Chapter 21

Angharad Tredegar walked away, leaving him to stand alone before the gate, and Tristan smiled.

That had worked out better than he’d hoped it might. The invitation to join her crew had come as a surprise to him – and to her as well, he suspected – but it told him his instincts had been correct. Tredegar liked for people to be good and bad, with little room in between, so now that he was not strictly bad her opinion of him was leaning the other way.

“That was nice of you,” Fortuna mused, chin resting on his shoulder as she held him tight.

A pause.

“So why did you actually do it?”

Tristan only kept smiling. That business with the airavatan had improved his reputation markedly, but while that may have some uses it also meant that his reputation was now worth something. It could therefore be used as leverage against him. So before Tupoc Xical came knocking with a smile and a threat to tell everyone that his medicine cabinet was truly a poisoner’s arsenal it was best to cut the grass under the Izcalli’s feet. Tredegar hated the man and was now likely to side with Tristan if he gave a halfway believable lie as answer, which would do away with most the damages.

Ferranda Villazur would keep her mouth shut about the lodestone extract, they had an understanding, and even if the remaining infanzones wanted to make something it they could not. Augusto was a muzzled dog, unable to do anything without his master’s permission, and the other two had to toe Angharad Tredegar’s line now. The mirror-dancer might not have noticed it but without her Remund Cerdan and Isabel Ruesta were fairly fucked.

Precious few people wanted to do anything with the Cerdan now that word had got around about one stabbing his own valet in the back and Isabel Ruesta was all but useless in a fight.

“Don’t you know I love making friends?” he lied.

Fortuna pressed her lips against the side of his neck and blew a staggeringly unpleasant raspberry in retaliation, which had him squirming enough he got a strange look from Inyoni. Fleeing the scene as the Lady of Long Odds’ laughter echoed behind him, he dipped by the kitchen table to help himself to one of the comforts the Watch had set out: a large steaming pot of what, by the smell, must be dandelion tea. He claimed a mug, thanked the watchman watching over the pot and proceeded to the next part of his plan.  

Finding a comfortable nook to sit in with his warm drink.

There he sat in silence, eyes unblinking, and began drawing a map. Not one of the maze, though in time there might be a need for that, but of something rather more important: crews.  The nature of mankind was that if you dropped thirty strangers into a pit with nothing but the clothes on their back, within an hour there’d be five factions and two of those would be looking for knives to pull on each other. It was simply how people were, no matter where they were born. Now the souls on display here were from all over Vesper and the lives that’d led them to this courtyard seemed just as disparate, so where they would fall was not easy to predict. This was not a curse, however, but a boon: looking at where people fell Tristan would be able to get some notion of what they actually wanted.

Take Ocotlan, for example. The large Aztlan legbreaker was sticking to Tupoc Xical and did not look like he’d ever considered otherwise even though he would be welcome in other crews. That was because Ocotlan most wanted to be on the same side of the beatings he was used to – namely, the one doling them out. The only one sure to deliver on that was Tupoc, who had all the restraint of the animal emblem of his former society. Now contrast the Menor Mano bruiser to the other survivor from Tupoc’s crew, Lady Acanthe Phos. Arguably the keystone of the Izcalli’s strategy in the Trial of Lines with her tracking contract. She now avoided getting anywhere near Tupoc, talking with the Ramayan pair like someone try to get an in.

That was because Acanthe Phos cared most about safety.

She’d been fine with Tupoc selling the rest of the Bluebell out if it made it any more likely for her to get to the second trial, but Tredegar has said he’d sold out one of their own – Leander Galatas, the sailor who’d lost his arm on the ship. In her eyes, Tupoc had turned from someone dangerous to others into a man dangerous to everyone. Including his own crew. So she was abandoning ship, and with Angharad Tredegar more likely to stab her than take her in the best bet for safety was the Ramayans. Ishaan Nair and Shalini Goel had already got their hands on Ferranda Villazur, an auspicious start.

Whether or not people realized it yet, they had begun to divide along the lines that Lieutenant Wen had implied: three shrines matched by three diving crews. Oh, for now it was more like half a dozen but Tristan had seen this sort of thing at work in the Murk. Small coteries – gangs – were fiercely independent when their corner of the mud went undisturbed, guarding their little kingdoms jealously, but that died the moment the bigger dogs came. When the Hoja Roja poked a nose in, all the petty kings swore brotherhood with the rivals they’d tried to kill a month ago and began talking about sticking together in the face of encroachment.

It was the same here, in a sense. The maze would do the work of convincing the smaller crews to let the larger ones eat them, until only a handful of forces broadly in the same league were left standing. Even if the knowledge of the horrors out there did not turn out to be enough today, then tomorrow the balance would tip: once bodies began dropping that strange sickness called tolerance for your fellow men had a way of spreading around. Tristan couldn’t be sure, not yet, but after watching for about half an hour he believed he’d figured out the three kingdoms that would end up the victors.

