Chapter 12

It was an unusual experience, Tristan mused, to be treating others using a poisoner’s kit in ways he had largely learned through study of interrogation. Not that anyone could tell the difference.

“I don’t need a stick to bite down on,” Felis insisted. “It’s just a little pain, I can take it.”

In most circumstances, the man might even have been right: regular use of dust could dull one’s sense of pain. Not so here, however. Aines fretted at her husband’s side but he kept pushing her away.

“I once saw a man bite through his own tongue,” Tristan conversationally said. “It didn’t kill him – it is not usually a lethal wound, you see – but it did seem to be an excruciatingly painful experience.”

The dust addict paled, fiddling with his choppy brown hair.

“Are you much of a singer, Felis?” the thief asked.

The man glared, but he took the stick and placed his teeth against it. Tristan immediately ripped out the bolt, ignoring the half-swallowed scream that followed. It was a nasty little piece of work, the thief thought as he eyed the arrowpoint the hollows had used. Serrated so that it would cut flesh again on the way out. Felis went through spasms of pain, shivering, as Tristan set down the bolt and got to work cleaning the wound. A rag drenched in alcohol, then makeshift bandages made of ripped clothing. The man should be in no danger of bleeding out, but Tristan could not say if the flesh would take sick. Clothes made for poor bandages and they had too few to spare for the thief to be able to change them often.

“It is much as I can do,” he told Felis. “I will give you something for the pain before you go to sleep.”

That made all of them. Vanesa and Aines had gotten away with little more than bruises, Francho’s rib was sprained but not broken and Yong had taken no wound at all. After Felis the worst off was Sarai: pins and needles had ripped at the side of her face when her veils and mask were torn off. Those he had not taken care of: after borrowing alcohol to clean the wounds, she had seen to them herself. Of Lan there was still no sign, not that they would take her in should she return. What worth was there in keeping around someone who would run when the knives came out? Choices must be paid for. Felis spat out the stick and rose to his feet, striding away without another a word. His wife stayed behind.

“Thank you, Tristan,” Aines tiredly told him. “He appreciates it as well, he just-”

Under the weariness and the wear, he could still see the shape of the woman she must have been when she was young. Dark hair and kind brown eyes, a heart-shaped face and slender frame. The kind of looks men of the Murk considered beautiful.

“This place, it doesn’t bring out the best in us,” she finished. “It will be better when we get out.”

No it won’t, Tristan thought. The thief hesitated. He had decided not to involve himself too closely with the pair, wary of getting caught in the inevitable explosion, but now their company’s numbers had thinned and wounds had been taken. If he could nudge their situation into coming to a head a little later, perhaps the second trial, it would be a boon.

“Lan ran off with the dust,” he said. “How long before it gets bad?”

Aines’ smile did not quite hide the shame in her eyes.

“Noticed that, did you?” she said. “I thought you might, you’ve got Murk all over you.”

And they both knew that dust and the other drugs peddled there killed people just as sure as the plague, only slower and uglier. The dark-haired woman worried her lip.

“Two days,” she finally said. “Maybe longer if your extract for the pain scratches the itch some.”

“That could be a problem,” Tristan admitted.

One he did not have much to mend, save if one counted poison a solution. The sound Aines answered by was too bleak to truly be called a laugh.

“Yeah,” she exhaled. “I know. Gods, I know.”

“It seems ill-advised,” he delicately said, “to be taking these trials given his… condition.”

His more than hers. Aines seemed as needful of gambling as her husband was of dust but her body would not rebel at the lack of it: it was an affliction of the mind more than the flesh. He already knew they had not come here by choice, that they had been paid for by others, but tired and grateful as she was a small invitation like this should be enough to get her talking.

“You think we had a choice?” Aines bitterly replied. “We both racked up debts with the Cordero Sonriente, only we didn’t know about each other’s. One of their collectors put it together and came knocking at our door.”

Tristan winced. The Cordero Soriente has begun as a charitable house the infanzones had meant to clothe and feed the poor souls of the Murk, but infamously within a year it’d begun selling goods on the side and running whores in its chapterhouses. The Guardia never raided them, after all, lest the noble patrons be offended. By the time the thief was born the Cordero had branched into loans as well and earned a hard reputation among that crowded trade. They were respectable enough they could afford to pay the redcloaks to come and collect for them and the Guardia did not play nice when it came to the Murk.

“Yeah, that bad,” Aines sighed. “The debt was big enough we would have been bound for the mines until we died, only we have five kids and no one who could take care of them. So when they offered to wipe the debt if we took the trials, it wasn’t much of a choice at all.”

“They would not have made the offer without getting something out of it,” Tristan said.

Aines convulsed, and with some surprise the thief realized that she was crying. It was not the tears that surprised him – he’d choked on bitter sobs in his time – but that she would allow herself to shed them before a man half a stranger. Tristan gently put a hand on her shoulder but did not take her into his arms as an impulse demanded. He knew better than to get attached.

“It’s a sport to them,” she croaked out. “They pay the blackcloaks for the reports, after. So they know what happened in the trials.”

“What did they tell you, Aines?” he pressed.

“They’ll drown my children,” she whispered, “if Felis kills me before the end of the trials.”

Sympathy welled up, but only a shallow stream. Most of his mind was on the talk he had overheard between the two, the way Felis had pushed for them to leave the group. To go off alone. And just as Aines must have come to, he grew sure the Cordero must have promised him something if he killed her before the end of the trials. Red games, Yong had called these. What a pretty turn of phrase for such an ugly thing. He kept Aines company until the tears ran out and she muttered some excuses, returning to her cot like someone who did not know where else to go. Felis began a whispered argument with her within moments and Tristan decided to wait before he went over with the painkiller.

