Kendil lay alone on Captain Eldinan’s large bed, and stared listlessly around her sparsely furnished cabin. It was about half the size of the alkaehran hold, and contained only the bed, a table against one wall, a sea chest under the table, and a private bathroom behind a door in one corner. The only decoration in the main room was a glass-chip mosaic on the opposite wall, showing a scene of water crashing onto rocks. It has been made, he understood, by Eldinan herself.
Aside from that one piece of art, there was nothing else fancy in the room. No extravagant trappings, no gold or jewels strewn around, only simple furnishings in a simple room for the fascinating Captain Eldinan.
The captain was on deck at the moment, overseeing the crew. The _Typhoon Dancer_ had enjoyed a week of good weather since that last storm, but the captain treated every day the same, and preferred to keep her eye on things in calm, steady breeze, or storm.
Kendil wished she were here, though. Then he would have other things to do than think. He smiled as his thoughts turned to those other things, but the smile faded as the object he fondled recalled to him the reason for his distress.
He looked down at the wooden chain he had been carving that day a week ago that the captain had decided to invite him into her bed. Thoughts of good fortune and misfortune chased each other through his brain, and he wondered whether he was mad to be feeling even the least bit unhappy at the present moment.
Perhaps not unhappy, for what was there to be unhappy about? He wasn’t sleeping in those confining hammocks any more. He wasn’t sleeping alone, either, and the captain was quite talented when it came to bed games. They talked, too, and sometimes their conversation was as fulfilling to him as their more carnal intercourse. She was being slowly revealed to him as his perfect woman, or as perfect as he was likely to meet, given that the gods no longer walked among mortals. He felt that he might even be falling in love with her.
And yet, he still found himself discontented.
He ran his fingers over the smooth, carved wooden links he had made, and worried at that discontent. The wooden chain had been started as an exercise; his father had taught him the trick, and he was just keeping in practice. But then Nikkeus had mentioned in rapid-passing that he had noticed him carving, and at that moment the chain had been destined to belong to the musician.
And then, Eldinan had turned her attentions on him. There hadn’t been time for a choosing between the two; he had been flattered by her interest, then had accepted her invitation, and then it had been done. He hadn’t expected the captain to maintain her interest in him. He had continued and finished his carving, thinking to be back in the alkaehran hold in days, and then asking one of the crew if there were someplace private he could take his music maker.
But that hadn’t happened. The sun crossed the yardarm again and again, he and the captain began to grow close, the chain was completed, and he found himself thinking about Nikkeus almost as often as he thought about Eldinan.
He wrapped the chain around one fist and closed his eyes. He conjured up an image of both of them behind his eyelids, and tried to compare them. Tall Nikkeus next to shorter Eldinan. Chestnut haired Eldinan next to blond Nikkeus. Both fair, but Eldinan had the features of a pure Fretheodan, while Nikkeus had that Nirmalel nose. Eldinan’s grey eyes were mysterious, while Nikkeus’ light green eyes were lively, happy, open. There was nothing to choose between them — Kendil found himself drawn to both images before him.
He imagined that he reached out and touched both, caressed the cheeks of both, kissed the lips of both. He ran his imagined hands across both chests — Eldinan’s curved, full, soft; Nikkeus’ flat and hard, each with different nipples, both kinds interesting, both kinds exciting.
His phantom hands roved further, touching arms, hips, thighs, stomachs, groins. He remembered the night of the storm, lying with Nikkeus. He remembered the next night in this bed with the captain. Which had been more fulfilling? Which had been better? Which, which, which?
Why did he feel the need to compare, the need to choose? Wasn’t the decision made? He couldn’t turn away from the captain for a young teraehra, he just couldn’t; and anyway, he didn’t know Nikkeus as well as he knew Eldinan. What if the musician had taken nothing but a moment’s pleasure from that stormy night? What if his discontent were just some kind of false fear of worth? If only there were a priest of Reesera on board — he needed to talk this out with someone, and an acolyte of the God of Love was the perfect person for the task. Maybe he would have to wait until landfall at Wudamund. That should only be another two weeks, after all.
