Chapter 10

It was an old road, nibbled at by the elements the way crabs would nibble at a corpse, but it had held up well.

Enough so their pace across the plain was swift even though two of their crew were old. Vanesa was in better shape than Francho, whose cough resurfaced with often, but Tristan would still bet on the toothless old man in a fight: she’d candidly admitted that without her spectacles she might as well be blind. In truth, the thief thought, it was all going a little too well. According to Vanesa’s pocketwatch it was now slightly past midday and they’d seen neither hide nor hair of a lemure. Where Tristan was growing restless, though, most the others were growing lax. The idle talk was proof as much.

“Mad to think there’s a road here in the middle of nowhere,” Aines said, shaking her head. “Who even built it?”

Yong had taken the front and Lan the back – the grieving twin was in no mood for company – but the rest of them were haphazardly arranged somewhere in between. It felt more like they were on an evening stroll than the dangerous journey they truly were, but there was no point in trying discipline this lot. Twice now Yong and Tristan had tried to prod people into a proper column only for the effort to collapse within a quarter hour as people drifted wherever they wanted. They might be the fittest of the band, along with Sarai, but their authority ran thin.

“Some emperor,” her husband shrugged, scratching his arm. “I expect the infanzones would know which, what with Sacromonte being the old capital.”

Francho snorted, earning himself an unfriendly look.

“Something funny, old man?” Felis asked.

“Sacromonte was a regional port, never the Second Empire’s capital,” Francho informed him. “That honour belonged to Liergan first, then to Tamaria after the Vituperian Crisis and-”

Felis loudly gathered up saliva and spat to the side, straight into the tall grass. It would have been hard to miss given that it reached up to his shoulders.

“You’re full of shit,” Felis said. “Everyone knows Sacromonte was the jewel of the old empire.”

“One always blinks first when staring down the blind,” Francho sighed, then rasped out a cough.

Though he had no horse in this race, the thief stepped in. Best not let this turn into too much of a squabble.

“That’s from Chabier, isn’t it?” Tristan asked, cocking his head to the side. “One of his Historical Reflections.”

The old man nodded, beaming his way.

“Not the most dutiful of historians, but he had a way with words,” Francho said. “Did you study his work?”

Lan let out a harsh bark of laughter from the back.

“Does he look like a student to you, old man?” the blue-lipped woman mocked.

“I did read the two of the volumes,” Tristan evenly replied, “but never could get my hands on the rest.”

Gifts from his teacher, who had curated most of his readings by dint of being the one providing him the books. It’d been his mother who taught him to read and write, his father never having the time, but past that his education had largely been born of Abuela’s largesse. It was accordingly full of holes, as she only appeared infrequently and was uninterested in most of what would be considered common scholarship, but he’d found the eclectic nature of what he’d learned had its uses. Knowing both a little less and a little more than you should had a way of making you difficult to predict.

“The last three of the ten are only in print in the Kingdom of Izcalli,” Francho told him. “Even when I taught at Reve I could not obtain copies.”

Tristan started in surprise and he was hardly the only one.

“You were a Master at the University of Reve?” Sarai slowly asked, as if disbelieving.

Much like him, she must be wondering what such a learned man would be doing on the Dominion of Lost Things. Even if Reve’s other Masters decided to throw him out, half the infanzones in the city would be squabbling to bring him into their household as a tutor. The university might be adjoined to Sacromonte but it was not within its bounds, so the scholars were not beholden to the infanzones: they could not simply be ordered to teach feckless noble youths.

“Of moral philosophy,” Francho confirmed, “though I’ll confess I always preferred history. I parted ways with the university after I had some disagreements with our rectoress over a matter of scholarship.”

“I’m sure it had nothing at all to do with those books you paid the blackcloaks with,” Lan said, thinly smiling. “From the Reve library, were they?”

The old man reared up in offence.

“I am not a thief,” Francho hissed back, “I-”

He broke down into a wet hacking cough, which was when Yong found Tristan’s eye. Without saying a word the former soldier made himself clear: this was getting too loud. The thief inclined his head towards Lan, volunteering to handle her and getting a nod back. He let himself lag, casually joining the lone sister at the back. The Meng-Xiaofan twins had been impeccably groomed when they first came onto the Bluebell, their blue robes freshly cleaned and their City trousers without so much as a crease, but that was long gone. The clothes were rumpled, Lan’s blue-tinted lips cracked from weeping and the side of her head, once shaved to contrast with the ponytail, was now thick with stubble. She kept a veneer of sneering calm but the look in her eyes reminded Tristan of broken glass.

“Come to chide me, Tristan?” Lan smiled. “I must have been a bad girl indeed.”

“You’re stirring the pot,” Tristan said. “I’ll not gainsay grief-”

“How kind of you,” Lan harshly cut in.

“- but that ends now,” he quietly finished. “We can’t afford to be bickering.”

They had been lucky enough to avoid lemures so far, his trick with the lodestone extract having worked better than he’d dreamed it might, but with every step they got further away from the source of that luck. It was only a matter of time until monsters or cultists found them but he would not hurry that inevitability by making a racket in the middle of an open road. He was not sure how well tall grass would swallow sound and unwilling to bet on such steep odds.

“Big strong man you are,” she smiled. “Are you going to point your pistol at me now?”

“No,” the thief calmly replied, meeting her eyes.  “I am going to beat you unconscious, then cut up your leg so you can’t catch up and the blood draws lemures off our trail.”

She began to laugh in his face, but as she studied it the sound trailed off and she swallowed. She’d found the truth he had let onto there: he meant every word. He owed her a debt for her aid back in camp, when the crowd had been close to turning on him, but that had its limits.

“The others-”

“Have nowhere else to go, even if they disapprove.”

Lan licked her cracked lips.

“You owe me,” she said.

“I am not a student, it is true,” Tristan affably replied, “but I am not Malani either. How much do you think debt is worthto me, Lan? Enough to risk my life?”

They both knew the answer to that so the woman straightened in alarm, her anger swallowed up by much more immediate fear. Good. Now time to see what he could squeeze out of her while she was on the backfoot.

“I’m still useful to you,” Lan said.

“It’d been days and Felis hasn’t gone into withdrawal,” Tristan acknowledged, “so you must have dust hidden away. That makes it useful, not you. Try again.”

She flinched at the unspoken reminder that Angharad Tredegar was a long way from here and none of this crew would care to play the hero for her sake. Lan’s possessions were only her own so long as no one cared to take them from her. The former Meng-Xiaofan frontwoman grit her teeth.

“I know things,” she finally said. “Ju and me, we looked into other people.”

Tristan cocked an eyebrow, expectant.

“That Song girl that went with the infanzones, her surname Ren and she’s from Jigong,” Lan revealed.

She stopped there, as if it were supposed to mean something to him.

“At that means?” he invited.

She sighed.

“That she’s cursed,” Lan said. “Her family clan is responsible for the Dimming.”

