Aleksandr’s leg ached when he woke.
He had done what he could to rest in the days since their fight with the cult. “Take it easy!” everyone commanded him. A nonsensical expression in Ruskan, but the sentiment wasn’t hard to grasp. He had tried to comply. Still, his leg was far from healed.
He hobbled about his room like an old man, splashing his face with water, scraping fuzz off his teeth with a linen, and laboriously pulling on his clothes. He pulled on his gambeson and mail hauberk, but left the rest of his armor. His belt felt uncomfortably light, with nothing but a long dagger hanging from it.
Kholodny is in no danger of being stolen, he reminded himself. It has as many guards around it as Alaina and the bayard himself.
If his sword was in danger, theft would not be the way Aleksandr lost it. Still, he felt naked without it. He grabbed the carved walking stick Yorrin had given him a few days into his convalescence.
Today will be the day, he thought. Borthul said he needed just one more night, to understand the scope of what has occurred, and what can be done about it.
Aleksandr hoped that Borthul’s guess was correct. He was tired of waiting.
“What do you mean, corrupted?” Aleksandr tried to keep his voice calm.
“Hm, well, perhaps I spoke too soon,” Borthul hedged. “That may be too simplistic. But there is a… a presence. The blackening of the steel is not from some mere fire. It comes from the demon itself, I believe. Thaumaturgic energies, dark energies the likes of which I have rarely seen. They suffuse the very essence of the blade.”
“When it died in fire,” Aleksandr said. “It was run through on Kholodny. This has… corrupted it, somehow? I do not understand. How is this possible?”
“How is one of many questions I do not yet have an answer to, young man,” Borthul said. “Patience. But yes, I believe so.”
“How do we fix it? How do we get it out? We must—is my family sword, Borthul. We must.”
“In good time, Aleksandr,” Borthul patted Aleksandr on the shoulder. “You cannot rush such things. I will keep it with me as I study it.”
Aleksandr narrowed his eyes. “Kholodny must not leave my side,” he said. “Not for—for some unknown number of days.”
“It most definitely can,” Borthul said. “And it must. This thing may be dangerous.”
“Aleksandr,” Alaina spoke up from where she stood across the room. “I will watch it, and Borthul. We will return your family blade to you in good time. I swear it.”
That was enough, for Aleksandr.
It had to be.
Aleksandr headed out of his quarters and down the stairs. The Silver Pine was still open for business, though their steeds were now kept in a makeshift corral outside, with a crude cloth awning to keep the rain off them. So long as the weather stayed mercifully mild, that would do.
Though Aleksandr had awoken shortly after dawn, his leg had slowed his morning routines. The common room was bustling by the time he entered. A large section of the room was occupied by Aleksandr’s friends, who sat across several tables shoved together. The inn staff worked hard to keep them happy—word had spread that they were the ones that slew those responsible for the attack on the stables.
Dylan passed him a bowl as he approached. Robin was nowhere to be seen—still sleeping most likely—but most of the others were there. Prudence and Perrin sat with Dylan, and there was an empty seat near them. Bear sat across, mixed in with some of the Taraamite soldiers. On the far side of the table sat Anatoly. He sipped a tankard with a somber look on his face.
I wonder what he will do next. Anatoly was the last of the Ruskans that had followed them after the attack, with Grigor dead and Yuri gone.
Yuri spoke gruffly, as he always did. A scant day after the fight against the cult, Aleksandr was still confined to his bed until Alaina decreed him able to hobble about. Yuri stood in the open threshold of his chambers.
“Yuri. What is it?” Aleksandr spoke in Ruskan, since Yuri’s Middish was only just passable at best.
Yuri paused, his misshapen nose wrinkling in a scowl. He tugged on his long beard. “My debt,” he said finally. “Our debt—Anatoly and I—it is settled? We helped you find the cult, avenge the priestess. One of ours died for it, while none of yours did. Will you ask more?”
Aleksandr shook his head. “Definitely not. You were hired men, following your commander. I did not like the way Black Garin operated, but his sins are not yours. You have been a true companion. Your help against the cult was very much appreciated.”
Yuri did not stop frowning at the praise. He gave a single curt nod. “Good. Then I will go.”
“Oh?” Aleksandr cocked his head. “Where?”
