“Nice digs,” Dylan said, letting himself fall into a chair with a thump. “It’s a shame we won’t be with Alaina much longer. I could get used to living like this.”
The Silver Pine Inn seemed to justify its high price. Outside Yerevan was a filthy sprawl, cobbled together from at least three different discordant styles. Inside it was polished yellow wood, silver dishware, and richly embroidered carpets. Outside it was gray and dreary, spitting chill rain and thin snowflakes by turns. Inside the Silver Pine it was toasty warm, lit by lamps and a well-wrought bronze chandelier. Outside it smelled of humanity, of trash and waste and mismatched street foods. Inside, Dylan mostly smelled what he’d been told was some sort of rabbit stew.
The horses were well in hand, quartered in a massive stable along with the wagons. It had taken Dylan a while to get everything settled out there, and by the time he made it inside nearly everyone was already sprawled out across a few tables, digging into an early supper. Perrin came in with him, having stayed out to get the Taraamite wagon and horses sorted. Giancarlo’s sour-faced merc, Levin, was still out there keeping an eye on the Cassaline’s wagons. He didn’t seem willing to leave his wares completely in the hands of any innkeeper.
Smart, probably, if they’re as valuable as he acts, Dylan thought.
Dylan and Perrin sat down at a large table, across from Bear and Prudence. The other Ruskans were seated fanning out to Dylan’s right, with the one Bear seemed to hate at the far end.
“Is too soft, Whip!” Bear said around a mouthful of food. “Pay more moneys for what? For squishy bed? For women to bow and call me sir? What is use?”
Dylan sighed. “Sometimes a little softness is nice, Bear. And a little courtesy.”
“Bah!” Bear said. “Courtesy. Is just lies of niceness! We pay many coins for courtesy. What is use to have women be nice if they not fuck me in soft bed?”
Bear’s timing was impeccable, as a serving woman brought Perrin and Dylan platters of food at that moment. A bowl of aromatic stew, grilled bread, and a small platter of some sort of soft herbed cheese.
“Thank you,” Dylan said to the poor woman. As soon as she left, he glared across the table. “God damn, Bear, could you show a shred of decency? She could have heard you!”
“That’s nothing,” Prudence said. “How do you think he knows that the inn’s steep price doesn’t include a woman?”
Dylan rubbed his forehead, sighing deeply. “He asked.”
“Da,” Bear said, stuffing his mouth with a piece of bread. “Woman said no. Is not so courtesy here, Whip.”
On Dylan’s left, Perrin chuckled. On his right, he heard the Ruskans snickering. He sighed. “Just try not to get us kicked out, Bear,” he muttered.
He dug into the stew. It was as good as it smelled. Rabbit meat, onions, and sour cherries. The broth was so thick and rich it was practically gravy. Hungry though he was, there was no way he could finish this. The Silver Pine charged several silver—the innkeeper had priced it in Ruskan dengas, but would doubtless accept Torathian shekels—for a single night. Dylan could see why.
Fortunately, it was not the type of place to worry about being paid upfront. The Silver Pine had armed guards both inside and out, men who had taken custody of most of their weapons when they checked in. The innkeeper seemed to trust that Dylan’s master would settle their account. No doubt, if Dylan was a charlatan, the price he’d end up paying would be even higher.
“Say again!” Bear growled, slamming a fist on the table.
Dylan blinked, momentarily confused. He realized Bear was staring across the table at the three Ruskans.
“What? Bear, wh—”
“Say again!” Bear repeated. He was being loud—because he was Bear— but there was an anger to his tone that was often absent. “Louder! In Middish, so all can understand.”
Anatoly, the Ruskan on the farthest edge of the table, sighed. “I said,” he spoke loudly, and in Middish. “That they should expect nothing less than what you have done, Bear. They have brought a barbarian from the Steppes into Silver Pine. It is not your fault you make a fool of yourself, and of them. It is like bringing feral dog into bayard’s hall. It will growl and snap and shit on the floor. Do you blame the dog, or the master?”
“Da,” Bear growled, lurching to his feet. “Now they all know why I smash you.”
“Bear,” Dylan said. “Sit down.”
“You hear him, Whip! He call me dog. I take with smile?”
“Take it, or beat me and prove me right,” Anatoly said. “Either way, I win.”
“It not be much win when I cut off fingers and make you eat, Tarakov swine!” Bear snarled. He took a step around the table, but paused when Prudence placed a hand on his arm.
