Aleksandr had never had much interest in Faith.
It had been a source of some conflict, back home. The folk of Pripia were Ruskans of the old guard, followers of the ancient faiths. They revered the spirits of the land, and ancient, primordial gods. Perkun—personification of thunder and storms, or Zimash—personification of winter. And others like them. It had all seemed sort of silly, to Aleksandr.
His father had questioned him on it, in his youth. The memories came easily. He would not have been older than sixteen.
“You did not join in the offerings to Zimash, Alek,” Valentin said.
“I did not,” Aleksandr agreed.
“The people expect it. The druzhnikov and the serfs alike. You may not be my heir, but you still represent the name Kerensky.”
The chastisement was intended to bite, but Aleksandr felt little in the way of embarrassment.
“The winter will end when it ends, father. Whether I offer meat and spirits to Zimash or not.”
Valentin frowned. “Have you given up on the gods of your father, then? And his father, and his, through the ages?”
Aleksandr held his tongue, and let his father talk.
“This new southern God is no great revelation, Aleksandr,” Valentin continued. “We have always known of a great cosmic force that shapes the world. Rod, they called him when I was a boy. The southerners put a pretty name on him, and liken him to a serpent for reasons far beyond my understanding. But they did not invent Rod, no matter what the people say these days in the Tsar’s court.”
“I have not converted to the Torathi faith, father,” Aleksandr said.
Valentin brightened at that, a little. But his relief was short-lived. “If not the southern snake god, then what?”
“I don’t know,” Aleksandr admitted.
Valentin’s eyes narrowed. “What does that mean? You don’t know? It is faith, boy. It is not a matter of knowing. It is a matter of believing.”
Aleksandr shrugged. “Even so. I don’t know. Zimash, Torath, Rod. I haven’t seen any of them.”
“You haven’t seen the damned Encircled Sea, or Torathia, or any of the Midlands at all for that matter.”
Aleksandr rolled his eyes at this bit of rhetoric. “Come on, father. You taught me better than that. Those places exist. The evidence is undeniable. It’s not the same. Every land has their own god, or gods. Many of them claim the others are heathen lies. None of them offer any proof.”
“So, what? You believe none of them? Have I raised a faithless wretch, with no conviction or nobility?” Valentin gave his son a scornful look.
Aleksandr crossed his arms over his chest, and met his father’s eyes. “Have you, father? I do not know these gods, but you know me well enough. I have no proof that one faith is any more true than another. Do you have proof of my nobility?”
Valentin and Aleksandr stared at one another in silence for several long moments. But it was the father that finally broke. He sighed, and allowed a small chuckle. “True enough, Alek. You have me. You are a better man than that.”
Aleksandr nodded. Valentin fell silent again, looking thoughtful. Finally, he spoke: “You truly do not believe? In any of it?”
Aleksandr shrugged. “Like I said, father,” he said. “I don’t know.”
Valentin had never asked Aleksandr to participate in the seasonal rituals, after that. They had never spoken of faith again at all, in fact. Aleksandr suspected that his father didn’t really want to know if his son still disbelieved.
He had not considered these memories in some time. And yet, now…
“You are from Pripia, yes?” Alaina asked. She was riding alongside him, sitting very comfortably in the saddle. It was clear the priestess was a more practiced rider than most of his companions
Aleksandr nodded. “I am.”
“I know that the Torathi faith, or a version of it at any rate, has made it some ways into Rusk. Your Tsar’s own vizier claims to be a follower of Torath.”
“He does.” And more besides. Aleksandr did not voice the thought. He had many concerns about the Tsar’s court, but they were a personal matter. As a member of the Ruskan nobility, it was not his place to condemn his own people.
“But if I know my geography—and I do—Pripia is in the north. Far north of the capital. I suspect the Faith has never penetrated so far.”
“Da,” Aleksandr said. “You are right. They follow the old faith, in Pripia.”
“And you?” Alaina asked.
Aleksandr felt his guard raise, and memories of his father’s questions came rushing back. But when he glanced at the priestess, she was looking at him with an open, curious expression.
“I do not,” he said.
She cocked her head, at that. “Oh? Is that why you came to Torathia, then? A pilgrimage, of sorts?”
Aleksandr furrowed his brow. Pilgrimage? “I do not know this word.”
She smiled. “Oh, forgive me. Bogomol’ye? A journey of prayer, and self-discovery.”
Aleksandr nodded, understanding the word. Then quickly switched to shaking his head. “I see. No, not that.” After a moment’s pause, he added: “I do not follow Torath.”
