Chapter 32

Something was off.

That was his first thought when he woke, for all that someone was staring down at him.

“Ferranda declined. We’ll have to do without her.”

Tristan rubbed his eyes blearily, hiding his discomfort by throwing Yong half a glare. At a look, people were only just beginning to stumble into the courtyard – the usual early birds. The only person already in the kitchen was Vanesa, whose late nap last night must have shortened her night.

“How are you this much of a morning person?” he complained.

No one was around him save for Yong, so why were his hackles raised? It was a blind thing, like smelling rain on the wind, but Tristan had not survived this long by ignoring his instincts.

“Can’t yell at your men for not waking up fast enough if they’re awake before you are,” the Tianxi cheerfully replied. “Up and at it, Tristan.”

Fortuna, leaning over his shoulder, covered a yawn with her hand.

“He doesn’t even look hungover,” she admiringly said. “His liver must be cast iron.”

He would have glared at the goddess if he could. The thief fought against the urge to yawn for a moment before giving it up a lost cause, earning a mockingly raised eyebrow from Yong. It wasn’t like Fortuna even got tired, she was yawning purely to yank his chain.

“I secured the munitions and permission to enter,” Tristan said. “We can proceed when I return.”

Yong, crouched by the curtain that served as the ‘door’ to his room, openly frowned.

“I don’t understand why you have to head out at all,” he said.

“I am not asking you to,” Tristan firmly replied.

Even the implication that his actions were up to debate was best snuffed out early. The former soldier raised a hand in appeasement.

“I won’t dig,” he said. “But you need to be careful, Tristan. If you die out there the plan falls apart.”

That was, in fact, not true. It had been arranged for Lieutenant Wen to deliver the munitions and orders to Maryam should Tristan perish and it was Francho who would be the ace after they took the lift up. They needed someone capable of deciphering cryptoglyphs, not a thief. Even Yong, who would wield the musket and salt munitions, was arguably more important to the cause than Tristan at the moment.

“I have taken measures in case it happens,” he vaguely replied. “But I assure you I have no intention of making a mistake this late in the game.”

“That much I can believe,” Yong said, then hesitated.

The Tianxi bit the inside of his cheek.

“You’re usually cautious, until the bullets starts flying,” Yong said. “This kind of recklessness is unlike you.”

The unspoken question hung loud in the air. It was his instinct, as always, to sidestep it and keep his past a guessing game. But Yong, he’d extended trust. He had told Tristan of the sorrows that brought him here, the reason for the shaking hands and the drink that steadied them. It was not a debt, not exactly, but neither was it nothing. Abuela would have called this mawkishness, chided him over considering something as childish as reciprocity. Every secret is a stone, she’d taught him. Every time you share one your tomb grows closer to finished.

But he’d learned, since coming to the island, that he’d known even less about Abuela than he’d thought.

“I have debts that need settling,” Tristan finally said.

Yong hummed. He did not ask to whom, or what kind of debt. The veteran knew better.

“And they are best repaid here?” he asked instead.

“There might not ever be anywhere else,” Tristan honestly replied.

If he did not act now, the Cerdan brothers and Cozme Aflor would slip his grasp and return to Sacromonte. Once they returned to the safety of the Orchards, the walled districts where the infanzones dwelled under the light of the Glare, they would be beyond his reach. He could live with the brothers surviving his attentions, but Cozme Aflor? There were five names on his List and most of them had either vanished or gone behind tall walls. He would not surrender the opportunity to cross out even the name at the bottom.

Remund Cerdan would die, and through him Cozme would be forced to either seek out Augusto as a last ditch to salvage his position with House Cerdan or try for the refuge of joining the Watch. Either way, Tristan would get a clear shot at him.

Yong’s dark eyes met his, searching, and at last the older man nodded.

“They always tell us that revenge isn’t worth it, you know?” Yong said. “That it isn’t worth burning your life for, that it will make you no happier after. A hollow victory at best.”

“And was it?” the rat asked. “Worth it.”

The Tianxi smiled, slow and cold as the bite of spite.

“When I think of that last gasp rattling past her lips,” Yong softly said, “it warms the cockles of my heart. Even now, after all these years. I’ve regretted a lot of things, Tristan, but my revenge never once.”

The older man clapped his shoulder before rising to his feet.

“Good luck,” he said.

The thief watched him leave in silence, sorting himself out. It was not exactly trust, what lay between them. They both knew the other had intentions they would not compromise on, even at the other’s expense. But there was an understanding, he thought, and in some ways that was more reliable than trust. Less blind. And something worth keeping around, if he could. Maryam had implied that whatever opportunity was to be offered to him after these trials would not be offered to Yong, but perhaps there were ways around that.

And now that Yong was gone, no longer distracting him, the unease returned. Rain on the wind, clouds in the distance.

“You know that’s a married man, you harlot, so reel in that longing gaze.”

The thief hid his surprise. He had not heard Lan approaching, so it was on the backfoot that he began as Lan grinned down at him unpleasantly. He rose to his feet, pulling down his clothes into place. Unease could wait, lest he miss another rat biting at his tail.

“I thought we were feuding,” Tristan said.

