Chapter 14

They began to feel the bite of the missing supplies on the third day.

Angharad had measured her portions from the start, planning for four days’ worth of meals. Formal registration with the duelling circuit had exempted her from ever having to attend isikole, the mandatory four-year schooling, but Mother had seen to it she received some of the training nonetheless. She had not enjoyed the lessons then but now she saw the use what she’d learned going out into the countryside: how to make a fire, skin an animal and ration her food. Her portions remained the same, but those who had not been as prudent paid for it. Isabel’s maids, in particular the redhead, ate little but crumbs for breakfast. That would not do.

Angharad cut her meal in half, then in half again, and wordlessly gave a quarter to each.

“Thank you,” Beatris sincerely said, bowing her head.

“It is very kind of you,” Briceida added.

The sheer gratitude on their faces made her uncomfortable. She snuck a look at Isabel, who was chatting with the Cerdan brothers as she ate her own meal. It would not have been proper for the mistress to suffer on the behalf of careless servants, it was true, but the dark-haired beauty should have kept a closer eye on her maids in the first place. Though neither Brun nor Song were anything of the sort to her, Angharad had inquired as to their own meals the previous day. Brun had been most amused by her concern, informing her he’d eaten worse in smaller plates, while Song’s rationing had been even more strict than her own.

Neither of the Cerdan brothers seemed to be running out of food, even though they had been eating larger meals than anyone else. Even Master Cozme, whose plate was usually not much larger than Angharad’s.

“Ah, infanzones,” Brun smiled, looking at them. “Not a breed of men prone to wastefulness, it must be said: they’ve already spent poor Gascon’s life and now they eat his food.”

“Supplies are supplies,” Song pragmatically replied. “It is the extravagance that irks me.”

Angharad could not quite say why it was wrong for the Augusto and Remund Cerdan to eat the rations of the valet one of them had murdered, but it was. It did not matter that the food was theirs, or that the man who might have had a claim to it had passed. It was wrong. She stewed on that for the rest of breakfast. After all were done, Song brought up the notion that since food was beginning to run out all should pitch in their provisions for a common stash that would be rationed out fairly between everyone.

“A Tianxi proposing theft from her betters,” Remund Cerdan sneered. “How very surprising.”

“No doubt she’ll expect us to vote on it,” his older brother laughed.

“We already share the lantern oil,” Brun pointed out. “It is only going a step further.”

The decision had been made unanimously when it became clear they were running out of oil. They had lost four lanterns fighting off the lupines so only three were left, but the greater loss had been the skins full of oil. Now there was so little left they had killed two lanterns and let only the vanguard of their group carry one that was lit, lest they run the risk of running out before they even left the High Road. Having only the light of the stars to walk by would have been dangerous enough, but the prospect of Gloam disease was even more fearful than that.

“It is always only a step further, boy,” Augusto lectured, “until we kneel with our necks on the chopping block.”

Angharad frowned at them.

“There has been no talk of violence or taking from anyone, only an offer to contribute to a common good,” she said.

“It is not for nobles to fill the world’s empty bellies,” Remund dismissed. “We will run out of loaves long before we run out of beggars: the commons must take responsibility for themselves.”

The Pereduri did not hide her disgust. Did Remund Cerdan not understand what being a noble was? All men had a trade, a vocation under the Sleeping God, and to be born a noble was to learn the trade of leadership, the burden of command. To then let your own go hungry was a fundamental failure of that duty. More disappointingly, the Cerdans were not alone in their opinion.

“My handmaids are free to join such an arrangement if they wish,” Isabel said, “but I will not. I will see to my affairs without needing the help of others.”

The offer was the nail in the coffin of Song’s proposal, for now neither she nor Brun were inclined to continue the plan. The maids had nothing to contribute to the pot, meaning in practice they would be fed at the expense of those who filled it. Angharad understood she had no right to expect the two of them to take food off their plates for strangers, but for all that everyone had their good and proper reasons the result was still that two of their company would go hungry. The selfishness of it all was cloying. She rose brusquely to her feet, anger caught in her throat.  

“It is not much,” Angharad stiffly told the maids, “but I will share again at supper what I did for this meal.”

The three of them would go hungry, but hunger passed. Dishonour would not. Isabel smiled at her but Angharad’s answering gaze was cool as she went to grab her back. Sometimes people were less than you had thought them to be.

After they resumed the march it was not entirely a surprise when Isabel joined her at the back. Angharad was yet under oath, she could not have approached the other herself. With Song and Beatris walking in front of them while Augusto and Remund Cerdan took the vanguard far ahead, they even had a modicum of privacy.

“I will be sharing half my meals with them as well, Angharad,” the infanzona quietly told her. “But it would have served no good to shame the brothers before everyone.”

She studied Isabel from the corner of her eye, wondering if she was being appeased. No, she decided. Isabel was not scheming, only too prone to playing the peacemaker even when the other side was undeserving of compromise. It was a flaw born of kindness, not something baser.

“Speaking for your own is your responsibility,” she finally said. “Your maids deserve better than silence.”

Irritation flashed in the infanzona’s green eyes.

“They might,” Isabel sharply replied, “but I imagine they yet prefer being on speaking terms with the man whose contract is the sole way for us to get down from this aqueduct.”

Angharad had not considered that, she would admit, but duty was duty.

“It is a matter of honour,” she said. “Nobles have obligations, Isabel.”

“There is honour in keeping everyone breathing,” the infanzona retorted “And that means keeping the brothers happy. Do you not understand that every time one of them has the watch they could simply leave us?”

Isabel swallowed, obviously distressed.

“Angharad, they could take the food and the lanterns and go,” she said, snapping her fingers. “Just like that, leaving us stranded. And why wouldn’t they? You swore to kill one of them and Song’s map has lost its use. There is only one reason for them to stay.”

The woman they were both courting, Isabel did not need to say, and Angharad felt her anger ebb away. It would have been a fine thing to say that she’d been convinced by the soundness of the argument, and it genuinely was sound! Open contempt from the woman they were courting might well drive the brothers away just as Isabel feared. But the truth was that the tremor in Isabel’s voice and the fear on her face did more to convince Angharad to let go of her indignation than all the rest. Who was she to cast blame, when she had not even noticed the burden laying on the infanzona’s shoulders?

“It will be all right,” she quietly said, laying gentle a hand on the Isabel’s wrist. “Only one more day to the end of the High Road, and then they will have no power over us.”

She let out a long breath, leaning into Angharad’s shoulder.

“I am tired,” she admitted. “And afraid. None of it has gone the way I thought it would.”

“My uncle told me it would be a hard journey,” Angharad said, “but it has been trying in different ways than I had expected.”

