Chapter 22

Tristan began fiddling with his cabinet like there was a point to it, keeping his hands occupied so he wouldn’t have to think about what he had just walked away from.

When he saw her approaching from the corner of his eye, it was almost a relief. Shalini Goel was the shortest of all the trial-takers, barely five feet five by his guess, and though she was full-bodied the thief could tell it was not the result of idleness: there was muscle to her frame and calluses on her palms. The same kind Guardia sometimes got, those come from shooting regularly. Her black hair was long, kept in a braid going down her back, and she had a gold ring in her nose. The vivid shades of her clothes spoke of coin even for a Ramayan, a people whose love of colour was proverbial.

A green kurta – the collarless tunic in the Someshwar manner – ended above her knees, leading into striped trousers in white and yellow that were tucked into high boots. A blood red sash at her waist had two pistols tucked into while a leather bandoleer holding powder horns hung loose across her torso, connecting a shoulder to the opposite side. Shalini had the look of a soldier but did not hold herself like one, which spoke to Tristan of someone who had been trained but not taken to such a life.

And while he’d been studying her, he realized, she had studied him right back.

“Tristan, is it?” she smiled. “I don’t believe we have been properly introduced.”

She had an easy smile, he decided, but it was not false. Shalini Goel struck him instead as one of those strange people Vesper had blessed with a general enjoyment of life. It must make her easy to like.

“It felt like a long journey here, but it ended up being so little time hasn’t it?” Tristan smiled back, entirely practiced.

She offered her hand to shake, which he did. Her grip was firm.

“I am-”

“Shalini Goel,” he said, then shrugged at her raised eyebrow. “Word gets around.”

“I suppose it does,” she chuckled. “And you even pronounced it right. Do you-”

Shalini said something he did not understand in what he was pretty sure was Samratrava – the most common of the Someshwari languages. Tristan answered with the only sentence in that language he had ever learned.

“The brothels are down the canal with red lanterns,” he informed her.

A flicker of complete and utter surprise, then Shalini burst out laughing. It was contagious enough that he found himself smiling as she slapped her knee, holding her stomach.

“Oh gods,” the Ramayan wheezed. “I guess that’s an answer. How much did they pay you to tell the sailors?”

“Only three radizes a night, but it came with a meal,” Tristan said.

He saw her pause, count in her head as she translated from the currency Sacromonte and most of the Trebian Sea used to coinage she better knew. The Imperial Someshwar had a few but jala – sheshajala, in truth, but not even Someshwari used the full name – were the only one he’d ever seen used at the docks. The private currencies of the rajas were rarely accepted, given how regularly they got debased when the latest palace or campaign got a little too expensive.

“So not even two kupah,” she mused. “I hope it was a good meal.”

“I’ve had worse,” the thief shrugged.

And taking the coppers had given him a reason to hang around Caballo Canal at night, letting him track the coming and goings of a Meng-Xiaofan warehouse he had been sent by Abuela to rob.

“I expect you have,” Shalini said, mood losing some of the humour. “It seems to have hardened you in useful ways.”

It was his turn to cock an eyebrow at her. She was the one who had come to him, after all, so it was her who should make the pitch.

“Tredegar is being run by the infanzones,” Shalini Goel told him, “and we both know Xical’s worse than a snake. A Leopard Society man through and through.”

“I have never heard of them before,” the thief admitted.

“I wouldn’t expect a Sacromontan to have,” she said. “Izcalli name their societies after animals from their homeland that embody traits they want to emulate, Tristan, but there are no leopards in the Kingdom of Izcalli.”

Tristan blinked in surprise.

“They’re not a formal society,” Shalini said. “When forced to acknowledge their existence the Grasshopper King will say they’re charged with hunting criminals that flee outside Izcalli borders, but what they really do is raid.”

She spat to the side.

“They go out with the candle-priests, hit undefended villages out in the Someshwar or the Republics and bring them back like cattle,” Shalini said.

He grimaced in disgust, not faking it in the least.

“For the candles?”

She nodded and he almost spat as she had. The Kingdom of Izcalli had been one of the strongest nations to emerge from the fall of the Second Empire, with fertile heartlands full of Antediluvian wonders and its strong military bent, but its unification was a bloody business. Izcalli was hardly alone in that, but what set the kingdom apart was that it was heavily dependent on First Empire lights to live and almost all of them were on the ground instead of set in firmament. During the wars many were damaged, which had unbalanced the intricate system of devices regulating light in Izcalli. Entire regions had begun to go dark for weeks, months even.

Until the men now known as the candle-priests found their solution: feed the machines aether where they grew weak.

Nowadays Izcalli claimed the era of bloody sacrifices, of murdering men on altars to keep the lights from burning out, was long past. That it had been much exaggerated anyhow, a very rare happenstance, and that advances in modern understanding of aether now made such savagery obsolete. There were kinder ways to keep the ‘candles’ lit, needing no death and hardly any pain. It had not stopped flower wars from erupting at Izcalli borders, and such assurances from the Grasshopper Kings were taken with a heavy grain of salt. With good reason, if Shalini spoke the truth about the Leopard Society.

“They’re expendable,” the Ramayan said. “If they get caught, become an embarrassment, they will be called rogues or bandits and left to hang. Xical came by that ugliness honestly, whatever else may be said of him.”

“And there is much to be said,” Tristan drily replied.

“Figured you’d agree,” Shalini grinned. “You can see the same things I can: Ishaan and I, we’re your best bet.”

He smiled at her, saying nothing.

“That Yong comes with is another point in your favour,” she acknowledged, “but after the way Lady Ferranda talked you up I would have made an offer anyway.”

