Chapter 33

They waited for the two as long as they could, but neither Remund Cerdan nor Tristan ever made an appearance. As the hours passed, the company grew restless.

“It has been too long,” Lord Zenzele finally said. “Either they went back or they are dead.”

“Surely,” Isabel said, “we could wait a little longer.”

The dark-haired beauty had grown increasingly distressed as time went by. Angharad felt for her: of the two boys she had come with, one had proved a villain and the other was now likely dead. Master Cozme insisted they stay longer where they stood, at the beginning of the broken mirror hall, he found no allies in this save for a hesitant Isabel.

“No one claims that the two of you cannot wait for Lord Remund,” Yaretzi tactfully said. “That is your choice to make. That does not mean it needs to be ours.”

A snort.

“He was a bit of a prick, your man,” Lord Zenzele noted. “Shame about Tristan, but the maze is a deadly place. Staying safe in the Old Fort did not prepare him, for all the stories about the heliodoran beast.”

“Are you so eager to abandon one of us?” Cozme angrily said. “What do I ask of you save time?”

“My patience, increasingly,” the Malani lord retorted.

Angharad, though part of her wished to wait – it shamed her to have invited Tristan only to lose him the very first day – had to step in.

“It will take hours to scale the crystals,” Angharad said. “My apologies, Master Cozme, but if we want to make it to the temple for the night we can no longer delay.”

The older man pulled at his mustache angrily but did not argue. He could tell when a battle was lost. Isabel’s attempt to comfort him was fended off brusquely enough it earned a raised eyebrow from Angharad. Allowances must be made for grief, she told herself, even though it was not certain that Lord Remund was dead. She was not sure how to feel about that, truth be told. The youngest Cerdan had been no friend of hers, but she had not wished him dead.

It made no difference, either way: be he dead or alive, Angharad was still bound by her oath to him not to seek the company of Isabel Ruesta.

Straightening her waning attention, Angharad opened her pack to begin setting out the equipment obtained from the Watch last eve. The sooner they reached the temple, the better. Much as it had her wary to sleep where Aines had been murdered, there was no other choice. It was the best way to remain close to the gate that would lead them back to the fortress-temple and through it the last stretch before the gate – what Lady Ferranda had called the ‘Toll Road’. Still, only a fool would forget the killing that had taken place. It had been decided that all would share a single room and two people would always be on watch.

Though they had carefully prepared for the journey traversing the broken hall was still difficult.

The crystals had always been sharp-edged and only grown more so since shattering into pieces, even small shards proving as dangerous as caltrops – they went right through leather boots, as Yaretzi learned to her dismay. The Izcalli was only lightly wounded but seeing her wince constantly had them all twice as wary. Still, their ropes, grappling hooks and gloves proved sufficient for the work. Though it was hard on the less fit of them to do so, Angharad took them up to sections of the collapsed ceiling whenever she could – it was usually in a fair state and following them let the company cross more quickly.

It still took two hours, longer than the hall had taken when inhabited by a spirit, and everyone was drenched in sweat by the end. Past the eerie cavern and the gauntlet of gargoyles the temple still waited: and just as Angharad had expected, the others had beaten them to it. After waiting so long for Remund and Tristan that had been a given. Everyone was upstairs, on the fourth level, though they were avoiding where Aines’ body had been found. The room where her body must still wait – half-heartedly entombed for lack of wood to burn her with – still had the door closed.

Everyone’s gaze seemed to avoid it, as if by unspoken accord.

Ripping right through the gloomy mood hanging around the crowd, the devil ever dogging Angharad’s steps was the first to greet her.

“Fashionably late to the party, Lady Tredegar,” Tupoc called out. “And missing a few friends, I see.”

As if there could ever be something fashionable about lateness. Izcalli.

Tupoc was sitting on the stairs, his segmented spear assembled and resting against his shoulder. His grin was as arrogant as his earrings, but the detail told. He is expecting trouble. Perhaps not without reason. Save for Augusto Cerdan, whose dark eyes never left her, everyone was giving him a wide berth. Lord Ishaan and Shalini kept to their corner while Lady Ferranda and Brun kept to another – Zenzele immediately went to join them, to a pang of discomfort from her – and Lan kept company with Lady Acanthe. Now that the shrines they had triumphed over were past and there was only one way forward, the short-lived reunion of the crews came at an unceremonious end.

Though she recognized Tupoc’s words as a taunt, honor compelled Angharad to share information of import to all trial-takers.

“Remund Cerdan and Tristan are missing,” she acknowledged. “Their condition is unknown to me.”

Some muttering at that. Remund had few friends, but Tristan was a physician’s apprentice and that had great value this far from the Old Fort. One noise broke through all the rest, however: Augusto Cerdan was laughing. He kept on even as every other soul went silent, until he was wheezing and out of breath. Tugging at his collar, the ruined face of the infanzon split into a smile.

“Cozme,” he happily said. “All is forgiven. You may return to my side.”

The older man did not move, but his gaze found the last of the Cerdan brothers. There was a look to those eyes Angharad had never seen there before: cool, almost calculating.

“So long as your brother lives, I am in his service,” Cozme Aflor finally said.

Angharad’s heart clenched with dismay. Surely Master Cozme could be implying he could ever return to Augusto’s side? It must have been politeness to a man he had once served, nothing more. Interruption came from another.

“Missing does not always mean dead,” Lord Ishaan said, stepping forward “Perhaps they will come in the night. Until then, shall we all agree to a truce?”

Tupoc laughed, tapping the haft of his spear against his shoulder.

“We, Nair?” he said. “Who is it ‘we’ you claim speak for?”

“The two of us,” Shalini said, joining her companion.

“A thronging multitude indeed,” Tupoc drawled. “Let all tremble before the mighty legions of Ramaya – tell me, which is the van and which the rearguard?”

Shalini eyed him a moment, the short and curvy gunslinger finally let out a chuckle. She spat to the side and drew a pistol.

“Did it ever occur to you, Tupoc,” she said, “that you are running out of warm bodies to throw between you and harm? Keep flapping that mouth and I might just decide to fill it with something even you will find hard to swallow.”

The Izcalli raised an eyebrow.

“Threats?” he said. “And here I thought your master was seeking a truce.”

“Yeah,” Shalini smiled. “Hide behind a truce again. That’s your favorite trick, isn’t it? I looked forward to being in the room when it finally fails you. That’ll be worth a laugh.”

The pistol the Someshwari – Ramayan in particular, Angharad supposed – held was no idle threat. From what Angharad had glimpsed, the gunslinger might genuinely be able to kill Tupoc. And once the thought was there, it did not leave. Shalini was right, she thought. Tupoc had gone on this long without paying for his deeds because he had made himself too much trouble to dig out, but was that still true? Ocotlan was dead. So were his two unlucky conscripts, Felis and Aines. The Izcalli’s strength had dwindled.

Now all that Tupoc had left was his spear and the glow of the bridges he had burned: Angharad had been patient long enough.

“Lady Tredegar?” Shalini pressed. “You word on the truce?”

“I cannot agree to one,” Angharad said.

Surprise on the Someshwari’s face, a flicker of betrayal.

“Not yet,” Angharad evenly said.

She slowly unsheathed her blade as she turned towards Tupoc and his last companion.

“Twice now you have avoided answering for your deeds, Augusto Cerdan,” the Pereduri said. “Must I strike you across the face again, or will you finally defend your honor sword in hand?”

A shiver went through the air. No one spoke, no one moved. Augusto’s face – mangled by misadventure, now a mass of bruises and ripped skin – tightened with fear. He rose, taking half a step up the stairs. Then Tupoc rose, letting out a sigh, and tapped his spear against his shoulder.

“Picking on poor Augusto again?” he drawled. “Now now, we can’t have that.”

“We?” Angharad gently echoed. “Who is this ‘we’ you claim to speak for?”

Tupoc looked around and saw the same thing she did: how the sheep that once feared him were now boldly growing the fangs of wolves. The noblewoman thought she could tell the very moment it sunk in that he had at last overplayed his hand – his grin was just a little too stiff, his eyes just a little too wide.

“Stand aside, Tupoc Xical,” Angharad calmly said. “Or else I will cut you down.”

And the illusion shattered. His power had no longer been rooted in truth, only on inertia from a time it had been. It had been a bluff, and Angharad had just called it.

A heartbeat later Song was at her side. Her musket was casually levelled forward. A bark of hard laughter followed, then the sound of a blade leaving the sheath. Lord Zenzele was on his feet, eyes burning with something like hate.

“And she won’t be alone. Do it, Xical,” Zenzele Duma said. “Please, give me a reason.”

“You already have one, Duma,” Tupoc amiably replied. “You are simply too craven to use it.”

