Chapter 11

The sharp crack echoes against the stone, smoke billowing past the open door.

There is a grunt of pain but men still rush past the threshold: tall, becloaked, bearing blades. Mother bares her own, undaunted by the numbers, but a shot sounds from the back and she staggers. Red blooms on her chemise, deep in the belly, and she lets out a wet gasp before she is struck across the mouth. Angharad can do nothing but watch: her screams die in her throat, her limbs are made of lead. Mother falls against the wall, against the rich wood panelling she so loves, and when another shot takes her shoulder blood is splattered all over it. She falls to her knees, breath a rattle, and then the last man walks in. Tall, fat and with eyes cold as ice. He owns the others, they only watch as he raises his pistol. It was the wrong choice, Lady Maraire, he says. Mother rasps out an answer, but the words are drowned out by the roar of the flames. Smoke swallows everything.

Angharad woke with wet eyes, the way she always did after dreaming of her mother.

She could only be grateful that it had ended early this time, before her father’s whisper in her ear and the last of the horror. Her neck was beaded with sweat but she stayed there, lying in her cot, and tried to blot out from her mind the bloody, broken figure the nightmare had fixed in her mind. She hated it, that this was how she should remember Mother. Rhiannon Tredegar had been long and lean, like the crack of a whip made into a woman, with only green eyes softening a faced shaped stern by the Sleeping God’s own hands. There had been a presence to her, a severity demanding respect. That was the way Angharad would remember her, but her dreams did not bend to her wants. She could still see hear the thump of knees hitting the floor, the blood spraying on wood.

Angharad had thought the nightmares finally gone, having had none since Sacromonte, but she had counted her blessings too soon.

The noblewoman rose in her covers, unsurprised to find most were yet asleep. Only Song, perched at the edge of the aqueduct with a veiled lantern besides her, had woken for her turn on the watch. The Tianxi did not turn at the sound of someone waking, and in the privacy that afforded her Angharad wiped her eyes. Letting her breath even out, she passed a hand through her hair. The slant braids would keep for a week or two more, she thought, but soon they would need redoing. She almost missed when she had kept her hair shorter, in Malani knots, instead of braids going halfway down her back. Almost. She had let it grow out to celebrate the earning of her last mirror-mark and that much she would not let herself regret even out here.

Mother had been so proud, she remembered. Lady Rhiannon had been skilled with a blade but not a mirror-dancer, and the joy had been plain on her face that day. Angharad had basked in that pride, feeling that at last she added to her mother’s legacy in some small way. Rhiannon Tredegar had made a name sailing the dark seas, crossing waters which no Glare touched with only the trembling lights she had brought with her keeping darkness at bay. She had faced storms of Gloam and sea, the hatred of merciless spirits from the depths and even the fleets of pirates to emerge one of the great explorers of the age. It had been Captain Tredegar who first found the hidden isle of Lunkulu, who sailed through the perilous Western Canals and reached the lands beyond.

And now it was all smoke, Angharad bitterly thought. The Tredegar name passed into nothing while she scuttled like a rat in a maze for the pleasure of the Watch, debasing herself earn seven years under their protection. If she could even do that, the noblewoman grimly thought. Her eyes turned to the manner their company had lain down to sleep for the night and in the meagre light of Song’s lantern showed their divisions laid bare.

The Cerdan brothers lay furthest away from her, Cozme Aflor guarding them. Both now openly counted her an enemy. It was only the disgust of everyone else at the murder of their own valet that had kept Augusto from trying to order her killed. On the opposite side Angharad’s own cot lay with two others close, Brun of Sacromonte sleeping in one while Song’s lay empty. In between the two camps Isabel and her maids lay, bridge and moat. When Brun and Song had grown closer to her as the Cerdans revealed themselves honourless curs, Isabel had been forced to step in as peacemaker. She had prevailed on the brothers to respect Angharad’s truce, reinforcing that there would be no fighting until their company had left the throes of peril.  Yet, despite the infanzona’s efforts, the dark-skinned noblewoman knew this company to be a barrel of powder with a lit fuse.

And sooner rather than later it would blow up in her face.

Her mother’s lessons would avail her of nothing here. It had taken boldness for Rhiannon Tredegar to raise their house’s name and Mother displayed it in all things, so it had troubled Angharad all the more when Mother confessed to fearing the High Queen’s court. There is nothing to fear, she had insisted, childishly offended by her idol’s sudden weakness. The royal court had duels the way dogs had fleas, but Mother was a skilled blade and who but the finest of swordmasters could threaten her? Even if she offended some lofty izinduna, a grudge could not be pursued beyond the reasonable. The High Queen was the keeper of Malan’s honour and she did not allow any slight upon it. Sweetling, Mother had gently replied, stroking her hair, I would be dead long before my sword left the scabbard.

She had explained, then, how the duels that could lead to embarrassment never happened at all. Knives and poison and curses would settle it long before that, any difficulty on the way to earning the High Queen’s esteem ruthlessly snuffed out. Mother’s way to survive had been to remain a mere curiosity, a famed explorer kept in the court’s eye only by the High Queen’s favour and wielding no real power or influence. She had avoided the hangman’s noose that would be rising in station and remained at sea instead of playing courtier, too far to be counted as an enemy by the powerful of Malan. That had been a rude awakening for many a reason, among them that Angharad had known even then that she would not follow her mother out at sea.

Was she to let the name of Tredegar – Maraire, to the Malani, but blood ran true no matter the letters – fall back into obscurity when her mother passed? Mother had had no answer, and in the end it had been Father who soothed her.

“Your mother has mastered her fear of an unknown,” he told her. “That which lies beyond the Glare, the seas that devour ships and hopes. But pride blinds her to realizing she surrenders to all the other unknowns of Vesper, believing that courage against one is courage against all.”

He smiled then and though Gwydion Tredegar was never the tallest or most handsome of men, when he smiled Angharad had always thought her father outshone all rivals.

“You need not share her unknowns,” Father said. “Come, I will teach you so that you may learn and so knowledge may end fear.”

