Fel (James Galloway)

The Shadow Realm

Chapter 2

Life aboard a sailing vessel was one of routine.

Even for the passengers, the days turned into a procession of regular events that made the days blur together, which both made Tarrin feel like time was flying by, even as each individual day seemed to drag out endlessly. Breakfast some hour past sunrise, then for Tarrin, it was long, involved discussion and debate with Camara Tal. The Amazon had decided that simply teaching him the spells of Priest magic wasn't enough. She grilled him on his knowledge of theology, philosophy, and history, and she surprised him with the depth and bredth of her knowledge. Tarrin had never pegged the fiery Amazon as a scholar, but she proved to him that she was easily as well educated as Phandebrass, especially in the realm of multipantheonic theology. Camara Tal knew the name of every god, Elder, Younger, and those not accepted by the organized pantheon, which were called cult gods. She knew most of the beliefs and goals of the religious orders of all those gods, even things Tarrin was surprised an outsider would know, like certain ceremonies they performed. She grilled him about his beliefs in his goddess, even going so far as to ask questions about what she expected of him as a Priest, something even he didn't know.

While Camara Tal and Tarrin argued over finer points of philosophy, the others had their routines as well. Azakar would sit with Dar and play stones or chess. Dolanna would learn the finer arts of needlework or knitting from Miranda, and Allia would usually spend that time in the company of Keritanima, who had gone back to reading books, or going over reports brought in to her by the priest on board the ship, who received them via magic from Jervis or the sashka. Phandebrass and Kimmie would be off by themselves, and they appeared in the most unusual places. One rainy morning, the entire ship was rocked by an explosion in the bilges, and when sailors went to investigate, the found the pair of them in there setting fire to water. That little stunt caused the entire fleet of ships to come to a halt, but then again, it probably was for the best, for the rain intensified into a rather nasty storm. The ships all dropped their sea anchors and rode it out, then continued on that afternoon.

At noon precisely, they had lunch, and then they all changed their activities. Tarrin sat down to teach Keritanima Sorcery and be taught Wikuni by her and Miranda in return, as Allia, Camara Tal and Azakar sparred on the widest part of the deck. Camara Tal had first done it to see if Azakar had improved, but now she was the student as Azakar taught her some of the forms and techniques the Vendari had taught to him. Allia had watched at first, but she realized that sparring with the likes of the Amazon and the Mahuut would improve her own forms. Basicly, that meant that the two of them suffered as Allia's target dummies as the Selani gave herself a workout. The two of them were good, but they just couldn't match the Selani's blazing, inhuman speed. Kimmie and Phandebrass continued their morning session into the afternoon, often changing locations.

At an hour before sunset, dinner was placed, and they took the evening meal with the ship's captain, a leopard Wikuni with a chunk missing from his right ear who called himself Karlin, Admiral Torm, and the Wikuni priest aboard, a willowy mammallian Wikuni that looked something like a cross between a squirrel and a chipmunk, with golden fur. Keritanima told him that he was called a prairie dog, whatever that was. It was some kind of animal indiginous to Wikuna. Whatever he was, he was a quiet, observant fellow named Velton, modest and discreet, and someone with whom Tarrin didn't mind sharing company. Given his more aggressive behavior since taking ship, that was saying that the Wikuni priest was almost a friend.

After dinner, they all generally wound down, drinking whatever was available and sitting up on deck to watch the sunset, sharing company. It was important for them to do so, since they had been separated in one way or another for a very long time. Tarrin needed to reacclimate himself to the others, and those who had been separated from him for so long needed time to readjust to him. Especially Azakar. The Mahuut didn't quite know what to make of Tarrin now, or what to do about him or how to act around him. Tarrin was many things, even to those with him, but Azakar seemed to have the most trouble understanding what had happened and how Tarrin had changed. When Tarrin had been separated from Azakar, Miranda, and Keritanima, he had been a much different person. Young, afraid, and on the edge. His behavior was erratic then, but only to an untrained observer. Now he was gruff, quiet, brooding, given to not speaking unless he had a reason to do so, and more than a little mean. That probably set Azakar off the most, for despite his huge size and impressive fighting ability, Azakar was actually a very gentle and caring person. Tarrin's vicious nature seemed to disturb Azakar, where the others had had time to get used to it.

Just after sunset, every evening, Tarrin found someplace quiet and talked to Jesmind and Jasana. They talked of very unimportant things, more like listening to Jesmind fume and rant and rail about this or that, venting her frustration. There was little for him to say to them after the fifth day, after he'd described the ship and the sea and the things he saw for the tenth time. Speaking to Jesmind made him a little less lonely, but he had yet to mention the fact that he was having trouble with Kimmie. He was very evasive about it, because Jesmind asked after her almost every night. He wouldn't lie to her, but he'd learned many ways to misdirect the truth when necessary, and he knew his mate. He knew how to deflect her, distract her, make her forget what she was asking.

Little had changed in Suld since they'd left, nearly twenty days before. Jesmind and Jasana stayed on the Tower grounds with Jenna most of the time, as his sister continued to write her book and teach Jula about Sorcery. Jula had regained her powers already, and had just begun the practical exercises to learn Weavespinner magic. Since the ship was moving, and Tarrin couldn't enter the Weave unless he was stationary, he was missing out on quite a bit of what Jenna was teaching his bond-daughter. He would have liked to have been there for that. Triana too remained in the Tower, to watch over Jesmind and Jasana and, to his surprise, to get to know his parents and Jenna intimately. Triana had adopted Tarrin, and now she was coming to know the other side of his family. His mother and father were planning to return to Aldreth, but had delayed that at Triana's request, so they could get to know each other. Tarrin imagined that Triana was very impressed with his parents. They were very strong, very admirable people.

After his nightly talk with Jesmind, Tarrin spent special time with Allia, usually in his cabin but sometimes walking around on deck, to reinforce the powerful bond they shared. They didn't have to speak or do anything, or even interact with one another. They only had to be in the same room together, and be alone. That was all either of them needed. It was their time to speak to each other of things they didn't tell any of the others, not even Keritanima, where Tarrin told his sister the whole truth about anything she wanted to know. Tarrin held no secrets from Allia, just as she held no secrets from him. After Tarrin finished telling her about what happened to him, Allia told him about what happened to her after they parted, things even of the most intimate nature, personal observations and such that would offend all the others, even Keritanima. Allia was like that sometimes.

Everything else may change, but the powerful bond between Tarrin and Allia would always remain.

After spending time with Allia, Tarrin went to bed. It was a bed he now shared with the two drakes, curled up with them on top of the covers in his cat form, because the bed was too small for his tall body. Tarrin liked sleeping with the drakes, because they were cozily warm all the time, and Tarrin liked heat. They would sleep through the night, and then when the sun came up, the cycle would repeat itself again.

It was a day, much like any other. Tarrin had just finished teaching Keritanima about the intricacies of Weavespinner magic, teaching her techniques for controlling the magic, trying to jar her powers back. She'd yet to regain her powers, though he could sense in her that she was very close to them. Any day now--any time now, for that matter--she was going to realign herself and find her magic again, and it was what Tarrin was waiting to happen. He couldn't really teach her anything else until she regained her powers, so his tutoring lately had only been various exercises and observations, trying to help her regain her powers more quickly. But he couldn't go too far, because Sorcery was still a very private affair, even Weavespinner magic. Keritanima's method of using her magic was her own, and trying to teach her his own methods would interfere with her ability. He could only tell her what to do; the method of going about doing it would be uniquely her own. The only thing that they would share would be generalalities defined by the laws of Sorcery, laws by which they had to operate.

He heard her growl as she closed her eyes and raised her muzzle. "I can feel it right there," she growled in a low tone. "I can sense it. Why can't I use it, dammit! It's getting frustrating!"

"Relax," he told her. "You can't do it if you're agitated."

"Then that's the problem," Miranda winked at him. "She's been agitated ever since you started teaching her. She's too impatient, she wants it all right now. If you'd just relax and let things happen yourself, Kerri, you'd have been using magic again days ago."

"Like you know anything," Keritanima huffed at her in irritation.

"Kerri," Tarrin chided. "Calm down."

"Don't tell me to calm down!"

"Someday you'll learn not to order me around, Kerri. You know I'm not going to obey you," he said evenly, adjusting himself on the stool that a sailor had brought for him. Since many Wikuni had tails, much of their furniture either didn't have backs or had split backs, making it easy on the tail to use the seat. "Remember the exercises in mental discipline that Allia taught us?"