It took a moment for him to place what that was.

“The Luminary that got broken a few decades back?” he asked.

Lan rolled her eyes, nodding in confirmation.

Rats,” she complained. “Always going around like Sacromonte’s the heart of the world.”

Tianxia was one of the wealthiest lands of Vesper not only because of trade but also because of its great grain fields, which were bathed in light even hundreds of miles away from the cities. The machinery behind that miracle was called the Luminaries, great mirror-conduits set in firmament that connected the Glare to towers at the heart of the founding republics of Tianxia. Only there were nine Luminaries and ten republics, so every five year a lottery was held to determine which republic would go lightless. The Dimming had been disaster enough to warrant discussion around other shores of the Trebian Sea because somehow the Republic of Jigong had damaged one of the mirror-conduits up in firmament, bringing the number of functioning Luminaries down to eight.

Jigong had been refused the right to win the lottery ever since, consigned to the dark.

“It would have happened before she was born,” Tristan pointed out.

He was not clear on the year of the Dimming, but it was at least three decades past and Song Ren looked hardly older than he.

“Half the functionaries in Jigong cursed the Ren after the Dimming happened,” Lan snorted. “That means hundreds of gods and the kind of hate that’ll flow down a bloodline.”

It was the thief’s turn to roll his eyes. Cathayan Orthodoxy was famously superstitious, the inevitable consequence of letting gods take the examinations that elevated one into the ruling bureaucracy of the republics. Lock a Tianxi’s door and they’ll blame nine gods, the old saying went.

“Song Ren is bad luck,” he shrugged. “Fine. That’s all you have?”

Lan scowled, her pride obviously pricked by his indifference.

“That Asphodel noble, Acanthe, her contract has something to do with corpses,” she said.

That got his attention and he didn’t bother to pretend otherwise. He’d chatted with Acanthe Phos for some time without ever getting a hint of what she might be keeping up her sleeve.

“What did you find?”

“We looked inside her bag on the Bluebell,” Lan said. “She has small box with bones in it, broken shards and some thin needles.”

It couldn’t be only that, he thought, else Lan would have said the contract had to do with bones and not corpses. Thinking back on Acanthe’s actions since she’d left the ship, only one stood out to him as unusual.

“She was gathering corpse-ash from the pyres, wasn’t she?” he asked. “When she nosed around them with the rest of Tupoc’s crew.”

The former Meng dealer narrowed her eyes at him.

“Scooping it up with her bare hands,” Lan said. “You were looking into her too?”

“Tupoc, but it drew my eye,” Tristan admitted.

She nodded in agreement, then shot him a sideways look.

“That’s enough to prove I’m worth the trouble, I’d say,” she stated.

“You have more,” Tristan guessed, and by the closed look on her face he was right.

“And I’ll be keeping it, in case we must have another of these pleasant chats,” Lan evenly replied.

He might be able to get a little more if he twisted her arm over it, Tristan decided, but it was not worth burning down the bridge for good. This would have to be enough.

“You’re worth the trouble,” the thief conceded.

Her triumphant look never quite got to bloom.

“So long as you lay off making it,” he finished.

He left her to mull on that, putting a spring to his step so he might catch up to the others. Tristan was of a mind to head to the front and speak with Yong, as they’d been on the walk for half a day now and a better plan than fleeing forward was due, but alas that was not to be.

“I’m bored,” Fortuna announced.

She was staying at his side without bothering to pretend she was walking, a sight highly uncomfortable to his eyes. It felt wrong, as if the world itself were an illusion he was glimpsing through. It was something the goddess was well aware of and frequently used to screw with him whenever she felt like things were getting too dull. She wasn’t walking the wrong way for the one she was advancing yet, at least, which was a relief. That gave him a headache every bloody time.

“I’m a little low on choices for entertainment here,” Tristan murmured, pretending to scratch his hair. “What do you want?”

“Go bother Sarai,” Fortuna immediately suggested. “She’s amusing.”

At least it wasn’t one wedded pair she’d taken to, thank the gods for that. Other gods only, because he refused to give Fortuna any form of gratitude for a lesser shade of being a pain in his ass. Giving the goddess a measuring look, Tristan decided she was in one of those moods best left untested. Sarai it was. The false Raseni was near the head of the pack, chatting with Vanesa, but the old woman glanced his way with a smirk when he approached and made a show of leaving them to talk alone. She was misreading this quite deeply, but he saw no need to correct her when the misunderstanding was to his advantage. It was hard to tell if Sarai had noticed, under the veil and mask, but he suspected not.

According to the dark sweat spots around the armpits and back of her thick grey dress, she should be a mite distracted.

“How many layers do you have under there?” he snorted. “It’s not that warm out.”

Trebian weather, as it was called, cool enough for a coat in the wind but punishing the heavier fashions outside of it.

“This entire forsaken sea is a boiling pot,” Sarai growled back, that faint accent touching her voice again. “It is a miracle the Raseni aren’t all dried up husks, wearing as much as they do.”

“The weather’s cooler around their island, I hear,” he said. “Regretting the disguise?”

“It doesn’t get in my way when I move, it is only the heat that’s trouble,” Sarai sighed. “It will keep.”

“Or you could take it off,” Tristan said. “I’ve no idea what you are trying to hide, but is there truly anyone here worth hiding things from?”

He gestured around them, valiant alliance of leftovers that they were.

“You’re right,” Sarai said.

“I am?” he replied, somewhat surprised.

“You do have no idea what I’m trying to hide,” she pointedly replied.

Fortuna cackled loudly in his ear, sadly getting her bargain’s worth after having been a pest. Still, it would not do to let himself be trampled too thoroughly.

“A smidge above none, I’d argue,” he shrugged. “You’ve just admitted you were not born to a shore of the Trebian Sea.”

She shot him a steady look through the mask. Ah, hadn’t noticed that had she?

“You don’t sound Malani,” he continued, “so my guess would be the Imperial Someshwar. Somewhere inland, or maybe one of the peoples on the Tower Coast?”

The end was pure fishing and that veil gave nothing away. The eyes, though, betrayed not a whit of concern. He’d missed the mark.

“You dig so eagerly for others’ secrets,” Sarai chided, “but you ought to look better after your own.”

“Secrets? There are none, I am as an open book,” Tristan brazenly lied. “Ask me anything.”

She studied him for a moment, then shrugged.

“If you insist,” Sarai said, then leaned closer. “Who paid you to kill the Cerdan brothers? I figure it’s some infanzon trying to get at Ruesta.”

Fortuna oohed gleefully as his blood went cold, that horribly uncomfortable feeling of having been seen through seizing him by the throat again, so the rat smiled wide and bright to hide it.

“You misunderstand me, my friend,” Tristan replied.

“Do I?” Sarai teased.

