The baskak slipped on the bench, pulling some covers and furs over his body, then tucked her in as well, and Ani looked at him from the corner of her eye. She did not want to show she was observing him, and also she had no strength to lift her head. He stretched on his back, arching it, his arms above his head, in obvious pleasurable flexing of muscles and tendons. Then he rolled on his side and pushed his fist under his cheek, in a somewhat unfitting childish gesture.
“How are you faring after the second bout, little fish?” he asked, grinning, and she puffed air out feigning irritation. She was faring quite well, but did not care sharing it with him in an attempt to keep his head from growing even bigger.
She lay on her stomach, in the same pose he had arranged her in, having flipped her on her stomach, closer to the wall, her legs pressed together. He had taken her from behind, supporting his weight on straight arms, his knees wide spread and planted into the bench on the side of her body. After half an hour of being pleasured that way she indeed was faring quite well.
“I enjoyed the second round more. It was deeper, and the angle was more satisfying.” Ani herself could hear her tone was dull and sober, and the Westerner predictably roared with one of his loud, gleeful guffaws.
“Bogi moi, you are a delight! Look at this! It is as if you are intending to scribble it into one of those books grain merchants keep on themselves.” The baskak pushed the second hand under the covers and started petting her right buttock. “You are much less bony than it seems when garbed.” His eyes were laughing. “That is quite an enjoyable backside, healer.”
“I very much appreciate yours as well, my lord,” Ani quipped dryly, making him roll on his back, in another spell of uncontrollable frolics, his palm squeezing the aforementioned backside, the second one clapping to his knee.
“Goodness, you will be the death of me!” He delivered the line, squinting his eyes, and throwing her an impish grin. Ani rolled her eyes, and he snorted loudly in response.
She shifted with a groan, rolled on her side as well, to face him, and then he suddenly picked up her hand and pulled it to his lips. He was kissing her palm, and she jerked her brows up in surprise. She did not expect any cuddlesome caresses now that the coition was over.
“Do not fret, healer. I do not need anything from you,” he murmured into her skin. “Well, not for another half an hour maybe.” A chuckle accompanied the suggestive remark. “I just enjoy your skin.”
The whiskers of his soft, bright orange beard tickled her palm but she did not take it away.
“I have heard you, by the way,” he muttered, now kissing the tips of her fingers. She noticed that they had no usual colouring from the herbs on them. Just as him, she lacked any markings, scars, or bruises in these dreams. There were the callouses, from sword on his hands, and from the tools of her craft on hers, but their skin and hair were clean.
And then she finally heard his words, which reached her mind, muddled by his little sensual caresses.
“Heard me when?”
“I heard your screams, several hours before you stepped into the Long House. Heard them, outside, I did.” He stopped his dalliances. She watched with shock how some sort of genuine anguish grew in his eyes. “I tried to step out but they did not let me out. I had been outside before, there is nothing but the rock and the Sea around it, but this time the bearskin on the door was as if made of stone. I could not move it…”
Ani wondered if she was right in her assumption that he had rarely felt powerless and helpless when he lived.
“You called me as well…” she said. She recalled hearing him screaming her name, through the daze of her nausea and fever. He blinked, and his face lost the hardly controlled pained expression, and another of his toothy grins spread on his face.
Only, Ani did not believe it anymore.
“Was it the fish feeding? I reckon you were so sick you were half here, aye?” he asked lightly.
“Fish feeding?” she asked, and in response he mimicked a rather convincing bout of vomiting. Ani cringed and then nodded.
“Is she being cruel to you? Sea is a moody lass.” The baskak tut-tutted.
“That was what Danihla said. He made me climb the side of ladya and look at the horizon. It helped.”
“He is a smart lad.”
The baskak snaked his arm around her and pulled her closer. She quickly wondered whether there was a polite way to refuse the repetition of an act since she felt rather sore, but he just nuzzled her neck and started playing with her hair. She stilled, not knowing what to do, and he then met her eyes and smiled.
“You have not warmed up to me even a bit, have you, healer? I do not know if you even could be freer, but do not hesitate to try,” he invited jokingly, and then kissed the tip of her nose.
“I am just not… warm in general. It is a waste of time. And I am on my way to the Pearl Islands, I need instructions.” He was studying one of her strands as if it were the most fascinating curiosity. “My lord?”
“Einar,” he corrected her, and she met his eyes. She was once again stricken by the changeable colour and expression in the irises, now warm fern green, fluffy lashes framing them. “There are only two of us here, at least until you rid yourself of me. We might as well try to bother each other the least possible.”
“I do not think you can claim that I bother you, my lord. You are not the one travelling in a giant torture boat across the sea, having abandoned your service, to meet a half mad witch of sorts.” She expected to disparage him, perhaps she even hoped to, but he gave her a merry look over, from under a cocked brow.
“Fair enough. I am the bother here, and I do apologise.” He then pressed his hand, still enveloped around her fingers to his warm chest. “Let me know how I can make it up to you, little fish.” He could not sound more indecent.
“Firstly, apology not accepted. You do not mean it.” She tried to pull the hand out, industriously ignoring how pleasureable his skin felt. He did not let her, and his thumb started caressing the inner side of her wrist, which somehow made her skin tingle, all up to the shoulder, and then down her back, and the already familiar warmth spread under her navel. “Also, it is not your fault. You are thrown into it just as I am. And secondly, stop calling me ‘little fish.’ I am neither cold blooded, nor slimy.”
She mostly objected to the moniker, because his voice dropped around it, and made her feel strangely affected.
