When the Zelezkrov River came into view, Aleksandr knew their journey had come to an end.
Like the Tyre, the Zelezkrov—the Ironblood—was a river born in the northern reaches of the Midland Mountains. The Tyre ran south, through Torathia and into Cassala and eventually depositing into the Inner Sea. By contrast, the Ironblood ran west from the mountains, forming a rough northern border between Rusk and the western Midlands.
It ended in the Middish kingdom of Caedia, a major coastal power so significant that Aleksandr had heard of it even as far as Rusk. Aleksandr had heard tales of the Ironblood, too.
Less impressive than I imagined, he thought. Especially after the Tyre.
The Ironblood was surely a great river. Huge, wide, loud enough that they’d heard the crash a long way out. Its water rushed a dark gray-blue, accented by white froth. Yet it was now the second largest river Aleksandr had ever seen. Perhaps a bit more than half the size of the Tyre.
In the calmer waters close to the shore, he saw a small fishing vessel lazily drifting. The fisherman spotted them, but he didn’t react to their passing. He was on the far side of the river—the Ruskan side—so for all that Aleksandr’s company was well-armed and potentially dangerous, to this fellow they might as well be on the other side of a castle wall.
Aleksandr raised a hand anyway, and called out a greeting in Ruskan. The fisherman waved back.
Aleksandr heard a horse trotting closer behind him. The Cassaline road they traveled on—the locals called it the Border Road—would end at Yerevan. But until then, the clacking sound of hoofbeats on weathered stone was loud and unmistakable.
“Not far now, are we?” Alaina asked as she approached. She was finally out of the wagon, feeling well enough to ride and insistent that she would do so. “We should see Yerevan any minute now, if I’m not mistaken.”
“Da,” Aleksandr agreed. “By noon, I think. We will reach city before day’s end.”
“Good,” she said. Aleksandr heard something in her voice. Hard to place, but he thought perhaps she was not as enthusiastic as her word might suggest.
Perhaps she is not so happy to part ways, he thought to himself. Perhaps she feels the same as you do, and would like more time for you to get to know each other. Or perhaps this is just a creation of your mind.
“Alaina,” he said.
“Yes?” She nudged her horse forward so that they were alongside each other. He glanced at her. Her blue eyes pierced, and Aleksandr swallowed anxiety as his tongue grew dry in his mouth.
“Original deal was to take you to Yerevan safely,” he said.
She sighed. Aleksandr sometimes felt confused by Middish customs and modes of speech, but he was no fool. The topic made her sad.
Do not let yourself be ruled by fear, Aleksandr told himself. Good advice from your father, but it applies in more than just battle.
“It was,” Alaina agreed. “And you’ve more than earned your bonus. Fifty shekels for each of you, that was what we agreed upon. I’m of a mind to pay you more, after all we’ve been through.”
“That is not needed. The deal was fair,” he said. Then, “Alaina…” Aleksandr swallowed again. He met her eyes, and saw how her brow furrowed as he said her name for the second time.
“We need not part ways immediately,” he said. “In fact, I do not wish to. The attempt on your life—under our nose, no less. I will find the one responsible.”
“I appreciate the thought, Aleksandr, but I’ll have to give you your own words back. The deal was fair. Your job was to keep me alive and get me to Yerevan,” she said. “You owe me no more than that.”
“Da, maybe so,” Aleksandr said. He frowned. “Is not a matter of owing, Alaina. Someone tried to kill you. I will find them.”
Alaina opened her mouth to reply, then hesitated. After a moment, she nodded. “Yes, alright,” she said. “I appreciate it. Honestly, Aleksandr, I very much hoped you would be willing to stay in Yerevan anyway. At least for a while.”
Aleksandr felt a flush warm his cheeks. You see? He told himself. She is interested, you are the one that stopped things from going forward. Of course she wishes to see if something more can—
“Someone murdered Father Iosif, too,” Alaina continued. “He was a good man, who did not deserve to die that way. Will you help me?”
