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Sing, sing me, fine lads, the song o’t’sea
Sing o’t’life w’out master t’flee
Sing o’t’pirates who ride through t’strait
Sing o’t’lads f’whom fortune won’t wait
Sing o’t’life for you an’f’me.
—from “Song of the Sea,” a traditional Ring pirate chantey
Sometimes, deep in the dark stillness of the night, Charles Perry woke to the sound of the stars calling out his name.
He’d presumed the voices came from the night watch pirates singing their prayers to the waters for safe passage, but on the third evening of waking to the ethereal sounds, he’d realized the whisper came over the top of the songs. That night he’d climbed to his knees, pushed the latticed windows of the captain’s cabin wide, and stared up into the night sky.
The night sky had stared back and whispered, “Charles.”
Stars, it turned out, had mournful, jagged voices, like notes of song tangled painfully in a web. For several minutes they would whisper their sorrowful plea, the sound mixing with the resonant harmony of the pirates’ tributes, and then they would stop. What caused them to sing, Charles didn’t know. He didn’t know if they knew he listened, and he didn’t know what they wanted. He only knew that every time they called out to him, they broke his heart.
What good was it being a god if you couldn’t understand the prayers, let alone know how to help?
The mattress he knelt on shifted, then dipped near his right knee before a warm, heavy hand slid up Charles’s leg. Gripping the sill, Charles leaned into the frame and closed his eyes on a shuddering exhale of breath. The massage on his leg continued as a sleep-rough voice asked, “Stars again?”
Charles nodded, eyes still shut. “Be glad you can’t hear them.”
The bed shifted more roughly as his bed partner swore in pirate cant and tried to untangle himself from the bedclothes. Charles bit his cheeks, knowing what was coming next. This was when the pirate would tell him it would be all right, would tell him not to listen, would try to distract him. Which was noble enough, but Charles wished James would leave him to suffer this alone.
However, when the pirate finally spoke, it wasn’t James who comforted him.
Charles’s breath caught in his throat. The energy of the man beside him had altered, a subtle signal few could read, but one Charles now knew intimately. His body began to tremble.
This wasn’t Gibbs. It was Timothy. Which would have been a fine change, being comforted by his lover instead of his captor, if these were normal circumstances.
But Charles would be damned if he could find anything normal about being enslaved for his own protection by a pirate who happened to have Charles’s dead lover haunting his soul.
Charles shut his eyes. “Don’t.”
The hands on his body tightened, and Charles could feel the energy shift more powerfully than ever. “You would have me leave, beloved?”
Charles would never grow used to this, hearing James Gibbs’s voice speaking Timothy Fielding’s words. “No, I don’t want you to go. But this is more difficult than you realize, having you inside another’s mind, another’s body.”
Hands moved over the planes of Charles’s back, but they moved differently now: Timothy’s smooth, practiced touch rather than James’s boldly seductive strokes. “Do you still doubt it is I who touches you?” A soft kiss fell on his collarbone. “Or have you decided you prefer our pirate?”
The latter was spoken in jest, but Charles was not in the mood for humor. “You know better than to think anyone else compares to what you are to me.” He jerked in almost physical pain as the stars’ calls began to swell. “But enduring this is bad enough without aching for you on top of it.”
“Aching for me? Quiera, I am here beside you.”
Charles laughed bitterly. “You are not.”
Timothy made a pfft sound, which sounded ridiculous through James Gibbs’s lips. “I thought you liked this body. Certainly you seemed to a few hours ago.”
It was true, and Charles’s backside still ached delightfully in remembrance. “Being fucked against the wall by James Gibbs is not the same as being with you. Even if you did nudge him to tuck my leg at that angle.”
“You noticed!” Timothy sounded delighted.
“Of course I noticed. When it’s him alone at that point of fucking, he’s little more than a battering ram. Delightful as that can be, I know the finesse is from you.” The calls swelled louder, and Charles collapsed against the pirate’s body. “Why? Why do the stars call out to me? What do they want me to do?”
Timothy kissed the top of Charles’s head and tucked Charles’s face beneath James’s chin. Charles wished he were smelling the exotic scent of Catalian concubine instead of salt-and-sweat-soaked pirate. Not that pirate was bad. But that was what upset him, knowing this was Timothy and yet wasn’t, not at all.
Timothy stroked Charles’s hair as he spoke. “Darkness has the stars. That is why they are afraid.”
Darkness. That would be Bassam. The Pretender. Our renegade son. Charles wished he could sink into the mattress and drown. “So he is back.”
“Darling, he never left. But he is gathering his forces for a war now, so yes, he’ll make his presence known to you more and more.”
War. Again. Charles rubbed his head, which was starting to ache. Hadn’t they just done this?
Timothy stroked his shoulder. “He wants to take you, and this is his bait. This is why you are enslaved to the pirate, because that bond means Bassam cannot take you, no matter how he tries. Not without killing your master first.”
“It’s a bloody piece of paper,” Charles snapped.
“It is much more than that,” Timothy insisted.
Charles sighed. “I don’t know why any of this is happening. I don’t have forces. And I know as much about war as I do philosophy. Which is to say that I don’t know war at all. What does he want with me?”
“I know both. As does Jonathan. Even Gibbs is a fair hand in a conflict, and better still, he knows how to play dirty.” Timothy kissed his temple. “We have beaten the Pretender before. We will beat him again, and this time we will see to it he is finished for good.”
“I’m tired of games. I just want peace. I want you in your own body again. I don’t want us to be gods. I just want to live like a normal man and love you.”
“We will have it, quiera. I promise you.”
Charles wanted to believe him.
The stars called out one final, discordant note, and the night was quiet again. Above deck the pirates finished their song as well, calling out orders as they rotated their shift. Within minutes they would begin another tune to keep their rhythm and while away the dark hours.
