Ardent and awaiting and quiet, Ana stretched her sore limbs and dried herself off with a towel. Her hair had grown just enough to be a little bit unwieldy when she was trying to dry out again. She took care to put on her second-best shirt – the white, best one would be for tomorrow. The air felt cool on her skin, and she massaged her calves. It had been a long day of deliveries. At this point she was fairly certain that she was doing more legitimate deliveries and courier services than surreptitious ones. There was a thin line between the two in Blackwood, but she knew that she wasn’t ferrying guns or opium or anything of that sort. If any crime was being committed, it might have been tampering with the mail, and that was only a minor felony. She was fairly certain that there weren’t any real cases in the Koletya yet – it was a relatively new charge, after all.
No, what worried her were the guards. She and Edam both had seen the signs put wherever there was free space. She felt lucky that whatever artists they had hired were quite hasty and poor in their portrayals, and that they got her last name wrong. That, combined with the fact that they were still using an old haircut for both of them, was liable to keep them out of trouble. Still, it seemed that they had less been in the calm before the storm and more in the brief stuttering stop in the thunderstorm where the rain peels away and the dark clouds only deepen. Then it would start again with twice the ferocity and all the great light and fury of a summer storm, blasting apart trees with its gales and bolts of lightning and tearing apart anything in its path. The guards seemed to pour in greater numbers and stronger bravery than before; no more grizzled veterans who knew well that Blackwood had no use for them and would swallow them whole, given even half a chance. No, now she saw the fresh-faced men, soft men, men who were barely more than boys, men who looked like the hungry, haunted types that came from Blackwood itself. They were redoubling the efforts to find her and Edam, and that worried her. This felt like the first of a series of moves on the part of the Church.
She tried not to think about it. She slowly went out to the street, looking both ways to see if she was being watched, before dumping out the dirtied water and preparing to fill the bath again in preparation for Edam to come home. It was odd, spending hours without her now that they had been so close together. She had to admit that Edam had seriously dove into the work of conning the living daylights out of some antiquarian, and had doubled down by plotting to have her steal what she had sold him. It was, in her opinion, a desperate play; but these were desperate straits. She forced the rusted hand pump down again and again to fill up the bucket that she took up to the basin where it sloshed darkly. Down to the pump again, and back to the basin. It was meditative, in its way, almost but not totally like a prayer. All the while, Seonya quietly toiled away in the kitchen, carefully preparing the night’s meal.
Eventually and inevitably Edam returned, as Ana had expected. It was hard, though – some part of her feared that one day she would not return, snatched up by the guards. She knew in all odds that it wouldn’t happen. Dzhate had her watchful eyes everywhere, and if there was any threat to either of them she was liable to intervene on their behalf. She looked exhausted, sweating pooling on her brow and chin. Ana immediately embraced her.
“Is it done?”
Edam nodded and grinned weakly.
“For tomorrow? Absolutely. A few minor adjustments might be needed, but it’s ready as it can be.”
She sniffed at Edam.
“You need a bath.”
“Rude,” said Edam.
“Rude!” Concurred Seonya.
“Would my lady be interested in the cool bath that I have already prepared for her after her very long day working with hot metal in the summer?”
“Good recovery,” commented Seonya, “Before long you’ll be charming every high-class woman in the city.”
“Stop writing in the margins,” Ana sniped back.
Edam snorted and smiled.
“I would love to. Thank you for thinking of me.”
Ana softly put an arm around Edam, and guided her over to the washroom. It was much smaller than even the one at Sol’s small tenement. The cramped room left nowhere for Ana but leaning on the wall, watching as Edam undressed bit by bit. First Ana took her bonnet, then her dress, and then her underwear. Ana couldn’t help but admire her a little; the gentle curve of her belly and the delicate black-brown hair there that lead up to her navel. There was an intense desire in her to touch her bewitching, beautiful woman; this woman who had invited her so close. She refrained from doing so. She knew that Edam was still sensitive to touch when it wasn’t very much on her terms. Edam looked up at Ana as she stepped forward into the bath.
“What are you staring at? Haven’t you seen this enough by now?”
“Doesn’t make it any less pretty,” said Ana, redirecting her gaze towards the door.
Edam chuckled and rolled into the bath and relaxed, going deeper and deeper. Eventually she went so deep that her legs crested back up out of the water and twisting her spine until most of her face was submerged in the water. She looked over to Ana like some kind of strange, unnatural reptile, emerging half-formed from the water with only her eyes and the subtle curve of her calves emerging from the depths. She regarded Ana softly, and let her mouth re-emerge to speak.
“You are great, Ana. I was thinking I would have to make a bath for myself early tomorrow and you just went and made it so easy for me.”
