The bayard’s druzhniks did not stop them. Alaina must have prepared Bogdanov’s household for what was to come. Instead, the Yerevani guard fell into formation around Aleksandr and the others, leading them to the keep.
I hope they listen to what we have to tell them, Aleksandr thought. I hope anyone listens to what we have to tell them.
A druzhnik cast an uneasy glance at Kholodny, naked in Aleksandr’s hand. The blade is still stained black by the fire. Aleksandr could not help but worry. His father had entrusted Kholodny to him. To me, the third son. Not Artyom, the heir. Not to Vasily, who is one of the Tsar’s sworn men. Me. The shame he would face if he had irrevocably damaged the Kerensky family sword would be unbearable.
When Aleksandr had to dismount Dascha, he swallowed the grunt of pain. Nevertheless, he found Yorrin close at hand, and he accepted the small man’s support wordlessly. Sir Boris, Bogdanov’s cousin, met them at the doorway and escorted them inside. He gave Aleksandr a sour look at the unsheathed blade. Still, he seemed to have accepted that Aleksandr posed no danger to the bayard. He did not insist on taking the sword this time.
The bayard’s great hall grew quiet as they entered. Alaina, Bear, and Dylan sat at a table with Bogdanov himself. The three Ruskans were seated at another table, along with Perrin, Olivenco, Connor, and two men Aleksandr did not recognize. New recruits to Taraam, perhaps. Lefty and the young man, Matt, were not present—he could only assume that Perrin and Olivenco had not been able to find them, and chose to regroup without them.
A handful of household druzhniks, lesser nobles, and other members of the bayard’s court were also seated in the hall. Perhaps twenty people all told. Taking a late supper, from the look of it, though now all eyes were upon Aleksandr and his companions.
“Aleksandr!” Alaina leapt to her feet and rushed towards him. She threw her arms around him when she reached him, heedless of the uncomfortable looks many of the Ruskans shot her. Priestesses in Torathia might be allowed romantic entanglement, but in Rusk her blasé attitude stood out as exceptionally strange.
Aleksandr held Kholodny to the side, away from her. He returned the embrace with his left arm, pulling her tight. “Alaina,” he said softly. “Is good to see you.”
Behind Alaina, Dylan and Bear approached. “Your sword,” Dylan said. “What happened?”
“Much,” Aleksandr said.
“Do not keep us in suspense, Kerensky!” Cried Bogdanov from the table. “The Priestess, she has told us that you might have news of this cult that stalks my streets. By night’s end, she said.”
“Da,” Aleksandr said. “We do. We have learned much.”
“Giancarlo?” Dylan asked.
“Not quite,” Yorrin answered.
“His factors,” Aleksandr said. “Aguapo and Elfisio.”
Alaina took a step back, meeting Aleksandr’s gaze. Her face fell. “Really? Aguapo too? It was a trap, then?”
“Nyet,” Aleksandr said. He hesitated. “Well. Da. But it was not laid by him.”
Sir Boris glared at him from where he stood a few feet away. “Speak sense,” he growled.
“Da, of course. I am sorry,” Aleksandr said. “Aguapo and Elfisio were plotting against Torathia since long before we met them. With the Underpass closed, their plans were, ah, stymied?” At Yorrin’s nod, Aleksandr continued. “Is when they turned on you, Alaina.”
“Just because I was a priestess, then?” She looked saddened at the news.
“Da. They sent word on to Yerevan, as well. A man with some coin and a note. Is not clear if they hired Chernyy Garin themselves, or asked the cult to hire someone. In either case, once we arrived, Elfisio began work with the cult directly.”
“But Aguapo had second thoughts?” Alaina asked. “You said he didn’t lay the trap.”
“Aguapo told us what he could. But… the Thaumati cult found him first. He was injured. Tortured. Flesh carved upon.” Aleksandr grimaced at the memory.
“Like Father Iosif,” Alaina whispered.
Bayard Bogdanov twisted his hands into the sign of Torath. Aleksandr saw some nobles mimic the gesture, but many more made a simple Ruskan sign against evil. Even in Bogdanov’s ostensibly Torathi city, many kept the old traditions.
“Not exactly like the Father,” Yorrin said. “Unless Iosif’s skeleton burst out of his body and tried to kill someone.”
Aleksandr winced. I would not have said it this way.
The murmuring crowd fell silent at the words. Bogdanov cocked his head in confusion. Even their companions seemed puzzed.
“His skeleton?” Dylan asked. “What?”
