Uncle Yuro’s ship was a kyrenia, a small, bulbous boat of the Pearl Islands dwellers, with a square sail, and two side rudders at the back. It was freshly covered with pitch, and Ani looked its shiny sides over. It was the dawn of the day when their journey to Rodhina was to start.
The night before she had tried to once again will herself to visit the Long House in her dreams, but she had no success. She had had half a thought to try to find the maid and send her for some chai, but then she reminded herself that she needed sleep and rest. She had bought a bag of the leaves after the last visit to the market, though; so surely she would have enough opportunities on the ship to try to use the beverage.
Uncle Yuro was standing on the deck of his ship, yelling orders to the five men rushing about. Ani quickly studied her future travel companions. All men had the typical appearance of the locals of the Pearl Islands – dark hair, curly and thick, dark brown eyes. Two of them were most likely twin brothers, under thirty Summers of age, burly and dim looking. Two more were older, looking more experienced, and less overfed. The last one was grey haired, wiry and tired looking.
“Oh, the smart girl! You are here! I knew you would not change your mind! Come to my ship!” Uncle Yuro made a wide inviting gesture with his square hand. “You will have your own small room, just like I promised to my niece. And we will show you only respect, will we not, boys?” he asked, giving out what he thought was a cordial chuckle.
The men looked at Ani, the twins sparing her only one dull glance, the others with curiosity. The grey haired sailor was the only one who allowed his eyes to linger. Ani suppressed a shiver from when his pale , almost yellow eyes ran her body.
“Yes, only respect,” one of the sailors grumbled. He was the tallest, wide shouldered, with bow legs and large feet. “Who wants a curse on them, if you ask me…” He then spat into the water near the side of the ship and went down, under the deck.
“Well, with that settled…” Uncle Yuro gave Ani another of his sly smiles, and stretched his hand to her. She jerked her chin up and let him help her onto the boat.
Unsurprisingly, she felt even worse on the small Islanders’ boat than she did on a ladya. The ship jumped and jerked, and even sitting on the deck, her eyes on the horizon, helped little. Ani took to the habit of sucking a small piece of dried fruit she purchased in the White City. Tamara called it verikoko. When fresh, it was bright orange and sweet, with a large pit inside. Dried, it was exceptionally sour and tangy, but helped with nausea.
Uncle Yuro had kept his promise. The six men slept somewhere in the hold, the top one out of the two under the deck of the kyrenia. Ani’s hammock was hung in the bottom one, near the sealed crates of Uncle Yuro’s secret cargo.
Their journey to the Blue Isles was eventless, just as Ani’s nights, and five days later they arrived to a small port town of Aonisos. It was late at night, and Ani climbed out on the deck of the ship. Dockers were rushing about, with torches in their hands, and Ani heard Uncle Yuro shout at them, clearly shooing them away from his boat. Ani could see that other four boats – which as Uncle Yuro had claimed, were also going to Rodhina, the first ones after the war – had taken their berths, guided by sharp cries from dockers. Unlike Ani’s companion, they allowed the hands on board, and soon some crates and large clay jugs were carried from them. A man on one of the boats, seemingly a captain, yelled something to Yuro. Even without understanding the language, Ani recognised the tone of a taunt and mockery. Yuro made some complicated gesture with his hand; and since it was returned with no less flair, Ani assumed it was insulting.
“Why are we not letting the dockhands take the cargo?” Ani asked, and Yuro turned to her.
“Because we are smart, little girl,” he answered with his usual smugness, and tapped his temple with his thick index finger. “They do not trust my plan. They think we will not get to the Westerners, and our cargo will fester. They want to make safe money. But smart people know that safe is not always more.” He gave Ani one of his winks, which she had grown already accustomed to.
Ani knew not much about sea voyages, and of course would not barge in with her thoughts, but making at least half the profit safely and freeing space for supplies seemed like a wise idea to her. She pursed her lips, said nothing, and went towards the gangway.
“No, no, girl! You are not going to the port! I will meet my cousin in the inn. It is men’s business. We will drink, and we will talk. I will be back in the morning, with the men with swords.” Uncle Yuro flailed his arms. “I have no time to look after you! It is foreign land here. You know nothing here! Everything is different!”
Ani gave him a skeptical look. As foreign as the Blue Isles seemed to her, she could perceive no visible difference between the faces and the clothes of the locals and the people of the Pearl Islands, and the language sounded exactly the same.