She had not loved his lessons but she had learned them, well enough that when standing among the sons and daughters of izinduna when tournaments took her to Malan she’d sailed those waters without falling afoul of the hidden reefs. And it was her father’s lessons she must call on again, now that honour had led her to make enemies of half the company she must fight alongside with to survive. Like a swordmistress at the High Queen’s court, she must ensure she’d live long enough to bare her blade. And the first step to that did not begin with her closest companions, not with Isabel or even Master Cozme.  Instead when they raised camp, not even an hour later, she made a quiet request of Isabel Ruesta.

The dark-haired beauty considered her for a moment, eyes intrigued.

“In a spirit of peace, I would hope,” Isabel asked.

Above them the stars burned cold, as they had for her forebears in distant Peredur. In the wind Angharad Tredegar thought she had caught the echo of their old shore-songs, story and lesson and question all in one. She almost began to hum the first few notes of The Fair Wife.

“Not to make enmity,” Angharad swore.

Love is sweet, a heady brew,

but my hand must be won fair

Sweet love, what will you swear 

as troth if your love is true?

When the trek north began anew she found herself walking at the back of their company, Lord Remund Cerdan besides her. To prove they were all still allies, Isabel had suggested. A gesture of goodwill. The youngest Cerdan moved warily, as if with every step he feared she might jump out and cut his throat. For all that, Angharad feared not getting from him what she desired. She knew what Augusto Cerdan wanted most of all, so she owned half his name.

“It is regrettable we are at odds, my lord,” she said, forcing a mourning sigh.

She did not lie: in all of Vesper, there must be a soul capable of such regret. The infanzon frowned at her, as if puzzled by her civility. The moment she had become his enemy, she divined, what little esteem he’d granted her before had disappeared. Now she might as well be some savage from Triglau, raiding colonists by the sea.

“You lay grave insult at the feet of House Cerdan,” Remund stiffly replied.

“An insult demands redress,” she said. “Yet is should be given where it is deserved, not carelessly offered to the unworthy.”

“And what would a Malani know of what is deserved?” the infanzon mocked, rolling his eyes.

“We may well have all died yesterday, if not for your contract,” Angharad said. “That is deserving.”

Of many things, let Remund Cerdan decide which without her help. The younger brother puffed up and for a moment Angharad felt sick. It might be that the man was so vain any praise at all went to his head, she thought, but she’d known other boys like him. Born to great families and stalking about with their knives ever bared, offended and offending, but so often beneath that there had been a wound. How starved of esteem must you be, that an enemy’s words are all it takes to straighten your back?

“It is good you recognize as much,” Remund drawled. “I thought you an ingrate, I don’t mind admitting it. It is said to be common flaw of your people that you take a mile whenever you are given an inch.”

“Malani are not without flaws,” she said. “I like to think ingratitude is not one of them.”

“Oh?” the young man smiled, eyeing her up and down. “Then how am I to be rewarded?”

She kept her face calm at the implied insult. He had no interest in her, not really. He was simply waving around his knife, hoping to score red on flesh.

“Honour is to be earned with one’s own hands,” Angharad said. “And it occurs to me than any lost by Cerdan hands could be regained by the same.”

Remund breathed in sharply, eyeing her with surprise and a different kind of wariness than before. He’d looked at her the way one might a wild beast, when this began, but now there was a different tint to it.

“You surprise me, Tredegar,” the infanzon murmured. “Perhaps you are not so dim after all. Such a thing could solve many problems at once, yes.”

She held her tongue, letting him stare at the pond until he found the reflection he was looking for.

“A duel to first blood to avenge my house’s honour,” he mused. “It is true a victory against a swordmistress would be the talk of the season, enough to avoid the ire of my lord father over Augusto’s unfortunate end.”

“One hopes,” Angharad said with measured precision.

Dark eyes narrowed at her.

“Getting Cozme out of the way so you have an opening would not be impossible,” Remund conceded. “But how can I be sure you’ll hold up your end of the bargain?”

“My word is my bond,” she flatly replied. “I will swear oath to it, should you prefer.”

The nobleman smiled, laying his palms against the back of his head as he strolled forward with a touch of unearned swagger.

“No,” Remund Cerdan finally said, smile widening.

Angharad hid her surprise, slowly inclining her head. She must have made a mistake, or perhaps underestimated the bonds of brotherhood.

“You gain much with this and me too little,” Remund idly added. “I require more of you.”

The sliver of respect she had been feeling died young.

“I am listening.”

He leaned close, too close, smiling still for all that his eyes were without mirth.

“This little dance of yours with Isabel, it is to stop,” Remund said.

Silence again, for no words were more persuasive than one’s own.

“She encourages you, no doubt,” the younger Cerdan shrugged. “It is her way. She enjoys the attention, and in truth I do not begrudge her that. Why marry at all, if your wife is not to be the envy of all your peers?”

The lie lay in the tight cast of his jaw as he forced the first not through his lips.

“But it irritates me, your flirtation,” Remund smiled. “I find tasteless the presumption that, even in jest, you could be the rival of an infanzon. So you will cease. Keep your distance from her.”

“You want an oath,” Angharad surmised.

“I do,” the dark-haired main jovially replied. “And one for our other bargain too. There will be no slipping out at the last moment, my friend.”

The words came easy to her, as if they had always lain on the tip of her tongue.

“On my oath, I will no longer seek the company of Isabel Ruesta,” Angharad said.

He sighed.

“I suppose no longer speaking to her at all is too much to ask,” Remund conceded. “And?”

He cocked an eyebrow, gesturing for her to get on with it. She chose the phrasing carefully, pruned away the right words and left them in the grass for him to find.

“On my oath, I will cede victory to you in an honour duel over Augusto Cerdan’s death in the same.”

Remund cocked an eyebrow at her, a hint of smugness to his mien.

“Speak it again,” he said, “only specifying my name instead of simply you. Let us not be careless with our words, yes?”

She did as asked.

Victory is poison to reason, my darling, Father had taught her. Once men have caught you out, they think themselves your better in all things. Remund Cerdan, for all that he despised his brother, thought him Angharad’s match with a sword even though he manifestly was not. It had not occurred to him that an honour duel could be to surrender as well as death, that she could simply wound the elder Cerdan to death’s very edge before allowing him surrender. And if Augusto Cerdan died after the honour duel, not during, then she owed his brother nothing at all. Lord Remund Cerdan smiled condescendingly at her, deigning to engage her in small talk now that she had become his tool, and under her breath she hummed the old tune.