The Izcalli’s eyes were only half on them, she saw. He was measuring distances and angles, the same way she would. Seeing if the fight was at all feasible.

“We need to calm down,” Isabel said. “Surely we-”

“Do shut your fucking mouth, Isabel,” Lady Ferranda mildly replied, drawing her own sword. “Passengers don’t get a say, and this has been a long time coming.”

The dark-haired beauty flinched away and though Angharad’s instinct was to intervene she pushed it down. She could console Isabel afterwards, when the peril had passed. Meanwhile Ferranda moved to stand by Zenzele, tacitly picking her side. Only a handful now remained uncommitted. Brun, watching it all uneasily with a hand on his hatchet, Ishaan and Shalini still holding back, Lady Acanthe reaching for her pistol with fear on her face while Lan and Yaretzi retreated and-

“This is madness.”

Angharad’s fingers tightened around her saber’s grip until the leather creaked and her knuckles turned white. Master Cozme, pistol in hand, moved between her and Augusto. He did not point the gun at her, but by the way the muzzle had yet to point down the pistol must be loaded. His decision was clear: Augusto had called and he had come. The traitor. The filthy, treacherous rat.

“Are we to have a battle before we even take on the tests of the temple-fortress?” Cozme Aflor challenged them. “How many dead, how many wounded can we-”

Halfway through the sentence, he froze. His eyes rolled up into the back of his head and he dropped in a sprawl, pistol clattering against the floor. He was still breathing, she saw, merely unconscious. A sigh drew Angharad’s eyes as Lord Ishaan, scar pulling at his lip, rubbed his forehead.

“That is going to give me such a headache,” Ishaan Nair complained.

Shalini snorted, then drew the pistol she’d been fondling.

“That’s us picking a side, folks,” the Someshwari smiled. “Liking those odds, Tupoc?”

A sleeping contract, Angharad realized with a sliver of fear. Ishaan had a contract that forced sleep.

Just like the killer who had been cutting throats.

No, she thought. He was nobly born, surely he could not – from the corner of her eye, Angharad saw Augusto taking a slow step further up the stairs and she set the matter aside. He’s going to run, she thought. An honorless cur to the end. Tupoc’s pale gaze swept across the forces arrayed against him, calculating but still utterly fearless. She would have admired that, in a better man.

“I could ask you the same question, Goel,” Tupoc Xical suddenly said. “How do you like our odds of making it to the gate with enough victors?”

If he had called on mercy or decency, Angharad thought, they would have laughed at him. But instead the Izcalli had mentioned the single thing that mattered to every single person in this hallway: his words were about the Trial of Ruins.

And behind them, Angharad thought, she could hear a sound like a crack in ice.

“How many victors do we number?” Tupoc asked them all. “Best to be certain of that, before you begin killing them off, for if you lose Augusto and myself you will be down two.”

Angharad paused. She did not, in fact, know the number. Tupoc was one, she counted, and now supposedly Augusto as well. Then from her former crew there were Isabel, Zenzele and herself.  Five. The Pereduri’s gaze slid to Lord Ishaan, who cleared his throat.

“Shalini and I are victors,” he contributed.

“I am as well,” Acanthe quietly added.

Eight victors in whole, then.

Angharad heard the cracks spread across the ice, a spiderweb unfolding.

“For those of you slower on the draw,” Tupoc said, “it means we are still two short of the ten we need and there are only six potential new victors left.”

He paused.

“Shall we kill Augusto, then, and make it so that three of those six must win? Or perhaps listen to bold Zenzele and add me to the pile, make it so that it must be four instead?”

The Malani lord snarled but gave no retort.

Tupoc’s words spread like poison. Angharad was already a victor, so no matter how many tests she now beat she could not raise their numbers. Cool gazes took in those who remained uncrowned: the unconscious Master Cozme, Lady Ferranda, Song, Brun, Yaretzi and Lan. Yaretzi was a diplomat by trade, though she could defend herself, and Lan a gossip with no weapon save a knife. The others were more solid candidates, but the tests of the spirits were not always as simple as skill at arms. Two of these six passing a test, Angharad thought they could rely on. It left room for mistakes, for the traps of spirits. Three victors out of these six, while less certain, she also felt to be likely.

The trouble was what came after, she knew.

Tupoc knew it too.

“Oh, I imagine we’ll get past the temple-fortress with ten or eleven even if we have our little brawl here,” Tupoc shrugged. “Yet that still leaves the Toll Road, my friends. Would it not be a mite tedious, for a death or two there to bring us below ten right before we reach the gate?”

Angharad swallowed her pride. She could not let him slip away, not again.

“Lord Ishaan,” she said. “Would your contract work on Xical?”

Cozme was not dead. Her concerns that she might well be speaking to the man who had been slitting throats aside, if Tupoc could be incapacitated the same way there would be seven victors left after Augusto’s demise. A risk, to be sure, but one she was willing to take. The Someshwari grimaced.

“I am not sure.”

He did not offer to use his contract after that and Angharad did not ask. Being refused would only serve as a humiliation to both.

“Xical heals,” Shalini noted. “Blowing off his kneecaps should work just as well.”

But the muzzle of her pistol lowered and Angharad thought she could hear the ice break entirely. Tupoc still had enemies, those wanting to kill him, but the wind was no longer blowing the Pereduri’s way. Too many anxious faces were watching, too many moving parts.

How was it, Angharad thought, that a man almost universally despised threatening to throw away his own life kept forcing them back again and again?

Ferranda sighed, sheathing her sword, and that was the beginning of the end. Song’s musket came down, then Zenzele snarled again and strode off. Angharad did not watch them, her eyes instead staying on Augusto Cerdan. Who looked at her with fear and hatred, not even a speck of relief worming its way onto that brutalized face.

“I accept the truce until we have passed the last gate,” Angharad said. “That makes three, Lord Augusto. On my oath, there will not be a fourth.

Master Cozme would not be sharing a room with them.

Even had the man been apologetic when he was kicked awake by Tupoc – which he was not – Angharad would not have suffered it. Where was the honor in returning to the side of a man who murdered his own servants and offered treachery at every turn? She could not praise loyalty when it was so blatantly unearned; no man of character would have gone back to Augusto Cerdan’s side. How had she not seen it before? It had been her own naivete that blinded her, a foolish girl taking the first offered friendly hand. What a laugh it must have been for him, tricking her like this.

Biting down on what she would admit was a healthy helping of wounded pride, she avoided Isabel as everyone dragged their packs into the room where they would stay the night. She was too angry to give the comfort that the infanzona needed, having lost a friend in Remund and then been insulted by Ferranda. Lady Villazur’s words had been unfair: Isabel, though not a fighter, was a victor. Ferrand Villazur was not, for all the secrets about the maze she had kept up her sleeve.

Being surrounded by walls had her feeling hemmed in so Angharad stepped out to breathe. The temple, for all its dangers, was lovely enough to behold: downstairs the pools and waterfalls of luminous water flowed like strands of radiance, impossibly elegant. The dark-skinned woman lay her elbows on the stone railing and bled out her anger one breath at a time. Being calm did not mean laying down the grievance, only seeing it with eyes unclouded. Angharad made herself look at the source of her anger with a calmer mien and came to her conclusion.

It was not, in the end, her place to tell Cozme Aflor where he should stand. She was not his lady or his captain. That his act was a betrayal of trust was not to be denied, however, and though honor did not obligate her to seek redress she would now consider all ties within them severed. He should be treated as a stranger of poor repute, nothing more.

A shiver went down her spine at the thought, like a single icy droplet sliding down. Angharad’s shoulders tensed as much because of the sensation as what lay beyond it – distant amusement. The Fisher, she thought, was adding another betrayal to his tally. Another string to the argument they’d had in the dark, about the worth of honor. You treated him with honor, she could almost hear the old monster say. And where did that get you, Angharad Tredegar? Tugging at her coat uncomfortably, the noblewoman pushed off the railing. Suddenly the fresh air she’d come for felt all too cold.

“- ent outside.”

Passing the pillar that had been hiding her, she saw that her room – the company’s room, for the night – was being called on. Brun was speaking with Isabel, the skin of his face still red from the fire trap he had encountered as one of Lord Ishaan’s crew. It leant him a ruddy look, like he was a woodsman from the country instead of a Sacromontan born and bred.

“And there she is,” Lady Isabel said. “You can ask her yourself.”

Brun turned and when Angharad offered him a polite nod he replied in in kind.

“You had need of me?” she asked.

“I do,” Brun agreed. “The grapevine has it that you are arranging for a common sleeping room watched over by guards.”

Angharad nodded. It was no secret. If anything, such knowledge might deter the killer from an attempt. Her heart clenched at the thought: she now had a thought as to who that killer might be, though she hesitated to pursue it without more to go on.

