Chapter 34

As usual, Angharad Tredegar being decent proved to be very inconvenient.

Instead of the hour or so Tristan had planned on waiting until the crew began crossing the shattered hall, he had to wait more than the double. Though he never came close enough to see more than their silhouettes in the distance – too much of a risk, with Song Ren around – he caught a glimpse of them leaving and let out a breath of relief. Finally. The thief had learned patience but never learned to love it. Once they were out of sight, Tristan set about his work: finding Augusto Cerdan’s passage back to the Old Fort.

Listening to the man’s blathering had yielded a vague idea of where it should be located. Though the infanzon had been careful not to mention where the crevasse he’d fallen in actually was, he had been all too eager to boast about how quickly he had made his way through the mirror maze itself. Tristan had memorized the directions he’d allegedly gone in, significantly narrowing down the locations where the crevasse could be. It had been the part of the infanzon’s words he truly narrowed in on, only lending half an ear to the rest.

The thief’s fingers clenched. If he had listened to the rest more carefully, heard the hints, then maybe…

“Glaring at that slab of crystal won’t move it,” Fortuna advised him.

Well, certainly not now that she was sitting on it.

“You know I’m going to be climbing that,” he said.

Instead of getting out of the way as was the implied request, the goddess stretched like a cat and posed.

“I thought you’d be happier after getting to pop a Cerdan,” Fortuna said. “Is Vanesa’s last hurrah still spoiling the taste?”

Tristan’s face went blank.

“There were hints, in retrospective,” he evenly said. “Abuela was right: I let my guard down and immediately things began to slip my notice.”

Fortuna snorted.

“Yeah, because that’s what you’re torn about,” the golden-eyed goddess mocked. “Sure. You’re a tough ol’ rat, much too tough to be sad about the nice old lady that you liked offing herself.”

He gritted his teeth.

“Taunt all you like,” he said, “you can’t deny that-”

“She was already dead, Tristan,” Fortuna cut through. “She wasn’t going to get that leg amputated no matter what you said. She just couldn’t see a live worth living with one leg.”

Quicksilver anger rose, swift and blinding.

“You think I don’t know what?” he snarled. “One eye, one leg – she would lose her shop even if she went back.”

He passed a hand through his hair, anger still clenching his jaw tight.

“She had to know I’d give her the poison if she asked, Fortuna,” he said. “That I wouldn’t balk at getting rid of Ocotlan, that I’d dose it right so he died out in the maze instead of at the fucking kitchen table with everyone watching. She did it this way because she wanted to be caught.”

A part of that, he figured, must be so the blame couldn’t fall on him if it came out the poisons were his. But the greater part had been that Vanesa simply did not want to live past that morning. She had not wanted imprisonment or pain, so she had drunk the poppy and confessed to a man bearing a pistol and the duty to use it. He cursed and felt like kicking the slab of crystal even though it would do nothing but bruise his toes.

“There was no place in that decision for you to stick your nose in,” Fortuna said. “She picked her dice and rolled them – what came after that was between her and the table.”

“I am not so much of a hypocrite as to deny someone the settling of their dues,” Tristan tiredly said. “But she was worth more than an Ocotlan.”

You could find the likes of the bruiser at any tavern of the Murk: strength paired with cruelty was a coin no city ever grew poor with. Kindness, offered unstintingly to strangers? That was a rare good.

“It wasn’t an even trade, that’s all,” he murmured.

“Sometimes you just have to take the loss,” Fortuna replied, not unsympathetically.

But not, he thought, with sympathy either. She was a goddess, the Lady of Long Odds. Fortuna would never be able to see the world through anything but those lenses, and it was not in her nature to truly mourn a loss. How could she, when the bone of her was to roll the dice until that one a in a thousand victory came roaring into life? Losing taste for the conversation, Tristan opened his bag and put on the leather gloves.

He had work to do and he was already behind on the timetable.

It took a little under an hour to find Augusto Cerdan’s saving grace.

The search grew easier once Tristan was certain the man had lied, which given that he was dealing with an infanzon he had assumed was the case anyhow: his lordship had not gotten anywhere as far in the mirror hall as he had claimed. As the outskirts of the shattered grounds were the easiest to get around in, this proved to be a stroke of luck.

The crevasse in questions was long and thin, like a slicing wound in the earth, and half-covered by a crumpled wall. The wall had broken into pieces when a chunk of ceiling fell onto it, which made reaching a part of the crevasse broad enough to pass through simple – if exhausting – work. Tristan dragged away sharp chunks of crystal, glad for the thickness of the leather gloves, until there was room enough to see into the depths. Which were, he was somewhat amused to see, not all that deep.

Lantern light revealed the fall was only seven feet or so. It also confirmed he had the right place: he spied a stray brass button that had not a speck of dust on it, unlike the rest of the floor. Someone had recently gone through here.

Tristan lowered himself down and pocketed the button – that made three, added to the stone pair from the pillar he’d split between his pocket and his boot – before tugging the rope down after him. The space down here was a narrow crypt whose ceiling was so low he had to stay on his knees, empty tombs flanking him from both sides. After maybe thirty feet of cramped crawling, the crypt ended and there was drop into a much larger room.

Larger and rather unusual: there was nothing in there save for a bridge over dark, oily waters. The floor was paved, faded grey and yellow tiles with geometric shapes within. On the opposite side of the bridge was a closed door of a metal so worn the thief could not tell what it was.

Tristan did not have to be told to know a god dwelled here.

This must be the seat of the test Augusto Cerdan claimed to have beaten. Shimmying out of the crypt, Tristan dropped onto the tiled floor and took a moment to catch his bearings. Dusting off his shoulders the thief rose, lantern high, and cleared his throat.

“So how might one go about earning the right to cross the bridge?” Tristan called out.

Movement caught his eye. It looked like a stray dog – the same faded grey as the tiles, its eyes and teeth the same yellow – but he knew better than to believe what he saw. The god might be pretending it had been nestled against the back wall on the other side of the bridge, just now rising, but the thief would not have missed it were it truly there. The stray dog, stray god, trotted to the middle of the bridge before stopping. It lay down there, almost lazily.

