The silver-haired man sat cross-legged on the glittering black sand. Nicolas sat facing the beautiful man. “Who are you?” he asked. This time, the other man’s image was solid.
“Kieru.” A flash of sharp teeth accompanied the unfamiliar name. “And you are Nicolas.”
“Yes,” Nicolas said, fear and desire playing chase inside his mind. How could this man know his name?
Why should this man know his name?
Bright spirits above and below, this beautiful man knows my name. His heart beat so quickly, it felt as though it were trying to escape the cage of his ribs.
“You must believe me,” Kieru said. “Evil stalks you all, and it calls to its own.”
Nicolas suppressed his awe at being selected to receive such a valuable omen. That he, a mere man, had been chosen for such an honor was a wondrous thing. Perhaps
too wonderful. Was this pretty stranger a trick sent by the evil sorcerer? “Why me?”
“I can speak to you, here.” Kieru tapped the side of his head. “You are the only one on the ship with the right kind of mind.”
The tingle Nicolas had felt the night before increased, warming and spreading out as the silver-haired man grinned at him.
The rows of serrated, triangular teeth should have been threatening. Instead, they reassured him. An evil spirit would have taken pains to appear fully human. He remembered what one of the shamans had said while testing Nicolas’s magic when he was a boy: it was impossible to lie to someone when speaking mind to mind.
He would listen to Kieru and tell everything to Captain Fox once he awakened from this dream. Determination stiffened his spine. Sitting up straight, he said, “Tell me all. Is it the sorcerer? Has he sent another shadow creature to harry us?”
Kieru frowned. “I do not have the words. My world only touches yours; interactions such as this are rare. All of this” -- he waved an elegant hand at their surroundings -- “I pulled from your memories. Even the way you see me.”
“You’re a spirit?” Nicolas wasn’t surprised.
“I’m real enough.” Kieru tossed his head, hair gleaming in the bright moonlight. “This” -- he gestured toward his body -- “is not my true form. I wear it so that I might speak to you.” He stroked Nicolas’s cheek with his fingertips. “So much work to communicate, and now I find that speech is the least of my desires.”
The caress trailed down Nicolas’s face, down his neck, until Kieru’s palm rested over Nicolas’s pounding heart.
Desire pooled heavily in Nicolas’s belly. He forgot all save the exquisite man before him. “Yes,” he whispered, leaning forward to press his mouth against the other man’s. There was a brief moment of contact before he remembered the sharp teeth and pulled away. “Wait.”
Kieru looked puzzled -- and disappointed.
“Your teeth,” Nicolas said. “I want to kiss you, but I don’t wish to bleed for the pleasure.”
A slow, pointed smile lit Kieru’s fine-boned face. “This is
our dream, Nicolas. My dream and yours. In this place, our word is law. And I say that I will do nothing to harm you.”
The tingle in Nicolas’s mind surged. He knew the other man spoke the unadorned truth. His fears removed, Nicolas swayed forward into the kiss. Beneath his lips, Kieru’s were soft and warm. Compelled to taste, Nicolas licked the other man’s lower lip.
Quick to take advantage, Nicolas brushed his tongue against Kieru’s. Kieru tasted of chilies and mango with a faint hint of salt. It was a wild taste, and it held nothing of Nicolas’s home. The unique flavor and the certainty that Kieru was a friend removed the last barriers holding passion at bay.
Nicolas thrust his tongue forward aggressively, encouraging the other man to duel with him in the precursor to coupling.
Kieru’s response was timid at first, then welcoming, then enthusiastic. Strong arms wrapped around Nicolas, pressing him close.
Nicolas explored Kieru’s mouth, running his tongue over the jagged peaks of Kieru’s teeth, feeling the razor sharpness, though he was not injured. He deepened the kiss, reveling in the sensation of Kieru’s mouth beneath his, warm skin and taut muscles pressed full length against him. It had been too many years since he’d held another man so intimately against him.
Still kissing, they fell sideways onto the warm black sand, hands and mouths exploring. In the distance, Nicolas could hear the ringing of a bell. Ignoring it, he ran his hands across Kieru’s shoulders, caressing the hard muscles.
The bell continued to toll, dragging him toward wakefulness.
Kieru wrenched away from Nicolas, black eyes wide with desire and dismay. “Too late.”
* * * * *
Nicolas awakened to the insistent peal of the ship’s bell. He shook the remnants of his arousal away and pulled on a pair of pants. Cutlass in hand, he trotted up onto the deck with the rest of the crew. As soon as he could, he would tell the captain about the warning Kieru had given him.
Captain Fox stood at the wheel, his lips pressed in a tight, grim line.
Shivering in the predawn chill, Nicolas waited, forcing his body into stillness though fear made his pulse pound in his ears. No one spoke or fidgeted; the assembled crew seemed to be holding their breath. Sudden guilt twisted knots in his belly. Had his surrender to lust with Kieru doomed one of his shipmates?
“Lads and lasses…” The captain paused, his dark gaze sweeping over the crew. “We’ve had another loss. Gerry is missing. He was last seen at the end of his watch at midnight. Has anyone seen aught of him?”
There were a few murmurs, but no one stepped forward. Grief for his missing crewmate was mingled with guilty relief. The dream had come upon him in the early hours before dawn, well after Gerry had vanished. Nicolas took a deep breath, steeling himself to speak up and describe his dream and the warning it contained. The words would not come, as the thought of speaking in front of so many people turned his bones to water.