“You,” he said, “and not Lord Ishaan. I find that interesting.”

“It’s not a slight,” Shalini assured him, “it’s just that he’s a little scrambled at the moment. By now you’ll have heard we ran into the airavatan before you did.”

“And that a contract was used to buy enough time for your crew to escape,” Tristan said.

Ferranda Villazur had claimed that something stupefied the beast long enough for them to run away. That it was contract work was not in doubt and he had already suspected it was Ishaan, but to hear it confirmed made the guess solid.

“There was some backlash,” she said. “Hard not to, beating back a monster that large. But he’s nearly through it and will be back to form by tomorrow. He’s just, uh, going to get confused easily until then. It’s best for me to do the talking while he recovers.”

She paused.

“If your worry is that I make promises he won’t keep, there is no need,” Shalini reassured him. “He’s not insensate, it just takes a while for him to understand things – everything I say, I say with his approval.”

It was tempting to keep stringing her along, see if he could get any more information out of her, but that was greed talking. If he took too much before declining, he would be salting the grounds. Best to end this now and add a little sweetness so they remained on good terms.

“It is a tempting offer,” he said.

“But,” Shalini said.

“I won’t be going into the maze tomorrow,” Tristan said. “Not with anyone.”

She drummed her fingers against the side of a pistol.

“Hedging your bets is not unreasonable,” she grudgingly said. “And we have had longer to rest.”

But it was not the answer she had wanted – and perhaps even expected – so now for the sweetness.

“Yong will not refuse if you ask him again,” Tristan said. “He does not want to wait.”

Shalini eyed him with interest.

“Is that what you two were speaking about?”

“We are inclined to different strategies,” Tristan shrugged.

She would come out of it with another shot at a companion she had wanted more than he, but more important still she would come out of their conversation with the feeling that she had ‘won’. Getting her hands on a source of tension between he and Yong was worth more than some talk about a suspected contract and idle conversation about the Leopard Society. Their conversation remained genial and Tristan suspected she might have stayed longer if she had not caught sight of something: Brun was approaching Ishaan Nair. Shalini made her excuses quickly after that, going to join them.

That’s another one for their crew, then, the thief thought. Brun was fit, loyal – he had backed Tredegar against Tupoc – and came with no baggage attached. He was, in essence, a perfect replacement for Yaretzi. Like her the blond Sacromontan had made few waves and come out of the perils with a solid reputation. And that made Tristan uncomfortable, because Fortuna had called the god he was bound to loud. It did not necessarily follow that a contractor must be alike in nature with their contracted – he had little enough in common with Fortuna – but a loud god ought to be loud in their gifts yet no a single whisper had spread of Brun’s contract.

The other man had navigated the game of alliances with a deft hand: he’d gotten in with the infanzones when the getting was good through the more influential of Isabel Ruesta’s maids, then stuck closely to Tredegar. A woman who would bite her own arm off before raising a hand against a comrade, a category Brun had made certain to fit in. Now he was changing ship for the Ramayans, getting into a more stable crew, but carefully burning no bridges as he did.

“You are certain his god is the loud one?” Tristan murmured, feigning a yawn.

“Yes,” Fortuna flatly replied. “And he is being incredibly tasteless about it.”

She did not deign to elaborate further and he knew better than to ask. There’s something off about you, Brun, Tristan decided. No one genuinely following sentiment ended up making all the right choices all the time. The other man was running a game, had to be.

But which, and for what purpose?

No answers would be found standing here, the thief knew, so he tore his gaze away. Whatever it was Brun wanted, if his ambitions extended beyond survival, then it would be something to chase after later. Tristan had more pressing matters to worry about, three of them to be exact. Francho was the most likely to have other offers, but Tristan still sought out Vanesa first. It was she whose expertise would determine whether his intentions were at all feasible.

The old woman was sitting by herself in a corner, looking half-asleep. The Watch physician had her on poppy extract for the pain, but Tristan had checked the vials and the man was keeping the doses as low as he could. It was for the best: at her age, too strong a dose risked sending her into the kind of sleep she would not be waking from. Not much had been done about the shattered leg, aside from cleaning it and binding it, but that was not laziness on the man’s part. The airavatan had broken the limb beyond repair, bone shredding muscles and tendons as it shattered into pieces. Her kneecap was in three pieces and the swelling made it nearly impossible to operate and stem the internal bleeding. The physician had little choice but to recommend amputation.

“Either way,” the watchman had told her, “you won’t ever be using that leg again.”

Vanesa had… balked, at that. Tristan had spent long enough as a cutter’s assistant to know that was not an uncommon reaction, but it had been startlingly ferocious. She went hysterical for a time, needing to be restrained until she calmed, and had been subdued since. The one-eyed clockmaker was awake enough to notice when he came to sat by her side, though her face betrayed her exhaustion.

“Is it time for lunch?” Vanesa asked.

“Not for a few hours yet,” Tristan said.

No one would be leaving anytime soon, anyhow. He thought some of the crews might set out to have a look at the shrines later this afternoon but doubted anyone would begin the maze until tomorrow. First they would want to recover and organize.

“Ah,” she muttered. “Sorry. My mind, it has been wandering.”

“Common enough when taking poppy extract,” he assured her.

She nodded, looking thankful. As if he had not simply said the truth.

“A nice young woman from the Watch is making me crutches,” Vanesa told him. “From an old oar, I believe?”

He said nothing.

“Anyhow,” Vanesa continued, “when they are finished I will be able to have a look at this maze. It seems an interesting enough place.”

Sometimes, Tristan thought, the line between kindness and cruelty was thin as a breath.

