Warning: This story contains violence, foul language, and of course, male/male romance!!

Rise of the Dawn

The Union

Enter Kaezik Keftalar

Heavy storm clouds rolled restlessly above, the air thick with moisture. Dark, angry gray stretched endlessly across the sky for as far as the eye could see, threatening to release its load upon the heads of nervous sailors.

Gripping the ship's rail with pale, cold numbed fingers, Shanza steadied himself against an onslaught of cool gusty wind, his eyes closed in pleasure as ocean spray hit his face. Having been used to arid, scorching heat, the brisk weather was both welcome and refreshing, if not a bit cold.

Speaking of cold, Shanza glanced over his shoulder and peered at his escort, a small group of nobles and ambassadors from Thanobia. Every attempt he'd made at conversation with them had been cut off swiftly, followed by the advice that he should retire to his cabin, after all, he needed his rest didn't he?

Not only did they ignore him, but he'd overheard their whispering voices when they thought him out of earshot. He was most unfit to be 'The Dragon's' match, an obvious weakling judging by his slim build and utter lack of weaponry. They speculated mockingly that Methron had likely sent them a pretty-enough but dim-witted twit of whom the country wouldn't miss.

Sighing, Shanza let his head drop to his hands, elbows resting against the railing, his loose pants billowing about long legs, clothes plastered to his willowy frame. Shivering slightly as the wind tore through the thin material, he decided that the attire of his homeland, although comfortable, wasn't suitable for the chill of open waters.

He eyed the thick, leather dominated wear of the Thanobian ambassadors and fought down a scowl. Reminding himself that it wasn't their fault their opinion of him was so low, as he had come to understand that the people of Thanobia often scorned his own immediately, just as Methrians feared and mistrusted Thanobia. This was because neither country understood the other, and didn't bother to try to. Hopefully however, such things would come to a much-needed and timely end. If the peace plans went accordingly, that is.

Curling lithe fingers around chill-reddened cheeks, Shanza gazed across Turquoise-tinged-indigo water and watched the approaching shore rise from the churning ocean like an armored warrior marching to battle, growing larger with each step. From snippets of others' conversations he'd managed to piece together that they were making a short stop in Cyprus's port, a mountainous city on the Western border of Thanobia, to collect 'The Dragon's' brother.

Shanza was horribly curious about this person, and had been trying to visualize them ever since he'd heard of the ship's detour. He knew very little about the glorious golden warrior, who was nearly always referred to as 'The Dragon,' and would undoubtedly be able to learn something from his sibling.

Entering the rocky inlet, bursts of mossy green dotted the rugged hilly surroundings. The ship slid past small, bobbing fishing boats, and Shanza grinned in awe as they pulled nets swollen with wriggling, glimmering silver fish onto their crowded decks.

Meanwhile, the crew had whirled to life around him, men agilely scaling the masts to shorten the sails, the anchor dropped into dark water brimming with trawl, and a small boat lowered.

As the boat paddled off, Shanza combed slim fingers through his windswept hair, which always had a slight wave to it, but from the wind, water and humidity, had blown into full tangled curls of pale blond. He hoped to have some resemblance of a formidable appearance by the time the new arrivals stepped aboard.

Noticing the nobles had dispersed from their secretive cluster, he suppressed the urge to sigh, seeing the tiresome, monotonous Lord Chazarle Halaire making his way towards him.

Pulling on his right hand, which was ensnared in gold strands just below his shoulders, he smiled warmly at the nobleman, who looked as ancient and humorless as ever. Speaking just as the elder man opened his mouth, Shanza succeeded in halting the Lords words, which were most likely an ill-disguised order in the form of concern for him to go below deck.

"Your Lordship," he greeted, "may I inquire as to why we've docked?"

Ignoring his question, Halaire huffed out in wheezing tones, "The cold air must be hard on your lungs, so attuned as they must be to the desert. Perhaps the warmth of your cabin would be beneficial?"

Closing his eyes and smiling for a moment to mask his frustration, Shanza moved not an inch and replied, "Your concern is touching, Lord Halaire, especially to one such as myself, a stranger in your lands. However I must differ, the cool breeze is both refreshing and vitalizing, as I imagine all of Thanobia to be." Although Shanza loathed lying he had just done so, gratingly, through his very teeth. Let the man think him a blind fool for all the good it would do him.

"I must insist! Your continuos good health is of utmost concern, as it would be sorrowful indeed should you be to fall ill of a fever or chill while I could prevent it." The Lord went on, his face not so much as twitching from its morbid grimace. Shanza huffed inwardly, slightly irritated that the man thought him to be so frail, or to keep the pretense of the thought.

Dimming his smile to create a look of soft gratification, Shanza relented, "You are most persuasive, perhaps a few more moments then?" An idea surfacing, he added, "The landscape is wondrous here, why I don't think I've ever seen mountains as beautiful as these! It would be a pity to miss them."

"I suppose it would," Halaire agreed grudgingly, although his tone implied nothing of the sort.

Frowning, he starred at Shanza from beneath his thinning gray hair and heavily furrowed brows wrinkled skin twisting as his degrading gaze was rooted to the younger man for far too long. So long, in fact, that Shanza shifted to divert his attention while inquiring, "Is something the matter, sir?"

Bland gray eyes gripped Shanza, causing a violent shudder to snake down his spine. Something in that look was unsettling and distressing, making his skin crawl in unease.

"No, of course not," The Thanobian snapped abruptly, finally breaking the tense air, then he turned and staggered away.

Rubbing his arms, Shanza suddenly felt very cold, very small, and very alone.

Loud clattering, swearing and shouts diverted his attention however, and he turned just in time to see a grinning young man vault over the side, white teeth standing out against his darkly tanned skin, a sheathed sword swinging at his side as he landed.

He was dressed in gold and black armor which appeared to have been in good use recently, as the deep, crisscrossing slash marks which dented the beaten metal surface were visible even from where Shanza stood. Thick, tousled hair bleached a near white from excessive sunlight twisted about his head, whipping and snagging in the wind's grasp.

One of the nobles made his way to the newest arrival's side, calling out hastily, "Lord Keftalar!"

So this was the brother! Sneaking closer for a better look, Shanza strained to hear their conversation. "Welcome to the Majestic!" The noble declared with a sweep of his hand, indicating the ship, then went on hurriedly, "I pray your journey was successful?"

Young Keftalar's grin had vanished instantly upon spotting the older man and he now wore an icy glower. His face hard and rigid, he answered the ambassador coldly, "Midraed Chamalor," Keftalar bit off a disrespectful greeting. Looking as if there was a sour taste in his mouth, he ordered, "See to it that my men are settled, and my things stowed with care. There is a wedding gift among my possessions and I would be very displeased if it should be damaged."

"Of course, I shall see to it immediately!" Chamalor twittered nervously past him to organize the boisterous warriors climbing aboard, oblivious to the young man's heated following stare. Pushing his hair out of his face, Shanza fretted worriedly. Were all Thanobians aloof and heartless?