“Any time,” said Ana, staring at the door and checking her fingernails for dirt, “I figured you’d just want a bath and a chance to enjoy yourself after a long day.”
She could practically hear Edam grin.
“I mean, I wouldn’t presume,” said Ana, “But you did seem to be enjoying me looking at you undress.”
“Maybe a little,” said Edam, soaking her hair deeply in the water, “It’s still a little bit uncomfortable, you know? Just- not that you’re uncomfortable. You’re doing so much to make me feel safe here. It’s the first time I’ve felt like I’ve had something like a home in a long while. I know you try to look away when you think I might be vulnerable.”
“I do,” said Ana.
“I’m not feeling that much tonight,” said Edam, “You can look as much as you want.”
Ana looked back. She had leaned on the rim of the basin, staring at Ana with the sort of gentle passivity. Ana rolled up her sleeves, and knelt to take the sponge from the bath.
“Would touching you be fine?”
“Thank you for asking. I think it would be. But if I tell you to stop-”
“I know,” said Ana softly, “Nothing too harsh. Lean forward, hummingbird.”
She obliged, and Ana soaked the sponge deeply before softly applying it to Edam’s scarred back. This was an area where Edam was always a little jumpy. She scrubbed it very lightly, and she shuddered.
“Sorry,” said Ana, “If it’s too much for tonight-”
“Keep going,” said Edam, “I just got a chill, that’s all.”
Ana proceeded with care. They had tried this once before, and it had ended very poorly. Edam wouldn’t admit it, but she had been on the verge of tears for being scrubbed too harshly on her back, and Ana could hardly blame her. The scars there were jagged, wild and painful to simply look at. To bear them could only be worse. She took off dead skin and the daily soot that seemed to accumulate on everything in Blackwood. How it crept beneath their clothes and into the crevices of their houses with such aptitude was entirely mundane – after all, the sheer quantity of it produced by the city guaranteed that it would get everywhere – but at the same time that made it no less mystifying or infuriating in the places it would end up.
“Shh,” she said to Edam, “You’re almost through. Sit up a little so I can get the small of your back.”
“You’re doing very well,” said Edam, “Thank you.”
She rose to meet Ana’s demands, and Ana let the sponge scrub away at the small of her back until she was satisfied that all the traces of Edam’s toil on her back had been washed into the basin. She handed the sponge over to Edam, and she sunk deeply into the bath.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” she said, half-muffled by the water, “Just thinking of you, and things that happened two days ago.”
Ana cocked her head in confusion.
“What happened two days ago? Did I do something wrong?”
“No, no,” said Edam, “Nothing of the sort. I was just walking home and- a man was following me.”
“A man. About a foot taller than me. He was tailing me. I mean, at first, I thought he was just trying to get to a similar place that I was going to, or maybe he was a wandering drunk. But he was lucid, and he was following me. For a moment, I thought that maybe he recognized me from the bounty postings.”
“I doubt it,” said Ana softly, “They didn’t look anything like you.”
“Oh, certainly,” said Edam, “Yours was definitely worse. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you wear your hair that long.”
“I think they think I’m wearing makeup,” said Ana, “Which is also obviously wrong.”
“At any rate,” said Edam, “He was following me.”
“Did you confront him about it?”
“Yes,” she said, “It was one of Dzhate’s men, apparently. Flashing my weapon and telling him indirectly that I knew her personally was enough to make him give that up.”
“She has people do that sometimes. It’s very annoying,” said Ana.
“Annoying? It’s frightening. I thought he… had bad intentions for me. Whether he was looking for the bounty or he was planted by the Church or the guards, or whether he was just after my body. I mean, I’m a young woman, obviously foreign, with no real roots in this part of the city besides you, Seonya, and Varna.”
Ana nodded sympathetically.
“I’m sorry. I can ask her to stop.”
“No, it’s good that she’s sending someone to watch over me,” said Edam, “But with the way the guards are acting lately… it made me paranoid.”
“You noticed too?”
“Mm-hm. They’re up to something.”
“Any ideas? You were in contact with the Church last.”
She sighed again as she scrubbed at her arms and chest, going just a little hard in places. The swish-swish of the wet sponge had grown harsh and grating.
“Sweetheart,” Ana said, “Don’t rub yourself raw.”
Edam stopped. Ana reached out her hand and touched Edam’s at the rim.
“I know it’s hard.”
“They were planning about making an incursion into Blackwood proper to corner you,” said Edam, “That was the long-term plan, at least. But their last contact for that, Varna, is now in the wind as far as they know, and they’re down even further on manpower.”
Ana picked up on what she was saying.
“Instead of something surgical, they’re going to try to brute force it, aren’t they?”
