Shadows Of The Heart

by Haitoku no Honou (背徳の炎)
illustrated by Jeromu Furijito (ジェロム・フリジト)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/122722.html)

It had been a day now, he thought. The ship had been attacked shortly before sunset, and it had been night and then another day since then, the sun starting to dip again towards the horizon. Score one for him – but he’d barely survived the night intact, cold doing nothing for the agony in his side, and although the sun had meant warmth, he had also now been a day without water.

He snorted at the irony, that he would die of dehydration while surrounded by water – but then, the wound might well kill him first. Almenia would never know what had happened to him; all the intelligence he’d gathered, his entire mission, useless.

The sun burned into his eyes, and he squinted against the glare. They’d trained him better than that, he had to remain focussed, alert – but he was in the middle of the godsforsaken ocean, and they hadn’t trained him in how to drink seawater. He knew exactly how long he could survive without food, water – but in these conditions, it wouldn’t take long. He expected he would succumb to delirium within the next few hours, and the night would do the rest. Ironic again, that the night that had been his ally so many times would finally be the dagger in his back that struck true.

When the ship came up behind him, it wasn’t until he heard the shout, “Man overboard, starboard bow!” that he realised he wasn’t just imagining things.

A flurry of commands followed, orders to take in sail and more, but they blurred in his ears, and it wasn’t until a shadow fell across his face that he managed to drag his eyes open again.

“Hey there,” the man drawled, his accent vaguely Rhyandan, voice cutting through the noise in his ears. The face was backlit by the lowering sun, and his eyes were open but he couldn’t make them focus, it seemed, everything wavering in and out of view.

“Water,” he tried to say, but it came out garbled, nonsensical.

“He’s alive!” the man hollered back to the ship, and then a hand brushed past his face and he could feel the splintered board begin to move, droplets of water splashing on him as the man started dragging him along.

“Water,” he tried again, and this time it must have been clearer; the man gave a little chuckle.

“Plenty of that on the Swift,” the man said, “just hang on-”

That meant something, he was sure – something important, but he couldn’t think right now, everything stripped away by his body’s basic needs.

“All right,” the man said as the board bumped gently against something solid. “And here’s our line-”

Something splashed nearby, and a moment later he felt an arm come across him, tucking under his side and taking hold of his belt.

“Steady now. Haul us up!” the man hollered, and then he was being dragged upwards, wounded side slamming hard against the man, and he might have screamed, every jolt another spike of pain that was too much to bear.

It was a relief, then, when his body, overwhelmed, finally shut down, darkness spiralling up around him.

***

Something stabbed into his side, and just like that he was awake, reflexes too slow to stifle the noise that followed. He tried to shift, but his legs didn’t want to work, and there was something pressing down on his arms, stopping him.

“You’re awake,” a voice said, vaguely familiar. He marshalled his thoughts into order with effort: the attack, the wait, the man who pulled him from the water. Same voice. Him.

“Whas – what’s hap’nin’?” he managed, mouth still dry, and with sheer force of will cracked open his eyes.

The room swam in his vision; he made out two lanterns, bright and dancing in his vision, and two blurred shapes before he had to let them close. “‘S too bright.”

“You must have been in a shipwreck,” the familiar voice said. “You’re injured, and the doc here is just patching you up.”

“Hurts,” he rasped. His throat was still dry, and his side ached, worse than it had before.

“I know,” another voice said, male. “Can you drink this for me?”

Some of the pressure on his arms eased, and then a hand wormed its way under his head, helping him tilt up. A mug was placed at his lips, and he sipped carefully, cautious – but it was water – fresh, clean water – and he had never been so grateful for anything in his life.

When the mug was empty, his head was lowered back down, but the hand remained. The warmth at the back of his neck was pleasant, even over the shriek of his instincts that said a hand on his neck was danger, that he was vulnerable. He wasn’t going to get more vulnerable than this, half dead on a strange ship; a hand on his neck wasn’t his most pressing concern.

“I’m going to continue stitching your wound,” the second voice said. “I need you to concentrate on your breathing, and try not to move.”

The voice must belong to the ship’s doctor, and he managed not to think about whether the man had even looked at an anatomy book before he decided to sign up on the crew of whatever kind of ship this was. At least the terse instructions were familiar, nothing the military doctors hadn’t said to him, and more than once. “Doctors,” he said without meaning to, rasp creeping back into his voice despite the water, “all the same.”

A snort from the doctor, but the other gave that same chuckle. “What’s your name?”

“Dave,” he rasped automatically, and managed to close his lips on his surname before he could say the word. His first name – his real first name – it was bad enough that they had that information, whoever they were, but at least it was nondescript enough that it could have come from anywhere. His surname was a different story, and then the doctor did something to his side, sharp pain and then a tug as he drew the thread through for the stitch, and he moaned out a breath.

Luckily, they didn’t seem to expect anything further. “Nice to meet you, Dave,” the familiar man said, hand squeezing reassuringly on the back of his neck as he gasped for air. “I’m Ian, and this is my ship.”

“Nice to meet you too,” Dave managed all in a rush, and then closed his mouth again, a strangled noise escaping him anyway as the doctor set another stitch.

“You’re doing very well,” the doctor said. “Three more stitches, I think.”

“Where are we?” Dave rasped, wanting Ian to talk about something, anything – any distraction from what was happening at his side.

“Halfway to the Coral Isles,” Ian said, although halfway from where he didn’t say. “We’re headed to Port Cascade, although we’ll stop on the way for supplies-” He faltered slightly as Dave strangled another groan in his throat, but kept talking almost immediately. “Probably at the Aerie, although that will depend on how many naval encounters we have.”

Out of what he’d said, one thing stood out – Port Cascade. Merchants did dock there, but not by choice, and never the navy, Almenian or Rhyandan. Port Cascade, and the Coral Isles themselves, were a domain of their own.

“Pirates?” Dave gasped, catching his breath.

“Is that a problem?” Ian said, but his tone was mild and his hand on the back of Dave’s neck was warm still, and despite Dave’s ingrained instincts, not intentionally threatening. He didn’t talk like a pirate, at least not any of the pirates Dave had met – not that they had had much time for conversation, generally too busy trying to kill each other.

“As long as it wasn’t you wrecked my ship-” Dave gasped out, and then trailed off into another groan as the doctor set another stitch, too late to close his mouth and muffle the noise.

“Was it your ship?” Ian asked, interest in his tone. “Were you the captain?”

Dave took a second to breathe as the doctor tied off the thread. “No,” he managed after a moment, “I was – passenger. Not – sailor.”

“Where were you going?” Ian asked, still casual, and Dave used the fact that he was still gasping for air as an excuse not to answer immediately. If they were pirates, they would have no love for an Almenian, and probably not a Rhyandan either, despite some rumours he had heard to the contrary. They hadn’t killed him yet – were saving his life, even – but that could change, everything could change if he screwed this up.

“Doesn’t matter now,” he said when he could breathe a little easier. “Hire is dead – contract dead too. No pay, even.”

Ian chuckled, and it seemed that his gamble had paid off. “Mercenary, huh? Always landing on your feet.”

“Not on feet now,” Dave rasped, eliciting another chuckle from Ian, and then the doctor set the last stitch, and he managed to turn his groan into a “Son of a bitch.” He was a mercenary now, and mercs weren’t always polite.

“That should do it,” the doctor said, and pressed fabric against Dave’s side. “Help me get him up.”

Something dropped in his face – hair? – and then Ian’s other hand was under his back, the doctor supporting him from the other side, and they levered him upright. The change in position made his side ache, different from before, and his head spun viciously, stars swimming in the darkness behind his eyelids.

“Head – hurts-” Dave gasped out, forehead dropped forward and impacting gently with something soft but solid.

“The doc will fix you up,” Ian said, voice rumbling through the surface Dave was leaning against. His shoulder, then, probably.

“You need a bandage, more water, and then rest,” the doctor said. “And unlike some other people I could name,” he added, his tone pointed, “you will stay abed until I say otherwise.”

Ian coughed. “That was just a scratch,” he said.

“A scratch,” the doctor said, his tone dry. “That scratch would have killed another man.” He began to wind the bandage around Dave’s midsection, firm but not too tight. Strangely enough, with the pressure on his side, the ache actually eased slightly, and he let out a sigh against Ian’s shoulder.

After a few more moments, the doctor knotted the bandage, fingers fussing gently across the folds. “It will do,” he declared. “Now, another mug of water.”

Ian’s hand left his neck and wormed its way under his forehead, and gently tilted his head back upright. A mug was held to his lips, and he sipped again, this time savouring the water as it trickled down his throat. He could feel the cool spreading through him as he swallowed, body making up for lost time.

When the mug was empty, Ian carefully lowered him back to the table, or bunk, or wherever he was. It was softer than the board, anyway, and he couldn’t complain – although now that he was level again, he could feel his head throbbing, and worse than before.

“Head hurts,” he muttered again, and someone pressed a cold compress to his forehead.

“It will pass,” the doctor said. “Rest now.”

***

He woke once, to low voices speaking just on the edge of his hearing. His side still hurt, but his head mercifully didn’t, and sleep dragged at him, eyelids too heavy to pry open.

“…do with him?”

“…compromise the safety of this ship,” someone else said.

“Gentlemen,” a third voice, and this one was familiar, Ian’s vaguely Rhyandan tones. “I’m not going to let anything compromise us. But I’m not going to leave anyone to die, either.”

“The orders-”

“We’re pirates,” Ian said, emphasis heavy. “What orders?”

He wanted to listen more – whatever this was, it was clearly important, and just because he was wounded didn’t mean he couldn’t still fulfil his duties – but his body had other ideas, everything fading again.

When he woke again, properly, it was quiet. He could hear the rhythmic slap of the waves on the hull, and every so often the soft thud of footsteps went by over his head.

He cracked open an eye, careful, and when no pain or discomfort was forthcoming, opened the other one, too. A shuttered lantern hung from the ceiling above where his feet rested, light facing away from him and painting the room in shadows. From what he could make out, it looked much like the infirmary of every Almenian galley he had travelled on.

His fingers and toes flexed obediently at his command, and he carefully lifted a hand and ran his fingers up his side. Under layers of soft bandage, his wound ached, but in a way that meant it was healing. Already the pain was less – the doctor must have had some measure of skill indeed, to achieve such so quickly.

Footsteps became louder, the noise of actual boots rather than a sailor’s bare feet, and Dave lifted his hand to his forehead, rubbing at his face. His skin felt itchy. “Hello?” he said.

The steps paused, then continued into the room. “Ah, you’re awake,” the doctor said. He came around to the side, into Dave’s vision. “How are you feeling?”

The doctor wasn’t as old as Dave had been imagining from the sound of his voice; perhaps some thirty years. His hair was dark and caught back from his face into a short tail, and he wore plain clothes with no insignia or identifying features: a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a plain looking dark tunic, the light too dim to get a proper sense of the colour.

“A lot better,” Dave replied, letting his hand rest back at his side. “Everything hurts less.”

“Excellent,” the doctor said. “You have been asleep for most of a day; I will assist you to sit, and then I will check your stitches.”

Suiting actions to words, he immediately set a hand under Dave’s back and helped him upright. The bandages were unwrapped in short order, and the doctor unhooked the lantern and drew it down to have a closer look at the stitches. With the better light, Dave could see that his hair was a brown colour, and his tunic a dark blue.

“Hmm,” the doctor said, and pressed gentle fingers to several spots along Dave’s side, only one of which made him yelp.

“Your wound is healing very well,” the doctor pronounced after a time. “I will bandage it afresh, and then if you are steady on your feet, you may take a turn on deck.”

He moved across the room, returning with a new roll of bandage, and set the lantern on the hook again. His movements quick and sure, he began to set the bandage about Dave’s ribs.

“If I might ask,” Dave said, as any merc would, “did any of my effects survive?”

The doctor shot him a look, and then returned to his task. “Your scabbard was already empty when you were pulled from the ocean,” he said. “There were several knives about your person; they are in the Captain’s custody.”