“It seemed a necessary precaution given our last stay here,” she continued.

“I cannot agree more,” the fair-haired man said, tone fervent. “And given Cozme Aflor’s recent… departure, would it be too forward of me to ask if I might take his place?”

Angharad hid her surprise. She glanced at Isabel, who only smiled.

“I am sure Briceida would have been glad for his return,” the dark-haired beauty said. “I have no objection.”

“I thought you had decided to stay with Lord Ishaan,” Angharad delicately said.

It had the benefit of being both true and more gracious than reminding him he had once told her he wanted nothing to do with the infanzones.

“My concerns were about the Cerdans,” Brun frankly replied.

Angharad’s face blanked. That he would be open about it in front of Isabel was rather unexpected, though the infanzona only lightly chuckled.

“I thought that might be the reason we parted ways,” she said. “It is only natural, Angharad. Our time on the Dominion opened my eyes regarding the brothers. They are… not as I believed them to be.”

Angharad felt a pang of guilt at how selfish she had been. Stewing over Cozme’s betrayal as she had, it had never occurred to her that Isabel must feel even more betrayed – she had known the brothers for years, been friends with them even before they began courting. Brun cleared his throat, drawing back her gaze.

“In the interest of honesty, Lady Angharad, I also believe myself in danger,” he said. “I appear to have been caught up in a misunderstanding, and while I understand why it happened I would rather sleep with guards for the foreseeable future.”

And that begged further questions, but Angharad held her tongue. Fresh on the heels of Master Cozme revealing his true colors, Brun’s forthrightness felt like the very breath of fresh air she had gone outside to find. He had come here with plain intentions and set out to clear the air with everyone before making a simple request. Angharad would not repay that with an inquisition.

“We are all chasing shadows, these days,” she said. “I do no begrudge anyone seeking refuge when I have set out to build one.”

Smiling she offered Brun her hand.

“Glad to have you back, even for a single night.”

He shook it, grip firm. Sleeping God, it felt good for something to finally go right.

“I shall fetch my bags, then,” Brun said. “Best not to waste any time.”

The Sacromontan made his courtesies to both, then took his leave. Isabel watched him go, an amused look on her face.

“Did I miss a jest?” Angharad asked.

“No,” the infanzona assured her. “It is only that something about our friend Brun brings to mind poetry from home. A verse by Ilaria.”

“I have heard the name before,” Angharad said. “A famous poetess from the Century of Crowns, no?”

Ruina and Alza are her most famous works, worthy successors to the great works of the Second Empire,” Isabel conceded, “but in Sacromonte it is Pequenas Mentiras, the Little Lies, that are most beloved. It is a collection of poems she wrote during her destitute years while wandering the city.”

Angharad cocked an eyebrow.

“Now you have me curious. What verse was brought to mind?”

Isabel cleared her throat.

“To join the court of cats

is most easily done:

solemnly swear that none

ever did fall flat.”

“I do not catch the meaning,” Angharad admitted.

“Think nothing of it,” Isabel smiled. “You might say it is an old Sacromontan vice, my dear, that we ever enjoy a clever rat.”

The green-eyed infanzona laid a hand on her arm.

“Do you happen to know where Song went?” she asked. “I have not seen her since she brought her pack.”

“I did not see her leaving,” Angharad replied.

Given how close it had come to arms earlier, for the Tianxi to wander off alone when they were so clearly aligned was perhaps dangerous. Best to find her before someone else did.

“She cannot have gone far,” Angharad mused. “Still, best to make sure.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Isabel smiled.

Song was not particularly difficult to find because she was already looking for her.

Angharad had questions, but when the other woman gave her a meaningful look and gestured towards the plethora open doors on the floor – from where anyone could be listening – she conceded and followed her into another room. Closing the door behind her, Angharad went still as she saw that she and the Tianxi were not alone inside: leaning against the back wall were Lord Ishaan Nair and Shalini Goel. For the merest of moments she wondered if she had been betrayed again, but quickly set it aside. Song had saved her life twice, all that would have been needed for her death was for the Tianxi to do nothing at all.

“Lady Angharad,” Ishaan greeted her. “I told you, yesterday, that there was more to say. Song proved amenable to arranging a meeting.”

“If not alone,” Shalini said. “Where’s the trust, friend?”

“Somewhere around the border of Jiushen,” Song easily replied.

“I think you mean Jaldevi,” Shalini retorted without batting an eye.

Finally a reference Angharad knew the meaning of. Jiushen had been territory under the Kingdom of Cathay, the predecessor to the Republics, but been annexed by the nascent Imperial Someshwar during the wars that led to the kingdom’s shattering. Tianxia had several times tried to reclaim the region, now called Jaldevi by Someshwari, but never succeeded at holding it for more than a year. Some of the bloodiest battles in the history of Vesper had been fought in the city’s vicinity.

“Let us set that old debate aside before someone starts singing ‘The Lost Eleventh’,” Lord Ishaan advised. “I have never once seen that happen without a brawl following.”

In other circumstances Angharad might have been amused – the somewhat playful bickering between Song and Shalini often was worth a chuckle – but at the moment she was disinclined to humor. The lack of mirth on her face was plain enough that Ishaan frowned at the sight.

“Ah,” the chubby-cheeked man said. “I should have expected as much.”

“A conversation is in order,” Angharad said, “but perhaps not the one you wish for.”

Shalini frowned.

“What are you talking about?”

“I would not make wild accusations,” the noblewoman evenly replied, “but Lord Ishaan’s demonstration of his contract brings questions. Both victims were killed in their sleep, that sleep continuing longer than anything but drugs or a contract could enforce.”

She might not have made an accusation, she’d stopped shy of that, but the implication was clear. Song’s face was inscrutable, but her intentions mattered little here. Angharad was honor-bound to seek answers for Aines’ death, which had taken place under truce. Shalini was visibly furious, swelling up with anger as she bit out an answer.

“Is that how it’s going to be? We come in good faith and-”

Lord Ishaan laid a hand on her shoulder.

“It’s a fair question to ask, Shal,” he said. “Secrecy has its worth, but two people have been killed.”

The other Someshwari’s face softened at his words, though the ember of indignation still burned. Much as Angharad would have liked to believe Shalini Goel would have nothing to do with a killer, she was not certain the other woman would place such concerns above her loyalty to Ishaan.

“It’s not for you to pay for their suspicions,” Shalini replied. “We do not owe that.”

“It is not always about owing,” Ishaan Nair said.

He withdrew his hand from his companion’s shoulder, though to Angharad’s eye both seemed reluctant to break away. Lord Ishaan met her gaze plainly.

“My contract would not achieve what you describe,” he said. “Though I can daze others, even knock them unconscious, the effect is fragile – they would be awoken by pain.”

Angharad began to choose her words, but Song cleared her throat and spoke first.

“Were we inclined to doubt you,” the Tianxi delicately said, “how would you provide proof?”

How prudently phrased. Enough that not even the hotter temper of two could take offence – Song did have a knack, when she cared to use it. Ishaan grimaced, flicking a glance at Shalini. She sighed then stepped away. For a moment Angharad thought he would use his contract on her, but instead she went to fetch an ancient, dusty chamber pot from the corner.

“My god is a god of the soul,” the Someshwari lord said. “He despises impurity and drinks from pure sources only. The price he demanded for his power reflects this.”

Ishaan visibly steeled himself.

“Your coat is black,” he told Angharad.

She blinked. It was, in fact, a shade of dark green. Not even a heartbeat after speaking the words Ishaan paled and sweat beaded his brow. He convulsed, Shalini rushing at his side with the chamber pot as he began dry retching into it. It was a solid minute before he stopped, panting as he eased away from the mercifully still-empty pot. Angharad was not unfamiliar with the ploy of feigning sickness, but while retching could be faked the sweats could not.

“You cannot lie,” she said.

“I cannot knowingly speak untruth,” Ishaan corrected. “Lest it make me sick, as lying is a pollution of the soul.”

“You were sick at the beginning of the second trial,” Song noted. “Not like this, though. And Shalini claimed that it was a consequence of using your contract, not a price.”

The Tianxi seemed unimpressed at the revelation, like it was nothing noteworthy. Shalini glared.

“Have you not had enough proof?” she challenged. “Shall we ask the details of your contract now, Song Ren? Or perhaps a thing or two about your surname. Courtesies that were not given cannot be returned.”

“If I were a suspect, such talk would be in order,” Song calmly replied. “I am not. Lord Ishaan dropped a grown man in public without moving a finger and you think this does not warrant questions? Do not confuse courtesy with privilege. That is a yiwu mistake.”