She had read about cases like this where witches and heresy had become particularly pernicious, or where they had particular high-value targets. Establishing such a barrier in the wild was difficult, but possible. A city’s natural barriers and borders only hastened the process of locking heretics in place. It was probably going to be a rabbit-hunt tactic. There would be the hunter at the lead – probably the member of the Order of Tattered Skin at the head – and his running dogs below him in the form of the inquisitors. Once their warren had been found they would block off every entrance and exit with their dogs, men, guns, steel, sorcery, thaumaturgy and whatever other arts of war they could bring to muster.
“A rabbit hunt,” said Edam, confirming Ana’s suspicions, “The biggest problem there is the ports. They can’t do anything about them without seriously damaging the local economy and interfering with civil law to a pretty major degree. You could probably get away with it in Agora, but here in Koletya…”
“Do as thou will, so long as thy hand does not touch the silver,” said Ana in a mock-high-class accent.
“Think we could goad them into doing it anyways?”
Edam laughed out loud.
“No,” she said, “I guess we can only hope that my cousin is an idiot. I’ve come to hate him, I’ve come to hate his ethics, I’ve come to hate his piety, but relying on him to make a very, extremely stupid move? Trying to goad him into it? That’d be harder than you might expect. He’s very good at getting what he wants and getting away with it anyways.”
“Hey,” said Ana, “Don’t think so much about him.”
“It’s hard not to.”
She shifted, and stood very suddenly, water falling off of her in thick rivulets and streams.
“I’m sorry for bringing him up,” said Ana, “I just thought we should have had this sort of discussion. I think I should have chosen a better time and place.”
“Edam, I didn’t do it right,” said Ana, with a degree of honesty and force behind her words, “I chose the wrong time to talk about this. You told me you wanted to be more comfortable around me and I went and ran my mouth in a way that broke your trust.”
Edam silently put on her clothes again, quietly regarding her. When she was fully clothed again she walked back to Ana.
“I know you didn’t mean it. I run my mouth sometimes too. Please, hold me a little?”
Ana embraced her very gently, and slumped with her to the floor.
Edam let the question hang for a moment before elaborating.
“Why do I care what he thinks? Even now I can almost hear him blathering in my ear about how I’m living in sin.”
“I don’t think I care if I am or not. I don’t care whether I’m being immoral. I just want to be safe and I want to be with you. I mean, I care, I obviously care, but I don’t want to care anymore. I don’t want to accept any of his morality anymore.”
“You don’t have to.”
“Alright,” said Edam, “I’m not listening to him at all anymore.”
“And I’m going to steal every spare kopek from that buyer.”
“And I’m going to smoke tobacco like Varna does, and opium too.”
“I don’t think we can afford that.”
“In the hypothetical, Ana,” said Edam, curling into her, “In the hypothetical I am smoking a massive amount of opium.”
Ana nodded with a small amount of concern. She decided to follow along anyway. At least Edam seemed to be enjoying herself at the thought, even if what she was describing was self-destructive. Her voice was picking up and she was clearly grinning.
“I’m going to start drinking at noon, too. And I’m going to be a messy drunk.”
“You sort of already sound like one, Edam.”
“Yeah, maybe I do, but that’s what he’d hate, right? So at any rate, I’d also have to be having sex with you daily.”
“Not that I’d turn you down-”
“Of course you wouldn’t.”
“Well, I might get a little tired of it. Couldn’t we just relax with each other like this every once and a while?”
“It is nice,” admitted Edam, “It is very nice to use your breasts as a pillow.”
She curled closer to Ana’s chest.
“You feel a little better, having gotten all that off your chest?”
“There’s more, but that’s about it.”
“Good,” said Ana, “I want to apologize again. But could we talk about the situation a little more? And I have a surprise for you, besides the bath after we talk about that.”
Edam nodded a bit.
“Alright,” she said, “Alright. I think I can talk a little more. Presuming they don’t block off the ports, what do we do?”
“Well, we could go in the dead of night, take a small craft like a rowboat out past the city limits. We rough it until the coast is clear.”
“And a rowboat would put us how far back?”
Ana whistled and considered it.
“A month, maybe. If we just borrowed it’d be a few weeks of cash, not counting the time not spent making money that we’d also be losing.”
The plan so far had been fairly simple. They wanted a new life out of the country, but to do that more than just transport had to be arranged. The cost of living in Agora was going to be higher; that meant that they’d need a windfall. Darea would be easier for her to adjust to in some ways, but every report she had heard said that the political situation there was awful on every level. Militaristic nobles, rampant paganism that the Church found difficult to properly penetrate and full serfdom and slavery – some said that Darea was Koletya’s younger sibling among the nations, and it had more than a little catching up to do in terms of its policies. There were rumors that missionaries sent there had a tendency of disappearing outright.
