At Yerevan, the Ironblood was downright placid.
Upriver, it had been a fearsome thing. Wide and swift and loud. But here, it stretched out a great distance and moved very slowly, looking more like a narrow lake than a river.
I’ve heard the Tyre does that, when it passes by Nahash, Yorrin thought. Wish we’d had time to check out Nahash’s docks and canals before we left. Maybe one day.
The Ironblood’s widening, and slowing, served the city well. It’s probably why the city’s here, Yorrin thought. It definitely meant that the dock was a sprawling place full of activity, and the river was dotted with dozens of fishing skiffs and other boats.
To say nothing of the ferry.
The ferry was an impressive thing, in its way. Of course, if the old Cassaline bridge had been intact that would no doubt have been even more impressive. All that remained of it were its bones: stone supports on either side, and one jutting out from a bar of shallows in the middle of the river. Along these stone pillars several thick cords had been strung, and the ferrymen of Yerevan used the ropes—and poles—to push and pull a great big barge across the river.
Yorrin watched the ships—are they boats, since this is a river? I forget how that works—come in and out for a while. He had a good vantage, a comfortable seat on a bench at a dockside tavern. The tavern had little interior, most of the seating was in the mud alongside the riverfront with a rickety wooden awning to protect from the elements.
It was cheap, and it was comfortanle. Yorrin sipped a pleasantly bitter beer that reminded him of home, and picked at a plate of boiled dumplings that were wholly Ruskan. Not bad, though.
The boats were a nice diversion, but they were mostly a cover. Yorrin kept the corner of his eye and the majority of his attention elsewhere.
Nearby, the three Ruskans were sitting around a table under the awning, guzzling drinks and bickering loudly. They’re not bad, he had to admit. I’d believe they’re really arguing if I didn’t know better, I think. Especially the glowering one, Yuri. He’s a mean son of a bitch. Make for great muscle on the streets.
Yorrin didn’t speak Ruskan, so he could only assume that the argument was proceeding as they’d discussed beforehand. He had to trust that they weren’t going to doublecross him and Aleksandr now that the leash had been loosened a little.
Well, we don’t have to trust them that much.
Yorrin ran one finger across the smooth, cool pommel of Olivenco’s sword. My sword now. He stretched, rolling his neck, using the motion as an opportunity to get a quick sweep of the area.
He knew Prudence was out there, but he couldn’t spot her in the crowd. That was good, mostly, but it was also a little annoying. More importantly, he couldn’t spot anyone suspiciously staring at Anatoly and his two mates.
It’s been hours, he complained to himself.
They’d arrived first thing in the morning, the Ruskans coming in loud and blustery. Blabbing about their skunked job, how at least they could live large on the upfront pay for a little while. Especially since they had so few comrades left to split the pay between. They cursed the new priestess and her foreign devil bodyguards. All around, they made a great show of it all.
If anyone was listening for them, they’d have heard. It’s been hours of drinking and dicing and arguing in plain sight. If the people that hired them aren’t showing by now, they won’t show today.
Still, that was the nature of casing a place. Sometimes it took hours, days, even weeks before you got the breakthrough you needed. Yorrin munched on another dumpling. They were filled with some sort of soft cheese, and some spices he couldn’t place. Tasty, and filling. He wasn’t even halfway through them. He washed it down with a sip of beer. And he waited.
As the sun climbed into the sky, the argument grew more heated. Right on time.
Yuri stood up, pointing at Grigor and shouting what was clearly a string of invective at him. The Ruskans all stood up, arguing with each other, before Grigor and Anatoly finally stormed off in a huff.
Yorrin took his time finishing off his beer. The duo was stumbling down the street, obviously more than a little tipsy. When his tankard was empty, Yorrin stood up. He left a few of the dumplings uneaten, and began sauntering down the muddy riverbank that served as a street in Yerevan’s dockside district.
Prudence would shadow Yuri when he left, a little bit later. They needed to keep eyes on every possible approach that someone might make on the Ruskans. It was possible they’d be contacted again to find out what happened on the job. More likely, however, if they were approached at all it would be to silence them.
Which is why I told them to be the most indiscreet blabbermouths this side of the Midland Mountains.
He stalked the two Ruskans on their way to their new inn. They’d had a single night at the Silver Pine, but Yorrin smuggled the three of them out before dawn. For tonight, and perhaps the next few nights, they’d buy rooms at a less outrageously nice establishment. Yorrin would do the same, keeping his head down as he continued to watch them. Both to see if they were contacted, and also ensure that they followed the plan. Aleksandr seemed inclined to trust them, but Yorrin was more inclined to skepticism.
