Chapter 20

The consolation prizes for being denied her duel were several.

Sergeant Mandisa sent a Watch surgeon to stitch the cut on her head and she sat down for a hot meal afterwards. Little more than stew and bread, but both were warm and after days on the run she would have been delighted by even a warm rock. She polished both off and Sergeant Mandisa even offered her a thimble of brandy, which she had not anyone else, before clapping her shoulder.

“There’s a few swords in the armoury,” she said. “Have a look when you’re done.”

A pause as the beautiful sergeant looked her up and down.

“Wen said I should remind you there’s clothes as well, if you want something to take something, but that shirt-and-coat look you went with is pretty ravishing,” Sergeant Mandisa praised.

Angharad went still as a statue, thimble in hand.

“It is shockingly fashionable,” Isabel agreed, eyes smiling. “I could see it taking in salons with the right adjustments – perhaps a silk sash around the waist or an open vest?”

“Coloured breast bindings,” the Malani sergeant suggested. “That way you can make them out through the shirt.”

“Scandalous,” Isabel appreciatively said.

Angharad hunched over and drank her thimble of brandy, as sadly it was impossible for her to disappear down it from sheer mortification. Perhaps a vest was in order, if the Watch kept any. Her coat needed mending again anyhow. Sergeant Mandisa strolled away after clapping her on the back again, leaving her to embarrassment.

“There’s a well for drinking water and another for the washtub,” Brun informed her, perhaps taking pity. “I’ll show you where so you can clean up.”

“That would be a fine thing,” Angharad admitted.

Tristan had done good work getting rid of the blood, but he had not been interested in the filth beyond what might get into her wounds. She was surprised Isabel could stomach to sit across from her given how she must smell.

“I have the first place in line after the Watch is done using it,” Song told her. “As I said before our interlude, you can have it.”

“That is kind of you,” Angharad said, nodding her thanks.

“It the least we owe,” the Tianxi meaningfully said.

Her gaze turned to the end of the table, distracting Angharad from reminding her she owed nothing at all: Song had saved her life on the Bluebell. The silver-eyed woman was staring at the two sitting near the edge, Master Cozme and Remund Cerdan. Both were keeping silent, looking uncomfortable. Now that the heat of the moment had passed, both were wrestling with the reality that they had surrendered Augusto Cerdan to her blade. It was Cozme Aflor who broke first, shaking his head.

“It is as she said,” he admitted. “And you kept your word to the letter: it’s another duel you tried to fight.”

There was a coolness to the way he beheld her now, a wariness. Had he guessed using the precise wording was her intention all along? Remund Cerdan, on the other hand, looked more tired and angry than anything else.

“Would that you were able to end him,” he said. “Cozme would not hear of my seeing to it myself-”

“I have explicit orders otherwise,” the soldier flatly said.

“- else he would not have reached sanctuary alive,” Remund continued, teeth gritted. “He tried to murder us with that shot, to murder me.”

“I would have struck him down if Song had not stopped me,” Brun admitted. “Before we all ran, I mean.”

“The last thing we needed was to start fighting each other,” Song flatly replied. “All it would accomplish was help the cultists.”

Cozme nodded at her gratefully, then hesitated when looking Angharad’s way.

“Augusto Cerdan is no longer under my protection,” he finally told her. “I ensured he reached sanctuary and had the opportunity to withdraw from the trials, I owe nothing more.”

“He will stay, then?” Angharad said, honestly surprised.

Remund laughed unkindly.

“He must,” the younger Cerdan said. “He will be disgraced when Isabel and I return to Sacromonte, perhaps even cast out of our house.”

“Unless Lord Cerdan seeks a feud with House Ruesta, he will most certainly be cast out,” Isabel coldly stated.

“You believe he will try to kill you,” Angharad slowly said. “To prevent word getting back.”

“Not prevent, that would be too difficult. But it is understood between the houses that deaths on the Dominion are to be left on the Dominion,” Isabel explained. “Conflict has occurred before, you understand. He would be stretching the bounds of tolerance, of course, but if he returns and we do not…”

“Any heir is better than none,” Remund said, face pulled tight. “Our father is not a sentimental man.”

Angharad glanced at Cozme, who seemed to be treating this as none of his affair. He avoided her gaze, which was confirmation enough. The Pereduri hid her disgust at the thought that a kinslayer might be welcomed back into one’s family after the deed. It was absurd that Sacromonte might call itself a civilized nation without answering such a foul crime by being throwing the kinslayer down a cliff.

“But such talk can wait until tomorrow,” Isabel said. “Shall I ask Beatris to mend your coat again?”

Her smile as she said that was sly, a joke between only the two of them. Angharad was uncomfortable sharing in it before Remund Cerdan, however, who still seemed to be expecting these trials to end in a marriage.

“Please,” Angharad said, casting a look around.

Where was Beatris, anyhow? She had seen neither hide nor hair of Isabel’s sole remaining handmaid since she reached sanctuary.

“She is resting,” Isabel said, answering an unspoken question.

Song scoffed.

“She is catatonic,” the silver-eyed woman harshly corrected. “She came close to dying too many times for her nerves to keep holding and should not be on this island to begin with.”

Song matched Isabel’s cold look with one of her own. Angharad went still in surprise, for never before had the Tianxi been this bellicose with one of the infanzones – not even Augusto after he murdered Gascon. More surprising still, she gave no sign of backing down even in the face of Isabel’s open displeasure.

“We are all tired,” Angharad said. “And my coat can certainly wait.”

She rose to her feet, almost hastily.

“There was talk of a washtub, I believe?”

The two tore their gazes away from each other. Her request snuffed out the fuse for now, Song and Brun rising to help her as they had promised, but a line had clearly been drawn in her absence.

The washtub was little more than a barrel with a fire underneath, large enough for her to fit her body up to her neck in the water. The water was hot and it felt like being born anew to wash away all the filth and blood. She almost fell asleep inside and did not last long after getting out. The Watch had set out bedrolls in the small chambers made from the stables, so she simply claimed the one by Song’s and closed the curtain before crawling under the covers.

She was out in moments.

Angharad woke early, among the first to do so, and shambled out of her bedroll for a meal. Only a few had preceded her, among them Lady Acanthe and the Tianxi veteran called Yong. The two avoided each other and herself, and as the watchman charged with distributing the morning porridge – a horrid slop that tasted vaguely salty – did not feel like conversation either she ate in silence. By the time she was halfway through Song joined her, the two of them soon commiserating together about the fare. Conversation remained light.

“Your braids are coming undone,” Song told her.

She had suspected as much but could not be sure without a mirror.

“And the hair is gone dry,” Angharad sighed. “The rainwater did more damage than the bath, I think.”

At least her stitches did not sting even when she smiled.

“I cannot do anything for that, but I could help you with the braids,” Song offered. “I used to do my little sister’s.”

Angharad started in surprise.

“You have siblings?” she asked.

“I am the third of five,” the silver-eyed woman smiled. “My parents were very orderly: two boys, then three girls.”

“I am an only child myself,” Angharad shared. “I had some cousins from my mother’s younger brother, but I believe them to be dead.”

Uncle Arwel and his two boys had been in the manor when it was set aflame. None had come out.

“Your uncle in the Watch?”

“No, Uncle Osian is the elder of a pair,” Angharad said. “My mother had two younger brothers.”

Unlike Father, who like her had had been without siblings. She had never met her grandparents on that side of the family either, both having passed years before her birth. Talk of their families cast a pall on a conversation, so Angharad accepted the offer of help with her braids to tack on a different wind. Song took a bench and the Pereduri sat before her, finding it soothingly pleasant for someone to play with her hair. Both their moods improved and they sat there as the rest of the fort began to wake around them.

