Chapter 31

Black-cloaked watchmen carried away Felis’ body.

 What remained of it, anyway: musket balls had turned the man into red rags.

Tristan felt no grief at the sight. If there was a tragedy in Felis it was in who he had been, not who he’d become. Dust, fear and poverty had worn away the good and left the bad in sharp relief. What remained had not endeared him to the thief, though neither had it been deserving of scorn. It did not matter whether a stone was marble or gravel: if you left it at the bottom of the canal long enough it would all be ground into nothing. The Law of Rats was not like the halo of Glare bestowed upon the great estates of the infanzones, some unblinking and unceasing stare. It lived in the spaces between, let in by the lamplights of the Murk growing worn and flickering. Letting in the dark a little further every year.

It was easy to be virtuous when the lights never went out.

The same souls that’d left the Old Fort as three crews returned now as a single crowd, though seemingly twice as wary of each other as before. Tristan had counted them coming in and found only one missing: Aines. There his heart had clenched, if only for a moment. Just another dead rat, he told himself. The same eulogy he would get when his end found him, an unmarked grave made into words.

“Something happened,” Maryam quietly said from his left. “They wouldn’t be like this if Aines had died in a test.”

She was right, Tristan thought. Felis getting dropped had shattered the last remnant of solidarity in the returning crowd, the lot of them scattering in small trusted pockets as if they’d never gone through the trouble of gathering larger crews in the first place. Pressure to come apart, Tristan thought, but there had always been that. That it was now working implied there was no longer stronger pressure for them to stay together. Given the timing and context, one answer stood above the rest.

“They found a path to end of the maze,” Tristan guessed.

“That doesn’t explain why they’re looking at each other like someone’s about to pull a knife,” Maryam replied.

He hummed.

“You think there was a fight?” he asked.

“I think Jun’s been sent company down in Nav,” Maryam said.

The thief cocked an eyebrow at her. The implication he caught – she believed the killer had struck again – but the last word was unfamiliar.

“The place where the dead go,” she said.

“Graves, if they’re lucky,” he said. “Dogs if they’re not.”

“Grim,” she praised.

“I try,” he humbly replied, lips twitching.

Even as they shared smiles, though, his mind raced. Why Aines? The middle-aged woman had been physically weak, but there were others just as vulnerable and she’d rarely been alone. Unless, of course, Felis’ proximity had been the point. To frame the man as an attempt had been made to frame Tristan. That would require, however, some very specific knowledge. Who else knew about the red games, knew there was something to frame Felis for? Lan did and he’d himself told Yong. Probably Tupoc, Tristan figured, and that likely meant Ocotlan. Maryam, of course. None of these fit the shadow on the wall.

“What are you thinking?” Maryam asked.

“That the Watch just shot our best lead,” Tristan replied. “We’re going to have ask about how they reacted after the kill – they didn’t hang anyone for it, but did they investigate?”

If they had, there was a chance that at least one person had been clever enough to ask Felis who else knew about the red games. It’s not necessarily him, the thief then corrected. Tristan himself had come into suspicions that Felis was out to kill his wife through hearing about Aines’ half of the puzzle. Someone else could have done the same. And Lan could have sold the information, he tacked on. Felis had still been the best lead, however. He needed to find out if someone had thought to try that avenue. His eyes flicked to Maryam.

“Can you find out if Lan told anyone about the red game around those two?” he asked.

He could not do so himself, having publicly feigned falling out with the twin. Maryam nodded.

“You really think you can find out who the killer us?” she asked.

“Not enough to prove it,” he said. “But then I’m not angling for a hanging.”

Forcing a truce, keeping the killer away from anyone he was conspiring with, would be more than enough. He wouldn’t mind killing them if he could, given their actions against him, but he already had more than enough revenge on his plate.

“If I can out them, I will,” Maryam warned him.

He grimaced but eventually conceded with a nod. It was not his right to dictate otherwise to her, much as he would prefer otherwise. So long as she was aware he was disinclined to play the savior at her side. Tristan pushed off the wall, wasting no time in seeking out Yong. The Tianxi veteran had carelessly dropped his affairs on the courtyards floor, put his sword on the table and was now pouring himself a drink in a kitchen cup from his own flask. Even from across the table, where Tristan slid into a seat, the smell of the rotgut was biting to the nostrils.

“Thought you’d show up,” Yong said, tone not yet slurred.

Though not for long, Tristan thought as the Tianxi knocked back his cup before filling it anew. The other man’s fingers were shaking, however subtly, and he looked haggard.

“What happened out there?” the thief asked, voice coming out softer than he’d thought it would.

“Someone cut Aines’ throat,” Yong bluntly said. “It went to shit after that. Lots of arguing, everything came apart and then we chose three people to look into it.”

Tredegar was a given, but with Tupoc’s group having lost two – Augusto and Aines – the situation would have been fluid.

“Tredegar and Tupoc and me,” Yong specified, brushing back a loosened bang.

Despite Vanesa’s best efforts, the former soldier’s hair refused to be tame now that the topknot was lost.

“What did you find?” Tristan asked.

Yong leaned over the table, grabbing a second cup from the loose pile of plates and cutlery the Watch left there for trial-takers to use, and set it down in front of the thief. He tipped his flask over it.

“I don’t drink,” Tristan said.

Yong only stopped when the cup was two-third full. The smell of that Watch rotgut was genuinely foul, the grey-eyed man thought.

“Drink anyways,” Yong flatly replied.

Tristan gauged the other  man’s expression and found it all too serious. His lips thinned, but he nodded and took the cup in hand. He didn’t actually drink, of course – liquor was a poison worse than nightshade or arsenic, which only ever hurt those who drank it – but he wetted his lips and pretended. Yong downed his cup again, and the thief hoped he would either slow his consumption or quicken his report. He’d soon end up waiting on an unconscious man otherwise.

“Fuck all,” the Tianxi said. “Fuck all is what I found. Lan says Nair and Goel are sleeping together and that Lady Ferranda was up to something shady, but it wasn’t any of them. I got no closer to figuring out who did it.”

Tristan grimaced.

“Felis, did you interrogate him?” he asked.

“Everyone did,” Yong shrugged. “Even Tupoc, though I think that was more about sitting tight on him. He stayed too long for anything else.”