Angharad looked at the Tianxi in surprise. Yiwu? She recognized the term from Republican tracts, the kind passed around dinner parties when coin was sought for the founding of new Trebian Sea trading companies. She had not thought Song such a radical.

Ishaan cleared his throat, voice rasping.

“I am no pilgrim on the Ninefold Path,” he said. “If I were to answer that question and lay bare my secrets, I would expect something in return.”

Only for all that Song had been the one to speak it was on Angharad that the nobleman’s eyes came to rest. Tempted as she was to decline, to simply allow ignorance, it remained that Aines had died under truce. Answers must be had.

“I am listening,” she said.

“An alliance for the Trial of Weeds,” Ishaan said. “Myself, Shalini and anyone you rope in.”

“And you would reveal the nature of your contract in exchange,” Angharad said.

“So long as you promise to discuss it with no one outside this room.”

Her eyes found the scar on his cheek again, what she could not help but think was a truer face of him than the chubby cheeks and amiable manners. He was pleasant and polite, Lord Ishaan Nair, but Angharad would not forget he had schemed to send Tupoc’s entire crew to their likely deaths. The Pereduri would not claim deep acquaintance of either he or Shalini, but she thought herself a passable judge of character and Shalini did not strike her as cold enough for that. Her temper and trigger finger ran hot, but she was not ruthless enough to make that decision.

Ishaan, however, she could see weighing the gains and losses before choosing death.

It was why right now Angharad was being made to consider a bargain where she would receive something she needed but did not truly want while she was to give in return something that Ishaan Nair had been angling for since they last stood in this temple. The chubby-cheeked lordling was the vulnerable one, the one exposing himself and being cornered, and yet he would still be the one to get his way. Angharad felt unpleasantly like a fish caught in a snare.

“It is not an unfair bargain,” Song opined.

A glance at her face told her the Tianxi was inclined to accept but aware it was not her decision to make. Sighing, Angharad nodded.

“Under the stated terms, I accept your bargain,” she said.

Ishaan’s shoulders loosened and he even spared a smile for Shalini. He was more nervous than I realized, she thought. In a way that was comforting.

“It is difficult to get into the functionalities of my contract without dipping into theistic metaphysics,” Ishaan said. “I do not believe either of you is schooled in the subject?”

Song cocked an eyebrow.

“And you are?” she asked.

She seemed skeptical. Angharad was not certain why, given that the Tianxi herself spoke more languages that most translators.

“Have been since the age of six,” he easily replied. “Part of the reason I chose to seek out the Watch was the possibility of joining the Peiling Society. The Savants are arguably the leading light in that field of study.”

Angharad could believe that easily enough. Peiling, Umuthi and Arthashastra – all three of the societies making up the College had strong reputations in their fields. It was a common complaint of scholars in Malan that as Circles of the Watch the three societies were allowed rights that other scholars were not, lending them an unfair edge.

“I am not learned in such matters,” Angharad freely admitted. “Why ask?”

“If you do not mind,” Ishaan said, “I would explain my contract in descriptive terms instead of the theistic mechanics.”

“You are dumbing it down for us,” Song said, sounding somewhat amused.

“Those are not the words I would use,” Ishaan serenely replied.

How precisely phrased, she smiled. The Someshwari had once caught her out, Angharad remembered, when she used exact wording around him. No wonder, if he was forced to live much the same way Angharad tried to by virtue of his contract punishing anything else.

“I do not mind,” the Pereduri said.

Song shrugged in agreement. Ishaan nodded his thanks.

“In essence, I superimpose my physical mind – as conceived by my soul – over that of a single thinking entity I target through the medium of aether,” he told them.

There was a heartbeat as silence as they both tried to make sense of what they had been told.

“He throws his mind at other people’s minds and it knocks them out,” Shalini told them. “It’s like loading a pistol with your soul and shooting at people with it.”

Song choked and Angharad rather understood the urge, having only narrowly mastered herself.

“I really wish you would stop phrasing it like that,” Ishaan said, sounding pained.

“And I really you would stop shooting your soul at people, Isha,” Shalini replied without missing a beat.

“Is that,” Angharad slowly asked, “safe?”

“To some extent,” Ishaan said. “Shalini exaggerates the risks, as my soul itself is not in danger: the ‘bullet’ in her description is a conception of my mind as conceived my soul, neither the actual soul or mind. The risk comes from when the connection when the conception of my mind attempts to overlay their own – depending on the scale of the mind being overlayed, a dangerous amount of pressure can be applied against my consciousness.”

“That is why you were in a daze after the Trial of Lines,” Song said. “You knocked out the airavatan for a few moments, but its mind was too much.”

“It was a singularly unpleasant experience,” Ishaan grimly said. “Not unlike trying to fill a bucket by squeezing a single orange until even the pulp was dry.”

Angharad almost winced. For a man who could not lie without getting sick to describe an experience as ‘singularly unpleasant’, it must have been horrifying. Shalini patted his back, then turned a cocked eyebrow on them.

“Now that we’re all friends,” the short gunslinger said, “it might be we have a few questions you would be able to answer.”

“The alliance begins only with the Third Trial,” Song pointed out.

“We no longer have any real reason to be at odds,” Ishaan retorted. “We all want to reach the gate and to live through the Trial of Weeds. We may not be allies yet, but our interests are in alignment.”

“I have yet to hear a question,” Angharad said, promising nothing.

“A trade,” Song added after. “Question for question.”

Angharad cocked an eyebrow at her but conceded easily enough. She had no intention of answering questions about her contract but had little to hide otherwise. The Someshwari agreed.

“Is it true that Brun’s contract is about sensing people?” Shalini asked.

Angharad started.

“As far as I know,” she agreed. “I am not aware of the particulars and did not ask.”

“Why ask?” Song said. “If you do not mind sharing.”

She seemed very interested. The Someshwari traded a look.

“I think him one of the likeliest to be the killer,” Ishaan admitted.

“You have never made that accusation,” Angharad said, not hiding her surprise.

“We don’t have proof,” Shalini said. “And there’d be complications.”

The Pereduri cocked an eyebrow.

“I have used my contract several times in front of others,” Ishaan elaborated. “It would be easy to turn the accusation back on me and the only reliable way to defuse them would have been repeating our previous conversation in front of everyone.”

And without getting a promise of alliance in return, Angharad thought. Yet another way Ishaan had outmaneuvered her, she suddenly realized. If such an accusation was made, now that she knew what she knew honor would compel her to defend the Someshwari from the false accusation. Her mood soured at the thought. A thought occurred, how Brun had earlier mentioned he was at the heart of a misunderstanding he feared for his life over.

Not without reason, considering Ishaan had almost sent five people out to die.

“I have been given no reason to suspect Brun,” Angharad stated. “And would take ill to something happening to him.”

“Perhaps we should first ask why they suspect him,” Song said. “Neither of them are fools, Angharad.”

Displeased but knowing the Tianxi was right, she turned an expectant gaze on the other two.

“Process of elimination,” Shalini said. “He has the only contract that can fit the deed now that we learned Tristan’s was some kind of small-scale telekinesis.”

Tristan ha a contract? Angharad kept her surprise off her face. She’d had no idea, which was somewhat humiliating given that she had attempted to recruit him. Still, there was an obvious weakness to the argument.

“Some of us could yet be hiding contracts,” she pointed out.

Ishaan conceded with a nod.

“That is true,” he said. “Which is why I still suspect it might be Yong instead.”

Angharad blinked.

“Yong?” she said.

“He keeps moving around,” Shalini said. “First he signs up with the infanzones, then Tristan and Sarai’s crew, then he comes with us and now he’s back with the Old Fort crew? He’s hiding something, and the drinking is perhaps a little too on the nose. That, and, well…”

She flicked a glance at Song. The latter sighed.

“He is a famous murderer back in Tianxia,” Song revealed. “He murdered a famous general who might have won us back Jiushen, likely at the behest of Someshwari nobles.”

“It is not a rare name,” Ishaan said. “But several times we overheard him mentioning the Battle of Diecai and he has the right age, which is suggestive.”

“He did not deny it when I called him by his moniker,” Song said.

Angharad felt sick. How many times had she spoken with a hired killer without even knowing it? Suddenly Song’s insistence that she not be alone with the man made a great deal more sense. Why the other woman had never thought to mention this before was worth discussing, she thought, if not before these two. She cleared her throat, eager to change the subject.

“Why did you refrain from using your contract on Tupoc earlier?” Angharad asked.

Ishaan sighed, passing a hand through his hair.

“His contract worries me,” he said.

“Xical seems like he heals wounds, but it must be more elaborate than that,” Shalini said. “We have it from Lan that he walked off poison and healing contracts that can mend flesh and detoxify are rare. The underlying ideas are too different.”

