Stopping within touching distance, he said, “Excuse me, Toga, but we need to talk.”
The man turned, and when he did, Tian heard the scuff of something soft on the wooden deck.
Risking a glance down, he saw the stranger wasn’t a kelpie. Instead of hooves left bare or wrapped in doeskin, as Hans had done for years, this man wore shoes. Real human-type shoes.
He gaped at the bizarre footwear, something few kelpie would bother with, and then lifted his head. He found the black-haired man gazing at him with a frown creasing his handsome face. Feeling a blush start, Tian realized most of those around him had fallen silent and were watching. “Forgive my rudeness, but I mistook you for one of my people.” That wasn’t exactly it; he’d assumed none but kelpies would show up at his mother’s mandated Solstice in October feast. True, the man might be wearing stuffed shoes, but he was darker skinned than any kelpie Tian had ever seen.
“Are your people named for what they wear?” The man—not human, not kelpie, so what was he?—chuckled. “I admit that’s not a custom for which I was prepared.”
Given the choice of continuing in largely unjustified anger or joining Toga in the land of amusement, Tian smiled. “Those I don’t know by sight often earn a temporary nickname.” He gestured at his damp shirt and clinging trousers. “You may call me All Wet if you wish until names are exchanged.” Or until I figure out what you are.
“I am Alastair.” He raised an eyebrow. “And what is your true name, All Wet?”
I like him no matter what species he is.
“I’m Tian.” Then, because he realized Alastair probably didn’t know the names of the royal line, “That’s short for Christian. I’m the son of Lord Cuirm and Lady Weinberg.”
“May Lord Cuirm’s spirit find rest,” all the kelpies around him murmured.
Tian pressed his lips together to keep them from trembling. He refused to show even a hint of sorrow here. His father had died less than a year ago, but the length of time wouldn’t matter to the courtiers and other subjects. So long as Lady Weinberg remained the ruler of all the kelpies of the Five Lochs, the miniature eulogy would be spoken.
Enough is enough for tonight.
He offered the man of unknown species a nod. “Enjoy the festivities, Alastair.” But then he remembered why Matthew had fallen in the water. “And if Matthew—the kelpie you were talking with until he fell overboard—does not want your company, steer clear of him.” He smiled enough to show his canines, which were mildly sharp while he walked in his two-legged guise.
Alastair smiled back. His canines weren’t even as pointed as those of most humans. “I will keep my distance from the edge.” He started to step around Tian.
Who seized him by the upper arm. “You will not dodge my order, sir.” He tightened his grip until Alastair looked at him. “Keep away from Matthew and any others disturbed by your presence, or I will see to it you visit the bottom of this loch.” The fear that leaped into Alastair’s gaze ensured Tian he’d guessed the reason the man hadn’t followed Matthew into the chilly waters.
Lowering his head, Alastair answered, “I will do as you ask.”
Reassured, Tian loosened his hold and strode toward the far end of the float where boats waited to convey to land those who didn’t wish to arrive at the ball soaking wet.
* * * *
Alastair swallowed his fear as he stepped onto what the kelpies called “the floating ballroom.” Last night had been his first sojourn into Lady Weinberg’s circle of control, and he’d come up empty. He hadn’t managed to gain any information from anyone who knew the leader of the kelpies. Intimately or otherwise. And the one leak he’d started to plumb hadn’t been helpful. Either before or after he’d fallen in the water.
To make things worse, Alastair had attracted the notice of one of Lady Weinberg’s sons. He didn’t know much about the Lords Andrew, Hans, and Christian beyond their names. And knowing Christian’s nickname was Tian couldn’t even be stretched into the general term “information.”
To put it plainly, Alastair thought as he moved onto the deceptively steady float, I have been here an entire day, and I have learned nothing. The only coup I’ve managed is that her son didn’t seem to know who or what I am.
It would be wise, Alastair knew, to steer clear of Lady Weinberg’s son no matter how their last encounter had ended.
He slipped between two groups of chatting kelpies. Pausing a moment, he noted the female kelpie closest to him had decorated her hooves with little bracelets. The idea of jingling while he walked made Alastair’s skin crawl. Leaving the clusters of chatterers behind, he looked toward the far end of the float. Scanning the crowd, he spotted Lady Weinberg with her half a dozen guards. Her chair was on a platform built to at least four feet in height. As though she considered herself above the others.
She’s not my direct problem right now.
If he had any hope of learning more about her plans for the land as well as the water, he would do well to stay out of her sight. So rather than drift toward the platform, he melded seamlessly with a score of kelpies who seemed to be watching a single couple dance in an unexpectedly open space.
Alastair scrutinized the twirling duo, repressing a snort of laughter when one of them tripped sideways, his hooves stuttering on the deck in atrocious counterpoint to the triple time of the music. Then, remembering he might also be under scrutiny, Alastair wiped the smile off his face. He wasn’t here to judge the kelpies’ dancing abilities. They’re definitely better swimmers than I’ll ever be.
Having poured a teaspoon of contempt on his pride, he realized the kelpie who’d tripped was the one who’d fallen into the water yesterday evening.
“Do you dance?”
He jumped, berating himself for retreating into his head rather than focusing on the world around him. And when he turned, he saw the kelpie lord he’d submitted to. Almost gladly.
He had to admit this; there was no other way to construe the tightening of his testicles and the pleasant tension in his thighs. Being commanded, ordered about like a gnome-salamander hybrid of half his status, was arousing.