“So it has,” Isabel snorted, pushing back a curl. “To think we could be at risk of Gloam disease in this day and age.”

“We will not be for some time,” Angharad absent-mindedly replied.

Curious green eyes turned on her.

“You know of the process?”

“My mother was a sea captain,” she replied. “Few know the terror of that disease better than sailors.”

Particularly those who sailed the Straying Sea, which unlike the Trebian had no light shined down on it from firmament. Only the royal house’s great triumph, the Serpentine Roads, dared to cut through that once-unbroken darkness.

“It takes seven days entirely without Glare or a month with less than two hours a day exposed for the disease to take,” Angharad continued. “So long as we keep eating our meals under lantern light and keeping watch with the same, we are not at risk.”

“I have heard Malani studied the disease more deeply than any other,” Isabel hesitantly said. “That they have measured what it does to men.”

“The basics are common knowledge back home,” she admitted.

Clearing her throat, she pitched her voice higher.

“Seven dead and one alive, the last in dark to thrive,” Angharad sang.

All children of the Isles were taught the nursery rhyme. Malani scholars had found that out of ten men who contracted Gloam disease, the results cut towards an average: seven would die, two turn darkling and one survive. Mother had always said that the hollowing was more common than that, however, and that sometimes those headed for death could be saved if they were bathed in direct Glare for long enough – the burning light that straight fell from the cracks in firmament, not the gentler glow of Antediluvian devices. Isabel shivered against her.

“What a dreadful verse,” Isabel murmured, “but I suppose it lays out the endings plain.”

“It is meant to be sobering,” Angharad said, slipping her arm into the other woman’s and squeezing it. “That way children remember to stay out of the Gloam, especially in the countryside.”

Malan and its sister-islands, Peredur and Uthukile, were not under a part of firmament where the Antediluvians had built wonders. It was only a great pit of Glare that made the islands habitable, and that light was not as sophisticated as that of lands with older blessings. Between the shadows cast by the lay of the land and the Challenger – that great wandering machine high up in the sky – cutting through the light, there was no end of nooks and crannies where a careless soul might find a bad end.

“It is not natural to stay out of the light for too long,” Isabel agreed. “It presses against the soul of all those not estranged from the Circle Perpetual.”

“We have been weathering it fine for now, I would say,” Angharad replied.

Isabel prettily smiled, then leaned close. For a golden, terrifying heartbeat Angharad thought she was about to be kissed but instead the infanzona tugged her coat into place.

“There, that’s better,” Isabel said, smirking in a way that told she knew exactly what she’d just done.

Angharad cleared her throat. She had not blushed, at least.

“Thank you,” she got out.

“It is nothing,” she airily replied. “If you must thank me for anything, let it be for this: we are not all taking to the dark as well you think. Your helper Brun, for example.”

“He is not a helper,” the Pereduri said, “but a companion.”

“A companion who does all you ask him to and keeps the same foes,” Isabel drily replied. “But call him a companion if you like – the reluctance is part of your charm, I think.”

Angharad was not sure whether she was flattered or insulted, but either way she pushed through.

“Brun has been well enough,” she finally said. “Why do you believe otherwise?”

“He puts on a good show when we have meals, or when he is paired with someone else,” Isabel conceded. “Even when he speaks with dear Briceida. Yet the moment he is not, a black mood takes him.”

Angharad’s brows rose in surprise.

“Not a speck of emotion on his face,” Isabel continued, “and he grows restless. Always reaching for that hatchet of his while the eye wanders.”

“I had no notion,” she admitted.

“I doubt he would take well to an attempt to comfort,” the infanzona noted. “Men rarely do, from a woman whose skirts they are not trying to slide under. I mention it only so you might keep an eye on him.”

“I will,” Angharad swore.

Brun had been good and kind, she would not repay these things by letting the Gloam have him. While the eponymous sickness was some of the worst of what the dark held in store, it was hardly the only illness born of it. Most of them were of the mind: it was not rare for men to go mad, in pieces or all at once, for the lack of light.

“Good,” Isabel smiled. “You are one of the pillars of this company, after all. It would not do for you to act otherwise.”

“You overestimate my influence,” Angharad dismissed.

“Do I?” the green-eyed beauty said. “Around you gathers the capacity for much violence, Angharad. Two fine fighters and then yourself. There is a reason I believe the brothers would flee, not attempt to fight you for the reins of power.”

“Even if that were true,” she said, “what has it helped? I agreed with Song, this morning, that we should share the food. It did no good.”

“I usually find, when I am refused, that I simply did not ask the right way,” Isabel said.

Angharad shot the infanzona an amused look. Yes, she did not find it all that difficult to believe that few would refuse her much of anything. Only the amusement faded when she found Isabel meeting her gaze squarely, a look almost unkind in them. No, Angharad thought, not unkind. It was the same she had seen on some of the tutors Mother arranged for, men and women who’d agreed to meet to Angharad only out of courtesy for the reputation of the famed Captain Tredegar. She’d had to prove she was worth their time, their lessons.

She had been tested then and she was being tested now.

Wrenching her gaze away, she kept her eyes peeled ahead. She had not asked the right way, according to Isabel, but she could not see the Cerdans agreeing to anything she proposed. She had struck a bargain with Remund and he had become friendlier in the shallowest of manners since, but that did not make them of one mind. Cozme Aflor was unlikely to intercede on her behalf either, and Isabel had made it clear she could not afford to openly pick a side. There was a saying in Peredur, that a man’s name had two halves: his deepest regret and his heart’s desire. To know either was to own half his name, to know both was to have him bound as tightly as any spirit.

So what was it the Cerdan brothers wanted, that she could use it against them?

They wanted to inherit, badly enough to strike deals with enemies to rid themselves of their rival. Badly enough that Master Cozme was here as much to protect them from one another as the trials themselves. Only Angharad had already made bargains using that desire, and to use a lever too much was to break it. Could she muster Song and Brun to try to force the notion? Perhaps, but there was no guarantee it would work – more likely the confrontation would drive the infanzones away in the night. It could not come from her, Angharad decided. She was the enemy, even to the Cerdan she had made alliance with.

The silence lingered between she and Isabel, enough to unsettle her, but the infanzona waited without a word or a trace of boredom on her face. Quietly expectant, and so Angharad forced her mind down furrows she had already dug. If not from her, then from who? Isabel had dismissed Brun as being her helper, and though she was wrong in this the brothers might share that opinion. That barred either he or Song from being an answer. That left only the maids and Isabel, for the brothers were unlikely to willingly get food off their plate on behalf of people they largely disliked and held in contempt. Did they even like anyone of their company save Isabel?

