The next day, with a modest payment and an apologetic smile, Ani sent the maid to the Young Witch to accept the latter’s proposition. The servant came back telling Ani to meet the Witch’s uncle in a small tavern in the docks in the evening. The girl also informed Ani that she would accompany her there, as well as on any trip around the city Ani needed to take, which made the healer assume that the Witch had executed her influence on Tamara. Ani jumped at the opportunity, having grown bored and restless in her room, and they agreed to spend the next day purchasing what Ani might need for her journey.
The uncle named Yuro was a boisterous round man, with a wide mouth, thick black curls, and very hairy nostrils.
“We are to be the first ships to travel that far, girl! Not after the war, no one went.” He was drinking some blood red brew from a tall glass. Ani had refused hers, blaming it on getting muddled easily. “There will be five boats! We will go to the islands first, the closest ones, the Blue Isles. The fact is, girl, I have a cousin there.” He gave Ani a wink, and she wondered what he thought was worthy of such emphasis here. “You need to know the right people, everywhere you go! Smart people know the right people. I see, you are a smart girl. My niece asked for you. You know the right people. I know the right people, you know the right people. We will be friends.” He took another gulp, finished his drink, and loudly asked for another. “You will be on my boat. I do not trust the others, they will ask questions. And smart people do not answer questions, hey?” He gave her another wink.
Ani nodded silently. She was certain he hardly needed anything else from her.
“On the islands, with my cousin’s help we will hire some men, with swords. It is not safe after those islands. There are…” He looked around quickly, and whispered, “Pirates.”
Ani asked herself whether she was to pretend to be terrified, but she was not sure she could be convincing enough, since the stakes on her acting skills right now would be rather low. He had already agreed to transport her.
“What men with swords?” she asked. “Westerners?”
“No, no, none of those!” The man waved his spade like hands at her vigorously. “No, no! It is bad enough we are travelling to their land, bad enough! We will hire good men. My cousin will help us!” A barmaid put another glass in front of him, and he drank and mumbled, “Westerners… Who hires Westerners? Cut our throats, they will, and take my cargo…”
“What is your cargo?” Ani asked sharply, and he threw her what he thought was a cheek look over the rim of his glass.
“Curious girl, are you not? Good, smart girl! It is not for you to know, though. Good cargo, precious, but we do not want someone to decide to take it, right? The less people know, the better.”
Ani gave him a measuring look. She had learnt from Tamara in the past few days that there were strict laws in the White City for what could be brought in and what could be transported out of the island, and fees and restrictions applied. Ani remained silent, feeling increasingly worried. The man seemed hardly reliable, and his constant winking and speaking in conspiratory whisper was making her apprehensive.
“I will provide to you, girl. With food and water, but you should buy yourself some tabemonos.” Ani gave him a confused look. “We will have fish, and water, and dry breads. You need fruit, dry too, to keep in your bag, and salty things. Have you travelled far before, girl?” Ani had to admit she had not.
The man shook his head with a patronising air and started on a long and convoluted explanation, full of self-praising and digressions, out of which Ani finally managed to understand that she was merely supposed to ensure that she had not fallen ill from malnourishment during their travels, mostly from scurvy. Ani pressed her lips, prohibiting herself from reminding the man she was, after all, a healer.
After another hour of listening about what a beauty his boat was and how smart he had been to know that one carpenter at the South of the city, Ani was finally set free.
With whatever little silver she was prepared to spend, the next day Ani visited the markets of the city in the company of Tamara, who was initially pouting, but quickly warmed up after Ani offered to purchase her a scarf. Each of them chose one, a red one for Tamara, and a dark blue one for Ani. She wrapped it around her head and neck, the way the local women did, and looked herself over in a polished copper mirror the merchant was holding up for her.
The fabric was loose and soft, made of the plant Ani knew as cotton, and the locals called vamvaki, brought on large ships from the Amber Gardens, the land beyond the Westerners’ Rodhina. The shawl lay around her face, making her eyes look brighter, and Tamara complimented the colour, unusual for locals.
‘If only he could see…’ Ani winced from the thought, even though just half formed, that flashed through her mind. It was astonishing and absurd in so many ways, that Ani pushed it at the back of her mind, for later consideration. She jerked off the scarf and pushed it into her sack. Not being in control of some sort of a soft spot in herself that she had not known existed just a few seconds ago felt alarming.