“Ishaan’s still looking sickly,” Song murmured.

Angharad’s eyes found the chubby-cheeked Someshwari in question, who like many among them was looking down at his bowl with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. He did look wan, she thought, and his elegant saffron tunic was touched with old sweat.

“It is not a good time to fall sick,” Angharad said.

“I do not believe he is, at least not in that sense,” Song told her. “Inyoni’s company arrived an entire day before the rest of us, but they ran into the heliodoran beast on the way. One of them used a contract on it to get away, and now Ishaan Nair looks sickly even though he had a day more to rest than the rest of us.”

It was, she would admit, a detail of significance. They spoke no more of it, however, for something else caught their eye. The old woman Angharad had journeyed with for a few hours, Vanesa, was being helped into a seat by Tristan. He then went to fetch them both porridge.

“Words is that the Watch physician advised they amputate the leg,” Song said. “She refused, but they won’t keep her on pain draughts forever – those are expensive, and if she cannot do the trial what do they care?”

“Did you learn how she was wounded?” Angharad asked. “It does not seem like Xical’s work or a darkling’s.”

She had not wanted to hurt Ferranda yesterday by prodding the fresh wound of Sanale’s death, but surely others of that group must have talked. Song chuckled.

“It’s a story worth hearing and they have not been shy in sharing it.”

Angharad listened intently at the tale, with every word more amazed any of them had lived at all. No doubt the events had been exaggerated, but to use an outwitted monster as a bridge was too livid a detail to have been entirely invented.

Tristan did this?” she asked.

“And Sarai,” Song reminded her. “Signs are an art of great power.”

That much Angharad would not dispute, but she had a hard time believing that the same man who had beaten a nigh helpless woman for a pistol that had caught his fancy would take such risks for others. Song was nearly done with her braids by the time everyone was awake, and as the conversation ebbed low the noblewoman considered her way forward. Tupoc Xical must be made to pay for his actions, though not through some squalid murder as the sergeant had implied. A trial ought to take place, with crimes laid out and witnesses swearing oaths.

He had made enough enemies that Angharad liked her odds. The only questions was who she should approach first, Lady Inyoni or- her musings were cut short by a sunny Sergeant Mandisa walking out of the makeshift kitchen with a large copper pot, mercilessly beating it with a wooden spoon. She had the closest table, Yaretzi and Ferranda, wincing at the noise.

“Assemble, assemble,” the Malani sergeant called out. “An officer requires your attention.”

Most rose to their feet immediately, a handful inexplicably finishing the rest of their porridge first, but by the time Lieutenant Wen emerged from the barracks even those were standing. The Tianxi already has his gold-rimmed spectacles on and was tearing stripes off what looked like a piece of fresh bread. Once he finished the last, standing in front of everyone, he cleared his throat. The noise did not sound all that apologetic about making everyone wait while he ate.

“Our scouts are back,” Lieutenant Wen announced, “so as promised we will now go over the particulars of the second trial.”

Sergeant Mandisa came to stand by his side, still wielding the fearsome pot and spoon.

“The Trial of Ruins is just as simple as the first one was,” Lieutenant Wen said. “See how someone mislaid a pile of shrines behind me?”

It was hard to miss it, given that the vast majority of the great cavern had been swallowed up by the ruins. There was a general murmur of agreement, though no one committed so far as giving a legible answer. Already everyone had grasped that putting your foot forward with the lieutenant was a lot more likely to result in being made a figure of fun than garnering a reward.

“There are paths in there,” Lieutenant Wen said. “At the end of them lies a gate with a god trapped inside it: get there, cross the gate, and that’s it. That’s the entire trial.”

Someone cleared their throat. Cozme, Angharad recognized after a moment.

“So a maze requiring an offering at the end,” the mustachioed soldier stated. “Full of perils, one assumes?”

The corpulent watchman grinned at the other man, though there was much teeth to it and little amity.

“You’re an infanzon dog, Aflor, let’s not pretend you didn’t read up on everything before setting foot on the ship,” Lieutenant Wen said. “It’s a little like pretending your virginity mysteriously grew back after you set foot in the brothel.”

Master Cozme’s lips thinned and his mustache trembled with anger, but he held himself back from answering. Sergeant Mandisa cleared her throat. The Tianxi turned to glare at her but she just cleared it again, louder. Lieutenant Wen sighed.

“Fine,” he said. “I will be respectful of your delicate maidenhoods and ease you into this adventure with a proper, loving introduction.”

Angharad wondered whether politely requesting him to abandon that line of metaphor would make things better or worse. Worse, she decided. Almost certainly worse.

“Welcome to Trial of Ruins,” Lieutenant Wen said with caustic cheer. “We do not know who put those shrines in there and can’t be sure why, but we do one thing: they’re full of dead and dying gods.”

Spirits, he meant. Angharad was uncertain why a dead spirit’s existence should matter much – perhaps traces of power would remain, but surely no more than that? –  yet such a creature trapped and dying was certainly to be nothing to trifle with.

“Now that may sound like a bad thing,” Lieutenant Wen said, allowing a pause.

“Because it is!” Sergeant Mandisa helpfully provided.

“But it’s also how you’ll get through,” the Tianxi said, sliding his thumbs into his belt. “See, our friends out in the ruins can only get so far eating each other – diminishing returns, you know how it goes. Eating people, though? Now that’ll stave off extinction a decade or two. So they’ll let you into their shrines.”

“So they can eat you,” the Malani added, in case anyone had forgot.

“Not all shrines will open,” Lieutenant Wen warned them. “Some gods are sated, or too close to death or gone so mad they don’t remember how. In practice, that means you’ll be navigating a maze to get to the gate at the other end of the cavern.”

“Seems like a lot of gods to kill,” Shalini Goel skeptically said. “Could watchmen even do it?”

“We can’t,” Lieutenant Wen approvingly said. “But not for the reasons you think. If any of you are idiots or blind, you might have missed the giant spinning gold sky.”

To Angharad’s lack of surprise, no one stepped forward to name themselves a blind idiot by admitting that they had. Not that even the most unobservant of men could miss it: the only reason the cavern was not a pitch-black pit broken up only by the occasional lantern was the soft glow given off by the great machine hanging from the ceiling.

“We haven’t been able to get up there and confirm it’s Antediluvian work, but it seems likely,” Lieutenant Wen said. “Which is probably why it’s not just a very vain lantern: it’s also an aether machine placing restrictions on all gods within its area of influence.”

Angharad breathed in sharply and she was not the only one. It was one thing to walk the ruins of the First Empire, the worn and broken works of stone, another to walk in the light of one of their miraculous devices. No one had tamed Vesper the way the Antediluvians had, not even Liergan at its height.

“We have observed two restrictions,” Lieutenant Wen told them. “First, no god can do violence on anything but another god directly. Second, gods are bound to their shrine or seat of power. As a consequence of these, the Watch developed a method.”

“We’re going to make you bind your souls to boxes and bet them,” Sergeant Mandisa enthusiastically announced.

Angharad choked at the words, not quite believing what she’d just heard. She was not the only one. The bespectacled Tianxi glared at his sergeant.

“I was building up to that,” he reproached.

Notably, he did not contradict Sergeant Mandisa. The expression on Lieutenant Wen’s face might have passed for a pout if not for his inborn amount of spite making any application of the word unsuitable.

