Lady Ferranda Villazur, wide awake and miffed at rats invading her camp, pointed her pistol at him.
Though she must be a decent shot, Tristan was more worried by Sanale carefully aiming his long-barrelled musket. Malani had a reputation for being good shots and the same was true of huntsmen: a man who was both was not to be trifled with. Pressing his knife tighter against Lan’s throat, he forced her to stand between him and the threats.
“Muzzles down,” Tristan ordered, “or I slit her throat.”
Ferranda, seemingly more at ease in hunting leathers than she had ever been on the Bluebell, laughed in his face.
“Go ahead,” the infanzon said. “She’s not one of ours.”
“That’s unfortunate,” Tristan admitted.
“Right?” Lan complained. “And here I’d thought we were getting along.”
The surviving twin had yet to even struggle against his grasp, not seeming terribly concerned with being his hostage.
“This doesn’t need to turn violent,” Sarai called out. “We didn’t come here to fight.”
He noted with approval that she still moved to get part of Lan in between her and the potential shots.
“Walk away,” Sanale replied, “and there will be no fight.”
The tall Malani had not moved an inch since shouldering his musket, barely even blinking, but Tristan could not afford to keep his eyes on him: Ferranda was beginning to slowly inch left, towards a better angle of fire.
“We can’t do that,” Tristan said.
He took a half step back, moving to keep Lan in the way of both Ferranda and Sanale, and the infanzona stopped trying to flank him. For now.
“As a neutral and unconcerned party,” Lan opined, “I believe we should come to a peaceful resolution.”
She was unanimously ignored.
“We found this place first,” Ferranda told him. “By right it is ours to use.”
“The temple upstairs isn’t fit for sleeping,” Tristan replied. “The stink is unbearable and there’s no door to keep creatures out – if the choice is between you and crocodiles in my bedroll, I’ll take my chances here.”
He meant it too. It might be best to feign backing down first so they could come back in a while with more muscle, but the thief would not risk sleeping upstairs. Ferranda hesitated, which was unflattering to her stout face: she looked like she was biting down on a twig. She then shared a long look with her hired hand, who eventually nodded.
“We still have first claim,” Ferranda said. “If you want to use this place, your group will have to pay in supplies.”
Group, she had said, which meant she knew it was not only he and Sarai. Tristan spared a moment to glare at a cheerfully unrepentant Lan. She had wasted no time in selling information on them all.
“I even gave them my best guess about your contract for free,” she smilingly whispered. “Because fuck you, Tristan. Did you think I’d let you threaten me without paying for it?”
“That’s fair,” the thief conceded.
He was not offended by the sale on moral grounds, only irritated by the inconvenience of it.
“Do we have a bargain, Tristan?” Ferranda Villazur pressed.
He was still hesitating when Sarai brushed past him, coming fully into the fire’s light and exaggeratedly putting away her knife.
“In principle we agree,” she said. “Now let us talk specifics.”
Ferranda’s face tightened at the sight of the pale skin and Sanale moved his muzzle to aim at her without even realizing it, but when Tristan released a still-smiling Lan the tension released.
“You heard her,” Tristan said. “Let’s haggle.”
A day’s worth of rations each, cut in half for all those who would keep watch – which was, in practice, all of them. That was how much they’d pay. Sarai also got the pair to agree that their company could earn back more of the fee through chores: tending the fire, cooking, mending and washing clothes. There was some discontent among their group at the prospect of playing servants to the pair when they outnumbered them so, but sheer exhaustion saw to it no one refused the terms. Some among them might have accepting cutting off a finger for a good night’s sleep in a safe place.
The shrine itself was much too small to accommodate everyone – counting Ferranda and the huntsman, they now numbered ten – so most of them ended up spreading their bedroll right outside it. A round of introductions began then was aborted halfway through when it came out Lan was also here, few taking the revelation of her presence well. By the time tempers had cooled no one was in a mood for talk, so instead they went to sleep.
It was much refreshed that Tristan woke up that afternoon, most the other still sleeping. Yong was seated by the fire with Sanale, the two men talking in low voices as they gestured, and not far from them Vanesa was slowly and carefully plucking feathers off a freshly killed bird. Two more were waiting. The thief watched the careful way she moved, realizing she was trying to learn how to compensate for her missing eye. With everyone else asleep – save for Lan and Ferranda, who were missing – he decided he might as well help her. The discussion between the other seemed too involved to welcome a third.
Wordlessly he picked up another of the bird, some grey-feathered thing about the size of a duck, and got to plucking. Even missing an eye Vanesa was going faster than him, which had her smiling.
“Practice,” she excused him.
She adjusted her glasses on her face, after. Se was forever fiddling with them since the gravebird had ripped through glass and wire to get at her eye. The frame was bent and dug into the side of her head, but it was either that or not seeing much of anything.
“I don’t eat a lot of bird,” Tristan conceded.
Pork was cheaper. You could feed a pig damn near anything and they were much harder to steal than chickens – there was a reason they were the staple meat of the Murk.
“They are one of the only things I can cook,” Vanesa smiled. “My mother despaired I avoided the kitchen, but at least I learned her almond sauce recipe before she passed.”
“You worked, then,” the thief said.
“I am a clockmaker,” the old woman said, then grimaced and reached for the cloth covering her missing eye. “Or I was, at least. I am not sure I could do detail work anymore.”
Ah, Tristan thought. And there was the mystery of how she had afforded her pocketwatch and her glasses solved. Not only was clockmaking a lucrative trade, she worked with watches and lenses. A cobbler never went barefoot. It did not explain what a woman of her age and means was doing on the Dominion, but that mystery was being chipped away at slowly but surely. The thief decided to let the matter lie for now, as obtaining the story there was more a matter of curiosity than need, but Vanesa surprised.
“You must be wondering how I ended up here,” the old woman knowingly said.
“The question has crossed my mind,” Tristan admitted.
“You’re such a polite boy,” Vanesa chuckled, shaking her head. “It is no great secret, I don’t mind telling you.”
She plucked out another feather, dropping it to flutter.
“My son is in debt to the Menor Mano,” Vanesa said. “Enough he was never going to dig himself out, so they decided to send him here as payment. Only his leg was crippled, Tristan, so he was sure to die.”