“Whatever was done to Aguapo,” Aleksandr said. “Thaumati magic, dark magic. It did not just kill him. They summoned a Thaumati demon from his remains. A creature of bone and black sorcery. It tried to slay us. A close thing.”
Aleksandr tried to ignore the many looks of skepticism that were cast in his direction. “What happened to the demon?” Alaina asked. When Aleksandr met her eyes, he saw only concern. She did not doubt them.
“Slain. We pushed it into fire, and it was consumed.” Aleksandr held up Kholodny for all to see. “I held it in the fire by my blade.”
“Quite a story!” called out a noble. Several nervous laughs rippled through the hall.
Bogdanov did not laugh. He stared at Aleksandr, lips drawn tight, brow furrowed. “Do you have evidence?” he asked after a long pause. “Remains?”
“The demon was burned to ash,” Yorrin said. He stepped forward, striding towards Bayard Bogdanov. His makeshift sack, crafted from a bedsheet, hung from his right hand. The cloth was stained dark.
“Of course it was,” shouted another noble. “It is very convenient for your story, no? You do not expect us to believe this, do you?”
“All you have to show for it is a black blade!” someone else joined in the jeering.
“I said the demon was burned to ash,” Yorrin said again. He stopped in front of the bayard. A druzhnik stood at the bayard’s side, eyeing Yorrin warily. Boris loomed a few paces behind him. Yorrin ignored them both, instead meeting the bayard’s hard stare. “But yeah, we’ve got remains.”
He tugged the top of the sack, loosening the ties on it. Then he simply dropped it unceremoniously to the floor in front of Bogdanov.
The sack hit the ground with a wet splat. The corners of the sheet fell open on contact, and a tide of gore spilled out aross the floor. Ragged strips of flesh, hunks of yellow fat, shreds of muscle, darkly colored organs, and thick globs of coagulated blood poured out of the makeshift bag.
Aleksandr winced as recognition of what Yorrin had just done reached the assembled nobles.
Bogdanov’s eyes widened. His reaction was considerably less extreme than many others. There were screams of horror and shouted questions. After a moment, one member of the court doubled over, spilling what supper they’d eaten onto the floor. The bayard just stared down at the viscera, lip curled in disgust.
“What is this?” he said.
“Aguapo,” said Yorrin. “Or what’s left of him, anyway.”
Alaina glanced at Aleksandr. “God’s light,” she murmured. “I’m glad you’re alright.”
“It was a near thing,” Aleksandr said quietly. “If Yorrin had not been there…”
Bayard Bogdanov looked up from the pile of Aguapo. “Very well,” he said. He swallowed visibly, reining in whatever emotions he might be feeling. “You have my attention. Tell us what you know.”
“Not as much as we would like,” Aleksandr said.
“The cult took Elfisio with them after they cursed Aguapo,” said Yorrin. “Lit the Silver Pine stables on fire, killed a couple folk outside, and fled.”
“The stables?” Dylan said, suddenly alarmed. He looked to Aleksandr. “Dascha? The others?”
“Dascha is fine,” Aleksandr said. “As is Sky. Others too, I think.”
Dylan sighed with relief.
“Horses? Is this truly your concern?” Boris sneered.
Bogdanov waved an impatient hand at his man. “Horses are valuable. Is understandable. Kerensky, did you find a trail to follow? Any sign of where the cult is now?”
“No,” Aleksandr said. “Not yet. But two of our number are missing. Their orders were to watch, discreetly. Is possible they are doing this even now. Perhaps they will lead us to the cult.”
Bogdanov frowned. Aleksandr suspected the bayard was not used to relying on possibilities and perhaps to see his will done.
“What would you ask of us, then?” Bogdanov asked. He looked to Alaina. “Priestess. What would you ask of me?”
Alaina hesitated, considering her answer. Aleksandr spoke while she thought. “Muster your men. As many swords as you have in Yerevan, I think. The cult—we do not know their numbers. We had thought—Borthul, the wizard we brought, had thought that the cult was lacking in knowledge and power. What we see tonight shows otherwise. Their power is grown, or always has been great. No knowing the scope of their threat.”
Bogdanov scratched his chin, considering the words. He looked again to Alaina. “You agree with your man?”
“I trust Aleksandr with my life,” Alaina said. “He is not incautious. If he says this is wise, I would listen.”
Bogdanov then glanced at his cousin. “Boris? What say you?”
Boris gave Yorrin and then Aleksandr long, hard looks in turn. Then he nodded to his liege. “Kerensky is right,” he said. “If this cult can do what he says, it is a grave threat. If his people can find it, we will join them in ending this.”
Bogdanov nodded at the captain of his swords. “Good then, Boris. See it done.”
