“No!” Robin shouted. “Again? No fucking way! Let me see those dice, you cheating—”
Yorrin looked up from his mug. He and Aleksandr exchanged a look that needed no verbalization.
You want to take this, or should I? That was the unspoken question. Aleksandr sighed heavily, which was all the answer Yorrin needed.
“Rotten…” he said.
Robin sat at a nearby table with Bear and three of Giancarlo Rossi’s mercenaries. He glanced at Yorrin, frowning. When he saw Yorrin give a single shake of his head, Robin’s frown furrowed into a deep scowl.
“Ugh,” he growled. “Nevermind.”
The man that had thrown the winning hand was one of Giancarlo’s mercenaries. He was a lanky man, but with a build that suggested plenty of lean, powerful muscle. Not nearly so gaunt as the Whip. His face was all narrow angles: sharp cheekbones, a hard jawline, and a thin jutting nose. His lips were pursed in a perpetual frown.
Like most of the mercs in Giancarlo’s employ, he wore a mail surcoat. He’d draped his swordbelt across the back of his chair, from which hung a well-used blade. Giancarlo was clearly a merchant of some success, if he could afford ten hardened mercenaries such as this to dawdle with him in an inn for days or weeks on end.
He reached out and picked up the dice.
“Make it quick,” Robin said. “And if you win again, so help me I’ll…” Robin glanced at Yorrin, who just stared back at him. Robin huffed. “Well. Anyway. Lucky bastard.”
“Nope,” the mercenary said.
“What was that?” Robin asked.
“He said no,” said one of the other mercs.
“I heard him! ‘No’ to what, exactly?”
The merc holding the dice shrugged. “I’m not,” he said.
“Not what? Not a lucky bastard?”
The merc nodded. He tossed the dice down. Yorrin couldn’t see the roll from his vantage, but from the way everyone else at the table groaned, it appeared his hot streak was still on.
“Reckon he’s right, Levin,” said one of the mercenaries to the winner.
“Nope,” the merc—Levin—said as he scooped up his pile of copper winnings.
“He’s not a bastard,” said one of the other mercenaries. He wasn’t gambling with them, instead sitting at another table sipping a drink. He looked on the younger side, or perhaps that was just his round face and open expression. He didn’t look quite as lean and hard as some of the other mercenaries, but Yorrin had little doubt he was still skilled with the sword that leaned against his chair.
“So?” Robin said. “It’s just an expression.”
“Even so,” said the round-faced man. “That’s what he’s objecting to. Lucky, sure. Bastard? No.”
Levin nodded curtly as he picked up the dice.
“So why didn’t you say that?” Robin asked him. “You slow or something?”
Levin just gave him a long, hard stare. Finally, he dropped the dice on the table. They clattered on the wood. From the sighs of relief, Yorrin surmised that the roll was a bad one, and his winning streak was finally over.
One of the other mercs threw next, cursed, and passed the dice on to the third of the mercs. While he waited, Robin studied Levin intently. Yorrin saw a mixture of curiosity and malice in Robin’s sly smile. The mercenary grunted in annoyance at his roll, and he passed the dice on to Robin.
Robin ignored them for a moment, still staring at Levin. Bear prodded him roughly.
“Robin,” he said. “Is your turn! You play, or you make lover’s eyes at this man? I am not think he like you that way.”
A few of the mercs snorted, including Levin. Robin glared at Bear, and scooped up the dice. “I wasn’t,” he protested. “I was just trying to figure out how a simpleton ends up a mercenary.”
He threw his dice. They rolled across the table, but before they came to a stop Levin slammed his hand down over them. The movement was sudden. The speed of it, and the loud sound of his hand slapping the table, caused everyone at the gambling table to start.
Yorrin jumped a little, too. His hand went to the hilt of his sword. Across the table, Aleksandr looked over in surprise as well.
God dammit, Yorrin thought to himself. If you just got us in a fight, Rotten, I swear to Torath…
A heavy silence fell over the room. Levin was staring at Robin with an uncomfortable intensity. His eyes were dark pools, sparkling in the lamplight, and his mouth was a thin line. Finally, he lifted his hand off the dice.
