Chapter 28

Tristan could not figure out how to make the damn folded ladder work, so he ended up bleating like a lost goat for half an hour before one of the watchmen on patrol heard him.

It was another ten minutes after that of Lieutenant Vasanti and her minions asking him through shouts to describe the device in detail then failing to get it work. In the end one of the blackcloaks just threw him a rope ladder, giving up the machinery for a lost cause. It was only watchmen when he came down, with one exception: Maryam. It was a dangerous habit to start seeing what you wanted to see, so the thief did not let himself believe it was relief he saw in those blue eyes. They had chosen trust, but there was no guarantee that would last beyond the trials they were undertaking.

The given hint that she had aimed from the start at cooperation in a greater undertaking was to be set aside. Then future was a foreign land, not to be relied upon. The dark-haired woman strode through the throng of blackcloaks, some of them snickering, and for a heartbeat it looked like she was going to embrace him.

Instead she slapped his hat down against his chest.

“There,” Maryam said. “I tried to sell it, but it was such a raggedy thing I could find no takers.”

“Blind and a poor haggler, then,” Tristan mused, setting it back on his head. “It’s a lucky thing I made it back. What would you do without me?”

“Luck,” she said. “When the pebble stays stuck in your boot after the shake, is that what you call it?”

A sigh, but not hers. Lieutenant Vasanti wrinkled her nose at them.

“I don’t know what this is,” she said wiggling a finger in their direction, “but it’s putting me off dinner. Cease immediately.”

The thief tossed the lieutenant a carved stone button. She caught it, rather spry for her age.

“It’s a key,” he told her. “Best to get a few muskets pointed at the door before using it, though. There’s a god on the other side and he simply cannot wait to have someone over for dinner.”

The old woman looked nonplussed.

“That’s what salt munitions are for,” she said. “Good work, boy.”

“I live for your praise,” Tristan drily replied.

Lieutenant Vasanti wanted a detailed report, but he told her he wanted a physician first so as a compromise he got to tell her about his misadventures while the garrison doctor saw to his broken finger. To his surprise, she seemed to care little about the god. It was the room with the tiles she was most interested in, demanding he describe it several times while taking notes, and one more detail besides: the metal rod with the alloy brand at the end. That she cared about so much she asked he draw the brand from memory. Tristan did, charcoal pen scratching against cheap paper.

“It might not be exactly that,” he warned. “I only saw it in passing.”

She hummed, eyes on the drawing as she only half-listened.

“What is it about the brand that interests you so much?” he asked.

To his surprise, she deigned to answer. He had expected a cutting comment and a dismissal.

“People tend to think of the Antediluvians as a nation of living gods, shaping the world to their whim, but that was only true for the First Empire’s ruling class,” Lieutenant Vasanti said. “Someone had to clean the dust off the wonders and keep the cogs turning.”

The urge to fiddle with the splint the physician had put around his broken finger was near overwhelming, but he forced himself to think instead. The man was gone back to the barracks, if the splint snapped he was on his own.

“The rod was some kind of tool, then,” Tristan deduced, cocking his head to the side.

“The greats of the First Empire could all manipulate aether much like Navigators can shape the Gloam,” Vasanti told him. “Their servants, though, were not so gifted. So how does a living god avoid having to get their own carriage working when the thing runs on aether?”

“By making tools that can affect the aether,” he said.

“That’s what that brand is, boy,” Lieutenant Vasanti said, not hiding her excitement. “It is our way to get one of the machines working without the need for a Navigator. If we are lucky, it will have been crafted for the tiles and let us open the front gate heedless of Hell’s sabotage.”

The burst of enthusiasm waned, however, and with it the lieutenant’s willingness to indulge his curiosity. She left him to his seat, telling him he was no longer needed for the afternoon, and went to consult with her band of followers. Tristan watched her back getting further and further away, considering how furious she would be should she ever learn he’d held back in his report.

He had not told her of the second stone button in his pocket, or the green glass door.

With Vasanti’s departure others were finally free to approach. Maryam and Vanesa both joined him at the table, the latter helped onto the seat by his pale-skinned accomplice. They seemed in a fine mood, Vanesa in particular. He quickly learned his survival was not the only reason.

“Everyone has been pulled off the sky-watching,” Vanesa told him. “The lieutenant wants us studying mechanisms around the tiles on the iron gates. She believes they are some sort of combination lock.”

The old clockmaker, as it turned out, preferred steel to figures. She was glad to be back on the gates instead of continuing to match the ceiling machine’s movements to that of the inner cogs.

“Francho and I are still on the machine, but she is no longer insistent I start pushing Gloam at it like a toddler throwing a ball,” Maryam said. “I do not suppose you know why?”

“I might have found a tool that can serve in your place,” Tristan said.

“Good news,” Vanesa enthused. “Once it is brought down-”

“It is behind a locked gate guarded by a monstrous old god that tried to eat me,” he told her.

“Ah,” Vanesa muttered. “That puts something of a damper on things, admittedly.”

Tristan scraped together a meal for the three of them out of what lay around the kitchen, mostly dried fruits and bread, but soon enough the pair’s break was at an end. They still had work to do for Lieutenant Vasanti, unlike him. Vanesa was the first to head back, giving them a knowing smile. Tristan supposed that the amount of plotting in dark corners the two of them did was not helping with that misunderstanding. When Maryam spoke, though, it immediately claimed his full attention.

“The use of your contract was too obvious not to be caught this time,” she said. “Already rumors are getting around, and your timely throw against the gravebird has not been forgot. You might want to get ahead of this before speculation grows wild.”

Before someone ascribed him the power to stop cogs with a thought, predict the future and maybe also fly, she meant. Nothing got so out of hand as rumors about contracts: back home there were so many tales about what the legacy contracts of the Six could do that if all were true the nobles would be more divine than their own gods. Thankfully Tristan had a lie ready for this, the same he had been using for years when the need was forced on him.

“Telekinesis,” he said without batting an eye. “I can move small objects with some degree of strength, but I have difficulties with control and there is often backlash.”

