Chapter 18

Tristan couldn’t quite believe it when they broke the treeline.

“It’s the right place,” Sarai fervently told him. “The hills are in the right arrangement.”

She had to be right, she was no fool and she had the map tucked away inside her mind through a Sign, and yet the thief felt no relief. Before them a great clearing in the forest was stretching out, rolling hills and a stretch of gleaming grass. Miles of open land, with trees on all sides save the north – where the ravine lay, and the bridge to cross it. Tristan spat to the side, for his mouth taste of iron after all the running, and looked behind. The others were catching up, the fit and the not. The former clustered together, keeping the same exhausted but unrelenting pace, while the latter trailed behind.

Yong, Sanale, Ferranda, Lan. All these were mere moments behind he and Sarai.

It was they others they waited for until they came out one by one. It took nearly ten minutes: Vanesa had not got quicker for the evening’s exertions and Francho was barely ahead of her. As for Felis, it had been only a matter of time until his lick of dust’s feverish burst of energy passed – and once it had, he’d become a shambles. That Aines stayed with him was as much a result of her poor shape as loyalty to her hanging rope of a marriage, Tristan suspected. She was barely faster on her feet than the greyhairs now, evidently not used to lasting exercise. And yet they were catching up, all of them.

They had all made it.

“I thought we’d lose at least one of the elders,” Yong admitted. “It is a bruising pace we have kept.”

“Tough,” Sanale appreciatively said.

“Desperations is a kind of strength,” Lan said. “And even the old girl wants to live, deep down.”

The thief caught her eye and dipped his head in agreement. Vanesa had not given up. She might not expect to live through this, but neither was she ready to lay down and die. It was worthy of respect, as much as the freely gifted kindness. As the laggards entered the light of the lantern, Tristan saw how worn down they had become. Expectedly so: it had been punishing work moving through the woods even with their lanterns now wide open.

They had followed the edge of the ravine to avoid getting lost, following it east until the treeline broke. They’d passed to more rings of raised stones as they did – one intact, the other shattered – and the second they had passed not even a half hour ago. Whatever they might once have been used for, they now made for useful landmarks. When the last of them, a sweaty and dishevelled Vanesa, caught up the lot of them shared a brief rest.

“We’re close, then?” Felis raggedly asked.

Sarai pointed slightly to the northwest, past two high hills.

“The bridge is there,” she said. “There can be no doubt.”

Far be it from him to argue with the woman who had a used magic to memorize the map. Even the most exhausted of them picked up the pace at her words, elation and relief limbering slowing feet. Even Tristan found a smile tugging at his lips. It seemed they had reached salvation before the monster caught up with them, after all. He crested a hill, then another, and saw the dirt path laid down before him. Then the relief caught in his throat.


Lupines, a whole pack of them. Though Aines and Yong were standing at his side within moments, not a single of the beasts glanced their way: they were too busy tearing hungrily into corpses. Slowly coming down the hill, hand on his knife, he took a closer look at the bodies. Hollows, Tristan recognized. Less than half a day dead, and as the light of the lantern reached the bridge beyond the lupines he remembered the bishop’s smiling curse: you are all already dead.

The corpses being eaten had been crushed and stomped, as if by a great beast.

These were, he realized, the losses Bishop Dionne had talked about. The priestess herself might have been here mere hours ago. One after another, he fit the pieces together. Standing there alone with closed eyes, he painted the picture the way Abuela had taught him to.

By the time the Bluebell had come ashore, the cultists had already been stirred up from the debacle that woke up the airavatan. The warbands split, some roving the land while the largest claimed the western and eastern bridge. The morning after Ju was murdered the trial-takers split into bands of their own, but their story was not Tristan’s trouble: what he cared for was the bridges. After Inyoni and her fellows fought their way through the western bridge, the airavatan went mad from whatever had confused it and collapsed the bridge. What, then, were the hollows to do?

Everyone headed east. So, eventually, did the airavatan.

The monster slew a few warbands and some went into hiding, but what Tristan and the others had deduced when they first laid their plans was still true: the cultists did not help each other, they were rivals. And so no one went to warn the large warband holding the eastern bridge – led, he now believed, by Bishop Dionne – that a monster was on the prowl. The cultists were taken entirely by surprise when it attacked them.

That warband had been hit tonight, mere hours ago. It was why the tracks Sanale had found earlier were fresh: the cultists been fleeing the beast by going east into the woods, away from this deadly clearing. After finishing up here, the airvatan had followed in their direction but been lost – perhaps because of the rain, which would dampen how it smelled. It had still moved east somewhat, though, and been close enough to immediately smell the lodestone extract when Tristan used it.

Which brought them to here and now: the cultist camp of a rival warband destroyed, their own crew running for the bridge before the heliodoran beast turned on them.

And now they came to the reason Bishop Dionne had called them dead. Tristan opened his eyes as the light of the lantern carried by Yong passed the corpses and lupines. To the bridge, through which some cultists had tried to flee and where the monster caught up to them. And when it struck them down, in its rage it must have collapsed the wooden bridge: now only shattered edges on both side of the ravine remained, the rest long fallen into the river below. There would be no crossing here.

They were stuck on this side, with the beast and the hollows.

No,” Aines shouted.

The lupines did not even care enough about the noise to abandon their meal. Despair trembled in the air, not one of them denying its sting. It was too long for a jump across, Tristan thought. And they did not have a rope long enough to attempt another kind of crossing. Even Sarai’s face fell, though she was the first to gather herself.

“If we go west, the river grows wider and stronger but there is no ravine,” she said. “Swimming through there is the only way left.”

Half of them wouldn’t make that swim, the thief thought. Neither of the elders, probably not Aines either and he was not so sure of Lan. Gods, he was not so sure of himself. He was fit but no great swimmer and the Watch had built bridges on the island for a reason. But it was all that remained, so he put away his doubts and breathed in. He let out his breath and his fear with it.

“Let’s go,” he said. “No time to waste.”

If they waited for too long their company was sure to fall into arguments and backbiting, which would eat into their chances of losing the airavatan. So he began setting out, nudging Sarai to do the same. She gave him a long look, then nodded and followed. Behind them he heard Felis comfort his wife and yell something out at Yong, but Tristan met the Tianxi’s eyes and the soldier snorted. Ignoring Felis, he joined them in walking away. After that, the simple pressure of people leaving forced the rest to make a decision: stay or follow.

Enough followed that the rest feared to stay.

It was not a solid foundation, the thief knew, but the worst had happened and so he must adjust his expectations. There could be no more sentimentality. Ferranda sought him out at the front, having surprised him when she and Sanale stuck with them.

“You have a scheme in mind,” she said. “What is it?”

“Going west,” he flatly replied. “If we live through the day then we can revisit how we will cross.”

She grimaced.

“Fair enough,” Ferranda replied. “We will stay with you for now, but make no promises for tomorrow.”

He shrugged. The pair were far from dead weight, and he’d given due thought to Sanale’s offer, but trackers were no longer needed. It would be hard to get lost now that they had found the river: all that remained was to find a way to cross it. It had earlier taken most of an hour for them to get to the bridge, and now they squeezed out much the same hurrying through the hills. In a few miles west the woods would begin again, continuing until they broke for another plain at the heart of the island where the other bridge lay.

Past that, at least a full day west, was where Sarai was suggesting they attempt the crossing.

Only when they were out of breath did they call their first halt. The pretence that they were all in this together had worn thin: both the greyhairs had been lagging behind again, the same for Aines and Felis, and no one moved to help them. They would catch up exhausted to the remainder of the group only by the time it set out, the thief estimated, and so be forced to continue without rest. It was a slow death sentence, but Tristan hardened his heart.

He no longer had the luxury of caring about anything but survival.

“Huh,” Yong said. “Unusual.”

Panting and on his knees, Tristan turned to follow the Tianxi’s gaze. Further along the ravine – it was wider here, likely why the bridge had been built further east – there were rings of raised stones. Two of them, rather close, and in near perfect state. Whoever the builders had been, they had made them to last. It was not long after this second ring the forest began again, the clearing come to an end. After entering those woods it ought to take at least half a day until they found open grounds again, which he did not look forward to.

