The Pirate’s Game is finished and other things happening now.

The Pirate’s Game, the third Etsey book is off to my editor and to betas at the same time, because it’s a bit at the wire. Should be out in January. This cute pic is its collage. (Click to embiggen.) I’ll put the first chapter teaser after the cut, though bear in mind it’s the raw nobody’s-edited-this-yet version.

But first, other things.

I heard tonight that A Private Gentleman, my first release with Samhain, will be out February 14 instead of March as originally thought. I have seen cover art for it, but it’s not yet final, so it’ll have to keep a bit longer. It’s very pretty, though.

Now that I’m done with my pirates, it’s on to A Model Man, which you heard me talk about earlier, blaming Ms. Maxfield for its creation. I reread it today in prep for writing it, and I forgot how much I like it. I also discovered the snarl I’d made for myself and what stopped it, but now it’s time to undo that. Sigh. It’s sitting at about 35k right now, and I can’t even guess length at this moment. 80? 90? We’ll see.

And then, once that’s done, I have to finish Better Than Love, the third Special Delivery cast book. Once AMM is done, it will be my sole focus, and I will beat that baby until it behaves. It has been especially recalcitrant. It’s not even Randy’s fault. He’s fine. It’s that damned kid in McAllen.

So that’s the state of the Heidi. Well, that and some stupid mouth infection my husband explains here so I don’t have to. Chugging along in my own weird sort of nano where I don’t get to write-ins so much and didn’t start anything new, just keep slogging away on the same old same old. But FINISHING. I like the finishing part.

Now, as promised, here’s the opening chapter to The Pirate’s Game.

~*~

Sometimes, deep in the dark stillness of the night, Charles woke to the sound of the stars calling out his name.

At first he’d thought it was sailors or the wind. He knew from braving the trip from Etsey to Catal that the open ocean was wilder than the woods of Rothborne as far as strange happenings went. The sea, the pirates insisted, had a mind of her own, and no God or Goddess would tell her how magical her inhabitants could or couldn’t be.

It had all seemed amusing whimsy right up until the first sea-lizard slinked by, magic sparkling against its scales.

Charles had presumed the voices he’d heard came from the night watch singing their prayers to the waters for safe passage, but on the third night of waking to their sound, 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 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, or 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 hard 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 heavy, sleep-rough voice asked, “Stars again?”

Charles nodded,  eyes still shut. “Be glad you can’t hear them.”

The bed shifted more roughly this time, and his bed partner swore in pirate cant as he tried to untangle himself in the sheets. Charles bit his cheeks. He wished James would listen to him, would leave him to suffer this alone, but despite how he pretended otherwise, the pirate captain had a tender heart and couldn’t bear to watch anyone in pain. Which was why Charles didn’t press the issue, simply accepted the firm grip on his waist and the gentle nip against his shoulder.

But when the pirate finally spoke, Charles went still as he realized that this time it wasn’t James who comforted him.

Quiera.”

His breath caught in his throat and his body went still, all senses on high alert. Yes. He could feel the shift. Just barely. 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.

“Don’t,” he whispered. “Please.”

The hands on his body tightened, and Charles could feel the energy shift more powerfully than ever. “You would have me leave, beloved?”

Charles’s breath came ragged and hard now. He would never grow used to this, hearing James Gibbs’s voice speaking Timothy Fielding’s words. “No. 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. “I don’t doubt you. And 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. “He has them. That is why they are afraid.”

He. Bassam. The Pretender. 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. 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. “Trust in your pirate. Play his game. The rest will fall into place. We have beaten the Pretender before. We will beat him again, and this time we will see to it he is finished for good.”

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 night.

Charles felt the pirate’s body still, sway, and shift. He knew even before the pirate spoke that this time it would be James who addressed him.

“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 goodbye again, I take it. Sorry, love.”

Charles wiped at his eyes with a grimace. “He contends he never leaves.”