Maryam cocked an eyebrow at him. His answer had been a little too quick to be believable.

“A lie,” Tristan shrugged. “But the effects are similar enough it would be difficult to argue otherwise.”

“It does sound like the kind of contract with a minor god a man of no background might obtain,” she admitted after a moment.

It took genuine effort not to flinch when Fortuna slammed her fist on the table – which made not a sound and did not shake it, as it was only on his flesh she could feign to touch – and she leaned forward with flashing eyes, pointing an accusing finger at an unseeing Maryam.

“Minor?” she shrieked. “Minor?”

The goddess shook her finger angrily.

“How dare you, Maryam Khaimov,” she snarled. “I was going to sell you to her on the cheap, Tristan, but this… heresy cannot be brooked. You must defeat her in single combat. Avenge my honor, and be a brute about it.”

The thief sipped at his cup of water, smiling.

“Have I told you I like your tresses?” he asked Maryam. “They suit you well.”

She slowly blinked.

“Treachery,” Fortuna sputtered, stumbling back in shock. “Stop that, Tristan, stop that right now.”

“You have very good taste in boots,” he told Maryam.

She squinted at him.

“Are you…” she slowly said. “Are you using me to anger your god?”

The grey-eyed man simply smiled and complimented her dress, Fortuna’s indignant shouting like a soothing lullaby.

Tristan spent most of the afternoon trying very hard not to fiddle with his broken finger, drinking dandelion tea and considering what he should do.

It was only a matter of time, he figured, until Lieutenant Vasanti tried again to be rid of him by sending him through the stone door. He could not be sure that the god would be lying there in wait, but it did seem likely: how long had it been since the entity last had an opportunity to feed? Worse, it did not seem to be affected by the ‘laws’ the aetheric machine above was subjecting the gods of the maze to. It had certainly not been shy in trying to gobble him up.

No, the more he thought about it the more likely it seemed that the lieutenant would send him in. Vasanti wouldn’t use blackcloaks, no matter her talk of salt munitions, for the same simple reason she had not kept sending people to cross the same lethal machinery Tristan barely survived: if too many got killed, there would be consequences she could not afford. As the thief did not fancy his chances against the god even if he was sent in to, he would need to make other arrangements.

First, he needed a sword hand. He and Maryam worked very well as a pair, but it could not be denied they were not the finest of fighters. Tristan knew of one man with the required capacity for violence and that he still trusted more than most in the Trial of Ruins. The real question was this: had they made enough progress along this path that Yong would consider them a better bet than continuing with the maze? After wrestling with the question for some time, sketching arguments for either side, he finally decided an answer could not be had until the crews returned tonight.

If they returned tonight, he corrected as the hours stretched out.

It was now late in the afternoon, and it was possible that some of the crews had got far enough in the maze that they would prefer to spend the night there rather than double back. Tristan was not afraid of anyone passing the second this trial early, for it would be impossible for any single crew to have ten victors and they had all taken different paths.

It was becoming clear, however, that he was running out of time for his other affairs. He had neglected vengeance in the name of more immediate dangers, but now that there was a light at the end of that tunnel he could turn his attention back to the business: Tristan had no intention of allowing the Cerdan brothers or Cozme Aflor to live. The deal he had struck with Isabel should buy him the opening he needed, but he needed for the crews to return to the Old Fort before he could slither his way in. It was that understanding that had him keeping an eye out for any return until at last his patience was rewarded.

More or less.

Lord Augusto Cerdan, looking quite haggard, stumbled into the Old Fort come early evening. The infanzon looked as if he had been thrown down the side of a mountain, boasting such an extensive collection of scrapes and bruises that the broken arm no longer stood out. The worst was a nasty rip going down the side of his now-broken nose to halfway down his throat. The skin had been scraped off by something raw, and though it was not a dangerous wound it was one that would be disfiguring for months. He began calling for the Watch physician within moments of entering, quite loudly – Tristan noted with amusement that the doctor in question pointedly took his time doing up his buttons before moving to answer – and was soon being seen to in the kitchen.

Lieutenant Vasanti had released everyone for the evening, so it was not Tristan alone who came out to the courtyard to have a look at the infanzon’s bruises being cleaned with alcohol.  Maryam drifted close, as if by coincidence, and leaned against the wall by his side.

“Alone and wounded,” she idly said. “Lord Augusto must be feeling rather exposed.”

Tristan knew little of the people of what the Malani called the northern colonies, the Triglau. Oh, islanders called them fierce savages who fought garbed in steel and raided settlements from the back of their hardy mountain ponies, but if you believed the Malani every war they had ever fought had been against hateful villains while the brave people of the Isles only ever reluctantly took up arms for the common good. You had to take the Malani with a grain of salt, for all that they rarely lied.

Looking at the way those blue eyes were watching Augusto Cerdan, though – like a hunter watching a stag, measuring it for the knife – he thought there might be some truth to the stories out of the Isles. That was not the stare of someone who balked at the thought of violence, who saw anything wrong with the lay of Vesper being decided by the cut of a blade.

Tristan supposed he should have been put off by the sight, but he was not. How could he be when he’d seen eyes like those all his life, saw them every time he looked in a mirror? People like Angharad Tredegar, like Augusto Cerdan or even Vanesa, they thought of violence as an intrusion. A break in the default state of peace. They had lived all their life behind the walls of the garden where laws mattered and served to protect, never grasping that beyond the wall violence was the law. You took from those who could not protect and kept what you could protect from those who would take it: that was the truth of Vesper, to a rat.

Triglau, Tristan thought as he watched those pale blue eyes, must not have been so different.

“Very,” he finally agreed, looking away. “So much that I think him unlikely to leave the fort for some time.”

And while in here, protected by sanctuary, Tristan would not risk killing the infanzon. The risks were too great when both lieutenants in command of the fort had it out for him.

“He will have to come out sooner or later,” Maryam murmured.