Either way, it meant he’d spend the next couple nights in an ugly little flophouse with a crudely painted gray fish hanging on a sign outside the door. The Happy Trout, Grigor said it was called, Yorrin recalled as he stared at the sign. The Ruskans had been disappointed in this part of the plan. The part where they didn’t get to stay at the Silver Pine.
Yorrin was looking forward to it. He felt that the Silver Pine was somehow wasted on him. His room was too big, the wine too sweet, the food too extravagant. It felt like a waste of Alaina’s money. An affectation, luxury for luxury’s sake. And who needs that many baths?
They settled into the Happy Trout, ordering another round. If they’re not careful they’ll be drunk for real. Yorrin couldn’t blame them. They were drinking on Aleksandr’s shekel, after all. And as bait, that was their only role to play. Yorrin didn’t really need them sober.
Yorrin set himself up in a corner of the room and nursed another beer. This one was worse than the last. He grimaced. He could appreciate a bitter beer or rough spirits, but even he had limits. This was just watered-down swill.
He took another pull.
After a while, Yuri barged through the door. He stomped over to the other two and sat with them, muttering half-hearted apologies. They ordered another round. Still, Yorrin saw nobody that seemed to be watching them.
He stifled the urge to jump. Prudence had taken a seat at a nearby table. He hadn’t even seen her come in, but there she was, leaning far enough back in her chair to quietly converse with him. She faced away from him. Nobody would know they were talking to each other unless they were close enough to hear it themselves.
“Nah,” he said without looking up. “You?”
“Same. Bust, I think.”
“Probably. Have to give it a few days anyway, just to be sure.”
“They aren’t going anywhere any time soon,” Prudence observed. “You’ve got the night shift, right?”
“Yeah,” he said. Wouldn’t want to keep you from that bed you’re sharing with Perrin.
“I can watch them until then. If you want to check in on Aleksandr, see if they’ve found anything weird at the church site.”
He wanted to do exactly that. No point in talking any more than necessary, though. He pushed away his half-finished beer and tossed down a couple of copper gir to cover it. Then he stood up and walked out, without so much as a glance in Prudence’s direction.
It’s good to have at least one professional in the group, he thought. Even if it’s Prudence.
The church site was somehow less impressive than Yorrin had expected.
It was just a foundation, of course. A big pit in the ground with a few stones in the bottom. At the bottom of the pit, a few Ruskan peasants were gathering refuse into a pile. Apparently, since the death of the old priest, the site had been used as a makeshift camp by squatters or criminals.
The site itself was surrounded by muddy dirt streets and dirty buildings. The gray sky was spitting just enough rain to leave everything slick with grime and mud.
It’s this city. Nasarat’s crowded and messy, sure, but it’s vibrant. Grand, in a way. Cassaline architecture kept in good repair, solid Torathian stonework, a good amount of cobbled streets.
Yerevan was just dirty. That suited Yorrin fine, but it didn’t seem appropriate for a church of Torath. Especially not a new church, to be headed by a priestess as honorable and decent as Alaina. She deserved somewhere nicer.
Maybe not, he acknowledged. She’s like Aleksandr in a lot of ways. They seem to enjoy taking shabby, dirty things and making them into something… better.
“Yorrin!” Aleksandr said, spotting him from the middle of the pit. He stood out something fierce, a big armed and armored knight standing around in the middle of a building site. Alaina stood nearby, speaking to one of the peasant workers. Borthul was in one corner, hunched over some of the old foundation stones, muttering to himself.
Robin and Bear were posted around the perimeter of the site, along with a man-at-arms that wore the heraldry of Yerevan’s bayard. Dylan would be back at the Silver Pine, keeping an eye on Giancarlo and his mercs in case one of them finally tipped their hand and did something fishy.
Yorrin clambered down the rough muddy steps hewn into the dirt. “Hey,” he said to Aleksandr. “I miss anything?”
Aleksandr shook his head, smile fading. “No,” he said. “It has been quiet so far.” He glanced towards the corner of the site. “Borthul?”
The old wizard hobbled over to them. Last night, in the meeting room, he’d carried himself with a certain amount of gravitas and darkness. Now, in the gray light of a dreary afternoon, he just looked like a frail old man.
