The bath felt fantastic.
Aleksandr had not realized how badly he needed it until he was neck-deep in hot water. The Silver Pine had a dedicated bathhouse, an expensive amenity that Alaina insisted on paying for any among them that wished to partake.
On the road, Aleksandr had settled for occasionally wiping himself down with a cloth alongside the rivers. The freezing water was invigorating, something he’d grown fond of as far back as hunting trips in Pripia when he was barely a teenager.
But a hot bath was something else altogether. Aleksandr’s aching leg stopped protesting for a short time. The knotted muscles in his back and shoulders began to relax.
It was also a good chance to clear his mind. Borthul’s words still echoed in his ears. A Thaumati cult, here in Yerevan, operating unseen by the bayard and his druzhniks. A cult that had declared doom upon Alaina’s church, and no doubt murdered the last Torathi priest that tried to spread his faith here.
We will find them, Aleksandr told himself. And we will stop them. Justice for Father Iosif, and safety for Alaina. We will not leave until this cult has been found and destroyed. He tried not to think of the next logical question that came to mind. How?
Borthul had promised to head down to the church site in the morning and have a look around. He seemed to believe that he might sense the cultists, if they were truly dabbling with Words of Power. The old man had not elaborated.
You did not ask, Aleksandr admitted to himself. Borthul truly appeared to be the sorcerer he claimed. He had saved their lives in the Underpass. But his power unnerved Aleksandr. Had I begun to doubt that true sorcery existed? The Tsar’s vizier is a sorcerer, they say. Witches in Spatalia can ride broomsticks and fly through the air. Torathi holy men can heal the wounded simply by laying hands upon them.
He had never much believed any of it, in truth. No more than he believed that Zimash brought the winter. Matters of faith held little interest to him. He believed in what he could see and experience for himself.
You saw Borthul put dozens of goblin warriors to sleep with a spell. That was as true and real as anything. If Borthul believes this Thaumati cult is harnessing power like that—or worse, as he says—then it would be best to take that seriously.
Aleksandr carefully climbed out of the tub, avoiding putting too much weight on his injured leg. The water he left behind was murky. Enough that it was vaguely disgusting to realize that had all come off of him. He sluiced most of the water off his skin with a cloth and shrugged into a loose tunic and pulled on some loose trews. Kholodny lay nearby—even here, Aleksandr would not let it leave his sight. He scooped up the sheathed blade and limped his way out of the baths.
Alaina opened her door after a single knock. She wore a familiar linen shift. Clearly, she was preparing for bed. Still, Aleksandr knew she was expecting him. He did not let her clothing—or lack thereof—make him blush.
“Aleksandr!” she said, smiling. “You look good. The bath did wonders, I take it?”
Aleksandr smiled back. “Da, I supposed it did,” he said. He gestured to his broken leg. “You asked me to—”
“Oh, yes, come in!” Alaina said. He did so. The private rooms at the Silver Pine was spacious, more like a lord’s solar than a simple bedroom. She had a fireplace, a small table with three chairs, and a large bed. She pointed him towards one of the chairs. “Sit. There. I’ll have it re-splinted momentarily.”
Aleksandr hobbled over to the chair. “Is not so bad,” he said. “It hurts much less than it used to, or when I took down Black Garin. I think is healing clean, finally.”
“Best we not tempt it even so,” Alaina said. She knelt in front of Aleksandr and carefully tied several lengths of wood around his leg.
As she worked, Aleksandr tried to keep his thoughts focused on the tasks at hand. On the Thaumati cult, on the attempt on Alaina’s life, and on the seemingly insurmountable work ahead.
Mostly, he watched Alaina. Her fingers were slender and graceful, carefully tying the knots around his leg. She pursed her lips in concentration, an involuntary expression.
What are you doing? He asked himself. She will stay here. When all of this is settled, you will go, and she will stay.
Aleksandr swallowed. He closed his eyes, partly because a jolt of pain rippled through him as she tightened one of the strips of linen. And partly because he did not want to keep staring at her red lips, at her focused blue eyes, at—
You may never see each other again, he thought. Keep your wits.
“All done,” Alaina said. “Sorry, did that hurt?”
Aleksandr opened his eyes. “No,” he said. “I was thinking.”
“Oh?” Alaina cocked her head to the side. “The sigil? Try not to dwell on it. You need your rest same as the rest of us. More, if you want this leg to heal.”
“Not the sigil,” Aleksandr said. “Well. Da, the sigil. But not just that.”
Alaina was still kneeling in front of him, but she laid one hand on the knee of his good leg. “What, then? Can I help?”
Aleksandr swallowed his nervousness. You can charge an ogre domovoy. You can talk to her. Somehow, the encouragement was less compelling than he’d hoped.
He spoke anyway. “I was thinking about you,” he said quietly. “Of what we discussed. Before—before everything that happened.”
Alaina froze. Her hand on his knee felt suddenly stiff. Awkward. But she did not move it.
“You nearly died,” Aleksandr said. “And when I thought you had—when I thought you might. I was not ready for such feelings. Fear and anger and regret and—” Aleksandr took a breath, steadying himself. “I care for you, Alaina.”
“I care for you as well,” Alaina said. Her voice was low. Quiet.
She is as nervous as you, Aleksandr told himself. Of course she is. For all that she is bold, this sort of thing must always be difficult. And she has been rejected once already.
“You are most incredible woman I have ever met,” Aleksandr said. “I want you. And I am realizing… I do not care if we are wed or not.”
