Sherivi is turning out to be a pretty nice place, for a port town, but I still can't wait to get out on the open seas. Everyone I've worked for around here wishes I would stay, and I've had several offers from Ships' Mates, but I'm still biding my time. Yesterday one of the sailors just in brought news that the Azure was sighted just three islands west of here. Sherivi is the only large port for days, so I hope... Well. Wish me luck. If my next letter is a little late, it'll mean that I finally caught my dream.
Torhle stood on the dock, gazing out at the harbor. There were any number of ships currently anchored, some large, some small, but only one of interest to him. The Azure. It was smaller than most merchant vessels, though larger than pretty much everything else, and of a sleek design that was unique to that ship. Custom-built. Rumors often cropped up that this or that rich merchant or noble had attempted to purchase the design and been shot down. The Azure was one-of-a-kind.
She was both the most noticeable ship in port, and the least. From bow to stern the Azure was blue, from a dark, ocean blue at her keel to the light, sky blue of her sails. Those that had seen her up close had been baffled by the tiny, iridescent shapes fastened across the entire hull that provided the colors. Shells, one rumor conjectured, but no shells that any of the seamen in Sherivi had ever seen.
The harbormaster's son had once ventured that perhaps they came from the far southern waters. New things came up north from there all the time.
Wherever they'd come from, their like had never again been seen. Unfortunate, some merchants had been known to say, for when the Azure was under full sail she was extremely difficult to spot on the open seas. Any pirate wishing to plunder that gem would have a tide of a time trying to see her at all.
But for all that, it was not the unusual cosmetic aspect of the ship that had made her famous. The Azure was the only ship on the seas who could boast to never having lost a man. Not to battle, to weather, or to sickness. When a sailor left the Azure, it was on his own two feet and with often enough bits of shine and sparkle to settle down for life.
In essence, she was a sailor's dream.
She was Torhle's dream too. He'd been eleven when he'd first heard of her, the wild rumors of the port coming to their small village. In that moment he'd fallen in love with her and determined to one day sail upon her. His whole life had been in anticipation of such an event; sheer obsessive determination coupled with a natural skill and intelligence had allowed him to hone himself into a man who could do anything with perfect ease.
And now, there she was. He'd never been able to determine just how the Azure took on new sailors; no rumors had ever sprung forth of hiring fairs or backroom deals or much of anything. Everyone knew what happened to a sailor leaving the ship, the parties thrown by the one living two towns over were almost famous, but there'd never been so much as a whisper of how one managed to get hired in the first place. Not even from those ex-crewmembers.
So, he planned to just wait until someone came ashore and inquire, hopefully without sounding as desperate as he felt. Thus why he was currently parked on a seldom-used dock two berths away from where the Azure was moored and letting his thoughts run in circles.
Not precisely a soothing morning, or afternoon as he was fairly certain he'd heard the dockhands go off for their noon luncheon not long ago. Still, sooner or later someone would come ashore and then he'd get his chance to-
"Something wrong with the ships?"
Torhle started and barely managed to stifle a scream, though a small squeak emerged anyway. He spun to stare at the man who'd managed to sneak up behind him completely undetected; not an easy feat, but he had been a little distracted.
"What?" he managed, frowning as the man's words finally registered. "No, no, nothing wrong. This is the first time I've ever seen the Azure."
The man stood an inch or so shorter than Torhle and was considerably more slender, though where his clothes didn't cover was enough trim, compact muscle to suggest that he could give a good accounting of himself. Bluegreen eyes. Wavy, almost ice-blond hair. Long. Much longer than anyone in or around Sherivi. Had he come in on one of the ships in port?
But then, he didn't know many sailors who wore skirts. Maybe he was a merchant of some sort...
"Hmm, yes, she is rather pretty, isn't she?" the man agreed, turning his head to regard the ship and giving Torhle time to remember what they'd been talking about.
"I've been waiting my whole life to see her," Torhle admitted quietly, restoring his own gaze to the bluegreen ship. "She's beautiful."
Out of the corner of his eye he could see the blond man turn to regard him quizzically, long hair rippling sinuously in the wind. "Your whole life?" he asked. "Why?"
Torhle turned to face him again. "She's the greatest ship in the seas. One day, I'm going to sail on her," he replied emphatically.
The blond man laughed. "I hear she's very selective in who she takes for crew. What makes you think they'll take you?"
"I've spent my life getting ready for it," Torhle stated firmly. "I know everything one can know about sailing without actually having sailed, I'm fluent in six languages and tolerable in several more, I've studied with dozens of different merchants of all different kinds of goods..."
The man grinned. "In short, you're a wanna-be supercargo with no experience."
Torhle glared. "Better than those idiots who can't tell their rowlock from their taffrail or their pearls from peas."
