Chapter 34

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tristan’s face went blank.

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

Fortuna snorted.

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

He gritted his teeth.

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

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

Quicksilver anger rose, swift and blinding.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Supplicant,” the god greeted him.

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

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

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

He cocked his head to the side.

“Your test being?”

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

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

“And the toll?”

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

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

Tristan was not a fool.

“You want my blood,” he stated.

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

The thief swallowed.

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

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

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

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

“Is it him?” he asked.

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

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

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

And then it changed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fortuna was stroking his back. Whispering soothingly.

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

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

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

“What did he do?” Tristan asked.

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

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

“He’s gone now?” he asked.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Get Basset. He looks like a breach.”

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

“This the one?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maryam grimaced.

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

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

“What were they trying to do?”

Maryam leaned closer.

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

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

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

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

“I’ll be there,” he sighed.

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

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

“That’s going to sting,” Maryam said.

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

A fitting end to a bloody day.

It was Yong who kicked him awake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until the green glow winked out.

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

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

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

“Sarai?” he prompted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fascinating,” Francho muttered.

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

“What is?” Yong asked.

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

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

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

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

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

Sergeant Mandisa’s jaw clenched.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how could the Red Maw feeding be a deviation?

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

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

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

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

“What will he do?” Tristan asked.

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

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

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

As Mandisa had said, they were done here.

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

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

It was small enough she accepted.

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

“Yong,” he groaned. “Do you need to-”

“Drag him out.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He paused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tristan smiled pleasantly back, then looked at the watchwoman.

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

The blackcloaks blinked at him in surprise.

“Er,” she said. “Dulcia?”

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

A moment of silence.

“No,” Dulcia conceded.

Tristan turned his gaze back to Lieutenant Vasanti.

“Fancy that,” he said.

She snorted.

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you implying one of us did this?”

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

He paused.

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

“Of course not,” Vasanti said.

A little too quickly.

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

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

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

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

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

A pause.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Back in the chair,” Lieutenant Vasanti ordered.

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

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

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

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

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

“Again,” Vasanti said.

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

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

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

The Someshwari sighed.

“Choke him.”

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

“-enough, he’ll die.”

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

“He’s fine.”

Lieutenant Vasanti leaned forward.

“Where is the brand, Tristan?”

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

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

“To leave the court of cats

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

He gasped blindly, trying to breathe through the grip.

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

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

“For when their hunger comes

rats are ever sport.”

A long moment of silence.

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

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

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

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

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

Unless she had something to show worth that many deaths.

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

He snorted.

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

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

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

Tristan blinked, for an instant lost.

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

The Someshwari leaned forward.

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

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

“It wasn’t even about me.”

His eyes fleshed.

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

The old lieutenant sneered.

“You have no idea what-”

They were past that now.

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

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

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

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

Vasanti was a rat.

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

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

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

And hour later Lieutenant Vasanti returned.

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

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

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

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

Chapter 33

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

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

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

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

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

A snort.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Izcalli raised an eyebrow.

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

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

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

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

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

“I cannot agree to one,” Angharad said.

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

“Not yet,” Angharad evenly said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is madness.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just like the killer who had been cutting throats.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shalini and I are victors,” he contributed.

“I am as well,” Acanthe quietly added.

Eight victors in whole, then.

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

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

He paused.

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

The Malani lord snarled but gave no retort.

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

The trouble was what came after, she knew.

Tupoc knew it too.

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

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

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

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

“I am not sure.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Master Cozme would not be sharing a room with them.

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

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

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

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

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

“- ent outside.”

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

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

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

“You had need of me?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smiling she offered Brun her hand.

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

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

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

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

“Did I miss a jest?” Angharad asked.

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

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

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

Angharad cocked an eyebrow.

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

Isabel cleared her throat.

“To join the court of cats

is most easily done:

solemnly swear that none

ever did fall flat.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My thoughts exactly,” Isabel smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shalini frowned.

“What are you talking about?”

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

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

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

Lord Ishaan laid a hand on her shoulder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ishaan visibly steeled himself.

“Your coat is black,” he told Angharad.

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

“You cannot lie,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ishaan cleared his throat, voice rasping.

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

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

“I am listening,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Song cocked an eyebrow.

“And you are?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I do not mind,” the Pereduri said.

Song shrugged in agreement. Ishaan nodded his thanks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Angharad started.

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

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

She seemed very interested. The Someshwari traded a look.

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

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

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

The Pereduri cocked an eyebrow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ishaan conceded with a nod.

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

Angharad blinked.

“Yong?” she said.

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

She flicked a glance at Song. The latter sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

Ishaan sighed, passing a hand through his hair.

“His contract worries me,” he said.

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

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

And unpredictability rarely ended in pleasantness when dealing with spirits.

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

Angharad blinked.

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

“Nothing,” Angharad admitted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shalini snorted.

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

Ishaan shot her a look somewhere between fond and irritated.

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

Angharad stilled. Song leaned forward, eyes intent.

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

He was not lying. He could not without sickening.

“You broke our gate,” Angharad slowly said.

Ishaan cocked an eyebrow.

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

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

“And Tupoc’s crew?” Song asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pereduri’s brow rose.

“About Ishaan and Shalini?”

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

Angharad nodded. She remembered.

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

Angharad frowned.

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

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

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

She paused.

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

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

There would be nothing subtle about that.

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

They were methodical about it.

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

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

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

Angharad cocked her head to the side.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

In she went.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The noblewoman hesitated, but ended up staying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A pause.

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

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

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

She leaned forward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ferranda laughed.

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

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

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

Isabel paused, then laughed incredulously.

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

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

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

Ferranda snarled.

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

Another step forward. This time Isabel stood her ground.

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

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

The infanzona snapped her finger.

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

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

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

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

“This isn’t over,” Ferranda said.

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

She leaned forward.

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

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

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

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

Chapter 32

Something was off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tianxi bit the inside of his cheek.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good luck,” he said.

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

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

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

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

“I thought we were feuding,” Tristan said.

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

The thief rolled his shoulder.

“You don’t intend to come back here.”

It was more a statement than a guess.

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

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

“Sensible,” he nodded.

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

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

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

“How sure are you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lan slowly nodded.

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

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

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

The blue-lipped woman hummed, considering him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I wanted to,” she replied, jaw set.

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

“Them too?” he casually asked.

Vanesa did not answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yong’s eyes widened as he looked at them.

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

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

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

It was three more seconds before the shouting began.

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

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

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

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

The thief choked.

The entire vials?” he got out.

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

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

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

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

His eyes narrowed.

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

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

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

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

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

“Poisoned. This man has been poisoned.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lieutenant Wen blinked in surprise.

“You are confessing,” he slowly said.

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

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

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

“Yes,” Vanesa simply said.

Wen put on his glasses and drew his pistol.

“Close your eyes,” the lieutenant said.

His tone, Tristan thought, was almost gentle.

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

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

On she went.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shall we establish the terms?” he prompted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

They had already come this way several times.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tristan forced a smile.

“That sounds lovely,” he said.

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

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

Tristan blinked, feigning surprise.

“I do not know-”

Song smiled.

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

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

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

Song beamed.

“I can and will.”

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

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

He faked a cough, covering his mouth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She held back, shaking her head.

“Not the?” Tristan prompted.

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

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

The tall woman bit her lip, then sighed.

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

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

“That is certainly unusual,” he slowly said.

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

Fear pooled in his belly.

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

She shook her head.

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

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

This was bad, Tristan thought.

A pause.

No, the rat then thought. This is good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good news,” Tristan said.

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

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

Tristan nodded respectfully.

“As you say, my lord.”

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

Instead he struck the back of Remund’s knee.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A flicker of surprise in his eyes.

“No,” Remund said, “I never-”

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

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

“And it is still happening?” Tristan pressed.

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

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

Remund blinked.

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

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

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

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

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

The infanzon swallowed.

“What did they do to you?”

Tristan took a step closer. The other flinched.

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

Remund licked his lips.

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

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

The infanzon swallowed.

“I don’t know,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

He levelled the pistol.

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

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

Two, he counted.

Halfway there.

Chapter 31

Black-cloaked watchmen carried away Felis’ body.

 What remained of it, anyway: musket balls had turned the man into red rags.

Tristan felt no grief at the sight. If there was a tragedy in Felis it was in who he had been, not who he’d become. Dust, fear and poverty had worn away the good and left the bad in sharp relief. What remained had not endeared him to the thief, though neither had it been deserving of scorn. It did not matter whether a stone was marble or gravel: if you left it at the bottom of the canal long enough it would all be ground into nothing. The Law of Rats was not like the halo of Glare bestowed upon the great estates of the infanzones, some unblinking and unceasing stare. It lived in the spaces between, let in by the lamplights of the Murk growing worn and flickering. Letting in the dark a little further every year.

It was easy to be virtuous when the lights never went out.

The same souls that’d left the Old Fort as three crews returned now as a single crowd, though seemingly twice as wary of each other as before. Tristan had counted them coming in and found only one missing: Aines. There his heart had clenched, if only for a moment. Just another dead rat, he told himself. The same eulogy he would get when his end found him, an unmarked grave made into words.

“Something happened,” Maryam quietly said from his left. “They wouldn’t be like this if Aines had died in a test.”

She was right, Tristan thought. Felis getting dropped had shattered the last remnant of solidarity in the returning crowd, the lot of them scattering in small trusted pockets as if they’d never gone through the trouble of gathering larger crews in the first place. Pressure to come apart, Tristan thought, but there had always been that. That it was now working implied there was no longer stronger pressure for them to stay together. Given the timing and context, one answer stood above the rest.

“They found a path to end of the maze,” Tristan guessed.

“That doesn’t explain why they’re looking at each other like someone’s about to pull a knife,” Maryam replied.

He hummed.

“You think there was a fight?” he asked.

“I think Jun’s been sent company down in Nav,” Maryam said.

The thief cocked an eyebrow at her. The implication he caught – she believed the killer had struck again – but the last word was unfamiliar.

“The place where the dead go,” she said.

“Graves, if they’re lucky,” he said. “Dogs if they’re not.”

“Grim,” she praised.

“I try,” he humbly replied, lips twitching.

Even as they shared smiles, though, his mind raced. Why Aines? The middle-aged woman had been physically weak, but there were others just as vulnerable and she’d rarely been alone. Unless, of course, Felis’ proximity had been the point. To frame the man as an attempt had been made to frame Tristan. That would require, however, some very specific knowledge. Who else knew about the red games, knew there was something to frame Felis for? Lan did and he’d himself told Yong. Probably Tupoc, Tristan figured, and that likely meant Ocotlan. Maryam, of course. None of these fit the shadow on the wall.

“What are you thinking?” Maryam asked.

“That the Watch just shot our best lead,” Tristan replied. “We’re going to have ask about how they reacted after the kill – they didn’t hang anyone for it, but did they investigate?”

If they had, there was a chance that at least one person had been clever enough to ask Felis who else knew about the red games. It’s not necessarily him, the thief then corrected. Tristan himself had come into suspicions that Felis was out to kill his wife through hearing about Aines’ half of the puzzle. Someone else could have done the same. And Lan could have sold the information, he tacked on. Felis had still been the best lead, however. He needed to find out if someone had thought to try that avenue. His eyes flicked to Maryam.

“Can you find out if Lan told anyone about the red game around those two?” he asked.

He could not do so himself, having publicly feigned falling out with the twin. Maryam nodded.

“You really think you can find out who the killer us?” she asked.

“Not enough to prove it,” he said. “But then I’m not angling for a hanging.”

Forcing a truce, keeping the killer away from anyone he was conspiring with, would be more than enough. He wouldn’t mind killing them if he could, given their actions against him, but he already had more than enough revenge on his plate.

“If I can out them, I will,” Maryam warned him.

He grimaced but eventually conceded with a nod. It was not his right to dictate otherwise to her, much as he would prefer otherwise. So long as she was aware he was disinclined to play the savior at her side. Tristan pushed off the wall, wasting no time in seeking out Yong. The Tianxi veteran had carelessly dropped his affairs on the courtyards floor, put his sword on the table and was now pouring himself a drink in a kitchen cup from his own flask. Even from across the table, where Tristan slid into a seat, the smell of the rotgut was biting to the nostrils.

“Thought you’d show up,” Yong said, tone not yet slurred.

Though not for long, Tristan thought as the Tianxi knocked back his cup before filling it anew. The other man’s fingers were shaking, however subtly, and he looked haggard.

“What happened out there?” the thief asked, voice coming out softer than he’d thought it would.

“Someone cut Aines’ throat,” Yong bluntly said. “It went to shit after that. Lots of arguing, everything came apart and then we chose three people to look into it.”

Tredegar was a given, but with Tupoc’s group having lost two – Augusto and Aines – the situation would have been fluid.

“Tredegar and Tupoc and me,” Yong specified, brushing back a loosened bang.

Despite Vanesa’s best efforts, the former soldier’s hair refused to be tame now that the topknot was lost.

“What did you find?” Tristan asked.

Yong leaned over the table, grabbing a second cup from the loose pile of plates and cutlery the Watch left there for trial-takers to use, and set it down in front of the thief. He tipped his flask over it.

“I don’t drink,” Tristan said.

Yong only stopped when the cup was two-third full. The smell of that Watch rotgut was genuinely foul, the grey-eyed man thought.

“Drink anyways,” Yong flatly replied.

Tristan gauged the other  man’s expression and found it all too serious. His lips thinned, but he nodded and took the cup in hand. He didn’t actually drink, of course – liquor was a poison worse than nightshade or arsenic, which only ever hurt those who drank it – but he wetted his lips and pretended. Yong downed his cup again, and the thief hoped he would either slow his consumption or quicken his report. He’d soon end up waiting on an unconscious man otherwise.

“Fuck all,” the Tianxi said. “Fuck all is what I found. Lan says Nair and Goel are sleeping together and that Lady Ferranda was up to something shady, but it wasn’t any of them. I got no closer to figuring out who did it.”

Tristan grimaced.

“Felis, did you interrogate him?” he asked.

“Everyone did,” Yong shrugged. “Even Tupoc, though I think that was more about sitting tight on him. He stayed too long for anything else.”

Tupoc Xical. Of course it had to be the inconvenient bastard who figured out the right trail to follow. This did not surprise Tristan, for he had long known fortune to be a disagreeable creature by virtue of having been saddled with the divine equivalent of the concept’s drunken aunt.

“And after?” he pressed.

“We followed the path to some great temple-fortress,” Yong said. “Once we pass that, it’s a straight line to the end of the maze.”

“With tests on it?” the thief frowned.

“Presumably,” Yong shrugged.

The Tianxi poured himself another cup. This would serve as a bare bones report, but learning a fuller picture would have to wait until Maryam got it out of Lan or he found an opportunity to speak with Isabel Ruesta. Tristan studied the other man, wondering what it was about the recent deaths that’d shaken him so. He’d not been like this when Sanale died, or the other deaths since. And he must have presented sober enough to be picked by the others after Aines died, so it shouldn’t be that either.

“Was Felis on dust for the way back?” he tried.

The older man laughed at him, the sound slightly slurred.

“You think I see myself in him?” Yong said. “You’re still young, Tristan. The need, it’s not a coterie or a regiment – you don’t feel for the others who have it. It’s just as selfish as any other hunger.”

The thief’s face tightened.

“Then what is it about his death that pulled out your seams?” he asked.

Yong breathed out slowly, shallowly.

“What’s the most muskets you’ve ever heard fired at once, Tristan?” he asked.

“Just now,” he replied without hesitation.

Blackpowder was hardly unheard of in the Murk, but no coterie cared to wield muskets carelessly. A shot in the back once in a while drew little attention, but thirty men unloading down a street? That was the sort of thing the Guardia would make a point of stamping out, Murk or not. Yong filled his cup to the brim.

“Past a certain number of muskets it doesn’t really matter how many were fired,” the older man said. “It all sounds the same to our ears – we’re only so good at picking out sounds, you see.”

Tristan’s belly clenched.

“It sounded like a volley.”

“It’d been a long time since I heard that,” Yong softly said. “Gods, but I wish it had been longer.”

The thief had meant to ask more of him, to make his offer, but it could wait. At this rate the Tianxi would collapse into bed soon anyway. If he could even get back to it. Tristan feigned drinking again, lips burning from the strength of the rotgut. He was planning how to take his leave when Yong cut through.

“My turn to ask questions,” he said. “There’s a rope ladder out there, one leading into the pillar. What happened?”

The thief laid it all out from the beginning, all the way to the god waiting behind the broken lock and the existence of the lift he had confirmed.

“And you think it’ll lead to a way past the maze?” Yong asked.

“It has to,” Tristan said. “The devils got all these shrines in here somehow, and it was not the way the Watch is using. Besides, the Antediluvians would have wanted a way to access their ceiling device without needing to go the long way around every time.”

“Don’t assume that,” Yong warned. “There’s no way to reach the Luminaries back in Tianxia.”

“Those are set in firmament,” Tristan argued. “This is much smaller in scale.”

Yong hummed, then after a long time nodded.

“All right,” he said. “Who are you thinking of taking in? We’ll need muskets, unless you want to rely on the Watch to get rid of the god for you.”

“I don’t believe we need to kill the god,” Tristan said. “Only drive it off. We don’t need a regiment, we need a good shot and salt munitions. Between that and Sarai’s Signs, we should be able to get to the lift safely even if it’s lying in wait.”

“And I’m your good shot,” Yong said.

When sober, yes, Tristan thought.

“How are you going to get salt munitions?”

“I am going to ask politely,” he replied with a pleasant smile.

The Tianxi snorted.

“Fine, keep it close to your chest,” he said. “And you’re certain the Watch will let us try for the lift?”


His suspicion was that Lieutenant Vasanti wouldn’t let him go in with a crew, only alone, because she was greedy for the knowledge inside. How fortunate for him that Lieutenant Vasanti was not the only officer in the Old Fort. That bargain would cost him, but he had arranged to make it later tonight anyway.

“This might be riskier than heading into the maze again,” Yong finally said.

Tristan mustered arguments in his mind, but held back. He would let the Tianxi think it through first at least.

“But then the tests are getting nastier and I’m not a victor yet,” the older man said, stroking his beard. “Not to mention there’s a chance I’ll get a visit in the night.”

His face tightened.

“One musket is little,” Yong finally said. “Let me try to rope Lady Ferranda into this.”

Ferrand Villazur, despite her deplorable birth, had proved reliable. He could live with the mild discomfort of relying on an infanzona, should she accept.

“So long as she swears secrecy first,” Tristan replied.

The other man nodded.

“And if Ferranda declines?” the thief pressed.

“You are still the better horse,” Yong said, passing a hand through his hair.

The former soldier tried to rise, but his limbs were numb. Tristan half-rose himself, helping him back down onto the bench.

“You can talk to Lady Ferranda later, at dinner,” he said. “Maybe take a nap first.”

“Maybe,” Yong said.

But his eyes were back on the flask and his cup empty once more. The thief had no intention of staying to see what would come that.

“We will talk later,” he said.

Yong dismissed him with a wave of the hand, which was no longer trembling. Tristan grimaced. It was not his place to pass judgement. He left in haste, though, and was relieved when Maryam caught his eye from where she sat at Lan’s side. The pale-skinned woman shook her head. So Lan had not sold information about Aines and Felis. That cut down on the possibilities. Who else had been in Tupoc’s crew aside from the now-dead pair? Ocotlan, Lan, Augusto. It could not be Augusto, who had not been present for the second killing, and Ocotlan would not have been so discreet. As for Lan, she would not have murdered her own sister.

Her grief after had been too raw to be false.

It must have been someone from another crew, then. Chasing every face, every possibility, would be a waste of time. Besides, there were too many secrets still being kept for him to be able to figure out a culprit from what he knew. He had to follow the secret he did know about, which meant it all went back to Felis and Aines. If Felis had been the source of the leak, Tupoc should know. That meant the Izcalli’s whereabouts were worth a second look. And, interestingly enough, when Tristan had said look the Aztlan was missing. As was Yaretzi.

Asking around would have drawn attention, been too telling, so instead the thief chased them on his own. There were only so many places for them to go, here in the Old Fort, which led him to the answer soon enough: they were not in the Old Fort.

They had gone back out of the walls to have a look at the rope ladder and the new opening in the pillar, the two of them standing out in the open. Tristan did not  try to hide from the blackcloaks as he passed through the breach, but after that kept to the shadows of the rampart as he snuck closer to the pair. They were talking, and the conversation did not look to be pleasant. Yaretzi, for all that her expression was calm, held herself tensely. Her hand was not far from her long knife. Tupoc, on the other hand circled around her like a vulture while grinning. The man’s good moods were rarely an indication of pleasantness for anyone else.

“-of you working for free?” Tupoc was saying. “Bad for business, Turquoise.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the other Izcalli evenly replied. “If you want to accuse me of being the killer, Tupoc, do it in front of everyone.”

She gave him a hard look.

“Only you won’t, because you’re fishing,” she said. “You’re just another warrior society prick trying to get a flinch out of people because that’s the only thing that still gets you off.”

Fuck, Tristan thought. Tupoc doesn’t know who it was. He wouldn’t be pressing someone without proof like this if he did. Which meant Felis had not been the one to talk, it’d been Aines. That would be a much harder trail to follow, if it was possible at all. He’d not kept all that close an eye on Aines, and could not think of anyone who might have. The thief had what he’d come for, but lingered in the shadows nonetheless. This talk had the sound of a secret to it, and you could never have too many of those.

“Oh, I don’t have enough to strangle you with,” Tupoc cheerfully admitted. “But I know one thing: that wasn’t the omacaliztli stance in the labyrinth. When your life is on the line, you don’t fight like a diplomat.”


Tupoc, thought listening to the other Aztlan, suddenly took a wary look around. It gave Yaretzi pause. Time to go, Tristan thought. He had no intention of being caught eavesdropping.

The moment Tupoc looked away, he retreated.

There was no need to find a way to talk to Isabel Ruesta because she found it for him.

A whisper transitioned into playacting, the infanzona sitting on the bench closest to his bedroll as he went to fetch his medicine cabinet. Some parts of it, anyway. He’d obtained pure alcohol and some bandages from the Watch physician a few days back – the man had been adamantly against opening his stocks for anything more – so the thief found himself kneeling before the dark-haired noblewoman and cleaning her ‘wound’ with a liquor-drenched cloth. It was but a small cut on the back of the hand, not nearly enough to warrant the garrison doctor’s attentions and so a decent excuse to go to him instead. Had she done it herself?

He did not care enough to speculate.

“I told Remund that his hovering would make me uncomfortable,” Isabel murmured, “but we only have so long.”

Tristan smiled, nodded.

“I expect the day after tomorrow we might reach the end of the maze,” she said. “Now is the time to act.”

“Can you get me into your crew?” he asked.

“I will tell Angharad you asked if her invitation still stood,” Isabel said. “It will be more than enough.”

There was no doubt at all in her voice. She sat there, comfortably looking down on him as he swiped across the wound one last time and reached for bandages. He was surprised the infanzona had not flinched at the sensation of alcohol on an open cut, however slight. Tristan had thought her mettle strictly of the scheming kind.

“How will you do it?” she asked.

“Is there a room where it will be easy to split up the group?”

She nodded as he wrapped the bandages around her hand.

“Before the mirror hall there is a room with a wheel and three gates, it is certain we will get separated there,” Isabel said.

“Then I will go with him,” the grey-eyed man said, “and return to the Old Fort after.”

The infanzona slowly nodded.

“To withdraw,” she guessed.

“I came here for revenge,” Tristan said. “Why risk my neck beyond obtaining it?”

Isabel lowered her head in acknowledgement.

“May your sister rest easy afterwards,” she murmured. “Good luck, Tristan. If we do not speak again, it has been a pleasure.”

Tristan only smiled back, tying off the last of the bandage and rising to his feet. They had already lingered too long, he could feel eyes at his back. Lady Isabel must have felt the same, for she departed without as quickly as she could without being rude. Tredegar would soon appear to fuss over the bandages, no doubt. Fortuna strolled out from behind him, artfully arraying herself on the bench just vacated by the infanzona and brushing back her curls as if posing for a painter.

“Why did you lie about the Trial of Weeds?” she asked.

Tristan feigned a yawn, covering his mouth.

“Because she is a snake,” he replied. “If she thinks she will be rid of me after it is done, she is less likely to scheme to have me killed.”

He would, after all, be a loose end for the infanzona. Someone who knew she had bargained for the death of a member of House Cerdan, a secret she could easily be extorted over. Tristan somewhat expected she would still try to have him disappeared, but at least until the deed was done he was safe: she had no other executioner to call on. As for after, well, he did not intend to follow her back to Sacromonte where a word out of her mouth would be able to summon a dozen armed guards.

“She’s interesting, that girl,” Fortuna mused. “Just the right combination of foolish and clever.”

Now he almost felt bad for the infanzona. Had there even been praise more damning than the Lady of Long Odds approving of your character?

Lips twitching, he picked up his affairs and returned to his bedroll where the cabinet waited. It was still mangled from the Trial of Lines, and sadly he did not have skill enough at carpentry to fix it beyond the very basics. In truth, it was probably no longer worth it: there was little left inside, nothing he could not move into a bag with some care and forethought. The limping gait that approached from behind as he stood there needed no introduction. There was only one person in the Old Fort using crutches.

“Vanesa,” he said, turning to face the old woman.

Her face was pale, he saw with a flicker of worry.

“Tristan,” she grimaced. “I hate to ask, but do you have anything in your cabinet for pain?”

He shook his head.

“All the substances I have left are poisonous to some degree or another,” he told her. “Save for the turpentine, which would do nothing for pain.”

Not entirely so, as the extract of the bearded cat mushroom only induced violent madness, but he had been broadly exact. Neither white arsenic, mandrake or antimony would be of any help to Vanesa. Even as a way to end the pain, he would recommend against them. None were gentle poisons.

“Are you quite certain?” she pressed, sole eye steady on the cabinet.

“Nothing pleasant would come of anyone drinking from those bottles,” he firmly said. “Shall we go ask the physician for another dose of poppy?”

“My dosage is already too high, he says,” Vanesa told him. “Any more and I would be in danger.”

“Poppy is a strong drug,” Tristan said. “It might be best for you to sit and rest, perhaps. At least for a little while.”

“I might sleep through dinner,” the old woman conceded. “My appetite wanes.”

Which was not, he thought, at all a good sign. But the outcome had never been in doubt from the moment Vanesa refused the amputation. If they could reach the sanctuary before the third trial, however, if a safe end were in sight? Then, he thought, perhaps she could be talked into reconsidering.

“Besides,” Vanesa tiredly said, “there is more than one kind of pain. Poor Brun, it is as if the boy is cursed.”

He cocked an eyebrow.

“How so?”

“First he was sweet on that girl Briceida who was taken by the hollows,” she said. “And now poor Aines, killed in the night.”

Tristan stilled.

“They were close?” he asked with forced lightness.

“They diced after supper sometimes,” Vanesa said. “I am not surprised you never noticed – Felis was a jealous sort so they kept it out of sight.”

Brun. Brun had been talking with Aines since they reached the Old Fort, perhaps learning about the red game. Tristan’s mind raced, looking over the angles. The Sacromontan had a contract, one that could be used to sense people but whose workings remained unclear. Brun had been there every time there was a death. Motive? No, best not to guess too hard at that. Digging blindly at a stranger’s motives was a waste of time. Who else could it be?

Ishaan, perhaps helped by Shalini, but none of the deaths had ever been to the advantage of the Ramayans. Yaretzi, but whatever it was about her that Tupoc thought he’d found it muddled the waters. There were only so many terrible secrets someone could bring at a time. Not Song, she is here for the same reason as Maryam. Neither should it be the infanzones, whose venom was turned inwards, and that left only three: Acanthe Phos, Yong and Ferranda.

And Tredegar, if you needed a laugh.

The Asphodelian’s contract did not fit, however, and Tristan’s personal doubts aside Yong often went to sleep drunk. Unfit to commit murder. That left Ferranda Villazur and he misliked her for the deeds. For one, she and Sanale had been alone with Lan for some time before Tristan’s crew stumbled into them. It might have been that Sanale was unaware of his lover being a killer so she had refrained, but that was a tortured plot. That left Brun, the polite young man in the corner who everyone liked, who had been making all the right decisions. It might be that the fair-haired Sacromontan had a knack, Tristan thought.

Or it might be that his contract was not what it seemed.


The thief shook his head, smiling at Vanesa.

“Sorry,” he said. “I was lost in thought. Poor Brun indeed.”

The old woman patted his shoulder.

“You should rest as well,” she said. “You look tired.”

“Soon,” he said.

There were still two talks left ahead of him.

Brun of Sacromonte had the kind of features that most people found handsome in men: good skin, symmetrical face and a strong jawline. Good looks, good manners and a calm demeanor likely left few to guess he came from the Murk, but Tristan had been able to tell from the start. It was in the little habits, the way the man always put a wall behind him when he could but avoided being in corners.

It was the way someone small around larger folk with little kindness learned to act.

The other man – only a few years older than Tristan, going by his appearance – was cleaning his pistol when the thief sought him out. He only used half the bench with the work, which left enough room for Tristan to sit. Brun’s eyes flicked up, took him in and then he put down the cloth and pistol.

“Tristan, isn’t it?” Brun said. “We haven’t talked much.”

“No, we haven’t,” Tristan smiled. “Yet somehow I feel as if I know you.”

Brun cocked his head to the side, then discreetly curled his fingers into the Mark of the Rat.

“You know better than to have to ask that,” the thief replied.

The fair-haired man shrugged.

“It felt polite to pretend,” he said. “To what do I owe the pleasure, Tristan?”

“I have a problem, Brun,” he lightly said.

“I am keeping my nose clean,” the other rat replied, tone apologetic. “Joining the Watch is to be a fresh start for me.”

“That’s exactly what I want,” Tristan agreed. “A fresh start. It’s a different sort of world out here, isn’t it? All these rules, all these walls.”

The man calmly met his eyes.

“I don’t follow your meaning,” Brun said.

“Bad habits take a while to shake,” the thief said. “But I’m not a redcloak, Brun, and the black’s a few weeks away yet. I’m not one to judge.”

The man looked lost. Tristan might even have believed him, if those eyes had wavered at all.

“I don’t know what-”

“Sarai,” he said. “Yong. Francho. Vanesa. Lan. If something happened to them, I would be most terribly cross.”

“Tristan,” Brun patiently said. “Evidently you came to believe I am involved in something, but-”

The thief leaned in close.

“I’m not asking you to confess, Brun,” he quietly said. “Not even to nod. We both know you won’t. I am simply telling you that if you come for me or one of mine, you will find out you are not the only one who can cut throats in the night. And there will be no silencing me, either: I have told others, so your little secret has already spread too widely to be buried.”

Maryam had agreed they did not have enough to get the man hanged, though she had reserved the right to tell others. Francho had not even needed to be asked to keep quiet, the old man fascinated by the entire affair but disinclined to intervene.

“This is ridiculous,” Brun sighed. “If you believe I am the killer, by all means put it to everyone. I will prove my innocence.”