"Of course I do," she replied. "I--oh, I see," she said with a sudden toothy grin. "That might work. If I can use the meditation trick to focus myself, I might be able to regain my magic." She glanced at him. "That's a clever idea, brother. I'm surprised you thought of it."

"You do so much for my self-esteem, Kerri," he said in a dry drawl. "Try that tonight. Meditation will do more than focus yourself, it will calm you down. Miranda may be right, sister. I tried to push it when it happened to me, and I got so wrapped up in trying to use my magic again that I didn't sense that I could do it all along. I think you're falling into the same trap I did."

"Maybe," she acceded after a moment.

"I say, hello there, Tarrin," Phandebrass greeted as he led Kimmie towards the stairway below decks. "How go the lessons?"

"Fairly well," he replied. "Though we're more or less circling until Kerri regains her powers."

"Well, well, good luck, your Majesty," he said with a smile. "How are the language lessons going?" he asked her.

"It's scary," she told him. "That spell he uses lets him memorize everything. He's fluent already, all he needs is to expand his vocabulary. It's Dolanna all over again."

"Well, my dear, Dolanna is a very clever woman, she is. I think I might try to develop a spell to duplicate that effect," he mused to himself, looking up. "To think that I could go into a library and remember everything I read! I say, what a wonderful thing that would be, it would!" He looked at them. "I say, how are the lessons going?"

Tarrin suppressed a chuckle. Whenever Phandebrass was heavy into his magic, he tended to get extremely absent-minded, even forgetting things he'd just said. It looked like he was in one of those states at the moment. "Kimmie, you'd better take him down below before he forgets we're on a ship," Tarrin told the female.

"We're already on the way," she said with a light smile.

"Now I see why he irritates Camara Tal so much," Keritanima said with a giggle as Kimmie led him below decks.

"That's not what irritates Camara," Tarrin replied. "What irritates Camara is how his studies overwhelm reality. Did I tell you that he tried to stop a Demon and ask it questions during the battle in Suld?"

"He didn't!" Keritanima gasped with a laugh.

"Oh yes he did. Camara told me about it. Tried to stop it in its tracks and ask it all sorts of questions. Camara said that if she'd been beside him, she would have brained him herself."

"Phandebrass puts learning above almost everything. Even his own safety," Miranda surmised in a calm voice. "He must be either terribly brave or completely crazy."

"I think he's a little bit of both," Tarrin said, glancing back to the stairs below. The wind had shifted, and Kimmie's scent, left on the deck, was touching his nose, tickling at him. Her scent caused all sorts of impulses to rise up in him any time he scented it now, impulses he both wanted to satisfy and actively tried to ignore. He put his paw over his nose in irritation, letting his own scent and the scents left behind on his paw drown out that smell.

"You know, I think Kimmie's the most unusual Were-cat I've ever met," Keritanima said. "She seems almost human."

"She was turned, like me. But the turning didn't seem to change her all that much," Tarrin told her. "But don't let her personality fool you, Kerri. She's just as much a Were-cat as me."

"I've noticed. I've also noticed that you've been avoiding her lately," she said slyly.

Tarrin growled lightly in his throat, glaring at his sister. He had a feeling where this was going to go. "I think you should mind your own business," he warned.

"You are my business, brother," she said mildly. "And I have a nose too, if you recall. I've been noticing a change in Kimmie's scent lately, and now that I've seen how you react to it, I know what it is."

"Well, what is it?" Miranda asked.

"She's either in heat or she's playing for him," she replied with a glance to where the female had gone below decks. "You'd better not let Jesmind find out. She'll kill both of you."

Tarrin snorted, putting his chin in his paw. "I think she doesn't realize she's doing it," he replied. "She doesn't act like she's after me, so I think it's unconscious."

"And that means you're not going to do anything about it."

"I don't plan to," he replied.

"You should. Every time Kimmie goes by, you suddenly get very short-tempered."

"I can't argue about that," he admitted. "But it would be cheating on Jesmind."

"Cheating or not, if you kill one of my sailors in a tiff, we're going to have a very nasty fight, brother," she warned.

"I can keep a handle on things. I've gone through this before."

"I know, Allia told me about it," she said. "With Jula."

He nodded. "I didn't have much trouble with her. I shouldn't have much trouble with Kimmie."

"There's a difference here, brother," Keritanima said mildly. "You didn't like Jula at the time. You do like Kimmie."

"True, but it doesn't matter."

"We'll see," Keritanima said absently.

The rest of the day went on more or less as usual, except whenever Kimmie was close to him. Telling Keritanima about it seemed to make it stay at the forefront of his mind, and he found himself thinking about Kimmie whenever his mind wasn't actively engaged with something else. More than once, he caught himself thinking of some way to get her alone, and he had to crush all those impulses and keep himself occupied to stop it. But those thoughts rekindled any time he came across Kimmie's scent.

That was the problem. They'd been on the ship for twenty days, so Kimmie's scent was everywhere. The rain washed her scent out of the exposed deck, but Phandebrass' habit of moving around meant that she put her scent back down all over everything very quickly afterwards. Below decks, her scent was mingled with all the other scents layered on the floor and walls and furniture, but Kimmie's scent was the first one he noticed, and he realized that he was actively looking for it. There were few places on the ship he could go to get away from her scent. The crow's nest, his room, and Allia's room. That was it. Kimmie had been in everyone else's rooms, even Keritanima's.

Keritanima had been right. He had been getting short-tempered whenever Kimmie passed. It was a combination of her and the resurgence of the feral aspects of his personality. Surrounded by strangers and trapped on a ship with an available female, he wasn't surprised he'd been so contrary lately. It got worse when she was close, when he started resisting the call of his instincts. That was a very fast way for a Were-cat way to get unpredictable, as the instincts warred with the human will. So far, Tarrin's will had won out, but the instincts only had to win once. And he knew that.

He pondered the problem through dinner, as Kimmie's proximity and her alluring scent dominated his mind, picking at his food without much enthusiasm. He listened as Phandebrass prattled on about some kind of magical spell that he and Kimmie had been developing as part of her training, a spell that supposedly would cause any book that contained magical Wizard spells to glow when they came within the spell's area of effect.

"So, how is the training going, Kimmie?" Dar asked.

"Pretty well,"she replied with a cute little smile. "I've already tripled the size of my spellbook, and Master Phandebrass taught me some things that allowed me to understand some of the spells I already had, but couldn't cast."

"I say, for a self-taught dabbler, she has considerable potential," Phandebrass praised. "I think she could learn some of the greatest secrets of the art if she applies herself."

"It'll be a ways before I get there," she chuckled wryly. "I looked through Master Phandebrass' spellbook. I think I could only understand about ten of them."

"You were looking through one of my advanced books, my dear," he chided her. "If you did understand ten of them, then you do have potential, you do. I say, I couldn't possibly keep all my spells in one book, I couldn't. Why, it would be so big that I wouldn't be able to carry it!"

"No need to brag, Master Phandebrass," Kimmie teased. "You're offending my one little spellbook, you know."

"Give yourself time, my dear," he assured her. "I say, you'll have a spellbook collection just as large as mine, you will."

Tarrin excused himself after that, and went up on deck. After leaving the dining room, his appetite returned, and he Conjured the meal he'd left sitting on the table and finished it sitting at the bow, looking out over the sea. It was a bit before sunset, and the ships were still plying their way westward before a strong tailwind. The wind was very warm and muggy, and some threatening clouds were gathering ahead of them, threatening to swallow up the sun before it reached the horizon. There was a small island just to the right, some distance away, but it was large enough to support a colony of seagulls. Some of them were circling over the ship, cawing and crying, looking for a meal. Birds followed ships to partake of the scraps that were thrown overboard from time to time. Tarrin looked at the island, just being eclipsed by a clipper sailing alongside, and saw that it was carpeted with green. It was too far away to see much else, though. He'd never heard of an island out here, so odds were it was uninhabited.

Admiral Torm wandered over and looked off the rail just beside him. Tarrin wasn't sure about Admiral Torm. He was a sober fellow, not much of a sense of humor, all business and all leader. He was respected by his men, and from what Tarrin had heard, the man had a very, very impressive reputation.

"Ah, Twinfluke," he mused aloud. "We'll be in Wikuna in six days, with Kikalli's favor."

"That's the name of that island?" Tarrin asked, standing up.

