It took several days for Yorrin’s enthusiasm to run out.
Each day he, Robin, and Prudence studied Giancarlo as he went about his business in Yerevan. One of them would do so openly, and inevitably they would become distracted by something or another. During these convenient moments, another would quietly watch Giancarlo from afar to see if he made a move.
He never did.
Each night, they did the same. And again, he did nothing. He seemed nervous to Yorrin, and Prudence concurred. Not that I need her to confirm what I can already see. But Giancarlo made no mysterious contacts. Once, on the first day of their observation, Prudence said he spent a few short moments checking the hidden compartment in his wagon. But Prudence swore he didn’t take anything out of it, and he’d never checked it since.
In the meantime, life went on undisturbed. The Ruskans had taken to following Aleksandr down to the church site, supposedly standing guard. Yorrin knew they were just hoping Aleksandr or Alaina would keep paying their way at the Silver Pine, and he said as much. So far, Aleksandr continued to indulge them.
Aleksandr spent a few hours each day at the bayard’s smithy. Yorrin spent a similar amount of time training with Olivenco. Those were some of the best parts of the day—when his mind was occupied, and he didn’t dwell on what exactly had gone wrong in their scheme to sting Giancarlo and his accomplices.
Lefty and most of the other Taraamites—Olivenco and Perrin excepted—weren’t around much except during the morning and evening meals. They were busy scouring the city for recruits to take back to Fort Taraam. Their requirements were strict and specific: they wanted young men of good fitness, with little reason to remain in Yerevan, but also men of a certain basic integrity.
Yorrin suspected they’d be at it for quite a while.
Of course, it looks like you’ll be at your business for just as long, Yorrin reminded himself. With each passing day, more doubt crept in.
He stood near Giancarlo’s wagons, waiting while the merchant haggled. Today, he was the bait—the one Giancarlo knew was watching, so that when Yorrin was distracted he might do something suspicious. Out in the crowd of the marketplace somewhere, Prudence was quietly watching for just such a moment.
As they had done every day, without result. Giancarlo was slimy, for a certainty. It made some sense to figure he’d poisoned Alaina, but Yorrin still wondered if he might not have had one of his men actually do the deed for him. Like Levin, who we already know was outside at the right time. And there’s still the matter of why Giancarlo did it.
The Cassaline didn’t strike Yorrin as a Thaumati cultist. Like any successful merchant, he wasn’t a zealot for anything but extracting profit from pliable marks. So a cultist paid him to do it. Simple enough.
Except that Yorrin had a hard time believing there had been cultists at the Crossroads Inn. Where had they been hiding? Where had they gone to afterwards?
Every time he pondered the details of the past few weeks, they didn’t add up. He was still missing something. Something important.
Yorrin blinked. He’d intentionally let himself get caught up in his thoughts, in case Giancarlo wanted to make a move. Now he glanced in the direction of the voice, and saw the Cassaline merchant staring at him.
He looks more nervous than usual. “Giancarlo,” Yorrin said. “You need something?”
It wasn’t lost on Yorrin that they had some privacy where they stood. The merchant Giancarlo had been speaking with was nowhere in sight, and they were insulated from the market crowds by the wagons. Giancarlo’s guards stood on the far side of the wagon, one of his factors was with the Yerevani merchant, and the other was tending to some other business out of sight.
No one was in earshot, not if they kept their voices low. The solitude might be minimal, but it was noticeable. Particularly because of what Giancarlo said next.
“I must confess something to you, Yorrin.”
“Oh?” Yorrin kept his voice calm, but he felt his pulse quicken. That’d be one way to solve this, I suppose. He can simply give himself up.
“I have not been fully honest with you. With Aleksandr,” Giancarlo said. “Such is the nature of my business, of course. Honesty is rarely the virtue you Middish seem to think it is. But even so, in this case, it is, ah, importante.” The merchant grimaced.
“What do you mean?” Yorrin asked. “How?”
“You said that some of my men were, what was the word? Rummaging? In my wagon.”
“That’s what Prudence saw, yeah,” Yorrin said.
“I pretended not to know why they might do this,” Giancarlo said. “But I lied.”
What are you playing at? Yorrin wondered. Trying to get my trust for some reason, maybe?
At Yorrin’s silence, Giancarlo hastened on. “A merchant must be careful what wares he shows, and to who. I have many goods, and travel through many lands. So… I hide certain things, at certain times.”
Yorrin did his best to look surprised, and then did his best to look like he was doing his best to hide his surprise. “Go on,” was all he said.
“There is a small compartment in each wagon,” Giancarlo said. “In these compartments I keep my most valuable and potentially, ah, questionable wares.”
Yorrin shrugged. “Oh,” he said. Keep it cool. “So your men were checking on them? Or… they don’t know about them, do they?” he smirked. “Were your mercs robbing you, Rossi?”