“More likely it is an exotic effect relating to the metaphysical concept of his Being,” Ishaan said. “Should that be the case, it would be the theistic opposite of my contract. Putting them in conflict might have… unpredictable consequences, to say the least.”

And unpredictability rarely ended in pleasantness when dealing with spirits.

“Our turn,” Shalini said. “What do you know about what the crew that stayed at the Old Fort is up to?”

Angharad blinked.

“Tristan, Sarai and Francho,” Ishaan elaborated. “Vanesa as well before her… well, you were all there.”

“Nothing,” Angharad admitted.

Shalini laughed at first, then looked skeptical. She glanced at Song, who shrugged.

“Did he not head out with your crew this morning?” she asked.

“I first invited him days ago, before the first journey out into the maze,” Angharad said. “He only now chose to take me up on the invitation.”

“Unfortunate,” Ishaan said. “We got from Lan that he made some sort of deal with the garrison, but the terms are unknown to us. That he would venture out into the maze came as a surprise and I am not sure I believe he died before reaching the mirror hall. He was a craft sort.”

Twice now they had mentioned Lan’s name as a source of information. They must be on good terms with her even though she had long been part of Tupoc’s followers. Angharad glanced curiously at Song, who nodded. She had a question then. Let her use it. The Tianxi cleared her throat.

“What was your plan with the hour- locked gates?” she asked.

Shalini snorted.

“Nothing that panned out,” she said. “Lots of wasted time.”

Ishaan shot her a look somewhere between fond and irritated.

“When exploring the fourth level,” he said, “we found that there was secret passage leading from a room – the one I claimed – to the room with the gates. When Lady Ferranda came to us with knowledge of said gates and where they lead, I saw an opportunity.”

Angharad stilled. Song leaned forward, eyes intent.

“Shalini came to visit me in the night,” Ishaan said, “and using the passage, we broke the second gate – the one assigned to you, leading back into the maze. Come morning I intended to bargain to allow you to come with our crew so long as we joined ranks.”

He was not lying. He could not without sickening.

“You broke our gate,” Angharad slowly said.

Ishaan cocked an eyebrow.

“Shalini and I used a hammer to break your gate,” he plainly stated, leaving no room for trickery.

He still did not get sick. Ferranda had lied when she claimed to have broken both gates herself. Why? Sleeping God, so many lies from so many mouths. Angharad felt like she was losing count.

“And Tupoc’s crew?” Song asked.

“Tupoc and Ocotlan were a problem,” Shalini bluntly said. “They kept protecting troublemakers so everyone stayed at odds and we couldn’t clean house. Besides, there was no guarantee everyone going that way would die. Lady Ferranda described it as a trap, not certain death.”

Angharad’s eyes moved to Ishaan, who had carefully let his companion speak for him.

“I do not know the nature of the Trial of Weeds,” he finally said. “Given an opportunity to rid us of Tupoc Xical and his second before they reached it, I judged the other potential deaths worth it.”

Angharad should have despised him for that, for it spat in the eye of what it should be to be a noble, but the feeling never came. It was, she thought, the calm in him. The lack of guilt or justifications. Looking at the scarred man now, she was reminded of Mother. The way Rhiannon Tredegar spoken, calmly and plainly, about how sometimes you had to throw a troublemaker overboard. That it might not be fair but that a captain had a responsibility to their ship and there were times were the cold call must be made. Slowly she nodded. She did not agree with Lord Ishaan, but he had been trying to steady a ship: he was not a wanton murderer, grasping for advantage. She could respect the ends, if not the means.

Song’s gaze on her felt incredulous but she paid it no mind.

“There can be no more of that, when we are allied,” she said.

He nodded. She would leave it at that, then.

“We’ve been in here too long already,” Shalini said. “It’s bound to have been noticed. I’ve got a question or two left but they can wait.”

“You two go on ahead,” Song suggested. “I still need a word with Lady Angharad.”

The pair agreed easily enough. Angharad turned an eye on the Tianxi after they made their courtesies.

“You did not warn me about Yong,” she said the moment the door closed.

“I did not know for sure until yesterday,” Song replied. “It seemed absurd to me it would be him, like running into Admiral Benedeta while out buying apples.”

No true admiral, that one, though the infamous Trebian pirate was rumored to have gathered a sizeable fleet. Angharad conceded with a grimace. It must have seemed rather implausible to run into such an infamous killer on the Bluebell.

“He must have been hiding in Sacromonte,” the Tianxi mused. “Perhaps the Republics finally found him so he now seeks refuge in the Watch.”

“Either way he cannot be trusted,” Angharad flatly said.

She had known that even before she spent months hounded across Vesper by assassins. No man who killed for coin could be trusted.

“He is no trouble of ours at the moment,” Song shrugged. “I have a more pressing concern anyhow.”

The Pereduri’s brow rose.

“About Ishaan and Shalini?”

“No,” Song said, then hesitated. “Not exactly. What they said, about a secret passage to the gate room?”

Angharad nodded. She remembered.

“I think,” Song said, “that if there was secret passage on one side of this hall, there will be one on the other.”

Angharad frowned.

“Count the pools,” the Tianxi told her. “The gargoyles, the number of rooms. It is not symmetrical – aggressively not – but the numbers on both sides of the temple always match if you consider the gate room to be the center of this temple.”

The noblewoman would freely admit having spent not a second’s thought on this or notice anything that Song was mentioning, but she saw no reason to doubt the other woman. The implication to her words was straightforward to pick up on.

“Therefore, though it will not be symmetrically placed there should be a secret passage on the other side of the temple,” Angharad summed up.

She paused.

“That is a concern. The killer could strike again using it.”

“I worry of the same. To find it, though, we might have to ask to inspect rooms already occupied,” Song warned.

There would be nothing subtle about that.

“Then let us begin with the empty ones and hope that is not necessary,” Angharad replied.

They were methodical about it.

Like cattle huddling together for warmth, the trial-takers had claimed the rooms nearest to the stairs leading up to the gate room. None had cared to leave the relative safety of that closeness by choosing a room too far away, afraid of being picked off, so that left the pair free reign to explore from the outer edge of the hall going inwards. Most of the rooms were identical, largely bare stone with some dusty furniture and the occasional mural, but by the third Angharad was starting to see some small variations – taller ceilings, different furniture arrangements, thicker walls.

It was once they entered the fifth room that Song suddenly stopped before setting foot past the threshold.

“Wait,” the Tianxi said. “Look at the size of the room.”

Angharad cocked her head to the side.

“It is one of the smaller ones,” she said. “In both wall and ceiling.”

“And the last one also had a larger wall than usual,” Song said. “How large would you say the space between those two rooms is?”

“Large enough for a person to move through,” Angharad replied.

She would admit to a modicum of excitement, exploring ancient ruins like Mother once had. That it was not for the honor of the High Queen but an attempt at finding a murderer muted the feeling, admittedly, but did not smother it entirely.

Much as Angharad would have liked to claim she had been the key to it all, it was all Song.

The Tianxi took a single look at the wall before humming and moving away while the noblewoman began patting it for irregularities. Thirty heartbeats later, while she tried to push in a small indent on the wall, Song let out small laugh before there was a soft clicking sound. She had been looking at the stone bedframe, where it was pressed against the wall, and pushed in a small gargoyle head. Angharad looked around for an opening and found a span of wall besides the bed was slightly jutting out.

“There,” she said.

The other woman nodded. Song tugged at the stone delicately, raising it up perpendicular to the wall until it revealed a window in the wall. There was no light inside, but there did appear to be a narrow tunnel – not tall enough to stand, only to crawl.

“Well now,” Song muttered. “See that?”

Angharad came close, lowering herself so her face was the height of the opening, and her eyes narrowed. There was a thin coating of dust on the tunnel floor, but it was not uniform: someone had crawled here before them.

“That might be our killer’s work,” she said.

“Hard to identify someone by their knees than their feet,” Song said. “And there’s no lack of other provenances for dust. Still, it should be worth a look.”

Angharad nodded her agreement. Song took in a lantern and then crawled into the tunnel while Angharad, out of a need for certainty, went back and made sure the door to the room was closed. There was no lock, so it was the best they would get.

In she went.

— Angharad soon learned that her companion being around three inches shorter and significantly less broad at the shoulders made a difference when crawling through a confined space.

Wiggling was intolerably undignified, but needs must. When the tunnel turned a corner, into the wall whose thickness had alerted them at the possibility of the passage, it thankfully broadened. It also rose, almost like steps, until the two of them found themselves above the ceiling. Though the space was still cramped above, it was now quite broad: it seemed as large as the rooms under it, almost like an attic. Song crawled to the edge and let out a noise of surprise.

