Kendil was waiting his turn somewhat impatiently to rinse down after morning sparring practice. It had been a week since Captain Eldinan’s plan to try to cheer up Nikkeus had been turned by the teraehra musician into the beginning of a trio that was working out better than any of the three of them could have dreamed. And he was anxious to get back to the captain’s cabin before Eldinan’s daily duty began.
Of the three of them, Elin had the most claims on her time each day. As captain of the _Typhoon Dancer_, she had no official duties except in times of danger. However, sailing the Valenfaer Ocean in mid-fall meant that times of danger were seldom far away. The _Typhoon Dancer’s_ mission was to transport her cargo of supplies and personnel to Wudamund, a watch-keep on the northern point of the continent of Cherisk. Not very long ago, that mission would have been as safe in mid-fall as in mid-summer, but no longer, not since the civil war. So Elin felt that her place was on deck with the crew throughout the day.
Kendil’s only daily obligation was morning drill. He was part of the alkaehran squad posted to the _Typhoon Dancer_ as protection. The soldiers drilled amidships at the tail end of the night watch in order to keep out of the way as much as possible. The twenty alkaehran of the squad tended to be crowded in the limited open space amidships. But Jenkil, their commander, was adamant that they practice every day so that they would be familiar with the ship and fighting at sea should their skills be needed.
Nikkeus had no duties. He usually spent the day serenading the ship from his position in the bow, switching often between the half-dozen instruments that he had brought with him, including those of his own construction.
All three of them spent the evening and night in the captain’s cabin. Kendil marveled at what went on in there each night. He had thought he had reached complete satisfaction with Elin, but the addition of Nikk compounded his delight in ways he had never contemplated before. And it wasn’t just the sex, either. Sometimes they just sat around Elin’s table and talked, and Kendil was amazed to find that activity to be deeply fulfilling as well.
Finally, it was his turn in the small enclosure set up in the corner between the gunwale and the quarterdeck wall for showering. He closed the door behind him and looked up at the wooden tub set on the quarterdeck itself. Through the single stave in the front that had been rendered transparent by magic, he saw that there wasn’t much water left. He would be stuck helping heave more water up from the ocean in buckets to refill the tub unless he was very careful how much he used. The whole process of refilling the tub, then tracking down Gerr-ap, the alkaehran squad’s magician, to purify and heat the water, could take a quarter of the morning watch. Which would mean that he would not make it back to the cabin before Elin went on duty.
He had stripped out of his drill kirtle and was reaching up for the tap in the side of the water tub when the door opened behind him. He turned around, an angry remark ready on his lips for Leilan, who was next in line for the shower and obviously trying to hurry him up. But when he saw three of the regular crew crowding through the door, dark looks on their faces, he changed his remark to, “What do you want?”
Burrilain, the _Typhoon Dancer’s_ first mate, moved quickly behind Kendil and grabbed the alkaehra’s arms, immobilizing him. Corrik, one of the other interlopers, shoved a piece of parchment into Kendil’s mouth and wiped it on his tongue. Kendil tried to spit it out, but the sailor removed it quickly. Then Geziir, the third intruder, produced a knife and waved it in front of Kendil’s face. Corrik turned Kendil’s head aside, and the soldier felt the knife jab lightly at his earlobe. Kendil thrashed around, trying to kick his assailants and get free. But with four people in the shower enclosure, there just wasn’t enough room for him to move. Corrik lifted the parchment, wet with saliva, and Kendil felt it rubbed against his bleeding ear.
All three crewmen stared at the parchment that Corrik held in front of himself. Kendil looked too, wondering what they expected to see besides blood and saliva. Suddenly, the surface of the paper started to glow and then, with a tiny pop, the fluids vanished and the parchment turned a pale violet.
The three intruders seemed pleased by this result, except maybe Geziir who muttered what sounded like an oath under his breath. Burrilain let go of Kendil’s arms and came out from behind him. The first mate said, “Sorry there, Kendil me lad, but we had to be sure. The paper proves it — you’ve not spellbound the cap’n. She’s our cap’n, you know, and it was important. You understand?”
