The ship heaved in the choppy, storm-tossed waters, forcing the men on her to cling to whatever was nearest rather than risk being pitched overboard. The rain was coming down so hard that Lanthus could barely manage to see through it to where the lanterns flickered weakly in the thick midnight gloom. He was almost ready to go wake Naefindan up, regardless of the 'do not disturb' order the Captain had left, when there was a rough shout from the sailor aloft playing lookout.
"Ship ahead! Going down!"
Swearing profusely beneath his breath, Lan gripped the wheel tighter and tried to turn the uncooperative helm. If they were where he thought they were, a downed ship was most likely the result of the numerous rocky shoals in the area. Hazardous on a good day, downright dangerous at night, and suicidal when you added a storm on top of that.
"S'mbody get Nae!" Lanthus roared at the top of his lungs. He'd go fetch the man himself, but he knew perfectly well he was the only man on board capable of keeping the rudder steady when the sea was determined to rip it out of his hands.
He fought with it for several more minutes, then he felt the easing of the rain and the waves that let him know Captain Naefindan was awake and on deck. Squashing his immediate feeling of relief, he instead filled his lungs and hollered, "Nae, ye bleedin' prick! O'course yer gonna want to take a nice nap in th' middle've a storm!"
A few moments later Naefindan appeared beside him on the poop deck, looking somewhat sleepy and disheveled. The rain had plastered both his hair and the ridiculous sarong that he wore to his skin, though he didn't seem to mind.
"Huh... g'mornin, Lan," Nae yawned. "Figures when I want to spend a little private time with Torhle a storm will come up..."
Lanthus snorted. "Th' weather's a fickle mistress. Lookout spotted a ship goin' down. Can ya feel it?"
Naefindan blinked up at him, then looked out over the bow of the ship into the blackness of the night beyond. His eyes were vaguely unfocused in the manner that Lan had come to associate with Nae working water magic. A few moments later he frowned.
"Yes and no... It doesn't feel right," Naefindan replied slowly. "Veer slightly to port and we'll come up on it."
Now that Naefindan had calmed the seas, Lanthus had no trouble getting the wheel to obey him. He did as requested, veering just slightly to the left and watching through the lessening rain for any sign of the vessel. She had to have been listing fairly badly for the lookout to have seen her through the downpour. There was a fairly good possibility that she'd already gone under.
"There," Nae said suddenly. "Don't get too close. There are shoals about a hundred yards off. I'm going to see if there are any survivors."
Lan blinked. "In th' dark?"
Naefindan grinned. "Why not?" he asked. "If Torhle braves the deck, let him know I've gone overboard. I'll be back in a few."
"Yer crazy," Lanthus muttered as Naefindan hopped over the rail down to the main deck and darted across it, climbing the stairs to the forecastle and diving from the bowsprit. He couldn't deny his Captain's skill, though it sometimes made him uneasy. No man should be that enthusiastic about swimming around the wreckage of a ship in the middle of the night, even if he could coerce the sea into doing his bidding.
Still, there were no small number of men and women who owed their lives to Naefindan's complete lack of fear. No other ship that Lanthus had served on would go to the lengths that Nae did to rescue and protect others. The first few times he'd seen it he'd been completely bewildered by this man, wealthy, beautiful, in complete command of his own ship, who would risk his life to go to the aid of others.
Now, he couldn't imagine life any differently. He'd had enough wealth accumulated over his years of service onboard the Azure to have purchased his own ship, but instead he stayed. While he couldn't dive in after refugees, he could aid Nae in other ways. Being onboard the Azure made him feel like his life was worth something.
Lanthus jerked out of his thoughts, hollering orders at the crew. In moments a rope was thrown overboard and three men hauled it back up again. They all knew what Naefindan's call had meant. He'd found a survivor.
He handed the helm off and thundered down the stairs to the main deck, grabbing blankets as he went. Naefindan might not notice how cold the seas got in winter, but a castaway would. Especially this far into the northwestern sea.
Men got out of his way as he ruthlessly used his size to his advantage, shoving aside whoever didn't notice him and kneeling next to the very still figure lying on the deck. Naefindan was frowning in concern, hands touching the side of the young man's face.
"Not good," he pronounced, looking up to meet Lan's gaze, the concern obvious in his eyes. "He'd already gone under by the time I found him, so there's water in his lungs. I can't... I don't want to..."
Lanthus nodded once. He knew. While Naefindan could control vast amounts of water at once, trying to coax water out of human lungs was infinitely more difficult. The slightest mishap and the man would die. Lan, however, had his own methods.
Crude, perhaps, to shove so upon a man's chest, intimate to share your breath with another, but many times had such odd things saved lives. The old sailor who'd taught him had warned him that the sea did not easily give up her conquests, and other men often looked askance at what they did, but determination often made the difference between life and death.
Abruptly the young man coughed, his head turning to the side as he heaved up seawater all over the deck. When the retching ceased he began to shiver and Lan wrapped two of the blankets around his slender shoulders, scooping him up into his arms and heading for the stairs that led down belowdeck to where his quarters were situated. He had the second-best quarters on the ship; hopefully their young castaway would live to appreciate them.
Behind him he heard Nae giving orders. He made a brief mental note to apologize to Torhle later, but emergencies had a way of arising at the least opportune times.
Lan laid the boy down carefully, stripping off the wet blankets and hauling out new ones to cover him with. He seemed far too thin to be a sailor, even Naefindan wasn't so willowy as this. Perhaps a merchant's son? With the ship gone to the depths of the sea they had no way of telling for certain until the boy awoke.
He would wake. Lan would make certain of it. He would not allow himself to sleep until he was certain that their young refugee was out of danger.
Riven woke disoriented. His eyes felt crusty and his throat was dry, but the bed he was lying on was more comfortable than he'd been accustomed to on the ship. The room he was in, once he managed to get his eyes cracked open, proved to be small and dimly lit, though richly furnished. Whoever it belonged to had both money and taste.
Which meant he couldn't possibly still be on the Flying Star. None of the sailors of that ship would have known good taste if it had hit them with a fish. Therefore, he was somewhere else. Another ship, to judge by the size of the room and the way everything slowly rocked back and forth if he thought about it a moment.
The last thing he remembered was being rudely awakened in the middle of the night and being dragged on deck. After that everything had gotten chaotic - men screaming, wood breaking, rain pounding down relentlessly and making everything slick. He wasn't entirely certain, but he rather wondered if he hadn't fallen overboard when the ship heaved. He did remember a lot of water...
Sitting up slightly, Riven blinked to discover he wasn't alone in the small room. One of the largest men he'd ever seen was slumped forward in a sturdy chair with his head and arms resting on the blanket at the foot of the bed. Upon further inspection Riven decided that it was probably his bed, given that it was far longer than any sailor's bunk he'd ever seen before.
He couldn't see the man's face due to the long black unruly curls that were in the way, but he was dressed in bright, mostly clashing colors and Riven could see hints of what appeared to be scars on what skin was visible. He swallowed slightly. A pirate? He looked like a pirate, and he had an affluence of tangible wealth, but he wouldn't have expected pirates to have rescued a man from the sea.