“You know you won’t be doing that,” he quietly said.

“Perhaps not in one of these companies forming,” Vanesa said, “but surely-”

“If you go into that maze, you will die.”

He interrupted as gently as he could, but his voice did not waver. It was a statement of fact, not a guess. Tristan had little heard of the tests these gods of the maze would set, but a one-eyed old woman with a broken leg would be as meat on the table. Vanesa’s lips pursed, then she looked away. He saw the emotions flicker across her worn face – frustration, anger, fear. And at the end of the road, resignation.

“I am dead if I stay here,” she finally said. “The physician says I have two weeks at most, with the bleeding inside the leg.”

Much as he wanted to bring up the amputation again, it was not his place. Vanesa knew the costs of her decision; they had been made plain to her. If she thought a slow death better than losing her leg then it was her choice to make.

“There may be,” Tristan said, “another way.”

Her eye went to him, as if dragged by a hook. The hope he saw there burned, for there were no certainties in what he had to offer.

“Have you had a close look at the gate?” he asked.

“I have not,” she admitted.

“Then let us,” Tristan said. “I think you will find it interesting.”

He went about it methodically. First he took one the spare benches near the kitchen and moved it in front of the gate, then went back for Vanesa. She had to lean on him all the while, most of her weight carried for her, but he got her to the bench and helped her down. She was barely paying attention by the time he did, sole eye flittering across the span of the iron gate – or, more precisely, the intricate mechanisms covering it.

“I cannot tell where it begins,” she murmured. “Oh – and some parts go into the gate. Pistons, Tristan, see those? That will be aetheric machinery, unless they have a steam engine on the other side that can run forever.”

“Can you make any sense of it?” he asked.

“The grids are the key,” Vanesa told him, eye still on the gate. “See how the gears around them are all derivative? Those metal plaques are the functional equivalent of levers, or perhaps more accurately a combination lock.”

“Moving them would have an effect,” Tristan said.

Vanesa nodded.

“Absolutely,” she said. “Mind you, there are few distinguishing marks on them and I do not see how anyone could easily get up there to activate them, but-”

She paused, enthusiasm slowly bleeding out of her as she turned to him.

“It is an interesting puzzle,” Vanesa said, “but it will not get either of us through the maze. I do not need a distraction, Tristan.”

Yes you do, the thief thought. Else she would simply wither on the vine. Better yet that this was not a distraction at all.

“I disagree,” Tristan murmured. “I think that gate is exactly how we get through the maze.”

He gestured at the gate.

“The stone around it isn’t the same as the fort’s,” he said. “And the scale of the structure it i set in is absurd.”

While the stone the gate was set in a pillar, as it reached all the way to the distant ceiling of the cavern, it perhaps ought to be called a tower instead for the sheer size of it. It was at least a hundred feet long from side to side, at the apex of the curve.

“So perhaps it is a First Empire ruin,” Vanesa shrugged. “That is no surprise given the great machinery above our heads.”

“You are not paying attention to the right part,” Tristan chided her. “The pillar is in perfect state. This Old Fort, however, is falling apart.”

The old woman stared at him, still uncomprehending.

“It was built later, not by the Antediluvians,” the thief said. “And to guard what, a gate it would take ten batteries of cannons to break through? I doubt it. And that leaves only…”

“The shrines,” Vanesa said. “The maze. You believe it is also a recent addition.”

“I do,” Tristan agreed. “And now that begs the question: what is that pillar for, then? Where does the gate lead?”

The clockmaker’s lone eye dipped upwards, at the pieces of gold slowly moving above them and giving out a ghostly golden glow.

“Even Antediluvians needed to maintain their machines,” Vanesa softly said. “However fine the make, they fell apart eventually.”

“And they would need a way to get up there,” Tristan murmured. “I believe we are looking at it.”

Vanesa hesitated.

“There is no guarantee that up there waits a path across the mountains,” she said.

Tristan could have said that even the Antediluvians must have brought the pieces in from somewhere, that if the maze of shrines was recent and a god bound to the gate on the other side then that very gate might be just as a recent an addition, but at the end of the day she was right: there was no guarantee.

“It is a bet,” Tristan admitted.

He met her eye squarely.

“But I believe in it enough to hold off on the maze,” he said.

Tristan was a rat: could there be a stronger endorsement from the likes of him than putting his own fortunes on the line? His life was the sole thing of worth he owned. He said nothing more, letting the silence do the talking. The Sacromontan knew she would agree, for as Lan had seen the truth was Vanesa did not truly want to die. She was resigned to it, perhaps, but if the choice was between the certain death of entering the maze as a lone cripple and rolling the dice on the gate they both knew what she would choose.

Tristan did not hurry her, letting her make the journey at her own pace until she was staring down at her ruin of a leg. There was a bitterness to the cast of her face that came to it more often these days.

“Well,” Vanesa said. “I suppose there is not much left for me to lose.”

She sighed.

“Only the two of us?” she asked.

“I want Francho as well,” the thief immediately replied. “And I have recruited outside helpers.”

“Of course you have,” the old woman tiredly smiled. “You may count me as part of your cabal, then. I look forward to seeing what comes of it.”

He would have stayed longer, sitting with her, but she dismissed him. Wanted to look at the gate without distractions, she said, but if he wanted to be a dear he could see about getting her ink and paper. That would have to wait, he decided, until he had spoken with Francho. The old professor was speaking with Lan when he found him, the blue-lipped dealer departing in a huff when she saw him. Francho cocked a brow at the thief but Tristan rolled his eyes.

