by Virginia M Mohlere
The strannik in Arkhangelsk looked like every other holy man: heavy boots, tattered black robe, proper long beard and hair. It was the Captain’s habit to approach such people – pilgrims, wandering priests and nuns – and ask for a blessing. Timur and I adjusted our stride to match hers as she turned toward him.
There were fewer such people than in Moscow, or even Petrograd. Arkhangelsk is a city of sailors and merchants in the summer and a pit of misery the whole winter long. No one lives here unless they have to. But we were back from Lithuania, unloading the trinkets we had liberated from a mewling Genoese trader. The summer was dwindling, and prey was thin on the ground, thinner in the skies. The crew of the Little Horse could use a blessing.
“Will you bless me, father?” the Captain asked. She held out her hands, and he grasped them in his own.
The pilgrim held her hands for several minutes, staring with milky blue eyes. The Captain’s forehead creased, though she smiled. She would never be disrespectful of a religious.
“You are the Red Maiden of Petrograd,” he said, and she startled.
He drew back one hand and made the sign of the Cross, then grasped her hands again.
“I bless you, child,” he said, “and I will give you a prophecy.”
The strannik breathed deep. His eyes widened, and the irises clouded.
“Three ships against the Horde,” he said. “You will find gold and victory, and the first of three barbarian treasures that will restore to you what you have lost.”
I shivered and crossed myself. The Captain’s compressed lips were white.
The holy man’s eyes cleared. He smiled at the Captain, bowed, and walked away with his hands clasped behind him, his rusty black cassock flapping around his ankles. The Captain stared after him.
Timur would watch and follow for a decade before he’d ask a question, but I am not so nice.
“What did he mean?” I asked.
Natalya Efraimovna didn’t look at me. She merely walked faster, until even Timur had to work to keep up. Her iron boot heels clacked on the wooden walkways.
“I need a drink,” she said after a minute. We didn’t go to the South Wind or the Icebreaker or any of the usual sailor bars, but to an unfamiliar part of town, full of tall, narrow houses painted in cheerful colors.
At a low, dark wooden door with a blue-and-red striped awning over it, the Captain ducked through the doorway. Timur and I glanced at one another, followed to a space more like a bourgeois sitting room than a tea shop: small tables covered in lace panels and surrounded by armchairs upholstered in tapestry and brocade. The lamps were plentiful but dim; many had fringed red shades.
The woman at the door, in curled Western hairstyle and dress, frowned at us. Then she seemed to recognize the Captain and led us to a table in the far corner. The other patrons pretended not to stare.
I was awed into shyness – the place was much like the house I’d grown up in, where my mother had been a servant. Timur, whose discomfort is more rare than obedient cats, angled toward me so she wouldn’t see his silent amusement. I saw nothing funny about it.
The tea came in delicate glasses with silver filigree holders and a china plate of sweet curd piroshki. I watched the Captain break bits off the rectangle of fine white sugar and stir them into her tea, stirred jam into my own.
Timur drinks his tea bitter. He said once in the mess that this reminded him of the suffering of human life. It was several minutes before anyone realized he was making a joke. That had been the first time I’d ever heard Timur laugh.
This day, he did not joke. He sat at the table as if he had always belonged there, drinking tea and eating dumplings. The Captain stared into her tea glass until it was empty, then filled it again, three times. I ate too many dumplings and felt sick.
We were not unused to the Captain brooding. Dark moods would take her, and her words became whips that she laid across us. Regularly in early spring, near Christmas, and when anyone broke one of her strange rules. Once Dimka, bored on afternoon watch, had shot a hawk out of the sky. His face wore the imprint of her knuckles before he had lowered his pistol. That time, the lashes were real: three of them etched across Dimka’s back with her own hand.
Dimka had wailed and cursed as Vitya sewed up the worst of them in the galley later. His shouts had drowned out the sound of items being thrown against the wall from the Captain’s cabin. But I remembered that day, and others like it, while I watched the Captain frown into her tea glass. There was a pattern to her moods: one I had never been able to grasp.
“How long has it been since anyone went after the Horde?” she asked after what seemed like a century.
“Not since I was a boy, Mistress,” Timur said. Although he speaks seldom, his voice is light and musical. He is my shipmate, and I often forget his origins.
“No one has made an effort in many years.”
She stared her way through another glass of tea, fingering the emerald-eyed gold falcon she wore on a thick gold chain around her neck.
“A prophecy is a rare thing,” she said.
Timur shrugged at me. His people were ancestor worshippers. To them, prophecy was daily currency. But in the good Russian Church?
“It is, my Captain,” I said.
Half a cup of tea.
“I could call in favors.”
The Captain drank tea. We sat. Despite my bloat, I mourned the great emptiness of the dumpling plate. Eventually her slow, wicked grin spread across her face.
“They say the Horde has more treasure than the Crown.”
And I knew it was the beginning of an adventure.
“Masha,” the Captain shouted when we had returned to the Little Horse, after precisely enough time to storm into her cabin and swivel her head once, “find where in hell’s tundra some paper is. The good stuff!”
Half a first mate’s job is to bully (the other half is split among nanny, quartermaster, and diplomat), so I shoved her out the door. She’d be worse than no help: for a girl who grew up only lifting a hand to servants, Natalya Efraimovna does a tolerable job of keeping herself in order, but there’s no reason to it. I found her inkwell among the navigation things, her pen marking her place in a book, and some respectable paper, barely crumpled, under the charts.
She stood outside grumbling the whole time.
The fifth time she cursed at me to hurry (just after I had found the inkwell), I shouted back.
“Maybe you’d be happier with my ‘sense of urgency’ if you’d tell me what the hurry is for.”
She glared, then dropped her eyes to the floor.
“I need to write to the St. Veronika,” she mumbled.
That brought me several blessed minutes of quiet before the nagging resumed, and it did make me search faster.
The St. Veronika was a ship out of myth. No one I knew had ever actually seen it, though we all had a story or three about the ship full of nuns, singing its way across the skies to spill fire down on heathens and bring holy relics to the most isolated spots in Russia. The ship itself was said to be painted pure white, with gold bags – white crosses on the bags and gold on the hull. It was said that the nuns had no captain and instead voted on all their decisions, like a serfs’ commune. It was said that they never ate meat or drank liquor and that the Patriarch himself had made them all permanently shriven, so their souls were as pure as morning and they would go straight to Heaven when they died.
The waiting list for the crew was said to be every nun in Russia under the age of sixty.
I don’t know the favor the Captain called in, but we received a card after only three days – heavy paper with gilt embossing and the message written in a beautiful, old-fashioned hand. The Captain smiled over the card, a gentle, small girl’s smile. But when she looked up at us, her expression was bloodthirsty.
We were more direct with the Nevskii. Three years before, we had come upon them 30 versts west of the Caspian, grounded by a fire, all that remained of their bag a set of lines with charred ends. The hull was half-burnt, and three of the nine crew were badly wounded. We retrieved them and what we could salvage and ferried them back to Petrograd (two of the crew for burial). Arkady Illyich had given the Captain a ring of yellow gold and carved Baltic amber, telling her that it was his pledge to repay her.
The same day that we received the note from the St. Veronika, the Captain called together the crew, and we walked together through the narrow, reeking streets of the bar district until we came to the Petrel, the known haunt of Arkady Illyich.
He sat with his crew at a table in the center of the room. His mother had been the daughter of a Scottish engineer, and he was a huge red-haired bull of a man with a whore on each knee, roaring “Kvass in the Horse Trough” off-key. The Captain marched up to the table, shouldered sailors aside, and plunked the amber ring down on the scarred blond wood.
Arkady Illyich stopped singing, and very quickly the bar was practically silent. He shoved the doxies out of his lap, and they put their arms around one another. They could’ve been brother and sister. The big old pirate scowled down at the ring.
“This is how you return my mother’s ring to me?” he said.
“Even so,” replied the Captain.
“In front of everyone I know, so I can’t refuse?”
The Captain shrugged. Arkady Illyich sighed.
“If you get me into something I don’t like, I will personally set about changing your name from Red Maiden to Bloody Bitch.”
The Captain leaned toward him, one hand flat on the table and her battle joy lighting up her face.
The old man bellowed laughter and called for a chair. Few people – much less pirates – stand on their dignity like the Captain, so Arkady Illyich knew her scheme must be a good one. As he listened to the Captain speak, Arkady Illyich raised his eyebrows and lowered them; opened his mouth, closed it.
“You can’t be serious,” Arkady Illyich said when she finished.
Natalya Efraimovna nodded. The crew of the Nevskii stared around at one another and fidgeted. The crew of the Little Horse strove to look like Timur: blank as a clear sky.
Arkady Illyich stared at the Captain; the crews stared. He looked at the amber ring on the table, then slammed his hand down on it. He grinned, and we of the Little Horse relaxed. Arkady Illyich put the ring on his pinky finger and filled his glass from the vodka bottle.
He raised his glass and shouted, “Against the Horde!”
At least three members of the Nevskii choked before they could drink the toast.
The holy man’s words lifted us up over the mundane annoyances that accompany the start of a voyage. The captains and Sr. Beata, who represented the St. Veronika, cowed every provisioner, so we bought food, bullets, and inert gas at the best prices in a generation. The three crews worked as one, so we nosed about gladly on one another’s ships. The St. Veronika was very spare and beautiful, as if the nuns took their convent with them, with its white paint over thin birch boards. There were bits of gold leaf, icons, and crosses everywhere. Even their stores were light: plain water, bricks of tea, sacks of buckwheat groats and barrels of preserved cabbage. By contrast, the true miracle was that the Nevskii could even get in the air. Two big, rail-mounted ballistas on the stern were balanced by Arkady Illyich’s pride and joy on the bow: a heavy gun from France that had barrels bound together like firewood and flung out bunches of bullets all in one go at the turn of a crank. It was a ground artillery weapon and ridiculously heavy, with agonizing pauses to reload between firings. But it would tear targets to pieces.
I could hardly criticize, given the absurd thing hanging off the front of the Little Horse, courtesy of its being a third-hand decommissioned military ship from approximately the time of Moses. Our fire gun was an enormous metal tube that sprayed lit naphtha: inaccurate, heavy, and dangerous to the ship itself, both by its operation and because of the barrels of fuel we had to carry for it. But everyone was terrified by streams of flames pouring from the sky. Dimka was always pleading for us to roast our dinners out of the air when we flew over herds of reindeer or cattle.
One member of the crew was less eager than the rest. Nobody noticed poor Grisha’s staring eyes. We were too busy planning, packing, rubbing our hands together at the thought of piles of gold, except Gala.
“Cabin boy’s frightened, Mate,” she said to me as we finalized our preparations.
I had been counting packets of ammunition in my mind; it took a moment to wrest myself back from arithmetic.
“Frightened of the job?”
She nodded with a smile but sad eyes. One of her dark curls had escaped her bright green head scarf. One always wanted to tuck those curls back in, sweet Gala.
“Shall I speak to him?”
“That would scare him worse,” she said. The boy was as jumpy as a betting man at race time.
“What shall we do?”
Arithmetic and watch schedules I could do without blinking, but the only children I’d known since my own childhood were cabiners.
“I’d like to keep him out of the way, Maria Valentinovna.”
She tugged that curl. I asked Heaven to protect us from the day Gala Osipovna Niyazova used her charm for evil.
“Do it, sailor,” I said, though I couldn’t ban the smile from my face. “Keep him busy, but keep him away from the gossip.”
“Busy hands make pure hearts and sound sleep,” she said.
In under a month, our small fleet was ready. Three ships sliced the wind as we flew east across the steppe in the cool autumn air. The Horde wasn’t going to be golden anymore by the time we were done with them. They’d be red with blood, blackened by fire, and the crew of the Little Horse would be the ones rolling in gold.
Well, and the crews of the St. Veronika and the Nevskii – but only for this one job.
Poor land-bound Europe, with its railroads and telegraphs, scuttling like beetles on the ground, now scrambling to catch up to mighty Russia and her mastery of the sky. For centuries they mocked us as backward – the Poles, the French, Lithuanians and Finns. No one mocks Russia anymore. They send their engineers instead. They pay good gold to fly to Nippon in a Russian airship in a quarter the time it takes to sail.
The fifth day out, we saw the first Mongol scout break out of a tiny group of round huts and race east. Dimka raised his rifle, but the Captain said, “No. Let them think they can prepare for us.”
That night, we anchored and watched signal fires leapfrog to the horizon. The next night, two Mongols tried to sneak up and cut our anchor ropes. They had arrows wrapped in kumiss-soaked rags. The Nevskii’s first mate and engineer were on last watch, and the rest of us woke to find the two men grinning over Mongol corpses already stripped of anything with value – their embroidered felt caps, a few coins, the wonderful Mongol bows. Arkady Illyich roared his approval. Natalya Efraimovna nodded to herself.
Late in the morning of the following day, we watched as a black line in the distance gradually resolved itself into the Horde. They seemed to fill the steppe – dark braids flying under winking helmets, every shade of horse. Their number appeared endless.
The Horde tried their old tricks of feinting and retreating – and there’s no army more mobile on their wind-fueled horses – but their few airships were old and heavy, piloted by shamans instead of sailors. Our fire gun burned one ship out of the air and made two long lines of devastation before its fuel ran out. The Nevskii dropped burning barrels of naphtha on the horsemen.
Our rifles were well aimed, but that is no kind of battle, to pick off ants from the safety of one’s hull. We dipped too low, and their lit arrows tore our bow bag. Stupid, but once we lost our gas, God’s will must be done. We dropped in fire from the sky like phoenixes.
If it hadn’t been for our changes in speed and direction – and for the arrows poking out of the other two bags – we might have stayed aloft. As it was, we crashed slowly, atilt, the deck smoldering from pieces of the lost bag. Through it all, Dimka stood braced at the rail, Gala at his knee, loading rifles and handing them up as fast as he could empty them. His voice, shouting curses, droned in the background, words lost. Battle noises, wind, and the cabin boy’s screams.
The Captain stood at the wheel, fighting to bring us down as steadily as possible. I climbed up the side of the railing, above poor little Grisha as he clung to a center storage bin, and rolled down to him.