Instead it was to Yong’s side he went, sitting by the man as he oiled and cleaned his sword. The Tianxi glanced his way with an inquisitive look.

“I don’t think they’re salvageable,” Tristan frankly said, careful not the glance the pair’s way as he did. “They were pointed at each other by their creditor.”

“They’re useful in a fight,” Yong just as frankly replied. “I’d be more inclined to get rid of the greyhairs than these two if we must cut weight loose.”

“I’m not saying we cut them,” he replied, “but they can’t be trusted for anything delicate. It’s only a matter of time until one knifes the other.”

Either Felis for what he had been promised or Aines to avoid the same.

“Come the second trial, they are no longer our trouble,” Yong pragmatically said. “Will they last until then?”

Tristan grimaced.

“Probably,” he conceded, then passed a hand through his hair. “Marriage, huh. What a fool’s game.”

Yong shot him a highly amused look.

“You are speaking,” the Tianxi said, “to a married man.”

“Ah,” the thief coughed. “I mean no offence. I am sure your wife-”

“Husband,” Yong drily corrected.

“- husband is a fine man,” Tristan hastily assured him.

“He is,” the other man replied, but a hint of something lay under the even tone. “But I’ll grant you it can sometimes make for a crowded bed, each other and our pasts all squeezed tight.”

Much as the thief was itching to poke at that, to see what might come out, a look at Yong’s face was enough for him to decide otherwise. It was a closed shutter, and the Tianxi was shifting restless in that way Tristan had come to recognize as meaning he wanted to drink. The earlier violence seemed to have invigorated Yong, enough that he’d not drunk liquor all afternoon, but now the clouds were returning. Best head that off as hard as he could: if the day’s fighting had proved anything, it was that without Yong they were all halfway to the grave.

“I am glad you are now calm,” Tristan said, “for you seemed angry when you first saw Sarai’s looks under the mask.”

“Hollows can’t be trusted,” the Tianxi bluntly said. “If she had been one, either she or I would have left this company.”

“I have not found them any worse than men,” the thief said. “Is this a matter of faith?”

No one, not even cultish Redeemers, denied the truth of the Circle Perpetual – the endless cycle of reincarnation that bound all souls not marred by the Gloam. To be a darkling, hollow, was to be evicted from the Circle and see your immortal soul tarnished into mortality. There were faiths of Vesper who thought this a great sin, something disgusting or wicked, and so thought hollows disgusting and wicked as well. The Orthodoxy should not be one of them, but then in practice Tristan knew precious little of the Cathayan Orthodoxy.

“It is a matter of fact,” Yong replied. “All men go mad when law runs thin, Tristan. When there are no more punishments, the savagery we pretend we’ve never learned comes creeping out.”

His dark eyes looked at something beyond the cast of the lantern’s light, the kind of haunting that could be a world away and still closer than your own skin.

“I have seen men I thought decent rape and steal and kill for no better reason than they could,” he said. “But in the end, for all our cruelties, we are still men.”

The former soldier’s jaw clenched.

“I have found half-eaten children by the road,” Yong said with desolate calm, “where hollows went raiding. I’ve tread over the broken bones of hundreds fed to mad gods, seen the aftermath of ritual so horrifying even the worst of Izcalli candlemen would balk at their use.”

His tone had not grown heated but it’d risen loud enough they were drawing looks.

“We still curse by the Old Night for a reason,” he said, lowering the pitch of his voice after he noticed the attention. “And that is the world hollows would bring back: darkness for all, forever. No trust can or should survive that truth.”

Tristan slowly nodded, keeping his thoughts off his face. He would not argue with Yong, not when the subject drew such fervour from the other man, but he was not convinced. There were entire kingdoms of hollows out there, great empires risen and fallen beyond the cast of the Glare. Scholars were certain that most of Vesper belonged to the hollows, and if Yong were right then the Old Night would long ago have been brought back. No, Tristan suspected that most hollows were no better or worse than men. Shaped differently by circumstance, perhaps, but not made of such different clay.

It was the cults that were things of horror, and a cult was not a kingdom – much less a hundred of them.

“I’ll not argue with killing those Red Eye bastards,” the thief said. “Though I hope you’ll forgive me if I’d rather sneak past them if we can.”

Yong waved his words away.

“So would I,” he said. “And I can only wince at how Sarai must have suffered for her people’s resemblance to hollows. I expect half the people she’s ever met have tried to clap her in chains.”

“Not Tianxi, no?” Tristan asked. “I thought the Republics didn’t hold with slavery.”

“All are free under Heaven,” Yong dutifully quoted. “It’s against all the laws on all the books, it’s true, but it doesn’t stop some of the traders from shipping slaves.”

Ah, Tristan thought. Transporting the ‘merchandise’ was not buying or selling it, he deduced, which allowed the unscrupulous to follow the letter of the law. He was no longer a boy of ten, blindly admiring that the Tianxi had sent all their nobles to the chopping block and dreaming their land a veritable paradise. The Heavenly Republics were just as flawed a beast as the other great powers of Vesper, he knew that. But he was still disappointed, somehow, that men who’d made themselves free would force the opposite on others.

“The slave trade has made Malan rich,” he sighed. “And the man who hates gold has yet to be born.”

The Second Empire had used slaves by the millions and most peoples of Vesper still did – the infanzones might not call them such, but the hollows mining rubies and gold for them were slaves in deed – yet it was only ever hollows that Liergan had kept in chains. That time, that practice, had come at an end. The Kingdom of Malan had grown terribly wealth by stealing men in the north and shipping them to their western colonies, where they toiled raising rich crops under the Glare for their masters. And the tribes below the Broken Gates were very much men, for though they were pale of skin they were not severed from the Circle Perpetual. The Glare did not burn them.