“We’re reconciling,” Lan told him. “There’s no longer a group around Tupoc and we’re both headed into the maze, yes? Best bury our grudge in case we run into one another.”

The thief rolled his shoulder.

“You don’t intend to come back here.”

It was more a statement than a guess.

“I’d rather ride Tredegar’s coattails than risk your scheme,” Lan frankly replied. “As long as we don’t lose too many people on the last stretch of road, the trial is in the bag.”

He conceded with a nod. Tristan did not necessarily agree, but neither could he say she was wrong. Chances were high that the last tests would be brutal, but taking a swing at a relatively easy one then hiding behind the Pereduri for the rest of the trial was not a bad strategy. If Lan got lucky with her test and became a victor she could spend the rest of the Trial of Ruins as a spectator – much as Isabel Ruesta had. She was unlikely to be bothered over perceived cowardice: this close to the gate  and with so few trial-takers left, victors were too precious a resource to be risked.

“Sensible,” he nodded.

He paused, after, and considered whether or not he should continue. After his conversation with Yong, though, it would have felt like a betrayal not to.

“I believe it was Brun,” Tristan abruptly said.

Lan went very still, then forced a smile on her face.

“How sure are you?”

“Enough to approach him over it,” the thief said.

He could not be entirely certain, not with what he knew, but Brun was the most likely to be the killer by a fair amrgin. It was only the issue of motive that held Tristan back from speaking in stronger terms.

“Interesting,” Lan said, her tone flat and dead. “I’ll get the details out of Sarai, so no need to belabor. His reasons?”

“Unknown,” Tristan admitted, then passed a hand through his hair. “But there is something off about his contract.”

“A killing price?” she frowned. “That is very illegal.”

It was one of the few things the Guardia bothered to chase after even in the Murk. Not out of worry for the rats, of course, but because such contracts were illegal under the Iscariot Accords and failing to stamp them out would mean Sacromonte was in breach.

“I don’t know about that,” he hedged. “I do not think it so straightforward, but I also doubt his contract is as simple as feeling presences.”

Lan slowly nodded.

“You are being generous with information,” she said.

He was, though not as generous as he could have been.

“If we are to part ways, let it on good terms,” he replied. “It costs me little to give you this.”

The blue-lipped woman hummed, considering him.

“Someone went into your room during supper last night,” Lan said. “The curtain wasn’t the same way you left it.”

And like that the unease he had been slowly shedding was back.

He stilled, mind spinning. Had Lieutenant Vasanti come to suspect him? There would have been nothing for her or her minions to find. He had not hidden the brand in his room, preferring to tuck it away in one of the abandoned bastions, and the stone buttons never left his pocket. Only Francho and Maryam knew where the brand was, since he’d tasked them with trying it on the machine Vasanti wanted them to study. I’ll have to look through my belongings after breakfast, see if anything’s missing.

What did he even have that was worth stealing? Most his arms and clothes came from the Watch and the rest of his affairs fit in a single bag. His cabinet wasn’t worth much without knowledge of the vials and how to use them, and believed to be a medicine cabinet besides – pointless to steal from when the Watch physician could be relied on instead. Lips thinning with worry, he nodded his thanks to Lan. She snorted.

“It has been a pleasure to work with you, rat,” she said. “To my surprise.”

“And you,” Tristan replied. “We’ll meet again in the Trial of Weeds.”

“If you don’t bite off more than you can chew,” she teased, then waved him away.

It was a fitting goodbye, he thought, for the likes of them. If not for the revelation someone had gone through his things it would have lifted his mood. Instead it was with a frown he ventured out for breakfast, finding that the usual already seated. Tupoc and his crew were always the first to leave in the morning, so even though there were now much reduced – there remained only Ocotlan, Lan and a very nervous Augusto – they had claimed their usual table. Tristan went to sit with Yong, who had gone ahead, and within a moment had a bowl of porridge in front of him. He looked up at Vanesa, who had been the one to bring it, and cocked an eyebrow.

“You have been doing it for me every morning,” the old woman smiled. “I thought I would return the favor at least once.”

She looked better this morning, he thought. Not as pale as she had been for the last few days. His stomach clenched at the sight, though. Pleased as he was she was doing better – enough to move around on her crutches and hand people bowls – it put him on edge. Her wound was not the kind of wound that got better.

“And we all benefit from you,” Yong drawled. “She brought mine as well.”

“You didn’t need to,” Tristan told Vanesa.

Her breath, he noted, was slow. Slower than it should be, though if this had been too much it should be quickened instead.

“I wanted to,” she replied, jaw set.

And looking at her, at the determination in her last eye and the way she stood, he paused. Something was off, he’d felt from the start. Something was off about her. His gaze flicked to the other table.

“Them too?” he casually asked.

Vanesa did not answer.

“She’s too kind,” Yong said. “Tupoc should be starved, not fed.”

