It was a grim supper.
After the day’s bloody price none were in a chatting mood and Angharad discreetly asked Song to stay close to Zenzele, lest he lose his temper and strike another again. Felis had been acting tastelessly enough that none had made a fuss over the brawl, but if the Malani had to be dragged out of another scrap she suspected sympathy would wane. Isabel, who sat by her side as they dug into their plates of salted pork, biscuits and peas, leaned close.
“Only one victor for Lord Ishaan’s crew,” she murmured. “And there appear to be some recriminations over the results.”
She was right, Angharad saw. Lady Ferranda and Acanthe Phos were arguing, however quietly, while Ishaan Nair attempted to play peacemaker. The others only watched.
“We have our own troubles,” Angharad finally said. “Best to leave them to their own.”
She was the only leader to have brought back a corpse as well as victors, which would make her singularly unsuited to poaching even if she were of such a mind. Which she was not.
“Not so great as that,” Isabel said. “Lord Zenzele is grieving, as is only proper, but who has spoken to you of leaving?”
No one, so far, but they had not been back for long. They would see. It was draining, to have to consider all that. Life had been so much simpler when she was but a duelist on the circuit, her rule of Llanw Hall a distant thing Father still had decades to prepare her for. Her mother had been a lady and a captain, so authority was in her blood, but she did not think is came as naturally to her. Would Mother have always taken charge if she found it out as exhausting as Angharad did? She had her doubts.
Someone staring at her, but when she turned Remund was speaking with Cozme. Strange.
After the meal they lingered at the table a little longer, expectant looks sent her way, but Angharad had no clever plan to dazzle them with. She told them to rest and prepare, receiving only nods in return, and they went their own way. Cozme Aflor, however, sought her out after the others were gone. He made small talk at first but kept pulling at his beard and hardly met Angharad’s eyes. Eventually he came out with the reason he had approached her in the first place.
“Lord Zenzele is not so wounded that he cannot come tomorrow,” he said. “The Watch physician said the cuts on his back required no stitches, only thorough cleaning.”
“Flesh is not what was cut deepest today,” Angharad replied.
The older man smoothed his mustache, which had been entirely pristine.
“I feel for Lord Zenzele, I truly do,” Cozme Aflor said. “Yet his grief cannot see him withdraw from the crew in all but name.”
“He is a victor,” she pointed out.
“So is Lady Isabel,” the older man said, “and if one stays so will the other. What is left of us then?”
Not much, she had to admit. Herself, Song, Yaretzi, Cozme and Remund. They would be the smallest of the crews, if not necessarily the weakest, but size was what concerned Master Cozme. A crew of five was certain to force Remund Cerdan to take a trial, which his protector was trying to avoid by keeping their numbers high – even it meant taking Zenzele Duma back into the maze. It was good and loyal service to House Cerdan, this conversation. Angharad bade herself to keep that in mind, for otherwise she might grow angry.
“I am not certain what it is you wish of me, Master Cozme,” she finally said.
“He respects you, Lady Angharad,” he replied. “You held the cog the longest of us and almost saved her life at the end. If you request that he continue with us tomorrow, he may well listen.”
For the barest of moments, she felt like striking him. What had Cozme Aflor given in these trials, that he had earned of her the right to ask that she wade through a man’s grief to make demands for another’s benefits? Only Cozme was not asking for himself, and that let her swallow the anger. It was not selfishness that drove the request but duty.
“I would not see our crew sunder,” Angharad stiffly said.
Tacit agreement. She, too, could see how victors remaining behind could be the beginning of the end for their band. For the remainder the temptation would grow to seek refuge with Lord Ishaan instead of remaining on a sinking ship.
“I make no promises,” Angharad said.
“Nor would I ask one,” Master Cozme hurried to say.
He looked relieved. Perhaps he had reason to be. Dimly left with the sense that she was doing another’s dirty work, Angharad walked away from the man and sought out Zenzele. The Malani was alone, sitting in his ‘room’ with the curtain open, for though Song was close and keeping an eye on him she had not gone to speak with him. At a glance, Zenzele Duma looked fine. He had bandages wrapped around his torso but his back was straight and he seemed in no great discomfort. His hair was too short to have the capacity to be disheveled and even his hat – brimmed, pinned and feathered as was the current fashion in Malan – was set at a jaunty angle.
It was the eyes that gave him away.
Red-rimmed and raw, like a wound had been drawn around two pits of bleakness. Angharad’s steps almost faltered, for what might she possibly say to a man with eyes like these, but she forced herself to keep moving. The glance he flicked her way when she came to stand before him was disinterested.
“May I sit?” Angharad asked.
Zenzele gestured wordlessly. She lowered herself onto the stone, leaning back against the partition between his stable stall-turned-room and what she suspected had been Inyoni’s. Twice she almost began to speak before biting down on the words. They felt fake, hollow. The kind she would have raged to hear in the days fresh after the massacre of her family. It was him that broke the silence.
“You told us,” Zenzele said, “that you are the last of your house.”
“Save for my uncle in the Watch,” Angharad quietly agreed.