Boris gave a curt nod, and barked out orders to the druzhniks. They cleared the room of the nobility. Many of the nobles would be expected to retire to their quarters and return armed and armored for battle. Those that were not sworn blades to Bogdanov would be expected to stay out of the way.
In short order, Aleksandr and his companions were alone with the bayard and a half dozen of his guards.
Aleksandr and Yorrin recounted the story of events again, sparing no detail this time. Behind them, Giancarlo’s three mercenaries—Levin, Cameron, and Conrad—voiced their version of events. They knew nothing of the demon, and they’d not seen the cult that set fire to the stables. They could only corroborate a small piece of the story.
Still, Bogdanov listened. More important to Aleksandr, Alaina and their other companions listened. The three Ruskan mercenaries had been quiet, but now they stood near Dylan. It was clear they believed Aleksandr’s story.
And clear that they wish to help. They feel responsible, for their part in all of this. Good that they will make amends.
Aleksandr took an offered seat, and Alaina examined his leg while they spoke. His world was reduced to white hot pain for a time, as she felt around the broken leg, made sure the bone was set, and splinted it. He let Yorrin speak for him. Eventually, the feeling in his leg began to subside to a dull background haze of pain. Still there, but tolerable. He listened as Olivenco joined the conversation in answer to a question Yorrin had posed.
“Lefty was to spend a day or three in an inn,” he explained. “Across town, in the poor—ah, gueto. Seeking new recruits. We found Quickblade, but not him or the others he had with him.”
“Lefty should have a dozen, at least,” said Connor Quickblade. “Would be useful.”
“We’ll make do without them, then,” Yorrin said. “Unless they suddenly turn up. You’re all in, though?”
“Si,” Olivenco said. “I am, at least. I may not be of much use, but neither will I sit this out.”
“Me too,” Perrin said instantly. “I’m with you. All of you.”
Connor gave an acquiescent shrug. The three new recruits exchanged nervous looks, but they nodded in turn.
A sudden shouting caught Aleksandr’s attention. It came from the direction of the great hall’s entryway.
“Bugger that and bugger you! Let me through! Aleksandr! Aleksandr, you hear me?”
He rose from his seat, wincing as he did. That voice was unmistakeable. Alaina placed a hand on him, easing him back into the seat.
“We’ll handle it,” she said.
Dylan was already heading for the sound. “Robin?” he called. “That you?”
“No, it’s the king of fucking Caedia. Course it’s me! See?”
A few moments later, they’d let Robin through the guards outside. He tromped across the hall and slumped down into an open seat. The half-eaten supper was still set on the table, and he scooped up an uneaten pierogi. He stuffed it in his mouth.
“Robin,” Aleksandr said. “Report, please.”
“Right, right,” Robin said around a mouthful of cheese and onion. “These are good! So, the cult set the fire back at the Silver Pine. Obviously. You saw the fire, right? Whenever you finished with what’s-his-name?”
“Aguapo,” Aleksandr said.
“Right. How’d that go, anyway?” Robin ate another dumpling.
“You could ask him,” Yorrin said, gesturing the the open sack of viscera in front of Bayard Bogdanov’s seat. The bayard has moved away from it while they spoke, and no one had made any move to clean it up.
Robin widened his eyes. He swallowed the rest of his pierogi with an audible gulp. He seemed to reconsider grabbing a third, hesitated, then grabbed one anyway. “Damn,” he said, popping it into his mouth. “I’m not going to ask.”
“Robin,” Aleksandr said sharply. “Da, we saw the fire. Report, please.”
“Alright, alright. I saw the skinny Spit leave with a group of Ruskies,” Robin said.
“Elfisio’s a Cassaline, not a Spit,” Dylan said.
Spit? Aleksandr cocked his head. Oh. Spatalian? It must be a Middish term. Like Ruskie. Aleksandr supposed he ought to be thankful. Ruskie is the less insulting of the two, I think.
Robin just shrugged. “Is there a difference?”
“Nevermind,” Yorrin said. “You saw them leave. Where did they go, Rotten?”
“North,” Robin said. “Down to the docks. We kept our distance, didn’t want them to notice anything off. But we lost them around there, in the warehouses.”
“We?” Aleksandr asked. “Prudence was with you?”
“Course,” Robin said. “She showed up a little while before it all went down. You told me to follow her lead. You think I’d have followed them by myself? Dangerous. They killed folks in the stables, I think.”
Bogdanov and those of his sworn men that remained all looked at Robin with open contempt. Aleksandr could not fault them for it. Robin appeared oblivious.