Dave had already known his sword was a lost cause; he remembered that much from the fight, losing grip on the sword as he fought to pull himself onto the board, waves slapping at him and strength fading as he bled into the water. At least he would have some of his knives – if he could convince the Captain to return them. But that wasn’t everything he had been carrying.

“I had a necklace,” Dave said. “Some rings.”

“The Captain has those also,” the doctor said, and tied off the end of the bandage. “There,” he said, and took a step back, pulling off the sheet that had covered Dave from the waist down. “See if you can swing your feet around and stand.”

Dave blinked down at himself, not a speck of clothing in sight, and shifted first one leg, then the other, over the side of the table. “Am I to go on deck naked?” he asked.

The doctor looked faintly embarrassed. “My apologies, of course not,” he said, and produced a serviceable pair of knee-length leather trousers and a loose linen shirt from across the room. “Your own clothes,” he said as he helped Dave fit one leg, then the other, into the trousers, “were ruined by the water and salt, and covered in blood.”

Dave slid off the table, feet flexing as they hit the rough decking, and buttoned the trousers. “I can stand,” he said.

“Indeed you can,” the doctor said, and helped him into the shirt. Dave left it open; no point messing with all those buttons when he was only going to take it off again once he was belowdecks.

“Now, if you’ll follow me-” the doctor said, and guided him out of the room.

They went down a narrow hall, then slowly up some steep narrow stairs. They passed another two decks in this fashion before the next turn brought daylight; Dave slowed his climb to let his eyes adjust, and finally pulled himself onto the deck.

It was late afternoon, the sun lowering towards the horizon, and the sky a deep blue bowl overhead, a few wisps of cloud here and there. Besides the ship, there was only water, as far as he could see, something that could have been a speck of land or another ship wavering in the far distance.

The ship itself was fairly large – it had three tall masts and a long deck, higher at the bow and stern. There were a reasonable number of sails down – each of the back two masts had a flat sail set at an angle, and the front mast had four square sails, all of them with wind in their bellies. The sails were plain white, but had been patched here and there with other colours. A black flag flew from the top of the centre mast, but Dave’s eyes weren’t good enough against the glare to focus on the design as it flapped around in the breeze.

“This way,” the doctor said, coming around him, and led the way towards the raised deck at the stern.

The crew they passed along the way gave him sideways glances, but didn’t stop further as they moved around the deck. Dave could appreciate that devotion to their tasks – and he hadn’t expected a pirate crew that have that level of discipline, either. The fact that this one did – to keep a crew in line to that degree took either fear or respect, and given what Dave remembered about the Captain, he was betting on respect.

Another set of steps later, and they were on the raised deck. Standing at the wheel with a steady grip stood a man Dave could only assume was the Captain. His clothes were of finer make than the assortment he’d seen the crew, even the doctor, wearing – a fine linen shirt, with embroidery at the cuffs and neck, and a sleeveless blue coat that ran to mid-thigh, made of what looked like silk. Dark leather pants were tucked into knee-high boots that had been polished until they shone. A sheathed sword hung at his side, the scabbard worked with points of metal. He had longish brown hair that had been braided into many smaller plaits, tied back into a tail, a few shorter braids falling loose around his face. His skin was evenly tanned, and his eyes were a deep green.

As he saw them approach, he broke into an easy grin. “Dave,” he said, and the voice matched – this was Ian, who had fished him from the water, the captain of the ship. “Up on your feet already, I’m surprised the doc let you.” The last was said with a wink in Dave’s direction.

“He said if I was steady on my feet I could have some fresh air,” Dave said, Ian’s friendly manner making it easy to respond in kind. “I wasn’t going to say no!”

“Indeed not,” the Captain said, and his look now was appraising, raking Dave up and down quickly. “You certainly look fit enough. How are you feeling?”

Dave resisted the urge to blush, or pull the two sides of his shirt together; clearly the shipwreck and the wound had him off his game. His superiors would laugh themselves sick if they heard of the trouble he was having disciplining his emotions, right before they sent him off for some disciplining himself. Ian was clearly enquiring about his physical state, seeing how well he was recovering, and there was nothing more to it. Parts of him disagreed, but they were parts that he was used to ignoring.

“A lot better than when you pulled me out of the water,” Dave said. “And for that you have my thanks, I’m indebted for your help. No doubt you saved my life.”

Ian waved the words away with one hand, the other keeping his grip on the wheel. There were several rings on his fingers, nothing too flashy, mostly plain golds and silvers, small gems. “It’s nothing I wouldn’t have done for anyone else in that position,” he said with another easy smile.

Now there was an odd statement – what kind of pirate captain fished shipwrecked strangers out of the water, then had their wounds seen to? A sentence he’d heard between waking and sleeping flashed through his head, Ian, serious tones, ‘I’m not going to let anything compromise us.’ Compromise what? A mission? And they’d mentioned orders, too. Pirates didn’t have orders – even the loose alliance of pirate lords out of the Coral Isles didn’t give orders, as far as he knew.

“You’re the most curious pirate captain I’ve had the pleasure to meet,” Dave said, taking a gamble. His instincts flared up almost instantly, instincts that had saved his life and more, a hundred times over. A sudden tension had caught the crew, the sailors he could see out of the corner of his eye slowing in their tasks. Even the doctor, behind him, shifted slightly with a rustle of cloth.

Only Ian was unaffected – he threw back his head and laughed. “How many pirate captains have you met?”

Dave let his lips shape a grin; it was easier than normal, almost natural. “Admittedly, most I’ve met over crossed swords. I’ve not had a friendly conversation with one before this.”

“I’d imagine not, being a mercenary,” Ian said, still with a smile on his face.

“Nevertheless,” Dave said, waving his hand to indicate that he wasn’t interested in pursuing the conversation. “I am still indebted to you. I repay my debts.”

Ian looked at him again, still smiling, but something more lurking under the expression, something measuring. “That’s a – curious attitude for a mercenary to take,” he countered.

Dave simply shrugged. “I find the mercenary who honours his debts is less likely to get a dagger in the back from his fellows than the one who doesn’t,” he says. “Call me old-fashioned, if you will, but I intend to retire with my earnings one day.”

Ian nodded slowly. “How would you propose paying your debt?” he asked.

Dave thought fast. “In kind,” he said, after a few moments. “I’m a mercenary, and you must see fighting on your ship – allow me the opportunity to return your favour.”

He could see Ian turning it over in his mind. “You want to stay on the ship until you’ve saved my life?”

Dave nodded. If nothing else, they couldn’t see fighting that endangered the Captain’s life that often; he would have a good long time to ascertain the situation before his debt was paid.

“Do you know anything about ships? Have you sailed as more than a passenger before?”

Dave paused, and let some dismay show on his face. “No,” he said, “but I’m a fast learner.”

Ian chuckled. “And I suppose you’d want a fair share of our earnings, too.”

“Well, that would only be fair,” Dave allowed. “I’m an excellent hand with a sword.”

Ian nodded once. “When you’re recovered from your wound, I’ll judge that for myself,” he said. “I’ll make my final decision then.”

“Thank you,” Dave said, and then paused. “Ian – the doctor gave me to understand you have my effects.”

“Those that were worth saving,” Ian confirmed.

“I-” He set his chin. “When will they be returned?”

Ian chuckled again. “So confident,” he said. He fished out a small pouch and tossed it, underhand, at Dave. “Your weapons will be returned when I’ve made my decision.”

Dave snapped out a hand and caught it. “Thank you,” he said. Ian didn’t strike him as the sort to pull a man from the water and then steal his belongings, pirate captain or no; he was confident that the pouch contained everything it should.

A gentle hand landed on his shoulder, and he glanced behind; the doctor pulled his hand away. “You should take a turn about the decks before you rest again,” he said. “A small bit of exercise will help the healing.”

“Captain,” Dave nodded to Ian, and turned towards the doctor. “Very well,” he said, and let the doctor lead the way.

***

After several days of enforced rest, Dave was getting bored. The doctor only allowed him up on deck twice a day, and that for barely a half hour; the remainder of the day he spent in the infirmary, either lying or sitting on the padded table that served as his bed. He didn’t begrudge the time spent in meditation; that only accelerated the healing. But he only needed a few hours of that a day for best effect, which left him several hours in which to do nothing at all.

It was almost a relief, then, when he heard the ship’s bell ring, sharp and furious, and out of time with the normal watch-changes he’d become accustomed to. He cocked an ear towards the door, trying to hear, but distance muffled the noise, and all he could make out were the heavy movement of footsteps across the decks and garbled shouts.

From the other side of the room, the doctor had his head up, listening to the bell, then stood, moving across the room.

“What is it?” Dave asked.

“They’re giving chase,” the doctor said.

“A ship?” Dave asked. “What kind?”

The doctor nodded. “Don’t know what kind,” he said, “the bell doesn’t say. But we’ll find out soon enough – the Swift isn’t the fastest ship in the sea, but she’s a lot faster than most.”

He was working, efficient, as he moved; after a minute he had several items out and ready to hand; bandages, alcohol, needle and thread, and on the floor, buckets of sand.

“What can I do?” Dave said.

The doctor looked up and fixed him with a sharp glance. “Not get in a fight, for one. If you tear out your stitches you’ll ruin what progress you’ve made.”

Dave held up both his hands, palms out. “I’m not going to argue. You’re the doctor.”

The doctor held his gaze a moment longer, then looked back to his supplies. “Go and find out what kind of ship it is,” he said. “Carefully, mind you.”

Dave flipped him a lazy salute, then uncurled his legs from the cross-legged position he’d been holding and slid off the table. He made his way out to the stairs and up, although he had to step sharply to the side as he passed the gun-decks, sailors spilling in and out and the sharp smell of oil and burning flame stinging his nose.

He finally emerged on deck, where it was much less crowded, most of the sailors either in the rigging or tightening lines to the side of the deck, bringing the sails to just such an angle where they would catch the most wind. Glancing down the length of the ship, he caught sight of the fleeing ship – and by the dark green sails, he could mark her at once. Definitely Almenian, and looking like any number of the merchant ships he’d seen sailing in and out of his home ports.

He continued on in any case – the doctor had asked him to find out what kind of ship it was, and only the Captain looked unoccupied, still at the wheel. Today’s silken coat was in a shade of dark blue, and his braided hair was loose about his face.

He got a raised eyebrow from Ian as he mounted the stairs, and shrugged as he reached the top. “Doctor’s orders,” he said. “I am bid to find out what kind of ship we’re chasing.”

Ian pointed towards the Almenian ship. “She’s an Almenian brig,” he said. “Looks like a merchant, she’s sitting heavy in the water.”

Dave glanced back at the ship, taking another look, and paused. “Captain,” he said quietly, “may I borrow your glass?”

Ian shot him a startled look that quickly melted into calculation. He pulled a long eye-glass from where it had been thrust into his belt and held it out.

Dave moved a step forward, took the glass from Ian’s hand, and lifted it to his eye. It took him a moment to focus on what he wanted, and then he nodded and held the glass back out without taking his eyes off the Almenian ship.

“Captain,” he said, still in that quiet tone, “I’m not yet a member of your crew, and I’m not quite sure where we are, but if we’re heading to the Coral Isles, isn’t an Almenian merchant a long way from home?” He stabbed a finger towards the ship, the arm from his unwounded side. “I don’t know how many gun ports a merchant should have, but some of them look camouflaged, and they all have heavy powder scars underneath.”

A moment later the weight of the glass left his hand, and he dropped his arms as he saw Ian lift it to his eye.

There was a long moment of silence, and then Ian hissed out a breath. “You’ve got good eyes,” he said, and gave him an assessing glance. “And you don’t know much about ships?”

Dave shrugged. He couldn’t very well say that seeing an Almenian ship so far from home had brought back memories of seeing those self-same plans drawn up, back in Council, to send out “merchant ships” loaded with soldiers as decoys, to draw out pirates and Rhyandan navy alike.

