The Crossroads Inn is a prison, and us the gaolers.
Yorrin wasn’t sure how he felt about that. True to Aleksandr’s word, none had been allowed to leave. The innkeepers seemed to know Lefty and the rest of the Taraamites quite well, and so they had the cooperation of the staff.
For now. I bet they’ve spent years building up that trust, and now we’re spending it like coin at a gambling hall. It won’t last forever.
The patrons of the Crossroads were decidedly less cooperative than the staff. They railed and complained, but Lefty had stationed his men at every entrance and exit. The Taraamites were soldiers first and foremost, and they stood with an impassive discipline that did their profession credit.
Alaina had not emerged from her bath. Or baths, if Yorrin had heard right. Prudence was still in there with her as well. At Aleksandr’s request, one of the Taraamites—Perrin, the one that had been talking his way between Prudence’s thighs— stood guard outside the room and allowed no one inside.
Yorrin stood with Aleksandr. Dylan, Bear, and Robin all stood nearby, looming. They crowded the back room that Aleksandr had claimed for his questioning.
Aleksandr had already questioned the innkeeper’s staff, and the few patrons not affiliated with the merchant caravan. They’d been next to useless. The nearest thing to any suspicious behavior they’d heard was that a traveler had left the inn less than an hour after Aleksandr and the rest of them had arrived. He took off in a hurry, even though he’d told the innkeeper he planned to stay the night.
Suspicious, for sure. But it seemed he left well before the business Yorrin saw outside. And Yorrin was almost positive that the person he’d seen the night before had fled into the Crossroads, not out onto the road. So, suspicious or not, it didn’t seem likely he was the one responsible.
Which left the merchants. Across from them stood the head of the caravan, Giancarlo Rossi. The well-dressed Cassaline that owned the wagons outside and employed most of the patrons of the inn. Including ten well-armed mercenaries.
“The woman, how is she?” Giancarlo asked. By outward appearances, he seemed calm. A touch of concern, but that was all.
“Alive,” Aleksandr said. His eyes were narrowed, his arms crossed over his chest. His family blade hung from his side, but aside from that he had not yet donned his armor. His tunic was streaked with foul fluids from when he had picked up Alaina, but he didn’t seem to notice.
“If there is anything I can do, do not hesitate to ask. I have many herbs in my wagons, perhaps some could aid her suffering?”
Aleksandr frowned. “You know many herbs, then?”
Enough to, say, poison the priestess? Yorrin added in his head.
Giancarlo shrugged. “Not really, no. I am a merchant, signore. I carry many goods, and only understand them enough to know their value to the experts. I thought, if you had such an expert…”
“Alaina’s our expert,” Yorrin said.
Giancarlo grimaced. “Ah. Unfortunate. Perhaps—hm. He may not be of much use, but I believe one of the men in the company, he knows a bit of herb-lore.”
Aleksandr arched an eyebrow. “Oh? Who is this man?”
“His name is Orson. His mother is a midwife in some godforsaken corner of the Midlands, I think. He helped Aguapo with his indigestion.”
“We will speak with him, then,” Aleksandr said.
“Good, good,” Giancarlo said. “I am not sure how else I can help, but if you have any ideas…”
Either he’s totally oblivious to the fact that this is an interrogation, or he’s too cool by half, Yorrin thought.
Aleksandr studied the merchant in silence for an uncomfortably long time. Yorrin felt some satisfaction when he saw the Cassaline begin to squirm. Subtle cues: a furrowed brow, drumming his fingers across his thigh, his eyes dancing around between Aleksandr and his men.
“Signore, is there anything else you wished to ask me?” Giancarlo said at last.
“I am not sure,” Aleksandr said.
Giancarlo sighed. “Surely you do not suspect me of being involved, gentlemen. I am a merchant, not a sorcerer. I cannot make a woman take ill.”
“You might,” Yorrin observed. “With those herbs you mentioned.”
“Si, perhaps this is true. But as I said, I am no herbalist, signore. I am a man of commerce. I work with goods, ledgers, people. Gold. It has taken a lifetime to learn my skills, and I have few others. I am very good at what I do.”
“How good can you be?” Robin piped up. “Haven’t you been sitting here paying your men to drink and waste time for days on end?”
Giancarlo shot the reformed bandit a cool look. “Si,” he said. “And I could do so for the rest of the year, if it was necessary. In fact, it has been a very bad venture, overall. I have lost more than I have gained, and let go a great many employees. Porters, mercenari, and the like. And yet… I can afford to bleed coins due to a few strokes of bad luck. Can you?”
