Chapter 16

Angharad flinched, but she did not die.

No, the ball hit the tree about a foot to the right of her head. Bark went flying and a heartbeat later both cultists keeping watch turned her way – she felt Cozme going still as he was caught leaning out of cover.

The cultists shouted, and just like that the traitor had killed them.

There should have been a burst of movement, of surprise and fear and hatred, but instead Angharad breathed deep. The urgency bled out of her, slowly but surely, as a great silence spread. Stillness hung in the air, like the world had been seized by the throat.

The fishing line struck the scene before her and the impact rippled out, as if writ on water.

Angharad Tredegar stood stranded on an island’s shore, stones digging into the soles of her boots. She looked down at herself, seeing on the water the moment where time had gone still: at once she knew she still stood there, in that other place, but also that so long as she stood on this forlorn shore it was nothing but a reflection on shadowy waters. The ripples calmed, showing again the crystallized act of Augusto Cerdan’s betrayal in perfect detail.  Without turning or daring to move an inch, Angharad knew that there was something besides her. An entity great and terrible, so much that her mind trembled at the very thought of beholding it.

The Fisher’s steady breath was as a gust of wind, the spirit patiently fishing in the moment-become-water.

“He betrayed me,” Angharad finally said. “I knew he would, but to think he would go so far? Master Cozme and his brother, even Isabel.”

She ground her teeth, seething with impotent anger.

“He is a man without honour,” she bit out.

Above them there was only darkness, as if they stood under an eternity of nothing, but Angharad somehow knew there was a ceiling. This was a cavern, resounding with the quiet echo of water lapping at the shore of the island within it. Where the spirit she had struck a pact with still waited, his patience as absolute a truth as the coming of the tide.

“Honour,” the Fisher said, slowly speaking the word as if feeling it out.

The fishing line struck at water, ripples turning the moment into a confusion of colour and lines, and the spirit hummed.

“A worthless thing.”

She rocked back as if he’d struck her across the face. Anger and surprise fought fear for the barest of heartbeats, long enough she looked at the spirit. A hulking shape towering above her, more fortress than man, and in the dark she could make little more than a silhouette. But she saw the trails of ichor, the rivulets of black on grey skin that bled down from the crown of his head. They dripped down the Fisher’s body all the way to the stones beneath his feet, staining them black. There was a basket on the other side of him, tall as she and full of wriggling things.

Instinct screamed at her not to look at it too closely.

“It is not,” she sharply replied. “It is priceless.”

The Fisher shook his head, chiding.

“Its price is known to all, Angharad Tredegar.”

His voice was not a man’s voice, with emotion and cadence and all the shades of humanity. It was a spirit’s, as much the glimpse of something she could barely comprehend as a sound. Her mind told her she heard the sound of the sea against stone, of bones shattering like twigs, but she could not have explained why. Against her will, Angharad wrenched her gaze away. She was trembling, slick with sweat. The spirit was not meant to be beholden by mortal eyes.

“Why were you betrayed, child?”

“Fear,” she said. “Fear and jealousy.”

The spirit laughed. It was a sound utterly without joy: a wound ripping open, a friend abandoned in the dark.

“Because you are weak,” the Fisher corrected.

“I am not weak,” Angharad hissed. “I have earned ten stripes, spirit, and won against-”

“The victories of a child,” he dismissed. “You fight a woman’s battles, now, yet still hold them up as trophies. Why should they not betray you? It is nothing more than what you deserve.”

“We had a truce,” she shouted. “He turned not only on me but on his brother, on Cozme and Isabel. How can you claim I am at fault?”

“Truce,” the spirit repeated, amused. “Another word. How many will you hide behind?”

“Keeping your promises is the foundation of the world,” Angharad bit back. “Of everything we are.”

“There is only one foundation to the world, child,” the Fisher said, with a certainty like iron and stone, like tide and decay. “The eldest law, whose name is extinction.”

And now she understood, for she had learned at her father’s knee as much as her mother’s. The old songs, the old tales, the old ways. She had come here in the dark, on the eve of death, and the spirit she had bargained with was testing her. Angharad swore she would not prove unworthy.

“That is despair, spirit,” she said. “I refuse it. It will not own me.”

And she meant it, for all that she had a role to play. Angharad was not without fault, and sometimes she bent honour or twisted it, but she would never renounce it. It there was failure, it was hers and not that of what she aspired to. Even if she fell short all her life, why should she cease trying? The final betrayal of what you were was to surrender to the tide of the world, to let it decide who you were to be.

“Perhaps it is not writ in the bone of Vesper that honour should matter,” Angharad admitted. “But it can be made to – and I will fight to make it so.”

She readied herself for pain or anger, for the test of her resolve, but the spirit only flicked his fishing rod. Lights swirled, and below the waters she glimpsed shapes moving.

“And so you are betrayed,” the Fisher said. “You claim rights you have not won, acting as if your desires are born worthy of respect.”

“Why do you still exist, Fisher, if the eldest law is absolute?” she challenged.

“It can be stalled,” the spirit said. “That, too, is true. But only strength can achieve this, and you are weak. Your will is dull. Your enemies defy you with impunity.”

Shapes circled around the bait under the surface, as above lights scattered like a broken mosaic.

“Laws,” the Fisher told her, “are the right of the strong and them alone. Your honour is not a law, it is a noose.”

Her heart clenched with fear. This… it did not feel like a test of her mettle. There was no fearsome wrath, no pain or fear or battle of tricks. The Fisher did not seem interested enough in her for this, and that more than anything else had a gaping pit opening in her stomach. Was this only a remonstration before her death, some kind of sick sermon from the ancient spirit? No, she told herself. Doubt is how victory slips away. It must be a test, it must.

“I do not believe that,” Angharad replied, looking down at the waters.

She clenched her fists, knowing that as soon as the ripples settled she would once more see Augusto Cerdan betraying his kin and professed love for a better chance at running away. The Fisher was not wrong, that the infanzon had done it because he feared her not. Because he thought he would get away with it, that even if she survived she would be bound by oaths not to slay him for his treachery. All of this might never have happened, if she had simply let him fall last night. But that was not the whole of it, was it?

If you began to act in only the ways that helped you, if you cared nothing for duty and dues, then you were as an animal. And that sickness, it spread until there was no law but the law of the sword and the whole world was as a butcher’s yard. There was a cost to peace, to plenty and safety and Vesper being more than packs of wolves tearing each other to bits: sometimes, you had to lose. To accept that you could not win every time, because if you could not why should anyone?

Honour had been used against her, but that did not mean honour was wrong. Only that the wicked had been cleverer than she.

“Having the sharpest blade,” she quietly said, “that’s not what honour is. It is defending the weak, it is doing the right thing. Even when it costs you.”

The Fisher did not even turn her way.

“Then perish.”

It was not a test, Angharad Tredegar then understood. It had never been. This was no tale of the Fifth Branch, where the clever princess moved the heart of the spirit with her honour. No play where her perseverance would be rewarded with the aid of an all-powerful ally, not even a song of cleverness and guile. The old monster she had made a pact with had wanted her to be a worse woman than she was, and now that she refused to be that monster would let her die. And the utter dismissal, the casual disinterest, was what burned her most. Because had the spirit not known who she was, when they made their pact? And now it shamed her for it, as if being anything but a selfish pit of despair was some sort of sin.

“What did you choose me for, if not this?” Angharad snarled. “What else, if not honour?”

Below the waters, one of the shadows bit the bait. It struggled after, scared and hurting and somehow knowing it was going to die.

“I remember them shouting of it,” the Fisher said, “when the ships first landed on our shores.”

Arms like towers pulled, ripping out of the water a wriggling shape that Angharad’s eyes shied away from. It was caught in a great palm, the barbed hook deftly slid out of shadowy flesh.

“Honour, honour!” the spirit laughed. “They raised it a banner, bedecked their champions in it, painted it on the lips of their queens.”

The wriggling thing fought with terror’s strength, but for all its efforts it did not slip the Fisher’s grasp. Angharad could not see the old spirit’s face but she knew it was smiling, just as she knew that part of her would have wept at the sight of it. The Fisher’s fingers squeezed, and after a wet and ugly crack the wriggling thing no longer wiggled at all.

“How sweet it made their screams taste, when my teeth cracked their bones.”

Angharad shivered as the spirit tossed the broken thing into the basket, where the dead flesh spread terror like poison in a cup.

“They loved their honour so much, your forebears,” the Fisher reminisced, “that I nailed them to the Young Shore so they might sing of it on the wind for their coming kin to hear.”

Oh Sleeping God, Angharad trembled. What have I done?

“There were so many the sea turned red,” the spirit told her lovingly, “that not even seagulls could drown out the screams.”

What had she sworn to free or die trying?

“Honour?” the Fisher said. “I would not give wind for honour. I gifted you my sagacity, child, because you hate them. Because you fear them.”

And on the water before them Angharad saw scrawled the nightmare of the night where her life had been broken forever, the fire and the screams and the blood on the stone. Her breath caught in her throat and she did not deny the spirit’s words for they were the truth.

Angharad Tredegar would avenge her family.

That oath she could not break, not without killing what was left of the girl who had been daughter of Rhiannon and Gwydion Tredegar. And if she killed that girl, what was even left?

“It has become half your name,” the spirit said. “You cannot renounce that, so the journey has become inevitable.”

The Fisher slowly turned, and before her trembling gaze fled to the stones at her feet the Pereduri glimpsed trails of ichor on grey flesh.

“There is poison in your veins, Angharad Tredegar,” the Fisher fondly said, “and when you learn to drink of it, you will become a thing of dread. One fit to break the locks on my cage.”

And as Angharad looked down at her boots, she saw the mistake at last. Because the spirit had cut to the bone of her, but he had not done it without a price to himself: he had revealed of him as much as he stripped bare of her. I gave you my sagacity, the Fisher had said. Nor merely a boon or a sliver of power, but a part what he was. That was not a small thing, one without costs or one that could easily taken back. If she died, he would lose something – and not least of it what the spirit thought was a chance of someone capable of freeing him.

Her gaze rose back to the water, finding once more Augusto Cerdan’s feverishly triumphant gaze looking back at her.

“You need me,” Angharad quietly said.

“There are others,” the Fisher said, “and my nature is patient.”

“But not wasteful,” she said. “You brought me here for a reason, Fisher. To learn your answer, so that I might beat the eldest law. You do not want me to be dead for all that you castigate me. You want me to be strong.”

For that is the only way you think I will ever be able to free you, she thought.

“Go on, then,” Angharad Tredegar said, forcing herself to look at the face of horror. “Show me your way.”

She saw nothing, only grey and shadow and ichor, yet still her eyes watered with tears. Then she smelled blood, felt it inside her mouth and sliding down her cheeks. She did not flinch or look away. The Fisher laughed: a ship breaking on a reef, a shield wall shattering.

“I am no peddler god, child,” the spirit said. “I gave you a gift of blood and bone, which you have not learned to use. Did I give you eyes or my own sagacity?”

“Then teach me,” Angharad challenged.

“That is why you are here,” the Fisher said. “You lessen yourself, clinging to your body like the shore. That is a child’s fear.”

The great spirit’s voice rang like a decree.

“Slay it,” he said. “Embrace the water.”

She watched the water before her, writ with light and a tale of treachery, and took a step beyond the shore. The water was cool, cold in a way that seeped into her bones, but she pressed on. A step after another, until was swallowed whole and she opened her eyes.

She stood besides Angharad Tredegar, whose expression was startled fury, and stepped away.

Violence exploded, the cultists charging towards the shout and pinning the company down. Still surprised, the four behind the tree hesitated. Isabel took a crossbow bolt to the belly, falling with a scream, and Angharad Tredegar charged into the mass of warriors.

She would die, Angharad thought, it was only a matter of time.

Brun tried to sink his hatchet in Augusto Cerdan’s back, eyes shining with emotion, but Beatris stopped him. She pulled at him and Song, face conflicted, said something to both.

Angharad thought she would be able to hear, if she came closer, but she could not quite manage it.

The three fled, Augusto struck across the face when he tried to go with them. He doubled it through the clearing even as Cozme was struck with a spear and Remund lost a hand to a sword blow. Cozme tried to run, but he was caught by one of the watchers and beaten unconscious.

Angharad Tredegar killed five before Ocotlan broke her leg and Tupoc rammed his spear through her heart. She died trying to claw at his throat one last time, but her bloody fingers fell short.

Angharad’s head broke the water, gasping. She felt a massive hand rest atop the crown of her head.

“Do better,” the Fisher said, and forced her back under.

This time, Angharad Tredegar began by pulling Isabel out of the way. She ran towards the other four and Cozme Aflor took a crossbow bolt in the back halfway there. They all rushed into the clearing, sweeping over the two watchers like a tide, but the warband caught up with them before they reached the trees. Three survived to run.

Angharad Tredegar was not one of them.

She sucked in a breath, emerging from the water.

“Please,” Angharad said, “I need-”

“Again,” the Fisher said, and pushed her back under

Angharad Tredegar charged the watchers herself, hoping the others would follow. She took a wound to a thrown knife and Brun was shot in the arm, but they made it across the clearing before the warband caught up with them. She shouted an order and everyone scattered, as she did, running their own way towards the sanctuary road.

Five survived to flee.

Angharad Tredegar’s wound slowed her enough that Leander Galatas traced a Sign before her and she hit a wall that could not be seen, falling down for a hollow to knock unconscious. The warband took her.

“I’m drowning,” Angharad gasped. “You can’t-”

“Again,” the Fisher said.

Angharad Tredegar ordered them so scatter before they had finished running across the clearing.

Two survived to flee.

“I don’t know how,” she pleaded, mouth full of water and blood. “I can’t-”

“Then try again,” the Fisher said.

Nine more times she went under, until at last she found it. The loop in the hole, the winding path. And as the Fisher’s hand left her head, she fell to her knees in the shallows by the shore. Crawling as she coughed and wheezed, spitting out water tinted red.

‘’It’s too much,” she got out. “It would have killed me.”

“Without my hand, the poison will eat you from within,” the Fisher acknowledged. “But you have learned, and will learn. It is a beginning.”

It would never be like that again, Angharad grasped. No more chances by the dozen, only the poison pill she could swallow and hope not to die. But the Fisher had not lied. She could do it, now. Step out of herself, beyond what she had thought the limits of her pact: that she could only have glimpses, and only through her own eyes. And that was yet a beginning in the old spirit’s eyes. What kind of terrible gift had she bargained for? Sagging against the rocks, water still lapping at her legs, Angharad closed her eyes. Listening to her own breath, she could only think of how close she had come to drowning.

Would she have become one of those wriggling things in the water, if she had?

She stayed there on the shore, prostrated like one of the forebears the Fisher had told her he had mutilated and tortured. But like all things out of the spirit’s mouth, that had not been the story whole.

“You weren’t strong enough, in the end,” Angharad said. “My forebears, they beat you. You lost the war.”

The Fisher’s gaze rested on her.

“They bled me and bound me, Angharad Tredegar,” the Fisher said. “They stole half my name. But they could not end me, not for all their desperate bargains. So they buried me deep, where no one would find me.”

The spirit laughed but it was the sound of teeth gnashing until they shattered, of a limb dipped in scalding water.

“They should have known better. Nothing is ever lost.”

She could feel the cold leaving her, the stillness fading. This place was about to end.

“Yet you are wrong, Angharad Tredegar,” the Fisher said.

And the last thing she heard before opening her eyes chilled her blood.

“I have not lost the war: so long as I exist, it has yet to end.”

She grabbed Isabel by the sleeve, pulling her along. That way Remund would not hesitate to follow. Angharad ran out from the cover of the tree, the taller of the cultist watchers palming a knife as the other charged with his spear. She released Isabel’s sleeve, speeding forward, and at the last moment took a left. The thrown knife went wide, the other’s spear came for her belly but a pivot and a spin opened the charging hollow’s throat.

A heartbeat later Song shot the second watcher.

Angharad turned, only for Isabel to gasp and even Master Cozme rock back.

“Your eyes,” Isabel stammered. “There’s so much blood.”

Oh, was that why she felt so light-headed? That was unfortunate.

“Contract,” she curtly said. “The three of you must run west, it’s your best chance.”

“How do you-”

Angharad brushed past Remund, ignoring his question, and intercepted the last four as they rushed into the clearing with a slight delay. She needed to refine that, buy a little more time, but they would not listen if she asked. So instead she strode forward, past a haggard Brun and Beatris, and rammed her fist in Augusto Cerdan’s belly. He tried to block it but he was slow and fearful, so he was on his knees and dry retching in the heartbeat that followed.

“Tredegar, now is not the time,” Cozme called out, rushing towards them.

Good, that should do it. A glance back told her that Isabel and Remund were already running towards the woods, as she’d told them to. When Song caught up, for once looking disturbed, Angharad met her eyes. Song was always the one who listened when she gave an order, no matter the try. The noblewoman would prove worthy of that trust.

“Take them by the eastern path,” she said, gesturing at Brun and Beatris. “You can’t join up with the others, not yet.”

Song nodded, face tight.

“I will wait for you at the end of the road,” she said. “For as long as I can.”

“Sleeping God go with you,” Angharad smiled, and walked past her.

Now to find out if she had been clever enough. Cozme was helping up the traitor as the warband broke past the treeline and in that moment she saw the dilemma on the face of the white-haired priest. The man could see a pair entering the trees near the western edge of the crag, three most of the way to the eastern path and three still in the middle of the clearing. One of these was being helped up, and the one doing that was older than the runners. In the heartbeat that followed the old cultist made the easy choice, barking out his orders. The warband would go for the three sacrifices they were certain to get, writing off the rest.

The warriors came for them like a pack of wolves.

“You’ve killed us all, you bitch,” Augusto gasped out.

“You, I will most certainly kill before this is done,” Angharad agreed. “Let us find out for the rest.”

The elder Cerdan ran for it, as he had the last two glimpses, and Master Cozme followed him after hesitating for a heartbeat. Angharad instead tapped the flat of her sword against her shoulder, granting the warband an impeccable duellist’s salute and earning an absolutely delighted laugh from Tupoc Xical. Now, she thought, it was all over except the dance. She began backing away towards the east, the edge of the crag, and watched as the lead hollows hesitated. Most chose to pursue Augusto and Cozme, since she did not appear to be fleeing, including the remaining crossbowman – who’d had the gall to kill her thrice.

By the time a party gathered to corner her with her back to the cliff, she was facing only nine cultists and Tupoc’s crew. The rest were in pursuit, not yet knowing the effort was fruitless.

“Surrender, child,” the old hollow in robes told her. “You will not be harmed by our hand if you lay down your arms.”

“Come and take them, hollow,” she replied, open in her disdain.

The warriors, infuriated by her disrespect for what she still suspected to be some kind of priest, broke ranks to rush her. With that many headed her way, it should be that – ah, and there it was. Tupoc ordered his pack of traitors to hold back, going in alone. Getting her arm broken by that hammer once had been quite enough: Ocotlan was remarkably quick for a man his size. Differences in height meant the hollows reached her as an uneven line, so Angharad slid into the gap. She stepped past a wild axe swing, racking her saber down the man’s back, and pivoted as the two hollows closest turned to converge on her.

She lashed the first across the eyes before he could bring up his sword, ignoring his scream in favour of stepping out of a thrusting spear. She avoided the point but the cultist was skilled enough to slap her shoulder with the haft, which hurt but more importantly slowed her. She was more tired than she had been in the glimpses. Her body did not move as quickly and it was only getting worse. She stepped further away from the cliff, letting the warriors converge on her from all sides except the back, then when enough were committed shecharged.

The spears got in each other’s way, needing too much space for how close the warriors were, and she ducked under a sword blow to hammer her shoulder into the hollow’s chest. It hurt her more than him – he was wearing a breastplate – but he was knocked down and she stepped over him. Not quite quickly enough to avoid a cut in the back of her shoulder, just to the side of the bag still fastened there, but the axeman got a little too close and she hacked halfway through his wrist before dancing away. Towards the ledge, counting her steps so she would not fall over it. That had been a most embarrassing death. Two had been made unable to fight, a respectable beginning, but it would not last.

Tupoc had stayed out of it so far, watching her fight with smiling pale eyes, but when he struck it was the same way he always did.

He waited until the hollows that’d run into each other spread out into a half circle, this time the spearmen keeping careful distance from each other, and when they struck he slid past them – after tripping a spearman into her without batting an eye. She sliced open the spearman’s throat without hesitattion and kicked him back into Tupoc, but the Aztlan was too quick. He danced around the corpse, his strange segmented spear feinting for her throat and scoring a mark against her cheek when she was forced to parry. She saw the sword move from the corner of her eye and knelt, slicing through the back of the hollow’s right knee and pushing him over the edge while he screamed.

Four now, she was near the right amount. The only trouble was that handling Tupoc in a fight was like kissing a viper, a truth the Aztlan kept fresh by forcing her to throw herself to the side to avoid being impaled. She slashed at the closest hollow’s ankles to force her to keep back, but Tupoc smashed the middle of her back with the butt of his spear and she let out a hiss of pain. Rolling over she slashed his way, letting him dance back, and/

The hollow rammed the spear through the back of her right knee, ripping a scream from her throat

/stepped to the right, letting out a scream as her veins burned. Her muscles spasmed, her heart beat wildly and Angharad thought that if she glimpsed even once more today her veins would fill with smoke. She had used the Fisher’s gift all too much. The hollow that’d almost impaled her took advantage of her span of weakness, striking her in the belly with the side of his spear, but Angharad took the hit and grabbed the shaft. Grunting with effort, feet spread wide, she forced the man into Tupoc’s path – who pushed him off the ledge without pause – and threw the spear in the legs of the hollow coming from her side. She needed space, just a little more space, to get to the right place.

Gritting her teeth, she rushed the hollow she’d just thrown the spear at and hacked at his face. Only it was hasty blow, awkwardly placed, and his parry caught it clean. It held her in place just long enough for another warrior to narrowly land a blow against her head, cutting through braids and scalp before she rammed her saber through his wide-open guard and plunged it through his eye. Withdrawing, blood dripping down her face, she fled into the space she had made just as Tupoc came for her. This was never a fight she was going to win, no matter how many times she tried, and if she even won too much of it the result would be her death.

If they hated her too much, they would make sure she was dead.

Just as her backfoot slid past a trail of wildflowers, Angharad stepped closer to the ledge and parried Tupoc’s thrust. He redirected it to hit the side of her knee, but she came even closer to the edge and the Aztlan saw his opening. Pivoting so he was facing her with the cliff behind her, he twirled his spear. The trick had killed her, the first time he pulled it out. Now she could only hope she had read it right because everything depended on it. The first feint was at her right shoulder and she ignored it, preparing to catch the blow to her belly instead – that she made to parry, only to overextend and…

The spearhead ripped up and down, through her bag and shallowly on the flesh beneath.

Angharad fled the steel, stumbling back one step and then another, only to find herself leaning back at the very edge of the cliff. Tupoc’s eyes widened as she began to lose her balance, and the last saw thing she saw before toppling over the edge was the smile on his too-perfect face while he gave her a textbook-perfect duellist’s salute.

She had exactly two heartbeats to live.

The first was spent snatching the hook at the end of the rope – which she could not take out herself, they’d look for her, the bag had to be cut open so she could do it in time – and strike forward with it. Just in time for the iron hooks to sink deep into the dead tree just over the edge, her sweat-drenched fingers slipping as she desperately held on to the rope burning her hands. She smacked into the cliffside, not hard enough to fall but hard enough it jolted her spine and she had to swallow a scream of pain. Her arms burned but she held, no matter the pain she held. Below, clattering down against the rock, fell two things: the pack she no longer cared for and the saber her father had ordered made for her. She needed both hands for the rope, she’d tried it.

Surviving in honour had a price, the Fisher had not lied about that.

Folded under the log, Angharad kept her mouth shut as one of the hollows came to have a look over the edge and cursed. He yelled something back at the others in a language she did not know, stepping away, and when Tupoc came to have his look he said not a word. The one time she had killed seven, the cultists had hated her enough to look closely: they’d seen the hooks in the log and pushed it down with their spears.

“I told you she was not going to be one of the easy ones, Bishop Rholes,” Tupoc drawled in Antigua. “You should have listened.”

“You told me much, but I now question the worth of your word,” a man replied in the same tongue, heavily accented.

It was the old hollow’s voice, she recognized, the one who she thought might be a priest. Bishop must be some kind of darkling title. Angharad held on tight to the rope, pressing herself against the cliff of the crag. Already her arms ached from having borne her entire weight and more during the fall, but to loosen her grip was to die. Sweat pricked against her palms, the rough hemp of the rope helping none, and she desperately looked for an outcropping to rest her feet on. This was the farthest she had ever got with foresight, beyond this she was blind.

“How so?” Tupoc asked as he stepped away, sounding genuinely curious.

“We bargained for four,” Rholes coldly said. “You have not delivered four, Leopard Man.”

“I promised you opportunities, Bishop,” Tupoc replied. “Not birds in hand. If you could not catch as many as you wanted, that is your failure and not mine.”

Sleeping God, was she going to die here because her arms were too weak? There was nothing to hold onto, only a cliff rippling down to where her broken corpse would lie. Her boots slid against the stone and she fought down a rising panic, pulling herself up as she ignored the burn rising in her arms. That was when she saw it – not below her, but to the side. The skeletal dried remains of a bush, jutting out of the crag’s side. It was to her left and she had to wiggle to the side of the stump, dread turning her limbs to lead, then pull herself up so she could rest her foot against the stump. It was higher and now her head was slightly over the edge, so-

The dead bush gave, the old wood snapping, and she fell down half a foot as she bit down on a scream until her lip bled. She was slipping, her fingers clawing at stone, and though she still held the rope the hooks at the end of it had come half-loose from the stump. She slammed her chin into the crag’s ground, ignoring the pain as she tried to slow the slide. If she fell, if she fell… Her boot hit the bottom of the bush, a part that did not give for it was wedged into stone, and her slide came to a halt. Angharad felt like weeping with relief, but she could not.

Tough her face was half-hidden by a clump of wildflowers, through them she could see Tupoc Xical and his footpads standing with the warband of hollows. If she made too much noise, they would find out she still lived.

“- so go pick up her corpse at the bottom of the cliff,” Tupoc dismissed. “Do you expect me to roast the flesh and pour your wine as well, Rholes?”

“The god cares nothing for the flesh of the dead,” Bishop Rholes bit out. “It is the living that make worthy sacrifices.”

“If you expect resurrection of me,” the Aztlan drawled, “I can only applaud your optimism, my friend.”

Lady Acanthe let out a snigger, then hid it behind a hand when the bishop turned to glare at her. More warriors had come through the woods, bringing their numbers up to a dozen, and that was a great many more than Tupoc and his traitors. Angharad saw the anger on their pale faces, the way they bristled at the disrespect their priest was being shown, and wondered what the Aztlan’s game was. Did he really think he could win if it came to a fight?

“Four taken, four allowed through,” Rholes insisted. “If you do not live up to your end of the bargain, why should we?”

The largest of the two Aztlan, Ocotlan, leaned forward with an ugly grin as he hefted his large hammer over his shoulder.

“You don’t want anything to do with that scrap, hollow,” he said. “Believe me.”

One of the hollows, wearing a shirt of iron mail, spat to the side and came to stand by his priest with his hand on his sword.

“Let us fight them, lord,” he said. “We will take them all to the temple, I swear it. Their disrespect demands punishment.”

Tupoc’s footpads stirred in unease, for the hollows were reaching for their arms. Swords and spears and axes, even two crossbows. However skilled a warrior, numbers were not something easily challenged,

“He won’t do that,” the eerie Aztlan smiled, raising his right wrist. “Will you, Bishop?”

On it was small bracelet of beads, black stones sculpted in the Aztlan style. Angharad’s gaze dipped to Bishop Rholes, who was rubbing an identical bracelet worn on his left wrist. The old hollow’s face was considering, and after pulling away from the bracelet he tugged at his white beard.

“I think,” Bishop Rholes slowly said, “that two is not enough. That you are short enough of the oath that I will be afforded enough room.”

Tupoc’s face was a smiling mask, but some with him were easier to read.

“He might be right,” Leander Galatas nervously said. “If he tries to take us prisoner instead of kill us, he might not forfeit his heart.”

His leader, the traitor of traitors, eyed him with dislike. A glance was enough to have the gaunt man flinching back, reaching for the arm he’d lost on the Bluebell before proving himself a man without honour.

“You would take such a risk out of petty spite?” Tupoc lightly said. “I do not think you so careless, Rholes.”

“Two,” the bishop flatly repeated, “is not enough. I already took a risk on this bargain, Leopard Man. I will not return to my god with such petty offerings.”

“That is troubling,” Tupoc replied.

He hummed, prowling back and forth like the great cat after which his society had been named. His gaze swept around, thoughtful, and for a terrifying heartbeat Angharad thought he had seen her through the flowers. But his gaze moved on and lingered on the hollows, as if measuring them, before he let out a sigh.

“Very well,” he said, and struck Leander Galatas in the belly.

The sailor gasped in pain, bending forward, and before he could so much as trace a Sign the Aztlan grabbed him by the head and smashed it into his knee. Galatas dropped to the ground in a sprawl, bloody-faced and unconscious. Tupoc took a step back, ignoring the horrified look Acanthe Phos was shooting him just as much as Ocotlan’s mocking chuckle.

“Three for three, then,” Tupoc offered the bishop. “That should sate your god and our terms both.”

Bishop Rholes laughed.

“A true son of the Radiance,” he said. “Not a speck of loyalty in you.”

Tupoc arched a too-prefect brow, as if to ask him to get on with it.

“The bargain holds,” Rholes conceded. “You may reach the sanctuary under blessing of peace.”

Neither side was eager to remain after that, the cultists taking their wounded and their fresh sacrifice before heading south. The search for Cozme and Augusto, she saw, had been called off: the warriors that’d gone after them returned empty-handed, following their brethren south. Tupoc and his remaining helpers began heading north after they went, towards the road that would lead to sanctuary. Only the Aztlan begged off leaving immediately, telling them to go ahead, and he headed towards the edge of the cliff the moment they entered the woods. Panic rising, Angharad lowered herself past the edge of the cliff. Even if she fought him and win, the noise was sure to bring back hollows. If he found her, she was dead.

Not even ten heartbeats later pale eyes looked down at her from over the ledge, taking in her situation with nothing but amusement.

“I told you,” Tupoc Xical conversationally said, “that you would regret not coming with me.”

“Damn you,” Angharad hissed. “Damn you for this and for all-”

The Aztlan reached down, pressing the butt of his spear against her forehead, and she swallowed her anger. Drops of cold sweat ran down her back. All he needed to do was push and down she went.

“That’s better,” Tupoc smiled.

He suddenly burst forward, and though it took all she had Angharad did not allow herself to flinch. And that was all he’d sought, she realized a heartbeat later, for her to flinch: the spear had not moved so much as a hair’s breadth. Those unnatural pale eyes had watched her all the while and finally the Aztlan nodded.

“You are a delight,” Tupoc Xical said with satisfaction, drawing back. “I look forward to working with you in the second trial, Lady Tredegar.

The spear withdrew and the monster offered her a salute with it.

“Until then, a good day to you.”

And just like that, he left. From her sight first, then disappearing into the woods where the others had gone. Angharad, breathing shallow, dragged herself over the edge. There she lay in the dirt, sweaty and bloody and caked in filth. Her body burned, but not half as much as the indignation in her belly.

Swallowing the scream in her throat, Angharad Tredegar pushed herself up to her feet and began her walk to the Trial of Ruins.

Chapter 15

It had already been a difficult day, so naturally it began raining.

Only a patter at first, nothing like the sheets of icy water Peredur’s coasts enjoyed springing on its dwellers, but it grew. Within an hour they could hardly see in front of the even with the lantern, stumbling along carefully. Master Cozme pointed out a silver lining, that few lemures could fly in such weather and none could follow a scent through it, but wet feet spoke louder than his optimism. It did not stop there: Angharad had near forgot that the High Road was an aqueduct, after using it for a highway so long, but now she was up to her ankles in the reminder. The rain had filled the aqueduct’s body up to their ankles and were it not so rich with broken edges the water would have run even higher.

Between wading against the current on now treacherous footing, all of them being soaked to the bone through their clothes and the wind beginning to hurl itself at them from the east – cold, it felt as if none of them were wearing coats – the mood took a grim turn.

It did not help that not all were recovered from the encounter with the harrowhawk. Angharad was yet dazed, prone to staring out into the storm, and though Cozme had cleaned out the wound he’d taken on his face the flesh was still dark. They were both better off than Augusto Cerdan, whose left arm was broken, and better still than poor Briceida. The handmaid had been sick since eating her chalk tablets, enough that the wind and rain slowed her advance to a crawl. Brun was helping her keep pace, but the two were at the back of the company and certain to stay there. Angharad made sure to pull back and stay with them a span whenever they trailed behind too much.

She caught an irritated expression on Brun’s face once or twice, but she would tell him later no insult was meant to his efforts. It was only that if they lost the pair in the storm, there was no telling when the two would be able to catch up. Better to slow their entire company than to risk it.

They all felt the change in the current around two hours before dinner, the way it was now pulling forward instead of back. It was good news, Angharad was informed as a few of them pulled close together and shouted over the rainstorm’s din to understand each other. It meant they were close to a break in the aqueduct, one they had planned to reach hours ago. They had passed the great river without even realizing and by now they must be surrounded by woods. If they pushed on after dinner time, they ought to reach the end of the High Road today. Since no one was eager to sleep in a river, Angharad the notion was agreed on.

The first break in the High Road was subtle enough Beatris almost walked off the edge.

She was pulled back shrieking by Remund Cerdan, who promptly shouted for a halt. It was only a break of about five feet, though unnaturally neat: as if some giant’s sharp sword had sliced through the aqueduct. If not for the weather they might have been expected to make the jump, but as things stood Remund was prevailed upon to use his contract. First a ring for them to step on, halfway, then another above and to the side of it for them to hold on to.

“Some of you have gloves,” Song shouted into the rain. “They should be shared with whoever crosses.”

Not even the Cerdan brothers tried to argue that holding a cloth to the rings of light would be enough in such weather. Good. Angharad had not been looking forward to again pulling her sleeves forward and grasping the light through them: if she slipped even a little, she would be holding the burning radiance. She was the third to cross, using Isabel’s gloves and passing them back to a leaning Brun, and once across with her pack she followed Cozme to the edge to share in his grimace. The small break had only been the first, leading onto an elevated island ten feet long. The real precipice lay ahead: almost forty feet of mostly missing aqueduct, with some arches still standing but no funnel over them.

“It may be too dangerous to cross,” Master Cozme yelled.

The man passed a hand through his drenched hair, clearly regretting the loss of his hat. Angharad sympathized: with how much rain her braids had taken, it felt like someone had hung a waterskin against the back of her head.

“We cannot camp here,” Angharad shouted back. “There’s no other way.”

“He’ll need to be carried after,” Cozme told her. “The contract is hard on his body.”

“Then we will carry him,” the Pereduri insisted.

There was no arguing with the needs of the moment, so before long Remund Cerdan set to tracing his rings of light across the gap. It was a thing surreal, almost out of a play, to see the man hanging in the air in the middle of a storm with only slices of light to stand on, making a foothold and handhold every time. Had Angharad not been able to glimpse the clear terror on the younger Cerdan’s face, she might have thought him a spirit. Lord Remund slowed near the end, his limbs grown stiff, and only narrowly made it to the other side. He collapsed the moment he reached there, though to everyone’s relief the rings stayed. Not knowing how long that would be the case, they set to crossing in a hurry.

It was one of the most thoroughly unpleasant experiences in Angharad’s life.

The rain somehow made the solid light slippery, and with the wind whipping it in her face she could barely see the rings ahead of her. Twice she had to hold on for dear life to one of the ‘handhold’ rings as her boots slipped, fear icily seizing her limbs, and when she threw herself at the end of the road her angle was off: she fell and bruised her knees against the aqueduct’s bottom, cold water running down from her collarbones to her belly. It was a good thing she carried no blackpowder, for it would surely have been ruined. As the fourth to cross Angharad found that others had already helped Remund to sit up but also that he was no better for it.

Though he stayed out of the lantern’s light, all the skin she glimpsed had turned pale as ivory and she hardly saw him move save for breathing. The infanzon was half a statue already and there were still others yet to cross. Stomach in knots at the though of what might happen to him and the others both, Angharad stalked around the end of the ring road with nervous impatience. They had a stroke of luck when the storm began to calm, the rain growing sparser, but it would only get them so far. By the time the last of them began the crossing, Remund could only moved with a shallow breath. Not even to blink. Augusto was the last to cross, and in a way he was lucky.

The storm was near dead by now, the rain barely more than a patter and the wind more of a breeze. The Cerdan made better time than any of them all the way across – lights winking out behind him – as he made haste. On the last foothold he threw them all a cocky grin, his only good hand releasing the handhold ring before he leapt.

The wind picked up halfway through.

Angharad was standing close, still stalking about, so she saw the horror writ plain on his face. His jump fell short, brushed aside, and he hit the edge of the aqueduct with his belly. Hands scrabbled against wet, smooth stone while water flowed into his face – screams of surprise of dismay sounded behind her, but Angharad was already moving. She caught his arm as it slid back, clothes ripping but her fingers tightened around his wrist and she held tight with gritted teeth. She was kneeling in the water and, Sleeping God, she could feel her boots slip.

“Help her,” Isabel shouted.

Cozme was there a moment later, pulling at Augusto’s shoulder, and between the two of them they hoisted him over the edge. Augusto crawled through the wet, eyes wild and limbs shaking as he fled the edge of the aqueduct.

“Gods,” the infanzon croaked. “Gods.”

Catching her breath, Angharad knelt by his side and closed her eyes. Her heart was beating as wildly as his must. She might have stayed there a while, rain flowing down her face, had the infanzon not tugged at her sleeve.

“Thank you,” Augusto Cerdan said. “Lady Tredegar. I did not think you would…”

“We are under truce,” Angharad said. “Your safety is yet my concern.”

It was not the reason she had moved. In the moment, she had only seen a man about to die. Honor’s laws had only caught up to her hands after the deed. The dark-haired noble swallowed, nodding, and looked torn.

“The rings only support the weight of one man,” he said, tone somewhere between a plea and a concession. “There was no other way for us to live. The knife, it was a mercy. Better that than to be eaten alive.”

Her face hardened.

“Then we should have died,” Angharad flatly replied. “There are some lines good men do not cross.”

His cheeks were already red from the cold, but anger reddened them yet more.

“I should have known better,” Augusto Cerdan spat out. “Go on, then, Tredegar. Honour has been satisfied, you need not keep my company any longer.”

It sounded fine by her, so she stiffly took her leave. Even after that close call their company agreed to press on, for now that the storm was weak they were certain to be able to descend from the High Road that night. The original plan, Angharad learned, had been for their company to camp up on the aqueduct for safety and then descend the following morning – that method would also allow Remund, who was still unmoving as marble, to rest before using his contract again. Instead they would be using the rope taken from the hollows that Angharad was carrying so they might find shelter down in the woods away from the water. It would take hours, after all, for the aqueduct to empty even after rain ceased. None of them wanted to sleep in a filthy riverbed.

It was almost a surprise that the last leg of the journey was so uneventful, the only imposition that Remund Cerdan had to be carried by two of them at all times. He was, she noticed much heavier than a man his size should be. Angharad was careful never to touch any of that too-pale skin when it was her turn to bear the weight, afraid of what it might spread. By the time they reached the end of the High Road, or at least the part they intended to use – its silhouette resumed half a mile ahead, leading into the mountains – Remund was capable of hobbling forward. It only took one of them to help him keep up, much like Briceida.

Getting down from the aqueduct was more tedious than dangerous. Remund and Briceida were lowered tied with the rope instead of climbing down, which took most of the rest of their company to do safely, and after that down went their last supplies. They were all soaked, exhausted and irritable but by the end of it they were finally back on solid ground.

Around them were deep woods, tall trees whose branches obscured much of the sky, but the way forward was plain: they were near the bottom of a hill and going north up the slope would lead them to the mountains where the second trial awaited. There would be a need to march eastwards for a few hours, as the High Road was on the western half of the Dominion, but they should be well past the hollows and the most dangerous lemures. They still set a watch after finding a tall tree to hide under, settling in for the night and hoping their clothes would dry some before they had to march again.

Exhaustion saw to it that Angharad fell into a mercifully dreamless sleep.

The clothes were only half-dry, so they all stank like dogs when they set out the following morning.

The slope was muddy and slippery, covered by a thick carpet of dead leaves, but there could be no mistaking the way they needed to go. Up the hills they went, through trees and great ferns and fields of pale blue wildflowers. When the mud turned to rock Angharad knew they were close, and barely an hour after that they were looking up at the towering heights of the mountains at the heart of the Dominion of Lost Things.

“We are a little further north than I would prefer,” Song told them, consulting her map, “but following the mountains east will get us most of the way there. We will have to go around crags to find the road to the sanctuary, but I expect we will reach the end of our journey a little past midday.”

The Tianxi’s prediction ended up somewhat off, as they discovered two hours in that a landslide had cut their path east. They decided against risking to cross it when they found some great boulders balancing precariously further up, instead dipping back south into the woods and then resuming going east. Their pace was slower in the forest, noticeably so, and by the time they stopped for lunch they were barely halfway through the journey. Before long, at least, they finally found the crags that Song had mentioned: three massive rocks with flat tops, forming a broad half-circle appended to the mountainside.

“The road we must take passes behind them,” Song said, “and then rides the edge of the one closest to the mountains to lead up to the sanctuary’s entrance.”

“Would it not be possible to go through them instead?” Master Cozme asked. “Surely there are paths we could use.”

“There are, but I was advised against doing this,” the Tianxi replied. “Landslides are apparently common, especially after rain.”

“It is an unnecessary risk,” Isabel opined. “Let us take the longer way.”

Most agreed with her, including Angharad. They had barely begun circling the crags when Brun breathed in sharply. He turned to catch her eye and she drifted close, but Remund Cerdan – now recovered, unlike poor Briceida who was still lagging behind despite being able to walk on her own – raised a hand at them.

“None of that,” the infanzon said. “If your contract had told you something, share it with all our company and not only our dear Lady Tredegar.”

