Chapter 8

Lieutenant Sihle had said the road began half a mile ahead and that was where they found it.

Tristan was no tracker, not so far from dirty alleyways, but though the ancient paving stones were half-covered by dirt and dead leaves they were too large to be missed by anyone with eyes. The woods were light on either side but grew thicker swiftly, leaving the impression of a path cleared thoroughly long ago and since left for the forest to reclaim year by year. Most fighters banded at the front and the back of the column while those there were low expectations for – the two greyhairs, the twins, Ruesta and her maids – stood safely stashed in between as the company marched on.

Yong had been called to the front by virtue of having a musket and knowing how to use it while Tristan was ordered to the back by the Cerdan brothers’ unpleasant valet, Gascon. The richly mustachioed man had been open in his contempt, having a look about him the thief was not unfamiliar with. It cropped up sometimes in the personal servants of infanzones, those few who’d gotten so used to the taste of boot on their tongue they’d begun to think they were part of the sole. Contempt the thief cared nothing for, but his choice of company at the back of the column was unfortunate: he shared the guard with Tupoc Xical and his two Asphodel companions.

Leander Galatas was still nursing his wound from the Bluebell, the arm turned to pulp now a thoroughly bandaged stump, and kept to a sullen silence. The Asphodel Rectorate noble, whose full name Tristan learned to be Acanthe Phos, was a rather chattier fellow. She asked of his origins, which he remained vague about, and shared of hers freely. House Phos was, she told him, one whose fortunes had not done well as merchants began their rise. The lack of opportunities afforded to a seventh child from an impoverished house – one whose unfortunate acne made unlikely to marry rich – had seen her seek a career with the Watch.

“It’s all Tianxia’s fault, of course,” Acanthe told him, patting his arm in her enthusiasm. “Their traders rile up the commons, starting all this talk of turning Asphodel into a republic allied to the Ten. Absurd.”

He tended to agree. It would hardly be the first time the Tianxi helped overthrow the nobles of a city-state in the Trebian Sea, but one so close to Sacromonte? He had his doubts. Tianxia already had troubles enough at home without borrowing some from the City’s backyard. Still, he suspected that his own Republican sympathies would win him no friend here so Tristan steered the conversation into safer waters. Talk of Sarai, who yet feigned to be from the hated rival city-state of Rasen, was fertile ground.

“You can’t trust Raseni, Tristan,” Acanthe lectured him. “It is well known that they wear their veils to better hide the devils among their numbers. They frolic with their like in debauched rituals, hoping to gain dark powers.”

Having been just as reliably informed by a Raseni trader that Asphodelites were half-devils themselves, keeping hidden libraries of dark tomes used in unholy rituals to turn the winds against honest Raseni captains, the thief hid his amusement as best he could.

“Oh,” Tupoc mused, “I’m sure Tristan has nothing to fear from our Raseni, Lady Phos. He’s already beaten a woman today, why not another?”

The thief did not react. It was not the first time the Aztlan  tossed a barb his way, but giving him nothing in return saw him grow bored and cease. Having to take the needling again and again was exhausting, but he was dertemined not give Tupoc whatever it was he was after. Tristan let the conversation peter out again, saying nothing, and ignored Acanthe’s sympathetic look. She had yet to object, for while she might be enjoying their conversation it was Tupoc Xical she had thrown in her lot with. She’d not endanger that alliance for a nobody.

The thief kept to his own mind for a time, unsettled by the ring of darkness around them. In Sacromonte there was always light, however distant, but here there was nothing beyond the glow of the lanterns they carried. The Watch’s outpost by the shore was hidden by the tall trees and the stars above seemed so distant – as if even the ancient wonders of the Antediluvians were seen through a veil. He’d read that the islands of the Trebian Sea were among the most luminous of all Vesper, so how dark must the rest of the world be? He shivered at the thought.

The thief had no watch but bespectacled old Vanesa did, and when they halted word made its way down the column it had taken three hours and a half for them to reach the blood-soaked battlefield Captain Cristina had spoken of.

It was a great clearing that the road ran right through, an opening in the forest, or at least it had been. There was a gaping pit at the heart of it now, even the ancient paving stones shattered, and dried blood spread everywhere in wild streaks. They approached slowly and carefully, swords and muskets out – Tristan carefully loaded his pistol, cramming in the powder and ball – until the shivering lantern lights made out great footprints in the earth. Each was as large as a great pillar and rounded, digging deep enough to hint at the crushing weight behind the legs. It was with relief that Tristan saw the tracks heading east, deeper into the forest. But the captain’s warning proved prescient.

As they passed around the pit shapes darted out of the shadows cast by the broken grounds. Only a dozen, though the suddenness of the charge caused some startled screams. Shots rang out before Tristan could even see the beasts properly, five of them dead on the ground in an instant – that short Ramayan girl with the pistols downed two in the same breath. Half the remainder fled, the rest charging madly as they howled. They were lupines, Tristan saw, lemures with the look of great wolfhounds that grew bonelike stingers along their matted fur. Their teeth were too large and curved for dogs, or even wolves, and their eyes like pits of yellow sulphur.

The three that charged, for all their swiftness, ran into fine killers at the ready. Inyoni and Tredegar shot forward, blades flashing a beast’s head was hewn open and the other run right through. The third passed them, just in time for Ocotlan’s axe to nail to the ground. It went right through, like a hatchet for a melon, and pulp flew sickeningly.

Tristan spared them no more thought, though, as more lemures were circling the treeline behind him. Only a few shapes slinking along the line of light cast by the lanterns, but the sight of them was enough to have him clutching his pistol tightly. One ran out suddenly, and not thinking twice he lowered the pistol and pulled the trigger. The flintlock sparked but his wrist trembled and the shot went whizzing wide, the lupine darting back out of sight without ever have been in danger. Tupoc Xical snorted from behind him.

“Best stick to the blackjack, I think,” the Aztlan said.

Tristan hid his embarrassment by looking away, pretending to watch the woods.

“Not that these are worth fearing,” Tupoc continued. “Barely more than dogs.”

“Lupines prefer long hunts, Xical,” he replied, pleased to correct the other man. “They can smell a scent for several miles and have unnatural endurance, so the packs like to hound their prey to exhaustion before going for the kill.”

The Aztlan’s pale eyes crinkled with pleasure and Tristan immediately knew he’d made a mistake.

“I wonder,” Tupoc idly said, “how it is that a Sacromonte gutter rat knows that.”

The thief swallowed a curse as Acanthe shot him an assessing look. The Aztlan had been goading him all this time for a reaction and now he’d finally gotten it. Cutting his losses, he moved away from the two and Tupoc let him retreat with a pleasant smile. The skirmish was good as done anyhow, the lupines unwilling to risk another attack. They must have been blood-mad to risk one on such a large group in the first place. The column moved away, word from the front coming that a good camping site awaited two hours ahead. The lemures disappeared from the back as they left the clearing for the forest ahead, likely gone back to eat the corpses of their own.

They would return, though, and so after another tiring stretch of march through the woods it was with relief that Tristan saw the camp site that had been chosen.

It was well-situated, he must admit. The first stretch of forest behind them had come at an end, revealing long rolling plains stretching out for many miles ahead until another treeline began near what must be the foot of the looming mountains. To the northwest, the silhouette of the old aqueduct known as the High Road could be glimpsed in the weak starlight if you stood at the edge of the lanterns long enough. It was close, no more than an hour’s march away. The camping site itself was maybe a quarter hour away past the woods, two sloping hills with a slender cut between them. They had signs of regular use, with firepits already dug and dried out latrines.

Under the orders of the infanzones, who acted as if they knew of the place already and likely did – it was an open secret the families kept records – a camp was raised. The firepits were fed with wood and charcoal as two watchers took places at the summit of the hills, which would give a broad view of the plains below. The nobles raised their tents near the fires and their followers put down bedrolls around them, everyone else radiating outwards around the hills. As one of the infanzones’ recruits, Tristan earned a place halfway down the western hill near Yong and Lady Villazur’s hired hand Sanale.