“And if they block the ports?”
“We hunker down,” said Ana. She sighed, “We might have to go to the streets to stay incognito. I know it’ll be hard to be without room or board, but…”
“As long as I have you,” said Edam, “I could sleep anywhere.”
“You’ll be second guessing that when your back is on the paving stones or you’re stuffed in an old barrel. Not to mention that fall is coming on quick, and it’s going to get cold at night.”
“You’re right. Getting out of the city seems like the better option. We should talk to Dzhate and Sol, though, they probably could give us some more options.”
“Thank you for apologizing. And thank you for talking it through with me. It made me feel better.”
Ana thought for a moment.
“It’s no problem. One thing though – promise that you won’t actually start smoking opium?”
Edam took Ana’s hand very gently, and a sing-songy voice replied:
“Of course, dear. I would never, ever smoke opium.”
“Good,” said Ana, “It was already enough of a scare for me to give it to you to help you recover?”
“Why? It was a small dose, and you weaned me off so quickly…”
Ana shrugged uncomfortably.
“I mean, I don’t want to get too serious again.”
“Ana, let me know. It seems like it’s weighing on you.”
She clutched Ana little closer, and stroked her cheek.
“Let me comfort you a little this time. You don’t have to tell me, but I’d like you to trust me as much as I trust you with my emotions.”
Ana sighed, and very nearly swore.
“Fine. In the first poorhouse I was in – the one where I learned to read, where I stayed until I was about seven, they told me about my mother. Not much – she had abandoned me without much of a note or notice. But they said she looked like an opium addict.”
Edam touched her very gently. Ana felt her eyes water a little. She couldn’t cry in front of her. She needed to keep her composure. So, she breathed in deep, and told her part. She could show her the gift after, and they’d both be happy, and it would all be easier. She had already fucked it so poorly by bringing up Imera at an inopportune time. She didn’t want to put more on Edam now.
“I mean, I didn’t know her or my father. Not really. I like to imagine I properly did. But I didn’t, Edam. You asked once if you wonder if the Godhead is punishing you for what you’ve done. Sometimes I wonder if the Godhead is punishing me for- for- for existing, I guess.”
“They aren’t,” said Edam softly, “They wouldn’t.”
“I know,” said Ana.
“It’s your acts that matter, Ana,” said Edam, “What you do matters. And you’re brave, and you’re more honest than most, and you’re a gentle and kind lover. And if you extend that to other people, you know, you know that theologically you are given space in Paradise.”
“I suppose. I should pray on it.”
“You should if you think it’ll help.”
“It always has helped me before,” admitted Ana, “It’s a good way to relieve myself of my pettier anguishes.”
Ana stood, and Edam stood with her.
“Want to lounge in our room for a bit instead of sitting on the floor? There’s still some time before dinner. Seonya started late.”
The two of them left the bathroom to the hot and heady scent of Seonya’s cooking – something garlicky and as well-seasoned as could be managed in a poor quarter. She was smiling, enjoying herself in silence. Edam curled into the crook of Ana’s arm as they fell into bed together, and Edam grabbed an old book that Seonya had found for her.
“So, you said you had something for me?”
Ana reached into her pocket, and handed over a personal project of her own. It had taken a weeks work, and cost her a kopek or two in terms of material, but when Edam saw it she knew she had her money’s worth. It was a little, simple bracelet, made of tough but smooth twine and some simple beads, with a heptagram as a centerpiece.
“You said a while back that you were afraid to be going out on your own. That you knew I couldn’t always be around. Now you can carry something I made for you wherever you go. It’s a functional ward, pretty decent too by my reckoning – but nothing compared to your work, of course.”
“Ana!” She said, “It’s perfect.”
She swiftly adjusted it and put it around her wrist. She looked at Ana, beaming with exuberance, as if all the heaviness of her labor had been lifted from her, and Ana was lifted with her. She smiled broadly.
“Perfect? Hardly. But it’s worth it to see you smile like this.”
Edam didn’t dignify her self-deprecation with a response, instead choosing to kiss Ana on the lips. Ana leaned into the kiss, their lips cutting into eachother and making heat rush to her cheeks. She rolled over onto Ana, straddling her and cradling her head so as to sustain the kiss; to give it life and breath of its own and keep them connected for as long as their lungs would allow. When they finally pulled away, Edam had found herself well between Ana’s legs, and had put her head to her breast. Ana gasped a bit and wiped the spittle from her lips. Edam continued to beam at her.
“Okay, no opium. But we are robbing that old man blind, understand? Let’s go over the script again, shall we?”