Tupoc Xical. Of course it had to be the inconvenient bastard who figured out the right trail to follow. This did not surprise Tristan, for he had long known fortune to be a disagreeable creature by virtue of having been saddled with the divine equivalent of the concept’s drunken aunt.

“And after?” he pressed.

“We followed the path to some great temple-fortress,” Yong said. “Once we pass that, it’s a straight line to the end of the maze.”

“With tests on it?” the thief frowned.

“Presumably,” Yong shrugged.

The Tianxi poured himself another cup. This would serve as a bare bones report, but learning a fuller picture would have to wait until Maryam got it out of Lan or he found an opportunity to speak with Isabel Ruesta. Tristan studied the other man, wondering what it was about the recent deaths that’d shaken him so. He’d not been like this when Sanale died, or the other deaths since. And he must have presented sober enough to be picked by the others after Aines died, so it shouldn’t be that either.

“Was Felis on dust for the way back?” he tried.

The older man laughed at him, the sound slightly slurred.

“You think I see myself in him?” Yong said. “You’re still young, Tristan. The need, it’s not a coterie or a regiment – you don’t feel for the others who have it. It’s just as selfish as any other hunger.”

The thief’s face tightened.

“Then what is it about his death that pulled out your seams?” he asked.

Yong breathed out slowly, shallowly.

“What’s the most muskets you’ve ever heard fired at once, Tristan?” he asked.

“Just now,” he replied without hesitation.

Blackpowder was hardly unheard of in the Murk, but no coterie cared to wield muskets carelessly. A shot in the back once in a while drew little attention, but thirty men unloading down a street? That was the sort of thing the Guardia would make a point of stamping out, Murk or not. Yong filled his cup to the brim.

“Past a certain number of muskets it doesn’t really matter how many were fired,” the older man said. “It all sounds the same to our ears – we’re only so good at picking out sounds, you see.”

Tristan’s belly clenched.

“It sounded like a volley.”

“It’d been a long time since I heard that,” Yong softly said. “Gods, but I wish it had been longer.”

The thief had meant to ask more of him, to make his offer, but it could wait. At this rate the Tianxi would collapse into bed soon anyway. If he could even get back to it. Tristan feigned drinking again, lips burning from the strength of the rotgut. He was planning how to take his leave when Yong cut through.

“My turn to ask questions,” he said. “There’s a rope ladder out there, one leading into the pillar. What happened?”

The thief laid it all out from the beginning, all the way to the god waiting behind the broken lock and the existence of the lift he had confirmed.

“And you think it’ll lead to a way past the maze?” Yong asked.

“It has to,” Tristan said. “The devils got all these shrines in here somehow, and it was not the way the Watch is using. Besides, the Antediluvians would have wanted a way to access their ceiling device without needing to go the long way around every time.”

“Don’t assume that,” Yong warned. “There’s no way to reach the Luminaries back in Tianxia.”

“Those are set in firmament,” Tristan argued. “This is much smaller in scale.”

Yong hummed, then after a long time nodded.

“All right,” he said. “Who are you thinking of taking in? We’ll need muskets, unless you want to rely on the Watch to get rid of the god for you.”

“I don’t believe we need to kill the god,” Tristan said. “Only drive it off. We don’t need a regiment, we need a good shot and salt munitions. Between that and Sarai’s Signs, we should be able to get to the lift safely even if it’s lying in wait.”

“And I’m your good shot,” Yong said.

When sober, yes, Tristan thought.

“How are you going to get salt munitions?”

“I am going to ask politely,” he replied with a pleasant smile.

The Tianxi snorted.

“Fine, keep it close to your chest,” he said. “And you’re certain the Watch will let us try for the lift?”


His suspicion was that Lieutenant Vasanti wouldn’t let him go in with a crew, only alone, because she was greedy for the knowledge inside. How fortunate for him that Lieutenant Vasanti was not the only officer in the Old Fort. That bargain would cost him, but he had arranged to make it later tonight anyway.

“This might be riskier than heading into the maze again,” Yong finally said.

Tristan mustered arguments in his mind, but held back. He would let the Tianxi think it through first at least.

“But then the tests are getting nastier and I’m not a victor yet,” the older man said, stroking his beard. “Not to mention there’s a chance I’ll get a visit in the night.”

His face tightened.

“One musket is little,” Yong finally said. “Let me try to rope Lady Ferranda into this.”

Ferrand Villazur, despite her deplorable birth, had proved reliable. He could live with the mild discomfort of relying on an infanzona, should she accept.

“So long as she swears secrecy first,” Tristan replied.

The other man nodded.

“And if Ferranda declines?” the thief pressed.

“You are still the better horse,” Yong said, passing a hand through his hair.

The former soldier tried to rise, but his limbs were numb. Tristan half-rose himself, helping him back down onto the bench.

“You can talk to Lady Ferranda later, at dinner,” he said. “Maybe take a nap first.”

“Maybe,” Yong said.

But his eyes were back on the flask and his cup empty once more. The thief had no intention of staying to see what would come that.

“We will talk later,” he said.

Yong dismissed him with a wave of the hand, which was no longer trembling. Tristan grimaced. It was not his place to pass judgement. He left in haste, though, and was relieved when Maryam caught his eye from where she sat at Lan’s side. The pale-skinned woman shook her head. So Lan had not sold information about Aines and Felis. That cut down on the possibilities. Who else had been in Tupoc’s crew aside from the now-dead pair? Ocotlan, Lan, Augusto. It could not be Augusto, who had not been present for the second killing, and Ocotlan would not have been so discreet. As for Lan, she would not have murdered her own sister.

Her grief after had been too raw to be false.

It must have been someone from another crew, then. Chasing every face, every possibility, would be a waste of time. Besides, there were too many secrets still being kept for him to be able to figure out a culprit from what he knew. He had to follow the secret he did know about, which meant it all went back to Felis and Aines. If Felis had been the source of the leak, Tupoc should know. That meant the Izcalli’s whereabouts were worth a second look. And, interestingly enough, when Tristan had said look the Aztlan was missing. As was Yaretzi.

Asking around would have drawn attention, been too telling, so instead the thief chased them on his own. There were only so many places for them to go, here in the Old Fort, which led him to the answer soon enough: they were not in the Old Fort.