“Supplicant,” the god greeted him.

Its voice, he thought, sounded like a brush against a tile. Like someone painting.

“God of the land,” he replied, bowing his head.

“You may take my test to earn passage,” the dog told him, “or you may pay the toll and cross.”

He cocked his head to the side.

“Your test being?”

“There are six circles hidden among the tiles,” the god said. “Find them and you may pass through here as you will.”

That, he thought, sounded like one of those tests that would be much harder than they seemed.

“And the toll?”

The dog opened its maw happily, the teeth – yellow but in a way that defied the description of dirty, too uniform in color and perfectly formed – it showed licked by a grey tongue.

“I need paint,” the god. “Fresh paint. The colors fade.”

Tristan was not a fool.

“You want my blood,” he stated.

“Three drops,” the dog god said. “You smell of an interesting life. Your hue will not soon fade.”

The thief swallowed.

“The man who came here before me,” Tristan said. “He paid the toll, didn’t he?”

The dog nodded. The thief mentally tipped his hat to Augusto Cerdan – he had, in truth, been more inclined to believe the infanzon a victor than not. It ought to be amusing to find out how long he’d kept up the lie around the maze crew.

“It was shallow paint,” the god said. “Too much of the same, easily yellowed. Yours will be a grey, I think. That always takes time.”

Giving a god blood was not as dangerous as the faint-hearted assumed. Tristan had done so infrequently to the Rat King when offering prayer and twice to the Capricious Bones when he’d had to swim near the bottom of the canals in the Old Town – the Mane was a vicious thing and not above snatching those that dwelled near the depths it claimed as its domain. Besides, Augusto Cerdan had not visibly taken ill from paying the toll. Tristan, however, knew things about this maze that the infanzon did not.

“Is it him?” he asked.

It was not the stray dog he was addressing. Fortuna stepped past him, fanning herself as she glared at the god on the bridge.

“It is utterly deplorable manners,” she sneered, “to defile a remnant in this way. A god of your age should know better.”

The dog lazily turned to look at her. Directly at her, Tristan saw. As if it could see her standing there.

And then it changed.

Its skin bubbled and melted, peeling away in chunks. Thd heard warped, grey and yellow bending and blurring until a wet redness squelched out – coming back together into a shape that was like a hound’s heard traced in tendrils of red, grinning wetly. The sight had him shivering in disgust, the inherent wrongness of what he beheld repellent beyond what words could express.

“A stray thing that does not know when to die,” the Red Maw said, and laughed.

Tristan’s limbs were shaking. He almost fell to his knees. That voice, that… no, it hadn’t been a voice. It had been like a mouth against his ear, sucking out the wetness inside his skull and feeding upon it. He could feel it still, a susurrant disease lingering inside his brains. The thief convulsed, but it was not his stomach that wanted to throw up – it was his soul.

“You have decayed,” Fortuna said, and her voice like was fresh water at the height of summer.

Tristan, only now realizing he was on his knees, let out a gasp. He had been drowning on air and never even known.

“There is a sickness in you, as if your very root grew out crooked,” the Lady of Long Odds mused. “Whatever is it you are a god of now it is not what you were born for.”

“The Masters are gone,” the Red Maw grinned. “I can eat my fill.”

A hand caught Tristan’s wrist. He blinked in surprised, watching his own curled fingers as Fortuna looked down at him worriedly. He had been about to claw at the side of his head, he realized. To dig and dig through the flesh, until he could rip out the poisonous warmness slithering in through his earholes like an unguarded gate.

“Focus,” she told him. “Think of a coin spinning.”

Mouth dry, gums bleeding against his ragged tongue, Tristan forced himself to see it. To hear it, feel it. The ring of gold as it spun, the glint in the light. The satisfying snap as his thumb sent it spinning. The flat sensation as it landed on his palm. He could feel himself breathe, his heartbeat fearful and steady.

“- work will not hold me,” the Red Maw said. “The Lightbringer’s bastards broke the Work but they cannot rule it. The seal will fail. I will grow and take, take, take taketaketaketa-”

The pressure built against his eardrums like he was at the bottom of the sea, drowning, and as he vainly covered his hears Tristan screamed. Screamed until his throat was raw and his lungs burning, his lips cracked.

He came to on his knees, weeping as his feverish forehead rested on the cool tile beneath.

Fortuna was stroking his back. Whispering soothingly.

“It’s all right,” the goddess said. “He’s gone now, Tristan. He left.”

“I,” Tristan croaked out, tasting copper on his cracked lips. “Gods.”

He felt like a child again, a wail welling up inside his throat in the face of the unfairness of the world.

“What did he do?” Tristan asked.

“He looked at you,” Fortuna quietly said. “All of him, just for a moment. But you didn’t crack, Tristan. Your mind held.”

The thief blubbered out something that was both relief and terror. Had he truly held? He could not tell. Could not be sure what he had been like, before that awful sound. It felt like he was stained from the inside, like there was rot he would never be rid of.

“He’s gone now?” he asked.


“When he turned his eye on you, the gods of the maze bit at him,” Fortuna said. “Now he must bite them back. His gaze won’t return here for some time.”

Tristan forced himself to his feet. The lantern had tipped over, some oil spilling out, but he did not even try to clean it and harshly yanked it upright.

He fled across the bridge, into the deep halls, and kept fleeing all the way back to the Old Fort.

It was as if he’d been in a trance: Tristan, for the life of him, could not have described the path he took to return. It was a blur, a vague sense of movement and stumbling forward.

It only began to swim back into focus when he was past the shrines, on the open grounds leading to the ramparts. The steadiness of his boots against the stone helped, but the thief felt tired to his very bone. As if life had been wrung out of him. The dull ache pounding away at his skull did not help any. By the time he reached the hole in the ramparts he felt halfway like a person again, but patting away at his hair and straightening his clothes had not been enough. The watchmen on guard both raised their musket at him.

“Don’t move,” the sergeant ordered. “Hands away from your weapons.”

He flicked a glance at the Aztlan watchwoman by his side.