Unless somehow they'd known who he was...
The mountain of a man made a muffled noise and stirred, sitting up slowly and rubbing a hand over his face before turning toward Riven. He blinked in surprise when he saw Riven looking back at him, reaching out to place a warm palm to Riven's forehead.
"How d'ya feel?" the man asked.
Riven blinked. "Um, well enough, I think. Thank you for rescuing me... or at least I assume you rescued me since this isn't the ship I was on. What ship am I on now anyway?" he asked.
The big man laughed quietly. "Yer on the Azure. I'm Lanthus, First Mate on th' Azure. Captain's name is Naefindan, and I'm sure ya'll be meeting him as soon as ye feel up to walking."
Riven considered. The Azure. He knew that name. That ship was regarded quite highly amongst the sailors he'd spoken with. Not a pirate ship, then, regardless of what its First Mate looked like.
"You have my thanks, then, Lanthus of the Azure," Riven said cordially. "I am Riven of Arienn. I was sailing on the Flying Star..."
Lanthus's dark eyes widened slightly. "Arienn? I hadn't realized we'd sailed tha' far west..."
Riven chuckled softly. "You haven't. I was on Roae and sailing home when... something happened. I'm not sure." He shook his head slowly, sandy blond hair falling in front of his eyes. "It was night, and there was a storm... there was a lot of yelling and then... I don't remember. I think I may have fallen overboard."
Lanthus nodded slowly. "We spotted wha' was left of yer ship sinking into the sea. Nae dove in and fished ya out, but he didn' find any other survivors."
"Oh." Riven blinked. "Perhaps I should thank him as well."
Lanthus laughed. "Aye, when ye feel up t' it. Cap'n won't expect ya on deck till yer feeling up ta it."
"Captain?" Riven was starting to feel a little lost. Surely Lanthus hadn't meant...
The big man laughed, highly amused at Riven's expression. "Cap'n Naefindan, Nae fer those of us who don' wanna deal with th' whole thing. Never known a man so in love with th' water before. Yer lucky, really. Nae's th' only man alive who'd go into th' sea at night t' search for survivors."
"Your Captain is..." Riven searched for the appropriate words, but Lanthus beat him to it.
"Fuckin' crazy? Yah, I know." Lanthus grinned. "Still, we put up with 'im. An' ye owe yer life to 'im. So 'e can't be all that bad, crazy or no."
Riven smiled. "I think I was going to say 'interesting' but..." He pushed off the blankets, pulling his legs free and placing his bare feet on the hard wooden floor. Lanthus sat up in alarm as Riven got slowly to his feet, rising from his chair and reaching out to place a steadying hand on Riven's shoulder.
"Dunno if ye should be outta bed yet," Lanthus said, frowning in concern.
"I'm okay, I think," Riven replied slowly, testing his legs and getting a feel for the ship. That was much harder than simply staying upright, as he wasn't a sailor for whom the constant rocking motion was normal and comfortable. It had taken him close to a week to get accustomed to the Flying Star, but the Azure wasn't proving nearly so difficult. It was almost... soothing, in a way, the feel of this ship.
He managed to get about two steps before realizing that Lanthus was completely blocking his path to the door. He could probably have squeezed by a smaller man, but not one Lanthus's size. Only once or twice in his life had he seen men so big. He felt fairly confident that Lanthus was most likely from the same island as those men had been, though none of them had been sailors. Sailors were normally short men, not... mountains.
Lanthus eyed him carefully, one dark brow slightly arched. "Got'cher sea legs already?" he asked, sounding almost teasing, though it was a little hard to tell.
"This ship is... easier than the Star." Riven shrugged. "And I really shouldn't be occupying your bed if capable of walking on my own..."
"Psh." Lanthus snorted. "I barely use it. But if'n ya want, ye kin go up on deck." He opened the door, stepping aside as far as his size and the confines of the room would allow.
Riven walked carefully to the door, somewhat disconcerted as he passed Lanthus. The man seemed even bigger up close; Riven would have to tip his head back quite a distance to meet the man's eyes at this range. He'd always been short. Next to Lanthus he felt positively tiny.
Outside the room was a short hallway with two other doors and a set of stairs leading up. He ascended them cautiously, mindful of both the rocking of the ship and the presence of Lanthus following behind him. The hatch moved without protest and Riven found himself blinking into the afternoon sun.
It took his eyes a moment to adjust from the dim interior lighting to the brilliance of sunlight. When he could see again Lanthus was a short distance away and the hatch was closed. The big man was looking up into the rigging, one hand shaded against the sun.
"Oi! Nae!" he shouted, voice booming in the open air. "Git yer ass down 'ere!"
In the time it took him to wonder why Lanthus was yelling into the rigging for someone who was apparently the Captain, a trim figure leapt from the mainmast to the mizzenmast, sliding down the mizzensail before grabbing a rope and swinging down to land gracefully on the deck next to them.
Riven stared. Lanthus snorted. "Show off," he muttered.
The acrobatic man was barely an inch taller than Riven, if that, but the similarities ended there. Whereas Riven's own hair was sort of a sandy color, this man's was a bright gold and fell in soft waves to his waist. Where Riven was slender and willowy this man, while still slim, had the muscle to suggest he could take care of himself.
His eyes, however, stood out the most. They were the same brilliant blue-green as the sea at its shallowest points and were currently regarding him in equal parts amusement and curiosity.
He was also wearing a skirt.
"So, back from the dead, are you?" the blond man asked, his voice lilting and musical with the slightest accent that Riven couldn't identify. "Welcome aboard the Azure, my waterlogged friend."
Lanthus snorted. "'is name's Riven, 'e's from Arienn, an th' ship that went down was th' Flying Star." He glanced at Riven and grimaced. "This's Captain Naefindan, yes I'm sure, and no, I have no stormin' idea why 'e insists on wearin' a dress."
Naefindan sniffed. "Sarong, Lan, sarong," he corrected before beaming cheerfully at Riven. "Arienn, hmm? You're a long way from home, my friend. Pleasure voyage?"
Riven smiled faintly even as he found himself wondering if he was still dreaming. "Sort of," he replied. "I was on my way home when the Star went down. Thank you for saving my life."
Naefindan laughed, a rich and dizzying sound that made Riven's head spin for no reason he could discern. "I'm sure Lan told you I fish wet folks out of the water all the time. No thanks needed, but I would appreciate some suggestions on what to do with you. Arienn is quite a distance out of our way..."
"Yah," Lanthus mused slowly, rubbing his chin where dark stubble could be seen. "Arienn's 'bout the last real island b'fore ya get out into th' western expanse."
Riven fidgeted, slightly discomfited. "I don't want to cause any trouble. You can set me down wherever you like, really..."
"You have no money, no supplies, and no way of getting home," Naefindan pointed out logically. "Just dropping you off on a convenient island would be rather rude. So as long as Lan doesn't object, I suppose we could detour to take you home."
Riven blinked and looked at the mountain next to him. "So long as Lan doesn't object?"