They had gone back out of the walls to have a look at the rope ladder and the new opening in the pillar, the two of them standing out in the open. Tristan did not  try to hide from the blackcloaks as he passed through the breach, but after that kept to the shadows of the rampart as he snuck closer to the pair. They were talking, and the conversation did not look to be pleasant. Yaretzi, for all that her expression was calm, held herself tensely. Her hand was not far from her long knife. Tupoc, on the other hand circled around her like a vulture while grinning. The man’s good moods were rarely an indication of pleasantness for anyone else.

“-of you working for free?” Tupoc was saying. “Bad for business, Turquoise.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the other Izcalli evenly replied. “If you want to accuse me of being the killer, Tupoc, do it in front of everyone.”

She gave him a hard look.

“Only you won’t, because you’re fishing,” she said. “You’re just another warrior society prick trying to get a flinch out of people because that’s the only thing that still gets you off.”

Fuck, Tristan thought. Tupoc doesn’t know who it was. He wouldn’t be pressing someone without proof like this if he did. Which meant Felis had not been the one to talk, it’d been Aines. That would be a much harder trail to follow, if it was possible at all. He’d not kept all that close an eye on Aines, and could not think of anyone who might have. The thief had what he’d come for, but lingered in the shadows nonetheless. This talk had the sound of a secret to it, and you could never have too many of those.

“Oh, I don’t have enough to strangle you with,” Tupoc cheerfully admitted. “But I know one thing: that wasn’t the omacaliztli stance in the labyrinth. When your life is on the line, you don’t fight like a diplomat.”


Tupoc, thought listening to the other Aztlan, suddenly took a wary look around. It gave Yaretzi pause. Time to go, Tristan thought. He had no intention of being caught eavesdropping.

The moment Tupoc looked away, he retreated.

There was no need to find a way to talk to Isabel Ruesta because she found it for him.

A whisper transitioned into playacting, the infanzona sitting on the bench closest to his bedroll as he went to fetch his medicine cabinet. Some parts of it, anyway. He’d obtained pure alcohol and some bandages from the Watch physician a few days back – the man had been adamantly against opening his stocks for anything more – so the thief found himself kneeling before the dark-haired noblewoman and cleaning her ‘wound’ with a liquor-drenched cloth. It was but a small cut on the back of the hand, not nearly enough to warrant the garrison doctor’s attentions and so a decent excuse to go to him instead. Had she done it herself?

He did not care enough to speculate.

“I told Remund that his hovering would make me uncomfortable,” Isabel murmured, “but we only have so long.”

Tristan smiled, nodded.

“I expect the day after tomorrow we might reach the end of the maze,” she said. “Now is the time to act.”

“Can you get me into your crew?” he asked.

“I will tell Angharad you asked if her invitation still stood,” Isabel said. “It will be more than enough.”

There was no doubt at all in her voice. She sat there, comfortably looking down on him as he swiped across the wound one last time and reached for bandages. He was surprised the infanzona had not flinched at the sensation of alcohol on an open cut, however slight. Tristan had thought her mettle strictly of the scheming kind.

“How will you do it?” she asked.

“Is there a room where it will be easy to split up the group?”

She nodded as he wrapped the bandages around her hand.

“Before the mirror hall there is a room with a wheel and three gates, it is certain we will get separated there,” Isabel said.

“Then I will go with him,” the grey-eyed man said, “and return to the Old Fort after.”

The infanzona slowly nodded.

“To withdraw,” she guessed.

“I came here for revenge,” Tristan said. “Why risk my neck beyond obtaining it?”

Isabel lowered her head in acknowledgement.

“May your sister rest easy afterwards,” she murmured. “Good luck, Tristan. If we do not speak again, it has been a pleasure.”

Tristan only smiled back, tying off the last of the bandage and rising to his feet. They had already lingered too long, he could feel eyes at his back. Lady Isabel must have felt the same, for she departed without as quickly as she could without being rude. Tredegar would soon appear to fuss over the bandages, no doubt. Fortuna strolled out from behind him, artfully arraying herself on the bench just vacated by the infanzona and brushing back her curls as if posing for a painter.

“Why did you lie about the Trial of Weeds?” she asked.

Tristan feigned a yawn, covering his mouth.

“Because she is a snake,” he replied. “If she thinks she will be rid of me after it is done, she is less likely to scheme to have me killed.”

He would, after all, be a loose end for the infanzona. Someone who knew she had bargained for the death of a member of House Cerdan, a secret she could easily be extorted over. Tristan somewhat expected she would still try to have him disappeared, but at least until the deed was done he was safe: she had no other executioner to call on. As for after, well, he did not intend to follow her back to Sacromonte where a word out of her mouth would be able to summon a dozen armed guards.

“She’s interesting, that girl,” Fortuna mused. “Just the right combination of foolish and clever.”

Now he almost felt bad for the infanzona. Had there even been praise more damning than the Lady of Long Odds approving of your character?

Lips twitching, he picked up his affairs and returned to his bedroll where the cabinet waited. It was still mangled from the Trial of Lines, and sadly he did not have skill enough at carpentry to fix it beyond the very basics. In truth, it was probably no longer worth it: there was little left inside, nothing he could not move into a bag with some care and forethought. The limping gait that approached from behind as he stood there needed no introduction. There was only one person in the Old Fort using crutches.

“Vanesa,” he said, turning to face the old woman.

Her face was pale, he saw with a flicker of worry.

“Tristan,” she grimaced. “I hate to ask, but do you have anything in your cabinet for pain?”

He shook his head.

“All the substances I have left are poisonous to some degree or another,” he told her. “Save for the turpentine, which would do nothing for pain.”

Not entirely so, as the extract of the bearded cat mushroom only induced violent madness, but he had been broadly exact. Neither white arsenic, mandrake or antimony would be of any help to Vanesa. Even as a way to end the pain, he would recommend against them. None were gentle poisons.

“Are you quite certain?” she pressed, sole eye steady on the cabinet.

“Nothing pleasant would come of anyone drinking from those bottles,” he firmly said. “Shall we go ask the physician for another dose of poppy?”

“My dosage is already too high, he says,” Vanesa told him. “Any more and I would be in danger.”