I promise the stars in a cup

and the sea in your hand.

a hall reaching the clouds;

a hearth where hundreds sup

She had not turned the brothers against each other, that hatred had taken root long before she came into their lives, but now she had ensured they would not make common front against her. That would ensure Master Cozme was not easily made to act against her: he was beholden to both brothers and now one wanted her to live. At least long enough to be of use to him, not that Angharad believed he truly intended to hold up his end of their bargain. More likely than not he would try to use the vagueness she had purposely left in the phrasing – in an honour duel, not specifying one to first blood – to try and kill her by surprise during their bout. Victory at first blood would win him praise from his peers, but avenging his brother? Oh, it might well make him famous.

It did not matter. Snake or not, she knew half his name. He would not bite until he had obtained his heart’s desire.

Now she must prune away the other dangers, to ensure she made it to the hour where she would get her bargain’s worth. That began with seeing to her own back, ensuring that the companions she’d made would have no reason to turn on her. When their company halted for rest, she volunteered to join Brun at the front until the next halt. The Sacromontan seemed to appreciate the gesture, especially when she took it upon herself to carry the lantern. Their advance was smooth and almost pleasant, the High Road living up to its name: it was largely even ground, broken up only by where enterprising weeds had taken root in the stone. Most of their attention was not reserved for the path ahead, anyhow.

It was below that their eyes strayed, down into the plains they were soon to reach the end of. The lupines that had hunted them for the better part of yesterday were left behind when they crossed a deep gully unmarked on Song’s map, unable to cross, but there was no telling if the creatures had gone around to continue their pursuit. The spirits had not been able to do anything from below, but the incessant howling had frayed everyone’s nerves – and risked drawing in some greater spirit that would not be kept away by something as simple as the height of the aqueduct. So far they had glimpsed a few silhouettes creeping across the flatlands, but none ever came close enough to be lit up.

The infanzones, Angharad would admit, had hatched a very clever plan. If not for the misfortune of being set upon by the lupines the march all the way to the second trial might have gone without a single drop of blood spilled. She was not alone in that opinion.

“I am glad not to be walking the plains,” Brun told her. “I would find it difficult to lower my guard long enough to sleep down there, after that mess with the lemures.”

“Perhaps our misfortune will have helped the others,” Angharad said, though she did not truly believe it. “It would be some small solace.”

“I suppose there is need for all of that we can find, these days,” Brun drily said.

She grimaced.

“I regret that our company has become at odds,” Angharad said. “And know I played a part in it.”

The fair-haired man dismissed her words with a wave of the hand.

“I’ll not quibble with ruthlessness, not on the Dominion of Lost Things,” he said, “but you were right to strike the man. It would have been a fool’s act to let the Cerdans murder one of us without consequence.”

His face darkened.

“Infanzones already dispose of lives too easily for my tastes,” Brun said. “I would not encourage the habit.”

It was uncomfortable hearing him speak of his rightful rulers in such a way, but she must admit that the disrespect might not be unwarranted. Not for all infanzones, for while Sacromonte’s nobles were shadows of what they had once been they were still of noble blood, but she would not deny the Cerdan brothers were not living up to the duties of their privilege. It was a failure that reflected badly on their kin, who should have properly educated them to the responsibilities of rank.

“You do not sound fond of them,” Angharad tried.

“I am the son of miners,” he said. “Theirs was not a pleasant life, Lady Angharad, and it was spent enriching the same kind of men as these Cerdan.”

“I’m sorry to hear of their passing,” she gently said.

“It has been years,” Brun shrugged.

The calm on his face she could hardly understand, for the grief she felt over her parents would surely be a wound in her side until she died. She could not think of anything but vengeance that would lessen it even slightly.

“Some are better than others,” he continued. “Lady Isabel seems decent enough.”

He shot her a knowing look at that.

“She has been very kind,” Angharad stiffly replied.

“Briceida tells me she’s decided not to withdraw after the first trial,” Brun told her.

She did not hide her surprise, at both the words and the implication that one of Isabel’s handmaids would gossip about her mistress’ affairs in such a way.

“Was this ever in doubt?” she asked.

If so, it was news to her. Isabel had never hinted as much, though it was true she had spoken little of her plans.

“She hesitated after learning her cousin had died,” he said. “Did she not speak of it with you?”

Angharad shook her head.

“Perhaps she worries of your safety,” Brun idly said. “Without her mediation, our troubles with the Cerdan would only grow worse.”

It would be foolish, she chided herself, to think Isabel would risk her life for her when what lay between them was but a flirtation. The thought still brought a pleasurable flush to her cheeks.

“Or she recovered from the shock and stuck to her course,” Angharad said.

Brun did not look convinced. He must be quite the romantic, she decided with a swell of fondness. How long before the lingering glances between him and the redheaded handmaid – Briceida – turned into something more? How scandalous. Still, it gladdened her that some happiness was being born out of these trials no matter how passing it might be.

“Whatever the truth of it, she is a good friend to have in our corner,” he said. “I hope that your avoidance of her company during our halt was not a cooling in relations.”

Angharad’s lips thinned. Brun studied her, then slowly nodded.

“Not so, I see,” he said. “Does perhaps your talk with Remund Cerdan have something to do with this?”

Speaking of an oath sworn in secret without the permission of he it was sworn to came too close to dishonour for comfort. Angharad kept silent, but denied nothing.

“He does seem like the more jealous of the two,” Brun grunted. “Maybe enough to get an oath.”

The blond Sacromontan shot her a piercing look.

“I wonder,” he said, “how someone might describe the way you acted during our halt.”

Angharad beamed down at him. What a clever man.

“I did not seek the company of Isabel Ruesta,” she very precisely replied.

Describing something that had been done in public could not be taken as revealing a secret, after all. Brun snorted, scratching the blond stubble on his chin.

“Were that an oath, it’d be one with a hole wide enough to sail a ship through,” he said. “All it’d take was someone figuring it out and passing on the wording to the object of the terms.”