How much did she know? Had she only noticed a coincidence and gone fishing, as he had? Yong wouldn’t care about his killing Recardo, he’d been open enough to the idea, but the former soldier might not be as eager to have the infanzones as outright foes. And if Tristan lost the veteran, he lost this crew: standing alone he would have no authority to assert. Sarai must know this but she was not threatening him or trying to leverage it. Either she didn’t know as much as she was implying or she simply did not care. Not from the shores of the Trebian Sea, he reminded himself. Did she simply care nothing for petty squabbles so far from her home? His silence was beginning to stretch on for too long, but indecision stilled his tongue.

“Take the bet,” Fortuna whispered against his ear. “She’s got even hands, Tristan. She gave you measure for measure every time.”

His goddess could be a fool in many ways, he knew, but sometimes her eyes saw true. Sarai had been scrupulously even-handed in their every bargain, giving as good as she received. If he gave trust… It went against his every instinct, the lessons of the years he had spent alone with only fickle fortune as his companion. When someone has a knife at your throat, Abuela had taught him, you must either destroy or befriend them. And if he’d learned anything from Fortuna, it was that sometimes the long odds took the prize. Swallowing thickly as he came to a decision, mouth gone dry, Tristan put on a winning smile.

“You do,” he firmly said. “Me, an assassin? Perish the thought.”

Sarai snorted, but the mirth caught in her throat as he continued speaking.

“No one paid me, so more accurately speaking I would be a murderer.”

She choked on that, though the surprise did not silence her for long.

“Are you telling me,” Sarai got out, “that you are not even gainfully employed?”

“I’m afraid not.”

“You are a deep disappointment, Tristan,” she solemnly informed him. “I thought you a man of means.”

“Alas, I have but methods,” he confessed.

She let out a quiet, delighted laugh at that. Something like a smile tugged at his own lips, the thrill and relief of the long odds having borne true tingling against his scalp. And maybe more than that. How long had it been since he’d found it so easy to talk to someone?

“Are you going to tell me why?” Sarai idly asked.

“Are you going to tell me your real name?” he idly replied.

“I thought Sacromontan men were titans of gallantry,” she complained.

He could hear the pout.

“That’s the Malani,” he informed her.

“Of daring, then.”

“The Izcalli.”

“… charm?”

“Tianxi,” Tristan drawled, “and if you think I do not have a ready triteness for every corner of Vesper then you’ve obviously spent little time in the company of sailors.”

“See?” she enthused. “Such a wealth of worthlessness, you are not entirely destitute after all!”

He swallowed a grin, somehow certain she was doing the same under the veil. And as he had given trust, he was given trust in return.

“There will be a need for a plan soon, if we are to keep this band together,” Sarai said. “I have something that might be of use for that purpose.”

He cocked an eyebrow at her.

“Song Ren has a map of the island in her possession,” the false Raseni said. “I traded for a good look at it.”

Tristan breathed in sharply.

“How good is your memory?” he asked.

“Good,” Sarai said, “not that it matters.”

She met his gaze squarely.

“There is a Sign that allows one to seize a sight and keep it nestled inside your mind.”

Measure for measure, Fortuna had said, and the golden eyes saw true. That was the secret Sarai had been keeping up her sleeve, the reason she carried for weapon only a knife. Like Leander Galatas she had knowledge of the strange arts of the Gloam, only unlike the sailor she’d kept that talent carefully hidden. He nodded slowly, acknowledging the worth of the secret she had revealed. The sudden seriousness of that after their easy repartee left him strangely embarrassed, as if he’d spoken too loudly near a grave, so he left on the pretext of speaking with Yong about arranging a break. Sarai inclined her head as he left, almost solemnly, and he returned the gesture.

It felt like a promise, though of what he did not yet know.

What he’d meant as an excuse ended up being true, as Yong pointed out both Felis and the greyhairs were beginning to slow down. A halt to eat and rest while a proper plan was put together would be good for everyone. Half an hour later they found a decent resting place, a smattering of ruins by the wayside of the road. It was short walk into tall grass to reach them, the stalks parting to reveal half-buried stone. What Tristan thought might be a curved roof rose from the earth in a gentle slope, a set of statues now little more than worn stumps circling around it. The roof made for a comfortable seat, and from the highest edge he could see the tall grass spread around them.

He got to hear the married pair argue as well, Aines and Felis unaware that their decision to head behind the roof to argue left him a dozen feet above them and just out of sight.

“- on our own,” Felis was insisting. “I just need to do Lan a few favours, she’ll fork out supplies for us and-”

“You mean she’ll give you dust,” Aines bit out. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed, Felis.”

“You’re one to talk,” her husband harshly replied. “How long was it on the boat before you were gambling?”

“If I’d won-”

“You never win,” he hissed. “How do you think we ended up here?”

“How?” she hissed back. “I’ll tell you how: your uncle threw you out after you pawned his tools so you could pay for another packet to lick up.”

“I’m not the one who played dice with the kids’ bed as collateral, Aines,” he growled. “Just the one who had to tell them why they slept with their blankets on the fucking floor.”

“I’m not leaving the others,” Aines abruptly said. “Talk all you want, that’s how it is.”

“We’d have a better chance on our own,” Felis cursed. “You know it. It’s some boy and the Tianxi calling the shots, they’re bound to fuck it up. You and I, though-”

“Why do you want me to go so much, Felis?” Aines quietly asked. “What did they tell you in that room, when they split us up?”

A silence.

“What did they tell you, that you won’t trust me anymore?”

Bought seats both of them, Tristan recalled. Whoever it was that owed their debt was playing what Yong had called a red game, one of those vicious wagers the twins had also warned him about. Whatever that wager might be, it was making an ugly situation even uglier. They can’t be relied on for anything, he decided. A way to shore up their numbers at best, but most likely a long fuse lit before they ever set foot on the Bluebell. He might have eavesdropped more if they’d kept talking, but Yong called for everyone gather at the foot of the roof. Tristan scarfed down his rations then hurried down, bringing his waterskin with him.

Before he’d gone up to eat he’d quietly conferred with Yong and Sarai. The two were now before the others as had been discussed, the former soldier standing while Tristan’s other ally crouched to draw in the earth with a twig. It was a rough sketch, but with the lantern set besides it the thief could easily make out the shape of the island and where they were: a straight line from the docks where they’d landed, a quarter of the way to the second trial up in the mountains. Ahead of them lay woods and a river, across which there were two bridges: one was fed into directly by the road, the other stood further east. The only other line through was the High Road, the aqueduct going straight across half the island, but its arches would make poor anchors for a rope bridge.

Tristan joined the other two in front, waiting until Francho finished lowering himself to the edge of the maybe-roof gingerly. He looked to be in some pain, enough that the thief considered offering him something for it before they began marching again. Belladonna extract, perhaps, properly diluted with water.

“As you can see,” Yong addressed the others, “we have made good time but it will be days before we get anywhere near the Trial of Ruins.”

