The silver from the Crimson Serpent didn’t last long.
Yorrin still had a bit of it, of course. He had a shekel tucked into each of his boots, the rest of them in an inner purse under his shirt, and his copper gir in a sad, thin little purse on his belt. And he knew Aleksandr was still sitting on a modest sum of coin from his homeland. But Bear had burned through his in short order, hitting the gambling halls of Nasarat as soon as they left the docks. Dylan spent his in the market, getting his hands on a hunting bow, a dozen arrows, and a new spear.
“Just want to be prepared,” said the Whip when Yorrin asked about it. “For whatever we have to do.”
For his part, Yorrin was still holding onto the small sword he’d scavenged off the dead pirate. It was Cassaline, or forged in the Cassaline style: a short blade with a stubby cross-guard, and it suited his hand well enough. But his belt struggled to hold up the weapon, so he forked over a handful of copper gir to pick up a second belt that slung the sword low on his hip. It felt a little odd, but was undeniably better suited to bearing the weight of a proper weapon.
They put Nasarat behind them again, after that. Yorrin had a feeling that this time it would be for a longer stint. Not that he was complaining. Nasarat was home, true, but there wasn’t much work to be had there for honest men. And besides: it made him feel ill at ease, being in a familiar place while trying to live such a different life. He wondered if Aleksandr could tell, and if that had been another driving force in the Ruskan deciding that they ought to hit the trails.
Yorrin had to admit that the outdoors was growing on him. A little. It was still early winter, but no longer so early that the snow was unusual. Still, the drifts piled up on either side of the Cassaline road were awfully high. The road itself even had a solid foot of snow to trudge through, and here they were with Midwinter still a few weeks away.
Going to be a bad winter, Yorrin predicted to himself. The four of them found a sheltered copse of evergreens where the snow hadn’t gotten in. They hunkered down around a fire, toasted a loaf of old bread and a few slabs of cheese, and sat together as the moon climbed into the night sky. Bear recounted an outlandish tale of bravery and violence, and Yorrin joined the other two in a good chuckle.
It felt strange, though. Aleksandr had said he didn’t want a servant, but a friend. Until now, Yorrin had never had a friend that he couldn’t use somehow. Never had a friend that wasn’t using him for something, either. That was how life went, on the streets. He’d scarcely known Aleksandr for a month yet, and already he felt more kinship with the odd, stoic Ruskan than he ever had with the lads in Nasarat.
He actually cares about you, Yorrin thought to himself. And the others, too. He cares. Why the hell does he care? What’s in it for him?
Nothing. The realization made the hairs on the back of Yorrin’s neck stand up. But the more time he spent with Aleksandr, the more certain of it he became. He’s doing all of this just because… he wants to. Because he thinks it’s right. He’s like a Knight Serpentis. Not one of those poor saps running things in the city. But one from the stories, maybe. A hero like Brother Enoch, or Solomon, or even Darius Khashar. Doing good for good’s sake.
Yorrin gnawed on his slice of bread. Toasting it had done wonders for the loaf, and the hard cheese had melted onto it nicely. Good food, good stories, and good company. Was this what life could be like? All the time? He found it hard to believe, and yet…
He wanted to.
The food disappeared, the fire died down to embers, and they eventually drifted off to sleep one by one. Yorrin lay awake long after the other three had dozed off. He stared up at the dark canopy above them. Lost in thought. Memories mixed with hopes in his mind. The life he’d lived so far: thirty-some years of scraping and stealing, cheating and clawing his way out of the gutter. And for the first time, more than that: the life that he could imagine, one without any of that. A life at the side of a man like Aleksandr.
A noble life.
The road to Misviyr was quiet, this time around.
Aleksandr had wanted to revisit the city, since their first time through they had seen a grand total of half a marketplace and a single seedy tavern. A shame, since Misviyr was a big place. One of the major trading cities in Torathia, which meant there was plenty more to be seen. The city rested on the banks of the Tyre, a great broad river that ran north to south across the entire span of Torathia, and down all the way to Cassala. A critical piece of Torathian geography, and a significant part of the nation’s successes. On their previous visit, Yorrin and Aleksandr hadn’t even pressed far enough into the city to see the Tyre. Yorrin wondered if it looked as big as he knew it to be, or if it would just look like the Limes River back home.
As soon as they entered the city, Yorrin felt a palpable change from the last time. Perhaps it was the presence of two additional men, each physically imposing in its own way. Bear with his huge frame, barbarian furs and bearded axe. Dylan with his unnerving height and gaunt figure, also armed. They could both command attention, and they frightened the common folk without even doing anything. That was something a man of Yorrin’s stature could never fully comprehend.
Maybe, though, it was even simpler. Aleksandr seemed to be growing more confident and comfortable in the Midlands by the day. He no longer moved through the crowds like a man constantly on guard for some unexpected assault or theft. He walked calmly, Dascha keeping pace alongside him. The crowds could see he was a knight, or some sort of nobility anyway. The townsfolk in the market square gave all four of them plenty of room.
It would make working the crowd as easy as buttering bread, though. Everyone was too busy staring at Aleksandr, at Dascha, at Bear especially. It would be so simple.
Not anymore, Yorrin reminded himself. He stood a little straighter, and shuffled his feet a little faster to keep pace with his long-legged companions.
“So, what’s the plan, again?” Dylan asked.
He was clearly speaking to Aleksandr, but Yorrin piped up anyway. “We need to find work, Whip. Preferably something that pays a little better. If we want to keep Bear in beer, dice, and meat, anyway.”
Bear chuckled. “Da!” he said. “Is three good things. Yorrin smart little man.”
