Stormking

The Wulf saga was in full swing by the time I decided to start on Stormking. So much so, in fact, that I seriously considered writing it as a straight fantasy novel, chronicling Wulf’s involvement in a great inter-elven conflict along with his tiger-woman companion. Well, that didn’t happen; I realized that I’d have to bowdlerize the whole thing if it had a chance at publication. Explicit sex isn’t unheard-of in epic fantasy (see the works of Chris Bunch, among others) but I thought it would make Stormking a tough sell. Besides, I wanted to write more sex.

This story became the longest I’d written up to that point, and set the stage for the sprawling Dark Vengeance trilogy which was intended to end the Wulf series, or at least close the arc that had started way back in Heart of the Lion. I don’t remember the exact dates that I wrote it; I suspect it was around ‘95 or ‘96 (the “dead elf storage” joke definitely puts it after Pulp Fiction was released). Chronologically it’s set between Night in Vosgraad and The Demon Crown, since the delectable Narisha hasn’t yet shown up, and Wulf is still dealing with his unrequited passions for the lovely Livia.

Stormking proved pretty popular, at least with my regular readers, and it became apparent that the tales were getting attention from an international audience. I had readers in the US, Canada, Germany, Russia, Sweden and I even made good friends via e-mail with a young man from the Sultanate of Brunei, who produced many illustrations for me and proved a fascinating correspondent.

Shu Li the Kaitian proved to be an enduringly popular character with both me and the readers, leading to an even more prominent role in Dark Vengeance. Each of Wulf’s various girlfriends reflects a different aspect of his character, and Li is definitely the embodiment of loyalty, love and emotional (if not sexual) fidelity. I can’t say that I have a favorite woman in the series, but Li is definitely near the top.

And oh, yeah, there’s lots of Sapphic stuff, including what I consider to be a fairly emotional and very tragic affair between Princess Theanna and Lady Lothaera.

I note another fetishistic element to this as well, that of mind control. Recent scientific research into the world of Japanese hentai manga shows that the idea of hypnotizing, drugging, bespelling or otherwise dominating women to transform them into willing sex slaves is surprisingly common in the pages of these books, but despite my own use of the trope I have to admit that I actually find it fairly distasteful. Or rather the notion of permanent sexual enslavement bothers me — in the short term it’s a good excuse to get characters involved in fairly interesting antics, while at the same time giving them a chance to eventually break free and declare their independence, as both dominated female characters in this book do to good effect.

So with that in mind, I present the first full-length Wulf novel, Stormking. Try not to get too excited.

I

People in the know will tell you never to trust an elf. Whatever he or she tells you is invariably only part of the truth, and their true motivation is probably a complex web of secrets, half-truths, hidden agendas, wheels within wheels within wheels, and so on.

I was justifiably skeptical, then, when a slender, haughty elf male, clad in blue and green, and wrapped in a somber grey cloak, secured with a priceless brooch in the form of a gold dragon’s head, approached me with a business proposition.

Our conversation took place in one of the darker and more private corners of a rustic (read “filthy and disease-ridden”) inn which I frequented called the Red Shark. I’d taken the precaution of slipping the innkeeper a couple of extra crowns to keep the curious away, and so we were relatively assured of privacy. As assured as one can be in a hole like the Red Shark, at any rate.

“You are the one called ‘Wulf’?” the elf asked in a distant, vaguely arrogant tone, looking with disdain at the glass of 40-year-old Port Angel Mist which the serving wench had set before him. His gaze suggested that he would rather drink his own urine.

“For want of a better name, yes,” I said, taking a deep tug at my mugful of Snorri’s Ol’ Black Barrel. Not the best dwarven ale, I reflected, but it had its charms. As far as my supercilious elf friend was concerned, however, I might as well have been drinking my own urine. “What can I do for you?”

“Or, as you humans seem to prefer, what can I do for you?” he replied with a wan smile. “Your past services to the elven nation are known to me. You may call me Lord Aelfryn. Yes, that will do quite nicely.”

I nodded. If by “services to the elven nation” he meant “saving the whole godsforsaken realm from invasion by orcs, dark elves and daemons at the risk of his own skin,” then he was seriously understating the case.

I decided it would be pointless to show any offense. “Aelfryn,” I said, extending my hand.

My lack of an honorific seemed to annoy ear-boy, but he said nothing, gingerly accepted my handshake and, with effort, resisted the desire to wipe his hand off on his cloak.

“You are what the humans call a ‘freelance’?” Aelfryn asked.

“If you mean I do odd jobs of a marginally legal nature for a fee, then the answer is, once more, yes. I take it you have such a job to offer me, or have you just come here to soak up the local color?”

The joke was so lost on Aelfryn that I considered sending out search parties.

“No,” he replied, his face still expressionless save for a vague look of discomfort and contempt for the human throng milling around him. “I do bring an offer of employment.”

I took another sip. “I’m listening.”

“We wish —” Aelfryn began, but I cut him off.

“Who,” I asked, “is ‘we’?”

He paused. “Myself. And those whom I represent. For the moment, they prefer to remain anonymous.”

I nodded. This was rapidly beginning to sound like a cheap Litharnan espionage thriller.

“In any event,” the elf continued, still eyeing his drink and debating whether to taste it or not, “we wish you to travel to the city of Ta’vallen in the human realm of Murvane, where you will pick up a certain item. You will then transport this item to a location which will be communicated to you. I am authorized to offer you an advance of one thousand gold crowns upon acceptance of our contract. You will receive another thousand when you accept the item, and another five thousand upon final delivery.”

I raised my eyebrows. “That’s a considerable sum.”

“Your past actions suggest that you are a trustworthy and relatively honest freelance,” the elf replied. “And several friends have vouched for you. If you carry out this task for us, the cost will be well worth it.”

Hm. “Relatively honest,” eh? And I didn’t know I had any friends in Stoneburg... Then again, there was always the sorceress Livia; perhaps she was at the point in our love/hate cycle in which she actually cared about me again. I didn’t pursue the point.

“Can I bring any others along on this job?” I asked.

Aelfryn shook his head emphatically. “It is essential that this entire job be done as discreetly as possible.”

“So,” I said, realizing that I was asking too many questions, but wanting to needle the elf nonetheless, “why don’t your people do it yourselves?”

Aelfryn looked very reluctant to reply. “Let us say,” he said, slowly and carefully, “that we do not wish to draw an undue amount of attention to our actions. Any elves traveling to Murvane will be noticed and watched, while a lone human trader will attract no notice.”

I nodded again. “As long as no one notices you talking to me.”

Aelfryn’s scimitar-thin lips curved into a smile. “Elves are more common in this...” he paused, pursing his lips as if searching for a polite word, “...city than elsewhere. I doubt that I’ve attracted more than passing notice, and we have the means of dealing with unwanted attention in any event. Do you accept the job?”

Oh, yeah, I remembered all the various warnings about elves, and how tricky they could be. I knew that for everything flower-boy had told me there were a dozen unspoken facts and a hundred secrets. If I took the job I was bound to end up in the middle of the greatest shitstorm since Saint Orlan caught his sister in bed with Tyzrakk the Dark.

But the fact is I’m only human (as my pointy-eared companion would be quick to point out), and I needed the money. I’d come home that afternoon to find a sturdy lock slapped on the door of my rooms at the Goblin’s Eye, and I was presently spending the last dregs of my purse on dwarven ale and a glass of exotic wine which the elf seemed to find as vile as troll vomit. If I turned elf-boy down, my purse would be as empty as an orc’s head, and Wulf the Freelance would be Wulf the Homeless.

So, being the mercenary, self-involved, amoral slob that I am, I looked Aelfryn straight in the eye and said:

“Nope. Sounds too dangerous.”

Well, as you can guess, this led to a round of bargaining, and I ended up accepting both the job and twelve hundred gold crowns, with the promise of another seven thousand between then and the end of the job — easily enough to keep locks off my doors for the next year or more.

At the end of this tedious, but unavoidable, process, Aelfryn rose, his expensive glass of wine still unconsumed, and once more daintily and gingerly accepted my handshake. I was to leave, we agreed, on the next day’s morning tide.

In retrospect, becoming Wulf the Homeless might have been proved far less hazardous.

II

I call myself Wulf, since I like the name. I can honestly state that I don’t remember what name I was born with, since I never knew my father and my mother died young. I grew up on the teeming streets of Godshome, and managed to make myself thoroughly unpopular in the process. I was called a lot of things back then, and most of them don’t bear repeating, but the one that stuck, first bellowed at me by an enraged shop-keeper, was “That little Wolfshead,” which ended up shortened to Wulf. I’ve also been called Karis, Flotsam, Chuma, Thonglaw, and a wide variety of other monikers, which I keep or shed depending upon circumstances, but in the end I always return to my familiar and safe identity as simply Wulf the Freelance.

In the same manner, I always end up making port in my semi-permanent home — the great free city of Stoneburg, one of the most vile and lawless places in all the Isles. A haven for thieves, ne’er-do-wells, assassins, sorcerers, fugitives, deserters, and other fun-at-parties types, Stoneburg is, in short, the perfect home for me, being the vile and lawless type myself.

Well, not that vile and lawless... I generally confine my larceny to those who can afford the loss, keep the city watch and law enforcement officials well paid-off, and prefer craven retreat to open combat. My current line of work springs primarily from the fact that I’m not really good at anything, but am mediocre in a wide range of skills. I have some magical training, gleaned from my disastrous year at the Imperial Magic Academy; I have some small ability in the surreptitious entry of buildings, am familiar with most major lock types, can sail a ship with a small degree of competence, ride a horse or other beast of burden, fight gamely with rapier and dagger, make love sufficient to distract all but the most jaded females (and I’ve known my share of them, as well), and so on and so on. As noted, I’m far from expert in any of these skills, but together they’ve served to keep me alive and relatively healthy.

“Healthy” does not, however, mean “wealthy,” and at the time that flower-boy approached me with his intriguing, and doubtlessly two-faced offer, I was at a definite low-point, with one foot in the poor house and the other squarely on a bar of wet soap. Despite my innate distrust of elves, and especially of noble elves who spurn my offers of expensive wine while looking at me as if I was a malformed troll infant, I grabbed Aelfryn’s gold with both hands. When you’re drowning, you’ll grasp at any straw offered.

For the next couple of hours, I was a happy boy, though. I had a platter of Innkeeper Trus’ best roast boar with potatoes delivered to my table, enjoyed another few jacks of ale, drank the little tree-hugger’s rejected wine for him — no sense in letting it go to waste — and flirted outrageously with the barmaid, Katrin, a busty wench with a head of rich, black curls, and a manner which suggested she enjoyed the company of gentlemen with large purses (and other large things, as well, I imagined). Since I planned on shipping out soon, I contented myself with her promise that she’d be waiting when I got back, and would be only too willing to keep me company, so long as the money held out.

I was careful not to draw too much attention to myself, since Aelfryn had suggested certain individuals might object if they knew the true nature of my employment. I didn’t make a huge show of my newfound prosperity, and bid the assembled company farewell around midnight.

Both moons were slivers tonight, shedding virtually no light upon the narrow, cobbled streets of the Thieves’ Quarter — something of a misnomer, for it takes up considerably more than a quarter of the city. The wise traveler usually goes armed at the best of times, and tonight was certainly not the best of times. Out of habit, I walked with both rapier and dagger drawn, all senses alert despite the alcohol which swam in my stomach and brain.

Aelfryn’s veiled suggestions of conspiracy and unknown enemies had me completely spooked, and I jumped at shadows on the way home. Fortunately, my fears proved unjustified, and I arrived back at the Goblin’s Eye without incident.

Though it was late, I had no qualms about rousting Treeva, my landlady, and paying off my back rent.

“So what happened?” she grumbled, shuffling out of her room, tying a robe around herself. She was a big woman, powerfully built and still strong, despite her age — rumor had it that she’d been drummed out of the Imperial army after strangling her sergeant. “You beat up a priest and steal his collection box?”

“Ha, ha, very funny,” I retorted. “You ever consider taking that act on the road?”

“Hm. You’d like that wouldn’t you?” Treeva selected a key from a large, jingling ring of them, and opened the padlock sealing my room. “There you are, home sweet home.”

“I trust everything’s where I left it?” I asked, slipping past her and into my room.

“Hell, yeah, what little there is of it. I always wait a week before I sell anything.”

“You’re all heart,” I said, and unceremoniously slammed the door in her face.

The night went pleasantly after that — working out my frustrations on the landlady without getting clobbered was cause for great satisfaction, and I intended to get a good night’s sleep, intent on rising at first bell and heading for the docks and a passage out of Stoneburg.

My plans were interrupted some hours later, when I was awakened by repeated pounding on my door. I struggled to clear my head, and the pounding continued, urgent and ominous. I staggered out of bed, clad only in breeches, took the precaution of grabbing my rapier, pulled back the bolts, and opened the door.

At that point, I came to the sudden realization that my plan had gone seriously awry. Elf-boy himself, the distinguished Lord Aelfryn, stood at my threshold, staring at me with wide, glassy eyes, and looking pale, even for an elf. I wondered what was wrong, but before I could say anything, he answered my question by tottering slowly over on his face, revealing a bloody, torn cloak, and a dagger hilt sprouting from his back.

I heard loud shouts of protest from my neighbors, and swiftly dragged the elf’s limp body into my room, slamming the door behind me.

I pulled the dagger free and tried to stanch the flow of blood from Aelfryn’s wounds, mumbling what healing spells I remembered from my Academy days.

It wasn’t enough. The unfortunate flower-eater had taken far too much punishment, and his elven soul was resistant to my own feeble human magic. His eyes fluttered open, still harboring a faint flicker of vitality, and he seized my neck in a death-grip, dragging my head down.

“The Hunters...” he whispered, voice ragged. “Beware of the Hunters... You must go... to Ta’vallen... They will kill you if you stay... My friends will... help you.. You must... flee... Long live... the Lady...”

Then he died, leaving me to wonder at his last words, at the same time coming to the sick conclusion that I had landed neck-deep in a river of shit, and the river was rising.

Who the hell had killed him? “The Hunters” he’d said. I was familiar with every major criminal organization in Stoneburg and its environs, and none were called “The Hunters.”

The dagger did me no good — it was of common, even cheap, manufacture, but it punched holes in elf flesh with great efficiency. In a city like Stoneburg, such weapons were plentiful, and impossible to identify.

I was overwhelmed by innumerable questions and virtually no answers, but the one fact of which I was certain was that these “Hunters,” having killed Aelfryn, would have no qualms about treating me in exactly the same fashion. Phaedra’s Flaming Tits, how the hell did I know they hadn’t followed the elf here? Gods, they could be breaking down my door any second...

Calm, Wulf. Calm. So far, no one had come through the door after Aelfryn, and it was a distinct possibility that he’d managed to elude his killers long enough to get to my tenement. Then again, if they knew who I was, they could find out where I lived easily enough, and...

And what? Kill me? Put the dagger in my hand and imply that Aelfryn and I had killed each other in a vicious lovers’ quarrel? Dump us both in the harbor where we’d either be eaten by the butcher-fish, or float to the surface, pale, bloated and unidentifiable, weeks later.

Gods... What should I do? Vacate the premises as quickly as possible was the first course of action which my terrified brain suggested, but nagging, rational thought slowed me down somewhat.

I couldn’t simply flee, leaving a ventilated elf corpse behind, lying in a bloody pool in the middle of my room. Dame Treeva was sure to find it, and would sic the scrutators on me faster than a Xeshite viper. Even if I managed to ship out in the morning, I’d never be able to come back, and there were sure to be bounty hunters...

No. Aelfryn had to go. An extended absence on my part would arouse no suspicion, but I had to get rid of the corpse first. A trace of avarice brushed against my heart when I saw that Aelfryn still wore his priceless elven brooch — proof, I realized absently, that his killers weren’t motivated by robbery — then forcibly restrained myself from taking it. No sense, I thought, in weighing myself down with evidence that screamed “HANG ME!”

As quickly and quietly as possible, I cleaned up the elf’s blood, then lay the corpse in my bed. I stole out, locking the door behind me, and crept along the corridor, jumping out of my skin at each creak of the floorboards.

Gods only know if I managed to get out without awakening anyone — in any event, I was able to get out of the Eye and dash down the cobbled streets, finding my way instinctively in the near-total darkness.

Several blocks from the Eye I stopped, ducking into a doorway, breathing heavily, heart pounding, a million possible dooms whirling in my brain, each more frightening than the last. I’d never been a brave man (I always preferred to think of myself as “sensible”) and the current situation was testing my feeble stock of courage to the limits.

I knew where I was going — only one person in this cesspool of a city was likely to have the skill and inclination to help me, albeit reluctantly. My fears were for what might follow behind, and what might lurk in the deep, lightless shadows.

I took a deep breath, tried to steady myself, and set out, sticking close to walls, hoping to remain if not invisible, at least inconspicuous.

The main problem was that my destination lay clear on the other side of the city, where comfortable homes and the modest mansions of the newly-or at least moderately-rich sat gracefully. The way out of the Thieves’ Quarter lay through a maze of twisting, narrow streets, dirty and ill-lit, with lots of hiding places for assassins, cutthroats, and other even less encouraging creatures. I’d lived in Stoneburg long enough to know my way around relatively well, and I knew all the likely ambush sites, as well, so no one would take me completely by surprise.

No one using normal tactics, that is. My brief, unspectacular career as a student of sorcery left me with a few marginally usable skills, among them a nose for magic, and an instinctive knack for knowing when it is being used nearby.

That, I think, is what saved me. It happened as I made my way down a rutted stretch more alley than street, known to the locals as Dagger Lane (due, I suspect, to the fact that so many people get stabbed there). It was dark, claustrophobic, crowded with offal, but it was also the quickest route to my destination. I’d hoped to traverse it quickly and put it behind me, but as usual, my best plans were frustrated.

About halfway down the lane, I startled a pair of amorous cats, who darted off in opposite directions, sending trash flying, and nearly killing me of sudden heart failure. It was fortunate — I was on guard when the tingling swept over me.

That’s the only way I can describe it — a sharp, sudden tingle that chilled my flesh and made my scalp crawl. It was a familiar sensation from my days at the Academy, and it riveted my attention, for I knew there was magic nearby.

The faint sparkle in the air ahead of me was the only other sign, and I’d have missed it had I not been alerted. I scrambled back, pulling my sword free, just in time to avoid what I can only describe as a great door opening in the air in front of me, disgorging a nightmarish figure.

Outwardly it resembled a tall warrior, clad in black armor, but where its face should have been, staring out of an open helm, was a green misty swirl, glowing with inner light, further illuminated by two glowing red eyespots. It held a massive two-handed sword that shimmered with red luminescence as it drew back for a decapitating blow.

At this point, I was pretty sure that my new friend hadn’t shown up for tea and scones, so I spun and, without further pleasantries, dashed back toward the end of the lane. Ahead of me, a second cloud of shimmering air appeared, disgorging another armored monstrosity. This time, just behind the monster’s spiked and armored shoulder, I caught a glimpse of yet a third figure — female this time — tall, elven, features as fine and beautiful as a carved alabaster statue (yeah, yeah, I know — facing horrific sorcerous death, and Wulf is still ogling females...). A nimbus of blue magical energy crowned and surrounded her, then the door slammed and I was left alone, facing two soulless, murderous automata. Nice way to spend an evening, huh?

My only advantage seemed to lie in the fact that the armored things were slow. I was able to anticipate the second monster’s blow and duck before it took my head, and instead clashed against the deteriorated stone wall beside us, striking red and blue sparks.

Then the second lumbered in, sword whirling. I ducked again, and took a swipe at it with my dagger, feeling the thick black iron clang beneath my blow, but otherwise remain completely undamaged. Crap.

I ducked again — damn, but I was getting difficult; the alley was too narrow to dodge either one, and eventually I would tire, mistime my movements, and be gutted or dismembered.

Another blow... This one caught me in the shoulder as I fell back, scoring flesh, burning like hot coals. I cried out, and barely managed to avoid a blow from the other automaton; this one caught me across the ribs, tearing more flesh, sending hot blood cascading down my side. Another sliced one leg.

I had no chance of avoiding them forever, my weapons were useless, and there was no way I could flee. Not good, I thought with the part of my brain which remained rational even in the most desperate straits, not good at all.

I rolled across the rough cobblestones and through mud and other things I dared not identify, and twin swords struck down at the pavement, barely missing me. I scrambled to my feet and tried to run blindly, blundering into one of the automata, saw it cock its arms back, watched the horrible blade descend...

Then I flung myself to the ground, desperate to avoid the falling blade...

And, to my endless astonishment, saw the first monster’s sword cleave the helm of the second, which had shambled up behind me, driven only by its own murderous intent. The whirling green lambency that had formed its head dissipated instantly, the red eyes dying like extinguished candles, and with a brief shriek of a soul in torment, it fell into a disparate pile of armor, its enchanted two-hander clanging to the ground as well.

The first automaton’s sword was lodged in the second’s now-empty helm, and it moved to disengage it. Only a moment’s chance remained me...

I rolled, dropping my own weapons and seizing the fallen greatsword, lifting it with strength fired by terror and self-preservation, and stabbed it into the first monster’s evil, swirling green face.

It shrieked and shivered; its eyes died, it shrieked, and it, too, collapsed into disconnected metal.

I didn’t waste any time waiting to see if more of the clanking horrors would show up; I decamped as quickly as my wounds allowed, desperately hoping to reach my destination before I passed out from combined exhaustion, loss of blood and sheer terror.

III

I doubt that the gates of paradise, resplendent in gold and silver, with attendant naked female nymphs holding brimming mugs of beer and coffee, would have looked any more welcome to me than the soaring, graceful lines of my friend’s manse. It was far from the most luxurious home in the city, and lay on the less affluent side of the wealthy quarter, but by all the gods, it was beautiful.

Feeling my wounded shoulder throb, and clumsily dragging one leg, I staggered to the front door, hoping that my password was still valid (she’d certainly locked me out enough in the past). I wasn’t above awakening the entire household by pounding on it until someone showed up, but I have always preferred the quiet entrance.

I mumbled a series of tangled magical syllables, both hands on the door (and probably leaving bloodstains at that), hoping that I got them all right. Wonder of wonders, the lock and latch sparkled briefly, and the door silently opened inward. I half-walked, half-fell, through the open portal, and breathed a sigh of relief as it closed safely behind me. The safeguards on the door went far beyond a simple magical voice-lock; anyone without my specific aura who tried to repeat my password, or those who would force their way in, were in for a series of unpleasant surprises of the most direct and final variety.

The hall was dimly lit with low-set mageglobes, casting an eerie blue radiance. I dropped my cloak in the entry hall, and continued my somewhat shambling way through the main living room, past several small sitting rooms and libraries, and a curving flight of stairs upward.

I was intercepted before I got to the stairs by a pair of tiny, winged sprites. They were blue-green, one male, the other female, the last being the type I’d take a fancy to, had she been the correct dimensions. Having had experience with such beings, I wasn’t misled by their size — sprites commanded powerful magic, and had they taken a dislike to me, I’d probably be spending the rest of eternity as a knitted tea-cozy.

Fortunately, they knew me.

“Wulf! Wulf!” they squeaked, sounding like diminutive panicked shepherds. “You were not expected! The mistress does not know! We must announce!”

I waved a hand. “Sorry, small ones,” I said, continuing toward the stairs. “I’m wounded and I need help. I haven’t time to waste.”

“But the mistress...” protested the female (Lily, I think her name was). “She must be...”

I growled irritably, and pushed past them, heading up the stairs. I honestly didn’t think they’d zap me simply for awakening the mistress, and tried to ignore them as they squeaked and chittered in protest behind me.

They didn’t pursue or cast anything other than indignant language at me, a fact for which I was grateful. I reached the top of the stairs, and moved as purposefully as my wounds would allow, toward the end of the hall, and the doors to the master bedroom.

Now when Livia has a master bedroom, it’s a master bedroom, meaning that the single unifying, central feature is the bed. I’d seen it so rarely each glimpse was new to me, so my astonishment was genuine — Livia’s bed looked large enough to play squatball on, and it dwarfed the various furnishings beside it. Nearby, Livia’s closet stood open, revealing miscellaneous cloaks, gowns and lacy nothings. Of the mistress herself, there was no sign.

What happened next is probably evidence of why I’ve survived so long. I heard voices in the corridor, at least one of them male, and my first thought was that the scrutators were here, checking out my known friends and associates. My natural caution — some might call it cowardice — took hold, and I dived for the closet, pulling it shut behind me. The door was louvered, enabling me to look into the room without being seen, and I watched with pounding heart and rapid breaths as three individuals entered.

To my relief, it was not the scrutators. It was Livia and two companions. I was about to step out and announce myself when I realized that such an act would probably go unappreciated. Livia and her friends, one male and one female, did not seem interested in intercourse. Well, not the social kind anyway.

A few words about Livia are probably in order at this point, since you probably know where this story is going. Livia is a sorceress of no small accomplishment, though her actual job is closer in description to mine — foul deeds for a fee. Her advantage was that she actually managed to save most of what she made, and her skills enabled her to charge far more than I ever could. I’d always had the utmost respect for her.

Of course, the fact that she is drop-dead gorgeous doesn’t hurt matters, either. Slender, curvaceous in all the right places, with porcelain skin, pale blue eyes, a small but expressive face, turned up nose, and just the right spatter of freckles to convey youthful enthusiasm and innocence, she looked for all the world like a fresh-faced young Orlanist initiate, ready to forsake the pleasures of the world and give her life up to the service of Kybor and his saints.

Unfortunately, appearances are usually deceiving. And in Livia’s case they were downright deceitful. The woman was a smoldering cauldron of acquisitiveness, curiosity, and lustful energy, and was probably the most sexually voracious creature I’d encountered up to that time (and, if you’ve read any of my other memoirs, you will know that that is saying a lot). The most unfortunate aspect of her character was that she seemed interested only in sex for purely recreational purposes, and, after a brief but stimulating session of boffing beneath a waterfall in Kenth, she had deftly turned aside every further proposition I made her, and we remained purely platonic friends.

Not that I wanted it that way, mind you. Much to my endless chagrin, I was deeply in love with the woman, and would have crawled a hundred leagues over broken glass and then swim through lemon juice just for a chance to masturbate on her shadow.

Well, maybe not quite that extreme, but I think you know what I mean. And now, here I was, trapped in her closet, watching her tonsil joust with first her female friend, then the male as the three of them stood there in a mutual embrace, sighing and giggling softly.

That’s it, I thought. This is a bad dream. I will wake up any minute now, and find myself in bed with a couple of Xeshite courtesans and the slaves will be serving me breakfast.

As the seconds stretched into minutes and I remained stubbornly where I was, I finally had to admit that I was fully awake. Perhaps, I thought, I’m not asleep. Maybe I’m dead, and this is hell. Watching the woman I love but can’t touch making it with two other beautiful people. Misery and loneliness swirled up inside me, but the thought of actually getting to see Livia naked again kept me watching. Gods, I’m a sick man...

The second woman was of Livia’s height and build, with long, red hair and a fair, angular face, decorated much like Livia’s, with a tasteful constellation of freckles. As I watched, she and Livia led the man to the bed and helped him sit down.

Hm, I thought, watching as Livia made to loosen his shirt, revealing powerfully muscled, sculpted chest and abdomen, he must be one of those new flesh golems I’ve been hearing about — the one with all the functional parts and no brain whatsoever. His face, earnest and chiseled but somewhat vacant, seemed to confirm the golem theory, even though he took on a look of intense interest when Livia and the second woman stepped back and began undressing each other at the foot of the bed.

They were close enough that I could hear them.

“So what do you think, Livia?” the redhead whispered, unlacing Livia’s white bodice. “Didn’t I tell you he was beautiful?”

Livia smiled at that and gazed over at the man on the bed. “Oh, he is, indeed, Retha.”

Retha pulled Livia’s bodice down, revealing her white, perfectly formed breasts. She ran a single, long-nailed finger across one nipple, grinning as Livia stiffened, gasping. “Remember what you were going to do with him?”

“Oh, yes,” Livia replied, a first trace of hushed excitement in her voice. “I remember.”

Retha pulled Livia’s bodice down, and slid her white arms from the sleeves, leaving her torso completely naked, breasts rising and falling, pink nipples growing stiff and hard.

“Mmmm,” Livia said to the man on the bed, as Retha stroked her pale fleshy mounds. “Look at these, Arlis. Aren’t they beautiful?”

“Mm-hm,” Arlis replied, staring with what looked to me like only mild interest.

