DargonZine 12, Issue 1

Talisman Zero Part 1



This entry is part 1 of 38 in the series Talisman

Author’s Note: This story takes place slightly more than a thousand years before the founding of Baranur, during the time when the Fretheod Empire is beginning to fall from the height of its power.

Kendil clutched his hammock as the _Typhoon Dancer_ lurched again, and yet another shiver of fear ran through him. He opened his eyes resignedly; there was no way he could sleep through this storm.

He swung his legs over the edge of the hammock and hopped the short distance down to the deck. Thunder crashed outside and a bolt of lightning illuminated the hold, revealing hammock after hammock of his fellow ship-based soldiers, the alkaehran, all sleeping peacefully. Kendil lamented the fact that he hadn’t fallen asleep soon enough to be oblivious to the storm. Another wave rocked the ship, causing him to fall against the port wall, and he slumped to the deck despondently. He wished for the millionth time since the storm began that he had never taken this one last posting.

Kendil had chosen to become an alkaehra when he had reached the age to enter the mandatory term of military service that everyone in the empire served. He had naively thought that an alkaehra’s job was one of the easiest of the available choices. If he had only known what it was really like to be aboard a ship spending weeks and sometimes months out of sight of land, he would have chosen differently.

Once the choice had been taken, however, Kendil stuck with it. He had been one of the emperor’s alkaehra for the past seven years, which meant that it was his duty to serve as part of the fighting force aboard whatever ship he was posted to. And over all those years he had never quite reconciled himself to having to go to sea because of it. He still thought it was unnecessarily dangerous to trust his life to a floating box, miles and miles from the safety of land. Now the danger was even greater, as ships now had to weather storms.

Prior to this voyage, he had only once had to suffer through a storm while at sea in five years of duty. So far on this voyage, he had already endured three of them, and the trip wasn’t even half completed. The difference was easy to determine: it was because of the anhekovel, or rather, their loss of power.

Once, the might of the empire had been such that a ship only encountered a storm at sea by the grossest of accidents. Captains had once been able to locate storms far over the horizon and take action to avoid them, by using the power of the anhekovel, those magical staves that were linked to the great master staff Yrmenweald. The anhekovel had also been able to actually turn a storm if the need was dire enough. No one knew exactly where the master staff had drawn its power from, only that anyone bearing an anhekovel had access to that power. The anhekovel had been the secret to the might of the empire, and now they were powerless.

Two years ago, while the anhekovel still functioned, Kendil had been given the perfect excuse to leave the sea behind. His sister’s husband, also an alkaehra, had been killed in a native uprising in a colony province. Kendil had been allowed to relocate back to his home province in the south to help his sister and niece through their loss. He had been given an administrative job in the Admiralty’s shipyards there, along with commensurate promotion in rank. He was sure he’d never have to go to sea again, but Cherdisarme, the three-faced god of Fate, stepped in.

In the middle of the previous year, 2215, civil war had erupted in Frethemak, the imperial city. The battles had not reached far beyond the limits of the imperial province of Frethehel, which meant that Kendil had never been directly endangered by the war. But the Yrmenweald — and as a result, the anhekovel — had been destroyed in the war, which was to have enormous consequences for everyone in the empire.

New rules began to flow out of Frethemak, rules designed to shore up the might of the empire in the wake of the passing of the Yrmenweald. Military encounters no longer had foregone conclusions. Ships were no longer certain to arrive at their destinations. The world had become a more dangerous place for the Fretheod Empire after the civil war, and the emperor was dealing with the problem the only way he knew how. If the Yrmenweald no longer gave the empire’s forces an advantage, then sheer numbers would have to suffice.

All across the empire, changes were happening in the military. Mandatory service was lengthened to ten years. Service posting terms were lengthened, and garrisons were doubled or trebled. Bonuses were promised for extended service. All measures to bolster the military might of the empire.

One of these new rules affected Kendil directly. In order to persuade people to continue to crew ships while voyages were becoming increasingly dangerous, the Admiralty began requiring a minimum number of voyages as a prerequisite for attaining any rank. Which meant that Kendil no longer qualified for his promotion. Kendil’s new rank had come with a comfortable rise in pay, as well as quarters large enough for his sister and niece as well as himself. While it was true that it would be still be possible to find lodging and food for the three of them on his former pay, their circumstances would worsen dramatically in that case.