“I’m a merc,” he said instead. “Last contract, one of the others said he came across one of these ships. Nearly wiped him out.”

Ian nodded slowly, accepting the answer, and then glanced at the deck. “Mr Johns!” he hollered. “Take the wheel!”

“Aye, Captain!” was the quick reply, and a burly sailor detached himself from the mob at one of the lines, moving faster than Dave expected up the stairs and to the Captain.

Ian moved aside smoothly as Johns took the wheel, and quickly bound back his hair into a tail with a scrap of cloth. He raked Dave up and down with his eyes, and again Dave had to fight to control the flush that threatened to follow.

“You can’t fight yet, can you,” Ian said.

Dave shrugged again, ruefully. “Doctor threatened me with hell if I did,” he said.

“More’s the pity,” Ian said. “Get below then, help the doc. If you’re right about this, we’re going to have more casualties than I’d like.”

“Aye,” Dave said, and headed for the stairs.

“Mr Silver!” Ian hollered out from behind him. “A word please!”

A tall, thin man came pelting down from the bow of the ship as Dave started down the stairs, falling into a conversation with the Captain that he couldn’t make out. He took one flight of the stairs, turned, and took the next, stepping aside at the bottom to make way for another sailor to dash past.

He’d just given away an Almenian secret, and for what? Not wanting to be in another shipwreck, that wasn’t a real excuse. He could have waited until the Almenians took the Swift, revealed who he was, and gone home. Although that was assuming Almenian superiority – and he didn’t know anything about the capabilities of the Swift, her crew and captain. They could very well have a surprise up their sleeves. If he’d said nothing, he would neither have gained nor lost.

But the Swift was the whole reason, wasn’t it? The Swift and her Captain, a puzzle of mysteries rolled up into one. Dave took another turn and started down. By speaking now, if the Swift won, he’d made himself into an ally – an ally who had volunteered information even when not bound by agreement. That had to count for something in the eyes of honourable pirate Captain Ian.

Dave firmly shoved away the thoughts of what else could be under the eyes of the honourable pirate Captain Ian, and took the last turn, heading down the hall and into the infirmary.

“It looks like an Almenian merchant,” Dave reported as he entered, the doctor looking up from where he was lighting lanterns and hanging them from the ceiling. “But it’s probably a decoy full of soldiers.”

The doctor’s lips tightened. “We must be prepared, then,” he said. “Now. If you feel strained at all, no matter what, you are to sit and rest in that corner.” He pointed. “Your assistance will be valuable, but not at the cost of your own recovery. Understood?”

Dave nodded. “Understood.”

“Good,” the doctor said, and hung the lantern he was holding on a hook. “Pass me that lantern.”

***

The first boom of cannon was far louder than Dave was expecting, and he flinched, nearly dropping the roll of bandage he was winding. It was quickly followed by several more in succession, yells filtering down through the ship.

“Are we -” Dave gestured vaguely at the walls, and the doctor shook his head.

“No,” he said, “we’re below the waterline.” And then, “They’re more likely to aim for our masts, anyway.”

“There’s a cheerful thought,” Dave said, and set the bandage on the pile with the others.

Several more minutes of cannon fire passed. Once or twice the ship shook, almost immediately followed each time by a rousing cheer from the crew. After another few minutes, there were several louder thuds, a harsh wooden groaning sound that went on for far too long, and then the metallic clang of crossing weapons.

It wasn’t long before the wounded began staggering in – the first by himself, deep wounds on his side and leg. The doctor helped the man onto a table and began working immediately, directing Dave to fetch him alcohol, or bandages, or to hold the lantern closer.

The second was carried in by another pirate who deposited him on the next table and dashed back out into the hall. His hands were covering his abdomen, and blood began to pool beneath him almost immediately. The doctor glanced over, eyes widening.

“Hold this,” he said, and Dave took hold of the compress he was holding over the first man’s wound, the doctor stepping over to the second pirate. He heard the doctor swear quietly behind him, and wasn’t surprised – the wound was bad, and unless the doctor could work miracles, he didn’t expect the pirate to last the hour.

Another two pirates came staggering into the room, slashes dripping blood, and Dave pressed the first man’s hand over the compress he was holding, and dashed one of the buckets of sand across the floor, to steady their steps as he directed them onto the next table. Above everything, the fighting continued, shouts and cries fading into the background.

“Down here,” a heavily-accented Almenian voice said, cutting through what one pirate was saying, and Dave swore, hearing the heavy tread coming closer.

He glanced over his shoulder at the doctor, arms bloody to the elbow over the second pirate, and handed the man in front of him a bottle of alcohol. “Put this on your wounds, and give me your sword,” he said quietly. “Now.”

The man handed over the weapon, a curved blade with a straight hilt, and Dave slipped into the darkened hallway. He had no energy to spare on subtleties – his natural stealth would have to suffice. If he was to get through this without tearing his stitches, he would have to use his special abilities to hold the wound together, and get by on what he could spare.

There were two of them, one of them facing the stairs, presumably in case anyone had followed them down, and one of them with his head and shoulders inside one of the side rooms down the hall. They wore Almenian armour, and their swords were in their hands, but tips lowered towards the floor.

Dave had killed his countrymen before, of course. But always – always – it had been during a sanctioned mission. This time, he had been given no orders – was merely following his intuition in attempting to unravel the mystery he had stumbled onto. It wasn’t fair on these men – but he didn’t have time for introspection, either, the man starting to withdraw from the room.

He had a place on this ship to secure, and secure it he would.

He crossed the intervening distance silently, sword low and ready. The man hadn’t seen him, wouldn’t see him, until it was too late – and then he firmed the grip he had on the sword, trusting in his power to see his wound whole through this, and spun. His unwounded side slammed into the man’s sword arm, blocking the weapon from coming near him, and a fraction of a second later his sword, held in reverse, punched through the man’s chest. The dying man made a choked sound, starting to drop, and Dave spun around again as he pulled his sword free, meeting the startled gaze of the second Almenian.

The man moved to raise his sword, but he was too slow – Dave took two steps forward, slapping the sword aside with the flat of his blade, and twisted inside the man’s guard in the same motion, sword again sinking cleanly into the man’s body. He pulled the sword free, and the soldier crumpled to the ground.

Dave took a slow breath, testing his side, but everything seemed to be in order. A moment later more footsteps sounded from the stair, boots again, and Dave drifted to the side of the corridor, ready to strike again. Now that he’d made his decision, the rest was easy – nothing would get down this corridor without going through him first.

Whoever it was hit the flat, long strides closing the distance between them fast, and Dave flowed out from the wall as soon as they were close enough, using the figure’s own momentum against them to twist their sword out of the way and slam them against the wall of the hallway. The man let out a grunt at the impact, and the light from the infirmary down the corridor flashed off Dave’s blade as he raised it to strike home, illuminating the face of Captain Ian, blood streaked across one cheekbone.

Dave froze, blade an inch from Ian’s chest, and became suddenly and uncomfortably aware that not only had he almost killed the man whose mystery he was trying to figure out, he was also pinning him against the wall of the hallway.

“Dave?” Ian said gently, which really wasn’t fair considering he was the one who’d just been slammed into the wall and almost killed.

“Sorry,” Dave said, and stepped back immediately, dropping his sword to his side. “Didn’t realise you were you.”

Ian pushed off the wall, glancing around, gaze falling onto the two Almenian soldiers that lay crumpled neatly next to each other. “I take no offence,” he said, and nodded at the bodies. “I was chasing them.”

“I took care of it,” Dave said, and glanced back down the corridor. “The doctor is probably going to kill me.”

“Probably!” Ian agreed cheerfully. “He does that. Just don’t let him give you any kind of draught until you’re back in his good graces.”

Dave nodded. “Duly noted.”

An outbreak of louder yelling echoed down the stair, and Ian shot a glance to the side, and then back at Dave. “Can you hold this corridor?”

“Aye,” Dave said, without hesitation.

Ian gave him a single nod, and then ran for the stairs.

After all that, the remainder of the battle was uneventful. Only a single Almenian had attempted the stairs, and him wounded and fleeing; he was still looking over his shoulder for pursuit when Dave flowed in from the side and struck clean.

The bell rang a short time later; three chimes, then three chimes, then three again. A ragged cheer filtered down, and Dave took that to mean that the pirates were victorious. It didn’t mean that he should relax his position, but it meant that he probably shouldn’t kill outright anyone attempting to get through.

After another while, footsteps again sounded on the stairs, and a large-ish figure emerged into the corridor. “Dave?”

“Here,” Dave said, and stepped away from the wall.

“Captain says to stand down,” the man said, coming closer, and it was only once he was close enough to identify as the one Ian had asked to take the wheel, Mr Johns, that Dave relaxed his guard. “The Almenians have laid down arms.”

Dave nodded. “What happens now?”

Johns shrugged. “We lock them in their own hold, and sail our new ship back to the Coral Isles. We’ll drop them off at the Aerie, probably; they’ll ransom them back to Almenia for us, and we’ll still take fifty percent of the cut.”

“How do you-”

“Know all this?” Johns finished for him, and grinned. “First mate Dan Johns, at your service.” He sketched a tiny bow. “Anyway, come on up.”

“The doctor-” Dave started, but Johns was already shaking his head. “Captain’s sending down more help for him. Come on.”

“All right,” Dave said, and followed behind Johns as he led the way up the stairs. The gun-deck, as they passed, was acrid with smoke.

They emerged on deck just as the last of the Almenian prisoners vanished below the deck of the captured ship. There were pirates scattered across both ships, setting lines to rights and seeing to the dead. The Swift looked mostly unharmed, a ragged hole in one of her sails, but the Almenian brig was worse off, chain-shot wrapped around one mast, lines and sails in tatters, and a charred hole in her side.

“Here he is!” Johns announced, shepherding Dave down towards where Ian was standing near a knot of pirates, giving orders.

“Excellent,” Ian said, giving them a glance, and then turned back to the pirates. “Listen up! Today’s victory is thanks to the keen eyes of Dave here, who spotted the trap close enough for us to be ready.”

The pirates threw up a cheer, and Ian held up a hand. “Several days ago Dave requested to join the crew. Before I make my final decision, I’d like opinions. Talk amongst yourselves, and any who wish to weigh in, yay or nay, speak to Mr Johns. You have until tonight.”

The pirates dispersed after that; apparently they already had their orders. Ian turned to Dave, giving Johns a nod, and the big man went over the makeshift bridge to the Almenian brig.

Ian didn’t say anything at first, just looked at him, and Dave fought to keep a blush from his cheeks, wishing he’d put a shirt on before coming above deck.

“That was pretty impressive, back there,” he said eventually, voice quiet. “I’ve not had someone get the better of me in a fight for some time.”

Dave shrugged, trying to mask his discomfort. “I’ve had a lot of practice,” he said. “I have to be good.” He didn’t say, ‘I have to be good to live’, but he didn’t have to. A bad merc was a dead merc.

“And yet,” Ian said, still with that odd stare.

Dave fidgeted, with the grip of the sword in his hand. “If you wanted, we could spar. To keep you in practice. If I get to stay.”

“Sorry,” Ian said suddenly, and a corner of his mouth quirked. “I’m discomforting you, aren’t I.”

“I don’t tend to have a lot of men stare at me,” Dave said before he could think better of it, and for just a moment Ian’s look changed into something else, something more intense.

“I don’t know why not,” he said, and then looked away. “My apologies, that was uncalled for.”

Dave hesitated for a split second. He’d done worse things, and it wasn’t like Ian was unattractive, and anyway, if he got this out of his system maybe he could get himself under control. And it could get him the information he wanted faster. “But not unwanted,” he said, and let the flush he was keeping a hold on pink his cheeks.

Ian gave him a startled look, and Dave dropped his gaze to his toes. It was always best not to be too eager, and anyway, now that it was a possibility, that he could let himself think of it, he found he didn’t want to rush things with Ian.

“Dave -” Ian said, voice deeper than it had been a moment ago, and then broke off with a strangled curse. “We’ll talk more on this later.”

