Chapter 35

No one died in the night.

A relief, but it did little to lift the mood when they began gathering in the gate room half an hour before the gate forward opened. Angharad had not slept well, wrestling with what she had heard – trying to sort out the truth from the lies. Song had tried to approach her about it but the Pereduri put her off. Unfair as it was, she resented the Tianxi for forcing her hand about eavesdropping on Isabel and Ferranda. Her world had been simpler before that conversation.

Now Angharad must weigh everything. Was she being unfairly generous, when she thought something good of Isabel Ruesta? Was a contact bending her mind? Or was she being unfair by picking at every thought this way when Ferranda Villazur had brought nothing but accusations. A contract was difficult to prove, but it was just as difficult to disprove. What could Isabel do or say to put Ferranda’s allegations to rest? Nothing. And some of Ferranda’s other accusations had been dubious, the talk of plot and there being a false killer.

Grief at the death of a lover – and to think Sanale had been that, Angharad would never have suspected – could darken one’s mind. Ferranda might have been lashing out.

Or am I looking at Isabel’s chances through the kindest mirror?

The thoughts circled like dogs chasing each other’s tails. There was no clear liar here, no monster whose warped pale face could be revealed by ripping off a mask. Just as she had through the night, Angharad wrestled with her doubts and stared moodily ahead. She did not shun Isabel, but neither did she engage in conversation – she lengthened her stride to stay ahead and prevent it. It left her at Acanthe Phos’ side on the way to the temple-fortress, the blemished traitor needing only a single quelling look to stay silent the whole way.

This time, when they went down the stairs, everyone kept a large distance from each other.

The temple-fortress’ red stone awaited them at the bottom of the cauldron again, wind whistling softly behind them as they passed the bronze gates still open wide. This time, when they passed through the eclectic hall of treasures and trinkets, Angharad hung back. She left the front to others, those yet to become victors. They could deal with the spirit themselves.

“You came back!”

The massive peafowl leapt down from her dais, dead god jostling on her back, and with all the dignity of an excited child trotted towards them. Flicking her tailfeathers happily, she swayed to the sides in celebration.

“I thought you’d died,” the mayura confided. “Mortals are so fragile.”

“Not yet,” Lord Zenzele said, “but then the day’s just begun. Surely one of us will be up for it.”

“Let us be optimists,” Lady Ferranda mused. “I’ll not settle for Xical alone – I choose to believe that, as a community, we can also get Lord Augusto killed.”

The pair, Angharad thought, truly had become thick as thieves. Part of her was glad for them, that their griefs need not be borne alone, but the part of her that must go beyond decency worried. If Lady Ferranda pressed her suspicions and tried to kill Isabel, would Zenzele Duma help her? Angharad did not know and hated that she even had to consider it. This Trial of Ruins, it was like a mire. The longer they stayed in the maze, the deeper they sunk into the mud of their own petty plots and hatreds.

Sometimes she though the spirits might not be the true peril of this maze.

“Watch your tongue,” the Cerdan snarled, “else you-”

Cozme Aflor’s hand on his shoulder silenced him.

“We must win tests to reach the Toll Road,” the older man said. “By the rules our host has laid down, three champions must still be beaten. Is there one among us that would step forward?”

Angharad scoffed, which drew more than a few eyes to her.

“An interesting question to ask,” she said, “when you are not a victor yourself, Cozme Aflor. Where has yesterday’s boldness gone?”

Unfriendly looks, but most of them were not sent her way. To her dismay, she found support in an unexpected place.

“She has a point, Cozme,” Tupoc said, idly tapping his spear against his shoulder. “Go on then, my bold man, take the vanguard. Are you and Augusto not entirely capable of protecting yourselves?”

Angry, worried looks from both men Tupoc had named. Angharad’s eyes narrowed. A split between them and Tupoc, perhaps? It may be that with Cozme at his side, Augusto had decided he need no longer be the Izcalli’s lickspittle. This is Tupoc calling them to heel, then, she thought. Uncertain as to whether she should allow it to happen, Angharad hesitated until the decision was taken out of her hands. Cutting through the rising tension, Song stepped forward and bowed before the mayura.