“So, what are we looking at?” Fortuna asked.

She sat above him to his left, in a broken cleft of stone: the blood-red dress dripped down to the dusty floor, long past her feet, as she rested her chin on the palm of her hand. She looked bored at a glance but Tristan knew better. She had always liked watching people, especially ‘interesting’ sorts, and many here qualified for the word in her eyes. He smiled and hid his mouth behind the rim of his cup.

“If we’re naming crowns, Tredegar is the easy one,” he said. “She’ll end up with the largest crew too, mark my words.”

Not that she had made it easy on herself. Given her record on the Bluebell and the rumours now going around that she’d single-handedly cut through a cultist warband before fighting Tupoc Xical to a draw, there was not a single individual here who would turn down an alliance with her. Not even Tristan himself, had he intended to delve the maze.

“She looks a little harried,” Fortuna observed.

“That’s because the leeches put her in charge,” he said. “Not that they had a choice.”

Tredegar’s trouble was that she had inherited a pack of parasites from the first trial: Isabel Ruesta, the smarter of the Cerdan brothers and Cozme Aflor. Though not Beatris, whose absence was glaring. Still, that early inheritance had raised Tredegar’s numbers from the start but come at a cost in that everyone not a fool knew the infanzones would sacrifice them without hesitation if it kept them alive even a minute longer. Not the kind of company you wanted to keep in a maze full of deadly tests. Even in the face of that, though, Tredegar was picking up recruits.

First came Inyoni and Zenzele Duma, the survivors of the Malani threesome from the Bluebell. Lord Zenzele had been looking all this time like he was either about to weep or bite someone’s head off, not the stuff solid allies were made of, and both he and his aunt were avoiding the Ramayans they’d come with – though not Yaretzi, the quiet Aztlan who once again glided through peril without drawing attention. Tredegar was the only safe port of call for the Malani, so she had hooked them without much trouble. With that many fighters on her side, she would now be able to pick up another member or two without nearly as much difficulty.

The more there were under Tredegar, the less the infanzones were a millstone around her neck.

“Tupoc’s one too,” Fortuna decided. “He’s already got two.”

Tristan drank, then hid his lips again.

“His will be the weakest,” the thief said. “He keeps Ocotlan and Augusto Cerdan has nowhere else to go, but it is only the desperate he will draw.”

His reputation was too blackened for anything else, no matter how skilled the man was at fighting. People going to Tupoc would know they’d be treated as expendable, so those who went anyway would do so for lack of a better crew to fall in with. Tristan suspected that Angharad Tredegar might well accept every fearful soul pleading to hide in her shadow, but her comrades would not be as accommodating. They would not tolerate useless hanger-ons trailing them in the maze while they faced all the perils.

“He’s getting Felis and Aines, at the very least,” Tristan said. “Perhaps Francho as well.”

He would have said as much even if the pale eyed Izcalli were not currently speaking to Felis, whose shoulders were hunched even though he was the one being sought out.

“It’s the Ramayans that intrigue,” he continued. “Their position is the most interesting.”

Lord Ishaan Nair and his right hand, Shalini Goel – who was visibly the most assertive of the two but still deferred to the nobleborn of the pair – were in the right spot to have some ripe fruits fall straight into their lap: anyone who did not want to work with the infanzones but could not stomach Tupoc Xical. They’d marked themselves as that option by recruiting Ferranda Villazur bright and early, forming a neat bundle of firepower and competence that everyone must eye with consideration. On the other hand, they’d failed to retain a single comrade from the first trial. The Malani survivors pointedly avoided them and Yaretzi had made herself scarce despite what Tristan believed to have been an attempt by Shalini to rope her in.

There was a mistake buried somewhere in their wake, and if the thief had to bet he’d say it had to do with the missing Malani. Ayanda, had it been? Tredegar had mentioned the Red Eye cult taking her with Tupoc’s help but there must have been more to it than that. Considering how unmoored Zenzele Duma acted and how closely he and Ayanda had kept together on the Bluebell, the thief had some suspicions about where things might have gone wrong. It also told him that Inyoni’s nephew had cared more about Ayanda than about passing these trials.

That might end up useful to know, before everything was over.

“They’re picking up Phos,” Fortuna replied with open distaste. “That seems more desperate than interesting.”

“No, it is very clever,” Tristan disagreed. “It’s not about if she is useful now, it is about opening a door.”

“For other traitors?” the goddess asked. “The big man won’t drop Tupoc and they wouldn’t want the rest.”

“It is about the precedent,” the thief said. “Acanthe Phos acted against others, treacherously so, but she was still taken in.”

“So they’re forgiving,” Fortuna shrugged.