"Aye," he replied. "So named because of the whales that tend to gather around it."

"That would be a nice place to live if you didn't want to be disturbed."

"You wouldn't live there long," Torm told him. "It's populated by some pretty unfriendly animals, and some of them are rather rare."

"Like what?"

"Like a bird-like animal that can turn a man to stone if you touch its tailfeathers," he answered. "I think they're called Cockatrices. There are also a fair number of wild drakes, and it's also the island where the last of the Minotaurs were exiled some five hundred years ago. From what I've heard, there are some of them still living on the island."

"Minotaur? I've never heard of that."

"It's a creature with a man's body but the head of a bull," he replied. "They're not very smart, they're pretty rough customers, and they're very unfriendly. They were rounded up and exiled off Wikuna when we tried to bring them into the kingdom, but they just couldn't obey the law. It was decided it was more humane to move them than to kill them all off."

"And they still live there on that island?"

Torm nodded. "We don't know how many there are, because we won't land there. But some sailors see them on the shores as they pass, often enough to know they're still alive. I'm glad of that."

"Why?"

"It's a crime to kill off an entire species just because you don't get along with them," he replied. "They may have lost their home range, but killing them all would have been wrong. Wikuna has made some bad decisions in its time, but at least in that respect, it made a good one. They seem to be doing well on the island, so maybe it all turned out for the best. If they're happy there, then it turned out even better."

"I guess," Tarrin said in agreement.

The crying of the birds began to intensify, and Tarrin looked up at them. They seemed to be getting very agitated. Tarrin lifted his nose and tested the air, but found no scent that would seem threatening to him. Birds had good vision, so it had to be something they could see that was making them upset, or perhaps a change in the wind or the air.

"That's odd," Torm noted, looking up. "Seagulls don't act like that unless there's a predator about."

Tarrin saw it coming over the ship that now blocked the view of the island. A little cloud of smaller blue birds, all swarming around something in its center. From the looks of it, they were attacking whatever they kept surrounded, pecking at it and scratching at it with their claws.

Those weren't birds! They were drakes!

Tarrin watched in surprise as a large pack of blue-scaled drakes attacked whatever was in the middle of their group, flying closer and closer to the ship as the seagulls overhead scattered They weren't pecking at it, as he first thought, they were biting it, and there were weird little flashes of bluish light now and again. They came closer and closer to their ship, until he could make out what they were attacking.

It was another drake!

Tarrin and Torm watched as the victim of the assault, a blue-scaled drake just like all the others, tried to stay aloft, but was being bitten on the wings and having the membranes torn by the claws of its attackers. It was smaller than the other drakes, and it was being pretty well thoroughly thrashed by them. It managed to stay aloft until one of the largest drakes managed to bite it on the wingjoint, and he distinctly heard it squeal in pain and suddenly spin down on the same side that the drake had bitten it. The attackers gave chase, coming shockingly close to the ship, only spans away, and continued to pursue the victim until it fell into the water. They circled over it for a moment as it weakly tried to swim, keep its head above water as the water around became stained pink with its blood, then they all banked and flew back towards the island.

"I've never seen that before," Torm said. "I wonder what made them attack that other one like that."

Tarrin was leaning over the rail, looking at the drake as the ship passed it by. It was obviously going to drown, and its body sank deeper and deeper into the water as its attempts to stay afloat became weaker. On an implulse, Tarrin wove together a short weave of Water and caused the water surrounding the drake to become solid, to give it something against which to push. Then he brought his water cage up to the side of the ship and then, after making sure the other drakes were gone and wouldn't see what was happening, raised it up on a column of water to where he could reach it. The drake looked terrified by whatever was happening to it, but it was too weak and tired to struggle. Its terror didn't improve when a creature with a predatory scent reached down into the water with wickedly clawed paws and grabbed it, then pulled it free of the watery prison.

Tarrin was rather partial to drakes. Chopstick and Turnkey were very beloved companions for him, and he couldn't stand to see another drake die. Even if it was a wild one.

He gathered the drake up in his paws, knelt, and set it on the deck, as it hissed threatening at him and tried to bite him. The other drakes had torn it up pretty effectively, and he could see countless tears in its beautiful, blue scaled hide. They were so blue that they almost shined. It did bite him when he put a pair of fingers on the base of its long neck, turning its head to take a bite out the paw holding it down, but its small jaws had trouble getting much of a grip on his thick paw, and the lower teeth couldn't even penetrate the pad on his palm. The pain it caused was barely even an annoyance, but the pressure he exerted against it did cause it to stop thrashing, beating its shredded wings against the deck.

"Calm down," he chided the drake in a gentle voice. He thought about using Sorcerer's healing, but the discomfort it caused would make the drake think he was attacking it somehow. It wasn't something to use on a wild animal. So he instead reached within, through the Cat, and touched the vast, endless energy of the All. His intent was to heal, and the image was that of the little drake in perfect health. The All responded to him, sending its energy through him and into the drake through his fingers. The warm, gentle energy suffused the little animal, causing its natural healing processes to accelerate dramatically. Torm watched with wide eyes as the many tears and bite wounds on the drake smoothed over, as the holes in the membranes of its wings mended before his eyes, and the animal suddenly stopped struggling and yielded to the Were-cat.

When he was done, he pulled his fingers away, resting his arm on his knee, and looked down at the drake. It was about the same size as Chopstick and Turnkey, maybe just a shade smaller than them, with the same appearance. It had the ridges on its back, and the little backswept horns on its head, but its muzzle was a bit more boxed and a little shorter, and it was a little leaner than the two red-scaled drakes. Its scent was a little different than the red-scaled drakes, probably a result of a different environment. It seemed to lay there for a moment, then got up to its feet hesitantly, shaking its head and shivering its wings. "There now," Tarrin cooed to it in a gentle voice. "All better. You can go ahead and fly home now."

"I've never seen a drake so close before," Torm said, looking at it. "Not even the two that Wizard owns gets this close to me. It's very pretty, isn't it?" he asked, leaning down to get a better look.

And then the blue flashes he saw became very clear to Tarrin. The little drake hissed, then Tarrin sensed a sudden release of magical energy. A small arc of electricity, like a miniature bolt of lightning, emanated from the little blue drake's body and struck Torm in the chest as he leaned down. Torm was knocked backwards and crashed to the deck, his swearing telling Tarrin that he was alright. A little singed, but alright.

"Wow," Tarrin said in appreciation. Now that was a defense mechanism! "Calmly, little one," he said in a soothing voice, not moving. "We're not going to hurt you."

The little drake looked up at him, blinking, its front paws fidgeting and its claws scrabbling on the deck. Then, to Tarrin's surprise, the little drake ambled forward and rubbed the side of its head against his ankle, chirping pleasantly. Just like Chopstick and Turnkey did when they were in an affectionate mood.

It liked him! The drake either liked him because he'd healed it, or it could tell that he was a Druid. Most wild animals wouldn't bother Druids, because the sense of the All that surrounded them put the animal at ease. No wild animal saw a Druid as an enemy. Tarrin reached down and rubbed the scales on its back, mindful of the little ridges and spines, then patted it on the head.

"Ouch," Torm grunted from the deck.

Tarrin looked back and saw that the Wikuni was sitting up, with a little scorch mark on the chest of his resplendent red uniform coat. "That was interesting," Tarrin told him. "I've never seen a drake do that before."

"Me either," Torm agreed.

"You alright?"

"I will be in a minute. All my fur is standing on end."

"It must have thought you were going to attack it when you leaned down. I wouldn't do that again if I were you."

"I'm not planning on it, no," Torm agreed mildly. "That's quite a trick, though. I'll bet that's how it hunts. It shocks birds out of the sky and lets the fall kill them."

"That would be an effective tactic," Tarrin agreed, looking down at the drake. "Alright now, little one," he told it. "You're better now. You should be going home now." The drake made no move to turn and fly away. Instead, it reared up on its hind legs and put its front paws on his knee, begging for attention. "You're welcome," he chuckled to it, petting it on the head gently. When he stood up, the drake did turn around and jump into the air, flapping its wings, but it did little more than gain altitude, turn around, and land on his shoulder.

Tarrin was a bit surprised. It seemed to be in no hurry to go home, but it had to leave soon, or the island would be too far away for it to get back. He reached up and took hold of the drake, holding it gently, then set it on the rail. "You need to start back, little one, or you'll be too far away to reach the island," he warned it. "Now go on. Before we get too far away."

