Ilya was deep into her family’s land after a few minutes of riding. The vast, harvested fields slid past her, chewed up and empty in the cold moonlight. Without the crops to hide her view, the lights of the family compound glowed and called to her long before she reached the first of squat houses. First she rode past the mammoth harvesters that were clustered together like sleeping beasts of burden, their folded limbs jutting up into the sky. She slowed to weave between the homes where her uncles and their families slept. She was happy to see the familiar walls made of brick and plaster, and sleepy wooden porches. The main house, built of wood and concrete, was almost as grand as the buildings in town. Ilya could see the first floor windows still bright with activity. She knew she could probably still catch some hot dinner, and after having eaten almost nothing all day, her stomach growled ferociously through the knots that still twisted there.
She turned off the motor and glided around to the back porch. Before she even swung open the kitchen’s screen door, she was greeted by the tiny radio thumping out a bass as best it could behind the pop singer’s birdlike warbling. The kitchen was enormous, taking up half of the first floor and the boys didn’t hear her over the radio as she walked up behind them. She moved past the ovens and fridges and leaned on the counter to get their attention. A couple of her younger brothers, the twins, 12 years old now, were doing the last of the dishes, their plain kurtas rolled up at elbow and soaked through from splashing dishwater. A cousin about her own age dried and put them away.
“Bochka, Chander, where is Amá?”
The two looked up from their dishes.
“What are you doing here?” Said one.
“Ha’! Don’t you have a home with your own husbands?” Said the other.
They both giggled.
“Ugh! Is she asleep already?”
Her cousin stepped in, and using his towel, flicked both boys across their rear ends. Her brothers squealed in protest. “Auntie Lyubov is still up. I just brought up her evening tea.”
She began to walk off but darted back to one of the fridges and grabbed a plastic container of some kind of stewed leftovers, still warm.
She looked up in time to catch the spoon tossed her way.
She was already digging in before she reached the top of the stairs. It took her eyes a moment to adjust to the dark hall before she could see a thin, blue light flickering from the crack under her mother’s door. She lightly tapped on the doorframe before pushing her way in.
“Come in?” Her mother was awash in light emanating from the small skrina propped on the bedside table. Sitting alone in the middle of the bed, she had a silk robe wrapped around her, her salt and pepper hair was down in two loose braids. Lyubov had yet to take her eyes off the skrina when she tapped at a console. At once the skrina faded to black, and the lamp in the corner faded in to life.
“Ilya? My rebacchka! What brings you to the house?” She adjusted her large figure and smoothed out the old blanket around her.
Ilya walked over, spoon in mouth, and sat on the edge of the bed. “Is that a new robe? It’s very pretty.”
“Thank you! It just came in the mail last week.”
Lyubov ran a hand over the gold threaded patterns that curled and weaved back in on itself down the length of the dark sleeve. The design was from neighboring Pyrthi which Ilya had seen becoming more popular among the women in the city.
Her mother was waiting for her to start, yet she felt herself floundering. Ilya chewed at a large stewed piece still in her mouth but suddenly found it difficult to swallow. Her mother’s smile quickly collapsed into a concerned frown.
“Tell me what happened.”
“He…” Ilya forced down the last chunk. “He has other names.”
Eating was a bad idea, she thought she was going to throw up, but it was only a sob that escaped her lips.
“Oh,” Lyubov held open her arms and Ilya crawled over to her. She curled up and burrowed herself in the smooth silk, letting the plastic bowl rest haphazardly in her lap.
“And a secret compartment in his suitcase.”
“Shhh… deep breaths.”
“and there’s a man who knows things about him…”
“Ilya, deep breaths…. In?”
Ilya struggled to take a deep breath.
She held it for a moment and tried to release the air as slowly as possible.
“Good. Now, start from the beginning.”
“Cael… he… took on a new patient; a foreigner. Cael says he needs help. There’s another man coming to get him.”
“To get Cael?”
“No, Alberich, the foreigner. He’s blackmailing Cael into helping him. I told him! I told Cael I had a bad feeling! But he wouldn’t listen, and the other man will be here tomorrow because of me! Why wouldn’t he listen?”