“You very well might,” Tristan shrugged. “Which is why I see no reason to bother.”

“That is disturbing in many ways,” the man noted. “I believe this has gone on long enough: please leave.”

“I think we understand each other,” the thief agreed, rising and stretching his limbs.

He paused, and on a whim said one thing more.

“Would you say the world is loud, Brun?” he asked.

The man looked like he’d just found a knife slid into his belly, but it was only for half a heartbeat. The calm politeness was back in place after that. But there was wariness in those green eyes now, something that’d not been there before.

“No, Tristan,” Brun finally replied. “I find it, in truth, to be frightfully quiet.”

And the thief was not sure why, but there was something about than answer that sent a shiver down his spine.

Meeting was never going to be difficult.

Meeting discreetly however, had been another story. Passing a message through Sergeant Mandisa had yielded results, an hour and a place. The rest he had arranged himself. After supper Tristan had a quick conversation with Angharad Tredegar, who confirmed he was welcome to venture out with her on the morrow. Riding that arrangement as an excuse, he returned to the Watch’s armory to acquire equipment that would help him scale the broken remains of the crystal mirror maze as was planned by Tredegar and her companions.

Lieutenant Wen was waiting for him inside, biting into an apple.

The man was wearing his spectacles and he leaned against an empty sword rack, loudly crunching the fruit’s flesh. When he swallowed, loudly, Tristan nodded a greeting.

“Lieutenant,” he said.

“Pissant,” Wen easily replied. “You told Mandisa you have something important to tell me. I should not need to tell you there would be consequences to wasting my time.”

Pretend you’re not interested all you want, Tristan thought, you still arranged a meeting where Vasanti wouldn’t see us.

“I need salt munitions,” he said. “For muskets and pistols.”

Lieutenant Wen bit into his apple, loudly chewing and swallowing. He only spoke after.

“One,” he said.

“One?” Tristan repeated.

“I’m counting the number of times you’re going to tell me something I could have you shot for,” Wen said. “But please, do go on. You were able to tell me why I should entrust a bottom-feeder expensive munitions that are the property of the Watch.”

“I want to lead a team into the pillar,” he said. “I’ve found a path to the summit I haven’t told Vasanti about.”

“Two,” Wen counted, then took another bite.

He ate more quickly this time, not drawing it out for effect.

“I fail to see why that means I should give you munitions,” the lieutenant said. “I’m feeling like confiscating some of yours, in truth, so that I can hear you die horribly through the door and then argue for it to be welded shut forever.”

“Because if I don’t get there first, Lieutenant Vasanti will,” Tristan said.

Wen looked unimpressed. I’m losing him, the thief thought.

“So she’ll get what she wants, leave and I won’t have to deal with her next year,” he said. “Are you done wasting my time?”

What did Wen want? Besides being thoroughly unpleasant to everyone and a second helping at every meal, what did Lieutenant Wen actually want? Tristan’s eyes narrowed.

“Next year,” he repeated. “You will still be here next year. There’s no debate, your posting is already decided and you know it.”

Wen’s face tightened in anger, and Tristan knew he had found his angle.

“Do you like it here, lieutenant?” the thief asked.

“It’s being strangled to death every day, only I have to wake up the following morning and go to work,” Lieutenant Wen mildly said.

“What if there were no longer a reason for a garrison to be posted at the Old Fort?” he asked. “If, say, the laws that created this maze were suddenly changed to make it untenable.”

The fat lieutenant watched him for a long moment.

“Three,” he finally said, and bit into his apple.

Tristan kept his face calm as he was studied through the spectacles.

“Standing orders are that should anyone outside the garrison ever figure out what the Red Eye is, they cannot leave the island alive,” Wen idly said. “But you didn’t figure out anything, did you Tristan?”

The dark-haired thief went very, very still. He’d not thought he had given away anything, but he had been sloppy. Wen, beneath the bluster and colorful language, was dangerously canny.

“You mean the cult’s god?” he asked, lips dry.

“You’re a fucking fool,” Wen said. “Do you think you’re the first clever rat that disappeared during the second trial? The higher-ups always knew on occasion someone would figure it out.”

Tristan’s eyes narrowed.

“And yet you haven’t called for other watchmen,” he said.

Silence stretched between them.

“Do you know what it really means to be part of the Watch, boy?” Lieutenant Wen finally said. “Once you strip away all the lies and the propaganda and the prettied-up history?”

He slowly shook his head.

“We kill the things that feed on mankind,” Wen said, and for once there was not a trace of a sneer in his voice. “When horror comes crawling out of the box, we slam the lid on its fingers.”

The large Tianxi straightened his back.

“For the first century,” he said, “we looked for ways to kill the Red Eye. Tried everything from Signs to aether machines, spent a fortune on this nowhere shithole island. But nothing took, and there were so many other monsters that couldn’t be locked up for so cheap a price. And it cost coin, Tristan, to kill those other monsters. Men and steel and ships.”

“So they stopped trying,” Tristan quietly said.

“When I tried two years ago, the request to allocate funds for new attempts didn’t even make it to the Conclave,” Wen said. “Commander Artal took one look at the paper and laughed. The committee responsible for our region wouldn’t even read it, he said. I might as well wipe my ass with it, at least it’d accomplish something.”

Lieutenant Wen’s expression darkened.

“Whatever you find up there, boy, you’re not just going to play around with it,” he said. “Vasanti might be able to fix that. It’ll change nothing.”

The watchman leaned forward, the light of lamp reflecting against his glasses to hid his eyes.

“It’s a wonder of the Ancients up there, Tristan Abrascal, and you are going to break it.”

Chapter 30

On the other side of the gate waited not a test but a tunnel.

Narrow and damp it led them up for fifteen minutes, occasionally at so strong an upwards tilt that some of them slid on the smooth stone and tumbled back into others. It was a relief when they emerged into open grounds, entering some sort of strange water garden. It looked like a large pond with islands of stone tracing a path across, but the waters turned out to be fathomlessly deep. And the path itself was occasionally chancy path, as they soon realized that the ‘islands’ were in fact the top of pillars reaching up from the deeps – and that some had been eaten away at by the water.

When one toppled Lady Acanthe fell into the water, beginning to sink almost immediately.

Had Master Cozme and Shalini not dragged her out she might well have drowned. More worrying still was what that Acanthe Phos assured them she was a skilled swimmer, only the water had been unnaturally ‘heavy’. She’d compared it to trying to swim through molasses.

They were all glad to be rid of the place, all the more when the last island brought them to a dilapidated First Empire highway that, aside from the occasional loose stone, presented no danger at all. Two opportunities to take a left off the highway led straight into dead ends, one of them a strange black stone shrine whose closed door was thankfully received, and after a second hour’s worth of walking they reached the top of plunging stairs. The end of the highway was broad enough for nearly all of them to have a look at the distant silhouette of the temple-fortress, which awed most into silence.

Some of them, anyway.

“I don’t care what the blackcloaks claim, that is not a temple,” Zenzele Duma announced. “Fly a flag on it and all that’s missing is Izcalli footpads to shoot at.”

“I’ll rustle up a flag if you can get Xical to stand still,” Lady Ferranda offered.

Angharad was not amused, because it would have been beneath one of her breeding to snort at such low-brow humor.

She had merely been clearing her throat.

Truly, however, Zenzele had a point. Ferranda had described their destination as a ‘temple-fortress’, but what Angharad beheld leaned distinctly towards the latter word. Stairs so roughly carved they were barely noticeable went down an abrupt slope for at least a few hundred feet until they reached the bottom of a cauldron. Or so it seemed, for on all sides hundreds of shattered shrines stacked onto one another formed incomprehensible: it was a cacophony of broken faiths, a wall whose every brick was the ghost of some ancient promise.

It troubled Angharad, looking at it too long. The sheer amount of shrines reaching up to the sky, a tombstone of silenced laments drenched in the golden light of the firmament above. This was a graveyard of spirits, and its utter silence was more menacing than any chorus of wails.

Rising from the center of the cauldron’s bottom rose the promised temple-fortress. It was not in the shape of the modern fortresses – stars and angles and bastions – or even of older keeps with towers and tall curtains walls. Instead it was a thing of tiers, full red walls shaped like circles interlocking like a haphazard pile of plates balancing one way and the other. There were eight levels and almost twice as many circles of varying size, the broadest and highest at the bottom and narrowing as they rose. At the summit of the very highest tier a small tower in the same red stone stood, leading to a narrow stone bridge that connected to the top of the surrounding cliffs.

The way forward, presumably to the Toll Road that Ferranda had claimed was the very last stretch of the maze.

“I’ve seen that kind of stone before,” Shalini Goel shared. “My family comes from south of Mahabhara, and the cities on the shore of the Arama River use it for everything.”

Angharad knew at least one of those names: Mahabhara was one of the great powers inside the Imperial Someshwar, their rajas usually wrestling with those of Varaveda and lesser rivals for who was to claim the Maharaja’s scepter – and with it the authority to rule over all of the Imperial Someshwar, at least in name. Someshwari were a famously fractious lot.

“I thought you were Ramayan,” Yong said.

“I am,” she assured him. “The Goel are merchants, when we expanded into Ramaya a branch of the family settled accordingly. I was born there myself.”

Ah, Angharad thought. The nature of the ties between Lord Ishaan’s house and the commonborn Goel was at last made clear. The merchants must have sought the help and protection of local nobles when settling there, as was only proper. Even more proper was such ties resulting in the Goel providing a fosterling and attendant to someone of the Nair line, tightening the bonds between nobles and a wealthy subject. It was important, Father had always told her, to remain on good terms with the wealthy living on your lands.

“Fascinating,” Lord Remund cut in, his tone indicating he thought it anything but. “If we might perhaps attend to the fortress before us?”

“It is useful information,” Brun mildly replied. “It means the god within might be of the Someshwar.”

“I do not recall asking for your-” Remund began, so Angharad stepped in.

Clearing her throat, she raised her voice over his.

“We should get moving,” the noblewoman said. “The stairs seem dangerous so we will have to be careful going down.”

They’d had enough of a rest gawking, so her suggestion was taken without argument. No one wanted to spend too long out here when there was still a murderer hiding among them, much less be stuck spending a night out. Lord Zenzele took the lead, Lady Ferranda volunteering to go behind him. The pair had stood together on the same unstable pillar earlier, narrowly keeping it from toppling by shifting their weight, and taken to each other since. Angharad hardly thought their griefs were the same – Zenzele had lost his lover and his aunt, while Ferranda only a close retainer – but that grief was shared could not be denied. Friendships had been made of less. She herself followed behind Ferranda, Lord Ishaan in turn claiming the space behind her.

“What a noble vanguard we have,” Yong drily said.

There were some laughs, so Angharad was somewhat relieved when Yaretzi volunteered to be next before Shalini could step in. She had not noticed earlier, but it was true that the nobleborn among them tended to take the lead. The captaincies had come at an end, however, and now an unthinking assumption of leadership was not without risks. There was hardly a trace left of the old crews in how the group held themselves, relying on such a structure would be a mistake.

However difficult the stairs looked, they were significantly worse in practice. Not only were they narrow – too much to fit her entire boot on – they were short, many and winding. Angharad had to be careful with every step, never lapsing in attention, and the absence of anything like a railing was discomforting. If someone fell, there was absolutely nothing to hold them back. At least half a mile of such labor, surrounded by the creeping cliffsides, would be exhausting work. By unspoken agreement they began taking breaks regularly, spread out across different sections of the stairs, and one such pause was when Lord Ishaan approached her.

“It occurs to me,” the chubby-cheeked man said, “that we have had little occasion to talk since Aines’ body was discovered.”

The angle he stood at hid his scar, bringing back a shadow of the soft look he’d had when the trials began. Angharad considered him. Learning from Lady Ferranda that he had planned to send five of them into what was quite possibly their death – not only Tupoc and Ocotlan but also the underserving, Lan and Aines and Felis – had not endeared him to her. Nor had that she had been headed for a deeper part of the maze instead of the end and the man had not meant to inform her as much. No, that last part was unfair. She was merely assuming, he might have planned otherwise.

But it had not gone unnoticed by Angharad that few people who joined Lord Ishaan and Shalini’s crew ever seemed to want to stay there.

“We have not,” she acknowledged. “Events dictated otherwise.”

“Elections do tend to be rowdy business,” he smiled.

The way it tugged at his cheeks revealed a hint of the scar, like a face peeking out from beneath a mask.

“Have you given any thought to the third trial?” he continued.

She hid her surprise.

“The Trial of Weeds? I must confess to my attention has remained on our present tribulations.”

“It might be wise to begin thinking ahead,” Lord Ishaan advised her. “Many who are now your allies will depart once they reach sanctuary, returning to Sacromonte.”

“That is true,” she cautiously agreed, “but as I know little of the nature of the third trial I cannot say if that will be a disadvantage.”

Besides, Song intended to become part of the Watch and the same was true of Brun. Without the infanzones at her side there should be nothing preventing the three of them from making common cause for the Trial of Weeds. It was Lord Ishaan, on the contrary, who looked exposed to her eye. Who still stood by him, save for Shalini?

“It is rarely an advantage to be alone,” Ishaan said, then shrugged. “I would not urge to you an early decision, but keep in mind that Shalini and I would be glad to have you with us when the time comes.”

A polite non-answer was already on the tip of her tongue, but Angharad stopped herself. She had a real look at the other noble instead, at the worn stance and the sleepless lines that could be seen even on the half of his face he showed. Ishaan Nair did not look so sinister to her, in that moment, just a man who was tired and feeling the edge of the pit creeping ever closer.

“You have to know it has a bad look,” she quietly said. “They do not talk ill of you, Lord Ishaan, but they do leave.”

He sighed, passing a hand through his hair.

“I know,” Ishaan said. “It is…”

The Someshwari hesitated.

“I suppose you will learn eventually,” Ishaan finally said. “Unspoken rules only go so far. Shalini’s contract has… drawbacks.”

Angharad could not reveal she had once glimpsed the gunslinger putting two shots in Tupoc’s eye faster than the blink of an eye without revealing details of her own contract, but Shalini’s supernatural skill with pistols was no secret.

“They are not visible,” she admitted.

“They would not be, where you’ve seen her use it,” Ishaan said. “But out here it is another story. I shall avoid details, but it might be said that when she uses the contract it sometimes draws… attention.”

She paused, the implications of that word sinking in.


“Gods, lares, lemures,” he agreed. “Maybe even those who use Signs. Out here in the maze, it has mostly drawn the eye of remnants – the echoes of dead gods. You should have encountered a few.”

Only one, but that had been memorable enough. Yaretzi would have fallen off the ledge had Angharad not caught her by the collar when the screeching thing appeared.

“Refraining from using the contract would put an end to the risks,” she carefully said.

One must always tread lightly, when speaking of contracts. Ishaan grimaced, his expression resigned. As if expecting scorn.

“It would be the wise choice, if she could make it,” he said. “There is a reason we chose to seek out the Watch, Lady Angharad. Both our contracts would benefit from the lessons they have to teach.”

She cannot control when she uses the contract, Angharad realized. Or not always, which was near as damning. So every time Shalini used her contract it sent up a flare for any creature looming and she could not promise she would cease sending them up. Sleeping God, no wonder their crew kept bleeding people. Especially here in the maze, where the cause and effect would be even more obvious than during the Trial of Lines. Neither were being outright malicious, Angharad thought, but it was no wonder that so few had supported Lord Ishaan during the earlier debates. It might not have been out of malice, but he had still put their lives at risk.

Yet what else was he to do, abandon the childhood friend he had come here with?

The colder part of her, the one her father had taught, whispered that he might well have been sending Tupoc’s entire crew to their deaths simply so there would be fewer options besides staying with his own. Had everyone gathered back at the Old Fort tonight and Angharad learned that Ishaan’s gate led to the end of the maze, she would almost certainly have negotiated for their crews to ally and return together. And in a way, she thought, the Someshwari had gotten what he wanted – they were all going forward as a single crew.

Yet he had not gotten what he needed: Ishaan had no authority here, and if Shalini’s contract began causing trouble the pair were certain to be cast out. Perhaps even violently. All because there was only a single gate that could be used, so any claim he might have had to it being ‘his’ was little more than wind.

“You might have made steadier allies had you revealed it from the start,” she said.

“We would have had no allies at all,” he replied, shaking his head. “Better to have them for a time than never.”

Much as she disliked the approach, she was not certain he was wrong. And he had not lied, she would give him that. It did not make up for his condemning five trial-takers to die. As if sensing her disapproval, he turned fully – light caught the scarred side of his face as it faced her at last, coloring half as if it were a different one entirely.

“There is more to say,” he told her. “But perhaps this is not the time and place.”

“Perhaps not,” Angharad replied, inclining her head.

They left it at that, resuming their way down the stairs. Only it could not have been more than a minute or two before she caught a flicker of movement behind her – she had been betrayed, Angharad thought. He was to be rid of her as he had wanted with Tupoc, suffering no other former captain and… and then she realized that Ishaan was not attacking her but falling.

On her.

Shouting, he tumbled forward and in a snap decision Angharad glimpsed ahead.

(The man on her back, the two of them rolling down, scything through Ferranda’s legs from behind as she fell off the stairs and screamed-)

As a girl, Angharad had once spent six months taught by grim-faced and tattooed man from Uthukile who had claimed to be the Prince of Black Hill. His lessons had all been about what he had called ‘the gale-game’. The Low Isle was under constant siege by storms, he’d told her, sea and wind carving ever deeper grooves into its bluffs and canyons. From those constant companions the people of the Low Isle had learned lessons. Mother’s take on the teaching had been simpler: he is here to teach you how to fall, she’d said. Into the calm, Angharad thought, bending forward as Ishaan hit her back.

The worst mistake you could make was to fight the gale. The gale always won.

Chin tucked, arms up, and Angharad embraced the fall: enough that even as Ishaan hit the stairs she kept falling forward. There was shouting but she ignored it, turning with the fall and making a roll out of it. Stone bit at her back for the merest heartbeat, but she twisted forward and finished the tumble. Her boots hit the stone, pain tingling up her legs, and for half a dozen feet she skidded down the narrow stairs with gritted teeth. Her left leg came forward a bit but not before she slowed, her momentum slowly grinding to a halt until she was left half-crouched and now far past both Ferranda and Zenzele – who had gotten out of the way without her even noticing.

Panting, Angharad rose to her full height and brushed off her shoulders.

“I fall, I stand,” she told the wind, as her teacher had taught her. “Try again if you dare.”

She did not speak Matabele, for all that the Uthukile dialect had the same root as Umoya, so she was not entirely sure that was truly what the words meant. Prince had been a profligate liar, and the only time she had told Father the words he’d choked and instructed her never to repeat them in front of guests. Yet there was something satisfying about speaking the words, she thought. Almost like a victory prayer. That sliver of satisfaction was short-lived, however, as shouting from above forced her to turn that way.

Both Zenzele and Ferranda seemed fine but Ishaan was hurt, she saw as she carefully climbed back. He was cradling his arm and bruised across the face. He was also not the source of the shouting.

“I saw you push him,” Shalini insisted, pistol out.

“I wasn’t anywhere near him,” Yaretzi bit back. “Am I to be called a killer because he saw fit to trip?”

Someone stepped in between them, but by virtue of it being Tupoc Xical it was the opposite of reassuring.

“Yaretzi is right,” the Izcalli mused. “I’m sure her being a killer is entirelyunrelated to Nair being a clumsy fool.”

The pistol moved off the first Aztlan to the other, which Angharad knew was the moment Shalini lost the crowd. Tupoc was despised, and she suspected only one more incident away from being turned on, but pointing that muzzle at more than one person had made Shalini look overwrought, out of control. It had cost her credibility and as no one else seemed to have caught what happened credibility would be what decided the contest. Even as Angharad bit her teeth and wondered how to intervene – Shalini must be wrong, what could Yaretzi possibly gain from attacking Ishaan? – the claimed victim spoke up by himself.

“Pistol down, Shalini,” Ishaan said, getting to his feet with a wince. “I felt something push my back, but I suppose it could have been the wind.”

There was a breeze, however faint. The other Someshwari looked conflicted, but eventually she noticed the unfriendly looks her waving around a weapon was drawing. With gritted teeth she put away the pistol, and there was a slight adjustment to the order of descent. Yaretzi went behind Angharad, warily eyeing the pair from Ramaya, and the climb down resumed with a broader gap between climbers than ever. No one wanted to earn another accusation.

It still took them the better part of an hour to get at the bottom after that.

From down there the temple-fortress seemed even more towering. Natural stone, touched with red lichen, led them to massive open bronze gates. There were some small ponds of stale water they went around, but soon enough they all gathered before the handful of steps leading into the temple. There was some hesitation, but the walk to the gates had been rest enough and none wanted to spend the day waiting out here. They ventured up the stairs cautiously, past the red stone of the floor and onto the cavernous hall within.

Lamps hung from barely-seen rafters, casting slices of yellowing light on walls dripping with tapestries and trophies. There seemed to be no rhyme nor reason to what hung there. Angharad saw children’s toys side by side with ornate silver bucklers, then a musket besides what she suspected to be a Pereduri fertility necklace. Ivory tusks, jewels, blades – all of them placed over spans of wool, linen and silks that depicted everything from wars to the Sleeping God’s grace descending upon the unworthy. The scale of it should have brought out awe, but somehow Angharad could not help but feel as if she were looking at some magpie’s trove.

At the end of the hall they were treading awaited an audience room, lit by the same hanging lamps, and on the raised dais at the center the noblewoman first saw the spirit they were to bargain with. A vividly colorful bird the size of a carriage – a peafowl whose tailfeathers were tucked in – bore on its back a golden cradle, which held the desiccated shape of a man in red silks. Neither spirit nor mount moved as their group approached the threshold of the gate. Angharad, breathing in, crossed it first and offered a respectful bow to the desiccated spirit.

“Honored elder, I greet you,” she said.

There was a long moment of silence, then the bird let out a cackle.

“Lower, child,” the spirit said. “He has not answered anyone in a great many years.”

The peafowl spirit’s eyes were bright blue and wide open, staring down at her with amusement. Angharad swallowed.

“Honored elder, I greet you,” she tried.

The bird sniffed.

“Are you ignoring my master?” it demanded.

Angharad swallowed again, unsure how to answer, until the bird began cackling.

“That’s fine,” the peafowl hiccupped. “He’s dead.”

A soft curse in Samratrava from behind her, which rather echoed how she was feeling, then Lord Ishaan was at her side and bowing through a wince. His arm must still hurt. He said something in the same tongue, which had the peafowl spirit preening and nodding – and so the corpse atop its back shaking around.

“She’s a mayura, Lady Tredegar,” Ishaan then told her in Antigua. “Not exactly a god, since they do not come alone. They are-”

“The finest divine mounts to ever exist,” the spirit cackled, striking a pose as her tailfeathers snapped open in a dazzling display. “Behold my greatness!”

A moment passed. There was nothing spiritual about the plumage the Pereduri was looking at, as far as she could tell.

“They are very nice feathers,” Angharad finally said.

The peafowl preened, shuffling back and forth on her spindly legs.

“They serve as the mounts of victory gods,” Ishaan mildly said. “When surviving their riders they are known to grow… eccentric.”

She glanced sideways at him.

“Victory gods?”

“When a great victory is won a god is sometimes born of it,” the Someshwari told her. “They are all children of the Six-Headed One, but have will of their own.”

“They get them out of defeats as well.”

Angharad turned, seeing Yong had approached while she was distracted.

“Some crawling thing came out of the fields at Diecai, a few weeks after,” the Tianxi told her. “The Watch had a free company waiting to kill it.”

“I had not heard, though I see no reason to disbelieve a veteran of the Kuril Dance,” Ishaan politely said before his attention returned to her. “I was taught it is not so uncommon phenomenon across the span of Vesper but that my people’s ties to the deeper truths of the Orthodoxy makes it more frequent where we rule.”

The dark-skinned noble could almost hear the echo of four dozen acrimonious religious wars – fought and yet to be – in that last sentence. The Sleeping God was a blessing in more ways than one. Angharad’s eyes slid back to the peafowl, who to her faint surprise did not seem all that put off with the tangent unrelated to her. She was, the Pereduri thought, listening to them almost eagerly.

“Am I to understand, noble elder, that this temple is now yours?” she asked.

“That’s right,” the peafowl happily said. “The Greedy One slurped up Kshetra’s insides, but instead of getting its hands on this place the claim passed down to me.”

Angharad glanced at Ishaan to see if the name brought up anything, but he sighed.

“It literally means ‘tract of land’,” he murmured. “There are more minor gods with that name than there are lords in Izcalli.”

Ah. She supposed not every battle happened to be fought in a place that bore a proper name. It seemed odd, however, for a minor spirit to have earned such a grand temple. Her momentary distraction was rewarded by another person stepping in, though Song joining them before the spirit was most welcome.

“The Greedy One,” Song repeated. “It is a most fearsome name – would you tell us of your divine foe, mighty god?”

The peafowl preened again, easily flattered. Angharad was beginning to feel a little guilty about this.

“It’s not a real god,” the mayura contemptuously said. “It did not come of the Golden Egg like we did, taking shape from nothing. It was forged long ago, by the-”

The spirit suddenly stopped.

“Nononono,” she said. “I keep forgetting: questions only at a price. To go forward, to learn, you must take my tests!”

The mayura skipped around the dais, beak pecking at things unseen. Before Angharad could even begin to consider what that was about, cascades of blue and green silk fell down from the ceiling in waves. Fluttering curtains surrounded them on all sides, and the spirit made happy noises.

“Supplicants,” she said. “You have come to the temple of the great Kshetra!”

She shook her back a bit, the desiccated corpse in the cradle jerking around. Should one squint, its arm might have done something akin to a wave. Morbid.

“A crossroads stands before you,” the peafowl announced. “At the summit of this holy place waits the path that will take you to the end of this maze.”

Behind her, golden light coursed down the blue silk like rivers. It traced a silhouette, resembling the shape of the temple-fortress as they had beheld it outside. Six ‘plates’ were haphazardly stacked atop one another, each delineated as its own section – including the hall where they now stood, at the very bottom of the stack. From the tower at the summit a strand of gold unfolded, leading into a curl whose meaning was unclear.

“There is another path,” the mayura said, “for those unfit to brave our tests.”

At the third level, a strand of gold unfolded and reached out… to the side? There was nothing there, though in her mind’s eye Angharad supposed something coming out of the temple horizontally would go into the cliffs.

“Yellow tiles will lead you back to the very beginning of the maze,” the spirit said. “A gift from the great Kshetra! Such largesse, however must be earned.”

Lord Ishaan cleared his throat.

“How may we earn your grace, great mayura?”

“Each of the old temples hosts a champion and their test,” the peafowl told him. “To earn the right to climb, you must defeat them.”

“Old temples,” Song lightly said. “I thought this all belonged to the great Kshetra’s inheritor?”

The mayura shifted uneasily.

“There used to be twelve of us,” she said, “though-”

The spirit paused, eyeing Song, and something like anger passed through those blue eyes.

“You may no longer speak.”

There was a ripple in the air, the curtains of silk fluttering like an incoming storm, and Song hastily bowed before backing away. The peafowl watched her unblinking, the displeased stare pushing Song all the way back to the ranks before releasing her. However fickle the spirit, it had been dangerous of the Tianxi to attempt to trick her into surrendering secrets for free. Best to change the subject before the mayura decided to express her displeasure more concretely.

“Must all six tests be passed for us to cross, honored elder?” Angharad politely asked.

If so, she feared corpses would ensue. The spirit let out a pleased cackle.

“This is a land of victory, so we honor it above all else,” the peafowl said. “You may instead face a test while under restriction, making your deed all the greater!”

Angharad cocked her head to the side. Curious as she was to get to the end of this temple, it should be clear to all what was most urgently needed. It certainly was to her.

“How may one earn the right of passage to the beginning of the maze?” she asked.

“Three to rise,” the mayura said. “Another to cross the gap.”

Simple enough: aking the test for one ‘win’, then three restrictions to pay for the rest.

“Then that is the wager I ask of you,” Angharad said.

To her left Ishaan choked. The peafowl, however, seemed most pleased.

“Then right attitude. I present you then the challengers,” she said, prancing about the stage.

The golden light began to twist again, taking the shape of a man.

“Ojas the Clever, who you must defeat in a contest of riddles that-”

“Next,” Angharad said.

The giant bird somehow gave the distinct impression of a pout. Light shifted again.

“Urvashi Cloud-Foot, whose deadly race across the sky-”

“Not her either,” Angharad said.

“No one ever picks Urvashi,” the spirit complained. “You should hear her moan about it.”

“The others, honored elder?” she pressed.

“Amrinder Ever-Champion, whose gift is to know and match your every skill at arms,” the peafowl tried. “He must be defeated in a duel.”

Startled, she almost laughed. A mirror, was it?

“Him,” Angharad said. “I will face him.”

The mayura flicked her feathers.

“A worthy choice,” she said. “Let us speak of oaths, then. You must give three.”

“I will use no weapon beyond my saber,” Angharad offered.

The peafowl nodded.

“I receive your oath,” she said.

The air shivered.

“I will not use my contract,” Angharad offered.

The mayura leaned closer, considering with those large blue eyes, then she opened her beak to taste the air with her tongue. Coolness slithered through her veins, the Fisher’s attention called, and the peafowl drew back hastily.

“Yes, best keep that out of the test,” the spirit said. “I receive your oath.”

The air shivered anew. There Angharad hesitated, considering what else she might offer. Somehow she figured leaving behind her coat would not be sufficient, however fine a coat it might be. An answer came from a most unexpected helper.

“Spare the champion,” Tupoc suggested.

She turned, frowning.

“Pull a killing blow,” he clarified.

That sounded… surprisingly sensible. She turned to the spirit, silently asking if such an oath would be received. The mayura considered it, then slowly nodded.

“Twice,” she said. “Pull a killing blow twice.”

She did not flinch in the face of the terms: what was there to fear, facing herself in a mirror?


“Then I receive your oath,” the mayura said. “Follow me, I shall show you the way. The rest of you can wait here.”

The spirit led her through halls of red stone, sloping and turning in ways that did not fit what she had seen from the outside. It was constantly chattering, and oddly insistent that Angharad be the one who take the test should her group attempt to reach the summit of the temple. When she dared asked why the mayura was only too happy to explain.

“If you die here I will gobble up the corpse,” she said, “but the last test is different. The wager is that those who fail it will become a champion of this temple.”

The mayura happily pattered about, missing the horror on Angharad’s face.

“You seem like you would be pleasant to keep,” she said. “So try not to lose until that test, yes?”

The spirit then flicked her wing, ushering her forward into a doorway of red stone.

“Amrinder waits within,” she said.

Angharad went through.

It was a graveyard.

Walls of bare stone closed in from all sides, solemnly leaning over a field of ash. Scorched bones peeked out of the grey like lurid smiles, pierced and broken by weapons enough to fight a war: swords and spears, curve knives and axes and broken butlers. A war was fought here, Angharad thought. One corpse at a time. Ash creaked under her boots as she approached the specter at the heart of it all: sitting on a mound of cinders and steel, a stern-faced bearded man with long unbound hair waited. A faded red and yellow vest covered a long padded tunic touched with bronze scales, but it was the worn banner the man had wrapped himself in that caught her eye.