Watching the blond lord disappear below, he tried smoothing his fears with logic. Chamalor was an arrogant, inflated old scab and perhaps Lord Keftalar had valid reason for his dislike. Grinning as he moved back to his spot at the rail, Shanza smothered a laugh, having enjoyed the display of authority over the old noble.

The Majestic swept from Cyprus's harbor and Shanza soon found his hair to be tangled even worse, caught in the breezy winds and no longer protected by the inlet's shelter. He was becoming quite frozen, as his clothes weren't warm enough at all, and even wearing his thickest shirt it did little good. But he didn't want to return below deck, as then he'd be stuck down in that dank, stuffy place forever.

"They might as well chain me to the steps," He mused, running a hand over one pallid arm.

Brisk booted footsteps alerted him to the presence of another and turning around he came nose to nose with a grinning Lord Keftalar.

""Hello," Keftalar greeted, his extraordinarily vibrant blue eyes dancing. "You must be Shanza Shilari."

Smiling in return, Shanza was surprised to discover that Keftalar stood a good four or five inches shorter than himself.

"I am," Pleased wonder tinted his words as Shanza asked, "How did you know?"

Grin broadening, the shorter man replied with a glimmer in his lively eyes, "Everyone else is either a pock-marketed sailor or a crotchety Thanobian." Laughing despite himself, Shanza felt an instant liking for 'The Dragon's' brother.

"And you are…" Time to learn the young man's first name!

Cloak folded over one arm he mimicked a bow and answered merrily, "Kaezik Keftalar, youngest son of Hakida Keftalar Duke of Thanobia, at your service." Sidling closer to Shanza, he mock whispered, "Although if you must know, I am sorrowfully also brother to the remarkable," he paused, lifting his eyebrows while gesturing with his free hand, "Ikeda Keftalar."

"Sorrowfully?" Echoed Shanza, then he understood, "Ah, he must be hard to live up to."

Nodding, Kaezik agreed indifferently, "It would be impossible."

Hoping he wouldn't overstep their new familiarity, Shanza suggested, "If we're to become brothers, I would hope you'd call me by my given name."

Looking up, his wide grin restored, Kaezik agreed quickly, "Alright, Shanza. But only if you'd be so kind as to return the favor."

"I certainly will."

Staring at him expectantly, Kaezik gave a circle motion with his hand, adding, "Kaezik," to Shanza's words.

Smiling, he obeyed, "Kaezik."

Nodding in satisfaction then leaning back, the shorter young man sighed and glanced about the ship. With a wry huff he admitted,, "I don't envy you the journey here. It's a wearisome group you travel with, indeed."

"Oh?" Shanza questioned.

Smirking, Kaezik explained, "My father must have sent the most discourteous, contemptuous bunch he could find! I personally have a grudge against every single one of them! Well, those that I've glimpsed so far. I hate to think who else might be aboard." Kaezik paused for a moment in reflective horror, his lips pulling into a grimace before he tilted closer and went on, "If you have done any amount of eavesdropping, which I'm sure you have, as these old farts have probably told you nothing, you must understand why." Smiling at Kaezik's vehemence, Shanza tried kneading the warmth back into his frozen arms while rejoining with a soft hum of agreement.

Making sure he was perfectly clear on what the other young man meant, he inquired incredulously, "What have they done to anger you?"

Raising his eyebrows, Kaezik looked about ready to burst in reply, but shifted abruptly instead, face turned and began unfurling his cloak. Once he had pulled his arm free, Kaezik gave the thick cloth several smoothing shakes before stepping closer to Shanza. Reaching around the wide eyed Methrian he drew it over his shoulders, and fastened the gold clasp with surprisingly graceful fingers.

Rocking back, Kaezik grinned and explained blithely, "You were just about blue from the cold."

Catching the intricate gold embroidered edge between his thumb and forefinger, Shanza burrowed into the soft wool, wrapping it firmly about his shivering frame.

"Thank you," Shanza murmured, immensely grateful to the young warrior. "It's much appreciated. I'm not used to this climate, I'm afraid."

Elbows and back resting against the ship's rail, legs crossed leisurely, Kaezik glanced up at Shanza and assured, "Once we're on the mainland it warms right up." Cocking his head to the side he amended, "although it won't be anywhere near the heat of Methron. Ah, your question. I haven't answered it yet, have I?"

Shanza, nearly having forgotten all about it, started and hastily dismissed, "There's no need to tell if you don't wish to."

Shaking his head, Kaezik retorted, "No, it's alright. My dislike of them is no secret."

Lazily waving his hand, arm still perched against the ship, he explained frankly, "You see, my brother is the golden warrior, the pride of Thanobia, and even at his young age he's a legend already. This, of course, makes many people jealous." Pausing, Kaezik rolled eyes in light-hearted sarcasm. "But, naturally, he's far too perfect to be made a fool of, or to be brought down to scum's level. So they must find other ways to bring him down."

Scowling, tone dark, Kaezik continued, "Gruhaniv, Halaire, Kruestad, Chamalor, Mondaer, to name a few, have a nasty knack of 'discussing' others behind their backs. And believe me, the things they say are better left unheard by the individual being cursed."

Roughly swiping white-blond locks from his face, Kaezik glanced up at him with angry blue eyes. "I happened to be the center of one of their 'secret' conversations." Halting briefly to glower, he elaborated, "Only it wasn't so secret." Bringing the story to an abrupt end, Kaezik's tone shifted and he finished, "Well, it's one thing to have others whisper that you're a bastard son of a whore behind your back, and it's quite a different ordeal if they try and prove it."

Curiosity peaked, Shanza stared at Kaezik for a long moment before swallowing and commenting lightly, "They certainly are a shallow bunch."

Pushing to his feet, Kaezik laughed delightedly, mood brightened, and he thumped Shanza on the back, finding his simple statement hilarious.

"They certainly are!" He agreed. "Shall we go below? I've some people I'd like you to meet."

Nodding, Shanza made to follow, but as a sudden thought struck him, stopped short. Kaezik, noticing his companion was no longer beside him, turned raised an eyebrow at him.

Shanza then hesitated before asking, "You're not taking me to the nobles, are you?"

Breaking into loud laughter again, Kaezik shook his head and assured, "No, no, wouldn't dream of it!" Relaxing, Shanza slid into step beside the other young man, running his fingers futilely through tangled hair as a hurried afterthought.

(scene change)

Sitting comfortably at a small, ragged round table, Shanza watched from his corner of the dark cabin as two of Kaezik's cohorts argued over whether or not Ikeda Keftalar was a frozen block of ice, or a man as frigid as the King's withered old great aunt. Half-amused and half-worried, Shanza fidgeted with the fraying hem of his shirt while he listened to the two of them.

"No-listen, I'm telling you- at least the old woman's got a heart, cause he sure hasn't. He's just got a froze piece of ice lodged in his chest where his heart used to be-"

"Don't listen to him, he's just being an ass," The one female in the group, Miyaz, advised him, her short hair pulled into a messy tail, brown locks falling in her eyes.

"That's nonsense! He's related to the King, so he's got it in 'em to be just as nasty as the old witch!"

Shanza smiled at her as the red haired Zan argued in the background and asked hopefully, "He's not really that bad, is he?"