He searched her eyes, and saw no judgment. She still looked at him with genuine curiosity, her face lit by a warm smile. “Interesting,” she said. “Is there some other faith in northern Rusk that I’ve somehow managed to miss?” She spared a glance behind them, to where Bear was lecturing Dylan about the best places to buy whores in the Volhynia. “Targan ancestor worship?”
Aleksandr snorted. “No,” he said. “Definitely not.”
Alaina settled back in her saddle, her smile turning into a distant expression. She stared ahead, lost in thought. Finally, she looked back to Aleksandr. “So you have no faith?” she asked.
Aleksandr felt his defensiveness rise again.
“Priestess,” Yorrin suddenly piped up.
Aleksandr started at the sound, and he was mildly pleased that Alaina seemed just as shocked. Yorrin had drifted up alongside them with surprisingly stealth. It would have been utterly predictable, had they been on foot. Once the surprise wore off, Aleksandr felt a swell of pride for his friend: Yorrin was learning the saddle with outstanding speed.
“Aleksandr is a good man. A great man,” Yorrin said. He frowned at Alaina. “I’ve believed in Torath all my life. But until I met Aleksandr I had never really considered just how badly I had failed to live Torath’s principles. He’s showed me how to be a better man. His faith is his business.”
Alaina grinned. “Well said!”
Yorrin and Aleksandr both paused, taken aback. They exchanged a confused look.
“What?” she said, chuckling. “Did you think I was going to condemn him? Aleksandr, Yorrin is absolutely right: your faith is your business. Good men come from every faith, and bad men as well.”
“Hmph,” Yorrin grumbled. “I’m not sure of all that. Bear’s a heathen, and he’s no great shakes. I think Aleksandr’s just the exception.”
She shook her head. “I meant it, Yorrin. I know of terrible mistakes my brothers and sisters in the Torathi priesthood have committed.”
Yorrin opened his mouth, no doubt ready with some quick retort. Aleksandr spoke up first, forestalling what he expected to be a fruitless argument. “Thank you for the kindness, Mother Alaina. Is not what I expected.”
Alaina grimaced. “Please, Aleksandr. This is your last warning: Just Alaina. I’m no one’s mother, and I can’t be more than a couple of years older than you.”
Aleksandr grinned. “Da, sorry. Alaina.”
She smiled again, meeting his eyes. Her smile was genuine, crinkling around her eyes and softening the harsh angles of her face. She was not at all what he had expected, when Prudence told him they were to be working for a member of the priesthood.
A quick glance to the rear confirmed that Prudence was still following behind, keeping half an eye on Borthul as he nodded in and out of consciousness. His old nag was remarkably well trained, to bear him so easily even while he slept.
“Misviyr,” Yorrin said suddenly, pointed ahead.
He was right. They’d been hearing the distant crash of the Tyre all day, but it was growing louder. And now that Yorrin had pointed it out, Aleksandr saw the Serpentis Keep at the heart of Misviyr, rising up on its little hill. They would have to steer clear of that hill. In fact…
“We are already being well supplied,” Aleksandr said, loud enough for everyone to hear. “Is enough to last us many more days. No need to stop in Misviyr, I think.”
“What? Supplies is not point, Aleksandr!” Bear complained. “Misviyr has many tavern I not yet see! Many beers, many dices, many womens!”
Yorrin clued into Aleksandr’s thinking instantly. “We’re on a job, Bear,” he said. “Beer and dice and women will have to wait until the job is finished.”
“No buts, Bear,” Yorrin interrupted. “We’ve also got some old friends in Misviyr, but I’m afraid we’ll have to skip seeing them, too.”
The hint was obvious enough that Dylan and Prudence concurred with this plan immediately. Bear grumbled to himself a little longer, but nobody was listening. Aleksandr was fairly sure Bear didn’t even expect them to listen, in all honesty. The complaints seemed to be more out of principle than anything.
They were in and out of Misviyr in a matter of a few hours. No run-ins with the Serpentes, or any associates of Scaleman. In short order they were back on the Cassaline road, headed for the north-eastern border of Torathia.
They were still some days from the Midland Mountains, and the Underpass. The sky swirled with dark clouds, and from what Yorrin said it was coming into the right time of year for the last winter sleets. They would have to travel carefully to avoid being caught out in a bad storm. There were more dangers in the world than goblins and brigands, after all. Especially for a man as old as Borthul.
But for now, clouds be damned, the day was still crisp and cool rather than biting cold. The road was long, no enemies in sight, and the company was good. Surprisingly good.
Aleksandr was going to enjoy every minute of it.