“A man is blackmailing Cael into helping Albe- berick?”
“No! Alberich is blackmailing Cael!”
“I don’t understand, rebacchka. This man just met Cael, how can he blackmail him?”
“He said he’d done his ‘homework.’ He’s going to get Cael in trouble somehow if he doesn’t help him!”
“Ilya, Ilya….” Her mother shushed and stroked her hair. Ilya tried to take another slow breath. “I am so sorry, rebacchka. I was starting to believe this day would never come.”
She took another deep breath. “What do you mean?”
Lyubov took the bowl of leftovers and set it on the console next to her tea.
“He never hid his past from us, Ilya. We went through all of that trouble to get him to our little town; we knew enough not to ask.” She took Ilya’s face in her hands and wiped her eyes. “Am I wrong?”
“No, I knew; but after three years… I guess I forgot.”
“Well, then, do you remember why we brought him here?”
“To be a doctor for the town; to be my husband… so I could learn to be a doctor, too.”
“Oh my sweet rebacchka. My sweet, sweet child; and dumb, so very dumb.”
“You have it all backwards. The job and the training? That was an excuse to get him to marry you.” Lyubov looked at her daughter, waiting for the idea sink in. “I mean, well, obviously.”
“Amá? What ‘obviously?’ I already had two husbands, AND a baby gir-WOULD you stop staring at me like that.”
“I thought you understood this.”
“So then why?”
“I knew you two wouldn’t warm up to each other immediately, but I assumed it would only be a matter of time.”
Ilya glared at her mother. “Before. What.”
Her mother grew serious. “You were able to have a child, yes. But she’s weak; so much weaker than even you were when I had you. And so many others your age these days who can’t even carry to term anymore.”
“I know this, Amá.”
“But you don’t understand why. Even those idiots in the city who take care of all of you, they don’t understand.” Lyubov helped Ilya slide off of her lap before climbing out of the bed. She picked the picture frame skrina off of the bedside table and tapped at it until she was satisfied and handed it to her daughter.
“Who is this?” Ilya looked at the portrait of a middle aged, man. He had thick skin that was a light tan, and already cracked with crow’s feet and worry lines. The serious frown of his lips was nearly hidden under a bushy mustache, and offset by a glint of mischief in his brown eyes. The square of his jaw and dense curls in his hair made him stand out to Ilya as a foreigner, though the kurta and coat he wore fit him well.
“That was your great grandfather.”
Ilya looked again with incredulous eyes.
“He was a refugee of a great war, and he was my grandmother’s only husband. Yes! And yet, I had six aunts, plus my mother, and eight uncles, almost all of whom survived to have children of their own; unheard of numbers around here.” She took back the skrina and smiled at it. “I had eight brothers and a sister. You almost had eight brothers, too.”
Her mother’s tone was light, but Ilya still felt the need to reach up and squeeze her hand. Lyubov squeezed back and sat on the edge of the bed, again.
“Do you understand now? Our family needs fresh blood, Ilya, and that takes fresh seed.”
“He Bhaga, Amá! That’s disgusting. You had me up to ‘fresh seed’… I wish you could have let me in on your plan.”
Lyubov sighed and reached for the tub of cooling stew. “It doesn’t matter now. He’s gone.”
“Gone? Amá, he’s not gone! He and Alberich are on their way here. I’m going back now with one of the trucks to pick them up.”
She sighed again, “My sweet, precious, stupid child…. He is gone! That’s why he ignored you. He knew this new man would bring trouble as surely as you did, and he WANTED trouble to come and sweep him away.”
“No.” Ilya was shaking her head.
“Ilya, think about it. You two could have just called ahead. We would have come pick you up. Ilya? It’s okay.”
“No…” She laughed at the idea. He couldn’t leave. Cael couldn’t leave her.
Before she even realized what she was doing, Ilya had crawled backwards off the bed and was making her way downstairs. Her brothers had finished with the dishes and it was only her cousin finishing up in the kitchen. He looked up as she walked in.
“I need to borrow the truck.”
They were rumbling down the road within minutes.
“I could have driven myself!” She shouted over the engine.
“A truck is not like a bike!”