Charles felt the pirate’s body still, sway, and shift. “Oi.” James cleared his throat, shook his head in a gesture not unlike a wet dog trying to dry himself, and blinked several times before reaching with his free hand to nudge at something inside his ear with his index finger. “I take it your friend has gone borrowing my body again.” He didn’t wait for confirmation, but he did squint for a moment at the stars. “They finished yet?”
Charles nodded. He tried not to let the pang of Timothy’s departure upset him, but it always did. There was never any warning of when he’d come or when he’d leave. Sometimes he didn’t materialize fully at all, just passed on messages through James. Even for Charles, who was something of a master of odd relationships, this one frequently tried him.
James reached up to ruffle his hair. “He didn’t say good-bye again, I take it.”
Charles grimaced and wiped at his eyes. “He contends he never leaves.”
“Which is a bit unfair, t’my thinking, as I always feel I’been for a nap when he lets me back in.” He slid his hand down Charles’s back and slapped him hard on his rump, chuckling when Charles jerked and hissed in pain. “Used you a bit rough, did I?”
Yes, and the memory made Charles smile. “I liked it.” His smile quickly faded, however, under the weight of the stars’ pleas still echoing in his ears. He shut his eyes, but that was no escape. He tried to laugh, but it came out sad and broken. “Do you know, I bore so much from the wraiths and at the alchemist’s hands, and yet I never wept. I screamed, I begged, and I sobbed in pain, but I never curled up in the corner and cried like an infant. And yet even when the stars don’t torture me, it’s all I want to do.”
“There’s too much in your head.” James’s touch was tender, but his kiss on Charles’s temple was for a child. “Mortal men weren’t made to bear such as you do.”
“But I’m not a mortal man. That’s just the problem.”
“You are.” The pirate’s fingers wedged insistently in the crease of Charles’s backside to rub against his tender entrance. “You’re just a man. A human male with a bit too much magic in his veins, with a bossy god distracting you from living your life.”
This time Charles knew if he tried to laugh it would be nothing but tears. “I only wish that were true.”
“It is true. Get on your knees and let me show you. I’ll fuck the god right out of you for as long as you can take it.” When Charles started to protest, James grunted mild displeasure and bent his head to nip at Charles’s nape. “Now.”
Weary, Charles moved to the center of the narrow bed, leaning forward onto his stomach but keeping his knees wide apart. When James slapped his thigh, Charles dutifully lifted his hips for the bolster to slide beneath. The pirate took hold of Charles’s cock as he put the pillow in place, and Charles’s tension began to seep from his body as he gave it over to James.
“There we are. Getting hard for me already.” The pirate squeezed once more, then let go to slap Charles’s upturned cheeks. “Wider. Knees wider, boy, and arse higher. Show me how much you want it.”
Charles was already spread so far he was straining, but there was something about the pirate’s rough commands that always inspired him to go a little bit more. He felt his pucker gape for the pirate’s viewing, and he hardened to the point of pain at the approving sounds the sight inspired.
“Such a pretty one you are.” James’s hands slid fondly over the globes of Charles’s upturned ass. “Whatever shall I do with such fine, fine flesh?”
Even with the disharmony of the stars’ call echoing inside him, even though he had just said he didn’t want to play, Charles slid easily into the game. “Whatever you wish.”
He jerked, but not much, when James bit the tender flesh of his backside. “I thought you were a god. Thought you made the heavens and the earth and everything that walked on it.”
Not the heavens, no, but this wasn’t the moment for such a correction. “Yes.”
Another bite, and this time Charles didn’t flinch. “Thought you were magic, so full of the stuff you can pull time out of thin air, maul it, and turn it into a man.”
And hadn’t that been the disaster to top all disasters. “Yes.”
The last bite nipped so close to Charles’s vulnerable opening that it flexed. “And what are you now, love? What are you doing here in my bed?”
So many times. So many times they’d played this game, more and more now as the nights brought him so much torment, but every time this last reply filled Charles with sweet, sweet relief. “Whatever you wish, Master,” he whispered, “for I am your slave.”
But this time James changed the game. “No,” he demanded roughly. “You’re my man.” He slapped Charles’s backside hard. “Say it.”
“I’m your man,” Charles repeated.
Another slap, harder this time. “Again.”
“I’m your man.”
Again and again James beat him, demanding that same reply, and Charles bore his blows and repeated the phrase until he felt lost. Nothing was left in his mind but the presence of sweet, oblivious pain. When the pirate finally stopped, Charles’s heart was in his throat.
“Please. Please—don’t—” His breath caught and he moaned as slick fingers pressed against his heated opening.
“I’m not stopping, my darling little slut. I won’ stop until y’ feel the tip of m’ cock comin’ out o’ your mouth.” Two slicked fingers shoved roughly inside of Charles, and he cried out at the pleasure-pain they gave him. James’s delicious descent into rough cant didn’t hurt his enjoyment either. “That’s right, love. I’m goin’ t’ split ye so hard they’ll hear y’ cry in the nest.” He pulled his fingers out and thrust home—hard—with his hot, slicked cock.
When he was buried deep and long inside of Charles’s ass, he leaned forward and licked his shoulder blade as Charles panted against the pain.
“I’m goin’t’fuck you until the only stars y’see are the ones I put inside o’yer head.” Then he kissed Charles’s neck and added tenderly, “And not one of them will make you sad.”
Charles sobbed then, a quick, broken release. Reaching back, he held the pirate’s head in place so he could kiss it. “Thank you.”
“Not at all.” James kissed him again, lingering. “Just hold on a bit more. If I have my way, it won’t be long until you’re free.”
If only. “It’s more than your slave contract that binds me, James.”
“Aye. That’s what I meant.” James nipped Charles’s nose before pressing his head back into the sheets. “Now hold still, wench, so I can plow your lily arse.”
Plow he did, pulling out and plunging in so deep Charles wondered how he didn’t split down his center like a tree. He fucked Charles until there was no more thought of Timothy or stars or the Goddess or anything at all, until Charles screamed and wept and begged like a whore for James to never, ever stop.
