“Let me see if I am understanding you clearly,” Aleksandr said. He scrubbed his hand across his beard contemplatively. “You know who stole from Yusef.”
“I do,” Yorrin said.
“And you do not wish us to turn this person over to Yusef, or to the Serpentes.”
“Because you suspect that, if anything, Yusef is villain here.”
Yorrin nodded. “That’s about right, yeah.”
“What is this ‘villain,’ bah!” Bear grumbled. “Yusef Scaly Man pay. Why care who is good and who is bad? Silver is good!”
Wasn’t so long ago I’d follow that with a “hear hear!” Yorrin thought. Have I really changed so much, so fast?
“Bear,” Dylan said, rolling his eyes. “Save it.”
The four of them sat in a small antechamber in Scaleman’s manor. Yorrin had cleared the room and nearby corridors, ensuring their privacy. They conversed over supper: flatbread covered in a paste of ground chickpeas and wrapped around olives, cheese, and cubes of spiced goat meat.
Bear huffed in Dylan’s direction, and stuffed most of a wrap in his mouth. He chewed noisily, crumbs showering his beard and the front of his shirt. Aleksandr ignored Bear and Dylan, his eyes studying Yorrin with an intensity that was somewhat unnerving.
“What will you have us do?” he asked. “Betray our employer?”
Yorrin frowned. “I’m not sure,” he admitted. “But we can’t just go along with him, no. I think we need to look into this. Pick our next move carefully.”
“He has crude way of saying, but Bear has a point. Yusef pays well. We are not wealthy. Is it wise, to risk our pay on such a thing?”
“There’s more to living a good life than coin,” Yorrin said. “I think I heard something like that somewhere, once. From someone.”
Aleksandr grinned. “Good saying,” he said. “Very well, Yorrin. As you say. Pick our next move, and we will follow.”
Torath’s fangs, was he testing me? Yorrin wondered, realization dawning on him. Aleksandr’s tone had shifted far too quickly. No wonder that hadn’t sounded like him.
Yorrin realized all three of them were staring at him. He took a bite of his wrap, and considered. They expected him to pick their next move. And if his guess was right, there was only one move that made sense.
Be bold. Confrontational. Yorrin told himself. It was a strange feeling. Not so very long ago, he’d made his bones being the exact opposite. Quiet. Circumspect. Careful. It was a little unsettling how easily he let go of those old habits. As he considered what he was about to do, Yorrin realized he was relishing it. Not for the first time, he felt a little unsettled at the change.
But he didn’t fight it.
“Alright then,” Yorrin said. He left the remainder of his food on his plate, forgotten. “Let’s go make a move.”
The Serpentes Keep rose high over Misviyr. Utilitarian Cassaline architecture had been overlain with Torathi ornamentation in a piecemeal fashion for a hundred years or more. As he passed under an arch carved with a simple fresco of Torathi mythology, Yorrin’s hands twisted into the traditional circle of prayer. The gesture was a perfunctory one, the kind any man of Torathia did when presented with the Faith. Giving honor to God. He’d done it a thousand times, and for the first time in his memory he questioned the act. If one was going to give honor to God, shouldn’t he at least be making an attempt to live according to Torath’s principles?
Not now, Yorrin told himself. Consider your failures to live up to scripture another time. You’ve got work today.
Yorrin led the other three across the gardens that filled the courtyard. In the days of the Empire, this had probably been an empty yard, used to drill soldiers. Now, fat fish lazed about in a green pond ringed with flowers, and a few stunted little willows drooped over the grounds.
They picked their way through the main complex, where they’d received their job a few days earlier. Yorrin led them to what had probably been some sort of war-room or audience hall in ancient days. Now, it was a sparse room lined with benches, where men and women seeking something from the government sat and waited for their turn at a bureaucrat’s ear. They were just outside cramped administrative office where they’d first been tipped off to the Scaleman contract, and half a dozen more just like it. Scribes were hard at work fulfilling the bidding of the Knights Serpentes.
They picked a seat in one corner of the room. Since Yorrin had not actually requested audience with anyone, nobody came to call upon them. They simply sat. And waited. They blended in fairly well with the other folk of Misviyr, each waiting their turn to see the administrators of the city. Aleksandr’s sword drew a couple of stares, but the complex was full of guards, to say nothing of the Serpentes themselves. One man with a longsword was no cause for alarm.