The thief grimaced. This was an ugly story and he could already tell how it would end.
“I offered to go in his place,” the old woman said. “My husband is gone and tinkering no longer brings me the joy it used to. Better to spare my only son than spend my last years withering on the vine.”
He offered her a sad smile, at a loss of what to say. Was such a sacrifice to be praised? Tristan was not so sure. It was an act of love, but the man saved did not sound deserving of it. How long would it take before he frittered away his mother’s sacrifice?
“You are kind, listening to me ramble like this,” Vanesa said, patting his arm. “Doing so much to keep us alive when some of us are so little help.”
She sighed tiredly, leaning back.
“Do not let the trials burn it out of you,” she sleepily said.
And Tristan felt a sliver of shame, because he was not kind at all. Even as she had talked, part of him had been more concerned with the puzzle than the woman. The same part that’d noted the Menor Mano had sent in two souls this year – Ocotlan, that large Aztlan, had been a legbreaker for them – and wondered if there was anything there he could use.
They plucked the rest of the birds in silence, and when he left afterwards it felt a little like fleeing.
By afternoon’s end everyone was awake and the cave had turned bustling.
Lanterns were fully unveiled as everyone busied themselves: clothes were washed and mended, wounds seen to and there was haggling over the fresh meat and use of the fire for cooking. Their refuge had turned into a smallest of villages, a happy one now that everyone was rested and fed, but Tristan knew it would not last. Already Felis was growing prickly, though never when Yong and Sanale were looking, and Lan had somehow charmed Vanesa into speaking with her again. Tristan washed and mended his clothes, leaving them to dry as he sat in little more than a shirt and underclothes.
The currents were plain to see. Aines was furious at her husband for the glances he kept throwing at Lan, who would no doubt fork over some dust by day’s end to get a leash on the man again. Vanesa was too bloodied and exhausted to do much of anything, and whenever Francho wasn’t coughing in a corner he was peering at the carvings to the left shrine entrance – which was irritating Felis, whose bedroll was near there. Ferranda had begun speaking with a surprised Sarai, who warmed to her before long. Much as Tristan would have liked to eavesdrop on that conversation, he had thinking to do.
They needed to cross the forest and bridge to get to the Trial of Ruins, and the obstacles in the way were greater than anticipated. His bet with the Red Eye warbands, that they would be split between the bridges and could be tricked through this, seemed to have paid off. It was the heliodoran beast he’d not counted on, and it made everything harder to predict. Men he could guess at, but beasts? He could not be sure when the monster would decide to wander off, what was keeping it here in the first place and how the cultists would react to its presence.
They were still around, Sanale had seen their warbands searching the tall grass when he went out hunting, but the Malani could only speak to the surroundings of the temple. He had, wisely, not gone further than that. Meanwhile the bridge was in the woods, further north. Were there cultists there as well, or had the heliodoran beast driven them all off? Would the warbands in the grass immediately head for the bridge when the lemure left, were they already clearing out west towards the other bridge? Too many questions he did not have answers to.
Instead of giving in to frustration, he followed Abuela’s lessons and instead attended to unknowns he could find the answer to. There was not mending his medicine cabinet, not with the tools on hand, but the thief set about taking inventory of what remained usable and fixing it up enough it wouldn’t spill everything out. Tristan had already taken a first look when seeing to wounds earlier, but a closer look gave grim answers. Most of what he had left were poisons, which had been kept deepest in: white arsenic, antimony, mandrake and volcian yew. The lodestone extract remained, as did the bearded cat extracts. Neither were mortal, the bearded cat being a mushroom whose extract caused violent bursts of madness in those who partook of it.
Aside from these, he only had the distilled alcohol and the medical turpentine he’d been using to treat his burns.
There was only so much he might accomplish with these. Putting his entire supply of volcian yew in a corpse might possibly inconvenience a beast the size of the airavatan if it ate it – the substance was a poison meant for lemures and lares – but it would not kill it. None of his other poisons would affect it all that much. He was unsure if the lodestone extract would have any effect, since he could not recall seeing a nose on the lemure, and the creature was already blood-mad so there was hardly a point to the bearded cat extract. He could spare neither the alcohol nor the turpentine.
“You’re pouting,” Fortuna teased.
So much activity in such close quarters had mercifully seen to it she did not need further entertainment. Being overly nosy tended to make up swaths of her day no matter where they were.
“I am low on tools,” Tristan murmured back.
And thinking about this wrong, he realized as his eyes moved to the others in the cavern. He did not need to attract the heliodoran beast directly when he could rely on someone else doing so. Dosing Ferranda Villazur with lodestone extract just before they parted ways was likely his best bet: killing the other lemures the scent would attract had a decent choice of attracting the greater monster. Meanwhile their own group could make a run for the bridge and gamble on the cultists not having returned to hold it yet. The issue, he figured, was that Lan might have revealed he had pulled this very trick on the infanzones already. If the pair were watching for it and caught him, the potential blowback could get him killed.
He needed to have a talk with Lan.
“And not paying enough attention,” Fortuna told him. “Sarai’s been whispering with that noble in a corner for half an hour now.”
And that, Tristan thought, might be a problem. When he turned to have a look at the two of them he found that Sarai was rising to her feet. Her gaze swept the cavern, lingering on him, and his stomach dropped. He could see where this was headed already. His companion did not waste much time, sparing only an amused look for the way he was sitting on his knees in his underclothes.
“We should talk,” Sarai told him. “Yong too.”
Tristan nodded, telling her he wanted to dress first to buy himself some time. Yong had struck a quick friendship with Sanale, which was good for them but less so for Tristan. He could guess which way the Tianxi would be leaning in the conversation to come. The five of them squeezed in around the small fire, given the run of the shrine by the others – Lan’s sly offer to tend the flames for them was politely refused – for at least a little while.
“I have been speaking with Sarai,” Lady Ferranda said, “and it appears both our groups are intending to make for the eastern bridge.”
Their plans had hardly been a secret and even if they had been Lan would already have sold them. Tristan had anticipated that Ferranda Villazur would learn this, that much was no surprise. What he had not anticipated was that an infanzona would deign to talk to a pale-skinned foreigner, getting a hook in one of the three people needing convincing before their groups could ally.
