on this ship, blackcloaks or not,” Tupoc said. “It does not matter. The fight let me take the measure of you, Lady Tredegar, and I am pleased with what I saw.”
The noblewoman did not smile, did not thank him or answer at all. She recalled, now, why Tupoc’s pleasant demeanor felt familiar. She had known a girl, once, whose father had been a lord of the court at the feet of the High Queen. He had been smiling and polite and the soul of courtesy, the sole instance Angharad met him, yet somehow she had known that his smile would not waver even if he had to order the death of everyone in the room. Tupoc was the same, measuring those around him for usefulness and dismissing those that were not. Cold eyes, cold blood, Angharad thought. She knew a snake when she saw one and Tupoc Xical was only biding his time until the bite.
“I have been gathering comrades for the trials,” the Aztlan elaborated, impatient of her silence. “Leander fought in part to prove worthy of this company, which I intend to be without dead weight. I would be pleased to have you join our number, Lady Tredegar.”
“I thank you,” Angharad said, “but I have already found companions.”
“The infanzones have already lost one of their sworn swords,” Tupoc told her, “and they will find the trials more perilous than they think. I urge you to reconsider.”
Angharad met the man’s pale eyes, face a blank mask. She thought of the sound her blade had made, near the docks, when it had opened the redcloak’s throat. Of the wet, dying gurgle that’d hissed out. She held the death close in her mind and then smiled.
“I thank you,” Angharad evenly repeated, “but I have already found companions.”
Tupoc drew back half an inch before stopping himself. Pleasantness fell from his face in patches, like cheap cosmetics in sweat, and he gave her a long look.
“Unfortunate,” Tupoc Xical finally said. “I will not make this offer again.”
He inclined his head politely.
“We will meet again, Lady Tredegar.”
“Of that,” Angharad softly replied, “I have no doubt.”
She watched the pair leave, and when exhaustion began to creep back decided that she would have to find somewhere with her back to the wall to sleep. She had a feeling a knife might just sprout there otherwise.
The last leg of the trip to the island of Vieja Perdida, also known as the Dominion of Lost Things, was not restful.
The Watch crew cleared out the last of the mantics hiding in the hold before summary repairs were made and sails raised again. The Bluebell was limping where it had once run but they were assured by the captain that it would only make a difference of hours and they would not be greatly hampered in their taking of the trials. Angharad shared her misgivings about Tupoc Xical with her fellow nobles and found them taken seriously even by the Cerdan brothers, who had somewhat warmed to her since the fighting. They were not unaware that their reputation had sunk in the aftermath and were taking pains to be polite, though sometimes their unpleasantness still slipped out.
The infanzones sought out helpers of their own, among which Angharad was pleased to count Tristan. A physician, even a middling one, would be of great help on the island. She herself did not have much time of her own, as her actions against the Saint had lent her a degree of fame and her company was in high demand – which seemed to please Isabel, who often sat with her as she entertained other passengers and took a long walk with her on the deck. A watchman approached them at the end of the last, the sailor informing them that they were soon to be in sight of the Dominion.
“I must see to my affairs, then,” Isabel mused. “Angharad?”
“Go ahead,” she replied. “I want a look at this island before we touch the shore.”
“How quickly you leave me,” Isabel pouted, but it was nothing but teasing.
The Pereduri leaned against the railing, her mended coat making the cool wind nothing but pleasant as she settled in to wait. Her solitude was not to last, however, as she was approached by another passenger. Another woman, Aztlan and no older than twenty. Pretty, Angharad thought, with full lips and dark eyes.
“You must be the woman of the hour,” she smiled, offering her hand. “I am Yaretzi.”
“Lady Angharad Tredegar,” she replied, taking it.
The other woman’s grip was firm and lingering.
“I could not resist introducing myself, after hearing so much of your valour against the Saint,” Yaretzi said.
The talk that followed was light and pleasant. Angharad had never been one to disdain the admiration of a beautiful woman, especially one whose eyes were appraising her so frankly, but she knew she must cut this short. Setting her cap at another taking the trials was already somewhat foolish, but indulging in a flirtation with a second? That was courting trouble. Besides, what if Isabel saw and misunderstood? No, best cut this short indeed. Angharad was fairly sure, from the way Yaretzi was staying so close and batting her eyes so coquettishly, that she was not misreading friendliness as interest.
“I am told we are soon to arrive at the Dominion,” Angharad slid into a lull of the conversation. “We should see to our affairs before then, I think.”
“Of course,” Yaretiz agreed. “We shall talk later, I think.”
The Aztlan woman smiled rather flirtatiously, offering a slight bow.
“Should circumstances allow,” Angharad mildly replied.
Her solitude was returned to her just in time, for it was moments later that she first caught sight of the Dominion of Lost Things. The island was startling large, and though its hulking dark shape was touched with but little light – specks that must be the Watch fortress and the docks – she could make out its silhouette. Lowlands leading up to a handful of slender mountains, thick woods peeking out on the sides. How long would it take to cross from one end to the other? At least a week, she thought. More intriguing were the hard angles she glimpsed jutting out of the plains and peaks, manmade structures. There must have been old ruins. Angharad stayed on the deck, eyes peeled on the island, until the Bluebell was close enough to signal the docks with lantern lights. Her fate awaited her on those shores and she would not fail to meet it.
The stench was heavy on the wind.
Before they even docked, before ropes were thrown and the cog secured in that ragged harbour, Angharad knew what it was she was smelling. But she fought it all the way, trying to wrestle the knowledge down so it would disappear in some dark corner and never be seen again. The first thing she saw as she followed the others out onto the docks was the fires. A dozen of them, large as could be and burning bright. The smoke was thick and cloying, rising in tall columns as blackcloaks fed the flames with logs and charcoal. No one came to greet them as they crept out, the group hesitating for the absence, and the Bluebell’s crew were of no help: they were busy unloading crates and had no time to spare for this sort of business.
“There should be others here,” Augusto Cerdan frowned. “We are the second ship and the smaller one. Has the first wave already gone ahead and begun the trial?”
They have, Angharad thought. Sleeping God, they have. She knew the smell, the memory enough for sweat to trickle down her back as she remembered the screams. The bright bonfire of everything and everyone she loved disappearing into smoke.
“We must ask,” Isabel firmly said.
Before anyone could protest she peeled ahead, maids trailing in her wake, and approached a bearded old man in a black cloak who was shovelling coal into a fire. She smiled sweetly at the watchman, curtsying as she gave her greetings. Amused, the blackcloak paused in his work.
“The captain’ll be here to speak to you in a bit,” he said. “Don’t you worry your pretty little heads.”
“That is good to know,” Isabel said. “But may I ask where those who came with the first ship have gone?”
The old blackcloak laughed, then pointed his shovel at the sprawl of fires.
“You’re looking at them, girl.”
And Angharad finally looked horror in the eye. Allowed her gaze to stray among the flames where she made out limbs, the twisted shapes of broken and mutilated bodies. Faintly she heard the echo of screams long gone silent as the ghost of Llanw Hall burned on the wind.
“It’s a bad year,” the blackcloak shrugged. “All forty died on the first day.”