“Which is a bit unfair, t’my thinking, as I always feel I’been for a nap w’en 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?” The pirate’s fingers wedged insistently in the crease of Charles’s backside, wedging them apart to rub against his tender entrance. “Get on your belly and I’ll kiss it better.” When Charles hesitated, 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 at Charles’s upturned cheeks. “Wider. Knees wider, 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 star’s call echoing inside him, Charles slid easily into the game. “Whatever you wish, master.”

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,” he whispered, “for I am your slave.”

He let out a shuddering sigh of pleasure as James’s tongue ran down the center of his crack and pushed hard against his hole. “That’s right,” James murmured before thrusting again. He kissed his way down to Charles’s balls and laved them too. “Put stars and other such nonsense out of your mind. Your only duty right now is to see to my pleasure.” He sucked both Charles’s balls into his mouth and drew on them hard enough to make Charles gasp. James laughed darkly. “And right now, slave, I have a yen to hear you scream.”

The slap of James’s hand against Charles’s tender hole made his whole body jolt; when more strikes rained down, he gripped the sheets and set his teeth. By the fifth slap he was whimpering. By the tenth he was sobbing. But when the pirate finally stopped, Charles’s heart was in his throat as he begged.

“Please. Please — don’t stop. 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 o’m’cock comin’ out o’y’mouth.” Two slicked fingers shoved roughly inside of Charles, and he cried out at the pleasure-pain they gave him. “That’s right, love. I’m goin’t split y’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 the side of 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, James.”

“Not’t’all.” James nipped his nose before pressing his head back into the sheets. “Now hold still, wench, so I can plow your lily arse.”

And plow he did, pulling out and plunging in so deep Charles wondered that he didn’t split down his center like a tree, then did it again and again until Charles was screaming and weeping and pleading like a whore for James to never, ever stop.

* * * * *

Madeline Elliott shut her eyes, dug her fingernails into her lover’s shoulders and exhaled on a delightfully tortured sigh as Jonathan Perry drove hard and deep into her body.

He had tight hold of her hair as well, which while it hurt more than a little made Madeline happy, because it meant once again he was too intent on fucking her brains out her ears to regard her as a delicate flower. She hadn’t even needed to flirt with Captain Gibbs this time; Jonathan had simply returned to the cabin looking harried and frustrated, she’d pulled off her blouse, and here they were. The only way things could have gone better would be if he’d picked her up and plowed her hard against the wall.

Which they had done. But only the once, and Jonathan had blanched when he realized he’d bruised her legs by holding them too hard. She was only grateful he hadn’t noticed the splinters.

Later as they lay tangled together on the narrow bed, his body still between her thighs, bent so his head could pillow against her breasts, Madeline realized it was taking less and less these days to send Jonathan over the edge, and that while this afforded her certain benefits in bed, something might need to be done about it. The trouble, as it always was with Jonathan, was how to approach him. Not only would he refuse to tell her what was wrong, he’d likely take greater pains to hide his black moods from her in the future. She would need to figure it out on her own.

At first she’d thought him simply bored. She knew he chafed at idling away on a pirate ship, both that it was a pirate ship and that it was Captain Gibbs’s pirate ship. This was also the first time, possibly ever in his life, that he wasn’t chasing something, fighting something, or worrying about something. The desperation in him belied his funk as nothing more than idle hands, however. Whether they were making love or having dinner, Jonathan always seemed to be somewhere else, and that somewhere else was not a pleasant place to be.

She would have to watch him a little more, Madeline thought, promising herself to do just that as she drifted off to sleep.

When she next woke it was full dark, and she was alone in the bed. Jonathan stood at the small window of their cabin, his face in moonlit profile as he stared out at the sea. The expression on his face, helplessness stewed in misery and confusion, broke Madeline’s heart.

