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Excerpt for Male Lovers of Silvery Earth Volume 3 by , available in its entirety at Smashwords



Male Lovers of Silvery Earth

Volume 3

Barbara G. Tarn


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Barbara G.Tarn copyright © 2019

electronic edition by Unicorn Productions

Cover Art by Eleonora Conti

March 2019

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Table of Contents

Water Creatures

Saif's Story

Birdsong

Princess Sapphire

The Initiation of Jonik IV

Water Creatures


Leonard breathed the salty air and relaxed on the Demerara deck. The cog was a round, bulky one-mast vessel with high battlements, a steep hull and a very deep hold that could carry a lot of cargo, and Leonard had felt at home as soon as he had stepped on the deck.

The Demerara was one of the ten ships owned by Leonard's father, a wealthy merchant of Maxwetria, and she sailed the deep swells of the ocean with natural ease. Leonard had enjoyed his first sea voyage and had been looking forward to the second that would take him back home.

Leonard looked younger than his twenty summers, since he had very little facial hair on his still boyish face, and the crew had teased him mercilessly on the outward journey, saying he should be a ship boy instead of a revered passenger headed for a faraway country to get his bride.

Leonard hadn't been offended, his head still full with his grandfather's tales of the ocean and its mysteries. He had sighted whales and dolphins, pointing them out excitedly to whoever was listening – usually the guards his father had sent to protect him more than the sailors who were busy with their duties.

He wished he could become a sailor, although he'd have to embark on someone else's ship. Captain Robert had been in the family's service for almost two decades and would never put him to work on the Demerara.

He watched the coastline and the towers of Florentine vanish before turning to look at Sophia who was pouting again. She had pulled up her fur-brimmed hood to hide her raven hair and held her cloak tight around her voluminous gown. All wrapped in her heavy clothes, she looked as unhappy as the day she had agreed to marry him.

Parents' pressure. Leonard knew about it and was determined to make the best of it. He was a merchant's son and this marriage was just another part of his father's business. Sophia should know better than blaming it on him.

His blue eyes took in the pretty young woman in fine clothes again. He'd thought himself lucky when he'd first met her, but now he knew better. Sophia might be pretty, but she was strong-willed and very spoiled. Suffice it to say her mother called her "Princess". Not that Leonard couldn't treat her as such in his wealthy father's townhouse, but he thought she should earn it.

He could understand her unhappiness at leaving her hometown and crossing the ocean, especially since she came from a matriarchal society. Her mother had ordered her to marry Leonard, and she had obeyed grudgingly. Leonard didn't despair to get closer to her after they settled in his father's palace in Maxwetria, though.

They weren't traveling alone. Leonard's father had sent his personal guard to escort his son to get his bride and back. The soldiers didn't have much to do on the ship, unless pirates attacked it. Leonard had made a few new friends among the escort on the way to Florentine, but now he felt he should stay with his bride.

"This ship is safe and we'll get home in no time," Leonard said, trying to bring a smile to Sophia's face. "You know how mariners and seafarers report the ocean often emits a visible glow that extends for miles at night? It's true, I saw it! It's really magical!"

"Umph." Sophia didn't look at him. "I hate sea stories."

"My grandfather was a wonderful storyteller... don't you have any nice stories to tell?"

Sophia glared at him. "Two words, sea monsters!" she snapped. "My mother lost three ships to those beasts!"

"My father lost none," he replied. "Although my grandfather risked his life more than once. But that's why we now have captains working for us."

Sophia muttered something that was lost in the wind. She obviously hated ocean-faring ships like the Demerara. Her country seemed to have different kinds of ships, triremes more than cogs. Leonard had seen many in the harbor of her hometown.

He took a ribbon from his pocket and tied his long brown hair at the nape of his neck, sick of having to pull it away from his face. His cloak had no hood, unlike hers, but his woolen tunic and breeches kept him warm enough.

If his new wife kept brooding all day, he'd start leaving her at home and get his own ship. He'd have to challenge his father, but surely Captain Robert would give him some helpful advice. The captain of the Demerara might not hire him, but he'd been quite fatherly with him during the outward journey.

Here came Captain Robert with his typical sailor gait, his salt-and-pepper beard and hair blowing in the wind.

"How is it going, my lady?" he asked Sophia. "The cabin is ready for you."

"It better be," Sophia replied, upturning her nose. She joined her maid and went below deck.

Captain Robert followed her with his eyes.

"She's a handful," he said, shaking his head.

"Tell me about it," Leonard muttered.

He had slept in that cabin and had found it perfectly fine on the way to her hometown, but as soon as she had seen it, she had complained it was filthy and she couldn't set foot in it. Her poor maid was tasked to make it presentable with the help of a couple of ship boys.

"You'll be fine, Master Leonard," the captain said. "I'm sure she brings a good dowry for your father's coffers."

"Obviously." Leonard rolled his eyes. "I'd have preferred a ship, though!"

Captain Robert chuckled and winked. "Tell me about it," he whispered before going back to his men.

Leonard smiled despite himself. He might have a grumpy wife, but if he could convince his father to let him go on a ship... He'd always been drawn to the sea and had never feared the sea monsters of legends. Even though that was one of the reasons why his father had stopped going on the family ships after Grandfather's near death.

The coastline had vanished when the Demerara was attacked by a sea monster. The sea was as smooth as oil one moment, and then a huge tentacle sprang out and clung to the bulwark, almost capsizing her with violent shocks.

Leonard stared wide-eyed at the other tentacles trying to grab the hull. It must be a gigantic octopus, but why was it attacking them? The high battlements and empty cargo space kept the Demerara afloat, but the captain ordered to take the sail down.

Sophia and her maid ran on deck, screaming, "We're doomed!" and the young wife threw herself at Leonard, hanging to him as if he were a safety anchor.

Not much could be seen of the creature except for the grayish tentacles, but Leonard remembered the sea stories his grandfather used to tell him about the ferocious creatures of the abyss, and he began to fear for his life.

