None of the skeleton keys were working. The landlord must have sprung for good locks, which was admittedly rather sensible of the man considering that Tristan was currently trying to rob one of his patrons.

“You should have started with the lockpicks,” Fortuna said. “Told you, didn’t I?”

She was leaning against a dingy wall in the weak light of the sole lantern in the hallway, long red dress sweeping to the ground and her tone openly bored. She’d not lowered her voice in the slightest, which would have risked waking up their friend on the other side of the door if anyone but Tristan could hear her. They couldn’t, anymore than they could see or touch her – Fortuna herself still had the senses, but she had grown far too weak to touch the material world. As far as he knew Tristan Abrascal was the sole contractor to the Lady of Long Odds in all of Vesper, and he knew much. Fortuna was not the kind of goddess that disliked the sound of her own voice.

“And to think I was once mistress of queens and emperors. Entire festivals were thrown to earn even a single approving glance from me, Tristan,” Fortuna mourned. “Now all I may call on is a single orphan, one with terribly middling thieving skills.”

He rolled his eyes. All the old gods like to claim they had once been the greatest deity to ever crawl out of the ether to make pacts with men – or even rule over them, back in the times of the Old Night – but in his experience most of them were no more glorious than the dusty thieves and beggars of the Murk they made contracts with.

“Love you too,” Tristan murmured back as he reached for the lockpicks.

Mere possession of that neat leather sheath would be enough to earn him a whipping before he was thrown into a cell, should the Guardia catch him with it. Not that they ever had. He opened it to reveal a well-oiled set of tools, one which he knew to be starkly expensive when crafted with such quality. They’d been a gift of from Abuela, though like all her gifts he’d had to earn it on his own. He slowly inserted the tension wrench into the lock, as not to make enough noise to wake the man on the other side of the door, and then began to work the pick. Quickly he raised an eyebrow.


The landlord of the Azulejo was a wealthy man, for the hostel was the largest in all of Estebra District and Estebra was by far the wealthiest of the half-dozen districts known as the Murk. It seemed, however, that in this instance the size of the establishment had worked against the landlord. Almost a hundred rooms meant that it would have cost a king’s ransom to have good locks on every door unless they were bought in bulk from one of the great workshops. Those mass models were identical: even the good ones all had the same weaknesses. Fortuna, resting a hand on the wall, leaned over his shoulder to have a closer look. He could feel her breath against his cheek, warm and soft.

An illusion, he thought, but one so convincing as to outstrip even the truth.

“A Gongmin lock?” the goddess asked. “You know those. What’s taking you so-”

With a muted sound – thank the gods for whichever servant was being dutiful about keeping these well-oiled – the lock popped open. He offered Fortuna an angelic smile, to which she rolled her eyes. The goddess could be considered a great beauty, he knew, with those vivid green eyes and that hair of gold, yet even as a young boy he’d not been spellbound by her appearance. The Lady of Long Odds was essentially a collection of terrible habits made into a deity, after all, and she was not particularly good at hiding this. Not that Tristan minded. His was not the kind of life that some ancient and glorious Mane would have ever deigned to grace with a pact, much less one as close and intimate as the one he shared with Fortuna. Besides, the mere thought of being bound to one of those pristine old monsters was enough to sicken him. Let the infanzones keep the privilege, may they choke on it and each other.

The tools went back into the sheath and Tristan folded it closed before stashing it away in the stitched inner pocket of his coat. He made sure that the skeleton keys he’d but away in another pocket were still wedged among feathers, so that they would not make noise as he moved, and then laid a finger on handle of the blackjack at his hip. He did not like killing, not strangers anyway, which was why he preferred it to the daggers most in his trade used. The small weapon of leather and lead was a good fit for his hand, and he’d had practice with it, though if Tristan had his way there would be no violence tonight. In and out with the chest he’d come to steal, the man in the room none the wiser until tomorrow. Ideally. Tonight, however, was a test of Abuela’s.

Those did not tend to be painless, for all that they inevitably ended up teaching him valuable lessons.