“How do we know the drawing is accurate?” Lan asked.

“It’s a copy of the map the infanzones will be using,” Sarai replied. “They would not settle for anything less.”

Mutters of agreement. Some looked liked they wanted to ask how she might have gotten that, but none quite dared with the two of them flanking her. Which had been the very point.

“So we just need to rush in a straight line until we get there,” Felis shrugged. “Seems easy enough.”

“That won’t work,” Tristan said, ignoring the man’s scowl. “The blackcloaks told us that the cultists of the Red Eye will be out in force, they’re bound to be keeping watch on the main bridge. We’d be walking straight into an ambush.”

“That scarred Malani led her band towards the road north,” Francho noted. “She seems to believe it might work.”

“We don’t know if they stayed on that path,” Sarai pointed out.

“Even if they do, they’ve got powder and blades enough to fight through,” Lan said. “They’re all armed and trained, greyhair. We wouldn’t do anywhere as well in a fight.”

She paused.

“Besides, we’ve got more than the hollows to worry about,” she continued. “Tupoc Xical’s going to be on the hunt.”

Tristan’s eyes narrowed and Yong’s face turned grave.

“And how do you know that, exactly?” the former soldier asked.

“Because my sister and I offered him dirt on half of you in exchange for getting us safely to the second trial,” she admitted without a hint of shame. “He turned us down without a moment’s hesitation. Why do you think that is?”

Half a dozen answers bloomed on half a dozen faces, but the truest one passed lips first.

“Because he doesn’t think we’ll live long enough to be worth knowing anything about,” Vanesa quietly said, taking off her spectacles to clean them with her chemise.

She spoke with a tired certainty, like someone the world had already let down so many times she could no longer even muster anger over it. Aines laughed nervously, the sound shrill.

“You’re mad,” she said. “What would be the point? It’s not like there are limits to how many people can get to the second trial. It doesn’t help him to kill us, it’ll just slow him down.”

“Unless,” Tristan quietly said, “it’s not really about us. It’s about what he can buy with us.”

He found the lone twin’s eyes and matched her gaze.

“That’s what you think, isn’t it Lan? That he wants to sell us to the Red Eye cult in exchange for the right to get to the second trial unhindered.”

“It’s what fits,” the Meng frontwoman replied. “Why he gathered only a small crew, why he doesn’t think anyone is worth bargaining with: he already has another deal in mind, one that doesn’t involve fighting the Red Eye.”

“That’s nonsense,” Felis snorted. “You’re all fretting like hens over nothing. The boy won’t pull any of this shit: the blackcloaks would toss him out of the trials if he made a bargain with savages.”

“No rules, Felis,” Sarai reminded him. “Only survival.”

“The Watch has a long history of striking deals with darklings against other darklings,” Francho stated, worrying his lip. “A necessity, when their duties take them so far from the light of the Glare. They might even approve.”

And Tristan’s teeth clenched because, when it got down to it, how hard could it really be for the Watch to drive the Red Eye off the island? The Dominion was wild, unsettled land but it was not so large an island that a two thousand men could not thoroughly clear it out over a few months. So why hadn’t they? Because these are testing grounds, the thief thought. Because they want to see if we can make bargains with darklings without getting burned, because the cruelty isn’t an accident it’s why they still use this island at all. Those who joined the Watch through the trials of were not sent to training camps, he’d heard, not drilled and lectured and pampered.

They were inducted straight into the ranks, a black cloak set on their shoulders, and Tristan was beginning to understand why.

“There’s only one thing for it,” Yong spoke up, cutting through the silence. “From now on we must keep off the road and take a route they won’t expect. Anything else means death.”

Too many enemies and in too many places, the thief thought. His instinct was to sneak through, to find the quiet way in, but this wasn’t Araturo District. He was not the rat here, knowing all the streets like the back of his hand, they were. They’d get caught before getting anywhere, and unlike back home it wasn’t like they could try to hide behind a brawl between the Hoja and – or could they?

“We head straight for the second bridge,” Tristan said. “Cutting through the tall grass and the woods.”

Eyes went to him.

“They may well expect us to avoid the main path,” Yong warned him.

“They’ll guard all the bridges anyway,” the thief said, shaking his head. “They have the numbers for it, Sarai and I figured it out.”

Their conversation by the docks was not so soon forgot.

“It is true,” she agreed, rising to her full height. “They should have a few hundreds warriors at least.”

“Gods be good,” Felis exclaimed, huffing. “Spare me the posturing. We haven’t so much as seen a hollow, how would you even-”

“Then what is the point of going for the eastern bridge?” Lan bluntly asked, cutting through.

The middle-aged man did not quite dare to glare at the woman holding his leash.

“The Watch captain called them the cult of the Red Eye, but are they really?” Tristan asked. “One entity, I mean. They are warbands, not an army. Like those taking the trials.”

“You believe they are divided as well,” Yong slowly said.

“They’re thiefcatchers from different inns, all after the same prize money,” the thief said. “They won’t share word or help each other. They are a cult, certainly, but why would it mean they’re all on the same side? Gods won’t bless them twice for the same sacrifice.”

“An interesting theory, to be sure,” Francho delicately said, “but only that.”

“No,” Sarai said, shaking her head. “He’s right. Think back to the outpost, the number of watchmen you saw. Captain Crestina said she lost half her command, so double it. How many does that make?”

“Fifty, maybe sixty men,” Aines said.

She got surprised looks for it and shrugged.

“I got curious before the captain arrived, wanted to see if there was anything to do to pass the time.”

Looking for soldiers to dice with, Tristan translated, she happened to suss out how many there were around.

“That’s not anywhere enough to defend their storehouses if two hundred hollows try an assault, no matter how poorly armed,” Yong noted. “Not with the treeline so close. That says the Watch garrison doesn’t expect them to come in great numbers.”

“So we rush to the eastern bridge,” Tristan repeated, “and then we hide.”

Lan let out a sharp little laugh, catching on quick as was her wont.

“Then when the warband guarding that bridge sees no one coming,” she said, “they’ll think we went to the other one. That their rivals got all the sacrifices.”

“So when they thin their numbers to go have a look, or leave outright,” Tristan leadingly began.

“We cross,” Sarai finished. “And run as fast as we can to the Trial of Ruins.”

That, he thought with a sliver of satisfaction, sounded like plan. Perhaps not the cleverest or the most intricate, but one that might just work. And though he could see that not all were convinced, that some thought it would get them all killed, no one spoke up against it. Not for love of what had been said, he thought, but for lack of anything better to offer. No one really believed that they could get to the other bridge quickly enough to avoid a fight.

And a fight they would lose, there was no doubt about that.