And there Angharad stilled, for the brother did indeed like Isabel. Perhaps even loved her, though she had her doubts. One of the reasons the Cerdan brothers were so ardently courting Isabel Ruesta was the wealth of the infanzona’s house, which making ties to would surely see the earner rise above his brother to inherit their family’s title. It was a shade of the heart’s desire, half the name seized by a different grip, and the openings were all there weren’t they? Angharad carefully put the pieces together in her mind. Isabel’s maids had been given permission to join the ‘arrangement’ of shared food, and Isabel was going to share part of her meal with them.

All that needed doing was to nudge the events a little further along.

“Have you considered,” Angharad said, “giving your entire meals to your maids?”

Surprise flicked across the other woman’s face, a flash of it followed by Isabel breathing in sharply and releasing a little laugh.

“Oh,” she said. “That is clever.”

It was the Pereduri’s turn to start.

“You were not leading me towards such a solution?” she slowly asked.

“Not at all, darling,” Isabel chuckled. “There were other ways, but I really should not be surprised this is what you thought of.”

She shook her head with wry amusement.

“It is all very Malani, yes? The lady gives away her meals to her servants, noble in deed, and naturally when she ends up without anything the lords courting her will fight for the privilege of providing. Gallantry all around, with just a hint of the mercenary sensibilities lying beneath.”

The last sentence she spoke with open approval, which had Angharad grimacing. Not, however, disagreeing. That was the ugly truth of the words exact, the one her father had made sure to teach her: if you cleaved only to the letter of honour, honour had a way of ending up being what was most advantageous to you. No matter how callous or cruel. When the Father of Devils appeared in the Great Tales, the King of Hell never spoke a single lie or broke a single oath. It made Lucifer no less dangerous: a single whisper from him had been enough to turn Issay the Great, first and finest king of Malan, into a bloodthirsty tyrant.

She was broken out of her ruminations by Isabel laying a head against her shoulder.

“You are prone to brooding, Angharad,” she said. “We will have to fix that.”

“How ambitious of you,” she drawled back, “when we will only have so long together. Until the end of the second trial is not so long, my lady.”

“Oh, my life will not end after the Trial of Ruins,” Isabel flirted back. “It is why I want to take it in the first place, darling.”

She flicked a meaningful glance ahead.

“With such an achievement to my name, my parents will allow me greater latitude to choose who I may tie myself to,” Isabel said.

“A cause worth fighting for,” Angharad replied, only half jesting.

“I thought you might say that,” Isabel Ruesta smiled, green eyes warm with promise.

There was only so long the two of them could nestle against one another at the back of the company without being seen, so when lunch grew close they reluctantly parted ways. Perhaps it was for the best, Angharad thought, for if she’d felt Isabel’s lips whispering against her ear or her neck one more time she might have ended up doing something very unwise. And by the knowing look Song gave her when they sat down for the meal, they had not gone entirely unseen after all. Angharad was in too good a mood to feel all that chided, which seemed to amuse the Tianxi.

She was careful not to pay too much attention while the trick she had agreed on with Isabel unfolded, the maids with their full plates offering to contribute to a joint stash of food while their lady sat smiling at them without a speck of food to show for. Augusto was the first to offer his meal, Remund looking like he was about to curse when his older brother beat him to it. Isabel offered to take only half from each, ever the peacemaker, and the pair spent more time glaring at each other than noticing anything else. Master Cozme caught her eye, cocking an eyebrow at her, and she shrugged innocently.

The man chuckled, stroking his moustache, and tipped what would have been his hat at her.

Angharad smiled back but kept her attention on the arrangements for the food. There was precious little bargaining, the two maids aware they were being welcomed into the pact from a position of weakness, and it was elected that Song would see to the rationing itself. It was to begin with supper and end with arrival at the second trial. The maids remained close to them as they ate, the most Angharad had seen of them since the journey began, and it became clear that in Isabel’s absence the two did not bother to hide their common dislike. Briceida, the well-mannered redhead, kept fiddling with a small ivory trinket: it was a needle with a sculpted head, too large for sewing and so likely meant for keeping hair in place.

“It is quite pretty,” Brun complimented. “A gift from your family?”

“From poor old Gascon, in truth,” Briceida replied, preening at the compliment. “He won it gambling during our first night on the island and gave it to me the following day.”

“How kind of him,” Beatris drily said. “Entirely unprompted, I’m sure.”

A poisonous glare was turned on her.

“We cannot all earn precious stones from rats, I suppose,” Briceida smilingly replied. “Whatever did you do for it, dear Beatris? I can only hope you weren’t taken advantage of.”

“Going through my affairs again, I see,” Beatris coldly replied. “And to think I am the one from the Murk.”

Angharad cleared her throat, interrupting them before the bickering could get out of hand.

“A lovely needle indeed,” she said. “Do you intend to use it with your hair, Briceida?”

The maids sheathed their claws when the conversation turned, Brun offering her a grateful look for the intervention. The rest of the meal was spent on idle conversation, and before long they were on the march again. Tempting as it was to try to sneak another moment with Isabel in the dark, Angharad resisted the urge to try and walked with Song near the middle of their column instead. Before they could even begin to converse the entire company ground to a halt when Master Cozme let out a shout from the front.

Everyone down,” the old soldier hissed. “Boy, close the lantern.”

The fear in his voice killed any hesitation there might have been at following the order: Angharad flattened herself against the bottom of the High Road while Brun, who had been in front with Cozme, closed the lantern’s shutter. All Angharad glimpsed before lying down against the stone was a tall silhouette striding across the plains in the distance, some feathered creature. For what might have been the better part of an hour they stayed there, only Cozme raising his head over the edge to look, and finally the old soldier told them to get up after it was gone.

“What was that thing?” Remund Cerdan asked.

“A gravebird, my lord,” Cozme Aflor darkly replied. “We do not want to ever draw one’s attention.”

All the Sacromontans looked shaken at the name, and Song as well, leaving Angharad the outsider. She had never heard of such a spirit. They resumed the journey in a strange mood, Augusto Cerdan’s too-loud boasts to Isabel that he would have protected her from the lemure ringing unpleasantly. The elder brother was more careful with his words than the younger, but not so much as to be called careful without the comparison. Remembering what he had said about chopping blocks that very morning, Angharad flushed with embarrassment. The insult had not been implicit in the slightest, only not spoken to Song directly.

“I apologize for Lord Augusto’s lack of manners this morning,” she quietly told the Tianxi. “There was no call for him to imply you have such bloody intentions, no matter the politics of the Republics.”

“I’m sure no end of little nobles are tucked in at night to tales of Republicans coming to chop off their heads if they’ve been bad,” Song amusedly said, “but I assure you the stories are exaggerated. It is only in the southernmost three republics, the Sanxing, that nobles were all sent to the block.”

Angharad started in surprise.