“Fine, the fun’s gone now anyway,” he sighed. “See, so long as terms are agreed on between mortal and god beforehand – and observed during – the aether machine does not consider what follows violence. So everyone has a chance at getting what they want: the god gives you a test, a game with rules, and if you fail or die during they get to eat your soul. If you win they let you through their territory, sometimes even throw in a prize.”

“Only the nice ones do that,” Sergeant Mandisa said. “There’s not a lot of those left, those that aren’t nice tend to eat them.”

“Should we have brought our own soul boxes, or will they be provided?” Shalini sarcastically asked.

“You can use ours,” Lieutenant Wen smiled. “It’s nothing all that sinister, Goel – a forged iron lantern splashed with your blood to serve as a mark on your presence in the aether. You’re technically gambling the marker, not your soul. It’s just so happens the marker’s enough for it to get at you.”

“You use aether seals?” Tupoc Xical asked, sounding genuinely surprised.

And pleased, for some reason. That did not bode well.

“Keep it in your pants, Leopard Society,” Lieutenant Wen replied, rolling his eyes. “It’s just a temporary mark. We’re not exactly burning souls to keep our candles lit, so don’t you start looking for a village or two to abduct.”

“This is vile calumny, lieutenant,” Tupoc replied with a friendly smile. “The Leopard Society’s purpose is the pursuit of criminals who flee beyond Izcalli borders, nothing more.”

The pair from the Someshwar loudly scoffed and Yong’s face might as well have been carved out of stone.

“Of course, of course,” Lieutenant Wen agreed.

A second later he gave the Aztlan the most exaggerated wink Angharad had ever seen.

“And the gate at the end?” Lady Inyoni called out. “Nothing else is simple, I will not believe that is.”

“Simple enough,” the bespectacled lieutenant said. “The god at the gate will not open unless ten or more of what it calls ‘victors’ – that is to say, those who bet their soul and won – are standing in front of it.”

Angharad bit the inside of her cheek. And there the nature of the trial changed again, Lieutenant Wen ripping the carpet out from under their feet. There were only twenty-five of them left, and of these several were no longer fighting fit. The Pereduri could not simply bet her soul ten times and gain victory enough to open the gate on her own, others needed to triumph as well. And if they lose even once, then or afterwards, that is the end of the line. That was why Tupoc was so certain he would get away with it: killing him was good as throwing away a victor. And he’ll kill some of us before we execute him, further slimming our odds.

Angharad considered her chances of simply killing him, without trial or verdict, the moment they stepped out of sanctuary. Alone she gave herself better than even odds, but it would not be quick and that meant complications. Ocotlan seemed likely to side with him in a fight, Augusto for certain and perhaps even Acanthe Phos. Angharad was not without allies of her own and Tupoc had certainly made enemies enough to be buried, but it would be a skirmish and not a duel. In that chaos, how many would be wounded or slain?

The costs would be too high.

Even if she gathered enough vengeful souls to strike with her, others would object: more afraid of the deaths ahead than angered by the deaths left behind. The moment Tupoc gathered someone to stand with him, showed it would be a fight and not an execution, her support would turn to mist. The trial she had wanted to arrange was good as buried. Angharad breathed in, let the indignation and the surge of rage – he’d been right, the smiling monster, he was going to get away with it – sink deep into her bones and let them simmer there as she calmed the surface of her.

Throwing a fit would serve no purpose but making her look unstable, unfit for alliance. Already she had attempted to kill Augusto yesterday, if she now had a tantrum because she would not be allowed to preside over the hanging of another trial-taker she would look like a bloodthirsty lunatic. For now her reputation was solid and Tupoc’s was as a full chamber pot: too foul for others to want to get close enough to throw it out, but that did not mean anyone was fond of the smell. She could not, would not set aside the demands of honour but Angharad was capable of biding her time. She would win oaths and allies, then get the last word. The dead were ever patient and she would not give any less than they.

By the time she had fully mastered herself, the conversation had moved on and the bespectacled watchman was speaking again.

“You’re a lucky bunch,” Lieutenant Wen jovially announced. “Three of the first row of shrines are open this year, so you’ve got plenty of paths to choose from.”

Lan raised her hand.

“Yes,” the lieutenant invited.

“Is that good?” she asked.

“That’s good,” Lieutenant Wen agreed. “It means dead ends are a lot less likely to force you through a shrine whose test will kill half of you.”

“It’s never the ones you expect either,” Sergeant Mandisa mused. “The Riddler-Teller’s usually such a sweetheart.”

Angharad made a firm and immediate decision to avoid any shrine whose spirit was named thus. When it became evident Lieutenant Wen would no longer speak unless prompted, the crowd began to disperse. Some of them had known of what was to come, at least part of it, but most would need time to digest the trial laying ahead. It was a man she believed part of the former that made his way towards her as others moved out of the way, making room. Space spread around them, out of either fear or manners. Angharad breathed in, back straight, and faced her enemy.

Tupoc Xical had come out of the Trial of Lines with nary a scuff on him.

There was a small rip in the long white skirts going to his ankles, already mended, but his collared green shirt and the dull breastplate he wore over it did not have so much as a stain. Angharad, who had only bathed once in several days and whose braids were not in the proper style, could only envy the way his long hair shone. Even the round earrings hanging from his ear had been freshly polished, flashing copper-gold whenever they caught the light. Her gaze must have lingered there, for Tupoc flicked one with a finger and gave her a smile.

“Like them?” the Izcalli asked. “They were a gift from my teacher when I declared my intention to enter the Watch.”

“So you are not a deserter, at least,” Angharad coolly replied.

The man clicked his tongue disapprovingly.

“I was offered help in that endeavour, Angharad Tredegar, not censure,” Tupoc informed her. “We hold the rooks in high esteem: they, too, understand the lessons of the Fifth Loss.”

It was a concession to manners and not the man that Angharad did not roll her eyes. She was in no mood to indulge the famous Aztlan superstitions, which the Kingdom of Izcalli had enshrined as dogma tacked on to the teachings of the Orthodoxy – the myth of some ancient lost war against the sky, ending in defeat and an exile that could only be turned back by triumphing over the Circle Perpetual. That the way to this triumph involved the Kingdom of Izcalli invading its neighbours at every opportunity had not endeared the preaching of Izcalli priesthood to anyone.

“And what would that be, Tupoc?” she said. “By the account of your deeds, I would suppose selling us out to cultists.”

“That the lights are fading,” Tupoc seriously replied. “That there can be no evil in any act undertaken to keep them on even a breath longer. What do you think the Watch is, Lady Tredegar?”

“The watchmen of Vesper,” she replied. “The keepers of the Iscariot Accords.”

“They are the lid on a very deep well,” Tupoc Xical said, shaking his head. “Only when they succeed in that duty can they spare the breath to be anything more.”

The too-perfect Aztlan smiled, utterly convinced of his words. Angharad might have spared some pity for him, for the way he must believe this to be able to look at himself in the mirror, were he not one of the vilest men she had ever met. No amount of paper-thin charm would make her forget the scream of terror that had ripped itself out of Briceida’s throat. Tiring of this playacting, of having to offer the monster manners, she sought his gaze and held it.

“What do you want?” she bluntly asked.

“I will be leading warriors down a path,” Tupoc said. “Be one of them and I will deliver to you the man whose death you seek.”

She bared her teeth.

“Only one of them,” Angharad told him.

“Greedy,” the Aztlan chided, more amused than offended. “But it seems you are not yet ready to bargain.”

“Nor will I ever be,” she replied.