* * * *
As the night watch settled into their posts, Jonathan Perry took up his usual station between two rail cannons to stare across the water, into the inky-black beauty of the waters, watching the clouded crescent of the moon cast a rippled reflection across the placid surface.
It was a quiet night aboard the pirate vessel Merry Sue. The sailors’ evening songs drifted around Jonathan’s ears as he leaned against the rail, the harmonies punctuated by the creak of the ship and the splash of the waves against the hull. A romantic would sigh at the lushness of it all, of the bawdy freemen, the open water. Even the lushly endowed, wide-hipped woman carved into the bowsprit was enchanting at night. Darkness cloaked the dirt and grime of everything on the pirate vessel, and there was nothing in the way of enjoying the craftsmanship of the ship’s carpenter: the careful slope of the rail to the whimsical figures etched above doorways or the sea-scene reliefs carved into pillars belowdecks. And it was true: the Merry Sue was the most beautiful, most cared-for nautical vessel Jonathan had ever seen, and he had seen more than most during his time in the Etsian Army.
But it was also true this was still a nest of lawless pirates. Jonathan cautioned himself not to forget that.
A shadow fell onto the rail beside him, and when he turned to see who it was, all the calm he’d gathered was gone.
The pirate captain grinned at Jonathan, grunting a little as he cinched his belt into place. He smelled, Jonathan noted with disdain, and not just of sweat. He stank of sex, which meant he had been fucking someone. Probably Charles.
Jonathan pursed his lips to keep himself from speaking and turned back to the water.
Gibbs leaned onto the rail with a lusty sigh. “You might as well sign up for night duty with us, mate, as often as you’re on deck during our shift.” When Jonathan kept silent Gibbs kept talking. “So what do you think o’ our ship? Prettier than a navy boat, I fancy.”
It was, and far less dismal all around, but Jonathan would not admit it, not aloud. “When I rode military ships, we never dared swing out as far as pirates go. I was told the waters were too treacherous.”
“Oi, they are.” Gibbs nodded across the water. “It’ll be a fine, hard week of it a’fore we get to the Casket, and then the fun begins.”
Jonathan had been trying not to think about their inevitable pass through Perjory’s Casket, the nickname sailors had given the Strait of Mantun, the narrow, swift-current shallows that marked the oceanic border between the island nation of Etsey and the Continent. “I still fail to see how we’ll make that pass without splintering against the rocks or getting caught in a current sending us straight for the cliffs. You don’t have the sounding equipment the navy uses. And I know maps are worthless because the bottom constantly changes with the tides.”
Gibbs chortled. “I told you. We pray to the sea and leave her offerings. T’isn’t my fault you don’t believe me.”
“When you’re as intimately connected to gods as I am, you’ll understand my reluctance of faith.”
He expected another laugh at that, but Gibbs surprised him by sobering. “Fair enough.”
Gibbs lit a pipe, and Jonathan watched the process as the pirate loaded and packed tobacco. Gibbs’s fingers were long and knobby, several of them clearly having been broken more than once and reset poorly. They dipped into the tobacco pouch at strange angles, and one of them refused to work at all as the pirate stuffed the leaf into the bowl. Catching him looking, Gibbs smiled a half smile as he fumbled with his other hand for a match, but Jonathan noted that this grin didn’t make it all the way to his eyes.
“Aye, m’digits are wrecked on that hand, and thanks be to the dear monks for that.”
Cloister. Jonathan grimaced. “I didn’t realize you’d been a prisoner.”
Gibbs huffed a bitter laugh. “I’ve been to see them so many times they have a special welcome just for me.” He was still fumbling with his light, but he stopped to give Jonathan an evil grin. “They get so tetchy when you don’t scream during their rape. It was almost worth m’finger to see ’em so gnashed. Though once was enough. I sing pretty for ’em now when I visit.” He frowned at the flint, which still didn’t work. “Bastard piece o’shite.”
Jonathan withdrew a book of matches out of his pocket, cupped his hand around Gibbs’s bowl, and lit the leaf. The smell of smoldering tobacco mixed with the pirate’s aroma of sweat and sex, punctuated occasionally by sharp sprays of sea mist.
Gibbs nodded his thanks and smoked for a moment. Then he leaned on the rail with both arms and kept his gaze on the dark horizon. “Elleian told me te remembers you. Te said when te were born, you were there. Says te passed right through your heart. Said it were beautiful, like a bright, cozy star inside a cave.”
That comment made Jonathan straighten, and he found himself scanning the deck for the sailor in question, but of course he was day shift and not on deck.
Jonathan winced and made the mental correction. Te, not he. For Elleian was an androghenie, and te was gender fluid in every sense of the word.
Even without Elleian present, just mentioning tir made Jonathan feel strange. Slightly uneasy, but something else too that he couldn’t place. He chalked it up to the displeasure he usually experienced remembering that strange moment in the abbey tower. “Like a star inside a cave.” Jonathan’s laugh was macabre. “How interesting that he—te—found that moment so. I can’t say I found it to be the same.”
“Aye. You took ten thousand souls through yours. Can’t say I’d volunteer for that one, mate.”
Jonathan hadn’t volunteered, not exactly. But that wasn’t Gibbs’s business, so he kept silent.
Gibbs, naturally, did not. “Jonathan Perry, Death Unit officer, House blood survivor, and gateway to souls. That make you a god then, like my boy?”
“No. I’m supposedly a kind of shard, but that’s all. No powers. Just a kind of connection.”
“That’s not what I heard,” Gibbs replied, his drawl turned thick with suggestion. “I heard you were a great help to our boy Timmy, out there in his temple in the sky.”
Jonathan went still.
Dark memories, however, tried to rise. He saw a gleaming golden temple. He saw Timothy, handsome and strong.
He saw him lean closer.