Surely that wasn’t too long. Surely he could survive fourteen days of doubts and dreams, strange discontent in the midst of perfect contentment. Two weeks of thoughts of warm, firm flesh pressing against him, pressing against yielding flesh, grey eyes staring into his, staring into green eyes, staring down past his chest to a face with a Nirmalel nose, staring up along a flat stomach past beautiful breasts to a Fretheodan face, thinking about choices, why choose, choose, choose … choose …
Captain Eldinan found herself whistling absently as she stood on the quarterdeck and surveyed the _Typhoon Dancer_. Knowing she was a lousy whistler, she stopped — the crew didn’t deserve the punishment — but continued to smile. She certainly should be happy enough to whistle. Kendil was an amazing young man, full of skills, full of energy, full of stories, full of wonder. That chain he had carved — simple, utilitarian, almost mundane, and yet so intricate when examined, so beautiful. She had seen works of art made out of wood, but that chain — it was just amazing, just like Kendil.
She had picked the alkaehra for an afternoon’s diversion, but she had found far more. She had certainly found her match in bed, but his talents extended beyond carnal pleasures as well. Those magic hands were matched by an inventive mind, and a well of energy. And if sometimes he needed a little help directing his ideas, a hint of a push to get him going, well she certainly had practice in that sort of thing and she wasn’t one of those who hated taking her livelihood into her off duty hours.
And then she was whistling again, with a grin on her face that almost made it ache.
Mooribek, who was working on some lines nearby, looked up and grinned in turn. “A happy cap’n means a happy ship, I’ve always heard said.” she quipped. “But we’ve already got a musician a’playin’, Cap’n, for all his notes are sadder’n a multiple funeral. So mayhap you could leave off your ‘competition’?”
“Second!” Eldinan called out. “Five lashes for this swab, for insulting the captain!” The smile on her face and her hearty laugh ensured that everyone knew the joke. Mooribek smiled and saluted, and went back to the ropes. Out of curiosity, Eldinan turned her attention to the musician that her crew member had talked about. And she made sure to concentrate on not whistling.
Now that she was listening, she heard the melancholy notes coming from the bow. She made her way forward, and found the musician sitting atop one of the storage casks lashed into place just short of the bow. He was bent over his instrument, which was placed across his knees, intently working on the strings with the fingers of one hand, and turning a crank set into the side with the other. The music that was produced was not quite like anything she had ever heard, and she just listened for a bit to the haunting melody. As Mooribek had said, there was sadness in every note, sadness in the way his fingers moved, sadness in the droop of his shoulders and neck. If the music hadn’t been so exquisite, she would have ordered him to stop immediately. Instead, she wondered at the source of the sadness, and listened, rapt.
When there was a pause in the music, Eldinan shook herself a bit and said, “You play magnificently. What kind of instrument is that? I’ve never seen or heard its like before.”
The musician looked up, startled, and Eldinan found herself staring into his almost grass-green eyes. He had a handsome face, quite prominently branded as a northerner with that enormous Nirmalel nose and such light blond hair. And those eyes were just amazing!
She caught a couple of different emotions crossing his face before he looked back down at his instrument. What had they been … annoyance? For being disturbed maybe. Envy? Well, who wouldn’t envy the captain. Anger? At what?
“The instrument is my own, Captain,” he said softly.
Eldinan found herself impressed. There had to be a lot of talent in the man before her, if he could play as well as that *and* make instruments as well. She asked, “So, what may I call you, besides a most excellent musician?”
Another pause, and the young man began, “I am Terant Nikkeus, Captain. The instrument is just a combination of a viol and some drone strings that are bowed mechanically by the action of this crank here. The pitch of the drones can be varied slightly with these keys here. I call it a vibrolin, but that’s just what I call it but since I made it I guess I can do that –”
He stopped abruptly and blushed, dropping his head again as if ashamed.