The likes of the married pair and the two greyhairs had to settle for further down on either hill, the first to be dragged into the night should some lemure or cultist slip past the vigilance of the watchers.

It was no grimmer than the truth of the city he’d been born in, Tristan figured, only stripped of the usual varnish that allowed people to ignore it. Putting down his bedroll and medicine cabinet, the thief checked in with the Cerdan valet for his time to keep watch and was sneeringly informed his turn was to be near morning, five hours past midnight. Inyoni’s nephew Zenzele, who he was to replace, would come to wake him. Pleased at the given time, for it meant he would get most of a night’s sleep uninterrupted, Tristan bade good sleep to Yong and flopped down tiredly on his bedroll.

He was asleep within moments.

Tristan,” Fortuna hissed. “Tristan, you need to wake up.”

His eyes struggled to open, sleep fighting to keep them closed. His entire body felt lazy, like he’d spent an afternoon napping, and though he could hear Fortuna he struggled to remember why he should care about what she said.

“You idiot,” the goddess cursed. “Get up, someone’s pinning a murder on you.”

Sheer surprise and anger tore through the veil he’d been wrapped in, eyes futtering open as he woke. The fires crackled in the distance, everyone asleep around him, and the thief bit his lip so he would not snarl. That tiredness had not been natural. Someone had used a contract on him. Shifting in his bedroll, Tristan caught Fortuna’s eyes. The goddess, red dress bunched around her as she knelt in the grass, looked every inch the unearthly creature in the flickering light of the flames. Hair and eyes of molten gold, he thought.

“Who?” he murmured.

“Couldn’t see,” she admitted. “Their face was covered. I’m pretty sure it’s a man, though.”

Tristan grimaced. The goddess could not stray too far from him, rarely more than a room’s length, she would not have been able to follow the stranger back to wherever they’d hidden. She wouldn’t be able to name his enemy. First get out of the trap, he reminded himself.

“Where?”

His murmur was answered by Fortuna gesturing at his medicine cabinet. Inside? Gods, how hard had he been hit by the contract not to wake while someone was going through his belongings a mere two feet away?

“Keep watch,” Tristan said, and went to have a look.

It was difficult to unlatch the cabinet and crack it open without making a sound while laying down, but it was not his first time needing quiet fingers. At first glance nothing was amiss, but then Tristan saw them: a dagger, carefully inserted between two vials, and a rag pushed into a half-hidden nook. A bloody rag, his closer look revealed. He unfolded it, careful to get nothing on his fingers, and saw that an edge had been wiped clear of blood on the cloth. Just enough to get me hanged if they catch me with it, he thought.

Whoever had done this had been careful not to make him look like a complete fool: clever enough to hide and wipe the knife, just not to get rid of the rag after. If he were to sell the story in place of his foe, Tristan decided, he’d say that the rag was only hidden until it could be cleanly disposed of in a fire. Quietly he folded the cloth anew and took the dagger, beginning to close the cabinet silently as he put his mind to work along his hands. Someone must be dead, otherwise a wound deep enough to bleed this much blood would have woken them.

More importantly, whoever had killed them wanted him to take the fall for it.

Had he made an enemy, or had he simply seemed like a good sort to leave behind for the noose? There was no denying that he’d been picked out in particular, with the way a contract had been used on him. Only, he thought, it could not only be him who’d been touched by power. There were watchers as well and they would have noticed someone moving around so they must have been subjected to the contract too. Unless they were in on it, he considered, but then discarded the thought. Tristan was simply not important enough to be conspired against. That did not mean, however, that trying to out the scheme would be wise.

A rat with a blood-soaked rag and a corpse someone needed to answer for? Even if he was the one to make a ruckus in the middle of the night, there were decent odds he’d still end up the one hanged. If it was one of the nobles that’d done it, they’d close ranks to bury him. Not worth the risk. That did not mean there was not a solution: someone had done all the hard parts of pinning a murder and there was no need to waste all that work when he could use it instead. Closing the cabinet, he rose onto his knees. He could only see one of the watchers from here, but the Ramayan girl – Shalini, if he recalled correctly – was utterly still. No shifting around, no stoking the flames, no looking anywhere but straight ahead.

Calming his breathing, smoothing his thoughts into calm, the thief stole the knife and rag from the grass before crawling forward. Silently, as not to wake any of those sleeping near him. Moving up the hill, he paused only to grab a loose pebble and gauge the distance. A heartbeat later he threw the small stone near Shalini, waiting tensely as it bounced off a half-buried log. The noise would have been unmistakeable, but she did not so much twitch. Still under the contract, then, just as he would be had Fortuna not shouted at him until he stirred. Good, that meant he had his opening. The crawl resumed until he was near the fires, where the tents of the infanzones had been raised.

He could not see within, but outside lay their closest servants. The Cerdan valet, Isabel Ruesta’s maids – Beatris was unharmed, a relief – but to his displeasure not Cozme Aflor. Counting the tents again, he concluded that the Cerdan brothers must be sharing one while Cozme had claimed the other. It was too risky to try for a tent, he reluctantly admitted to himself. He’d have to lower his aim: the Cerdan valet, Gascon. The brothers were unlikely to start carrying their own bags even if the valet was cast out, which meant it’d likely end up Cozme’s work for all his pretensions that he was the one really in charge. He’d be more tired, more vulnerable, more likely to give Tristan an opening.

Planting the goods was not all that difficult.

The rag he hid under a flat rock a few feet away from the sleeping valet, with just a hint of the corner peeking out, and he slid the knife under the sleeping man’s neatly folded jacket. As he began to withdraw he saw the redheaded maid suddenly turn in her bedroll, yawning as she pawed at her loose hair. Tristan breathed in sharply, preparing to borrow luck, but she never opened her eyes. He stayed still as a statue until her breath evened out, asleep again. Flush from the scare, he crawled his way back down the hill and slipped hastily back into his bedroll. Unseen, he thought, but he could not be sure. There would be no telling for certain until morning came.

Though the thief knew he would need the rest, it still took him all too long to fall back asleep.

The second time, he woke to a scream.

Putting on a show, Tristan reached for his knife and rose with a gasp. Yong was brandishing his sword, eyes wide open, and the both of them found a crowd gathering on the side of the eastern hill. The corpse was there, below where the Asphodel pair had been sleeping, and he padded over on bare feet to have a look the body. The moment he did his breath caught in his throat and he knew why he’d been the one chosen to take the fall: it was one of the twins. Ju, he was fairly sure, the one he’d struck yesterday. That was not, he grimly thought, a good look for him right now. It was her sister who’d found the corpse, and Lan was red-eyed and shaking. Old Vanesa gently took her by the arm, offering comfort, but the blue-lipped woman pushed her away. She rose to her feet, eyes moving to him out of all the crowd as she did, and Tristan’s stomach clenched. Revenge was but a shout away for her.

“My sister,” Lan croaked out, “was murdered in the night. Her throat slit like some pig for slaughter.”

Tristan tensed as he forced himself not to squirm under her gaze, but then Lan’s eyes moved away.

“Until we find who did it,” she said, “no one here is safe.”

Abject relief. An accusation would have been no proof, but sometimes it didn’t take much to whip up a mob. And a mob was very much in the making here, by the looks on people’s faces as the crowd swelled.

“There’s no stream near here to wash,” Inyoni called out. “Someone herewill have blood on them.”

The scarred older woman, like her charges, had been sleeping just on the other side of the hill. She’d been one of the first to join the gathering throng.

“We have waterskins,” Brun calmly pointed out. “There is no need for a stream.”

The other Sacromontan had slept on the opposite side of the western hill, the infanzones between them, but still been one of the first to arrive after the scream. Already up, Tristan figured. By now long enough had passed for said infanzones to learn they had a mess on their hands, so like a pack of lupines they showed up all at once. Tredegar along, of course, having become the muscle for their crew more than she likely realized.

“Cold water won’t wash out blood well,” Remund Cerdan announced, tone certain. “I can still inspect everyone for traces.”

“And why is it,” Zenzele asked with wary eyes, “that you would be doing the inspecting?”