They were closer than they’d ever been, thanks in large, strange part to his sleeping with Timothy and her one-night-stand with Captain Gibbs. The strangeness of everything that had happened in the desert had forced them out of their old, bad patterns, demanding they see each other as partners as well as lovers. The impoverished gentlewoman and martyred lording were all but gone now, replaced by a Jonathan and Madeline more real than they’d ever known themselves to be before. He was not feigning his passion for her, nor his devotion; neither was she.

But something bothered him all the way to his core. As Madeline watched him unobserved, she began to wonder if even he knew what was troubling him.

At last she could take it no more and called out, “Jonathan?”

Immediately she wished she hadn’t — the mere sound of her voice shuttered his face so completely it made her startle, and even before he turned to her with a masking smile, she knew what he would say.

“Go back to sleep. I’m going to go above decks and get some air.”

He left, and she watched him go. She wanted to follow, wanted to drag him back to the room, to pick a fight and goad him into telling her what was wrong. But she didn’t need her witch’s magic to tell her that not only would such a move be terribly selfish, it wouldn’t work. And so as the pirate songs filled the night, Madeline let her lover go and stayed in bed, hoping his night airing would give him, if not the solution to his troubles, at least a moment’s peace.

* * * * *

Jonathan Perry nodded grimly at the sailors doing night watch and took up his usual station between two rail cannons to stare across the water.

The ship was called the Merry Sue, and it sported a lushly endowed, wide-hipped woman carved into the bowsprit. The carving was truly a work of art, crafted and maintained by the ship’s carpenter. The man’s craftsmanship was evident everywhere one turned on the ship, from the careful slope of the rail to the whimsical figures etched above doorways or the sea scene reliefs carved into pillars below decks. The Merry Sue was, in short, 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.

He would never have thought to find such a prize in the hands of Engagement Ring pirates. But then much of what he had thought he had known lately about everything seemed to be coming undone.

He wasn’t sure how long he stood at the rail, staring out into the inky-black beauty of the waters, watching the clouded crescent of the moon cast a rippled reflection across the placid surface. He only knew how much he calmed by the act, just as he did every time he took up this pose. Those who watched him must have seen the shift in his posture too, for one of the night sailors came up to stand beside him, something they never did when he was still taut with the tension that drew him there.

Tonight it was Gasty, a half-Hainian, half-Catalian pirate with a scar running from his left ear to his right hip, a peg left leg, and a stub of a right arm. No hair grew on most of his head, for it like most of his body was a mass of burn scars. He’d been a prisoner of a particularly ruthless Cloister camp, and his physical body had become a walking testament to the monks’ cruelty. Yet Jonathan had never met a more cheerful, open-hearted man.

Gasty smiled his half-ruined smile and nudged Jonathan’s shoulder with his stump. The pirate’s speech was rough from a ruined throat and severed tongue, but with three weeks of practice Jonathan had learned how to translate his thicker than usual cant. “You might as well sign up for night duty with us, mate, as often as you’re on deck during our shift.”

Jonathan huffed a grim laugh. “I’ve considered it.” He leaned forward, bracing his elbows against the rails, not yet willing to look away from the placid sea. “It’s beautiful out here. Not just at night but during the day as well. 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.” Gasty mirrored Jonathan’s position on his good arm. “Near tomorrow we’ll lose the lovely and start in on the nasties. T’will be a fine hard week of it a’fore we get to t’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 Straight of Mantun, the narrow, swift-current shallows that marked the oceanic border between the island nation of Etsey and the Continent. “You haven’t yet explained to me how we’ll make that pass without splintering against the rocks or getting caught in a current sending us straight for the cliffs.”

Gasty 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 Gasty surprised him by sobering. “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 after a surprised glance at Gasty he found himself scanning the deck for the sailor in question, but of course Elleian was day shift and not on deck. Jonathan had seen him adjusting the mainmast before the final shift bell. He winced and made the mental correction. Tim. He’d seen tim adjusting the mainmast. Though apparently “ter” was correct as well.