Chuckling, Miyaz grinned back at him while a deep voice spoke to his left.

"No, Ikeda Keftalar is just a bit… detached." Tovah, a huge, dark skinned, black haired man, who had been described as gentle as a lamb for all his muscular looks, nodded.

"A bit, indeed," Snorted Kazethe, one elbow resting on the table, his lean frame curved, long auburn hair pulled into a loose braid. His twin brother Kinfe was still arguing with Zan, and the two of them were oblivious to the others.

Miyaz shot Kazethe a dirty look, her eyes narrowed, then she sighed and turned to Shanza, her features calm.

"Tovah's right, of course. It's not that he's heartless, it's just that he doesn't really noticing he's being impolite." She then laughed at her own words, not being a model of proper etiquette herself.

Shanza was rather embarrassed about the whole topic, and he wasn't sure if they were teasing him or being honest, and now that Kaezik had left to talk with the group's leader, he hadn't the faintest idea of what to believe.

Of course the warriors were all nice-enough, as Kaezik had promised, and had welcomed him warmly after they'd been introduced. However, once Kaezik had been called away, Miyaz had pounced on the opportunity, stating with a spark in her eyes that he must be curious about Ikeda. And that had started the entire banter over the man's personality.

Frowning in thought, Shanza wondered, "Why is he called 'The Dragon?'" It had been bothering him for some time, and he hoped the warriors would be able to offer answer.

Mouth hanging open in surprise, Miyaz gawked at him as Kazethe retorted in disbelief, "You mean you don't know?!"

"Obviously he doesn't, or he wouldn't ask!" The lone female snapped at her shocked companion. Recovering her composure and rubbing her chin thoughtfully, Miyaz smirked at him and stretched both hands out in front of herself, the small bells looped through her belts jingling as she moved.

"I'll explain. Oh, but where to start? Hmm, alright….Well, you see, just a few years short of a decade ago, when Ikeda was oh, only fifteen was it? Anyway, the point is, he was really young. He was training with the legendary Swordmaster Akimi Zuiron up in the Mikad Mountains, I believe, when Issarye, the black beast dragon of terror attacked them."

Raising her slim eyebrows for effect, she went on, "Now, the two of them had no choice but to fight against this fire-breathing, man-eating monster, because I mean, seriously, can you imagine trying to outrun a dragon? So, Issarye manages to kill Master Zuiron, then turns its full attention on our dear young Keftalar, who although heavily wounded, manages to slay the murdering brute."

Once the tale was over, all of the table's occupants peered at Shanza as he gaped back at them. Even Kinfe and Zan had halted their bickering to listen to the retelling.

"He really killed a dragon?" Shanza whispered in disbelief. Surely they were joking. Dragons were so rarely seen, let alone defeated. It was unheard of, especially for a mere boy to not only live through an attack, but come out victorious.

"He did," Rumbled Tovah in answer.

"Yes, and we're not even pulling your leg!" Kinfe confirmed with a grin, laughter in his voice.

"Yah, there you have it, sometimes true stories are better then buttered up tales," Zan added.

His words were immediately countered by Kinfe, "I hardly think so, why just imagine how boring that tale bout Mirana and Faras would be if we hadn't made her out to be a pig kissing-"

"I said sometimes you half assed-" Growling, Miyaz gripped her forehead in exasperation and treated them to a threatening glare.

"Just ignore them," She told Shanza, smiling charmingly, her expressions switching so fast the Methrian barely had time to register the change.

His gaze sweeping the tables occupants, Kazethe caught Shanza's attention. The auburn haired warrior was lounging in his chair in a deceivingly tranquil position, which masked the fact that he was actually taut and ready for action. His right hand was fingering one of the many small daggers slung across his chest.

Green eyes sliding beneath half lidded lashes to pierce Shanza, he questioned slyly, "How many knives do you think I could stuff into that vermin before he even realizes he's under attack?" With a jerk of his head, Kazethe indicated Tarik Gruhaniv, the shifty-eyed, underhanded, immoral ringleader of the pack of bitter, conniving lords.

"About half a dozen," Miyaz spoke up, and receiving a slightly affronted look from Kazethe, she continued after a pause, "well placed hits." Rolling her words between her tongue maliciously, she smirked as the others broke into harsh laughter.

At a loss, Shanza swiveled to shoot a questioning look at Tovah, but was surprised to find that the calm, soft-spoken man's features were also shadowed.

The thump of metal striking wood distracted Shanza, and he watched as Kazethe left one of his glimmering knives embedded in the table top, and leaning back the man sighed, "I suppose we'll have to save our fun for another day."

"When opportunity strikes," Miyaz agreed, then winked at Shanza, continued, "Besides, we wouldn't want to sully the wedding with a murder, now would we?" Shanza was in the middle of wondering if the warriors were always so murderous when Kinfe leaned in from across the table and, lowering his voice, enlightened him.

"I don't know if Kaezik's said anything to you bout the richies," he jerked his thumb at Gruhaniv, "but they were involved in some real rotten business a few years ago, and it was all bout him."

Brow furrowed, Shanza divulged, "He spoke a little about their jealous talks."

Kazethe raised an eyebrow, saying angrily, "They weren't just 'talks.' Those bastards created full blown rumors about him, dug up information that was no right of theirs to know and spread it as far and as fast as they could." Scowling, Kazethe's cool green gaze swept from the warm circle to pin a cluster of 'richies' sitting as far as possible from the warriors.

"You see," Miyaz began, "Ikeda and Kaezik don't share the same mother, they're really only half brothers. Ikeda's mother is a Princess from Enihyre of whom Hakida Keftalar, their father, is married to. And Kaezik, well Kaezik's mother was a Cathadian Pirate."

At this even Miyaz blushed, knowing the implications. Shanza sat straight in his seat, both hands gripping his heavy silver mug. The Cathadian Pirates were well known and widely feared. Merchants, warships, fisher boats, they all fell prey to the shark-like pirates. Vicious, ruthless and without fear they lurked in dark waters, covered by mist and storm, they attacked and fought without equal.

Countless kingdoms had sent out their fastest, strongest ships in vain attempts to destroy the legions of thieving scoundrels, but the outcome was always failure, their own vessels smashed to pieces as payment.

Cheeks coloring, Shanza pictured Kaezik as a merciless pirate, plucking gold coins from a flustered, indignant Halaire, and had to clasp a hand over his mouth, lest laughter escape.

"Of course I wouldn't know, but I don't think Hakida has ever loved his wife and if I'm not mistaken, I think he quite fancied the wild pirate Kaezra. Now, I think they- or he- had to keep things discrete, and I imagine she was out looting half the time, so it wasn't actually too fishy."

Snorting, Miyaz rolled her eyes, "Not that his wife paid any attention, she was probably off spending money at the markets." Miyaz seemed to have a general dislike and disdain for noble women, most likely having to do with the fact that she herself was a bloodthirsty fighter born on a farm. "Anyway, while out at sea she eventually gave birth to Kaezik. But she was killed in a raid several days later."

Grimacing, then taking a quick swig out of her own heavy cup, Miyaz smacked her lips in satisfaction and concluded, "The other pirates, upon Kaezra's request sent baby Kaezik to Hakida, who to his credit took him in."