“Oh yes,” Tristan murmured behind the cup. “And when tomorrow or the day after someone in Tredegar’s group cuts an ally’s throat to live and flees our honourable friend’s company, there is another home for them aside from Tupoc Xical’s collections of bastards and sacrifices.”

Even if all Acanthe Phos ended up being was a warm body with a sword when they walked the maze, her real value was in what her presence represented. The thief suspected he would enjoy a conversation with whichever of the Ramayans had come up with the scheme. A shame that even when he ventured out it would not be with their crew, as the men he intended to kill were among Tupoc and Tredegar’s followers. Draining the last of his dandelion tea, long gone from lukewarm to cold, Tristan set down the cup. Fortuna gracefully leapt down from her perch, dress trailing behind her as she adroitly came to stand before him.

“So, who are we joining?” Fortuna cheerfully asked.

Tristan rolled his neck, getting up with a sigh.

“First,” he said, “we begin by rigging the dice.”

And that meant dealing with a fellow rat.

“Smile,” Tristan suggested. “We are having a pleasant conversation.”

Lan beamed at him, tugging at her grey tunic as she tittered.

“What is it you’ve come to sell me, rat?” the dealer smilingly asked.

“I want us to run a game,” the thief replied just as smilingly.

She laughed, lightly slapping his arm like he’d just told a joke. Tristan rather admired the work: it’d taken him years to learn to laugh at will and he still didn’t look anywhere as convincing as the former Meng-Xiaofan frontwoman.

“Who on?”

“Everyone,” he said. “This maze is meant to keep us looking forward. It-”

“- splits us up so one can have a good look at the whole and figure out what this show’s really about, yes,” Lan impatiently said. “Obviously. You think I don’t know a front when I see one? The Watch is better trained at keeping secrets with knives than tricks.”

It was Lan writ in a sentence that her talent for seeing through things was just a little more useful than it was worrying.

“We split up across the crews,” he said.

“And share information back at the fort,” she mused.

It was hard to read what she thought of it, as Lan then let out a chuckle like they were having fun.

“You’re going to get Yong in under the Ramayans,” the blue-lipped woman decided. “He’s the best fit. So you want me to join up with Tupoc.”

“You won’t be alone, he’s taking Felis and Aines,” Tristan pointed out. “Fear’s a fine leash but it won’t beat your supply of dust.”

“I don’t need you to use it, Tristan,” Lan said. “And you’d be taking the nice cushy job by going with Tredegar.”

He shook his head.

“I won’t go with them,” he said. “I mean to trade with Beatris for that.”

 Lan’s brow rose.

“I have not seen her since I got here,” she said. “Not even for meals.”

“I’ll find her,” Tristan shrugged.

It was not so large a fort he would struggle to if he put his mind to it. Lan studied him for a moment, then let out a low whistle.

“So it’s the Watch you’re thinking of spying on,” she said, looking him up and down. “Look at the balls on you.”

He did not deny it, which killed any talk of him taking the lesser risk. In truth, for all that she was posturing Lan was short on choices. She had no in with Tredegar’s crowd and was not useful enough for Ferranda Villazur to vouch for her and get her under the Ramayans. Her way out would be tying herself to someone who was useful and coming as a package deal, but that would be tricky to manage and she had no obvious candidate. She might well end up stuck with Tupoc anyway, they both knew, and without the benefits of having accepted the terms he was offering.

“I want protection from everyone that’s brought into this,” Lan finally said. “It could turn sour on me.”

Tristan nodded.

“Then you must offer the same,” he said.

A symbolic gesture if it came to a brawl, but that was not where Lan’s strengths lay. She nodded back then brightly smiled.

“Now we need to sell it,” she said. “You demanded a fuck in exchange for protection?”

It was, he thought, telling that she would suggest that first. The Meng-Xiaofan did not deal in flesh-peddling, but that was business. Inside the coterie’s own ranks… The sisters had been twins, too. That would draw some sorts. He let no pity touch his gaze, for there was none of that to be had under the Law of Rats: it was for finer folk than they to extend the boundary of victory beyond survival.

“I don’t,” he simply said.

She did not comment aside from a blink of surprise. He considered for a moment.

“You asked for the relic pistol back, now that I have another weapon,” he said. “I refused.”

“Do you even have the scraps left?” she asked.

He shrugged. He did not, he’d thrown the useless weight away, but what did it matter? Even if someone thought to sneak into his pack and look she could simply say she had not believed him. After a moment she nodded, conceding to the unspoken answer. They both shifted their footing, turning to face each other properly, and mirth was replaced on her face by black anger. She slapped him, hard enough the sound carried, and said something that sounded like ‘she died for it’ before striding away angrily. Ignoring the many eyes now on him, Tristan cradled his stinging cheek and sighed.

She’d put her back into the slap knowing he’d have to let her away with it.