Dave looked up to see Johns coming back over from the Almenian ship, and Ian half turned to gesture at him, fingers flashing in a quick series of signals. Johns stopped, nodded, and went back below deck.

“Get below and see if the doc needs any more help,” Ian said, without looking at Dave again. “He’ll kill both you and me if I keep you up here too long.”

“Aye,” Dave said quietly, and went below.

The doctor not only didn’t need help, he commanded that Dave sit down right there, where he, the doctor, could keep an eye on him, and if he moved at all he would be in serious trouble and what had he said about not getting in a fight. His arms were streaked with blood all the way to where his sleeves were rolled, well above the elbow, and there was a smear of blood on his cheekbone. He looked genuinely angry. Dave couldn’t see the pirate he’d been working on when Dave had left the room, the one with the gut wound, but there was a table in the corner with a body lying under a sheet, and the floor was a thick mess of blood and sand. The doctor had lost a patient today, and there were more wounded yet to be carried in.

Dave apologised, returned his borrowed sword with a word of thanks, and sat in his corner. He folded his legs in to keep out of the way, closed his eyes, and fell into meditation.

illustrated by Jeromu Furijito

***

“Dave.”

There was someone near him, and his eyes snapped open, hands flexing around hilts of invisible swords. It was just Ian, though, and he relaxed all at once, glancing around. The body under a sheet had been removed; most of the tables were filled with patients. Ian was missing a sleeve on his shirt, a bandage around his upper arm.

“Dave,” Ian said again. “Doc wants to check your stitches.”

“Okay,” Dave said, and unfolded his legs, pushing up to stand.

The doctor seemed to have calmed down; most of the blood had been washed from his arms, and the anger was gone from his expression. He unwrapped the bandages with quick efficiency, then held a lantern to and fro as he inspected the wound.

“It’s a miracle,” he muttered finally. “It’s in better condition than it was yesterday. Even after fighting.”

“Oh, good,” Dave said. “I was worried.” He hadn’t been, not really, but he couldn’t very well explain to the doctor and Ian exactly why that was so.

“You were lucky,” the doctor said, and began to re-dress the wound. “Don’t do it again.”

“I’ll do my best,” Dave promised with his best sheepish look.

The doctor tied off the bandage and nodded at Ian. “Done,” he said. “If you would be so kind, send me down another two assistants – not Phillips, please. And take this one with you.”

“I can go?” Dave asked. He hadn’t expected – but then, there were wounded now, and the doctor and his assistants would need to sleep here in case they were needed overnight.

“Back here every day to check your wound,” the doctor said sternly. “And no more exertion.”

Dave threw him a lazy salute, and stood. “Where to?” he asked Ian.

In answer, Ian led the way up the stairs, all the way up onto the deck. The sun had set, last remnants of light streaking the horizon, silhouetting the masts and rigging of the Almenian brig, sailors scrambling up and down as they worked to repair the damage while the light held.

They crossed the deck to one of the doors below the raised rear deck, Ian gesturing Dave through. There were several lanterns lit around the room, and it appeared to be part office, part treasury. A desk stood to one side, papers covering the surface. The rest of the room looked a mess – chests were stacked haphazardly along one wall, behind bundles of cloth and a pile of sheathed swords. Several bulging sacks were leaning precariously against another wall.

Ian waved him to a chair, rounding the corner to sit behind the desk. “Mr Johns has conveyed the crew sentiment to me,” he said without preamble. “To be brief: they like you, but although your efforts today have begun the process, they do not yet trust you.”

“Understandable,” Dave said.

Ian nodded. “In addition, your lack of skills in crewing the ship is also a problem; with now two ships to crew, while your presence would be helpful, I don’t have anyone spare to assign to show you the ropes.” He paused, then grinned. “Also, you really pissed the doc off.”

At his expression, Dave’s tension left him – although he was only getting to know the man, he was sure Ian wouldn’t grin like that if he was throwing him off the ship. “Is that a point in my favour?” he asked, letting his own mouth quirk upwards just a little.

Ian chuckled. “Depends on who you ask,” he said. “So, to the point: I will accept you as temporary crew until such time as your debt is paid. In addition to your standard share, I will allow you to pick several changes of clothes and a new sword from what we have collected today, to replace your own lost items. As temporary crew, you will follow orders as given, and make yourself useful aboard ship.”

Dave let his mouth curve into a grin. “Thank you. Captain.”

Ian turned several papers around to face him. “Can you read?”

“Aye,” Dave said, and bent his head as Ian pushed the papers over to him. Ian had drawn up a contract, fairly standard for pirate ships operating out of Port Cascade. He flicked through the pages, but there was nothing he objected to. “Where do I make my mark?”

Ian handed him a quill, pointing out the line, and Dave made an illegible squiggle.

“I will need your surname, if you have one,” Ian said, and Dave nodded, handing back the quill and papers. He’d had ample time to think of something suitable and nondescript.

“Thomas,” he said. “Dave Thomas.”

“Very well, Mr Thomas,” Ian said, and made his own mark below Dave’s. “Welcome aboard the Swift.”

***

Dave had wondered if there would be more to it, if they would perhaps go back to the topic they’d been discussing on deck, a topic that even now felt like a weight settling in his belly. But Ian apparently had other things to do; no sooner had he filed Dave’s crew papers away in the desk, Johns had appeared to take him through the Almenian plunder and show him his berth.

With his new sword belted at his side, he stored his new clothes in the small chest lashed under the bunk, and Johns showed him to the mess.

Taking his meal with the crew was a new experience – the infirmary was quiet, and the mess was – not. The room was filled with a cluster of small tables, the off-watches of pirates clustered tightly together. The air was filled with chatter, a tinge of smoke, and the overwhelming smell of fish.

“Smells like fish stew again,” Johns said, as Dave accepted his bowl of stew and biscuit from the cook.

“As long as it’s hot and edible, I don’t mind,” Dave said, and Johns laughed.

“Truer words,” Johns said, accepting his own bowl, and steered Dave to a table.

He was starting to recognise the various pirates now, and the table Johns sat him down at contained Silver and another two that seemed to be on the same watch rotation. After a quick round of introductions – the pirate on the left, with the thick brown dreadlocks, was Smith, and the one on the right, with the crooked nose and scar on his forearm, was Phillips – the pirates got back to talking, mostly about the fight.

That devolved into a discussion about how Dave had spotted the Almenian decoy for what it was, which lead to several toasts with their daily rum ration. Some time later, Dave stumbled back out onto deck, feeling somewhat more relaxed than he had previously. He’d had training in this too, of course – the last thing they wanted was for their agent to have a few drinks and give up his cover. But he was still recovering from injury, and his home ports and his superiors were hundreds of miles away. He would be sober again all too quickly, of course, but for now, sitting on a locker on deck and looking at the stars, he could forget, for a moment, what he was.

“All right?” Ian said from behind him, and maybe Dave was more drunk than he’d thought, because his instincts did barely more than twitch.

“Good evening,” Dave said. “Captain. Captain Ian.”

Ian looked like he was trying not to laugh. “Mr Thomas,” he said gravely. “How much rum did they feed you?”

Dave thought about it, but after mug number four he hadn’t really been keeping track. “I’m not sure,” he said.

“I see,” Ian said. “Well, shall I help you to your berth?”

“I don’t need help,” Dave frowned at him, and stood, walking mostly steadily towards the stairs.

“Allow me to accompany you, then,” Ian temporised. “I would hate you to break your neck in the dark.”

“All right,” Dave allowed, and started carefully down the stairs.

By the time he was at the right deck, his head was spinning just a little. “Maybe, just a little help,” he said, and Ian chuckled and took a steady hold of his elbow.

They made their way down the passage to the berth, Dave locating his bunk by dint of it being the only empty one in the section, soft snores emanating from the others.

“Here we are,” Ian said softly.

Dave fumbled with the buckle of his sword belt, and swore when it wouldn’t come off.

“Allow me,” Ian said, and brushed his hands aside, deft fingers flicking open the clasp. Ian drew the belt from his waist, setting the sword at the side of the bunk, and Dave shivered as his fingers brushed across his navel. He was drunk, and he liked Ian, and he was fairly sure Ian liked him-

He lent in, only to fetch up with his face against Ian’s shoulder. “Hey,” he said.

Ian sighed. “You’re drunk,” he said softly. “I don’t – not until we’ve had a chance to talk. Tomorrow. Okay? Tomorrow.”

Dave muttered, and Ian brushed a hand over the back of his head. “Tomorrow, Dave.”

“Okay,” Dave said, and then Ian helped him to sit on the bunk and vanished from the berth.

Dave sighed, lay back onto the bunk, one hand resting on the scabbard of his sword, and was asleep in moments.

***

When he woke, it was very quiet – aside from the waves against the hull, and the steady breaths of his berth-mates, he couldn’t hear anything at all. He slipped out of the bunk, leaving the sword where it was, and slid soundlessly down the passage to the stairs. There was some light from above, so he veiled himself in shadows and flowed upwards.

The light was moonlight, the moon three quarters full and shining steadily. The deck was mostly empty; there were two pirates at the bow, two at the stern, and one near the wheel with a lantern beside him.

Dave flowed across the deck unnoticed, heading to the other on-deck cabin. The door was closed, but he could hear voices from inside, although not clearly enough to catch words. He glanced around, then took the stairs leading to the raised deck, moving right past the three pirates on duty. He glanced down over the stern, and as he’d hoped, there were windows – and one was open.

Without a second thought, he took hold of the railing, braced his side, and swung over the edge.

Hanging from the rail, he had a much easier time of hearing, although he wasn’t low enough to see in the window. Not that that was a problem – he’d been trained to identify voices, too.

“-something more pressing,” Ian said quietly. “I’ve looked over the Almenian papers. It seems that the brig had two sets of orders. One was to eliminate as many pirate ships as they could. The other was to meet the ship carrying an operative out of Rhyandan waters, and escort him home.”

Dave’s fingers clenched on the railing. What idiot had written that order down? Protocol was to inform the officers of the information verbally, precisely because of incidents such as this.

Someone swore softly. “Does it say who the operative was?” Johns’ voice.

“No,” Ian said. “Just that the ship would be crossing these waters in the next few weeks, to transfer the operative off, and then return with all due speed.”

“Could he be onboard already?” the doctor asked, and Dave’s heart almost stopped. “If he wasn’t killed in the fighting, he could be amongst the prisoners.”

“The regular Almenians are tough, sure, but an operative is far more dangerous,” Johns said. “If he’s in the cells-”

“Double the guard,” Ian said. “The prisoners were thoroughly searched, yes?”

“Yes,” said a fourth voice that after a moment Dave identified as Silver. “But if it’s a high level operative, he might have some form of talent.”

“How many are there again?” Ian said, and there was a noise, like the shuffling of papers.

“Four,” Silver said, and Dave smiled, because there were six. And then frowned – because why would a bunch of pirates know about Almenian operatives? If they were lords out of Port Cascade, then it would be less strange – but Ian didn’t seem like a pirate lord. A regular pirate captain – let alone his crew – should not know these things.

“Run me down what we know,” Ian said.

Silver cleared his throat. “Well they all have some sort of stealth talent or training. Falcon is a woman, so if the operative is onboard it can’t be her. Tiger’s talent is explosions, so if he’s in the prison he’ll probably bust the lock. Anything larger would make more noise, and he’d want to be stealthy to try and gain the advantage.”

He shuffled his papers again. “Spear’s talent we’re not quite sure of, but we’re pretty sure it’s fire-related. He’d be limited if he’s here, because he wouldn’t want to burn down the ships. Again, he’d probably try and melt through the bars. The fourth high-level operative is Shadowblade. About which we know pretty much nothing.”

“If it’s Shadowblade we’re screwed,” Johns said.

“Hope for the best, plan for the worst,” Ian said. “Mr Silver, I want you sleeping days and awake nights – if they’re going to stage a break-out it’ll be then, to try and catch us off our guard. Mr Johns – change of plans, we’ll sail together for the Aerie. As much as it pains me to say this, Mr Silver will stay on the Swift.”