“Crewman!” I barked in Grisha’s ear. He jerked and almost let go of the side of the bin. I grabbed his arm, and he clung to me, breathing hard.
“Calm yourself, Grisha.”
He tried hard to gulp the air more slowly, but his own battle would be a long one, I thought. We should’ve stuffed him in the hold as we usually did in a fight.
Timur and Gala put the engines in reverse and opened all the flaps. This slowed our tilt forward, though we all still scrambled for footing. Boris let himself slide forward and started undoing the heavy clamps on the fire gun. As the final clamp groaned and its bolts shrieked out of the hull, he lit the gun’s igniter, then unlatched the clamp. The Little Horse’s nose jerked up. I lost my grip on Grisha, who fell against the wheel mount with a crack and a scream. The fire gun tumbled slowly down, spouting flames, and exploded in the center of a skirmish, scenting the wind with kerosene and burnt flesh. The shock and sound sent a number of horses bolting.
We practically floated down out of the sky after that – gun gone, only two bags, hardly any altitude. When we thudded to the ground, Grisha woke up and sobbed weakly. Gala rushed to the boy and hovered over him; he moaned with pain when she put her arm around him. She coaxed him to stand, but he could not. His right leg was broken badly.
Mongols don’t kill children. Back in the days when the Horde ruled the world from Kamchatka to the Magyar kingdom, women and children might be sold into slavery, but they were rarely put to the sword. The Captain placed a pistol in Grisha’s hand.
“Protect the ship, crewman,” she said, and he nodded slowly, blue eyes huge in his pale face. He would still be staring after the battle, bone white from blood loss, gun clutched tight in his little fist. We sent the gun with him back to his family in Moscow, with enough money for a lavish funeral.
Once down, we could at last properly fight. The warrior nuns of the St. Veronika howled their war hymns to the heavens and rained down death on the Mongols.
Barbarian arrows brought the nuns down, but the women continued to fight – those who survived the crash – singing all the while. The Nevskii stayed above, their crossbows wreaking havoc among the horses and their French mitrailleuse gun spitting out bullets as fast as the crew could turn its crank.
We used the rifles as long as we stayed near the Little Horse, until the bullets ran out. The Captain drew her wood-barreled pistols and waded into the fray.Four shots, then the second brace of pistols, and by the time she dropped a pistol and drew her sword, with me scrambling to keep up with her, we were thick into the crowd.
I stuck close to the Captain, my arms driving up and down, block and slash. I had one eye for her and one for embroidered robes and braids, for steel pointed in my direction. I took a cut to my upper left arm that needed stitches later, but in the noise of the moment it didn’t hinder me. The man who cut me dropped under my sword. Many of the faces that surged around me were old.
Natalya Efraimovna was a whirl of red – coat and blades – and Dimka and I flanked her close, for she was reckless, making herself obvious, drawing to herself men in ever-richer robes. She slashed at horses’ legs. Their shrieks were awful, worse than the dust and the stink. I aimed for riders’ legs when I could and hoped some of the beasts would find their way to the lonely parts of the steppe, where they might graze and run without bearing men’s burdens.
We cut through soldiers, arm up, arm down, screaming muscles, screaming men. They tried to draw us away from one another and flank us, but the Nevskii signaled with mirrors and flags, dropping whistle shells that frightened the horses once their javelins ran out.
And for all their wealth and reputation, the Horde was a mere remnant of its past self. This detachment may have been led by the Khan himself, but his army had been harried and picked to pieces for decades along the borders, and his heir was imprisoned in the palace at Ikh Khüree after a failed coup.
After an afternoon that lasted a month, we hacked our way into the center of the fray. We found the Khan unhorsed. A dark bay with fine tack lay on the ground behind him with one of the Nevskii’s heavy javelins in its gut. The Khan fought from the center of a wide circle, a small round shield in one hand and a cruel barbed whip in the other. He was not as tall as the Captain, but he was broad and fierce-looking, his black braids bouncing on his back like extra whips.
Gunchin Khan caught Dimka in the leg, and he went down, howling. That’s when we learned that some of the noise surrounding us was nuns from the St. Veronika. One of them stood over Dimka, holding back Mongols without missing a note of the Gloria, while her sisters pulled Dimka up and hauled him back. I think his bellowing was more outrage at missing the fight than it was pain.
Gunchin Khan paused when he saw the Captain – who would not recognize the Red Maiden? And even if he had just crawled up from hell, he would have stopped at the sight of her, ferocious and glorious in her gore-stained coat, a bloody blade in each hand.
“We’ve killed so many Russians that now they send their women after us?” he said. His Russian was astonishingly good, with hardly any accent.
“Not any woman,” she said, “merely the best.”
“The best what, Red Whore? Best to warm my ger when all your people are dead?”
The Captain grinned.
“I see the stories about me have reached even this far.”
“We’ve heard your name and laughed to think that Russians are so wretched that they send their noblewomen out pirating.”
I stumbled, and nearly found my death on the end of a dead man’s knife, that the Mongols would know a fact I alone of the Little Horse knew.
The Captain herself paused, and it was in that instant that Gunchin Khan flicked his arm forward.
The barb of his whip caught her at the collar; the Captain jerked backward, and I jumped forward to swing at the whip with my sword as the battle erupted around us again.
My sword didn’t connect, but for an instant I stood between the Captain and Khan, and she recovered. She is a woman of steel and holy fire, and she recovered. She looked at me, blood on her face and fury in her eyes, and she lifted her dripping chin just a fraction. I flung myself out of the way.
She had seen the whip coming over my shoulder. As I tumbled back, I saw her lift her left arm, saw the barb of the whip cut through the padded sleeve of her coat. But it was an ill-placed blow and sliced only velvet. She had dropped her long dagger toward me (I wrenched sideways to catch it) and drawn one of the little knives from her belt. Her throw was solid – it hit Gunchin Khan in the gap between his leather armor and helmet. The shock of it made him drop his shield.
I tossed the Captain’s long knife back to her; the Khan drew his. She ran close in before he could recover, and then his whip was useless. They met each other with sword and dagger, but his sword arm was weak, and blood dripped down his hand.
Was it the strannik’s prophecy? The mystery that drove Natalya Efraimovna, the Horde’s long journey or the Khan’s span of years? The Captain fought with the sword of St. Michael. The skirmishes around the two of them were half-hearted at best – all eyes cut to the Khan in his studded black leather and the Captain in her flying red.
No Mongol likes to fight on the ground. Gunchin Khan clearly did not like to also fight without his whip. He went down more quickly than I would ever have guessed, slipping in the trampled, blood-soaked grass. His face, in the moment while the Captain drew back her arm, was that of a tired old man.
Then his head rolled to the left, his body crumpled forward, and the battle was done.
We surrounded the shivering remnant of the Mongols, the Captain’s neck running as red as her sword, the Khan’s body at her feet, his head on the ground six paces behind her. We panted and stared at each other for long moments. Horses and humans moaned or screamed, but the sound receded behind my own ragged breath and the pounding of my heart. God pardon me, but I always weep after a battle, once the fighting is done. Once there’s space for tears. A shaman rattling with bead-strung cords trembled forward with a small wooden casket in his hands. He bowed and held it out to the Captain. His face was younger than many of those around him.
She, no fool, gestured with her sword. The shaman fumbled with the latch, then drew out a robe of gold and silver cloth, stuck all over with gems. It shone in the late-afternoon sunlight. He bowed and held the robe out.
“We’ll take that and more,” the Captain said.
The shaman shook the robe a little. The whites showed all around his eyes like a frightened horse’s.
“Put it on,” he said in a barbarian accent. As if a Mongol could bluff a Russian and a pirate.
“Put it on?” she said, leaning back and lowering her sword. The shaman’s shoulders dropped a bit from up around his ears.
The Captain grinned through the blood and soot on her face. She looked like a queen among demons.
“Why?” The man shuddered again, and the tassels hanging all about his bloodstained robe shuddered too. He backed up two steps. The Captain stalked forward.
“Is there poison in it?” The shaman’s hand shook. The Captain leaned in.
The man dropped the robe and cowered. Three minutes and she had it out of him. She barely had to cut him.
The Captain took the casket with the robe and seven gemstones as her entire leader’s share. The rest of us got richer than ever.
We carried the day. Of course we carried the day. We took from them gold, horses, armor, and one jeweled robe. We sent the remnant – the Tin Horde, the Dross Horde – home on its knees and raced winter back to Petrograd on their own horses.
The Captain presented Tsaritsa Maria Pavlovna with a pile of treasure that reached her knees and topped it with Gunchin Khan’s pickled head.
What a winter that was! Our pockets were full of gold, our hearths full of coal, our bellies full of vodka. Our beds full of willing friends. The crew of the Little Horse was welcome in every bar and not a few fine houses. The Winter of the Long Hangover, Gala calls it. Fine times.
But the Captain spent her days at the shipyard, wearing out the iron heels of her boots as she paced back and forth, clacking. With Mongol gold, Natalya Efraimovna hired a young Serbian to design our new ship. Mongol gold greased the way for Imperial shipwrights to build her.
Fine, lightweight birch made her hull, bound together with willow withes and the whole thing painted black. The three bags were crimson-dyed canvas. No one would mistake us for anything but the airship of the Red Maiden of Petrograd.
The new Little Horse was lighter, bigger, and warmer than the old one, a joy to fly. I missed the personality of the old girl, but the new ship whispered strength, speed, riches.
We had a third again more cargo space, even a small space up in the aft part of the cargo hold that might fit our new cabin girl, a hammock, and a lamp or, on the voyage home, whatever goods we might want to hide from Imperial tax collectors. To Dimka’s great dismay, the Captain stuck no fire gun off the front. Vitya’s new stove was made of pottery, not even metal, curiously lightweight and smooth as fine china plates.
By the time spring had thawed the air but before the marshes around Petrograd had become a misery of biting insects, the new Little Horse was done. A shaky old priest blessed her and christened her. Then two dock workers cast off her lines, and pushed by the wind off the bay, we set off. We were away; we were home.
After the streets of Petrograd, filled with stink and traffic, what a relief to get back in the air, the charcoal and pitch scent of the new Little Horse, with only the crew for company. All of us rogues and thieves, but family: Dimka the idiot, who can never stay awake during watches but is a mad bear in a fight; Gala, the second engineer, who barely speaks except to sing; Katiusha, the new cabin girl; Boris, Gala’s lover and the great silent horse who carries cargo and weapons through the worst journeys; Timur, the engineer; Vitya, the cook; and our Captain, the heartbeat of the Little Horse.
Yet the Captain remained unhappy. Vitya sang, my heart was birds at sunrise, and even Timur was heard to whistle, but Natalya Efraimovna stood in the bow and glared at the horizon.
We ate together in the mess, not needing to keep watch this close to home skies. I watched the Captain glower at the table. I watched the crew watch the Captain. It was an ill start to a voyage.
“Where do we sail, my Captain?” I asked finally.
As she gazed at me, I knew the twist of her mouth was not her new scar. She knew what I was up to but would not punish me for it.
“Are you afraid we’re headed somewhere you don’t wish to go, First Mate?”
The rest of the crew sat utterly still. Only Dimka was stupid enough to stare at the Captain. But I trusted that small quirk of her lips and the challenge in her dark eyes. I could take the lumps if I was wrong.
“Not at all,” I said. “I merely thought some direction would be better than spinning the wheel.”
Timur snorted; Vitya gasped. The Captain stared at me just long enough to make me start to worry that I’d miscalculated (of course), then she grinned and thumped the table with her fist.
“Fair enough,” she said.
She ate a bite of bread and swallowed some vodka. She let go a great breath.
“You may have wondered about my boots,” she said.
We looked at one another; several of us nodded.
Then she told us an incredible story.
“My father, God keep him,” she said, staring at each of us in turn, “is Prince Efraim Ivanov Kuzmin-Obolensky.”
And that was the only time in my life in which I was less surprised than Timur. Mouths dropped open all around the table. Back against the wall, Katiusha’s bite of bread fell out of her mouth, and she stared at the Captain with the eyes of one in love. Dimka bowed his head and wouldn’t look at Natalya Efraimovna, who let the moment draw out long enough for me to catch her eye and grin.
“I am my father’s older child,” she said. “My brother Maxim was born when I was ten years old.”
She frowned at the table.
“Until then, I had been the flower of my father’s heart. He taught me to ride, and to shoot. He took me with him when he rode around the manor and was proud that I could greet the serfs by name. And in my young girl’s ignorance, I thought my whole life would be like that: that I would grow up to rule the manor as my father did, knowing the serfs’ names, tallying the profits of the harvest in a leather-bound ledger, and watching the trees in the orchard grow.”
Gala, whose path to piracy was not dissimilar, wiped her face on her sleeve. The Captain favored her with a brief, sad smile.
“When he was very little, my brother was no hindrance to this idea. I thought of him like a puppy, or a living doll. My father loved Maxim, so I did too.
“Then, when Maxim turned six, Papa had him taught to ride. My brother and I spent that spring jogging around the orchard with our grooms, and I tried to be patient with him, to help him learn not to fall off his pony, so he wouldn’t slow me and Papa down when we rode our tour of the manor at planting time.
“But when that day came, my nurse set out a house dress for me instead of my riding habit. When I ran downstairs to protest, Papa and Maxim were standing by the door in their riding clothes, and Papa was smiling down at my brother with an expression that I had thought belonged only to me.
“’Of course your brother rides with me now,’ my father told me. ‘After all, he is the heir.’ And while I stood bewildered, he kissed my forehead and they left.”
The Captain sighed at the tabletop, covered already in scorch marks, scratches, and knife gouges.
“It was a young girl’s ignorance that led me to have misunderstood, and it was with a young girl’s passion that I came to hate my brother. Even my father for deceiving me, though I would not have admitted it. My mother grumbled as she tried to make me love poetry and sewing – that my father had let me run wild for too long and she had too little time to make me into proper wife material.”
I could not help but snort at that idea, and Natalya Efraimovna glared at me. She continued with a small shrug.