“He is bound to the trials,” Tristan pointed. “To return home as anything but a peace concession in the making, he must survive his brother and Isabel Ruesta. If there is to be a list, he would be last.”

“So the younger must come first,” she murmured.

The thief was somewhat impressed she had caught that. Remund Cerdan must indeed come before an attempt on Cozme Aflor could be made.

His two enemies under Tredegar were the hardest to get at, by virtue of the mirror-dancer being their protector, but with Isabel out to get Remund killed he would have someone interfering on his behalf. More importantly, it would force Cozme to move. After that, the man would have two choices: either he swallowed his pride and went to Augusto, to get at least one Cerdan home and hope it would be enough, or he cut ties with House Cerdan entirely and tried for the Watch as a refuge. If he went to Augusto he became easier to get at, as Tupoc Xical had all the loyalty of a jackal, and if Cozme aimed for the Watch then Tristan would have the entire third trial to get to him.

“There are plans in the works,” he said.

“Very sinister,” Maryam praised. “Have you considered growing a beard so you might stroke it?”

Ha,” Fortuna snorted from behind him. “He wishes.”

The Lady of Long Odds had entirely forgot her sworn enmity of a few hours ago, as was her way, and was not merrily siding against him once more. The thief rolled his eyes.

“Come,” he said. “Let us see what our good friend Lord Augusto has to say.”

The eldest Cerdan was not only inclined to talk but rather vigorously friendly.

He spun a tale of woe, telling all four of them – Vanesa and Francho, curious, also joined them at the table – of the many indignities he had suffered since Angharad Tredegar’s false accusations forced him to make common cause with the bandit Tupoc Xical. Going with the Aztlan had been what he wanted, he assured them.

“She even got to Lord Ishaan, you see,” Augusto told them. “A nice enough man but very gullible. He had no chance at all against as skilled a trickster as Lady Angharad.”

Tristan had known heads of cabbage more skilled at trickery than Angharad Tredegar, but he smiled encouragingly instead of laughing in the man’s face. He need not look around to see the obvious fabrication had found no takers: the Pereduri was widely respected. The infanzon told them of Tupoc being a slave driver with no regard for rank, of Felis being insolent and insubordinate while Aines was useless. However obtuse, Augusto soon realized that insulting the married pair everyone here had spent the first trial with won him no friends.

He immediately changed tack, focusing on the shrines and the gods.

The infanzon revealed nothing that Tristan had not already heard from Lan, save when it came to today’s events. Tupoc’s crew had made very fine progress after crossing a broken bridge, Augusto recounted, but then been forced to go underground and wait for some time before they were let into some kind of crystal labyrinth. In there had been illusions and attacks, until the entire thing collapsed onto their heads. Augusto has narrowly survived, buried alive but falling through a crevasse. From there he had stumbled into some manner of empty crypt and found a path back to the Old Fort.

“I now hold the knowledge of a safe route deep into the maze,” Augusto told them. “There is but a single shrine on the way, and I have defeated the god’s test: I stand before you a victor.”

He was, in fact, sitting. And carefully avoiding giving any specifics about the shrine he had beaten, enough that Tristan suspected he was either lying or it has been mortifyingly easy to defeat. It was when, between two boasts of knowing a crucial path, Augusto half-heartedly apologized for sending Tristan away from his group during the Trial of Lines – the thief was informed that Tredegar had insisted and convinced the others, so Augusto’s hand had been forced – that Tristan realized what the noble was after.

“Why,” Augusto nonchalantly said, “I expect that the path is so easy even the five of us could reach the end of the maze using it.”

The man was in the market for a delving crew, preferably full of expendables and under his captaincy. Tristan could only wonder if it was desperation or arrogance that had the infanzon thinking there was anyone left that might want to go under him.

“How impressive,” Maryam mildly said.

As he did about half the time he glanced her way, Augusto smothered a moue of disgust at the paleness of her skin.

“Indeed,” the eldest Cerdan agreed. “But it is my duty as an infanzon to provide for others.”

Francho almost choked on the water he had been drinking. He coughed under Augusto’s suspicious eye.

“The cough simply won’t leave me,” the toothless old man said. “I did not mean to interrupt, my lord, do go on.”

“Oh, but I have talked quite enough I think,” Augusto said. “What is it that the four of you have been doing, if not seeking to pass the trial? I saw the blackcloaks made some sort of discovery.”

Lieutenant Vasanti had yet to manage to get the folded ladder to unfold, but the rope ladder was easy enough to see.

“We have been given tasks by Lieutenant Vasanti to advance the Watch’s interests in this place,” Tristan replied. “Secrecy is paramount, I am sure you understand.”

He glanced at the others, who looked willing enough to follow his lead in this.

“Of course,” Augusto said, frowning when no one else added anything. “Though I imagine you will be free by tomorrow?”

“That is not for us to determine, my lord,” Tristan said. “We are in the service of the Old Fort’s commanding officer until released.”

The bruised noble looked at the others, seeking someone who might contradict what had been said, but instead only got silence. Looking miffed but knowing better than to push his luck when his position was so weak and a Watch lieutenant was involved, Augusto gave way. He changed the subject, returning to complaints about his old crew. Tristan thought there might be a purpose to it, at first, but eventually came to realize that the noble mostly wanted to vent.

Maryam and Francho excused themselves before long, but the thief forced himself to remain in case anything of use was revealed. Vanesa, he suspected, simply pitied him enough to suffer through the whining.

“Both of the Aztlan are as wild animals,” Augusto told them. “Xical is from Izcalli, so that was only to be expected, but Ocotlan is no better even after a lifetime under enlightened rule.”

Ocotlan’s tattoos and build marked him as legbreaker for the Menor Mano, one of the largest coteries in Sacromonte, so Tristan was thoroughly unsurprised. The Mano liked their enforcers brutal.

“Life in the Murk can be very difficult,” Vanesa said. “Not all who resort to violence enjoy it, Lord Augusto.”

