“Out of way, or I break arm.”
Bear growled the words with malice. He was not threatening a foe, or even clearing a path in the street. He was just sitting down to break his fast.
Not worth another fight, Anatoly thought to himself. He grabbed his bowl and scooted down the bench, making room for the barbarian.
“No need to talk to him that way, is there? We’re all on the same team,” said Orson.
He was entirely too fresh-faced and kindhearted to be a mercenary.
How is he still alive? Anatoly wondered. Then he saw the lean form of Levin silently approach from behind. He sat beside Orson, wordlessly passing the young man a tankard. Right. That’s probably how. That one’s competent enough for two, and he’s taken Orson under his wing for some reason.
“Is much need,” Bear grumbled around a mouthful of porridge. “Tarakov man not get in my way.”
Anatoly bit his tongue. He is not worth it. Just ignore him. “I was not,” Anatoly said, ignoring his better judgment.
“What?” Bear glowered at Anatoly. “You talk to me?”
“Da,” Anatoly said. “You hear me. I was not in your way. Plenty of table for all to use.”
Bear’s expression grew even darker. “I not take orders from Tarakov dog,” he snarled.
“Are we doing this again, Bear?” asked Dylan from down the table. “Aleksandr already told you to knock it off when I had to go bother him last night. Do we need to go get him again?”
“What, exactly, was the problem this time?” Kerensky spoke to them in Ruskan. Anatoly was better at Ruskan than Middish, and Bear seemed equally good—or bad, more accurately—at both tongues.
What is he good at? Anatoly wondered. Not much aside from violence, I think.
“Tarakov dog insulted my people!” Bear said.
“I did not insult them,” Anatoly insisted. “It was a compliment! I said that, back when I rode against them, the people of the Steppes were very fierce. Backwards, maybe, but great warriors.”
Well, it was mostly a compliment, Anatoly thought.
Kerensky pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger.
“You see, Aleksandr?” Bear growled. “He call my people backwards. He think he can say who is fierce and who is not! Like he is—above them. Like he is bayard, and not… dog!”
“Anatoly,” Aleksandr said. “You understand why Bear has taken this poorly, yes? Why he sees it as an insult?”
“I suppose,” Anatoly shrugged.
Kerensky lowered his hand from his face and gave Anatoly a sharp look. His expression showed clear disapproval. “Yes or no,” he said. “If it is no, truthfully, then I will explain. If it is yes…”
“Yes,” Anatoly said. “I understand. I should not have.”
“You see?” Bear crowed triumphantly. “He knows! He is wanting to pick fight with me.”
Anatoly rubbed his bruised jaw where the barbarian had hit him. “Not exactly,” he said.
“Bear,” Kerensky said. He sounded just as disapproving. “You, too, understand what you did wrong. Yes?”
“I do nothing wrong!” said Bear. “He insult my people, I hit him. Everything right. I—”
Kerensky held up a hand in that way of his, and Bear fell silent. “Bear. You are not stupid. You are not backwards. Your people are different, yes, and their lives are hard. But you are not a savage. Therefore I know you understand why I am upset.”
Bear clenched his jaw in anger. He was quiet for a time. Long enough that Anatoly grew uncomfortable, but Aleksandr simply watched him in silence.
Finally, the barbarian nodded. “Yes,” he said. “You not want me to hit him. He is one of us, now. He is Steelshod.”
“Tell him not to insult, then,” Bear said.
“I am telling both of you,” said Kerensky. “This business ends now. The arguing, but more importantly the fighting.”
“Not much fight,” Bear scoffed. “He hit like little girl.”
Anatoly gritted his teeth and did not take the bait.
“Bear…” Aleksandr’s voice was cautioning.
“Bah! Fine. I am sorry.”
“Here is what we will do,” Kerensky said. “The bickering ends today. Do not waste my time, or Yorrin or Dylan’s time, with petty arguments. Do your jobs, follow orders. If insult is given…” Aleksandr held up a hand showing three fingers. “You get three more. Each of you. Three more times you can hit each other. After that, it is done. A fourth time and I will strip that cloak from your back myself.”
