Misviyr smelled worse than Nasarat.
Aleksandr felt that perhaps he should have noticed some other feature first: the vibrant marketplaces; the wide, swift-flowing river that skirted the edge of the city; the strange mix of ethnicities and languages; the architecture, where that strange mix of aesthetics—complex Cassaline angles, Hassadian domes, and Middish simplicity—truly merged into something uniquely Torathian.
But mostly, he just couldn’t get past the smell.
Perhaps it was the lack of the sea. The Encircled Sea had added a salty sort of brine to the air in Nasarat, but it also brought regular steady breezes. Surely that was better than this. The midday sun was hot, the air stifling. The gutters were piled high with nauseating piles of muck, a mixture of melting snow, dirt, and waste. A nightsoil collector pulled a leaking, rickety cart by hand. He stopped every so often to shovel in a few more loads.
“Ahhh.” Yorrin took a deep breath. “It’s good to be in civilization again.”
“This city,” Aleksandr said, wrinkling his nose. “You have been before?”
Yorrin nodded. “Couple times. Last time was—let me think—maybe three years back?”
“Is quite large. You are sure you can find Peter?”
“‘Course,” Yorrin said. “The fool’s told me more ‘n once about his favorite watering hole in Misviyr. The Blackened Shield. Just got to find the place, ask around. We’ll be in and out of this shithole before you know it.”
Aleksandr could only hope this was the truth. He let Yorrin take the lead, pressing through the thick crowd of strangers. Dascha helped provide a little room to breathe, but not as much as he would’ve liked. They made their way into a wide, filthy clearing. Scores, probably hundreds of people milled about. Trading, talking, arguing. The noise was almost deafening. Aleksandr felt like a frightened animal. Overwhelmed by the crush of people, the din of their strange tongues.
He could not help but admire the way his new friend navigated the city. Yorrin quickly pulled well ahead of Aleksandr and Dascha. He wove through the crowd, striking up brief conversations with strangers seemingly at random. A few words here, a laugh and a shake of the hand there.
Aleksandr finally caught up with him on the far side of the market. Yorrin was waiting for him, a piece of flatbread spread with some sort of paste in each hand. He passed one to Aleksandr, and Aleksandr took a hesitant bite. Savory and salty, the paste appeared to be some kind of thick lentil gruel. Not bad.
Yorrin was already half-finished with his own piece of bread. He wolfed the rest of it down in silence, then grinned at Aleksandr. “That was odd,” he said.
“Glad-handing that many folks without nicking any of their purses. Just felt wrong.”
Aleksandr froze, momentarily speechless. A piece of half-chewed bread in his open mouth.
“Without nicking anything,” Yorrin repeated with a laugh. “New start, right?”
Aleksandr chewed and swallowed the bread. “Da,” he said. “New start. Did you find anything about Peter, or the—”
“Blackened Shield, yeah. It’s a few blocks down that way. Finish your food and we’ll get a move on.”
Aleksandr rolled the bread up tightly, and gestured for Yorrin to lead the way. He ate as they walked. He kept close to Yorrin this time, and felt a little less overwhelmed by the crowds. Or perhaps they were just less dense here, away from the marketplace.
The Blackened Shield was easy to spot, once Aleksandr knew where to find it. A sturdy two story building, thick plumes of smoke rose from the roof. An eponymous old roundshield, painted black, hung above the door. Aleksandr commanded Dascha to wait for them. He had no fear of the horse being stolen, nor sympathy for the safety of any would-be thieves.
The interior of the Blackened Shield smelled of smoke, sweat, and spices. The center of the room was dominated by a wide hearth, bathing the room in a warm glow. A large pig was stuck on a spit over the coals, large chunks of its flesh already carved down to the bone. The skin that remained was crackling brown, dripping with grease and some sort of glaze. Sturdy wooden tables were scattered about the common room in a haphazard fashion, a little low to the ground for Aleksandr’s preference, and the chairs were similarly short-legged. A decent sized crowd of rough-looking men and women was dispersed through the room, drinking and eating. This did not appear to be a place that a man called Peter of the Rose would patronize. But then, Yorrin had already said that Peter would wear a different face in Misviyr.