“Back home, to Klomsk. There is nothing for me left, in Yerevan,” Yuri said.
“I see,” Aleksandr said. “You know, you may stay if you like. Not in Yerevan, necessarily, but… with us. I do not yet know what we will do next, but I expect we will have a need for skilled and loyal men”.
Yuri was silent for a moment, but then he shook his head. “No. I have had my fill of selling my sword.”
Aleksandr nodded. “I understand,” he said. “I do not intend to sell our swords in the way that Garin did, but—yes. I understand. I wish you well. When will you go?”
Yuri shrugged. “Today,” he said. “Like I said before: there is nothing for me here.”
“Will Anatoly go with you?” Aleksandr asked.
Yuri made a sound in the back of his throat, a quiet laugh. “No,” he said. “He has found something to stay for, I think.”
He has not yet asked to travel with us, Aleksandr thought, staring at Anatoly. He suspected it was only a matter of time. Bear will not like it. Aleksandr knew it would likely be good for the barbarian, to be challenged in his prejudices. But in the short term, it would be difficult.
Giancarlo and what was left of his mercenaries sat nearby, at one of the tables pressed up alongside them. He had spent several days recovering as well, but seemed well enough now. Yorrin sat with them, across from the Cassaline merchant. That was unusual—Yorrin typically took his meals with Olivenco, if he was not with Aleksandr or Dylan.
Aleksandr sat to Dylan’s left, in easy earshot of Giancarlo and Yorrin. The bowl Dylan had handed him was filled with porridge, and when Aleksandr ate a mouthful he found it well sweetened with dried fruits and honey. The Silver Pine may have suffered badly at the hands of the cult, but it was still the nicest inn in Yerevan. The food rarely disappointed.
“I didn’t do it for a reward,” Yorrin said, a reply to whatever Giancarlo had just said to him. His tone was stiff. Uncomfortable.
Such words must still feel a little odd on his tongue, Aleksandr realized. He has come a long way from the man I met last winter.
“Si, si,” Giancarlo said dismissively. “Of course. But, even so… ciò che va, torna, si?”
“I don’t know what that means,” Yorrin said.
“Mi scusi. Ah—one good turn invites another. You saved my life, signore. For that I am forever in your debt. A debt no payment or gift could ever repay. But you did not just save my life, si?”
Yorrin shrugged. “I suppose not.”
“No, you rescued my stock. The most valuable wares I had, those tucked away in secret for the right buyer. Precious medicines and reagents, jewels and gemstones, weapons forged of good Cassaline steel. Goods worth more than everything else in the wagons combined.”
Aleksandr felt his eyes widen at hearing that. He knew Yorrin had saved a bundle of goods from one of the wagons, but he hadn’t realized exactly what those items had entailed.
“Figured they’d be something like that,” Yorrin said. “Else why’d you have them hidden away?”
“Just so. It is for this that I am thanking you today. You saved me a great deal of potential profit. I must thank you in kind, si? So please, accept these as thanks.”
Giancarlo reached beside him and carefully placed several small items on the table. Aleksandr turned to look more openly.
There were three objects on the table. The first was the most readily identifiable: a long dagger with a slender blade, sheathed in a piece of finely worked leather. Aleksandr recognized it immediately: he had seen it before, when he rifled through Giancarlo’s hidden compartment. The blade was true steel, tapered to a needle-thin point. Exceptional craftsmanship.
The second item was another weapon, though one Aleksandr had considerably less experience with. It was a crossbow, but a very small one. Even smaller than the relatively light piece that Prudence favored. It, too, looked to be of very fine craftsmanship. A small contraption lay with it, obviously some sort of crank for pulling back the string and loading it.
The third object was small, and oddly shaped. It almost reminded Aleksandr of calipers, but one of the prongs of the head was clearly made of some sort of stone carefully trapped in the iron.
Just as Aleksandr’s eye had been drawn to the strange device, it was the first thing Yorrin picked up to examine. “What’s this?” he asked.
Giancarlo grinned. “Ah! Si, I knew you would like it. That is a Cassaline firestarter. Very rare. Well, this kind is. You need only grip it firmly and squeeze it with a strong pull, and the flint will be struck every time. It will make many sparks, as good as any firestarters I have seen, and easily used with just one hand.”
