Chapter 24


Vanesa frowned down at the papers with the gate mechanisms drawn on them, idly picking at the edge of her missing eye wound. Maryam was a deft hand with charcoal.

 “It is not a lock,” the clockmaker said. “It is much too complex for that. That it is a machine is not in doubt, but the manner of machinery it is trips me up.”

Tristan, crouched at her side, hummed as he glanced at the papers. He taken looks at Maryam’s drawings as well but gotten little out of it. He was a lockpicker, this was several miles past his area of expertise.


The old woman bent over as she leant on her crutches, letting out a small hiss of pain, and tapped the set of metal tiles above the center of the gate.

“See these?” she said. “Their surroundings are full of cogs that would move only if we press the tiles, not unlike an elaborate combination lock, but the section does not connect to most of the mechanisms on rest of the gate.”

“So we are not seeing the whole mechanism?” he ventured.

“Almost certainly,” she said. “I believe that, under all the misdirection, the gate is best understood as three concentric circles.”

She tapped the tiles again.

“First this section, whose tiles will require pressing.”

She then drew a finger in a vague vertical oval shape around the tiles.

“Then this area, which has the most moving parts but no obvious trigger or purpose – my guess is that it connects to something unseen, possibly an aetheric engine.”

To end she drew a circle that swallowed up most of the gate, near the edges.

“We end with a broad ring that bears an underlying circular structure. I should be able to make it rotate when I grasp what makes it move,” Vanesa mused. “It is not a puzzle, Tristan, because the machinery is clearly meant to have some continuous movement. Yet neither is it akin to a clock: it does not seem to be using a fixed unit of measurement.”

“And if you had to guess what the mechanisms do, all used together?” Tristan pressed.

“Whatever it is those tiles decide it should,” Vanesa replied without batting an eye, moving her finger back to them. “Beyond that I could not say without having a look at the hidden parts.”

She paused.

“If you lend me Sarai as eyes and legs,” Vanesa added, “I think I could make out the purpose of the outer ring. It is after that we shall hit a dead end.”

“I will ask her,” Tristan said. “As for the dead end, let me worry about it.”

He had already begun planning how to get up in the pillar, through that opening he had glimpsed last night. The hidden parts that Vanesa was thinking of must be in there. Movement caught his attention, revealing that Maryam and Francho had returned from their belated walk to the shrines, so he parted ways with the old woman. He met Maryam halfway as the old professor kept going, leaving the two of them behind.

“Any trouble?” he asked.

“There is not a soul out there, everyone is in the maze,” Maryam told him. “It was safe enough, though it would be wise not to let him go unescorted anyhow.”

“Agreed,” Tristan said. “And thanks.”

“He is an interesting man and free with conversation,” she shrugged. “It was not much of an imposition.”

“Thanks anyhow,” the thief said. “Vanesa would have your help, if you are willing to lend it.”

“Progress on the gate?” Maryam asked.

“She believes with your help there could be,” Tristan said. “Though I will need to venture in a few dark corners before we get our full answers, I think.”

“Work suited to your nature,” the blue-eyed woman drily said. “You are a natural skulker, Tristan.”

“That is most unkind of you,” he gravely replied.

A beat.

“I took me years to learn such splendid manners of skulking, do not discredit my efforts.”

Maryam’s lips twitched, as did his own. They parted ways without need for anything more, brushing elbows as they went in opposite directions. Francho, looking tired but beaming, had obtained a cup of water and was dutifully sipping at it on one of the kitchen tables. Tristan joined him.

“You look in a fine mood,” the thief observed.

“I have found answers,” the professor said. “That is always a fine thing.”

“You have willing ears as well, should you be inclined share,” Tristan easily replied.

The old man nodded, eyes bright.

“As we suspected, my young friend, it was the Antediluvians that built this place,” Francho said. “That is, the earliest parts of it.”

“The iron gate and the pillar,” Tristan guessed.

And the great golden machine above, though that was not in doubt. Who else built could build the likes of that? The old man nodded, sipping at his cup.

“My surprise,” the professor said, “was in learning it was not men who built the maze and fort.”

The thief breathed in sharply.

“You mean the Watch didn’t bring in all these shrines?”

“Oh no,” the toothless old man grinned. “This is much, much older than the Iscariot Accords – the shrine adorned with a lion head, for example, was brought here during what I believe to be the Century of Loss.”

Tristan counted in his head. The Accords were signed in eighty-one Steel so that was all of Loss and Crowns on top of those eighty-one years. Almost three centuries from a date that was now over three centuries ago. The thief’s brow rose.

“Darklings built this?” he asked.

It was not impossible, he supposed. Hollows were hardly incapable of great works, for all that they tended to be decades – if not more – behind the great powers of Vesper. The Century of Loss was not so long after the collapse of the Second Empire either, they would still have wielded some old wonders.

“Devils built this,” Francho corrected.

He broke out into a wet cough, leaving Tristan to digest the strangeness of what he had just heard. Devils? They were months away from Pandemonium by sail, and though Hell was hardly the only dwelling place of their kind Pandemonium was their only city. But then the maze was not meant to be inhabited, was it? This was merely a kind of outpost, not so uncommon a thing.

“Both the fort and the maze?”

“The fort all at once, from what I can hear, but the maze is the work of centuries,” Francho said.

“And then the Watch took it over,” Tristan muttered. “Why? Why build this place, and why take it?”

“A fascinating mystery,” the old professor enthusiastically said. “I cannot make out devil’s voices as clearly as men’s, especially the young, but I do believe further journeys to the maze will yield some answers.”

“I will be getting word about what lies deeper inside it from of our friends,” Tristan said, absent-mindedly nodding. “That too should be of use.”