“Talk too much,” he said to Robin.
Robin swallowed. He visibly collected himself, and when the fear passed, his attitude shifted back to its cocky default.
“I say, friend, you’re not supposed to touch the dice when they’re in motion. Bad throw, isn’t it?”
Levin shrugged. He stood up and whipped his swordbelt against his hip, causing the leather to wrap along his waist in a single fluid motion. He fastened the clasp and walked away from the table without a backwards glance, stepping outside into the rain.
Nice move, with the belt, Yorrin thought to himself. I ought to learn that one.
“Huh,” Robin said, picking the dice up. “What’s his problem, then?” He was asking no one in particular, and he threw the dice again. He muttered a curse.
“Is you,” Bear said helpfully, reaching over to grab the dice. “You are… what is word? Not liking? Unlikely?”
“Unlikable,” Yorrin offered.
Bear nodded, grinning. “Da! Unlikable! Is you, Robin!” He clapped Robin on the back with his left hand, and rolled with his right. “Hah!”
The barbarian had won the roll. As he helped himself to his winnings, one of the mercs at the table spoke up.
“Don’t mind Levin,” he said. His accent bore the remnants of a brogue that marked him as a Highlander from the wooded moors of Highurst, to the southwest. “Dour, that one is. Nary a kind word for anyone, even us what ride with him.”
“That’s not fair, Cam” The round-faced fellow from the other table said. “He’s rarely got an unkind word for anyone, either.”
The merc at the gambling table, Cam, shrugged. “Aye, true enough. Man o’ few words.”
“Not bad trait, in a warrior.” Aleksandr spoke for the first time in a while. His voice was low, but it carried, and he spoke with the easy authority of a man used to being listened to. The mercs obliged. “My grandfather, he was called Molchalivy Bayard by many vassals in Pripia. Is, ah, Silent Lord, in Middish. He was man of action, not words.”
The fellow that seemed fond of Levin grinned. “That’s it exactly,” he said. “You understand.”
The gamblers resumed their game, less one participant, and Robin seemed to be reining in his sharp tongue for the moment. Yorrin drained his beer down to the bitter dregs. It was good brew. Strong, and pungent with hops. It reminded him of the local draught at a seaside dive back in Nasarat. He beckoned to a barmaid for another round.
“Aleksandr.” Alaina’s voice caught Yorrin’s attention. He glanced over.
I almost forgot how she looks when she’s not covered in mud and grime from the road, Yorrin thought.
Alaina had obviously just come from a bath. Her black hair was still damp, and she’d donned a simple white shift. The garment wasn’t suitable for the road, and Yorrin wasn’t too comfortable with how much of her shoulders and calves it exposed.
Her clothes are probably being laundered, he thought. Besides, she’s made it clear she doesn’t give two shits what any of us think of her propriety. I suppose joining the clergy gives you some leeway as it comes to moral turpitude.
Aleksandr turned to face Alaina as well, and Yorrin didn’t miss the flush of color that came to his cheeks at the sight of her.
“Alaina,” he said. After a momentary pause, he seemed to gather his thoughts. “Olivenco and Edric. They are alright?”
She nodded. “As much as they can be, given the circumstances. Olivenco’s arm is healing well—” She winced a little at the turn of phrase. “—what’s left of it, anyway. He’ll be fit to ride before we reach Yerevan, I think.”
“Still feverish. Cooler than he was yesterday, and that was better than he was in the Underpass. I think balance is returning to his humors, but slowly. He may never recover fully. I’m afraid neither of my patients will have much cause to thank me, when all’s done.”
“A crippled life is still a life,” Aleksandr said. “Is good news.”
“I agree,” Alaina said. “But if Olivenco’s example is anything, I think some of these military men see things differently.”
Aleksandr nodded. “Perhaps. But my father, he had a vassal for many years. Vadim. Sworn to my grandfather at first. He lost his sword arm in battle. Still served faithfully, taught many men-at-arms to fight and ride. Was a loss, when he died. He is missed still.”
