To her very great shame, Angharad’s first reaction was relief it had not been one of hers.
The second was fury: Aines’ corpse could not have been left out of the hall by accident, the murderer had wanted them all to see it. She strode over to the crowd, only some of them turning at the sound: the rest were too busy shouting. Lord Ishaan was the first to notice her and the man – still chubby-cheeked, for all that the fresh scar across his lip now lent him a harder edge – turned red as an apple.
“Lady Angharad,” he got out. “Would you, I mean-”
Shalini leaned over his shoulder, glance flicking up and down, then let out an approving noise.
“He’s asking you to put pants on,” she translated. “Respectfully.”
Angharad frowned. Her underclothes ended high on her thighs, but she was hardly naked.
“This is why people make sport of Ramayans, Nair,” Tupoc Xical opined, stepping out. “You can’t take a gift even when it’s dropped straight onto your lap.”
Tupoc’s gaze was hardly the most lascivious Angharad had ever been on the receiving end of – she’d had worse leers stretching out in sparring clothes after getting sweaty – but the pale eyes were distinctly appreciative as they took her in. That and the attention the conversation was drawing from those who had been shouting was enough to convince Angharad to give in to Ishaan’s request.
She could think of few things more nauseating than arguing about clothing besides a murder victim’s corpse.
Doubling back to her chambers, she dragged on pants and boots before hastily belting her saber. Grabbing her coat as well, she came out with outstretched arms only to pause right out the door. Yong was there, bangs loose despite the haircut the kindly old lady had given him after he lost his topknot. So was Song, smiling pressing a pistol against his belly. To the older Tianxi’s honor, he did not seem particularly fearful of that. Instead he nodded Angharad’s way, ignoring he was but a twitch of the finger away from a shot in the guts.
“Tredegar,” he said. “A word in private, please.”
Angharad almost sighed, pulling her coat into place by tugging the lapels.
“That’s not happening,” Song said. “I know who you are, Jiang Shashou Yong.”
Some kind of Cathayan title? Yong hardly seemed a noble and the Republics should not have any besides.
“I do not recall seeing the young lady at Diecai, so I assure you she is quite safe,” Yong drily said.
Angharad’s eyes narrowed, irritated at being cut out a conversation that had begun with a request of her.
“That is enough, Song,” she said, pushing down the muzzle of the pistol. “I can decide for myself who I will speak to, in private or not.”
Her friend grimaced.
“Angharad, he is-”
“Whatever those words in Cathayan you appended to his name mean, I imagine,” she cut in. “I do not care. That does not place the decision in your hands.”
Diecai. The name was vaguely known to her. A battle a few decades back, perhaps a Republican victory? Angharad would admit to not having been the most dutiful of students when it came to the history of Tianxia and the Someshwar. There were only so many times you could hear of ten thousand soldiers dying to move a border by two miles before it all rather melded together. Her eyes moved to Yong.
“Meanwhile, Master Yong, we are largely unacquainted and there was recently a murder,” she said. “We will not be going anywhere alone. The three of us, however, can take a moment inside my chambers to have the conversation you requested.”
Song murmured something in Cathayan, the other Tianxi’s eyes snapping to her as he replied acidly in the same, and Angharad’s thinning patience snapped.
“You are both being intolerably rude,” she coldly said. “Mend your manners or leave.”
Song grimaced, nodding an apology, but Yong looked unmoved.
“Shall we go into your room?”
Angharad had half a mind to send him away, but that was anger speaking and not sense. She stepped back and invited them in, though she did not close the door. By the time both were inside, Song’s pistol was nowhere to be seen.
“You wanted to speak to me,” Angharad reminded the man. “Here I am.”
Yong hesitated a moment, then made his decision.
“A friend of mine found out that Aines and Felis were both sent here by the same coterie,” he said. “It paid for their seats on the Bluebell.”
The Pereduri cocked an eyebrow.
“Gang,” Song clarified. “Sacromonte has more than a dog has fleas. Some grow distressingly large and influential.”
The sign of a decaying state whose nobility improperly discharged their duties. Such a thing would never have been tolerated in Peredur: souls committed to infamy did not stay in the duchy, they fled abroad to become pirates and hirelings. There would be time to consider the failings of Sacromonte later, however.
“Why would criminals pay to send a married couple onto this dangerous island?” Angharad asked.
“For bets,” Yong said. “They are called ‘red games’. The desperate are indebted are sent here and told to accomplish a task in exchange for salvation.”
Oh, the noblewoman did not like the sound of that. The conclusion was obvious as it was ugly.
“Felis was told to kill his wife?” she said, appalled.
The Tianxi wiggled his hand.
“I do not know for sure,” he said. “But he tried to get her to leave our crew several times during the Trial of Lines and Aines told us that should she die before reaching the third trial there would be dire consequences.”
“For whom?” Angharad asked.
“They have children, I hear,” Song quietly said.
The older man nodded.
“The coteries, they do not care about the deaths,” he said. “Death is cheap. What they care about is the surprise, the story. If they told Aines she must live until the third trial or her children would die, then Felis…”
“Might have been told the opposite,” Angharad said. “So they might find out who would turn on the other first.”