“I understand, sir,” Johns said. “Insurance.”

“Precisely,” Ian said.

Dave had heard enough; he braced his feet on the hull and clambered back over the railing, gliding back across the deck and down the stairs. He could kill the Almenian captain, if there wasn’t even odds that he was already dead, and if it wouldn’t break his cover. Now he had to be extra careful – because he needed to survive, to get back to Almenia and tell them that there were some very well-informed pirates sailing around. At least they didn’t have anyone’s real codename – well, aside from his, but his name wasn’t a secret.

His name was a threat.

So: play it safe, be the honourable merc, and above all, survive. At least he’d solved one mystery – Silver must have some sort of talent, which would probably also explain how the Swift had taken barely any damage in the cannon fire that had started the engagement. Something relating to shielding, probably – the Almenian brig hadn’t taken any damage out of the ordinary, which limited the options.

He ghosted the passageway, but it was clear; to be safe, he dropped the veil of shadows in the head, moving back to his bunk like anyone else would, one hand on the wall to guide him in the dark. He slipped back under his blanket, taking a few meditative breaths to calm his mind.

Before he could be of any use, he had to heal. Which meant rest. Which meant, right now, sleep. He closed his eyes.

***

He was roused out of bed with the rest of his berth-mates shortly after sunrise. After a quick breakfast, they reported to Johns on deck. Johns sent half of them to the Almenian brig to continue the rigging repair, half of them to guard duty, and, with a grin, ordered Dave to go visit the doctor.

The doc looked better after some sleep, changing the bandages in short order. He went back on deck after that, found himself an out of the way locker to sit on, folded his legs in, and closed his eyes.

“Dave,” Ian said from close behind him, and he caught himself from flinching around just before he jarred his side.

“Captain,” he said instead, opening his eyes and turning his head. The sun was several inches off the horizon, and the heat on his face was soothing.

“You’ll burn if you sit in the sun all day without a shirt or hat,” Ian said, smile in his eyes.

“Probably,” Dave said. “I’ll just go fetch one, shall I?”

When he got back on deck, Ian was still there, sitting on the locker and leaning back against the rail. “Doc still not letting you do anything?” he asked as Dave sat next to him.

“Not yet,” Dave said.

“Well then!” Ian said, and gestured. “This is the Swift. She’s a three-masted barquentine originally of Rhyandan make. Now, well.” He grinned. “How much do you know about ships?”

“Bow, stern, port, starboard,” Dave said, pointing. “Also I was informed that if I ever called them ‘ropes’ again they were going to string me from them, so ‘lines’ it is.”

“Very good,” Ian said “Now, her masts, back to front – mizzen mast, main mast, fore mast, and bowsprit. The spars on the masts are called yards. The sails-”

The Swift had a lot of sails, but Dave hadn’t gotten to where he had by being slow, or unable to memorise necessary information. The sails were all reefed tight to the yards, but Ian pointed them out one by one, and had Dave repeat the information back to him.

“I’ll get you to stay on deck most of the time, once you’re fit,” Ian said. “We don’t need everyone in the rigging – all the lines are hauled from deck.” He pointed out the pins set against the railings, and around each mast. “Each line has its own pin it belays to. I don’t expect you to memorise all of those today! What I’ll do is set you up with someone to follow, so that when the order is given you can follow them from line to line.”

Dave nodded. “Fair enough.”

“Okay!” Ian said, turned to him, and grinned. “Name me the sails.”

***

By evening Dave knew more about ships, and the Swift in particular, than he ever had before. Ian had kept him company most of the afternoon before disappearing over to the Almenian ship, and hadn’t been seen since. Once the sun set, Dave gave up on waiting and went to the mess, collecting his stew and biscuit. A pirate he recognised as one of his berth-mates waved him to an empty seat, and he sat and listened to them talk a while as he ate.

When he was finished, he excused himself and went back on deck, without the hat this time, stretching out on the locker and looking at the stars. It’d never been something he’d particularly had time for, in Almenia; and when travelling back and forth to Rhyanda, he’d always had more important things to do, focussed on his mission or on his mission report.

But out here, in the middle of the ocean, even against the brightness of the three quarter moon – the stars shone.

After some time, a shadow fell across his face, and he blinked, refocussing on Ian.

“Dave,” Ian said quietly. “I still have your knives in my possession. Would you accompany me?”

Tension started coiling low in Dave’s gut. “Certainly,” he said, rolled carefully to his feet, and followed Ian into his cabin.

Focussed as he was on Ian, Dave noticed only the most rudimentary things about the cabin itself; it was dimly lit with two shuttered lanterns, there was a small screen that shielded the bunk from the door, there was a table and chairs, several chests, and in the middle of it all, Ian.

“Where to start?” Ian muttered, looking at his hands.

“Last night,” Dave said. “Why didn’t you-”

“You were drunk,” Ian said, like it was the simplest thing in the world. “I don’t – I wouldn’t-”

Dave blinked. “You’re a pirate.”

Ian crossed his arms. “You’re a merc. Doesn’t mean you can’t have honour.”

“Yes, but.” Dave waved his arms. “Pirate!”

Ian’s mouth quirked. “I’m not a very good pirate, then.”

“I wanted you to,” Dave said, and looked at the floor. The cabin wasn’t very big; he ended up looking at Ian’s boots instead. They were nice boots, polished.

Ian made a frustrated noise. “I wanted to. But we needed to talk first. This is a small ship.”

“Hard to keep a secret,” Dave said.

“Indeed,” Ian said. “This is how it works, how it keeps things working: this exists here, in this space. Outside, I’m the Captain, and you’re Mr Thomas. There are no special privileges, no entitlements. Just us. Just this.”

Dave nodded. “Okay.”

“Be sure,” Ian said. “Because if you’re not, I can’t.”

Dave lifted his gaze – slowly – dragging it from Ian’s boots, up his legs and over his groin and chest to his face. When he met his gaze, Ian’s cheeks were slightly flushed.

“I’m sure,” Dave whispered.

“Gods-” Ian muttered, and stepped forward. His hands were gentle as he rested his fingertips on the dip between Dave’s collarbones, trailing carefully down his chest, shirt already open.

Sensation spiralled out from Ian’s fingertips, a spiderweb of fractures in Dave’s composure. If he didn’t like Ian, this would be easy, simple, nothing he hadn’t done before, in the course of his duties. But he did like Ian, and that made it more, better – made it something he was invested in. Something he could actually feel, with his real self.

Something he wanted to keep.

Dave bit his lip to stay silent, letting his body react for him as his skin broke out in goosebumps. Ian’s fingers trailed back up, and when his fingertips brushed over Dave’s mouth they were soft, softer than he was expecting.

“Don’t,” Ian said. “Don’t hide yourself.”

“Okay,” Dave whispered, and lifted his hands to Ian’s clothing. His fingers were unsteady as he unbuckled the belt, lowering it to the floor, and started on the buttons of the silken coat.

Ian caught one of his shaking hands with his own, and Dave looked up into his concerned gaze. “Are you okay?” Ian said.

“I’m,” Dave said, and flushed. “I like you. And it’s been a while since. With someone I actually liked.”

“Oh,” Ian said, and drew him in, bending down.

The first touch of his lips was gentle, and Ian slid one of his hands around Dave’s uninjured side to splay his fingers across his lower back, pulling him in tighter. The motion pressed their groins together, and Dave gasped into the kiss at the sensation. His clothes were abruptly too constricting, and as nice as the silk of Ian’s coat felt on his chest, he wanted to feel the press of his bare skin against his own.

He broke the kiss, hands clawing for Ian’s buttons. Ian captured his hands again, chuckling softly. “Easy,” he murmured, and undid them himself. The coat crumpled to the floor, and Ian started on his shirt buttons. He met Dave’s eyes, and his hands slowed, each deliberate flick of a button revealing another few inches of skin. Dave made some sort of noise, and Ian’s eyes darkened as he released the final button.

Dave lifted his hands, pushing the shirt off Ian’s shoulders, and it dropped to the floor, forgotten as he ran his hands down the planes of Ian’s chest. He was tanned here, too, with a light scattering of hair. The muscles of his stomach twitched as Dave’s hands passed, enjoying the feel of skin under his hands.

“Come here,” Ian said, capturing Dave’s wrist again and pulling him forward, and at the new contact Dave did gasp. Ian felt hot against him, skin warm against his own, and he pressed his hands into the smooth skin on Ian’s back, breathing against his shoulder.

Ian’s hands slid onto Dave’s back beneath his shirt, sliding over the leather of his pants and firmly pulling Dave against him. His mouth was already open, and it was too late to stop the low moan that escaped him.

Gods,” Ian said, and then, “come here,” stepping backwards, and Dave shrugged his shoulders and twisted his wrists, shirt fluttering to the floor, and followed the lure of Ian’s skin all the way around the screen to his bunk.

“Lie down,” Ian said, and at Dave’s look, “the doc will kill me if you exert yourself.”

Dave sat and swung his legs around, leaning back, and then Ian had one knee over him, looming above him in the dim light and his instincts, somewhere in the back of his head that wasn’t consumed with feeling, started screaming a warning. But Ian was no threat – he ran a hand down Dave’s stomach, gentle across the bandages, and popped open the first button of his trousers.

Dave stopped breathing as Ian moved down the row of buttons, releasing the pressure against him, and then he let out all the air in a groan as Ian dipped one hand inside his trousers and took him in a firm grasp.

It had been – a long time. His last mission had been fairly basic intelligence gathering, and the persona he’d assumed had no time for anything of this sort. And before then he’d been back in Almenia, and he’d had no time at all, every moment assumed to be under surveillance. They’d sent someone to him, of course, but that had been perfunctory, and not nearly satisfying, for his body’s needs only. This, here – and he shivered as Ian drew his hand up over the head and down again, the slow drag of his hot fingers and the cool of his rings some sort of torture – this was for him. He was here, in the moment, and he could feel.

And what he wanted to feel was Ian against him, under his hands.

He lifted his arms, hands unsteady, and reached for Ian’s pants. Ian obliged him by shifting forward, one hand on the bed next to Dave’s ear, and picking up the pace of his hand, tightening his grip on the end of every long stroke.

Dave let out something completely unintelligible, hooked his hands in Ian’s pants, and popped all the buttons in one go. He had a brief instant of satisfaction seeing Ian’s face go momentarily slack as he shoved his hands in and grabbed, and then Ian did something that made him see stars, and he had to breathe for a moment before he could concentrate again. If he’d thought Ian’s skin was hot before, it was nothing on the heat he held now, and he shifted his fingers around, getting a better grip, before drawing his hands up.

Ian shuddered, breath coming faster, and Dave shifted a little, trying to get closer, and bit out a curse as his side flared in pain. “Stop-” he managed, and Ian froze.

“It’s okay,” Dave said immediately, seeing the look on Ian’s face, “it’s okay, just-” He waved one hand, and gestured to his side. “Hard to reach you without hurting myself.”

Ian’s face smoothed into relief all at once. “Let’s fix that,” he murmured, and pressed himself down.

Ian must have been stronger than he looked; he was able to press against Dave without letting his full weight fall on him. He dropped his hips last of all, moving his free hand down, and Dave had to close his eyes, gasping, when Ian pressed them together with long, slow strokes.

“M-much better-” Dave gasped, prying his eyes open again, and Ian’s face was only a few inches from his own, breath coming just as fast.

“Good,” he said, and lowered his head to mouth at Dave’s throat, speeding up the motion of his hand.

Gods,” Dave groaned, hips starting to move in little jerks, and closed his eyes, giving in, letting himself revel in everything, how Ian was making him feel. He didn’t think he could last much longer – not right now, not with Ian’s hands and mouth sending him higher with every touch.

“When you’re healed,” Ian gasped out, and he added in a twist to his wrist as he moved, sending stars across the back of Dave’s eyelids again, “when you’re healed-” He moved his mouth from Dave’s neck to his ear, breath warm and sending shivers across his skin. “-we’re going to do this properly.”