Bear broke out a couple of dice, and cajoled Dylan into throwing a few rounds with him. They wagered coppers and insults to pass the time. Aleksandr sat with Yorrin in silence, studying the crowd.
After a long while, Yorrin spotted his mark. He hopped to his feet, bounding out ahead of his companions. He sidled up beside her.
“We should talk,” he said, voice low.
The girl that had given them Yusef Scaleman’s name barely even spared Yorrin a second glance. “Nothing to talk about,” she murmured.
“That’s nice,” she said.
“Not especially,” Yorrin said. “You’ve caused us a lot of trouble.”
She stopped. Turned to face Yorrin. Her eyes were narrowed, her small, soft features pulled into a frown.
She’s older than she looks, Yorrin realized. Maybe by a good while. So small, and girlish. An act?
“Your troubles are yours, and yours alone," she said. "I don’t give two gir what they might be.” Her voice was small, her inflection measured and precise. Her Torathian accent was so carefully enunciated that it was barely noticeable.
“You should,” Yorrin said. “Else you’ll be meeting not with me, but with Yusef Scaleman.”
“Which would concern me why, exactly?”
“He’s on an awful tear, lately,” Yorrin said. “Something about a missing ledger.”
Aleksandr joined them, though he kept silent for now. Bear and the Whip were still gathering up their dice and coins.
“Merchants are always going on about their ledgers,” she said. “Who can keep up?”
“This particular merchant seems to think the ledger in question could spell the end of him. Ruination and destitution in his future.”
The girl grimaced. “Not hardly,” she muttered. “Bastard keeps them too clean.”
Aleksandr arched an eyebrow. “So... you admit you have taken them?”
The girl shrugged. “Your little man’s got my number, clearly. Why deny it?”
Little man? Yorrin scowled. “You’re one to talk, girl. You’re even shorter than I am.”
She just quirked her lips in a smug little grin. “Bet you don’t get to say that too often.”
She’s good. Quick-witted, sharp-tongued. And quiet as the grave, if the other night is any indication. Yorrin couldn’t help but admire her.
“Careful, or I’ll wipe that smirk off your face,” he said.
“Yorrin! Courtesy to the lady, da?” Aleksandr scolded.
Yorrin just shrugged. He knew Aleksandr wouldn’t understand. Yorrin knew this girl—not her name, of course, nor her life story. But she was one of his people. If she had always been a scribe, Yorrin would eat his lockpicks and wash them down with a mug of gravel.
“Didn’t expect you to twig to me so fast,” the girl admitted. “And I didn’t expect the ledger to be such a bust.”
It takes real balls, to admit her errors that openly, Yorrin thought.
“Hell, you’re not very good at this, are you girl?” he said.
“Courtesy, Yorrin,” said Aleksandr again, looking from him to the girl. “Miss. What is your name?”
She paused. After a beat, she said: “Prudence.”
“Perhaps you should have shown some of your namesake, then,” Yorrin said. “You’ve been dreadfully reckless.”
"If you were going to tell Yusef, you would've already done it, instead of rushing off to see me straight away," Prudence said. "I think I'll be alright."
Of course she knows we didn't tell Yusef. Either she's been watching us, or she's got someone on the inside. Or both. This girl is good. Yorrin thought.
“You sure? Because from where I’m standing, you’re a rank amateur,” he said.
Aleksandr sighed. “Yorrin…” he began. Then he paused, and looked around. Bear and Dylan stood beside him, looking uncomfortably awkward. The group of them had been stopped in the middle of the waiting area for some time, and were drawing a few stares. “Perhaps we should speak somewhere more private.”
“Outside, then. Unless you’ve got to get back to scribing vellum for the Serpentes?” Yorrin chuckled.
“Keep laughing,” Prudence said. Her tone was mocking, but she moved towards the exit. Yorrin hustled to keep up. “The job gives great access, and it pays. I’m sure Yusef was delighted that you couldn’t do the job he hired you for. I bet you’ve got a great payday coming.”
She works for the Serpentes, make contacts among the merchant class, and then scams them out of their coin. Damn. That’s bloody genius, Yorrin thought.
“Shut up, Prudence,” he said.