“Get Basset. He looks like a breach.”

The young woman saluted, throwing him a pitying glance before she left. Tristan had to blink away sleep twice, but even though he was swaying on his feet the watchman’s gun never went down. The Aztlan came back with a young Malani watchman, who was half-dressed and still blinking sleep out of his eyes. He yawned.

“This the one?”

“Do you see anyone else?” the sergeant flatly asked.

The Malani – Basset, a strange name – rolled his eyes but took a step closer. Tristan eyed him warily, especially when the other man began sniffing at him.

“Still only one contract,” Basset said. “Could have had a brush, but the scent of his spirit is so strong I can’t tell.”

A breach, the sergeant had said. They were looking to see if the Red Maw sunk its hooks in me. How tired was he, for the realization to have taken so long? The sergeant grunted, but after a heartbeat finally lowered his musket.

“You can come in,” he said. “Watch your step, rat. No one’s in a trifling mood after the debacle earlier.”

Tristan slowly nodded, pinching the inside of his own wrist when no one was looking. The pain woke him some, though it would not last long. A debacle? Something to look into when he was more awake. It was hard to tell the time, but by the looks of most lights being out it must have been night. Though more than ready to drop on his bedroll and tumble headlong into sleep, Tristan did not get the chance. One of the curtains further down was moved aside as he approached, Maryam’s head popping out. Blue eyes widened when she saw him.

Swallowing a groan, Tristan obeyed when she gestured for him to come.

The curtain fell behind him and they could hardly see each other but that did not stop her from inspecting him.

“You look half dead,” she bluntly said. “What happened to you?”

“The way back was more unpleasant than advertised,” Tristan said. “I’m dead tired, a report will have to wait. What’s this I hear about a debacle?”

Maryam grimaced.

“Lieutenant Vasanti rustled up a crew and went past the locked door,” she said. “Twenty went in, armed to the teeth. Nine came back. They drove the god away, wounded it, but they could not score a kill.”

That, the thief thought, was going to be trouble.

“What were they trying to do?”

Maryam leaned closer.

“Looking for the brand you gave Francho,” she whispered. “They went where you said and did not find it, so Vasanti flew into a rage. Had all our rooms searched while we were put under arrest.”

He closed his eyes. Tristan could almost feel a second, larger headache looming behind his current one. That assault had been reckless of the lieutenant. Why had she made her attempt now, when instead she could have reached out to her superiors to gather support? He asked Maryam, but she had no more idea than he and other news just as pressing besides.

“The brand works,” Maryam told him. “We smuggled it into the room, the one with the engine they’ve had us studying, and it reacted. We shut the device down before the guard could notice, but I bargained with Lieutenant Wen and in three hours we are going back  – Sergeant Mandisa will have the watch shift, she is to cover for us.”

Tristan almost wept. Only three hours? He needed three days, not this pittance. But he could not afford to miss Francho’s discoveries.

“I’ll be there,” he sighed.

Every ounce of his flesh felt exhausted and there was still one thing he needed to do before he could sleep.

“I’m going to need your help,” he said. “I hit a rusty piece of metal earlier. I need to clean the wound or I’m risking lockjaw.”

“That’s going to sting,” Maryam said.

He grimly nodded. They’d have to open it anew and clean it with alcohol to be sure nothing caught.

A fitting end to a bloody day.

It was Yong who kicked him awake.

“Up,” the Tianxi whispered. “We need to move before Vasanti’s people are back on watch.”

“Lovely to see you too,” Tristan muttered back.

He checked on his bandages before leaving, finding Maryam’s work was still held, and hastily put on his boots before following Yong. They were to be the last one in, the older man told him: Francho and Maryam were already inside. They hurried to the bastion, the blackcloaks on the walls hardly sparing them a glance, then up the ladder. A few flights of stairs later they were in the room with the aetheric machine and the stripes of cryptoglyphs on the walls. Sergeant Mandisa, Wen’s tall right hand with the easy smile and the utter lack of mercy behind it, was idling at the door. Mandisa was, Tristan had cottoned on early, one of the most dangerous people in the Old Fort.

She talked about death like someone who thought little of dealing it out.

“Ah, Tristan,” Francho toothlessly smiled. “I am glad to see you’ve returned safely to us.”

“It was a journey,” the thief mildly said. “What have you got for us, Francho?”

“I’m curious about that myself,” Sergeant Mandisa noted. “I thought brands had very specific and narrow uses. It makes more sense for it to be paired with a device on the other side of the pillar.”

“They do,” Maryam agreed. “But we can get what we need without having full run of the device.”

The man-sized machine had not changed since last saw it, the golden ally box at the top sprouting spindly levers while beneath it twelve cylinders interlocked with pistons led down into a sideways barrel with a lid of green glass. It was against that dull lid that Francho pressed the brand, and as the old man smiled excitedly light began to spread through the glass. A green glow gently pulsed and everyone’s breath caught: the old wonder had come alive.

“The machine is not truly functional at the moment,” Francho noted. “As you theorized, Sergeant Mandisa, this brand is not the right key to make it work. Thankfully for us, it appears to be resonating with a component in the barrel and the reactions buys us some measure of power.”

“And what,” Yong said, “is that power to be used for?”

“My study of cryptoglyphs is relatively shallow, I warn you,” the old professor said. “But I am fairly certain that I have identified a combination of levers that causes either ‘audit’ or ‘inspect’.”

“We tried it earlier but I cannot make the corresponding Signs so there was no reaction,” Maryam said. “It might work now, though.”

“Exciting,” Sergeant Mandisa enthused. “Go on.”

Francho glanced at Maryam, who shrugged. The sequence did not seem all that complicated to Tristan’s eye: two levers pulled down, one pulled to the side. Exactly in that order. To everyone’s disappointment, nothing happened.

Until the green glow winked out.

The machine shuddered, the gears under the golden frame grinding as the pistons interlocked with the cylinders began to move. Something flickered behind the green glass, but the light did not return. Not there, anyway: to their shared surprise colors bloomed on the wall facing the barrel’s lid. Sergeant Mandisa, who was in the way, was painted with them for a heartbeat before she moved away. Unharmed, to all their reliefs.

