Nasarat smelled like humanity.
Even after three days, he was not used to it. It wasn't a pleasant smell. Tempered only slightly by the salty breeze from the banks of the Encircled Sea, the waste of so many people was hard to miss. There were few cities back home that were as sprawling and lively as this, and Aleksandr knew Nasarat was not the largest trade city in Torathia.
The city spanned both banks of the Limes River, and stretched for miles across the calm shores of the Encircled Sea. A mix of old and new architecture. Even as a stranger to these lands, Aleksandr could clearly see the difference between newer Torathian stonework and the edifices of the old Empire. The Cassalines favored arches, high angles, strong lines. They built with purpose, and when the earth got in their way it was the earth that moved.
By contrast, the outer walls of the city flowed along natural contours of the land. Built of limestone and wood, carved with Torathi murals and scripture, the men that erected these walls clearly lacked the engineering skill of the old Cassalines. The inner keep was more utilitarian: a square structure on a man-made hill, with symmetric towers and gates. Cassaline work, of course. Aleksandr had seen forts and towers just like them scattered across Torathia, and into southern Rusk.
He walked Dascha beside him as he wandered the muddy streets of the city. Between the warhorse's menacing air and his own broad, armored frame, the passersby gave them a wide berth. None of the crowd pushed or shoved him, the way they did each other. A small mercy.
Still, the cacophony was always disorienting. Men and women haggling on every street corner, shouting and arguing. He recognized half a dozen Middish accents, some of the old Torathi Temple tongue, and others yet more foreign. Cassaline, maybe. Hassadian, undoubtedly. It all blended into a background din that lost any semblance of meaning.
He stopped, surprised by a good scent penetrating the fog: a street vendor, roasting skewers of some sort of ground up meat. Aleksandr paid the man a few coins from his refilled purse.
The meat tasted like goat and, like all the food he'd eaten in Torathia, it was mixed with spices unfamiliar to his Ruskan palate. Not bad, though. Sizzling hot, it dripped grease down his beard.
Aleksandr kept wandering, eventually finding himself in the docks. He looked out at the Encircled Sea: a vast plane of dark green. Small waves lapped upon the shore; ships both large and small dotted the horizon.
He'd come to Nasarat with only the vaguest plan. Heard the city was troubled by pirates in the southern waters of the sea, and that the Knights Serpentes were looking to hire the services of sellswords to supplement the city militia.
He'd been in the city nearly three days now. He had yet to find a Serpentis vessel. Or any ship that was seeking pirates, for that matter. He couldn't say that he was disappointed. Aleksandr had never been on a boat before. Not a ship, anyway. He'd heard it could be rather unpleasant, but he was curious to see how it felt. After all, the Encircled Sea was an inland sea and, supposedly, calmer than the open ocean.
His reverie was disrupted by a pair of loud, surly workmen passing by. He realized he had been standing near the edge of the Encircled Sea, staring out at the horizon, for some time. The sun was high in the sky.
He left the shore, walking the streets again. Snow and ice had been shoveled off to the gutters, forming a black and brown slush that had been melting throughout the day and turned the whole street to mud. A clear sky, the first in days, suggested a coming respite from the snow.
I really am getting soft, he thought to himself. In Pripia, this would be considered good weather in spring! Unheard of this time of winter.
Aleksandr fixed his eyes on the old Cassaline keep rising up beside one bank of the river. The heart of Nasarat. The house of the the city's garrison and administrators.
As he approached the keep, he found a small crowd formed around the base of the hill. They were gathered in some sort of square; he could hear shouts and scattered insults. A simple raised scaffolding, from which hung a few thick ropes, held the crowd’s focus. Each rope ended in a knotted noose. An execution, then. But hanging was not for heretics or high crimes. The death would be relatively short and painless, compared to some executions Aleksandr had seen and heard of.
Aleksandr had never understood the appeal of executions—the spectacle of it. He understood their necessity, of course. Though, even still, his people tended towards punishments of lifelong servitude for many infractions that appeared to warrant death in the Midlands. The Torathians might turn up their noses at it and call it slavery, but Aleksandr wondered if the man about to hang might not find it preferable.