Alaina was silent for a long moment. Aleksandr began to wonder if she had changed her mind, since that night at the Crossroads. If she had reconsidered her opinion of him. If—
He felt her shift, where her hand was on his knee. She put weight on the knee—his good one, so it was no difficulty—and lifted herself off the floor. Before he quite knew what she was planning, he felt her lips press against his.
Her flesh was warmer than last time. Her mouth was hot as her lips parted around his. He felt a thrill when she bit his lower lip. Not hard, not enough to hurt, just enough to shock him. Her tongue flicked across his lips. Aleksandr tried to return the gesture.
She is much better at this than you are. The realization was mildly embarrassing. Aleksandr hesitated.
Alaina ran one hand through his hair, clutching the back of his head and pulling him deeper into the kiss. He let his doubts fade away, and he swept her up and got her into position on his lap. Straddling his good leg, like last time. Like last time, he quickly became all-too aware that she was naked beneath the linen shift.
They kissed for what felt like a long time, but could just as easily have been a few moments. Aleksandr felt disoriented. His blood pulsed hot in his veins. When Alaina slid back down off of him, he wondered if somehow he had done something wrong. Something to quench her desire. When she reached to undo the drawstring on his breeches, he realized the opposite was true.
Guilt rippled through him like icewater. He reached down and took hold of her arms, stopping her.
“Alaina,” he said. His voice cracked.
“Aleksandr?” She looked up at him, blue eyes sparkling. She bit her lip.
“This cannot—I mean—I do not intend to stay in Yerevan,” Aleksandr blurted out. He let go of her arms. He wasn’t sure what he was saying, but somehow it felt very important. “I don’t know how this—”
“Aleksandr,” Alaina said, smiling. “This isn’t about tomorrow, or next week. This is just us. Here, now.”
Aleksandr clenched his jaw, swallowing nervously. “But—”
“Do you want this?” She asked. “Do you want to be here, with me, tonight?”
Aleksandr closed his eyes. He nodded. “Da. Yes. I want that very much.”
“Good,” Alaina whispered. “So do I.”
He felt her hands undo the lacing of his trews with a few deft movements. The motion was so simple, yet it caused his heart to pound in his chest. He felt her take hold of the hem of the trews, her cool fingers brushing against his hips. This touch, too, was so small, and yet the impact it had on him was significant.
His eyes were still closed. He felt as though he would be more nervous if he saw what she was doing. He lifted himself an inch off the chair. She pulled his trews down in a single sure motion.
He felt himself suddenly enveloped in wet heat. He gasped at the sudden intensity of it.
He did not last long. He felt a twinge of uncertainty and embarrassment. But when it was done, she led him to the bed and gently pushed him onto his back. True to her word, she showed him the many ways they could find pleasure in each other’s bodies without injuring his leg.
He took some solace that she did not last long either, the first time.
It went much longer their second time. He wasn’t sure why, but he felt that was somehow more satisfying.
Some time after, they lay on Alaina’s bed together. The smooth skin of her back was pressed close against him, somewhat less smooth and now sticky with sweat. He felt considerably less clean than he had when he’d emerged from his bath. He did not care in the least.
Alaina made a pleased sound in the back of her throat. Something between a sigh and a purr. She shifted her position, took one of Aleksandr’s hands and pulled so that his arm wrapped around her. His hand nestled against the soft underside of one of her breasts.
“How do you feel?” she asked.
“Good!” Aleksandr said. “Very good. That was—I am not sure how to say.”
“Good is fine,” Alaina said. He could not see her face, but he heard the smile in her voice.
She tilted her head, trying to crane her neck enough to make eye contact. “No regrets, Aleksandr.”
“No,” he agreed. “I do not. Is not that. If anything, is the opposite. That was—I mean. I care for you. Not just because of—”
You sound like an idiot, he told himself.
“I know what you’re trying to say,” she said. “Or at least I think I do. I care for you as well. Not just because that was the best sex I’ve had in—“ she paused for a moment. “Ever? Not just because of that. Because you’re a good man. Because I admire you more than words can express. Because you are the sort of man I dreamed about when I was a girl dreaming of gallant Knights Serpentes and confident holy men.”
Aleksandr felt embarrassed. Not just because of the intensity of her kind words, but because of the specific examples she gave. “Alaina, I am not—I do not even believe in your god. In any god, truthfully. How can I be these things?”
Alaina snuggled closer into him, if such a thing was possible. “Because the Faith does not hold a monopoly on virtue,” she said. “Because you are brave, and honest, and selfless, and relentless, and driven. You seek to make the world better than you found it. Torath’s greatest gift to mankind was knowledge. The knowledge of good and evil. The knowledge that we could do better. That’s all He really wants of us. So what more could Torath possibly ask than that?”
Aleksandr was not sure how to respond. He still felt somewhat uncomfortable with the praise, but something inside him soared to hear Alaina’s words. He was not sure that she was truly describing who Aleksandr was. But he was sure that she was describing what he wished to be.
After a long quiet, she spoke again. “Did you—I shouldn’t even ask this. I’m seeking trouble. But I have to. Was this just for tonight?”
“This? Lovemaking, you mean?”
She nudged his side. “Yes, I mean,” she said. “I know this can’t last. Sooner or later you’ll finish your business in Yerevan and you’ll be on your way. I won’t ask you to stay. But that could be days or weeks. So… I suppose I’m asking if you’d like to spend your nights here, with me. Until the time comes for you to go.”
Alaina made Aleksandr feel bold. He tightened his grip, hugging her close and cupping her breast more deliberately.
“I would very much like that,” he said. He rolled her onto her back and kissed her.
The third time was better than everything else combined.