“Poppy is a strong drug,” Tristan said. “It might be best for you to sit and rest, perhaps. At least for a little while.”

“I might sleep through dinner,” the old woman conceded. “My appetite wanes.”

Which was not, he thought, at all a good sign. But the outcome had never been in doubt from the moment Vanesa refused the amputation. If they could reach the sanctuary before the third trial, however, if a safe end were in sight? Then, he thought, perhaps she could be talked into reconsidering.

“Besides,” Vanesa tiredly said, “there is more than one kind of pain. Poor Brun, it is as if the boy is cursed.”

He cocked an eyebrow.

“How so?”

“First he was sweet on that girl Briceida who was taken by the hollows,” she said. “And now poor Aines, killed in the night.”

Tristan stilled.

“They were close?” he asked with forced lightness.

“They diced after supper sometimes,” Vanesa said. “I am not surprised you never noticed – Felis was a jealous sort so they kept it out of sight.”

Brun. Brun had been talking with Aines since they reached the Old Fort, perhaps learning about the red game. Tristan’s mind raced, looking over the angles. The Sacromontan had a contract, one that could be used to sense people but whose workings remained unclear. Brun had been there every time there was a death. Motive? No, best not to guess too hard at that. Digging blindly at a stranger’s motives was a waste of time. Who else could it be?

Ishaan, perhaps helped by Shalini, but none of the deaths had ever been to the advantage of the Ramayans. Yaretzi, but whatever it was about her that Tupoc thought he’d found it muddled the waters. There were only so many terrible secrets someone could bring at a time. Not Song, she is here for the same reason as Maryam. Neither should it be the infanzones, whose venom was turned inwards, and that left only three: Acanthe Phos, Yong and Ferranda.

And Tredegar, if you needed a laugh.

The Asphodelian’s contract did not fit, however, and Tristan’s personal doubts aside Yong often went to sleep drunk. Unfit to commit murder. That left Ferranda Villazur and he misliked her for the deeds. For one, she and Sanale had been alone with Lan for some time before Tristan’s crew stumbled into them. It might have been that Sanale was unaware of his lover being a killer so she had refrained, but that was a tortured plot. That left Brun, the polite young man in the corner who everyone liked, who had been making all the right decisions. It might be that the fair-haired Sacromontan had a knack, Tristan thought.

Or it might be that his contract was not what it seemed.


The thief shook his head, smiling at Vanesa.

“Sorry,” he said. “I was lost in thought. Poor Brun indeed.”

The old woman patted his shoulder.

“You should rest as well,” she said. “You look tired.”

“Soon,” he said.

There were still two talks left ahead of him.

Brun of Sacromonte had the kind of features that most people found handsome in men: good skin, symmetrical face and a strong jawline. Good looks, good manners and a calm demeanor likely left few to guess he came from the Murk, but Tristan had been able to tell from the start. It was in the little habits, the way the man always put a wall behind him when he could but avoided being in corners.

It was the way someone small around larger folk with little kindness learned to act.

The other man – only a few years older than Tristan, going by his appearance – was cleaning his pistol when the thief sought him out. He only used half the bench with the work, which left enough room for Tristan to sit. Brun’s eyes flicked up, took him in and then he put down the cloth and pistol.

“Tristan, isn’t it?” Brun said. “We haven’t talked much.”

“No, we haven’t,” Tristan smiled. “Yet somehow I feel as if I know you.”

Brun cocked his head to the side, then discreetly curled his fingers into the Mark of the Rat.

“You know better than to have to ask that,” the thief replied.

The fair-haired man shrugged.

“It felt polite to pretend,” he said. “To what do I owe the pleasure, Tristan?”

“I have a problem, Brun,” he lightly said.

“I am keeping my nose clean,” the other rat replied, tone apologetic. “Joining the Watch is to be a fresh start for me.”

“That’s exactly what I want,” Tristan agreed. “A fresh start. It’s a different sort of world out here, isn’t it? All these rules, all these walls.”

The man calmly met his eyes.

“I don’t follow your meaning,” Brun said.

“Bad habits take a while to shake,” the thief said. “But I’m not a redcloak, Brun, and the black’s a few weeks away yet. I’m not one to judge.”

The man looked lost. Tristan might even have believed him, if those eyes had wavered at all.

“I don’t know what-”

“Sarai,” he said. “Yong. Francho. Vanesa. Lan. If something happened to them, I would be most terribly cross.”

“Tristan,” Brun patiently said. “Evidently you came to believe I am involved in something, but-”

The thief leaned in close.

“I’m not asking you to confess, Brun,” he quietly said. “Not even to nod. We both know you won’t. I am simply telling you that if you come for me or one of mine, you will find out you are not the only one who can cut throats in the night. And there will be no silencing me, either: I have told others, so your little secret has already spread too widely to be buried.”

Maryam had agreed they did not have enough to get the man hanged, though she had reserved the right to tell others. Francho had not even needed to be asked to keep quiet, the old man fascinated by the entire affair but disinclined to intervene.

“This is ridiculous,” Brun sighed. “If you believe I am the killer, by all means put it to everyone. I will prove my innocence.”

“You very well might,” Tristan shrugged. “Which is why I see no reason to bother.”

“That is disturbing in many ways,” the man noted. “I believe this has gone on long enough: please leave.”

“I think we understand each other,” the thief agreed, rising and stretching his limbs.

He paused, and on a whim said one thing more.

“Would you say the world is loud, Brun?” he asked.

The man looked like he’d just found a knife slid into his belly, but it was only for half a heartbeat. The calm politeness was back in place after that. But there was wariness in those green eyes now, something that’d not been there before.

“No, Tristan,” Brun finally replied. “I find it, in truth, to be frightfully quiet.”

And the thief was not sure why, but there was something about than answer that sent a shiver down his spine.

Meeting was never going to be difficult.

Meeting discreetly however, had been another story. Passing a message through Sergeant Mandisa had yielded results, an hour and a place. The rest he had arranged himself. After supper Tristan had a quick conversation with Angharad Tredegar, who confirmed he was welcome to venture out with her on the morrow. Riding that arrangement as an excuse, he returned to the Watch’s armory to acquire equipment that would help him scale the broken remains of the crystal mirror maze as was planned by Tredegar and her companions.