“Honored elder, I would face one of your champions,” the Tianxi said.

The peafowl peered down at her.

“Do I know you?” the mayura asked. “I feel as if I should be pecking your head.”

“I would prefer you do not, honored elder,” Song politely requested.

It was not possible for a bird to pout, given the lack of lips, but the spirit made a valiant attempt nonetheless.

“Fine,” she sniffed. “Refuse my blessing.”

The mayura waited for a moment, perhaps hopeful calling it a blessing would change Song’s mind, but was destined for disappointment.

“I await the introduction of your champions,” Song said.

The peafowl left in a sulk, returning to the dais to begin her spectacle. Cascades of blue and green silk fell from the ceiling again, the sight less staringly impressive the second time. Curtains surrounded them on all sides as golden light began coursing down. Sounding mor like a Lierganese hawker than an ancient spirit, the mayura began announcing her list of foes again.

“Hark! Will you face Ojas the Clever, who you must defeat in a contest of riddles where every mistake sees you lowered closer to a pool of-”

Angharad only paid half-hearted attention to the list of champions, knowing there was yet time. At least three victories must still be earned to win the right to reach the very summit of the temple and the path to the Toll Road that lay there.

“- Thangaraj, master of mists and illusions, whose defeat must come by might of arms. Then there is-”

“Him, honored elder,” Song said. “Thangaraj. I will face him.”

“Oh, that’s been a while,” the mayura enthused. “Usually they choose Inimai instead, she sounds like a pushover.”

Angharad cocked her head to the side. Was the spirit not the one who had crafted the introductions?

“I was given to understand,” Song said, “that adding restrictions to the test yields greater advances.”

The spirit was visibly pleased at the implication. Also loudly.

“Yesss,” the peafowl hissed. “Tell me.”

“If offer you two oaths,” Song serenely replied. “The first is that I will use only a single shot.”

That was… not unwise, Angharad decided. It was rare to be able to reload one’s gun during a duel, and Song had said nothing of her sword. It was a limitation, but not a crippling one.

“I receive your oath,” the mayura said, then hopped back and forth. “Again.”

“I shall not take more than a step away from where I stand when the test begins.”

The spirit cackled.

“Oh, that is fun,” she said. “I receive your oath.”

A pause.

“Three takes you to the end,” the spirit said. “That means a change in terms.”

“I listen, honored elder.”

“If you lose,” the mayura said, “you’ll become one of my champions.”

A ripple of unease went through the crowd, though this was not news to Angharad. The peafowl had already told her that the last test had this particularity to it.

“That is acceptable to me,” Song replied. “Shall we begin?”

“When you’re ready,” the peafowl happily nodded.

The Tianxi’s silver gaze swept through them.

“I will be leaving, then,” she said. “Kindly do not lower the number of victors in my absence.”

And on that sharp note, Song walked away.

Angharad had never seen a test from the outside in this temple, so it was with a curious eye she greeted the changes in the golden light.

What had before been letters and the silhouette of the champions spread out, the strokes thinning as they came to illustrate some kind of strange circular room. As if alive, the strands of gold moved as clouds of mist over a floor that was full of uneven rises and hidden pits. At the heart of it, sitting on a throne, a small bald man with a grand beard and a pot belly was waiting. He had on his lap a mace with a thick head a strange handle – like a saber’s, with a knuckle-bow guard. The Pereduri had never seen such a weapon before, it must be Someshwari.

It would take time before Song reached the grounds of the fight, Angharad knew from experience, so she found a pillar to lean against in a corner and drew back from the crowd. Lord Ishaan seemed as if he might have wanted to chat, but he read her expression and elected to leave her in peace. No, it was another who sought Angharad out.

Lady Isabel Ruesta had dressed with an eye to the practical, even though she was unlikely to be challenging a test today. A high-collared yellow doublet over a pale shirt matched hose of the same shade, tucked into elegant knee-high boots. The sole concession to traditional femininity was the feathered riding hat, angled coquettishly over her black curls. The infanzona was a feast for the eyes, as always, and Angharad would not soon forget how soft her skin had been under her fingers the evening when Isabel had visited her.