Tristan slowly cracked the door open, a sliver of dim light from the lantern in the hall slinking through into the dark. He’d looked into other rooms over the last few days so that he would know where the beds and tables were positioned, and from what he could see through the crack there had been no change in arrangement. The table was in the corner to the right, with a single chair, which meant the bed ought to be just outside his angle of sight: left corner, close to but not outright propped against the wall. From the corner of his eye he saw Fortuna wink at him and he smiled back. She’d earlier agreed to keep watch outside the room, after some wheedling.

Tristan opened the door a little wider, crept through and then softly closed it behind him. The young thief waited silently until his eyes got used to the darkness, pricking his ears. The steady breath of a sleeping man was all he heard, along with a body moving around under covers. The room itself was fairly bare. On the right there was the table and chair he had glimpsed earlier, with what looked to be a few papers and a writing kit. On the left there was the bed, a wooden frame with a straw mattress. At its foot was a trunk provided for the guests to stash their personal affairs. Tristan saw a pistol and arming sword placed atop it, over a half-folded black cloak. The last detail had him going still as a stone. The sleeping man was one of the Watch?

If so, this was turning out to be a blunder. Stealing from a blackcloak was a bad idea even at the best of times, for they were talented killers one and all, but if it turned out that Tristan was obstructing a contract then it wouldn’t be the man alone that came for him: the entire free company he belonged to would become involved. Even worse, it was said that the Watch was bound by ancient treaty never to take contracts within Sacromonte save at the invitation of the infanzon so he must have stumb- his thoughts halted, and the young thief turned a considering eye to the sleeping man. It was Abuela that had sent him on this test, he had forgot in his surprise, and Tristan had long suspected that Abuela herself was one of the Watch.

There must be more to this than met the eye. And if the man was here on a contract, why was he alone? The infanzon, the nobles that ruled Sacromonte, they had their favourite companies to contract with when they needed work done in the City. None of those companies were small, each storied and famous and near an army in its own right. And none of them would put up one of their men in a place like the Azulejo, Tristan thought. So was the man here on private business? No, the thief decided, else he would not have dared to bring with him the black cloak that was as a badge of office for the Watch. Tristan’s eyes narrowed. He had only suppositions, but too many details were not adding up.

His gut was saying deserter and Tristan Abrascal trusted his gut.

Which meant he was now free to steal from the stranger once more, if a great deal more warily. A deserter’s knife would kill him just as dead if it slipped through his ribs. From the corner of his eye he saw that Fortuna had gotten bored of keeping an eye out for him and followed him into the room. He swallowed a sigh at the sight of her curiously peering at the papers on the table: it’d only been a matter of time until she wandered off, though he’d hoped for a little longer. The goddess glanced his way, crooking a finger to summon him, but he shook his head. He’d come for the chest Abuela had sent him after, nothing else. No good would come of getting involved in Watch business any more than he already was.

He wasn’t seeing said chest, unfortunately, but then he’d not moved much. He crept a little deeper into the room, eyes seeking, and found what he was looking for but a few moments later: bare as the rented room was, there were no real hiding places to speak of. The chest had simply been nestled by the side of the trunk, half-covered by the cloak. It was easy to recognize from the description he’d been given, slick dark wood with leather stripes to make it easy to carry on one’s back and burnished copper hinges. Inside were pieces of glass and metal, Abuela had said, so he would need to be careful when moving it let it make a ruckus. Fortuna was looking his way still, insistently gesturing for him to come at her side, but he shook his head at her with growing irritation.

He crept closer to the foot of the bed, angling so that the trunk would hide him as he began to grasp the wooden chest. A tentative nudge established it was not all that heavy, intriguingly enough, so Tristan quieted his breath and slid aside the edge of the cloak so that he could begin moving the chest without dragging the black wool with it.

“Tristan, you need to read this,” Fortuna quietly said. “The man is on a contract.”

The young thief turned in startlement, finding the goddess’ face grown grave in the dark. He noticed, a heartbeat too late, that her eyes were going wide. The cold muzzle of a pistol touched the back of his neck.

“A thief, are you?”

