Aleksandr’s leg was red and swollen. The flesh was warm to the touch. It had pained him nearly every moment since they’d left the Underpass. Each bounce in Dascha’s saddle, each step he took on foot, sent needles of pain through him.
“It’s healing well,” Alaina said. Aleksandr was sitting in a chair in her room, and she was kneeling beside him examining the injury. “Very well, considering the abuse you’re putting yourself through. You should ride in the wagon, Aleksandr.”
“I am fine,” Aleksandr said. “Does not hurt much.”
She gave him a look, and he had no doubt at all that she saw through his lie.
“Well,” he said. “Is tolerable, anyway. If I am not in saddle, I am not ready. If something were to happen…” he shook his head. “Nyet. If I am meant to lead these people, as they insist, then I must lead.”
“Even Darius Khashar suffers wounds from time to time, or so I hear. And when he does, he accepts treatment for them,” Alaina said.
Aleksandr frowned. “I am not sure… this name, is familiar, a little. But I cannot place it. Is Torathian hero?”
She nodded. “One of the Knights Serpentes. The Knight Serpentis, to hear many tell it. A peerless warrior and leader of men, he’s been confirmed as general of the Serpentes armies at war many years running now. He was wintering in northern Al Hassad, last I heard, readying for another Torade.”
Aleksandr shrugged, frustrated at his seemingly perpetual confusion. “Is another word I do not know…”
Alaina laughed, but it was a friendly sort of laugh. Aleksandr did not for a moment feel she was mocking his ignorance.
“That’s an odd one,” she said. “A bastard mix of Cassaline and the old Torathi Temple speech, I think. A word for holy war, waged under the banner of the Serpent.”
“What makes a war ‘holy,’ exactly?” Aleksandr asked. “I have not seen full scale war, but my father saw some. My grandfather, more. To hear them speak of it, is little but blood and chaos.”
“Your fathers are likely right,” Alaina agreed. “The kingdoms of Al Hassad have waged war against us for generations, and us back to them in turn. They are a fractious people, but the one thing they all agree upon is that our God is an affront to theirs, and all who follow Torath are devil-worshipping heathens. And so our warriors kill each other, back and forth, forever.”
“Seems pointless,” Aleksandr said.
He realized, too late, his bluntness might cause offense. But Alaina just laughed.
“Very!” she said. “But you have deftly sidestepped the issue of whether or not you will heed my advice.”
“Your leg,” she gently laid a hand upon the flesh for emphasis. Her skin was cool, her touch soothing. Aleksandr felt suddenly too aware that his legs were bare, and he was clad only in his tunic and breechcloth. He felt a blush come to his cheeks.
Alaina didn’t seem to notice. “You should stay out of the saddle, Aleksandr,” she said.
Perhaps she is right. He pondered the suggestion. Finally, he gave voice to his primary concern: “If I do not, am I likely to lose use of my leg?”
She frowned. “Aleksandr, it’s not—”
“Please, Alaina,” he said. “Am I?”
She shook her head. “I’d like to say yes, to put some sense into you. It could, for a certainty.” She sighed. “But the break was clean enough, and in the morning I’ll splint it again. It will hurt, as I’m sure you well know by now. And it will delay the healing. But no, it’s not likely to ruin your leg.”
“Da, good,” Aleksandr said, nodding as much to himself as to her. “Then I will ride.”
“I know,” Alaina said, sighing.
She stood up, arching her back into a stretch as she did so. Aleksandr swallowed nervously. Alaina was still dressed in nothing but a simple linen shift, and when she stretched in that manner the fabric hugged tight to her breasts. Aleksandr was still sitting in front of her, with an inappropriately good view of every curve.
Aleksandr averted his eyes after hesitating too long. He reached for his leggings, grabbing a handful of wool cloth and awkwardly holding it in his lap. Alaina finished stretching and looked at him, an amused smile dimpling her cheeks.
“Wait, let me help you,” she said.
She dropped back to kneel in front of him, reaching for the leggings. Aleksandr did not relinquish them.
“Is fine,” he said. “I can do it.”
“Don’t be silly,” Alaina said. “Bending down won’t do your leg any favors. I helped you out of them, let me help you back into them.”
Aleksandr clung tight to the leggings. He swallowed a nervous lump in his throat. Alaina’s brow furrowed, and she studied his eyes for a moment. Aleksandr sighed.
“I am sorry,” he said. “Is very awkward.”
Alaina shrugged. “Getting back into your clothes is more awkward than getting out of them?”
“Is not that. But I am… not decent.”
Understanding dawned on Alaina. There was no doubting that, as her eyes darted down and then back up to Aleksandr’s eyes. She grinned, clearly trying not to laugh.