Kendil only needed one more voyage to meet the new requirements. His rank would stay in place if he accepted another posting, and there were promises from above that any further regulation changes would not be applied retroactively. His boss, and friend, at the shipyard had informed him of the new regulations, and had advised him to take the demotion rather than go to sea again without the protection of the anhekovel. In the end, it was Kendil’s duty to his sister and his niece that prompted him to ignore his boss’ sage advice and accept one final voyage.

He had failed to consider the time of year, however. The _Typhoon Dancer_ had left the dock three weeks ago, well into the first month of fall. In that short amount of time, this was the third storm they had sailed into. Knowing that the captain and crew had successfully brought the ship through two other storms eased his fear slightly, but he still regretted making that choice to leave dry land. He had been told that the ship was only half way to its destination of Wudamund, the watch-keep in the north of the continent of Cherisk, so he knew that more storms were going to be encountered. He found himself, despite the odds, fearing that he would never see dry land, or his sister and niece, again.

Kendil huddled against the wall for a little while longer, until the storm seemed to abate somewhat so that the ship’s lurches were no longer sufficient to throw him around the cabin. He decided that he might find tea soothing enough to lull him to sleep, so he went carefully out the door and down the corridor aft to the galley.

When he arrived in the large room situated over the keel of the ship, he went straight to the stone stove and checked the stone tea kettle bolted to its closed-top warmer at the back. It was about half-full, and the coals in the warmer were still doing their job, because the brown liquid was as warm as he liked it. He ladled some tea into a thick ceramic mug, turned around to go to one of the bolted down tables, and almost dropped his mug when he realized that he was not alone in the galley.

Seated up against the aft wall of the galley was one of his land-based counterparts, the teraehra, that the _Typhoon Dancer_ was taking to help garrison Wudamund. Kendil thought that the man looked young and tall, even though he was leaning over his own mug of tea. He seemed to be from one of the northern provinces, with such white-blond hair and an eagle-beak of a nose — or at least, he had to have some north-province blood in his family.

Kendil had seen the man on deck a few times before, usually playing either a strange flute or an ocarina. Kendil remembered that the musician was usually alone, which had caused him to wonder, considering how handsome the young man was. In fact, remembering those Northern-handsome features brought a smile to Kendil’s face despite the still-raging storm.

He took a seat opposite the teraehra, but whatever the northerner saw in his tea was so absorbing that Kendil wasn’t noticed. Then again, the little noise he made was easily covered by thunder, and the slight wobble of the table as he gripped it to ease himself over the bench seat could as easily have been caused by yet another lurching roll of the beleaguered _Typhoon Dancer_. So, when Kendil said, “Pardon me …,” the northerner jerked erect, surprise written on his face and enticingly light green eyes wide, then nearly fell from the bench as he was caught unawares when the deck tipped again.

Kendil had the table to brace himself against the contrary movement of the ship, so he reached out and grasped the northerner’s shoulder to keep him from falling to the deck. The ship steadied and the blond man regained his balance, then secured himself back into his seat by leaning against the aft wall and bracing his free arm against the edge of the table. Once so steadied, he looked up again and smiled shyly.

Kendil had to force himself not to laugh at the mishap he had almost caused, then felt the curious need to blush when the northerner’s shy smile illuminated that handsome face. To cover himself, he coughed artificially, took a sip of his tea timed between rolls of the ship, and finally said, “So, you couldn’t sleep either?”

The blond man looked back into his tea, and said, “Um, no. No, the ship is just rolling and lurching too much. I’ve never really liked sailing — too much water under you, too much nothingness up on deck. Just blue and blue and blue, sky and sea, and maybe a bird or a porpoise, but nothing else different for days and weeks and months sometimes. That’s why I didn’t enlist under the Admiralty when I had to choose for mandatory service and …”

Kendil was quickly captivated by the northerner’s rambling speech patterns. His voice was almost musical, and his thoughts seemed to follow one another with barely a logical connection between them. Even so, Kendil soon found his attention drawn to the man more than the words, staring in fascination at the movements of the man’s mouth, shaping word after word with those amazing lips.

“… *this* storm started, I tried to take to my bunk early in hopes to be asleep before the worst hit. But I wasn’t terribly successful. So I came in here to have some tea. Also, I find it very secure in here with the stone fixtures and the solid walls. The galley is after all in the center of the ship and …”

Kendil found himself panting as he listened to the northerner, as if he was unconsciously trying to breathe for the young man — or maybe there was a more primal reason for his reaction? He wrenched his eyes away from those red, mobile lips and got them caught again in the crystal clarity of the blond’s startlingly grass-green eyes that were fixed firmly on his own face. They stared at each other for a timeless moment, with the northerner’s voice still rattling on and on.