The voice was calm but anger lurked close to the surface. The Aztlan accent was faint but noticeable, mostly in the way that the words clicked against the tongue. Tristan swallowed, then painted a winning smile on his face. He was not yet dead, which meant there was still time to dig himself out of the grave he’d dug himself into.

“All men are thieves, arguably,” he replied. “It is only that the rich name it rent or tax instead, so that we might forget what it is.”

A snort of reluctant amusement.

“So you’re a Republican thief.”

Presumably the man meant in political philosophy rather than race, as even in the dark it would be difficult for Tristan to pass as Tianxi.

“Nothing so grand,” Tristan denied. “I am a loyal son of Sacromonte, sir. My faith goes to the Law of Rats.”

The cornered fight, the hungry bite, the beggared snatch. So went the Law of Rats, as written in the famous poetess Ilaria’s verse. There was not a soul in the city that had not heard the poem and to many of the Murk it was as much the writ of the world as any decree of the infanzon. Tristan made to turn, to have a better look at the man holding a pistol to his neck, but the stranger clicked his tongue disapprovingly.

“None of that,” the watchman said. “Not unless you want the trigger pulled.”

Tristan went still. In front of him Fortuna stood, eyeing the man and shaking her head. The stranger was not bluffing, the pistol was fully cocked.

“It may be that you are of the City,” the man said, “but this is not petty theft. The room has a good lock and I do not have the looks of an easy or wealthy mark. What are you here after, boy?”

Tristan hesitated.

“So you were sent,” the man stated, tone confident.

Too confident, really, the young thief frowned. He glanced at Fortuna, who had no answer to give save a grimace. Did the other man possess a contract with a god as well? If so, this conversation was even more dangerous than he’d thought and it had begun with a pistol being pressed against his neck.

“Who was it that did the sending?” the man asked. “Give me a name and you won’t need to die tonight. It’s your master that is my foe, not you.”

Maybe if he’d been looking at the face, it would have made a difference. Tristan would have been able to see the Aztlan features, the darker skin and broad chin. It wouldn’t have been the voice alone, speaking words he’d heard before. Maybe not the same, not exactly, but didn’t they all mean the same thing? Landlords and bosses and infanzones, all looking down from across the table with that merciful smile. Just give us names, they asked. You will be spared, forgiven, absolved. But give us the names. Give us your cousins and your neighbours and your friends. Give us names so that we might feed on all who defy us, and you will be eaten the last. Tristan knew better than to believe in the promise. His father had died teaching him that lesson.

“Careful now,” the man said, tone cold. “Know when you’re beaten, boy.”

Tristan Abrascal smiled. Fortuna smiled back, a goddess adorned in gold and blood, her teeth pale as ivory and sharp as knives.

“I do,” he replied, and borrowed luck.

The ticking in the back of his head began, like the moving gears of a clock, but the noise was drowned out by that of a trigger being pulled. The flint came down, but instead of striking the pan and igniting the powder it snapped clean off. Tristan’s luck had been the very finest, for the flintlock to misfire so catastrophically. He’d have to pay for it later. The man cursed and the young thief turned as he rose, blackjack already in hand. The blackcloak took the strike on his chin well, turning with the blow and it was Tristan’s turn to curse. He wasn’t sure he’d win a real fight, he’d been hoping to end it quick. Instead, the ticking in his head still trotting forward at that same steady pace, he was dragged by the man onto the bed.

Entangled in the sheets like a farce of hateful lovers, the two of them wrestled as they tried to keep away the other’s weapon and strike clean – Tristan with his jack, the man with the butt of his pistol. He landed a blow, and a solid one, on the side of the man’s head. The Aztlan was stunned, but not so stunned that he did not smash the pistol into Tristan’s stomach. Gasping, the thief drew back and was unceremoniously kicked in the chest with bruising strength. He tumbled out of the bed even as the man rose, half-getting up from his sprawl only to have the broken pistol thrown in his face. He bit down on shout. And fuck, he could see the man reaching for the pistol still on top of the trunk. Thinking fast, Tristan tossed back the pistol that’d just bruised his chin.