“How about you let one of your men go with me? I will pay for his drink,” she offered, and immediately the heads of the twins appeared from under the deck.
“Not you two!” Uncle Yuro shouted at them. “The girl has not enough silver to fill you two, empty-headed baka anoitos! Grego will go.” Yuro beckoned the tallest of his sailors.
The man, who was standing on the pier smoking, scratched his head and then nodded. By then, Ani had realised he rarely said anything at all.
Ani’s plan was working. Grego confidently had led her to a large inn in the port district, and she had started by buying him three drinks at once, with a promise of more. She kept up with him, drinking the fortified red wine that everyone else had in their glasses. Brew did not affect her, despite her small size; and she drank and drank, and watched Grego’s eyes starting to burn more and more brightly. She kept quiet, since the man was hardly fond of palaver.
It took two more drinks, and another half an hour for Ani to reap the first fruit of her scheming.
“So, what do you want in the West, girl?” Grego grumbled, leaning back in his chair, stretching his long legs in the space between tables.
“I am in love with a Westerner, and he left me behind. I want to find him,” Ani answered cautiously, sipping her wine.
“Foojori!” Grego spat out a word Ani did not know. “You are not that stupid!” He beckoned the barmaid himself, unlike previously without asking Ani, and she pushed a silver coin into the girl’s hand. “I have a daughter, you know. Beautiful girl, just like her mother. But they both do not want to know me…” He shook his enormous head, on a long muscular neck. “So, my daughter… Enna… If she did this, I would lock her in the house! Who does that?” He looked Ani over in derision.
They drank some more.
“I have no father to stop me. And I have the help of the Witch’s Daughter. And Uncle Yuro takes care of me…” Ani drew out, as if slurring her speech already. “He placed me near his precious cargo, whatever it is. He keeps his cargo secret, but he lets me sleep near it…” Ani shook her index finger in front of the man’s nose, making sure her movements were wide and clumsy. He followed her hand with already bleary eyes.
“Foojori!” he repeated, this time with a scoff, spit flying from his lips. “There is nothing precious about his cargo. Just the usual… Oils and noori, the dry weed…” Grego grumbled something else, and Ani poured some more wine into his glass.
“That is not how Yuro speaks of it…” she said. “He speaks if it were a big secret, something better than on the other four boats…”
“The man is a moron. Like a rooster!” Grego made a very convincing clucking noise. “All feathers, and chest like a barrel!” The man spat on the floor. “You should listen to him less. He only talks…”
Ani quieted, satisfied with her findings. She, of course, could not care less about the cargo, but she wanted to be prepared in case she was on a smuggler’s boat.
After another hour of drinking, just a few more short phrases exchanged between them, Ani and Grego left the inn. A narrow, cobble-stone street was leading from the town, located on a tall hill, down to the docks. Inns and taverns were on the sides of the street, and noise and light streamed through windows. Ani walked behind Grego, lost in her thoughts.
“Maybe, one more drink, girl?” Grego grumbled, and pointed at a small tavern to their right. Ani agreed, but told the man to take drink with him. She wanted to go back to the boat.
They came in, Grego continued stalling, and toppled the glass into his throat right by the counter. The same happened in the next tavern; and in the next one as well.
The closer they were getting to the docks, the slower he walked, the more irritated Ani was growing. She had half a mind to refuse him, but she wanted to stay on his good side. The oldest sailor, Perto, scared her; the twins and Oro, the other sailor seemed too dim; so Ani would prefer to have Grego as her ally.
Three taverns later, she walked in after him – she could not stay alone in the street – and from the doors she could see that the place was trouble. It was surprisingly empty compared to the previous ones, and loud voices could be heard from the furthest corner.
A man sat at a large table, surrounded by empty bottles and jugs, and another five men stood around him. It looked as the beginning of a fight, and Ani’s suspicions were only confirmed by how quickly other customers were rising and leaving. One of the men standing – all locals, judging by the clothes – was speaking loudly, his tone hostile and taunting.
The man at the table was a Westerner, dressed in their traditional tunic, with a round collar, embroidered placket and bottoms of sleeves. Ani’s eyes ran the dirty clothes, the slouching posture, and the massive spread of the shoulders, and then she felt as if her mind stubbornly refused to make peace with the recognition.
When the first man lifted his fisted hand above Gosta’s head, Ani took an unconscious step ahead.
