Yerevan did not seem like it ought to be Alaina’s home.
It is not your decision to make, Aleksandr told himself. But the thought came regardless.
They had finished out the day at the building site uneventfully. The work had been little more than cleaning trash and evening out the blemishes that had formed in the dirt pit. Tomorrow, Alaina said, the bayard had promised more workers to begin laying down foundations. Most likely, if the Thaumati cult intended to disrupt the building, they would wait until more work was underway and more workers were coming and going.
For now, they ventured back to Bogdanov. Alaina wished to speak with him about tomorrow’s plans. Aleksandr mostly accompanied her simply to ensure she was not accosted on the street. They rode side by side at a trot, and Aleksandr took in more of Yerevan’s streets.
The city was rough. Unrefined. The more Aleksandr saw of it, the more certain he became that there was no hidden elegance in the strange marriage of Ruskan and Middish styles that the city represented.
It lacked the cold yet beautiful vastness of Aleksandr’s homeland along the northeastern fringes of Rusk. It lacked the ancient majesty of Nahash, with its careful Torathian enhancements to the old Cassaline.
Instead, Yerevan was messy. The Middish clashed into the Ruskan, which in turn felt sloppily tacked onto the old Cassaline bones. It was a skeleton in a skin suit wearing ill-fitting clothes.
The analogy was macabre, but Aleksandr felt it accurate. As he and Alaina rode from the church site and crossed into Bayard Bogdanov’s keep, the truth of his assessment was all around him. The Cassaline stonework was falling into disrepair, with rough Ruskan additions stuck on seemingly at random.
One of the soldiers at the gate recognized them, waved them in, but then held up a hand.
“You are looking for Bayard Bogdanov?” he asked.
“I am,” Alaina said. “Is he still receiving?”
The man nodded. “Da,” he said. “For you, anyway. He say to let you through if you come back. You like an escort?”
“I think I can find my way,” Alaina said with a chuckle. The bayard’s hall stood just across the yard, in plain view.
“I am not here to see the bayard,” Aleksandr interjected. It felt odd to be speaking Middish in a Ruskan city to one of the bayard’s druzhniks, but it seemed Bogdanov preferred it this way. “I was hoping to speak with another. The bayard’s smith. I can pay for his services.”
The druzhnik looked Aleksandr up and down, then nodded. He pointed, needlessly, towards the smithy. Aleksandr could have found it in the dark, with his eyes closed. The clamor of the smith at work was hard to miss.
“Meet back here when we’re done?” Alaina asked. Aleksandr nodded, and their paths diverged.
He dismounted Dascha when he reached the smithy. He saw the smith within, working a piece of iron with an apprentice close at hand. Aleksandr stood patiently, letting the man finish his task.
It was beautiful work. Yerevan might be an ugly city, but it was clear that to this man his craft was an art.
Aleksandr had always felt fascinated by smithing, ever since he’d been a boy. Taming the fire, taking raw ingots and turning them into blades, into armor, even into simple tools like horseshoes or shovels. It had seemed to him a job that required prodigious strength and a keen mind working in harmony. For a time, he’d even wanted to be a smith.
His father had quickly disabused him of those dreams. He may be a third son, but he was still a Kerensky. Ruskan nobility. Smiths were valuable, certainly, and deserving of respect. Free men, not serfs. But they were still common. It was not the sort of work that was fitting for a bayard’s son.
Nobles use tools, and break them. They do not create them.
Bayard Valentin would never have said such a thing, but somewhere in Aleksandr’s heart he felt it was true to how his father felt. It did not sit well. Valentin was a good man. A good lord. And yet…
He could be better.
Aleksandr watched quietly as a piece of orange iron became the beginnings of a sword. After some time, the smith quenched his work and finally seemed to notice Aleksandr standing there.
“Who are you?” he asked in Ruskan. “Druzhnik? I don’t recognize you.”
“My name is Aleksandr Kerensky,” Aleksandr said, speaking Ruskan as well. After all the Middish in Yerevan, it was a nice change. He offered a hand to shake. “Not one of Bayard Bogdanov’s vassals. A visitor.”
The smith frowned, but he shook Aleksandr’s hand. “Piotr,” he said. “You the one that brought the new priestess?”
“Hm. Need a smith?”
“I do,” Aleksandr said. “Though this is not on the bayard’s orders. I would be happy to pay you.”
Piotr shrugged, wrinkling his nose. “What’s the job?”