Her jaw clenched, teeth grinding. A disgusting abuse of power, fit only to be answered by the blade.
“You believe Felis did it, then,” she said.
“I do not know,” Yong admitted. “But he had means – they slept in the same room – and motive. It looks much like Ju’s murder, which I doubt he had anything to do with, but that might be the point.”
Song was more interested in something else.
“Why go to us with this?” she asked. “You came here with the Ramayan crew.”
The older Tianxi glanced at her with irritation, and for a moment Angharad thought they would start bickering again. Instead he shrugged.
“Ishaan’s a decent sort, for a Someshwari, but he will only go so far with this,” Yong said. “I do not believe you will drop the matter even if it becomes messy.”
It was true that Aines had not been part of Ishaan’s crew and so he had no obligation to her as a lord, but Angharad thought the young lord was being underestimated. She had no reason to believe the Someshwari so lacking in character as to allow a murder to go unpunished, but then Yong was Tianxi. He would have little understanding of nobility and its duties.
“Twice now one of us was murdered in cold blood,” Angharad said. “Heedless of… messiness, as you put it, we must rid ourselves of this curse before it strikes again.”
The Tianxi gave her a nod, satisfied with the implicit promise. He had nothing more to tell them so after barely passable leavetaking he took the door. Angharad would have followed, had Song not laid a restraining hand on her arm.
“There’s something off about the body,” she said.
Aines’, she no doubt meant. Angharad raised an eyebrow.
“The throat was cut, but the spray of blood was minimal,” Song said. “Either the body was cleaned up or-”
“Aines was killed before her throat was cut,” Angharad finished.
She had made enough corpses to know the difference.
“That was not the case with the twin’s death,” she continued after a moment. “There was a great deal of blood on the grass.”
“Ju was definitely killed while alive,” Song agreed. “Which begs the question of why it was different this time, if it was the same killer’s work.”
“So Felis killed his wife without leaving a mark, then cut her throat to have the first murderer blamed for it,” Angharad frowned.
“It could be the other way around,” she pointed out. “The killer could have made this death different to send us chasing after the wrong man.”
Though Angharad had never thought of such a thing being associated to murder before, stratagems of that kind were not uncommon at court. Song conceded with a nod.
“We won’t learn anything more in here, anyhow,” the Tianxi said. “Best to return before the others get impatient.”
The stepped right into a tinderbox.
Around Aines’ cooling corpse every soul in the temple had gathered, in varying degrees of dress but with every single soul armed. There were half a dozen pistols out and just as many blades, and though none were being pointed yet they were being waved about with too much enthusiasm for Angharad’s tastes. Lines were being drawn, groups coalescing. Lord Ishaan, Shalini and Acanthe were pressing Tupoc, by whom a sneering Ocotlan stood. The object of the argument was Felis, who had hunched on himself looking like a beaten dog.
“They slept in the same bed,” Ishaan insisted. “You would have me believe he did not wake up even as she was dragged out of the room?”
“Drugs or a contract would see to that easily enough,” Tupoc shrugged. “I am more interested in what Lan was doing, awake so early and walking about.”
The surviving Tianxi twin looked nervous, but she was not alone. Lady Ferranda, Brun and even Yong stood with her. It was Brun, the fair-haired Sacromontan even-tempered as ever, who replied.
“Are you suggesting she also murdered her own sister?” Brun asked.
Tupoc shrugged, but there were few takers for the notion in the crowd. All remembered Lan’s grief that morning.
“Besides,” Brun continued, “Lady Ferranda was the first out the door after Lan shouted and she saw nothing worth calling attention to.”
“One of us would have found the corpse eventually,” Ferranda Villazur agreed. “That it was Lan makes no difference.”
“I cannot agree,” Lord Remund flatly said. “I notice you are fully dressed, Ferranda. Are you telling me you achieved this in mere moments before running out? It is most suspicious.”
Ferranda’s lips thinned. She did not answer.
“I am sure she has an explanation for that,” Lady Isabel said, once again playing peacemaker. “Let us not accuse in haste, Remund.”
Master Cozme stood with the two infanzones, closing off their faction. Unlike the two nobles the mustachioed soldier looked unwilling to step into the argument, but he was armed and watchful. His eyes were seeking something, Angharad realized, or at least someone. A heartbeat later she realized whom.
“Where are Lord Zenzele and Yaretzi?” the noblewoman called out, stepping in with Song at her side.
“Ah, Lady Tredegar finally graces us with her presence,” Tupoc called out. “A belated welcome to you.”
“You talk a lot, for someone with so little to say,” Shalini Goel mildly said.
The same Someshwari then glanced Angharad’s way.
“Both of them rushed in when everyone was there,” Shalini said, “but they must have slipped away after.”
“Suspicious,” Remund said.
“Can it even be called an echo if you only repeat your own voice, Cerdan?” Yong mocked.
There were more laughs than she would have expected to that, and several who smiled. Remund’s cheeks reddened with anger, but Cozme kept him from answering as he clearly wished to.
“Enough,” Angharad stepped in. “We cannot get to the bottom of this until everyone is here. Did anyone see which way they went?”