Yong snorted.

“When I was a boy,” he said, “my grandmother told me it was Lucifer himself that made gold, for he knew that even sealed in Pandemonium gold would be enough for men to destroy themselves.”

Tristan could not help but smile. It seemed that no matter where you were born, family tried to scare you with stories of the King of Hell.

“My father used to tell how he invented sleep,” the thief said, “by botching a spell to kill all the world.”

“That’s a clever one,” Yong appreciated, then wiped his sword down one last time. “And a timely reminder of what I ought to do. Francho still has first watch?”

Tristan nodded.

“Good, the greyhairs need to earn their keep,” the former soldier said. “Will you speak with Sarai before turning in for the night?”

The thief cocked an eyebrow.

“Should I?” he asked, surprised.

“Who, if not you?” Yong shrugged. “The two of you have been fingers from the same hand since we left the yiwu.

He frowned, recognizing the Cathayan word but not the meaning.


“Nobles,” Yong explained, smiling.

There was a calm certainty behind that smile, the look of a man who knew the way the world was headed and that its road would inevitably be paved with the graves of his enemies. And who was the Tristan to argue that? The Tianxi still chopped kings into four pieces, whenever they got their hands on them, and no crown in Vesper had been able to make them stop. Parting ways with the still-smiling man, Tristan flicked a glance Sarai’s way. She was sitting alone, Aines and Felis giving her wide berth, and while Vanesa had not been driven off by the pale skin the bespectacled old woman was sound asleep.

He’d barely exchanged twenty words with her since her face was revealed, Tristan realized. They’d had to run half a day and he’d spent all his time since camp was made seeing to wounds. Perhaps a conversation truly was due, even if exhaustion was catching up to him. Sitting across from Sarai’s pack, the thief popped his neck and let out a little sigh of satisfaction at the ensuing crack. He got an unimpressed look from the dark-haired woman for it.

“You could have done that before coming over,” she said.

“And let you miss out?” Tristan charmingly smiled. “You wound me.”

“Do it again and I just might,” Sarai threatened, but her lips twitched. “I can’t stand the sound.”

“I will take that in due consideration,” the thief assured her.

There was a pause, and as he met her eyes he reached for his thumb with deliberate obviousness and the most obnoxious grin in his repertoire.

“Don’t you dare,” she warned.

“How’s the face?” Tristan idly asked.

“Fine,” she warily said, eye still on his thumb, “the cuts aren’t deep and-”

The thief pulled at his thumb before she could finish the sentence, the small crack of the joint popping getting an indignant cry out of her. He was forced to shield his face with his arms when she began enthusiastically beating him with her veil. By the time she’d finished retaliating, the two of them were grinning. Sarai shook her head, reluctantly pleased.

“The cuts won’t even scar,” she told him. “I’ve had worse shaving my legs. How are your burns?”

“Better than they’ve any right to be,” he honestly replied. “They’re clean and the flesh is red instead of black, which is a good sign.”

That he felt pain around it was a good sign, for great burns bit deep enough you could no longer feel pain there at all.

“The bruise on my side is more of a pain,” Tristan said. “It’s a good thing I already slept on my back.”

“I’ll be doing the same for a few weeks, I’d think,” Sarai grunted. “Shallow they may be, but I can’t rest on them without hissing.”

He nodded in sympathy, the two of them sitting in comfortable silence for a while. It was him that broke it, almost to his regret.

“Are we going to talk about it?” he idly asked.

The secret that’d come out, all the petty little things tied to it.

“No,” Sarai replied.

He cocked his head to the side.

“If we survive the trials?”

“Then I’ll give you my name,” Sarai agreed. “My real one. If you want more, you’ll have to trade in kind.”

A fair bargain, as tended to be her way.

“Past is past,” Tristan shrugged. “I am more interested in what is to come.”

A request for information less dear but more immediately pressing. How far did Sarai intend to go, on this Dominion of Lost Things? Blue eyes considered him.

“By the end of these trials,” Sarai said, “I will be wearing a black cloak.”

“That is my aim as well,” Tristan replied, pleased and not hiding it.

It meant their alliance could continue until the end. With Yong intending to join the Watch as well, he would have two reliable companions to go into the coming trials with. Sarai passed a hand through her dark tresses, face closing, then let out a sigh.

“This year’s trials,” she said, lowering her voice, “are not like the others.”

He stared at her unblinking.

“Some of us were marked for more than simply joining the Watch,” Sarai said.

He could not muster much surprise. He had known something was off since first setting foot on the Bluebell. Some things were not adding up: Abuela had given him a shot at Cozme Aflor and a pair of Cerdan by sending him here, but there had been other ways. His mentor did not simply want him in the Watch, she had wanted him on that particular ship. Why?

“You are one of those chosen few, I take it?” Tristan asked.

“I am,” she said, smiling faintly. “But so are you.”

Despite their best effort, that knowledge did more to keep him awake than the bruises.

The tall grass felt sinister, now that they knew what might be waiting for them hiding behind the stalks.

Their company had taken wounds, enough to smell of blood, and that meant they had to worry about more than the cultists of the Red Eye now that they’d broken camp and resume their march. Lupines would prefer the open plains to the tall grass they were cutting through, but there were many kinds of lemures out there. The first creatures they found, though, were not lemures at all. Early in the morning Aines let out a small scream that had them all going for weapons, but what she had almost stumbled over did not end up warranting such dread: on the ground were a pair of wobbly carapace globes, from which tails with maces at the end protruded. The tails were being waved menacingly, though Tristan would have felt rather more menaced if the creature it belonged to was not cowering blindly inside its carapace.