Only she was not so certain she should be fond of that memory, now. The kindest possible mirror, Ferranda had called it. What would that mean, if it were true?

Isabel came to stand by her side, hands over her lap. Silence held between them. Would not looking at the infanzona undo the effect of her contract, Angharad wondered? Or did Isabel perhaps need touch to seed the veil over one’s eyes? Angharad could not help but wonder even knowing it was unfair, that Ferranda had accused without proof. But how would one go about proving the unseen? A fair question, but so was the opposite: how would one go about disproving it? It the end it was a matter of trust, and Angharad was feeling thin on trust.

She had uncovered too many lies. It was tiring, to question everything. Enough that she thought it might be better to simply go her own way.

“Hold out your hand,” Isabel suddenly asked.

Angharad stilled. The other woman noticed.

“Ah,” she said. “As I thought. Please allow me, then, a defense against the accusations Ferranda brought to you.”

Would it be unwise, to agree? Her contract at work? Angharad could have let the dog chase each other’s tails for hours and earned nothing but barks, so instead she set aside her own thoughts and doubts. If her mind was uncertain, then she need only avoid relying on her minds. Isabel Ruesta had been accused and was now asking for a way to prove her innocence that would not be harmful to Angharad.

By honor’s count, this should be allowed.

Almost relieved that there was a way around the doubts, the Pereduri offered her hand. Isabel lightly touched it with the tip of her fingers.

“Beginning now,” she said.

Angharad blinked, eyeing the other woman. A lie? She felt nothing at all. Or perhaps Ferranda’s accusations had been most exaggerated. Isabel breathed out.

“The Duchy of Peredur,” Isabel Ruesta said, “is a barren shithole at the edge of the world, full of slack-jawed yokels who fuck seals and claim they were mermaids.”

The Pereduri drew back in complete and utter startlement, though Isabel kept their hands connected. Past the first surprise at the unexpected vulgarity, anger rose. The infanzona had not only insulted her home, she had called her countrymen liars. Even in jest, and surely this must be in jest for Isabel could not possibly believe it – the infanzona withdrew her hand and Angharad paused. Why could Isabel not possibly believe that?

“I would have drawn a blade on most everyone here,” the Pereduri said, “had they said what you just did. Even knowing it was to prove a point.”

“It is best compared,” she said, “to making a plain girl stand in flattering light and clothes. It does not change anything, not truly – a boy who prefers boys will still not take her to bed, nor will one who does not like redheads. But it makes the graceless graceful.”

“And I have been made to see the girl,” Angharad plainly said.

Isabel inclined her head.

“You have. If you were to choose to be angry over this,” she said, “I would not dispute it.”

Angharad’s answering look was cool.

“What other choice is there, Isabel?”

“Allowing me to explain,” she replied.

“Have I stopped you?” Angharad sharply said.

The infanzona worried her lip.

“I do not always control it,” Isabel said. “When my emotions run high, whatever the emotion be – fear, joy, desire, hate, it makes no difference – I draw on the contract. Sometimes I do not even notice it.”

You could be lying, Angharad thought. And she could trust her own mind, not right now, so instead she trusted in honor.

“Had you told me this, there would have been no breach in trust,” she replied. “You did not.”

“I was afraid,” Isabel admitted, “and wronged you because of it.”

The dark-skinned woman breathed in at the stark admission.

“I will not excuse the act,” the dark-haired beauty continued, “but I would tell you what drove me to it, if you will allow.”

Angharad felt little sympathy, and even if she had honor would not have cared for reasons. Still, it was her responsibility to see the entire matter through before making a decision about cutting ties. She nodded permission.

“You must think me some kind of coldblooded seductress,” Isabel ruefully said, “but that is not how it started. My parents, you see, wanted a boy. And when Mother finally gave birth to one, suddenly I was no longer their favorite.”

She breathed out.

“Infanzones are taught as children that prayer answered is a dangerous thing,” Isabel said. “Mine was. I wanted to be the apple of my family’s eye against, instead of that squalling stinking thing, and the Beloved Blossom offered me that.”

