Baako brushed hair back from her face, and smiled. Uduak tiredly returned the smile, then looked over at where Liam sat, holding the newborn. Her son was staring at her daughter with a wonder-filled smiled on his face as he cuddled her protectively. “What do you see, little lamb?” She sat up a little, then regretted it as the ship rocked.
“Ama.” Liam’s voice held awe. “So many possibilities. Like the breath of life crossing the world.” He touched her cheek. “The storm is singing to her.” He tilted his head, then shifted to turn to the sailor near the door. “No. Tell them to turn to port. We will hit reefs if we try to ride the edge. Into the storm, and all deck hands tether. It will be hard but over fast.”
“You heard him.” Uduak gestured. It was almost unnecessary. Her crew had been thrilled at her son’s return. They knew well not to doubt him. The Phoenix had little reason to fear anything while he was aboard.
The ship lurched again, but it didn’t take long before she could feel the sea calming around them. “Ama.” Liam lifted the infant so he could whisper to her. “Don’t worry. I’ll make sure they don’t catch you.” He winked at Uduak.
She let out a sigh before laying back and looking up at her husband. “It is as you feared.” Her voice was grave.
“They’ve allied against us.” He gave her a despairing look. “May the sea have mercy.”
He smiled as Adaeze sat next to him, and put his arm around her shoulders. She shifted to snuggle close. “Ama is adorable.”
“She is.” Liam nodded.
“New crewman almost didn’t listen to the tether order.” She frowned. “Abeni tied him off anyway. He was about to untie himself when the wave came over.” Adaeze smirked.
Efua’s voice came from the left. “He was much less argumentative when we hauled him back aboard.” She chuckled. “The crew is glad their good luck is back.” She plunked herself down nearby. “Where are we sailing next?”
“South, but not for a couple days.” Liam shrugged. “Still need to finish loading, and wait for some pirates to move on.” He smiled. “We’ll be to the archipelago in time for the shipsmeet.”
“Good to know.” Efua rubbed his head as she stood again.
Liam took a step back, only to realize that he was effectively cornered. Zuri smiled at him. “Hello again, Liam”
Shipsmeets were a time for meetings, for forming friendships and courting. Being flirted with was a common enough occurrence, one he even enjoyed at times. At least, he enjoyed it the times it was all in good fun. There was nothing fun in Zuri’s eyes, only the cold, calculating gaze of a predator that has found prey. “Zuri.” He took the cup she offered him almost automatically.
“I do believe you’ve actually grown taller than last I saw you.” She put her hand on his arm. Her fingers trailed upwards toward his elbow. “It’s rather enthralling.”
He took a drink, mostly for the excuse to pull his arm away from her. Then he gave the wine an odd look. It was different than they were serving on the deck. “I should…” He started to shift to the side to extract himself, only for her to move just a little to close off the avenue of escape. The trouble was Zuri was of sufficient rank that he couldn’t just push his way past or otherwise insult her. At least, not without a host of unpleasant consequences. And she knew that as well as he did. With his powers generally focused on the wellbeing of the ship, they didn’t do him much good at avoiding minor inconveniences.
“Do you like the drink?” She smiled.
“It’s fine.” He took another drink.
Zuri kept up a string of conversation, ignoring his attempts to politely excuse himself from the conversation. When he tried finishing the drink so he could claim a need to go up top to fetch another, she simply refilled it from a flask she had with her and kept talking. And touching him. Her hand never left his arm, and when he tried to sidle past, she seemed to take it as an invitation to press her body against his.
“I’ve spoken with my captain, and she’s agreed to speak with Captain Uduak.” Zuri smiled up at him before trailing her fingers along his arm.
“Speak to…” His eyes widened.
“It’s rather amazing a lovely boy such as yourself has gone unclaimed this long.” She started to go up on her tiptoes, and he realized with some horror that she was intending to kiss him. He put the cup to his lips, taking a gulp to prevent the action.
The drink was stronger than he’d expected. He already felt a bit dizzy. “I should…” He shook his head, then regretted it a little as the world swam around him.
“Liam.” Efua’s voice came from the hall. It was all Liam could do not to breathe a sigh of relief as she entered. Efua’s eyes immediately narrowed. “Zuri.”
“Efua.” Zuri kept her hand on his arm in a possessive gesture. “You’re interrupting.” Her voice stayed light, but there was a bit of an edge to it.
“I can see that.” Efua stepped further into the room. He met her eyes, giving her a slightly desperate look, but couldn’t quite make himself focus. He leaned on the wall as his limbs began feeling watery. “Kindly remove your hand from him.”
“I was just telling Liam here that I intend to place a claim with —”
“Zuri.” Efua’s voice hardened. “Kindly remove your hand from him.”
“How dare you —” Zuri started shaking her head.
“Zuri.” Efua glared. “I will not ask nicely a third time.”
“Perhaps you don’t know my rank.” Zuri tightened her grip on Liam’s arm.
“I don’t care if you’re the queen’s personal ass-licker.” Efua took a step forward. “Get your hands off him.”
“You —” Zuri started to take a step forward herself before apparently remembering Efua was a shaman. She glanced over her shoulder at Liam, then made a growling sound before striding out of the hall.
He started to take step forward himself, then staggered, catching himself on the wall. “I’m…”
“Oh Liam.” Efua shook her head. “How much did she give you?”
