Aleksandr restrained himself through an act of will.
It was a near thing. He felt a building urge to smash down the door of the Silver Pine, sword in hand, and cleave Giancarlo in half. Barring that, he at least wanted to shout his rage, perhaps break something in the stables.
But he remained calm and impassive. He stood in the stables with his back straight, hands crossed over his belt. Kholodny remained in its sheath. He met the eyes of the three mercenaries, giving his full attention to whichever was speaking at any given moment. Mostly Orson, occasionally Cam, rarely Levin.
Yorrin and Olivenco stood beside him, listening. Occasionally asking questions of their own.
The facts of the situation were simple, however. Orson had even shown them the secret compartment. It contained more than just the small container of pale powder that Orson said was arsenic—the poison that had nearly killed Alaina.
There were several other vials of questionable materials, and an exceptionally well-crafted dagger that Aleksandr immediately recognized as true steel. It was of an odd construction he had not seen before: tapering to a needle-thin tip that would be difficult to forge out of regular hard iron.
It was painfully clear that this compartment was where Giancarlo hid his most valuable and contraband items. According to the mercenaries, Giancarlo had already had his wagons loaded when he hired them on. None of them had seen this compartment before, and Cam insisted he was quite sure none of the other mercenaries would have seen it either.
Only Giancarlo, and maybe his factors, Aleksandr thought. All this time, it was as we first suspected. He played us for such fools.
The mercenaries had told him all that they knew. He could go now and confront Giancarlo this moment.
Yorrin will advise restraint, Aleksandr told himself. Giancarlo did not act alone. He is working with the Thaumati cult. If we tip our hand too quickly, we could lose the trail.
“Thank you,” Aleksandr said. He kept his tone restrained. “I must ask you be silent about this. All of it.”
Orson nodded. “Sure,” he said. “Of course. But… well…” he hesitated.
“Are ye not goin’ to confront Master Rossi now?” Cam asked.
“No,” Yorrin cut in. “Definitely not. Like Aleksandr said: keep your mouths shut about what you found. Not a word. Understood?”
Cam swallowed. “Aye,” he said. “Alright. Nary a word, to anyone.”
“I promise,” Orson said.
Yorrin looked at Levin. “And you.”
Levin’s arms were still crossed in front of him. He snorted out a hacking noise from the back of his throat and spat into the mud of the stables. Then he met Yorrin’s eyes and gave him a slow, deliberate nod.
“Good enough,” Aleksandr said, before Yorrin could insist on something more vocal. “We have been keeping you all for too long. Go back to the inn, and please be calm. Keep it—ah, what is word. Casual?”
Orson nodded. “We will. But… do you have a plan? We want to help, if we can.”
“We’ll let you know,” Yorrin said. “Until then, just play it cool.”
The three mercenaries filed out in silence.
“Perhaps you should follow them, Yorrin?” Aleksandr said. “Just in case.”
Yorrin shook his head. “Nah, Prudence will handle it.”
Aleksandr frowned. Prudence? “She is not—”
“She was just outside that window,” Yorrin said, nodding towards one wall. “Expect she’s already out of earshot though. If you can hear me, Prudence… follow them. Obviously.”
I did not notice her, Aleksandr thought. I am not able to hide the way they can, but usually I am better at spotting them. Clearly I’m more distracted than I thought.
“So, señors, what is our plan?” Olivenco asked. “I agree, confronting the Cassaline indiscreetly would be foolish. But that does not tell us what we should do.”
Aleksandr’s hands clenched into fists involuntarily. He took a breath, and relaxed them. “I am not sure,” he said. “We will have justice. But first, we need Giancarlo to lead us to his allies.”
“The cult,” Yorrin said. “We’ll need to watch him every minute of the day, to see if anyone makes contact with him.”
“I will speak to Lefty and the men,” Olivenco said. “Quietly, in private. To be certain that we are all on watch as well, si?”
“Good. And we will tell our people once we go inside.” Aleksandr said. “Discreetly. Yorrin, will you and Prudence be able to watch Giancarlo for next few days? I must stay with Alaina while her church is built. Better if I have Bear or Dylan with me as well.”
“We can handle it,” Yorrin said. “Maybe use Rotten a little if we have to. Though…” Yorrin scratched his chin. “I think we should drop our tabs on the Ruskans. Maybe just bring them in altogether, or maybe not. That could clue in Giancarlo that we’ve learned something.”
“Perhaps is not such bad thing,” Aleksandr said. They tried to kill Alaina. “I agree with you, Yorrin, that we do not wish to scare Giancarlo too much. But… perhaps we scare him little.”
Yorrin smiled. “Just enough that he makes a mistake. Reaches out to the cult, maybe. To warn them or get new orders, depending on who’s dancing to whose tune.”
“Da,” Aleksandr said. “Is risky. But these men, they must face justice. We get nowhere sitting around.”
“Damn right,” Yorrin said. His smile widened. “We can do this, Aleksandr. We get to make a first move. Finally!”
He looks gleeful, Aleksandr realized. He was waiting for something like this to happen. “Da,” he said. “I suppose so. But we must have plan, Yorrin.”
Yorrin nodded. “Yeah,” he agreed. “I think I’ve got one.”
“Your Ruskan friends have returned, I see.”
Giancarlo nodded towards Anatoly, Grigor, and Yuri. The three Ruskans were taking their breakfast with Robin and Perrin. Bear was seated at the same table, but Aleksandr was pleased to see he had taken the farthest seat from Anatoly he could find. He is respecting my request, at least. That is good.