After a curt nod she turned her back on him. In the wake of Lieutenant Wen’s oration most of the trial-takers had dispersed but there was nowhere to go save the great courtyard: none had gone all that far, beyond the distance courtesy dictated she be given for a private conversation. People clustered in pairs and small group, eyeing their fellows, but before Angharad could consider what she ought to do about this she found Isabel approaching her. The infanzona offered her soft smile and her arm with it.

“Walk with me,” Isabel Ruesta asked.

Who was Angharad to deny her? There was little to do but go around in circles in the courtyard if they did not want to leave the safety of the fort, so it was that they settled on.

“The second trial,” the dark-haired beauty told her, “is where most people are said to die. My family knows little about the Trial of Weeds, save that it ends in a port on the other side of the island, but it does not seem as dangerous.”

“Spirits are never to be trifled with,” Angharad agreed.

“We must make allies, then, else we will be at the mercy of others,” Isabel said, then paused.

The infanzona snuck a shy glance.

“That is, if you still want my company,” she said. “I would not presume, now that I have no guard left and only a single maid that-”

“Of course,” Angharad hurried to answer her. “You must know I would not abandon you now, Isabel, not when peril has reached its height and you are all but alone.”

“Thank you,” Isabel feelingly said. “Remund and Master Cozme are worthy friends, of course, but I cannot rely on them as I do you.”

“Cozme has his duty,” she conceded.

And it was Cerdan lives he was sworn to protect, not anyone from the House of Ruesta.

“The four of us – five, when Beatris recovers – make a respectable backbone for an expedition,” Isabel said.

“Five will not be enough,” Angharad replied.

Not when neither Isabel nor Beatris were any good at fighting.

“Then recruitment is in order,” the other woman agreed. “It would be best, I think, for you to take the lead in this.”

Angharad cocked an eyebrow.

“You might not have noticed, but your reputation rose to new heights after your battle with the Red Eye and their traitor allies,” Isabel told her. “Tupoc related how you faced an entire warband by yourself, when he arrived here, and that he believed you would live.”

The infanzona squeezed her arm.

“You will be sought after,” Isabel said. “Doors that would remain closed to me will open for you.”

Angharad frowned. Besotted she might be, but she could still see what lay behind what Isabel had said: the star of the infanzones was fading while her own had risen. On the Bluebell, Lord Remund and Isabel would have picked their allies and Angharad been expected to nod. Now the balance had swung the other way: it would be they who nodded, whatever her choices might be. That would take some getting used to. A lifetime of holding the least consequential title in every room had done little to prepare her, for all that Father had been readying her for the rule of Llanw Hall.

“Then I shall see about opening them,” Angharad replied with forced cheer.

After finishing another round of the courtyard they parted ways, Isabel reminding her that she was always there if Angharad felt the need for advice. By happenstance they had ended near an old acquaintance, which made the first step obvious enough for Angharad: Brun was kneeling by a bench, setting out his supplies and putting order to them. He was also, she saw, keeping a roving eye on the rest of the courtyard while working. He turned to her when she approached, slowly rising to his feet.

“Lady Angharad,” he said, pulling back at his sleeves. “Done talking with Ruesta, I see.”

A touch of embarrassment.

“It does make my purpose rather obvious, I suppose,” Angharad said.

“A tad,” Brun shrugged.

She did not make the request and he did not volunteer, which already told her all she needed to know about how the conversation would go if she did. It showed on her face and Brun passed a hand through his blond locks before grimacing.

“I would have liked to stick with you,” he admitted. “But I will not go with infanzones again, not after what it was like last time.”

“Augusto will not be with us,” Angharad said.

His lips thinned.

“And how much did his brother do, when Gascon got a knife in his back?” he asked. “Did Remund Cerdan try to help Briceida when she was taken, or run like a rabbit the moment he could?”

Brun had been fond of the redheaded maid. They had been courting, or near enough. Her death was not something he was taking lightly. Angharad looked away, ashamed that she had nothing to say. Neither of the Cerdans had covered themselves with glory on the Dominion of Lost Things.

“I hate that you must have that look on your face because of them,” Brun quietly said. “I don’t know what you are, Angharad Tredegar, but no infanzon is it. They will use you until you break, the same they do everything else, and after they’ll not shed a tear. It’s just what they are.”

“There is more to them than that,” Angharad said.

“Maybe,” Brun said. “Sometimes one man out of thousand does get rich riffling through the dung heap, it’s true. But even then, Angharad, all the rest just got shit on their hands.”

The phrasing was crude, but she understood the meaning: he was not going to take on the chance on either Remund or Isabel after what he had seen of them. It was, much as she disliked admitting it, entirely understandable. And it was not Brun’s duty to convince himself of the worth of the nobles ruling over him – if the sheep sought the shepherd’s crook, there would be no need for it, the High Queen had once said.

“I understand,” she said. “I wish it were otherwise, but what is that save noise?”

Brun worried his lip.

“I owe you for the way you drew the cultists off us,” the Sacromontan said. “I haven’t forgotten that.”

“I did not do it for reward,” Angharad dismissed. “We were companions, fighting to keep us alive is nothing more than what was owed.”

He looked frustrated, for reasons she did not understand.

“I don’t think the diving crews will stay the same,” Brun told her. “We can talk again after a day or two, see if there’s something to be done.”

She smiled, appreciating the intention more than a prospect she doubted would ever come to pass.

“I will still see you at camp,” Angharad told him. “We need not be strangers.”

“No,” he muttered. “I suppose not.”

“Then take care of yourself, Brun,” she said. “Perhaps the third trial will bring us side by side again.”

He jerked a nod, looking embarrassed.

“I’ll keep an eye out for you,” the Sacromontan promised. “See you around, Lady Tredegar.”

They parted ways with an undertone that was almost bittersweet. Angharad had spent only a few days with the companions she made on the Bluebell but the ties felt older than that. Thicker. She began to understand why it was that Mother said a captain who fought with her men need never fear mutiny. Facing death together was no small thing. Walking away as the blond man returned to his work, Angharad breathed out. Her crew lacked strength, she saw it plain. Brun had made his decision plain and she would not disrespect him by trying to convince him otherwise, which now left one name at the top of her list.

Song was cleaning her musket when the Pereduri approached her, carefully checking every part under lantern light.

“May I sit?” Angharad asked.

“There is no need,” Song replied without looking away from her weapon.

Angharad felt a sting of betrayal at the other woman’s words, however undeserved.

“Two more fighters,” the Tianxi continued. “If you want me to come along, that is what you need to secure. Anything less is throwing our lives away.”

She let out a breath or relief. Not a sundering of their relationship, then, but a requirement she could only call reasonable. Song owed none of their crew anything, certainly not her life.

“Will you desist from accepting other offers until then?” she asked.

“I will not go with Tupoc Xical,” Song said, tearing away her gaze from the musket only to look past her. “Anything else I will consider – waste no time, Angharad. The competition is not dallying.”

She turned to follow where the Tianxi was looking, seeing Lord Ishaan and Shalini Goel conversing with Lady Ferranda. Angharad pushed down her dismay. She had not thought Ferranda would be poached so quickly, half-hoping that after gathering more strength she could talk the other noble into coming with them despite her distrust of the other infanzones. By the way the blonde infanzona was nodding at the words of the other two, she would not have that opportunity. Teeth clenched, her gaze swept the courtyard for other possibilities. Tupoc was talking with the married pair, who displayed hesitant looks.

Even the desperate knew better.