"Hmm..." the blond mused, looking him over thoughtfully as he walked in a slow circle around Torhle. "You do have a point there." He stopped, facing Torhle, and grinned again. "Okay then. Grab whatever gear you've got and report to the ship before sunset. We're setting sail then."
He reached up and ruffled Torhle's hair, then turned and sauntered off on a lazy course along the docks that would eventually take him to... the...
Torhle stared, frozen in place, as the strange blond man made his way back to the Azure's berth, up the gangplank, and vanished from sight as the bulk of the ship obscured him from view. It was impossible. It had to be a joke. Every man in Sherivi knew of his obsession with the Azure. It just had to be a bad prank...
But... if it was not...
He made it back to his bunk in record time. If it wasn't a prank, if the crazy blond hadn't been joking with him, then this was officially the best day of his entire life.
Torhle stared up the long length of the gangplank at the ship, torn between wondering if he was mad for even considering that this wasn't a complete hoax and noting that the odd shapes responsible for the Azure's unusual coloring really did look like millions of incredibly tiny seashells. How long had it taken to collect so many, sort them by color hue, then somehow attach them to the ship?
It hurt to think about.
Taking one last, deep breath, brilliant colors of the setting sun behind him, he slowly made his way up the gangplank and stepped onto the ship.
There were at least five sailors in sight, with more undoubtedly aloft, and several turned to regard him oddly as he set foot onto the deck. One broke away from what he'd been doing and came over to speak with Torhle. He was quite a bit taller than Torhle and built like a small mountain, with wildly curly black hair, bronzed skin, and more scars than Torhle cared to count. Really, he looked more like he belonged on a pirate ship than on the Azure, particularly considering the flamboyant colors of his clothing.
"You need something, boy?" the man-mountain rumbled, giving Torhle a rather good idea of what a lobster must feel like when confronted with its harvester for the first time.
"Ah, I was told to report here before sunset," Torhle explained cautiously, weighing his options for escape. He was no slouch in a fight, but this man looked like he could trounce Torhle without breaking a sweat.
"By a man with long blond hair," he added.
The pirate-man rolled his eyes and ran a hand through his thick hair, tipping his head back to holler into the rigging. "Nae, ye prick! Ya did it again! I thought we agreed that I could look 'em over first! Quit pickin' up random strays!"
For a moment there was no response, nothing but the wind through the furled sails, then a ripple of laughter echoed from somewhere in the vicinity of the crow's nest. A moment later a familiar blond man swung down and landed a few feet away, grinning unrepentantly.
He was still wearing the skirt-thing.
"Sorry, Lan," the blond said, though he didn't sound remotely remorseful. "It just kinda happened."
The mountain man snorted and rolled his eyes again. "You're incorrigible. Did ye even bother to get his name before ya commandeered him?"
The blond man glanced at Torhle, then smiled somewhat sheepishly. "Er, no?"
The big man sighed. "Why am I not surprised?" He asked rhetorically, looking at Torhle. "So, kid, what's yer name?"
Torhle blinked. "Torhle," he managed, wondering if he'd eaten something that disagreed with him the night before and was hallucinating all of this. It was far too surreal to be actually happening.
The mountain-man clapped him on the shoulder and jerked at thumb at the slender blond. "Tha's Captain Naefindan, though most of us just call 'im Nae cause the whole thing's a mouthful. I'm Lanthus, this sea-monkey's First Mate in name only as he never actually lets me do anything."
Torhle blinked, again. "Ah. Well, um, circumstances of my hiring notwithstanding, it's nice to meet you?"
Naefindan laughed, slugging his First Mate in the arm. "See, Lan?" he said, "He'll do just fine. You'll see."
Lanthus looked sullen, though resigned. "Yeah, yeah. So, what's he for? We don' need a new deck swab..."
Grinning again in a way that Torhle was quickly coming to realize meant trouble, Naefindan replied, "He's going to be our new Supercargo, Lan."
"What?!" Lanthus sputtered. "He's a kid, Nae! Ye can't make a kid the Super!"
"Actually, I'm twenty-four..." Torhle offered.
"See?" Naefindan said cheerfully, reaching up to tousle Lanthus's hair. "I hate doing the numbers and I know you struggle with it so it's much past the time when we should have had a real Super anyway."
Although Lanthus did not look convinced, he didn't continue to object. Instead he simply sighed. "Yeah, yeah... C'mon kid, there's a room we been usin' fer storage that I think we kin convert to a Super's office..." he muttered, turning and heading off below deck. After a brief, hesitant glance at Captain Naefindan, Torhle turned and followed.
Well, he was on the Azure. His lifelong dream had been fulfilled.
He was surrounded by lunatics.