“Why would you need this?” Aleksandr asked. “Is very clever, I will not deny. But… is not so hard to make a fire with both hands, no?”
Yorrin turned the firestarter over in his hands, examining it. He smiled. “Oh, I can think of a few ways it might come in handy. Quick way to start a fire when one hand’s already occupied? Yeah. I’ve got some ideas.”
Clearly Giancarlo knew what kind of man Yorrin is, Aleksandr thought. I suppose it might have been another easy way to light the oil he doused on the Thaumati demon, had he not had a torch already in hand. No doubt Yorrin is thinking of many other such odd cases.
Yorrin tucked the firestarter into his belt pouch. He reached out to take the dagger next. He slid it out of its sheath, then paused.
“Steel,” he said.
“Si,” Giancarlo said. “Of course! I would have nothing less in my hidden compartment. You saved several such steel weapons. But of course you already have a steel sword, and one of—hm, superlative quality. Another steel sword would do you no good, I think. But a stiletto… I admit I spoke a little with your mentor. He said this would be good.”
Yorrin stared at the blade, finally giving a slow nod. “I suppose it is,” he said.
Giancarlo smiled. “Perfetto. As I say, thanks to you I have several steel weapons still to sell. But of them all, this one might be the best. One of the last pieces made by Antonius Fidelis, and he one of the best Cassaline steelsmiths of the last two centuries. Made to penetrate the best armors.”
Yorrin sheathed the dagger. He stood, unfastening his belt, and threaded it on until it hung just behind his sword. “Thanks,” he said.
“You are most welcome, signore. It is a small recompense for what you have done for me.”
Yorrin nodded. He glanced at the last item, the crossbow, but he seemed less interested in it. “What’s this? Just a little crossbow?”
“Just? Signore!” Giancarlo scoffed. “Excellent Cassaline engineering. Small and powerful, much more than the trash your Middish craftsmen could make.”
Yorrin shrugged. “Not much for crossbows,” he said. “Bow works well enough for long range work.” He glanced at Prudence. “Here, you seem to like these things.”
He tossed the weapon nonchalantly. Giancarlo’s eyes widened in horror, but Prudence caught the crossbow in a smooth motion she made look effortless. She gave Yorrin a cool nod. “Sure,” she said. “Looks alright. Thanks.”
Yorrin sat back down. “Well,” he said. “That’s that, then.”
Giancarlo still looked somewhat nonplussed at Yorrin’s dismissal of his third gift, but he recovered quickly. “Si,” he said. “I suppose so. Good tools to have for what may lie ahead, anyway, si?”
Aleksandr finished his breakfast in relative quiet. Yorrin seemed distant, but Aleksandr noticed him occasionally reaching down to feel the hilt of his new dagger. His casual disregard for the crossbow had no doubt been in part a reaction to the dagger—a façade, a way to deflect from the immense surprise and gratitude he likely felt at being given his second steel blade in a month.
He could likely sell those blades for a small fortune, and retire back to Nasarat a comfortable man. Or use them to fund a new life of thievery, form an entire gang of cutpurses. Aleksandr felt a smile come to his lips. Yorrin would do neither. Unlikely though their friendship might seem, Aleksandr had full faith that whatever was in store for him next, he would face it with Yorrin at his side.
Olivenco made his way over to them, a gleam in his eye and a smirk on his lips. “Yorrin,” he said. “I see Rossi has given you the stiletto.”
“He used that word too. What’s that? Spit for dagger?” Yorrin asked.
If Olivenco was offended at his tongue being abbreviated to a derogatory Middish insult, he did not show it. “Si, sort of,” he said. “Cassaline, not Spatalian, though we use the word as well in the city-states.”
“Cassaline, not Spatalian?” Yorrin repeated, adding a skeptical tone. He shrugged. “Same thing.”
Olivenco laughed. “Si! Mostly!” he said. “Stilo means dagger. Stiletto is—little dagger. Basically. But the bravos use the word differently. Dagger with little tip, maybe. Dueling daggers, made for the parry and the thrust.”
“Not for general work,” Aleksandr said, judging from Olivenco’s description. “You mean daggers made for killing.”
Olivenco nodded. “Just so. For killing men.”
Yorrin’s hand drifted back to the stiletto on his belt. “Like this one.”
“Si, very much like that one. You have a weapon worthy to pair with Amante, now. What is it’s name?”