The images went dark, and Jonathan blinked. And frowned. “I was some sort of anchor for him,” he replied brusquely.
“Aye. How did that work again?”
Jonathan’s fingers dug into the rail, because if they didn’t, they’d close around Gibbs’s throat. “I don’t know. I don’t have any memories of what happened.”
“Oh, but you ain’t a daft bugger, Perry. What do you think happened?”
“It doesn’t matter.” Splinters were crawling under Jonathan’s fingernails. “It’s over.”
Gibbs laughed. Wickedly. “Is it?”
Fear burbled at Jonathan’s throat, and he climbed on top of it into anger. “What do you care, pirate? You weren’t there.” Then he winced, and Gibbs laughed again, worse than before.
“No, I can’t say I was. I was…occupied. With your lovely friend Madeline. And I remember everything I did with her, mate.”
Jonathan let go of the rail and grabbed Gibbs’s throat almost in one movement. Two steps had him pushing the pirate into the shadows, sending the pipe flying over their heads to land somewhere out in the ocean. It was with near glee that Jonathan pressed his splinter-laden fingernails into Gibbs’s rough flesh.
“You’ve grown rather cocky of late. What happened to the cowering simpleton who feared me in the desert?” Jonathan pulled a knife and pressed it meaningfully into Gibbs’s side. “Do you need a reminder of what I learned in the Death Unit, Gibbs?”
But the pirate only grinned, and something gleaming in the man’s eye made Jonathan pause, uncertain.
“Let’s play a game,” Gibbs whispered.
Jonathan hissed and stuck the knife deeper into Gibbs’s side, but Gibbs only sucked in his stomach and stretched his smile wide enough to show teeth.
“A game, ducks. Just you and me, here in the dark.” His gnarled hand reached up to stroke Jonathan’s cheek.
Jonathan slapped it away. “Save it for my cousin. I don’t play games like that with anyone but Madeline. And never with men.”
Light from a nearby torch lit Gibbs’s face just enough for Jonathan to register the smugness on the pirate’s face. “Then that will be our game. If I show you that you do play those kind of games, I get to claim a prize. If I can’t, you get one.”
“There’s nothing I want from you.”
Gibbs nodded meaningfully at the knife. “You do. You want to gut me. Obviously you can’t—but if you win, ducks, I’ll let you best me. Give me a right good kicking, in front of my men and all. You can heap shame and disdain onto me until I break.”
Desire, hot and thick and full of vengeance, rose inside Jonathan—and he squashed it flat before it could even bloom. “No. I don’t do that to people. Even if they deserve it.”
Gibbs leaned forward—carefully, to avoid the knife. “But you want to,” he whispered. “Even if they don’t deserve it.”
Dark shadows stirred in his mind, hollow haunts where demons and family darkness had lived. Jonathan shut those doors too. “No.”
“Then I’ll give you something else. Anything you want. I don’t offer that lightly, Perry. Come now. Don’t you want a pirate begrudgingly in your debt?”
Jonathan paused. Why was the bastard so confident? Jonathan tried to find the trap, but there was none. There couldn’t be. He didn’t desire men. He hadn’t been unfaithful to Madeline—not since that once, and that had been a lifetime ago now. And it was with a woman. The pirate couldn’t win.
Oh, but Goddess bless, Jonathan wanted to best the bastard. He hated him for so many reasons, and here was his chance to set the captain down a peg. Why shouldn’t he?
Because this man loves games. Because no one on the ship can beat him at anything, from casting beads to dice to cards to boards. Because there is no way this is not a trap.
Jonathan withdrew the knife and turned to walk away.
“I was the first inside her arse.”
Jonathan froze, but his blood, already near to boiling, frothed up in hot, dark molasses in his ears.
“I was the first inside Madeline Elliott’s arse,” Gibbs repeated. Gloating. Goading. “Tight and hot, your lady. A fine, fine ride. Took her twice there, and licked that sweet cunny until she couldn’t stand. I think of it every time I look at her, how—”
This time Jonathan pinned Gibbs to the wall by his hair, and the blade that scraped against his throat was already drawing blood.
“Game,” Gibbs croaked, maddeningly calm, if somewhat mindful of the blade and its nearness to vital arteries. “Play the game, and you can carve ‘sodding bastard’ in curly capitals against m’ chest. Play. The. Game.”
“Fine.” Jonathan pulled the pirate’s hair so hard he heard some of it rip free in his hand. “Let’s have it, Gibbs. Let me see your game.”
Then his eyes flashed gold, and the world around Jonathan went soft and strange.
One moment Jonathan was standing on the deck of the Merry Sue, and the next he was in a desert, walking naked across the blistering sand. The music wafted around him, becoming swirling orbs before him as he walked, and then the orbs merged and formed a temple.
Jonathan went inside. When he pushed open the doors, he heard the voice calling to him with longing.
“Jonathan. Charisha, come to me.”
He saw the shadow rise from the dais, saw the slender arms open for him. Jonathan felt his heart lift, as if it could rise all the way to the sky. He climbed onto the dais and went, tears streaming down his face, into his lover’s arms.
“Timothy,” he whispered, and closed their mouths together in a kiss.
They fell into the pillows as the last notes of the song rang out across the deck, but the moment expanded, and Jonathan tore away his lover’s clothes, pressed their naked bodies together, and made desperate love to him. As the gray fingers of reality returned, he watched himself kneel at the edge of the dais, urging his lover to enter him.
Opening his eyes, he stared openmouthed at Gibbs’s ruddy face and realized this had not been a vision at all, but a memory.
That was me. That was me with Timothy in the temple. That happened.
“No,” he whispered.
“Point to me,” Gibbs whispered back. But he wasn’t smiling anymore.
Jonathan’s knife fell to the floor, and his hand, shaking, fell away from Gibbs’s hair. His knees buckled too, but Gibbs caught him, bearing him upright.
“Easy. Easy, mate. The rest will leak back slowly. No more will come back to you just now.”