A lot of muttering, but no answer.
“Then we will have to look for them level by level,” Angharad said. “Moving in pairs for safety.”
“That won’t be necessary.”
She recognized Lord Zenzele’s voice even before the man himself came into view, a steel-faced Yaretzi at his side. They were coming down the stairs that led to the upper level and Angharad’s stomach clenched. Neither looked as if they were bearing good news.
“We went to have a look at the gates upstairs,” Yaretzi explained.
The reigning current of curiosity ensured they were allowed to speak instead of questioned.
“Someone took a hammer to two of the three,” Lord Zenzele told everyone. “Their needles no longer turn and the mechanisms are damaged: I expect only the gate slated for the seventh hour will be fit to open.”
We are being forced to stick together, Angharad thought. Why? Should the murdered not prefer for the crews to split off again as quickly as possible, to hide from retribution?
“I know of only one hammer around here,” Song noted. “Ocotlan?”
The big man snorted.
“Like any of you twigs could swing it,” the Aztlan said. “It was in my rooms when the racket woke me up, so it hasn’t been stolen.”
“Then we ought to look through everyone’s bags for a hammer,” Lord Ishaan suggested.
“Agreed,” Angharad forcefully said.
Some hesitation from the crowd, but willingness as well. No one wanted the murderer to walk free.
“A bloodied knife was planted in my valet’s affairs, last time,” Lord Remund cautioned them. “Let us not assume a hammer means culpability, it could have been place there.”
“Sounds like something a man with a hammer in his bag might say,” Tupoc grinned.
That saw an end to all argument from a freshly red-cheeked Remund. It was longer and more arduous to arrange who would look through the bags than look through them. In the end three of them – Angharad, Ishaan, Tupoc – were deputized to act. The two captains of the crew the bag’s owner were not part of did the looking, with some effort made as to discretion. As much as they could while doing this in the hallway with everyone looking, anyhow. A quick but methodical search that could not have lasted more than ten minutes revealed no hammer.
“It could be hidden in the killer’s room,” Brun suggested. “We can search those as well.”
“I would have been simpler to just throw it in one of the pools downstairs when they were done,” Acanthe Phos opined. “And I don’t think anyone wants to go looking through that strange water.”
There were grimaces at that, but no one contradicted her. All had been careful not to come into direct contact with the iridescent waters in the pools and waterfalls below.
“Then we must look for the murderer with wits and witnesses,” Angharad said. “Question all those who might have seen something.”
“This is not Malan, Lady Angharad, and we are not your peasants,” Shalini Goel bluntly said. “No one here is bound to abide by your judgement.”
“Afraid of questions, Someshwari?” Lord Remund sneered. “Lady Angharad has proved honorable, unlike you lot.”
She his her surprise at the unstinting defense, though part of her did wonder if it was merely a springboard to strike at his opponents from.
“Her honor is not in question,” Lord Ishaan mildly replied. “It seems wiser, however, for more than one person to investigate this affair.”
“Lord Ishaan is entirely correct,” she said. “I did not mean to imply otherwise.”
Angharad had expected relatively straightforward acclamations, as for the bags, but to her surprise it was not the case. Few supported Tupoc – only Ocotlan and Felis – while Ishaan similarly struggled to earn support from his crew. Brun and Lady Ferranda instead pushed for Yong, surprisingly supported by Lan. The sudden sundering of authority made no sense to her, until the argument led her to watching Zenzele as he argued for himself as an investigator.
The gate, it was all because of the gate.
There was only one to take, so like it or not everyone would be going the same way and sharing the same path. The previous captaincies were meaningless because everyone would tread the same ground anyway, so now everyone pressed for those they liked or trusted the most instead of their once-captain. Is that what the murderer wanted? Forcing everyone to go through a single gate, one that was to open within hours, had resulted in the effective end of the delving crews.
Worse, we all know there is only so long left until the seventh hour, she thought. When the gate did open at that time, they would have to take it whether the murderer was found or not. They would, otherwise, be stuck in this temple with the killer for another night or day. It was devil’s cleverness at work, but cleverness nonetheless and it gave them trouble.
Angharad was acclaimed into a investigator’s role by six voices within moments of it becoming, then Yong by maintaining his four and then to her surprise Tupoc won over Lord Ishaan when Yaretzi spoke for him over the other man. To have neither Yaretzi nor Zenzele’s voice as part of her count when she did have Acanthe Phos’ was something that left her rather unsettled. Song leaned in close.
“They both voted late, after you were guaranteed to have be one of the victors,” Song reassured her. “The point was to pick more than one candidate, not express distrust in you.”
Angharad did not know what she liked less about this: that the pair had not truly sent support where they thought it most deserving or that Song thought this to be some kind of… democratic process. Worse was that she was not entirely sure the silver-eyed Tianxia was wrong. Setting aside her discomfort, she held council with Yong and Tupoc. The three agreed that everyone should return to their rooms until the questioning was finished and that though there was a right to question violence was strictly forbidden – despite Tupoc’s protests.
“You would have us dig a pit without shovel,” the Aztlan complained.
