Chapter 30

On the other side of the gate waited not a test but a tunnel.

Narrow and damp it led them up for fifteen minutes, occasionally at so strong an upwards tilt that some of them slid on the smooth stone and tumbled back into others. It was a relief when they emerged into open grounds, entering some sort of strange water garden. It looked like a large pond with islands of stone tracing a path across, but the waters turned out to be fathomlessly deep. And the path itself was occasionally chancy path, as they soon realized that the ‘islands’ were in fact the top of pillars reaching up from the deeps – and that some had been eaten away at by the water.

When one toppled Lady Acanthe fell into the water, beginning to sink almost immediately.

Had Master Cozme and Shalini not dragged her out she might well have drowned. More worrying still was what that Acanthe Phos assured them she was a skilled swimmer, only the water had been unnaturally ‘heavy’. She’d compared it to trying to swim through molasses.

They were all glad to be rid of the place, all the more when the last island brought them to a dilapidated First Empire highway that, aside from the occasional loose stone, presented no danger at all. Two opportunities to take a left off the highway led straight into dead ends, one of them a strange black stone shrine whose closed door was thankfully received, and after a second hour’s worth of walking they reached the top of plunging stairs. The end of the highway was broad enough for nearly all of them to have a look at the distant silhouette of the temple-fortress, which awed most into silence.

Some of them, anyway.

“I don’t care what the blackcloaks claim, that is not a temple,” Zenzele Duma announced. “Fly a flag on it and all that’s missing is Izcalli footpads to shoot at.”

“I’ll rustle up a flag if you can get Xical to stand still,” Lady Ferranda offered.

Angharad was not amused, because it would have been beneath one of her breeding to snort at such low-brow humor.

She had merely been clearing her throat.

Truly, however, Zenzele had a point. Ferranda had described their destination as a ‘temple-fortress’, but what Angharad beheld leaned distinctly towards the latter word. Stairs so roughly carved they were barely noticeable went down an abrupt slope for at least a few hundred feet until they reached the bottom of a cauldron. Or so it seemed, for on all sides hundreds of shattered shrines stacked onto one another formed incomprehensible: it was a cacophony of broken faiths, a wall whose every brick was the ghost of some ancient promise.

It troubled Angharad, looking at it too long. The sheer amount of shrines reaching up to the sky, a tombstone of silenced laments drenched in the golden light of the firmament above. This was a graveyard of spirits, and its utter silence was more menacing than any chorus of wails.

Rising from the center of the cauldron’s bottom rose the promised temple-fortress. It was not in the shape of the modern fortresses – stars and angles and bastions – or even of older keeps with towers and tall curtains walls. Instead it was a thing of tiers, full red walls shaped like circles interlocking like a haphazard pile of plates balancing one way and the other. There were eight levels and almost twice as many circles of varying size, the broadest and highest at the bottom and narrowing as they rose. At the summit of the very highest tier a small tower in the same red stone stood, leading to a narrow stone bridge that connected to the top of the surrounding cliffs.

The way forward, presumably to the Toll Road that Ferranda had claimed was the very last stretch of the maze.

“I’ve seen that kind of stone before,” Shalini Goel shared. “My family comes from south of Mahabhara, and the cities on the shore of the Arama River use it for everything.”

Angharad knew at least one of those names: Mahabhara was one of the great powers inside the Imperial Someshwar, their rajas usually wrestling with those of Varaveda and lesser rivals for who was to claim the Maharaja’s scepter – and with it the authority to rule over all of the Imperial Someshwar, at least in name. Someshwari were a famously fractious lot.

“I thought you were Ramayan,” Yong said.

“I am,” she assured him. “The Goel are merchants, when we expanded into Ramaya a branch of the family settled accordingly. I was born there myself.”

Ah, Angharad thought. The nature of the ties between Lord Ishaan’s house and the commonborn Goel was at last made clear. The merchants must have sought the help and protection of local nobles when settling there, as was only proper. Even more proper was such ties resulting in the Goel providing a fosterling and attendant to someone of the Nair line, tightening the bonds between nobles and a wealthy subject. It was important, Father had always told her, to remain on good terms with the wealthy living on your lands.

“Fascinating,” Lord Remund cut in, his tone indicating he thought it anything but. “If we might perhaps attend to the fortress before us?”

“It is useful information,” Brun mildly replied. “It means the god within might be of the Someshwar.”

“I do not recall asking for your-” Remund began, so Angharad stepped in.

Clearing her throat, she raised her voice over his.

“We should get moving,” the noblewoman said. “The stairs seem dangerous so we will have to be careful going down.”

They’d had enough of a rest gawking, so her suggestion was taken without argument. No one wanted to spend too long out here when there was still a murderer hiding among them, much less be stuck spending a night out. Lord Zenzele took the lead, Lady Ferranda volunteering to go behind him. The pair had stood together on the same unstable pillar earlier, narrowly keeping it from toppling by shifting their weight, and taken to each other since. Angharad hardly thought their griefs were the same – Zenzele had lost his lover and his aunt, while Ferranda only a close retainer – but that grief was shared could not be denied. Friendships had been made of less. She herself followed behind Ferranda, Lord Ishaan in turn claiming the space behind her.