He first busied himself returning his cup to the makeshift kitchen, keeping an eye out for the people he needed to have a talk with now. Yong was not hard to find, and looked rather amused when their gazes met, but there was no sign of Sarai. A few others were missing as well, gone to talk or rest out of sight – Yaretzi, Brun, Song. And Beatris, of who there was still no sign. That was beginning to worry him. He went to sit by Yong, who had claimed one of the tables around the kitchen to clean his musket and pistol.

Given how many people were doing that, Tristan began to wonder if he should as well.

“Should I ask what you did to deserve that?” the Tianxi asked.

However sly the smile, it did not quite hide the slight slur to the words. He’s drunk. Too drunk for this conversation? Tristan decided not, after an appraising look. For now it was only slurring. The closest person to them was Remund Cerdan, who was at a table on the other side of the kitchen and eyeing Tredegar speaking animatedly with Zenzele Duma and Isabel Ruesta. The look on his face was somewhere between hate and desire, both dark enough that Tristan shivered in disgust. Still, the two of them should be safe to talk without being overheard.

“The same thing I am about to ask you,” the thief replied. “Have you given thought to which crew you want?”

“We agreed to stick together for the second trial,” Yong evenly said. “I have had offers but accepted nothing.”

“Ishaan Nair?” Tristan asked.

“Goel did the talking for them,” the former soldier replied. “Xical tried as well, but he can burn.”

“You should take Shalini’s offer,” the thief said.

Yong stared at him a long moment, frowning. The drink slowed his thoughts some but not all the way.

“Me,” he slowly said, “but not you. Are you ending our alliance?”

Surprise, Tristan thought, and perhaps a hint of hurt. He shook his head.

“No,” he murmured. “See, Lan took my offer. She slapped me so-”

“Xical wouldn’t think twice about taking her in,” Yong muttered, now caught on. “You’re trying to plant spies in the diving crews.”

His eyes narrowed.

“Or saboteurs.”

“No point in that,” Tristan dismissed. “There’s something off about this trial, Yong. And I do not think that going into that maze like good little soldiers is going to help us find out what’s really going on – at least not if that’s all we do.”

“That is dangerous talk,” the veteran warned. “You think the rooks will just let you sniff around?”

“I think that there’s a telescope set up on one of the bastions, with more astronomy equipment,” Tristan replied. “And that not knowing why is more likely to get me killed than trying to find out.”

Yong hesitated.

“I need to get to the third trial,” he finally said.

Tristan breathed in sharply. It was not quite a refusal, but close enough. He would have liked to say that it surprised, that he had not been sloppy enough to expect agreement, but it would be a lie. And it was unfair to do this when the man had drunk, but when if not now?

“Why did they send you here, Yong?” Tristan asked. “What do they have on you?”

The Tianxi’s face closed and his hand twitched, like he wanted to reach for his flask but had stopped himself. Only the aborted gesture wasn’t an answer, not really.

“You like a drink,” Tristan acknowledged, “but if it had eaten you alive you wouldn’t be able to fight like you do – or shoot, or run. Did you kill someone?”

“That is not a small question,” Yong said.

It was not, and rats paid upfront.

“I did,” Tristan admitted. “Someone on contract for the Hoja Roja, a Watch deserter. I didn’t set out to but it happened – and after that it was either the Dominion or getting my hands chopped off before they hung me upside down.”

Rios llorando, they called it. The weeping rivers. It didn’t take too long to die, not like some of the other ways coteries killed you, but they would hang you from up high so the red got everywhere. It was impossible to miss, which was what the Hoja cared most about: making an example. Reminding everyone that raising hands against them would cost the hands and then see you spill out everything inside you until there was nothing left at all.

Yong breathed in deeply, then rested a hand on the back of his head. Cursing in Cathayan, he reached for the inside of his coat and got his flask out. His fingers trembled as he undid the cork, taking a long swallow.

“I am surprised there is any left,” Tristan frankly said.

It did not smell like herbera, either, which had been all but finished anyhow.

“I brought three,” the Tianxi said.

The thief cocked an eyebrow. He’d seen the man drink often and smelled it even more frequently on his breath.

“And bought refills in their garrison rotgut,” Yong admitted.

The touch of levity was too light to really do more than skitter at the edge of their mood. Yong took his time, almost beginning to talk several times before closing his mouth. He drank twice more.

“Before leaving Caishen,” he said, “I stabbed a general five times.”

Tristan choked. He had not been sure what to expect, but it had not been that.

“I’d won decorations after the killing fields at Diecai,” Yong abruptly said. “They sent us across the plain, Tristan, with the Kuril cannons reaping us like wheat. I wanted to run, like anyone else, but we were halfway through and I knew the cannons wouldn’t stop firing just because we routed – so after a shot took off Old Rong’s head, I picked up the standard and told them to keep moving forward.”

Yong set his hands on the table, finger splayed against the wood, and glared down until they ceased shaking.