“It’s not military, I don’t think,” Yorrin cut into their discussion. “It’s class. Lowborn that find their place, that find purpose, cling to it. If they lose that, they’re afraid that everything else will soon follow. Your man, Vadim, he had a lord looking out for him. His purpose wasn’t in his sword-arm, it was in giving his lord leal service.” Yorrin realized both Alaina and Aleksandr were staring at him intently. He scratched at the hairs on his chin. “Olivenco came up on the streets of a Spatalian city, didn’t he? He’s probably as lowborn as I am. Everything he’s done, the name he’s made, even his place at Taraam… it all came from his sword-arm.”
Aleksandr frowned. “Is a good point, Yorrin. Maybe right, but… not true. Olivenco, he is a good leader. His men, they love him. Sword or no.”
Yorrin shrugged. “Yeah, suppose you’re right. Might be he hasn’t fully realized that.”
“I think that’s exactly it,” Alaina said. “Very astute, Yorrin. Edric may be highborn, back in Copperwell, but I believe he left his House behind some time ago. I’m afraid he’ll see things much the way his brothers do… if he can’t serve in Taraam, he will have lost his purpose.”
“Then he will have to find it again,” Aleksandr said.
Easy for you to say. Have you ever lacked purpose? I wonder.
“He will,” Alaina agreed. “Somehow. Him and Olivenco both, perhaps.”
After a few moments of quiet, Alaina spoke again: “Aleksandr,” she said. She rested a hand on his shoulder. “Your leg. How is it?”
Aleksandr waved one hand in a middling sort of gesture. “Is fine,” he said.
“It is fine? Truly?” Alaina pressed.
“Hurts,” he admitted. “Quite a bit. It… swells, I think is word. During the day, riding. I try not to use it, but is difficult. Is like, ah, is natural? Without thinking?”
“Second nature,” Yorrin offered. Aleksandr nodded in appreciation.
“Da. Hard not to. But makes it hurt more, swell more. Has gone down now, a little. Sitting here, resting.”
“I’d like to take a closer look at it,” Alaina said. “If that’s alright with you.”
“Da,” Aleksandr said. “Of course.”
“Come with me, then,” Alaina said. “I expect you’ll want privacy when I conduct a proper examination.”
Aleksandr seemed to pause at that, albeit briefly. “Oh.”
Alaina smiled, and Yorrin was fairly sure she stifled an outright laugh. “I’ll be examining your leg, Aleksandr. Nothing improper about it, but if I know you as well as I think, I expect you’d rather not bare your legs in the common room.”
“Um,” Aleksandr said. “Da. Of course.”
He nodded, a flush returning to his cheeks. He stood, wincing at the motion. “Da,” he said again. “Yorrin…”
“I’ll make sure Robin and Bear behave, no worries,” Yorrin said. Aleksandr smiled, and followed Alaina upstairs.
She says it’s just to examine him, but that gleam in her eye said different. Are they going to… Yorrin frowned. What Aleksandr and Alaina did was their business. He wasn’t sure a dalliance was a good idea—No, I’m sure it’s not—but it wasn’t anything he was able or willing to change. Aleksandr’s a wise man. Alaina is odd, for a priestess. But even so, she’s a priestess. They’ll know better than to spend the night together. But… If they did, they’d be smart about it.
Not like some people, if Yorrin hadn’t misjudged what he saw earlier in the evening. Prudence and Perrin had retired upstairs together, to bathe. That was some time ago. They’d gone up before Alaina, and never returned. It didn’t take a cunning mind to surmise what they were up to.
Ugh. Yorrin shuddered. Whatever madness is causing Prudence to pursue a boyish mercenary, I only hope it doesn’t afflict Aleksandr as well.
The thought of Prudence and Perrin, naked and covered in sweat, Perrin writhing atop her, made Yorrin feel vaguely sick. He could only hope something would interrupt them, perhaps get them to stop long enough to feel some inkling of shame.
I can hardly blame Perrin. He’s a man. A soldier. It’s to be expected, I suppose, Yorrin thought to himself. But she shouldn’t value her purity so poorly. It’s demeaning. She’s better than that. Not that Yorrin was liable to ever tell Prudence such to her face.