They visited several small shops. The goods and the merchants were displayed outside, under bright red tents, while the money was to be exchanged in the dusk inside. Ani praised herself – it had been wise to take the maid with her. Her initial fears that she would overpay not knowing the true price of goods dissipated quickly. Her silver pouch did not seem to grow any lighter while her sack was now full of dry fruit, other provisions, two thin undershirts, and the scarf. The maid argued with each merchant fervently, loudly, hands flailing and eyes blazing. Ani, still having learnt none of the language, tried to listen. A few words were repeated again and again, but Ani could not guess anything that was said. One phrase was clearly of major importance, though. If a merchant showed himself stubborn, the girl would grab their forearm and pull them close. Most obeyed – perhaps, for a better look at her opulent bosom. The word ‘kirokijo’ was whispered under breath, and was in most cases the last argument.
After a few hours in the heat, the girls came into a small shop. The old woman behind the counter had a wrinkled face, her skin dark, and Ani realised that every customer was female as well. They all sat and drank some hot beverage from small copper cups. The smell in the air was spicy and rather strong. The only hot drink Ani was used to was coffee, and she looked down into the cup that was put in front of her with suspicion. She thought she could recognise some flavours – cinnamon, cardamom, and perhaps nutmeg – but not the main aroma.
“It is chai,” the maid said, and sipped hers. “Many like it with milk. Do you want me to ask for some for you?”
There were no cows on the Pearl Islands, and Ani shuddered at the thought of the taste of sheep milk warmed up by the drink.
“No, thank you, I want to taste it better.”
She took a careful sip, and her nose filled with spices and the tangy flavour of the drink itself. She looked, and saw some dark leaves at the bottom of the cup. She found the drink quite pleasant, but after a few minutes of sipping it and listening to the maid’s chatter, she realised that a drop of sweat was running down her temple. She was growing hotter and hotter, and her breathing was laboured.
“Is the drink a brew?” she asked, and Tamara smiled to her.
“No, it is just a plant. Dried, and hot water poured over it. It is warming, I know, but it does not muddle you. Just makes you warm.”
Ani could quite agree with the maid. She was indeed feeling hot, but the warmth was growing deep in her core, somewhere below her sternum, in her upper stomach, rising in waves of some tingling sensation, to her heart and throat, and her skin grew flushed, and her ears almost rang. She looked around at other women. Many fanned themselves with oochiwa, a circle of paper on a long wooden stick. Faces were red, and cheeks burnt.
“Is it a special drink?” Ani asked, swallowing a knot in her throat and blowing some air out. “Is there purpose to it?”
“It is good for skin, and in heat it lets your body breathe,” the girl answered lightly. “It makes some more amorous, but hardly those who are cold, you know. Those who are proper, those do not feel much after it.” Tamara took another sip, and Ani stared at the leaves floating in the liquid left in her cup.
Arousal was indeed what she was feeling, but had hardly recognised. Suffocating and sweet, it spread through her body. She jumped at her feet.
“I want to go back to the inn now,” she demanded, but then blinked and asked, “Please?”
Tamara gave her a meaningful smirk that Ani did not understood, but felt no need to, and they left the shop.
In her room, Ani fell on the bed, hastily pulling off her dress and the undergarments. Her body burnt, and she squirmed on the sheets. She had no habit or skill to bring herself pleasure, so she squeezed her eyes and willed herself to sleep. It was still light outside, and slumber would not come.
“Please, please, just sleep…” she whispered. “And tomorrow you will wake up yourself… What a silly custom… Who drinks this… Just sleep…”
She hardly looked around when she found herself on the cliff, the rain pouring just as before, wind stirring the dark clouds above her. She rushed to the bearskin and jerked it aside.
The dead baskak stood on his straight arms, upside down, in the middle of the Long House, and she could guess his toothy grin even in this position.
“Rybka!” he greeted her gleefully, and she grabbed at the hem of her undertunic – which, she realised, was the only garment on her – and rushed to him. He was on his feet in an instant and caught her. His lips were on hers, warm and familiar, and she arched into him with a demanding moan. She felt him smirk into her lips, but she was already jerking at his hand, pulling him towards the bench with skins and linen.
He guffawed and obliged.