“I made none of it easy on my mother or on myself. I complained endlessly to my nurse. Old Manya was a fixture in my family, and I had thought of her as something like the chimney, part of the house meant to take care of us.
“Instead, it turned out that she was a witch.”
Gasps broke out at that statement, and crossings of selves. The Captain shook her head, with a bitter twist to her mouth.
“I let her talk me into many stupidities. Throughout the summer, my father took Maxim to do all the things that had once been my domain. He began to learn the serfs’ names. After the harvest, my brother sat in Papa’s lap with his little hand on the quill while Papa tallied the figures.
“I seethed through my days, and at night I lay in my room with Manya sitting beside me. She would mutter about the bitterness of women at the mercy of a man. My anger grew along with the wheat, fed by Manya’s words raining on me each night.
“At the end of summer, when the harvest was in, my father had only two topics of conversation: his pride in his heir and the interest of his third cousin, a duke, in my hand.”
The Captain’s own hand closed into a fist.
“On a sweltering night, as heat lightning flashed in the sky, my anger broke across me. Seeing that my heart was as black as the night sky, Manya pressed a little bag into my hand, telling me that the charm inside it would transform my troubles and make them powerless.
“I held the little bag to me like a doll all that short summer night. It nestled hot in my hand at breakfast the next day. The heat had broken overnight, and the day was cool, the sky a deep and kind blue. My mother had the samovar set up outside, and even Manya emerged from the house to enjoy the first hint of autumn. I could feel the weight of her eyes on me, as heavy as the bag in my hand.
“Papa and Maxim were play-fighting with sticks, Papa regaling my brother with stories of the sword-master he would hire, how Maxim’s flailing about with a twig showed his promise as a fighter. Then Maxim turned to me and said,
“’Sister, do you think your husband will be as good a swordsman as Papa?’
“And my fury was like a lightning bolt on that clear summer day. I shouted as the little bag left my hand – Manya did too, for Maxim was not her target – and the bag hit my brother in the chest in a cloud of dust. When the dust cleared, a small golden falcon hopped about on the ground, crying out in distress.
“I was struck dumb and frozen by shock, as were my parents and the servants. But Manya leaped forward and grabbed my arm hard.
“’Even you disappoint me, girl,’ she said, ‘but still I’ll find a way to profit from it.’
“Then she changed shape, into a great black vulture, right in front of us. She grasped the little bird that had been my brother and carried him away.”
I had never heard these details of the story, and I felt sick at the thought.
Natalya Efraimovna wore an expression on her face that I hadn’t seen in years, all her usual firmness drained out of it. Honey-hearted Gala was the one to speak.
“What did you do?”
“We mourned,” the Captain said softly. “And though my parents blamed Manya, I blamed myself. At the instant my brother changed, I felt my stupidity. The anger I had felt toward my brother turned to myself. When I saw my mother weep into her knitting and my father stare out the window for hours.
“I decided to make it right. Though I knew my leaving would take both their children away for a time, I vowed to find my brother. I remembered that Manya had spoken of her hometown, so I went there to find her.
“Maria Valentinovna. You remember me as a raw recruit,” she said, looking at me with a little of the usual gleam in her eye.
I grinned at her and hoped she’d take it for the encouragement I meant. Her lips twitched in the hint of a smile.
“On that trip away from home, it’s a miracle I survived. One day on horseback in the mild summer sun I was used to. A week in the saddle, with the air steadily burning colder and a day of rain, was almost enough to send me running home. I arrived to find that Manya had come and gone. Her cousin saw no harm in telling a young girl all about it. Manya’s sudden return after many years, with a velvet bag of coins and jewelry – probably stolen from my family over time – and a golden falcon in a cage.
“So I followed the cousin’s rumor, bumbling like an idiot. I tracked her through rumors and whispers, and then finally I found the talkative owner of a tea shop who was scandalized by stories of a witch in the neighborhood.
“She no longer had my brother.”
“No!” Dimka shouted over several other gasps.
Natalya Efraimovna actually laughed at that, though her eyes were wet. She squeezed Gala’s outstretched hand.
“What had she done with him?” Vitya asked. We all cringed that the cook asked this question, fearing the worst.
“She had sold him to the Witch of the North,” Natalya Efraimovna said.
This caused an outbreak of shrugs.
“I had never heard of her either, but Manya had much to say on the matter. She is a witch who hates men, who gives sanctuary to women running from them. Manya seemed to think I would want to go to her, though she would not tell me where the Witch’s house is. She thought I had come to her because I was running away from my father. That I was glad of what she had done.”
Natalya Efraimovna bared her teeth. This was a familiar expression at last.
“I guess it’s true what they say, that witches take their hearts from their breasts and keep dried frogs in there instead,” Dimka said.
“Who told you that?” Boris asked.
“My old granny.”
“Then your old granny was as stupid as you are,” Boris said. “Witches don’t keep dried frogs for hearts. It’s wasps’ nests.”
Gala banged on the table.
“That nonsense is what comes of growing up in the country. Frogs and wasps my foot. Witches keep lumps of coal in place of their hearts. That’s why they can’t abide fire!”
I couldn’t stand this nonsense and informed them of the truth, which is that witches have only an empty space in their chests that pains them and turns them mean. Sadly, it seemed that Vitya, Gala, and even little Katiusha had heard entirely different tales of witches’ hearts, and we all spoke at the same time. Natalya Efraimovna stared around at us all with wide eyes, then roared with laughter. She laughed until she hiccupped, and soon all of us were laughing. When we were done, and our stomachs ached, Vitya replenished the plate of bread on the table. I made sure to hand two pieces to Katiusha, who stuffed them into her mouth in great chews. We’d need to buy her new clothes and shoes at the next stopover, one to one odds.
“What do they say about witches’ hearts among your people, Timur?” Gala asked while we washed down our bread with sadly warm vodka. Timur shook his head.
“They are different. Both men and women, but more like shamans who hurt instead of those who heal.”
Dimka looked as if he was going to ask a question for every angel in God’s choir, but Boris was smart enough to stop him with a shake of the head and a refilling of his glass. The Captain drank one more mouthful of vodka, plunked her glass down on the table, and took her story back up.
“Manya thought I had sought her out because I wanted to join her,” the Captain continued.
“Of course, all I cared about was my brother. I tried to get her to tell me how she could give him to someone who hated males, but she just smiled and said the Witch would do what she wanted. The more I asked, the more she smiled, until she told me that the Witch would keep Maxim in his cage until she tired of looking at him, then she would pull his feathers out one by one and roast him alive for her dinner.
“I could see it, in my mind. The bird I had made of my brother. The cry he had made on my parents’ lawn sounding over and over as she tortured him, killed him, and through it all, Manya smiled at me. She grinned and wheedled, promised me a life of freedom away from all men.
“I killed her,” Natalya Efraimovna said in a voice hoarse with memory.
Gala covered her mouth with her hand, and Dimka’s eyes were round as coins.
“You remember your first,” she said, looking around at each of us.
She was right, of course. The first death is the worst. Most of us at the table were there because the blood on our hands made us unfit for any other kind of life.
“And with my hands around her throat and my tears falling into her eyes, my old nurse cursed me: that I should wander the world until I wear out three pairs of iron boot heels, and only then will I have any chance of recovering my family.
“I commissioned a pair of iron-heeled boots the very hour I arrived in Moscow. For twelve years I have wandered without hope, having worn out two pairs of iron heels. Now I have a prophecy and a Mongol robe stuffed with magic, and I hardly know how to go forward.”
She looked at each of us, then downed the rest of her vodka, thumped her palms gently on the table, and left us all to stare at one another until we drifted away to turn the story over in our minds.
Natalya Efraimovna kept much to her cabin for a few days after her story – not brooding but sad, and it was good for the crew to have time to ponder. I took dead-of-night watch myself the first night, just to have some quiet under the black sky into which to cast my thoughts.
For six years I had flown with her on the Little Horse, and for two years before that we had been raw sailors together on the crew of the Bloody Terem. She had been Natasha to me, back then. I had a year’s service above her on that boat, so she had been assigned to my charge, with her iron-heeled boots, eternal scowl, and soft hands. The lines cut her palms to ground meat.
I woke one morning to find her trying to bind her hands with strips torn from her own nightshift. I bound them up for her and stopped making her carry my slops jar. She made watch leader within the year, and from then on her heading was straight up. The Terem’s first mate caught a bullet in the throat over Romania, and six months later, Natalya Efraimovna left that job and bought the Little Horse. Captain Razinskaya would’ve had to cut my limbs off to keep me from going too.
Three times she saved my life aboard the Terem – once in the skies over Lake Baikal, when a passenger on the long-distance zeppelin, whom I’d dismissed as a mewling cub, crept up behind me with a meat knife in his hand. I saw the dagger leave Natasha’s hand and thought it was aimed for my face. Shock stilled me, so I heard the whisper of breeze as the blade whipped past my right ear. I heard the grunt and gurgle of the man as he caught the knife with his neck. Blood gouted across my face when I spun to look. For weeks afterward, I heaved my guts all over the floor to think of it.
And if she didn’t have arms like anchor chains under that quilted coat, I would surely have gone over the side to my death in the Urals, when air flow off the mountains caught us napping. If she wasn’t fretful as a nesting goose, I’d have died of fester from an arrow wound on the back of my thigh that I worked to ignore for a week. The surgeon cut out a chunk of flesh the size of a child’s fist while I howled into Natasha’s ear. She held down my left arm with all her weight and murmured nonsense to me, as if I were a sick child, even after my voice gave out and all I had left were wheezy sobs. She bullied me through my convalescence, from lashing me to my own hammock at the beginning to dumping me out of it when it was time to get back on my feet. The dent in my leg foretells storms, still.
I have flown across Europe and Asia for her. Every scar is worth it. The pile of coins at the counting-house means nothing. Whatever vessel, the Red Maiden is my Captain.
Winter’s constellations scattered across the sky as I stood with my hand on the wheel, shearing sheep. She had told me about her noble birth her first month as my bunkmate, in the early days when her hands bled and she thought she could hide nightly sobs into her pillow. Those tears dried quickly once she realized there’s no privacy on an airship. She stuffed them so deep inside herself they’ve never come back out. And once she saw me flinch and lean away when she told me her surname, she never mentioned her birth again.
How much stranger would it be for the crew, to know that we flew under a noble? I at least had known that. And until the holy man’s prophecy, I assumed we flew only for the freedom of piracy, for the joy of a good fight.
The chill of the early spring night had seeped into my feet and hands. But my heart burned. Natalya Efraimovna had a purpose. As my Captain had, so had I.
Next morning, after my post-watch nap, Dimka joined me at the stern rail. We were flying at minimum power, so the wind blew back our hair but didn’t snatch our voices from us.
“So the Captain’s a princess,” he said.
He grunted, and we stood silent, watching field and forest roll slowly by below us. Off to starboard, the white dome of a village church shone pristine. We flew low enough that we could’ve tethered to the cross.
“Did you know?” he asked.
“I knew her name, not the rest of it.”
“Seems like a fairy tale.”
I had to laugh.
“It does indeed.”
Dimka hooked his thumbs into his broad leather belt and leaned his shoulders back, as if planting himself to haul a world’s worth of treasure.
“Finally,” he said. “I was wondering when all this pirating was going to start being like it is in the stories.”
Good old Dimka. He’s an idiot of the best kind.
Natalya Efraimovna emerged from her cabin late on the second day. We gathered around the table again to continue the conversation. The silence was long and uncomfortable.
“Three treasures,” Timur said at last, his dark eyes turned to me.
And I realized that I would have to be crowned ship’s idiot.
“He’s right, as usual,” I said, and the Captain quirked a little smile at me.
“Two more to go, with the Mongol robe,” she said.
Heads nodded; chins were stroked and noses rubbed.
“How do we know which treasures are the right ones?” Boris asked.
“How do we know where any are?” Gala joined in.
Dimka pounded the table.
“Every village has some enchanted old thing. We just need to find the useful ones.”
“What do you mean?” the Captain asked, and Dimka shrank a little from the way her gaze pinned him.
“I just … I mean, my village had a dried-up frog that croaked when it was going to rain.”He tilted his nose up. “It had been a witch’s heart, you see.”
He glared around the table.
“I don’t see how a rain-telling frog would do us any good,” he said after a pause. “But other villages must have something we can use.”
Natalya Efraimovna turned this over in her mind, then clapped Dimka on the shoulder with a laugh. He sat up straight as a tree.
“What do you say, crew? Shall we hunt down some treasure?”
Our answer is always yes.
We flew aimlessly, following a more southern route than the one we took to the Mongols. The farther south we flew, the more green the landscape rolled below us. Behind us, Petrograd would still have dirty slush clinging to sheltered spots. Ahead lay the Crimea, warmth, and foreign nobles with fat purses.
We stopped often, haunting bars like old gossips, mining for tales of strange treasure. We gathered rumors like mushrooms. The Little Horse was more like a charity than a pirate ship, given how many drinks we bought to make friends and loosen tongues. As on the ship, we each had our duty: the Captain sought out nuns and landowners. Katiusha joined rock-throwing bands of small children. I chatted up grannies by kitchen stoves and Gala the house servants. Boris drank oceans of vodka in bars and country inns. Dimka spent long days in wheat fields and potato patches, pretending not to pump serfs for superstition and rumor. Timur skulked around the dark edges of each village like a cat, listening to the wind and to the whispered longings of criminals. And when Vitya complained too long about the boredom of guard duty or Boris was laid low by drink, we’d “shift watch,” and Vitya’s high giggle would float out of open bar doors.
Snatches of fable teased their way to us, bit by agonizing bit. A fortune-telling pig here, a cursed ring there. Russia is apparently full of unholy objects and weeping icons. We flew ever further south, where the only thing that makes you sweat more than the air is the food. Vitya could barely contain himself.
In Crimea, we met one dawn in the mess of the Little Horse as usual, to wake up the day watch and put the night crew to bed. Boris leaned heavily on Gala’s shoulder, but both were grinning as we sat down at our familiar little table.
“Got a thing in the back,” Boris said.