“Da,” he said. “Of course.”
The city of Yerevan lay not far from Lake Spokoystvy, a wide and tranquil body of water fed by several small Ruskan rivers to the north. The lake was a prime fishing location, and the waters were dotted with dozens of small skiffs as far as Aleksandr could see. The Ironblood swept alongside the road, running straight past the city of Yerevan.
Yerevan rose up ahead of them, visible for the past hour of travel. It was a huge city, one of the most populated in all of Rusk. But it was a trading city, a messy place, an ugly mishmash of Ruskan and Middish influences. It was not the Ruskan capital city of Voska, showcasing the best craftsmanship Ruskan architects and masons could display. Nor was it anywhere near the majesty of the Torathian cities Aleksandr had seen; not Nasarat nor Misviyr, and most of all not the Encircled City of Nahash. Aleksandr could not help feel that Yerevan came out of every such comparison looking shabby.
The city was surrounded by wooden walls. Tall and sturdily built, but lacking in artistry. A wide wooden gatehouse rose above the road, the gates open. Aleksandr counted a dozen armed men between those standing in the gatehouse and those patrolling the walls in earshot.
Small buildings radiated out from the walls, spillover from the sprawling city within. Not too many on this side of the river, however. Much as they had passed Yerevani farmsteads, but not many, on the road. Most of Yerevan’s holdings and influence lie across the river, on the Ruskan side. Yerevan itself was the only major Ruskan foothold on this side of the Ironblood.
Rising above the walls, on a small hill doubtless made by Cassaline engineers centuries ago, Aleksandr saw the keep of Bayard Bogdanov. Bogdanov was a friend to the Middish and—ostensibly—a Torathi convert. He was also a major Ruskan lord with half a dozen vassal bayards beneath him. Yerevan may not be as pretty as other cities, but it was a major trading hub and it had made Bogdanov a very rich man.
The keep was surrounded by old Cassaline walls, good stonework that had stood for centuries without falling. Stone towers rose above these walls from within. Like many of the greatest cities in the Midlands, Yerevan had been the site of a Cassaline fortress before the fall of the Empire.
Aleksandr maneuvered his mount to ride alongside one of Giancarlo’s wagons. The merchant sat in the wagon alongside the driver, and he smiled thinly when he saw Aleksandr.
“Salve, Sir Kerensky!” he said. “It has been a hard road, but we are nearly there!”
Hard road? For him? He had best not say that in front of Lefty. “Da,” Aleksandr said. “You said you have been to Yerevan before? Long ago?”
“Si. Elfisio has been more recently, as well. He may have good contacts for our wares, I hope.”
“Ah, good,” Aleksandr said, feeling the opposite. It would not do if Giancarlo and his retinue vanished the moment they arrived in Yerevan. “I was thinking. You have heard by now that Alaina intends to begin a church in the city.”
“Of course,” Giancarlo said. “Bringing the light and word of God to the heathens.”
Aleksandr had his doubts that Giancarlo worshiped any god but gold. Still, he did not contradict the statement. “She comes at the request of Bayard Bogdanov himself. It may be that she could get you an audience in his court, as well.”
That got him. Giancarlo’s eyes lit up at the words. He kept his expression neutral, but Aleksandr had seen enough.
“Oh?” Giancarlo said.
“Da. You would like this? A chance to sell to the bayard or one of his nobles, da?”
“Could be useful,” Giancarlo said. “What are you asking in exchange?”
“Nothing,” Aleksandr said. “We travel together. You cooperate as best you can, when Alaina was hurt. You seem a good enough man, Giancarlo. Would be our pleasure.”
A frown flickered across Giancarlo’s face. “I see,” he said. “How generous.”
He is suspicious, Aleksandr thought. Damn. Should have listened to Yorrin.
Aleksandr’s main goal was to keep Giancarlo in contact with them. Alaina had agreed to the plan, keeping Giancarlo on a leash while they tried to figure out who had betrayed them. \
Yorrin’s suggestion had been to charge for the offer. Giancarlo, he said, seemed the sort of man to distrust an offer that seemed too good. Clearly that would’ve been the right approach, but there’s nothing to do now.