“I will not entrust you with authority I believe you will abuse,” Angharad frostily.
“I just think you’re the worst kind of prick,” Yong confessed. “But sure, what she said.”
Tupoc laughed. She decided to believe that Yong was being facetious, for both their sakes. Angharad’s first act was to ask the other two if they had any questions for Song and, when told this was not the case, claiming her as a right hand for the rest of the investigation and fetching her from her room. Tupoc followed suit with Ocotlan, but Yong preferred going at it alone. Having no intention to stay together for the interrogations, they split up and go to work after together laying Aines to rest on the stone bed in one of the empty rooms.
Within moments Angharad stood alone with her Tianxi friend, breathing in deeply.
“Lan was the first to see the corpse,” Song said. “She seems the logical place to start.”
The noblewoman saw no reason to disagree. They were the first to go to the twin, who was waiting calmly in her room.
“Lady Angharad, Song Ren,” Lan said, nodding a greeting. “I’d wondered if it would be you two or Tupoc first.”
The Pereduri nodded a greeting back but kept the courtesies brief.
“You found the body,” Angharad said. “Tell me about it.”
“It was dead,” Lan drily replied.
The Pereduri twitched at the flippancy.
“Was it cold?” Song asked.
The other woman shrugged.
“I did not touch it,” she said, “so I cannot say.”
“What were you doing out in the first place?” Song asked.
“I was going to take a piss,” Lan frankly said. “Almost did anyway, stumbling onto Aines like that.”
Angharad’s eyes narrowed. The crudity of the answer was distasteful, but it was too distasteful. It felt like the girl she had dueled last year at Mawa Peak who had kept striking at her face – Angharad’s form had been better, they both knew, so her opponent had tried to make her lose her temper to bring them back on even ground.
“You are,” Angharad coldly said, “lying.”
Song idly produced her pistol, which Lan’s eyes followed warily. Though Angharad almost told her to put it away, the implication of violence was not strictly against the promise made – only the actual exercise.
“That’s a bluff,” the twin snorted. “No way you agreed on giving each other that authority.”
“We voted on it,” Angharad stiffly said.
She felt the blue-lipped woman’s eyes on her as she spoke, Lan eventually letting out a small curse in Antigua. She bit her lip, then raised her hands.
“Fine,” she said. “You got me. I wasn’t coming out of my room at all, because I never went into it.”
Angharad blinked, taken aback.
Song breathed in.
“You spent the entire night spying on everyone’s movements,” the Tianxi said. “To see who went where.”
Lan grinned, unrepentant.
“It’s always useful to know who’s fucking and scheming with who,” the blue-lipped woman said. “And it’s not like I was doing anything forbidden, is it? I just waited in a dark corner with a good view and waited, that’s not even snooping the way most people would see it.”
Wait, if she had been keeping an eye on everyone’s coming and goings then… Angharad coughed into her fist, embarrassed.
“Yeah, my lady, your cheeks should be red,” Lan cackled. “That girl’s good as engaged, the way Remund Cerdan tells it.”
The noblewoman found Song’s silver eyes on her, face unreadable.
“It was not,” she tried, then swallowed. “We didn’t. I declined, given the circumstances.”
“But she attempted to sleep with you,” Song slowly said.
“We are straying off the subject,” Angharad stiffly replied.
The Tianxi must have taken it as a confirmation, for her face tightened. For a moment Angharad though she saw anger in the cast of the other woman’s face, but surely that was only the light. She had never been given the slightest hint that Song might be interested in her or that they thought of each other in such a light, so what call was there for jealous anger? Salvation came from an unexpected source.
“Poor Isabel,” Lan mused. “She must have been wanting a pick-me up after her other visit.”
That got both their attentions.
“Other visit?” Angharad asked.
“Remund Cerdan came to her room,” the blue-lipped woman said. “Stayed in there about a quarter hour, left looking angry and went straight to back to his own.”
Song hummed, looking interested.
“Trouble in Sacromonte, perhaps,” she said. “Who else wandered, Lan?”
“Ah, and now you even call me by my name all sweetly,” the other woman smiled. “Funny how even a rat gets a smile when they have the right dirt – it’s almost as if the world runs on secrets.”
“It may help us find out who the killer was to know who moved around during the night,” Angharad honestly told her. “I would ask that you tell us.”
The twin sighed.
“Fine, fine,” she dismissed. “Shalini went to Lord Ishaan’s room, and I didn’t need my ear against that door to guess why. Stayed for about two hours, then back to her own. Just a little after that, Ferranda Villazur came out of her own fully dressed and went upstairs.”
Angharad stilled. They were all on the fourth level, and the fifth held little save the room with the gates.
“Did she have a hammer?” she asked.
“She wore a cloak so I can’t say,” Lan told them. “She was gone for an hour at most, then back to her room.”
Angharad worried her lip.
“And after that?” Song asked.
“After that I fell asleep,” Lan admitted. “When I woke up I wasn’t sure about the time, so I headed to my room to grab some sleep. I ran into Aines’ corpse on the way and you know what follows.”
She closed her eyes, trying to fit the pieces.