“And they trusted me, after our years together, so they did. General Qi sent four thousand men charging across the field at Diecai, all Caishen militia,” he said. “About half survived. The wings routed, but the center held and I was right in the middle of it.”

He let out a bleak, ugly laugh.

“My company had it worse because we didn’t rout,” Yong said. “They turned the full batteries on us so we’d break, ignored the runners.”

He breathed out, slowly, as if he were forcing out a ghost.

“We never reached their lines,” he said. “The battle was over before that. We’d been a distraction, see. Meant to rout and draw the Kuril regulars down the hills in pursuit so the mercenaries hidden in the woods could hit the left flank and flip their battle line.”

“But you didn’t rout,” Tristan quietly said.

“And didn’t end up mattering a fucking thing,” Yong said with cold fury. “The Kuril cavalry was out sacking a village an hour away instead of watching the left flank, so when the mercenary captains saw there were no guards and the enemy was watching the plain they attacked without waiting for the signal – took them completely by surprise, routed the entire army right off the field.”

Oh, Tristan thought, for words failed him.

“The greatest victory against an imperial army in thirty years,” the Tianxi said. “General Qi was the finest general in all the Republics, they told us, the most brilliant military mind of her generation.”

“So you killed her,” the thief said.

“It took two years to get close enough,” Yong said. “But she liked to keep us militiamen close because we’d been such an important part of her victory. Called us her bravest men, the backbone of Caishen. She liked to promote us when she could, make a show of it and have a meal between ‘just us veterans’ afterwards.”

The Tianxi grasped at the back of his head, avoiding the bun, as if he wanted to pull off hair.

“I wasn’t planning to kill her, at first,” he said. “But every night I dreamt about that fucking charge, Tristan, and when I got promoted to sima – major – she recognized my name. ‘This man,’ she said right in front of all those green boys, kids that’d never even been anywhere a battle and didn’t know she was lying, ‘this man won me Diecai,’ she said. ‘My grand plan would have come to nothing if not for the bravery of the Caishen militia’.”

Yong smiled.

“So when we sat for dinner, after the servant set down the roast duck I got up to carve it and shoved that knife right in her fucking throat,” he said, almost dreamily. “I kept stabbing until she stopped moving. Didn’t think I’d get out alive, after, but no one went in the tent for half an hour and by then I’d already stolen a horse.”

He drank again, licking his lips after.

“I got to Mazu before the news did,” he said. “I’d ridden that horse to death, then stolen another. Immediately bought a berth on a ship to Tenoch with the last of my coin.”

The former soldier met Tristan’s eyes, smiling sadly.

“And the dreams they stopped, for a time,” Yong said. “I did killing for bad men, enough to earn a decent living, and when some Caishen folk came asking around about a deserter I bought passage to Sacromonte. I was smiling when I did, though, you know? Tenoch had always felt too close, but on a ship to the City I felt free.”

“But it didn’t last,” the thief said.

“I thought it wouldn’t, deep down, but it did. I went clean in Sacromonte,” Yong told him. “No more bladework, not even for the Guardia. I bounced around jobs at the docks for a bit until I found a genuine Fuxing teashop in Old Town. I knew the brewing and the ceremonies – my grandmother was Sanxing stock, she taught me everything – and they felt that having someone born back in the old country added authenticity.”

“And you kept your nose clean as a host in a teashop?” Tristan asked, almost skeptical.

Yong shrugged.

“Dusted off my sword once when the Meng-Xiaofan came sniffing around, trying to make us a storehouse for butterfly powder, but I didn’t even need to use it,” he smiled. “It’s where I met my husband – Pietro was mad for white tea, came every week for a ceremony. He was younger than me, more than a decade, but neither of us cared. And things were good, they really were.”

It was, he thought, a pretty story. But Yong was here now and so the thief already knew the end would not be.

“It was my sister-in-law that was the start of it,” he said.

A pause.

“It wasn’t her fault, I don’t mean to say that,” Yong continued. “She’d borrowed some money from a lender when her husband broke his leg, to tide over until he got back to work, but when she returned to pay it was her the lender wanted. He invented some lie about the terms, said she had to pay with her body. She put him off and her husband beat the lender soundly when his leg got better. Knocked him out and left the coin owed. That should have been the end of it.”

“But he had coterie friends,” Tristan said, and it wasn’t much of the guess.

The coteries had their hands all over the moneylenders of Sacromonte, save those run by the infanzones themselves.

“A brother,” Yong said. “Some middling crew called the Mice Men. They sent three to break his other leg and told him if his wife didn’t go to ‘pay back the trouble’ next time they’d slit his throat.”