Captain Robert didn't panic and kept screaming orders to his crew. Harpoons came out and tried to make the octopus let go of the ship. Even the soldiers drew their swords and tried to cut the tentacles off the bulwark.

The crew did everything to keep Leonard safe and allow him to escape. His father's men put him in a lifeboat with his wife, her maid and a guard, while the sailors who had not yet fallen into the water tried to kill the sea monster.

All lifeboats were put in the water, but while all remained around the Demerara to fight the monster, his guard was instructed to leave. With his wife clinging to him and the guard rowing laboriously to get away from the disaster, Leonard stared in horror at the strange battle between the unseen monster and the brave little men on the Demerara. She had seemed so solid and safe when he'd seen her in the harbor, and yet she was now torn to pieces before his eyes.

His wife sobbed, terrified, but he had no tears left. The maid had curled up at the bottom of the lifeboat and was sobbing too. The guard clenched his teeth and rowed harder, away from the sinking ship.

Leonard prayed the giant octopus wouldn't turn on them when it was done with the Demerara. There were no islands in sight and the lifeboat had no supplies. It would be hard enough to reach land as it was.

The sea monster won its little war with the cog and sank back into the abyss as the sharks flocked to feast on the battle remains. The other lifeboats gathered under the sun and the guard breathed a sigh of relief, or perhaps of exhaustion, since his expression was still worried.

"What now?" Leonard asked as his wife stopped crying to look with fear and hope at the older man.

"We will try to reach the mainland," the guard replied with a grimace.

Except it was nowhere in sight. Leonard pursed his lips. "Which way?" He tried to remember the maps he had seen in his father's office and the advice from his grandfather who had been lost at sea at least once.

"I don't know," the man sighed, pulling the oars onboard. "I'm a palace guard, not a sailor."

"Then we could go the wrong way!" Sophia screamed.

"It's true, my lady, but what choice do we have? We have no food or water."

Leonard pondered, trying to ignore Sophia's hysterics.

"Let's join the crew," he said. "I'm sure the survivors know which way the closest land is."

"Of course, my lord." The soldier turned the boat around, resuming his rowing.

Captain Robert was among the survivors and he ordered all the lifeboats tied together. They had saved some supplies, but they wouldn't last long. Sailors and guards alike started rowing, according to the captain's directions, a short line of six boats that weren't made for sea travel.

But when the sun set, they were still on the high seas. Leonard had rowed too, but obviously the sailing ship had gone faster than they could row. Probably a favorable wind had taken it much farther than they could ever go. Lifeboats were good for shipwrecks near land, not for trouble in the high sea.

The men were tired, thirsty and hungry. A couple had drunk the sea water and gone crazy. Captain Robert ordered a stop, leaving the boats to float on the darkening sea. Maybe a current would grab them and take them closer to land.

They shared what they had – very little food and even less drinking water – and decided to take turns at the oars again. Hopefully under the moon it would be less harsh than under the scorching sun. The guard said he'd do first rowing duty, so Leonard huddled with the women at the bottom of the boat to get some well-deserved rest. Sophia was complaining as usual, but soon she drifted off to sleep.

During the night, the wind rose and the waves increased. Leonard awoke in the rolling boat when the first thunder exploded. Lightning lit up the dark and angry sea, and the soldier's efforts to control the boat were useless.

"We are adrift!" the desperate man cried, trying to overcome the screams of the wind with his voice while a shower of water soaked them to the bone. "We better entrust our souls to Padraig!"

"Who?" Sophia screamed. "It's the Goddess Aquamarine who can protect us!"

Leonard didn't care about the name of the god or goddess of the ocean. Whoever they were, they obviously weren't listening to their prayers.

No, he couldn't die like that. The god or goddess of the oceans couldn't claim him now. What did he do to end drowned by the angry sea? He was barely twenty and didn't even touch the octopus!

"Land ahead!" someone screamed from another lifeboat.

But waves kept jolting the boat, and the guard lost an oar. With just one it was impossible to control, but since it was still tied to the rest, they were probably going to make it. Leonard held tight to the boat, gritting his teeth.

And then a higher wave capsized the lifeboat. His wife screamed, but Leonard took a deep breath and closed his eyes as the water wrapped him in its cold embrace. His heavy clothes and cloak became like lead that dragged him to the bottom. Leonard abandoned himself to the fury of the waters.

***

Braydon left the marine highway feeling the tempest on the surface. It suited his gloomy mood to watch Water and Air fight, so he went up, swimming like an eel, unhappy with himself. The Parigha Nagho, or mating swim, was just a biological need where love had no influence, and it left him as empty as before.

His feelings for Ryrus hadn't changed, but he had followed instinct. His second Parigha Nagho, and he still didn't like them. Even every ten years was too often for him. And he probably had another dozen ahead of him.

Animal warmth and no conscious thought, only the bare act. He didn't even know the name of the woman he had mated with, and probably never would. He never saw the first one again.

Unless she gave birth to a blond baby, which would put him or her in the line of succession. Blond manes were so rare among the Waiora... And now that the madness was gone, Braydon resented that breeding impulse that had called him away from his underwater town.

Maybe Humans had it easier. They could mate when they wanted and with whomever they wanted. They had other complications in their societies, but well... nobody had it all on Silvery Earth. The Immortals made sure of it.

The rumble of the ocean mixed with thunder and lightning when he emerged from the swell of the ocean. The stars were hidden by dark clouds, and he wasn't far from a small island. He floated on the uneven surface, still frowning at the memory of the Parigha Nagho.

Ryrus had had his call too a few months earlier. And he had never come back. Agual had mentioned an underwater twister and slight quake that had moved a hydrothermal vent, killing tube worms, clams, mussels and any Waiora who happened to be close by when the gases and mineral-rich water had moved.

The damn breeding instinct hadn't allowed Ryrus and his partner to feel the danger and they'd been killed, liquefying under merfolks' impotent eyes. Agual had tried to warn them, but the madness had made them blind and deaf.