Lanthus snorted. "I'm fine, ye bottom fish. They wouldn' dare come after th' Azure."
"Let us hope we never find out," Naefindan replied, his bright blue eyes shadowed for a moment before he suddenly brightened. "Oh! I should go tell Torhle! He's never been to the western islands before!" With a gleeful clap of his hands, the strange man bounced off aft, vanishing through a door.
Lanthus rolled his eyes. "Idiot," he muttered, rather good naturedly Riven thought.
"Ah, Lanthus..." he asked hesitatingly.
Lanthus blinked at him. "Yeah?"
"Why did Captain Naefindan defer to you, and who wouldn't come after the Azure?" Riven asked.
Lanthus's gaze darkened slightly. "I grew up in th' western waters, an 'e knows it makes me uneasy to go back. I know ye won't believe me, but there are merfolk in the western expanse."
Riven tensed slightly. He should have realized it before, recognized Lanthus's accent at least. It had never occurred to him that the cadence was so familiar because Lanthus, like Riven, was from the western isles. Lanthus knew the legends. He wondered if Lanthus knew all the legends.
"Oh, I believe you," he said at last. "I believe you."
What was it about blonds, Lanthus wondered, that they had little to no regard for their own mortality. It was highly distracting to be attempting to keep the ship and crew running smoothly only to have to duck suddenly as Nae swung by overhead with Riven just behind him. Granted, it wasn't really Riven's fault. He'd tried to find ways to assist with the ship in 'payment' for his ride home. It really wasn't his fault that Naefindan had latched onto him.
Lan did have to admit that, aside from the hideous distraction they caused him, it was probably better in the long run. Riven had proven to be singularly unskilled in every single task Lan had been able to think of. He hadn't realized a person could know absolutely nothing of use and still be alive, but apparently Riven was the exception. All he really had going for him was a grace and agility that almost rivaled Naefindan's, thus why the two were currently flying around the rigging learning the finer points of ship sail maintenance.
Men were not meant to fly, Lanthus had decided long ago. Men were meant to keep their feet firmly on the ground, not fly through the air or swim with the fish. That Nae and Riven didn't seem to understand this was obviously a failing in blonds, as the dark-haired Torhle showed no inclination to climb aloft and attempt to break his neck.
He did go swimming, though, so he couldn't be too sensible. Maybe one of his parents had been blond.
Lanthus turned to see that Torhle had emerged from his office, navy blue logbook in hand.
"There's a slight discrepancy in that last shipment," Torhle continued. "I'm wondering if-"
He broke off suddenly and ducked; Lan immediately followed suit. A moment later Naefindan performed a rather complicated midair twist, landing lightly on his feet next to them and smiling in complete beaming innocence.
"Good morning Lan, Torhle." Nae stole what was intended to be a brief kiss from Torhle, though by the time they broke apart, flushed and panting, it was anything but brief.
Lan snorted. "G' morning. Where's yer shad-"
There was a slight yelp overhead and Lan looked up just in time to see Riven miss the rope he'd been grabbing for. He lunged, managing to get his arms up just as Riven fell right into them. He still weighed so little that Lan barely noticed the extra weight, unlike Naefindan who, while equally slender, at least had some muscle to him.
"G' morning ta ye too," Lan said dryly.
"Um, good morning," Riven replied slowly, a little wide-eyed from his sudden fall. His hands were tightly clutching Lan's shirt, knuckles rather white.
"Now ya see why followin' the lunatic into th' rigging mebbie ain't th' best idea," Lanthus told him wryly as he set the young man back on his feet. Riven's fists stayed tangled in his shirt for several moments as he caught both his breath and his bearing, then slowly he stepped away.
"You may have a point," Riven admitted with a faint, whimsical smile. Lan rather enjoyed those smiles. They were never quite the same; a little quirk of the lips, the tilt of his head, a warm light in those pale eyes. Like seafoam, he thought. Pale green seafoam.
"So, who wants breakfast?" Naefindan asked suddenly, draping an arm over each of their shoulders and grinning brightly. "We can either see what Cook's managed to burn or scare up a nice fish or an eel..."
Lanthus made a face. "Ya always think Cook overcooks yer food. Why did ye hire him if ya don' like what 'e makes?"
Nae blinked, then laughed. "Because everyone else does. I can live with making my own food."
Lan snorted. "Sometimes I'm surprised ya don' eat yer food raw like those crazy easterners."
Torhle rolled his eyes and hooked an arm through Riven's. "Come on," he said cheerfully. "They can argue for hours, and I don't know about you but I'm hungry."
As predicted, it was almost twenty minutes later before Lanthus and Naefindan realized they'd left.
Riven felt vaguely sick. They'd been able to see the spires of Arienn for over an hour, and the mountains for several more before that. He'd been enjoying himself on the Azure, far more than he had on the Flying Star or even back on Roae. There was a sort of easy camaraderie on this ship that he'd never encountered before. Even the near-constant arguments that Lanthus and Captain Naefindan got into were more good-natured than anything real.
Now the voyage was almost over and Riven found himself wishing that the Azure hadn't made such good time. Lanthus said she was the fastest ship in the seas. While Riven couldn't verify the claim, he did acknowledge that they were coming into Arienn several days earlier than the Flying Star's Captain had estimated.
He didn't want to be home. He wanted to be back on Roae before his father's messenger had arrived and his whole world had fallen to pieces. For a while he'd thought he had escaped. Then the rumors had begun. He'd known then that it was only a matter of time, but seeing his father's seal had still brought everything home for him.
When the Star had gone down he'd entertained the brief fantasy that perhaps fate had seen fit to spare him after all. Instead he'd been rescued from the sea and the fates had cruelly shown him a place where he might have been able to be happy.
The spires of Arienn mocked him with their glittering beauty. When he'd first heard the legend he hadn't believed. Surely something so beautiful couldn't hide a secret so terrible. Yet now when he gazed upon them he imagined he saw them coated in blood.
Heavy booted footsteps approached, stopping just behind him. A moment later Lanthus's rich, velvety voice spoke up, sending shivers down Riven's spine.
"Glad t'be home?"
Riven grimaced, carefully twisting his expression into at least a facsimile of a smile before turning around to face the Azure's First Mate.
"Not really," he answered honestly, not wanting to lie to Lanthus. "I was fairly happy on Roae, but..." Riven shrugged. "Father wanted me home."
Lanthus frowned, scarred face creasing slightly. "Ye don' get a choice?"
Riven chuckled faintly. "One does not say no to my father. It's okay, really. I was kind of expecting it."
Lanthus's face creased further as he thought, the scars even more prominent than they were normally. Riven wondered sometimes how he'd gotten them, but the big man was very reticent when it came to his past.
"I don' think that's right," Lanthus said finally, "But ain't my place t' speak. Even Nae doesn' get involved in family issues. Fer what it's worth, I hope yer happy anyway, Riven."
What was it about the way Lanthus said his name that made him want to melt? He had to be a good ten years Riven's senior, though age was always tricky to tell with sailors, and then there were those scars. They didn't look bad, not to Riven's eye, but they did emphasize how very different Lanthus's life must have been from Riven's. Most sailors had at least one or two. Lanthus had a small army of them.