Even color had long dripped out of the cloth, leaving behind stale paleness that spoke of nothing but use.

“My name,” the specter said, “is Amrinder. May you perish bravely.”

“A mirror has no name,” Angharad simply replied, and drew her sword.

The man shook himself to his feet, the banner fluttering down into the ash – he was taller than her, Angharad thought, though not by much. Lightly, almost daintily he plucked out of the ash a curved blade that resembled her own saber. She closed the distance.

“Skilled, for your age,” the specter said, as if tasting her talent. “But I am that and more. Arrogance makes for quick contests.”

Ten feet lay between them. It was nothing at all; it was the entire world. Two steps, measured, and Angharad’s saber began to rise towards a duelist’s salute – Amrinder matched her, only for his eyes to narrow when she immediately darted forward and hacked at the side of his neck. Left hand parry, but his blade was thicker and slower. It kept her off his throat, but only until she pivoted behind him and brought the bottom of her blade, near the guard, to rest against the nape of his neck.

“One,” Angharad counted, and drew back as he chased her off with a swing.

She could have carved into his spine, if she so wished.

“Have you no honor?” the specter bit out. “To strike during-”

“A mirror has no honor,” she replied.

Fury on the stern face, thick black brows pulling angrily. He pursued, high guard mirroring her own, and across the ash they danced. Ten feet, Angharad measured again as she slipped under a blow and the hem of her coat brushed against the ash. The specter left no footsteps, but the strength of his blows kicked up slashes of cold ash – half-a-breath brushstrokes, traced and blotted by the same wink of steel. Parry, cut and spin with the specter’s long blow. He might not tire, but for all his thicker arms he was slower: his blade not as slender, his footing not as fine.

The specter swept his guard low, inviting the blow, and she took the invitation. A feint near the head, immediately drawing an upwards cut at her belly, but she caught and swept it to the side. In the moment where he drew back his head to slam it into her own, she brought up her free hand and slapped him on the side of the throat. The specter choked, half-stumbling, and before he could steady his footing Angharad took half a step backwards, disengaging her blade and pulling back her arm – the point came to rest against the hollow of his throat.

“Two,” Angharad counted, and gave ground.

Ash flew as the specter’s anger swept the grounds, dark eyes grown wild as he slashed away and she maintained her distance. Ten feet: no more, no less.

“There is a trick,” the specter said. “A contract. How else could you prevail twice?”

“It is not obvious?” Angharad asked.

The specter’s blade slowed, wary but listening. Her eyes met his.

“You are fighting as a rendition of me,” the mirror-dancer calmly replied, “when I am already the finest such rendition.”

And to her surprise, that gave him pause. Anger bled out of the bearded man’s face, leaving behind the bones of soft rue.

“I had forgot,” he said, blade lowering.

She cocked her head to the side, her guard up. He smiled.

“What it felt like, the sting of pride.”

His thick saber slid out of his grip, down into the ash, and the specter turned his back to her. She could have struck, Angharad knew. Pierced through him from behind.

The Fisher’s answer, victory at any cost.

So instead she stood there as the specter returned to his seat and gently took up the banner, carefully brushing away every trace of ash. He wrapped it around his shoulders until it settled as a loose half-cape, trailing behind. Only then did he climb to the summit of the mound, where lay a wooden shaft. It was ripped free, revealing a long spear ending in a spearhead thick and long as a hand. The specter, readied at last, turned to her again.

“My name is Amrinder,” he said, hoisting his spear. “When the city fell and they came for the maharana, I held the garden alone until the nightingales sang.”

Her saber rose to tap against her left shoulder, a salute owed.

“Lady Angharad Tredegar of Llanw Hall,” she replied. “Ten times have I danced with the mirror.”

“You are a fool, Lady Tredegar,” Amrinder laughed, for a heartbeat young. “May you win.”

Angharad breathed out, taking three steps forward as she chose a fresh distance to engage from, and in the heartbeat that followed she nearly died.

The movement as Amrinder came down the mound was fluid, almost hypnotic, and as her eyes struggled to follow the head of the spear she realized too late she was misjudging his reach. The step back she took by reflex turned a thrust that would have gone through her throat into one that sliced along the side of her neck. Amrinder drew back his spear as she swallowed, bringing up her guard as blood began trickling down her skin. A spurt of fear, but stillborn. There was no musket here, no throng of enemies and no wicked contract. A man and a field, that was all that faced her. Life and death were in her own hands.

Angharad breathed out; the dance began anew.

He was better with his spear than Tupoc. Faster, more polished and full of tricks. A sweep kicked up a cloud of ash into her face but catching the glint of steel through allowed a narrow parry, her riposte catching only the banner’s fluttering cloth. When she gave ground he pursued, when she pressed forward he circled to harass her legs – twice scoring shallow cuts – and when she maneuvered for a better angle he mirrored her smoothly. Trying to follow the tip with her eyes was death: it wove, dazzling and smooth and always a foot closer to her flesh than it seemed.

Sweat trickled down her back and Angharad’s breathing grew labored while Amrinder fought with the tirelessness of the dead, but fear found no purchase in her. There was a weakness, she thought. And she thought she might have caught a glimpse of it earlier, when he almost slew her. The angle of the thrust had been slightly off. He pulls to the left.

It took her three bouts and a rip into the hem of her coat before she found the grounds she needed. The axe buried into a skull she ignored, but the ornate halberd and the three swords – standing together like grave markers – drew her footsteps. She moved and watched and waited, eyes on his arms and not his spear. Unlike the spearhead, those did not lie. Angharad pressed forward and the specter circled to the left, so immediately she gave ground. He pursued, as he always did, and then came the breath that would kill or crown her.

Amrinder thrust forward viper-swift, feet leaving not a trace on the ash, and Angharad stepped into it. She had meant to avoid the steel entirely but the spear head was too broad: it carved into the side of her vest instead of getting caught in her coat like she’d wanted. Either way, gritting her teeth through the pain as she felt steel bite into the flesh above her ribs, she bunched up her coat and caught the spear. The specter, without hesitation, took a step back to rip his spear free.

And Angharad won.

He had gone around the jutting swords without thought, pursuing her, but then he had struck at her – and when striking, Amrinder pulled to the left. So now he stepped back right into the swords he’d avoided, tripping, and Angharad burst forward with a shout. Arm thrusting forward, point straight, she rammed her saber into the specter’s heart even as his back hit the ash. It went through the padded armor, into what should have been flesh but was nothing at all. It was as if Angharad had struck air, and air was what her eyes found.

“Oh,” Amrinder gasped, eyes smiling.

A heartbeat later she was looking down at nothing but a faded banner, breathing raggedly. Angharad fell to her knees in the ash, eyes closed and shivered as the sudden coolness of the air.


The peafowl was waiting for her beyond the doorway.

“Very exciting,” she chattered as she led Angharad back down. “It was delicious to watch.”

The Pereduri tugged her coat closed around her. Now that her sweat had cooled, she was stinking and cold.

“Your companions thought the same,” the mayura added.

Angharad’s steps stuttered.

“I do not take your meaning, honored elder,” she said.

“They watched as well,” the mayura lightly said. “I could not give them the sounds the way Kshetra used to, but moving shapes is well within my power.”

The golden light, Angharad thought, the one that had moved like water. Had she done anything foolish? The noblewoman was still wondering whether she should be mortified when the spirit led her back to the others. Her half-formed fears melted away when a crowd formed around her in the blink of an eye, everyone seeming to want to pat her back or talk to her. It was a little overwhelming, so she was grateful when Isabel took her by the arm and tugged her back a little. The crowd calmed after a few more moments, and then it was Angharad’s turn to speak.

She had passed the test, so now she wanted the prize.

The spirit did not quibble, though already she spoke of when they would all return. Once the mayura showed them to the right hall, the way forward was simple. Up two flights of stairs they went, then to a slender drawbridge of white wood that was already lowered when they arrived. They crossed it into the left side of the great cliffs surrounding the temple, through an empty shrine where the wind echoed like eerie bells.

From there on, just as the spirit had promised, yellow tiles marked a path forward.

It took them through stairs and shrines, then up on a great ridge made from the collapsed dome of a temple. It was one of the very highest points of the maze, enough they could dimly make out a sprawl in every direction, and in the golden light of the aether machine they made out a descending path. Following the yellow tiles – which grew rarer and rarer, but never ceased – they stayed on a high road of ceilings and empty ruins for half a day’s worth of walking, only taking a break to eat.

Come what should be late afternoon, Angharad recognized her first shrine: the curved one where Lady Inyoni had fallen to the test of the cog god. Passing that observation along revived everyone’s flagging vigor and they redoubled their efforts. The very last yellow tile, found after the tiring climb down a flight of stairs so large they might as well have been walls, led them all atop the narrow passage that they knew as the Serpent Shrine. They were back, the distant lights of the Old Fort beckoning them to safety.

Song and Angharad were the first to take the rope down and they stayed together as everyone gathered to head back to the fort. Both were too tired to chat. The last quarter hour walk back stretched an eternity, but as the blackcloaks on the wall greeted them with waves Angharad let out a long breath. They passed through the breach in the rampart, returning to sanctuary, and treading the ground of the courtyard loosened something in the noblewoman’s shoulders. Knowing there were muskets on the walls, that the Watch would see to their safety, was a comfort.

“I think might take a nap,” she told Song. “It is unseemly, I know, but I am falling to pieces.”

The Tianxi did not reply, and when Angharad turned curiously she saw that Song held herself tensely. She was staring behind them and the Pereduri followed her gaze to find it was resting on the laggards of their group – Lan, Acanthe, Felis. One of the blackcloaks guarding the entrance, a young man with the Malani look, laid a hand on Felis’ chest as he crossed the breach. The man glared, all the more when the watchman took a sniff of him and then a second. The Sacromontan said something Angharad could not hear, and it must have scared the blackcloak for he drew back.

No, Angharad realized. The young Malani was looking elsewhere, towards the barracks. Against their wall Lieutenant Wen was leaning, eating from a bowl of those horrid mushroom crisps Lierganese were so fond of. The young watchman nodded and Wen sighed before raising his hand.

“LAST ONE IN!” the Tianxi shouted.

Felis’ eyes widened, Angharad saw it even from where she stood.

“Wait, no, I-”

The fat lieutenant’s hand came down and three dozen muskets thundered.

Smoke billowed out in plumes from every direction, spreading through the utter silence of the courtyard, and Felis’ mangled body dropped to the floor.

“We warned you,” Lieutenant Wen said. “If you make a contract in the ruins report it immediately, or you will get shot.”

Chapter 29

To her very great shame, Angharad’s first reaction was relief it had not been one of hers.

The second was fury: Aines’ corpse could not have been left out of the hall by accident, the murderer had wanted them all to see it. She strode over to the crowd, only some of them turning at the sound: the rest were too busy shouting. Lord Ishaan was the first to notice her and the man – still chubby-cheeked, for all that the fresh scar across his lip now lent him a harder edge – turned red as an apple.

“Lady Angharad,” he got out. “Would you, I mean-”

Shalini leaned over his shoulder, glance flicking up and down, then let out an approving noise.

“He’s asking you to put pants on,” she translated. “Respectfully.”

Angharad frowned. Her underclothes ended high on her thighs, but she was hardly naked.

“This is why people make sport of Ramayans, Nair,” Tupoc Xical opined, stepping out. “You can’t take a gift even when it’s dropped straight onto your lap.”

Tupoc’s gaze was hardly the most lascivious Angharad had ever been on the receiving end of – she’d had worse leers stretching out in sparring clothes after getting sweaty – but the pale eyes were distinctly appreciative as they took her in. That and the attention the conversation was drawing from those who had been shouting was enough to convince Angharad to give in to Ishaan’s request.

She could think of few things more nauseating than arguing about clothing besides a murder victim’s corpse.

Doubling back to her chambers, she dragged on pants and boots before hastily belting her saber. Grabbing her coat as well, she came out with outstretched arms only to pause right out the door. Yong was there, bangs loose despite the haircut the kindly old lady had given him after he lost his topknot. So was Song, smiling pressing a pistol against his belly. To the older Tianxi’s honor, he did not seem particularly fearful of that. Instead he nodded Angharad’s way, ignoring he was but a twitch of the finger away from a shot in the guts.

“Tredegar,” he said. “A word in private, please.”

Angharad almost sighed, pulling her coat into place by tugging the lapels.

“That’s not happening,” Song said. “I know who you are, Jiang Shashou Yong.”

Some kind of Cathayan title? Yong hardly seemed a noble and the Republics should not have any besides.

“I do not recall seeing the young lady at Diecai, so I assure you she is quite safe,” Yong drily said.

Angharad’s eyes narrowed, irritated at being cut out a conversation that had begun with a request of her.

“That is enough, Song,” she said, pushing down the muzzle of the pistol. “I can decide for myself who I will speak to, in private or not.”

Her friend grimaced.

“Angharad, he is-”

“Whatever those words in Cathayan you appended to his name mean, I imagine,” she cut in. “I do not care. That does not place the decision in your hands.”

Diecai. The name was vaguely known to her. A battle a few decades back, perhaps a Republican victory? Angharad would admit to not having been the most dutiful of students when it came to the history of Tianxia and the Someshwar. There were only so many times you could hear of ten thousand soldiers dying to move a border by two miles before it all rather melded together. Her eyes moved to Yong.

“Meanwhile, Master Yong, we are largely unacquainted and there was recently a murder,” she said. “We will not be going anywhere alone. The three of us, however, can take a moment inside my chambers to have the conversation you requested.”

Song murmured something in Cathayan, the other Tianxi’s eyes snapping to her as he replied acidly in the same, and Angharad’s thinning patience snapped.

“You are both being intolerably rude,” she coldly said. “Mend your manners or leave.”

 Song grimaced, nodding an apology, but Yong looked unmoved.

“Shall we go into your room?”

Angharad had half a mind to send him away, but that was anger speaking and not sense. She stepped back and invited them in, though she did not close the door. By the time both were inside, Song’s pistol was nowhere to be seen.

“You wanted to speak to me,” Angharad reminded the man. “Here I am.”

Yong hesitated a moment, then made his decision.

“A friend of mine found out that Aines and Felis were both sent here by the same coterie,” he said. “It paid for their seats on the Bluebell.”

The Pereduri cocked an eyebrow.


“Gang,” Song clarified. “Sacromonte has more than a dog has fleas. Some grow distressingly large and influential.”

The sign of a decaying state whose nobility improperly discharged their duties. Such a thing would never have been tolerated in Peredur: souls committed to infamy did not stay in the duchy, they fled abroad to become pirates and hirelings. There would be time to consider the failings of Sacromonte later, however.

“Why would criminals pay to send a married couple onto this dangerous island?” Angharad asked.

“For bets,” Yong said. “They are called ‘red games’. The desperate are indebted are sent here and told to accomplish a task in exchange for salvation.”

Oh, the noblewoman did not like the sound of that. The conclusion was obvious as it was ugly.

“Felis was told to kill his wife?” she said, appalled.

The Tianxi wiggled his hand.

“I do not know for sure,” he said. “But he tried to get her to leave our crew several times during the Trial of Lines and Aines told us that should she die before reaching the third trial there would be dire consequences.”

“For whom?” Angharad asked.

“They have children, I hear,” Song quietly said.

The older man nodded.

“The coteries, they do not care about the deaths,” he said. “Death is cheap. What they care about is the surprise, the story. If they told Aines she must live until the third trial or her children would die, then Felis…”

“Might have been told the opposite,” Angharad said. “So they might find out who would turn on the other first.”

Her jaw clenched, teeth grinding. A disgusting abuse of power, fit only to be answered by the blade.

“You believe Felis did it, then,” she said.

“I do not know,” Yong admitted. “But he had means – they slept in the same room – and motive. It looks much like Ju’s murder, which I doubt he had anything to do with, but that might be the point.”

Song was more interested in something else.

“Why go to us with this?” she asked. “You came here with the Ramayan crew.”

The older Tianxi glanced at her with irritation, and for a moment Angharad thought they would start bickering again. Instead he shrugged.

“Ishaan’s a decent sort, for a Someshwari, but he will only go so far with this,” Yong said. “I do not believe you will drop the matter even if it becomes messy.”

It was true that Aines had not been part of Ishaan’s crew and so he had no obligation to her as a lord, but Angharad thought the young lord was being underestimated. She had no reason to believe the Someshwari so lacking in character as to allow a murder to go unpunished, but then Yong was Tianxi. He would have little understanding of nobility and its duties.

“Twice now one of us was murdered in cold blood,” Angharad said. “Heedless of… messiness, as you put it, we must rid ourselves of this curse before it strikes again.”

The Tianxi gave her a nod, satisfied with the implicit promise. He had nothing more to tell them so after barely passable leavetaking he took the door. Angharad would have followed, had Song not laid a restraining hand on her arm.

“There’s something off about the body,” she said.

Aines’, she no doubt meant. Angharad raised an eyebrow.

“How so?”

“The throat was cut, but the spray of blood was minimal,” Song said. “Either the body was cleaned up or-”

“Aines was killed before her throat was cut,” Angharad finished.

She had made enough corpses to know the difference.

“That was not the case with the twin’s death,” she continued after a moment. “There was a great deal of blood on the grass.”

“Ju was definitely killed while alive,” Song agreed. “Which begs the question of why it was different this time, if it was the same killer’s work.”

“So Felis killed his wife without leaving a mark, then cut her throat to have the first murderer blamed for it,” Angharad frowned.

A pause.

“It could be the other way around,” she pointed out. “The killer could have made this death different to send us chasing after the wrong man.”

Though Angharad had never thought of such a thing being associated to murder before, stratagems of that kind were not uncommon at court. Song conceded with a nod.

“We won’t learn anything more in here, anyhow,” the Tianxi said. “Best to return before the others get impatient.”

The stepped right into a tinderbox.

Around Aines’ cooling corpse every soul in the temple had gathered, in varying degrees of dress but with every single soul armed. There were half a dozen pistols out and just as many blades, and though none were being pointed yet they were being waved about with too much enthusiasm for Angharad’s tastes. Lines were being drawn, groups coalescing. Lord Ishaan, Shalini and Acanthe were pressing Tupoc, by whom a sneering Ocotlan stood. The object of the argument was Felis, who had hunched on himself looking like a beaten dog.  

“They slept in the same bed,” Ishaan insisted. “You would have me believe he did not wake up even as she was dragged out of the room?”

“Drugs or a contract would see to that easily enough,” Tupoc shrugged. “I am more interested in what Lan was doing, awake so early and walking about.”

The surviving Tianxi twin looked nervous, but she was not alone. Lady Ferranda, Brun and even Yong stood with her. It was Brun, the fair-haired Sacromontan even-tempered as ever, who replied.

“Are you suggesting she also murdered her own sister?” Brun asked.

Tupoc shrugged, but there were few takers for the notion in the crowd. All remembered Lan’s grief that morning.

“Besides,” Brun continued, “Lady Ferranda was the first out the door after Lan shouted and she saw nothing worth calling attention to.”

“One of us would have found the corpse eventually,” Ferranda Villazur agreed. “That it was Lan makes no difference.”

“I cannot agree,” Lord Remund flatly said. “I notice you are fully dressed, Ferranda. Are you telling me you achieved this in mere moments before running out? It is most suspicious.”

Ferranda’s lips thinned. She did not answer.

“I am sure she has an explanation for that,” Lady Isabel said, once again playing peacemaker. “Let us not accuse in haste, Remund.”

Master Cozme stood with the two infanzones, closing off their faction. Unlike the two nobles the mustachioed soldier looked unwilling to step into the argument, but he was armed and watchful. His eyes were seeking something, Angharad realized, or at least someone. A heartbeat later she realized whom.

“Where are Lord Zenzele and Yaretzi?” the noblewoman called out, stepping in with Song at her side.

“Ah, Lady Tredegar finally graces us with her presence,” Tupoc called out. “A belated welcome to you.”

“You talk a lot, for someone with so little to say,” Shalini Goel mildly said.

The same Someshwari then glanced Angharad’s way.

“Both of them rushed in when everyone was there,” Shalini said, “but they must have slipped away after.”

Murmurs spread.

“Suspicious,” Remund said.

“Can it even be called an echo if you only repeat your own voice, Cerdan?” Yong mocked.

There were more laughs than she would have expected to that, and several who smiled. Remund’s cheeks reddened with anger, but Cozme kept him from answering as he clearly wished to.

“Enough,” Angharad stepped in. “We cannot get to the bottom of this until everyone is here. Did anyone see which way they went?”

A lot of muttering, but no answer.

“Then we will have to look for them level by level,” Angharad said. “Moving in pairs for safety.”

“That won’t be necessary.”

She recognized Lord Zenzele’s voice even before the man himself came into view, a steel-faced Yaretzi at his side. They were coming down the stairs that led to the upper level and Angharad’s stomach clenched. Neither looked as if they were bearing good news.

“We went to have a look at the gates upstairs,” Yaretzi explained.

The reigning current of curiosity ensured they were allowed to speak instead of questioned.

“Someone took a hammer to two of the three,” Lord Zenzele told everyone. “Their needles no longer turn and the mechanisms are damaged: I expect only the gate slated for the seventh hour will be fit to open.”

We are being forced to stick together, Angharad thought. Why? Should the murdered not prefer for the crews to split off again as quickly as possible, to hide from retribution?

“I know of only one hammer around here,” Song noted. “Ocotlan?”

The big man snorted.

“Like any of you twigs could swing it,” the Aztlan said. “It was in my rooms when the racket woke me up, so it hasn’t been stolen.”

“Then we ought to look through everyone’s bags for a hammer,” Lord Ishaan suggested.

“Agreed,” Angharad forcefully said.

Some hesitation from the crowd, but willingness as well. No one wanted the murderer to walk free.

“A bloodied knife was planted in my valet’s affairs, last time,” Lord Remund cautioned them. “Let us not assume a hammer means culpability, it could have been place there.”

“Sounds like something a man with a hammer in his bag might say,” Tupoc grinned.

That saw an end to all argument from a freshly red-cheeked Remund. It was longer and more arduous to arrange who would look through the bags than look through them. In the end three of them – Angharad, Ishaan, Tupoc – were deputized to act. The two captains of the crew the bag’s owner were not part of did the looking, with some effort made as to discretion. As much as they could while doing this in the hallway with everyone looking, anyhow. A quick but methodical search that could not have lasted more than ten minutes revealed no hammer.

“It could be hidden in the killer’s room,” Brun suggested. “We can search those as well.”

“I would have been simpler to just throw it in one of the pools downstairs when they were done,” Acanthe Phos opined. “And I don’t think anyone wants to go looking through that strange water.”

There were grimaces at that, but no one contradicted her. All had been careful not to come into direct contact with the iridescent waters in the pools and waterfalls below.

“Then we must look for the murderer with wits and witnesses,” Angharad said. “Question all those who might have seen something.”

“This is not Malan, Lady Angharad, and we are not your peasants,” Shalini Goel bluntly said. “No one here is bound to abide by your judgement.”

“Afraid of questions, Someshwari?” Lord Remund sneered. “Lady Angharad has proved honorable, unlike you lot.”

She his her surprise at the unstinting defense, though part of her did wonder if it was merely a springboard to strike at his opponents from.

“Her honor is not in question,” Lord Ishaan mildly replied. “It seems wiser, however, for more than one person to investigate this affair.”

“Lord Ishaan is entirely correct,” she said. “I did not mean to imply otherwise.”

Angharad had expected relatively straightforward acclamations, as for the bags, but to her surprise it was not the case. Few supported Tupoc – only Ocotlan and Felis – while Ishaan similarly struggled to earn support from his crew. Brun and Lady Ferranda instead pushed for Yong, surprisingly supported by Lan. The sudden sundering of authority made no sense to her, until the argument led her to watching Zenzele as he argued for himself as an investigator.

The gate, it was all because of the gate.

There was only one to take, so like it or not everyone would be going the same way and sharing the same path. The previous captaincies were meaningless because everyone would tread the same ground anyway, so now everyone pressed for those they liked or trusted the most instead of their once-captain. Is that what the murderer wanted? Forcing everyone to go through a single gate, one that was to open within hours, had resulted in the effective end of the delving crews.

Worse, we all know there is only so long left until the seventh hour, she thought. When the gate did open at that time, they would have to take it whether the murderer was found or not. They would, otherwise, be stuck in this temple with the killer for another night or day. It was devil’s cleverness at work, but cleverness nonetheless and it gave them trouble.

Angharad was acclaimed into a investigator’s role by six voices within moments of it becoming, then Yong by maintaining his four and then to her surprise Tupoc won over Lord Ishaan when Yaretzi spoke for him over the other man.  To have neither Yaretzi nor Zenzele’s voice as part of her count when she did have Acanthe Phos’ was something that left her rather unsettled. Song leaned in close.

“They both voted late, after you were guaranteed to have be one of the victors,” Song reassured her. “The point was to pick more than one candidate, not express distrust in you.”

Angharad did not know what she liked less about this: that the pair had not truly sent support where they thought it most deserving or that Song thought this to be some kind of… democratic process. Worse was that she was not entirely sure the silver-eyed Tianxia was wrong. Setting aside her discomfort, she held council with Yong and Tupoc. The three agreed that everyone should return to their rooms until the questioning was finished and that though there was a right to question violence was strictly forbidden – despite Tupoc’s protests.

“You would have us dig a pit without shovel,” the Aztlan complained.

“I will not entrust you with authority I believe you will abuse,” Angharad frostily.

“I just think you’re the worst kind of prick,” Yong confessed. “But sure, what she said.”

Tupoc laughed. She decided to believe that Yong was being facetious, for both their sakes. Angharad’s first act was to ask the other two if they had any questions for Song and, when told this was not the case, claiming her as a right hand for the rest of the investigation and fetching her from her room. Tupoc followed suit with Ocotlan, but Yong preferred going at it alone. Having no intention to stay together for the interrogations, they split up and go to work after together laying Aines to rest on the stone bed in one of the empty rooms.

Within moments Angharad stood alone with her Tianxi friend, breathing in deeply.

“Lan was the first to see the corpse,” Song said. “She seems the logical place to start.”

The noblewoman saw no reason to disagree. They were the first to go to the twin, who was waiting calmly in her room.

“Lady Angharad, Song Ren,” Lan said, nodding a greeting. “I’d wondered if it would be you two or Tupoc first.”

The Pereduri nodded a greeting back but kept the courtesies brief.

“You found the body,” Angharad said. “Tell me about it.”

“It was dead,” Lan drily replied.

The Pereduri twitched at the flippancy.

“Was it cold?” Song asked.

The other woman shrugged.

“I did not touch it,” she said, “so I cannot say.”

“What were you doing out in the first place?” Song asked.

“I was going to take a piss,” Lan frankly said. “Almost did anyway, stumbling onto Aines like that.”

Angharad’s eyes narrowed. The crudity of the answer was distasteful, but it was too distasteful. It felt like the girl she had dueled last year at Mawa Peak who had kept striking at her face – Angharad’s form had been better, they both knew, so her opponent had tried to make her lose her temper to bring them back on even ground.

“You are,” Angharad coldly said, “lying.”

Song idly produced her pistol, which Lan’s eyes followed warily. Though Angharad almost told her to put it away, the implication of violence was not strictly against the promise made – only the actual exercise.

“That’s a bluff,” the twin snorted. “No way you agreed on giving each other that authority.”

“We voted on it,” Angharad stiffly said.

She felt the blue-lipped woman’s eyes on her as she spoke, Lan eventually letting out a small curse in Antigua. She bit her lip, then raised her hands.

“Fine,” she said. “You got me. I wasn’t coming out of my room at all, because I never went into it.”

Angharad blinked, taken aback.


Song breathed in.

“You spent the entire night spying on everyone’s movements,” the Tianxi said. “To see who went where.”

Lan grinned, unrepentant.

“It’s always useful to know who’s fucking and scheming with who,” the blue-lipped woman said. “And it’s not like I was doing anything forbidden, is it? I just waited in a dark corner with a good view and waited, that’s not even snooping the way most people would see it.”

Wait, if she had been keeping an eye on everyone’s coming and goings then… Angharad coughed into her fist, embarrassed.

“Yeah, my lady, your cheeks should be red,” Lan cackled. “That girl’s good as engaged, the way Remund Cerdan tells it.”


The noblewoman found Song’s silver eyes on her, face unreadable.

“It was not,” she tried, then swallowed. “We didn’t. I declined, given the circumstances.”

“But she attempted to sleep with you,” Song slowly said.

“We are straying off the subject,” Angharad stiffly replied.

The Tianxi must have taken it as a confirmation, for her face tightened. For a moment Angharad though she saw anger in the cast of the other woman’s face, but surely that was only the light. She had never been given the slightest hint that Song might be interested in her or that they thought of each other in such a light, so what call was there for jealous anger? Salvation came from an unexpected source.

“Poor Isabel,” Lan mused. “She must have been wanting a pick-me up after her other visit.”

That got both their attentions.

“Other visit?” Angharad asked.

“Remund Cerdan came to her room,” the blue-lipped woman said. “Stayed in there about a quarter hour, left looking angry and went straight to back to his own.”

Song hummed, looking interested.

“Trouble in Sacromonte, perhaps,” she said. “Who else wandered, Lan?”

“Ah, and now you even call me by my name all sweetly,” the other woman smiled. “Funny how even a rat gets a smile when they have the right dirt – it’s almost as if the world runs on secrets.”

“It may help us find out who the killer was to know who moved around during the night,” Angharad honestly told her. “I would ask that you tell us.”

The twin sighed.

“Fine, fine,” she dismissed. “Shalini went to Lord Ishaan’s room, and I didn’t need my ear against that door to guess why. Stayed for about two hours, then back to her own. Just a little after that, Ferranda Villazur came out of her own fully dressed and went upstairs.”

Angharad stilled. They were all on the fourth level, and the fifth held little save the room with the gates.

“Did she have a hammer?” she asked.

“She wore a cloak so I can’t say,” Lan told them. “She was gone for an hour at most, then back to her room.”

Angharad worried her lip.

“And after that?” Song asked.

“After that I fell asleep,” Lan admitted. “When I woke up I wasn’t sure about the time, so I headed to my room to grab some sleep. I ran into Aines’ corpse on the way and you know what follows.”

She closed her eyes, trying to fit the pieces.

“How long Lady Isabel stay in my quarters?” she asked.

“Go there around the eleventh hour, left around the first,” Lan said.

“Shalini’s visit?”

“From midnight to the second hour, more or less,” she replied.

After which Lady Ferrand had gone upstairs for an hour then come back down.

“It’s a quarter past five at the moment,” Song noted. “And it should not have been much more than half an hour since this all began.”

So Lan found the body a quarter before the fifth hour, more or less, and before that there were a little under two hours through which the twin had slept. The last person known to have stalked the halls was, it appeared, Lady Ferranda. That made it plain who Angharad’s next visit needed to be.

“Thank you for your help,” she told Lan.