Bear blinked. “You would—”
“Absolutely,” Aleksandr said. “We are meant to be a company. A brotherhood. We cannot do that if we are constantly fighting. You both get the same allotment, Bear. Three times. No more. Do you understand?”
“I do,” Anatoly said. “I can follow this order.”
Kerensky nodded, then looked to Bear. “Bear?”
Bear was glaring at Anatoly. Finally, he gave a slow, deliberate nod. “Yes,” he said. “I can do this.”
Anatoly should have seen it coming. Bear crossed the distance between them in two swift steps, and Anatoly was stupid enough to hold out a hand. As if the barbarian was coming to make amends with a shake.
He was not.
Anatoly touched his black eye gingerly, particularly where his cheekbone had been bruised the night before.
“No,” Bear said to Dylan. “Not need Aleksandr.” He frowned. “Sorry,” he said to Anatoly gruffly.
“Is no problem,” Anatoly replied.
Dylan smiled. “Good men.”
Bear shoveled a heaping spoonful of porridge into his mouth, clearly deciding that the best way to avoid fighting with Anatoly was to make it impossible to speak around his breakfast.
Works for me, Anatoly thought.
As they ate, Dylan looked around the common room. “Anyone seen Yorrin?”
“He left before dawn,” Prudence said from across the table.
“You saw him?” Dylan asked.
She shook her head. “One of the workers did,” she said.
When did she speak to the staff? Anatoly wondered. That girl is very strange. I think I’m glad I have no secrets left to keep.
“Make room lads, make room. Your wait is over, I’m here!” Robin announced his late arrival with as much humility and courtesy as was his usual. He entered the common not from the private rooms, but from outside the Silver Pine. He crossed the room and thumped down at the table, gesturing to a barmaid to bring him food and drink.
Anatoly did a double-take when he saw the man.
“You look different,” he said.
Robin grinned. “Noticed, did you?”
It was impossible not to.
Robin’s clothes looked freshly laundered, his gambeson mended. More notably, his hair was clean and cut close to his scalp, and his red beard was clean-shaven. His jaw was stronger than Anatoly had realized.
He looks like a whole different person, he marveled.
“You clean up pretty well, Robin,” Dylan observed. “I like it.”
“Bah!” Bear said. “Too pretty! Better before.”
“You look fearsome enough for the both of us, Bear,” Robin said cheerfully.
“You look less a bandit, for sure,” said Perrin. He wore a thin frown, as if he did not quite approve. “Not too sure what you look like now, though.”
“Why, I look like Steelshod now, of course!” Robin said. “We’ve got these new cloaks and all. Aleksandr got me my very own, which means he recognizes all the contributions I’ve made to the company. And I figure it’s only a matter of time before he needs a few more serjeants, what with how fast he’s bringing on new recruits.”
Robin gestured down the table, to Orson and the other mercenaries that had followed Giancarlo. Anatoly tried to give them all a bit of space, given that Black Garin’s gang had killed a few of their brothers. Although it was true that Orson and the southerner, Cam, seemed to bear him no ill will. And for reasons eluding Anatoly’s understanding the opinions of those two held sway amongst the group of them.
“You think he will make you serjeant?” Anatoly asked. He must be joking.
“Tarakov dog is right,” Bear said. “Aleksandr not make you leader, Robin.”
“And why not?” Robin asked. “I’m one of the few among us that’s got leadership experience!”
“You’ve got briganding experience,” Perrin said.
“Yeah, that’s what I said,” Robin said. He gave Perrin a smug look. “I was leading the Songbirds while you Taraamites sucked each other off in your tower.”
Bear and I are not the only ones in this company at each other’s throats, Anatoly mused. I do not know how Kerensky expects this company to hold together.
He waited for the sparks to fly, and for someone to get hit.
Perrin just rolled his eyes. “Tell yourself whatever tales help take the sting out, Robin,” he said. “You talked a bunch of desperate men into following you to their deaths. You’ve got a silver tongue, that I don’t dispute. You’ve had a bath, a laundry, and a haircut since yesterday, and I bet you didn’t spend a single copper penny on any of it.”