“The traces of Thaumaturgic energy are minimal,” he said. “And no other stone is marked.”
“Huh,” Yorrin said. “That’s weird, isn’t it? I mean, Alaina, you didn’t check every brick until you found that one, did you?”
Alaina looked up from her conversation with the peasant. She blinked, obviously catching up on the conversation in her head. Then she nodded. “No, you’re right. I found it—rather immediately, actually. Something about it was just… off.”
Borthul nodded, as if this was the most obvious thing in the world. “It was, of course. You sensed the Thaumati Word, malformed though it was. And the danger it presents.”
“And you can’t sniff out any more of them?” Yorrin asked.
Borthul sniffed, but not for Thaumati runes. He gave Yorrin a disdainful look. “There aren’t any more. And no signs that they’ve been here recently. I will need to take a different approach, I think.” He trailed off, seeming to be lost in thought. He reached into a sack at his side, drawing out the marked foundation stone. He ran his hand over it, nodding to himself. “Yes,” he said. “That will do, I think. I’ll find you at the Silver Pine later tonight or tomorrow.”
With that, he turned and began walking towards the stairs out of the foundation pit.
“Borthul!” Aleksandr said. “A moment, please.”
“Eh?” the wizard glanced over his shoulder, obviously annoyed at being delayed. “What?”
“Where are you going?” Aleksandr asked. “You did not say.”
“Hmph,” Borthul huffed. “I believe I did. I need to investigate this. Perhaps find answers for you. Answers I won’t find here.”
He turned back around, and slowly picked his way up the muddy stairs.
Aleksandr frowned at Alaina. “I am not sure what to say,” he admitted.
“Do we trust him?” Yorrin asked. “I mean… really? Do we?”
“I think so. He’s known to the Church,” Alaina said. “Good deeds in Nahash and across Torathia. He’s worked with the Knights Serpentes a few times over the years.”
That’s all well and good, but I can hear the hesitation in her voice.
“But?” Yorrin prompted. He drew the word out, giving her a pointed look.
She sighed. “You heard him last night. Thaumati words change you. Even if you’re careful, as his order is, they’re still dangerous. Still…”
“Corrupting,” Yorrin said. “Agreed. Aleksandr?”
Aleksandr was wearing the frown that usually meant he was thinking. “Da,” he said finally. “Follow him. We must know where he goes. And Yorrin. One more thing. Do not let—”
“Him know I’m following him. Got it,” Yorrin said. “See you at the Silver Pine tonight?”
“Da. We will stay here a while longer, and then Alaina wishes to meet with Bayard Bogdanov. Silver Pine after.”
Yorrin nodded. Without another word, he climbed out of the pit and stalked after Borthul. He didn’t want to give the old man too much of a head start.
Although, let’s face it… if I can’t shadow a man that old I should probably give up the game altogether.
Yorrin nearly gave up the game.
Borthul was a wily old bastard, that was for sure. Yorrin couldn’t decide if he knew someone was on his tail, or if he was just being paranoid. Either way, he took a circuitous route to his destination, and Yorrin almost lost him a few times.
Borthul finally stopped in a quiet, tucked away part of the city. It wasn’t the rich area, but neither was it a slum. The muddy streets were cleaner there than in some places. The building Borthul entered was a squat single story house made of wood that looked like it had stood for several generations.
The sign outside had Ruskan writing scribbled on it, and below that Middish. No icons, though. That alone denoted it as a place that catered to the wealthy and the educated.
Stasik’s Oddities. That doesn’t tell me much of anything, Yorrin thought.
He cased the place carefully. Front door, back door. Shuttered windows. He reckoned the place probably had a few rooms. From the privy out back, the wood pile, and the clothesline, he surmised that the shop probably doubled as the shopkeeper’s home. Normal enough for most folk, but it likely meant he wasn’t that rich.
Yorrin watched both doors for a while. He listened at the windows. He heard an occasional muffled voice, but not much more.
Casing two places in one day, without a single gir to show for it. Seems like such a shame.
He didn’t barge in. Aleksandr would, no doubt. Confront them, confirm there was no shenanigans going on, and move on. The blunt, straightforward approach had its place of course. Yorrin knew the value of a good bald-faced lie. But he wanted more information before he did something so risky.
Maybe an hour had passed before anything interesting happened. Borthul emerged from the front door, scratching his chin pensively. He didn’t spare a glance in Yorrin’s direction, instead just wandering down the street.