Laughing grimly, Miyaz speculated, "Seeing as Kaezik was so young it only took a little bit of covering up. All Hakida really had to do was convince his wife that yes, she'd had a child without even knowing it."

Eyes wide, Shanza mulled the information over. "Of course I don't think the Lady Keftalar has ever treated Kaezik as her own, as she knows he's not." Sighing despondently, Miyaz drained her drink and clunking it down on the table loudly, demanded that one of her companions fill it.

Hefting the potato shaped jug effortlessly, Tovah complied while Kinfe explained, "The richies discovered this information and so doing what they do best, they told the good news to their friends, who told it to their friends, who in turn, told it to their friends and so on."

His twin then cut in, "Not only did they share the dirt, they told anyone that would listen that he would turn out just like his mother, a thieving, murdering, whore." Thin lips pinched, Kazethe had unconsciously gone back to stroking his daggers.

"It was huge news for a while. The public even tried to cut him from the family, 'send him back where he belonged.'" Zan spoke up, shoving a mug to the fuming Kazethe. Shanza wasn't sure if it was wise to let the man drink, as he was already prepared to knife the lords completely sober.

"But Hakida and Ikeda stood with Kaezik and wouldn't let anyone touch him." Miyaz smiled faintly, "Ikeda may be cold, and let me tell you, it's damn near impossible to get the man riled. Trust me, it's useless insulting him, too, a waste of breath."

Bell's jingling as she pulled short hair out of her face, Miyaz grinned with grudging respect, "But that said, he's a good man. He stuck with Kaezik through everything and came out, just like with the dragon, victorious."

"So it's been resolved?" Shanza inquired, hoping the Keftalars weren't still plagued by jealous scheming.

Nodding, Miyaz answered, "Oh, yes. After Ikeda exiled Amenra, the worst of them, threatening to behead the next person who dared speak anything foul about his brother the lords quieted their tongues. The people more or less accepted the facts after awhile, as Kaezik had never been unruly and it became yesterday's gossip."

"He's no pirate," Kinfe declared, the rest of the warriors nodding in agreement.

"Who's a pirate?" Kaezik's curious voice interrupted and six different pairs of eyes swiveled to gawk at the youngest member in horror. Slung lazily across Zan's shoulder, he grinned at them as they fumbled for an excuse. Bringing Zan's mug to his lips, he sipped at the bitter drink and watched them with sparkling blue eyes.

"Well, uh, that big fellow we met just last week, you know, the one with all the rings"-

"That beauty at the markets, the woman with the real red hair, and-" Kinfe and Zan ogled each other and fell silent, realizing they had just ruined any explanation.

Gulping, Miyaz broke in hastily, "Gee, it sure is late! High time for us to be getting off to the sleeping quarters!" Clasping Shanza's slack hand, she shook it vigorously, exclaiming quickly, "It was great talking with you! We'll chat more tomorrow, have a nice night!"

"Yah, it was jolly meeting you!" Kinfe added, before the table was suddenly emptied, a wooden chair still wobbling from the quick departures.

Laughing softly, Kaezik steadied the chair and seated himself, remarking in dry humor, "I guess we know who the pirate is."

Fidgeting with the handle of his cup, Shanza wasn't sure how to reply, not wanting to upset Kaezik, although the young man seemed quite tough.

"So, have you learned my entire life history, yet?"

Shanza relaxed into a smile, realizing Kaezik wasn't insulted or angry in the least, and seemed to be rather amused by the whole thing.

"Just about," He answered honestly, then glanced down at his murky yellow-brown drink.

He hadn't dared taste it yet, not wanting to embarrass himself in front of the warriors should it be stronger then what he was used to, which it probably was. Gathering his courage, he lifted the cup to his lips and gave an experimental sniff. Smelling nothing out of the ordinary, he tipped it back and swallowed a mouthful. Choking immediately after, Shanza slammed the mug down, gripped the front of his shirt and stamped his foot as the bitter liquid burned its way down his throat.

"Ugh!" He coughed hoarsely, croaking out, "That's horrible!" Gasping for breath, he looked up and watched through misty eyes as Kaezik shook laughter, thumping his fist against the table, shaking the whole structure.

Rubbing his sore throat, Shanza waited for Kaezik to settle, all the while sending an accusing glare at the deceivingly innocent-looking mug.

"It's an acquired taste, really," Kaezik explained, still fighting fits of laughter.

"I see," Shanza whispered harshly, pushing the cup away with two thin fingers.

Stroking Zan's half-empty mug, Kaezik remarked, "You seem like more of a tea and wine person to me."

Smiling slowly, Shanza perched his elbows on the table and dropped his chin into his hands.

"Oh?" He inquired, "What makes you say that?"

Lips pulling into a slight frown, Kaezik faltered, searching for a proper explanation that wouldn't insult the Methrian.

Still smiling, Shanza noticed the others hesitance and chuckled, "If you're worried about upsetting me, don't be." Tucking long, knotted hair behind his shoulders, he admitted, "I know I'm extremely feminine. I have, in fact, been mistaken for a lady far too many times to count." Shanza glanced down ruefully at his hands, which were fine-boned and slender, like the rest of his build.

An indignant huff from across the table diverted his reminiscence, "You are ah, exceptionally good-looking for a man, yes, but a woman? I think not."

Blushing from the praise, Shanza responded with an embarrassed murmur, "Thank you."

Shaking his head at the others discomfort, Kaezik mused idly, "My brother's luck is better then he knows. Why he could have gotten hitched to a middle-aged, war-hardened fighter with a bald head and a round belly."

Laughing despite himself, Shanza added, "Or a Tzubara priest!" Kaezik joined Shanza's laughter, having heard rumors of the absurdly eccentric priests.

Chuckles tapering off, Kaezik stretched, yawning all the while. Rotating his shoulder blades with a crack, he stated ruefully, "It is late. And I'm not sure about you, but I for one have had a tiring day."

Watching the Methrian nod his agreement, Kaezik pushed back with his toes and rose from his chair. Slipping out from around the table, Shanza joined Kaezik's side and followed the shorter young man out into the narrow hallway, remembering to duck under the doorway, lest he bruise his forehead.

"Shanza, how old are you?" Kaezik's innocent question floated back as they walked.

Steadying himself against the wood paneled corridor as the ship hit a particularly large wave,

Shanza answered, "Twenty-one years, and yourself?"

"Seventeen," Kaezik replied with a grin.

"Seventeen?" Shanza echoed in disbelief.

"Not what you were expecting?" Kaezik chuckled, his eyes dancing. "You aren't the first to be surprised. I don't understand what's so baffling."

Securing a swinging lantern as he passed it, Shanza reasoned, "You seem much older."

Stopping to peek over his shoulder, Kaezik's grinning face was illuminated in the faint glow of candlelight, and Shanza was once more amazed by the young warrior's remarkable teeth, and nearly asked if his elder brother shared the same trait.

But the other youth fell into shadows as the candle began rocking with the ship's movement, and Kaezik's humored retort stole his attention, "Do I? Why I think I shall take that as a compliment."