The drive was only a few miles, but it seemed to be taking forever. They were nearly in the town when Ilya started panicking. Where were they? She strained to see past the truck’s head beams. Where were they? Why weren’t they on the road? Her stomach jumped to life again.
“Ilya? What’s wrong?”
“I’M GOING TO VOMIT!”
The old truck squealed and lurched to a stop as Ilya threw open the door and heaved the stew. Everything, thankfully, disappeared in a thick cloud of dust.
“He Bhaga, cousin, are you all right? Are you pregnant?”
She slowly leaned back in and closed the door but continued to hang her head out of the window. “Kiran,” she said weakly, “Can you drive me to the city?”
“The city? That’s almost an hour away.”
“An hour and a half… we have to get to the other side.”
Cael and Alberich hadn’t talked the entire car ride and it wasn’t a comfortable silence. However, as they pulled up to the floodlit docking platforms of the port, now didn’t seem to be the right time to address it. Alberich somehow got the opposite impression.
“I did something wrong, didn’t I?”
Cael left the “borrowed” auto in a dark corner of the parking lot and left the keys on the driver’s seat.
“No, you did just fine.”
“It was the money. I offered too much too fast.”
“She didn’t suspect a thing.”
They walked up to the night window; a squat metal box that held a small, balding and bespectacled old man with a long gray mustache.
“I was too anxious to leave.”
“You and I both.”
“Shshsshshushss…” Cael held up both hands to quiet his companion. He didn’t drop them until he was sure Alberich was done. They turned to the little man in the window who nodded at both of them.
“Yes, good evening, sirs. How may I help you?”
“I saw on the board earlier there was a ship leaving tomorrow. Is there still work available?”
“Do you recall the name of the ship?”
Cael snapped his fingers, “Aaah… hmm… The Pa… pa-pa….”
“The Pareesa, yes, sir.” The man looked off to a kampyu out of view. They could see the glow of its miniature screen reflected in his spectacles as he tapped at the keys laid out on the counter. “It looks like there is still time to apply for in the kitchen, but there is only one position available.”
“That will not be a problem. Who do I talk to?”
The approaching truck hadn’t registered with Cael, and he turned in time to see Ilya flying at him. He caught her wrists as she swung at his chest.
“You were just going to leave! How could you??”
“Ilya!” She was hysterical and he was having some trouble holding her back. “Ilya! Calm down! Oh my God, did you vomit?”
“I know. I know! Do you hear me? I know! I am a coward, and bad person, Ilya. Okay?”
She stopped struggling but continued to gasp for air. “Why did you lie to me?”
He looked at Alberich who offered nothing, and exchanged glances with the man in the window. “It… was… easier. That’s all. It was just going to be easier.”
“You can’t go. You’re my husband, you can’t leave me.”
“Ilya. I’m not… you don’t need me.”
“But I do. You don’t understand. Please, can we please talk about this? Can’t you sleep on it for one night?”
“You’ve forgotten about Lukas. He’s on his way to find Alberich and now me. We can’t stay.”
“Then let me come with you!”
“What? You can’t come with us, Ilya.”
“No, miss!” Yelled the man in the window, “I am sorry, but I would be breaking the law if I let you board a ship. Bhara women are not permitted to leave.”
She tried to swing at the little man but Cael wouldn’t loosen his grip on her wrists.
“This is what you wanted!” She cried. “How long? How long had you been planning to run away?” Her breaths started coming in long ragged gasps.
Cael looked down at her and said gently, “I was never going to stay. Not from the first day you found me, was I going to stay.”
Her head fell back as her gasps became strangled. Her cousin, who had been standing by the truck, rushed over as Ilya collapsed in Cael’s arms.
“She’s okay, she’s okay,” Cael soothed. “She just fainted.”
Alberich wasn’t sure what to do, he took a step forward then back, hugging the kampdator. “What’s wrong with her?”
“She’s just weak. All the women are here… it’s why they aren’t allowed to leave. They’re too fragile… too precious.” He looked up at her cousin. “Can you take her home?”
Kiran swallowed and nodded.
Cael carried her to the truck and laid her across the seat, her head resting on Kiran’s leg.