It looked at him quizzically.

"Go on now," he ordered. "Back home. Go home!" He made a shooing motion with his paws, and the drake reacted to that, vaulting up into the air and flapping its leathery wings, back towards the island. Tarrin watched it go with a slight smile, happy that he'd had a chance to help someone for a change. "Phandebrass is going to kill me," he chuckled.

"Why?"

"A drake that can shoot lightning? He would have loved to have studied it. If he would have survived," he added with a laugh. "Did it burn you?"

"Not really," he replied, getting up and putting a furry hand to his chest. "It would have if it would have hit my fur. The coat took the burn for me. I've never been shocked like that before. It didn't burn, but it certainly wasn't pleasant."

"I can imagine it wasn't," Tarrin agreed mildly. "I'd better be going, Torm. I have an appointment to keep."

"I need to change coats," the admiral noted, looking down.

The rest of the day went by as all the days did, but the next morning was anything if not ordinary. Tarrin had woken up to some shouting bleeding down from the deck above, but hadn't paid much attention to it. He dressed and went out on deck to find Camara Tal, but found all the sailors on the deck, looking up into the rigging. Some of them were rubbing arms or shoulders, and there were little burn marks on a few of them. Keritanima was standing by the foremast with Miranda, watching Phandebrass crawling through the rigging as Chopstick and Turnkey fluttered about the mainmast, circling the crow's nest.

"What's going on?" he asked Dar, who was standing not far from the sterncastle.

"There's a little animal up there in the rigging," Dar replied. "It attacked a few of the sailors, and now Phandebrass is trying to catch it."

Tarrin looked up, seeing that the thin Wizard was on the rope ladder leading to the crow's nest, a rope in his teeth and his ridiculous conical hat gripped in one hand. His hair had gone all white again, Tarrin noticed, and the Wizard had trouble with getting his feet tangled in his robes as he tried to climb up the rigging.

He stopped as a little streak suddenly shot out of the crow's nest, towards the bow, then dove down through the rigging with Chopstick and Turnkey in hot pursuit. Tarrin didn't get a good look at it, since it was behind the sails on the foremast, but when it dropped under the lowest sail and pulled out of its dive, he realized that the flying thing was a little blue blur.

It was the drake!

It flew right at him then pulled up and landed on his shoulder, its claws tearing his shirt and drawing blood from the speed of the landing. It chirped in his ear and licked him on the side of the face with that reptillian tongue, then suddenly hissed threateningly as Chopstick and Turnkey flew towards him.

"Land!" Tarrin called, holding his paws out. That was a command that both the drakes knew, and they obediently flapped down to the deck and stayed where they were. He reached up and took hold of the blue drake, bringing it down to his chest and looked down at it. It looked up at him with eyes as blue as its scales, vertically slitted, reminding him irrationally of Kimmie's eyes. "I told you to go home, little one," he chided the drake in a stern voice.

It looked up at him unashamedly, then it gave that chirping sound and rubbed the side of its head against his chest.

Tarrin blew out his breath in a snort as Dar looked at the drake in surprise. "How does it know you, Tarrin?" he asked.

"I met it last night, when we passed by that island. I guess it decided to follow the ship," he replied.

"I say, you got it!" Phandebrass' voice called from overhead. The thin Wizard shimmied down a rope and got back on the deck, putting his hat back on as he ambled over quickly. "I say, it's a rare blue!" he gasped. "A Blue!"

"Rare?" Tarrin asked. "There was a whole pack of them flying around out here last night."

"I missed it?" he asked in a crestfallen voice. "I say, we need to turn the ship around, we do! I really must see this!"

"Dream on, Wizard," Camara Tal scoffed as she appraoched, with all his other friends converging on him. "It certainly seems to like you, Tarrin," she noted.

Tarrin told them what happened the night before, about the attack and his saving it. "I let it go, but I guess it just flew far enough away to convince me it left, then turned around."

"Drakes are like that, lad," Phandebrass said. "When they find someone they like, they stay with them. This drake is attached to you, and there's nothing you can do short of attacking it to make it leave, there isn't. You're stuck with it."

"I wouldn't attack it!" Tarrin said in a sudden voice.

"Then you should give her a name," Phandebrass grinned. "I say, what luck! I can study a blue!"

"Her?" Dar asked.

"I say, certainly!" Phandebrass said confidently. "See the smaller horns, and the different proportions of the ridge-spine pattern? Those are the markings of a female."

"Why would the other drakes attack this one?" Allia asked Phandebrass curiously.

"Any number of reasons, my dear," he replied. "I say, she may have been an intruder in the territory of another pack, she might. Drakes are social animals, they are, and live in packs in the wild. Or she may have tried to win leadership of her pack, and lost. Losers are chased out of the territory. Sometimes they're killed."

"They certainly tried to kill her," Tarrin mused. "Even chased her halfway out to sea."

"Then she must have nearly won," Phandebrass said. "The pack leader certainly didn't want her coming back to challenge again, so he was making sure of her, he was."

"Well, brother, it looks like you have a new pet," Keritanima grinned at him. "Care to introduce us?"

"I say, that's a bad idea," Phandebrass warned. "She's a wild drake, Tarrin. You'll need to domesticate her and train her. She may like you, but she'll be aggressive towards everyone else, she will."

"We noticed," Camara Tal said.

"I say, take her below decks, to your cabin, and I'll come by in a few minutes and tell you what to do," Phandebrass said. "Raising a drake isn't easy, my boy. You'll need some help, you will."

Tarrin wasn't entirely sure about this. He'd never had a pet before, not even a dog, because his father was allergic to dogs. The Kael farm was one of the rare few that didn't have dogs on the farm, and the few cats there were were restricted to the barn to control the rodents, because the small flock of sheep they'd kept on the farm didn't like them. He took the little blue drake down to his cabin and sat down on the bed, stroking it absently, considering the situation. If it was true, and he couldn't make the drake go away, he was more or less stuck with her. He did like drakes, though, and if he was going to have a pet, then a drake seemed a sensible choice. He wasn't sure how much the drake was going to affect his life, because Chopstick and Turnkey seemed to more or less take care of themselves. So long as they were fed regularly and someone paid attention to them every so often, they didn't seem to need anything special. On those terms, Tarrin wouldn't mind at all to take care of the drake.

Phandebrass knocked on the door, then entered immediately afterward. To his surprise, Kimmie filed in behind him. That made him inwardly groan; now he'd have to scour her scent out of his room or he'd get no peace at night. But he put on a brave face and greeted her as amicably as he could. She smiled at him and sat down on the stool in front of the desk, and the Wizard stood before him. "I say, very good. The first thing you need to do is domesticate her, you do. She's a wild drake, and she'll need to learn that everyone isn't going to attack her."

"How do we do that?"

"Carefully," Phandebrass grinned. "She's a blue, and they have magical powers, so we have to be cautious. I trained my drakes to behave by slowly introducing them to people, being nice to the people and such to show that the person was my friend. Drakes are clever creatures, my boy, she'll understand that your friends are her friends. Once you have her acclimated, she'll start relaxing around strangers. While you're taming her, you'll have to teach her what you want her to know, you will."

"Like what?"

"Like housebreaking her, but that will actually be an easy task, it will," he replied. "Drakes prefer to bury their waste, or expel it while flying, but they'll never soil what they consider their den. You have to convince her that this is her den, then leave the window open for her so she can leave to relieve herself. I say, you'll also have to teach her not to chew," he continued. "Drakes chew on things to keep their teeth sharp. I have chew toys for my drakes in my cabin. Leather works best, it does. Get yourself a piece of ragged leather and reprimand her whenever she chews on anything other than that chew toy."

"How do you reprimand a drake?"

"An angry tone," he replied. "Drakes are smart, my boy. She'll learn what your voice sounds like when you're in certain moods, and she'll respond to it. But don't ever hit a drake as punishment. She'll think you're attacking her, she will, and she'll either run away or attack in kind, or both."

"Alright. What else should I know?"

"That's basicly it, my boy," he replied. "As far as basics go. But drakes are smart little devils, and they're easy to train. Training her in certain things and to do some tasks would be a very good idea, it would. As you've seen, Chopstick and Turnkey have been trained how to attack enemies. I've also trained them to fetch certain things, and they also know how to find certain things that I need. They also know a good variety of commands for their own good, to keep them out of trouble and out of harm's way. Such as the land command I saw you use. It's a good idea to have a well trained drake if she's going to go out in public with you, it is." He looked at the drake longingly. "I can't wait until she's tame," he said in an excited tone. "I'll teach you how to teach her commands, and I can study her abilities."