“Wouldn’t you like to suck on them?” Livia persisted.

“Mm-hm,” Arlis replied.

Retha apparently didn’t mind illustrating, and dropped to her knees, embracing Livia’s breasts with red lips and pink tongue, sucking and licking, then abruptly biting with sharp white teeth. Livia gasped again, and stroked one breast while Retha suckled at the other. Soon, both nipples were slick and gleaming with Retha’s spittle, and Livia’s face was contorted into a mask of pleasure, eyes closed, lips moist.

Gods damn it all, I thought. There’s a dead elf in my apartment, the scrutators are probably looking for me right now, and I’m stuck in Livia’s closet watching her get laid. And, bloody hells, this closet was extremely stuffy...

...Or was that just me?

Retha had managed to strip Livia completely naked by this time. An angel, come to earth on a beam of light, could not have earned the adoration I felt for Livia. Part of me wanted to rush out and throw myself at her feet, beg for her favor, and worship her, from piercing blue eyes to perfectly-proportioned, pink-domed breasts, taut belly and the frosting of pale golden, near-invisible, hair between her subtly muscular thighs. Torn between watching and flinging myself out a window, I stayed there, realizing how much I wanted this woman, and how bloody fucking unlikely it was that I’d ever get her.

I wasn’t the only one admiring her this way, for although Retha remained dressed, she was obviously caught up in the heat of growing passion. She lifted one of Livia’s legs and draped it over her shoulder, then turned her attention to the exposed pink flesh beneath that pale downy pubic hair. She touched the protruding lips with teasing fingers, squeezing first one, then the other, then slowly spreading them apart. I gritted my teeth as the temperature in the closet seemed to climb another five degrees or so, and I swore I saw the lovely, delicate cunt flesh grow shiny with moisture and swell beneath Retha’s touch.

“Oh, yes,” Livia gasped. “She’s touching me, Arlis.”

Retha’s own breaths sounded ragged and shaky as she slipped a finger between the pink lips, and rubbed her thumb against the swollen prominence of Livia’s clitoris, eliciting deeper, more heartfelt moans.

I wanted to scream. Despite my fear, and the throbbing pain of my wounds, I could not look away, and between my own thighs, my cock stiffened uncomfortably. Gods only know, I’d lost enough blood this night, but still my prick demanded attention. With my luck, I’d die when my remaining blood rushed from my brain to my crotch.

Retha was licking now, her tongue stiff, lapping between Livia’s protruding pussy lips. I saw moisture dripping from them like honey and watched as Retha swallowed it eagerly, then turned to Livia’s clit, fitting her lips around it and sucking. Livia laced her fingers behind Retha’s head and pulled her close. I fancied I could see Retha slide two, then three fingers deep inside Livia, but I couldn’t be sure, given my viewing angle, and my reluctance to step out of the closet to change it.

“Oh, Retha,” Livia sighed. “She’s eating me, Arlis. She’s sucking my clit.”

“Uhh-huh,” Arlis said. Well, I thought, I wonder when he’s going to add another syllable to his vocabulary.

“She’s putting her fingers in me,” Livia announced. “I’m going to be so wet for you and your cock.”

Great. The words I’d always dreamed of hearing from Livia, uttered to a brainless sex-muffin I’d never met. This was going from bad to worse, and showed no sign of improving any time soon.

Arlis had shed his breeches by now, and lay on the bed, stroking a massive erection, seemingly the size of a Litharnan two-handed sword. Yup, I thought. Gotta be a golem. No human is hung like that... Well I was, once, but that was in another body, and it wasn’t even really human, but...

Never mind...

Livia leaned back, thrusting against Retha’s mouth. Her muscles were taut, her breasts and nipples swollen and trembling.

“Yes, Arlis. She’s so... good... She has four fingers in me... now... I want you so much. I want your cock. She’s going to make me come, then I’m going to let you fuck me... I told her she could... watch you...” The tension in her voice was nearly tangible. Dammit, that woman would come if a butterfly landed on her...

Lust and despair fought each other inside me. Excitement at seeing Livia naked and exposed, and hearing her beg for release contended with a sense of anger and jealousy that she chose others to share such pleasure with. I pointedly ignored my pathetic, insistent erection, and continued to watch.

“Mm, Retha,” Livia gasped. “You’re making me... I’m... I’m coming... Yes...” She went rigid, clamping Retha’s face against her cunt, her entire body flushing. “Again... Yes...” It was as if a seismic wave passed through her tender white body. “I’m coming...”

I looked away, rolling my eyes. Phaedra’s cunt, this woman was too much. Maybe I should have gone someplace else for help. Drull the Big Headed Warrior Priest, for example, or maybe Podwick the Peasant/Tinker/Knave, or his cousin Walph the Lame Who Isn’t Really Lame But Gets a Lot of Sympathy Anyway...

When I finally got around to looking back, Livia was on the bed, cradling Arlis’ massive cock in one hand, licking its head with slow, insistent strokes, while Retha undressed nearby. Yeah, another hunch confirmed... Retha was slender, muscular, with small but exquisitely-formed breasts and nipples the color of polished coral. Her hips were wide, flaring abruptly below a flat, white belly and narrow waist. Her freckles continued down her shoulders and arms, growing sparser down her back. She had twin dimples just above her buttocks, I noted in distress. Retha herself seemed preoccupied, watching Livia lavish attention on Arlis’ prick with wide-eyed, wet-lipped fascination.

I struggled to keep my mind from placing me in Arlis’ position as she ran an eager pink tongue up and down the massive organ’s underside, flicking it along its head, prizing open its tip. Of course, if it was me instead of Arlis, Livia wouldn’t have to lick such a wide area, the smart-ass portion of my brain told me. I mentally beat it into submission and continued to watch.

Livia began to suck at Arlis — a damnably impressive feat considering the sheer size of his organ. She opened her mouth wide, and fitted her lips around the head, stretching them in the process. Arlis responded well, closing his eyes and moaning, stroking at Livia’s short blonde hair.

“Can you get that all?” Retha asked. “I can barely fit him into my mouth.”

In lieu of response, Livia began to swallow the thick organ, sliding distended lips along its tight, purple-veined surface.

“I guess she can,” Retha said, then sat astride Arlis’ shoulders, presenting her cunt to him. “Your turn to do some work, lover,” she said, then lowered herself down onto his mouth. I couldn’t see him lick her, but by the intense motions of her round white ass cheeks, I suspected he was doing his job well.

This went on for some time, Livia consuming Arlis like a sword-swallower in a White Empire carnival act, and Retha sitting on his face, allowing his tongue to work her over. Eventually, almost all of Arlis’ knob-headed polearm was in Livia’s mouth, and she began to slide him in and out, slowly at first, then with increasing speed. That she didn’t choke on it amazed me, but then again she’d obviously had a lot of practice.

Not on me, mind you. Then again, maybe back when I’d been a lion-man...

QUIT IT!!!

I sighed, then stopped, fearing they’d hear me. No chance of that, I realized, as Retha’s moans grew into loud, echoing howls of desire. Her humping, quivering buttocks moved faster and faster, and I saw Arlis fingering her cunt as he licked her. Not that I could see all that well, since Livia was in the way, but my mind was able to fill in the blanks quite well, thank you very much.

My own cock, inadequate though it was next to golem-boy’s, threatened to burst the seams of my breeches. Gods help me, I didn’t want to give in to the most obvious impulse at this point, never having considered myself a voyeur, but if I didn’t do something I was going to scream. As Retha slid majestically into full-throated orgasm, I hastily undid my lacings and let my imprisoned friend free. What I would do with it next was still in question, but at least I wasn’t in pain anymore. Well, not as much, anyway.

As if on cue, Livia released Arlis’ organ, a tiny string of saliva still adhering to its tight, purple head, and Retha turned, sliding down Arlis’ chest, standing up on her knees, and fitting the massive thing between her sopping cunt-lips. I noted grimly that her pubis was bald as an egg, giving me a nearly unlimited view of her innermost secrets, now the object of Arlis’ impassioned thrusting.

Then Livia got in the way again, licking at Retha’s clitoris, moist and swollen above her spread cunt lips, and at Arlis’ engorged shaft as it thrust in and out. Retha rewarded Livia with a series of choking cries which might at other times be considered screams of agony. But one look at Retha’s face, thrown back, hair whirling, eyes half-closed, tongue licking at her full red lips, dispelled any notion that she was not thoroughly enjoying herself.

Arlis did his part, pounding his gleaming shaft into Retha, stretching her hairless pink cunt lips to their limit, filling the red-haired woman’s cunt with what seemed by her reaction to be an almost unbearable load.

“Nnnnnnnnnn.” Retha howled through clenched teeth. “Coming... commmmmmminnnnggg...” Her entire body convulsed, and I fancied I could see her climax pass through her like an earth tremor. Her small breasts bobbed, her legs tensed, her hair tossed wildly, her fists clenched. “Again... now...” Another wave passed through her, helped along by Livia’s probing tongue.

I hoped that perhaps all the pressure would finish off Mister Polearm, but I wasn’t to be so lucky. He apparently had an endless capacity, and didn’t seem even close to climaxing. I rolled my eyes and once more wished I was dead when Livia reclined on the bed beside him, head in Retha’s lap, and said, “Don’t think you’re finished, now, do you?” with a wicked lilt in her voice. “Retha promised me certain services.”

“Uh-huh,” Arlis said, moving atop her, and rubbing his cockhead against that lovely, moist cunt.

I found myself wondering, as I sometimes do at such moments, about the real meaning of what I was experiencing. What was this man, I asked myself? A beautiful, brainless body? An enormous, tireless cock?

The answer, according to Retha and Livia, seemed to be “yes.” He had what they wanted, didn’t bore them with trivialities like conversation and intellectualism, and they were happy. When they were done, he’d probably happily go his way and act as stud to another beautiful woman the next night. Poor man...

As Arlis’ cock moved ponderously into Livia, stretching her lips in the same way as it had just cleaved Retha’s hairless pussy, I mused that it must be a dull and colorless life to exist as a purely sexual creature, moving from one meaningless encounter to another, awash in a sea of breasts and lips and cunt juices, used for one’s cock and cast aside. What a useless, pointless existence. To live for sex and nothing more... I would never choose such a life. Better, I thought, to die than give up my freedom...

“Oh! Arlis! Fuck me!” Livia cried. Her legs were wrapped around Arlis’ shoulders, and his cock thrust into her like a tireless piston.

Kybor’s balls, who the fuck was I kidding? Maybe I wouldn’t want to live the life of a mindless sex puppet, but I wouldn’t mind it for a while... In fact, I had served in such a capacity when I was a lion-man, and it HAD gotten kind of old, but still...

“FUCK ME! HARD!” As Livia continued to cry out, Retha moved astride her flushed face, allowing her to lick as she bellowed. “I’m...” lick-lick “coming,” Livia moaned, alternating her screams with impassioned attention to the sopping, hairless lips above her. “I’m coming...” Lick-lick. Gods — in the throes of orgasm, and Livia still wanted to eat pussy...

That was it. I grabbed my still-hard organ and started stroking. I’m normally not so uncouth as to abuse myself in a friend’s closet, but dammit I was beginning to think I had no choice.

It still wasn’t over.

“You know what I want,” Livia hissed, face plastered against Retha’s sopping cunt, idly running her lips and tongue over it as she spoke, muffling her voice. “She promised.”

“Uh-huh,” Arlis said, with a trace of enthusiasm. Phaedra, did he ever say anything else?

I watched, bravely jacking off, as Livia continued to lick at Retha. Elsewhere, Arlis stroked a single, thick finger against the pale pink rosebud of Livia’s asshole, lubricating it with her cunt juice.

I kept on stroking. Sodomy had never been my favorite activity (though with Narisha it seems like a sacrament, mind you...), but now, as Arlis slipped a finger into Livia’s tight hole, it seemed the most natural thing in the world. After all, Livia seemed to like taking it everywhere else, why not there?

Still, even I began to wonder at her wisdom as Arlis now stroked his impossibly huge organ against Livia’s anus. Evidently, no one else was worried, for Retha had turned around, letting Livia lick her while she watched Arlis tease the blonde woman’s asshole.

“I promised her you’d fuck her ass, Arlis,” she told him. “Now do a good job.”

I stroked with one hand while clapping my other hand over my forehead. Was this trip really necessary?

The comedy was rapidly moving toward its main act, as Arlis stroked Livia’s hole more ardently, and finally slipped the purple head inside. To my amazement, and unexpected excitement, he actually began to make headway, thrusting with slow, steady pressure into the tight depths of Livia’s ass.

“Ahhhhhh....” Livia gasped, mouth still tight against Retha, head flanked by the redhead’s muscular legs. “Feels so good...”

Good, I wondered? The description had never occurred to me, but then I’d always been primarily heterosexual...

“Yessss,” Livia continued. “Where’s his cock, Retha? Where’s he putting his cock?”

“Up your ass, Livia,” Retha replied, her voice as tense and excited as her friend’s. “He’s fucking your ass.”

My only comfort was that Arlis was far too occupied to say “uh-huh,” but was instead intent upon pushing the entirety of his stiff organ inside Livia. My heart pounded faster, and I could no longer prevent myself from wanting to be where he was, my cock thrusting into Livia’s deepest recesses, feeling her tight and hot around me. I stroked with both hands now, and wondered what the hell I was going to do when I came.

The hot, tight-fleshed length of Arlis’ cock had now completely vanished into Livia’s asshole. He pulled out, and thrust again, slowly but intently, then began to move faster and faster.

“Oh, he feels so good in my ass,” Livia breathed. She didn’t seem interested in addressing Arlis directly anymore, but he didn’t appear to care. The knob-headed organ was fully in motion now, fucking her ass with the same speed and intensity as it had penetrated her cunt. Retha cried out, excitement at Livia’s penetration combining with the pressure of the blonde woman’s tongue, and I realized a moment later that she was coming again.

“Fuck me,” Livia cried, legs held tight around Arlis’ shoulders. “Fuck my ass. Come for me...”

Arlis at last proved that he could make more noises than “uh-huh,” and began to moan, thrusting almost instinctively against Livia’s pale, rounded buttocks. Faster now, harder... Livia cried out, and once more her cries of pleasure were almost indistinguishable from those of pain.

“Come on my ass, Arlis,” she wailed. “Come on me...”

I could at least take credit that Arlis and I didn’t hold out any longer. When he pulled out and unleashed a jet of hot, sticky semen all over Livia’s sopping cunt and gaping asshole, I myself climaxed, shooting my own load onto the floor of the closet. As the three cries of passion subsided into low moans of satisfaction and the sweet murmurs of the afterglow, I stripped off my shirt — filthy and bloodstained anyway — and frantically sopped up the remains of my illicit climax. Now, in post-orgasmic depression, I felt inadequate and somewhat ashamed of myself, but forced my mind to think clearly nonetheless.

As I sat, wondering what to do next, Livia whispered “Off,” and the room beyond the closet dimmed into blue shadows. Damned mageglobes...

Okay, okay... It was now or never. I might as well get it over with. If I was fortunate, they’d all be too exhausted to give me too much trouble. Taking a deep breath, I opened the door and went out to meet my fate.

“Livia...” I began.

“Wulf?” demanded an indignant female voice.

“Huh?” said a confused, somewhat sleepy male voice. That would be Arlis

“Who’s there?” said a second, similarly somnolent, female, voice. Dear Retha.

“On!” bellowed Livia, even more indignant, and the room was suddenly bathed in full magelight.

Oh hell...

“Uh, Livia —” I began.

“Well,” said Livia, sitting up in bed, pulling white silk sheets up around her exquisite pale shoulders, “if it isn’t Mister Sensitivity.”

“Uh, hello,” I said, looking first from one drowsy countenance to the other.

“You’re Wulf?” asked Retha, looking at me as if I was some legendary daemon-lord freshly risen from hell and shrieking for vengeance. She turned to Livia. “Is he the one who —”

She silenced her with a glare.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m Wulf. We haven’t met, Lady Retha, but I feel as if I’ve known you for years.”

Then Arlis spoke up. “Who the hell do you think you are, breaking in like this?” he demanded while, beside him, Livia sighed and rolled her eyes. “This is a private bedroom, and you weren’t invited here.”

“Gods,” I said. “It speaks.”

“Answer my question, asshole!” Gods, it gets indignant, too. Will wonders never cease? “You weren’t invited here.”

“Then I’m one of a very select few,” I said, staring directly at Livia.

That didn’t sit well with the pretty-boy. “Now, see here,” he said, sitting up and giving every indication of being ready to bound out of the bed at me, “I’ve got half a mind to —”

I drew my rapier casually — having just fought some kind of elvish hell-beast, the prospect of gutting a naked, brainless sports major didn’t exactly frighten me.

“If you have half a mind,” I rasped, fixing him with the grimmest and most deadly stare I could manage (my blood-stained and generally disreputable state probably helped), “then you’ve considerably more than most of the little gits she brings in here. Then again, to look at you, I doubt that she wants you for your mind, half or otherwise.”

Arlis glowered at me, but remained where he was, his primitive brain probably reminding him that he was completely nude, and had no weapon save the one which had taken Livia and Retha’s interest.

“Well, you’ve certainly put a damper on my evening,” Livia said. “What do you want?”

I flicked a contemptuous gaze from one bed-mate to the other. “I’d prefer to speak in private.”

“Now, just a minute,” complained Retha, looking deeply offended. “We have as much right to be here as you do, and we are Lady Livia’s invited guests —”

“Shut your gob, sister,” I broke in. “You’ve had your fun, and now it’s my turn. I’m about out of patience with you two. Livia? Can we have a few moments to ourselves?”

She sighed again, and looked at each of her companions in turn. “I’m sorry,” she said, not unkindly. “It’s been lovely, and you’re very nice, but you’ll both have to go. The sprites will escort you home.”

“But Livia...” complained Retha.

“Out!” Livia said, a trace of steel in her voice. “I’ll let you know when you can come over again.”

There were no further protests. My new friends hastily clambered out of bed, gathered up clothing which had been scattered all over the room, and made quick, wordless exits. Arlis spared me a single, vicious backward glance. I stepped over and slammed the door on him.

Livia sat on the bed, wrapped in a white satin robe. “That wasn’t necessary, Wulf.”

I took a deep breath, and met her steady gaze.

“You know what’s more frustrating than a woman who won’t sleep with you?” I said.

She stared back expectantly.

“A woman who sleeps with everyone and his bloody brother — and his bloody sister for that matter — and still won’t sleep with you!”

She looked incensed. “We had our time together, Wulf. It was wonderful, but I have my own life to live. We each walk on different paths, Wulf.”

“Yeah, and you walk ‘em bowlegged, if tonight’s any indication. ‘Fuck my ass, Arlis, fuck my ass.’ This with someone you hardly know. And me, your friend, the closest he gets to your bed is hiding in the closet while you fuck some half-wit whose only qualification for your companionship seems to be a dick the size of a battering ram.”

“There’s more to it than that,” Livia said indignantly. “He happens to be a very talented artist.”

“Yeah. I’m sure he’s quite skilled in oils. Listen, Livia. I’ve tried to be your friend for a couple of years now, but you seem to grant virtual strangers the kind of intimacy I only dream of. Phaedra’s tits, don’t you ever get tired of giving people the brushoff, Livia?”

“I haven’t so far, Wulf, despite your best efforts to make me feel guilty about it. And I don’t think of it as a brushoff. I respect you, Wulf. I always have.”

I smiled. It was a grim and cynical smile, but a smile nonetheless. “If your respect is the price of getting back into bed with you, Livia, I’m certainly willing to consider it. What would it take to lose your respect? Begging?”

“I can’t imagine you begging, Wulf. Maybe that’s the problem.”

“That you can only have sex with men who have no sense of pride? That you think sleeping with me will damage our friendship? That I wasn’t aggressive enough when we first met, and just let you have your way? That I haven’t been passive enough, and played the mindless boy-toy? Gods, Livia — life is rough enough without my always having to second-guess everything that I’ve ever done?”

She looked at me with sudden sympathy, and the tension between us eased somewhat. “I hope that the show was worth the cost of admission.”

“Oh, yeah. Watching you get buggered by some brainless moron is my idea of paradise. I’d ask you to introduce me to your red-headed friend, but I’m probably not big enough for her.”

She ignored me. “I take it, Wulf, that you didn’t burst in on me and my companions just to tell me how much you miss holding my alabaster body in your arms?”

“Well, that may have been part of it,” I said, easing into a chair, and fighting the urge to relax completely, drift into unconsciousness, and forget everything that had happened tonight, “but the fact is I’ve got a serious problem.”

“So I gathered from your current state,” Livia replied, rummaging in a bedside cabinet and withdrawing a jar of ointment. “Here. Tell me what happened and I’ll dress your wounds. You look like hell.”

I sighed, allowed her to tend to me, and explained. She let me talk uninterrupted, until I got to the description of the two armored nightmares which had attacked me.

“Dreadguard,” she said. “Souls of evil elves bound to magical suits of armor. They consider it a way of making amends for wicked acts during mortal life. You must be up against some real hardasses to attract that kind of attention.”

“Thanks,” I said, and continued. Livia listened in silence, her face growing by turns sympathetic, amused, and, finally, hard.

“I have a feeling,” I concluded, “that there are certain individuals abroad who don’t want me to go on breathing, and I’ve got seven thousand crowns waiting for me in Murvane. I need to get the hell out of town, but I don’t especially want a dead elf left behind in my apartment, lest I find the scrutators waiting for me when I get back, or find the bounty hunters all over me like a bad smell.”

“So,” Livia replied, words tight and carefully modulated, “you need me to help you get rid of the dead elf?”

I nodded, wearily. I desperately wanted to sleep, to pretend none of this was happening, but I knew better.

“Tell me Wulf, when you came here, did you see the sign out front that said ‘Dead Elf Disposal’?”

“I don’t —”

“No. I asked you a question. Did you see the sign that said ‘Dead Elf Disposal’?”

I sighed. “No, I didn’t.”

“No, you didn’t. And do you know why you didn’t see the sign?”

“No,” I replied dourly. “Why?”

“BECAUSE THERE ISN’T ONE, THAT’S WHY!” Livia’s eyes blazed.

I’d never seen her this angry before, but I wasn’t about to give in. “I’m not looking for an expert, Livia. I’m looking for help, and you’re the only person I can turn to.”

She stopped short and almost looked distraught at that. I continued in the same vein and, for once in my life, I meant it.

“I need a friend, Livia. Not a partner. Not a lover. Not a casual lay. I don’t care whether you never allow me in your bed again, even though I would certainly enjoy it.” Not that we’d ever actually been in bed together, of course — our big moment together had been under a waterfall. “You’re my friend, Livia, or at the very least that’s what I’d like you to be. And I’m asking you for help. I’m not asking because you owe me anything, or because you feel guilty about not sleeping with me, or because I’m demanding anything. I’m asking because you’re the only friend I have right now, and I need help.”

By the gods, if I hadn’t known better, I’d have sworn I saw a tear at one corner of Livia’s eye. I didn’t have a chance to look too closely, for she immediately rose, simultaneously wiping her eye with one corner of her robe (giving me an intriguing flash of one smooth thigh as she did so).

“All right, Wulf,” she said, all business. “You’ve convinced me. Let me get dressed and we’ll get going.”

I excused myself and waited in the hall. Livia had never been reticent about letting me see her naked, even when we weren’t involved, but I chose not to be present — no sense in growing more frustrated than I already was. I took the opportunity to get washed up, discard my bloody clothes, and change into a fresh tunic and breeches, which the sprites brought me (Livia was apparently quite used to providing male visitors with clean clothes).

When I returned, Livia was waiting in her bedroom, clad in sturdy work clothes — leather tunic, loose breeches and boots, her hair tied back with a leather thong. She led me down to one of her work rooms, a smallish chamber, walls lined with viewing crystals, vials of alchemicals, wands and other exotica, its center inscribed with a casting circle. Livia selected a short, black wand, topped with a silver, jewel-eyed skull. I’d seen this item before (actually helped her retrieve it from the bastard who stole it, in fact), and suspected I what she had in mind.

She shoved the wand into her belt, and directed me to the circle.

“We’ll pop directly to your room,” she said. “Where did you say you were staying?”

“Goblin’s Eye,” I said, as she wrinkled her pert little nose in distaste. “Second floor.”

She nodded. “You know the drill. Picture your room in your mind. Visualize it as completely as you possibly can. Include the damned dead elf.”

“Going to blink over?” I asked. “Why? Is walking going to be too painful?”

“You want my help, footpad, you lay off the smartass comments. Now shut up and visualize!”

I obliged. I’d learned enough at the Academy to be able to clear my mind of all superfluous thought — I took a deep breath, relaxed, closed my eyes, and created a detailed image of my room. Beside me, Livia muttered her invocation.

There was a brief whirling sensation, and when I again opened my eyes, the image of my room had become real. We stood in the middle of my quarters, blood still staining the floor, and the motionless body of what had once been a particularly snotty elf lying beneath my bedclothes.

Livia took stock, and went to work without another word. First, she moved the wand in an elaborate pattern over the bloodstained floorboards, muttering and chanting. The blood grew liquid again, and vanished into the wood, leaving the floor as dark and dirty as it had been before. She dealt similarly with the bloodstains on my sheets and blankets, which coalesced into bright droplets, and darted back into Aelfryn’s perforated body.

“There,” she said. “All nice and clean. Now comes the fun part.”

She kneeled beside the bed and held the skull-wand over Aelfryn, moving it up and down his body, intoning harsh, brutal syllable which made me distinctly uncomfortable. Necromancy is an ugly art, one that most sorcerers avoid like a dwarf avoids soap and water. Livia herself only used it when absolutely necessary — the fact that she was doing this at all bespoke considerable concern for me and my problems, for which I was growing more grateful by the second.

At length, Livia completed her ritual, stood, and stepped back.

“Damn,” I muttered. “Did you do what I think you did?”

She nodded, breathing hard. “Gods only know why I do these things for you, Wulf. You certainly don’t deserve it.”

I wasn’t able to respond, for the dead Aelfryn suddenly interrupted our conversation by jerking clumsily to simulated life. The body twitched, then moved like a marionette, sitting up, swinging stiff legs off the edge of the bed, and standing with apparent difficulty. Dead eyes stared out of its pale face, and a slight gurgling rose up from its throat.

Dead he was — dead and gone. His body was just a shell now, inhabited by Livia’s magic, and controlled by her will. Zombies had always given me the creeps, and the newly-animated Aelfryn was even more horrid than most, given that I’d spoken to him only bare hours before.

“Throw something over him, Wulf,” Livia ordered. “I don’t have time to draw a circle here, so we’ll take him down to the harbor.”

I obliged, concealing Aelfryn’s slack features beneath a hooded cloak, and jamming the knife which had killed him into his belt.

“That will have to do,” Livia said, then addressed the standing corpse. “Walk,” she said. “Follow.”

We moved out into the hall, Livia in the lead, Aelfryn’s corpse shuffling after, and me taking up the rear. I closed and locked the door, and hastened to follow my two bizarre companions.

Once more, luck was with us, and we reached the street without incident. I sniffed out our surroundings, and felt no magic save that which impelled poor Aelfryn forward, so we headed south, toward the waterfront.

Progress was painfully slow; Aelfryn moved at a sluggish stagger, and we were forced to keep pace. It was two hours ‘til dawn, and the streets were largely deserted. A couple of times I saw small figures in the distance, but for the most part nothing stirred on the labyrinthine streets of the Thieves’ Quarter.

After what seemed like an eternity, we reached our destination, where black, filthy water lapped at ancient, rotted piers and pilings. Again, no one was abroad, and the twin moon-slivers cast only the feeblest of illumination.

“Into the water,” Livia said. “Straight to the bottom.”

Aelfryn’s corpse obeyed faithfully, lurching out onto an old pier, and tumbling off into the depths with a feeble splash.

“He’ll stay under?” I asked.

Livia nodded. “Like I said, straight to the bottom. He’ll latch onto something and stay there ‘til he rots.”

I looked at her with a tired, grateful expression. “Livia,” I began, “I can’t tell you how much —”

“Don’t waste your breath,” she cut in. “You’re right. I’m your friend, and friends help each other. I don’t expect anything in return, Wulf, but if I ever need you...”

“I won’t forget,” I promised. I paused, unfamiliar emotions coursing through me. “Livia, I’m not very good at this, but... I...” I stopped, utterly defeated by weariness, uncertainty, and an inexplicable sadness. “I... really care about you, Livia. I’m sorry about sneaking in and making all those stupid comments. I —” I paused, struggling to express my real feelings and finally giving up. “Like I said, Livia. I care about you. Let’s just leave it at that.”