“I am thinking,” Aleksandr said on impulse. “Our contract will end soon. We are to safeguard Alaina and Borthul to Yerevan, help Alaina with a matter, and then we are done. Where will you go, when you unload your goods? Perhaps you could use few more swords on your next venture?”
Giancarlo instantly smiled. “Si,” he said. “Perhaps.”
Aleksandr exhaled a breath through his nose, trying to keep his face inscrutable. The suggestion had been a wild strike in the dark, but it had landed.
Perhaps not so wild, Aleksandr thought. For Yorrin, the best approach would be the one he suggested But I am a noble, which Giancarlo well knows. It would be unseemly for me to ask coin in exchange for a favor. Better that I ask a favor in kind.
Ahead, the walls of Yerevan loomed taller than Aleksandr had expected. Aleksandr saw through the open gate, and realized the walls were thicker than he’d expected as well. Wider than a wagon was long, for a certainty. Four men were outside the gatehouse, standing guard. Armed with spears, they were clad in mail shirts and pointed nasal helms, with colorful tunics beneath their armor. Bogdanov’s banner—black scales atop a split field of gray-blue and yellow—hung from the walls, from the gatehouse, and was draped across the lead guard’s shoulders.
The man with Bogdanov’s colors on his surcoat stepped forward, interposing himself in their path. Aleksandr urged Dascha into a canter, pulling ahead of his companions. Alaina had done the same, and they reached the gate together.
“Hail,” the man said in accented Middish. Aleksandr was not surprised. He had heard much of Yerevan’s citizenry were Middish themselves, and the language was spoken as often as Ruskan.
Plus, we approach from the Middish side.
“Greetings,” Alaina said in Ruskan. “My name is Alaina of Nahash, a sworn priestess of Torath.”
The guard’s eyes widened. “Oh, yes,” he said, switching to Ruskan as well. “Are you—I mean—”
“I have come to take up the work Father Iosif began, if you knew of him,” Alaina said, still speaking Ruskan. “To build a new church, and minister the faithful in Yerevan.”
“Father Iosif, yes,” the guard said. “He was a good man. The way he died…” The man paused. He made a sign against the durnoy glaz—the evil eye— then spat on the ground.
“He was,” Alaina said. “I will continue the work he began. I had hoped to meet with Bayard Bogdanov as soon as possible, to discuss this matter.”
The guard nodded. “Yes, of course. I will send a man to escort you to him.”
Alaina gestured to Aleksandr and the caravan behind them. “And my companions? Merchants and hired swords, they kept me safe on the long road from Torathia. I would like lodgings for them. Nice ones, please.”
The guard looked Aleksandr up and down, as he had done once already when they approached. Aleksandr knew he did not look much the nobleman. Mail and breastplate were weathered and dirty from the road, his cloak was muddy, his face speckled with dirt, and Kholodny hidden in its sheath. But his armor, though not shining and new, was heavier than most sellswords could afford. And he did sit astride Dascha, which ought to at least mark him as something other than a common sellsword.
“And you are?” he asked, switching back to Middish.
Aleksandr answered in Ruskan. “I am Aleksandr Kerensky of Pripia. Son of Bayard Valentin Kerensky.”
The guard blinked, stunned. Aleksandr noted the other three guards stood a little straighter when they overheard the words.
“Aleksandr is a great part of the reason I am here before you today,” Alaina said. “I would have him accompany me to Bayard Bogdanov’s hall.”
“Yes, of course,” the guard said. “As for the rest, you should find room for your men and steeds at the Silver Pine. A good inn, maybe the best in town. It’s just off the main road, that way, on your left. Can’t miss it.”
Alaina smiled. “Thank you,” she said.
The guard gestured to one of his men, and exchanged a few words. While he did, Aleksandr and Alaina rode back to Giancarlo’s wagon. As he expected, several men met them there: Dylan, Yorrin, and Lefty.