“I have never heard of a spirit by that name,” Angharad said.

“There is no reason you should,” the infanzona replied. “She is no Mane, hardly an ancient power. But she was so lovely, so glamorous, and why should I distrust a goddess of love promising me that very thing? Only I was wrong, Angharad.”

Isabel’s smile was a melancholy thing.

“She is, you see, not a goddess of love but of love novels.”

Angharad was Pereduri: she well knew how the difference of a single word could change everything. The infanzona sighed.

“I did not realize what that truly meant until I was older, when the boys that had been my friends began falling in love with me every time I laughed,” Isabel said. “I learned to be wary, to control it, but fear is another emotion – every time I felt dread at the approach of a suitor unwilling to accept a no, the contract bloomed anyway.”

Green eyes lowered to the ground.

“So I embraced it,” she admitted. “Used it to defend myself, set them against each other. Only the Ruesta are not the greatest house of Sacromonte, Angharad. We have superiors, those we must not offend.”

“House Cerdan,” she quietly said.

“They way out was to marry above them, beyond their reach,” Isabel said. “And I found a man who would suit, whose contract even dulled my own, but my reputation followed me. He was courteous but kept his distance. Unwilling to give up, I decided to follow him to this island so that I might convince him.”

“And the brothers?” she asked.

“I needed them to win permission to come from my parents,” the infanzona said. “And, well, I would not push them into danger but should they seek it out themselves I would not weep of the consequences either.”

Angharad had some notion of what it was like, a boy of nobler blood wanting of you something you did not want to give. She had rubbed elbows with izinduna on the dueling circuit, and some of the young men had taken an interest it was not in her to return – and what noble house did not stand higher than the Tredegar, out in Malan? She fought against the sympathy, but it came anyway. Distrusting herself, Angharad reached for honor again.

In her dealings with the Cerdan, it could be said that Isabel Ruesta had kept to the exact lines of honor. Hardly in spirit, but that was not for Angharad to judge. It was between the two of them that trust had been broken.

“Why bring me into it?” she asked.

Isabel hesitated.

“It was duty, in part, to another noble,” she said. “But I will not pretend that I did not notice your eyes on me, or that I misliked the idea of having the protection of your sword arm – or, forgive the crudeness, of a discreet affair with a dashing stranger before stepping into married life.”

Only the man she’d sought must have died when the first wave of trial-takers was slain to the last. Angharad could see how it had all unfolded from there, and found she believed the infanzona. The tale fit the events. She could not take it as truth when she had already been deceived, but neither would she leap to call Isabel a liar. Not that it mattered, for Angharad would follow not her feelings but honor’s lay. And honor tolerated no excuse for what had been done, the secret use of a contract on her. Had it been done by accident, then Isabel would still have been duty-bound to reveal it.

And Angharad was not callow enough to believe it had all been done by accident.

“It is not my place to decide where honor lies between you and others,” she finally said. “Between us, however, offence was given. Out of respect for the aid you have lent me I will not pursue the matter, but any ties between us are sundered.”

Isabel’s face tightened, but she nodded.

“Should I come to lead others again, or enter alliance, I would then be honor bound to tell them what I can of your contract while avoiding your private affairs,” Angharad added.

The infanzona hesitated.

“If you are willing to wait,” she said, “I promise to do this myself come the next sanctuary. I fear for my life should it be said before then.”

The Pereduri cocked her head to the side, considering that. It was not an unwarranted fear. Augusto might well try to blame her for everything.

“Should I suspect you of using your contract on another, I will have to intervene,” she warned.

“That is only fair,” Isabel replied without missing a beat.

Angharad, reluctantly, thought better of her for it. Isabel Ruesta had done wrong, but she was not demanding the right to continue doing it from behind a shield of silence.

“Then I will agree to that,” Angharad said, pushing herself off the pillar. “I believe our conversation, and our ties, have reached a natural end.”

The infanzona looked away, her head lowered enough locks were draped across her face. For a moment Angharad thought she saw cold anger there, but when Isabel turned to her again she found something closer to grief.