“It would only be sensible to attempt the crossing together,” Sarai said. “Between the cultists and the heliodoran beast, we need all the help we can get.”
Sanale met his employer’s gaze for a moment, then turned and shrugged his agreement. A glance at Yong’s face told Tristan that the Tianxi was about to agree.
“That may not be wise,” he slid in before Yong could speak. “A large group will make noise and draw attention.”
“I hardly think,” Ferranda wryly said, “that it will be us two making that noise.”
Yes, Tristan thought, but if you come with us I cannot use you as a distraction. His was a poor argument and he knew it, so he turned the talk around instead.
“It is true, the two of you would have a better chance of sneaking through alone,” the thief said. “Which has me wondering what you gain by joining us.”
If he could not defend, best to make the enemy do so instead. The Malani huntsman fixed him with a flat stare, his bead-covered coat open at the front.
“Blades and powder,” Sanale bluntly replied.
The thief almost grimaced. He’d lost that in a single exchange. Finesse could only get you so far against pure candour.
“Sarai is right, Tristan,” Yong cut in. “We need the help: I want two more sword arms with us if we stumble into a warband.”
And with Yong finally coming down on the side of the alliance, it was finished. Tristan did not rule their company, and though he was one of its leading figures so were the other two. If they agreed, there was little he could do except leave. Continuing to struggle would only lessen him in the eyes of the others, so it was best to capitulate and move on. At least he could try to wheedle information out of this.
“Then it is settled,” the thief said, shrugging his shoulders. “We make common cause to cross the bridge.”
Sarai nodded at him, pleased, and Yong only looked bemused he’d not agreed from the start. It was true that on the face of the alliance was a net benefit: their group had numbers, but they needed fighters. Meanwhile the pair had fighters but needed numbers, enough that they could not simply be overwhelmed by the hollows if they were caught by a warband. It was all too pretty, ever a sign that the story was yet young. Tristan did not doubt for a moment that Ferranda Villazur would sacrifice them the moment it gained her an edge, but that was fine.
He just had to do it to her first.
“In the spirit of friendship,” Sarai said, “Lady Ferranda has agreed to share information about the state of the trials for us.”
Ah, Tristan thought. So that was what she had bartered for when whispering with the infanzona in a corner.
“We encountered Lady Inyoni’s company before they went to fight their way through the western bridge,” Ferranda told them. “They had taken wounds and one of their number was lost.”
That was a surprise. Inyoni had been a grizzled old killer, a veteran, and the rest of her crew well-armed. Two more Malani of wealthy birth, a pair of Ramayans that’d proved skillful and that bland Aztlan woman made for an impressive crew, perhaps the finest fighting force to emerge from those brought by the Bluebell. That this was even doubt could be explained by two words: Angharad Tredegar.
“Lemures?” Tristan asked.
“Cultists,” the infanzona solemnly replied, shaking her head, “but they did not strike alone. Tupoc Xical and his three lackeys were with them.”
A round of grimaces followed that. Lan’s prediction that Tupoc meant to hunt them proving true was grim news.
“Their group rushed straight down the road,” Yong finally said. “They must have been the easiest to find.”
The blonde noble shook her head.
“That had been my guess as well, but Lady Inyoni is no fool: they took a detour west to shake pursuers,” Ferranda said. “It was on their way back to the road that they were attacked.”
“Then how did the cultists find them?” he asked.
It would have been open grounds Inyoni’s travelled, but though darklings could see better in the dark – and some colours were known only to their kind – their sight was not perfect. A small group taking an indirect route would not have been easy to find.
“A tracking contract,” Sanale said.
Was that a sliver of disdain in the huntsman’s voice? Professional pride from a tracker, perhaps.
“It belongs to Lady Acanthe Phos, the pockmarked girl from Asphodel,” Ferranda continued. “Lady Inyoni’s nephew learned this through his own contract, but with Lan’s help I believe we learned how her contract functions.”
Tristan had been given the same information they had and found it was not much of a leap to make.
“Ash and bone,” he said. “Perhaps all human remains? Acanthe can track them once she has touched them, or something close to that.”
“I imagine they intrigued to plant ash on all of the groups,” she said. “I am surprised yours was not attacked.”
As was he, since theirs was the most vulnerable by far. Tupoc would not have been able to hit them immediately, he would need to first find the Red Eye cult and strike his bargain, but once he had they would have been the natural target. Their crew had been behind Inyoni’s, which had been the first to leave, and high in numbers while low on fighters. Perfect fodder for sacrifice. So why had Tupoc not focused his efforts on them? Perhaps he had not been able to.
Almost none of them had stood anywhere near Acanthe Phos, Tristan noted as he tried to recall their early days of the trial. And almost all of them had a single bag and bedroll, it would have been harder to hide a piece of bone there than within the bags of larger groups. As for ash…
It occurred to Tristan, then, that he had passed some time walking besides Acanthe Phos and she had even once taken his arm. There was some kind of dust on the back of my sleeve, the thief suddenly remembered. Vanesa had thought it dust and soot when she cleaned his coat, but the lighting had been poor. It might well have been ash. The older woman had rid his arm of it quite thoroughly, though, and with a shiver the thief realized that Vanesa’s small act of motherly kindness might just have saved all their lives.
“We must,” he forced out, “have gotten lucky.”
Ferranda’s brow rose.
“The Manes were with you, then.”
Not eager to linger on how close they might just have come to getting killed, Tristan cleared his throat.
“Who was it that Inyoni’s crew lost, if I may ask?” he asked.
“Her nephew’s lover, the girl called Ayanda,” the infanzona said. “He was quite distraught over the loss.”
That the two younger Malani had been lovers was not something he had known, but neither was it a surprise. She had obviously not been kin to them, and there were only so many other things she could be.
“They were lucky only one died,” Tristan said.
There Ferranda scowled.
“We do not know for certain she is dead,” the blonde said. “Lady Inyoni said that hollows were careful to take her alive.”
“The Watch warned us,” Sanale evenly said. “They want sacrifices.”
Better she had died, Tristan thought, than whatever the cult of the Red Eye had in store for her. Poor girl. Yong, though sympathetic, kept the conversation moving.