Kendil nodded, and the two crew members that were holding him let go. They shuffled away from him as far as they could, which wasn’t far in the small stall. Kendil started to ask why they had done this, but Burrilain interrupted him.
“It’s just that she’s acting odd. Oh, not every day, no. But with you in her cabin for so long, and then to take that teraehra in as well … But if there be no magic holding her unnatural-like, then all is well.
“You just remember, we all care for her. Hurt her, and we hurt you. Understand?”
Kendil nodded, and all three nodded back. Kendil knew by the intense looks on their faces that they were perfectly serious. Fortunately, he knew that he wasn’t out to hurt Elin. She was, as far as he knew, just as ecstatically happy as he was himself.
“Right,” said Burrilain. “We’ll be going then. But you remember!”
Geziir opened the door and slipped out. Burrilain followed. Corrik stopped in the door, and groped Kendil briefly. He leered, and said, “If I had known, Kendil, I would have told the others that it wasn’t magic that kept you in cap’n's bed.” He winked, patted Kendil’s cheek, said, “Be good to her,” and left.
Kendil slumped against the quarterdeck wall and panted as the excitement and fear from the encounter faded. He lifted a hand to his cut ear, but it didn’t even hurt though it turned his fingers red with blood. Having recovered somewhat, he shook his head and turned back to the shower tap. He reached up again and opened it, letting the lukewarm water flow over his whole body.
He turned the water off and reached for the soap, and he heard the door open behind him again. He whirled around, and found that two of Nikk’s fellow teraehran had entered the shower enclosure. Both were female, and both were holding swords pointed at his middle. He backed against the quarterdeck wall, raising his hands defensively, and said, again, “What do you want?”
One of them held out a small glass tube containing a greenish liquid. “Drink this,” she said.
“Why?” Kendil asked.
“Drink it, or we’ll feed it to you. It won’t hurt you, but we might, accidentally.” They pushed their swords forward until the points were touching his stomach.
“All right, I’ll drink it.” Kendil took the glass tube, removed the stopper, and gulped it down. It didn’t taste like anything but water and he wondered what it was supposed to do until he felt his head start to tingle.
“Open your mouth,” the other teraehra said. Kendil complied, and the woman stared for a moment then frowned. “Stick out your tongue.” Kendil shrugged, and did so. He looked down, crossing his eyes, and saw that his tongue was a familiar shade of violet.
The two women withdrew their swords. The second speaker said, “Well, I guess everything is okay. No magic bindings present. We were just worried about Nikkeus, that’s all. He’s one of ours, you know, so we felt obligated to look after him. No hard feelings, eh?”
The first speaker said, “But just remember, alkaehra, that if you hurt Nikkeus, we’ll hurt you. Got it?” Kendil nodded.
The two of them saluted him, and turned to leave. The first speaker was the last to leave, and she glanced back from the door. Her eyes dipped below Kendil’s waist, and she smiled. She looked back up into his face and said, “Nice tongue, among other things. Lucky Nikkeus. Lucky captain.” She winked, turned, and left.
Kendil sagged against the wall again, though his recovery was quicker this time. His lovers certainly had some forceful friends. He hoped that the two groups spread their news everywhere. He certainly didn’t need anyone else trying to ensure the wellbeing of Elin and Nikk.
He turned back to his shower, and realized that he was almost dry again. As he reached up for the shower tap, he heard the whistle of day watch beginning, and slammed his fist against the wall in frustration. Well, it was too late for a morning cuddle with Elin now, but he still didn’t want to have to refill the water tub. Taking another estimate of the water left, he twisted the tap to on just as the door opened behind him again.
Without turning the water off, he turned beneath the stream and shouted, “Oh, by Aelther’s lazy eye, what now!”
It was only Leilan, who said, “Are you just about done? Do you have any more appointments this morning in the shower? Because there are still five of us waiting.”