Angharad grimaced but nodded when Brun’s turned a questioning gaze her way. The cat was out of the bag: Master Cozme had noticed the hint of a contract before their fight with the hollows, and evidently passed on his suspicions to his lords.

“There are people to our west,” Brun said. “Hollows, I think. At least ten of them.”

They had just come from the west, moving eastwards, so their company was either being followed or about to be: most of them were poor woodsmen, any half-decent tracker would be able to find traces of their passage.

“Are they following us?” Augusto Cerdan bluntly asked.

“Too early to tell,” Brun shrugged, “but they are coming our way.”

“Then we must hurry,” Angharad said. “The last thing we need is a fight.”

She did not fear testing her blade against darklings, but their company was wounded and exhausted. Mistakes were certain to be made. They picked up the pace, no longer even half-heartedly attempting not to leave a trail, and after half an hour Brun told them the hollows had been left behind. The news cheered them all, until another quarter hour passed and he told them that another group of hollows was coming from the west.

They were, it seemed, being hunted.

“If we head south we might be able to circle around the western warband,” Isabel suggested.

“That is exactly what they want, my lady,” Cozme Aflor shook his head. “They are not going for the kill at the moment, only pushing us firther away from the sanctuary so they might hunt us at their leisure.”

“We don’t know how well they can track us,” Remund noted. “Isabel’s idea might well be feasible.”

Angharad shook her head.

“This is too much for coincidence,” she said. “How would they have known to watch near the High Road? It smacks of Gloam sorcery or a tracking contract.”

The latter were not so rare: she had been hunted through the streets of Sacromonte by what she suspected to be exactly such a thing. The darklings of the Dominion were a cult worshipping some ancient spirit, it was only to be expected that some among them would have won contracts off this ‘Red Eye’.

“She is right,” Master Cozme grunted. “It’s too close a hunt for how clever we have been. There is only one way: we need to try the crags.”

No one was eager, given the dangers Song had spoken of, but at least the landslides would not be purposefully hunting them.

“I saw what looked like a trail going up,” Brun told them.  “About half a mile back.”

“I saw it as well,” Song agreed. “It seems our best chance if we are to move quickly enough to slip the noose.”

It felt like wasted time to go back the way they’d just come, but Angharad kept silent. It was the wisest course. The trail the pair had spoken of was more of ravine just large enough for someone to squeeze through, leading towards what the lantern revealed to be an outcropping low enough to be climbable. For lack of better choices they went through, stone scraping at their sides. It was half an hour of occasionally painful squeezing and climbing – Briceida was finally feeling better, no longer slowing them down so much – until they reached a broader path.

It was another ravine inside the crag, this one about two people wide. Angharad suspected it must have been worn into existence by rain over decades, for it was narrow at the top and wider at the bottom. The ground had dried since last night, fortunately, and the footing was smooth. The occasional falling rock was a small price to pay for the good time they made but goods news, as ever, were followed with bad.

“We are being followed,” Brun told them, voice echoing against the stone. “They are taking the same path we did.”

And gaining on them, he did not need to say. They hurried but the hollows stayed on their heels and the situation was untenable. It was Augusto that offered a solution.

“Look at the edges on either side,” he said, pointing up.

Rocks was what they found, but Angharad immediately grasped what he was leading at. Their ravine, carved by water, was thinner at the top. The cliffside over them was being eaten away at by erosion, grown unstable. With the right nudge, it could collapse.

“We do not have enough powder to blow it up,” Angharad told him.

Not even if they used every powder box and pouch they had with them.

“No,” Augusto agreed, “but there is another method at hand.”

He turned to Briceida, face stern, and the handmaid flinched. The Pereduri wanted to chide the infanzon for demanding such a thing of her when only yesterday she had saved all their lives, but she bit her tongue. It would work, she was sure of it. The ravine echoed slightly when they spoke, the oppressive noise that the redhead’s contract made was certain to have great effect. And as she had said, they did not have enough powder to use instead. So instead Angharad steeled her heart and stepped forward.

“If you are too sick to walk afterwards, Briceida, I will carry you myself.”

The other woman flinched again, and Angharad bit the inside of her cheek in shame. Isabel laid a hand on her handmaid’s arm and gently smiled.

“You know I would not ask it of you if our lives were not on the line, my dear,” the infanzona said. “But they are, yours among them.”

Briceida reluctantly nodded, then turned to address Angharad.

“I will surely have need of your aid, my lady, so I must take you at your word,” she said.

“As it should be,” the Pereduri simply replied.

They waited longer before doing it, choosing a fitting place for the deed. Further ahead they found a place where the ravine narrowed to a single man’s width and the slope rose quickly ahead, which was most suitable. Angharad was tense all throughout, but after Briceida clapped her hands only a few chunks of stone fell over their heads – and their group scattered in time. The redhead had directed the sound skillfully, and past them the damage was impressive. After the initial avalanche, a heartbeat passed and there was a massive crack. An entire chunk of the cliff began sliding down, a stone larger than two horses, while all along the ravine smaller rocks fell in a thundering rain.

Briceida bit through another tablet of chalk and was noisily sick afterwards, barely able to stand, so Angharad had her climb on her back and hold tight. They did not wait until the dust had settled to begin their flight.

It was another hour of narrow ravines and waterless waterfalls before they found a way out, which to their pleasant surprise was atop the middle crag of the three. They rose to the stars above their heads and a spread of thin grass atop the stone, woods beginning ahead. That stripe of forest seemed to lead all the way to where the first crag touched the mountains, from what they could make out. There Song said that the road to the sanctuary and the shrines began. Though it had been a dangerous affair, in the end they had shaven a few hours off their journey by risking the crags. The mood lifted at the news, even Briceida managing a smile, and they resumed their march.

When they were a dozen feet away from the forests’ edge, Brun suddenly went still.

Angharad was learning to hate the sight of that.

“Hollows,” he said. “Dozens of them, waiting in ambush.”

Master Cozme loudly cursed. Angharad wished manners allowed her to do the same, for she fully shared the sentiment. The cult of the Red Eye had been one step ahead of them again.

“How far ahead?” Song asked.

“Hard to tell,” Brun admitted. “There’s something off about the warband, like it is not truly there. I think the Gloam might be clouding my contract.”

“So it could be false, an illusion?” Augusto Cerdan pressed.

“Wishful thinking,” Angharad cut in. “We must treat them as real.”

The ensuing argument was quiet but heated, their company eventually owning up to the truth that there was no way out but through. Going eastwards on the other crag had no guarantee to yield a path down, and even if it did there was no guarantee the hollows would not follow them there – or even wait at the end of the path, at the bottom of the climb towards sanctuary. The trouble was that not all of their group was fit to fight, or even run for long, so a ruse need be employed.

“One group to draw attention, another to sneak through,” Master Cozme suggested.

It was a plain strategy, but they were not well-oiled enough a crew to attempt anything complicated anyhow. Simply putting all the fighters in the distraction group was a recipe for slaughter if the other group was caught, so the division was not so clean. Isabel, Briceida – helped to walk by Beatris – Song and Augusto would be the crew meant to sneak around. Cozme, Angharad, Brun and Remund were to draw the enemy into a running fight. With Brun’s contract they should have the advantage of surprise, allowing them to strike first and true before running past the enemy.

The ensuing chase and confusion would allow the others to get past the enemy, or such was the hope.

Much as Angharad might have wished otherwise, there was no time for long goodbyes. The longer they waited to move the greater the risk the ambushing cultists would tire of waiting and try to catch them out in the open instead. She squeezed Isabel’s hands tenderly when the infanzona came to kiss her cheeks, then shook Song’s hand. The last three received a nod, friendlier for some than others, and she set out into the woods behind Master Cozme. With Brun serving as their eyes, they chose their angle of approach – along the eastern ridge of the crag, flanking the hollows – and slowly advanced, careful not to make any noise.

For nearly half an hour they moved as silently as they could, nerves rising, until they were in place. Angharad could see most of the warband from behind the bush she used a hiding place, maybe twenty darklings mostly bearing spears and swords. There were a pair of crossbowmen as well, standing near an old hollow in robes. A priest of some kind? The old one, who the others seemed to defer to, was talking to people who she could not see – the sight was blocked by a fallen tree – in what sounded like Antigua. The cultists wore padded cloth as armour, save for a few elites, but were all fighting fit and many scarred from war.

“Careful with the crossbowmen,” Cozme murmured. “Try to keep trees in the way and kill warriors wearing padding first. The armoured will tire first when chasing.”

They shared nods, fists tightening around their weapons, and took the deep breath before the plunge.

Then the Sleeping God turned in his slumber, undoing all their plans.

It happened in moments: a band of half a dozen warriors, most armored with breastplates or mail, were talking with someone up a tree and the answer they got had them laughing. They spread out, slapping or jostling a few of the other warriors, and in moments they were all up. Heading southwest, where the other group should be beginning to move. Cozme swallowed a curse and they all hesitated. Their only chance against such numbers had been surprise but now the warriors were up and alert. It would be a slaughter and not one in their favour. Yet they could not abandon the others, Angharad would not allow it.

“We hit them from behind when they begin to attack,” she murmured.

Augusto nodded in approval, then Cozme. Brun grimaced then agreed as well. They set out, slowly, and that was when Angharad saw her: that Asphodel noble from the Bluebell, the one with the acne scars. She had just leapt down from the tree, joining another. One by one Angharad saw them. Leander Galatas, still without his arm but no longer looking so gaunt. The large Aztlan called Ocotlan, his hammer hefted over his shoulder. And last of all the leader of their pack of jackals, Tupoc Xical himself. He asked something of the Asphodelian woman, Lady Acanthe, and she pointed to the southwest.

The hollows followed her directions without a single voice speaking otherwise.

“Tracker,” Angharad said through gritted teeth.

But one who could not find their group. Their enemies would pay for that. Creeping behind the warband, who were so certain of the Asphodelian’s contract did not bother with a proper rearguard, they waited until they could see the hollows spreading out for an ambush. When Song carefully slipped out from behind the shadow of a tree, eyes scanning the woods, the warriors at the fore raised their spears and finally Master Cozme signalled for their group to attack. They burst out of the brush, none of them announcing their arrival with war cries, and just as Song’s eyes widened at the sight of them Cozme Aflor shot the first hollow from behind.

Madness seized them all.

Angharad felt a crossbow bolt whiz past her head as she hewed open a man’s head, slapping aside another’s spear and plunging her blade through his open mouth. She ripped it clear, teeth flying and saw that powder smoke was obscuring the melee. She glimpsed Ocotlan kicking down Remund Cerdan, only to be driven back by Cozme, and then through the drifting smoke she saw Song being surrounded by hollows. Angharad rushed there, ducking under someone’s blind strike in the smoke and cutting at what felt like cloth. Song was cornered, having cut a hollow with her blade but now being stuck holding back another’s blade, so Angharad struck with worried fury.

They were fighters, these darklings, but their training was lacking.

She let the first overcommit to her lunge, tripped her as she stepped back and slit her throat on the way down. The hollow behind her screamed, attacking in rage with a two-handed sword, but he was slow. Strength only mattered if it could reach you. She plunged the point of her saber in his throat, wrenching it out and stepping to the side so he might die finishing to strike at air. The third hit Song’s knee, forcing her down with a pained grunt as the sword she was holing back dipped towards her throat, so Angharad clicked her tongue and pivoted to adjust her angle to eviscerate the fourth hollow.

The silver-eyed Tianxi let out a snarl of triumph, pushing up and punching the last hollow in the throat before running him through. Angharad began to check her for wounds, then had to duck behind a tree when she heard the whistle of an arrow. Song followed her there.

“We need to run,” the Tianxi said. “Grab everyone we can and flee.”

Angharad nodded.

“Briceida first,” she said. “She will need help.”

Song nodded and the two burst from cover, Angharad avoiding the spear-point of some fat darkling in mail and kicking him in the stomach. Briceida was only a dozen feet away from them and she had been struck down, but she was not dead: instead a hollow had blackened her eyes and was now standing over her half-conscious form. They want prisoners, Angharad realized with horror. She fell upon the hollow that stood over the redheaded maid, but before she could do more than bat aside his sword she heard movement behind her. She smoothly pivoted and struck at torso height, but Tupoc took the blow with the side of his metal segmented spear. He then whipped at her belly with the bottom of the haft, forcing her to backpedal. Behind them Song clashed blades with the hollow, covering Angharad’s back.

The Aztlan, she realized, was humming some kind of song. Something light and cheerful, as if this were a festival instead of a battlefield.

“You will die for this,” Angharad swore.

“I admire your confidence,” Tupoc told her.

Worse, he sounded like he meant it. She went after him furiously, but he was not like the cultist: whoever had trained him, they had done a good work of it. He never stopped moving, forcing her to circle and weave by constantly changing the distance: he used his spear as much as a quarterstaff as thrusting weapon. Song finished her opponent and woke Briceida, but the redhead could barely move even when helped up. Worse, they’d drawn attention. More were coming and when a crossbow bolt hit the tree an inch away from her head Song drew back.

“Run,” the Tianxi said. “The others are, it is lost-”

Angharad snarled, catching a blow from the side of Tupoc’s spear and then using her favorite flatfoot trick – half a step back, let it slide down the length and pivot as you hit out with the pommel. Her saber’s pommel caught the Aztlan in the jaw, her first solid hit, and he rocked back. Bloodied, at last. The Pereduri moved towards Briceida but there was already a cultist on the redhead, grabbing her by the hair, and she was tossed down on the floor. Angharad struck at the man’s back furiously, but it was not enough.

“No,” redhead wept. “No, you won’t take me.

The world breathed in, and then Briceida let out a scream like the clap of thunder.

Ringing silence filled her ears and something blew Angharad off her feet. She fell against a tree, knocking her shoulder badly. Her vision swam as she gasped, trying to rise, only to feel someone dragging her up. Sound began to return, but dimmed.

“Quick,” Isabel hissed. “Hurry, while they are confused.”

Angharad stumbled forward as best she could, half-blind. Two hands steadied her, Isabel on one side and Master Cozme the other. But they were not alone: Remund was with them, face bruised and lips bloodied. Behind them shouts began, the hollows beginning to recover from Briceida’s scream.

“The others,” Angharad mumbled.

“They ran also,” Remund said. “The hollows did not come to kill: they wanted sacrificed, an only took one.”

The pride in his voice sickened her. Briceida, oh Sleeping God. She was still alive, and now the cultists had her. But what could Angharad to, save continuing to run? The daze was passing, but she was no match for the warband now pursuing them. All she could do was run like a coward with the rest of their company. Only it could not be so easy. How long they ran in the dark Angharad was not sure, but eventually they stopped: the rest were ahead of them, hiding behind a tall stone, and Song gestured fervently for them to stop. Angharad fell against a tree, hearing Master Cozme peek around and breathe in sharply.

“There’s a clearing ahead,” he said. “And a pair of watchers. If we don’t kill them before they scream for the others we are all dead.”

“Where are we?” Angharad murmured.

“Near the edge of the crag,” Isabel replied just as quietly. “If we get past them, running northeast will be a straight line to the sanctuary road. We need only-”

She was interrupted by a shout behind them. The Pereduri tensed for half a heartbeat before realizing they had not been seen. Not yet. But the cultists they had left behind had found their trail, were catching up to them. If they did not move soon, then they were just as dead as in Cozme’s prediction.

“We’ll have to shoot them,” Angharad said. “All we can do is run.”

“Agreed,” Master Cozme grunted, though he did not sound happy about it.

Neither was she. The sound would draw the other cultists to them. The older man was already pouring powder down his pistol’s muzzle, peeking out past the tree trunk to gauge the distance to the pair of watchers. The best shot of their company was Song, so Angharad half-rose to try and catch her attention. Between she and Cozme, their odds were good of killing both watchers in one volley. Only when Angharad turned her gaze there, it was another who had a gun in hand: Augusto, his sole good arm steady and his face cold, aimed his pistol. Only it was not at the hollows. Behind him Brun turned, surprise on his face, but he was too late.

Augusto Cerdan met Angharad’s eyes and pulled the trigger.

Chapter 14

They began to feel the bite of the missing supplies on the third day.

Angharad had measured her portions from the start, planning for four days’ worth of meals. Formal registration with the duelling circuit had exempted her from ever having to attend isikole, the mandatory four-year schooling, but Mother had seen to it she received some of the training nonetheless. She had not enjoyed the lessons then but now she saw the use what she’d learned going out into the countryside: how to make a fire, skin an animal and ration her food. Her portions remained the same, but those who had not been as prudent paid for it. Isabel’s maids, in particular the redhead, ate little but crumbs for breakfast. That would not do.

Angharad cut her meal in half, then in half again, and wordlessly gave a quarter to each.

“Thank you,” Beatris sincerely said, bowing her head.

“It is very kind of you,” Briceida added.

The sheer gratitude on their faces made her uncomfortable. She snuck a look at Isabel, who was chatting with the Cerdan brothers as she ate her own meal. It would not have been proper for the mistress to suffer on the behalf of careless servants, it was true, but the dark-haired beauty should have kept a closer eye on her maids in the first place. Though neither Brun nor Song were anything of the sort to her, Angharad had inquired as to their own meals the previous day. Brun had been most amused by her concern, informing her he’d eaten worse in smaller plates, while Song’s rationing had been even more strict than her own.

Neither of the Cerdan brothers seemed to be running out of food, even though they had been eating larger meals than anyone else. Even Master Cozme, whose plate was usually not much larger than Angharad’s.

“Ah, infanzones,” Brun smiled, looking at them. “Not a breed of men prone to wastefulness, it must be said: they’ve already spent poor Gascon’s life and now they eat his food.”

“Supplies are supplies,” Song pragmatically replied. “It is the extravagance that irks me.”

Angharad could not quite say why it was wrong for the Augusto and Remund Cerdan to eat the rations of the valet one of them had murdered, but it was. It did not matter that the food was theirs, or that the man who might have had a claim to it had passed. It was wrong. She stewed on that for the rest of breakfast. After all were done, Song brought up the notion that since food was beginning to run out all should pitch in their provisions for a common stash that would be rationed out fairly between everyone.

“A Tianxi proposing theft from her betters,” Remund Cerdan sneered. “How very surprising.”

“No doubt she’ll expect us to vote on it,” his older brother laughed.

“We already share the lantern oil,” Brun pointed out. “It is only going a step further.”

The decision had been made unanimously when it became clear they were running out of oil. They had lost four lanterns fighting off the lupines so only three were left, but the greater loss had been the skins full of oil. Now there was so little left they had killed two lanterns and let only the vanguard of their group carry one that was lit, lest they run the risk of running out before they even left the High Road. Having only the light of the stars to walk by would have been dangerous enough, but the prospect of Gloam disease was even more fearful than that.

“It is always only a step further, boy,” Augusto lectured, “until we kneel with our necks on the chopping block.”

Angharad frowned at them.

“There has been no talk of violence or taking from anyone, only an offer to contribute to a common good,” she said.

“It is not for nobles to fill the world’s empty bellies,” Remund dismissed. “We will run out of loaves long before we run out of beggars: the commons must take responsibility for themselves.”

The Pereduri did not hide her disgust. Did Remund Cerdan not understand what being a noble was? All men had a trade, a vocation under the Sleeping God, and to be born a noble was to learn the trade of leadership, the burden of command. To then let your own go hungry was a fundamental failure of that duty. More disappointingly, the Cerdans were not alone in their opinion.

“My handmaids are free to join such an arrangement if they wish,” Isabel said, “but I will not. I will see to my affairs without needing the help of others.”

The offer was the nail in the coffin of Song’s proposal, for now neither she nor Brun were inclined to continue the plan. The maids had nothing to contribute to the pot, meaning in practice they would be fed at the expense of those who filled it. Angharad understood she had no right to expect the two of them to take food off their plates for strangers, but for all that everyone had their good and proper reasons the result was still that two of their company would go hungry. The selfishness of it all was cloying. She rose brusquely to her feet, anger caught in her throat.  

“It is not much,” Angharad stiffly told the maids, “but I will share again at supper what I did for this meal.”

The three of them would go hungry, but hunger passed. Dishonour would not. Isabel smiled at her but Angharad’s answering gaze was cool as she went to grab her back. Sometimes people were less than you had thought them to be.

After they resumed the march it was not entirely a surprise when Isabel joined her at the back. Angharad was yet under oath, she could not have approached the other herself. With Song and Beatris walking in front of them while Augusto and Remund Cerdan took the vanguard far ahead, they even had a modicum of privacy.

“I will be sharing half my meals with them as well, Angharad,” the infanzona quietly told her. “But it would have served no good to shame the brothers before everyone.”

She studied Isabel from the corner of her eye, wondering if she was being appeased. No, she decided. Isabel was not scheming, only too prone to playing the peacemaker even when the other side was undeserving of compromise. It was a flaw born of kindness, not something baser.

“Speaking for your own is your responsibility,” she finally said. “Your maids deserve better than silence.”

Irritation flashed in the infanzona’s green eyes.

“They might,” Isabel sharply replied, “but I imagine they yet prefer being on speaking terms with the man whose contract is the sole way for us to get down from this aqueduct.”

Angharad had not considered that, she would admit, but duty was duty.

“It is a matter of honour,” she said. “Nobles have obligations, Isabel.”

“There is honour in keeping everyone breathing,” the infanzona retorted “And that means keeping the brothers happy. Do you not understand that every time one of them has the watch they could simply leave us?”

Isabel swallowed, obviously distressed.

“Angharad, they could take the food and the lanterns and go,” she said, snapping her fingers. “Just like that, leaving us stranded. And why wouldn’t they? You swore to kill one of them and Song’s map has lost its use. There is only one reason for them to stay.”

The woman they were both courting, Isabel did not need to say, and Angharad felt her anger ebb away. It would have been a fine thing to say that she’d been convinced by the soundness of the argument, and it genuinely was sound! Open contempt from the woman they were courting might well drive the brothers away just as Isabel feared. But the truth was that the tremor in Isabel’s voice and the fear on her face did more to convince Angharad to let go of her indignation than all the rest. Who was she to cast blame, when she had not even noticed the burden laying on the infanzona’s shoulders?

“It will be all right,” she quietly said, laying gentle a hand on the Isabel’s wrist. “Only one more day to the end of the High Road, and then they will have no power over us.”

She let out a long breath, leaning into Angharad’s shoulder.

“I am tired,” she admitted. “And afraid. None of it has gone the way I thought it would.”

“My uncle told me it would be a hard journey,” Angharad said, “but it has been trying in different ways than I had expected.”

“So it has,” Isabel snorted, pushing back a curl. “To think we could be at risk of Gloam disease in this day and age.”

“We will not be for some time,” Angharad absent-mindedly replied.

Curious green eyes turned on her.

“You know of the process?”

“My mother was a sea captain,” she replied. “Few know the terror of that disease better than sailors.”

Particularly those who sailed the Straying Sea, which unlike the Trebian had no light shined down on it from firmament. Only the royal house’s great triumph, the Serpentine Roads, dared to cut through that once-unbroken darkness.

“It takes seven days entirely without Glare or a month with less than two hours a day exposed for the disease to take,” Angharad continued. “So long as we keep eating our meals under lantern light and keeping watch with the same, we are not at risk.”

“I have heard Malani studied the disease more deeply than any other,” Isabel hesitantly said. “That they have measured what it does to men.”

“The basics are common knowledge back home,” she admitted.

Clearing her throat, she pitched her voice higher.

“Seven dead and one alive, the last in dark to thrive,” Angharad sang.

All children of the Isles were taught the nursery rhyme. Malani scholars had found that out of ten men who contracted Gloam disease, the results cut towards an average: seven would die, two turn darkling and one survive. Mother had always said that the hollowing was more common than that, however, and that sometimes those headed for death could be saved if they were bathed in direct Glare for long enough – the burning light that straight fell from the cracks in firmament, not the gentler glow of Antediluvian devices. Isabel shivered against her.

“What a dreadful verse,” Isabel murmured, “but I suppose it lays out the endings plain.”

“It is meant to be sobering,” Angharad said, slipping her arm into the other woman’s and squeezing it. “That way children remember to stay out of the Gloam, especially in the countryside.”

Malan and its sister-islands, Peredur and Uthukile, were not under a part of firmament where the Antediluvians had built wonders. It was only a great pit of Glare that made the islands habitable, and that light was not as sophisticated as that of lands with older blessings. Between the shadows cast by the lay of the land and the Challenger – that great wandering machine high up in the sky – cutting through the light, there was no end of nooks and crannies where a careless soul might find a bad end.

“It is not natural to stay out of the light for too long,” Isabel agreed. “It presses against the soul of all those not estranged from the Circle Perpetual.”

“We have been weathering it fine for now, I would say,” Angharad replied.

Isabel prettily smiled, then leaned close. For a golden, terrifying heartbeat Angharad thought she was about to be kissed but instead the infanzona tugged her coat into place.

“There, that’s better,” Isabel said, smirking in a way that told she knew exactly what she’d just done.

Angharad cleared her throat. She had not blushed, at least.

“Thank you,” she got out.

“It is nothing,” she airily replied. “If you must thank me for anything, let it be for this: we are not all taking to the dark as well you think. Your helper Brun, for example.”

“He is not a helper,” the Pereduri said, “but a companion.”

“A companion who does all you ask him to and keeps the same foes,” Isabel drily replied. “But call him a companion if you like – the reluctance is part of your charm, I think.”

Angharad was not sure whether she was flattered or insulted, but either way she pushed through.

“Brun has been well enough,” she finally said. “Why do you believe otherwise?”

“He puts on a good show when we have meals, or when he is paired with someone else,” Isabel conceded. “Even when he speaks with dear Briceida. Yet the moment he is not, a black mood takes him.”

Angharad’s brows rose in surprise.

“Not a speck of emotion on his face,” Isabel continued, “and he grows restless. Always reaching for that hatchet of his while the eye wanders.”

“I had no notion,” she admitted.

“I doubt he would take well to an attempt to comfort,” the infanzona noted. “Men rarely do, from a woman whose skirts they are not trying to slide under. I mention it only so you might keep an eye on him.”

“I will,” Angharad swore.

Brun had been good and kind, she would not repay these things by letting the Gloam have him. While the eponymous sickness was some of the worst of what the dark held in store, it was hardly the only illness born of it. Most of them were of the mind: it was not rare for men to go mad, in pieces or all at once, for the lack of light.

“Good,” Isabel smiled. “You are one of the pillars of this company, after all. It would not do for you to act otherwise.”

“You overestimate my influence,” Angharad dismissed.

“Do I?” the green-eyed beauty said. “Around you gathers the capacity for much violence, Angharad. Two fine fighters and then yourself. There is a reason I believe the brothers would flee, not attempt to fight you for the reins of power.”

“Even if that were true,” she said, “what has it helped? I agreed with Song, this morning, that we should share the food. It did no good.”

“I usually find, when I am refused, that I simply did not ask the right way,” Isabel said.

Angharad shot the infanzona an amused look. Yes, she did not find it all that difficult to believe that few would refuse her much of anything. Only the amusement faded when she found Isabel meeting her gaze squarely, a look almost unkind in them. No, Angharad thought, not unkind. It was the same she had seen on some of the tutors Mother arranged for, men and women who’d agreed to meet to Angharad only out of courtesy for the reputation of the famed Captain Tredegar. She’d had to prove she was worth their time, their lessons.

She had been tested then and she was being tested now.

Wrenching her gaze away, she kept her eyes peeled ahead. She had not asked the right way, according to Isabel, but she could not see the Cerdans agreeing to anything she proposed. She had struck a bargain with Remund and he had become friendlier in the shallowest of manners since, but that did not make them of one mind. Cozme Aflor was unlikely to intercede on her behalf either, and Isabel had made it clear she could not afford to openly pick a side. There was a saying in Peredur, that a man’s name had two halves: his deepest regret and his heart’s desire. To know either was to own half his name, to know both was to have him bound as tightly as any spirit.

So what was it the Cerdan brothers wanted, that she could use it against them?

They wanted to inherit, badly enough to strike deals with enemies to rid themselves of their rival. Badly enough that Master Cozme was here as much to protect them from one another as the trials themselves. Only Angharad had already made bargains using that desire, and to use a lever too much was to break it. Could she muster Song and Brun to try to force the notion? Perhaps, but there was no guarantee it would work – more likely the confrontation would drive the infanzones away in the night. It could not come from her, Angharad decided. She was the enemy, even to the Cerdan she had made alliance with.

The silence lingered between she and Isabel, enough to unsettle her, but the infanzona waited without a word or a trace of boredom on her face. Quietly expectant, and so Angharad forced her mind down furrows she had already dug. If not from her, then from who? Isabel had dismissed Brun as being her helper, and though she was wrong in this the brothers might share that opinion. That barred either he or Song from being an answer. That left only the maids and Isabel, for the brothers were unlikely to willingly get food off their plate on behalf of people they largely disliked and held in contempt. Did they even like anyone of their company save Isabel?

And there Angharad stilled, for the brother did indeed like Isabel. Perhaps even loved her, though she had her doubts. One of the reasons the Cerdan brothers were so ardently courting Isabel Ruesta was the wealth of the infanzona’s house, which making ties to would surely see the earner rise above his brother to inherit their family’s title. It was a shade of the heart’s desire, half the name seized by a different grip, and the openings were all there weren’t they? Angharad carefully put the pieces together in her mind. Isabel’s maids had been given permission to join the ‘arrangement’ of shared food, and Isabel was going to share part of her meal with them.

All that needed doing was to nudge the events a little further along.

“Have you considered,” Angharad said, “giving your entire meals to your maids?”

Surprise flicked across the other woman’s face, a flash of it followed by Isabel breathing in sharply and releasing a little laugh.

“Oh,” she said. “That is clever.”

It was the Pereduri’s turn to start.

“You were not leading me towards such a solution?” she slowly asked.

“Not at all, darling,” Isabel chuckled. “There were other ways, but I really should not be surprised this is what you thought of.”

She shook her head with wry amusement.

“It is all very Malani, yes? The lady gives away her meals to her servants, noble in deed, and naturally when she ends up without anything the lords courting her will fight for the privilege of providing. Gallantry all around, with just a hint of the mercenary sensibilities lying beneath.”

The last sentence she spoke with open approval, which had Angharad grimacing. Not, however, disagreeing. That was the ugly truth of the words exact, the one her father had made sure to teach her: if you cleaved only to the letter of honour, honour had a way of ending up being what was most advantageous to you. No matter how callous or cruel. When the Father of Devils appeared in the Great Tales, the King of Hell never spoke a single lie or broke a single oath. It made Lucifer no less dangerous: a single whisper from him had been enough to turn Issay the Great, first and finest king of Malan, into a bloodthirsty tyrant.

She was broken out of her ruminations by Isabel laying a head against her shoulder.

“You are prone to brooding, Angharad,” she said. “We will have to fix that.”

“How ambitious of you,” she drawled back, “when we will only have so long together. Until the end of the second trial is not so long, my lady.”

“Oh, my life will not end after the Trial of Ruins,” Isabel flirted back. “It is why I want to take it in the first place, darling.”

She flicked a meaningful glance ahead.

“With such an achievement to my name, my parents will allow me greater latitude to choose who I may tie myself to,” Isabel said.

“A cause worth fighting for,” Angharad replied, only half jesting.

“I thought you might say that,” Isabel Ruesta smiled, green eyes warm with promise.

There was only so long the two of them could nestle against one another at the back of the company without being seen, so when lunch grew close they reluctantly parted ways. Perhaps it was for the best, Angharad thought, for if she’d felt Isabel’s lips whispering against her ear or her neck one more time she might have ended up doing something very unwise. And by the knowing look Song gave her when they sat down for the meal, they had not gone entirely unseen after all. Angharad was in too good a mood to feel all that chided, which seemed to amuse the Tianxi.

She was careful not to pay too much attention while the trick she had agreed on with Isabel unfolded, the maids with their full plates offering to contribute to a joint stash of food while their lady sat smiling at them without a speck of food to show for. Augusto was the first to offer his meal, Remund looking like he was about to curse when his older brother beat him to it. Isabel offered to take only half from each, ever the peacemaker, and the pair spent more time glaring at each other than noticing anything else. Master Cozme caught her eye, cocking an eyebrow at her, and she shrugged innocently.

The man chuckled, stroking his moustache, and tipped what would have been his hat at her.

Angharad smiled back but kept her attention on the arrangements for the food. There was precious little bargaining, the two maids aware they were being welcomed into the pact from a position of weakness, and it was elected that Song would see to the rationing itself. It was to begin with supper and end with arrival at the second trial. The maids remained close to them as they ate, the most Angharad had seen of them since the journey began, and it became clear that in Isabel’s absence the two did not bother to hide their common dislike. Briceida, the well-mannered redhead, kept fiddling with a small ivory trinket: it was a needle with a sculpted head, too large for sewing and so likely meant for keeping hair in place.

“It is quite pretty,” Brun complimented. “A gift from your family?”

“From poor old Gascon, in truth,” Briceida replied, preening at the compliment. “He won it gambling during our first night on the island and gave it to me the following day.”

“How kind of him,” Beatris drily said. “Entirely unprompted, I’m sure.”

A poisonous glare was turned on her.

“We cannot all earn precious stones from rats, I suppose,” Briceida smilingly replied. “Whatever did you do for it, dear Beatris? I can only hope you weren’t taken advantage of.”

“Going through my affairs again, I see,” Beatris coldly replied. “And to think I am the one from the Murk.”

Angharad cleared her throat, interrupting them before the bickering could get out of hand.

“A lovely needle indeed,” she said. “Do you intend to use it with your hair, Briceida?”

The maids sheathed their claws when the conversation turned, Brun offering her a grateful look for the intervention. The rest of the meal was spent on idle conversation, and before long they were on the march again. Tempting as it was to try to sneak another moment with Isabel in the dark, Angharad resisted the urge to try and walked with Song near the middle of their column instead. Before they could even begin to converse the entire company ground to a halt when Master Cozme let out a shout from the front.

Everyone down,” the old soldier hissed. “Boy, close the lantern.”

The fear in his voice killed any hesitation there might have been at following the order: Angharad flattened herself against the bottom of the High Road while Brun, who had been in front with Cozme, closed the lantern’s shutter. All Angharad glimpsed before lying down against the stone was a tall silhouette striding across the plains in the distance, some feathered creature. For what might have been the better part of an hour they stayed there, only Cozme raising his head over the edge to look, and finally the old soldier told them to get up after it was gone.

“What was that thing?” Remund Cerdan asked.

“A gravebird, my lord,” Cozme Aflor darkly replied. “We do not want to ever draw one’s attention.”

All the Sacromontans looked shaken at the name, and Song as well, leaving Angharad the outsider. She had never heard of such a spirit. They resumed the journey in a strange mood, Augusto Cerdan’s too-loud boasts to Isabel that he would have protected her from the lemure ringing unpleasantly. The elder brother was more careful with his words than the younger, but not so much as to be called careful without the comparison. Remembering what he had said about chopping blocks that very morning, Angharad flushed with embarrassment. The insult had not been implicit in the slightest, only not spoken to Song directly.

“I apologize for Lord Augusto’s lack of manners this morning,” she quietly told the Tianxi. “There was no call for him to imply you have such bloody intentions, no matter the politics of the Republics.”

“I’m sure no end of little nobles are tucked in at night to tales of Republicans coming to chop off their heads if they’ve been bad,” Song amusedly said, “but I assure you the stories are exaggerated. It is only in the southernmost three republics, the Sanxing, that nobles were all sent to the block.”

Angharad started in surprise.

“I was taught that there are no nobles in Tianxia,” she slowly said. “Was this wrong?”

“There are no titles, certainly,” Song replied. “But the northern republics came late to the fold, and some less eagerly than others. Many nobles there were granted high positions in the bureaucracy after laying down their old rights. Their families remain rich and influential to this day.”

“That is not nobility,” Angharad told her, not unkindly. “It is corruption.”

For some reason the Tianxi looked very amused.

“They still have to take the examinations,” she said. “Those unsuitable to serve are weeded out, worry not. It is a compromise only Yellow Earth purists take issue with.”

These Angharad had heard of. Tianxi radicals hatching conspiracies all over Vesper, assassins and fomenters of rebellion. That the Republics might not endorse their actions but equally refused to denounce them was one of the reasons Tianxia was so often at war with its neighbours. The Pereduri often found it hard to reconcile how a people so sensible over other matters could be so senseless in this one.

“There is no need to look so troubled, Angharad,” Song teased. “I only speak of this to make it plain that firebrand hatred is not common. I even studied the Malani classics, I’ll have you know.”

“The Great Tales?” Angharad said, impressed. “I must confess I have only read Ships of Morn and The Madness of King Issay.”

It was tradition that written Umoya be learned through the Great Tales, even if the language was dated. She had despised it so much as a child that Father had only made her read the two most exciting of the tales, the ones full of battles and rebellions and gory ends. If Song had read all nine of the works, it was a worthy achievement.

“Were they translated into Antigua or Cathayan?” she asked.

“In the original Umoya,” Song replied flawlessly in that very language.

“How rare,” Angharad enthused in the same. “I only ever learned Antigua and some Gwynt myself.”

The ancient Pereduri language was considered uncouth to speak in Malani society, and only solely used by commoners deep in the duchy’s countryside.

“I’ve always wanted to learn Gwynt,” Song admitted. “There are all these lovely-sounding songs from before Morn’s Arrival that your people put to writing. My mother would not hear of it, though, kept me on Centzon and Samratrava.”

The two most common tongues of, respectively, the Kingdom of Izcalli and the Imperial Someshwar. Angharad did not stare but it was a close thing.

“Song,” she delicately said, “may I ask how many languages you do speak?”

“Seven fluently,” the Tianxi replied.

“Were you to be an interpreter, by any chance?” Angharad tried.

The other womna’s face turned serious.

“I had an unusual upbringing,” Song admitted. “But we have strayed far enough from our thread, I would think. If you did not take to the Great Works, may I ask what you did enjoy?”

The subject change was gentle, but no less firm for it. The noblewoman would not be so discourteous as to ignore it.

“I am fond of poetry,” Angharad said. “Some Lierganen greats – Ilaria and Alifonso in particular – but firstly the Malani luminaries. Ybanathi is my favourite.”

She only realized what she had said after it was too late to bite down on the words. Quietly mortified, Angharad snuck a sideways look at Song. Perhaps the Tianxi was unaware that the poetess Ybanathi was famous for her verses about her pining affections for women. Or that, in some circles, asking another woman if she had read Ybanathi was considered an indirect way to ask if she too had an interest in the fairer sex. Song smiled at her.

“Oh, I have never heard of Ybanathi before,” she said. “What did she write?”

“Several books of poems,” Angharad vaguely replied. “They defy easy description.”

“I must see to acquiring them after the trials, then,” the silver-eyed woman decided. “Perhaps you can explain them to me.”

The mortification piled on and still the Tianxi offered her that innocent smile, unknowingly twisting the knife. Although, Angharad thought as she narrowed her eyes, that smile might be a little too innocent.

“You are making sport of me,” she accused.

“Oh, distant firmament, break my back!” Song theatrically recited, hand over her heart. “It would be kinder than your frown.”

She had not thought to hear the Ode to Isore recited to her here, much less in perfect Umoya. It was more embarrassing than she might have dreamed of.

“This is most unwarranted,” Angharad plaintively said.

“I will spare you this once,” Song allowed. “But only if you formally renounce the belief you might have ever been subtle about your preferences.”

“I hid nothing, but neither did I trumpet it about,” she protested.

“It might have been more akin to a drum,” Song conceded. “Not at the forefront, yet effectively impossible to miss.”

The obvious amusement on the other woman’s face was contagious, for all that Angharad was being the figure of fun. It was meant with such an obvious lack of bile that her own lips could not help but twitch.

“I will have you know that-”

“Someone ahead,” Brun suddenly announced.

The change that came over their company was instant: weapons were eye in the blink of an eye, Angharad’s own saber leaving the sheath, and all eyes went forward as the infanzones let better fighters pass them. Only there was nothing but darkness ahead, even in the light of the lantern Cozme was now hoisting up.

“This is no laughing matter, boy,” Master Cozme harshly said. “If you think-”

I can sense the living, Brun had told her. People best, hollows and beasts with more difficulty.

“I believe him,” Angharad cut in, coming forward.

She gently pressed aside Isabel, then brushed past Augusto to join the two at the front. Her eyes went to Brun, whose face was calm but eyes had grown cold. He was preparing for a fight.

“How many?” she asked him.

“Either one or two,” he murmured. “Hollows, so it’s hard to tell.”

He leaned in closer.

“I cannot distinguish height,” Brun whispered in her ear. “They could be below. Maybe four, five hundred feet ahead.”

She grimaced, nodding her understanding. Cozme’s eyes moved between the two of them, narrowed, and the man was not a fool. He no longer asked questions or doubted Brun’s word, drawing his sword with the hand not already holding his pistol.

“Should we kill the lantern?” she asked him.

He shook his head.

“No point, hollows see better than us in the dark,” Master Cozme said. “Hard to take them by surprise. On a narrow road like this, our best bet is rushing in.”

She nodded in agreement.

“Then we need a vanguard,” Angharad said. “I volunteer.”

The veteran smiled roguishly.

“As expected,” he said. “I’ll go with you.”

He glanced back.

“Pistols and muskets out,” Cozme Aflor ordered. “Take a shot if you have a clear one, but otherwise hold your fire.”

Tension thrummed across her skin when they moved to the front, limbering limbs. With Brun’s help they might take the enemy by surprise, his contract peering ahead better than sight, but she would not bet on it. Lanterns could be seen from far away in an island without much light. She shared a nod with Cozme, then began moving. Long strides at first, then quickening into a run and rushing headfirst into as quickly as they could. Brun was holding the lantern behind them, casting is glow ahead, but Angharad still missed the signs. She thought it a curve in the stone until the dusty grey cloak nestled against the left edge of the aqueduct was thrown off, a tattooed pale man unloading his crossbow right at Cozme.

She struck out in an arc sweeping upwards and-

(Cozme ducked, the bolt tearing through his cheek, her strike was too early)

-slowed her blow, catching the bolt’s head and sending it skittering up while Cozme ducked with a shout. A heartbeat later he unloaded his pistol at the hollow as the man tried to get up, the ball hitting metal under a hair shirt and knocking the man back down. Angharad rushed forward, eyes sweeping the High Road for any trace of the second, but she found nothing. Only stone and – shit, Angharad thought, eyes straying to the side as she saw a slender silhouette running away in the plains below. They were near an arc in the aqueduct, the other darkling must have been hiding under it.