The other man blinked, as if it had never occurred to him he might be questioned.

“Watch your tongue, Malani,” he bit back. “You almost sound as if you are accusing an infanzon of-”

“We are not in Sacromonte, Cerdan,” the chubby-cheeked Ramayan called Ishaan calmly interrupted. “Posturing does you no good.”

Isabel Ruesta, looking like the very picture of anguish, stepped in between them. Tristan almost snorted, thinking she was laying it on a little thick. How most people who met her seemed not to notice never felt to surprise him: she wasn’t that good an actress.

“Now is no time to turn on each other with wild accusations,” Ruesta implored. “What could Remund have had to gain, even were he a man to murder?”

“What did anyone here have to gain?” Ferranda Villazur bit out after her. “It was a senseless thing. For all we know a cultist did this in the night.”

Her appeal for an outside enemy was swiftly ignored.

“There is one,” Angharad Tredegar evenly said, “who quarrelled with the sisters yesterday.”

Fuck, the thief thought. And now came the price for yesterday. Eyes turned to him, a crowd’s worth of them as near everyone had gathered around the corpse by now, but Tristan did not flinch. If he showed weakness they would devour him whole.

“We quarrelled over a pistol which is still in my possession,” Tristan replied. “Would slitting her throat somehow make it even more mine, Tredegar?”

“No one else of this company has done violence on another,” the Pereduri pressed. “Who else is there?”

“You are,” he replied, “trying to do me violence right now.”

At that she balked, long enough for someone else to speak up.

“If we throw accusations without proof,” Sarai said, “any one us of could be the culprit. Lady Inyoni and Lord Remund are correct: we should look for evidence first.”

And a mere heartbeat after she stopped speaking, as if it had been timed, there was an exclamation of surprise. One coming from near the tents of the infanzones, which raised Tristan’s spirits even as the Tianxi with the silver eyes – Song – flipped over the stone near the valet’s bedroll and revealed the bloody cloth.

“Blood,” Song announced. “Too much for a simple cut.”

Tristan’s eyes narrowed. Fortuna, leaning against shoulder lazily, hummed in agreement. Both of them were well-acquainted with chance, and that timing had been more than simply fortunate. It reeked of collaboration, but what for? Had they been behind all of this? Tristan could not remember seeing the two women exchange more than few words since they’d come aboard the Bluebell and he’d sought enmity with neither of them. It seemed off for them to try to frame him for an equally senseless murder, the pieces didn’t fit. Whatever the truth, he was immediately forgot.

The crowd exploded in jeers and shouts at the revelation of the bloody cloth, Gascon loudly exclaiming he had nothing to do with this but swiftly drowned out by a tide of indignation. Not even his masters could prevent his affairs from being searched, and chubby-cheeked Ishaan was the one to lift the jacket and reveal the planted knife. The Ramayan held it up triumphantly and in the moment that followed half the crowd looked willing to cut Gascon’s throat themselves. That was where things took a turn.

“What of it?” Augusto Cerdan called out, shouting down the accusations. “It is his knife, you fools, I gave it to him myself years ago. He merely forgot to put it away.”

“It is true,” Remund immediately agreed. “This is no proof at all, only nonsense. We all have knives. Where is the blood on the blade?”

Tristan, just for a moment, considered the possibility that whoever had murdered Jun in the night had used another man’s knife for it. Wondered at the foresight of the murderer. And then he set that absurd thought aside, considering the much simpler proposition that the Cerdans were covering for their valet in case some of the shit he was dragging in ended up splashing them. It wasn’t enough, though, and by the looks on the brothers’ faces they knew it. They were not in favour with the other people here, not after having hidden away during the fight on the Bluebell. So Isabel Ruesta spoke up, eyes calm for all that her face looked troubled, and Tristan knew it was over.

“Briceida,” the noblewoman called out, “you have known Gascon for years. Is it true, is the knife his own?”

The redheaded maid smiled broadly.

“It is, my lady,” she said. “I swear it.”

That gave the others pause. Even if it were untrue, forcing the matter would now make this a much larger trouble than a single corpse. The infanzones commanded the largest group and were obviously making common front – one that counted a troubled-looking Angharad Tredegar, that one-woman battalion.  Meanwhile, who did Lan have backing her? Not a soul. Tristan saw that revelation sink into the surviving twin, the way she looked as if she had been struck. The impotent rage that twisted blue-tinted lips when she realized that no one would do a damn thing about her twin being killed in the night because no one cared enough. And that was when, naturally, Tupoc Xical decided to step in.

“I do not care for this talk of knives,” the Aztlan dismissed, “but for this instead: how was it done?”

A moment of surprise followed.

“The Tianxi’s throat was cut but there is little blood spray on the grass and it is even,” the man continued. “She did not move. Who does not wake or struggle even as they are dying?”

Someone touched by a contract, Tristan encouraged. He’d be mocked if he suggested as much, but the Aztlan was not someone they would laugh at.

“Someone who was drugged,” Tupoc said instead. “And there is only one here who carries such substances.”

The eyes went back to him, the thief’s blood going cold as the crowd’s mood turned again. Even the gaze of the infanzones, whose crew he was meant to be part of. Only he was on their mirror-dancer’s bad side and he would be a scapegoat for this mess much less close to them than the Cerdans’ own valet. If anything, they might just help bury him.

“I have a bottle of soporific in my cabinet,” Tristan slowly acknowledged, playing for time, “but it is quite full. I invite you to look if you doubt me.”

He could only hope that it actually was full. He’d not checked every single bottle while on the Bluebell, which now struck him as a grave oversight.

“What point would there be?” Tupoc asked. “You could have topped it off with water, the colour is the same.”

“Then drink a mouthful,” Tristan acidly replied, “and tell us if it feels diluted.”

He could tell, though, that he was losing the crowd. What else was there, what shovel could he use to dig himself out?

“I carry half a dozen medicines that could be poisons, used in a malignant manner,” Tristan said. “What need would I have for a knife? If someone plucked a life unseen in the middle of the night, it seems to me more like the work of a contract than that of a bottle.”

“It could have been the Lord of the Thirteenth Heaven as well, I suppose,” Tupoc drawled, “but he is very far and your soporific fortuitously close. Besides, who is to say you do not have a contract yourself?”

The Aztlan was enjoying this, the thief thought. He could see it in the man’s pale eyes.

“Speak up then, boy,” Augusto Cerdan broke in, a man no older than Tristan. “Do you have a contract? What does it do?”

And now came the infanzones, bravely riding to the rescue of the only thing they cared about: their reputation. Tristan smiled, showing all his teeth.

“Your own valet is caught with a bloody cloth and a knife,” he said, “and yet I am the one answering questions. An interesting turn, Cerdan.”

He was teetering on the edge, and there was no telling which way it would go. Would anyone even speak for him, if the infanzones decided that he must be arrested ‘for the safety of all’? He’d have to try the luck, gods damn it all. But even if it got him out of the immediate trouble, how much worse would it land him in?

“It wasn’t him.”

Surprise caught his throat as silence spread over the hill and he turned to look at the speaker: Lan herself, mouth set in a straight line as she met his eyes.

“My sister and I spoke with him last night, we settled our affairs,” the blue-lipped woman lied. “There was no longer enmity between us. This is mudslinging.”

No one would argue with that he knew, not when it was her own sister that had been murdered, but already he was digging behind. Why? What did she gain by doing this? She had to know the murderer had good as gotten away with it already, what did she… Ah, Tristan thought. Two steps ahead, are you? She’d already seen through how it would end after no one paid for the death and decided to put him in her debt instead of making him an enemy. Only catching up now, his stomach clenched. He was about to lose everything he’d manoeuvred for.

“She’s right,” Inyoni snorted. “You’d bury your own mother to keep the dirt from touching your feet, Cerdan.”

“Fuck this,” her nephew Zenzele spat. “This isn’t going anywhere. Come on, auntie, we’re going. If they want to protect a killer it’s on their heads.”

“Agreed,” Ishaan snorted, throwing the knife into the grass hard enough it sunk to the hilt. “We part ways here.”