"One thing at a time, Phandebrass," Tarrin said, scratching the drake between the horns, right where Turnkey and Chopstick liked to be scratched. She too seemed to like being scratched there, leaning into his claw.

"I say, you need to give her a name," the Wizard told him. "You should always call her by her name."

"I think Sapphire would be a good name," Kimmie offered. "She has the same color as a sapphire."

"It's as good a name as any," Tarrin shrugged. "So her name is Sapphire."

"Very good then. Stay with her in the cabin for the rest of the day, and make sure to open the window. She'll learn that this is her den, and she'll also get used to you. Just keep visitors on this side of the room until tomorrow."

"What should I feed her?"

"Drakes eat anything, but they can be finicky, they can," he replied. "Table scraps work best. She'll tell you what she does and doesn't like. Oh, and make sure she always has fresh water in a bowl somewhere. Drakes drink alot of water, they do."

"Alright," he nodded. "Anything else?"

"Not that I can think of at the moment, no," he replied. "As soon as I remember something else, I'll run down here and tell you, I will."

"So, just sit in here with her all day?"

"Just so," Phandebrass nodded. "I say, you may want to get a book or something."

"I can have visitors, so could you go find Camara Tal and ask her to come to my room?" he asked.

"I say, I'd be happy to, my boy," he replied with a smile.

Phandebrass turned around and took of his cap, then replaced it on his head for some strange reason. "I'll send Camara down here for you, my boy," he promised. "I say, coming, Kimmie?"

"In a bit," she replied.

"See you in a bit, then," he replied, nodding to her. Then he let himself out.

"What do you want, Kimmie?" he asked her.

"To know why you've been avoiding me," she replied bluntly, putting her elbows on her knees and leaning towards him.

"I didn't realize I was avoiding you on purpose, Kimmie," he said blandly. "You've been busy, and I've been busy. That's all."

"That's not all, and don't deny it," she countered. "Am I upsetting you, Tarrin? If so, tell me so, and I'll fix whatever it is I'm doing that annoys you."

He snorted. "There's nothing you can do, Kimmie," he told her directly.

She looked at him, then she blinked. Then she laughed. "Is that all that's bothering you?" she asked with a sudden grin. "Why didn't you say so!"

"What are you talking about?"

"Do you really think Jesmind is going to care if we go to bed together?" she asked easily. "I thought you knew females better than that!"

"What are you talking about?"

"Tarrin," she chided. "Love is love, but sex is just that. Sex. Jesmind isn't going to give a flip of her hair if we go to bed, so long as your love for her doesn't change."

"Maybe, but I wouldn't feel right if I did," he told her. "It would be like cheating on her."

"If I'm bothering you this much after only a couple of rides, what do you think it's going to be like in a month, Tarrin?" she asked bluntly. "And I wasn't even trying for you. But now that you've made your interest clear, I will be trying for you. It'll only get worse."

"That's a cheap shot, Kimmie!"

"That's one way of putting it," she teased with a wink. "I told you a long time ago that I'm interested in you, Tarrin. Now that I have you all to myself and I know that you're interested in me too, do you really think I'm going to pass up the chance?"

"But what about Jesmind?"

"What about her?" Kimmie mirrored. "I don't really care what your feelings are for Jesmind, Tarrin. What matters is now. And right now, you're a male, I'm a female, and we're attracted to one another. Just let instinct run its course."

"You're an evil woman, Kimmie," he accused.

"I know," she replied with a wicked little smile. "If you feel all that worried about what Jesmind thinks, tell her," she offered. "Tell her everything. Even tell her that I'm going to try to lure you now, I don't mind. Because she knows that you can't ignore instinct. She knows it's in my instincts to lure a male I find attractive, especially when I know he's interested. Tell her anything you want to tell her. I think you'll be surprised what she tells you."

"What do you mean?"

"Odds are, after shouting at you a while to make herself feel better, she'll tell you to take me for mate," she said calmly, leaning against the desk. "Just make sure that you stress how it would feel like cheating if you did," she added with a chuckle. "That'll remind her that you're still in her thoughts."

"So, you're telling me to ask my mate if I can dump her and take another," he said in a dangerous tone.

"Not at all. There's no rule that says you can only have one mate at a time, Tarrin," she replied calmly. "I don't want you to give up Jesmind. I'm just asking to take up with you, and I'll gladly step aside when we get back to Suld. Jesmind can't be here to attend to your physical needs," she said with a surprising leer. Tarrin never expected that kind of behavior out of Kimmie. "I'll be happy to take care of it for you," she finished with a wink.

Tarrin was taken aback. In just a short moment, Kimmie had gone from her usual demure, conservative self to the epitomy of a hot and bothered Were-cat female. Kimmie really was just like all the other females, just as she had told him a while ago. Tarrin had never seen this side of Kimmie before, and he was startled by it. But in reality, he shouldn't have been too surprised. Despite being turned, her instincts and her blood were just as hot as any other female's.

"I, I don't know, Kimmie," he told her.

"Just talk to Jesmind, Tarrin," she told him. "Because if you don't, I'm going to make your life a living hell," she finished with a seductive smile.

"You are a witch," he said, but in a teasing tone.

"No, I just have you where I want you," she replied. "It's a buyer's market, Tarrin. And you're the merchandise."

"I really hate females sometimes," he grunted, patting Sapphire on the head gently.

"Then we're doing things right," Kimmie retorted with a grin. "Oh, Tarrin, by the way."

"What?"

"I can smell it all over you," she said bluntly.

To Tarrin's intense pique, he blushed.

"Talk to Jesmind. I'm sure Triana told you that it's highly offensive to a female when she can smell a male's interest, but the male won't have anything to do with her. You don't want to insult me, do you?"

"Do you know that you are a witch?"

"I think you just said that," she said with a teasing grin. "I'll see you later."

She sauntered out of the room, her gait and stance proclaiming her victory, and Tarrin had to suppress the urge to throw something at the door behind her. Tarrin felt a little foolish and not a little uncomfortable with the situation now, since Kimmie knew he was interested in her. What made it worse was that she was right on most counts. He was interested, she was interested, and they both knew it. The instincts were going to drive him to mate with her. And since she knew, she would come after him shamelessly. The only surprising part of it was Kimmie's change in personality, becoming bold and forward. That was pattern female behavior concerning males, but it was unusual when it came from Kimmie, because of her mild disposition and her human-like outward personality. He realized that he'd been judging her by past conversations, when she carefully chose her words to foster his interest in her without being obvious about it. It just showed that Kimmie knew when to be discreet, and she knew when to be direct. That was unusual in a female. Most wouldn't be able to be discreet if their lives depended on it.

He would have to talk to Jesmind, and soon. He wouldn't touch Kimmie without at least letting her know, and he had the feeling that he'd better do it before Kimmie started getting to him. More than she already had gotten to him, actually.

Tarrin brooded about Kimmie for the rest of that day and most of the next, taking turns between lessons and the drake, but his mind wasn't really on either. Or at least part of his lessons. Sapphire seemed perfectly at ease when Camara Tal came into the room and sat down with him to continue teaching him about Priest magic, but when Keritanima and Miranda came to visit him after lunch, the blue drake almost immediately attacked them. Tarrin had to use Sorcery to restrain the animal as she launched up off the bed with lightning crackling around her body. Tarrin realized quickly after that that it was because of Torm. The drake had thought Torm was attacking her, and now she associated Wikuni scents with enemies. Camara Tal was human, so her scent was completely different. When Camara Tal came in and showed she wasn't an enemy, the drake accepted her easily.

Tarrin saw that it would take a long time to break Sapphire of that, unless he cheated. The easiest way to do that would be to talk to Triana. He knew the Druidic spells for talking to animals, but they were for talking to normal animals. Drakes weren't what many would call normal animals, so he wasn't sure if the spells would work on her. And if they did, he wasn't sure if they'd hurt her, or him, or both of them because they weren't entirely compatible with her. All he had to do was talk to Sapphire and assure her that Wikuni weren't enemies, that it was just a misunderstanding, but before he tried, he wanted to make sure it would be alright.