It happened. It really happened. He gasped for air, but it was full of the smell of Gibbs. Of sex. The smell of man and man. And as if it had been locked away with everything else, even though he still hated Gibbs, he now felt a sharp, low pull in his gut for him as well.
The memories paused as they swam back to their places in the darkness, sending Jonathan a fissure of warmth and longing.
“I don’t understand.” Jonathan tried to push away from Gibbs, but he felt confused and thick and strange. “Timothy would never do that to me.” Except he hadn’t done anything to me. I did it to him. I begged him. Sweet Goddess, I begged him to fuck me…
He must have started to crumple again, because Gibbs’s rough, hard grip was bearing him up with even more determination now. “No panic. Nothing to panic over, ducks.”
Yes there bloody is. He looked blearily to Gibbs. “Why? Why did you make me remember?”
No grins, no cheekiness—only a softness that looked eerie on the normally boorish pirate’s face. “That’s another game, love. One you’re not quite up for playing just yet.”
Game. Jonathan remembered the pirate’s insistence that he play and felt sick. “What will be your prize? You’ll beat me?” A thought flashed into his brain, and fury rose up over his confusion. “You won’t touch Madeline, you filthy dog.”
Gibbs held up a staying hand. “Not without her permission, no. And not for a game between us.”
It was as if not just the ship but the whole world pitched beneath Jonathan, making him feel sick but also full of…not yearning. He did not feel yearning for James Fucking Gibbs. But he felt something, he couldn’t deny that. The low, deep pull intensified, concentrating in a space just behind his balls.
As if he could read Jonathan’s mind, Gibbs’s smile finally returned, as lurid as ever.
“I’d thought to give you a break, lad. But if you’d rather pay your forfeit now, that’s fine with me.”
Jonathan stumbled backward, nearly tripping over a barrel. He braced himself against it instead. “I’ll gut you first.”
Gibbs clucked his tongue as he paced around Jonathan like a cat. “Goodness me. I wouldn’t have put you down as one for liking a bit of bite to his play. But no worries, lad. I can accommodate you.” His teeth flashed white in the shadows as he cupped his groin suggestively. “Or would you prefer to accommodate me?”
This time when Jonathan launched himself at the pirate, he couldn’t even lay a hand on the bastard. With agility a man of his size shouldn’t have, using evasive maneuvers Jonathan didn’t even know, he stepped out of the way, spun around and pinned Jonathan to the wall before Jonathan could even consider a recovery. His knife clattered out of his hand and skittered into the darkness.
When Gibbs’s hard, sweaty body pressed against his own, instead of rage or fear, Jonathan knew a shuddering kind of despair that made him go slack in the pirate’s arms. What was happening? What had happened?
What was going to happen now?
He shut his eyes as Gibbs’s whisker-rough cheek brushed his. “Hush,” the pirate murmured into Jonathan’s ear. “It’s all right. I promise. I know y’ hate me. I can’t stop y’ from that. But there’s much you need to know, lad. Much coming, much of it for you.” Gnarly fingers stroked Jonathan’s hair. “You don’t need holes in your mind when you face it. Certainly not ones as innocent as that.”
Innocent! Jonathan was sick of floundering, but it was all he seemed able to do. “But I don’t! I haven’t! Don’t you think I would know if I wanted to—” Fuck men. Even in his head, the words made him reel. He set his teeth. “I don’t. I don’t know why Timothy did that to me, made me act that way, but I’m sure—”
“All that one did was take away the memory. You did the fucking on your own, mate.”
Spinning. The world was spinning and spinning and spinning. Jonathan held on to Gibbs’s shoulders, trying to stop the twirls. “I don’t desire men.”
Gibbs pulled back and cocked an eyebrow. Rolling his eyes, he shook his head.
Then he leaned forward and caught Jonathan’s bottom lip with his teeth.
Heat shot from that bite to the bottom of Jonathan’s balls. He gasped, and Gibbs chuckled, nibbling again before opening his mouth and sealing it in a slant over Jonathan’s own. The taste of spice and pirate filled Jonathan’s mouth as Gibbs’s prick, hard as a rod of steel, pushed against his own. Shock held him still, which meant the desire, waking sleepily from strange corners of his consciousness, had free rein to roam.
And he remembered. Not all, but enough to shatter his last doubts that it was a mistake, that it was a spell, that he had done anything but participate joyfully in fucking his friend. It came to him in strange shards of light and color, punctuated by sounds and smells. It was real.
Gibbs withdrew, though he kept his gaze on Jonathan’s face. Jonathan could feel the hunger, the heat radiating off the pirate. The fact that he was not repulsed by it rendered him unable to speak.
“There’s more coming than you and your friends know,” Gibbs told him quietly. “And you, Jonathan Perry, have a terrible path ahead. You do have powers, ones you don’t even know you have yet, and some of them that are nothing but curses. Enemies you never dreamed of having will try to destroy you, to use you, and not one of those enemies is me.” His grin came back, and his gaze was banked once more with lust. “Though I can think of many pleasant uses for you, mate. And if you ever want to play another game with me, you have but to ask, and I’ll set the board.”
“Why?” Jonathan rasped. “Why are you doing this?”
The pirate’s countenance turned swiftly stern, almost furious. “Because I don’t like to see people who could be players being made pawns. Life is a game. If you don’t play it, it will play you.”
He reached into his pocket, pulled something out, and threw it at Jonathan, who caught it but didn’t look down.
Gibbs nodded to the main deck. “I’ve work to do. And you should get some sleep. Go snog your lady and forget about this all for now. Let the rest come as it will. Just remember, mate, that I’m not your enemy. We don’t have to be friends. But our swords have no need to cross. Though there’s plenty of pleasure to be had in rubbing ’em side by side.”
He winked, tipped his hat, and strode off down the deck, hitching his belt again as he walked away.