It was vicious kind of irony that Tristan and his fellows were to see twice as many bridges anyone from the Bluebell yet all of them would be broken.

And now remembering, the other bridge’s fate – which he had known of for an entire day! – he cursed himself for not having considered the same might happen again. It was plain that the blackcloacks had not built bridges strong enough to withstand the lemure, that they had expected the airavatan to remain sleeping. He’d had the right knowledge in his pocket all along and never thought to put it to use.

“The others were further apart,” Yong breathed out.

The thief blinked for a moment before realizing Yong was still talking of the stone circles.

“Maybe we’re near the middle,” Tristan shrugged.

Francho believed they followed the length of the river, from east to west, but he might have been wrong. The thief got back on his feet, meeting the Yong’s eyes. A nod was shared and they began to move again – setting out at a pace that was not quite a run but far from walking. This was to be a trial of endurance, not a quick race.  

Tristan forced himself not to think about the fact that Francho and Vanesa had not yet caught up.

Half an hour later they were slightly past the second of the rings, not even a quarter hour away from the woods resuming to the west. The thief slowed for a heartbeat, convinced he’d seen a light inside the stones, but it was nothing: only a stone smoothed by rain reflecting the stars, however. He breathed out, not sure whether he was relieved or disappointed.  The answer was soon settled, however, as the little he had turned was enough for him to catch sight of something that froze his limbs.

Behind them, to the east, mist was billowing past the crest of the hills

His breath caught. If the mist was close enough for him to see without even lantern light, then there was no outrunning the monster. The heliodoran beast had caught up, and what could the likes of them do against such a creature? He was going to die here in the dark, surrounded by strangers. He- Tristan breathed in, breathed out. Remember your lessons. What he could not do did not matter, so what could he do? If the monster could not be fled from, it must be tricked.

“Tristan,” Sarai called out, but then she turned to follow his gaze and her voice went out like a candle in the wind.

The thief did not answer, eyes staying fixed on the heliodoran beast. In the distance he could see the white fog slowly but surely gaining on Vanesa, ever the last of them. She had yet to notice. Sarai pulled at his arm, fingers squeezing hard at his flesh.

“We need to go,” she hissed. “I know you-”

“You’re letting fear do your thinking for you,” Tristan said, tone even. “We had at least an hour on it, running on open grounds while it was in the woods. We cannot flee from it, Sarai: we’re simply not fast enough.”

He straightened his back.

“As our good friend the bishop said, we must outwit the god or earn the honour of its teeth.”

Sarai loudly swallowed.

“You said to stick close to you, if this went bad,” she said.

“I can perhaps keep us alive, and another as well,” he admitted. “But I am not sure how long.”

It would be a gamble. While they were covered in magic feathers reeking of sleep the beast should not eat them, but they would be unconscious and he would have to hope the lemure kept chasing the others instead of taking the time to stomp them out of spite. By the way her breathing grew uneven, Sarai was panicking. He did not blame her.

“You’ve just good as said we’re going to die – how are you so fucking calm?” she demanded.

Did he seem that way? He did not feel it. There was a wild animal clawing at his insides, even if it had yet to break the cage.

“I am terrified,” Tristan honestly told her. “My limbs are trembling and my mind is mush. But it doesn’t matter, because I know where we are.”

Where?” she snarled.

“In a grave,” the rat grinned. “We have nothing left to lose, Sarai: either we buy our way out or we stay buried. Fear only matters if it can still get worse.”

She let out a hiccup that was half indignation and half laughter.

“Gods,” she croaked. “No wonder the masks want you.”

Masks – did she mean the Krypteia? No, now was not the time. There would be time to ask what one of the Circles of the Watch might want with him if they lived. Instead he clapped her shoulder comfortingly and his eyes went back to their coming doom. By his count Vanesa was a quarter hour behind them, to the east, and the beast would catch up to her around the time she reached the first ring of stones. Indeed, now that the mist was spreading further across the wet grass he could make out the airvatan’s silhouette in starlight. The monster was following her doggedly.

Vanesa had noticed the monster at last and broken into a run that slowly curved north towards the ravine – her eye again, Tristan thought with a sliver of grief – and the beast had followed the adjustment exactly. Almost, he frowned, too exactly.

“Sarai,” he said, “is it me or is the airavatan running strangely?”

Afraid or not, the blue-eyed woman had not fallen to pieces. They stood there in silence for a long moment, gaze following the same great beast.

“It’s not moving across the hills well,” she murmured. “It keeps almost tripping on the slopes. Why?”

“It’s blind,” Tristan breathed out, excitement rising. “It wasn’t enough poison to kill it, but it went blind.”

He suspected the beast have been blind when it began following them across the plains – surely it would not have been able to hear them from so far away – but now the volcian yew had taken its sight. It could still get around somehow, and track them, but the way it kept walking on things instead of over them was telling.

“It’s still following Vanesa,” Sarai said. “The impact of feet on the ground? No, then it would feel the slopes and the stones when its footsteps make them shake. It must be the sound, it is listening to her run.”

“Then hiding would be pointless,” Tristan noted. “If it can hear her from that far away, there is no way to hold our breath for long enough it won’t hear us.”

“We need protection,” she said. “Something to hide behind. We could try going down the side of the ravine?”

Tristan grimaced, shaking his head, and even Sarai looked unconvinced. The beast would be able to reach them with its tentacles. Gods, the monstrosity was longer than the ravine was large. But there was one detail that he’d had in the back of his mind since earlier, an oddity about how the monster had attacked the cultist camp.

“I think I have something,” Tristan admitted. “But there will be no way to tell if it works until it’s on us.”

Blue eyes met his and she hesitated. He was, in practice, asking her to bet her life on his hunch. They had known each other for mere days, and spent much of these hiding secrets from one another and – her expression hardened and she offered her arm. She had, he sensed, come to a decision. Not just about the needs of the moment, but deeper things still. Gently, almost reverently, he clasped the proffered arm.

“Maryam,” she said. “My name is Maryam Khaimov. If I am to trust you with my life, I should trust you with that.”

He swallowed.

“Tristan Abrascal,” he said, lips gone dry.

It was the first time he’d said his surname in years and he shivered at hearing it.

“Let’s live, Tristan,” Maryam smiled. “After that, it would be embarrassing not to.”

He grinned back, minutes away from death and terrified and somehow more alive than he’d been since he was a boy.

They went back to the first ring of stones. This was madness, so naturally even after the others noticed they were no longer running and turned back to ask few were inclined to follow.

“This is madness,” Ferranda Villazur flatly informed him.

As always, the infanzona caught on quickly.

“I am aware,” Tristan said. “It might, however, be the useful kind of madness.”

The fair-haired noblewoman studied him for a moment, then shook her head. Her plain face was drawn with exhaustion, but her expression remained steadfast in a stolid sort of way.

“I wish you well, but I will not risk my life so recklessly,” Ferranda told. “We part ways here.”

Or so she said, but then she glanced at Sanale – who nodded after a heartbeat. Reassured, her face firmed. Their decision was made.

“Good luck,” Tristan said, and was surprised to find her meant the words.

“You too,” Sanale said, offering his hand. “Keep your knife close. Better to die quick if can.”

It was said with such friendly concern that the thief could not even find it in himself to be offended at the presumption they were all about to die, shaking it. They were not truly friends, though perhaps in time they could have become something close to it, but the pair had been more than tolerable to work with. It was already better than he had ever expected to think of an infanzona. When Lady Ferranda offered her hand he shook it as well. The two hurried away after rushing through goodbyes, heading west for the woods. Lan followed behind them, offering only a cheerful wave before legging it.

The three had lost some time doubling back, but likely expected to make it back while the airavatan murdered everyone staying behind.

Yong watched them go, then grimaced.

“Now would be a good time to tell me you put some lodestone in their bags,” the Tianxi said.

“Alas, I used the full stock,” Tristan easily replied.

“I was afraid you’d stay that,” Yong sighed. “Is the plan really to hide inside the stone rings and pray they keep the monster out?”

“I don’t intend to pray,” Sarai informed him.

He glared at her.

“You two are a bad influence on each other,” he said, then turned to spit on the grass.

He sighed and began to load his musket.