Yong was speaking with Tristan and the toothless old professor. She was not sure the latter two would qualify as fighters in Song’s eyes, so she pushed that talk further down the ladder. Of those fit to fight a pair did stand alone: Lady Inyoni and her nephew Lord Zenzele. Angharad grimaced. She had avoided the Malani pair because of the man’s strange behaviour, thinking they might be assassins, but they had paid her no attention since the Bluebell docked. It seemed her suspicions had done them disservice. They were standing by the great iron gate, talking quietly as they beheld it, and Angharad made to join them.

“-er seen its like before,” Lord Zenzele was saying. “It must be some kind of stone from the far south.”

Her arrival was caught by the elder of the two.

“Lady Angharad,” Inyoni half-turned to greet her.

“Lady Inyoni,” she returned, then nodded at the nephew. “Lord Zenzele.”

The grizzled older woman snorted.

“My sister’s the one who got the title,” she said. “There is no need to spare me one as well, Tredegar.”

“Then you may take it as a mark of respect instead,” Angharad replied.

The older woman blinked in surprise. Her nephew seemed amused, though only shallowly. His eyes were as watchful of her now as when they had been on the ship.

“We’ve not much had the pleasure of your company, Lady Angharad, so forgive her for not knowing of your respect,” Zenzele wryly said. “Are you come to join in our wonder at this strange stone?”

She did not answer the unspoken reproach, for she had no good answer to it, and instead followed the other man’s invitation. Though the grand iron gate – not a simple slab of metal but a mass of intricate gears and mechanisms – was set into the massive pillar, the side and hinges were covered with a fine border in another kind of stone. It was deep blue, not unlike lapis in colour, but a simple rap of her knuckles confirmed her suspicion: it was soft stone, a kind she did know.

“This is Savuri marble,” she told them. “Polished.”

Lord Zenzele eyed her dubiously.

“You seem very sure of that,” he said.

“I had a piece in my bedchamber mere months ago,” Angharad amusedly told him. “A gift from my mother.”

Distaste flickered across the Malani’s face.

“Of course you did,” he scorned. “A least try a more believable lie, Tredegar. Who is your mother, then – Her Perpetual Majesty or Captain Maraire? The crown has a monopoly on Savuri marble and only Maraire ships may carry it. Every lord in Malan knows that, though perhaps word did not reach as far as Peredur.”

She met his scorn with a black stare.

“My mother’s name was Rhiannon Tredegar,” she replied, “though like all peers of Peredur she did have to register a Malani name on the rolls: Lady Sizani Maraire.”

She leaned forward.

“As for the piece of marble I refer to, it was the first ever dug up in Savuri after the colony was founded,” she coldly continued. “The High Queen was presented the second, you see, for its blue was deeper and it had a beautiful crack of gold going through it.”

Zenzele swallowed loudly. There was a long, awkward silence, then Inyoni let out snort.

“Well, you had that one coming,” the grizzled woman said. “You’ll have to forgive my nephew, Lady Tredegar, grief has addled his mood.”

At the reminder that the young woman with them was taken by the cultists, her expression sobered.

“I was very sorry to hear what happened to Ayanda,” she quietly said.

“We don’t know that she’s dead,” Zenzele said.

He sounded like a man trying to convince himself.

“Pray to the Sleeping God that she is,” Lady Inyoni flatly replied. “It is the kindest of the fates before her.”

The Malani clenched his fists.

“If Ishaan has just agreed to pursue, then-”

“Then we may well have lost more than one,” Inyoni sharply interrupted. “Or died at the bridge because he had already overused his contract.”

“You don’t know that,” Zenzele insisted. “And we’ll never know, because they fucking refused to try to rescue the reason I came to this fucking island in the first place.”

His voice was halfway to a shout by the end of the sentence and he was panting. Angharad did not need to look to know they were drawing attention but she could not bring herself to feel embarrassed, not looking at the raw grief on his face. It would been too petty.  Inyoni sighed, then turned an eye on her.

“I can guess at why you came to us, Lady Tredegar,” she said. “As you can see, we will not be making common cause with Ishaan Nair again.”

“I did seek you out to make alliance,” Angharad admitted, “but such talk can wait. I have disturbed you in your grief.”

Zenzele scoffed, though the anger did not feel directed at her.

“I’ll still be grieving her in fifty years, Tredegar – what difference could a few hours possibly make? Out with it.”

His bluntness bordered on rudeness, but patience came easy when she saw the look in his eyes. Much could be forgiven of a man when he had a knife in the belly.

“Crews are forming to delve into the maze,” Angharad said, matching frankness with frankness. “I would have the two of you in mine.”

Inyoni grunted, eyes considering.

“You’ve got the Ruesta dead weight and her maid, also dead weight, then the younger Cerdan – any truth to him having a contract?”

Angharad hesitated, then nodded. It was nothing they could not learn by asking around.

“Slightly better,” Inyoni conceded. “Cozme’s no slouch, but it’s not us he’ll be keeping an eye out for. Your roster is not a strong sell. Did you get that pretty blond boy or the Tianxi with the trick shots?”

“Song will join if you do,” Angharad said.

She could have turned a phrase to hide the detail, but why bother? It had been tiring, the game of twists and turns with the Cerdans, and she would gladly be rid of it. Best not to weave rope now she might later hang herself with. Inyoni met her nephew’s eyes, cocking an eyebrow, and Angharad knew her to be amenable. She would be, since they could not join the diving crew forming around Lord Ishaan and the other rising prospect was Tupoc. It was Lord Zenzele that looked unconvinced.

“You spent the entire trip to the island avoiding us,” Zenzele said. “What has changed?”

There she drew a line.

“Did you seek me out anymore than I sought you?” she evenly asked.

He conceded that with a grunt.

“I broke a betrothal to come here,” Lord Zenzele abruptly said. “With a house of no small means and a famously vengeful disposition. Keeping away from anyone come of the Isles seemed safer.”

On the ship, she recalled, his eyes had always been moving. Seeking out dark corners. It was why she’d thought he might be an assassin in the first place, and now the realization that he had been looking for the same knives she thought him to bear startled a laugh out of her. Zenzele’s face moved through surprise and then anger.

“I know not what-”

“I am the last of my house, save for my uncle in the Watch,” Angharad cut through. “I fled to Sacromonte pursued by assassins.”

She had not seen Father or her cousins die with her own eyes but there could be no doubt. The man’s face turned incredulous.

“You saw we were from Malan, and you thought…”

“Yes,” Angharad admitted.

“And we thought…”

“Yes,” Angharad repeated.

A moment passed, then Lord Zenzele let out a bitter chuckle.

“Sleeping God, that’s fucked,” he admitted. “Funny, in a horrible sort way.”

His aunt put a hand on his shoulder.

“We can band together,” Inyoni said. “But something must be made clear: we do not take orders from you, and certainly not from the infanzones. This is alliance, not servitude.”

“I would not ask otherwise,” Angharad told her. “It is all I have pledged.”

“Good,” Lady Inyoni said, then glanced at her nephew.

Zenzele let out a long breath, then nodded.

“We can deal,” he said. “If we had earlier, then…”

He grimaced.

“I could dig for a year and still find further mistakes were made,” the Malani said. “I will spare you the talk, Lady Tredegar. We will go fetch our packs and set them besides yours.”

As plain a statement about who they stood with as Angharad might ask for. It ought to be enough to convince Song, whose presence would turn their crew into a respectable force. The noblewoman nodded her thanks at the pair, watching as they left speaking in low voices. She allowed some of the tension to bleed out of her now that that they were no longer looking. Already her crew numbered eight, nearly a third of those who had made it to the Trial of Ruins, but she still felt vulnerable.