"Well it's true," Shanza reaffirmed, still digesting the information.

Kaezik wasn't like any other boy of seventeen he'd known, and although Shanza had only just met the young man, he thought very highly of him already. Kaezik was mature, confident, good-humored, and judging by the scrapes on his armor, brave as well.

Frowning softly, Shanza thought back on his own sibling, who was of a similar age, and while he had only met this younger brother several times, he thought the boy to be something of a stuffy, snobbish child. Or perhaps that was only the family's regard towards himself, after all, when he had visited the entire group had appeared to be completely disinterested and detached.

"You must be tired," Kaezik declared, seeming all too loud as his words broke through Shanza's pondering. "You keep getting this glazed, far-off look in your eyes. I'm not that boring, am I?" The young warrior was braced against the door to his comrades' quarters, his arms folded over his front while he smiled smugly.

"You're not boring at all," Shanza answered, inspecting the beaten surface of the others' chest plate. "And I don't see why I should be tired, I haven't done anything strenuous in days."

Smile turning genuinely pleased, Kaezik nudged the door a touch open and placed one foot inside the darkened cabin. With a swift, honorary bow of his head, he bid Shanza farewell, "Good evening, Shanza. I look forward to seeing you tomorrow, as it was a pleasure meeting you. If there is anything at all I can do to help in anyway, you have only but to ask."

Dropping the serious tone and raising his eyebrows playfully as he straightened, Kaezik finished, "And I expect to be learning much about you in the next few days, as it's only fair." Grinning in response, Shanza nodded and laughed lightly at the boy's antics. What a charmer he could be if he decided to play the part!

"Goodnight, Kaezik. It's been my pleasure also, and I don't intend to cheat you."

"Good then! 'Til tomorrow!" With those parting words, Kaezik slipped into the room beyond, the door swinging quietly shut behind him.

Left in the gently rocking hallway, Shanza shuffled his way from one spot of swinging light to another until he stumbled upon the steps leading upwards. Gripping the handrail he ascended the stairs, and as his head rose above the protection of below, cold night air assaulted him in a cool wave.

Sighing in contentment, Shanza emerged entirely and raised his chin against the gusty winds, loving the feel of being bathed in flowing currents. He could smell the tangy salt water and taste it on his lips. Moving to the ship's rail, robes twisting around his long legs, he looked out over the deck, the water's black glimmering surface smooth and calm with streams of moonlight lighting across its gem like surface.

This was his favorite time of all the hours he'd been traveling. He escaped each night up onto the deck to watch the once threatening waters lap gently at the ship's sides.

If he was lucky great black whales would skim by, their dorsal fins cutting through the still surface, rising out of the deep beyond, ripples of black water following in their wake. Entire pods would glide past him, crooning to each other in the dark, singing a musical language no man could hope to understand. They were magnificent.

Perched on the tips of his toes and leaning dangerously over the side, hair obscuring his vision as it whipped about in the breeze, catching in his mouth and sticking to his nose, Shanza scanned anxiously for a sign of the wondrous swimmers.

When the low noise of someone clearing their throat boomed out into the silence, he nearly pitched himself off of the ship in fright. Swiveling so fast he almost fell again, Shanza braced himself against the railing, the firm wood digging into his back as he pulled blond locks out of his line of vision.

"My apologies for sneaking up on you."

One hand holding his hair from his face, the other clenching the soft material over his heart, Shanza went limp with relief, spotting the man who had spoken.

Waiting until he felt his voice was recovered from the scare, Shanza swallowed and responded, "That's quite alright, I should have paid some attention to my surroundings. The fault is purely mine." Shanza couldn't make out the man's expression, as he was cloaked by the night and shadowed in his position against the Majestic's helm, but he did notice the glimmer of silver armor reflecting the moon's faint rays. So this man, being a warrior, would have arrived with the other soldiers earlier that same day. Was he the captain Kaezik had gone to speak with?

The deep voice sounded again, this time tinted with malice, "Perhaps I should introduce myself? My name is Zethus Thea, supposed leader of the pack of unmanageable warriors you have already met. And you are Shanza Shilari, sent by Methron to marry, to devote your life and love to a man you have never met, all for the sake of a peace pact between two countries. That's very noble of you, if you aren't being forced into it, of course."

Features steeling, Shanza straightened and eyed Zethus, slightly surprised by the swift and sudden attack. But nonetheless, he was ready with a sharp reply, "I was chosen by the Gods themselves for this union, as was Ikeda Keftalar. It's a worthy cause, and if I am able to ensure peace by sacrificing some of my freedom, the that would be a small price to pay."

"Yes, you are most honorable and selfless, giving yourself to your country to be bargained with like a special treasure or merchant good." His tone was sarcastic and condescending, scoffing Shanza's honest words, "Or perhaps you're doing this for the power and riches awaiting you? You have only to agree to wed Thanobia's hero, and then you are free to reign the lands as you please. The Dragon may get in your way initially, but it should be easy enough to rid yourself of him, or perhaps control him to your every whim." The older man accused ruthlessly, nearly snarling out his cruel claims, the rich voice twisted.

"You think this of me?" Shanza demanded softly, his chin raised din defiance against the other's words.

"I know nothing of you, least of all how you think."

"Then how can you dare to suggest such corruption of me?" Pausing, Shanza's brow pulled together in thought and he speculated, "Unless it's Methron that you believe such hideous treachery of."

"I have no quarrels with Methron," Zethus countered firmly, truth ringing in his statement.

"If you truly know nothing of who I am, then why have you accused me of such atrocities?" A chill began to settle in Shanza's stomach as realization dawned reluctantly. Kaezik and this man had spoken but a half-hour ago, and what words they could have exchanged! Shanza swallowed painfully, his resolve wavering. He didn't, couldn't believe that of Kaezik.

The warrior seemed to read his very mind, both reassuring Shanza and horrifying him at once, "These thoughts are not repeated, nor are they shared by any other that I am aware of, especially not young Keftalar, who has been blinded by your charm. They are mine alone. Have no fear, niekh, that he has escaped your spell."

The chill Shanza had felt before spread to an all-consuming numbness, his entire body was cold, his face drained of its color. This man knew. Niekh was an insult, a filthy word condemning those that had the Gift. He'd heard it often enough, hissed in whispers behind his back. But Zethus wasn't done finished; he'd sensed Shanza's weakness and sought to tear him apart.

"Yes, I know of your imperfection. You may seem to all the world like a frail, helpless beauty, but held within your bony frame, behind that sugary, disarming smile, you have the ability to tear a man apart from fifty feet away. You possess the most vicious of weapons, a power that cannot be defended against by mortal men, power which reduces entire armies to nothing but blood filled fields. You and your kind are monsters, the only thing you love is power and you will do anything to get it." His added words were sneered as a finish, "You have the Gift."

Anger ignited in the pit of Shanza's frozen mind and his blood surged to life, pounding through his veins like liquid fire, setting dead nerves ablaze. His fingers snapped up to embed their nails in the soft skin of his palms as he clenched his hands.