“I will ask no questions, then,” the toothless old man drawled. “What may I do for you, young man?”

“Answer a few questions of mine, for one,” he said.

“Had I known all along that all it took was the threat of grisly death to seed curiosity in my students,” Francho smiled, “I might have dabbled in it at Reve.”

“It might have shortened your career,” the thief amusedly replied.

“Oh, murder is the least of the offences one can get away with after tenure,” Francho said. “The old Master of Music once – ah, but I am rambling again. Please, do ask away.”

Tristan was going to come back and get that story about the Master of Music later, for it promised to be most amusing, but it would have to wait.

“I expect Lan was approaching you on behalf of Tupoc Xical,” the thief leadingly said.

“The Izcalli is most forthright about wanting cannon fodder,” Francho said. “The honesty of the offer is somewhat admirable.”

“You don’t seem to be biting at the bait,” Tristan said.

“I thought it unwise before finding out what it is you are plotting,” the professor candidly said. “You do not seem to be joining up with anyone, which has me wondering what you do intend.”

“There is a mystery in the bones of this trial,” the thief said. “I would dig it out.”

Francho considered him, sucking at his gums thoughtfully.

“The gate,” he said. “You want to open the gate.”

“An endeavour in which a historian might be of some use,” Tristan said. “Especially one with fine ears.”

The reference to his contract was not particularly subtle, but neither was it too telling. And he did want Francho on his side, if not strictly speaking need him. If the gate were easy to open, the Watch already would have. Having someone could listen to what had gone on around the great pillar, to parse out the parts of the puzzle they unearthed, would be very useful indeed. It would starkly increase their odds of success, in Tristan’s opinion.

“An interesting offer,” Francho finally said.

It was not agreement, but neither was it a refusal. Unlike Vanesa, the old professor might potentially survive delving the maze – the risks were merely high, especially if he went in under the likes of Tupoc.

“Think on it,” Tristan simply said. “I will not be going anywhere.”

His odds, he thought, were good. He would know by the end of the day what kind of a crew it was he was working with.

Maryam only reappeared an hour later and avoided talking about where she had been. Of Beatris there was still no sign, which had him reconsidering how he would get eyes in Angharad Tredegar’s crew, but before that question was answered there was another conversation he wanted to have.

“Not while people are around,” Maryam whispered. “Especially the Watch.”

So they waited for night to meet, even as Tupoc’s crew and Ishaan’s went to have a look at the shrines. Tredegar, by contrast, seemed to be preparing her own for combat: putting them into formation, preparing weapons.

An hour before the Watch dimmed the lanterns Francho approached him.

“If it leads nowhere, I will have to turn to the maze,” the old professor warned.

“I would not ask you otherwise,” Tristan replied.

And like that, there were only two stones left to turn over.

Tristan considered night one of the more interesting lies people told themselves.

It rested at a lively intersection between need, tradition and control. Men must sleep, they could only stay awake for so long, therefore there must be an end to the day: a night where rest was allowed. Yet in most of Vesper there was no natural boundary to delimit this, only a few old wonders of the Antediluvians underwriting such a cycle in fact. It was thus in the hands of men to delimit night and day, to make them, and there the lie got interesting.

Was a stretch of hours to be called night because your parents had called it such? Tradition had weight, it was true. If you were raised to be awake at certain hours and asleep at others, you might not question it. But those hours were not the same for everyone, were they? Half the miners of the Trench lived during ‘night’, their little towns outside the walls of Sacromonte living askew in time from the rest of the City, and they were hardly the only ones. And it was not tradition that’d made that decision, for who would ever choose to work in the hell of the Trench?

It was those with power who had set the lines, the boundaries. It was they who decided when the lamplights dimmed and when they burned, when men worked and when they rested. Abuela had once told him that about forty years ago, the Six – the infanzones of infanzones – had tried to take an hour out of the night. They had wanted the docks and markets open longer, for those were the arteries of wealth in the City and sooner or later all of Sacromonte’s wealth made its way into the hands of the Six.

They’d not announced this or trumpeted it about, instead sneaking it in as a natural thing: the lights had stayed on, the shifts been extended. The public clocks were tampered with or taken down for repairs, leaving people to measure time by the eye, and the scheming few had thought that if this went on for long enough without notice they could steal an entire hour from the many. It’d not worked, Abuela had told him. People with little always noticed it when you took something from them.

Somewhere around three thousand people died in the Canario Riots, after the mob began storming noble mansions and the Guardia answered by wheeling out organ guns and firing them into the crowd.

Afterwards, smelling disaster, the Six hung a dozen ringleaders after accusing them of having taken coin from the Republics – it was all a foreign plot! – and after that show of strength promptly backed down. The debacle with the ‘stolen time’ was blamed on a single family, House Arlagon, which was exiled as the Six once more protected the rights of the good people of Sacromonte. The hour went back, the clocks were all mysteriously fixed within a week, all the world was pleased.

And the infanzones quietly began building worker’s towns outside the city walls, where criminals and the indebted would agree that day and night were whatever their betters said they were.

“What was the lesson of that story?” Tristan had asked Abuela.

“There is no such thing as night,” she’d said. “Yet look at the storm of violence that was unleashed when men tried to change the span of it. An old lie is a powerful thing, Tristan. Learn to use them.”

To the boy he’d been when they first had the conversation it had meant little. As he grew older, though, the words began to take meaning. It was not a secret or a trick Abuela had been trying to teach him but a perspective: the things taken for granted, the foundations that Vesper rested on, should not be spared a skeptical eye. The chains that bound men most surely were those they never saw, never thought to strain against. Tristan was no confederales, to plot the bloody liberation of Sacromonte with a butcher’s knife on his lap and a red circle sown over his heart, but he would not suffer being owned. So he’d learned to keep his eyes open, to sniff out the lies.

