When the three of them fell into the doors of the inn, they were greeted by a quick look and an exasperated sigh from the innkeeper.
“He is back, is he not?” the man seemingly asked the brass lamp above his head. “Every night I hope he gets himself killed, and then he comes back, and always with women.” The man shook his finger at Ani. “Your kind just cannot say ‘no’ to him. Trust me, girl, you will leave his room just as unhappy as others.”
Ani had no time to listen to the blabber. Her whole body was aching from dragging Gosta’s weight that Grego kept on shifting onto her.
“Where is his room?” she rasped out, and the innkeeper came from behind his counter, grumbling, and shaking his head.
Ani and Grego dragged Gosta up the stairs, thumping his head into the railings several times, and finally his massive body hit the bed. The room was probably one of the best in the inn, large, with a tall window; except now the floor was crowded with bottles, jugs, and spills of the most unsanitary nature.
Ani wrinkled her nose.
“I need to speak to him when he wakes up,” she told the keeper. “Tell him I am on the boat called Trypofraktis. We will be waiting for him in the docks. And tell him…” Ani searched her mind for a message she could leave for Gosta as a proof that she was not a dream.
“Tell him I saw Einar’s butterfly.”
The keeper gave her a doubtful look, and she rummaged in her pocket and offered him a silver coin.
“He will pay you generously when he wakes up, if you do as I say.”
She left the room, throwing Gosta’s sprawled body the last look. She now needed to convince Yuro to wait for the Westerner.
“No, absolutely no!” Yuro shook his head violently. “I talked to my cousin. He is sending two good men here, in the morning. They will protect us on the journey. We will wait for no drunkard of a Westerner!”
“But, Yuro, he is their best warrior! He fought in the war…” Ani tried to drown his protests raising her voice. “And you will not have to pay him! He will go for free!”
Ani, of course, could not know, but she decided it would be a good argument.
Yuro paused for a moment, and then went back to his arguing. “No, no! I do not know him! I know my cousin. We will take his men, and we will go!”
Ani took a few measured breaths, weighing her options.
“Let us wait till morning. We will look at your cousin’s men, and he will come by then, and then we will decide, alright?” Her tone was mollifying.
“When the men come, we will go. If he is here by then, and I like him, he might stay,” Yuro answered haughtily, and Ani nodded.
Now, it all depended on what happened first: Gosta sobering up, or two unknown men showing up. There was no point in fretting now, and she was exhausted by the drinking and the fight, so she went down to her hammock and fell into dark heavy sleep.
At dawn Ani was sitting on the deck of the ship, watching the fog crawl the boards of the pier. The men were still sleeping, except for Perto, the old sailor, who was scrubbing the rudder with what looked like a large hoe to Ani.
Gosta had not yet stepped out of the mist when Ani recognised him.
He looked terrible, purple shadows under his eyes, and greenish complexion, but he was clean, his face shaved. He was carrying a large sack behind his back; his long sword, which Ani had previously noticed lying idly on the bed in his room, was now strapped to his back as well.
“Are you the woman from last night?” he asked, studying her.
“Aye. I am Ani, the healer from the Vales of River Snell.”
“You spoke the words. Einar’s words.”
Ani sighed. The Westerner apparently had an uncanny ability to state the obvious – in a dull tone, no less.
“Aye, I have.” She decided to pay him back in his coin.
“Tell me of how you knew him.” He then walked up the gangway, under the surprised look of Perto, and dropped his sack on the deck near her. Another one, narrow and long, stayed, its strap going across his shoulder. “And where we are going.”
Ani gave him an attentive look over.
“We are going back to Rodhina. Einar told me to go to your land if he dies.” Something told her the story about her accidental pregnancy was not the best explanation here.
“Why?” he asked, looming over her. He was so wide in his shoulders that she was sitting fully in his shadow.
“I have a business to finish with your Witches.” She was feeling irritation rise from this interrogation. “What do these words mean? Va hitrosti dedov sol zhitiya? Why are they important?”
“Tell me how you knew him.”