Not that it meant anything. Uncle Osian had renounced any claim to Llanw Hall by becoming a blackcloak, just as she would. There was no longer a claim left to press, anyhow: House Tredegar had been struck from the rolls of nobility. The land would become the possession of the High Queen, who would grant it to another family at her pleasure.
“How did it happen?”
Her fingers clenched.
“They came in the night,” she said. “Steel and powder, before they put our very hall to the torch.”
Her cousins had been but boys, but sometimes she hoped they had been put to the sword. Better the steel than being barred inside their rooms, burning alive as so many of the servants had. Not until her dying day would she forget the sound of those screams on the wind.
“And you fled,” Zenzele said.
“My father had a riverboat stashed away,” Angharad murmured. “He died distracting them long enough for me to reach it.”
Had Father known what would find her on that dark river, rowing alone on a trail of ink? Sometimes she thought he might have. He had been a learned man, keeping to old ways. Unknowing of her mind, the Malani breathed out deeply.
“My mother has four other children,” he abruptly said. “I am the thirdborn, which means marrying for advantage.”
The same fate Uncle Osian had gone to the Watch to avoid. It was considered imprudent to marry the secondborn out of the family, but any child beyond that number was fated for the marriage market. Angharad would likely have wed a thirdborn daughter before she reached twenty, arranging in the marriage contract for a son of that family to stand in for their daughter when she decided to conceive an heir for House Tredegar.
“Mother never really gave a shit beyond ensuring I would be a decent prospect,” Zenzele confessed. “I used to think I had disappointed her, but looking back she simply never really saw me as a Duma. I was born to marry out.”
He shook his head.
“Sometimes I think she didn’t even notice when I left to attend the isikole,” he said. “It was Aunt Inyoni who saw me off, rode with me on the wagon.”
He trailed off.
“Is it there you met Ayanda?” she asked, prompting him to continue.
A spasm of grief. Best that wound be lanced now, lest what lay within fester.
“Under the red roof there are no titles,” he quoted. “For four years it didn’t matter that she wasn’t nobly born, only that she was lovely and funny and so fucking clever. It felt like a dream she even wanted to be with me.”
“Then the four years ended,” Angharad said.
“And out in Malan, nothing else matters,” Zenzele bitterly said. “I had not even taken off my traveling cloak before Mother told me I was betrothed.”
“Arafa Sandile,” he said. “Only two years older than me. Pretty, they said. But even if she had looked like a seal I would have been promised to her, because the Sandile silver mines are prettier to my mother than any girl could ever hope to be.”
Even Angharad had heard of House Sandile. In southern Malan they were a byword for extravagance, the main line having once thrown a feast on a ship being carried through the countryside by elephants imported from the Imperial Someshwar. It had been the talk of the Isles for years afterwards. No wonder Zenzele had run after breaking his betrothal: the Sandile had deep enough pockets to bury him neck deep in swordmasters after such a slight to their honor. Zenzele chuckled.
“That’s about the face Aunt Inyoni made when I told her I was going to run,” he said. “She said I wouldn’t make it ten miles out, much less as far as a port. Then she said she couldn’t just let me get myself killed.”
His face tightened.
“She was more a mother to me than the woman who spat me out into the world,” he said. “Then and now. And how did I repay it?”
Angharad knew that rage in the man’s eyes, the urge to strike something stoked all the higher by the way there was nothing around worthy of being struck. The first time an assassin had come for her, it had been as much a relief as a thing of dread. Finally she had been able to hurt someone for what had been done to her, someone deserving of her hatred.
“Sleeping God, but when we set out it felt like an adventure,” he hatefully said. “Terrifying, we were leaving it all behind, but I was with Ayanda and the only family I cared to claim. Aunt Inyoni’s friends in the Watch were interested in our contracts, enough to recommend us, and all we needed was to win some trials and we would be forever beyond anyone’s reach.”
His jaw clenched.
“I thought I could get it all,” Zenzele said. “Instead I killed them both.”
Angharad could have told him that he was not to blame, that both the dead had made choices and he had not decided for them, but she knew it would mean nothing. It had not to her when she heard the same truths, for they held the ring of platitude.
“When a shot is fired,” she said, “who is to blame – the bullet, the powder, the flint that struck the spark?”
His eyes moved to her.
“Blame the finger that pulled the trigger, Zenzele Duma,” Angharad said. “You did not run away on a whim, you were made to.”
To marry for the good one one’s family was duty, but to be treated by cattle by the head one one’s house – not even consulted during the negotiations, never meeting the other party before the betrothal – was undeniably a wrong. A nobleborn child had responsibilities to their house, but that house also had responsibilities to them and the Duma had failed Zenzele before he them. It did not make running admirable, but it was enough for Angharad not to look down on the man for it.
“So I should take my revenge on them, is that it?” the Malani snorted. “Make myself a kinslayer, maybe wipe out House Sandile?”
Angharad Tredegar did not laugh, did not so much as twitch a smile. There was no jest here.
“One day,” she said, voice soft, “I will find out who it was that murdered my family, who ended my house.”
That man’s name, the owner of all her grief.
“And when I do, Zenzele,” she continued. “I will kill them all. Every last one of them.”
Her fingers clenched, nails biting into her palm.