“This is what I was afraid of, si,” Giancarlo said. “But I do not believe so.”
“Lucky for you,” Yorrin said.
Giancarlo cocked his head to the side and pursed his lips in a pensive frown. “Not so much, signore. Not so much. You see, I have been thinking upon this, these last few days. And I am not happy with my realization.”
“Oh?” Yorrin asked.
The merchant’s frown deepened. “I am thinking that I must tell you, or your commander, more of my business than I would prefer.”
“Go on then,” Yorrin said. “Explain.”
“I would prefer to speak to Aleksandr, I think.”
Yorrin rested one hand on the hilt of Olivenco’s sword. He locked eyes with the merchant and let his request hang in the air for a while. Giancarlo, to his credit, didn’t seem too rattled by the tactic.
Careful, Yorrin told himself. He’s got more experience negotiating than you do. He finally sighed. “Run it by me first,” he said.
Giancarlo’s expression softened. “Si,” he said. “Very well. When we met at the Crossroads Inn, I did not tell you about my specialty wares, because I did not think it relevant. But if one of the mercenary knew, even then, then this changes everything.”
“Why’s that?” Yorrin asked. “What wares do you have hidden in there, Giancarlo?”
“Many,” the merchant hedged. “But… one of interest, perhaps. A poison.”
Does he really think we’ll take his word for it, and let him pin this whole thing on one of the mercs? How stupid does this Imperial twat think we are?
Yorrin feigned a look of controlled shock. “Poison,” he said. “Like the poison that nearly killed Alaina?”
Giancarlo shrugged. “Perhaps,” he said. Then, after a moment, “Si. Yes. Definitely.”
“And you didn’t think this was worth mentioning sooner? Like the first night everything went down?” Yorrin snapped.
“I did not think it relevant!” Giancarlo said. “I know that I did not poison the priestess, and I thought the men did not know about the stash. How could I have known?”
“You could have mentioned it,” Yorrin said. What the hell is his angle? He’s giving us cause to suspect him. “If your poison was used on Alaian—”
“I do not know that it was,” Giancarlo protested. “I took stock of the volume of poison myself, afterwards. Checked it against my ledger. None was missing.”
“Your ledger? You keep a ledger of your black market goods?” Yorrin arched an eyebrow.
“Si, of course,” Giancarlo said. “It stays in the stash as well, of course, but si. How else could my factors manage my inventory accurately?”
“Maybe the ledger was doctored too,” Yorrin said.
“Impossible,” Giancarlo said. “I have had it since we left the Cassala. Every entry is accounted for.”
“So you still think it wasn’t your poison that was used,” Yorrin said. “Even after everything?”
Giancarlo shrugged. “Si,” he said. “I think it was not. I cannot account for how it could be. But… I must admit that it might be possible, through some means that escape me. I have considered it these past few days, and I could not in good conscience remain silent.”
Doubt you’ve done a damn thing in good conscience in a long while, Yorrin thought. “Well, thanks for owning up to it eventually, I guess,” he said. “Aleksandr won’t be happy about this.”
“Si, I imagine not,” Giancarlo said. “Thus why I wish to speak with him myself. If—”
“No,” Yorrin said, holding up a hand. “You stay here. If it is your men, I don’t want to arouse their suspicions just yet. I’ll go talk to Aleksandr.”
Giancarlo didn’t look happy at the suggestion, but he didn’t argue either. Maybe he saw the wisdom in Yorrin’s plan. More likely, he figured that Yorrin was giving him a good window to do whatever nefarious deeds he might have planned next.
Please, have at it, Yorrin thought. Prudence was still watching from somewhere nearby, out of sight. She’d see if the Cassaline finally made contact with the cultists, or whatever his scheme was.
Yorrin didn’t wait for Giancarlo to reply. He turned around and strode away, doing his best to radiate barely-contained fury.
He was weaving through the crowded market when he felt someone tug on his sleeve. For a moment, he suspected a pickpocket, and he shifted around to grab whatever guttersnipe was so bold as to try to rob him.
He was surprised to find himself face-to-face with a fat Cassaline in clothes that would have been sumptuous had they not been threadbare from the road. His jowls quivered, and his dark eyes danced left and right apprehensively.
One of Giancarlo’s factors? Yorrin blinked, his thoughts racing to recall the man’s name. He’d barely spoken with either of the merchant’s lackeys on the road. “Aguapo?” he said, when it finally came to him.
Aguapo swallowed nervously. “We must speak,” he blurted out. “Privatamente.” His Cassaline accent was particularly thick, and sweat beaded on his brow.
Yorrin had a dozen questions spring to mind, but he bit them back. He knew a call for a clandestine meet when he heard it. “Where? When?” he said.
“Nightfall. Silver Pine. My room,” Aguapo said. He let go of Yorrin’s sleeve, and stepped back into the crowd.
