Alexei settled himself in the opposite chair, leaned into its arm and smiling. He needn't put on a pretty show for Sam, entirely amused by the quiet irony. "Is there a betting pool? Though you might not wish to bet against me - I sometimes dream of the future." He did relax, the fire warm at his side and the company pleasant. Roland might well have ceased to exist for all the attention Alexei paid him.
"We shall have to engage our creativity if he doesn't perceive me, though I expect he will. I am, after all, a sorcerer. As I am sure you know, we are loved by few. I would also like to meet this witch you mentioned - I would like to speak with her if possible. Could this be arranged?"
Wind whistled in through the arrow slits, a minor controversy over an escaped chicken stirred up in the courtyard below. His dark eyes tracked over towards the wall, and he chuckled at the mingled shrieks of bird and kitchen maid. This place was - and felt - so very far from Oxenfurt.
Alexei circled the room, looking much as he had since they came upon Rietrikki: curious. The sorcerer held himself rigidly straight as he had in the saddle, to look above the exhaustion he certainly felt. "He may unpack all but the mahogany trunk - I will see to that myself." He hadn't brought a tremendous amount of luggage, the lot of it occupying one corner of the room. Amongst it waited one mahogany chest, only a little worse for the journey. Alexei might have tried impressing Lord Rietrikki with any assortment of strange instruments, but chose instead to impress him with austere simplicity. He still carried the borrowed kerchief in his shirt, though it had lost the pleasing herbal scent it carried.
Of course, he neither addressed Roland directly nor looked his way for more than a moment, turning and smiling at Sam. "Thank you for the accommodations, my lord - they look quite comfortable." Formality for their audience, with a glimmer of warmth for Sam.
Crossing to the wall, he peered out at the muddy yard, its porous wall crowned by the forest beyond. He would dream more clearly bathed in moonlight, but the draft might disturb his sleep. Alexei tucked the debate away for later - he didn't know where the light might strike this room anyway. "Your men must be pleased to be home after all of that weather," he remarked.
The kerchief was delicately fragrant and bright in the firefight. Alexei smiled one of his prettier smiles and thanked him, tucking it away into his shirt. Against his skin, it felt pleasantly cool. He'd enjoyed the chance to watch that gallant stride, pleased now by the small gift. "I suppose so. Stanisław and I have pursued several lines of inquiry, but all to the same end. And I am young yet, by a sorcerer's standards."
He must be older than Sam himself, but the notion wasn't a jarring one - many mages lived for centuries, and he likely only outstripped Sam by about a decade. And Alexei felt (as he looked), young.
"Stanisław's expertise is invaluable. I only hope our work is complete before he grows too old to continue. But tell me more of your wild places - do you travel often to see them?"
Alexei studied him, weighing his words against his voice and the both in sum against his face. Some private conclusion reached, he smiled. "I would very much appreciate a new kerchief. As you saw, mine has gone to ruin." The planes of him changed subtly, more open now than before, but like any other high-born Toussaintois, he followed the unspoken rules of these things.
"The forest suits you, my lord. You've looked cheeful and hale since we crossed its threshold. Your home is near Brokilon - does this place remind you of it?"
He chuckled at lesser humans, wondering if the disdain was real or imagined as he cleaned his fingers on the same kerchief he'd torn apart that morning. "No. Any sane man should respect a mage's abilities, but instilling fear is only of limited use. Imagine for a moment that I lived in a tower at the edge of a village; my reputation fearsome. That tower would loom, and eventually some fool would get up the courage to defy me. There is always some brave idiot amongst the common rabble.
He could present quite the problem if he stirred up enough comrades to defy me. At any rate, I am an academic, so it's more useful that the appropriate parties find myself and my research fascinating, not fearful." Alexei regarded the fraying edge of the kerchief, debating which was more irritating - the loose threads or the waste of magic to fix them. Considering the wards, he sighed and tucked it away, still frayed.
"There's also little hope of winning the common man's love, so I must settle for fascinating." Firelight glittered in his dark eyes and he smiled, wry.
He waved dismissively with his free hand. "I don't expect you to cower before me. That's counterproductive to our work. I am surprised you knew it wasn't necromancy; I'd have needed much more time and resources for a necromantic ritual. And it's forbidden by my fraternal order, of course." The Brotherhood might not look kindly upon playing puppet-master with the corpses either, but he thought he could talk his way out of that particular thicket.