Ani paused, giving the Westerner an incredulous look. This conversation clearly was not going anywhere. He was standing, without moving, his face unreadable. At that moment Yuro showed up on the deck, loudly telling off the twins, who were dragging their feet behind him. He stopped and stared at the Westerner.
“Is this your friend, clever girl?” Yuro’s dark eyes ran over Gosta’s tall body.
“This is Gosta, he…”
“Are you the captain?” Gosta interrupted her, and Yuro’s eyes shifted between Ani and the Westerner.
“I am, yes. It is my boat, my kyrenia. You see, we are going to your land, we are the first boat to go there after…”
“How many men do you have?” Gosta asked, and then shifted to the side giving an attentive look to the twins behind Yuro.
“We are six, six men,” Yuro answered, growing more and more uneasy, and puffing his chest. “We are all great sailors, and…”
“The old man there…” Gosta pointed behind him, at Perto. Ani peeked. The old man was standing on the pier, the hoe in his hand, his face pale. “Is he a great sailor? He’s old, and has a habit to drink poppy juice. These two are morons. Any more great sailors here?”
Ani found that the funniest part of this conversation was that Gosta seemed either unaware, or undisturbed by how abrupt his behaviour was.
“We are all good sailors, honourable sir, we are!” Yuro’s voice sounded like squawking. “And we…”
Gosta picked up his sack and suddenly forcefully threw it towards the men. Yuro jerked aside, while one of the twins caught it.
“The twins can stay,” Gosta stated. “They are young and strong, but you have to feed them less. What else do you have?”
Yuro suddenly remembered that he was the captain and the owner of the boat.
“Who are you even to..?”
Apparently, today the Islander was not to be allowed to finish a single sentence.
“You need five men to sail this boat. Assuming, you are capable, that leaves four men. These two stay. Who else?” While Yuro was opening and closing his mouth, one of the twins yelled into the hold, calling their mates. The heads of Grego and Oro popped above the deck.
“Up,” Gosta calmly ordered, and they started climbing up the small ladder. Ani watched the whole happenstance mesmerized.
“These two are good. Pay the old man. And we are leaving now, while the bay is calm.” Gosta marched towards the entrance to the hold, and the men scampered up and to the sides. He took his sack out of the hands of one of the twins, and then threw over his shoulder, “Healer, we need to talk.”
Under flabbergasted looks of the men Ani climbed off the coiled rope she was sitting on and followed the Westerner. Behind her, the Islanders were starting arguing loudly in their tongue.
Gosta was unrolling some sort of a thin mattress on the floor. Ani watched him in shock.
“I need more sleep, I am still drunk,” he said without turning to her. “Our good captain will come in a few minutes. They always do. Like dogs. They need time to remember they have voices, and then barking starts.”
Another layer of fabric lay on the mattress, and he started tucking the sides underneath, his movement precise and brisk.
“I will tell him of the dangers ahead, and he will be convinced. And then we will go.” There was not a grain of doubt in his voice. “After he leaves I will sleep, and you will need to sit with me. In case I got it wrong, and he has some spine. I do carry a lot of silver, and he might want to cut my throat just for the sword alone.”
Ani had been accused of being brusque and having no sense of humour many times in her life, but she was now thinking that compared to Gosta, she was a jester and a nursemaid put together. There was still a possibility that it was his sense of humour – this deadpanning with a stone face – but somehow Ani doubted it.
“And now you will tell me of Einar,” he proclaimed, sat down on his mattress, his long legs crossed, and his green eyes focused on her face.
Ani studied him and then sat on the floor in front of him. She needed to think. She had had no strength to plan this conversation the night before, and she was now unsure how to proceed. She also did not know how much trust he would have into her words. He waited patiently, without his slanted bright eyes leaving her face.
“Einar left me a… an affair to attend.”
“What sort of an affair is it that you cannot tell about it directly?” he asked calmly, and Ani swallowed, taken aback by his perceptiveness.
“It has to do with the matters of spirits and death. I do not expect people to take me seriously if too much is divulged.” With their eyes locked they sat for a few moments.