“… seen you around on deck now and then, with the other alkaehran. Have you ever had to fight on a ship? I’ve been in a couple of battles on land, nothing momentous or anything, but what with all the chaos fighting brings I just can’t imagine doing it on the moving deck of a ship. Oh, um, by the way I’m Nikkeus, from a *very* small town in Nirmalel province. Nice to meet you.” Nikkeus trapped his tea mug between his non-bracing arm and the aft wall of the galley, and extended his now free hand across the table.

The silence in the room seemed so complete that Kendil had to concentrate to notice that the storm noises still raged outside. He blinked a couple of times and broke the eye-contact that had enveloped him completely in a world called Nikkeus. He looked down at the large, fine hand that was extended toward him and he clasped it firmly and pumped it up and down. But once that greeting-handshake was over, he found himself unwilling to let go. He could feel himself smiling foolishly, the corners of his mouth beginning to ache with it, and he could also feel a warmth slowly rising up his neck and across his cheeks. Blushing again? He hadn’t felt so immediately affected by a person since … since that first crush during his initial training all those years ago.

Before he could decide whether he wanted to act on his feelings, unsure as he was about the reaction Nikkeus might have to them, the ship listed hard to starboard again. Kendil had to fling Nikkeus’ hand away so that he could grab onto the table and keep from falling to the deck. Once the ship had righted itself, he found himself laughing in relief at not falling down again. Or was it at being free of the disturbingly intense contact with Nikkeus? He started to introduce himself, but his nervousness tangled up his thoughts between mind and mouth, and all that came out was an awkward choking mumble.

He blushed a bit once more, cleared his throat, and tried again. “I’m Kendil, from Afranlel province in the south. Well met under Aelther’s aegis. I’m not terribly happy to be at sea again, either, but you just have to do your duty to the emperor, don’t you? Erm …” Kendil found that all of his normal self-assurance had fled, and he couldn’t think of a single thing to ask this handsome young man. He fished around in his mind, and finally came up with, “So, ah, how long are you going to be at Wudamund?” He fervently hoped that Nikkeus had not already told him that during those times when he wasn’t actually listening to the northerner, but just watching him.

“They tell me, my squad mates that is, that off-continent postings used to be no more than half a year. But now with the new rules as have come out after the war, I am supposed to be over there for a year and a half. Eighteen months! But I don’t suppose it will be too bad. There aren’t any enemies in the area after all. It’s not like there will be constant battle, or even much danger at all. Except maybe for the voyage there and back, right? And …”

It didn’t take Kendil long to get lost in Nikkeus’ words again. Soon, he was staring at the young man, mesmerized. Fleeting thoughts tried to impose themselves on his consciousness. Should he really be thinking about getting involved with someone who was slated to be on another continent for a year and a half? Even for the short term, would it be wise to start something on board a ship? There wasn’t a great deal of privacy, if things didn’t work out, after all. He spared each distracting thought only enough time to consider it and dismiss it as irrelevant at the moment, faced as he was with the handsome features and endearing qualities of the northerner.

“… on my 23rd birthday — that was 2 years ago — my lover, Marakus, gave me this really lovely figurine. He was a sculptor; he had made it himself and it was just exquisite. I keep it with me always. It brings me good luck. I only wish Marakus had had one when he took that guardian job. Their caravan made it intact, the bandits all died, but so did Marakus … anyway, I was reminded of him the other day when I saw you carving something on deck, and I wanted to go over and talk to you about it, but I was too nervous. And then Jenkil called you all to drill and …”

Kendil definitely caught those comments, and his heart started to beat faster and faster, while his stomach started to knot with nervousness. Nikkeus wouldn’t by all evidence be averse to what Kendil was wishing and hoping for. Not only that, but the northerner had noticed him up on deck and had been nervous about approaching him, which might mean that Nikkeus was maybe attracted to him too. Then again, he had seemed like the nervous type in general, but there was no need to be pessimistic about it after all, right?

“… waited more than half a month for it to be ready, but the ironmonger was dragging his feet or something, because it took almost two months longer than it was supposed to …”

Kendil was beginning to wonder when Nikkeus’ monologue was going to run down. The man was talking just too fast to interrupt, but Kendil was getting more and more impatient even though he was learning some fascinating things about Nikkeus. But when would the beautiful young man shut up so that Kendil could ask him what he wanted to ask him?