“I’ll be damned,” Yong said. “It actually worked.”

It had, Tristan said. Now if he only had an idea what they were looking at. It was, he thought, an eye-searing tableau of green and red. Two wobbly green shapes, one broadly and oval and the other a misshapen triangle, were filled with red tendrils that breached the edge of the shape. They waited a moment longer but nothing changed. The colors on the wall remained, occasionally sputtering dark for a second before resuming. The thief got the sense that they might be running on borrowed time. They all looked rather bemused, save for Maryam: her eyes were on the green shape to the right, unblinking.

“Sarai?” he prompted.

“That,” she said, pointing where she had been looking, “is a map of the Dominion of Lost Things. As seen from a bird’s eye view.”

Doubting her would be foolish when she had used a Sign to commit a map of the Dominion perfectly to her memory. Tristan paused, glancing at the other shape. A badly drawn triangle, he thought, unless…

“So this one is the island from the side,” he said. “As if looking through it.”

Sergeant Mandisa went still. It stood out all the more for her usual liveliness. So you know the Red Maw exists, Tristan thought. She was highly ranked enough for that.

“What is the red, then?” Yong frowned.

Tristan had not kept complete silence over the Red Maw’s existence after finding out its existence with Francho, but he had only broken it for Sarai. The Tianxi veteran was still in the dark. He’s the only one that doesn’t know, now that Vanesa is dead. Perhaps the time for secrecy was past.

“A god,” Tristan said. “One the Watch is keeping contained.”

“Failing to,” Sergeant Mandisa mildly said. “None of you are fools, so I expect that I don’t have to tell you flapping your lips will get you killed.”

The threat was so matter-of-fact it was difficult to take offense to it. Besides, Tristan was more interested by her first words: she’d noticed is as well, then. Near the back of the island, the opposite end of the island from where the Bluebell had docked, tendrils of red were breaking past the green shape representing the island. Seen from the side they curled deep below before going forward, which Tristan figured to mean that the Red Maw had begun to burrow its tendrils in the bedrock under the Trebian Sea so it could spread to other isles.

“Fascinating,” Francho muttered.

The old man was standing close to the colors on the wall, eyes shining with interest.

“What is?” Yong asked.

“Look at the pattern in the red here,” the old man said, pointing to the bird’s eye view.

Fingers traced along red furrows, the thickest of the red lines.

“See how they make up a geometric shape?” he asked.

The professor was right. Centered around the mountain they currently stood under there was a perfect hexagon of red.

“And from the tip of each emanates a slightly smaller line,” Francho continued. “That is not a natural occurrence.  Not how no other red tendril gets as large as these, even when they branch out from these artificial furrows.”

Sergeant Mandisa’s jaw clenched.

“What are we looking at, professor?” she asked.

“Antediluvian work,” he said. “I would bet my life on it.”

The Red Maw’s heart was under this pillar, Tristan knew. And now it turned out the pillar was at the center of some sort of titanic Antediluvian work, one of which the golden aetheric machine above was likely a single component instead of the culmination. The view of the island from the side only added more questions: the hexagon line were deep below the surface of the island. It was the lines emitting from the points of the geometric shape that went up towards the ground – and even then only tendrils reached close to the surface.

What did it mean? His eyes returned to the bird’s eye view, and looking at the broader hexagon lines he tried to think of all the maps he had seen before. Mostly of Sacromonte, admittedly, and… oh.

“They’re canals,” Tristan suddenly said. “The big channels, they are canals to carry something around. The god fucking everything up is supposed to be the water, the means of transportation somehow.”

His memories of the confrontation by the bridge were hazy, like the edges of it had been exposed to an open flame and curled in on themselves, but he remembered what Fortuna had said: whatever it was that the Red Maw was once meant to be, it had deviated from that root. The corruption is about the way it feeds, Tristan thought. It’s eating more than it should and that’s making it crooked somehow. Only the thief could not see how it would: all gods fed with ceaseless hunger. Even those who grew strong enough to manifest did not set aside that all-consuming desire.

So how could the Red Maw feeding be a deviation?

“That explains why the smaller red roads look so small and shoddy, then,” Yong noted. “They were built by the god, not by the Ancients.”

Tristan breathed in. It takes to grow, he thought. The Red Maw did. But what if it isn’t supposed to grow? What if the god the Antediluvians had trapped beneath their great machinery was meant to stick to the canals they had built and never spread beyond? That’s how it serves as water: it eats on one end and spits out on the other, moving life or aether or whatever the Antediluvians wanted moved. Only when the Old Night fell the Red Maw had stopped spitting out what it ate.

Now it was using that power to grow instead, to spread.

“Lieutenant Wen needs to be made aware of this,” Mandisa said. “We’re done here.”

“What will he do?” Tristan asked.

He forced nonchalance. His bargain with Wen rested on the foundation that he would break the golden machine above, so if the fat Tianxi decided that the situation was too dire to risk ending the lights he was in trouble. The tall sergeant hesitated.

“Keep to your bargain,” the dark-skinned woman finally said. “Prepare for tomorrow as planned.”

Tristan slowly nodded, wondering how much he could trust the pair. Shallowly at best, he thought. He had told Maryam of his deal with Lieutenant Wen, but not the other two – when Mandisa’s loose tongue outed if, it earned him pointed looks. He would have to give explanations, the thief thought. But not here or now.

As Mandisa had said, they were done here.

Francho took the brand away from the machine and the colors went out, the green glow returning to the lid for a few seconds before fading. Tristan’s eyes lingered on the brand. Now that he was slightly more rested, he could think of one reason why Lieutenant Vasanti would have pushed for an assault past the locked gate.

“Sergeant,” he said, catching the woman’s gaze. “I need a favor.”

It was small enough she accepted.

They snuck back to their rooms after that, and Tristan was all too happy to rest a little more. He closed his eyes and was asleep moments later, only to be kicked away after what must have been hours but felt like mere minutes.