“Dunno. I’ve found men are nearly as motivated by the promise of coin as by the real thing,” Robin said.
“Not now, Rotten,” Yorrin said. Robin rolled his eyes, but he shut up.
“Night we met, you said you were planning to go to Torathia,” Aleksandr said. “Da?”
“Si,” Giancarlo agreed.
“What are you selling? Herbs?”
Giancarlo smiled, but Yorrin disliked the look of it. An indulgent sort of smile, the kind one might give to a foolish child.
“Not just that,” he said. “I am known back in the Republic for my keen eye and the value of my wares. I do not sell goods, signore, I sell quality. Medicines, liquors, jewelry, art, weapons, anything and everything. If it is expensive, and worth every denarius, it is the purview of Giancarlo Rossi.”
“Republic?” Robin asked, before anyone else had formed a response. “What’s that? I thought you were from the Empire, yeah? Cassala?”
Yorrin almost reprimanded the bandit, but he caught the gleam in Robin’s eye.
He’s undercut Giancarlo with that. It was a pretty speech, and now he’s gone and lost the wind from his sails. Clever, Rotten. Clever.
Giancarlo frowned. “An Empire no longer. Not for several generations. Your Torathia saw to that, si? The wars did not favor my homeland. And without an Emperor, the Senate rules.”
“Most folk still call it the Empire, though,” Robin said. “I never heard of any ‘Republic’ before.”
“No, I imagine not,” Giancarlo said. There was no mistaking the sharpness in his tone. “But in civilized lands, we use the proper titles for things.”
“And you were bound to civilized lands, then?” Aleksandr asked. “To the cities of Torathia?”
Giancarlo nodded. “It has been a long journey. First to the markets of the Spatalian city-states, then the isle of Lorraine, where Elfisio wasted a great deal of our budget on an ill-advised venture. I recouped much of my losses on my journey through the Midlands, all the way to where I sit today. We have mostly been buying lately, you understand. The selling, it was to come last, in Nahash.”
“And you have a great many goods to sell?” Aleksandr said.
Giancarlo held a hand up, wiggled it back and forth in a so-so gesture. “It may seem such, to you. I had hoped to have twice the wagons, in truth.”
“And yet you are still headed for your final stop, to sell,” Yorrin said.
“Si,” Giancarlo shrugged. “There is little else to do. Not every trade venture is as successful as one might hope. Still Elfisio hopes to redeem himself. He knows that I am not pleased with the losses we took trading with the aristocracy of Lorraine. He and Aguapo cooked up this plan, to push on to Nahash and turn a tidy profit. If it fails, Elfisio may well be out of a job.”
Aleksandr frowned, clearly deep in thought.
He doesn’t give two shits about your trade difficulties, or your factors, Yorrin thought. And so far nothing you’ve said has given any reason for you to have made a move against Alaina. Although…
“I’ve never been to Cassala,” Yorrin said. “But I’ve heard it told enough times that a lot of you folk hate the homeland something fierce. Resentful, of those wars you mentioned. Of the fact that your Empire has crumbled into decline, and that Torathia helped it along.”
Giancarlo cocked his head to the side. “I suppose this is true,” he said. “Some do. Certainly, some on the Senate still dream of a return to Empire, with or without an Emperor at the head.”
“But not you?” Yorrin asked.
“The Empire began its decline before I was born. I have never known a world that did not have Nahash at its center. This is not so bad. Peace is good for business, after all. We wealthy in the Cassaline Republic still enjoy comfortable lives, even without the slaves and riches that are spoken of in the old days of the Empire.”
“And that is all you care about?” Aleksandr cut in. “Comfort? Wealth?”
Giancarlo smiled. “Si, well. What else is there, signore?”
“Virtue. Justice. Good works,” Aleksandr lacked some of the passion and vision when he said the words. He sounded almost bitter.
Giancarlo’s smile just deepened. “Of course! Such goals are noble for a man of action such as yourself. But I am a simple merchant. I do my good works by selling people things that they wish to buy.”
Yorrin snorted. “And there’s no chance you’re resentful of the Torathi clergy? Looking for a return to your glory days, trying to foment some sort of war between two great powers?”
Giancarlo shrugged. “Not especially. I am not exactly a patriota, signori. I spend as much time out of Cassala as in it. Of course, if such a thing were to occur, I would find a way to make the best of it. War is good for business, after all.”