His voice was low, almost hoarse, and Dave had a sudden flash of what it could be, Ian pressing slowly into him as he lay spreadeagled across the bed, or the reverse, Ian laid out before him, his to touch and take-

The pressure coiling in his stomach snapped all at once, and he moaned as waves of sensation overwhelmed him, head back and gasping as he spilled hot across Ian’s hand.

When he came back to himself, still shuddering, Ian was gasping over him, moving slickly through his own fist, and Dave reached down, tangling his fingers with Ian’s.

“Come on,” he murmured, low, and squeezed as he moved his hand.

Ian said something garbled and buried his head in Dave’s shoulder. He jerked in Dave’s hand, his own release joining the mess on their bellies.

Dave slowed his hand, Ian shaking still with the aftershocks, and was gratified when – instead of collapsing on him, risking further injury – Ian managed to collapse to the side, rolling to lay face up, still breathing heavily.

“All right?” Dave murmured, turning his head sideways.

Ian’s head turned to him, and the look in his eyes – satiated and hungry, all at once – hit low in his stomach. Ian’s mouth curved up in a smile, and Dave could feel his own lips quirk up in answer.

“I should ask you that,” Ian said eventually, dragging a light hand up Dave’s side. “How is it?”

Dave took a deep breath and let it out. His side was a little sore, but not in the way that meant he’d harmed anything – just the exertion which it was unused to after the week of enforced rest.

“I’ll live,” Dave said.

After they cleaned themselves up and put their clothing back in order, Ian let him out of the cabin and Dave wandered back to his berth. He collapsed carefully on his bunk, put one hand on his sheathed sword, and then had to stifle a laugh – after all that, he’d forgotten to get his knives back from Ian.

***

The next morning after breakfast, everyone assembled on deck. Final repairs had been completed with the dawn; the Almenian brig was now ready to sail.

Ian, resplendent in a silk coat of dark green, shot through with golden embroidery, clapped his hands for attention. “Gentlemen,” he said simply. “The ships are ready; we sail for the Aerie with the wind.” He turned his head to regard Johns, who stood at his side in a fancier coat than Dave had seen him wear before. “Captain Johns, is your crew assembled?”

“Aye, Captain Archer,” Johns said with a wolfish smile. “The Viktory‘s crew stand ready to board.”

“Get to it, then,” Ian said, grinning back, and Johns gave him a nod, then turned to the assembled pirates.

“If you’re crewing on Viktory, collect your effects and find your berth!” Johns bellowed. “We sail in a half hour!”

About half the pirates scattered belowdecks, the rest – those staying on the Swift – quickly busying themselves around the deck, re-coiling lines below their pins and making sure everything was in shape. Johns had evidently already moved his effects; he and Ian continued talking quietly near the rail. Dave, with nothing better to do, took a seat on ‘his’ locker and stayed out of the way.

It didn’t take long for the pirates to shift their belongings; Ian and Johns clasped hands, Johns the last to board the Viktory. The makeshift bridge was retracted, and Ian moved across the deck and up the stairs.

“Mr Smith!” he called, sauntering to the wheel and setting a hand on it. “Raise anchor, and make ready to sail!”

Smith shouted instructions to the pirates, those already in the rigging releasing the square sails, those on deck hauling the lines to raise the main sail and the mizzen sail. Finally, a small group of pirates at the bow manned the winch, raising the anchor. The wind gusted into the sails, canvas creaking with the load, Ian turned the wheel two points to port and stood steady, and the Swift was away.

***

It was another week before they sighted land. The final morning, the doctor unwrapped the bandages, cut and pulled the stitches, and pronounced Dave fit for light work. He could haul the lines, but not solo, and he was to take regular breaks.

Since his only exercise for the week had been three highly enjoyable evenings with Ian in Ian’s cabin, Dave wasn’t going to quibble with his orders – at least he could do something during the day besides sit on the locker and watch.

He went to his berth, put on a shirt and proper coat, belted his sword to his side, and went back on deck.

“Mr Thomas!” Ian called from the wheel, and Dave went up the stairs.

“Captain?”

Ian surveyed him up and down. “Doc give you the all clear?”

Dave fought successfully against the impulse to flush. “For light duties,” he said. “And I’m to rest every hour.”

Ian grinned, and Dave flashed back to their first evening, about doing things properly, and swallowed. Ian only grinned wider.

“Mr Phillips!” he called, and a moment later Phillips came up the stairs.

“Captain?”

“Mr Thomas, you’ll follow Mr Phillips through the instructions. Mr Phillips – he’s for light duties only, so set up at the end of the line. And Mr Thomas-” Ian looked stern, but there was a smile in his eyes. “Take your rest breaks as ordered.”

“Aye Captain,” Dave said, and followed Phillips back to the deck.

An hour later the lookout sighted land, and there was a flurry of activity as Ian and Smith conferred over maps. Ian altered their course a point to port, and Dave followed Phillips’ lead as they furled the jibs and reefed them tight to the bowsprit.

Their course slowed as they approached the shore, a massive cliff of brown and grey stone. Under Mr Smith’s direction, they hauled the main and mizzen sails to port, then the square sails, and Ian spun the wheel over a few more points. The Swift heeled over, heading now more parallel to the coast.

“Mr Thomas, take a break!” Smith called, and directed the other pirates to prepare to turn the sails again.

Dave moved back to the locker, and ten minutes later the rest of the pirates hauled the sails around as Ian turned the wheel hard to starboard. The Swift made a wide turn towards the cliff, and it wasn’t until they were facing it that Dave could see the narrow strait. The gaff sails were furled, then the t’gallant and the topsails, and finally the Swift coasted into the strait with only three sails set, Ian with a steady hand on the wheel and an eye to their course.

Shortly after Smith called Dave back to work, they broke out of the strait into a massive harbour, docks built in a circular fashion around the whole bay. Orders came thick and fast, and Dave followed Phillips from line to line. The Swift made a wide turn about the harbour, slowing as she went, and came to a graceful stop alongside one of the docks, all sails secured.

Smith and another pirate threw lines to the men standing on deck, who made them fast to the pins, and then Smith ran out the gangway and Ian went down.

Dave looked around at the towering cliff surrounding them, the sky looking like a tiny bowl far away. After a moment, he realised that the odd shapes he could see on the cliff were windows – the Aerie was built into the side of the cliff.

Ian came back up and stepped onto the deck. “Gentlemen!” he called. “Once the Viktory docks, we’ll all work together to move the prisoners. We’ll be sailing with the tide tomorrow morning. Half watches today and tonight; the rest of you may take the day.”

The pirates on deck dispersed, and Dave took a step towards Ian. “Captain,” he said, “what should I be doing?”

Ian glanced at him. “Put your boots on,” he said, and grinned. “You’re going ashore.”

***

The Viktory docked a half hour later. Ian left a half-watch on the Swift and led the remainder of the crew around to the next dock. Johns greeted him with clasped hands, and then everyone formed up to escort the Almenian prisoners to their new cells. It was odd being back on land again, after his time at sea, short as it had been – he kept expecting the roll and sway of the Swift under his feet, instead of the solid earth. It didn’t take him long to adapt, though, and by the time they had watched the last prisoner walk docilely into the Aerie prison, he was steady on his feet again.

It didn’t take the pirates long to vanish into the surrounding terraces, and after a few minutes it was only Ian and Johns, conversing quietly, and Dave, leaning on the edge of the terrace and looking down at the harbour, several levels below.

“Dave,” Ian said, and Dave glanced up to see Johns’ departing back, Ian beckoning him with a hand. “Seeing as it’s your first time here, I thought I might show you around?”

“Certainly,” Dave said, and followed.

There were a lot of stairs in the Aerie. They never went right to the top, but Ian took him through several different levels, local marketplaces hawking wares many and varied, Almenian, Rhyandan, and local alike. On another terrace a small band of musicians were playing, a small crowd gathered in front of them.

“Fancy a real meal?” Ian said after a while. “We’ll stock up on fresh provisions here, but it won’t last long at sea. It’s another week or more to Port Cascade.”

Dave blinked. “Something that’s not hardtack and stew?” he said, and grinned. “Lead the way.”

The sun had long passed the arc of sky contained within the Aerie walls; the light had already begun to fade as dusk approached. Ian led him up several more levels, the Swift, below them, now looking like nothing more than a child’s toy.

After the last set of stairs, Ian glanced both ways, opened a door, and gestured for Dave to step in. The room was plain, mats on the floor, a desk with a bell, and a curtained doorway beyond. A middle-aged woman bustled in through the curtain, glanced at them, and broke into smiles.

“Captain Archer!” she said, and bowed low. “How honoured we are that you have chosen to visit us again! What do you require?”

“A good meal,” Ian said, “and a room overnight.”

He tossed a small pouch towards her; she caught it with a jingle, glanced inside, and tucked it away.

“Of course, Captain,” she said, and swept the curtain aside. “Please, follow me.”

She showed them to a richly appointed room, walls covered in hangings. A large four-poster bed stood in one corner, silken drapes pulled back to reveal a mattress piled high with pillows. On one wall a fireplace roared, basket of wood nearby, and on the other was a table with several chairs.

“Your meal will be delivered shortly,” she said, and bowed her way out.

True to her word, less than ten minutes later a knock sounded and several servants entered bearing plates. They placed the food upon the table, bowed, and left without uttering a single word.

Dave closed his eyes and took a good sniff. It all smelled delicious, the various aromas combining in a way that was not at all unpleasant.

“Smells good?” Ian asked, and Dave could hear the smile even with his eyes closed.

“It doesn’t smell like fish,” Dave said, grinning, and he opened his eyes as Ian chuckled.

“Shall we?” Ian said, and then there was no more talking until the plates were clean.

“That,” Dave declared, “was a good meal.”

“Quite,” Ian said. “I think,” and he glanced at Dave, raising an eyebrow, “time for a nap?”

Dave nodded in agreement, and in short order they had set swords to the side and made themselves comfortable on the bed. Dave hadn’t been tired at the close of the meal, but now that he was lying flat, on something soft and comfortable, he could feel sleep drawing at him.

Beside him Ian shifted once, and made a soft, contented noise, and Dave closed his eyes.

***

He woke with a weight pressing him down, and was tensed to move, throw his attacker off and plunge a sword through their chest – and then Ian’s braids, loose, brushed across his neck and his hand resumed its – very pleasant – movement.

“It’s just me,” Ian whispered, and Dave relaxed all at once, letting out a groan.

“Doc gave you the all clear,” Ian said, hunger in his voice, hand continuing its slow, steady pace.

“For light duties,” Dave said, but Ian was probably right – his weight on Dave wasn’t at all unpleasant.

“I think we can manage ‘light’,” Ian said, leaning in, and captured Dave’s mouth in a bruising kiss.

Dave kissed back, bringing his arms gingerly up to touch Ian’s back, and then flexed his fingers as the thought occurred to him – he’d been given the all clear. He didn’t have to hold back

He hooked a leg around Ian’s, shifted his weight, and flipped them without a second thought, Ian landing with a little huff of breath squarely beneath him.

“All clear,” Dave said with a grin to the surprise in Ian’s eyes, which slowly darkened into desire.

“Oh really,” Ian breathed, tugging Dave back down, and then their hands were everywhere, trying to pull off each others’ clothes all at once.

Dave lost his shirt and coat, tugging frantically at Ian’s pants, which were halfway down his legs and stuck somewhere about the knees. Ian was working on Dave’s pants and not getting very far, his coat off and shirt hanging off one arm.

“Okay, okay, just-” Ian said, laughter in his voice, and they separated just long enough to undress properly.

When they came back together, Ian readily leant back again, settling Dave between his legs.

“Here,” he said, pressing a flask into his hands, and Dave nodded, unspoken understanding between them.

He uncapped the flask, spilling oil into his palm, and then set it aside as he lent forward. Ian shifted his legs, one heel landing on Dave’s back, and he pressed his fingers in slowly, Ian’s neck arching as he gasped raggedly.