“… just before _Typhoon Dancer_ left the docks. And there was Rikky, youngest child of the owners of the rooming house I had just vacated, running after the ship waving something. Fortunately the boy was fast enough, and had a good enough arm, to throw the small bundle to me at the rail because it …”

Would he ever stop? wondered Kendil. What am I going to do? Wait, why not just …

Without a thought for either of the dangers he was facing — the still storm-tossed ship lurching under him, or Nikkeus being mortally offended by his impending action — Kendil stood up, leaned over the table, and kissed Nikkeus on the mouth.

Wonder of wonders, that managed to shut the young blond man up! And the activities that followed kept him shut up for a good long time, and neither of them even noticed when the storm ended.

***

Captain Eldinan stood in the pilot house and looked out over her ship. The _Typhoon Dancer_ had survived the previous night’s storm without any major damage. A few torn lines and a chipped spar, nothing more permanent, for which she had already spent most of the morning gratefully thanking every god she thought might have had an interest in aiding her ship’s survival. She only halfheartedly believed in most of the gods whose altars she had sacrificed oil, wine and grain on, but her grandfather had taught her to always dog all her hatches: she never left anything to chance.

Her crew had already stowed the gear that had been tossed around by the stormy seas, and were now making the necessary repairs. Maka’arn, her stone-wizard, was still asleep, exhausted by his battle to use the ship’s ballast stones to help keep the ship from capsizing. She could only hope to Aelther that he would recover before another storm blew up.

Eldinan’s gaze drifted to her anhekova, resting comfortably and uselessly in its cradle next to the ship’s wheel. Her grandfather had carved the wood himself when he had been a ship’s captain, and the careful detail in that carving was absolutely beautiful. A thin line of Geronlel knot-work consisting of heavily interlaced lines woven together in deceptively simple patterns, created by the indigenous people of the north-western province of Geronlel, wound its way up from the pointed base to the palm of the staff. A close inspection would reveal the nautical themes that were interwoven into the knots. Cupping the milky ovoid of cwicustan, the magically-receptive crystal that was the heart of any anhekovel, was another carving of an octopod that grew from the knot work almost organically.

It was beautiful — a craftsman’s delight — and it was just so much wall-hanging art. Once, it had almost been part of her. She once could use it to see her course across the sea, and plot the movements of any storm in her path. It had certainly taken time to get used to its abilities, but once she had done so they had been like an extra sense. And now that its power was broken, she felt almost crippled without it.

She blamed Osgeofu, as did everyone. Osgeofu had been emperor briefly, and he had destroyed the Yrmenweald, and so the anhekovel. He had been the elder of the twin sons of Earnfled, the emperor throughout most of Eldinan’s life, and so destined to be her heir. This did not sit well with the noble elite of the empire, who felt that Osgeofu’s brother, Tilgeofu, would make the better ruler. Osgeofu’s excesses as heir apparent had been so outrageous that the normally conservative and tradition-bound nobles had actually begun to petition the emperor to change her heir.

The elite polarized into two parties: the traditionalists and the revolutionaries. Eldinan’s sympathies had been with the revolutionaries, even though she wasn’t one of the elite, or even one of the lesser nobles. But she thought that, had she known the outcome of the division beforehand, she would have done everything in her power to make sure that the traditionalists succeeded.

Emperor Earnfled had died more than a year ago, in the summer of 2215, and Osgeofu took the imperial throne. The revolutionaries turned their attention-getting disturbances into an all-out civil war. Tilgeofu had taken no part in the actions of the revolutionary faction until it became clear that they were determined to carry out their agenda and put Tilgeofu on the throne whether he wanted it or not. Facing the inevitable, and sure of the might of the faction he was joining, Tilgeofu eventually joined in. Months passed, and finally Tilgeofu confronted his brother in the throne room of the imperial palace in Frethemak. With the will of the people — the people that counted, anyway — behind him, he had ordered his brother to relinquish the throne to him. Osgeofu, faced wi th imminent defeat, had, in a fit of spite, smashed the sphere of cwicustan crystal atop the Yrmenweald staff, breaking its link to the source of its power, and destroying the power of the anhekovel in the process.

She remembered the previous night. Her first thought as the storm had begun to lash at her ship was that she had mistakenly forgotten to check the weather. She had rushed to the pilot house to do a quick check of how far the storm extended and whether they could steer around it. It had been a shock to touch the milky cwicustan crystal and not feel the mind-expanding touch of the power behind the Yrmenweald. But the crystal was no longer linked to the master staff. She could no longer forecast the weather. Which was why the _Typhoon Dancer_ had been sailing into those clouds rather than around them.