Jonathan watched him go, still dizzy, though not so bad as before. He opened his hand and looked down at the hard, wooden object Gibbs had tossed him: a player’s pawn. The lowest, nearly worthless token in the Ring pirates’ favorite board game. It was a thin, gangly boy, nude and clumsy, and somewhat stupid from the look of the vapid grin intricately carved on his tiny face.
Biting his cheek so hard he drew blood, Jonathan chucked the pawn over the rail and into the sea as he fled the deck to his cabin below, praying to any god who would listen that he would wake to find this had all been nothing but a dream.
Trapped inside Captain Gibbs’s mind and body, Timothy Fielding had witnessed the pirate’s trick against his longtime friend, and he was not pleased. He remained, however, as impotent as ever and could do nothing about it except complain.
“What in the world are you doing?” He pounded against Gibbs’s psyche, but the pirate only nodded at a sailor who’d tugged his forelock as the captain passed. It wasn’t until Gibbs was on the stairs to the decks below that he murmured an answer back.
“Hush, lad. Let me get us somewhere private where you might shout at me properly.”
The pirate’s calm was like oil on Timothy’s fire. “You had no right!”
“Storehouse is just here,” James murmured, pushing open the door to the narrow closet and stepping inside.
He barely had the door closed before Timothy tore himself free from his prison inside the pirate.
A tug like ten thousand strands of spiderwebs pulled against his soul as he came free, though the invisible threads did not break and would only stretch so far, leaving an eerie, shimmering trail between them. It was cold, terribly cold as he hovered like a specter outside of the pirate’s mind, but Timothy didn’t care. He had his fury to keep him warm.
“You gave him his memory back. You used my power—how did you even do such a thing? And for what? A bit of fun at Jonathan’s expense. You heartless bastard—I wish he had gutted you!”
The pirate hmphed and leaned against a stack of barrels, crossing his arms over his chest. “Heartless, am I? You’re the one sending him out into war with his eyes closed. You’re not even telling him he’s going to war. You’re not telling him who he’s going to war against, either.” James leaned forward so that his nose pressed against Timothy’s transparent one. “I’ve felt the darkness inside you. I’ve seen your truths, and I know where you’re going. I won’t let you win.”
“You don’t know anything about what you’re playing with. This is real. More real than anything you will ever be able to understand.”
“I understand a lot more than you think I do. And you’re wrong. This is a game, and it’s one I aim to win.”
Timothy stilled. Game. Mathdu, had he misjudged Gibbs? Was the pirate just like everyone else after all, after power at anyone’s expense? Despair made him ache, and he scrambled to think how he could escape this arrangement between them, but it was a foolish reach. There was no escape.
He’d made sure of it.
The cold began to seep deep into Timothy, cold worse than anything he had known, even in the far reaches of his prison in the Void.
James’s countenance softened a little. “Lad, that’s not what I mean by game.”
As if Timothy could believe him now. “Why are you doing this, then? Why would you deliberately stir up memories in Jonathan? Why would you try to take power, if you don’t mean to use it?”
Gibbs grimaced. “Sometimes, mate, I long for the simple days, for the time before I stumbled into that damn fane and got tangled up in this shite-soaked net. Oh, to fear nothing more than a Bay pirate raid or the Cloister’s hot pokers. To have looked into the eye of the glowing god and said, ‘Mate, you can keep your bloody deals, because I ain’t giv’n you a ride inside m ’head.’ But I did the deal, didn’t I? And now I’ve seen inside y’ head as much as you’ve become first mate of mine.” He aimed a gnarled finger at Timothy. “And I ain’t havin’ it. Not on my ship. Not in my body. Not in my life.”
“What is it you think you saw?” Timothy relaxed a little. “This is just a misunderstanding. Tell me what you’re afraid of, and I can explain—”
“No. I don’t care how good a concubine you are, know all the wiles and soothers up your sleeve. Y’ain’t smoothing out this one. I know what I saw in ye, and I ain’t standing idly by.”
Had he seen, truly? A cold, dark fear spread like sickly oil across Timothy’s soul. He couldn’t have, could he? Gibbs could only see Timothy, not the rest.
Timothy set his jaw. “This is ridiculous. I know I have a checkered past, but whatever it is you imagined you saw, I’m sure I can explain—”
“No.” Now Gibbs was angry. Furious, even. “I seen inside you, Lady of the Goddess. I seen the darkness you have in your soul. And I see what you can’t: the way this will all end, if you keep on like you are. I’m going to fight you all the way.”
The cold spread deeper, and Timothy stilled, uncertain of what to do now.
“Wait,” a voice whispered to him faintly, echoing from far away. A heavy, cold hand settled on his shoulder, and a veil brushed his cheek. “Have faith, Raturjula.”
Timothy watched Gibbs carefully, but he didn’t seem to realize she had spoken or that Timothy had heard. He tried to relax, to tell himself he was safe.
Except it was strange, how part of him wanted the pirate to have heard.
Gibbs set his jaw and nodded at Timothy. “Pop back in m’head. I’ve a date with a deck of cards and some full pockets in the mess.”
Timothy reluctantly dissolved back into James’s mind. “I won’t let you win.”
“You’d better,” James murmured aloud as he left the closet and headed down the stairs.
* * * *
Elleian the androghenie enjoyed being a pirate.
Few of tir siblings chose the life, and they were rarely stationed on the same ship, which meant te never had any of them to talk to, but that was just as well. Androghenie were difficult, te had to admit. It came with being different. It wasn’t easy to live in a world not meant for you, when all the games people played came with rules you couldn’t understand. That was why Elleian liked the pirates. There weren’t many rules, and the games were simple: Keep your own freedom, and take from others too stupid to protect their own.
The problem was that being androghenie came with its own set of games and rules, which all seemed to be set, at least lately, by Elleian’s brother Bassam. And ever since the Etsians had come on board the Merry Sue, Bassam’s attention had all been focused on Elleian.