Jonathan disliked the invented pronouns the pirates used for their ken peer, but his distaste was rooted in nothing more than his own lack of comfort with them and how much they tripped up his tongue. Of course, his unease extended to the ken in general — a race of people he knew as the androghenie, who in his experience had been nothing but trouble.

Elleian did seem to be an exception to that rule. True, te was the first sexually ambiguous androghenie Jonathan had met, which he couldn’t imagine would make a difference, and yet the correlation was already planted in his mind. Elleian was tall and slender as all androghenie were, but beyond that te was tis own creation. Elleian bore the delicate, sculpted features of a woman but had the broad, muscled body of a lean and fit young man, which made the rounded flesh of tis breasts that much more jarring. The bulge in the front of tis tight linens completed an unaccustomed observer’s confusion; whether Elleian also possessed a woman’s sex Jonathan did not know, though he knew it was entirely possible. Whichever the case, Elleian never wanted for a bed partner should te choose to take one, and Jonathan had yet to witness a sailor turn down Elleian’s favor. But the androghenie had never so much as spoken to Jonathan. Even their gazes had yet to cross.

“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.”

“So you are a god then, like Gibbs’s slave?” Gasty pressed.

“No,” Jonathan amended quickly. “Not even close. Enchanted blood and nothing more.” That was a bit of a lie, but Jonathan didn’t feel like explaining how he was also a sort of shard of the Goddess, in part because he only barely understood that part himself.

“But you was there,” Gasty dogged. “When Elleian was born?” Jonathan nodded, and Gasty frowned. “But Elleian says te’s eighty, and you can’t be a day over five-and-thirty!”

Elleian looked twenty, which Jonathan would have pointed out, but it wouldn’t have gained him any ground. He shrugged instead. “What I was told is that the androghenie — the ken — were scattered throughout time after my blood was used to bring them back. I’ve learned not to question the logic of it. And of most of what concerns Charles, for that matter.”

Gatsy nodded. “Aye. Elleian is forever saying contradictory things. Sometimes te tells the future too, though it never makes sense until it’s happened.” He laughed at his own joke, then patted his pockets until he found his packet of gum leaf, which he withdrew and offered to Jonathan. “Care for a pinch?”

“No thank you,” Jonathan replied. “I’d like to get to sleep sometime before tomorrow evening, and I’m having enough trouble as it is without help.”

“You should have your lady witch make you up a potion,” Gatsy advised. “She made one for Dorsil last week. Did him up a treat.”

Yes, Jonathan probably should. Except she’d also ask him why he was having trouble sleeping, which would spark a conversation he did not wish to have.

Happily, Gatsy didn’t wait for an answer but simply tucked some leaf into his cheek and continued on about his duties. Jonathan went back to the rail.

The pirates began to sing a new song, this one a tune Jonathan knew. It was a folk song of Etsey. He had known it as a lullaby, but the pirates sang it like a jig. The chorus echoed eerily in Jonathan’s ears, sounding more erotic than soothing than it had been as a child, which he was sure was the pirates’ goal.

The Lady rises, rises, rises, bringing with her perfect peace.

The Lady pulls me tight inside her arms and gives me my release.

Jonathan shut his eyes and listened. For all their rough appearance and crude humor, there was no questioning that the pirates’s songs were anything but beautiful. They were, even when bawdy, holy in a way Jonathan didn’t know how to explain. The pirates’ music soothed his soul. And sometimes, if he held still enough, they gave him visions.

Tonight was no exception.

It began as it often did with a desert. 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.

The pirate’s song crested, and he hurried up the stairs, knowing he had to reach the dais before it ended. 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.

And as he opened his eyes and stared out across the night waters, Jonathan knew, as he had been the others before, that this had not been a vision at all, but a memory.