Aware that he should be inventing an excuse to escape the lady’s son, Alastair bowed. “I have never danced on such an inconsistent platform.”
Lord Tian laughed and gestured for Alastair to rise. “It won’t come apart under your feet. I promise. Do you dance in other places?”
Would there be any real harm in pumping such a ready mouth for information? As long as he was discreet, Alastair decided, a short dance might reveal enough that he could go home tomorrow. Longing for the caves and calderas of Naples half crushed his chest. “I do. And I would gladly dance here.”
“Our moves are probably a little different from what you’re used to.”
Especially because you have hooves rather than feet.
Alastair shrugged. Smiled. And took Tian’s offered hand.
The musicians had fallen briefly silent. Standing in a cleared place with Alastair’s hand still in his, Tian nodded to one of the fiddle players, moving his hand in a duple pattern. Then he whistled a brief snatch of what could have been melody.
The fiddler he’d been “talking” to grinned, muttered something to the rest of the musicians, and then tapped a quick and staccato rhythm with his foot. And the musicians lunged into a wheeling twirl of notes.
With his hand still in Tian’s, Alastair was surprised when the kelpie put the other hand at his waist. The intimate press of their bodies seemed to defy the rapid music, especially when Tian led the way into close-pressed spin after spin.
Just as Alastair began to feel slightly dizzy, Tian pressed their bodies together from the chest up before stepping into a strange sort of line dance. The heat from his skin simmered against Alastair’s stomach and chest. And when he ground his hips briefly against Alastair’s, there was wild laughter in his gaze.
Penis shooting toward full erection, Alastair groaned in frustration when Tian pulled back. When Alastair tried to reinitiate the contact, Tian smirked and kept his lower half a hand’s span away.
“Is this whole dance a tease?” he demanded when Tian resumed the dizzying spins.
Tian’s gaze continued to laugh. “It’s one of the rituals we have to perform regularly before winter solstice.”
Barely able to catch his breath, Alastair knew he’d been given an opening to ask about the kelpie way of life and perhaps about Tian’s mother, but he couldn’t order his thoughts enough to speak. Instead, he dropped his gaze to where their bodies didn’t touch. Tian had put even more distance between them, his fingers scarcely holding Alastair’s and the fingers of his other hand brushing Alastair’s hip.
The music halted midcareen. Or so it seemed to Alastair. In the silence left by the motionless drums and fiddles, he heard himself gasping for breath. As if he’d gone running through the ruins in Old Athens where he’d played hide and seek as a child. He struggled to say something, anything, to distract from the ache between his legs and the shuddering air escaping his parted lips. Before he could manage such a minor miracle, the musicians were off again.
After the second dance, which had been as quick as the first and just as erotic, Alastair begged off. “I need to sit.” Then, remembering that all the chairs and stools were at the edges of the float, he added, “But only if there’s a place not too near the water.” He was embarrassed to ask for such a thing, but he’d never dreamed his assignment to spy on Lady Weinberg would involve so much time on a lake. Didn’t kelpies run on land too? Why were they spending every night on a creaking square of wood and ropes?
Tian grinned. Tugging at Alastair’s hand, he said, “Follow me.” He threaded through the clumps of onlookers and dancers with the same grace he’d used to lead while the music played. His hooves didn’t hinder him in the least; Alastair had forgotten them until he was walking in Tian’s wake. He couldn’t hear the clomp of each step, and Tian wore no bracelets or other decorations below his knees. In fact, Alastair mused, Tian’s clothing bore little connection to what was sported all around them. Tian’s trousers were some light material that didn’t cling to his ass or thighs, and his shirt, while open at the throat, didn’t show the definition of his muscles.
If he has any definition.
Alastair dismissed that thought at once, however, because Tian must
have some sculpted muscles if he could dance so well. And if he’d been able to push that chair out of the water last night. Even if he hadn’t gotten it up on the deck, he’d fished it out.
Alastair was distracted by a quick, light pressure on his hand. Blinking, he gazed into Tian’s light green eyes.
“Stay here a moment.” Tian disappeared into the throng. But before Alastair could begin to miss the warmth that had encompassed his fingers, the lord kelpie was back with a chair. No, two chairs, one on top of another. He set both down and sat, gesturing to the other.
Alastair touched the good, strong wood of his seat and raised an eyebrow.
“Yes?” Tian grinned as if he knew Alastair’s thoughts.
That idea—a telepathic kelpie when kelpies weren’t supposed to have control over anything outside the pheromones and glamour they used to lure prey—urged Alastair to push a little back from Tian. But when Tian’s teasing expression didn’t change, he pursued the question that had flitted through his mind. “How strong are you?”
He received a shrug in response, but Tian looked away as if he were embarrassed. “I was showing off a little. I don’t usually manage two chairs at once.”
The admission helped Alastair relax even though he reminded himself that the words didn’t mean Tian wasn’t telepathic. But so far as he knew, there had never been a story of a kelpie with mental abilities beyond the norm.
Silence stretched between them, and Alastair shifted uncomfortably. Without the excuse of dancing to occupy him, his mission loomed large. “Can you…will you tell me…” He fumbled to a stop. There was no delicate way to ask what he needed, not when they were surrounded by a thousand ears. And the careful prodding he’d studied refused to come to him at the moment of truth.
“What are you?” Tian asked. He skidded one hoof across the deck. “I know that’s rude, but I’ve never… All I’ve met are kelpies.” He paused and then whispered, “And humans.”
Of course you’ve met humans, Alastair thought. They’re your main source of food.