“What came over you, rybka?” he murmured into her skin an hour later, the tips of his fingers drawing swirls on the curve on her back, down the spine, to the buttocks, and back. “All fired up… I shall call you zhar-ptakha.” He kissed her shoulder, and she squinted her eyes at him. The covers had uncomfortably bunched up under her stomach from their efforts, but she had no strength to move.
“I had some chai…” she answered without thinking, because she had no strength for that either. “What is zhar-ptakha?”
“It is a fire spirit. A beautiful bird, with a fire tail.” He moved closer, and she felt his lips travel down her back. She closed her eyes savouring the soft caresses. Suddenly he stopped, his lips hovering over her left buttock.
“What did you say? You had chai?” She hummed confirming. “You had chai, got all inflamed, and wanted some loving…” he pronounced slowly, and she wondered why he was not continuing his pursuits. “You wanted some loving, and here you are…”
Her eyes flew open, and she jerked under his hot body. Their gazes met.
“I willed myself to come here…” she breathed out. “I cannot believe it! I have power over it! I wanted to come, and I did!” She grabbed his shoulder, and almost shook him, and he grinned to her widely.
“You did! Devichka maya! Umnica! Daj lobznu!” He was clearly praising her, the large palms cupped her face, and he kissed her deeply and merrily. “What a smart girl!” She smiled to him, proudly, and he toppled her into the furs again. Another hour or so passed.
“So, is that how it is now?” he asked, his voice sated and quiet now. “Will you need to have some of the leaves to come here now, for some love? And spices, I bet the spices matter…” he drew out pensively, and she pushed her hand under her cheek, supporting her head on one elbow.
“I think it has nothing to do with carnal pleasures. It is just an effort of will. I will try tomorrow again, without chai. I will just think of this place before falling asleep.” She shrugged. The plan seemed very promising to her. He was watching her face with unreadable expression. “What is it?”
“Will you think of the place, or of me, rybka?” he asked, and she frowned, not understanding the sudden change in his mood. His eyes were guarded, the corners of the lips tense. Before she found any response, he smiled widely again and asked in a light tone, “Any news beside that?”
Ani studied his face for a few seconds.
“I found a boat to travel to your land. The Witch’s daughter asked her uncle to help me, and he promised me safe passage.”
“Kirokijo is helping you?” He shook his head in disbelief. “Crafty rybka!”
“Kirokijo? Is this her name?”
“No, it is more of a title. They do not get names. First, they are kirokijo, the Daughter of the Witch, and then their mother dies, and they are the Witch. One by one, one after another… A woman comes, and a woman goes, and brings another to the world…” he pronounced, his voice low and melodic, and she thought that it was as if made for telling stories.
And feeling warm and languished, her other hand splayed on his chest, over the evenly beating heart, she found herself asking, “Do your people have legends? Like this one, about a witch and her daughter?..” Her voice died out, she felt embarrassed by the childishness of her question, but he smiled to her softly and moved away a thick strand of her hair that fell on her face.
“We do. We have many stories, but they are no legends, serdeshnaya. They are the truth. Of the Sea Goddess that rules the world of men, who sail and fight, and come home bringing gold for their beloved ones, while women are protected by Matka, the Land Goddess, and her three daughters – a hunter, a fisher, and a warrior. And Varpulis, the husband of the Sea Goddess, is the men’s patron; he pacified her moods, when she craves our blood to mix into her blue waters and sends her lover, the Wind Youth, to shake and wrack our ships. Varpulis had exchanged the faithfulness of the woman he loves for our safety. And there is the Black Wolf, the Death, who comes for all of us at the end…” He stopped, and Ani saw his throat bob. “All of us…”
Suddenly, the image of his face wavered in front of her eyes, and she realised that tears ran her cheeks. His unseeing gaze was on the wall, and then he chuckled and focused his bright eyes on her face.
“Oh no, serdeshnaya, do not cry! We do not fear death. Every man who died honourably returns after the meeting with Volchina, the Death Spirit! A man returns as a woman, a woman – as a man! It is a blessing!”
She stared at him astonished.
“What a strange superstition…” she whispered, and hastily wiped the tears, bashful of her crying, and quickly regaining her usual composure.
He barked a loud laughter and grabbed the back of her head firmly.
“What a disrespectful fishie, you are!”
She could not answer to this, as he was pulling her to his lips again.