“It would be a clever and convivial soul who did such a thing,” Angharad replied, lowering her head in gratitude.

Brun smiled.

“Might be I’ll help Lady Isabel’s girls carry her bags this afternoon,” he said. “I imagine it’s the kind of thing she might thank me for in person, sweet as she is.”

Her head lowered even further. Were they not journeying through a dark isle that was the roost of darklings and evil spirits, Angharad might have found the entire affair all strangely romantic: a binding oath to a rival, clever servants passing messages between star-crossed lovers and a duel with another rival on the horizon? She must have read half a hundred plays that had all of these. As it was, little about this made her heart flutter. It felt much like walking a tightrope instead.

“If could have a reassurance, first,” Brun quietly said. “Should this turn ugly, should the brothers and their minder come for us, will your… talent be enough to tip the scales?”

The pause made it plain what it was he was asking of: her contract. Though it was most tactless of him to inquire, as one did not simply ask about these things, she did owe the man. Or would soon enough.

“I have killed more than three men in a day,” Angharad simply replied, then chose her words carefully. “My hand moves faster than it ought to.”

Not a lie, though the implication was. It sat ill with her to deceive Brun even by implication when he had been such a loyal companion, but that decision she had made before ever leaving Malan. It could not get out that the Fisher had given her the gift of foresight, else returning home would forever be barred to her. The blond man nodded at her in understanding. To her surprise, he then offered a revelation of his own.

“I can sense the living,” he told her. “People best, hollows and beasts with more difficulty.”

Her brow rose.

“A great gift,” she said.

There would be more to it, and neither had even obliquely referred to a price, but she was still moved by the display of trust. It spoke well of the man’s character that he would acknowledge and mend his indiscretion immediately. It made her even more of a wretch to be fooling him, a truth she found hard to swallow. She was not used to answering kindness with such faithlessness.

Wed me, be my fair wife

And these will all be yours

I swear this on my life

And the life that will be ours

The next step came slightly past midday, after they stopped to eat and once more changed the arraignment of the column. Angharad would have sought out Song, finished securing her back, but when Cozme Aflor instead offered for the two of them should take the rearguard she agreed without hesitation. He, too, was a danger that must be settled. Master Cozme was a skilled and loyal retainer charged with keeping both Cerdan brothers alive: so long as Angharad was a threat to their lives, the risk remained that he would attempt to kill her. It might not be honourable, but some might argue that a servant’s true honour lay in choosing the fulfillment of duty over their own virtue. As the older man had been the one to approach her, she chose to let him lead the conversation.

“I’ll not defend what was done to Gascon,” Master Cozme briskly said. “It was ill-done and ill-advised. The boy was scared, but that’s no excuse.”

He looked uncomfortable. Without the large hat pairing with the long hair and grey-flecked beard, he was not quite as roguish – despite his obvious care for his appearance, he was looking a little haggard.

“And no excuse was given,” Angharad said.

Lord Augusto Cerdan had not so much as shed a tear over the killing, as far as she could see.

“He can’t do that, not after you struck him,” Cozme replied. “It’d be an admission of weakness now, that he is beneath you. A ruthless man won’t be loved, but he can be respected.”

He thumbed his moustache.

“A weak man will have neither love nor respect.”

Angharad cocked an eyebrow at him.

“What is this if not a defence, Master Cozme?” she asked.

He spat over the edge of the aqueduct. His hand was hooked into his belt, as if he were on a casual stroll, but that seeming carelessness left it never too far from his pistol.

“Acknowledgement that we are in a pickle, you and I,” Cozme said. “I’ve been charged with bringing the both of them back alive and you’re aiming to cut down on half that charge.”

“It is unfortunate that the demands of our honour are at odds,” Angharad replied, meaning it.

She liked the older man. He was skilled at arms and friendly, a pleasant conversationalist and reliable in a fight. She could not even hold his loyalty to Augusto Cerdan against him, as it was the mark of fine retainer to remain at their master’s side no matter the turn of the tide – or whether such loyalty was truly deserved.

“I don’t want to fight you, Lady Angharad,” he bluntly said. “But I’ll have to, if it’s the only way to keep the boy alive.”

The Pereduri acknowledged as much with a nod. They had both known this without need for a conversation, so soon Master Cozme should reveal why it was he had approached her.

“I wouldn’t ask you to set aside your honour,” Cozme Aflor slowly said, “but-”

Her brow rose, a clear warning for him to tread lightly.

“- it seems to me there is some room for maneuver in the terms of your challenge,” he continued. “We’re under truce until ‘peril passes’, are we not?”

“The sanctuary before the second trial is the natural end to that oath,” Angharad said. “We will be beyond peril’s reach there.”

“But only temporarily,” Cozme argued. “In a greater sense, the entire Dominion of Lost Things can be said to be a place of peril.”

Angharad frowned at him.

“You want me to duel him in Sacromonte instead,” she said. “After the trials have passed.”

Her tone made clear what she thought of the wisdom of the proposal.

“You’re aiming to be a blackcloak, aren’t you?” Cozme said. “You’ll be under the protection of the Watch when you come, it won’t be something that can be swept under the rug with knife or powder.”

As good as an admission that otherwise the House of Cerdan might have resorted to these, which in truth did not surprise her.

“There is no guarantee the Watch will let me duel him, even if the challenge was made before my joining,” Angharad pointed out.

The bearded man looked frustrated, and though the thought was unkind Angharad could not help but wonder: even should she accept this, would she ever find Augusto Cerdan no matter how many times she came knocking at the gates of his home? Or would he coincidentally be out travelling every time she arrived, set out on some business or other?

“A compromise then,” Master Cozme pressed. “I would have time of you, since there is an interpretation where giving it does not mar your honour.”

“I am not so generous a woman as to give mine without purpose,” Angharad replied.

“There would be,” Cozme assured her. “How much do you know of the Trial of Ruins?”

Only what she had been told, which was not much. The Cerdan brother knew that their foreknowledge was part of what kept people with them so they had remained tight-lipped. Isabel, disappointingly, had followed their lead in this.

“It is a maze of some kind, which we must march through to cross the mountains,” she said.