The Tianxi grinned, revealing teeth stained just as blue as her lips.

“If you catch them, try not to kill them,” Lan said. “I have a debt to settle first.”

Angharad not often spoken with Lady Ferranda Villazur since the Trial of Ruins had begun, something she occasionally felt a sliver of guilt over. Now was not the time to indulge in that guilt, however, so when she and Song entered the room she kept her face blank. Ferranda, still fully dressed and her bun pulled tight, sat on her bed.  The greetings exchanged were stiff, so Angharad decided not to stretch out the shared discomfort.

“You were seen going upstairs during the night,” she told the infanzona. “May I know why?”

The fair-haired Sacromontan studied her a moment, frowning.

“Lan or Brun,” she finally said. “Everyone else would have thought it beneath them to spy.”

Brun was not much of a snoop, Angharad thought, so there Ferranda misread the situation. Either way, she had no intention of revealing Lan’s tactlessness – for another to be indiscreet was no excuse to follow their example.

“Interesting insight,” Song said. “Not, however, an answer to our question.”

Ferranda sighed.

“I went upstairs,” she said, “so I could take a hammer to two of the three paths.”

There was a short, awkward pause as Angharad admitted to herself she had not expected so blunt and easy a confession. Song seemed similarly taken aback.

“To what purpose?” she finally asked.

Ferranda straightened.

“I am told that Lady Isabel passed a trial as part of your crew while displaying obvious foreknowledge.”

“And you have foreknowledge of your own,” Angharad said, unwilling to leave it unsaid.

“Not our own,” the infanzona admitted. “House Villazur bought it from a house better informed. Among that knowledge was a thorough description of this very temple and of where the three ‘gates’ lead. It is one of the few fixed points in the maze.”

“And what makes the gate so important?” Angharad asked.

“One of those I broke leads into a trap, a hallway whose floor rises to meet the ceiling,” Ferranda said, and the Pereduri winced. “The second leads back to another crossroads, spreading in every direction.”

She paused.

“The one I spared should lead to a temple-fortress overlooking the very last stretch of the maze: a passage called the Toll Road.”

Song stirred from her place leaning against the wall, earning a curious look from the other two.

“I have heard the name before,” she said. “I was told it leads directly to the gate where the ten victors must stand.”

“You could have shared your knowledge with others instead of wielding a hammer,” Angharad said, turning to the other noble, though the reproach in her voice was mild.

Knowing that Ferranda had not acted with the intent to harm rather robbed her of any genuine offence at the act.

“I did,” Lady Ferranda said. “Lord Ishaan then requested I keep the information secret.”

Angharad’s jaw tightened.

“The gate to the death trap,” she began, “who-”

“Tupoc’s group,” the infanzona cut in. “And while I do not disagree the man deserves to die, he would not have died alone.”

And so Ferranda Villazur had acted within the bounds of honor: she had not gone against the word of the captain she had gone under, but neither had she allowed those she deemed unworthy of death to approach it unknowing. Angharad nodded in respect, which had Ferranda’s plain face twisting in surprise. Song cleared her throat.

“I mean no slight to your honor,” the Tianxi said, “but should we want to verify your words…”

“I do not image Lord Ishaan will deny them if asked,” the infanzona shrugged.

“The hammer you used?” Song pressed again.

“I tossed it one of the pools downstairs,” Ferranda amusedly said. “Much as Lady Acanthe guessed. It is the one besides the twisted gargoyle with dragon’s claws, if you are inclined to look.”

Angharad cleared her throat.

“And the reason why you remained dressed?”

“In case this all went bad,” Lady Ferranda frankly said. “Should my actions be found out while I slept, I did not want to be caught in my underclothes and so I slept fully dressed. My affairs are also all packed.”

A look behind them was enough to bear that out: the room was pristine, the bags orderly. Song, though was not yet satisfied.

“Why destroy two of the gates?” she asked. “Only one was truly harmful.”

“Because I want this godforsaken trial to end, Tianxi,” the infanzona harshly said. “Once we have all found the Toll Road it will only be a matter of days until this all over.”


“Enough,” Angharad said, cutting off Song.

She inclined her head at Lady Ferranda.

“Thank you for your answers.”

“Think nothing of it,” the infanzona dismissed.

Her Tianxi right hand did not need to be dragged out of the room, saving them both the embarrassment. Angharad turned on her after the door closed behind them.

“That was unnecessary,” she flatly said.

Song shook her head.

“She was lying.”

A pause.

“You believe she is the murderer?” Angharad tried.

“No,” Song admitted. “But she was lying about why she sabotaged two of the gates instead of one, I am sure of it. She is hiding something.”

The Pereduri grit her teeth in frustration – at both the insistence that Song should have been allowed to continue her rudeness and that perhaps the insistence was not entirely unwarranted.

“We are all hiding things, Song,” she finally said.

“Maybe,” the Tianxi said, unconvinced. “But mark my words, Angharad: there were games afoot tonight, and the one that made a corpse might not even have been the most dangerous.”

Their third destination must, inevitably, be Felis.

Though Angharad was uncertain of his guilt, Yong’s words could not be denied: the man had had both motive and opportunity. Only when the pair reached his room there was already someone standing by them. Tupoc stood by the open door, smiling as they arrived. Beyond the threshold Ocotlan seemed to be speaking with Felis.

“We require a word with him,” Angharad told him.

“Oh?” he drawled. “What for?”

Already the man was trying her patience. Deciding on boldness, Angharad went for the throat. 

“We have reason to believe he was bribed to kill his wife,” she said.

A moment passed. For a man whose follower had just been implicitly accused of murder, Tupoc Xical seemed most unshaken.

“You are correct,” Tupoc easily said. “Felis was told that if he slew his wife before the third trial, their children would be raised wealthy.”

Angharad paused, taken aback again. Villains in plays were much harder to unmask. The Izcalli then raised a finger.

“The condition, however, was that he must do it with his own hands,” Tupoc continued. “Look at the him now, Tredegar.

Angharad did. Worn and bruised, Felis looked hunched on himself even though Ocotlan was looking unusually mild. He also kept glancing at the corners of the room, gnawing at his lips. Guilt? No, mostly he looked worried. Not even all that afraid, but anxious about something past the horizon.

“Does he look like someone who just got his way?” Tupoc asked.

The Pereduri’s lips thinned.

“No,” she admitted nonetheless.

“He’ll be scheming to see if he can claim he did the deed to his patrons anyhow,” the pale-eyed Aztlan said. “But the man is scavenger, nothing more. He does not have the spine or competence to have done this, much less the first murder.”

Song cleared her throat.

“And this tale you told us of what the coterie demanded of him,” she said. “How do you know it?”

“I had Ocotlan hang him upside down while I asked questions,” Tupoc said.

Angharad looked at him aghast. The man put a hand over his heart, a beaming smile on his face.

“Come now, I am no monster,” Tupoc said. “I did wait until his wife was out of the room, Lady Angharad. He’d still had a fair shot at murdering her down the line.”

Her jaw clenched, fingers tightened around the grip of her blade. His spear was not yet assembled. It was a dishonor to strike the unarmed, but if she could find a reason…

“We will not fall for your provocations,” Song evenly said. “You can cease trying.”

Angharad, who had about to fall for the provocations, mastered herself with some effort. Now was not the time or place for Tupoc to learn that crime unerringly earned punishment.

“Felis is not so much a suspect as first believed,” she said through gritted teeth.

“We are in agreement, then,” Tupoc said. “I am impressed with this killer, truth be told. This is subtler than when they framed Tristan for the twin: they had to learn about the red games, not simply observe a brawl.”

Angharad paused.

“You did not believe Tristan to be the killer,” she slowly said.

“Of course not,” Tupoc said.

He seemed surprised at the words.

“You accused him repeatedly, Tical. Led the charge to see him blamed.”

“Because I wanted him to die,” the Aztlan told her, as if she were a little slow.

Angharad’s saber made it halfway out of the scabbard before Song caught her wrist.

“Not here,” she said. “Not now.”

And Tupoc, Tupoc was grinning. Already he was reaching for his segmented spear, putting the first two parts together.

“Why?” Angharad demanded. “What possible reason could you have had to try to get an innocent man killed?”

“Something about him offends my god,” Tupoc shrugged. “I am told he feels like someone who should have died a hundred times over, that it is most disorderly.”

Song forced the sword back in the scabbard and Angharad let her. They were still under truce, she reminded herself. However thin a truce it might be.

“I require words with Felis,” she coldly said. “Immediately.”

“So demanding,” Tupoc said, fanning himself.

But he did call for Ocotlan, whose rose to his feet. The big man with the broken nose tried to brush into her as he passed, but Angharad squared her feet – her shoulder bone dug in the soft of his own shoulder, the Aztlan drawing away with a pained growl. Angharad stared him down until he looked away, leaving with a still-smiling Tupoc.

“Ishaan might have had a point,” Song murmured.

A jest, no doubt, but not one she was in a mood to humor. She did not answer, striding in instead, and before she could so much as offer a greeting Felis began to babble.

“I didn’t do it,” he swore. “I was still sleeping when all the shouting began, just ask Lan, and-”

“Tell us of your evening before,” Song cut in.

The longer they spoke with the man, the clearer it became he had little to say. He had gone to sleep early and woken up only when Lan found his wife’s body. They had shared a room but not a bedroll, and Angharad could help but find that for someone with so little to relay the man seemed all too nervous.

“May I have a look at your wound?” she suddenly asked.

Felis stilled.


Discomfort, Angharad thought. One of the secrets being kept.

“It will be easier to ascertain if you could have killed your wife at all given the state of your wound,” Song smoothly replied.

Felis on begrudgingly agreed, opening his shirt and tugging down mostly clean bandages to show where Remund had stabbed him in the belly. Angharad knelt, frowning as she saw the wound was mostly closed. No, not closed. The red of the gash was not that of healed flesh but of something else – blood-red, sanguine, but not blood. Carefully touching around the wound with the tip of her fingers as Felis hissed in exaggerated pain, she found that the flesh was stiff. Solid, almost like as if there were bone beneath it. Frowning, Angharad drew away and back to her feet.

“See?” Felis said. “I couldn’t have done it.”

A lie. Whatever that blood-red material was, it had effectively closed the wound. The noblewoman expected skin would grow back over it in time, leaving only that patch of solid skin.

“We are finished here,” Angharad finally said.

“Agreed,” Song said.

And the other woman’s tone was as grim as her own thoughts, for they had grasped the very same problem: for all they had learned, they still had no real idea who’d murdered Aines.

Yong was waiting in the hall when she emerged, looking in no better mood than she.

“How is the wound?” the Tianxi asked.

“Good as healed,” Angharad replied.

The Tianxi sighed, passing a hand through his freshly-cut bangs.

“Dead ends for me,” Yong said. “I heard about the nightly visits from Lan, but Remund Cerdan insists he only went over to speak of his upcoming engagement and Ruesta agreed.”

Angharad readied herself for embarrassing questions, but none came. Was he not going to ask about Isabels’ visit to her own rooms?

“Did you get anything out Lady Ferranda?” Song asked, filling the silence before it could grow too noticeable.

“That she was saving poor lambs, benevolent mistress that she is,” Yong drily said. “Villazur was done with our crew and decided her way out was forcing us all down the same path, I’m guessing.”

An uncharitable interpretation, but Angharad supposed Ferranda could have been moved to act for more than one reason.

“A span of two hours with no witness is too long,” Song noted. “There is no solid way to catch out the culprit with such a glaring hole in our knowledge.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Yong said. “Any idea why Xical went straight for Felis from the start? If anyone should know everything the man has to say, it’s him.”

Angharad paused.

“He has sought out no one save Felis for questioning?” she asked.

“Lan, but only moments and after me,” Yong replied.

That seemed… odd. As did the fact that he did not seem to be interrogating anyone currently. What was the Izcalli after? Angharad let Song inform the other Tianxi that they had no idea what Tupoc had asked about and looked for the man herself, finding that he was not anywhere on the fourth level. She learned where he had been when she caught him coming down the stairs.

“What were you doing?” she asked.

“Looking if the gates were truly broken as our friend Zenzele said,” Tupoc said. “You can never be too safe, yes?”

You are lying, Angharad thought, looking at his easy smile. We missed something and you found it.

“The purpose of this arrangement was to share information,” she evenly said. “Not hoard it.”

“That you think that,” he gently told her, “is why you’ll lose.”

Her jaw clenched.

“Perhaps I should put an end to this contest, then,” Angharad said, fingers gripping the handle of her saber. “If you do not respect the spirit of the truce, why should you protected by it?”

Tupoc grinned.

“Come now, Remund only stayed in your lovely lady’s quarters for a bit,” he said. “Not enough for you to get jealous over, surely?”

Angharad stilled. That he would taunt her over that and not Isabel’s visit to her rooms was… Lan had told no one else about Isabel’s visit, she realized. Gratitude, however guilty, seized her soul. It changed her mood enough that she took her hand off her blade, to Tupoc’s visible disappointment.

“A man can only take so much teasing, Tredegar,” he gravely reproached.

“We are still under truce,” Angharad replied. “And why should I value even the shallows of my honor more than the likes of your life?”

“Well,” Tupoc Xical mused, “if you are going to sweet-talk me so, I suppose I shall have to forgive you.”

One day, Angharad thought, he would push her and there would be no strictures of honor protecting him.

She was going to savor that day.

The second council between the three of them was largely ceremony: none of them had found the killer or even a solid lead. Tupoc was sitting on secrets – and likely so were she and Yong – but with silence holding there was resolution to be had. They sent for everyone to come out for a common address, the seventh hour having crawled dangerously close. The revelation that no culprit had been found did not go over well, not that Angharad had expected failure to be met with applause. Even less popular was the acknowledgement that there was now only one way forward, through the gate that would open in under an hour.

But what other choice was there?

When the seventh hour came all seventeen took the gate, eyes on each other as much as the dangers that lay ahead.

Chapter 28

Tristan could not figure out how to make the damn folded ladder work, so he ended up bleating like a lost goat for half an hour before one of the watchmen on patrol heard him.

It was another ten minutes after that of Lieutenant Vasanti and her minions asking him through shouts to describe the device in detail then failing to get it work. In the end one of the blackcloaks just threw him a rope ladder, giving up the machinery for a lost cause. It was only watchmen when he came down, with one exception: Maryam. It was a dangerous habit to start seeing what you wanted to see, so the thief did not let himself believe it was relief he saw in those blue eyes. They had chosen trust, but there was no guarantee that would last beyond the trials they were undertaking.

The given hint that she had aimed from the start at cooperation in a greater undertaking was to be set aside. Then future was a foreign land, not to be relied upon. The dark-haired woman strode through the throng of blackcloaks, some of them snickering, and for a heartbeat it looked like she was going to embrace him.

Instead she slapped his hat down against his chest.

“There,” Maryam said. “I tried to sell it, but it was such a raggedy thing I could find no takers.”

“Blind and a poor haggler, then,” Tristan mused, setting it back on his head. “It’s a lucky thing I made it back. What would you do without me?”

“Luck,” she said. “When the pebble stays stuck in your boot after the shake, is that what you call it?”

A sigh, but not hers. Lieutenant Vasanti wrinkled her nose at them.

“I don’t know what this is,” she said wiggling a finger in their direction, “but it’s putting me off dinner. Cease immediately.”

The thief tossed the lieutenant a carved stone button. She caught it, rather spry for her age.

“It’s a key,” he told her. “Best to get a few muskets pointed at the door before using it, though. There’s a god on the other side and he simply cannot wait to have someone over for dinner.”

The old woman looked nonplussed.

“That’s what salt munitions are for,” she said. “Good work, boy.”

“I live for your praise,” Tristan drily replied.

Lieutenant Vasanti wanted a detailed report, but he told her he wanted a physician first so as a compromise he got to tell her about his misadventures while the garrison doctor saw to his broken finger. To his surprise, she seemed to care little about the god. It was the room with the tiles she was most interested in, demanding he describe it several times while taking notes, and one more detail besides: the metal rod with the alloy brand at the end. That she cared about so much she asked he draw the brand from memory. Tristan did, charcoal pen scratching against cheap paper.

“It might not be exactly that,” he warned. “I only saw it in passing.”

She hummed, eyes on the drawing as she only half-listened.

“What is it about the brand that interests you so much?” he asked.

To his surprise, she deigned to answer. He had expected a cutting comment and a dismissal.

“People tend to think of the Antediluvians as a nation of living gods, shaping the world to their whim, but that was only true for the First Empire’s ruling class,” Lieutenant Vasanti said. “Someone had to clean the dust off the wonders and keep the cogs turning.”

The urge to fiddle with the splint the physician had put around his broken finger was near overwhelming, but he forced himself to think instead. The man was gone back to the barracks, if the splint snapped he was on his own.

“The rod was some kind of tool, then,” Tristan deduced, cocking his head to the side.

“The greats of the First Empire could all manipulate aether much like Navigators can shape the Gloam,” Vasanti told him. “Their servants, though, were not so gifted. So how does a living god avoid having to get their own carriage working when the thing runs on aether?”

“By making tools that can affect the aether,” he said.

“That’s what that brand is, boy,” Lieutenant Vasanti said, not hiding her excitement. “It is our way to get one of the machines working without the need for a Navigator. If we are lucky, it will have been crafted for the tiles and let us open the front gate heedless of Hell’s sabotage.”

The burst of enthusiasm waned, however, and with it the lieutenant’s willingness to indulge his curiosity. She left him to his seat, telling him he was no longer needed for the afternoon, and went to consult with her band of followers. Tristan watched her back getting further and further away, considering how furious she would be should she ever learn he’d held back in his report.

He had not told her of the second stone button in his pocket, or the green glass door.

With Vasanti’s departure others were finally free to approach. Maryam and Vanesa both joined him at the table, the latter helped onto the seat by his pale-skinned accomplice. They seemed in a fine mood, Vanesa in particular. He quickly learned his survival was not the only reason.

“Everyone has been pulled off the sky-watching,” Vanesa told him. “The lieutenant wants us studying mechanisms around the tiles on the iron gates. She believes they are some sort of combination lock.”

The old clockmaker, as it turned out, preferred steel to figures. She was glad to be back on the gates instead of continuing to match the ceiling machine’s movements to that of the inner cogs.

“Francho and I are still on the machine, but she is no longer insistent I start pushing Gloam at it like a toddler throwing a ball,” Maryam said. “I do not suppose you know why?”

“I might have found a tool that can serve in your place,” Tristan said.

“Good news,” Vanesa enthused. “Once it is brought down-”

“It is behind a locked gate guarded by a monstrous old god that tried to eat me,” he told her.

“Ah,” Vanesa muttered. “That puts something of a damper on things, admittedly.”

Tristan scraped together a meal for the three of them out of what lay around the kitchen, mostly dried fruits and bread, but soon enough the pair’s break was at an end. They still had work to do for Lieutenant Vasanti, unlike him. Vanesa was the first to head back, giving them a knowing smile. Tristan supposed that the amount of plotting in dark corners the two of them did was not helping with that misunderstanding. When Maryam spoke, though, it immediately claimed his full attention.

“The use of your contract was too obvious not to be caught this time,” she said. “Already rumors are getting around, and your timely throw against the gravebird has not been forgot. You might want to get ahead of this before speculation grows wild.”

Before someone ascribed him the power to stop cogs with a thought, predict the future and maybe also fly, she meant. Nothing got so out of hand as rumors about contracts: back home there were so many tales about what the legacy contracts of the Six could do that if all were true the nobles would be more divine than their own gods. Thankfully Tristan had a lie ready for this, the same he had been using for years when the need was forced on him.

“Telekinesis,” he said without batting an eye. “I can move small objects with some degree of strength, but I have difficulties with control and there is often backlash.”

Maryam cocked an eyebrow at him. His answer had been a little too quick to be believable.

“A lie,” Tristan shrugged. “But the effects are similar enough it would be difficult to argue otherwise.”

“It does sound like the kind of contract with a minor god a man of no background might obtain,” she admitted after a moment.

It took genuine effort not to flinch when Fortuna slammed her fist on the table – which made not a sound and did not shake it, as it was only on his flesh she could feign to touch – and she leaned forward with flashing eyes, pointing an accusing finger at an unseeing Maryam.

“Minor?” she shrieked. “Minor?”

The goddess shook her finger angrily.

“How dare you, Maryam Khaimov,” she snarled. “I was going to sell you to her on the cheap, Tristan, but this… heresy cannot be brooked. You must defeat her in single combat. Avenge my honor, and be a brute about it.”

The thief sipped at his cup of water, smiling.

“Have I told you I like your tresses?” he asked Maryam. “They suit you well.”

She slowly blinked.

“Treachery,” Fortuna sputtered, stumbling back in shock. “Stop that, Tristan, stop that right now.”

“You have very good taste in boots,” he told Maryam.

She squinted at him.

“Are you…” she slowly said. “Are you using me to anger your god?”

The grey-eyed man simply smiled and complimented her dress, Fortuna’s indignant shouting like a soothing lullaby.

Tristan spent most of the afternoon trying very hard not to fiddle with his broken finger, drinking dandelion tea and considering what he should do.

It was only a matter of time, he figured, until Lieutenant Vasanti tried again to be rid of him by sending him through the stone door. He could not be sure that the god would be lying there in wait, but it did seem likely: how long had it been since the entity last had an opportunity to feed? Worse, it did not seem to be affected by the ‘laws’ the aetheric machine above was subjecting the gods of the maze to. It had certainly not been shy in trying to gobble him up.

No, the more he thought about it the more likely it seemed that the lieutenant would send him in. Vasanti wouldn’t use blackcloaks, no matter her talk of salt munitions, for the same simple reason she had not kept sending people to cross the same lethal machinery Tristan barely survived: if too many got killed, there would be consequences she could not afford. As the thief did not fancy his chances against the god even if he was sent in to, he would need to make other arrangements.

First, he needed a sword hand. He and Maryam worked very well as a pair, but it could not be denied they were not the finest of fighters. Tristan knew of one man with the required capacity for violence and that he still trusted more than most in the Trial of Ruins. The real question was this: had they made enough progress along this path that Yong would consider them a better bet than continuing with the maze? After wrestling with the question for some time, sketching arguments for either side, he finally decided an answer could not be had until the crews returned tonight.

If they returned tonight, he corrected as the hours stretched out.

It was now late in the afternoon, and it was possible that some of the crews had got far enough in the maze that they would prefer to spend the night there rather than double back. Tristan was not afraid of anyone passing the second this trial early, for it would be impossible for any single crew to have ten victors and they had all taken different paths.

It was becoming clear, however, that he was running out of time for his other affairs. He had neglected vengeance in the name of more immediate dangers, but now that there was a light at the end of that tunnel he could turn his attention back to the business: Tristan had no intention of allowing the Cerdan brothers or Cozme Aflor to live. The deal he had struck with Isabel should buy him the opening he needed, but he needed for the crews to return to the Old Fort before he could slither his way in. It was that understanding that had him keeping an eye out for any return until at last his patience was rewarded.

More or less.

Lord Augusto Cerdan, looking quite haggard, stumbled into the Old Fort come early evening. The infanzon looked as if he had been thrown down the side of a mountain, boasting such an extensive collection of scrapes and bruises that the broken arm no longer stood out. The worst was a nasty rip going down the side of his now-broken nose to halfway down his throat. The skin had been scraped off by something raw, and though it was not a dangerous wound it was one that would be disfiguring for months. He began calling for the Watch physician within moments of entering, quite loudly – Tristan noted with amusement that the doctor in question pointedly took his time doing up his buttons before moving to answer – and was soon being seen to in the kitchen.

Lieutenant Vasanti had released everyone for the evening, so it was not Tristan alone who came out to the courtyard to have a look at the infanzon’s bruises being cleaned with alcohol.  Maryam drifted close, as if by coincidence, and leaned against the wall by his side.

“Alone and wounded,” she idly said. “Lord Augusto must be feeling rather exposed.”

Tristan knew little of the people of what the Malani called the northern colonies, the Triglau. Oh, islanders called them fierce savages who fought garbed in steel and raided settlements from the back of their hardy mountain ponies, but if you believed the Malani every war they had ever fought had been against hateful villains while the brave people of the Isles only ever reluctantly took up arms for the common good. You had to take the Malani with a grain of salt, for all that they rarely lied.

Looking at the way those blue eyes were watching Augusto Cerdan, though – like a hunter watching a stag, measuring it for the knife – he thought there might be some truth to the stories out of the Isles. That was not the stare of someone who balked at the thought of violence, who saw anything wrong with the lay of Vesper being decided by the cut of a blade.

Tristan supposed he should have been put off by the sight, but he was not. How could he be when he’d seen eyes like those all his life, saw them every time he looked in a mirror? People like Angharad Tredegar, like Augusto Cerdan or even Vanesa, they thought of violence as an intrusion. A break in the default state of peace. They had lived all their life behind the walls of the garden where laws mattered and served to protect, never grasping that beyond the wall violence was the law. You took from those who could not protect and kept what you could protect from those who would take it: that was the truth of Vesper, to a rat.

Triglau, Tristan thought as he watched those pale blue eyes, must not have been so different.

“Very,” he finally agreed, looking away. “So much that I think him unlikely to leave the fort for some time.”

And while in here, protected by sanctuary, Tristan would not risk killing the infanzon. The risks were too great when both lieutenants in command of the fort had it out for him.

“He will have to come out sooner or later,” Maryam murmured.

“He is bound to the trials,” Tristan pointed. “To return home as anything but a peace concession in the making, he must survive his brother and Isabel Ruesta. If there is to be a list, he would be last.”

“So the younger must come first,” she murmured.

The thief was somewhat impressed she had caught that. Remund Cerdan must indeed come before an attempt on Cozme Aflor could be made.

His two enemies under Tredegar were the hardest to get at, by virtue of the mirror-dancer being their protector, but with Isabel out to get Remund killed he would have someone interfering on his behalf. More importantly, it would force Cozme to move. After that, the man would have two choices: either he swallowed his pride and went to Augusto, to get at least one Cerdan home and hope it would be enough, or he cut ties with House Cerdan entirely and tried for the Watch as a refuge. If he went to Augusto he became easier to get at, as Tupoc Xical had all the loyalty of a jackal, and if Cozme aimed for the Watch then Tristan would have the entire third trial to get to him.

“There are plans in the works,” he said.

“Very sinister,” Maryam praised. “Have you considered growing a beard so you might stroke it?”

Ha,” Fortuna snorted from behind him. “He wishes.”

The Lady of Long Odds had entirely forgot her sworn enmity of a few hours ago, as was her way, and was not merrily siding against him once more. The thief rolled his eyes.

“Come,” he said. “Let us see what our good friend Lord Augusto has to say.”

The eldest Cerdan was not only inclined to talk but rather vigorously friendly.

He spun a tale of woe, telling all four of them – Vanesa and Francho, curious, also joined them at the table – of the many indignities he had suffered since Angharad Tredegar’s false accusations forced him to make common cause with the bandit Tupoc Xical. Going with the Aztlan had been what he wanted, he assured them.

“She even got to Lord Ishaan, you see,” Augusto told them. “A nice enough man but very gullible. He had no chance at all against as skilled a trickster as Lady Angharad.”

Tristan had known heads of cabbage more skilled at trickery than Angharad Tredegar, but he smiled encouragingly instead of laughing in the man’s face. He need not look around to see the obvious fabrication had found no takers: the Pereduri was widely respected. The infanzon told them of Tupoc being a slave driver with no regard for rank, of Felis being insolent and insubordinate while Aines was useless. However obtuse, Augusto soon realized that insulting the married pair everyone here had spent the first trial with won him no friends.

He immediately changed tack, focusing on the shrines and the gods.

The infanzon revealed nothing that Tristan had not already heard from Lan, save when it came to today’s events. Tupoc’s crew had made very fine progress after crossing a broken bridge, Augusto recounted, but then been forced to go underground and wait for some time before they were let into some kind of crystal labyrinth. In there had been illusions and attacks, until the entire thing collapsed onto their heads. Augusto has narrowly survived, buried alive but falling through a crevasse. From there he had stumbled into some manner of empty crypt and found a path back to the Old Fort.

“I now hold the knowledge of a safe route deep into the maze,” Augusto told them. “There is but a single shrine on the way, and I have defeated the god’s test: I stand before you a victor.”

He was, in fact, sitting. And carefully avoiding giving any specifics about the shrine he had beaten, enough that Tristan suspected he was either lying or it has been mortifyingly easy to defeat. It was when, between two boasts of knowing a crucial path, Augusto half-heartedly apologized for sending Tristan away from his group during the Trial of Lines – the thief was informed that Tredegar had insisted and convinced the others, so Augusto’s hand had been forced – that Tristan realized what the noble was after.

“Why,” Augusto nonchalantly said, “I expect that the path is so easy even the five of us could reach the end of the maze using it.”

The man was in the market for a delving crew, preferably full of expendables and under his captaincy. Tristan could only wonder if it was desperation or arrogance that had the infanzon thinking there was anyone left that might want to go under him.

“How impressive,” Maryam mildly said.

As he did about half the time he glanced her way, Augusto smothered a moue of disgust at the paleness of her skin.

“Indeed,” the eldest Cerdan agreed. “But it is my duty as an infanzon to provide for others.”

Francho almost choked on the water he had been drinking. He coughed under Augusto’s suspicious eye.

“The cough simply won’t leave me,” the toothless old man said. “I did not mean to interrupt, my lord, do go on.”

“Oh, but I have talked quite enough I think,” Augusto said. “What is it that the four of you have been doing, if not seeking to pass the trial? I saw the blackcloaks made some sort of discovery.”

Lieutenant Vasanti had yet to manage to get the folded ladder to unfold, but the rope ladder was easy enough to see.

“We have been given tasks by Lieutenant Vasanti to advance the Watch’s interests in this place,” Tristan replied. “Secrecy is paramount, I am sure you understand.”

He glanced at the others, who looked willing enough to follow his lead in this.

“Of course,” Augusto said, frowning when no one else added anything. “Though I imagine you will be free by tomorrow?”

“That is not for us to determine, my lord,” Tristan said. “We are in the service of the Old Fort’s commanding officer until released.”

The bruised noble looked at the others, seeking someone who might contradict what had been said, but instead only got silence. Looking miffed but knowing better than to push his luck when his position was so weak and a Watch lieutenant was involved, Augusto gave way. He changed the subject, returning to complaints about his old crew. Tristan thought there might be a purpose to it, at first, but eventually came to realize that the noble mostly wanted to vent.

Maryam and Francho excused themselves before long, but the thief forced himself to remain in case anything of use was revealed. Vanesa, he suspected, simply pitied him enough to suffer through the whining.

“Both of the Aztlan are as wild animals,” Augusto told them. “Xical is from Izcalli, so that was only to be expected, but Ocotlan is no better even after a lifetime under enlightened rule.”

Ocotlan’s tattoos and build marked him as legbreaker for the Menor Mano, one of the largest coteries in Sacromonte, so Tristan was thoroughly unsurprised. The Mano liked their enforcers brutal.

“Life in the Murk can be very difficult,” Vanesa said. “Not all who resort to violence enjoy it, Lord Augusto.”