“I was taught that there are no nobles in Tianxia,” she slowly said. “Was this wrong?”

“There are no titles, certainly,” Song replied. “But the northern republics came late to the fold, and some less eagerly than others. Many nobles there were granted high positions in the bureaucracy after laying down their old rights. Their families remain rich and influential to this day.”

“That is not nobility,” Angharad told her, not unkindly. “It is corruption.”

For some reason the Tianxi looked very amused.

“They still have to take the examinations,” she said. “Those unsuitable to serve are weeded out, worry not. It is a compromise only Yellow Earth purists take issue with.”

These Angharad had heard of. Tianxi radicals hatching conspiracies all over Vesper, assassins and fomenters of rebellion. That the Republics might not endorse their actions but equally refused to denounce them was one of the reasons Tianxia was so often at war with its neighbours. The Pereduri often found it hard to reconcile how a people so sensible over other matters could be so senseless in this one.

“There is no need to look so troubled, Angharad,” Song teased. “I only speak of this to make it plain that firebrand hatred is not common. I even studied the Malani classics, I’ll have you know.”

“The Great Tales?” Angharad said, impressed. “I must confess I have only read Ships of Morn and The Madness of King Issay.”

It was tradition that written Umoya be learned through the Great Tales, even if the language was dated. She had despised it so much as a child that Father had only made her read the two most exciting of the tales, the ones full of battles and rebellions and gory ends. If Song had read all nine of the works, it was a worthy achievement.

“Were they translated into Antigua or Cathayan?” she asked.

“In the original Umoya,” Song replied flawlessly in that very language.

“How rare,” Angharad enthused in the same. “I only ever learned Antigua and some Gwynt myself.”

The ancient Pereduri language was considered uncouth to speak in Malani society, and only solely used by commoners deep in the duchy’s countryside.

“I’ve always wanted to learn Gwynt,” Song admitted. “There are all these lovely-sounding songs from before Morn’s Arrival that your people put to writing. My mother would not hear of it, though, kept me on Centzon and Samratrava.”

The two most common tongues of, respectively, the Kingdom of Izcalli and the Imperial Someshwar. Angharad did not stare but it was a close thing.

“Song,” she delicately said, “may I ask how many languages you do speak?”

“Seven fluently,” the Tianxi replied.

“Were you to be an interpreter, by any chance?” Angharad tried.

The other womna’s face turned serious.

“I had an unusual upbringing,” Song admitted. “But we have strayed far enough from our thread, I would think. If you did not take to the Great Works, may I ask what you did enjoy?”

The subject change was gentle, but no less firm for it. The noblewoman would not be so discourteous as to ignore it.

“I am fond of poetry,” Angharad said. “Some Lierganen greats – Ilaria and Alifonso in particular – but firstly the Malani luminaries. Ybanathi is my favourite.”

She only realized what she had said after it was too late to bite down on the words. Quietly mortified, Angharad snuck a sideways look at Song. Perhaps the Tianxi was unaware that the poetess Ybanathi was famous for her verses about her pining affections for women. Or that, in some circles, asking another woman if she had read Ybanathi was considered an indirect way to ask if she too had an interest in the fairer sex. Song smiled at her.

“Oh, I have never heard of Ybanathi before,” she said. “What did she write?”

“Several books of poems,” Angharad vaguely replied. “They defy easy description.”

“I must see to acquiring them after the trials, then,” the silver-eyed woman decided. “Perhaps you can explain them to me.”

The mortification piled on and still the Tianxi offered her that innocent smile, unknowingly twisting the knife. Although, Angharad thought as she narrowed her eyes, that smile might be a little too innocent.

“You are making sport of me,” she accused.

“Oh, distant firmament, break my back!” Song theatrically recited, hand over her heart. “It would be kinder than your frown.”

She had not thought to hear the Ode to Isore recited to her here, much less in perfect Umoya. It was more embarrassing than she might have dreamed of.

“This is most unwarranted,” Angharad plaintively said.

“I will spare you this once,” Song allowed. “But only if you formally renounce the belief you might have ever been subtle about your preferences.”

“I hid nothing, but neither did I trumpet it about,” she protested.

“It might have been more akin to a drum,” Song conceded. “Not at the forefront, yet effectively impossible to miss.”

The obvious amusement on the other woman’s face was contagious, for all that Angharad was being the figure of fun. It was meant with such an obvious lack of bile that her own lips could not help but twitch.

“I will have you know that-”

“Someone ahead,” Brun suddenly announced.

The change that came over their company was instant: weapons were eye in the blink of an eye, Angharad’s own saber leaving the sheath, and all eyes went forward as the infanzones let better fighters pass them. Only there was nothing but darkness ahead, even in the light of the lantern Cozme was now hoisting up.

“This is no laughing matter, boy,” Master Cozme harshly said. “If you think-”

I can sense the living, Brun had told her. People best, hollows and beasts with more difficulty.

“I believe him,” Angharad cut in, coming forward.

She gently pressed aside Isabel, then brushed past Augusto to join the two at the front. Her eyes went to Brun, whose face was calm but eyes had grown cold. He was preparing for a fight.

“How many?” she asked him.

“Either one or two,” he murmured. “Hollows, so it’s hard to tell.”

He leaned in closer.

“I cannot distinguish height,” Brun whispered in her ear. “They could be below. Maybe four, five hundred feet ahead.”

She grimaced, nodding her understanding. Cozme’s eyes moved between the two of them, narrowed, and the man was not a fool. He no longer asked questions or doubted Brun’s word, drawing his sword with the hand not already holding his pistol.

“Should we kill the lantern?” she asked him.

He shook his head.

“No point, hollows see better than us in the dark,” Master Cozme said. “Hard to take them by surprise. On a narrow road like this, our best bet is rushing in.”

She nodded in agreement.

“Then we need a vanguard,” Angharad said. “I volunteer.”

The veteran smiled roguishly.

“As expected,” he said. “I’ll go with you.”

He glanced back.

“Pistols and muskets out,” Cozme Aflor ordered. “Take a shot if you have a clear one, but otherwise hold your fire.”

Tension thrummed across her skin when they moved to the front, limbering limbs. With Brun’s help they might take the enemy by surprise, his contract peering ahead better than sight, but she would not bet on it. Lanterns could be seen from far away in an island without much light. She shared a nod with Cozme, then began moving. Long strides at first, then quickening into a run and rushing headfirst into as quickly as they could. Brun was holding the lantern behind them, casting is glow ahead, but Angharad still missed the signs. She thought it a curve in the stone until the dusty grey cloak nestled against the left edge of the aqueduct was thrown off, a tattooed pale man unloading his crossbow right at Cozme.

