Yusef Scaleman did not die.
It was a near thing. But Aleksandr knew enough to tie the stump off as tight as he could, and stop the bleeding. Dylan lent his hands to the task, and they kept the lord company while they waited for one of the Serpentes to arrive. First to arrive were several members of the militia, and two sisters of the local nunnery. The latter ushered Yusef away. The former held Aleksandr and his companions until the Serpentis could sort everything out.
The Serpentis questioned them all for a long while.
They told the truth. Such as it was. At first, Aleksandr feared things would go badly for them. But Prudence was known to the Serpentes. And so was Scaleman. Rumors of his deeds had swirled around him for years, apparently, though no evidence had ever been brought. As a result, however, Prudence’s testimony as a witness to his misdeeds was not totally discounted.
That was enough. The facts of the situation were not so bad: They had come at Yusef’s invitation. They did not threaten him. He struck first, taking up a weapon against an unarmed girl. Bear struck him once, to stop him. And then they did what they could to save his life.
Even Yusef’s own guard, Burchard, told the same tale. As much as he had seen. His facts mirrored theirs.
In the end, the Serpentis did not take anyone into custody. Yusef would pay no more price than had been inflicted. Prudence was stripped of her post at the Serpentes Keep, and asked never to attempt to work for them again. The Serpentis Knight advised all of them to make themselves scarce, at least so far as Yusef Scaleman’s neighborhood was concerned. But that was all.
And so they found themselves standing on the streets of Misviyr, all five of them. Aleksandr and his friends were out of work, but the coins in his purse meant that none of them would be going hungry anytime soon. Prudence, however, was seething.
“You shouldn’t have saved him,” she said. “Should’ve let the bastard bleed out onto his expensive carpet.”
“I think,” Aleksandr said, choosing his words carefully. “Had we done this thing, that conversation with the Serpentis would have been much different.”
“They’d have strung Bear up, at the least,” Yorrin said. “Idiot girl, dragging us into this.”
“Yorrin,” Aleksandr said. Yorrin fell silent. Why does he act as if he hates her so? Aleksandr could not help but wonder. The two were so alike.
“You said yourself that you believed her,” Dylan added. “That we ought to help her.”
Aleksandr saw Prudence’s eyes flicker to Yorrin’s. They shared a brief, almost imperceptible moment.
“That was before she almost got us all thrown in a fucking dungeon,” Yorrin snapped. “You picked the wrong name, girl. Maybe Reckless would suit you. Better yet, Brainless.”
“You’re mistaking me for that two-legged animal you call a friend,” Prudence said, jerking her jaw at Bear. “I had things under control.”
“Shut up, Prudence,” Yorrin said, crossing his arms and giving the girl a smug, contemptuous look.
“We have animal?” Bear asked. He turned around, trying to track the direction Prudence had gestured. “Where?”
Dylan stepped into the conversation, quite literally. He interposed himself between Yorrin and Prudence. “Let’s all calm down,” he said. “Prudence, it was good meeting you. Sorry we didn’t help you murder that fellow properly. Best of luck with your future murders.”
“It wasn’t going to be murder.” She frowned. “He was coming at me. It would have been totally justified.”
At that, Aleksandr finally spoke. “No.”
She looked at him, caught off-guard by the interjection.
“Do not tell a lie to yourself, Prudence,” Aleksandr said. “You went to Yusef’s home with intention of killing him.”
“He deserved it!” she said. “And worse!”
Aleksandr shrugged, tilting his head to the side. “Perhaps this is so. Changes nothing.”
She glared at him in silence.
“You knew the sorts of men we are,” Aleksandr said. “When first we came to the Serpentes looking for work. Yorrin told you then, as I say now: I do not wish to dirty my hands, as you Torathians say. A life is not worth living, if it is not in the service of good. Of virtue.”
“And you don’t think killing Yusef would’ve been good?”
“Is not important what I think, Prudence,” Aleksandr said. “You do not think this.”
“You say yourself: Killing him was your last, ah, choice?”
“Resort,” Yorrin said.
“Da, thank you. Last resort. You wished to reveal him. Bring him to justice. Why?”
“Is because you know that this is better way. Killing is not something to delight in. Is necessary, sometimes. But—”
“I get it,” Prudence interrupted. “Fine. Maybe you’re right. Doesn’t matter, anyway.”
She looked around the street, as if trying to find an exit to the conversation. It was not lost on Aleksandr that his other companions had fallen silent, letting him speak to her one-on-one. He appreciated the courtesy.
Though it is a bit shocking, Aleksandr thought. Even Bear seems to understand that this conversation is a delicate matter, and must be handled carefully.
“Well,” Prudence said. “Thanks for…” She shrugged.
“Where will you go now?” Aleksandr asked. “Without your pay from the Serpentes?”
“I’ve got a little socked away,” she said. “I’ll be fine.”
“The question stands,” Aleksandr said.
She hesitated. “No clue.” Prudence sighed. “I… this has been my life. For a while now. Revenge, justice, whatever it was. That and the job. Both gone, now. Just like that.” She opened her palm at the word ‘that.’
“Would you like to come with us?” asked Aleksandr. “Just for a time. Until you are finding a new place for yourself?”
Bear snorted. “Little girl travel with big men? Now I am hear everything!”