But it wasn’t Tupoc Xical that Tristan was looking at, Lan or even Augusto Cerdan. It was Ocotlan, the big bruiser with the Menor Mano tattoos on his arms. Who had served as a legbreaker for that coterie. Vanesa, he remembered, had come here in her son’s place. A son whose leg had been broken by the Menor Mano for unpaid debts. Two days back, Tristan had walked away while Vanesa had been spellbound by Augusto Cerdan recounting Ocotlan’s boasts. The bruiser’s stories about the things he had done for the Menor Mano.

The details fit each other like cogs, clicking into the place.

“Vanesa,” he quietly said. “Tell me you didn’t.”

The old woman sighed, then lowered herself onto the bench at his side. She leaned the crutches against the side of the table, comfortably resting her shoulder against the thief’s.

“It’s too late, dear,” she said. “He’s already on his second bowl.”

Yong’s eyes widened as he looked at them.

“Vanesa,” he whispered. “What did you do?”

“I put down a rabid dog,” the old woman said.

And what Tristan heard, when she said that, was a trigger being pulled.

It was three more seconds before the shouting began.

The thief watched, grey eyes unblinking, as Ocotlan toppled forward. The Aztlan was convulsing violently, foaming at the mouth until he began vomiting all over the table. Tupoc and Augusto fled from him, as if his very presence were dangerous, while Lan stumbled onto the ground in fright. The spectacle attracted the attention of everyone in the courtyard,  including the blackcloaks.

“What did you use?” Tristan hoarsely asked. “What vials, how much?”

Passing this as an allergy was unlikely. Cold pooled in his stomach. There must be a way to frame, to turn the truth around until it said what he needed it to say.

“The three in the upper compartment,” Vanesa calmly said. “I apologize for the theft, but I wanted to be sure.”

The thief choked.

The entire vials?” he got out.

She nodded and he breathed in sharply. His entire stock of white arsenic, mandrake and antimony. Each of them a lethal poison, each of them so concentrated it was enough to use five drops to kill a grown man. Vanesa had dumped enough poison into that porridge bowl to kill every soul in the Old Fort twice over. No wonder it had taken minutes instead of hours for Ocotlan to react. Tristan breathed out, forced himself to calm. To think.

“It was Brun,” he suddenly said. “Yong, you saw him enter my room last night after dinner. I’ll head there and report someone stole of my medicine. We should have enough witnesses.”

If Brun’s head was on the line then Lan was certain to pitch in on their side. Would Maryam lend a hand? Even odds, he thought, but she wanted them rid of the killer and was pragmatic enough to use an opportunity should it be handed to her. That many voices should tip the balance their way even though they had nothing but witnesses. Vanesa smiled gently and patted his hand.

“You are a nice boy, Tristan, but it is too late for that as well,” she said.

His eyes narrowed.

“If you already confessed,” he slowly said, “we can say you were forced, that-”

“After serving him the bowl,” Vanesa said, “I drank three days’ worth of poppy. My limbs already feel numb. It should only be a few minutes now before my breathing stops, the doctor was quite clear about the dosages.”

Tristan swallowed. The way her face had been pale from pain last night, she had not been feigning it. She’d been saving up the poppy so she could drink it all at once.

“I’m sorry,” Vanesa said, squeezing his hand. “But I did not want it to be painful.”

Tristan swallowed, lips dry as he tried to find anything at all to say. He failed. Nothing he had learned had taught him words that would be more than air.

“Poisoned. This man has been poisoned.”

The Watch physician’s flat announcement put an end to all the shouting. The courtyard had filled with trial-takers and blackcloaks, all of whom went silent at the man’s words. Ocotlan lay on the ground, past convulsions. Past anything at all: the Aztlan was dead. His limps were warped and his face twisted into a rictus, his chest covered with vomit. It must have been, Tristan thought without sympathy, an excruciatingly painful way to die. The blackcloak physician pried open his mouth and looked at his swollen, blackened tongue. The man wrinkled his nose.

“And a high dosage at that,” he added.

He looked up at the figure presiding over all this. Lieutenant Wen’s face was a cold mask of fury.

“Watchmen, arms out,” he ordered, then his gaze swept everyone else. “No one is leaving the fort until we find who did this. Everyone is to stand unarmed in the courtyard while we –”

Vanesa grabbed her crutches and rose to her feet, leaning on them heavily, and the Tianxi lieutenant trailed off. Her movements were clumsy and Tristan reached out to help her, but his hand fell short before she drew away. He bit down on words he had not found, the clack of his teeth an unhappy sensation. Yong grabbed his shoulder, as if to draw him back, but Tristan shook him off. He did not rise, though.

What would have been the point, when it had all finished before he knew anything was happening at all?

“There’s no need for that, lieutenant,” Vanesa calmly said. “I did this.”

Lieutenant Wen blinked in surprise.

“You are confessing,” he slowly said.

“Ocotlan was an animal who crippled my only son for life,” the old woman said, adjusting her broken glasses. “How many lives did he ruin before going on to boast about it? Yes, lieutenant, I confess. I confess wishing it had taken him longer to die, so he might feel but a fraction of the misery he spent his life inflicting on others.”

Lieutenant Wen reached for his own spectacles, unfolding them carefully.

“You broke sanctuary,” the watchman said. “You were told of the consequences for this.”

“Yes,” Vanesa simply said.

Wen put on his glasses and drew his pistol.