Gala giggled while Boris blinked at her. Then he giggled, and after a moment the two of them roared and pounded the table while the rest of us stared – except Katiusha, who snagged sausages and stuffed them in her mouth as fast as she could swallow.
“It’s in the back!” Boris yelled.
“The back of you!” from Gala.
They roared some more, weeping, until Boris gave a huge belch, rubbed his head until his cap was all askew, then yawned. Gala patted his arm and handed him a piece of bread, which he started to chew.
Katiusha snatched a last sausage and some bread as the rest of us finally reached for food. Gala wiped her eyes.
“The barman at The Drunken Boar is Azerbaijani,” she said around a full mouth. “We got the place going with every crazy story they’d ever dreamed up in their cups, and this man insists that the ruler of Baku owns something called the Silent Ruby.”
“Magical?” the Captain asked.
“He had more to say about it being the color of heart’s blood and the size of a newborn’s fist, but he swears it has some kind of power and that’s why it’s called silent.”
The hairs stood up on my neck. I stared around at the wide eyes of my crewmates and knew they felt the same – the excitement of a good omen.
“Does the man know what he has?”
“No way to know.”
Natalya Efraimovna puffed out a mouthful of air.
“If we’re looking for ‘treasure,’ the ruby certainly meets that. It’s the best lead we’ve had in a month. But how are we to convince anyone to part with such a thing? A ruby that size is worth more than my father’s estate.”
“Why not the usual way?” Dimka said. “Guns and swords?”
I smacked him in the back of the head.
“This is the ruler of an ancient city,” I said. “With walls, money, and a whole army. You think you have enough bullets for that?”
Dimka shrugged and grinned. “I’d always rather a fight.”
Natalya Efraimovna shook her head.
“No. This time we’re going to have to talk our way through it.”
We stayed where we were for the next day. That night the Captain bound up her hair and borrowed a squashy brown cap from Vitya. She traded her red velvet coat for my own shabby dark-blue tunic. She was still tall and commanding in her iron-heeled boots, but she looked less likely to pillage the place.
Natalya Efraimovna and Gala went out as the sun was setting and returned well before midnight, both of them tight as bow strings.
“It’s just as she said,” Natalya Efraimovna announced from the galley doorway. “Something about the jewel causes silence, he thinks.”
“Sounds dead useful,” Vitya said.
“Can we try it on Dimka?” Boris asked.
That got the Captain to grin, at least.
“Busy day tomorrow, crew. I want to be in the air before sundown.”
It was a short night with little sleep. Katiusha roused us all with the dawn, yawning her own face open all the while. We spread out from the breakfast table to tie knots, purchase supplies, and check the bags. While the gas was still warm from the afternoon sun, we rose into the sky, our bow pointed southeast.
In the south, in the summer, the air was gentle as warm milk. We had no fights on the horizon. Even Natalya Efraimovna was lulled by the pleasure of simple flight in fine weather. We rubbed lumps of beeswax along the railings just to make them shine. Boris and Gala oiled the rudder gears until they were silent, and Timur tuned the engine to a purr. I collected Dimka and Katiusha, and we tied our supplies in the hold until the lines would hold in a polar storm and we could dance in the middle. We didn’t dance in the hold, though – why, when the nights were so beautiful under the lanterns on deck, with our running wind blowing Boris’s concertina music and our laughter behind us? We strewed contentment behind us like flower petals.
After three very fine days, the sand-colored walls and towers of Baku rolled into view against the dark glitter of the Caspian Sea. As we blew closer, we could see the rooftop gardens and courtyard jungles that made restful spots for the eye amid the bright glare of the tan buildings trimmed in white marble. We crowded along the rail like children and stared down at the bustle below us. The crowds were a circus of color: skins from snow to ebony in every kind of costume imaginable.
We tied up at a mooring post near a large building topped with proper onion domes.
In the hot air and with no idea of our welcome, Natalya Efraimovna left her velvet coat behind and wore instead her “politics jacket” – gold braid dripped off of it, a couple of nonspecific medals. It looked not quite like an Imperial military uniform. Very few people noticed the difference. And so far, we hadn’t heard that the Little Mother disapproved.
By the time we disembarked, a handful of men waited at the end of the gangplank: one important-looking fellow trimmed in gold; a tall, thin man wearing spectacles and carrying a pen and tablet of paper; and three boulders whose belts featured jeweled and wickedly curved knives.
“By the grace of Anar Khan, we welcome you to Baku,” the fancy one said in very good Russian.
Natalya Efraimovna bowed.
“It is to Anar Khan that we have traveled,” she said in her smoothest, most upper-class accent. “It is a kindness that he has sent you to greet us in the language of our homeland.”
The man smiled at us, while the scrivener-looking one shifted his weight.
“After the wars of recent years, not many of your people would have such a welcome,” he said, “but while Russians may have brought their guns to visit us for a few years, the Horde harassed our northern borders since the beginning of time. You have ended that, Blood Virgin of the northern skies. You will always find a welcome in Baku.”
There was a dicey moment during which I tried to send my eyes and ears to the back of my head to see whether I would need to maim Dimka for recoiling or Gala for giggling at “blood virgin.” The time for giggling would be later, away from the Azeris and out of Natalya Efraimovna’s reach. Thankfully for their hides, the crew behaved.
The group led us through wide, crowded streets, where we dodged donkey carts and loud-voiced sellers of books, fruit, or tea. The sun’s light was intensified by the pale streets and buildings, so I walked within a glare. We turned into a narrow side street, where the tall buildings on either side shaded us. This street was quieter, shop goods inside but visible behind dark wooden screens carved like filigree. Three times the shadows of tiny airships passed over us: small, oblong single bags with the equivalent of a rowboat hung underneath it. The man in spectacles saw me craning at them and told me these were the message ships of the great Shah in Persia, flying almost as quickly as those pigeons that always return to the place of their birth.
Our Tsaritsa sent her messages with any ship that would take them. I liked the idea of a sky filled with tidings. This body won’t stand pirating forever, and if I live to an age of aching knees and uncertain teeth, piloting a tiny ship through quiet skies sounds like a better way to spin out the years than lying on a couch in Petrograd, emptying glasses of tea. Wind and sky, with only birds for company: that would be like waiting in the anteroom of Heaven.
The man saw my delight and offered to take me the next day to see one of the message ships up close. I bowed my thanks. His Russian had a musical bounce to it that pleased me to hear.
“I would like that,” I said. “Providing we haven’t concluded our business already.”
If only I had spared a moment to think about his expression of surprise. They set us up in a cluster of lovely, light-filled rooms, and the next day we were directed to proper baths, given armfuls of light clothing and piles of food. We took the day to sprawl and breathe, to enjoy roasting in the southern heat. The next day, I did tour the message boats with the scribe, and very sweet, tightly built little things they were. The third day, I trudged back and forth to the Little Horse, just to remind my eyes of her. Each request we sent to the khan for an audience was returned with a rejection in terms so flowery they could’ve taken root on the page.
After another three days, even Gala and Timur looked likely to start tearing chunks of plaster out of the wall with their teeth. We knew where the ruby was, but how to get it? Our crew was far too small to overwhelm the khan’s household army.
The Captain abandoned the soft silk clothing and slippers she’d been given. It was a relief to my ears to hear the clack of her boot heels on the stone floor. The Captain wrapped her coat around her and strapped on all her pistols and knives. We took our cue. Natalya Efraimovna put her head outside the door and requested yet another audience. We waited a tense age, then bristled down the hallway – the Captain in front, me, Timur, and Gala in a wedge behind her.
We met the khan in a small, cozy room. I suppose it was an honor that he didn’t try again to awe us. I took my place behind the Captain’s shoulder, next to Timur.
“My dear lady, you look as if you are leaving us,” the khan said in a rich voice. The lilt and breath of his language took longer than the short statement from the interpreter.
“You have honored us with your hospitality,” the Captain said, “but we have a journey to complete, and we must move on.”
The interpreter made this into an entire speech.
The khan widened his eyes, miming surprise.
“But I understood that one piece of my treasure is crucial for your journey?”
The Captain bowed.
“Even so. But if the ruby is too precious for you to part with, I can hardly argue. I can only travel farther in the hope of finding something else that might suit.”
The khan pursed his lips.
“I was quite sure I understood no other would do.”
“Kind Lord, it’s true that my Empress had her heart set on your treasure – a queen’s treasure for a mighty queen. But the Tsaritsa is a practical woman. She would rather see my journey completed than have me wait here forever on an impossible task.”
The khan’s face still wore an expression of surprise, but like an actor’s. It was too practiced to be genuine.
“Impossible? What is this ‘impossible’? Treasured Captain, my heart aches to think that you have so misunderstood me.”
Natalya Efraimovna bowed again, and in her slightly relaxed stance when she rose, I suddenly understood: this was the game, like arguing over the price of onions in the market. I glanced at Timur and saw his eyes slitted in approval.
They tossed compliments at one another long enough for me to have to stifle a yawn. Not long after, the khan told us we could sit down, so we perched on cushions and drank mint-scented tea while the Captain and the khan had a long conversation about the various merits of tea, until I wanted to tear my cushion and scream. At one fidget, Gala reached over to squeeze my hand. She lifted an eyebrow, and I tuned back in to the conversation, which had migrated across two continents and three seasons to the topic of religion.
“And this is the church of the Constantinople that was, is it not?” the khan’s interpreter asked. The khan had the slightest crinkle at the edge of each eye. Now he was interested. The Captain nodded.
“Yes. Our Russian Church keeps that long tradition alive.”
“Many treasures have come out of that city in its history.”
“Oh?” Natalya Efraimovna said, sipping from her tea glass as if it was her turn to hold back yawns. “Is that where you came by the ruby?”
The khan laughed.
“Oh no,” he said. “That is a pagan jewel, brought from the steppes by one of my ancestors who married a Scythian woman.”
His smile flashed under his mustache.
“The story is that she lived with him, smiling, until her oldest child reached his thirteenth year, then she stabbed my ancestor in his bed and rode north without a backward glance. Luckily for you, she did not take her dowry with her.”
“Indeed,” the Captain said. We sipped tea, and the only sound was the cries of peacocks outside. Well, that and the creak of my teeth grinding together.
“Another treasure of my family did come from Istanbul, however,” the khan said after several moments.
I asked patience of St. Ypomoni, but I was not given any.
“A very ancient copy of the Book of our Prophet,” he said. “A treasure beyond reckoning.”
Natalya Efraimovna bowed her head.
“You are very blessed to have so many marvels in your treasury.”
I did not have to settle in for another year of compliments. When this was translated, the khan set his tea glass down and placed one palm against his chest.
“Sadly, that holy book has been taken from us. It lies in the hands of the most wicked men imaginable.”
And bless me if he didn’t look actually upset about the thing, an old copy of their Bible, stolen by heretics out in the countryside.
“We do not know what they do with the Prophet’s words,” he said, “but we fear the absolute worst.”
He paused just long enough.
“The return of it might be sufficient payment for the ruby.”
The Captain, no idiot, also waited for long enough to make her point.
“A trade of energy instead of goods, then?”
Even the translator smiled briefly at that one.
“It would be an advantage to us, if you would travel into their lands and retrieve our book. Those men are beyond barbarism.”
“We stake our bodies against our aim,” the Captain said.
“You understand the gravity of this task,” the khan said. “You will be rescuing a holy book from the most profane depredations.”
Natalya Efraimovna stood very still, staring at the man’s soft, shiny face. He looked worried from the chin up and utterly relaxed below that. The Captain had to share my suspicion. I prayed that her impatience wouldn’t drag us into something stupid.
“Why have you not gone after this book yourself?” she asked after a pause. The khan waved one hand. His gold rings flashed as he shook his head slowly.
“The heretics are unclean,” he said. “My people cannot touch them and live. Any man I sent after it would have to destroy himself afterward, and that is a great sin.”
The Captain dipped her chin down and glared – a look guaranteed to make any of my crew members step back, but the khan merely blinked slowly at her.
“Unclean how?” she growled.
The khan laughed.
“Lady, they worship fire like savages! What other example could you need?”
The Captain nodded, but her grimace told me she mistrusted him as much as I did.
Nonetheless, she agreed to go. We sent Vitya and Katiusha back to the Little Horse – none of us would want to go to strange lands without our two bears. Boris groaned when we told him the plan, while Dimka rubbed his hands together and bared his teeth. But we bunked early and set off with the dawn, following the khan’s maps, riding the khan’s horses.
The color of the land changed from warm gold to mud brown as we trudged, and the air stank of rotten eggs. Hills eventually wrinkled the horizon, from tiny to enormous, many of them with gently sloping sides, some oddly sharp at the top, like the conical ceramic cooking pot Vitya had picked up.
We climbed into the hills, and whiffs of brimstone puffed at us on the wind. As we crested one bare hill, mud pooled all around us. Some of the pools burped and bubbled. Steam rose off one; Timur dismounted and leaned out to hold his hand over the muck.
“It’s warm,” he said, “like a month-old shit pile.”
We all leaned over at that, to feel the gentle warmth rise over our fingers.
“It’s a marvel,” Gala said. I agreed.
“An ugly, smelly one,” Dimka replied.
The land was strange: large, bare hills rising abruptly out of the ground. Some of them had mud spilling out of them like the collapsed lip of a candle. Others of the bubbling mud hills were small, knee high or even puddles in the ground. Around this plain of reeking, hot mud were more regular-looking hills, green but treeless, covered in boulders.
The maps sent us up and over the green hills – a rough climb, slow going for the horses. The hot sun rolled quickly across the sky. Up over the line of boulder-strewn hills the land grew steeper and rockier, brown as the mud plain. Every sound was made louder by the tall rock walls, and once or twice we saw lumpy human figures carved into the rock.
“I don’t like it,” Gala said as we climbed. This made us all stop.
Natalya Efraimovna turned back with a sharp look, then nodded. She moved forward again, until one side of the path opened into a small meadow grown with scrubby brown grass, flat enough for us to sit in a circle. We each drank a few swallows from our flasks.