“That man does,” Augusto haughtily replied. “He spent much time boasting of the work he had done for his ‘patrons’, bloody stories that had him grinning and chuckling.  He proudly told me of beating a man to death before his son and of drowning another in a waste bucket.”

That sounded about right, the thief thought, and his interest waned entirely. What did he care of an infanzon’s shock at the true face of the city his ilk so liked to claim having turned into a paradise? Augusto Cerdan would have gone his entire life without caring a whit about what took place in the Murk every day, if he had not been told of it. In truth he still cared nothing, Tristan knew, and only used the talk of savagery as a way to complain of his former companions. If he somehow survived the Dominion and returned to the Cerdan, the infanzon would forget everything he had learned in matter of hours.

The thing with mud was that when you were a noble you had servants to wipe it off your boots.

“- and he bragged of having done work for his patrons even after they had decided to send him off to these cursed trials,” Augusto bit out. “Breaking the leg of some-”

Vanesa might be willing to indulge the fool, but Tristan’s patience ran out. He feigned having been called by Maryam and went her way, sending the clockmaker an apologetic glance that she did not notice. Was she truly interested in the Cerdan’s words? Surely she could not be as spellbound as she looked. Vanesa was too kind for her own good, he thought not for the first time. The older of the Cerdan brothers certainly seemed pleased at having such a willing audience, almost eager to answer her questions.

Tristan might have pitied him for being so obviously starved of regard, had he not been a Cerdan.

The man was of that accursed house, however, so instead the thief put it out of his mind and went to attend to one of the secrets he’d dug up. Keeping one of the stone buttons he had taken in the pillar was not much different from keeping a key behind Lieutenant Vasanti’s back, in practice, as he could do little with the object but open a door. It was a way to get to the secrets, not a bearer of secrets itself. For him, anyway.

Francho, who could listen to the voices in stone, would find it otherwise.

The old man was not hard to find: he was napping in his bedroll, snoring quite loudly. Tristan almost felt bad about waking him up, but the sooner he had answers the sooner he could begin to sketch out the end of this trial. The toothless professor smacked his lips as he was gently shaken awake, eyes unseeing for a moment before he woke entirely.

“Trist-” he began, then fell into a fit of coughing.

The thief waited for them to end, then caught the man’s eye.

“You will have a hard time having a good night’s sleep, if you nap for too long,” he said as he pressed the stone button into the man’s hand.

Francho’s eyes widened but he caught on quick.

“That is true, I suppose,” the old man said. “Perhaps I should go for a walk. Any suggestions?”

‘Where is this from?’

“As long as it’s not up in the pillar,” Tristan said, feigning a small laugh. “The god there would not make for fine company.”

“Not much of an answer,” Francho snorted. “Should I ask the lieutenant?”

‘Does Vasanti know about this?’

“Surely not,” Tristan said. “She might take it as advances.”

“It is never too late for love, my boy,” Francho laughed.

Good, they were now on the same page. Tristan drew back, offering a hand to help the old man up. Francho took it, letting himself be pulled close.

“Too faint,” the old man murmured. “It will take me hours to make out the words, come back tonight.”

Inclining his head in agreement, the thief smiled. He could wait.

It took longer than Franco had said: the professor came to talk only an hour before midnight.

They sat at a kitchen table sharing a bowl of cabecitas, the old Liergan classic of crispy mushroom slices. These were in the Sacromontan style, salt but no pepper, and just like back home the garrison kept them by the barrel. Francho was toothless, so he broke the crisps with his lips and sucked on them until they were so mushy he could slurp them down. It wasn’t appetizing to look at, but the slow pace would give them an excuse to sit here until they were done talking.

“The history of this place,” Francho said, “comes in three parts.”

He traced a circle on the table before breaking off another piece of cabecita.

“First is an island on what was not yet the Trebian Sea,” he says. “The Antediluvians, for reasons known only to them, build this pillar and the aetheric machine. Then comes the Old Night, and as the First Empire falls the island is abandoned.”

“And the devils come,” Tristan said.

“And the devils come,” Francho agreed. “They get into the pillar, tinker with the great machine then break the doors so that no one else can do the same. They then build the Old Fort and begin the centuries-long labor of building the maze.”

The old man paused.

“Only it is not so simple as that,” the professor said. “None know for sure what took place during the Old Night, if the Flood truly took place or if is mythology, but it is beyond debate that the fall of the First Empire caused mass migrations of people and darklings. It is during this era that the islands of the Trebian Sea first began to see settling, among them this very Vieja Perdida.”

“And the devils simply let them?” Tristan frowned.

“There would not have been many of them,” Francho shrugged. “These settlers – not darklings, at least not yet – would be the same people that built the circles of raised stones and I believe them to have been, if not friends to the devils, at least not enemies.”

Tristan took a moment to swallow that. All his life he had been told of the wickedness of devils, that they could not be trusted. They were not like hollows, who could be bargained and lived with, but something fundamentally evil. Even the devils who had signed the Iscariot Accords and been allowed to live among humans beyond the walls of Pandemonium were only biding their time until they began to devour men again. But it might have been different back then, he thought. It could not be denied that devils preyed on men, but so did other men.

In a time of bloody chaos like the Old Night, would the settlers have seen Hell’s denizens as all that worse than their other enemies?

“It is said that the Watch took this island from hollows, not men,” the thief noted.

“It is a common and well-documented phenomenon for the population of islands without a natural source of Glare to progressively turn hollow over the span of generations,” Francho dismissed. “I imagine that the cultists of our day are descended from those very settlers, twisted by centuries in the dark.”

Tristan slowly nodded.

“I take it the third part is when the Watch arrives,” he said.

“After the signing of the Iscariot Accords, the blackcloaks built the Rookery as the seat of their order and began spreading their influence across the Trebian Sea,” Francho said. “I will spare you the history lesson about the order’s conflicts with Sacromonte – in those days still attempting to revive the Second Empire – and say only that most of the Watch’s power in those days was still bound east, to the century-long siege of Pandemonium and its later sealing.”

“They did not have coin or manpower to waste,” Tristan translated. “Yet they still came here and seized the Dominion from devils and darklings. Why?”