“I think this might be the most idiotic plan I’ve ever followed,” Yong said, “and I’ve served with militia officers from Mazu.”

Tristan cocked an eyebrow. He knew little of that republic save that it was one of the foremost naval powers of the Trebian Sea.

“Half their promotion examination is about poetry,” Yong scathingly said.

“What I choose to take from this is that my insight matched that of trained military officers,” Tristan proudly replied. “Come on, let’s go hide in the rings.”

Their company had spread out. Ferranda and Sanale had pulled ahead to the west and were minutes away from the woods, a surprisingly quick Lan a notch behind them, while further back Aines and Felis were getting close to the first ring of stones. A few minutes behind them Francho was limping, and even further beyond that Vanesa struggled to catch up. Tristan worried his lip, evaluating the distances. He had the time, narrowly.

“We have two lanterns,” he said. “Let us put one in each ring.”

It was as clear a signal he could risk considering that shouting would likely attract the beast. Seeing a lantern in the eastern ring might induce the others to try going inside it.

“Soft touch,” Yong chided, but it was without heat.

The Tianxi stayed in the second ring while he and Sarai brought a lantern to the first, running back when they saw how close the airavatan was getting. They left just as Aines and Felis arrived, the pair looking baffled as the entered the ring. Even from there they could see Yong waiting in the other, his silhouette clear in the other lantern’s light, so though the wedded pair shouted questions that Tristan did not turn to answer they stayed inside in mimicry of the Tianxi. The surprise was that, by the time they got back to the western ring, Lan was running towards it as well. When she stumbled past the circle of raised stones, falling on her knees in the grass, she gave them a blue grin.

“Decided to bet on you this time,” Lan explained.

It was just as likely she had realized she was not as physically fit as the pair in front of her and was likely to get eaten while they kept running, but Tristan decided not to be unpleasant. It was not impossible they were all about to die. Instead he went for the edge of their circle of stones, leaning against the tall stone and watching as the airavatan closed the last of the distance to the eastern ring. Francho had made it inside, falling to his hands and knees before the other two as they held each other, and that left there was only Vanesa. She went straight for the ring, as quick as she could, while behind her mist followed. Make it, Tristan encouraged. Come on, you can make it.

Mist spread past her and the shadow loomed tall, the ground shaking silently beneath its feet, but she was there. Fingers biting into the palm of his hand until they bled, Tristan watched as the old woman got three feet away from the edge of the ring – and slipped.

No,” he breathed out.

She fell, face forward, and a third of her body made it into the ring. The airavatan’s leg, tall and large as pillar, rose and came down – but Felis, in a burst of courage, left his wife and caught Vanesa’s arm. He dragged her forward.

It was not enough.

Vanesa screamed, one of her legs snapping like a twig. But she lived. Felis had pulled quickly enough that it had been a leg instead of her body up to the ribcage, and as the airavatan stomped furiously around the ring of raised stones the dust fiend finished dragging her inside. And though he’d just seen a woman’s leg become a ruin of bone and broken flesh, Tristan eyes widened in elation at what he saw: the beasts’ mist did not enter the ring of stones. It refused to, that was the reason they had been able to hear Vanesa scream at all. Yong cursed softly in Cathayan as the heliodoran beast’s tentacles felt out the stones, trying to reach through them but sliding as if against glass.

It had done the same thing, back at the cultist camp, but the ring there had been broken.

“You were right, you little madman,” Yong said. “You were fucking right.”

Sarai – Maryam, though he did not yet think of her that way – found his hand and squeezed it. He squeezed back.

“My wisdom is being followed as well,” Lan smugly said. “Just look at them run.”

He followed her gaze, finding that Ferranda and Sanale were doubling back. They must have seen the rings truly were a protection, and realized their safety was the best chance for them to live through the nigh. The situation had changed the moment the monster was kept at bay by the stones: now the airavatan might well abandon the prey beyond its reach for easier kills, and the pair were the only two on the table. Yet their earlier advantage, how quickly they had run, was now turning against them. They were too far.

With rising horror, Tristan turned to see the airavatan striding away from the other ring: it had heard them doubling back.

The coolness in the back of his mind, the part that had been trained, measured the spans and the speeds. The airavatan, rushing from west to east. The pair, rushing from east to west. Ferranda and Sanale were closer to the eastern ring than the airavatan was, but the beast moved almost twice as quickly and would not tire. It was a done deal and it became terribly obvious within a minute of the ugly race beginning that the pair would not get there in time. The truth of that sunk in them like rain, soaking them to the bone.

Sarai closed her eyes in grief. Lan smiled in poorly hid relief at how close she had cut it. Yong clenched his teeth and strode to the edge of the ring to shoot his musket at the airavatan, which had gotten close enough for it. The lemure turned one of its eyeless heads their way, but otherwise ignored them. The Tianxi might as well have shot at a fortress wall. The lovers saw it as well, though the realization hit them in waves. First fear spurred them to drop their lantern and all their bags and save one, sprinting as fast as they could.

It was a straight line east to the ring, for them, but already the beast was of a height with it. It would be standing between them and safety within moments.

Tristan watched as fear was replaced by despair, by anger. Ferranda slowed, taking out something from their last bag and trying to strike a match. She failed, even after trying thrice. The mist kept killing the flame. Sanale had stayed with her, and now their fate was plain: the airavatan was between them and the stone ring. Yong shot at the monster’s back again, but it didn’t even twitch. The lovers’ stride faltered, for a moment, and then Sanale said something before pressing a soft kiss against the side of Ferranda’s neck. Before the infanzona could finish turning to see his face, the Malani swerved away.

South, away from the ring, and screaming at the top of his lungs in Umoya.

Both the beast and the woman hesitated for half a heartbeat. Face ashen, eyes tearing up, Ferranda Villazur resumed sprinting for the ring. It was out of her hands now, she must know that all she could do was try not to waste his sacrifice. And the airavatan, well, it did what all hungry and spiteful lemures did when denied getting everything they wanted: it went to vent its anger on the most insolent of the prey, the Malani provoking it. Tristan did not remember walking to the edge of the ring or taking out his knife, or his fingers closing around the cithara in his bag.

And as he watched Ferranda Villazur approach salvation, he saw how Sanale had not yet abandoned the thought of survival. He’d taunted the lemure, got it to head further away from the ring, but now he had cut a sharp turn and was printing for it himself. The airavatan was too close. Tall legs swallowed the distance, unerring on the grass, and though the Malani was swift as cat he was so much smaller.

“Please,” Ferranda Villazur shouted, not even yet in the ring. “Please, if you can do anything, I beg you-”

Tristan looked away.  Fortuna was leaning against the stone opposite his, eyes unreadable. Flicking a wrist, she twirled a coin between her fingers. Unearthly in the thin starlight, a slice of blood and gold cutting into the grey and green of the Dominion. His bet to make, she did not need to say. It always was.

“Fuck,” the thief cursed.

It was foolish, it was going to get himself killed and he wasn’t even going to get anything out of it. He ripped the cithara out of his bag, smashing the pommel of his knife into the belly. It cracked and he hit it again, twice more until it was open and a single lucent blue feather came drifting out. Dropping the knife, he ran out of the ring. Mist was lapping at the bottom of the stones and he hurried through, finding it thick as smoke but easy to breathe in. Grabbing the edge of the cithara, he inclined it so the feathers wouldn’t spill out and silently screamed his terror into the stillness.

Ten strides, twenty, and the airavatan’s long legs caught up to Sanale: the ground trembled and the sure-footed huntsman tripped. It was now or never, Tristan knew, and he threw the cithara. He hesitated, for the barest of moments, to pull on his contract. But the price… when the stakes were so high, only certain death moved him to use it. So he only threw.

The moment he did, he knew he had failed.

The arc was too short. He could still… But he did not, for in the end Tristan was yet a rat. It would surely get him killed, so instead of pulling at the power inside him he watched as the cithara flew up only to drop half a dozen feet short of Sanale just as he was grabbed by heliodoran beast. Tristan turned without stopping to look at what would follow.

The silence was a mercy.