There were some token protests by Ruesta about the need to stick together, but it was theatre. She made no real attempt to mend fences and within a quarter hour Inyoni’s group of six was leaving. Herself, the nephew and his lover, the two Ramayans and that Aztlan called Yaretzi who sometimes tried to chat up Tredegar. She was a decent shot with a pistol, he’d seen yesterday, but nothing else of note. The group headed for the road north and no tears were shed at this first departure. Why would there be? As far as the infanzones were concerned, they’d averted a mess that would have entangled all of them and the groups had been meant to split later today anyhow.

Tristan stayed quiet and out of the way, knowing he too had come dangerously close to burning his fingers with this whole affair. Tupoc led his group away not long after, though not before making some smiling comments to the infanzones about trust. Taking the two from Asphodel and Ocotlan, he headed east towards the woods. Watching the pale-eyed Aztlan stroll away, the thief could shake the feeling that only one person this morn had gotten everything they were after and their name was Tupoc Xical.

After that there were only the infanzones and the soon-to-be leftovers remaining, so Tristan knew exactly what lay ahead. What Lan had seen before he did. The nobles would want to save face, and there was only one way left for them to do that. As he packed his affairs, the thief closed his eyes and forced himself to look for an angle. All his work to get close to the Cerdan, to lay down the foundation of his revenge, was about to be undone but there had to be something. There was always an angle. By the time Cozme came to fetch him, smiling all rueful like he cared in the slightest, Tristan still had nothing. It was like clawing at stone. Following the retainer, he found that the infanzones, their servants and other recruits were already waiting.

The thief had not even noticed Yong being sent for, stuck inside his own mind. The youngest Cerdan, Remund, began to yammer on but Tristan only paid him half a mind. Something about how their valet could not be the killer, that he of course did not believe Tristan was the killer either but who could know? His older brother gravely added that they could not possibly put Isabella at even the slightest risk, surely Tristan understood. If this were Sacromonte they would have simply dismissed him with a smack on the mouth, telling him to mind his betters, but here they had to go through this charade because they needed others to follow them. Tredegar, Brun, Song, Yong. All useful hands, all people that needed to be reassured they wouldn’t be thrown aside easily. A lie, but one the infanzones did not want seen through too quickly.

It gave him no pleasure to see them go through these contortions, not when there was nothing he could do about the ending. The older Cerdan droned on while Ruesta looked at him with limpid eyes, as if full of sympathy. Ferrdana Villazur’s open boredom was, at least, refreshingly honest. She wanted this over with as much as he did. It had already been decided he was to be cast out of their little group, lose his opportunity to get at Cozme and the Cerdans, and there was nothing in his hands that could hurt them. Nor did his allies – the thief stilled. Not allies, no. But there were enemies aplenty. Lupines who would be hunting them all, soon enough, and that could… But how to deliver it?

His revelation was encroached on by Isabel Ruesta’s voice.

“I do not believe it either, I assure you,” she told him. “And you came recommended to me by Beatris, who I most dearly trust. If she speaks again for your character, I will insist you remain with us.”

Tristan stilled. The Cerdans looked surprised and angry while Tredegar looked resigned, which implied Ruesta might not be simply posing. What would she get out of this? After a heartbeat he decided she wanted him under her thumb. Someone who’d owe her and not balk at doing the kind of things Tredegar wouldn’t. The thief’s eyes moved to Beatris and he saw the maid touch her jacket’s pocket, the same one where she had stashed away the ruby he’d given her. He saw the calculation in her eyes and the answer she came to.

He’d already killed Recardo, and now he came with too many enemies attached.

“I do not know him deeply, my lady,” Beatris said. “I cannot truly speak to his character.”

She did not look away when he met her eyes, unashamed. As well she should be. Tristan was not angry, not really. How could he be, when just yesterday he had struck one the twins for a relic pistol? This was nothing more than the Law of Rats, the same he lived by. Beatris would do all she could to survive, as he would in her place. It would have been a hypocrite’s game to claim anger here. Ruesta looked taken aback for a moment, then demurred to her maid.

“I can only follow your words, of course,” she said.

Beatris not playing along had clearly been unexpected and Ruesta looked, amusingly enough, like she’d been the one who just got a knife in the back. He breathed in sharply. That idle thought, that detail, was the last piece Tristan had needed. All of it fell into place and suddenly there was no longer a need to humour any of this.

“I will put us all out of our misery,” the thief said, “and simply take my leave before Lord Augusto begins another speech.”

“Thank you,” Ferranda Villazur frankly said.

He walked away, deciding not to risk a glance at Yong. The thought was tempting to try and ruin his chances to ensure he was forced to stick by Tristan, but the infanzones were unlikely to throw away a skilled soldier on the thief’s behalf and an unwilling ally could be as dangerous as an enemy anyhow. Instead he made straight for his medicine cabinet, discreetly reaching for a small green vial near the middle compartments while pretending to be arranging the vials. Yes, lodestone extract was there just as the drawing in Alvareno’s Dosages outline. A shadow was cast over him in lantern light, Tristan looking up to find Yong standing there.

“I did not expect a courtesy goodbye,” Tristan admitted. “I wish you good luck on the road, Yong.”

He hesitated, wondering whether he should offer a warning and how to phrase it so his scheme would not be threatened.

“I would hope so,” the Tianxi replied, “since we’re headed down the same one.”

The grey-eyed thief paused.

“Your odds might be better with them,” he finally said.

The Tianxi soldier eyed the bottle in his hand.

“Somehow I doubt that,” he said. “Besides, we struck a bargain.”

The thief cocked an eyebrow. Neither of them were Malani, to be obsessed with honour and oaths.

“And their way of going about things leave a bad taste in my mouth,” Yong admitted. “They’re headed to the High Road out west for some reason, they want to let the rest of us go first.”

It only took him a moment to figure it out.

“Lupine bait,” the thief guessed. “While we’re being eaten they’ll sneak past the packs.”

“That is also my read,” Yong grunted, “and I’ve had too much of that tired old game.”

Tristan studied him for a long moment, looking at the older man’s sweating face. He’d begun drinking already, the thief thought.

“One day,” he said, “I’d like to know why you left Tianxia.”

Their eyes met.

“No,” Yong mirthlessly smiled. “You wouldn’t.”

The former soldier flicked a glance at the crew forming around the infanzones, frowning.

“If you have a scheme, now is the time for it,” he said. “They’re about to leave.”

For the barest moment, Tristan hesitated. Beatris was with them. But then he considered the thought of letting the infanzones get away with it, of letting them walk away clean like they always did, and it burned like coals in his belly. In the end, all that he owed his fellow rat was the ugly law they’d been born to: nothing more and nothing less.

Tristan uncorked the green bottle. The transparent fluid inside was sticky yet surprisingly liquid, so he was careful not to spill any as he wet his right hand. He carefully put the bottle back and closed the cabinet, walking over to where the crowd had gathered for the last of the earlier squabbling. There Ishaan had angrily thrown the knife the infanzones lied about and there it still was. Tristan ripped it clear of the ground with his left hand, careful to slather the leather grip with the liquid. He then strode right into the midst the infanzones’ crew, blade in hand. Song loosely aimed her musket his way and Tredegar put her hand on her saber, but he went straight for Augusto Cerdan and smiled.

He flipped the knife, offering the handle to the scowling infanzon.

“You gifted it to your valet, didn’t you say?” Tristan said. “Have it back. Perhaps back in your hands it won’t earn so poor a reputation.”

With all those eyes on him, with Ruesta’s eyes on him, Augusto could not back down from the implied challenge. He took the knife, fingers closing around the extract-drenched handle. It would have felt humid, but not wet. Not enough to draw suspicion.

“That mouth of yours will cost you some day, boy,” the infanzon coldly said. “More than it already has.”

“We all pay the price at the end, Cerdan,” Tristan easily replied. “It’s the single fair thing in all the world.”