“How long Lady Isabel stay in my quarters?” she asked.
“Go there around the eleventh hour, left around the first,” Lan said.
“From midnight to the second hour, more or less,” she replied.
After which Lady Ferrand had gone upstairs for an hour then come back down.
“It’s a quarter past five at the moment,” Song noted. “And it should not have been much more than half an hour since this all began.”
So Lan found the body a quarter before the fifth hour, more or less, and before that there were a little under two hours through which the twin had slept. The last person known to have stalked the halls was, it appeared, Lady Ferranda. That made it plain who Angharad’s next visit needed to be.
“Thank you for your help,” she told Lan.
The Tianxi grinned, revealing teeth stained just as blue as her lips.
“If you catch them, try not to kill them,” Lan said. “I have a debt to settle first.”
Angharad not often spoken with Lady Ferranda Villazur since the Trial of Ruins had begun, something she occasionally felt a sliver of guilt over. Now was not the time to indulge in that guilt, however, so when she and Song entered the room she kept her face blank. Ferranda, still fully dressed and her bun pulled tight, sat on her bed. The greetings exchanged were stiff, so Angharad decided not to stretch out the shared discomfort.
“You were seen going upstairs during the night,” she told the infanzona. “May I know why?”
The fair-haired Sacromontan studied her a moment, frowning.
“Lan or Brun,” she finally said. “Everyone else would have thought it beneath them to spy.”
Brun was not much of a snoop, Angharad thought, so there Ferranda misread the situation. Either way, she had no intention of revealing Lan’s tactlessness – for another to be indiscreet was no excuse to follow their example.
“Interesting insight,” Song said. “Not, however, an answer to our question.”
“I went upstairs,” she said, “so I could take a hammer to two of the three paths.”
There was a short, awkward pause as Angharad admitted to herself she had not expected so blunt and easy a confession. Song seemed similarly taken aback.
“To what purpose?” she finally asked.
“I am told that Lady Isabel passed a trial as part of your crew while displaying obvious foreknowledge.”
“And you have foreknowledge of your own,” Angharad said, unwilling to leave it unsaid.
“Not our own,” the infanzona admitted. “House Villazur bought it from a house better informed. Among that knowledge was a thorough description of this very temple and of where the three ‘gates’ lead. It is one of the few fixed points in the maze.”
“And what makes the gate so important?” Angharad asked.
“One of those I broke leads into a trap, a hallway whose floor rises to meet the ceiling,” Ferranda said, and the Pereduri winced. “The second leads back to another crossroads, spreading in every direction.”
“The one I spared should lead to a temple-fortress overlooking the very last stretch of the maze: a passage called the Toll Road.”
Song stirred from her place leaning against the wall, earning a curious look from the other two.
“I have heard the name before,” she said. “I was told it leads directly to the gate where the ten victors must stand.”
“You could have shared your knowledge with others instead of wielding a hammer,” Angharad said, turning to the other noble, though the reproach in her voice was mild.
Knowing that Ferranda had not acted with the intent to harm rather robbed her of any genuine offence at the act.
“I did,” Lady Ferranda said. “Lord Ishaan then requested I keep the information secret.”
Angharad’s jaw tightened.
“The gate to the death trap,” she began, “who-”
“Tupoc’s group,” the infanzona cut in. “And while I do not disagree the man deserves to die, he would not have died alone.”
And so Ferranda Villazur had acted within the bounds of honor: she had not gone against the word of the captain she had gone under, but neither had she allowed those she deemed unworthy of death to approach it unknowing. Angharad nodded in respect, which had Ferranda’s plain face twisting in surprise. Song cleared her throat.
“I mean no slight to your honor,” the Tianxi said, “but should we want to verify your words…”
“I do not image Lord Ishaan will deny them if asked,” the infanzona shrugged.
“The hammer you used?” Song pressed again.
“I tossed it one of the pools downstairs,” Ferranda amusedly said. “Much as Lady Acanthe guessed. It is the one besides the twisted gargoyle with dragon’s claws, if you are inclined to look.”
Angharad cleared her throat.
“And the reason why you remained dressed?”
“In case this all went bad,” Lady Ferranda frankly said. “Should my actions be found out while I slept, I did not want to be caught in my underclothes and so I slept fully dressed. My affairs are also all packed.”
A look behind them was enough to bear that out: the room was pristine, the bags orderly. Song, though was not yet satisfied.
“Why destroy two of the gates?” she asked. “Only one was truly harmful.”
“Because I want this godforsaken trial to end, Tianxi,” the infanzona harshly said. “Once we have all found the Toll Road it will only be a matter of days until this all over.”
“Enough,” Angharad said, cutting off Song.
She inclined her head at Lady Ferranda.
“Thank you for your answers.”
“Think nothing of it,” the infanzona dismissed.
Her Tianxi right hand did not need to be dragged out of the room, saving them both the embarrassment. Angharad turned on her after the door closed behind them.
“That was unnecessary,” she flatly said.
Song shook her head.
“She was lying.”
“You believe she is the murderer?” Angharad tried.
“No,” Song admitted. “But she was lying about why she sabotaged two of the gates instead of one, I am sure of it. She is hiding something.”