“I shall look forward to it,” Francho cheerfully said.

He left the old man to his rest.

It would be hours yet before the maze crews returned, but Tristan did not have time to idle. He had plans for tonight, but to be feasible they first required to Old Fort to be cased. The blackcloaks were generally disinclined to let him onto the ramparts but after some wheedling a sergeant let him under escort for a minute or two. He had not gotten anywhere near the parts of the fort that were off-limits – the barracks, supply depot and northwestern bastion – but now he had a decent idea of where the patrols on the walls would be looking from.

There were quite a few dead angles, if you timed yourself right, which he could. That was the downside of patrolling carrying lanterns, anyone could see you coming.

Getting to the bastion stairs should not be all that difficult, given how many nooks and crannies to hide in he had already found, but once on the stairs it would be difficult. There was always a guard on the wall above the stairs and even if he snuck up onto the bastion there was no cover there: he could be seen from all over the fort. Snuffing out the lanterns was usually his answer to that sort of thing, but this was not the Murk and these weren’t bored street toughs: if a lantern went out, the Watch would go there and look. Besides, there is no way for me to get up that rope ladder quickly enough that I would not be noticed.

Which was a problem, since up that ladder was where he needed to go.

“Make a distraction,” Fortuna suggested. “Like fire.”

“You always suggest fire,” he complained. “What are you the goddess of again?”

“Second-rate thieves, apparently,” the Lady of Long Odds savagely replied.

Tristan mimed taking an arrow to the heart, to her peal of laughter. Her plan would not work for the same reason that snuffing out the lanterns would not. These were professionals, if he made a mess the section of the fort they wanted to keep hidden was the very first part they would lock down. Her suggestion was useful, however, in a way he had learned to cultivate as a child: always consider the very opposite of what Fortuna was advising. ‘Go loudly, using the ladder’ would thus become ‘go quietly, not using the ladder’.

He stared at the pillar, then swallowed.

“You look a little sick,” Fortuna noted.

“Remember when we robbed that printer who’d walled himself in?” he murmured, feigning a yawn.

Gods, the smell. He would never forget that. The golden-eyed goddess looked gleeful.

“You almost knocked yourself out on a gargoyle climbing the tower,” Fortuna remembered with relish.

“This is going to be worse,” Tristan sighed.

Having a closer look at the massive pillar the gate was set in only confirmed his fears. Prying at it with a knife revealed that the surface only looked perfectly smooth because the building stones were covered in a thin layer of that First Empire plaster that didn’t decay – the same from the Alfonsan Baths in Old Town, which stayed pretty no matter how many times they had to wash graffiti off it. That was good news, because that ancient plaster was no harder than the imitations Vesper had since come up with. Picking at the stone beneath he found that the almost seamless junctures had a little give.

Wall hammers and some spikes might be enough, then. The trouble would be how to get them without making it obvious. He went to find Sergeant Mandisa, the tall Malani that was charged with care of the trial-takers, but she was nowhere in sight. When he asked a watchman, he instead found himself dragged before her superior. Lieutenant Wen was eating again, some sort of jerky baton that even the Tianxi’s perfect pearly white teeth seemed to be struggling with.

“I’m not sharing, so stop staring,” the lieutenant bluntly told him. “What do you want Mandisa for?”

“I would like a look through the supplies,” Tristan said.

The lieutenant glanced at his clothes – a long-sleeved black tunic that stopped above his knees, trousers of the same color and standard-issue Watch boots – then cocked an eyebrow. It was quite evident Tristan had already had a look.

“What’s your name?” Lieutenant Wen asked.


A spark of recognition in the Tianxi’s dark eyes.

“You know,” the corpulent man said, pushing back his glasses, “when I first enrolled in the Watch the argument of the day was whether or not the Krypteia should be folded into the Academy.”

The largest of the Circles, Tristan knew. The Academy trained officers, the Stripes, which was not so mystical or exciting as Navigators or Militants but significantly more useful in running something as large as the Watch.

“Why?” he asked.

He was, after all, being invited to.

“Because there’s as almost as many Stripes as there as other people in all the other Circles combined while the Krypteia’s by far the smallest,” Lieutenant Wen idly said. “It was a prestige thing, too – there are two guilds in the Guildhouse and three societies in the College. Why shouldn’t the Stripes bring a second Circle under the Academy banner?”

The large Tianxi smiled.

“It got as far as them talking about what the new name for the Stripes would be, since they wouldn’t be the whole Academy anymore, before the scandals started coming out.”

Tristan swallowed a smile. Predictable.

“Turned out those officers were skimming off Conclave funds, contracting off the books or fucking someone they shouldn’t,” Wen said. “Every single one of them. Funny, that. You’d think at least one was clean.”

“Life is full of coincidences,” the thief blandly said.

“That and shallow graves,” the lieutenant smiled. “I dug a little into the archives at the Rook’s Nest, boy, and found out this happens about every fifty years or so – the Academy starts making noises, then there’s a pointed rash of scandals and accidents.”

Tristan blinked.

“And they have not considered simply… stopping?” he slowly said.

“I figure it’s too big a beast to learn, nowadays,” Lieutenant Wen replied. “The Masks only cut off one of the hydra’s heads at a time, so the others keep biting. That’s not the point of this little story, though.”

“I am all ears,” the thief said.

“The point is that Krypteia’s a bunch of shifty assholes not above fucking their brothers and sisters in the black even when they don’t deserve it,” the Tianxi coldly said. “And that if whatever you’re up to hurts any of mine, I will find a way to keep you awake and alive while we hammer our entire supply of nails into your body one at a time.”