The First Mate turned to face him, one hand still lightly resting upon the helm. "Yah?"
"Why does Captain Naefindan wear a skirt?" Torhle asked. The question had been bugging him his entire first month out on the Azure. It seemed incredibly impractical, especially considering how much time Naefindan spent in the rigging.
Lanthus laughed. "It's not a skirt, kid," he corrected good-humoredly. "It's called a sarong, and it's fairly popular amongst a lot of the southern islands."
Torhle made a face. "Okay, but still..."
The big man laughed again and shook his head. "Nobody knows for sure," he replied with a shrug of his massive shoulders. "I asked him once. He told me he doesn't like to feel confined." Lanthus smirked. "Personally, I think he likes it for the easy access to the important parts."
Fighting a slow burn, Torhle looked away just in time to watch Naefindan drop slowly out of the rigging. Lanthus followed his gaze, smirk widening as he caught sight of his Captain.
"Well, we can always ask again," he said congenially. "Oi, Nae!"
Naefindan sauntered over, vaulting the last two stairs and the railing to the quarter deck.
"What's with the dress?" Lanthus asked blandly, dark eyes glimmering.
Naefindan grinned, leaning back against the rail. "My bits like freedom," he answered, laughing aloud at the expression on Torhle's face. "What?" he asked, "Your bits don't feel the need to be free every now and then?"
Even if he'd had Lanthus's swarthy complexion, Torhle doubted he'd have been able to hide the redness of his face. "Ah, no, not really," he managed.
Naefindan shrugged, looking him over before grinning lasciviously. "Mmm, too bad," he commented. "Free bits are happy bits. You'll have to tell yours hello for me if you ever let them out for a bit of fresh air." With that, he hopped over the railing again and strode over to one of the crew to ask a question, apparently heedless of the incredulous silence of the two men left behind.
"Ya know he does it to get a reaction, right?" Lanthus asked finally, clearing his throat.
"He got one," Torhle muttered, shaking his head. "He got one."
While life aboard the Azure was certainly a lot different than how Torhle had originally pictured it, he was slowly beginning to enjoy the differences. The work of a Supercargo could be overwhelming at times without the occasional moment of complete dumbfoundedness that frequently accompanied a 'Nae' moment.
For instance, right now.
They were fairly far south and apparently there was a heat wave going on. Most of the crew had stripped down to the bare essentials; Torhle had almost expected the unpredictable Naefindan to walk around nude, but apparently the Captain wasn't quite that odd.
He had, however, managed to produce one of his sarong-skirts that was only just long enough to cover the important parts and was wearing that and not a stitch more.
Torhle had been watching for half the morning, having nothing better to do in the middle of a voyage when all of his books were up-to-date and triple-checked. He'd offered to assist the crew, but with the fair weather and brisk wind they were sailing with, there was really not much for anyone to do.
Naefindan, apparently, did not get along well with the heat. He'd been trying to hide in the shadows of the forecastle ever since it had become too hot to stay below. About five minutes ago he'd stalked off in search of something, returning with a large bucket with a rope tied to it. Naefindan had lowered the bucket down into the water, hauled it up, then dumped the entire thing over his head.
The only thing worse than Naefindan in an extremely short sarong was a dripping-wet Naefindan with the aforementioned sarong clinging to his skin.
"Much better," Naefindan announced, practically bouncing on his way up to the forecastle deck and out along the bowsprit. Torhle wanted to hit his head against something. No one else seemed to see anything wrong with the wet, mini-skirted Captain, glistening water trails winding down the backs of his legs and along his toned calves...
And thinking about it was most definitely not going to help. With a sigh, Torhle sought out his little office to go over the books for a fourth time. Dry lists of numbers were the most boring things in the world and, with any luck, might be able to take his mind off the very curvaceous backside with a slip of brightly-colored material sticking to it.
Torhle and Lanthus both jerked their heads up as Naefindan made a near-impossible leap from the crow's nest to the mizzen sail, sliding down the canvas and landing heavily on the deck.
"Hard a starboard! Ship in distress! All hands, ready emergency supplies and make sure you're armed," Naefindan barked, for once looking and sounding like the Captain he was. "Whatever hit that ship may still be in the area, so stay alert."
The crew sprung into action, grabbing the things they'd need and unearthing weaponry from places that Torhle wouldn't have even thought to look in. Lan had the ship turned faster than Torhle would have thought possible, face tense, and Naefindan stared directly ahead of them with an odd, glassy expression.
They were picking up speed, somehow, the sails beginning to sag as they actually outstripped the wind. In almost no time at all they were upon the sinking wreckage of a large merchant ship, several longboats already in the water. Lanthus pressed a long dagger into Torhle's hand, a similar weapon already tucked into his sash, even as brought the ship to a halt.