Aleksandr gestured to his chest. More specifically, to the breastplate strapped across it. “The road from Nahash was long, and dangerous. My armor took quite a beating. I was hoping—”
“Let’s see it, then,” Piotr said, nodding. He stepped up to Aleksandr and began prodding at the armor, examining the breast and back plates. He grunted disapprovingly, running his hand across a particularly deep gouge that dented the chestplate above Aleksandr’s left breast. “What happened here?”
“A… giant,” Aleksandr said. “In the Underpass.”
The blacksmith gave him a skeptical look. Aleksandr met Piotr’s eyes impassively. It is the truth. I will not hide from the truth.
Piotr broke first, shrugging. He continued examining the plate. Finally, he stepped back. “Alright,” he said. “Yes, I can fix it for you. Be a few days, and, hmm—” Piotr blew out his breath on the word. “You’re a friend of the bayard’s, and that priestess he’s so taken with. Let’s call it twenty dengas.”
Better price than I expected. “Agreed,” Aleksandr said immediately.
“Good, good. Off with it, then. Sasha!”
Aleksandr started. For an instant he thought the smith was talking to him. His father had never cared for the more common diminutive of Aleksandr, but some of the common folk in Pripia had called him Sasha when he was a boy.
The smith’s apprentice bounded over at the call. The young man—Sasha—did as Piotr directed and helped Aleksandr undo the straps that held his breast and back plates in place. He carried both pieces of armor over to a workbench in the smithy.
Aleksandr followed, observing some of Piotr’s works that lay in various states of completion around the smithy. His eye was drawn to a few pieces of plate that rested on wooden stands. Hard iron, well-tempered from the look of them. Good quality work. Piotr knew his trade.
Aleksandr touched one of the pieces, a smooth iron vambrace. His mail served well enough, and the breastplate even better. But after nearly facing down his own death several times on the road, he could not help but feel that one could not be too armored. Several of the pieces here—like the vambraces—were designed to be affixed over the limbs, typically used alongside mail and padding.
“Anything else you need, Sir Kerensky?” the smith asked. He eyed Aleksandr with a touch of wariness as he entered the smithy. “It will be a few days yet before we’re done.”
“Perhaps,” Aleksandr said. He tapped the vambrace again. “I was thinking I might want a few more pieces of armor. Are these for sale?”
Piotr frowned. “They’re not done,” he said.
“No? My mistake, then. They looked finished to me, but I am not a smith.”
Piotr shook his head. “Need to send them to an engraver out in the Naksava holdings. Hoped Bayard Bogdanov might want them for himself, or one of his druzhniks. But nobody’ll want them like that. My work’s too plain.”
“Is it?” Aleksandr looked the armor pieces over again. “I suppose I like plain. These would do quite well for me. The iron is a good color, smooth, polished. Engravings and ornament do not seem necessary.”
Piotr folded his arms over his chest, but he didn’t interrupt Aleksandr.
Aleksandr decided to forge on ahead. “Is the bayard expecting these at a particular time? Perhaps I could buy them as-is instead?”
Piotr gave a slow nod. “Perhaps,” he said. He looked Aleksandr up and down. “You want armor to complement the plate? Not just that piece, but a proper set? Arms, legs, throat?”
“Yes,” Aleksandr said.
The smith nodded again. He held up three fingers. “Three zolotniks,” he said.
Aleksandr winced. Like the Torathian mina, the gold zolotnik was of a similar weight and value to the solidus of the old Cassaline Empire. Even here, the echoes of the Empire dictated the types of currency that were in common use. Like each of his companions, Aleksandr had just received a single mina and a single solidus, from Alaina and Borthul respectively. Their payment for many weeks on the road. Piotr was asking a steep price.
Steep to a mercenary. Bayard Bogdanov would not balk at such a price.
“That is high,” Aleksandr admitted. “I will need to consider”
“It’s fair,” Piotr said.
“I do not doubt,” Aleksandr said. “As I said, your work is good. Even so, I will need to review my funds. But if I can, and if you do not send them off to the engraver in the next few days, I would like to buy them.”
Piotr shrugged. “Sasha, take the druzhnik’s measurements before he goes,” he said. He smiled. “Just in case,” he said.
Aleksandr smiled back. He let the apprentice note the length and width of his limbs. Piotr told him to pay when he returned, and the smith hunkered down at his workbench to take a more detailed stock of Aleksandr’s battered armor.
