The girl held her tongue all the way out of the Serpentes Keep.
They made their way down to the riverside, and into a charming little dive. The sign outside sported an ugly rendering of a man spearing what had to be a fish of some kind. A fat barmaid with bad teeth greeted them with a grin.
“Welcome to the ‘Appy Fisherman, loves!” she said. Her cleavage looked about ready to burst through her dress, and Yorrin suspected the rest of her would follow soon after.
They nodded, Yorrin passed her a handful of gir, and they took seats in a dark corner of the common.
“So,” Aleksandr said. “Prudence.”
Yorrin watched as Aleksandr’s eyes flickered. No doubt recalling their conversations to see if he’d properly introduced himself.
“First day,” Yorrin offered. “I called you by name.”
“Ah!” Aleksandr’s eyes lit briefly as he remembered. “Da.”
Prudence rolled her eyes. “You wanted to talk. Talk.”
“We want the ledger back,” Dylan said.
“Slow down, Slim,” Prudence said. “I think your bosses want a little more than just that.”
“Da,” Aleksandr said. “Is true. For a beginning, you can tell us why you took Yusef Scaleman’s ledger.”
“Why? The right merchant can wreak holy hell on his competition with that kind of information. Surely I’m just doing it for the coin,” Prudence blinked at Aleksandr, playing the ingenue.
That’s a first, thought Yorrin. Never seen someone put forth theft as the innocent option.
“Yorrin does not believe so,” Aleksandr said.
Prudence glanced at Yorrin, derision clear in her features. “Does he now? And what makes you think he’s right?”
“Call it a hunch. There’re easier ways to make a shekel,” Yorrin said. “You didn’t need to get us involved. You could’ve stolen a lot more than just one book. You weren’t after money. You were after information.”
“Information is money,” Prudence said. “Better, even.”
Yorrin fell silent as the barmaid finally brought their round.
“Finally!” Bear growled. He snatched up his tankard and downed half of it in a gulp. Aleksandr took a hesitant sip of his, then passed it over to the barbarian.
“What were you hoping to find in that ledger?” Yorrin asked, his voice low.
Prudence sighed. After an overly long pause, she finally said: “Evidence.”
Cagey, quiet, subtle. She’s been at this a long time for someone so young. Yorrin thought.
“Nobody’s impressed by this dance, girl,” he snapped. “Tell us, or we go to Yusef with or without the ledger.”
“Uh oh,” Prudence said, smiling. The smile was manufactured, and it vanished as quickly as it had come. “Fine, fine. Scaleman’s a murdering, slaving, lowdown son of a bitch. I want to see him ended. Good enough for you?”
Aleksandr frowned, leaning in. “Is serious claim, Prudence. How do you know this?”
Prudence’s expression darkened. “Doesn’t matter,” she said.
Yorrin studied her face. She was a hard one to read, for certain. But this discomfort had the ring of truth. Whatever she was evading was something serious. Something real.
“I think it does,” said Dylan. “We’re not going to just blindly accept your word, girl. If you—”
“I knew someone that ran afoul of him,” Prudence interrupted. “Someone close to me. For their trouble, they probably washed up on the Tyre’s shore somewhere between Nahash and Cassala.”
Aleksandr’s expression softened in sympathy, and he reached out to lay a gloved hand on Prudence’s. For a moment, she let him, but then she twisted her hand away.
“I am sorry,” Aleksandr said.
“Save your sorry for the Snake,” Prudence muttered. “I don’t need it. I intend to get revenge.”
“Not justice?” Dylan asked.
Yorrin snorted. Prudence met Yorrin’s eyes, just a flicker of movement, but some understanding passed between them. They would never say it aloud, but he was growing quite certain that they understood each other.
He rolled his eyes at her.
She looked at Dylan. “The ledger was my hope at justice. He keeps his books too clean. So yeah, I’ll settle for revenge.”
Aleksandr shook his head. “You must be careful, Prudence. What will you do?”
She shrugged. “Easy,” she said. “I’m going to kill the bastard.”
“You sure about this?” Dylan asked as the four men walked back to the Scaleman manor. Prudence lagged far enough behind that it was not immediately clear she was following them.
He was talking to Aleksandr, but Yorrin answered anyway.
“She’s a liar,” he said. “But I believe her, at least on this.”
“Why?” the Whip asked. “If you admit she’s a liar, what makes this story any different?”
“It hangs together,” Yorrin said.
Dylan fell silent, giving Yorrin time to elaborate. Yorrin said nothing.
“That’s it?” Dylan said. “She’s a liar. She offers us no evidence. And she wants our help in killing a man. And you believe her tale, because…”
“It hangs together,” Yorrin said, nodding. “Yeah.”
“We are not helping her kill anyone, Dylan,” Aleksandr said.
“You heard her, Aleksandr. She—”
“Is distraught. Can be understood, from her point of view. No?”
Dylan shrugged. “Sure. Yeah. But we’re playing with fire, here.”
“We will help her to meet with Yusef. Confront him. Denounce him. But we will not kill him.”
“Bah!” Bear growled. “Too much talk. If Scaly man hurt little girl, we kill him. No need to set him on fire, Whip. Axe is good. Why so much argue?”
“We will not kill him,” Aleksandr admonished.
“What if he earns it?” Yorrin asked.
“I’m serious,” Yorrin said. “If he confirms her tale? Or worse?”
When he replied, Aleksandr’s voice was quiet. Yet his tone was hard as iron. “We do what we must,” was all he said.
None of the men had much to say to that. They fell silent as they walked. The sun was dipping down, and its glow turned the Tyre orange. After some time, Scaleman’s house came into view. Prudence grouped up with them as they entered the grounds. She passed the ledger to Aleksandr, who moved to the front of their little group.