“Those are glyptonts,” Vanesa pointed out amusedly. “No threat to you, my dear, unless your feet are made of weeds.”

“They’re harmless, then?” Aines carefully asked.

“Usually herbivores,” Francho confirmed.

He was met with an uncomprehending and somewhat worried look.

“A creature that eats only plants,” the old professor clarified.

The silent reproach on Aines’ face at not having simply said that from the start had the thief smothering a smile.

“I recall reading that they favour mud,” Tristan said. “We might be near a pond we’ll need to go around.”

Francho shook his head.

“They prefer flowing water,” the toothless old man corrected. “For cleaning their scales. A river, more like. And if one of you gentlemen would do me the favour of tipping one over?”

“That seems unnecessarily cruel,” Yong objected half-heartedly.

Sarai, not so burdened, borrowed the Tianxi’s musket and carefully rolled one of the glyptonts upside down while avoiding the mace-tail. The other let out a strangely mouse-like squeak, tail disappearing inside like it’d been sucked in, and promptly began a strategic retreat. It had abandoned its fellow quite ruthlessly, the thief noted.

“No honour among glyptonts either, huh,” he muttered.

Meanwhile, Francho was coughing into his hand as he leaned over the belly-up glyptont that Sarai was holding down with the butt of the musket while it tried to flee. Aside from the four stumpy legs Tristan had expected there, though, was what looked like a round mouth in the middle of the belly surrounded by wiggling brown tentacles and a set of horn-like mandibles. Ergh. Francho, however, looked quite pleased.

“This is a reed glyptont,” he informed happily, “a particular species that subsists not only of weeds but also small fish and frogs.”

Aines shot him a betrayed look. Her foot at been at risk after all.

“And why should we care?” Felis said, putting a comforting hand on his shoulder.

“Because it means the river ahead shouldn’t have predators large enough to bother our little friend,” Sarai replied, allowing the glyptont to flip back on the ground.

It scuttled away into the grass, tail waving at them in what might have been meant to be warning but ended up looking like a child enthusiastically waving goodbye. Felis still looked mulish – he’d been in a foul mood all day and there was no mystery as to why – so Yong elaborated further.

“There should not be anything large enough to attack us as we cross it,” the Tianxi said.

All agreed it was best to go through instead of around, time being the greatest of luxuries, and with a little luck running water behind them might even put off lemures on their tail. It was not long before they could hear the flowing water and within a quarter hour they’d reached muddy banks. The water did not go deeper than the waist of the shortest among them – a toss-up between Aines and Vanesa, now that Lan was gone – and the current was strong but not impossible to manage. A glyptont was hiding in reeds further downriver, thoughtfully chewing at stalk that poked right out and wobbled with every chew, while frogs croaked a quiet welcome.

They took a short pause to fill their waterskins and wash their faces before beginning the crossing. Tristan volunteered to go first, as someone must, and found the footing treacherous but hardly dangerous if you took your time. He called back to be careful with the stones at the bottom, which were slippery, and waited for Sarai to throw him the end of the rope. He found a fallen, rotting tree to tie it to while she secured it to a stone on the other end, their company then going about getting their affairs across. His medicine cabinet, in particular, required much careful handling not to take water. It had already proved its worth, so there was only minimum grumbling about the work.

Yong was to be the last across and Vanesa was halfway through, the lot of them nearly in the clear, so naturally Tristan was already tense as a string when it all went wrong.

They should have seen it coming, tall as it was, or even heard it. But it was a hunter, and so there was no trace at all until it was out of the tall grass. The beak first, a cruelly curved thing black as tar that rose as the creature stretched into its full height: at least ten feet, a cascade of deep purple feathers flecked with wriggling pale blue eyes. Its legs were bone, ending in great curved claws, and from under folded wings skeletal arms peeked out. The eyeless head should have felt like a bird’s, all creased leather, but instead Tristan was somehow certain a man was looking at him. He did not need to be told what he was looking at: night-terror, eye-taker. A gravebird.

“Do not-” Tristan began, tone forcefully even.

Then Aines screamed and it all went to Hell.

The gravebird wailed and the thief flinched, the sound echoing between his ears until he had to scream to let it out. His tongue tasted of blood. Eyes wild, he fumbled for his knife even as Sarai swallowed a sob behind him. It was on Yong in an instant, cruel beak tearing into the Tianxi’s shoulder as he tried to draw his sword. He fell with a scream and Tristan rushed to the water as the gravebird gobbled down the flesh it’d ripped, the blues eyes on its feathers slowly beginning to spin. They were beautiful, he thought, but then Fortuna let out a shout of alarm and he tore his gaze away.

“Don’t look at the eyes,” he yelled.

Jebati,” Sarai cursed, then he heard someone getting slapped across the face.

Felis let out a bellow of anger, but Tristan had no time for this: he reached for Vanesa. The old woman was panicking, had fallen halfway to her knee slipping on stone, and the hand not clutching the rope felt slick as a fish when she caught his own. They struggled to drag her out of the river. Yong… he was on the wrong side, and sometimes luck was not kind.

Most of the time, really.

Only when Tristan glanced up, the creature was not finishing off the former soldier. It was looking at them instead, slinking forward and through the water like it didn’t feel the current at all. The gravebird moved unhurriedly, so sure they were all meat on the plate it was taking the time to toy with them. It let out another wail and Tristan shouted back to ward it off, Fortuna shouting with him, their voices threading as one. But Vanesa, Vanesa clapped her hands over her ears. The moment she no longer held the rope the current took her, would have swallowed her downstream if not for the orb of Gloam that formed in her way. The old woman hit it like she’d been thrown, crying out in pain, but clutched it so she would not be swept away.