Heart thundering in his ears, the thief felt the ground shake behind him and the beast gain ground. He’d gone too far, or he’d not gone far enough, but whatever the truth of it Tristan knew in his bones that he was going to die. The lantern trembled ahead of him, inside the ring, carving out the silhouettes of the others. One came closer than the rest. Sarai? No, too tall.

“Roll,” Fortuna hissed.

He obeyed without hesitation, feeling a tentacle grab behind him. He rose into a run as the airavatan struck at the ground in anger. In front of him the silhouette grabbed at something he could not make out. A match cracked, the heartbeat of light revealing red-eyed Ferranda, and she lit something in her hands. The ground shook behind him and Tristan almost tripped, stumbling into a sharp turn to the left instead, but the game was up. He’d slowed, the beast had him.

“You need to-” Fortuna began, but he never heard the rest.

Something went flying above his head, something Ferranda Villazur had thrown, and after a heartbeat instead of death Tristan felt heat licking at his back. There was a detonation and burst of light as he ran, ran as fast as he could – and he heard the airavatan scream in pain even through the lemure’s own mist. He threw himself in the grass past the ring of stones, landing painfully on his arms but too wildly relieved to care. Behind him the world shook, the beast furiously stamping the ground around the raised stones.

But he’d gotten through, gods. By the skin of his teeth but he still lived. Rolling his belly up, panting, he found the infanzona’s eyes.

“Thank you,” he got out.

Her lips thinned.

“You tried,” Ferranda simply said, and looked away.

He had no answer to that, and so instead he dropped his head back in the grass and waited for his limbs to cease shaking. When they did, Sarai was there to help him up while he caught the tail of talk between the others.

“-was that?”

“Zhentianlei,” Yong said. “A grenade. Though one filled with more than powder.”

“Phosphorescent salts,” Ferranda quietly said. “It is a Malani trick.”

Tristan would have shared in the sliver of the grief he saw in those eyes, had he the time. Knowing he owed his life in part to the man he’d failed to save was a humbling thing. But sentiment would have to wait, for the beast lingered. This was the part where planning stumbled, for how could he know what the monster would do?

The answer, it turned out, was throw a tantrum.

It stalked around in the silence of its mist, smashing at the ground and trying to wriggles its tentacles around the protection of the stones. The ancient work did not fail, but the heliodoran beast did not tire: what Tristan thought might be it leaving ended up being the creature heading back to the other ring. It kept venting its fury there, terrifying the four inside clustering around their trembling lantern light.

“We have food and water enough for two days,” Yong said.

“No cultists will get anywhere near us while it’s here, there is that,” Sarai sighed. “But if it does not leave we may well be stuck here until we starve.”

“It may fake leaving,” Lan said. “It’s what I’d do: let us get far enough from the rings, then attack.”

Lady Ferranda took no place in the talks, out of what the thief thought to be grief, but he had underestimated her: she was crouching by the edge of the ring, staring at something. He joined her there, following her gaze. The grass had split a dozen feet away from them. His heart clenched at the sight.

“It could be only the one crack,” he quietly said.

“The cultist camp was about this far from the ravine, when part of the cliff came down in the storm,” the infanzona evenly replied. “And that was the work of wind and water, not a giant stampeding around.”

Much as he wanted to deny her, Tristan could not. She was right: if the airavatan kept stomping about, the slice of the cliff on which their ring stood was at risk of collapse. They were too close to the edge and it seemed that erosion had dug under their feet. Was the eastern ring also at risk? Doesn’t matter, Tristan chided himself. There’s no way for us to move there while it’s prowling the grass.

It seemed they did not have two days after all, but instead hours – or less, if they were unlucky. Tristan rose and walked away, leaving to Ferranda the unpleasant task of breaking the news to the others even. It was unkind, when she was in fresh grief, but he could not bring himself to care. Instead he went to the northern edge of the ring, the one overlooking the ravine. He could not make out the water at the bottom, it was too deep for that, but he could hear it.

It was not the depth but the length that’d kill them:  the ravine just long enough that neither jump nor rope would work, though he thought that if the heliodoran beast took a long enough run-up it might make it across.

Staring at the dark below, he found himself empty of ideas. Part of him still believed that given long enough their company would figure out a way to get across, but what did that matter when the beast would send them tumbling down long before that? It needed to be- exclamations of surprise from the others drew his eye. The beast had been striking at the bottom of the raised stones of the other ring and some piece of rubble come loose: the airavatan charged it without missing a beat, furiously attacking the ground until the shard was nothing but powder. It turned back to besieging the ring after, which mercifully held even missing a piece.

For now.

The thief worried his lip. Had it been this aggressive before? He thought not. It had liked the fear, to make them run and cower. Now it struck to kill from the start.

“Yong,” he said. “I need you to do something for me.”

The Tianxi cocked an eyebrow but let himself be drawn into the scheme. It was a simple thing, after all, the testing of a guess. The former soldiers loaded his musket, aimed and fired at the ground to the east – as close as he could to the heliodoran beast while keeping a strong impact. The monster turned immediately, abandoning the other ring to charge at where the ground was shot and stomp the spot thoroughly. It’s not thinking anymore, Tristan decided. That grenade angered it beyond reason. That was… it was a fool’s notion, but what else was left save the likes of these?

He took Sarai – Maryam – aside.

“What can you do with Signs?” he quietly asked.

She grimaced.

“I know nine but have mastered only three,” she admitted. “All of them Autarchics.”

His confusion must have been plain, for she elaborated without prompting.

“Contained within my own mind,” Sarai said. “The Sign I used to keep the map within me, for example.”

“You made an orb of darkness when we encountered the gravebird,” he said. “To keep Vanesa from being swept by the river.”

“It is a Sign I learned,” she warily agreed. “But it is demanding and I cannot maintain it for long. The consequences would be… unpleasant.”

He acknowledged that with a nod, but pressed on.

“Does it need to be anchored on something like water, or can it hang in the air?”

“It needs no anchor,” she replied. “It is an exercise of shaping raw Gloam. Tristan, what are you scheming?”

“Maybe nothing,” he admitted. “Maybe something. It depends on how long you can maintain it.”

She searched his eyes for something. Whatever it was, she found it.

“How long do you need?”

If it were not plain to everyone by now that they would not survive another hour of the airavatan stomping around their ring, Tristan figured some of them might have called him a fool. The same people likely thought him one in private still, but with death looming so tall at the end of their common road none were willing to spit on even a fool’s chance of living through this. Yong caught his shoulder as he prepared to go. He hesitated, breath now smelling of drink in a way that was impossible to mistake even if Tristan had not seen him sneak a lick from his flask.

“Good luck,” the Tianxi finally said.

“And you,” Tristan replied, and on a whim pressed his hat into the man’s hands.

Hopefully he would be coming back for it. If not, well, why waste a perfectly good hat?

Swallowing his fear, the remembrance of the monsters’ tentacles coming within breaths of seizing him, the thief stepped out of the ring. He did not even need to shout: within two heartbeats the airavatan stopped tormenting the other stone ring and turned west. The difficult part, Tristan had known from the start, would be getting the angle right.

There were fixed points and objects in movement.

A ring to the east, from which the airavatan was coming as he headed west: towards the other ring, and Tristan who had just stepped out of it. To their north the ravine, to their south miles of grass and hills until distant woods were reached.

Tristan headed south, away from the ravine and onto the grass. The airavatan charged, eager for violence. Heat pounding in his throat, Tristan fought down the primal urge to run back to the safety of the ring and continued moving south as the creature approached. It was angling away from the ravine and straight towards him, charging blindly as it had for the stone and shot. Breathing ragged, Tristan waited as long as he dared before breaking into a run. Back north towards the ravine, not so far from the same ring he’d come from.

The moving parts he had sketched out in his mind came to be, one terrifying heartbeat at a time. Himself, nearing the edge of the ravine to the north – when he did, the ring where the others waited would be directly to his side to the west. Sarai would be there, his death or salvation. The heliodoran beast, on the other hand, took the angle he’d led it into. By going south he’d drawn it southwest across the span between the rings, and now to catch up to him as he ran north it was turning northwest. Adjusting its angle he got closer and closer to the edge of the ravine.