And with that he walked away from the infanzon, from the lot of them, and back up the hill as they began to leave. The moment they were out of sight, Tristan rushed to his medicine cabinet. He carefully opened it using only his left hand, unlatching the clasps and reaching for the glass bottle at the bottom. Shoving it under his armpit as he reached for a rag, he pulled the cork and wet the rag with grain alcohol. Methodically, ignoring all the eyes on him, the thief wiped his hand and the edge of his clothes with the wet rag. He was particularly careful with his skin, knowing that lodestar extract would sink in unless dissolved by alcohol.

“So what was that about?” Yong bluntly asked.

Tristan finished up with the rag and tossed it away, careful not step anywhere near it. He then cast a look at the seven people he’d be taking the Trial of Lines with, the band of leftovers than no one else had wanted. Yong and Sarai, the drunk and the woman wearing a mask. The exhausted and bickering married pair of Aines and Felis – the gambler and the dust addict. Grief-stricken Lan who had put him in her debt, her once-polished smile replaced by poorly hidden rage. And then the greyhairs, bespectacled Vanesa and ever-coughing Franchowith his toothless smile. It was not the crew he’d wanted, but it was the one he had. He must make the most of it. An introduction was in order, a proper one.

“Are any of you familiar with lodestone extract?” Tristan asked.

He got mostly blank looks, though Lan frowned as if trying to recall something. Most importantly, Francho’s eyes lit up.

“You coated the knife in it?” the old man asked.

“The handle,” the thief agreed.

The greyhair hummed in understanding.

“And for those of us unfamiliar with the substance?” Sarai asked.

“The lodestone bush is a plant that grows berries,” Francho explained, tone gone professorial. “It is common across the west and south of the Trebian Sea. The berries, while comestible, have an unpleasant side effect.”

“Their juice doesn’t smell like anything to us,” Tristan revealed, “but to lemures, they reek of fresh blood.”

A moment of silence. Lemures like lupines, the beasts with the noses of hunting hounds crawling around these parts.

“The extract,” Yong slowly said, “it will be more concentrated than the raw berry juice, won’t it?”

“At least a hundred times, if it is anything like what is sold in Sacromonte markets,” Old Francho said, grinning a toothless grin. “Clever boy. Every lupine for a dozen miles will be after them like they’re the only meat at the feast.”

The thief only smiled a pleasant, friendly smile.

“They meant to use us to clear their path,” he shrugged. “I am only returning the favour in kind.”

Tristan liked to think of himself as a practical man, even when moved by revenge. It did not matter if the deed was not of his own hand, so long as Cozme and the Cerdans died.

48 thoughts on “Chapter 8

  1. arcanavitae15

    Double PoV of Tristan and I’m loving it. Also damn a murder mystery were Tristan did everything right and still got screwed. Yong is being a bro, and I’m liking him more and more as time goes on. Also that ending was epic were he snatched Survival and Vengeance from the jaws of certain death.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Earl of Purple

    I wonder who did the deed. I’m not smart enough to spot the clues and figure it out, not from what I can see. A useful contract for one unskilled in stealth, but perhaps not as useful as Tristan’s.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Miles

      There was a guy sleeping in the corner mentioned multiple times on the boat. I’d guess it was whoever that was because the contract came with a sleep power and contracts take some practice to avoid picking up a related tic (the saint’s scratching, Tristan’s mention of flipping an invisible coin when he first got it)

      Like

  3. CantankerousBellerophan

    Tristan continues being unbelievably based, though unfortunately I doubt his plan will work out as well as he hopes. Tredegar will likely pull out some miracle with her illegal and possibly wildly unsafe contract, no matter how many Lemures assault the noble party. Still, an excellent effort at ridding the world of great thieves.

    It does pain me to see how he treats Beatris, though. Her ‘betrayal,’ though inopportune, wasn’t even untrue. She doesn’t know Tristan that well, and what she does know should rightly terrify her. Tristan knows this, but abandons her to the Law of Rats immediately. Tristan can see the injustices of his world, both the obvious and underlying, but has not yet learned the lesson one must if they are to conquer them: solidarity.

    The nobles are the enemy. Everyone else’s interests are aligned with his own, and the Law of Rats is as much a lie as the myth of noble blood. Meant to divide him from his potential comrades.

    It will be interesting to see how he develops, what he learns, and when he realizes the truth that rats, both literal and metaphorical, are intensely social, cooperative, empathetic, curious creatures. True rats do not follow the Law he places upon them, in short. They are better off for it. I hope he one day sees the same.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Pseudo

      It’s worth noting that her contract is only illegal in Malan, the place with the definitely-shady court that murdered her parents. Illegal by decree of the queen, who we also have reason to distrust given info from Angharad’s pov- and in this case, the queen being Up To Some Shit is a heavily implied part of her backstory, so she’s not just being an unreliable narrator. People in the comments have been going a little hard on the “illegal contract” thing, and it’s getting annoying.

      There are all sorts of perfectly valid reasons to dislike Angharad, but this isn’t one.

      Liked by 5 people

      1. greycat

        > People in the comments have been going a little hard on the “illegal contract” thing, and it’s getting annoying.

        It’s not even “people”. It’s literally just that one person, who keeps repeating that same point, every chapter.

        I tentatively agree with the idea that the queen who outlawed that type of Contract did so for her own continued self-interest. Of course, we won’t know for sure until the author reveals more details.

        Liked by 4 people

    2. I wonder how even a Bellerophan can be this deluded. Tristan is a bad person. He is a thief, liar and murderer that is driven by vengance and expeniancy. He does not care for a single person other than himself, as can be seen by him robbing the Twins, planting the murder on someone who in this case is innocent and sacrificeing a whole group to get his vengance and stick it to the nobles. Tredegar on the other hand, while still beeing arrogant and deluded to the worth of her no longer noble name, has so far done nothing wrong. She is under the spell of a contract so her behaviour towards Ravena can be explained. Other than that she tries to protect the group and people, as can be seen with her intervening during the whole pistol episode. We do not know why the Malani have outlawed contracts that provide future sight but the easiest explanation is that the royals fear people with prophetic powers because they are harder to control, not that those are dangerously unstable.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. CantankerousBellerophan

        Tristan has:
        * Stolen a cabinet from a man who defended the status quo.
        * Killed that man, arguably in self defense, though also in the commission of a crime.
        * Killed a rapist.
        * Assaulted a woman over a tool which he knew how to use better than she, at a time when his survival was on the line.
        Tredegar has:
        * Yearned for a return to the “tradition” of throwing children at murderous spirits.
        * Made it clear she is racist, and a defender of an explicitly racist system.
        * Killed far more men than Tristan on-screen (though admittedly in less questionable circumstances).
        * Made zero effort to challenge any of her many false assumptions of the way the world works.
        * Blindly fallen under the spell of a mind controller.
        * Never once experienced the stresses which create men like Tristan.

        Neither have you, as it happens. Men like Tristan don’t choose to be like that. Who would? His acts violate many principles of basic humanity because he was born into a fundamentally inhuman system. He did not choose for his only protector to be a woman like Abuella. That was chosen for him through the distant cruelty of the nobility. He demonstrated his willingness to help others when he handed over a fortune to Beatris, a fortune she could use to escape a lifetime of drudgery, for mere information. Furthermore, he was the only person to even notice the missing girl on the ship, which both saved everyone from the attentions of a completed Saint (whatever that is), and demonstrates his inherent ability to see humanity in others, even when others would not. Tredegar’s thoughts when fighting that thing were of the monster. Tristan expressed anguish for the innocent stranger it had supplanted.

        It is not wise to judge those whose circumstances you cannot imagine.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Rynjin

        Tristan is not in any way a “bad person”. He is a normal person pushed to the brink by the circumstances of his life. He is sneaky, underhanded, and cunning; none of these are inherently bad qualities. Yes, he is primarily concerned with his own survival. Likewise, this is not a bad quality in a human being.

        We also see that he is willing to go out of his way to help another person he empathizes with (Beatris).

        The impression I think people are getting is that Tristan only cares about himself, but that’s not borne out in the text. Tristan PRIMARILY cares about himself (as all people should), and cares NOTHING for the nobles (most of whom are shown to be casually cruel and all are inherently the beneficiaries of privilege Tristan does not have), but he cares for other people in similar situations to himself.