It came again today, that attention, and at the worst possible time: when te was trying to teach Madeline Elliott a new style of meditation.
The two of them sat in Madeline and Jonathan’s cabin, a cramped, closetlike space belowdecks with a bed just wide enough for two bodies, a cupboard and mirror, and space to swing open the door. Elleian and Madeline sat on the narrow bed facing one another, hands clasped, eyes closed. They had taken up this practice a few days after she’d come aboard. Elleian liked Madeline a great deal, because she was different too. She was an Etsian witch, but she was unlike any witch her country had ever seen. To start, she was different like Elleian, not because she was dual gendered but because she had Goddess blood inside her. She and Jonathan both were products of the great androghenie rebellion of long ago, when they’d slaughtered their father and used his blood to make magical Houses.
But that wasn’t all that was different about Madeline. She had a great deal of power, but she didn’t like to use it too often, something Elleian appreciated. She studied magic for her own personal betterment, not because she wanted to take more from the universe. It was rare in House blood for one to be so selfless, though if it were to come from any element, it would of course come from the House of water. Elleian loved working with Madeline.
But Madeline was also, in a rather convoluted manner, a shard of the Lady. Perhaps Elleian would have been wise to remember that.
Madeline had finally been able to slide into a trance that didn’t take her out into the magical plane, and Elleian let tirself relax into tir own internal space—only to find tir brother waiting there.
“Bassam,” Elleian complained, trying to push him out. But there was no pushing, not anymore. Bassam had a shard of the Lady, their mother, too. A very big one, with so much Goddess power he could take over the world, and he very nearly had. Bassam didn’t even have to work hard to interrupt Elleian’s inner space.
Bassam took hold of the meditation, changing it from a serene blank space to an elegant dining room full of Elleian’s favorite foods. Instead of riding placid waves of tir consciousness, Elleian found tirself seated at a glass table in a soft dining chair, sipping peach tea and nibbling on cakes so light and airy they melted on tir tongue. They tasted of marzipan, which happened to be Elleian’s favorite.
Elleian dropped the cake on the plate and pushed it away. “Bassam.”
He leaned back in his own chair—gilt and ornate and bigger than Elleian’s—and looked smug, his dark hair falling alluringly over his left eye. No doubt that was intentional too. “Stop fussing. I have work I need you to do.” He nudged the plate back toward Elleian. “Eat. It isn’t enchanted, which you can see for yourself. What’s the harm in enjoying your favorites with your brother?”
“The harm is that this is my personal space, and you keep invading it.” Elleian gestured to the opulent room around them in disgust. “Is this what you’re after? You want to be a king? Then go manipulate someone into giving you riches. Leave me alone. I like my life, and no, I’m not helping you.”
“You don’t like your life.” Bassam looked at Elleian with pity. “You’re lonely and confused.”
“I am not!” Elleian folded tir arms over tir chest. “Bassam, I’m serious. You need to leave me alone. If I’m confused, it’s because you keep bothering me.”
Bassam leaned forward, dark eyes turned angry. “Elleian, you’re surrounded by them. Not just our mother and our father but two shards who don’t even know what power they hold. You could take them without batting an eye.”
Elleian’s stomach began to hurt, and it wasn’t from hunger. “I’m not like you. I don’t want power. I like my life.”
“No you don’t. You hide. You take a few lovers here and there, but you have no connections. You separate yourself from the rest of us. You let them whisper about you, calling you an it. You prance around like a child’s fairy, sexless.” Bassam captured Elleian’s hand and drew tir forward over the table. “You have power you aren’t using.”
“I have no power.” Elleian tried to tug away but couldn’t. “We’ve been through this a thousand times.”
“Yes, and you never listen. You have more than just a long memory and an ability to peer inside people’s heads. You have no gender.”
Elleian pulled harder, until tir shoulder hurt and tir fingers felt as if they might be broken. Still no release. “I have a gender. I have both. And no, that’s not a power.”
“You know very well it is. In fact, it’s the greatest power of all.” With a kick of his leg, Bassam knocked the table away and hauled Elleian up against him. “Let me give you a reminder.”
“No,” Elleian whispered, trying to turn away. But it was useless. Te felt tirself falling back, landing on a soft mattress as Bassam covered tir body. Desire coiled with shame, but Bassam was strong. And right on one count: Elleian was lonely, so very lonely… Te shut tir eyes at the promise of pleasure.
But this was wrong, wrong and forbidden and unwanted and bad and wrong! “No, no, please!” te cried—
And stilled as te felt a hand clasp tirs before te was pulled from Bassam, from the prison he’d made, from the quiet space inside and out, back to the cramped cabin.
Madeline’s eyes were open, and she stared at Elleian, looking confused.
“Elleian?” Their hands were still clasped, and she tightened her grip, but in a way very different than Bassam’s. Reassurance, not mastery. “Elleian, are you all right? I-I don’t know what happened, but something seemed wrong, and…well, I don’t know what I did. Are you all right?”
Elleian was very far from all right. She heard me cry out, and she rescued me. And she doesn’t even know that’s what she did. Elleian swallowed hard and nodded. “F-fine.”
“I don’t understand.” Madeline’s grip on tir hands became gentle strokes. “How can I reach into your mind? I thought that was the point, that we were inside our own private spaces. But that’s what I just did, isn’t it. I reached into your private space. From mine.” She frowned. “How?”
How, indeed. Elleian faltered, unsure of how much truth to give. “I’m not exactly certain. But possibly it has something to do with the fact that you are a shard. It is a connection we share.”
Oh, but that had been the wrong thing to say, Elleian realized too late—te didn’t need to peer into Madeline’s mind to see her putting the wrong pieces together. “But you aren’t a shard. Are you telling me I can access all androghenie? Because I’m connected to the Goddess?” She shook her head. “No. That makes no sense.”
Elleian could feel Bassam trying to regain purchase. It didn’t help tir think. “It’s your fault—she had access because you were there, and because you were hurting me.”