The bespectacled lieutenant tapped a finger right between his eyebrows, still smiling.

“Pop,” Lieutenant Wen said. “One at a time, Tristan.”

The Tianxi searched his face, carefully kept blank, then nodded in satisfaction.

“Good,” he said. “Now let’s have a look at those supplies.”

The depot was much the same as when he had last come: half a Watch armory, uniforms and arms included, and the rest piles of arms and clothes from those who had died in the trials. The blackcloaks did not appear to have wall hammers – unsurprisingly, given that it was equipment used mostly by explorers and thieves – but Tristan took from their stock a pair of leather gloves that fitted him well. After that he went fishing through the piles of dead men’s possessions while Lieutenant Wen apathetically resumed struggling with his jerky. Though he found a hammer, it was too large. More a war hammer than a work one.

There was, however, a war pick in a pile with horseman’s leathers. A little heavy, but it had the right parts – beak and hammer – and by the short length of the handle it had been forged for someone shorter than him. It would serve.

“Done?” Lieutenant Wen asked.

“Done,” Tristan lied.

Their forge was in the open and its grounds more often used for woodcutting than smith’s work, so it was not difficult to wait until the guards and patrolmen were otherwise distracted and get his hands on a few things. A small hammer, much easier to work with, and a set of twelve large steel bolts likely meant as spares for the oven. He stashed it all away in one of the broken bastions.

As afternoon stretched towards evening and Tristan finished his nap, the crews started to return.

Tupoc Xical’s first and in a fine mood. They came strutting back in without a casualty with the only wound cuts on Felis’ leg which the man boasted of, as he’d got them in the process of beating a god’s test. Two victors, they claimed, Felis and Tupoc each having triumphed over a test. Maryam sat with Lan to get a report, learning that their crew had taken the Serpent Shrine. That god’s test, to cross a room full of snakes, was beaten when Tupoc walked through and shrugged off getting bit a dozen times. Lan had checked and he’d suffered no consequence save some sweat. More than that, there was now no trace of any snakebite on his skin.

That, Tristan thought, looked like quite the troublesome contract.

The crew had then spent a long slice of the afternoon breaking their way through a crypt unguarded by any god, taking turns with Ocotlan’s hammer to smash through plaster walls. It led them to some kind of large arena littered with nonsense weapons where another test awaited, seemingly a simple test of strength against a bear but in truth some kind of riddle – Felis, who it turned out was fond of these, ‘slew’ the bear with a sort of paper fan whose name could also mean honeycomb. He took a slash to the leg getting close, but a shallow one. Lan thought he had gotten very lucky already knowing the riddle and insisted he had been completely insufferable since.

They had hit the equivalent of a dead end when they were presented a choice between a broken bridge and a temple whose test was too brutal – a god demanding they play some kind of game of chance where every loss would mean losing a finger or toe. They were now preparing equipment, ropes and hooks, to try to cross the broken bridge on the morrow.

The crew under the Ramayans stumbled in an hour later, haggard and a collection of wounds. Ishaan Nair had a disfiguring cut going up through both his lips, Ferranda Villazur was limping on a bandaged leg, Brun and Acanthe’s faces were red as if brushed too close to flame and Yong’s topknot had been sliced off – his hair fell in uneven disorder. Only Shalini Goel looked unscathed, but at least they did not seem to have lost anyone. Tristan himself sat with Yong for the report.

“The Lion Shrine was easy enough,” Yong told him. “One of us was to run a gauntlet of ten duels against the shades of increasingly larger beasts – and could withdraw, but only at the price of a pint of blood. Goel breezed through, finished almost every fight within the first three breaths. Never seen anyone so fast with pistols.”

Another likely contract.

“And after?”

Yong grimaced.

“We found a shortcut, a narrow overpass that went on for half a mile,” he said. “No railings and high up, but not so difficult if we took our time. Only it was older than we’d thought.”

“It collapsed,” Tristan guessed.

“We got lucky,” the Tianxi sighed, confirming with a nod. “We fell into water, some kind of shallow canal, and the only one to get hurt was Ferranda. We followed the current, as it was headed the right way, but it led to some kind of waterfall facing furnaces.”

“Brun and Acanthe Phos look burned,” Tristan said.

“A tongue of fire flared out, came close to catching them when they were looking over the waterfall’s edge,” Yong said. “It was a dead end so we had to double back against the current. The canal was fed into by some kind of stormdrain, so we went up that and reached a crossroads with four shrines.”

The dark-haired man let out a long breath.

“We agreed we needed to secure a way back first, so we tried the one leading back towards the Old Fort,” Yong said. “It seemed straightforward enough: a test of skill with pendulum blades to avoid in order to reach the other end of the room. The terms were generous, even – no lantern bet, only it must be at least two of us taking the test.”

“You and Ishaan,” the thief said.

Yong grunted in agreement.

“It was a trap,” he said. “The chamber itself began spinning and more blades came out of the other walls. Nothing larger than a mouse could cross that room without losing limbs, not with so many moving parts. Even just getting out got us cut.”

“So how did you return?” he asked.

“We went over the shrine, climbed up the sides,” Yong said. “Which the god took offence to: it collapsed its own shrine’s ceiling. Two heartbeats quicker and it would have killed Ferranda.”

They had doubled back to the Old Fort after that, the Tianxi elaborated, and avoided taking any more tests. It had meant taking long and exhausting detours that further chipped away at everyone’s mood. With so many wounds and a single victor to show for it, their first day did not feel like a success. The mood of the Ramayan crew was downcast and stayed that way as they patched their wounds and planned the following day’s expedition while Felis strutted about, loudly telling others of his cleverness in the test he had beat.