"Okay, move!" Lanthus barked, gesturing at the sinking mass. "Anyone not on a boat already, make sure-"
He was interrupted by a loud shout. "Man overboard!"
All three of them darted to the railing, spotting the struggling figure in no time. A child, from the size, and nowhere near any of the lifeboats. Torhle drew in a breath, but before he had time to do anything more than that there was a blur from beside him and a quiet splash a moment later.
The child went under momentarily, then came back up a moment later in Naefindan's arms. The Captain swam her back to the ship, handing her up to Lanthus before diving back in and vanishing beneath the waves.
"Where's he going?" Torhle asked, grabbing a blanket and wrapping the shivering, hysterical girl up in it.
"T'look for anyone else who might be in the water or still on that sinkin' ship," Lanthus replied distractedly, watching intently as the crew assisted the survivors onto the Azure.
Torhle blinked. "That's dangerous! The undertow..."
Lanthus shot him a strained smile. "Don' worry about it. Nae can outswim anyone alive."
"Don' worry about it," Lanthus ordered. "Jus go help the crew get those people aboard and figger out how long our supplies'll last with the extra mouths so we know if'n we can make it to our destination or if we're gonna have ta detour someplace."
Casting one last anxious glance at the waters below, Torhle went to obey.
"Hmm? Lanthus, where's the Captain?" Torhle asked, not finding the familiar crown of blond hair on the deck or anywhere in the rigging that he could see.
Lanthus jerked a thumb at the side of the ship. "Went fer a swim. Something about washin' off all the people germs..." he answered, grinning. It had been a long, frustrating, incredibly-obnoxious voyage with the shipwreck survivors to the port of Ardassus. Several of them had turned out to be persons of relative wealth and power who were not in any way accustomed to the cramped quarters of a sailing ship, and doubly so when the ship was not remotely designed to accommodate so many persons all at once.
Torhle was still amazed that as few fights had broken out as there had been, and most of that was due to Naefindan's incredible patience and amiable personality. Lanthus had hidden up on the poop deck for most of the voyage rather than risk his volatile temper flaring and Torhle had been sorely tempted to do the same. How Naefindan had tolerated it all for so long...
Well. They were gone now and apparently Naefindan was as glad to be rid of them as everyone else. Although the sea wasn't exactly conducive to bathing.
"He goes swimming every time we get into port," Torhle observed with a laugh. "I'm frankly surprised he wasn't wet when he found me in Sherivi."
Lanthus roared in laughter. "Ha! I'm surprised he wasn't too, kid. Nae spends more time in th' water than anyone but the fishes!"
Torhle shook his head. "He should've been born a fish."
Oddly, Lanthus tensed, one hand gripping the helm tightly enough for his knuckles to whiten. "Don' ever say that, Torhle. Nae's not... Nae jus' likes th' water, tha's all," he said firmly, western accent thickening with his discomfort.
Torhle blinked. "I didn't mean anything by it, Lanthus... I was just teasing..."
The big man sighed and relaxed a little, though he still appeared wary. "I know, kid. I know. And ye have no way of knowin'..."
Torhle frowned. "Knowing? Knowing what?"
For a moment Lanthus was silent, then he beckoned Torhle closer. "Ya know I'm from the western islands, yeah?" Torhle nodded. "Well, m' grandfather's grandfather saw 'em once. Ship got blown off-course an' ended up way out in the western expanse... that's where they live."
"Where who live, Lanthus?" Torhle asked, confused.
"The mer-folk," Lanthus answered solemnly.
"Mer-folk?" Torhle echoed, "Who are they?"
Lanthus shook his head. "Ye northerners really don' know nothin, do ya? The mer-folk are half fish. They live under th' water somewhere way out in th' western expanse. Keep to themselves a lot, but they kin get real nasty when a ship wanders too far west..."
"Huh," Torhle mused. "Sounds like something someone thought up in his cups," he observed.
Lanthus only shook his head again. "Ne'er mind. I don' expect anyone who's not a westerner to understand."
Torhle shrugged. "Sorry. There are supposed to be dragons out past the eastern isles too, though nobody alive has ever seen them."
"Ha, dragons," Lanthus snorted. "No such thing."
Torhle grinned. "Yeah, well, they believe in the things," he pointed out.
Lanthus eyed him, one eyebrow raised, then laughed. "A'right. You win, Torhle. Now go do something useful wit' yerself b'fore I throw ya overboard with the Cap'n."
Miming blocking a punch, Torhle complied. Though really, swimming with Naefindan didn't sound like that horrible of an idea.
"Wind's pickin' up," Lanthus announced, frowning at the sky. "Looks like we're in for a storm."