The assailant flew through the room, his body sliding on the filthy floor with surprising for Ani amount of noise. The second one shifted, and then his forehead met the table with a loud thud. And only then, Gosta rose. And only then Ani understood that he was hardly conscious. His tall strong body swayed, and the other three men jumped at him. Grego grabbed Ani’s upper arm and started dragging her outside.
“Nothing to see here, girl,” he grumble, and Ani pulled at her arm.
“I know him! I know him!” she cried out, her eyes on the men wrestling in the corner.
Another of the attackers was thrown aside, and Gosta straightened out, the other two hanging on him. With a roar he swirled, unstable on his feet, trying to shake them off, and the first man was back upright, and all of them fell on the floor, limbs moving, sharp throaty cries filling the room.
“We need to help him!” Ani shouted to Grego, but he was already almost out of the door. Ani had managed to jerk her arm back, he was after all rather inebriated.
When Ani looked back at the Westerner, she could see that only two of the attackers still stood. One was entangled with Gosta, on the floor, rolling, blows falling, and Ani could almost hear dull thuds of large fists meeting torsos. The other man heavily rose, grabbing the table to aid himself, toppling the nearest chair, and Ani saw a knife in his hand.
Later, Ani would be most astonished by how cold and calculative her mind was at that time. She looked around the room, and somehow had time to choose a chair she could lift but which would inflict enough damage, and she rushed with it towards the man, without making too much noise, her lips pressed tightly together. She was not noticed, and she waited three beats of her heart, until the man with a knife turned fully away from her, and that was when she placed a blow.
He fell heavily down. For no particular reason, Ani expected to hear a clank of the knife fallen onto the floor, but none followed. And then Gosta shook the other man off, rolling to the side, breathing loudly, in raspy exhales. He pressed his hands onto the floor, heaved, and tried to rise. And that was when Ani realised she still held a piece of the chair in both her hands. She watched the muscles bulge on the Westerner’s arm, and he swayed again, and pulled his legs, and finally rose.
Ani had to drop her head all the way back to look up into his face.
“I need a drink…” he muttered, and made an uncertain step towards his table. Ani realised that she had naively expected a ‘thank you.’
“I need to speak to you, Gosta,” she said, but he did not seem to hear her. “Gosta! I need to speak to you!”
He waved at her, dismissively, as if shooing a stubborn fly away.
One of the men on the floor groaned, but the Westerner ignored him. He stretched his hand towards a wine jug, missed it, and a few bottles and jugs rolled.
“Pshla proch!” he suddenly barked at her, and she saw his red-rimmed, clouded green eyes. “Pshla… I have no money for you…” He then called a barmaid, demanding more wine, but no one answered.
Ani was starting to shake, her mind struggling with what had just happened. She forgot any convincing arguments, or even better so, the phrase that Einar had taught her to tell to Gosta, and instead she threw the remnant of the chair aside, and shouted at him, “I saved your life! You pig!”
His slanted eyes met hers, and his lips twisted.
“Here!” He pulled a small silver pouch off his belt, and threw it under her feet. “It should be enough.”
He dropped back on his chair.
“They will get up soon! We need to go! What are you even?..” Ani tangled in her own words, and stopped herself, taking a deep breath in. “I need you to listen to me!” Gosta apparently found a bottle he had not emptied yet, and Ani watched him drink from it, his head dropped back. She did not wait for him to straighten up – out of petty desire for retaliation, perhaps. “Va hitrosti dedov sol zhitiya.”
He was coughing and coughing, loud hissing heaves wrecking his body, and Ani watched with worry, and still a small pang of vengefulness. Soon the coughs turned into vomiting, and he slumped off his chair, onto the floor. His previous attackers were starting to wake up, and Ani leaned to him.
“Gosta, please, we need to go. I will explain later…” She grabbed his arm, thick and heavy, and pulled. “Please…”
He rose, shaking visibly, his now burning eyes fixed on her.
“C’mon, Gosta! Later, I will explain later. Let’s go!”
He followed, stumbling, grabbing at the furniture for support, and she dragged him outside. Grego stood by the door, drinking from a bottle in his hand. Ani glared at him. He looked over Gosta, and gave Ani’s a questioning look. “Mate of yours?”
Ani groaned. She quickly pondered her options, when Gosta suddenly started keeling on one side, his immense weight lying onto her shoulder, hurting her.
“My inn… There…” He pointed at a tall stone building up the street.
“Grego, please,” Ani pleaded to the sailor, and he scoffed, finished his bottle, and picked up the Western’s other arm.