After a breath and a drink, the Captain gestured at Gala, who blinked and ducked her head. She is our quiet beauty, like a lynx – shy and preferring to run but ferocious when she must fight.
“We had fire-worshippers in my village,” she said, and I remembered that she was born in the south Crimea.
“They are devout people, scholars and warriors. They reckon it holy to feed the poor, to work hard, to treat all people with honor and kindness. It troubles me to steal from such folk.”
The Captain nodded.
Dimka spouted, “But they’re heathens!”
“Their religion is strange. But to them, good deeds are holy works. Whatever they believe, all of them in my village were good people.”
Natalya Efraimovna frowned at the grass for a moment.
“It would bother me too, to steal from good people.”
“Even though we are pirates,” Timur said, and I had to grin at that – me, the Captain, Boris.
“Even so,” the Captain said, and Timur’s eyebrow twitched in his own subtle smile.
“We’re a very hypocritical sort of pirate,” she said, and I hid my laugh behind my water flask.
Timur nodded as if she’d just spoken wisdom. Gala very gently cleared her throat.
“We’ll watch them,” Natalya Efraimovna said. “If they’re honest and reasonable, perhaps we can find a solution other than thievery.”
Gala bowed her thanks.
Our brief rest made the rest of the climb seem even steeper. We followed a path that wound through the rock walls, filled with loose stones and just shy of vertical. My legs burned from holding myself forward on my horse, and Dimka in the back threw a stream of curses back down the mountain behind us.
After another hour, I smelled smoke, and soon after that, whiffs of brimstone. We dismounted and set rocks on the horses’ reins, then crept along more slowly, crouched down. Above us, a group of large boulders stood side by side. We snuck up behind these and peered around them.
The ground dropped away abruptly into a valley like a bowl. At the bottom of the shallow depression was a cluster of stone buildings. A jagged line of fire ran along the ground and disappeared into the domed building at the center. Several fire pits had been dug in the courtyard, and each one was alight. Dark-robed figures moved in and out of buildings.
I looked at Gala, who frowned down at the scene.
“This doesn’t look right,” she whispered.
The Captain pointed out a route, running unevenly behind large rocks, to take us closer to the people. She unbuckled her red coat and laid it on the ground, then pointed at me, Gala, and Timur.
We snuck up behind the rocks, and the stink of the place grew stronger – brimstone and rot. Gala scowled mightily.
Several dark-clad bodies moved around the place, some with a strange gait. As I moved closer, one shape resolved itself into a man with his head held at a twisted angle. Another held one arm curled up toward his chest.
I was too close – I might be seen at any moment, but those twisted shapes lit my curiosity afire, and I snuck forward behind boulders and dry little bushes, until I was hidden behind one of the rock huts of the temple itself, peering at the people wandering about.
Then I got close enough to see, and I wished I hadn’t.
Each man shuffling across the courtyard was disfigured by scars and burn wounds. Patches of their robes were dark with ooze. Some of them wheezed like charcoal burners. Once I saw them, my eyes wanted to retreat from them. It was like looking at a leper colony. I turned to the Captain, and her face mirrored my own horror. Who would leave such people out in the wilderness? Who would abandon wounded folk, declare them unclean, and send mercenaries after them?
Natalya Efraimovna waved for retreat, and we made the long, slow crawl from rock to rock, back up the hill to where the others waited.
“The khan is a monster!” Gala whispered furiously.
At the raised eyebrows of the crew, I briefly told them about the walking horrors we’d seen. Dimka crossed himself. We sat for a moment in consternation, shaking our heads.
“So… it’s a hospital?” Boris asked.
That made me scratch my head. Hospital was absolutely not the right word.
“No,” Timur said. He could pitch his voice softly enough not to travel without having to whisper. It was like a lover’s voice, and we all listened with pleasure when he spoke that way.
“Not like a hospital at all, and not like a leper colony either,” he said. “Did you see anyone helping them? Or even caring for one another?”
I had not considered it. Gala shook her head. I had so focused on the men’s injuries that I hadn’t noticed what they were doing. I thought back but remembered nothing that would suggest a hospital. I couldn’t remember any of them even speaking to one another. One had set wood in a fire pit. Several had walked (limped) across the courtyard. I shrugged.
“It’s odd,” I said.
Natalya Efraimovna nodded. “Very odd,” she said. “It bears watching. I don’t want to go in blind or do something stupid.”
At the Captain’s wave we moved farther back into the trees. I called a supply check. We sent Timur back with the water flasks to fill at a likely stream. The rest of us stared sadly at our small collection of bread heels and half-chewed sausages.
“Can’t risk a fire or a hunt,” the Captain said. “Pull your belts in a notch and be ready for a hungry night.”
The sun was behind the mountain; we sat in the bluish gloom of the forest and looked down at the dark puddle of the temple in the valley, punctuated by the fire pits in the little courtyard.
Dimka, Boris, and Gala crawled down the hill to watch until moonrise. They took the water Timur had left and half the food. The rest of us snuggled into the forest floor to sleep. Natalya Efraimovna set her back against a tree, staring down the hill at the temple. After all our years together, she should have known better. I tugged at her sleeve. She waved me off, but I kept tugging. She slapped my hand; I grinned at her, caught a good hold of her coat, and pulled until she laughed softly and let me haul her up. I made her lie down facing the forest and laid myself back-to-back with her for warmth.
“All right, grandmother,” she said with a smile warming her voice.
“A first mate’s job is to keep the crew in line.”
I felt her laughter against my back.
Timur would never dishonor himself by waking his crewmates just for returning from an errand. He has the lucky ability to wake himself just when he wants to: the sky was still dark when I woke to his hands squeezing my shoulder and a chill at my back.
“Was she still asleep?” I asked him in a whisper. Or, rather, in a futile attempt.
“I was, grandmother,” Natalya Efraimovna said from the darkness behind me. I saw the reflected flash of Timur’s smile.
We shook the dreams from our eyes and made what scant meal we could. Once our bellies would stay silent, we stretched the cramps out of our legs by creeping toward our fellows. As we inched down the hillside, the men at the temple had lit even more fires: the small fire pits that burned during the day were barely visible against the brighter light of a large fire at each corner.
When I was just past halfway to the large rocks behind which I’d crouched that afternoon, a shadow shaped like a man resolved itself in front of one of the large boulders. The figure walked out toward the darkness, and I held my breath. The man had a torch in his hand. He approached the knee-high wall just inside the boulders. He lowered the torch to the wall. A line of fire ran along the wall from either side of the torch until it connected at the back and the temple was surrounded, lit nearly as bright as daytime.
I found Boris behind one of the rocks. We muttered into one another’s ears as we watched the shapes mill around in the courtyard.
“I would’ve been better off trying to get drunk on holy water,” he said.
I patted his arm, and he reached up to squeeze my hand.
“Things are looking up now,” he said.
The courtyard was filling up. I looked around and saw the Captain and Dimka behind a boulder near where we crouched. She caught my eye and jerked her head back – that meant the rest of the crew would stay behind us in the dark. She waved at me; Boris and I crouched and slunk our way to her. Boris is the size of a draft horse without being half so graceful. He struggled to move quietly, but I flinched at every scrape. I thought he must look like a mountain lurching by.
God turned the fire-worshippers’ gaze away from us, and I sweated with relief while Boris mopped his own face with his sleeve.
The men in the courtyard were busy – some gathered in the center, some formed a ring about them. Above the whisper of the fire running along the wall, I heard them chant, but I couldn’t understand the words. The men chanted louder and louder, until the ones in the center kindled a huge fire and the voices cried in a huge shout. The fire was twice as tall as I, at least. Heat from all the flames rolled out even as far as the rock that shielded us.
The men began to dance, spinning and leaping awkwardly, toward the fire and away. They chanted individually in a chaotic murmur. They danced closer and closer, until they whirled right up to the flames and away.
When the first of them caught fire, they shouted again. The man did not scream, or run, or even fall sensibly to the ground. He spun in a circle with his arms held high, and the flames on his sleeve soon went out.
The next man approached. He burned for longer, dancing all the while. My gorge rose as his step faltered while his lower legs burned. It must have been only a moment, but that jerky, uneven dance was enough to make me want to throw back every meal I’d ever eaten.
I stopped watching and shuddered whenever a new shout went up – a third, a fifth. Too many. I could feel Boris shaking as he watched. The scent of roast pork reached us; I clapped my hand over my mouth while the Captain crossed herself and invoked the protection of the Virgin. I took her cue and let my prayers close my ears to shouting, my nose to the smell, my mind to the memory of the burning figure, until I felt Natalya Efraimovna’s hand on my shoulder.
“They’ve stopped,” she said.
I saved myself no upset by not watching the dance. I peeked around the rock as a particularly twisted shape – one of the men with his head pulled down to the side – stepped in front of the fire. The others sat on the ground in front of him.
Only a few words were sent to us by the wind, but we understood none of them.
The men bowed to the fire. I crossed myself again, just for comfort.
The central figure spoke again, a short speech in a powerful but scratchy-sounding voice.
The men bowed.
A new figure stepped into the light, wearing an unstained robe, walking straight and firmly. He had something in his hands, hidden by distance and shadow. He approached the figure at the center.
The priest asked the man a question. Our time in Baku had taught me enough to understand the answer.
There was another question, another “yes.” More back and forth, until one of the questions was followed by a pause. The man in the clean robe shifted his weight back and forth.
The priest repeated the question in a sharper tone.
The man paused briefly, then nodded. “Yes.”
The priest gestured, and the man hesitated again, then slowly bent to place the object he held on the ground in front of him: thick, rectangular, brown with glints of metal. I grabbed the Captain’s arm, and she nodded. It could be the book, and what luck to have it set right in front of us.
The priest gestured again and spoke sharply. Again, the man hesitated.
When the priest shouted a question in an angry voice, the kneeling men shifted in a way that should have made the new man nervous.
“Yes,” he said again, then lifted his feet one at a time and stepped up onto the book. Strange thing, that.
The priest called out a short phrase. The kneeling men shouted.
Another call, another shout.
The priest sang out a long phrase. In the midst of a wild response, the priest lifted the torch from the ground by the huge fire behind him and lit the new man.
The man burned. He struggled to stay still, he struggled to stay silent. He was successful at neither, but it was long enough that bits of him dripped on the holy book we were to acquire. I again choked back bile as the man’s control broke. He shrieked and fell into the dust, thrashing until the flames went out and he lay sobbing and glistening in the firelight.
The priest cried out again, a sound of triumph, and the crowd shouted. The priest leaned down and grasped the burned man’s arm. He moaned.
The priest called out over the shrieks of the burned man, his sharp cry when the priest dragged him off from on top of the book and kicked it aside.
“Blasphemy,” Boris whispered.
Two men carried the burned one away while the rest cheered. During the noise, Gala crawled up to us from the darkness at our backs. Her face shone with tears.
“This is a perversion, Captain!” she whispered with a sob in her voice. “A perversion! We can’t stand by and let them! We must – ” she wept, and Natalya Efraimovna gripped her arm hard.
“I agree,” she said. Gala swallowed and nodded – mastered herself.
The cheers quieted. We turned back to look.
The priest spoke again, and at his signs and whistles two men dragged a struggling, naked third into the firelight. They held tight to his arms, which were shiny with old scars and pulled in toward his body. One leg was withered and twisted, and his head had hair only on one side.
The priest spoke, and the naked man screamed and struggled harder.
During his next speech, the priest picked up a small kettle from the ground, dipped his hand into it, and smeared the contents on the man’s arm. To the man’s continued shrieks, the arms straightened and turned smooth. I couldn’t think for shock – all of us were completely still behind our rock as the man screamed and fought until he was fully healed. Even the bald side of his head looked healthy, as if it might sprout hair at any moment.
Then the fire worshippers turned their backs on him and he staggered out of the temple still sobbing aloud. We pressed against the boulders and held our breath as he passed us, but he stepped off into the woods.
One does not expect to see such a marvel in the midst of so much ugliness. The khan’s holy book still lay on the ground.
The fire worshippers began to dance again. This time, instead of trying to set themselves alight, they merely whirled and shouted. After a few minutes, they passed jars around to one another. They would drink deeply, then spin toward the fire and spit out streams of the liquid, which would catch fire in bluish balls that flamed in the air, then died. Gala gripped the Captain’s wrist.
“Like vodka!” she said. Natalya Efraimovna nodded.
“Let’s keep waiting,” the Captain said.
It was like vodka. The men made their liquor flames, cheering, but their even more awkward dancing made clear that they were also getting drunk.
We waited. In the east, the sky was ever so slightly gray, and the fires collapsed down into embers. Many of the worshippers had fallen in the dirt, and the few who remained standing swayed back and forth.
Timur would go, of course, our hunter. He, Boris, and the Captain spent a few minutes rolling their eyeballs at the courtyard, then at one another, until they came to some eye consensus, and Timur nodded. As he crawled past me, I grabbed his arm.
“The little pot,” I whispered. He lowered his chin once.
Timur found a home in each of the shadows through which he passed, so he dipped in and out of sight even though I stared hard at him. We each had a pistol or dagger ready to destroy any of the figures that might wake and threaten. Between the strain of attention and the cold, hard ground, our wait seemed to last months.
Finally, a slim arm curled out from a shadow and slid the book into darkness. After another week, the same happened to the iron pot.
Another long wait, but each time Timur reappeared closer to us, my shoulders retreated a bit from my ears, until finally he was at the wall, and we all crawled backward into the greater darkness of the night.
Up in the trees, we creaked and popped to our feet. Past the tree line, we gathered in and lit one candle to examine our haul.
The book was wet with human grease. Gala unwrapped her head scarf and covered the book with it. Her head tripled in size from the mass of her hair, and she grinned with us, even if she did drop her chin and look away.
“Let’s try that stuff,” I said.
The salve smelled like good green herbs and felt like animal fat. A dab of it tingled, then healed a little raw spot on my hand from trying to grip the ground. It itched, then felt tender like any new skin. Dimka crossed himself, but for us, this was the treasure of the night, no doubt.