“Do you know if they crossed the bridge successfully?” he asked.
“They did,” Ferranda said. “We held back and watched. Only there was trouble: they struck the cultists guarding it by surprise, but the fighting drew the heliodoran beast.”
“Then they are all dead,” he slowly said.
“Before it could reach them, the beast fell into confusion,” the infanzona said. “The cultists scattered in fright and Lady Inyoni’s group fled north.”
Yong let out a low whistle.
“That sounds,” he said, “like a very dangerous contract. Do you know whose?”
Sanale shook his head.
“We were far,” he said.
Tristan’s interest, however, had been caught by another detail.
“The beast,” he said, “did it seem lethargic?”
Was this the contract that had been used on him when an attempt was made to frame him for Jun’s murder? The infanzona shrugged.
“As Sanale said,” she replied, “we were far. I can only tell you that when it came out of the daze and found no one around, it fell into a great rage.”
The noblewoman leaned forward.
“And as it rampaged, it shook the earth so strongly that the bridge collapsed,” Ferranda said.
Fuck, Tristan thought. The bet he’d thought had come true had, in a way: in reverse. Instead of the absence of people trying to cross the eastern bridge driving the hollow there to head west, it would be the other way around. All the warbands that had been prowling around the western bridge would be headed this way even as they spoke. Fuck, he thought again. No wonder Villazur had been so eager to make an alliance with them even when she had evidently split from the rest of the infanzones. The infanzone knew she needed to cross as soon as possible. The longer they waited, the more cultists would arrive.
Turning on the pair was no longer feasible, he decided. He must act accordingly.
“When the beast wandered off,” he said, “did it appear to be tracking the cultists who fled?”
Ferranda Villazur narrowed her eyes at him.
“It moved in the same direction as one of their groups,” she acknowledged, then her face hardened. “Are you perhaps thinking of using lodestone extract?”
There was a flat, accusatory note at the end. So Lan had talked. Ferranda’s displeasure was understandable: she had been among those his ploy was to burn, or perhaps even had burned. Regardless, Tristan met her brown eyes without shame.
“There is nothing to fear from me this time, Villazur,” he replied. “You are no longer attempting to use us as bait.”
He had acted out of vengeance, it was true, but also out of practicality. The infanzona’s lips thinned in anger, but she did not argue the point. They had owed each other nothing and it was not her the trick had been aimed at. Yong’s back had gone straight and his own gaze at the noblewoman was unimpressed, so Tristan was not without support.
“Airavatan see odours,” Sanale brusquely said. “It could work.”
Tristan’s eyes swivelled to the hunter.
“Lodestone extract smells like blood to lemures, but it is not actually blood,” he carefully said. “Would that still fool it?”
The huntsman hesitated, then nodded. Tristan would have preferred greater certainty but sensed it was the best he would get.
“Then we might be able to distract it,” the thief said.
“It may chase us from there,” Ferranda warned.
“Better to have it somewhere we know than to be left wondering where it is,” Yong replied.
“We could try to attract it near the cultists,” Sarai said. “It would keep them both occupied while we make for the bridge.”
The thief blinked at her. That was… bold, to say the least. He passed his hand through his hair, considering it just as the others were.
“It would be playing with fire,” Tristan finally said. “If they catch us planting the extract, if we get bogged down fighting them…”
None of them had forgot the massacre of the entire first wave of trial-takers in exactly such a situation. Or that Inyoni and her crew might well have suffered the same fate if they’d not had a contract that let them escape.
“We would need to find a Red Eye encampment for that plan to be an option at all,” Yong pragmatically said. “That means going out to look.”
“We need to do that regardless,” Ferranda pointed out. “We cannot afford to rush in blindly, not with the forces arrayed against us.”
She was right, Tristan thought, and it was plain enough to see that no one argued. The talk instead turned to who would be going. Yong volunteered, brushing aside the thief’s worries about how his shoulder was healing. The wound had not torn muscle or required stitches – the gravebird had been toying with him – so the Tianxi insisted he was fine. Ferranda conferred with Sanale away from the fire, which surprised Tristan: it implied their relation was more nuanced than that of an infanzona and her hired hand.
“I will be going,” Ferranda said when they returned. “Two of us will be enough – any more and the chances of getting caught by a warband grow too high.”
And aside from Sanale, Tristan thought, no one else among them was practiced at forestry. He was decent at sneaking around, but even tall grass such as the one around the swamp was uncomfortably different from the alleys and rooftops of Sacramonte. It was agreed on without quibbling, the dangers headed their way cooling any desire for argument, and after that all that they broke the news to the rest of their company: if Yong and Lady Ferranda came back with the right news, then they would be attempting the crossing tonight.
Everyone began to pack the moment the pair disappeared into the passage.
The mood was subdued, even Felis keeping his peace. Though from the suddenly loose shoulders on the man, Tristan figured that might have something to do with licking up some dust. The thief wondered what it was that Lan had demanded of him in exchange. As for the Meng-Xiaofan dealer, his idle suggestion that she be left behind had been refused. She had, it seemed, bought Lady Ferranda’s agreement to let her follow them until the second trial with information after stumbling onto the pair by pure chance. Tristan would not call a woman who’d lost a sister only days ago lucky, but the gods must have taken a shine to Lan for her to make it that far.
That, or she had been sitting quiet on a contract.
Just between them rats, he could admire how well she had played her rather lacking cards. Lan was a poor fighter, had displayed no contract and was openly unreliable in the face of danger. Yet with only wits and a penchant for digging into other people’s things, she had been able to bargain her way to safety again and again. That was something worthy of respect, even if he did not particularly like the woman. Respect and some wariness: neither were the kind of people to hold a grudge over the kind of clawing they’d done at one another, but it would not do to forget that they were far from friendly.
About a quarter hour into packing his belongings Sarai came to find him. It was idle chatter at first, but he noticed she was keeping an eye on how close other people were. As soon as she was sure no one could overhear, the talk changed.
“You meant to use the lodestone trick again,” Sarai quietly said. “On them. It’s why you were against us allying.”
It was tempting to lie, but he bit down on the instinct. He had already extended trust. He would not keep doing so blindly, but withdrawing it just as blindly would be equally foolish.