“Quick,” Sarai yelled, “I can’t-”

Skeletal fingers gently cradled Vanesa’s cheek, the gravebird pulling her close, and Tristan watched with horror as the other hand bone hand went for her right eye. He threw his knife, but the gravebird dismissively flicked its feathers and it barely sliced into one of them. The blade went with the current and now he was out. The other knife was with his pack, all he had was a broken relic pistol and gods – Vanesa screamed, the gravebird ripping out the eye and placing it in a featherless hollow under its throat. One more feather in the making, Vanesa’s eyes gone blue painted over it. They were all going to die, Tristan realized. He needed to run, to…

The shot took the gravebird in the side of the head. It let out a cry of fury, but though Yong flinched at the sound like the rest of them the former soldier tossed down his musket and pulled his pistol. Another shot in the side of the head, magnificently placed – feathers went flying and Tristan glimpsed black flesh like a sea of worms. There was a hole there, staying made though the ball was already falling out. It would change nothing: a gravebird had as many lives as it had eyes. They had been worshipped as gods, once. Yong was out of triggers to pull, so the wounded man drew his blade and Tristan watched numbly as the gravebird’s skeletal hand reached for Vanesa’s second eye.

“It seeds fear in you,” Fortuna whispered into his ear. “That is what the wails are really for. You are not helpless.”

He let out a laugh that was half a sob, desperately fighting the current to stay standing. What was he to do, hit the monster with his broken pistol? Absurd as the thought was it was still better than nothing, so he reached for the pistol and as the wet wood slid against his palm his gaze found the engravings on the side.

“Please,” Vanesa begged. “Please.”

And Tristan, fool that he was, palmed his priceless treasure. A piece of rhadamantine quartz, burning with the Glare’s light, and then as he met Fortuna’s smiling golden eyes he borrowed luck. The ticking began but he paid it no mind. All he needed was a moment. The thief threw the stone, and just as he did the gravebird turned: with perfect, impossible timing the rhadamantine quartz tumbled right into the hole in the side of creature’s head. And it got stuck.

The gravebird’s scream of complete and utter fury was so loud he couldn’t hear the ticking when he released the luck.

He snatched Vanesa by the back of her chemise, half-tearing it, and got her out of the way just as the gravebird began blindly flailing. It was in pain, shaking and screaming, but the quartz was well and stuck. May you burn from the inside, he thought with vicious satisfaction. No lemure enjoyed the touch of the Glare. Vanesa had grown deadened from pain and shock, her eyes empty, but she moved when he pushed and the two of them fell to their knees in the mud of the riverbank. On the other side of the river the gravebird was slashing at the ground in fury, Yong having wisely fled into the water while it was distracted.

“Go help him across,” Tristan ordered a gaping Felis, pulling Vanesa to her feet.

Francho was unconscious, he saw, so he told Aines to get him awake and passed the bespectacled – only half, now, the gravebird had ripped through the glasses to get to her eye – old woman to a sickly Sarai. They needed to take their bags and run before the gravebird rid itself of the quartz or drew something even worse. Going for his own affairs, only then did Tristan realized the prize he’d paid for his throw: down the banks his medicine cabinet lay against a jutting rock, broken and half-submerged. It’d tumbled down the slope while no one paid attention, half its contents spilling into the water or being ruined by it.

He’d have to salvage what he could.

Carelessly throwing all the stuff inside, mourning as he already saw there would be no more painkillers, he flicked a glance upriver and found Yong was being helped out of the water by Felis. On the other side, the gravebird had gone into the tall grass but its screams betrayed it had not yet gone far. Shoving the broken cabinet onto his back, the thief joined the others. Francho was back on his feet, looking half asleep and half dead. The wail had hit him much harder than everyone else, his eyes were still white with dread.

“We have to get moving right now,” Tristan said. “Anyone who can’t keep up is left behind.”

No one argued, for all knew that if the gravebird’s scream had not drawn the cult of the Red Eye yet then Yong’s two shots most certainly had.

The tall grass was the only reason they lived.

At least three warbands were scouring the land looking for them and in the open they would have been dead within the hour. Instead, by hook and crook, they hid and muddled on. Twice they had to lay down in mud at the bottom of crevasses as hollows passed above them, shadows lingering as they spoke amongst each other in a tongue older and harsher than Antigua. Their path was circuitous, Yong keeping them on grounds that would leave no easy tracks to find as they stumbled on wounded and tired. Tristan had taken just long enough to see to it that his and Vanesa’s wounds would not kill them before pressing on, but while he still had alcohol he no longer had numbing agents.

They would all be feeling their wounds.

Squirming through filth and bushes, they made their way forward. After some hours exhaustion became too much, forcing breaks, but no one slept well of for long. They could not afford to stay in place for too long with the cultists combing through the grass. Their company kept moving through the night, stealing away the odd hour of sleep when it could.

The start of the third day since they had split from the rest was not auspicious, everyone’s exhaustion sharpening tempers and slowing down the greyhairs even further. Felis was prickly as porcupine, constantly scratching at his arms and picking fights with the others. Yong had to threaten to cut out his tongue to get him to lay off Vanesa, who he accused of breathing so loudly she would draw the Red Eye onto them all. The sole relief was that, for all that their pace had slowed to a crawl, Sarai believed they were approaching the eastern bridge across the river.

Halfway through morning they found a toppled column rising out of the tall grass, enough so that when Tristan climbed atop it he was able to have a look further ahead.

“Good and bad,” the thief told them when he came down. “I believe I saw the silhouette of the statue that Sarai chose as our marker. We are at most half a day away from the bridge.”