“Oh!” she said. “Aleksandr, it’s fine. That’s a perfectly natural response to this situation. A mix of pain, awkwardness, close proximity… it doesn’t mean anything. I’m not going to take it as as an admission of your desire, or anything of the sort.”
Aleksandr swallowed again. I should take this opening, he told himself. Honesty is not always necessary.
And yet… that wasn’t how Aleksandr had been raised. He rolled his eyes to the ceiling in embarrassment, then cleared his throat.
“Da, maybe not. But if I am being honest, Alaina, is not just those things.”
Alaina cocked her head to the side. “Oh?”
“Is not just… circumstance. It is you. You are… very beautiful. Wise, and kind. And, ah. How to say. Very blunt?”
“Forward?” Alaina asked, leaning forward. Her voice was quiet. Her blue eyes seemed to sparkle.
“Da,” he said. His voice sounded strained to his own ears. Nervous. She was still leaning closer, rising up so that her eyes were nearly level with his. His body felt hot, his muscles tensed.
Her lips brushed his. They were soft as silk, cool, with just a trace of moisture. He froze as she kissed him, but after a moment of utter stillness, he felt himself react. He kissed her back, his mouth pressing into hers with intensity. Though her lips were cool, when she opened her mouth it was warm and welcoming.
He wrapped his arms around her, and the rest of her was as soft and firm as her lips. He felt one of her hands run through his hair and clutch at the back of his head, and she rose off of her knees entirely. She shifted her position without breaking the kiss, and Aleksandr realized she was moving to straddle his leg. His good leg, of course.
As Alaina settled her weight on his thigh, just past his knee, Aleksandr became suddenly aware that she was naked beneath her shift. He felt her thighs tense around his leg. He felt the slick heat between them pulse against his bare flesh.
He pulled his head back, breaking the kiss. Each breath came heavily, and when he looked into her eyes he saw that she was panting as well. She bit her lip, then closed her eyes for a moment. Aleksandr tried to calm his racing heartbeat, to little effect.
Alaina opened her eyes. “Are you alright?” she asked. “Is it your leg?”
“Nyet,” he said.
“Was I… too forward?”
Aleksandr took a deep breath. “Da,” he said. Then, “Nyet. Eto ya.”
You are speaking Ruskan, idiot, Aleksandr told himself.
Alaina just furrowed her brow. She responded in kind, of course, her Ruskan nearly flawless. “It’s you?” she asked. “How is it you, exactly?”
“This. What we’re doing. It isn’t right.” Aleksandr was flustered. He could still feel her resting on his leg, hot and wet and very distracting. He could not trust himself to string together a coherent sentence in Middish, so he stuck to his mother tongue. “You are a priestess.”
“Aleksandr,” she said. “If you don’t want this, you need only say so. But not on my behalf. How many times must I tell you: I have taken no vows of chastity. My life is mine to live, and I live it by Torath’s light. This is no sacrilege. No dishonor.”
Aleksandr swallowed. “I am not—not accustomed. To how things are done in Torathia,” he admitted.
Alaina smiled. “This isn’t necessarily how things are done in Torathia. This is how things are done with Alaina. I prefer honesty. And, honestly?” She reached out, took one of Aleksandr’s hands in hers. She brought his hand to her mouth, and brushed her lips against his fingertips. “I want you.”
Aleksandr shivered, an unbidden reaction, as his pulse thrummed. She gently brought his hand down, and placed it on her bosom. The cloth of her shift was smooth, her breasts soft beneath it.
“Do you want me?” she asked, not in Ruskan but in Middish. Her voice was quiet. Aleksandr sensed a vulnerability that had been absent before.
“Da!” he said, exhaling a breath he had not realized he was holding. “I do, Alaina. Very much so. Is not for a lack of wanting that I hesitate.” He tried to match her, his words coming out in halting Middish.
“No,” she said. “It’s a misguided sense of propriety, then. You don’t wish to, what? Sully my virtue? I’m not a virgin, Aleksandr.”
“Da, I know. You have—you have said as much, before. Or implied it. But I am.”
Aleksandr could feel Alaina’s body tense. Her brow furrowed, just for a moment. Then she laughed, and let go of his hand.
“Oh damn it all,” she said. “Of course you are. That should have been obvious. As we have explored at length, your homeland’s traditions and mores differ from my own. And you are not the type of man to spurn tradition without cause.”
“Da,” Aleksandr said. “I am not.” Though right now I very much wish I was.
“And I haven’t given you sufficient cause, I take it?” Alaina asked. She smiled. The question did not appear to be barbed. “I apologize, if I was pressuring you. It wasn’t my intent.”
