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.
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.