Tired as we were, we climbed quickly back down the mountain, stopping only to wash our faces and hands in a stream and fill our water flasks. Near the stream, we found the body of the healed man. He had pounded his own head to jelly on the rocks. I emptied my guts all over the ground, and we left him where he was. It felt like bad luck even to think of touching him. Our shadows were short when we returned to the hot mud pits. Natalya Efraimovna called for a rest. After the mountain, it seemed a luxury to sit on the ground with my back against the strangely warm mud cone and doze.
What a bedraggled band crawled back to the khan’s palace. We were so soot-blackened and filthy that the horses didn’t want to carry us, and the guards at the gate sneered their disgust. But we had treasure wrapped in a cotton scarf and eyes too heavy to flash at impertinent servants.
We walked through the hallways toward the khan’s meeting room, watching servants scurry ahead of us, each of them in richer clothing the farther along we got. Once a man in very fine silks tried to herd us toward our quarters, but the Captain scowled at him and we bunched forward. The man stumbled backward a dozen or so steps before he gave up with a deep breath and walked beside us.
Word had spread – of course – enough that the khan waited for us on his couch, surrounded by curious faces. A knot of men with small white caps on their heads stood to one side.
The Captain walked straight up to the khan and held out our filthy bundle. A servant took it and unwrapped it, careful not to touch the book with his bare hands. When the stained, reeking leather was finally exposed, I was astonished to see the khan’s carefully wry expression crack. It was as if his face slid down itself. His sadness aged him by a decade, and tears stood in his eyes.
“Sheikh,” he called, and gestured toward the men in the white caps. The oldest of them walked forward; anger and sadness fought for space in his expression as he gazed at the book.
“Can anything be done?” the khan asked.
The holy man’s lips pressed tight together. Then he nodded, sighed, and the anger went out of him.
“Yes, great one.” The man glanced at the Captain.
“We will sink the book into a river, where God’s waters will wash its unholiness clean. With water and prayer and God’s will, this evil will be undone.”
The khan nodded, looking slightly less sad at the news. He gestured to the holy man, who took the rewrapped bundle from the servant. The holy man nodded at us, then left with his fellows.
I could not have imagined a less likely scene. Put the book in a river? I looked over at Gala and saw that Boris and Dimka were also staring at her. She nodded, and we shrugged at one another. It would be good to get back to Russia, where the customs made sense.
After a few minutes of silence, the khan roused himself, his ruler’s expression fixed firmly again on his face.
“You have done as you promised,” he said, his smooth baritone mingling with the lighter voice of his interpreter.
“You have brought the holy word of God home to us, where it can be healed of its indignities.”
The khan went so far as to nod his head at us. He held out a hand, and an attendant with so glorious a mustache that he must be important stepped forward and placed a small carved box into the khan’s hand. He opened the box and stared at the contents briefly, his mouth rueful. Then he turned the box.
It was perhaps the first instance in creation of bar tales not exaggerating. The ruby may have been only as large as the fist of a delicate newborn, but it was the color of pomegranate seeds. It sat atop a pooled chain of gold and smaller rubies.
“Please come forward, Red Maiden,” the khan said in lilting French.
I didn’t know whether to back away in surprise or jump forward in front of the Captain. This resulted in a ridiculously large startle. The khan smiled at me. I prayed the French was a guess and not yet another foreign lord who knew about the Captain’s family.
Natalya Efraimovna walked forward, and the khan spoke to her softly while his people bristled as much as we did. He handed her the box, and she stepped back.
The khan switched back to his own language and made a long speech, during which the journey and its terrors caught up to me, and my eyes started to cross with weariness. Some time before the year was out, the speech was over, and we stumbled back to our rooms. They had wonderful baths in Baku, with huge pools of hot water and scented oils, towels big enough that even Boris would be able to wrap up in one. Gala, Natalya Efraimovna, and I sluiced and scrubbed until we were clean enough to climb into the pool to soak away the past two days. Before long, Gala was sleeping with her head tilted back over the lip of the bath with her mouth wide open. Dear thing.
“Do you think they’ll let us keep it?” I asked the Captain in a soft voice.
Natalya Efraimovna grimaced.
“I had just convinced myself that I was being stupid to worry about that,” she said.
“It seems suspect, though, doesn’t it? That we fetched a book from some perverts and in return have this treasure?”
I could only shrug at her. Natalya Efraimovna frowned at the surface of the pool for a few minutes, then climbed out. I let Gala sleep a while longer.
Even if he planned to kill us all and put the ruby back in his treasure room, the khan did us the kindness of sending dinner to our rooms. The whole crew lolled on cushions, with wet hair and pink cheeks, alternately dozing and eating.
The Captain’s worry infected us all overnight, prodding us awake with the sun. For once, the Captain’s worry was needless: the khan sent a pretty-voiced servant to wish us a long and ostentatious farewell, a handful of soldiers escorted us to the shipyard, and we were in the air, easy as that. It wasn’t until the last towers bent under the horizon that I really relaxed.
Summer was ending, and we had chased every rumor in the south. Heading across Siberia in the autumn would doom us to winter spent in Kitai or (worse) Vladivostok. The Little Horse was too small to risk the blizzards of the steppes. So the Captain pointed us north and west: back to chill air but familiar territory.
Here again, the prophecy gave us luck. We hadn’t been in the west even for a month when an idle chat in a bar in Tallinn resulted in a young man saying, “Oh, you should talk to my great-grandfather! He has a ridiculous story about magical shoes.”
I bought him another drink, and the following afternoon (once the young man’s head had recovered from his night of drinking with pirates), we followed him to a farmhouse on the edge of town. It was a tidy place trimmed in carved scrollwork, perched next to a field planted in vetch. Paavo, the young man, led us into a bright room and toward an old man sitting by the hearth.
The old man sat straight-backed in a tall wooden chair, though his face had collapsed in on itself, mouth and eyes nearly lost to wrinkles and irises the milky blue of opals.
Natalya Efraimovna sat on the packed-earth floor at the man’s knee. She laid her palm on his leg, and he patted her hand.
“Have you a story for me, Grandfather?” she asked him in a voice far gentler than her usual tone.
“I have many stories, Granddaughter,” he said, his consonants mushy from lack of teeth. “Which one would you like to hear?”
“Tell me about the shoes, Grandfather.”
The old man smiled wide in the gape of the very young and the very old.
“That’s a good story,” he said, “because it’s true.”
The young man snorted from the doorway; I glared at him. He shrugged and turned to go.
The old man patted Natalya Efraimovna’s hand again.
“No matter what they think. It’s still true. I’m a Finn, you know, not even a Russian. I was born in a village near Kurtti, far north, among the Saami. Up where the summers are short as breath and a misery of biting flies and mud. We lived with reindeer, in felt and leather tents in the summer as we followed the herds. In the winter we penned them away from the wolves and lived in houses like civilized people.
“The stars are closer at the top of the world, Granddaughter. And on cold nights, the Virgin shakes her mantle, and the sky ripples like cloth.”
“I’ve seen it, Grandfather. It’s very beautiful,” Natalya Efraimovna said, still in that soft voice.
“Ah, so you know about magic, then,” the man said.
The Captain’s eyebrows rose, but she only said, “Yes.”
“Then my story about the shoes is not very interesting. It only seems amazing to ignorant folks.”
“Because the shoes were magic?”
“Oh yes. I remember being a small boy, fidgeting by the fire when some old man was speaking” – he laughed – “and my mother threatening to send me to Kurtti, where they’d put me in their magical shoes to stand still forever.”
He laughed to himself again, far gone into the past.
Natalya Efraimovna leaned back; the old man grabbed her hand at her movement, but even as she clasped his fingers, she frowned at me. A child’s tale? Not promising.
“But are you sure they actually had such magic shoes, Grandfather?” she asked.
“Oh yes, oh yes,” the old man said. “Magic shoes in Kurtti. My mother used to threaten me with them.”
Natalya Efraimovna sighed.
“How do you know they were real? Perhaps she was telling you a tale to make you behave.”
The man frowned into an even deeper mass of wrinkles.
“No, not possible. I saw them once.”
We both sat up sharply.
“When did you see them, Grandfather?”
“When I was older. Old enough to disbelieve my parents, but nowhere near being a man. Three of us crossed the river, late in autumn when the water was low. We crawled all the way to Kurtti on our bellies.”
His voice trailed off.
“And you saw the magic shoes?”
“No, not the shoes.”
Anger flowed across Natalya Efraimovna’s face like a wave, but she kept her voice soft. Her free hand was clenched tight.
“So they didn’t really have magic shoes, then?”
The old man thumped their clasped hands on his knee twice.
“Listen to me, child! I didn’t see the shoes, I saw the man wearing them!”
“What?” her voice was sharper than before, and the man cackled.
“Now you’re interested. I can tell. I’m not just an old blind man with a silly tale.”
Natalya Efraimovna shook her head and laughed a little.
“Grandfather, your ears are as sharp as my knife blade.”
The old man laughed in return.
“But no sharper, I’d bet. You jingle like a soldier.”
“Or a pirate,” she said with a grin.
The old man raised their clasped hands and shook them.
“Even better! Those reindeer fuckers in Kurtti always did need to be taken down a notch. Going to steal their treasure, hey?”
“Only if it’s worth stealing, Grandfather.”
“Worth stealing! Of course it’s worth stealing! Didn’t I just tell you?”
“No, you didn’t.”
The man gaped at her briefly, then broke into loud, high laughter that spread around the room.
“I am a doddering fool,” he said at last and wiped his face on his sleeve. “Forgive me, child.”
Natalya Efraimovna’s grin was strained with irritation, but she squeezed his fingers.
“You crawled across the river,” she said, and the man’s expression brightened with remembering.
“Yes. Two friends and I, on an autumn day when the ground was cold enough to be firm but before the snow. We slithered to the edge of the village, intending to throw rocks or steal eggs. It was a game between our villages, all the children.
“But that day we heard a man, screaming and crying like an infant. To hear a grown man carry on like that put all thought of egg-stealing out of us. It made my belly churn like rough water. He was sobbing and begging to be set free.
“We couldn’t listen to it without seeing. Unnerved as we were, we were boys, foolish with curiosity. We crept around the outside of the village, to where the shaman’s hut sat, at the edge. There was a large stump outside – a huge old thing that made a good target for our rocks. We used to laugh when the gangly old man would run out and wave us off.
“The crying man stood on top of the stump. He kept pulling at his legs and begging to be let go. Once or twice he even started to fall, but he caught himself and sobbed harder. It was when he fell that I realized his feet were stuck to the rock. No matter how he pulled or leaned, his feet never moved. We ran back to our village and told all the other children – the magic we’d been threatened with was real. You never saw such obedient youngsters after that.”
The old man laughed, and Natalya Efraimovna’s eyes shone.
“It’s perfect,” she said.
She kissed the man’s cheek, and he blessed her.
We flew north, toward the ceiling of the world, closer and closer to the top. This close to autumn, the air at flight level was so cold that the bags could barely keep us aloft.
Chasing rumors, following the overgrown tracks of folktales – it made us feel like pirates from drunken stories. We sharpened our knives and loaded our guns. Two treasures lay in a little wooden casket in the Captain’s cabin. What form would this one take, and what would be our cost?
We saw no sign of life, even though we must’ve been close.
“Dead fish on ice,” Dimka said. “We should’ve seen something by now.”
The village of Kurtti was nothing more than a cluster of hide-covered conical tents and reindeer herds. The bright colors of the Saami clothing were the only relief from grey lichen, dim sky, brown hide both living and tanned.
I could see Timur and Gala scowling at one another. This was a poor place, not a warriors’ camp. The Captain frowned down at them. The Saami were gathering on the ground outside their houses. They stared and pointed up at the Little Horse wearing fear on their faces.
“Devil take them,” the Captain said. “Put us down. Hold all fire.”
We flew down. The Saami cowered around their houses. Dimka dropped the anchor rope to begin tying off. Once the first line was secure, we all followed, leaving the rope ladder down. If the Saami rushed the boat, Vitya and Katiusha could fend them off long enough to cut the lines. But these people looked unlikely for it.
We clustered together by the lines, staring at the villagers, who crowded together and stared at us. The Captain fair quivered with irritation. Finally she exhaled a great huff and marched toward the center of the village. The rest of us jumped after her.
The villagers shrank away – too few of them for the number of houses. As we passed the first clump of them, we could hear a small child crying inside somewhere. No one approached us or met our eyes.
At the center of the village stood three people: a youngish man, a grey-haired man, and an elderly woman, all wearing bright-colored tunics banded with ribbons and with high decorative collars. The woman’s collar was hung with bits of gold and beads.
Where were all the people? And how could such a pathetic village own a great treasure?
Our welcoming committee eyed us as if they wanted to run in the opposite direction, except for the old woman, who not only would clearly not be able to run but seemed as if she might try to beat us all with her stick like my old granny. Or Natalya Efraimovna with a hangover. Chilling.
“We have nothing for you to steal,” the woman called out when we were still thirty paces away.
Natalya Efraimovna stopped and held out her hands, palms out.
“We have no desire to steal from you, grandmother,” she said.
The old woman scowled even more threateningly.
“Then why are you here? You look like pirates.”
The younger man twisted his mouth in a sour look.
Dimka’s hands creaked on his belt, the sound of a fight about to commence. I reached for my pistol butt. After a pause, Natalya Efraimovna laughed.
“We’re both, and still we come only with questions.”
All three of them stared their disbelief. The Captain stood in her biggest swagger, hand on hip and feet planted wide apart.
“I’ll ask the most important one first. Do you still possess a surprising pair of shoes?”
All three of them nearly jumped from their skins. When she recovered, the old woman’s eyes were narrower than ever.
“I thought you said you were not here to steal,” the woman snapped.
“Indeed not. We have gold on board, fabrics from Azerbaijan, and a barrel of salt. We came to buy.”
The grandmother opened her mouth; then a woman’s voice cried out in one of the houses, followed by sobs, then a man’s weeping. The three Saami looked toward the sound, and the young man shifted his feet. I found myself fidgeting in sympathy. These people were in trouble. Strangers and pirates were the last thing they needed.
Gala evidently agreed. She pushed past the Captain, her beautiful dark eyes wide.