His beer came and went. The more time that passed, the more uncomfortable Yorrin grew. He ordered another drink, and then another.
Aleksandr did not return. Nor did Prudence or Perrin.
They’re not coming out, Yorrin realized. You know why.
The gambling game was winding down, and soon enough Bear stood up and announced he was going to sleep. He was in the midst of a bet, and he left his coppers on the table without a second glance. It was down to Robin and one just one of the mercs now, the red-haired Highlander named Cam. Yorrin wasn’t worried about them. The man seemed too even-tempered to rise to Robin’s bait.
A plan began to form in Yorrin’s mind. A terrible plan, he admitted to himself. Utterly terrible.
Perhaps it was the drink. Or perhaps it was Yorrin’s protective instincts. He’d never had a group of friends such as this, and—queer and mismatched though they were—he did not regard them lightly. Whatever the reason, the plan sounded better and better the more he considered it.
He drained his current draught, stood, and went up the stairs. The corridor at the top of the stairwell was narrow, and dimly lit with a few fat candles ensconced along one wall. Yorrin had heard his room was at the far end of the hall. If he wasn’t mistaken, Prudence’s room was two doors down from his. He moved down the hall silently, keeping his steps light on the floorboards.
When he grew close enough, he knew he had remembered right. He heard sounds through the thin wood of the door. Sounds that immediately filled him with discomfort. He had misjudged neither Perrin nor Prudence, then. The idea that some dopey mercenary was having carnal knowledge of his friend was thoroughly unpleasant.
His plan sounded better all the time.
He retreated back down the hallway, and then down the stairs. Robin was gloating, and Cam was rolling his eyes while he waited his turn to throw. Yorrin ignored them, crossing the common to step outside.
It was nearly pitch black, and he felt fat droplets of rain pelt his face the moment he emerged into the cold night. The only light came, not from the overcast sky, but from a single sad little lamp that shone from the stables.
Yorrin trudged through the mud over to the stables. One of the stablehands was sitting beneath the awning with the lamp, dozing. The rest of them seemed to have turned in already. It was a trivial thing to slip past the sleeping lad and into the stable pens.
There, Yorrin found what he was looking for. He took a canvas sack from his pack and carefully shoveled a few handfuls of manure into it before he tied it shut.
You might be angry in the short term, but you’ll thank me one day, Yorrin told Prudence in his head. Or, if you don’t, you ought to. I’m just looking out for you. Can’t get yourself heavy with an aimless merc’s bastard if you don’t finish the deed.
The rain pounded his cloak once he was outside the stable. Water ran into his eyes as he looked up at the side of the Crossroads Inn. He oriented himself as best he could, then counted shuttered windows until he was certain he’d found Prudence’s room. He fastened the sack of manure to his belt, and he went over to the side of the inn.
The wall was rough wood, with plenty of crevices and seams to provide handholds to an experienced second-story man. Yorrin clambered up onto the wall and began to freehand his way towards Prudence’s window.
He was no more than five feet up when his hand slipped on the wet wood, and he slid down the wall and into the mud.
Damned rain. He hadn’t quite considered how much harder it would be with the rain. In truth, when he was hatching his plan inside, he’d sort of forgotten about the rain. I think I might’ve had one more beer than courage required.
Nevertheless, Yorrin stood up and swept off the worst of the muck. He cracked his knuckles, grabbed hold of the wall, and tried again.
He took his time, pausing frequently to reassess his approach and shift his grip. He was a good fifteen feet or more from the ground, now. The increased stakes made him that much more focused, and he picked each new handhold carefully.
The shutter to Prudence’s window was nearly in reach. Then it would be a simple affair to jigger the latch open and slip the manure into the room with them. He felt an involuntary snicker come to his lips.
You’ll find someone better, one day, Yorrin imagined telling Prudence. A good fellow that will properly settle down and give you a home and hearth and all the babes you could ever want.
He reached for the sill of Prudence’s window, and as his fingers touched it, he felt his foot slip out from under him. The mud caked to his shoe smeared a streak across the wall of the inn, and Yorrin’s foot found nothing but empty air.