Robin’s expression changed from smug, to annoyed, to self-satisfed as Perrin spoke. Perrin has taken Robin’s measure, Anatoly realized. And he is not rising to the bait. Good man. Perhaps they will not be a problem after all.
“If you put your skills to good use, I expect you’ll even be valuable to us. But Aleksandr hasn’t fallen for your charm, and we both know he won’t. You’re not angling for serjeant.”
Robin frowned. “No?” he said. “Tell me then, since you know me so well. What am I angling for?”
“Nothing,” Perrin said. “I think you’re just happy to be a part of something real for once in your life. I think you finally felt a glimmer of self-respect when you put on that cloak, and you want to hold on to that feeling.”
Robin clenched his jaw, giving Perrin a long, hard stare.
Perrin leaned back in his seat. “And I think you’re fucking a washerwoman.”
That earned laughs all around the table. Robin joined in, but Anatoly could see that the laughter did not reach his eyes.
“You’ve got his measure, lad,” Cam said approvingly, still chuckling. “How did you ken all that, then?”
Perrin shrugged. “All kinds of men pass through Taraam,” he said. “Sometimes they stay, and it’s not always the ones you expect.”
“And the washerwoman?” Anatoly asked. “How did you know that?”
Perrin smirked. “Oh. I didn’t.”
“I saw him with her yesterday,” Prudence said from where she sat beside Perrin. She was so small and quiet that Anatoly had nearly forgotten her.
That got another round of laughs, and this time it seemed Robin was more sincere in joining them. Though he did give Prudence a nervous look, and he was not alone.
She is keeping track of all of us, I think, Anatoly realized. Informing Kerensky on what she finds, no doubt.
“Robin, biggest question still has no answer!” Bear said. “This wash-woman: Was good fuck?”
“Oh, Bear, best I’ve had in ages. Biggest milkers I’ve seen in this muddy shitstain of a city so far!” Robin said loudly. He held his hands up, pantomiming grabbing at very large breasts.
The table divided up between those that laughed and those that groaned at Robin’s vulgarity. Dylan rolled his eyes and told them to knock it off or take it outside. They did neither. Instead they leaned close to each other and lowered their voices, as Robin continued regaling Bear with obscenity.
The rest of them broke off into small discussions after that. Anatoly found himself speaking to no one, finishing his meal in silence. He felt out of place, somewhat. He had traveled with these people for a time, stayed with them here in Yerevan for considerably longer than that. But he still felt mostly like an outsider.
Perhaps I should have gone with Yuri, he thought. Followed him back into the homeland. To Klomsk, or anywhere else. Voska, even. I could seek service in the Tsar’s palace.
The dream was an idle one. Tsar Nikolai ruled the vastness of Rusk and had countless men seeking to serve him. Why would he care about a simple yeoman like Anatoly? Even sadder than that, Anatoly realized, was the fact that the Tsar’s service was not actually something he desired.
They say that the only thing on this earth more capricious and dangerous than the Tsar… is the Tsar’s vizier. The wealth and privilege of serving inside Mikhaivosky Kremlin is not worth the danger that one accidental offense will result in my death or imprisonment. Anatoly sighed. Not even in the privacy of his own mind could he bring himself to entertain idle fantasy.
If I do not want the highest honor a man of Rusk can ever hope for, then what do I desire? He wondered.
Purpose. The answer made Anatoly shiver. It came so easily, so immediately, when he let himself be honest. He craved purpose more than wealth or even esteem.
He had not found it under Black Garin. They had barely even had camaraderie, in truth. Just a token familiarity and friendship that never penetrated past the surface. Men to dice and drink with, nothing more.