To my surprise, she smiled. “I’ve little room in my life for sentimentality, Wulf, but I’ll just say that the feeling is mutual.”

And that, given the unsure nature of our relationship, was more than I could have possibly hoped for.

* * *

It was just growing light when we said our goodbyes (affectionately but chastely, much to my disgust). Before I headed back to my rooms to pack my bags, however, I secured the services of Captain Fish (actually, that was his nickname, but no one knew his real name), and the sloop Bluefin, bound for Murvane.

“Excellent!” Fish declared, disgustingly jovial for having just awakened. “Now both of our passenger berths are filled! I think you’ll like your fellow traveler.”

I doubted it, but said nothing, handed over the gold, and took off for home.

I was justifiably cautious in my return to the Goblin’s Eye; although dawn pinkened the sky and various early risers were up and about, begging for scraps, pushing carts full of produce and items for sale, or going about any one of a thousand forms of unknown business, I still hadn’t shaken last night’s scare, nor was I completely sure that the scrutators wouldn’t be taking an interest in me.

My suspicions proved correct as I sneaked down an alley near the Eye, and saw a squad of city guardsmen, led by the hatefully familiar figure of Scrutator Niall, entering the tenement. Niall was an expatriate elf with a bad attitude, who seemed to consider himself my personal nemesis, so his presence in my building indicated more on his part than a desire to get together and exchange recipes for orcish shepherd’s pie. I swiftly withdrew back into the alley and decamped. If Niall had been tipped off regarding the dead elf in my room, and had gotten himself all excited at the prospect of finally nailing Wulf the Freelance, he was bound to be disappointed, but I did not want to be around to witness it.

I returned to Bluefin with neither fresh clothes nor baggage, but Fish didn’t seem to mind, and saw me to my quarters in one of the two after cabins, a distressingly cramped closet-sized room, which was nonetheless private. It was hours yet until departure, but I took the opportunity to throw myself onto the bunk and drop like a stone into black, dreamless slumber.

IV

When I awoke, I felt the familiar roll and sway of a ship at sea, and heard the gentle rush of water along the hull outside. I lay there for quite some time, savoring the pleasant sensation of being clear of Stoneburg, the scrutators, Aelfryn’s mysterious killers, their sorcerous minions, and everything else that lurked in shadows and scared the hell out of me.

I hope you’re not terribly disappointed at my display of craven cowardice the night before — I’d always felt that cowardice, creatively applied, goes a long way toward keeping one alive. In this case, I’d gotten damned bloody (and my wounds still ached, in fact — I’d see to changing dressings later), but once more I was still relatively intact.

After about an hour of enjoying my relative safety, I hauled my lazy ass out of my bunk, donned boots, and headed topside.

The endless blue of the sea surrounded us on all sides. The sails bellied in a stiff, steady breeze, running gear creaked, and the crew went about their business in relaxed, professional silence.

Fish was out, walking the decks like the White Emperor on parade. The crew did their job oblivious to his presence, and when he caught sight of me, his face split in a wide grin.

“Ah, Wulf!” he cried, clapping me about the shoulders (it hurt, but I didn’t let on). “Glad to see you up and about! You seemed somewhat weary last night — I trust you’re well rested.”

I nodded. “I wasn’t able to get my baggage aboard this morning, captain; things were pretty hectic back at my building, you understand.”

Fish gave me a knowing wink — he’d transported me out under the noses of the scrutators before. He ended up sending a cabin boy to fetch me some spare gear, which I purchased for a mere three times its true value, and Fish, who seemed possessed of a limitless desire to please (for a fee, at any rate) offered to loan me a few books from his small private library, an offer which I accepted with reservations.

“I realize that the run to Murvane is likely to be dull,” Fish said, striding with practiced ease beside me as we walked along the foredeck. “I’m sure my volume on the history of the first nine White Emperors will help you pass the time.”

“I’m sure it will,” I replied, not entirely convinced (the early White Emperors were themselves pretty uninteresting; the Empire didn’t get corrupt and decadent and interesting until much later).

“And I’ve a fully annotated copy of the Analects of Saint Orlan. I read it for inspiration when I’m troubled or uncertain. I’m sure it would do the same for you.”

“I’m sure,” I said, trying not to sound as doubtful as I felt.

“Perhaps you and your fellow passenger could be persuaded to join me for dinner soon. My crew is a fine bunch of rascals — they love me like their very father, and I dote on them as if they were all my sons, but it simply doesn’t do to allow them to dine at my table. I hope that you will both be willing...?”

“Certainly.” I was suddenly intrigued. “I’m afraid that I haven’t made the acquaintance of the other passenger. Is he about?”

Fish shook his head. Below us, the bow wake foamed, and a pair of dolphins cavorted alongside. “She. I fear that she has yet to make an appearance. I’m certain that you will find her...” he paused, searching for a suitable word. “...interesting.”

Hm. A woman? Perhaps the voyage would be more interesting than I’d originally thought.

Soon enough, I had regained my sea legs and began to enjoy the journey. Warm trade winds bore us northeast from Stoneburg, and for three full days we made good time. My fellow passenger remained a mystery — the cabin door opposite mine stayed firmly closed, and I was unable to bring myself to knock.

I passed the time by helping out on deck, reading Fish’s godawful collection of dull and dusty books (I avoided the Analects of Saint Orlan, however — I wasn’t that starved for entertainment), gazing out at the endless sea, and driving myself mad with speculation as to the identity of the other passenger.

I finally met her on the morning of our fourth day at sea. I’ve never been much of an early riser, but ship travel seemed to bring out the mariner in me — I rolled out of my bunk but a few brief minutes after the sun crowned over the horizon. A few crewmen were busy about the ship, but first watch had yet to sound, and it was relatively peaceful, save for the splash of water and the usual sounds of the rigging. Wandering around the deck, I ended up answering my questions regarding our mystery passenger. She was, to put it mildly, one of the last sorts of individuals I’d expected in these parts.

She stood, leaning casually against the bulwarks, one foot raised and resting on the pinrail, eyes fixed out to sea with a dreamy expression. She herself actually had quite a dream-like quality to her, for she was a species I’d rarely met before. Kaitian, I thought, or I’m an orcish shaman.

Kaitians are one of the more exotic beast-folk, however, and, for some reason, very popular with our various horny erotic artists, though most have never even seen one. As the n’doro resemble humanoid lions, the Kaitians appear descended from tigers — tall, muscular, possessed of a barely-restrained savage grace.

I would say that this particular Kaitian was a prime example. Her shapely form rippled with muscles in places where most women didn’t even have places, and her burnt orange pelt was striped starkly with black. Her face lay midway between human and cat, with a short muzzle and snub-nose, but as her gaze wandered across the endless blue-black horizon, dotted here and there with tossing whitecaps, I saw a subtle intelligence and the distant hint of a joyful spirit in her slit-pupiled, golden eyes. She wore a frustratingly brief costume, as well as some necklaces and bracelets, revealing pretty much all of her impressive physique, while hiding the most vital areas. Her arms were firmly-muscled, ending in human-like hands (though I knew that they concealed retractable claws, in the same manner as the lion-folk). Her breasts were more than substantial, held in check by a leather halter, forming a deep white-furred valley, hanging above a taut white stomach and powerful thighs, decorated with a knee-length purple breechclout. She had hair like a human — a thick mane of red-brown which started high on her forehead between her two black-furred ears, and hung down to the small of her back in a simple braid. Her whiskered lips rose slightly when she saw me, revealing gleaming white fangs, and I realized that she was smiling at me.

Still a bit stunned by the unexpected appearance of this orange-pelted vision, I was unable to do much save smile back and wonder if she savvied Imperial Common.

“You stare so fearfully,” she said, her voice exotically accented, but entirely comprehensible. “Do not worry. I shall not attack you.”

“Oh, I... I... Never thought you would... uhh... ma’am,” I said, as politely as possible. “I just didn’t expect someone of your... your...”

“Appearance?” she asked, turning to face me. “My, my, I’m not even a native, and I speak your language more skillfully than you.”

You can always tell foreigners, I thought — they’re the ones who speak perfect Imperial...

And, oh, yes, I forgot — she wore a long, curved sword at one hip, and a dagger at the other. From what I knew of Kaitians, I was fairly certain that she was quite familiar with their use.

“Since I have clearly so paralyzed you that you are rendered incapable of speech,” she continued, “I will begin introductions. Note, however, that this is a serious breach of my people’s code of etiquette.”

“I... uhh...”

“I am Shu Li,” she said, softly, pronouncing her name as if it was some kind of exotic sex act from one of those elaborately-illustrated Red Temple manuals. “I am bound for the nation of Murvane.”

“Me, too. I mean, I... I... I’m charmed,” I said, frantically piecing myself together and trying to create some semblance of my normal, witty, self. “I’m Wulf. General contractor.”

“Wolf?” she asked, eyes widening in what I assumed was mock-amazement. “A name that implies much. Are you brave as a wolf? Savage as a wolf? Swift, wild, passionate as a wolf?”

“I couldn’t say,” I replied, at once impressed and intrigued by this sarcastic, talking pussy cat. “It just means I’m hairy and howl a lot.”

“Ah, hair,” she said, wonderingly. “You don’t seem terribly hirsute to me, Wolf General Contractor.”

“Well, not in comparison,” I said. “I used to have a lot more.”

“Perhaps you can tell me more about it someday,” Shu Li said. “In the meantime, I mean no disrespect, but I wish to continue my morning meditation. I’m certain we will see each other again.”

I nodded. “I’m sure we will; it’s a small boat,” I said, forcing myself to resume my stroll along the deck, and looking back at Li’s curvaceous, only barely-clad form. From above the back of her breechclout, above muscular buttocks barely concealed, a long, black-striped tail waved and twitched slightly. “Good morning, Shu Li.”

Okay, I thought. It’s gonna be an interesting trip...

Gods only know how I manage to fall into these things. Shu Li took to me quite readily, since despite her sensuous grace and exotic beauty, Fish and the crew seemed downright scared of her. Superstitious nitwits...

It remained friendly, of course. I had no clue about Kaitians’ sex lives, and was both too polite and too shy to actually ask. For all I knew, they came in heat only once a year, had unbreakable taboos against sex with other species, and the males were vengeful and violent enough to hunt anyone who violated their social mores to hell and back, then rip his lungs out and watch him bleed to death. No, best to remain friends.

As painful as it was... Comparisons to Livia were too obvious to think about, so I did my best to avoid the matter.

We talked quite a bit, did sword practice together on the foredeck, and early one morning she even shed her scant garments and leaped off the stern castle to swim and cavort, as sleek as an otter, around the ship, while I and a couple of dumbfounded crew on day watch stared in fascination. Not that I saw much — she moved too damned fast. It was probably just as well in any event, since I was purposely suppressing my libido and trying to think of Shu Li as a platonic sister in arms (not altogether successfully, however).

* * *

As the saying goes, life is full of rude awakenings — in fact, it tends to be one big rude awakening in general. Having drifted off to sleep and pleasant dreams of pale, blonde sorceresses, occasionally interspersed with tawny cat-pelts and golden eyes, only to be tossed out of your bunk by a crash, screams and the sounds of battle, is not the sort of experience one cherishes. As I struggled into my breeches, grabbed a broadsword — generously provided by Captain Fish for my drills with Shu Li — I reflected that I’d never had an entirely pleasant, sedate voyage in my entire life. Probably more punishments by the gods for unspecified offenses; I’d come to pretty much accept such treatment.

The scene on the deck was bloody chaos. Beneath the wan glow of two crescent moons, Fish and his crew struggled against a horde of attacking fish-headed, slimy humanoid monstrosities armed with a selection of swords, nets and polearms. Piscids, I realized with disgust. Just my luck — I’d been told they were extinct, and now here they were trying to fillet my ship’s crew. As I watched, a crewman I knew as Stripe went down, a scimitar in his belly as his opponent, a scarred, one-eyed fish-man, hissed and exulted.

Several fish-men had climbed into the rigging and were slashing at it, or hacking at spars. A huge chunk of timber, followed by a tail of tarred rigging, landed with a crash on the deck beside me.

My normal reaction to a melee like this would be to hide in the lamp locker and occasionally try to trip a fish-boy or gut him when his back was turned. Unfortunately, I was pretty sure that if we lost the battle, I wouldn’t live long — enemies have tried to feed me to the sharks far too many times for me to want to repeat it. With this in mind, I readied my broadsword and waded in.

The weapon was old and badly balanced, and I wasn’t especially skilled with it in any event — I prefer lighter weapons like daggers and rapiers — but I did what I could, stepping into uneven fights, hamstringing, backstabbing, and in general trying to make a nuisance of myself.

It didn’t take the piscids long to notice me, and before I knew it I was facing two of them — one with a cutlass and the other with a spear — who forced me back across the blood-slick deck. I did my best to defend myself, but outnumbered and armed with an unfamiliar weapon I knew that I was only delaying the inevitable. As I desperately tried to dodge, the first piscid’s sword grazed my ribs while the second managed to catch my weapon across his and disarm me. That’s it, I thought — dead before I can even figure out what the hell is going on

At that point fate, in the form of a falling spar, intervened on my behalf, knocking the piscids to the deck and entangling them in miscellaneous rigging. The spar was followed by a swift, lithe feline shadow that leaped lightly from mast to deck, twin swords flashing. An instant later, the two entangled piscids were lying, twitching in spreading pools of gore, and Shu Li crouched between them, her lovely cat-face twisted into a feral grin

“The hunt!” she cried. “The hunt!” And then yowled a string of syllables in her own wild language and flung herself back into combat. After an instant’s hesitation, I picked up a fallen cutlass — much better than that piece of scrap metal I’d had — and followed.

Nearby, Captain Fish was under attack by no less than three attackers. They figured, rightly, that killing the captain would pretty much end the fight, and but for the intervention of my feline companion and I, they’d have succeeded. Two fell before our blades before they knew what hit them, and the third, retreated with a wet squeak and hiss.

With a shout, a half dozen of our crewmen charged into battle behind us, and in a few moments, the piscids were falling back in confusion. I suspect it was the leaping, bounding, snarling Li who turned the tide, since most of our fishy opponents probably had a natural fear of cats to begin with. They bailed out, leaping over the side one after the other and vanishing into the dark waters.

“Ha!” Fish bellowed, heartily. “That’ll teach the beggars! Let ‘em go lurk on the bottom where they belong!” He scanned the fallen rigging, ripped sheets and broken spars. “We’ll never make good speed with these damages. We’ll have to put in for repairs. There are scads of islands ‘round these parts, though. In the meantime — well, Wulf, my taking on you and your cat-friend has proven fortuitous. I don’t know what we’d have done without you.”

“Don’t mention it,” I said, suddenly very weary. “And if you don’t mind, I think I’ll go get some sleep and hope I don’t wake up treading water.”

V

Since Shu Li and I had been instrumental in keeping the crew from becoming fish food, they didn’t really insist that we help repair the ship. Since I didn’t want to be a complete deadhead, I volunteered to forage. It gave me an opportunity to stretch my legs and explore the island. Besides, the crew was grateful for fresh fruit.

We were smack dab in the middle of the great Middle Sea current so the island turned out to be something of a lush paradise, a densely-foliated wilderness of yellow-greens, reds and violets. Coconut palms grew along the shore, while chup fruit, mango and other edibles grew further inland. I was also surprised to discover that a herd of wild pigs also occupied the place, and brought home a fine specimen early one evening, to the crew’s overwhelming delight. They broke out their store of rum, set up a howl on whistle and drone-pipe, sang, danced, and were generally obnoxious far into the wee hours, feasting on the sizzling carcass of the poor animal, and toasting me as the greatest thing to come along since Sir Goltha shoved Lawbringer into Lord Grumarak’s guts.

Repairs, Captain Fish told us, would take the better part of a week, so there was no sense in getting impatient. I continued to venture into the jungle each day, exploring, observing the jewel-winged birds that flitted from tree to tree and filled the air with song, and harvesting bushels of succulent fruits. Except for the fact that I knew time was passing, and I would have to be in Murvane soon, it was actually quite pleasant.

Only one incident disturbed my reverie. Four days after making landfall, I was busy hacking my way up a low incline, fighting through the green-lit, shadow-dappled humidity, I was startled by the sound of a large body crashing through the undergrowth nearby.

I froze. So far all I’d encountered had been those damned pigs, and this sounded much larger. My fearful gaze wandered all around me, trying to pick a living body out of the shadows. Gods only knew what else was on this island, and currently all I had was my cutlass-cum-machete, which was probably so dull by now it wouldn’t cut butter.

A low, rasping growl sounded from only a few feet away, and I jumped, crying out in dismay, ready to run in the exact opposite direction. A dark form arose from the thick vegetation, I stepped back in terror, and...

“My, the brave Wolf can be most fearful. And after we fought side-by-side and won so much glory together.”

“Li!” I glared angrily as she stalked into the light. “You scared the crap out of me!”

It didn’t faze her, nor did I expect it to. Abruptly, my anger drained away like ale out of a dwarf’s tankard as I gaped at her. She stood in a half-crouch before me, knees bent, arms wide, claws slightly extended, her eyes bright and predatory, jaws slightly parted, white teeth shining, tongue protruding as she panted slightly. She was obviously primed for the hunt, I noticed, especially considering the fact that she was stark naked.

Oh, gods, she was a sight. Her halter, breech, and all jewelry were gone, leaving her clad only in her tawny pelt. Her white breasts rose and fell heavily, pale nipples pink and hairless, and where her columnar white and orange thighs came together I fancied I could see...

No — I forced myself to tear my eyes away. I wasn’t about to make this deadly creature upset by making unwanted advances...

“You need not look away, Wolf. I am as the gods made me.”

I smiled. “I’m afraid,” I said, choosing my words carefully, “that I shouldn’t look too closely, lest I begin to think... inappropriate thoughts?”

She sighed, relaxed somewhat, and squatted down, resting on haunches, hands barely touching the ground, tail lashing restlessly. “Your kind cannot say what must be said, can you? What do you consider inappropriate, Wolf? Your evasiveness is far more frustrating than direct statement.”

I blinked, hard. “When I said inappropriate thoughts, I meant thoughts of a.... um... physical nature?”

She considered this, gazing back and forth with narrowed eyes. Then her lips parted and she gave another one of her disconcerting fanged smiles. “Am I correct in assuming that you are considering me as a potential mate?”

“Uhhh...” Gods only know why this creature made me so nervous. If it had been Livia or someone asking that question, I’d have leaped at the chance. “...Uhhh... Only if you don’t... It had crossed my mind... once or twice... though... that is, we’re not even the same...” I paused, and finished miserably, “...religion.”

Now she laughed, tilting her head back, parting those deadly cat-lips, and yowling in short, rough barks, breasts bouncing disconcertingly, belly heaving. “Oh, you foolish Wolf. You foolish...” More gales of laughter assailed her.

I stood there, midway between fear and annoyance, then was surprised when at last she stood, sashayed toward me, tail swaying in delicate counterpoint, and placed muscular, clawed hands around my neck, fixing me with a hypnotic stare from golden eyes, black slits wide open and nearly round.

“I am on a quest, Wolf General Contractor,” she hissed, a growl creeping into her tone, her tail lashing faster and faster. Her naked body was only inches from my own, and I felt raging heat even greater than the moist air around us radiating from her. “But I am no Hun Shar sorcerer-monk, sworn to celibacy and the rejection of worldly pleasures.” Her voice grew still lower, huskier, and more animalistic. “There are no others of the race you call Kaitians in your barbaric corner of the world, Wolf. What I would not do to feel the touch of another of my kind — male or female, I do not care. I have needs, just as your kind does, and I often experience the feverish need for the touch of hands, and teeth and lips and tongue. Even the need for...”

At this point, a firm hand slid up my thigh, stroking urgently. A deeper growl issued from her throat.

“Ahhhhhhhhh...” breathed Li, soft lips brushing mine. “Yes, I have a need for what a male can give me. I have been long from my home now, Wolf General Contractor. I have wandered in other lands for many years, and perhaps my ways have changed. Rrrfff, yes... I want a Kaitian to love me, yes. Rwwwlll... But it has been so long, many of my old ways have departed, to be replaced by passion, desire, need... Grrrrllll...”

One hand, claws slightly extended, stroked my face, sending sensation shivering through me.

“I need now. Rrrrrr... I desire now, Wolf.” Her words dripped with honey, her breath was hot on my cheeks, her eyes now those of a pure predator. “Can you give me what I desire, brave and beautiful human male?”

(You know, I think all women go to the same school, regardless of species, where they learn how to stroke a male’s ego while at the same time inflicting enormous performance anxiety...)

“I’m certainly game for trying,” I replied. “Care to join me on the beach?”

Rrrrrwwllllllll,” replied Shu Li.

* * *

We didn’t actually end up on the beach (take my advice and never fuck in the sand; you’ll be picking out grains for the next six months...) but tumbled down in to a tangle of arms and legs in the lush succulent foliage just above the gleaming white sands. The surf roared in the distance, just audible enough to drown out unwanted sounds, but not overwhelm our own voices (much better in that area than that damned waterfall in Kenth where Livia and I went at it, I must say).

As noted, I did have some sexual experience with Kaitians before. Back when I was a lion-man (hung like a stallion and gifted with a tireless libido, as well — now I was just an ordinarily-equipped human, damn it all...), that perverse vixen Xylara had had me make love to one of her Kaitian slave women while she watched and let the randy little Alrynna lick her to orgasm. My recollection of the experience was that Kaitians like pretty much the same things as humans, though I admit that the female might have been faking it for her mistress’ benefit. As a human now, I was determined to buckle down and get a real reaction from my writhing cat-woman.

“Any place I can’t touch?” I whispered to her, mindful of social and sexual taboos, and afraid of getting sliced if I did the wrong thing.

She shook her head, still panting, pink tongue moist and bristly. “Nothing, Wolf. Mind you, some places give me more pleasure than others...”

“Like this?” I asked, stroking a hand up her softly-furred thigh and grazing the warmth of her mons. “Does that give you pleasure?”

She pulled herself together for an instant and looked amused. “If you don’t know the answer to that question, Wolf, I don’t think you have any business touching a female...”

Then I stroked harder, feeling soft flesh part, giving way to moist, slippery inner lips, and she gasped, then let out another low yowl. I was abruptly reminded of the cats behind my flat in Stoneburg, gathering to serenade and fuck each night before I bombarded them with stones and broken crockery. I swiftly extinguished the thought, and concentrated on the matter at hand.

She was sopping, and my finger slid smoothly inside her. With another deep bark, she fixed her lips on mine, bristly tongue parting my own lips, thrusting into my mouth. Her short muzzle wasn’t a precise match for my own mouth, so in a few moments we were both wet and slobbery — not that either of us really minded at that point, of course.

I was still in my tunic and breeches at this point, though my boots had been flung into the undergrowth nearby, and my prick threatened to burst a few seams. This situation didn’t last much longer, as Shu Li, yielding to the pressure of my fingers and frantically playing tongue-joust with me, slowly and very deliberately, slid her soft hands up and down my back, then extended her claws and abruptly sank them into my tunic, pulling and shredding with an audible rip. With a snarl, she lurched up, rolling over atop me, straddling my hips, and completing the job, tearing the pathetic rags which had once been a green tunic from my heaving, now sweat-soaked chest.

“Ahhhh, there’s my lovely Wolf,” she purred, running hands down my chest, then extending her claws and scratching lightly, sending shivers through me. “I want a lovely naked Wolf to play with.” She paused, gently pricking each nipple with a single extended claw. “I did not know Wolves like to be played with this way.”

“Ahhhhhh...” was all I could manage at that point, and I lay unresisting as she turned her claws to my breeches, treating them in the same manner as my late, lamented tunic. A moment later I was as naked as she was, and (though it didn’t matter terribly at the time) without a thing to wear.

She didn’t waste any time, licking my chest with her pink, rough-surfaced tongue, probably scraping away a layer or two of skin in the process. The sensations were unbelievable, and I both dreaded and feverishly anticipated what would happen when that lovely tongue reached my cock. She concentrated on my nipples for several long moments, leaving me heaving and writhing, torn between a half-dozen sensations — soft friction, tickling, abrasion, alternating hard and soft pressure, and even the far edge of pain. I found myself wanting to feel Shu Li’s hot, scratchy tongue all over my body, regardless of how much I’d regret it later when the real pain kicked in.

I told her so. She looked up and grinned again, looking like nothing less than a tiger in the White Emperor’s menagerie about to devour her evening slave-snack. At that point, I was only too willing to be devoured by this ravishing, voluptuous creature, leaving only my bones behind, to bleach in the tropic sun.

“Oh, the Wolf likes being groomed?” she asked. “Shall I groom the rest of him?”

“All over,” I gasped. “Lick me all over, please...” Damn, I thought, I’m usually the one making the other person beg. I realized with a pleasant shock that I actually liked it. So long, the rational corner of my brain reminded me, as she eventually gave in to my pleas. Otherwise, I’d be damned frustrated...

“What would you like, Wolf?” she asked, licking at my nipples once more. “Rrrrr... Tell Shu Li what you would like her to do. Prrrrrr...” She licked again, and I cried out softly. “Tell her what you will do to her.”

Now we were talking, I thought and, battling against the monstrous lust in my belly and loins which urged me to simply grunt and growl like the stupid ape I was, I told her.

“I want to feel your tongue all over me,” I said. “I want you to lick my cock. I want you to suck me and bite me with those beautiful white teeth.”

“Ohhhhh,” she breathed, nipping lightly as she moved her mouth lower, down the soft hairs of my abdomen. “I’ve not heard the word ‘cock’ before in this context. I assume you mean that hard organ between your thighs. I’ll do all that gladly, my lovely Wolf. What will you do for me?”

“I’ll kiss you everywhere,” I replied, feeling the heat of her breath along my thighs, and the light touch of sharp teeth and spiked tongue. “I’ll suck your nipples. I’ll lick your pussy —”

She frowned, looking up at me. “My what?”

I sighed. Language barriers again. “Your cunt?” I said. “Your vulva? Vagina? Moist innermost depths?”

She seemed to comprehend. “Ah. What a strange term. Why didn’t you say so?” She returned to grazing my thighs with her tongue and teeth, coming perilously close to my straining cock, but never quite touching it. “Go on, Wolf. You were doing fine.”

“I want to put my tongue in your cunt,” I whispered. “Lick your clit [she seemed to understand that], put my fingers inside you...”

“Oh, yes,” she said. “Rrrrllll...”

At last, after long moments of lustful anticipation, Shu Li’s exploring tongue grazed my hot, engorged prick. I bit off my monolog with a grunt, the wet abrasion sending a shock through my body.

“Oh, gods,” I said. “Please... please suck it now...”

By Phaedra, if Shu Li wasn’t enjoying tormenting me, she certainly gave a good imitation of it.

“But you haven’t finished,” she said, taking another swipe at my cock, and sending me climbing toward the treetops. “What else are you going to do for me?”

“Whatever you want,” I said urgently. “Just tell me and I’ll do it. Anything...”

She left off licking altogether and looked up at me, eyes narrow and wicked. “Anything, you say. That is an all-encompassing word, ‘anything.’ It’s good I know your language as well as I do.”

“Just tell me what you want,” I repeated. “Just please suck me now.”

Her reply said more than words. Abruptly, with a rumble, deep in her throat, she turned her head back down and took a long, luxuriant swipe along the underside of my cock with her hot, bristly tongue.

I think I screamed at that point, though it probably sounded more like one of those trebly-damned birds which thronged in the trees above us. The burning, abrasive sensations raced directly from cock to brain, energizing every nerve in between. She may have taken off a layer or two of skin, but at that point I didn’t care. My voice trailed off to a low moan as she slipped my stiff member into her mouth, sharp white teeth grazing my abraded flesh, tongue-bristles allowing me to slide smoothly inside her.

Then she slid me out, tongue held lightly against cock-flesh, bristles resisting, saliva burning, breath rushing from her distended pink nostrils as golden eyes glared deeply into mine, pupils almost completely round. I imagined that this was the last expression a tiger’s victim would see, though I hoped to survive this encounter, alive if not entirely intact.

“Does that satisfy the Wulf?” she asked. “Is this what the Wulf wanted?”

“Yessssss,” I growled. “It’s what I want.”

She sucked more, tongue scraping me like a sharkskin sanding board. As long as anything she abraded off grew back, I didn’t mind.