“Close your eyes,” the lieutenant said.

His tone, Tristan thought, was almost gentle.

“I am too tired to be afraid, boy,” Vanesa softly smiled. “Send me on.”

Grey eyes watched as Wen’s finger pulled the trigger. Thunder, billowing smoke.

On she went.

The bodies were dragged away by the blackcloaks in the silence that followed. Sick as he felt, Tristan still finished his breakfast. Starving would be of no help to the dead.

The mood was still gloomy when everyone began to depart. Tristan could not muster amusement at seeing Augusto and Tupoc scurry off alone, not when the memory of that last soft smile would not leave him. He forced himself to be in the here in now when their group assembled around Angharad Tredegar, who briskly introduced him to the others before they set out. They were not such a small group, numbering eight: himself, Tredegar, Song , Zenzel, Yaretzi, Isabel Ruesta and at last the pair he did not intend to ever leave this island.

The Dove Shrine was not empty when they entered it, to the visible surprise of the others.

“We did not bargain for Tristan’s crossing,” Tredegar reminded them. “Only our own.”

The scavenger god awaiting them looked like a bird made of folded paper, rather different to the grandiose shrine around it. It smacked of pretentiousness to the rat, a Murk god putting on a Mane’s raiment.

“Supplicant,” the god said. “You enter the shrine of-”

Irritation flared. He had heard of this shrine’s test from four different mouths, there was no surprise to be had.

“Shall we get on with your tile game?” Tristan cut in. “Lady Ruesta, I will have to borrow your stick if you do not mind.”

The infanzona hesitantly nodded, and when Tristan turned his gaze back to the god he saw it was staring at him as balefully as a pile of folded paper could.

“Shall we establish the terms?” he prompted.

A long moment passed, then the air picked up and a sudden cold wind blew through the shrine. It was strong enough to force him to shield his eyes, and when he looked again the god was gone from its perch.  Lord Remund choked and Lord Zenzele began snickering.

“Must have been something you said,” the Malani opined.

“I shall work on my manners, then,” Tristan flatly said.

He was in no jesting mood, not after the morning they’d left behind.

It was all little more than brisk exercise until they reached the waterway.

Tristan was thankful it was only waist-deep as he was a middling swimmer. It would have been dangerous to swim by the Quays, where so many ships docked, and the waters of the canals that reached into the Murk were poisonously filthy. The sewers only reached into Estebra District and the outskirts of Feria, so everyone else dumped their waste into the canals. It was Abuela who’d taught him when he was thirteen, taking him to the Old Town for it. He’d swum little since learning, so it was almost nostalgic to be wading through water again. The nostalgia was soon replaced by irritation, for it was a long trek and exhausting on the body. It was a relief when they emerged from the waterway into a spread of luminous pools. The place was beautiful to behold, Tristan thought, though the others seemed indifferent.

They had already come this way several times.

“Stick to the sides,” Song told him. “The pools get deep.”

The thief nodded, dutifully following behind the Tianxi. She’d been at the front with Tredegar for most of the journey but had drifted to the back since they got into the water.

“I hear you were the one to find the way forward from here,” he idly said.

Silver eyes turned on him. Song, he thought, was looking at him like someone from the Guardia would. Deciding whether or not to punish him, without a speck of doubt in her that she could if she decided to. That was rather interesting, considering that though the Tianxi was Tredegar’s effective second it did not actually lend her much authority over the rest of the group.

“Sarai did mention you’re a gossip,” she said.

Uncalled for. He was spy, not a gossip. The legwork of both occupations just happened to be largely identical.

“Sarai,” he repeated. “Is that what you call her?”

Silver eyes narrowed in surprise and like that he had his answer. You know her real name, he thought. What kind of a bargain is it that you two struck with the Watch? Not that he was able to castigate over such a thing after the deal he’d made with Lieutenant Wen. Song leaned in close.

“I would advise against trying your luck too often around me, Tristan,” she said.

Tristan stilled, ripping surprise and worry off his face. That wording, had it been an accident? That Song’s contract had to do with those unsettling eyes was not in doubt, but what could she see? The Tianxi considered him a moment, then smiled.

“That’s better,” she said. “Maryam took a liking to you, having been cursed with terrible taste by her northern gods, so let us not be uncivil.”

Tristan forced a smile.

“That sounds lovely,” he said.

How much did she know? She was wary of him, unlikely to let anything slip, but the others had been in her presence longer. Some of them since the Trial of Lines. If he struck a conversation with-

“You are thinking of digging around me, right now,” Song stated. “Your misapprehension lies in thinking I care enough about you to make trouble.”

Tristan blinked, feigning surprise.

“I do not know-”

Song smiled.

“But if you were to keep digging, Tristan,” she said, “then I would be forced to care. And to hit you with your very own shovel hard enough you’d spit out teeth.”

That had, he would admit, the benefit of being exceedingly clear.

“Fair,” he conceded, dropping the theatre. “You can’t blame a man for being curious.”

Song beamed.

“I can and will.”

She patted his shoulder and turned away, resuming the march around the side of the pool. A low whistle came out from behind him, Fortuna swimming a lazy sidestroke in the pool. The dress, following in her wake, looked like trails of blood.