A soot-stained, gap-toothed woman with abundant cleavage approached them. “Fancy a drink, loves? Got a cask of Rehovan Dark tapped. And a roasted hog.”
“Yes to the ale, no to the hog,” Yorrin said. “Aleksandr?”
“Da. Yes. The same.”
The woman gave Aleksandr a skeptical look, but she wandered off to fetch their drinks.
Yorrin picked out a seat against a far wall and gestured for Aleksandr to join him. When the ale came, Aleksandr paid. A thought suddenly struck him.
“How did you buy that food?” He asked.
Yorrin cocked his head. “Eh? What? The bread?”
“Da. The Serpentis stripped away your possessions in Nasarat. You say you are being done with stealing. So. Where did you find coin?”
That was not an answer. “Yorrin…”
“Those men you killed,” Yorrin said. “Obviously.”
“Oh.” Aleksandr fell silent. He sipped the ale, a thick dark brew. Too bitter for his taste.
“Yeah. What was I supposed to do? Leave it on ‘em?”
“Da. I understand.”
“Wouldn’t do them any good,” Yorrin said. “So I just figured—”
“Is fine,” Aleksandr said. “Nevermind. We are here for business, da? Peter?”
“Right. Normally I’d do this slower, ease into it, but we ain’t exactly on a leisure trip here. Let’s see…” Yorrin trailed off, scanning the patrons around the room. After some time, he nodded towards one of them. “Follow my lead,” he said, finishing his drink in one draught and pushing away from the table.
Aleksandr followed hastily, leaving his own ale barely touched. The man Yorrin had selected sat alone, in one corner of the room. He had a broad nose and a prominent brow. His hair was dark, receded to a sharp peak, and his clothes matched in color. Aleksandr noted a lump at his waist, beneath his cloak. The hilt of a weapon, most likely. He felt conscious of his own lack of arms, his axe and bow left tied to Dascha’s saddle. He would have to trust in his mail. And, hopefully, in Yorrin’s discretion.
“Hey, friend,” Yorrin said.
The man sniffed. “Not your friend.”
“Not with that attitude,” Yorrin agreed. He reached out a friendly hand.
Aleksandr saw the gleam of silver in Yorrin’s palm. So did the stranger. He took the proffered hand and gave it a perfunctory shake.
“Name’s Yohn,” Yorrin said. “And this is my friend, Alek.”
Aleksandr knew there was some subtext in Yorrin’s words, even beyond the false name, but he could not decipher it. He just crossed his arms, trying to keep his expression blank.
“Matt. What’ya want?”
“We’re strangers to Misviyr, Matt. Just looking to do a little business. Reckon I don’t have to tell you how bloody hard it can be for new folk, yeah?”
“A mate of mine once told me, he says: Yohn, iffen you’re ever in Misviyr and down on your luck, the Blackened Shield’s the place to be. You can always find a friendly face to help you resupply. The folk there know the trade mighty well.”
“Your mate got a name?”
“Sure,” Yorrin said. “Don’t everybody?”
Matt scowled at that.
“Was he a liar, Matt? You lot know your trade, or am I barkin’ up the wrong tree?”
Matt didn’t reply at first. He just sat there, glaring at Yorrin, grinding his teeth. Finally, “If you’re lookin’ for a tool for your lunk, there—”
“I am indeed,” Yorrin interjected.
“Aye. Well, in that case, reckon Cheap Pete’s your best bet.”
“Good man. You can get us a meeting?”
Matt’s scowl deepened, his eyes nearly disappearing into his brow. “Not for free,” was all he said.
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Yorrin said. “You get us a meet and we’ll sling a few shekels your way. You can count on that.”
Matt’s expression softened. He seemed to chew on his thoughts, his teeth grinding audibly. Finally, he nodded. “Right. Pete ought to be here by nightfall. I’ll introduce you. Then I’m paid and I’m out, yeah?”
Yorrin just smiled. “Matt, I promise you: You get us a meeting with Cheap Pete, and you’ll never be bothered by us again.”