"That reminds me," Torhle mused from where he was sitting on the deck with Naefindan, going over the profits from their last voyage, "Why don't we have a weather-mage aboard? We could easily afford one..."
Lanthus blinked and gave him an odd look as Naefindan smothered a laugh.
"... what?" Torhle asked. "Even the smaller merchant ships have at least mediocre weather mages..."
Naefindan reached out and ruffled Torhle's hair with an amused smile. "Because we don't need one," he explained, bemused.
Torhle eyed both of them, a little bit miffed at the matching expressions Lanthus and Naefindan both wore. He hated when they did that 'I know something you don't' thing.
"So, enlighten me," he drolled. "Why don't we need a weather-mage?"
Naefindan and Lanthus exchanged grins, then Lanthus leaned down to whisper conspiratorially, "Because we have something better."
When nothing more seemed to be forthcoming, Torhle suppressed the urge to roll his eyes and asked, "Such as?"
In response, Naefindan waved a hand aft of the ship. A moment later a towering wave of water appeared, looming over the stern menacingly. Torhle started. "What the..." When the wave simple hung there, doing nothing, he turned to stare at Naefindan.
"That's incredible. I didn't think water mages could get that strong!" he exclaimed.
Naefindan grinned and the water dropped back into the sea where it belonged. "I am something of an oddity," he agreed cheerfully. "But it's rather useful, and it does save us the expense of keeping a weather-mage aboard. Weather mages, in my humble opinion, are rather prissy and high-maintenance."
Lanthus snorted. "That's one way to put it."
Torhle shook his head in amusement at their antics. "So the storm...?" he prodded.
"Not a problem," Naefindan answered. "If it gets to be too bad I can manipulate the water in it and send it away, though we normally just ride them out. The Azure can handle a little weather."
"Nae..." Lanthus said slowly, frowning, "Maybe you should take a look at this one anyway..."
With a slight, puzzled frown, Naefindan stood up and followed Lanthus's gaze. "Mm," he commented, "That's odd."
"What's odd?" Torhle asked, getting up as well. "Looks like a storm to me."
"Yeah," Lanthus agreed, "But it's moving wrong."
"What do you mean?"
Naefindan's eyes narrowed, getting as close to angry as Torhle had ever seen him. "He means someone's controlling it," the blond man said tightly. "Which usually means only one thing. Pirates."
Torhle frowned, watching the storm in question, noting how it did seem to be moving peculiarly now that he was watching for it. "But the Azure can barely be seen... surely we're in no danger..."
"It's not us he's worried about," Lanthus interjected, "It's whoever those pirates are actually after with their little trap."
A slight chill went down Torhle's spine. "You mean there's a ship in there?"
"Two ships," Naefindan replied flatly. "Lan, hold it steady. I'm about to move the water."
"Got it," Lanthus replied, keeping one hand on the helm as he put two fingers into his mouth and whistled sharply. "All'a ya, prepare for battle!" he roared. "Pirates ahead!"
Once again weapons materialized from every conceivable place, and many that were not, as the crew of the Azure readied themselves for what lay ahead. Naefindan disappeared into his cabin for a few minutes, returning with a small arsenal which he dispersed amongst the three of them.
"I'm going aloft," he announced once they were armed. "I want to get a look at what we're facing before we get there."
"Don' stay up too long in this storm, Nae," Lanthus replied, grip tight on the helm as he fought to keep it steady. "It's not safe."
Naefindan shrugged. "Safe enough." A moment later he'd caught onto the rigging and was swiftly out of sight amongst the sails.
Torhle watched a moment longer before restoring his attention to the swiftly-approaching storm. "You do this often?" he asked. "Rescue people from pirate ships, I mean?"
"When we can," Lanthus replied tensely. "Sometimes we only find th' wreckage, like that last ship. But this time we may b' able to get there in time. Nae's kinda funny 'bout tryin ta save people. Never quite figgered out why."
"Because he can," Torhle said softly, after a moment. "Because others can't, and he can."
Lanthus turned to regard him, then nodded once. "Yah, y'may have a point there," he acknowledged.
In a few minutes Naefindan rejoined them, dropping down from above and landing in a slight crouch before straightening. "Can't hear it over the wind, but I can see cannon fire. They've found their prey."
Lanthus nodded. "Ours are loaded and waiting, Cap'n."
"I'm going to bring us up alongside them," Naefindan told him tersely. "We attack as soon as the ship is stopped."
"Right. Be careful, Nae."
"You too, Lan." Naefindan looked at Torhle, smiling tensely. "Guess this is the ultimate test. Regretting coming aboard yet?" he asked.
Torhle forced a smile past his anxiety. "Not a bit. It'll just be like a big bar fight with weapons. Nothing to worry about."