Aleksandr continued watching in silence, until Piotr finally looked up at him.
“Something else?” he asked.
Aleksandr shook his head. “No. I was just hoping to watch, if you don’t mind.”
Piotr grimaced. “Why?” he asked. “It’s just smithing.”
Just admit it, Aleksandr told himself. Your father is not here.
A moment passed in uncomfortable silence. Piotr was still waiting. Aleksandr finally sighed, trying not to feel embarrassed. “In truth, I have always been fascinated by smithing,” he said. “Had I not been born a bayard’s son, perhaps I might have apprenticed to a smith. Your work is excellent. Some of the best I have seen.”
Piotr’s expression softened at the praise, though not much. He was still frowning when he spoke. “Huh,” he said. “Not what I was expecting. You seen a lot of good smithwork, then?”
“Some,” Aleksandr said. “But much of the best of it was done before I was born.”
Piotr nodded. “That’s the truth,” he grumbled. “Before the Empire fell, a handful of Ruskan smiths had learned the secrets of their seric iron. Few enough still living, though. Jealous bastards mostly let the secrets die with them. The tools they made are rare artifacts instead of commonplace, as they might’ve been.”
“Yes,” Aleksandr agreed. “My own family blade, Kholodny, is one such. True steel.”
Piotr’s eyes widened at that, and he stared at the hilt of Kholodny with a hungry expression. “Oh? Is that…?”
Aleksandr nodded. He drew Kholodny in a single smooth motion, and offered the hilt to Piotr.
The smith accepted the sword and stared at it. With one finger he traced the intricate rippled patterns in the steel. “Excellent work,” he commented. “Ruskan made. But I do not recognize this mark, which means it’s very old. Among the first, I’d bet. Two hundred years? Maybe more.”
He knows his steel, Aleksandr thought appreciatively. “Yes,” he said. “I think so. It has been in my family for many generations.”
“Very fine,” Piotr said, shifting the sword around in his grip, getting a feel for the weight and balance of it. Finally, he offered it back. “You should treasure this.”
“I do,” Aleksandr said, accepting the blade and resheathing it. “My father gave it to me, though I am not his heir. A great honor. You know your steel, I see.”
Piotr shrugged. “I apprenticed under old Oleg, Bayard Kamarsky’s smith. Before he died.”
“I apologize,” Aleksandr said. “I do not know Yerevan well. Bayard Kamarsky is one of Bogdanov’s vassals, but beyond that, I know little. Oleg?”
“Sergei Kamarsky is the greatest bayard in the borderlands, save Bogdanov himself,” Piotr said. “He controls nearly as much as all Bogdanov’s other vassals put together. And much history. His family has a seric iron—steel—blade as well.”
Aleksandr’s eyes widened. “Oh. Oleg, he is a steelsmith? Was a steelsmith?”
Piotr wiggled a free hand in a noncommittal so-so gesture. “He knew Bayard Kamarsky’s blade well. Even did some reforging upon it once, when it was damaged. But he couldn’t make it, if that’s what you mean.”
“You can do this, too?”
Piotr nodded. “I expect so. Bayard Kamarsky has told me he will bring his blade here if he ever needs work done upon it. He’d like to hire me away, but Dmitir—Bayard Bogdanov—he is good to me. I do not wish to go.”
“You call it seric iron, I noticed,” Aleksandr said. “In Torathia I heard this name often.”
“Oleg called it that. He learned somewhat from a Torathian, I think. And he didn’t like calling it steel.”
“Why?” Aleksandr asked.
“What is steel?” Piotr asked.
Aleksandr frowned, taken aback at the odd question. He gestured to Kholodny. “A special kind of iron,” he said. “Pattern forged, with secret techniques that temper it. Flexible in the core, yet hard on the edge. Even more than hard iron. It holds an edge like nothing else. This is what I learned, anyway. Am I mistaken?”
Piotr shrugged. “Alright then. And hard iron, you said. What is that?”
Aleksandr felt as though he was somehow being led into a trap, but he had no idea what it might be. “Hard iron is… as it says. Tempered iron, hardened by the forge. Not as soft as simple iron, which would make poor arms or armor.”
“Which is the greater transformation? Tempering pig iron, or forging true steel?”
“True steel,” Aleksandr said immediately. Then he frowned. Is that true? Raw iron just smelted is nearly worthless as a weapon. Hard iron is a far step below steel, of course, but at least it can hold a decent edge for a time.