“That was a thorough spanking,” the Lady of Long Odds informed him, like he’d somehow been unaware. “There are places in Sacromonte where they’d make you pay for a bottom that red.”

He faked a cough, covering his mouth.

“You look like a drowning victim,” he shot back.

Her offended shouting almost made wading through the rest of the pools tolerable.

Being forewarned took the fear out of the creature jumping out when they shimmied across the ledge, and the strange mechanical temple they crossed afterwards – where he’d heard Inyoni had died – was empty. There had been some tension in the crew when they approached, but it bled out when the temple’s god showed no sign of being present. Angharad Tredegar ended up at his side as they passed through. She was, he suspected, trying to avoid Lord Zenzele. Guilt was a tireless workhorse.

“It sounds like the most trying of the tests anyone has encountered,” he said, casting a look around. “That could at all be won, at least.”

The one that had nearly killed Yong when he still ran with the Ramayans did not seem at all feasible to win.

“The spirit of this place was scrupulously fair,” Tredegar admitted. “Ruthless, but fair.”

“A god died here,” Fortuna told him, walking on his other side as she inspected the ceiling. “Some years ago. It cannot be seen yet, but the temple is falling apart.”

Tristan almost frowned. Then who had given out the test?

“I have never heard of a god of machines before,” he idly said, going fishing. “It must have looked rather strange, no?”

“Brass and bronze, as you would expect,” Tredegar said. “It voice was… unpleasant. Still, it was not the-”

She held back, shaking her head.

“Not the?” Tristan prompted.

“You will think me superstitious,” the Pereduri said.

“When being wary of a maze full of dying gods?” Tristan said. “Hardly.”

The tall woman bit her lip, then sighed.

“I thought I saw something inside it, for a moment,” she said. “Teeth and a swallowing throat.”

The thief’s heart skipped a beat. The Red Maw? But the god here had given out a test. Zenzele Duma was a victor. Why would the prisoner of this maze help someone cross it?

“That is certainly unusual,” he slowly said.

“I thought it only exhaustion,” Tredegar admitted, “but then I saw something similar the following day when facing the spirit of crystal hall.”

Fear pooled in his belly.

“Oh?” he said. “Any time beyond that?”

She shook her head.

“The peacock spirit in the fortress gave me no such impression,” she said. “Perhaps because she was once a greater spirit’s mount.”

That’s the wrong question to ponder, Tredegar, he thought. The right one is ‘what happened to the god that used to ride the peacock?’. Once could have been the Red Maw slipping in a victory, but twice, maybe thrice? Their seal is failing, he thought. And the Maw is impersonating gods so the Watch won’t notice. How much of the maze had been taken over? There was no telling, but it didn’t really matter. Now the same sacrifices meant to feed the gods keeping the Red Maw in check were instead feeding the Maw. The revelation killed his motivation to continue speaking, so their talk died and as they left the room they parted ways when Tredegar took the vanguard again.

This was bad, Tristan thought.

A pause.

No, the rat then thought. This is good.

His bargain with Wen had always been dangerous, likely as not to result in the Watch putting a bullet in the back of his head at the end of the Third Trial even if he had broken no rules, but now he had a reason. Tristan was not going to break a priceless Antediluvian wonder because it was the price for a Watch officer to undermine another, he was doing it for the greater good! He, a concerned young man with the best intentions, had done this only to reveal the perfidious infiltration of the Red Maw. He would have gone to the blackcloaks about it, of course, but Lieutenant Vasanti had some kind of grudge against him.

Why they need only look, she had forced him to attempt something that had killed several watchmen before – no way that wasn’t on record – and he’d duly informed the heroic Lieutenant Wen of his suspicions. Tristan made a note to actually inform Lieutenant Wen of his suspicions. Maybe in front of Sergeant Mandisa, so the man would have to think twice about denying it.

So deep in thought was the thief that he did not notice they’d left the last hall of the clockwork temple until the ground under his feet became sand.

Past the temple apparently lay a great arena, whose gates they ignored in favor of broken rusty grate leading underground. Close now, by Isabel Ruesta’s description. Next came a dark and dusty crypt, and then at last the wheel room the infanzona had mentioned. Four gates set in walls of stone, a wheel at the center of the room with four spokes of brass jutting out. Each spoke went from the floor to above Tristan’s waist. From what he understood, they would need to split between the four spaces delineated by the spokes and let their weight trigger some kind of spinning mechanism that would open the gates.

They would then effectively be tossed through them likes sacks of potatoes, which had him wondering what the Antediluvians had meant this room for.

“Let us split into pairs,” Tredegar said, an order sounding like a suggestion.

That Ruesta would cling to her like a lamprey and Cozme Aflor stick with his charge were both a given. Tristan cocked an eyebrow at Lord Zenzele, who shrugged in agreement, and counted himself glad not to have been paired with Song and her too-seeing eyes. More importantly, pairing first allowed him to pick a quadrant next to Remund Cerdan’s. The moment all eight of them were spread out there was a mechanical sound beneath their feet, something shifting, and the Malani lord began to grin. Tristan caught the edge of the spoke and prepared himself.