“So they have,” Isabel sadly said.

She inclined her head, Angharad jerking a nod back, and stepped away. The Pereduri did not watch her leave, instead looking at the strands of gold still depicting the champion Song was to face. There was no trace of the Tianxi, an irritating thing even though Angharad knew it unreasonable to expect Song to have risen four shrines up in the amount of time it had taken her to speak with Isabel. Sighing, she forced herself to keep looking at the gold so that she would not have to see if others had noticed her conversation with Isabel.

When steps came her way, Angharad decided that she would consider enough of taunt by Tupoc as a breach of truce and comport herself accordingly. Only when the person approaching cleared their throat, it was much too high-pitched. Turning a hard stare on whoever had thought it a sound notion to try her now, Angharad blinked when she saw Isabel standing before her. The infanzona smiled a little shyly, offering her hand to kiss.

“Lady Isabel Ruesta,” she said.

“I-” Angharad began, then frowned in confusion “What is this, Isabel?”

“There is nothing between us now, you said,” the infanzona replied. “An empty slate. I would fill it again, only properly this time.”

“Nothing has changed from moments ago,” she said.

“Everything has changed,” Isabel retorted. “You know of my contract. You know my intentions and what brought me to the Dominion – there is no longer anything hidden between us.”

“I am sure you can find another sword arm,” Angharad sharply replied. “There is no need to inflict this on either of us, Isabel.”

“Angharad,” the green-eyed woman patiently said, “I no longer need a sword arm. I will not take tests. My sole enemy, Augusto, has worn out several shovels digging his own grave. All that lies ahead of me is patiently waiting until others bring the trial to an end so I can stroll up the path to sanctuary and take a ship home.”

That was… well, she could not find a part that was untrue. Not even when looking for a trap.

“I do not need anything from you,” Isabel said. “I seek your company because I desire it.”

“A blank slate is not the promise of forgiveness,” Angharad flatly replied.

“Then I will have to attempt to charm some measure of it out of you,” Isabel said.

The infanzona had to know that the first whiff of the contract being used on her, Angharad would see it as an offence against her. And still she stood here. The Pereduri said nothing, silence setting between then, but still Isabel stood there, offering her up her hand. Undaunted.

“I doubt it,” Angharad said.

She did not kiss the hand. Isabel still smiled before she walked away, joining Lan for a chat. As well she might.

Angharad had replied with three words and not one had been ‘no’.

Song’s arrival had the entire room breaking into murmurs.

The Tianxi, Angharad thought, looked sharper when drawn in gold. Her long braid like a single stroke, her chin like a knife. They watched as Song Ren strode into the room where the champion waited, sitting on his throne. She stopped a dozen feet away from the throne, mist swirling around her. Could she see through it as they could, to the treacherous footing and hidden pits beneath? Angharad knew not, and it worried her.

The lips of Song and the champion both moved, but there was no telling what they said. The details were not fine enough for that. Whatever the truth, the champion rose from his throne and idly swung his mace. The Tianxi did not move, bound to the oath of never straying more than a step away from where she stood, save for unsheathing her straight sword.

Then Thangaraj struck, and all breathe in.

He leapt at Song, who swung through his throat, but the man turned into billowing mist. An illusion? Another Thangaraj was back on his throne, laughing, while they could all see another sneaking behind Song while crouching low. The sneak struck at her from behind, but she narrowly parried the blow – her sword gave, though, and the shaft of the mace still hit her leg. That would no doubt bruise.

It was a storm of tricks and taunts after that, Thangaraj dying a dozen times to her blade only to be revealed having a drink or lounging at the foot of his throne or picking up pebbles to throw at her. The one time she came close to cutting him down, when he tried a blow from the side after faking having been an illusion, he abandoned his weapon and threw himself into a pit. Moments later he was back out, weapon in hand.

The champion was toying with her, Angharad thought. Song had yet to suffer more than bruises, but now Thangaraj tried harsher and harsher blows. It was just a matter of time until she took a real wound, and it would be downhill from there. The noblewoman watched with a clenched jaw as Thangaraj mocked her, dancing in close to strike at her with the mace, only Song dropped her sword as she turned.