“What a noble vanguard we have,” Yong drily said.

There were some laughs, so Angharad was somewhat relieved when Yaretzi volunteered to be next before Shalini could step in. She had not noticed earlier, but it was true that the nobleborn among them tended to take the lead. The captaincies had come at an end, however, and now an unthinking assumption of leadership was not without risks. There was hardly a trace left of the old crews in how the group held themselves, relying on such a structure would be a mistake.

However difficult the stairs looked, they were significantly worse in practice. Not only were they narrow – too much to fit her entire boot on – they were short, many and winding. Angharad had to be careful with every step, never lapsing in attention, and the absence of anything like a railing was discomforting. If someone fell, there was absolutely nothing to hold them back. At least half a mile of such labor, surrounded by the creeping cliffsides, would be exhausting work. By unspoken agreement they began taking breaks regularly, spread out across different sections of the stairs, and one such pause was when Lord Ishaan approached her.

“It occurs to me,” the chubby-cheeked man said, “that we have had little occasion to talk since Aines’ body was discovered.”

The angle he stood at hid his scar, bringing back a shadow of the soft look he’d had when the trials began. Angharad considered him. Learning from Lady Ferranda that he had planned to send five of them into what was quite possibly their death – not only Tupoc and Ocotlan but also the underserving, Lan and Aines and Felis – had not endeared him to her. Nor had that she had been headed for a deeper part of the maze instead of the end and the man had not meant to inform her as much. No, that last part was unfair. She was merely assuming, he might have planned otherwise.

But it had not gone unnoticed by Angharad that few people who joined Lord Ishaan and Shalini’s crew ever seemed to want to stay there.

“We have not,” she acknowledged. “Events dictated otherwise.”

“Elections do tend to be rowdy business,” he smiled.

The way it tugged at his cheeks revealed a hint of the scar, like a face peeking out from beneath a mask.

“Have you given any thought to the third trial?” he continued.

She hid her surprise.

“The Trial of Weeds? I must confess to my attention has remained on our present tribulations.”

“It might be wise to begin thinking ahead,” Lord Ishaan advised her. “Many who are now your allies will depart once they reach sanctuary, returning to Sacromonte.”

“That is true,” she cautiously agreed, “but as I know little of the nature of the third trial I cannot say if that will be a disadvantage.”

Besides, Song intended to become part of the Watch and the same was true of Brun. Without the infanzones at her side there should be nothing preventing the three of them from making common cause for the Trial of Weeds. It was Lord Ishaan, on the contrary, who looked exposed to her eye. Who still stood by him, save for Shalini?

“It is rarely an advantage to be alone,” Ishaan said, then shrugged. “I would not urge to you an early decision, but keep in mind that Shalini and I would be glad to have you with us when the time comes.”

A polite non-answer was already on the tip of her tongue, but Angharad stopped herself. She had a real look at the other noble instead, at the worn stance and the sleepless lines that could be seen even on the half of his face he showed. Ishaan Nair did not look so sinister to her, in that moment, just a man who was tired and feeling the edge of the pit creeping ever closer.

“You have to know it has a bad look,” she quietly said. “They do not talk ill of you, Lord Ishaan, but they do leave.”

He sighed, passing a hand through his hair.

“I know,” Ishaan said. “It is…”

The Someshwari hesitated.

“I suppose you will learn eventually,” Ishaan finally said. “Unspoken rules only go so far. Shalini’s contract has… drawbacks.”

Angharad could not reveal she had once glimpsed the gunslinger putting two shots in Tupoc’s eye faster than the blink of an eye without revealing details of her own contract, but Shalini’s supernatural skill with pistols was no secret.

“They are not visible,” she admitted.

“They would not be, where you’ve seen her use it,” Ishaan said. “But out here it is another story. I shall avoid details, but it might be said that when she uses the contract it sometimes draws… attention.”

She paused, the implications of that word sinking in.

“Spirits?”

“Gods, lares, lemures,” he agreed. “Maybe even those who use Signs. Out here in the maze, it has mostly drawn the eye of remnants – the echoes of dead gods. You should have encountered a few.”

Only one, but that had been memorable enough. Yaretzi would have fallen off the ledge had Angharad not caught her by the collar when the screeching thing appeared.

“Refraining from using the contract would put an end to the risks,” she carefully said.

One must always tread lightly, when speaking of contracts. Ishaan grimaced, his expression resigned. As if expecting scorn.

“It would be the wise choice, if she could make it,” he said. “There is a reason we chose to seek out the Watch, Lady Angharad. Both our contracts would benefit from the lessons they have to teach.”

She cannot control when she uses the contract, Angharad realized. Or not always, which was near as damning. So every time Shalini used her contract it sent up a flare for any creature looming and she could not promise she would cease sending them up. Sleeping God, no wonder their crew kept bleeding people. Especially here in the maze, where the cause and effect would be even more obvious than during the Trial of Lines. Neither were being outright malicious, Angharad thought, but it was no wonder that so few had supported Lord Ishaan during the earlier debates. It might not have been out of malice, but he had still put their lives at risk.

Yet what else was he to do, abandon the childhood friend he had come here with?