And this Trial of Ruins, it reeked.

Enough that it was forcing him to look back at the entire Dominion of Lost Things and wonder what it was that the Watch truly wanted with this place. He’d come here treading on a foundation of certainty: the blackcloaks used the trials to bring in skilled but irregular recruits while fattening their pockets by letting the nobles use them as proving grounds. Perhaps a little posturing thrown in as well, an unspoken reminder that at the end of the trials the infanzones used to set themselves above one another all that the victors qualified to be was the rank and file of the Watch.

Only the numbers didn’t add up.

Even if Tristan was willing to dismiss the way trial-takers were chosen – and he wasn’t, not when he had to wonder if the blackcloaks would actually want half of the people who’d paid to get on the Bluebell – there was a larger discrepancy behind it all: coin. How many infanzones, how many red games candidates were sent every year? Possibly enough to keep an old cog like the Bluebell and the other ship the first wave had taken afloat, their crews paid, but not much more than that. Then the Watch would have to pay and feed the garrison on the Dominion, to supply and maintain its forts, to defend them against the cultists of the Red Eye.

In the most generous of suppositions, if a hundred people took to the Dominion every year and half of these survived to become Watch – a very generous supposition – then after the losses to sickness, gods and cultists were subtracted, the blackcloaks couldn’t be getting more than a dozen net recruits or so. And for those dozen recruits they’d be drenching their ledger in red. He had thought this explained the seeds and trade goods he and Maryam had figured out at the docks: the Watch was trying to get some gold out of this place and perhaps lower its casualties with bribes.

But now here they got to the Trial of Ruins, a horror of dead and dying gods under a First Empire aether machine that had to be worth a small city. Why hadn’t they stripped that thing out and sold it to make a fortune? If they feared the gods of the maze enough to threaten the execution of anyone contracting with one without reporting it, why not fill this place to the brim with blackpowder and light a fuse? No, there was something going on here beyond the Watch running a seemingly sloppy recruitment operation.

And instead of running around in the maze with the rest of them, Tristan Abrascal was going to find out what it was the blackcloaks knew the rest of them didn’t.

The first step to that, in an unusual turn, was not to be all that difficult. There was one person who knew more about these trials than she should and they were already set to talk. Maryam had promised, in the heat of the moment when the airavatan seemed set to kill them, that they were to have a conversation. It was a one best kept away from prying eyes, she had claimed, so Tristan used an old lie in the very simplest of ways: they waited until night made everyone go to sleep. Not every trick had to be bold or brilliant.

They met in one of the broken bastions under a ceiling half-collapsed, surrounded by loose masonry. The blackcloaks didn’t patrol, not really: they kept watch from atop the walls and sometimes went around the fortress to eye the courtyard but they had no interest in the nooks and crannies of the Old Fort. They’re not afraid of animals or lemures, Tristan decided. Given Lieutenant Wen’s enthusiastic oration about gods eating each other, he suspected there might not be any around.

Maryam came in but a few heartbeats after him, hand on the knife at her side as her blue eyes scanned the dark. He pushed off of the stone he’d been leaning against, passing under the broken ceiling and the rays of gold pouring down it. Her shoulders relaxed.

“You know,” Maryam said, “if someone else had asked me into a dark corner after everyone went to sleep, I might have assumed they had intentions.”

He cocked an eyebrow.

“But not me?”

She rolled her eyes.

“I’m not blind, Tristan,” she said. “You are about as interested in bedsport as I am in collecting butterflies.”

“A traditional hobby, if largely pointless,” he said.

He had not specified which he was talking about, which by the look of her grin she had absolutely noticed. Much as he disliked sobering the mood after such a pleasant start, he had not come here for the pleasure of her company. Seeing the change in his expression, Maryam’s own shed the mirth.

“And now I pay my dues, yes?” she said.

“I would not dig into your personal secrets,” Tristan said, “but I have questions and you answers.”

She dismissed his words with a wave.

“I made my choice out on the plains and will not walk it back now,” Maryam said. “There are limits to what I may speak of, but within them I will not balk.”

“You said,” Tristan murmured, “that this year was not like the others. That some of us were marked for more than simply joining the Watch.”

Maryam slowly nodded, she was considering her words – navigating promises, perhaps? – and ultimately it was with a question she answered.

“What strikes you as strange about the Bluebell passengers?”

He cocked his head to the side. He’d given that subject much thought, now that he had time to spare and more information to chew on.

“You and Leander Galatas could both use Signs,” he said. “And not the way some street witch would, the usual potions and curses. The real kind of Signs, those Navigators use. That is more than passing rare.”

She nodded encouragingly.

“There are also much too many people with contracts,” he added after a moment. “It seems like at least half the foreigners have one.”

Zenzele Duma did, and Ishaan Nair. The same was likely true of Tupoc Xical and Tristan sincerely doubted that even a mirror-dancer could be as quick as Angharad Tredegar without a little help. Throw in Song, Acanthe Phos, Isabel Ruesta, Brun and Francho – then on top of that the rumor that Remund Cerdan had one as well? The numbers were troubling. Even if no one else was hiding a contract, which he had doubts about, then out of the thirty-three people on the Bluebell there had been at least twelve with contracts, counting himself and Marzela. It was a staggering number even for individuals aiming to enter the Watch.

Someone might well go their entire life without meeting that many contractors, much less all of them in the same room.

“All the recommended are being evaluated to see if they qualify for special enrolment,” Maryam told him. “Yourself included.”