All in all, however, given that he'd only had the drake for two days, he was rather pleased with her. She was a constant companion, she didn't really cause too much trouble, and she was very affectionate. Sapphire's presence had been enough to keep him from talking to Jesmind about Kimmie the night before, since he was content to let her distract him. He'd already found out from Phandebrass what drakes would eat, and it only took a while and a little Conjuring to determine Sapphire's likes and dislikes. The only thing so far he had bad to say about her was that she was a little bit too energetic sometimes. She knocked over the washstand and almost broke a wing chasing a small flying insect through the cabin, intent on catching and eating it. Drakes were social animals and hunted in packs, hunting animals their size or larger, but an individual drake would hunt anything smaller than itself, even insects. At least she didn't use her electrical ability to try to catch the insect, she could have set fire to the cabin.

Tarrin stayed in the cabin the first day out of necessity, but stayed another day both to keep Sapphire separated from the Wikuni and avoid Kimmie. Just thinking about her raised all sorts of instinctual urges in him, the kinds of urges that were extremely hard to suppress. He still had his lesson with Camara Tal, but since Keritanima couldn't come into his room, he instead spent the free time between lunch and dinner reading from a book Camara Tal had lent him, a book on multipantheonic history and philosophy. It described all ten Elder Gods and all forty-five Younger Gods, as well as the six established deities that were defined as Cult Gods. There were quite a few of them, and Tarrin saw the general lines in which they operated. The Elder Gods were gods of natural forces. There were a few Younger Gods that also represented natural forces, but the book said that they were subject to the Elder God whose sphere of influence overlapped their own. Those Younger Gods tended to represent and aspect of a sphere of influence, like Chulali, a Mahuut goddess of the jungle, and Talon, an Arathorn god of the forest and birds. Both were subject to Leia, the Elder goddess of nature. Vykar the Ravager, god of storms, was subject to T'Kya, Elder Goddess of weather. Those Younger Gods that didn't represent a natural force instead represented a human condition, pursuit, or position. Ragya was the god of disease. Endar and K'tar were gods of war, Endar representing the dark aspects of war such as bloodlust and killing, while K'Tar represented the purity of the concept, the testing of man against man in honorable combat. Denthar was the god of knowledge, and Sheniia was the goddess of peace, mercy, and healing. A Younger God represented an aspect of human culture, but they could also be a patron god to a kingdom or nation. The Sulasian patron god, Karas, was the god of law and justice. The Ungardt patron god, Dalstaad, was the god of strength and power, and to a minor degree, another god of war. The Younger Gods that weren't gods of nature didn't answer to any specific Elder God, but instead attended to their own devices. They still had to obey the Elder Gods, but didn't have a specific one looking over their shoulder.

Tarrin had almost immediately looked up Val. It turned out that he was considered a Younger God. He was the god of darkness, but was also called the god of evil, and was also considered a god of discord, feeding off conflict. The book said that he was known as the Forgotten God, whose imprisonment by Spyder some five thousand years ago had caused him to be forgotten by all but the sages and historians.

Were they wrong. The worship of Val was alive and well among the ki'zadun, the very organization that Val created to further his own ends.

Tarrin had never really thought much about the hierarchy of the gods. After all, he had his goddess, and the rest of them just didn't seem to be very important. But Camara Tal did think it to be important that he understand how the gods functioned in the world, and to understand their orders in order to better get along with them.

So many gods. Sixty of them, and those were only the human gods. The Wikuni had gods of their own, ten of them, and the Vendari had three gods they revered. The Aeradalla had a god of their own, as did the Selani. And he was pretty sure that the various races of the Goblinoids, Fae-da'Nar, and other sentient beings he'd never heard of before also had their own gods. Quite a few gods, all trying to work together in what they'd probably consider to be a confined space. Contending with one another, competing for worshippers and territory, all jockeying for power through their orders, which constantly strove to convert others to their god's worship.

Tarrin got so involved in the book that he almost forgot about dinner, but Sapphire wasn't about to let herself go without something to eat. She bit at the ends of his fingers in agitation as the sunlight began to creep across the cabin, as the sun lowered towards the western horizon. He looked up and realized he'd been reading from the book since just after noon. He wasn't quite ready to take the drake outside just yet, so he Conjured a meal for both of them, wolfed it down, and then decided it would be a good time to see if Triana was with Jesmind.

As Sapphire gnawed on a chunk of roasted beef, complete with bone, Tarrin put his paw around his amulet and called out to Jesmind. She answered almost immediately, her voice tart. "You call later and later, and now you call before sunset," she accused. "Make up your mind!"

"You're testy today," he told her by way of greeting. "What's the matter?"

"Your daughter has been changing the color of the walls!" she shot at him. Whenever Jasana did something magical and it was something naughty, she became his daughter. When she was behaving, she was their daughter. "Then she changed that cat you gave her into a goldfish! And we won't even discuss what she did this morning!"

Tarrin almost laughed, but knew it would only set Jesmind off. "She's your daughter too, Jesmind. Punish her."

"I already did, but you know how much good punishing her does."

"Almost none," he admitted.

"Damn right. She got both our stubbornness."

"Is everything back to normal?"

"Somewhat. The cat won't come anywhere near anything more than a saucer of water, but Triana said it'll calm down after a while."

Tarrin chuckled. "I need to talk to Triana, Jesmind. Is she around?"

"She's in Jasana's room," she replied. "Why, what's the matter?"

"Nothing serious. I sorta ended up getting stuck with a pet of my own, and I need Triana's help learning a spell to talk to it. It's kind of unusual."

"What is it?"

"A drake."

There was a pause. "Like those two little flying lizards the Wizard has?"

"Just like them, except this one is a different color."

"Oh. I kind of liked them. Is it cute?"

"I think she is," he replied.

"Why do you need to talk to Triana? Doesn't that Wizard know how to take care of drakes?"

"He already told me what I need to do, but the drake thinks Wikuni are enemies, and keeps attacking them. I need to be able to talk to her, so I can convince her that Wikuni aren't enemies."

"That could be a problem, given you're on a Wikuni ship and you're going to the Wikuni homeland," she agreed with a slight chuckle. "Mother, Tarrin needs to talk to you for a bit. Tarrin, how are we going to do this? Do I have to tell you what she says in reply?"

"Don't you know your own mother, Jesmind?" Tarrin chided. "She's got her own ways to talk to me."

Almost on cue, a swirling bluish circle of energy spun out of nothingness before the bed, in the direction he was facing. Tarrin had seen something like it before, and knew that an image of Triana would appear in its center when it was fully formed. Sapphire, on the other hand, didn't quite know what to make of it. At first she hissed at it, then sniffed at the air, flicking out that forked tongue. When she found no scent to go along with the strange light, she flitted from the desk, where her water bowl was, to the bed and settled down on Tarrin's lap. Obviously, she accepted it as some kind of natural phenomenon. The blue circle of glowing, swirling energy grew to the size of a large mirror, then colors formed in its center and expanded. They changed size and shape and contracted, slowly forming a clear image of Jasana's bedroom. Jasana was sitting on the bed in her nightshirt, pulling a tangle out of the tip of her tail. Triana sat sedately on the edge of the bed, looking at him with that stony expression.

"Cub," she said with a nod of her head.

"Papa!" Jasana said happily, bouncing up and looking at him. Tarrin's mood improved vastly when he looked at his cub, looking just as happy and energetic as ever. Her strawberry blond hair had been tied back behind her head, and the white furred cat ears that poked up from the tied hair looked a bit larger than usual, since the hair that surrounded them was pulled down. Jasana's hair was as thick and springy as her parents'. "Is that really you, Papa?"

"Of course it's me, cub," he replied with a bright smile. "Your grandmother is using a spell that lets us see each other."

"You're looking a bit drawn, cub," Triana noted sharply as Jesmind sat down on the other side of Jasana and looked at him. Jesmind looked as lovely as ever, but she had an unfriendly expression on her face. That softened considerably when she looked at him, replaced by a loving smile.

"I'm doing well enough, mother," he replied absently. "I need a bit of help."

"What with?"

"Well, as you can see, I have this new little friend," he said, pointing at the drake. "I need to talk to her to break her of a fairly bad habit. Do you know a spell you could teach me to let me talk to her?"

"What is that, Papa?" Jasana asked, leaning over her grandmother's leg and peering close to the viewing spell. "It looks like a big lizard someone painted."

"It's a drake, cub," he told her. "A blue drake. Remember the drakes that Phandebrass has?"

"I never got to pet them," she pouted in reply.

"They don't really like strangers, cub," he told her.