“No matter how far they run, how high they stand, how many armies stand between them and my blade. I will drag their screaming souls to the ashes of Llanw Hall and let the wailing reach all the way across the fucking Circle Perpetual to my kin.”
Let it be the first thing her parents heard as they were born anew, let those screams come thundering out their lungs as their souls wiped clean and avenged returned to Vesper for another life.
“This,” she said with utter calm, “I have sworn. And I will live long enough to carry out that oath, no matter what this pit of horrors sets in my way.”
Zenzele stared at her, still as a statue.
“So that’s what it is,” he said. “An oath.”
She blinked, taken aback.
“I can see connections,” Zenzele Duma admitted in a murmur. “Between things, people, concepts. You are tied to Isabel Ruesta and to Song Ren, but there is a chord deeper and more vivid than both.”
He met her eyes.
“It is red,” he said. “Red like blood, like flame, like ruin. That may well be what it brings you.”
“They were already brought to me,” Angharad Tredegar gently replied. “I am simply to return that gift in kind.”
The Malani wrenched his gaze away as if burned.
“Live to take revenge, huh,” he said. “Somehow I expected something nobler of you, Angharad.”
“Fire is not a kind thing,” she murmured. “But it does keep the night away, Zenzele.”
The Malani stayed silent for a long time.
“I don’t know if I have it in me to live like that,” he said. “But it doesn’t matter.”
His jaw firmed.
“I will not suffer her body to be abandoned in some pit, her affairs pawned off to some other trial-taker in the years to come,” Zenzele Duma said. “Ayanda is beyond my reach, but I will see my aunt’s ashes spread on the shores of the Isles one day.”
Angharad felt a sliver of grief on his behalf, that he would never get so much as a pinch of ash to spread from the girl he had so deeply loved. No one would go fight the hollows for those taken prisoners, not even the Watch. Even if the three were still alive to be saved, the blackcloaks would not sacrifice their own assaulting the cult of the Red Eye in its hidden strongholds – not when they stood to lose so many more souls than they might possibly rescue.
“That is worth getting to the end of these cursed trials, if nothing else,” the Malani quietly said. “I refuse to just stay here and sit as her ashes cool.”
She had never asked, in the end, for him to stay with them tomorrow. It had been her mistake and Cozme’s to believe him the sort of man who would need to be talked into it. She did not flinch away from the shame of that realization, for it was well deserved. They sat together for a while longer, neither feeling the need to speak a word. When an uncharacteristically unsmiling Lieutenant Wen fetched Zenzele an hour later, telling him the body had been cleaned and a pyre raised, she went with him. No one else would.
The pile was outside, drenched with oil, and the body already laid atop it. Angharad stood by his side as he composed himself, struggled to keep his face calm, and finally took the torch the lieutenant was offering.
“It is tradition to speak,” Zenzele rasped, “but I have no words to give, aunt. Even an apology would ring hollow.”
“Maybe one day I will have earned the right, but not today.”
He raised the torch.
“We who do not stray are eternal,” Zenzele said. “I will see you again, for there are no strangers across the Empty Sea.”
He threw the torch and the fire roared. Those had been Redeemer words, she thought, but not untrue for it. All who did not stray from the Sleeping God would meet again in time, born again and again until all had learned from their mistakes. Angharad watched the flames devouring Inyoni’s corpse, thinking of another fire, and her jaw clenched. Let eternity wait.
She yet had accounts to settle in this life.
They rose early and gathered for the meal, as was becoming habit.
Angharad was surprised to see Isabel had risen before her this time, and more surprised still to see Tristan sitting with her. The grey-eyed man had shown no inclination of joining any crew, not that she would have dared to ask again after bringing back a corpse, but she supposed that did not mean he wanted to be without company. Perhaps if the day went well, Angharad thought, she should spare some time to find out what it was he was up to with the others who remained behind. That aged pair would do so was no great surprise, but Sarai? She was fit enough to delve the maze.
Whatever it was the two were discussing, they settled it before Angharad arrived. Tristan gave her a smile, then rose to his feet.
“I should grab Vanesa’s porridge while it is still warm,” he told her. “Good morn, Lady Angharad, and good luck on your venture.”
He paused, then inclined his head.
“Master Tristan,” Isabel amusedly replied.
He took his leave after that under Angharad’s bemused gaze. She sat by Isabel’s side after making certain that others were seated at tables, making the kitchen a public place and allowing her to skirt the edge of her oath to Remund.
“You know,” the dark-haired beauty mused, “I do believe that man might not even have a surname.”
“He seems too well educated for that,” she replied, startled.
Only the poorest of commoners were bereft of last name, at least in Peredur.
“Why else avoid giving it so carefully?” Isabel asked. “No matter, it does not make him any less interesting.”
“He had business with you?” Angharad idly asked.
Isabel smiled at her, the full weight of her attention a little dazzling.
“He was giving me news of Beatris,” she said. “She appears to have had a fit of nerves that left her unfit to try the maze, so I have sent her my permission to withdraw from the trials.”
“That is kind of you,” she replied, pleased at the good treatment.
Kindness to one’s servants was the responsibility of the nobly born. They were joined by the others one after another, the table going silent for a moment after Lord Zenzele came until he gave a toothy grin.