“It struck me as the most likely plan to work,” Tristan said.
“It was a wash the moment they got Lan to talk,” she replied, shaking her head.
The dark-haired woman looked uncomfortable.
“I thought your enmity was with the Cerdan,” she continued. “Not all infanzones.”
The thief hesitated again, but he could see what silence would cost him here. No one wanted an ally that was a rabid hound, which murderous hatred of all the nobles of Sacromonte might as well make him.
“It is Cozme Aflor I most want dead,” he admitted. “The brothers are ledger work, payment against an old debt.”
“And Ferranda Villazur?” Sarai pressed.
“I have little against her,” he shrugged. “I believed the pair would go their own way, which made them a sensible target.”
“You still opposed the alliance when I was bringing it forward,” she pointed out.
“And I still would, had I not learned of the other bridge’s breaking,” Tristan frankly replied. “People will die in this crossing, Sarai. If I have a choice, I would rather it be them than us.”
All the Red Eye warbands rushing their way tilted the odds against anyone being able to sneak through, enough so that additional swords were worth more than a distraction. If the pair could be used for their blades and other dupes used as a distraction, Sarai’s suggestion, then that plan was superior. But it was also only viable now that they had skilled trackers other than Yong out trying to find darkling encampments. Sending out alone a wounded Yong, who even in such a state was their best fighter, would have been rolling on bad odds. Sending a potential liability with him would have been even worse. Sarai’s blue eyes stayed on him, then she slowly nodded.
“Good,” she said.
Worth staying allied with, she meant. He would not say he was relieved, but neither would he deny it.
“Ferranda parted ways with the other nobles before your lodestone trick had effect,” Sarai said. “Their plan was to climb the High Road using a contract and then march across the island unhindered, but there is no telling if lemures attacked them first.”
Tristan almost cursed. Of course the infanzones had come in with a cushy plan that put them right out of harm’s way while everyone else died beneath them. Lodestone extract would largely stop smelling after a day, so if they had made it up on the aqueduct they would be safe by now. There would be no telling until the second trial, then. And there I will have to act, or they will be able to slip away before the third.
“One more reason to make it to the Trial of Ruins,” he simply replied.
He made sure to incline his head in thanks, acknowledging that she had most likely looked into the fate of the Cerdans for him. She smiled back, flicking his shoulder.
“Mayhaps we’ll be lucky and they’ll have eaten at least one out of three,” she said.
The thief smiled back, almost wonderingly. Not so much at the thought as how she had said it: we’ll get lucky. Not only him. The implicit promise there, without her having ever asked why he wanted any of them dead, was… Measure for measure, that was how Sarai dealt. He had told her the truth of what he wanted, so she had offered her help in achieving it. There was something so terrifyingly straightforward about that he ended up shying away from meeting her eyes. She had an ulterior purpose in these trials, he reminded himself, had admitted as much.
It would be dangerous to begin trusting her too much.
Sensing the mood had changed, Sarai took her leave. It left Tristan to finish packing his bag and rearranging the broken cabinet so that nothing would come out spilling were it dropped. Left him alone with his thoughts, also, or more accurately his thoughts and one more thing.
“She would make a good priestess, I think,” Fortuna mused. “You must ask her if she gambles.”
The goddess was sprawled theatrically across a flat stone, red dress flowing down artfully as she rested her chin against her palm. She was the very picture of imperial leisure, missing only servants to fan her and feed her grapes.
“Of course,” he lied.
Golden eyes narrowed at him.
“Are you pouting again?” the goddess asked. “You know, it is only charming if done once in a while. Otherwise is the province of toddlers.”
He rolled his eyes at her.
“It is only unease, not pouting,” Tristan said. “I feel…”
“I knew you’d get like this about someone actually liking you,” she smugly said. “It’s all the amusement you refuse me when you get stab wounds.”
Tristan made sure no one was looking his way before glaring at her.
“You’re inventing things,” he insisted. “This has nothing to do with Sarai.”
“I never said her name,” Fortuna smirked.
“It was implied, you pile of bad decisions,” he hissed back. “It’s this plan, Fortuna, it is all wrong.”
The goddess gracefully shifted into a sitting position, legs over the edge of the stone, and her mood turned serious so swiftly he had no idea if she had been faking the taunting before it. Gods, she had always been like this. Sometimes she made him feel like he was still a boy.
“What about it rubs you wrong?” she asked.
Having to answer her forced him to think it out, to truly look at what it was that bothered him.
“It is not the kind of method I like using,” Tristan finally said. “It is barely a plan. It relies on assumptions, even if it works perfectly it will be risky and we are making too little use of the time we have before it begins.”
The last, he thought, might be the one that most went against the grain. Thievery was about waiting for the right moment, but that moment had to be found. It was not an orange falling into your lap. Too much was being left to chance and too little done to change this.
“Then do something about it,” Fortuna shrugged, languidly rising to her feet.
The dress followed, a trail of blood slinking after the goddess. She smirked at him again, strolling away like there was nothing more than say. The part he might be most resentful about, Tristan admitted to himself, was that she had helped. There were still hours left before they moved out, if they made the attempt tonight, and he did not have spend them sitting by his broken cabinet and silently fretting.
So what could he do?
His eyes swept across the cavern, lingering on the rest of the company before dismissing them. It would not be impossible to pulls tricks to tighten or loosen alliances – Lan and Felis were easy levers – but there would be no point. All of them wanted to survive, it would keep them together and looking outwards until there was a semblance of safety. Their remaining supplies were food, water, powder and bedrolls. None of which could be put to particularly unusual use.
His gaze stopped on the carved doorway of the shrine, the great chain of silhouettes grasping the feet of those in front of them. Tristan was, at the end of the day, a thief. Why was he trying to be a general or a conspirator? Better that he use the skills he had actually learned. First, to case the place. Whoever had built this was long dead and buried, that was not the end of it. It so happened that Tristan had someone on hand who could get answers from beyond the grave.
“It might be as old as the First Empire,” Francho said, stroking his white stubble. “Not of Antediluvian make, of course – it is much too humble for that – but still build before the Old Night.”
If he let that beard grow, it would not be long before he had more hair on his chin than his head.
“So what was it for?” Tristan asked. “To honour some god?”