The mace went right through the back of her neck, turning into mist and the Tianxi snatched at thin air – grabbing the champion by throat and when he opened his mouth Angharad realized why Song had dropped the sword: she’d been drawing her pistol. The shoved it through his mouth, and smiled a cold golden smile before pulling the trigger.

One shot, Angharad thought as Thangaraj’s brains splattered the mist. That was what then other woman had bargained for.

Perhaps she ought not to have worried so much for Song Ren after all, Angharad mused as the others began to cheer.

Song’s journey back down was faster than the other way around.

Angharad joined in with the congratulations, which were particularly enthusiastic from Shalini. No one asked the Tianxi how she had seen through the illusion, even though everyone had to suspect it was a contract. The mayura had returned with Song, happy at first but that passed when it was confirmed they now had the right to rise to the summit of the temple-fortress and take the path to the Toll Road. Everyone collected their packs, checked their weapons and then they began moving.

The mayura pattered behind them nervously. Given the spirit’s size and the sharpness of her beak it would have been a worrisome sight, if the great peafowl did not look for all the world like a dog being abandoned.

“You don’t have to leave,” the spirit said. “You can stay the night, you know. It’s safe in here and there used to be a pleasure temple so there’s plenty of beds.”

Lord Ishaan, who she was addressing, slowed his steps and turned to bowed to her as Shalini kept a wary eye on it all.

“I thank you for the offer, guardian, but we intend to reach the end of the maze today,” Lord Ishaan said. “We should not tarry.”

“The road is terrible,” the mayura assured them. “Lots of you might die. You should probably just stay here.”

The Someshwari bowed again, giving no further answer. The peafowl tried again, but always she was politely put off – Cozme said he must bear news back to Sacromonte of a death, Acanthe Phos claimed she could not sleep well in temples and Lady Ferranda replied that should she grow exhausted on the Toll Road she was sure to return. Tupoc boldly counter-offered that the spirit should leave with him as his mount, which to everyone’s alarm the mayura seemed to consider.

“I can’t leave Kshetra’s temple behind,” she told Tupoc. “Sorry. You seem like someone who gets in a lot of trouble, it might have been amusing.”

“If you ever change your mind, find me,” the Izcalli casually replied.

By the time the mayura got to her, Angharad felt like the last in a line of boots about to kick a puppy. It was a senseless thing to feel, of course – spirits were not men, could not be treated the same. The mayura must be centuries old, for all that it seemed to have the mind of a cheerful child. Yet when the peafowl suggested she could stay and rest a bit, perhaps spar with the champion Amrinder, Angharad felt like a heel for refusing.

“I am sorry, honored elder,” she honestly said. “Had we the time to spare I would stay the night, but we yearn for the safety of the sanctuary that awaits us beyond the maze. Many of us have lost loved ones in this maze, it is not the quality of your hospitality that drives us to leave it.”

The mayura’s long neck drooped. She looked glum.

“People never stay unless they’re champions,” she said. “I miss when people came to visit, before we crossed the water.”

“Are your champions not fine company?” she gently asked.

“They forget a lot,” the peafowl muttered. “I’m happy you fought Amrinder like you did, it brought back a lot of him. They were better when Kshetra was around, more alive.”

The bird sighed.

“I like that I can do whatever I want now, but I miss him sometimes,” the mayura admitted. “He was a good god.”

Was it madness, Angharad thought, to see of herself in a spirit? To see a child surviving their kin, alone in a world that seemed so dark and kept closing in from all sides. It must be, and yet here she was. Seeing that very thing.

“I miss my family as well,” she softly said. “I used to be glad to go away from them for months, out on the dueling circuit, but now I would give the world for having spent those days with them instead.”

She sighed.

“But I cannot change that,” Angharad said. “The past is beyond our reach. All we can do is learn from our regrets.”

She reached for her saber, unsheathing the blade as the mayura watched her curiously. She held out her arm, cutting shallowly on her forearm, and wiped the blade before putting it away. With her now-free hand she touched her blood, wetting the tip of her fingers, and smiled at the spirit.