The spinning began rather abruptly, but it was a surprise to no one. The speed picking up felt dangerous, for all that Zenzele Duma was laughing, but Tristan kept a steady eye on the situation. It was when the gates began to open that he pulled on his luck, quick and deep.

Just as the ticking began, there was a clanging sound beneath their feet and something jammed.

When force threw him forward Tristan did not fight it. He went with it, instead, and so after Remund Cerdan was torn off the spoke he hung on to topple down the half-open gate, the thief was but two heartbeats behind him. He rolled across stone and water, hearing Remund curse in front of him and Cozme Aflor shout behind, and with a wince of anticipation released the luck. A heartbeat later, just as he glimpsed how the slope they were falling down split into two, he hit a bump on the stone and bounced against the wall – where some kind of rusted metal piece jutted.

The thief swallowed a scream as it tore into his side, ripping through tunic and flesh alike.

Fuck, he swore. Remund must have gotten hurt falling and the luck counted it as an attack. That always turned the luck hard on him. It took another two minutes to finish falling all the way down, the slope mercifully slowing before he was dumped down unceremoniously on a patch of luminescent mushrooms. The younger Cerdan barely got out of the way in time, hurrying up and looking around as Tristan stayed on the mushrooms to inspect his wound. It was mercifully shallow, but a cut with rust in it had dangers beyond the immediate. He would have to clean this with alcohol as quickly as he could.

“I know this place,” Lord Remund suddenly said. “Isabel described it to me, it is where she fell last time.”

Tristan rose with a wince. They were on a fairly narrow strip of stone, one side covered by a wall and the other leading to gaping pit. By the coolness of the air coming up, it must have been abyssally deep. In front of them, at the end of the strip, lay a narrow gap in a wall of natural stone. They would have to squeeze through.

“The rest of the path to the crystal hall is simple,” the Cerdan continued. “We should soon be there.”

“Good news,” Tristan said.

He picked up his tricorn from the floor, brushing it off and setting it on his head. When he turned, he saw that the other man’s eyes were on his wound. The infanzon’s gaze grew dismissive at the sight.

“I know the way from here,” Lord Remund Cerdan said. “You need only listen and follow me.”

Tristan nodded respectfully.

“As you say, my lord.”

Satisfied with the show of obedience, the infanzon turned – and in the heartbeat that followed, Tristan had his blackjack in hand. It would have been easiest to hit the back of the man’s head, to knock him out, but that was not what the thief was after.

Instead he struck the back of Remund’s knee.

The infanzon dropped, shouting in pain and surprise as he twisted to face his attacker, while Tristan placed his next blow. Remund’s wrist cracked at the blow, the sword he was trying to unsheathe dropping. The thief kicked it away.

“What are you-” the Cerdan shouted, fingers tracing a circle of light in the air.

Ah, the famous contract. A useful trick, but the several descriptions that Tristan had been given revealed a weakness: he kicked Remund in the face, foot right in the chin, and the shining light winked out. The Cerdan needed to concentrate to maintain the light, that much had been made abundantly clear.

Maybe if Remund Cerdan had practiced his own tolerance to pain instead of burning servants, a kick would not have been enough to disrupt his concentration.

The infanzon crawled away blindly, pushing back with his legs like an upended crab, but Tristan could muster no pity at the sight. Not for a Cerdan. He calmly pursued, stomping down on the knee he’d already struck. The hit delivered a most satisfying crack and the infanzon let out a sob of pain. He kept crawling away, Tristan following with an amused look on his face: the man had not yet realized he was heading towards the edge of the cliff. When he finally did, his mangled leg dangling over the edge, he let out a scream of terror as he clawed at the stone to avoid falling.

“Please,” Remund said. “I don’t know how much my brother paid you, but I can double it.”

“Remund Cerdan,” the thief said. “I have questions for you.”

“Yes,” the infanzon hurriedly replied. “Anything.”

“Theogony,” he said. “Does the word mean anything to you?”

A flicker of surprise in his eyes.

“No,” Remund said, “I never-”

Tristan kicked him in the leg. The infanzon shrieked in fear, trying to catch his boot as he was halfway pushed off the ledge. The thief was too nimble, though, and Remund was forced to claw at the cavern floor so that his dangling legs would not drag him down into the dark.

Yes,” Remund screamed. “I’ve heard of it. It’s some sort of grand design by Uncle Lorent, Lord Cerdan has poured a fortune into it.”

“And it is still happening?” Tristan pressed.

The infanzon nodded, eyes wild. He tried to drag himself further up on solid ground but went still as Tristan drew his pistol. He watched in fear as the thief filled the muzzle with powder and added the lead ball. As Tristan had thought, the horror had not ceased when the Cerdans shut down their warehouses in Feria District. They’d just moved elsewhere.

“Lauriana Ceret,” he said. “Do you know the name?”

Remund blinked.

“Professor Ceret?” he asked. “Our mathematics tutor?”

Tristan’s jaw clenched. A tutor. That woman, after everything, was allowed to teach children? Rage came, but it was cold. Patient. He had waited years for the List and would wait years more.