"I hope so too," Riven said finally, turning back to stare at the spires as the ship moved slowly into port. "And I have enjoyed my time on the Azure, despite falling out of the rigging." He flushed slightly. Lucky for him Lanthus had been there to catch him, though abruptly finding himself in the big man's arms was not exactly good for his peace of mind.
Captain Naefindan's voice rang out and men everywhere scrambled to perform the tasks necessary to bringing the ship in. Lanthus hesitated briefly to clasp a large, warm hand to his shoulder before turning to go fulfill his role in the organized chaos.
Riven wondered what it would be like to stay on the Azure. To be a part of that world. Perhaps, if the fates would see fit to just once smile upon him, to get a certain taciturn First Mate to look at him a little differently. Dreams, for sure, but dreams were all he had now. Soon enough he'd be home and his father would confirm what he'd always suspected. The legends would be more than just legends, for him.
He turned away from the rail, gaze instead seeking out the towering form of the Azure's First Mate. Lanthus was far more interesting to look at than the city where he'd been born. A massive figure of powerful muscle and multi-hued fabrics that were almost dizzying to the eye. Captain Naefindan had teased Lanthus more than once during Riven's voyage about his clashing choice of colors, usually initiating yet another fight, but the longer Riven spent onboard the Azure the less he could picture Lanthus in anything else.
Even if it did make him look like a pirate.
The ship shuddered slightly, snapping Riven out of his Lanthus-contemplation to realize that they'd stopped. He drew away from the edge so that the crew could throw down the gangplank, smiling faintly as both Lanthus and Captain Naefindan arrived to see him off. A moment later Torhle appeared as well, a small ink stain under one cheek and on three of his fingers. Riven stifled a laugh.
"Well, home sweet home and all that," Naefindan said cheerfully, slinging one arm over Riven's shoulders and the other over Torhle's, steering them both down the ramp. "Welcome to Arienn, shining beacon of the west. Last inhabited island before reaching the great western expanse. Sometimes called the Jewel of the West."
"And I'm sure they have wonderful shopping," Torhle said dryly, "Or you wouldn't be going ashore."
Naefindan grinned. "Of course!" He stopped a moment, turning his head to call back to the ship, "Come on, Lan, you're coming with us. I left orders that you're to be thrown overboard if you don't come quietly, so may as well just grumble and give in."
There was a slight pause, then a string of rather colorful curses that steadily grew louder as Lanthus caught up with them. He cuffed Naefindan's head lightly before falling in on Riven's other side. "Yer a prick, Nae. An insufferable, arrogant, crazy prick," he grumbled.
"But that's what makes me so interesting!" Naefindan exclaimed cheerfully, releasing Riven's shoulders to throw himself at Torhle, arms wrapping around the dark-haired man's neck and draping down his back. "Right, Torhle?" he purred.
"Maybe," Torhle replied, bemused, "But if you try to put me in hair things again, I will have to take Lan's side."
Naefindan's arms slid lower, one snagging around Torhle's waist as he pouted. "But you look so nice with sparkles in your hair..."
Torhle punched him lightly in the arm.
"Hit 'im harder," Lanthus suggested, still somewhat sullen that he'd been forced to leave the ship. He laughed when Naefindan squawked as Torhle did as requested, shoulders shaking in merriment.
Riven knew he was going to miss this. He and his brothers had never gotten along even half as well as the Azure's crew. Soon enough he'd be home, for however long they allowed him, and then...
Naefindan had turned them toward the market, talking animatedly about the things he was hoping to find, when they were spotted. First one guard, then the other looked their way, pointing before hurrying over. Riven sighed. So much for the shopping trip.
"Your Highness," the first guard said, saluting. "We were not expecting you so soon."
Around him, Riven registered the varying degrees of surprise from his companions. He sighed quietly. "Yes, I made good time," he acknowledged quietly. "The Azure is a swift vessel."
The two guards exchanged brief, puzzled glances. "The Azure, Highness?" one asked. "We were told you would be arriving on the Flying Star."
Riven stifled a grimace, instead only nodding politely as he'd been raised. "Yes, the Flying Star suffered an accident at sea and went down. The crew of the Azure came to my rescue and graciously offered to transport me home." He gestured to Naefindan, whose lips were quirking up in a semblance of his usual demented smile. "Captain Naefindan, of the Azure, with his First Mate and Supercargo," Riven introduced, admirably resisting the impulse to tack on, "Don't mind the skirt."
Both guards blinked in surprise, then bowed slightly to Naefindan. "Our thanks, Captain, for bringing our Prince home safely," the one said. "I'm certain the King would like to thank you in person, if you care to accompany us to the palace."
Naefindan considered for a moment, looking thoughtfully at Riven and rather mournfully at the marketplace, then a grin appeared lightning-quick. "Hmm, why not?" he quipped. It isn't every day that one gets to meet royalty and all. Is there food?"
Wincing, Lanthus clapped a hand over Naefindan's mouth. "Ignore that last part," he said with a sigh.
Riven smiled faintly at the utterly confounded expressions on the guards' faces. It made him want to laugh, although that most certainly would not be polite. Still, he'd get to keep the sailors around him a little bit longer, and imagining his father's reaction to the always-bizarre Naefindan brought something resembling a real smile to his face.
"I will see that food is prepared the way you like it, Captain Naefindan," Riven assured him, "And you may all have guest rooms at the palace if you wish..."
Naefindan laughed and grinned darkly. "I don't think that would be such a good idea, Highness. Lan would be crawling up the walls trying to escape back to the ship in a matter of minutes." He paused, then looked thoughtful. "I wonder why the word is Highness. I suppose Lowness wouldn't fit, but Highness makes me think you should be up in the sky or something. He who is up high or something. Does that make me a Highness too if I spend all my time in the rigging up above everyone else?"
Lanthus and Torhle exchanged patient, if long-suffering looks while Riven struggled desperately not to laugh.
"That I could not tell you," he managed at last, "But I imagine none of your crew would argue should you choose to call yourself Highness."
Naefindan grinned. "Probably not, but they would laugh," he pointed out cheerfully, slinging an arm over Riven and Torhle's shoulders again. "Well, come on then, lets go meet Daddy, get some food, and throw Lan in a fountain. You do have a fountain, right? Palaces should always have fountains."
Riven couldn't help the quiet chuckle this time. "Captain Naefindan, I will make certain we find you a fountain somewhere," he promised, if only to see Lanthus with all his clothing plastered to his powerful, well-muscled body.
Lanthus stared blankly at the water, dark blue-green in the shadow cast by the ship. They'd been docked in Arienn for almost a week, for no real reason that he could see. The Azure's reputation remained strong even here in an area they seldom frequented and already they'd been approached by numerous merchants looking to hire their services. Yet Naefindan had not accepted any of them, going out into the city every day instead and not returning to the ship until well after dark.
He wished he knew what Naefindan was looking for, but as usual the man preferred to keep his own council. Even Torhle seemed to be in the dark about it, having expressed frustration to Lan the day prior about how much Nae was gone. He wondered if Nae even knew what he was looking for, or if he was merely following one of those odd feelings he got from time to time.