This truth disturbed him, but in a strange way it relieved him as well. He had only lost a little more than a day of his life when he’d gone to Timothy’s temple to help him anchor the world while the others battled the Pretender, but it might as well have been a lifetime for all that had changed while he was gone. Having most of that time erased from his memory didn’t help, but he wasn’t sure the memories would make anything seem more logical. One moment he had been standing inside a Catalian fane, waiting for Madeline to fall in behind him, and the next he’d been walking out of an ancient temple to the Goddess in the middle of the Peshani Desert, Madeline waiting for him half-naked with butchered hair and smelling of another man. That damned pirate Gibbs, to be precise.

Of course he’d smelled of another man too. Timothy. Which was why he couldn’t remember, because what he had done with Timothy had been necessary to save the others, to provide Timothy with enough energy to sustain himself, but it had upset Jonathan enough that the only way he’d agreed was if he forgot it all after. Except now it seemed he was remembering.

And what he remembered was not just what he had done, but how much he had enjoyed it. The knowledge terrified him, and it confused him.

And it aroused him.

He had absolutely no idea what he was supposed to say to Madeline.

He had absolutely no idea what he was supposed to say to himself.

When the bell rang to signal the end of shift, Jonathan blinked and emerged from his thoughts as if climbing out of a hole. He fell in line with the rest of the sailors to move below decks, though when they turned toward the main sleeping cabin, he followed back the way he had come to the small room he shared with Madeline.

She was still asleep, deeply so, and for a moment Jonathan stared down at her, drinking in the sight. She was beautiful, more so somehow every day. He missed her long, wild locks, but he liked her short curls too. He definitely liked her new clothing–no more heavy black dresses buttoned up to the throat, only thin lawn shirts with nothing beneath to strap down her breasts, which meant he could usually see them through the fabric when she stood against the sun. She wore nothing but loose, short breeches and leather shoes laced up to her ankles. And she carried a sword. And she actually knew how to use it now.

He loved her. He loved her more than anything in the world, anything in the heavens, in the sea, in the sky. He loved her soul and her body and her mind, and he wanted her even now with a ferociousness that could, if she desired it, bring him to his knees.

So why, he wanted to know, when the pirates sang did he dream of being made love to by a man, and not her?

The terror swelled inside him, and as had become his habit, he gave the fear over to her, stripping out of his clothes and climbing into bed beside her, pulling her toward him, closing his mouth over her skin with desperate kisses. She woke quickly as she always did, smiling and nuzzling him back for a moment. Then she took hold of his backside, pulled his sex hard against hers, and claimed his mouth.

That was the other thing that had changed while he had been with Timothy.  Since her affair with the pirate, Madeline had become a tiger in bed, usually leaving scratches and bruises and sometimes even love bites all across his body.

He had to hold himself back each time, afraid he would hurt her, afraid the wildness inside him would pour out of him if he let go and take her down with it. But he never minded when it was she whose walls came down, and they seemed to do so every time they made love now.

It was the only thing Jonathan couldn’t bring himself to hate the pirate captain for.

* * * * *

As the night shift went below and the morning shift came above, Captain James Gibbs sat awake in bed, thinking. Beside him Charles slumbered on, well-fucked and sated at last, but it had taken a great deal of work. In fact it was starting to take longer and longer to calm him each time it happened.

It will become worse still until we reach the straight. In fact, today will likely mark a swift and distinctive turn for the worse. The Pretender will not let Charles make it to the Ring.

The voice came from nowhere, echoing only in James’s mind. He’d grown accustomed to it, but only just. Fear still lurked at the edges of his belly, and so he reached for the gold-speckled flask inside his hip pouch, which he’d hung around the bed post for the evening. He took a heavy hit from the contents, but he winced too.

“You couldn’t g’me a rum flavored potion instead o’this grassy piss?”

He felt more than heard amusement. “That ‘grassy piss’ is a sacred Catalian potion given only to the Cariff and the highest order of concubines.

