Ani as much as fell into the Long House, her knees shaking, vision blurred, stomach as if repeatedly slashed across with dull blade. She made two steps in and slumped ungracefully on the nearest bench.
“Well, good evening, honourable healer!” The merry voice of the dead baskak came from the opposite wall. “At least I assume it is evening, since you are clearly sleeping, unless you are being idle and…” King Einar stopped mid-jest, and Ani felt his sudden presence nearby. She could not make herself lift her head to see, her lids were heavy, but she felt a stir of air from his sharp quick movement, and then a rough dry palm cupped her face.
“What is it, devichka?” His tone was urgent, concerned. “Are you hurt? Tell me, where it hurts…”
She moaned, trying to twist her face out of his hand, but he gently but firmly grasped her chin between his thumb and index finger, tilted her face, and suddenly his bright greenish grey eyes were right in front of hers.
“Ani, what is it?” He was growing impatient, and she felt his other hand brush her shoulder, arms, and then ribs. She jolted and winced away from him.
“It is just nausea… Nothing of importance…”
“You would not say that, if you could see yourself!” She felt his other palm encircle her neck at the back, on the sensitive skin on the nape, and she saw his eyes study her face.
“I just hate the waves…” she groaned, and his grasp on her loosened.
“Are you at sea?” There was sincere surprise in his voice, and then he chuckled. “With all honesty, I did not expect you to go.” He sounded almost merry now, but she could still see worry in his eyes. The colour was of the sea, Ani thought suddenly – changeable, bright, mesmerizing. “Are you on Bozhidar’s ladya?”
She nodded weakly.
He sat near her, and then she felt his wide large hand stroke her back. The movements were confident and cadenced, an identical comforting sweep after another, first with a small brush of his thumb on the skin of her neck, then down, along her spine, and at the bottom, with a flicker of his hand, as if shaking something off her.
The relief was quick. Warmth spread through her body, she could finally focus her eyes, disgusting tremble of her hands was gone. She sat straighter and threw a side glance at him. There was a small teasing smile dancing in the corners of his curved up lips.
“How did you do it?” she mumbled.
The corners of the wide mouth crawled higher. He then leaned sharply to her face, making her tense. His palm between her shoulder blades felt hot, and heavy, and impossible to neglect.
“Magic…” he whispered into her eyes. Ani blinked frantically several times.
“There is no such thing,” she breathed out, still sounding obstinant despite the waver in her voice. He did not move away.
“Says the woman talking to a dead man.” The voice dropped, while the hand slipped up, and on her neck again, and then pulled her in, and the only thought in her head was a surprise over why she did not resist.
Ani had been kissed before. But never like that. She would look back at it later and make assumptions, of his experience, and inventiveness, and skill, but not while his lips were caressing hers. She had little proclivity for gaudy comparisons, but it was as if he played her as a musical instrument. And the melody he extricated out of her was exquisite. A few instants later some sobriety returned to her, and she started to reciprocate. After all, she was no half witted, maudlin lass to tremble and pant in his arms. Since she seemed to enjoy it, she decided she might as well savour it fully.
At some point he caught her bottom lip between his, in a thrilling playful gesture, his teeth scraped at it gently, and then he released her.
“So, not just women then?” he asked raspily.
She decided to clear out the misunderstanding to ensure the buss were not to be the last.
“You misinterpreted me last time. I do not prefer the company of women.”
He gave her a grin, all his white teeth on display.
“Either is fine with me.”
She could not tear her eyes off his lips. And when exactly had she moved onto his lap? He slightly shook his head, clearly noticing her eagerness, and leaned in again. This time his hands not only stroked her upper arms, but wandered more freely. Ani listened to her sensations and had to concede she did not feel inclined to halt the baskak.
He brushed his lips to her jaw, angling her face to his convenience, and then the pulp of his thumb rubbed the soft skin on her throat, right under her chin. Ani had not known it was a titillating spot, but an almost painful shudder ran through her spine. And then the Westerner moved away from her and slightly turned his head, in Ani’s understanding, inviting her to return the caress. She placed a cautious kiss on the corner of his lips, and encouraged by the sensation of them curl under her kiss, she slid her mouth on the beard, and then in a bout of some unfamiliar inspiration she gently bit into the beard covered jaw. The man emitted an approving hum and tilted the head more, inviting her to sample the neck. She could not say she opposed to the idea.
The beard was very soft, against all her initial assumptions. She had only wondered about it the very first night, when she had been stricken by his proximity, and by the fresh, spicy smell of nutmeg and fir oils coming off his hair and skin. She quite enjoyed the flavour now.
He twisted, wrapping himself around her, and felled them on the bench, which clearly served as a bed for Westerners in reality, furs and covers thrown over it, and he rolled, while his mouth was busy on hers, and then she felt his hips press firmly between her legs. She twisted her face from under his kiss, gasping for air, her palms on his chest, shoving him away. He stopped and rose above her on his elbows. His eyes were hungry, but laughter still danced in them, and she should have felt scared, but she did not. And then she remembered it was nothing but a dream. She frowned, trying to quickly weigh her options, and he suddenly laughed loudly and gleefully.
“Are you devising in that prudent head of yours, honourable healer?” She threw a surprised look at him. He gave her another of his toothy, confident grins.
He pulled one arm from under her and cupped her face. The fingers were so long, and the palm so large, that the thumb brushed her chin, while she could feel the calloused index finger on her cheekbone.
“I could just imagine how you are making a nice little plan in your mind.” His voice shook with laughter. “I am after all dead, there is no risk of a child, and I do know what I am doing.” His merry gaze danced on her face. “And judging by how you warmed up from one back rub, you are not spoilt by too much attention.”