“Listen to Dylan,” she said softly.
Bear glanced back at Dylan. He looked furious.
This isn’t about the insult. Bear can take all sorts of insults with a grin. This is about him and Anatoly, and that bayard Anatoly used to ride under.
“Bear, sit down.” Dylan said. “Anatoly, shut up. If you two wanted to beat each other bloody, you’ve had days to do it. You didn’t, because Aleksandr would’ve had both of your asses if you had. You think you can get away with it now because he’s gone for an hour? Nothing’s changed, except that your private feud is now embarrassing us. So sit down, shut your faces, and enjoy the very expensive meal on Aleksandr and Alaina’s generosity. Aleksandr will be back soon. Let’s make sure I have nothing to report to him.”
Bear clenched his jaw tight, but he finally sat back down. Anatoly said nothing, he just poked at his meal in silence.
Good enough, Dylan thought.
He had some sympathy for Bear’s position. Apparently the Tarakov knights had slaughtered many of Bear’s kinsmen, and Anatoly had ridden alongside those men. More to the point, Anatoly had ridden against them not so very long ago. Dylan hadn’t gotten to know Giancarlo’s mercs all that well, but even so, they’d been riding together. Anatoly, Yuri, Grigor, and their fellow soldiers had put three of those mercs in the ground.
It seems to be something you’ll have to get used to, if you’re going to stick with Aleksandr, Dylan told himself. You’ve heard the story from Yorrin, that they met when Yorrin robbed him. They met Bear in a bar brawl. We brought on Prudence after she robbed our client. Robin and his Songbirds… hell, even in the caves. He struck a deal with the goblins. And Kerfuffle—he chose to stay at Taraam, but is there any doubt Aleksandr would’ve accepted him if he’d asked to tag along with us?
Once or twice might be coincidence. But surely after so many examples Dylan had to accept that this was just Aleksandr’s way. Anatoly and the other two would not be the last.
Still, it’ll be good if we can find the one that hired Garin’s gang, and be rid of them. Bear will behave a little better, at least.
Finding whoever hired them was easier said than done. Dylan had listened to Yorrin and Prudence discuss their options at length. They both agreed that the best way to do it would have been to send them on ahead of the caravan, sneak into the city, and see who contacted them. That hadn’t been practical, given that both Alaina and Giancarlo were eager to move forward with their respective plans. So here they were, with Alaina formallypresenting herself to the city’s lord.
Prudence was of the mind that they might never find the man that hired Black Garin. The job had clearly failed. He might avoid Anatoly and the others regardless of anything that they did.
Still have to try. Aleksandr isn’t going to give this up.
Dylan noticed movement in the corner of his eye, and saw Robin come wandering over. He was grinning widely, and it was only then that Dylan realized he hadn’t seen the questionably reformed bandit anywhere at the table when he came in from the stables.
“Hey, chaps,” Robin said, greeting them cheerfully and squeezing into a place between Bear and Prudence. “How’s the grub?”
“You haven’t had any?” Dylan asked. He was still picking at his stew, but he knew he wouldn’t finish it.“Weren’t you one of the first to head inside?”
“The first? Nah, I’m sure I helped with a few of the horses,” Robin said amiably. He scooped a piece of bread off of Prudence’s plate, dipped it in her stew, and took a bite. “Anyway, I was just checking out the rooms, you know? We’re payin’ for them after all. Oh, that’s good!”
Dylan frowned. He glanced over to where Robin had emerged, and saw a blushing serving girl getting a quiet dressing down from another member of the inn staff.
“Robin,” he said, keeping his voice low. “Did you just have a tumble with one of the serving maids?”
“Well, if you have to know… hell yeah I did!” Robin said, grinning. “I told her we were payin’ enough for the rooms, be easy to throw in an extra tip for her. Oh, uh, on an unrelated note… could I borrow a few silvers?”
“No.” Dylan and Prudence answered the question at the same time.
Before either could say anything else, Bear whipped his head towards Robin, then to Dylan. He clapped his hand on the table. “Inn does include woman? Whip! You hear him? Where is my woman?”
The Ruskans snickered. Robin put an arm around Bear and began going into lurid detail about how Bear might have more luck in his seductions. Dylan buried his face in his hands, sighing deeply.
God, but I can’t wait for Aleksandr and Yorrin to get back here.