She stood there before the great iron gate, resisting the urge to fiddle with the buttons of her new vest as she wondered whether she should still be recruiting.

Soft footsteps on the stone had her glancing back, finding a familiar tricorn and crow’s nest. Tristan’s black eye was now a vivid purple, but the swelling had gotten better. As had the rest of him: not only had he clearly taken a bath but his most ragged clothes had been replaced. He now wore a black cloth kirtle over loose trousers tucked into a new pair of boots, the physician evidently having availed himself of the Watch’s stocks. There was even a pistol tucked into his belt, though Angharad could not ever remember seeing him fire a shot.

Though they had not parted on good terms and only reunited with complicating nuances, the grey-eyed man did not seem unfriendly. As he idly came to stand by her, facing the iron gate as well, Angharad came to suspect she was the only one feeling uncomfortable. It made her uneasy, to not know where the two of them stood. She had accused him, perhaps unjustly, and done so for reasons that now shamed her. Yet he did not seem to be keeping a grudge and had seen to her wounds when they encountered each other on the stairs to sanctuary.

Much as it embarrassed her to revisit their conflict Angharad knew it would be the only way to clear the air. Best to get it over with.

“I was wrong to accuse you after the twin died,” Angharad evenly said.

It was not an apology, she would not apologize for thinking he might have been involved when he had beaten the woman killed but a day before, but neither would she shy away from the fact that she had accused him for the wrong reasons. Feeling cheated by the good impression he had made on her and how harshly it had been revealed to be wrong was not an honorable reason to accuse him. She had been heeding the sting of her pride, not truly attempting to find out whether he had killed the Tianxi.

“I was the natural suspect,” Tristan acknowledged. “I imagine that’s half the reasons they aimed for Jun in the first place.”

Angharad shifted her footing, yet uneasy. It did not feel like anything had been resolved.

“I no longer believe you to have had a hand in it, whatever that is worth to you,” she offered.

That, at least, won a reaction.

“Tupoc Xical, is it?” the Sacromontan asked with half a smile.

“He was already scheming to offer us to the cultists,” Angharad said. “It seems consistent for him to have sown the seeds of us going our own way.”

“Our company came to the same conclusion while we ran,” Tristan told her. “And yet now I wonder.”

She started in surprise.

“It was only a matter of time until we split up, anyhow,” the Sacromontan continued, “so what did Xical truly gain?”

“He was most ardent in pushing fault towards you,” Angharad pointed out.

Not an uncommon thing for men to do when trying to avoid paying for their crimes.

“I’ll not deny he leapt at the opportunity to stir the pot,” he conceded. “But why do it when complete surprise would have served him even better? We would not have become suspicious of him so soon if not for Jun’s death.”

“If not him,” she asked, “then who?”

Tristan smiled at her, though it did not reach those grey eyes.

“I do not know, Lady Angharad,” he said. “And that worries me more than the thought of some gods in a maze, because those will not follow us past the Old Fort’s walls.”

The noblewoman was not convinced, but neither would she dismiss his suspicions out of hand. That he would be so caught up chasing shadows when he was said to have been fearless in front of a great monster like an airavatan was just one more confusing contradiction. She looked away, gaze going back to the iron gate.

“Some of the people here are easy to place,” Angharad finally said. “You, however, have been a discomforting man to try to fit anywhere.”

He cocked an eyebrow.

“I thank you for the compliment.”

It had been no such thing, they both knew.

“What did you do, Tristan, if I may ask?” she pressed. “I thought you a physician’s apprentice, but Ferranda calls you courageous and you wield a debt collector’s weapon as well as a knife.”

“I’ve never met someone who fit in a box without some parts first getting chopped off, Lady Angharad,” Tristan mildly replied. “As for my occupation, I did whatever would keep me fed that month. Some parts of that were pleasanter than others, as were the lessons the world doled out.”

Seeing her unconvinced expression, he sighed.

“Some of those months were spent serving as a cutter’s attendant,” Tristan said. “I have been a messenger boy, a dealer in stolen goods, a smuggler and a dozen other things that were never so neat as to be called a trade.”

A criminal, Angharad thought as her lips thinned. She had begun to suspect as much but it would have been a grave insult to assume. If this had been Peredur, if he had made the choice to break the law when there was a peer ruling over him and providing the opportunity of honest work, she would have held him in contempt. Only he was of Sacromonte, that rotting hive of a city, and how much choice did the souls in the belly of that beast really have? Angharad did not think she was wrong to try to place people but there was so much of the world that she had yet to see, to understand.

If a man did not fit in a box, she thought, the fault lay with the box and not the man.

“Did that ease your mind any?” he asked.

He sounded curious.

“The contrary, I think,” Angharad murmured. “But that might be for the best.”

To learn without discomfort was to fish only in shallow waters. She swallowed, dry-mouthed, then spoke impulsively.

“You could join us,” she said. “In the maze, I mean.”

Grey eyes considered her.

“I do not intend to venture out,” Tristan said. “Not for now, at least.”

She was not sure whether she was relieved or disappointed.

“You have done more fighting than most,” Angharad allowed. “Rest was earned.”

“That’s not why I want to stay here,” he smiled. “See, I’m not convinced that Lieutenant Wen told us the truth.”

She blinked.

“About the maze?”

“About this trial being anywhere as straightforward as the Trial of Lines,” he said.

He did not elaborate and she did not ask. Her path ahead was already set, and she could respect that the man had found his own even if she believed it would lead him nowhere. Tristan’s eyes remained on the great iron gate, never straying.

“What is it about it that interests you so?” Angharad asked. “It is the maze that will take us across, not the gate.”

The man cocked his head to the side.

“Those mechanisms on the gate, the moving parts,” he said. “What would you say they look like?”

Angharad blinked in surprise, then took her first careful look at it all. The iron gate must be fifty feet tall and about half as large, but it felt heavier for all the machinery it was laden with: cogs and gears and bands of metal, plaques fitted like a grid and so many pistons and interlocked pieces it was hard to tell where the mechanisms began or ended. She had seen some drawn schematics of First Empire wonders, as a girl – the famous towers of the Tower Coast, Izcalli candles and even the Broken Gate before the Triglau broke it – and the resemblance was striking.

“A lock,” she finally said.

“I thought that too, at first,” Tristan said.

“Not anymore?”

“Not anymore, no,” he agreed.

The grey-eyed man smiled.

“Right now, I’d say they look like clockwork.”

33 thoughts on “Chapter 20

  1. Earl of Purple

    So we find out more about the Fancy Foreigners, and it seems Vanessa may prove very useful indeed. Of course, Antediluvian mechanisms are unlikely to be as simple as clockwork, but she may still have insights.

    I am looking forward to the gods.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Mirror Night

      You do a great job on these character guides. However, have you consider doing something more special for Fortuna to make it clear she is a Goddess and not a normal Human? Special Font, Different Color, Etc.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. morroian

    Not gonna lie I’d rather have had a Tristan chapter but the end was good and it seems Tristan is not taking the trial yet which is somewhat surprising. I assume the rest of his group will stay with him.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Reader in The Night

    Honestly, I’m thinking at the end of this trial Vanesa might end up contracting with one of the Gods. She’s a one-eyed, one-legged, three-quarters blind old woman powering through via determination and a tenacious will to live. If that’s not contract-bait I don’t know what is.