The Pereduri grit her teeth in frustration – at both the insistence that Song should have been allowed to continue her rudeness and that perhaps the insistence was not entirely unwarranted.
“We are all hiding things, Song,” she finally said.
“Maybe,” the Tianxi said, unconvinced. “But mark my words, Angharad: there were games afoot tonight, and the one that made a corpse might not even have been the most dangerous.”
Their third destination must, inevitably, be Felis.
Though Angharad was uncertain of his guilt, Yong’s words could not be denied: the man had had both motive and opportunity. Only when the pair reached his room there was already someone standing by them. Tupoc stood by the open door, smiling as they arrived. Beyond the threshold Ocotlan seemed to be speaking with Felis.
“We require a word with him,” Angharad told him.
“Oh?” he drawled. “What for?”
Already the man was trying her patience. Deciding on boldness, Angharad went for the throat.
“We have reason to believe he was bribed to kill his wife,” she said.
A moment passed. For a man whose follower had just been implicitly accused of murder, Tupoc Xical seemed most unshaken.
“You are correct,” Tupoc easily said. “Felis was told that if he slew his wife before the third trial, their children would be raised wealthy.”
Angharad paused, taken aback again. Villains in plays were much harder to unmask. The Izcalli then raised a finger.
“The condition, however, was that he must do it with his own hands,” Tupoc continued. “Look at the him now, Tredegar.
Angharad did. Worn and bruised, Felis looked hunched on himself even though Ocotlan was looking unusually mild. He also kept glancing at the corners of the room, gnawing at his lips. Guilt? No, mostly he looked worried. Not even all that afraid, but anxious about something past the horizon.
“Does he look like someone who just got his way?” Tupoc asked.
The Pereduri’s lips thinned.
“No,” she admitted nonetheless.
“He’ll be scheming to see if he can claim he did the deed to his patrons anyhow,” the pale-eyed Aztlan said. “But the man is scavenger, nothing more. He does not have the spine or competence to have done this, much less the first murder.”
Song cleared her throat.
“And this tale you told us of what the coterie demanded of him,” she said. “How do you know it?”
“I had Ocotlan hang him upside down while I asked questions,” Tupoc said.
Angharad looked at him aghast. The man put a hand over his heart, a beaming smile on his face.
“Come now, I am no monster,” Tupoc said. “I did wait until his wife was out of the room, Lady Angharad. He’d still had a fair shot at murdering her down the line.”
Her jaw clenched, fingers tightened around the grip of her blade. His spear was not yet assembled. It was a dishonor to strike the unarmed, but if she could find a reason…
“We will not fall for your provocations,” Song evenly said. “You can cease trying.”
Angharad, who had about to fall for the provocations, mastered herself with some effort. Now was not the time or place for Tupoc to learn that crime unerringly earned punishment.
“Felis is not so much a suspect as first believed,” she said through gritted teeth.
“We are in agreement, then,” Tupoc said. “I am impressed with this killer, truth be told. This is subtler than when they framed Tristan for the twin: they had to learn about the red games, not simply observe a brawl.”
“You did not believe Tristan to be the killer,” she slowly said.
“Of course not,” Tupoc said.
He seemed surprised at the words.
“You accused him repeatedly, Tical. Led the charge to see him blamed.”
“Because I wanted him to die,” the Aztlan told her, as if she were a little slow.
Angharad’s saber made it halfway out of the scabbard before Song caught her wrist.
“Not here,” she said. “Not now.”
And Tupoc, Tupoc was grinning. Already he was reaching for his segmented spear, putting the first two parts together.
“Why?” Angharad demanded. “What possible reason could you have had to try to get an innocent man killed?”
“Something about him offends my god,” Tupoc shrugged. “I am told he feels like someone who should have died a hundred times over, that it is most disorderly.”
Song forced the sword back in the scabbard and Angharad let her. They were still under truce, she reminded herself. However thin a truce it might be.
“I require words with Felis,” she coldly said. “Immediately.”
“So demanding,” Tupoc said, fanning himself.
But he did call for Ocotlan, whose rose to his feet. The big man with the broken nose tried to brush into her as he passed, but Angharad squared her feet – her shoulder bone dug in the soft of his own shoulder, the Aztlan drawing away with a pained growl. Angharad stared him down until he looked away, leaving with a still-smiling Tupoc.
“Ishaan might have had a point,” Song murmured.
A jest, no doubt, but not one she was in a mood to humor. She did not answer, striding in instead, and before she could so much as offer a greeting Felis began to babble.
“I didn’t do it,” he swore. “I was still sleeping when all the shouting began, just ask Lan, and-”
“Tell us of your evening before,” Song cut in.
The longer they spoke with the man, the clearer it became he had little to say. He had gone to sleep early and woken up only when Lan found his wife’s body. They had shared a room but not a bedroll, and Angharad could help but find that for someone with so little to relay the man seemed all too nervous.
“May I have a look at your wound?” she suddenly asked.
Discomfort, Angharad thought. One of the secrets being kept.
“It will be easier to ascertain if you could have killed your wife at all given the state of your wound,” Song smoothly replied.