He’d begun running too early out of fear, he realized, so he had to fight down his instincts and slow his steps as the mist billowed past his feet and the beast approached. He felt the ground shiver beneath his feet and hurried, the airavatan charging after him. It was only mere feet between him and the ravine now. Thirty, twenty, ten.

“It’s close,” Fortuna whispered into his ear. “Behind you, to the right.”

There was only one way to live now that he’d got his far: trusting Sarai. And so, screaming into the silence at the top of his lungs, Tristan leapt off the edge of the cliff.

For a hideous moment he flew, until just ahead of him an orb of darkness formed and he smacked right into its surface. Scrabbling desperately against the Gloam – it was neither rough nor smooth, but his weight had him slipping the surface nonetheless – he balled up around the orb and hoped. It was the best he could do, too afraid to try to turn and look back, but he still made himself see it in his mind’s eye.

The airavatan was blinded, by both poison and rage, and it was a massive creature on the run. It had been but a heartbeat or two behind him, much too late to turn. Which meant…

The mist might have covered the grass and smothered sound there, but when the airavatan tumbled past the edge of the ravine he heard it scrabbling against stone. Thunderous bellows erupted from its maw as it slipped, desperately struggling, and a frenzied laugh escaped his throat. He’d done it. The fucking monster had heard him going north as he leapt and tried to intercept him right into ravine, which it could not see any more than it had seen the hill slopes. The orb of Gloam shivered beneath him and the thief let out a yelp.

Now he needed to get out of here before Sarai was forced to release the Sign.

Limbs shaking, he slowly began to wiggle around the orb so he could face the cliff. Every movement sent a thrill of terror up his wrists, the distant roar of the river beneath a reminder of what would happen to him if he slipped. When he finally turned to face the others he saw they had prepared as he’d asked. Yong had tied his wrists to his musket, extending it as a perch, and the others – save Sarai – were holding on to him. Beneath him the orb wobbled again. The more he let himself think about it, Tristan knew, the deeper the fear would bite.

So instead he crawled atop the orb, standing in a crouch as his teeth bit into his lips, and with what little footing he could muster he leapt back towards the cliff.

The butt of the musket caught him in the eye. He shouted in pain and terror, his cursed sweating hands slipping against the weapon, but his fingers caught on the lock. The piece of flint cut into his flesh but he held on for dear life, Yong and the others shouting as they hoisted him up. Only it wasn’t enough, his grip was too weak, and he half-sobbed as the musket slid through his fingers.

He pulled at his luck.

The ticking began but for a searing moment nothing at all happened – until he realized that above him Maryam has slipped on the grass, falling down: belly on the ground, but her torso hanging past the edge of the cliff. Line of sight, he thought, a second before she let out shout and something solid formed beneath his feet, catching his fall. Another orb. It immediately began breaking apart, but the brief moment had been enough for Yong to grab him by the collar. With a heave the former soldier hoisted him up, enough that the others caught him too and he was dragged over the edge. They dropped him face down in the grass and Tristan almost wept.

He’d bought his way out of the grave again.

He stayed lying there, panting and listening to his heartbeat slow. Clenching his teeth in anticipation, he released the luck he’d borrowed.

“Shit,” Sarai said, “Tristan you-”

The thief wriggled like a worm, for his feet were on fire. Or so it felt like: when he looked strands if Gloam were eating away at his right boot through the bottom. He tried to get it off but the pain was… Yong tackled him, ripping it off, and once the leather was away from his skin the burning stopped. Tristan pulled the sole of his feet close after Yong released him, finding the skin was red and raw, already blistering. Gods, that was going to hurt. Still better than falling to his death. He waved away Sarai’s apology, something about losing control of the Sign, and let himself fall into the grass again.

Someone set something down on his belly, and he reached to find it was his tricorn. Grabbing it, he fanned his face and found Yong smiling down at him.

“Lan’s going to get the other four,” he said. “We can all set out together.”

It was the only way Vanesa would get anywhere, now. Her leg was a ruin.

“The beast?” he asked.

“See for yourself,” Yong replied, offering a hand.

Tristan took it, rising to finally take a good look at his handiwork. He half-hopped on one foot, leaning against Yong. He’d been right, the thief thought when they got close: the  airavatan might have made the jump, with long enough a run-up. It must have still gotten close, because it was hanging to the other side of the ravine by its heads and tentacles. Its back legs propped it up against their side of the ravine as it writhed and tried to climb out, but it was too heavy for the tentacles and a little legwork to be enough. Undone by its own weight, the airavatan was stuck between the sides of the ravine like a cork in a bottle. And the sight of that struck another spark of madness, because sometimes a problem was a solution. His boot was done coming apart and Sarai told him it was safe, so he tore into his pants and made strips to wrap around the bottom of the boot. A temporary solution, but better than going barefoot.

Yong asked what he was doing when he limped away, avoiding resting on his bad foot, but he did not reply as he headed back into the grass. Where Sanale had been taken after he missed his throw. The cithara lay broken on the green, stepped on out of spite, and translucent feathers had spilled all over. Tristan took off his hat and knelt by them, stuffing what he could inside the tricorn. He doubled back after, returning to the monster writhing between the cliffs.

The airavatan struggled and raged, shaking the earth as it tried to drag itself out of the trap with its tentacles. The complete silence lent the sight a touch of the surreal, as if this were a waking dream, but Tristan’s mind felt alight. Hat in hand he limped to the edge of the ravine, the raging heliodoran beast, and overlooking the great expanse of pale flesh he smiled a cold smile.

He emptied the feathers on the beast’s back.

They fell down in a rain, scattering in a wind that did not exist, and the monster shivered. Its limbs heaved again, then slowly they dropped. It went still save for the slow rising of its breath, remaining stuck between the cliffs from sheer size. Slowly the mist faded, thinning into nothingness, until Tristan could hear someone walking up behind him. Yong came to stand at his side, a veiled lantern in hand.

“Why bother?” the Tianxi asked. “It was already trapped.”

“What is it you see in front of us, Yong?” he asked.

“Waste,” the Tianxi shrugged. “What would you claim is there?”

“A bridge,” Tristan Abrascal replied.

He went back and took his cabinet, slinging it onto his back with a word, and as he reached the edge of the cliff he pressed his hat down onto his head. Looking down at the airavatan, the thief took a limping step forward. Then another and another, until he was all the way across.

The beast did not wake.

Not when Tristan did it, and not when all the others followed after him either.

35 thoughts on “Chapter 18

  1. arcanavitae15

    It would be a gamble. While they were covered in magic feathers reeking of sleep the beast should not eat them, but they would be unconscious and he would have to hope the lemure kept chasing the others instead of taking the time to stomp them out of spite. By the way her breathing grew uneven, Sarai was panicking. He did not blame her.

    “You’ve just good as said we’re going to die – how are you so fucking calm?” she demanded.
    Did he seem that way? He did not feel it. There was a wild animal clawing at his insides, even if it had yet to break the cage.
    “I am terrified,” Tristan honestly told her. “My limbs are trembling and my mind is mush. But it doesn’t matter, because I know where we are.”
    “Where?” she snarled.
    “In a grave,” the rat grinned. “We have nothing left to lose, Sarai: either we buy our way out or we stay buried. Fear only matters if it can still get worse.”

    This is why I love Tristan and why he is such a badass. It’s also why for all their differences Fortuna is a great fit for him.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. Reader in The Night

    NOOOooooo, Sanale!!! Not Sanale!!!

    I’ll be honest with you, this is the first death I’ve honestly felt anything about so far. I didn’t give a crap about Recardo, or Leander, or Briceida, and that feels bad to admit.

    But maybe it was because they had all been shown to be kinda dickish in their own ways, and Sanale was legitimately the first one who was wholesome and died wholesomely. He will be missed.

    I’ve seen people commenting before that they felt more attachment to Tristan’s band than Angharad’s, and before today I would have called it unkind, but after today? Yeah, fuck them, Tristan’s crew is the best and everyone else can go die. Even fucking Felis the drug addict showed bravery and honour today, and Tristan the self-admitted coward who can’t stop being brave for one fucking second was the absolute MVP. Even Ferranda, the least connected of the bunch, being a good player through the grief!