Dylan didn’t like eating his words. Even words he had never spoken aloud. But sometimes, there was just no getting around it.
I don’t know what that symbol is. And I don’t want to.
Aleksandr, Yorrin, and Alaina had returned after dinner with a strange object. They had pulled Borthul over, and Prudence, and somehow Dylan had been roped in as well. Bear and Robin had been left playing dice out in the common, along with the rest of their caravan.
The six of them sat in a private meeting room the Silver Pine reserved for its patrons. It was well lit, with comfortable cushioned chairs, and a roaring fire in a hearth providing plenty of warmth. Dylan shivered regardless.
On the table rested a heavy brick that apparently had been laid as foundation for the church before Alaina’s predecessor died. Borthul was leaned in close, studying it. Carved on the brick was a… symbol. Dylan wasn’t sure how to describe it.
It wasn’t simple, but neither was it all that complex. Maybe a dozen lines, arranged in a particular way. Dylan had been schooled at a church in Victoria, and he could read Middish passingly well. He’d seen a fair bit of Cassaline and Temple Torathi, too. This was none of those. Not even close. It didn’t look like any language he had ever heard of.
It looks wrong. Dylan wasn’t sure why he felt that way, but he did. Something about the symbol set him on edge, made his stomach twist in a knot. The way the lines lay on the stone seemed off somehow, and when he looked away he couldn’t actually picture the symbol. It wasn’t so complex that it ought to be hard to memorize, and yet it was. It was as if his mind just sort of slid off of it.
Your mind doesn’t want to remember it, Dylan told himself. Smart instinct. Listen to it.
Borthul finally sighed, and leaned back in his seat. “Yes, yes,” the old man murmured. His voice quavered. “It’s a Thaumati sigil, for certain.”
“What does it mean?” Alaina asked. “Can it be translated?”
Borthul stroked his wispy white beard. “Of course,” he said. “Though this one is wrong, of course.”
“You can say that again,” Dylan muttered. He shivered again, despite the warmth of the room.
“No. Your reaction is understandable, young man,” Borthul said. “But that’s not what I mean. Yes, the latent Thaumaturgic energies will be unsettling. But this sigil…” Borthul ran his finger along the carved pattern. Just seeing that made Dylan’s skin crawl. “It is flawed.”
“How so?” asked Aleksandr.
Borthul sighed. “How to explain this to laymen…” he mumbled. “You know that what I do, what the Order of Gnomon does, is not true Thaumaturgy, yes?”
“Da, you have said this.”
“Gnomic spells are complex things. Carefully written codes that bind the Thaumaturgic powers along very specific paths.”
“Which is why you’ve got to read them from your book of black magic,” Yorrin said. “Or else the demonic powers will take you.”
“Essentially,” Borthul said, seemingly unperturbed by the obvious judgment in Yorrin’s voice. “Failing to speak a Gnomic spell correctly, at best, will cause… well, nothing. At worst, the powers being harnessed could run wild, causing considerable damage to both the wizard speaking the spell and anyone nearby.”
“Damage?” Alaina said. “What kind of damage are we talking about?”
“Multivariate,” Borthul said. “Body, mind, and soul.”
Alaina frowned, her eyes going to the brick on the table “So this sigil could—"
“No,” Borthul interrupted, holding up a hand. “This sigil is not a Gnomic spell. For one, it’s far too simplistic. That’s good and bad.”
“I do not think I understand,” Aleksandr said.
“No, I don’t imagine you do,” Borthul said.
For once, nobody called the old man on his haughty tone. Dylan had a feeling everyone was as unsettled by the symbol as he was.
“I will cut to the point,” Borthul said. “I believe this sigil is an attempt at a single Word of Power. True Thaumati, Words of Power that underpin the very universe itself.”
“The words spoken by the Creator when he made the world…” Alaina whispered, eyes wide.
“You believe Torath spoke these words? This Thaumati? But I thought…” Aleksandr trailed off, brow furrowed.
Yorrin sighed. He’s probably more bothered by Aleksandr’s heathen roots even than the priestess is, Dylan thought.
“Not exactly,” Alaina said. “But—another day? That’s a matter of theology.”
Borthul sniffed. “Yes, please, let’s not waste time on theology, thank you.”
Yorrin scowled. “Look here you pagan warlock, I—”
“Yorrin,” Aleksandr said. “Please.”
Yorrin gritted his teeth, but he held his tongue.