Giancarlo, meanwhile, had taken a seat near Aleksandr, Yorrin and Alaina as they took the morning meal. They were well away from Giancarlo’s own men, his factors, the Taraamites, and everyone else. Intentionally so, to give Giancarlo the privacy to attempt to pry.
“They aren’t really friends,” Yorrin said. “They tried to kill us, after all. But they’ve been trying to help, anyway. Regardless, we’ve no need for them to stay out as bait any longer.”
“Oh?” Giancarlo said. He smiled, a look that made Aleksandr’s skin crawl. Not because he could see malice behind the expression, but rather because he couldn’t.
He is a wealthy merchant. Of course this man knows more about deception than you can even conceive of. It was foolish to assume that we could read him at all. Aleksandr forced himself to give a thin smile back. “Da,” he said.
“So you have learned something about the devil that sent them? And about who poisoned the fair priestess, perhaps? Eccellente!” Again, Giancarlo seemed sincere in his enthusiasm.
“Something like that,” Yorrin said.
“This is wonderful news, signori,” Giancarlo said. “You will have the bastardi soon, si?”
“Soon.” Aleksandr grabbed his eating knife and prodded at the food on his plate. The Silver Pine was an expensive place, with meals to match. Freshly baked bread with butter, and freshly slaughtered goat crusted with herbs and pepper—delicious, but Aleksandr’s stomach felt unsettled. He took little enjoyment from it.
“Bene, bene,” Giancarlo said. He frowned suddenly. “Oh. It is not one of those that traveled with us, then, is it? I know you suspected, but I did hope…” He trailed off, searching Aleksandr and Yorrin’s eyes.
“Not sure,” Yorrin said.
“They think it may yet be,” Alaina chimed in. Last night, Aleksandr and Yorrin had given her the plan when they filled in the rest of their group. She kept a perfectly straight face as she met Giancarlo’s eyes. “They have someone’s trail, now. Someone in the city. Tell him, Yorrin.”
Yorrin frowned. “Not sure it’s wise, priestess,” he said. “No offense, Giancarlo, but you’re not exactly part of our group.”
If I had not been involved in our planning last night, I’m certain that I would believe him.
Giancarlo didn’t look suspicious at Yorrin’s cagey reply. Instead, he nodded. “I understand. Only… if it is one of my mercenari you suspect… please, you must tell me, si? I must know. These men I have trusted with my livelihood. I cannot trust any of them if you cast a pall upon them all.”
Aleksandr sighed. “Da,” he said. “I understand. Yorrin, tell him.”
“Sir?” Yorrin gave Aleksandr an apprehensive look.
“I insist,” Aleksandr said.
Giancarlo smiled. “Grazie, Aleksandr. It is one of the men, then?”
Yorrin was right. It’s like haggling, in a way. We just have to make him think he earned the information, and he will believe it.
“We don’t know,” Yorrin said. “But we’re not ruling it out just yet. Prudence made someone watching the Ruskans a little too intently. Tracked them to the market and lost them there… but she got a good look. We’ll be asking around today, putting out feelers to try to find them.”
Giancarlo nodded. “I see. Suspicious, certainly. But I do not see that any of my men are implicated…”
Yorrin shrugged. “While she was in the market, Prudence saw your men and your wagon. She didn’t get too close, but she saw a couple of men near the back of the wagon rummaging about. They were doing something fishy back there, anyway. Around the same time that she lost her mark. Might be nothing, but… might not be. No offense, but right now we figure it’s better to be suspicious.”
Giancarlo’s curious expression dissolved into a frown. He narrowed his eyes. “Cosa hai detto?” he murmured the question through tight lips.
“Say what?” Yorrin said.
“My Cassaline is a little rusty, but I believe that’s what he just asked. What did you say? Or something to that effect,” Alaina offered.
Giancarlo blinked. His smile returned. “Si, mi scuzie. Ah, I apologize. You said that some of my mercenari were, ah, rummaging in my wagon?”
“Towards the back,” Yorrin said. “Yeah.”
“I see,” Giancarlo said. “Interesting. Do you think we—ah, you, I mean—should speak to them? Perhaps pull each of them aside for a private discussion, like when we first met?”
Yorrin shook his head. “Nah,” he said. “Not yet. That’ll just tip our hand. We need more information first. For now, we’ll just watch. You’re okay with that, right? If Prudence or I quietly tag along, keep an eye on your folks. I promise, you won’t even notice us.” Yorrin gave Giancarlo a smug smile at that.
Careful, Yorrin. We need him to believe that we trust him.
Giancarlo seemed to consider the request, but not for long. “Si, si,” he agreed. “Yes, this is a good plan, signore. If any in my employ were involved in what befell the Torathi priestess—well, let us simply hope that they were not.”
“Glad you agree,” Yorrin said, without a trace of sarcasm that Aleksandr could detect.
Not that Aleksandr was the best at such things. Middish is a very confusing tongue.
They finished breaking their fast in an uncomfortable silence. It was clear that Giancarlo was pondering the information they had given him. No doubt trying to find some way to wriggle free of our clutches. No point in that, Giancarlo Rossi. If you are the one that tried to kill Alaina, there is no place on this earth that you can go to escape me.
Aleksandr took another bite of the roasted goat on his plate.
All he tasted was blood.