“Lean forward, please,” she asked.

The peafowl did, the desiccated corpse of the god on her back jangling forward. Angharad offered a bow.

“For your fine hospitality I give my thanks, honored elders,” she said, and touched the edge of the golden cradle.

Red stained the metal, though after but a heartbeat the vividness of the color faded.

“It is but a small offering, but I hope you will have joy of it,” Angharad said.

She bowed again, withdrawing a step, and the mayura’s long neck unbent. The spirit studied her, for a long moment, and then decisively nodded.

“You’re nice,” the mayura decided. “I like you.”

“I like you too,” Angharad smiled back.

The peafowl spirit was dangerous, but so were many of Angharad’s companions. The mayura was not ill-natured, not a drop of malice in her, and for that she had meant her words.

“You can have my blessing,” the peafowl allowed, presenting the top her head.

The Pereduri paused, unsure what to do.

“Pet the feathers,” the mayura instructed. “They are very soft.”

Angharad could not contain a grin at how proud she sounded of that. With her clean hand she stroked the feathers, the peafowl make noises of approbation. For a second it sounded as if the mayura was whispering something so Angharad leaned closer, but she must have misheard. It was still only that strange purring sound. After a while she ceased, the mayura withdrawing her head.

“Good luck,” the spirit told her. “I hope you don’t die before you die.”

“Thank you,” Angharad replied, slightly bemused.

Still, she was in a lighter mood as she parted way with the spirit and caught up to the others. One was waiting for her at the back.

“Soft touch,” Song mocked, a smile tugging at her lips.

Angharad stared haughtily down at her.

“Jealousy is unbecoming of you, Song,” she said. “It is not my fault you spurned her blessing when offered.”

“You see right through me,” the other woman drily replied, hand over heart.

They were both grinning by the time they caught up to the rest.

They went all the way up, feet swallowing the stairs, until they emerged at the heart of the small tower overlooking precipitous heights.

From there a small wooden bridge filled the gap, taking them to the edge of the great cliffs surrounding the fortress-temple. Forward they went again, eager to find what lay ahead, and as the side of the cliff turned into a massive set of stairs they looked upon the promised Toll Road.

It looked, Angharad thought, simple enough. At the bottom of the stairs waited a long stone bridge over a rapid river, across which they all saw a riot of lights. Lanterns by the hundreds hanging on what she was moved to see was the end of the cavern, a natural wall. And set into that wall, surrounded by a halo of lanterns, waited a great gate of bronze.

“Are we clear to cross?” Shalini Goel asked, sounding surprised. “I see no shrine left.”

“Look closer at the bridge,” Lady Ferranda replied.

It was only then Angharad noticed them. Markers like those used for miles back in Malan, raised stones. Set in the middle of bridge at precisely equal distance, ten in whole. Someone cursed.

“Is every stone a test?” Lord Zenzele asked.

The fair-haired infanzona nodded. The mood took a turn, as was only to be expected. To triumph over ten gods was no small order, even for a group such as theirs.

“That is not the worst part,” Ferranda added. “Every time a test is failed, that tenth of the bridge collapses into the river. I hear making a leap across one section is feasible, but two?”

She grimaced.

“Best not lose twice in a row, else we’ll risk swimming.”

20 thoughts on “Chapter 35

  1. Earl of Purple

    So the mayura spoke to the Fisher. I wonder what was said. I like the mayura, weird as it is.

    And we find out more of Isabel’s contract and the name of another god. Or the title, rather, as Fortuna remains the only god with an actual name.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I can’t help but think that the god that the mayura used to serve probably was kind of a screwball. Might have been a pretty chill dude as I can’t see someone who takes a giant chicken as a steed as taking himself all that seriously.

      Liked by 4 people

  2. Cool. Angharad broke up with Isabel when she found out about the contract and Isabel is leaving the Trials as her enemies already finished digging their own graves. Though, I think Isabel’s contract is interesting and could be very useful to Angharad if she manages to make an ally out of Isabel, it is just not in Angharad’s nature to do this kind of thing.