Damn instinct. Braydon had lost his life-mate and still felt empty. He might have just created new life, but he felt worthless and useless without Ryrus. Maybe he should move to the rivers and lakes of the mainland instead of sticking to the oceans.

And then he heard voices. Humans. There were Humans out in this tempest. Forgetting his problems, he dived again to reach the struggling Humans. They were trying to reach the island, but the currents were against them. The lifeboats were all tied to each other, but the oars had no traction in the angry waters.

Braydon located the boat closest to the coast and pushed the keel towards land, swimming against the currents. The others boats followed, and with a final push he sent the first one aground on a sandy beach. Then he realized a couple of the other boats had capsized, and there were people drowning.

Humans couldn't breathe underwater like him. Moving as fast as he could, he grabbed the men – and two women – two by two and took them to the sandy shore. The last one had already touched the bottom of the basin, too far from the actual beach to make it alive.

Braydon picked up the heavily clothed Human and saw it was a young man with long brown hair and a boyish face that reminded him of Ryrus. Not a good time to think about his beloved, but Braydon wasn't really thinking. Not straight at least.

He touched the pale lips of the young Human with his, breathing new life inside the limp body, cleaning his lungs and forming a bubble of air around his head. The young man was passed out, and Braydon hesitated.

He should really take him to the shore with the others. But he couldn't. He wanted to get to know the young man and see if he was different from the Waiora and maybe they could have what he'd had with Ryrus. The beautiful stranger had some Waiora blood, and Braydon could feel it. He wanted to hold the beautiful stranger tight and listen to his voice...

The bottom of the sea was quiet now. Braydon looked up towards the island, then down, towards the abyss and his hometown. He looked at the pale face of the young man in his arms, feeling his warmth against him.

He had already gifted the young man with Waiora power. He might as well take him home.

***

Leonard slowly awoke. The bed was very comfortable and he hugged the pillow with a sigh without opening his eyes. It was so quiet and dark, it must be early. No smells of food, maybe not dawn yet.

Around him there was a strange, muffled silence, and suddenly Leonard remembered.

The shipwreck, the terror, the water that swallowed him. His eyes widened in disbelief. Was he alive? He looked around. Apparently he was! He lay on a bed in a room with thick crystal walls that seemed to glow faintly and gave the place a bluish light.

The bed felt strange, as if it had a water mattress. His clothes had been replaced by a simple tunic of a nacreous fabric that barely reached his knees. No breeches, no boots, just sandals waiting for him on the stone floor. Leonard sat and felt the cold stone under his feet, so he slipped on the sandals.

Still stunned, Leonard exited the semi-transparent one-room house to find that it was identical to many others. Round, with a huge shell as a roof and a bubble of air around it, it seemed to be part of an underwater town. The little houses were lined up along a sandy street where instead of trees grew long strands of green kelp that moved silently in the current and coral trees, under that same bluish light that had welcomed him in the little house.

The underwater town was clustered around a crystal palace decorated with shells and mother-of-pearl, a building so different from the surface ones that Leonard gasped. Where was he? Not even the late Moren Emperor's palace in Moriana was so rich! He'd seen it once during childhood and would never forget that throne room but this... was so different!

Leonard took an uncertain step towards the larger building. It was obvious that in the bubbles that surrounded the houses he could breathe, but outside? He saw no passages between the air bubbles, nor people to ask for information.

He wondered if the little houses were just bedrooms, since there didn't seem to be anything else inside. Where were the kitchens or the fountains? Wait, there couldn't be fountains of freshwater under the sea, could there?

He started to think he was dead after all. He had drunk sea water and had gone mad. Then his stomach rumbled. He was hungry? He looked around again, puzzled. He saw seamounts in the distance, and merfolks swimming high up in the sky, no, water above.

The bluish light was soothing, but his heart started beating faster in fear. Where had he ended up? None of his grandfather's tales mentioned an underwater town!

And then he saw a group of people coming from the palace. They looked like him, but they were clearly breathing water. They walked lightly on the sandy street as if the water weren't there. When they were closer, he noticed they were all young, with dark hair and blue eyes. They looked very similar, as if they were all siblings, and they stopped in front of him, a few paces from the little house.

The group seemed to open up, and forward came a young man who wore the same tunic of a nacreous fabric that seemed to be a staple of the local fashion. He was the only blond one, with a flowing mane and pale blue eyes. Leonard found himself staring at the ethereal, unnatural beauty, gaping.

The blond young man smiled at him. "Welcome to the submerged lands of the Waiora," he greeted. "I hope you feel better. I am Braydon, prince heir of this city and this kingdom."

"Leonard of Maxwetria," he answered with a bow. "How did I get here? And where is here?"

"The bottom of the ocean, away from any land," Braydon answered. "Somewhere between Maadre and Varia."

"What?" Leonard stared wide-eyed at the blond young man, and saw the others chuckle among themselves. Braydon hushed them.

"Maxwetria is on the continent called Varia. Across from it is the continent called Maadre. Where were you traveling to, Leonard of Maxwetria?"

"I was going back to Maxwetria, from Florentine," he answered, still shocked.

"Florentine is on the coast of Maadre," Braydon explained.

"So what happened to Captain Robert and Sophia and everybody else?"

"You mean the people in the other lifeboats? They're safe on a desert island. They have food and freshwater. A ship will pass by in a day or two and take them to another Human port."

Leonard narrowed his eyes. "And why am I here instead? Who are you?"

"We are Water's people. The Waiora live in bodies of water, be it fresh or salted, and we don't have many contacts with Humans. But if some of your legends speak of water people saving you, that's us."

Leonard pondered. His grandfather had mentioned merfolks, not Waiora. This still didn't explain why he'd been taken to the underwater town.

"Why am I here again?" he snapped, glaring at Braydon.

"The ocean's ways are unknown," the Waiora replied. "Come with me to the crystal palace. My mother, the queen, wants to meet you."