    I want them to live, I want all of them to live, even Vanesa. I especially want Tristan and Maryam and Yong, even if I can feel it in my bones one of them will die soon. They came together in the face of adversity, they were smart and brave and cunning and they worked together to try to save everyone. Admittedly, most of the work was done by Tristan, who brought down a motherfucking Heliodoran Beast by wits alone, but ALL of them fought really hard, and never for a second considered betraying the others to buy time.

    It was beautiful, and I felt every second of it. This chapter is where this story really came alive for me for the first time.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. Reader in The Night

      I’m commenting on my own post which is highly unusual for me but I just couldn’t stop thinking: when you draw up the parallels between the two groups, it looks really bad.

      Team Nobles is made up of young, healthy, and hale people, most of which are skilled fighters and/or hold powerful contracts. They had an easy cheat to beat the first Trial, and they still managed to screw themselves over by a combination of cowardliness, treachery, and being dicks to the non-nobles.

      The Ragtag Bunch of Misfits started with the literal dregs that no-one else wanted, the alcoholics and gamblers and addicts and elderly and infirm. They had barely three decent fighters and weak contracts and they had a much harder crossing and the scarier enemy, and they still managed to win through trust, cooperation, and incredible bravery.

      Of course, the parallels continue because the Protagonists were instrumental in both successes and pretty much carried their respective teams, but it comes across as Angharad saving a bunch of assholes through literal Deus Ex because she’s an idiot; while Tristan saved literal old ladies through good old-fashioned smarts because he’s braver and more loyal than he’d like.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Someperson

        The fact that Angharad saves people who immediately make you question why she saved them makes me more inclined to like *her* as a character but it also makes it painfully obvious that most of Angharad’s party is pretty much The Worst.

        This is not helped by the fact that one of the *few* people in the nobles’ party who seems actually decent and straightforward, Cozme Aflor, is somebody that we know from Tristan’ perspective is very probably a whole lot worse than he seems.

        There are *some* probably decentish non-nobles in Angharad’s group, and Isabella is an interesting enough character even if it’s pretty obvious she’s not a great person, but wholistically Angharad’s groupmates still pretty much suck, even when viewed through Angharad’s singularly charitable eyes.

        Liked by 4 people

      2. And the one guy who died, did so because he and his beau left the group… and they STILL tried to save him!!! And he died saving another!!!

        Poor Angharad is going to be like “is it too late to change teams” lol

        Liked by 1 person

    1. agumentic

      To be fair, most of their problems come from being hunted by an enemy much smarter than a heliodoran beast – Tupoc Xical. Now, their behavior didn’t exactly help things, but if not for that, they would likely go through with much less trouble even after lemures attacked them.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Abnaxis

        The nobles lost a member because–despite knowing they were going use Remund’s contact before they came to the island–they were too snobbish to pack gloves for their servants and didn’t let the same servants use their nobles’ gloves. Then after murdering the servant who predictably got stuck on the burning ladder, they got stuck with no supplies because–owing to even more aristocratic pettiness–they had those same unprotected servants schlep luggage up to the High Road before they brought needed supplies. What little they managed to bring up they squandered instead of rationing for more aristocratic bullshit reasons until Angharad manipulated them into feeding the people in charge of protecting them.

        The nobles never should have made it far enough for Tupoc to become an issue, to say nothing of how they should not have survived encountering him. Angharad is the only thing that has kept them alive in the face of their sheer stupidity.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Someperson

    Damn this might be the best chapter yet

    The airavatan chase was suitably terrifying

    And at the same time the cast really did earn their survival

    The way our dysfunctional little adventuring party actually banded together in the situation was strangely heartwarming, even if it was born of desperation

    Tristan does something genuinely selfless tryint to save Sanale, which, progress! But it also isn’t just some totally silly 180 on his character, he still does the pragmatic thing and avoids overextending his contract when he is in a situation where the price might well kill him outright. Because this is still Tristan we are talking about.

    May Sanale rest in peace.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. At least most of the group is still alive. I just read one chapter with Tristan’s group and instantly become invested in these people well-being. They tried so hard and their desire for survival is pure unlike Angharad’s group.

    I am sad about Sanale because I want him and Ferranda to have a happy ending. Just the fact that they come from different social classes and still love each other selflessly makes my heart warm. Now, Ferranda would agonize for the rest of her life about this very moment, about the decision that killed him. Man, she gonna get a bad case of survivor guilt. They didn’t follow the rule. Horror movie 101: never separate from the group.

    Angharad, please, join Tristan group. Ditch the nobles – they aren’t your friend. You’ll need actual good people not good-looking people or people with good-looking clothes. It is the inside that count.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Mirror Night

    I cannot say I am really a fan of setting up that Romance and ending it so quickly. Really does feel like a typical Interracial Romance in a Hollywood Horror Movie. I know its not technically Black Guy dies first but it sure does feel like that.


    1. CantankerousBellerophan

      This is arguably the opposite of the trope. It’s a world where the dark-skinned people are the privileged imperialist interlopers.


      1. CantankerousBellerophan

        That is why I said it was arguable. I do think it holds here, though. The “black guy dies first” trope is a branch of a generalized pattern of fiction authors thoughtlessly expending the lives of marginalized characters first, even when no other themes of marginalization exist in the work. It’s the in the same family as “bury your queers” or “girlfriend in the freezer,” and probably some others I’m not thinking of now.

        Sanale’s death doesn’t fit that general pattern, though. While he was not noble, and so would have been marginalized in their circles, he would not have been in any other context. He was a member of the privileged class of Malani soldiers, a mercenary of an empire built by and for people who looked like him to the detriment of everyone else. Shoving him in the freezer doesn’t only serve to raise tensions, but also to demonstrate that external power dynamics do not matter on the Dominion of Lost Things. He wasn’t a person assumed powerless by the characters or audience whose only purpose in the story was as a relationship for some other character. He was a capable soldier from the most powerful racialized group in this world. None of which protected him.

        The generalized form of the trope serves to increase the perceived stakes while perpetuating real-world prejudices. In this case, the stakes weren’t really increased, as several named characters have already died on-screen. Meanwhile, the fact of his death conveys the progressive message that privilege is an entirely human construction which can be stripped away the moment one steps out of the contexts which created it. It should inspire humility in the audience, rather than confidence.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Abnaxis

        *sigh* My original comment went to the wrong reply. Pasting here:

        Ehhh, I wouldn’t say Sanale wasn’t part of a marginalized group, because he’s an immigrant. Of all the people from the boat, including foreigners, he’s the only one that has trouble speaking the language, the only one wearing “exotic” beadwork, and the only one that his all the other notes for the “Black Dudes Die First” trope.

        I looked around in TvTropes and didn’t really find a foreign national version of “Black Dude Dies First,” but I’m guessing that’s more due to my lacking search skills than it not existing.


  6. (Chapter 18: “Maryam,” she said. “My name is Maryam Khaimov. If I am to trust you with my life, I should trust you with that.”

    He swallowed.

    “Tristan Abrascal,” he said, lips gone dry.

    It was the first time he’d said his surname in years and he shivered at hearing it.)

    Oi. Oioioi

    (Chapter 3: By the unpleasant smiles on the face of those two well-built sailors, he would be beaten bloody given half a chance. Charming. It was still better than to stay out in the Murk and risk the Hoja Roja catching his tail. They wouldn’t stop at bruises.

    “Who are you supposed to be, rat?” the crone asked.

    “Tristan Abrascal,” he charmingly smiled.)

    *raises eyebrow
    *looks at map

    Wow, the Bluebell is by far the slowest ship i’ve ever heard of. Years at sea? I’m surprised they only got attacked once.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Silverking

    So, as the Trial of Lines comes to a close, I’m rather curious about how the next Trials are going to work, particularly if the intended end goal is to find suitable candidates for the Watch.

    Oh, I understand the reasoning behind the Trial of Lines to start with. Breaking down the societal barriers (as all will renounce their former allegiances and status when entering the Watch), removing any simplistic notion of a moral high ground (each team planned for their success to come at the expense of the other teams, although some leaned more into this than others), and establishing a variant of “the only sin is defeat, the only grace is victory.”