"It's no secret," Shanza defended simply, struggling to keep from biting out his responses. Quietly he amended, "But I am not as you think me to be." He felt blood trickling between his fingers, warm and thick, but couldn't relax the tensed muscles. It was the only outlet of anger he would allow himself.

"No?" Zethus' voice was surprisingly soft and Shanza wondered what the man would throw at him next. "I'm curious as to why, when you control such power, you have not incinerated me on the spot. Here I stand, insulting you with all my might and creativity and you listen passively without retaliation."

Shanza's clasped fists relaxed slightly in confusion, but pushing his bewilderment he revealed, "A weapon is only as dangerous as the person using it." Lifting his hands, deep sleeves falling to collect at his elbows, Shanza revealed completely bare arms.

"I'm not wearing the evira." Highly recognizable, the evira were the often elaborate and always gem studded gloves which those that had the Gift wore. Without them their power had no way to leave the user's body.

Lowering his raised limbs, blue robes falling to cover blood smeared hands, Shanza watched the other man warily as Zethus remarked after a pregnant pause, "You're not trying to mask the fact that you have the Gift by going without your evira?" His question was sincere and curious, the snide, mocking tones having vanished completely.

"If I was that paranoid, then I would be certain to wear my weapons but hidden." Shanza countered briskly.

Zethus seemed to mull this over for a moment before stepping out from under the night's shadow and moving closer to Shanza. He was tall and of solid frame, the wind ruffling short black hair which was followed by a trim beard maturing with flecks of gray. His dark eyes reflected the cool waters and gave nothing away, as if they were but hard stone. Illuminated in pale light from the half-moon he looked ethereal, nearly tinted blue, his facial features drawn and guarded.

Zethus stalked closer and Shanza stiffened in response, feeling like a gazelle watched by a sated lion, who although is not in immediate danger knows to fear. This man was bigger, stronger and more equipped then himself. His very stature demanded attention and reeked of command.

"That's very brave of you, to go without a weapon," Zethus said in a near drawl, his sword clinking against his boots as he drew nearer ever so leisurely. Was the man trying to intimidate him?! Chin high, his back straight, Shanza stared into Zethus's dark gem eyes.

"I have no need of a weapon here."

"Really, you think so? What if you were to be attacked?"

Shanza's eyes narrowed slightly, and Zethus stopped a mere breath from him, sending his senses screaming into unease. The older man was far too close for comfort, violating all of the Methrian's personal space, and the sinister innuendoes in the captain's hushed questions had sent Shanza's thoughts reeling. Was Zethus threatening him? He was sure the man was trying to knock him off guard at the very least.

"The only attack I have to fear would be from this ship. And I do not fear that at all." Shanza himself was tall, but Zethus was taller and considerably broader, and so he seemed to tower over the younger man. "I am a lone Methron, high in status, travelling to your country of Thanobia to secure peace. If I were to be killed it would mean nothing short of war. Simply put, if I was to be harmed by a Thanobian, Methron would see it as an act of war, a severing of the strained peace. It doesn't make sense for me to be worried over an attack." His blond hair whipped about, and caught in the gusty breeze, it lashed against Zethus's torso armor harmlessly.

"This is true," The captain agreed, "You had best not come by harms way then. Quite a bit hangs in the balance of this tentative peace." Once again startled by the man's sudden shift of temper, Shanza held his tongue, ever aware of the other's uncomfortable proximity.

Sighing wearily, Zethus demanded, "You truly only wish for peace and don't have some wicked scheme to take over and control the East once you're through the Methos Laen?"

Green eyes widening, mouth opening in confusion, Shanza gaped up at him. Blinking several times as if to clear his thoughts, he answered, "I don't have a… wicked scheme. All I want is an end to the wars. Everything I've said has been truth."

Zethus glowered at Shanza, his eyes scanning the younger man's searchingly.

A sudden thought striking him, Shanza hesitated, then wondered, "Have you been trying to test me?" The man truly didn't seem like a brute. His display of anger and accusations could easily have been an act, and in recollection, it seemed highly likely.

In reply, Zethus gave another hearty sigh and his hard eyes softened. Stepping away from Shanza, his face fell into a begrudgingly guilty and remorseful expression.

"I have," He divulged with a heavy exhale of breath.

Relieved that Zethus had widened the distance between them, as he was now able to concentrate clearly without his psyche screeching at him, Shanza watched with thinly veiled fascination as the warrior transformed right in front of him.

Instead of appearing frightening and powerful, Zethus now struck him as a fatherly type. There were lines of care etched into his face and the black cloud of menace no longer hung over his head, but a passionate sort of protectiveness radiated from him. "I believe I owe you an apology," Zethus paused, then added contritely, "and an explanation."

Smiling, Shanza rubbed at the flaking blood on his hands beneath long sleeves, nearly wincing as his thumb passed over an angry welt, sticky from the warm liquid.

"It would be much obliged." He'd be lying if he said he wasn't curious as to why Zethus had accused him of such repulsive intentions.

"I'm sorry for attacking you with such ferocity. My words were needlessly harsh and hurtful and I regret having to inflict them upon you." Zethus halted, and watching Shanza carefully, "However, I needed to make sure your aims were honorable and the only way I saw fit to do so was to provoke you by insults, threats and mockery into showing your true nature." He frowned, "Perhaps," his eyes caught Shanza's and he continued, "perhaps much of my distrust was aroused when I discovered you held the Gift. As a soldier, and I suppose, as a man, I haven't had the most ideal experiences with others that use the Gift, and so I came to my own conclusions. This was unfair of me and I apologize for my assumptions. I had no right to think such of you."

Shanza was heartened that Zethus had discovered his errors, but saddened all the same, as he knew many people often labeled those that had the Gift as monsters. The harsh truth was that in fact, they were often right.

Zethus spoke again, this time with affection in his voice, "I have known both of Hakida Keftalar's sons since they were toddlers, and as a result I fear I'm fiercely overprotective. I believe I may have worried about what you would do to Ikeda once the two of you were joined. I apologize again for this." Zethus offered Shanza a small, abashed grin, the tips of his lips quirking.

"Apology accepted," Shanza smiled in return, hoping to the Gods that Zethus was done with his tricks. "Just… please don't try anything else. I promise I'm not plotting."

Breaking into warm laughter, Zethus reaffirmed brashly, "I really am sorry. You're not a bad fellow. You've got nice patience, kept your cool real well. Your parents should be proud." Switching topics he remarked, "I suppose I should have listened to Kaezik, he was quite taken with you, you know. Ah, damn, he'll be hankering for my head if he learns about this. Told me specifically to do nothing of the sort." Zethus chuckled mischievously, imaging Kaezik's reaction

Eyeing the bigger man humorously while shuddering from the cold, Shanza crossed his arms over his chest in a vain attempt to trap some heat. The rush of adrenaline, which had now tapered off had left him tired and chilled, and there was no sun to warm his face. He was still wearing Kaezik's cloak however, and it helped isolate him from the worst of the breeze.

"Cold, are you?" Zethus had noticed his companion's state and was staring at him in bemused concern, "And rightly so, why I'm surprised your not frozen, coming straight off that desert hot bed into this chill. Come now, we'll go below and talk."