"Sathon didn't teach you the spell to talk to animals?" Triana asked in surprise. "It's a basic Druid spell."

"He did, but this is a rather special animal, mother," he replied. "She's not what you'd consider a natural animal. I wasn't sure if the spell would work, or if it would cause her harm, so I wanted to make sure of things with you before I tried."

"You can use the spell on a drake, Tarrin," she assured him. "At least you were wise enough to check with me before trying."

"I don't want to hurt her, mother."

She nodded, then seemed to study him carefully. "You do look a little stressed, cub. What's wrong?"

"Just the situation, mother," he replied carefully, glancing at Jesmind. "I'll be happy when we're back on dry land."

Triana was quiet a moment. "Just bed her, cub," she announced bluntly, taking Tarrin aback.

"What?" Jesmind demanded. "Tarrin, is Kimmie causing you trouble?"

"Well, not trouble," he said quickly. "We're just starting to--"

"Drop it, cub," Triana said flatly. "You can't lie to me, and I'm not blind. If Kimmie's interested, bed her."

"Mother!" he gasped.

"Stop thinking like a human, Tarrin," she ordered. "You're not Jesmind's exclusive property, no matter what you may think." Jesmind glared at Triana, but said nothing. "After all, cub, it's just sex."

That seemed to strike at the core of his dilemma, caught between the Were-cat's casual attitude towards that kind of thing, and his human association with fidelity as part of a relationship. He blew out his breath and gave Triana a helpless look, then avoided Jesmind's eyes. "It feels like cheating," he admitted.

"There's no such thing among Were-cats, cub," she chided him. "A female gets exclusive rights to a male only as long as she can keep him. When Jesmind let you leave, she let you go, and when she did that, she gave up her claim on you. Kimmie knows that, and that means that if she knows you're interested, she'll come after you with everything she's got. If she does that, you'll bed her whether you want to or not. It's best to do it willingly, so you don't have any guilt over it afterward."

"Jesmind may have had to let me leave, but I never said I was leaving her," he explained to his bond-mother. "It just doesn't seem right to me, mother. It just doesn't."

Triana looked at Jesmind expectantly. Jesmind seemed to be ready to challenge her mother's will, but that defiance died as soon as Triana's expression turned ominous.

"Alright!" Jesmind snapped at her mother. "Tarrin, I--damnit, I don't want to do this!"

"You'd rather leave Tarrin in pain?" Triana asked archly. "I knew you were selfish, cub, but this even surprises me!"

"Gramma, what's wrong?" Jasana asked in a small voice.

"You're learning how not to treat a mate, little cub," Traina told her firmly. "Your mother is putting her desires over your father's needs. She's being very selfish and stubborn, and her selfishness is going to make your father sick, because he won't do what he needs to do unless your mother tells him it's alright."

Jesmind averted her gaze from her mother. "If I let him go, he may not come back," she protested weakly.

"Are you sure you know him at all, you foolish cub?" Triana bored into her. "Don't you trust him, or do you just think you're not woman enough to keep him?"

That hit a nerve. Jesmind raised her gaze and looked at her mother challengingly.

"Papa won't leave us, Mama," Jasana said assuringly. "He promised to come back."

"Alright," Jesmind growled. "Tarrin--I can't believe I'm saying this! Tarrin, if Kimmie's after you, go ahead. But don't get too friendly with her!" she warned in an ugly tone. "And tell her that me and her are going to talk about this when you get back!"

"It's not her fault, Jesmind," Tarrin said defensively. "It's my fault. I made it worse when she cornered me about why I've been avoiding her and dragged the truth out of me. She said she'd be after me. She even told me to tell you that, and that she'd be happy to step aside when we got back to Suld."

"Oh, sure she says that now," Jesmind snapped. "Just like she said she wouldn't touch you!"

"She never did," he told her. "I told you, it's my fault."

"You're a male, cub," Triana told her mildly. "A male trapped on a ship with a female that has interest in you. There's nothing either of you could do about it."

"You did this on purpose, didn't you!" Jesmind suddenly accused. "You knew Kimmie had it for him, didn't you! That's why you sent her!"

"That's why," Triana admitted shamelessly. "Tarrin needs to learn what it's like to be with another female. It'll make things easier for both of you when you do finally part ways."

"I can't believe it! My own mother engineers a plan to steal my mate!" she shouted, standing up.

"I didn't allow anyone to steal anything," Triana said calmly. "Gods, woman! If you don't trust Tarrin enough to be a Were-cat male, then you should go find a human!"

"What does that mean?" Jesmind snapped.

"It means that of all people, I thought you, an elder female, would understand the nature of our kind," she replied bluntly. "Isn't it you that taught Tarrin the difference between emotion and sex? Weren't you secretly seducing him even when you were supposed to be killing him?"

That made Jesmind blush furiously, sitting back down and assuming a meek posture.

"Didn't think I knew about that, did you?" Triana challenged mockingly. "The point is, daughter, don't give yourself rights and then deny them to Tarrin. If it were another male in the Tower that had your eye, you wouldn't think twice about bedding him. And don't deny it."

Jesmind blew out her breath, then nodded silently. That stung Tarrin a little bit, but in that moment he began to understand what Triana was trying to get across to him. To both of them, for that matter. "If I got this jealous every time Thean took another female for mate, all my hair would be white and my fur would fall out," she said in an accusing tone. "Both of you had better learn how to deal with knowing the other is with someone else. Part of this is to teach both of you that there is life after you break up."

Both Tarrin and Jesmind were uncomfortably silent, and Tarrin just looked at Jasana. His daughter was listening attentively, and didn't seem to understand the emotion involved in Triana's words.

"So, Tarrin," Triana said. "If Kimmie interests you, take her. She won't say no. I guarantee it. And Jesmind," she said sharply. "Learn to trust Tarrin. He loves you, and when he comes back, he'll be yours again. Until then, let him learn what it's like to be mates with some female other than you. Let him learn the same thing you learned when you were his age."

"I don't like it," Jesmind growled.

"I don't like it either," Tarrin agreed. "It still feels like cheating."

"There is no such thing, cub, and if you say that one more time, I'm going to come over there and educate you personally," she warned.

"Yes, mother," Tarrin said meekly.

"Good," she said with a snort. "Now then, this spell is starting to get a bit heavy, so I'm going to end it. I'll talk to you later, cub," she told him, looking at him. "And don't get the idea that I'm not going to check up on you. If I find out you're resisting your instincts out of some kind of loyalty to Jesmind, I'll be cross with you. Loyalty to a mate is in your head and heart, not between your legs."

Tarrin sighed. "Yes, mother," he said.

"Alright then. I'll talk to you in a few days."

And then she ended the spell without another word from anyone.

Tarrin sat there a long moment, stroking Sapphire's scales, considering the spoken and unspoken lessons Triana had given him. That it was alright to have interest in other females, that it was natural for a Were-cat. And that he could love Jesmind and be mates with Kimmie. Kimmie had said it, but he hadn't really thought it possible until Triana said it and he saw Jesmind admit that if she found a male she found interesting, she would take him for mate in his absence. Were-cat culture didn't associate sex with fidelity to a mate as human culture did, and that was probably his hardest problem to overcome. It would be virutally impossible, given the number of females to males and the power of the instincts. Cats were not pair-bonding creatures, and that heavily affected the human flavor of their makeup.

It wouldn't be the same. Then again, it wasn't supposed to. Kimmie was not Jesmind. Kimmie was her own female, unique and different, as all Were-cats were. But perhaps, that was the lesson Triana wanted him to learn.

Either way, he'd have to get it overwith. He wasn't ready for a relationship with Kimmie, but he doubted if she would object if he proposed a single night's encounter. If Kimmie started coming after him, waggling her tail in his face and putting even more into her scent than she had been already, he'd not be a pleasant person to know if he resisted her.

If it had been anyone but Kimmie, he wouldn't have been surprised. But even the blue-eyed, very unusual Were-cat proved that, as she had told him a while ago, she was just as hot-blooded as any other female.

But that could wait until tomorrow. As long as he stayed away from Kimmie, he'd be just fine. Looking down on the little ridges and spines on Sapphire's back, he dredged up the spell that Sathon had taught him, the spell for communicating with animals. It was a spell of intent more than image, for it was hard to form the spell's effect in a visual manner. When he had the series of cascading meanings and intents arranged in his mind--it was a surprisingly complicated spell--he reached within, through the Cat, and came into contact with the endless energy of the All. It saw into his mind, read his intent and looked at his image, and then responded to what it found there. It came as a sudden expansion of self, surprisingly enough to him, and his awareness of the little drake in his lap increased dramatically.