Still frowning, Leonard followed them. Braydon asked if he was hungry, and indeed he was, so he nodded grudgingly. He realized he was walking through water as if it weren't there when a school of small, glittering fish crossed their way.

Puzzled, he looked at Braydon who smiled and nodded, as if it were perfectly normal for him. Then they reached the palace door and Braydon steered him to the left of the entrance, which had a grand staircase leading to the upper floors.

The other Waiora left, chattering among themselves, and Braydon led Leonard through a stately corridor to a kitchen where more dark-haired Waiora were cooking strange creatures. The kitchen must be a bubble of air like the little round bedrooms, but it didn't feel different from the rest of the palace. And it had peculiar smells. Leonard had eaten a lot of fish in his life, but whatever was boiling or frying in those pots and pans had a completely different smell from what he was used to.

Maybe the Waiora used different sauces? They didn't have vegetables underwater, did they? Braydon explained that they used fish, algae and seaweeds, and that Leonard should try the Waiora cuisine. It was obviously different from Human cuisine, but surely Leonard could appreciate it.

Leonard let his nose guide him to a soup that smelled good. The taste was a mix of sour and honey, not bad at all. It filled his belly and his stomach stopped grumbling. He drank without thinking from a jug set before him by Braydon and realized it was just water.

"Where do you get freshwater under the sea?" he asked, puzzled.

"Welcome to Water's land, where even Humans can survive with our help," Braydon said with an impish smile. "If you have had enough, come, my mother is expecting us."

Marina Meandanoa was the only blonde among many brunettes, and for this she had become queen of that underwater town. Besides the color of her hair and the many jewels of coral, pearls, gold and silver, she looked like the other Waiora women. She wore a long, sleeveless tunic of the same fabric as everybody else's clothes.

In that strange city there was only one type of fabric, the light veil used for clothes and bed sheets, iridescent under the light. A very resistant fabric in spite of its apparent weakness, and not really transparent. The nacreous reflections were mesmerizing, and Leonard's merchant eye was already weighting it. The Waiora fabric must indeed be precious, if only he could bring it to the surface and sell it.

And the jewelry! Were there gold and silver mines underwater? Only the Waiora could get to them, though.

The great hall was again filled with water, but the queen's long blond hair looked as dry as Leonard's and Braydon's. Her throne was shaped like a shell, and statues and carved columns decorated the walls. Colorful glass panels closed the tall windows with round arches.

Leonard answered politely the queen's questions then he was told that it was the time of the Long Rest. Did he prefer going back to the little house or would he rather stay in the palace as a revered guest?

Braydon's eyes seemed to plead with him and Leonard answered, "Whatever is better for you. I'm aware of being an intruder in a society I know nothing of, and I wouldn't want to offend you in any way."

Braydon looked relieved and the queen nodded her approval. A merman called Agual accompanied Leonard to his chamber. He had brown hair, a pale, hairless chest and a fish-tail of iridescent green instead of legs.

Leonard had never seen merfolks up-close before – and then he realized that if he was following a man-fish, he must be walking through water again.

"But how can I breathe underwater?" he blurted out. "And I can even talk!"

"Waiora wonders," the merman said with a smile. "There are Magical Races on mainland too, as far as I know."

"Not where I come from." Leonard shook his head, frowning. "Maybe during the Moren Empire? I know there were many legendary beings back then, but they vanished since..."

"I'm sure your grandfather mentioned the Genn to you," Agual replied, amused. "Their overland kingdoms were destroyed a century ago. The Waiora could only watch from the lakes and rivers, while the Sila observed from the air... And I'm sure the damn Fajrulo gave a hand to the Humans in their expansion plans! I think they passed themselves off as gods and goddesses."

Leonard glared at the merman. "I don't know what you're talking about," he muttered.

"Well, there's a library under the palace, you can always have a look there," Agual replied cheerfully. "Although I'm afraid most books are written in the Old Tongue... but I'm sure Braydon will happily translate them for you."

And he winked. Jarred, Leonard looked away. The upper floor of the palace was as majestic as the lower floor, and he was almost relieved when Agual let him inside a bedroom more or less the size of his own.

The guest room was warm and well lit like all the rooms of Waiora houses. The bed was big and soft, with no canopy, and covered with pillows that felt like silk, but were filled with water, just like the mattress.

"Try to get some sleep," Agual said. "Real sunlight never reaches here and it's never pitch dark either. If you have trouble sleeping with this suffused light, please call me. I'll bring you a sleeping tea."

Leonard nodded and looked at the merman again. "How do you differentiate night and day?" he asked.

"We don't," Agual answered with a smile. "There's only the Waking, lasting approximately sixteen hours, and the Long Rest, eight hours to get some sleep. Our beloved prince is an insomniac, though, so you might find him wandering the corridors of the palace too."

"Mm..." Leonard hesitated. "Does he have a wife?"

"Waiora don't get married." The merman was serious now. "But sometimes they find a Vivkunulo. It means life-mate in Old Tongue. Braydon lost his a few months ago, and he's still mourning."

Leonard nodded and slumped on the bed. He wasn't really tired, but the novelty was wearing him out. He needed to be alone and think.

Agual bowed and swam back, closing the door to the bedroom. Leonard sighed. It felt weird being in the water and not feeling it. His hair stayed on his shoulders instead of moving around him and he didn't feel wet.

He lay down, overwhelmed by the strangeness of it all. But he was alive, he had eaten and he felt comfortable now. His eyelids were heavy. He closed them and soon drifted off to sleep.

***

Braydon hadn't felt so alive in months. Since Ryrus's death he had felt empty and worthless, but now he was excited again. He must show the marvels of his world to Leonard and convince him to stay with them.

Agual came back to the throne room to say the young Human was settled. Meandanoa nodded, amused, and turned to look at her son.

"Are you happy now, Braydon?" she asked.