    The issue I look forward to being resolved is how the Watch intends to implement the concept of “you know all your fellow trial-takers who may have tried to kill you? Well, you’re all going to be on the Watch, so trust them with your life.” This is a vital step that needs to be addressed; the Watch can’t “sell” an organization that faces gods regularly AND has members you can’t trust not to kill you in your sleep for advantage or sport.

    I’m just trying to figure out how Tupoc, who has thrown both opposing trial-takers AND his own teammates to the wolves for his own advantage, is expecting to make it to the finish line and be welcomed to the Watch with open arms.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. CantankerousBellerophan

    There is no longer a coherent argument that Tristan is a bad person.

    What arguably bad things has he done? Killing the blackcloak at the beginning. Poisoning the soldier on the Bluebell. Attacking Lan and Ju over the pistol. Thinking about who to protect with the feathers. As far as I recall, that is it.

    But the blackcloak represented a lethal threat to him and was absolutely not an innocent. What good deeds could he have planned with a poisoner’s kit? The actual killing would offend Malani honor, but those are reasons enough to do it even ignoring the fact that honor is a game for fools. Likewise, the soldier on the Bluebell was almost certainly a rapist. Given that no means of protecting others from him existed, killing him in as deniable a fashion as possible was the best option. Lan and Ju wanted the pistol because it looked valuable, while Tristan recognized its true value and was able to use it to its full potential. And he merely considered abandoning the weakest members of his party when it was clear he did not have the resources to save them. The moment that was not the case, arguably a few moments before that given how much he needed to pull on luck, he put everything including his own life on the line to save everyone he could.

    Tristan’s betrayals are merely theoretical, in short. He considers them as options, but only until he has better options. His crimes are against the deserving, seen as crimes only by we privileged few who have never lived a life like his. He protects everyone he can and, unlike Angharad, is shrewd in his determination of exactly how many people that is. He has no need for a staggeringly powerful deity to save his soul and give him unlimited tries at everything because he lays the groundwork to get it right the first time around, with people who respect the value of such work. Unlike scheming nobles.

    And still he calls himself a rat, meaning it as an insult even though the true nature of rats is as pro-social as they come. I hope he never stops calling himself that, in truth. Because he is absolutely a rat. He is the kind of creature which will share with others of his kind without asking, who makes friends wherever possible, and asks little of life save that it let him live. That is the true nature of rats and Tristan Abrascal alike.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Abnaxis

      There is no world where killing the blackcloak is ethically justifiable. The only “lethal threat” the blackcloak passed was acting as a witness to a crime THAT TRISTAN ACTUALLY COMMITTED. Unless you think any criminal who proceeds to kill all witnesses to keep their name clear is morally justified, there’s no way you can ethically rationalize Tristan murdering an unconscious victim of his own crime.

      That said, Tristan is moving in a more morally upright direction as the story unfolds–either through deliberate character evolution or through EE finding Tristan’s voice better as he continues to write. Regardless of this evolution, however, many actions Tristan took in the first few chapters he was in–including but not limited to murdering the Blackcloak–were unconscionable.


      1. CantankerousBellerophan

        If you believe, as I do, that the enforcers of an unjust status quo are guilty of the injustices they protect, then killing the blackcloak was perfectly justified if, as seems probable given the cargo he carried, he was on a contract which served noble interests. There aren’t many egalitarian revolutionary movements which can afford to hire an assassin. Even if there were, revolutionaries are far more likely to kill their oppressors themselves as part of a considered strategy of denying security to their enemies and applying pressure to enact change.

        It’s important to remember that Nelson Mandela was considered a terrorist by the US and many other governments for many years. This is because he absolutely was one. The ANC engaged in political violence towards the end of the anti-Apartheid struggle, including public killings of members of white supremacist parties. They did this because they correctly ascertained that no amount of nonviolent resistance would end Apartheid. They had been trying that for decades already, receiving only increasing violence instead of incremental progress. Even if one expects it might have worked eventually, the word “eventually” is a euphemism for “after many more years of systematic suppression, random murder, and genocidal policy enacted upon tens of millions of innocent people,” in this context. Asking them to endure that in hopes that the oppressed wouldn’t need to resort to killing a few of the people who had been reaping them like wheat for centuries is far more unconscionable than any number of targeted political killings.

        Now obviously Tristan is not a member of a revolutionary movement (yet). His considered motivations, in the moment, for killing the blackcloak were purely self-serving. But that alone is not enough to condemn him when one considers the depth and scale of the injustices necessary to put Tristan in that position in the first place. Sacromonte almost certainly has the resources to give every orphan in the city a decent home. The existence of a noble class which can commission decorative pistols containing tiny crystals whose market price could feed and house a family for a year all but guarantees that. Instead, Tristan was cast into literal darkness the moment his mother was murdered, forced to seek the protection of a suspiciously well-connected criminal. A criminal who, for reasons currently unknown to us, deliberately ordered him into the confrontation which saw him become a murderer. Then immediately cast him into the even more literal darkness of the Trials.

        Tristan had no agency in this. The course of his life has been decided entirely by the malign and powerful, manipulating both his environment and his person for their own reasons. His “choice” was between actively endangering himself, ignoring years of traumatic conditioning to the contrary, and killing a single man who was very clearly up to no good anyway. If his actions are to be called unjust, it can only be by ignoring the far grander injustices which precipitated them.

        But Tristan’s life is not the most important conditioning to be considered here, is it? Why is it that the audience’s immediate response to Tristan’s action was to conclude that he must be unconscionably perverse? That is not how cause and effect works. The buck never truly stops with anyone. All effects are preceded by numerous causes which are themselves the effects of still more causes. Even if we like to think of our wills as being free, they are constrained by our material conditions in predictable ways. We know, without even peering into any minds or seeing any thoughts as they form, that an orphan raised on the streets by the criminalized is far more likely to resort to overwhelming violence to escape a stressful situation than someone not raised in those conditions. And yet, rather than judging Abuella for manufacturing the stressor or manipulating Tristan’s entire belief system for years, rather than judging the nobles who killed Tristan’s mother for creating an orphan who might do such a thing, rather than judging a society which tolerated the existence of poverty and the nobles which cause it for its failure to extinguish both in a single stroke, we judge the victim of all these injustices for their entirely predictable outcome.

        We are conditioned to think of crimes as things done by individuals to other individuals. Of criminals as people who do bad things because they are uniquely bad people. But that is circular logic, as “criminal” is syonymous with “bad person” in this context. In truth, crimes such as that committed by Tristan are the trivially obvious outcomes of preventable conditions. Knock out any of the links in the chain leading to Tristan in that room with an unconscious blackcloak, and none of that ever happens. So many points of potential intervention missed, or deliberately twisted towards injustice. So many different ways the world could have been. So many people whose decisions were just as or more influential in the final outcome. And all we are conditioned to consider is a single man just barely so, in a single moment in time.

        It’s a brilliant trick. Isn’t it?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Randomname

        Killing bad people, but in cold blood and without (initially) knowing they’re bad, is no different in intent from killing any random stranger under orders. Intent matters.

        Saying that events outside Tristan’s control led him here is of no consequence. Every serial killer ended up killing because of events outside their control. This line of reasoning “proves” that nobody, ever, is a bad person. It applies just as much to Abuella or the Infanzones as to Tristan, and so is a meaningless distraction. We ask it of Tristan because he’s a protagonist, not because we’re refusing to point the finger at anyone else.

        Asking whether Tristan is a bad person is asking a fuzzy and undefined question. For me, it can be broken down into questions like “Will this person act in an ethical way in the future?” (sometimes, sometimes not), “Will this person make sacrifices to help others?” (occasionally), “Will this person risk other people’s lives to take revenge?” (clearly yes), “Will this person act in an unjust way if placed into a just society?” (your guess is as good as mine), “Is this person a net positive for the world?” (from what we’re shown, perhaps), and so on.

        I think in the balance Tristan is morally ambiguous and has done bad things. If Nelson Mandela went around killing people and taking their stuff for profit, that wouldn’t make him a good person, even if halfway through one of the robberies he discovered that his target was Ian Smith.

        Moral ambiguity is not very satisfying for a lot of people, but it’s a good thematic fit for a dark fantasy protagonist.