It was insanely frustrating to be sitting idle with nothing to do. He could only order the ship cleaned and inspected from top to bottom so many times, and the Azure had always required less maintenance than other ships in the first place. He'd already rearranged his quarters twice, completely fruitlessly as he still saw the memory of a slender blond asleep in his bed every time he stepped through the door.
Madness, sheer madness. Lan wished desperately that he could lay the blame on Naefindan, for rubbing off on him or some such, but he knew this time Nae was innocent. It was another blond that captured his thoughts and drove him insane, a beautiful man with slow, shy smiles and eyes like seafoam in sunlight.
One that had to be a good ten or twelve years younger, and a prince besides. Of all the idiot things to do, falling for someone so completely out of his league had to top the list.
Lan gave into the impulse to thunk his head against the railing, sighing deeply as the dull pain faded almost immediately. Maybe if he hit it a little harder...
Movement to his right. Lan lifted his head, blinking as he found Naefindan staring back at him. It was mid-afternoon. Nae wouldn't be back on the ship so early if he hadn't found something. He straightened, causing Nae to have to tip his head back to continue to meet his gaze.
"Please don't hurt me," Naefindan said cheerfully, taking a careful two steps back to put him out of fist range.
Lan narrowed his eyes. "For what?" he asked, knowing full well that whatever it was that Naefindan had done, he wasn't going to like it.
"We have a commission," Nae hedged, fidgeting slightly and inching back a bit more. "It pays quite nicely."
"Nae..." Lanthus warned.
Nae grinned again, spreading his hands wide. "We're transporting someone to a certain location. All the other ships refused to go, so I kind of volunteered us."
Apparently it was worse than Lan had thought. He gritted his teeth slightly and put on his best Intimidating Glare. As usual, Naefindan didn't bat an eye. "Who are we transporting, and to where?" he growled.
Again Nae flashed that smile that got him both into and out of trouble, running a hand through his golden hair. "Well, the who should be arriving any minute, and as for the where... well... um..." He looked around quickly, taking a step to his left. "Somewhereaboutthreeweekssailwestinthewesternexpanse."
Before Lan had entirely translated, Naefindan had darted over to the nearest man ropes and vanished into the rigging. When he finally figured out what Nae had said he roared at the top of his lungs and grabbed onto the ropes, hauling himself up with considerably more speed than most would believe his large frame capable of.
"NAE! When I get my hands on ya yer dead!" he bellowed.
Naefindan slid down a nearby rope from the main mast. "Ah, but my dearest Lan," he said cheerfully, "I didn't get to tell you the best part!"
Lan glared darkly. "An' what, exactly, woul' that be?"
In response, Nae pointed out over the side of the ship down to the docks where a group of about twenty people were approaching the Azure's gangplank. Foremost, flanked by two guards, was a very familiar sandy blond head. He felt his heart skip a beat. "What?"
Nae grinned gleefully. "Oh, didn't I tell you? He's the one we're transporting!"
There was a knife in his boot that was very tempting, but once again Naefindan was out of sight amongst the sails before Lan could get to it. He snarled and swore colorfully for several minutes before retracing his steps down the man ropes, returning to the deck just as Riven was stepping on board.
Riven smiled shyly as he spotted Lan. "Um, hello again..." He considered the expression on Lan's face, then smiled wryly. "I take it Captain Naefindan told you...?"
Lan sighed and wiped the scowl from his face, though he couldn't really manage much more than vaguely sullen. He'd never been all that good about masking his expressions. "Yah, he told me."
Riven ducked his head, running a hand through his hair and hopelessly tousling the sandy blond locks. "Um... sorry?"
This was not good. Lan was having a hard time staying in Riven's presence for a few minutes. Three weeks was going to be sheer torture.
"Yer not th' one who should be sorry," he muttered at last. "Nae's the bastard that's gonna get strangled when I catch 'im..."
Riven smiled faintly. "Don't be too mad at him. Father's asked every Captain in dock and all of them have refused. Captain Naefindan's the only one that said he'd do it."
Lan scowled. "Nae's the only one stupid enough t' willingly sail into th' expanse," he pointed out.
Riven considered, looking out into the distance at the sun as it slowly set into the western sea. "He's fearless... I don't think he's from one of the western islands, so he doesn't have the fear that we all share."
Lan frowned, scrubbing a hand through his dark curls as he thought. "I dunno where 'e's from. Could be from anywhere, but 'e doesn' put faith in any local superstitions."
Riven smiled. "See? Fearless. Must be nice not to be afraid of anything."
"Almost anything," Lan corrected. At Riven's questioning look, he grinned darkly. "The one thing Nae fears is a pissed-off Torhle."
Riven blinked, then laughed, long and hard.
Either Captain Naefindan suspected and Riven wasn't as good at keeping his thoughts to himself as he'd believed, or he had the absolute worst luck. Given how the rest of his life was going, Riven was going to go with the luck theory.
Naefindan had apologized not long after they'd set sail, explaining that their guest quarters had been holding extra cargo for several months and it would take a few days to get it all moved. In the meantime, Riven could sleep down in the crew quarters, though the Captain didn't recommend it, or he could just steal Lanthus's bunk as the First Mate seldom bothered to sleep anyway. Lan wouldn't mind.
Lanthus had tried to hit him, but Naefindan moved faster than any man Riven had ever met. Riven had attempted to squeak out that the crew quarters would be fine when Lanthus had all but ordered him to take the First Mate's quarters. Riven still wasn't quite sure what had happened, but the end result was he spent his nights in Lanthus's quarters while the big man stayed on deck long into the night.
It was sheer torture. Everything in the room reminded him of Lanthus, Riven could see his unique taste everywhere, and the bedding smelled like him. Having to try to force yourself to sleep when you were half hard had to be the most difficult thing in the world to do.
As a result, he hadn't been getting nearly as much sleep as he was accustomed to. He seemed to be constantly tired, and after he'd tripped on a coil of rope and nearly fallen down the stairs Captain Naefindan had forbidden him from going up into the rigging until he was more awake.
So instead Riven opted to investigate Torhle's office. As they weren't transporting any sort of merchandise on this voyage, the Azure's supercargo had little to do. Riven figured he wouldn't mind a little company, and as he'd seen Naefindan go aloft not long ago there was no chance that he'd interrupt anything.
Torhle's muffled acknowledgement came through the thick door and Riven opened the door, stepping inside. The dark-haired man seemed somewhat surprised to see him, but he smiled readily enough and waved him to a bench fastened to one wall.
"What brings you into brave my little closet office?" Torhle asked, closing whatever logbook he'd been looking at.
Riven returned the smile with a faint one of his own. "Captain Naefindan forbid me from the rigging and I'm kind of in the way on deck so..."
Torhle laughed. "So you're finding somewhere you can't get into any trouble. Understood. I could welcome the company, really. I've pretty much just been going over things I've already done, as it's a bit hard to play any sort of games with only one person."
"Games?" Riven queried, a little surprised.