“It’s more than that,” Cozme said, shaking his head. “It is all made of broken shrines, a labyrinth-city dedicated to dead gods. And whatever it is broke them, Lady Angharad, it sowed a hatred deep in the stone. Now those who would pass the shrines must first survive cruel games led by their shadows, beating them to open paths.”

“It sounds a fearsome place,” she admitted.

“It is where most people die, during these trials,” Cozme meaningfully said. “Even infanzones succumb to traps and tests. And it is my charge to keep the brothers alive, one I will see through, but I am only a man. The Manes might decide I am to fail despite all efforts.”

He shrugged, looking at her expectantly. The offer lay unspoken but not less clear for that: Master Cozme wanted her to wait until the end of the second trial to see if circumstance would make an honour duel entirely unnecessary. If Augusto Cerdan was taken by the Trial of Ruins, Angharad could hardly demand a duel of a corpse. Master Cozme was making it plain he would still do his best to keep Augusto alive, as his honour demanded, but was asking to delay the duel so they might find out if the Sleeping God had other ideas. Should he not, then they could still duel before the Cerdan withdrew from the trials. It was a neat solution, she would admit, toeing the line of honour for all involved.

It was also near certain to get her killed.

Beyond the second trial lay another sanctuary, where it was the intention of the infanzones to desist from their candidature to the Watch and place themselves under its protection so they might be taken back to Sacromonte. Should Augusto Cerdan succeed at claiming that protection, he would be beyond her reach. That meant she must either plumb the depths of the labyrinth with the infanzones to ensure he could not, risking having a knife slid into her back during these ‘games’, or that she must find her own way through and wager she would cross before he did so she might intercept him on the other side. Even the better of these wagers was bad: the infanzones knew much of these trials and she little, something certain to be an edge when struggling against a maze.

Yet Angharad did not voice the refusal that her heart whispered.

“It is a compromise,” she said instead.

When she had been thirteen – only five years ago, though it felt like a lifetime away – she had journeyed with servants to Iswayo, one of the great cities of southern Malan, for a tournament. She had not been a favourite to win, still young to the circuit, but already her skill was known from some lesser victories. One the day of the tournament, she learned that it was to be the debut of the daughter of a great izinduna. And coincidence had decided that, by the branches of the fighting-tree, she was to face that very girl on her second fight. Should they both win their first, of course. Angharad had duly expected victory there. An hour before the tournament began, as she was limbering up, a nameless servant had approached her and smilingly begun to talk.

Without ever naming names of saying anything outright, he had implied that should the daughter of a great house find unexpected success there might be boons for those involved. Why, the Sleeping God might find it fit for Angharad to be invited to a much more prestigious tournament in the capital and even be blessed with an auspicious start to competition there. The man bore no weapon, made no threat and never ceased smiling. Angharad was excruciatingly polite in her refusal, offended but unwilling to make a powerful enemy, and the nameless man had neither blustered nor gotten angry. Instead he had thanked her for her time and taken his leave.

A few minutes before the tournament began, Angharad had found that the name of her opponent in her first branch had been changed for one of the favourites to win.  She lost to the other girl after a respectable bout, who then in turn went on to lose by an excitingly small margin to the izinduna’s daughter in the following match. It was an exciting bout, all agreed, and a fine debut even if the girl did not make it too far after that. There had been a lesson in that day, one she had well learned.

And as Angharad walked side by side with Cozme Aflor, this genial and pleasant man who had taken great pains to avoid enmity between them, she knew sure as the coming of the tide that if she refused him now he would try to kill her. Not right now, perhaps not even today or tomorrow, but a time would come and then without bluster or warning Master Cozme would shoot her in the back or stab her in the heart. That clear-headed patience was a hundred times more dangerous than anything Augusto and Remund Cerdan had it in them to muster, for it was nothing more than a loyal retainer doing what his duty demanded of him.

“I would require assurances,” Angharad finally said, “that the challenge will not be fled.”

“That could be arranged with the Watch when we get to the sanctuary,” Cozme said, sounding pleased. “You’d be willing to wait until the end of the second trial?”

“Should this be true, then I will delay my challenge until the end of the Trial of Ruins,” Angharad precisely said. “If you would have an oath of me, I-”

“You word is enough,” the older man firmly said, shaking his head. “You are Malani.”

He meant it as a compliment, she thought, so she would not take offence. Even the merchants of Malan were known as honest to all the peoples of Vesper, since outing them as liars could ruin their trade. Honour was important, on the Isles, and taint had a way of passing by association: it was not only nobles who were careful of the company they kept. Reputation must be carefully curated, but then work was not rewards. Malani, it was said, did not lie. Their word was taken as bond when given, and the same trust was given to the peoples of the High Isle and the Low.

I give you then my hand,

Promised in salt and air

And by your side will stand

The wife that you won fair

Master Cozme was in a fine mood when they parted ways that evening, certain he had gotten from her what he wanted. He had not. Angharad had agreed to delay a challenge, never promising not to issue another. It would be most satisfying to strike Augusto Cerdan a second time. Angharad let that prospect bring a smile to her face as they all ate, arrayed in the same unspoken camps they had this morning. Song and Brun on her side, the brothers and their protector on the other, Isabel and her maids in between. Only, she saw, now the lay of the land had changed. Remund smiled often at Augusto, almost smirking, and Cozme no longer kept a hand near his pistol. Isabel sometimes shot the younger Cerdan dark looks and seemed to be encouraging Briceida to speak with Brun.

Angharad Tredegar watched them all and saw in them her father’s lessons learned. Eating her dried fruits, she hummed under her breath of old tricks.

Here! Stars reflected in wine,

a seashell held to your ear,

the mountain I claim as mine,

and a hearth rats do not fear

The Tianxi at her side leaned close.

“You’ve been toying with that tune all day,” Song quietly said. “ I am now official intrigued: may I know what it is called?”

She flushed, embarrassed at having been caught out.

“The Fair Wife,” Angharad replied.

“A love ballad?” the Tianxia chuckled, eyes teasing. “I had not thought you in such a mood.”

The Pereduri shook her head.