The crew broke up after, everyone splitting up to rest for the remainder of their break and see to their belongings. He went back up the roof to grab his bag, settling on the edge just the way Francho had earlier. Stretching out lazily, Tristan let out a groan. He was not used to such long walks. Thieving required endurance more mental than physical. He took one last drink from his waterskin and set about putting himself back together, pulling at the loosened strings of his woolen shirt. He shrugged on his jacket after, the long sleeves and knee-length reach betraying it was rat’s clothing even if the wool was dyed grey. Infanzones and the wealthy aping them preferred shorter sleeveless jerkins, deigning to wear long coats only when travelling. Some of the seams in the back were growing thin, Tristan noted as he tugged at the jacket. He’d had this one for two years and though he had been careful frequent use was wearing it down.

Grabbing his tricorn, still pleased at the find – he’d always liked the look of them on Malani seamen – the thief noticed Vanesa approaching him from the side. The old woman’s plain linen chemise and trousers were City staples from the Murk to the ports, but her red frock told him she had been someone of more than passing means. As did her glasses and pocketwatch, both worth several months of wages for a common labourer. That raised questions, as did the way that Vanesa sometimes seemed almost half-hearted in her attempts to get through the trials. What had forced her to the Dominion, if not desperation? There was a story there, should he care to dig for it.

“Extend your arm,” the old woman said, gesturing at his left.

Hiding his wariness, he did. She bent slightly forward and began patting down the back of his sleeve thoroughly.

“Dust and soot,” Vanesa told him after she finished. “Boys never think to look behind, my son is just the same.”

Not having been mothered in many years – Abuela might be old enough to be his grandmother, but her blood was colder than a crocodiles’ – Tristan was taken aback enough he struggled to find an answer. Coughing into his fist, he changed the subject.

“You have children?” he tried.

“Only the one,” Vanesa wistfully said. “You must be around sixteen, yes? He is twice your age now.”

“Eighteen,” Tristan drily replied. “I simply can’t grow a beard for the life of me.”

“My husband never could either,” she smiled at him. “Not for lack of trying.”

Dead husband but her son still lives, he filed away. Had she been abandoned to a debt from beyond the grave? Sacromonte’s debts laws were some of the harshest around the Trebian Sea – wife or husband shared in what the other owed, children in what their parents did and if property was shared even siblings could be dragged into the pit. Tristan was considering how best to ask what her trade had been without being too obvious about it when he was interrupted by a startled shout. Baring his knife, the thief turned to find it had been Francho making everyone jump. The old scholar was leaning against the side of the half-buried roof, a bare hand on the stone and his worn body trembling.

Finding no immediate danger, Tristan put away the knife. That scream, though… Chewing at the inside of his cheek, the thief grabbed his pistol and powder horn. No ball in it yet, but perhaps soon. There was no telling what the noise might have called down on them.

“What’s with the racket?” Felis called out.

Francho’s eyes rolled up in his head even as Tristan approached him, though he did not seem to be in pain. Before the thief could speak the old man snatched back his hand, neck glistening with sweat as he kept on shivering.

“We need to leave,” the old man said, then began wetly coughing into his hand. “Now.”

“Why?” Yong evenly said. “What did you do?”

“Contract,” Sarai said. “He used a contract.”

It was not a question.

“The stone,” Francho rasped out. “It speaks to me. Old voices. The stronger the memory, the louder.”

“And what did they say?” Tristan asked, dread welling up.

“There is an altar below,” the scholar said, voice shaken. “Sacrificial. And hollows live there.”

Aines screamed, and if she had not Tristan would have died. He turned to her, saw the men coming out of the tall grass but also the glint of steel in lantern light. An arrow, halfway to his throat, and all he could do was borrow luck. He drank swift and deep, the ticking loud as a scream, and saw the fletching on the arrow tear. It missed but only narrowly, splitting open his jacket as death spared him. Immediately he threw himself down as another arrow whistled above his head, gritting his teeth as he released the luck. He heard the click a moment too late, not quite quick enough to roll over when the pistol he’d loaded with powder blew up against his side.

Letting out a hoarse shout as he threw it away, patting away the burns that’d blown through his shirt, the thief swallowed a moan of pain and rose to his feet. Around him all Hell had broken loose.

Yong blew through a tall, pale man – pale as milk, beard and hair wild – with a shot before tossing way the musket, drawing his sword as a large man in chainmail hoisting an axe walked up to face him, but the others were not doing so well. An arrow had taken Francho in the side and while Vanesa had run to help him two hollows were coming for them bearing spear and mace. Another was in the tall grass, pulling back the string on her crossbow, though her eye was on… Lan, who was running out into the dark. There must be another, wielding the second crossbow, but Tristan saw no trace of them.

Should he run? No, it would just be a slower death. He would never make it across the bridges alone. Tristan drew his knife, still light-headed from the burns.

“Felis, Aines,” Yong shouted, eyes peeling away from his fight for a second, “silence the crossbow. Don’t let her fire again!”

No waiting to see if they would obey, Tristan rushed in. Not there but towards the greyhairs, just in time to see Vanesa being kicked down by a skinny man covered in a thick padded tunic. Tristan ducked under the swing of the other hollow, some leering bastard with big eyes, and the mace’s haft bounced off his side. Grimacing – that would bruise – he still slid his knife between the skinny hollow’s ribs. Or tried to, slipping against a metal plate under the tunic and slicing down closer to the kidney. He drew back as quick as he could, face growing grim. His chance had lain in getting rid of one from the start, now it was going to turn on him.

“Go,” Tristan shouted at the old pair, “I-”

He ducked out of the mace’s way again, the swing gone wide, but the other hollow struck true. The spear’s haft batted down on his shoulder, forcing him to his knees as he yelped. The thief palmed his knife, readying a throw, but the mace was swinging again and then there was a sound like a pop. Coolness brushed past his face as the cultist’s eyes went blank. His face, scarred with red ellipses – Red Eye, he thought – slacked and his swing dulled. Tristan backed away, rising to his feet as he aimed, while the spear cultist broke the other from his trance with a shove. Not quickly enough: the thief snapped his wrist, burying the knife to the hilt in the mace-wielder’s throat.

The other shouted in dismay, rushing with his spear, but even as Tristan drew the knife he’d claimed at the docks there was another soft pop. From the corner of his eye, the thief saw Sarai’s fingers clawing at the air in another Sign. He saw a flicker, too, and shouted out a warning just in time. She threw herself aside before the crossbow bolt could in impale her from the back and he felt a sliver of relief just in time for the no-longer-stunned cultist to ram into him shoulder first. Down Tristan went, flipped on his back, and only realized why he’d not just been run through when the hollow kept going towards Sarai. The Signs were more of a threat than a rat with a knife.

Teeth clenched, he scrabbled to his feet and leapt at the cultists’ back. They tumbled down together atop a shouting Sarai, who stabbed wildly at the hollow with her knife but sliced through only padding. Tristan tried to block the man’s arms, the three of them grinding like worms. The hollow was stronger than him, damn the bastard, and through the thief’s failing grip pinned Sarai’s hand. The cultist kept the knife down and gripped her throat as she struggled to trace a Sign on his face, Tristan abandoning the failed hold to gouge at the hollow’s eyes with his thumbs. The man screamed, loudly enough the thief did not hear the bolt whistling at him. Sheer luck saved his life when the cultist bucked him off before the shot could go through his chest.