Lieutenant Wen was waiting for him inside, biting into an apple.

The man was wearing his spectacles and he leaned against an empty sword rack, loudly crunching the fruit’s flesh. When he swallowed, loudly, Tristan nodded a greeting.

“Lieutenant,” he said.

“Pissant,” Wen easily replied. “You told Mandisa you have something important to tell me. I should not need to tell you there would be consequences to wasting my time.”

Pretend you’re not interested all you want, Tristan thought, you still arranged a meeting where Vasanti wouldn’t see us.

“I need salt munitions,” he said. “For muskets and pistols.”

Lieutenant Wen bit into his apple, loudly chewing and swallowing. He only spoke after.

“One,” he said.

“One?” Tristan repeated.

“I’m counting the number of times you’re going to tell me something I could have you shot for,” Wen said. “But please, do go on. You were able to tell me why I should entrust a bottom-feeder expensive munitions that are the property of the Watch.”

“I want to lead a team into the pillar,” he said. “I’ve found a path to the summit I haven’t told Vasanti about.”

“Two,” Wen counted, then took another bite.

He ate more quickly this time, not drawing it out for effect.

“I fail to see why that means I should give you munitions,” the lieutenant said. “I’m feeling like confiscating some of yours, in truth, so that I can hear you die horribly through the door and then argue for it to be welded shut forever.”

“Because if I don’t get there first, Lieutenant Vasanti will,” Tristan said.

Wen looked unimpressed. I’m losing him, the thief thought.

“So she’ll get what she wants, leave and I won’t have to deal with her next year,” he said. “Are you done wasting my time?”

What did Wen want? Besides being thoroughly unpleasant to everyone and a second helping at every meal, what did Lieutenant Wen actually want? Tristan’s eyes narrowed.

“Next year,” he repeated. “You will still be here next year. There’s no debate, your posting is already decided and you know it.”

Wen’s face tightened in anger, and Tristan knew he had found his angle.

“Do you like it here, lieutenant?” the thief asked.

“It’s being strangled to death every day, only I have to wake up the following morning and go to work,” Lieutenant Wen mildly said.

“What if there were no longer a reason for a garrison to be posted at the Old Fort?” he asked. “If, say, the laws that created this maze were suddenly changed to make it untenable.”

The fat lieutenant watched him for a long moment.

“Three,” he finally said, and bit into his apple.

Tristan kept his face calm as he was studied through the spectacles.

“Standing orders are that should anyone outside the garrison ever figure out what the Red Eye is, they cannot leave the island alive,” Wen idly said. “But you didn’t figure out anything, did you Tristan?”

The dark-haired thief went very, very still. He’d not thought he had given away anything, but he had been sloppy. Wen, beneath the bluster and colorful language, was dangerously canny.

“You mean the cult’s god?” he asked, lips dry.

“You’re a fucking fool,” Wen said. “Do you think you’re the first clever rat that disappeared during the second trial? The higher-ups always knew on occasion someone would figure it out.”

Tristan’s eyes narrowed.

“And yet you haven’t called for other watchmen,” he said.

Silence stretched between them.

“Do you know what it really means to be part of the Watch, boy?” Lieutenant Wen finally said. “Once you strip away all the lies and the propaganda and the prettied-up history?”

He slowly shook his head.

“We kill the things that feed on mankind,” Wen said, and for once there was not a trace of a sneer in his voice. “When horror comes crawling out of the box, we slam the lid on its fingers.”

The large Tianxi straightened his back.

“For the first century,” he said, “we looked for ways to kill the Red Eye. Tried everything from Signs to aether machines, spent a fortune on this nowhere shithole island. But nothing took, and there were so many other monsters that couldn’t be locked up for so cheap a price. And it cost coin, Tristan, to kill those other monsters. Men and steel and ships.”

“So they stopped trying,” Tristan quietly said.

“When I tried two years ago, the request to allocate funds for new attempts didn’t even make it to the Conclave,” Wen said. “Commander Artal took one look at the paper and laughed. The committee responsible for our region wouldn’t even read it, he said. I might as well wipe my ass with it, at least it’d accomplish something.”

Lieutenant Wen’s expression darkened.

“Whatever you find up there, boy, you’re not just going to play around with it,” he said. “Vasanti might be able to fix that. It’ll change nothing.”

The watchman leaned forward, the light of lamp reflecting against his glasses to hid his eyes.

“It’s a wonder of the Ancients up there, Tristan Abrascal, and you are going to break it.”

43 thoughts on “Chapter 31

  1. arcanavitae15

    Tristan as always is poking his nose in things and it’s great.

    The scene with Yong was sad to see with the effect trauma having on him being obvious, I think Yong and Tristan are fond of each other but Tristan will have his revenge and Yong will have his duty/obligation.

    Tristan is playing with fire when it comes to Isabel, she as noted by Tristan is a snake.

    The confrontation with Brun was chilling, it’s always the nice unassuming guy.

    Wen has a point about the nature of the Watch and what Tristan is doing is insanely risky.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Earl of Purple

    Well, shit. I am unsure if I like disliking Wen, or if I dislike liking him.

    Brun is scary, but Tristan hopefully has saved his lot from further attacks. And I feel sorry for Vanessa. I hope she survives.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. CantankerousBellerophan

      “Dust, fear and poverty had worn away the good and left the bad in sharp relief.”

      As always, Tristan almost understands. It is not the Dust that made Felis, and certainly not the thing which should have been mentioned first. It was, is, always the poverty. The thing which grinds away at humanity until people are turned into the beasts it is claimed they always were. That claim, that people are fundamentally rotten, leads to the belief that they require a stern hand to be anything but. And wouldn’t you know it, but a stern hand is already there. Grasping at every throat.