“It is a can lan, a shore-song,” she explained. “They are ballads that teach lessons through a story.”

Most were old as Morn’s Arrival, the story went, and first sung to teach her ancestors when their ships found the stony shores of Peredur. The Fair Wife was said to be about a man seeking a beautiful spirit’s hand in marriage, of the tricks played to get one’s way. Song’s silver eyes stayed on her, full of a steady confidence that was a firmer cousin to calm.

“And what lesson does it teach?”

Father had said that the lesson was that you received what you gave, a tale of reciprocity. Mother had often said it was simply about how spirits, like many men, simply could not be trusted. She had never entirely believed either, finding her own answer as a can lan encouraged.

“That cleverness is a sword with two edges,” Angharad Tredegar replied. “And every so often, we get everything that we deserve.”

After all, the last couplet was sung by the spirit and not the man.

Sweet love, I find no fault

and leave now in your care

this hand of air and salt:

the wife that you won fair.

41 thoughts on “Chapter 11

  1. Earl of Purple

    OK, I actually wasn’t expecting Angharad to be quite so adept at politics. I forgot she was a noble, raised to such things. She’s handled this quite well, though I suspect not as well as it appears.

    It’s refreshing to have her away from Isabel, too. She still hasn’t twigged that manipulation… if Isabel still uses it. Once charmed, why keep going if mundane flirtation works as well? Particularly as contracts come with costs.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Earl of Purple

        I’m not sure there are any passive/automatic contracts. It’s hard to say, since we’ve seen so few, but… they seem to be activated. Angharad’s claim of increased reflexes being believed suggests some might be passive like that, but it’s also possible people think she has to activate those before she uses them.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Deworld

        “I mean in that case Isabel is a dumbass. Possible!”

        You mean Ms. “Go to a death game with two maids while having little to no relevant skills to impress a guy”? She’s certainly a dumbass.

        Liked by 3 people

      3. masterofbones

        It makes me question how powerful that ability is. If it only makes you attractive to people who find you attractive, does it actually do much of anything?

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Miles

      I kinda get the opposite impression- she’s just trapping herself in her own webs. She makes promises with deception but nobody is writing down the words. They’ll remember the deal they thought they made, not the technicalities they didn’t even notice


      1. That’s not important in the short term. Angharad is making promises that she will hold herself to, the trickery in wording is important to make HERSELF willing to do things.

        It’s not really clear how Angharad is planning for the backlash, but so far her goal was to get through the first trial.

        Liked by 3 people

  2. edrey

    Nice development, Angharad have talent for intrigue, she only lacks practical experiences. she is eighteen and her only focus was the sword for ten years, that explain a lot.
    the trial of ruins sounds great too, as a fan of dark souls, i am really curious.

    Liked by 4 people

      1. Hunter X Hunter?

        It has to be twenty years since I read that! But you’re not wrong. One weird power after another exposed, backstabbing and uneasy alliances, and competitors bumped off like the Ten Little Indians… (though the book I read had an even less acceptable title. Looking it up I found that now it’s its been renamed as And Then There Were None)


  3. Reader in The Night

    While I definitely appreciate the mental gymnastics of this chapter on the artistic level, Angharad playing word games with honour and oaths is a bit silly to watch on the moral level.

    Honour is itself a set of voluntary rules that people choose to bind themselves with. If you’re going to try to bend and stretch a voluntary rule to the point of torture, why even bind yourself to it at all?

    The main point of honour is good faith. If there is no good faith in your dealings, honour is just trickery with extra steps. It feels like Angharad is some kind of fey, trying to lie with technical truths, only nothing’s actually forcing her to speak technical truth.

    If Angharad’s honour demand that she not lie, then she failed that demand. If the spirit of your oath is a lie, then you’re still lying, no matter how much you rules-lawyer the exact words.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. edrey

      you are half right and half wrong, here, good faith is a two way street and bind every member of the oath, if cosme plans to shoot angharad from the back because she didnt accept the deal then you cant say there was good faith in the first place, morals arent static or blind to realities, expecting good faith of others and that they wont use the letter while ignoring the spirit isnt wise. Remund wants his brother death and take isabel, cosme doesnt want to fail his mission and isabel feels danger, the moral line is pretty low here, good faith is last thing i would expect from them.

      Liked by 5 people

      1. Reader in The Night

        That’s sort of the point. If there’s no good faith, then there’s also no use pretending that there’s good faith and swearing an oath on your honour. Well, there is the use of making the other person let their guard down, but at that point, it has nothing to do with honour anymore and you’re literally just lying.

        If you’re going to lie because the other party is acting in bad faith, then lie. Trying to kinda-lie-but-not-really is just extra steps that doesn’t really make your conduct any more honourable.


      2. Abnaxis

        “Honour is itself a set of voluntary rules that people choose to bind themselves with.”

        This has very much not been the case universally throughout history, and is very much not depicted so far to be the case in Malan or Peredur.

        Rather, “honor” for the Malani has been depicted as an explicit set of laws, arrived at by ( I assume) a combination of Queenly decree and academic debate within Malan and Peredur themselves. For example, scholars debate “whether a ‘fair chance’ to take up one’s weapon should be considered three or five breaths,” implying that the Pereduri chivalrous code is very explicit about proscribing dishonorable behavior of nobles to a very regimented degree. When rules are that painstakingly laid out, rules-lawyering is guaranteed to follow–that explicit code has legal ramifications within the Queen’s Court beyond reputational harm, so conversely any action taken while obeying the code can’t be seen as dishonorable even if it violates the spirit of the code. If an action were dishonorable, after all, there should be a law against it.

        The only “voluntary personal” dimension to Angharad’s sense of honor comes from her father, who tried to impress upon her that the honorable ideals the laws try to codify are important to consider in addition to the explicit laws. “‘The words exact are a sword, Anga,’ her father had once told her, ‘so when wielding them you must hold on tight to the spirit of honour lest it slip your grasp.'”