The colder part of her, the one her father had taught, whispered that he might well have been sending Tupoc’s entire crew to their deaths simply so there would be fewer options besides staying with his own. Had everyone gathered back at the Old Fort tonight and Angharad learned that Ishaan’s gate led to the end of the maze, she would almost certainly have negotiated for their crews to ally and return together. And in a way, she thought, the Someshwari had gotten what he wanted – they were all going forward as a single crew.

Yet he had not gotten what he needed: Ishaan had no authority here, and if Shalini’s contract began causing trouble the pair were certain to be cast out. Perhaps even violently. All because there was only a single gate that could be used, so any claim he might have had to it being ‘his’ was little more than wind.

“You might have made steadier allies had you revealed it from the start,” she said.

“We would have had no allies at all,” he replied, shaking his head. “Better to have them for a time than never.”

Much as she disliked the approach, she was not certain he was wrong. And he had not lied, she would give him that. It did not make up for his condemning five trial-takers to die. As if sensing her disapproval, he turned fully – light caught the scarred side of his face as it faced her at last, coloring half as if it were a different one entirely.

“There is more to say,” he told her. “But perhaps this is not the time and place.”

“Perhaps not,” Angharad replied, inclining her head.

They left it at that, resuming their way down the stairs. Only it could not have been more than a minute or two before she caught a flicker of movement behind her – she had been betrayed, Angharad thought. He was to be rid of her as he had wanted with Tupoc, suffering no other former captain and… and then she realized that Ishaan was not attacking her but falling.

On her.

Shouting, he tumbled forward and in a snap decision Angharad glimpsed ahead.

(The man on her back, the two of them rolling down, scything through Ferranda’s legs from behind as she fell off the stairs and screamed-)

As a girl, Angharad had once spent six months taught by grim-faced and tattooed man from Uthukile who had claimed to be the Prince of Black Hill. His lessons had all been about what he had called ‘the gale-game’. The Low Isle was under constant siege by storms, he’d told her, sea and wind carving ever deeper grooves into its bluffs and canyons. From those constant companions the people of the Low Isle had learned lessons. Mother’s take on the teaching had been simpler: he is here to teach you how to fall, she’d said. Into the calm, Angharad thought, bending forward as Ishaan hit her back.

The worst mistake you could make was to fight the gale. The gale always won.

Chin tucked, arms up, and Angharad embraced the fall: enough that even as Ishaan hit the stairs she kept falling forward. There was shouting but she ignored it, turning with the fall and making a roll out of it. Stone bit at her back for the merest heartbeat, but she twisted forward and finished the tumble. Her boots hit the stone, pain tingling up her legs, and for half a dozen feet she skidded down the narrow stairs with gritted teeth. Her left leg came forward a bit but not before she slowed, her momentum slowly grinding to a halt until she was left half-crouched and now far past both Ferranda and Zenzele – who had gotten out of the way without her even noticing.

Panting, Angharad rose to her full height and brushed off her shoulders.

“I fall, I stand,” she told the wind, as her teacher had taught her. “Try again if you dare.”

She did not speak Matabele, for all that the Uthukile dialect had the same root as Umoya, so she was not entirely sure that was truly what the words meant. Prince had been a profligate liar, and the only time she had told Father the words he’d choked and instructed her never to repeat them in front of guests. Yet there was something satisfying about speaking the words, she thought. Almost like a victory prayer. That sliver of satisfaction was short-lived, however, as shouting from above forced her to turn that way.

Both Zenzele and Ferranda seemed fine but Ishaan was hurt, she saw as she carefully climbed back. He was cradling his arm and bruised across the face. He was also not the source of the shouting.

“I saw you push him,” Shalini insisted, pistol out.

“I wasn’t anywhere near him,” Yaretzi bit back. “Am I to be called a killer because he saw fit to trip?”

Someone stepped in between them, but by virtue of it being Tupoc Xical it was the opposite of reassuring.

“Yaretzi is right,” the Izcalli mused. “I’m sure her being a killer is entirelyunrelated to Nair being a clumsy fool.”

The pistol moved off the first Aztlan to the other, which Angharad knew was the moment Shalini lost the crowd. Tupoc was despised, and she suspected only one more incident away from being turned on, but pointing that muzzle at more than one person had made Shalini look overwrought, out of control. It had cost her credibility and as no one else seemed to have caught what happened credibility would be what decided the contest. Even as Angharad bit her teeth and wondered how to intervene – Shalini must be wrong, what could Yaretzi possibly gain from attacking Ishaan? – the claimed victim spoke up by himself.

“Pistol down, Shalini,” Ishaan said, getting to his feet with a wince. “I felt something push my back, but I suppose it could have been the wind.”

There was a breeze, however faint. The other Someshwari looked conflicted, but eventually she noticed the unfriendly looks her waving around a weapon was drawing. With gritted teeth she put away the pistol, and there was a slight adjustment to the order of descent. Yaretzi went behind Angharad, warily eyeing the pair from Ramaya, and the climb down resumed with a broader gap between climbers than ever. No one wanted to earn another accusation.

It still took them the better part of an hour to get at the bottom after that.

From down there the temple-fortress seemed even more towering. Natural stone, touched with red lichen, led them to massive open bronze gates. There were some small ponds of stale water they went around, but soon enough they all gathered before the handful of steps leading into the temple. There was some hesitation, but the walk to the gates had been rest enough and none wanted to spend the day waiting out here. They ventured up the stairs cautiously, past the red stone of the floor and onto the cavernous hall within.