“Guard recommends Silver Pine Inn,” he said. “Good lodgings, he says. Enough room for all of us.”
“It might be expensive,” Alaina said. “I can help cover us.”
“Works for me,” Lefty said.
“I would not dream of it, signora,” Giancarlo said. “I will pay for my own men, I insist.”
From Alaina’s expression, Aleksandr was sure her offer had been intended only for Aleksandr and Lefty’s men. Giancarlo probably knew it too.
She just nodded. “Good, good. I will go straight to the keep, to meet with Bayard Bogdanov and let him know I have arrived. Aleksandr will go with me.”
“Dylan, you will see our lodgings are secured?” Aleksandr asked.
“Right,” Dylan said.
Aleksandr glanced at Yorrin. “Yorrin,” he said.
Yorrin nodded. “I’ll have your back, of course.” He understood Aleksandr’s intent without being asked.
“Good.” Aleksandr had one last matter to address. He nudged Dascha on and rode up to where the three Ruskan mercenaries—Anatoly, Yuri, and Grigor—all walked together. They watched Aleksandr as he approached.
“Ser Kerensky,” Grigor said, giving him a cautious nod. “We have reached Yerevan.”
“We have,” Aleksandr said. “Now you will be tested. You agreed to stay with me until I find the one that hired Black Garin. You may try to run instead, and lose me and my people inside Yerevan. I do not recommend this.”
Only Yuri, the largest and brashest of the Ruskans, did not flinch at the implied threat. “Grigor knows city well,” Yuri said. “You think you would find him?”
“I do not think I would find any of you,” Aleksandr said. In the corner of his eye, he saw that Yorrin had broken off to speak with Prudence, and both of them were watching Aleksandr and the three Ruskans.
“We gave our word,” Anatoly said. “We do as you say. What do you say?”
“Into the wagon, then,” Aleksandr said, gesturing to one of the wagons. “I would rather you not be seen walking the streets yet. We go to Silver Pine Inn. Wait for me there, and I will have more instructions.”
Grigor whistled. “Silver Pine? You have rich tastes!”
“He is son of bayard,” Yuri said, sneering. “Rich and soft.”
Anatoly’s eyes widened. “Yuri!” he hissed. “Show respect.”
“Say what you like,” Aleksandr said. “Only do as I asked.”
Anatoly nodded. “Into the wagon. Understood.”
“Good,” Aleksandr said. He glanced at Yuri. “Garin learned how soft I am, when I am pushed.”
Yuri clenched his jaw. Aleksandr didn’t wait for a reply. He wheeled Dascha around and headed back for the guards. Alaina and Yorrin met him there.
“Prudence will keep an eye on them,” Yorrin murmured once they were in easy earshot.
Aleksandr only nodded.
The guard assigned to escort them led them through the gates.
Yerevan was a riot of sound, smell, and sight. The Cassaline road formed the largest major thoroughfare through the heart of the city, and it was lined on both sides with countless shops, taverns, and hawkers. The crowds were thick, but they three were mounted, and guided by an armed Yerevani guard. The crowd parted well in advance of their passing.
Much as the walls outside suggested, Yerevan’s architecture did not come close to the grandiosity of the great Torathian cities. Muddy dirt roads forked off from the stone Cassaline road in random directions. The buildings were a chaotic mix of Middish and Ruskan designs: crude hovels with thatch roofs, brick buildings roofed with wood or slate, squat wooden towers with rounded tops. Very few of the buildings were more than two or three stories high.
They veered off the Cassaline road after some time, onto a smaller road that was at least roughly paved in stone. The Cassaline road would go on straight to the Ironblood, to where a bridge once stood. Aleksandr knew the Yerevani Bridge had collapsed almost a century ago during a massive flood out of Lake Spokoystvy. Ever since, the city used the bones of the bridge as guidelines for huge ferry barges.