“The funeral was last night,” he said. “Do cheer up.”
No one was so awful as to laugh, but it broke the ice. Quiet conversation resumed and after the meal ended they prepared to set out together. As the previous day, Tupoc’s group had gone ahead. Keeping to their bargain, they moved with Lord Ishaan’s group. The chubby-cheeked Someshwari had picked up a wound across the lips, an oddly fearsome sight on a face that otherwise screamed of harmlessness, and it made it difficult for him to speak. They remained quiet, though neither Song nor Shalini offered them such mercy.
The pair spent half the walk to the shrines arguing about whether Tianxi or Ramayan tea was superior while the other half was reserved to agree that Izcalli xocolatl was ‘too disgusting to inflict on even Someshwari’ and ‘there should be a law against its export, maybe make a mob vote on it’.
“It is good to see Shalini making a friend,” Ishaan happily told her, breaking their silence as they neared the shrines. “Her sense of humor sometimes drives people away.”
“I am surprised to hear it,” Angharad replied, speaking very exactly.
A wry look from the Someshwari told her that perhaps it had not gone unnoticed. They parted ways cordially at the shrines, returning to their previous paths. The dove spirit’s grounds were eerily silent, the holes in the floor still there – though they now looked like simple pits – and the entity itself not deigning to appear. They hurried through, dimly unsettled, and took the same upwards path as before. It was more tiring than dangerous to retrace their steps now that they knew there would be no ambush waiting for them.
When they climbed up from the pools into the tunnel again, ready to shimmy across the edge to the stairs of the temple where Inyoni had died, they did it knowing that a dead thing would attempt to scare them into falling. All ignored it, as for all its loudness it could not hurt them, save for Zenzele – who slapped the remnant spirit on its head with a laugh, though it did not cease shrieking. Not enough thought remained inside, she suspected.
The gesture was to be an augury of continued recklessness, Angharad realized when he did not wait for everyone to be ready before climbing the steps to the clockwork temple. Cursing under her breath she hurried, finding him standing along among the great room with the polished floor and the ticking machines.
“Not a trace of anything broken,” he said when she caught up. “Like we were never here at all.”
The spirit of brass and cogs did not show, this time, perhaps uninterested now that it had fed and they could not be pressed into another of its tests.
“You are a victor still,” Angharad said. “That remains.”
“It was a victor as well,” Zenzele mildly replied. “That is the part I find difficult to forgive.”
They had not ventured beyond the clockwork temple yesterday, so it was fresh grounds they broke as the crossed the machine-strewn chamber. There was a hall leading out, a thing of moonstone and serpentine as the one that had led them in, but here the streaks of iron and gold painting the walls were not so wild. There were clear patterns, beginning circular and becoming increasingly angular as the hall continued. It made Angharad’s eyes tear up to look at them too long so she yanked her gaze away. That the spirit had not appeared did not mean its hand could not be felt.
At the end of the hall half-shattered stairs led down to what she thought to be walls at first but soon realized were the sloping seats of an arena. It was why her boots creaked against sand as she took the lead and why the structure was so curved – though she could not see the whole of it, as it continued around the side of the clockwork temple and mixed into masses of rubbles with jutting columns. The grounds were ruins, not a shrine, and as they walked on the sand they found that there were three ways out of the arena.
The first was in a straight line, through the front gates, and appeared to be a tangle of stairs going both up and down. Another was through a rusted grate, going down into the ground in a spiral, and the last began atop the highest seats to their right: some sort of bridge leading into a structure that seemed to be a broad tower.
“That tower has shrine written all over it,” Lord Remund opined.
“Agreed,” Song said. “The stairs perhaps?”
“I do not like the look of that grate,” Angharad admitted. “Let us try the stairs.”
There were no strong opinions against it, so to the stairs they went. It was worse than she had thought at first glance: the stairs led up and down, left and right, and crisscrossed each other as if painted by a madman. Going up a few flights let her catch sight of a structure at the end of the mess, what looked like a highway with raised steles wedged in between two large walls, but the stairs themselves were a death trap. They were falling apart, sometimes on each other, and after Zenzele kicked a loose stone on a whim an entire section collapsed. The Malani apologized, but the words were a little too blithe for her taste.
Angharad stared him down until he looked away, conceding with a jerky nod. He was allowed his grief but not to risk their lives with it.
Yet disinclined to the high bridge and tower, they headed for the rusted grate. Yaretzi and Master Cozme kicked it off the hinges and then went down the narrow tunnel. It spun in a spiral, uncomfortably narrow, and dug into the stone beneath. There were no steps, only a slope, and they had to be careful not to slip. After what had to be at least ten minutes of heading down they emerged into a dark crypt. Rectangular tombs of bare stone lay open, lantern light revealing they were filled only with dust, and at the other end of the chamber the wall was made from a darker kind of stone. They crossed, wary of an attack that never came, and then stepped into a hall that ended after three feet in a strange circular chamber lit by some kind of hanging lantern.
There were four gates inside the room, but all were closed and barred.