Lamps hung from barely-seen rafters, casting slices of yellowing light on walls dripping with tapestries and trophies. There seemed to be no rhyme nor reason to what hung there. Angharad saw children’s toys side by side with ornate silver bucklers, then a musket besides what she suspected to be a Pereduri fertility necklace. Ivory tusks, jewels, blades – all of them placed over spans of wool, linen and silks that depicted everything from wars to the Sleeping God’s grace descending upon the unworthy. The scale of it should have brought out awe, but somehow Angharad could not help but feel as if she were looking at some magpie’s trove.

At the end of the hall they were treading awaited an audience room, lit by the same hanging lamps, and on the raised dais at the center the noblewoman first saw the spirit they were to bargain with. A vividly colorful bird the size of a carriage – a peafowl whose tailfeathers were tucked in – bore on its back a golden cradle, which held the desiccated shape of a man in red silks. Neither spirit nor mount moved as their group approached the threshold of the gate. Angharad, breathing in, crossed it first and offered a respectful bow to the desiccated spirit.

“Honored elder, I greet you,” she said.

There was a long moment of silence, then the bird let out a cackle.

“Lower, child,” the spirit said. “He has not answered anyone in a great many years.”

The peafowl spirit’s eyes were bright blue and wide open, staring down at her with amusement. Angharad swallowed.

“Honored elder, I greet you,” she tried.

The bird sniffed.

“Are you ignoring my master?” it demanded.

Angharad swallowed again, unsure how to answer, until the bird began cackling.

“That’s fine,” the peafowl hiccupped. “He’s dead.”

A soft curse in Samratrava from behind her, which rather echoed how she was feeling, then Lord Ishaan was at her side and bowing through a wince. His arm must still hurt. He said something in the same tongue, which had the peafowl spirit preening and nodding – and so the corpse atop its back shaking around.

“She’s a mayura, Lady Tredegar,” Ishaan then told her in Antigua. “Not exactly a god, since they do not come alone. They are-”

“The finest divine mounts to ever exist,” the spirit cackled, striking a pose as her tailfeathers snapped open in a dazzling display. “Behold my greatness!”

A moment passed. There was nothing spiritual about the plumage the Pereduri was looking at, as far as she could tell.

“They are very nice feathers,” Angharad finally said.

The peafowl preened, shuffling back and forth on her spindly legs.

“They serve as the mounts of victory gods,” Ishaan mildly said. “When surviving their riders they are known to grow… eccentric.”

She glanced sideways at him.

“Victory gods?”

“When a great victory is won a god is sometimes born of it,” the Someshwari told her. “They are all children of the Six-Headed One, but have will of their own.”

“They get them out of defeats as well.”

Angharad turned, seeing Yong had approached while she was distracted.

“Some crawling thing came out of the fields at Diecai, a few weeks after,” the Tianxi told her. “The Watch had a free company waiting to kill it.”

“I had not heard, though I see no reason to disbelieve a veteran of the Kuril Dance,” Ishaan politely said before his attention returned to her. “I was taught it is not so uncommon phenomenon across the span of Vesper but that my people’s ties to the deeper truths of the Orthodoxy makes it more frequent where we rule.”

The dark-skinned noble could almost hear the echo of four dozen acrimonious religious wars – fought and yet to be – in that last sentence. The Sleeping God was a blessing in more ways than one. Angharad’s eyes slid back to the peafowl, who to her faint surprise did not seem all that put off with the tangent unrelated to her. She was, the Pereduri thought, listening to them almost eagerly.

“Am I to understand, noble elder, that this temple is now yours?” she asked.

“That’s right,” the peafowl happily said. “The Greedy One slurped up Kshetra’s insides, but instead of getting its hands on this place the claim passed down to me.”

Angharad glanced at Ishaan to see if the name brought up anything, but he sighed.

“It literally means ‘tract of land’,” he murmured. “There are more minor gods with that name than there are lords in Izcalli.”

Ah. She supposed not every battle happened to be fought in a place that bore a proper name. It seemed odd, however, for a minor spirit to have earned such a grand temple. Her momentary distraction was rewarded by another person stepping in, though Song joining them before the spirit was most welcome.

“The Greedy One,” Song repeated. “It is a most fearsome name – would you tell us of your divine foe, mighty god?”

The peafowl preened again, easily flattered. Angharad was beginning to feel a little guilty about this.

“It’s not a real god,” the mayura contemptuously said. “It did not come of the Golden Egg like we did, taking shape from nothing. It was forged long ago, by the-”

The spirit suddenly stopped.

“Nononono,” she said. “I keep forgetting: questions only at a price. To go forward, to learn, you must take my tests!”

The mayura skipped around the dais, beak pecking at things unseen. Before Angharad could even begin to consider what that was about, cascades of blue and green silk fell down from the ceiling in waves. Fluttering curtains surrounded them on all sides, and the spirit made happy noises.

“Supplicants,” she said. “You have come to the temple of the great Kshetra!”

She shook her back a bit, the desiccated corpse in the cradle jerking around. Should one squint, its arm might have done something akin to a wave. Morbid.