And as the last of the water gurgled out of the tap, Leilan grinned and said, “And it looks like we’ll be waiting a bit longer, eh Kendil? Why don’t I go hunt up Gerr-ap while you start working with the bucket and rope to refill that tub?”
Kendil just shook his head as the young alkaehra walked away laughing loudly. “At least,” he thought, “my two lovers are worth all this trouble!”
Nikkeus knelt in front of his locker in the teraehran’s hold and tried to decide which instrument to play today. He was somewhat disappointed that Kendil hadn’t made it back from drill before Elin had to go on duty, but it was only a minor thing. Nothing worthy of upsetting their relationship.
He pulled out his vibrolin first, plucked a string, and set it back in its place. The vibrolin was too innately sad for him to be playing today. The trio he had suggested had been together for a whole week, and he was far too happy to be playing such a mournful instrument.
He reached for the five-valved sakbut and nodded. He was already composing tunes in his head as he closed his locker, when he heard the door to the room open and close. He stood up and turned around, and found two men standing by the door looking at him with strange expressions on their faces. He didn’t know their names, but he recognized them as being part of the alkaehran squad assigned to the ship.
Something about the way they were staring at him frightened him, and he condensed the question he wanted to ask into one word, like he usually did. “What?” he asked as strongly as he could.
“‘What?’” the dark haired one mimicked. “Can’t even ask a proper question, can he, Quell? Can’t talk, but he’s damn cute, huh?”
The pair started advancing toward Nikkeus as the dark haired one continued, “What does ‘what’ mean? What are we doing here? What do we want? Answer’s the same. You. We want some of what ol’ Kendil’s got, and since we can’t do this to the captain, we’ll get what we want from you instead.”
“Yeah,” said the one named Quell. “Kendil always did act too big for his kirtle, too good for the likes of us simple alkaehran. And now he sleeps with the captain, *and* a little teraehra. That’s one too many for Kendil, ain’t that right, Odonbar? We’re just gonna take our share, that’s all. Just take our share.”
Nikkeus gripped his instrument as he looked around for a better weapon. There was something wrong with these two, something about their eyes, about the way they moved, haltingly and strange. He instinctively knew that trying to talk them out of their intentions was just a waste of time. So he steeled himself, and prepared to defend himself.
Quell seemed to decide that getting naked should come before subduing his prey, but Odonbar just kept stalking toward Nikkeus. All of a sudden, he lunged at the musician, who reacted as he had been trained. Nikkeus tightly gripped the sakbut, a coil of brass tubes he had modified to use valves instead of the normal slide, and when Odonbar leaped, Nikkeus swung the instrument as hard as he could into the alkaehra’s face.
Metal impacted Odonbar’s nose, and the man gave a cry and crumpled, blood streaming from his nostrils. Quell looked up, his tunic half unlaced, and growled, then charged. Nikkeus lifted his bent instrument and tried to use it like a club again, but Quell ducked the swing and tackled the musician, knocking the sakbut out of his hand.
Nikkeus tried to roll out from under Quell, but the other man quickly grabbed him tightly, keeping him in place. Nikkeus tried to batter his way free, but the alkaehra was in a better position. As a last resort, Nikkeus shifted his hips and slammed his leg upward, catching Quell perfectly between the legs. The alkaehra screamed and clutched at his groin, and Nikkeus rolled out from under the groaning soldier.
Nikkeus scrambled to his feet and started for the door, but Odonbar had recovered somewhat and blocked his way.
The bloody-faced man growled, “You’ll be a more willing partner once I’ve cut you some.” He drew his knife and started brandishing it menacingly.
Nikkeus knew he was in trouble. Unarmed against a knife was a bad position to be in, and the hurt and crazed condition of this man only made it worse. Nikkeus swiftly glanced around again for a weapon, or even a shield, but the teraehran were too neat and there was nothing lying around that suited his purposes.