        In this chapter, the “words exact” are exactly the “sword” Angharad is fighting with, with opponents she sees as just as fair to fight with them as a warrior would be to fight with a blade. It’s a conception of honor that I think will take the infanzones quite by surprise, because like you I expect they see honor as something intangible that must be maintained to keep a good reputation, not as something explicitly laid out in axioms. To them, honor probably means clinging tightly to the spirit of an oath, whereas to a Malani it means the opposite, and Malani are known to be “obsessed with honor”…

        Liked by 4 people

    2. Someperson

      While I pretty much agree that in principle that *should* be how honor works… I do not think it is.

      Honor for Angharad is not purely some voluntary, individual decision she makes that only affects her own self. There is another aspect to this that is also very important. In this very chapter Angharad hints at how critical honor and reputation is to the Perduri and Malani.

      And the thing about having cultural rules, is that they tend to get at least a little legalistic. It’s always easier to judge the action than it is to judge the intent. As far as reputation goes, technically misleading without outright lying has way more plausible deniability than lying. It’s still shady, but it’s way better than having *no* defense against the accusation of dishonesty.

      …I imagine most Malani and Perduri nobles have lots of practice with those kind of mental gymnastics. I would submit that such an allowance is kind of inevitable to do politics, and besides, I doubt her own people’s upper class are as universally sincere in their honor as Angharad seems to believe.

      Now, you *could* say that reputation is no longer relevant to Angharad. She is in the middle of nowhere among strangers who are painfully lacking in any familiarity with her people, reputation no longer matters, who cares if she lies?

      …but that isn’t how Anharad works.

      For one, she has apparently internalized the Perduri sense of honor, both the good and the bad.

      And secondly, acknowledging that reputation no longer matters is likely painful to her. This is kind of also why she was reluctant to join the watch, because renouncing her noble title is painful, even if officially it has already been stripped from her. She might have already crossed the point of no return, but it hits different when *she* takes the step.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Reader in The Night

        You’re right that it’s a very legalistic interpretation of honour. It probably gets kinda absurd quite fast if their entire nobility is frequently playing silly-putty with the rules the way Angharad is here, but hers is also an atypical situation.

        At the end of the day, I think you struck at the heart of what annoys me in this exchange: that Angharad seems to think along the lines of honour as a public performance rather than a self-imposed code of conduct, but the only audience that cares is herself.

        And yeah, her actions make sense in the context that she’s playing the game by her people’s rules even though nobody else around her is playing it, but from an outside perspective it’s like she’s trying to cheat her way around a self-imposed handicap.

        Liked by 2 people

    3. agumentic

      The moment she hit Augusto, she correctly perceived that the situation became a fight rather than a journey with allies. The rules are different for the former and the latter – while it would be unseemly and of low character to play word games with allies, wielding your reputation and exact words with ruthless efficiency when dealing with enemies is a necessary skill and a point of honour for a noble,

      Liked by 4 people

      1. Reader in The Night

        Might be a necessary skill for a noble, but it’s completely out-of-context for an ex-noble that is continents away from a noble court that doesn’t want her, in a life-or-death tournament to join a mercenary company.

        It’s a bit silly to see her doing vigorous mental gymnastics when the only audience that cares is herself, is all.


      2. agumentic

        Not any sillier than her holding to her honour usually, in my opinion. The rules making the distinction between the conduct with allies and enemies only makes sense, after all.

        Liked by 1 person

    4. sigmaleph

      It has been my suspicion since approximately Angharad was introduced that there very much is something forcing her to speak technical truths.

      Can’t say for sure of course, but I think it might be part of the conditions of her contract.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. CantankerousBellerophan

    For all that Angharad speaks of falsehoods like rightful rulers and noble blood, her very existence is a negation of these claims. The nobility of Melan, Peredur, and Sacromonte are all dark-skinned. They are humans, with apparently human needs for sunlight, and live with dark skin deep underground.

    This is not a sign of good breeding or worthiness to rule. Just as white imperialists in reality thought themselves superior while dying in droves to heatstroke, local diseases, and their own pale skin’s incompatibility with equatorial sun exposure, so too are their counterparts in Vesper. Their dominance is entirely material. Not intrinsic, and certainly not deserved.

    The death of Angharad’s family is interesting only inasmuch as she learned the wrong lesson from it. She watched her mother’s execution at the hands of the nobility. She has seen, firsthand, the truth of their power. It descends from men with guns, using them to murder those who only have swords. Material power, gained by unjust means. And yet, having seen this play out in the most visceral way possible, she does not recognize that Brun’s story is exactly the same as hers: loved ones killed for the ambitions of the powerful. Her only thought on the matter is to mentally chide him for feeling about Infanzones the exact same way she feels about the Court of the High Queen.

    Their interests align perfectly. But neither of them will see this due to the power of the narrative they live. When Brun said the Cerdans could not be allowed to kill one of them without answer, I doubt he was including Angharad in that.

    As for the song Angharad sang, one must wonder at the kind of society which would sing it to children. To teach the cleverness and dangers of fae promises to even the youngest speaks to a world which creates them deliberately. A world where everyone expects lies to be told through implication, where dishonesty is so deeply ingrained even their understanding of the concept is dishonest, and where all that is needed to be called a fair dealer is for there to be any interpretation of your words which can be twisted to truth rather than fiction. That is clearly the world Angharad was raised into, given the nature of the many bargains struck in this chapter. That is the world she would return to.

    A society which breaks even its children so thoroughly is no society at all. It is an assemblage of beasts.

    And as for Angharad’s mother…

    She was called an explorer. But how can that be in a world so obviously populated by the multitudes of those well-adapted to these lands? Each shore she landed upon was likely well-trod, each sight seen by many eyes which had less need for artificial light than her own. She was not an explorer, but a scout for imperial invasion. As were all such men in reality.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. > When Brun said the Cerdans could not be allowed to kill one of them without answer, I doubt he was including Angharad in that.

      I think if he was including their own valet in that, he was including Angharad too.

      > As for the song Angharad sang, one must wonder at the kind of society which would sing it to children. To teach the cleverness and dangers of fae promises to even the youngest speaks to a world which creates them deliberately. A world where everyone expects lies to be told through implication, where dishonesty is so deeply ingrained even their understanding of the concept is dishonest, and where all that is needed to be called a fair dealer is for there to be any interpretation of your words which can be twisted to truth rather than fiction.