“A crossroads stands before you,” the peafowl announced. “At the summit of this holy place waits the path that will take you to the end of this maze.”

Behind her, golden light coursed down the blue silk like rivers. It traced a silhouette, resembling the shape of the temple-fortress as they had beheld it outside. Six ‘plates’ were haphazardly stacked atop one another, each delineated as its own section – including the hall where they now stood, at the very bottom of the stack. From the tower at the summit a strand of gold unfolded, leading into a curl whose meaning was unclear.

“There is another path,” the mayura said, “for those unfit to brave our tests.”

At the third level, a strand of gold unfolded and reached out… to the side? There was nothing there, though in her mind’s eye Angharad supposed something coming out of the temple horizontally would go into the cliffs.

“Yellow tiles will lead you back to the very beginning of the maze,” the spirit said. “A gift from the great Kshetra! Such largesse, however must be earned.”

Lord Ishaan cleared his throat.

“How may we earn your grace, great mayura?”

“Each of the old temples hosts a champion and their test,” the peafowl told him. “To earn the right to climb, you must defeat them.”

“Old temples,” Song lightly said. “I thought this all belonged to the great Kshetra’s inheritor?”

The mayura shifted uneasily.

“There used to be twelve of us,” she said, “though-”

The spirit paused, eyeing Song, and something like anger passed through those blue eyes.

“You may no longer speak.”

There was a ripple in the air, the curtains of silk fluttering like an incoming storm, and Song hastily bowed before backing away. The peafowl watched her unblinking, the displeased stare pushing Song all the way back to the ranks before releasing her. However fickle the spirit, it had been dangerous of the Tianxi to attempt to trick her into surrendering secrets for free. Best to change the subject before the mayura decided to express her displeasure more concretely.

“Must all six tests be passed for us to cross, honored elder?” Angharad politely asked.

If so, she feared corpses would ensue. The spirit let out a pleased cackle.

“This is a land of victory, so we honor it above all else,” the peafowl said. “You may instead face a test while under restriction, making your deed all the greater!”

Angharad cocked her head to the side. Curious as she was to get to the end of this temple, it should be clear to all what was most urgently needed. It certainly was to her.

“How may one earn the right of passage to the beginning of the maze?” she asked.

“Three to rise,” the mayura said. “Another to cross the gap.”

Simple enough: aking the test for one ‘win’, then three restrictions to pay for the rest.

“Then that is the wager I ask of you,” Angharad said.

To her left Ishaan choked. The peafowl, however, seemed most pleased.

“Then right attitude. I present you then the challengers,” she said, prancing about the stage.

The golden light began to twist again, taking the shape of a man.

“Ojas the Clever, who you must defeat in a contest of riddles that-”

“Next,” Angharad said.

The giant bird somehow gave the distinct impression of a pout. Light shifted again.

“Urvashi Cloud-Foot, whose deadly race across the sky-”

“Not her either,” Angharad said.

“No one ever picks Urvashi,” the spirit complained. “You should hear her moan about it.”

“The others, honored elder?” she pressed.

“Amrinder Ever-Champion, whose gift is to know and match your every skill at arms,” the peafowl tried. “He must be defeated in a duel.”

Startled, she almost laughed. A mirror, was it?

“Him,” Angharad said. “I will face him.”

The mayura flicked her feathers.

“A worthy choice,” she said. “Let us speak of oaths, then. You must give three.”

“I will use no weapon beyond my saber,” Angharad offered.

The peafowl nodded.

“I receive your oath,” she said.

The air shivered.

“I will not use my contract,” Angharad offered.

The mayura leaned closer, considering with those large blue eyes, then she opened her beak to taste the air with her tongue. Coolness slithered through her veins, the Fisher’s attention called, and the peafowl drew back hastily.

“Yes, best keep that out of the test,” the spirit said. “I receive your oath.”

The air shivered anew. There Angharad hesitated, considering what else she might offer. Somehow she figured leaving behind her coat would not be sufficient, however fine a coat it might be. An answer came from a most unexpected helper.

“Spare the champion,” Tupoc suggested.

She turned, frowning.

“Pull a killing blow,” he clarified.

That sounded… surprisingly sensible. She turned to the spirit, silently asking if such an oath would be received. The mayura considered it, then slowly nodded.

“Twice,” she said. “Pull a killing blow twice.”

She did not flinch in the face of the terms: what was there to fear, facing herself in a mirror?

“Agreed.”

“Then I receive your oath,” the mayura said. “Follow me, I shall show you the way. The rest of you can wait here.”

The spirit led her through halls of red stone, sloping and turning in ways that did not fit what she had seen from the outside. It was constantly chattering, and oddly insistent that Angharad be the one who take the test should her group attempt to reach the summit of the temple. When she dared asked why the mayura was only too happy to explain.

“If you die here I will gobble up the corpse,” she said, “but the last test is different. The wager is that those who fail it will become a champion of this temple.”

The mayura happily pattered about, missing the horror on Angharad’s face.

“You seem like you would be pleasant to keep,” she said. “So try not to lose until that test, yes?”

The spirit then flicked her wing, ushering her forward into a doorway of red stone.

“Amrinder waits within,” she said.