“Religion before the Orthodoxy was very haphazard, as far as we can tell,” the toothless old professor mused. “The Universalist creed from the Isles is probably closest to what it looked like.”
“And that means,” the grey-eyed man encouraged.
“Temples to a god were rare,” he said. “They were more along the lines of designated sacred places, grounds where mortals and gods might meet and give each other gifts if it pleased them.”
“So there might still be a gift left,” Tristan said. “If it was hidden well enough.”
“This shrine was abandoned centuries before Sacromonte was a fishing village, my boy,” Francho gently said, fighting down his cough. “If there was ever anything here of worth, it is long gone.”
But the old man was thinking as a historian, and that was not the right way here. This was the Dominion of Lost Things, not some glittering temple on the Tower Coast. The island had been full of hollows and worse ever since anyone could remember, and while the temple above had been looted this shrine was much older. It had not been so well hidden the darklings would not have looted it, but how hard had they really looked? It would have seemed a small and dingy place, compared to the great painted temple above. And this was not the kind of place treasure hunters would come to even if it had not been Watch territory, which made it even more off-limits.
“There can be no harm in looking,” Tristan said. “Is there a part that would be more sacred than the rest?”
“The ceiling,” the old man said. “What scarce records we have of the era imply that in many parts of Vesper firmament was feared and worshipped in equal measure.”
Tristan thanked him, the professor visibly forcing himself not to roll his eyes out of exasperation. Only Sanale sat within the shrine, tending to the last of the fire, and he did not spare the thief more than a glance. The insides were as plain as the outside, for all that the clever stonework tried to hide it. The arches and columns that stood out of the wall slightly were pure affectation, no more useful a support than any other carving might have been, and they led up to a high curved ceiling that was just slightly too uneven to truly count as a dome. Up there were circular stripes of stone standing out, whatever had been displayed on them worn away or covered by the black taint of smoke.
At the apex of the almost-dome was a full circle of the same motif as the threshold, silhouettes grabbing the feet of others, and a hole in the stone the size of a man’s head. It went up, like a pipe, and was the reason a fire could be lit in a place small as this shrine without choking everyone inside. On the ground there were three broken altars, or so he guessed: most the stone was gone, likely stolen by hollows. What few pieces remained were being used by Ferranda and her hired hand to dry their clothes. Lifting a shirt under Sanale’s watchful gaze revealed that their stone was covered with carvings.
Still the silhouettes.
“What are you doing?” Sanale asked.
The man was looking at him with a frown.
“Looting the shrine,” Tristan frankly replied.
The huntsman considered that, then nodded.
The thief grinned back, then let his gaze drift back up. Francho had said the ceiling would be important, but even without the old man Tristan would have begun with looking there. It would have been the most difficult part of this shrine to make, and in the builder’s place he would have been certain to add in a secret alcove or two. Climbing wasn’t difficult beyond the strain it put on his burns, which was enough for the thief to be swallowing a hiss. Anchoring his foot against the side of the ‘column’, he hoisted himself up to have a look at the first stone stripe jutting out of the ceiling. It was, he found with surprise, also adorned with the silhouette chain. Only the top of the stripe, so it could not be seen from below, but the motif seemed to be circling around the near-dome ceiling.
Ignoring Sanale’s gaze, and now the people crowding the shrine entrance looking at him, the thief dragged his left foot up on top of one of the sculpted arcs and used the leverage to pull himself further up. From there he had a better vantage of the stripes, which he saw were all carved with the chain in the same place. And there was a detail to it: the way the chain was facing, it seemed to be encircling the ceiling through the stripes. Circling upwards like a spring.
“Francho,” he called out.
The old man brushed past Lan to come into the shrine, looking as if he did not know whether to be impressed or appalled.
“You are going to break a leg for the grand prize of dust,” the professor told him.
The thief ignored that with the practiced ease of a man living bound to a goddess that could not be silenced.
“There’s a pattern to it,” he said. “I need you to look at the carvings outside, around the door. Is there are beginning and an end to the chain?”
Francho sighed but did look intrigued. More importantly he inspected the carvings as he’d been asked, returning with surprise on his face.
“There is both,” he said. “And the ‘end’ sneaks past the top of the threshold as a small line, continuing inside as a carving behind a ridge.”
“Where does it lead?” Tristan asked
His arms were beginning to cramp but he held himself tight.
“The floor, and then nowhere,” the old man said. “It is still a dead end.”
Now, maybe, but had it always been? The tiles in the temple upstairs had been ripped off the floor and walls, so it might well have been the same down here. A part of the chain was gone, but perhaps not all of it.
“The altars,” Tristan said. “They have markings too, see where they lead.”
Sanale was interested enough by the spectacle to agree to remove the drying clothes, but Francho clicked his tongue after going around looking at them. Their labour had, Tristan saw from the corner of his eye, drawn most everyone else as an audience. A few looked excited, more amused.
“Too much is gone,” the scholar said. “The altars connected to each other, I think, and perhaps headed for the back wall. I cannot be certain with what little is left.”
The back wall was something Tristan could work with. From up there he could see what the angle might have been, and there was a carved column leading into an arch facing more or less where the altars would have been. Moving in that direction across the top of the arches, he crouched down to have a closer look. No trace of the chain anywhere near the ground, but ah! Atop the curve of the arch, under dust he rubbed away with his thumb, he found the carved chain. The bottom was worn away, but it was facing upwards: towards the first of the stone strips encircling the dome.
“Found it,” Tristan triumphantly said.
It had been as he suspected: the chain began outside, passed through the altars and then slowly rose up the ‘sky’ only to lead at a final destination: the smoke hole, which might have another purpose after all.
“What is it that you are even looking for?” Francho asked.
“You said shrines like this were for trading gifts,” the thief said. “And it occurs to me: if the first silhouette is standing on the ground and all the others are holding up another body, what will the last one be holding up?”
The toothless professor was not slow.
“There might be a gift for the gods at the end,” Francho mused. “Symbolically speaking, that is not without sense.”