Aleksandr blinked, looked again at the raised platform from which the scaffold rose.
Even in daylight, there was no mistaking him: so short, with that messy tangle of hair, chin dusted with sparse stubble, tattered rags for clothes. His dark eyes pierced the crowd before him. Under the sun's glare, his face was more weathered than Aleksandr had realized. Tanned and creased with dozens of lines, he was older than Aleksandr for certain. Though whether by two years or twenty was hard to say.
A couple of garrison militia stood around the platform, keeping back the crowd. Beside the thief stood a single Knight Serpentis, clad in the iconic white tabard emblazoned with the image of a coiled snake around a sphere.
"Have you anything to say?" asked the Serpentis. He appeared to have just finished a longer speech.
The little man looked up into the Knight's eyes. His eyes were bloodshot, and his skin glistened with sweat.
"Didn't do it," he said, shrugging.
"So you have claimed. But a woman lies dead, and a witness has asserted that you committed the deed."
"A witness," the man scoffed. "You mean Cross-Eyed Pete."
The Serpentis sighed. "Yes, the witness who claimed your guilt was Peter of the Rose."
"Cross-Eyed Pete's a liar. How the hell could he have seen it, anyway? You never can tell which way he's lookin'."
There was some laughter from the crowd at that. Aleksandr was a little surprised to see that the little man’s bravado extended even to facing down an imminent hanging. That took more than just bravado, really. It was a true, albeit strange, sort of courage.
"Peter of the Rose has respectable business ventures in Nasarat. He is not a known criminal and thief," the Knight said. Unlike you, was the unspoken addendum.
"Sure he is," the man said. "Not known to you maybe. But he's as crooked as a pig's cock."
"This is all besides the point," the Serpentis said, growing annoyed. "Have you anything to say in your defense?"
"Sure I do. I told you: I wasn't even in Nasarat three nights ago."
Three nights ago. The words echoed in Aleksandr's head. He frowned.
"Convenient as that may be,” said the Serpentis, “you have no witnesses to attest to this claim. Do you?"
The man sighed. "I was lying low, sir Knight. You understand, having a witness to lying low sort of defeats the purpose?"
"Hold!" Aleksandr shouted from the crowd. A few people near him heard, and gave him dirty looks. But the Serpentis didn't stop.
"Then I have no choice," the Serpentis said.
The little man nodded. He looked forward, above the crowd, expression turning hard. "May as well get on with it, then."
"Stop! Hold!" Aleksandr said. The Serpentis looked over in Aleksandr's direction, but failed to pick him out of the thick crowd.
The Knight shook his head, shrugging away the sound. He loosened one of the ropes, bringing the noose down. He began pulling it over the thief's neck.
"Chyort voz'mi," Aleksandr muttered. He pulled Dascha close, climbed into the saddle, and urged the warhorse forward. "Move!" he shouted. The crowd obliged. "You! Knight! Stop!"
This time it worked. The Serpentis looked at him. Aleksandr knew he cut an imposing sight: a burly man in mail, bearing a longsword, astride a huge Ruskan destrier.
"Who are you?" asked the Serpentis.
"My name is Aleksandr Kerensky of Pripia."
"Pripia?" The Serpentis raised his eyebrows. "A long way from home. What business do you have here? Why do you interfere?"
Aleksandr was not so dimwitted as to fail to notice the change in the Serpentis's body language. He shifted his stance, spacing his feet. One hand moved to rest on the pommel of his own sword.
"Because I recognize this man."
The thief cocked his head to the side, studying Aleksandr. "You do?"
"How is that?" the Serpentis asked, ignoring the man's remark.
"He stole from me."
"Oh," the little man said. "It's you. You look... smaller, in daylight."
The Serpentis shot the condemned man a glare, then looked back to Aleksandr. "He is a thief. If you want him punished you need only sit back and wait."
"You do not understand," Aleksandr said, putting all of the authority and command into his voice that he could muster. "He stole from me. Three nights ago."
A murmur rippled through the crowd at that.