The hollow threw himself away from them with a howl of pain, one hand on his now smoking face and the other clawing at Sarai’s face.

The darkling ripped off the veils and mask, revealing a face as pale as his own, and Tristan’s heart skipped a beat. He scrabbled to his feet again, pained and exhausted, just in time to see the hollow draw a long knife and – and die, Yong’s blade hacking halfway through his neck. The former soldier wrenched it out, pushing down the corpse with a kick, and swept their surroundings with a steady gaze. Yong looked completely unfazed, not a trace of dirt or sweat on him: only a few strands of his topknot had come undone. Tristan swallowed, rising to his feet as he looked around them. The married pair had killed the crossbow wielder they went after, at some cost. Aines had a growing black eye and Felis a broken bolt in his arm.

Yong’s own opponent, the big man wearing armour, was lying in a pool of his own blood.

“Darkling,” the Tianxi evenly said, watching Sarai.

“I am not,” she replied, warily rising to her feet.

Her hair was dark and long, Tristan saw, her eyes a paler shade of blue than he’d believed. It was an angular face she had revealed, its chin pointed and cheekbones high.

“What else could you be?” Aines nervously said. “Were you working with them this whole time, Sarai, is that why we’ve been ambushed?”

Tristan thought, then, of the conversation they’d had by the shore as the sailors took the crates out of the Bluebell. A sentence he’d thought innocent but might not have been at all. The Malani love to use trinkets up north, she’d said. Almost like she had been there, seen it with her own eyes. And she might not be Malani, but there were another people living in the far north.

“I don’t think she is,” Tristan said.

He looked around for his pistol, found it lying on the ground but a few feet away.

“She fought with us, almost died,” Vanesa agreed, clutching her ribs. “She could not have been working with them.”

“I mean I don’t think she’s a darkling,” the thief said, shaking his head.

He picked up his relic pistol, opening the secret compartment and revealing the piece of rhadamantine quartz. Its pale glow caught everyone’s eyes, including Sarai’s, and Tristan made a show of palming it. Meeting her gaze, he lightly tossed it her way. She caught it without batting an eye, then took off one of her gloves and set the stone against her naked palm.

The pale skin did not burn at the direct touch of the Glare.

“You are from the Malani colonies,” Francho spoke into the silence, sounding fascinated. “The lands under the Broken Gate.”

“I am,” Sarai conceded, “a very long way from home.”

“So you’re a slave,” Felis snorted. “What in the Manes are you doing trying to get into the Watch?”

By the look on Sarai’s face that talk might have gotten ugly, but Yong cut in before it could begin.

“She is no darkling, that’s all that matters,” the Tianxi said. “We’ve wasted enough time on this, we need to bind our wounds and go.”

“Gods, we need to rest,” Aines replied, appalled. “After all that? We beat them, we have the time.”

“No,” Tristan quietly said. “We don’t. Two crossbows fired and only one was silenced. Someone escaped.”

Which meant the cult of the Red Eye had found them, and if they did not run quickly enough they were all dead.

30 thoughts on “Chapter 10

  1. arcanavitae15

    Nice to see Tristan in his element, intriguing with the best of them and holding his own as a dangerous person and scholar. Also like how he was able to take a leap of faith and be honest about how killing Cerdan was personal. Tristan has learned a lot from his social interactions and made connections, he is showing that this whole thing is his wheelhouse.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. morroian

    I noticed 1 correction:
    “She stopped there, as if it were supposed to mean something to him.

    “At that means?” he invited.”

    ‘At’ should be ‘and’


    1. Vanesa was in better shape than Francho, whose cough resurfaced with often,
      with often > often

      How much do you think debt is worthto me
      worth to > worth to

      Those who joined the Watch through the trials of were not sent to training camps
      of were > were

      before tossing way the musket
      way > away

      before the crossbow bolt could in impale her from the back
      in impale > impale


  3. edrey

    The character development was the best thing in the chapter, very real and in different ways, they all are really sad people. The lore was great as always and we have tristan age now, thank you EE.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Earl of Purple

    I really like Sarai, and it explains the reason she recognised a Pereduri mirror dancer. I wonder what Angharad would make of her.

    I also like Francho, and his contract is useful for a historian or archaeologist.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. CantankerousBellerophan

    And now we see the imperfection of Tristan as a scholar of class conflict and practitioner of war against the unjust.

    It was inevitable, really. Should have seen it coming. It is a clever trick, plied upon Tristan as a character, the society he was raised in as a whole, us as readers, and even us as citizens of the wider world. Clever…and yet with centuries of dark history.

    What did we learn about “Darklings,” in this chapter? We learned it is possible to make deals with them. That they have knowledge of tactics, both in close-range ambushes and longer-range planning. That they can use tools, including complex mechanical weapons like crossbows which require continuous, specialized upkeep. That they cry out in dismay when their comrades in arms fall. That the idea one of them could use Signs was not itself cause for surprise. We learned, in short, that they are people. Just people.

    But we learned something far worse as well. Felis calls them savages. Everyone calls them hollows and cultists. And, most damning of all, Tristan himself thinks of their land as wild and unsettled. Unsettled, when people live on it.

    Just not people Tristan recognizes as such.

    It gets worse. Francho speaks of old voices and memories. Nobody is surprised at this possibility. After all, they know whose memories he speaks of. They ask who built the road they walk upon and are immediately ambushed by people whose expressed level of technological development (even if they were traded all of those things, they would still need the knowledge and tools to keep them functional) would clearly allow them to build and maintain roads…assuming the civilization which developed and maintained those crossbows and steel armor still existed.

    The Dominion of Lost Things isn’t a proving ground for aspiring Watchmen. It’s an indigenous reservation, with all the genocidal intent those come with in real life. Those memories are old and strong because the people slandered as Dark made and keep them all, even as their lands are stolen by men who consider them uninhabited. These Trials aren’t a test. They’re a periodic, stochastic invasion of what little sovereignty these indigenous communities still have.

    One may ask, if these are truly people and not savages, why they resort to human sacrifice. I, and they, reply they have no alternatives. Their Gods are not hungry, grasping, greedy things. They are starving, having lost the civilizations which once sustained them. Maybe they always required blood, maybe they once subsisted on smaller sacrifices in greater number, but the people which empowered them and who were empowered in return have been exterminated in most of the world. They have nothing else left. These are the remains of peoples annihilated by empire.