This, he thought, was the thread to pull at. If he could learn why had the Watch come and why it had stayed everything else would fall into place.

“I have spent the last three hours,” Francho said, “figuring out the answer to that question by listening to the voices of the devils who once used your button. It all comes down to a very slight mistake, Tristan, that compounded over centuries.

The toothless professor shivered, slurping down his piece of mushroom and subtly pressing the stone button against the side of the bowl as he reached for another crisp. Tristan palmed it just as discreetly, then waited as Francho began to violently cough. It was only after a minute of long breaths that the old man opened his eyes and began to speak.

“When the blackcloaks first came to Vieja Perdida,” he rasped, “the darklings who dwelled on it spoke what is called a Trebian cant. That is to say, one of the family of languages descended from what was spoken here during the First Empire. Traces of that root language, Tristan, remain all across the Trebian Sea – the Asphodel Rectorate, for example, still uses such a cant for its formal ceremonies.”

“There was a mistranslation of some kind,” Tristan guessed.

“The word was one the ancestors of the darklings learned from devils, which the Watch would have recognized,” Francho said. “But then the island was isolated for centuries. Their accent grew, so when the blackcloaks asked their questions half the terms were misconstrued.”

He paused.

“When we encountered cultists, Tristan, did you notice they scarred and tattooed themselves?”

“With a red eye,” Tristan agreed, then frowned.

He remembered the mace-wielding cultists that might have killed him if not for Maryam’s use of a Sign, the way his cheeks had been scarred with red ellipses. But would Tristan have called them eyes, had he not already known the hollow belonged to a cult of that name?

“It’s not an eye, is it?” he asked.

Francho smiled.

“Mouth,” he said. “Or perhaps maw. It is the god the cult worships, and likely the rumor the Watch first came here to investigate.”

And now it all began to make sense.

“You told me the circles of raised stones the settlers built were built by the river because rivers are boundaries,” Tristan said. “That it could mean the boundary was being either weakened or strengthened.”

And it had to be strengthened, for the airavatan to have been kept out by their mere existence. The same settlers who had raised those stones had been on good terms with the devils, Francho had just told him, and the shape of it all lit up in his mind’s eye.

“I believe they were built,” Francho said, “for the very same reason the devils built their maze: the heart of that god lies beneath this cavern, under the mountain.”

Gods, how large was the Red Maw? It must be miles long, to reach as far as the river while its heart pulsed beneath their feet. Only the oldest of deities grew so large as to – no, that was a distraction from what truly mattered. The layers of schemes, accumulated over the centuries likes sediment at the bottom of a canal.

The devils did not want this god loose but they had not killed it, or perhaps they had been unable to? Yes, that seemed more likely. So instead they had imprisoned the Red Maw, doing something with the golden aether machine and barring the pillar’s gates so it could not be undone before building a maze over the Red Maw’s heart. A maze full of hungry gods, Tristan thought, who the machine above forced to eat not humans or hollows but only the divine.

“The gods of the shrines are meant to eat away at the Red Maw,” he murmured. “That’s why the devils kept bringing more and more temples over the centuries, they were replacing those that the Red Maw ate to keep the prison functional.”

Francho slowly nodded.

“The Watch has not done the same,” he said. “It would have been impossible to hide moving entire shrines to this island with any regularity and I cannot even conceive how they would achieve such a thing in the first place.”

Not through the way their crew had entered this cavern by, no, and it did seem to be the way the Watch used to get to the Old Fort.

“No,” Tristan slowly said. “They have not, so the prison would weaken over time. But they did start doing something else, after taking the Dominion.”

The trials. The fucking trials. The Watch couldn’t bring in entire shrines and the gods bound to them, so sooner or later the Red Maw would devour all the gods keeping it from spreading – it was older, more powerful. It could afford a war of attrition and that was the nature of this prison, gods slowly starving and clawing at each other. So instead the Watch had looked for a way to bolster the strength of the maze gods, to help them against the Red Maw, and in looking found a loophole in the laws imposed by the aether machine.

The trials were just a way to keep drawing people to the Dominion so enough of them would make it to the second trial and die, keeping the shrine gods strong.

The overly large Watch investment on the island, the seemingly backwards method of recruitment, they were all explained if you stopped looking at the Dominion of Lost Things as trials and instead considered it a prison. The blackcloaks willingly paid in gold and lives every year because otherwise this Red Maw might break the lock on its prison and become a much larger problem – one they must not know how to kill, because if they could have by now they most definitely would have.

“Yearly sacrifices,” Francho softly said. “Keeping the seal strong.”

Tristan’s fingers clenched.

“We cannot reveal this,” he said. “They might well kill us to keep it quiet.”

If the true nature of what took place on the Dominion of Lost Things spread, the consequences would be… Tristan could not quite grasp what the Watch as a whole might suffer, that was too grand a scope for a rat, but at the very least the flow of trial-takers would run dry. Not even pride and tradition would make the infanzones keep feeding their children to some savage old god as they unknowingly had for centuries. Or did the infanzones know? No, it could not have remained a secret if that were true. But if it were only the lords and ladies of the Six, well, that might be a different story.

A conspiracy for another time.

“I will speak not a word,” Francho promised.

Tristan let out a long breath, passing a hand through his hair. He had no fear of that, the old man no more wanted to be dragged out back and shot than he did. Best to change the subject, for lingering on it would only serve to unnerve them.

“It is almost shame you cannot,” Tristan said. “Imagine what a book it would make! The university would surely beg for you to return.”

Francho’s face closed, but not at the mention of the University of Reve. It was the mention of a book that had him looking almost bitter and Tristan hid his interest. For all that the man was free with amusing stories, the professor’s past was still largely opaque to him.

“I suppose it is only fair to say,” the toothless old man sighed, “since we already share so many secrets.”

He shook once, coughing wetly into his hand, and his voice was rough when he spoke.

“I cannot write,” Francho said.