        Other Rats and the similar dregs of society need his aid. The rich and powerful can use their wealth and power to fend for themselves.

        This is a perfectly practical mindset, and one pretty much anyone on this planet would adopt in his situation.

        The benefit of being inside the character’s head like this is we can actually see their motivations and what drives them quite clearly.

        From an outside perspective, Tristan is certainly shady and borderline evil. But the fact of the matter is that he’s hurt no one that didn’t deserve it. The absolute worst things he’s done have been to frame an “innocent man ” (who it appears was not so innocent after all, but to be fair Tristan didn’t know that), and to attract monsters to a group that was going to do the same to him.

        Of those, the only one I see as unequivocally morally WRONG is the latter, as there are some good and innocent people mixed into the group of horrible nobles. But it was also a survival move without which we’d likely be losing Tristan as a character VERY soon, along with everyone else in his group.

        Someone in the previous group has decided to turn this into a death game (seriously, they could all have easily worked together through these trials and all gotten what they wanted), and unfortunately once that happens all bets are off. You either play to win or lay down and die.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Abnaxis

        I don’t know what you guys are smoking. Tristan is definitely not a good person. He’s killed in cold blood multiple times–the first time we saw him murder someone it his victim was unconscious on the floor– so not a threat don’t give me that “self defense” BS–the second was just because it let Tristan get closer to the people he wants to murder. While Recardo was an asshole, don’t forget that he didn’t actually rape anyone. He was a horndog that Beatrix was worried might get insistent if he was turned down in the wild, he didn’t actually DO anything, especially not anything deserving of execution.

        And that’s before even getting to Tristan trying to frame someone else for murder, which very likely could have wound up with them getting lynched, again for no other reason than proximity to people Tristan doesn’t like.

        I don’t think Tredegar is a good person either, but this idea that Tristan is a nice person in bad circumstances is nonsense. He’s a sociopath who has no problems killing or maiming if it’s the most expeditious way to get what he wants

        Liked by 2 people

      4. Deworld

        @Abnaxis

        Totally agreed. I think it’s important to distinguish between an explanation and an excuse. What Rynjin said, “He is a normal person pushed to the brink by the circumstances of his life.” is true, but it’s an *explanation* for why he’s like this, it doesn’t actually make any of his actions at the moment any better. He’s a bad person because of the circumstances he’s grown in, but he’s still a bad person. It allows us to better understand him, and probably treat him not as harshly as we would someone who would do such things out of the blue without any backstory, but we still need to acknowledge that ultimately he isn’t a good person at the moment. Which is totally fine. As I said before, the best character arcs happen when the character starts low.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Rynjin

        I think maybe the clash here is what everyone’s interpretation of the phrase “bad person” is. In my eyes, a bad person is not just “a person who does bad things”, which Tristan definitely does.

        It’s a confluence of intent and circumstance that determines that. Tristan has done quite a few morally dubious and wrong things, but all in the service of necessity, at least in his eyes. For example, he couldn’t leave the man he stole the case from alive; he would have been throwing his own life away to do so. He had no particular malice in his heart when he killed the man, it was simply an assessment of the facts of the situation. Even though the man was on the floor unconscious…it didn’t matter. It was him or Tristan, because when he woke up he’d be able to finger the perpetrator and end his life as surely as shooting him.

        Compare/contrast the average noble. They scheme, and plot, and treat everyone around them as lesser. There is no particular purpose to any of it. They have enough to survive, and more than that live in luxury. They have no need for more and yet they grasp and take. These are “bad people”. Their intents are awful (“fuck you, got mine), and their circumstances preclude most excuses of necessity for their dubious actions.

        How you put it, they are both “bad people”, it’s just one is a more sympathetic bad person. In my eyes, the existence of a true CHOICE (and the choice between “life and death” is not actually a choice) is what determines morality.

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      6. Deworld

        @Rynjin

        While I partially agree with you, I don’t think that Tristan was really doing these things out of sheer necessity. Okay, the guy in the mention is a pass, if he survived and turned out to be a full Watchman, Tristan would be good as dead, agreed here. But later? He really didn’t have a reason to kill Recardo other than the guy being an asshole – Beatris didn’t ask for that specifically, and Recardo didn’t do anything warranting death yet. The same goes for his actions in the last chapter – he puts a group of people in potentially mortal danger out of sheer spite. There was nothing necessary in it – Tristan has put his petty revenge above the lives of unrelated people. That’s not an act of a good person.

        Also, “what he thinks necessary” isn’t enough justification in any case. Many outright villains think their atrocities are necessary, but that doesn’t make them good people. Tristan here isn’t that bad, of course, but I still think that his perception is flawed. He jumps to violence too quickly. I mean, in this whole death game, he’s the first one to kill another candidate, that counts for something. His perception of his deeds is also not great – killing for him is almost casual and he doesn’t seem to give a second thought to it. I really don’t like that.

        For me, a “good person” is a person who cares about others and puts their needs if not above, then on a roughly equal level to their own. And Tristan definitely isn’t that, he only cares about his back. There are other metrics, of course, “good/bad person” isn’t a binary statement, there are plenty of worse people than him, but that doesn’t make him better than he is.

        Like

      7. Rynjin

        Sure, but I never said Tristan was a good person. I said he’s a normal person. He is True Neutral on the alignment spectrum, if you will. He will help people if it does not particularly hurt him to do so. He will protect his own life with zeal. He has no particular care for morality of any kind.

        I’ll also say I don’t think he dosed the dagger “out of sheer spite”. Oh, sure, the fact that multiple people on his revenge list are there factors into it (and factors A LOT), but I don’t think he’s wrong at all that the plan would be to inflict the exact same fate on HIS group if he didn’t act.

        I’ll give you Recardo, though TBF he seems like the exact kind of character who would get his ironic comeuppance first in a horror movie anyway.

        Like

      8. jacobwbe

        You make the assertion that Recardo had done nothing worthy of execution. That is, strictly speaking, true. But, this is only because Recardo is nothing more than words on a page.

        Real men who behave like Recardo exist. Men who boast loudly about women they will bed, without asking the people they are objectifying how they feel about such boasts. Without asking whether they could satisfy their boasting without resorting to rape. While we only ever saw Recardo boast once, and while his status as a fictional character means that is the sum total of his boasts in strict truth, that is not a useful way to think of him. Real men who boast like that aren’t doing so for the first time. They do it because they have done so before. Real men are like that because they have never been punished for such behavior in the past, and because the society they live in models that behavior as acceptable. In short, real men who act that way, do so because they have gotten away with rape before and expect to do so again.

        And let’s consider Beatris as well, here. She told Tristan, more or less a complete stranger, whose only known quality was being asexual, that she was afraid this man might rape her. What must Recardo have done beyond the eyes of our protagonists to make her so afraid she would reach out like that? People do not casually tell total strangers they are afraid someone near them is going to rape them unless they have extremely compelling reasons to do so. That takes the kind of fear and desperation which can only be inspired by true monsters. We don’t know what Recardo did, exactly, but we don’t need to. The effects tell us a far more complete story than the scene itself could ever hope.

        We can be assured Recardo was a rapist. He acted like one, convinced someone he had barely interacted with that he was one without even trying to, and was surrounded by people whose interests lay in shielding him from the consequences of such proclivities when he indulged them in the unwritten past. His noble masters could and likely did cover up past transgressions for him, both to save themselves from embarrassment and to tie his loyalties inextricably to them. Were this the real world, countless examples of exactly this could be found in every nation which ever spawned grasping nobles. Everything we know about Recardo points to this conclusion. The only thing we are missing for a formal conviction is a trial.

        But this is a world where the judges are owned by the nobility. Whose interests lie in protecting Recardo. There is no court in which a fair trial could be held, and thus no justice to be found through such a narrow definition of it. The only thing left, the only justice which can come of this, is to protect those who have not yet been victimized from his attentions, through whatever means are available.

        Which is exactly what Tristan did.