But Anatoly had not always been a mercenary. He had served in numerous fiefs across Rusk, under bayards with good reputations. He had seen the depredations those bayards still inflicted upon their folk. He had heard and seen enough to know that the whispered rumors about the Tsar had at least grains of truth—Ruskan nobility was rotten all the way down to its roots, or so it seemed to Anatoly. What use was an honorable position when the Ruskan conception of honor included Tsar Nikolai, or Bayard Luznetsky in the north? Tarakov had been honest, perhaps, but… a brute, even so. Even some of the vassals of Bogdanov here in the valley of Zheleznaya Krovnaya were nothing to admire.
That was what had first drawn him to pay attention to Aleksandr Kerensky. Even those first few days, as they traveled the road into Yerevan, he had seen it. Grigor had seen it too. The men traveling with Kerensky all seemed to orient themselves around him, as naturally as they drew breath. Even the ones that were ostensibly under other command. The merchant’s guards, the Taraamites. To some degree or another, they all followed Kerensky.
Anatoly kept waiting for the façade to crack. Kerensky was the son of a bayard. Trained in statecraft and deception. He was a scion of House Kerensky, specifically. His lineage had spilled its share of unjust blood, to hear the Tarakov druzhniks tell it. Sooner or later, Kerensky would let slip the mask and reveal himself to be… something else. Something lower, something Anatoly would not have to look up to.
I’m still waiting, he thought. I suppose I will keep following him until it happens.
Anatoly tried not to think too hard about what he would do if the mask never slipped. If Kerensky truly was the man he seemed to be. If serving him would finally feel like Anatoly had always imagined life as a druzhnik would be. It was almost too much to hope for.
Anatoly blinked. He realized he had been staring, unfocused, at a far wall. Dylan had sat down in front of him, and Anatoly went briefly cross-eyed as he refocused his vision to the lean man.
“Da,” he said. “I am fine.”
“Looked like you were deep in thought,” Dylan offered. His accent sounded odd to Anatoly’s ear. Strangely flat. The city-state of Victoria was not so far south of Yerevan, and Dylan was not the first Victorian Anatoly had met, but even so he was not used to their odd inflections.
“I suppose,” Anatoly said.
“You’re not letting Bear get to you, are you?” Dylan asked. “I know he gave you quite the black eye. But he doesn’t mean—well, alright, maybe he does. But…”
“Is fine,” Anatoly said, smiling. “Bear is a savage from the Steppes, I cannot expect him to act as a civilized man.” He spoke loudly enough that he knew Bear would hear it, and the barbarian shot him a glare.
Dylan frowned. “Careful, Anatoly. As I understand it, you and Bear have been given orders. Three more times you can throw down, and then that’s the end of it. Bear used one up last night, Aleksandr said. You aiming to use up one of yours today? If you are, get it over with. I won’t have you poking and prodding at him all day, disrupting things.”
Anatoly sighed. “You are right,” he said. “I apologize.”
“Not to me.”
Anatoly grimaced. “Bear, I am sorry,” he said loudly.
“Bah!” Bear growled around his third bowl of porridge.
“So if it’s not Bear, what is it?” Dylan asked.
“I am just… thinking. I do not yet know where I fit.”
“In Steelshod? Or… the world?”
“Da.” Anatoly nodded.
“Oh,” Dylan said. He scratched his chin. “Hard question. Something I’ve been trying to figure out for a while now too. I thought I knew, once. But… that didn’t really work out.”
“But now you follow Kerensky.”
“Yeah,” Dylan agreed. “I guess so. Aleksandr is a good man. A damn good man. Yorrin is too, in his peculiar way. They lean on me, and I’m happy to help. But…”
Anatoly waited for Dylan to finish the sentence. The silence stretched out for some time.
“You are not sure either,” Anatoly said. He lowered his voice. “Of where you fit.”
“I’m figuring it out,” Dylan said. “But—yeah. Guess not. Aleksandr and Yorrin expect me to be a sort of serjeant to you lot. Third in command.”
“This does not feel right?” Anatoly asked.
“I didn’t say that,” Dylan said. “Sometimes it does. Other times… Hm. I’m just—just not sure, I suppose.”
Dylan looked around the table, noticing that most everybody but Bear and Robin had finished their meals. He glanced back at Anatoly. “I don’t think I should have said all of that to you,” he murmured. “Undermining my authority and all.”