“Ceferin,” he forced out. “How about him?”

Remund fervently shook his head and Tristan believed him. Ceferin had worked with House Cerdan for his own reasons, he had not seemed one of theirs. Their leash on him had been loose.

“You were part of it weren’t you?” Remund asked. “Whatever it was that went so bad in Feria District that Uncle Lorent went abroad for three years.”

The infanzon swallowed.

“What did they do to you?”

Tristan took a step closer. The other flinched.

“Do you know what happens when a man makes two contracts?” he asked.

Remund licked his lips.

“They go mad and die,” he said. “The gods eat them from the inside.”

“What if it were three instead?” Tristan asked. “Four, five?”

The infanzon swallowed.

“I don’t know,” he said.

“Neither did they,” Tristan replied. “So they tried.”

That and worse things yet. If he’d not followed his father that day he would never have seen the horrors that lay hidden beneath Feria District, the butchery the Cerdans were willing to commit to close the gap with the Six.

“I never had anything to do with it,” Remund told him. “I swear. Even the old warehouses in Feria, it’s Augusto who runs them! Him, Tristan, not me. Let me up and I will help you, he is no brother of-”

The thief took a step closer. The infanzon screamed, fear indistinguishable from fury.

Why?” he demanded. “I have done nothing to you, nothing to deserve this.”

He levelled the pistol.

“Think of it,” Tristan mildly said, “as interest on the debt.”

He was a poor shot but from this close not even he could miss. And as the shot dimly echoed across the cavern, Tristan Abrascal smiled.

Two, he counted.

Halfway there.

36 thoughts on “Chapter 32

  1. CantankerousBellerophan

    The only justice there can be, for those who claim nobility.

    That said, it is interesting what the Cerdans appear to be trying. Not only because we know so little of the limits of gods and contracts, but because what we do know would imply a complete lack of survival instinct on the part of the Cerdans.

    We do not know what it takes to make a Saint, but a poorly bargained contract with an ill-sated patron seems likely as a cause. And what contract could be more poorly bargained, what patron more ill-sated, than one foisted off on a commoner already being fed upon by others for the purposes of gruesome experimentation? Sacromonte, at the thoughtless command of the Cerdans, is host to an unwitting Saint production facility. And what international anti-supernatural police agency do we know who might take lethal interest in such a thing?

    It would not surprise me if what the Cerdans are trying has been attempted before. Nor would it be a shock if all record of it was smote, all individuals who knew of it summarily executed, by the Watch. One would think the Cerdan patriarch clever enough to recognize that such an obvious hole in general knowledge remains unfilled for a reason…but then again, that would require him to be clever, rather than merely privileged.

    And isn’t that a widely applicable theme? Men with power and privilege scrabbling for more of the same, disregarding the extremely obvious dangers of their schemes because it seems, to them, that their costs will be borne by others. It is not the Cerdans, after all, who live near the warehouses filled with the divine analogue of Union Carbide’s aged equipment in Bhopal. Theirs are not the homes which will be beset by horrors when containment inevitably fails. The difference, here is the Watch. An actual international police force, vested with the power and public support to assault major governments found in violation of rules written in rivers of long-coagulated blood, on parchment of the skins of those unfortunate enough to live too close to the epicenter of madness.

    That the Cerdans experiment with forces beyond mortal ken is obvious. That is what they were going for. But they disregard mortal forces in the process because no such force has ever been turned against them. They have never experienced consequence, and will die indignant when it reaches them. For that is what it means to claim nobility.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. arcanavitae15

      Vanesa was cool and I’m sad to see her go but damn if she didn’t go out like a champ. I didn’t expect Tupoc to die but this is probably the best way it could have happened, his actions and sins catching up too him.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Earl of Purple

    That answers some questions about stacking contracts. Two make you go mad and die as the gods eat your insides.

    I really liked Vanessa, and the discord server informed me I am not alone in this. I’m going to miss her, though not as much as Tristan will.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The gods are low level leaching off their contracted. I call it low level leaching as it’s apparently not enough to provide any significant sustenance or manifesting for their contracted wouldn’t be considered dangerous.

      I’m guessing that one persson isn’t able to provide enough faith/life-force/energy or whatever it’s called to sustain two contracts. So the Gods go into withdrawal and try to grab as much of their contractor as they can before their competitor can do it first.

      Just a guess, but I think it fits with what we know so far.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Crash

      She was a treasure and she got what she wanted, in the end. Even if that was vengeance, given what the spirit did to her on the first trial there wasn’t much left to do.

      Sad to see her go but what a woman, eh?


    1. Earl of Purple

      Ricardo died so Cosmo has to join Augusto, and with Augusto being so disliked he’s dying next. Unless Tristan can make Cosmo dead first, then he doesn’t need to die.


      1. Ah, but you forgot that Cerdan family were the ones ordering Cozme and company to clean out the residents by any means, including murdering them. So while Tristan had no proof that Augusto and Remund were personally involved their family name condemned them. While not on the list their deaths are worth bonus points to him.