        Like

    3. Kestral287

      What should he have done about Beatris then? Not gone after the nobles like you applaud him for, and indeed sacrificed his new group and probably several others in the other groups to death so the nobles could get alone cleanly? I doubt you would accept that

      What Beatris knows about Tristan is that he is dangerous and cunning but also a man who honors his word – and more, a man that went out of his way to help her well beyond what his word required. She quite clearly thought of that the moment before she betrayed him. Castigating Tristan for not having solidarity with the woman who plunged a knife into his back is incredibly arrogant.

      Liked by 5 people

      1. CantankerousBellerophan

        I agree there was little he could do once the betrayal happened. He can’t join causes with a woman who just tossed him to the wolves. My concern is with his attitude and ideology, rather than his actions. He is a partisan of a false Law. He wants the end of nobility, and he is clearly willing to take drastic action to see this done, but he believes himself to be alone in this endeavor and is only forming alliances of convenience rather than creating an opposition bloc. He has main character syndrome, believing he can accomplish everything he wants alone. But our greatest advantage, as the laboring class, is and has always been that we need do nothing alone.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. KageLupus

        It also misses the point of their relationship. They are both Rats and know the rules. As soon as Beatris threw him under the bus, the rules became “Do what you have to to survive.” They both know that’s true in a way the Infanzones don’t, and Tristan has already explained that there is no use getting angry about someone doing something to you that you would be willing to do to them.

        Liked by 2 people

      3. Morgan

        She didn’t betray him – from her perspective she already knows he’s a subtle killer and now there’s been a second murder – if she supports him then she is tied to his action, not a great place to be if something goes awry. All their interactions have been transactional, even he can see he doesn’t offer her enough to take the risk.

        Liked by 3 people

    4. Tristan’s goal is personal revenge, against allies of Beatris’s employer. Dragging Beatris into that is not solidarity, it’s being an dumbass. He’s not out to cause a revolution of the working class, he’s not Cat.

      (Although, as an aside: people had compared him to Amadeus and I don’t think there’s anything to it, but he IS having more and more in common with Cat. A badass street kid, unusually educated for their social class, observant, clever and with radical political views…)

      Liked by 3 people

      1. shikkarasu

        Kind of think that still works for Maddie. Don’t get me wrong, I agree that these are not by any stretch the same characters, but if you replace ‘street’ with ‘farmer’ he, Alaya, and Cat had most of these things in common.

        Like

      2. @shikkarasu I mean, when you can take three characters as radically different in narrative role as Amadeus, Alaya and Catherine, and parallel them ALL to a single character in a new work, that’s no longer character parallels, that’s thematic resonance.

        Which, I mean, yeah. Pale Lights has strong thematic resonance with PGTE despite being in a completely different genre, because it still explores “no war but class war” and so on.

        Liked by 2 people

    5. MerchantPrince

      Look at the “proletariat” you so adore. A stinking, squabbling, stupid avaricious backbiting morass. You can give them everything, push them to the bloodsoaked threshold of the Heavens, and they will eat each other before letting another take the first step. Your Bellerophon is nothing other than a blindfold. There can be no praxis, no system founded on anything other than base ambition. There is no “laboring class”, there is no “bourgeoisie” there are only the High and the Low, among themselves owing no allegiances. Solidarity is a myth, an impossibility not because of some mythical narrative pushed by an imaginary cabal, but because your confederates are simply too stupid to confederate. Lead them if you will, burn our palaces and hang us, but inevitably, inexorably you will take our place. How many “vanguard parties” have there been? How many “defenders of the people”, “safekeepers of the revolution” must become “Supreme Leaders” before you realise the breadth of your folly? Your dreams of a red-cloaked internationale are delusion. How often have your “citizens” starved, grain mismanaged by old men and fools, how often have your Kanenas slaughtered without heed or rebuke in the name of a creed of madness? Tyranny by a hundred thousand hands chokes faster than tyranny by a dozen.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Deworld

        Now, *this* is how you do a bit.

        Belletophan underplays it severely, it’s not even fun. I mean, he didn’t even mention The People once. If you roleplay, go all the way.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. CantankerousBellerophan

        Is this the game you wish to play? Very well. Let’s play.

        The myth that all attempts at socialism inevitably turn to tyranny is, at once, a misinterpretation of events, a bit of nasty historical propaganda, and a fundamental misunderstanding of the goals of the movement.

        Take the revolutionaries of Bellerophon. They escaped from the cruelty of the Magisters, slew one of their bloodstained false deities, and carved the writ of freedom into its bones. It is tempting, from our perspective as the beneficiaries of a system not unlike that of Stygia, to claim the people who would become The People began a just war to end their own enslavement, and that the war ended with the slaying of Redress. But this is wrong. Those who would become Bellerophan could not possibly have started that war, for the violence against their persons began long before the Sword of the Free was even born, much less her first time holding a blade. It is uncontroversial, I think, to claim that slavery, all slavery, is violence against the enslaved. The Magisters, therefore, started that war. The Bellerophans ended it…or at least one theatre of it. All Are Free Or None, and if one is to Accept No Compromise In This, then the old war against tyrants has never ended. Cannot end, so long as tyrants exist.

        Let’s take this logic to the real world as well. The Cuban Revolution was, by the accounting of those who fled it, an outpouring of barbarism and theft perpetrated by foreigners against the rightful owners of the island. This interpretation is as false as it is lurid and self-serving. The fact is, the vast majority of the citizens of Cuba were slaves, if not in name or on paper, then absolutely in lived experience. The island was a plantation outpost of the United States, with all the same horrific injustices one sees in any other plantation economy. The half-dozen men who made it into the hills of Cuba after their landing, who would inspire the raising of a peasant army tens of thousands strong mere months later did not start the war against Cubans. They ended it, and with it the underlying causes of that war. The plantations were expropriated, the men who claimed ownership over both land and labor exiled. A better fate than they deserved, if you ask me. The few remaining natural resources the island had after a century of imperialist plunder were put to use improving the lives of actual Cubans, with great success. The lives of Cuban citizens now are far better than the average experienced in any other Latin@ nation. They ended their war.

        Or rather, they would have if it had been in their power. The truth is, ours is a world where None Are Free, and defense of even the bare measure of victory found in Cuba requires constant warfare. If Cuba did not censor their media, it would be flooded with the kind of lies which turned Appalachia from a bastion of union labor into a regressive nightmare. If they did not regulate their politics, American puppets would be installed. We’ve done it countless times before. Cuba’s political and economic life looks like it does now due not to a failure of the revolution within Cuba, but the failure it has seen everywhere else. All free markets benefit only those with capital, including markets of ideas. It turns out the plantation owners are the ones with all the capital. Funny how that works. Almost like that was the intent from the beginning.

        The claim that revolutionary states are uniquely likely to starve is, as it happens, an out-and-out lie. By the 1980s, internal memos of the CIA itself confirm that the average Soviet citizen ate more healthily than the average American. That is to say a decrepit gerontocracy, a decade from utter collapse and only pretending to be seeking a truly communist future, was better able to feed its own citizens than the land of those who claimed themselves free in its prime. They were also better at providing basic health services, building actually beneficial infrastructure, and just generally making things to last.

        Furthermore, while famines in socialist nations make the news and history books both because they are flashy and because they benefit the people writing the books, the rolling catastrophe that is capitalist food distribution does not. Right now, 18% of children in the United States live with food insecurity, unsure where their next meal is coming from. It’s not a famine, but it kills all the same. The consequences of chronic malnutrition in childhood are lifelong, incurable, and significantly decrease expected lifespan. The rate of childhood malnutrition in Cuba right now, even as their economy struggles with the numerous crises inherent to a world in the throes of end-stage capital accumulation, is roughly zero percent, modulo victims of catastrophes like hurricanes where distribution infrastructure is understandably disrupted. Which are becoming more common because US corporations decided they needed the line to go up in the 1970s, and damn us all in the 2020s.