    I wonder what is Angharad’s plan for the future beyond joining the Blackcloaks.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. lysDexicsUntie

    I can’t wait until they learn Augusto is not a victor.
    And Isabel is quite impressive here.
    Angharad knows what Isabel’s contract does and still ignores the anger on her face and falls for her manipulation. I don’t know why she is so convinced she would notice Isabel using the contract on her, when she technically should suspect every positive thought now, but obviously doesn’t.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. lysDexicsUntie

      Instead of this “I’ll listen to my honor, not my emotions” crap that Angharad is relying on to detect Isabel’s contract at work (and obviously already failing with) she should try going through their interactions and mentally replacing Isabel with pretty much anyone else, just to see if she would have reacted differently or given them the same benefit of doubt. It seems like that would be a more reliable metric for detecting influence.

      And darn WordPress for not letting me add to or edit my previous comments.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Your username is really clever, and I kept reading it as DyslexicsUnite for like ten seconds. Honestly I think the Honor-Code interactions could have worked, were she a little less prone to emotion; but that would require her to be more of a Rat, which means less honor, so…

        Liked by 1 person

  4. spencer

    So do the bridge segments get rebuilt every year? Elsewhere it feels like the damage persists been trials, but that wouldn’t work for a choke point like this bridge that gets used every trial.

    Maybe the proximity of the Red Maw in the canal below the bridge adds power somehow?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. lysDexicsUntie

      Well they did say the paths through the Maze change every year. So there is something physically altering the trial, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it also reset any doors or traps.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Abnaxis

      The Dove’s trial reset after Isabel took it. Tristan threatened to borrow Isabel’s stick and solve it himself when the Dove god showed up to demand he take her trial.

      I think the gods in charge of temples can and do rebuild/reset their temples between trials. Unless I’m mistaken, the only temples with “permanent” damage are the ones being puppeted/impersonated by the Red Maw?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Someperson

    It’s a real shame the peafowl spirit didn’t accept Xical’s offer. It would have made a fine addition to the party, no doubt.

    Isabel definitely isn’t going to leave after the Trial of Ruins.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Abnaxis

      Yeah, I’m just waiting for the party at the fortress to find some trick to kill the Red Maw, only for that to mean the mayura is now free to be ridden by Tupoc XD

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Abnaxis

    I don’t think I understand the implication of Isabel’s god being a git of love novels instead of love? Is it because the god is trying to create drama?

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Earl of Purple

      She’s a goddess of trials and tribulations, of love triangles and will-they-won’t-theys and, yes, drama with a romantic twist. A god of love would be more… real. A god of late night chats over coffee, a god of sitting in the theatre and sharing the popcorn, a god marriage and happily-ever-afters. Because romance novels always end at the happily-ever-after, but love doesn’t.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. lysDexicsUntie

        Not all love stories end in happily ever after either. Romeo and Juliet being a classic example, but far from the only one. Of course when love novels end bad it’s usually much worse than real life failed romances too.

        Liked by 2 people

    1. lysDexicsUntie

      Well Tupoc is such a sweet, wholesome, compassionate individual. Just look at his history.
      He was the only one to attempt diplomacy and trade when everyone else was all “kill the evil cultists”.
      He has offered shelter and protection to those exiled from or shunned by the larger group.
      He is always the first to request a truce and peace between groups.
      He tries to get individuals to work with him even after arguments with insults and threats directed his way.
      Why, one could practically call him benevolent (I probably shouldn’t use Saint considering this world), without a cruel or deceitful bone in his body.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Mirror Night

    First, a Love Story Contract could be better than a Love Contract. Given we just came from a universe all about manipulating stories.

    Second, Angharad really missing the subtext about Isabel cleaning up her mess. She probably also should have asked what the weakness was.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. hoser2

    So gods can “die before they die?” Is that what happened to the gods the Red Maw defeated like the crystal palace god? Or is it something else entirely?
    Does Isabel now see Angharad as a threat to be dealt with? Or a useful piece that just needs to be manipulated more carefully?
    Where does the whole bit about the peafowl’s blessing come in? Is Angharad going to be the one with a steed or ally when the situation blows up?

    Liked by 1 person

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