He grabbed hold of the sill with his left hand, but only just. His body twisted awkwardly, leaving his back flush against the wall and both his feet dangling two stories off the ground. He had a great view of the ground below, and just how far he was from it.
His heart pounded. The fuzziness in his head cleared in an instant.
You’re an idiot, he told himself. You’re going to die trying to ruin Prudence’s fornication with a bag of fucking manure. Is this the second chance Aleksandr gave you? What the hell are you doing?
Yorrin took a breath. He felt his left hand slipping in the rain. He began slowly, carefully, twisting his torso. He reached up with his right hand, striving to get a second point of useful contact with the surface.
He exhaled a sigh of relief when he touched the sill, and grabbed tight. He was sideways on the wall, now, looking out along the side of the inn.
That was when he saw it.
What the…? Yorrin squinted, trying to parse what he was seeing in the blackness of the night.
A shape clung to the wall of the inn, much as Yorrin did. A human shape. Some thirty feet from Yorrin, the shape was about halfway up the wall.
No, down the wall, he realized. The figure was climbing down. They moved with careful, practiced ease despite the rain. Their body was shrouded in a dark cloak, and Yorrin could make out nothing but the fact that they had two arms and two legs.
Whatever they’re doing, they’re up to no good. He was certain of that much. Nobody would be clinging to the wall of an inn in the middle of a stormy night unless they were planning some skullduggery.
Yorrin struggled to regain control of his positioning on the wall. As he did, the figure got closer and closer to the ground. He tried to scale down the wall, Prudence and the manure in his bag forgotten. But the figure had a head start, and reached the ground well before he did.
“Hey!” Yorrin shouted. “You! Stop!”
The figure froze, its back to Yorrin. Then they took off at a sprint.
“Damn it,” Yorrin muttered. He clambered the rest of the way down, but by the time his feet touched down the figure had disappeared around the side of the inn.
He chased after them, but when he rounded the corner he saw no sign of them. He circled around again, to the front of the Crossroads. Still nothing.
The nearest sources of cover were the stables, the silo, and a grove of trees at least a hundred feet out. And the inside of the inn itself, which was closest of all. He finally opted for that, and he burst into the common room at a frantic pace.
The room had quieted in his absence. The last merc, Cam, was no longer sitting at the table. Most of his fellow mercenaries were sprawled out on the floor of the common, and Yorrin figured he was probably with them. None of them seemed to be awake, or clad in sopping wet clothes.
Robin had dozed off at the gambling table, slumped in his chair, head lolling back. For a moment, Yorrin wondered if he’d been killed, but then he let out a snore and smacked his lips noisily.
Yorrin swept through the common. His eyes lit up when he found a wet heap of cloth in one corner of the room. He lifted it up, and realized it wasn’t a cloak but rather a simple woolen blanket. It was soaked through, and marked with long streaks of mud.
Yorrin discarded it, and stared at the sleeping denizens of the room in contemplation.
It was one of you, he thought. Or someone upstairs. But who was it? And why? Am I chasing shadows?
His racing heart began to calm as he stood there in the common, trying to figure out what had just happened. And whether it—whatever it might be—was truly the threat that he had perceived it to be. The longer he stood there, clutching a soggy blanket, the more he wondered.
The wooden stairs creaked.
Yorrin’s eyes shot to the stairwell, his blood pumping fast again. His hand clutched at the hilt of his sword. He heard footfalls, padding down the steps one by one.
Prudence emerged from the stairwell. She was dressed in nothing but a linen sheet, wrapped loosely around her torso to preserve her modesty. Her brown hair framed her face in a tangle of short locks. And she glared at Yorrin as she crossed the distance between them.
“Prudence,” he said.
She stopped a few paces away from him. “You son of a bitch,” she hissed.
“I’d take offense, but I barely knew my mother,” Yorrin said.
She didn’t laugh. Didn’t so much as crack a smile. She just reached out and jabbed a finger in Yorrin’s face.
“What I do in my bed, and who, is my business. No one else’s.”