        There are numerous other examples of this principle. The Zapatistas have been making actual communism work among their communities for decades now, despite the deliberate neglect and active hostility of the US-dominated Mexican government. Bolívia under Evo Morales did extremely well for itself considering where it started, crashed when US-backed white Christian nationalist fascists took over for a few years, and is doing better again now that he’s back. Perón wasn’t even a leftist, but the land reform he pushed through in Argentina to appease his labor unionist base did wonders in improving conditions in the country. And of course, one cannot forget Thomas Sankara, whose few years at the head of Burkina Faso saw the single most rapid improvement in human conditions anywhere in world history. These ideas absolutely work in practice. You just don’t get told that, because the people who would tell you don’t benefit from you knowing.

        (Aside: You write capitalist apologia disturbingly well. This is how I have fun.)

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      3. IndulgentHighborn

        Ah, the virtuous sin of capitalism: its ability to incorporate even its own annihilation into itself, reinforcing it and making it stronger than ever.

        The answer is quite simple: if the beast will scar, grow, and adapt in response to how we cut it, then let us flay it with the end result in mind. Trees, flesh, thoughts, systems, it doesn’t truly matter. Anything overtime can be pruned and shaped as long as you can grasp the right levers.

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      4. Annya

        I would argue that Tristan, ironically enough, is the most reliable person with whom to throw your hat, the least dangerous, practically speaking and with the most convenient skillet that is complimentary but not in competition or opposition with Yon. It makes quite a bit of sense for him to stick with Tristan until something changes.

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    6. Scythe7

      This isn’t A Practical Guide to Evil—even with her prescience contract, Tredegar is not a Hero, she does not have Providence or the weight of a story to empower her. I doubt the group will be wiped out, but I don’t think a “miracle” is in order. If the group is to survive, Augusto will likely either die or at least lose a hand, not much of a way around that for Tredegar—the group, while is has a number of soldiers, also has many people to protect, against enemies who will hunt them to exhaustion rather than giving them a fight. If there’s a miracle, it’ll be require another contractor.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. So… it sounds to me like the point of the murder was not to kill the woman, but to frame Tristan. There’s just little point to the first while leaving her twin alive, while the second… what the FUCK is whoever did this trying to accomplish? Applies in either situation really.

    One thought I have is that maybe someone in the second group expected Tristan to slither halfway out of it and wanted this outcome exactly, Tristan coming with them and infanzones going their own way.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. shikkarasu

      100%. I’m suspicious of Yong, honestly. He might just be an honourable mercenary, but I’m expecting that he is more practical than he is letting on. He hasn’t done anything to deserve this distrust, but that’s what sets him apart.

      He is way too invested in the first contact he made on the boat and that places him in one of two Stories, for me: the faithful companion or the traitor.

      Even wilder speculation: Does Yong have a Contract with something that likes their followers to drink? Something that dulls senses and induces slumber?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Deworld

        “one of two Stories, for me: the faithful companion or the traitor”

        Well, capital-S Stories aren’t a thing here, and I do believe EE won’t blindly follow cliches, not after he’s written a whole book series about them.

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      2. shikkarasu

        @Deworld
        No, but narrative trends exist for a reason: they work and they are satisfying to read. PGtE showed that EE is very familiar with both what they are and how to use them well. It isn’t a sign of poor writing to use tropes, it’s a sign that EE knows where the story is going.

        I’m not trying to suggest that Narrative will be a fundamental force of nature again, but we already have some common archetypes on display in the cast. Again, this isn’t bad. Carefully avoiding any similarity to previously written stories or characters is how you get edgy, random ‘plots’ that only serve to confuse the reader. It’s almost impossible to write something without any precedent at all.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Annya

        I would argue that Tristan, ironically enough, is the most reliable person with whom to throw your hat, the least dangerous, practically speaking and with the most convenient skillet that is complimentary but not in competition or opposition with Yon. It makes quite a bit of sense for him to stick with Tristan until something changes.

        Liked by 4 people

  5. Omnijack

    So, the people who we know have a contracts, but don’t know their capabilities are: Tupoc, Brun, and Song. Song’s off the table since Fortuna says she saw a man. Brun is probably not it since Fortuna pointed out his contract as being particularly powerful and since she was able to wake Tristan just by shouting at him, it’s probably not Brun.
    Assuming we know of everyone who has a contract, then the only one left would be Tupoc, who was mentioned to have benefitted from this whole incident.
    There is of course the possibility that there’s someone else who has an unrevealed contract though, in which case there is no way i can think of for us to accurately guess who is to blame.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Mirror Night

    Yong seems a bit too ride or die. So either is working an angle or he did some really messed up stuff. Maybe Both.

    As for Tristain this does seem like a weird mystery. Three big options in my book.
    1) HIs target actually is wise to him and is just playing coy while pretending he doesn’t know who Tristain is.
    2) This is just the Watch stirring trouble as part of the testing process.
    3) Someone from the Other Group isn’t dead and is making a play.

    I don’t think its random cultist because I doubt they will be especially relevant to the plot to be interesting going forward.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Odd

    Of course Tredegar has done nothing wrong; she has the power, skill, and upbringing to stick to her honor. But she’s done nothing right yet beyond killing people and things. Perhaps her detractors will like her more once she’s succeeded at something beyond being a blade and a romantic.

    Like

  8. It was not the first time the Aztlan tossed a barb his way
    Aztlan tossed > Aztlan tossed
    (double space)

    knowing that lodestar extract would sink in
    lodestar > lodestone

    Like

  9. You know this story reminds me of Parasite. The working class is quite capable of turning on their own class if they think they can escape with that action. No one enjoys being poor. So the working class would look away when one of them got killed because there is this illusion of winning the rigged game by playing with the rules.

    There is no reason to kill Ju aside from getting rid of one’s opponent which is questionable since we haven’t got to the good part yet. Why show your hand this early?

    To murder somebody, there should be a motive:
    – Lan: the victim’s sister. I don’t know what but murder usually happens between people who knows each other for a long time. Spouses, co-workers, and siblings are more likely to purposefully kill you since they can loathe you as a person for knowing you so long, or some sort of inheritance can be the cause of the enmity. Still, because the silhouette is that of a man. We can cross Lan out temporarily. She might be a collaborator.
    – Yong: he sticks with Tristan. It is because he knows Tristan didn’t do it?? Besides, being from the same country as Ju might be more meaningful than we expected. If he has some sort of connection to the twin that we know nothing of, there might be a hidden motive for him to kill her.
    – The murderer knows Ju. At least, she did not put up much of a fight. It is either someone she knows or someone she did not consider a threat. => the addict, maybe? Usually, drug dealers (Ju) aren’t afraid of the addict because they have leverage over their customers. Yet, there is only a need for 1 drug dealer to get the stuff and the murder can be a sort of accident.
    – What will people get from killing Ju but sparing her twin?
    – What was Ju doing before being murdered?? Was she sleeping in her tent? If she was then anyone particularly stealthy can kill her and her sister.
    – It is theorized that drugs were used => Is the person suggesting this trying to distract people from other possibilities?
    – Was Tristan a convenience scapegoat or the main target? Because out of everyone, he had a conflict with the victim prior to her death so it is easier to frame him => I still think that Tristan should have waked everyone up about finding a bloody knife in his tent, which will erase his suspicion immediately.

    Tristan being framed as a murderer should make people doubt him less because in the typical murder mystery, the one who is first accused of the acts, is usually the red herring. Like, he has the ability but not the motive. He doesn’t know Ju enough to kill her. She also has nothing that he wants. If he did not get the relic, then I could suspect that Tristan killed her but he gave it back so that didn’t add up. If this is Agatha Christie’s novel then anything can happen even the dead pretending to be dead or the one who discovers the body is the true killer all along. However, most of the characters here don’t have the genre savviness that Agatha’s character usually has to make the plot twist fun so we can assume that the typical laws of a murder mystery still applied.

    Feel like I am reading Sherlock Holmes, with all the murder mystery, the rat, and the isolated setting. It is theoretically better that everybody sticks together and avoid killing each other because number offered a sense of safety. Yet, the murder happens right away. Does the murderer only has one chance to get it done or did they have a specific reason to let this happen, right now? Is it the nobility who will leave after the first trial and escape justice? Is it one of their underlings?

    Like

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