“That man does,” Augusto haughtily replied. “He spent much time boasting of the work he had done for his ‘patrons’, bloody stories that had him grinning and chuckling.  He proudly told me of beating a man to death before his son and of drowning another in a waste bucket.”

That sounded about right, the thief thought, and his interest waned entirely. What did he care of an infanzon’s shock at the true face of the city his ilk so liked to claim having turned into a paradise? Augusto Cerdan would have gone his entire life without caring a whit about what took place in the Murk every day, if he had not been told of it. In truth he still cared nothing, Tristan knew, and only used the talk of savagery as a way to complain of his former companions. If he somehow survived the Dominion and returned to the Cerdan, the infanzon would forget everything he had learned in matter of hours.

The thing with mud was that when you were a noble you had servants to wipe it off your boots.

“- and he bragged of having done work for his patrons even after they had decided to send him off to these cursed trials,” Augusto bit out. “Breaking the leg of some-”

Vanesa might be willing to indulge the fool, but Tristan’s patience ran out. He feigned having been called by Maryam and went her way, sending the clockmaker an apologetic glance that she did not notice. Was she truly interested in the Cerdan’s words? Surely she could not be as spellbound as she looked. Vanesa was too kind for her own good, he thought not for the first time. The older of the Cerdan brothers certainly seemed pleased at having such a willing audience, almost eager to answer her questions.

Tristan might have pitied him for being so obviously starved of regard, had he not been a Cerdan.

The man was of that accursed house, however, so instead the thief put it out of his mind and went to attend to one of the secrets he’d dug up. Keeping one of the stone buttons he had taken in the pillar was not much different from keeping a key behind Lieutenant Vasanti’s back, in practice, as he could do little with the object but open a door. It was a way to get to the secrets, not a bearer of secrets itself. For him, anyway.

Francho, who could listen to the voices in stone, would find it otherwise.

The old man was not hard to find: he was napping in his bedroll, snoring quite loudly. Tristan almost felt bad about waking him up, but the sooner he had answers the sooner he could begin to sketch out the end of this trial. The toothless professor smacked his lips as he was gently shaken awake, eyes unseeing for a moment before he woke entirely.

“Trist-” he began, then fell into a fit of coughing.

The thief waited for them to end, then caught the man’s eye.

“You will have a hard time having a good night’s sleep, if you nap for too long,” he said as he pressed the stone button into the man’s hand.

Francho’s eyes widened but he caught on quick.

“That is true, I suppose,” the old man said. “Perhaps I should go for a walk. Any suggestions?”

‘Where is this from?’

“As long as it’s not up in the pillar,” Tristan said, feigning a small laugh. “The god there would not make for fine company.”

“Not much of an answer,” Francho snorted. “Should I ask the lieutenant?”

‘Does Vasanti know about this?’

“Surely not,” Tristan said. “She might take it as advances.”

“It is never too late for love, my boy,” Francho laughed.

Good, they were now on the same page. Tristan drew back, offering a hand to help the old man up. Francho took it, letting himself be pulled close.

“Too faint,” the old man murmured. “It will take me hours to make out the words, come back tonight.”

Inclining his head in agreement, the thief smiled. He could wait.

It took longer than Franco had said: the professor came to talk only an hour before midnight.

They sat at a kitchen table sharing a bowl of cabecitas, the old Liergan classic of crispy mushroom slices. These were in the Sacromontan style, salt but no pepper, and just like back home the garrison kept them by the barrel. Francho was toothless, so he broke the crisps with his lips and sucked on them until they were so mushy he could slurp them down. It wasn’t appetizing to look at, but the slow pace would give them an excuse to sit here until they were done talking.

“The history of this place,” Francho said, “comes in three parts.”

He traced a circle on the table before breaking off another piece of cabecita.

“First is an island on what was not yet the Trebian Sea,” he says. “The Antediluvians, for reasons known only to them, build this pillar and the aetheric machine. Then comes the Old Night, and as the First Empire falls the island is abandoned.”

“And the devils come,” Tristan said.

“And the devils come,” Francho agreed. “They get into the pillar, tinker with the great machine then break the doors so that no one else can do the same. They then build the Old Fort and begin the centuries-long labor of building the maze.”

The old man paused.

“Only it is not so simple as that,” the professor said. “None know for sure what took place during the Old Night, if the Flood truly took place or if is mythology, but it is beyond debate that the fall of the First Empire caused mass migrations of people and darklings. It is during this era that the islands of the Trebian Sea first began to see settling, among them this very Vieja Perdida.”

“And the devils simply let them?” Tristan frowned.

“There would not have been many of them,” Francho shrugged. “These settlers – not darklings, at least not yet – would be the same people that built the circles of raised stones and I believe them to have been, if not friends to the devils, at least not enemies.”

Tristan took a moment to swallow that. All his life he had been told of the wickedness of devils, that they could not be trusted. They were not like hollows, who could be bargained and lived with, but something fundamentally evil. Even the devils who had signed the Iscariot Accords and been allowed to live among humans beyond the walls of Pandemonium were only biding their time until they began to devour men again. But it might have been different back then, he thought. It could not be denied that devils preyed on men, but so did other men.

In a time of bloody chaos like the Old Night, would the settlers have seen Hell’s denizens as all that worse than their other enemies?

“It is said that the Watch took this island from hollows, not men,” the thief noted.

“It is a common and well-documented phenomenon for the population of islands without a natural source of Glare to progressively turn hollow over the span of generations,” Francho dismissed. “I imagine that the cultists of our day are descended from those very settlers, twisted by centuries in the dark.”

Tristan slowly nodded.

“I take it the third part is when the Watch arrives,” he said.

“After the signing of the Iscariot Accords, the blackcloaks built the Rookery as the seat of their order and began spreading their influence across the Trebian Sea,” Francho said. “I will spare you the history lesson about the order’s conflicts with Sacromonte – in those days still attempting to revive the Second Empire – and say only that most of the Watch’s power in those days was still bound east, to the century-long siege of Pandemonium and its later sealing.”

“They did not have coin or manpower to waste,” Tristan translated. “Yet they still came here and seized the Dominion from devils and darklings. Why?”

This, he thought, was the thread to pull at. If he could learn why had the Watch come and why it had stayed everything else would fall into place.

“I have spent the last three hours,” Francho said, “figuring out the answer to that question by listening to the voices of the devils who once used your button. It all comes down to a very slight mistake, Tristan, that compounded over centuries.

The toothless professor shivered, slurping down his piece of mushroom and subtly pressing the stone button against the side of the bowl as he reached for another crisp. Tristan palmed it just as discreetly, then waited as Francho began to violently cough. It was only after a minute of long breaths that the old man opened his eyes and began to speak.

“When the blackcloaks first came to Vieja Perdida,” he rasped, “the darklings who dwelled on it spoke what is called a Trebian cant. That is to say, one of the family of languages descended from what was spoken here during the First Empire. Traces of that root language, Tristan, remain all across the Trebian Sea – the Asphodel Rectorate, for example, still uses such a cant for its formal ceremonies.”

“There was a mistranslation of some kind,” Tristan guessed.

“The word was one the ancestors of the darklings learned from devils, which the Watch would have recognized,” Francho said. “But then the island was isolated for centuries. Their accent grew, so when the blackcloaks asked their questions half the terms were misconstrued.”

He paused.

“When we encountered cultists, Tristan, did you notice they scarred and tattooed themselves?”

“With a red eye,” Tristan agreed, then frowned.

He remembered the mace-wielding cultists that might have killed him if not for Maryam’s use of a Sign, the way his cheeks had been scarred with red ellipses. But would Tristan have called them eyes, had he not already known the hollow belonged to a cult of that name?

“It’s not an eye, is it?” he asked.

Francho smiled.

“Mouth,” he said. “Or perhaps maw. It is the god the cult worships, and likely the rumor the Watch first came here to investigate.”

And now it all began to make sense.

“You told me the circles of raised stones the settlers built were built by the river because rivers are boundaries,” Tristan said. “That it could mean the boundary was being either weakened or strengthened.”

And it had to be strengthened, for the airavatan to have been kept out by their mere existence. The same settlers who had raised those stones had been on good terms with the devils, Francho had just told him, and the shape of it all lit up in his mind’s eye.

“I believe they were built,” Francho said, “for the very same reason the devils built their maze: the heart of that god lies beneath this cavern, under the mountain.”

Gods, how large was the Red Maw? It must be miles long, to reach as far as the river while its heart pulsed beneath their feet. Only the oldest of deities grew so large as to – no, that was a distraction from what truly mattered. The layers of schemes, accumulated over the centuries likes sediment at the bottom of a canal.

The devils did not want this god loose but they had not killed it, or perhaps they had been unable to? Yes, that seemed more likely. So instead they had imprisoned the Red Maw, doing something with the golden aether machine and barring the pillar’s gates so it could not be undone before building a maze over the Red Maw’s heart. A maze full of hungry gods, Tristan thought, who the machine above forced to eat not humans or hollows but only the divine.

“The gods of the shrines are meant to eat away at the Red Maw,” he murmured. “That’s why the devils kept bringing more and more temples over the centuries, they were replacing those that the Red Maw ate to keep the prison functional.”

Francho slowly nodded.

“The Watch has not done the same,” he said. “It would have been impossible to hide moving entire shrines to this island with any regularity and I cannot even conceive how they would achieve such a thing in the first place.”

Not through the way their crew had entered this cavern by, no, and it did seem to be the way the Watch used to get to the Old Fort.

“No,” Tristan slowly said. “They have not, so the prison would weaken over time. But they did start doing something else, after taking the Dominion.”

The trials. The fucking trials. The Watch couldn’t bring in entire shrines and the gods bound to them, so sooner or later the Red Maw would devour all the gods keeping it from spreading – it was older, more powerful. It could afford a war of attrition and that was the nature of this prison, gods slowly starving and clawing at each other. So instead the Watch had looked for a way to bolster the strength of the maze gods, to help them against the Red Maw, and in looking found a loophole in the laws imposed by the aether machine.

The trials were just a way to keep drawing people to the Dominion so enough of them would make it to the second trial and die, keeping the shrine gods strong.

The overly large Watch investment on the island, the seemingly backwards method of recruitment, they were all explained if you stopped looking at the Dominion of Lost Things as trials and instead considered it a prison. The blackcloaks willingly paid in gold and lives every year because otherwise this Red Maw might break the lock on its prison and become a much larger problem – one they must not know how to kill, because if they could have by now they most definitely would have.

“Yearly sacrifices,” Francho softly said. “Keeping the seal strong.”

Tristan’s fingers clenched.

“We cannot reveal this,” he said. “They might well kill us to keep it quiet.”

If the true nature of what took place on the Dominion of Lost Things spread, the consequences would be… Tristan could not quite grasp what the Watch as a whole might suffer, that was too grand a scope for a rat, but at the very least the flow of trial-takers would run dry. Not even pride and tradition would make the infanzones keep feeding their children to some savage old god as they unknowingly had for centuries. Or did the infanzones know? No, it could not have remained a secret if that were true. But if it were only the lords and ladies of the Six, well, that might be a different story.

A conspiracy for another time.

“I will speak not a word,” Francho promised.

Tristan let out a long breath, passing a hand through his hair. He had no fear of that, the old man no more wanted to be dragged out back and shot than he did. Best to change the subject, for lingering on it would only serve to unnerve them.

“It is almost shame you cannot,” Tristan said. “Imagine what a book it would make! The university would surely beg for you to return.”

Francho’s face closed, but not at the mention of the University of Reve. It was the mention of a book that had him looking almost bitter and Tristan hid his interest. For all that the man was free with amusing stories, the professor’s past was still largely opaque to him.

“I suppose it is only fair to say,” the toothless old man sighed, “since we already share so many secrets.”

He shook once, coughing wetly into his hand, and his voice was rough when he spoke.

“I cannot write,” Francho said.

Tristan blinked at the absurdity of the statement. How could the man have come to be a Master at Reve if he could not – oh.

“Your contract,” the thief said.

“I first encountered the Bibliognost when I was a young man, out treasure hunting,” Francho said. “It was flattering when he took an interest in me – you will not have heard of him, I imagine, but he is a god that emerged with the first universities. A deity of scholars and secrets, dwelling in forgotten places of learning.”

“Yet your contract is recent,” Tristan stated.

More than mere months old, by the thief’s reckoning, but certainly not decades as contracting when a young man would have meant.

“I was proud in those days, headstrong,” Francho said. “I did not take his offer, for convinced I was meant for greater things still. And I was not entirely wrong: I was soon one of the youngest Masters the University of Reve ever appointed.”

A pause.

“Only one day I looked around me and realized that I was sixty years old and I had not left a lasting mark on the world,” Francho quietly said. “That I would pass away and Vesper would forget my name.”

“So you sought him out again,” Tristan said.

“I did not go about it foolishly,” Francho told him. “I had precise ambitions: I had been close to finding records of the mythic First Cant, the language from which all other hollow cants in the Trebian Sea are derived, but the ruins that should have led me to a library were defaced. I needed a way to plumb their secrets regardless.”

“To hear the whispers in the stone,” Tristan murmured. “He gave you what you wanted.”

“Time makes no difference to o a god,” Francho said. “It had been decades to me, but to him barely the blink of an eye. The Bibliognost offered me his power, and though the price for what I asked was steep it was not unfair.”

“He took your ability to write,” the thief said.

“That was the price,” Francho said, then he grimaced. “Or so I thought. I had planned to get around the restriction by making a student write in my stead, which would have been eccentric but not so much that Reve would object. Only when I began to dictate my words to the student, she found she could not write them.”

He chuckled bitterly.

“Like trying to hold smoke, she described it,” Francho said. “And that was when I realized that I had not given away my ability to write, Tristan: I had given the Bibliognost ‘everything I might ever write’.”

Oh, Tristan softly thought. A god of scholars and secrets, Francho had called the entity. Fortuna was the Lady of Long Odds, the one in a thousand chance, and it was such gambles she fed on – win or lose. The Bibliognost had fed on the old professor’s scholarship and through cunning phrasing also made everything Francho might learn through his contract secrets for him savor. If what Francho learned could not be writ down, in a matter of decades it would be good as forgot.

Not all gods offered such plain bargains as the one had struck with Fortuna: some saw their contractors as little more than the spoon filling their mouth.

“Yes,” Francho said. “I was tricked.”

“They sent you away from the university for it?” Tristan asked.

A professor that could not write or be written for was hardly fit to teach students.

“They were not going to throw me out,” the old man snorted. “I was as familiar to my fellows as the bricks or the fountains, just as much a part of Reve. But I was to lose my Master’s chair and cease giving classes.”

He paused.

“I could not stand it,” Francho admitted. “Being tricked and losing so much, when I had thought myself cleverer than a god. So I turned to the Caliginum, the library beneath Reve, and stole forbidden books so that I might find a way to break free of the price.”

“You said it was a disagreement with rectoress that made you leave the university,” Tristan recalled.

Francho smiled toothlessly.

“I got close,” he said. “I could push it onto rabbits, but they never survived the process. I needed a larger brain, I knew, capable of higher thought. Of true interaction with the aether. And there are always students desperate for tutoring so their marks will not get them thrown out.”

Tristan went still.

“You did it to a student?”

“They found the books in my room before I could,” Francho said.

He smiled mirthlessly.

“Or so the rectoress told the infanzones, when she declared me a wanted man,” he said. “In truth they were an hour late.”

The thief breathed in sharply.

“It did not work,” Francho conversationally said. “The boy’s own brain bled him to death.”

So that was why the man was not some tutor ensconced in a noble house, teaching their children. He was a killer and a wanted man. Francho reached for another cabecita, broke it on his lip and sucked in the piece. He swallowed, wetly.

“Are you disappointed, Tristan?” the old man lightly asked. “That I am not the kind of man I like to seem.”

Francho’s face was unmarred by shame or doubt. He did not, the thief decided, regret what he had done. Even if it had failed. The old professor had decided that he was willing to kill for a chance at cheating the price of his contract, at gaining back all that he had lost. Maybe if Tristan were from the Old Town he would have been disgusted, but he was a rat. He knew better. Francho had been starved, so he had bit. That the boy he’d bit had been underserving changed nothing. When had the world ever run on what people deserved?

You bit what your teeth could reach, nothing more and nothing less.

“I suppose I do have a question,” Tristan said.

“Oh?” Francho said. “By all means, ask.”

The thief cocked his head to the side.

“Did you find it?” he asked. “The First Cant you were looking for.”

Francho went still as stone, looking at him for a long time, then convulsed. Tristan thought him to be coughing or crying, until the bitterest laugh he had ever heard came crawling out.

“There was misspelling on the stele,” Francho told him. “It was supposed to be speaking of the library in a past tense, you see.”

The old man toothlessly smiled.

“It was torn down millennia ago to make room for a brothel, so there were nothing at all left to find.”

He laughed again but Tristan could not help but hear the wail behind it. The whimper. He left the professor sitting alone, wrestling with his grief, and did not look back.

He had his own ghosts to lay to rest and no time for anyone else’s.

The rope ladder up into the pillar wasn’t guarded.

Why would it be, when as far as Lieutenant Vasanti knew the sole room there led to a door she had the only key to? Sloppy, the thief thought disapprovingly. In their place he would have left a watchman up there and had them pull the ladder up until morning. Vasanti’s imprudence was his gain as he snuck out of the Old Fort and climbed back up to the same room he had been so glad to be rid of earlier. In Tristan’s pocket waited the stone button he had lent to Francho, but he did not use it yet. Instead he leaned back against the wall by the stone door and met Fortuna’s golden eyes.

She rolled them but went ahead anyway.

The goddess could not stray far from him, but walls and locks meant nothing to her. She was not physically present, after all, only the illusion of her in his eyes. It was twenty seconds before she returned, popping her head through the still-closed door.

“He’s not in there,” Fortuna told him.

“I will need you to look ahead in the hallway as well,” Tristan murmured. “But remember we cannot talk. He could be sensitive to sound.”

She cocked an eyebrow at him, a somewhat distressing sight when all he saw of her was a seemingly floating head and loose blond locks. She was, he mused as his fingers closed against the stone button, definitely doing that on purpose.

“I am perfectly capable of silence,” she said. “It is your own incessant chatter that-”

He pressed the button into the opening, cutting her off by the act of the door popping open – he slid around it to catch the button as it fell out of the ‘lock’ on the other side. Fortuna looked more than slightly offended, which only got worse when he put his finger to his lips in a smiling shush. The lights were back in the tile room, Tristan saw, but he did not linger there. Leaving the door ajar, he crept back up the way he had first come into this room: the maintenance door. The room there was exactly as he had left it, so the thief helped himself to the first reason he had returned.

The last stone button went into his pocket and then he took the brand Vasanti was so hungry for.

Now for the second reason. He doubled back towards the door with the broken latch, the one leading out into the hallway, and met Fortuna’s eyes. She went through as he prepared to bolt, but returned with a shake of her head. The god was not there, at least for the moment. Why did it leave? Did gods sleep? He had not thought so. Still, for now he would count his blessings and proceed down the hallway with all the quiet he had learned. The door was still there, hidden by the curve of the hall, and two dozen steps took him to it. Green glass, but transparent enough he could see through it.

And as he’d thought when getting his first glimpse from a distance, what he saw through that door was a lift.

Tristan fled after that, not slowing until he the stone door closed behind him and he had a semblance of safety. Brand still in hand, stones in his pocket, the thief went to the edge of the room and finally allowed himself to rest. He sat at the edge, feet dangling in the void as the distant sight of the maze of ruins – from here little more than slices of antiquity bared by light, as if some ancient era had been left half-used on a cutting board – and his breathing evened out.

Tristan Abrascal sat there in silence and thought, for now he saw the whole of the mosaic.

Now all that was left was to decide where to slide the knife.

Chapter 27

A secret, Abuela had taught Tristan, always whispered twice.

The first was the secret reaching your ear, the hidden thing unearthed. The second was the whisper of what a man had thought worth wielding a spade to bury, what it said of them they would keep away from prying eyes. He thought of that, as Lieutenant Vasanti called up her soldiers and introduced him as their fresh meat, a new helper in their work to unearth the tower’s secrets who would soon be joined by three more. He thought of it and smiled at the strangers, because the blackcloaks were bringing him to find out the pillar’s secrets but it was not them he truly wanted.

He was going to find out what that Watch had buried here and why they’d buried it.

And once he had had, once he heard the second whisper and he saw the whole of the mosaic instead of a hundred pieces, then he would decide where to slide the knife.

The first act he took come morning was sowing the seed Beatris had given him.

“And she told you this in person?” Isabel pressed.

“Last night,” he said. “And as a parting gift to us both, Lady Ruesta, she told me we share a trouble.”

The dark-haired infanzona smiled, and Tristan wondered how long it had taken her to craft this one: friendly but not overly inviting, just a touch cheerful and naïve. Even without the contract Tredegar would have tripped all over her boots around Isabel Ruesta.

“And what would that be?”

Tristan feigned wiping his lips, enough to hide how them from watchers.

“Remund Cerdan,” he said.

Isabel’s smiled widened.

“It is very kind of you to be so concerned,” she said, “but though taken with me he has not been-”

“My sister lost her hands to his contract,” Tristan lied. “He’s a shit and you don’t want to marry him any more than I want him to make it through this trial.”

Oh, the thief thought as he watched Isabel Ruesta’s face shift seamlessly from slightly touched to cool pleasantness. A schemer’s face, but he would wager not her true one. It was just another sort of play she put on, changing role for every stage. She was the most dangerous sort of the snake: the kind that did not announce the venomous fangs with bright colors.

“I did think you were just a little too convenient to simply be a rat,” Isabel mildly said. “Revenge, however, is an expensive business. Which coterie sponsored you?”

“What would that matter to you?” Tristan shrugged.

“Won’t you indulge me?” she asked, batting her eyes.

Was she using her contract? He could not tell if she was. The thought angered him regardless.


She looked more amused than miffed.

“So we share a trouble,” Isabel acknowledged. “What do you propose to do about it?”

“Poor choice of words,” Tristan noted, to a quirk of her lips. “And today? Nothing. I have business here in the Old Fort. I need two things from you: a recounting of the venture in the maze and for you to find a place where I might corner him.”

“You want me to spy for you,” Isabel lightly said.

“Spy is such an ugly word,” the thief noted. “Which is fitting given that we are arranging your fiancé’s murder.”

The mask of pleasantness cracked. That, at last, had touched a nerve.

“We are not,” Lady Isabel Ruesta coldly laid out, “engaged.”

“Nor will you ever be, if we help each other,” Tristan smiled back, all charm and friendliness.

From the corner of his eye he saw Angharad Tredegar approaching their table and he cocked an eyebrow at the infanzona. They could not speak long without suspicion, or easily again without causing the same.

“Agreed,” Isabel murmured.

Would she betray him, Tristan wondered? Too early to tell, but only a fool would discount the possibility when faced with such a snake. More likely, though, she would keep this secret in her pocket in case it might ever be of use in getting her home to the life she did not want to leave behind. The thief waited until Tredegar joined them, then made quickly his excuses to leave. He now had eyes in their crew and an accomplice for what was to come.

That was one piece of the mosaic in hand: now he must collect the rest.

Talking his comrades into joining Lieutenant Vasanti’s efforts had not been difficult: they were all eager at the thought of getting the Watch’s help and protection. What Tristan had not expected was for the Watch itself to argue over Vasanti’s decision. It was very much the case, though, and after spending so long tiptoeing around the blackcloaks Tristan found it rather lovely to see them tear into each other like this.

“- against every rule,” Lieutenant Wen insisted. “We have a clear set of duties overseeing the second trial and using its takers as labor undeniably goes against them.”

“Oh look,” Lieutenant Vasanti drawled, “the boy has an opinion on rules. That’s nice. In thirty years, I might even start giving a shit about what you think.”

They weren’t even hiding this, the thief gleefully thought. All three of them were in the kitchen, in sight of everyone, and more than a few watchmen were looking at the scene.

“You’ll be dead in thirty years, crone,” the Tianxi snarled.

“And what a relief it will be,” Vasanti replied, “to finallybe beyond the reach of your whining.”

Tristan knew better than to get involved. The Watch was clannish, like a tightly knit coterie, and no matter how at odds the pair got they were sure to band together against an outsider. Instead he sat in his seat, moving as little as he could, and tried very hard not to grin at how red in the face Lieutenant Wen had gone.

“I will kick this up to Captain Tozi if I have to,” Wen threatened.

The large Tianxi lieutenant had always been so sure in his power until now, so willing to toy with all of them. Tristan found that seeing the man’s jaw clench and his eyes flash with anger was good for morale. He’d keep this moment in mind, next time Wen threatened to hammer an entire bucket’s worth of nails into his body.

“The same Captain Tozi you told she’s only been picked for the Academy because she’s nobleborn?” Lieutenant Vasanti replied. “Do wait until I’m in the room to try it, at my age there’s only so many good laughs left ahead of me.”

Lieutenant Wen gritted his teeth.

“Commander Artal-”

“Won’t care what happens outside Three Pines so long as it doesn’t splash his boots,” Vasanti cut in, unimpressed. “He’s just here to pretty up his record before a committee bid.”

The old Someshwari shook her head, as if disappointed.

“Besides, this is all far away,” she said. “In the Old Fort, Wen, I am the senior lieutenant. Do you remember what that means?”

The Tianxi’s face tightened.

“You haven’t run a goddamn thing, Vasanti,” he said. “It’s all been me while you’ve holed up in the pillar with your favorites and-”

“It means,” Lieutenant Vasanti coldly interrupted, “that I am your superior. And your superior has just ordered you to shut the fuck up, so you had best get to it.”

Lieutenant Wen’s face went even redder, which Tristan had not thought possible, and he closed his mouth. He stalked away, not bothering to hide his fury, and the old woman snorted at the sight.

“There’s only so far a pristine combat record will get you, kid, with a mouth like yours,” she said, then sighed. “And you, rat, keep that smirk off your face.”

“I am not smirking,” Tristan said. “And you are not looking at my face.”

Lieutenant Vasanti turned an irritated eye on him.

“I have a fine nose for conceit,” she said. “You positively reek of it.”

“I’ll try to trade for an earlier bath ticket,” Tristan easily replied.

The irritation in her eyes grew.

“Go gather your little band,” she said. “Wen’s going to be a right pain for the rest of the year, so you had better be worth the trouble.”

The northwestern bastion was Lieutenant Vasanti’s private kingdom.

That much became clear within moments as five blackcloaks gathered to her like chicks to their mother, coming to around the table by the telescope while looking all eager and polite. The four of them – Francho, Vanesa, Maryam and Tristan himself – were escorted up the stairs by the same middle-aged Someshwari woman Tristan had first thought to be the Vasanti last night. She was, in fact, called Sergeant Ovya.

She also had it in for him.

“I don’t suppose,” the sergeant asked, “that you have any notion of why I’ve ordered to write ‘I will load my pistol properly, like a grown woman’ a hundred times with a charcoal pen?”

“None whatsoever,” Tristan lied.

The Someshwari leaned closer.

“When you inevitably piss her off,” Ovya whispered, “I’ll be sure to ask to be the one to cane you.”

Best nip that in the bud, he decided.

“Sergeant,” Tristan replied, pitching his voice loud and feigning indignation, “that would be quite inappropriate, given your authority over me.”

Surprise flickered across her face a moment, the confusion. At least until she’d noticed he had spoken loud enough to be heard by all the watchmen at the table, several of which were now frowning at her. They’ll remember this if you try to wiggle your way into delivering a caning, he thought. Trying to beat a younger man for refusing her unseemly advances was the kind of thing that would darken her reputation permanently, so odds were she would back off. Sergeant Ovya glared at him.

“You can find your way to the table, I am sure,” she coldly said, then strode away.

There was a moment of silence, then behind him Maryam sighed.

“I’d assumed you talked your way into the good graces of the lieutenant,” she said, “but why is that beginning to feel like optimism?”

“I applied the full breadth of my charms,” Tristan defended.

“Oh dear,” Francho wheezed out. “Where did you even find a cliff to jump off from?”

“Stop teasing him, you two,” Vanesa chided.

She sent a smile his way.

“I’m sure he has angered no more than half of these fine folk,” she added.

Betrayal on all sides, Tristan amusedly thought. Making sport of him seemed to put a little life back in Vanesa’s pale face, so he let it pass without retort. The four of them made their way to the table, where Lieutenant Vasanti was fiddling with a scroll. She shot them an impatient glance.

“Did you go for a stroll first?” she complained. “Come closer, I don’t have all day.”

Which was factually untrue, Tristan thought, but he chose silence. If you kept putting your hand in the crocodile’s mouth, no matter how lucky you were eventually you lost the hand. Vasanti’s eyes swept through the four of them.

“How much did you actually figure out about this place?” she asked, then frowned. “Never mind, I don’t actually care. Let us keep this simple.”

She pointed upwards, at the great golden aetheric machine mimicking the stars and casting its glow on all of the massive cavern.

“The Antediluvians built this place and the pillar that connects the ceiling and floor of this cavern,” she said. “Sometime after, likely beginning as early as the Old Night, devils began building the rest of this place – namely the maze of ruins and the Old Fort.”

Lieutenant Vasanti paused.

“That’s intriguing, but we don’t like the devils here,” she said. “Why do we not like the devils, Biter?”

“It is Bitor, ma’am,” a young man with the Sacramontan look reminded her.

She did not acknowledge his answer in the slightest, which must have been common because he went on without even a sigh and no one looked surprised.

“We do not like the devils here because they sabotaged the iron gates leading inside the pillar,” Bitor dutifully said. “We have found parts of what was almost certainly a mechanism to open them in the basement of the Old Fort.”

Francho cleared his throat, earning a look from Vasanti. She did not insult him, to Tristan’s surprise, not even when the old scholar dipped into a wet cough before he could speak.

“Did the devils tinker with the aetheric machine?” he asked.

She nodded approvingly.

“One of the questions we seek answers for,” Lieutenant Vasanti said. “One of my predecessors blew his way into the pillar, but our progress has since stopped. Some of what was found, however, implies that there are controls for the machine somewhere near the top of the pillar. It is entirely possible the devils got that far and are responsible for the current ‘laws’ enforced by the aetheric device.”

The very underpinnings of the Trial of Ruins, Tristan thought. The reason why they could venture into the maze and take tests: the gods could not harm humans unless terms were first agreed on, only each other, and they could not leave their seats of power. The devils also brought hundreds of shrines and built a fort around the gate to the pillar, the thief thought. What is it they were trying to achieve? He was still missing too many pieces to begin making out the pattern.

“Do we have any notion of why this place was so important to them?” he asked. “They spent many years and much effort on this cavern.”

Lieutenant Vasanti considered him.

“You might not know this, given your youth and lacking education, but it is not uncommon for devils to sabotage or destroy the finest works of the First Empire,” she said. “We have no reason to believe this is any different.”

Liar, Tristan thought. There was a glimpse of the second whisper: Lieutenant Vasanti believed she knew why it was the devils cared about this place and she did not want it known. Known by us, or by everyone? He would have to find out of the other blackcloaks were also being kept in the dark. His instincts had him suspecting they would be. If it was something she could use to get more men and resources, she already would have. It was being kept quiet, perhaps by more than just her.