“Special enrolment?” he pressed.

“I cannot speak about it,” she admitted. “I skirt the edge of breaking an agreement by even telling you this much.”

As he’d thought, her foreknowledge had come with strings. It only reinforced that he was speaking to the right person to find the thread he must pull at, because the most likely suspect for Maryam’s interlocutor was the Watch or a least a member of it.

“You knew about this before coming here,” he decided, studying her face. “What is that makes this particular year different from the others?”

“Timing,” she quietly said. “An opportunity that will not come twice.”

Tristan passed a hand through his hair, frustrated at how vague she was being but half-sure it was not on purpose. She has called it an ‘agreement’, what stilled her tongue, and that implied someone on the other end of the bargain – it was not an oath, but a bargain struck with another. Someone who might care if she broke the terms.

“The Krypteia,” he said. “The Masks, you said they wanted something from me. Do you know what it is?”

There were a hundred name for the agents of the Krypteia, the most secretive of the Watch, and as many rumours for what their purpose might be. Spies and assassins, most said, though others claimed it was the watchmen themselves they watched over. Whatever the truth, their reputation for ruthlessness and secrecy was no lie. It might not be a good thing at all that he had somehow drawn their eye. Maryam studied him for a long moment, blue eyes searching, before she let out a startled breath.

“So you really don’t know,” she quietly said. “It’s not something they want, Tristan, it’s you. They are the Circle that recommended you.”

Did that mean everyone who’d been recommended had – no, that wasn’t as important as the fact that for some reason he had apparently caught the eye of the fucking Masks.

“You’re sure?” he got out.

Maryam leaned forward, openly worried.

“Tristan, the other recommended all had a name with them,” she said. “The person who gave the recommendation. All except you: yours was just a wax seal with the symbol of the Krypteia. I don’t know high up their ranks you must be to be able to use that, but it’s not low.”

She grimaced.

“You’re telling me you have no idea who did this?”

“I know who arranged for me to have a place on the Bluebell,” he admitted. “But I could never be sure she was part of the Watch. She has never claimed so and I have never seen her in a black cloak.”

But how likely was Abuela to put one of those on, if she was truly part of the Krypteia? The rest of the Watch announced themselves, the black cloaks like a banner reminding everyone of what they stood for, but the Masks were spies. The last thing they would want was to be announced.

“It could be she knows someone in the Krypteia,” Maryam said, be she sounded doubtful. “Maybe she called in an old favour.”

Old was the right word, for Abuela was at least nearing seventy for all that she remained spry. She could be retired, he thought. Could Masks retire? He did not know. Tristan could feel his mind beginning to go in circles, picking away at all the many unknowns he had no way to shed light on, so he forced himself to keep speaking.

“Tell me about Song Ren.”

It was half a guess, come of details he had noticed in that bracing debate about who should get lynched for Jun’s murder, but the rueful surprise on her face told him he’d struck true.

“I met her before the trials,” Maryam said. “She is here for the same reason I am.”

“And what is that?” he asked, knowing the answer he would get.

“Not something I can speak about without breaking my agreement,” she replied.

The special enrolment, he thought. That was the heart of the secret, for both she and Song. But in a way that was a disappointment for that was a particular, a temporary addition to the greater secret of the Dominion of Lost Things. It would not help him unearth the truth of this place.

“How much do you really know about these trials?” he quietly asked.

“More than I should,” Maryam said, then grimaced. “Less than you likely think. I can tell you that most people who contract with a maze god will get executed – I was specifically warned against it – and that the sanctuary past the ruins is a fort on the other side of the mountains.”

He raised an eyebrow, inviting her to continue.

“My source was vague on the Trial of Grass,” she admitted. “But it is meant to rid the Watch of the reckless and trouble cases.”

Tristan bit at his thumb, thoughtful. First the relative shallowness of what she had said, juxtaposed with the emphasis made on certain details. If he had to bet, someone with full information had given her a broad outline and emphasized dangers that might get her killed. Has to be the Watch, he thought. Infanzones wouldn’t know anything about the third trial, or care about keeping whatever its purpose was intact – the easy guess for why the information she’d been given was vague. Good enough to help craft strategy, but not much beyond that.

Second, he was now even more certain that the Trial of Ruins was the heart of this entire enterprise. Weeding out the reckless and the trouble cases? That sounded like filtering tacked on at the end of the road so that the blackcloaks would not be stuck with anyone they didn’t truly want to enter their ranks. Which means the parts that matter are here and within the Trial of Lines, he thought.

“You’re not interested in the maze at all, are you?” Maryam suddenly said. “I thought you might just be leveraging your reputation, holding out for a better offer by one of the groups, but it’s not them your eye is on.”

“I will have to go into the maze eventually,” Tristan acknowledged.

If nothing else, it would be the most expedient way to get rid of Cozme Aflor and the Cerdans. He was not worried about being able to join later, given that after casualties began to mount all the diving crews would be looking for fresh blood. It would not make him liked, but what did he care for that? Still, it was through the gate he intended to pass this maze – and not the one the Watch had told him to use.

“Yet keeping my attention on it strikes me as missing the canal for the barge,” he continued. “This place exists for a reason and this game is not it.”

“That will be Watch business,” she warned him.

“Mine as well, so long as the Watch demands I take part in this trial,” Tristan replied.

Maryam paced away, crossing her arms when she came to a halt. Light poured down from behind, gilding her silhouette as shadows obscured the lay of her face.

“You are not going to let this go.”

Neither of them pretended that had been a question. Through the shadows he met her eyes with his own, neither blinking.