“All right?” Dave asked after a moment, and Ian opened his eyes and glared.

“I’m not a woman, Dave,” he said, and Dave grinned and twisted his fingers, Ian’s voice stuttering off into a moan. “Son of a bitch,” he said when he’d gotten his breath back, and Dave made another careful stroke, Ian gasping beneath him.

“I know you’re not a woman,” Dave said, voice low, and pulled his fingers free. He took more oil, slicked himself, and pressed forward again, slower this time.

Ian was, gods, if he’d thought the heat from Ian’s skin was hot, the heat that gripped him now was burning. He pressed his fingers into Ian’s thighs to ground himself as he slipped in further, Ian’s breath coming in short gasps, hands clenching the coverlet beneath them.

Finally he was in as far as he could go, and he glanced up to see Ian’s eyes opening, breath evening out into something little smoother.

“All right?” Dave said, and Ian dug his heel into Dave’s shoulderblade.

“I’d be better if you’d move,” Ian said, and Dave drew back and thrust forward smoothly, watching Ian’s face go slack. “Yesss-” Ian gasped, and Dave did it again, and again, falling into a steady rhythm. Ian rocked up to meet him, hands letting go of the coverlet to slide over Dave’s body, slick with sweat, and pull him down into a messy kiss.

Ian urged him on, meeting every stroke, and the tension built, waves of pleasure that rose higher and higher until, with a few stuttering thrusts, he was swept away.

“Come on,” Ian hissed some time later, trying to work his hand underneath him, and Dave lifted his face from where he had collapsed onto him. It took him but a moment to realise that Ian was still hard beneath him, unsatisfied, and he pushed up, pulling free gingerly.

“Wait-” he said, and Ian paused, hand halfway across his stomach, a frustrated expression on his face.

“Dave-” he said, and Dave took the flask and pressed it back into his hands.

“Your turn,” he said.

Ian looked at the oil, looked at him, and smiled.

And later, with Ian pressed deep inside him, strong thrusts rocking his body in time with his gasping breath, Dave wanted nothing more than to keep that look of amazement and pleasure on his face. His country, his duty – they weren’t important, not in the face of this. This was his, Ian was his, and this was theirs to share. His to keep.

***

They made it back to the Swift an hour before dawn, the tide already starting to turn. Ian met Johns at the gangway, and Dave went onboard while they had a low conversation, stowing his boots and heavy coat in his berth. By the time he was back on deck, Ian was already at the wheel, Smith marshalling the last of the pirates onto the ship. When the last man in the line stepped on deck, Smith turned.

“Captain!” he called. “We have a full complement!”

“Very good, Mr Smith,” Ian said, and closed his hands onto the wheel. “Take us out.”

Smith pulled the gangway aboard and pirates scattered into the rigging. Dave found Phillips as soon as the crush eased, and they headed over to raise the main sail. By the time they had the sail set, the square sails were all down, starting to swell a little with the wind. Very shortly after that, they were moving away from the dock, past the Viktory, her own crew busy setting sails, and in a slow loop back to the strait.

By the time they burst free into clear ocean, the Swift had all her sails set, and was running fast before the wind.

Ian and Smith conferred for a moment, and then they adjusted the sails to port, and Ian swung the wheel over a few points. The Swift settled onto her new heading smoothly, leaving the coastline in her wake, her bow pointed unerringly towards the open horizon.

“Gentlemen,” Ian said. “We sail for Port Cascade.”

***

Over the course of the day, the Viktory dwindled in their wake, only a speck on the horizon at the setting of the sun. From listening to the pirates talk over dinner in the mess, Dave gathered that she was expected to take several extra days to reach Port Cascade.

He went back on deck after the meal, stretching out on his locker and staring up at the sky. The stars were starting to come out, framed by the lines and sails of the Swift, which were becoming increasingly familiar to him.

He started absently naming them in his head, sails first, then starting on the lines. He was looking forward to going up in the rigging, once the doc had cleared him completely – and then it struck him, what he was doing. Had he completely forgotten his duty? He was meant to be investigating the situation, not, not – what was he doing, anyway?

He scrubbed his face with his hands, looking up between his fingers to the stars again. He was acting like he was going to stay on the Swift. That wasn’t why he was here, it wasn’t why he had talked his way onto the crew, and the sooner he started remembering that the better.

“Mr Silver,” Ian said quietly from across the deck, and Dave glanced up to see Silver and the doctor file into Ian’s cabin, Ian closing the door behind them.

No more introspection; no more forgetting his duty. He was going to find out what was going on.

He went down the stairs enough to hide himself from view, veiled himself in shadow, and glided back on deck. Once again, there was a window open at the back of Ian’s cabin; he swung over the railing and hung, listening.

“-crew,” Ian said. “What are your opinions?”

“He works well enough,” Smith said. “Phillips says he’s picked up things fast, and he doesn’t complain, neither. I think he’d be a good asset.”

They were talking about him, clearly; Dave went hand over hand across the railing, getting a little closer to the window.

“Mr Silver?”

“I haven’t picked up anything odd,” Silver said. “As far as I can tell, he’s fine.”

Silver was definitely a talent then; but Dave’s talent was in shadow, and it gave him a certain masking effect from other talents. Unless Silver was very strong – which he probably wasn’t, given the hole in the Swift‘s sail during the Viktory encounter – he wouldn’t be able to tell what Dave was. Not even the vast majority of the Almenian military knew who he was.

“He’s had previous military training,” the doctor said. “To a high-level, too. When he was in the infirmary he would sit for hours at a time, meditating. And those Almenian soldiers he killed, during the battle – that was no fight. They were single-blow kills. They never saw him coming.”

So the doctor had examined the bodies. It made a certain amount of sense, true, but it was unusual.

“The question is, what type of training, and how recent,” Ian said. “If I were to offer him a place here, he would have to be told.”

“That’s a high risk,” the doctor said. “The mission-”

“I know,” Ian said. “But I have to meet with the lords at Port Cascade anyway. And Mr Thomas is anything but unintelligent. The longer he stays, the more questions he’s going to have.”

“And you like him,” the doctor said.

Someone snorted, and Ian sighed. “Yes,” he said, “I like him.”

“What are they going to think?” Smith said. “The Arrow, sleeping with a merc?”

“At least he wouldn’t be in the formal chain of command-” Ian shot back, and Dave hung still from the railing, frozen. Smith had called Ian ‘the Arrow’.

The Arrow of Rhyanda.

Everything clicked into place, all at once – the discipline of the “pirates”, the strange way they had treated him, the skill of the doctor and Johns calling Ian ‘sir’, right down to Ian’s stupid chivalry. The Arrow of Rhyanda had saved his life.

And Ian had said he liked him.

“All right,” Ian was saying in the cabin, “all right. I’m not going to endanger anyone. I’ve got until Port Cascade, anyway, before I have to make a decision.”

“We’ll support you, sir,” Smith said, and there was the sound of chairs, the rest of them getting up from the table. “No matter what.”

“Thank you,” Ian said quietly, almost lost under the noise, and there it was, that was the reason why the Arrow remained the only Rhyandan operative the Almenians had never been able to identify – the loyalty of his crew. And here Dave had stumbled over the whole mess. And there was more, too – Ian was pretending to be a pirate, he had a meeting with the pirate lords when they docked at Port Cascade – there was something to the rumours, then, of a Rhyandan alliance with the pirates.

His superiors would love it. He’d have a promotion for sure, when he returned with his report, and then they’d flood the ocean with ships, looking for Ian, and-

Dave flexed his hands on the rail. They’d find the Swift, and then they’d slaughter her crew, slaughter Ian, and sink her into the depths of the ocean.

Inside the cabin, he heard Ian sigh, and then a rustling noise, cloth, like he’d sat down. “What am I doing,” he heard Ian mutter. “I like him too much.”

Dave pulled himself over the rail and went back to his berth in a numb daze, dropping the veil halfway down the stairs. He unbuckled his belt, laying his sword to the side, and then collapsed onto his bunk, staring blankly at the ceiling.

He had no idea what he was going to do.

***

If he slept at all, it wasn’t much, and he went through the morning mechanically, following Phillips around the lines as they adjusted the sails to Smith’s satisfaction. Towards the end of their noon break, he found himself sitting on a locker next to Phillips, vista in front of them the clear ocean, a small ship visible in the distance.

“Looks like we’ll have a race on our hands after all,” Phillips said, gesturing lazily to the ship. “The Viktory‘s catching up.”

Dave took a glance at the ship, then another, sharper look. “That’s not the Viktory,” he said, and ran for the stern deck.

“Captain,” he said as soon as he topped the stairs, Ian glancing up from the wheel.

“Mr Thomas?”

“That’s not the Viktory,” Dave said again, one hand behind him to indicate the ship in the distance. “Her sails aren’t patched, and she’s sitting differently in the water.”

Ian pulled the glass from his belt and looked through it for several long moments, then lowered his hand, staring at Dave.

“That’s an Almenian warship,” he said. “A full-fledged galley.”

“Yes,” Dave said.

“One of these days,” Ian said conversationally, “we are going to have a conversation about just how you know these things.”

“One of these days,” Dave agreed.

“Mr Smith! Mr Silver!” Ian hollered, and a moment later Smith was on deck.

“Tom’s asleep,” he said, and Ian cursed.

“Ring the bell,” he said. “We have an Almenian galley incoming.”

“Gods,” Smith said, and took two strides to the bell.

“Mr Phillips,” he called, “fetch Mr Silver on deck immediately-” and then the bell sounded, sharp and furious.

“Can we outrun her?” Ian said, staring at Dave, and Dave held out a hand for the glass.

Ian handed it over without a word, and Dave focussed on the galley, counting the sails. She had a full complement out, and not only that, but they were all full of wind. He lowered the glass, glancing up at the Swift‘s sails, and in contrast, they were barely half full, only a breeze behind them.

“You’d know better than I,” Dave said, handing the glass back, “but they’ve got more than this breeze behind them. Does Mr Silver have any talent with wind?”

Ian was already shaking his head. “No,” he said, “and that means we probably can’t.”

Silver stumbled up the stairs, buttoning his coat, his sword belt over his shoulder, and came to the wheel. “Captain.”

“Mr Silver,” Ian said, “we have an Almenian galley closing fast, they’ll probably be in cannon range in a half hour. What would you suggest?”

Silver flashed Dave a confused look, probably wondering at his presence in the discussion, but answered readily enough. “I should be able to hold a shield on the hull and masts. We can repair our rigging; the rest could sink or strand us.”

“Mr Thomas,” Ian said, without looking at him, “how many guns?”

“Hard to tell from this distance,” Dave said. “At least ten a side, and two chasers at the bow. They’ll fire the chasers first, to get the distance, and then go broadside, try for a disabling shot before they board.”

“Can you handle that?” Ian asked, Silver already nodding.

“Aye, Captain,” he said.

“Get set,” Ian said, and Silver dashed down the stairs and across the deck.

“Anything else we should know?” Ian asked Dave, and he had a feeling, somehow, that he wasn’t just talking about the galley.

“Nothing relevant,” Dave said, playing ignorant, and Ian sighed.

“Prepare for the fight, then,” he said, dismissing him, and Dave nodded, rejoining Phillips back on deck.

“What is it?” Phillips asked, and Dave leant back against the mast and sighed.

“An Almenian war galley,” he said.

“Gods,” Phillips said, and then they fell silent, waiting.

The ship approached steadily on the starboard flank, the other pirates on deck – well, Rhyandan navy, he supposed – watching and waiting. The rest of them, Dave knew, would be manning the guns a deck below, ready for the strike to be called. There was no call to adjust the sails; they were already getting as much wind as they could. There would be no running from this battle.

The first cannon fire came earlier than Dave expected, but the shot splashed into the water, the ship still out of range. A few minutes later, the galley fired again, this shot falling short by only a few feet.

“Here it comes,” Phillips said.