“And the bad?” Vanesa resignedly asked.

“The tall grass ends soon,” Tristan said. “There is a span of open grounds between it and the beginning of the forest.”

And open grounds could well be the death of them all, if there were any cultists keeping an eye out for them. Their company broke out into murmurs, save for Francho who had laid a hand on the broken column and had gone into his own mind with unseeing eyes. After the others agreed that they should first head to the edge of the tall grass before deciding whether or not to risk it, Tristan shook the old man out of his reverie. Not with his hand, you never knew with contracts, but with the but of his useless pistol.

“Ah,” the toothless professor muttered. “Yes. We are going, I see.”

“You weren’t dozing off,” Tristan said. “You were listening to the stone.”

The old man nodded, quietly coughing into his hand.

“It is not from here,” Francho said.

The thief cocked a questioning eyebrow.

“It was stolen from a temple, brought here by cultists to serve as a watchtower of sorts,” the professor elaborated. “The men who carried them had strong opinions about being ordered to do this, and one broke his leg when it was dropped on it. That was… vivid.”

“You hear their voices,” Tristan slowly said, “as if hearing their old conversations?”

It was in poor form to inquire as to another’s contract, but if the old man wanted to unburden himself who was he to argue? Francho grimaced, shaking his head.

“Not so. It is more along the lines of what their hearts felt, when they touched the stone?” he tried. “I hear resonance of moments that were, nothing exact.”

It was still the kind of contract some would gladly murder over, Tristan thought, if it truly could steal secrets out of stone this way. How many bloody old lies could Francho drag out of graves, should he care to go looking into the past of Sacromonte? Or any city in the world, for that matter.

“Useful regardless,” Tristan simply said, then gestured for him to move. “Come on.”

Their company resumed the march, creeping towards the end of the tall grass with an obsessive care for quiet. Tristan kept an eye on Francho as they moved, looking for the trace of a price for the contract, but found none. Disappointing, but not surprising: gods did not always like their dues easily found. It was because he was watching that he saw the old man suddenly stiffen, looking around for something none of them saw. Mere feet away from the end of the tall grass a stone block was buried, nestled between weeds with only a corner peeking out. The old man discreetly ran his fingers against it while the others halted at the edge of the grass, eyes growing shadowed.

You heard that stone’s voice without pulling on your contract, Tristan thought. Was that his price, then? Francho could hear the secrets of stone, but he could never cease hearing them? A blessing and a curse all at once. Fortuna hummed, having taken an interest when she noticed his. The goddess began idly turning around the toothless old man, looking at him like a haggler inspecting a horse.

“He doesn’t seem like he’s becoming harmonious,” Fortuna wondered, “but he’d have to if he was always listening at everything. His god would be in his head all the time.”

Harmonious, Tristan thought with a grimace. That was how the goddess called turning into a Saint, which she insisted was a beautiful thing.

“There’s probably some tricky clause,” the Lady of Long Odds decided. “Like he can only hear on odd hours or when some other condition is met. Hearing the stuff won’t be his price, either, it’s just how his boon manifests.”

The thief made sure no one was looking at him before subtly nodding in acknowledgement.

“Someone decided to get fancy with him,” Fortuna sneered, tossing back her golden hair as she stalked away. “It’s all very crass, some parvenu god chortling at their own cleverness.”

Tristan could only fervently hope that the other god was not listening and taking offence, though he was distracted from that fresh worry by Yong’s sudden intake of breath. Brushing past Felis, the thief knelt at the Tianxi’s side and peeked out of the grass. There was no need to ask what had made the other man react: the cultists were in plain sight. Running across the flat grounds, a dozen armed hollows were rushing forward as they shouted. No, not forward. Away. They were fleeing the woods, Tristan realized.

“That,” Sarai whispered from behind him, “is not a good sign.”

The second sign they received that trouble had come was the mist. Clouds of it billowed out from the forest floor, almost like a wave of pale chasing the hollows. And from the dark of the trees, crushing trunks and stones in eerie silence, a massive silhouette came striding out. Legs thick as pillars swallowed the distance, chalk white and taller than men. In the cold light of the stars, Tristan glimpsed an enormity of pale flesh with large wriggling heads full of perfectly oval eyes, each mass ending in a great tentacle. The clouds billowed past the fleeing hollows, their screams suddenly going silent for all that their mouths were still open, and the great monster began snatching them up. Under the heads opened a gaping maw full of jutting bone tusks, and there the hollows were carelessly impaled and left to bleed out within the creature.

“A heliodoran beast,” Yong whispered. “Fuck. The captain said it would be asleep.”

“She said it might be asleep,” Tristan darkly replied. “It appears we’re not that lucky.”

They watched, shivering in fear, as the behemoth ate alive half the hollows and crushed a few more to death before wandering away in seeming boredom. The three cultists that survived ran into the tall grass well to the east of their company, heading away as fast as they could. It was only minutes after the great lemure was gone that the last of the mist dispersed and the oppressive silence with it. Tristan ran a tired hand through his hair, worrying his lip.

“We can’t head for the bridge while that thing is prowling around here,” Felis said.

For once, no one argued with the man.

“We need to wait it out,” Yong said. “Hide until it gets bored, then cross before the hollows return.”

“And if they come back before we do?” Aines asked. “We’d be walking right into an ambush.”

Neither was wrong.

“We cannot stay here,” Tristan said. “There’s still warbands looking for us, we need a hiding place.”

And to rest. They were all exhausted and getting worse. If there was a fight, half of them would fold in the first thirty seconds of it.

“The grass is full of cultists,” Sarai bluntly said, “and creatures altogether worse. There is nowhere for us to hide.”