"I'm alright, really," Shanza assured, but didn't argue when Zethus put a hand on his back and guided him to the stairs.

It certainly was a strange transition. Minutes before this man had been verbally assaulting him and now he was reproaching him over his well being. Halfway down the steps, where candlelight finally reached them, Zethus was glancing back to speak when he spotted one of Shanza's hands.

"Oh- what's this?" He inquired shrewdly, and without waiting for a reply caught both of Shanza's hands and lifted them with surprising gentleness into the lantern's glow.

Turning them palm up, he clucked his tongue and lifted his head to match eyes with Shanza, who blushed in response.

Releasing his hands with a wink and gesturing him for follow, Zethus led Shanza into the same large dining room he had left only minutes before. Motioning for Shanza to sit down, Zethus disappeared behind a swinging side door. Obeying, Shanza lowered into a chair and perching on the edge of it, surveyed the empty space.

All but one of the candles had been blown out, and the single flame was casting long, twisting shadows across the walls and deserted furniture. Occasional sounds of the ship reverberated around him, but having been journeying aboard the Majestic for a week now, he had grown used to the creaks and groans that echoed through its hull. At first the noises had made him nervous, as he'd worried that the ship would fall apart at the seams. Now he found it comforting, for it broke the silence.

Silence. He hated it. It made him feel desolate and small. When one had too much time to think, one thinks of things that had best been left alone. The walls begin to creep up on you, the shadows grow large and menacing; the air becomes thick and stifling. Gods but he hated being alone, especially in the dark.

A particularity loud creek from the wooden floor boards overhead interrupted his reverie and Shanza jerked in bewilderment, nearly tumbling off of his chair as he narrowly missed knocking the candle off the table. Rubbing his forehead in embarrassment, Shanza heard Zethus's returning footsteps and sighed in relief. He may not have been a chatterbox himself, but he liked to listen to others talk, and he enjoyed company, well, as long as it was agreeable.

"Still awake I see. Well good, I'm glad you haven't bled to death yet," Zethus teased, bustling into the room, a basin of slopping water under his arm. He dropped it carelessly onto the table, causing more water to slosh around the sides and spill out.

"You can wash up with that, don't want to get an infection now do you? Besides, blood stains like a bugger, so you'd best clean up now and not get it all over yourself." Relaxing into the seat across from Shanza, Zethus plopped a mottled tin cup in front of himself then handed the younger man a mercifully clean cloth.

"Oh, thank you," Shanza murmured, placing the small towel beside the bowl.

Tucking his sleeves back, he dipped his hands into the tepid water while Zethus asked in friendly curiosity, "What do you really think about the marriage?"

Stopping his careful ministrations to look up, the water tinted a yellow-brown, Shanza's brow creased in confusion.

"I thought I already said… I think it's a good idea"-

"No, no!" Zethus interrupted, and leaning forward, he shook his head at the misunderstanding. "I suppose I should have worded it better. How do you feel about the marriage, truthfully?"

Shanza considered the question and sat back in his chair, letting his wrists rest on the bowls rim. The only noise was the soft plunking of water droplets falling from his dripping hands.

"How do I feel…" He repeated softly. To be frank, strangely enough no one had asked him this question before and he had mixed emotions regarding the entire agreement. He knew it was his duty to do as his country wished, and that the union was vital for peace. But how did he really feel about it?

"I think I'm…" Blushing, Shanza knotted his fingers together and answered neutrally, "…nervous." Breathing deeply, he admitted, "And frightened. It's a huge change, and nothing's ever going to be the same." He was terribly frightened, but it was so difficult to admit to fear. "It, it's exciting as well. I'm both relieved and anxious, relieved that things are going to be different and afraid for the same reason."

Zethus listened patiently, a fatherly look coming over his features. Sometime in the past half-hour that they'd met, he had developed a liking for the shy Methrian. He didn't know where it came from, but these things just seemed to happen. As with his mangy bunch of warriors and the Keftalar brothers, he couldn't explain it, but he'd protect them any way he could. It must be his curse.

He decided to allow Shanza to talk out his thoughts while he listened silently. "It's not just the marriage, although… in that regard the thing I most worry about is what Lord Keftalar is like."

Zethus had to interrupt, "Shanza, you have got to call him Ikeda, you're going to be married to the man!"

Cheeks coloring, Shanza nodded and submitted, "Alright, I will. But- I don't know him at all, I'm afr- worried of what he'll be like." Pausing, Shanza revealed painfully, "I fear he won't like me."

"Do you think he doesn't worry about that same question?" Zethus countered, and Shanza floundered without reply. "What if you don't like him?" Zethus continued.

Shanza was fiddling with his hands anxiously, his answer dismissive, "That wouldn't matter, I'd just-"

"What, put your feelings aside?" Zethus speculated incredulously.

Shanza slumped, his hands dropping back into the bowl. He rubbed what remained of the crimson stains away, revealing small half moon impressions in his skin, four on each palm. Sighing, Shanza felt ready to meet Zethus's eyes again. Looking up, he was surprised by the sympathy in the captain's face.

"Fine, I'll help you out," Zethus relented. "I'll tell you about Ikeda and I'm going to be brutally honest with you, alright?" Excitement made Shanza's heart quicken. Someone was finally, finally going to enlighten him. "This means you won't get a rude surprise later, which is only fair."

Shanza just about choked. What was that supposed to mean? Taking a deep breath, Zethus stretched back in his seat and began. "Let's see, appearance wise he- good Gods, it didn't even occur to me!"

Shaking his head in disbelief, Zethus explained, "I've got another question for you. You're completely fine with being wed to a man? I know it's accepted in Thanobia and several other countries, but Methron hasn't always been as, well… You're fine with the fact that you won't be able to have children, and- how to word this?" Zethus paused, face scrunching, but Shanza saved him the trouble.

"Ah, no, I don't mind. I've never really been romantically involved before, anyway. Besides, my guardians always taught me to love the person, not the appearance."

Zethus nodded and agreed, "Good people then, they're right."

Shanza smiled faintly, but said nothing more, for he was intent on hearing Zethus's description.

"Alright, he's quite tall, just about my height, maybe, and he's much broader then you by far, more muscular, too. Having to kill dragons and all," Zethus snorted with mirth. "What else- oh, his hair is blond, darker then yours and Kaezik's, it's longish I believe, if he hasn't cut it. Not nearly as long as your mane there, though. I can't recall what color his eyes are, probably a blue of some kind, I'm not the most observant at times and my memory seems to slip around these things. Just a quirk, I suppose."

He accompanied his next word with a roll of his eyes, "If I was one of his female fans I'd know, they're always swooning at him… you really should see Kaezik imitate them, it's quite funny- but where was I? Oh yes, making you a mental picture."

Taking a swig out of his mug, then clunking it down he went on, "He's very handsome, very masculine, though probably not quite your equal in looks, but the closest Thanobia has to offer." Shanza's eyes nearly rolled out of his head he snapped them completely open so fast, Zethus's flippant compliment had startled him so much. What a compliment! He couldn't be serious. "What are you looking like that for?" Zethus demanded, completely oblivious.

