The Free Spears wanted nothing to do with Dylan.
It made Yorrin feel a little bad for the Whip, to see his former brothers turn their back on him like that. But that was life. People were your friend so long as you could be of use to them. Once you screwed that up, why would they stick around?
Friendship. Decency. Not everyone’s just looking out for himself. The thoughts popped into Yorrin’s head, unbidden, and he instinctively glanced at Aleksandr. The broad Ruskan was guiding a nervous, unhappy Dascha out of the hold of the Crimson Serpent and out onto the docks. Bear and Dylan walked a few steps behind him.
Home sweet home, Yorrin thought, as he took in the docks of Nasarat. He pointedly ignored the glares of the few surviving Free Spears, standing in the mud at the end of the pier. They weren’t glaring at him anyway. And besides, he could hardly blame them. Dylan had been fairly quiet these last few days, as the Crimson Serpent limped back to port. Lost in thought, a few murmured words exchanged with Aleksandr. It was clear the poor man blamed himself for breaking when his brothers needed him most, same way they did.
At the end of the dock, the remnants of the militiamen had formed up around a Knight Serpentis. Not Brother Paul, thankfully. Yorrin didn’t exactly bear ill will towards the man—he was just doing his job after all—but he had been dead set on seeing Yorrin hanged. This knight was a woman, though she still looked much the same as any Serpentis. Lean, hard features, hooked nose, short cropped hair. Tall, for a woman, which put her below Aleksandr but still a full head above Yorrin. She wore mail beneath her white tabard, and the traditional Serpentis longsword hung from her baldrick. She held a piece of slate and a stick of charcoal in her hands. An assistant sat behind her at a table that appeared to have been simply plopped down in the street. He was reading from a vellum charter, and counting out coins from an oaken chest.
The militiamen received their pay and limped off. Yorrin hung back while the Free Spears stepped up to get their due. They looked so damned haggard. Less than half their original number, and most of them were moving gingerly to avoid pulling stitches or straining their various injuries. One of them stepped forth to speak with the Serpentis woman. She eyed them skeptically, but after a few exchanges she finally nodded and barked some orders to her assistant.
“Everything is alright?” Aleksandr asked.
The three men and the horse had slipped up behind Yorrin while he watched. He just nodded, still studying the Free Spears as the Serpentis’s clerk counted out a stack of silver shekels.
“Sure,” Yorrin said. “But I think they’re taking your cut, Whip.”
Dylan glanced over at the scene, frowning. Yorrin was pretty sure he wasn’t frowning at the Free Spears, though. The Whip was a gloomy fellow these last few days, and the frown seemed to be one of his natural features.
“They can have it,” he said. “Doesn’t matter.”
Bear clapped Dylan on the back, nearly sending the gangly man into the slushy mud of the street.
“Is your coin, Whip!” Bear said. “Should not stand there like sad rogonosets! Go, be taking what is yours!”
Dylan blinked. “Like a what?”
Aleksandr sighed. “Is Ruskan word. Not sure if there is Middish. Man with unfaithful wife?”
Yorrin snorted. “Cuckold? You just call the Whip a cuckold, Bear?”
Bear nodded, grinning. “Da! Good word, I like. Cuckold! Is what you are, Whip?”
For once, Dylan didn’t frown. He narrowed his eyes at Bear, looking more annoyed than depressed. “No,” he said.
“Then go get!”
“Bear, enough,” Aleksandr said. He looked at the Free Spears, brow drawing to a concerned furrow. “Is not right,” he conceded. “But may not be worth the trouble. Is up to you, Dylan. We are with you.”
The Whip glanced back at his former brothers. They divvied up the stacks of silver and began shambling down the street. Dylan inhaled deeply, blew the breath out between his closed lips.
“Nah,” he said. “It’s fine. I—I let them down. Small price to pay. I’d give a hell of a lot more if it could bring Terence or the others back, anyway.”
Yorrin couldn’t quite fathom giving up a claim to silver so easily. Broken or not, the Whip had shed and spilled blood for that coin.
Aleksandr nodded. “Probably best,” he said.
With that, they all fell in behind Aleksandr as he led Dascha down the pier to the Knight Serpentis and her clerk.
“Name?” she asked.
“Aleksandr Kerensky,” Aleksandr said. “Son of—”
“Mmhm,” she said, marking something on her slate. “Two men?” she looked up, and her skeptical gaze passed over the four of them.
“Only Yorrin and I signed on,” Aleksandr explained. “Bear, we met in Ozu-Cale. Dylan, formerly of the—”
“Two men, eighteen days at sea, one day of battle,” the Serpentis scratched away on her slate. “Six and ten.”
The clerk began dutifully counting out the coins. Yorrin stared at this travesty, jaw agape.
Sixteen coins? Sixteen fucking shekels? He’d scored several times that on a single good day working the streets before. Without being treated to any bloodbaths, thanks much.
Aleksandr just stepped over to the table and split the meager payout into four equal stacks. He passed them out to the lads. Yorrin very nearly threw his back in Aleksandr’s face, or in the face of the ugly smug Serpentis bitch. But he stifled the urge. Shot Aleksandr a crooked grin and pocketed his four coins.
It’s fine, he told himself. Honest pay for honest work. We helped people, out there. Protected them from pirates.
It was a thin consolation, but it would have to do. That is, until he glanced down at the vellum ledger as the clerk inked in the payment he’d just doled out. It wasn’t that line that caught Yorrin’s eye, but the one just above it.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Yorrin blurted out.
The Serpentis snapped her eyes to Yorrin, glaring at him. “Pardon?”
“You paid the Free Spears nearly double what you paid us!”