"I must find a way to make him see the beauty of our town," Braydon said. "And also warn him of the dangers, of course," he added, as Ryrus's face flashed inside him. Leonard should stay away from hydrothermal vents and not venture out when a storm hit the surface, since it could be felt even in the deep blue.

"He'll miss mainland," the queen warned him. "Even though he has Waiora blood, he won't stay here. Although he's young and might be re-educated."

"How old is he?" Braydon asked. He couldn't figure out Human's ages, but his mother was older and wiser.

"About twenty." Meandanoa looked at him with her turquoise eyes and a mischievous smile. "More or less like Ryrus when you first laid your eyes on him..."

Braydon's heart missed a beat. Of course his mother would notice the resemblance – everybody probably did. Agual, his friends, the cooks. They all knew why he had brought a Human to the town.

"I know Leonard is not Ryrus," he said, lowering his eyes. "But I want to get to know him and see where it takes us."

"I think Humans don't approve of same-sex relationships," Agual warned. "And one of the reasons why the Genn were chased underground was because they didn't look manly enough compared to those hairy barbarians!"

Braydon smiled despite himself.

"Thank you, Agual, but I know our history!" he said. "Unlike you, I can read, and have spent years in our library where you can't go..."

Agual stuck out his tongue at him and swam off.

"He is much older than you, Braydon, show respect," Meandanoa chided. "Try to get some sleep now. Enough wandering out during tempests."

"It was the Parigha Nagho, Mother," he muttered, rolling his eyes. "Have a good rest."

He gave a peck on her smooth, pale cheek and left the empty great hall to head for his chamber. Leonard was next door and he had to check on his guest. The young Human was fast asleep and Braydon caressed the long brown hair with a sigh.

"Sweet dreams, my prince," he whispered before retiring to sleep.

***

Leonard decided he wanted to learn as much as he could about the Waiora. One day, if he ever had grandchildren, he could tell them about his wondrous adventure underwater. The next Waking, Braydon took him to the palace library.

Behind a wooden door was an old-fashioned room with wooden bookshelves filled with books, parchments and manuscripts. Like the kitchen, the library was dry. It smelled like Leonard's father's office and there was a table where people could sit and write, taking notes from the many volumes around them. Light came from oil lamps that gave an orange glow to everything.

He was disappointed to discover most texts were in an unknown alphabet, but Braydon taught him how to read it.

Leonard lost track of time as he learned everything about seaweed and kelp, seagrasses and corals. Then there were tube worms, clams and mussels. Fish, octopuses, squid and eels. The sea mammals – dolphins and whales, otters, seals and walruses – and the crustaceans – crabs, lobsters, starfish, oysters and snails crawling and scooting along the ocean bottom.

There was so much life underwater that he sometimes felt overwhelmed. The sea monsters were real, but they usually didn't go near the surface or the Waiora town. He asked Braydon about the giant octopus that had attacked the Demerara and saw the Waiora prince ponder.

"I should find them and ask the reason for the attack," Braydon said at last. "Maybe your ship unknowingly threaded on the wrong place."

"Are you sure Captain Robert and his men are safe?"

"Yes, as a matter of fact, they have gone back to the mainland. Your father is mourning you..." The pale blue eyes stared at him in the orange light of the library. "Would you like to go home?"

Leonard hesitated. Going home meant following his father's orders again. Maybe having grumpy Sophia by his side. He knew what awaited him if he went home.

"Did Sophia go back to Florentine?" he asked.

"Yes, the two women went back to Maadre with another ship," Braydon answered.

"How do you keep track of what happens on the surface and mainland?" Leonard frowned. "Is it part of your magic?"

"We have magic users." Braydon smiled. "They have ways to keep an eye on mainland coasts. And merfolk often visit the shores."

"Oh. Lucky you. My gods never seem to answer me," Leonard muttered, unhappy.

"It's because you're praying to the wrong ones," Braydon replied. "Think of Earth. That's the Immortal who takes care of Humans."

The Waiora religion, or rather, the Magical Races' religion was fascinating. They said there were only five Immortals who governed the world. Those beings were pure energy who could have Human form, but not for lifespans since they couldn't recreate the decaying of the body.

The Waiora themselves were a wonder. They had a very pale skin for lack of sunshine and could turn into seals, otters or dolphins. They were sort of cousins to the merfolks and could live up to a century.

Braydon was twenty-nine, but he looked more or less the same age as Leonard. Probably because the Waiora had no body hair and no beard, or maybe because they aged differently than Humans. Marina Meandanoa was older than Leonard's mother and looked like her daughter.

The Waiora were also very good artisans. It wasn't only their nacreous fabric that looked so rich to a Human's eye, but also the pearl, coral and shells jewelry. They had forges in their undersea mines where they found gold and silver. The forges were also glass workshops and Leonard marveled at their glass creations.

Soon enough he found out they also liked music and dancing. The time came for a great ball in honor of the guest from the surface. Leonard was mesmerized by the people who might dress all the same, but still felt magic as they flipped and swirled in the water.

Braydon invited him to join them, and they danced, talked and laughed like at any surface party. Leonard participated mostly in the group dances, following clumsily Braydon's example, and he could hear the giggles of the Waiora girls at his expense.

Saying he was tired, he left the ballroom, but Braydon followed him upstairs.

"Are you all right?" he asked, worried. "Did those girls offend you?"

"Nah," Leonard answered with a shrug. "I mean, I'm used to it. I'm always the youngest and dumbest for some reason..." He sighed. "Please, don't mind me and go back to the ball."

"It was for you, if you're not there, I don't care," Braydon replied.

"Oh, all right." Leonard headed for his room, silently followed by the Waiora prince. He stopped in front of his door and turned to look at Braydon. "Well, thank you, but..."

Braydon's eyes caught his and he lost himself in that pale blue. He wasn't sure what was being said, but felt Braydon's warm hand caress his head and cheek. He felt his body pressed in an embrace and his lips sought Braydon's before he realized what he was doing.