"Why- you just said-you can't be serious-" Shanza sputtered almost incoherently. Zethus raised a thick eyebrow, and then comprehension dawned.

"Oh," He expelled, then a grin spread slowly across his lips and small, chuckling laughter grew to roars. Shanza watched him and decide to take the opportunity to dry his hands, as that way he wouldn't be distracted while listening.

Once Zethus had quieted, he explained in amusement, "I was serious. Haven't you ever been given a compliment before?" He had been complimented, yes, but never on his looks. "You're far too modest. You'll need to be much more conceited for what awaits you," Zethus decided. "But back to Ikeda. Now this is what's really important."

Shanza gave Zethus all of his attention, anxiously waiting upon his words.

"Ikeda can be very cold and detached. He may seem superior and disinterested, but you have to work through that. I don't know why he does it, but he comes off as a proud and distant. He's quiet and can be ruthless at times. Also, he refuses to acknowledge anyone who shows feelings towards him. There have been many unhappy women who sought his attention and were ignored."

Nervous anxiety descending upon him, Shanza began twisting the cloth between his hands in worry.

"However," Zethus raised his index finger to emphasize his point, "It's been discovered that he does indeed have a heart, it just needs… let us say, nurturing. For example, he does love his brother and that, is fact."

Shanza glanced downwards, biting his lip in thought. Zethus was saying that Ikeda wasn't very kind, that he was cold and aloof. But with that said, there was hope as well. Ikeda just needed some warming up. "You're going to need patience and understanding, lots of it. Fortunately, that doesn't appear to be a problem."

Shanza's fidgeting stopped, and he accepted, "That wasn't very encouraging, but I appreciate it."

Zethus nodded with a grunt, and drinking from his over-sized cup, commented, "At the very least you'll be prepared now." This made Shanza smile, soft laughter escaping his lips.

"Yes. I can plan how to swoon him in the time I have until we reach Arcanus."

Chuckling with him, Zethus agreed, "It's perfect. He'll never know what hit him. Just remember not to give up, alright?"

"I don't plan too," Shanza assured resolutely.

"Good. And I see you're all cleaned up, so lets see your hands," The captain ordered, gesturing for Shanza to display his palms.

Smiling, the younger man tried to dissuade Zethus, "Oh, they're just scratches. It's really my fault, anyway."

Zethus eyed him skeptically and refused to budge, "It certainly is not your fault, it's mine for being malicious. Now let's have a look."

Realizing it was pointless to argue, Shanza placed his hands palm up in the middle of the table. Scrutinizing the his right palm, Zethus gave a low whistle and exclaimed, "You've done quite a number on yourself. What are your nails, talons?" Glancing down the long, tapered fingers his eyes widened. "Well its obvious you're not a swordsman."

Laughing easily, the Methrian defended, "They're not that long!"

With Shanza's hand still clasped in his hold, Zethus jested wryly, "Too bad I'm not a palm reader. Ah, well. I can always make something up."

"You had better not. You'll likely jinx the wedding and we can't have that." Shanza teased back, grinning.

It was a relief to be able to relax, now that Zethus had told him about Ikeda. He'd nearly been worrying himself sick, fretting over what the Thanobian warrior would be like and what he should expect. Of course, he now had the unfortunate opportunity to mull over the fact that very soon, if all went well, he would be more powerful than a king. There was also the issue of 'all that had to go well,' too, to take into consideration. But it was best to think about these things later, as he was starting to tense up.

Releasing Shanza's hand, Zethus yawned and announced, "It's plenty late, and I suppose we need all the rest we can get." Rising to his feet, he pushed his chair under the table and gripping the bowl of water, tucked it under one arm. Grasping his cup and the cloth in his other hand, he strode towards the door. Halfway out of his seat, Shanza braced his arms against the table and leaning in, blew the candle out in a puff of twirling gray smoke. He was immediately pitched into complete darkness.

"Zethus?" He called out, his eyes struggling to adjust to the dark.

The tall man answered with mirth in his tone, "Over here, Shanza."

Following the deep voice, Shanza let out a soft 'oof' as he tried to navigate around a chair he couldn't see. Failing to skirt the furniture, his knee connected with the firm, aged wood. He could hear Zethus laughing in the blackness.

"I suppose this wasn't the best of plans-oh," He gasped, narrowly missing a supporting beam. Arms straight out, hands feeling in the darkness in front of him, Shanza made his way towards the laughter.

When his fingertips scraped cold, rough armor he declared victoriously, "Ah hah, there you are. Where's the door?"

"Right here," Zethus answered, still laughing. Turning the knob, he pushed it open and warm light spilled in from the hallway's lanterns. "Suppose I could have done that before," Zethus begrudged with a grin and a glance at Shanza. "Nah. That way was much more fun. "

"Fun for you," Shanza retorted, "You aren't going to have a bruised knee." Exiting the room once more that again, Shanza slipped into the corridor, Zethus crammed beside him. It was narrow going with only one person, and having a bulky warrior squashed in beside him made moving a near impossible feat.

"You know, that cloak looks awfully familiar," Zethus stated conversationally.

"It should. Kaezik was kind enough to offer its use to me," Blushing, Shanza added, "However I forgot to return it and he may be asleep by now."

Zethus laughed at the explanation, speculating, "What a charmer. You ought to put a curse on it." Shanza smiled drowsily in response. He was ready for sleep and had no idea what hour of the morning it was, only that it was far too late- or early perhaps. "I think I'll take it upon myself to walk you to your room, acting as your guard in the off chance that someone else decides to attack you tonight. You never know who might've slipped aboard while the ship was docked."

Sighing sleepily, Shanza fought to pull his hair back from his face, musing, "I don't know. It seems that the people aboard the ship are more to fear." Zethus gave him a surprised glance and considered his words seriously.

"You aren't mistaken there," He muttered, then in a clearer tone requested, "Wait here a moment and I'll get rid of this junk." Entering the ship's kitchen he disappeared for a scant second before emerging empty handed. "Even the cook has gone to bed. I'll bet there's only the watchmen above deck and ourselves awake at this hour," He reflected tiredly.

"That's because it's ungodly to be up so late- early," Shanza corrected himself, his wits slowing down as his mind began fogging over.

He hardly heard Zethus laughing quietly at him, or the other man's jesting, "Don't fall over on me. We'd best hurry and get you to bed." That sounded very enticing indeed. Luckily, the Majestic's interior wasn't very big and it only took them several seconds to squeeze and stagger their way to Shanza's door.

"Here we are at last. I guess you're safe for tonight, no one leapt out to attack you with a big warrior like me around," The captain declared, moving to grasp the handle.

"I'm curious, Zethus...Where would this attacker leap out from? There's no room for him anywhere," Shanza rationalized, a smile lighting his lips.

"Oh, you'd be surprised," Was Zethus's only answer as he pushed the door open.

(end of chapter)

Inkslinger: Well, there's the first chapter! It went a bit slow, but much more action is coming very soon! And if there are any awful typos were words are squashedtogetherlikethis, it's not my doing, it's Fp!

Thanks so much for reading, comments/criticism are welcome!!