The road they were on took a winding path up the steep hill to Bogdanov’s keep. Here there were actual stone walls, kept in good repair by the bayard’s stonemasons. More guards patrolled the walls and the gate.
Their escort walked ahead and spoke with the guards. After a few moments, more men emerged from within the keep.
Aleksandr saw that these men wore plated mail—a mail hauberk with small iron plates along the chest and back, not over the mail but linked directly into it. Common Ruskan armor for druzhniks, especially if they did not have sufficient iron for a full breastplate to wear over mail. These would be Bogdanov’s sworn swords, then. One of the druzhniks seemed to take the lead, and directed Aleksandr and his companions to follow. Four more druzhniks fell into line around them.
They dismounted in the courtyard, and they were to the bayard’s hall. They stopped right outside.
“Your weapons,” the lead druzhnik said. As seemed the custom in Yerevan, he stuck to Middish.
Yorrin glanced down at his swordbelt. Aleksandr knew that Yorrin took the gift Olivenco had given him seriously. The blade was likely worth more than anything Yorrin had ever owned, or all of it together. It hung well at Yorrin’s side. Still, he sighed and undid his swordbelt. He passed it to the nearest druzhnik.
“Careful with that,” he said. One of his daggers was strapped to the same belt. Aleksandr suspected Yorrin had more weapons hidden on his person, but he held his tongue.
“And you,” the lead man said to Aleksandr.
“Kholodny is the blade of my forefathers,” Aleksandr said softly. “It does not leave my sight.”
“Then I’ll carry it in with you,” the guard said. “But it does not remain in your hands. You may be noble, but you are not a Bogdanov druzhnik. You are not known here.”
Aleksandr nodded. “Very well. I will have your word of honor that you will return it to me.”
The druzhnik frowned, but after a moment he nodded. “Fine. I swear that, should you show no aggression, I will return your blade when this meeting is over. I, Boris Bogdanov, do so swear by my family’s honor.”
“Bogdanov?” Aleksandr blinked. For a brief moment, he wondered if the bayard of Yerevan had just escorted them in. No, Dmitri Bogdanov rules Yerevan, or did last I heard.
“The bayard’s cousin,” Boris said curtly.
“Da, of course.” Aleksandr unstrapped Kholodny and handed it to Boris.
With that, they were led inside.
Bayard Bogdanov’s hall almost reminded Aleksandr of his father’s hall back in Pripia. High vaulted ceilings, ornately decorated columns, warm smoky air from the smoldering hearth.
Bayard Bogdanov sat at the far side of the hall on a raised dais. Two more druzhniks stood behind him. A smattering of nobles filled the room, but their chatter died down as Boris led Aleksandr, Alaina, and Yorrin inside. All eyes were upon them.
“Mother Alaina of Nahash, Priestess of Torath,” Boris declared. “Attended by Ser Aleksandr Kerensky and his manservant.”
Aleksandr stifled a laugh. You are my manservant after all, Yorrin.
“Well met, well met!” Bayard Bogdanov said. He waved them closer. “Come! Mother Alaina, is it? Closer! You have come to build my church?”
Alaina crossed the great hall, Aleksandr and Yorrin staying close behind her. She bowed before the bayard.
“I have,” she said. “I will finish what Father Iosif began.”
“Not much beginning, I am afraid,” Bayard Bogdanov said. “The ground must be consecrated anew, and you must bless the stones and timber as it is built. He had not even finishing the laying of a foundation when he died.” Bogdanov twisted his hands into a perfunctory sign of Torath, miming the coils encircling an imaginary sphere. “And what a death.”
“Another matter I hope to look into,” Alaina said. “Unless—the message I received said you did not know who killed him. Is this still true?”
Bogdanov nodded. “Da, yes, it is true. His death was vile. Heathen sigils carved into his flesh! Boris, you have not found anything, have you?”
Boris shook his head. “No, bayard. The trail is cold. The symbols, they were not anything I have seen before. No kind of witchcraft or sorcery I have ever heard of.” Boris glanced at Alaina. “I do not see how a priestess will fare any better.”