It was only when Angharad Tredegar came back carrying a corpse that perspective set in.

Inyoni Duma had been butchered by some sort of large cutting implement, by the looks of it, and her wounded nephew was walking a ragged edge. His eyes were red and the glint in them wild, just itching for something to lash out at. Much as Tristan wanted to find out what had happened to their crew, Zenzele Duma’s look warned him off it. His instincts were proved right when within half an hour the Malani ended up smashing Felis’ face in after the man boasted a little too mockingly. They were pulled off each other by their crews, but the thief decided to steer well clear.

The only angle he could see for getting eyes in that crew was Yaretzi, and he would not risk that without first getting a better read on her.

Perhaps aware that the day’s course did little to strengthen her crew’s position, Shalini did not approach him at dinner for recruitment again. Tristan sat with the other homebodies, only half paying attention to the conversation as he watched the undercurrents of the rest of the table. A corpse being brought in had settled the mood in the Ramayan crew somewhat, but it was still shaky. Ironically enough, Tredegar’s own company seemed more united than they. Whatever the nature of the death, it did not seem to have shaken their faith in the Pereduri.

As for Tupoc, his unambiguous victories were propping up his position. Already his crew looked less like they were waiting for the gallows and tough the Izcalli himself was still disreputable the others under him were not being treated as if they carried the plague anymore. That tentative thaw would not last if the streak of successes broke, Tristan thought, but if it continued… Something to keep an eye on. After the meal and some huddled talks between the crews after it, most headed for bed. It had been a long and bloody day, with tomorrow promising to be much the same.

For Tristan, however, night was the beginning of the work.

He had napped through the afternoon for a reason: there was precious little sleep ahead of him.

There was no curfew in the Old Fort, so it was a simple matter of timing.

Beatris had gone on a walk around the courtyard at two past midnight, the previous evening, so a little before that Tristan snuck out of his bedroll and slipped into the kitchen. When she came out with her blackcloak escort, same as last night, he came out of the shadows and sat down at a table facing her. He made sure that his hands would be flat on top of the table and there were no visible weapons on him, making it clear he was no threat.

He was still faced with a naked sword within moments.

“Back to your bed,” the watchman flatly ordered.

Tristan ignored the armed man, instead seeking Beatris’ eyes. She hesitated for a moment but ended up nodding.

“It is fine, Sergeant Chabier,” Beatris said. “Tristan is an old acquaintance, this is not an unpleasant surprise.”

The watchman hesitated but she smiled.

“I would talk with him a moment, if you please,” Beatris said. “We can resume our walk afterwards, yes?”

The man sheathed his sword, but his eyes were still hard.

“Say the word if you need me,” Sergeant Chabier said. “You are under the Watch’s protection now, to harass you is a breach of sanctuary rules.”

Ah, confirmation that Beatris had withdrawn from the trials. He had been nearly certain, but it was good to know for sure. The watchman stepped away, far enough he would not be able to listen in but hardly a step further than that. Tristan ignored his glaring. He had come here for answers and he would have them.

“Do you still have the ruby?” he idly asked.

Beatris’ jaw clenched.

“I promise to keep an ear out for you,” she acknowledged. “I’ll not go back on that. What do you want to know?”

First something he had been itching to know, however marginal the use of holding that information.

“Why is Isabel Ruesta still taking the trials?” Tristan asked. “The cousin she wanted to pursue is dead.”

Beatris softly laughed.

“She fucked herself,” the other rat told him. “Lord Ruesta only let her risk the Dominion because she told him she was trying to choose between the Cerdan brothers. She argued that danger would let her see the true face of them.”

“Only she does not want to marry either,” the thief slowly said.

Unusually sensible of the infanzona.

“She despises them,” Beatris snorted. “She goaded the Cerdans into following her because they are so awful she would lose no sleep over sacrificing them.”

Tristan hummed.

“But now she is stuck,” he laid out. “Her way out was seducing the cousin, but the man is dead. Worse, Augusto was revealed to be unsuitable so if she withdraws from the trials then she will be married off to Remund.”

That was why you needed to be careful with cover stories: sometimes you ended up having to live up to them. Tristan had got off light pretending he was deaf for a month.

“She would rather cut her own feet off than marry the shit,” Beatris confidently said. “She has dozens of better prospects wriggling on her hooks back in Sacromonte.”

And the simplest way out of her blunder was hardly difficult to figure out.

“So she must stick around to ensure our friend Remund has an accident,” Tristan mused.

One had to commend Lady Isabel for her industriousness: not yet married and already she was arranging the divorce. It appeared that the issue of lacking eyes and ears among Angharad Tredegar’s crew would not be so unsurmountable a problem after all. The infanzona should be quite willing to pass information in exchange for a little help on the path to preemptive widowhood.

Why, he was almost beginning to approve of Isabel Ruesta: what rat would not applaud a snake intent on eating others of her kind?

“Tell me about Brun,” he asked.

Beatris looked surprised.

“I didn’t think you cared much about him and Ren,” she said, then worried her lip.

She spent a little while in thought.

“He decided early on that Tredegar was the ally to secure and he went after it straightforwardly,” Beatris said. “He was also courting Briceida, but…”

She hesitated. Tristan leaned in.


“I’m not sure I buy it,” Beatris admitted. “He’s Murk, I could tell even if she couldn’t, and she was never shy about her opinion of rats.”

Oh? That was interesting. Tristan had suspected the man to be, for he did not act like some shopkeeper’s son, but that had been only a guess.

“You’re sure?” he asked.

She nodded.