“There are holes in the eyes of gargoyles,” she said. “You can look outside from here.”

Angharad joined her as best she could, pressing her face against the stone when she saw an opening. Song had spoken true: if such eyeholes continued all the way through, it would be possible to see across most of the temple by simply moving a little. Not even Lan in her hiding place would have had such a fine vantage.

“No dust here,” Angharad noted. “We cannot know if the killer noticed as well.”

“I’d think it likely,” Song replied. “Especially since-”

She was interrupted not by Angharad but by the muted sound of people talking. Both stilled for a moment, trading a look before realizing the noise came from further out. By unspoken accord they crawled closer, the voices becoming clear enough they could make out both speakers were women. They were, the Pereduri belatedly realized, getting closer to their own room. And there was more: Song called her attention to the floor ceiling beneath them, the way the lantern light touched it. If you looked from the right angle, the stone became translucent – like looking through dark glass.

They followed the voices, and when they came to rest around their room’s ceiling to peery through it became plain who they were looking at: Isabel was seated on the bed, talking to Lady Ferranda who stood facing her. Intonations were a little difficult to make out, but the words were clear.

“-rudeness,” Isabel was saying. “There is no need for us to be at odds.”

“Let us keep moving,” Angharad said, suddenly uncomfortable.

It was, she felt, rather uncouth to listen in on the private conversations of a lady. Especially one a woman had intentions for. Song looked amused but prepared to concede.

“Even if you blast your contract at me all day, it will do nothing,” Lady Ferranda said. “There is nothing for it to work with.”

Angharad stilled. Isabel had a contract? Her eyes found Song’s. The Tianxi did not look surprised. Angharad grimaced, then gestured for them to leave again. Contract or not, eavesdropping was uncalled for. This time Song shook her head. She had no intention of leaving.

The noblewoman hesitated, but ended up staying.

“Inventions do you no good,” Isabel replied. “I understand you are distressed but-”

“I’m not the Cerdans, Ruesta,” Ferranda cut in. “I’m not trying to fuck you, wounded doe eyes won’t work on me. Even less after seeing you handle them: they’re no paragons, I’ll admit, but your game was a nasty piece of work.”

“I did no such thing,” Isabel firmly replied. “If I played the diplomat, Ferranda, it was to help us all survive. We are not all our father’s favorite, allowed to cavort with foreigners and go hunting for days at a time. If peace is all I can wield, I will make the most of it.”

“Poor, harmless little Isabel,” the other woman mocked. “Did you think I wouldn’t look into you when word spread we’d share a Dominion year? A trail of boys and girls with broken hearts, not one of them with a single bad thing to say about you. Not a single one. Strange, that.”

“Now you’re flailing,” Isabel coldly replied. “Mind control is forbidden under the Iscariot Accords. It would be the end not only of myself but every soul in House Ruesta.”

Ferranda Villazur was growing unhinged, Angharad thought. First she had lied about the gates and now she threw wild accusations seemingly without a shred of proof? She had thought the blonde infanzona the most prepared for the trials, but perhaps that was the reason for this: even after all her preparations, she had suffered loss after loss.

“Yes, that did get me thinking,” Ferranda said. “Asking around too much would have brought your house down on me, but I got enough for a guess: you are, Isabel, seen through the kindest possible mirror. People see the parts they like more and those they dislike less.”

Angharad blinked. That was… possible, she supposed, though Ferranda had yet to bring so much as even a sliver of evidence. It would have been unfair to revisit every conversation she’d had with Isabel with a colder eye, but for that Angharad forced herself not to doubt wormed its way in.

“I refuse to humor this nonsense any further,” Isabel flatly said. “If you did not come to apologize, you may leave.”

“What would be your price, though?” Ferranda continued, imperturbable. “It ought to be subtle, your contract certainly is. I kept guessing and getting it wrong, I’ll admit. I only figured it out when we met again at the Old Fort, after the Trial of Lines.”

“I said,” Isabel repeated, rising to her feet, “you may leave.”

It would have felt like Angharad was witness bullying, someone picking on another, if the accusations were not so serious. If Isabel truly had such an insidious contract – which the Pereduri was not willing to believe solely on Ferranda’s word – then it would only be natural to shun her.

“You hid it well, but before someone said my name you did not recognize me,” the other infanzona chuckled. “I thought that was insane, that we were only slightly acquainted but hardly strangers, and that was when it hit me. You always pay such close attention to people’s clothes. Not only other nobles but everyone. I thought you were a snob, but there’s more to it than that.”

A pause.

“It’s what you use to tell us apart, isn’t it? Since you forget faces.”

Angharad swallowed something like horror. Sleeping God, that would be no way to live. Isabel sighed, brushing back her hair.

“It must be comforting, Ferranda, to have a story to tell yourself about how a scheming villain is responsible for all your woes,” she said. “I don’t begrudge you that, considering.”

She leaned forward.

“But we both know the truth is simpler: you started fucking the help, compounded the error by catching feelings and then got him killed when you came up with a foolish scheme to keep him around as a lover when you wed,” Isabel said. “Grieve your Sanale all you like, Ferranda, but his death was no doing of mine. Go throw your wild conspiracies at another.”

“Speak his name again,” Ferranda said, “and you will be swallowing your teeth.”

Angharad froze. Lady Ferranda had been sleeping with her hired huntsman? Her anger was raw and she had denied nothing.

“You might not survive the consequences of that,” Isabel said.

“How long do you think you can hide behind Tredegar?” Ferranda snorted. “You sunk your hooks quick and she’s soft-hearted, but she’s not a fool. She’ll figure out you’re just using her.”

“I don’t doubt she would, if that were what I was doing,” Isabel patiently replied. “She is very clever, for all the usual Malani obsessions. Not that it is any of your business, but I am quite fond of her and intend on some sweetness before we part ways. What we are not is in love, because I am not a fucking fool.”

Ferranda laughed.

“Manes, but you are ice cold,” she said, almost admiring. “I thought there would be a crack, a bit of guilt, but you might as well be a statue.”

The taller infanzona took a step forward. Isabel warily stepped back. Angharad, who had thought highly of both, clenched her jaw in confused anguish.

“I imagine it must be maddening, living in a world of strangers that all love you,” Ferranda said. “Like we are all dolls, not quite real.”

Isabel paused, then laughed incredulously.

“Oh,” she said. “So that’s what you think, what this cheap piece of theater is about. You believe that I am the killer – or what, talked someone else into killing the Tianxi twin and that poor beaten wife?”

“I’ve seen you talk with Tristan and-”

“You idiot,” Isabel chuckled, shaking her head. “If you want a killer, you should be looking at him. I do not know what he did, but after the Bluebell Beatris was afraid. And has no one else noticed that his supposed medicine cabinet carries an awful lot of poison?”

Ferranda snarled.

“Do you think I’m an idiot?” she shouted. “There is no goddamn killer, Isabel. You came to the Dominion to rid yourself of the Cerdan brothers after screwing with their heads beyond fixing, only you can’t afford the consequences. So you made up a fake murderer to blame for it so House Cerdan will not simply ignore the unspoken rules and step on the Ruesta afterwards.”

Another step forward. This time Isabel stood her ground.

“A nudge here and there, always others doing your bloody work for you,” Ferranda said. “Who’d you talk into the first kill? Yaretzi saw you sneak out of your tent when she was on watch, that night on the hill.”

“Ah, yes,” Isabel mocked. “Right before I used my magical powers to make the victims stay asleep. Losing both my maids and my sworn guard before we even began the second trial was clearly some grand scheme and not at all a series of disasters. Here, I shall do it again.”

The infanzona snapped her finger.

“How strange,” Isabel coldly said. “Here you still are, awake and your throat gone unslit.”

“I will figure out how it was done,” Ferranda said, ignoring the scathing words. “See if I don’t. And when that moment comes, Isabel, you’ll pay for every part of this.”

Face cold and dignified, the other infanzona strode to the door and ripped it open.

“Out,” she said. “Else I will scream for help.”

“This isn’t over,” Ferranda said.

“No, I suppose not,” Isabel said. “So while you are out there digging, see if you can figure something else out for me. You see, when my father bought information on the Bluebell a detail stuck out to me.”

She leaned forward.

“Do ask your good friend Yaretzi why she is about a foot shorter than she’s supposed to be, Ferranda. I am most curious as to the answer.”

Ferranda snorted, walking out, and Isabel brusquely closed the door behind her. In the wake of it all the dark-haired woman stood there alone, unaware she was being seen. The infanzona then sighed, brushing back her hair, and went to lie down on the bed. She murmured something too low to make out.

Angharad swallowed and wrenched her gaze away, avoiding Song’s silver eyes.

She had, it seemed, a great deal to think about.

