“Do we have to ride the horse?”
Aleksandr did not look up from Dascha. He smoothed the blankets on the horse’s back before carefully laying down the saddle. Finally, he turned to give Yorrin a hard stare.
Yorrin had paused in breaking down their camp. He was staring at Dascha. “Damn beast hates me, you know.”
Aleksandr frowned. “Do not be disrespecting Dascha in this way. He is very wise and courageous animal.”
Yorrin eyed the horse warily. “That may be, but he still hates me.”
Dascha snorted indignantly. Aleksandr stopped what he was doing to place a hand on Dascha's nose, stroking the soft fur. “Is trained for battle,” he said. “Does not like anyone without good reason.”
Yorrin sighed. “Suppose so. Just always feels like he's trying to throw me.”
“If he was trying this thing, you would be thrown. You are very bad rider.”
“‘Course I am!” Yorrin said. “Never ridden before. How the hell you knights do it for months on end, I'll never know. Feels like my balls are about to fall off.”
“Your loins will be fine.” Aleksandr finished fastening the saddle.
Yorrin glared at horse and rider. “What kind of name is Dascha anyway? Ain't that a girl's name, in Rusk?”
The stallion nickered, returning Yorrin's spiteful look.
Aleksandr shook his head. “Sometimes, da.” He hesitated. “Most times. But name means 'Gift of God.' And Dascha—he is very precious to me. Special horse. I raise him from foal.”
“That's sweet and all, but he wasn't a gift from God, then, was he? He was a gift from your father.”
“Grandfather,” Aleksandr corrected.
“Whatever,” Yorrin waved his hand. “Unless your granfer is God, my point stands.”
“Is just name, Yorrin,” Aleksand said, sighing.
“Right. A girl's name.”
Aleksandr gestured to the stallion. The saddle was ready. “Do we go? Or not?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Yorrin muttered. He finished kicking out the remains of their small fire. “You'll have to help me up again.”
“Da. Is no problem.” Aleksandr mounted Dascha in a single, practiced movement.
“Uh huh,” Yorrin said, reaching out his hand. Aleksandr pulled the little fellow up into the saddle with him.
Aleksandr urged Dascha on, and the horse began moving at a steady trot. The road between Nasarat and Misviyr was an old Cassaline construction, made of close-fitting flat stones. Thick, slushy snowdrifts had accumulated in the drainage ditches on either side, but the road had only a light dust of snow.
Did the road have a slight slope to it, guiding away from the center? It must, but Aleksandr could not see it. A road that maintained itself—the Cassaline engineers were truly miracle workers. Or, at least, they had been. Aleksandr had heard that very few Cassalines today understood how their greatest feats of engineering had been accomplished.
“We're still making shit time,” Yorrin said.
Perhaps that was true. The road made the going easy. Yet they were still many days from the trade city of Misviyr, if Yorrin was to be believed.
“Dascha is strong horse, but still… just one horse,” Aleksandr said. “We slow him down.”
“Well, speed him up, then. Cross-Eyed Pete won’t stay in Misviyr forever.”
Their path took them over a narrow stream, a simple stone bridge seamlessly built into the road.
Incredible, Aleksandr thought.
Aleksandr said, “Dascha will go as fast as he can. We push, and he will overwork himself. Besides, the Knight Serpentis did not say this man, Peter of the Rose, would be leaving soon.”
“The Knights Serpentes are loyal, brave, and honorable,” Yorrin said. “Nobody ever claimed they were savvy.”
“Savvy?” Aleksandr's brow furrowed. “I do not know this word.”
“Clever. Street wise. Cross-Eyed Pete's a flimflam man, Aleksandr.”
“Another word I do not—”
“A con man. A liar. A cheat. He goes by Peter of the Rose in Nasarat 'cause he always wears rose petal oil. Acts foppish.”
Yorrin groaned. “Bloody hell, Aleksandr, what words do you know?”
“Many,” Aleksandr said. “How much Ruskan do you speak?”
“No need to speak Ruskan when you speak the greatest tongue in the world, friend,” Yorrin replied, his voice oozing smugness.
Aleksandr stifled a brief urge to push Dascha into a sudden and unexpected gallop.
“Anyway,” Yorrin went on. “Foppish. Fey. Nancy. Dandy. A man who acts a bit too much like a woman. Get it?”
“Da,” Aleksandr said. He had never heard of such a thing, but perhaps it was common enough in Torathia to need its own word. Or, it would seem, many words.
Up ahead, a tree had fallen across the road. A tall evergreen, its bristly trunk spanned half the road and prevented the natural drainage. A thick snowdrift had built up around it.
“It's just an act, though. He won't be Peter of the Rose in Misviyr.”
“Then what will he be?” Aleksandr asked. He nudged Dascha, skirting around the snow-draped tree.
“He’ll be Cross-Eyed Pete!” Yorrin said. “Whatever he calls himself, whatever clothes he wears or fool gimmick he uses to catch attention, don’t matter. He's still got the wall-eye.”