    What this implies about the world should color nearly everything we know of Vesper. We know the Gods of this place with which Contracts are made are old things. Now we know whose Gods they once were. We know they make grandiose claims of their old power. They are called liars for this, but we cannot trust that assessment. We know the Gods will consume their hosts if given leave, becoming Saints and calling down ceaseless tides of lemures. This now takes on a character of desperation or grief, rather than caprice or inhuman spite. One last, grand gesture, before the enforcers of the colonizers end the shadow of a life which remained to them. We know there are demons, and it is claimed demons can breed with humans. That is consistent with “demon” being a slur not unlike “Darkling” or “hollow”. We know a Luminary was extinguished, and we know a spurned people who burn in their light.

    We know the First and Second Empires were called Empires. Now we know what they did to earn that dread epithet.

    Everything we know is now suspect. All is tainted by the system of Lightling Supremacy under which all of our characters have lived their entire lives. And all of this may be fairly intuited from a bare few lines of text, and knowledge of our own real history.


    Liked by 4 people

    1. MerchantPrince

      The worthy rise, the worthy take. So it has ever been, so it ever will. What does it matter, that these “hollows” are the ones sitting with knives in their backs when they would very well have sunken their knives into yours in turn? You make the mistake of assuming that the base nature of man is something cooperative, something empathetic, something fundamentally social. Fallacy. Man is not a herd of sheep, shepherded by what you claim to be a minority of wolves, man is a collective of starving hounds- herded by no-one and nothing but his own hunger. Did you think that the your s0-called “bourgeoisie” were given their dominion by the hand of some Devil at the very inception of the world? No! We are simply the hungriest, quickest, toothiest of the pack! Give any man- be it the poorest, most beggared pauper, or a princeling lord the chance to ascend at another’s expense and he will claim it more times than not- no matter the place- no matter the time. Conquest is conquest, conflict is conflict, man is man. One only needs to look at your own ministries- the labyrinths of sabotage and subterfuge they are! The very existence of the Kanenas evidences our truth! What need is there to oversee thoughts- to maintain orthodoxy- if , as you claim, that orthodoxy is the natural state of man? Self righteous fool- beggar-lord, you dress hounds in the wool of sheep and pretend the crunch of bone the caress of grass. Mercantis has no Kanenas. Mercantis cares not for the bleating cries of Redpriests nor the mumbling of flagellants. We carry no stones within ourselves. But you do.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. CantankerousBellerophan

        The past and present state of the very people you plagiarize attests to the falsehood of that ideal. While the Drow lived under that dire philosophy, what did they take? Nothing but their own lives. How high did they rise? Not high enough to escape the expansion of a wholly subterranean people. The claim that the natural state of man is defection can only be made by a defector, for it is only when Sve Noc stopped defecting that they began to rise.

        As for the Kanenas, what purpose do you believe them to serve? Do you think they spend their days toiling over the thoughts of every one of the People, rooting out the barest hint of dissent? Nonsense. If that were their function, everyone in the First and Greatest of Free Cities would have died within weeks of the final declaration of the Sword of the Free. While it is true that the People mandate the execution of traitors more commonly than in polities ruled by grasping despots, they do not, and cannot, do so for every wayward thought. While spies in Glorious Belerophon are rare (what servant of great thieves would dare, after all), you at least know executions are not a daily, weekly, or even monthly occurance except in extraordinary circumstances. No, the Kanenas have another function entirely.

        The fact is, the freedom of the People is a fragile thing. Not due to any flaw in the People, mind you, as the only true democracy on Calernia would have disbanded long ago were that the case. It is fragile due to the entirely justified terror of the despots which beset the Peerless Jewel on all sides. They see us, what we have accomplished, and their hearts tremble at the thought that the people over which they claim rule might come to see the truths we have. The Sword of the Free is a Name, you see, and Names persist so long as the tales they tell ring true. The first of them freed every slave of the Magisterium, slew half their divine pantheon, and with her last act carved into its corpse a contradiction of its former purpose so overwhelming as to turn a deity of slavers into the shelter of free men.

        What, do you suppose, will the next bearer of that Name accomplish? Particularly given that the same story which created her is still being told. The people are still everywhere in chains, lashed and lashing, while parasites like yourself reap them like wheat. The conditions to birth a new Sword of the Free exist everywhere there is a Lord to depose, a deity to slay, or a single soul raised above another.

        They know this. You know this, O Prince of Leeches. And so the function of the Kanenas is made clear: to preserve the People against all your efforts to destroy them, both physically and ideologically. You would have no need to fear us if we did not exist. If the People were made once more into persons, acting alone and without a unified will. The thoughts the Kanenas root out are not dissent from within, but lies from without. They seek constantly for such betrayals-in-thought because they come from all sides. It is not paranoia if they really are out to get you, and every government of every polity both on and under Calernia is out to get us. Because our mere existence threatens the birth of a new Belerophon, from the swinging of their corpse, and our Sword.

        So what if the Kanenas slay single traitors, among themselves or the People? Such sacrifices mean EVERY Belerophan has a vote, now and forever, even unto the end of days.

        And those votes, one of them in particular, obviate your entire premise. Because we have seen the end of days, have we not? When Death came for all the living, when its Crown lay open but still impenetrable, who voted to be the vanguard of the League? Who chose, individually and in unity, to walk unblinking into the maw? You claim men to be selfish creatures, and yet the People chose – Chose! What soldiers of another polity ever truly had a choice? – to sacrifice nearly every one of themselves for the sake of everyone else. Including your own pestilent self. Including the very Magisterium from which we once claimed our freedom.

        Were your premise true. Were all men wretched tyrants in their hearts. That could not have happened.

        And so the end of days came. When it went, Death followed. We stayed.

        Because you are wrong.

        Liked by 2 people

      1. CantankerousBellerophan

        True, in much the same way that Angharad’s flaws are the product of her own upbringing and surroundings. But that merely explains why people act as they do. It does not excuse it, particularly when the acts are, in this case, the perpetuation of an ancient atrocity.


      2. Honestly, when it comes to fictional characters, I have no interest in “excusing / not excusing”. I’m not their judge, jury, executioner, or even their priest. I’m their researcher.

        Liked by 4 people

    2. luuuma7

      I concur, it seems obvious that the widespread hatred of ‘hollows’ is, well, hollow. The traits they name- at least the ones we can confirm at this point -which are objective seem to be their primitiveness and their human sacrifice. But the former is clearly a result of material circumstances, they seem perfectly able from what we’ve seen, and the latter they share with Izcalli at the very least.

      It’s bigotry in the vein of all bigotry, deeply arbitrary.

      Though I’ll also say that it is hardly surprising. People still need to eat and light is a precious resource in this setting, just look at the Luminaries. These are people suffering from scarcity trying to maintain a grasp on what little they have.
      That excuse, of course, does not go for the Malani, who seem to have colonies in the dark.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Someperson

    Tristan might have avoided killing as a thief, but from the past few chapters I think we can be fairly confident that this was for pragmatic reasons and not even slightly out of squeamishness or scruples. Put him in a desperate situation with no law save the law of rats, and he really doesn’t hesitate.

