“What if something were to happen to the boat?” I asked the men. If we followed the map the old woman had given me, we would have to disembark from the ship at a certain point and travel inland on foot.
“We can spare a man to stay behind and guard it,” one suggested.
“I will stay,” another volunteered.
“If we lose the boat it’s a long walk back to the village,” I said.
“Then we would walk,” said jackal-face.
In the end they would not be dissuaded. We decided to head out the following morning. At sunrise, Oran managed to squeeze out enough grease from the dried meat to moisten his fingertips, and he used this to trace the sign of the crucifix on my forehead. “For protection,” he said.
“You should have saved a little for yourself,” I said.
“I have already anointed myself.”
“Too bad you don’t have enough for all the men.”
“They would not agree to it, anyway,” he said. “But God will not withhold His providence for lack of grease. Lack of faith, perhaps. Although I did anoint the prow of the ship.”
We sailed without incident the entire day. No Marmorcan had ever ventured so far to the south, the others told me. The river widened and narrowed. The jungle—I would now describe it as such—grew thicker on the opposing banks, greener. Winding vines coiled around and dangled from branches like lazy serpents. The sun burned hot all day, but a good breeze made it unnecessary to use the oars. We threw over the anchor and spent that night on the boat. I had a dream about Kethryn, and then at a point she changed into Samaethea. I awoke in the night, the side of my face numb from where I had slept on the hard deck, feeling sad and alone. I took a long time falling back asleep.
We hoisted the anchor the next morning before the sun had risen up out of the leafy canopy on the left riverbank.
“This is an unholy country,” Oran warned, standing next to me, watching the reflection of the forest in the water floating past us. “A land where all men are black! How dark must their souls be, then, if their very skins are charred!”
“The old witch is the first black you have ever seen?” I asked.
“Yes, though I fear, not the last.”
“A black man lived amongst the Christians, back in Arcadia,” I said. “He had been a captive in Rome, a slave, until his master freed him and he joined up with the proselytizers. He was civilized enough. I rather liked him, in fact.”
“But it is not natural!” Oran said. “Their hides, burnt black by the fires of Hell!”
I laughed. “I expect you can blame the sun for that,” I said, “not the fires of perdition. Haven’t you noticed how much hotter it feels on your skin, now that we are so far from the sea? Who knows, perhaps if we stay here long enough, you and I will turn black!”
“I hope we do not stay that long,” Oran said.
That very night, Oran got to see more of his dreaded black-skinned men, many more than he, or any of us, cared to see.