      3. Abnaxis

        While there are certainly causes that are worth breaking the law for, even killing for, whether or not Tristan might accidentally be serving a such a cause by accident has little bearing on his moral character. “I murdered a bunch of people just in case one of them winds up being a cog in an oppressive regime in the future” is not a defensible moral stance.

        For your more salient points…I’m sorry I don’t know how to express this without being presumptuous, but have you actually ever been a victim of random violent crime? Have you lived in a place where violence is common, where police are more a threat than a help? Do you have personal experience with institutional poverty, and the violence that begets?

        I was born into a family that’s about as impoverished as it gets in the U.S., but I was exceptionally lucky to have been adopted when I was 14. The thing that strikes me, now that I have a degree of detachment from my past, is that whenever someone was a victim of a crime, it was *always seen as their fault.* Of *course* your car window got broken, why would you even lock your car doors at night? Of *course* you got carjacked, didn’t you know that alley wasn’t safe? Or, to tie this to more contemporary phenomena that have been getting (deserved) widespread attention lately: of *course* you got raped, what were you thinking going drinking dressed like that? Of *course* you got beaten by the police; you’re black, don’t you know you have to be deferential to them?

        Failed, corrupt institutions do not condition people to be violent criminals–after all, for all the people I know in destitute poverty, exceptionally few would ever hurt a fly. What they actually do is create conditions where people who are happy to be indecent either due to lack of empathy or thoughtlessness–who in my experience exist as a small portion of every stratum of society, from the lowly carjacker to the sadistic police officer to the obscenely-rich tax-evader–are able to indulge their whims without any expectation of recourse. This in-turn conditions the wider community to be victims, to accept that it’s a given that the small segment of their community that lacks the capacity to be minimally decent human beings will freely do whatever they can de-facto get away. That it’s the victims’ fault for being vulnerable.

        To bring all of this back to the actual original art that inspired the conversation, this institutionalized expectation of violence is the Law of Rats writ large–you must always act like a cornered rodent, ready to bite any hand that approaches because if you don’t it’s your own fault when you get slapped by that hand. Tristan is unambiguously bad in the start of the book because he IS one of the bad actors being needlessly cruel and callous because he can get away with it. His breaking into the Blackcloak’s was unprovoked, he murdered the same Blackcloak because it was more convenient than facing the consequences of breaking, entering, and assault and battery. Those are unambiguously bad actions because they feed into the cycle of violence, of fueling the community sentiment that only idiots sleep without a knife under their pillow in case a burglar breaks into THEIR room.

        As I said earlier, it seems like Tristan is evolving past that flaw–being forced to work within a collective is gradually showing him the thoughtlessness of his earlier ways. However, that doesn’t excuse his earlier behavior. Breaking into someone’s domicile, beating them to a pulp, and then murdering them because they saw your face is unambiguously bad. Tossing a man into ravenous beasts to be eaten alive, and trying to frame another man into being lynched because those actions are the most expedient way to gain the confidence of someone else you want to murder is unambiguously bad.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. CantankerousBellerophan

        I will freely admit that I am staggeringly lucky and privileged in many ways. My family is not exceedingly wealthy, but they have been able to support me through many difficulties which I know many people would not.

        That said, I have been the victim of violent crime, and I have spent a significant amount of time working with other victims. When it happened to me, my first thought was, “What happened to this person, that breaking into my car and stealing a bag whose value they could never have anticipated from just looking at it, was the thing they did? What broke them?”

        I do not know the answer to that question. One of the ways I am staggeringly lucky which is not really related to my other privilege is that my stolen items were actually recovered about two weeks later. They spent more time in a police evidence locker than stolen, but neither before nor after those weeks did I ever build up any significant ire towards the perpetrator. Even then, before my beliefs had turned as far towards the revolutionary as they are now, I recognized that I simply did not know enough to judge.

        As for whether I have ever lived in a place where the criminals with badges were more dangerous than the ones without, no. I have not. However, I am aware of history. I know the police are exceedingly dangerous to everyone who holds my current beliefs, no matter where I live. They can and will be turned against me the moment I do more than what I am doing now. It is a significantly different situation than what you went through, and I will not compare them, but I do have some at least fractional personal understanding of the threat.

        All of that is only half of the point, though. You describe the institutions which put you and yours in that position as broken. As if they were intended to work for the good, and don’t as a result of circumstance or human malfeasance. But I know the history. Those systems: police, redlining, segregation, the whole malign ouroboros which manifests both of our lives as inevitable consequences of its function? They aren’t broken. They are working as intended. Communities like yours exist because the system was built, both intentionally by the venal and malicious, and organically by forces existing in previous manifestations of it, to make those things happen on purpose. A machine is not broken if its function is immoral, but if it fails to perform its function. A machine’s existance, however, is immoral if its function is, regardless of whether it is performing it.

        The suffering is the point. More specifically, it’s the fact that people who suffer are easier to exploit.

        Knowing this, though, my own lived experience is the other half of the point. One of the valid ways to describe my life is staggeringly lucky and privileged. I do describe it that way, because it is true. But it has also given me a unique perspective on humanity, in much the same way yours has, which must necessarily be equally true of us because we both occupy the same objective reality. Your neighborhoods demonstrate conclusively that if you set loose unaccountable agents of the state upon people with no means to defend themselves, the result is criminality on the part of both the state and its victims. Mine demonstrate the opposite case. When you do not do that to people, the designs of the worst among us are directed towards less horrific ends. Theft and murder were nigh-unheard of in the places I lived because the pressures which cause people to do that did not exist. Even the poorest among us did not need to be worried that a police officer would randomly murder them, which changed their entire lives and reactions in innumerable ways. Even the most psychopathic among us did not see violence to repeat, and so it was not repeated.

        I know, in short, that a better world for everyone is possible because I was born into one built for me. Systems are not broken by malicious people. There were plenty of malicious people in my system, and it survived them. People are, instead, broken and made maximally malicious by systems whose intent is to do this. Whether to reify racist and classist assumptions, or to exploit people for all their worth, or to create an underclass which lives in fear and will not resist the next repetition of the cycle, oppressive systems oppress because they are supposed to. Not because uniquely bad individuals broke them.

        And so I, and people who have gone significantly further than I, are threats to these systems. Because we know it didn’t have to be this way. We have seen better worlds, and because we are not monsters we seek to dissolve the systems denying them to all. Our worlds are made of people just like yours whose lives are just as constrained by circumstance, but the circumstances were manipulated for the good instead of for evil.

        This perspective is just about the only thing privilege is actually good for. It is not good that the outcome of life should be so determined by luck, but it does mean the lucky can see goodness where others will not. The world sucks, and that fact is largely my ancestors’ fault. But I know it doesn’t have to be like that. Things can be change through the cooperative efforts of people to change them. It just takes enough of us to see chains for what they are, and decide they no longer wish to forge them.


  9. Silverking

    So, I understand the Trial of Lines is meant to be an equalizer of the different social and economic disparities of the candidates by being a free-for-all and having no “illegal” methods of advancement. In this light, Tupoc’s deal with the darklings (including tossing one of his own teammates to the wolves) is not judged any more harshly than Team Noble leaving the stragglers to fend for themselves while taking the secret “safer” path, or Tristan dosing his enemies with lodestone extract.

    What I don’t understand is how the Watch is going to turn it around to say, “You know these people who tried to kill you? They’ll be joining the Watch with you, so trust them with your life.” I mean, Tristan at least has built a reputation of sticking up for his team (or at the very least not spending their lives frivolously). But how is the Watch intended to integrate people like Tupoc, who probably murdered Ju in her sleep just to stir the pot? Either he’s going to have to somehow prove himself invaluable, or there’s some later part of the Trials where he has to demonstrate that he knows how to “play nice” in the long term.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Abnaxis

    Ehhh, I wouldn’t say Sanale wasn’t part of a marginalized group, because he’s an immigrant. Of all the people from the boat, including foreigners, he’s the only one that has trouble speaking the language, the only one wearing “exotic” beadwork, and the only one that his all the other notes for the “Black Dudes Die First” trope.

    I looked around in TvTropes and didn’t really find a foreign national version of “Black Dude Dies First,” but I’m guessing that’s more due to my lacking search skills than it not existing.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s