The thief winced. The smaller coteries were touchy about reputation, sometimes even more so than the real players. They knew they wouldn’t get anywhere if people weren’t afraid of them. Still, it was bold of these Mice Men to try such a thing outside the Murk. The Guardia actually cared what happened in the Old Town. Not as much as the Orchard, where the infanzones and the wealthy lived, but the Old Town made up most of Sacromonte’s districts and the crucial section of the canals that were its lifeblood. The redcloaks did not hesitate to shut down coteries that made trouble in that part of the city.

“That was overstepping,” Tristan said. “The Guardia didn’t get involved?”

“They brought in the lender for a talk, but there was no proof and he bought his way out,” Yong said. “Said he was being framed because we didn’t want to pay what was owed. Those two were terrified the Mice Men would take revenge for snitching and Pietro was the one who convinced them to tell the redcloaks, so he felt responsible.”

“And you felt responsible for him,” the thief said.

“That’s what love is, Tristan,” Yong sadly smiled. “Taking part. So I oiled my sword, cleaned my pistol and went to live with them for a few weeks.”

It was easy enough to tell what had followed.

“How many came?”

“Four,” the Tianxi said. “The lender was with them.”

He paused.

“I shot him in the belly,” Yong mused. “Never did learn if he died from that. But his brother went wild after so I had to kill him up close, sword to knife, and then another from behind when he tried to take a hostage. They ran after that, never came back.”

Yong drank.

“Until that night, I had not killed in over ten years.”

“And the dreams came back,” Tristan softly said.

“I couldn’t sleep a full night anymore,” Yong murmured. “Kept waking up screaming, charging across that fucking field at Diecai with all my friends dying and General Qi right behind me smiling a skull’s grin. Like she’d finally caught up.”

He pulled at the flask again, but it was empty.

“They warned me at the teashop that I looked too tired,” he said. “It put people off. We tried everything, Tristan, but I only found one thing that let me sleep.”

The Tianxi stared down at the flask, then flicked a finger against it. It let out a tinny ring, empty for now. But not for long, Tristan thought.

“Started just before bed,” Yong said. “Like medicine. But it didn’t stop there, and it got… well, you don’t need to know the details. We argued a lot. Pietro said I wasn’t the man he’d married.”

The former soldier grimaced.

“He wasn’t wrong.”

They were already past the crest of the hill, Tristan thought. Down was the only way for this to go.

“Money wasn’t great,” Yong admitted. “I got demoted to the back after smelling like rum before a ceremony, which paid less, and their family shop had to change suppliers after the old one died – prices were higher, profits slimmer.”

He flicked a finger against the flask again, the sound like the ringing of a bell.

“We had to borrow to keep the house, we were months behind in payments,” the Tianxi said. “I took care of it: the Hoja Roja needed a man dead and I did the killing, so they lent us without interest.”

Of course they did, Tristan thought. You’re everything they want in an enforcer: you need them more than the other way around, you have plain weaknesses and you’re a trained soldier. They would have kept handing him rope again and again, waiting patiently until a leash came from it they would be able to pull. Even drunk, the rotgut deep in him now, Yong saw that thought plainly writ on his face.

“They were looking to bring me in, I think,” he admitted, then looked away. “I’m not sure I was going to refuse, not that it ever got to that.”

And now the ugly end. Yong’s dark eyes were fervent when they returned to him.

“I don’t blame him, I want you to understand that,” he said. “I’m forty-three, Tristan. He’s only thirty, he still has years ahead of him. So I don’t blame him for taking the money and running.”

Tristan’s heart clenched.

“But it was the Hoja’s money,” he quietly said.

“But it was the Hoja’s money,” Yong quietly agreed.

What came out of the Tianxi’s throat could not be considered a laugh: it was just a convulsion barren of joy.

“They found him in three days,” Yong said. “Of course they did. What does he know about hiding? And then they told me they’d forgive the whole thing, if I put the shot in his head myself. Water under the bridge.”

“You didn’t,” Tristan said.

And there was much of that story that he had never believed a man like Yong might do, but that much he did not doubt.

“I love him,” Yong smiled. “How could I? So instead I made them a deal.”

And suddenly it made sense.

“That’s your red game,” Tristan sharply breathed in. “If you get to the third trial, they write off the money. They spare him.”

The other man toasted him with an empty flask.

“So I have to get there, Tristan,” he said. “Whatever it might cost me – or anyone else – I will reach the Trial of Weeds. I owe my husband that much.”

You owe him nothing, the thief thought. He ran, and that makes him one of my lot: there can be nothing owed under the Law of Rats.

“I understand,” he said instead.

“No,” Yong said, “I don’t think you do.”

He grimaced.

“I’ll help,” he said, “because it could be what I need. I’ll go with the Ramayans, who I liked most as a choice anyhow. But the moment this plan of yours looks as if it might keep me away from the third trial…”

“You turn on me,” Tristan completed. “You tell them everything.”

