Alaina was going to live.
For now, at least.
Aleksandr pushed the niggling doubt out of his mind. She is going to live, he told himself again.
Prudence confirmed as much, but little else. Alaina had been bathed, had talked Prudence through providing her a few basic remedies to help alleviate her illness, and bathed again.
“She already looks a lot better,” Prudence said. “Not good. But… better. More color in her. She stopped vomiting before the second bath, too.”
It was just the two of them. Yorrin and the others had headed into the common room to inform Lefty and his men of the plan. Aleksandr sat across from Prudence, where they could talk privately.
“What of Orson?” he asked. “You watched him closely, I trust?”
Prudence rolled her eyes at the question. Of course she did. I would expect nothing less.
“Yeah,” she said. “He put together some kind of tonic, told Alaina what was in it, and I tried to watch along. Seemed alright, and she said it would probably help. I shooed him out when he was done, and that’s when I ducked out to see you. Didn’t wait to see, but Perrin is right outside and he’ll hear if something happens.”
“I would like—” Aleksandr hesitated, but then pushed ahead. “I would like to see her. Perhaps you can help her to—”
“Obviously, Aleksandr,” Prudence interrupted. “That’s why I stepped out. She was asking for you.”
Aleksandr swallowed his nervousness, and felt it coil into a knot in his stomach.
“Oh,” was all he said. He took a breath. “Good.”
He stood, wincing at the pain in his leg. Prudence followed suit. They made their way to the room Alaina’s baths had been drawn in. Perrin stood outside, as Prudence had said. The mercenary had shaved the sparse stubble on his cheeks, and he looked so young to Aleksandr.
Likely no more than a few years your junior, if that, Aleksandr told himself.
“Any change?” Prudence asked.
Perrin shook his head. “Been quiet so far.” He glanced at Aleksandr, a nervous expression on his face. “She’ll be alright,” he said.
As far as reassurances went, it was a vanishingly small comfort. Just an empty platitude, spoken by a man that had no more knowledge of the situation than Aleksandr had. Still, Aleksandr felt a glimmer of appreciation that Perrin made the attempt.
He has a good heart.
Prudence slipped past Perrin and into the room. After a moment standing in the doorway, she glanced over her shoulder at Aleksandr.
Aleksandr hesitated. “Is she—ah. Decent?”
Prudence rolled her eyes again. She looked back into the room, then back to Aleksandr. “Yep.”
Perrin stepped aside, making room for Aleksandr to pass. He limped into the room, past Prudence. Prudence stepped back outside and shut the door behind her.
The room was warm, and well lit by lamps and braziers. Several tubs rested in the middle of the room, filled with cloudy water.
“Aleksandr,” Alaina’s voice was thready. Aleksandr looked at her, and froze.
She had been reclined on a simple pallet, but it was clear she’d sat up when she saw Aleksandr enter. Blankets were bundled around her, but from the waist up she was naked.
Damn it, Prudence.
Her skin was pale white in the firelight. Her black hair, still damp from the bath, cascaded down her shoulders and around her collarbones. Aleksandr couldn’t help but notice that her breasts were as pale as the rest of her—all except the raised flesh around her nipples, which was several shades darker by contrast.
He averted his eyes immediately.
She nearly died last night. She does not need you staring at her. He felt momentarily disgusted with himself.
“Alaina,” he said, his voice catching in his throat. He coughed. “Apologies. Prudence said—”
“It’s fine,” Alaina’s voice was still hoarse, subdued by the ordeal she had been through. But even so Aleksandr heard a tinge of exasperation come through. “I’m sorry, Aleksandr. I know I promised to respect your decision. I’m not trying to make you uncomfortable—”
“Alaina,” Aleksandr said. “Is not your problem. I should have been more careful.”
He heard a rustle of cloth. “There, that should be better,” she said.
Aleksandr allowed himself to see her in the corner of his eye. She had gathered the blankets up around her, providing a bit more modesty. Her shoulders were still bare, with considerable cleavage caused by the way she held the blanket close, but it wasn’t much more inappropriate than her attire when he’d rubbed her back in the Underpass.
“Acceptable?” she asked.
Aleksandr nodded. “Da. Again, I am—”
“Sorry. I know. It’s fine,” Alaina said.
Though she was clearly ill, the brusque way she dismissed his concerns made Aleksandr smile. When he had seen her last, she’d looked dead. Now, she was very much alive. Not back to her full strength, perhaps, but back to her usual attitude at the least. Aleksandr felt much of the fear and stress that he had been consuming him begin to fade.
