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Outside, the greyness of the city bids us a sulky farewell. I turn into a bird and follow Jaro as he makes his way through the busy streets. He is carrying a heavy parcel secured with a rope, and he wouldn’t tell me what’s inside.

“What’s this secrecy?” I grumble. “I will find out eventually, won’t I?”

“Yes,” Jaro answers cheerfully, and I know it’s no use for me to keep asking.

It’s a long walk. I force myself to look around a little, trying to commit to memory as many details as I possibly can.

We pass a coffee shop. In its tall window, we see chocolate cookies and lemon pies and fluffy raisin pancakes. A woman walks in, letting out an avalanche of smells—ginger, cinnamon, vanilla, caramel, and a variety of other delicious scents that I don’t recognize.

The look of all these pasties alone makes me hungry, but their smell almost drives me mad. Of course, for me, hunger is not the same as for the living, but it’s just as real and nothing in the world can ever sate it.

The flowerbeds are not yet emptied for the winter, still vivid, still fragrant with late summer flowers—red and orange and yellow chrysanthemums—like girls all dressed up for a ball, each trying to look prettier than her neighbor. Their beauty is almost enough to chase away the greyness of the day.

Who knows, I might not come back... The thought scares me, but you might’ve noticed by now that pretty much everything scares me, so yeah, no surprise there.

Jaro is silent and tense. It’s like a personal rainy cloud is following him around, perching comfortably on his shoulders. But this tension somewhat melts away as we make our way through the city. It feels like crossing a threshold, like closing the door behind you. Resolute.

While the center of the city is elegant and fashionable, with all its tiny boutiques and restaurants under the brightly painted signs, the outskirts are busier and faster and louder. We pass through the gates of the high-town and dive into the chaos of the market area. Horses and donkeys, carriages and carts are everywhere, and for a moment I’m blinded. So fast! So noisy!

There are stalls everywhere and they all sell different things, seemingly without any order. Here, a butcher with red meat and poultry. His neighbor is a foreigner with some overseas jewelry, sparkling in the scant sunlight. Farther on—a woman with caramels shaped like birds and a huge casket of sugary water to wash it down.

Beggars, sitting in the mud, grab at Jaro’s cloak.

“A coin, kind sir?”

But of course, we don’t have anything to spare, so Jaro walks past them, stepping just a little faster.

At first, I think we’re making our way towards the main gates, but Jaro moves through the crowd, delving deeper and deeper into the market area. I fight the panic that is rising inside of me. I tell myself that the confusion will pass, that I will get used to all this mess soon, very soon—any moment now I will feel better! I stop looking around and concentrate my attention solely on Jaro, trusting him to lead us.

After a while, it becomes apparent that he is not just walking around. He is looking for someone, peering into the faces of the merchants.

“Who are we looking for?” I ask.

But he’s too distracted to answer.

“He should be here, he said he’d be here…” he mumbles to himself.

“Who?” I ask again.

He turns around.

“Ah, there he is!”

He points towards a somewhat quieter alley, and I see a covered wagon parked at the curb there. Jaro heads towards it, and I follow, curious. As we approach the flaps at the back of the wagon part letting out a man. He is around forty and has the kind of look you expect from a man who spent his life on the road.

“Huh,” he says, seeing Jaro. “It’s you! I thought you ain’t coming.”

“Well I told you I’d come, didn’t I?”

The man chuckles.

“Oh, you know how these things are. Boys want to run away one day, then they sleep on it, think about it, and they change their minds. A smart thing to do, too. If you ain’t sure you want this, you better turn back now.”

“I am not some runaway kid.”

“Of course you’re not. So did you bring what I told you to?”

“Yes.”

Jaro unwraps the mysterious bundle and I can’t believe my eyes.

“You dolt!” I exclaim. No wonder he didn’t want to tell me!

It’s a rifle and a long-bladed knife sheathed in a leather scabbard. Both seem familiar. Those are my grandfather’s weapons. Jaro must have found them in one of the chests in the cellar. I can’t believe Nora still keeps those things. She inherited everything our family-owned, of course, but most of it her caretakers disposed of.

The man scratches at his chin, thoughtfully.

“Have you robbed an antique store or something, eh, kid? The knife will do. And what’s that? A hunting rifle? Let me see.”

Reluctantly Jaro puts the rifle into his waiting hands. The man examines it.