“Clearly,” Yorrin replied.
“If you’re disgusted by that, or offended, that’s not my fucking problem,” she said.
“I’m not—that is—” Yorrin hesitated. He felt distracted. His pulse was still racing, and he kept eyeing the dimly lit room from the corner of his eye. “You deserve better, is all,” he said. The moment the words left his mouth, he wished he could recall them. That level of honesty, with Prudence of all people, felt deeply unsettling.
Prudence’s eyes widened. She looked momentarily horrified. “Oh God,” she said. “Yorrin… look. There’s no kind way to say this, so I’ll just say it: You’re not my type.”
That got Yorrin’s attention. His eyes snapped back to her. “What?”
“Whether I deserve ‘better’ or not isn’t up to you,” she said. “I like you fine, as a colleague, but I’m not…” She hesitated. The look she gave him was less angry and more… sympathetic.
“No shit,” Yorrin said, before she found a tactful way to finish the sentence. “You think I’m—that I wanted to—Ugh!”
That’s disgusting. Yorrin had no siblings, so far as he knew, but he imagined the sickened feeling in his stomach was much like what a brother might feel, if someone assumed he wanted to stick it to his little sister.
Prudence’s pitying look faded quickly. “Ugh?”
“Ugh!” Yorrin repeated. “No. Not in a—not ever. God, Prudence, why would you assume that?”
She frowned. “Because! You keep picking at Perrin, trying to push him away from me. You think I ‘deserve better.’ You were outside my room for God’s sake! Why do all that, if not because you think you have some… some claim to me?”
Yorrin shook his head, grimacing in disgust. “I’m just trying to look out for you,” he said. “He’s going to use you and move on. It’s what men do. Your virtue’s worth more than that.”
“My virtue…” Prudence shook her head. “Yorrin, it’s my decision what I do with my ‘virtue.’ Not—”
“Right, fine. Understood,” Yorrin cut her off. “You can shut up now, Prudence.”
She fell silent. For a moment, anyway. When she spoke, she sounded more curious than upset.
“That was you, outside the window, right? What fool thing were you planning?”
Yorrin swallowed as the memory came back to the forefront of his attention. “That doesn’t matter,” he said. “I stopped because I saw someone.”
“You—wait—what?” And as easy as that, Prudence’s entire demeanor shifted.
Even half-naked and roused out of activities I’d rather not think of, she’s still a professional, Yorrin admired.
“Outside the inn, I saw someone. Climbing down the wall.”
“Who?” She asked.
“Someone. I didn’t see their face. But they had to have been up to no good.”
“Agreed. Nobody climbs around the outside of an inn at night with good intentions,” Prudence said. Her expression was serious, without a trace of irony, but Yorrin saw a gleam in her eye.
I’ll let you have that one.
“Agreed. They were too far ahead of me to catch,” Yorrin said. “And when I shouted at them, they bolted.” He held up the wet, mud-streaked blanket. “I think they were using this as a makeshift cloak.”
“So they’re in here? Somewhere?” Prudence glanced around the common room.
“They must be,” Yorrin agreed. “But everyone was asleep when I came in. Did you hear anyone upstairs? See anything as you came down?”
She shook her head. “Nothing.”
They stood in silence for a time, thinking. Yorrin glanced around the room, wondering if there was some other clue he just couldn’t see. Finally, Prudence sighed.
“Give me a few minutes to get dressed and say goodnight to Perrin,” she said.
Yorrin cocked his head to the side. “Hm?”
“Bed sounded nice, but this… it’s too fishy. You’re right, whoever it was, they were doing something. Until we know what, we need to be careful. I’ll come down, we can stay up, or doze in chairs. Two sets of eyes see more than one.’
Prudence hurried off to do as she’d said. Before long, the two of them were situated near the front door. Yorrin hoped for some new sign, any sign, but minutes became hours, and the hours dragged on.
Until, as the light of a new dawn filtered through the shuttered windows, they heard a frantic scream upstairs. Moments later, a barmaid came rushing down the stairs.
“She’s dead!” she cried. “The priestess, she’s dead!”