How many hands were on this spade?

“Good to know,” Tristan smiled. “I take it you have something in mind for us to aid in?”

Lieutenant Vasanti unrolled the scroll she had been fiddling with, spreading it out on the table. It was a drawn schematic of the pillar, Tristan saw, or at least a small part of it. He easily recognized the room where he had almost been shot last night and the stairs on its side, leading up to an intersection. On one side the stairs led to an intricately drawn chamber centered around a complicated machine, while on the other they rose to what looked like a dead end – save for a side door marked as a word in Samratrava he did not know the meaning of. The Someshwari officer tapped a finger on the machine-room.

“There are mechanism in there that respond to Gloam and what might be instructions for their use that we have not deciphered,” Lieutenant Vasanti said. “I haven’t been able to talk a Navigator into coming here, so the girl who can use Signs will have to do.”

She paused, turning to Francho.

“How are you with cryptoglyphs?” she asked.

“My language studies centered on cants, but I am familiar with the Naukratian glyphs,” the old professor toothlessly smiled.

Tristan kept his confusion off his face. He knew what cants were – darkling languages, supposedly descended from the single original tongue the Antediluvians had spoken – but had no notion of what these cryptoglyphs might be.

“Then you’ll be taking a look,” Vasanti said. “The best I managed to get is Luisa here, who is only familiar with one of the Second Empire codexes. She will be your assistant.”

He leaned closed to Maryam.


“First Empire scientific language,” she murmured back. “Signs are based on it.”

So Francho was familiar with some of the glyphs, while Luisa – a young woman with short blond hair, looking a little nervous – had only read a ‘codex’. The difference between someone who knew the letters and someone who had read a list of words, perhaps? He would make inquiries with Francho when they had the time. However short their exchange, it had caught Lieutenant Vasanti’s attention.

“Stop chattering,” the old woman warned. “Now, for the last two of you I have something else in mind. We’ll be going for a look at the central shaft, then we can discuss what I want from you.”

That did not sound so bad, at least until Tristan saw the grim looks on the faces of the blackcloaks.

One of the watchmen, a stout man with unfortunate acne, had to carry Vanesa up the ladder tied to his back.

Much as Tristan would have liked to be allowed to roam inside the pillar, he did not even get to see the machine-room where Maryam and Francho were taken away to. Instead Lieutenant Vasanti led him and Vanesa up the narrow stairs, at a slow pace accommodating of the crutches. They took a right at the crossroads and continued up for another flight, leading right to the dead end the drawings had laid out. Only they had not shown why it was a dead end, a detail that would have been worth the mention.

Someone had buried the last stretch of stairs below massive slabs of stone. A few of the stones were shattered and there were scorch marks on them and the walls, but the effort must have been aborted for it was well shy of anything like a doorway.

“Why stop?” he asked Lieutenant Vasanti, flicking a look at the slabs.

“There were concerns that the amount of powder it’d get through would bring the ceiling down on our heads,” she told him. “That and one of our contractors found out there’s a layer of metal at the back.”

“The door was welded shut?” Tristan breathed out.

“The devils did not want anyone to get past those stairs,” Lieutenant Vasanti said. “They are not creatures prone to half-measures.”

He let out a low whistle. The devils, he thought, were at the heart of this mystery. They had built the maze, built the fort, and gone to great lengths to keep people from being able to enter the pillar before abandoning the Old Fort to the blackcloaks. The secret they care about is in the pillar, he decided. Exactly like the Watch, they had centered their entire presence on the Dominion of Lost Things around what existed in this cavern. Is it all about the golden machine above us? Not, it shouldn’t be. If the devils had been able to get up there, as Lieutenant Vasanti clearly believed, then they would have been able to destroy the Antediluvian machine.

There would have been no need to prevent entrance through the gates or block stairs with stone and steel.

“I don’t see the door shown on your scroll,” Vanesa called out from a few steps down. “It should be around here.”

“There’s a trick to it,” the lieutenant replied, black cloak brushing past Tristan and she came down.

The old Someshwari leaned close to the wall, then pressed her thumbs against a spot. There was a small click, then the stone popped open and the outline of a door swung out half an inch. The lieutenant stepped back and opened it all the way, inviting them to look. It wouldn’t exactly be accurate to call what he saw room, as that would imply it was usable. It was not.

What Tristan was looking it as was a vertical stone shaft at least two miles long that was positively filled with ticking, shifting cogs and wheel. At a central pillar there seemed to be something like a twisting rope made of steel, if rope could be thicker than a carriage. The racket was deafening whenever he put his head through the open door but when he pulled it back out it faded to something more sufferable. So that’s why no one heard the shot last night, he thought. The Ancient built the pillar so it wouldn’t fill their cavern with noise.

Others had more practical interests,

“That,” Vanesa said, leaning on her crutch, “is an overgrown tension engine.”

Lieutenant Vasanti nodded.

“I believe the same,” she admitted. “My guess is that it is part of one of those near-perpetuating engines the Antediluvians loved slapping inside everything – it might provide the power behind the entire shifting machinery in the ceiling.”

“It should have nothing to do with the iron gates, then,” Vanesa opined.

“Not exactly true,” the watchwoman said. “See over there?”

The Someshwari pointed a finger past the threshold, through the mess of steel, and Tristan frowned as he tried to make out what she indicated.

“I can’t make out anything,” Vanesa admitted.

“A door,” the thief said. “About half a level beneath us, there’s an opening in the wall.”

“Maintenance access, like this one,” Lieutenant Vasanti said. “We used a longview to get a better look and we are certain that room connects to others. It might lead us to a way to open the gates.”

Tristan eyed her skeptically. That sounded rather like wishful thinking. Taking in the riot of moving steel inside, the way cogs went up and down and wheels scythed through, he could see why the devils had not bothered to bury this door: no one could go through it without being crushed or rent apart.

“Have you tried to access it from the outside?” he asked. “Shouldn’t be too hard to figure out the corresponding location, then you could blow your way in like this one.”

“We made the attempt,” Lieutenant Vasanti curtly replied. “Three barrels of blackpowder did nothing but scratch the stone. The only reason we were able to force in our way the first time was that there was a crack in the pillar.”

“Then how have you tried to reach the room?” the thief frowned.

Lieutenant Vasanti raised an eyebrow. No, he thought. Surely she couldn’t mean…

“You sent people into that, didn’t you?” he said, pointing at the moving steel.

“Two,” the Someshwari acknowledged. “Volunteers. One lived long enough to come out but the wounds took her in the night.”

“And you haven’t tried since,” Tristan deduced. “If the body count gets too high, the commander in charge of the island will step in.”

The blackcloaks were likely willing enough to let Lieutenant Vasanti molder here so long as that was all she did, but if she started getting their soldiers killed that was another story.

“I was not forbidden to continue the research,” the old woman said, “but I was ordered to find a better avenue than just feeding people to the shaft.”

Vanesa let out a little noise of comprehension.

“So that’s why you have the telescope,” she said. “You’re marking down how the mobile moves above and trying to match it to movements here. You are looking for a safe path through.”

“Clever,” the Someshwari praised. “We have kept extensive records. I am from the aetheric branch of the Umuthi Society, so I will admit that causal mechanics are not my specialty. A clockmaker, however, might see catch I would not.”

“It would be my pleasure to take a look,” Vanesa said. “Not quite as exciting as working with one’s hands to solve the puzzle, but I suppose my days for that are past.”

She did not need to reach for her missing eye, or need to.

“I suppose I should begin to head down now,” the old clockmaker sighed. “It will take long enough.”

“Take the chair in the room downstairs,” Lieutenant Vasanti told her. “I’ll have the records brought to you.”

Vanesa thanked her kindly, and warily began the journey down. Tristan waited for her to be too far to overheard before speaking up.

“How far did you get mapping out the patterns?”

Lieutenant Vasanti grimaced, then spat to the side.

“Some,” she said, “but not as much as I need to justify another attempt. At exactly three past midday every day there is a sequence that repeats, but near the end of the path through there’s a random variable. We haven’t been able to narrow down what causes the differences.”

Tristan cocked his head to the side.

“And by variable you mean…”

“A serrated wheel went right through the dummy we threw yesterday,” she said. “It’s all been along those lines.”

“So this is a death trap,” Tristan flatly said.

“I’m sorry to hear you say that, boy,” Lieutenant Vasanti coldly smiled, “since you’re going right in it.”

He kept the surge of fear off his face. Admitting to it would do nothing but pleased her. The lieutenant had good as told him he was meant for this from the start, Tristan realized. All the others were of use to her – Francho as a historian, Maryam as a Gloam witch and Vanesa as a clockmaker. This murderous place must have been what she had in mind last night, when she’d said she ‘had a use for him’.

Fortuna leaned past the threshold, taking a look inside and retreating with a solemn look on her face.

“Yeah,” she said, nodding decisively. “You’re definitely dying in there.”

Her support was, as always, invaluable.

“How long until the sequence?” Tristan asked, forcing calm.

“Three hours and change,” the lieutenant shrugged. “We have a clock downstairs.”

The thief looked at Vasanti who was staring back with poisonous satisfaction. It seemed unlikely she would let herself be talked out of sending him in there and backing out of their ‘deal’ was not an option. She’d then simply tell Lieutenant Wen he had gone into a forbidden part of the Old Fort without permission and he would be removed from the trials. Had she figured out he intended to kill her last night, was that why so much hostility lurked under the smiles? No, he thought. Tristan had been hated by people before and this did not feel the same – it was not as personal.

It might not be him, the thief thought, that Lieutenant Vasanti was getting back at by sending into the whirling steel.

“Then I shall take that time to prepare,” Tristan said. “I expect you don’t mind me trying to improve my chances?”

The watchwoman’s face was blank, but her face was pulled tight as if holding in a frown or a snarl. Vasanti, he realized, had just gotten angry. Did she want me to beg? He was not too proud for that, and would have if he’d had any inkling it might work. The thief felt as if he were missing something again, but there no time to untangle the snarl.

“Do as you will,” the lieutenant said. “So long as you’re there thirty minutes early.”

Tristan nodded, breathed out and put on a smile.

Now he just needed to figure out how to avoid being buried in pieces.

If he was to cheat death he would need help, and that meant Maryam.

The room where she and Francho had gone was guarded by a blackcloak armed with sword and musket, though the man looked more bored than wary. He let Tristan in without a second glance, letting the thief deduce the measure was more about keeping things in than keeping people out.

The first thing he noticed after coming in was the machine.

The drawing had not shown color, so he had not expected the intricate device to be made of some golden alloy.  Its basic shape was simple: a rectangular box atop which twelve cylinders interlocked with pistons had been welded. The cylinders were connected to something like a barrel lying down, though the ‘lid’ of that barrel was dull green glass. The whole thing stood about as tall as a grown man. The intricacies, the parts that filled the room, were the levers.

The box atop which everything rested was open on the sides, revealing slowly turning cogs, but from a golden frame beneath the cogs spurted at least four dozen spindly levers on each side. They were at least five feet long and could be moved, up and down and to the sides, which seemed to make different parts move in the frame beneath the cogs. Maryam’s hand was on one of the levers when he came in, though she took it off when glancing his way.

Francho, who was standing by one of the walls with his blackcloak assistant – Luisa, the thief recalled -immediately noticed.

“Ah, Tristan,” he toothlessly smiled. “I’d wondered if you would come take a look.”

The room around the machine had been stripped bare, much like the one where the blackcloaks had made their base but carved into the bare stone of the walls were narrow stripes. Tristan had to squint to realize that they were in fact small intricate marks, so small and close to each other that from a distance they looked like lines. The mentioned cryptoglyphs, he guessed.

“It is quite the machine,” Tristan said. “Have you made any progress?”

“The professor is a man of great learning,” Luisa eagerly said. “Already we have associated some levers and instructions.”

“I will not be enough to get them working,” Maryam frankly said. “The expectation seems that whoever uses this is able to use Signs corresponding to the cryptoglyphs, but there are dozens mentioned – it would take a full-fledged Navigator to do it, and one with a specialized field of study at that.”

To the thief’s surprise they did not seem to be writing anything down, but that was not his trouble. He’d not come here for the machine.

“I need a word with Sarai, if you do not mind,” he said. “It is about the work that Lieutenant Vasanti gave me.”

Luisa looked away guiltily. Well, that was one way not to get an argument. Francho shrugged.

“It will be hours, if not days, before even a basic understanding of this text can be had,” he said. “Take as long as you need.”

Maryam glanced at him curiously, then at his unspoken invitation followed him out of the room. The armed watchman stopped them, confirming the thief’s earlier suspicion by professionally patting them down to see if they were taking anything out. He then let them out without a word. Tristan only led them up the stairs enough they should not be overheard.

“Trouble,” he said.

“Do you ever bring me anything else?” Maryam drily replied.

“I may well die in three hours,” he said, which earned her full attention.

He told her all of it, even his suspicions about the source of Lieutenant Vasanti’s hostility – though he called Abuela that, and not ‘Nerei’ as the watchwoman had.

“The globe of Gloam you used when we tricked the airavatan,” he said. “Could it be used as a shield?”

She shook her head.

“If it is forcefully shattered, there is a decent chance my brain will be cooked from the inside,” she said.

His eyes widened. Well, if Signs were easy to use everyone would dabble.

“I don’t suppose you have anything else?” he said.

She bit her lip.

“I might be able to drag you back,” Maryam said. “Once. And given how weak my understanding of the Sign is, the ‘hand’ will have to hold thick clothes if you do want your skin to char.”

“That is something,” Tristan acknowledged.

“You should refuse and risk Wen,” she advised him. “He is unlikely to kill you, which this very well might.”

It would have been the clever thing to do, but he could not. His silence spoke volumes, enough that Maryam breathed out.

“Tell me why, at least,” she said.

“If it were just a beating I was headed for, I would take it,” Tristan said. “But Lieutenant Wen will likely remove me from the trials as well.”

Maryam stared him down.

“And if you are thrown out, you lose your chance at Cozme Aflor,” she said, letting out a long breath.

She did not ask whether vengeance was worth gambling with his life, a reminder that they had not come to be companions by mistake.

“I will do what I can,” she finally said. “But a chance is the most I can buy you, Tristan.”

“That is the most I can ask,” he replied, then paused.

Slightly embarrassed, he cleared his throat.

“Thank you,” he added.

It was a dangerous thing for a rat to express gratitude. Few in the Murk had qualms about exploiting debts owed.

“Thank me if you live,” she grimly replied.

Visiting Vanesa had been something of an afterthought. He had time before his execution and would not go through that door having left stones unturned. She was comfortably ensconced at the lieutenant’s own desk, pouring through stacks of paper and keeping some notes to the side in a charcoal pen.

“Anything interesting?” he asked.

The old woman almost jumped out of her skin.

“Manes, I didn’t hear you come in,” she said, hand resting on her heart.

He had not tried to sneak, he thought, so she must have been quite absorbed by the reading.

“It is all very interesting, though not as much as the iron gates,” she told him. “They have paid very close attention to the mechanisms directly by the door, mapping out the movements by the hour and drawing them in great detail.”

He leaned in.

“I hear,” he said, “that at three past midday there is a particular sequence.”

She snorted.

“It is an obsession for them,” Vanesa told him. “They have manuscripts’ worth of attempts to match some of the movements to the moving parts near the cavern ceiling.”

“No success?” he lightly asked.

She narrowed her eye at him, not fooled by the tone.

“Why the interest?”

He saw no need to lie.

“I will be attempting a crossing,” he admitted. “The odds seem steep.”

“That is madness,” she said. “We must ask her for more time, you-”

“It will be today, Vanesa,” Tristan gently said. “There will be no convincing.”

The old woman looked at him, then, and though she did not ask anything an understanding passed. She might not have been a rat, born and aged far from the Murk, but she was no fool. She had not come here by choice any more than he. Sadness twisted her worn face, though as a few heartbeats passed it turned to something entirely colder. She was, Tristan realized, angry on his behalf.

How long had it been, since that last happened?

“I cannot solve that sequence for you,” Vanesa admitted. “It is too complex. But there is something else you could do, something they would never consider.”

The thief met her eye.

“I am listening.”

He arrived fifteen minutes early instead of thirty, purely to spite Lieutenant Vasanti. The jest was on him, however, for she had only left a watchman there and she arrived five minutes later with a smirk. Vanesa had come up the stairs with him, so at least he did not spend what might be the last minutes of his life alone with a silent blackcloak. Maryam arrived when there were eight minutes left. She stayed close, as if to offer comfort, and the time passed all too quickly. Tristan glanced at the open door, the madness of metal past it, and his heart clenched.

Still, there was no need for a surfeit of losses today so he took off his hat and pressed it into Maryam’s hands. She took it, looking baffled.

“Keep it safe,” he solemnly said.

Maryam glanced at the worn tricorn, then back at him.

“If the hat a symbol?” she tried.

“It’s a really good hat,” Tristan defensively replied. “Keeps the rain out of my face.”

“Well then, that changes everything,” Maryam said, lips twitching.

He smiled back, then turned towards the door. He breathed in deep, trying to settle his nerves and failing.

“Three minutes,” Vanesa announced, eye on her watch.

Lieutenant Vasanti, standing further up the stairs, stared down at him.

“It is not too late to back out,” she told him. “I will turn you over to Lieutenant Wen, but a caning’s the worst you’ll be in for.”

Tristan’s eyes narrowed. Is that what you were after the whole time? For me to give you an excuse to be passed off to Wen, thrown out of the trials. The lieutenant had said that killing him might result in retaliation by Abuela, but if he only failed the trials and the matter was handled by another besides, well she could hardly be blame could she? It would have been natural to feel indignation at that, at being made the pawn of a game between others, but Tristan found he did not.

He was a rat: he’d spent all his life scurrying around the boots of men.

“I thank you for your concern,” the thief pleasantly smiled.

The old woman’s face clenched.

“One minute,” Vanesa said. “Remember what I told you.”

He wrenched his gaze away from the watchwoman, stepping to the threshold of the door. There he counted down in his mind, matching Vanesa’s spoken count of the last seconds, and clutched the small metal orb between his fingers.

“Now,” Vanesa said, and he moved.

In whole, it took twenty-one seconds.

He jumped down onto a horizontal cog, keeping low as wheels passed above his head. Three steps, then to the side. The piston tore through, bleeding steam, and he hurried forward before the second one could take him in the side.

Ten seconds.

He grabbed a warm pipe and hoisted himself across, sweaty fingers slipping, dropping down on the spoke of a wheel just a heartbeat too early. The tick of the wheel jostled him, enough he almost fell forward, and he stumbled.

Fifteen seconds, but he was off.

He had missed a beat. He climbed between two wheel, began to crawl through, but they were already too far ahead: he would never make it across before they pressed down enough he got stuck. So Tristan took the long odds, bet on Vanesa’s cleverness.

He borrowed, borrowed deep, and as a ticking began that drowned out even the cacophony of this place he blindly threw the small metal ball he had taken from the forge. For a moment there was nothing

Then metal screamed, the gears grinding to a halt.

Stuck, as Vanesa had told him it would be. No matter how good the clock, she had said, sometimes all it took was a grain of sand. He hurried through, dropping down on the pipe, and then there was a crushing sound. The ball was broken, the gears began moving, but he was almost through and…

Eighteen seconds.

He did not see the piston until it was too late. The damned thing came not from the side, like all the others, but from above. He moved in time, or almost: it caught the edge of his hand, a mere brush of the massive thing enough to break it.

He swallowed a scream, forcing himself to go forward, but he’d missed the timing. He could see the door, but before he could jump through the wheels coming from the side would cut through his limbs. He tried anyway, leaning forward.


He heard a distant shout, felt a cool wind, and something grabbed him by the back. Maryam. He was shoved forward, through the open door, as something sharp clipped the edge of his coat.

Twenty-one, and Tristan was through.

He landed belly first on the stone, barely taking in the sight of small stone chamber before he released the luck. Tristan braced himself with a wince, looking for from where the hurt would come, but as he flipped back on his back nothing happened. His wince deepened.

Those prices were always the worst.

The thief got back on his feet, swallowing a curse at the throbbing pain of his finger. The room was small and mostly empty, but that there was anything left at all was promising. There a set of stone shelves to the side, empty and coated in dust, and on the other wall the tiling was in some elaborate green pattern as well as striated by cryptoglyphs. The part that caught his attention, though, was the rod left propped up by the shelves. A length of metal about four feet long, it ended in a metal brand made of the same golden alloy as the machine from earlier. There was no obvious use for it, however, so he tore his eyes away.

There was only one door out, to the right, so he quietly moved into the next room. There he stopped after two stuttering steps, eyes fixed to the display taking up an entire wall. He had seen rows of metal tiles like this before: he was looking at an exact match for the tiles at the center of the iron gates leading into the pillar. Suppressing his excitement he swept the rest of the room – two doorways out, both closed doors – before getting closer. The tiles here were adorned with a single black glyph each, unlike those outside, and peeking behind them they seemed to be connected to a series of pistons and gears going into the wall.

Lightly he dared push a stile and found it easily gave, pressing back the piston behind it. He stopped before anything could come of it.

“Well,” he said, “that might just get us into the pillar.”

Leaning against the wall with her arms crossed, long red sleeves billowing, Fortuna scoffed.

“I would worry more about getting out of this place, if I were you,” she said. “Unless you intend to try the cogs again?”

Tristan grimaced, glancing at his broken and swelling finger. He’d been lucky that was all he had paid for the passage with. Fortuna was right, he needed to find a way to return to the Old Fort instead of getting caught up in the exploration. The door next to her was smooth stone with only a small round opening where a lock should be, and he was not fool enough to risk putting a finger in there. His goddess cleared her throat, pointing just to the right of her blond locks. There was a small indent in the wall, he realized, and nestled in it were three stone buttons covered with a strange writing he had never before seen.

“Well spotted,” he praised.

She huffed.

“At least one of us should end up a passable thief,” she replied.

He rolled his eyes at her. The stone buttons came out easily and he took one, then pocketed a second out of habit. Tempted as he was to try to open the stone door with the obvious key, he instead had a look at the other. More of that golden alloy he kept seeing, and a more traditional door as well: a simple latch kept it closed. He pried it open, or tried to: the moment he touched the latch it came loose and drooped to the floor with a tinkling sound. The door cracked open an inch.

Tristan paused: that had felt uncomfortably like luck turning on him.

When he risked a glance trough the open door, however, he found no danger. Dim light with no visible source revealed a curving hallway of stone, ending in a distant door. The thief opened the door all the way and stepped into the hall, careful to keep his steps light. After a dozen steps he caught sight of a door that had been hidden by the curve. Green glass, but almost transparent and through with he thought he was seeing-

“Tristan,” Fortuna suddenly said.

He stilled instantly, for in the goddess’ voice he had heard fear.

“Walk back into that room,” she whispered. “Very slowly.”

There was a sound like a breath, amused.

“Good advice.”

Oh fuck. He was not an utter fool, so he’d begun running the moment he heard the breath, but even so he was too slow. The large shape dropped from above and he caught sight of slimy scales before throwing himself to the side – the hit had his broken finger throbbing. Something like a hand – the size of his torso – passed close enough to ruffle his hair. He scrambled to his feet, glimpsing globulous yellow eyes before breaking into a run for the door.

He had time to take a single before the lights of the hall went out.

Oh, fuck, Tristan thought. He threw himself to the side again, running on pure instinct, and felt something massive and wet pass less than an inch above his back. Worse it stayed there, dripping some kind of stinking pus. The thief rolled to the side, narrowly avoiding something trying to snatch him up, and broke into a running start again. Light came through the open door to the tile room, revealing that the wet thing was a deformed red tongue twice the length of a man, and Tristan almost whimpered when it withdrew, sucked in with a slurp. He got through the doorway and tried to slam the door shut behind him, but the latch was still broken.

That fucking latch was going to get him killed.

“You smell,” the god said, “like hubris. Delicious.”

He could not have described that voice, save that it was sick and somehow it felt like a tongue dragging across his skin. Trying to master his panic Tristan ran for the other door, miraculous having not dropped the stone button.

Then the lights in the room went out.

No,” he snarled, feeling the god enter the room from the movement of air alone.

Was he really going to die here just because he could not see in the dark? He began groping for the opening but he could not quite recall where –

“Here,” Fortuna hissed, guiding his hand.

Fortuna, who like the god after them no more needed light to see than she needed air to breathe. He pressed the button into the hole and the door popped open, and light came through. Hands scrabbling against the stone, Tristan hurried through and slammed the door behind him – turning to see horrifyingly human-like teeth the size of his hand biting down at where he had been standing, a too-long throat convulsing behind them.

The door snapped shut, the stone button falling out of the opening on his side and rolling down the stairs he now stood on.

Tristan slowly followed it down, limbs trembling and eyes unblinking as he kept staring at the door. He slid down the wall, falling into a crouch. His eyes never left the door separating him from the room where he had just almost been eaten alive. Fortuna set a hand on his arm, and sitting by his side, and eventually his breathing steadied.

“That thing,” he croaked out, “heard you talk to me.”

“It is an old god,” Fortuna murmured. “Perhaps as old as I am.”

The thief passed a hand through his hair, then forced himself to get back standing.

“It does not seem able to pass the door, at least,” he said. “There is that.”

Not that he intended to linger here regardless. Not when he could almost feel what lay on the other side of the stone, patiently waiting to sink its teeth into his flesh. Tristan, forcing calm, picked up the fallen stone button and headed down the narrow stairs. They looked much like the ones he had climbed on the other side of the pillar, and were pointed in the direction he believed to be outside. At the bottom of the flight was a long room of bare stone, whose monotony was broken up by only two things: the first was what looked like a folded ladder of golden alloy, three feet wide and folded so many times he could only guess at the length.

The other was a series of black triangles painted on the wall before him, around slight triangular stone protrusions. Heartbeat rising, the thief pressed on one of the triangles and found it sunk into the wall with a metallic click. There were nine others and he pressed them all, each clicking into place, and after the last there was the dim sound of wheels turning.

The wall before him shivered, then began to rise, and Tristan had never seen anything so beautiful as the expanse of the dark cavern laid out before him.

Chapter 26

It was as an endless gallery.

The crystal walls fed into each other, promising infinity in a thimble as the mirroring went on and on. The heights were not all the same, the angles askew and there were even slight slopes to the ground to further muddle the senses. Th effect was strong: Angharad had barely taken ten steps before she became uncertain which way she had entered. A pale and silvery glow hung in the air, lighting the way, but there was no visible source for it. Boots whispering across the smooth floor, she boldly stepped forward – after learning that her sword could not cut into the crystal, anyhow. There would be no marking of her path, the opaque rock surprisingly hard for something that looked so delicate.

The first attack came from behind just as she turned a corner.

Her saber came up to parry the blow, but she was hacking into air. The figure on the mirror, which she now saw was her own face distended into something other, smirked before walking out of sight. Sleeping God, Angharad thought. It was going to be even worse than she had thought if the spirit could paint illusions on the mirrors. This place might well become a tomb if she could not even trust her eyes. Her hackles stayed up as she pressed on, thrice more ambushed by nothing. Yet she could not lower her guard, begin to ignore the attacks. It was what the spirit wanted, for her to stop guarding before a real blade came for her neck.

The Pereduri kept to the right as much as she could, occasionally forced to detour, but after how long only the spirit knew – less than an hour, surely? – she began encountering dead ends. After the third in a row she stopped, biting her lip as she met the eyes of her horrid reflection on the wall. Should she leave the edge of the labyrinth? She had thought it sensible to try to keep to the border in the hopes of circling until she found an exit, but now she was beginning to fear she would reach a wall and be forced to backtrack blindly.

“No,” she murmured. “Carry it out to the end, you fool. Half measures are coffin nails.”

She must keep to the plan until she knew for sure it was all dead ends. Walking away from the dead end, she returned to the broader corridor behind it and caught sight of a flicker of movement – another mirror ambush, she thought, but raised her blade anyway.

Steel ground against steel, a clumsily wielded knife slamming down onto her saber’s guard.

Sheer surprise quickening her hand, Angharad pushed back her opponent – a shrieking monster, hideous and twisted – and drew back three steps. She ignored the hundred reflections blooming over every wall, floor and ceiling to keep her eye entirely on the enemy. It looked like no lemure the Pereduri had ever seen, nor cultist: its skin was rotten and its teeth as yellow coral. It wore rags that clinked, as if laden with hidden coins, and held the knife in a guard that Angharad did not recognize. Some ancient art of war, perhaps?

“We need not fight,” Angharad clearly enunciated.

The monster shrieked back and the noblewoman frowned. It seemed intelligent. Perhaps a corpse taken over by a puppeteer lemure? It was when the creature attacked that it came together. It struck by flailing blindly with no stance, care or even understanding that her reach was much longer than its own. That was no strange guard, it simply does not know how to use a knife. And that told her the hidden truth behind the monstrosity. Angharad stepped into the other’s guard, slapping the blow aside with her elbow and smoothly sliding her arm around their neck. They struggled desperately but they were weaker than her, so she squeezed and lowered them to the ground as she kept the knife flailing aimlessly at their back.

After a minute or so the illusion broke, revealing the weeping face of the woman called Aines.

“-please, I don’t-” she was saying, the shrieking turning into Antigua.

Admittedly sometimes the difference between the two was academic. Aines, looking wan and with a purpling black eye on her face, went still in her arms.

“Lady Tredegar?” she croaked.

Angharad released her.

“The maze veils our faces to make us slay each other,” she said, extricating herself and rising to her feet. “This spirit would feed on our bones.”

“I,” the woman began, then bit her lip. “Yes, my lady. May I… may I come with you?”

“You must,” Angharad agreed. “Are all of your companions also in the maze?”

She nodded.

“It was the only way forward for us,” Aines said. “Though the god made us wait before letting us in.”

And so the spirit’s scheme was laid out plainly. It wanted Tupoc’s crew and her own to butcher each other under veil of illusion. I might have seen through the trick were I facing Song or Cozme, for I know the look of their height and weapons, but I know little of those who went with Tupoc. The spirit had waited until her own companions were at the gates of its hall to let in the other group for that very reason, she was sure of it.

“We must find the others quickly,” Angharad grimly said. “Else there will be blood.”

Tupoc Xical was not the sort of man to think twice at slaying any who stood in his way. Aines freely admitted to having been lost – she had brought chalk and tried to mark the walls but it did not seem to take – so they continued her approach. As if irked by being denied a corpse, the spirit set another in their path within minutes. An ogre dripping red pus roared at the other end of the hall, reflections just as fearsome flickering every which way, and it raised its hammer. This one Angharad recognized.

“Ocotlan,” she stated.

Whatever the man heard through the veil of illusion, it was not his name. He roared again and charged. Behind her Aines whimpered, taking steps back, but Angharad breathed out and loosened her stance. The big man was strong and startlingly quick, she knew that from her never-fights with him in her visions, but he fought without polish. At a guess, he had never been formally trained.

Angharad had been and would teach him the difference.