He tried to dart around Odonbar, but wasn’t fast enough. He had just decided to try to gain some room by retreating into the depths of the room when Quell, who had stopped groaning some time before, lunged at his ankles and knocked him to the deck.
With animal-like growls, both men leapt on top of him. Odonbar kept his knife flickering in front of Nikkeus’ face while Quell started to reach up under the musician’s tunic to pull down his undergarments.
Nikkeus made a few futile grabs for the knife, and then realized that Quell was so busy trying to get him naked that both of Nikkeus’ legs were completely free of restraint. He didn’t waste his opportunity, and once again kicked Quell hard, this time in the side. The alkaehra grunted and rolled away, which distracted Odonbar. Nikkeus again took advantage, and heaved his torso up, throwing Odonbar off.
Leaping to his feet, Nikkeus dashed for the door. He heard both of his assailants close behind him and he wondered whether he could run fast enough to get up on deck. He had just about decided that he couldn’t, since they were almost upon him and he hadn’t even reached the door, when that same door opened, admitting a handful of his fellow teraehran.
“Help!” he gasped breathlessly as he stumbled into them.
Neither Odonbar nor Quell reacted to the new presences, but just dove after Nikkeus. They didn’t stand a chance. They were tackled immediately, and even their crazed struggling wasn’t enough to overcome the efforts of three people holding each down. Both assailants were wrestled to their feet, still held securely, and the lot of them trooped toward the deck.
Nikkeus called out, “Deck command!” as soon as they arrived on deck. There was a scramble of people toward them, including the crew member designated deck commander. Nikkeus told his story to Geziir, who examined the two attackers briefly and then summoned the ship’s healer and chirurgeon.
Kendil arrived before Telfra, the healer, and he immediately hugged Nikkeus tightly. “Are you all right, Nikk?”
Nikkeus hugged Kendil back, and eventually said, “Yes. Fine.” It felt good to be in Kendil’s arms. Comfortable and safe. He just rested there, head on Kendil’s shoulder, until the healer arrived.
Geziir muttered something to Telfra when she walked up, and she started examining the two captives. She said, “You were right, Geziir. They are drugged. By the signs, it was crystallized Jur-fish.” She stared at them for a while longer, holding her hands over various parts of their bodies. Finally, she shook her head and turned back to Geziir. “The drug is everywhere in them, so they’ve been taking it for at least a fortnight. You know as well as I that they couldn’t have smuggled it on board before launch, so they must have caught some Jur-fish along the way and processed it themselves.”
The captain arrived then, and hugged Nikkeus to herself. She also asked, “Are you all right?” Nikkeus nodded, and hugged her back, and he found himself equally comfortable and safe in her arms.
She passed him back to Kendil and took a step toward the prisoners. She said, “Report, deck commander.” Geziir gave her a condensed version of Nikkeus’ story, as well as the pronouncement of Telfra on the prisoners’ condition.
“Jur-fish, huh?” the captain said. She shook her head, and said, “Take them below and put them in lock-up. Sentence will be delivered later. Back to stations, everyone. We can’t let these scum disrupt the ship’s operation totally.”
The crew dispersed, two of them leading the teraehran who were restraining the captives to the brig. Soon, only Kendil and the captain still stood by Nikkeus. She said, “Come on, let’s all go back to the cabin.”
Nikkeus had no problem with that, and the three of them started across the deck. As they walked, Eldinan called out, “First mate, I’ll be in my cabin if I’m needed.”
Nikkeus became the center of hugs and kisses and tender endearments as soon as the cabin’s door closed behind them. Both Kendil and Elin were touching him, kissing him, trying to comfort him and make him feel better. They dragged him over to the bed and sat him down, trying to ease him, make him comfortable, feel safe and loved.
And he did feel safe and loved, and comfortable for a little bit. But very soon, their overly dramatic attentions began to smother him instead of making him comfortable.
Finally, he had had enough. “Stop! I’m not a child!”
They both pulled back, puzzled and hurt looks on their faces.