“An old model, but a good one. A weapon like this desires a better target than those lands can offer. A Listerian work, isn’t it? I assume you know how to put it to good use?”

“I do.”

“Splendid. You’re hired then.”

“Aren’t you going to—I don’t know—try me?” Jaro asks receiving his rifle back.

“Oh, I’m sure you know full well what you’re getting into and that if you aren’t qualified enough, you ain’t getting out alive. The Steppe is a dangerous place. If you can’t handle yourself there, you’re screwed. So if you have any doubts, please, do me a favor and piss off now.”

“What exactly are we going to hunt?”

“Just wildfowl. Nothing special. But it’s going to be a long expedition. We’ll spend ten or more days in Steppe, so be ready for that.”

“Ten days!”

“I’m not paying three pieces a day for nothing, boy. But you’ll find that I’m a good superior. I’m fair and honest and if you do everything I say you won’t regret working for me. Deal?”

“Deal,” Jaro says quickly.

“Right then. So we’re leaving in an hour or so,” the man nods at the wagon. “Put your things inside, then help me load it. Chop-chop.”

I’m not sure if I like the man or not.

“Who is this guy?” I ask Jaro when he gets inside the wagon to store his things under a low bench. Inside the covered wagon is a cramped space under a waterproof canvas. The wooden boxes and weaver baskets are all locked tight. It smells funny, too, but I don’t know what that is.

“A hunter. Heading to Horta. He agreed to hire me as his help and in return, we can travel in his wagon. You didn’t think we’re going to walk all the way to Horta, did you? I have to disappoint you—caravans don’t go into the wilderness. And we still don’t know the exact location of the town. It wasn’t repopulated. It’s empty now.”

“Why didn’t you tell me about it?”

“You would’ve objected.”

“You bet I would’ve! Do you even know how to use that gun?”

“I’ve practiced a little.”

How Jaro manages to do stuff without me ever finding out is beyond me.

“Does it still work?” I ask dubiously.

“Sure it does,” he grins, and then adds, gently, “This is going to be dangerous. But we knew it from the start.”

Jaro helps Steel with boxes—carries them and loads them into the wagon. He is a little nervous, a little impatient, and one of the boxes falls to the ground with a sharp sound.

“Hey!” a girl’s voice calls out. “You, boy, be careful!”

“Sorry, miss,” Jaro apologizes quickly, turning around to face her. “Oh… Errr…. Hello.”

She is small and skinny, dressed in brown trousers and a loose grey shirt instead of a dress. But her clothing isn’t the most remarkable thing about her.

For a second I think that she’s wearing a mask. The kind of masks actors put on when they portray monsters or personify an illness. The ugly kind.

But it’s no mask. It’s her face. She has lovely blue eyes, clear as the sky in the warmest, sunniest day of summer. Her lips are coral-red, plump and small. But the upper left side of her face is red and distorted—a bulging scar that pulls her skin to one side.

Jaro’s just standing there, gaping. Finally, after perhaps a few long seconds, he offers her his hand.

“I’m Jaromir,” he says. “You can call me Jaro.”

She hesitates but then takes it.

“Anya,” she nods at the hunter, who is busy with horses. “I’m his niece.”

Anya… I like the name. The directness of it fits her well.

“And are you… are you going to travel with us?”

She chuckles.

“No, Jaro. It’s you who is going to be traveling with us.”

“Riiight,” Jaro smiles. “Well, I humbly thank you for having me, miss. I’m looking forward to this journey.”

“Don’t be,” she says. “Believe me, there is nothing to be excited about.”

 

* * *

 

Jaro’s journal

Great grandfather Marek’s rifle is a thing of art. Its stock is graceful and decorated with complicated intertwined patterns. There’s a tiny silver figurine sitting under the trigger. It looks like a wolf or maybe a fox—I can imagine great grandfather touching the figurine with his thumb for luck before going on a hunt.

 

The hunter’s name is Steel. His dark skin bears many marks. His dark eyes bear many shadows. His dark hair is cropped close to the scalp and reveal some ugly twisting scars. I also notice a tiny hole in his ear, but no earring in it.

He is a foreigner, obviously, and from the Listerian desert no less—the land that lies far beyond the Steppe, and is pretty much the same for me as “the far side of the world”. Trying to imagine it is like trying to imagine the Gods’ Realm – something so completely beyond my understanding it’s overwhelming. I wonder what could cause a Listerian to end up in the Empire.