Anatoly smiled. “I will keep your confidence,” he said. “Thank you, Dylan. Your words… they helped.”
“Did they?” Dylan seemed genuinely surprised. “That’s good, at least.”
Dylan stood up. When he next spoke, he raised his voice to be heard. “Alright everyone, we’re to meet Aleksandr in the yard at the bayard’s keep after we’ve broken our fast. We’ll be sparring between now and noon. Looks to me you’re all ready to go, so gear up!”
Bear groaned. “Whip, your looking is wrong! I still eat!”
“I think you’ll manage,” Dylan said with a laugh.
“You all go, I catch up,” Bear insisted.
“Bear…” Dylan failed to hide the annoyance in his voice.
Anatoly stood and approached Bear where he sat. The barbarian gave him a contemptuous look.
“What you want, Tarakov dog?” Bear asked.
“Commanders left Dylan in charge,” Anatoly said. “Makes him commander for now. We do as Dylan says.”
“Anatoly…” Dylan said, sounding no less annoyed. “I don’t need your—”
“You do,” Bear said to Anatoly. “You not tell me what I do and not do!”
Anatoly did not respond. He just finished closing the distance between them in silence. When he arrived, Bear was shoveling in another spoonful of porridge.
Anatoly’s fist sent a fountain of porridge out of Bear’s mouth and nose. The barbarian tumbled back out of his seat, sprawling painfully onto the floor of the common room. He coughed and sputtered, wiping porridge and blood off his mouth and cheeks.
Anatoly stood over Bear in silence, and he felt very aware that the rest of the inn was silent too. He held out an open palm towards Bear.
“We are even,” he said. He spoke Ruskan—there was no need to involve the others in this. “You can hit me back now, if you like. And you will be down again, and on your last chance.”
“You think I care?” Bear growled.
“Or,” Anatoly continued. “You can get up, grab your kit, and join us in the yard. We’ll spar together, and you’ll have freedom to hit me as many times between now and noon as you can manage. It’s your choice.”
Bear glared at him, but he did not spend long deliberating. He reached up, grabbed Anatoly’s hand in his own huge, callused paw, and pulled himself to his feet. His lip was bleeding, and his beard was still spattered with porridge, but he did not seem to care.
He looked past Anatoly, to Dylan. “Whip,” he said. “Da, I go now.”
Dylan stared in openmouthed silence for a moment. Then he nodded. “Good!” he said. He glanced around, and saw everyone else staring at what had just transpired. “Enough gawking everyone! Hop to it!”
Anatoly was quick to don his own gear, and he was among the first few out the door. Orson, Levin, and another of the new mercs—the one called Conrad—were standing outside waiting with their steeds. Anatoly decided to give them space, and he stood some distance away as he prepared his own mount.
It was Dylan’s voice. Anatoly knew it without looking up from where he was fastening on his horse’s harness.
“Dylan,” he said. “I am sorry, but—”
“No need,” Dylan said. “I don’t know exactly what you said to Bear, but—I do know Bear. That wasn’t exactly how I’d have handled things, but it seems it actually worked. And Aleksandr was very specific that you each get three free hits, so…”
“You are not angry?” Anatoly looked up, surprised.
Dylan smiled. “Nah,” he said. “That was pretty good. Honestly, the way Bear looked at you after that? I actually think he might like you a little more now.”
Anatoly furrowed his brow. That’s not something I had considered.
“Anyway,” Dylan said. “I just wanted to say thanks. Your instincts were spot on. I think you’re going to fit right in here.”
Anatoly blinked, and swallowed the lump that rose in his throat. “Ah,” he said. “Uh. Thank you.”
“Sure,” Dylan said, shrugging. He walked away, going to tend his own horse.
It is not just Kerensky, Anatoly realized. It’s something else. These people. This company, “Steelshod.” Something about it is different, and I’m not entirely sure what that is yet.
He tightened a final strap on his mount’s tack, and pulled himself up into the saddle.
I just know that I’m lucky to be a part of it.