Angharad saw no lock or knocker, nor any other way to open them, so her gaze strayed to the strange contraption that filled almost the entire room. It looked like a wheel, she thought, though one without a rim. Four spokes of solid brass jutted out, each going from slightly above her midsection to the floor, while the hub they jutted from was tall as a man and broad as three – and not small men, either. The mechanism’s floor was dull brass, rough and unpolished, but unlike the hallway bore no dust.
“It does not look like a shrine,” Song noted. “There are no marks and symbols, only bare stone and brass.”
“Perhaps we are meant to push the spokes of the wheel,” Remund Cerdan suggested. “To raise the gates like a portcullis.”
“Could be,” Angharad mused. “Though that would be a great weight and we might not be enough.”
“No, we will be.”
She glanced back, seeing Yaretzi bush past Isabel with a grim look on her face.
“I have seen this before,” the Izcalli said. “Some of my people’s candles are locked the same way.”
“You know how to open it?” Angharad asked.
“If I am right,” Yaretzi agreed.
The dark-haired woman made her way to the edge of the hall, kneeling by the threshold to the wheelroom to rap a knuckle against the brass floor. The sound, to Angharad’s surprise, was hollow. As if there were nothing under a small layer of brass. Yaretzi repeated the same gesture until her hand was near the center of the space between the two spokes, where at last the sound turned solid.
“As I thought,” the Izcalli said, rising to her feet. “It is weight-locked. Enough of us will need to stand on the platform to lower the hidden part and trigger the mechanism.”
“And then what?” Master Cozme asked.
There Yaretzi grimaced.
“I am uncertain,” she admitted. “I have never seen one with more than a single gate. It should open the doors, but beyond that I cannot say.”
“Sounds fun,” Lord Zenzele carelessly said. “Let’s give it a whirl.”
Angharad glance at him warningly but did not speak otherwise. For all that the Malani was being reckless the plain truth was that activating the device was the only way through this room.
“There might be some danger falling upon us before the doors open,” Isabel said. “It would be best for us to split with such an eventuality in mind.”
The Pereduri noblewoman thought that sensible enough. They separated accordingly: Isabel with her, Cozme with Remund, and after Zenzele insisted on standing alone Song and Yaretzi. When Isabel joined her at the center of the space some mechanical part clicked beneath their feet, the floor descending by the barest of fractions, and then they watched as the others spread around the wheel by climbing over spokes. The very moment Zenzele took his place, a last click resounded across the small room and they all felt something shifting beneath their feet.
A long moment passed.
“Perhaps we are to push after all,” Lord Remund drawled.
He went to place his hand against the spoke before him, but before he could there was a sudden shiver beneath their feet. Angharad glimpsed ahead and-
“Brace yourselves,” she shouted.
Half of them were still knocked down when the wheel abruptly began spinning. She caught Isabel by the waist, bringing her close and trying not to wonder at how even in this nightmare of an island the infanzona’s hair still smelled of lavender, then held them both in place by snatching at the top of the spoke with her other hand. Cozme cursed virulently as he smacked into the brass and Zenzele let out a whooping laugh as he held on for dear life. All the lanterns save Yaretzi’s went flying, smashing against stone or brass.
And the wheel kept spinning, faster and faster.
Isabel would have slipped her gasp had the dark-haired beauty not begun clinging to the spoke on her own, the two of them struggling to keep upright as the air howled against their faces and the sole burning light above whipped them with shadows.
“The gate,” Song shouted. “The gate is opening.”
Angharad risked a glance and saw that the Tianxi was right: one of the gates was slowly rising, as if being dragged up an inch at a time. Were they meant to jump out when it opened up enough? It would be difficult, she thought, but hardly impossible. They held one for another ten breaths, the gate opening up just enough for a man to be able to get through on their knees, and Angharad pushed herself up. Hopefully the others would not argue the need to jump, for speaking would be difficult.
Before she could finish the sentence, she turned weightless. Or so it felt for the barest fraction of a moment, before she realized that the wheel had just abruptly changed directions. Shouting as she was thrown back against a curtain of brass – ancestors, that was going to bruise – and Isabel’s back smacked her in the face a heartbeat later, she heard other shouts.
Two of which abruptly cut off.
No, she thought, rising to her feet as she pushed off the infanzona. It was as she feared: Song and Yaretzi were missing while the once-open gate had slammed shut. It is no gate mechanism, she thought, it is a trap. One meant to separate us.
“Seek each other out on the other side,” Angharad shouted. “We must not remain-”
Unlike the last, the gate that opened this time did so in a heartbeat and Zenzele threw himself in the opening with a wild laugh before wheel even changed directions to force his hand. They were all better prepared for the turnabout this time, all staying on their feet save Remund – who Cozme caught by the arm and held in place. The third gate opened, the pair tossed through it, and for the first time Angharad got a glimpse of what lay past it. Some kind of stony slope. They both went tumbling down.
Now there were only the two of them left.
“Ready yourself,” she told Isabel. “Better to jump than be thrown.”
She had not closely looked at the infanzona before but now that she did, she saw the terror writ there. Isabel’s fair face had gone pale, her eyes wild and she was worrying her lip so hard it looked fit to bleed.
“Please,” Isabel said. “Together. I do not know if-”
How striking her teary gaze was Angharad thought, a little dazed. She tended to prefer women of harder character, but perhaps on occasion being needed would not be so – no, not the time.