That surprised a laugh from Naefindan, who tousled his hair once again. "Good answer. Come on, we're almost there."
He followed Naefindan to where the man yanked a rope free from the myriad that crossed the ship, grinning as he tugged on it. "Half the ropes in the rigging are of absolutely no use whatsoever in the sailing of this ship," Naefindan explained. "They're solely for me to swing on."
Torhle shook his head with a smile. "Has anyone ever told you you're insane?"
Naefindan grinned. "Daily. Brace yourself," he warned, then the ship slowed its forward momentum rather rapidly, bringing them up alongside two large ships that were engaged in a fierce fight. There were cannons firing and men engaged in swordplay on one of the ships, though the defendants were looking considerably overwhelmed.
"Here we go," Naefindan said, hooking his arm around Torhle's waist and swinging them both over to the large merchant ship. Both selected an opponent before their feet even touched the planks, swords drawn in an instant.
It was nothing like a bar fight. The pirates, for the most part, knew exactly what they were doing with their weapons, and they were not drunk. However, the fact that they weren't drunk made their movements considerably easier to predict, as a drunk man often had the ability to surprise you in a fight by doing something completely illogical.
No, the biggest problem with the pirates was not their skill, it was how many there were and the fact that they appeared to be accustomed to working in teams. That was tricky. Fortunately the crew of the Azure had experience in thwarting pirates and one by one the pirate crew began to fall to the deck.
Really, it was pure stupidity on his part when he suddenly realized that there was someone behind him that was not an ally. Torhle cried out in surprise and pain as a blade slashed across his right thigh, barely bringing his own up in time to prevent more serious damage. Still, it burned fiercely and he staggered for a moment as the leg protested his weight.
Before he quite knew what was happening the pirate slashed out at him again and when he took a step back there was wood, then nothing. He dimly heard a voice cry out his name before hitting the water and going under.
Knowing how to swim and trying to do so when one leg just didn't want to work properly were two entirely different things, Torhle realized to his growing fear and dismay as his lungs began to burn with the need for air. His clothes were weighting him down, catching on the water, making it hard to move, hard to do anything.
He had a brief, irrational thought that perhaps this was why Nae dressed the way he did, then there was a shape in the water next to him. It looked rather like Naefindan, except for the part beneath the sarong that looked like a fish's tail. Or something like that. He kept trying to black out from the lack of air.
Then suddenly there were strong arms around him, hauling him upwards, and air at last. Torhle heaved in gulps of the sweet stuff, trying to ease the burn in his lungs that had for a the moment eclipsed the burn of the salt water on his wounded leg. The slowly-dying storm had made the water choppy enough that he got a mouthful of seawater more than once and nearly choked.
A rope splashed down into the water nearby and an arm that did not belong to him grabbed hold of it, then he was flying through the air, hands were on him, voices speaking all at once. It was annoying. He tried to bat them away and someone caught his wrists.
"Hold still," a voice ordered, and he recognized it as Naefindan's. He sounded... worried.
Torhle obeyed, holding still, simply savoring the sweet taste of air. Someone was touching his leg and it hurt but his vision was blurring and he thought he heard Naefindan say something else before everything went dark.
He awoke in a luxuriously soft bed to a dull ache in his leg and an unfamiliar smell in the air. Gingerly he sat up, looking around the large cabin at the exotic furnishings, slowly coming to the realization that this could only be the Captain's cabin. Naefindan's cabin.
Sure enough, when he twisted to look the other direction he spied the row of bluegreen colored-glass windows that Lanthus liked to tease Naefindan about. Torhle could see why. They had to have cost a small fortune.
Not that anything in the room was any less expensive. If the men who'd retired from the Azure had been merely reasonably wealthy, the amount of jewels and precious artifacts in Naefindan's cabin would have made a king drool.
A sound drew Torhle's attention away from the decor and he looked up in time to see the cabin door open and Naefindan enter. The Captain brightened considerably upon seeing him watching and hurried over to sit on the bed next to him.
"You're awake," Naefindan greeted, looking him over carefully. "How do you feel?"
"My leg is sore, but otherwise fine," Torhle replied, testing various parts to make sure everything was working properly. "How long was I out?"
"About three days," Naefindan replied, looking somewhat chagrined. "I gave you something to speed the healing, but it also knocked you out for a while..."
"The pirates? The merchant vessel?" Torhle persisted, even as his mind tried to come up with anything that would knock a man unconscious to heal him and came up blank.
"The pirates have been handed over to the authorities and the Captain of the merchant ship most generously rewarded our assistance," Naefindan answered. "With the exception of you and your rather spectacular plunge overboard, only minor casualties amongst the crew."