“We have more important matters,” Alaina said. “What have you learned?”
A frown came unbidden to Aleksandr’s lips. “Little,” he admitted. “Yorrin believes it is someone in Giancarlo’s retinue. I agree. But we are not sure who, and the most suspicious figures are the ones we suspect the least.”
“Like Orson,” she said. “I like him. He could have done it, I think. He knows a good number of herbs, far more than a typical mercenary. But I don’t think it was him.”
“Da,” Aleksandr said. “Nor do we.”
“And nobody else has jumped out at you?”
“Ah, no?” Aleksandr furrowed his brow. Jumped out? “This is… Middish expression?”
Alaina laughed. The sound was rough, and it quickly turned into a few heavy coughs. “Sorry,” she said when she composed herself. “Nobody else seemed to be obviously suspicious?”
“No,” Aleksandr said, shaking his head.
“Damn. We can’t stay here trying to find them, Aleksandr. We need to be on the road.”
“Alaina…” Aleksandr had suspected she would say this, but even still he couldn’t help but try to talk some sense into her. “You are not well. Is more important that we see you healthy, not hurry back to—”
“I’ll be fine,” Alaina interrupted. “I’ll be weak for a while. Maybe as long as a fortnight. I could get feverish again, if I’m unlucky. I’ll need to drink regularly, or could die from losing water. But if it didn’t kill me already, it’s not like to.”
“Maybe so, but—”
“Aleksandr,” Alaina said his name quietly, but with a fierce intensity that gave Aleksandr pause. Her bright blue eyes bored into him. “Father Iosif was murdered. Someone does not want the Church to be built in Yerevan. I will not let them win. Each day that we are delayed, the trail grows colder.”
Aleksandr sighed, but he nodded. “Da,” he said. “I understand. We knew you would say this.”
Alaina arched an eyebrow. “Did you?”
He nodded again. “Da. I said as much, and Yorrin agreed. You do not wish to delay. I do not wish to let the man that did this get away. Yorrin has found a solution to both problems, I think.”
“Is… not typical,” Aleksandr admitted. “But it might work.”
Alaina grinned. “Sounds fitting, for the two of you. Let’s hear it, then.”
Giancarlo Rossi met them in a private room. Just the three of them: Giancarlo, Aleksandr, and Yorrin.
“The woman, she is recovering?” asked the Cassaline merchant. As last time, he sounded sincere enough on the surface. But Aleksandr felt confident that a man like Giancarlo could fake such sincerity easily enough.
“She is,” Aleksandr said. “Thank you.”
“Si, si. Of course. You wished to speak with me?”
“Yes,” Yorrin said. “We were wondering… have you ever been to Yerevan?”
“Yerevan?” the Cassaline merchant mused. “Si, signore, I know the place. Though I have not been to that city in some time.”
“It’s not Nahash,” Yorrin said. “But it’s a trading city still, from what Aleksandr says. We were thinking… with the Underpass closed, you might want to travel with us and unload your goods there instead.”
“Da,”Aleksandr agreed. “Zheleznaya Krovnaya—forgive, Ironblood is the Middish, and I think they call it simply ‘Zelezkrov’ in Yerevan. It runs a great distance, all the way to the sea. Many traders pass through Yerevan, is likely the most traveled city in all of Rusk.”
Giancarlo contemplatively stroked the carefully trimmed hairs on his chin. “Si,” he said. “Some of my wares come from Yerevan, in a roundabout way. Elfisio knows a few Ruskan traders, and arranged a shipment to meet us in Caedia. Those will not do, no margins to be had. But others may fetch a good price. And with the Underpass blocked… unsold goods fetch no price at all.”
“That was our thinking,” Yorrin agreed. “Plus, if you hire us on you’ll have a few more hands to keep your wares safe. Us and men of Taraam both, and you know their reputation.”
“Si, si,” Giancarlo agreed. “How much for the courtesy, then?”
Aleksandr let Yorrin field the question. It was his idea to pitch the plan as a mercenary contract, after all. I am not yet used to this.
But Yorrin had conferred with Dylan, who knew such matters better than any of them.
“There’s fourteen of us, but we have wounded and the like to contend with. Let’s say you can count on six men armed and ready at any moment’s notice. Probably more, really, but… let’s say.”
“Si, very well, we will say,” Giancarlo agreed.
“At the pace we’ll set with the wagons, Yerevan’s a good ways off. How long did you say, Aleksandr?”
“Perhaps two weeks,” Aleksandr said. “Easily could be more. I doubt it will be less.”