40 thoughts on “Chapter 33

      1. Abnaxis

        I just noticed: not feeling brave enough to add the Fisher to the illustration? :p

        (For the record, you’re much better than I would be at that and I appreciate your overviews; when there are so many characters the visual reminder of who’s who really helps)


      2. gwennafran

        The Fisher doesn’t feel like a part of the trial takers the way Fortuna does. She has an honorary spot because she’s constantly visible to Tristan and comments on all the things that happen.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. arcanavitae15

    “In essence, I superimpose my physical mind – as conceived by my soul – over that of a single thinking entity I target through the medium of aether,” he told them.

    There was a heartbeat as silence as they both tried to make sense of what they had been told.

    “He throws his mind at other people’s minds and it knocks them out,” Shalini told them. “It’s like loading a pistol with your soul and shooting at people with it.”

    Song choked and Angharad rather understood the urge, having only narrowly mastered herself.

    “I really wish you would stop phrasing it like that,” Ishaan said, sounding pained.

    “And I really you would stop shooting your soul at people, Isha,” Shalini replied without missing a beat.

    This is wonderful and I love it.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Earl of Purple

    Lan being a gossip is really paying off for her. She’s worming out everyone’s secrets and telling anyone who wants to know what they are, meaning that nearly everyone who’s getting info from her want to keep her alive. Or at least not dead.

    Ishaan’s contract is interesting, and more evidence that Yaretzi has stolen someone’s identity. Possibly after murdering the real Yaretzi.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. JBW

      Tredegar is so very frustrating to me… probably because i have to deal with people like her often. Everything HAS to fit within the box that is the way she sees the world, and rather than adjusting her stance appropriately reality must bend so rhat it all fits neatly. I think she’s intentionally wrotten that way, mind you. It’s just the most frustrating kind of person. Makes all kind of assumptions off the most irrelevant of biases without ever knowing or caring about they why…


    1. asazernik

      Also, the contract revelations make their pairing make more sense; the face-blind people I know tend to find it easier to recognize and hence be more comfortable with people with distinctive builds or gaits.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. I dunno about gait, but definitely also skin color and hairstyle. Other than Inyoni, who seems to have been significantly visibly older (and unless Gwen made it up, distinctively scarred), the only other Malani were men.

        (It would be funny if it turned out that faceblindness is not actually Isabel’s contract price, she’s just normally faceblind for unrelated reasons)

        Liked by 2 people

      2. asazernik

        With gait, I’m going off of what one particular faceblind person says she uses to recognize me 😀

        But yeah, her actual contract price being something else entirely would be awesome.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. lysDexicsUntie

    Angharad has an interesting concept of betrayal.
    She makes assumptions about people’s history, motivations, and personality based on her personal bias and little to no evidence. She does nothing to confirm her assumptions, including just talking to the person and asking. Then she considers it a betrayal or the person intentionally fooling her when her unsubstantiated assumptions are proven wrong.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. On the other hand, in Cozme’s case in particular, Angharad had good reason to assume NO-ONE would protect Augusto without being scum. She’s definitely quick to see things as targeted at herself, but after she thought it through her conclusions were pretty reasonable,

      Liked by 3 people

      1. lysDexicsUntie

        Except every time Cozme made a choice she disagreed with Angharad rationalized it as his first duty was the safety of the Cerdan brothers. She even saw him as honorable for following his duty, despite disliking his choices.
        Cozme has previously gone out of his way to protect Augusto from the consequences of his actions, such as when he killed their other retainer and Cozme negotiated with Angharad to postpone the duel.
        He stuck with Remund when the brother’s split because he had a greater duty to him. As he told Augusto, “So long as your brother lives, I am in his service.”
        But as long as protecting Augusto doesn’t conflict with that, he still has some responsibility there.
        Every action and choice Angharad has seen from Cozme has been prioritizing his duty to the Cerdans. She had no reason not to expect him to continue doing so, especially when the reason he was in her group, Remund, is not present to offer him some choice in which side he had more responsibility toward.

        Liked by 2 people

    2. JBW

      Not to mention her refusal to adjust a single one of her principles when working with others. Everyone needs to accept her way, regardless of the benefits of viewing and acting on things from another perspective


      1. lysDexicsUntie

        It seems like she is fundamentally unable to understand that people may have a different perception from her.
        You can see it when she starts attributing motivations. It isn’t that she is unwilling to see their point of view so much as she seems to think it is impossible for them to have a different one. She will interpret someone as choosing to act without honor, when in that person’s opinion their actions are honorable or have nothing to do with honor at all.
        Even when someone explains their thoughts oralternate viewpoints are specifically pointed out to her she twists them to fit into her perspective of how the world works.
        It doesn’t seem to be intentional, I’d actually almost call it a disability.


  4. Angharad reminds me of many characters in Dream of a Red Chamber, judging people based on their birth and not who they actually are. Many characters from the Jia Family looked down on Granny Liu for her humble background and unsophisticate ness. Yet, at the end of the novel when the Jia Family fell from grace, the only person who continued to help the Jia Family was Granny Liu. Somehow, I find Angharad’s attitude even more distasteful than the Jia because the Jia was mean-spirit but they were still fond of Granny Liu and treat her like a guest. Angharad is ready to condemn Yong while making excuses for her noble peers despite Yong doing nothing toward her and the rest of the nobles almost getting her killed in the last Trial. The severity of the situation makes Angharad’s bias dangerous.

    I am not on the Angharad hate train, yet but I don’t think this chapter is enjoyable for me.


    1. lysDexicsUntie

      While I am not fond of Angharad’s habit of judging people on birth and her own baseless conjecture about their motivations, in the case of Yong she can be partially excused.
      His murder of the General is famous, and even in his own words the event that led to her murder had been publicly spun as a great success due to the General’s strategic genius. And I’m sure it is ‘common knowledge’ that “Traitor was paid to kill the General by the enemy”. After all, why would he personally hate her? And the government of his nation publicly backs that narrative.
      His actions here had him identified by three people as likely Yong from that story. All 3 who confirmed it to Angharad.
      Sure, she accepts their accusations easily, but in this case there is at least some ‘evidence’ to back it up.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I might have missed some details but wasn’t Angharad’s family killed and denounced on false charge or something? She couldn’t use her real name because that name is now a wanted name. So, in a way, Yong’s situation is quite similar to Angharad’s. They are both wrong by a system. Yet, Angharad still clings to it while Yong has grown bitter despite both being hunted down.

        Like, of course, Angharad trusted her sources but I think she should have questioned the narrative of government by now. THe biggest different might be that Angharad still want to return to her former places no matter how unlikely while Yong doesn’t

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Earl of Purple

        @vuthuha912: A big issue also is that Angharad doesn’t know why or by whom her family was targeted. ‘Political opponents’ is as far as she’s been able to discover, with power and influence up to the High Court of Malan. Yong knows why he’s being hunted, even if he’s unaware of the accusations of him being a hired assassin.


  5. CantankerousBellerophan

    We already knew this, but Isabel isn’t the only person Angharad is forced to see in the most positive light.

    She reminisces about her mother’s lessons on leadership, and thinks nothing about “throwing troublemakers overboard.” There is a far better translation of that euphemistic claptrap. Angharad’s mother taught her daughter that murdering those lower in the social heirarchy for the least sign of agitation is both necessary and a requirement of duty.

    It’s the rawest representation of the philosophical prison Angharad has still not begun to break herself out of we have yet seen. Her mother, already known to be a slaver, colonial invader, and thief of cultural artifacts, outright instructed her own daughter on justifications for baldfaced murder. Her daughter, seeing in this malignant horror only the face of her mother, incorporated this lesson so deeply into her worldview that, even when exiled from the society which taught this madness, even when explicitly shown that all claims of honor were lies obscuring the rot to which she was born, she has yet to reconsider. That is the strength of her indoctrination. It stands even against all of reality.


      1. CantankerousBellerophan

        Let us consider the circumstances in which “troublemakers” come to exist on board a ship.

        Let us first assume everyone on board chose to be there. Unfortunately for Rhiannon Tredegar, is a bad assumption in this case for two reasons. First, it is already known that the Tredegars engaged in unwilling impressment of men into ships’ crews. It is unknown if this happened on her ship, but if it did the answer to your question is no. Because I am not a slaver, and I would sooner scuttle the entire ship, consigning myself and everyone who would have tolerated such a condition in their presence to the waves. Second, it should be clear by now that the only people in Peredur who had actual freedom of choice were the nobility. Angharad and her ilk could choose whether and how they worked, but everyone else was forced, upon pain of exile or death, to suborn themselves to noble servitude.