“Yong,” he groaned. “Do you need to-”

“Drag him out.”

It was not Yong but two large watchmen grabbing him as the coldly furious voice had ordered. Tristan did not resist, going immediately limp. He would not win the fight and would rather face what would be coming without bruises. Fear killed every last dreg of sleep as the blackcloaks forced him to his feet and twisted his arms behind his back before pushing him forward. He stumbled, bare feet on the cold stone, and found he was being waited on.

Arrayed in the courtyard were more than two dozen watchmen, what had to be most of the remaining garrison, and none of them said a word as he was dragged to stand before them.

He quickly found who he was looking for. Lieutenant Wen was seated a kitchen table, biting into some kind pf pastry with Sergeant Mandisa standing by his side, but Tristan did not let his gaze linger. Even if it turned out they were allies, they would not show it now. Not when the source of the voice that had ordered him dragged was glaring down at him.

Lieutenant Vasanti did not look wounded, for all that she had been part of the ill-fated assault on the pillar, but she did look haggard. Her hair was in disarray, her eyes a little wild. Her anger might be cold, but it was the kind of cold that had something ugly lurking under it. The worst kind, Tristan thought. The two big blackcloaks holding him in place kept flanking him as the lieutenant scowled.

“You lied to me,” Lieutenant Vasanti said. “In your report. We reached the location you described and the brand was not there.”

A rumble of anger from the crowd. How many blackcloaks had there been in the garrison this morning – thirty, forty? If eleven had died, then everyone here had lost at least a friend. Likely more. He would get no mercy from this tribunal if things went badly for him.

“I also told you that the god was able to enter the room leading there,” the thief pointed out. “It nearly killed me in it. I made no promises that everything would still be the same.”

A loud scoff. Sergeant Olvya, he saw. Her smiled was smugly unpleasant.

“And we are to believe the god left them untouched for centuries and then suddenly changed its mind?”

“I don’t care what you believe, Olvya,” he frankly replied. “I care that I have been dragged to stand before what looks like a hanging crowd on the basis of… I can’t tell, really. Being disliked by two Watch officers?”

He paused.

“I have heard accusations but no proof,” Tristan said. “Yet I am a prisoner. Is this how the Watch handles its affairs?”

That, he saw, struck the mark. Uneasy faces. Lieutenant Wen raised an eyebrow at Vasanti. Still allies, then, Tristan thought. Wen yet had a use for him, so he should be willing to put a thumb to the scales to keep the thief alive if he could.

“You are not imprisoned,” Lieutenant Vasanti bit out.

The thief smiled pleasantly, turning his pearly teeth to the big blackcloaks holding him.

“Did you hear that, my lads?” he said. “I am not imprisoned.”

He tugged at their arms meaningfully and after they glanced at Vasanti – who snarled out a nod – they released him. They even took a few steps back. Ah, good. Now he might feasibly make a run for it, though fleeing a garrison armed with muskets when he did not even have boots on seemed… well, he’d mark that plan down as suicide with a flourish. You had to start somewhere. And now to account for the piece he’d not got eyes on – where were the others?

A glance flicked backwards showed him that armed watchmen were standing in front of the other occupied rooms. When Yong opened his curtain a musket was pointed at him and a harsh order had the Tianxi closing it. There would be no help from there.

Worse, there was another blackcloak going through his affairs and she came out with a noise of triumph. The watchman was, he saw, holding a button in her hand. A stone button, one of those that could serve as a key to the locked door in the pillar. Probably the one in my coat, he decided. The one in his boot was well-hidden.

“Found it, ma’am,” she called out. “He has a key, like you said.”

“And there we are,” Lieutenant Vasanti smilingly said. “Evidence, as you requested. You had a way to get in there and take the brand.”

Tristan smiled pleasantly back, then looked at the watchwoman.

“You, going through my things,” he called out. “What’s your name?”

The blackcloaks blinked at him in surprise.

“Er,” she said. “Dulcia?”

“Dulcia,” he repeated. “While you’re still in there, do you happen to see the brand?”

A moment of silence.

“No,” Dulcia conceded.

Tristan turned his gaze back to Lieutenant Vasanti.

“Fancy that,” he said.

She snorted.

“So you hid it somewhere else,” Vasanti said.

“I could have done that, yes,” Tristan easily said. “I could also be the King of Izcalli. Are we dragging people out of their beds in the middle of the night for coulds now, lieutenant?”

Wen bit into his pastry, which was more than halfway finished, and loudly swallowed. There were flakes all over his chin.

“He’s not wrong,” the Tianxi lieutenant said. “You have a key too, Vasanti. How close of an eye did you keep on it?”

The old woman turned on the other officer, face twisted with anger.

“Are you implying one of us did this?”

“I am stating that anyone could have used your key, or his for that matter,” Lieutenant Wen evenly replied. “You want us to execute a trial-taker on grounds this thin? We’ll all answer to Commander Artal for it.

He paused.

“Unless you’re asking for us to send falsified reports about the whole business,” Wen said. “Is that the case?”

“Of course not,” Vasanti said.

A little too quickly.

“Then make a better case,” the Tianxi advised. “I’m not getting another black mark on my record just because you want to pin the blame for today’s fuckup on some Sacromonte rat.”

That had hard eyes turned on her, but it did not last.

“Eleven of us died, Wen,” Lieutenant Vasanti said. “Now you want to let the only person with answers walk away?”

The mood, which had been going Wen’s way, turned sharply back her way. Vasanti wasn’t leaning on reason, Tristan thought. She was using anger, and anger always got a bite. Most of the people here must already have black marks on their record to have gotten this assignment in the first place, he thought. It’s not as strong a deterrent for them.

“Don’t go putting words in my mouth,” Wen dismissed. “You want answers? By all means, get them. But this playacting is wasting everyone’s time. By morning either we’ll have a legitimate reason to put a bullet in his skull or we’ll have to let him take the trial.”

A pause.

“So are you going to drag him in a corner for a real interrogation,” the Tianxi said, “or are you going keep pissing away my good night’s sleep pretending you’re some kind of magistrate?”