The difficult part was getting up there, as the old man’s warning had not been unsound: if he fell badly from this height the thief would break something. Getting a hand into the smoke hole took more acrobatics than he would prefer: feet resting on the highest stripe, his hand on a jutting stone of the ceiling to wedge himself and then all he could do was peer in the dark above. Shoving in his free hand, he groped around in search of anything at all. It seemed like a dead end, just a hole going upwards, until he pressed against the back and found there was a little give. Not much, though. Inspired, he ran his fingers near the bottom of the stone and found a carved silhouette offering up nothing.
Pressing against it, he felt a stone give and suddenly the back wall toppled.
Tristan yelped, taking back his hand as the stone fell out and down into the shrine. Francho shouted a curse when it almost fell on his head, but the thief’s attention was on the hidden compartment he had revealed. Though he could not see inside, he could feel it out. There was some kind of basin carved into the bottom, a sloping incline, but after he felt out all the sides and even the top of the compartment Tristan was forced to admit that it was empty. Either the caretakers of this place had taken away their treasure or someone had found it before he could. Enthusiasm dimming, thief carefully made his way down.
He still slipped, footing giving away against the side of the column, but by then he was close enough to the ground he was able to fall without even a bruise to show for it. Still hurt, though, almost as much as Francho’s gentle smile as the thief rose to his feet and brushed himself off.
“I told you it was unlikely,” the professor said. “Besides, it is already impressive that you found the hidden compartment.”
In sharp contrast to the old man’s attempt at comfort, Tristan saw from the corner of his eye that Fortuna’s head was popping out of the smoke hole. Long golden hair falling like a curtain, she still somehow managed to look down at them contemptuously. Like some queen granting audience to vagabonds, Tristan thought, and that was when it fell into place.
“The chain goes both ways,” the thief said, cutting through whatever Francho had been saying.
The old man frowned.
“Obsessing over this will do you no good,” he said.
Tristan turned grey eyes on him.
“You said it yourself,” he said. “The gods gave gifts as well as received them. If there was something at the end of the chain, there should be something at the beginning too.”
He would have been willing to look for the first link in the chain himself, but despite his open doubts Francho led him to it. The small carved silhouette had its feet against the ground of the cavern, as if standing on it, and when Tristan pressed against it nothing gave. He blew at the carving, finding that there were the smallest fracture lines between that first silhouette and the stone around it. It could have been time’s work, he thought. But it might not be. Leaning closer, he ran a finger beneath the carved feet and it came back touched with grey stone dust. Greyer than the stone of the cavern wall. To someone’s loudly exclaimed disgust, he tasted it. Ha! He’d been sure he knew that grey.
“There is nothing,” Francho said. “Surely you can see-”
Tristan took out his knife, picking away at the carved silhouette until some a chunk of the left leg fell off. Beneath it lay stone of a different grey. The old man wetly coughed into his hand, his breath wheezing.
“Is that what I think it is?” Francho said, voice still faint.
“If you are thinking ‘antipodal stone’, then yes,” the thief smiled.
Vanesa was standing close, a lantern in hand, and when Tristan asked she wordlessly gave it over. He opened the shutter until the naked flame was revealed, then pressed it against the carving. Antipodal stone was believed to be one of the wonders of the Antediluvians for it was a stone that, unlike others, contracted when heated instead of expanding. Some of the great canals of Sacromonte had been built out of it, in times before it became so rare, so Tristan knew the look of the stone. It was not long before he estimated it would be warm enough, the scorched figure of the silhouette hot to the touch but not so much that with his sleeve covering his fingers he could not pull at it. The stone came free when he pulled, revealing another compartment, and Tristan grinned.
“I was wrong,” Francho murmured. “Most in error.”
The thief angled the lantern to have a look inside, triumph blooming when he saw there was an object in there. It was large enough he had to grope at the inside of the compartment for another mechanism, eventually finding out that the sides of the ‘mouth’ could be pushed further open. What he took out of the compartment looked like a musical instrument of some sort, though not one he knew. It was squatter and longer than a lyre, and its wooden body had long petrified. Strangest, though, was that though where nubs for seven strings on the crossbar there were not even the broken remains of one. Tristan pulled it up into the light, feeling something move inside the body when he did.
Lightly, and it was near weightless, but there was definitely something within.
“That,” Francho quietly said, “is a supplicant’s cithara.”
They had attracted a crowd, everyone circling in around them. The thief hid how the number of people behind him was making him uncomfortable.
“A musical instrument?” Tristan asked.
“One meant only for the hands of priests,” the professor explained. “It is played with strings of Gloam, to appeal to the gods with prayer-songs.”
“So it’s worth a lot?” Lan asked, leaning past Vanesa.
More than a few considering gazes turned on the cithara at the question.
“That depends on the nature of the relic,” Francho hedged. “But by itself not particularly, save to collectors.”
He coughed into his hand.
“But inside the cithara’s body there will be a substance,” he said. “It will have been laid there by the priests who crafted it to shape the nature of the prayers, accumulating power with use. That can be worth a great deal of coin.”
Tristan raised an eyebrow, pressing the cithara into his hand. The professor looked askance at him for a moment, as if wondering what the meaning of it might be.
“The wood is petrified,” the thief said. “Turned to stone.”
And Francho could listen to the echoes lying within stone, could he not? The old man looked startled, then his face pulled into a frown of concentration as he laid an open palm against the cithara. He shivered, arm trembling, and withdrew his hand with a long sigh.
“Feathers,” Francho told him. “It is feathers inside, meant for songs of sleep.”
And so by the time Song and Ferranda returned, bringing word they had found cultists and so their group was to try the bridge tonight, Tristan Abrascal was smiling.
He had a plan.
27 thoughts on “Chapter 13”
I may have seen this chapter last week, but having it in order makes it even better.
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Makes Lan being held at knife point more sensible, for one. Previous to last chapter, her position in the group was more questionable.
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Pale Lights chapter 13: Trial Participants Lineup Fanart
Starting to post these here after realizing that I actually do have a chapter specific and relevant fanart ready for each posted chapter these days.
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“And so by the time Song and Ferranda returned”
Wasn’t Song with the nobles?
I’m pretty it’s meant to be Yong
I love Tristan being uncomfortable at the suggestion he’s being kind. I wonder how good Vanesa’s read on him is ❤
I also love how chill everyone is, particularly Tristan and Lan. "Nothing personal" put into action.