Torhle raised an eyebrow. "Generously rewarded? Who tried to note that in the books, you or Lanthus, and how bad am I going to cringe when I see it?"
Naefindan laughed. "I did, and aside from my penmanship there should be not a single thing in there for you to cringe over."
"So you say," Torhle teased, shifting his leg as a test and blinking when it didn't produce as much pain as he was anticipating. He lifted the bed coverings and peered underneath at the bandage wrapped around the injured leg. "Huh... I could have sworn that cut a lot deeper..." He frowned as bits of memory resurfaced. "It did cut deeper. A lot deeper. I've only been out three days?"
Beside him, Naefindan squirmed on the bed. "I told you, I gave you something to speed the healing."
"Nae, it would take a healer of the second order or above to do that in as short a time, and I know there isn't one among the crew, nor do I think a simple merchant ship could afford to keep one aboard. As for some sort of concoction, it simply doesn't exist."
Naefindan sighed, reaching out to halfheartedly tousle his hair. "It does," he argued softly, "It's just extremely rare and hard to come by. I always keep a vial or two on the Azure just for reasons like this. If I hadn't had it, there was a very good chance you could have lost that leg."
Torhle eyed him for a long moment, then leaned back and rolled his eyes. "I suppose that really shouldn't surprise me, this being the legendary Azure and all, but nothing remotely like that is on the list of what the ship carries." He paused. "Neither is anything in this room, for that matter."
A faint smile touched Naefindan's lips. "No," he agreed, "My personal belongings are not listed."
"And a magical healing draught is a personal belonging?"
"Administered improperly, it can be fatal," Naefindan told him quietly, looking far too serious for the normally lighthearted man. "I will not take that risk."
Torhle nodded. "Fair enough." He hesitated, eyes going to patterned sarong the man was wearing, a sudden suspicion upon his lips, fueled by a vague, half-remembered memory.
"You went in after me, didn't you? Brought me back to the ship."
Naefindan nodded. "Yes. I saw you go over. I followed you in as soon as I could clear a path to the rail."
"Then..." Torhle frowned in thought, closing his eyes briefly to summon up the brief, hazy glimpse he'd gotten. Had he really seen what he thought he had? "When I was under, I saw... well, I saw you, but it wasn't quite you..."
The blond man's face froze, both fear and pain in his eyes before his expression went carefully blank. "I... what did you think you saw?" he asked finally, cautiously, as though fearing the answer he got.
Torhle hesitated, going over countless odd things he'd noticed about the man during his time on the ship, things that he hadn't ever been able to explain. Until now. "You're not human, are you?" he said at last. "You're one of Lanthus's mer-folk, or something like that."
Naefindan stood suddenly, turning away and going to the row of windows. He looked out through the colored glass, tension in every line of his trim body. Torhle had never seen him look quite this way before; he didn't like it.
"Nae...?" he ventured.
"Yes," Naefindan said quietly, "I am. I left my home a long time ago to live abovewater. The Azure is my home now." He turned, abject misery in his face as he regarded Torhle. "Please don't take that from me..."
Torhle blinked. "What?" he asked stupidly, unable to formulate a better response.
Naefindan came closer, remaining just out of reach. "The people of the western isles fear my kind as they fear nothing else," he explained, still speaking with such pain that even when his wound had been new Torhle's seemed as nothing beside it. "I could not bear it if people were to fear me... Lanthus is of the western isles. He is... he has been my only real friend for many years. I do not want to lose that."
Suddenly everything made sense; Torhle blinked, then scowled. "Come here. I don't bite. And I'm not going to tell anyone a secret that isn't mine to tell, so you can quit worrying. I happen to like being on this ship, and it wouldn't be nearly the same experience without you swinging through the rigging in that ridiculous dress of yours. Though I suppose I can see now why you wear that."
Wide-eyed and looking considerably bewildered, Naefindan re-seated himself on his bed next to Torhle. "Sarong," he corrected absently, the first beginnings of a smile starting to resurface in his eyes. "And yes, I can't swim in pants. I've tried."
Torhle mirrored the smile, feeling both relieved and curious and something he couldn't quite name all at once. "I really didn't mean to spook you," he admitted, "I just wanted confirmation that I hadn't been hallucinating."
Naefindan smiled and shook his head. "No, you weren't hallucinating."
"So does it only work in water?" Torhle asked curiously. "Or does it work on land too?"
Naefindan laughed softly. "It works on land, but I can't stay that way for long above water because I can't breathe air in that form." He hesitated. "Did you want to see...?"
Torhle shook his head. "Later. In the water. Having had one intimate experience with not being able to breathe recently I am reluctant to inflict that particular torture upon anyone."