Alaina met Boris’s eyes with a cool look of her own. “If the letter I received replicated them faithfully, I have found a man that knows such symbols,” Alaina said. “He accompanied us here. Perhaps he will be able to help us find the culprit.”
Boris frowned. “Perhaps,” he said.
“We may hope!” Bayard Bogdanov declared. “In any case, your first business must be the church! You will have as many workers as you say is needful. I have many serfs, and I am eager to see your work completed. I have waited too long with only my small chapel. My faith in Torath is too big to be contained in such a small building!”
From what Alaina said on the road, she doubts Bogdanov cares much about the Faith at all. But his city is increasingly Torathi—all the Middish and more than half the Ruskans, from what Alaina said. His faith is politically expedient.
Alaina smiled. “I understand, Bayard Bogdanov. It will be my pleasure. Can someone direct us to the building site?”
“Ah, she is eager! I like you, Mother Alaina. I had doubts that Iosif’s replacement would be up to the task, and more doubts when I saw you were but a young woman. I think you will put those doubts to rest. Boris, show Mother Alaina the site!” Bogdanov said.
Boris nodded, and gave his bayard a terse salute. “As you say, my lord, it will be.”
Boris led them back out of the hall. Once they were outside, he offered Kholodny back to Aleksandr without ceremony.
“My thanks,” Aleksandr said.
Boris shrugged, and called for his horse. While they waited, Yorrin leaned close to Aleksandr.
“Didn’t notice any fishy reactions in the crowd,” Yorrin whispered. “When we were announced, or when they talked about the dead priest.”
“Nor did I,” Aleksandr said, matching Yorrin’s low tone.
“Guess that’d be too easy.”
“It is fine, Yorrin. We will find them, whoever they may be.”
Boris and his four men mounted up, and in short order they rode out the gate together. The church site was not far from the keep, in a broad area of dug-out ground. A few stones filled the bottom of the pit, the beginnings of a foundation that had never been finished. The ground was muddy and showed signs of squatters, with small dead firepits and refuse piles.
Boris muttered a curse under his breath. “Apologies, priestess,” he said to Alaina. “It has lain empty many months.”
“No apologies needed, Sir Bogdanov. Easily cleaned up,” Alaina said. Steps down to the pit had been dug into the side, and Alaina climbed down into the foundation of the church. Aleksandr, Yorrin, and Boris all followed.
“Once the work begins anew, I expect the site will be too busy to attract squatters,” Alaina said. She walked around the foundations, in no particular pattern that Aleksandr could see.
“Da,” Boris said. “Father Iosif had two shifts of workers, twenty men each. You may have more, if you wish. Bayard Bogdanov has said the new priest is to be shown every possible courtesy.”
“That should suffice,” Alaina said. She paused in the middle of the foundation. “If I need more, I will let you or the bayard know.”
Alaina closed her eyes.
She is imagining what will be, Aleksandr realized. Seeing the finished church in her mind’s eye.
Alaina opened her eyes after a few moments. She walked over to where the greatest number of foundation stones had been laid. The stone had been chiseled into bricks, layered with some sort of mortar. She ran a finger across the top of the bricks.
She froze, finger stopped on a particular brick. Aleksandr was close enough to hear her breath catch.
“Alaina?” he asked.
She was silent. Her breathing returned, but too quick. She was alarmed by something.
“Alaina?” he said again. “What is it?”
Alaina took hold of the brick with one hand. She tugged at it, then grabbed it with her other hand as well and tugged again. It came loose of the mortar, and she pulled it off the other bricks. She let it fall, flipping upside down into the muddy ground.
On the bottom of the brick, something had been carved. Aleksandr stared at it in confusion. A symbol, nothing like any language he had seen.
No, he told himself. You have seen its like before.
Aleksandr felt his blood run cold.
In Alaina’s letter. In Borthul’s tome. And carved across the archway of the Underpass.
It was a Thaumati sigil.