Lieutenant Vasanti glared at the other officer, but she saw the same thing Tristan did: Wen had convinced them. The Watch was not a mob or a coterie, it had rules – and Vasanti had not given them good enough a reason to break them, not when there was a way to get answers that wouldn’t get their superiors coming down on their heads. This was, Tristan thought, the best Wen could do for him.

Getting him out was simply not in the cards, not with this many angry souls out for a scapegoat, so what the Tianxi could offer was to get him away from the mob. To put him in a room with only a few, where he could wheel and deal behind closed doors.

A swell of gratitude, barely marred by the fact that Wen had essentially just suggested he be tortured for answers.

“Fine,” the old Someshwari hissed. “If you don’t care enough to get answers for the dead, I will.”

“Oh, Vasanti,” Lieutenant Wen mildly said, “I do care. Unlike you, I knew their names. It’s why when Commander Artal has you shot for getting more of us killed against his explicit orders, I’ll be sitting in that room with another of these pastries.”

The fat Tianxi smiled, swallowing the last piece and licking his fingers.

“And I’m sure it will taste delicious.”

Tristan never met his eyes, did not even look at him, but in his mind’s eye he thanked Wen for this last gift.

He’d just been told something that might save his life.

The fist dug deep in his belly and Tristan folded, throwing up all over the floor.

It was not the worst beating he’d ever had. The watchmen were professional about it, hitting places where the damage would not be permanent and measuring their strength carefully. He would hurt, he would bruise, but there would be no broken bones or hidden bleeding.

“Back in the chair,” Lieutenant Vasanti ordered.

They forced him back up even as his stomach trembled and bile rose.

“A little to the left,” Fortuna whispered into his ear.

He followed her suggestion when he threw up again, drenching the legs of the watchman most satisfyingly. The man cursed and shoved him into the chair, backing away. The other one laughed, pulling up Tristan’s chin so he was facing Lieutenant Vasanti. The old Someshwari’s gaze was cold, unmoved by the sight of the violence she’d ordered.

“Where is the brand, Tristan?” she asked.

“Are you familiar with the poetess Iliria’s works?” the rat asked.

“Again,” Vasanti said.

The blackcloak who’d pulled his chin up slapped him, open-palmed. His cheeks were so red by now he barely felt it. They would rotate back to his inner thighs soon.

“Where is the brand, Tristan?” Lieutenant Vasanti asked.

“There’s this poem in her Little Lies,” he said. “The Court of Cats.”

The Someshwari sighed.

“Choke him.”

The big man seized him by the throat, toppling the chair, and he smacked against the wall. Fingers like sausages squeezed as he tried to breathe. Tristan went into himself, eyes unseeing. He thought of the grave he was in, the shape of it. The feel of the stone under his fingers, the coolness. How his feet pushed against the bottom, how he would have to fold his legs to get out.

“-enough, he’ll die.”

Tristan gasped, air flooding back into his lungs, and began to cough. The blackcloak he’d thrown up on looked at him carefully, then drew back.

“He’s fine.”

Lieutenant Vasanti leaned forward.

“Where is the brand, Tristan?”

“So the second verse,” he rasped. “It goes like this-”

The fingers went back around his throat, not even needing an order.

“To leave the court of cats

is even simpler done,” he got out before the squeeze.

He gasped blindly, trying to breathe through the grip.

“Stop,” Vasanti said. “Let him finish.”

He croaked out a broken laugh when the fingers released him.

“For when their hunger comes

rats are ever sport.”

A long moment of silence.

“Give me the room,” the lieutenant said. “I know what will make him crack.”

Liar, Tristan thought, smiling a bloodied smile. The pair of toughs – for that was all they were, regardless of the color of their cloak – traded surprised glances but obeyed their superior. The door closed on the small dark room, the only lantern lit casting its flickering glare between the two of them.

“I catch your drift. You want assurances I won’t kill you when I have the brand,” Vasanti said. “Why should I even believe you know where it is?”

“Because you want to,” Tristan rasped. “Getting your hands on it is the only way you’re living through the month.”

The Someshwari’s eyes narrowed. Ah, had she thought he wasn’t listening? Vasanti herself had told him she was no longer allowed to try the pillar, that the attempts on the cog room had gotten too many watchmen killed. And now she had another eleven corpses to answer for, going against explicit orders. She was going to get shot for that, as Wen had said.

Unless she had something to show worth that many deaths.

“You really are a nasty little rat, aren’t you?” she said. “Always scurrying around everyone’s business.”

He snorted.

“Come on,” he said. “How many reasons are there for you to get reckless enough for an assault? You think you figured out the tile combination that will open the front gate. You need the brand because you think it’s what will get the device working.”

The tile device in the room just past the one where he had found the brand, the one where the god had almost killed him. Vasanti must have figured them out even though the matching tiles on the iron gates had no symbols on them. The old woman stared at him for a long time.

“I was right,” she suddenly said. “I can’t let you into the Watch. It’s too late for you.”

Tristan blinked, for an instant lost.

“You think you’re the only one Nerei ever trained, boy?” Vasanti harshly said. “You’re the third I’ve met. And both were fucking monsters, just like their maker.”

The Someshwari leaned forward.

“I took it easy on you, tried to nudge you off the trials so you could return to your old life, but always you doubled down,” she said. “The disease is already in the bone.”

He closed his eyes. Anger had not come to him so far, not when he was in the grave and he had yet to buy his way out. Anger, fear, they did not help. But now it came anyway.

“It wasn’t even about me.”

His eyes fleshed.

“Everything,” he said with excruciating calm, “was part of your pissing match with someone not even on this fucking island.”

The old lieutenant sneered.

“You have no idea what-”

They were past that now.

“I don’t care,” Tristan laughed. “And I don’t need to, Vasanti, because you’re going to give me what I want.”

“Should I call the boys back in?” she coldly said.

“It doesn’t matter if you do,” he said. “Because at the end of the day, Vasanti, you’re a coward. You’re afraid of Abuela, afraid of what you’ve done, but most important of all you’re afraid to die – and I’m the only one who can tell you where the thing you need to live is.”