Eldinan leaned against the rail and contemplated the young man. There was something about him that aroused her maternal instincts, or was it her captainly instincts, the ones that made her want to do her best for her crew? He wasn’t part of her crew — he was one of the teraehran bound for Wudamund — but she still wanted to do something to help him. He was just *so* sad — surely she could do something about that.
“So, Nikkeus, you are a player as well as a maker of instruments. And you are a right handsome lad, as well. So why do you sit in my bow playing music to make the fishes weep?”
Nikkeus looked up at her with an open expression, and said, “You.”
She waited for more, but nothing more came. “Me?” she asked.
Nikkeus looked down again, paused, and said eventually, “Kendil.”
Again, nothing more came. Kendil and her?
“I respect your privacy, but you make me curious. You say that I am part of the cause of your sadness, but I have never met you before today. I would appreciate some explanation of that.”
Nikkeus was silent for a long time, and Eldinan was about to shrug and turn away, when his voice started up. “The storm. That night, I was in the galley. It’s a steady place, and I couldn’t sleep …”
She listened to the tale of what two of the soldiers aboard her ship had got up to that storm-tossed night. As interesting as the tale was, of Kendil and Nikkeus happening on each other and ending up in each others’ arms, she found herself almost captivated by the face of the young man speaking. His mouth was amazingly mobile, shaping each word perfectly. His lips danced, and she was nearly hypnotized by them.
She found herself drawn to the musician, and those captainly instincts he aroused in her started to become a different sort of arousal. Handsome, talented, and full of such sadness, who could fail to be moved? But she already had a lover who fulfilled her. She didn’t need another. But if only …
The tale continued to the next day, when Kendil had left the musician and later, she had come along and taken Kendil away to her cabin, where he had been ever since. Only figuratively, of course — the alkaehra had participated in drills every day, and had free run of the ship as normal.
Nikkeus finished, “… and so that’s why I’m playing such sad music, because I’ve been left once again and I suppose I should have expected it. After all, it’s the captain this time isn’t it? I’m no competition for you. So I’m sorry if my playing is upsetting anyone. I’ll stop if you want.”
Eldinan blinked a few times in the silence, marshaling her thoughts and getting her emotions under control. Finally she said, “That is quite a story, Nikkeus. I’m sorry that it seems that I’ve taken your man, but … well, he said nothing to me of other … commitments. Please, continue to play. Good music is good music, no matter what its motivation.”
She paused again, still flustered by the soul-baring story, and not yet certain of her reaction to it. She found herself briefly angry with Kendil for some reason, even though she knew perfectly well that no promises had been made between the two men. And yet, Nikkeus had seemingly invested their time together with more meaning than Kendil had. Or was that true? Had Kendil really felt nothing more than lust for the musician, or had he simply not had the time to express any deeper feelings? Her own part in Nikkeus’ story, that she thought had been peripheral, might have been more important than she had realized.
Uncomfortable with the direction her thoughts were taking her, she said, “Ah … I’ll take my leave, now. I’m sorry for any hurt that’s been done you, but thank you for giving me your tale. Good day.”
She turned away from the dejected musician, who hadn’t looked up from his head-down position. But before she had taken three steps, the music began again, just as melancholy as before. She sighed and continued across the deck, through the door under the quarterdeck, down the short corridor, and through the door at its end into her cabin.
Kendil was lying on the bed, worrying his wooden chain like Tendilask prayer beads. If he had been playing an instrument, Eldinan thought he might be able to accompany Nikkeus, so mournful was his expression.
Recalling the story she had just heard, and the fact that the person on the bed in front of her had featured prominently in it, she wondered whether the source of both sadnesses might be the same. She walked across the cabin and sat down next to Kendil. She placed her hand on his thigh, and said, “And what’s got you frowning so, lover?”
Kendil looked at her and smiled tentatively. He put a hand over hers on his thigh, sighed deeply, and said, “Nothing. Nothing at all.”
Eldinan shook her head and frowned. “I don’t believe that.” She moved her hand to the bed on the far side of him, and leaned over him. “Don’t hide things from me, Kendil. Please.”