Torhle laughed again, opening one of the lower drawers in his desk. "Yes, games. I've picked some of them up in ports, while others Nae gave me from his collection. We play sometimes when we get some time to ourselves, though we seldom make it all the way through a game without getting interrupted."
Riven smiled faintly. "I imagine the Captain is in very high demand."
"Yeah, he is." Torhle grinned ruefully. "Still, I'm lucky to have him at all. Nae's pretty special. Sometimes I wonder what he sees in me."
"Ask him?" Riven suggested.
Torhle chuckled as he spread out the tokens to a game Riven vaguely recognized across his desk. "I did. He told me he'd get back to me on that, as his brain was shutting down, but my lips were fairly impressive." He paused, then grinned. "I'd just kissed him, in case you were wondering."
Riven flushed. "Yes, well, so, there's one thing about you he likes. Apparently you kiss well."
"I do more than that well," Torhle told him, smirking, then howled with laughter as Riven's face flooded with heat. "Sorry, sorry," Torhle managed. "I think I've been on the Azure too long."
Struggling to look anywhere but at Torhle's face, Riven finally settled for folding his hands in his lap and staring fixedly at them. "It's a good ship, and good people," he said finally. "I'm glad I got to meet all of you."
Torhle's laughter faded as he regarded Riven for a long moment, gaze oddly intent when Riven risked a brief glance up.
"Riven..." he said slowly, "What exactly are you doing, traveling to some uninhabited island three weeks' sail into the western expanse? I thought all westerners were terrified to death of the supposed mer-folk that live out that way."
Riven felt the blood drain from his face and he clasped his hands tighter together as he struggled to come up with something, anything, to tell Torhle. He was a pathetic liar, but he couldn't tell the truth either.
"I... that is, my family... it's something I have to do, or... things will happen."
Torhle frowned, his chair creaking as he turned to fully face Riven. "Things will happen?" he asked, "What kind of things?"
Riven swallowed. "Just... things."
The chair creaked again, then Riven could hear footsteps, and Torhle was kneeling on the floor and tipping his face up so that their eyes met. "Riven," Torhle tried again, "What kind of things? What's going on?"
He tried to look away, but Torhle's grip stayed firm. "Riven..."
Riven winced, sighing quietly when it became obvious that Torhle wasn't going to relent. "The mer-folk," he said finally.
Torhle looked puzzled. "What about them?"
"The Flying Star... I don't think it was an accident that it went down," Riven admitted quietly. "In recent years they've been sinking more and more ships. The histories of my kingdom have records of such things happening before, and always one of the royal family goes out to meet with them and get them to cease their attacks."
Torhle frowned, but released his grip on Riven's chin. "What are you supposed to do?" he asked. "From what Lan's told me, they don't seem particularly friendly..."
Riven looked away again. Torhle didn't grab him, but he also didn't move from his place at Riven's feet.
"Riven..." Torhle said softly.
"I..." Riven drew in a deep breath. "There's a legend, on Arienn. Nobody remembers it now except for a few of us who have read the ancient histories in the royal library." He paused, breath shuddering, though Torhle didn't interrupt. "Ages ago the first kings of Arienn somehow enslaved the merfolk and forced them to build the palace and the spires that Arienn is famous for. Some of them died during the construction, and most of the rest were killed when it was complete. A few escaped into the sea."
Torhle looked rather pale, the rest of his color draining away as Riven added, "The histories surmise that the merfolk will never forgive us until either the blood spilled has been repaid in full, or the spires of Arienn fall."
"You..." Torhle's voice caught and he tried again. "You're not going to negotiate with them, you're a sacrifice..." he breathed.
Riven nodded slowly, miserably. "If I don't go, innocent people will die."
"But... you..." Torhle rocked back on his feet, blinking rapidly as he attempted to sort his thoughts. "There's got to be another way."
Riven shook his head slightly. "It's been tried, and it always ends the same."
Torhle frowned, rubbing his nose idly in thought. "I'm sure there's another way. There has to be." He stood swiftly, startling Riven. "I need to go talk to Nae," he announced.
Riven paled again. "It won't help... there's nothing that can be done..."
Torhle smiled grimly. "You'd be surprised what Naefindan can do when he puts his mind to it. If anyone can figure out how to spare both your life and your kingdom's, he can."
It made sense, in some twisted fashion, that when he finally fell for someone it would be for the worst possible person alive. Not only was Riven a beautiful prince a fraction of his age, but he was, apparently, supposed to die at the hands of the creatures the entire western sea feared.
Life, Lan decided bitterly, sucked. Particularly his. The last two weeks had been sheer torture after Torhle had quietly informed him and Naefindan as to the purpose of their journey. Lan had been all for turning around and vanishing into the eastern seas where Riven would be safe, but both Riven and Naefindan had objected to that plan.
Now Riven seldom left Lan's quarters, Nae had gotten oddly distant and quiet, and Torhle had locked himself in his office trying to come up with some other alternate solution to the problem they were rapidly approaching. Lanthus had had no choice but to throw himself into his work and try not to think about it.
Not thinking about it was a lot harder than it sounded. The entire crew was giving him a wide berth after he'd snapped at a number of them, and part of him felt guilty about taking out his frustrations on the people he'd come to call friends. A small part of him, however, felt somehow satisfied that at least he wasn't the only miserable one on this trip.
The ship shuddered suddenly, knocking Lan off-balance for a moment, though he managed to stay on his feet. It hadn't sounded like they'd run aground, and the sea was still deep blue as far as he could see, but they were unquestionably stopped.
Lan frowned. Had Nae stopped the ship for some reason?
The man in question swung down from the rigging, landing gracefully on the deck and walking purposefully to the starboard side, hands resting on the railing as he stared out into the water. A few moments later both Torhle and Riven emerged from their retreats, both looking around briefly before joining the Captain. Lan could hear voices, but they were speaking too quietly for him to make out the words.
Nae kissed Torhle fiercely, then dove off the side of the ship. Lan jerked, calling the nearest man to take over the helm for him and leaving him free to join the remaining two on the main deck.
"What's goin' on?" he asked as soon as he was within range.
Torhle frowned unhappily. "He's going to talk to them. See if he can't convince them to take some other payment."
"That idiot," Lan growled.
"It will never work." Riven clasped his hands together tightly enough that half his hands turned white. "They care nothing for us. Humans are naught but annoyances to them."
"I'll grant that they're angry," Torhle said quietly, "But perhaps things aren't as bad as you think. Nae will speak with them, and we'll just have to wait and see what hap-" He broke off, staring past Lan at the port side of the ship. Lan spun, eyes widening as he took in the sight of three men climbing over the rail.
All three were pale and slender, their hair varying shades of blond so pale as to be nearly white on one. They were soaking wet and completely nude, standing unsteadily on their legs as though not at all accustomed to them. One pointed at Lan and the other two and said something in a language he'd never heard before. The other two looked, then all three started across the deck.
Lan drew the knife from his boot, cursing beneath his breath as he was a good ten feet from the nearest weapons-cache. One of the other sailors attempted to grab at the merfolk from behind, getting flung halfway across the deck for his troubles as though he'd been nothing but a mere nuisance.