“Someone shoot-” she called out, only for a sharp crack to interrupt her.

The back of the runner’s head burst red, Song’s impeccable aim claiming another life. Good, she fiercely thought. The coward would not be able to send for reinforcements. The hollow up on the aqueduct began to rise again but she was on him and smashed her boot into his chin, putting him down, then hacked at the hand bringing up a curved blade to slash at her. There was a scream of pain as her steel bit deep as bone, the hollow’s sword clattering on the ground, and she laid a boot on his chest to keep him on the ground. Cozme was by her side a moment later, smashing the pommel of his sword in the hollow’s face. The unsettlingly pale man, who she now saw was not tattooed but ritually scarred, fell in a daze.

“You want a prisoner?” Cozme asked.

Angharad hesitated. There was no reason for the hollow to talk save if they promised to set him free, which she could not risk, or through torture, which she would not countenance. The matter was settled when a thrown hatchet sunk between the hollow’s eyes with a whooping wet sound, right into the skull. Death was near instant, Brun sliding past her as she stood struck with surprise to wrench free his weapon. He met her stare head on.

“Too dangerous to live,” the fair-haired Sacromontan simply said.

There was, though, something like satisfaction in his eyes. Had Isabel seen the truth of it, was the dark affecting him? Angharad studied the lay of his shoulders, how they seemed to loosen, and decided that not. He had been restless because darkness was not an enemy he could fight, but now that he’d fought – however short the fight – he had bled out some of the unease. It sat ill with Angharad that the hollow had been killed without a weapon in hand, but this was a battle and not a duel. Honour had not been breached.

“You are not wrong,” she finally said, and that was the end of that.

The rest of the company caught up and some few moments investigating found where the hollows had been camped. Up on the High Road there had been nothing but a waterskin – gratefully added to their reserves – under the large grey cloak, but below the arch was a pair of bedrolls and what looked like stripes of dried meat along a basket of black tomatoes. Song found how the hollow had climbed up, a knotted rope ending in hooks that had been hidden along the curve of the arch. Its existence led to heated debate, Brun and the Cerdan arguing someone should climb down and seize the supplies.

“There are two fresh corpses about and we are deep in the island,” Song flatly replied. “Every breath we waste here is a danger.”

Angharad found it distasteful to take from the dead, even though within certain bounds it was no taint on honour, so she was inclined to agree. As did Isabel, who wanted to leave this place as swiftly as possible. The argument might have gone on for longer had Beatris not suddenly let out a startled cry. Angharad reached for her blade again, following the maid’s gaze, and found a slice of darkness blotting out distant stars.

Harrowhawk,” Song shouted.

It would take more than a blade to kill this, Angharad realized, for as the beat of great wings became deafening she saw that the descending shape was tall as three men. Master Cozme dropped the lantern, hurriedly cramming powder and shot down his pistol, and in that toppled trembling light the Pereduri saw a storm of oily feathers. Talons thicker than her legs tore into the hollow’s corpse, ripping it apart like wet paper, and in eerie silence the spirit unfolded its wings. It is a man, Angharad thought incredulously. Within the black feathers lay a silhouette of tarnished gold, arms and legs outlined in golden wire as they led up to a helmeted head.

But the arms thickened, twisted, turning into golden feathers where there should have been hands. The entire man shivered, and only then did she realize it was nothing but colour on feathers – colours that seemed too deep to truly be that.

Angharad only realized she had gone still, that all sound had fled her ears, when Brun barrelled into her.

They both fell on the hard stone, the Sacromontan hastily getting out an apology as they rose to their feet. Behind them Song snapped off a shot right in the eyes of the golden helm, but though feathers gave the spirit cared not. While Angharad had been entranced Cozme had been thrown down, wounded in a way that left a black scar on his face, and Augusto was dragging him off while screaming as the top of his lungs. Why? The creature barely even moved, only watching them as it nonchalantly tore at the hollow’s corpse.

“It’s too old for lead,” Song cursed. “We need to run.”

From a spirit that could fly? It would be pointless. They could only fight. Breathing out, Angharad pushed down her fear and turned to face the golden frame. Distance would be hard to measure, with so little light, but it was not so different from shadow-fighting. She could do this, the Pereduri told herself, and rushed forward. Someone behind shouted her name, but she could not find it in herself to care. It felt… distant.

“YOU ARE HOME.”

“Mother?” she whispered, stumbling forward.

“YES. COME TO ME. YOU ARE HOME.”

Had it, had it all been a dream? The fire and the screams and the people hounding her to the ends of the earth. She took a step forward, back slick with sweat.

“YOU ARE SAFE,” Mother sang to her. “YOU ARE HOME. YOU ARE MINE.”

She could feel the warmth of the hearth, her mother’s embrace. Only even as took another step, she felt it slip through her fingers. The warmth was leaving, cold running through her veins. The coolness of water in the dark, in a deep place that only silence knew. And a voice spoke through her, though it was not a voice: it was the tide eating away the cliffside, the cry of gulls picking at corpses, the sound of men kneeling. It was the patient crawl of the inexorable.

“Know your place,” the Fisher chided.

Angharad came back to herself as the golden stingers that’d been closing around her face like grotesque fingers tore away, the spirit screeching in pain as it tried to cover its head with its wings. She hacked at the body, blade sliding into the feathers as if they were made of oil, and withdrew her dripping saber with a shiver of disgust. There was nothing she could do, she realized, and so she fled. Whatever it was her patron had done to the spirit, it was soon gone and she’d barely taken three steps before its wings unfolded again.

“Briceida,” Isabel said in a trembling voice. “Do it.”

“My lady-”

Do it.”

And Angharad saw as the redheaded maid took a step forward, ashen-faced and turned her eyes on the spirit looming over them all.

She clapped her hands.

The terrifying ring of it threw the noblewoman down against the stone, as if a ship had smashed into a cliff right above her head. Her cheek against the aqueduct, dirt and blood in her mouth, Angharad crawled forward. Behind her, the spirit – the harrowhawk – was rippling like a pond in the wind. All save for the silhouette of gold painted on its feathers.

“Again,” Isabel commanded, tone grown firmer.

Briceida clapped her hands and wind blew against Angharad’s braids, the spirit screeching behind her. The Pereduri rose to her feet and out of the way, Brun helping her up. She turned just in time to see the harrowhawk rip in two the hollow’s corpse, screeching in hatred at them, but flinching away when the redheaded maid drew back her hands. A least scream of hate and the spirit leapt off the edge of the aqueduct, great wings spreading, and fled into the night.

“Are you all right?” Brun gently asked her.

“Fine,” she got out. “I was… protected.”

She could no longer feel the Fisher’s presence. The old spirit would have let her die, she knew, if it had been claws or fang that were to take her. But the harrowhawk had tried to take her soul, and that the Fisher had not been willing to countenance.

He had a claim to it, until their bargain was done.

“And a good thing that you were,” Song bit out, looking her over from head to toe like a fretting mother. “Harrowhawks eat the souls they take, Angahrad, but slowly. It is decades of screaming torment.”

“Then I must give Briceida my thanks twice over,” she replied, turning to find the handmaid.

She was currently kneeling on the floor, Isabel standing over her and soothing her back as the redhead desperately ate what looked like a white powdery tablet. Aside from Cozme’s face wound and the way Augusto Cerdan was cradling his left arm, their company seemed to have made it out unharmed. They would not have, Angharad thought, had the creature been more interested in eating their bodies than their souls. Pushing down the grim thought, she returned her gaze to the strange spectacle of Briceida.

“A Sacromontan remedy?” she ventured.

Lierganen medicine still hewed too close to the practices of the Second Empire, all knew, and so their doctors were hardly better than the plague.

“No,” Brun quietly replied, eyes hooded. “That’s chalk. Tablets of chalk.”

His parents had been miners, Angharad recalled. None of them further commented on Briceida crunching down on an entire tablet the length long as the beginning of the noblewoman’s wrist to the tip of her fingers. If it was not medicine then it was a contract’s price, and not something to be discussed when the handmaid had just saved all their lives. The redhead was half-weeping, Isabel gently holding her as she finished the last of the chalk and began retching.

“Another,” Briceida rasped. “Fuck, he wants another.”

She was noisily sick a heartbeat later and they all looked away. In the songs, in the stories, spirits asked beautiful things of those they made bargains with: a song of true love, the beat of a butterfly’s wings, a blade quenched in devil’s blood. But those were songs, and truth was not so pretty. Sometimes spirits wanted baser things as payment, like the sensation of a woman eating chalk no matter what the eating did to her body. At Brun’s quiet suggestion they spent went to pull up the rope the hollows had used to climb the aqueduct. After the harrowhawk’s visit, there was no more talk of lingering there: it might yet come back, or a more dangerous spirit grow curious of the racket.

Briceida had to eat most of a second tablet, but that one at least she kept down. They moved out the moment she could stand, Angharad putting away the rope in her bag without a word.

They fled forward into the dark, only a shivering lantern light guiding them.

Chapter 13

Lady Ferranda Villazur, wide awake and miffed at rats invading her camp, pointed her pistol at him.

Though she must be a decent shot, Tristan was more worried by Sanale carefully aiming his long-barrelled musket. Malani had a reputation for being good shots and the same was true of huntsmen: a man who was both was not to be trifled with. Pressing his knife tighter against Lan’s throat, he forced her to stand between him and the threats.

“Muzzles down,” Tristan ordered, “or I slit her throat.”

Ferranda, seemingly more at ease in hunting leathers than she had ever been on the Bluebell, laughed in his face.

“Go ahead,” the infanzon said. “She’s not one of ours.”

“That’s unfortunate,” Tristan admitted.

“Right?” Lan complained. “And here I’d thought we were getting along.”

The surviving twin had yet to even struggle against his grasp, not seeming terribly concerned with being his hostage.

“This doesn’t need to turn violent,” Sarai called out. “We didn’t come here to fight.”

He noted with approval that she still moved to get part of Lan in between her and the potential shots.

“Walk away,” Sanale replied, “and there will be no fight.”

The tall Malani had not moved an inch since shouldering his musket, barely even blinking, but Tristan could not afford to keep his eyes on him: Ferranda was beginning to slowly inch left, towards a better angle of fire.

“We can’t do that,” Tristan said.

He took a half step back, moving to keep Lan in the way of both Ferranda and Sanale, and the infanzona stopped trying to flank him. For now.

“As a neutral and unconcerned party,” Lan opined, “I believe we should come to a peaceful resolution.”

She was unanimously ignored.

“We found this place first,” Ferranda told him. “By right it is ours to use.”

“The temple upstairs isn’t fit for sleeping,” Tristan replied. “The stink is unbearable and there’s no door to keep creatures out – if the choice is between you and crocodiles in my bedroll, I’ll take my chances here.”

He meant it too. It might be best to feign backing down first so they could come back in a while with more muscle, but the thief would not risk sleeping upstairs. Ferranda hesitated, which was unflattering to her stout face: she looked like she was biting down on a twig. She then shared a long look with her hired hand, who eventually nodded.

“We still have first claim,” Ferranda said. “If you want to use this place, your group will have to pay in supplies.”

Group, she had said, which meant she knew it was not only he and Sarai. Tristan spared a moment to glare at a cheerfully unrepentant Lan. She had wasted no time in selling information on them all.

“I even gave them my best guess about your contract for free,” she smilingly whispered. “Because fuck you, Tristan. Did you think I’d let you threaten me without paying for it?”

“That’s fair,” the thief conceded.

He was not offended by the sale on moral grounds, only irritated by the inconvenience of it.

“Do we have a bargain, Tristan?” Ferranda Villazur pressed.

He was still hesitating when Sarai brushed past him, coming fully into the fire’s light and exaggeratedly putting away her knife.

“In principle we agree,” she said. “Now let us talk specifics.”

Ferranda’s face tightened at the sight of the pale skin and Sanale moved his muzzle to aim at her without even realizing it, but when Tristan released a still-smiling Lan the tension released.

“You heard her,” Tristan said. “Let’s haggle.”

A day’s worth of rations each, cut in half for all those who would keep watch – which was, in practice, all of them. That was how much they’d pay. Sarai also got the pair to agree that their company could earn back more of the fee through chores: tending the fire, cooking, mending and washing clothes. There was some discontent among their group at the prospect of playing servants to the pair when they outnumbered them so, but sheer exhaustion saw to it no one refused the terms. Some among them might have accepting cutting off a finger for a good night’s sleep in a safe place.

The shrine itself was much too small to accommodate everyone – counting Ferranda and the huntsman, they now numbered ten – so most of them ended up spreading their bedroll right outside it. A round of introductions began then was aborted halfway through when it came out Lan was also here, few taking the revelation of her presence well. By the time tempers had cooled no one was in a mood for talk, so instead they went to sleep.

It was much refreshed that Tristan woke up that afternoon, most the other still sleeping. Yong was seated by the fire with Sanale, the two men talking in low voices as they gestured, and not far from them Vanesa was slowly and carefully plucking feathers off a freshly killed bird. Two more were waiting. The thief watched the careful way she moved, realizing she was trying to learn how to compensate for her missing eye. With everyone else asleep – save for Lan and Ferranda, who were missing – he decided he might as well help her. The discussion between the other seemed too involved to welcome a third.

Wordlessly he picked up another of the bird, some grey-feathered thing about the size of a duck, and got to plucking. Even missing an eye Vanesa was going faster than him, which had her smiling.

“Practice,” she excused him.

She adjusted her glasses on her face, after. Se was forever fiddling with them since the gravebird had ripped through glass and wire to get at her eye. The frame was bent and dug into the side of her head, but it was either that or not seeing much of anything.

“I don’t eat a lot of bird,” Tristan conceded.

Pork was cheaper. You could feed a pig damn near anything and they were much harder to steal than chickens – there was a reason they were the staple meat of the Murk.

“They are one of the only things I can cook,” Vanesa smiled. “My mother despaired I avoided the kitchen, but at least I learned her almond sauce recipe before she passed.”

“You worked, then,” the thief said.

“I am a clockmaker,” the old woman said, then grimaced and reached for the cloth covering her missing eye. “Or I was, at least. I am not sure I could do detail work anymore.”

Ah, Tristan thought. And there was the mystery of how she had afforded her pocketwatch and her glasses solved. Not only was clockmaking a lucrative trade, she worked with watches and lenses. A cobbler never went barefoot. It did not explain what a woman of her age and means was doing on the Dominion, but that mystery was being chipped away at slowly but surely. The thief decided to let the matter lie for now, as obtaining the story there was more a matter of curiosity than need, but Vanesa surprised.

“You must be wondering how I ended up here,” the old woman knowingly said.

“The question has crossed my mind,” Tristan admitted.

“You’re such a polite boy,” Vanesa chuckled, shaking her head. “It is no great secret, I don’t mind telling you.”

She plucked out another feather, dropping it to flutter.

“My son is in debt to the Menor Mano,” Vanesa said. “Enough he was never going to dig himself out, so they decided to send him here as payment. Only his leg was crippled, Tristan, so he was sure to die.”

The thief grimaced. This was an ugly story and he could already tell how it would end.

“I offered to go in his place,” the old woman said. “My husband is gone and tinkering no longer brings me the joy it used to. Better to spare my only son than spend my last years withering on the vine.”

He offered her a sad smile, at a loss of what to say. Was such a sacrifice to be praised? Tristan was not so sure. It was an act of love, but the man saved did not sound deserving of it. How long would it take before he frittered away his mother’s sacrifice?

“You are kind, listening to me ramble like this,” Vanesa said, patting his arm. “Doing so much to keep us alive when some of us are so little help.”

She sighed tiredly, leaning back.

“Do not let the trials burn it out of you,” she sleepily said.

And Tristan felt a sliver of shame, because he was not kind at all. Even as she had talked, part of him had been more concerned with the puzzle than the woman. The same part that’d noted the Menor Mano had sent in two souls this year – Ocotlan, that large Aztlan, had been a legbreaker for them – and wondered if there was anything there he could use.

They plucked the rest of the birds in silence, and when he left afterwards it felt a little like fleeing.

By afternoon’s end everyone was awake and the cave had turned bustling.

Lanterns were fully unveiled as everyone busied themselves: clothes were washed and mended, wounds seen to and there was haggling over the fresh meat and use of the fire for cooking. Their refuge had turned into a smallest of villages, a happy one now that everyone was rested and fed, but Tristan knew it would not last. Already Felis was growing prickly, though never when Yong and Sanale were looking, and Lan had somehow charmed Vanesa into speaking with her again. Tristan washed and mended his clothes, leaving them to dry as he sat in little more than a shirt and underclothes.

The currents were plain to see. Aines was furious at her husband for the glances he kept throwing at Lan, who would no doubt fork over some dust by day’s end to get a leash on the man again. Vanesa was too bloodied and exhausted to do much of anything, and whenever Francho wasn’t coughing in a corner he was peering at the carvings to the left shrine entrance – which was irritating Felis, whose bedroll was near there. Ferranda had begun speaking with a surprised Sarai, who warmed to her before long. Much as Tristan would have liked to eavesdrop on that conversation, he had thinking to do.

They needed to cross the forest and bridge to get to the Trial of Ruins, and the obstacles in the way were greater than anticipated. His bet with the Red Eye warbands, that they would be split between the bridges and could be tricked through this, seemed to have paid off. It was the heliodoran beast he’d not counted on, and it made everything harder to predict. Men he could guess at, but beasts? He could not be sure when the monster would decide to wander off, what was keeping it here in the first place and how the cultists would react to its presence.

They were still around, Sanale had seen their warbands searching the tall grass when he went out hunting, but the Malani could only speak to the surroundings of the temple. He had, wisely, not gone further than that. Meanwhile the bridge was in the woods, further north. Were there cultists there as well, or had the heliodoran beast driven them all off? Would the warbands in the grass immediately head for the bridge when the lemure left, were they already clearing out west towards the other bridge? Too many questions he did not have answers to.

Instead of giving in to frustration, he followed Abuela’s lessons and instead attended to unknowns he could find the answer to. There was not mending his medicine cabinet, not with the tools on hand, but the thief set about taking inventory of what remained usable and fixing it up enough it wouldn’t spill everything out. Tristan had already taken a first look when seeing to wounds earlier, but a closer look gave grim answers. Most of what he had left were poisons, which had been kept deepest in: white arsenic, antimony, mandrake and volcian yew. The lodestone extract remained, as did the bearded cat extracts. Neither were mortal, the bearded cat being a mushroom whose extract caused violent bursts of madness in those who partook of it.

Aside from these, he only had the distilled alcohol and the medical turpentine he’d been using to treat his burns.

There was only so much he might accomplish with these. Putting his entire supply of volcian yew in a corpse might possibly inconvenience a beast the size of the airavatan if it ate it – the substance was a poison meant for lemures and lares – but it would not kill it. None of his other poisons would affect it all that much. He was unsure if the lodestone extract would have any effect, since he could not recall seeing a nose on the lemure, and the creature was already blood-mad so there was hardly a point to the bearded cat extract. He could spare neither the alcohol nor the turpentine.

“You’re pouting,” Fortuna teased.

So much activity in such close quarters had mercifully seen to it she did not need further entertainment. Being overly nosy tended to make up swaths of her day no matter where they were.

“I am low on tools,” Tristan murmured back.

And thinking about this wrong, he realized as his eyes moved to the others in the cavern. He did not need to attract the heliodoran beast directly when he could rely on someone else doing so. Dosing Ferranda Villazur with lodestone extract just before they parted ways was likely his best bet: killing the other lemures the scent would attract had a decent choice of attracting the greater monster. Meanwhile their own group could make a run for the bridge and gamble on the cultists not having returned to hold it yet. The issue, he figured, was that Lan might have revealed he had pulled this very trick on the infanzones already. If the pair were watching for it and caught him, the potential blowback could get him killed.

He needed to have a talk with Lan.

“And not paying enough attention,” Fortuna told him. “Sarai’s been whispering with that noble in a corner for half an hour now.”

And that, Tristan thought, might be a problem. When he turned to have a look at the two of them he found that Sarai was rising to her feet. Her gaze swept the cavern, lingering on him, and his stomach dropped. He could see where this was headed already. His companion did not waste much time, sparing only an amused look for the way he was sitting on his knees in his underclothes.

“We should talk,” Sarai told him. “Yong too.”

Tristan nodded, telling her he wanted to dress first to buy himself some time. Yong had struck a quick friendship with Sanale, which was good for them but less so for Tristan. He could guess which way the Tianxi would be leaning in the conversation to come. The five of them squeezed in around the small fire, given the run of the shrine by the others – Lan’s sly offer to tend the flames for them was politely refused – for at least a little while.

“I have been speaking with Sarai,” Lady Ferranda said, “and it appears both our groups are intending to make for the eastern bridge.”

Their plans had hardly been a secret and even if they had been Lan would already have sold them. Tristan had anticipated that Ferranda Villazur would learn this, that much was no surprise. What he had not anticipated was that an infanzona would deign to talk to a pale-skinned foreigner, getting a hook in one of the three people needing convincing before their groups could ally.

“It would only be sensible to attempt the crossing together,” Sarai said. “Between the cultists and the heliodoran beast, we need all the help we can get.”

Sanale met his employer’s gaze for a moment, then turned and shrugged his agreement. A glance at Yong’s face told Tristan that the Tianxi was about to agree.

“That may not be wise,” he slid in before Yong could speak. “A large group will make noise and draw attention.”

“I hardly think,” Ferranda wryly said, “that it will be us two making that noise.”

Yes, Tristan thought, but if you come with us I cannot use you as a distraction. His was a poor argument and he knew it, so he turned the talk around instead.

“It is true, the two of you would have a better chance of sneaking through alone,” the thief said. “Which has me wondering what you gain by joining us.”

If he could not defend, best to make the enemy do so instead. The Malani huntsman fixed him with a flat stare, his bead-covered coat open at the front.

“Blades and powder,” Sanale bluntly replied.

The thief almost grimaced. He’d lost that in a single exchange. Finesse could only get you so far against pure candour.

“Sarai is right, Tristan,” Yong cut in. “We need the help: I want two more sword arms with us if we stumble into a warband.”

And with Yong finally coming down on the side of the alliance, it was finished. Tristan did not rule their company, and though he was one of its leading figures so were the other two. If they agreed, there was little he could do except leave. Continuing to struggle would only lessen him in the eyes of the others, so it was best to capitulate and move on. At least he could try to wheedle information out of this.

“Then it is settled,” the thief said, shrugging his shoulders. “We make common cause to cross the bridge.”

Sarai nodded at him, pleased, and Yong only looked bemused he’d not agreed from the start. It was true that on the face of the alliance was a net benefit: their group had numbers, but they needed fighters. Meanwhile the pair had fighters but needed numbers, enough that they could not simply be overwhelmed by the hollows if they were caught by a warband. It was all too pretty, ever a sign that the story was yet young. Tristan did not doubt for a moment that Ferranda Villazur would sacrifice them the moment it gained her an edge, but that was fine.

He just had to do it to her first.

“In the spirit of friendship,” Sarai said, “Lady Ferranda has agreed to share information about the state of the trials for us.”

Ah, Tristan thought. So that was what she had bartered for when whispering with the infanzona in a corner.

“We encountered Lady Inyoni’s company before they went to fight their way through the western bridge,” Ferranda told them. “They had taken wounds and one of their number was lost.”

That was a surprise. Inyoni had been a grizzled old killer, a veteran, and the rest of her crew well-armed. Two more Malani of wealthy birth, a pair of Ramayans that’d proved skillful and that bland Aztlan woman made for an impressive crew, perhaps the finest fighting force to emerge from those brought by the Bluebell. That this was even doubt could be explained by two words: Angharad Tredegar.

“Lemures?” Tristan asked.

“Cultists,” the infanzona solemnly replied, shaking her head, “but they did not strike alone. Tupoc Xical and his three lackeys were with them.”

A round of grimaces followed that. Lan’s prediction that Tupoc meant to hunt them proving true was grim news.

“Their group rushed straight down the road,” Yong finally said. “They must have been the easiest to find.”

The blonde noble shook her head.

“That had been my guess as well, but Lady Inyoni is no fool: they took a detour west to shake pursuers,” Ferranda said. “It was on their way back to the road that they were attacked.”

Tristan frowned.

“Then how did the cultists find them?” he asked.

It would have been open grounds Inyoni’s travelled, but though darklings could see better in the dark – and some colours were known only to their kind – their sight was not perfect. A small group taking an indirect route would not have been easy to find.

“A tracking contract,” Sanale said.

Was that a sliver of disdain in the huntsman’s voice? Professional pride from a tracker, perhaps.

“It belongs to Lady Acanthe Phos, the pockmarked girl from Asphodel,” Ferranda continued. “Lady Inyoni’s nephew learned this through his own contract, but with Lan’s help I believe we learned how her contract functions.”

Tristan had been given the same information they had and found it was not much of a leap to make.

“Ash and bone,” he said. “Perhaps all human remains? Acanthe can track them once she has touched them, or something close to that.”

Ferranda nodded.

“I imagine they intrigued to plant ash on all of the groups,” she said. “I am surprised yours was not attacked.”

As was he, since theirs was the most vulnerable by far. Tupoc would not have been able to hit them immediately, he would need to first find the Red Eye cult and strike his bargain, but once he had they would have been the natural target. Their crew had been behind Inyoni’s, which had been the first to leave, and high in numbers while low on fighters. Perfect fodder for sacrifice. So why had Tupoc not focused his efforts on them? Perhaps he had not been able to.

Almost none of them had stood anywhere near Acanthe Phos, Tristan noted as he tried to recall their early days of the trial. And almost all of them had a single bag and bedroll, it would have been harder to hide a piece of bone there than within the bags of larger groups. As for ash… 

It occurred to Tristan, then, that he had passed some time walking besides Acanthe Phos and she had even once taken his arm. There was some kind of dust on the back of my sleeve, the thief suddenly remembered. Vanesa had thought it dust and soot when she cleaned his coat, but the lighting had been poor. It might well have been ash. The older woman had rid his arm of it quite thoroughly, though, and with a shiver the thief realized that Vanesa’s small act of motherly kindness might just have saved all their lives.

“We must,” he forced out, “have gotten lucky.”

Ferranda’s brow rose.

“The Manes were with you, then.”

Not eager to linger on how close they might just have come to getting killed, Tristan cleared his throat.

“Who was it that Inyoni’s crew lost, if I may ask?” he asked.

“Her nephew’s lover, the girl called Ayanda,” the infanzona said. “He was quite distraught over the loss.”

That the two younger Malani had been lovers was not something he had known, but neither was it a surprise. She had obviously not been kin to them, and there were only so many other things she could be.

“They were lucky only one died,” Tristan said.

There Ferranda scowled.

“We do not know for certain she is dead,” the blonde said. “Lady Inyoni said that hollows were careful to take her alive.”

“The Watch warned us,” Sanale evenly said. “They want sacrifices.”

Better she had died, Tristan thought, than whatever the cult of the Red Eye had in store for her. Poor girl. Yong, though sympathetic, kept the conversation moving.

“Do you know if they crossed the bridge successfully?” he asked.

“They did,” Ferranda said. “We held back and watched. Only there was trouble: they struck the cultists guarding it by surprise, but the fighting drew the heliodoran beast.”

Tristan blinked.

“Then they are all dead,” he slowly said.

“Before it could reach them, the beast fell into confusion,” the infanzona said. “The cultists scattered in fright and Lady Inyoni’s group fled north.”

Yong let out a low whistle.

“That sounds,” he said, “like a very dangerous contract. Do you know whose?”

Sanale shook his head.

“We were far,” he said.

Tristan’s interest, however, had been caught by another detail.

“The beast,” he said, “did it seem lethargic?”

Was this the contract that had been used on him when an attempt was made to frame him for Jun’s murder? The infanzona shrugged.

“As Sanale said,” she replied, “we were far. I can only tell you that when it came out of the daze and found no one around, it fell into a great rage.”

The noblewoman leaned forward.

“And as it rampaged, it shook the earth so strongly that the bridge collapsed,” Ferranda said.

Fuck, Tristan thought. The bet he’d thought had come true had, in a way: in reverse. Instead of the absence of people trying to cross the eastern bridge driving the hollow there to head west, it would be the other way around. All the warbands that had been prowling around the western bridge would be headed this way even as they spoke. Fuck, he thought again. No wonder Villazur had been so eager to make an alliance with them even when she had evidently split from the rest of the infanzones. The infanzone knew she needed to cross as soon as possible. The longer they waited, the more cultists would arrive.

Turning on the pair was no longer feasible, he decided. He must act accordingly.

“When the beast wandered off,” he said, “did it appear to be tracking the cultists who fled?”

Ferranda Villazur narrowed her eyes at him.

“It moved in the same direction as one of their groups,” she acknowledged, then her face hardened. “Are you perhaps thinking of using lodestone extract?”

There was a flat, accusatory note at the end. So Lan had talked. Ferranda’s displeasure was understandable: she had been among those his ploy was to burn, or perhaps even had burned. Regardless, Tristan met her brown eyes without shame.

“There is nothing to fear from me this time, Villazur,” he replied. “You are no longer attempting to use us as bait.”

He had acted out of vengeance, it was true, but also out of practicality. The infanzona’s lips thinned in anger, but she did not argue the point. They had owed each other nothing and it was not her the trick had been aimed at. Yong’s back had gone straight and his own gaze at the noblewoman was unimpressed, so Tristan was not without support.

“Airavatan see odours,” Sanale brusquely said. “It could work.”

Tristan’s eyes swivelled to the hunter.

“Lodestone extract smells like blood to lemures, but it is not actually blood,” he carefully said. “Would that still fool it?”

The huntsman hesitated, then nodded. Tristan would have preferred greater certainty but sensed it was the best he would get.

“Then we might be able to distract it,” the thief said.

“It may chase us from there,” Ferranda warned.

“Better to have it somewhere we know than to be left wondering where it is,” Yong replied.

“We could try to attract it near the cultists,” Sarai said. “It would keep them both occupied while we make for the bridge.”

The thief blinked at her. That was… bold, to say the least. He passed his hand through his hair, considering it just as the others were.

“It would be playing with fire,” Tristan finally said. “If they catch us planting the extract, if we get bogged down fighting them…”

None of them had forgot the massacre of the entire first wave of trial-takers in exactly such a situation. Or that Inyoni and her crew might well have suffered the same fate if they’d not had a contract that let them escape.

“We would need to find a Red Eye encampment for that plan to be an option at all,” Yong pragmatically said. “That means going out to look.”

“We need to do that regardless,” Ferranda pointed out. “We cannot afford to rush in blindly, not with the forces arrayed against us.”

She was right, Tristan thought, and it was plain enough to see that no one argued. The talk instead turned to who would be going. Yong volunteered, brushing aside the thief’s worries about how his shoulder was healing. The wound had not torn muscle or required stitches – the gravebird had been toying with him – so the Tianxi insisted he was fine.  Ferranda conferred with Sanale away from the fire, which surprised Tristan: it implied their relation was more nuanced than that of an infanzona and her hired hand.

“I will be going,” Ferranda said when they returned. “Two of us will be enough – any more and the chances of getting caught by a warband grow too high.”

And aside from Sanale, Tristan thought, no one else among them was practiced at forestry. He was decent at sneaking around, but even tall grass such as the one around the swamp was uncomfortably different from the alleys and rooftops of Sacramonte. It was agreed on without quibbling, the dangers headed their way cooling any desire for argument, and after that all that they broke the news to the rest of their company: if Yong and Lady Ferranda came back with the right news, then they would be attempting the crossing tonight.

Everyone began to pack the moment the pair disappeared into the passage.

The mood was subdued, even Felis keeping his peace. Though from the suddenly loose shoulders on the man, Tristan figured that might have something to do with licking up some dust. The thief wondered what it was that Lan had demanded of him in exchange. As for the Meng-Xiaofan dealer, his idle suggestion that she be left behind had been refused. She had, it seemed, bought Lady Ferranda’s agreement to let her follow them until the second trial with information after stumbling onto the pair by pure chance. Tristan would not call a woman who’d lost a sister only days ago lucky, but the gods must have taken a shine to Lan for her to make it that far.

That, or she had been sitting quiet on a contract.

Just between them rats, he could admire how well she had played her rather lacking cards. Lan was a poor fighter, had displayed no contract and was openly unreliable in the face of danger. Yet with only wits and a penchant for digging into other people’s things, she had been able to bargain her way to safety again and again. That was something worthy of respect, even if he did not particularly like the woman. Respect and some wariness: neither were the kind of people to hold a grudge over the kind of clawing they’d done at one another, but it would not do to forget that they were far from friendly.

About a quarter hour into packing his belongings Sarai came to find him. It was idle chatter at first, but he noticed she was keeping an eye on how close other people were. As soon as she was sure no one could overhear, the talk changed.

“You meant to use the lodestone trick again,” Sarai quietly said. “On them. It’s why you were against us allying.”

It was tempting to lie, but he bit down on the instinct. He had already extended trust. He would not keep doing so blindly, but withdrawing it just as blindly would be equally foolish.

“It struck me as the most likely plan to work,” Tristan said.

“It was a wash the moment they got Lan to talk,” she replied, shaking her head.

The dark-haired woman looked uncomfortable.

“I thought your enmity was with the Cerdan,” she continued. “Not all infanzones.”

The thief hesitated again, but he could see what silence would cost him here. No one wanted an ally that was a rabid hound, which murderous hatred of all the nobles of Sacromonte might as well make him.

“It is Cozme Aflor I most want dead,” he admitted. “The brothers are ledger work, payment against an old debt.”

“And Ferranda Villazur?” Sarai pressed.

“I have little against her,” he shrugged. “I believed the pair would go their own way, which made them a sensible target.”

“You still opposed the alliance when I was bringing it forward,” she pointed out.

“And I still would, had I not learned of the other bridge’s breaking,” Tristan frankly replied. “People will die in this crossing, Sarai. If I have a choice, I would rather it be them than us.”

All the Red Eye warbands rushing their way tilted the odds against anyone being able to sneak through, enough so that additional swords were worth more than a distraction. If the pair could be used for their blades and other dupes used as a distraction, Sarai’s suggestion, then that plan was superior. But it was also only viable now that they had skilled trackers other than Yong out trying to find darkling encampments. Sending out alone a wounded Yong, who even in such a state was their best fighter, would have been rolling on bad odds. Sending a potential liability with him would have been even worse. Sarai’s blue eyes stayed on him, then she slowly nodded.

“Good,” she said.

Worth staying allied with, she meant. He would not say he was relieved, but neither would he deny it.

“Ferranda parted ways with the other nobles before your lodestone trick had effect,” Sarai said. “Their plan was to climb the High Road using a contract and then march across the island unhindered, but there is no telling if lemures attacked them first.”

Tristan almost cursed. Of course the infanzones had come in with a cushy plan that put them right out of harm’s way while everyone else died beneath them. Lodestone extract would largely stop smelling after a day, so if they had made it up on the aqueduct they would be safe by now. There would be no telling until the second trial, then. And there I will have to act, or they will be able to slip away before the third.

“One more reason to make it to the Trial of Ruins,” he simply replied.

He made sure to incline his head in thanks, acknowledging that she had most likely looked into the fate of the Cerdans for him. She smiled back, flicking his shoulder.

“Mayhaps we’ll be lucky and they’ll have eaten at least one out of three,” she said.

The thief smiled back, almost wonderingly. Not so much at the thought as how she had said it: we’ll get lucky. Not only him. The implicit promise there, without her having ever asked why he wanted any of them dead, was… Measure for measure, that was how Sarai dealt. He had told her the truth of what he wanted, so she had offered her help in achieving it. There was something so terrifyingly straightforward about that he ended up shying away from meeting her eyes. She had an ulterior purpose in these trials, he reminded himself, had admitted as much.

It would be dangerous to begin trusting her too much.

Sensing the mood had changed, Sarai took her leave. It left Tristan to finish packing his bag and rearranging the broken cabinet so that nothing would come out spilling were it dropped. Left him alone with his thoughts, also, or more accurately his thoughts and one more thing.

“She would make a good priestess, I think,” Fortuna mused. “You must ask her if she gambles.”

The goddess was sprawled theatrically across a flat stone, red dress flowing down artfully as she rested her chin against her palm. She was the very picture of imperial leisure, missing only servants to fan her and feed her grapes.

“Of course,” he lied.

Golden eyes narrowed at him.

“Are you pouting again?” the goddess asked. “You know, it is only charming if done once in a while. Otherwise is the province of toddlers.”

He rolled his eyes at her.

“It is only unease, not pouting,” Tristan said. “I feel…”

Fortuna snorted.

“I knew you’d get like this about someone actually liking you,” she smugly said. “It’s all the amusement you refuse me when you get stab wounds.”

Tristan made sure no one was looking his way before glaring at her.

“You’re inventing things,” he insisted. “This has nothing to do with Sarai.”

“I never said her name,” Fortuna smirked.

“It was implied, you pile of bad decisions,” he hissed back. “It’s this plan, Fortuna, it is all wrong.”

The goddess gracefully shifted into a sitting position, legs over the edge of the stone, and her mood turned serious so swiftly he had no idea if she had been faking the taunting before it. Gods, she had always been like this. Sometimes she made him feel like he was still a boy.

“What about it rubs you wrong?” she asked.

Having to answer her forced him to think it out, to truly look at what it was that bothered him.

“It is not the kind of method I like using,” Tristan finally said. “It is barely a plan. It relies on assumptions, even if it works perfectly it will be risky and we are making too little use of the time we have before it begins.”

The last, he thought, might be the one that most went against the grain. Thievery was about waiting for the right moment, but that moment had to be found. It was not an orange falling into your lap. Too much was being left to chance and too little done to change this.

“Then do something about it,” Fortuna shrugged, languidly rising to her feet.

The dress followed, a trail of blood slinking after the goddess. She smirked at him again, strolling away like there was nothing more than say. The part he might be most resentful about, Tristan admitted to himself, was that she had helped. There were still hours left before they moved out, if they made the attempt tonight, and he did not have spend them sitting by his broken cabinet and silently fretting.

So what could he do?

His eyes swept across the cavern, lingering on the rest of the company before dismissing them. It would not be impossible to pulls tricks to tighten or loosen alliances – Lan and Felis were easy levers – but there would be no point. All of them wanted to survive, it would keep them together and looking outwards until there was a semblance of safety. Their remaining supplies were food, water, powder and bedrolls. None of which could be put to particularly unusual use.

His gaze stopped on the carved doorway of the shrine, the great chain of silhouettes grasping the feet of those in front of them. Tristan was, at the end of the day, a thief. Why was he trying to be a general or a conspirator? Better that he use the skills he had actually learned. First, to case the place. Whoever had built this was long dead and buried, that was not the end of it. It so happened that Tristan had someone on hand who could get answers from beyond the grave.

“It might be as old as the First Empire,” Francho said, stroking his white stubble. “Not of Antediluvian make, of course – it is much too humble for that – but still build before the Old Night.”

If he let that beard grow, it would not be long before he had more hair on his chin than his head.

“So what was it for?” Tristan asked. “To honour some god?”

“Religion before the Orthodoxy was very haphazard, as far as we can tell,” the toothless old professor mused. “The Universalist creed from the Isles is probably closest to what it looked like.”

“And that means,” the grey-eyed man encouraged.

Francho blinked.

“Temples to a god were rare,” he said. “They were more along the lines of designated sacred places, grounds where mortals and gods might meet and give each other gifts if it pleased them.”

“So there might still be a gift left,” Tristan said. “If it was hidden well enough.”

“This shrine was abandoned centuries before Sacromonte was a fishing village, my boy,” Francho gently said, fighting down his cough. “If there was ever anything here of worth, it is long gone.”

But the old man was thinking as a historian, and that was not the right way here. This was the Dominion of Lost Things, not some glittering temple on the Tower Coast. The island had been full of hollows and worse ever since anyone could remember, and while the temple above had been looted this shrine was much older. It had not been so well hidden the darklings would not have looted it, but how hard had they really looked? It would have seemed a small and dingy place, compared to the great painted temple above. And this was not the kind of place treasure hunters would come to even if it had not been Watch territory, which made it even more off-limits.

“There can be no harm in looking,” Tristan said. “Is there a part that would be more sacred than the rest?”

Francho sighed.

“The ceiling,” the old man said. “What scarce records we have of the era imply that in many parts of Vesper firmament was feared and worshipped in equal measure.”

Tristan thanked him, the professor visibly forcing himself not to roll his eyes out of exasperation. Only Sanale sat within the shrine, tending to the last of the fire, and he did not spare the thief more than a glance. The insides were as plain as the outside, for all that the clever stonework tried to hide it. The arches and columns that stood out of the wall slightly were pure affectation, no more useful a support than any other carving might have been, and they led up to a high curved ceiling that was just slightly too uneven to truly count as a dome. Up there were circular stripes of stone standing out, whatever had been displayed on them worn away or covered by the black taint of smoke.

At the apex of the almost-dome was a full circle of the same motif as the threshold, silhouettes grabbing the feet of others, and a hole in the stone the size of a man’s head. It went up, like a pipe, and was the reason a fire could be lit in a place small as this shrine without choking everyone inside. On the ground there were three broken altars, or so he guessed: most the stone was gone, likely stolen by hollows. What few pieces remained were being used by Ferranda and her hired hand to dry their clothes. Lifting a shirt under Sanale’s watchful gaze revealed that their stone was covered with carvings.

Still the silhouettes.

“What are you doing?” Sanale asked.

The man was looking at him with a frown.

“Looting the shrine,” Tristan frankly replied.

The huntsman considered that, then nodded.

“Good luck.”

The thief grinned back, then let his gaze drift back up. Francho had said the ceiling would be important, but even without the old man Tristan would have begun with looking there. It would have been the most difficult part of this shrine to make, and in the builder’s place he would have been certain to add in a secret alcove or two. Climbing wasn’t difficult beyond the strain it put on his burns, which was enough for the thief to be swallowing a hiss. Anchoring his foot against the side of the ‘column’, he hoisted himself up to have a look at the first stone stripe jutting out of the ceiling. It was, he found with surprise, also adorned with the silhouette chain. Only the top of the stripe, so it could not be seen from below, but the motif seemed to be circling around the near-dome ceiling.