“Suck me,” I whispered. “Suck me, Li...”

“Oh, I will suck,” she said, breaking off, clutching my cock in soft-pelted fingers. “I will suck you, but you must do as you promised.”

“Oh, I’ll do that,” I replied. “I’ll do what I promised. I’ll lick you ‘til you come...”

“Hmmmm,” she replied contemplatively. “That sounds very encouraging, little Wulf. Now, let me give you more before it’s your turn.”

Long minutes of tongue-fucking and sucking followed, Li’s golden-eyed cat-face embracing my stiff organ, inflicting an intense combination of torment and pleasure. At last, she let my battered cock go.

“Your turn now, Wulf,” she said. “Time to deliver on those wonderful promises.”

“With pleasure,” I replied. With that, I kneeled down facing her and gently pushed her onto her back. Lying on a carpet of crushed vegetation (fuck the insects, I thought savagely; I’ll deal with the bites later), she allowed me to push her thighs apart and slowly nibbled my way up each pale, downy expanse, stopping just short of her hairless mons and the rapidly-moistening pink flesh between it.

“Nnnnnnn-yrwlllll,” she groaned (well, it’s the closest I can come to it in the written form). “You tease me, Wulf. You tease me...”

“I like teasing you.”

“No. I want you in me. I want you to do what you said you would do, and still... yowrrrlll... you tease me. Your beloved Li... Please...”

I let her writhe for a few minutes, grazing the outside of her cunt with lips and tongue, touching it lightly with my fingers until I felt hands on the back of my head, claws slightly extended.

“Do what you said you would do, man,” she hissed, eyes slitted and predatory, gazing down at me between the white, orange and black expanses of her heaving breasts. “Do it now or I will make you.”

Now, I ask you, what man could resist such a plaintive request? I complied, burying my face between muscular thighs, tongue splitting the moist lips apart, sending a rush of sweet juices into my mouth. Her clit, a knobby protrusion almost the size of my little finger, swelled up, allowing me to suck at it with the same enthusiasm as she’d shown to my cock. I rolled it gently between my teeth, nipped, licked hard, then soft, and stroked with my fingers, all the while feeling her juices grow sweeter and more profuse.

“Nnnnnnggg... Yrrllll...” A deep purring sound echoed from her throat. Brief spasms passed through her. I bit down on the distended clit, harder this time, and was rewarded by another howl, laced with pleasure and oncoming orgasm. Again, and the moan was louder. Once more, and her entire body clenched, and her dribble of juices became a virtual torrent, splashing my face and the white fur of her thighs.

“You make me...” she growled in her native tongue some more. “I feel you, sweet Wulf... You make me... Aaaaaahhhhh....” She ground her pubis against my face, bucking and writhing, as waves of climatic energy surged through her. The white and orange breasts rose and fell, pink nipples distended and knobby, her cat-face twisted and screwed up into a mask of intent pleasure.

I wasn’t about to let her rest easy after the scourging she’d given me. I’d spent the past few moments wriggling out of what remained of my garments, and now lay atop her naked, my cock still hard, and few thoughts save pure animal lust remaining in my mind. Men are like that, you know.

She looked up at me, and knew instantly what I had in mind.

“Now!” she snarled. “Take me now!”

It was damnably trite dialog, but I figured what the hell, grabbing her hips and pulling her to me, slipping cock between sopping cunt-lips, feeling her close tightly around me. My penetration sent her into a new round of orgasmic convulsions, and I felt her claws, unsheathed and apparently used involuntarily, raking my back, shoulders and buttocks. I felt hot blood on my skin, but by now didn’t care as I leaned into her, my hands on her shoulders, thrusting cock into tropically-hot pussy.

“Ahhhhh...” The noise originated in my throat. Whether it was pleasure from the soft sensation of the willing body beneath me, the white-hot grip of her cunt around my organ or the pain of her claws rending my flesh, I can’t say, but I knew my own climax was only moments away.

“I...” I spat through gritted teeth. “I’m going to... I want to...”

“Spill it on me,” she gasped, urgently. “I want to see it. Spill your hot seed on me...”

With effort, I disengaged from her still-contracting cunt, and stood over her, my cock poised over the damp pelt covering her breasts. I slid my hands along the shaft, faster, faster...

“Spill it,” she cried, eye-slits wide, teeth bared. “Spill it now.”

White heat exploded inside me and I felt my cock gush forth, a stream of semen jetting across her breasts and onto her curling lips. Again and again my organ contracted, finally dripping the last of its load onto Li’s swollen nipples. She rubbed at it with her fingers, then licked them with her raspy tongue.

“I will have a job cleaning this up, won’t I?”

“I’d always thought,” I said, falling back, gasping, “that come would make a terribly mess in fur.”

“Ah, it does,” she agreed, licking her fingers, then moving to shoulder and, most interestingly to my eyes, the sticky fur of her breasts and her semen-covered nipple, “but tidying up can be very rewarding.”

“You’re wonderful,” I said, trying to catch my breath in the thick tropical air. “I’m glad I’ve finally made your acquaintance fully.”

“The pleasure,” she replied, “was all mine.”

* * *

Fish was horror-stricken when he saw me, staggering back to the ship, clothes shredded, several bloody scratches decorating my chest and back.

“Gods have mercy, Wulf, what the hell happened?” he demanded, hastening toward me.

“Tigers,” I said. “Tigers on the island. Tell the crew to be careful...”

“By the gods,” Fish went on, “we wondered what all the roaring and screaming was all about.”

I wondered idly whether Fish was being thick on purpose, or whether he really had no idea that Shu Li and I had just been off polishing the two-hander. I waved off the surgeon, and headed back for my cabin, and well-deserved rest.

I don’t know whether any of the crew made the connection between Shu Li and myself. Given the Kyborist restrictions on inter-species sex (and on sex in general), it was probably literally unthinkable. I did attract a few odd stares now and then, however, although they continued to treat me like family for my help with the corsairs.

We set off from the island two days later, and with a fair wind, came in sight of Murvane in another week. The next phase of my adventure was about to begin, but I had no idea what it would be.

VI

Ta’vallen was your typical bustling seaport, a cosmopolitan mix of a dozen different cultures, societies, races, and economies. Here, White Empire freighters sat at the quay, crowded beside Xeshite slave-galleys, goblin battle barges, Litharnan galleons, even dark elf vessels, the type which I automatically shied away from. The crowds at the docks, and in the waterfront district beyond, were just as varied, containing everything from stern Kyborist patriarchs in starched white robes to barely-clad Red Temple prostitutes, sashaying through the crowd, searching for flush mariners eager to spend their hard-earned shares on worldly pleasures after months at sea. Here, Xeshite slavers led coffles of pathetic creatures of varied race, Litharnan mercenaries swaggered and swore, green-skinned goblins darted and dashed, dwarves strode purposefully, and other, still more exotic races wove through the throng — shaggy throg, canine-headed wolfen, scaly and inscrutable jarreks, hulking ogres, squint-eyed orcs...

Shu Li fit right in. Even as we walked down the gangplank, I could see that she had plans, and when she wrapped her arms around my neck and pecked me a quick goodbye kiss, I was disappointed but not surprised.

“Farewell, Wulf, “she said, softly. “I’d never have thought I’d have such feelings for one not of my race, but I do. I hope we meet again.”

“Goodbye,” I replied, watching her vanish into the press and reflecting that her species probably didn’t believe in drawn-out farewells.

I sighed. I was alone once more, even surrounded by the crushing presence of humanity and a dozen other species. I had money in my pocket, however, and there was every chance I’d managed to elude my pursuers. I had a destination, a job to do, and the possibility of a good payoff once I’d finished.

With these positive thoughts in mind, I checked to make sure my weapons were present and unbound, took a deep breath, and set off.

I thought back to my discussion with the late, unlamented Aelfryn. After handing over my initial payment, he’d scanned me up and down — probably still wondering whether I’d take his money and bolt — and said, slowly and clearly, “Go to the Tradesmen’s District, to the Street of One Hundred Lanterns. There, you will find a house marked with a green tree, with a large golden triangle in its branches. Knock three times on the front door, pause, then knock twice more. When the door is answered, say ‘I come from the east.’ Do these things precisely, or you will be killed. Do you understand? Repeat my instructions to me.”

I had done so, thrice, to reassure the snotty little bastard that I really did understand him, and after that we had said our good nights.

Now, here I was, making my way to the Tradesmen’s district, a thousand unanswered questions and a million unspoken fears spinning through my mind in a sickening whirl.

I’d like to think that my mother didn’t raise any fools. I was aware of all the ways the plan could go wrong. The Hunters could have gotten wind of the plan, and be waiting for me in ambush at the house with the green tree. The entire thing could be some kind of elaborate set-up, with me as the fall guy. The Hunters may simply have wiped out my hosts, taken the package, and retained no further interest in me. This last, I realized, as I shouldered through the ever-present crowds on the Street of One Hundred Lanterns, remained highly unlikely, but one could always hope...

The house in question was set back somewhat from the street, down a short, garbage-filled alley clear of traffic. The place was a real dump — paint peeling, roof in disrepair and home to a dozen or so wing-lizards, windows grimed with soot and less pleasant things. The green tree and gold triangle were only barely visible through the dirt, which is probably as my employers wanted it. I steeled myself for the coming ordeal, hitched up my sword, and approached the faded, weathered door.

I knocked three times, loudly, paused a moment, then knocked twice more.

The sound echoed hollowly. No answer.

I swallowed hard, and tried again. Three. Pause. Two.

At last I heard a stirring inside the house. My hand went automatically to my sword hilt, my pulse raced, and my mind screamed, Get the hell out of there, you moron!

Forcibly ignoring my sensible, if somewhat panic-stricken, mind, I waited as the sound of locks and bolts being opened jangled from the door. Slowly, it creaked open, and a single blue eye regarded me from dusty shadows.

“I come from the east,” I said, feeling distinctly silly.

“What did you say?” asked a whispered voice, only barely audible above the bustle of the crowd from the nearby street.

“I said that I come from the east,” I said, again. “And if you’re going to kill me, please get it over with, because the suspense is unbearable.”

Without a reply, the figure pulled the door open inward, and I stepped inside, hand still poised on sword hilt.

A lithe figure swaddled in a grey cloak pushed the door closed behind me, shot all the bolts, and secured a large padlock. Then it turned and regarded me in a distressingly familiar manner.

It was male elf, cast from the same arrogant and haughty mold as Aelfryn. His eyes roved up and down, inspecting me as if I was a farm animal of uncertain health and ancestry.

“You’ve come at last,” he said simply. “We were wondering whether Aelfryn had succeeded.”

“Only partially,” I told him. “By the way, I’m Wulf.”

The elf lowered his hood, revealing an elongated, high-domed head, pointy ears, golden hair, and all the usual elf things.

“Lord Taelevan Starbow,” he said. “Of House Nythorin.”

Gods and daemons, were all elves nobles, I wondered?

“And exactly what did you mean by ‘partially’?” Taelevan asked.

“Your friend Aelfryn is dead,” I said, and received a shocked and disbelieving stare as a reward. “He hired me for this job, then showed up at my apartment with a knife in his back. He said someone called ‘The Hunters’ had killed him.”

Now that got a response. Taelevan’s elvish reserve vanished, his eyes grew wide, and he grabbed me roughly by the shoulder, propelling me through the darkened house.

“Did they come after you?” he demanded, guiding me to a flight of stairs down, to what I assumed was the cellar.

“Did they ever,” I replied. “Some good-looking sorceress sent a couple of dreadguard after me. I killed them both,” I added, hoping to impress my host.

I think it worked. He looked at me with new respect as he led me swiftly down the stairs toward a blue-lit chamber below.

“Were you followed?” he asked.

“If I was, I’d never have come here,” I told him. “To the best of my knowledge, I managed to shake them. But if there’s magic involved, I couldn’t say for certain.”

We entered a pleasant, domed chamber, and Taelevan spoke loudly.

“Nyta! Has anything followed this human?”

A female voice, echoing in the featureless chamber, replied, “Nay, my lord. He is alone.”

“Good.” With that Taelevan pressed his fingertips against the wall and muttered something under his breath. A section of the curved wall sparkled and vanished, revealing a short hallway beyond. “Had you been followed,” he continued, mildly, entering the corridor, “I’d have been honor-bound to slay you where you stood.”

“Encouraging,” I said, following Taelevan. “Glad to see that House Nythorin is so efficient.”

Taelevan did not reply, and a moment later, we emerged into a small antechamber, paneled with dark wood and brightly lit by a fixture of mage globes overhead. A table, writing desk, and a number of comfortably padded chairs sat about the room. A crystal beaker brimming with violet elvish wine occupied one of the tables.

“Sit,” urged Taelevan, indicating one of the chairs. “My friends will join us momentarily. Drink?”

I nodded, and accepted a crystal goblet of the violet wine. As I expected, it was delicious, if a bit strong for my taste.

We didn’t have to wait too long, for a few moments later, another hidden door opened, admitting three more elves. The first was male, silent and brooding, clad in silver fluted armor, a slender sword attached to his belt. He glowered at me from beneath an elaborate dragon-helm, and I found myself wondering if he ever took it off.

The other two elves were both women. The first was definitely quite old — though elves remain serenely beautiful regardless of age (and don’t they know it, too...), they grow more and more frail, distant and alien as the years pass. This one, whom I assumed was the mysterious Nyta, had clearly been around for a while. She wore a simple silver-blue gown that flowed along her body like a waterfall, concealing, but hinting at much. Her face and body had grown long, fine-boned and delicate, her eyes delicately slanted, glowing softly violet. Her skin had taken on a faintly bluish cast, and she looked for all the world like a fragile sculpture of spun glass.

Hm. Elven noblewoman and her silent male bodyguard — that much was clear. Whoever Nyta was, she was surely an important woman, and as for her male guardian... Well, I’d probably prefer to fight another dreadguard.

Nyta’s companion, on the other hand, was the enigma of the trio, and quite the opposite of her typically elvish companions. Young — no more than a century, I’d have guessed — she was human-appearing. More human than elf, in fact, for she was actually rather muscular and full-bodied, with a square-jawed, determined face, light blue eyes, and a swirl of pale blonde hair, cut in a popular White Empire style — probably hopelessly radical to the conservative elves. She was dressed strangely for an elf, as well, in tight leather breeches that clung to her smooth and gently curved thighs, calf-high boots, and a fitted, low-cut bodice that revealed a pair of breasts far more full and ripe than I’d ever seen on an elf before. I found myself gazing curiously at her ears to make certain she really was elven, and saw the usual points, which the elves themselves seem to put so much stock in.

I knew enough about elven protocol to rise and bow respectfully in the presence of Lady Nyta.

“Highest Lady,” I said, formally, “your presence honors me.”

Nyta actually smiled at that, and I found myself taking an instant liking to her.

“No formalities here, my friend,” she said. “You have risked much to be with us, and we respect that. Please be seated.”

“May I present Lady Nyta Silverheart,” said Taelevan, “third ranking of House Nythorin., sorceress of the twelfth rank, and Mistress of the Sunblade.”

None of these things meant troll dung to me, but I inclined my head nonetheless.

“My Lady,” I said, and earned another smile from the elf woman.

“And,” Taelevan went on, indicating the young vixen, who stared at me with a pouty-lipped expression of contempt mixed with curiosity, “the Lady Theanna Wavewalker, of the house —”

“That will be enough, Taelevan,” interrupted Nyta. “As I said, excessive formalities are unnecessary at this time.”

I nodded. Apparently, the strong, silent bodyguard would remain nameless.

“Now, Lord Wulf,” Nyta continued, “exactly what did our late cousin Aelfryn tell you?”

I took another sip of wine, and launched into my story, telling everything but the details of Livia’s threesome and my interlude with Shu Li, which I figured was no one’s business. Nyta took it well, nodding briefly, steepling her hands, and listening with great seriousness when I told of Aelfryn’s death and my fight with the dreadguards.

Theanna responded more emotionally, her eyes widening at certain points, her breath coming faster during my description of combat (making her exquisite breasts do amazing things, by the way), and even wiping away a tear when I spoke of Aelfryn.

“And so,” I concluded, “I came here, both out of concern for my safety, and out of my desire to complete the task which Lord Aelfryn set me. I was told that I was to receive a package, and instructions as to its delivery. Is this still the plan, Lady?”

Nyta considered this, silently pressing her fingers to her lips. At last she spoke.

“Clearly, we cannot stay here. Your pursuers are fortunately off the scent, but cannot remain so forever. We must leave this place, and you must complete the job you were hired to do.”

I nodded, as sagely as I could manage. “So,” I asked, “where is the package Aelfryn spoke of?”

Nyta smiled. “Aelfryn was not being entirely candid with you,” she said, in an amused voice. “This,” she continued, indicating Lady Theanna, who looked distinctly annoyed at the implication, “is what Lord Aelfryn so crassly referred to as ‘the package’.”

Gods. I should have known. I managed to choke out a couple of questions, despite knowing in my heart of hearts that the elves would never give me a straight answer. “What’s so important about Theanna? And why me? What’s so special about me?”

Nyta shook her head, slowly. “I cannot answer your questions, Wulf. Believe me, it is best that you do not know. Suffice to say that your deeds on behalf of our nation have not gone unnoticed.”

I glanced over at Theanna, who returned my gaze icily. “Where am I supposed to take her, anyway?”

“The fortress of Nagatha,” Taelevan said. “It’s a desolate spur of rock sticking up out of what you call the Eastern Abyss. How you get her there is up to you. We don’t need to know.”

“We don’t want to know,” Nyta corrected him. “Your route is your business. We daren’t run the risk of having our knowledge discovered.”

“It’s enough that we know who you are,” said Taelevan. “If we were to be interrogated —”

“Interrogated?” I demanded. “By who? The mysterious Hunters? Who are they? Why do they want Theanna so badly? And if she’s one of your own noblewomen, why can’t one of you escort her to this gods-forsaken fortress of yours?”

Nyta shook her head again. “We can be followed too easily. Our enemies have spells and... other resources.”

I still wasn’t satisfied. “If they can follow you so bloody easily, what’s to stop them from following Theanna? Or me for that matter?”

“Again, Wulf, it is best you not know the answers to those questions. Believe me, it’s for the best. There are reasons why you and Theanna can elude searchers better than any of us.”

I sighed. “I knew I wouldn’t get any answers. With all due respect, Lady, your kind has a reputation for glibness.”

“No offense taken, Wulf,” Nyta said, though Taelevan and the still-silent warrior looked at me disdainfully. “I am all too aware of my race’s shortcomings.”

“Your honesty is refreshing,” I told her. “But the bottom line — we humans are fond of things like the bottom line — is that I am being asked to transport a noblewoman to a distant location, while not knowing who she truly is, and being pursued by unknown, and apparently vastly powerful enemies. Can you see where this might give me some... shall we say... pause for thought?”

Taelevan’s gaze turned openly hostile. My command of elvish had improved over the years, so I was able to catch most of what he said. It was something along the lines of, “See? I told you he was a sniveling little coward!”

I glared back at him. “I’d watch who I called coward, my lord, or you’ll find that elvish flesh cleaves as easily as that of humans.” The ear-boys love that stuff.

Taelevan looked surprised for an instant, then returned to his original standoffish demeanor.

“Enough of this,” Nyta went on in a far less serene and patient tone. “Wulf, the mission we give you is of vital importance to our people. Your deeds are known to us. We well remember the great war with the orcs, and the role you played in it. We ask for your assistance again.” She paused for a moment, and smiled knowingly. “And, since we are aware that even heroes must eat, we offer you two thousand gold crowns now for expenses, and another ten thousand upon completion at Nagatha.”

The job was growing more potentially lucrative by the minute. Unfortunately it also seemed to be growing more dangerous as well. What to do?

Well, if I hadn’t agreed, we wouldn’t have much of a story here, would we? It took some doing, but eventually I consented, and accepted the two thousand. They were contained in a small box, slightly larger than my hand, enchanted to contain the sum while weighing slightly more than a small brick.

“Now go. Quickly,” Taelevan told me. “Our enemies are known to be in this city. The sooner you book passage away from here, the better.”

With that, and a gracious goodbye from Nyta, I departed, with the sullen Theanna, her elvish features concealed beneath a hooded cloak, following after. Nearby, the bustling streets of Ta’vallen beckoned, crowded with hordes of smelly humanity.

I looked at her. “Listen,” I said. “I’m kind of overwhelmed by all this, and I imagine you’re not too happy, either. I can only tell you that I’ll do my best to make this trip pleasant, and try to be as friendly as possible.”

Theanna stared back in silence for a moment and then, wonder of wonders, she spoke.

“Well, Master Wulf,” she said, her tone arrogant and unpleasant, “you are correct that I’m not happy with any of this. Not happy at all. And if you want to make this trip pleasant for me, you will do nothing more than the task that is required of you. You needn’t bother offering your friendship. It’s not something I either want or need. Now get on with it and let me be.”

I wasn’t in a mood to argue, but instead turned and plunged into the crowd. Perhaps, I thought, I’d get lucky and lose her in the press. To my distress, however, she managed to keep up, and followed me back to the docks.

Greedy, greedy Wulf, I thought. Once more you’ve landed smack in the middle of a sea of dragon crap, and have forgotten how to swim.

What fun.

* * *

Although the evening approached with stately stride, the docks had barely slowed down by the time we returned. All the way through the teeming streets from Ta’vallen, my charge, safely muffled in a cloak, her tell-tale ears hidden from sight, had maintained a surly silence, occasionally favoring me with a grim, unhappy glance. She was certainly beautiful, like all her kind, but even then I detected a certain earthiness about her that the other tree-huggers lacked. They were beautiful and graceful, but in the same manner as fine art. You wanted to look at them, but it just seemed inappropriate to actually touch. Mind you, I’d touched a few in my time, but they were all atypical. Most of them, even the friendly ones, were so distant and impossibly beautiful that mere mortals such as myself could never aspire to approach one, let alone know her intimately.

Theanna was different. There was a certain — for lack of a better term — humanity about her. Not that it made her demeanor any less snotty and disdainful, but at least it made it tolerable.

The docks were crowded with shipping, as usual, and I could take my pick of various routes out of the city. The harbormaster’s offices maintained a large slate, with arrivals, departures and destinations chalked in. To my pleasant surprise, I noted a vessel due out the following morning, bound for Helmsruud and thence to none other than my favorite armpit of a city, Stoneburg.

“Excellent,” I breathed, partly to myself and partly to Theanna, if for no other reason than to assure her I still knew she existed. “We’ll be able to hire out a mercenary cutter in the ‘burg.”

She nodded gravely, but said nothing, and I returned to my perusal of the board. Abruptly, my delight turned to apprehension when I realized that the ship, Princess Xura was listed as being Xeshite registry. That meant two things — one, it would be fiendishly expensive and two (perhaps even harder to stomach), I would actually have to share a vessel with a bunch of Xeshites. I’d had my fill of the jungle-dwelling freaks several years previously during my sojourn as slave-boy and all-round plaything to one Countess Xylara and her deviant family.

I sighed. The Xeshite was probably the safest and most direct route to where we were going, despite the contempt in which I held its owners’ nationality. Few hunters were likely to suspect, even if they managed to trail me this far, that my first act would be returning to the city from which I’d fled. And the very expense of the passage was an assurance of first class security and comfort, two items which I was certain lady Theanna would find valuable.

“Well,” I said, once more only partially to my companion, “The Princess Xura it is, then. Come on.”

Once more, Theanna followed in silence, her expression one of barely-restrained boredom and distaste.

I must admit, my first view of the Princess very nearly dispelled my misgivings. Rising like a great, razor-bowed iceberg from the dirty waters of the bay, she was built with the usual Xeshite disregard for naval architecture. More floating palace than anything else, the vessel was built on a great, blocky hull, shining white with gilded railings and portholes, topped with gracefully curved towers, buttresses and walkways. Even the greenest landlubber would wonder how such a monstrosity managed to remain afloat; the answer was, as always, magic. Like many high-class Xeshite vessels, the Princess was surrounded by a bubble of magical force which kept the seas around it smooth as glass, even in the harshest weather. She was towed by a team of ten giant hippocampi, but probably had supplemental magical propulsion, as well. A half-dozen steam-powered cutters were lashed to the vessel’s superstructure — these could serve as lifeboats in an emergency, and could also be crewed by Xeshite mariners — or, more likely, well-paid mercenaries; the Xeshites themselves unwilling to dirty their hands with real combat — to repel pirates or other hostiles.

The purser, a dour-looking Xeshite male in a pristine white uniform, looked down his nose as I approached the gangplank. I realized with some distress that I looked more like a transient than anything else, and my companion, of necessity concealed in a cloak, didn’t look like much of anything. I wore a pair of ragged sailor’s breeches, and my shirt, so recently shredded by Li’s claws, had been crudely patched and stitched up. I hadn’t shaved or bathed lately, either.

I decided, in keeping with my usual habits, to brass it out.

“We need two passages to Stoneburg,” I said, meeting the Xeshite’s stern gaze.

“Hm,” he said, briefly. “Are you certain that this is the sort of vessel you wish to travel on, sir? There are many others.”

I cut him off, pulling out a handful of gold coins. “We require swift, secure, and above all else, discreet transport. We are willing to pay whatever is required, and are not used to being questioned.”

He frowned. I could tell what he was thinking. Crooks on the lam? Political refugees carrying the crown jewels? Agents of the White Empire? As I watched, the man weighed the benefits and potential risks of letting us on board.

At last, avarice won out.

“I believe, sir, that we have some space available. It is likely to be expensive”

Eventually, we settled on a price, probably twice what everyone else on board was paying, but well within my budget (I intended to present the ear-boys with a bill once we reached Nagatha, in any event).

“Have you any baggage, sir?” the man asked. I could tell he was being a smart-ass.

“Only what you see.” Theanna had her clothes and finery, but it was all stored in one of those intriguing little elf-boxes that are bigger on the inside than out. I was stuck with just what I was carrying, which wasn’t much. “I assume that our passage includes complete security?”

“Oh, yes,” he replied. “Constant magical scanning, both active and passive, for unusual amounts of metal, weapons, hostile spells or summonings, sorcerous lookout for a hundred leagues all around as insurance against corsairs, and excellent physical security agents on board. All this is accomplished with the most minimal disruption of your and the lady’s privacy, of course.”

I smiled thinly. “Well, it looks good to me. Shall we board, dear?”

Theanna followed me up the gangplank in silence.

Once on board, I felt a sense of security I hadn’t experienced since my first meeting with Lord Aelfryn. The vessel was as much fortress as palace, with viewing crystals and magical detectors every few paces. Hallways were wide, almost blindingly white, with rich, wine-red carpeting and mageglobes in gilded sconces. Human, jarrek, and ogre guards seemed everywhere, but were quiet and obsequious, despite their heavy armor and armament. There were wizards, too, I knew, but these kept discreetly out of sight. I suspected most of them served on the distant bridge, atop a lonely flying buttress a hundred paces overhead, along with captain and executive officers.

A scurrying jarrek in white tunic led us to our rooms; I’d decided upon adjoining suites, since Theanna probably didn’t want to even think about sleeping in the same room as me. All the same, I kept the door between the rooms open.

I heaved a heavy sigh of relief as the door finally closed, and we were alone. The rooms were big, with expensive, heavy furniture. The outer walls were enchanted, so that by touching a blue gemstone, they could be made transparent, for a view of the sea outside. One-way, too I noticed — we could see out, but no one could see in. The ornate beds were canopied with masses of white, lacy fabric, and looked big enough to sleep a regiment. They were four-posters, I noticed — given the Xeshite’s infamous vices, I was surprised that they didn’t come with built-in manacles, but I kept silent on the topic as Theanna headed for her room.

I watched, somewhat miffed. I could understand her confusion and fear, but since we’d left her sanctuary, she’d been more frigid than a cold islands iceberg.

“By the way,” I said, pointedly, “you’re welcome.”

She turned, lowering her hood, revealing her elfin beauty in all its glory. Her expression had grown not one iota warmer.

“I owe you no thanks, mercenary,” she said. “You’re doing this because you’re being paid. Well paid, might I add. You’d do well to remember that you are my employee now, and spend the rest of this voyage doing your job.”

With that, she turned on her heel and vanished into her room, shutting the door behind her.

Well, I thought. That’s that. If she knew anything about my exploits in the war, she was taking pains to be completely unimpressed by them.

All the same, I still had errands to run. Theanna was safely on board, and the Xeshites’ security measures would keep her safe.

I knocked gently on her door.

“What do you want?” she demanded, not kindly.