The man’s arm rose to protect his own head, but it hadn’t been the blackcloak Tristan was aiming at: the pistol atop the trunk went tumbling down to the ground, powder and shot spilling all over the floor. Snarling, the Aztlan instead reached for the sheathed sword. The thief panicked, for a moment, because what was a blackjack going to help against a blade?

“The sheets,” Fortuna hissed.

Body moving without hesitation, Tristan snatched the sheets off the bed and threw them at the watchman even as he drew the sword. The stranger hacked blindly at the cotton, ripping into it, but it wasn’t enough. Forcing himself to go forward instead of back as his instincts screamed he should, Tristan’s fingers tightened around his blackjack and he raised his arm. He darted in quick, smashing into the side of the man’s head once more. The blackcloak stumbled, still hacking away with the blade, and Tristan wasn’t quick enough to avoid getting his left arm nicked. Gritting his teeth, he hit again. The man toppled over the trunk, falling back and over it as the thief followed. He hit again and again, the jack impacting the sheet-covered face until it came back red and the man was no longer moving.

Tristan stayed there, kneeling and panting.

“Fuck,” he rasped out.

Ripping away the sheet, he winced at the bruised and bloody mess he’d made of the Aztlan. Had he killed him? A finger under the nose showed the watchman was still breathing, but he’d taken bad hits. There was no telling, and Tristan had read two books on medicine but he was far from a cutter – much less a real doctor. His fingers closed around the handle of his blackjack. Should he?

“You aren’t getting up,” Fortuna noted.

“He saw my face,” Tristan quietly said. “He doesn’t have a name, but he saw my face. If he’s part of the Watch they could come for me.”

He’d never killed someone who couldn’t fight back before. He hesitated. In the back of his mind, the ticking continued. He would have to even those scales soon, he knew, or the price would get worse.

“Mercy is always a gamble,” Fortuna said, tone sympathetic.

Tristan breathed out slowly. The decision was made.

“There’s already been enough of those tonight,” he said, and set down the blackjack on the floor.

Arms tightening, he snapped the man’s neck the way Abuela had taught him it should be done. The death was swift and hopefully painless. Mercy any greater than that should not be asked of rats. Tristan rose, taking back his blackjack, and steadied himself. He avoided looking at the dead man, instead reaching for the chest he’d come for. It was as light as he’d felt, and clearly filled at least in part with some vials by the noise it made when moved. The leather straps were easy to slide over his shoulder, so he did and found the weight further eased. Now was not the time to look at what was inside, curious as he was.

Tristan suddenly winced: the ticking in the back of his mind that had never ceased suddenly quickened. Shit, he’d dallied for too long.

Fingers clenched, Tristan warily released the luck he had borrowed. Like bowstring, the power of his pact with Fortuna snapped the opposite way it had been dragged. He had gained luck, and so now he must suffer misfortune. Cautiously the thief cast a look around, trying to gauge where the blow would come from, but for a few heartbeats nothing happened. Then there was a faint clicking sound, as the well-oiled lock that he had picked to enter the room opened again: the door swung open half a foot, just enough for the woman passing by it to glance curiously. She froze, dak eyes going wide as she saw the shape of the corpse on the floor and Tristan standing with his ill-gotten goods.

Well, Tristan faintly thought, that was going to be somewhat difficult to explain. He opened his mouth to speak, but already the woman was running down the hall and shouting. Fuck. It was more than time to get out of here.

“Take the papers too,” Fortuna said.

He goggled at her. How would that help anything?

“It will make things wo-”

“Trust me,” the goddess urged. “Take the papers.”

Cursing under his breath, he brushed aside a quill to snatch up the sheath of papers and crammed them into the pocket of his coat. It would be difficult to run without wrecking whatever lay inside the chest, he thought, but with any luck he wouldn’t need to. Back in the hall he heard shouting downstairs, where the woman was naming him a murderer – not undeservedly – and patrons were shouting in dismay. There were roughs in the landlord’s employ down there and going through would see him caught or killed even if it was the quickest path to a door out of the Azulejo. Thankfully, Tristan had not come by the front door and had no intention of leaving that way either.