“Tredegar mentioned his parents were Trench miners,” Beatris said.

More than decent odds, then, as not even the foremen of the Trench could claim to live well.

“It’s strange, though,” the former maid continued. “He got restless when we began to run out of food, even Lady Isabel noticed.”

And a rat should be used to a little hunger, Tristan finished. That was unusual.

“Contract?” he asked.

“Something that allows him to feel when people get close,” Beatris shrugged. “He stayed vague about it.”

Some kind of detection contract? Not what he would have associated with a god that Fortuna called loud, but the goddess did not think the way a human might. ‘Loud’ to her could very well mean a different thing entirely. Perhaps the means of detection were loud to other gods, or somehow garish. Or he is acting odd because his god sticks closely to him, Tristan considered. He too acted in way that seemed strange from an outside eye because of Fortuna’s foibles. Brun might simply be a skilled operator making the best of his circumstances and nothing more nefarious.

Time would tell.

“Song Ren,” he asked.

“Hates Lady Isabel’s guts and isn’t all that good at hiding it,” Beatris said. “It got worse as we travelled together.”

“Yet she is sticking with the remains of your old crew,” Tristan informed her. “Including Isabel Ruesta.”

That clearly surprised the other Sacromontan.

“She was tight with Lady Angharad,” Beatris slowly said, “or at least trying to be.”

“In a bedsport way?”

The dark-haired woman shook her head.

“I would say sisterly, but that’s not quite it either,” Beatris said, biting her lip. “It was almost as if she was humoring Tredegar by letting her take the lead. I do not believe she saw herself as subordinate the way Brun did.”

Maryam had never said why it was she had gone with the leftovers during the Trial of Lines. A demonstration of Signs or even just the map she had memorized would have seen her added to Inyoni’s company in a heartbeat. Yet instead she had stuck with him, much as Song was sticking with Angharad Tredegar. Special enrolment, the thief thought. Maryam had admitted that she and Song were there for the same reason and the way they acted was telling. They were making allies not for just for these trials but for what would come after, the secret opportunity that would be afforded to the recommended.

Maryam had picked him and Song had picked Angharad Tredegar.

“You put something together,” Beatris said, eyes intent.

“Maybe,” Tristan demurred. “I cannot be sure.”

“Maybe,” she softly said. “But you are anyway.”

The thief hid his irritation at being seen through. He was losing his touch of late.

“Who are you really, Tristan?” Beatris asked. “You’re not just some boy from the Murk.”

She stared him down.

“Those don’t murder hardened killers twice their size and make it look like an accident within hours of meeting them.”

It seemed boldness was making an appearance now that the protection of the Watch made her all but untouchable. She was overplaying her cards, however. He could not touch her, but neither could she touch him. That would be interfering in the trials and the moat she was hiding behind went both ways. So instead of answering he rose to his feet, ignoring the wariness on her face to offer her his hand to shake.

“Good luck,” he said, “in Sacromonte.”

Her face tightened.

“That’s it?”

He shrugged.

“What else should there be?”

They were rats keeping to their common law and with this conversation all their debts were settled. Tristan would keep no grudge over their dealings, which had been fairer than not, but a choice had been made before they ever left the Bluebell: they were bound by transaction and nothing more. She was not Maryam, who had chosen him and been chosen in turn. Beatris stared at him, gaze searching for something, but whatever it was she did not find it. Her eyes strayed away.

“Goodbye, Tristan,” Beatris said.

She did not shake his hand and he did not offer it again.

What was the best way not to be caught?

It was, sometimes, to be caught for something else entirely. When people were certain of where you were and why you were there, they put you in the box of affairs that were settled. Tristan, for example, had been out at night but his purpose was obvious: he had been trying to speak with Beatris. So when he trudged back to his bedroll afterwards and closed the curtain behind him, he shed the suspicions of the Watch. They had accounted for him, he went into the box.

That made it much easier to sneak out a second time a little over an hour later.

The timing was careful. Like the previous night a light appeared high on the pillar, above the bastion with the astronomical equipment, and a rope ladder was lowered. Six watchmen came down, all of them heading straight for the barracks, and in their wake a seventh followed. Unlike the others she did not head down the bastion stairs, instead setting down a sheath of papers on a table and busying herself with the telescope. She was, Tristan saw, looking at the machinery above – the one whose golden moving parts mimicked the sky, stars and moons moving around.

Pressed close in the shadows below the bastion, Tristan waited until Fortuna returned from having her look. She strutted back as if she had single-handedly won a war, which in truth was not all that different from her usual walk.

“She looks Someshwari,” the goddess confirmed. “Thirties or very kind forties.”

Tristan smiled. There was a decent chance, then, that as deduced last night he had found the missing Lieutenant Vasanti. He had not been able to find out during the day how many watchmen there were in the Old Fort, as from a distance their black cloaks made them very difficult to tell apart, but he doubted there could be many posted up there. The practicalities of food and shit would dictate otherwise: even a chamber pot needed to be emptied eventually. He must make the climb now, though, for eventually the soldiers that had come down would be replaced or themselves return.

Getting out of the Old Fort was not all that difficult, as the Watch kept an eye mostly on the openings in the walls. Climbing down the side of the northeastern bastion with his tools wrapped in a blanket was slow work more than strenuous. It was after that, when he stood outside the fort in one of the blind angles of the ramparts, that the real work began. Taking out the work hammer and a few spikes, he began to hammer himself a way up. The way to do it without noise was to hammer the spike through cloth, to kill the echo, but that made precision difficult.