“No? Rybka…” He murmured, leaning to her ear, and were she a cat, the hair would stand up on her nape, from the rolling of the ‘r’ and from the purr in his voice. His lips brushed at her earlobe, in a feather like caress. He was clearly playing her again. And he was winning. “Malenka rybka… You are a fishie… small, light, and nimble. Rybka maya…” Ani tried to contain a pant, from the anticipation of a touch. His lips were ghosting over her skin, and she suddenly craved the contact. She then drew a sharp breath in and pushed him away.
“I will call you Einar if you come up with another appellation for me,” she hissed.
“You are being stroppy for the sake of being stroppy,” he chuckled and then kissed her nose again. “I like it. And nay, just ‘little fish’ for you.”
Ani pursed her lips and decided the wisest thing was to cease this conversation.
“The witch? The Old Witch on the Pearl islands, tell me of her,” Ani commanded in a stern voice, and he rolled on his back again, pulling her on top of him. Despite her rigidness, he managed to tuck her into his side, and she had nothing to do but to still, her shoulder under his arm, her hand on his chest.
“We travelled through the islands, it was eight years ago. We needed a healer, one of our druzhina was wounded. She helped, asked for quite a lot of silver, she did.” He smiled at the memories. “Smaller than you, all sharp and angry. They say she is the cousin of the Sea Goddess and has sea water for her blood. Her daughter is an enticing lass though. Curvy and round in all the right places. We were waiting for the ritual to be over, and she pretended to clean the rooms. Kept on throwing me glances.” The baskak’s voice was lazy, and Ani listened attentively, ignoring the trite boasting. She was trying to extricate some useful knowledge out of this ridiculous story.
The Westerner was running his fingers through her hair, and continued, “So that night we were staying in tents at the beach, and she climbed in. I threw her out… Well, I was mannered, you know. Led her out and walked her back to her mother. And the Witch said she owed me a favour now. Bozhidar will give you enough gold to buy the Witch’s aid as well. And I doubt she will think you mad. They say she talks to fish and the Sea Serpent serves her as a horse when she needs to travel.”
That was the end of Ani’s patience.
“There is no such thing as a sea serpent, and I think it is safe to assume that the old witch of yours has red blood just like any other.” Ani tried to lift her head to give him a derisive glare, but he pressed it down with a large hot palm. “And there is no sea goddess, just a fairy tale…”
A loud smack to her buttock stopped her annoyed speech. She jerked and rose above him on her arms. He was giving her a half laughing, half warning look.
“Shush, little fish. You are at sea! Do you want the ladya to never reach the land and all of you to become the Great Serpent’s supper? Do not jest in disrespect.”
“There is no great serpent!” she hissed again, not understanding herself why she did not choose her usual path of just scorning others’ ignorance and keeping quiet. She immediately asked herself why she would try to educate some barbarian whose head was clearly full of ridiculous yarn.
“How do you know?” he asked and another smack to her backside followed. He kept his palm rounded and relaxed, aiming for noise and no pain. “You are talking to a dead man, rybka maya, and something tells me, you have not seen much of the world. It is full of wonders. There are monstrous animals in the Amber Gardens, to the West from my lands. They are like giant cows, but bare, and swim, and their mouths are like two troughs one on another. Why cannot there be a sea serpent? Sailors have seen them.”
Ani puffed air out and opened her mouth to argue that bare swimming cows were one thing, but a sea dragon was clearly a fairy tale, when he picked her up under her arms and pulled her to his lips. He gave her a firm buss, close lipped and loud, and then dropped her on his chest.
Her nose pressed into the coarse chest hair and instead of arguing she found herself settling on him. Their legs tangled, and she did not notice herself how her hand found his.
“What do you hope the Witch to do?” she asked, her cheek pressed to his warm skin.
“Clearly something went wrong. My spirit did not journey to Blazhena Kray. The ancestors talked about the Island of Awaitening, where one is to wait for the trial over his life. Perhaps, this is the island. But I do not know why you are here… I have hope the Witch can tell whom to ask for guidance, if she does not know herself. They are strange there, on the Pearl Islands. It is all that seaweed they boil into their draughts. She is their Elder, most knowledgeable. She will know whom to turn to.”
Ani sighed. She was anticipating the Witch to send her to some wild goose chase around all Known Lands.
“Will Bozhidar continue helping me? I told him I am carrying your child, and he promised, but since we got on the ladya I have not seen him. Danihla is taking care of me, and all your warriors think I am his bride.”
“That is a good disguise,” the baskak said thoughtfully. “None will approach you. I bet it was Bozhidar’s idea.” Ani had to concede that, as little as she enjoyed to be considered a dim lass who followed a chatty Westerner to his lands, the plan was most reasonable.
“Bozhidar will continue helping you as much as you need,” the baskak continued. “Tell him you want to become the Witch’s apprentice. Say you are planning to evoke the debt she owes me. The Pearl Islands are a good place to raise a child. Bozhidar will not doubt you.”
Ani nodded, her temple still pressed to him, and they both quieted. After a few instants she wondered whether he was asleep. She peeked. He was not, his eyes were open and fixed, unseeing, on the hearth. The line of his lips was tense, and she wondered whether he was finally starting to realise his position. He was dead, after all.
“I wish there were some food here,” he grumbled, his brows frowned. “I do not feel hunger, but some mead and some buzhenina would be nice.” Ani lifted her head and stared at him not quite believing her ears. He noticed her look. “Buzhenina is bear’s meat, baked in a clay stove, with wild garlic and lots of black pepper,” he explained, and she suddenly roared with laughter and fell on his chest.
She laughed and laughed, and he joined her, warm rumbly chuckles in his chest, clearly not understanding the reason of her merriment, but joining nonetheless. And then she rose on her straight arms, and shifted, and kissed him without restraint. His palms immediately cupped her buttocks, and she climbed on him, and straddled him, and he was smiling to her toothily, and she laughed some more, and then caught his mouth, and they did not talk until the morning came. They were loud, but there was no talking.