Yorrin let him go. He hoped maybe Prudence had seen the exchange, but he had a feeling she had her hands full stalking Giancarlo. It was fine.
He could be doing this for Rossi, Yorrin thought. Might be a trap.
The thought brought a smile to his face.
Aleksandr skipped his normal visit to the smithy, and Alaina cut her work on the church short.
They met in one corner of the Silver Pine’s common. Yorrin, Aleksandr, Alaina, and all the others save Prudence. They even included the three Ruskans. Yorrin almost wished the mercenaries that had told them about the stash were around, but of course they were still out in the market with Giancarlo.
Most of the Taraamites were out in the city, but Olivenco and Perrin were around, and Aleksandr welcomed them to listen in.
Borthul was absent, and nobody had seen him since the day prior. Out sniffing for Thaumati, no doubt, but so far every attempt he’d made came up empty.
Yorrin took the time to fill everyone in on what had happened, and Aleksandr cut off what would likely have turned into a messy argument about what to do next.
“Yorrin and I go to this meeting alone.” As always, Aleksandr spoke with authority, and nobody argued.
“Could be that it’s a legitimate request,” Yorrin allowed. “Maybe he knows what Giancarlo’s been up to, and he wants to come clean. Aguapo and the skinny one—”
“Elfisio,” offered the Whip.
“—are Rossi’s factors, after all,” Yorrin said. “They could easily know about the contraband stash. Could be one of them did the actual poisoning, even.”
“It could be many things,” Aleksandr said. “Whatever it could be, we will go prepared for worst.”
“A trap,” Yorrin said, grinning.
“Da,” Aleksandr agreed. “Only… I doubt is a trap only for you and I, Yorrin. They want Alaina, not us.”
Yorrin nodded. Damn, good point.
“Bear, Dylan,” Aleksandr said. “Anatoly, Yuri, Grigor. You will stay with her. Understood?”
“Of course,” said the Whip. “But if there’s trouble in Aguapo’s room it could easily spill out. What—”
“You will not stay with her at the Silver Pine, Dylan,” Aleksandr clarified. “Alaina, Bayard Bogdanov has offered you quarters in his keep, da?”
“He has,” Alaina said. “I turned him down.”
“Accept his offer for tonight,” Aleksandr said.
Alaina nodded. “Makes sense. I’ll be under plenty of guard then. But that means you should keep the others with you, here, in case—”
“Father Iosif trusted put his life in Bogdanov’s hands,” Aleksandr said. “We will not make same mistake with your life, Alaina. They stay with you.”
“Da,” Bear said. “Is good plan. Never trust Ruskans, Alaina. Is wise thing to learn.”
“Makes sense, I suppose,” Dylan said. “But I’m not too fond of leaving you two without any backup.”
“Nonsense,” Robin said. “Yorrin and Aleksandr? They’ll be fine!”
“Da,” Aleksandr agreed. “You will make sure of this.”
Robin frowned. “Come again? I’ll do what now?”
Yorrin grinned. Good thinking, Aleksandr. “He didn’t say you would watch Alaina, Rotten,” he said. “You’ll stay here, in the common. Hide in plain sight, and keep an eye out for trouble.”
“I suppose I can do that,” Robin said begrudgingly. “But what do I do if I actually find trouble?”
Yorrin rolled his eyes. “Help us. Go fetch the Whip and Bear. Whatever makes sense at the time.”
“Run and fetch the others. Got it.”
“Prudence will likely be here as well, by then,” Aleksandr said. “She will come in with Giancarlo. Follow her suggestions.”
“Run and fetch Prudence. Got it.”
Aleksandr sighed. “Da, fine.”
“What about us?” Perrin asked, gesturing to himself and Olivenco. “Lefty and the others may not be back until late. Maybe not even till tomorrow. Trying to make some friends out in the slums, he said.”
Yorrin scratched his chin. “Expect you and Olivenco should just find who you can, and round everyone up at Bogdanov’s hall. What do you think, Aleksandr?”
“Da,” Aleksandr said. “Good plan.”
“You will not have much backup,” Olivenco said. “Just the girl and the coward.” He gestured to Robin. Robin opened his mouth as if to protest, then seemed to think better of it. He closed his mouth and settled back into his seat. Olivenco continued uninterrupted. “You must be careful. Not foolhardy. If things get out of hand, get out of here. Rapido, si?”
“We’ll be careful,” Yorrin assured him.
“You, I believe,” Olivenco said. He pointed at Aleksandr. “It is you that I am cautioning. Follow your man’s lead, si? He has good instincts for this sort of thing, I think.”
Aleksandr frowned. “Da,” he said. “I will.”
Yorrin looked around the table. Is that everything? “Well then,” he said. “Everyone knows their places?”
He was met with a round of nods and murmured assent.
“Good,” Yorrin said. “Let’s get to it then.”