Again, Naefindan laughed, bluegreen eyes sparkling with much of their usual humor. Bluegreen. Azure. Torhle blinked as he realized that Naefindan's eyes were the same color as much of the Azure. The color of the sea in the shallow channels between close islands.
When you knew what to look for, there really was so much of the sea in him. It was in his eyes, in the way he moved, the way his hair rippled in a breeze like waves upon the water. Torhle wondered why he hadn't noticed sooner.
"I believe I had best get back above deck," Naefindan said reluctantly, rising, "Or Lanthus will come looking for me. You should rest and recover your strength."
Torhle arched a brow. "So how long am I going to be confined to bed, oh mighty Captain?" he inquired dryly.
"Until this Captain says otherwise," Naefindan announced, grinning. "Which should really only be a day or two, then you'll be back on your feet with nothing but an odd scar to show for your adventure."
Torhle mirrored the grin. "Just keep Lanthus away from my books until then."
They put into port about a week later at a small island Torhle had only barely heard of, partially to restock but mostly because Naefindan liked the water there. Torhle watched him dive in, smiling as the man vanished beneath the sea, then set about removing as much of his clothing as possible.
"Eh? What're you doing?" Lanthus asked, being one of the few people who hadn't opted to go ashore for some down time.
Torhle grinned. "Going swimming?"
Lanthus groaned. "Oh no, not you too. I swear y'all are touched in th' head."
"Probably," Torhle agreed, stripping down to his undershorts before diving in. They were far enough south that the water was pleasant, not too warm or cold, and the coral on the bottom made for fascinating patterns of color.
None of that, though, was what he was really interested. Torhle kicked along lazily, ending up back near the stern of the ship before a fleeting touch slid along the scar on his leg, vanishing moments before Naefindan surfaced.
Torhle grinned. "You keep checking on it. There's nothing to check on. It's fine now," he told the man. "It's not even stiff anymore."
Naefindan brushed the water out of his eyes and smirked. "I am the one with the medical knowledge. If I say it needs to be checked, I get to check it."
With a snort, Torhle splashed a bit of water his way. "Idiot."
Naefindan grinned. "Yes." He swam a lazy circle around Torhle, glancing up at the ship briefly before bringing the tail end of his fin up to flick water back at the dark-haired man.
"That is really incredible," Torhle told him, reaching out to run a hand lightly along the smooth scales before ducking under the water to get the full effect.
It was both Naefindan, and it wasn't. Nae's hair floated in the water around him like a pale cloud rather than cascading down his back in familiar waves. His face seemed narrower, slightly more angular, and his eyes were bigger. There weren't too many differences between neck and waist aside from what Torhle was fairly certain were gills on the sides of Naefindan's neck and torso, but just where the man's sarong began he could see part of a small, translucent fin and a scattering of scales. Emerging from beneath the hem of the fabric was the fish tail he'd seen before, glittering as the light refracted off the gleaming scales.
Torhle almost laughed as something occurred to him, surfacing to catch his breath before he accidentally swallowed water.
"It matches your eyes!" he managed, after recovering from the bout of laughter. "Both your tail and the ship match your eyes! Did you do that on purpose?"
Naefindan smiled sheepishly. "Maybe a little..." he admitted. "The ship anyway. The rest... is just me."
"It's a pretty color," Torhle told him, shifting closer so he could get a better look at the row of gills on Naefindan's neck. Obligingly Naefindan held his hair back out of the way and Torhle blinked.
"Your hands are webbed too," he observed.
"It is easier to swim that way, yes," Naefindan laughed.
"I'm glad I'm not a westerner," Torhle announced, prodding curiously at the double points of Naefindan's ear that he could see poking out from beneath dripping strands of hair.
Naefindan smiled, somewhat shyly. "I'm glad you're not a westerner as well, Torhle."
They contemplated one another for several moments before a faint flush began to slowly spread across Torhle's cheeks. He drew in a deep breath.
"I have to ask a really important question," he began. "When you were teasing Lanthus and me about the sarong and your bits... do you... that is, your... bits... are they..."
Naefindan laughed, shoulders shaking in his mirth. "Pretty much identical to yours, I would imagine," he managed between chuckles. "They only change when I'm in this shape."
Torhle smiled sheepishly, swimming a bit closer. "Oh good," he said. "I was a little worried..."
Reaching out, he tucked one hand behind Naefindan's head and the other around his waist, pulling the blond close before tipping his head to capture those enticing lips. There was a brief moment in which he could feel Naefindan's surprise, then he was being kissed back enthusiastically, hands tracing across his skin as something he was fairly certain was Naefindan's tail curved around his legs.
They broke apart, both flushed, and Torhle jerked a head toward the ship. "You done swimming?" he asked breathlessly.
Naefindan smiled. "Oh yes," he breathed.