Yorrin wrinkled his nose. “I told you already, Olivenco. I’m not much for naming my weapons, any more than I’m going to name my boots. They’re tools. Beautiful tools, but still tools.”
“Si, you did tell me this, But I thought maybe you had reconsidered. A weapon of such elegance, such prestige, it ought to have a name, no? A name that strikes fear into your foes.”
Yorrin glanced at Aleksandr. “I suppose you agree with him?”
Aleksandr paused, considering. “I am not sure,” he said. “Kholodny has name, of course. Is a fine name, given generations ago. Good to know what to call the Kerensky family blade.”
“There, you see?” Olivenco said. “He understands! I hear they are calling him Black Blade across Yerevan now. A good weapon, a good name, a good image. It is muy importante.”
Aleksandr scowled. He had already heard a rumor that the folk of Yerevan had taken to calling him the Black Blade. Or, even worse, Bogdanov’s Black Blade. It did not sit well with him, that the damage he had done to Kholodny was giving rise to its own title. And he was no vassal of Yerevan.
Nobody noticed his annoyance. Olivenco continued pressuring Yorrin. “Every infamous warrior must have storied blades. You must name it, Yorrin.”
Yorrin set his jaw in a stubborn frown. “Don’t push me,” he said. “Or I’ll name it Yorrin’s Prick and be done with it.”
Olivenco burst into laughter, and several of the others close enough to hear joined in. As his laughter died, Olivenco looked at Yorrin and saw what Aleksandr had already seen: Yorrin wasn’t laughing.
“You are not serious?” Olivenco asked.
Yorrin shrugged. “It’s small and sharp, and nobody’ll want it inside them. There’s worse names.”
That got more laughter. Even Aleksandr let himself join in this time. Yorrin did not smile, but he had a gleam in his eye now. He was enjoying this, Aleksandr was sure of it.
From the corner of his eye, he saw Anatoly eyeing him. He had not joined much in the laughter. The Ruskan took a long draught on his tankard, then pushed it away and rose from the table. He began to move in Aleksandr’s direction, a determined look on his face.
Anatoly froze at the sound of the sudden shout. Aleksandr looked towards the front door of the Silver Pine, where the voice came from.
A druzhnik stood in the threshold. He wore Bogdanov’s sigil, and he nodded at Aleksandr. “Your presence has been requested at the bayard’s hall,” he said in Middish. He spoke with a Ruskan accent, but his Middish was better than Aleksandr’s.
Aleksandr stood. “Is likely Alaina or Borthul,” he said. Or both, with news of Kholodny. I hope.
His friends scrambled to rise from their seats, but Aleksandr stilled them with a gesture.
“Is fine,” he said. “Stay, break your fast, enjoy the company. Is no rush. I will go alone.”
Everyone settled back in their seats. All but one, at least.
“Not alone,” Yorrin corrected, standing.
Aleksandr gave his friend a grateful nod, and they followed the druzhnik out together.
It was obvious at a glance that Borthul had spent some time cooped up in the chambers so generously granted to him by Bayard Bogdanov. As much as Aleksandr might have preferred to keep Kholodny close, it was safer for him to be behind the bayard’s walls. It had been Alaina’s suggestion, and a good one.
Aleksandr had last seen Borthul a day and two nights ago, and it was clear that the old wizard had not left since. His quarters had a stuffy smell, and a few dirty platters of old food had piled up on the floor, mostly uneaten. Aleksandr did not let it trouble him. Yorrin seemed unperturbed as well, though Alaina had curled her lip in some disgust as they entered.
“You said you’d let the keep’s staff clean up a little, Borthul,” Alaina chided.
The wizard shrugged, not looking up from the sword. “Didn’t they?”
“No,” she said. “It doesn’t matter. Tell Aleksandr what you’ve found.”
“Da,” Aleksandr said. “You called for me.”
“I did!” Borthul said. He waved them over.
He was sitting at the room’s main table, where Kholodny lay on a white cloth. Seeing it still pained Aleksandr—the blade was no less blackened and apparently soot-stained than it had been the moment after he slew the demon. Borthul had inked a great many sigils on the cloth all around the sword, but Aleksandr could not read them. The only tongue he was fully literate in was Ruskan, but even so he knew enough Middish to know this was not that either.