Tristan had long been trained out of any fear of heights – it would be too much of a disability for a thief – but he still found his nerves thinning as he rose up the side of pillar. His boots rested on spike after spike while he nailed one above, at the precise intersection of the building stones under the plaster so the length of steel would slide in securely. His work slowed further when he got halfway up and began pulling every third spike with the side of the war pick, for otherwise he was sure to run out before the end. His muscles ached and his limbs began to tremble from the tension, but by the time he’d got to the right height he saw that he had been blessed with a stroke of luck.

Lieutenant Vasanti had left the bastion with the telescope, going to the supply depot, which left him an open path.

The last stretch was the worst. It was the easiest to hammer in, for now that he had gone up the pillar he was following the curve of the stone towards the entrance where the rope ladder led, but he was exhausted and uncomfortably aware that all it would take for a blackcloak to see him was someone shining a lantern in his direction. Below he could see a few watchmen spread across the walls, a few walking around the ramparts. None cared to look up so he remained safely hidden in the shadow of the great pillar, shielded from the golden light of the aether machine above.

He was careful not to leave a trail, removing every spike he did not stand on, and about an hour after he had begun Tristan found himself about a foot below the opening in the pillar from which dangled the rope ladder. Pressed into the shadows below that slender opening, he was hidden from below – and needed to be, for Lieutenant Vasanti and another blackcloak had returned to the bastion. They were talking, discussing charts by the telescope, but if the rope ladder began to move they were sure to notice. Instead Tristan stretched up from the spike, hoisting himself onto the stone, and wriggled inside. Scorch marks, he noticed as he crawled on the floor. They blew their way in.

And then he’d made it in.

There was no telling what the chamber had been before the Watch moved in: the walls and ceiling were bare stone, with only small marks betraying that at some point weighty objects had been dragged across the floor. It had since been turned into an outpost that could not quite decide what it was mean to be: a handful of bedrolls were propped up against the left wall, a rack of swords and muskets the right one, and in the back there was some kind of office. Stacks of papers were piled up everywhere around a wooden desk and the small cabinet flanking it. There was only one seat, a broad chair behind the desk, and that was where Tristan’s eyes stayed.

There was someone sleeping in it.

An old woman in a black cloak, white-haired and wrinkled. She snored away, cheek pressed on top of the desk, and slightly drooled on the wood. Given the Someshwari look of her and the seniority implied by age – she had to be in her sixties at least – Tristan realized that he had been wrong after all: it had not been Lieutenant Vasanti on the bastion, because he was looking at her now. She looked frail, but there was a pistol atop a pile of papers that would make that point moot.

His climb had been quiet and he had not woken her by entering the chamber, but he still felt stomach clench: there was almost no cover in the room to hide behind. He could not stay out in the open, he was sure to be caught, so the thief smoothed out his breathing and looked for the exit. There was bound to be one, no one would set up in this eagle’s nest without a reason. As he’d thought, tucked away besides the bedrolls was a discreet opening of the wall through which he glimpsed stairs in the flickering light of the chamber’s sole lamp. There was, despite sweeping the room twice, no sign of anywhere leading down. An isolated chamber?

The size of this room was no more than a third of the great pillar’s length, at a look, so there might be others carved inside the stone. Regardless, up the stairs was the way he must head. He would find no answers here, only get caught by the Watch.

Creeping across the floor on all fours, careful not to make a sound as he moved towards the bedrolls and the stairs, the thief kept an eye on the sleeping officer. One foot after another, until he was halfway through the row of bedrolls – and then the snoring stopped. Tristan pulled at his luck before he even turned to look, only realizing his mistake when he saw Lieutenant Vasanti had not moved. Her eyes were still closed and she still lay on top of the desk. Shit, he had borrowed luck for nothing. That was… no, best get up the stairs before releasing it. It was too dangerous out here.

He began to move again, only to be given pause when he heard someone pulling at a stuck drawer. He hurried to his feet only for Lieutenant Vasanti to curse, snatching the pistol atop her desk and firing a shot right into his chest. A plume of smoke came bursting out, and as he threw himself down to the right the thief only spared a moment of incredulity at this being luck – only for the explosion of pain he was awaiting not to come.

“Ovya,” the old woman cursed. “Gods, girl, but I will have you caned until you learn to load your pistol properly.”

There had been, he realized, no ball to go with the powder.

Tristan released the luck, preparing himself for disaster, and still missed it: the weapons rack fell onto his back as he began to rise, a mass of wood and a dozen swords crashing down onto him. He wriggled free, hearing the sound of a drawer forced open, but by the time he got onto his knees with a few bruises to show for it a cool muzzle was pressed against his forehead.

Lieutenant Vasanti’s rheumy green eyes were cold as the steel she held in her hand.

“Move and die,” the old woman said. “Understood?”

“Understood,” Tristan replied.

Could he get free of this? Pulling on the luck again, most likely. It was what came after that worried him. There was a witness to him being inside the pillar. He was not, strictly speaking, breaking the rules by being here. The pillar was not off-limits, the way the barracks and bastion were. Yet it was impossible for him to have come here without having broken the rules, an offence Lieutenant Wen had made clear would earn summary execution.

“You’re one of the kids from the trials, yes?” Lieutenant Vasanti said.

He did not answer, so she pressed the muzzle forcefully against his skin.

“Yes,” he said.

He could not see a way out of this without killing the watchwoman, which would not be an act without consequences. And a shot was fired, we are bound to have been heard. Other blackcloaks would be on their way. Was all already lost? Would killing her be pointless?

Either way, Tristan must make his decision soon.

“Name?” she pressed.

He hesitated, but saw her hand begin to clench.

“Tristan Abrascal.”

“You’re one of the Cryptic prospects,” Lieutenant Vasanti grunted. “One of the two died, I heard, so which are you?”