“I have to go ashore to get some supplies before we leave,” I told her.

“What sort of supplies?”

“For one thing, I need some clean clothes and weapons,” I replied. “Can you please stay here while I’m gone? Shipboard security will probably be sufficient to protect you, but I don’t want to take any chances.”

Her only reply was silence. In my mind’s eye I saw here, sitting at her vanity, aggressively brushing her hair and willfully ignoring me.

“Did you hear me?”

After another pause, she finally shot back, “I heard you.”

“Are you going to stay here, then?”

I was pushing it, I knew, but at this point it was a good thing to assert my authority as de facto bodyguard and make sure she was aware of it.

More silence.

“I asked you a question, lady. Will you stay here while I’m gone?”

“Yes. I will stay here. Now leave me alone.”

That was about all I could hope for.

On the way out, I stopped a guard and asked that special attention be paid to our cabins by him and his friends, and also asked that magical surveillance be maintained. I slipped him a handful of coins for his trouble, and departed, hoping that this would be sufficient.

Dusk approached as I stepped off the Princess. I hoped that I’d be able to find some open shops nearby, since I had no desire to spend the next several weeks wearing my rent, stained traveling clothes. My rapier was badly notched, as well, and needed replacement.

I was fortunate enough to dodge into a tailor’s shop just as the man was closing, and grabbed a selection of garments off the rack. Though the little beetle-browed man insisted that the clothes were much too expensive for me, he clammed up with admirable speed when I shoved money into his grasping claws. I hoped everything fit, but wasn’t above a few shipboard alterations once we’d left.

With all due speed, lugging a sack full of finery and a couple of plumed hats, I made my way to a combination cutlery-weapons shop and spent the next few minutes haggling over my required armaments. I came away with a new rapier, a brace of throwing daggers, a mail-lined parrying glove and a couple of boot-knives. It wasn’t much, but it would have to do. I was just heading back toward the ship when a commotion nearby grabbed my attention.

Down the street, a fleeing, darting figure moved with familiar grace ahead of a small group of shouting, sword-armed men in leather cuirasses. Even though the lamp-lighters had yet to make an appearance in the gathering gloom, I recognized the lithe, feline shape of my most recent beloved, leaping and bounding exuberantly, as her pursuers howled with anger and frustration.

As I’ve often noted, I’m not an especially brave man. Timely retreat is often one of the smartest thing the enlightened freelance can do. On the other hand, when there’s a beautiful woman nearby — human or not — being hotly pursued by a crowd of unwashed thugs intent on serious bodily harm, the rules can be suspended. Besides, I figured I owed her something for the island.

I flung down my bundles, drawing my rapier, and stepped out into the street. Shu Li’s eyes lit up when she saw me.

“Wolf!” she yowled, gathering herself for a leap, and springing clear over my head, leaving me alone facing a good half-dozen ruffians.

Wait a second The “ruffians” all bore blue and gold headbands, and were dressed relatively alike. With a rush of horror, I realized that Li’s brutish pursuers were actually Ta’vallen city guards

Oh well; too bloody late

“Problems, gentlemen?” I asked, as calmly as I could.

The lead pursuer, whom I noted bore a sergeant’s crest on his breastplate, stopped short.

“Out of the way, you!” he bellowed. “We’re constabulary officials, and the cat-bitch is a murderess!”

Well, that came as no real shock to me. Anyone Shu Li killed was sure to be bad, however, so I stood my ground.

“I don’t think so, gentlemen,” I replied. “She happens to also be a friend of mine.”

“Then I’ll see you in hell,” barked the sergeant, stabbing his shortsword at me.

I ducked, taking a swing at his legs. It wasn’t a deadly blow; just enough to get his attention, but the edge of my blade actually connected, sending him sprawling, yelping in pain.

Then a blur of orange and black streaked past me, and suddenly Shu Li was behind the constables, swinging with one hand and clawing with the other, snarling and spitting all the while.

I took advantage of our foe’s confusion to slice a couple more legs, sending a pair of constables tumbling, while Shu Li slashed and raked. I noted that she, too, seemed to be trying to deal non-lethal injuries, though I was sure she wouldn’t hesitate to rip a throat or two to save herself. The melee continued for several long moments in the gloom, until the entire pack of guardsmen fled, many of them limping pathetically, into the darkness. A couple lay moaning, nursing cuts and slashes, but I was relatively sure they’d survive, and ushered Shu Li away from the place.

Shu Li looked at me, panting, breasts heaving in a singularly lovely fashion, gold eyes bright and filled with battle lust.

“My wolf intervenes on my behalf!” she declared. “What providence brings you here? Chance?” She grinned. “There is no chance. All is ordained.”

I raised my eyebrows. “I didn’t think the universe was that well-ordered.”

“It isn’t, my hairy, howling Wolf Independent Contractor. But we needn’t worry about such things. My work here is finished for now. You seem ready for a journey. Shall I come with you, my Wolf?”

“Uh, assuming no one is planning on pursuing you. I’ve enough enemies right now.”

“It’s best I not return to this ancestorless city, but I doubt they’ll pursue me far.”

“What the hell did you do?” I asked.

She looked around somewhat nervously. “Perhaps the entire story should wait, beloved. Suffice to say a certain slave-trader is now missing his head. Now, may I come with you?” I nodded. “I’ve got another sea voyage ahead, I’m afraid.”

“Where are you bound? Not that it matters, of course The quicker I leave this foul place the better.”

“Stoneburg, by way of Litharna, then east,” I told her. “Come on. We’ll book passage before the constabulary gathers its wits and returns.”

I quickly retrieved my belongings and we moved, quickly but cautiously, back toward the docks. As we did so I felt a warm sense of relief and satisfaction wash over me. Now, at least, I wasn’t alone, and had a companion who, despite her alien appearance and attitude, could at least provide me with intelligent conversation. And, I mused, taking a lingering glance at Li’s swaying hips and striped tail, perhaps other things.

Not surprisingly, the purser balked at allowing Li on board. The Xeshites generally consider all non-humans to be fit only as slaves (and most other humans, for that matter), but after several minutes and countless handfuls of coinage, I managed to convince our hosts that she was a hired sword necessary for security purposes, and booked her into my cabin.

Li stared in wonder at the ship as we made our way back to the cabins.

“Such a vessel,” she marveled. “I’ve seen the emperor’s dragon-ships from a distance, but they seem small in comparison. The Xeshites must be a great people.”

“The Xeshites are a bunch of decadent, indolent, slave-keeping bastards,” I said. “They’ve spent so much time in the jungle their brains have started to sprout. Trust me. I spent several months in their service a few years ago.”

“You were a slave, Wolf?”

“Yes, but under protest. In the end I managed to convince my mistress to free all her slaves, but she was still a perverted little minx to the very end.”

“You made her free her slaves?” Li asked, staring at me with an incomprehensible expression in her deep golden eyes.

I nodded.

She didn’t reply, but turned and continued down the hall, her tiger-striped face as unreadable as ever.

When we reached my cabin, I immediately made for Theanna’s door and knocked.

Silence. With a sinking heart, I knocked again, louder, and a moment later pushed the door open and barreled into Theanna’s cabin.

It was empty, save for her finery, taken from her little elf-box and strewn around the room.

“Phaedra save us,” I muttered, whirling and racing back into my room.

“What’s wrong?” Li asked as I made for the door.

“My charge, the little elf-slut, is missing,” I shot back over my shoulder. “I shouldn’t have trusted her. Want to help me look for her?”

“Anything for my new mate,” she purred, and I had a difficult time telling whether she was being sarcastic or not. In any event, it was an issue for later discussion.

I collared the guard I’d bribed.

“The elf woman I asked you to watch,” I said, urgently. “Where is she?”

“She’s fine,” the man assured me. “After we announced the nightly fete in the blue ballroom, she insisted on going there. Our wizards are keeping an eye on her.”

I growled irritably. The little tart. “Which way is the ballroom?” I asked.

“Down this hall, up two levels, follow the silver footprints.”

I thanked him — he’d done his job after all — and made my way down the corridor, Li following closely behind.

The blue ballroom proved to live up to its name. The floor was midnight blue inlaid with azure, the walls were hung with royal blue tapestries, and lavender pillars held up a clear crystal dome, through which the moons and stars shone. This illumination was subtly enhanced by a number of recessed mageglobes, but the entire effect was of a moonlit clearing, filled with richly-dressed figures.

“Do you see her?” I asked. “Tall, blonde, elf-looking?”

“I’m sorry, Wolf, but all you hairless ones look alike to me,” Li said. “Except for the short, bearded ones.”

“That would be the dwarves. You can distinguish them by the smell,” I commented, weaving my way past tables with seated men and women, exotically clothed or near-clothed. The scent of rich, spiced food filled the room, mixed with incense and dream-smoke, and nearby a hidden orchestra played one of those endless, sleep-inducing Xeshite sonatas. A few were dancing to the music.

One couple attracted my attention — the man was slender, but with a well-toned muscular build, and sported a neat black beard. He wore black and silver and bore a Xeshite house crest on a chain around his neck. Though unarmed, my instincts screamed that he looked like trouble.

And if so, I’d walked right into it, for clinging to him like an Orlanist missionary to a potential convert, was my young charge, clad in a dark green gown that managed to make her look even more voluptuous, her hair elaborately coifed and threaded with glittering gems and silver wire. She gazed at the Xeshite man with the sort of expression I’d always wanted from Livia but had never received.

“There she is,” I told Li. “Any ideas?”

“She’s very pretty,” purred the Kaitian. “And she seems well cared for. Perhaps you should leave her be?”

I shook my head. “I’m responsible for her safety, and she needs to be aware of it. Wish me luck, dearest.”

With that, I stepped through the dancing couples and triples, approaching Theanna and her companion.

“My lady,” I said, causing her to jump, and the Xeshite to cast a dark glare at me, “I asked you to stay in your cabin.”

Theanna recovered her composure instantly, and fixed me with the icy stare I was coming to despise.

“I was bored. I chose not to remain. It is my prerogative, is it not? You are simply here to see to my safety, not to interfere with my desires.”

At that she smiled at the Xeshite, who returned a thin, smarmy smile of his own.

“Fellow,” he said, with the sort of affected formality I found infuriating, “I scarcely see how interfering with Lady Theanna’s enjoyment of the evening falls within your duties as her bodyguard. After all, a good servant should be neither seen nor heard until needed, don’t you agree?”

“No I do not, my lord..?” I left the question hanging.

“Xulla, Earl of Shining Bend, House Rutha. And you, my lord?”

“Wulf,” I said. “Just Wulf. I think I’m familiar with you folks. You’re vassals of House Exyndra, aren’t you?”

Xulla colored at that. “We are associated with Exyndra, yes.”

“How’s Baroness Xylara doing these days?” I asked. “I spent a good deal of time in her household last time I visited Xesh.”

He scowled. “The Baroness is in good health. Not that I would know from personal experience. She’ll allow no men to venture onto her estate at the Moonpool. She and her sister have the place sewn up tight.”

I chuckled inwardly. Years of enforced lesbianism seemed to have left their mark on my dear Xylara. Then again, she’d probably been inclined that way since the beginning I didn’t bother to tell Xulla that I was probably the last male to touch the woman.

“Glad to see she’s maintaining family traditions. She still holds no slaves?”

“None,” Xulla grunted, plainly disapproving. “Her attendants all supposedly serve out of love. It’s an unhealthy tradition. Some are even beginning to question the wisdom of keeping slaves at all, using her as an example.”

My hidden grin grew even wider. Perhaps my influence on the woman hadn’t been totally wasted.

“I would love to stand here and discuss Xeshite politics with you, your excellency,” I said, “but as you say, that would not fall within my duties as a bodyguard.” I turned to Theanna. “Lady, will you accompany us back to your cabin?”

Theanna looked at Li with a mixture of dubiousness and curiosity.

“This is Li,” I told her. “She’ll be traveling with us.” I didn’t bother to ask for Theanna’s approval.

Li bowed graciously. “My lady,” she said, in a low, rich voice. “It’s an honor.”

Theanna seemed unimpressed and made no move to leave.

“I’ll be staying here for a time,” she said, meeting my gaze. “You may remain, as well, if you wish, but we will be leaving when I wish it, not you.”

With that, she returned to her dance, ignoring me as finally as if I’d never been born.

I turned to Li with a shrug. “Not much else I can do, is there?”

“I think not,” she said. “She did not, however, say you could not enjoy yourself while you guarded her. This music is lovely. Care to teach me some of your people’s dances?”

Though taken aback for a moment, I finally smiled, and moved closer, one arm on her shoulder, and the other resting on her warm, naked, softly-furred waist.

“Certainly,” I said. “It’s the least I can do.”

VII

Sailing requires skill, discipline, and an instinctive love of the sea. Sailing on a Xeshite luxury liner, on the other hand, requires endless patience and a high tolerance for boredom. I have neither, and within two days on that floating cathouse I was climbing the walls. The green coast of Murvane vanished behind us, and the deep blue sea opened ahead. Pilot whales splashed in our bow wake, and one day I saw a couple of merfolk off in the distance, and thought wistfully of the mermaid who had once saved my life. The rest of the time, I walked the deck, a few discreet paces behind Theanna, who rarely favored me with more than an occasional icy stare, and otherwise ignored me like an embarrassing stain.

Her smiles and warm behavior were reserved for the dashing Lord Xulla, the sanctimonious prick, whom we often encountered during our pointless circuits of the deck. The hypocritical bastard was usually in the company of a white-clad Orlanist monk — in all likelihood, I told myself, the arrogant bastard’s catamite disguised as his spiritual advisor. He was always the soul of politeness and chivalry at these meetings, bowing low, and addressing Theanna as “My Lady,” occasionally going so far as to chastely kiss her hand. They sometimes discussed the weather, and other times the subtleties of the Orlanist faith. I knew what was going on in the Xeshite pervert’s mind, however, and despite the fact that it involved Theanna being on her knees, it didn’t involve religion.

Shu Li was always with us, though she could rarely be seen, slinking through shadows or moving silently nearby. Since leaving Murvane, she’d treated me with enormous respect, though I couldn’t figure out why. I sensed a deepening of the lust she seemed to feel for me, and I returned it wholeheartedly, though we weren’t immediately able to slake the burning thirst we felt for each other, owing to my duty to Theanna.

By the third day out of port, we’d settled into a routine. I had pretty much relaxed regarding Theanna’s safety. If she wanted to stare at me as if I were a particularly revolting insect, and moon over some Xeshite deviant, I was content to let her, and think of the money awaiting me at the end of the journey.

I braced my feet against the roll of the deck and gazed with mixed feelings at Theanna, who strolled beside Lord Xulla, fifty paces distant, followed closely behind by his white-clad boytoy. Li leaned casually against the railing, tail twitching, much as she had the day I’d first her. She returned my gaze, yawned and stretched delicately, regarding me with a mixture of amusement and affection.

“Nice to see you’re working so hard,” I commented. “Makes me glad I brought you along.”

“What work is there, my Wulf?” she asked, running a hand through her thick mane of hair. “Your little elf-woman ignores you or treats you like a slave, and spends all her time making love-talk with the Xeshite. All you need do is sit aside and watch.”

I turned and leaned against the railing beside her. The sea was a turbulent grey and there were clouds on the horizon. “Actually, dear, I’m getting damned weary of just sitting and watching. My job was to get her to that damned fortress safely, not safeguard her virtue. I’m inclined to go play cards and let Xulla shag her brains out.”

Li frowned. “Lord Xulla wants to couple with the elf-woman? I thought his faith forbade such things.”

“Yeah, right,” I replied. “The day any Xeshite converts to Kyborism, let alone Orlanism, is the day I castrate myself and become an Idrianic Cenobite.”

“I didn’t understand a word you just said, Wulf, but I think you don’t believe Xulla to be entirely trustworthy.”

“You think right, my love,” I said. “Unfortunately, there’s not much either of us can do about it. Maybe you understand me better than you think.”

She grinned and purred. “In any event, I’d not have you castrate yourself and become a holy man. At least not before I’ve finished with you.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Is that an invitation, lady?”

“More of a demand, beloved. You know better than to turn down a Kaitian’s demand.”

She was right. Refusing a Kaitian usually gets you beaten up and covered with scratches. Then again, making love to a Kaitian usually leaves you in the same condition, albeit happier.

“I’ve wanted you since we came aboard,” she continued. “Since your timely intervention back in Ta’Vallen...”

“I see. So saving a woman’s life assures her desire for you. I’ll have to remember that.”

“Not just saving my life, Wulf. I’d have handled those fools with or without your help.”

I nodded as sagely as I could manage. Gods, but I love self-confident women.

“What the hell was going on, anyway?” I asked. It had been on my mind since our departure, but so far I’d been too pissed at Theanna to deal with it directly. “You said you killed a slaver?”

Li didn’t reply immediately, but only gazed out as if she hadn’t heard me, across the waves, toward the oncoming storm front. I didn’t fool myself — the woman could hear a gnat land on a cushion from three leagues away. I bit back any further commentary and let her think about it.

“My sister,” she said at last. “She was taken by slavers six years ago. I’ve been searching for her ever since.”

“The slaver in Ta’Vallen?”

“He was one of the raiders who took her. Before he died, he told me that they’d sold her to a Necrotian slaver named Dulak.”

I frowned. “I think I’ve heard the name before, but there are a lot of Necrotian slavers. What’s your next stop?”

She laughed. More like a stuttering growl, but fortunately I knew what it meant. “Stoneburg, evidently. It’s the crossroads of the Inner and Outer Seas, after all — I’m sure to find someone who’s heard of Dulak the Slaver.”

I sighed. “I was hoping you’d come with me to Nagatha.”

She looked genuinely unhappy at that. “Wolf...” She paused and looked out over the grey waves again. They had just begun to dimple with the first traces of rain. “I find myself...” She paused again. “I’m not sure of the proper word. Confused, I suppose. I feel strangely close to you. I’d never thought to feel like this toward... toward someone who wasn’t... wasn’t...”

“A big orange cat?” I asked.

“I’d not have put it that way, Wolf, but yes. I feel something for you, and I’d as soon stay with you. But my duty is to my sister. She was a gentle soul, white-furred, and she danced and sang like an angel. I took up the sword but she preferred the pen and the brush. The slavers should have come for me, not her. I swore to find her and to take the heads of all who brought harm upon her.”

I stepped back from the railing as the rain grew heavier. I rubbed my chin thoughtfully.

“Well, in that case, I’ll give you the same offer that I make every other woman who’s made love to me, then disappeared. Next time you’re in Stoneburg, look me up. I can’t guarantee I’ll be available, but we can at least go out for dinner.”

She stepped back, grinning. “Enough of this, Wolf. I prefer leaving parting words for when I’m actually parting from someone. I’ve made some demands of you, my wolf. Care to submit to them?”

I looked down at Theanna and Xulla. He walked chastely beside her, a gentle hand on her arm. Xeshite bastard, I thought to myself. Don’t think I don’t know what you’re up to.

“My dear,” I said, apologetically, “pleasure delayed is pleasure increased, so perhaps I should at least make an effort at keeping ear-girl’s virtue intact, and we go at it tonight after she’s asleep?”

“Hm. Won’t the Wolf’s howls wake her up?”

“If I do, I’ll probably just ask her if she wants to join in. What do you say?”

Li’s only reply was to lean close and run her rough tongue along my cheek. Then, with a brief, sensuous growl, she slunk into the shadows and was gone.

Damn, I thought, I’d never be able to make love to this woman more than once a month or so — it would take that long for my skin to grow back.

Theanna, Xulla, and their white shadow strolled the deck for a few more minutes, until the rain grew heavier and wind began to lash at us, then the Xeshite bowed gracefully, kissed Theanna’s hand, and bade farewell. I watched patiently as she walked back toward me, occasionally glimpsing back toward where Xulla had been.

“I’ll be dining with Lord Xulla this evening,” she said in her usual cold tone. “Your services will not be required. I’m sure you’ll find something to occupy yourself.”

I ignored the jab. “My lady,” I said, forcing myself to remain calm, “I don’t think that is such a good idea.”

“Oh, really?” she asked. “How is it your place to decide what is or isn’t a good idea?”

A gust of wind sent a slap of rain across my face, but I didn’t look away. “My job is to keep you safe until we reach Nagatha, lady. Though your sponsors didn’t trust me enough to tell me the whole story, I know that someone wants you dead. Someone powerful enough to summon dreadguard and make some extremely old elves very scared. It seems to me that leaving you alone with a Xeshite nobleman whom we met only three days ago isn’t exactly the best way to insure your safety.”

“Brother Maynard will be there,” Theanna said. “And I will be back by a reasonable hour. Lord Xulla is an honorable man, and his intentions are honorable, as well.”

I tried to keep myself from rolling my eyes, and failed miserably. “I think, lady, that I know Xeshites somewhat better than you. I don’t think his intentions are as honorable as you think.”

Theanna’s gaze grew even harsher. “If they are not, Freelance, then I think that I should be the one to deal with them, not you. You are an employee, Freelance, and you will do what your employer tells you. I have told you that I will return after dinner. You’ll do nothing to change my plans, or —”

A flash of lightning suddenly illuminated the side of the ship, followed an instant later by a harsh crack of thunder.

Theanna cried out in alarm, and threw herself into my arms.

Astonished, startled, and completely baffled, I was nonetheless able to keep my arms around her and direct her out of the weather. As I did, she stared back fearfully at the tossing waves, trembling.

“What...?” I managed to get out as I steered her toward a salon. “What’s wrong?”

Theanna whispered a word so quietly that I couldn’t hear her.

“What did you say?” I demanded.

“The Stormking,” she said, holding me more tightly. “The Stormking is coming.”

* * *

Theanna returned to her usual demeanor within minutes, and refused to elaborate on exactly who or what “The Stormking” was. At length, we returned to our rooms, where she prepared for dinner.

I was still upset at her treatment of me, but I’d grown used to it. Besides, her absence might give Li and me some much-needed privacy. Assuming, of course, the little cat-girl ever showed up again — I’d not seen her since she’d left me on the deck.

At length, after leaving me twiddling my thumbs in my room, Theanna swept in as imperious as the White Empress at Godsday services. She was dressed in a long gown crafted of an iridescent blue material that shifted and shimmered as she moved. She wore a small diamond tiara and long blue gloves, as well, and her face seemed to sparkle like diamonds. Damnable elven magic, I thought. At least it did away with the need for an army of attendants.

“You look beautiful,” I said, grudgingly, knowing that she’d ignore me, or treat me to another cold-hearted comment.

To my surprise, she smiled. “Thank you,” she said.

Hm. The iceberg begins to melt, perhaps? Nah, not a chance, I told myself. You’re Wulf, remember? Everyone hates you.

Nonetheless, I smiled back. “Can I at least escort you to Xulla’s cabin?” I asked. It would give me the opportunity to see where the pasty-faced sicko was staying, in case I ever needed to break the door down.

“Of course,” she said. “Follow me.”

I followed, my usual respectful distance behind her, as she led me down several twisting, magically-lit corridors, past motionless guards of a half-dozen species, wide viewing galleries — the storm still raged outside, but scarcely bothered us, and the sun was just slipping beneath the waves — and lavishly-dressed Xeshites who regarded us with ill-concealed disdain.

I did my best to memorize the way until we arrived at Xulla’s stern berth, and I knocked quietly at the door.

The gilded white portal opened slowly, revealing the slightly pudgy form of Brother Maynard. He scanned me up and down and then beamed beatifically.

“You are the Lady’s escort?” he asked. “I’m Brother Maynard, humble acolyte in service to Kybor and Saint Orlan.”

I nodded. “Wulf,” I said. “Humble hired goon in service to Lady Theanna.”

“Will you be joining us for dinner?” he asked.

I glanced over at Theanna. “No,” I said, and she visibly relaxed. “Please convey my best wishes to Lord Xulla and ask that he escort the lady back to her suite after dinner, however.”

“I shall do that, good sir,” grinned Maynard. He turned to Theanna. “Welcome, Lady! We’ve taken the liberty of ordering dinner. It should arrive within the hour. Come in, please.”

Theanna entered, smiling, mouthing platitudes. Just before the door closed, she turned and flashed a smile at me. I’d swear her eyes were less icy now.

“Thank you,” she said. “I’ll see you in a few hours.”

As I made my way back to my cabin, I marveled at the change, little as it was, in Theanna’s attitude. From treating me like unwanted facial hair to at least a minor semblance of politeness in only three days? Gods, I should have been grateful.

But I wasn’t. What had caused the change? Did she now realize that I truly had her best interests at heart? Unlikely. The lightning? She had seemed terrified for a few moments. Suppose her enemies had found her and the noble Lord Xulla wasn’t around to take them on? I was her only possible defender, and perhaps it had occurred to her that insulting me wasn’t a sure way to win my loyalty. Yes, that was probably it. She had been afraid of...

The Stormking. The name echoed in my mind. Who the hell was the Stormking?

I’ve dealt with villains of about every stripe and level of malevolence. I’m firmly convinced, in fact, that some demented god had decreed that the minute I’m free of one, another steps in to take his place. In all my varied adventures, I’d neither met nor heard of anyone or anything called the Stormking.

Of course, these were elvish affairs. Theanna was an elvish noble of high rank — that much was clear. Other powerful elvish nobles wanted her alive, and were scared shitless of those who wanted her dead. Those who wanted her dead were called Hunters, and could summon up the shades of dead elves, slap them inside suits of armor, and tell them to turn me into dumplings. Now, according to Theanna’s little slip of the tongue, these folks were associated with the mysterious Stormking.

The elves want everyone to think they live in paradise, free from conflict, want, ugliness or violence. More elvish propaganda — the pointy-eared hypocrites are just as bad as we are. Just as violent, just as vengeful, just as ugly. More so perhaps, since they have all eternity to carry grudges around.

I realized with a sinking feeling that I’d landed in the middle of an elvish internecine spat. Theanna was important to someone — far more important than the life of a human hired sword. If I happened to snuff it in the coming conflict, no elf would shed a tear. What, after all, was one short-lived unattractive human, more or less? My contribution to the defense of elven lands, and my friendship with the Silver Lady was probably not worth a mug of goblin piss in a Swamp Lord’s tavern.

It was with these delightful thoughts in mind that I returned to my cabin, trying to think of Li and how to find her.

I needn’t have bothered. The scent of burning tapers and musky perfume greeted me as I entered. I pulled the door shut and gazed upon the scene. The interior was dim, lit by dozens of candles, and immediately wrapped me in a warm, comfortable embrace.

“My wolf has returned,” purred a pleasantly familiar voice. “The elf female has gone to let the pale Xeshite pay court, and I can have my way with my wolf at last.”

Li sat at the table, clad in a white silk halter and breech. A jeweled necklace flashed at her neck, and a single silver-set ruby dangled on her forehead. As I moved toward her, she poured wine from a tall, fluted container into twin glasses.

“How did you know?” I asked.

Warm yellow eyes reflected fire. “I move unseen, darling wolf. I heard the elf female speaking to you.”

“You spy on me?” I asked, leaning down to kiss her. She turned her head up to meet my lips, and I felt the bristly touch of her whiskers. “Don’t you trust me?”

“You still fail to see the world through our eyes, wolf,” Li said as I sat down. The table was piled high with numerous delicacies, from spiced leaf-rolls to plump bristle-birds roasted to a rich golden-brown. “I follow you for your safety, not due to my lack of faith in you.”

I looked at her in surprise. “You’re concerned for my safety?”

“It is our way. You are responsible for your mate’s health and well-being, after all.”

“Am I your mate, Li?” I asked. “It seems like a pretty unorthodox arrangement.”

“For the moment, most certainly. After what you have told me of your life, unorthodox arrangements should not concern you.”

I took a sip. Xeshite ruby wine. Expensive. I looked back at her, still curious. “How did you pay for all of this, darling? You didn’t dip into my reserves, did you?”

She let out another one of her howling laughs. “Not yet, Wolf. The slaver in Ta’vallen was quite well off. His largesse has clothed me, provided me with fine jewels, and is feeding us tonight.”

I raised my glass. “Here’s to his memory, then. And to his final act of generosity.”

She smiled back. “Shall we eat?”

I can’t say that I remember much about the meal. It was good, of course, considering the fact that it had absorbed most of Li’s ill-gotten gains, but I’m afraid that anticipation of dessert pretty much ruined my concentration. Li ate delicately — I kept reminding myself that for all her wild appearance she was from a highly civilized culture. She did seem to take great interest in the fish, however.