“Are you?” he challenged. “What did the warnings help, when the airavatan hunted us? You’re in the same game as the rest of us, Maryam. Their secrets are just as likely to get you killed.”

For a long moment they remained that way, until finally she jerked her head to the side.

“There’s another aether machine around,” Maryam told him. “It can be used to look at parts of the island on great panels of gold – it’s how they make their reports, though supposedly there are limitations. We will have to be careful.”

We, she had said, and like that a weight left his shoulders. Maryam stepped away from the light, the gold sliding off her dress. It left the ghostly pit between them, painting the rubble. He saw the hesitation on her face but said nothing, letting her come to the decision to speak in her own time.

“Your surname,” Maryam said. “You keep it hidden for a reason.”

It was, he thought, gently done of her. If he simply answered yes the conversation would end there, but the door was opened if he wanted to say more. And it was tempting to simply put an end to it, but the thief held back on the impulse. She had, the day before their group tried the bridge, implied she might help him with his revenge. Tristan had just decided to dig at the Watch’s secrets because they might get him killed, which would make the hypocrisy of keeping Maryam in the dark here a large one to swallow. Not so much he could not, but he found he did not want to.

Not after all she had told him, even if those secrets were not her own.

“I cannot be certain,” Tristan said, “but I believe Cozme Aflor might recognize the name Abrascal.”

“It is uncommon?” Maryam asked.

“Only somewhat,” he said. “But while we only met a handful of times when I was a child, he knew my father for two years.”

The blue-eyed woman slowly nodded. She did not ask, which perversely enough made him want to say more.

“He is at the bottom of my list for a reason,” Tristan murmured. “He pulled the trigger, in the end, but they’d killed my father long before that.”

“House Cerdan,” she said.

He nodded.

“Sacromonte is,” he began, then halted.

It was hard to explain to someone not of the City.

“We do not have a king,” he said. “And the Six, they are not different from other houses in principle. Most of their privileges are ceremonial. Yet it is the Six who rule us, have for as long as anyone can remember, and every noble house in Sacromonte craves to sit where they sit.”

He passed a hand through his hair.

“Only a few come close,” Tristan said, “and the Cerdan are one of them. Only they can’t seem to break in. Their blood is the right amount of old, they own enough land and make enough coin, but they don’t have the something that lets the Six be on top – like contracts for the Arquer, or the feracity chambers for the Calzada.”

He thinly smiled.

“So they’ve been trying to bridge the gap,” he said. “Quietly, so the others don’t notice, but quiet is just about the only line they drew in the sand.”

“What did they do, Tristan?” she quietly asked.

He looked away, jaw clenching. Remembering how Father had seemed so grateful when Cozme pulled the trigger.

“Too much for me to forgive,” he said.

They left it at that.

Maryam snuck back ahead, at his suggestion, because Tristan was not yet done with the night. It was not back to his bedroll he went but instead into the shadows of the Old Fort. And there, patiently waiting as he watched the movements of the patrols, he found out two things of some import.

The first was Beatris, coming out of the Watch barracks and taking a short walk around the courtyard with an escort before returning within. Though she had a watchman with her, she did not seem a prisoner. Protection, Tristan thought. Unless he was quite wrong, Beatris had withdrawn from the trials and no one else yet knew of it.

The second came later, after he risked getting closer to the bastion with the astronomy equipment. It did not seem to be getting used, to his confusion, until his eye was drawn by a flash of lantern light. The bastion went slightly around the side of the great pillar, but it was high above that he saw the light: an opening in the stone, from which someone was lowered a rope ladder.

He’d just found the other lieutenant in command of the garrison, Tristan decided, and why Lieutenant Wen had been so convinced none of them would see her.

And with her he had found his first clue.

16 thoughts on “Chapter 22

  1. arcanavitae15

    Shalini said something he did not understand in what he was pretty sure was Samratrava – the most common of the Someshwari languages. Tristan answered with the only sentence in that language he had ever learned.

    “The brothels are down the canal with red lanterns,” he informed her.

    A flicker of complete and utter surprise, then Shalini burst out laughing. It was contagious enough that he found himself smiling as she slapped her knee, holding her stomach.

    “Oh gods,” the Ramayan wheezed. “I guess that’s an answer. How much did they pay you to tell the sailors?”

    “Only three radizes a night, but it came with a meal,” Tristan said.

    For all that Tristan is a stone cold magnificent bastard he can be hilarious.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. CantankerousBellerophan

    Well then. For all that Tristan claims not to be a revolutionary (as the Confederales appear to be), it seems Abuela might be one anyway.

    That may seem a strange claim to make of a shadowy spy for an international paramilitary force, but what else could one conclude from the story Tristan told today? Not the one about parasites attempting to leech time itself from an entire city, mind you, but the story of her having told him of it.

    Tristan is right when he says the strongest chains are those people never think to pull. To see, for instance, that the so-called “freedom of the open road” claimed by Americans is nonsense because one is only free to use roads where the people with the power and influence to build roads have chosen to do so, does not come naturally to one raised in that context. It’s the same as Tristan’s recognition that night is a lie in a world where darkness is the only natural state: a twisting of perspective which will not come naturally to almost anyone. A twist which, once undergone, leaves many other new perspectives which can never be unseen.

    People who have experienced the perspective twist know this. We know that, while it will not work on most, the simple act of pointing out the contradictions has power. That for people willing to consider your words, just lifting one corner of the tapestry of lies can be enough to lead them to tear the whole thing down on their own. That is, after all, the way most of our perspectives began twisting. Abuela is clearly not an idiot, and yet she, a woman with clear and considerable power over Tristan, chose to tell him a story which lifts one such corner. She chose to tell him, not just the obvious fact that nobles are thieves, but thieves of so grand a scale that they attempt to bend time and human physiology to the whims of consumptive greed. And then, when the first attempt failed, did it again, more successfully, in contexts where their control is absolute.