Angharad went through.

It was a graveyard.

Walls of bare stone closed in from all sides, solemnly leaning over a field of ash. Scorched bones peeked out of the grey like lurid smiles, pierced and broken by weapons enough to fight a war: swords and spears, curve knives and axes and broken butlers. A war was fought here, Angharad thought. One corpse at a time. Ash creaked under her boots as she approached the specter at the heart of it all: sitting on a mound of cinders and steel, a stern-faced bearded man with long unbound hair waited. A faded red and yellow vest covered a long padded tunic touched with bronze scales, but it was the worn banner the man had wrapped himself in that caught her eye.

Even color had long dripped out of the cloth, leaving behind stale paleness that spoke of nothing but use.

“My name,” the specter said, “is Amrinder. May you perish bravely.”

“A mirror has no name,” Angharad simply replied, and drew her sword.

The man shook himself to his feet, the banner fluttering down into the ash – he was taller than her, Angharad thought, though not by much. Lightly, almost daintily he plucked out of the ash a curved blade that resembled her own saber. She closed the distance.

“Skilled, for your age,” the specter said, as if tasting her talent. “But I am that and more. Arrogance makes for quick contests.”

Ten feet lay between them. It was nothing at all; it was the entire world. Two steps, measured, and Angharad’s saber began to rise towards a duelist’s salute – Amrinder matched her, only for his eyes to narrow when she immediately darted forward and hacked at the side of his neck. Left hand parry, but his blade was thicker and slower. It kept her off his throat, but only until she pivoted behind him and brought the bottom of her blade, near the guard, to rest against the nape of his neck.

“One,” Angharad counted, and drew back as he chased her off with a swing.

She could have carved into his spine, if she so wished.

“Have you no honor?” the specter bit out. “To strike during-”

“A mirror has no honor,” she replied.

Fury on the stern face, thick black brows pulling angrily. He pursued, high guard mirroring her own, and across the ash they danced. Ten feet, Angharad measured again as she slipped under a blow and the hem of her coat brushed against the ash. The specter left no footsteps, but the strength of his blows kicked up slashes of cold ash – half-a-breath brushstrokes, traced and blotted by the same wink of steel. Parry, cut and spin with the specter’s long blow. He might not tire, but for all his thicker arms he was slower: his blade not as slender, his footing not as fine.

The specter swept his guard low, inviting the blow, and she took the invitation. A feint near the head, immediately drawing an upwards cut at her belly, but she caught and swept it to the side. In the moment where he drew back his head to slam it into her own, she brought up her free hand and slapped him on the side of the throat. The specter choked, half-stumbling, and before he could steady his footing Angharad took half a step backwards, disengaging her blade and pulling back her arm – the point came to rest against the hollow of his throat.

“Two,” Angharad counted, and gave ground.

Ash flew as the specter’s anger swept the grounds, dark eyes grown wild as he slashed away and she maintained her distance. Ten feet: no more, no less.

“There is a trick,” the specter said. “A contract. How else could you prevail twice?”

“It is not obvious?” Angharad asked.

The specter’s blade slowed, wary but listening. Her eyes met his.

“You are fighting as a rendition of me,” the mirror-dancer calmly replied, “when I am already the finest such rendition.”

And to her surprise, that gave him pause. Anger bled out of the bearded man’s face, leaving behind the bones of soft rue.

“I had forgot,” he said, blade lowering.

She cocked her head to the side, her guard up. He smiled.

“What it felt like, the sting of pride.”

His thick saber slid out of his grip, down into the ash, and the specter turned his back to her. She could have struck, Angharad knew. Pierced through him from behind.

The Fisher’s answer, victory at any cost.

So instead she stood there as the specter returned to his seat and gently took up the banner, carefully brushing away every trace of ash. He wrapped it around his shoulders until it settled as a loose half-cape, trailing behind. Only then did he climb to the summit of the mound, where lay a wooden shaft. It was ripped free, revealing a long spear ending in a spearhead thick and long as a hand. The specter, readied at last, turned to her again.

“My name is Amrinder,” he said, hoisting his spear. “When the city fell and they came for the maharana, I held the garden alone until the nightingales sang.”

Her saber rose to tap against her left shoulder, a salute owed.

“Lady Angharad Tredegar of Llanw Hall,” she replied. “Ten times have I danced with the mirror.”

“You are a fool, Lady Tredegar,” Amrinder laughed, for a heartbeat young. “May you win.”

Angharad breathed out, taking three steps forward as she chose a fresh distance to engage from, and in the heartbeat that followed she nearly died.

The movement as Amrinder came down the mound was fluid, almost hypnotic, and as her eyes struggled to follow the head of the spear she realized too late she was misjudging his reach. The step back she took by reflex turned a thrust that would have gone through her throat into one that sliced along the side of her neck. Amrinder drew back his spear as she swallowed, bringing up her guard as blood began trickling down her skin. A spurt of fear, but stillborn. There was no musket here, no throng of enemies and no wicked contract. A man and a field, that was all that faced her. Life and death were in her own hands.

Angharad breathed out; the dance began anew.