“Doesn’t matter who drank it. It still tastes like piss.” But it also made him feel as rough and ready as a ram, not a drop of fear inside him, which was why he drank it. He rose from the bed, stretching, and walked naked to one of the side windows, pushing it open.

The morning air was fresh and crisp. They were two days out from Inya, the northernmost port of Catal, heading for the Straight. Even with perfect weather it would take them a week to get through, and that assumed they didn’t run into any sea-lizards with a taste for pirate. From the way Charles was degenerating, it didn’t sound like they had that long.

James tapped his fingers idly against the window pane, pondering.

“If w’went right at her, we could manage it in two days,” he said at last. “But that means no offering. Which is risky.”

You can make another kind of offering. Elleian can give it.

James grimaced and rubbed at his morning stubble. “I don’t like it. Poor ken’s been nervous as a fish w’ Charles aboard, and I’think te knows about you too.”

Let me speak to the androghenie. I can insure cooperation.

“No threats.” James pursed his lips, very serious on this point. “I’ve seen enough of your head to know you don’t care for ter kind. I won’t have any ken uneasy on my ship. It’s all well and good to share Charles, but even the best sex in the world isn’t worth betraying my men.”

Threats shall not be necessary.” There was a heavy pause, and then the god added, “Your body, however, will be.

James snorted and rolled his eyes. “Figured as much. Well, do what you usually do then.”

This time we will need to be more definitive about it. A deeper exchange. One which I control, both when it begins and when it ends.

James’s fingers stilled. “You mean g’you control o m’body.”

And mind. Temporarily. But yes.

Fuck and fuck again. “Why do I have the feeling that this isn’t going to be the first time you ask me to do this?”

“Because you aren’t a fool, Captain Gibbs.”

For a moment James thought about refusing. He didn’t understand fully what had happened to him since that flash of white had hit him outside the temple in the desert, but he knew enough to understand that each and every part of it from then until now had been something he controlled. That Timothy Fielding, god or Goddess or whatever he was, dwelled within him entirely as his guest, that everything about his presence was at James’s pleasure. And he had been given great pleasure, both in Charles Perry’s deliciously enslaved body and in his company.

James also understood that what the god inside his head was asking would change all that.

He reached into his vest and touched the heavy parchment he kept there, the one that marked his ownership of Charles. Was it worth it? It wasn’t the first time he asked himself that question. He still didn’t have an answer.

Flicking open the golden flask, he drained the remainder of the contents, grimaced, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Ready.”

It felt the same as all the other times, as if he had been pushed to the furthest corner of his mind and tucked into a nice warm bed where he closed his eyes and took a heavy, restful sleep. But this time he kept himself awake long enough to watch his body move itself across the room, to feel a different mind not just taking up the space inside his head but leeching into his own as well.

The last thing he saw before the world went still was his own reflection in the mirror, his lips curled up in an unfamiliar smile into dark eyes that led inside and entirely foreign mind.

But this time he didn’t sleep, or if he did, this time he dreamed as well.

James dreamed he walked across the water, far, far out to sea until he came to an island, an island he knew well but had never thought in his life to see.

When he saw her, she who he knew would be there even before she appeared, he fell to his knees and bowed his head. “My Lady.”

“My child.” He shivered in terrible delight as he felt her hand in his hair.

Would she kill him? No man was to come to this place, not even, he was certain, in a dream. But even as he thought this she laughed and kissed the top of his head.

“No, my child.” Her voice soothed him like a balm, erasing his fears and putting right all that was wrong in the world again. “You will not be punished, for it is I who called you here. I have work for you.”

And as he knelt on the sand, she told him what she wanted. Because he could do nothing else, he nodded, not letting himself wonder at the wisdom of her commands, because she was not the sort you questioned. He only nodded and said, “As you wish, my Lady.”

“Excellent.”

He lifted his face then, because he could not help himself; her face gleamed like gold, and there were diamonds in her eyes as she said, in a voice more than a little wicked, “Let the games begin.”

 ~*~

 

 

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