“Uh, Aleksandr, not that I want to agree with Bear,” Dylan said. “But: you sure that’s a good idea?”
“They’re right,” Yorrin chimed in. He had a gleam in his eyes that Aleksandr could not place. “It’s a dangerous world out there, Aleksandr. Especially for men that seek it out, as you’re prone to do. We can’t be playing nursemaid to a sheltered little girl.”
Prudence narrowed her eyes at Yorrin. He just smirked at her. She studied his expression silently for several long moments. Finally, she spoke. “The way you swing your cock around it must be almost as long as your legs.” She paused, then continued. “Of course, man of your stature, I guess that’s not saying much.”
Yorrin’s expression darkened, though Aleksandr could almost swear he saw the faintest hint of a smile in the corner of his mouth.
“Nobody cares about your wit, Prudence,” Yorrin snapped.
But Bear was laughing so hard that Yorrin’s words were, if Aleksandr was honest, a little difficult to hear. The barbarian clapped Yorrin on the back, shaking him. “Is funny, Yorrin!” he declared. “Very funny! Because you are small, and have small member!”
Dylan snickered a little, as much at Bear’s antics as at Prudence’s gibe. “Hey, you’ve got to at least give her credit for balls, Yorrin.”
“She hasn’t got any balls,” Yorrin said.
“You sure about that? You want to compare?” she said. She swept up her tunic and made as if to undo the laces on her leggings.
That earned another round of laughter from the men. Yorrin seethed in silence. But now Aleksandr was sure that he saw a stifled grin on the little man’s face.
Is he as amused as they are? Aleksandr wondered. Just hiding it better? Why?
“Girl is clever, Aleksandr,” Bear declared, once his laughter had died down. “Come, girl, join us! Is good to laugh on long roads.”
She shot Bear an annoyed look. “My name’s Prudence, you big oaf. Not ‘girl.’ Understood?”
“Da, da. Prudence! Is fun to say. Proo. Dense. Is good name.”
“She’s got courage,” Dylan said. “Standing up to Yorrin and Bear. Everything with Yusef… That’s enough for me, I suppose.”
“I never said I wanted to travel with you,” Prudence said.
“Shut up, Prudence,” Yorrin said. “Just take the offer before we regret it, will you?”
As easy as that, they are both on her side, Aleksandr mused. Yorrin had played their companions easily, and yet so subtly that Aleksandr had almost missed it.
“Prudence,” he said. “Please, pay Yorrin no mind. We would be happy to be traveling with you. If you would be willing to accompany us. I do not know where we will go, but I can tell you this: The work, it will be good. Da?”
Aleksandr met Prudence’s eyes with as plain and open an expression as he could. He could feel her studying him. He wondered what she was looking for. Trying to find the lie? The facade? Aleksandr had none. Or at least, none he was aware of.
Finally, she nodded. Just a single jerk of her head. “Okay,” she said. “Let’s go.”
Four minas for each of them, Yusef had paid. Sixteen sparking gold coins. On one side was stamped the sigil of Torathia: the serpent, coiled around a sphere. The other side of the coins were stamped with the Ammud Kahal. A grand structure writ small, with a single pillar stretching to the heavens. Aleksandr had heard of it, of course: the great cathedral in the heart of Torathia. He doubted a small coin could do it justice.
Sixteen minas was more than enough for the five of them to live off of. Months of room and board at an inn in Misviyr, surely. But that seemed such a waste. Better to put it to use for all of them. To improve their lot, and forge deeper bonds of camaraderie between them.
Aleksandr went to the stable where he had quartered Dascha. The old hostler that ran the place had taken a liking to Aleksandr’s warhorse, and Dascha seemed to tolerate the fellow’s presence. So long as he kept an apple close at hand, anyway.
Aleksandr spoke with the hostler, and found that he had a good many horses of fine breeding for sale. Well trained and even-tempered, he claimed they were. Aleksandr did not doubt him. And so he took his new friends through the stables one by one, and helped each of them pick out a horse.
Choosing a horse was a personal matter. Ultimately, it came down to the rider and the steed. But Aleksandr knew horses well, and he acted as a guide for each of his companions as they found the right mount for their size and comfort. Dylan had ridden horses before, back in Victoria. Bear grew up on the Steppes, stuck between the horse-loving druzhniks of Rusk and the horse-loving Targan barbarians. He knew how to ride, but considered riding horses into battle a coward’s strategy. Yorrin and Prudence had little or no experience with the animals.
It did not matter. Whatever their history, whatever skills or habits they had or lacked, Aleksandr had no doubt that he could train them all into capable riders. They had the coin, and they had the time. Most of all, they had the will.
Aleksandr liked his new friends. He had never expected to end up here. It had not been so very long ago that he slept alone under a tree, in an early fall snow. Dreaming of his promises to his grandfather, and his father. Dreaming of finding his way in the world, away from Pripia. Away from Rusk.
He believed he understood, now. His place was here. Not Misviyr. Or even Torathia. One place was much the same as the next, he was learning.
No, his place was here, with these people. Dylan had called them a mercenary company. Perhaps they were. But Aleksandr would not, could not, see it that way. They were his friends. His brothers. They came from all different places, different backgrounds. They had done things, good, bad, and in between. But Aleksandr did not care where they came from. He did not care what they had done.
He cared about where they were going next.
And he cared about what they were going to do.