“What?” asked Elin.
“I don’t understand,” said Kendil.
“I am not a child. I am trained to fight, and have been in imperial service for nine years. Those two were not the worst I’ve faced in combat, and they didn’t hurt me, only scared me a little. You two need to stop treating me like a baby! Would you smother Kendil with worry like this if he were attacked, Elin? Then give me the same respect. I am a year older than he is after all.”
Kendil and Eldinan looked sheepish and repentant. “Sorry, Nikk,” said Kendil. “I respect you, and I’ll remember that you’re not my kid brother next time.”
Nikkeus laughed at that, and hugged the alkaehra.
“I apologize too, Nikk,” said the captain. “Ever since that first day, when I asked you why you were playing such sad music, I’ve felt like you needed protection. But you can take care of yourself, which should have been obvious. The empire doesn’t employ musicians — at least, not ones who can’t also fight — and you are a teraehra after all.
“Come and give me a hug, and I’ll get back on duty.”
Nikkeus hugged her. He felt better for having asserted his independence, and was glad that Elin and Kendil had accepted it. Even so, he realized that he wasn’t quite ready for Elin to leave just yet.
“Do you absolutely *have* to leave so soon, Elin? I … ah … well, we … we don’t get time together during the day very often, and …”
The captain smiled gently, and patted Nikkeus’ back. “No, Nikk, I don’t have to go quite yet.” She led him back to the bed, where he settled back between his lovers, happy and feeling independently protected.
Eldinan stepped out of her cabin and paused a moment, listening to Nikk and Kendil still chatting away. With a soft sigh at the call of duty, she closed the door softly and strode up on deck.
She reflected on the conversation the three of them had shared. Kendil had related his experiences in the deck shower. He had been slightly indignant that both her crew and Nikk’s fellow teraehran had suspected him of using unnatural means to coerce his partners into a relationship. She had done her best to reassure him that it was only over protectiveness. In the case of her crew, the over protectiveness was out of loyalty. And in the case of the teraehran, it was because Nikk just seemed so vulnerable.
What she hadn’t done was voice her thought that part of their actions might have had to do with the way he held himself aloof from the rest of the ship’s alkaehran, and everyone else on board. No one had really known him well enough to be sure that he wasn’t doing something unnatural. In the absence of anyone to vouch for his character, the two groups had used variations of the same magical test to be sure that his involvement in the trio was clean.
She emerged from the other end of the passage from her cabin into sunlight and a fresh wind. She checked conditions on deck with a practiced sweep of her gaze, then walked over to the ladder and climbed onto the quarterdeck. The first mate was standing at the rail, and she went over to stand beside him.
“I’m back, Burrilain. I see that there’s been no excitement in my absence.”
“Aye, Captain. Calm and steady.” He paused, then continued, “Ah, if I may suggest …?”
“Go right ahead, First Mate.”
“Well, Captain, I’ve been thinking that you might want to assign the punishment of the two alkaehra to me. To remove yourself from any hint of trouble, since you are so close to the situation.”
She had been avoiding thinking about the two assailants ever since leaving the deck earlier, but it was time to deal with them. She thought about Burrilain’s suggestion, and didn’t have to think very hard to know what he meant by ‘hint of trouble.’ She *was* very close to the situation, and she couldn’t be sure that her judgment wouldn’t be affected. When she had heard that Nikkeus, her little Nikk, had been attacked, she had been *so* worried! And then, an instant later, she had been so angry she could have chewed rocks! When she had heard the deck commander’s report, she had been ready at that point to draw her sword and behead the two assailants right then and there. So, actually, there was no question that her judgment was impaired.
And her first mate had offered an elegant, and perfectly permissible, solution. She finally said, “You thought right, and right well, Burrilain. There’s a reason you’re first mate, isn’t there?” She clapped him on the shoulder. “You know the rules as well as I do. Undertake the punishment of the prisoners, Burrilain. I leave them in your charge.”