She struck out in an arc sweeping upwards and-

(Cozme ducked, the bolt tearing through his cheek, her strike was too early)

-slowed her blow, catching the bolt’s head and sending it skittering up while Cozme ducked with a shout. A heartbeat later he unloaded his pistol at the hollow as the man tried to get up, the ball hitting metal under a hair shirt and knocking the man back down. Angharad rushed forward, eyes sweeping the High Road for any trace of the second, but she found nothing. Only stone and – shit, Angharad thought, eyes straying to the side as she saw a slender silhouette running away in the plains below. They were near an arc in the aqueduct, the other darkling must have been hiding under it.

“Someone shoot-” she called out, only for a sharp crack to interrupt her.

The back of the runner’s head burst red, Song’s impeccable aim claiming another life. Good, she fiercely thought. The coward would not be able to send for reinforcements. The hollow up on the aqueduct began to rise again but she was on him and smashed her boot into his chin, putting him down, then hacked at the hand bringing up a curved blade to slash at her. There was a scream of pain as her steel bit deep as bone, the hollow’s sword clattering on the ground, and she laid a boot on his chest to keep him on the ground. Cozme was by her side a moment later, smashing the pommel of his sword in the hollow’s face. The unsettlingly pale man, who she now saw was not tattooed but ritually scarred, fell in a daze.

“You want a prisoner?” Cozme asked.

Angharad hesitated. There was no reason for the hollow to talk save if they promised to set him free, which she could not risk, or through torture, which she would not countenance. The matter was settled when a thrown hatchet sunk between the hollow’s eyes with a whooping wet sound, right into the skull. Death was near instant, Brun sliding past her as she stood struck with surprise to wrench free his weapon. He met her stare head on.

“Too dangerous to live,” the fair-haired Sacromontan simply said.

There was, though, something like satisfaction in his eyes. Had Isabel seen the truth of it, was the dark affecting him? Angharad studied the lay of his shoulders, how they seemed to loosen, and decided that not. He had been restless because darkness was not an enemy he could fight, but now that he’d fought – however short the fight – he had bled out some of the unease. It sat ill with Angharad that the hollow had been killed without a weapon in hand, but this was a battle and not a duel. Honour had not been breached.

“You are not wrong,” she finally said, and that was the end of that.

The rest of the company caught up and some few moments investigating found where the hollows had been camped. Up on the High Road there had been nothing but a waterskin – gratefully added to their reserves – under the large grey cloak, but below the arch was a pair of bedrolls and what looked like stripes of dried meat along a basket of black tomatoes. Song found how the hollow had climbed up, a knotted rope ending in hooks that had been hidden along the curve of the arch. Its existence led to heated debate, Brun and the Cerdan arguing someone should climb down and seize the supplies.

“There are two fresh corpses about and we are deep in the island,” Song flatly replied. “Every breath we waste here is a danger.”

Angharad found it distasteful to take from the dead, even though within certain bounds it was no taint on honour, so she was inclined to agree. As did Isabel, who wanted to leave this place as swiftly as possible. The argument might have gone on for longer had Beatris not suddenly let out a startled cry. Angharad reached for her blade again, following the maid’s gaze, and found a slice of darkness blotting out distant stars.

Harrowhawk,” Song shouted.

It would take more than a blade to kill this, Angharad realized, for as the beat of great wings became deafening she saw that the descending shape was tall as three men. Master Cozme dropped the lantern, hurriedly cramming powder and shot down his pistol, and in that toppled trembling light the Pereduri saw a storm of oily feathers. Talons thicker than her legs tore into the hollow’s corpse, ripping it apart like wet paper, and in eerie silence the spirit unfolded its wings. It is a man, Angharad thought incredulously. Within the black feathers lay a silhouette of tarnished gold, arms and legs outlined in golden wire as they led up to a helmeted head.

But the arms thickened, twisted, turning into golden feathers where there should have been hands. The entire man shivered, and only then did she realize it was nothing but colour on feathers – colours that seemed too deep to truly be that.

Angharad only realized she had gone still, that all sound had fled her ears, when Brun barrelled into her.

They both fell on the hard stone, the Sacromontan hastily getting out an apology as they rose to their feet. Behind them Song snapped off a shot right in the eyes of the golden helm, but though feathers gave the spirit cared not. While Angharad had been entranced Cozme had been thrown down, wounded in a way that left a black scar on his face, and Augusto was dragging him off while screaming as the top of his lungs. Why? The creature barely even moved, only watching them as it nonchalantly tore at the hollow’s corpse.

“It’s too old for lead,” Song cursed. “We need to run.”

From a spirit that could fly? It would be pointless. They could only fight. Breathing out, Angharad pushed down her fear and turned to face the golden frame. Distance would be hard to measure, with so little light, but it was not so different from shadow-fighting. She could do this, the Pereduri told herself, and rushed forward. Someone behind shouted her name, but she could not find it in herself to care. It felt… distant.

“YOU ARE HOME.”

“Mother?” she whispered, stumbling forward.

“YES. COME TO ME. YOU ARE HOME.”

Had it, had it all been a dream? The fire and the screams and the people hounding her to the ends of the earth. She took a step forward, back slick with sweat.

“YOU ARE SAFE,” Mother sang to her. “YOU ARE HOME. YOU ARE MINE.”

She could feel the warmth of the hearth, her mother’s embrace. Only even as took another step, she felt it slip through her fingers. The warmth was leaving, cold running through her veins. The coolness of water in the dark, in a deep place that only silence knew. And a voice spoke through her, though it was not a voice: it was the tide eating away the cliffside, the cry of gulls picking at corpses, the sound of men kneeling. It was the patient crawl of the inexorable.

“Know your place,” the Fisher chided.

Angharad came back to herself as the golden stingers that’d been closing around her face like grotesque fingers tore away, the spirit screeching in pain as it tried to cover its head with its wings. She hacked at the body, blade sliding into the feathers as if they were made of oil, and withdrew her dripping saber with a shiver of disgust. There was nothing she could do, she realized, and so she fled. Whatever it was her patron had done to the spirit, it was soon gone and she’d barely taken three steps before its wings unfolded again.

“Briceida,” Isabel said in a trembling voice. “Do it.”

“My lady-”

Do it.”

And Angharad saw as the redheaded maid took a step forward, ashen-faced and turned her eyes on the spirit looming over them all.

She clapped her hands.

The terrifying ring of it threw the noblewoman down against the stone, as if a ship had smashed into a cliff right above her head. Her cheek against the aqueduct, dirt and blood in her mouth, Angharad crawled forward. Behind her, the spirit – the harrowhawk – was rippling like a pond in the wind. All save for the silhouette of gold painted on its feathers.

“Again,” Isabel commanded, tone grown firmer.