Thirteen paces away she tapped her blade against her left shoulder in a duelist’s salute, gauging the distances carefully. Eight paces. Angharad darted forward a step, startling Ocotlan into swinging early at her, but she had stopped a single step in. The hammer swung before her and once it passed she stepped into his open guard. He was a big man and rushing forward like a bull, but the hammer was heavy and had been strongly swung so his stance was off – training, training, those bad habits were removed only through training. A pivot around his attempt at tackling her, then a boot to the back of the knee.

The big man went down, his weight smashing into the crystal floor.

Angharad leisurely turned around as he rose into a crouch, flicking a lazy cut his way that had him flinching away and swinging blindly at her. She stepped back at that, as if afraid of the blow, and he took that opening to rise back to his feet just as she’d wanted – only for her to dart forward and kick him in the buttocks, back down with his belly flat on the floor. Further back, Aines let out a sound halfway between a giggle and a hysterical fit. Ocotlan, still looking like some deformed creature, flipped onto his back only to find the point of her saber at his throat.

“Stay down,” Angharad mildly said. “The illusion will dispel.”

Whatever it was he heard it made him flinch, but he was more afraid of the blade a single hair’s breadth away from piercing his throat: Ocotlan did not move. Twenty seconds later the Aztlan’s broad face replaced the ogre’s, sudden understanding lighting up those dark eyes.

“Tredegar,” Ocotlan grunted. “I should have known, who else-”

She pressed the tip of the sword against her throat and he fell silent. No mercy for this one, who had been Tupoc Xical’s right hand since they first made common cause on the Bluebell.

“You will follow me,” Angharad said. “You will obey my orders. You will not, under any circumstances, kill inside this labyrinth.”

The big man snarled.

“If you think-”

This time the point drew a drop of blood. She met his eyes, letting every inch of her indifference to his continued existence show in her gaze.

“You seem under the misapprehension that this is a negotiation,” Angharad mildly said. “It would be best to correct that mistake.”

The tattooed man then decided he was willing to take her orders, after all.

Fancy that.

Their next encounter was not a fight.


Isabel was in her arms a heartbeat later, wrapped closed and tight. Over the infanzona’s shoulder she saw Song rolling her eyes at them. She smiled at the Tianxi, seeing she was unharmed, and it was returned. She drew back from Isabel to examine her for wounds, finding that she had been struck. Her lip was bloodied and a little swollen, like someone had punched her in the face.

“Are you all right?” she worriedly asked. “You were attacked?”

“Mistress Song struck me before the illusion was broken,” Isabel told her. “Naught but a trifle.”

Angharad’s eyes flicked to the other woman, whose empty expression must be hiding embarrassment. It must be a powerful illusion the spirit had woven to fool even her silver eyes.

“We getting a move on?” Ocotlan grunted. “This is sickening.”

Sometimes, Mother had taught her, a crew gets a man that is simply a bad seed. If you cannot get rid of them, there is only one thing for it.

“Ocotlan,” Angharad very mildly said, “it sounds as if you are trying to tell me what to do.”

She half turned, Isabel still loosely in her grasp, and met the big man’s eyes.

“Surely you would know better than to do such a thing.”

There was a long moment, then the tattooed Aztlan looked away.

“I was just saying,” he muttered. “Meant nothing by it.”

Step on them, Mother had said. Hard and often, so that the seed will never sprout into a weed. When she turned back, Angharad found Isabel looking at her with wide eyes and the slightest of flushes to her neck. She swallowed, meeting the infanzona’s green gaze, and would have lost herself in it if not for the inconvenient awareness that they were far from alone. Clearing her throat, the Pereduri released the other woman and straightened her coat.

“Let us go forward,” Angharad said. “The others might be in danger.”

They did, and immediately it made a stark difference to have Song with her again.

“Yaretzi and I were split when a slab fell between us,” the Tianxi told her. “I came across Ruesta after and mapped out what I could – I believe the hall is broadly a square and we have gone around the entire right half of the labyrinth. It would mean we are now following the edge of the left half.”

“Then it is only a matter of time until we find the end,” Angharad mused. “It must be at some extremity.”

“Yes,” Song murmured, “and that worries me.”

The Pereduri almost asked why, until she thought twice of it.

“You believe we were guided towards each other on purpose,” she said.

The other woman nodded.

“You have proved able to subdue others without shedding blood,” she said. “And as for me…”

She discreetly tapped her left temple, meaning the eyes. Yes, Song’s ability to see through some of the trickery would be most unwelcome. The Tianxi’s speculation that they were being guided towards the way out of the maze so they could not help anyone else seemed entirely believable.

“Then we must keep a careful eye out for any attempt to herd us away from a passage,” Angharad murmured. “There may well be others behind such a thing.”

Another tense few minutes treading mirroring halls followed, their fears proving more and more true: now the fake reflections were not only attacks but also feigned to be walls or dead ends. The spirit was trying to keep them on a path and would have entirely succeeded if not for Song’s quiet directions. It came to an apex after Angharad turned a corner only for the Tianxi to go still, then raising the butt of her musket and smashing at a wall. There was a crack, to their common surprise, and three strong hits later a small sheet of crystal that had seemed a wall fell to pieces.

“New walls are growing,” Song flatly told them. “I am beginning to suspect that this place is no shrine: it is the god’s own body.”

A disquieting thought for all, but when Angharad announced that the hallway the spirit wanted them to avoid must surely be explored none argued. Their curiosity led them to three turns nearer to the heart of the mirrored hall, where horrid noises echoed. The noblewoman hurried ahead, blade out, and found two false monsters savaging each other. One seemed a lupine horror of scarred flesh and smoke, the other an automaton of rusted bronze dripping green oil – the smoking thing was hitting the other in the stomach, its knife on the floor.

“Stop,” Angharad shouted.

Neither turned or seemed to hear her. An illusion of nothing at all, she thought. Four more steps and the bronze creature traced a circle of burning light on the other’s skin, drawing a bloodcurdling scream out of it, and staggered a step back before raising its blade. She shouted again but went unheard, the monster that could only be Remund striking – only for the blade to be shot in the side as Song’s musket thundered. It shattered.

Not before an inch of it went into the other man’s belly.

The veiled Remund let out a sound like metal being ground, turning towards them in what she knew was fear even through the illusion. The other man staggered back clutching at his wound, and this was no time for carefulness. Angharad barreled between them, pushing the wounded down and slapping away the knife Remund tried to sink into her side. She struck him the belly, as she had done his brother, and as he folded shouted for someone to help the hurt man. Remund, still letting out that infernal noise, feinted low. She let it whisper near her leg, then harshly slammed the top of her head into his nose.

She felt something break.

They backed away from each other after that, the veiled Remund clutching at a nose she could only assume was bleeding, and Angharad slowly moved her saber to be pointing his way. The man paused. Just as slowly she placed the saber on the ground even as she heard Aines and Isabel helping move the wounded man behind her. Remund exaggeratedly put away his knife and she let out a sigh of relief, finally allowing her fingers to loosen.

A heartbeat later both illusions broke, leaving her to look at Remund Cerdan clutching a nosebleed with eyes still wild and wide.

“Fuck,” he said, finding her face. “I should have known from the saber it was you, fucking fucker gods.”

The cursing was particularly virulent by the end of the sentence.

“I wish I could have done it without hurting you,” Angharad said, which as close to an apology as she would give.

A moment later Isabel was brushing past her – sparing a smile as she did – and making a fuss over a pleased and surprised Remund. She took the opportunity to look back, finding that the wounded man was Aines’ own husband. Felis, for that was his name, looked badly off. Not only did he have old cuts from yesterday but he was still bruised from Zenzele’s rage and now he had a gut wound. Relatively shallow, to Angharad’s eye, but gut wounds were always a nasty business.

“No,” Aines was insisting. “We must leave the blade in or the wound will bleed you out. We’ll get you back to the fort, then the doctor-”

“I don’t know if I can walk that far,” Felis moaned. “Not like this. Is Lan-”

“Not here,” Aines sharply said, the worry in her voice thinning. “Come on, up on your feet.”

Angharad looked away, finding Song coming to stand by her side. They shared a grimace.

“We must get him out of here as quickly as possible,” the Tianxi said. “That wound may kill him otherwise.”

She had known that without needing to be told, but it went against her instincts to leave when she would be abandoning others. Tupoc was out there, ready to kill if he had not already, while Yaretzi, Master Cozme and Zenzele were yet to be found. Of Tupoc’s crew the surviving twin, Lan, would still be out there as well.

And Augusto, thoughthatone dyingwould hardly be a loss.

The Pereduri closed her eyes, trying to find a way through. She could think of none that did not involve reaching safety and then doubling back through the labyrinth to the Old Fort so that the Watch physician might see to Felis’ wound. If Tristan were with them it might be different, but… I must speak with him again, Angharad thought. Surely he has had long enough to rest by now. The dilemma ate away at her. Condemn Felis to death or abandon some of her comrades to the possibility of that very same fate? Angharad shivered, a coolness calm and patient spreading through her veins.

The Fisher was watching. Waiting. Where would honor lie?

“We must go soon,” Song murmured. “Felis will only get worse and it is a long way back to the Old Fort, especially if Aines is the only one going back with him.”

Angharad had not even considered that Ocotlan might abandon his comrades, though perhaps she should have. There seemed to be little enough affection between them. Would the spirit even consider them companions under the writ of the bargain? Their like always tried to- Angharad stilled. There it was, her third path.

The Pereduri opened her eyes as the Fisher’s presence withdrew. Disappointed.

“We head for the end of the labyrinth,” she said. “As fast as we can.”

Song’s silver eyes considered her a moment.

“As you say.”

It was not even ten minutes before they reach the end of the crystal hall.

The spirit wanted them out: by the last stretch there had been no false reflections trying to lead them astray, as if the entity was encouraging them to leave. The wounded Felis trailed behind, helped to move by his wife and Isabel’s kindness, but not so far as to ever be out of sight. The final part of the mirrored hall was a straight line leading to a glittering arch, a glimpse of a strange cavern lying beyond. Angharad put a spring to her step, ensuring she was the first to leave the labyrinth, and gestured for the others to stay behind after she did.

Traces of silver light shone on the arch, the spirit revealing its presence.

“Honored elder,” Angharad said, “I have reached the end of your hall.”

“Victor,” the spirit said. “Leave. Unhindered. With. Companions.”

Then she gestured for the others to come out, which they hesitantly did. The silvery glints faded but Angharad cleared her throat.

“You are going back on your bargain,” she said.

The lights returned, flaring bright.


“You are hindering my companions as we speak,” Angharad evenly said. “Those yet within the hall.”


The sound was like crystal being smashed, ice cracking under your feet.

“If I claim them such, who are you to gainsay me?” she said. “I give you their names: Cozme Aflor, Zenzele Duma, Tupoc Xical-”


“-Yaretzi of Izcalli, Lan of Sacromonte and…”

She paused. Tupoc Xical was as far as she was willing to stretch the boundary of truth, mostly so he could not stay in the hall and kill others. Augusto Cerdan she would not claim as a companion even by the loosest of definitions.

“… and that is all,” Angharad finished. “I expect them led out of the hall without trouble.”

“YOU WILL NOT DENY ME,” the spirit hissed.

The lights disappeared and silence followed. The world breathed in, stillness hanging by a thread, and then there was a thundering crack.

In the distance, a span of the crystal hall’s ceiling collapsed.

It was the first stone of an avalanche. The labyrinth began falling apart as if someone had ripped out its seams, walls tipping over or bursting into pieces. It did not turn to rubble, it was not so widespread as that, but what had been a neat hall turned into a yawning ruin over what could not have been more than thirty seconds. Angharad felt gazes burn into her back as one last bit of ceiling plummeted down.

“Lady Angharad,” Remund delicately said, “did you just anger a god so deeply it broke its own shrine out of spite?”

More than that, if Song’s assertion about the crystal hall had been true.

“It appears the hall is no longer breaking,” Angharad said, strategically ignoring the infanzon’s words. “Are there volunteers to look for survivors with me?”

Isabel quickly agreed, predictably joined by an irritated Remund. Song stayed behind to keep an eye on the others. The three of them went into the ruins, scaling rough-edged crystal to wade through the destruction. It was dangerous and exhausting work, for now sharp pieces littered everywhere, but it must be done. For all that their help proved largely unnecessary: Master Cozme found them before they him, having bruised from a falling chunk of crystal but otherwise fine. Next came Zenzele and Lan, the latter having been cut shallowly across the arms by a blade.

“The illusion did not cover blood,” Zenzele told them. “I saw it must be a person and not some monster.”

“And a good thing he did, if I had kept running I would have been under that,” Lan tacked on.

She pointed a length of ceiling twenty feet long and three feet thick. Death would have been instant. Isabel escorted them back through the ruins, leaving Angharad with Remund. The youngest of the Cerdan brothers had been quiet since Isabel’s departure, but he eventually gathered his courage and spoke.

“Should we find Augusto,” Remund said, “something will need to be done. Preferably without others around to interfere.”

Angharad studied him for a moment, then nodded.

“I never finished my duel with him,” she said. “Honor can be made to wait, but never abandoned.”

“Then we have an understanding,” the infanzon smiled.

Only it was not Augusto they found but the other two. Tupoc and Yaretzi were both wounded, but he the heavier of the two. She had a shallow wound on the upper arm, but he had a very thin cut across the cheek and a slab of crystal seemed to have fallen on his foot. Both had weapons in hand, he his segmented spear and Yaretzi a long knife.

“The test is at an end,” Angharad called out. “Lay down your arms.”

Tupoc smiled, but not at them.

“You first, Turquoise,” he said, drawing out the word mockingly.

“Now,” Angharad insisted.

“Or don’t,” Remund casually said. “I rather like our odds.”

Even in the face of their threats Tupoc did not waver. It was Yaretzi who lowered her long knife.

“Peace,” she said. “There is no need for violence.”

“You have,” Tupoc mused, “the most delightful sense of humor.”

“Enough,” Angharad said. “Let us leave this place, there may yet be peril.”

Tupoc put down his spear.

“Have my boon companions all survived, then?” he asked.

“There is one yet missing,” Angharad blandly replied.

“I wonder who it might be, for you to have such an expression on your face,” Tupoc drily said.

He rubbed his chin.

“Still, best to tend to my surviving flock for now,” he said. “I shall leave you to it, Tredegar. For a time.”

He strolled away, only slightly limping despite what must be cracked if not outright broken toes, and left them standing in the ruins. Angharad would have admired the gall, were he not so vile a man. Yaretzi thanked them for the help but had no intention of staying to look for Augusto. She waited until Tupoc was ahead enough she would not have to walk with him and left. The Pereduri continued to comb through the ruins with Remund, but after ten minutes she was forced to admit that there was no sign of Augusto Cerdan.

“He might have died in the collapse,” she finally said.

Remund shook his head.

“Cerdan do not die easy,” the infanzon said. “I will believe him dead when I see a corpse, not a moment before.”

Whether that was sentiment or fear she knew not, but either way she cared not to argue against it. Despite their efforts they could not seem to get close to where she had entered, anyhow, for the way the hall had collapsed had closed off entire sections in practice if not in the absolute sense – it might be possible to topple great crystals or clear sharp fields, given enough time and labor, but both were in sharp supply.

“I cannot see a way back,” she admitted.

“We could scale some of the crystals using my contract,” Remund mused. “But not all the way, it would take too many rings and for too long.”

The only way was forward, then. They could have looked further, but aware there was only so much time to waste here in the ruins Angharad gave in to the practicalities of their situation and they headed back to the others. There she found the crews had split again, Tupoc smiling widely.

“Lady Angharad, we were just speaking of you,” he said. “Have you found path backwards through the hall?”

“There is none,” she said. “Perhaps given time and effort we might be able to make one, but even then for some of us that passage would be… unfeasible.”

She did not need to glance at Felis for him to hear what she was saying.

“We will have to go around, then,” Tupoc casually said. “As I am told you set out to safeguard our lives through bargain with the god, I would return the courtesy. Shall our crews make common cause, at least until a path back to the Old Fort is found?”

It was her instinct to deny him, to insist on their crews going separate ways, but she tempered the urge to answer in haste. The cavern spread out before them was poorly lit, what little light there was coming from pits where translucent blue crystals glowed, but from what Angharad could see there was only one way out. Regardless of her desires she might well be forced to share a road with Tupoc’s crew, so it would be best to settle the relationship between them first.

“I would agree to a truce until we find a path back to the Old Fort,” Angharad said. “Extended to all now present.”

Tupoc glanced at his followers, their exhausted mien and eagerness to avoid confrontation, and snorted.

“Alas, poor Augusto,” he said. “I accept your terms, Lady Tredegar.”

They lingered a little longer in the cavern, preparing to leave, until Felis snapped at his wife. Many looked away in discomfort, Angharad catching only that the man believed his latest wound to be shallow and insisted he would be fine. She was joined by Zenzele, who discreetly drew her attention to a quiet conversation between Tupoc and Ocotlan.

“Are you any good with a musket, my lady?” he asked.

“Passable at best,” she admitted.

She was not untutored, that would have been a grave lack in a noble, but had never taken to it the way she had the sword.

“Shame,” Zenzele mused. “Someone really ought to put a shot in that man’s skull.”

“We are under truce,” Angharad flatly reminded him. “By my own word.”

“We are,” the Malani agreed. “Until we aren’t. The weeds that we do not pull up in this trial may well come to haunt us in the next, Lady Angharad. It might be best to act rather than be acted upon.”

She met his eyes squarely.

“If such a thing is to be done,” the Pereduri said, “it will be after the truce is finished. I will brook no chicanery in this.”

Zenzele Duma hummed, then looked away.

“We still have time,” he said. “For now. Keep it in mind, that is all I ask.”

It was arguable whether to plan on an attack immediately following the end of the truce, as Zenzele had been implying should be done, would be a breach of honor. It was a fine line, for in some sense to plot was to act, but it would not be going against the words exact. Yet these were a hiltless sword and not one she wanted to grow used to wielding. If there was to be war upon Tupoc Xical, she thought, let it be done the right way. Not cloak and dagger business, barely keeping to the finest lines of honor. Unsettled, she sought out Song so the two of them might take the vanguard.

She found the Tianxi leaning near the opening in the cavern wall, cloak pulled tight around her as she kept an eye on Felis and Aines. The married pair had, at least, ceased arguing.

“What is it you look for?” Angharad asked.

“Trouble,” Song replied. “But it is too late to avoid, I think.”

“It has been a long day already,” she tiredly agreed.

“We may have to pass the night out here, if we do not find a good path,” the Tianxi told her. “It would be wiser than to force a trip back when we are all tired and making mistakes.”

“I would avoid sleeping out here if we can,” she muttered. “There was something about that spirit, Song, that unsettles me still.”

“So you noticed as well,” the other woman approvingly said.

“There was something wrong with it,” Angharad said. “You said the hall might be its own body, I recall. Why would it wound itself so, however much I angered it?”

The Tianxi’s face was grim.

“I begin to wonder if it was not a body instead,” she replied.

Did she perhaps mean a corpse?

“A dead spirit, like the screeching thing we encountered?” the noblewoman skeptically asked. “It seemed too cogent for that.”

“The Watch told us that the gods in the maze eat each other,” Song said. “What if it not so simple as devouring, though? What if instead of consuming the vanquished, the victor… hollowed them out, so to speak.”

“A puppet,” Angharad slowly said. “You mean to say that this was a dead god’s shell with another playacting through it.”

“That would make it well worth to collapse the hall for a chance at of one of us dying,” Song said.

“But why feign to be another?” she asked. “I see no gain in it when it could simply place its own test instead.”

“I do not know,” the Tianxi admitted. “There is something off about the Trial of Ruins, Angharad. The way it is built, the rules of it. For there to be multiple paths for us to take but the requirement of ten victors at the end? It encourages us to go into smaller groups, fewer than ten, and take risks.”

“What would the blackcloaks gain by seeing us dead?” she asked. “The Dominion of Lost Thing is a method of recruitment, they would not want to throw away lives aiming to swear themselves to the Watch.”

“That is what bothers me most about it,” Song said, brushing back a strand that had come loose of her braid. “But it is not in here we will find answers.”

“Victory makes a moot point of that mystery,” Angharad said. “Best to triumph first and then spare the time to turn over the stones.”

She could see Song disagreed but they did not argue the point. They fell in together, taking the front as was becoming their habit. Their assembled company left behind the eerie cavern, heading into a broad tunnel whose walls occasionally sprouted the same translucent crystals. A few minutes saw their presence thinning, however, until they were entirely gone and the natural stone of the walls turned ornate. Every inch of them was sculpted, faces snarling and grinning. Beasts and men and devils, hundreds of eyes leering at them from every direction.

Every slice of lantern light revealed bared teeth and unblinking stares, as if their advanced was being spied upon.

“I’ve felt less threatened by people threatening to cripple my legs and leave me to die,” Lan noted. “Are we sure we want to keep going this way?”

“There is no other path,” Song replied. “Unless you want to try your luck with the ruins?”

“Hint taken,” Lan cheerfully replied.

She heard Zenzele snort. Setting aside her own misgivings, Angharad put a spring to her step. Song at her side, they sped through the tunnel until it narrowed so much they had to go in a line instead. Squeezing just past the narrowest point – so tight she had to suck in her breath – she stumbled out into great temple grounds. A rounded chamber spread out before her, its bottom floor a display of iridescent pools and stone gardens while slender steps led up to levels circling around the chamber that were filled with Someshwari prayer cells. The pools were fed by waterfalls, the same iridescent waters falling and casting many-colored light around them.

Stone lanterns hung from the walls, all sculpted to look like a beast’s mouth and filled with a trembling light.

“Gods,” Song gasped out, emerging behind her.

“It is beautiful,” Angharad admitted.

But it might prove dangerous even if a spirit had yet to make an appearance. They got out of the way so the others could follow them in. When Tupoc squeezed through, the noblewoman noticed with a start that the shallow cut on his cheek was now nothing more than a scratch. His limp remained, but it did not seem as bad either. What manner of contract was this? Felis and Aines followed behind, the man batting away his wife’s help – though, in truth, he did not seem in such dire straits as believed. While obviously in pain, now that the blade shard had been removed and a makeshift bandage put in place by his wide he seemed in no danger of bleeding out.

He had been lucky, then, or Remund had struck poorly.

Ocotlan was the last through, and after a minute of struggling against the walls it became plain he was too large to pass. To Angharad’s muted amusement he had to take a hammer to the sculptures before he could squeeze through and even then it was a narrow fit. Song had her musket in hand while the shrine entrance was taken a hammer to – and Angharad kept her saber close – but no spirit deigned to show.

“It might be abandoned,” the Pereduri mused. “Though that seems strange, for it is hardly a ruin.”

“There is more than one way for gods to die in this maze, Lady Tredegar,” Tupoc nonchalantly said. “It seems to me the god of this place might have been better served by a fortress than a palace.”

“We are deep in the maze,” Angharad conceded. “It seems likely the strife between spirits would be harshest here, where fewer of the trial-takers reach.”

If the spirits could not feed on the ensouled, they must feed on each other.

“Best to keep our guard up anyhow,” Master Cozme said. “There is little safety to be found outside the Old Fort.”

They agreed that drinking of the iridescent water seemed a poor idea and that it would be best to avoid touching it at all. Avoiding the bottom floor, they held close to the sides and went up the stairs. The prayer cells were adorned with stone mats, with exactly one relief carved into the wall of rooms of otherwise bare stone. Not a speck of dust in sight. The way out of this temple must be further up, Angharad decided when it became clear there was nothing but cells on the first level. They had gone underground quite a bit since the clockwork temple.

Tupoc gestured for them to halt just before they reached the second floor, already reaching for his spear.

“Something ahead,” he murmured. “Prepare.”

Though she resented how close to an order his words were coming, Angharad did not deny the sense in them. Sword in hand she crouched on the stairs, pricking her ear as she heard footsteps approach. Breathing out, she glimpsed ahead.

(Tupoc pulled the blow before it took her in the throat but Shalini shot him twice in the eye, hands like lightning.)

“Wait,” Angharad exclaimed, getting to her feet. “They are not enemies.”

The muzzle of a pistol peeked past the corner, followed by Shalini’s surprised face.

Tredegar?” she asked, then looked past her to the rest. “Huh.”

The Tianxi soldier Yong, sword in hand, joiner her a moment later as Tupoc laid his spear on his shoulder. Their entire crew was there, she realized. She sheathed her sword.

“Peace,” Angharad called out. “It seems we have matters to discuss.”

Tensions ran high, but with no crew inclined to fire the first shot a truce was established. Lord Ishaan revealed they had found an easy path deep into the maze, past a trial of illusions that saw Acanthe Phos cheat copiously with her contract, but that after that a series of dead ends had kept them on a road straight to this very temple – though they came in through the fifth level. They had been here for hours now and it took little prompting for the Someshwari to show Tupoc and Angharad why.

“This is it,” Lord Ishaan said. “We thought them the only way out of the temple but we must have missed your entrance.”

“It is now a dead end anyhow,” Tupoc told him. “The god collapsed its own shrine for spite of failing to take our lives.”

Angharad only half paid attention to their talk, eyes on the gates Ishaan Nair had led them here to see. Three great circles of stone, looking almost like man-sized Aztlan calendars with all their complex radians and concentric circles. Around the rim of every gate was an elaborate stone contraption, each bearing a single needle pointing inwards and moving so slowly around the gate it seemed still if you did not pay close attention.

“- waiting until it opens,” Lord Ishaan said. “The fourth floor is the most luxurious, so we prepared to camp there.”

“You believe the gates will open, then?” Angharad asked.

“They will,” Tupoc replied in his stead. “This is a cyclical calendar, though I do not recognize the god it is dedicated to. Regardless, the engravings give clear time of prayer.”

He tapped the first gate with a finger.

“The seventh hour,” he said, then moved to the others. “The tenth. The fourteenth.”

“We came to similar conclusion,” Lord Ishaan evenly said.

“Odd hours,” Angharad mused. “The sequence does not seem obvious.”

“Numbers dedicated to the god, I assume,” Tupoc said. “Whichever that might be.”

A second look at the speed of the needle and the hours the Izcalli had spoken of allowed her to gauge how long there was left, which was not until tomorrow.

“It seems we will all need to spend the night here,” she finally said.

“Indeed,” Ishaan Nair said. “A more elaborate truce seems in order.”

It was not a difficult bargain, as none were inclined to fight. Lord Ishaan was given right to take the earliest gate in exchange for allowing them to share the fourth floor with his crew – the Someshwari admitted there were water wells and genuine sleeping chambers on it, a luxury they all desired – while Tupoc offered to take the third gate in thanks for her ‘invaluable help’ through the crystal hall. She misliked the ironic tint to his words, but not enough to refuse the offer.

After that, they all settled in for the night.

The room on the fourth floor were much preferrable to the prayer cells, as Ishaan had said.

There were wooden beds – without sheets, but Angharad had her own bedroll – and her chambers had a stone basin that she filled with water from the closest well. Most lovely of all was that every room had doors, which could not be locked but could at least be closed. Sleeping chambers were claimed in clusters, all three crews sleeping close and away from their competitors, so she saw little of the others save for a smile shared with Brun. At once tired and energized, she retired early to her room and found herself laying on the bed while looking at the ceiling.

The air was oddly warm here, enough that even in an undertunic and underclothes she could not decide whether she wanted to be inside the bedroll or not. The dim light coming from a small hole in the ceiling did not help, tracing by shadow the silhouette of everything in the room. Rolling around restlessly, she tore her gaze away from the disturbing mosaic on the ceiling that showed black birds falling from the sky like rain and closed her eyes. Surely if she kept at it long enough sleep would ensue. Angharad did not want to approach tomorrow tired and- she reached for her blade the moment she heard the level lock of her door begin to move.

Unsheathing the saber silently as she padded across the room on bare feet, Angharad pressed against the wall to lay in ambush. The scabbard she propped up against the wall, breathing in shallowly when the door to her chambers opened and then just as quietly closed. The assassin took one step, a second and Angharad struck – only for her blade to halt a hair’s breadth away from the throat.

Isabel Ruesta looked down at the steel and swallowed.

“Angharad,” she whispered.

Isabel, she realized, wore nothing but a pale sleeping shift. Sleeveless and with a low neckline that pulled taut at the breasts, pressing them up to draw the eye. The dark-haired beauty’s cheeks were rosy and there could be no doubt as to why another woman who come into her rooms at this hour so dressed. A night visit, and the tension went out of her shoulders – she was not unfamiliar with this game. She took away the blade.

“Isabel,” she replied, then hesitated. “We cannot.”

There was no telling who might be watching, in this strange temple, and too many potential eyes. Tupoc would be looking for anything to hold over her head, and she was not sure Lord Ishaan would refuse an opportunity to sunder their crew. Which a shared bed between them might well achieved, however unfair it might be: Remund would be livid, and if he left Cozme would go with him. Isabel’s eyes widened with surprise, and something altogether colder before the infanzona wiped it away.

“I had not thought you so cowed by House Cerdan,” she evenly said.

Wounded pride bled out every pore. Angharad would have fared no better, had she been refused after sneaking in dressed so flatteringly.

“If this were the Old Fort, I would take the risk regardless,” the Pereduri admitted. “But it would be too easy to get caught here, the doors so close, and there are no sanctuary rules to keep blades out of hands should it happen.”

“We would be twice as likely to get caught at the fort,” Isabel sulked. “The blackcloaks are everywhere.”

She had looked pleased, though at the admission. And soon followed with a sly look, stepping close and pressing her cheek against Angharad’s collarbone. Awkwardly, still holding the sword, she wrapped her arm around the infanzona.

“It would be dangerous to return so quickly to the hall,” she wheedled. “Surely you would not want to risk that.”

Angharad’s eyes strayed down a slender neck, to the rounded valleys pressed up by the cut of the shift and felt the test of her resolve.

“It would be too risky,” she allowed, swallowing.

Isabel pressed a kiss against the side of her neck, hiding her face as she whispered.

“And a few kisses, would you deny me that?”

There she held firm.

“It would not stop at that,” Angharad said. “We both know that.”

Isabel snickered against the crook of her neck, a sensation that had her shivering.

“Perhaps not,” the infanzona admitted. “But hold me a while, at least. I would feel your skin against mine before you send back into the cold.”

And Angharad could not find it in herself to again argue against something she wanted so very much.

To that request, she acceded.

Angharad woke to shouting.

We were caught, she thought for a heartbeat, but there was now warmth besides her. Isabel was gone. Relief warred with disappointment over that, though both were scattered by the continued clamor. She stumbled out of her rooms, scabbard in hand, and in the hallway found a dozen from every crew on their feet and armed. Accusations and denials were heatedly exchanged, but she only saw why after a few more steps forward. At the center of the commotion, Aines lay on the temple floor.

No longer breathing, for someone had cut her throat.

Chapter 25

It was a grim supper.