And yay thievery skills! That's why DnD parties can use rogues ❤
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Bro I didn’t realize Angharad is a hot sword mama destined to engage in sweet interracial canoodling with Tristan’s soft ass. Knowing that Malani are supposed to be black makes this whole thing extra spicy for me idk.
…hey EE, can I report this comment somehow?
Eew, ew and ew.
(Tristan is asexual… just, among the obvious problems with this comment, this is also a thing)
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Good afternoon. What would you like to report?
Honestly, Tristan has a pretty decent party forming up around him. He brings the Rogue skillet, Yong is your basic Fighter that is just good at hitting stuff, they’ve even got a bargain bin utility Wizard/Priest type of char in the professor, in the sense that he can use his powers for extra information gathering and lore checks
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Makes me wonder who Angharad is going to bring with her to the core cast. It’s so far looking like she is just going to join up with the Tristan Crew after a Trial or two. While I do want them to grow toward each other and play off of each other, I’m not sure how I feel about one of our two main POVs being a latecomer to the rest of the group.
All that being said, I haven’t predicted a single thing EE has ever done, so maybe it will pan out differently.
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Re: Angharad bringing party members of her own.
I think it is very possible that Isabella Ruesta will end up sticking around for *some* reason. Her previous reasons for being here are ostensibly up in smoke but she’s still sticking around, which means something’s up. Angharad is gonna discover at some point that Isabella has a contract and will probably be quite cross about it, but that doesn’t particularly contradict with Isabella continuing to be a member of the group.
Also maybe Song? I dunno, we don’t know Song all that much yet. But Song seems potentially cool.
Cozme Aflor is probably right out. I’m curious if Tristan will succeed in killing Cozme Aflor during the trials, since it feels like the overwhelming trend with revenge narratives is for them to take a long time, and this would be tying up a vendetta pretty early on in the story if Tristan succeeded.
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Bran and Song are the most potential party members with Angharad.
Though in Angharad’s case, it’s a stretch for anyone to stick with her because everyone she’s traveling with now is attached to the infanzones who all plan on dropping out after the second trial. She’s got to jump to/reform a different group at some point if she plans on finishing.
Tristan is just as bad as all the other plastic faces taking the trials. Even he admits it that he is not kind. It confuses me why someone’s people keep painting him as if he is all good.
Yes he helps people but only so he can use them in his schemes later , usually to their pain.
Why does Tristan keep getting two chapters in a row ?
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I mean, he might not be kind, but he keeps doing nice things to people with no expectation of reward.
(It’s just two big ones so far, but that’s a whole ass two already)
Probably because he’s inherently more interesting and proactive than Angharad. Most of her chapters are reacting to things that happen, and she has yet to do anything to move the plot forward. I imagine this is an intentional dichotomy.
That gift is interesting, I wonder if anyone can use it. Also interesting is Fortuna asking about Sarai; I was hypothosising that contracts and signs wouldn’t mix, but perhaps not.
I also wonder what Lan’s guess on Tristan’s contract is; I thought he’d been subtle enough nobody knew he had one.
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Tristan hatched a plan at the end of the chapter and I am pretty sure that plan is to try and use the instrument against the heliodoran beast.
We have already heard about a contract being used to muddle it’s mind, so we know that theoretically this is a viable way to get past it. Why not a magic instrument that makes you sleepy?
A little Nathan Drake action in this chapter, very nice!
I love to see where the story goes with Tristan and Fortuna. Does Fortuna get stronger if she gets more followers? Could Tristan benifit from that? And if so, how would he enable that?
Im here for it!
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Tristan would 100% benefit. Fortuna hangs around him because he is her only follower. That seems to make him something of a living Temple, a place for her to reside. A second follower would give her two places to be and, given that she probably doesn’t need to pass through space in a conventional sense, she would be able to pass from one to the other regardless of distance.
In short, I bet Fortuna could be bribed to pass messages between them
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Or Fortunas attention would be split in half, meaning Tristan might not have access to his gift whenever he wanted? Maybe another follower would give Fortuna something to negotiate with and Tristan would have to start listening a little more to Fortunas suggestions in orden to keep her attention on him. If should got bored with him, she could always just go to the other follower instead
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Fortuna is a god, I don’t think her attention would truly be split, and even if it does, I don’t think it will affect Tristan’s use of the contract. As of now, we have no indication that contracts need an active god’s attention to work, no character has ever had problems with using one because their god was away or something.
True about the rest though.
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Oh yeah, I have no indication for it being so, I am just theory crafting. Im wondering wether being the sole follower of a god could actually have some power to it.
So far in the story, I personally got the impression that Fortuna and Tristan have a pretty friendly relationship almost. But how much would that change if Fortuna had two horses to bet on so to speak? She does like to gamble
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I think being a follower or priest of a god, and being a contractor, are different.
It’s all guesswork at this point, but my vibe was that a contract was a much closer bond, and a god could only have one or maybe a very small number of contractors at once.
Whereas I would assume a god can have many followers. The god might give their followers specific gifts and receive specific offerings like the shrine we saw points to, but the god isn’t obligated to give the person any special powers on the regular.
A lot of the examples we have of gods making contracts seem to be when the god is a bit desperate or doesn’t have a lot of followers to lean on, so they have to deal with mortals on more equal footing. Although the manes contracted by the infazones might be an exception. I suspect the infazones have some kind of special arrangement with them.
Between Tristan and Francho they pretty much have the perfect tools to loot ancient ruins, don’t they. Francho’s particular ability continues to find more applications than I might have expected, and it really does make sense that in this specific case they might be the first ones to thoroughly loot this sunken shrine ruin.
Sarai continues to be a gem.
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Typo/editorial: in the final sentence, I believe Ferranda returned with Yong and not with Song. Unless they somehow visited the other team where Song was and swapped? 🙂
Waaaait a minute.
Back when Angharad was being tracked through Sacromonte, she thought there was a contact being used against her. I vaguely remember her having blood spayed on her when she fought the assassins?
Maybe when the Redcloaks lost her trail was when she washed the gore off herself? I need to reread…
I’m guessing at least a couple participants in these trials there to make sure Angharad meets an unfortunate accident. I suspect Sarai is one of them. I am also sus of Acanthe.