The Waiora tasted good. Leonard closed his eyes and wrapped his arms around the Waiora's neck, enjoying the kiss. The resistance soon vanished – maybe Braydon wasn't used to kisses? – and Leonard leaned against the Waiora's body, feeling weak in the knees.

He gasped for breath and realized what he had done. He had kissed a man! Well, a male Waiora! Was he out of his mind?

Braydon's cheeks were flushed and he was still holding Leonard tight.

"Well, that was interesting," the Waiora said with a smile. "Is this how Humans show affection?"

"That was a kiss, yes, and I'm not supposed to kiss another man," Leonard said quickly. "But your lips are very... kissable."

"So are yours," Braydon replied before leaning to return the kiss.

***

Braydon loved the taste of Leonard's lips. Even exploring the young Human's body was a welcome novelty. He knew by then he was in love with Leonard and was happy when he discovered Leonard seemed to return his feelings.

"It's because he's here, away from home," Agual warned. "He's young and curious and in awe. If you go with him to the mainland, you'll lose him."

"Then I better keep him here," Braydon replied. "He hasn't asked to go home yet."

"But he will, and you know it. What will you do then?" the merman said.

Braydon shrugged. When the time came, he'd see. In the meantime he enjoyed Leonard's company. Sharing the bed with him and listening to his stories. He also told him about Ryrus and the life-mate thing as well as the Parigha Nagho.

Six months passed under the sea – six months that meant a couple of turns of seasons on the mainland but showed no difference whatsoever underwater. Leonard complained he was losing track of time and wanted to know what was going on with his family.

Braydon took him to the Deiva, the town's magic user. He could lie to Leonard, but he wanted his relationship to be based on truth. He explained to the young Human that the Deiva could open a "window" on the mainland and make him see his family.

"If it's what you really want," he added.

Leonard nodded eagerly. The Deiva, who was older than the queen but looked young in Leonard's eyes, smiled and took a crystal ball. For a Human it was better to have a physical object opening the window, although the Waiora didn't really need them.

Leonard gaped as the coastline came to life in front of his eyes. Zooming in, the Deiva reached Maxwetria, a town built around a harbor that was quickly expanding outside of its wood and stone walls with many gates.

A merchants' town with a growing economy, it had lavish temples and shoddily constructed buildings. Leonard's father's house was a wattle-and-daub townhouse in one of the main squares and it looked like it was afternoon, since the booths and stalls of the open-air market were almost all gone.

The Deiva kept zooming in and her vision entered the house where they saw Leonard's father bedridden and feverish. The old man didn't look like he had much longer to live. Braydon felt his heart sink.

He now faced a choice. Leave the underwater town to be with Leonard or go back to his lonely life without Ryrus.

***

Leonard couldn't believe his eyes. The vision felt so real he almost rushed to his father's bedside. Then he remembered he was underwater. He turned with a pleading look to his lover.

"Please, I must go home!" he said.

Braydon nodded, serious. It looked like autumn out there now, which made sense since Leonard has shipwrecked in spring. Braydon didn't waste time.

He gave him back his old clothes and pulled out a black garment with long sleeves for himself.

"Water is not so warm away from the town," he said. "And some marine highways are quite chilly even for me."

"Will you come with me?" Leonard asked, hopeful. "To the mainland? Allow me to return your hospitality?"

"Of course," Braydon answered. "Because I love you."

"I love you too," Leonard said with a sigh. "But I'm afraid we'll have to keep it to ourselves."

Braydon smiled. "Don't worry, I know what your people think of same-sex love. Let's go. Agual will show us the way."

It made sense that merfolk went farther than the Waiora. Agual seemed to know all the marine highways and underwater currents around the town. It didn't take much for the three of them to swim away from the abyss and when they reached the intertidal zone, the merman stopped.

"You can find your way to the surface, close enough to Maxwetria to reach the town dry and from a secondary road," he said. "Good luck, my prince. I hope to see you both again."

Leonard nodded, not daring to touch the merman, but saw Braydon hug Agual before telling him to go. Then they resumed their swim towards the surface and emerged, like the merman had said, on a small, isolated beach.

They climbed on the rocks and reached a dusty road that followed the coast. When they reached the town's gate, their clothes and hair were dry, thanks to the autumn sunshine. Leonard showed his medallion to the bored guard and the man waved him in.

The smells of Maxwetria filled Leonard's nostrils, making him giddy. How he had missed them! A bakery, a forge, heck, even a stable! He glanced at Braydon who walked, serious, by his side. Stray cats and dogs wandered around them and the busy people of Maxwetria rushed by, ignoring them.

"Are you all right?" It was his turn to worry for his guest.

"Yes, I'm fine," the Waiora answered. He looked Human, albeit with strange clothes and that androgynous beauty of his. The sun didn't seem to burn his pale skin.

Then they reached the square and the townhouse, and Leonard was busy going in, talking to servants and rushing by his father's side. It was too late for the old man, but at least he died happy, after seeing his beloved son was still alive.

Braydon looked puzzled by the funeral and burial. He admitted the Magical Races didn't leave corpses, therefore there was nothing to bury or burn. And for the following six months, it was Braydon's turn to study Human customs and religions, while Leonard took care of his father's trade.

Captain Robert now manned another ship and he was very happy to find Leonard alive when he came to pay his respects to the late merchant. He said Sophia had married someone else and therefore Leonard was free to look for another wife.

Leonard darkened at the thought. He liked sleeping with Braydon in his large elaborate bed, with ornamented canopies, richly embroidered hangings and soft feather pillows. He liked to curl up against Braydon under the fine linen sheets, not as smooth as the Waiora fabric, but it was his nest and he didn't want to share it with anyone else.

"What do you think?" he asked his lover as they cuddled on the woollen mattress. "I mean, I'm twenty-one, most at my age already have children... And if I don't marry, my family ends with me."