“I thought you said peace was good for business,” said Dylan.
Giancarlo smiled again, giving Dylan a wink. “Si, just so.”
Aleksandr was frowning. “I will take you at your word,” he finally said. “I cannot see what reason you would have to be doing this. But I must speak to your men.”
Giancarlo shrugged. “Certainly. Understand, signore, they are simple mercenario trash.”
Aleksandr frowned. If Giancarlo noticed, he chose to forge on ahead regardless.
“Good blades, to be sure,” the merchant said. “Efficiente. They might even seem to be decent men, but loyalty bought in gold has little true value. If it turns out one of them is responsible, I hope you will not lay the blame at my feet.”
“Every man is responsible only for what he has done,” Aleksandr said.
“Besides,” Yorrin cut in. “We’ll know exactly how involved you were. If they’re fickle vagabonds only out for coin, I don’t imagine it’ll be hard to flip them.”
Giancarlo didn’t seem to like that much. Yorrin just gave him a razor-thin smile.
“You may go. Ah, please be sending us one of your men next,” Aleksandr said.
“The fat one,” Yorrin said.
Giancarlo blinked, his expression blank. “Aguapo? My factors have worked for me for a number of years. This crop of mercenari were bought in the port of Stanmouth, but Aguapo and Elfisio I hired on back in the homeland. As I said before, they helped me plan this venture.”
“Which means they know the wares as well as you do,” Yorrin observed.
“Si, better,” Giancarlo said automatically. After a pregnant pause, he seemed to realize what he’d said. “Ah, of course. Good point. I will instruct Aguapo to cooperate with your every inquiry.”
The merchant stood. He concealed his annoyance well, for the most part. The only tell Yorrin could see was the stiffness in the way he walked out, an exaggeration of formality to keep from letting his real feelings shine through.
“Well lads,” Robin said as soon as Giancarlo had left the room. “What do we think?”
“He might be hiding something,” Yorrin said. “Or he might just be exactly what he looks like.”
“What does he look like?” asked the Whip.
“Arrogant,” Aleksandr said, answering before Yorrin had the chance.
“That,” Yorrin agreed. “Rich. Privileged.”
“If we doubt his tale, I could get an answer out of him,” Robin offered. “Never met a man that didn’t learn how to sing once you start carving him up.”
Yorrin wrinkled his nose. “That why you called yourselves Songbirds, then?”
“Maybe a little,” Robin said, shrugging.
“I was thinking is because you talk so much. And is small, soft. Squishy. Like birds, da?” Bear said.
Aleksandr held up a hand, and they all fell silent.
He doesn’t look well, Yorrin thought. He’s taking this worse than I’d have expected. He must be really smitten with the priestess, even more than I realized. If she dies…
He didn’t much want to consider that outcome. Not unless he had to. Aleksandr was never an especially light-hearted man, but he seemed singularly dour now that Alaina was in jeopardy.
Aleksandr seemed to have heard something the rest of them missed, because the door opened a moment after he’d silenced them. In strode Aguapo, the fat factor in Giancarlo’s employ.
He was shorter than any of them, save Yorrin. His belly shook as he crossed the room, threatening to spill out of his rich clothes. He hesitated, awkwardly looking for a chair and finding none. He met Aleksandr’s level gaze and absently scratched at his chins.
“Salve,” he said. Then, seeing their puzzled looks, he frowned. “Ah, hello, I mean. Hello.”
His Middish was more strongly accented than Giancarlo’s.
“You are Aguapo?” Aleksandr said.
“How long have you served Giancarlo?”
Aguapo scratched his jowls more vigorously, pondering the question. “Tre? No, quattro. Ah, four. Four years. I think.”
“You are from Cassala as well?”
“Si, of course,” Aguapo said. “The province of Tilurium, signore.”
“I do not know your lands well,” Aleksandr admitted.
“Tilurium lies close to il cuore—ah, scusi. To the heart of the Empire, signore. Northwest of Cassala, the imperial city.”
“You call it the Empire,” Dylan commented. “Your boss said you folks don’t use that name for it anymore.”
Aguapo shrugged, and rubbed his brow in an absentminded gesture. “Signore Rossi is correct, of course. But old habits are hard to break, even in the homeland.”
Aleksandr took a step forward, closer to Aguapo. The fat man’s eyes widened, and he stared up at Aleksandr’s intense stare.
“Did you harm Alaina?” he asked. His voice was low, barely above a whisper.