He realized why immediately. Drakes were animals, with no concept of language that he would understand. So the entirety of their communication, with each other and themselves, came in the forms of images, emotions, memories of scents and sounds, and impulses. The spell literally opened a window into the drake's mind and allowed him to read into that multitude of various concepts that formed the core of the animal's thought, read into it and translate it into words he understood. The spell would also take his words and transform them in the drake's mind into the form that she would understand. Thus allowing them to talk with one another.

Another surprise was the complexity of the mind that could see now. Phandebrass was so correct when he said that drakes were very smart. Sapphire was a very intelligent little animal, capable of emotions and comprehension that went beyond what most animals could understand. But despite that intelligence, she was still an animal, still governed by instinct and impulse.

"I know you can understand this," he said aloud. That caused the drake to crane her neck, to look up at him with clear surprise showing in her eyes. "I think you know what I am, so it shouldn't be too much of a shock."

You are an Earthbrother, came the reply. I could sense it in you.

"That's right," he agreed. "I'm using Earth magic so we can talk, so we can come to some understandings."

What is there to understand? You please me, and you care for me. I will stay with you.

"I'm glad to have you, but there are some things you have to learn if you want to stay with me and not cause trouble for yourself and those around you, Sapphire."

What does that word mean?

"It has no true meaning, but it's a word that people will associate with you. It's called a name. When someone thinks of you, they will think of that word."

A name. What a strange concept. My scent is who I am.

"Yes, but few of those around me can smell that, Sapphire. They're much different from you."

Truly, it seems. How alien.

"You should get used to it. When you hear that word, people are either trying to communicate to you, or they're speaking about you to another."

Strange, but understandable.

"I'm glad you agree. Now, the first thing. The furred ones, like the one you shocked the night we met. They're not enemies."

It attacked me.

"No, it wanted to look at you. It had no meaning to hurt you. It was a mistake. The furry ones that all smell the same, they're not all your enemies, Sapphire, but I won't tell you that all of them are friends. You should approach each one separately. Don't think all of that species are enemies, but don't assume that all of them are friends either."

I understand. It is so among my kind as well. Some are friendly, some are not. The learning takes time.

"Good. That goes for the hairless ones, like the dark female that's spent the last couple of mornings with me. Approach each one as neither friend or enemy, until it proves itself one way or the other."

Her scent pleases me. She smells of spices. She is of the same kind as the dark tall one and the dark short one and the short pale one?

"The species is very diverse," he replied. "There are many kinds within the kind. Just as you are blue, but the other two of your kind that live with us are red."

Ah. They are cousins to one another.

"Something like that." He stroked her side gently. "There are some things you'll need to learn, Sapphire, actions that you'll need to perform when I say certain words. They're not meant to degrade you, but you do need to know them for when I understand something you may not, things that deal with the beings around you."

You are pack-leader. I will obey, in all things.

"I'm glad you feel that way. If I may ask, why were the others attacking you?"

My pack was killed by the stone-makers. I survived. The pack attacking me was claiming the territory of my former pack.

"I'm sorry to hear that."

I am alive, I am here, and I am content. That is all that matters.

Tarrin understood that mentality. It came from her instincts. "I can't speak to you like this all the time," he told her. "Most of the time, I'll be trying to speak to you with the words that ones like me use."

The funny sounds?

"Those," he affirmed. "In time, you'll come to understand that they are different, and they have certain meaning. Like the sound Sapphire meaning you."

A strange way to communicate. Where are the scent-marks, the language of stance and set?

"We don't use those forms," he told her. "There is some information that passes along in the language of the bodies of our kinds, but mostly we communicate using the sounds."

If that is how it must be, then that is how it will be, she said diffidently. I will learn.

"Good. I hope you'll be happy here."

You are kind to me. You feed me, and you share your territory with me. Why would I not be content?

"Why indeed?" Tarrin chuckled in reply.

After the conversation, Tarrin felt comfortable with leaving the room with Sapphire. For as long as he could maintain the spell, he taught her the names and appearances of his sisters and his close friends, those she should not fear, explained some of the intrinsic dangers the ship may pose, things her animal mind wouldn't understand any other way, and taught her nearly as many commands as Phandebrass had taught Chopstick and Turnkey. She was very intelligent and she learned quickly, and it didn't take long to teach her everything she'd need to know to keep her safe up on deck. By the next morning, Sapphire knew where it was safe to perch and where it wasn't safe, not to get around the cannons, to avoid the Wikuni sailors and not interfere with their tasks, and who among the people on the ship she could approach without fear. If course, it had taken some convincing to prove to her that Keritanima and Miranda weren't enemies, but in the end she accepted the fact for what it was.

Tarrin learned that she may be obedient, seeing him as the dominant, but she certainly had a stubborn mind. She was very headstrong.

When he came up on deck with Sapphire the next morning, he could tell immediately that the sailors were nervous about her, and wouldn't take their eyes off of her. She had zapped quite a few of them the morning he had accepted her, and they weren't exactly going to be very forgiving about it. Sapphire could sense their hostility, and was hostile to them in kind. She didn't attack them, but she made sure to hiss at any Wikuni that got close to her. That made them afraid, and that seemed to satisfy the drake in a most effective manner. She was almost smug by the time he found a nice stool and sat down near the bow, waiting for Camara Tal.

What he got instead was Kimmie. He scented her long before he saw her, and her scent was almost intoxicating in its allure. Kimmie had been true to word, somehow being able to put her attraction for him into her scent, then broadcasting it to him in a way that almost no male could resist. She plopped down on a rope coil against the bulwark, wearing one of her usual peasant dresses, a dress that wasn't laced up quite as tightly in front as usual. The result was that quite a bit of Kimmie's rather impressive cleavage was peeking out from that neckline, a calculated effort to remind him that Kimmie was very much a woman.

"Well, I'm glad to see you come out of hiding," she said with a smile. "Did you talk to Jesmind?"

"I did," he replied evenly, looking down at her.

"And what did she say?"

"What could she say?" he challenged.

"Knowing Jesmind, she probably had quite a bit to say," she said mildly, but her eyes were dancing with mirth. "But let's skip over all the cursing and the ranting and the raging and get down to the part of her tirade that matters. Did she tell you yes or no?"

"It was something like a yes under protest," he replied blanly. "Triana was there, so she couldn't say as much as she wanted."

"Triana? Why was she there?"

"Following up on what she started," he replied, giving her a slightly accusing look. "Triana sent you with me specifically hoping we'd get together."

"She did? That's surprising, considering you're her daughter's mate."

"I think Triana wants me to learn some things I can't learn with Jesmind," he told her. "I think I've already learned some of them."

"Like what?"

"Like not confusing love for attraction, I think," he replied.

"I went through the same thing. I was all but ready to marry the first mate I had after turning Were. I was devastated when he rejected me," she said with a little sigh. "Maybe Triana doesn't want to see you go through the same thing."

"Maybe. I can't say I feel very comfortable with it, Kimmie," he admitted. "I mean, yes, I find you attractive, but I can't help feeling like I'm betraying Jesmind."

"Tarrin," she sighed in exasperation. "I'm not asking you to turn your back on Jesmind. I told you that! I don't want anything from you other than a good time and a little fun. You and I are friends, Tarrin. Good friends. I told you a while ago that we could be good friends and mates at the same time. The mating won't interfere with our friendship unless you let it." She reached up and put her paw on his knee. "What you have with Jesmind, I respect that, Tarrin. I'm not asking for that. I just want your attention and your companionship. That's why Were-cats usually mate. For attention and companionship. Not for love."

Tarrin was silent a moment, then looked down at her. She smiled. "Now, can you give me attention?"

"I'd be hard pressed not to right now."

She grinned. "Can you give me companionship?"

"What do you mean by that?"

"Can you be my friend, Tarrin?"

"I'm already your friend."

"Then we'll be a good match," she assured him. "You can go right on loving Jesmind, so long as you don't let her interfere with what we'll have."

"I'll try."

"And I'd appreciate it if you didn't shout out her name while we're making love," she told him boldly. "That really annoys a girl, you know."

Tarrin looked at her, then laughed helplessly. He'd always thought he understood what it meant to be mates with a female. At that moment, he realized how wrong he'd been.