Aleksandr placed a hand on Yorrin’s shoulder. Cautioning. Calming. “Yorrin, there were many more of them. Is fine. Let us—”
Yorrin shrugged off Aleksandr’s hand. “Per man, Aleksandr. She paid each of the fucking Free Spears nearly double what we warranted. Did they look twice as good as you, out there? Twice as good as Bear?”
“Is not possible!” Bear interjected. Nobody paid him any mind, though.
“You’ve got good eyes for a man dressed in the rags of a guttersnipe,” the Serpentis said. Her voice was cold, her eyes piercing. “And you can read? Careful, or you’ll have me thinking you’re some kind of spy or false-facer.”
“Don’t change the subject,” Yorrin snapped.
“Yorrin…” Aleksandr clearly did not want to press this issue.
“I’m not,” said the Serpentis. “I care very little what you object to, little man. Your master agreed to a fair wage. We have paid it. Our business is concluded.”
The Whip cleared his throat. The woman’s glare shifted to him.
“Actually,” Dylan said. With the odd way he pronounced that word alone, he marked himself as a Victorian. But what came next would just hammer it in. “My name is Dylan Plowman. Called the Whip. First Serjeant of the Free Spears.”
Aleksandr stopped protesting. He just watched, a small smile growing on his lips.
The Serpentis, on the other hand, tightened her mouth into a thin, puckered line. “Is that so,” she said through clenched teeth.
Dylan nodded. “I can’t read terribly well, Sister, but like any son of Victoria I do know my letters. I made my mark alongside Captain Tanner’s, when we signed on. You can check it up, if you like.”
“The Free Spears were already paid.”
“Yeah, well,” Dylan shrugged. “They don’t much like me anymore. No hard feelings. But you don’t seem to care who’s here today, do you? You care about who signed on. Well. I signed on.”
This was too precious. Yorrin crossed his arms over his chest, not even trying to hide his smug satisfaction. The Serpentis and her clerk went back over their contracts, and told Dylan to make his mark on her slate to demonstrate. Finally, she ordered her clerk to dole out the owed coin. As a serjeant, Dylan had been due a goodly portion. The clerk counted out a stack of thirteen shekels, and Dylan counted them again as he picked them up one by one.
“Many thanks, Sister,” Dylan said, smirking.
“Indeed. You are excused. You’re all excused,” she said.
It always made Yorrin a little sad, to see members of the Knights Serpentes wasting time on civic administration. He knew that Torathia relied heavily on the monastic order to manage its affairs, but as a child he’d always seen the Serpentes as the unstoppable military engine of the Church. Responsible for every important military victory in the last century or more. It was no wonder this Sister of the order was so irritable. She didn’t belong here, paying out mercs. She ought to be in far-off foreign lands, subjugating Hassadian heathens or reminding the Cassaline Empire why they now paid homage to the Church.
Of course, his sympathy didn’t in any way diminish his sense of satisfaction. He whistled a jaunty tune as the four of them put a little distance between themselves and the Serpentis.
“Yorrin,” Aleksandr said.
“You did not tell me you can read.”
Yorrin frowned. “You didn’t ask. What’s it matter, anyway?”
“Is good. Just did not expect, is all,” Aleksandr said. “I cannot read. Not Middish. Ruskan, of course. Perhaps, you teach me. Da?”
“I suppose,” Yorrin said, shrugging uncomfortably.
“In Victoria, every town alderman teaches the children letters,” Dylan said. “But I thought the only schooling out here is for nobles, or for clergy. No?”
“Yeah,” Yorrin said.
“So which are you?”
“Nobleman, or clergy?” Dylan said. His smirk showed he meant it mostly as a joke, but…
“Neither,” Yorrin snapped. “Just a guttersnipe, like she said.”
Dylan cocked his head. “How does that work, then?”
Yorrin sighed. They weren’t going to let this go, he could sense it. Not until they had an answer.
“A guttersnipe that knows Nasarat like the back of his hand,” Yorrin said. “A guttersnipe that knows the best ways to slip into the church rafters and listen in on lessons. And the best times to sneak in and look through the books when everyone’s asleep. Alright?”
“Bah!” Bear said. “So much trouble! For why? For little marks? What use is little marks?”
Yorrin arched an eyebrow at the barbarian. “Only pigs and fools wallow in ignorance, Bear.”
Bear frowned. “What is meaning? Wallows? Ignore ants? This sound like words you learn from little marks!”
Yorrin paused, momentarily taken aback.. He had read that, in an old book of proverbs. Before he could come up with a suitable retort, Dylan interrupted.
“Enough of that. Here.” He began to divide up his spoils.
“Keep it,” Yorrin suggested immediately. “It’s yours, after all.”
Dylan shrugged. “Sure, but we’re a team, aren’t we?” He pressed three coins into Yorrin’s hand. “Take ‘em.”
Yorrin wasn’t one to argue with a gift. He was still a little shocked at himself that he’d even tried. Dylan passed three coins to Bear, and three to Aleksandr.
Thirteen didn’t divide evenly into four. Dylan offered the last coin to Aleksandr as well.
“I could not,” Aleksandr said. “Is yours, Dylan.”
Dylan shook his head. “Nah. Seems to me you’re the commander of this company. Your share ought to be the largest.”
Aleksandr frowned, but he seemed to consider the words. “Company?” he said finally.
“Sure. Isn’t that what we are?”
Aleksandr looked at each of them in turn. “I am thinking we are friends.”
Dylan smiled. “Sure,” he said. “The best companies always are.”
He pressed the coin on Aleksandr again. This time, Aleksandr took it.