The way to Horta takes approximately nine days. The road passes several minor towns, and in each town, Jaro’s job is to unpack the goods and to show them to the customers.

Anya writes the income down into a large black book. As we approach a new town, she puts on a thick grey veil, similar to those Listerian women wear—perhaps, even thicker. I doubt she can even see where she’s going wearing that thing. But…

“My face is bad for business,” she explains plainly.

Steel’s merchandise gives me the creeps: bones and feathers, beaks and talons, dried bird hearts and serpent tails and whatnot. All these animals come from the Steppe, and some people believe that everything that comes from the Steppe is magical somehow.

Anya is a witch, apparently. She uses those bones and feathers to make ugly amulets and cooks the hearts and the tails to make nasty concoctions. She pours them into dirty bottles and adds macabre labels like “Ivory Kiss Potion” and “Bitter Desire Elixir” and “Scarlet Scale Brew”.

Jaro likes it though. These potions are the closest thing to magic that he’s seen so far. In his enthusiasm, he even calls people up to the makeshift stall, “Kind sir, could I interest you in some white serpent elixir? It’s great for the joint aches! Lovely madam, would you like to try our bone powder? Does wonders to the complexion!”

Customers seem to sense his fascination with the wares, and so they draw near and sample and taste and smell. And then they buy. Jaro barely leaves them any choice.

I don’t think Steel has realized what a nice bargain it was, hiring the boy.

Two days into our slow journey we stop by the river to spend the night. The surrounding land is bumpy with thin patches of huddled trees here and there. Steel hides our fire so that some late-night traveler wouldn’t see it from the road. We don’t need a company. For a merchant, a company means trouble.

The night outside the city takes my breath away. I forgot what night sky can be like. In the city, the stars are duller, smaller. But here, they shine like tiny fire-spirits, furiously, as if in a rush to spend all the light in their bodies until dawn comes to chase them away. And the sky… it’s so dark. Dark and deep and cold. I love it, but it cares nothing for my love, and then I love it even more.

Jaro and Steel are sitting by the fire. There is a rabbit, impaled on a spit over it. Fat hisses softly as it drips into the hot coals and the smell of the roasting meat is… heavenly.

I don’t remember ever liking meat when I was alive, but now I would kill for a bite of that succulent rabbit. But then I hear something, and the hunger is almost forgotten.

Sobs. Somebody’s crying their soul out in the dark.

I listen for a few seconds, unsure of what to do. I remember the sobbing ghost that nearly drained me of all my strength, and I have an absurd thought, “What if it followed me here?”

But of course, it isn’t possible. She is bound to that abandoned grave and she wouldn’t have the strength to travel.

It’s someone else then.

Well, it’s not your business, Kara, says the voice in my head, the reasonable one. Remember what happened when you tried to help that ghost? You still feel her touch on your skin, don’t you?

I do. But this is no ghost. I can tell.

In my bird form, I follow the sound, and it leads me to the bank of a shallow stream.

Anya is sitting on a rock, her feet touching the water. She is holding her veil in her hands and uses it to wipe the tears from her cheeks. She looks fragile as if she is made of thin glass. I have never seen anyone cry like that. It’s like she’s collected her tears for years and now finally she lets them spill.

She, of course, won’t see me, so I get very, very close, without fearing to alarm her. But as I do so, she suddenly lifts her head, and I gasp and drawback.

She looks at me—through me—and her bloodshot eyes are hollow. The emptiness in them reminds me of the ghost in the graveyard, but it scares me a lot more. It scares me because it doesn’t belong on the face of a living human being.

I dash back, to our roasting-meat-smelling camp, my wings beating violently against the chilly evening air.

“It is not your concern,” my reasonable voice chants. “Not your concern. Not your concern. There are many unfortunate souls out there, so what? You can’t help them.”

No, I can’t. This is true.

How can I help her? I can’t even help myself! I should think about our mission, not some random crying girl with a scarred face.

I go back to Jaro, and perch on his shoulder.

“What’s wrong?” he whispers.

“Nothing, I’m fine. I’m fine. Everything’s fine.”

I almost say “fine” a few more times, but catch myself in time and shut up.

Jaro shrugs and doesn’t pry. I wish he had though. I would’ve told him if he’d pressed me just a little. But he doesn’t and I don’t, and so Anya continues to cry for some time and when she comes back to the camp, she face is hidden under the veil and unreadable.

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Asa Artair

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