Is he really that dim, or is it an act? Yorrin honestly couldn’t figure it out. He leaned on taking the barbarian at face value, but years of working with a wide variety of thieves, confidence men, and false-facers had colored his perception.
“Any suggestions?” Aleksandr asked. “I am thinking we all agree: Serpentes in Nasarat did not pay well.”
“Not unless you're a proven force,” Dylan agreed. “For unknowns like us, the best coin to be had is usually from the wealthier merchants.”
“The Serpentes may still be our best bet, then,” Yorrin said. “Not to hire us, but to point us in the right direction.”
Aleksandr nodded, and that simple motion settled things. They headed for the Serpentes keep, a wide square keep on a mound in the distance. Like most Torathian cities, Misviyr was built on the bones of old Imperial forts and towns. Still standing since the days before the decline, when the Cassaline Empire still held sway in the Midlands. The Serpentes had claimed the core of that old Cassaline fort for themselves, turning the old Cassaline fortification into the military and administrative heart of the city.
None of them knew Misviyr well enough to know the quickest path, but neither were they in any particular hurry. So they set a meandering pace, and along the way they began to smell the familiar reek of a cityside river. Sure enough, they rounded a corner and found the Tyre in plain view.
Yorrin stopped and stared.
He couldn't help it. It was just so damn big. Yes, the Encircled Sea was vast, almost incomprehensibly so. But that was hardly a fair comparison, and barring that Yorrin had never seen so much water in his life. The Limes could dump into the Tyre without even rocking the boats floating on its surface. Yorrin knew that there were a handful of bridges spanning the Tyre, but staring at it now it was hard to imagine how such a bridge could have ever been built.
“The Tyre, da?” Aleksandr said. “Is much more impressive than I expected.”
“It's a doozy,” Dylan agreed. Coming from Victoria, he was the only one of the four that had seen—and passed across—the Tyre before.
“Is big,” Bear said. “So what?”
“So what?” Yorrin said. “You're looking at the reason Torathia dominates the world, Bear. Why the Empire doesn't dare oppose us.”
Bear scratched his thick beard, and tugged on one of the braids in it. “Is just river, Yorrin.”
“Just a—look here, you ignorant savage. We—”
“Yorrin.” Aleksandr’s voice was calm, unconcerned. But commanding.
“Sorry,” Yorrin said.
Bear just grinned. “Is big river!” He offered, as if Yorrin had just misunderstood his point.
Yorrin sighed. He fell into pace beside his friends, walking alongside the Tyre. Yorrin realized that unlike Nasarat, Misviyr did not so much have a docks district as it had an unending series of disorganized and random piers jutting out into the water. He passed the usual: fishermen, folks hauling water, washerwomen, and nightsoil men. Sooner or later, everyone needed the river for something.
He was so lost in thought that he nearly tripped over someone. A lad was limping across the street, leaning heavily on a shovel as a sort of impromptu crutch. It took Yorrin a moment to realize the boy wasn't injured, but rather clubfooted. He was scurrying to keep up with a man hauling a nightsoil cart.
“Watch it,” he muttered, more annoyed with himself than the cripple.
“Pardon, suh,” the boy said dipping his head meekly. He hurried past, catching up with the nightsoil cart at the water’s edge. The man and the boy got to work shoveling the shit out of their cart and into the water, to be swept downstream.
Up ahead, the keep loomed. Militiamen guarded the gates. Most likely there were no more than a dozen Serpentes in Misviyr, maybe less. Mostly administrators, commanding a larger number of militia, clerks, scribes, and the like. They inquired, and were given an audience with one such clerk. No Serpentis, she was a small, mousy woman with unkempt dark hair and dark circles under her eyes. Young, probably, though so tired and worn down that she looked older. She sat behind a table scattered with vellum, books, and slates. Her hands were stained with ink and dusted with chalk and charcoal.
“What can I do for you?” She asked. “The men at the gate said you were sellswords looking for work?”
Aleksandr nodded. “Da,” he said. At her confused look, he quickly added “Yes. That is true.”
“Preferably with a private merchant,” Yorrin said. “No offense intended to the Serpentes, of course, but we know they prefer to work with known quantities.”
The woman shrugged. “Not a Serpentis, don't care. Yeah, there are folks looking for your type. Especially if you're willing to get your hands dirty. We—”
“No,” Aleksandr interrupted. “Thank you, but no. We are not willing to do this thing.”
The woman blinked. She looked at the others, surprised. “Uh, is he…I mean, does he—”
“He speaks for all of us,” Yorrin said. “Aleksandr likes clean hands. As for us… we’re learning to like the same.”
Bear laughed at that, his deep voice projecting even a quick chortle across the room.
The woman shrugged. “Alright then. Let's see…” She looked down, shuffling through the documents sprawled across her desk. She plucked one out and scanned it, mumbling to herself. She nodded absently, then looked back to them.
“Here,” she said, offering up a slate to Aleksandr. Aleksandr reached for it, then hesitated as he saw the Middish script.
Yorrin stepped in, scooping up the slate. He read it aloud. “Yusef Scaleman, textiles imports. Requesting extra guards in his manor. Believes someone is trying to rob or murder him. Will pay premium”
She nodded. “That’s the one. Been around a few times, says he’s seen someone skulking around his property. Not really the business of the militia, but we told him if we found anyone we’d send them along.”
Yorrin glanced at his companions. Dylan nodded, clearly interested. Bear just shrugged. Yorrin was pretty sure he hadn’t actually been listening. Aleksandr seemed thoughtful, and after a pause he finally spoke.
“Da, we will go. Protect man from his enemies. Is good work.”
“Assuming he has enemies,” Yorrin pointed out. “Might just be jumping at shadows.”
Aleksandr shrugged. “Then we protect him from himself.”