And under the black cloak, under the years and the authority and all the arrogance of someone used to being on the right side of the gun, Tristan knew what he was looking at.

Vasanti was a rat.

“I have people searching,” she said. “Do you think stashing things in a ruined bastion or one of the holes outside will work?”

“I can wait,” Tristan replied. “Longer than you, I reckon.”

Vasanti got up, walked out. Moments later, the two thugs walked in. Tristan closed his eyes and thought of the grave.

And hour later Lieutenant Vasanti returned.

She bought her way out of her grave and with that same coin Tristan bought his way out of his. After Vasanti declared him innocent of everything to the Watch garrison, Remund Cerdan’s evil deeds were revealed. He had stolen Tristan’s key and hidden the brand, a location the thief obtained from the infanzon before his death in the maze. He told the lieutenant where the brand was after and she flew into another rage.

After all it was in the Watch’s own armory, just as he’d asked Sergeant Mandisa.

Tristan watched the relief on Lieutenant Vasanti’s face afterwards, how it stayed there, and wondered if she would figure it out before the end. Tomorrow, come morning, Vasanti was going to get those iron gates open and then go through them with every blackcloak still loyal to her. Go plumbing the depths of the pillar for secrets and wonders that would be worth eleven corpses in the eyes of her superiors.

That expedition should serve as a perfectly serviceable distraction for when Tristan pushed her right back into her grave.

31 thoughts on “Chapter 34

      1. gwennafran

        We know for a fact Tristan normally is wearing pants after raiding the Watch storage.

        I’m referring to Tristan being very underdressed. He’s not wearing his outer layers, boots or stockings. So… Is he actually wearing pants?

        Liked by 4 people

    1. asazernik

      Sadly, being posted from the phone gave low resolution and warped text :-\

      Watch members post is fine though.

      Love that Tristan still has a plastered-on smile.


  1. Ezario Gerion

    Oh yes, the sweet revenge will be sweet)

    On the other hand. Isn’t my boy Tristan getting a little too vengeful in his young age? I wonder is that’s going to bite him in the backside more than couple of times.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Reader in The Night

    “To join the court of cats

    is most easily done:

    solemnly swear that none

    ever did fall flat.

    To leave the court of cats

    is even simpler done

    For when their hunger comes

    rats are ever sport.”

    The two verses of the poem The Court of Cats. I confess I’m not smart enough to get it.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. masterofbones

      The first 4 lines reference the phrase “a cat always lands on its feet”. The idea is that in order for a commoner to stand among the elite, all they must do is constantly sing the praises of their “superiors”.

      The second 4 lines is talking about how the commoners standing with the elites in the first part aren’t actually peers. The moment the elites lose interest or have something to gain(get hungry), they will turn on the commoner without hesitation.

      Put simply – to join the table with the elites, fawn over them in adoration. To leave, just wait a bit, they will remove you soon enough.

      Liked by 4 people

  3. Nice chapter. Tristan gets his first group of friends and he is desperately trying to keep them. I agree with Tristan regarding Vanesa – it isn’t a worthy trade. Vanesa might be crippled but disability doesn’t mean that person has no value, People can grow beyond their disability and Vanesa might be able to do something else after losing her legs. She is worth a lot more than a thug like Ocotlan.

    Is Tristan going to feed Lieutenant Vasanti to Red Maw and that somehow will help our group take down Red Maw? Tristan seem really good with puzzle solving

    Liked by 3 people

  4. The Watch seems like a really shitty organization, even by edgy fantasy standards.

    Like, Vasanti and Wen are still collaborating with Tristan even though they know he deliberately manipulated Vasanti into getting their comrades-in-arms killed?

    If I was a sentry on that island and a bunch of my friends just got slaughtered for nothing, and the boss that got them killed came back with an oh-so-convenient explanation that the guy who just died was actually responsible for everything, I would *not* accept that explanation, and Tristan would quickly find himself afflicted with a case of the mysterious accident in the middle of the night.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. lysDexicsUntie

      He didn’t though. It wasn’t part of his plan to have her invade the room with the God looking for the brand. He actually had explicitly expected Vasanti to try killing him again by making him do it.
      And Wen has hated Vasanti and her machinations and sacrifice of Watch members for a long time. This may be his only chance to get rid of her and make her pay for all the previous deaths.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Earl of Purple

      I’m not, I think she’s more interesting if she stays offscreen. At least for a bit longer.

      Also, I think she’s going to be a bitch and I’ll hate her.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Typo thread!

    one a in a thousand victory > one in a thousand victory
    was drop into a much > was a drop into a much
    Thd heard warped > The head warped
    like a hound’s heard traced > like a hound’s head traced
    He blinked in surprised > He blinked in surprise
    covered his hears > covered his ears
    their musket at him. > their muskets at him.
    kind pf pastry with > kind of pastry with
    And hour later Lieutenant Vasanti > An hour later Lieutenant Vasanti


  6. lysDexicsUntie

    Current theory, when the Old Night fell something broke and the Red Maw (or whatever it was before) became unable to expel what it was taking in and transporting. This buildup is what corrupted it and turned it into the all consuming monster it is now.


  7. arcanavitae15

    Tristan is goddamn terrifying and I love it. He keeps his sanity while being looked fully by Red Maw an extremely powerful and tainted god. Tristian is scarily good at observation being able to decipher mysteries as seen with him learning about the canals, and he’s able understand people and their motives as seen with him understanding that Vasanti is a cornered Rat. But probably the most terrifying of all is how he’s able to keep in control, where others break or get let their emotions rule him Tristan keeps on trucking.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. wraithdream

    I’m starting to put together a bit of a theory about what’s going on with Fortuna and the other gods we’ve seen so far in this story.

    A few chapters back the bird mount in charge of that big fortress trialgrounds said this about the Red Maw: ‘“It’s not a real god,” the mayura contemptuously said. “It did not come of the Golden Egg like we did, taking shape from nothing. It was forged long ago, by the-”.’ The cutoff bit is exceedingly likely to be ‘the Antediluvians’, who we know were capable of great feats of aetheric manipulation and engineering that haven’t been replicated to this day.