She shook her head and resumed gazing out the pilot’s window, across the quarterdeck, and down onto the main deck. All that activity heartened her. It showed her that it wasn’t a piece of magic rock that kept her ship afloat: it was people. _Typhoon Dancer_ would persevere because of her crew, with or without the Yrmenweald.

She checked her maps, and then took their heading off the compass. Their current heading seemed fine, as long as the storm hadn’t blown them too far off course. She would have to wait until tonight, when the night watch could read their position by the stars, before she would know for sure. She hoped it would be a clear night.

Once again, she blessed the methods that had stood common fishers and traders in good stead all these years. Maps and charts were a cumbersome replacement for her former abilities, but without them travel by sea would be far more of a gamble than it had yet become.

Her thoughts about how clear it would be that night brought a more immediate concern to mind. She leaned out the open window of the pilot house and called up to the woman on stormwatch, “Weather sign?”

Mooribek gave the whole circle of the horizon a scan before replying. The slender, willowy woman with the lovely dusky skin perched carefully on the small platform at the top of the main mast. Her long dark hair billowed in the wind that bellied the sails. “Horizon white, Captain,” she shouted. “Fair travel as far as the eye sees.”

Eldinan called back, “Thanks, ‘watch.” She grinned as Mooribek flashed her a smile of white teeth and gave her a jaunty salute before returning to her weather watch.

Eldinan returned to scanning the main deck, feeling somewhat restless. Last night had been all action: keeping the ship turned into the waves, overseeing the deck crew’s activities, doing her best to make sure _Typhoon Dancer_ stayed afloat. It had been a terrifying and exhilarating experience, one she was getting better and better at handling. But everything was so quiet and normal now that she found herself almost wishing for something a little out of the ordinary.

As her eyes moved over the deck, she spotted one of the ship’s compliment of alkaehran standing by the port rail out of everyone’s way, carving carefully at a block of wood. The man had caught her attention before. He was of medium height, and of generally swarthy looks: olive skin, brown hair kept short, handsome features. He was fit, of course, and the lines of his body had been mildly distracting when he drilled with the rest of the squad. It wasn’t just the way he looked, though, but something about the way he moved, the way he carried himself, even the way he interacted with the others in his squad.

Being captain, she was used to making instant decisions. And while there were reasons she shouldn’t go down and strike up a conversation with the man, there were just as many reasons she should. Her time was her own; she had no assigned duties like the rest of the crew. The ship was her responsibility, but her crew knew its business and she was only needed on deck in emergencies. And the gods saw fit, there would be no emergencies for a while.

So, she checked that the wheel was locked and everything else was in order, then she stepped out of the pilot house. Corrik, her second mate, was standing there on the quarterdeck, waiting to resume his duty in the pilot house. Corrik was her nephew-in-law, and very young to be a second mate, this being only his second year at sea, but his father was an admiral, and Eldinan hadn’t been able to keep the boy off of her ship. Fortunately, so far he had proved to be up to the task and was well on his way to earning the position he had been gifted with.

She saluted Corrik smartly, and accepted the return salute. He moved to take up his proper position as she walked slowly down the stairs off the quarterdeck and over to the whittling soldier.

The man didn’t look up from his carving, and Eldinan didn’t interrupt him when she saw how carefully he was working. She was intrigued by the result of his efforts; it looked like he was trying to carve a chain out of a single block of wood, and as he was about half done, it was obvious that he was doing quite well. About half a dozen interlocked ovals of wood already spilled from the whittled-at block, with each end of the chain ending in a half-link that disappeared into the wood.

She watched as he carefully cut away at the wood around one of the half-links. As his knife moved, she could almost see the shapes he was working towards. She automatically began to unravel the pattern involved in his carving. As she watched, the mystery of the interlocking links came clear to her. She nodded in self-satisfaction, her supposition borne out, as slowly, the other half of a link of the chain appeared as the wood was chipped away, already interlocked with that first half-link. A few delicate probings of the knife, and the new link fell loose, now part of the wooden chain instead of part of the block of wood.

The man relaxed for a moment, moving the knife safely away from his delicate carving, and Eldinan chose that moment to speak. Even though she had intuited the mystery of the links herself, she knew that it still took skill to carve them successfully. Acknowledging that, and with some obvious flattery, she said, “You have amazing hands, alkant.”