“Together,” she agreed.
They barely had three heartbeats to ready themselves before the fourth gate began to open. The timing seemed to be shorter every time, as if the machine fed on its own momentum. Angharad glimpsed ahead twice to gauge the timing, a trick she was becoming increasingly fond of, and almost winced when she saw herself hit the bottom of the gate with her front teeth on the first attempt. It was a good thing she did not feel what she saw, as she could do without intimate knowledge of what it felt like to shatter half her mouth.
When they leapt, Isabel trembling in her arms, it was straight into the dark.
Blinded by the sudden change in lighting Angharad blinked even as the ground gave beneath her feet – it was a slope, like she had seen in the others – but after two steps her boots slid against wetness and Isabel screamed in fear. They tumbled forward, Angharad’s belly flopping on shallow water while her chin raked against the stone below it, and she felt Isabel’s fingers slide through hers.
“No,” the infanzona shouted. “Angharad, you-”
She was interrupted by a loud thump, smacking into something. For a heartbeat Angharad believed her dead, the thought like a burn, but then she heard Isabel shouting as she bounced off into water. Distant water, as if they were being separated. Without a lantern to see Angharad was blind, but even as she fell her fingers groped ahead and she found rising stone – there had been a fork just beyond the gate, she realized, and they were falling down different sides of it. Heart pounding with fear for the infanzona, she tried to hurry her way down. The water was shallow but it helped her slide faster, her clothes drenched and hair turning slick.
She went down a canal for what felt like an eternity until she fell into a pool.
It was deep enough she had to swim up and when she broke the surface she saw there was finally light again, coming from glass orbs hung on the ceiling. Making for the shore, she got out onto a stone floor before taking a better look around. This looked to be a cavern, though one with two large pools – both being fed by small canals, one of which she had come through. There were half a dozen openings in the wall ahead, none of them looking carved and all rather narrow. Angharad waited a little longer to see if Isabel was to come down the other canal, but after a few minutes of dripping onto the floor to no sign of the infanzona she reluctantly got moving.
A few glimpses told her there were no traps no matter the opening, so she took the rightmost and headed in.
The lights were dimmer in here, small glass orbs burning dirty yellow, but she could still see just fine. Twice she faced forks and took a right, the second time leading her to a precipice. The tunnel ended abruptly in a deep black abyss facing wall of rock, faint wind like a breath rising from below. She shuddered, about ready to double back when she saw a flicker of movement ahead. She had not noticed, but on the other side of the precipice there was an opening in the rock with light flickering – almost like an eye. She saw a pool through it, and another precipice someone was standing by. Their hair was long and dark.
“Isabel,” she shouted, and it echoed endlessly in the abyss.
The silhouette across did not react, hesitating a little longer before moving out of sight. There was no telling if it was truly the infanzona, Angharad reminded herself. Where spirits held dominion the wise did not trust their eyes.
She returned to the tunnels, intent on pushing forward since it was unlikely there was a way across the abyss. Everywhere seemed the same, bare stone coated in flickering light, and after a while it felt as if she had no idea where she’d come from. Angharad began scratching the walls with her sword under the orbs, but she had begun too late and it only prevented her from going in circles. After long enough that her clothes had gone from wet to damp, the Pereduri finally stumbled onto the end of the tunnels. It was a striking enough sight it gave her pause, impatient as she was.
It was as if someone had raised a hall entirely out of cloudy, silvery crystals.
They shone with light from somewhere unseen, each perfectly smooth surface reflecting itself as a house of mirrors. It was strikingly beautiful, Angharad thought, enough that she was distracted from immediately noticing the entrances. There were three of them, going into a hall that must be sprawling for she saw no end to it, but one was closed by a solid slab of crystal. She approached for a closer look, eyes widening when she saw that someone had darkened the threshold of the entrance around the slab with what must have been an open flame. Two letters: S and Y. Yaretzi, she recalled, had kept her lantern from breaking when the spin changed directions.
Angharad breathed in deeply, comforted at the thought that at least two of her comrades had made it this far. That it might be only two was an upsetting prospect, but there might well be other entrances to this place. There had been four doors, after all. At the very least there could be no doubt that this hall must be her path, or as to what its true nature was despite its beauty. Angharad straightened her back, then offered a low bow.
“I implore the attention of the honored elder who dwells in this temple,” she said.
The air shivered, but this was subtler a spirit than the kind she had encountered in the maze until now. There was no great manifestation, no eye-catching totem to command attention. Only traces of silver light facing her in the slab of crystal, suggesting the shape of a face.
“Robber. Or. Supplicant.”
Angharad hid her pained wince by lowering her head. It was as if the words were made of the sound of crystal cracking, just a little too high and sharp to be anything but daggers to the ear.
“I would be a supplicant to your temple, honored elder,” Angharad said. “If you would tell me of the terms of your test and the wager therein.”
Not unexpected. She waited for the terms.
“Win. By. Reaching. End. Hall.”
“Or. Take. A. Life.”