Who ‘them’ was did not matter. It could be the Watch, it could be the Ramayans or Tredegar of even Tupoc Xical. It would be whatever kept Yong safe so he would reach the Trial of Weeds, nothing more or less. It was a bittersweet thing, that in the same moment he came to understand the kind of man Yong was Tristan would come to understand that there was a limit to how far they could share trust. But having said this at all, the thief thought, was a kind of gift. Even if the Tianxi was drunk. Because he had not held back the secrets but instead given them out as a warning, so that Tristan might not overstep so much that betrayal must ensue.

“I’m sorry,” Yong quietly said, the slur thickening the words. “But it is what it is.”

Tristan straightened his back.

“Don’t be,” he said. “You promised all that you are free to promise. Asking anything more of you would be greed.”

And he meant it, he did, but looking at the pathetic gratitude in Yong’s eyes – what the drink was making of a man he respected – he had to look away. The bottle killed as many as sickness, down in the Murk. In some ways it was one. There was a reason Tristan never drank unless forced.

“We’ll talk before you leave,” the thief said.

Yong snorted, then waved him away.

“Go,” he said. “It won’t get any prettier.”

Tristan did not know what he would have answered, but he bit down on it anyhow. It was not his place to speak down to a man decades his senior, one who had lived through horrors he could not begin to imagine. Besides, that was one thing the bottle shared with sickness: once it was in your bones, it was not for you to decide when it left. Some got through it, got out, but most got ridden all the way down into the grave.

Tristan left with everything he’d come to get, but somehow it did not feel like a victory at all.

18 thoughts on “Chapter 21

  1. arcanavitae15

    Well it’s interesting to see Yong’s backstory, it’s really sad that he managed to build a life and recover all for it to backslide because he killed someone. It really hurts to see Yong and Tristan drifting apart, Yong feels guilty about it but feels like he owes his husband too much, while Tristan doesn’t blame or hate him just doesn’t understand his loyalty to his husband after he left.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wouldn’t describe it as “drifting apart”. Yong is finally explicitly outlining the boundaries their alliance actually secretly held from the start, because he’s putting more trust into Tristan and is ready for Tristan to put more trust into him. Tristan walked away with everything he came for and more, and he’s feeling like shit because he got *invested*. He cares about Yong.

      This could go any direction, but considering Tristan’s habitual lack of grudges other than his hit list, the only way I see their partnership not deepening from here is if Yong dies.


  2. CantankerousBellerophan

    “The nature of mankind was that if you dropped thirty strangers into a pit with nothing but the clothes on their back, within an hour there’d be five factions and two of those would be looking for knives to pull on each other.”

    This is a distressingly common belief, made all the moreso by how often it is reinforced. Toss people into a confined space and they fight. Take away distance and time, prevent them from leaving, and fights rapidly turn to blood on the ground. It’s a story repeated everywhere and forever, until it becomes as iron law.

    But for all that the story is true, it does not convey truth. To tell such a story at all you need two things: people, and a pit. Somewhere to confine them. Means to deny them resources, leaving theft and infighting as the only source. A prison, in function if not name.

    People are the result of nature, but pits into which we can be cast are not. They are made for and by us, deliberately. Much is said of contrived experiments like Robber’s Cove and Stanford, and while those are both now understood to be bad science, it is rarely understood why. The truth is, in neither case did the divisions between people who had once been nigh-identical develop organically. Their roles were constructed from the beginning by demagogues calling themselves academics. The Stanford experiment built a prison and assigned inmates and guards, as if such artificial, culturally laden titles are capable of demonstrating anything fundamental about humanity. The boys at Robber’s Cove started divided from the beginning. These were not experiments. They were screenplays.

    It is the same in nearly every experiment, and certainly every real-world example. People in impoverished housing projects are set against each other through countless means established before the construction of their homes. Sports hooligans come for teams which existed long before the riots, and for games designed to be zero-sum and winner-take-all. There are an infinite array of potential rules for a sporting event, but the only ones which get massive public exposure are inherently competitive, with absolute victors and losers. Cooperative gaming is both possible and, if MMOs are any indication, compelling, and yet there are no stadiums where increasingly unbeatable dragons are felled by ever-expanding crews of people working together for common purpose.

    Almost like one public arena of massive, multilateral cooperation might inspire others.

    It is not our nature that we must always fight. Were this the case, we would have died out before conquering fire, much less silicon. Harsh environments require cooperation to survive, and so we developed the ability to cooperate. Unfortunately, we also developed the ability to exploit. To create social machines which destroy as well as uplift. Machines which enslave their very creators, pulling them into their workings along with everyone and everything else.

    Tristan has only ever lived inside one such machine. Sacromonte extracts value from the people and gives it to the nobility, but that makes the nobles no less a part of the machine that is Sacromonte. Their function is the consumption of excess. The transformation of the product of exploited labor into garbage.