Ignoring Sanale’s gaze, and now the people crowding the shrine entrance looking at him, the thief dragged his left foot up on top of one of the sculpted arcs and used the leverage to pull himself further up. From there he had a better vantage of the stripes, which he saw were all carved with the chain in the same place. And there was a detail to it: the way the chain was facing, it seemed to be encircling the ceiling through the stripes. Circling upwards like a spring.

“Francho,” he called out.

The old man brushed past Lan to come into the shrine, looking as if he did not know whether to be impressed or appalled.

“You are going to break a leg for the grand prize of dust,” the professor told him.

The thief ignored that with the practiced ease of a man living bound to a goddess that could not be silenced.

“There’s a pattern to it,” he said. “I need you to look at the carvings outside, around the door. Is there are beginning and an end to the chain?”

Francho sighed but did look intrigued. More importantly he inspected the carvings as he’d been asked, returning with surprise on his face.

“There is both,” he said. “And the ‘end’ sneaks past the top of the threshold as a small line, continuing inside as a carving behind a ridge.”

“Where does it lead?” Tristan asked

His arms were beginning to cramp but he held himself tight.

“The floor, and then nowhere,” the old man said. “It is still a dead end.”

Now, maybe, but had it always been? The tiles in the temple upstairs had been ripped off the floor and walls, so it might well have been the same down here. A part of the chain was gone, but perhaps not all of it.

“The altars,” Tristan said. “They have markings too, see where they lead.”

Sanale was interested enough by the spectacle to agree to remove the drying clothes, but Francho clicked his tongue after going around looking at them. Their labour had, Tristan saw from the corner of his eye, drawn most everyone else as an audience. A few looked excited, more amused.

“Too much is gone,” the scholar said. “The altars connected to each other, I think, and perhaps headed for the back wall. I cannot be certain with what little is left.”

The back wall was something Tristan could work with. From up there he could see what the angle might have been, and there was a carved column leading into an arch facing more or less where the altars would have been. Moving in that direction across the top of the arches, he crouched down to have a closer look. No trace of the chain anywhere near the ground, but ah! Atop the curve of the arch, under dust he rubbed away with his thumb, he found the carved chain. The bottom was worn away, but it was facing upwards: towards the first of the stone strips encircling the dome.

“Found it,” Tristan triumphantly said.

It had been as he suspected: the chain began outside, passed through the altars and then slowly rose up the ‘sky’ only to lead at a final destination: the smoke hole, which might have another purpose after all.

“What is it that you are even looking for?” Francho asked.

“You said shrines like this were for trading gifts,” the thief said. “And it occurs to me: if the first silhouette is standing on the ground and all the others are holding up another body, what will the last one be holding up?”

The toothless professor was not slow.

“There might be a gift for the gods at the end,” Francho mused. “Symbolically speaking, that is not without sense.”

The difficult part was getting up there, as the old man’s warning had not been unsound: if he fell badly from this height the thief would break something. Getting a hand into the smoke hole took more acrobatics than he would prefer: feet resting on the highest stripe, his hand on a jutting stone of the ceiling to wedge himself and then all he could do was peer in the dark above. Shoving in his free hand, he groped around in search of anything at all. It seemed like a dead end, just a hole going upwards, until he pressed against the back and found there was a little give. Not much, though. Inspired, he ran his fingers near the bottom of the stone and found a carved silhouette offering up nothing.

Pressing against it, he felt a stone give and suddenly the back wall toppled.

Tristan yelped, taking back his hand as the stone fell out and down into the shrine. Francho shouted a curse when it almost fell on his head, but the thief’s attention was on the hidden compartment he had revealed. Though he could not see inside, he could feel it out. There was some kind of basin carved into the bottom, a sloping incline, but after he felt out all the sides and even the top of the compartment Tristan was forced to admit that it was empty. Either the caretakers of this place had taken away their treasure or someone had found it before he could. Enthusiasm dimming, thief carefully made his way down.

He still slipped, footing giving away against the side of the column, but by then he was close enough to the ground he was able to fall without even a bruise to show for it. Still hurt, though, almost as much as Francho’s gentle smile as the thief rose to his feet and brushed himself off.

“I told you it was unlikely,” the professor said. “Besides, it is already impressive that you found the hidden compartment.”

In sharp contrast to the old man’s attempt at comfort, Tristan saw from the corner of his eye that Fortuna’s head was popping out of the smoke hole. Long golden hair falling like a curtain, she still somehow managed to look down at them contemptuously. Like some queen granting audience to vagabonds, Tristan thought, and that was when it fell into place.

“The chain goes both ways,” the thief said, cutting through whatever Francho had been saying.

The old man frowned.

“Obsessing over this will do you no good,” he said.

Tristan turned grey eyes on him.

“You said it yourself,” he said.  “The gods gave gifts as well as received them. If there was something at the end of the chain, there should be something at the beginning too.”

He would have been willing to look for the first link in the chain himself, but despite his open doubts Francho led him to it. The small carved silhouette had its feet against the ground of the cavern, as if standing on it, and when Tristan pressed against it nothing gave. He blew at the carving, finding that there were the smallest fracture lines between that first silhouette and the stone around it. It could have been time’s work, he thought. But it might not be. Leaning closer, he ran a finger beneath the carved feet and it came back touched with grey stone dust. Greyer than the stone of the cavern wall. To someone’s loudly exclaimed disgust, he tasted it. Ha! He’d been sure he knew that grey.

“There is nothing,” Francho said. “Surely you can see-”

Tristan took out his knife, picking away at the carved silhouette until some a chunk of the left leg fell off. Beneath it lay stone of a different grey. The old man wetly coughed into his hand, his breath wheezing.

“Is that what I think it is?” Francho said, voice still faint.

“If you are thinking ‘antipodal stone’, then yes,” the thief smiled.

Vanesa was standing close, a lantern in hand, and when Tristan asked she wordlessly gave it over. He opened the shutter until the naked flame was revealed, then pressed it against the carving. Antipodal stone was believed to be one of the wonders of the Antediluvians for it was a stone that, unlike others, contracted when heated instead of expanding. Some of the great canals of Sacromonte had been built out of it, in times before it became so rare, so Tristan knew the look of the stone. It was not long before he estimated it would be warm enough, the scorched figure of the silhouette hot to the touch but not so much that with his sleeve covering his fingers he could not pull at it. The stone came free when he pulled, revealing another compartment, and Tristan grinned.

“I was wrong,” Francho murmured. “Most in error.”

The thief angled the lantern to have a look inside, triumph blooming when he saw there was an object in there. It was large enough he had to grope at the inside of the compartment for another mechanism, eventually finding out that the sides of the ‘mouth’ could be pushed further open. What he took out of the compartment looked like a musical instrument of some sort, though not one he knew. It was squatter and longer than a lyre, and its wooden body had long petrified. Strangest, though, was that though where nubs for seven strings on the crossbar there were not even the broken remains of one. Tristan pulled it up into the light, feeling something move inside the body when he did.

Lightly, and it was near weightless, but there was definitely something within.

“That,” Francho quietly said, “is a supplicant’s cithara.”

They had attracted a crowd, everyone circling in around them. The thief hid how the number of people behind him was making him uncomfortable.

“A musical instrument?” Tristan asked.

“One meant only for the hands of priests,” the professor explained. “It is played with strings of Gloam, to appeal to the gods with prayer-songs.”

“So it’s worth a lot?” Lan asked, leaning past Vanesa.

More than a few considering gazes turned on the cithara at the question.

“That depends on the nature of the relic,” Francho hedged. “But by itself not particularly, save to collectors.”

He coughed into his hand.

“But inside the cithara’s body there will be a substance,” he said. “It will have been laid there by the priests who crafted it to shape the nature of the prayers, accumulating power with use. That can be worth a great deal of coin.”

Tristan raised an eyebrow, pressing the cithara into his hand. The professor looked askance at him for a moment, as if wondering what the meaning of it might be.

“The wood is petrified,” the thief said. “Turned to stone.”

And Francho could listen to the echoes lying within stone, could he not? The old man looked startled, then his face pulled into a frown of concentration as he laid an open palm against the cithara. He shivered, arm trembling, and withdrew his hand with a long sigh.

“Feathers,” Francho told him. “It is feathers inside, meant for songs of sleep.”

And so by the time Song and Ferranda returned, bringing word they had found cultists and so their group was to try the bridge tonight, Tristan Abrascal was smiling.

He had a plan.

Chapter 12

It was an unusual experience, Tristan mused, to be treating others using a poisoner’s kit in ways he had largely learned through study of interrogation. Not that anyone could tell the difference.

“I don’t need a stick to bite down on,” Felis insisted. “It’s just a little pain, I can take it.”

In most circumstances, the man might even have been right: regular use of dust could dull one’s sense of pain. Not so here, however. Aines fretted at her husband’s side but he kept pushing her away.

“I once saw a man bite through his own tongue,” Tristan conversationally said. “It didn’t kill him – it is not usually a lethal wound, you see – but it did seem to be an excruciatingly painful experience.”

The dust addict paled, fiddling with his choppy brown hair.

“Are you much of a singer, Felis?” the thief asked.

The man glared, but he took the stick and placed his teeth against it. Tristan immediately ripped out the bolt, ignoring the half-swallowed scream that followed. It was a nasty little piece of work, the thief thought as he eyed the arrowpoint the hollows had used. Serrated so that it would cut flesh again on the way out. Felis went through spasms of pain, shivering, as Tristan set down the bolt and got to work cleaning the wound. A rag drenched in alcohol, then makeshift bandages made of ripped clothing. The man should be in no danger of bleeding out, but Tristan could not say if the flesh would take sick. Clothes made for poor bandages and they had too few to spare for the thief to be able to change them often.

“It is much as I can do,” he told Felis. “I will give you something for the pain before you go to sleep.”

That made all of them. Vanesa and Aines had gotten away with little more than bruises, Francho’s rib was sprained but not broken and Yong had taken no wound at all. After Felis the worst off was Sarai: pins and needles had ripped at the side of her face when her veils and mask were torn off. Those he had not taken care of: after borrowing alcohol to clean the wounds, she had seen to them herself. Of Lan there was still no sign, not that they would take her in should she return. What worth was there in keeping around someone who would run when the knives came out? Choices must be paid for. Felis spat out the stick and rose to his feet, striding away without another a word. His wife stayed behind.

“Thank you, Tristan,” Aines tiredly told him. “He appreciates it as well, he just-”

Under the weariness and the wear, he could still see the shape of the woman she must have been when she was young. Dark hair and kind brown eyes, a heart-shaped face and slender frame. The kind of looks men of the Murk considered beautiful.

“This place, it doesn’t bring out the best in us,” she finished. “It will be better when we get out.”

No it won’t, Tristan thought. The thief hesitated. He had decided not to involve himself too closely with the pair, wary of getting caught in the inevitable explosion, but now their company’s numbers had thinned and wounds had been taken. If he could nudge their situation into coming to a head a little later, perhaps the second trial, it would be a boon.

“Lan ran off with the dust,” he said. “How long before it gets bad?”

Aines’ smile did not quite hide the shame in her eyes.

“Noticed that, did you?” she said. “I thought you might, you’ve got Murk all over you.”

And they both knew that dust and the other drugs peddled there killed people just as sure as the plague, only slower and uglier. The dark-haired woman worried her lip.

“Two days,” she finally said. “Maybe longer if your extract for the pain scratches the itch some.”

“That could be a problem,” Tristan admitted.

One he did not have much to mend, save if one counted poison a solution. The sound Aines answered by was too bleak to truly be called a laugh.

“Yeah,” she exhaled. “I know. Gods, I know.”

“It seems ill-advised,” he delicately said, “to be taking these trials given his… condition.”

His more than hers. Aines seemed as needful of gambling as her husband was of dust but her body would not rebel at the lack of it: it was an affliction of the mind more than the flesh. He already knew they had not come here by choice, that they had been paid for by others, but tired and grateful as she was a small invitation like this should be enough to get her talking.

“You think we had a choice?” Aines bitterly replied. “We both racked up debts with the Cordero Sonriente, only we didn’t know about each other’s. One of their collectors put it together and came knocking at our door.”

Tristan winced. The Cordero Soriente has begun as a charitable house the infanzones had meant to clothe and feed the poor souls of the Murk, but infamously within a year it’d begun selling goods on the side and running whores in its chapterhouses. The Guardia never raided them, after all, lest the noble patrons be offended. By the time the thief was born the Cordero had branched into loans as well and earned a hard reputation among that crowded trade. They were respectable enough they could afford to pay the redcloaks to come and collect for them and the Guardia did not play nice when it came to the Murk.

“Yeah, that bad,” Aines sighed. “The debt was big enough we would have been bound for the mines until we died, only we have five kids and no one who could take care of them. So when they offered to wipe the debt if we took the trials, it wasn’t much of a choice at all.”

“They would not have made the offer without getting something out of it,” Tristan said.

Aines convulsed, and with some surprise the thief realized that she was crying. It was not the tears that surprised him – he’d choked on bitter sobs in his time – but that she would allow herself to shed them before a man half a stranger. Tristan gently put a hand on her shoulder but did not take her into his arms as an impulse demanded. He knew better than to get attached.

“It’s a sport to them,” she croaked out. “They pay the blackcloaks for the reports, after. So they know what happened in the trials.”

“What did they tell you, Aines?” he pressed.

“They’ll drown my children,” she whispered, “if Felis kills me before the end of the trials.”

Sympathy welled up, but only a shallow stream. Most of his mind was on the talk he had overheard between the two, the way Felis had pushed for them to leave the group. To go off alone. And just as Aines must have come to, he grew sure the Cordero must have promised him something if he killed her before the end of the trials. Red games, Yong had called these. What a pretty turn of phrase for such an ugly thing. He kept Aines company until the tears ran out and she muttered some excuses, returning to her cot like someone who did not know where else to go. Felis began a whispered argument with her within moments and Tristan decided to wait before he went over with the painkiller.

Instead it was to Yong’s side he went, sitting by the man as he oiled and cleaned his sword. The Tianxi glanced his way with an inquisitive look.

“I don’t think they’re salvageable,” Tristan frankly said, careful not the glance the pair’s way as he did. “They were pointed at each other by their creditor.”

“They’re useful in a fight,” Yong just as frankly replied. “I’d be more inclined to get rid of the greyhairs than these two if we must cut weight loose.”

“I’m not saying we cut them,” he replied, “but they can’t be trusted for anything delicate. It’s only a matter of time until one knifes the other.”

Either Felis for what he had been promised or Aines to avoid the same.

“Come the second trial, they are no longer our trouble,” Yong pragmatically said. “Will they last until then?”

Tristan grimaced.

“Probably,” he conceded, then passed a hand through his hair. “Marriage, huh. What a fool’s game.”

Yong shot him a highly amused look.

“You are speaking,” the Tianxi said, “to a married man.”

“Ah,” the thief coughed. “I mean no offence. I am sure your wife-”

“Husband,” Yong drily corrected.

“- husband is a fine man,” Tristan hastily assured him.

“He is,” the other man replied, but a hint of something lay under the even tone. “But I’ll grant you it can sometimes make for a crowded bed, each other and our pasts all squeezed tight.”

Much as the thief was itching to poke at that, to see what might come out, a look at Yong’s face was enough for him to decide otherwise. It was a closed shutter, and the Tianxi was shifting restless in that way Tristan had come to recognize as meaning he wanted to drink. The earlier violence seemed to have invigorated Yong, enough that he’d not drunk liquor all afternoon, but now the clouds were returning. Best head that off as hard as he could: if the day’s fighting had proved anything, it was that without Yong they were all halfway to the grave.

“I am glad you are now calm,” Tristan said, “for you seemed angry when you first saw Sarai’s looks under the mask.”

“Hollows can’t be trusted,” the Tianxi bluntly said. “If she had been one, either she or I would have left this company.”

“I have not found them any worse than men,” the thief said. “Is this a matter of faith?”

No one, not even cultish Redeemers, denied the truth of the Circle Perpetual – the endless cycle of reincarnation that bound all souls not marred by the Gloam. To be a darkling, hollow, was to be evicted from the Circle and see your immortal soul tarnished into mortality. There were faiths of Vesper who thought this a great sin, something disgusting or wicked, and so thought hollows disgusting and wicked as well. The Orthodoxy should not be one of them, but then in practice Tristan knew precious little of the Cathayan Orthodoxy.

“It is a matter of fact,” Yong replied. “All men go mad when law runs thin, Tristan. When there are no more punishments, the savagery we pretend we’ve never learned comes creeping out.”

His dark eyes looked at something beyond the cast of the lantern’s light, the kind of haunting that could be a world away and still closer than your own skin.

“I have seen men I thought decent rape and steal and kill for no better reason than they could,” he said. “But in the end, for all our cruelties, we are still men.”

The former soldier’s jaw clenched.

“I have found half-eaten children by the road,” Yong said with desolate calm, “where hollows went raiding. I’ve tread over the broken bones of hundreds fed to mad gods, seen the aftermath of ritual so horrifying even the worst of Izcalli candlemen would balk at their use.”

His tone had not grown heated but it’d risen loud enough they were drawing looks.

“We still curse by the Old Night for a reason,” he said, lowering the pitch of his voice after he noticed the attention. “And that is the world hollows would bring back: darkness for all, forever. No trust can or should survive that truth.”

Tristan slowly nodded, keeping his thoughts off his face. He would not argue with Yong, not when the subject drew such fervour from the other man, but he was not convinced. There were entire kingdoms of hollows out there, great empires risen and fallen beyond the cast of the Glare. Scholars were certain that most of Vesper belonged to the hollows, and if Yong were right then the Old Night would long ago have been brought back. No, Tristan suspected that most hollows were no better or worse than men. Shaped differently by circumstance, perhaps, but not made of such different clay.

It was the cults that were things of horror, and a cult was not a kingdom – much less a hundred of them.

“I’ll not argue with killing those Red Eye bastards,” the thief said. “Though I hope you’ll forgive me if I’d rather sneak past them if we can.”

Yong waved his words away.

“So would I,” he said. “And I can only wince at how Sarai must have suffered for her people’s resemblance to hollows. I expect half the people she’s ever met have tried to clap her in chains.”

“Not Tianxi, no?” Tristan asked. “I thought the Republics didn’t hold with slavery.”

“All are free under Heaven,” Yong dutifully quoted. “It’s against all the laws on all the books, it’s true, but it doesn’t stop some of the traders from shipping slaves.”

Ah, Tristan thought. Transporting the ‘merchandise’ was not buying or selling it, he deduced, which allowed the unscrupulous to follow the letter of the law. He was no longer a boy of ten, blindly admiring that the Tianxi had sent all their nobles to the chopping block and dreaming their land a veritable paradise. The Heavenly Republics were just as flawed a beast as the other great powers of Vesper, he knew that. But he was still disappointed, somehow, that men who’d made themselves free would force the opposite on others.

“The slave trade has made Malan rich,” he sighed. “And the man who hates gold has yet to be born.”

The Second Empire had used slaves by the millions and most peoples of Vesper still did – the infanzones might not call them such, but the hollows mining rubies and gold for them were slaves in deed – yet it was only ever hollows that Liergan had kept in chains. That time, that practice, had come at an end. The Kingdom of Malan had grown terribly wealth by stealing men in the north and shipping them to their western colonies, where they toiled raising rich crops under the Glare for their masters. And the tribes below the Broken Gates were very much men, for though they were pale of skin they were not severed from the Circle Perpetual. The Glare did not burn them.

Yong snorted.

“When I was a boy,” he said, “my grandmother told me it was Lucifer himself that made gold, for he knew that even sealed in Pandemonium gold would be enough for men to destroy themselves.”

Tristan could not help but smile. It seemed that no matter where you were born, family tried to scare you with stories of the King of Hell.

“My father used to tell how he invented sleep,” the thief said, “by botching a spell to kill all the world.”

“That’s a clever one,” Yong appreciated, then wiped his sword down one last time. “And a timely reminder of what I ought to do. Francho still has first watch?”

Tristan nodded.

“Good, the greyhairs need to earn their keep,” the former soldier said. “Will you speak with Sarai before turning in for the night?”

The thief cocked an eyebrow.

“Should I?” he asked, surprised.

“Who, if not you?” Yong shrugged. “The two of you have been fingers from the same hand since we left the yiwu.

He frowned, recognizing the Cathayan word but not the meaning.

“Relics?”

“Nobles,” Yong explained, smiling.

There was a calm certainty behind that smile, the look of a man who knew the way the world was headed and that its road would inevitably be paved with the graves of his enemies. And who was the Tristan to argue that? The Tianxi still chopped kings into four pieces, whenever they got their hands on them, and no crown in Vesper had been able to make them stop. Parting ways with the still-smiling man, Tristan flicked a glance Sarai’s way. She was sitting alone, Aines and Felis giving her wide berth, and while Vanesa had not been driven off by the pale skin the bespectacled old woman was sound asleep.

He’d barely exchanged twenty words with her since her face was revealed, Tristan realized. They’d had to run half a day and he’d spent all his time since camp was made seeing to wounds. Perhaps a conversation truly was due, even if exhaustion was catching up to him. Sitting across from Sarai’s pack, the thief popped his neck and let out a little sigh of satisfaction at the ensuing crack. He got an unimpressed look from the dark-haired woman for it.

“You could have done that before coming over,” she said.

“And let you miss out?” Tristan charmingly smiled. “You wound me.”

“Do it again and I just might,” Sarai threatened, but her lips twitched. “I can’t stand the sound.”

“I will take that in due consideration,” the thief assured her.

There was a pause, and as he met her eyes he reached for his thumb with deliberate obviousness and the most obnoxious grin in his repertoire.

“Don’t you dare,” she warned.

“How’s the face?” Tristan idly asked.

“Fine,” she warily said, eye still on his thumb, “the cuts aren’t deep and-”

The thief pulled at his thumb before she could finish the sentence, the small crack of the joint popping getting an indignant cry out of her. He was forced to shield his face with his arms when she began enthusiastically beating him with her veil. By the time she’d finished retaliating, the two of them were grinning. Sarai shook her head, reluctantly pleased.

“The cuts won’t even scar,” she told him. “I’ve had worse shaving my legs. How are your burns?”

“Better than they’ve any right to be,” he honestly replied. “They’re clean and the flesh is red instead of black, which is a good sign.”

That he felt pain around it was a good sign, for great burns bit deep enough you could no longer feel pain there at all.

“The bruise on my side is more of a pain,” Tristan said. “It’s a good thing I already slept on my back.”

“I’ll be doing the same for a few weeks, I’d think,” Sarai grunted. “Shallow they may be, but I can’t rest on them without hissing.”

He nodded in sympathy, the two of them sitting in comfortable silence for a while. It was him that broke it, almost to his regret.

“Are we going to talk about it?” he idly asked.

The secret that’d come out, all the petty little things tied to it.

“No,” Sarai replied.

He cocked his head to the side.

“If we survive the trials?”

“Then I’ll give you my name,” Sarai agreed. “My real one. If you want more, you’ll have to trade in kind.”

A fair bargain, as tended to be her way.

“Past is past,” Tristan shrugged. “I am more interested in what is to come.”

A request for information less dear but more immediately pressing. How far did Sarai intend to go, on this Dominion of Lost Things? Blue eyes considered him.

“By the end of these trials,” Sarai said, “I will be wearing a black cloak.”

“That is my aim as well,” Tristan replied, pleased and not hiding it.

It meant their alliance could continue until the end. With Yong intending to join the Watch as well, he would have two reliable companions to go into the coming trials with. Sarai passed a hand through her dark tresses, face closing, then let out a sigh.

“This year’s trials,” she said, lowering her voice, “are not like the others.”

He stared at her unblinking.

“Some of us were marked for more than simply joining the Watch,” Sarai said.

He could not muster much surprise. He had known something was off since first setting foot on the Bluebell. Some things were not adding up: Abuela had given him a shot at Cozme Aflor and a pair of Cerdan by sending him here, but there had been other ways. His mentor did not simply want him in the Watch, she had wanted him on that particular ship. Why?

“You are one of those chosen few, I take it?” Tristan asked.

“I am,” she said, smiling faintly. “But so are you.”

Despite their best effort, that knowledge did more to keep him awake than the bruises.

The tall grass felt sinister, now that they knew what might be waiting for them hiding behind the stalks.

Their company had taken wounds, enough to smell of blood, and that meant they had to worry about more than the cultists of the Red Eye now that they’d broken camp and resume their march. Lupines would prefer the open plains to the tall grass they were cutting through, but there were many kinds of lemures out there. The first creatures they found, though, were not lemures at all. Early in the morning Aines let out a small scream that had them all going for weapons, but what she had almost stumbled over did not end up warranting such dread: on the ground were a pair of wobbly carapace globes, from which tails with maces at the end protruded. The tails were being waved menacingly, though Tristan would have felt rather more menaced if the creature it belonged to was not cowering blindly inside its carapace.

“Those are glyptonts,” Vanesa pointed out amusedly. “No threat to you, my dear, unless your feet are made of weeds.”

“They’re harmless, then?” Aines carefully asked.

“Usually herbivores,” Francho confirmed.

He was met with an uncomprehending and somewhat worried look.

“A creature that eats only plants,” the old professor clarified.

The silent reproach on Aines’ face at not having simply said that from the start had the thief smothering a smile.

“I recall reading that they favour mud,” Tristan said. “We might be near a pond we’ll need to go around.”

Francho shook his head.

“They prefer flowing water,” the toothless old man corrected. “For cleaning their scales. A river, more like. And if one of you gentlemen would do me the favour of tipping one over?”

“That seems unnecessarily cruel,” Yong objected half-heartedly.

Sarai, not so burdened, borrowed the Tianxi’s musket and carefully rolled one of the glyptonts upside down while avoiding the mace-tail. The other let out a strangely mouse-like squeak, tail disappearing inside like it’d been sucked in, and promptly began a strategic retreat. It had abandoned its fellow quite ruthlessly, the thief noted.

“No honour among glyptonts either, huh,” he muttered.

Meanwhile, Francho was coughing into his hand as he leaned over the belly-up glyptont that Sarai was holding down with the butt of the musket while it tried to flee. Aside from the four stumpy legs Tristan had expected there, though, was what looked like a round mouth in the middle of the belly surrounded by wiggling brown tentacles and a set of horn-like mandibles. Ergh. Francho, however, looked quite pleased.

“This is a reed glyptont,” he informed happily, “a particular species that subsists not only of weeds but also small fish and frogs.”

Aines shot him a betrayed look. Her foot at been at risk after all.

“And why should we care?” Felis said, putting a comforting hand on his shoulder.

“Because it means the river ahead shouldn’t have predators large enough to bother our little friend,” Sarai replied, allowing the glyptont to flip back on the ground.

It scuttled away into the grass, tail waving at them in what might have been meant to be warning but ended up looking like a child enthusiastically waving goodbye. Felis still looked mulish – he’d been in a foul mood all day and there was no mystery as to why – so Yong elaborated further.

“There should not be anything large enough to attack us as we cross it,” the Tianxi said.

All agreed it was best to go through instead of around, time being the greatest of luxuries, and with a little luck running water behind them might even put off lemures on their tail. It was not long before they could hear the flowing water and within a quarter hour they’d reached muddy banks. The water did not go deeper than the waist of the shortest among them – a toss-up between Aines and Vanesa, now that Lan was gone – and the current was strong but not impossible to manage. A glyptont was hiding in reeds further downriver, thoughtfully chewing at stalk that poked right out and wobbled with every chew, while frogs croaked a quiet welcome.

They took a short pause to fill their waterskins and wash their faces before beginning the crossing. Tristan volunteered to go first, as someone must, and found the footing treacherous but hardly dangerous if you took your time. He called back to be careful with the stones at the bottom, which were slippery, and waited for Sarai to throw him the end of the rope. He found a fallen, rotting tree to tie it to while she secured it to a stone on the other end, their company then going about getting their affairs across. His medicine cabinet, in particular, required much careful handling not to take water. It had already proved its worth, so there was only minimum grumbling about the work.

Yong was to be the last across and Vanesa was halfway through, the lot of them nearly in the clear, so naturally Tristan was already tense as a string when it all went wrong.

They should have seen it coming, tall as it was, or even heard it. But it was a hunter, and so there was no trace at all until it was out of the tall grass. The beak first, a cruelly curved thing black as tar that rose as the creature stretched into its full height: at least ten feet, a cascade of deep purple feathers flecked with wriggling pale blue eyes. Its legs were bone, ending in great curved claws, and from under folded wings skeletal arms peeked out. The eyeless head should have felt like a bird’s, all creased leather, but instead Tristan was somehow certain a man was looking at him. He did not need to be told what he was looking at: night-terror, eye-taker. A gravebird.

“Do not-” Tristan began, tone forcefully even.

Then Aines screamed and it all went to Hell.

The gravebird wailed and the thief flinched, the sound echoing between his ears until he had to scream to let it out. His tongue tasted of blood. Eyes wild, he fumbled for his knife even as Sarai swallowed a sob behind him. It was on Yong in an instant, cruel beak tearing into the Tianxi’s shoulder as he tried to draw his sword. He fell with a scream and Tristan rushed to the water as the gravebird gobbled down the flesh it’d ripped, the blues eyes on its feathers slowly beginning to spin. They were beautiful, he thought, but then Fortuna let out a shout of alarm and he tore his gaze away.

“Don’t look at the eyes,” he yelled.

Jebati,” Sarai cursed, then he heard someone getting slapped across the face.

Felis let out a bellow of anger, but Tristan had no time for this: he reached for Vanesa. The old woman was panicking, had fallen halfway to her knee slipping on stone, and the hand not clutching the rope felt slick as a fish when she caught his own. They struggled to drag her out of the river. Yong… he was on the wrong side, and sometimes luck was not kind.

Most of the time, really.

Only when Tristan glanced up, the creature was not finishing off the former soldier. It was looking at them instead, slinking forward and through the water like it didn’t feel the current at all. The gravebird moved unhurriedly, so sure they were all meat on the plate it was taking the time to toy with them. It let out another wail and Tristan shouted back to ward it off, Fortuna shouting with him, their voices threading as one. But Vanesa, Vanesa clapped her hands over her ears. The moment she no longer held the rope the current took her, would have swallowed her downstream if not for the orb of Gloam that formed in her way. The old woman hit it like she’d been thrown, crying out in pain, but clutched it so she would not be swept away.

“Quick,” Sarai yelled, “I can’t-”

Skeletal fingers gently cradled Vanesa’s cheek, the gravebird pulling her close, and Tristan watched with horror as the other hand bone hand went for her right eye. He threw his knife, but the gravebird dismissively flicked its feathers and it barely sliced into one of them. The blade went with the current and now he was out. The other knife was with his pack, all he had was a broken relic pistol and gods – Vanesa screamed, the gravebird ripping out the eye and placing it in a featherless hollow under its throat. One more feather in the making, Vanesa’s eyes gone blue painted over it. They were all going to die, Tristan realized. He needed to run, to…

The shot took the gravebird in the side of the head. It let out a cry of fury, but though Yong flinched at the sound like the rest of them the former soldier tossed down his musket and pulled his pistol. Another shot in the side of the head, magnificently placed – feathers went flying and Tristan glimpsed black flesh like a sea of worms. There was a hole there, staying made though the ball was already falling out. It would change nothing: a gravebird had as many lives as it had eyes. They had been worshipped as gods, once. Yong was out of triggers to pull, so the wounded man drew his blade and Tristan watched numbly as the gravebird’s skeletal hand reached for Vanesa’s second eye.

“It seeds fear in you,” Fortuna whispered into his ear. “That is what the wails are really for. You are not helpless.”

He let out a laugh that was half a sob, desperately fighting the current to stay standing. What was he to do, hit the monster with his broken pistol? Absurd as the thought was it was still better than nothing, so he reached for the pistol and as the wet wood slid against his palm his gaze found the engravings on the side.

“Please,” Vanesa begged. “Please.”

And Tristan, fool that he was, palmed his priceless treasure. A piece of rhadamantine quartz, burning with the Glare’s light, and then as he met Fortuna’s smiling golden eyes he borrowed luck. The ticking began but he paid it no mind. All he needed was a moment. The thief threw the stone, and just as he did the gravebird turned: with perfect, impossible timing the rhadamantine quartz tumbled right into the hole in the side of creature’s head. And it got stuck.

The gravebird’s scream of complete and utter fury was so loud he couldn’t hear the ticking when he released the luck.

He snatched Vanesa by the back of her chemise, half-tearing it, and got her out of the way just as the gravebird began blindly flailing. It was in pain, shaking and screaming, but the quartz was well and stuck. May you burn from the inside, he thought with vicious satisfaction. No lemure enjoyed the touch of the Glare. Vanesa had grown deadened from pain and shock, her eyes empty, but she moved when he pushed and the two of them fell to their knees in the mud of the riverbank. On the other side of the river the gravebird was slashing at the ground in fury, Yong having wisely fled into the water while it was distracted.

“Go help him across,” Tristan ordered a gaping Felis, pulling Vanesa to her feet.

Francho was unconscious, he saw, so he told Aines to get him awake and passed the bespectacled – only half, now, the gravebird had ripped through the glasses to get to her eye – old woman to a sickly Sarai. They needed to take their bags and run before the gravebird rid itself of the quartz or drew something even worse. Going for his own affairs, only then did Tristan realized the prize he’d paid for his throw: down the banks his medicine cabinet lay against a jutting rock, broken and half-submerged. It’d tumbled down the slope while no one paid attention, half its contents spilling into the water or being ruined by it.

He’d have to salvage what he could.

Carelessly throwing all the stuff inside, mourning as he already saw there would be no more painkillers, he flicked a glance upriver and found Yong was being helped out of the water by Felis. On the other side, the gravebird had gone into the tall grass but its screams betrayed it had not yet gone far. Shoving the broken cabinet onto his back, the thief joined the others. Francho was back on his feet, looking half asleep and half dead. The wail had hit him much harder than everyone else, his eyes were still white with dread.

“We have to get moving right now,” Tristan said. “Anyone who can’t keep up is left behind.”

No one argued, for all knew that if the gravebird’s scream had not drawn the cult of the Red Eye yet then Yong’s two shots most certainly had.

The tall grass was the only reason they lived.

At least three warbands were scouring the land looking for them and in the open they would have been dead within the hour. Instead, by hook and crook, they hid and muddled on. Twice they had to lay down in mud at the bottom of crevasses as hollows passed above them, shadows lingering as they spoke amongst each other in a tongue older and harsher than Antigua. Their path was circuitous, Yong keeping them on grounds that would leave no easy tracks to find as they stumbled on wounded and tired. Tristan had taken just long enough to see to it that his and Vanesa’s wounds would not kill them before pressing on, but while he still had alcohol he no longer had numbing agents.

They would all be feeling their wounds.

Squirming through filth and bushes, they made their way forward. After some hours exhaustion became too much, forcing breaks, but no one slept well of for long. They could not afford to stay in place for too long with the cultists combing through the grass. Their company kept moving through the night, stealing away the odd hour of sleep when it could.

The start of the third day since they had split from the rest was not auspicious, everyone’s exhaustion sharpening tempers and slowing down the greyhairs even further. Felis was prickly as porcupine, constantly scratching at his arms and picking fights with the others. Yong had to threaten to cut out his tongue to get him to lay off Vanesa, who he accused of breathing so loudly she would draw the Red Eye onto them all. The sole relief was that, for all that their pace had slowed to a crawl, Sarai believed they were approaching the eastern bridge across the river.

Halfway through morning they found a toppled column rising out of the tall grass, enough so that when Tristan climbed atop it he was able to have a look further ahead.

“Good and bad,” the thief told them when he came down. “I believe I saw the silhouette of the statue that Sarai chose as our marker. We are at most half a day away from the bridge.”

“And the bad?” Vanesa resignedly asked.

“The tall grass ends soon,” Tristan said. “There is a span of open grounds between it and the beginning of the forest.”

And open grounds could well be the death of them all, if there were any cultists keeping an eye out for them. Their company broke out into murmurs, save for Francho who had laid a hand on the broken column and had gone into his own mind with unseeing eyes. After the others agreed that they should first head to the edge of the tall grass before deciding whether or not to risk it, Tristan shook the old man out of his reverie. Not with his hand, you never knew with contracts, but with the but of his useless pistol.

“Ah,” the toothless professor muttered. “Yes. We are going, I see.”

“You weren’t dozing off,” Tristan said. “You were listening to the stone.”

The old man nodded, quietly coughing into his hand.

“It is not from here,” Francho said.

The thief cocked a questioning eyebrow.

“It was stolen from a temple, brought here by cultists to serve as a watchtower of sorts,” the professor elaborated. “The men who carried them had strong opinions about being ordered to do this, and one broke his leg when it was dropped on it. That was… vivid.”

“You hear their voices,” Tristan slowly said, “as if hearing their old conversations?”

It was in poor form to inquire as to another’s contract, but if the old man wanted to unburden himself who was he to argue? Francho grimaced, shaking his head.

“Not so. It is more along the lines of what their hearts felt, when they touched the stone?” he tried. “I hear resonance of moments that were, nothing exact.”

It was still the kind of contract some would gladly murder over, Tristan thought, if it truly could steal secrets out of stone this way. How many bloody old lies could Francho drag out of graves, should he care to go looking into the past of Sacromonte? Or any city in the world, for that matter.

“Useful regardless,” Tristan simply said, then gestured for him to move. “Come on.”

Their company resumed the march, creeping towards the end of the tall grass with an obsessive care for quiet. Tristan kept an eye on Francho as they moved, looking for the trace of a price for the contract, but found none. Disappointing, but not surprising: gods did not always like their dues easily found. It was because he was watching that he saw the old man suddenly stiffen, looking around for something none of them saw. Mere feet away from the end of the tall grass a stone block was buried, nestled between weeds with only a corner peeking out. The old man discreetly ran his fingers against it while the others halted at the edge of the grass, eyes growing shadowed.

You heard that stone’s voice without pulling on your contract, Tristan thought. Was that his price, then? Francho could hear the secrets of stone, but he could never cease hearing them? A blessing and a curse all at once. Fortuna hummed, having taken an interest when she noticed his. The goddess began idly turning around the toothless old man, looking at him like a haggler inspecting a horse.

“He doesn’t seem like he’s becoming harmonious,” Fortuna wondered, “but he’d have to if he was always listening at everything. His god would be in his head all the time.”

Harmonious, Tristan thought with a grimace. That was how the goddess called turning into a Saint, which she insisted was a beautiful thing.

“There’s probably some tricky clause,” the Lady of Long Odds decided. “Like he can only hear on odd hours or when some other condition is met. Hearing the stuff won’t be his price, either, it’s just how his boon manifests.”

The thief made sure no one was looking at him before subtly nodding in acknowledgement.

“Someone decided to get fancy with him,” Fortuna sneered, tossing back her golden hair as she stalked away. “It’s all very crass, some parvenu god chortling at their own cleverness.”

Tristan could only fervently hope that the other god was not listening and taking offence, though he was distracted from that fresh worry by Yong’s sudden intake of breath. Brushing past Felis, the thief knelt at the Tianxi’s side and peeked out of the grass. There was no need to ask what had made the other man react: the cultists were in plain sight. Running across the flat grounds, a dozen armed hollows were rushing forward as they shouted. No, not forward. Away. They were fleeing the woods, Tristan realized.

“That,” Sarai whispered from behind him, “is not a good sign.”

The second sign they received that trouble had come was the mist. Clouds of it billowed out from the forest floor, almost like a wave of pale chasing the hollows. And from the dark of the trees, crushing trunks and stones in eerie silence, a massive silhouette came striding out. Legs thick as pillars swallowed the distance, chalk white and taller than men. In the cold light of the stars, Tristan glimpsed an enormity of pale flesh with large wriggling heads full of perfectly oval eyes, each mass ending in a great tentacle. The clouds billowed past the fleeing hollows, their screams suddenly going silent for all that their mouths were still open, and the great monster began snatching them up. Under the heads opened a gaping maw full of jutting bone tusks, and there the hollows were carelessly impaled and left to bleed out within the creature.

“A heliodoran beast,” Yong whispered. “Fuck. The captain said it would be asleep.”

“She said it might be asleep,” Tristan darkly replied. “It appears we’re not that lucky.”

They watched, shivering in fear, as the behemoth ate alive half the hollows and crushed a few more to death before wandering away in seeming boredom. The three cultists that survived ran into the tall grass well to the east of their company, heading away as fast as they could. It was only minutes after the great lemure was gone that the last of the mist dispersed and the oppressive silence with it. Tristan ran a tired hand through his hair, worrying his lip.

“We can’t head for the bridge while that thing is prowling around here,” Felis said.

For once, no one argued with the man.

“We need to wait it out,” Yong said. “Hide until it gets bored, then cross before the hollows return.”

“And if they come back before we do?” Aines asked. “We’d be walking right into an ambush.”

Neither was wrong.

“We cannot stay here,” Tristan said. “There’s still warbands looking for us, we need a hiding place.”

And to rest. They were all exhausted and getting worse. If there was a fight, half of them would fold in the first thirty seconds of it.

“The grass is full of cultists,” Sarai bluntly said, “and creatures altogether worse. There is nowhere for us to hide.”

“That,” Francho said, “is not entirely true.”

All eyes went to him. The old man let out a wet cough, then wiped his lips with the back of his hand.

“Several of the stones we’ve come across spoke of water,” he said. “They were taken from an old temple that has been swallowed by a swamp. I believe it was built on a tributary of the river we encountered yesterday, somewhere to our southeast.”

“Are you trying to kill us, you old bastard?” Felis growled. “It’ll be full of hollows just like the first one.”

“No,” Tristan frowned. “Not if they’ve been stripping it for parts. It’s not a sacred place to them.”

“You don’t know that,” Felis bit out. “You’re just guessing.”

“I am,” the thief admitted. “But it seems likely to me. Do you have a better idea?”

He did not, which settled the matter. Tristan ignored the whispered argument at the back of their company, Felis once more trying to convince his wife to leave and strike out on their own. Aines was much curter in her response than she had been last time.

It took them an hour and a half to find Francho’s temple, the last half hour spent mostly on finding a way through swampy grounds that did not involve wading waist-high in mud.