Kendil looked upset at that. He said, “B-but …” and turned away from her piercing gaze.
Eldinan lifted a hand to turn his head back to face her. She looked deeply into his brown eyes, and said, “Tell me.” He blinked and stared back, but didn’t say anything. “I could make it an order. You may serve under Jenkil, but you’re still a part of my crew.” She softened her expression lightened her tone, so that he would know it was a joke — she would never bring her rank into her bed. But maybe the joke would loosen his tongue.
He smiled in response, shut his eyes for a moment, and then opened them again. “I was just thinking about … Nikkeus.”
“What about Nikkeus?” Eldinan asked, pretty sure of the answer.
After hesitating for another moment, Kendil said, “He … he and I spent the night of the storm together. In the galley. And it was a very — intense — experience. We never really got to talk about it, though, and then you came along, and … well, I find myself wondering. Wondering about that night, and him, and what might have been.”
Eldinan sat up then, but maintained eye contact. She thought about these two young men, each pining for the other in their own way. She asked seriously, “Do you regret accepting my request of a week ago?”
Kendil’s answer was immediate. “Oh, no! I don’t know if I’ve ever been happier than I have this past week. Well, except maybe the night of the storm. That’s the difficult part of it — I think that I could find happiness with either you or Nikkeus. I don’t think I could choose between you. But, of course, I already have, I guess.”
Eldinan found herself surprised by the things she was thinking just then. She should have been outraged that her current lover was also equally attracted to a barbarian musical teraehra. She was a ship’s captain, not to mention a Child of Aelther, a pure-blood Fretheodan, after all!
But Eldinan knew that was just her upbringing talking. She knew that feelings didn’t follow economic or political station, and the heart didn’t care about what part of the empire one’s parents came from. She knew that Nikkeus had just as much of a hold on Kendil’s heart as she did.
The question was, what was she going to do about it? There were only two choices … or were there more?
She found herself contemplating that last thought, wondering where it had sprung from. She mulled it over for a moment, and then decided, “Why not?”
“I’ve got a proposal for you, Kendil, and it goes like this …”
Nikkeus felt better for having explained his feelings to the captain. He didn’t think that her knowing would make any difference in the way things were, but at least someone knew about it all. Now at least someone would understand the suicide note he was contemplating writing at the end of his term of service.
He continued sitting on deck playing his mournful melodies because almost anything was better than listening to his squad mates sitting around in their cabin and joking about conquests past, present, and future, both amorous and martial. His vibrolin was his second favorite instrument, and it often brought strangers up to ask him about its distinctive and unique sound. And some conversation to take his mind off of his troubles would be nice.
The sun was nearing the horizon when a shadow fell over him. He didn’t need to see his instrument to play it, but the shadow meant someone was near, so he looked up.
Nikkeus saw Corrik standing there, looking at the instrument on his lap. He knew that Corrik was the third in command of the vessel, even though Nikkeus probably had four or five years on the man. Briefly wondering what circumstances had led to Corrik’s rank, he said, “Yes?”
“Your pardon, Terant Nikkeus. I was entranced by the lovely sound of your instrument. Ah, the captain asked me to request your presence in her cabin at once.”
“Why?” asked Nikkeus.
“She didn’t say. My apologies. I’ve got to get back to my duties. Fair sailing under Aelther’s aegis.”
Corrik sketched a courtesy salute, and walked away. Nikkeus stretched his legs and slowly stood up. He was used to sitting cross legged for long periods, but even so it took him some time to get them used to moving again. He stood, slipped the picks off his fingertips, gathered up his vibrolin, and started walking aft, wondering the while what the captain could want. Did this have anything to do with their talk earlier? If so, what? Was this trouble? What else could it be?
He reached the door that led under the quarterdeck, and walked down the short passage. He stopped before the door at the far end and knocked. He waited for a moment, and when no one answered, he opened it and stepped in.
The room he entered was medium-sized for a room aboard a ship, but it was far less ornamented than he would have expected. A simple bed, table, and chest, and for decoration, only a mosaic on one wall. Nothing fancy or flashy. Not what he would have expected of a captain’s cabin.