Tristan blinked at the absurdity of the statement. How could the man have come to be a Master at Reve if he could not – oh.

“Your contract,” the thief said.

“I first encountered the Bibliognost when I was a young man, out treasure hunting,” Francho said. “It was flattering when he took an interest in me – you will not have heard of him, I imagine, but he is a god that emerged with the first universities. A deity of scholars and secrets, dwelling in forgotten places of learning.”

“Yet your contract is recent,” Tristan stated.

More than mere months old, by the thief’s reckoning, but certainly not decades as contracting when a young man would have meant.

“I was proud in those days, headstrong,” Francho said. “I did not take his offer, for convinced I was meant for greater things still. And I was not entirely wrong: I was soon one of the youngest Masters the University of Reve ever appointed.”

A pause.

“Only one day I looked around me and realized that I was sixty years old and I had not left a lasting mark on the world,” Francho quietly said. “That I would pass away and Vesper would forget my name.”

“So you sought him out again,” Tristan said.

“I did not go about it foolishly,” Francho told him. “I had precise ambitions: I had been close to finding records of the mythic First Cant, the language from which all other hollow cants in the Trebian Sea are derived, but the ruins that should have led me to a library were defaced. I needed a way to plumb their secrets regardless.”

“To hear the whispers in the stone,” Tristan murmured. “He gave you what you wanted.”

“Time makes no difference to o a god,” Francho said. “It had been decades to me, but to him barely the blink of an eye. The Bibliognost offered me his power, and though the price for what I asked was steep it was not unfair.”

“He took your ability to write,” the thief said.

“That was the price,” Francho said, then he grimaced. “Or so I thought. I had planned to get around the restriction by making a student write in my stead, which would have been eccentric but not so much that Reve would object. Only when I began to dictate my words to the student, she found she could not write them.”

He chuckled bitterly.

“Like trying to hold smoke, she described it,” Francho said. “And that was when I realized that I had not given away my ability to write, Tristan: I had given the Bibliognost ‘everything I might ever write’.”

Oh, Tristan softly thought. A god of scholars and secrets, Francho had called the entity. Fortuna was the Lady of Long Odds, the one in a thousand chance, and it was such gambles she fed on – win or lose. The Bibliognost had fed on the old professor’s scholarship and through cunning phrasing also made everything Francho might learn through his contract secrets for him savor. If what Francho learned could not be writ down, in a matter of decades it would be good as forgot.

Not all gods offered such plain bargains as the one had struck with Fortuna: some saw their contractors as little more than the spoon filling their mouth.

“Yes,” Francho said. “I was tricked.”

“They sent you away from the university for it?” Tristan asked.

A professor that could not write or be written for was hardly fit to teach students.

“They were not going to throw me out,” the old man snorted. “I was as familiar to my fellows as the bricks or the fountains, just as much a part of Reve. But I was to lose my Master’s chair and cease giving classes.”

He paused.

“I could not stand it,” Francho admitted. “Being tricked and losing so much, when I had thought myself cleverer than a god. So I turned to the Caliginum, the library beneath Reve, and stole forbidden books so that I might find a way to break free of the price.”

“You said it was a disagreement with rectoress that made you leave the university,” Tristan recalled.

Francho smiled toothlessly.

“I got close,” he said. “I could push it onto rabbits, but they never survived the process. I needed a larger brain, I knew, capable of higher thought. Of true interaction with the aether. And there are always students desperate for tutoring so their marks will not get them thrown out.”

Tristan went still.

“You did it to a student?”

“They found the books in my room before I could,” Francho said.

He smiled mirthlessly.

“Or so the rectoress told the infanzones, when she declared me a wanted man,” he said. “In truth they were an hour late.”

The thief breathed in sharply.

“It did not work,” Francho conversationally said. “The boy’s own brain bled him to death.”

So that was why the man was not some tutor ensconced in a noble house, teaching their children. He was a killer and a wanted man. Francho reached for another cabecita, broke it on his lip and sucked in the piece. He swallowed, wetly.

“Are you disappointed, Tristan?” the old man lightly asked. “That I am not the kind of man I like to seem.”

Francho’s face was unmarred by shame or doubt. He did not, the thief decided, regret what he had done. Even if it had failed. The old professor had decided that he was willing to kill for a chance at cheating the price of his contract, at gaining back all that he had lost. Maybe if Tristan were from the Old Town he would have been disgusted, but he was a rat. He knew better. Francho had been starved, so he had bit. That the boy he’d bit had been underserving changed nothing. When had the world ever run on what people deserved?

You bit what your teeth could reach, nothing more and nothing less.

“I suppose I do have a question,” Tristan said.

“Oh?” Francho said. “By all means, ask.”

The thief cocked his head to the side.

“Did you find it?” he asked. “The First Cant you were looking for.”

Francho went still as stone, looking at him for a long time, then convulsed. Tristan thought him to be coughing or crying, until the bitterest laugh he had ever heard came crawling out.

“There was misspelling on the stele,” Francho told him. “It was supposed to be speaking of the library in a past tense, you see.”

The old man toothlessly smiled.

“It was torn down millennia ago to make room for a brothel, so there were nothing at all left to find.”

He laughed again but Tristan could not help but hear the wail behind it. The whimper. He left the professor sitting alone, wrestling with his grief, and did not look back.

He had his own ghosts to lay to rest and no time for anyone else’s.

The rope ladder up into the pillar wasn’t guarded.

Why would it be, when as far as Lieutenant Vasanti knew the sole room there led to a door she had the only key to? Sloppy, the thief thought disapprovingly. In their place he would have left a watchman up there and had them pull the ladder up until morning. Vasanti’s imprudence was his gain as he snuck out of the Old Fort and climbed back up to the same room he had been so glad to be rid of earlier. In Tristan’s pocket waited the stone button he had lent to Francho, but he did not use it yet. Instead he leaned back against the wall by the stone door and met Fortuna’s golden eyes.

She rolled them but went ahead anyway.