Ani was too preoccupied with pondering the opportunities he was clearly offering to feel offended by his remark. And after all, he was not mistaken.
“I am plain and scrawny, and do not possess any agreeable qualities. I am also smarter than most men, and a better healer…” Her voice was unemotional. “I am hardly ever propositioned. To say nothing of any honest offers…”
“I cannot make one either.” He smiled even wider and then had the nerve to give her a wink.
“I have heard that Westerners rarely do,” she bit back and saw him narrow his eyes. She decided that she should not displease him. She was still thinking back at his words that he knew what he was doing. “I meant… Your men do not deceive women. If you cannot promise, you do not offer.”
He cocked his head, searching her eyes. She suspected he could see through her awkward attempt to mollify him. He then hummed pensively and caught her mouth again.
The dead baskak had not lied. He knew all the right tricks. First, his fingers tangled into her hair, she shortly wondered what those fluttering, pleasant movements were, and then she heard clanks of her pins hitting the floor. He then lifted his face from hers and raked his fingers through her hair, raising it, letting it run through them.
“Vorono krylo…” he murmured, and she decided he should be returning to his previous pursuit. Her arms went around his neck, and she pulled him to her lips. He made a jolly snort like noise, and then mumbled into her lips. “Do you not need compliments, healer?” She gave him a sober look.
“You take advantage of my ignorance of your language.” He lifted his brows at her somewhat irritated tone. “And whatever fretwork of praise you weave, it would be untrue.” She gave him a glare, taunting him to argue with her, and he suddenly blew a small puff of air into her nose.
“I only said your hair is like raven’s wing,” he laughed. “Have I lied?”
Ani pressed her lips sternly. Her long glossy hair – indeed black as a crow’s feather – was her pride. She grew it out and took good care of it. It also was the only thing she had ever been praised for. The compliment was growing stale.
“Perhaps, you should refrain from talking, my lord,” she sneered the moniker through her teeth. “As you have just portended, you have other skills.”
Another bout of merry guffaws followed, and then he treaded digits into her hair again and twirled a thick strand around his index finger.
“Oh I love the challenge. Let us try again!” He looked delighted. “How about your skin? Surely, it can be compared to first Winter snow. Spotless and untouched.” The last word was put a lot of emphasis on.
Ani studied his face. The fact that he was more interested in this verbal sparring than continuing to unlace the collar of her robe spoke volumes. And then he leaned in and brushed his nose along the downside of her jaw.
“So smooth, like the silks from the Amber Gardens…” he murmured, continuing his caresses. Perhaps, Ani thought, the man should be allowed to speak, as long as he continued to act as well.
“It is pale and burns in the sun. It bruises easily, and I look as much as blue when I am cold,” she stubbornly contradicted, lifting her chin, inviting him to pay equal attention to the other side of her jaw. He chuckled and complied.
“What about the eyes? Should I compose a quick song about them?” He was clearly jesting, kissing down her neck and pushing the collar off his path with his nose.
“They are blue,” Ani deadpanned. “Will there be a comparison to the sky or the sea? There is always first stream of Spring, of course…”
The baskak lifted his face and gave her an incredulous, amused look.
“Is there any mawkishness in you, lass?”
“None whatsoever,” Ani answered firmly, and he snorted loudly. “I care not for my appearance. It is like any other, not bad, nor good. I am a good healer, that is what matters. Praise my mind and skill if you want to please me.”
“I do seem to learn your mind. It is… unusual.” The man gave her another wink. “But the skill…” He pretended to ponder it. “You have not treated me, but to think of it, I did die in your infirmary…”
“It had nothing to do with me!” Ani cried out, and he gave her a sardonic look from under one, cocked up brow. “It did not! And your wound was mortal, there was nothing to be done! The blade entered your side…”
“Alright, lass, enough of your smart mouth gabbling,” the King interrupted, shook his head in merry disbelief, and then firmly covered her mouth with his.
She moaned, trying to continue her explanation, but his tongue pushed her lips open, and she forgot what she was intending to say. His fingers capered from her neck, to the strings on the lacing, then the bodice, and then the hand splayed on her hip. The fingertips beat some more light rhythm there, she felt the skirt slide up, being gathered in his hand, and then she felt his dry palm brush her leg above the stocking. She by then had thoroughly enjoyed the flavour of his mouth, nibbled at the beard, and her hands had wandered the torso. She was quite pleased by the happenstance of him being dressed only in a thin tunic. Her assumption was that the lower half was also separated from her by nothing but linen trousers. When his deft fingers untied the small pieces of ribbon holding the stocking to her garter belt, she had made her decision.
Ani had had several encounters with men in her life. When she was twelve and ran from her village, a blacksmith’s apprentice followed her. They were more of brother and sister than sweethearts, but after a year of travelling together, one cold night they decided the other one was as good as any to choose for what everyone spoke of. By then, Ani had learnt enough of midwifery to take precautions. The occurrence left her disappointed and slightly repulsed.
There were men after that. She had had very little inclination to continue her explorations, but she was a woman of flesh and blood, and she had desires. They were rarely satisfied. With time less and less encounters of the sort happened. There was also the question of cleanliness, and the herbs to take to prevent conception, and the possibility of the man to be spoken for. Ani would never willingly cause an infidelity, but men were not exactly forthcoming regarding their marriage when an opportunity to spend a night with a travelling healer presented itself.
None of these concerns were to be kept in mind now, and Ani arched on the bench of an imaginary Long House, under the scorching weight of the man who was dead and not in her arms in actuality, and her legs wrapped around his narrow hips. Her palms slid under the tunic, meeting on his toned back, stroking the long muscles along his backbone, and she opened her eyes. It was hard to predict what sort of lover the dead baskak would be, but she was willing to inquire.