Nicolas felt a tap on his shoulder and looked around. No one was paying any attention to him. A small white shell bounced off his chest, and he looked up. Kid’s dark eyes peered solemnly down at him from beneath the near sail. The boy gestured for Nicolas to come closer. Curious, Nicolas eased from the gathered crowd and toward Kid. The boy swarmed up and across the rigging and down the stern of the ship, apparently seeking privacy. Nicolas followed, aware as he did so that part of his willingness was due to his wish to avoid speaking before a crowd.
He watched, stunned, as Kid jumped lightly to the deck and walked to the far right corner of the stern. The boy looked terrified, but determination sang from every line of his posture. Deliberately keeping his body movements as nonthreatening as possible, Nicolas joined Kid at the railing. Everyone was careful not to startle the boy. Nicolas, knowing how narrowly he had missed sharing the horrors Kid had endured, treated the boy with all the care he’d give any wild, skittish creature.
“Here.” Kid pointed to a faint mark on the smooth brown wood.
Nicolas leaned forward and examined the mark. It looked as if a heavy bowl had rested on the rail, pressing a melon-sized outline of a circle into the wood. Nicolas ran his fingers across it. The inside and outside of the circle were smooth except for a small area of scratches on either side of the line. The incised mark itself was rough, as though whatever had pressed against the railing was serrated like a shark’s tooth.
“Arm,” Kid said, miming an arm coming over the side of the ship and snatching something.
Chilled to his marrow, Nicolas said, “Kraken.” He traced the edge of the mark, then said, “Did you see it, small brother?” Even as he asked the question, he knew the answer. If Kid had seen the monster, he would have roused the entire ship.
“No. The Lady
showed me the mark. She said it took Gerry.”
“Goddess, grant him peace,” Nicolas said, staring blankly over the water. The kraken were the enemies of all sailors. Intelligent monsters who traveled the oceans of all the worlds, they hated ships. Legend said a kraken would follow a ship and pluck off crew members one by one, feasting on the fear it created. Eventually, once it was sated on terror, the great, multiarmed beast would rise up, grasp the ship in its two clawed tentacles, crush it to pieces, and devour the remaining crew.
Forty years before Nicholas had come aboard, a young kraken had targeted the Lady
. Nicolas knew Kid had sounded the alarm that time, and Captain Fox and the crew had fought the creature, eventually killing it. Kami told of eight powerful, reaching appendages with serrated suckers the size of her fist in addition to the two dreadfully clawed tentacles. The creature’s body had been more than twenty feet long, its arms adding another thirty feet to its length, and the two clubbed tentacles had measured more than ninety feet long.
He looked at the mark on the rail, calculating how big the tentacle that held such a sucker would be. Cold sweat drenched him as he imagined the size of the creature. How could anyone fight such a monster? Irrational anger made him glare at Kid. “Why bring this to me? You should go to the captain.”
“I can’t,” Kid whispered. He jumped up and swung nimbly into the rigging. “Captains hurt Kid.”
Compassion drowned Nicolas’s anger. The Pirate King had indeed hurt Kid very badly. “Not our captain, little brother. Captain Fox would gut anyone who tried to harm you and leave their body for the crabs. But I do understand. I will speak for you.”
Kid nodded and vanished up among the tops of the sails.
Nicolas made his way back to the high deck that held the Lady
’s wheel. The crew had dispersed, each to his or her job, quarters, or to one of Adam’s tutoring sessions. Captain Fox stood alone before the wheel, every line of his body shouting tension and expectation. Sunlight haloed the captain, striking flame-colored streaks in the man’s dark auburn hair.
“What did the lad have to report?”
As always, the captain’s whiskey-and-honey voice stirred something deep inside Nicolas. Yet this time, even as arousal teased his senses, he remembered the heady taste of spiced mangoes and the sensation of sharp teeth pressed against his lips.
He could feel a faint flush against his cheeks as he thought of Kieru, but the dire news he bore quickly drove it away. “A circle, bigger than Tyreel’s two fists together, pressed into the stern railing.” He named the ship’s smith, a blond giant of a Northman who stood more than seven feet tall and carried a greatsword few could lift, let alone wield effectively in a fight. “Kid says the Lady
told him it was a kraken.”
“Damn.” The captain’s sea green eye closed, and he rubbed the place where the patch over his left eye pressed against his cheek. “It sounds like a big one. We killed one of the fell creatures many years ago, but it was scarce more than a babe.”
“There’s more, sir.” When he had the other man’s full attention, he described his dream and Kieru’s vague warning, leaving out only the account of the kisses they had shared.
Captain Fox questioned him thoroughly about the warning and its carrier. Nicolas was as honest as he could be, even admitting to his attraction to the silver-haired man.
“Well, my friend, you’ve done a fine service for the Grey Lady
. I thank you,” he said with a formal half bow.
Nicolas flushed, stammering his certainty that his actions were nothing but what anyone would have done.
Waving away Nicolas’s protest, the captain said, “This silver-haired man, Kieru…you said he was handsome?”
“Aye.” Nicolas blushed beneath the other man’s knowing gaze.
“Listen to his warnings and tell me everything he says, but” -- Captain Fox rubbed a finger beside his nose and smiled slyly -- “no one can fault you for seeking pleasure inside a dream. And if you care to share tales of that
, I will, of course, be happy to listen.” A wide grin showed the gold in his smile. “Perhaps Adam can be persuaded to write an account of your dream.”
Unsure what to say in the face of his captain’s teasing, Nicolas stared out at the sea. A glint of sunlight off silver brought a tiny smile to his face.
“It’s still out there,” Captain Fox said, his green eye twinkling.
“The silver shark.”
Nicolas scanned the horizon but saw no more flashes of silver. “He’s not our enemy.”
The captain gave him a speculative look, then said, “No. He wouldn’t be.”