    This is not the action of a woman who values the status quo. She was creating a man who would value it even less.


    1. Someperson

      Yea, it is pretty clear from this anecdote Tristan’s Abuela does not value the status quo for its own sake.

      I don’t think this necessarily means that she is a revolutionary or the sworn enemy of the status quo, though. She may not buy into the status quo, but she might well have her own goals that are perpendicular to it and unrelated to challenging it. Indifference and animosity are two seperate beasts.

      But honestly, indifference is by far better at killing tradition than animosity ever was.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Earl of Purple

    So they have steam engines. Probably large and crude, like the ones that pumped air into coal mines and water out, given the other technology displayed. Our Earth had rifling before the Industrial Revolution, but not by much. Vesper will have one soon, I think. Perhaps it has already started, in Malan or more likely Izcalli or Someshwar. The former two more likely than the last, given the culture we have seen.

    I am glad Beatris has chosen to quit, I didn’t rate her chances high. I feel sorry for Vanessa, I want her to succeed. Perhaps into the Watch, but I really don’t see her getting any further.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ByVectron!

      Did Beatris chose to quit, or was she a plant in the first place from whoever sowed this plot? Why would she need to be secretive about withdrawing after the first trial, otherwise?


  4. Mirror Night

    This story starting to give me D-Grayman Vibes. I wonder if Tristan came from some sort of unethical experiment. His contract with Fortuna is unique. Got specially recommended by the Secret Police probably via in Abeula. His father was involved in a project to give House Cerdan a secret edge that make them the 7th Great House. It tracks though given the high amount of Nobles and since we know Angharad explicitly as an Uncle in the Watch.

    I do love to see Tristan working. His analyze everything especially what others take for granted mindset is impressive. Though and yeah the massive amount of people with contracts did stand out. You think they were common in this world. I mean they felt more common then Names and all concentrated in one location like this for a bunch of non watch members. We didn’t see that into PGTE until we got to the Crusades.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Someperson

      It’s too soon to draw firm conclusions about Tristan himself, but in the very least, I would agree that it seems pretty likely with what we know that Tristan’s father was the victim of an unethical experiment of some kind.

      If we put two and two together with “the Cerdans looking for a secret edge” and “Tristan’s father being *grateful* when the Cerdan’s attack dog shot him” it is not too difficult to paint that picture.

      Maybe it was a dangerous new type of contract, maybe something else, but Tristan’s dad was potentially used as a guinea pig. Whether or not that was a voluntary arrangement, it is pretty clear that when it went south, the Cerdans discarded Tristan’s father without a second thought, and that is reason enough for Tristan to be pissed about it.


      1. Mirror Night

        Maybe Tristan’s Father was on the verge of turning into a Saint? If so then getting shot before you go nuts would be pretty merciful.


  5. Someperson

    I liked the mystery delving of this chapter, but I admit I was somewhat confused for much of it.

    Mainly because I did not remember there are 2 different gates. I was like “okay Tristan is interested in the gate how is that different from what literally everybody else is doing?? Isn’t the goal of the trial to get through the gate at the end???”

    But yea there are apparently 2 gates. One of them is the goal of the trial, the other is somethingn else entirely. Something that I am pretty sure was only spelled out a good few chapters ago if at all, and thereby a good few weeks ago.

    In fairness, there is a part of the chapter that clarifies all of this, where Tristan remarks that the gate he is interested in is not the gate that everyone else is interested in. But it comes near the end of the chapter, after he finishes talking to both of the greyhairs.

    Idk. Maybe I just have a rubbish memory, or maybe I missed something in this chapter, but imo it feels like some kind of slight reminder of what gates we are talking about earlier in the chapter would make this chapter a lot more easily comprehensible /shrug

    Liked by 1 person

    1. morroian

      Yes the 2nd gate with the clockwork mechanisms has not been clearly distinct from the gate in the maze. I had to go back and review the previous chapters, In the previous Angharad chapter she and Tristan were discussing it but I think at that stage I just thought it was the gate to the maze.


  6. I am enjoying this little revenge story by Tristan, I think he can pull it off. Maybe, we can have a story like the Count of Monte Cristo for Tristan.

    Lennin started his revolutionary road due to his brother’s death at the hand of the Tsar so I am kind of seeing that Tristan can become someone like that.

    If Tristan becomes a communist, I am not gonna be mad. There is a common saying that the most dangerous people in the entire world are dissatisfied scholars who failed the last round of the Imperial Exam (” one of the graduates ranking third class in the court exam of the imperial examination system”). These scholars have a vast amount of knowledge for someone who has passed so many rounds of exams, yet they failed the last round sometimes for reasons out of their control like the preference of the Emperor or feeling unwell or agitation. Thus, these scholars can be dissatisfied and turned by the enemies of the administration.

    Han Xin – one of the most important generals of the Chu – Han Contention and the greatest general of China, used to work for Jiang Xu – his later enemy. However, Jiang Xu never promoted or listened to Han Xin because of his common beginning. Then, Xiao He convinced Han Xin to serve Liu Bang so that his talent can be fully utilized. And, finally, Han Xin single-handedly turn the tide of the war to the Han and helped Liu Bang reunify China. Talented people know their worth and crave a chance to prove their talent to the world. If we can’t give them a chance to use their talent, they will find another place to thrive.


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