Hurrying to the last door down the hallway he pushed it open with no resistance, shutting it behind him. It was empty save for the furnishings, identical to the room where he’d killed a man save for one salient difference: the same open window above the table that he’d come in through. He’d had to cut through the hinges of the shutters earlier, but now the way was clear straight to the rope he’d left dangling. He climbed up without hesitation, wood groaning under his weight, and began by pushing through the chest. Once it was through, grunting with effort he slid one of the leather straps onto the curved hooks bound to the rope. It dangled a bit outside, he saw, but held.

Tristan could hear people running up the stairs, even through the door, and he hastened through the window himself. Feet first, he wiggled through the opening and felt nothing at all under him for a delicious heartbeat before tightening his grip on the rope and pulling himself close to the wall. It was not so long a fall that he would not survive it, should he drop down into the alley below, but he might just break a leg. That sort of thing tended to make running away harder, he’d heard. He slid the chest back onto his back and climbed down, quirking an eyebrow when a glance above found Fortuna leaning through the window with a smile.

“They’ve found the body,” the goddess told him. “And they’re opening all the doors.”

He sighed. If they found the rope, and they likely would, they’d know to pursue in the streets. It was a descent of about twenty feet, far from hard even after being nicked by a blade, and he was done with it before they’d opened the door. He left the rope there – it had not been cheap, but he didn’t have the time to bring it down– and began to make his way through his escape path. The way out was always the first part to plan out, when thieving. There was no point in stealing anything if you got caught with the goods in hand. He moved out at a brisk pace and kept to the alleys, even though the main streets would have been quicker, moving in a vague diagonal towards the east.

Estebra District was the nicest part of the Murk as well as the wealthiest, so here the lamplights were kept glowing on the main streets through the night instead of dimmed or snuffed as they would be in the rest of the Murk. Best to stay out of that, too much risk of someone seeing his face even if the roughs didn’t catch up. It seemed like they would not, after all. At first Tristan heard shouts out in the street, but a quarter hour later there were only the noises of Sacromonte at night reaching his ear: the burn of the lamplights, the quiet talk of the offal men clearing the streets and the occasional sounds of revelry drifting out of some bawdy house.

No one respectable was out at this hour, which had always amused him. Was the firmament any less dark during day than night? It was only the lamps that made a difference, lamps and the notions of men. The thief did not slow his footsteps until he’d reached the eastern border of the Estebra District, near one of the gates that would lead him into Araturo. There a lone man carrying a nice chest might find himself preyed upon, should he not be careful, so Tristan found an empty alley whose mouth was near a lamplight and settled in the shadows to have a look at what he’d taken. It had better be worth it, he thought, for Abuela’s test had seen him kill a man.

He would not blame her for a deed done by his hand, but she had hidden things from him. If he’d known there was a watchman involved… Too late for regrets now, he reminded himself. Fortuna was seated atop what looked like a pile of iron scraps, her red dress somehow artfully draped as if it were a throne, and it was with eagerness she looked at the chest when he set it down.

“Treasures, do you think?” the goddess asked.

“I heard vials within,” Tristan murmured back.

“There are elixirs worth as much as diamonds,” Fortuna insisted.

That was true enough, but Tristan doubted any of them were to be found in hostels of the Estebra Districts guarded by a single man. The chest of slick dark wood was kept closed by copper latches that popped open after he exerted some strength, revealing an elaborate interior. There were twenty-three small drawers, each marked with a carved symbol, that filled the four sides of the box. The middle of it was hollow, pincers of brass holding small vials containing liquids in shades of grey and green.

“A medicine box?” Fortuna said, sounding skeptical.

The symbols were familiar, Tristan thought. He opened the drawer at the top left and his brow rose when he found within a neatly wrapped bundle of small dark leaves. Perfectly oval, none larger than the tip of a finger. Black verity, he realized, and very carefully wrapped it back without his fingers touching any of the leaves.

“A poison box,” Tristan replied, frown deepening. “And one I know how to use. It looks much like the one drawn in Alvareno’s Dosages.”