There was not a trace of hollows around when lantern light found the first curved gate jutting out of mud and filth, and Tristan could hazard a guess as to why. He’d seen great snakes slithering through the mud and larger shapes still in the water: crocodiles, or some creature that had the look of them. This was not a place friendly to either men or hollows. The old professor, however, guided them from stone to stone without once erring. They took an ancient pilgrim’s path of raised stone across the water, then passed through a dozen more curved gates to reach the temple itself: a squat square of a building topped by a dome that looked like a tulip’s bud. It was, improbably enough, still standing.

The swamp was nestled between overgrown hills, every inch of it infested with flies and croaking creatures. They were all eager to get out of the humid air and into the temple, which looked as if a storm had swept through. It had obviously been emptied of anything not nailed down by hollows, columns ripped out and mosaics stripped of colours. What few streaks of ancient white paint had not been melted away by the elements were covered with filth and grime, the place dripping of it and stinking worse than Pandemonium.

“This is disgusting,” Aines said, sounding like she was about to retch.

“There is a better place,” Francho told them, hopping up to a stone altar split in half with a younger man’s enthusiasm.

Behind it, the professor revealed narrow spiral stairs going down.

“There is a ritual pool down there,” he said, “that is older than the rest of this temple. At its back should be a hidden passage leading to a shrine this was all built over.”

Tristan could only ponder how formidably useful the old man’s contract was proving to be while glancing down at the slick, narrow stairs.

“These are too small for all of us to squeeze through,” he said. “We should send only a pair first.”

“As my old captain used to say: my thanks for volunteering,” Yong drawled.

The thief rolled his eyes. He had planned to go anyhow. He caught Sarai’s eye, silently asking, and she nodded in agreement. The stairs felt like they were sweating, moss growing in every corner, and Tristan almost slipped thrice. There was no grip as the walls were just as slippery as the floor. The chamber at the bottom looked more like a bath than the ritual pool Francho had described, a square hole full of scum water prefaced by cracked tiles while insects scuttled in corners, fleeing the lantern’s light. There were a few columns on a ledge at the back, most of them broken. Sarai caught up to him, steps careful as she avoided slipping. She took a skeptical look around.

“At least the smell is better than above,” she finally said.

“It’s a start,” Tristan conceded.

The reflection of the stone in the water made it look like there was a full wall, but as Francho had promised they found a passage tucked away behind a broken column. It was broad but low, enough that Tristan had to crawl on his hand and knees after handing off the lantern. Sarai followed closely behind. The thief reached the end of the tunnel, dropping quietly onto the floor of what looked like a natural cavern. The ceiling was full of dripping stalactites, a slightly sloped floor leading up to what appeared to a shrine carved into the stone. The cavern wall had been sculpted so it would look like the wall of the shrine, intricate silhouettes grasping each other’s hands and feet in an endless chain.

It cleverly made the shrine entrance look more than the vaguely oval hole in the stone that it was.

He helped Sarai down, the two of them moving up the slope in careful silence. The ground was wet, the stalactites dripping down likes knives dipped in blood, and there were insects scuttling just out of sight. Hand on his last knife, Tristan suddenly gestured for Sarai to stop. He sniffed at the air, smelling smoke, and saw the same conclusion bloom in her eyes as his jaw tightened: they were not alone in here.

“Close the lantern,” he murmured. “We can’t afford to be seen.”

Sarai grimaced, no more eager to be in the dark than he, but still worked the shutter until it closed. The two of them resumed their way upwards, moving with care not to make a sound. As soon as they got a better angle on the shrine door, they saw that there was trembling light inside. Pale, he thought. A lantern fed with Glare oil or powder, which meant this could not be hollows. He knew better than to think it meant they were safe. Pressing onward, they pressed themselves against the sides of the threshold to peek inside.

There Tristan found a camp had been made inside the cramped shrine, bedrolls laid down and packs piled up. There was even a small fire over which a pot was being made to boil, smelling of herbs. Two were tending to the food, and in the fire’s light Tristan recognized them immediately: Ferranda Villazur and her hired hand, the Malani huntsman Sanale.

Utterly surprised, he did not realize there was a third until she moved. The infanzona had not been foolish enough to leave her back unguarded. There was an alcove tucked away to the side of the entrance, just inside, and there someone who had been sitting was hastily getting up. They let out a noise of alarm and the other two immediately turned. Sarai let out a curse and Tristan brushed past her, knife up, pushing the guard against the wall. Holding his blade to their throat even as Sarai yelled for the other two to stay back, Tristan Abrascal froze when a curl of firelight revealed the face of who he’d just taken hostage.

“Well,” Lan mused, blue lips quirking as she swallowed the last of the bread she’d been chewing, “this is awkward.” 

Chapter 11

The sharp crack echoes against the stone, smoke billowing past the open door.

There is a grunt of pain but men still rush past the threshold: tall, becloaked, bearing blades. Mother bares her own, undaunted by the numbers, but a shot sounds from the back and she staggers. Red blooms on her chemise, deep in the belly, and she lets out a wet gasp before she is struck across the mouth. Angharad can do nothing but watch: her screams die in her throat, her limbs are made of lead. Mother falls against the wall, against the rich wood panelling she so loves, and when another shot takes her shoulder blood is splattered all over it. She falls to her knees, breath a rattle, and then the last man walks in. Tall, fat and with eyes cold as ice. He owns the others, they only watch as he raises his pistol. It was the wrong choice, Lady Maraire, he says. Mother rasps out an answer, but the words are drowned out by the roar of the flames. Smoke swallows everything.

Angharad woke with wet eyes, the way she always did after dreaming of her mother.

She could only be grateful that it had ended early this time, before her father’s whisper in her ear and the last of the horror. Her neck was beaded with sweat but she stayed there, lying in her cot, and tried to blot out from her mind the bloody, broken figure the nightmare had fixed in her mind. She hated it, that this was how she should remember Mother. Rhiannon Tredegar had been long and lean, like the crack of a whip made into a woman, with only green eyes softening a faced shaped stern by the Sleeping God’s own hands. There had been a presence to her, a severity demanding respect. That was the way Angharad would remember her, but her dreams did not bend to her wants. She could still see hear the thump of knees hitting the floor, the blood spraying on wood.

Angharad had thought the nightmares finally gone, having had none since Sacromonte, but she had counted her blessings too soon.

The noblewoman rose in her covers, unsurprised to find most were yet asleep. Only Song, perched at the edge of the aqueduct with a veiled lantern besides her, had woken for her turn on the watch. The Tianxi did not turn at the sound of someone waking, and in the privacy that afforded her Angharad wiped her eyes. Letting her breath even out, she passed a hand through her hair. The slant braids would keep for a week or two more, she thought, but soon they would need redoing. She almost missed when she had kept her hair shorter, in Malani knots, instead of braids going halfway down her back. Almost. She had let it grow out to celebrate the earning of her last mirror-mark and that much she would not let herself regret even out here.

Mother had been so proud, she remembered. Lady Rhiannon had been skilled with a blade but not a mirror-dancer, and the joy had been plain on her face that day. Angharad had basked in that pride, feeling that at last she added to her mother’s legacy in some small way. Rhiannon Tredegar had made a name sailing the dark seas, crossing waters which no Glare touched with only the trembling lights she had brought with her keeping darkness at bay. She had faced storms of Gloam and sea, the hatred of merciless spirits from the depths and even the fleets of pirates to emerge one of the great explorers of the age. It had been Captain Tredegar who first found the hidden isle of Lunkulu, who sailed through the perilous Western Canals and reached the lands beyond.

And now it was all smoke, Angharad bitterly thought. The Tredegar name passed into nothing while she scuttled like a rat in a maze for the pleasure of the Watch, debasing herself earn seven years under their protection. If she could even do that, the noblewoman grimly thought. Her eyes turned to the manner their company had lain down to sleep for the night and in the meagre light of Song’s lantern showed their divisions laid bare.

The Cerdan brothers lay furthest away from her, Cozme Aflor guarding them. Both now openly counted her an enemy. It was only the disgust of everyone else at the murder of their own valet that had kept Augusto from trying to order her killed. On the opposite side Angharad’s own cot lay with two others close, Brun of Sacromonte sleeping in one while Song’s lay empty. In between the two camps Isabel and her maids lay, bridge and moat. When Brun and Song had grown closer to her as the Cerdans revealed themselves honourless curs, Isabel had been forced to step in as peacemaker. She had prevailed on the brothers to respect Angharad’s truce, reinforcing that there would be no fighting until their company had left the throes of peril.  Yet, despite the infanzona’s efforts, the dark-skinned noblewoman knew this company to be a barrel of powder with a lit fuse.

And sooner rather than later it would blow up in her face.

Her mother’s lessons would avail her of nothing here. It had taken boldness for Rhiannon Tredegar to raise their house’s name and Mother displayed it in all things, so it had troubled Angharad all the more when Mother confessed to fearing the High Queen’s court. There is nothing to fear, she had insisted, childishly offended by her idol’s sudden weakness. The royal court had duels the way dogs had fleas, but Mother was a skilled blade and who but the finest of swordmasters could threaten her? Even if she offended some lofty izinduna, a grudge could not be pursued beyond the reasonable. The High Queen was the keeper of Malan’s honour and she did not allow any slight upon it. Sweetling, Mother had gently replied, stroking her hair, I would be dead long before my sword left the scabbard.

She had explained, then, how the duels that could lead to embarrassment never happened at all. Knives and poison and curses would settle it long before that, any difficulty on the way to earning the High Queen’s esteem ruthlessly snuffed out. Mother’s way to survive had been to remain a mere curiosity, a famed explorer kept in the court’s eye only by the High Queen’s favour and wielding no real power or influence. She had avoided the hangman’s noose that would be rising in station and remained at sea instead of playing courtier, too far to be counted as an enemy by the powerful of Malan. That had been a rude awakening for many a reason, among them that Angharad had known even then that she would not follow her mother out at sea.

Was she to let the name of Tredegar – Maraire, to the Malani, but blood ran true no matter the letters – fall back into obscurity when her mother passed? Mother had had no answer, and in the end it had been Father who soothed her.

“Your mother has mastered her fear of an unknown,” he told her. “That which lies beyond the Glare, the seas that devour ships and hopes. But pride blinds her to realizing she surrenders to all the other unknowns of Vesper, believing that courage against one is courage against all.”

He smiled then and though Gwydion Tredegar was never the tallest or most handsome of men, when he smiled Angharad had always thought her father outshone all rivals.

“You need not share her unknowns,” Father said. “Come, I will teach you so that you may learn and so knowledge may end fear.”

She had not loved his lessons but she had learned them, well enough that when standing among the sons and daughters of izinduna when tournaments took her to Malan she’d sailed those waters without falling afoul of the hidden reefs. And it was her father’s lessons she must call on again, now that honour had led her to make enemies of half the company she must fight alongside with to survive. Like a swordmistress at the High Queen’s court, she must ensure she’d live long enough to bare her blade. And the first step to that did not begin with her closest companions, not with Isabel or even Master Cozme.  Instead when they raised camp, not even an hour later, she made a quiet request of Isabel Ruesta.

The dark-haired beauty considered her for a moment, eyes intrigued.

“In a spirit of peace, I would hope,” Isabel asked.

Above them the stars burned cold, as they had for her forebears in distant Peredur. In the wind Angharad Tredegar thought she had caught the echo of their old shore-songs, story and lesson and question all in one. She almost began to hum the first few notes of The Fair Wife.

“Not to make enmity,” Angharad swore.

Love is sweet, a heady brew,

but my hand must be won fair

Sweet love, what will you swear 

as troth if your love is true?

When the trek north began anew she found herself walking at the back of their company, Lord Remund Cerdan besides her. To prove they were all still allies, Isabel had suggested. A gesture of goodwill. The youngest Cerdan moved warily, as if with every step he feared she might jump out and cut his throat. For all that, Angharad feared not getting from him what she desired. She knew what Augusto Cerdan wanted most of all, so she owned half his name.

“It is regrettable we are at odds, my lord,” she said, forcing a mourning sigh.

She did not lie: in all of Vesper, there must be a soul capable of such regret. The infanzon frowned at her, as if puzzled by her civility. The moment she had become his enemy, she divined, what little esteem he’d granted her before had disappeared. Now she might as well be some savage from Triglau, raiding colonists by the sea.

“You lay grave insult at the feet of House Cerdan,” Remund stiffly replied.

“An insult demands redress,” she said. “Yet is should be given where it is deserved, not carelessly offered to the unworthy.”

“And what would a Malani know of what is deserved?” the infanzon mocked, rolling his eyes.

“We may well have all died yesterday, if not for your contract,” Angharad said. “That is deserving.”

Of many things, let Remund Cerdan decide which without her help. The younger brother puffed up and for a moment Angharad felt sick. It might be that the man was so vain any praise at all went to his head, she thought, but she’d known other boys like him. Born to great families and stalking about with their knives ever bared, offended and offending, but so often beneath that there had been a wound. How starved of esteem must you be, that an enemy’s words are all it takes to straighten your back?

“It is good you recognize as much,” Remund drawled. “I thought you an ingrate, I don’t mind admitting it. It is said to be common flaw of your people that you take a mile whenever you are given an inch.”

“Malani are not without flaws,” she said. “I like to think ingratitude is not one of them.”

“Oh?” the young man smiled, eyeing her up and down. “Then how am I to be rewarded?”

She kept her face calm at the implied insult. He had no interest in her, not really. He was simply waving around his knife, hoping to score red on flesh.

“Honour is to be earned with one’s own hands,” Angharad said. “And it occurs to me than any lost by Cerdan hands could be regained by the same.”

Remund breathed in sharply, eyeing her with surprise and a different kind of wariness than before. He’d looked at her the way one might a wild beast, when this began, but now there was a different tint to it.

“You surprise me, Tredegar,” the infanzon murmured. “Perhaps you are not so dim after all. Such a thing could solve many problems at once, yes.”

She held her tongue, letting him stare at the pond until he found the reflection he was looking for.

“A duel to first blood to avenge my house’s honour,” he mused. “It is true a victory against a swordmistress would be the talk of the season, enough to avoid the ire of my lord father over Augusto’s unfortunate end.”

“One hopes,” Angharad said with measured precision.

Dark eyes narrowed at her.

“Getting Cozme out of the way so you have an opening would not be impossible,” Remund conceded. “But how can I be sure you’ll hold up your end of the bargain?”

“My word is my bond,” she flatly replied. “I will swear oath to it, should you prefer.”

The nobleman smiled, laying his palms against the back of his head as he strolled forward with a touch of unearned swagger.

“No,” Remund Cerdan finally said, smile widening.

Angharad hid her surprise, slowly inclining her head. She must have made a mistake, or perhaps underestimated the bonds of brotherhood.

“You gain much with this and me too little,” Remund idly added. “I require more of you.”

The sliver of respect she had been feeling died young.

“I am listening.”

He leaned close, too close, smiling still for all that his eyes were without mirth.

“This little dance of yours with Isabel, it is to stop,” Remund said.

Silence again, for no words were more persuasive than one’s own.

“She encourages you, no doubt,” the younger Cerdan shrugged. “It is her way. She enjoys the attention, and in truth I do not begrudge her that. Why marry at all, if your wife is not to be the envy of all your peers?”

The lie lay in the tight cast of his jaw as he forced the first not through his lips.

“But it irritates me, your flirtation,” Remund smiled. “I find tasteless the presumption that, even in jest, you could be the rival of an infanzon. So you will cease. Keep your distance from her.”

“You want an oath,” Angharad surmised.

“I do,” the dark-haired main jovially replied. “And one for our other bargain too. There will be no slipping out at the last moment, my friend.”

The words came easy to her, as if they had always lain on the tip of her tongue.

“On my oath, I will no longer seek the company of Isabel Ruesta,” Angharad said.

He sighed.

“I suppose no longer speaking to her at all is too much to ask,” Remund conceded. “And?”

He cocked an eyebrow, gesturing for her to get on with it. She chose the phrasing carefully, pruned away the right words and left them in the grass for him to find.

“On my oath, I will cede victory to you in an honour duel over Augusto Cerdan’s death in the same.”

Remund cocked an eyebrow at her, a hint of smugness to his mien.

“Speak it again,” he said, “only specifying my name instead of simply you. Let us not be careless with our words, yes?”

She did as asked.

Victory is poison to reason, my darling, Father had taught her. Once men have caught you out, they think themselves your better in all things. Remund Cerdan, for all that he despised his brother, thought him Angharad’s match with a sword even though he manifestly was not. It had not occurred to him that an honour duel could be to surrender as well as death, that she could simply wound the elder Cerdan to death’s very edge before allowing him surrender. And if Augusto Cerdan died after the honour duel, not during, then she owed his brother nothing at all. Lord Remund Cerdan smiled condescendingly at her, deigning to engage her in small talk now that she had become his tool, and under her breath she hummed the old tune.

I promise the stars in a cup

and the sea in your hand.

a hall reaching the clouds;

a hearth where hundreds sup

She had not turned the brothers against each other, that hatred had taken root long before she came into their lives, but now she had ensured they would not make common front against her. That would ensure Master Cozme was not easily made to act against her: he was beholden to both brothers and now one wanted her to live. At least long enough to be of use to him, not that Angharad believed he truly intended to hold up his end of their bargain. More likely than not he would try to use the vagueness she had purposely left in the phrasing – in an honour duel, not specifying one to first blood – to try and kill her by surprise during their bout. Victory at first blood would win him praise from his peers, but avenging his brother? Oh, it might well make him famous.

It did not matter. Snake or not, she knew half his name. He would not bite until he had obtained his heart’s desire.

Now she must prune away the other dangers, to ensure she made it to the hour where she would get her bargain’s worth. That began with seeing to her own back, ensuring that the companions she’d made would have no reason to turn on her. When their company halted for rest, she volunteered to join Brun at the front until the next halt. The Sacromontan seemed to appreciate the gesture, especially when she took it upon herself to carry the lantern. Their advance was smooth and almost pleasant, the High Road living up to its name: it was largely even ground, broken up only by where enterprising weeds had taken root in the stone. Most of their attention was not reserved for the path ahead, anyhow.

It was below that their eyes strayed, down into the plains they were soon to reach the end of. The lupines that had hunted them for the better part of yesterday were left behind when they crossed a deep gully unmarked on Song’s map, unable to cross, but there was no telling if the creatures had gone around to continue their pursuit. The spirits had not been able to do anything from below, but the incessant howling had frayed everyone’s nerves – and risked drawing in some greater spirit that would not be kept away by something as simple as the height of the aqueduct. So far they had glimpsed a few silhouettes creeping across the flatlands, but none ever came close enough to be lit up.

The infanzones, Angharad would admit, had hatched a very clever plan. If not for the misfortune of being set upon by the lupines the march all the way to the second trial might have gone without a single drop of blood spilled. She was not alone in that opinion.

“I am glad not to be walking the plains,” Brun told her. “I would find it difficult to lower my guard long enough to sleep down there, after that mess with the lemures.”

“Perhaps our misfortune will have helped the others,” Angharad said, though she did not truly believe it. “It would be some small solace.”

“I suppose there is need for all of that we can find, these days,” Brun drily said.

She grimaced.

“I regret that our company has become at odds,” Angharad said. “And know I played a part in it.”

The fair-haired man dismissed her words with a wave of the hand.

“I’ll not quibble with ruthlessness, not on the Dominion of Lost Things,” he said, “but you were right to strike the man. It would have been a fool’s act to let the Cerdans murder one of us without consequence.”

His face darkened.

“Infanzones already dispose of lives too easily for my tastes,” Brun said. “I would not encourage the habit.”

It was uncomfortable hearing him speak of his rightful rulers in such a way, but she must admit that the disrespect might not be unwarranted. Not for all infanzones, for while Sacromonte’s nobles were shadows of what they had once been they were still of noble blood, but she would not deny the Cerdan brothers were not living up to the duties of their privilege. It was a failure that reflected badly on their kin, who should have properly educated them to the responsibilities of rank.

“You do not sound fond of them,” Angharad tried.

“I am the son of miners,” he said. “Theirs was not a pleasant life, Lady Angharad, and it was spent enriching the same kind of men as these Cerdan.”

“I’m sorry to hear of their passing,” she gently said.

“It has been years,” Brun shrugged.

The calm on his face she could hardly understand, for the grief she felt over her parents would surely be a wound in her side until she died. She could not think of anything but vengeance that would lessen it even slightly.

“Some are better than others,” he continued. “Lady Isabel seems decent enough.”

He shot her a knowing look at that.

“She has been very kind,” Angharad stiffly replied.

“Briceida tells me she’s decided not to withdraw after the first trial,” Brun told her.

She did not hide her surprise, at both the words and the implication that one of Isabel’s handmaids would gossip about her mistress’ affairs in such a way.

“Was this ever in doubt?” she asked.

If so, it was news to her. Isabel had never hinted as much, though it was true she had spoken little of her plans.

“She hesitated after learning her cousin had died,” he said. “Did she not speak of it with you?”

Angharad shook her head.

“Perhaps she worries of your safety,” Brun idly said. “Without her mediation, our troubles with the Cerdan would only grow worse.”

It would be foolish, she chided herself, to think Isabel would risk her life for her when what lay between them was but a flirtation. The thought still brought a pleasurable flush to her cheeks.

“Or she recovered from the shock and stuck to her course,” Angharad said.

Brun did not look convinced. He must be quite the romantic, she decided with a swell of fondness. How long before the lingering glances between him and the redheaded handmaid – Briceida – turned into something more? How scandalous. Still, it gladdened her that some happiness was being born out of these trials no matter how passing it might be.

“Whatever the truth of it, she is a good friend to have in our corner,” he said. “I hope that your avoidance of her company during our halt was not a cooling in relations.”

Angharad’s lips thinned. Brun studied her, then slowly nodded.

“Not so, I see,” he said. “Does perhaps your talk with Remund Cerdan have something to do with this?”

Speaking of an oath sworn in secret without the permission of he it was sworn to came too close to dishonour for comfort. Angharad kept silent, but denied nothing.

“He does seem like the more jealous of the two,” Brun grunted. “Maybe enough to get an oath.”

The blond Sacromontan shot her a piercing look.

“I wonder,” he said, “how someone might describe the way you acted during our halt.”

Angharad beamed down at him. What a clever man.

“I did not seek the company of Isabel Ruesta,” she very precisely replied.

Describing something that had been done in public could not be taken as revealing a secret, after all. Brun snorted, scratching the blond stubble on his chin.

“Were that an oath, it’d be one with a hole wide enough to sail a ship through,” he said. “All it’d take was someone figuring it out and passing on the wording to the object of the terms.”

“It would be a clever and convivial soul who did such a thing,” Angharad replied, lowering her head in gratitude.

Brun smiled.

“Might be I’ll help Lady Isabel’s girls carry her bags this afternoon,” he said. “I imagine it’s the kind of thing she might thank me for in person, sweet as she is.”

Her head lowered even further. Were they not journeying through a dark isle that was the roost of darklings and evil spirits, Angharad might have found the entire affair all strangely romantic: a binding oath to a rival, clever servants passing messages between star-crossed lovers and a duel with another rival on the horizon? She must have read half a hundred plays that had all of these. As it was, little about this made her heart flutter. It felt much like walking a tightrope instead.

“If could have a reassurance, first,” Brun quietly said. “Should this turn ugly, should the brothers and their minder come for us, will your… talent be enough to tip the scales?”

The pause made it plain what it was he was asking of: her contract. Though it was most tactless of him to inquire, as one did not simply ask about these things, she did owe the man. Or would soon enough.

“I have killed more than three men in a day,” Angharad simply replied, then chose her words carefully. “My hand moves faster than it ought to.”

Not a lie, though the implication was. It sat ill with her to deceive Brun even by implication when he had been such a loyal companion, but that decision she had made before ever leaving Malan. It could not get out that the Fisher had given her the gift of foresight, else returning home would forever be barred to her. The blond man nodded at her in understanding. To her surprise, he then offered a revelation of his own.

“I can sense the living,” he told her. “People best, hollows and beasts with more difficulty.”

Her brow rose.

“A great gift,” she said.

There would be more to it, and neither had even obliquely referred to a price, but she was still moved by the display of trust. It spoke well of the man’s character that he would acknowledge and mend his indiscretion immediately. It made her even more of a wretch to be fooling him, a truth she found hard to swallow. She was not used to answering kindness with such faithlessness.

Wed me, be my fair wife

And these will all be yours

I swear this on my life

And the life that will be ours

The next step came slightly past midday, after they stopped to eat and once more changed the arraignment of the column. Angharad would have sought out Song, finished securing her back, but when Cozme Aflor instead offered for the two of them should take the rearguard she agreed without hesitation. He, too, was a danger that must be settled. Master Cozme was a skilled and loyal retainer charged with keeping both Cerdan brothers alive: so long as Angharad was a threat to their lives, the risk remained that he would attempt to kill her. It might not be honourable, but some might argue that a servant’s true honour lay in choosing the fulfillment of duty over their own virtue. As the older man had been the one to approach her, she chose to let him lead the conversation.

“I’ll not defend what was done to Gascon,” Master Cozme briskly said. “It was ill-done and ill-advised. The boy was scared, but that’s no excuse.”

He looked uncomfortable. Without the large hat pairing with the long hair and grey-flecked beard, he was not quite as roguish – despite his obvious care for his appearance, he was looking a little haggard.

“And no excuse was given,” Angharad said.

Lord Augusto Cerdan had not so much as shed a tear over the killing, as far as she could see.

“He can’t do that, not after you struck him,” Cozme replied. “It’d be an admission of weakness now, that he is beneath you. A ruthless man won’t be loved, but he can be respected.”

He thumbed his moustache.

“A weak man will have neither love nor respect.”

Angharad cocked an eyebrow at him.

“What is this if not a defence, Master Cozme?” she asked.

He spat over the edge of the aqueduct. His hand was hooked into his belt, as if he were on a casual stroll, but that seeming carelessness left it never too far from his pistol.

“Acknowledgement that we are in a pickle, you and I,” Cozme said. “I’ve been charged with bringing the both of them back alive and you’re aiming to cut down on half that charge.”

“It is unfortunate that the demands of our honour are at odds,” Angharad replied, meaning it.

She liked the older man. He was skilled at arms and friendly, a pleasant conversationalist and reliable in a fight. She could not even hold his loyalty to Augusto Cerdan against him, as it was the mark of fine retainer to remain at their master’s side no matter the turn of the tide – or whether such loyalty was truly deserved.

“I don’t want to fight you, Lady Angharad,” he bluntly said. “But I’ll have to, if it’s the only way to keep the boy alive.”

The Pereduri acknowledged as much with a nod. They had both known this without need for a conversation, so soon Master Cozme should reveal why it was he had approached her.

“I wouldn’t ask you to set aside your honour,” Cozme Aflor slowly said, “but-”

Her brow rose, a clear warning for him to tread lightly.

“- it seems to me there is some room for maneuver in the terms of your challenge,” he continued. “We’re under truce until ‘peril passes’, are we not?”

“The sanctuary before the second trial is the natural end to that oath,” Angharad said. “We will be beyond peril’s reach there.”

“But only temporarily,” Cozme argued. “In a greater sense, the entire Dominion of Lost Things can be said to be a place of peril.”

Angharad frowned at him.

“You want me to duel him in Sacromonte instead,” she said. “After the trials have passed.”

Her tone made clear what she thought of the wisdom of the proposal.

“You’re aiming to be a blackcloak, aren’t you?” Cozme said. “You’ll be under the protection of the Watch when you come, it won’t be something that can be swept under the rug with knife or powder.”

As good as an admission that otherwise the House of Cerdan might have resorted to these, which in truth did not surprise her.

“There is no guarantee the Watch will let me duel him, even if the challenge was made before my joining,” Angharad pointed out.

The bearded man looked frustrated, and though the thought was unkind Angharad could not help but wonder: even should she accept this, would she ever find Augusto Cerdan no matter how many times she came knocking at the gates of his home? Or would he coincidentally be out travelling every time she arrived, set out on some business or other?

“A compromise then,” Master Cozme pressed. “I would have time of you, since there is an interpretation where giving it does not mar your honour.”

“I am not so generous a woman as to give mine without purpose,” Angharad replied.

“There would be,” Cozme assured her. “How much do you know of the Trial of Ruins?”

Only what she had been told, which was not much. The Cerdan brother knew that their foreknowledge was part of what kept people with them so they had remained tight-lipped. Isabel, disappointingly, had followed their lead in this.

“It is a maze of some kind, which we must march through to cross the mountains,” she said.

“It’s more than that,” Cozme said, shaking his head. “It is all made of broken shrines, a labyrinth-city dedicated to dead gods. And whatever it is broke them, Lady Angharad, it sowed a hatred deep in the stone. Now those who would pass the shrines must first survive cruel games led by their shadows, beating them to open paths.”

“It sounds a fearsome place,” she admitted.

“It is where most people die, during these trials,” Cozme meaningfully said. “Even infanzones succumb to traps and tests. And it is my charge to keep the brothers alive, one I will see through, but I am only a man. The Manes might decide I am to fail despite all efforts.”

He shrugged, looking at her expectantly. The offer lay unspoken but not less clear for that: Master Cozme wanted her to wait until the end of the second trial to see if circumstance would make an honour duel entirely unnecessary. If Augusto Cerdan was taken by the Trial of Ruins, Angharad could hardly demand a duel of a corpse. Master Cozme was making it plain he would still do his best to keep Augusto alive, as his honour demanded, but was asking to delay the duel so they might find out if the Sleeping God had other ideas. Should he not, then they could still duel before the Cerdan withdrew from the trials. It was a neat solution, she would admit, toeing the line of honour for all involved.

It was also near certain to get her killed.

Beyond the second trial lay another sanctuary, where it was the intention of the infanzones to desist from their candidature to the Watch and place themselves under its protection so they might be taken back to Sacromonte. Should Augusto Cerdan succeed at claiming that protection, he would be beyond her reach. That meant she must either plumb the depths of the labyrinth with the infanzones to ensure he could not, risking having a knife slid into her back during these ‘games’, or that she must find her own way through and wager she would cross before he did so she might intercept him on the other side. Even the better of these wagers was bad: the infanzones knew much of these trials and she little, something certain to be an edge when struggling against a maze.

Yet Angharad did not voice the refusal that her heart whispered.

“It is a compromise,” she said instead.

When she had been thirteen – only five years ago, though it felt like a lifetime away – she had journeyed with servants to Iswayo, one of the great cities of southern Malan, for a tournament. She had not been a favourite to win, still young to the circuit, but already her skill was known from some lesser victories. One the day of the tournament, she learned that it was to be the debut of the daughter of a great izinduna. And coincidence had decided that, by the branches of the fighting-tree, she was to face that very girl on her second fight. Should they both win their first, of course. Angharad had duly expected victory there. An hour before the tournament began, as she was limbering up, a nameless servant had approached her and smilingly begun to talk.

Without ever naming names of saying anything outright, he had implied that should the daughter of a great house find unexpected success there might be boons for those involved. Why, the Sleeping God might find it fit for Angharad to be invited to a much more prestigious tournament in the capital and even be blessed with an auspicious start to competition there. The man bore no weapon, made no threat and never ceased smiling. Angharad was excruciatingly polite in her refusal, offended but unwilling to make a powerful enemy, and the nameless man had neither blustered nor gotten angry. Instead he had thanked her for her time and taken his leave.

A few minutes before the tournament began, Angharad had found that the name of her opponent in her first branch had been changed for one of the favourites to win.  She lost to the other girl after a respectable bout, who then in turn went on to lose by an excitingly small margin to the izinduna’s daughter in the following match. It was an exciting bout, all agreed, and a fine debut even if the girl did not make it too far after that. There had been a lesson in that day, one she had well learned.

And as Angharad walked side by side with Cozme Aflor, this genial and pleasant man who had taken great pains to avoid enmity between them, she knew sure as the coming of the tide that if she refused him now he would try to kill her. Not right now, perhaps not even today or tomorrow, but a time would come and then without bluster or warning Master Cozme would shoot her in the back or stab her in the heart. That clear-headed patience was a hundred times more dangerous than anything Augusto and Remund Cerdan had it in them to muster, for it was nothing more than a loyal retainer doing what his duty demanded of him.

“I would require assurances,” Angharad finally said, “that the challenge will not be fled.”

“That could be arranged with the Watch when we get to the sanctuary,” Cozme said, sounding pleased. “You’d be willing to wait until the end of the second trial?”

“Should this be true, then I will delay my challenge until the end of the Trial of Ruins,” Angharad precisely said. “If you would have an oath of me, I-”

“You word is enough,” the older man firmly said, shaking his head. “You are Malani.”

He meant it as a compliment, she thought, so she would not take offence. Even the merchants of Malan were known as honest to all the peoples of Vesper, since outing them as liars could ruin their trade. Honour was important, on the Isles, and taint had a way of passing by association: it was not only nobles who were careful of the company they kept. Reputation must be carefully curated, but then work was not rewards. Malani, it was said, did not lie. Their word was taken as bond when given, and the same trust was given to the peoples of the High Isle and the Low.

I give you then my hand,

Promised in salt and air

And by your side will stand

The wife that you won fair

Master Cozme was in a fine mood when they parted ways that evening, certain he had gotten from her what he wanted. He had not. Angharad had agreed to delay a challenge, never promising not to issue another. It would be most satisfying to strike Augusto Cerdan a second time. Angharad let that prospect bring a smile to her face as they all ate, arrayed in the same unspoken camps they had this morning. Song and Brun on her side, the brothers and their protector on the other, Isabel and her maids in between. Only, she saw, now the lay of the land had changed. Remund smiled often at Augusto, almost smirking, and Cozme no longer kept a hand near his pistol. Isabel sometimes shot the younger Cerdan dark looks and seemed to be encouraging Briceida to speak with Brun.

Angharad Tredegar watched them all and saw in them her father’s lessons learned. Eating her dried fruits, she hummed under her breath of old tricks.

Here! Stars reflected in wine,

a seashell held to your ear,

the mountain I claim as mine,

and a hearth rats do not fear

The Tianxi at her side leaned close.

“You’ve been toying with that tune all day,” Song quietly said. “ I am now official intrigued: may I know what it is called?”

She flushed, embarrassed at having been caught out.

“The Fair Wife,” Angharad replied.

“A love ballad?” the Tianxia chuckled, eyes teasing. “I had not thought you in such a mood.”

The Pereduri shook her head.

“It is a can lan, a shore-song,” she explained. “They are ballads that teach lessons through a story.”

Most were old as Morn’s Arrival, the story went, and first sung to teach her ancestors when their ships found the stony shores of Peredur. The Fair Wife was said to be about a man seeking a beautiful spirit’s hand in marriage, of the tricks played to get one’s way. Song’s silver eyes stayed on her, full of a steady confidence that was a firmer cousin to calm.

“And what lesson does it teach?”

Father had said that the lesson was that you received what you gave, a tale of reciprocity. Mother had often said it was simply about how spirits, like many men, simply could not be trusted. She had never entirely believed either, finding her own answer as a can lan encouraged.

“That cleverness is a sword with two edges,” Angharad Tredegar replied. “And every so often, we get everything that we deserve.”

After all, the last couplet was sung by the spirit and not the man.

Sweet love, I find no fault

and leave now in your care

this hand of air and salt:

the wife that you won fair.

Chapter 10

It was an old road, nibbled at by the elements the way crabs would nibble at a corpse, but it had held up well.

Enough so their pace across the plain was swift even though two of their crew were old. Vanesa was in better shape than Francho, whose cough resurfaced with often, but Tristan would still bet on the toothless old man in a fight: she’d candidly admitted that without her spectacles she might as well be blind. In truth, the thief thought, it was all going a little too well. According to Vanesa’s pocketwatch it was now slightly past midday and they’d seen neither hide nor hair of a lemure. Where Tristan was growing restless, though, most the others were growing lax. The idle talk was proof as much.

“Mad to think there’s a road here in the middle of nowhere,” Aines said, shaking her head. “Who even built it?”

Yong had taken the front and Lan the back – the grieving twin was in no mood for company – but the rest of them were haphazardly arranged somewhere in between. It felt more like they were on an evening stroll than the dangerous journey they truly were, but there was no point in trying discipline this lot. Twice now Yong and Tristan had tried to prod people into a proper column only for the effort to collapse within a quarter hour as people drifted wherever they wanted. They might be the fittest of the band, along with Sarai, but their authority ran thin.

“Some emperor,” her husband shrugged, scratching his arm. “I expect the infanzones would know which, what with Sacromonte being the old capital.”

Francho snorted, earning himself an unfriendly look.

“Something funny, old man?” Felis asked.

“Sacromonte was a regional port, never the Second Empire’s capital,” Francho informed him. “That honour belonged to Liergan first, then to Tamaria after the Vituperian Crisis and-”

Felis loudly gathered up saliva and spat to the side, straight into the tall grass. It would have been hard to miss given that it reached up to his shoulders.

“You’re full of shit,” Felis said. “Everyone knows Sacromonte was the jewel of the old empire.”

“One always blinks first when staring down the blind,” Francho sighed, then rasped out a cough.

Though he had no horse in this race, the thief stepped in. Best not let this turn into too much of a squabble.

“That’s from Chabier, isn’t it?” Tristan asked, cocking his head to the side. “One of his Historical Reflections.”

The old man nodded, beaming his way.

“Not the most dutiful of historians, but he had a way with words,” Francho said. “Did you study his work?”

Lan let out a harsh bark of laughter from the back.

“Does he look like a student to you, old man?” the blue-lipped woman mocked.

“I did read the two of the volumes,” Tristan evenly replied, “but never could get my hands on the rest.”

Gifts from his teacher, who had curated most of his readings by dint of being the one providing him the books. It’d been his mother who taught him to read and write, his father never having the time, but past that his education had largely been born of Abuela’s largesse. It was accordingly full of holes, as she only appeared infrequently and was uninterested in most of what would be considered common scholarship, but he’d found the eclectic nature of what he’d learned had its uses. Knowing both a little less and a little more than you should had a way of making you difficult to predict.

“The last three of the ten are only in print in the Kingdom of Izcalli,” Francho told him. “Even when I taught at Reve I could not obtain copies.”

Tristan started in surprise and he was hardly the only one.

“You were a Master at the University of Reve?” Sarai slowly asked, as if disbelieving.

Much like him, she must be wondering what such a learned man would be doing on the Dominion of Lost Things. Even if Reve’s other Masters decided to throw him out, half the infanzones in the city would be squabbling to bring him into their household as a tutor. The university might be adjoined to Sacromonte but it was not within its bounds, so the scholars were not beholden to the infanzones: they could not simply be ordered to teach feckless noble youths.

“Of moral philosophy,” Francho confirmed, “though I’ll confess I always preferred history. I parted ways with the university after I had some disagreements with our rectoress over a matter of scholarship.”

“I’m sure it had nothing at all to do with those books you paid the blackcloaks with,” Lan said, thinly smiling. “From the Reve library, were they?”

The old man reared up in offence.

“I am not a thief,” Francho hissed back, “I-”

He broke down into a wet hacking cough, which was when Yong found Tristan’s eye. Without saying a word the former soldier made himself clear: this was getting too loud. The thief inclined his head towards Lan, volunteering to handle her and getting a nod back. He let himself lag, casually joining the lone sister at the back. The Meng-Xiaofan twins had been impeccably groomed when they first came onto the Bluebell, their blue robes freshly cleaned and their City trousers without so much as a crease, but that was long gone. The clothes were rumpled, Lan’s blue-tinted lips cracked from weeping and the side of her head, once shaved to contrast with the ponytail, was now thick with stubble. She kept a veneer of sneering calm but the look in her eyes reminded Tristan of broken glass.

“Come to chide me, Tristan?” Lan smiled. “I must have been a bad girl indeed.”

“You’re stirring the pot,” Tristan said. “I’ll not gainsay grief-”

“How kind of you,” Lan harshly cut in.

“- but that ends now,” he quietly finished. “We can’t afford to be bickering.”

They had been lucky enough to avoid lemures so far, his trick with the lodestone extract having worked better than he’d dreamed it might, but with every step they got further away from the source of that luck. It was only a matter of time until monsters or cultists found them but he would not hurry that inevitability by making a racket in the middle of an open road. He was not sure how well tall grass would swallow sound and unwilling to bet on such steep odds.

“Big strong man you are,” she smiled. “Are you going to point your pistol at me now?”

“No,” the thief calmly replied, meeting her eyes.  “I am going to beat you unconscious, then cut up your leg so you can’t catch up and the blood draws lemures off our trail.”

She began to laugh in his face, but as she studied it the sound trailed off and she swallowed. She’d found the truth he had let onto there: he meant every word. He owed her a debt for her aid back in camp, when the crowd had been close to turning on him, but that had its limits.

“The others-”

“Have nowhere else to go, even if they disapprove.”

Lan licked her cracked lips.

“You owe me,” she said.

“I am not a student, it is true,” Tristan affably replied, “but I am not Malani either. How much do you think debt is worthto me, Lan? Enough to risk my life?”

They both knew the answer to that so the woman straightened in alarm, her anger swallowed up by much more immediate fear. Good. Now time to see what he could squeeze out of her while she was on the backfoot.

“I’m still useful to you,” Lan said.

“It’d been days and Felis hasn’t gone into withdrawal,” Tristan acknowledged, “so you must have dust hidden away. That makes it useful, not you. Try again.”

She flinched at the unspoken reminder that Angharad Tredegar was a long way from here and none of this crew would care to play the hero for her sake. Lan’s possessions were only her own so long as no one cared to take them from her. The former Meng-Xiaofan frontwoman grit her teeth.

“I know things,” she finally said. “Ju and me, we looked into other people.”

Tristan cocked an eyebrow, expectant.

“That Song girl that went with the infanzones, her surname Ren and she’s from Jigong,” Lan revealed.

She stopped there, as if it were supposed to mean something to him.

“At that means?” he invited.

She sighed.

“That she’s cursed,” Lan said. “Her family clan is responsible for the Dimming.”

It took a moment for him to place what that was.

“The Luminary that got broken a few decades back?” he asked.

Lan rolled her eyes, nodding in confirmation.

Rats,” she complained. “Always going around like Sacromonte’s the heart of the world.”