The goddess could not stray far from him, but walls and locks meant nothing to her. She was not physically present, after all, only the illusion of her in his eyes. It was twenty seconds before she returned, popping her head through the still-closed door.

“He’s not in there,” Fortuna told him.

“I will need you to look ahead in the hallway as well,” Tristan murmured. “But remember we cannot talk. He could be sensitive to sound.”

She cocked an eyebrow at him, a somewhat distressing sight when all he saw of her was a seemingly floating head and loose blond locks. She was, he mused as his fingers closed against the stone button, definitely doing that on purpose.

“I am perfectly capable of silence,” she said. “It is your own incessant chatter that-”

He pressed the button into the opening, cutting her off by the act of the door popping open – he slid around it to catch the button as it fell out of the ‘lock’ on the other side. Fortuna looked more than slightly offended, which only got worse when he put his finger to his lips in a smiling shush. The lights were back in the tile room, Tristan saw, but he did not linger there. Leaving the door ajar, he crept back up the way he had first come into this room: the maintenance door. The room there was exactly as he had left it, so the thief helped himself to the first reason he had returned.

The last stone button went into his pocket and then he took the brand Vasanti was so hungry for.

Now for the second reason. He doubled back towards the door with the broken latch, the one leading out into the hallway, and met Fortuna’s eyes. She went through as he prepared to bolt, but returned with a shake of her head. The god was not there, at least for the moment. Why did it leave? Did gods sleep? He had not thought so. Still, for now he would count his blessings and proceed down the hallway with all the quiet he had learned. The door was still there, hidden by the curve of the hall, and two dozen steps took him to it. Green glass, but transparent enough he could see through it.

And as he’d thought when getting his first glimpse from a distance, what he saw through that door was a lift.

Tristan fled after that, not slowing until he the stone door closed behind him and he had a semblance of safety. Brand still in hand, stones in his pocket, the thief went to the edge of the room and finally allowed himself to rest. He sat at the edge, feet dangling in the void as the distant sight of the maze of ruins – from here little more than slices of antiquity bared by light, as if some ancient era had been left half-used on a cutting board – and his breathing evened out.

Tristan Abrascal sat there in silence and thought, for now he saw the whole of the mosaic.

Now all that was left was to decide where to slide the knife.

33 thoughts on “Chapter 28

  1. Neapollitan

    Francho’s story here is definitely illustrating the theme of the story. What is that theme? I don’t know, it’s 1AM. But it’s definitely on-theme.

    Also, go Angharad for almost definitely infuriating the Gobbler itself in the crystal maze. Nobles stay winning!


  2. morroian

    Interesting, I thought we’d get Angharad given both were at cliffhangers. Clearly though the return of Augusto meant we had to see this first. So Tristan has found the lift, can he get through the door with the stone I wonder? If so he has his route to the 3rd trial. The lore was great as well, The Watch are ruthless bastards.


    1. Someperson

      The Izcalli aren’t the only ones who grease the wheels of their machinery with blood, it seems…

      I wonder how much Tupoc picked up on the parallels. He did make a comment about how the technology seemed similar.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. He might not even be aiming for or need the 3rd trial depending on what he indends to do with what hes discovered or depending on whay they might be able to change with access to the device above.


  3. Someperson

    Why do I get the feeling both of the Cerdans will die but that Cozme will somehow make it past the three trials and join the blackcloaks…


    1. Because that will drag the story out longer, because Tristan needs motivation or because Cozme seem very … useful and useful men don’t die easily. Everybody knows the Cerdan brothers aren’t the brightness, maybe it is kind of expected that they will both perish

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Cozme doesnt need to live for Tristan to have motivation, hes still got more on his list and most likely other things going on to have him end up in the watch if its going that way besides Cozme being in the watch.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Well. There are multiple reasons for Cozme to survive so everything is a hypothesis. And, it was established that Tristan has a personal vendetta against the Cerdan so after the brothers die, it will be more interesting if Cozme survive by being lucky or just careful. Cozme might notice that someone is plotting his demise or he might even figure that Tristan was behind it. Either ways, it will be more exciting if a sort of cat and mouse game happening between the two. In general, we kind of know Cozme already and it added to our investment in Tristan revenge plot


  4. Earl of Purple

    So Franco is a killer. Somehow that doesn’t surprise me much. His price is not one I would like to pay, I have kept a diary for fifteen years and don’t want to stop. I like Franco more now, and another god with a title and not a name. That makes Fortuna increasingly unusual.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Earl of Purple

        In his defence, he was desperate and arrogant. Francho is no longer quite so arrogant, though no less desperate. And he’s planning on surviving the Trials, despite being a scholar of at least sixty with extremely limited survival skills, no weapons, and no teeth. So one could argue he’s never shown a great deal of wisdom.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Mirror Night

        I mean he is a Scholar makes sense he aint the best at murder.
        Not to mention the Devil is always in the Detail when making contracts with Gods. They get you with the fine print all the time.


  5. thecount

    So, you can specify what power(s) you can take for what price in a contract, within the scope of the given god. That has…. Implications. A lot.

    So far I thought it’s a take it or leave it deal….
    But now there is so much more possibility there…..

    Also makes you wonder what the Red maw could hand out though…..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. EchoDoctor

      I suspect that explains why anyone who makes a contract with a god while inside the maze is marked for immediate execution by the Watch.

      The possibility that they might let one of the dwindling supply of jailer-gods loose is bad enough, but the chance that they might end up with a contract with the Red Maw itself? Unacceptable risk.

      After all, we know from Angharad’s bargain with the Fisher that there’s at least one very old monster using a contract to try and set itself free…


  6. Someperson

    Come to think of it, how well is the Red Maw actually contained by all this?

    Angharad noted that the mirror god seemed almost like it was hollowed out and possessed by a more powerful god, and if that isn’t suspicious as fuck I don’t know what is.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. asazernik

      Yeah, this chapter’s revelations plus that little tidbit make me think the Maw has figured out how to game the system. Found a way to nab the sacrifices for himself instead of letting them feed the opposition.