“Six fighting men for a fortnight. We’re already bound this way, so we’ll cut you a break. Let’s call it sixty shekels.”
“You are, as you say, already going to Yerevan,” Giancarlo said. “Sixty, it is too much. Forty. In Cassaline denarii, or Caedian shillings.”
“Call it fifty,” Yorrin said.
Giancarlo smirked. “Forty is a fair price. If you decline, perhaps I will go to Yerevan anyway, with only my own men. If we happen to travel side by side, well, this is not my concern. And if bandits assume we are together, well…”
Yorrin narrowed his eyes at the cocky bit of sophistry. He opened his mouth, but Aleksandr stepped in before Yorrin could form a retort.
“Forty will do,” he said. It is not worth pressing our luck, Yorrin. We are not doing this for the coin.
Yorrin closed his mouth instantly. Clearly he understood. For all I know, his anger is feigned. To give Giancarlo the sense that we are just in this for coin, and not because we wish to keep our eyes on him and his men.
Indeed, Giancarlo glanced at Aleksandr, his face brightening into a broad grin. If he suspected an ulterior motive, he hid it extremely well.
“Perfetto!” he said. “I will tell my men! When do we leave?”
Aleksandr frowned. “Alaina is not well—”
“Si, of course. We must not rush her. The fairer sex is of a more delicate carattere.”
“—But she will wish to leave soon, nonetheless,” Aleksandr finished. “She is stronger than you might think. Is possible for your men to be ready by tomorrow?”
Giancarlo blinked, momentarily surprised. “Ah… si. I think so. I will confer with Elfisio and Aguapo.”
“Good enough. We’ll talk tomorrow then,” Yorrin said.
Giancarlo smiled, offered a few empty pleasantries, and made his exit.
Once again, he seemed not to notice the way Aleksandr studied him. And yet the longer the affable merchant remained oblivious, the more Aleksandr began to believe he was hiding something.
Their last day at the Crossroads passed in boredom. It was, for Aleksandr’s part anyway, a boredom tinged with nervous energy.
Alaina grew in strength as the day went on. In small amounts, but by the time night fell she was able to walk, with assistance, to a new room. At Aleksandr’s request, she shared a room with Prudence. Yorrin secured the shutters of the window before they turned in, and Aleksandr made sure one of them was posted in the hall outside throughout the entire night.
He took the longest vigil himself, barely sleeping. His thoughts were a swirling cloud of worries and suspicions. Still, he allowed himself to hope.
Giancarlo and his retinue were ready come the morning. Aleksandr studied all of their faces as they packed up and hit the road. The hard-bitten mercenaries like Levin and Cam, the soft merchant Aguapo, and the men in between like Orson or Giancarlo himself.
It could be any of them. Or none of them.
The Taraamite soldier, Edric, still needed help getting to the wagon. Alaina, too, could not walk down the stairs without assistance. Aleksandr lent her his strength despite her protests on behalf of his leg. He personally lifted her into the back of the wagon.
Olivenco seemed the most recovered of all of their wounded. He walked unassisted, and even clambered into the wagon using his left arm to pull himself up. The crippled mercenary commander seemed to be in marginally better spirits than he had before. Under different circumstances, without Alaina to worry about, Aleksandr might have taken him aside to speak with him.
They set a slow pace on the northern road. Rain pounded down upon them, and dark clouds stretched out on the horizon as far as the eye could see.
The road ahead was still long, and much of it cleaved through untamed borderlands between various Middish kingdoms. Aleksandr knew that they were in as much danger here as they had been at any prior point, save the aurin territory in the Underpass.
He took some solace that the addition of Giancarlo’s ten fighting men swelled their ranks enough that most bandits would consider them too hard a target to try their strength against. But the two extra wagons, heavy with goods, meant that they were an especially rewarding target for any bandit group large or desperate enough to make the attempt.
Worse than all of that, however, was the simple fact that Aleksandr did not trust these men. His friends had been through much with him, and he trusted them with his life. Even the men of Taraam had proved, through reputation and action, to be honorable and decent men. But Giancarlo was a merchant, and a successful one. His chief interest was coin, and the men who served him were true sellswords, loyal only to that coin.
It unsettled him. Worse, one or more of them may have been the ones responsible for Alaina’s brush with death. That did not unsettle him so much as prickle the back of his neck and set him seething for retribution. Retribution he may never fulfill. Yorrin and Prudence were keeping eyes on all of the mercenaries, but Aleksandr had his doubts that whoever was responsible would tip their hand so easily.
It was going to be an unpleasant journey from here on out.