Tianxia was one of the wealthiest lands of Vesper not only because of trade but also because of its great grain fields, which were bathed in light even hundreds of miles away from the cities. The machinery behind that miracle was called the Luminaries, great mirror-conduits set in firmament that connected the Glare to towers at the heart of the founding republics of Tianxia. Only there were nine Luminaries and ten republics, so every five year a lottery was held to determine which republic would go lightless. The Dimming had been disaster enough to warrant discussion around other shores of the Trebian Sea because somehow the Republic of Jigong had damaged one of the mirror-conduits up in firmament, bringing the number of functioning Luminaries down to eight.

Jigong had been refused the right to win the lottery ever since, consigned to the dark.

“It would have happened before she was born,” Tristan pointed out.

He was not clear on the year of the Dimming, but it was at least three decades past and Song Ren looked hardly older than he.

“Half the functionaries in Jigong cursed the Ren after the Dimming happened,” Lan snorted. “That means hundreds of gods and the kind of hate that’ll flow down a bloodline.”

It was the thief’s turn to roll his eyes. Cathayan Orthodoxy was famously superstitious, the inevitable consequence of letting gods take the examinations that elevated one into the ruling bureaucracy of the republics. Lock a Tianxi’s door and they’ll blame nine gods, the old saying went.

“Song Ren is bad luck,” he shrugged. “Fine. That’s all you have?”

Lan scowled, her pride obviously pricked by his indifference.

“That Asphodel noble, Acanthe, her contract has something to do with corpses,” she said.

That got his attention and he didn’t bother to pretend otherwise. He’d chatted with Acanthe Phos for some time without ever getting a hint of what she might be keeping up her sleeve.

“What did you find?”

“We looked inside her bag on the Bluebell,” Lan said. “She has small box with bones in it, broken shards and some thin needles.”

It couldn’t be only that, he thought, else Lan would have said the contract had to do with bones and not corpses. Thinking back on Acanthe’s actions since she’d left the ship, only one stood out to him as unusual.

“She was gathering corpse-ash from the pyres, wasn’t she?” he asked. “When she nosed around them with the rest of Tupoc’s crew.”

The former Meng dealer narrowed her eyes at him.

“Scooping it up with her bare hands,” Lan said. “You were looking into her too?”

“Tupoc, but it drew my eye,” Tristan admitted.

She nodded in agreement, then shot him a sideways look.

“That’s enough to prove I’m worth the trouble, I’d say,” she stated.

“You have more,” Tristan guessed, and by the closed look on her face he was right.

“And I’ll be keeping it, in case we must have another of these pleasant chats,” Lan evenly replied.

He might be able to get a little more if he twisted her arm over it, Tristan decided, but it was not worth burning down the bridge for good. This would have to be enough.

“You’re worth the trouble,” the thief conceded.

Her triumphant look never quite got to bloom.

“So long as you lay off making it,” he finished.

He left her to mull on that, putting a spring to his step so he might catch up to the others. Tristan was of a mind to head to the front and speak with Yong, as they’d been on the walk for half a day now and a better plan than fleeing forward was due, but alas that was not to be.

“I’m bored,” Fortuna announced.

She was staying at his side without bothering to pretend she was walking, a sight highly uncomfortable to his eyes. It felt wrong, as if the world itself were an illusion he was glimpsing through. It was something the goddess was well aware of and frequently used to screw with him whenever she felt like things were getting too dull. She wasn’t walking the wrong way for the one she was advancing yet, at least, which was a relief. That gave him a headache every bloody time.

“I’m a little low on choices for entertainment here,” Tristan murmured, pretending to scratch his hair. “What do you want?”

“Go bother Sarai,” Fortuna immediately suggested. “She’s amusing.”

At least it wasn’t one wedded pair she’d taken to, thank the gods for that. Other gods only, because he refused to give Fortuna any form of gratitude for a lesser shade of being a pain in his ass. Giving the goddess a measuring look, Tristan decided she was in one of those moods best left untested. Sarai it was. The false Raseni was near the head of the pack, chatting with Vanesa, but the old woman glanced his way with a smirk when he approached and made a show of leaving them to talk alone. She was misreading this quite deeply, but he saw no need to correct her when the misunderstanding was to his advantage. It was hard to tell if Sarai had noticed, under the veil and mask, but he suspected not.

According to the dark sweat spots around the armpits and back of her thick grey dress, she should be a mite distracted.

“How many layers do you have under there?” he snorted. “It’s not that warm out.”

Trebian weather, as it was called, cool enough for a coat in the wind but punishing the heavier fashions outside of it.

“This entire forsaken sea is a boiling pot,” Sarai growled back, that faint accent touching her voice again. “It is a miracle the Raseni aren’t all dried up husks, wearing as much as they do.”

“The weather’s cooler around their island, I hear,” he said. “Regretting the disguise?”

“It doesn’t get in my way when I move, it is only the heat that’s trouble,” Sarai sighed. “It will keep.”

“Or you could take it off,” Tristan said. “I’ve no idea what you are trying to hide, but is there truly anyone here worth hiding things from?”

He gestured around them, valiant alliance of leftovers that they were.

“You’re right,” Sarai said.

“I am?” he replied, somewhat surprised.

“You do have no idea what I’m trying to hide,” she pointedly replied.

Fortuna cackled loudly in his ear, sadly getting her bargain’s worth after having been a pest. Still, it would not do to let himself be trampled too thoroughly.

“A smidge above none, I’d argue,” he shrugged. “You’ve just admitted you were not born to a shore of the Trebian Sea.”

She shot him a steady look through the mask. Ah, hadn’t noticed that had she?

“You don’t sound Malani,” he continued, “so my guess would be the Imperial Someshwar. Somewhere inland, or maybe one of the peoples on the Tower Coast?”

The end was pure fishing and that veil gave nothing away. The eyes, though, betrayed not a whit of concern. He’d missed the mark.

“You dig so eagerly for others’ secrets,” Sarai chided, “but you ought to look better after your own.”

“Secrets? There are none, I am as an open book,” Tristan brazenly lied. “Ask me anything.”

She studied him for a moment, then shrugged.

“If you insist,” Sarai said, then leaned closer. “Who paid you to kill the Cerdan brothers? I figure it’s some infanzon trying to get at Ruesta.”

Fortuna oohed gleefully as his blood went cold, that horribly uncomfortable feeling of having been seen through seizing him by the throat again, so the rat smiled wide and bright to hide it.

“You misunderstand me, my friend,” Tristan replied.

“Do I?” Sarai teased.

How much did she know? Had she only noticed a coincidence and gone fishing, as he had? Yong wouldn’t care about his killing Recardo, he’d been open enough to the idea, but the former soldier might not be as eager to have the infanzones as outright foes. And if Tristan lost the veteran, he lost this crew: standing alone he would have no authority to assert. Sarai must know this but she was not threatening him or trying to leverage it. Either she didn’t know as much as she was implying or she simply did not care. Not from the shores of the Trebian Sea, he reminded himself. Did she simply care nothing for petty squabbles so far from her home? His silence was beginning to stretch on for too long, but indecision stilled his tongue.

“Take the bet,” Fortuna whispered against his ear. “She’s got even hands, Tristan. She gave you measure for measure every time.”

His goddess could be a fool in many ways, he knew, but sometimes her eyes saw true. Sarai had been scrupulously even-handed in their every bargain, giving as good as she received. If he gave trust… It went against his every instinct, the lessons of the years he had spent alone with only fickle fortune as his companion. When someone has a knife at your throat, Abuela had taught him, you must either destroy or befriend them. And if he’d learned anything from Fortuna, it was that sometimes the long odds took the prize. Swallowing thickly as he came to a decision, mouth gone dry, Tristan put on a winning smile.

“You do,” he firmly said. “Me, an assassin? Perish the thought.”

Sarai snorted, but the mirth caught in her throat as he continued speaking.

“No one paid me, so more accurately speaking I would be a murderer.”

She choked on that, though the surprise did not silence her for long.

“Are you telling me,” Sarai got out, “that you are not even gainfully employed?”

“I’m afraid not.”

“You are a deep disappointment, Tristan,” she solemnly informed him. “I thought you a man of means.”

“Alas, I have but methods,” he confessed.

She let out a quiet, delighted laugh at that. Something like a smile tugged at his own lips, the thrill and relief of the long odds having borne true tingling against his scalp. And maybe more than that. How long had it been since he’d found it so easy to talk to someone?

“Are you going to tell me why?” Sarai idly asked.

“Are you going to tell me your real name?” he idly replied.

“I thought Sacromontan men were titans of gallantry,” she complained.

He could hear the pout.

“That’s the Malani,” he informed her.

“Of daring, then.”

“The Izcalli.”

“… charm?”

“Tianxi,” Tristan drawled, “and if you think I do not have a ready triteness for every corner of Vesper then you’ve obviously spent little time in the company of sailors.”

“See?” she enthused. “Such a wealth of worthlessness, you are not entirely destitute after all!”

He swallowed a grin, somehow certain she was doing the same under the veil. And as he had given trust, he was given trust in return.

“There will be a need for a plan soon, if we are to keep this band together,” Sarai said. “I have something that might be of use for that purpose.”

He cocked an eyebrow at her.

“Song Ren has a map of the island in her possession,” the false Raseni said. “I traded for a good look at it.”

Tristan breathed in sharply.

“How good is your memory?” he asked.

“Good,” Sarai said, “not that it matters.”

She met his gaze squarely.

“There is a Sign that allows one to seize a sight and keep it nestled inside your mind.”

Measure for measure, Fortuna had said, and the golden eyes saw true. That was the secret Sarai had been keeping up her sleeve, the reason she carried for weapon only a knife. Like Leander Galatas she had knowledge of the strange arts of the Gloam, only unlike the sailor she’d kept that talent carefully hidden. He nodded slowly, acknowledging the worth of the secret she had revealed. The sudden seriousness of that after their easy repartee left him strangely embarrassed, as if he’d spoken too loudly near a grave, so he left on the pretext of speaking with Yong about arranging a break. Sarai inclined her head as he left, almost solemnly, and he returned the gesture.

It felt like a promise, though of what he did not yet know.

What he’d meant as an excuse ended up being true, as Yong pointed out both Felis and the greyhairs were beginning to slow down. A halt to eat and rest while a proper plan was put together would be good for everyone. Half an hour later they found a decent resting place, a smattering of ruins by the wayside of the road. It was short walk into tall grass to reach them, the stalks parting to reveal half-buried stone. What Tristan thought might be a curved roof rose from the earth in a gentle slope, a set of statues now little more than worn stumps circling around it. The roof made for a comfortable seat, and from the highest edge he could see the tall grass spread around them.

He got to hear the married pair argue as well, Aines and Felis unaware that their decision to head behind the roof to argue left him a dozen feet above them and just out of sight.

“- on our own,” Felis was insisting. “I just need to do Lan a few favours, she’ll fork out supplies for us and-”

“You mean she’ll give you dust,” Aines bit out. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed, Felis.”

“You’re one to talk,” her husband harshly replied. “How long was it on the boat before you were gambling?”

“If I’d won-”

“You never win,” he hissed. “How do you think we ended up here?”

“How?” she hissed back. “I’ll tell you how: your uncle threw you out after you pawned his tools so you could pay for another packet to lick up.”

“I’m not the one who played dice with the kids’ bed as collateral, Aines,” he growled. “Just the one who had to tell them why they slept with their blankets on the fucking floor.”

“I’m not leaving the others,” Aines abruptly said. “Talk all you want, that’s how it is.”

“We’d have a better chance on our own,” Felis cursed. “You know it. It’s some boy and the Tianxi calling the shots, they’re bound to fuck it up. You and I, though-”

“Why do you want me to go so much, Felis?” Aines quietly asked. “What did they tell you in that room, when they split us up?”

A silence.

“What did they tell you, that you won’t trust me anymore?”

Bought seats both of them, Tristan recalled. Whoever it was that owed their debt was playing what Yong had called a red game, one of those vicious wagers the twins had also warned him about. Whatever that wager might be, it was making an ugly situation even uglier. They can’t be relied on for anything, he decided. A way to shore up their numbers at best, but most likely a long fuse lit before they ever set foot on the Bluebell. He might have eavesdropped more if they’d kept talking, but Yong called for everyone gather at the foot of the roof. Tristan scarfed down his rations then hurried down, bringing his waterskin with him.

Before he’d gone up to eat he’d quietly conferred with Yong and Sarai. The two were now before the others as had been discussed, the former soldier standing while Tristan’s other ally crouched to draw in the earth with a twig. It was a rough sketch, but with the lantern set besides it the thief could easily make out the shape of the island and where they were: a straight line from the docks where they’d landed, a quarter of the way to the second trial up in the mountains. Ahead of them lay woods and a river, across which there were two bridges: one was fed into directly by the road, the other stood further east. The only other line through was the High Road, the aqueduct going straight across half the island, but its arches would make poor anchors for a rope bridge.

Tristan joined the other two in front, waiting until Francho finished lowering himself to the edge of the maybe-roof gingerly. He looked to be in some pain, enough that the thief considered offering him something for it before they began marching again. Belladonna extract, perhaps, properly diluted with water.

“As you can see,” Yong addressed the others, “we have made good time but it will be days before we get anywhere near the Trial of Ruins.”

“How do we know the drawing is accurate?” Lan asked.

“It’s a copy of the map the infanzones will be using,” Sarai replied. “They would not settle for anything less.”

Mutters of agreement. Some looked liked they wanted to ask how she might have gotten that, but none quite dared with the two of them flanking her. Which had been the very point.

“So we just need to rush in a straight line until we get there,” Felis shrugged. “Seems easy enough.”

“That won’t work,” Tristan said, ignoring the man’s scowl. “The blackcloaks told us that the cultists of the Red Eye will be out in force, they’re bound to be keeping watch on the main bridge. We’d be walking straight into an ambush.”

“That scarred Malani led her band towards the road north,” Francho noted. “She seems to believe it might work.”

“We don’t know if they stayed on that path,” Sarai pointed out.

“Even if they do, they’ve got powder and blades enough to fight through,” Lan said. “They’re all armed and trained, greyhair. We wouldn’t do anywhere as well in a fight.”

She paused.

“Besides, we’ve got more than the hollows to worry about,” she continued. “Tupoc Xical’s going to be on the hunt.”

Tristan’s eyes narrowed and Yong’s face turned grave.

“And how do you know that, exactly?” the former soldier asked.

“Because my sister and I offered him dirt on half of you in exchange for getting us safely to the second trial,” she admitted without a hint of shame. “He turned us down without a moment’s hesitation. Why do you think that is?”

Half a dozen answers bloomed on half a dozen faces, but the truest one passed lips first.

“Because he doesn’t think we’ll live long enough to be worth knowing anything about,” Vanesa quietly said, taking off her spectacles to clean them with her chemise.

She spoke with a tired certainty, like someone the world had already let down so many times she could no longer even muster anger over it. Aines laughed nervously, the sound shrill.

“You’re mad,” she said. “What would be the point? It’s not like there are limits to how many people can get to the second trial. It doesn’t help him to kill us, it’ll just slow him down.”

“Unless,” Tristan quietly said, “it’s not really about us. It’s about what he can buy with us.”

He found the lone twin’s eyes and matched her gaze.

“That’s what you think, isn’t it Lan? That he wants to sell us to the Red Eye cult in exchange for the right to get to the second trial unhindered.”

“It’s what fits,” the Meng frontwoman replied. “Why he gathered only a small crew, why he doesn’t think anyone is worth bargaining with: he already has another deal in mind, one that doesn’t involve fighting the Red Eye.”

“That’s nonsense,” Felis snorted. “You’re all fretting like hens over nothing. The boy won’t pull any of this shit: the blackcloaks would toss him out of the trials if he made a bargain with savages.”

“No rules, Felis,” Sarai reminded him. “Only survival.”

“The Watch has a long history of striking deals with darklings against other darklings,” Francho stated, worrying his lip. “A necessity, when their duties take them so far from the light of the Glare. They might even approve.”

And Tristan’s teeth clenched because, when it got down to it, how hard could it really be for the Watch to drive the Red Eye off the island? The Dominion was wild, unsettled land but it was not so large an island that a two thousand men could not thoroughly clear it out over a few months. So why hadn’t they? Because these are testing grounds, the thief thought. Because they want to see if we can make bargains with darklings without getting burned, because the cruelty isn’t an accident it’s why they still use this island at all. Those who joined the Watch through the trials of were not sent to training camps, he’d heard, not drilled and lectured and pampered.

They were inducted straight into the ranks, a black cloak set on their shoulders, and Tristan was beginning to understand why.

“There’s only one thing for it,” Yong spoke up, cutting through the silence. “From now on we must keep off the road and take a route they won’t expect. Anything else means death.”

Too many enemies and in too many places, the thief thought. His instinct was to sneak through, to find the quiet way in, but this wasn’t Araturo District. He was not the rat here, knowing all the streets like the back of his hand, they were. They’d get caught before getting anywhere, and unlike back home it wasn’t like they could try to hide behind a brawl between the Hoja and – or could they?

“We head straight for the second bridge,” Tristan said. “Cutting through the tall grass and the woods.”

Eyes went to him.

“They may well expect us to avoid the main path,” Yong warned him.

“They’ll guard all the bridges anyway,” the thief said, shaking his head. “They have the numbers for it, Sarai and I figured it out.”

Their conversation by the docks was not so soon forgot.

“It is true,” she agreed, rising to her full height. “They should have a few hundreds warriors at least.”

“Gods be good,” Felis exclaimed, huffing. “Spare me the posturing. We haven’t so much as seen a hollow, how would you even-”

“Then what is the point of going for the eastern bridge?” Lan bluntly asked, cutting through.

The middle-aged man did not quite dare to glare at the woman holding his leash.

“The Watch captain called them the cult of the Red Eye, but are they really?” Tristan asked. “One entity, I mean. They are warbands, not an army. Like those taking the trials.”

“You believe they are divided as well,” Yong slowly said.

“They’re thiefcatchers from different inns, all after the same prize money,” the thief said. “They won’t share word or help each other. They are a cult, certainly, but why would it mean they’re all on the same side? Gods won’t bless them twice for the same sacrifice.”

“An interesting theory, to be sure,” Francho delicately said, “but only that.”

“No,” Sarai said, shaking her head. “He’s right. Think back to the outpost, the number of watchmen you saw. Captain Crestina said she lost half her command, so double it. How many does that make?”

“Fifty, maybe sixty men,” Aines said.

She got surprised looks for it and shrugged.

“I got curious before the captain arrived, wanted to see if there was anything to do to pass the time.”

Looking for soldiers to dice with, Tristan translated, she happened to suss out how many there were around.

“That’s not anywhere enough to defend their storehouses if two hundred hollows try an assault, no matter how poorly armed,” Yong noted. “Not with the treeline so close. That says the Watch garrison doesn’t expect them to come in great numbers.”

“So we rush to the eastern bridge,” Tristan repeated, “and then we hide.”

Lan let out a sharp little laugh, catching on quick as was her wont.

“Then when the warband guarding that bridge sees no one coming,” she said, “they’ll think we went to the other one. That their rivals got all the sacrifices.”

“So when they thin their numbers to go have a look, or leave outright,” Tristan leadingly began.

“We cross,” Sarai finished. “And run as fast as we can to the Trial of Ruins.”

That, he thought with a sliver of satisfaction, sounded like plan. Perhaps not the cleverest or the most intricate, but one that might just work. And though he could see that not all were convinced, that some thought it would get them all killed, no one spoke up against it. Not for love of what had been said, he thought, but for lack of anything better to offer. No one really believed that they could get to the other bridge quickly enough to avoid a fight.

And a fight they would lose, there was no doubt about that.

The crew broke up after, everyone splitting up to rest for the remainder of their break and see to their belongings. He went back up the roof to grab his bag, settling on the edge just the way Francho had earlier. Stretching out lazily, Tristan let out a groan. He was not used to such long walks. Thieving required endurance more mental than physical. He took one last drink from his waterskin and set about putting himself back together, pulling at the loosened strings of his woolen shirt. He shrugged on his jacket after, the long sleeves and knee-length reach betraying it was rat’s clothing even if the wool was dyed grey. Infanzones and the wealthy aping them preferred shorter sleeveless jerkins, deigning to wear long coats only when travelling. Some of the seams in the back were growing thin, Tristan noted as he tugged at the jacket. He’d had this one for two years and though he had been careful frequent use was wearing it down.

Grabbing his tricorn, still pleased at the find – he’d always liked the look of them on Malani seamen – the thief noticed Vanesa approaching him from the side. The old woman’s plain linen chemise and trousers were City staples from the Murk to the ports, but her red frock told him she had been someone of more than passing means. As did her glasses and pocketwatch, both worth several months of wages for a common labourer. That raised questions, as did the way that Vanesa sometimes seemed almost half-hearted in her attempts to get through the trials. What had forced her to the Dominion, if not desperation? There was a story there, should he care to dig for it.

“Extend your arm,” the old woman said, gesturing at his left.

Hiding his wariness, he did. She bent slightly forward and began patting down the back of his sleeve thoroughly.

“Dust and soot,” Vanesa told him after she finished. “Boys never think to look behind, my son is just the same.”

Not having been mothered in many years – Abuela might be old enough to be his grandmother, but her blood was colder than a crocodiles’ – Tristan was taken aback enough he struggled to find an answer. Coughing into his fist, he changed the subject.

“You have children?” he tried.

“Only the one,” Vanesa wistfully said. “You must be around sixteen, yes? He is twice your age now.”

“Eighteen,” Tristan drily replied. “I simply can’t grow a beard for the life of me.”

“My husband never could either,” she smiled at him. “Not for lack of trying.”

Dead husband but her son still lives, he filed away. Had she been abandoned to a debt from beyond the grave? Sacromonte’s debts laws were some of the harshest around the Trebian Sea – wife or husband shared in what the other owed, children in what their parents did and if property was shared even siblings could be dragged into the pit. Tristan was considering how best to ask what her trade had been without being too obvious about it when he was interrupted by a startled shout. Baring his knife, the thief turned to find it had been Francho making everyone jump. The old scholar was leaning against the side of the half-buried roof, a bare hand on the stone and his worn body trembling.

Finding no immediate danger, Tristan put away the knife. That scream, though… Chewing at the inside of his cheek, the thief grabbed his pistol and powder horn. No ball in it yet, but perhaps soon. There was no telling what the noise might have called down on them.

“What’s with the racket?” Felis called out.

Francho’s eyes rolled up in his head even as Tristan approached him, though he did not seem to be in pain. Before the thief could speak the old man snatched back his hand, neck glistening with sweat as he kept on shivering.

“We need to leave,” the old man said, then began wetly coughing into his hand. “Now.”

“Why?” Yong evenly said. “What did you do?”

“Contract,” Sarai said. “He used a contract.”

It was not a question.

“The stone,” Francho rasped out. “It speaks to me. Old voices. The stronger the memory, the louder.”

“And what did they say?” Tristan asked, dread welling up.

“There is an altar below,” the scholar said, voice shaken. “Sacrificial. And hollows live there.”

Aines screamed, and if she had not Tristan would have died. He turned to her, saw the men coming out of the tall grass but also the glint of steel in lantern light. An arrow, halfway to his throat, and all he could do was borrow luck. He drank swift and deep, the ticking loud as a scream, and saw the fletching on the arrow tear. It missed but only narrowly, splitting open his jacket as death spared him. Immediately he threw himself down as another arrow whistled above his head, gritting his teeth as he released the luck. He heard the click a moment too late, not quite quick enough to roll over when the pistol he’d loaded with powder blew up against his side.

Letting out a hoarse shout as he threw it away, patting away the burns that’d blown through his shirt, the thief swallowed a moan of pain and rose to his feet. Around him all Hell had broken loose.

Yong blew through a tall, pale man – pale as milk, beard and hair wild – with a shot before tossing way the musket, drawing his sword as a large man in chainmail hoisting an axe walked up to face him, but the others were not doing so well. An arrow had taken Francho in the side and while Vanesa had run to help him two hollows were coming for them bearing spear and mace. Another was in the tall grass, pulling back the string on her crossbow, though her eye was on… Lan, who was running out into the dark. There must be another, wielding the second crossbow, but Tristan saw no trace of them.

Should he run? No, it would just be a slower death. He would never make it across the bridges alone. Tristan drew his knife, still light-headed from the burns.

“Felis, Aines,” Yong shouted, eyes peeling away from his fight for a second, “silence the crossbow. Don’t let her fire again!”

No waiting to see if they would obey, Tristan rushed in. Not there but towards the greyhairs, just in time to see Vanesa being kicked down by a skinny man covered in a thick padded tunic. Tristan ducked under the swing of the other hollow, some leering bastard with big eyes, and the mace’s haft bounced off his side. Grimacing – that would bruise – he still slid his knife between the skinny hollow’s ribs. Or tried to, slipping against a metal plate under the tunic and slicing down closer to the kidney. He drew back as quick as he could, face growing grim. His chance had lain in getting rid of one from the start, now it was going to turn on him.

“Go,” Tristan shouted at the old pair, “I-”

He ducked out of the mace’s way again, the swing gone wide, but the other hollow struck true. The spear’s haft batted down on his shoulder, forcing him to his knees as he yelped. The thief palmed his knife, readying a throw, but the mace was swinging again and then there was a sound like a pop. Coolness brushed past his face as the cultist’s eyes went blank. His face, scarred with red ellipses – Red Eye, he thought – slacked and his swing dulled. Tristan backed away, rising to his feet as he aimed, while the spear cultist broke the other from his trance with a shove. Not quickly enough: the thief snapped his wrist, burying the knife to the hilt in the mace-wielder’s throat.

The other shouted in dismay, rushing with his spear, but even as Tristan drew the knife he’d claimed at the docks there was another soft pop. From the corner of his eye, the thief saw Sarai’s fingers clawing at the air in another Sign. He saw a flicker, too, and shouted out a warning just in time. She threw herself aside before the crossbow bolt could in impale her from the back and he felt a sliver of relief just in time for the no-longer-stunned cultist to ram into him shoulder first. Down Tristan went, flipped on his back, and only realized why he’d not just been run through when the hollow kept going towards Sarai. The Signs were more of a threat than a rat with a knife.

Teeth clenched, he scrabbled to his feet and leapt at the cultists’ back. They tumbled down together atop a shouting Sarai, who stabbed wildly at the hollow with her knife but sliced through only padding. Tristan tried to block the man’s arms, the three of them grinding like worms. The hollow was stronger than him, damn the bastard, and through the thief’s failing grip pinned Sarai’s hand. The cultist kept the knife down and gripped her throat as she struggled to trace a Sign on his face, Tristan abandoning the failed hold to gouge at the hollow’s eyes with his thumbs. The man screamed, loudly enough the thief did not hear the bolt whistling at him. Sheer luck saved his life when the cultist bucked him off before the shot could go through his chest.

The hollow threw himself away from them with a howl of pain, one hand on his now smoking face and the other clawing at Sarai’s face.

The darkling ripped off the veils and mask, revealing a face as pale as his own, and Tristan’s heart skipped a beat. He scrabbled to his feet again, pained and exhausted, just in time to see the hollow draw a long knife and – and die, Yong’s blade hacking halfway through his neck. The former soldier wrenched it out, pushing down the corpse with a kick, and swept their surroundings with a steady gaze. Yong looked completely unfazed, not a trace of dirt or sweat on him: only a few strands of his topknot had come undone. Tristan swallowed, rising to his feet as he looked around them. The married pair had killed the crossbow wielder they went after, at some cost. Aines had a growing black eye and Felis a broken bolt in his arm.

Yong’s own opponent, the big man wearing armour, was lying in a pool of his own blood.

“Darkling,” the Tianxi evenly said, watching Sarai.

“I am not,” she replied, warily rising to her feet.

Her hair was dark and long, Tristan saw, her eyes a paler shade of blue than he’d believed. It was an angular face she had revealed, its chin pointed and cheekbones high.

“What else could you be?” Aines nervously said. “Were you working with them this whole time, Sarai, is that why we’ve been ambushed?”

Tristan thought, then, of the conversation they’d had by the shore as the sailors took the crates out of the Bluebell. A sentence he’d thought innocent but might not have been at all. The Malani love to use trinkets up north, she’d said. Almost like she had been there, seen it with her own eyes. And she might not be Malani, but there were another people living in the far north.

“I don’t think she is,” Tristan said.

He looked around for his pistol, found it lying on the ground but a few feet away.

“She fought with us, almost died,” Vanesa agreed, clutching her ribs. “She could not have been working with them.”

“I mean I don’t think she’s a darkling,” the thief said, shaking his head.

He picked up his relic pistol, opening the secret compartment and revealing the piece of rhadamantine quartz. Its pale glow caught everyone’s eyes, including Sarai’s, and Tristan made a show of palming it. Meeting her gaze, he lightly tossed it her way. She caught it without batting an eye, then took off one of her gloves and set the stone against her naked palm.

The pale skin did not burn at the direct touch of the Glare.

“You are from the Malani colonies,” Francho spoke into the silence, sounding fascinated. “The lands under the Broken Gate.”

“I am,” Sarai conceded, “a very long way from home.”

“So you’re a slave,” Felis snorted. “What in the Manes are you doing trying to get into the Watch?”

By the look on Sarai’s face that talk might have gotten ugly, but Yong cut in before it could begin.

“She is no darkling, that’s all that matters,” the Tianxi said. “We’ve wasted enough time on this, we need to bind our wounds and go.”

“Gods, we need to rest,” Aines replied, appalled. “After all that? We beat them, we have the time.”

“No,” Tristan quietly said. “We don’t. Two crossbows fired and only one was silenced. Someone escaped.”

Which meant the cult of the Red Eye had found them, and if they did not run quickly enough they were all dead.

Chapter 9

They’d not left the campsite for half an hour before it got worse.

“We agreed to pool our men together, Ferranda,” Augusto Cerdan shouted. “You would go back on your word?”

“I gave no word,” Lady Ferranda Villazur evenly replied, “and go back on nothing. If you assumed, Cerdan, that is on your head alone.”

The eldest of the Cerdan brothers was the one barking the loudest but he was not the one Angharad was wary of. Twice now Remund had tried to catch Cozme Aflor’s eye, to give him a silent order, and only the retainer’s obstinate pretence he had not noticed was preventing that disaster in the making. Isabel had retreated behind her maids, wisely so, but the rest of the infanzones were at each other’s throats: Lady Ferranda and her hired huntsman Sanale standing on one side, the Cerdans and their retainers on the other.

The Cerdan valet, Gascon, had pulled a pistol out of his blue-and-red livery and his impressive moustache bristled with his masters’ anger. Lord Augusto had not drawn his sword, for all the red flush of his face, but his younger brother’s left hand was kept under his cloak and to Angharad’s eye the stance spoke of his holding either a pistol or a knife. Master Cozme, the real fighter of the lot, had pointedly refrained from reaching for a weapon but Lady Ferranda still kept a hand on the grip of the slender sword at her hip. She must be feeling the weight of the numbers arrayed against her.

“Turn on us now and we will remember it, Villazur,” Remund sneered. “It is all of your house that will feel the displeasure of the Cerdan.”

Angharad’s teeth clenched. That, she thought, was a step too far. By the open disgust on Song’s face and the blankness on Brun’s, she was not the only one to think as much. Lady Ferranda’s eyes went cold.

“Watch your tongue, you viperous brat,” she said. “If you threaten my kin again, I swear by the Manes there will be blood.”

Remund smiled, triumph in his eyes.

“See, I told you she was against us,” the Cerdan announced to all. “For all we know she was the one who killed that Tianxi peasant. What if she comes back to attack us in the night? We can’t afford to let her loose.”

Angharad had been reluctant to step in, for the affairs of the infanzones were theirs to settle, but when Remund’s claim was answered by the sound of Ferranda Villazur unsheathing her rapier she knew the time for such courtesy was past. She cleared her throat, shoulders tensing.

“You have made a grave accusation, Lord Remund,” Angharad stated. “Kindly either prove or withdraw it.”

The infanzon’s dark eyes swept the crowd, but as he did his face reddened. The Cerdan had made few friends and none now cared to back the youngest’s wild accusation. Remund tugged at his blue doublet’s high collar, nervousness seeping into his eyes as it sunk in he might be short of defenders.

“You are here at our sufferance, Tredegar,” he began. “You-”

Brun took a measured step closer to Angharad’s side, hand on his hatchet. The sight of it had Remund trailing off.

“I would like to hear your proof as well, Lord Remund,” Brun said.

The weight of Song’s silver eyes burned against the side of Angharad’s face for a long moment, before the Tianxi idly took a step closer to them both. She did not reach for her musket but the implication was clear.

“My brother spoke in anger and shamed himself,” Augusto Cerdan suddenly cut in. “He never meant to impugn Lady Ferranda’s reputation.”

Remund’s face twisted in fury, as much turned on his now-smiling brother as Angharad herself. She met his gaze, unimpressed. Though it was true that the company assembled at the beginning of the trial had ended, and so the oath not to do violence on one another as well, Lady Ferranda had given them no reason to bare steel.

“Do you withdraw your accusation, Remund?” the fair-haired Villazur bit out.

Movement to the side as Isabel strode past her maids, shaking her head.

“Of course he does, Ferranda, do not be silly,” Isabel said. “You know how men’s tempers are, he was only angered you would leave us so. I’m sure he is most sorry.”

A pause.

“Naturally,” Remund said, after a beat. “It is as Isabel says.”

And so, Angharad noted, he was spared from having to recant and apologize with his own words. Cleverly done, if Isabel’s intent was to spare him further humiliation, but the Pereduri’s lips thinned. One’s honour should not be left in another’s hands. The ploy reminded her all too much of the tales Mother had told her of the High Queen’s court, of courtiers confessing to the misdeeds of their izinduna patrons so that those hallowed personages’ honour would not be stained. It was a base sort of cleverness, one she had not expected of Isabel. She is only trying to keep the peace, Angharad decided. That is a laudable thing.

“Then we have nothing else to say to each other,” Lady Ferranda stiffly replied, sheathing her blade. “It is best we part ways swiftly.”

“If you prefer,” Augusto Cerdan shrugged. “A shame Remund’s manners were so poor as to drive you away.”

Angharad’s jaw clenched. Was there anything in all of Vesper that would have the brothers cease pricking one another? Ferranda bad curt goodbyes to her fellow infanzones, even to Isabel, and ignored their attendants entirely. She grew warmer only when coming over towards the others, kindly bidding farewell to Song and Brun before turning to Angharad herself.

“Your help was most appreciated, my lady,” Ferranda said, laying hand on her heart and bowing slightly.

Angharad was not familiar with the gesture but mimicked it easily enough.

“It was nothing,” she replied.

“It was not,” Ferranda firmly said, “and I will not forget it. I hope we may meet again come the Trial of Ruins and share a road for a time.”

“I look forward to it,” Angharad said, meaning every word, but cocked her heat to the side. “I mean no slight, but are you quite certain you two should set out alone?”

“I have long prepared for these trials, my lady,” the other woman said. “Believe me when I say I am certain indeed.”

“Then I will not wish you luck you ill need,” Angharad smiled, “but may the God’s blessing go with you.”

Ferranda looked startled.

“You are a Universalist?”

“As are most Pereduri,” Angharad agreed. “The Redeemers never made many converts among us.”

The faiths might have the same source and believe in the same Sleeping God, but the hardline beliefs of the Redeemers had always made her uncomfortable. Their insistence that Vesper was the test of the God and he gave neither blessing nor succour, that devils and hollows were inherent instruments of evil, struck her as wretched. The Universalist creed, that the Sleeping God had divided himself into all save devils and all would return to him when he woke to be judged for their deeds, felt like a kinder and deeper truth.

Not that a Sacromontan would know much of either creed. Their city was in the old heartlands of the Second Empire, the cradle of the Orthodoxy. The Lierganen had spread their faith far and wide, converting most of the known world, but since Malan had been only a distant province of the empire it had been spared the imposition of the imperial creed. Not that the Orthodoxy was so orthodox, these days. Tianxia and the Someshwar both claimed to be the seat of the faith since the fall of Tarteso, occasionally going to war over it.

“I should have guessed from the lack of haughty sermons,” Ferranda snorted, but her amusement soon faded.

It was replaced by a flicker of hesitation before the blonde’s expression firmed.

“A word of warning,” she spoke in a whisper. “Isabel has already lost what she came to this island for, and will now look to other prizes.”

“I do not understand,” Angharad frowned.

“You are not a choice she ever intends to make,” Lady Ferranda said, not unkindly.

Without further ceremony, the other woman offered her a nod and decisively broke away. Angharad was left trying not to gape, as much from her flirtation with Isabel having been caught on to as by how out of the black the warning was. And unnecessary. She hardly expected marriage out of a liaison that had yet to even begin and had not even found it in her to daydream of being joined in the Watch by the lovely infanzona. Isabel did not seem well-suited to such a life. No, their affair – should it bloom – would end with the trials and remain only a fond memory. It was kind of Lady Ferranda to try to protect her feelings, but she had no undue expectations to be wounded by. Angharad was still wrestling with the suddenness of it all when Song and Brun joined her.

“A very polite woman,” Brun said, glancing at the departing pair.

He sounded approving. Lady Ferranda and her hired man were heading east, Angharad saw, towards the road that supposedly led all the way to the mountains and the second trial awaiting within them. The Trial of Ruins, it was called. The Cerdans had several times implied it was some sort of maze.

“And clever,” Song mused. “She waited until everyone else was gone to part ways with us.”

Angharad glanced at her.

“You believe she wants others to think she is still with our group,” she slowly said.

“A lone pair would be vulnerable,” Song said. “But less so if no one knows they went off on their own.”

Vulnerable to who, Angharad could have asked, but she knew the answer. She simply did not want to consider it.

“Then you suspect, as she must, that the murderer did not act alone,” she murmured. “That there are those among us who would hunt other trial-takers.”

“I suspect the same,” Brun frankly said. “And while I have no proof, it occurs to me that Tupoc Xical was pleased our great company parted ways on such poor terms.”

“He also went hard after that man Tristan,” Song noted. “Not without grounds, but it did feed the fires just when they were beginning to cool.”

Angharad grimaced. She was not unaware she had acted poorly there, also casting the blame on the apprentice physician. It was only sensible that when an oath-breaking killing was had one should look at where honour had proved loosest, but she could admit to herself that was not the sole reason she’d spoken. It had been so deeply embarrassing, to find the man she’d thought a kind soul standing over a beaten woman with a debt collector’s weapon in hand. It’d felt like he had taken advantage of her, back on the ship, and wounded pride had moved her lips. Her father had always admonished her over lessons of law, saying that justice could spring only from clear mind and cold heart.

Would that she had listened to him, instead of laughing that she would find a wife to run Llanw Hall’s estate for her just as Mother had found a husband. She could not quite shake the Sacromontan’s sharp retort. You are attempting to do me violence right now, he had said, and had he been wrong? Angharad had not bared a blade but an accusation before the others was almost as dangerous. It gnawed at her, that while respecting the letter of her oath she might well have violated the spirit. And for wounded pride, of all things. She had felt guilty enough to accept when Isabel brought up the notion of keeping the physician in the fold.

“I added to the flames myself,” Angharad admitted. “It was ill-done, and I do not know if I owe him apology but there should be some redress.”

Another debt to mark, one of the many she seemed to be accruing these days. Like a drunken vagrant, she racked up accounts wherever she drifted to. What she would not give to be home again, where it had all made sense and her life had been a well-lit road ahead of her instead of the darkened trail she was now stumbling down.

“I would not say he’s earned so much,” Song said, “but that is your decision to make.”

Angharad sighed, forcing herself to set aside the pointless thoughts.

“Tupoc is dangerous,” she finally agreed. “He recruited fighters for a reason, and though I do not know whether he would hunt others outright I do not believe he would balk at violence should he meet us.”

“They went east, towards the woods,” Brun said. “Of all the groups we should be the least likely to run into his.”

True enough, as they were headed northwest towards the long aqueduct known as the High Road. For what Angharad did not yet know, as the infanzones had been tight-lipped about their plans, but she would soon learn. She had been told they were not far from the structure, a mere half hour of walk. Lady Ferranda’s departure and the tenor of it having left a pall on them all, at first the mood was grim when they set out on their journey again. Angharad took the vanguard with Cozme Aflor once more, leaving the back to Song and Gascon. Brun, she saw with a thread of amusement, was chatting with Isabel’s redheaded maid again. They seemed quite charmed by one another.

Isabel herself stood between the Cerdans, a pleasant smile on her face as the three conversed. Angharad could only wonder whether at how genuine it might be, given how much more sharply the brothers had begun sniping at each other since the beginning of the trial. She kept her eyes ahead, however, looking for threats as the light of the great lantern Cozme carried swept the grounds before them. Her companion at the front was not one for silences, so it was not long before he spoke up.

“Shame how it turned out in camp,” Cozme idly said. “We could have used them.”

“It does feel like our company’s ranks have grown thin,” she said. “I regret my hand in that.”

Cozme snorted.

“Don’t think it’s a reproach, Lady Tredegar,” the older man said. “I’m not sure that Tristan boy cut the other rat’s throat, but he was a little too slick for my tastes. Always up to something. I won’t mourn leaving him behind.”

The greying retainer sighed.

“Yong, now? That was a loss,” he said. “Wish I knew what made him leave.”

“He was a skilled marksman,” Angharad slowly agreed, “but why such esteem? You are a fair shot yourself.”

“You know that knot he had on top of his head?” Cozme said, gesturing towards the back of his own.

Angharad nodded.

“It’s the way men from Caishen do their hair when they go soldiering,” he said. “I’ve worked with some of them before and they’re hard men. some of the finest in Vesper.”

Angharad’s lessons on Tianxia had involved learning the Ten Republics by rote, but it took her a moment to place which one Caishen was.

“The city is near the borders with Izcalli and the Someshwar,” she said. “I was taught there is hardly a season there without skirmishing.”

“More than skirmishes, sometimes,” Cozme told her. “About twenty years ago the raj of Kurin decided he wanted to claim a slice of the lowlands, so Caishen mustered militia and mercenaries to turn him back. Only it turned into a rough stalemate, so a pack of Sunflower Lords led warbands over the border to attack both under banner of flower war.”

“That sounds…” Angharad began, looking for the right word. “Messy.”

“It was that,” Cozme grunted. “Bloody as all Hell too, and it took most a decade before the bleeding stopped.”