After the day’s bloody price none were in a chatting mood and Angharad discreetly asked Song to stay close to Zenzele, lest he lose his temper and strike another again. Felis had been acting tastelessly enough that none had made a fuss over the brawl, but if the Malani had to be dragged out of another scrap she suspected sympathy would wane. Isabel, who sat by her side as they dug into their plates of salted pork, biscuits and peas, leaned close.

“Only one victor for Lord Ishaan’s crew,” she murmured. “And there appear to be some recriminations over the results.”

She was right, Angharad saw. Lady Ferranda and Acanthe Phos were arguing, however quietly, while Ishaan Nair attempted to play peacemaker. The others only watched.

“We have our own troubles,” Angharad finally said. “Best to leave them to their own.”

She was the only leader to have brought back a corpse as well as victors, which would make her singularly unsuited to poaching even if she were of such a mind. Which she was not.

“Not so great as that,” Isabel said. “Lord Zenzele is grieving, as is only proper, but who has spoken to you of leaving?”

No one, so far, but they had not been back for long. They would see. It was draining, to have to consider all that. Life had been so much simpler when she was but a duelist on the circuit, her rule of Llanw Hall a distant thing Father still had decades to prepare her for. Her mother had been a lady and a captain, so authority was in her blood, but she did not think is came as naturally to her. Would Mother have always taken charge if she found it out as exhausting as Angharad did? She had her doubts.

Someone staring at her, but when she turned Remund was speaking with Cozme. Strange.

After the meal they lingered at the table a little longer, expectant looks sent her way, but Angharad had no clever plan to dazzle them with. She told them to rest and prepare, receiving only nods in return, and they went their own way. Cozme Aflor, however, sought her out after the others were gone. He made small talk at first but kept pulling at his beard and hardly met Angharad’s eyes. Eventually he came out with the reason he had approached her in the first place.

“Lord Zenzele is not so wounded that he cannot come tomorrow,” he said. “The Watch physician said the cuts on his back required no stitches, only thorough cleaning.”

“Flesh is not what was cut deepest today,” Angharad replied.

The older man smoothed his mustache, which had been entirely pristine.

“I feel for Lord Zenzele, I truly do,” Cozme Aflor said. “Yet his grief cannot see him withdraw from the crew in all but name.”

“He is a victor,” she pointed out.

“So is Lady Isabel,” the older man said, “and if one stays so will the other. What is left of us then?”

Not much, she had to admit. Herself, Song, Yaretzi, Cozme and Remund. They would be the smallest of the crews, if not necessarily the weakest, but size was what concerned Master Cozme. A crew of five was certain to force Remund Cerdan to take a trial, which his protector was trying to avoid by keeping their numbers high – even it meant taking Zenzele Duma back into the maze. It was good and loyal service to House Cerdan, this conversation. Angharad bade herself to keep that in mind, for otherwise she might grow angry.

“I am not certain what it is you wish of me, Master Cozme,” she finally said.

“He respects you, Lady Angharad,” he replied. “You held the cog the longest of us and almost saved her life at the end. If you request that he continue with us tomorrow, he may well listen.”

For the barest of moments, she felt like striking him. What had Cozme Aflor given in these trials, that he had earned of her the right to ask that she wade through a man’s grief to make demands for another’s benefits? Only Cozme was not asking for himself, and that let her swallow the anger. It was not selfishness that drove the request but duty.

“I would not see our crew sunder,” Angharad stiffly said.

Tacit agreement. She, too, could see how victors remaining behind could be the beginning of the end for their band. For the remainder the temptation would grow to seek refuge with Lord Ishaan instead of remaining on a sinking ship.

“I make no promises,” Angharad said.

“Nor would I ask one,” Master Cozme hurried to say.

He looked relieved. Perhaps he had reason to be. Dimly left with the sense that she was doing another’s dirty work, Angharad walked away from the man and sought out Zenzele. The Malani was alone, sitting in his ‘room’ with the curtain open, for though Song was close and keeping an eye on him she had not gone to speak with him. At a glance, Zenzele Duma looked fine. He had bandages wrapped around his torso but his back was straight and he seemed in no great discomfort. His hair was too short to have the capacity to be disheveled and even his hat – brimmed, pinned and feathered as was the current fashion in Malan – was set at a jaunty angle.

It was the eyes that gave him away.

Red-rimmed and raw, like a wound had been drawn around two pits of bleakness. Angharad’s steps almost faltered, for what might she possibly say to a man with eyes like these, but she forced herself to keep moving. The glance he flicked her way when she came to stand before him was disinterested.

“May I sit?” Angharad asked.

Zenzele gestured wordlessly. She lowered herself onto the stone, leaning back against the partition between his stable stall-turned-room and what she suspected had been Inyoni’s. Twice she almost began to speak before biting down on the words. They felt fake, hollow. The kind she would have raged to hear in the days fresh after the massacre of her family. It was him that broke the silence.

“You told us,” Zenzele said, “that you are the last of your house.”

“Save for my uncle in the Watch,” Angharad quietly agreed.

Not that it meant anything. Uncle Osian had renounced any claim to Llanw Hall by becoming a blackcloak, just as she would. There was no longer a claim left to press, anyhow: House Tredegar had been struck from the rolls of nobility. The land would become the possession of the High Queen, who would grant it to another family at her pleasure.

“How did it happen?”

Her fingers clenched.

“They came in the night,” she said. “Steel and powder, before they put our very hall to the torch.”

Her cousins had been but boys, but sometimes she hoped they had been put to the sword. Better the steel than being barred inside their rooms, burning alive as so many of the servants had. Not until her dying day would she forget the sound of those screams on the wind.

“And you fled,” Zenzele said.

“My father had a riverboat stashed away,” Angharad murmured. “He died distracting them long enough for me to reach it.”

Had Father known what would find her on that dark river, rowing alone on a trail of ink? Sometimes she thought he might have. He had been a learned man, keeping to old ways. Unknowing of her mind, the Malani breathed out deeply.

“My mother has four other children,” he abruptly said. “I am the thirdborn, which means marrying for advantage.”

The same fate Uncle Osian had gone to the Watch to avoid. It was considered imprudent to marry the secondborn out of the family, but any child beyond that number was fated for the marriage market. Angharad would likely have wed a thirdborn daughter before she reached twenty, arranging in the marriage contract for a son of that family to stand in for their daughter when she decided to conceive an heir for House Tredegar.

“Mother never really gave a shit beyond ensuring I would be a decent prospect,” Zenzele confessed. “I used to think I had disappointed her, but looking back she simply never really saw me as a Duma. I was born to marry out.”

He shook his head.

“Sometimes I think she didn’t even notice when I left to attend the isikole,” he said. “It was Aunt Inyoni who saw me off, rode with me on the wagon.”

He trailed off.

“Is it there you met Ayanda?” she asked, prompting him to continue.

A spasm of grief. Best that wound be lanced now, lest what lay within fester.

“Under the red roof there are no titles,” he quoted. “For four years it didn’t matter that she wasn’t nobly born, only that she was lovely and funny and so fucking clever. It felt like a dream she even wanted to be with me.”

“Then the four years ended,” Angharad said.

“And out in Malan, nothing else matters,” Zenzele bitterly said. “I had not even taken off my traveling cloak before Mother told me I was betrothed.”

She winced.

“Arafa Sandile,” he said. “Only two years older than me. Pretty, they said. But even if she had looked like a seal I would have been promised to her, because the Sandile silver mines are prettier to my mother than any girl could ever hope to be.”

Even Angharad had heard of House Sandile. In southern Malan they were a byword for extravagance, the main line having once thrown a feast on a ship being carried through the countryside by elephants imported from the Imperial Someshwar. It had been the talk of the Isles for years afterwards. No wonder Zenzele had run after breaking his betrothal: the Sandile had deep enough pockets to bury him neck deep in swordmasters after such a slight to their honor. Zenzele chuckled.

“That’s about the face Aunt Inyoni made when I told her I was going to run,” he said. “She said I wouldn’t make it ten miles out, much less as far as a port. Then she said she couldn’t just let me get myself killed.”

His face tightened.

“She was more a mother to me than the woman who spat me out into the world,” he said. “Then and now. And how did I repay it?”

Angharad knew that rage in the man’s eyes, the urge to strike something stoked all the higher by the way there was nothing around worthy of being struck. The first time an assassin had come for her, it had been as much a relief as a thing of dread. Finally she had been able to hurt someone for what had been done to her, someone deserving of her hatred.

“Sleeping God, but when we set out it felt like an adventure,” he hatefully said. “Terrifying, we were leaving it all behind, but I was with Ayanda and the only family I cared to claim. Aunt Inyoni’s friends in the Watch were interested in our contracts, enough to recommend us, and all we needed was to win some trials and we would be forever beyond anyone’s reach.”

His jaw clenched.

“I thought I could get it all,” Zenzele said. “Instead I killed them both.”

Angharad could have told him that he was not to blame, that both the dead had made choices and he had not decided for them, but she knew it would mean nothing. It had not to her when she heard the same truths, for they held the ring of platitude.

“When a shot is fired,” she said, “who is to blame – the bullet, the powder, the flint that struck the spark?”

His eyes moved to her.

“Blame the finger that pulled the trigger, Zenzele Duma,” Angharad said. “You did not run away on a whim, you were made to.”

To marry for the good one one’s family was duty, but to be treated by cattle by the head one one’s house – not even consulted during the negotiations, never meeting the other party before the betrothal – was undeniably a wrong. A nobleborn child had responsibilities to their house, but that house also had responsibilities to them and the Duma had failed Zenzele before he them. It did not make running admirable, but it was enough for Angharad not to look down on the man for it.

“So I should take my revenge on them, is that it?” the Malani snorted. “Make myself a kinslayer, maybe wipe out House Sandile?”

Angharad Tredegar did not laugh, did not so much as twitch a smile. There was no jest here.

“One day,” she said, voice soft, “I will find out who it was that murdered my family, who ended my house.”

That man’s name, the owner of all her grief.

“And when I do, Zenzele,” she continued. “I will kill them all. Every last one of them.”

Her fingers clenched, nails biting into her palm.

“No matter how far they run, how high they stand, how many armies stand between them and my blade. I will drag their screaming souls to the ashes of Llanw Hall and let the wailing reach all the way across the fucking Circle Perpetual to my kin.”

Let it be the first thing her parents heard as they were born anew, let those screams come thundering out their lungs as their souls wiped clean and avenged returned to Vesper for another life.

“This,” she said with utter calm, “I have sworn. And I will live long enough to carry out that oath, no matter what this pit of horrors sets in my way.”

Zenzele stared at her, still as a statue.

“So that’s what it is,” he said. “An oath.”

She blinked, taken aback.

“I can see connections,” Zenzele Duma admitted in a murmur. “Between things, people, concepts. You are tied to Isabel Ruesta and to Song Ren, but there is a chord deeper and more vivid than both.”

He met her eyes.

“It is red,” he said. “Red like blood, like flame, like ruin. That may well be what it brings you.”

“They were already brought to me,” Angharad Tredegar gently replied. “I am simply to return that gift in kind.”

The Malani wrenched his gaze away as if burned.

“Live to take revenge, huh,” he said. “Somehow I expected something nobler of you, Angharad.”

“Fire is not a kind thing,” she murmured. “But it does keep the night away, Zenzele.”

The Malani stayed silent for a long time.

“I don’t know if I have it in me to live like that,” he said. “But it doesn’t matter.”

His jaw firmed.

“I will not suffer her body to be abandoned in some pit, her affairs pawned off to some other trial-taker in the years to come,” Zenzele Duma said. “Ayanda is beyond my reach, but I will see my aunt’s ashes spread on the shores of the Isles one day.”

Angharad felt a sliver of grief on his behalf, that he would never get so much as a pinch of ash to spread from the girl he had so deeply loved. No one would go fight the hollows for those taken prisoners, not even the Watch. Even if the three were still alive to be saved, the blackcloaks would not sacrifice their own assaulting the cult of the Red Eye in its hidden strongholds – not when they stood to lose so many more souls than they might possibly rescue.

“That is worth getting to the end of these cursed trials, if nothing else,” the Malani quietly said. “I refuse to just stay here and sit as her ashes cool.”

She had never asked, in the end, for him to stay with them tomorrow. It had been her mistake and Cozme’s to believe him the sort of man who would need to be talked into it. She did not flinch away from the shame of that realization, for it was well deserved. They sat together for a while longer, neither feeling the need to speak a word. When an uncharacteristically unsmiling Lieutenant Wen fetched Zenzele an hour later, telling him the body had been cleaned and a pyre raised, she went with him. No one else would.

The pile was outside, drenched with oil, and the body already laid atop it. Angharad stood by his side as he composed himself, struggled to keep his face calm, and finally took the torch the lieutenant was offering.

“It is tradition to speak,” Zenzele rasped, “but I have no words to give, aunt. Even an apology would ring hollow.”

He swallowed.

“Maybe one day I will have earned the right, but not today.”

He raised the torch.

“We who do not stray are eternal,” Zenzele said. “I will see you again, for there are no strangers across the Empty Sea.”

He threw the torch and the fire roared. Those had been Redeemer words, she thought, but not untrue for it. All who did not stray from the Sleeping God would meet again in time, born again and again until all had learned from their mistakes. Angharad watched the flames devouring Inyoni’s corpse, thinking of another fire, and her jaw clenched.  Let eternity wait.

She yet had accounts to settle in this life.

They rose early and gathered for the meal, as was becoming habit.

Angharad was surprised to see Isabel had risen before her this time, and more surprised still to see Tristan sitting with her. The grey-eyed man had shown no inclination of joining any crew, not that she would have dared to ask again after bringing back a corpse, but she supposed that did not mean he wanted to be without company. Perhaps if the day went well, Angharad thought, she should spare some time to find out what it was he was up to with the others who remained behind. That aged pair would do so was no great surprise, but Sarai? She was fit enough to delve the maze.

Whatever it was the two were discussing, they settled it before Angharad arrived. Tristan gave her a smile, then rose to his feet.

“I should grab Vanesa’s porridge while it is still warm,” he told her. “Good morn, Lady Angharad, and good luck on your venture.”

He paused, then inclined his head.

“Lady Isabel.”

“Master Tristan,” Isabel amusedly replied.

He took his leave after that under Angharad’s bemused gaze. She sat by Isabel’s side after making certain that others were seated at tables, making the kitchen a public place and allowing her to skirt the edge of her oath to Remund.

“You know,” the dark-haired beauty mused, “I do believe that man might not even have a surname.”

“He seems too well educated for that,” she replied, startled.

Only the poorest of commoners were bereft of last name, at least in Peredur.

“Why else avoid giving it so carefully?” Isabel asked. “No matter, it does not make him any less interesting.”

“He had business with you?” Angharad idly asked.

Isabel smiled at her, the full weight of her attention a little dazzling.

“He was giving me news of Beatris,” she said. “She appears to have had a fit of nerves that left her unfit to try the maze, so I have sent her my permission to withdraw from the trials.”

“That is kind of you,” she replied, pleased at the good treatment.

Kindness to one’s servants was the responsibility of the nobly born. They were joined by the others one after another, the table going silent for a moment after Lord Zenzele came until he gave a toothy grin.

“The funeral was last night,” he said. “Do cheer up.”

No one was so awful as to laugh, but it broke the ice. Quiet conversation resumed and after the meal ended they prepared to set out together. As the previous day, Tupoc’s group had gone ahead. Keeping to their bargain, they moved with Lord Ishaan’s group. The chubby-cheeked Someshwari had picked up a wound across the lips, an oddly fearsome sight on a face that otherwise screamed of harmlessness, and it made it difficult for him to speak. They remained quiet, though neither Song nor Shalini offered them such mercy.

The pair spent half the walk to the shrines arguing about whether Tianxi or Ramayan tea was superior while the other half was reserved to agree that Izcalli xocolatl was ‘too disgusting to inflict on even Someshwari’ and ‘there should be a law against its export, maybe make a mob vote on it’.

“It is good to see Shalini making a friend,” Ishaan happily told her, breaking their silence as they neared the shrines. “Her sense of humor sometimes drives people away.”

“I am surprised to hear it,” Angharad replied, speaking very exactly.

A wry look from the Someshwari told her that perhaps it had not gone unnoticed. They parted ways cordially at the shrines, returning to their previous paths. The dove spirit’s grounds were eerily silent, the holes in the floor still there – though they now looked like simple pits – and the entity itself not deigning to appear. They hurried through, dimly unsettled, and took the same upwards path as before. It was more tiring than dangerous to retrace their steps now that they knew there would be no ambush waiting for them.

When they climbed up from the pools into the tunnel again, ready to shimmy across the edge to the stairs of the temple where Inyoni had died, they did it knowing that a dead thing would attempt to scare them into falling. All ignored it, as for all its loudness it could not hurt them, save for Zenzele – who slapped the remnant spirit on its head with a laugh, though it did not cease shrieking. Not enough thought remained inside, she suspected.

The gesture was to be an augury of continued recklessness, Angharad realized when he did not wait for everyone to be ready before climbing the steps to the clockwork temple. Cursing under her breath she hurried, finding him standing along among the great room with the polished floor and the ticking machines.

“Not a trace of anything broken,” he said when she caught up. “Like we were never here at all.”

The spirit of brass and cogs did not show, this time, perhaps uninterested now that it had fed and they could not be pressed into another of its tests.

“You are a victor still,” Angharad said. “That remains.”

“It was a victor as well,” Zenzele mildly replied. “That is the part I find difficult to forgive.”

They had not ventured beyond the clockwork temple yesterday, so it was fresh grounds they broke as the crossed the machine-strewn chamber. There was a hall leading out, a thing of moonstone and serpentine as the one that had led them in, but here the streaks of iron and gold painting the walls were not so wild. There were clear patterns, beginning circular and becoming increasingly angular as the hall continued. It made Angharad’s eyes tear up to look at them too long so she yanked her gaze away. That the spirit had not appeared did not mean its hand could not be felt.

At the end of the hall half-shattered stairs led down to what she thought to be walls at first but soon realized were the sloping seats of an arena. It was why her boots creaked against sand as she took the lead and why the structure was so curved – though she could not see the whole of it, as it continued around the side of the clockwork temple and mixed into masses of rubbles with jutting columns. The grounds were ruins, not a shrine, and as they walked on the sand they found that there were three ways out of the arena.

The first was in a straight line, through the front gates, and appeared to be a tangle of stairs going both up and down. Another was through a rusted grate, going down into the ground in a spiral, and the last began atop the highest seats to their right: some sort of bridge leading into a structure that seemed to be a broad tower.

“That tower has shrine written all over it,” Lord Remund opined.

“Agreed,” Song said. “The stairs perhaps?”

“I do not like the look of that grate,” Angharad admitted. “Let us try the stairs.”

There were no strong opinions against it, so to the stairs they went. It was worse than she had thought at first glance: the stairs led up and down, left and right, and crisscrossed each other as if painted by a madman. Going up  a few flights let her catch sight of a structure at the end of the mess, what looked like a highway with raised steles wedged in between two large walls, but the stairs themselves were a death trap. They were falling apart, sometimes on each other, and after Zenzele kicked a loose stone on a whim an entire section collapsed. The Malani apologized, but the words were a little too blithe for her taste.

Angharad stared him down until he looked away, conceding with a jerky nod. He was allowed his grief but not to risk their lives with it.

Yet disinclined to the high bridge and tower, they headed for the rusted grate. Yaretzi and Master Cozme kicked it off the hinges and then went down the narrow tunnel. It spun in a spiral, uncomfortably narrow, and dug into the stone beneath. There were no steps, only a slope, and they had to be careful not to slip. After what had to be at least ten minutes of heading down they emerged into a dark crypt. Rectangular tombs of bare stone lay open, lantern light revealing they were filled only with dust, and at the other end of the chamber the wall was made from a darker kind of stone. They crossed, wary of an attack that never came, and then stepped into a hall that ended after three feet in a strange circular chamber lit by some kind of hanging lantern.

There were four gates inside the room, but all were closed and barred.

Angharad saw no lock or knocker, nor any other way to open them, so her gaze strayed to the strange contraption that filled almost the entire room. It looked like a wheel, she thought, though one without a rim. Four spokes of solid brass jutted out, each going from slightly above her midsection to the floor, while the hub they jutted from was tall as a man and broad as three – and not small men, either. The mechanism’s floor was dull brass, rough and unpolished, but unlike the hallway bore no dust.

“It does not look like a shrine,” Song noted. “There are no marks and symbols, only bare stone and brass.”

“Perhaps we are meant to push the spokes of the wheel,” Remund Cerdan suggested. “To raise the gates like a portcullis.”

“Could be,” Angharad mused. “Though that would be a great weight and we might not be enough.”

“No, we will be.”

She glanced back, seeing Yaretzi bush past Isabel with a grim look on her face.

“I have seen this before,” the Izcalli said. “Some of my people’s candles are locked the same way.”

“You know how to open it?” Angharad asked.

“If I am right,” Yaretzi agreed.

The dark-haired woman made her way to the edge of the hall, kneeling by the threshold to the wheelroom to rap a knuckle against the brass floor. The sound, to Angharad’s surprise, was hollow. As if there were nothing under a small layer of brass. Yaretzi repeated the same gesture until her hand was near the center of the space between the two spokes, where at last the sound turned solid.

“As I thought,” the Izcalli said, rising to her feet. “It is weight-locked. Enough of us will need to stand on the platform to lower the hidden part and trigger the mechanism.”

“And then what?” Master Cozme asked.

There Yaretzi grimaced.

“I am uncertain,” she admitted. “I have never seen one with more than a single gate. It should open the doors, but beyond that I cannot say.”

“Sounds fun,” Lord Zenzele carelessly said. “Let’s give it a whirl.”

Angharad glance at him warningly but did not speak otherwise. For all that the Malani was being reckless the plain truth was that activating the device was the only way through this room.

“There might be some danger falling upon us before the doors open,” Isabel said. “It would be best for us to split with such an eventuality in mind.”

The Pereduri noblewoman thought that sensible enough. They separated accordingly: Isabel with her, Cozme with Remund, and after Zenzele insisted on standing alone Song and Yaretzi. When Isabel joined her at the center of the space some mechanical part clicked beneath their feet, the floor descending by the barest of fractions, and then they watched as the others spread around the wheel by climbing over spokes. The very moment Zenzele took his place, a last click resounded across the small room and they all felt something shifting beneath their feet.

A long moment passed.

“Perhaps we are to push after all,” Lord Remund drawled.

He went to place his hand against the spoke before him, but before he could there was a sudden shiver beneath their feet. Angharad glimpsed ahead and-

Brace yourselves,” she shouted.

Half of them were still knocked down when the wheel abruptly began spinning. She caught Isabel by the waist, bringing her close and trying not to wonder at how even in this nightmare of an island the infanzona’s hair still smelled of lavender, then held them both in place by snatching at the top of the spoke with her other hand. Cozme cursed virulently as he smacked into the brass and Zenzele let out a whooping laugh as he held on for dear life. All the lanterns save Yaretzi’s went flying, smashing against stone or brass.

And the wheel kept spinning, faster and faster.

Isabel would have slipped her gasp had the dark-haired beauty not begun clinging to the spoke on her own, the two of them struggling to keep upright as the air howled against their faces and the sole burning light above whipped them with shadows.

“The gate,” Song shouted. “The gate is opening.”

Angharad risked a glance and saw that the Tianxi was right: one of the gates was slowly rising, as if being dragged up an inch at a time. Were they meant to jump out when it opened up enough? It would be difficult, she thought, but hardly impossible. They held one for another ten breaths, the gate opening up just enough for a man to be able to get through on their knees, and Angharad pushed herself up. Hopefully the others would not argue the need to jump, for speaking would be difficult.


Before she could finish the sentence, she turned weightless. Or so it felt for the barest fraction of a moment, before she realized that the wheel had just abruptly changed directions. Shouting as she was thrown back against a curtain of brass – ancestors, that was going to bruise – and Isabel’s back smacked her in the face a heartbeat later, she heard other shouts.

Two of which abruptly cut off.

No, she thought, rising to her feet as she pushed off the infanzona. It was as she feared: Song and Yaretzi were missing while the once-open gate had slammed shut. It is no gate mechanism, she thought, it is a trap. One meant to separate us.  

“Seek each other out on the other side,” Angharad shouted. “We must not remain-”

Unlike the last, the gate that opened this time did so in a heartbeat and Zenzele threw himself in the opening with a wild laugh before wheel even changed directions to force his hand. They were all better prepared for the turnabout this time, all staying on their feet save Remund – who Cozme caught by the arm and held in place. The third gate opened, the pair tossed through it, and for the first time Angharad got a glimpse of what lay past it. Some kind of stony slope. They both went tumbling down.

Now there were only the two of them left.

“Ready yourself,” she told Isabel. “Better to jump than be thrown.”

She had not closely looked at the infanzona before but now that she did, she saw the terror writ there. Isabel’s fair face had gone pale, her eyes wild and she was worrying her lip so hard it looked fit to bleed.

“Please,” Isabel said. “Together. I do not know if-”

How striking her teary gaze was Angharad thought, a little dazed. She tended to prefer women of harder character, but perhaps on occasion being needed would not be so – no, not the time.

“Together,” she agreed.

They barely had three heartbeats to ready themselves before the fourth gate began to open. The timing seemed to be shorter every time, as if the machine fed on its own momentum. Angharad glimpsed ahead twice to gauge the timing, a trick she was becoming increasingly fond of, and almost winced when she saw herself hit the bottom of the gate with her front teeth on the first attempt. It was a good thing she did not feel what she saw, as she could do without intimate knowledge of what it felt like to shatter half her mouth.

When they leapt, Isabel trembling in her arms, it was straight into the dark.

Blinded by the sudden change in lighting Angharad blinked even as the ground gave beneath her feet – it was a slope, like she had seen in the others – but after two steps her boots slid against wetness and Isabel screamed in fear. They tumbled forward, Angharad’s belly flopping on shallow water while her chin raked against the stone below it, and she felt Isabel’s fingers slide through hers.

“No,” the infanzona shouted. “Angharad, you-”

She was interrupted by a loud thump, smacking into something. For a heartbeat Angharad believed her dead, the thought like a burn, but then she heard Isabel shouting as she bounced off into water. Distant water, as if they were being separated. Without a lantern to see Angharad was blind, but even as she fell her fingers groped ahead and she found rising stone – there had been a fork just beyond the gate, she realized, and they were falling down different sides of it. Heart pounding with fear for the infanzona, she tried to hurry her way down. The water was shallow but it helped her slide faster, her clothes drenched and hair turning slick.

She went down a canal for what felt like an eternity until she fell into a pool.

It was deep enough she had to swim up and when she broke the surface she saw there was finally light again, coming from glass orbs hung on the ceiling. Making for the shore, she got out onto a stone floor before taking a better look around. This looked to be a cavern, though one with two large pools – both being fed by small canals, one of which she had come through. There were half a dozen openings in the wall ahead, none of them looking carved and all rather narrow. Angharad waited a little longer to see if Isabel was to come down the other canal, but after a few minutes of dripping onto the floor to no sign of the infanzona she reluctantly got moving.

A few glimpses told her there were no traps no matter the opening, so she took the rightmost and headed in.

The lights were dimmer in here, small glass orbs burning dirty yellow, but she could still see just fine. Twice she faced forks and took a right, the second time leading her to a precipice. The tunnel ended abruptly in a deep black abyss facing wall of rock, faint wind like a breath rising from below. She shuddered, about ready to double back when she saw a flicker of movement ahead. She had not noticed, but on the other side of the precipice there was an opening in the rock with light flickering – almost like an eye. She saw a pool through it, and another precipice someone was standing by. Their hair was long and dark.

“Isabel,” she shouted, and it echoed endlessly in the abyss.

The silhouette across did not react, hesitating a little longer before moving out of sight. There was no telling if it was truly the infanzona, Angharad reminded herself. Where spirits held dominion the wise did not trust their eyes.

She returned to the tunnels, intent on pushing forward since it was unlikely there was a way across the abyss. Everywhere seemed the same, bare stone coated in flickering light, and after a while it felt as if she had no idea where she’d come from. Angharad began scratching the walls with her sword under the orbs, but she had begun too late and it only prevented her from going in circles. After long enough that her clothes had gone from wet to damp, the Pereduri finally stumbled onto the end of the tunnels. It was a striking enough sight it gave her pause, impatient as she was.

It was as if someone had raised a hall entirely out of cloudy, silvery crystals.

They shone with light from somewhere unseen, each perfectly smooth surface reflecting itself as a house of mirrors. It was strikingly beautiful, Angharad thought, enough that she was distracted from immediately noticing the entrances. There were three of them, going into a hall that must be sprawling for she saw no end to it, but one was closed by a solid slab of crystal. She approached for a closer look, eyes widening when she saw that someone had darkened the threshold of the entrance around the slab with what must have been an open flame. Two letters: S and Y.  Yaretzi, she recalled, had kept her lantern from breaking when the spin changed directions.

Angharad breathed in deeply, comforted at the thought that at least two of her comrades had made it this far. That it might be only two was an upsetting prospect, but there might well be other entrances to this place. There had been four doors, after all. At the very least there could be no doubt that this hall must be her path, or as to what its true nature was despite its beauty. Angharad straightened her back, then offered a low bow.

“I implore the attention of the honored elder who dwells in this temple,” she said.

The air shivered, but this was subtler a spirit than the kind she had encountered in the maze until now. There was no great manifestation, no eye-catching totem to command attention. Only traces of silver light facing her in the slab of crystal, suggesting the shape of a face.

“Robber. Or. Supplicant.”

Angharad hid her pained wince by lowering her head. It was as if the words were made of the sound of crystal cracking, just a little too high and sharp to be anything but daggers to the ear.

“I would be a supplicant to your temple, honored elder,” Angharad said. “If you would tell me of the terms of your test and the wager therein.”

“Wager. Lantern.”

Not unexpected. She waited for the terms.

“Win. By. Reaching. End. Hall.”

A pause.

“Or. Take. A. Life.”

Painful as it was to the ear, she sought clarifications. The prize would be crossing the temple unhindered for she and any companion. To die within the hall, however, was to surrender your soul to the spirit. It remained vague about whose life might be taken within its test, however, simply calling them ‘opponents’. She had her suspicions, especially when it was made plain that to take another’s life would see you led to the end of the hall safely. It means to keep us in its hall of mirrors until we grow desperate enough to kill our own, Angharad thought. The Watch had implied nothing lived out here save for ravenous spirits, so the only lives for them to take were each other’s.

She had no intention of slaying her companions or allowing them to be slain, but that still meant taking the test.

“I accept your test and terms, honored elder, and would undertake supplication,” Angharad said.

“Good. Luck.”

To ascribe emotion to the spirit would be as trying to read the intonation of a razor blade, but as it spoke Angharad somehow felt as if she was being mocked. And though it was but a glimmer of cold light, she could not shake the impression that she had looked at something living – convulsing, red and wet, like a throat swallowing. A second look told her it was but tiredness working away at her mind, the spirit unchanged. Hiding her unease, the Pereduri headed for the entrance to her right and settled her breathing. Hand on her saber, she took a firm step past the threshold and into the shining hall.

A heartbeat after, a slab of crystal hammered down and closed the entrance.

There would be no going back.