He was better with his spear than Tupoc. Faster, more polished and full of tricks. A sweep kicked up a cloud of ash into her face but catching the glint of steel through allowed a narrow parry, her riposte catching only the banner’s fluttering cloth. When she gave ground he pursued, when she pressed forward he circled to harass her legs – twice scoring shallow cuts – and when she maneuvered for a better angle he mirrored her smoothly. Trying to follow the tip with her eyes was death: it wove, dazzling and smooth and always a foot closer to her flesh than it seemed.

Sweat trickled down her back and Angharad’s breathing grew labored while Amrinder fought with the tirelessness of the dead, but fear found no purchase in her. There was a weakness, she thought. And she thought she might have caught a glimpse of it earlier, when he almost slew her. The angle of the thrust had been slightly off. He pulls to the left.

It took her three bouts and a rip into the hem of her coat before she found the grounds she needed. The axe buried into a skull she ignored, but the ornate halberd and the three swords – standing together like grave markers – drew her footsteps. She moved and watched and waited, eyes on his arms and not his spear. Unlike the spearhead, those did not lie. Angharad pressed forward and the specter circled to the left, so immediately she gave ground. He pursued, as he always did, and then came the breath that would kill or crown her.

Amrinder thrust forward viper-swift, feet leaving not a trace on the ash, and Angharad stepped into it. She had meant to avoid the steel entirely but the spear head was too broad: it carved into the side of her vest instead of getting caught in her coat like she’d wanted. Either way, gritting her teeth through the pain as she felt steel bite into the flesh above her ribs, she bunched up her coat and caught the spear. The specter, without hesitation, took a step back to rip his spear free.

And Angharad won.

He had gone around the jutting swords without thought, pursuing her, but then he had struck at her – and when striking, Amrinder pulled to the left. So now he stepped back right into the swords he’d avoided, tripping, and Angharad burst forward with a shout. Arm thrusting forward, point straight, she rammed her saber into the specter’s heart even as his back hit the ash. It went through the padded armor, into what should have been flesh but was nothing at all. It was as if Angharad had struck air, and air was what her eyes found.

“Oh,” Amrinder gasped, eyes smiling.

A heartbeat later she was looking down at nothing but a faded banner, breathing raggedly. Angharad fell to her knees in the ash, eyes closed and shivered as the sudden coolness of the air.

Victory.

The peafowl was waiting for her beyond the doorway.

“Very exciting,” she chattered as she led Angharad back down. “It was delicious to watch.”

The Pereduri tugged her coat closed around her. Now that her sweat had cooled, she was stinking and cold.

“Your companions thought the same,” the mayura added.

Angharad’s steps stuttered.

“I do not take your meaning, honored elder,” she said.

“They watched as well,” the mayura lightly said. “I could not give them the sounds the way Kshetra used to, but moving shapes is well within my power.”

The golden light, Angharad thought, the one that had moved like water. Had she done anything foolish? The noblewoman was still wondering whether she should be mortified when the spirit led her back to the others. Her half-formed fears melted away when a crowd formed around her in the blink of an eye, everyone seeming to want to pat her back or talk to her. It was a little overwhelming, so she was grateful when Isabel took her by the arm and tugged her back a little. The crowd calmed after a few more moments, and then it was Angharad’s turn to speak.

She had passed the test, so now she wanted the prize.

The spirit did not quibble, though already she spoke of when they would all return. Once the mayura showed them to the right hall, the way forward was simple. Up two flights of stairs they went, then to a slender drawbridge of white wood that was already lowered when they arrived. They crossed it into the left side of the great cliffs surrounding the temple, through an empty shrine where the wind echoed like eerie bells.

From there on, just as the spirit had promised, yellow tiles marked a path forward.

It took them through stairs and shrines, then up on a great ridge made from the collapsed dome of a temple. It was one of the very highest points of the maze, enough they could dimly make out a sprawl in every direction, and in the golden light of the aether machine they made out a descending path. Following the yellow tiles – which grew rarer and rarer, but never ceased – they stayed on a high road of ceilings and empty ruins for half a day’s worth of walking, only taking a break to eat.

Come what should be late afternoon, Angharad recognized her first shrine: the curved one where Lady Inyoni had fallen to the test of the cog god. Passing that observation along revived everyone’s flagging vigor and they redoubled their efforts. The very last yellow tile, found after the tiring climb down a flight of stairs so large they might as well have been walls, led them all atop the narrow passage that they knew as the Serpent Shrine. They were back, the distant lights of the Old Fort beckoning them to safety.

Song and Angharad were the first to take the rope down and they stayed together as everyone gathered to head back to the fort. Both were too tired to chat. The last quarter hour walk back stretched an eternity, but as the blackcloaks on the wall greeted them with waves Angharad let out a long breath. They passed through the breach in the rampart, returning to sanctuary, and treading the ground of the courtyard loosened something in the noblewoman’s shoulders. Knowing there were muskets on the walls, that the Watch would see to their safety, was a comfort.

“I think might take a nap,” she told Song. “It is unseemly, I know, but I am falling to pieces.”

The Tianxi did not reply, and when Angharad turned curiously she saw that Song held herself tensely. She was staring behind them and the Pereduri followed her gaze to find it was resting on the laggards of their group – Lan, Acanthe, Felis. One of the blackcloaks guarding the entrance, a young man with the Malani look, laid a hand on Felis’ chest as he crossed the breach. The man glared, all the more when the watchman took a sniff of him and then a second. The Sacromontan said something Angharad could not hear, and it must have scared the blackcloak for he drew back.