The soldier looked up and smiled. “I thank you, Captain. Just a hobby, something to pass the time …”

“You must have a great deal of time to pass, to become so well practiced at your hobby.” She smiled broadly to show that she was kidding and praising, and continued. “I normally make it a point to get to know everyone who travels on my ship, but this voyage has been somewhat hectic, and as you came aboard at our last port, I don’t yet know your name. What should I call you, besides Master Carver?”

The man hesitated a moment, grinning a bit as if to himself and looking at his hands somewhat nervously. Then he shrugged slightly, looked up directly into Eldinan’s eyes, and said, “I’m Kendil, which, when properly pronounced, is shouted at the top of your lungs, accompanied by gasps and moans and sighs of pleasure.” His grin was downright lascivious, and his eyes never left hers.

Eldinan laughed delightedly, and said, “Oh my, handsome and impudent too! And I dare say that your ‘amazing hands’ have other applications than setting knife to wood, eh, Kendil?”

“Ah, well, I wouldn’t want to brag. Perhaps the captain would rather find out for herself?”

As the banter continued, Eldinan found herself growing more and more intrigued by this alkant. She wondered whether she should throw caution to the fishes and drag the brash soldier down into her cabin. It would cause talk, but not for very long. Maybe she just would …

***

Nikkeus sat cross legged atop a cask up near the bow of the _Typhoon Dancer_, playing the double-belled flute he had made himself. His eyes were riveted on Kendil, who was amidships carving something. He wished the alkaehra would come over and talk to him. He wasn’t sure whether the previous night had been anything more than just a moment — well, many, many moments — of passion in the face of the storm. He certainly hoped it was more, but so far, Kendil hadn’t so much as looked his way.

His fingers moved across the holes of his flute, producing music that currently had something of a plaintive, wistful air. His thoughts flashed back to last night: being kissed by the handsome man, kissing him back, touching him, exploring and being explored, and all that had come after. They had parted in the early morning reluctantly, with kisses and whispers, wanting to get out of the galley before the cook came in to start breakfast. Nikkeus had gone back to his hammock in the teraehran hold and had even caught some sleep. All of his dreams had been about Kendil.

But their paths hadn’t crossed again. Nikkeus was sure that Kendil would come to see him, but it hadn’t happened yet. So, he sat in his usual spot and played his flute, and hoped.

His music abruptly got more energetic, choppier and maybe a little angry or jealous, as he watched Captain Eldinan walk out of the pilot house, across the intervening decks, and stop in front of Kendil to stare at him as he carved. Somehow the musician knew that the look of appreciation on the captain’s face was not just for whatever the alkaehra was working on.

As they began to talk, Nikkeus noticed the non-verbal communication which also between them. Though too far away to hear their words, he could tell that they were teasing each other, baiting each other, seducing each other. The music coming out of his flute turned from jealous to sad. It didn’t look like Kendil would be seeking him out after all.

He thought briefly, in the midst of his growing melancholy, that they made a nice couple at least. The captain was a good looking woman, perhaps just a little too worn by her time at sea to be beautiful. Both she and the alkaehra the same height, while Nikkeus had half a foot on Kendil. Both the soldier and the captain were muscular and robust, while Nikkeus was thin and wiry. And Nikkeus knew that if Eldinan, captain or not, approached *him* and tried to talk him into her bed, he would be just as responsive as Kendil was being right now.

But he wondered as he watched the seduction what was wrong with him. Kendil had been so attentive, so caring last night. But now, the handsome soldier looked to have forgotten about him completely. Why could he hold no one’s interest longer than a night or two?

He remembered his first girlfriend, who had pursued him, caught him, persuaded him, and then rejected him. She had been his first, and so traumatic that it had been three years before he had allowed himself to feel for a person again. And that had been his first boyfriend, whom he had met shortly after he had turned eighteen and begun his military service. Nikkeus had been treated slightly better by him, but their relationship had lasted only two days — something of a record among the pleasure-seeking teraehran he had been serving with at the time, but not what he had been looking for.

He rolled the names since then over in his head, remembering each one with both pleasure and pain. The only one of his lovers who hadn’t left him for another was Marakus, who had left him by dying.

So, what was wrong with him anyway?

Nikkeus’ attention was riveted again when the captain presented her arm for Kendil to take, and the new pair walked off the deck through the door under the quarterdeck. The music coming from Nikkeus’ flute grew so depressing that it made a few of the sailors working around him think longingly and sadly of loved ones left back on Duurom’s shores.

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