“What is the matter here, grandmother? Can we help?”
The two elders stared at one another briefly, until the Captain said, “It’s obvious that there is trouble, and we wish you no harm.”
The woman nodded. Off to our right, the two people continued to wail.
“It is a sickness,” the older man said after a pause. “You should not stay here, because it is catching.”
“What is the sickness?” Gala asked him. “A fever?”
The man shook his head.
“Like nothing we ever saw before,” he said. “Sores appear on the skin, and they will not heal. It isn’t the sores that kill but the rot.”
The young man’s face turned very red.
“It takes months,” he said.
My head suddenly itched, and I scratched it hard. The Captain was scowling at the ground. Then Timur elbowed her in the side, Gala turned with a pleading look on her face, and I remembered.
The Captain nodded.
“We have something that might help,” she said. Gala ran for the ladder.
She brought out the little pot of magic salve from the fire worshippers and the trio led us into the crowd of huts, toward the weeping voices. The old woman’s shoulders were straight and proud, but the young man hung his head and walked as if he carried a large rock. Boris kept one hand on his knife hilt, and of course Timur would notice everything.
The place stank of neglect. Many houses had loose or missing boards on their low, steeply angled roofs, or broken stairs in front of gaping doors. I looked into one of these, letting the group pass me by. The dark space was cluttered: despite the missing door, the owners’ belongings had been left in their places. As my eyes adjusted, I could see bowls and cups on a low table, even folded clothing on a bench, dust barely obscuring the embroidery. One rectangle on the floor was lighter than the rest, just the size for a nest of blankets and furs for an adult to sleep in. But that rectangle was bare. I crossed myself at the emptiness of it: no one even to disburse the possessions of the dead. That meant no one to mourn.
An angry shout echoed through the open doorway, and I jumped at it. May Natalya Efraimovna never know how I clutched at my pounding heart as I pelted in the direction of the sound, toward the still-shouting voice.
Timur, Boris, and Dimka stood outside one house with the older man, my friends scowling and the Saami looking as if he’d much prefer to be pulling the balls of a reindeer buck with his bare hands. The voice inside the house was a man’s, talking fast and loud.
“What’s going on?” Dimka asked after a moment, in a whisper loud enough to hear in Tsarskoe Selo.
The man paused only a little.
“He doesn’t want to use the thing on his mother. She’s close to death, and he doesn’t want her harmed further.”
Dimka snorted. “What’s the harm if she’s practically dead anyhow?”
The man’s face turned red. I stomped hard on Dimka’s foot and received a curse for my trouble.
“Try it on someone else,” Boris said. “Is there anyone with the early sickness?”
The Saami man’s eyebrows went up, and he called into the doorway in their language. His comment made the shouts inside quiet down.
The quiet lasted for a week. I’d have given up my boots to go in there. Our little crowd jostled at the doorway, trying to look into the dimness inside.
A woman’s voice cried out, followed by the woman herself barging out of the doorway into the sunlight, staring at the pale, unmarked skin of her arms as if she had never seen herself before.
She called back into the house, her speech quick and excited.
“She says it works,” the man with us translated, his eyes wide.
Another man climbed through the low doorway of the house, his dark-blond hair unraveling from braids and his face red. He had an ugly, blackish sore on one cheek.
The woman turned to him and showed him her arms, still speaking quickly. He reached out and touched one arm with his fingertips. The young woman kept speaking in short bursts, and she did not appear to notice the tears running down her face.
Gala, the Captain, and the old woman also emerged from the house, the old woman looking as surprised as the young one. Gala held the small pot of ointment out to the man, who hesitated, then dipped in one finger and rubbed his cheek, flinching.
We had seen what the stuff did to our wounds back in Azerbaijan. The Saami man standing with us jumped like a grasshopper when the sore on the younger man’s cheek paled, shrank, and healed.
The old woman spoke just a couple of words, and the eerie quiet of the village was broken by the bustling of the young couple and the two men who had met us. Saami limped and crept from seemingly nowhere, most of them with visible sores and some with red, swollen joints. They took small, careful bits of ointment from the little pot. They wept and laughed when their skin healed, when their elbows and fingers shrank to normal size.
We did not save everyone. The granny in the first house was too far gone, as were others. But one small girl who lay stinking of rot in another house was made whole and smiled at her mother. Dimka must’ve crossed himself a hundred times before I kicked him.
“Someone has to thank God for this,” he grumbled. “These heathens won’t.”
I kicked him again for good measure. But I could hardly harangue him for how often he wiped his face on his sleeve – my own was damp.
Before the late summer sun had set, every villager was healed who could be. The old woman brought a small bark bowl, and Gala carefully scraped out several more globs of the ointment. Only a little was left in the pot, but no matter. To have much of it would only make some of us (Dimka, Boris) foolhardy. Better to use it for angels’ work.
“You brought us a miracle, pirate,” the old woman said, her face opening into a smile that webbed her face and showed off worn teeth. It made her look like a proper granny, and I liked her better.
I liked her better still after she handed the Captain a pair of fur-cuffed slippers that shone with embroidery and metal. The older man shouted, and the faces around us parted into smiles. Hands pushed us down onto low stools or reindeer hides, and the tiny remainder of the village cooked us up a feast: roasted meat, dried meat soaked into stew, cheese, and reindeer milk.
My eyes kept leaking at the sight of them hugging one another, dancing, pressing endless gifts into our hands. They were probably the belongings of the heirless dead, but that doesn’t make me treasure my bone knife any less. It has a carving of snow geese in flight over a pine forest.
Natalya Efraimovna sat with the old woman and the young man who translated, talking quietly around their meal, presumably about how to use the shoes. The party was starting to settle in the weak sunlight of late evening when the young man sat up and shouted at the old woman, even though she was practically in his lap. The Captain leaned back, and I know I was not the only person whose hand drifted toward a weapon.
The granny laughed. She opened her mostly toothless mouth and howled like a drunkard whose friend has just fallen in a privy. Tears ran down her face, and she wheezed. The young man stood up and yelled at the villagers, who gaped, and then the party got very wild. Hands pulled at us until we joined a whirl of bright color, brighter smiles, and happy-sounding phrases we couldn’t understand. Some of them took up an echoing, yelping sort of song. And wonder of wonders, after a few minutes of that, Timur started to sing. He apparently carries magic in his throat – it was like and unlike the Saami’s singing, but they gathered him in among outstretched arms as his voice tumbled into depths, then took flight like birdsong.
When I was allowed to collapse to the ground in exhausted (happy) confusion, I found myself next to a grinning Natalya Efraimovna. A few dark strands of hair stuck to her shiny face.
“Miracles abounding, Mate,” she said to me. “Can you guess who laid the sickness on these people?”
I could not.
“The Snow Witch herself!”
“The very unholy wretch.”
She shrugged. “Some business with a daughter of the village. The blood roared in my ears too loudly for me to attend it. But the Witch it was, and they know where she lives.”
She lay back on the ground, hands behind her head, grinning up at the pale night sky.
The party ended in a general wearing down, and when we woke, the Saami loaded us down with reindeer meat, with cheese, and still more of their beautiful tunics. We gave them the barrel of salt.
We had our treasures, our destination. We flew home to Petrograd to prepare.
Once there, after half a day in the bath house and another half snoring on couches, the Captain sent word that she was taking the treasures to the nuns of the St. Veronika. I ran to her house to escort her, happy that a first mate’s lot is keeper of the gossip.
“What will the nuns do?” I asked her, and she grinned at my nosiness.
“Consecrate them to the good Russian Church,” she said. “The Snow Witch is as pagan as these objects.”
When I understood it, this was yet another reason why I am mate and not captain. It was too sly for me.
“So you hope to make them even stronger weapons against her?”
Natalya Efraimovna nodded.
“If they work at all.”
That made my stomach drop several inches.
“I guess we’ll know once we find her and see whether everything runs to triumph or to shit,” I said finally.
Natalya Efraimovna laughed and thumped my shoulder. She was with the nuns for four days, and she returned with the quiet smile on her face that she always wore when she spent time with fine people. That smile had always made me sad, because I did not like the thought of her being sundered from her people, but I liked even less the thought of her being unhappy with us.
But when she said that the robe, necklace, and slippers were now holy relics of the Church, I could see her long plan nearing its end. For the first time, I could picture her tying the Little Horse down a final time and leaving us behind for her quiet smiles and fancy rooms. Back among the nobility, where she belonged.
This thought was end-of-day tea from the bottom of the samovar: long steeped and so bitter that any sweetness is overwhelmed. I closed my lips around the thought. But Dimka fixed us all several days later when he said, “Once we’re done, do you think the Captain will go back to princessing, like they do in all the stories?”
Gala and Vitya visibly sagged; Katiusha looked as if she might cry. Boris looked to Timur, who stared at me, and his expression for once was not inscrutable but instead very sad. After a pause, the entire crew was gazing at me, and I felt as sick as any of them, but I had no luxury to indulge it.
“God doesn’t tell us the future,” I said. “All we can do is wait for her boot heels to wear out.”
That was a bad time, the waiting. The treasures gathered dust and the crew gathered forebodings; all the while, the Captain spent her days walking and her nights in fancy parlors none of the rest of us could enter.
I joined her sometimes on her wanders, when her scowl was not too deep. But I never dared ask her how her boot heels looked.
For weeks, ages, we waited. The air in our rooms grew stale with frowns. One afternoon, the late-summer rain was so heavy that it kept Natalya Efraimovna indoors with us. She paced, her boots clacking on the edges of the room, quiet on the carpet. Vitya and Timur played a half-hearted game of chess.
I was dozing and missed what happened – something at the samovar. Dimka knocked over Gala’s tea glass; I jerked awake at her cry and the shatter of glass. Gala cursed him, and Dimka raised his hand as if to slap her. She clenched her jaw, but Boris was too quick and wrapped his hand around Dimka’s upraised wrist.
That was the end of the tea things and of the sideboard. The table would survive but be maimed forever, and I docked their pay to replace three chairs. Two large men can fair destroy a room in less than three minutes, which was the time it took for me to stop gaping, jump up, and get in a few blows to knock them out of their fury. Dimka caught me across the face before he could stop himself, and that was enough to deflate both of them. They backed away from one another, panting and bleeding. Gala fetched me a damp handkerchief and led me to a safe chair to wait for my eyes to uncross.
Natalya Efraimovna stood at the side of the room, tight fists at her sides, with storm clouds all over her face. Her glare seemed longer than the fight; Boris and Dimka leaned from foot to foot and stared at the floor like naughty children. Which was not far off.
Then the Captain heaved a great sigh.
“Saints bless it,” she said. “We launch day after tomorrow.”
Relief made us work like mad folk. With less than two days to provision for a flight of unknown duration, we needed to, but we lifted into the sky in the afternoon of the appointed day with songs on our lips.
We sailed the skies until late autumn, taking enough loot to set ourselves up as monarchs in the Levant. Then, in a quiet moment, just as we were sailing peacefully up the Dnieper, a crack echoed across the deck, and the Captain stumbled at the wheel. When she recovered, she stood crookedly, and her face flushed. Her old scar from our fight with the Horde nearly disappeared.
“My Captain?” I asked. Natalya Efraimovna never stumbled.
She looked down at her boot. The metal heel lay on the deck.
To a sailor, we held our breath, staring.
Natalya Efraimovna looked down at the floor. She picked up the cracked boot heel.
“Masha,” she whispered.
“Yes, Captain,” I said.
She lifted her eyes to my face, and her dark eyes glowed.
“Maria Valentinovna!” she said.
“Set course for Novaya Zemlya!”
She stripped off her boots and threw them to the floor as the Little Horse echoed with cheers.
That night, she took the boot heels and crowded into the engine room with Boris and Timur. They stoked the fire up high enough to make me nervous, so I stood outside the doorway with Dimka, each of us holding a bucket of water. But it didn’t take her long to turn the heels into something more useful.
We flew always north, into colder air and shorter days. We burned up fuel and soared low above the ground, bags wrinkled. Once we crossed over the narrow bit of sea to Novaya Zemlya, we unpacked the biggest spyglass and took turns peering through it, looking for our quarry. We flew in long spirals up the coast, then farther inland, and finally found it: a long dark line against the snow, just a couple hours’ flight ahead of us.
We deflated the aft bag and tore a hole in it (how Dimka howled to wound his beloved lady!) and limped along at crazy angles until we came to the fortress, black stone against the unrelieved white of a snow field. We strung up the distress flag, and after a few minutes a safe-passage flag rose beside the mooring mast. It was the devil’s own work to bring the Little Horse in and tie her up safely.
Once we were secure, a voice shouted up from the mooring platform.
“Ahoy!” Female. I leaned over the side to see a dark-skinned woman in furs staring up at us. She had a long, hooked spear – the kind they hunt whales with up in those far northern parts.
“We’re the Little Horse,” I yelled down.
The woman grinned.
“It’s really the Red Maiden, then?”
“She’s more than welcome, as are you. But all the men have to stay on board.”
“Our ship’s at thirty-five degrees! They’ll have to lash themselves to the rails just to sleep!”
The woman’s smile vanished, and she set her cruel spear forward.
“That’s the rule. We will assist you, but no man sets foot on this ground.”
I looked at the Captain. She scowled but shrugged. She looked at Timur, who nodded.
We left the men on board. We five women took every weapon we could carry and descended our rope ladders to the Snow Witch’s fortress. The Captain carried the little wooden box of treasures under her arm. I struggled not to stare at it and to look as if I were not actually sweating rivers under my clothes.
They welcomed us with black bread and juniper-spiced vodka, the dark-skinned woman and two others. Once the welcome words were said, the two new ones immediately asked about the ship.
“It was my own stupidity,” the Captain said. “We were hunting reindeer, and we swung too low. We hadn’t seen anyone for weeks. Damn Saami arrows came out of nowhere. We’ve been limping in circles ever since.”
“It’s no trouble to repair the bag,” the blonde said. “We don’t have inert gas, though. You’ll have to make do with flammable.”
“God save you,” the Captain said, and all three women flinched. “You have my thanks.”