He blinked.

“I don’t know,” he slowly said.

A moment passed and he settled into the decision. He saw only one way to survive, and though it might see him die later it was always better to breathe than not. He would strike when she got distracted.

“Fuck,” the old woman feelingly said. “You’re too calm. You’re Nerei’s pet project, aren’t you?”

He paused.

“Abuela?” he ventured.

“Grandmother,” she translated, disgust rippling across her face. “Gods, that’s sick.”

A sigh and the pistol went up.

“On your feet, boy,” Lieutenant Vasanti said. “I should shoot you for sneaking in here, but you’re not worth a feud with Nerei. There are too many ways to make it look like an accident at my age.”

Tristan, disoriented by the realization that he was not going to have to kill his way out of this after all, hesitantly rose to his feet. He flicked a worried glance backwards.

“There’s no one coming,” the watchwoman told him. “This entire construction swallows noise: the Makers did not want the machinery noises to echo around the cavern.”

Lieutenant Vasanti stepped away from him, going to sit atop her desk after pushing aside a few papers.

“So you got curious and decided to go sniffing around our work, did you?” she said.

Tristan weighed his options, trying to get a read on her face and finding that there was little there to find but steel.

“The maze can’t be the only way through,” he decided to risk. “The pillar is much older, and the Antediluvians would have needed access to the machinery in the ceiling.”

“Been a while since a trial-taker figured that out,” Lieutenant Vasanti noted. “We try to keep them looking forward instead of up.”

“There’s something wrong with this place,” Tristan quietly said. “This was not built to be a trial, even if the Watch turned it into one.”

The old woman considered him coolly.

“Best you keep that tongue in your mouth, boy.”

She tapped the side of her pistol against her fingers thoughtfully.

“What to do with you now?”

Punishment, even if he was not killed, but the thief could not afford that. It would all come falling down on his head if he was made an example of now, even if he got away with a mere caning or flogging. She’s the key, Tristan thought as he watched Lieutenant Vasanti. So what did he have to move her? Nothing, at a glance, but that was never true. What did he know? Old but still a lieutenant, he thought, which was unusual. She knew Abuela, or claimed to, and had Maryam not said that the seal Abuela used to recommend him was the mark of a high rank? She had also implied that she had seen more than a year of trials being taken.

Lieutenant Wen had said there was a tinker from the Umuthi Society at the Old Fort, when going on one of his grisly rants.

The pieces came together.

“How far did you get in finding the way up?” he asked.

Lieutenant Vasanti stilled.

“Definitely one of Nerei’s,” she said. “You have the same unpleasant nose for secrets.”

“That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?” he said. “For the aetheric machine above. I’ll bet you even took a demotion so you could stay assigned at the Old Fort.”

“Sometimes it can be hard to tell,” the old woman said, “whether you’re digging out of a grave or digging it deeper. Would you like me to tell you which it is you’re doing, boy?”

“Lieutenant Wen said there was a tinker,” he said. “A tinker. This isn’t a Watch study, you would have a team for that. It’s yours.”

“Clever,” Lieutenant Vasanti acknowledged. “But cleverness does not impress me. What does that matter?”

Tristan straightened, put a confident smile on his face.

“Ihave a team for you,” he said. “A clockmaker, a historian with a contract, a Sign-user and even eyes in the maze for those things the Watch won’t led you send people to look for.”

The old lieutenant went still, studying him with unblinking green eyes.

“You think I’ll let you dig at our secrets just because you have some tools for me to use, boy?”

His façade of calm did not waver. I think you have less than a decade to live and you chose to be here, eating bad food on this misbegotten island with none of your old friends. I think that telescope isn’t Watch equipment at all, that you had it brought in, and for you to do that you must have been here for years now.

“Yes,” Tristan simply replied.

A heartbeat of silence, then the old woman laughed. She set down her pistol on the table and it was an effort not to let out a breath of relief.

“I can’t help but notice you didn’t put yourself in the list,” Lieutenant Vasanti said. “But that’s fine, Tristan Abrascal.”

Her grin was neither pretty nor friendly.

“I have a use for you too.”

30 thoughts on “Chapter 24

  1. “You’re one of the Cryptic prospects,” Lieutenant Vasanti grunted. “One of the two died, I heard, so which are you?”

    And we didn’t even get a hint at them. Of course.
    So looking at our dead, and the sacrifices, who on earth was it?

    Here’s the handy chart someone else provided:

    Okay, so Ju was in a feud with Sacromonte underbelly, and she had a twin to corroborate. Recardo, Briceida and Gascon were all with the nobles. Marzela turned into a saint, she was a debtor, Ayanda was a love interest to Zenzele and Sanale to Ferranda.

    The only person without an alibi reason to be on the island was Leander Galatas, and he knew signs, so I’m going to assume he wouldn’t have been picked by the Krypteia but probably the circle that wants Maryam.


    1. tigerquoll

      Apologies for the double comment.
      So okay, we have eight people. I don’t think it’s either Recardo or Gascon, because they didn’t seem very interesting so a reveal would be pretty out of the left field (which could be the point, so they are also a possibility). Despite a contract, I don’t think it was Briceida either because she seemed to not get up to much with either protag and I think a Cryptic prospect would have.

      Marzela was the one I was tending towards… but she also did seem pretty genuine, and having a prospect turn into a saint seems rather sloppy of the fabled Krypteia.