“That,” Francho said, “is not entirely true.”

All eyes went to him. The old man let out a wet cough, then wiped his lips with the back of his hand.

“Several of the stones we’ve come across spoke of water,” he said. “They were taken from an old temple that has been swallowed by a swamp. I believe it was built on a tributary of the river we encountered yesterday, somewhere to our southeast.”

“Are you trying to kill us, you old bastard?” Felis growled. “It’ll be full of hollows just like the first one.”

“No,” Tristan frowned. “Not if they’ve been stripping it for parts. It’s not a sacred place to them.”

“You don’t know that,” Felis bit out. “You’re just guessing.”

“I am,” the thief admitted. “But it seems likely to me. Do you have a better idea?”

He did not, which settled the matter. Tristan ignored the whispered argument at the back of their company, Felis once more trying to convince his wife to leave and strike out on their own. Aines was much curter in her response than she had been last time.

It took them an hour and a half to find Francho’s temple, the last half hour spent mostly on finding a way through swampy grounds that did not involve wading waist-high in mud.

There was not a trace of hollows around when lantern light found the first curved gate jutting out of mud and filth, and Tristan could hazard a guess as to why. He’d seen great snakes slithering through the mud and larger shapes still in the water: crocodiles, or some creature that had the look of them. This was not a place friendly to either men or hollows. The old professor, however, guided them from stone to stone without once erring. They took an ancient pilgrim’s path of raised stone across the water, then passed through a dozen more curved gates to reach the temple itself: a squat square of a building topped by a dome that looked like a tulip’s bud. It was, improbably enough, still standing.

The swamp was nestled between overgrown hills, every inch of it infested with flies and croaking creatures. They were all eager to get out of the humid air and into the temple, which looked as if a storm had swept through. It had obviously been emptied of anything not nailed down by hollows, columns ripped out and mosaics stripped of colours. What few streaks of ancient white paint had not been melted away by the elements were covered with filth and grime, the place dripping of it and stinking worse than Pandemonium.

“This is disgusting,” Aines said, sounding like she was about to retch.

“There is a better place,” Francho told them, hopping up to a stone altar split in half with a younger man’s enthusiasm.

Behind it, the professor revealed narrow spiral stairs going down.

“There is a ritual pool down there,” he said, “that is older than the rest of this temple. At its back should be a hidden passage leading to a shrine this was all built over.”

Tristan could only ponder how formidably useful the old man’s contract was proving to be while glancing down at the slick, narrow stairs.

“These are too small for all of us to squeeze through,” he said. “We should send only a pair first.”

“As my old captain used to say: my thanks for volunteering,” Yong drawled.

The thief rolled his eyes. He had planned to go anyhow. He caught Sarai’s eye, silently asking, and she nodded in agreement. The stairs felt like they were sweating, moss growing in every corner, and Tristan almost slipped thrice. There was no grip as the walls were just as slippery as the floor. The chamber at the bottom looked more like a bath than the ritual pool Francho had described, a square hole full of scum water prefaced by cracked tiles while insects scuttled in corners, fleeing the lantern’s light. There were a few columns on a ledge at the back, most of them broken. Sarai caught up to him, steps careful as she avoided slipping. She took a skeptical look around.

“At least the smell is better than above,” she finally said.

“It’s a start,” Tristan conceded.

The reflection of the stone in the water made it look like there was a full wall, but as Francho had promised they found a passage tucked away behind a broken column. It was broad but low, enough that Tristan had to crawl on his hand and knees after handing off the lantern. Sarai followed closely behind. The thief reached the end of the tunnel, dropping quietly onto the floor of what looked like a natural cavern. The ceiling was full of dripping stalactites, a slightly sloped floor leading up to what appeared to a shrine carved into the stone. The cavern wall had been sculpted so it would look like the wall of the shrine, intricate silhouettes grasping each other’s hands and feet in an endless chain.

It cleverly made the shrine entrance look more than the vaguely oval hole in the stone that it was.

He helped Sarai down, the two of them moving up the slope in careful silence. The ground was wet, the stalactites dripping down likes knives dipped in blood, and there were insects scuttling just out of sight. Hand on his last knife, Tristan suddenly gestured for Sarai to stop. He sniffed at the air, smelling smoke, and saw the same conclusion bloom in her eyes as his jaw tightened: they were not alone in here.

“Close the lantern,” he murmured. “We can’t afford to be seen.”

Sarai grimaced, no more eager to be in the dark than he, but still worked the shutter until it closed. The two of them resumed their way upwards, moving with care not to make a sound. As soon as they got a better angle on the shrine door, they saw that there was trembling light inside. Pale, he thought. A lantern fed with Glare oil or powder, which meant this could not be hollows. He knew better than to think it meant they were safe. Pressing onward, they pressed themselves against the sides of the threshold to peek inside.

There Tristan found a camp had been made inside the cramped shrine, bedrolls laid down and packs piled up. There was even a small fire over which a pot was being made to boil, smelling of herbs. Two were tending to the food, and in the fire’s light Tristan recognized them immediately: Ferranda Villazur and her hired hand, the Malani huntsman Sanale.

Utterly surprised, he did not realize there was a third until she moved. The infanzona had not been foolish enough to leave her back unguarded. There was an alcove tucked away to the side of the entrance, just inside, and there someone who had been sitting was hastily getting up. They let out a noise of alarm and the other two immediately turned. Sarai let out a curse and Tristan brushed past her, knife up, pushing the guard against the wall. Holding his blade to their throat even as Sarai yelled for the other two to stay back, Tristan Abrascal froze when a curl of firelight revealed the face of who he’d just taken hostage.