“You came from the Pearl Islands. I recognise the men, their clothes, and the boat. Did you speak to their Witch?” It was becoming increasingly clear to her that lying to Gosta would be futile.
“Yes. Her daughter helped me.”
“Helped?” He tilted his head and gave an odd unblinking look. “She arranged you to go on the boat with the round man. It seems hardly the best of services. He is a fool. The boat is leaking. His men are morons. And how long do you think her name would protect you from them? The longer the journey, the more attractive you will seem; the less scary her wrath will be. Also, if you have little silver, they will soon remember you are not paying for your travels. If you have a lot, it will only be more reason to use your body for their fun, and then toss you overboard.”
Ani, of course, had had all the same thoughts herself, and quite often; but him voicing them made her squeeze her knees. She felt an urge to wrap her arms around her, but she did not want to give him the satisfaction of seeing how much his words affected her.
“So, why did you leave the Islands? And Lindrand before it, judging by your clothes. Was Einar dear to you enough to risk everything for him?”
Ani had always had trouble reading other people’s emotions, while Gosta apparently did not. But she recognised the one splashing in his eyes. Jealousy was burning in his cat eyes, and Ani felt a tinge of superiority. She would never allow herself to be governed by such useless feeling! She then remembered what Einar told her, of Westerners favouring the company of both men, and women, and she looked at the man in front of her almost with pity.
“Einar left me a task,” Ani repeated. “And I will fulfill it. It is my duty.” Ani was trying not to disclose anything that would make him believe she was mad and leave her. She needed his sword, the safety of his disinterest in her as a woman, and his ability to take charge of the men around them.
“I do not believe you,” he deadpanned, and then exhaled slowly. “Yet. I need to learn more. But for now, I believe it is time for a conversation with our good captain.”
He was right – in all his predictions. Yuro was going down the ladder, followed by his men, all of them frowning and looking somewhat nervous. It took Gosta about quarter an hour to convince them that he knew the waters ahead, and that the dangers awaiting them, including rogue bands of the Northerners, were best met with him on board. Perto rushed up the ladder, grumbling curses, and Yuro followed him to pay him off. The others shifted between their feet for a few seconds, and then left as well, leaving Gosta to his rest.
He lay back and stretched his strong massive body. His feet were almost pressing to the opposite wall.
“Do not sleep, healer,” he spoke, his eyes already closed. “We both need me in good health.”
Ani leaned her back onto the wall, and trained her eyes on him. About half an hour later, there were some loud voices above, and she assumed the two men from Yuro’s cousin had arrived.
“Gosta,” Ani called, but he had not moved. One would think he was dead he was so motionless, his face almost serene. He had not moved since he lay down. “Gosta!”
“Aye?” he asked, and then opened one eye. This squinted, one sided look was the liveliest expression she had seen on his face since he had appeared on the pier.
“Yuro had hired two swords last night. You need to look at them.” Ani had decided to trust what the Westerners in the infirmary in Lindrand had been telling her, and put faith into his skill as a warrior and as a commander.
“If our captain decides to keep them, wake me up.” He closed the eye again and seemingly went back to sleep, only to add in an even tone, “Or better so, go tell him to send them away.”
Ani decided that arguing with him would be useless, and she just leaned back onto the wall, listening to the conversation above.
A few minutes later, one of the twins stuck his head in the entrance, and threw a cautious look at the Westerner.
“Is he asleep?” he asked Ani, and she quickly looked if he had weapons in his hands.
“He is, but he wakes up as soon as you say his name,” she answered tensely.
“The swords for hire are here. And Yuro wants him to look at them,” the sailor muttered sulkily.
“They are rubbish, send them away,” Gosta’s sober voice made both Ani and the sailor jump up, and the latter disappeared as quickly as he came.
“How do you know they are rubbish?” Ani asked, but he was once again silent, and she pulled the knees to her nose, settling her chin on a fist.
Half an hour later she felt the boat rock in a familiar slow rhythm. They were sailing now, leaving the Blue Isles behind them.