No, Angharad realized. The young Malani was looking elsewhere, towards the barracks. Against their wall Lieutenant Wen was leaning, eating from a bowl of those horrid mushroom crisps Lierganese were so fond of. The young watchman nodded and Wen sighed before raising his hand.

“LAST ONE IN!” the Tianxi shouted.

Felis’ eyes widened, Angharad saw it even from where she stood.

“Wait, no, I-”

The fat lieutenant’s hand came down and three dozen muskets thundered.

Smoke billowed out in plumes from every direction, spreading through the utter silence of the courtyard, and Felis’ mangled body dropped to the floor.

“We warned you,” Lieutenant Wen said. “If you make a contract in the ruins report it immediately, or you will get shot.”

22 thoughts on “Chapter 30

  1. Earl of Purple

    So they have a godsniffer. I suspect the Watch knows more about everyone’s contract than they would be entirely comfortable with. Or at least some of the Watch.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Slumberking

        Maybe he denied the contract at the gate and that was enough reason to shoot?
        Maybe it was never the intention to let a contractor survive at all.

        Like

      2. Confused Pedant

        Yeah, I had to read the last paragraphs twice myself, they’d really benefit from the use of either names or nouns. I was trying to figure out why Song was yelling ‘Last on in’ before I realized Wen was supposed to be saying it. EE repeatedly refers to people by their racial/national heritage which can cause ambiguities. Particularly when he referred to someone else by literally the same word in the preceding paragraph.

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      3. Mirror Night

        I think its because he didn’t fess up when the guard stopped him.
        Granted maybe they get reports if it wasn’t common knowledge you get offed.

        It occurs to me that Zenzele should have been able to tell.

        Like

      4. Rubberbandman

        The watch is probably just lying about their policies, and kill anyone who contracts with all/most of the gods in the ruins.

        Maryum told Tristan that most people who contract are flat out killed, and the ‘he died because he didn’t self report’ is just a fig leaf to obscure their actual policy. It’s the watch equivalent of shouting ‘stop resisting’ to excuse themselves to do what they were already going to do.

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  2. Sun Dog

    Always nice to see Angharad’s skills and honor win the day, and hey, confirmation Felis got a contract. Not that it much matters now. Well, narratively speaking his getting blown away here makes him an unlikely suspect in the murders.

    Like

    1. Someperson

      …Angharad might actually just be the best swordfighter in the setting we have seen so far, even without her spooky foresight contract.

      She had an advantage the first two rounds due to it being a similar trial to what mirror dancers go through, but the third round when the ghost busted out a spear was just a straight-up fair fight.

      Kind of makes me wonder what it will look like if and when she meets somebody who actually matches or surpasses her in dueling skill.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Mirror Night

    Tragic couple that Aines and Felis.

    Shallani has a contract she cannot control and lights up like a flair to every supernatural? That suggest it does a great deal more then just boost her agility. Maybe its some sort of time dilation? Seems like there is some spatial warping component.

    I noticed Lord Ishaan didn’t much talk about his weakness. I am curious if maybe he has to kill someone to restore his mental facalities…or at least speed up that process.

    Like

    1. greycat

      Wen made it clear that Felis got shot for failing to report a contract. I suppose it could have been a lie, but I’m leaning toward it being a true statement.

      We’ve also been led to believe that the Watch would have killed him even if he reported it — but in that case, one presumes it would have been done later, made to look like an accident, made to look like murder by one’s teammates… hey wait a second.

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      1. I think it all hinges on what Felix’s last words were going to be.
        “Wait, no, I-”
        What was he trying to say? “I forgot”? “I thought I were to report to the commander”? Or perhaps “I did report my contract”?

        The two first would just mean the Watch is doing just what they said they’d do.

        The third however would mean they acted just quickly enough to hide the fact that they will kill anyone who makes a contract in the maze of ruins.

        Now anyone who would do that could try shouting it out loud enough that the others hear before getting close enough that the “God Sniffer” can get a whiff of them. But the tradition of secrecy regarding contracts makes that unlikely to happen.

        Also the effects of making it public like that is uncertain. If the Watch is honest about it then you will just have outed the fact that you’ve got a contract. If they are not they’ll either spin a tale of how dangerous that contract was and execute the new contractor. Or if it’s really considered critical just blow away anyone who heard and start over.

        The last option seems least likely, but the other two are both plausible as of now.

        Like

    2. lysDexicsUntie

      Earlier Maryam told Tristan most people who reported contracting in the Maze were executed. Probably because most of the Gids are puppeted by the Red Maw. So I think if you are one of the lucky few who contract with someone else in the Maze the Watch probably let’s you live. I’m just curious how they can figure out who you are contracted with.

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  4. Someperson

    I think my prediction that the Red Maw is gaming the trials is looking more credible by the day…

    In addition to the hollowed out puppet gods, it seems pretty likely that the “Greedy One” is another name for the Red Maw, and also that the Red Maw is the one who made a contract with Felis.

    All in all the picture it paints aint pretty.

    Like

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