“You seem uncertain,” Piotr observed.
“I am,” Aleksandr admitted. “I suppose I am not sure.”
Piotr nodded. “Oleg said the only point in giving any tempered iron its own name was if it was truly transformed. If you turn copper and tin to bronze, it’s a true change. One bronze breastplate would be more valuable than a dozen copper ones. So what is steel then? Oleg said that it was any iron that was hard enough to be used for more than simple iron could be used for.”
“Strange. Most people would not agree,” Aleksandr said.
“Most people are idiots,” Piotr said, shrugging. “Seric iron is gorgeous, for sure. Masterful metal. Better in many ways, and damn but I wish I knew how to make the stuff. But I agree with Oleg: it’s all steel.”
An odd man, Aleksandr thought. Then, “you are an odd man,” he said. “Uh, I mean no offense.”
Piotr barked a laugh. “I’m not so odd. I mostly just nod and call Bayard Kamarsky’s blade steel like everyone else. Oleg was the odd one. He liked to say every druzhnik in Kamarsky’s army was clad in steel and the poor fools didn’t even know it.”
Aleksandr chuckled. “I would have liked to meet him,” he said. “And learn how to work steel as he knew it, if not true steel.”
Piotr nodded. “He was a good man, Oleg was,” he said. He cracked his knuckles, and turned back to his workbench. After a moment, he glanced back at Aleksandr. “You willing to get your hands dirty, bayard’s son?”
Aleksandr smiled. “Yes,” he said. “Very much.”
Alaina found him well after dark, after he’d missed meeting her back at the gate. She looked more amused than upset, and she greeted Piotr warmly.
“Back tomorrow?” Piotr asked.
“Definitely,” Aleksandr said. “And more days, as time permits. Thank you for all you’ve taught me. We will make the repairs together, yes?”
Piotr nodded. “You learn quick,” he said. “It’s been my pleasure.”
Aleksandr and Alaina departed Bogdanov’s keep together. His arms and back ached fiercely, but it was a good ache. He was exercising muscles he had not realized he had.
“That was unexpected,” Alaina said. She’d switched to Middish. “You’re a smith now?”
Aleksandr laughed. “No,” he said. “But it is good to learn. When I was a boy…” he paused.
“You wanted to be a smith?”
“Da. Maybe,” Aleksandr said. “A little.”
“It’s never too late,” Alaina offered.
Aleksandr frowned. “It is,” he said. “I will never be a true smith, Alaina. I am what I am. But… is a fun diversion, at least. And good to understand better the weapons and armor I carry.”
“Aleksandr,” Alaina said softly. He tilted his head towards her. They rode slowly, and close, but even so he had to lean to hear her. “Indeed you are what you are. And what you are is a singular man that, I think, will never let anything stop him from achieving his goals. If you aim to be a smith, I think you’ll be a smith.”
Aleksandr felt a strange mixture of emotions. Warmth bloomed in his chest, and he felt the heat of embarrassment on his cheeks. Part of him resonated with what Alaina said. Another part of him was filled with doubt.
He wasn’t sure what to say. The Silver Pine rose ahead of them, and before they reached it, a shadowed figure stepped in front of them.
Dascha came to a dead stop, and Aleksandr’s hand flew to Kholodny’s hilt.
“Aleksandr,” the figure spoke in a hushed whisper. A quiet, female voice.
“Prudence?” Aleksandr said.
She stepped forward, close enough that the moonlight illuminated her. “You’re back late,” she said.
“Da,” Aleksandr said. “Sorry, we—”
“Is Yorrin with you?” Prudence asked, interrupting.
A chill ran down Aleksandr’s spine. “Yorrin?” he said. His thoughts raced. “No. He—he followed Borthul. I thought he—did he not simply return to the Silver Pine? I thought—when we did not see him—”
Prudence shook her head. “He was going to stay at the Happy Trout tonight. Watch the Ruskans. But he never showed up to relieve me. And Robin and Bear have been here for hours, said they hadn’t seen him. But I thought maybe you—damn it!”
Aleksandr looked around them. The gloomy, dimly lit street felt suddenly dangerous. The shadowed alleys brimmed with menace.
“Let’s stay calm,” Alaina said. “What about Borthul? Has he…”
Prudence shook her head. “No sign of him either.”
Aleksandr swallowed. “Then Yorrin is out there somewhere.”
Prudence nodded. “Alone,” she said.