Felis on begrudgingly agreed, opening his shirt and tugging down mostly clean bandages to show where Remund had stabbed him in the belly. Angharad knelt, frowning as she saw the wound was mostly closed. No, not closed. The red of the gash was not that of healed flesh but of something else – blood-red, sanguine, but not blood. Carefully touching around the wound with the tip of her fingers as Felis hissed in exaggerated pain, she found that the flesh was stiff. Solid, almost like as if there were bone beneath it. Frowning, Angharad drew away and back to her feet.
“See?” Felis said. “I couldn’t have done it.”
A lie. Whatever that blood-red material was, it had effectively closed the wound. The noblewoman expected skin would grow back over it in time, leaving only that patch of solid skin.
“We are finished here,” Angharad finally said.
“Agreed,” Song said.
And the other woman’s tone was as grim as her own thoughts, for they had grasped the very same problem: for all they had learned, they still had no real idea who’d murdered Aines.
Yong was waiting in the hall when she emerged, looking in no better mood than she.
“How is the wound?” the Tianxi asked.
“Good as healed,” Angharad replied.
The Tianxi sighed, passing a hand through his freshly-cut bangs.
“Dead ends for me,” Yong said. “I heard about the nightly visits from Lan, but Remund Cerdan insists he only went over to speak of his upcoming engagement and Ruesta agreed.”
Angharad readied herself for embarrassing questions, but none came. Was he not going to ask about Isabels’ visit to her own rooms?
“Did you get anything out Lady Ferranda?” Song asked, filling the silence before it could grow too noticeable.
“That she was saving poor lambs, benevolent mistress that she is,” Yong drily said. “Villazur was done with our crew and decided her way out was forcing us all down the same path, I’m guessing.”
An uncharitable interpretation, but Angharad supposed Ferranda could have been moved to act for more than one reason.
“A span of two hours with no witness is too long,” Song noted. “There is no solid way to catch out the culprit with such a glaring hole in our knowledge.”
“My thoughts exactly,” Yong said. “Any idea why Xical went straight for Felis from the start? If anyone should know everything the man has to say, it’s him.”
“He has sought out no one save Felis for questioning?” she asked.
“Lan, but only moments and after me,” Yong replied.
That seemed… odd. As did the fact that he did not seem to be interrogating anyone currently. What was the Izcalli after? Angharad let Song inform the other Tianxi that they had no idea what Tupoc had asked about and looked for the man herself, finding that he was not anywhere on the fourth level. She learned where he had been when she caught him coming down the stairs.
“What were you doing?” she asked.
“Looking if the gates were truly broken as our friend Zenzele said,” Tupoc said. “You can never be too safe, yes?”
You are lying, Angharad thought, looking at his easy smile. We missed something and you found it.
“The purpose of this arrangement was to share information,” she evenly said. “Not hoard it.”
“That you think that,” he gently told her, “is why you’ll lose.”
Her jaw clenched.
“Perhaps I should put an end to this contest, then,” Angharad said, fingers gripping the handle of her saber. “If you do not respect the spirit of the truce, why should you protected by it?”
“Come now, Remund only stayed in your lovely lady’s quarters for a bit,” he said. “Not enough for you to get jealous over, surely?”
Angharad stilled. That he would taunt her over that and not Isabel’s visit to her rooms was… Lan had told no one else about Isabel’s visit, she realized. Gratitude, however guilty, seized her soul. It changed her mood enough that she took her hand off her blade, to Tupoc’s visible disappointment.
“A man can only take so much teasing, Tredegar,” he gravely reproached.
“We are still under truce,” Angharad replied. “And why should I value even the shallows of my honor more than the likes of your life?”
“Well,” Tupoc Xical mused, “if you are going to sweet-talk me so, I suppose I shall have to forgive you.”
One day, Angharad thought, he would push her and there would be no strictures of honor protecting him.
She was going to savor that day.
The second council between the three of them was largely ceremony: none of them had found the killer or even a solid lead. Tupoc was sitting on secrets – and likely so were she and Yong – but with silence holding there was resolution to be had. They sent for everyone to come out for a common address, the seventh hour having crawled dangerously close. The revelation that no culprit had been found did not go over well, not that Angharad had expected failure to be met with applause. Even less popular was the acknowledgement that there was now only one way forward, through the gate that would open in under an hour.
But what other choice was there?
When the seventh hour came all seventeen took the gate, eyes on each other as much as the dangers that lay ahead.
25 thoughts on “Chapter 29”
Angharad is clever and competent but this level of scheming and murder mystery bullshit isn’t her wheelhouse.
Tupoc’s supposed motive for trying to get Tristan killed, my god hates Fortuna’s luck stuff so kill him, has a lot of lore and background for Fortuna.
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And is… honestly rather plausible?
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It’s possible he’s telling the truth knowing Angharad won’t believe him, but yeah anything is possible because you can’t really take his word for anything.
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At a guess, Tupoc’s contract is with a God of Order, and drawing on the contract makes Tupoc a fixed constant.
Also, my guess is Brun is the murderer.
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Well, that happened. Some interesting news about Tupocs god, at least one, perhaps two or three new facts about it.