“How is the head?” Uduak rubbed Liam’s back soothingly.
“More embarrassed than pained.” Liam sighed. “Really should have seen that coming.”
“While I would like it if you took more care with your own safety, that was not your fault.” Uduak shook her head. “Zuri’s captain has demoted her.”
“She was lucky she wasn’t flogged.” Baako’s voice was angry.
“Efua showed up before anything that would have been a flogging offense could occur.” Liam exhaled, then smiled. “I suppose I’m fortunate she’s a little overprotective.”
Efua had never forgotten that he’d defended her from the Unitafels and suffered in her place. “Frankly, Zuri’s fortunate things hadn’t progressed further before she came upon the scene.” Uduak stood, then picked up the fussing Ama. No sooner did she sit back down than Ama lunged at her brother. Liam took her, then leaned down to nuzzle her belly and make her giggle. “When Efua learned Zuri had deliberately dosed you, she and Adaeze had to be talked out of arranging a keel-haul.” And it was clear that most of the crew could have gone along with the process.
She blinked when Liam started laughing. “Liam?” Baako put a hand on Liam’s shoulder.
“It’s just…” Liam shook his head. “This is home.”
“Of course it is.” Uduak kissed his cheek.
She kept a firm hold of Liam’s hand, and felt him squeeze hers as yet another ignored the implicit claim to come over and invite him to dance. At sixteen, he was more than eligible and not all of them took hints well. Zuri was still fresh in her memory. “It would help if you weren’t so tall.” She sighed. “You are far too easy to pick out of the crowd.” It also didn’t help that he was nearly two feet taller than she was.
“And I hit my head on the ceiling sometimes.” He smiled at her.
“That’s just funny.” She grinned up at him. Then she stood, pulling him with her. “Let’s go ashore.”
The island was small, not really sufficient to support a colony, but it was often used as a way point by the Ilael and there were a few buildings and even a tavern of sorts. After a moment of consideration, she decided against visiting them. She led Liam into the trees instead. They sat in a small glen, laying back on soft moss as they looked up at the stars. “I like it out here.” Liam put his arm beneath her head, pulling her close to him. “It’s quiet.”
Adaeze turned to curl up next to him. Her breasts brushed against his side, and she laid her hand on his chest. She waited a few moments. “Liam?”
“I’m sorry.” He started shaking his head.
“Shhh…” She rubbed her hand across his torso soothingly. “It doesn’t bother you when I kiss your cheek.”
“That’s…” Liam exhaled. “A different kind of kiss. It’s not…” He swallowed. “Hungry.”
Her leg went over his as she lay next to him. With her head on his chest, she could hear his heart racing. If she pushed, he’d flee. Like he always did. She knew he cared about her, that it wasn’t her he was fleeing. It wasn’t her kiss that made him recoil with terror. Perhaps she was simply pushing from the wrong angle. “Stay here.” She stood.
It only took her a couple moments to find what she was looking for and return. He was sitting up, waiting for her. His eyes widened a little when he saw what she was carrying. Adaeze sat down next to him, and took hold of his hand. “Adaeze…”
“Do you trust me?” She met his eyes.
“Yes.” There was no hesitation to his answer.
“Lay down.” He obeyed, laying back on the moss. “Do you trust me?”
“Yes.” He swallowed.
She tied the length of rope around his left wrist, sliding a finger beneath the knot to ensure it wasn’t tight. The knot wouldn’t slide, and could be untied again with a single pull. “Do you trust me?”
Gently, she pulled his arm up to secure his wrist to a tree root. “Do you trust me?” She moved and caught his other hand.
“Yes.” He stared up at her, his face calm, but she could see him shaking just a little. She secured his right wrist just as carefully as she had his left.
He wasn’t helpless. Given a bit of time, he could grab the ends of the knots and free himself. And if he yelled, someone would hear. But that wasn’t the purpose of the bonds. Adaeze laid down next to him, and put her hand back on his chest. She could feel his heart beating. He tested the restraints. She’d been gentle, but she hadn’t left him much slack. His movements were limited. She could feel the tension in his body, the fear. But he didn’t struggle. “Do you trust me, Liam?”
“Yes, Adaeze.” He nodded to her.
“Lay still.” She reached a hand to touch his cheek, then moved up to touch her forehead to his. “You’re safe with me, Liam. You can lay down and let go.” She caressed him as she spoke, and felt him pull at the restraints again. “You don’t have to fight, Liam. Surrender and let me guide you.” She moved her head down, and saw his eyes staring at her, warm and liquid.
“Adaeze…” He started to shake his head.
“Breath, Liam. Listen to me. Listen only to me. I am the only one here.” She touched her forehead to his again, and listened to the sound of him doing the breathing exercise Efua had shown him. In and out. In and out. Deep breaths. “Trust me, Liam.” Beneath her, she could feel his body slowly start to relax. “Surrender to me.”
“Yes.” His voice was soft.
Once more, she lowered her head. Her lips were almost close enough to brush his as she spoke. “Do you trust me, Liam?”
He recoiled from the kiss, but the restraints caught him again, holding him fast. “Do you trust me, Liam?”
At her voice, he stopped the struggles. “Yes, Adaeze.”
“Surrender to me. Follow me. Come with me.” She kissed him again.
This time, she felt him return the kiss.