There was a pause no longer than it took them to reload, then both cannons boomed again. The balls arced across the intervening distance, and with a crunch that shook the deck under Dave’s feet, bounced off the back corner of the ship. The pirates on deck cheered, and when it happened again, Dave joined in. Mr Silver was certainly earning his keep.

The ship came closer, and Dave could pick out more details now – could clearly see the two chaser guns, mounted each side of the heavily reinforced bowsprit, and the Almenian soldiers milling around on deck, ready to board and fight.

The galley came closer still, not firing, and Dave realised with a start what they were going to do. They weren’t going to pass and fire, they were-

Dave leapt to his feet. “They’re going to ram us!” he hollered.

At the wheel, Ian’s head whipped around, startled, and then he leant heavily against the wheel. “Brace yourselves!” he yelled.

Dave took a step back and took a firm hold of the rail around the mast, back pressing into belaying pins. Beside him, Phillips did the same as around them pirates scattered across the deck into bracing positions.

The galley rammed them at an angle. The bowsprit hit first, point tangling in the starboard rigging and tearing through. As lines snapped, sails flapping loosely, Dave could see they’d reinforced it with sharpened metal edges.

Then the body of the galley hit, and the Swift shuddered hard with a terrible shrieking noise. Dave could only hope Mr Silver was up to shielding from this – and then the galley kept moving, her momentum propelling her alongside the Swift, although she was gradually slowing. Her bowsprit sheared through the second set of rigging as she came alongside, and Dave leapt to the side as the lines around him snapped and fell in tangles.

“Fire!” Ian hollered, the order relayed down to the gun decks, and the Swift‘s cannons boomed out. Dave couldn’t see if any damage had been done – was too busy picking himself up from the deck, seeing the Almenian soldiers leaping across the small gap between the ships, weapons ready.

The pirates nearest to them let out battle cries as they engaged, and Dave drew his sword, moving forward into the fray. The first Almenian died before he spotted him, Dave moving in fast from the side, and he spun before the man had even fallen, dropping the next soldier in two blows. It was a complete mess; the pirates were fighting hard, but for every Almenian they felled, another two leapt the gap into the breach.

It didn’t take the Almenians long to realise that Dave was the greatest threat, and more and more soldiers clustered around him. He was forced to retreat, step after step across the deck, focus narrowing to the fight immediately around him.

Ian’s yell tore through his concentration.

“Captain!” Smith shouted, and Dave’s gaze snapped sideways, taking in the scene all at once: Ian, fallen back against the mast, one hand across his chest and blood soaking across his fingers, the other still grasping his sword, but point towards the ground – and four Almenian soldiers, swords raised and moving in.

The Almenian to Dave’s right was swinging his sword, blow aimed at taking Dave’s head off.

“Thomas!” Phillips called, from behind him, and in the end, it seemed his choice was that simple after all. Ian was his.

It only took him a split second to gather his concentration, focussing on what he wanted, and then his outline wavered into darkness and he vanished into a shadowstep, sword clattering to the deck and the Almenian swing whooshing through empty air.

He exploded from the air in front of Ian, half veiled in shadows, and his sword – a long blade of shadow – was through the closest Almenian’s chest before his presence was even registered. He spun in an instant, the sword in his other hand taking care of the next Almenian in line. The third Almenian had seen something, a flicker, but he was still turning as even as Dave struck him down, and the last had managed to get his sword up but too slow, and Dave slapped it aside with one blade, striking with the other. As the soldiers crumpled to the deck, he took a step forward, swords out to the side and ready, Ian protected at his back. Nothing was going to get past him.

“Gods-” he heard someone say, to the side, and Smith, on the other side of the mast, breathed, “Shadowblade.”

Ian, behind him, breathed in quick, sharp pants, and didn’t say anything at all.

For long moments, no-one moved, everyone frozen, and then the Almenians closest to him saluted.

“Captain Shadowblade,” the nearest one said, “what are your orders?”

Dave took a step forward, slowly and deliberately, and the Almenian swallowed. “C-Captain?”

“Withdraw,” Dave rasped out, snapping out of the moment – he gained nothing by restarting the fighting. He loosed his concentration, veil and swords flickering away. “Withdraw immediately.”

“Sir,” the Almenian said, saluting, and then turned. “Withdraw!”

The Almenians began moving back to their ship, the pirates letting them go without issue, and Dave turned. Ian was still half-collapsed against the mast, blood streaked down to his elbow, and the look on his face-

“Captain, sir,” someone said, approaching him, and Dave half-turned his head, not really paying attention; it was the Almenian Captain, epaulets on his shoulders. “What about the pirates, sir?”

“Leave them,” Dave said. He turned back, holding Ian’s broken gaze, and chose his words carefully through the churning in his stomach. “It would be like pitting arrows against cannon. They’re just pirates. Leave them.”

Ian’s eyes widened, and for just a moment Dave let everything he was feeling show on his face, for no-one but Ian to see. There was nothing else he could do; no other course of action he could take that would see Ian live.

He turned, then, and followed the Captain to the rail. He leapt the gap, the last Almenian to leave the Swift – left as he had come, barefoot, empty scabbard, and covered in blood.

illustrated by Jeromu Furijito

Six Months Later
The treaty talks were happening in neutral seas, on some deserted rock just big enough to pitch a large pavilion and seat the Almenian and Rhyandan delegations. The main strength of each fleet was stationed on each side of the island; the Almenian fleet was behind him, and beyond the Rhyandan delegates stood the Rhyandan fleet, blue and white sails furled with the Rhyandan pennants flying from the top of the masts.

He didn’t expect the peace to last, of course; one side or the other would make a move, and that would be it, again, but it would be nice while it lasted. He glanced across the Rhyandan delegation; they had sent fairly high-level dignitaries and diplomats, at least, which meant that they were pretty serious about keeping the peace – at least for now.

And then he spotted a familiar face, and stopped cold. Ian looked different, in uniform – his hair had been taken out of the braids, tied back in a neat military tail, and his blue uniform was somehow lacking, as though it couldn’t contain the strength of the man who deserved to be free on deck under the stars, not constrained in service.

He looked – he looked pretty terrible, actually, circles under his eyes, and Dave wondered whether he still wore bandages underneath the uniform, how deep the cut had been, whether he was still healing. The doc must have fixed him up – and then there was a stir among the ranks, and it looked like they were breaking for the noon meal, the meeting dispersing for now.

It was allowed for them to mix with the Rhyandan delegation, at least; encouraged, even, if they could find anyone who would talk. Anything they could gain that might be of interest was useful. Not that Dave planned to write a report on the conversation he hoped to have; his reports from his last mission had been full of lies and omission, and if one was required here, it would be nothing but the same.

He made his way across the scrubby sand, and it was only at the last minute that Ian noticed him, head snapping up and eyes widening. Emotions flashed across his face too quick for Dave to identify, finally settling on something wary.

“Hello,” Dave said quietly. This time, there would be no lies – a fresh start, if Ian would let him. “My name is Captain Dave Kaltya.”

“Captain Ian Archer,” Ian said in return.

They looked at each other for a minute in silence. “You didn’t say anything,” Ian said finally.

“Neither did you,” Dave said, and it was true, Ian hadn’t: there had been no reports out of operatives in Rhyanda regarding the identity of Shadowblade. He wasn’t the only one who had lied. But Ian had an entire crew; it seemed the Arrow’s legendary loyalty was still in play. They had all kept silent.

“I was wondering,” Ian said, turning to face the ocean. “Why you saved my life.”

Dave turned with him; he would hear anyone coming up to them, anyway. They were facing the Rhyandan fleet; he followed Ian’s gaze, and found the Swift, half-hidden behind another galley, her masts rigged with Rhyandan blue and white sails. There were a few different answers to Ian’s question, but he chose the easiest, the one he’d realised in the heat of battle.

“Because it’s just this,” Dave said, parroting Ian’s words from that time. “Just us.” He glanced sideways with a heated look, and lowered his tone. “You’re mine.”

Ian met him stare for stare, and his face changed – and that was what had been missing, before, that sparkle and smile, that life in his eyes. And beneath that, in answer to Dave’s look, a smouldering desire that sparked a coil of tension in his belly.

“Captain Kaltya,” Ian said slowly, deliberately. “I do believe I still have a set of knives in my possession that you might be interested in.”

The corner of Dave’s mouth turned up, entirely without his permission. “Indeed?”

“On the Swift,” Ian said, and he was smiling too, very slightly. “Tonight.”

“I’ll be there,” Dave said, and he nodded to Ian like he was any other Rhyandan, turning away back to the Almenian delegation.

The afternoon stretched on interminably, and when they finally broke for the evening, the fleets sending their rowboats to collect everyone, Dave was relieved. He’d had to sit there and look bored while Ian was standing right there, and he couldn’t even stare at Ian in case someone noticed and wondered what was going on. He’d ended up staring into the middle distance for most of it, halfway between Ian and where he knew the Swift was.

He stepped into his assigned boat, and didn’t look back as it ferried him slowly to the galley he’d arrived on. He’d have to wait until full dark; the Swift was at the back of the Rhyandan fleet, but she was still in clear view of anyone with good eyes or a glass.

He queued through the officers’ mess with the rest of them, just another faceless soldier among the others. The food was better than on the Swift, but he didn’t notice what it was, eating mechanically and tuning out the chatter from around him, tonight thrumming through his blood.

As a military captain, he had a small cabin; he retired early, opened his window, and stared out at the fleet, watching the last of the light fade from the sky. When he judged it dark enough, he veiled himself in shadows, and took a moment to concentrate on the island. He usually didn’t shadowstep this far, and it was going to take some focus to get it right. He settled his breathing into an even rhythm, concentrating steadily, and then stepped. He opened his eyes; he was still veiled, and standing at the centre of the empty pavilion. He walked the distance to the beach on the Rhyandan side, orienting himself to where he knew the Swift to be. He closed his eyes again, and pictured the Swift‘s deck in his head, focussing on the point at which he wanted to appear.

He stepped, slammed into something solid, and then he was falling. He had enough time to jack-knife in the air, getting his arms in front of him, before he hit the water with a loud splash.

The water was cold.

He surfaced, spluttering, and glanced up to see several interested heads poking over the side – Ian, Silver, and Smith on the end, with a lantern in one hand and a line in the other.

He dropped the veil. “You’re improving, Mr Silver,” he said, scowling as he swiped water out of his eyes, and the man grinned as Ian chuckled.

“My apologies,” Ian said, sounding anything but sorry. “I wasn’t sure that would even work.”

“The water is very cold,” Dave informed him, and paddled to the side of the ship, looking up. “Captain Archer,” he said formally, “permission to come aboard?”

Ian smiled, the way he hadn’t been able to on the island, and Smith tossed down the end of the line. “Permission granted.”

Smith hauled him up, and Dave grabbed the railing when he was close enough, swinging onto the deck.

Smith clapped him on the shoulder, and the other crew was there as well, clustered on deck in naval uniform, but that wasn’t important: not two feet away from him stood Captain Ian Archer, the Arrow of Rhyanda, grinning at him as he slowly dripped a puddle on the deck.

“Welcome aboard, Captain Kaltya,” Ian breathed, and Dave took a step forward, Ian meeting him halfway in a kiss.

It started out gentle, and then Dave got an arm around Ian and pulled them together, uncaring of his wet uniform, and it got rapidly less gentle from there. Someone wolf-whistled behind them, and Dave made a rude gesture with his free hand, pulled together the fraying threads of his concentration, and shadowstepped them into Ian’s cabin.

He staggered on the landing, a little – there was something on the floor – and they broke apart to brace themselves. Dave kicked whatever it was aside, and took a step forward, but Ian was standing tall, one finger towards his chest.

“Now,” he said, “I believe we have some business to discuss-” but the laughter in his eyes told Dave he wasn’t serious. They had been waiting far too long for this, to come together as themselves, no secrets between them.

“Give them back to me later,” Dave said, and tackled Ian into the bunk.

illustrated by Jeromu Furijito

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