Hezekiah waved them through without so much as a second glance. Yorrin was fairly sure he didn’t even notice the girl. They found Yusef taking supper in his solar, not the dining hall. The theft had him rattled, and doubtless he saw the hall as too big. Too open. Too vulnerable.
Yusef’s second guard, a man named Burchard, leaned against a far wall, daydreaming. He stared out the window, not acknowledging their entrance with so much as a nod.
“Sir Kerensky,” Yusef said, looking up from his meal. “Good news?”
Aleksandr held up the ledger. “Perhaps,” he said.
Yusef brightened instantly. “Oh! You got it? Marvelous! How’d you manage that?”
Aleksandr laid the book down on the table. Yusef abandoned his meal and immediately stood to retrieve his ledger. He began leafing through it.
“It wasn’t easy,” Yorrin said. “You owe us.”
Yusef spared Yorrin enough attention to give him a contemptuous sneer. “Don’t speak to your betters in such a way.”
Aleksandr placed a hand on the edge of the ledger. “Yusef,” he said. His tone was gentle, but firm.
Yusef sniffed. “Yes, well. Burchard! Fetch the satchel I set aside, will you?”
The guard snapped to attention at the sound of his name. After another beat, he processed the order, and scurried off to comply.
Yusef put the ledger down. “It seems to be in order. I suppose you—” He stopped abruptly, staring at Prudence. “Who is that?”
“Yusef Scaleman, meet Prudence. Prudence, Yusef.”
Scaleman was far from pleased at this new development. “Who are you, girl? Why are you here? What’s the meaning of this, Kerensky?”
“You don’t recognize me,” Prudence said.
Yusef narrowed his eyes. “Should I? Who—”
“I won’t bother telling you her name,” Prudence said. “Because you won’t remember that. If you knew it at all.”
“So let me leave it at this: I’m here because of what you’ve done, Yusef. And I will tear this house down around you, brick by brick, if I have to.”
Yusef fell silent. Yorrin was fairly sure the look in his eyes betrayed the understanding that was just now dawning on him. His mouth curled into an ugly smile.
“I see. One of those women, then? Kerensky, hold this woman. One of you fools fetch the Serpentes.”
Neither Yorrin, nor Aleksandr, nor anyone else moved an inch.
Yusef slowly seemed to realize that, perhaps, he had no allies in the room after all. “Kerensky? Sir Kerensky?”
“Prudence claims you are a slaver, Yusef. Is true?”
Yusef scoffed. “I’m a merchantman, Kerensky! I trade in whatever’s lucrative.”
“So, slaves,” Yorrin said. “I may be a simple guttersnipe, but even I know slavery is anathema to Torath, Scaleman.”
“Spare me,” Yusef said. “You’re sellswords. Men like you can’t afford morals. You’ll follow the shekels, I think. Speaking of…”
Burchard stepped into the room, his coming heralded by the jingling of a purse. Oblivious to the tension in the room, he wandered over to Yusef and handed him the satchel
“Four minas to each of you,” Yusef snarled. He offered Aleksandr the purse. “A ludicrous sum. I’ll pay your extortion. Now take the coin, and take the girl into custody.”
Aleksandr took the pouch. Without even peeking inside, he calmly slipped it inside the purse hanging from his belt.
“Is payment for the ledger, da?” he said. “Nothing about any girl.”
Yusef’s eyes lit with anger. “You dare swindle me, Ruskan? I will destroy you. All of you!”
“I do not think that this is true,” Aleksandr said.
“Burchard!” Yusef snapped.
“Take them. All of them. I want them held. But most of all, the girl. And send Hezekiah to fetch a damned Serpentis!”
Burchard swallowed. He tightened his grip on his spear unnecessarily, and took a step towards them. Bear growled from the back of his throat. He reached down and unhooked his axe from where he kept it thrust through his belt.
“Sir,” Burchard said, shying away from the Ruskan barbarian. “I’m not—I mean—”
“God damn you, you worthless coward,” Yusef snarled to his man. “Must I do everything myself?”
He reached down to his side and drew a long dagger from a belt sheath. He advanced on Prudence.
“Yusef,” Aleksandr said. He stepped into Yusef’s path, holding up a cautioning hand. “Do not do this.”
“Do it, Yusef,” Prudence murmured. “Please. Do it.”
“Hold on now,” Burchard cut in. He clumsily advanced on them, mostly Aleksandr. “Back off the boss.”
Yorrin simply watched as several things happened at once. Perhaps he could have done something to avert what happened next, but he never was quite sure what could have salvaged the situation.
Aleksandr’s attention was redirected to Burchard. He kept his hands up, placating the nervous guard. Dylan was too far to the rear of their group to do much of anything. Prudence stood her ground as Yusef advanced on her with his dagger. Yorrin saw a slender blade just barely tucked away in her palm. Yusef raised his hand to strike her, and Yorrin waited for what he expected to be a swift, efficient retaliation.
Bear’s interjection was certainly swift. But Yorrin would hesitate to call it efficient. His axe swept out in a single powerful blow.
Prudence seemed as shocked as any of them when a spray of blood spattered across her face. Yusef fell to the ground, screaming, his left hand futilely groping at what little remained of his right arm. Blood gushed out of the stump in steady, wet pulses. Most of Yusef’s arm lay on the thick carpets covering the floor.
Prudence just stared down at Yusef with a look of grim satisfaction. Aleksandr and Dylan rushed to the lord’s aid. Burchard seemed to briefly consider retaliating against Bear, but the big barbarian just grinned at him, and he wilted away.
“I—I’ll—” Burchard stuttered. “I’ll go get the Serpentes.”