"I don't understand your inheritance laws," Braydon apologized, holding him tight. "But like we have the Parigha Nagho to breed even when we don't want to, I guess you could also breed even if you're not in love."

"Well, I was married for about two days to a woman I didn't love," he commented with a shrug. "She has remarried, thinking herself a widow, and I'm not going to tell her otherwise. I think noble spouses sleep in separate rooms, so I could do the same." He looked at Braydon's smooth, beardless face. "I sleep with you and visit the wife for the duties. What do you think?"

"I'm not the jealous kind," Braydon answered with a smile. "I think you are my life-mate, but I know it's different for Humans."

"Thank you, Braydon." Leonard would be eternally grateful to the Waiora who not only saved his life but also taught him a different kind of love.

***

Braydon knew he was losing Leonard. He didn't need Agual's prediction to know Humans' love was fickle when they went back to their element. In the bedroom Leonard was still his cuddly lover, but outside of it he was a shrewd merchant who knew his business.

Braydon met Leonard's assistants and friends – Markus, Oscar, Anthony – and pretended to be one of them. He listened as they suggested girls for Leonard to marry or deals he shouldn't let go. It still took Leonard six months to find a suitable bride, a shy blonde girl called Daisy.

Which meant he came to bed late at night if at all, since sometimes he fell asleep in his bride's bed. And then she was pregnant and he said he wanted to sail again. Because with Braydon surely he'd be safe and they could visit places together.

Braydon took it as a way to rekindle their relationship and felt relieved. Maybe not all was lost after all. Leonard still loved him if, as soon as he had impregnated his wife, he had decided to leave the townhouse.

The official excuse was finding new markets. Every now and then Leonard had suggested a trade with the Waiora, but Braydon wasn't going to listen to that proposal. No, the Waiora fabric wasn't for mainland people, and no, the Waiora jewels weren't for Humans.

Humans had gotten rid of the Genn who were even better jewelers than the Waiora, therefore no trade with Earth's children from the Magical Races. But he couldn't say that, so he simply pretended not to hear when Leonard suggested it.

He might be in love with a Human, but he was conscious of his duties as Waiora prince. He wasn't going to sell his people's wealth to greedy, uncivilized Humans. And the more Leonard stayed in Maxwetria, the more he behaved like his peers.

Braydon really hoped that sailing would bring back the young man he had fallen in love with.

***

Braydon and Leonard went to the harbor with Markus, Oscar and Anthony, spreading through the docks in search for a captain. Leonard's ships were all out, so he had to hire someone new.

Markus was now his brother-in-law, a bulky blond man slightly older than him who was more a scholar than a merchant but who had been the most interested in Braydon. Markus had gone to university and sometimes Leonard had listened, fascinated, to his conversations with Braydon.

Oscar and Anthony had worked for his father before becoming his assistants. In their late twenties, they knew a lot of people around the town and the harbor, and Leonard hoped they'd find him a ship.

Leonard and Braydon waited for the three young men at The Lonely Stallion Inn on the waterfront. It was somewhat grubby but decent and very small. There were few patrons at that time of the day and the crowd seemed mostly law-abiding. Most were sober and almost none was openly armed.

The bartender, probably coming from the south, had unusually dark skin and was of the gossipy kind, but he ignored Leonard and Braydon who took a mug of mead and went to sit by the door to wait for their companions.

Markus came back first, empty handed. He asked for a mug of mead and joined Leonard and Braydon at their table. Oscar and Anthony arrived with a thirty-year-old with light-brown hair and blue eyes who got himself a double mug of ale.

"Guys, this is Cap," Anthony said. "He will take us to the southern kingdoms. He's an old friend of mine, and he'll give us a discount."

"Also because no one wants to get on his boat, considering his fearsome enemy," Oscar added, sarcastic.

"No enemy is invincible," Leonard said.

"Mine is," Cap said. "It's a sea monster, half-seal and half-shark, long at least from here to the end of that dock." He pointed out of the window that opened next to the main door before downing half his mug.

"Siren!" Braydon said softly. "She swore eternal hate... you're the one she's looking for!"

"And how do you know?" Cap asked.

"He's a Waiora," Leonard said. "Water creature."

"Where did you leave your fish tail?" Cap teased. Braydon ignored him but Leonard scowled.

"Excuse me, do you want to get to the southern kingdoms or chase the monster?" Markus asked.

"Both." Anthony smiled.

"You are crazy," Markus said.

"We're leaving tomorrow morning," Cap announced. He emptied his mug, cleaned his mouth from the froth with the back of his hand and left.

"If you really want to chase a sea monster, I have to buy a couple of things," Markus decided. "Who's coming with me?"

"I am," Leonard said, rising. Braydon followed them, mildly curious.

***

Captain Simon, also known as Cap, had a two-mast schooner called Cachalot. His crew specialized in whale hunting, which made Braydon frown. Leonard was glad to be at sea again, although the rolling of Cap's schooner gave him nausea. But in spite of his discomfort, he stayed on the bridge with Braydon, Markus, Oscar and Anthony to watch the sailors.

"They have guts if they stay with Cap, even though they know what they're in danger of," Leonard commented.

"They've been together for years," Anthony replied. "The few who were afraid changed ships, and the monster found them and killed them. It seems that it recognizes them all one by one, that's why they decided to stick together."

"Then we're almost sure we'll meet the monster," Oscar muttered.

"I suppose so, it almost always manages to locate him," Anthony replied.

"I'm curious to know what Markus has in mind," Oscar said, glancing at his friend, who smiled and said nothing.

They had been at sea for a few days, when the lookout saw the Great Fin.

"Cap, it's coming!" he shouted immediately, alarmed.

Everyone ran to see, even Leonard and Braydon. They were too far from any coast to escape to a safe port. They had to fight and win the monster or they would all drown – except Braydon and Leonard, of course. The Fin moved steadily towards them.