I was just sipping at a final glass of ruby when Li dabbed her face fastidiously with a napkin, then rose and walked toward the bed, tail twitching, hips swaying. She reached up behind her, and her halter fell to the floor, revealing the smooth pelt of her long back.

I put my wine down.

“Are you hinting at something?” I asked.

She turned and sat down on the edge of the bed. In the shadowy candlelight, she was a study of light and dark, from black stripes to white-furred belly and chest. Her breasts rose and fell with excited breathing, and her nipples swelled slightly. I felt a familiar insistent stiffness between my legs as I looked her up and down.

“I hint at nothing, Wolf,” she said, the faintest trace of a purr underlying her words. “I’ve been patient long enough. I want you now.”

I stood up, loosening my shirt and discarding it. “What do you want, love?”

“Mmmm.” I saw a delicate shiver run through Li’s body. She placed her hands on her thighs and pushed them farther apart. The white fabric of her breech cloth still hung between them. “You want me to tell you, don’t you?” She began to raise the cloth, slowly and deliberately, revealing her tawny calves. “You want me to describe in detail exactly what I want?”

“That,” I said, “would be very useful to me.”

She continued to slip the cloth higher, now showing off the edge of her white thigh-fur.

“I want you to watch me,” she said. “Just stand there. Do nothing. Just watch me.”

I swallowed. She was playing for keeps again. If I wanted to keep my skin intact, it would probably be best to do as she said.

Gods, but I love strong women...

She continued, her words now more distorted by the rich rumble of her purr.

“Mmmm, watch me, man.” Now, at last, her curtain of white silk slid past her thighs, revealing the moist, pink flesh between them. She unhooked her belt and cast the cloth aside.

“You like this?” she asked, stroking one hand up her thigh and lightly touching her the outer lips of her vagina. “You like your Li naked and ready for you?”

I frowned. “Is this a trick question?”

A growl issued from her throat. “Answer, man, or it won’t go well for you.” Her fingers stroked at her cunt-lips and slowly parted them. She was soaking, and her inner lips gleaming with moisture. “You like your Li naked and open for your pleasure?”

“Yes I do,” I told her. “Truly I do.”

“Good.” With her other hand, she began to tickle the swelling bud of her clitoris “Mmmm. Then watch, and think of how sweet I must taste.”

“I’m doing that already.”

“Well...” Li bit off her words as a shiver went through her. “Well, don’t stop thinking.” Her clit grew in response to her attention, swelling to the prominent nub that I had so enjoyed sucking at on the island. “Mmmm... But I must... pleasure myself... first... so I will be ready... mmmm... For you.”

Okay, I thought, feeling my cock swell to seemingly epic size and stiffness. If that’s how you want it...

“I’m thinking of you,” she whispered, hotly, stroking her bud, breaking off periodically to enter herself with one or two fingers. “I’m thinking of how your mouth will feel against me, how you like to bite me and suck at me, how wet you make me...”

She’d not said that I had to keep my breeches on, so I stepped quickly out of them, revealing my now-painful erection.

“I see that I’ve made you hard, O Wolf,” she whispered, a growl growing in her throat, basso counterpart to the softness of her voice. “Now... oh, yes... Now I’m thinking of what you will feel like inside me, moving in and out, in and out... oh, you make me...” Her words vanished into a feral squeal — more of those mating cat-sounds. A wracking shudder passed through her, making her belly muscles ripple and her breasts heave, nipples hard and tight-looking.

“In... and... out...” Her fingers moved faster and faster, gleaming with succulent cunt-juices. “Again... Again... Ahhhh.... Yrrrrrllllllllll...” Again, her voice rose to almost deafening pitch. This being a Xeshite ship, I suspected that the neighbors would think it gauche to notice or complain. For all they knew, I had her tied to the bed and was standing over her with a whip. Simply fucking the woman you love is considered a serious perversion by the Xeshites.

At length, the convulsions ceased, and a semblance of calm returned. Li collapsed backward onto the bed and lay there, knees over the edge, tail still twitching spasmodically.

“See what you do to me, Wolf?” she asked, her voice dreamy and sated. “You don’t even have to touch me.”

I chuckled, stepping closer to her. “Where’s the fun in that, beloved?” I asked, kneeling down. My cock was still tight as a boiled sausage, but I ignored it for the moment, concentrating instead on stroking the soft-furred flesh of her thighs with the tips of my fingers.

“Mrrrlll... Torture me, darling,” Li sighed. “I lie here helpless after showing you my passion. Do with my body what you will — I haven’t the strength to stop you.”

“Mm,” I said, stroking her mons, feeling its swollen, moist flesh. “Perhaps you’d like me to do a few of those things you were talking about.”

Li raised her head and looked down at me between the white-furred mounds of her breasts. Her voice was breathless.

“You would take advantage of a helpless woman?”

I smiled. “Sure. You’re one of the least helpless women I’ve ever met. I’d take advantage of you any time.”

Her head fell back. “Take me, then. Use your mouth, darling Wolf.”

I slid my tongue gently between her moist outer lips. She purred and moaned softly at that. She began to emit a continuous howl when I separated the pink flesh and began to kiss and lick at the hot, wetness of her inner cunt, and it rose an octave when I reached her clit.

We remained like this for long minutes, my face buried between Li’s thighs, rubbing her lips, sucking and gently biting her clit, then breaking off to tongue-fuck the depths of her wet cunt. When she grabbed the back of my head and pushed me against her mons, I knew I’d struck gold. Despite her incessant pressure, I managed to get my lips around her erect clitoris and suck, sliding it in and out of my mouth, paying it loving attention with tongue and teeth.

“Wolf,” she gasped, between feline yowls and snarls. “My Wolf. My precious Wolf... Oh, yes... There... Rrrrr... Rrowllllll... Please, precious... Rrrrr... Oh... Wolf, darling Wolf, lover Wolf, Wolf Wolf Wolf Wolf...” She went on like this, with rising intensity, for nearly a minute, body tensing, arms tight against her side, thighs clenched, back arched, before finally breaking loose with an extended screech and then once more collapsing in a sated, panting heap.

“Oh, yes,” she gasped. “So much better when you do touch me, Wolf. So much better... You call up such passions, my love...”

“Join the club,” I said, clambering up onto the bed and kneeling atop her. My erection was still there, still painfully prominent, and I wasn’t about to waste it. I ran a tongue around one nipple and felt her tense again. “You call up my passion, as well, love.”

“Do I love you?” she asked, pupils shrinking to thin black slits, then as suddenly widening to nearly perfect circles. “I never thought I could love one not of my kind.” She paused, breathing deeply, purring as I continued to lick and bite at her nipple, all the while sliding a hand up her thigh to touch her still-sopping cunt lips.

“Yes, I believe I do, dearest Wolf. I’ve done the unthinkable. The impossible. I’ve fallen in love with a hairless ape. Such a fool I am.”

I looked up at her, seriously. “Everyone in love is a fool, Li. I love you, too. My problem is that I can’t quite manage to love only one woman at a time.”

She raised her eyebrows in a surprisingly human expression, even as I slid a finger inside her and began to move in and out slowly. Damn. She was burning inside.

“Is there another?” she asked. “Another female? Must we do battle for your heart, Wolf? You must know by now that I defend my honor to the death.”

“No need,” I said. “Most of the women I love are thousands of leagues away. The closest one thinks I’m a dear friend, but won’t sleep with me on a bet. You’d probably like her, though.”

She considered this. “Perhaps. One needs the company of one’s own kind on occasion.” She smiled. “And if you give me your lovely, hard organ now, I might relent and allow you to have other lovers, so long as they are not too possessive.”

Now, that’s the kind of talk I like from a woman. Dutifully, I pushed her thighs apart, and stroked my bulging cockhead against her cunt lips.

“There we are, precious,” she whispered. “That’s what I’ve wanted inside me since leaving our island.”

“Really?” I asked. “I wasn’t sure.”

“Well, since you fought for me in Ta’vallen, at least. Put it in me, Wolf. Now. Show me how much you love me.”

So I demonstrated the depths of my devotion. And I truly felt devoted to her at that moment. I’m sure Livia would have approved, since it probably meant I wouldn’t be pursuing her quite so ardently.

And I am devoted, dammit. I fall in love easily, and often. It’s both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, since love seems to heighten passion so much, and makes the act of sex into something far more sublime, more spiritual, more significant. Curse, since my heart was now fully subdivided among a dozen or so women. Some claimed larger parts of it — Livia and Ushandra, namely — but I cared for them all. But now Li had all my heart and soul — Livia and Ushandra’s portions, Xylara and Alrynna’s dark little corner, Sarra the druidess’, Rhianna of the Lastlands’, the lion-women’s, the elven guardians’, and even that tiny twisted portion that felt affection for the wicked Lady Thae’Lynn, Akumi the slaver, Chjarii of the Swamp Lords, and various other evil women I’d been to bed with. Right now, Li was all these women, and, in her own way, far more.

I felt her cunt part for me as I slipped inside her, and her body tensed, rising to meet my thrusts as I moved out, then in again.

“That... Yowrrrr... That’s what I love... Rrrryyylllll... Oh... Prrrrr... Wulf... Take me. Fill me up... Yessssssssss...”

Most of the women I’ve known and loved make me feel like a rank amateur. I’ve always been the passive one, sitting there and letting life throw bear traps and goblin spike-pits in my path. Li was different. We moved together, equal. For each of my thrusts, there was a shiver and an answering contraction. When I kissed her, our tongues mingled, and I didn’t even mind the spines. Oh, this was a woman, no matter what kind of pelt she wore, and damn me to the twenty seven Idrianic Hells, I loved her...

Love is the greatest aphrodisiac, along with a long tongue and large breasts, of course. The staggering realization that I’d lost my heart yet again rushed me into the throes of impending orgasm. Fortunately for me, Li had plateaued several minutes previously, and just about anything would have sent her over the edge.

“Wolf.... OH! YOWWRRRRRLLLLLL! Wolf… I’m… I’m...” Her accented Imperial vanished into drawn-out savage Kaitian syllables as she babbled to me in a combination of horny cat-howls and her own language. Then she tensed once more, leaving me suspended on the brink, my prick buried to the hilt inside her.

“Wolllfffff! YESSSSSSSSSSSSS!” I was afraid she’d hurt herself as contraction after contraction raced through her.

Then something interesting happened — I’d heard of it, but had never really experienced it. I felt a small, sharp stab of orgasm, but even as the final waves shot through me, a second, even more powerful wave of pleasure raced outward from my cock, and I came again, massively this time, gushing my seed into Li’s wet, pulsing recesses. I think I passed out for a second then, for a moment later I found myself lying on my back, Li’s pleasant, warm-furred form on top of me.

“Only once, lover?” she asked. “I’d say you arrived at least twice.”

“‘Came’,” I said. “Arrive sounds so bloody formal. Yes, dear. I came twice. I didn’t think that was possible.”

“I can make anything possible for those I love, Wolf. See how it is done?”

“Yes,” I said, feeling weariness and a warm sense of accomplishment roll over me. “I certainly do.”

“And, yes, Wolf, you may love as you see fit. Just remember me.”

“I will do that, love.”

“And, of course, I can love as I choose as well, can’t I?”

“Sure,” I replied, in love but also desperately sleepy. “Maybe you’ll let me help once in a while.”

“You can count on it, beloved.” She purred warmly, snuggling against my chest. “Count on it.”

Theanna

“And so,” concluded Brother Maynard, placing his water glass delicately on the table linen, “the blood of Saint Orlan washes us to this day. His noble sacrifice guides us and inspires us, and stands as an eternal example of the power of faith and the strength of our Lord Kybor.”

“Well spoken, Brother.” Xulla gazed at Theanna across a small city of crystal decanters, gleaming ceramic plates and elaborate tableware. “So, noble elven lady, has the Brother’s dissertation revealed much of our ancient and honorable faith?”

“It has,” Theanna replied. Despite her romantic anticipation of the evening, it had thus far proved a dull bore. So far, all they had done was urge her to convert to Kyborism, and its bizarre sub-sect, the cult of Saint Orlan. “I’d never imagined that your faith could be so...” She paused, searching for a polite phrase. “... elaborate.”

Xulla smiled. He was as handsome as ever, dark and mysterious, clad in his house colors of black and silver, his beard neatly trimmed and delicately pointed. His eyes were dark, rich blue, and the passion which lurked in them was a striking contrast to the dour religious views he espoused.

Maynard was a short, slightly pudgy little man, his hair shaved into a tonsure. Given that he ate only vegetables and drank only water, Theanna wondered how he managed to maintain his portly frame, but she supposed that it was another of the much-vaunted “miracles” of Saint Orlan.

Listening to the two of them drone on about the wonders of their faith, Theanna found herself wishing to return to her suite and simply sleep.

“Perhaps,” Xulla said, reaching for an ornate green decanter, “you would care to join us in a toast to the honor of our great, departed saint?”

“Of course.” Theanna tried to keep the weariness out of her voice. Perhaps after this toast, they would let her leave.

Xulla poured the sparkling green liquid into Theanna’s, glass, then his own, and finally, into Brother Maynard’s.

“You are drinking wine, Brother?” Theanna asked. “I’m surprised.”

“Oh, child,” chuckled the priest, “even I can sometimes indulge myself, particularly when honoring my patron saint.”

“As our guest,” Xulla said, “you must do us the honor of drinking first.”

Theanna smiled politely and tasted the wine. It was excellent, and after the first few droplets trickled down her throat, she took a second, larger swallow, followed by a third.

“It is a fine vintage,” she said. “Where is it from?”

“Oh,” said Xulla, flashing a small smile, “it is a local Xeshite variety. Very rare.”

“Aren’t you drinking?” Theanna asked, then suddenly realized that she could barely hear her own voice.

“Oh, no,” said Brother Maynard. He too was smiling, and as she tried to focus on him, the entire room seemed to tilt and pitch, even more than the ship’s normal motion.

“What have you...” she began, but faltered. Her tongue felt thick, and moved sluggishly.

“That was quick, Brother,” Xulla said. “I’ve never seen it work so fast before.”

“New formula,” Maynard remarked. “Intended for use on elves and similar races.”

Theanna tried to stand, but her legs would not cooperate, collapsing beneath her. She hit the floor, but barely felt it.

“Interesting,” she heard Xulla say as darkness swallowed her up. “We’ll have to discuss the process later.”

“Oh, indeed.” Maynard laughed. “But perhaps we should enjoy pleasure before business...”

Wulf

We lay together for some time after that, breathing in unison, neither speaking nor thinking too much. Wild sex has a way of killing unnecessary conversation.

“Mmmm,” Li sighed at last, shifting, and settling her head against my chest. “It’s been a long time since anyone has made me feel this way.”

“Pleasure to be of service,” I said. “And, oh yes — the feeling is mutual.”

“What of your human woman back in Stoneburg, my Wolf?” she asked, playfully running a single claw down my chest. “Does she have your heart, or do I?”

“‘My woman’ in Stoneburg,” I said, adding the quotes verbally, “is not mine, nor does she wish to be, nor should I continue wasting time wanting her to be, dearest Li. And besides, she’s not here. If she was, she’d probably go seduce you, and leave me to rot in my cabin, then describe it to me in detail later just to torment me.”

“Hrrmmmm.” The sound was a curious purring growl. “I’ve not been with a human before you, my Wolf, let alone a human male. I wonder what a human female would be like?”

“This particular one is a lot like me, but she seems determined to drive me utterly insane. Are you saying you’d take her up on it? Gods, you’re just as bad as she is.”

“Oh, Wolf. Jealous Wolf. I’d not begrudge you the pleasure of other females, or males if that is your inclination. Extend me the same level of generosity, and all will be well.”

“Of course,” I said. “I’m not about to put any restrictions on any woman I know. They’d all just ignore them anyway.”

She licked my nose, and took off one of the few remaining undisturbed pieces of skin on my body. “Wolf, I may journey far from here, and I may not see you for years. Or perhaps — ancestors forbid — I may never see you again. But I won’t forget you, my lover. Never.”

“Nor I you,” I said. “My problem is that I have way too many women I’ve said that to.”

“You will have to tell me about them sometime.”

I was about to laugh and deliver another retort when a vague sensation tickled me at the back of my mind. A touch of unease, of danger. And the image of...

Theanna...

In an instant I was out of bed and stumbling into my breeches.

“What is wrong?” Li demanded. My mood brought her to instant alertness, and she bounded out beside me, crouching as if to spring.

“Theanna,” I said, yanking on a shirt and grabbing my rapier. “I think she’s in trouble. Those point-eared bastards must have linked us somehow before we left.”

I made for the door. Before I could admonish Li to stay put or, at least, put some clothes on, she was in the corridor beside me, moving in a predatory crouch, completely naked save for her curved sword.

“Li,” I said, scanning the corridor for guards or wizards and seeing none, “don’t you think you should —”

“Come with you?” she interrupted. “Oh, of course. I’d not let you go to your death alone.”

“Who says,” I replied, sprinting down the corridor as she bounded effortlessly beside me, a blur of black and orange, “that I’m going to my death?”

“I overstate for dramatic effect,” she said. “We Kaitians love the poetic.”

“I’ll remember that next time you’re howling at me to fuck your brains out,” I hissed. “Now, where was that fucking cabin?”

VIII

Theanna

Vague forms swam out of darkness. When Theanna opened her eyes she was instantly sorry. Lord Xulla and Brother Maynard stood at the foot of her bed, and both were stark naked, their skin almost obscenely pale.

“Ah, she awakes!” Maynard declared. His puffy body was repulsively hairless, and Theanna tried not to look at the growing erection between his legs. “She’ll be conscious for our performance!”

“Oh, do shut up, Maynard,” Xulla said, irritably. He was leaner and more muscular than his companion, but Theanna felt an aura of cruelty about him that made her even more disgusted. “You laid on the priest routine a bit thick, don’t you think?”

Maynard laughed at that. “You get more flies with honey, dear Xulla, than vinegar. I was no less pretentious than the average Orlanist fanatic. You must admit it took her in.” He jerked his chin at Theanna.

“Hm. Yes.” Xulla’s voice was coldly firm and modulated, like a merchant discussing the value of a new shipment of Litharnan carpets. “She’ll make an even dozen, won’t she?”

“Yes, as soon as we dispose of that idiot bodyguard and get her back to your estate.”

Xulla turned and, for the first time, addressed Theanna. “You see, my dear, I am a collector. Some collect art, some collect swords, some collect wild animals — I collect women. Females. Of all species. It is my dream to possess a harem of at least one of the most beautiful of each of the intelligent species in all the world. You’re my latest. An elf-woman. A fine specimen, too, I must say.”

Theanna tried to speak, but the words died in her throat as full consciousness returned, and she saw what they’d done to her.

She was tied, spread-eagled, to Xulla’s bed, her wrists and ankles bound with leather thongs. And she was naked, completely stripped and exposed to their lustful stares. She gasped in horror, as the final realization of what they intended came crashing down upon her.

“Don’t worry, my dear,” Maynard chuckled. “Just the two of us, then it will all be over and you’ll be on your way to one of the most beautiful and extensive estates in all of Xesh.” He turned to Xulla. “After you, my lord?”

Xulla nodded, smiling a whip-thin smile. He, too, had begun to grow an erection, and Theanna felt her fear and loathing of the man increase geometrically with each step he took toward her.

“There, there, dear,” he said. “Never had a human, have we? Oh, the odd groom or fumbling, crack-voiced adolescent nobleman, but no humans? Of course not. Well, I can say with some authority that once you’ve had these two humans, you’ll never have anyone else. Except, perhaps, my honored guests.” He climbed onto the bed and crouched over her, grim and menacing as a carrion-bird. “Now, as they say, lie back, relax, and think of elf-land.”

Theanna finally found some semblance of a voice and cried out as he moved still closer.

“Ah, such music they make, my lord,” Maynard declared, grinning madly. “I’d compose a concert of the cries of virgins, had I the time.”

“Or the talent,” Xulla growled. “Now shut up and watch the master at work.”

Theanna cried out again, and closed her eyes, body tense, awaiting the inevitable moment of violation.

It never came. Unexpectedly, Xulla made a strange choking sound, and when Theanna opened her eyes, she saw the Xeshite, still crouched above her, eyes wide, mouth moving wildly, though no sounds emerged. Then, he collapsed, falling atop her, crushing her down into the bedclothes, revealing a short, black-hilted dagger projecting from his naked back.

“Oh!” squeaked Maynard, stumbling backward, eyes frantically scanning the room. Besides himself, Theanna, and the late, unlamented Lord Xulla, the chamber seemed utterly empty. Then a flash of black sliced through the air, and a line of crimson appeared at the fraudulent priest’s throat.

“Oh, Gods...” he said, but the words bubbled and burbled as a torrent of red blood poured from his slashed neck. “Saint Orlan save me...”

Then he, too, tumbled down into a heap.

Terrified beyond words, Theanna looked frantically about her, searching for the killer, her mind racing with a thousand questions. Who had saved her? Where was he? Did he mean the same fate for her?

Theanna’s questions were largely answered when the air at the foot of the bed shimmered suddenly, revealing a tall figure, its features obscured by a dark cloak. It held another black dagger, and this one dripped with Brother Maynard’s blood.

“What...” Theanna said, desperately trying to think calmly. “Who are you? What do you want?”

“Princess,” echoed a deep, sonorous voice from the darkness of the hood. “I could not let the humans profane you. I apologize for what I must do. I would not spill the blood of our own kind, but my duty is to another.”

It was as if a great fist had grabbed Theanna’s heart and squeezed.

“You...” she said, voice tremulous and weak. “The Hunters...”

“Yes,” said the figure, advancing on her even as she struggled against her bonds and the heavy corpse of Lord Xulla. “I am of the Hunters, and I serve the Stormking.”

Then the room seemed to explode into a fury of angry motion. The door burst inward and the human, Wulf rushed through. He was clad only in breeches and a shirt, but he thrust his rapier with impassioned skill, skewering the assassin’s shoulder, making him stumble and cry out.

An instant later, a shrill snarl filled the room and the tiger-woman, Li followed Wulf, moving like the great predatory cat she resembled, swinging her own weapon at the stranger. It took a moment for Theanna to realize the Kaitian was naked, so natural and unencumbered she seemed.

The assassin stumbled again, this time nursing a second sword slash. Then the air shimmered, and it vanished again, save for a random swirl of black sparks that darted across the room and through the open door.

“See to Theanna!” Wulf shouted, running for the door. “I’ll follow our friend!” Then he was gone.

With a disgusted grunt, Li shoved the door shut and pulled Xulla’s corpse from Theanna.

“Your hosts have much to learn of hospitality,” she said, slicing through Theanna’s bonds with her claws. “In my land it is a severe breach of etiquette to tie one’s guests to the bed and try to have your way with them. Unless, of course, you have their permission.”

Wulf

The killer had rid the world of Xulla and his fraudulent priest — I owed him my thanks for that much. Unfortunately, he’d also intended to kill Theanna, which earned him a dagger up his strap. My problem now was finding him. As he fled down the corridor trailing a faint scatter of black motes, I saw that his invisibility was imperfect, but the moment he vanished into the shadows, I’d lose him.

“Guards!” I bellowed, hearing my voice echo hollowly. “Wizards! Gods damn you! Where the fuck are you at?” With the exception of a pair of sleepy-eyed throgs with spears who stared after us with only minimal comprehension, this section seemed completely free of the guards and sorcerers who had made me feel so secure back in Ta’vallen. Gods only know — they were probably all at a union meeting or something.

My quarry fled down a stairwell, blundering into an elderly Xeshite woman with an elaborate coif and a large purple amphibian on a leash, knocking her down with a surprised cry. I leaped after him, and dropped down to the next deck just in time to see a metal hatch in the corridor lever itself open, then slam shut.

I cursed. He’d almost lost me. I swallowed hard, stuck my rapier through my belt and followed, lifting the heavy hatch cover and staring down a ladder into darkness.

The fucking hold. I’d never find him now.

Then again, I thought, the spell might have run its course, or he’d let his guard down, thinking I’d given up the chase. I gritted my teeth and started down.

The interior of the hold was damp, smelling of salt water, lit dimly by small mageglobes, piled high with cargo, secured by ropes and chains, with only narrow corridors between them. There were only a few places the bastard could have gone, I told myself, and in this lighting, I would be almost as invisible as he was.

After several minutes of blundering in near-darkness, and fearful of the assassin’s knife in the dark, I wasn’t quite so confident, and was about ready to pack it in. Where the fuck, I asked myself, were the bloody guards?

I’d had it. For the rest of the trip we’d stay in our room, doors locked, with Li and me trading guard shifts. I turned to go...

And caught a flash of motion out of the corner of my eye. A dark figure darted into the space between crates...

I leaped, rapier on guard...

And in a moment was upon a small, squirming figure that chittered and squeaked in a most undignified fashion.

“Get off! Get off me, you son of a...! Shit! This isn’t funny! Back off, you no good human bastard, or I’ll really let you have it! I’m serious!”

I released the small figure and stared. In the dim mage-light, I saw that what I’d grabbed bore absolutely no resemblance to the assassin. I was perhaps four feet tall and resembled nothing so much as a two-legged rat in a dirty tunic. He stared at me with bright black eyes, and his whiskered muzzle twitched and quivered fearfully.

“Uhhhh...” I said, lowering my sword. “You aren’t who I was expecting.”

“Yeah?” the rat-man replied. “And who would that be? The frigging White Emperor himself? All I’m trying to do is get some sleep, and you two keep thudding around here like a couple of Vendayan war elephants —”

“Us two?” I demanded so sharply that the ratling fell silent. “You saw someone else?”

Rat-boy chittered briefly and nervously washed his paws. “Heard him, actually. And smelled him. Damn, he smelled good. Like a... You know... Those yellow-haired ones with the funny ears.”

“An elf?”

“Yeah. A daisy-boy. He came by here right before you did. I think he’s still down here somewhere.” He looked upward and sniffed the air with a series of sharp, spasmodic motions, nose and whiskers twitching all the while. “Yeah, he’s here all right.”

“Where?” I hissed.

“Hm.” More sniffs. The ratling stood and leaped down into the corridor formed by the stacked crates. “Come on. I’ll show you.” He darted off into the gloom.

“Wait!” I whispered urgently, but the ratling was off in his own world, even as I readied my weapon and hastened after him. “Slow down! Don’t let him know...”

The ratling stopped short a few dozen paces further. He pointed eagerly.

“Here he is!” he squeaked excitedly. “Here he —”

With that, the crates beside him tumbled down with a crash, burying the ratling with a surprised squeak. A cloud of black dust-motes exploded forth from the wreckage and shot toward me.

Only an instant... I swept my rapier forward and slashed through the cloud, desperately hoping to hit something.

He was probably slow due to his wounds. Otherwise I’d probably never have scored a hit, but this time I was lucky. My edge contacted something solid, and the slender form of a cloaked elf coalesced out of the cloud of black dust motes. He was a lean specimen, bloody and wan-looking, and his expression as he stared down at the rapier that had cut deeply into his chest was one of frank incomprehension.

“You...” he whispered, stumbling forward, slashing feebly with his dagger. “You can’t... The Stormking will... The Stormking...” Then, at last, he collapsed, dark blood congealing on the wooden floor.

A pair of beady eyes shone among the tumbled crates. “Hm,” chittered the ratling. “You guys weren’t on very good terms, were you?”

“What the hell are you doing down here?” I asked, pulling my rapier free and wiping it off on the assassin’s cloak as the ratling scrambled out of the pile. “And what’s your name, anyway?”

“My name is probably unpronounceable to the likes of you,” the ratling retorted, going through the corpse’s pockets. “Squitter’s probably as close as you can get. And as for what I’m doing here...” He reached into a leather pouch at the assassin’s belt and pulled out a handful of coins with a happy squeak. “Well, my friend, I’m a stowaway.” He looked up. “Now that we’ve established exactly who I am, who the hell are you and why are you down here turning elves into cold leftovers?”

“Wulf,” I said. “Freelance. I’m here guarding a woman this bastard tried to kill. Pity he’s dead. I’d have liked to ask him some questions. And I’d like to take a look at anything you take off the body, by the way.”

“Hey! Finders keepers, pal.” Squitter thought it over for a moment, then relented. “Well, you did kill him... You can look at this stuff as long as you give it back, okay?”

“Right,” I said. “You planning on staying down here?”

“Hell, no, monkey-man. The guards’ll be swarming all over the place once they’ve finished cleaning up on deck three.”

I frowned. “What happened on deck three?”

“Big fire, I think. They called most of the guards and wizards to take care of it. Heard someone say that they didn’t want to mention it to the passengers, though.”