A sparkle of humor showed in his eyes, peeking through the day's sour mood. And there was amusement to be had in the sight of a warrior fastidiously cleaning the grease from his fingertips. Many other noblemen couldn't bother to keep themselves so tidy.
"So perhaps we won't tell them. No reason to cause them any concern."
Alexei's half smile echoed it. "I also frightened your men, but they seem to have calmed. Did you say something to them? You haven't looked a bit frightened by it, not once." He ate still, more delicate in the transfer of food between the plate and his person. Sam had provisioned his trip well; the rations plentiful and of good quality.
A guard stepped over the string of bells, drawing Alexei's attention. Like a spider at the center of her web, he felt the tiniest disturbances to his wards, mind half-full of mice, insects, and men gone to take a piss in the woods. Nightjars croaked in the trees, and he thought that a good sign. Monsters dwindled in this modern age, but they weren't unknown on deep, forested roads. As they hadn't a witcher, Alexei would mind such matters instead.
Sorcerers seemed more abundant than witchers these days, anyway.
From the corner of his eye, he watched Sam's hands, appreciating the fineness of them. "She is the finest horse I've ever owned. Her sire came from Nazairi stock - rare here, in the Northern Kingdoms." Alexei made no effort in hiding his pride. "But yes, I have travelled often. Between Redania and Toussaint, and I was schooled in Nilfgaard. Cri de Cœur was a gift from my brother: he trained her himself - you'd flatter him with your praise."
Across the fire, a pair of guards chatted, voices low but manner easy. They didn't look towards him with the same fear as that morning; Sam, he thought, must have said something to them.
"I expected you'd accuse me of being rash this morning," he mused, smiling sidelong at Sam.
Alexei glanced at him and smiled - some satisfaction in the expression. "Overjoyed. I can find no one nearby, but without knowing who I seek, my scrying may not be clear. The wards will do as they're designed, but posting a watch would be wise."
His eyes dropped to the plate, the way Sam held it. "Is that for me? Thank you." He took the offering and ate, bracing the meal carefully on his knees. The sorcerer, for all his looks, wore sensible clothes. Quality boots of a proper fit, sturdy britches, a padded tunic. He looked more a young solider than a young lord, and this was Nilfgaard's influence, who prided itself upon reliable, if plain mages.
And his father the chevalier would have cuffed him for riding out dressed like a peacock. Always, he'd valued the man's advice.
"What do you think of the road ahead? Will it be troublesome?" Sam looked rather cheerful himself, ruddy and vital in the firefight. He had a boyish look to him now, but Alexei found his cold expressions equally handsome.
Alexei smiled. Not a warm smile, but because he liked Sam it held some affection. Because of what he meant to do next, it also held some devilry. "You are welcome. And I will set wards when we camp - but there's something I must do before we depart. It won't take very long."
From his small bag of personal effects he produced a fine, linen kerchief. He'd others, but he'd carried this one now for days, and the connection was important. With it, he'd dabbed sweat from his neck and staunched a bleeding thumb. Without explanation, he draped it over the mirror, tracing invisible patterns upon the fabric with the tip of one, long finger. He went then to dead bandits, their bodies laid out neatly by Sam's guards. For each, he tore from the kerchief a strip of fabric, tied then to their right thumbs.
The sorcerer surveyed his work, then rose, tucking the remains of the kerchief away.
"These men will be reunited with their comrades," he announced. "Perhaps next time they will think more carefully upon who they cross." And the dead men climbed stiffly to their feet, eyes open and fixed upon the middle distance. They turned, shuffling and clicking away into the trees, gone to find the men in the mirror.
The sorcerer offered no further explanation, watching them go with a hard expression.
He looked grim that day, mood dark and body weary. They all rode with an air of apprehension, the forest around them mysterious and thick with peril. It was an old forest, rich with life and growth and death and decay.
As the sun fell long and warm across the land, they made camp by a swift stream. He waited for the guards to arrange the tents and then he made his wards - silver bells tied to silk thread and strung from iron stakes driven into the soil. They could pass safely, he said, though he instructed everyone to attend to any business outside the barrier before he slept.
By the the fire, he stared into the silver mirror, scrying.