And he certainly wasn’t expecting what awaited him on the bed itself. Because what he saw was Kendil, arms spread wide and tied to the posts of the simple headboard, wearing only a smile and a sheet covering him from the waist down.
“Ah … what?” was all that Nikkeus could manage. Kendil opened his mouth to reply, but at that moment, the captain herself emerged from the other door in the room and stopped, startled by Nikkeus’ presence.
“By Aelther, this wasn’t supposed to happen,” Eldinan said. “I told Corrik to wait before asking you here, Nikkeus, to give me time to get clear. I’ve got to teach that man to listen to *all* of an order!”
She frowned and paced for a moment, then seemed to come to a decision. She said, “Well, this should have been Kendil’s speech. He’s tied to the bed in such a way that he couldn’t have done it himself, so that you would believe that he was telling the truth about my gift, but maybe you will give it more credence to hear it directly from me. The long and short of it, Nikkeus, is I am going to give you a chance with Kendil here.”
She didn’t pause for Nikkeus’ surprised “What?” but continued, “After hearing your story on deck, I came back here to find Kendil moping as well, for similar reasons, and that got me thinking. Being with him makes me happy, but I can’t be with him every moment. Being with him makes you happy, and he tells me that being with the each of us makes him happy. So, during those times that I must be with the crew, I am willing to allow you and he to be together.
“If anyone becomes uncomfortable with the arrangement, we will have to work out another solution at that time. But for now, this is it. He’s my gift to you, all tied and ready. Have fun!”
Nikkeus was thinking furiously as Eldinan walked toward the door. The captain had certainly surprised him with this situation, which was very generous, and the product of an open mind. But there was another opportunity waiting, one that she just might be open to. Even though he felt he might be straining her generosity, he decided to act anyway.
So before the captain reached the door, he turned and said, “Stay.”
Eldinan stopped, faced him, and asked, “What?”
“Stay, Captain. I thought that if there might be an attraction between you and I, then perhaps instead of two twos, why not one three? We could at least try. That way there won’t be any jealousy. And maybe all three of us could be happy all of the time, instead of switching off between you and me.”
Eldinan said slowly, “I hadn’t thought of that. I don’t know, though … I mean, …”
Kendil spoke up eagerly. “Nikkeus has a point, Elin. Why not give it a try? You were willing to share me after all. Why not share me in person? And I have a feeling that you are no more resistant to that Nirmalel face than I am.”
Nikkeus nodded, and said, “Try. Please?”
After an almost interminable pause, Eldinan finally shook her head, laughed ruefully, and said, “Why not? I’m already beginning to think I’m crazy to imagine letting you two carry on together behind my back. Why not participate?”
She smiled at the two of them and walked over to the bed. Nikkeus automatically walked over to the other side. Eldinan reached for the ropes at Kendil’s wrists, and said, “I guess these have served their purpose. One of Kendil’s best assets are his hands: it would be a shame to keep them restrained.”
Nikkeus smiled at the recollection that Eldinan’s comment elicited. His attention was fixed on the movement of Eldinan’s hands, and he was wondering how much of an asset her hands were when Kendil interrupted his thoughts with, “So, Nikk, why don’t you unwrap the rest of your package now?”
Nikkeus looked down into Kendil’s grinning face. The alkaehra was doing his best to indicate, without the use of his hands, the sheet that was covering him. Nikkeus reached for the edge of the sheet and pulled it away to reveal that Kendil *was* in fact wearing nothing but his smile.
Eldinan had freed both of Kendil’s wrists by that time, and said, “It looks like the rest of us need to lose some clothes. Why don’t you put those hands to use, Kendil, and help us out?”
As Kendil reached for him, ending up doing more teasing than undressing, Nikkeus felt better than he had since boarding the _Typhoon Dancer_. He watched eagerly as the captain began to unbutton her vest, and thought that maybe he wouldn’t be writing that suicide note after all.