“Very good, Captain. I’ll attend to them at once.”
Eldinan watched as Burrilain strode down to the main deck, and ordered the prisoners brought up. She was looking forward to this, perhaps a little too much. True, Nikk hadn’t been hurt, and it was true he could take care of himself. But Nikk had told both of them exactly why the alkaehran had attacked him, and she knew that scum like that deserved just what they were getting.
It only took two crew members to bring the prisoners back on deck, as they had been locked into irons. They presented little threat, even though they were still under the effects of the Jur-fish drug. They scowled at everyone around them as they stood there shackled hand and foot.
Burrilain stood in front of the prisoners and raised his voice for everyone to hear. “You stand accused of two crimes. The first is assault on a passenger of the ship. The proof is incontrovertible, and the punishment is ten lashes. This punishment will be postponed for the moment.”
Eldinan gave the first mate a silent “Excellent” for the way he dealt with the first matter. He got it out of the way quickly, gave it a medium sentence, and then set it aside. That way, it would be forgotten quickly as the subsequent charges were brought up. Nikk wasn’t even mentioned by name, which kept his association to her from being directly brought up, which was all to the better. Either Burrilain had been planning this out very carefully, or he was a natural barrister.
The first mate continued, “Your second crime is that of use of a proscribed drug, compounded by the production of that drug in a proscribed location, namely on board this ship. The apparatus for crystallizing Jur-fish was found in your lockers, and Chirurgeon Telfra avers that it has been used.”
Another perfect move, thought Eldinan. Burrilain must have ordered the search earlier. She looked around at the crew on deck, and almost everyone was frowning or shaking their heads. There would be no sympathy for those two among her crew.
“By imperial law and ship’s law, use of a proscribed drug carries the maximum penalty by reason of being incapable of carrying out your duties. Your dereliction of duty could endanger the lives of everyone on board this ship, and that must be punished. There are circumstances that might commute this sentence, but the fact that you procured the drug for yourselves seals your fates. You are responsible, and you will pay that price.
“Deck command, open the gunwale.”
Geziir walked over to the railing on the port side of the ship and opened the gate. Burrilain said, “You two, Alkant Quell and Alkant Odonbar, are consigned to the mercies of the sea. May you find your just reward.
“Carry out the sentence!”
The two alkaehran began to struggle as the crew members pulled them toward the open rail. More of the crew joined in, restraining the prisoners further and shoving them closer and closer to their fate.
Except for the grunts of the prisoners as they struggled, there was silence on the deck. Eldinan looked out over her crew, and saw grim faces everywhere. They knew that what the two alkaehran had done was wrong, and they knew that the sentence was just. But the one thing every sailor feared was death in the sea; death by drowning. Only the fact that the two had brought it on themselves mitigated that shared nightmare.
Face after face turned to look up at her and nod, then return to the morbid spectacle of the prisoners. Her crew understood, and she felt better.
With a final, wordless cry, first Odonbar, then Quell, was pushed out the gate. The two splashes sounded moments later, and a faint, unanimous sigh swept over the deck. Geziir closed the gunwale gate.
It was done. Eldinan turned from the rail of the quarterdeck, and walked to the pilot house, displacing Corrik again. She took up her position behind the unmoving wheel, and stared out over her ship.
It happened slowly, but presently the _Typhoon Dancer_ bustled again with normal activity. Eldinan found it almost impossible not to think of the two men they had left behind, sinking slowly into unmeasured depths …
Just then, a cry came down from the weather watch. “Storm on the starboard horizon, Cap’n!”
Automatically, her hand reached out and touched her anhekova, but of course there was no tingle, no contact with that extra sense. She would get no sense of the size or strength of the storm, or of how far it might blow them off course. She sighed. Only one more week, and they would dock at Wudamund.
She stepped out of the pilot house to start readying her ship for the storm. They had had calm weather for two weeks, so a storm was almost inevitable. But how many more would there be before they reached Cherisk? And would they survive?