“Caishen won?” she asked.

“The Kurin troops shelled an old temple trying to push out the Izcalli, only they broke something they shouldn’t have and a horde of old gods came howling out,” he said. “They started killing everything so the Watch stepped in and told everyone to go home until they cleaned up the mess.”

It was for good reason that the blackcloaks were given the authority to force temporary truces under the Iscariot Accords, Angharad thought. Not even the most bloodthirsty of the Sunflower Lords wanted the devastation of the Succession Wars to come again, those ruinous days when entire kingdoms were swallowed up by the Gloam as the great powers fought tooth and nail to succeed Liergan’s hegemony.

“You believe this Yong fought in the conflict, then,” Angharad guessed.

“He has a veteran’s way about him and he’s in his forties,” Cozme replied. “I can’t be sure but I’d bet coin on it.”

Angharad saw no need to doubt her companion, their regular conversations having revealed that his fifty some years in Sacromonte left him learned in many matters. Not in the way a noble would be, a proper education, but in the manner of a skilled retainer. Useful knowledge, gathered on the ground.

“Sacromonte does seem to attract all sorts,” Angharad said. “You met these Caishen soldiers in the service of House Cerdan, I take it?”

“I used to work under Lord Lorient, the boys’ uncle,” Cozme said, tone wistful.

He shook his head.

“Not Lord Cerdan himself, one of his younger brothers,” he elaborated. “He ran the house’s affairs in Feria District for a few years and we used hired hands there. The war in Caishen was just over, so the port was flush with penniless mercenaries come to the City for work.”

Angharad found herself approving of the Cerdan generosity in employing such luckless men, a reminder that the brothers were not the sum whole of House Cerdan. The eastern ports of the Isles often found themselves flush with destitute souls from Izcalli when one its constant wars went badly for a Sunflower Lord, but Malan did not treat the exiles as kindly. Most of them ended up press-ganged into the High Queen’s navy or used as labour for the great shipyards.

The two of them kept up lively talk throughout the walk, the noblewoman finding Master Cozme to be as pleasant company as ever. It was obvious the older man missed his days spent serving Lord Lorient and was hoping to return to the man’s service after the trials. Why he was no longer under Lorient Cerdan was something Cozme remained vague about, though Angharad suspected he had made a blunder of some kind. Joining the trials to protect the Cerdan brothers must have been his way of expiating the mistake, a worthy redress.

Honour was not the sole province of nobles, Angharad reminded herself.

Finding the High Road proved easy enough, near the end, for the structure loomed tall above the plains. At least thirty feet tall, the aqueduct was a long stretch of arches going into the distance – first through plains, and likely even through the distant woods beyond them. Perhaps, Angharad thought, all the way to the mountains. The stone was weather-worn and smooth, she saw as she approached, and though there was no trace of where it once would have carried water to rain must still gather atop it: at the foot of where the arches began, the ground was a mess of stinking mud. The noblewoman stopped at the edge, wrinkling her nose.

“First Empire work, do you think?” Brun asked, coming to stand by her side.

She’d not heard him approach. How lightly the Sacromontan stepped, sometimes.

“It looks old enough,” Angharad agreed.

Not all remains of the First Empire were wondrous machinery. The Antediluvians had left great works of stone as well, fortresses and cities and stranger things – towers hidden beneath lakes, palaces balancing atop cliffs and even bridges that crossed half a sea. Many had aged poorly, shattered by war or the ravages of time as eras passed. First the Old Night, reigning for devils only knew how long, then Morn’s Arrival announcing their fall when the last of the Old World took refuge in the depths of Vesper. It had been centuries from then to the Second Empire and longer still to this day. Their curiosity was ended by Isabel sweetly calling for all to gather, the infanzones finally ready to reveal their plan.

Only between the Cerdan brothers and Isabel she found that Song was standing, unveiling a scroll under the light of a lantern held up by Gascon. All gathered close and Angharad sucked in a breath at the sight of what the Tianxi revealed: a map. Spirits, no wonder the infanzones had been unanimous in their desire for her to join. Angharad had wondered at such unusual unity. Hungry for a better grasp of their situation, the Pereduri leaned close. Though it was rough work, nothing at all like Malani sea charts, the outline of the Dominion of Lost Things was clear. They had landed at the southern end of the island, at a place named Lodoso Dock, and followed the road north.

Passing through nameless woods they were now on a plain that reached the shore on the western side but led into further forest to the north and east. The forest to the north was cut by a great river across which there were two bridges, and further beyond stood the mountains and a fort marked as the Trial of Ruins.

“Some of you might be wondering why it is that we have led you to the High Road,” Lord Augusto addressed everyone. “Now is the time to have your answers.”

He gestured at Song’s map, finger tracing the air above the thin grey line that was the aqueduct on the map. It went straight north, parallel to the road, and crossed woods and river to end against a mountainside.

“Its name is most apt, you see,” the eldest Cerdan told them smilingly. “We will climb the aqueduct and use it a high road across half the island, bringing us mere hours away from the Trial of Ruins without ever being at risk.”

“The aqueduct is intact all the way across?” Brun asked, skeptical.

A doubt earned, Angharad thought, if the two of them had been right in guessing the High Road to be a work of the First Empire. Her gaze left the map, instead turning to the tall arches. Not only was it of towering height but the weather-worn smoothness of the stone left no real grip for someone trying to climb. How were they to even reach up there?

“There are sections that fell apart,” Lord Augusto acknowledged, “but we have means to cross them.”

“I imagine,” Angharad slowly said, “that you also have equipment to climb our way up? It will take more than ropes and audacity to achieve this.”

She had not seen cliff-climbing gear among the bags of the infanzones, but then she had not looked for it. Augusto Cerdan smirked, the stern lines of his face softening.

“We have something altogether better,” he said.

His brother stepped forth, Remund preening under the weight of the gazes turned on him. With an arrogant smiled he brushed back his black curls, tucking them under that ridiculous plumed hat he insisted on wearing. Why Sacromonte fashion dictated a side of the brim should be pinned to the hat’s crown was beyond her – unlike a tricorn, it would not even properly keep the rain out of your face. Satisfied he had everyone’s attention, Remund Cerdan breathed out and began tracing thin air with his finger. For a startled moment Angharad thought he might be using a Sign, but the infanzon instead left a trail of thick light.

Contract, she thought. The youngest Cerdan finished with a flourish of the wrist, having traced a small circle of light whose hole faced the sky. Before anyone could think to ask as to the usefulness of such a thing, Remund dramatically took off his hat and hung it on the light as if it were a hook. Both hat and light remaining hanging in midair, to the amazement of several gathered around.

“I will be making us stairs all the way to the summit,” Lord Remund announced. “My power can support weight enough for a grown man and bags when properly focused.”

“That is impressive,” Angharad freely admitted.

“It is not a power without flaws,” Lord Augusto was quick to reveal. “Never let your flesh touch it, else it will be burned.”

The younger brother turned a hard gaze on him, visibly furious.

“Do not be miffed, Remund,” Isabel said, patting his arm. “We agreed to tell our companions as much, yes? No one wants an accident.”

“It was mine to reveal,” the youngest Cerdan insisted, but the edge to his anger was gone.

He sighed, snatching his hat back a heartbeat before the solid light snuffed itself out. Angharad studied him carefully, looking for a price but finding none visible. Was his pact like hers then, bound to a single great oathsworn act? She had not studied the lore of spirits in depth as a girl, but she remembered only old and powerful ones were capable of such things. The Fisher was one such, ancient as stony shores of Peredur and powerful enough a spirit to have formed a body, but that was not so rare a thing. Sacromonte, for all its waning splendour, was host to some great spirits of the Second Empire – the Manes, she thought them to be called.

“It will take us no more than four days to make it to the Trial of Ruins, keeping to a reasonable pace,” Song announced, carefully rolling up her map. “We carry rations and water enough to make it there without resupply.”

“The sanctuary in the mountains provides food and water for all,” Lord Augusto told them. “Our needs will be met.”

The infanzones knew much of the trials and it was no secret why. Isabel had candidly admitted to her during one of their walks that most noble houses kept records of the Dominion of Lost Things for their own, though the Watch forbade the tracing of maps during the trials so any drawn must be after and from memory. Song’s own map, of superior quality, must have been sold to her by a blackcloak and so stood a testament to the Tianxi’s resourcefulness. There were no arguments as to the plan the infanzones had revealed, rightfully so, and so without further ado the preparations for the climb began: Remund Cerdan, wearing thick cloves, began forging stairs with his contract.

Or so he had called them, but Angharad found them closer to a rising slope. The infanzon only ever drew circles she noticed, never another shape even if the sized varied, and seemed as wary of touching the solid light with his bare flesh as others must be. Lord Augusto went to oversee the servants while Song and Master Cozme kept watch, leaving Angharad free to spend her time in pleasant company. Isabel came to her side without being bid and they stood arm in arm as they watched Remund Cerdan put his contract to work.

Isabel had long traded her brocade dress for more practical clothes, much like her maids, but they were just as flattering to her form as the last. A long jacket over a blouse and a yellow satin bodice led into matching breeches and hose, the ensemble secured at the waist by a broad belt while below the hose disappeared into knee-high boots. Having eschewed jewels the infanzona had instead added a touch of panache through a wide-brimmed felt hat, angled roguishly.  Angharad’s eyes lingered on the delicately embroidered bodice and the slender waist it encircled so lovingly.

“Is my bodice so interesting, Lady Tredegar?” Isabel teased.

“I could be looking at your pistol, Lady Ruesta,” she easily replied, smirking back.

It was a small pearl-incrusted piece tucked into her belt, lacquered so heavily there was no telling what the wood beneath might be.

“That would be disappointing,” Isabel said. “I might have picked it thinking of you.”

It was an effort not to cough in embarrassment, but Angharad was not a girl and she had played this game before. Being smitten would only keep her on the backfoot for so long.

“You should have sent for me, then,” she lightly replied. “Should it not be my duty to help you put it on?”

Isabel’s green eyes glittered with amusement, but small fingers pinched Angharad’s side through her coat.

“Bold,” the infanzona half-heartedly chided.

“If that is your request,” Angharad drawled back, “I will endeavour to deliver.”

Isabel’s lips quirked.

“I had thought to offer you a walk with me tonight,” she said, “but I begin to think I would be courting danger.”

Angharad met her eyes, offering a roguish smile.

“Somehow I don’t think you’d mind a taste of… danger.”

Isabel’s cheeks pinkened, eyes widening, and she shyly looked away. It had been so very worth it to learn that smile after Thalente Cindi used it to get her into bed, Angharad mused and not for the first time either. Father had once caught her practicing it in the mirror, which had been mortifying, but not as much as the way he’d then given her advice about perfecting it. Surprisingly good advice, too, which had led her to suspect Mother might not have been as much the pursuer in that courtship as she’d always claimed. The sudden realization that she would never again speak with her father, that never again would she see Mother kiss his neck in affection as they talked of this and that, hit her like a shot in the belly.

She swallowed thickly, Isabel turning to shoot her a concerned glance at the sound. Angharad forced calm upon herself, setting aside the grief. She could not let the past catch up to her, lest it swallow her whole. Forward, ever forward until she took her revenge and at last she could allow herself to weep.

“Are you quite all right?” Isabel softly asked.

“I… miss my home,” Angharad finally replied, keeping to a truth exact. “It would be difficult to return.”

Isabel found her hand and squeezed it comfortingly.

“Difficulty does not last forever,” the infanzona said, then her voice became cadenced. “All things come and go, all that was will be: a closed circle is without end.”

Orthodoxy words, but kind ones. She took what little comfort there was to find within them, gaze returning to Remund Cerdan as he finished the last of his work. He’d climbed up, needing to draw the circles of light with his fingers, and was now a single one away from reaching the top of the aqueduct. His valet Gascon was holding up a lantern from below, its lights revealing a sight that had Angharad going utterly still. Remund’s skin was pale as milk, and for a disgusted heartbeat she thought the man had hollowed, turned into a darkling, but it was not so. His movements were oddly stiff and she realized that his skin was no longer skin at all: it was as if it’d turned into ivory. Even his eyes had gone pale. The noblewoman shivered in discomfort at the sight.

“It is not pretty,” Isabel quietly agreed. “The Tiller-of-Rectitude has twisted tastes, for all that his boons are powerful.”

“Is he a Mane?” Angharad asked in a whisper.

Isabel chuckled.

“No, nothing so impressive,” the dark-haired beauty replied. “He is a temple god, though, revered enough to have his built in the Old Alcazar. It was a coup for Remund to attract his attention.”

The work now finished, said Cerdan climbed atop the High Road and disappeared into the dark, perhaps hoping he had not been seen. His older brother directed the servants to begin bringing up the bags, Gascon and the Ruesta handmaids taking turns to bring up clothes. They covered their hands with washcloths to avoid being burned, the clumsiness it entailed slowing down the work even further. Angharad and Isabel reluctantly parted ways when her time came, the infanzona pulling on fitted leather gloves to help her on her way up. Up there she began to chat with Remund, one of her maids at her side to take up the bags the other one brought up.

With about half the work done, Brun was sent up with his own affairs and Song pulled from guard duty for the same at Isabel’s own suggestion. A courtesy, Angharad decided, meant, meant to soothe away the resentment the high-handed manners of the Cerdan had brought. Angharad went to keep Master Cozme company, less than interested in watching Augusto Cerdan pettily ensure that his own bags were brought up by the servants before his brother’s, and found him sitting on a stone as he kept an eye on the plains around them.

The lantern’s cast only went so far, but out here the lights of firmament lent an eye in a way they had not out in the woods. The cold light of cycling stars, those great Antediluvian wonders, shone like handfuls of diamonds sown in a sea of dark. Yet for all their beauty it was the crescent bite of the southern moons, slices of Glare bled out by faults in the machineries of firmament, that navigators set their courses by. Unlike the stars, they did not move with the passing of years – though unseen ebb and flows dictated the strength of their light.

“Almost done?” Cozme idly asked.

She glanced back.

“Still more than a third of the bags left,” Angharad said. “Mostly supplies. Lady Isabel’s bags were brought up first.”

Unsurprisingly, given that Lord Augusto had been deciding the order. He was still down there with the dark-haired maid and his valet, enjoying the exercise of authority.

“Of course they were,” Cozme Aflor sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “At least with Mistress Song up there we have-”

A shout interrupted him, both their gazes immediately drawn by the sound. Song was gesturing wildly, pointing to their left. Cozme was on his feet in a heartbeat, pistol drawn, and Angharad reached for her saber – yet there was nothing there. Was had the Tianxi seen?

“What in the Manes is she shouting about?” Cozme muttered, picking up his lantern.

Fiddling with the shutter to open it wider, he let out a curse when it jammed and began pulling at it. Song shouted again.

“-RUN!”

The shutter suddenly jerked open, light leaping forward and revealing a dazed lupine three feet away where there’d been thin air a heartbeat earlier. Angharad’s arm moved even as her mind froze, slicing through the lemure’s eyes. The creature whimpered, just before Cozme fired behind her and she turned just long enough to see another lupine’s brains splatter the grass. It was then she finally caught sight of them: strands of shadow on the green, slithering unseen towards them. She barely began to count before ceasing in blind dread: there were dozens, maybe even a hundred, converging from all sides. The Pereduri seized her panic before it could seize her, ripping the lantern out of Cozme’s hands.

He cursed, but she was already throwing it behind them. As the light whirled it ripped away the veil hiding the lupines behind them, dazing them for a moment as it had the others.

Run,” she hissed, and they did.

She broke into a sprint, hacking blindly when something snapped at her heels, and saw Cozme’s wide-brimmed hat fly off when he turned to cut at burning yellow eyes. They were soon at the lantern she’d thrown, howls erupting behind them as the pack emerged from nothingness and ahead she saw one of Isabel’s maids going up the rings of solid light, the valet right behind her, screaming as she burned her hands in her hurry. The distraction cost her, Angharad’s foot slipping on the grass, but Cozme caught her arm and kept her standing. A shot sounded from the top of the aqueduct, the lantern behind them exploding in a ball of pale fire whose blooming light had the lemures yelping in pain.

They did not waste Song’s gift, running the last of the way hard enough their legs burned. Angharad almost slipped into the mud when she reached the ground by the last of the bags, supplies she knew they would have to abandon. Already Lord Augusto was climbing up his brother’s rings, shouting for his valet to hurry, and there was just enough room for another to begin going after him. Angharad and Cozme traded a look for a heartbeat, then she gestured for him to go. She would have slipped out there, if not for his help. That debt at least she could repay. She turned to face the onslaught, blade in hand, and breathed out slowly.

The light of abandoned lanterns laid out a ghostly ring for her, the darkness beyond just thin enough that when whatever greater power had veiled the lupines released its hold she saw the horde entire. A dozen slowly circling around her, eyeing the black ichor still staining her blade, and twice as many spreading around. She saw it then, the monster behind it all. She would have thought it a hill on the horizon, if it had not moved. Large as a carriage, the wolf-like lemure leaned heavily on its too-large front legs, the great maw seton its eyeless face filled with teeth like razor blades. The horror, though, did not lay there: it was covered in bulbous cysts and open wounds, trailing from all of them a foul black pus that the lupines came close to lick as if it were to them mother’s milk.

Shadow shivered down their fur when they did, melding them with the dark, and Angharad retched at the sight. Her disgust was forced aside when fear stole its place, her wandering gaze enough to incite the lemures to attack. The yellow-eyed monsters charged a dozen all at once, bone stingers rattling up a storm as they ran. Shots rang from above, downing two while the other balls missed, but Angharad kept her eyes on the enemy. Going still, she glimpsed ahead.

(It leapt up, tearing out her throat as another hamstrung her and the rest barrelled into her corpse)

Crouching down without missing a beat, she let the lupine fall into the mud as she carved through the muzzle of the one to her left. Pivoting on herself to rise back to her full height, she stole another glimpse.

(Claws into her back, snapping at her heels from behind, a mass like a tide tipping her over.)

Precision in all things, she told herself. So the wasp kills the lion. Measured movement, using her pivot to stumble back so the lupine clawing at her back instead stumbled into the one crawling out of the mud to bite at her heels. Hands high, shifting the weight so she could steal her footing back in time to slash at the muzzle of the first lupine in the tide. It was chaos after that, too fast and brutal for glimpsing. Claws tore at her side, through coat and shirt, and she smashed a skull with her saber’s pommel and hacked into another enemy’s flank. Another few shots from above, and another from closer: Cozme had reloaded while climbing.

And just as suddenly as it had come the tide withdrew, lupine corpses strewn all over the ring of light as the survivors fled back to the safety of the dark. Angharad, panting, felt the foul mixture of blood, sweat and ichor slide down her skin. Already another pack was gathering, and larger.

“Climb,” Isabel called out. “Before it is too late.”

Not eager for another melee she was unlikely to survive, the Pereduri moved towards the rings. She could tell immediately, though, that it wouldn’t be enough. Gascon was near the summit, but the valet had dropped the cloth that covered his hands and his fingers were covered with black burns, his eyes red with tears. Lord Augusto had half-climbed with him but couldn’t go ahead, not when the rings could not support the weight of two men, and though Angharad could squeeze close to Cozme it would leave her a mere handful of feet above the ground. The lupines would drag her down in moments. Song shot her musket again, blowing up a lantern in a burst of pale flame to scatter the gathering pack.

Only two left.

“A rope,” Angharad shouted. “Thrown down a rope, we’ll climb up the side.”

“Then they’ll stop shooting to cover us, you fool,” Augusto shouted.

But Brun, the God bless him, listened to her instead of the Cerdan. Within moments he was dangling a rope off the edge, and though it would need a leap to catch it Angharad would not miss. She glimpsed, saw herself falling short, and adjusted the angle. She had as many chances as she would need.

Song shot again, another lantern buying them precious time.

“Shit,” Cozme swore, looking back. “The large one is coming. Can the rope handle both of us?”

If that creature came, Cozme wouldn’t be high enough for safety either.

“Isabel,” Angharad screamed. “You and your maids, help Brun.”

Four people on the rope, would it be enough? They would have to risk it.

“It should,” Angharad said with certainty she did not feel. “I’ll go first, try to catch you.”

Another shot, the last lantern went and she breathed out. The light faded and the pack thundered against the ground, racing forward. Time to- there was a scream, above, and Angharad’s breath caught as she watched Augusto Cerdan twist the knife he had rammed into his valet’s back, throwing the weeping older man down. With a shout of triumph the infanzon climbed up to safety, Cozme close behind. Angharad looked back for a heartbeat, seeing a lupine’s jaw close around Gascon’s face, and felt something well up in her. She followed behind Cozme, the ring of lights winking out behind her, and though one of the lemures leapt up just in time to almost catch her boot she got away in time.

Few even tried to reach her, the pack falling on Gascon like ravenous hounds and tearing him apart.

Taking Song’s hand and letting herself be pulled up atop the aqueduct, Angharad let out a shaky breath. But she was not done, not yet. She wiped her blade clean on the side of her trousers and sheathed it, then turned her eyes on the knot of worried-looking infanzones. Even as the pack howled below them, prowling at the feet of the arches like hungry dogs, Angharad strode forward. Cozme caught the look on her face and moved in her way, but she sidestepped him and struck as hard as she could: her palm caught Augusto Cerdan on the cheek, hard enough he fell to the ground. She heard the cock of a pistol being pointed at her back but ignored him as everyone began to shout, unsheathing her saber.

As fury and fear warred over the eldest Cerdan’s face, she tossed the empty scabbard at his feet.

“Have you gone mad?” he began. “I’ll-”

“Augusto Cerdan,” she cut through with icy calm, “I name you a disgrace in the eyes of all who see, a coward without honour. Pick up this sheath and duel me once peril passes, or let your heart serve in its stead.”

The challenge was delivered in clean, crisp Antigua and laid out the two choices that lay before the craven traitor. He could either let her execute him for his deeds, here and now, or pick up the scabbard and accept a duel when they reached safety. Cozme still had a pistol pointed at her back, but Angharad did not flinch as she met the traitor infanzon’s dark eyes. She could not see behind her, where the honour of the others might have fallen, but the demands of her own were beyond dispute. A long moment passed, all their lives resting on the Sleeping God’s breath as the lupines howled all around, until finally Augusto Cerdan moved.

He picked up the sheath and the slower of his two deaths with it.

Chapter 8

Lieutenant Sihle had said the road began half a mile ahead and that was where they found it.

Tristan was no tracker, not so far from dirty alleyways, but though the ancient paving stones were half-covered by dirt and dead leaves they were too large to be missed by anyone with eyes. The woods were light on either side but grew thicker swiftly, leaving the impression of a path cleared thoroughly long ago and since left for the forest to reclaim year by year. Most fighters banded at the front and the back of the column while those there were low expectations for – the two greyhairs, the twins, Ruesta and her maids – stood safely stashed in between as the company marched on.

Yong had been called to the front by virtue of having a musket and knowing how to use it while Tristan was ordered to the back by the Cerdan brothers’ unpleasant valet, Gascon. The richly mustachioed man had been open in his contempt, having a look about him the thief was not unfamiliar with. It cropped up sometimes in the personal servants of infanzones, those few who’d gotten so used to the taste of boot on their tongue they’d begun to think they were part of the sole. Contempt the thief cared nothing for, but his choice of company at the back of the column was unfortunate: he shared the guard with Tupoc Xical and his two Asphodel companions.

Leander Galatas was still nursing his wound from the Bluebell, the arm turned to pulp now a thoroughly bandaged stump, and kept to a sullen silence. The Asphodel Rectorate noble, whose full name Tristan learned to be Acanthe Phos, was a rather chattier fellow. She asked of his origins, which he remained vague about, and shared of hers freely. House Phos was, she told him, one whose fortunes had not done well as merchants began their rise. The lack of opportunities afforded to a seventh child from an impoverished house – one whose unfortunate acne made unlikely to marry rich – had seen her seek a career with the Watch.

“It’s all Tianxia’s fault, of course,” Acanthe told him, patting his arm in her enthusiasm. “Their traders rile up the commons, starting all this talk of turning Asphodel into a republic allied to the Ten. Absurd.”

He tended to agree. It would hardly be the first time the Tianxi helped overthrow the nobles of a city-state in the Trebian Sea, but one so close to Sacromonte? He had his doubts. Tianxia already had troubles enough at home without borrowing some from the City’s backyard. Still, he suspected that his own Republican sympathies would win him no friend here so Tristan steered the conversation into safer waters. Talk of Sarai, who yet feigned to be from the hated rival city-state of Rasen, was fertile ground.

“You can’t trust Raseni, Tristan,” Acanthe lectured him. “It is well known that they wear their veils to better hide the devils among their numbers. They frolic with their like in debauched rituals, hoping to gain dark powers.”

Having been just as reliably informed by a Raseni trader that Asphodelites were half-devils themselves, keeping hidden libraries of dark tomes used in unholy rituals to turn the winds against honest Raseni captains, the thief hid his amusement as best he could.

“Oh,” Tupoc mused, “I’m sure Tristan has nothing to fear from our Raseni, Lady Phos. He’s already beaten a woman today, why not another?”

The thief did not react. It was not the first time the Aztlan  tossed a barb his way, but giving him nothing in return saw him grow bored and cease. Having to take the needling again and again was exhausting, but he was dertemined not give Tupoc whatever it was he was after. Tristan let the conversation peter out again, saying nothing, and ignored Acanthe’s sympathetic look. She had yet to object, for while she might be enjoying their conversation it was Tupoc Xical she had thrown in her lot with. She’d not endanger that alliance for a nobody.

The thief kept to his own mind for a time, unsettled by the ring of darkness around them. In Sacromonte there was always light, however distant, but here there was nothing beyond the glow of the lanterns they carried. The Watch’s outpost by the shore was hidden by the tall trees and the stars above seemed so distant – as if even the ancient wonders of the Antediluvians were seen through a veil. He’d read that the islands of the Trebian Sea were among the most luminous of all Vesper, so how dark must the rest of the world be? He shivered at the thought.

The thief had no watch but bespectacled old Vanesa did, and when they halted word made its way down the column it had taken three hours and a half for them to reach the blood-soaked battlefield Captain Cristina had spoken of.

It was a great clearing that the road ran right through, an opening in the forest, or at least it had been. There was a gaping pit at the heart of it now, even the ancient paving stones shattered, and dried blood spread everywhere in wild streaks. They approached slowly and carefully, swords and muskets out – Tristan carefully loaded his pistol, cramming in the powder and ball – until the shivering lantern lights made out great footprints in the earth. Each was as large as a great pillar and rounded, digging deep enough to hint at the crushing weight behind the legs. It was with relief that Tristan saw the tracks heading east, deeper into the forest. But the captain’s warning proved prescient.

As they passed around the pit shapes darted out of the shadows cast by the broken grounds. Only a dozen, though the suddenness of the charge caused some startled screams. Shots rang out before Tristan could even see the beasts properly, five of them dead on the ground in an instant – that short Ramayan girl with the pistols downed two in the same breath. Half the remainder fled, the rest charging madly as they howled. They were lupines, Tristan saw, lemures with the look of great wolfhounds that grew bonelike stingers along their matted fur. Their teeth were too large and curved for dogs, or even wolves, and their eyes like pits of yellow sulphur.

The three that charged, for all their swiftness, ran into fine killers at the ready. Inyoni and Tredegar shot forward, blades flashing a beast’s head was hewn open and the other run right through. The third passed them, just in time for Ocotlan’s axe to nail to the ground. It went right through, like a hatchet for a melon, and pulp flew sickeningly.

Tristan spared them no more thought, though, as more lemures were circling the treeline behind him. Only a few shapes slinking along the line of light cast by the lanterns, but the sight of them was enough to have him clutching his pistol tightly. One ran out suddenly, and not thinking twice he lowered the pistol and pulled the trigger. The flintlock sparked but his wrist trembled and the shot went whizzing wide, the lupine darting back out of sight without ever have been in danger. Tupoc Xical snorted from behind him.

“Best stick to the blackjack, I think,” the Aztlan said.

Tristan hid his embarrassment by looking away, pretending to watch the woods.

“Not that these are worth fearing,” Tupoc continued. “Barely more than dogs.”

“Lupines prefer long hunts, Xical,” he replied, pleased to correct the other man. “They can smell a scent for several miles and have unnatural endurance, so the packs like to hound their prey to exhaustion before going for the kill.”

The Aztlan’s pale eyes crinkled with pleasure and Tristan immediately knew he’d made a mistake.

“I wonder,” Tupoc idly said, “how it is that a Sacromonte gutter rat knows that.”

The thief swallowed a curse as Acanthe shot him an assessing look. The Aztlan had been goading him all this time for a reaction and now he’d finally gotten it. Cutting his losses, he moved away from the two and Tupoc let him retreat with a pleasant smile. The skirmish was good as done anyhow, the lupines unwilling to risk another attack. They must have been blood-mad to risk one on such a large group in the first place. The column moved away, word from the front coming that a good camping site awaited two hours ahead. The lemures disappeared from the back as they left the clearing for the forest ahead, likely gone back to eat the corpses of their own.

They would return, though, and so after another tiring stretch of march through the woods it was with relief that Tristan saw the camp site that had been chosen.

It was well-situated, he must admit. The first stretch of forest behind them had come at an end, revealing long rolling plains stretching out for many miles ahead until another treeline began near what must be the foot of the looming mountains. To the northwest, the silhouette of the old aqueduct known as the High Road could be glimpsed in the weak starlight if you stood at the edge of the lanterns long enough. It was close, no more than an hour’s march away. The camping site itself was maybe a quarter hour away past the woods, two sloping hills with a slender cut between them. They had signs of regular use, with firepits already dug and dried out latrines.

Under the orders of the infanzones, who acted as if they knew of the place already and likely did – it was an open secret the families kept records – a camp was raised. The firepits were fed with wood and charcoal as two watchers took places at the summit of the hills, which would give a broad view of the plains below. The nobles raised their tents near the fires and their followers put down bedrolls around them, everyone else radiating outwards around the hills. As one of the infanzones’ recruits, Tristan earned a place halfway down the western hill near Yong and Lady Villazur’s hired hand Sanale.

The likes of the married pair and the two greyhairs had to settle for further down on either hill, the first to be dragged into the night should some lemure or cultist slip past the vigilance of the watchers.

It was no grimmer than the truth of the city he’d been born in, Tristan figured, only stripped of the usual varnish that allowed people to ignore it. Putting down his bedroll and medicine cabinet, the thief checked in with the Cerdan valet for his time to keep watch and was sneeringly informed his turn was to be near morning, five hours past midnight. Inyoni’s nephew Zenzele, who he was to replace, would come to wake him. Pleased at the given time, for it meant he would get most of a night’s sleep uninterrupted, Tristan bade good sleep to Yong and flopped down tiredly on his bedroll.

He was asleep within moments.

Tristan,” Fortuna hissed. “Tristan, you need to wake up.”

His eyes struggled to open, sleep fighting to keep them closed. His entire body felt lazy, like he’d spent an afternoon napping, and though he could hear Fortuna he struggled to remember why he should care about what she said.

“You idiot,” the goddess cursed. “Get up, someone’s pinning a murder on you.”

Sheer surprise and anger tore through the veil he’d been wrapped in, eyes futtering open as he woke. The fires crackled in the distance, everyone asleep around him, and the thief bit his lip so he would not snarl. That tiredness had not been natural. Someone had used a contract on him. Shifting in his bedroll, Tristan caught Fortuna’s eyes. The goddess, red dress bunched around her as she knelt in the grass, looked every inch the unearthly creature in the flickering light of the flames. Hair and eyes of molten gold, he thought.

“Who?” he murmured.

“Couldn’t see,” she admitted. “Their face was covered. I’m pretty sure it’s a man, though.”

Tristan grimaced. The goddess could not stray too far from him, rarely more than a room’s length, she would not have been able to follow the stranger back to wherever they’d hidden. She wouldn’t be able to name his enemy. First get out of the trap, he reminded himself.

“Where?”

His murmur was answered by Fortuna gesturing at his medicine cabinet. Inside? Gods, how hard had he been hit by the contract not to wake while someone was going through his belongings a mere two feet away?

“Keep watch,” Tristan said, and went to have a look.

It was difficult to unlatch the cabinet and crack it open without making a sound while laying down, but it was not his first time needing quiet fingers. At first glance nothing was amiss, but then Tristan saw them: a dagger, carefully inserted between two vials, and a rag pushed into a half-hidden nook. A bloody rag, his closer look revealed. He unfolded it, careful to get nothing on his fingers, and saw that an edge had been wiped clear of blood on the cloth. Just enough to get me hanged if they catch me with it, he thought.

Whoever had done this had been careful not to make him look like a complete fool: clever enough to hide and wipe the knife, just not to get rid of the rag after. If he were to sell the story in place of his foe, Tristan decided, he’d say that the rag was only hidden until it could be cleanly disposed of in a fire. Quietly he folded the cloth anew and took the dagger, beginning to close the cabinet silently as he put his mind to work along his hands. Someone must be dead, otherwise a wound deep enough to bleed this much blood would have woken them.

More importantly, whoever had killed them wanted him to take the fall for it.

Had he made an enemy, or had he simply seemed like a good sort to leave behind for the noose? There was no denying that he’d been picked out in particular, with the way a contract had been used on him. Only, he thought, it could not only be him who’d been touched by power. There were watchers as well and they would have noticed someone moving around so they must have been subjected to the contract too. Unless they were in on it, he considered, but then discarded the thought. Tristan was simply not important enough to be conspired against. That did not mean, however, that trying to out the scheme would be wise.

A rat with a blood-soaked rag and a corpse someone needed to answer for? Even if he was the one to make a ruckus in the middle of the night, there were decent odds he’d still end up the one hanged. If it was one of the nobles that’d done it, they’d close ranks to bury him. Not worth the risk. That did not mean there was not a solution: someone had done all the hard parts of pinning a murder and there was no need to waste all that work when he could use it instead. Closing the cabinet, he rose onto his knees. He could only see one of the watchers from here, but the Ramayan girl – Shalini, if he recalled correctly – was utterly still. No shifting around, no stoking the flames, no looking anywhere but straight ahead.

Calming his breathing, smoothing his thoughts into calm, the thief stole the knife and rag from the grass before crawling forward. Silently, as not to wake any of those sleeping near him. Moving up the hill, he paused only to grab a loose pebble and gauge the distance. A heartbeat later he threw the small stone near Shalini, waiting tensely as it bounced off a half-buried log. The noise would have been unmistakeable, but she did not so much twitch. Still under the contract, then, just as he would be had Fortuna not shouted at him until he stirred. Good, that meant he had his opening. The crawl resumed until he was near the fires, where the tents of the infanzones had been raised.

He could not see within, but outside lay their closest servants. The Cerdan valet, Isabel Ruesta’s maids – Beatris was unharmed, a relief – but to his displeasure not Cozme Aflor. Counting the tents again, he concluded that the Cerdan brothers must be sharing one while Cozme had claimed the other. It was too risky to try for a tent, he reluctantly admitted to himself. He’d have to lower his aim: the Cerdan valet, Gascon. The brothers were unlikely to start carrying their own bags even if the valet was cast out, which meant it’d likely end up Cozme’s work for all his pretensions that he was the one really in charge. He’d be more tired, more vulnerable, more likely to give Tristan an opening.

Planting the goods was not all that difficult.

The rag he hid under a flat rock a few feet away from the sleeping valet, with just a hint of the corner peeking out, and he slid the knife under the sleeping man’s neatly folded jacket. As he began to withdraw he saw the redheaded maid suddenly turn in her bedroll, yawning as she pawed at her loose hair. Tristan breathed in sharply, preparing to borrow luck, but she never opened her eyes. He stayed still as a statue until her breath evened out, asleep again. Flush from the scare, he crawled his way back down the hill and slipped hastily back into his bedroll. Unseen, he thought, but he could not be sure. There would be no telling for certain until morning came.

Though the thief knew he would need the rest, it still took him all too long to fall back asleep.

The second time, he woke to a scream.

Putting on a show, Tristan reached for his knife and rose with a gasp. Yong was brandishing his sword, eyes wide open, and the both of them found a crowd gathering on the side of the eastern hill. The corpse was there, below where the Asphodel pair had been sleeping, and he padded over on bare feet to have a look the body. The moment he did his breath caught in his throat and he knew why he’d been the one chosen to take the fall: it was one of the twins. Ju, he was fairly sure, the one he’d struck yesterday. That was not, he grimly thought, a good look for him right now. It was her sister who’d found the corpse, and Lan was red-eyed and shaking. Old Vanesa gently took her by the arm, offering comfort, but the blue-lipped woman pushed her away. She rose to her feet, eyes moving to him out of all the crowd as she did, and Tristan’s stomach clenched. Revenge was but a shout away for her.

“My sister,” Lan croaked out, “was murdered in the night. Her throat slit like some pig for slaughter.”

Tristan tensed as he forced himself not to squirm under her gaze, but then Lan’s eyes moved away.

“Until we find who did it,” she said, “no one here is safe.”

Abject relief. An accusation would have been no proof, but sometimes it didn’t take much to whip up a mob. And a mob was very much in the making here, by the looks on people’s faces as the crowd swelled.

“There’s no stream near here to wash,” Inyoni called out. “Someone herewill have blood on them.”

The scarred older woman, like her charges, had been sleeping just on the other side of the hill. She’d been one of the first to join the gathering throng.

“We have waterskins,” Brun calmly pointed out. “There is no need for a stream.”

The other Sacromontan had slept on the opposite side of the western hill, the infanzones between them, but still been one of the first to arrive after the scream. Already up, Tristan figured. By now long enough had passed for said infanzones to learn they had a mess on their hands, so like a pack of lupines they showed up all at once. Tredegar along, of course, having become the muscle for their crew more than she likely realized.

“Cold water won’t wash out blood well,” Remund Cerdan announced, tone certain. “I can still inspect everyone for traces.”

“And why is it,” Zenzele asked with wary eyes, “that you would be doing the inspecting?”

The other man blinked, as if it had never occurred to him he might be questioned.

“Watch your tongue, Malani,” he bit back. “You almost sound as if you are accusing an infanzon of-”

“We are not in Sacromonte, Cerdan,” the chubby-cheeked Ramayan called Ishaan calmly interrupted. “Posturing does you no good.”

Isabel Ruesta, looking like the very picture of anguish, stepped in between them. Tristan almost snorted, thinking she was laying it on a little thick. How most people who met her seemed not to notice never felt to surprise him: she wasn’t that good an actress.

“Now is no time to turn on each other with wild accusations,” Ruesta implored. “What could Remund have had to gain, even were he a man to murder?”

“What did anyone here have to gain?” Ferranda Villazur bit out after her. “It was a senseless thing. For all we know a cultist did this in the night.”

Her appeal for an outside enemy was swiftly ignored.

“There is one,” Angharad Tredegar evenly said, “who quarrelled with the sisters yesterday.”

Fuck, the thief thought. And now came the price for yesterday. Eyes turned to him, a crowd’s worth of them as near everyone had gathered around the corpse by now, but Tristan did not flinch. If he showed weakness they would devour him whole.

“We quarrelled over a pistol which is still in my possession,” Tristan replied. “Would slitting her throat somehow make it even more mine, Tredegar?”

“No one else of this company has done violence on another,” the Pereduri pressed. “Who else is there?”

“You are,” he replied, “trying to do me violence right now.”

At that she balked, long enough for someone else to speak up.

“If we throw accusations without proof,” Sarai said, “any one us of could be the culprit. Lady Inyoni and Lord Remund are correct: we should look for evidence first.”

And a mere heartbeat after she stopped speaking, as if it had been timed, there was an exclamation of surprise. One coming from near the tents of the infanzones, which raised Tristan’s spirits even as the Tianxi with the silver eyes – Song – flipped over the stone near the valet’s bedroll and revealed the bloody cloth.

“Blood,” Song announced. “Too much for a simple cut.”

Tristan’s eyes narrowed. Fortuna, leaning against shoulder lazily, hummed in agreement. Both of them were well-acquainted with chance, and that timing had been more than simply fortunate. It reeked of collaboration, but what for? Had they been behind all of this? Tristan could not remember seeing the two women exchange more than few words since they’d come aboard the Bluebell and he’d sought enmity with neither of them. It seemed off for them to try to frame him for an equally senseless murder, the pieces didn’t fit. Whatever the truth, he was immediately forgot.

The crowd exploded in jeers and shouts at the revelation of the bloody cloth, Gascon loudly exclaiming he had nothing to do with this but swiftly drowned out by a tide of indignation. Not even his masters could prevent his affairs from being searched, and chubby-cheeked Ishaan was the one to lift the jacket and reveal the planted knife. The Ramayan held it up triumphantly and in the moment that followed half the crowd looked willing to cut Gascon’s throat themselves. That was where things took a turn.

“What of it?” Augusto Cerdan called out, shouting down the accusations. “It is his knife, you fools, I gave it to him myself years ago. He merely forgot to put it away.”

“It is true,” Remund immediately agreed. “This is no proof at all, only nonsense. We all have knives. Where is the blood on the blade?”

Tristan, just for a moment, considered the possibility that whoever had murdered Jun in the night had used another man’s knife for it. Wondered at the foresight of the murderer. And then he set that absurd thought aside, considering the much simpler proposition that the Cerdans were covering for their valet in case some of the shit he was dragging in ended up splashing them. It wasn’t enough, though, and by the looks on the brothers’ faces they knew it. They were not in favour with the other people here, not after having hidden away during the fight on the Bluebell. So Isabel Ruesta spoke up, eyes calm for all that her face looked troubled, and Tristan knew it was over.

“Briceida,” the noblewoman called out, “you have known Gascon for years. Is it true, is the knife his own?”

The redheaded maid smiled broadly.

“It is, my lady,” she said. “I swear it.”

That gave the others pause. Even if it were untrue, forcing the matter would now make this a much larger trouble than a single corpse. The infanzones commanded the largest group and were obviously making common front – one that counted a troubled-looking Angharad Tredegar, that one-woman battalion.  Meanwhile, who did Lan have backing her? Not a soul. Tristan saw that revelation sink into the surviving twin, the way she looked as if she had been struck. The impotent rage that twisted blue-tinted lips when she realized that no one would do a damn thing about her twin being killed in the night because no one cared enough. And that was when, naturally, Tupoc Xical decided to step in.