The writing was of the same language as Borthul’s books. Not true Thaumati, he said. But something like it.
“Alaina said she thought you have a solution. What have you found?” Aleksandr asked. He did his best to remain calm. “Is a way to purge the demon from my blade?”
“Slow down, slow down,” Borthul chided. “I wasn’t entirely sure there truly was a demon in the damned thing until recently. But—yes, there is. My first guess was on the mark there, no surprise.”
Aleksandr let his eyes drift to the ceiling, and he took a deep breath. “Borthul,” he said, looking back down at the rambling old man. “What have you found?”
Borthul stroked his long beard. “A demonic presence. Yes. The demon’s still in there, or at least a significant portion of its Thaumaturgic essence is.”
We already know this. Aleksandr bit his tongue.
“There’s no way to drive it out that I know, either,” Borthul said. “Perhaps if we took it to my old master, Teodorus, but… even then I could promise no such thing.”
Aleksandr’s stomach twisted up inside him. “You are saying there is nothing to be done?” He looked at Alaina in confusion, and she seemed annoyed.
“No, he said—”
“No no no,” Borthul interrupted. “Not at all. Just no way to get it out of there. But it’s very dangerous in this state. Not safe to wield in combat, surely!”
“I will not give up my family blade,” Aleksandr said.
“I didn’t say you had to,” Borthul said. “I—”
“Old man,” Yorrin cut in. “Get to the point. You’re saying there’s something we can do. What is it?”
“Hmph,” Borthul huffed. “Very well. A binding, young man. That’s the thing. I know many such spells. Of binding and warding and protection. Such are the first things a wizard learns in the Order of Gnomon, for obvious reasons. It is a must, when dealing with forces so dangerous.”
Binding? He means to bind the demon’s energy, but not remove it? Aleksandr frowned. “What does this mean, Borthul? A binding… I am not sure I understand. You will bind the demon, da. And then… what?”
“That’s it, essentially. We will inscribe my spells into the steel. Bind the demon’s essence so that it cannot corrupt the blade or—more importantly—its wielder. Trap it so that it shall, I hope, simply lie dormant within the steel.”
“For how long?” Aleksandr asked, fearing the answer.
Borthul shrugged. “Well, until the end of time, I suppose. Or until the sword is destroyed, though… it is likely that with the presence inside it, and the warding spells I shall place upon it, it won’t break easily.”
“But… the demon, it will stay in Kholodny? All that time?” Aleksandr was not sure how he felt, now. Apprehensive. Guilty. This is not what I was hoping for.
Alaina reached out a gentle hand and entwined her fingers with his. “It will be alright,” she said. “Borthul is confident that the demonic energy will be contained. And I was thinking… well. Maybe it’s silly.”
“Hmph,” Borthul rolled his eyes. “Quite silly, totally unnecessary.”
Aleksandr narrowed his eyes, and looked at Alaina. “What? Tell me.”
“I thought perhaps I would join Borthul in his inscriptions. He intends to have his Gnomic wards etched onto the steel of the blade, and I would like to include a bit of old Temple Torathi as well. There are a few specific verses of scripture that come to mind—quotes beseeching God for guidance and protection from dark forces.”
“Now that’s a good idea,” Yorrin said. “Maybe the only good one we’ve heard yet. Why not skip all the black magic and just do that?”
Borthul huffed and sighed while Alaina smiled at Yorrin. “I appreciate the vote of confidence, Yorrin, but I think Borthul’s idea holds merit too. He certainly understands these forces better than I.”
“Is a good idea regardless, Alaina,” Aleksandr said. “Da. I am not sure I truly believe such things, any more than I believe in any gods or magic. Yet—clearly some forces exist that I do not understand. If you think these scriptures could help, please. Do it.”
“Good, good,” Borthul said. “I ought to be ready to start this evening. How about you, priestess?”
“Definitely,” she confirmed.
“Then there’s just the matter of the inscription itself,” Borthul said. “I would like to mark them deep into the blade, Aleksandr. Best if we treat this almost as a reforging—I will speak the appropriate incantations over the entire process. We’ll want to heat the blade, then have a careful hand lay down the exact sigils that I say. We’ll need a good smith with steady hands.”
Aleksandr smiled. “Da,” he said. “I think I know one.”