“Is fine,” Aleksandr said. “You were not. Or, perhaps you were, but it was not unwelcome.”
Alaina climbed off of his leg, standing up and stepping back a pace. Aleksandr picked up his leggings, where they’d fallen aside in the heat of the moment.
“So you will only be with a woman you’re wedded to?” Alaina asked.
Aleksandr frowned. A good question. He had always assumed the answer to be ‘yes’ in his youth. He had turned down a handful of opportunities, for that reason. He did not wish to sully his honor, or the honor of the Ruskan women he had known.
And yet… he turned the question over in his mind. You are not so bound to Ruskan tradition as she suggests. You do not cleave to gods, old or new. You doubt the infallibility of the Tsar. You did not seek service as a druzhnik, or relish in the border skirmishes of the bayards.
Was his reluctance borne of blind adherence to a pointless tradition, unquestioned until now? Or was it a conviction he held true?
“I do not know,” he said finally.
“Fair enough,” Alaina said. “Good answer.”
She reached for his leggings again. “I trust you can let me help you with this, at least? You’ve no need for shame, Aleksandr.”
He nodded, and let her take them from him. It took some effort, and by the end his leg was throbbing.
“Is probably best,” he said. “That we stopped when we did. I do not think… well. With my leg injured…” he trailed off.
“There are many ways to find pleasure,” Alaina said, a sly smile on her lips. “If you’ve changed your mind, I can show you a few that would put no strain on your leg whatsoever.”
“Um.” Aleksandr realized, too late, he had invited such a response.
She laughed. “It’s fine, Aleksandr. Just… be honest with me, please? Don’t find some excuse for why it’s a bad idea. Just tell me how you feel.”
“Da,” he said. “Good advice. I am sorry.”
“Don’t be. You’ve done nothing wrong.” She reached out and took his hand, not in lust, but a simple gesture of kindness. He squeezed her hand back, and then began limping towards the door. She ducked under his arm, letting him put some weight on her for a few steps.
“Need help getting to your room?” she asked.
Aleksandr shook his head. “No. Is fine. Thank you, Alaina.”
“For your honesty. And your wisdom. And your…” he hesitated. Swallowed embarassment. “And your passion. You have given me much to think about.”
“That’s good,” she said. “And remember: If you change your mind… you need only let me know.”
The look she gave him accompanied him to his room, to his bed, and into his dreams.
The word echoed in Aleksandr’s head as he rose from his slumber. He felt bleary, still sleep-addled, but he did not wait. Could not wait.
He tore out of his room as fast as his leg allowed. It screamed in protest, sending searing spikes of pain rippling out with every step. He did not lessen his pace, pushing his way through the hall. It had rapidly filled with others that had emerged from their rooms at the commotion. Aleksandr did not let any of them slow him down.
The door to Alaina’s room was open. A foul smell spilled out into the hallway. A few people were standing in the doorway, crowding around, staring slack-jawed within.
“Move!” Aleksandr growled. He was ready to shove them aside.
She lay, unmoving, on the floor beside her bedding. A pool of vomit spilled out around her. Her shift and the blankets were both smeared with bile, blood, and excrement.
She was deathly pale, and still. Aleksandr crossed the room in three painful strides, and dropped down beside her. Kneeling was an agony.
Her skin was hot to the touch, and clammy with sweat.
Thank whatever gods are listening, he thought.
She was so hot she had to be feverish, but that was much better than the dry coldness of death.
Her eyes fluttered open. She squinted at Aleksandr, confused. Then a smile came to her lips, crusted and stained with blood and bile though they were.
“Aleksandr,” she murmured, hoarse.
“Alaina,” he said. “What has happened? You are ill… what can I do?”
“Water,” she said.
Aleksandr looked to the doorway. He saw a familiar face in the crowd, maneuvering towards the front.
“Prudence! Bring water!” he said. She dipped back into the crowd in an instant.
Aleksandr turned back to Alaina. She reached for him, and he clasped her hand in his. Her hand was slick with sweat and other fluids. It was hot to the touch.
“Aleksandr…” she said again.
“I am here,” he said. He felt an overwhelming sense of helplessness threatening to crash down upon him from all sides. “What can I do for you? Please.”
“Bath,” she said. “Not—not too hot. Warm.”
Aleksandr looked at the doorway again, and spotted a gawker who looked like one of the Crossroads Inn’s barmaids.
“You!” he said. “Draw a bath. Warm, not hot.”
She stared at him, shocked, but did not move.
“Now!” he said. “Draw two of them, while you are at it. Go!”
The girl jumped, and disappeared into the crowd.