“I do not care for this talk of knives,” the Aztlan dismissed, “but for this instead: how was it done?”

A moment of surprise followed.

“The Tianxi’s throat was cut but there is little blood spray on the grass and it is even,” the man continued. “She did not move. Who does not wake or struggle even as they are dying?”

Someone touched by a contract, Tristan encouraged. He’d be mocked if he suggested as much, but the Aztlan was not someone they would laugh at.

“Someone who was drugged,” Tupoc said instead. “And there is only one here who carries such substances.”

The eyes went back to him, the thief’s blood going cold as the crowd’s mood turned again. Even the gaze of the infanzones, whose crew he was meant to be part of. Only he was on their mirror-dancer’s bad side and he would be a scapegoat for this mess much less close to them than the Cerdans’ own valet. If anything, they might just help bury him.

“I have a bottle of soporific in my cabinet,” Tristan slowly acknowledged, playing for time, “but it is quite full. I invite you to look if you doubt me.”

He could only hope that it actually was full. He’d not checked every single bottle while on the Bluebell, which now struck him as a grave oversight.

“What point would there be?” Tupoc asked. “You could have topped it off with water, the colour is the same.”

“Then drink a mouthful,” Tristan acidly replied, “and tell us if it feels diluted.”

He could tell, though, that he was losing the crowd. What else was there, what shovel could he use to dig himself out?

“I carry half a dozen medicines that could be poisons, used in a malignant manner,” Tristan said. “What need would I have for a knife? If someone plucked a life unseen in the middle of the night, it seems to me more like the work of a contract than that of a bottle.”

“It could have been the Lord of the Thirteenth Heaven as well, I suppose,” Tupoc drawled, “but he is very far and your soporific fortuitously close. Besides, who is to say you do not have a contract yourself?”

The Aztlan was enjoying this, the thief thought. He could see it in the man’s pale eyes.

“Speak up then, boy,” Augusto Cerdan broke in, a man no older than Tristan. “Do you have a contract? What does it do?”

And now came the infanzones, bravely riding to the rescue of the only thing they cared about: their reputation. Tristan smiled, showing all his teeth.

“Your own valet is caught with a bloody cloth and a knife,” he said, “and yet I am the one answering questions. An interesting turn, Cerdan.”

He was teetering on the edge, and there was no telling which way it would go. Would anyone even speak for him, if the infanzones decided that he must be arrested ‘for the safety of all’? He’d have to try the luck, gods damn it all. But even if it got him out of the immediate trouble, how much worse would it land him in?

“It wasn’t him.”

Surprise caught his throat as silence spread over the hill and he turned to look at the speaker: Lan herself, mouth set in a straight line as she met his eyes.

“My sister and I spoke with him last night, we settled our affairs,” the blue-lipped woman lied. “There was no longer enmity between us. This is mudslinging.”

No one would argue with that he knew, not when it was her own sister that had been murdered, but already he was digging behind. Why? What did she gain by doing this? She had to know the murderer had good as gotten away with it already, what did she… Ah, Tristan thought. Two steps ahead, are you? She’d already seen through how it would end after no one paid for the death and decided to put him in her debt instead of making him an enemy. Only catching up now, his stomach clenched. He was about to lose everything he’d manoeuvred for.

“She’s right,” Inyoni snorted. “You’d bury your own mother to keep the dirt from touching your feet, Cerdan.”

“Fuck this,” her nephew Zenzele spat. “This isn’t going anywhere. Come on, auntie, we’re going. If they want to protect a killer it’s on their heads.”

“Agreed,” Ishaan snorted, throwing the knife into the grass hard enough it sunk to the hilt. “We part ways here.”

There were some token protests by Ruesta about the need to stick together, but it was theatre. She made no real attempt to mend fences and within a quarter hour Inyoni’s group of six was leaving. Herself, the nephew and his lover, the two Ramayans and that Aztlan called Yaretzi who sometimes tried to chat up Tredegar. She was a decent shot with a pistol, he’d seen yesterday, but nothing else of note. The group headed for the road north and no tears were shed at this first departure. Why would there be? As far as the infanzones were concerned, they’d averted a mess that would have entangled all of them and the groups had been meant to split later today anyhow.

Tristan stayed quiet and out of the way, knowing he too had come dangerously close to burning his fingers with this whole affair. Tupoc led his group away not long after, though not before making some smiling comments to the infanzones about trust. Taking the two from Asphodel and Ocotlan, he headed east towards the woods. Watching the pale-eyed Aztlan stroll away, the thief could shake the feeling that only one person this morn had gotten everything they were after and their name was Tupoc Xical.

After that there were only the infanzones and the soon-to-be leftovers remaining, so Tristan knew exactly what lay ahead. What Lan had seen before he did. The nobles would want to save face, and there was only one way left for them to do that. As he packed his affairs, the thief closed his eyes and forced himself to look for an angle. All his work to get close to the Cerdan, to lay down the foundation of his revenge, was about to be undone but there had to be something. There was always an angle. By the time Cozme came to fetch him, smiling all rueful like he cared in the slightest, Tristan still had nothing. It was like clawing at stone. Following the retainer, he found that the infanzones, their servants and other recruits were already waiting.

The thief had not even noticed Yong being sent for, stuck inside his own mind. The youngest Cerdan, Remund, began to yammer on but Tristan only paid him half a mind. Something about how their valet could not be the killer, that he of course did not believe Tristan was the killer either but who could know? His older brother gravely added that they could not possibly put Isabella at even the slightest risk, surely Tristan understood. If this were Sacromonte they would have simply dismissed him with a smack on the mouth, telling him to mind his betters, but here they had to go through this charade because they needed others to follow them. Tredegar, Brun, Song, Yong. All useful hands, all people that needed to be reassured they wouldn’t be thrown aside easily. A lie, but one the infanzones did not want seen through too quickly.

It gave him no pleasure to see them go through these contortions, not when there was nothing he could do about the ending. The older Cerdan droned on while Ruesta looked at him with limpid eyes, as if full of sympathy. Ferrdana Villazur’s open boredom was, at least, refreshingly honest. She wanted this over with as much as he did. It had already been decided he was to be cast out of their little group, lose his opportunity to get at Cozme and the Cerdans, and there was nothing in his hands that could hurt them. Nor did his allies – the thief stilled. Not allies, no. But there were enemies aplenty. Lupines who would be hunting them all, soon enough, and that could… But how to deliver it?

His revelation was encroached on by Isabel Ruesta’s voice.

“I do not believe it either, I assure you,” she told him. “And you came recommended to me by Beatris, who I most dearly trust. If she speaks again for your character, I will insist you remain with us.”

Tristan stilled. The Cerdans looked surprised and angry while Tredegar looked resigned, which implied Ruesta might not be simply posing. What would she get out of this? After a heartbeat he decided she wanted him under her thumb. Someone who’d owe her and not balk at doing the kind of things Tredegar wouldn’t. The thief’s eyes moved to Beatris and he saw the maid touch her jacket’s pocket, the same one where she had stashed away the ruby he’d given her. He saw the calculation in her eyes and the answer she came to.

He’d already killed Recardo, and now he came with too many enemies attached.

“I do not know him deeply, my lady,” Beatris said. “I cannot truly speak to his character.”

She did not look away when he met her eyes, unashamed. As well she should be. Tristan was not angry, not really. How could he be, when just yesterday he had struck one the twins for a relic pistol? This was nothing more than the Law of Rats, the same he lived by. Beatris would do all she could to survive, as he would in her place. It would have been a hypocrite’s game to claim anger here. Ruesta looked taken aback for a moment, then demurred to her maid.

“I can only follow your words, of course,” she said.

Beatris not playing along had clearly been unexpected and Ruesta looked, amusingly enough, like she’d been the one who just got a knife in the back. He breathed in sharply. That idle thought, that detail, was the last piece Tristan had needed. All of it fell into place and suddenly there was no longer a need to humour any of this.

“I will put us all out of our misery,” the thief said, “and simply take my leave before Lord Augusto begins another speech.”

“Thank you,” Ferranda Villazur frankly said.

He walked away, deciding not to risk a glance at Yong. The thought was tempting to try and ruin his chances to ensure he was forced to stick by Tristan, but the infanzones were unlikely to throw away a skilled soldier on the thief’s behalf and an unwilling ally could be as dangerous as an enemy anyhow. Instead he made straight for his medicine cabinet, discreetly reaching for a small green vial near the middle compartments while pretending to be arranging the vials. Yes, lodestone extract was there just as the drawing in Alvareno’s Dosages outline. A shadow was cast over him in lantern light, Tristan looking up to find Yong standing there.

“I did not expect a courtesy goodbye,” Tristan admitted. “I wish you good luck on the road, Yong.”

He hesitated, wondering whether he should offer a warning and how to phrase it so his scheme would not be threatened.

“I would hope so,” the Tianxi replied, “since we’re headed down the same one.”

The grey-eyed thief paused.

“Your odds might be better with them,” he finally said.

The Tianxi soldier eyed the bottle in his hand.

“Somehow I doubt that,” he said. “Besides, we struck a bargain.”

The thief cocked an eyebrow. Neither of them were Malani, to be obsessed with honour and oaths.

“And their way of going about things leave a bad taste in my mouth,” Yong admitted. “They’re headed to the High Road out west for some reason, they want to let the rest of us go first.”

It only took him a moment to figure it out.

“Lupine bait,” the thief guessed. “While we’re being eaten they’ll sneak past the packs.”

“That is also my read,” Yong grunted, “and I’ve had too much of that tired old game.”

Tristan studied him for a long moment, looking at the older man’s sweating face. He’d begun drinking already, the thief thought.

“One day,” he said, “I’d like to know why you left Tianxia.”

Their eyes met.

“No,” Yong mirthlessly smiled. “You wouldn’t.”

The former soldier flicked a glance at the crew forming around the infanzones, frowning.

“If you have a scheme, now is the time for it,” he said. “They’re about to leave.”

For the barest moment, Tristan hesitated. Beatris was with them. But then he considered the thought of letting the infanzones get away with it, of letting them walk away clean like they always did, and it burned like coals in his belly. In the end, all that he owed his fellow rat was the ugly law they’d been born to: nothing more and nothing less.

Tristan uncorked the green bottle. The transparent fluid inside was sticky yet surprisingly liquid, so he was careful not to spill any as he wet his right hand. He carefully put the bottle back and closed the cabinet, walking over to where the crowd had gathered for the last of the earlier squabbling. There Ishaan had angrily thrown the knife the infanzones lied about and there it still was. Tristan ripped it clear of the ground with his left hand, careful to slather the leather grip with the liquid. He then strode right into the midst the infanzones’ crew, blade in hand. Song loosely aimed her musket his way and Tredegar put her hand on her saber, but he went straight for Augusto Cerdan and smiled.

He flipped the knife, offering the handle to the scowling infanzon.

“You gifted it to your valet, didn’t you say?” Tristan said. “Have it back. Perhaps back in your hands it won’t earn so poor a reputation.”

With all those eyes on him, with Ruesta’s eyes on him, Augusto could not back down from the implied challenge. He took the knife, fingers closing around the extract-drenched handle. It would have felt humid, but not wet. Not enough to draw suspicion.

“That mouth of yours will cost you some day, boy,” the infanzon coldly said. “More than it already has.”

“We all pay the price at the end, Cerdan,” Tristan easily replied. “It’s the single fair thing in all the world.”

And with that he walked away from the infanzon, from the lot of them, and back up the hill as they began to leave. The moment they were out of sight, Tristan rushed to his medicine cabinet. He carefully opened it using only his left hand, unlatching the clasps and reaching for the glass bottle at the bottom. Shoving it under his armpit as he reached for a rag, he pulled the cork and wet the rag with grain alcohol. Methodically, ignoring all the eyes on him, the thief wiped his hand and the edge of his clothes with the wet rag. He was particularly careful with his skin, knowing that lodestar extract would sink in unless dissolved by alcohol.

“So what was that about?” Yong bluntly asked.

Tristan finished up with the rag and tossed it away, careful not step anywhere near it. He then cast a look at the seven people he’d be taking the Trial of Lines with, the band of leftovers than no one else had wanted. Yong and Sarai, the drunk and the woman wearing a mask. The exhausted and bickering married pair of Aines and Felis – the gambler and the dust addict. Grief-stricken Lan who had put him in her debt, her once-polished smile replaced by poorly hidden rage. And then the greyhairs, bespectacled Vanesa and ever-coughing Franchowith his toothless smile. It was not the crew he’d wanted, but it was the one he had. He must make the most of it. An introduction was in order, a proper one.

“Are any of you familiar with lodestone extract?” Tristan asked.

He got mostly blank looks, though Lan frowned as if trying to recall something. Most importantly, Francho’s eyes lit up.

“You coated the knife in it?” the old man asked.

“The handle,” the thief agreed.

The greyhair hummed in understanding.

“And for those of us unfamiliar with the substance?” Sarai asked.

“The lodestone bush is a plant that grows berries,” Francho explained, tone gone professorial. “It is common across the west and south of the Trebian Sea. The berries, while comestible, have an unpleasant side effect.”

“Their juice doesn’t smell like anything to us,” Tristan revealed, “but to lemures, they reek of fresh blood.”

A moment of silence. Lemures like lupines, the beasts with the noses of hunting hounds crawling around these parts.

“The extract,” Yong slowly said, “it will be more concentrated than the raw berry juice, won’t it?”

“At least a hundred times, if it is anything like what is sold in Sacromonte markets,” Old Francho said, grinning a toothless grin. “Clever boy. Every lupine for a dozen miles will be after them like they’re the only meat at the feast.”

The thief only smiled a pleasant, friendly smile.

“They meant to use us to clear their path,” he shrugged. “I am only returning the favour in kind.”

Tristan liked to think of himself as a practical man, even when moved by revenge. It did not matter if the deed was not of his own hand, so long as Cozme and the Cerdans died.

Chapter 7

People could be funny about death, Tristan thought.

Dozens died in Sacromonte’s gutters every day and no one batted an eye, but if you tossed forty bodies on pyres and made people look at them suddenly it was the greatest tragedy in the world. Watching Isabel Ruesta bawling her eyes out the thief held back from rolling his own. Her admirers were already flocking to offer her sweet words of consolation, though he noticed they looked shaken too. That was the thing with nobles: they’d lived such pretty lives it never really sunk in that they were always just one mistake away from dying. They thought they were important, that the world should somehow care, but Tristan knew better. Your life only ever really mattered to yourself.

“I think she might truly be grieving,” Fortuna said, peering over his shoulder.

He snorted.

“Sure she is,” he murmured. “Her chance to marry her rich cousin just went up in smoke.”

Literally. Maybe one of the blackcloaks would be nice enough to help her pick out the right column. Keeping the amusement off his face, he flicked a glance backwards when footsteps creaked on ash-strewn mud. Yong’s black hair, tousled by warm breeze, was absent-mindedly pressed aside as the older man approached with a grimace.

“Thought I was done smelling this after leaving Tianxia,” Yong said, then spat to the side.

It was a hellish sight, the thief thought, the burning red glow and thick smoke swirling around them. It was what he thought Pandemonium might look like, that great monstrous city of devils in the far east. All the evils in the world, kept sealed inside Hell’s capital by the arms of the Watch. It had all felt very far away, once, but not so now that he’d left Sacromonte for this strange shore. Shivering despite the heat, the thief spoke to fill the silence.

“So you’ve been in wars,” Tristan said.

“It’s Tianxia, boy,” Yong snorted. “There’s always a fucking war on.”

So the word went. The republics making up Tianxia were famous for their squabbles, be they mercantile or military. Only the rough business of driving out the Imperial Someshwar had ever succeeded at getting them to set aside their enmities for more than a season.

“Killed some folk, didn’t get killed back,” the Tianxi continued. “As good as career as a soldier gets.”

His hand, Tristan saw, was inching towards the flask of drink in his coat pocket. It stopped when he noticed the thief’s stare.

“Anyhow,” Yong brusquely said, “they’re burning the bodies naked. Means the equipment is still around here somewhere.”

Tristan inclined his head.

“I’ll see what I can do.”

He didn’t make promises and the former soldier didn’t ask for any. Neither was fool enough to think getting caught stealing from the Watch would end in anything but summary execution. The show of sorrow was coming to an end, besides, Isabel Ruesta sniffling as her admirers swore she would be safe and her maids wiped her cheeks with soft handkerchiefs. Tristan saw most of the others were still milling about uncertainly, waiting among the ashes of the dead for a welcome that had yet to arrive. There were only a few blackcloaks tending to the pyres and they cared little for talk, while no one had quite dared approach those standing near a set of storehouses further up the beach.

A few enterprising souls shook the surprise before the rest, though. Ju and Lan, who’d failed to secure a place in Tupoc Xical’s crew despite heavy courting, were looking around for something. Either the rest of the blackcloaks – Tristan counted only a dozen, way too few for an outpost this large – or the same potential loot Yong had sniffed out. They earned unfriendly looks from the watchmen standing guard when they tried to casually approach the storehouses, almost making the thief smile. They might have been rats of a finer coat than he, but to the Watch they were rats still. Counting that situation as in hand, he moved out through the smoke.

In passing he found Tupoc Xical and his little band standing unusually close to a pyre, hiding one of them from sight with their bodies. The Asphodel noble with the acne, Acanthe something or other. Tristan watched them carefully, trying to make out what they were doing, but did not dare linger when he was seen. The Aztlan had shaken him down for painkillers on the boat, having recognized the box Tristan had stolen from Alvareno’s Dosages. The implied threat of having it revealed that he was going around carrying a poisoner’s kit had been enough for Tristan to pay up, but the matter was not finished. People who twisted your arm for payment always came calling again.

That crew was too dangerous to tangle with for now, but who knew how the trials would go? Patience was the key to many a lock.

The thief edged around the fires, taking a longer look around as the rest of the people began spreading out in their impatience. The Watch’s foothold on the island was no great fortress, only a couple of long stone storehouses that must have served as both storage and dormitories. Old lamplights cast a dim glow all around, the dirty lanterns hanging off them burning cheap oil. There was a sloping watchtower past the storehouses that overlooked the bay, the muzzle of three cannons peeking out from its top, but aside from these there was little here but docks, pyres and a muddy beach.

The docks weren’t even much to talk about, just a stretch of half-rotten wood jutting out into the water. Only two ships the size of the Bluebell would have been able to dock at the same time and only one to unload. Sailors were now bringing out crates from the cog’s belly, moving them towards the storehouses, and it was plain there would not have been room for a second crew to do the same. Instinct nagging away at him, the thief drifted closer to have a look at the crates being moved – though not close enough to earn suspicion.

“We’ve seen that crate before,” Fortuna suddenly pointed out.

He knew exactly which one she meant. The same crate the poor girl who’d turned into a Saint had tossed him into when she came out swinging, spilling seeds everywhere. It’d only been roughly fixed, tarp nailed onto wood to prevent further spills, and so had a distinctive look. As far as he could tell most of the crates being taken out were from the same part of the hold, and that had him curious. The Watch was bringing out cheap seeds, the kind from plants not grown in Glare light and so carrying none of that light within them. None but darklings and the poor ate anything made of that unless they had a choice.

“It can’t be meant for the blackcloaks,” he muttered. “There’s no natural Glare on the island, only the lights they brought. They should be eating only proper food to stave off Gloam sickness, not this shit.”

“They took out those boxes full of trinkets too,” Fortuna noted.

And yet, as far as he could tell, none of the crates that’d held muskets, blackpowder or military rations. This place was not, he deduced, truly the seat of the Watch garrison on the island. Only an outpost used to herd those who took the yearly trials. That and one more thing. His thoughts were interrupted by another’s approach, and there was no mistaking whose: Sarai, clad in the grey dress and veils that hid her from head to toe, was unlike anyone else come out of the Bluebell. Tristan did not move away when she came to stand by his side, as their last trade had been profitable to both. He was not averse to continuing the relation.

“I believe you’re the only other to have come looking at the crates,” Sarai said. “Those smiling twins came close, but only looking for grave goods.”

The thief snorted.

“No point in that,” he told her. “Either the blackcloaks will let us help ourselves openly or now’s the worst time to be trying.”

If there was anything he and Yong decided they absolutely needed, he’d wait until there were fewer people around to steal it.

“Practical,” Sarai approved. “But what has you looking at the crates?”

He hummed, not turning to meet the copper mask around her eyes. It would give him nothing.

“What has you doing the same?” Tristan retorted.

“We’ve been told that Captain Crestina’s only a few minutes out,” Sarai easily said. “I came to warn you.”

Half a lie. She was counting the crates too, the thief had noticed. But it’d been useful what she said, so he gave a little too.

“This isn’t where the real Watch garrison is posted,” he said. “Crates full of arms and rations are still in the cog. They must have a fort elsewhere on the coast the Bluebell will be sailing for.”

It was hard to tell, with the veils, but he thought she might have smiled.

“The sailors chattered about a town called Three Pines back on the ship,” the othered shared. “This can’t be it, so we are in agreement.”

He nodded. The two of them stood there, counting the crates, for a long stretch of silence. Only when it became clear the sailors would take nothing else out of the cog was Sarai stirred to speak again.

“You must have figured out what this place is really about,” she finally said.

Tristan weighed his options. If she was counting, then so had she. There was not much to lose by speaking his mind.

“It’s a trade post,” the thief said. “Or something like it. Crates of black seeds and trinkets? There’s darklings here on the island and the Watch trades with them.”

“Trinkets,” Sarai slowly said, as if trying out the word. “Yes, that is a good way to call them. Glass and mirrors and kettles.”

He glanced her way, but there was no reading the woman beneath the veils.

“The Malani love to use trinkets up north,” she said. “They bribe lowland kings with them to win rights to slaves and copper. They’ll trade the kings everything out of Malan, really, save for the one thing the blackcloaks aren’t trading here either.”

“Muskets,” Tristan quietly said.

“That is so,” Sarai agreed, the faintest touch of a strange accent touching her voice, then turned his way. “I counted fourteen crates. You?”

“The same.”

“Then we know there are hundreds. Likely more than a thousand.”

Tristan grimly nodded. Seeds didn’t keep forever and, if fourteen crates of them were to be sown soon, then there must be enough darklings on the island to sow them. That was troubling, even though Tristan was no sneering Redeemer to believe all darklings at best a step removed from beasts. He’d rubbed elbows with their kind in the worst of the city’s slums, near the old mines where many dwelled. Tristan had found them a strange folk, but not so different from other men. Yet here the Watch was taking great care to keep muskets out of their hands and that was a telling thing.

“Has to be cults,” the thief said. “The old stories say that the island’s called the Dominion of Lost Things because the Watch throws away all sorts of old evils on these shores to be lost forever.”

“Cults would be a greater concern than simple lemures,” Sarai replied. “They’ll go out of their way to hunt us.”

Darklings who worshipped the bloody-handed gods of the Old Night were rightly feared by all civilized peoples of Vesper, as their cults sought a great many things but blood was always one of them.

“There’s a reason only fools and the desperate take these trials,” Tristan said.

She turned to shoot him a look which, even under the veil, he could tell was amused.

“And which are you, Tristan?”

He offered her a winning smile.

“You underestimate me, Sarai,” he drawled. “I might lay claim to both.”

She cocked her head to the side.

“That act you put on is surprisingly charming,” Sarai said. “It must have taken you years to polish.”

Surprise stole the words out of his mouth. His belly clenched in discomfort as Fortuna guffawed, leaning against his shoulder.

“Oh, we should keep that one,” the goddess decided. “Make it happen, Tristan.”

He was saved from answering by a ruckus in the distance: as he’d been forewarned, Captain Crestina was returning. They parted without another word, Sarai’s last still hanging in the air between them, and he drifted through the columns of smoke. Yong joined him halfway, the two of them following the press of trial-takers gathering as the blackcloaks rode in. The watchmen numbered a dozen, all riding sure-footed Abrian ponies and armed to the teeth. Wrapped in the heavy back cloaks that’d earned the Watch its oldest sobriquet they carried muskets, sabers and paired pistols with powder gourds hanging off their saddles.

“They look ready to fight a war,” Yong muttered, and Tristan could only agree.

A rider guided her mount away from the rest, barking out an order that saw half the company heading towards the storehouses while she pulled down a black scarf to reveal the tanned features and curly hair of a born Sacromontan. Reining in her panting horse, she cast a look that was halfway to a glare at the crowd before spitting to the side. The infanzones wrinkled their noses as the sight almost as one. The thief, on the other hand, grew wary. He could almost smell the anger boiling under that still-calm façade.

“Welcome to the Dominion of Lost Things,” the blackcloak announced. “I am Captain Crestina Elvir, the officer appointed to command of this outpost by grace of the Conclave. You may refer to me as either captain or ma’am.”

Tristan knew little of the Watch’s workings, for the order delighted in secrecy, but the difference between the Conclave and the free companies was common knowledge. If the companies were the branches of the tree, largely independent armies and fleets roaming Vesper to take contracts as they would, then the Conclave was the trunk. It ruled the Watch’s fortresses, ran its tribunals and conducted its diplomacy. Captain Crestina, if she had been appointed by it, was not answerable to anyone else. It was a veiled warning to any noble who might think to make demands of her, Tristan figured. By the silence that followed her words it had duly been heard.

“You will have heard by now that the first wave of trial-takers met misfortune,” Captain Crestina said. “I can confirm that all forty of them are dead.”

No sobs followed, not even out of Ruesta, but a great deal of unease spread. Tristan shared in it.

“May I ask what happened to them, captain?” one of the infanzones called out.

Lady Villazur, he noted. Of the Sacromontan nobles, she most seemed to be taking the dangers seriously.

“They decided to set out early and were ambushed by cultists of the Red Eye about half a day from here,” the watchwoman plainly said. “Some would have made it, if the fighting hadn’t woken up an airavatan.”

That didn’t get much a reaction out of anyone except the Ramayans, who faces betrayed fear and surprise. Noticing the confusion of most the crowd, the captain elaborated.

“A heliodoran beast,” she said, and that got gasps.

Abuela had made him read several books on lares lemures, most of them about the creatures native to the shores of the Trebian Sea, but ‘heliodoran beasts’ had come up in one of the more fantastical works. More common in the Imperial Someshwar, Tristan recalled, they could grow large as houses if they were old enough. He’d never seen a drawing, but they were said to be horned creatures possessed of many eyes and great strength.

“It killed most everyone and wandered off after chewing on a few corpses,” Captain Crestina said. “The good news for you lot is that with a full belly it won’t be on the prowl for more. It might even have gone back to sleep by.”

“And the bad news?” Tupoc Xical asked.

“The Red Eye cult is all riled up, boy,” she replied. “They lost near a full warband and brought back no sacrifices to show for it. They’ll be out in force looking to make up for that. My men and I just cleared their scouts all the way to the High Road, but from here on out you’re on you own.”

Then she looked viciously amused.

“Of course, there’s now a graveyard’s worth of blood spilled on the road north,” Captain Crestina added. “So if I were you I’d first worry about the scavengers that will draw out.”

The brutal mixture of honesty and disregard hit the most fearful among them hard. Aines, the terrible gambler he’d met in passing, looked about to break down weeping and her husband was little better. The old woman with the spectacles, Vanesa, had a resigned look about her. Like she’d not expected to live through this in the first place and had just got that fate confirmed. Even a few of the recommended foreigners looked wary. Whatever good cheer had been won by the victory on the ship was returned to the aether. The Asphodel noble with acne cleared her throat loudly.

“We were told-”

“I don’t care what you were told,” Captain Crestina sharply interrupted. “I’ve lost half my command cleaning up the mess the first pack of idiots made and I’m not going to bleed the rest holding your hands. You have from me all you’ll get, inutil.”

She spat to the side again, eyes glittering with anger.

“You get the rules, you get to take from the supplies and then you’ll all be getting the fuck out of my outpost before the hour’s out.”

The blackcloak mastered her temper, lowering the voice that’d begun to rise with the end of her sentence.

“Lieutenant Sihle, take them through the rest,” she called out. “I have letters to write to the families of men who deserved better.”

A rider from the handful that had been standing behind her came forward, taking off a wide-brimmed hat to reveal a dark Malani face. The man smiled, lamplight glittering on a silver tooth as he did.

“Yes ma’am,” he agreed.

Captain Crestina rode away, face twisted in anger, and her lieutenant turned to the crowd with brisk mannerisms.

“There are three trials,” Lieutenant Sihle announced. “The first is Trial of Lines, which you are soon to begin. To find the others is simple: there is a road beginning half a mile ahead, and you simply need to follow it across the island.”

Through thick woods that could be seen in the distance, Tristan noted, and then tall mountains much further ahead. No doubt through cultist ambushes and hungry lemures as well.

“At the end of every trial, before the next, you will find sanctuaries marked by yellow lamps and entering them means you have succeeded,” the lieutenant continued, sounding almost bored. “Neither beasts nor cultists will do you harm within these sanctuaries, and there officers will offer you the opportunity to end your candidature.”

He paused.

“Should you choose this, you will enter the protection of the Watch and be escorted to our garrison, where you will await the end of the trials before sailing back to Sacromonte.”

This was not news, not exactly, though Tristan had not known the practical details. Infanzones always quit after the second trial, lest they win the ‘reward’ of being inducted into an order that required one to renounce their titles. This was a proving ground for them, not a vocation’s choosing.

“Apologies, sir,” Angharad Tredegar spoke up, “but you have forgot to mention the rules.”

The lieutenant frowned at her.

“What rules?”

She blinked.

“Surely there must be rules of conduct between us,” the Pereduri said. “Lest the trial descend into squabbles and backbiting.”

Tristan swallowed his smile. Gods. She hadn’t quite got what this first trial was about, had she? It wasn’t called the Trial of the Lines because the road ahead was straight. It was about the lines you were willing to cross to survive. The thief couldn’t muster up resentment for it, though, or even much mockery. Tredegar seemed to largely mean well, much as when she had come to ‘save’ him from Tupoc Xical. She was of that particular breed of noble who thought they benevolent saviours, never mind that they usually had no idea what the people they were trying to help wanted or needed.

Still, she was cut of better cloth than the like of the Cerdans so he took no joy from Lieutenant Sihle laughing in her face.

“This isn’t that kind of a place, girl,” the watchman said. “You’re not allowed to kill each other here or inside the sanctuaries, but beyond that?”

The lieutenant shrugged.

“Survival is the rule. The rest isn’t the Watch’s concern.”

Tredegar took it better than he’d expected, shutting her mouth and slowly nodding. Maybe not as soft as I thought, Tristan considered. He supposed that becoming a ‘mirror-dancer’ must beat some squeamishness out of you, if it was actually anything like what Sarai had described. Considering that the sailors – many of them veteran watchmen – had sounded awestruck when describing her scrap with the Saint, Tristan was inclined to believe it. Someone asked about the supplies Captain Crestina had mentioned and the lieutenant agreed to lead them to the goods without much prodding. What they found when led there was better than he’d expected, finally an upside.

There were three crates of miner’s rations, dried meat and sourdough bread with nuts and berries, all neatly wrapped in packs. Besides them were crates of cheap waterskins, bedrolls, lanterns and fire-starters. All were invited to help themselves, courtesy of the Watch, though many refrained as they had better equipment already. Tristan did not, but because others did he felt comfortable going straight to the three sprawling piles besides the crates with no fear of being left without supplies. There the watchmen had dumped the equipment of the deceased, separating them into three broad categories: weapons, clothes and the rest.

Lieutenant Sihle left them to it after a last reminder they were to be gone by the end of the hour.

A semblance of order formed around the crates, begun by Angharad Tredegar lining up behind a surprised Vanesa. Those that would have elbowed the old woman aside without a second thought did not dare to pick a fight with the Pereduri, ensuring temporary civility as others lined up, but Tristan spared the affair no more than a glance. His fellow rats were coming for the grave goods and there would be no courtesy to be had there. Ju and Lan were already sniffing around the weapons, Ocotlan the legbreaker elbowing one of the twins aside to grab a long-hafted axe no one else would have been able to use anyhow.

Tristan grabbed a leather tricorn in the Malani style out of the clothes pile and set it on his head before joining the fray, just as Brun and the married pair – Aines and Felis – began looking too. Most of it was useless to him, swords he did not know how to use or hunting spears, but he grabbed a hunting knife to serve should his own blade break. The dozen muskets lined up were useless to him as well, but the pistols warranted a second look. The thief had little training with the weapons, for Abuela considered them loud and imprecise, but he knew basics. And from close enough a pistol was hard to miss with.

Best to have it and not need it than the other way around, he decided.

He grabbed a wooden powder flask from the pile and began rifling through the pile of pistols, stilling when he came across a familiar sight. As far as arms went it straddled the line between decorative and practical, engraved with wolves chasing each other’s tails while a tassel hung off the bottom bearing an incrusted red gem. The cold metal of the barrel, though, was functional and without frills. Tristan’s mother had owned a pistol much like this, once, though her own Raseni relic had preferred foxes to wolves. Breaking out of his stupor, he – Ju’s fingers closed around the pistol and she shot him a sly blue grin.

“Too slow, rat,” she chided, and flicked a finger against the gem.

It rang prettily.

“Not too pure a ruby, but still worth a tidy sum,” Ju decided.

She had no idea what the relic was really worth, then. Tristan could have told her he’d seen it first, but the claim would have meant nothing to either of them so he didn’t bother.

“Give it here,” he said instead.

The Meng girl frowned, reading his face and then taking half a step back.

“Help yourself to another,” Ju said. “Plenty left.”

Tristan’s hand slid towards the blackjack at his side, not quite subtly enough for her to fail noticing it.

“Last warning,” the thief said.

From the corner of his eye he saw they’d drawn some attention, so it was too late for either of them to back out. Whoever did would be marked as easy meat for anyone that felt like throwing their weight around. Ju flicked a glance behind him, seeing something that strengthened her resolve, and sneered.

“You wouldn’t dar-”

He aimed the blow for the side of her mouth, hard enough it’d hurt but not knock teeth out. Ju yelped in pain as she stumbled onto the ground, cradling her cheek, and Tristan pivoted out of the way. He moved out of the path of the swing he’d expected, seeing his attacker’s face: Lan had grabbed a musket and tried to smash it into his back like a mace, but she was no trained scrapper and it’d gone well wide. The thief took a quick step forward, resting the side of the blackjack’s leather strap against her neck before she could recover. Lan went still.

“From here on out I go for crippling blows,” Tristan evenly said. “Ju, give me the pistol.”

The spectacle drew scavengers. Broken-nosed Ocotlan, interest caught by the violence, approached with an expectant air. He was looking at the relic pistol as well, likely wondering what was worth a scrap there and whether he should try his hand at taking it. Tristan schooled his face not to reveal he’d seen Yong silently moved behind the big man, a hand on the hilt of his sword. Brun stepped close as well, eyes watching them all closely with that perennial calm smile. That one worried him more than the big Aztlan, if only because he was much harder to read.

“They won’t let you get away with it,” Lan said, but her voice was shaking.

Tristan’s jaw clenched. He’d already given as many warnings as he cared to: offer too many of those and people stopped taking you seriously. His arm tensed as he drew back for another blow, but the sisters gave first. Ju threw the pistol at his ankles, just strong enough for it to sting.

“There,” she spat. “Choke on it.”

He gave Lan a warning look and the other sister took a step back, grimacing, as he bent to pick up the relic. His eyes were already moving on to Ocotlan, who looked like he’d come to a decision. That nasty grin heralded nothing good but the big man was too late. Angharad Tredegar, wearing that coat ever in need of mending, strode boldly onto the scene and Tristan almost smiled because it’d been about time. Now that the scavengers had clawed at each other, their benevolent saviour would naturally come to restore order.

“What is going on here?” the dark-skinned noble demanded.

And there went Ocotlan’s smile. He would be under orders by Tupoc to avoid tangling with the mirror-dancer, Tristan figured. A practical sort of bastard, Tupoc Xical. Unfortunately not the kind of man who could be counted on to get himself killed on his own.

“An argument over goods,” Tristan said. “It has ended.”

Tredegar glanced at the blackjack still in his hand with surprise and some distaste. Ju had, of course, elected to remain on the ground and was now cradling her cheek like he’d struck her twice as hard as he actually had. Betting on the Pereduri getting the relic back for her, was she? Unfortunately for her, Tristan knew exactly how to deal with the likes of Angharad Tredegar. Having given his answer, he turned and walked away. Not in another direction, for that would have smacked of retreat, but instead past the noblewoman. She was half expecting a confrontation, it was writ in her stance, but the thief instead said nothing and continued past her before she could recover from the surprise and try to interrogate him again.

Even if the twins went whining to her now, what would Tredegar do – shake him down for the pistol in front of everyone? That wasn’t the kind of person she thought she was. She’d stepped in to save someone, not serve as legbreaker for a pair of sisters who were more than a little bit suspicious. The Pereduri wouldn’t like it, but the matter was good as finished. The thief was aware he’d soured the first impression he had made on a dangerous woman and crossed another two, but he was still smiling as he moved towards the back of the line for the rations. Yong came to stand behind him to wait, as if by coincidence.

“So what was worth the mess?” the soldier asked, voice slightly slurred.

Drinking again. It hadn’t taken long. Tristan ripped the string keeping the tassel tied to the bottom of the relic, shoving it into his pocket after. Angling the pistol so that only he and Yong would see, he then pressed his thumb against one of the wolves. There was a slight click and panel popped open, revealing a small stone no larger than thumbnail. It gave a soft, pale glow that the thief allowed to be glimpsed for only a heartbeat before sliding the wolf panel closed again.

“Rhadamanthine quartz,” Yong whispered, startlement sobering him up in an instant.

Found only within the city-state of Rasen’s famous quarries, the precious stone was worth a fortune. Rhadamanthine quartz held the Glare as few other materials did, almost day to day: a year soaking in the light meant bout a year holding it. The piece in the relic pistol Mother had owned had gone inert, lessening its value – once it lost the first light for good, the stone was said to begin holding it less and less – but it had still been pawned for enough the two of them to live on it for years.

“No Gloam disease for us,” Tristan said, not hiding his satisfaction. “Even if the lights go out.”

Keeping it against their skin for a few hours a day would keep the sickness from coming upon them until the stone died. Raseni families considered the relics to be heirlooms, passing down from parents to children and treasuring them greatly. The rarity of their sale only made them more precious.

“Worth the enemies,” Yong agreed.

There was no more excitement as the trial-takers claimed their supplies, the mood somber now that Tristan’s actions had laid bare an ugly truth: survival was more important to everyone here than civility. That did not mean all were eager to go off on their own, though. If anything the corpses still burning on the pyres were a stark warning as to the risks of that approach. When a handful came together in conversation away from the rest, Tristan immediately saw the writing on the wall. Who they were spoke loud as to what would follow: Ferranda Villazur and Augusto Cerdan for the infanzones, Tupoc Xical for his own band and grizzled Inyoni for the two pairs of youngsters with her. Every group with clout had a voice there, to an evident purpose.

They all wanted to stick together for the early part of the Trial of Lines.

That it would happen was good as a foregone conclusion. Everyone wanted numbers until they were certain there was no Red Eye ambush waiting along the road or large roving packs of lemures. Once everyone was further in people would begin turning on each other again, but for now all would prefer safety over seeking an edge. Tristan dismissed the talks from his mind, seeking instead the company of the other ally he’d struck a bargain with. Both of Isabel Ruesta’s handmaidens had changed out of their dresses into more practical trousers and jackets for the walk ahead, Beatris’ were visibly shoddier than Briceida’s.

Tristan figured that, unlike the drapier’s daughter, his fellow rat had not had the coin to put on getting clothes she might never wear again tailored. She was also the one checking on the bags one last time before departure, Briceida instead attending to their mistress, but the thief was glad of that much. It was easier to approach her than if she were close to the infanzona, who Tredegar and the younger Cerdan were circling like bees would a flower. And largely for the same reasons, as far as Tristan could tell. He made no effort to hide his approach, and though he stopped well short of being in reaching distance of the bags Beatris still turned to glance at him. Brushing back dark hair, she scowled.

“That show tarred your reputation good,” Beatris informed him. “If not for your medicine cabinet, they might have thought twice about bringing you along.”

“But they haven’t changed their minds,” Tristan pressed.

She shook her head. Good. That had been his worry, that a miffed Tredegar would try to oust him. His bet had been that the Cerdans would oppose her out of pure dislike and it was good to see it had paid off.

“I have work,” Beatris told him. “I must get back to it.”

He pushed down a frown. She had never asked if he’d gotten Recardo killed and he’d not offered up the truth of it, but since that day she had kept a distance. She’d not turned on him, remaining friendly, but she knew he was dangerous now. Capable of killing and keeping it quiet. And so Beatris, sensibly enough, seemed to have decided he was someone best kept at arm’s length. Tristan would have preferred to keep on better terms, but if their relations were take a cooler tone he would adapt. Casting a quick look around to ensure no one was watching, he reached in his pocket for the jewel-incrusted tassel and tossed it at her.

Beatris fumbled the catch but picked it up from the floor quickly enough, surprise painted on her face. She turned a questioning look on him.

“I have no use for it where I’m headed,” Tristan shrugged.

Whether that be the grave or the Watch, a small ruby would do him no good. For her, however, it might just represent a turning point in her life. With the coin pawning this would earn her, it was no longer certain she must stay in the service of House Ruesta for the rest of her life. Beatris bit her lip before nodding, putting away the gem before anyone could see her taking it.

“This is a trade,” the thief reminded her. “I scratch your back…”

The dark-haired woman shook her head.

“I know how this goes,” she replied. “I’ll keep an ear out for anything of interest to you.”

The grey-eyed man dipped his head in thanks, troubling her no further. She still had work to do and it wasn’t like the nobles would deign to carry their own supplies. It took another quarter hour for the informal council to finish, but his prediction proved accurate. A pact was struck and protection offered for those who would obey some simple rules. All were to pitch in for the group’s protection as they marched, a roster would be made for keeping watch when camp was made and so long as one joined the company there would be no violence against each other. Only a fool would have refused the terms, so no one did.

They hurried after that, Captain Crestina’s demand they be gone by the hour’s turn not something anyone cared to test. Under the stares of the blackcloaks the thirty-one of them settled into a thick marching column, bristling with lamps, and a lumbering march forward began.

Behind them the lanterns of the Watch grew distant, darkness hemming them in from all sides, and the Trial of Lines began.