The Serpentis frowned. "Go on."
"Is as I say," Aleksandr said. "On road to Nasarat, an hour or so outside the city walls. An hour by horse."
The frown deepened. "What time of night was this? Dusk? Midnight?"
"Hour until midnight," Aleksandr said. “I am certain.”
"That is... very close to the time of the killing."
"Is why I am here, speaking now. Perhaps you have wrong man?"
"Told you," the little man said, giving the Knight Serpentis a smug grin.
The Knight looked Aleksandr up and down. "Perhaps," he allowed. "Or perhaps not. This story, it is awfully convenient for him."
Aleksandr narrowed his eyes. "I do not care what is 'convenient.' Just what is true."
"And you're sure this tale is true? You weren't... encouraged to tell the story by anyone?"
Aleksandr unslung Kholodny from Dascha's saddle. He left the sword sheathed, but he gripped the sheathed blade in his left hand and rested his right upon the hilt.
"I am a son of House Kerensky," Aleksandr said coldly. "Son of Bayard of Pripia. My word is not for sale. Do you call me liar?"
The Serpentis raised a placating hand, somewhat impatiently. "Not at all. Just a question, sir. Perhaps you were mistaken?"
Aleksandr nodded. He examined the little thief. Perhaps he was mistaken. The position of the moon should have meant an hour before midnight. But the sky was strange, this far south. Did he know the time for certain?
The little man was clearly a thief. And thievery was often punished by death here in the Midlands. Did it matter so much, whether he had done this crime? He was still a criminal.
Yes. Aleksandr thought. It matters. A man should not pay a price for a crime he did not commit.
"Is possible," Aleksandr conceded. "But I do not think it is so. I think your witness—perhaps he is mistaken one."
"Told you," the little man jabbed. "Cross-Eyed Pete's a bloody liar."
"You'll still that tongue if you know what's good for you," said the Serpentis.
The thief fell silent, smirking.
"You put me at something of an impasse, sir," the Serpentis said to Aleksandr. "Your word contradicts the witness. He is not here to argue his case."
"Speaking of ‘convenient,’" the thief muttered.
"What am I to do? Release him at your word?" The crowd stirred at that. Some angry murmurs. "I'm afraid that is not an option."
Aleksandr considered the situation. He could not let an innocent man die. It was not just. "What if we could bring forth this other man? Peter? You ask him your questions again, compare his story to mine."
"Peter of the Rose has left Nasarat, conducting business in Misviyr. You believe you could find him?" The Knight did not hide his skepticism.
Aleksandr frowned. Misviyr? Even the name sounded strange to him. It had to be to the west, somewhere. He studied the little man, standing so resolute despite the noose around his neck.
"I could... with his help," Aleksandr pointed to the thief.
The crowd's murmurs grew much louder now—shouts of dismay. They were quickly turning against him. The Serpentis did not look pleased either. "Impossible," he said. "He would simply flee. I cannot rule out the possibility that he has suborned you. Or deceived you."
Of course. Aleksandr frowned, considering. His frown deepened when he thought of a solution.
"What if I surrender something in his stead?" Aleksandr asked. "My horse, or... I have nearly three hundred silver dengas?"
It was the wrong thing to say. It smacked too much of buying the thief's freedom. The crowd grew angrier. The Knight shook his head. "No, I'm afraid that will not do. I must—"
The crowd and the Serpentis fell silent together as Aleksandr slid Kholodny from its sheath.
The Knight's hand went to his own sword, but Aleksandr immediately reversed his grip, offering the blade to the Serpentis hilt first.
"Kholodny," Aleksandr said. "My sword. My father's sword. And his father’s. The blade of House Kerensky. Is stali… Steel. True steel, you see?"
The Serpentis hesitantly accepted the sword. His left hand traced the dark patterns in the blade. "Seric iron," he murmured. "This is..."
"Priceless," Aleksandr said. "I swore to my father that I would keep it safe."
The crowd was hushed, the people in front jockeying to be close enough to see the ripples in the sword. Even the little man in the noose was quiet.