    Angharad continues doing her thing. Kinda clumsily and kinda bluntly with her recruitment attempts, but her earnestness earns her points with everybody. And also, what is this, Angharad openly challenging herself to broaden her own perceptions of the world? Good job, you get all the cookies this chapter, Angharad.

    As for Tristan… Whatever are you plotting now, you tricky bastard? Seriously, there’s a lot of serious talent in this group of people, but nobody matches Tristan for sheer perceptiveness and observational prowess. Everybody else is playing chess, he’s playing an RTS.

    Well, whatever the case, both Tristan and Angharad are still carrying dead weight into the trial, Angharad with her hanger-on and maid, Tristan with his old people. That said, Tristan’s old people are a lot more trustworthy and loyal, even as they’re even more useless than Isabel. All in all, I’m excited to see the full teams for the next challenge and what lays ahead.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. arcanavitae15

      Tristan has a really good team while Angharad is kinda screwed since no one trusts her people which is entirely earned. Also Angharad is being subtly mind controlled or influenced which is a real negative for her “teammates”.

      Tristan playing RTS while everyone else is playing chess is pretty accurate though I think Tupoc may be on that level as well but he isn’t really making many friends compared to Tristan.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Downzorz

      The old people might not be dead weight now that that the first trial is past. Francho’s contract is ridiculously useful for information gathering, which will be useful in gauging the trials that are held in the same *stone* cavern year after year. Vanesa might be crippled, but I doubt wages with the gods are settled with a 100-meter dash.


    3. ohJohN

      I suspect Francho, at least, would actually be pretty useful in the upcoming trial, definitely more so than Isabel. I doubt her contract allows her to charm gods (my suspicion is it requires physical touch, as she’s handsy with Angharad and touched Tristan’s arm when she first tried to charm him) so her only real advantage is that she’s young/fit enough to keep up with the group.

      Francho’s contract, on the other hand, seems perfect for this trial: if he can read the stone of a shrine from the outside, he could potentially get a sense of how dangerous the god inside is, what types of games they tend to propose, tricky “gotchas” in the rules that past trial-goers have fallen for, etc. That’d be hugely helpful in avoiding the most dangerous shrines and surviving the ones they pass through.

      It’s a little odd to me that the participants all seem to be singularly focused on gathering martial strength for this trial — with the aether machine in play I’m expecting a fair amount of the games to be less “fight some zombies” and more “solve this riddle”, so a well-traveled professor seems like a very valuable resource?
      I’m sure fighters will be necessary, but it doesn’t sound like there’s lemures wandering the maze and the gods can’t directly harm them outside the games; I’d imagine running speed is a much less vital consideration than in the first trial.


  4. edrey

    Ruesta is not even subtle with her contract anymore and Angharad fall in the hole. on the other hand i feel bad for zenzele.
    Tristan is now the indiana jhones of the novel, robbing ruins and ancient tombs and treasuring his hat, this trial fit him really well.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Mirror Night

    I am glad they are shuffling the teams. Angharad had a terrible team compared to Tristan last time. Now I do like Tristan style of being clever and having a power that is strong but more limited. But his parts were absolutely aided by not having a squad filled with annoying potential backstabbers.

    Fellow Malani are interesting and Tupoc is always fun onscreen. Seems like Nobles running away from Romance is common. Maybe the younger one can chat to Fernada.

    As for who killed the twin, I still think its either Watch Related and/or someone(s) didn’t die from the first boat.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think Tristan wasn’t tied with a bunch of backstabbers because he has a good judge of character. He knew what kind of people the other people were at the beginning so he avoid certain people, deal with some, and stick with the rest. This is an expected skill for someone like Tristan. Being a criminal and a successful one required a lot of more subtle skillset.

      Angharad … haizz… had other priorities with her previous life. She is not stupid but she focused a lot on her combat skill and others things.


      1. Earl of Purple

        I’m going to disagree, because Tristan tried to join the infanzone group. It was the murder of Lan or Ju that got him kicked out. If it weren’t for that, he and Yong would not have joined the misfit group to which he arose as leader.


      2. I mean didn’t he do that to get a chance at killing one of them. Still, he did try to stick with the infanzone, he just didn’t trust them or expect anything out of them like Angharad. I just think that the people Tristan attach himself to usually are more reliable than Angharad. Isabel and Cerdan brother’s are both her first picks while Tristan pick Yong.


  6. arcanavitae15

    I love the interaction between Angharad and Tristan they are both extremely different people and thats show very well. It also shows how they feel about each other, there is a wary respect mixed with not being able to understand each other, though I think Tristan has started to get a better read on Angharad.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. arcanavitae15

    “We’re going to make you bind your souls to boxes and bet them,” Sergeant Mandisa enthusiastically announced.
    This seems like something right up Fortuna’s alley.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. CantankerousBellerophan

    “A peer ruling over him and providing the opportunity of honest work.”

    Have you ever read a line which would, in a just world, have only been said by a demon? A turn of phrase so perfectly tuned to obfuscate the corruption implied by its utterance, which feels to the knowing as a descending cloud of oil and rot?

    This is one of those.

    We already know the Malani are slavers. Perhaps Angharad’s family were not party to the more openly malignant facets of that trade, but they were not innocent of it. Angharad outright told us her family would press people into service on their merchant vessels. Even if they had no deeds listing the souls of men as commodities they were slavers all the same. Coming from someone who does not get this, who still seeks to avenge the deaths of people who deserved worse than to burn in their own manor, what could the phrase “honest work” possibly mean?

    This is before even getting into the true depths of the injustice implied by this thoughtless admission. She outright believes it to be good and just that every single person not born to the rounding error which calls itself nobility expend their labor for the benefit of the error. That the natural state of the world is servitude for almost everyone in return for “rule” by people like her. People who think fondly of throwing their own children at murderous spirits for accolades, who play courtly games of honor which mask all facets of reality, and who are still falling for a godsdamned honeypot contract wielded by a prancing debutante. If Angharad Tredegar is the produce of the peerage she would have every man, woman, and child serve…

    I believe my opinions on that matter are already clear.

    That said, it is good to see her finally, in some fractional sense, coming to the realization that people are made by their surroundings, rather than the reverse. It is an understanding her worldview will not survive, should she come fully into it. She thinks the boxes men are forced into as being in error, but fails to see that it is her class which built all the boxes. If a box does not fit what it is meant to hold, the error lies with the carpenter.


    1. Awesome Boy

      Interesting wording. ‘Her class’ is the noble class, but, as in real life, the noble class is clearly very different across the world. I would argue that despite the Malani being a ruling class, comparing their outlook and attitude to the Sacromontians is a little unrealistic. It’s sort of like comparing the Brahmin rulers in India to the Petty Kings of Ireland. Crime appears to be far less common in the Malani island kingdom (not perhaps for the best reasons), so therefore the ‘box’ the nobles have built there is not comparable to the one representing Tristan’s situation. This would imply that the life situations of the Sacromentians being poor is a fault of the Sacromentian leaders, which it is. However, that wouldn’t extend to Angharad as she is a different person with a different culture that, despite its large faults, appears to ‘construct’ their boxes much better.

      I agree with you that Angharad needs to see what the people she thinks of as her fellows are really just as bad as the worst rats of Sacromente. However, I think what she needs to understand is that she doesn’t need to treat the infonzones well; after all, she is going into the watch where she will stand above them. She needs to separate whatever she understands about nobles and only apply that to the nobles from her home, not these backstabbing, pampered jerks she thinks she needs to cater to. They don’t respect any of the rules she believes that a true noble would and as such there is no point in respecting them.