      1. Abnaxis

        The Maw doesn’t need to game the system–the cultists in the first trial are regularly feeding him sacrifices, plus there’s possibly all the other trial takers that die in the first trial he might be getting fed if he’s really a large as the mountain and/or island.

        The Watch are either blatantly ignorant about that fact or there’s more to this than Tristan has actually figured out.


    2. passerby

      don’t forget the clockwork god, Angharad saw a flash of teeth and red flesh swallowing. at the time I thought it to be an odd quirk of that god but combined with almost certainly puppeteered crystal god and the info about the red maw it paints a much more sinister light. Also makes me suspect that the red maw is not actually bound anymore, merely choosing to feed on the yearly sacrifices under pretence since it’s steady easy food and unlikely to stop so long as the watch believes it to be keeping it bound. I feel like the devil’s choosing to steadily bring in new gods instead of feeding the ones already there was a choice made for a reason, bringing in temples is surely more difficult.


  7. Reader in The Night

    Damn. The killer in Angharad’s party is Brun, isn’t it? The reveal of Francho being a seemingly nice person with an awful contract and a loose approach to morality made me think of Brun, the other “nice” Rat.

    Brun got twitchy when they went a prolonged amount of time without killing anything, Brun’s contract feeds on murder, right? Possibly he’s not even aware he’s doing it at the time, and the God just makes him a sleepwalk-murderer if Brun hasn’t fed it enough.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Trebar

    Some oddities in the initial dialogue between Tristan and Franco, and I’m not sure if it was purposeful and needs a rewrite/rework or if EE just forgot to take out some placeholder lines. It seems there is almost a text/subtext thing going on, but the punctuation makes it seems like each line is being said out loud. The out loud conversation is:

    “That is true, I suppose. Perhaps I should go for a walk. Any suggestions?”
    “As long as it’s not up in the pillar. The god there would not make for fine company”
    “Not much of an answer. Should I ask the lieutenant?”
    “Surely not. She might take it as advances”
    “It is never too late for love, my boy”

    which sounds perfectly normal. The subtext in what they are saying, hidden from the outside observer, is

    “Where is [this rock you just handed me] from?”
    “I got it from the pillar”
    “Does Vasanti know about this?”
    “No, and keep it hidden”

    Also perfectly normal if you’re able to read between the lines. But when they merge together, it seems like everything is being stated out loud.

    ““That is true, I suppose,” the old man said. “Perhaps I should go for a walk. Any suggestions?”
    ‘Where is this from?’
    “As long as it’s not up in the pillar,” Tristan said, feigning a small laugh. “The god there would not make for fine company.”
    “Not much of an answer,” Francho snorted. “Should I ask the lieutenant?”
    ‘Does Vasanti know about this?’
    “Surely not,” Tristan said. “She might take it as advances.”
    “It is never too late for love, my boy,” Francho laughed.”


    1. Earl of Purple

      If you notice the different quotation marks, it makes sense. The ‘ and the ” differentiating the unsaid from the said. I found it clear and understood what was going on.


      1. greycat

        I was confused at first too, but I figured it out after a few moments.

        I would have use italics instead of single quote marks. That’s what I usually see other authors use for mental remaks.


  9. IDKWhoitis

    I suspect the Lt. purposefully left the door exposed…She knows he’s tricky and it’s not like the Watch can’t watch the entrance from afar. She doesn’t trust him quite yet, and should suspect he was holding out on her.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Abnaxis

    So the Watch are sacrificing people to keep the Red Maw imprisoned… while the cultists sacrifice people to empower the Red Maw? Why is the Watch allowing the cultists to survive if they’re working at cross purposes? Or for that matter, why is the Trial of Lines first instead of second?


    1. IDKWhoitis

      Option 1. Watch does not know and thinks the (misinterpreted) Red Eye God is another God they can use to keep the Maw imprisoned

      Option 2. The Watch knows, and there may be an unknown cost to Starving the Red Maw (it could become more aggressive, or it goes after the other gods). Feeding it a few partly souls is seen as the cost of doing business.

      Option 3. The Watch knows, but has fucked with their alters in a way to make the sacrifices feed the prison (bit of a stretch, But Im suspicious of the ancient circles still working against powerful Monsters without anyone to maintain them)

      Could be other options, but Im willing to bet its Option 3. Option 2 seems dangerous in the long term unless the 2nd set of trials has a significantly higher death toll.


  11. Dazzlebug

    “The old woman looked nonplussed”
    I’m not sure the definition of nonplussed is used to mean its original intention of being stunned silent, or its newer colloquial meaning of being unaffected.


  12. lysDexicsUntie

    So did anyone else catch that Ocotlan, the Mano Menor coterie leg breaker, is hinted at being the one that broke Vanesa’s son’s leg. The whole reason that she is here at all. I’m curios if she will act on this herself, or realize Tristan can help her get revenge.

    Ch 13:
    “My son is in debt to the Menor Mano,”Vanesa said. “Enough he was never going to dig himself out, so they decided to send him here as payment. Only his leg was crippled, Tristan, so he was sure to die.”
    This chapter:
    “- and he bragged of having done work for his patrons even after they had decided to send him off to these cursed trials,” Augusto bit out. “Breaking the leg of some-”
    Was she truly interested in the Cerdan’s words? Surely she could not be as spellbound as she looked.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. lysDexicsUntie

    Well that’s an interesting connection hinted at between Ocotlan, the Menor Mano legbreaker, and Venesa. I wonder if she plans to act on it.
    “- and he bragged of having done work for his patrons even after they had decided to send him off to these cursed trials,” Augusto bit out. “Breaking the leg of some-”

    Was she truly interested in the Cerdan’s words? Surely she could not be as spellbound as she looked.

    Ch 13:
    “My son is in debt to the Menor Mano,” Vanesa said. “Enough he was never going to dig himself out, so they decided to send him here as payment. Only his leg was crippled, Tristan, so he was sure to die.”

    *apparently this didn’t post when I tried earlier*

    Liked by 1 person

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