He swore again as he noticed two more merfolk climbing over the railing and bellowed loudly for all hands to arm themselves. A moment later the first of the merfolk reached him and Lan had his hands full trying to stay alive. The merfolk were much, much stronger than their slender builds and diminutive size would suggest, and they were just as fast and agile as Naefindan. He had the brief, idiotic thought that the only reason he wasn't bleeding yet was because he'd been sparring with Nae for almost ten years and he'd gotten used to opponents that moved almost faster than thought.
The hard part, though, was keeping the merfolk away from Torhle and Riven. He knew he'd failed in that task when he heard a voice cry out - Riven's, unmistakable - and a moment later came a loud splash from the water below.
Lan roared, shoving the two nearest merfolk roughly away before whirling and diving in after Riven. There was nothing remotely logical in the action. He was only a passable swimmer at best and everything he knew about fighting was designed around combat on land or a ship, but it was Riven and there were undoubtedly more merfolk in the water. Riven didn't stand a chance.
He hit the water harder than intended, going under for several moments before resurfacing for a deep breath. Riven was nowhere in sight, so he dove back under and looked around wildly, spotting at least four merfolk in his immediate vicinity and several more clustered around a struggling figure...
Kicking out hard at the nearest of the creatures, Lan swam the distance between himself and the cluster of bodies. He reached out and yanked two of them off of Riven, kicking a third and pulling Riven into his arms. His lungs were starting to burn with need for air but the scaled creatures around him were already drawing closer. He tried to kick up toward the surface but something latched onto his ankle, pulling him down.
Lan struggled, trying to kick at whatever had ahold of him, fruitlessly. His lungs burned with lack of air and his vision was starting to dim. Something tried to yank Riven out of his arms and it was all he could do to prevent it.
Then a crown of familiar gold hair appeared and the merfolk scattered. Nae grabbed onto Lan and Riven's wrists, sending them shooting upward with a few flicks of his powerful tail. In a moment Lan's head broke the surface of the water and he heaved in great gulps of precious air.
When at last he could breathe normally again, several things hit him all at once. First, that Nae had rescued them. Naefindan, with a sleek blue-green tail like a fish. Like the merfolk. That in itself was enough to send his head reeling, but the second thing he'd noticed was what sent him over the edge.
Riven had gills. Several rows of them on either side of his neck, tightly closed now that they were above the water. No tail, Lan could feel that much, but gills. He started to open his mouth to ask something, anything, when Nae's voice cut him off.
"Hold onto him, Lan, and hold your breath. I'm moving the water and you're about to go under again."
Lan obeyed automatically, too overwhelmed by his own thoughts to do anything else. The water surged up around them, lifting them in a rush of liquid. A few moments later his feet touched something solid and he braced himself as the water drained away, leaving him standing on the deck of the Azure with Riven still in his arms.
Naefindan hissed and Lan looked up in time to see the slender blond - with legs, now, not a tail - stalk across the deck and viciously punch one of the merfolk still onboard. The man went flying over the railing, landing in the water with a tremendous splash. Nae knelt down next to Torhle whose arm was bleeding from a long gash, ripping a length of fabric from his sarong and expertly binding the wound. Once that was done he helped Torhle shakily to his feet, then looked around at the remaining merfolk.
"How dare you..." Nae spat, holding Torhle close with fury in his normally-gentle azure eyes.
In varying degrees of haste the merfolk made odd gestures, looking almost... nervous. They chattered wildly in their odd language for a moment, then two crept forward slowly. "Apologies, aeziri," one said, voice thickly accented.
"We beg forgiveness, aeziri," the other added. "We only wanted-"
"I know what you wanted," Nae interrupted harshly, "And your silly feud has gone on long enough. How many more have to die before your thirst for revenge is slaked? Too much blood has been spilled already. Too many lives lost in the names of greed and vengeance. I will not allow this to continue any longer."
He paused, gaze flicking from the merfolk to Lanthus and back again, grip tightening ever so slightly on Torhle. He licked his lips and opened his mouth, but before he could speak again Riven started coughing and choking, his hands going up to touch his throat.
Lan jerked, looking down at the shaking figure in his arms. Riven had begun gasping, shuddering, clutching his throat like he couldn't breathe.
Couldn't breathe. The gills.
Distantly he heard Naefindan swear profusely, then abruptly the man had crossed the deck and torn Riven away from him, one hand wrapping around Riven's throat.
"What're ye doin?" Lan exclaimed, yanking Nae away from Riven. Naefindan fell heavily to the deck; Riven collapsed into Lan's arms, drawing in deep, shuddering gulps of air. The gills were gone.
"He couldn't breathe," Naefindan said, getting slowly to his feet. "No one ever taught him how to change properly... I didn't realize..."
"Realize what?" Lan snapped, holding Riven protectively close. Everything was so confusing. Riven had gills, then didn't. Naefindan had a tail and could apparently force Riven's gills to go away - had he made them appear in the first place?
It didn't help that Nae wouldn't quite meet his eyes. "Riven is a half-blood," he admitted quietly. "One of his parents was human. The other was..." He gestured helplessly at the watching merfolk. "If we're not taught how to shift between land and sea, we can drown just as easily as humans can."
As humans can. Nae was one of the merfolk. Riven was half merfolk.
"How.. how can you know that?" Lan asked hoarsely.
"Riven isn't the first half-blood I've seen," Nae told him quietly. "They're very rare, as my people rarely leave the seas and most harbor ill feelings toward land-dwellers. I would hazard that his mother tired of the ongoing feuding and went to land in an effort to end it." He smiled faintly, a mere shadow of his usual expression. "Given that Riven's father is the leader of the heart of the struggle, I am almost certain that was exactly her intentions. Create a child with the blood of both peoples, and perhaps they can be made to cease the bloodshed, if nothing else."
"I don't remember her," Riven spoke up quietly, leaning heavily on Lan's arm. "She died when I was born."
Naefindan nodded quietly, looking up briefly at Lan's face before returning back across the deck to sag wearily in Torhle's arms. He remained there several moments, eyes closed, before straightening and stepping forward to face the merfolk once again.
"Now what will you do?" he asked them. "The one whose blood you sought to spill carries our blood as well."
There were several looks exchanged amongst the gathered merfolk along with more of their fluid speech. One stepped forward this time, looking, in Lan's opinion, like a child that had just gotten scolded by its mother. "Aeziri, you more than any know the suffering of that terrible place. As long as the towers of the land-folk continue to mock us-"
"Then I will tear the towers down," Naefindan said firmly. "You will have no further reason to hate the land-folk for something that happened years ago."
Another brief, rapid conversation in the language of the merfolk, then a different representative stepped forward. "Aeziri," she asked hopefully, "You will return to us once the hated towers fall?"
Nae and Torhle both stiffened. "No," Naefindan replied flatly. "My home is abovewater now."
The mermaid looked startled. "You would live with these humans, aeziri?"