“Anyway,” Borthul said. “As I was saying. This is an attempt at a single Word of Power. A failed attempt, ultimately. But close enough that there are still echoes of Thaumaturgic power within it. So, the good: Whoever inscribed this was a fool. If they were a Gnomic wizard gone mad, I suspect they would not have made this mistake. Nor if they were a member of any of the other orders of which I am familiar. They lack the refinement of such formal training.”
“Do Gnomic wizards often ‘go mad,’ I wonder?” Yorrin asked.
“Sooner or later,” Borthul said. “Yes. As I was saying. The man that inscribed this stone does not have the level of formal training that I do. That’s the good.”
“And the bad?” said Alaina.
Borthul frowned. He tugged on his beard again. “The bad is that they came close. The Words of Power are inherently dangerous. The worst case we prepare for in the Order of Gnomon, damage to body, mind, and spirit… this is simply the normal state of being if one is reckless enough to speak the Words of Power in their stark simplicity. The Words of Power contain more Thaumaturgic energy than mere mortals can contain. Speaking or writing them is suicide, sooner or later.”
“And they attempted one,” Alaina said. “Probably more than one, really.”
“Indeed,” Borthul said. “They are not just a fool, they are a very bold fool. One who knows just enough Thaumati to be dangerous.”
“I’ve heard of Thaumati cults,” Alaina said. “Madmen that worship at Thaumati ruins, idolize the Thaumati and the power they once held over the world. Barbarians, usually, but… not in every story I’ve heard.”
Borthul nodded. “Indeed, as have I. You’d likely need a cult. Only faith can make someone stupid enough to try to speak unmodified Words of Power.”
“So we’re up against a Thaumati cult,” Yorrin said. “Nasty business. They’ll be the ones that killed your predecessor, Alaina.”
“Agreed,” the priestess said. “Speaking of. Borthul, you told me that the drawings I showed you, of the words written on Father Iosif’s corpse, they were Thaumati. More Words of Power?”
“No,” Borthul said. “The Thaumati may have been inconceivably powerful sorcerers, living gods, but they still had to communicate. The ruins are rife with Thaumati script. The common tongue of their era, perhaps. Think of that as a simple language not unlike Middish, though… still laced with Thaumaturgic power. The Thaumati tongue is underpinned by the Words of Power, but it is distinct. It is the language my spells are written in, primarily. The words I use to modify the Word of Power beneath a spell.”
“Which means this cult does have the knowhow to make a spell,” Dylan said. “Doesn’t it?”
Borthul shrugged dismissively. “Can you read?”
“Who, me?” Dylan said. The hell is his game? “Yeah, I can read Middish well enough.”
“Good, good. Do you know how to design a castle?” Borthul asked, glaring at Dylan.
“I’ve known Middish stonemasons,” Borthul said. “They write their instructions in Middish. And you can read Middish. So you could design a castle, couldn’t you?”
Ah. “Fine, fine, point taken,” Dylan said.
“This cult is a bunch of deluded and likely deranged idiots playing with forces that they do not understand,” Borthul said. “If you gave them a thousand years, perhaps their successors would possess some fraction of the knowledge my own Order caretakes. More likely, they would all be dead. They meddle with powers that will destroy them. The pertinent question is who else will be destroyed along the way?”
Aleksandr had been quiet for a long time, listening. When he spoke, Dylan started. Aleksandr’s voice was quiet, but filled with purpose.
“No one,” he said. “If we can help it. We find them, and speed along their destruction.”
“Damn right,” Yorrin said.
Prudence, quiet even longer than Aleksandr, met Borthul’s eyes. She cocked her head. “Borthul,” she said.
The wizard pursed his lips into a frown. “Yes?”
“What was the word?”
“The Word of Power they were trying to write. What was it? Can you tell?”
“Can I tell?” Borthul said, indignant. “Can I tell. I’ve only been doing this since I was a boy. Of course I can tell, young lady.”
“Then what was it?” Dylan asked. Not that I really want to know, well, any of this.
Borthul sighed. “The Thaumati Words of Power exist beyond the scope of Middish vocabulary,” he said. “It’s not so simple as just translating them. They are concepts. Pure, divine, absolute. But if I had to debase the word enough to put it into something you could understand…”
The wizard frowned, looking at the symbol on the brick. He touched it again, running his finger down the carved lines. Dylan swore he saw the old man shudder.
“If I had to translate it, I suppose the word would be doom.”