Yuri has never been comfortable with the fact that of the five thousand Russian ships on the water, only his is captained by a woman. Derbent, they call her, an old woman with massive breasts, that only drinks water and carries a wooden sword. They say she has never been beaten in a battle, but she is not exactly Artemy Volynsky, and the Persian rebellion this time is hardly a trifle. Five thousand ships in the middle of a storm attest to that.
On the deck, Yuri rubs his penis in the open air. The water is swelling, and the horses below-deck – already sick to begin with – are complaining that they are not meant for this (as though Yuri is). For now, he concentrates on his cock, and unwittingly an image comes to him of Derbent’s breasts. He shakes his head. Along the length of the railing, other men are also pleasuring themselves, a long line of young sailors who have been given exactly this amount of time to relieve themselves of their tension, the products of their fancies destined to drown a slippery death in the Sea of Oman. They do not, of course, look at each other as they complete their activities.
It was only last year, in 1721, that Russian troops began this campaign to Persian territory, to quell what is popularly referred to as a rebellion. But Yuri is not so sure, and in his uncertainty, Derbent’s breasts appear again, naked this time. She is stroking her grey hair, and then she is un-robing, inviting him into her bed. Before he can stop himself, he explodes over the Sea of Oman, as though he has spotted an enemy vessel and taken the initiative to attack. He grunts, louder than he intended, and he’s sure that a few of the other industrious men along the railing have turned to look at him.
He goes below deck, where a page finds him. “Captain wants you.”
“The hell she does,” returns Yuri.
“Better get there soon.”
Yuri’s head is still awash with lightness. At the Captain’s door, he composes himself and knocks. “Ma’am? Yuri.”
She is not, as he feared, splayed on her bed, legs open to receive him. The mystery voiced amongst the men is whether or not the Captain has ever been fucked. Although she is not, and likely never has been fuckable, she has at least five decades behind her, and many ports in her past, ample time to squirrel away with men or women, whatever she prefers. Fuckable or not, she sits at a table, a book in front of her. “Ease yourself. Sit.” Her voice growls, as though she has drunk too much sea water, been overtopped by too many waves. “Fucking sea. It’s rough. This storm will get worse, Yuri.”
“Yes, Captain,” he returns, avoiding the sight of her cleavage. How many men, he wonders, are dreaming of those tits as they do their work at the railing? How many, he wonders, would admit it? Abruptly, he blushes.
“You look sick. Are you sick? Don’t be sick, Yuri. The shah is counting on us to help ward off these Afghans. His envoy, Ismail Beg, assures us that Persia is lost if Russia does not help it. And we do not want Persia to be lost, do we?”
“Our horses are sick, Captain. Even if we get through this storm and land, we may not have much to show.”
“You spend too much time with horses, Yuri. I wonder if you bugger them. I would not blame you if you do, stuck on a ship as you are. Do you know that I am married?”
Yuri blinks. “Ma’am? No, I did not know. And I don’t bugger horses, ma’am.”
She nods and gets up, lumbers over the cabin floor to a dresser. From it, she takes a slip of paper. “He’s Muslim.”
“My husband. He’s Muslim.” She sits and puts the paper between them.
“But that is not allowed…”
“Fuck what’s allowed. I met Husayn twelve years ago, in Resht. He smelled like olives, and fucked like a dog. But afterwards, he would lie in bed and sing, and that’s exactly why I married him. Naked and beautiful, you would not expect a merchant to have such a voice. I will tell you that I enjoyed the fucking immensely, but it was for the music that I kept going back to him. If we survive this trip, I’ll give up my commission and settle down with him. But for now, we have to help the Persians. How old are you, Yuri?”
“Have you considered that you might die on this trip?” And as if to underpin the words, the ship bucks high in the air as a wave smashes into it. “Husayn says my tits taste like apple. Are you partial to apples, Yuri? Know that I am not making you an offer, but just asking if you’ve had the experience of nipples that taste of apples.” She laughs, and points at the slip of paper before her. “Do you know why there is only one woman Captain in the Russian navy, Yuri? It’s because everyone considers me to be a man. They treat me like a man. They now believe me to be a man, despite the evidence of their eyes. But if you want truth, understand that I’ve sailed more and further than any of the rest of them. I’ve felt storms and I’ve heard the wind. Today, I hear a catastrophe. This storm is not going to be gentle.”
Yuri swallows. The ship bucks. He stares at the paper on the table. “Have you an order for me, ma’am?”
“No, Yuri. Not an order. A request. I don’t know why I make it of you. Perhaps some connection. A relationship in a past life. A linkage in some future one, I don’t know. I wonder if I see my Husayn again. Besides him, I have one other treasure in my life. See here, take this paper. On it, the location of my husband’s house. If I meet the waves and don’t return, find him. And give him this. He will in return give you a case containing papers. They are old treasures. In particular, one stack is copied time and again, year on year. A song. Husayn says he obtained it from a broke British Lord, desperate to make his way to China. Do you know music, Yuri? Of course you do not! One does not know music when one spends time buggering horses. This song has yet to be performed in full, Yuri. It is a strange song. I cannot understand why it was written. But I want you to take the damn thing to its home in Persia, and I want you to find someone to play it.”
“Ma’am?” asks Yuri. His stomach revolts with the attack of the next wave. “This is not an order I can follow…”
“I told you, it is a favor.” She puts the paper inside the book before her, a large atlas. “Keep it hidden in here, Yuri. Do your best to protect it from the water, for if we go down, I want you to only think on what it might take to protect this paper, and by extension, your own life.”
Derbent slams the atlas shut, and pushes the book towards him. “Now go bugger your horses. They’re lonely and upset due to the storm.”
“Ma’am!” he says, rising with the book in hand. He is sweating. When he opens the door, the cooler air is merciful. He goes to his cabin and wraps the atlas in burlap, hides it under his bunk. Then he visits the horses, two of which have died from whatever ailment has afflicted them. The others roll their eyes in terror.
Up on the deck, a new line of sailors has squared themselves against the railing, ready to fill up the Sea with their lust. It’s standard procedure, he thinks, to dispel anything that might distract you before landing and engaging with the enemy, but that doesn’t mean he has to watch. He gulps, wondering if he should tell them that Captain Derbent’s tits taste like apple.
And then, through the storm, he spies the shadow of something dark. Like a leering adversary, a hostile force immobile but formidable, Persia rises before him.
But just a glimpse… This is me.