Te shivered as te felt Bassam stroke inside tir mind. “Not hurting you, darling.”
Elleian tried to shut him out but failed, floundering under tir brother’s influence once again.
Madeline’s eyes went wide, and her grip tightened. “There— What just happened? I felt something…”
“Yes, let her feel us. Draw her in, Elleian. Let me claim her.”
Elleian pulled away, backing up until te almost fell off the bed. Tir breath came in shallow gasps, and tir heart raced like a galloping deer’s. “No. I mean—” Te shut tir eyes and drew a ragged breath. Have to throw her off track. I don’t want Bassam to have her, but I don’t want her to know about Bassam. She’ll think I’m in league with him. “I’m sorry. I’m just a bit upset. I didn’t…realize what it would mean to meditate near a shard.”
She was frowning again. “What do you mean?”
Yes, what do I mean? “I— Well, you’re connected. To everything. Yes, to me. Maybe to all androghenie. I don’t know.” That was a lie, but she wouldn’t be able to tell. “Bassam, go away.”
Madeline was very distracted now. “I’m connected…like the Goddess?” She looked upset. “Are you telling me I have power? The Lady’s power?”
Oh, Bassam wouldn’t like this. Good. “Yes, of course you do. You took the Lady’s blood. How much power I don’t know, but a connection, yes, and some of her power at least. Or rather, you’re a connection to her power.”
Te felt Bassam rise up in rage.
“Back, or I’ll tell her about you,” Elleian warned him.
Bassam howled, but he hung back. Elleian let go an internal sigh of relief.
Madeline had risen and was pacing in the narrow space beside the bed. “Timothy never said anything about this, about my having more power now that I’m connected to him.” She worried her hands. “Perhaps he didn’t know.”
“Oh, he knew.” When Madeline stopped pacing and looked at tir in surprise, Elleian grimaced. “I know he’s your friend, but he’s still the Lady. And the Lady is tricky. You’d do well to remember that.”
Deep inside Elleian’s mind, Bassam laughed.
It was clear Madeline wasn’t liking this. “Timothy is my friend. He’s loyal. He wants to help me.”
“He seduced your lover without asking your permission. He gave you his blood without asking you if you wanted it, without telling you what it would mean. You have no idea what the Lady can do, Madeline. And trust me when I tell you that you might not want to know.”
Madeline sank back down on the bed. She stared at Elleian for a long time, clearly distraught. Elleian felt for her. Te reached out and tried to smooth the edges of her mind, knowing the balm wouldn’t stick, but te owed her some comfort at least. She had saved tir from Bassam, and now te had a way to keep Bassam at bay, at least for a while.
“Are you trying to tell me,” Madeline began at last, “that Timothy is dangerous?”
Elleian shook tir head. “Timothy is fine. The Lady, however—yes. She can save you. She can restore you. She can do amazing things. But she can destroy you too. And you never really know which one it’s going to be until it happens.”
She digested this a moment. “I suppose it’s a good thing that Timothy isn’t here, then, even with as much as Charles misses him.”
Elleian blinked, not sure if she was joking or not. Te slipped into her mind, just a bit, not enough for her to notice, and tried to check. And then te pulled back, shocked. No, she really didn’t know that Timothy was here with Gibbs.
What a mess.
“And now you understand why we should take her. Can you imagine where this is going to go, Elleian?” Bassam stroked the inside of Elleian’s mind tenderly. “Come. We won’t hurt her. This will help her, don’t you see? Imagine what will happen if she keeps wandering around like this, clueless. Someone will claim her. It might as well be me. I promise I won’t hurt her. Give her to me. Give her to me now.”
Elleian stood. It didn’t dislodge Bassam, but it gave Elleian a boost to push him out again. Te looked down at Madeline, not letting tirself waffle. “You need to be careful. You need to be very, very careful, and you need to find out what else the Lady didn’t tell you. Starting with where Timothy is. And why. And how he got there.”
Madeline rose too. “You know something. Tell me.”
Elleian laughed without mirth as Bassam swelled up in rage. “I know a lot of somethings. But you have to find these answers on your own.”
“Elleian,” Madeline protested, but Elleian held up a hand to stay her.
“No. I can’t help you. And I can’t meditate with you anymore, either.” I probably can’t meditate at all, not unless I want to be raped. The thought made Elleian feel even heavier and very lonely. “You need to open your eyes, Madeline, and you need to see. Truly see. Examine the magic you’ve inherited. Follow it all the way to its ends and find out what it means, what it costs. Stop assuming you know how things work and operate from the idea that nothing is quite as simple as you want it to be. You drank from darkness, Madeline. Work hard to understand what that means, why I would call your beloved Goddess dark. I’ll give you a hint: it’s not because I’m a bitter androghenie.” Te felt Bassam pushing again and sighed. “And you likely want to stay away from me.”
She called out, but Elleian ignored her and headed for the door and into the hall, only to run straight into Jonathan Perry.
The hallway outside the cabin was narrow and dark, and their collision sent them sideways into a wall. Their bodies tangled, and Elleian’s chin knocked hard against Jonathan’s jaw. Worried te’d hurt him, Elleian reached into Jonathan’s mind just enough to be certain he was all right.
And te yanked back, reeling. For te saw the Lady there, tall and wild and angry, reaching out to crush Elleian’s soul.
Elleian gasped and tried to pull away, but Jonathan caught tir, looking concerned. “Careful. I’m sorry. Are you hurt?”
And along with the question came a wave of emotion and power, loose and flapping like a sheet in a hard wind. The Lady rode it, reaching for Elleian, ready to push right through tir all the way to Bassam.
Elleian had had enough.
“Leave me alone!” Elleian cried and pushed away, running down the hall, up the stairs and up, up, up, all the way until te was at the top of the mainmast, where te sent the sailor on duty away, curled up into a corner of the nest, and wept.