"Siren," Braydon whispered. He seemed to lose himself in strange thoughts and for a few minutes the Fin stopped. Cap started to say something with a surprised expression, but Oscar waved him to silence. Time seemed motionless as the Waiora communicated with the sea creature, his expression trance-like and his hair flowing in the wind.

When Braydon relaxed, the Fin began to move forward, though more slowly.

"What did it say?" Cap asked curiously.

"You killed her children and she will kill you," Braydon answered softly. "Prepare for battle."

He went under deck and vanished in the passenger cabins.

"She's a girl!" Cap commented. "She fell in love with me!"

"It's so big you could never fill it!" Anthony teased.

"And you did not see it all," Cap said. "If I had a smaller ship, it would have already sunk me. And it's not impossible to think that sooner or later it will succeed even with this!"

The Fin was close now and a snout popped out of the water to stare at the little men on the ship with a malevolent eye.

"It's huge!" Leonard whispered, impressed. Almost as big as the blue whale he had seen on his first sea trip.

"Do you know his scientific name?" Oscar inquired with mild curiosity.

"Yes." Markus nodded. "Xomix zanze Rex. They feed on fish and have a scary accurate memory. Do them harm once and they will hunt you forever. I've never seen one, though! It's an abomination!"

"It's smart too, though it's got a very small brain," Cap said. "Be careful, because those who fall into the sea are lost. Its teeth don't forgive."

Siren circled the ship before attacking. The sailors wielded large hunting harpoons, but they knew that they were almost useless against that shiny and hard skin. Even Oscar's, who was a good javelin thrower, rebounded off Siren's back almost without scratching it.

Markus watched the battle, making quick calculations. He called Leonard to help him and took his purchases from the hold, while Siren repeatedly rammed the ship, which was dangerously rolling. Leonard helped Markus to make sausages full of a magical powder, while the sailors shouted to confuse the monster, who roared with anger.

"What is it?" Oscar asked, joining them.

"A gift for the beast," Markus answered. "Handle with care, when she swallows some of these, a torch will be enough to make her explode."

"Great!" Oscar said. "Who taught you how to handle this stuff?"

"Books, who else?" Markus grinned and winked.

At that moment the beast emerged from the sea under their eyes. She remained straight for a few moments. The shark-seal body came out of the water and then fell back with a thud. The shock wave flooded the bridge and almost capsized the ship. Some sailors were sucked away by the waves and Markus cursed because a lot of material was soaked. He recovered what he could for his bombs and hurriedly finished the job, instructing Leonard, Oscar, Anthony and even Cap to work faster.

The naive Siren grasped the first explosive sausage with anger between monstrous jaws. The sailors threw others at her, which she swallowed, thinking to spite them.

"What's your plan?" Cap asked, his short brown hair now dripping with brackish water.

"Did she swallow the lunch we offered her?" Markus inquired. "Then prepare the incendiary arrows, Oscar. It's your turn!"

"What's the target?" Anthony asked, approaching with his bow on his shoulder.

"Siren's mouth," Markus answered.

"To make her open it, you must anger her," Cap said. "I'll take care of it."

He took a harpoon and leaned over the sea, but first tied himself to the ship with a rope so as not to fall off in case of a sudden jolt.

"Hey, Siren!" he called. The monster showed an angry eye out of the water, staring back at him with hatred. "Get this!"

The harpoon struck the side of the eye, where the skin was probably softer. The scream of pain made the sails shake.

"Let's start moving away," Cap ordered the helmsman.

Oscar and Anthony kept an eye on the monster, while Leonard lighted the tips of their arrows with Markus. Two of Oscar's arrows missed Siren's moving mouth and they fizzed out in the waves. Anthony's first arrow flew in the throat of the monster.

"All down!" Markus shouted.

The explosion was deafening, and the ship rolled dangerously. When the smoke cleared, the remains of the sea monster floated on the sea.

"Let's get supplies!" Cap said as his men roared with cheers.

"Congratulations," said Oscar admiringly. "Nice shot."

"Who won the archery contest?" Anthony replied, beaming.

"We were all very good," Markus said. "Although for a moment, in front of the bulk of the creature, I feared that we wouldn't make it."

"Me too," Oscar admitted. "I don't know how Cap survived all these years."

"I was shipwrecked a couple of times," the captain said cheerfully. "And I once discovered a treasure trove of pirates on a desert island."

"What... er, luck," said Markus. "Now can we please stay out of trouble? I have a wife at home, and so has Leonard..."

"Don't worry, Markus, the danger is gone!" Anthony replied, laughing. "Go check on Braydon, Leonard, I wouldn't want him to resent us because we killed a creature he knew."

***

Braydon's heart threatened to explode like the poor creature who'd been relentlessly chasing the Humans who had killed her babies. He still couldn't believe what he had witnessed. Humans were a danger to themselves and everybody else. Why didn't Water stop them? Why did it let them destroy a living being?

Leonard came into the cabin still excited by the battle. Braydon saw him with new eyes – the young Human had enjoyed the killing even though he hadn't been the one to actually do it.

"Are you mad at us?" Leonard asked eagerly. "Or do you want to drown us all with the ship?"

The latter sounded like the perfect solution to calm his inner anger, actually. He glared at Leonard who hesitated before falling to his knees.

"Braydon, forgive me. I shouldn't have allowed this. She was a marine creature like you, even though she couldn't talk like you do."

Braydon looked away, still frowning. "I have shown you my world," he said flatly. "You have shown me yours. I don't like what I've seen in the past months, Leonard."

Leonard jumped to his feet and came to nestle against him on the cabin's bed where he'd been sitting since the start of the uneven battle.

"I'm so sorry," he apologized again. "If I promise no ship captain will hurt any more sea creatures, will you forgive me?"

"You wouldn't be able to stop them all. You can't be on all the ships at the same time," Braydon said sourly. "I have experienced the best and the worst of your world, I guess it's time I go home."

Leonard seemed to remember he was a Waiora prince. "Right, you have a kingdom at the bottom of the sea," he whispered. "And I'm just a wealthy merchant."


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