      To be fair, the moral of the ballad clearly appears to be that trickery is rewarded with trickery, and what would have actually won the guy what he wanted if he’d been honest instead won him only wind because he was playing with phrasing.

      Angharad identifies with the spirit here, the one that was strict-wording-ed first, and responded by strict-wording-ing in turn.

      It’s certainly interesting that she treats noble company as if she had already been lied to and is in her right to discard good faith in turn lmao.

      > She was called an explorer. But how can that be in a world so obviously populated by the multitudes of those well-adapted to these lands? Each shore she landed upon was likely well-trod, each sight seen by many eyes which had less need for artificial light than her own. She was not an explorer, but a scout for imperial invasion. As were all such men in reality.

      Like on one hand you are 100% correct, but on the other, I don’t think the requirement for exploration is that no-one must have ever seen it before. She was an explorer from her own perspective, going to places SHE knew nothing about.

      And, yeah… a scout for an imperial invasion -_-

      Liked by 3 people

      1. CantankerousBellerophan

        Gascon was a servant to corrupt men, but so were Brun’s family. All of them, everyone in Sacromonte, either serves their interests or lives as Tristan did. Who is Angharad to him, that she should be seen as anything other than an ally of convenience? She’s just like the men who murdered his family, after all. She has made that abundantly clear in all of her interactions.

        The moral you find in the song is certainly a valid one, but it isn’t the one Angharad learned from it. If she had, she would have tried actual honesty in order to avoid the inevitable costs of making fae bargains. But she didn’t. The moment any conflict appeared, she adopted the cleverness of the spirit without considering the consequences of doing so. She isn’t a spirit, after all. She cannot enforce any promise made to her through anything except mundane force and the power of the Fisher, and both of those can be wielded regardless of promises made or broken. She is identifying with a creature that has power she lacks, as if doing so will protect her.

        It is fair enough to say that any stranger in a strange land could be an explorer. But, not without including the deepest, most interesting part of any land in that endeavor. That is, of course, the people who live there. True explorers care less for strange vistas than for the stories told about them by those who call them home. A landscape is just barren stone unless there is life to bring meaning to it, and Angharad’s mother was the vanguard of a force which annihilates such life.

        I suppose we know very little of what or how she explored, but the descriptions Angharad gave do not sound promising. She named only locations and seas. She described the people using only a probable racial slur. Because, to her, the people did not deserve names. They aren’t even people.


      2. No, Angharad in this scenario is someone who has already been acted against. She already knows she’s not being dealt with fairly, and the logic goes that there’s no point in trying, from there, you’ll just be the victim if you don’t employ trickery of your own.

        > “That cleverness is a sword with two edges,” Angharad Tredegar replied. “And every so often, we get everything that we deserve.”

        The moral she’s taking from the song is specifically “play stupid games, win stupid prizes”, it’s explicit.

        I mean, Brun very much called out Gascon’s death as an ally of convenience – an ally of convenience is all he is to the Cerdans and those other people too. It is about alliance of convenience and holding it steady, which applies to Angharad too. It’s not about class solidarity, it’s about in-group/out-group. Gascon is an “even” because he is theirs, he’s even closer to the Cerdans, and if they turn even on members of their close in-group

        Angharad and her mother both live in the culture that they do. I’m not denying that this is the culture, I’m saying it’s not the result of some deep moral flaw in them (although it does result in such a flaw).

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Kestral287

      1. Do we need multiple paragraphs chiding Angharad for having the daring to be born and raised in literally every chapter she appears?

      2. Do keep in mind that Brun was actively siding with Angharad and against the Cerdans, so the notion that he somehow doesn’t value her life is rather silly. He is quite literally aligning his life to hers. Were he operating under the belief that the Cerdans should be allowed to kill her on a whim, why would he actively be protecting her.

      3. Is it at all a surprise that an honor-driven society that we know likes to subvert that honor when convenient has a song about the dangers of subverting your own honor?

      4. Do keep in mind that all we know of Angharad’s mother is what she said here, and this is a post-apocalyptic setting – meaning that humanity may not have spread in the manner you are accustomed to. Be careful not to aim your prejudices at the innocent; we have no actual reason to assume she was in the business of attempting to conquer anyone, and the fact that that goes unsaid amongst a people with no hesitation to dehumanize groups and glorify violence says a lot on its own.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Deworld

        Honestly, I think it’s best to just ignore this guy. I personally accepted that arguing with him isn’t worth it a few chapters ago. It’ll only give him more motivation to continue.

        Liked by 2 people

    3. MerchantPrince

      alas i have come down with a horrible fever and cough and so cannot afford the energy to grapple with you today

      let me just briefly summarize: commie bad capitalism good

      Liked by 2 people

  5. i find myself charmed by Angharad’s romantic fancies, even if the prose is too dense for me. There’s too many characters being referred to, without me having a proper understanding of any but the main two; and while everyone plots, not much happens.
    The choice to go third person is probably sensible, for this story, but it does give me *too much* information here. Well. i shall continue with this, see where it leads.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Snappy270

      That’s the one thing I’m struggling with. I do not know who is who, so all these ideas and alliances mean nothing to me. I can just about under stand the broad factions but individuals no clue.


  6. Cotillion

    Love is sweet, a heady brew,

    but my hand must be won fair

    Sweet love, what will you swear

    as troth if your love is true?

    I promise the stars in a cup

    and the sea in your hand.

    a hall reaching the clouds;

    a hearth where hundreds sup

    Wed me, be my fair wife

    And these will all be yours

    I swear this on my life

    And the life that will be ours

    I give you then my hand,

    Promised in salt and air

    And by your side will stand

    The wife that you won fair

    Here! Stars reflected in wine,

    a seashell held to your ear,

    the mountain I claim as mine,

    and a hearth rats do not fear

    Sweet love, I find no fault

    and leave now in your care

    this hand of air and salt:

    the wife that you won fair.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. greycat

      I’m actually wondering whether poor judgment of character is part of her contract’s price. It makes sense to me that a contract which gives powerful combat-applicable foresight might be balanced by a lack of “sight” in other areas. She might not be able to see deceptions or personality flaws that are “obvious” to most other people.


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