Aguapo was sweating profusely. His jowls quivered. “No!” he blurted out.
“Do you know who did?” If anything, Aleksandr’s voice grew even quieter.
Aguapo shook his head. “No!” he said again.
Aleksandr stared at him in silence for a long, uncomfortable moment.
Well, that’s one way to do it, Yorrin thought. Dunno how effective it is, really, but I can’t fault his impatience. That conversation was going nowhere.
“You may go. I will be needing to speak with the other one. Your counterpart.”
“Elfisio?” Aguapo asked.
Aleksandr gave a curt nod in reply, and the fat man withdrew from the room.
“That could’ve gone better,” said the Whip.
“Was good, Whip!” Bear said. “I liked part where Aleksandr almost hit fat man.”
“I was not going to hit him,” Aleksandr said.
“Could’ve fooled me,” said Robin. “Good stuff, though. Nice shock to the system, going aggressive like that in a casual chat. Shakes people, gets ‘em to slip up.”
“Da,” was all Aleksandr said.
Elfisio seemed less nervous than Aguapo, and less calm and calculating than Giancarlo. His dark hair wreathed his face in greasy ringlets, and his eyes were small and dark. His clothes were well-cut and dyed in colors that marked him as wealthy, or at least not poor. But they were a bit threadbare. He interlaced his fingers over his belly, and he licked his lips as he answered their first few basic questions.
His family name was Septimus, in the Old Cassaline style rather than the new. He had served as one of Rossi’s factors for three years. Yes, he was born and raised in the Empire, from the more central province of Arbeia. A breadbasket, Elfisio called it.
“If not the Empire’s heart,” he said. “Then perhaps its stomach?”
His accent was less pronounced than Aguapo’s, though not quite as crisp as Giancarlo’s. Yorrin grew bored of hearing the factor’s bland answers to irrelevant questions.
“How do you feel about the Church?” he spoke up, interrupting Elfisio.
The factor blinked, taken aback. “Permesso?” Then, “Ah, pardon? I do not understand.”
“The Church. Of Torath. How do you feel about it?” Yorrin spoke slowly, as if it was just the language barrier and not the non-sequitur of the question that was offputting.
“I do not see how—”
“Please,” Aleksandr said. “Answer him.”
“The Church is… a church, I suppose. I do not cleave to your northern gods, but—”
“God,” Yorrin said. “There’s only one god, and his coils encircle us all. Not just the folks in the ‘north,’ yeah?”
“Very well,” Elfisio said. His mouth had curled into a thin grimace. “As you say. He is one god… that I do not believe in.”
“I thought Cassala had come around on Torath,” said the Whip. “What with the free movement of the priesthood after the wars, and all.”
“Much of the south has, certainly,” Elfisio said. “The northern provinces, those closest to the Midlands, for a certainy. Many in the Spatalian city-states often worship your god. In the heartland, and in the capital, it is quite mixed. There are many who still revere Cassio and his pantheon. The pantheon of our forefathers.”
“You have a problem with the Torathi, then?” Yorrin asked.
Elfisio shrugged. “No, signore. Of course not. Is it a crime, now, to disbelieve your faith?”
Maybe it ought to be. Yorrin bit his tongue. Aleksandr doesn’t exactly believe. He’s said as much. Those that follow the Faith are better of course, but not all good men must be of the Faith.
“No,” Aleksandr answered for Yorrin. His eyes bored into Elfisio. The factor licked his lips again as he waited. Finally, Aleksandr spoke again: “Did you harm Alaina?”
Whatever Elfisio had been expecting Aleksandr to say next, it seemed it wasn’t that. He blinked. He recoiled, as if the question repulsed him, and his tongue flicked out across his lips again.
“No, signore,” he said. “I did not.”
Aleksandr studied him, as he had the two merchants before him. “Very well,” he said. “Go. Send one of your mercenaries, if you would.”
Elfisio took a moment to compose himself, then exited without another word.
“Not that I’m criticizing your approach, boss…” Robin spoke carefully, clearly aware of the intensity that radiated off of Aleksandr. “But so far I don’t see that we’ve learned much. You sure you don’t want to drag them back in here one by one and let me tickle them a little?”
“No,” Aleksandr said. His voice was assertive, an immutable declaration. And yet…
“No” he doesn’t want to do that? Or “no” he isn’t sure if he wants to or not? Yorrin wasn’t sure which way Aleksandr meant the word.
He wasn’t sure if Aleksandr knew either.