  3. I have to wonder if Song is able to see through the Red Maw. If she is, then the implications about her as a character are interesting. If she can’t, then we get a glimpse into the limitations of her sight.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. IDKWhoitis

      Could be she is misinterpreting what she does see. Based on what she was calling Tristan out on, she could be getting Insights into “intentions” or “emotions”. For half starved gods being hungry, she could be misreading why those gods want to eat her. Although it doesnt change her tactical decisions on wanting to not be eaten.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. wraithdream

    Lan’s decision to stick with Angharad’s crew now instead of Tristan’s plan seemed like a good idea when she made it but I wouldn’t be surprised if she backtracks on that pretty soon because the numbers are starting to look pretty grim. If you don’t count Tristan or Yong, there are only 14 remaining potential victors who need to go through a 10 victor gate. Given that Tristan is planning Augusto and Cozme’s deaths, that only leaves a tiny margin of two potential losses before they’re on the knife’s edge.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Earl of Purple

      I think Lan’s with Tupoc, not Angharad. Tristan’s also planning to get Cosme in the third trial, forcing him to take it by making staying with the Cerdans untenable, for example by killing both of the heirs he’s there to protect.


      1. wraithdream

        Oh right Lan isn’t with Angharad but it’s noted that Tupoc and Augusto set off by themselves so she must be with Ishaan’s group. That’s a good point about Cozme too but the point still stands that every death makes the numbers worse. Wait. Lan’s with Ishaan…and therefore in the same party as Brun. Hmmmmm. Oh I’m sure nothing is going to happen with that, huh


  5. WealthyAardvark

    When Vanesa stayed behind to listen to Augusto vent about Ocotlan’s legbreaking in Chapter 28, I assumed she was going to be learning Ocotlan was involved in Yong’s recently revealed backstory, and that that secret would make its way to Tristan’s ears eventually.

    I had forgotten about Vanesa’s backstory from Chapter 13, because she hadn’t explicitly mentioned a legbreaker there and it was further in the past.

    Well played, E.E.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Read this chapter minutes after it was posted, stares at the ominous lack of a ‘Next Chapter’ button. A button that will be there next Friday.

    Saturday morning, fully aware the scheduled story update is first on Friday: Reload page! Just in case… No? I guess I’ll just try again later, just in case… Hey it is later, probably at least an hour, and no update? Well it’s supposed to be updated on Friday… But I’ll check again later, just in case…


      1. Sunday, and I’m back just in case. First time today. Hey this is easy! Only five days to go until Friday and a new chapter. Easy, it’s easy. I’m not the least bit anxious. Yet…


      2. And it’s Wednesday my dudes!
        Just checking in this early (for me 7:20 is early, stop snickering!) morning, and nothing… No new link. While my disappointment knows no bounds I also knew that it was extremely unlikely that a new chapter would have been posted out of schedule. Still disappointed!

        Still, it seems I have finally come to terms with the fact that clicking refresh doesn’t make the scheduled updates appear faster. So once a day I get to be silly and hope and dream for a second as the page refresh,only to be disappointed again…


      3. Earl of Purple

        Y’know, next time you post, click the ‘notify me of new posts on web’ box next to the ‘post comment’ button and on Friday the next chapter will appear magically in your inbox. I don’t read it from there, since I can’t leave comments from email, and also sometimes the formatting’s borked by the transfer from Patreon which is usually fixed very quickly.

        Oh, yeah, and if you’ve got money to spare, the next three chapters are up on Patron, but I don’t have money to spare.


  7. Someperson

    When I read that somebody had been through Tristan’s things I thought “bad news”

    When Tristan mentioned his medicine cabinet I remembered that theory someone had posted about Vanesa wanting to poison Ocotlan

    When Tristan got to breakfast and Vanesa was both in high spirits and serving people their breakfasts that confirmed it

    I don’t remember who it was who made the Vanesa theory but you sly bastard you saw it coming

    Dammit Vanesa

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Someperson

    The name “Theogony” sounds fucking ominous as a top-secret morally bankrupt project for House Cerdan to become stronger

    The literal meaning is something like “the geneology of gods”

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Waves and Radiation

    I’m not sure how out there this theory is, but it seems likely that Fortuna keeps hanging around because that’s her way of keeping other gods Tristan contracted with from manifesting.
    I also wonder if the fact that she’s a very old god who used to be powerful has any significance, it might be that antediluvians used to contract with a certain “set” of gods, as a way to safely have multiple contracts, and they tried recreating this on Tristan. The reason she’s weak is that the watch tried to erase her completely, as they would if I’m right in guessing this is a recreation of something old and that she used to be a very famous god.


    1. I think she’s sandbagging. She’s been manifesting more or less constantly for something like nine or ten years, while common knowledge says that a God that manifest for a month, or even a week is likely to go ferral from growing weak because of the draw.

      Consider her domain, luck and especially long odds, and it’s something almost every gambler believes in, pray for, and pay for in losses. All that belief and prayer has to go somewhere. What’s to say she isn’t leaching from all of that? Luck is actually her name after all.


      1. Crash

        Yeah, it seems very odd that Lady Luck herself would be low on believers.

        Either she’s sandbagging or for some reason doesn’t know how powerful she is.


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