    Now the next clue is in that interaction with the Red Maw and Fortuna in the maze. Fortuna says ‘“It is utterly deplorable manners,” she sneered, “to defile a remnant in this way. A god of your age should know better.”’ Note that she calls the god of the shrine that the Red Maw ate a ‘remnant’, implying she considers it a fragmented being in some way. Then, there’s the bit about how the Red Maw is ‘corrupted’ somehow, which Tristan notes seems to be related to the way it is voraciously feeding and growing without restraint.

    The key though to me is when he’s later ruminating on how weird it is that Fortuna suggested that the Red Maw being so ravenous was ‘twisted’. He muses about how ‘all gods fed with ceaseless hunger’, and that even the stronger manifested ones did too. What if all of these pieces are connected? The gods in this maze, who are seemingly similar to other gods elsewhere in Vesper, are ‘fragments’ that are consumed by a ‘ceaseless hunger’. Maybe this is because there’s some fundamental flaw to the gods of this era, the ones that postdate the Antediluvians. We know from that conversation with Francho that the nature of Fortuna’s contract violates all known understandings of deities as it stands, and there’s indications that Fortuna is old enough to have been contemporary with the Antediluvians themselves. Given that the Antediluvians, as with the Red Maw, were seemingly able to forge gods themselves, I have two plausible theories. One is that Fortuna is also a constructed god and has a nature that is fundamentally distinct from the newer generation of fragmented gods. The other is that there was something cataclysmic that happened around the time of the fall of the Antediluvians that changed the very nature of the vast majority of gods, or broke most of the living ones into hungry fragments, and Fortuna is one of the lone survivors of a very distant era. Both of these theories suggest that Fortuna is basically a completely distinct category of divine being from basically almost all the other gods we’ve seen so far in the setting.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. wraithdream

      This wouldn’t really explain why Fortuna seemingly has no other followers and is forgotten about despite being so ancient and possibly powerful, but it might explain some things if there is some further level of ‘evolution’ of godhood past regular manifestation if a god is finally sated, which would allow them to sustain themselves indefinitely. This would be why Fortuna can hang around Tristan like this with seemingly no consequence and no loss of power, and why even young manifested gods are still so ravenous because they are trying and failing to get the kind of necessary power to reach that further stage.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. IDKWhoitis

        I think the fact that Fortuna feeds on desperation and the longing of the (1 in a million shot) probably sustains her better in this era, where she is passively prayed to everyday by the millions alive in Vesper.

        In this grim of a future, what other god would be worshipped as readily to than the one of chance?

        Liked by 1 person

    2. lysDexicsUntie

      I don’t think she was calling the God the Red Maw defiled a remnant itself. She was saying the Red Maw was defiling the remnant of that god by wearing its skin.

      By wearing their hollowed out forms after death and puppeting them in a mockery of there former self the Red Maw is defiling their remains, or the remnant left behind when the God finally died.


  9. Someperson

    Tristan really has a penchant for getting involved in vendettas. He is going to have a fair few enemies in the watch when he finishes the trials.

    But in fairness to Tristan’s methods, Vasanti isn’t going to be among them. On account of being dead and all.

    Liked by 4 people

  10. Nyx

    Gods DAMN this is a good chapter. Thanks for reminding me why I’m subbing as soon as I can afford to, EE. I’ll try and give a proper writeup on this chapter in the morning if I can.


  11. CantankerousBellerophan

    Oppression, by its existence, tesselates all things.

    Consider the environment of the maze. All the gods meant to contain the Red Maw are reduced to desperately scrabbling for sustainence as their essence is consumed by their captive. Those who fail are puppeted, their remains instrumentalized by the thing they were meant to contain. Their husks used by their destroyer in the pursuit of more to destroy. The successes, if there are any who can be called such, merely get to survive as themselves for one more day. The next will bring more steady consumption by the Red Maw, with no end or reprieve, repeated until death.

    Consider the environment of the Old Fort. All the people meant to contain the Red Maw are reduced to scrabbling for recognition in the Watch as they are winnowed by their divine captives and each other alike. Those who fail to be recognized enough to escape the post are eventually given orders which instrumentalize them for the Watch. They, too, are being consumed: their labor coming at threat of worse demotions or summary execution. Those who fail in truly profound ways are literally turned into no more than blood on the gears which drive their prison.

    In each case, these contained worlds are captained by uncaring things which see the beings around them as tools, livestock, or fungible vessels containing the capacity for labor. And, most damningly, each of these worlds was created directly by the other. The oppression of the prison, reflected outward upon the ostensibly free world of the guards. Nobody wants to be there. All are, at the behest of the prevailing heirarchy.

    This is why there can be no compromise in the Bellerophan Creed. So long as any are in chains, more may be forged.


  12. Abnaxis

    “I took it easy on you, tried to nudge you off the trials so you could return to your old life, but always you doubled down,” she said. “The disease is already in the bone.”

    Hey, it just occurred to me, Vasanti has COMPLETELY misread Tristan. She thinks he went through the suicidal chamber because, what, he’s been indoctrinated by Abuela?

    She wasn’t giving him a choice between almost certain death and “returning to his old life,” she was giving him a choice between ALMOST certain death in the cog room and ACTUAL certain death in Sacromonte. He’s not the fanatic she thinks he is.


  13. Pryde & Prejudice

    No one else seems to have picked up on this but uh did Fortuna GRAB Tristan this chapter? As in, physically touch him? That is REALLY not something she should be able to do, right? All the other times he can move right through her. Another layer to the mystery. Fantastic chapter.


    1. Earl of Purple

      She’s able to influence his senses, including his sense of touch. If ‘perception’ was limited to sight, he’d never hear a word she says. We’ve never seen her walk through anybody. She’s threatened to pull his ear before, which would have been interesting to see from an outside perspective. She’s probably not solid enough to actually apply real force, meaning she can’t stop him falling down a hole, but touching, slapping and interfering with his ability to feel pressure/force/pain should fall under ‘touch’.


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