Briceida clapped her hands and wind blew against Angharad’s braids, the spirit screeching behind her. The Pereduri rose to her feet and out of the way, Brun helping her up. She turned just in time to see the harrowhawk rip in two the hollow’s corpse, screeching in hatred at them, but flinching away when the redheaded maid drew back her hands. A least scream of hate and the spirit leapt off the edge of the aqueduct, great wings spreading, and fled into the night.

“Are you all right?” Brun gently asked her.

“Fine,” she got out. “I was… protected.”

She could no longer feel the Fisher’s presence. The old spirit would have let her die, she knew, if it had been claws or fang that were to take her. But the harrowhawk had tried to take her soul, and that the Fisher had not been willing to countenance.

He had a claim to it, until their bargain was done.

“And a good thing that you were,” Song bit out, looking her over from head to toe like a fretting mother. “Harrowhawks eat the souls they take, Angahrad, but slowly. It is decades of screaming torment.”

“Then I must give Briceida my thanks twice over,” she replied, turning to find the handmaid.

She was currently kneeling on the floor, Isabel standing over her and soothing her back as the redhead desperately ate what looked like a white powdery tablet. Aside from Cozme’s face wound and the way Augusto Cerdan was cradling his left arm, their company seemed to have made it out unharmed. They would not have, Angharad thought, had the creature been more interested in eating their bodies than their souls. Pushing down the grim thought, she returned her gaze to the strange spectacle of Briceida.

“A Sacromontan remedy?” she ventured.

Lierganen medicine still hewed too close to the practices of the Second Empire, all knew, and so their doctors were hardly better than the plague.

“No,” Brun quietly replied, eyes hooded. “That’s chalk. Tablets of chalk.”

His parents had been miners, Angharad recalled. None of them further commented on Briceida crunching down on an entire tablet the length long as the beginning of the noblewoman’s wrist to the tip of her fingers. If it was not medicine then it was a contract’s price, and not something to be discussed when the handmaid had just saved all their lives. The redhead was half-weeping, Isabel gently holding her as she finished the last of the chalk and began retching.

“Another,” Briceida rasped. “Fuck, he wants another.”

She was noisily sick a heartbeat later and they all looked away. In the songs, in the stories, spirits asked beautiful things of those they made bargains with: a song of true love, the beat of a butterfly’s wings, a blade quenched in devil’s blood. But those were songs, and truth was not so pretty. Sometimes spirits wanted baser things as payment, like the sensation of a woman eating chalk no matter what the eating did to her body. At Brun’s quiet suggestion they spent went to pull up the rope the hollows had used to climb the aqueduct. After the harrowhawk’s visit, there was no more talk of lingering there: it might yet come back, or a more dangerous spirit grow curious of the racket.

Briceida had to eat most of a second tablet, but that one at least she kept down. They moved out the moment she could stand, Angharad putting away the rope in her bag without a word.

They fled forward into the dark, only a shivering lantern light guiding them.

28 thoughts on “Chapter 14

    1. “How rare,” Angharad enthused in the same. “I only ever learned Antigua and some Gwynt myself.”

      I kind of want this to be a typo and Angharad actually has on her a deck of Gwent and she’s just here because she heard the Cult of the Red Eyes have a really rare card

      Liked by 1 person

  1. arcanavitae15

    This was a good showing from Angharad all around showing that she usually lives up to the stuff she peddles and when she doesn’t she tries her best, all the while not being stupid about it and even wielding her principles like a weapon. Also the Fisher is pretty scary and badass, no selling the soul eating attack, there are some scary ass monsters capable of some scary stuff and I’m excited to learn more.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh there’s certainly some kind of compensation. But I agree, it’s probably not something they would have chosen to do if they hadn’t got that offer they couldn’t refuse.

      The prize for worst deal however goes to Alines and Felis. They are here not to save themselves but for their five children. And they were given different “tasks” to do this.

      We know that Alines have to survive to the second test, or their children will be drowned.

      The way Felis has been trying to get Alines away from the group even when it is obvious that’s likely to kill them both suggests that his task has to do with her or both of them dying. What the prize is we can only speculate on. It could be a lifetime supply of Dust. Or if they are truly diabolical, he has to kill Alines before the second test or their children will be burned on the stake.

      In my demented brain it’s the second alternative. So even if Alines somehow manages to survive and get back all that’s waiting is a barbecue for her kids. Perhaps getting accepted into the watch would be enough to make her children to dangerous to touch. But I fear there’s no good end for Alines and Felis no matter what happens on this island.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. CantankerousBellerophan

    It is good to know there are people in this world who know the proper way to dispose of those who would call themselves noble. Though it does beg the question of exactly how much worse their nobles were than those of the rest of the world, if theirs are the only people who decided to do something about it. Sacromontan nobles are forcing people into bloodsports over debts they didn’t even accrue themselves (not that the concept of debt as the ownership class thinks of it is legitimate, of course). Malani nobles are making sport of the concepts of fairness and honor openly enough that even they will admit it to their own children. What were the nobles of Tianxi, so justly executed or disempowered, doing to inspire their people to seek that justice?

    It is said the Malani have “made a study” of the effects of Gloam sickness. This should be obvious to all, but for those who may have missed it, this means the Empire of Malan has deliberately sickened and murdered its own people (or those they enslaved, more likely, we cannot forget that Angharad’s people are fit only for death) out of sheer scientific curiosity. That they are monsters was already known, of course. This only demonstrates the depth of their inhumanity.

    As for Angharad’s beliefs about the “responsibilities” of nobility, they merely demonstrate the depths of her own ignorance and paternalism. The truth is people do not need what she calls leadership. When disasters strike and communities are cut off from the heirarchies which would ordinarily claim leadership, the result is not chaos. When a tornado flattens a town, or a hurricaine floods every road in a small city, people begin to protect each other. Consistently, relief agencies note that people living in disaster areas will have already set up shelters using whatever they have, begun to care for the injured with the tools available, and pooled together whatever food was left until emergency responders could begin rebuilding. What happens, when leadership is removed, is not chaos, disorder, or horror. It is anarchy, in the original sense.

    The people do not need “leadership” or “guidance.” They certainly do not need anyone who would call themselves “betters.” They need the physical tools to provide for themselves, and the knowledge of how to use them effectively. These are the things nobility denies to everyone else in order to enslave those they rule. In Vesper, they monopolize not just materials but light itself. Things which will stave off Gloam sickness are kept away from the poor unless they work for them, despite the fact that mirrors can disperse the Glare effectively over a wide area. There is no reason for cities to be dark except for the power this grants to the people who own them. Darkness is all the evidence of noble redundancy one needs.