Painful as it was to the ear, she sought clarifications. The prize would be crossing the temple unhindered for she and any companion. To die within the hall, however, was to surrender your soul to the spirit. It remained vague about whose life might be taken within its test, however, simply calling them ‘opponents’. She had her suspicions, especially when it was made plain that to take another’s life would see you led to the end of the hall safely. It means to keep us in its hall of mirrors until we grow desperate enough to kill our own, Angharad thought. The Watch had implied nothing lived out here save for ravenous spirits, so the only lives for them to take were each other’s.
She had no intention of slaying her companions or allowing them to be slain, but that still meant taking the test.
“I accept your test and terms, honored elder, and would undertake supplication,” Angharad said.
To ascribe emotion to the spirit would be as trying to read the intonation of a razor blade, but as it spoke Angharad somehow felt as if she was being mocked. And though it was but a glimmer of cold light, she could not shake the impression that she had looked at something living – convulsing, red and wet, like a throat swallowing. A second look told her it was but tiredness working away at her mind, the spirit unchanged. Hiding her unease, the Pereduri headed for the entrance to her right and settled her breathing. Hand on her saber, she took a firm step past the threshold and into the shining hall.
A heartbeat after, a slab of crystal hammered down and closed the entrance.
There would be no going back.
27 thoughts on “Chapter 25”
Good foreshadowing. If Zenzele offs himself, they have to do the clockwork test again. And if I dare venture a guess, all the shrines are part of the same “greater” spirit or God.
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Wasn’t Angharad also in the clockwork trial? Should be enough with her along.
She was, but Zenzele is the sole victor, and his presence alone absolves any group from redoing the clockwork trial. A group without him will have to survive the lethal blades. Angharad’s contract was enough to save herself, but not all who took part- as Inyoni, regrettably, discovered.
On top of that: Why did no one try to make a multi-grab at the very end of the clockwork trial? It THE change they had for multiple victors all at once, if truly _any_- and _everyone_ holding the gear the very end would have been declared victor. More chances to keep this way open – *and* open the gate at the end by having ten or more victors at the end who are still alive. The more victors you have, the better chances for that. Only in case of more ten then victors had already would it make sense to gamble them again, if you haven‘t got a way to the gate yet..
Ugh. This again. Typos and no edit function. Darn quick-post and noticing too late. The shame ;o
Has everyone gone mad or simply dumb? If they need ten _victors_, not victories, then they earn absolutely *nothing* by having a victor do a trial – if they win again, it‘s _moot_. Worse, if they die along the way, as far as the promises go so far, the others will be barred from that way, having do it all over. There is nothing to be gained and everything lost.
Or what am I missing??
I suspect someone’s going to disappear and never return here. Or possibly some interludes so we see other gods and trials. Or both, possibly. I hope it’s not Isabel, she used her contract this chapter.
Chapter 25 cast overview here.
Hopefully I didn’t mess up the HTML this time around.
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It might be helpful to include the various titles EE used to refer to these people. At least that’s what always trips me up. When he says the shamalayan or purple haired beauty says something I have no idea whom he’s talking about
I try to do just that, but sadly the format got limitation. Ramayan and Someshwari are both used for the same group, and there’s just not room for both on the sheet. Same with Aztlan and Izcalli. I have taken a pick for all of them and used the phrase that seems to be most commonly used for their ethnicity or nationality (at least when introduced). I’m not quite sure if EE is switching to use Someshwari more than Ramayan, though. I’ll have to keep an eye out on that.
As for EE’s tendency to refer to people by appearance, my goal is to at least give people a chance to look for that on the picture. Normally he uses hair colour, eye colour or skin tone most often, and well… That should be present in their portraits.
Just to give you and idea of why this might be tricky to list, Isabel is referred to as a green-eyed beauty having raven hair or dark hair or black hair. Sometimes curly is thrown into the mix too. There’s not just one sentence used about that. We’re on three just for her hair. And while she’s the one normally getting “beauty” attached to her description, about 80 % of the cast got “dark hair”.
(I’m pretty interested in which character got purple hair, though. I must have mixed that one. 😉 )
OK, it took a bit of work, but I’ve made you a text file to search through for descriptions.
Pale Lights Cheat Sheet (chapter 25)
I included prominent Watch members as well.
Disclaimer: Lots of characters shares the same descriptions. There are for instance ten characters described as “dark-haired”. And no less than three on the sheet with green eyes (not counting Fortuna that changed eye colour early in the story). Often something like “dark-haired” will be combined with man or woman, but it can still wary with other words as well, so I left all man or woman descriptions out.
That said, Isabel is the only one consistently described as “dark-haired beauty”. So if you get that one it’s almost certainly her (and I did include that combo in the sheet).
A Contract that lets you see connections eh. That has some real possibilities
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We already knew Angharad’s perceptions were narrow, but the metaphor for blame she shared with Zenzele narrows them further. It is not enough to blame the shooter alone, as if their agency were the sole deciding factor in the death of a loved one. It is not enough, in war, to blame the commanders or generals for the depredations of their men. Such disasters are always preceded by countless points of potential intervention; points in time where numerous others could have chosen differently. Murder is never solely the fault of the murderer, for the circumstances which drive people to it are predictable and preventable. To blame the man, to exact vengeance from him alone, is to absolve all which came before. And, most tragically, to guarantee its repetition.