Were he a gambling man, and he was, he would wager that the drawers and vials would perfectly match the diagram the book had displayed, including the various herbs and substances suggested by the author. Which went some way in explaining why Abuela had insisted he read and commit the work to memory a few months back, well before she had ever brought up this test, but still left him confused. What use did he have for a poisoner’s kit? He was a thief by trade, not a killer. Tristan’s hands were far from clean but he did not go out of his way to stain them.

“A little more exciting,” Fortuna conceded.

Still frowning, Tristan reached for the papers he’d taken. Perhaps they would shed some light on this. He brought them closer to the light of the street, breathing in sharply when he saw that the very first seemed to be a contract. Had he really killed a watchman out on a job? He kept reading, going through the cramped lines of lettering, and then softly cursed.

“Told you leaving them would be worse, didn’t I?” Fortuna drawled.

“He was employed by the Orelanna brothers,” Tristan hissed. “Everyone knows they’re a front for the Hoja Roja. This is going to get me killed.”

The Hoja Roja were either an association of upstanding landlords and merchants or one of the most successful guild of crooks in the Murk, depending on who you asked. They were also notoriously touchy about honour, and prone to answering slights with grisly executions.

“At least it wasn’t a Watch contract,” Fortuna noted. “So look on the bright side, there’s only the one band of brutal killers after you for this.”

The Aztlan, whose name had been Yaotl Cuatzo, had apparently been bought to kill a god gone mad that’d made a lair in some property near the eastern border of Estebra District. If Yaotl had still been one of the Watch that would have been very illegal, and the Orelanna brothers did not have the reputation of men foolish enough to put their names on illegal contracts. Most likely the man had been a deserter or a washout and the brothers had bought his services intending to pretend they’d not known should trouble come of it. Tristan wouldn’t get the Watch for him after this, which was weight off his back, but that was cold comfort when the Roja was a death sentence on its own.

“I can’t pawn this,” Tristan sighed, looking at the box. “They’ll know it went missing and ask around with the fences.”

The thief liked some of the men and women who bought the goods he stole, but he would have been a fool to trust any of them.

“You could keep it,” Fortuna said.

She liked to hoard things, that goddess of his, regardless of the wisdom of keeping them. It was said to be common in destitute gods like her.

“Sooner or later it would be found,” Tristan murmured.

He had no home, only hiding places, and those were only his so long as no one cared to take them from him. Hardly safe. Was abandoning the box the only path left to him? He balked at that, considering he’d killed a man for it. Besides, it might not even be enough. The Roja would ask around the Murk for who had been planning jobs in Estebra, he thought, and he’d not thought to hide that much from the people he bought his supplies through. Perhaps if he stole again tonight to cover it up? He grimaced. Tristan was tired, needed to get that nick looked at and he had not cased anywhere properly. It would be risky. And there was a chance they would find him anyway. When they did… He bit his lip. Something was wrong. Abuela’s tests could be harsh, but they were never pointless or cruel.

There must be more to this than he had seen. He kept looking through the papers, finding only some personal correspondence and an order lodged with a local butcher for a large quantity of meat. The very last page, though, was in a different handwriting. One he recognized.

Tristan, my dear child,

They will hunt you. I sent you knowing this and knowing you would see my actions as a betrayal.

There is a ship named the Bluebell, at the Fishmonger’s Quay, and before it will stand a man holding a list of names. Yours is one of them.

That is your only way out. Cross the Dominion of Lost Things, survive the trials, and you will be beyond the reach of any in the City.

I will await you at the end of the isle,


His fingers clenched. His breath shuddered. None of it had been an accident. If he’d not killed the Aztlan then Tristan would have made an enemy instead, and the threat would perhaps have been even worse. There had been no ending, when he entered that room, that led him back home. Fortuna stood at his shoulder, though he had never heard her rise. She’d not bothered with the pretence.

“The Dominion of Lost Things,” the goddess read. “What is that?”

“An island,” Tristan replied. “Proving grounds for the arrogant and the desperate.”

The Lady of Long Odds watched him with an excited grin, leaning against his side.

“So we’re going?”

In a burning house, a burning life, the only way out was through.

“One more gamble,” Tristan Abrascal quietly agreed.