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    1. Well. You truly have some very negative views of the nobility and I usually agree with the assessment. However, I do believe human society needs some sort of order to reach its fullest potential. The reason a nation was formed in the first place was to create the greatest good for everyone. In the case of Ancient China, it was the water management system that required the formation of a large government. The resources a nation can accumulate need to be managed. People need to be willing to contribute. And finally, someone needs to maintain order. It required at least some sort of leaders (kings&queens) and an enforcer class(nobilities). And it is only natural for a sort of ruling class to form. Passing over your gain to your children and family is a motivation that many have. We want the best for our children and our family. It is also the motivation to push extra hard in something that you might not need at that moment.

      So I think the privileges need to be there to act as an incentive for people to actually work for more than their immediate benefits. The nobilities mostly started out as people who contributed a lot to the nation and if they can’t even pass that on to their children then why should they try that hard? It is just that over time, they stop contributing and start taking. It is a tricky balance

      Individually, humans are quite good but as a group, we are not that bright. Thus, a first-among equal needs to be there.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I’m pretty sure the reason for the formation of nobility is that some people looked at everyone else and said “why should we work to make food when we can take from them instead”.

        Like

      2. Well, I thought the formation of nobility is just people who manage to convinced others to work for them. Like a village elder or something. They need to have some greater skills than farming. If a guy has the foresight to build a levee along the river and manage to convince the rest of the village to do it with him then he obviously contribute to the whole. Some people can just start out as the one who knows the best farming methods and teach the others, gaining the respect of the whole and position themselves as a figure of authority.

        In our history books, the first generation of noble usually gain their titles through serving a successful warlord. The fastest way is through military services. You either fought against an invader or you fought to conquer the nation, basically, risking your life for someone benefits. Thus, if you are to perish, giving your family a noble title is to ensure that your family get provide for in your place. So, noble titles can act as a welfare system.

        There are other ways like being a diplomat (a very dangerous job in the ancient world), being a administrator, having a beautiful daughters, etc. Some ways are not as meritocratic as others but most of the time, the people who gains noble title for their family did have some valuable skills to contribute to the rest of the country.

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      3. Successful warlord, yep.

        The difference between a village elder and a noble is that a village elder doesn’t gather taxes and doesn’t live in a separate fortress/mansion with a “household” of guards and servants. A village elder is the same social class as the village, a noble is a categorically different, like, profession.

        And fighting IS a valuable skill to contribute. Whether through taking from outsiders and sharing with your own buddies, or protecting from outsider raids.

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      4. Deworld

        @Liliet
        If it was that simple, people “under” nobles wouldn’t have accepted it. Human history and cultural development is much more complicated that you’re implying.

        Human society benefits massively from organized leadership, let’s not undervalue it. And if the society is busy enough, leaders will have plenty of work other than personally making about their own food. Providing leadership and organizational skills is a job as much as something like smithing or carpentry. And when most passing of knowledge is done from parent to child, it’s only natural that children would inherit their parents’ role, including leadership one. So with time it led to further separation, forming higher and lower classes of people and nobility as we know it.

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      5. CantankerousBellerophan

        It is true that the earliest large-scale organized societies with something akin to a noble class arose around irrigation projects. This is true in most areas where such civilizations arose. Except for the Maya, that is. They came out of a rainforest and thus had no need for irrigation. Similarly, the Aztecs were masters of hydroponics, growing their crops on top of lakes instead of bringing the lakes to the crops. In those cases it is somewhat unclear why a noble class arose, both because of the natural loss of history to time and due to the genocides these civilizations have been subject to.

        But that is beside the point. The fact is that while leadership as an abstract concept certainly has value, the kind Angharad thinks of does not. She seems to think leadership can only come from nobility, that organizational capacity and oppressive power always go hand-in-hand. But we know this is not the case. Anarchist communities which do everything by unanimous consent are perfectly capable of building and maintaining infrastructure. They have leadership, certainly, in the form of people whose ideas are taken up more often than not, but those leaders have no official authority. They don’t need to, because people will recognize problems in the community and implement solutions to them when consensus on how to do that is reached.

        Such systems exist, are stable, and capable of keeping communities together and maintaining common needs. The best example of this in the real world is probably the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. You might know them as the Iroquois, though that name is actually a French slur for the people meaning “snake people,” and not considered their proper name. They held significant power on Turtle Island (the proper name for North America) for centuries before multiple settler-colonial wars and genocidal acts took their land from them. The fact that they still exist to this day with their own governance structure, culture, and even diplomatic outreach intact despite this treatment should say everything which needs to be on how stable their governance structure is. Most decisions are made at a local level, with the grand council serving less as a government than a means for localities to talk with each other and hash out intertribal agreements. It’s a fascinating system more complicated than there is space here to describe, but it goes to show that leadership is not synonymous with dominion or rule. There is no need for nobility. Angarad’s belief to the contrary is the result of the lies she was fed during her upbringing. Your own belief is the result of ignorance, deliberately cultivated on the part of the current power structure, of the true history of human societies.

        It does not need to be like this.

        Like

      6. Well, then the people on the grand councils obviously have power over the rest. In theory, they can have the same sort of power the traditional nobility class can have through cunning power play.

        A king can just be a conciliator between 2 governors. Like, governor A need foods for his state because of a famine or a flood. Governor B don’t want to do that because he wants to stockpile the grain in case of emergency. The King can order the governor B to loan food to governor A and make both come to a benefitial agreement. => a Royal court can serve the same function as a grand council.

        You can argue that a King is not needed as the two governors can come into an agreement on their own but there is a possibility that governor B can debt trap governor A or refuse to honor the agreement or all sort of thing. Theoratically, a king is meant to be a sort insurance for these sort of problems.

        What I am trying to say that the process of selection is what set various type of government a part. And any power structure can be exploited in the wrong hand.

        Government system is a trial and error product. Therefore, it can vary in shape and form but the if it exists then it has to be able work at least one. Anarchist communities are nothing new with the rest of the world. Many countries started out with similar structure. Circumstances changed and the system adapted to it. Monarchy or aristocrate are just some of the ways the system can evolve into.

        At the beginning, nearly all of our nobility were just families of war heroes who received their title as some sort of compensation and honor. Having a title allows their families to be provided for and for us to commemorate their contribution. It was not meant for nefarious purposes.

        Liked by 1 person

      7. CantankerousBellerophan

        @vuthua912

        They genuinely do not have “power over the rest.” The grand councils hash out agreements between local areas which those local areas still need to agree with. The council is a common framework for negotiation, not a hierarchic power structure as you know them.

        Like

      8. Deworld

        @CantankerousBellerophan

        In theory, yes. Also in theory, nobles are there to rule people for the betterment of everyone, not to abuse their power.

        No system is perfect. And you really can’t put people in charge without giving them personal power, even if they’re supposed to represent their communities, and if bad people happen to get to that position (which happens quite often regardless of how good selection process is), they *will* abuse it. It’s super naive to think otherwise.