We keep telling the same stories because we keep maintaining the conditions in which they begin.
And, to speak of vengeance, it is increasingly unclear what exactly Angharad is claiming vengeance for. The death of a man who would have forced her into a position of leadership for which she was ill suited? Of a mother who would see her daughter married for political gain, in an arrangement only superficially more progressive than that faced by real-world lesbians of claimed nobility? Sure, they had the decency to let her have a wife instead of a husband, but would still force her to carry a man’s child, and carry out the act such carriage implies.
Her own parents, and the culture they extolled, guaranteed their daughter would be raped at some point. Probably for at least a month straight, given the mechanics of guaranteeing an heir. The annihilation of her line, and of the literal sexual assault their continued existence would have demanded she endure, should be seen by her as a blessing.
But the worst part is that there was a good reason for vengeance. One she casually and thoughtlessly dismisses, not as meaningless, but as below her notice. A single, throwaway line, tossed in as she considered the deaths of people she cared about.
Whoever did this to her family already deserved death for claiming to be nobility, but their claim rings all the more sickeningly hollow for the innocents they chose to burn to death for the crime of mere association with the Tredegars. For this sin alone, Angharad’s vengeance, should she carry it out, would be justice. But in her current state she would not even consider why. No, she seeks vengeance for people who twisted her into a child playing soldier with real weapons against real opponents, who would have demanded her body be used in ways horrific to her, and who enslaved men while claiming the moral high ground over those who had the honesty to at least admit it openly. For the men, women, and likely children tortured to death in the moment of her dispossession, she spares nary a thought.
Hall of mirrors versus mirror dancer, huh?
If the victor of a trial goes missing, do their associates lose the right to pass through? If Isabel doesn’t turn up then that’s going to be very awkward, since that is both the first shrine they need to unlock the rest of their path and the one they most need to go through to get back to the watch outpost. Also, the spirit there particularly hates them.
I predict Isabel is going to be one of the ones to make it to the end and join the watch, however.
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Really only one has to pass through (without offering a sacrifice). The moment one is a victor, the rest get the benefit of being with a victor
So this maze of mirrors is kind of a race. Will someone get to the end before someone else gives up?
i love that people hate Xocolatl. Turns out the aztecs had chocolate drinks – but since they didn’t refine the chocolate the same way as we do nowadays, it was supposedly very bitter.
No wonder people don’t like it.
Nice to know they *are* aztec expies, though. i only had a suspicion, before.
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Oh I thought it was supposed to be a kind of Tea
Oh I thought it was supposed to be a kind of Tea
Not that they didn’t refine it – they didn’t sweeten it. Chocolate is only sweet and creamy because of added sugar and milk; the chocolate itself contributes the bitterness and aromatics that balance out that richness.
(This is a bit of an oversimplification – the Maya drank it hot, but the Aztecs drank it cold and so needed to mildly sweeten it to keep it vaguely drinkable.)
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lmao unsugared chocolate, really? Goth i would hate the heck out of that.
But then, people really drink coffee black…
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Yeah, on this I wholeheartedly agree with most of the characters’ thoughts
Honestly, I think I’ve figured why, to me, Angharad chapters tend to shine less than Tristan chapters? They’re both well-written, so the difference is not there. Both of them are about equally capable, though in different fields, so that is not the issue either. Their crews and social dynamics are both cool, though I tend to favor Tristan’s crew because they’re the scrappy underdogs.
I believe that it is actually a problem of the medium. Tristan and Angharad both have shining moments of pure distilled awesomeness, but Tristan’s moments are mental feats of incredible cunning and fearlessness that get transmitted very faithfully by the written word. In contrast, Angharad’s are physical feats of impossible grace and agility, and while we get to read what that looks like, it’s not as immediately easy or satisfying to visualize as Tristan’s social-fu.
But if this were a movie, the reverse would probably be true. Sure, Tristan’s brilliant plans would still show up, but his lightning-quick mental processes would be lost to the audicence. In comparison, Angharad’s mirror dancing would be way more visually spectacular, if the actress could even convey that level of grace properly.
Bottom line being: Angharad is a jock, Tristan is a hustler, and this is a book. One side has an unfair advantage.
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So what you’re saying is, one of them is lies and the other is violence :eyes:
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For they are the Two That Were Promised
and theirs is a Song of Lies and Violence
Er. I think Tristan crew being people who genuinely want to survive and did not try to play around when their lives were on the line is the main reason for we enjoying Tristan chapter more.
Brain and Brawl can be equally entertaining regardless of genre. Sherlock and other dozen of heist movies are no less entertaining than Jackie Chan movies while Jin Yong’s wuxia novels are some of the most popular novels in East Asia. The most crucial role in any works success is the creator. The creators of Sherlock are brilliant in their adaptation of Sherlock Holmes while Jin Yong is the greatest author in the wuxia genre. Maybe Angharad just doesn’t have that “something” (wittiness, maybe?) that made so many classic action heroes so entertaining.
What I am trying to say is Angharad just dozen have the charm of Sun Wukong, Jackie Chan, Bruce Willis – she is a lot more Captain America but lack the Tony Stark to balance it out.