      It’s a wonder of the Infanzones, which distracts so consistently from the truth even for those with the clearest sight. It is not enough to play with it, to meddle and reform in vain hopes that they will not fix whatever you have done. It is a thing which must be broken.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I believe Wen wants Tristan to break the device and force a change in the current status quo. He wants the watch to be forced to take down the Red Eye because they will keep stalling and imo i dont think this is sustainable.
      Merely letting Tristan go ahead with his plan as is only a silver lining for Wen in that he probably doesnt have to deal with Vasanti next year but he would still be at the fort and the watch doing nothing about the Red Eye

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I wonder if Wen has kind of lost faith in bringing about any change. Even if Wen was right that Tristan poke his nose too deep in stuff, I still think it worth giving him a chance. Tristan and his group are the ones risking their life, Wen just provides the gun. The worst case would be Tristan and his whole group dying, which is fine, the Watch has purposefully led a dozen people to their death, what is a little more blood gonna do? If the rare chance that Tristan succeed do happen, it is even better. If it is secrecy they want then there is little reason for worry, the Watch is in complete control of the Trials, and Tristan is like Sun Wukong, no matter how talented, he can’t jump out of the palm of Buddha’s hand.
    Am I missing something?

    Also, Brun is … interesting. He seems like a stone-cold killer and a complete psychopath if he is the killer. And he keeps the mask on so well. It might be a big mistake on Tristan’s part for not trying to get Brun to kill immediately after figuring things out and confronting him like this. If he is the killer, and you let him know that you know, he will try to kill you. Naming the people you want to protect means he knows who you might have told so he may go after them and you. It might be wiser to inform someone out of the group. However, it might lead to the other person confronting Brun and letting him know what is the basis of your conclusion and he might be able to turn the table on you. Part of me wants him to tell Angharad about his conclusion on Brun, at least as a sort of warning so that Angharad can watch out for Brun. Brun can absolutely find a way to turn the table given enough time but he might not know that Angharad was watching him thus giving Angharad a chance to discover something and come to the conclusion herself. It all depends on how good of an actress Angharad is, though. And, all of this can only happen if Angharad trusts your words over Brun – her teamates. Who to tell outside of your ingroup is the problems.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think the basis of Tristan’s conclusion is Vibes and Brun knows that. Not much to turn the table. Other people believing him is purely on the basis of them trusting Tristan’s intuition, I don’t think Brun can sabotage that.

      And I don’t think he can take on this many of them at once.

      And what you’re missing about Wen is that he agreed.


      1. Oh. I know Wen agreed. It is just the way he deliver his last line seem too hostile for some reasons. Tristan is facing a likely fatal task soon, people usually aren’t that hostile to a dead man walking.

        Oh Brun can’t sabotage that but he can shift the attention to another person or do something to create an alibi because Tristan’s suspicion is just that … a suspicion. With no concrete evidence, there is not much Tristan can do to Brun, and Brun has allies of his own who are more likely to trust him than Tristan. Like, if a confrontation did happen, Tristan can totally be a Cassandra or the Fools in this story. Brun has great appearance, and friend with trustwworthy people. Sometimes, that is enough for people to believe in him.


    1. KageLupus

      MVP, I’m on my phone so searching old chapters is hard and that phrase is a) made up of common words and b) not even a direct quote. Thanks


  4. Sky

    Might be wrong, but my read on this is that Wen is saying that he’ll give Tristan what he wants, and in return Tristan is to break the device.

    Wen is doing this because he’s a true believer in the Watch. The fact that they’re letting the red eye god live because killing it would be inconvenient or too hard/expensive is borderline blasphemous to him.

    So how does he get the Watch to commit the needed resources to kill this god? Take away the mechanism that’s keeping it under control. And hey, if all the blame for that can fall on the kid nominated by the Watch’s spooks and the crazy lady who thinks she can control the device, well, so much the better.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Revilo

        Speculation here but I’d argue it’s also an insight into Brun’s mental state. He is clearly socially astute, shown in how he has manoeuvred himself so far through out the trials. The question is why is he taking the trials? Tristan mentioned he seemed well adjusted and capable of hiding his past as a rat, so he can likely financially support himself through less risky ventures than the Watch. He’s (allegedly) murdered two other rats through out the trials as well, risking falling out with various groups. Meaning he has some other goal / desire then passing the trials. Perhaps he is a psychopath and has an urge to kill? He has targeted people with relatively low social value in the context of the trials and has done so in such a way that others are brought into suspicion. So does the discord benefit fit him beyond being a smoke screen for who the killer is? Fractures the group, which is useful in allowing him to play the odds of success and prevent effective investigation into the killings. The thing is, it’s important to know his motivation because it’s going to dictate how he will react to Tristan’s confrontation. If he is a larger over- arching goal, he more likely to leave Tristan’s powerblock alone but if he’s coming from emotion, I doubt he will respond well to Tristan’s ultimatum. Tristan’s got a lot of balls in the air to be making threats, he might not be able to back up. And well wearing a social mask 24/7 and the world being ” frightening silent ” indicating deprivation of some kind doesn’t speak well for Brun being a well-adjusted individual. But I suppose you’ve got to measure him by the standards of the world and time he finfs himself in.


    1. spencer

      But he admitted that the watch can’t kill the red maw. Wouldn’t freeing it be she worst possible outcome of he’s a true believer?

      My take was that he just wants a different posting. But freeing the god doesn’t seem like a worthwhile price for a chance at reposting


      1. Revilo

        The Red Maw doesn’t really seem like the type of problem he can leave for someone else to deal with if it breaks free. People in a position of authority are going to hold his ass to the fire for failing in his duties and that’s assuming there aren’t more immediate fatal consequences from the Red Maw itself. Doesn’t seem particularly logical, I agree that Red Maw has likely found a way to influence the the watch, maybe he’s signed a contract?


    2. Someperson

      Yeah, this was the vibe I was picking up.

      It is also slightly interesting that Wen actually used Tristan’s full name. The Watch probably have his full name on record somewhere, but I’m surprised Wen cares.


  5. I guarantee Vanessa is a hidden dragon of some kind. She’s managed to be 100% consistently identified as a kindly Grandma by everyone. And here she puts Tristan straight onto Brun. Either a Watch handler or the second Krypteria candidate?