“Great,” I muttered, kicking the corpse. “This bastard probably started it. That’s why there were no guards to catch him.” I cast Squitter a sympathetic glance. “Come on, rodent. You can stay with us. It’s the least I can do.”

Squitter darted along happily as I strode back toward the cargo hatch. “You sure I won’t draw too much attention?”

“I’m already travelling with an elf and a Kaitian,” I said, sighing. “A rat won’t be much of an addition.”

* * *

When we got back to Xulla’s cabin, Theanna was curled up in Li’s arms, sobbing quietly. Both were still naked, an aesthetic contrast of pale ivory skin and tawny orange and black pelt. Xulla and the priest were artfully arranged in one corner in positions suggesting they’d been fighting, and I noted that daggers had been thoughtfully placed in their hands. Hopefully, the authorities would conclude that they’d killed each other in a lover’s quarrel. Served the fuckers right, I thought.

Theanna looked up, eyes wide, when I entered.

“Did you find him?” she asked. “Is he...?”

“History,” I said, “thanks to my little friend here.”

“Hiya, sweetheart,” Squitter said, bowing low, then exploded, “Holy Shit!” when he saw Li. “Sorry, ma’am. I’ve got a bad reaction to cats. No offense.”

“None taken,” said Li. “You helped my Wolf?”

“Led him right to his quarry. He fought magnificently, ma’am.”

“I’d expect no less from my Wolf.”

Squitter looked at her, tilting his head, then looked at me. His whiskers grew still, then suddenly started to quiver again.

“Oh,” he said. “I see. Been playing with the pussy, have we?”

“There’s that word again,” Li said.

“That,” I said, putting a hand on my sword hilt, “will be enough of that. Now, let’s get the hell out of here before the guards show up.”

Theanna’s clothes had been shredded. Artfully wrapping her in bedsheets, we headed down the corridor with Li, still in the altogether, taking up the rear. I reflected that a naked Kaitian was probably no more noteworthy than a clothed one and, besides, she seemed to like it. Looking back at her, a picture of muscular feline perfection united with lush femininity I came to the conclusion that I was truly fond of the woman.

Once safely back in our rooms, the door locked and barred, Li found a robe for Theanna, and I poured her a glass of crystal wine — it was the strongest stuff in the room, so it would have to do.

“Now,” I said, gently, handing Theanna the glass as Squitter poked delightedly around the room, “I think it’s time for some answers. I’m glad that you’re still alive, though given the shit you’ve piled on me over the last few days I can’t imagine why. Someone is after you, Theanna. All I know about them is that they’re called the Hunters, and they employ assassins and wizards, and are powerful enough to sic dreadguards on me when they’re in a bad mood. Who the hell are they, who the hell pays them, and why the hell are you so gods-damned important? Given what we’ve done for you so far, I think the least you owe us is an explanation.”

“Oh, I never ask for explanations,” commented Squitter, curling up on a pile of my discarded clothing. “I ride the tide and go wherever it takes me.”

“Shut up and go to sleep,” I snapped, then turned back to the elf woman. “I need to know, Theanna. It may keep us all alive.”

Theanna slowly sipped from her glass. Though the cabin was warm, she still trembled.

“After the war,” she said, softly, “a number of our people began to condemn the leadership of the Silver Lady. One of them was a sorcerer who called himself the Stormking. He openly demanded an end to the Lady’s rule, and a new social order, independent of the old rules. He said that elves needed to explore their secret feelings and beliefs, and the fears we’ve kept hidden for thousands of years. Some nobles declared themselves for the Stormking, but they were driven from the Isles. They fled and set themselves up in the Wilds, gathering strength, sending their agents back to the Isles to stir up trouble. Now, they have enough support to begin a full-scale civil war.”

“Gods,” I muttered. The ear-boys were at it again.

Li crouched down at Theanna’s feet, and looked up at her. There was a spark of very catlike curiosity in her eyes and, perhaps, something deeper that I couldn’t understand. “I take it,” she said, “that the Hunters are the Stormking’s agents?”

Theanna nodded slowly. “His elite agents. Sorcerers, assassins, trackers. Not all of them are elves.”

“And what do they want with you?” I asked.

Theanna closed her eyes. “I’m...” she began, and faltered. “I’m a daughter of the Silver Lady.”

Squitter twitched and began to snore.

My mind whirled. The Silver Lady. Semi-divine ruler of all the elves and now, apparently, the embattled monarch of a divided people.

“Gods damn it all,” I said. “Didn’t your bloody loyalist friends bother to tell you who I was? Or did they know at all?”

“No,” Theanna said. “It was Aelfryn’s idea to contact you. He told us that you were to be trusted.”

“I’m flattered,” I said. “All I got from him was contempt. I didn’t realize he knew who I was.”

“What do you mean?” Theanna asked.

“I’m the one who summoned Valaron to fight the orcs four years ago,” I said. “At the personal behest of your mother.”

Theanna stared in disbelief.

“Kind of makes you want to treat me with more respect, doesn’t it?” I said. “Maybe some of us humans aren’t beneath your contempt after all.”

Theanna shuddered again. “I’m sorry, free... Wulf. I’m sorry. You saved me from the assassin. You’ve served me loyally. I thank you.”

“Are you the Lady’s only daughter?” Li asked.

“No,” Theanna replied. “There are four of us. We’ve all been sent to safe places outside the Isles. I’m the youngest.”

“Wonderful,” I said. “If you or your elfy friends in Ta’vallen had told me the truth from the beginning, or if you’d behaved more like a princess and less like an arrogant snot, we wouldn’t be...” I stopped, thinking. “Well, maybe we’d be exactly where we are right now, but at least I wouldn’t have been so confused.”

“There’s no way to change any of that,” Theanna said. “Nyta told us to say nothing to you. She felt it best not to spread our internal problems among the humans. No telling who might want to take advantage of our unrest and invade, or seek to fragment us further.”

“Yeah, yeah,” I said, waving a hand. “It’s been a rough day.” I looked over at Squitter, who continued to sleep soundly on the pile of clothing. “Maybe we should follow our ratty friend’s lead and get some sleep.”

“We’ll need to guard in shifts,” Li said, stalking toward the door, tail lashing. “I’m still entirely awake. I can take the first watch.”

I nodded, wearily. We’d shagged wildly and she’d helped me slice the assassin up a treat, but she was still raring to go. Another energetic woman and me feeling like a damp dishrag.

“You’ll sleep with me, princess,” I said. “I’ll not have you in a separate room.”

Theanna seemed almost grateful and crawled chastely in beside me as Li dimmed the lights. I was asleep the moment my head hit the pillow.

I dreamed of tigers chasing their tails.

* * *

We stuck close to the rooms for the next two days, waiting desperately for the moment when we could finally get off of the Xura, lose ourselves in Stoneburg, and get some real help. I occupied myself by speculating how Li would hit it off with Livia, and hoped that the damage would be minimal.

Theanna’s attitude had undergone a remarkable turnaround. From treating me like dirt, she started treating me like a particularly gifted pet. A very smart horse, for example. I accepted it as probably the best she could do, and tried not to be too annoyed.

We heard nothing of the murders, for I suspected the captain didn’t want to unduly alarm the passengers. Apparently our ruse of pinning the deaths of Xulla and Maynard on themselves had worked, and as for the dead elf in the hold — well, I suspected that the Xeshites figured someone had done the world a favor. I tossed my rapier and bloody clothes overboard all the same, and hoped that the wizards wouldn’t get around to using truthspeaker spells on anyone.

We were a day out of port, and I was just beginning to breathe easier when disaster struck.

We’d been spending a quiet afternoon in our cabin. I had managed to liberate a couple of lurid Litharnan thrillers from the ship’s library, so I read while Li and Squitter slept, and Theanna busied herself practicing the harp. Just the same, the atmosphere was one of barely restrained tension, as if the closer we got to safety, the more likely was the Stormking’s wrath.

It was when Theanna looked up sharply with a startled gasp, stood and touched the blue gem on the wall nearby. Instantly, the outer wall of the room turned transparent, revealing a vast stretch of ocean, over which the sun sank lazily.

Or, I corrected myself, would have been sinking lazily had we been able to see it. Instead, the horizon was black with clouds, and several leagues distant I saw an ocean angry with tossing whitecaps and rolling waves. As I watched, bright blue flashes sparked inside the clouds, followed a few seconds later by the bass rumble of thunder.

I gaped in sudden fear. This was no natural disturbance...

“The Stormking?” I asked.

Theanna nodded, eyes wide. “He’s found us.”

“Fuck,” I muttered.

* * *

The deck was awash by the time we got topside. We’d all bundled in cloaks, though we’d had to improvise with Squitter, and ended up belting a blanket around him. Even in the depths of a heavy woolen hood, she looked as miserable as a wet cat. Which, of course, she was...

The strength of the angry sea could be gauged by the pitch and roll of the mighty Princess Xura’s deck. Any water-calming enchantments had been completely swept away by the fury of the storm, and, though a circle of Xeshite spellcasters stood on the flying bridge overhead, frantically chanting and gesticulating, it was obvious we were in serious trouble. One moment, we climbed up a sheer cliff of dark water, the next moment we were over the top, plunging sickeningly downward. It was punishment that this wallowing luxury liner had never been designed to take, and as I held Theanna and braced against a bulkhead, I saw a wave sweep a tangle of baggage over the side. A knot of white-clad Xeshite travelers staggered along a companionway, fighting to keep from being washed overboard along with their possessions.

A deep, booming crunch vibrated through our feet.

“What the hell was that?” Squitter demanded, his high voice cutting through the howl of the wind.

“That,” I yelled back, “was the ship starting to break up! The lifeboat deck is ahead! If we can get to one, we might be able to ride this fucker out! Come one!”

As if to confirm my suspicions, a massive ruin of rigging slammed into the deck ahead of us, then slid messily into the water. Above the wind, a magically-enhanced voice bellowed.

“Attention! This is the captain! All passengers prepare to abandon ship! Move toward the lifeboats immediately...” Then the voice faded, and the wind once more thundered in its place.

“That’s it,” I said, pulling Theanna along by the hand. “Official confirmation! Come on!”

With Li following and the constantly complaining Squitter taking up the rear, we clambered up a short flight of stairs. Ahead of us lay a whitewashed, canvas covered lifeboat. Elsewhere, I saw passengers of every description thronging, clutching baggage, clinging to each other, their faces terrified. So far, no one else had moved toward our lifeboat, and by the time we pulled the cover free and began to cast off, we were alone, dropping sickeningly from the stricken Princess Xura toward the tossing, mountainous sea.

We struck water with a jarring crash. I fell to the bottom of the boat and struck my head. Fighting off stars and dizziness, I unshipped oars and yelled at Li and Squitter to do the same. Within moments, we were frantically rowing away from the ship, which sat low in the water, its once-gleaming white hull scarred and tattered. More boats, some almost empty, others overflowing with passengers, were being lowered from the ship even as it pitched and rolled, more debris washing away with each new wave.

Then, with a splintering crash, the Princess lurched, her back broken, and began to slide, slowly at first, then with increasing speed, beneath the heaving sea.

“Pull!” I roared. “Everyone!” Theanna grabbed Li’s oar and began to stroke along with the rest of us. A massive wave rushed over us, drenching us in icy water. Grimly, I kept pulling, desperate to escape the suction of the sinking ship.

Behind us, the Princess continued her vanishing act, pulling several Xeshite lifeboats along after her. I closed my ears to the screams, which rose up even over the cacophony of wind and rain.

Then, she was gone, and we were clear. We weren’t safe yet, not by half — the sea still rose up in monolithic waves, lifting us up and smashing us down like the toys of an especially angry and childish god. Still, we’d managed to win free of the liner’s death throes, and I’d weathered seas like this before. With luck...

Damn. I’d said the forbidden word.

Theanna looked up into the sky and screamed. When I followed her terrified gaze, I found myself wanting to scream, as well.

Stinging mist rose up from the sea, swirling around us like a fog, and less than a half-league distant, they coalesced into a towering, spinning funnel of black water, rising up toward the boiling, cloud-filled sky. A waterspout...

No, I thought, focusing on the center of the great disturbance even as it rushed toward us, shrieking and thundering like a Kyborist preacher condemning adultery, I saw a vague shape within the great tower. It was a figure, suspended in midair, the water spout swirling and raging around it...

Magic... Dammit, someone was directing this thing...

“The Stormking!” Theanna screamed. “He’s come for us!”

Then the noise blotted out everything else, and we were swept up in the whirlwind, leaping up into the sky.

The little boat was flung first one way, then the other. A moment later, it disintegrated into scrap wood, and I was falling through space.

High above me I saw Theanna and Li, clinging desperately to each other, dragged upward, toward the waiting figure. Of Squitter, there was no sign.

Then I was spinning through open air, spat out by the cyclone, sent to plunge back toward the black, very solid-looking waters. Oh great, thinks I — I’m going down, and it’s not even any fun...

Ouch.

IX

Theanna

The first thing she perceived was a faint whiff of perfume, tickling insistently at her nostrils. Then there was the soft touch of bedclothes on her skin, and she began to consider the fact that she was not, after all, dead.

When she at last opened her eyes, Theanna saw that she was in a circular, domed chamber, its walls pale pink, its ceiling dark blue, decorated with stars and comets which gleamed faintly in the dim light. She lay on a soft bed, covered by a rich blue coverlet. The bed itself was round, placed in the precise center of the room. The shadowy forms of furniture lay throughout the room, but Theanna couldn’t identify them.

As sleep fled and awareness grew, questions swirled through her mind. Where was she? Who or what had saved here? What had happened to Wulf and the others? Though she expected the answers to be forthcoming, Theanna was not entirely sure she’d like them.

As if in answer to her unspoken questions, a crack of yellow light appeared along one wall, then widened into a doorway. As Theanna watched, eyes wide, two armored figures emerged and stood at attention beside the door.

Theanna could not suppress a gasp of fear. Dreadguard. The creatures which had attacked Wulf back in Stoneburg...

The fearful realization that she was in the hands of the Hunters shot through Theanna’s heart like an arrow.

Then the lights in her room grew brighter, and a third figure emerged through the door. Theanna saw that it was an elf, but felt only slightly less fearful.

She was of middle age — perhaps a millennium or two. Her golden hair hung down below her waist, and her face was serene but harsh, with an edge of indefinable cruelty. Her chin was sharply pointed, her eyes large and radiantly violet. She wore a long, silver-white gown and a short fur cloak, bound by a blue leather belt that rode low on her hips.

“Princess,” she said, softly, walking toward the bed. “Welcome. I am Lady Lothaera, of House Sunfollower.”

Theanna was suddenly bolt upright. A moment later, she realized that she was naked, and hurriedly covered herself with the bedclothes.

“Renegade,” she spat. “I know your people. Lackeys of the Stormking!”

Lothaera nodded, calmly. “As you say, Highness.” She seemed undisturbed by Theanna’s anger. “I am captain of the Hunters, in fact. One of the Stormking’s most valued subordinates.”

“Where am I? What happened to my friends?”

The other woman wrinkled her nose. “A human, a rat and a cat? I’d scarcely call them friends. Companions of convenience at best, but not fit friends for a woman of your station.”

“Perhaps. But I would still like to know what happened to them?”

“The human and the ratling were lost. They are probably dead. The cat-woman is in our custody. You can see her later.”

Theanna felt a sting of unexpected grief over Wulf and Squitter. Weeks ago, she’d not have cared for the life of a human, let alone a ratling, but now...

Now something had changed, but Theanna did not know what.

“You intend to kill me?” she asked.

“Not necessarily,” Lothaera replied, sitting on the bed beside Theanna. “Originally, our intention was to destroy all of the Lady’s children, robbing her of successors, and robbing the loyalists of any further cause for fighting. I’ve since persuaded His Majesty that you keeping you alive might be in our best interest.”

Theanna frowned. “Why? What could I possibly do for a band of renegades and traitors?”

Lothaera surprised Theanna by chuckling quietly. “You’ve learned your lines well, Princess. We know you better than that, however. You’ve always chafed at your mother’s oversight, haven’t you? Always wanted to know the pleasures her society has denied you?”

Theanna started to reply, but stopped herself.

“We know a great deal about you, Princess. You’re the youngest, and least considered of the Silver Lady’s children. When she passes to the other side, your sister Idana will succeed to the throne. You’ve always been last for affection, for concern, for any enjoyment of life. That is why you’ve carefully cultivated an air of arrogance and cynicism. Why you are the wild one, cavorting with young cavaliers, roaming the countryside, dressing immodestly, trying to show the world that you do not care about your subordinate status, that you will live your life as you please, regardless of your mother’s wishes.”

“It’s not like that,” Theanna protested. “I love my mother...”

Lothaera smiled indulgently. “Of course you do. Who would not? Even we, who are in open rebellion against the Silver Lady, love her in our own way.”

“Is that why you’re trying to destroy her?”

“That was the plan originally, yes. But I’ve persuaded the Stormking that there is another way. He is good, Princess. He has our people’s best interest at heart, and has no desire to take the throne himself. When we are victorious, Princess, you could take the throne, and rule the elves in accordance with his teachings. With you as our chosen successor, more of the loyalist houses will come over to our side, and our triumph will be assured.”

Theanna felt a shock of horror. “You want me to help you destroy my own mother, and my own family?”

“No, no. Not at all. Listen, Theanna,” Lothaera said, using her first name, an almost unthinkable level of familiarity. “The Stormking has agreed that your mother and siblings will be left alive. They will be kept under guard on their estates, of course, but will be otherwise free to live their lives as they choose. We have no desire to shed their blood, Theanna.”

“Then why do you fight them?”

Lothaera made an impatient gesture. “Our people are lost in ancient, meaningless ways that are completely out of step with the world around us. The orcs proved that. They almost destroyed us, but your mother and her nobles learned nothing from it. We have changed not at all. Who will be the next invaders — the humans? The dark ones? The demons? The All knows, Theanna. The Silver Chalice is still missing. What if some enemy finds it, and turns it against us? Will we be prepared? Or will we be the same divided, emotionless creatures whom the orcs almost crushed?”

“How is your way any different, Lady?” Theanna demanded, trying to maintain her loyalties, but feeling strangely swayed by the other elf woman’s words. “How can you guarantee your way is superior?”

“We must take our place in the world, Theanna!” Lothaera said, forcefully. “We once ruled vast empires, and all feared us. I remember, Theanna. You’re younger and have no recollection. We strode the world like giants in those days, riding dragons and growing to such power that none dared challenge us. Then the world was torn apart, and we fled, retiring to our tiny islands to perish. We must become part of the world, not hide from it. We’ve repressed our passions for centuries, now. We need to return to the old ways, to the old emotions and passions, Theanna! Today, under your mother, we are as the dead. Emotionless, dispassionate, divided, constantly bickering and incapable of united action. The Stormking wants to change all that, Theanna. To return us to greatness!”

Theanna swallowed. Lothaera’s words had ignited a tiny spark deep inside her. Try as she might, she could not extinguish it, and as the other woman spoke, her eyes shining brightly, her lips (painted, Theanna noted, a rich purple) gleaming, voice impassioned, the spark grew to a flame. Even as the rational part of her mind insisted that Lothaera could never kindle such a fire by words alone, Theanna felt some of the other woman’s fervor infect her.

“I’m asking you to help us, Theanna. You have my word, and that of my lord, the Stormking, that your family will not be harmed. We must break free of the ancient shackles that have bound our people for so long. Please help us, Theanna. Say you’ll consider what I’ve said.”

Theanna felt a shudder run through her body. Parts of her mind still protested, insisting that she was being foolish, that something else was acting upon her, but they were lost in a rush of emotion, a sudden resolution and — strangely — a wave of desire that Theanna could not immediately identify.

“I’ll help you, Lothaera,” she said, surprised at the heady depth of emotion in her words, at the way her breath came in short gasps, and at the rapid throb of her heart. “I want to...” She faltered, looking deep into the other woman’s violet eyes.

A faint smile crossed Lothaera’s delicate features, and she turned briefly, addressing the two dreadguard.

“Leave us,” she said. The two creatures shambled out, and the door closed behind them.

Lothaera turned back to face Theanna. Her lips were still moist, and opened slightly, revealing a hint of pearly teeth. The fascinating violet eyes were wide, their pupils enormous pits of deeper darkness into which Theanna felt herself falling, and did not care to stop herself.

“You were saying, Princess? You wanted something?”

“I...” Theanna felt the thudding of her heart grow stronger, and a deeper heat building in her belly and thighs. “I don’t know... I’ve never felt this way before. Not about... Not about a...”

“About a woman?” Lothaera finished for her. She reached for the coverlet which Theanna still held about her shoulders, and pulled it down. Theanna did nothing to stop her, and let it fall, revealing her shoulders, and the twin curves of her breasts.

“I saw how you reacted,” Lothaera continued. “I seem to have that effect on women, Theanna.” She moved closer. “Even women of high rank.” She stroked a finger along Theanna’s face. Theanna drew back sharply, then relaxed, letting the sensation of the single soft touch filter through her like a sigh. “Even,” Lothaera continued, tracing the contours of Theanna’s lips with her finger, “princesses.”

Lothaera abruptly took Theanna’s chin between thumb and forefinger, pulling her mouth open. Torn between surprise, apprehension, and excitement, Theanna did not resist.

“Kiss me,” Lothaera ordered, but instead of waiting, she moved to meet Theanna’s open lips with her own.

The small flame in Theanna’s belly grew to a raging inferno, sweeping aside all doubt and hesitation. As she felt the probing insistence of the other woman’s tongue in her mouth, she moaned softly and met it with her own.

She felt held aloft by a whirlwind like the one that had destroyed the Princess Xura. But this was a whirlwind of emotion, of need, of wanting, and though she knew eventually it would abandon her, and send her plummeting once more earthward, she did not care.

“I want...” she murmured against Lothaera’s exploring lips and tongue, breaking off to return more kisses. “I want you...”

“Of course,” whispered Lothaera, pulling the bedclothes aside, revealing Theanna’s smooth, pale flesh. “Of course you want me.”

Lothaera’s eyes roamed hungrily up and down Theanna’s body, from her rounded white shoulders, to the rising mounts of her breasts, nipples softly pink with large aureola, the sharp edge of her rib cage, moving with each quick breath, her rounded belly and muscular thighs and, with a slightly widening, carnivore’s smile, the white down triangle above her pubis.

“You’ve done this before?” she asked.

“Yes.” Theanna’s eyes widened, and her breasts rose and fell faster. “With men. With Sir Kaelwyn and Lord Fedoris. But never... Never with...”

“Never with another woman? Oh, I’ve suspected that.” Lothaera smiled and touched Theanna’s cheek. “It’s no different. Well, somewhat. But the pleasure is the same. More, perhaps, for the being new and different. And for the different sensations.” Once more, Lothaera touched Theanna’s lips with her own. “Men can be so harsh and rigid. It can be terribly uncomfortable. We are soft and rounded. It’s like a different world.”

She paused, looking down again.

“You have lovely breasts,” she breathed. “So large for one of our people. I’ve always been partial to them, you know.”

“My sisters made fun of me for them,” Theanna replied, feeling traces of old sorrows, and the pain of her youth. “They said I had breasts like a human. Too large for a proper elf. Some said that I had some human blood in me. I hated when they said that.”

Lothaera caressed Theanna’s breasts softly, running a finger around the outside of one aureole, watching it start to contract and grow hard.

“Oh, I would say they were just right,” she said. “Just perfect. You’ll never have to listen to such insults again.” She took a hardening nipple between her fingers and squeezed gently. “Oh, these are so lovely.”

“Touch them, please,” Theanna moaned. “I want you to.”

Lothaera did not speak, but began slowly to kiss her way down Theanna’s neck, gentle lips touching rapidly-warming skin.

“Kiss me,” Theanna begged. “Kiss me all over.”

Slowly, with agonizing deliberation, Lothaera’s questing lips reached he softness of her breasts, and the sensations seemed to double and redouble. The throbbing between her legs was unmistakable now, coupled with growing heat and moisture.

“Mmm,” Lothaera said, with the enthusiasm of a connoisseur tasting a fine wine. “Your skin is so soft.”

“Yes...” Theanna said, hearing the longing in her own voice. “Yes. Touch it. Kiss it.”

Lothaera pinched a pink nipple, and it stiffened almost instantly. Then she encircled it with her lips and sucked, flicking her tongue across it as she did so.

If the feelings before had been intense, they now grew nearly unbearable. Involuntarily, Theanna felt her legs move apart, and slid a hand down her belly to touch the downy hair and the wet flesh beneath it.

“Oh, so you like my touches, do you?” Lothaera asked rhetorically, smiling as she saw Theanna’s fingers busy themselves. “You touch yourself for me?”

“I do,” Theanna said, her voice now rushed and eager. “I do. Only for you.”

“Perhaps I should undress now?” Lothaera drew back. “Would you like to watch me.”

“Oh, yes. Please. I want you to undress. I want you naked with me.”

Lothaera stood, her silken gown whispering faintly. “Touch yourself for me while you watch me.”

Theanna nodded, unable to speak, as with one hand she pulled apart her wet lips, and with the other she stroked at her swelling clitoris.

Lothaera loosened the laces at her neck and wrists, then pulled her gown down around her shoulders.

“Are you touching yourself now?” she asked.

Theanna moistened her lips and nodded again. Yes, her fingers were deep within the moist recesses of her cunt, her clit throbbing uncontrollably. She would come in a moment, she knew. She couldn’t stop it now if she wanted to.

Lothaera pulled her gown down further, revealing her breasts. They were small, more the appropriate size for her kind, but her nipples were large, and swelled to prominence as Lothaera pulled at them, growing into short nubs perhaps the length of the joint of Theanna’s middle finger. She felt herself overwhelmed by the desire to put them in her mouth and suck at them.

Lothaera pulled the gown lower, and let it slip to the floor. She was slender and fragile, as if every bone in her body were carefully etched across her skin. Theanna could see the outline of hipbones and ribs, and the flesh of her belly was stretched tight, her navel a shadowed recess, her pubic hair light and almost invisible. Theanna felt a surge of emotion, and wondered why she felt so deeply moved by the sight of the other woman.

“Oh, Lothaera,” she sighed, fingers moving faster and faster. “Oh, I love looking... I love looking at you...”

Then it was upon her, a shuddering wash of sensation, firing every nerve in her body, receding, then washing up again, battering her with pleasure.

“Ohhhhh,” she gasped. “I’m... I’m coming, Lothaera.”

“So I see.” The tall woman walked toward her, feigning an expression of disappointment. “I wanted to make you come. You’ve robbed me of the pleasure.” She kneeled beside the bed, where Theanna lay, panting, feeling her heart beat gradually slow down once more. “You must let me give you another.”

“Mmmm.” It was the only sound Theanna could make, lost in sensation and in a cycle of emotions she did not entirely understand. At last, she managed to form a few words. “Yes. Give it to me.”

“I’m not completely frustrated,” Lothaera said, clambering onto the bed and gently pushing Theanna’s thighs apart. “I’m sure you’ve made yourself come before. I’d like to be the first other woman. Would you like that?”

“Oh, yes. I want you to be the first. I...” Theanna faltered again, breaking off the words of devotion that almost sprang to her lips. A tiny spark of awareness remained, telling her to be careful what she said, even now, floating on her isolated raft of the senses. “I want you.”

Lothaera began to stroke Theanna’s wet hair and lips, cooing softly as one would for a cherished pet.

“Oh, you are so lovely. You are such a lovely little creature.” Gently, she slid a thumb between Theanna’s fleshy outer lips and squeezed. “Such beautiful, sweet-looking lips you have.”

Theanna groaned, feeling Lothaera spread her thighs and outer lips apart.

“So pretty and pink and wet,” Lothaera murmured, and Theanna felt the grazing touch of her tongue. “Dripping with your sweet honey.”

Theanna stroked the back of Lothaera’s head, as the woman’s thin, intent face vanished into the wet furrow of desire between her thighs, and her lips embraced Theanna completely.

The sensations began to return, creeping back from the skillful touch of Lothaera’s lips and tongue, through her once more swelling clit, into her thighs, her belly, heart and lungs. Then Lothaera slid her middle finger deep into Theanna’s cunt, parting the wet flesh, sending more sensation shooting through her.

“Oh, it just pours from you now,” mumbled Lothaera, between sucks and licks and gentle nibbles. “Your sweet honey just gushes forth. I want to bathe in it, darling Theanna.”