"My home is here," Nae repeated. "Above the waves. Return to the depths and take word of what has transpired here. We will return to Arienn and the spires will fall. Do not continue your attacks on the land-folk or you will answer to me."
The merfolk hesitated several long moments, then turned and dove off the edge of the ship, leaving only those onboard who belonged there.
"Aeziri?" Lan asked roughly once they were gone.
Naefindan paled, then flushed, looking studiously at his feet. He mumbled something that Lan couldn't hear; from the quizzical look on Torhle's face, he didn't think anyone had been able to hear.
"Wha' was that?"
Nae looked up briefly, then back down. "It's... somewhat complicated. We don't... Our society is constructed differently..." He winced slightly. "There are no equivalent translations."
Lan scowled. "S' gimmie somethin' general."
He'd never seen Naefindan looking so uncertain before. The man usually had enough confidence for seven men, going about life as though it were all one big adventure created solely for his amusement.
"It... part of it is my magic..." Nae said haltingly. "I'm... somewhat stronger than most of my people..." He fidgeted and Torhle came up behind him, wrapping his arms around Nae's waist. Naefindan leaned back slightly into the embrace, visibly calming himself. "The rest is a title, of sorts. Something like a prince, but without the blood connections that such a word implies."
Lanthus processed that for a moment, letting go of Riven so he could cross his arms and glare. "So yer some sort of authority figure or somethin?"
"Something like that," Naefindan agreed softly. "I tried to give it up when I left. Apparently I am not allowed to forget who I once was..."
Lan looked slowly around at the figures gathered, people he thought he'd known. He didn't know what to think. It was too much, all at once.
He scrubbed a hand through his wet hair, shaking his head. "I think... I think I need ta go think abou' things fer a while," he said finally, turning and making his way down into the ship to his quarters. He had a whole lot of things to think over, preferably with as few distractions as possible.
Riven had been watching the tall figure staring out over the bow of the ship for most of the morning. In all that time Lanthus hadn't moved once from his solitary vigil. The whole voyage back the man had behaved as one lost, struggling to come to terms with all that had been revealed to him. Everyone had left him alone as he seemed to want, for whatever good it had done.
It was more than frustrating. Riven knew Lanthus had gone in after him. He remembered the big man pulling him away from the merfolk that had been grabbing at him. Surely it meant something. The way Lan had held him so protectively on the ship, he'd almost thought...
But Lanthus had been avoiding both him and Captain Naefindan ever since the incredible revelations. Riven hadn't been able to fault him that, as he was still having difficulty believing it all himself. Captain Naefindan, one of the elusive merfolk. His mother...
He hadn't had any choice but to believe. Naefindan had been teaching him how to switch from breathing air to breathing water. They'd eventually decided that Riven's shift to water-breathing that day with the merfolk had been part desperation and part proximity to Naefindan, as Naefindan, being an aeziri, could force others to make the switch.
Now he more or less had it figured out for himself, which only left Lanthus to be dealt with. The only question was... how?
Drawing in a slow, steadying breath, Riven cautiously climbed the stairs to the forecastle and stepped quietly up next to Lanthus. The tall man didn't give any indication he'd noticed Riven's presence, though he was sure Lan knew. He was too good not to.
Several minutes later Lanthus finally turned to face him, dark eyes unreadable. He looked Riven over slowly, meeting his eyes for only a moment before looking back out over the sea ahead of them.
"How y' feelin?" Lan asked quietly, rubbing at his face.
"Confused. Overwhelmed." Riven shrugged slightly. "It's a lot to deal with when you grow up thinking you're completely human and then suddenly get told one day that you're not."
Lan turned slightly toward him, brow creasing faintly. "How... what're ye gonna do now?"
Riven smiled wistfully. "I don't know. I don't really want to go home, but I'm pretty much worthless at anything useful. I kind of like the idea of being on a ship, but..." He grinned ruefully. "I think we all saw just how bad of an idea that would be."
Lan chuckled softly. "Yeah," he agreed.
Riven hesitated, steeling his nerves. "You know," he said casually, "I don't think I'd be able to do what Captain Naefindan's done." At Lanthus's confused look, he elaborated. "Leaving behind the only world I'd ever known to go live amongst people who were completely different from mine... It'd be like me trying to go live with the merfolk. I'd be terrified."
A thoughtful frown settled over Lanthus's features. "Nae's always been untamable, doin' things just cause 'e hasn' done 'em before..." The frown deepened. "No... tha' ain't quite right..."
Riven waited, uncertain if he'd gotten through. Lan wasn't stupid, but fear made people do strange things sometimes.
"'e wasn' always like 'e is now," Lan said finally. "When I first met 'im... I 'member thinking 'e was runnin from something. I couldn' figger out how a man who owned 'is own ship couldn't get away from whatever was chasin 'im."
"Hard to run from the sea..." Riven murmured quietly.
Lanthus turned completely, staring out over the length of the ship to where a single slender figure stood with one hand resting lightly on the helm. He looked so confident, so fearless. Like the world had been created for him to play in. Then he noticed Lan looking and all the fire seemed to die as Naefindan shrank back, partially hiding behind the big wheel.
Riven laid a gentle hand on Lan's arm. "You told me once he was fearless, but I think what he fears the most is losing the people he cares about. That first voyage I spent on the Azure..." He shook his head faintly. "I didn't want to leave. You all were so close... more than friends, the Azure was like a family. I think I sort of envied it."
Lan blinked at him in surprise, looking down at Riven for a moment before looking back up and across the deck. "Yer right," he said finally, "Nae's closer t' me than any brother..." He smiled slightly, a hint of a grin in the way his lips tilted and those dark eyes crinkled. "Even if 'e is a fish," Lan added.
Laughing softly in relief, Riven returned the smile. "I think I'm glad I'm only half," he admitted. "I wouldn't have a clue what to do with scales and a tail."
Lan chuckled, massive shoulders shaking just a bit. He regarded Riven for several long moments, dark eyes thoughtful, then ventured, "Ya really mean what ye said 'bout wantin to stay?" he asked.
A brief flash of surprise rippled through Riven. "Yes," he said confidently, "Though I have no idea what I'd do. Growing up as a prince seems to leave one singularly unsuited for doing anything else."
Though he smiled slightly, Lanthus didn't laugh at Riven's self-disparaging comment. He seemed oddly nervous; not something Riven would have ever expected of the towering mountain of a man.
"I... ye wouldn' hafta be a sailor," Lan said haltingly. "That is... I wouldn' mind if ya kept usin... if ye stayed in my quarters..."
Riven stared at him for several moments, certain that his own hopes and dreams had somehow colored Lan's words. He couldn't have meant... but then he had rescued Riven from the merfolk. Only one way to find out for sure, really, though if he'd misread Lanthus this was really going to hurt.
Standing on his toes and pulling Lan down by his shirt, Riven pressed a brief, hesitant kiss to Lan's lips. He could feel Lanthus's surprise and started to pull away, only to find himself swept up into powerful arms and kissed in a way that left absolutely no doubt as to Lan's intentions.
"Oh good," Riven breathed when at last they broke apart. "That's what I hoped you'd say."