    1. ohJohN

      I’m pretty sure that her dramatic reveal is just gonna be that she wants Ocotlan dead for crippling her son. (In Ch. 28 Tristan noticed she was inexplicably invested in Augusto’s bluster, immediately after the infanzon mentioned Ocotlan bragging about breaking someone’s leg for the Menor Mano; in Ch. 13 Vanessa mentioned her son was deeply in debt to the Menor Mano and had a crippled leg…)

      Actually, what with her casually asking about the contents of his medicine cabinet while staring intently at it — and his assurance that “nothing pleasant would come of anyone drinking from those bottles” — I’d wager she’s already decided on a plan, one that might have some unfortunate consequences for Tristan 😬.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. wraithdream

        This is a really interesting theory and would fit with the recent trend of ‘seemingly unassuming character low key kills people’ that Brun and Francho have illuminated.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. lysDexicsUntie

      I doubt she is the second Krypteria candidate. The second candidate was specifically mentioned to be dead, so it was probably someone from the first boat. None of the dead from this group seem to fit the bill.
      I think she is planning on killing Ocotlan though. That’s why she was interested in Tristan’s poisons. My current theory is he is the legbreaker that crippled her sons leg, the reason she is here instead of him. Ch 13 and 28 hint at this.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Reader in The Night

    And so Tristan figures out the muster mystery second-hand while none of those actually there managed to. Good on you, Tristan, you baby spook, you.

    I find it interesting that Tristan did not keep his chain of deals going by pointing out Remund Cerdan to Brun as a safe target in exchange for Tristan’s silence/inaction. It would have bought him the good will of Brun and Isabel at no risk to himself and probably made it easier to kill Cozme, too.

    That said, I’m probably outsmarting myself, here. Potentially clueing Isabel onto a stone-cold killer with an almost-perfect front like Brun could end up turning two individually competent threats into one massively dangerous one. Really, those two sociopaths would cover for each other’s weaknesses so well.

    As for Tristan’s betraying Vasanti with Wen (and then inevitably betraying Wen later), he’s playing a very dangerous game there. He’s preparing to face a god that wants to kill him, at the behest of Vasanti that wants to kill him, through the help of Wen, who also wants to kill him/does not care if he dies. But then, I suppose that’s where Tristan does his best work, balancing on the knife’s edge where one wrong step means death.

    It’s just surprising that he actively seeks out such situations, but I suppose he’s trained into himself into a “the only way out is through” mentality.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ohJohN

      Actually I think that plan’s a really smart idea, so long as he doesn’t tell Isabel about it!

      He’s still got 3 people to kill and not much time before they’re out of his reach; any help could be useful. Plus, he’s aware Isabel has motivation to be rid of him, but might not have considered that pinning Remund’s murder on him would be a perfect win for her: her unwanted suitor dead and the only person aware of her involvement either killed in retribution or cast out from the group.
      If Brun does the deed instead, Tristan can prepare a solid alibi to protect against any such accusations!

      It also might have lessened the odds Brun turns on him: a threat alone (“don’t kill my friends or you’re fucked”) could invite reprisal, but a trade (“don’t kill my friends, instead I’ll help you kill these other people”) seems more like the sorta thing a fellow rat could trust. The only downside I can see is cluing Brun in on the fact he wants the Cerdans dead.


    2. We know to little about Brun and his contract to make it easy to manipulate him. First of all there’s no evidence. Trying to out Brun would not work. And even with evidence the Watch wouldn’t care as he haven’t broken their rules.

      It seems the killings are payments for his use of his contract. While we don’t have the particulars we can only try to see if there’s a pattern.

      All three victims we know of were women. The first he groomed as a love interest, and the third he groomed as a friend. I don’t remember that there were anything going on between him and the second victim though.

      Neither of these relationships were necessary in order to arrange a opportunity to kill them.

      So either his contract demand the lives of women, or he prefer them as victims. Not sure which is creepier. Also either the contract work better the closer a relationship he has to his victim, or again he just enjoy getting his victims trust.

      So the Cerdan brothers doesn’t fit his profile, and possibly doesn’t fit the demands of his contract. So getting him to kill either of them would take blackmail, which Tristan lacks the means for as of now.


      1. lysDexicsUntie

        I don’t think he targeted them because they are women. I think it was because both had known enemies that it would be easy to pin the blame on. Jun had just had just been in a conflict that appeared to have Tristan attack her unprovoked. Aines had a husband targeting her because of the Red Games. The third “victim”, the maid Bruecilda(?), shouldn’t be counted since he didn’t kill her personally. He was probably just using her for information on who had enemies and would be a good target, and would have killed her himself if she met the blame shifting criteria.
        So the next likely target will be a person with a known enemy. Which actually places Angharad, Augusto, and Yaretzi high on the list. Though Angharad seems an unlikely target due to her known capabilities. But the fact that she trust him may make her seem like a softer target.
        I think the contract requires blood, but killing the cultists seemed just as effective as killing acquaintances. Remember Angharad mentioned noticing a weird satisfaction in his eyes when killing them before making excuses to herself. He only went after people he got to know, like Aines, because he knew enough about them to shift the blame.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Someperson

    Yeah, this batch of trial-takers feels like it has a frankly suspicious number of people who are more dangerous and complicated than they look. Although we already kind of know the reason for this, due to Sarai’s revelation that at least some of these trial-takers are marked for something more than just getting a black cloak. This batch of recruits is somehow special.

    And it’s a bit interesting, because the trials as a whole are a sham to keep the Red Maw contained. And yet, they are still sending their extra special batch of recruits through the trials. They don’t *have* to do that. They could have tested and inducted the special recruits without sending them to the Isle of Lost Things.

    So either somebody high up in the watch really sincerely does believe that these trials are a good way to test the mettle of recruits, even though that’s not their primary purpose… Or somebody high up in the watch *wants* the secret of these trials to be sniffed out, and for the status quo of the Isle of Lost Things to be broken. My money’s on it being the second one.

    Either way, it is pretty near certain that Abuela was involved in that particular decision.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It has been said that some “special recruits” don’t go through the trials but are sent directly to be schooled. So it’s already a thing.

      Now I can see these trials as serving two purposes, feeding the maze and beating out the chaff. So it’s a two for one deal.

      And as for sending some (the majority?) of the invited recruits here I can see the advantage. Putting them under pressure tends to expose weaknesses and character flaws. And even the handpicked invitees are mostly untried an unknown quantities when they step on that boat. They may have been recommended by relatives in the Watch, but that doesn’t mean that they are going to be a good fit for the black cloaks.

      Those sent directly to school probably have recommendations from several high ranking members and solid records with little in the way of “lost years”. They are a lot less likely to come with potentially dangerous baggage.