“We’ll have you fixed by nightfall,” the spear-carrier said. “But will you stay the night? My mistress is eager for new company.”
As we walked down the long ramp, the two women were already shouting up for the torn bag. The cogs were turning.
Inside the black stone building, it was dim, warm, and stinking of magic. There were women everywhere, dressed as servants, some as soldiers. Some in fine, sheer gowns who walked as if they dreamed. When we saw the first of these, Katiusha crossed herself, and all the nearby women stopped and stared.
The Snow Witch met us in a long, narrow room. She sat in a huge chair, and it seemed as if we had to walk down a long hallway, staring at her the whole time.
Behind the chair was a huge bed on very tall legs, and beside it a thick golden stand set with jewels. The gold falcon drowsed on this perch. The Captain glanced at it only once, with an expression of disdain.
“I have heard tales of the Red Maiden,” the Witch said. Her voice was like warm honey, and echoes of her words crawled around the corners of the room. No wonder the place reeked of spells.
“If there are tales you want to hear from my lips, I hope it will repay you for your kindness.”
The Witch leaned forward and smiled. She looked like a dream, all colors of winter – pale skin, silver-blonde hair, and pitch-black eyes.
“Tales of a woman pirate who brings male ruffians to their knees? Payment indeed!”
She clapped her hands, and a line of women carried in low tables and cushions. They brought steaming bowls of scented water so we could wash our hands and faces. The linen towels we dried with were as soft as down. The cushions were silver, dark grey, silk and velvet.
The meal lasted for hours. We might well have been in the Rising Seas back in Petrograd. We boasted. We laughed. We lounged, and from our lips our own adventures became legends.
We toasted ourselves, over and over, and through it all, the Witch laughed with us. The Witch drank. We toasted her, and she drank more, until she gave a great yawn. I glanced at the Captain, whose hand tightened briefly on her glass.
“My friends, you have given me an evening such as I have not had in a long time,” the Witch said, her language slurred.
“Will you leave us tomorrow?” she asked, sounding sad.
The Witch sighed and plucked at the jewels of her cup.
“And my crew must rest.”
The Witch’s mouth made a pretty little moue.
“But if you’ll permit us, my first mate and I will stay.”
The Witch smiled, and all was well. Gala and Katya returned to the ship. The Witch waved her hand; sweets were brought, and more vodka. We leaned back on our cushions. The Captain watched the servants go in and out, bringing food, taking away one of the tables. When the last of them had left, the Captain said, “Are you all woman-lovers, then?”
The Witch’s eyebrows rose, then drew together, and she smiled.
“Some of them are, surely,” she said. “They have no choice. The magic that drives this place would be shattered if a man’s foot touched the ground.”
“Interesting,” the Captain said. “But if one is not a lover of women, why create such magic?”
The Snow Witch frowned.
“It is my mother’s magic,” she said. “My mother’s law.”
“Oh, is she here?” I blurted, then hoped I hadn’t ruined it all.
The Witch shook her head.
“No, she died long ago.”
“Ah,” Natalya Efraimovna said, sounding sad. She glanced at me, and I was comforted. “That must be lonely for you.”
“For many long years, I found it so,” the Witch said.
The Captain nodded.
“Yes, I suppose it makes sense that eventually one would get used to it. That must be a comfort.”
The Witch laughed with a sound like pure silver sleigh bells.
“My friend, you do not understand! I found a way around the spell laid here. I need never feel lonely again.”
The Captain leaned forward. I tried to school my face to show only polite interest, but my heart thrummed.
The Witch gestured to the golden falcon on its stand.
“My pet here is the scourge of his own skies, as you are of yours.”
The Captain waved her hand.
“What of it? It’s a fine bird, I’m sure, but I know nothing of such sports.”
The Witch leaned forward.
“But what do you know of other sports?”
Her black eyes reflected the candle flames.
“The sports of love?” She gestured to me. “Or are you yourself one who would envy living here?”
I have seen the Captain slit a hamstring for less. Her frown was mighty.
“I am not a woman-lover,” she said. “They call me the Red Maiden accurately.”
Oh, she was a beautiful liar.
This time the Witch frowned, though she still leaned forward eagerly with those flames shining in her eyes and her hand gripping her cup.
“Have you vowed yourself to holiness,” she asked, “or do you fear what you have never known?”
The Captain slammed her hand on the table; the Witch flinched.
“I fear no man,” the Captain said, and one who did not know her would take her brusque tone for anger. “But I am the Red Maiden of Petrograd, Captain of the Little Horse, killer of the Khan of the Horde. What man could match me? I have never met my equal.”
The Witch gazed at the Captain, measuring, then stood.
“My friend, I will give you a gift.”
Natalya Efraimovna leaned back onto her cushion and gestured at the table.
“Another? You have already done me much kindness, to repair my ship and host me thus.”
“I will give you a night never to forget. I will lend you the caresses of a man to equal you, and the fire of the memory will warm your bed forever.”
We were so close to our goal that it took all I had to sit still on my velvet pillow, wearing a drunk and addled expression.
The Witch lifted the falcon from his perch and set him in the center of the large, high bed. She raised her hand and spoke a few strange, beautiful words that spiraled around the room.
On the bed, the bird glowed, and the glow expanded like dawn sliding over the horizon until we had to shield our eyes. When the glow faded, a man sat in the middle of the bed.
He was as golden and fair as the Captain is dark: gold skin, hair like the dawn sun, finely muscled, and every inch of him – for he wore no clothing – finely made.
The Witch turned to us with a satisfied smile. The Captain’s face was pale. Her eyes stared and her mouth hung open.
The falcon-now-man stretched, then smiled at the Witch. It was like sunshine breaking through clouds.
“For… me?” the Captain said in a hoarse voice.
The Witch laughed, sleigh bells again, merry and bewildering.
“For you, this one night. Isn’t he magnificent?”
For half a minute, my heart thudded in my chest while the Captain stared. Would all our protections hold?
At last, at long last, she shook her head as if remembering. She picked up the little casket and stood.
“I meant to give you one of these, to thank you for aiding us,” she said, “but now I think I shall give you all three.”
She pulled out the slippers.
“These are from the treasure of the pagan Saami of Lapland.”
The fur cuffs gleamed, and crystal spangles twinkled like stars. The Witch clapped her hands, threw her brocade shoes into a corner, and put the slippers on.
The Captain drew out the robe, and even in the midst of all her finery, the Witch’s eyes widened at the beauty of it, gold and silver woven together and embroidered with hundreds of small, winking gems.
“This is from the treasure of the Golden Horde.”
The Witch put the robe on and stroked the sleeve.
Finally the Captain drew out the necklace, a waterfall of gold and rubies.
“This is ancient treasure from the Scythian tribes of the Caucasus, where women rode as chieftains. I received it from the hand of the khan of Baku.”
She laid the jewels across the Witch’s neck and fastened the clasp, then turned the Witch to her and kissed her cheeks.
“You look resplendent.”
Then the Captain walked to the high bed and stared at the falcon, who lounged stretched out, staring at the Witch interestedly. The Captain sighed.
“By the boots of St. Basil I bind you,” she said, carelessly, as if bored.
The Witch gave a little squeak, and she almost lost her balance as the slippers locked her to the floor. Her expression twisted into rage, and she drew in a large breath.
“By the trumpet of the archangel Gabriel I bind you,” the Captain said, now staring at the Witch, whose mouth and eyes grew wide with shock and outrage. She moved her hands, and the air became thick and hot with magic.
“By the mantle of the Virgin, you are bound!” the Captain yelled, and the sleeves of the robe pulled the Witch’s arms to her sides. She could only stand and grimace at us.
The Captain turned back to the falcon, now kneeling on the bed and reaching for the Witch but silent in his distress.
“And you,” she said, “Maxim Efraimovich Kuzmin-Obolensky, I tell you I am your sister.”
She grabbed his outstretched arm and pulled him to the floor.
The cracking sound was just the same as when her final boot heel broke. The fortress shuddered, and the Witch’s mouth made an O of soundless rage.
Magic fell off the falcon, and he was simply a man: a handsome, naked man, but a little gaunt. He looked up from the floor.
“Natashenka?” he said in a rough voice.
The Captain pulled her brother into her arms. She unbuckled her red coat and bundled it around him. The building shuddered; dust fell from the ceiling.
The Captain passed her brother to me. He was little taller than she was, and he shivered under the coat. I put my arm around him.
“Don’t you worry, Prince,” I told him.
The Captain loaded a ball into her pistol – slowly, casually, as if the building weren’t preparing to fall down around us.
“Three pairs of iron boot heels,” she said, and the Witch’s face now showed real fear. “What was left from the pieces was more than enough to cast a bullet.”
Natalya Efraimovna took her time to aim and shoot the Witch between the eyes. The body sagged awkwardly, arms still stuck to its sides and feet planted on the floor.
The fortress crumbled in earnest now. We dragged Maxim Efraimovich between us, dodging ceiling beams and chunks of rock.
Women were everywhere, some running, some shrieking, some milling around dazed. None of them paid us the slightest attention, but I shouted at them anyway to get out, that the spell was broken, to go home. Some of them followed us after that, or at least ran off with intent.
At the doorway to the long ramp, the dark-skinned woman blocked our way with her spear. The Captain was tangled up with her brother. I drew my long knife.
“Please take me with you,” she said in a high, quavering voice. I took a step forward with my knife.
She dipped the spear point to the ground, and tears streamed down her face.
“All right,” the Captain said, “just hurry.”
The woman kicked open the door. We ran up the ramp and scrambled up the rope ladder like monkeys. Maxim Efraimovich was slow and awkward – the Captain and the dark-skinned woman dragged him up. I shoved three more women up the ladder before the platform started to rock in earnest. I didn’t so much climb the ladder as stand on it while Dimka, Boris, and Timur hauled me in.
The Witch had not deceived us as we had her: our bag was repaired and inflated. We set the engine going and sped away. The lines of women leaving the fortress looked like ants on the snow.
When the building finally fell, a great dust cloud rose into the air, obscuring the dawn.
There had not been many times that I felt the burdens of first mate: Natalya Efraimovna was an involved captain. But during that flight back to Petrograd, she left the Little Horse to me and spent all her time with her brother. Even when he slept, she sat with him and stared down at his face.
He was shy at first, being unused to speech or company. But our joy – and his sister’s – at his delivery won him over by degrees until he laughed with us at mess and even hauled a line or two.
The dark-skinned woman’s name was Anfesia, only daughter of a tribe wiped out by Russian trappers. The Witch’s magic had kept her the same age for many years, so she had no family, and life on an airship fascinated her. She drank Boris under the table our second night out and quickly made a home with us.
The other three would clearly not stay. One tried to be helpful but mostly only got in the way in the galley. All three of them had been house servants. They huddled together in a heap much of the time, at least out of the way.
After six days, we tied ourselves to a mooring mast in Petrograd. We were home.
We stuffed into the throne room: our crew and several others – the Nevskii, the St. Veronika, and the Wind Biter at least – boyars and ministers. We pirates were crowded like peasants into the back.
The doors opened, and a voice called out the Captain’s full name. She and her brother stepped forward. He looked like the hero of a folktale in tall, gleaming boots, breeches white as the Virgin’s soul. His jacket practically disappeared under epaulettes, fringe, and gold bullion. There were sighs both high-pitched and low at the beauty of his fine face, curled hair, and glossy golden mustache. Even the Little Mother on her throne stared at him with delight.
But my eyes – and I’ll warrant those of any sailor on the Little Horse – could not stray from Natalya Efraimovna, who looked as none of us had ever seen her. Her wild black hair hung down her back in a tidy maiden’s braid. Her sarafan was pale blue embroidered with silver, and the high white kokoshnik on her head shone like snow under moonlight with all its pearls. She was the moon to her brother’s sun.
But most startling of all was her face. It did not wear her usual scowl, or even the rare fierce grin that could be bloodthirsty or triumphant. Instead, she smiled – a simple, happy smile.
I was ashamed of how my belly sank to see it.
“Imperial Majesty,” the Captain said after they had bowed before the throne, “let me present to you my brother, Prince Maxim Efraimovich Kuzmin-Obolensky.”
There was the voice we all knew – the voice of a victorious, well-fought battle.
Maria Pavlovna spread her hands and blessed the Prince and the Captain (or, rather, I suppose, the Princess).
“We are delighted that you have been delivered of your enchantment, cousin. We welcome you home.”
And we cheered and wept for the lost prince come home. Me, I mostly wept. Then it was up to the nobility to celebrate. The crew and I went to The Snow Goose to toast our Captain’s happiness and drown our own sorrows. At least we could bury them in silk kaftans and rings for each finger. I didn’t begrudge Natalya Efraimovna’s happiness at finally bringing her brother home. It was really what we fought for, all those years.
But the thought of staying home in my safe bed to spend gold instead of sailing the skies to get more stole the savor from my bread.
We drank to Natalya Efraimovna. We drank to the prince. We drank to the Little Horse, to treasure, to ourselves. Then we parted ways, to go home and lie on our couches until they stopped bucking like colts and let us sleep.
Some time later, when the windows were still black reflecting glasses, I awoke with a pain in my side, as if someone had nudged me with a boot tip. Had I left a candle burning?
“Masha,” the familiar voice said, and my guess about the pain turned out to be correct.
“First Mate,” she said, thrusting her face and the candle into my line of sight. The gentle, unfamiliar smile was gone. Here was her fierce grin, the one that promised worlds of trouble. My heart beat fast to see it.
“Call the crew, Maria Valentinovna,” she said, stepping back with the candle held high and one fist balled on her hip. The light flickered on her curls and the metal buckles of her red coat.
“Prince Maxim will have expenses,” she said with laughter in her voice, “and I intend to see that he can pay them.”
Virginia M Mohlere owns too many fountain pens and heckles her members of Congress on Twitter. She fills her notebooks with scratch paper, which is totally confusing when she uses old drafts of her own work. She talks to trees. Sometimes they answer. Her work has been seen in Cicada, Mythic Delirium, Strange Horizons, and Luna Station Quarterly, among others.