“Why did this man choose life of false faces, if his own face is so noteworthy?” Aleksandr asked.
Yorrin shrugged. “Got to eat somehow.”
“Hm.” Aleksandr frowned. “Many ways do not involve lies, though.”
“We can't all be knights an' nobles, Aleksandr.”
“Da, not everyone is born a noble. But any man can be noble. Is not just title, Yorrin. Is… how to say? Is manner of living.”
Though he could not see it, Aleksandr was fairly sure Yorrin was rolling his eyes.
“I still do not understand why you know this man,” Aleksandr said.
Though they'd spent a couple hours on the road out of Nasarat yesterday, Yorrin had been silent most of the ride. Aleksandr had initially thought to wait until Yorrin offered up more information, but the road was long, and his curiosity finally won out. This insight into the life of a Torathian thief was so foreign to him.
“Oh, that's easy,” Yorrin said. “He's my fence. Or— he was.”
Aleksandr felt embarrassed. “Fence?” He said. “Different meaning from the one with gates, da?”
“Right. A sort of thieves' merchant. He's got connections throughout Nasarat, Misviyr, even Nahash. Or so he claims. He can unload goods, wherever they come from, with none the wiser.”
“You live in… strange world. You do business with this man, then?”
“Then why did he accuse you?”
Yorrin shrugged. “I pissed him off. Sold him a hot ring. Nearly got him pinched.”
Yorrin had a knack for using Middish words that Aleksandr was certain he knew, but in such a way that they made no sense at all.
He didn’t seem to notice Aleksandr’s confusion, though. He just kept talking.
“That’s why I was outside Nasarat the night we met, actually.”
“You told the Serpentis you were ‘lying low,’ da?”
“Yup. Staying out of town. That’s why I nicked your flint and oil, of course. Turns out it gets bloody cold out here at night!”
Aleksandr blinked. “Yorrin… is winter, da? Snow, wind. You do not know winter is cold?”
“I ain’t an idiot, Aleksandr. I’ve slept outside plenty,” Yorrin said. “In the back alleys and whatnot. Just not out in the open ground. Gets cold, but it’s got nothing on the open road. Guess I didn’t know how much a difference walls and buildings make.”
Aleksandr fell silent, considering these words. After some time he said, “Yorrin. You stole from me because you were cold?”
“Yeah. Needed a fire. The coin and other sundries were just gravy.”
Gravy? Aleksandr didn’t ask. “Da, I understand. But only… I had fire. Why not ask to join?”
“Psh,” Yorrin scoffed. “What kind of rube you think I am? You—” He paused suddenly. “You would’ve shared, huh?”
Yorrin scratched his chin. “Guess it didn’t occur to me.”
“World is not such dark place as you think.”
“Hah! Says you. Born with a wet nurse’s teat in your mouth.”
“I do not see what Lyudmilla has to do—”
With a sudden motion Yorrin dismounted. Dascha made a disgruntled noise at the unexpected shift in weight. He turned to glare up at Aleksandr.
“You’re noble, Kerensky. Your papa taught you how to ride, how to fight, how to read. You had it handed to you. I had to fight for everything I’ve got. So don’t tell me about the world.”
“Very well,” Aleksandr said. He swung himself out of the saddle. “This is true, I do not doubt. You have hard life, I have easy life. You fight hard for what you have.”
Yorrin crossed his arms across his chest. “Damn right.”
“What now?” Aleksandr asked.
Yorrin’s brow furrowed. He watched Aleksandr warily.
“What you do with this life? Life you fight so hard for. Life is for cutting purses? Making enemies?”
“I do what I have to, to survive.”
Aleksandr snorted. “You do what is easy, because you are weak.”
Yorrin puffed up, hands balled into fists, ready for a fight.
Aleksandr did not have Kholodny, but he was still wearing mail to Yorrin’s rags. And he was more than a head taller. He did not fear the small man.
“Hit me, if you like,” Aleksandr said. “I will hit you back. You may not like it. As you say before: I learn from my father. How to ride. How to read. How to fight. And you? You are terrible rider.”
Yorrin didn’t hit him.
“You think being a thief is easy?” His fists clenched tighter. “It’s not. It’s a hard fucking world, Aleksandr. I’ve lost more friends than I can count to the Serpentes. To the militia. To other thieves most of all.”
“Da. You nearly lose your life yesterday.”
Yorrin nodded. He unclenched his hands, flexing them absently. “Right.”
“This changes nothing,” Aleksandr said. “Set aside nobles and serfs. What is fair or what is hard. Only think on what is good. This is best life you can live? Truly?”
Aleksandr met Yorrin’s eyes, staring at him. Yorrin was quiet for a long span of time. Finally, the tension in his frame drained away. His shoulders sagged, and he looked down.
“I don’t know anything else.” His voice was quiet. Barely audible. Then, louder, “Nevermind. Let’s go.”
Yorrin began walking down the road, not bothering to mount Dascha. Aleksandr followed, letting the horse trot behind them. They had a long distance to cover before they would stop for the night.
They traveled the rest of the way in silence.