    Isabelle and her ilk are tools in more than a single sense. By their presence, the status quo is maintained. Sufficient material excess to begin actually uplifting all Sacromontans is never accumulated, as it radiates off the nobility like so much waste heat. No progress is made because the function of the machine that is the city is stasis alone. Within that stasis is carved the life Tristan has lived. The conflicts he has witnessed, the intrigues and backstabbing he has participated in, all are writ as inevitable consequences of the machine he lives within. Not the people he lives around.

    And yet he, like so many of us, see the behavior of individuals as only that, devoid of context. But there aren’t any prisons unless they are built, no pits unless they are dug, and no conflicts unless the conditions necessary to cause them are engineered. These are not aspects of our nature. They are shackles upon it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. john

      Geologically speaking, pits do in fact occur in nature. Not every trap is a villain’s deliberate construction, and factional conflict would not be an effective distraction unless some innate potential for fascination with it were already present.

      I agree with many of your points, but falsehood among foundation-stones of new order often turns out to be the seed which grows into a different set of shackles.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. CantankerousBellerophan

        Yes. A pit they were driven into by other people, made by an institution whose interests are not their own.


    2. luuuma7

      Believing that the people in the pit are somehow reflective of human nature as a whole strikes me as a lot like those studies on captive wolves from which we derive concepts like ‘Alpha Male’. It isn’t a reflection of actual wolf social dynamics but an example of those social dynamics breaking down.

      I find it interesting that they have a trial that incentivises small groups first, before introducing a trial in which the optimal choice would be widespread cooperation. It seems that they want the trial-goers divided, though without an antisocial force as harmful as Tupoc I expect most cadres would coalesce back into a single group at this point.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. masterofbones

    I find it interesting that despite being told quite explicitly what Yong’s problem is, Tristan blames it on the alcohol. As is almost always the case, alcoholism is a *symptom*, not the sickness. Yong needs the alcohol to be able to sleep, to be able to function because of the horrors he has experienced. The horrors he has lived through are the sickness.

    But Tristan and Pietro only see the bottle. A story no less tragic for its frequency

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Mirror Night

    Tristan surveys the board then makes his outside the box plan.
    I am bit confused his every group going to keep coming back to camp after the maze until they get through.
    As for Yong heck of a backstory

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Someperson

    On the one hand, I hope Yong continues to be a character in this story.

    On the other hand, for Yong’s own sake I kinda hope he gets to the third trial like he wanted and then drops out, and manages to retire to a halfway peaceful life that doesn’t involve having to fight. Seeing as he has clearly lived through some shit.

    On the anatomically dubious third hand, if he did return to Sacramonte and win the red game to save Pietro, I somehow doubt the Hoja would make good on their promise to call it even. They would still want Yong to work for them. And if the alternative is going back into the clutches of the Hoja, maybe joining the Watch really is the best thing he can do.

    Poor Yong.


    1. Crash

      Seems like joining the Watch is the only actual solution.

      He meets the demand of getting to the third trial, which should be enough to clear them (if you believe in honor among groups such as these)

      By actually joining the Watch, though, he gets a place to sleep and live (which would be hard, given his current state) and a guarantee that the Hoja will step down, or at least it would seem to be in their best interest to.

      People keep saying that not even the Infanzones mess with the Watch, so Yong joining should be sufficient to guarantee they stick to their words and leave Pietro alone in the future.


  6. edrey

    Tristan is a good man who understand that the world is not good nor evil but in between of the two. his worry for vanesa and sanale was evidence enough
    as side note it should be “los rios llorando”, for spanish, catalan, italian, portuguese and other similar languages the articles before the word is a must. in spañish is not tecnicaly wrong but any native speaker would just feel wrong about it.
    also other thing they dont teach is that in english insults are mean to be impactful like fuck or shit but in spanish they are continuous, the verb, noun, adverb, auxiliar and complement can be insults. there are people of spain or argentina that can have a hight speed monologue of five minutes of just insults, add a italian use of hands while talking and you have a very unique scene.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. greycat

      Some of the words used here are clearly similar to Spanish, but it might not be Spanish as we know it, with the same rules as our Spanish. This is either an alternate universe, or a far distant future Earth, so the language can be as similar or as different as the author wishes it to be.


    2. Crash

      The article is not a must. If you were speaking it in the middle of a phrase such as “they called it the crying rivers” then sure. Spoken as simply the name like it happened here, articles are a little bit weird, even.

      Going bit further, at least in Portuguese, it is very common for local accents to get rid of or use different articles for things. This can also vary by country, tough.

      In general, don’t expect any hard and fast rules from the romance languages. They are very good for making up words and having enough exceptions to every rule that you have to wonder why we bothered calling it a rule in the first place.


    3. edrey

      Sure, author can say its other language, and the rest of the text is not english but the language of the underworld.
      second, i cant speak for portuguese but languages like italian the article or auxiliar are almost always present, and for spanish you have the real academy so the last word are from them, regardless of country.


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