        Like

    2. passerby

      the bloodsport is done by organised criminals, not nobility as far as i know. the couple were sent by corrupt debtholders over their gambling and drug-related debts. and the big guy who took the axe is some sort of enforcer iirc from one of Tristan’s chapters.

      Angharad’s father seemed to be cautioning against making sport of honour by following only the letter and not the spirit rather than saying that they do that, so I don’t follow that one.

      the study could just as easily have been carried out by looking at results from people who suffered gloam sickness through accident, the islands are after all not in a region with the ancient devices to help spread the glare around. this one I’m hoping we get more info on, the islands seem rather interesting and I’m curious how they learned so much about gloam sickness.

      while I get your general argument about wealth accumulation Glare isn’t a good example of it. they have a limited amount of glare coming down and even if they could build wonderous glare dispersers like their ancestors the stuff still seems to diminish in intensity like normal light. better things to focus on would be them hoarding the food that is grown with the limited glare, and the way they run those housing rackets. the stuff Tristan talks about when he complains about the infanzones.

      Angharad definitely seems to be espousing that Noble’s should be noble, that is in the sense of good, honourable, and honest, and protecting those who are supposedly under their care. potentially because her mother was raised to nobility from her exploits as a captain, and thus Angharad is the first generation of her family born a Noble (maybe her father was born a Noble too but i don’t think he was mentioned as such). the infanzones meanwhile seem to be every possible complaint you could have given physical form. the very picture of corruption

      Liked by 1 person

    3. Someperson

      It isn’t necessarily the case that the Republics nobles were any worse than Sacramontan nobles. That is a possible explanation, but hardly the only possible explanation.

      I am pretty sure there have to be people in Sacramonte other than Tristan who have the motive to get rid of the nobles, if the Cerdans are remotely typical, so it’s more a question of means.

      Maybe people in Sacramonte have tried to get rid of their nobles and failed in the past. Maybe the people in the Republics had a unique circumstance that made it easier for them to overthrow their rulers.

      Like

      1. Someperson

        Also, lemme just say

        Shitting on nobility is great and all, I’m down for it

        But to be completely fair on Angharad specifically, if literally every noble was as good as Angharad believes nobles ought to be, as good as she lives out more often than not if not always… nobility would be a perfectly ok political system in this world

        This is an impossible thought experiment because nobles are humans, humans are frequently evil, and having power almost always exacerbates this, but I would argue Angharad deserves a bit of slack

        Liked by 3 people

    4. Vargaskall

      Okay, and I don’t normally do this, but celebrating the Haudenosaunee as an ideal society is one of the things that grates on me. A lot. They were a conquering people with a heirarchy that very much mirrors that of the United States, only on a much smaller scale. Don’t get me wrong; there are many things that I can appreciate about their history and methods, and what my government has done to them, their culture, and their descendents is one of the greatest tragedies this world has ever witnessed… But…

      They were also a confederacy that practiced expansion through warfare, upto and including some of the same act done to them by colonial settlers, at the behest of tribal leadership. The Beaver Wars, if you need a history refresh, begin shortly after the Haudenosaunee began to genocide the smaller tribes that bordered their lands… In order to have a monopoly on the beaver trade. Oh, and if slavery is cool with you too, don’t worry. They engaged in that trade as well, though would sometimes adopt their slaves into the community. Because you know, enslaving someone and abusing them until their cultural identity is broken and replaced is cool stuff.

      Their modern day tribal lands are defacto oligarchical merchantile states, which (while not having noble in the name) essentially empowers wealthy families, while their overall poverty rate is much higher than the national average in the United States (partially due to Federal jurisdiction arguments, and partially due to wealthy members using their influence to keep the communities from obtaining Federal aid).

      And that isn’t even getting into the culture of crimes like rape and domestic violence, which have Native American women as the most at-risk demographic in the entire United States (2.5 times more likely; 1 in 3 will be raped, and 2 in 5 will be otherwise domestically abused).

      Look. I get that you have a hard time agreeing with systems where there are power dynamics that empowers people to commit cruelty, and I can frankly 100% support that. People should not have to deal with that. My problem is that you don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about if you think that any system exists that doesn’t have inherent power structures that open it up to abuse.

      There has never been a stable, large scale political or social system without leadership or rule. Not communism, socialism, merchantilism, capitalism, feudalism, theocracies, oligarchies, aristocracies, monarchies, democracies, republics, or even hippie anarcho-libertarian communes. And almost invariably, there is corruption and abuse in those systems, because ultimately some people are just assholes, and assholes are the ones most likely to exploit power dynamics in order to climb to leadership positions. Some systems are better than others, and some limit the powers of their governors (whatever form they may take), but in practice? There will always be someone in power.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Reader in The Night

    Oh, Song! The un-Song MVP of this entire operation, just quietly picking up everyone else’s bullshit. Angharad was like “wait, the nobilities lost some of their privileges but they still have unfair power and influence? That’s corruption!” And Song was just laughing her republican ass off at the unnoticed hypocrisy.

    Really, Angharad is an interesting character, though I wager that were it not for the Fisher, she’d have been dead a long time ago already. She’s not stupid when it comes to dangerous situations, she’s just… Rash. Too brave for her own good. I’m interested in the details of her Pact with the Fisher, for something that powerful with no immediate cost, the price she must pay is probably horrific. The Fisher apparently had a claim on her soul, after all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. greycat

      Angharad’s soul might have been the entire price for her contract. Selling one’s soul to The Devil (or whatever power) tends to buy a fair amount of temporary earthly power, in most stories.

      Like

      1. Deworld

        We see in this chapter it’s not just that. Fisher does have a claim on her soul, but only “until their bargain was done”. Meaning there is some end point, some promise on Angharad’s side that can take her out of it, theoretically at least.

        Like

    1. Reader in The Night

      Gack, didn’t mean it like that. She’s not stupid at all, in any sorts of situations, and she’s actually capable of being quite clever.

      I guess the correct way to say it is that she’s naive (dangerously so). It’s weird to call a character who’s spent half a decade being chased by assassins “naive”, but there you go.

      Like

  4. Abnaxis

    Man, I have a feeling the infanzones are going to survive–because at some point Tristan will have to make a choice between revenge and something else important to him–but they are just so stupid they don’t deserve it. The only reason they don’t have supplies is because they moved luggage first, and didn’t deign to bring gloves for the servants to use on the ladder that burns skin. Then on top of that, none of them are capable of fighting but they’re withholding food from the people who CAN fight, all while eating extravagantly from the supplies of a man they straight-up murdered in broad daylight.

    These people deserve a Darwin award.

    Liked by 2 people

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