“I take it she stayed behind to watch for them?” Yorrin asked.
Robin nodded. “We picked a spot to meet back up. I’m supposed to bring you there. Prudence said she hopes she’ll have found ‘em by then.”
“You took your time getting to the point,” Dylan observed. “Enjoying the lord’s food?”
Robin shrugged. “Sure. I had to make my report, didn’t I?”
“Aleksandr,” Yorrin said, ignoring Robin.
We should move. “Da,” he said. He pulled himself to his feet. “Come, everyone. We must go.”
“Kerensky,” Bogdanov said. Apprehension was clear in his voice. “My men are not ready.”
“Is fine,” Aleksandr said. “We go now, your men can follow. Robin, where is this place, exactly? So that the bayard’s men can meet us.”
“Hell if I know. Bunch of warehouses west of the ferry? The one Prudence picked was across from a winesink, had a sign with an ugly buck’s head outside.”
Bogdanov frowned. The druzhnik beside him cleared his throat. “Bayard,” he said. “I know this place.”
The bayard nodded. “Good, good. We will follow soon, Kerensky. Be careful, yes? Do not attack the cult without my swords at your side.”
“Bayard Bogdanov,” Aleksandr said. “Forgive me, but… I cannot agree. When last we spoke of the Thaumati cult to our expert, he thought their skill was—ah, bad. Insufficient?” At Yorrin’s nod, Aleksandr continued. “He was wrong, or they have learned much in a short time. What they did tonight—the creature we faced—it must not be allowed to happen again. If we find them, we will engage them. No delays.”
The bayard seemed to consider Aleksandr’s words, and finally gave a reluctant nod. “Hm,” he said. “Very well. I will send Boris and my druzhniks to follow as soon as they are ready.”
“Aleksandr…” Alaina said. Her brow was furrowed with worry. “I’m coming with you.”
“No!” Bogdanov shouted instantly. Aleksandr was thankful, because the bayard’s outburst had masked his own impulsive denial.
“I may not be a fighter, but I won’t let you do this without me,” she insisted. “Not after everything you’ve already done for me. I could—I could minister the wounded, at least. If the fighting is bad.”
It is too dangerous. You could be slain. Aleksandr thought, but did not say, to Alaina. Then, he admitted more, if only to himself. And dangerous to me, as well. I would not be able to focus, for fear of your safety. I don’t doubt you would face this danger with calm and composure, but I could not.
“Alaina,” he said. “You have a duty to the people of Yerevan.”
“That’s why I have to be there, Aleksandr,” she insisted.
“Out of the question, Mother!” Bogdanov said.
The bayard might as well not have even been in the room. Neither Alaina nor Aleksandr glanced in his direction. They stared at each other in a silence thick with tension.
“I understand,” Aleksandr said. “But would you have us divert several men to keep you safe?”
It was a low blow. Alaina frowned. “I see,” she said. “I suppose not.”
I am sorry, Aleksandr thought. But it is not a lie. “You must see it through. I know. Maybe—you could follow with Bogdanov’s men? They will have the numbers to keep you safe. Is this acceptable?”
Alaina closed her eyes. She slowly nodded her head. “Yes,” she said. “You’re right. That is wise.”
For a moment, Aleksandr thought she was furious with him. She crossed the short distance between them in two steps and pulled him into a tight embrace. He felt her press tight against his chest, and he returned the gesture as best he could with one open hand.
“Be safe,” she whispered fiercely. “I think I might love you.”
Aleksandr’s mouth felt dry. He swallowed. “I will do my very best,” he whispered back, in Ruskan. “I care a great deal for you as well.”
She pulled away reluctantly. Aleksandr felt extremely uncomfortable to have shared such things in public, even hushed as they had been. But he knew he may well be going to his death, and he could not bring himself to regret the intimate moment.
He turned and surveyed the other men. Yorrin, Dylan, and Bear stood ready. Eager, even. Robin was grudgingly rising from the table, stuffing a few more pierogies into his mouth as he did. Olivenco was murmuring a few words with the Taraamites. Levin stood, impassive, with Cameron and Conrad flanking him on either side. Anatoly, Yuri, and Grigor all stood ready as well, though they looked reluctant. Aleksandr had returned their arms and armor when he sent them here. They may have tried to kill him before, but he did not believe any of them were in league with the Thaumati.
Familiar faces, each one. They had traveled together on a long road. Some more than others, but now Aleksandr would have to trust his life to all of them.
They will not let me down, he told himself. We may go to our death, but I know they will fight at my side. They will try. Even Robin, I think.
“Anyone who is coming with me,” he said. “We go now.”