        However, inasmuch as choice existed for them, let us assume that all the crew of Rhiannon’s ship chose to be there. In that case, the production of “troublesome” elements must have been accomplished after setting sail. And how would that happen? She was, to hear both Angharad and the one person who had heard the name Tredegar before who we have yet encountered talk, legendary in Malan for her exploits. Those who joined her crew likely started with those tales singing in their veins, further discouraging dissent. Furthermore, if someone planned to overthrow her and take the ship from the beginning, this was a moronic plan. They would be murdering a national icon. No amount of wealth plundered from such an act would protect them from the consequences, and they would know that. Anyone with mutiny in their hearts from the beginning would simply choose a safer, softer target. Rhiannon Tredegar was protected by her social status in more ways than one.

        So what could turn men who wanted to join her crew, who knew her legend and what it meant, against her so strongly as to warrant pre-emptive murder? We don’t know because our only source on her is a woman literally incapable of seeing fault in her, but there are no reasonable speculations which reflect well on the leadership or person of Rhiannon Tredegar. Effective, virtuous leaders with the backing of legend and the wealth of a noble house simply do not produce such animosity in their subordinates.

        Of course, we already know she was not virtuous. She took slaves, after all, and her trade was the plunder of ruins best left to those whose ancestors likely built them. For a woman with two irredeemable sins already known to stain her soul (three, if one counts calling oneself noble in the first place, which I do), it is not difficult to imagine what else she might have done to inspire the wroth of her crew. Perhaps she listened more to the hunger for gold and fame than the needs of those she commanded, regularly endangering their lives to stuff more stolen treasures into the hold. Perhaps she was personally abusive to those she considered her inferiors. Perhaps, and this seems almost certain, Angharad’s attitude towards the common man is inheritance rather than novel flaw. In any case, the fact remains that truly effective leaders need never resort to murder to maintain order, as they will never find themselves in a position where their subordinates feel so disregarded, their needs so ignored, as to consider violence against the leader. Truly effective leaders listen to and heed the advice and concerns of their crew, and so the resentment and stressors which turn them towards mutiny never exist in the first place.

        Therefore, I can confidently answer your question in the negative. I would never do as Rhiannon Tredegar did. I would, in fact, be incapable of it, as such a situation could never arise under my leadership, given that I had the starting advantages of prestige she holds. No good person would ever find themselves in this position. And so, we find yet another reason to condemn those who Angharad holds as paragons.


    1. john

      > However, inasmuch as choice existed for them, let us assume that all the crew of Rhiannon’s ship chose to be there. In that case, the production of “troublesome” elements must have been accomplished after setting sail.

      This is founded on the flawed assumption that every meaningful action must have a deliberate, and essentially political, motive. It’s possible – indeed, frequent enough that total absence of such could come as a surprise, depending on scale and precautions – for someone to voluntarily join an organization but then persistently behave in a manner which causes problems, without specific intent to do so. Negligence, incompetence, personality or communication style mismatch. Usually there are better, kinder solutions, but for an isolated group in a hostile environment the line between ‘inefficiency’ and ‘catastrophic failure’ can be very thin.

      > I would sooner scuttle the entire ship

      Most people seem to prefer solutions to the trolley problem where at least one of the relevant innocents survives.


  6. hue hue

    Now I get it why the Fisher gave Angharad a contract. It’s very amusing seeing her sense of honor bite her in the ass and how she quickly jumps to conclusions with little evidence


  7. Reader in The Night

    Honestly? Actually starting to like Isabel a little after this one. I already respected her skills as a plotter and master manipulator before because she’s genuinely good at it, but that doesn’t translate to respecting or liking her as a person. It just looked like she came by her successes too easily, coasting on her looks and wealth and contract.

    But being a master manipulator while unable to properly recognize people or see their facial expressions? That takes cultivated skill, but more than that it takes a genuine, constant, committed effort. The amount of attention to detail she has to maintain at every given moment just to hide the cost of her contract is staggering.

    And honestly, I feel a bit pissed off on her behalf that all of her work and careful strategy got wrecked in a second due to Angharad’s sheer luck. Isabel is actually cool under pressure and even when directly confronted with someone calling her out on her bullshit, she managed to spin the conversation in the most favorable way possible. She honestly deserved the win here, or at least, a more hard-fought defeat than the one she got.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Crash

      That’s an interesting thing to think about actually. Can she see facial expression?

      Is this a all faces are blurry all of the time or a can’t remember a face as soon as you stop looking at it situation?

      Either way, yeah that’s a lot of skill.


  8. Crash

    Ex-soldier, who is possibly wanted for the muder of a famous general and is, this, dogged wherever he goes to face his would-be crime is given to drinking a lot.

    Could it be PTSD? A way to cope with his situation? No, must be a contract.

    The way Angharad will instantly change her mind about people at the slightest shattering of the stories she tells herself about them is starting to annoy me though.

    It’s either perfect adherence to her understanding of what characterizes honour or instant judgement with no thought to getting a second point of view on the fact she has just learned. Except for Isabel, which should be a red flag for herself, but damn if that contract isn’t working overtime. Also, what a cool and interesting price for a would-be manipulator. I wonder, can she remember voices too?


    1. lysDexicsUntie

      I don’t think anyone said they thought Yong was drinking because he had a contract though? They think he may be the killer, and the killer probably has a contract. If drinking was the contract price he would only need to do it when he used the contract. Unless he was willing to make a really bad deal with a God.
      But they just said his drinking was a “little to on the nose” after commenting on his constant moving among the groups.
      I think it was more a suspicion he is faking the drinking/alcoholism to divert attention, as a way to gather information during ‘drunken’ Conversation, or to seem less capable than he is.
      And since Song, Ishaan, and Shalini believe the propaganda that he was paid large sums of money by his country’s enemy to kill a celebrated General, it doesn’t occur to them he might have the mental issues that could result from his actual history.
      In this case Angharad is changing her mind based on the testimony of 3 people, from 2 different countries that have all heard the official story of a famous “assassination” that took place.
      She definitely comes to conclusions and changes her opinions based on little to no evidence most of the time, but in this case it is backed up by well known ‘facts’.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Crash

        Nah man, this is just how she is. She was doubting Ishaan two seconds before and now he says something and she is immediate like “yeah, that checks out”.

        An argument can be made that is because Song, whom she trusts, said so too but it’s not like this erases her habit of doing this every time.

        You may say this time was more justified than usual but like, is it? Did she at any point think, hmm man I should really check out that Yong fellow again. Plus, she knows fuck all about Song so this is literally a “I’ve spent more time with his one” situation.

        I don’t know man, if it was just this time I might be fine with it but this keeps happening.

        Anyway, self proclaimed fairly good judge of character Angharad is still the best shit lmao


  9. lysDexicsUntie

    In this case it isn’t necessarily about who is telling her or how much she trusts them, though Ishaan had just demonstrated his inability to lie. It’s that the same story was known by two unrelated sources (I’ll count Ishaan and Shalini as a single source) from extremely different backgrounds. They provided corroboration for each other.
    That is vastly more evidence than her assumption about Tristan being a kind and helpful physicians assistant because he had a medicine chest (prisoner’s box). Which did a 180 when he attacked a defenseless girl (Ju) over a pistol. And doesn’t it tell you something that even after they talked and Tristan explained that, while he had assisted a sawbones at one point, he has a whole list if other jobs had done, including criminal activity, Angharad still mentally refers to him as a physician’s assistant.
    Or her assumption about Cozme’s honor. On the boat he stayed behind to protect the Cerdan brothers instead of joining those fighting to defend the boat. It must be because he is an honorable man fulfilling his duty as a loyal retainer to the Cerdans. Not because he doesn’t want to risk himself. Of course she felt he had fooled her when he just continued to do that duty…
    Or her belief that Yaretzi has no combat capabilities just because she has presented herself as a diplomat.
    Or that Brun is a loyal and trustworthy companion, just because he helped her out in the fight on the boat.
    Really, in comparison to most of her assumptions about the people around her, the idea that Yong was paid to kill someone that he did actually kill has at least some basis in fact. Especially if you consider how expensive a spot on the boat was. They probably think he paid his own way with the blood money.
    And since we haven’t actually seen her follow on actions it is always possible, thought admittedly unlikely, that she will look into it further.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. john

      I dunno if we can even say for sure Yong didn’t get paid for it at some point – if everybody already knows you killed the guy, might as well try collecting whatever standing reward was offered by political opponents too, if only to spend on liquor and miscellaneous fleeing-the-country expenses.


  10. Someperson

    Angharad is having a rough day.

    And the ironic thing is that Brun is one of the few people that Angharad *isn’t* finding out dark secrets about. When he is very probably (but not definitely) the killer.

    I am very interested to see how Angharad interacts with all of these people going forwards.


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