Aleksandr sat with Alaina for a long moment. He was not equipped to deal with threats such as this. Abject helplessness was not a sensation he was accustomed to.
Prudence brought him her waterskin, and he pushed the opening into Alaina’s mouth. He squeezed it, very gently, letting a small trickle of water run onto her tongue. She swallowed, coughed, then swallowed again.
“Alaina…” he said. He brushed a lock of dark hair out of her eyes. “What happened?”
She looked up at him, her blue eyes pale and watery.
“Poison,” she said.
Aleksandr’s blood ran cold.
“I think,” Alaina said. “Can’t—can’t be sure. But—my bag. Prudence?”
“Bring my bag. Herbs… I can talk you through.”
“On it,” Prudence said. She hurried over to Alaina’s belongings.
“Sir?” a voice cut in from the doorway. Meek and nervous.
Aleksandr looked over his shoulder. The barmaid he’d told to draw a bath. She stood alone. Most of the crowd had scattered.
“The lads are drawin’ water for the bath now,” she said. “Have one tub filled about halfway. Warm, you said. Not too hot.”
Aleksandr gathered Alaina up in his arms. She was a tall woman, but lean. He stood, holding her close to his chest.
He let out a hiss as his leg screamed in defiance at the movement. Heedless, he turned towards the doorway. He carried her, feeling his leg falter under him with each step.
A new figure was waiting at the door. His bulk filled the threshold and then some.
“Bear,” Aleksandr said. “Move.”
“Nyet,” Bear said. “I will carry.”
“Bear…” Aleksandr said. The sense of helplessness had turned to fury, boiling beneath Aleksandr’s outward calm. It needed only to find an outlet. “Get out of my way.”
“Your leg, Aleksandr,” Bear said. “Is very stupid, you are being. I will carry church lady.”
Aleksandr gritted his teeth, his breath coming in tense, ragged pants. Finally, he reined in his impotent rage. He handed Alaina, very delicately, over to the big Steppes barbarian.
Bear took her effortlessly, and followed the barmaid to the bath. Prudence followed a moment later, carrying one of Alaina’s leather satchels. Aleksandr leaned against the threshold, pain radiating out from his leg.
A head hooked under his arm, bearing some of his weight. Aleksandr looked down and saw Yorrin trying to help him. He hadn’t even realized the man was there.
The height difference was so much that Yorrin’s efforts were only mildly effective, but even that small amount of weight off the leg was a relief.
“Yorrin,” he said. “Something is very wrong.”
“Don’t need to tell me, sir. Aleksandr. She’ll pull through, though. Torath protects her.”
“Is not just that,” Aleksandr said. “Or, not directly. Not just her sickness.”
“I know,” Yorrin said.
“She said she was poi—you know?”
“I saw something. Late last night. Something fishy, but I couldn’t get to the bottom of it. Someone out where they had no business being. Related, I bet.”
Aleksandr tensed. “And you did not tell me?”
“No.” Yorrin sounded rueful. “I guess I fucked up. Wasn’t sure who it was, or what their game was, or where they went, or… much of anything, really. But I should’ve told you anyway. Sorry.”
Aleksandr swallowed. He saw Dylan approaching from the stairwell. He shifted his weight off the threshold, leaning on Yorrin to step into the corridor.
“Aleksandr!” Dylan said. “Alaina, is she…”
“Alive,” Aleksandr said. “For now.”
Dylan sighed in relief. “Thank god,” he said. “Some good news, at least. The whole place is going mad, Aleksandr. The common room is buzzing, people are scrambling to pay their tabs and get the hell out of here. Lefty’s got his men securing the horses and the wagon, to make sure nobody tries to run off with ‘em. There’s talk of plague, of spoiled food, poisoned drink, all sort of things.”
Aleksandr frowned. “No,” he said.
“No?” Dylan’s brow furrowed. “No to which? I’m not saying I think it’s plague, but it’s got to be something, right?”
“Not that,” Aleksandr said. “No to them. No to…” Aleksandr clenched his fist, and realized belatedly that Kholodny was not on his belt, or at hand. The first time he could recall that he had simply forgotten his family blade.
He relaxed his fist. “No, I do not trust them. The mercenaries, the merchants. The innkeepers. Come, Yorrin. Help me get my sword, and get down the stairs. Dylan, bring Bear as soon as he has Alaina settled.”
“What’s the plan, Aleksandr?” Dylan asked.
Aleksandr paused. The rage bubbling beneath the surface had not abated. Someone had poisoned Alaina. Someone that was likely here, in this very building.
He set his jaw into a stubborn frown.
“No one leaves,” he said. “Not until we have answers.”