  8. IDKWhoitis

    This chapter showed why Fortuna is Tristan’s patron god, as he is more than willing to set up a series of Longshots where failure is catastrophic:

    1.) Murder noble – Politically dangerous and likely to get himself labelled Persona non Grata. (The least dangerous plot on this list.)

    1.a.) Threaten a killer with a solid reputation, before he is about to kill someone himself (increasing the chances Brun tries to pin the murders on him as a Mastermind manipulator behind the scenes)

    1.b.) Make a deal with a known snake with too much influence. She probably has already turned on him in some capacity.

    2.) Murder minor god in the machine. He’s arguably preparing for this one the most.

    2.a.) Bargaining for supplies with an cryptic supplier without actually knowing what he wants and showing up nearly empty handed, not risky, just plain stupid and likely to make a terrible bargain.

    2.b.) Assuming he’s smarter than the Watch and hasn’t been monitored inside the Old Fort extensively by people with unknown esoteric capabilities (especially since he came recommended by the Spy department, dollars to donuts they have someone watching). They’ve been playing this game a lot longer than he has.

    There’s so many points of failure and risk that I believe Fortuna’s ability is somehow tied to Inverse Chance of success.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Inverse chance of success would also mesh with Tupoc saying his God is irritated about how Tristan has cheated death way to many times. I think he said it was hundreds of times, which makes the lady’s luck truly epic.

      Also i get the feeling she’s Gass lighting her powers. For instance it’s been said that manifesting, even if only for the contractee, is draining for the Gods. Usually they will only manifest occasionally, and only for very short periods of time. Having them around to much tend to drain their power, forcing them to draw heavily on the user and consume them. This is what happened to the girl on the boat

      But Fortuna has been manifesting more or less continously for what I think is nine years! That is not how Gods are supposed to work. One hint, I think, is that the Gods are supposedly abandoned, and having no believers to pour their belief into them they are fading away. However Fortuna is a God of luck, long odds i think she says. And every gambler ever does have a belief in luck, and especially the long odds that they all know in their heart will one day work out making them rich and solving all money problems.

      I mean all that belief has to go somewhere, right?

      Liked by 1 person

    2. lysDexicsUntie

      1. He doesn’t care about Person Non Grata. He only cares about revenge and seems more than willing to die on the attempt.

      1a. He basically just shortened Bruns victim list. The only threat was if my people die I’ll kill you. There is no evidence of Brun being a mastermind, he gas just killed those with obvious enemies to pin it on. And even then, no one beleives it was the obvious killer. Tristan currently has no obvious enemies so Brun will have trouble framing him in the future. If the contract just makes him need to kill the easiest solution would, in fact be, don’t kill Tristan’s people.

      1b.Him and Isobel have a common enemy, her current influence is only through Angharad, and he knows she will probably betray him after getting what she wants and is making plans to mitigate that. I don’t see how thus is long odds.

      2. He isn’t planning on killing the God unless he has to. He is making preparations in case of that eventuality. He would prefer to find a way past that avoids the God.

      2a. He knows what he needs, has a general idea what Wen may want, and has been shown to be good at reading people. Since he cannot make it through without the supplies and Wen is the only way to get them, and he is on a time limit before Vasanti sends him in supplyless, he doesn’t have much choice.

      2b. We really don’t know what he has assumed. He did figure out something Vasanti couldn’t, but she was also working on her own. And since he can’t do anything about being watched he has to act as though he isn’t. In chapter 1 he mentioned everything from Abuela was a test. He could easily be assuming he is being watched and graded, but since it doesn’t effect anything why should it change his actions?

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Someperson

    It’s interesting. A frankly suspicious number of trial-takers here are more dangerous and complicated than they initially seem. Brun is merely the latest one to be revealed. And we actually have a pretty good idea of why: this year is not a normal trial. Many of these trial takers are marked for something more than just joining the Watch.

    But this raises an odd question: why send the Extra Special Recruits to take the trials on the Isle of Lost Things? We know at this point that the trials are largely a sham to feed people to the gods to keep the Red Maw in check. They *could* have tested and initiated their Extra Special Recruits somewhere off this island, and found some other shmucks to make the yearly sacrifice. There is no need to sacrifice high quality recruits.

    So… Why?

    We could say that somebody high up in the Watch sincerely believes that these are good trials to test the mettle of new recruits, despite that not being their purpose.

    Or we could say that somebody high up in the watch *wanted* this year’s trial-takers to investigate and sniff out the trial’s secret, and subsequently shake up the status quo.

    Or both. Regardless I think it is pretty near certain that Abuela was involved in the decision.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Someperson

    Also, you know what’s weird?

    AFAIK not a single spirit in the trials has actually used those lanterns that hold souls that the Watch set up for everyone at the beginning of the trials. Many or most of them have just said they’ll eat you if you die in their temple.

    My tin foil conspiracy is that this is evidence that the Red Maw has hollowed out and puppeted a lot more spirits than we think. Close to all of them.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. IDKWhoitis

      I don’t think its particularly Tin-foil, I think the latest trial’s patron outright said it has occurred (although more through incompetence). It felt like a newly promoted assistant manager was stuck trying to service a franchise location and had to keep remembering the employee handbook.

      It is likely that the spooks are behind the political shenanigans, and them sending recruits could be an excuse to send an observer along and actually check in on the Red Maw’s status. I would not be shocked if at least one of the Watch Tristan has talked to is actually a spook.

      A possible explanation for why the Watch keeps sending recruits here is that even with a potential containment breach, its still one of the safer options near Sacromonte to train the recruits on that still exposes them to the threat profile the Watch has to deal with. Its a well explored island, with clear markings, where the infanzones have a fair amount of intel on (which also make it harder to convince them to change to another testing ground) . They already have to keep a garrison on the island any ways.

      The way that Wen talks about the containment, he was probably filled in with a couple of contingencies and scenarios where he needs to let people know something is off (hence he knows to break the machine).

      My tin-foil theory would be that Wen has been influenced by the Red Maw somehow…It seems to be a pretty drastic escalation to ask Tristan to break parts of the containment and Wen has been on the island for a while with an intelligent malevolent being. I’m not saying puppet or contractor, but just being on the island for long is probably a risk.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s