"You wish to have his parole, in exchange for this?" The Serpentis made no effort to hide his incredulity.
"That is utter madness, sir. Perhaps you're right. Perhaps he is innocent of the murder. But the man is a common thief. It is well known."
"That may be," Aleksandr said. "But if he is innocent, he should not suffer the punishment. It would... it would not be just, sir Knight."
"He'll hang from these ropes one day, no matter what you do," the Serpentis said.
"If he does, I hope it is for something he has done," was all Aleksandr said on the matter. He released his grip on Kholodny's blade, leaving it in the Serpentis's hands.
"Very well. There is no way he paid you to do this. I will accept your blade in exchange for his parole. If you return with him, I shall return the sword to you. If he flees..."
"Is forfeit. I understand," Aleksandr agreed. "But, sir Knight, I must have your word."
"That you will keep it safe, da? I am… trusting you. With blade of my House. Kholodny must not leave your sight."
The Serpentis shook his head in amazement. "Yes, of course. I, Brother Paul of Nasarat, do swear, by my honor as a brother of the Penitent Fellowship of the Most Devout, that I shall keep your family blade safe. Good enough?"
Aleksandr nodded, reluctantly.
Brother Paul gestured to one of the dumbfounded militiamen standing by. The fellow blinked, startled, then hurriedly removed the noose from the thief's neck.
"Come," Aleksandr said to the thief.
For once, the little man had nothing clever to say. He simply followed Aleksandr as they stepped down and through the crowd. The common folk made way for them, staring at Aleksandr in shock.
Once they had put some distance between themselves and the crowd, the little man reached out and stopped Aleksandr. "What's this about, then?" he asked.
Aleksandr cocked his head to the side in confusion. "I do not understand."
"You're not alone there!" The man exclaimed. "I don't think anyone understood what just happened. The hell was that? You dummy up some cheap pot metal to look like seric iron?"
Aleksandr narrowed his eyes. "You will not disrespect my family's blade."
"Alright..." the man said, drawing out the word. "So… that was real?"
"Then what's your game, man? What are you doing?"
"Proving your innocence, I hope," Aleksandr said. "This man, Peter. He went to a town called Misviyr?"
"Hold on a damn minute!" The thief said. "Why are you doing this?!"
Aleksandr met the man's eyes. "Because you deserve justice."
The man swallowed. For a moment his expression showed neither smugness nor surprise. Something more raw. Regret, perhaps. "No," he said. "No, I don't."
"You do," Aleksandr said. "You are innocent today. I will do what I can to prove it."
"Say you do—what then? That Knight wasn't lying, Ruskie. I'm a thief. Damn good one, too. Been one all my life. So what's the point?"
Aleksandr shrugged. "I am not concerned with what you have done. Only what you will do. Whatever you have done in your life, is never too late to change. Perhaps this can be second chance for you, da?"
The man stared at Aleksandr, brow furrowed, as if trying to decipher his words.
Strange little man. Aleksandr waited for him to speak.
"You really believe that? You think I could just... up and change who I am?"
Aleksandr nodded. "Of course," he said. "Your god—the god of these lands, Torath—does his scripture not speak of forgiveness? Of redemption? Of shedding your old skin and becoming something new?"
"My god? They've got churches in Rusk, don't they?"
Aleksandr waved his hand dismissively. "Da, of course. But what I say—is true?"
The thief nodded. "I suppose so."
"Then you see. Perhaps you will shed this skin you wear today, and become new man." Aleksandr paused, then added. "Or not. Is your choice. For now, we prove your innocence."
The man nodded. "Alright. Let's do it. You... you said your name's Alexander?"
"You Middish do not say it right," Aleksandr complained. "Aleksandr. Of House Kerensky."
"Aleksandr. Kerensky. Got it," the man said. He held out his hand.
Aleksandr took it without hesitation.
"Name's Yorrin. Round here, the lads call me Quickhands."
"Yorrin," Aleksandr said, shaking his hand.
"Well then," Yorrin said, breaking into a grin. "Let's go find Cross-Eyed Pete, shall we?"