      Anyways, happy reading and merry Christmas (if you celebrate)!
      Here’s to another good week!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Someperson

    If the trial participants are literally going to be gambling their souls to proceed, both of our protagonists are basically guaranteed to succeed.

    Tristan can pull on luck to win any sort of chance-based gamble. Angharad can peek into the future and know what the results will be. Either of those abilities are unreasonably useful for this trial.

    …which is why the whole “you need at least 10 people to get through” is nice narratively speaking. Both in-universe and out of universe, we know the protagonists aren’t personally in existential danger with this trial, so instead the story focuses on whether or not their various allies can survive or not. Which is much more uncertain.

    On that note, I hope our resident greyhairs survive. Hopefully this trial doesn’t put them at as much of a disadvantage as the last one did, since at least there isn’t as much rushed travels through the wilderness needed this time.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. asazernik

    Odd that Angharad and Song are both focused on assembling fighters, when this looks like more of a Trial of puzzles and wits. The oldies – an archaeologist who can read stone, and a clockmaker – seem like the most valuable pair of people to have on your side, and everyone’s out there looking for muscle instead.

    Clever Tristan, playing moneyball.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. CantankerousBellerophan

      There is a hypothesis that humans evolved the ability to grow old specifically because of the value of the aged. People who can no longer labor with their bodies, but can pass down memories and experience, mind small children, or perform some of the small tasks needed to keep a settlement in good order help tie a society together, thus improving the chances that everyone survives.

      It would appear Vesper has forgotten this, much as we often do. Francho isn’t just an archaeologist, but a scholar of dying gods exactly like those interred in the maze. He doesn’t know everything – what is keeping Fortuna going most notably – but he knows more than anyone else in the entire Trial group. Vanesa isn’t just some doddering old woman, but a clockmaker about to step into an ancient machine prison of irreproducible power. Even with zero experience with Antediluvian works, she is the closest thing to experienced of anyone there. Their stories and knowledge are the reason people of their age exist in the first place, and yet they will be swept aside by everyone except, likely, Tristan.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Exactly. Even if old people can be quite stubborn and stuck in the past, it doesn’t mean they don’t have anything to contribute. WWII pilots can outfly a younger team of pilots despite using an older model of airplane, purely by their skill. Experienced pilots have a sort of trained intuition after flying so many battles which younger pilots just can’t get.

        However, the thing I am most worried about isn’t whether Tristan’s teammates have the skill to pass the Trial, it is whether they can remain safe from other teams. There is a saying from my country which go like this “1 strong man can take on 10 smart men”. Sometimes, no matter how skilled you are, the other team can always
        “convince” you to help them. Tristan’s strength lies in his perceptiveness and cunning, he is not a fighter. Sarai is not a fighter, Vanessa is not a fighter. Except for Yong, nobody in his original team is a fighter.


    2. Diverso Cortez

      You’re not necessarily wrong, but considering the gods have an incentive to kill the trial-takers (since Wen said that’s how they can eat their souls) my assumption is that the “trials” are less puzzles and more Indiana Jones-style booby traps.


      1. Crash

        He also said they can’t perform direct violence. I don’t know man, a trap like that has only one objective and that is violence.

        The fact they have to bet symbols of their souls to get around this seems to indicate the rule is actually pretty strong. If this is Indiana Jones and fighting competitions instead of a game of puzzles, riddles and cleverness I will be very disappointed. There’s even a god called the Riddle Maker, dangit.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. Crash

        She also doesn’t care to know. She has entirely dismissed them.

        Angharad and Song want fighters. They have not stopped to consider that fighting may not be the best path forward right now.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. asazernik

        Physical security only keeps you from a premature defeat, it doesn’t get you past the gate.

        Per MTG strategy: here fighters are facilities, puzzle people are closers.


  11. Tristan’s team has the skill but lacks the strength. Angharad’s team has the strength and not the skill. These two teams are a match made in Heaven. Now, we only need to get rid of Isabel and Cerdan and they are basically the team with the highest chance of passing the Trial.

    Still, I kind of get why Angharad needs so many fighters – Tupoc is a cunt and he definitely is not as ridiculously endearing as Tyrant.

    I am just waiting for Angharad to return the favor to Tristan later in the Trial when his team’s lack of strength causes them trouble.

    And I think it is a little weird that Angharad still dislikes Tristan, Angharad might be a little too rigid. I mean even Guan Yu used to be a convicted murderer – he met Liu Bei when he was running away from law enforcement and that did not stop him from becoming the paragon of virtue for his time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. CantankerousBellerophan

      You think that because of the stories you have been immersed in. Rags to riches stories are popular for us because we relate to the rags and desire the riches. Even knowing they are stories, being surrounded by them shapes our worldview so we think such fortune is possible for us to attain as well.

      But these were not the stories Angharad was likely raised to. In her world, she was already the paragon of virtue. She holds her own honor in such high regard that she believed it to be the only thing her patron might have valued in her. Her father, a slaver, and her mother, an “explorer” in lands where she was almost certainly not welcome, are held up by her as people whose deaths are to be avenged. She had no need for rags to riches stories because she is incapable of concieving of a world where rags are her lot.

      Of course she distrusts Tristan. He is the archetype of everything she was taught to despise, and has no cultural context to see otherwise.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Haizz… these people and their narrow worldviews will be the death of me. I mean even highborn (highborn enough) Octavian can appreciate lowborn Agrippa and highborn Zhang Liang can befriend commoner Han Xin (they are both in Three Heroes of the early Han dynasty – they co-wrote a strategy book together while Han Xin was under house arrest). What kind of lesson is Angharad learning from her highborn parents?

        I am having serious doubts about Angharad’s education. No wonder Tredegar was never a big house, with this kind of attitude what kind of talent can you really amass? You tried to be honorable but it just comes off as fake since an actual honorable person would appreciate being saved. An worthy example of an honorable man is Guan Yu. He, despite fighting for Liu Bei and could actually died for letting Cao Cao go, still decided to let Cao Cao go after Chibi because as dishonorable a person as Cao Cao can be, he did help Guan Yu so many years ago. Han Xin gains his title after his service to Han Gaozu, he immediately came back to repay the grandmother who gave him food and he also didn’t pay back the delinquent who shamed Han Xin by forcing him to crawl between the others’ legs. An actual honorable person doesn’t choose who to keep their honor to, they do it all the time and with everybody. An actual honorable person remembers the favor and looks past the petty insults. Thus when Angharad still keeps a grudge against Tristan on a complete stranger’s behalf and looks down at Tristan for his occupation when she clearly knows that Tristan might not have that much of a choice and right after Tristan saved her no less. I am just kind of baffled. After so many examples of actual honorable men, Angharad’s attempts just seem half-hearted.

        And even when she tried to be pragmatic, she didn’t do it till the end. Cao Cao certainly is a pragmatic fellow in a troubled land but he did provide for Chen Gong’s family after Chen Gong’s death because even after everything with Chen Gong, Cao Cao really appreciated Chen Gong saving him back in the day. Cao Cao treated people who helped him generously so even if he can be quite ruthless, there are still many who would die for him. If Cao Cao was in Angharad’s shoes, he would not show his dislike of Tristan or even dislike Tristan at all. Why antagonize a completely neutral party? If you treat him courteously, it encourages people to help you in the future, gain his friendship – which is always a plus, and even if you guys didn’t become friends, you can still keep him neutral. Who cares what he did before, there are many reasons for someone to become a criminal, as long as he helped you and your goals aren’t contradicting then it is completely fine.

        Angharad is flip-flopping between being honorable and being pragmatic so she reaches none.


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