Isabel continues pushing away the Cerdans, she really doesn’t want that marriage.
So Felis’ end of the bargain is revealed. I hope the coterie wasn’t rich enough to drown the children with molten gold, thereby making both promises true.
I also like Lan, though she seems unaware of Isabel’s contract. I think Brun might be sneakier than Angharad suspects.
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Brun is likely the most villainous in the group. Or at least the least human in his reasons and methods of villainy.
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Visual character overview fanart for the chapter. For those that like to use that. 🙂
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WE HAVE FINALLY LEARNED THE FATE OF THE TOPKNOT
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There are many things I could find it in me to write about in this chapter, but most I have already covered. But there was, yet again, an offhand remark which demonstrates the narrowness of Angharad’s views.
She thinks it is the responsibility of so-called nobles to drive out miscreants. To make them pirate and swindle elsewhere, rather than prevent the creation of pirates and swindlers. She thinks the supposed elimination of thieves within her own demesne (notwithstanding the fact that her own family were the greatest thieves of all, naturally) proves their worthiness, and the failure of Sacromonte to do the same the unworthiness of their own fetid parasites.
But how many Sacromontan scoundrels came from Peredur? It can’t be zero. More broadly, how many came from the lands of the so-called bearer of all Malani honor, the High Queen? To force your problems off on others and claim perfection yourself is rank cowardice, not honor. Particularly when the resources clearly exist to prevent those problems from having existed in the first place.
I do not particularly expect much better of her by this point, but it was still a jarring read. To ignore one’s own impacts upon the world at large because they are simply out of your view is a mode of thought I try my best to abandon.
‘Ju was definitely killed while alive’. Oh damn, we have a real Sherlock Holmes type on our hands.
Tupoc is growing on me
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He reminds me of Kairos and I love it. EE is really good at writing unrepentant villains.
Tupoc is great fun…Order vs Chaos Gods eh.
Lan is really a great character on how she plays all side to advance.
Idk if Fortuna is a god of chaos so much as she just follows different rules. For all we know, the way Fortuna operates used to be a lot more normal and widely accepted, in the distant past.
Seeing how Tupoc himself miraculously heals/cheats death, it might simply be that his god is angry any other god might hand out what he sees as „his“ fare only. (Or maybe that they didn‘t go about it „correctly“ / it wasn‘t obtained in the „right“ manner?) If Tupoc wasn‘t lying about that, of course.
Ah, so we have learned who the “Loud God” that Fortuna keeps complaining of is, Tupoc’s own contractor.
Also, the killings so far have been so utterly pointless (in that they serve no apparent purpose beyond the killing itself) that it leads me to believe this is contract stuff. I’ve already listed reasons why I suspect Brun (too clean and nice for a Rat, his contract allows him to detect living beings), but honestly, if it’s contract stuff it could be anyone.
I really liked this Angharad chapter, after all. The piling-up secrets that we only get a tantalizing glimpse at, without seeing the ehole thing. A tad frustrating that Tristan isn’t here to unravel the whole thing, but on the other had, not having easy answers only adds to the mistery.
No, she called Brun’s god loud. Not Tupoc’s. Unless for some reason Tupoc’s god was yelling at Brun, I don’t think that’s right.
everyone here in the comments seems to forget about the sleep contract. in the first murder Tristan unnaturally fell asleep and Shalini who was standing guard “was utterly still. No shifting around, no stoking the flames, no looking anywhere but straight ahead”
and now Lan.
unless Brun can also affect mind and not just sense them he couldn’t have done it.
re-reading chapter 8 and although Fortuna couldn’t tell who the murderer was she’s pretty sure they’re a man, so maybe
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Really mean would be if it‘s Yong sleepwalking or some such…
Of note is that given the description of Felis’ wound I suspect that the thing that he’s really hiding is that somehow he made a contract with a maze god. The description of how his wound has healed seems suspiciously like descriptions of the Red Maw…
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…prior events indicate that cohabitation of the body by a contracting divinity is part and parcel of Sainthood. Felis’s body is beginning to exhibit traits distinctly akin to the Red Maw’s.
I always suspected Isabella or one of her maids as the first killer. But we know it couldn’t be her this time as we know where she personally was this night, and she no longer has her maids.
I doubt Lan killed her sister, and Ferranda is shady as fuck, but is likely not the murderer. Lot’s of folks suggesting that it’s Brun, which I can see, but like Tregegar said, no real leads.
Also, holy fuck does Angharad’s elitism shine through sometimes.
Angharad and Song have that Bad Cop and Good Cop routine down. Even if its not intentional by Angharad.
Felis maybe got the Red Maw Contract or some other Contract. If its the Red Maw, I see that god trying to upgrade. Unless he can totally mindcontrol and puppet Felis, Felis aint a winning bet.
I simply do not believe that Lan fell asleep by accident while spying. She either got put to sleep or snuck off to do something else.
Zenzele and Ferranda seem to be moving a bit different without their support networks and close allies. Which makes them more dangerous.
“Ju was definitely killed while alive,”
The writing in this chapter has some humorous errors.