“Well,” Lan mused, blue lips quirking as she swallowed the last of the bread she’d been chewing, “this is awkward.” 

20 thoughts on “Chapter 12

  1. edrey

    i really like the lore, and fortuna looking for a priest was great.
    also, its a little convenient for tristan or i should say his luck is great, the cithara would be usefull no only in this trial but in the next one too.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. CantankerousBellerophan

    There is much that could be said of Vanesa’s tragedy, but it has all been said before. Debt is a social construct which exploits the ancient human impulse to enact fairness, turning one of our most powerful means of building community into a means of shattering them. It is not Tristan’s place to ask whether Vanesa’s son deserved to be saved, or to judge a man he knows nothing about – save that he is disabled – in assuming he would squander her lifegift by choice. Vanesa joins Brun as another person on the island who, with the right argument, might be turned into a tool of liberation from nobility as zealous as Tristan himself. The only people who deserve to be thrown into a death trial are all those who enact them and create the conditions which drive people into them. Sarai might be as based as Tristan, but this remains to be seen.

    All of that is true. None of it is novel. So allow me to engage in some historically-backed speculation instead.

    In the real world, many tales were told by settlers invading indigenous lands of the “savage” practices of the people they were displacing. These tales served many functions: justifying extreme, unprovoked violence against innocents, creating a culture of fear which prevented white commoners, the enslaved, and indigenous people from banding together against their true foes, inculcating children with unconsidered, unexamined, default hatred of the other from the moment they could understand language…and sometimes, just sometimes, explaining things which had actually happened in a way which made sense to the audience. Interestingly, horror stories of native cannibalism, particularly in the very early days of the occupation of Turtle Island, often served that final purpose.

    The thing is, indigenous people did attack white settlements. Justifiably, obviously, as they were genocidal invaders. They also sometimes took care to kidnap people, particularly women with infants, alive. Most of the time, their loved ones would never see them again, and they would assume the worst imaginable fate had befallen their wives and daughters. As we often do, when mourning while traumatized.

    But it is nigh-on certain none of them were eaten. None of the peoples whose land was stolen by the men who would one day call it North America engaged in cultural cannibalism. Starving people no matter the culture will resort to anything, of course, but you don’t kidnap more hungry mouths while you are starving. In truth, many of the kidnapped wound up joining the communities of their captors. Some did so out of fear, staying because they thought the men who took them would do worse if they ran. However, in many cases it is clear they eventually joined the natives in truth. Countless stories exist of recovered “captives” slipping away in the night to return to the people they now called family. They weren’t kidnapping food. They were reproducing their dying cultures through all means available to them.

    What is the relevance to Vesper? Everyone seems to accept the claim that the Red Eye people (though we do not know what they call themselves) kidnap people as sacrifices. Perhaps that is true. The Mesoamerican theming of Vesper might make that more likely, but we simply do not know. We haven’t seen a blood-slicked altar, or heard the accounts of anyone traumatized by such a sight. Considering the history of stories told by invaders of the invaded we cannot take as fact the claim that such altars exist. Not yet.

    Ayande may not be getting sacrificed. She might be getting inducted.


    1. Wait, what did I miss about Vanesa’s son?

      I think the stories of sacrifices, here, are true. They’re too… specific. Yong’s claim of half-eaten children by the road is non-specific, but everyone plans around the Red Eye’s activities.

      Note what Tristan says: the cults are specific smallish organizations, not “most hollows”.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. CantankerousBellerophan

        Vanesa states her son has debts and a bad leg. Tristan is uncharitably assuming the debts are deserved when he questions whether his mother should have sacrificed herself for him, thinking he will just “fritter away” the reprieve. He’s not considering the obvious, and more likely, intersectional nature of debt and disability. Vanesa never says what the debts are from, so it’s not unreasonable to assume they come from healthcare, rent he can’t pay due to being unable to work, or any number of other entirely manufactured means of killing off those whose value to the ruling class has ended.

        I did say my thoughts on the as-yet hypothetical sacrifices are speculative. That’s more intended as an example of exactly how much skepticism of the characters’ thoughts we should carry. We can’t trust anything said about the people of the dark by others. All of it must be held in suspicion. We can only trust what we see them directly do, and only if we understand why they are doing it. That’s the only way to be safe from the pernicious nature of racist propaganda, here.


      1. CantankerousBellerophan

        Ah, I see what you mean by this now. I did, in fact, read this week’s chapter last week when it was briefly posted on accident.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Reader in The Night

    Now Tristan’s mind is fascinating. He automatically forgives any treachery because there is nothing *to* forgive, even being able to appreciate someone else’s skill at intrigue on the artistic level even as it is used against him. At the same time, he truly hates the Infanzones, who are just the biggest cheaters in the local game. Maybe he hates them because they think they’re better than everyone else even as they fuck people over? There seems to be something very humble and self-aware to the Law of Rats.

    I’m beginning to see how Tristam and Angharad may yet become allies of circumstance, through mutual enmity with the Cerdans. If he and Angie manage not to kill each other from the start over their different methodologies, they could benefit a lot from each other: Tristan’s naked pragmatism and cleverness, and Angharad’s noble training and power.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Someperson

        Tristan is fully subscribed to the “dog eat dog” school of thought, but also… it is ironically kind of hard not to get to a point of some trust with at least some of the other people in these trials

        I suspect at some point later in the story we may have a beat where Tristan has to put it all on the line to save one of his party and he gonna have a hard time rationalizing it afterwords

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Tristan is subscribed to it but he also ignores it all the time. The fucking ruby for Beatris! Tristan is ALREADY risking himself for the sake of other party members! And his rationalization so far is apparently just “rip me, the idiot”

        Liked by 1 person

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