Yorrin took the opportunity. Whoever was inside had no knowledge of Yorrin. No reason to suspect a thing.
Stasik’s Oddities was much like every curio shop Yorrin had seen. Small, cramped space stuffed to the brim with random bits and bobs. Precious stones, taxidermy, glass, animal bones, small strange tools, and books. Lots of books.
The room was dimly lit by a few candles. The air was close, and smelled of smoke and some kind of burning scent, a mix of flowers maybe.
A voice called out something in Ruskan.
“Middish?” Yorrin said.
“I say hello, strange man,” the voice said. His Middish was good. As Yorrin’s eyes adjusted, he saw an old man on the far side of the room. Not as old as Borthul, from the look of him. Not nearly. But he was still old. Gray hair and beard, wrinkled brow. He wore a thick apron of some kind, and was hunched over a worktable. He looked up when Yorrin took a step inside the shop. “You looking for something in particular?”
“Just browsing,” Yorrin said. He drited through a cramped pathway, gently touching what looked like a femur that had been carved into some kind of bone flute. Macabre, but elegant in a strange way.
He grew closer to the man. “Stasik?” he asked.
“Da, yes. My shop, this is.”
“Hm. Wide selection.”
“The best!” Stasik said. “Anything you need, anything strange or…” he hesitated, lowering his voice. “Arcane. I can do for you. I know many that practice the arts, in Rusk and Midlands both.”
“Might be I have one thing in mind,” Yorrin admitted. “A… sigil. Strange thing. I’ll be damned but I can’t quite remember what it looked like. A series of odd lines. Saw it out about town. Friend of mine said it was Thaumati, if you can believe that.”
Stasik frowned. He rummaged through a drawer of his table and continued working on whatever it was he’d been doing since Yorrin arrived. Yorrin saw a flame beneath a glass vial, the liquid inside bubbling merrily, and a few other pieces of glassware filled with comparatively inert substances.
“I have seen such things,” Stasik said, his voice more guarded than it had been a moment prior. He shut the drawer and stepped around the table, squinting at Yorrin. “Why?”
“Well, this is a curio shop, isn’t it? And that sigil was plenty curious. You’ve seen Thaumati symbols before? Where?”
Stasik scowled. “You should go,” He said.
This could’ve gone better. “Pardon? Why? Just for asking a question?”
“Da,” Stasik said. He turned his back to Yorrin. “Go.”
“Hold on a minute,” Yorrin said. “Let’s not rush—”
Stasik turned back around, expression deathly serious. His eyes were intense, brows drawn in deep concern, his mouth a thin downturned line. “No,” he said. “I am done. Get out.”
“Not happening, old man,” Yorrin said. If guileless charm doesn’t work, maybe he’ll prefer hardass threats. Yorrin rested his hand on the hilt of Olivenco’s sword. “I came for a few answers, nothing more. We don’t need for this to get… messy.”
Stasik held his disapproving glare for a long moment, then finally sighed. His shoulders relaxed. Yorrin relaxed as well. “Very well,” Stasik said. “As you like.”
The old man took a sudden step forward. Just one, not closing to striking distance of Yorrin. Even so, Yorrin tensed up again, gripping the hilt of his sword tight and clearing it an inch from the sheath.
Stasik took a breath and raised his right hand to his face, opened palm up. In his hand Yorrin saw a small mound of glittering pale powder. Stasik blew into his palm, hard, and the cloud of powder was swept directly into Yorrin’s eyes.
“The fuck!” Yorrin said, sputtering. He tried saying it, anyway. Mostly, he coughed and sneezed. His eyes screwed shut instantly, and his left hand went up to try to clear the powder from his eyes and mouth. He drew his sword, waving it in front of him warily, trying to keep the old man at bay.
It took a few moments before he could open his eyes. He squinted at Stasik, who had backed up to the far wall of the room. Yorrin’s vision was cloudy. His head was pounding suddenly.
“What was—” Yorrin coughed. His legs felt wobbly beneath him. He heard a clatter, and realized his hands had gone limp and the sword had fallen from his grasp. “What…”
Stasik was just staring at him, unsmiling. His arms were crossed over his chest. Yorrin crumpled to his knees, head swimming with fuzzy disorientation.
“What did you do to me?” Yorrin tried to say. The words came out all jumbled. He looked at the strange man, feeling a numb terror take hold of him.
Am I dying? Is this what dying feels like?
It was the last thought in his head when the darkness took him.