      That makes this tricky because the three other dead, apart from Inyoni (who Vasanti would not know of) all have people they are deeply connected to who might be expected to have some clue. That probably rules out Ju, because she seems to have been a drug dealing pair with Lan her whole life (not the sort of person secretly picked as an elite spy). As such I’m leaning towards either Ayanda or Sanale, without either Zenzele or Ferranda knowing. Out of those I’d pick Ayanda, because we’ve already seen a lot of Sanale and he seemed to have a good enough arc on his own; while Ayanda is somewhat of an unknown, better suited for a dramatic secret.


  2. I never enjoyed the Pereduri’s chapters quite as much as Tristain’s because the level of insight never quite felt the same. Here we finally get a look from a near-Tristain level of analysis into Tredegar’s first trial company.

    As always. Great story-telling EE. Reading your work is always impressive because the different characters feel like they have their own personalities, which many writers fail at.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mirror Night

      Tristan has a more interesting approach. It really does feel the difference between how a great Fighter/Warrior approaches a situation and how a great Rogue/Thief does. Tristan also gets the most out of more non standard players as highlighted in his team.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Betafishy

    So, we have confirmation that Tristain is one of two prospects for the Krypteia, and the other one has already died. The real interesting thing, I think, is who was the other prospect?

    Presumably, it’s not any of the Infanzon seats, which takes out Recardo, Gascon, Sanale, and Briceida. Ju seems unlikely— Lan and her were paid seats. Marzela had a bet placed on her and Leander was recommended from the Navigator’s Guild.

    So that leaves us with Ayanda and Inyoni— I don’t see any way Lieutenant Vasanti could’ve learned about Inyoni’s death— the other members of the Watch only came down after ‘night fell’ and haven’t came back up yet (The Watch does keep an eye on the trial-takers in the maze somehow, but I don’t think Vasanti is a part of that?) So was Ayanda the other prospect, or is there an assumption that’s wrong here?


  4. Mirror Night

    First lets go over new Contracts. Invulnerability and Quick Draw eh. Well to be invulnerability, drowning tends to be pretty effective way around such a contract. I don’t think is a series especially not this early where Tupoc would get around that barrier.

    Both Tristain and Angharad are special that makes sense given Angharad contract being pretty important to her culture and her Uncle being in the Watch. Its funny Tristain is special but doesn’t quite feel it in the same way because while his contract is strong, he gets by mostly on wits. Cryptics Project eh are we sure one is dead, I assume they came on the first boat but supposedly dead characters with special purpose have a tendency to pop up.

    Devils eh…so that implies some sort of Angels. And the mystery of the tower this should be fun.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m guessing Tupoc gets protection against any effect “marring” his visage. I figure there’s lots of ways to get around that.

      I’m assuming Tristan is special BECAUSE of his wits rather than contract, from the conversation with the good Lieutenant here. Abuela might not even be aware of the specifics of his contract, though presumably she knows he has one.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. arcanavitae15

        I think Tristan is special he has a lot of potential which was then trained by his “Abuela” who is implied to be a really dangerous person. He’s been groomed for a role with the Masks who seem to be the Watch’s spooks.


      2. Crash

        That sounds so much like him, too. Tupoc has this whole thing about image going on.

        Bet defeating him is less about physical strenght than it is about actually making him look defeated. Should be fun


  5. Tristan’s luck power has some weird implications at times. In this case, the gun’s failure to be loaded would have happened long before he started borrowing luck, so one wonders how his use of his contract could have affected the outcome in any way (one presumes his usage did have an effect, since the backlash certainly did).

    Perhaps his power is secretly doing some alternate-universe-substitution behind the scenes?


    1. Frank Moore-Clingenpeel

      Vasanti had a second pistol pointed at his head moments after firing the first one. Since everyone uses muskets here that means she had multiple “loaded” pistols on her, but she could only grab the one the green watchman failed to put a ball in.


      1. CaimOvergard

        This is the way. The hint is that the drawer was stuck. Vasanti went for her pistol and the drawer wouldn’t open so she took Ovya’s pistol instead. Likely the luck was the sticking of the drawer so that he didn’t get shot in the first place. Consequence is that he doesn’t get away with the board falling on him and he can talk his way out. It would be a lot more costly for a misfire to happen such as what happened in chapter 1 where he had to basically flee his old life partly because of his luck


  6. greycat

    > Her suggestion was useful, however, in a way he had learned to cultivate as a child

    Tristan has been in a Contract with Fortuna since he was a child? Is that common? I would have expected most Contracts to begin in adolescence or adulthood.


    1. jblackburn

      Yeah, Tristan is special.

      IIRC it was implied in an earlier chapter that contract holders usually die or turn into Saints within years of forming their contracts.
      I could be wrong though. I believe this was mentioned in one of the Bluebell chapters.


      1. Pertuarbo

        We do know of something actually, Fortuna being manifested. There was the conversation and it was confirmed that seemingly the majority of gods couldn’t appear/maintain their presence as consistently as Fortuna could.


  7. Reader in The Night

    Haha! Tristan you magnificent bastard! The man hets threatened with violent murder by both of the Watches’ commanders in the same day for his antics, and still manages to come out ahead! Tristan doesn’t panic in the face of certain death, he just powers through and then doubles down on the mortal danger as his way through!

    As for why Tristan is special, I highly suspect that Abuela picked him because he contracted with Fortuna young, and how unusual Francho implied his contract with her is:

    As a rule, contracted gods can’t talk to you unless you’re going Saint. For a young thief, having a second set of eyes that are invisible, intangible, and free-roaming is an utterly invaluable power, and Abuela probably noticed Tristan do something that was flat-out impossible unless he had a strong Contract feeding him information and decided to cultivate his skills.

    In fact, from the outside Tristan’s Contract probably looks like some form of information gathering power, with his luck being just that: luck.


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