    Tristan’s patchwork education from his Abuela is very interesting. With the amount of vagueness surrounding who exactly she is and how she has the strings to pull to set up the situation Tristan is in, I’d say the odds are good that she is secretly somebody important.


      1. Deworld

        I’m not so sure about Yong – he has very good chances, but I’m sure there are still twists about him left to be revealed, and we’ll see where it will take him.

        Agreed about Sarai. A Sign mage on a team is almost mandatory, and the other guy out there isn’t any good of a candidate.


    1. Earl of Purple

      Reasonably sure his Abuela is of the Watch, if only because Tristan seems to think so.

      Murder’s a pretty good thing for a thief to avoid- dead bodies always attract attention, but easily portable missing objects can be missed by the unobservant, as can the signs of a break-in if the target is particularly low traffic.


    2. > He saw my face,” Tristan quietly said. “He doesn’t have a name, but he saw my face. If he’s part of the Watch they could come for me.”
      > He’d never killed someone who couldn’t fight back before. He hesitated. In the back of his mind, the ticking continued. He would have to even those scales soon, he knew, or the price would get worse.
      > “Mercy is always a gamble,” Fortuna said, tone sympathetic.
      > Tristan breathed out slowly. The decision was made.
      > “There’s already been enough of those tonight,” he said, and set down the blackjack on the floor.

      He did hesitate out of purely moral scruples.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Someperson

        Huh. Good catch.

        It does seem like after that decision to go through with killing the black cloak deserter, Tristan became a bit less squeamish about the idea. In not that many chapters he’s killed Recardo, attempted to get the nobles killed, and threatened to kill Lan. And while he had his reasons, and while it’s hard to feel sorry for the only person that Tristan actually went through with killing (Recardo), it still feels like a pretty marked development in his character.

        …that or the idea of the characters have shifted slightly between those first two demo chapters and now 😛 which would be understandable

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Mm, seems like the same character to me. His compunctions against killing the deserter seemed to be along the same lines as Angharad’s five seconds – situational to “the guy I got in a fight with who tried to kill me is now helpless”. The nobles are on his revenge list, which renders the moral calculus rather different (and the list had been a thing since chapter 1). Ricardo is more telling, since yes, it’s him shifting into working as more of an assassin – still, Ricardo is a potential rapist, which is A Reason. But yeah, I do think he lost some of his compunctions when deciding to join the Watch. The cornered bite, and he certainly got more cornered when his Abuela fucked him over.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Vanir

    I dont get this descent into a battle royale situation. Youre on an island with a cult and monsters youre certain will try to kill you and you choose to split up. The murder didnt force them to do it, they couldve watched the suspects ,killed them both or exiled them. They were forming groups earlier as if it was a foregone conclusion. Some genius thought neutering the nightwatch, which could get them all killed, to kill someone, which could split them up, was a good idea.

    If theyre right about tupoc then he is trying to do an even worse move. What is to stop the cult from trying to sacrifice him after he delivers the others? If the cult is fractured would such an agreement even work? Why would he not ask questions about people he intends to overpower and sell to the cult? Any of them could have a contract. What makes him think they want to negotiate, when they have a perfectly fine set of sacrifices talking to them right this second? This sounds like the complete opposite of foolproof.

    Honestly this all seems stupid and a transparent way to increase drama.
    Perhaps its an open secret our main characters werent exposed to, that later tests will pit them against eachother, but if thats the case would such tests and the overall backstabbing atmosphere induced by “no rules” produce good recruits for the watch?

    Independence, a lack of scruples, intrigue and leadership skills are great, but an organization needs some structure and trust between its members and almost encouraging betraying allies will not help with that. Great, youve recruited dangerous and completely untrustworthy individuals into your organization, that have absolutely no reason to be loyal to you.
    Perhaps leaving or getting thrown out will void the legal and illegal immunity members enjoy, but would you trust known traitors with your life?
    There may be no rules, but unless you kill everyone else, any secret will likely come out even if the watch is somehow not watching via contract what happens on the island.

    Granting immunity to everyone that makes it through the trials cant be cheap politically and the results should be reflecting that, but i cant see it happening here usually.


    1. Deworld

      I kinda get why the participants are splitting into groups. “Strength in numbers” has its limits – in certain circumstances, big numbers can become a liability, as the group gets much slower and easier to track. In a place where the enemy (Red Eye in this case) has a massive advantage on account of the familiar environment, it well may be more effective to split into smaller groups. And, if you’re already split from the rest and aren’t relying on their success, there’s really nothing stopping you from throwing other groups under the bus if it benefits you.

      As for why Watch makes it so – that’s a very interesting question. I kinda agree here, on the surface, it doesn’t seem like the brightest decision. But I think we need to see the other Trials to say for sure. That, and also how Watch as an organization operates. They clearly put the ability to survive at all costs above other things, but there may be a reason why they would need recruits like that.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. shikkarasu

        I have a feeling, and I hope I’m wrong, that the lesson is “you should have worked together”. The Watch doesn’t forbid backstabbing, because if you need it made clear that teamwork=survival then you aren’t Watch material. It’s part resilience training, part trial. I hope I’m wrong because that would backfire so quickly.

        Who knows, that might even be one of the three Trials. It feels about right in this setting for the group to make it to the third site and be told “The real third trial was the enemies you made along the way.”

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Kestral287

        Remember that there’s more than one trial. It certainly does make sense for the entire group to stick together through the first trial, and they tried to do that, but even assuming perfect information (available to none of them; even the nobles presumably only know the details of the first two trials and most don’t know that much). So they form groups first and then learn the details of the trial – hence all of the groups joining forces.

        As for Tupoc splitting the group, assuming it is him, there are a lot of reasons for what he’s attempting. He may be trying to thin the herd for the later trials to improve his chances. He may simply be bloodthirsty enough that it overrides the base logic; there’s certainly something going on with him that we don’t know yet. It could have been a requirement of his contract or a demand of his god. He may have a greater plan with the cults we don’t know. Tupoc is a pretty closed book and so trying to ascribe our logic to his motives is dangerous.

        And as for the murder – you’re right. They could have executed Tristan and the valet both and moved on. But that would require the nobles admitting that their valet is on the same level as a street rat. Their pride was the downfall of the group’s cohesion, and them lying about it was transparent enough that they lost trust – better to stick with those you can trust than those you can’t.

        As for the purpose of the trials for the Watch – see what I just said. The group fractured not along lines of backstabbing but along lines of trust and alliance. This plan certainly doesn’t build trust between, say, Sarai and Brun, who are now separated from each other and can’t interact, and does reduce trust between virtually everybody outside his group and Tupoc… but it’s built a great deal of trust and teamwork between Song and Angharad, or Tristan and Sarai. It’s built units that can work together in combat, because they *have* done so. And for a military force that’s what matters.

        Liked by 3 people

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