Again, the first rumblings of orgasm swept through her. When Lothaera inserted a second, then a third finger into her, the unstoppable wall of climax was upon her once more, and a few moments later, Theanna’s entire body clenched in rhythmic release, her voice strangled and filled with a million unspoken desires.

“Oh... Oh... Lo... Lo... Thae... Raaaaaaaaaahhhh!” When the great contraction finally struck, Theanna feared that someone outside might hear. But no, her single remaining spark of calm thought told her. There was no one to hear save the shambling horrors called dreadguard.

The fears subsided again, and Theanna laid content in Lothaera’s arms, breathing deeply, any thoughts beyond the moment lost in a haze of satiety.

“Dearest Princess Theanna,” Lothaera said. “I’m so very glad you’re here with me. I’m so very glad I persuaded the Stormking to spare you.” She locked violet eyes on Theanna, and again the younger elf-woman felt resistance and doubt crumble. “You’ll join us, won’t you? I want to be with you, dearest. I want to help you, to be your consort. I never imagined it would be like this, darling, but now I know. Please say you’ll join us.”

Theanna nodded, and heard her words as if someone else said them.

“Yes. I’ll help you.”

“Good.” Lothaera rolled atop Theanna, her flesh cool against Theanna’s fevered body. The older woman touched her breast, stroking a nipple to hardness. “Now, it’s your turn. Make love to me, dearest princess. Give me what I desire.”

Eagerly, like a colt reaching for its mother’s teat, Theanna allowed Lothaera to slip a nipple between her lips. It swelled further, almost like a small penis, and Theanna began to slide it in and out of her mouth as she had that night with Sir Kaelwyn.

“Oh, you learn so well,” Lothaera sighed. “Suck at me, my beloved. Suckle at my nipples. Then touch me. Touch every part of me. Lick at me. Drink of me, swallow me, let my wetness cover your body. Oh, Theanna... I want you to lick my cunt, suck at my pearl like you suck at my nipple. I want you to put your fingers inside my cunt, let my juices flow all over you. Oh, Theanna... Yesssssss...”

Lost in sensation, Lothaera’s impassioned words echoing in her mind, Theanna knew she would do all those things and more. She wanted the other woman more than she’d ever wanted anyone or anything, and the desire — no, the need — to do everything Lothaera asked was overwhelming. She would be hers, completely and totally. She would rule the Isles, and take Lothaera as her consort. Together, lovers for all eternity...

And still, deep inside her, in a locked chamber where nothing could ever go without Theanna’s consent, a tiny fragment still clung to rational thought.

Why? It asked. Why?

Theanna had no answers and now, as she rolled atop her lover and began to kiss and lick her way down the sharp rib-edge and convex, soft-fleshed belly, toward her center of pleasure and desire, she did not want any.

Lothaera

The elf-princess slept soundly as Lothaera slipped out of the chamber, wrapped in a fur-lined robe, the marble floor cold beneath her bare feet. Her two dreadguard remained on station outside the door, and vanished into the gloom as she walked away from them.

The Stormking brooded on his throne in a vault-roofed chamber many paces distant. The floor was warmer here, closer to the master and his strange magic. A faint nimbus of flickering light danced about him, occasionally sparking off the jagged contours of his gleaming violet armor. When Lothaera entered, he looked up. His face was invisible behind his visor, but his eyes were intent, gleaming like diamonds in absolute darkness.

“So has the whelp consented?” he demanded, his voice harsh, crackling harshly.

“She has, Lord,” Lothaera said, bowing respectfully. “She’ll do everything I desire now.”

“Good. She’ll be a fit puppet for me once her gods-damned mother is out of the way.” The Stormking inclined his head slightly, then looked away, as if lost in thought. “And what of the tiger-woman? Have you considered what to do with her? She’ll make fine sport for my grooms.”

Lothaera shook her head. “She’s a skilled warrior. She could be of great use.”

“Can you turn her in the same way you turned the little elf-bitch?”

“No. My abilities do not extend so far. Elves, I can control. Humans, as well. Kaitians, no. She’ll need a different form of persuasion.”

“I’ve found the lash works wonders on recalcitrant slaves,” the Stormking growled.

“And makes the slaves bitter and resentful. I’ll not have the cat-woman at my back with a sword under such circumstances.”

“Then how do you plan to persuade her? Your talents are apparently of no use.”

“There is another in our employ, my Lord. His talents are quite similar to mine, and by all accounts, they are effective on Kaitians.”

“You speak of the wolfen tamer?”

“I do. I will see to it that the Kaitian woman makes his acquaintance. One night with him and she will be ours forever.”

A sound that might have been a chuckle echoed inside the Stormking’s helm, and a rainbow of sparks danced off his fluted breastplate.

“You are devious, dear Lothaera. Just take care that your deviousness is put to my service and not against it.”

“Always, Lord. I serve you above all others, and am yours to command.”

“It is good,” replied the Stormking. “I am glad that my servants know their place. Take care that the elf-girl knows it as well. Leave me now, woman. I’ve much to think on.”

“By your leave,” Lothaera replied, bowing low. She turned and hastened from the room.

* * *

The tiger-woman was a magnificent sight, even bound as she was. To Lothaera’s eyes, she was in some ways more magnificent, a caged beast humbled and controlled by a greater power, yet still defiant, still wild as the cats from which she was descended.

She was naked, but then again it seemed a far more natural state to her than any artificial garb could provide. She crouched, eyes angry, glaring up at Lothaera as she entered the room. She was not in a position to do more — a heavy leather collar encircled her neck, bound to the wall by a short chain, her wrists were similarly bound behind her, making her breasts thrust out aggressively, and leather shackles held each ankle, secured to the floor by two more chains. She was even denied the use of her needle-sharp teeth, a round ball thrust into her mouth, secured with thongs.

Lothaera felt a brush of excitement at the Kaitian’s disposition, but suppressed it. Such was not her duty. Dealing with the tiger-woman was work for another, more skilled in such things than she.

“Good evening, my lady,” she said politely, ignoring Shu Li’s sudden lunge to the limits of her chains. “I’m sorry I haven’t had the chance to make your acquaintance before now. My name is Lothaera, and I’ve been asked to oversee your training.”

If possible, Shu Li’s glare grew even deeper and more hateful.

“Oh, you needn’t carry on so,” Lothaera told her. “You will enjoy yourself thoroughly. I’ve obtained the services of a highly trained professional.” She turned and clapped her hands twice. A moment later, a tall figure appeared in the doorway.

“This,” Lothaera said, “is Tanu.”

The newcomer was a broad-chested creature, grey-pelted, moving forward with a slightly loping gait. Its head was that of a wolf, with feathers, bone beads and other gewgaws braided into its fur, and various gold and silver rings were set in its ears. It was clad only in a long buckskin loincloth, but bore several small beaded pouches at its belt, and carried a short staff, decorated with tribal icons, and dripping with more beads and feathers.

“Tanu is, as you can see, a wolfen,” Lothaera continued. “I understand that his people and yours are blood enemies. In fact, when your two peoples meet, you fight like...” She paused and reconsidered her words. “Well, you fight a great deal.”

Tanu bowed, holding the short staff in front of him. “Lady,” he said, his words cultured and barely accented. “The quarrels of our people are not yours and mine. I wish to honor you with my work.”

“Tanu is called a ‘tamer’,” Lothaera continued. “He has been trained since youth in the many ways of inducing submission and obedience in captives.”

Shu’s chains rattled, and a deep growling echoed from her throat.

“Oh, don’t be silly,” Lothaera said. “He won’t hurt you. We’re more civilized than that.”

“I honor my captives,” Tanu said, stepping toward Li and kneeling obsequiously. “I honor you, as you shall later come to honor me.”

Lothaera turned. “I’ll leave you now. I suspect that the next time I see you, beautiful cat-woman, you will be much more positively inclined toward me.”

X

Li

Li had heard of tamers before, but had never completely believed in them. The notion of a wolfen — a hateful, foul-smelling dog-man — capable of turning even the wildest Kaitian warrior into a docile pet was too ludicrous to believe. And yet here, kneeling before her, withdrawing various fetishes and powders from his pouches, making arcane motions with his staff and chanting, was one who claimed to be a tamer.

Well, she thought, anger smoldering inside her, now we are about to find out the truth of things.

Tanu stood abruptly and approached. He walked fully upright now, more like a real civilized creature. Li felt a faint stirring — he was a beautiful creature, muscular, graceful, a tasteful portrait of grey, white and black. His eyes were gentle, golden-brown, staring at her with neither anger nor malice, and his —

No, she told herself. He is wolfen. Enemy. If he seems comely, it is a trick. The wicked conjurings of a witch-doctor, waving his painted sticks and blowing his powders about...

“I will release you, Lady,” Tanu said. “You may kill me if you wish, but I do not think you will.”

Astonishment fought with a renewed sense of longing as Tanu loosened the bonds at her neck and pulled the gag loose.

“Is that better, Lady?” he asked. He made a motion with one hand and shook his staff with the other.

“Y-es,” she said, hesitantly, breathing freely for the first time in hours. A moment ago, she’d have sunk fangs into the bastard wolfen’s throat. Now, however...

As Tanu had implied, she was not entirely sure that she wanted to.

“Ah,” said Tanu. “You feel less anger and hatred toward me now. This I see. You will not mind when I do this, then.”

Tanu stepped behind her, hands gripping her shoulders, then sliding around her breasts, holding them firmly, and she felt the moist warmth of his large tongue on her neck.

“You like this?” he asked.

Though her omnipresent common sense shouted at her not to, Li felt herself replying breathlessly, in a voice which another part of her hoped would please the wolfen, “Yes. I like it very much.”

The wolfen made a satisfied sound.

“I’ll unchain your arms and legs now, if you will do as I ask. Will you?”

“Yes,” Li replied. Her common sense had retreated, but still lurked, watching warily. “I’ll do as you ask. Anything.”

Li felt her heart hammering uncomfortably as the wolfen loosened her chains, but left the leather restraints in place. Her collar remained, along with the chain to the wall, suggesting that Tanu’s trust of his captive was not complete.

Oh, what of her desire for this creature, she wondered? What was it? Part of her knew it was fraudulent, a magical joke played on her by one of her people’s most hated enemies. Part of her, on the other hand, did not care, and wanted only to be touched, fondled, kissed and loved by the beautiful wolfen...

wolfen, she repeated. Wolf...

The image of Wulf flashed through her mind. There was one she could love. One she could respect. He could have her, not this wolfen creature. The elf-cow had said he was dead.

With sudden clarity, Li realized that she did not believe the elf-cow. And she knew that while her Wolf remained inside her, the tamer had no power over her.

Perhaps the submissive part of her nature, so inflamed by the tamer’s enchantments, could accept him if she thought of another Wolf. Her Wolf. Somewhere, perhaps far away, but alive. He could have her this way. She could think of...

“Wolf,” she breathed, feeling Tanu’s fingers tighten around her nipples and squeeze, first gently, then harder, and felt a purring trill escape from her throat. Enemy he may be, with the intent to break her with his enchantments, make her a willing slave, but there was no reason at this time that she could not enjoy herself...

Finally, she turned her head, and met the wolfen’s short muzzle with her own, her rough tongue met Tanu’s long, flexible one, and for nearly a full minute, they exchanged the deep, warm embrace.

Tanu moved in front of her now. He was taller than Li, and looked down at her. His golden eyes were gentle, but now held a hint of command.

“Knees,” he said. “Now.”

Oh, my Wolf, if you could see me now, Li thought, slipping to her knees, caressing Tanu’s muscular chest as she did so. Something inside her told her that she could resist, turn on the wolfen, wound or kill him, but that she needed this moment, needed the wolfen to believe her docile, and that she needed to survive, for the elf-woman, for herself, and for Wolf.

And besides, she thought as Tanu loosened his belt and pulled his loin-cloth away, he was not unattractive.

For a wolfen, at least.

And a wolfen indeed, she thought, gazing at Tanu’s erect pink member glistening before her, with all requisite parts. She suspected... No, she knew — Tanu’s influence was strong... She knew what he wanted.

“You want me to put this in my mouth?” she asked, giving in to Tanu’s insistent desires.

“Yes,” Tanu said. “Put it in your mouth.”

Very well, she thought, wrapping her hands round the hot shaft, feeling its throbbing, slick surface, then gently tonguing it, careful not to let her tongue’s bristles damage him.

She rode on the wave of Tanu’s desire, and the insistent commands he transmitted to her. How little you know, wolfen, she thought. With a little resistance, a little steel, I could take this in my mouth, bite down...

No, she thought. I must cooperate. Let him believe what he will...

And besides, Li told herself, fitting her lips to the hard organ, feeling Tanu stiffen as she gradually eased him into her mouth, he is quite lovely.

For a wolfen, at least.

Tanu made a random pleasurable noise, and touched her head, driving her on. Again, the force of his desire washed over her — without the thought of Wulf, and the strength of her own needs, she might well have been carried away by the tamer’s inborn skills.

But no. Despite Tanu’s questing, insistent commands, the center of Li’s being remained her own. Her desires were her own, and right now she desired...

She let Tanu’s hardness slip deeper into her mouth, her tongue slide along its underside. He was hotter now, and if possible still harder.

“You like to do this,” Tanu said. It was a command, not a question. “You like to do this for your master.”

Li pulled her tongue away and released Tanu’s shaft.

“I like this,” she replied, and part of her told the absolute truth. “I like to do this for my master.”

“Then continue. Continue for your master.”

Li obeyed, taking the stiff rod once more, swallowing it more quickly this time, sliding it out, then taking it in again.

Tanu let forth a deep rumble of satisfaction.

“You have learned your place well,” he said. “Lie down now, and obey.”

“Yes, master.”

Li let the hard cock go, with more than a little reluctance. Lovely boy, she thought. Perhaps with some training he might make a decent lover.

For a wolfen, at least.

Then she was on her back, chain jingling, involuntarily sliding her hands around her breasts and touching her own nipples as Tanu crouched atop her.

“Legs. Apart. Now.” His voice was calm, commanding.

Li obeyed, feeling his hands slide up her thighs, and touch the growing warmth of her public mound.

“Mmm...” she breathed. “Yrrrrlll... Touch it, master. Please.”

“Did I give you leave to speak?” Tanu asked, reasonably, looking up at her, his eyes slightly less gentle.

“No,” Li said. “You did not. Forgive me, master.”

“Keep silent until I say you may speak,” Tanu said, then buried his short grey-furred muzzle between her thighs.

Li did her best to comply, though her every instinct demanded she cry out the moment Tanu’s long, hot tongue touched her outer lips. The desire redoubled as he spread them apart with his fingers and lingered at the softer, sopping pink of her inner recesses. When he touched her clitoris, she could hold back no longer.

Rwwlllll.... Yesss, yes,” she cried. “Oh, yes... Rrrrrrllllll.... I want...”

Tanu did not chastise her. It was as if he’d been toying with her, trying to force her as close to the edge as possible before allowing her to speak. Now, face busy between her thighs, tongue long and sloppy, lapping harder and harder, he let her writhe and cry out, digging her fingers into the soft flesh of her breasts, tweaking and pinching her own nipples, back arching, muscles tight, straining toward...

Toward...

“More, please... I’m... Yrrrllllll... Rrrrrr... Almost...”

Her clitoris was enveloped, buried, drowned in hot, undulant flesh. The heat of Tanu’s tongue and his hurried breath spread through Li’s body, pounding like an insistent drum beat...

“Almost.... Yrowwww... I’m...”

It hit in a blinding rush, white hot pleasure rushing though her veins.

“Don’t... Rrrrr... Please, don’t stop... I want... Rrrrlll... More...”

Uncharacteristically, the master complied, keeping his muzzle tightly against Li’s mons, strong hands holding her thighs, licking, sucking, nipping gently, sending her again...

Again...

“Yessssss, Tanu.... Master... Darling Wolf... Wollllfff...”

Another titanic explosion of sensation seized her, battered her, pulsed and throbbed through her...

Then Tanu was on top of her, fitting the dark pink head of his fully-erect cock between her sopping cunt lips. Even as another contraction seized her, and her words vanished into pure animal howls, the long organ thrust boldly into her, absorbed into her utmost deeps...

And the fading waves of orgasm crashed down on her again. She issued an endless, wordless exultation now, mouth open, head back, breasts heaving, hands clenched into fists. Each of Tanu’s strokes seemed to trigger more powerful, teeth-jarring bursts of pleasure...

And still he kept up, thrusting, thrusting, holding himself above Li on his arms, his lupine face now contorted with concentration, eyes shut, teeth bared, a deep, longing growl building up in his chest.

You’re not my master, Li thought between explosions, but you are a lovely creature...

For a wolfen, at least.

Oh.

“Oh, master... Oh, Wolf...”

And again Wolf was in her mind — a hairless, barbaric human, but so kind, so loving, so skilled... Yes, he was there... He could be her master. He could do this to her, and she would say all the things Tanu wanted, and mean it... She would be his...

At least for a while, she thought, as yet another orgasm shook her violently. For a night. Then she would be Li again, but just once, to be held and taken by her beloved like this...

Not, Li reminded herself as Tanu’s endless stroking and thrusting finally took its toll on him, and he stiffened, head thrown back, howling as orgasm at last reached him, that Tanu was uncomely.

In fact... Yes... Come in me, darling Tanu, she silently urged her would-be master. Come all over inside me... In fact, if her other Wolf did not mind, perhaps...

“Ahhhhh.... Grrrrwwww...” Tanu thundered. “I come...”

Then she felt the warm explosion deep inside her, and felt Tanu tense, again, again, again, and finally collapse against her, his cock slipping out of her cunt, moist and sticky with their conjoined fluids.

“You serve well, Kaitian,” he said, rising and gathering his accoutrements. “I will tell the lady that you are tamed.”

Li unsteadily returned to a kneeling position. She was a mess, but the wolfen had provided a pleasant diversion.

“I am tamed, master,” she said, softly. “I obey you in all things.”

“Then obey the elf-lady as you would me, tamed one.” Tanu replaced his loincloth and bags. “I hope...”

“You hope what, master?’

“I...” He faltered. “I hope you will serve me again someday.”

Then he was gone, leaving Li to wonder at what he had said.

A sense of depression now swept over Li. She’d done little. True, her soul was free of the tamer’s domination, but she had few hopes beyond that. Even the image which had sustained her, of the human Wulf, she was unsure of. Was he really alive, she wondered? Or had he and the ratling plunged lifeless into the sea? She prayed to the Infinite Pillars of Heaven that he had survived, and that she would see him again.

Miserably, she knew that her prayers would have no immediate answer.

Theanna

The next day, Theanna took breakfast in her quarters — despite her agreement to help Lothaera and be her lover, the dreadguards were still present just outside and she had not yet been allowed to leave. As she finished her meal, however, the door opened and Lothaera entered, holding a short chain leash.

Theanna’s heart leaped at the sight of her. She had agreed to serve the Stormking, this she knew. But she also knew that she had done it only for Lothaera, in the hope that they could always be together. It did not seem quite right to Theanna, but she had yet to question her decision too closely.

Then Theanna gasped in surprise and horror. At the end of the leash, naked, eyes downturned, her pace slow and docile, was Shu Li. Her arms were bound behind her, her ankles were encircled by leather restraints, and her mouth was gagged shut with a large ball and thong apparatus. The Li Theanna had known would never have stood for such treatment, but the cat woman’s expression was anything but defiant. Her golden eyes were fixed on the ground, her face slack, and she walked at a slow, shuffling gait.

“Dearest Princess,” Lothaera said, bowing. “I bring you a present. Your companion has been rendered suitably loyal, and now has been told she serves you. Only.”

Theanna’s mind whirled as Lothaera gave the leash a gentle tug and Li, the once-wild creature, fell without resistance to her knees.

“Th-thank you,” Theanna said, knowing that any objection to Li’s treatment would only disappoint Lothaera. And she must not disappoint Lothaera.

“You may treat this one as you wish. She is yours.” Lothaera turned to go. “I advise you to prepare, however. The Stormking has asked for your presence at luncheon. Your new pet may accompany us, if you like. I think she’ll make a fine servant, don’t you? I’ll be back in three hours, dearest.”

“Goodbye,” Theanna said, softly, looking between Li and Lothaera until the door once more closed and she was alone with the Kaitian.

“Oh, Li,” Theanna gasped, hastening to her side and loosening her bonds. “What have they done to you?”

“Nothing I cannot tolerate, elf,” Li replied with a trace of her old spark as the ball gag came off. “What have they done to you?”

Theanna swallowed, unbuckling Li’s collar and pulling it free. “I... I’ve agreed to help the Stormking.”

Free of the restraints, Li stood, stretching, making her breasts and belly do things that Theanna found surprisingly pleasant.

“Your old enemy?” the Kaitian asked, stalking toward the bed and hopping onto it. “The one who killed Wolf and the ratling? The one who tried to turn me into his slave? The one who is in rebellion against your mother, the queen? What possessed you to do such a thing? Or is logic too much to ask of an elf?”

“I don’t...” Theanna faltered. “I don’t know. It was Lothaera. I feel... I feel something for her.”

Li curled on the bed. “By the Roof Beams of Paradise, I’d never thought I’d feel a bed again. Lothaera, that elf-bitch who turned me over to her damned wolfen tamer?”

“Yes,” Theanna replied. “She’s really quite kind, but... Oh, Li. I don’t know. She was kind to me. She...”

Li’s eyes widened. “She made love to you, didn’t she? I saw in your eyes. I smelled it. Oh, with your kind it is so easy to see. She has your heart, does she not?”

Theanna fell into a chair, a look of utter despair on her face. “She does, Li. I can deny her nothing. Not even my loyalty.”

“Like her cursed tamer,” Li growled. “He was a beautiful male, no doubt. But his job was to break me. Make me the tame, docile pet you saw when Lothaera brought me here.”

“Why did he fail? What did you do?”

Li touched her forehead, the Kaitian equivalent of a shrug. “I was stronger than he thought I was. He expected a weak, defeated Kaitian, but instead he got a strong one. And I thought of Wolf.”

“Wulf?” Theanna demanded. “What do you mean?”

“I love him,” Li admitted. “It’s an odd kind of love, of a Kaitian for a human, and it’s not the sort that makes me want him by my side forever, or to be his eternal consort. That’s not the way of my kind in any event. But love it is — affection, respect, comradeship, call it what you well. The wolfen couldn’t control that. Someone else had taken all the emotions he tried to command. Wolf. Wolf and my sister. They both hold places in my heart that the tamer couldn’t hope to understand.”

“Lothaera’s done the same thing to me, hasn’t she?” Theanna asked. “Are they all like this? Able to control thoughts and emotions and manipulate them to their benefit?”

“It seems the Stormking has recruited just such allies,” Li agreed.

“I know what she’s done to me, Li. But I can’t resist. I can’t deny Lothaera anything. I’ve no one like Wulf to think of. She has me now. Body and soul.”

“Not forever, elf Princess,” Li said. “I’m free, and so are you, for a time anyway. I’m your ally and your friend, even if no one else in this hell-fortress is.” She held out her arms. “Come, let me hold you.”

Theanna climbed onto the bed and felt Li’s strong arms around her shoulders.

“We’re to see the Stormking soon,” she said, softly. “No one can hide from his gaze, and no secrets can be hidden. What will we do then?”

“I do not know,” Li replied. “We’d best find some way of occupying ourselves until then.”

Theanna looked up, about to ask “how?” when she felt the Kaitian woman’s hot breath, and realized that her face was only a hairsbreadth away.

“I’ve someone else to love, and that helped fight the tamer,” Li said. “Perhaps I can give you someone as well.”

Theanna gasped, then sighed, melting onto Li’s arms as the Kaitian’s lips met hers.

XI

Wulf

“Wake up, you great filthy ape!” chirped an insistent voice through a haze of wind and sea-fog. “You’re malingering, I know it. I saw your mouth move! You’re alive, you blasted primate. Now wake up!”

Admittedly, the face of an enormous rodent, his eyes gleaming black, his sharp little incisors protruding from his twitching, bewhiskered mouth, is not what I usually like to see upon awakening, but in this case I didn’t mind terribly.

“Okay, rat,” I growled, irritably, pulling myself to a sitting position. “You caught me. I’ve been pretending to be dead ever since the cyclone hit.”

“Yeah, right,” Squitter chittered. “Leaving me to do all the dirty work.”

I looked around. We rested on a chunk of flotsam that, by its color, probably came from the Princess Xura’s outer hull. Beyond us, the blue-green sea stretched endlessly, crowded with junk from the dead ship, morning mist rising into the dark blue dome of the sky. The east paled with dawn, and besides us and a few wheeling sea birds, we were completely alone.

“Anyone else make it?” I asked.

“I don’t think so,” Squitter replied. He was dressed in rags, but I wasn’t one to criticize, since I was, too. “If there are any others, I haven’t seen them. We’re the only ones left.”

“Merciful Phaedra,” I muttered. “How long have I been out?”

“Day and a night. It’s been bloody lonely, let me tell you.”

“So now I’m here to provide conversation. In the meantime, any ideas as to how to get to dry land?”

“I don’t know, Wulf. You’re the sailor, not me.”

“Yeah. You’re just a stowaway bilge rat.” I groaned. My head hurt. “Well, given where we went down, if we head north and paddle long enough, we should eventually hit Litharna or the White Empire. Gods only know how long that’ll take, or if we’ll starve or die of thirst first.”

“You fill me with optimism, ape-man. I’m almost sorry I woke you up.”

“Not as sorry as me. Okay, find a timber and start paddling. And if you see anything like supplies —”

“Uh, Wulf,” Squitter said, cautiously. “That may not be necessary.”

“Oh, really?” I said, fishing a plank out of the water, finding it too short, then throwing it back. “Some good reason you can’t paddle, rodent?”

“Well, yeah.”

“And what is that?”

“I suggest you take a look.”

I turned. When I looked toward where Squitter was pointing, my eyes widened.

Out of the mist loomed the dark hull of a ship. It was a big, broad tub of a vessel, and its masts rose high. Squinting, I saw a banner fluttering from the yard-arm. It was black, with crossed sabers and...

Yes. A skull.

“Oh, crap,” I said.

* * *

There really wasn’t much point in trying to hide. Our chances if left alone in the middle of a hostile sea were less than zero. At least with this crew there was a slim possibility of survival. I was hoping that if these did turn out to be the pirates who killed all their captives, they were at least not the ones who tortured them first. My life had been pretty much non-stop torture up to that point; I wasn’t in the mood for more.

We waved and shouted, and sure enough attracted the corsairs’ attention. Their ungainly vessel, which looked about as seaworthy as a pregnant bog-beast, did not change course. Instead, they lowered a skiff and rowed toward us.

They were a healthy-looking crew. A wild assortment of races and mixtures thereof gawped at us over the ship’s railing, and in the half-dozen or so who rowed the skiff toward us, I counted one human, one orc, a jarrek, a dwarf, and two of ancestry so uncertain as to be virtually unidentifiable. I swallowed hard and hoped they were friendly.

“Well, look what the tide brought in,” said a muscular orc wearing a red headband and a gold sash. “We come here hoping for salvage, and all we find is a puny pinkskin and a half-drowned rat.”

“Bite your tongue, greenboy,” snapped Squitter, climbing onto the skiff, “or I’ll show you what half-drowned really means.”

“Feisty little bastard, ain’t he?” asked the dwarf, a tough-looking specimen with a nasty scar down one cheek and an embroidered eye patch. “You’d almost think he lacked gratitude to the swabs who fished him out of the drink!”

“Don’t mind my friend,” I said, as the jarrek reached over the side and hauled me in with a single jerk. “He had a neglected childhood.”

Squitter nodded. “I had nearly two hundred brothers and sisters. I got lost in the crush. You know — starved for affection.”

“You’ll find plenty of affection with the cap’n,” said the orc as we rowed back toward the ship. “Welcome aboard, by the way. That there is the good ship Vile Raper of his Imperious Majesty Lord Sharpin’s Privateer Fleet.”

“Lord Sharpin?” I asked. “I’ve never heard of him. There was a particularly nasty pirate I met a few years back named Captain Sharpin. Any relation?”

“The same,” growled the orc. “He’s become a very important man. One o’ the Swamp Lords now, leader of a vast and powerful corsair fleet, of which the Raper is only one vessel. Should the Cap’n, gods bless ‘im, let you live, you’ll probably be renewing acquaintances with Lord Sharpin in a few days. So what are you called, supercargo?”

“Wulf,” I said, wearily. “And the wet furball there is Squitter.”

“I’ve a much more complex and descriptive name,” said Squit, all twitchy whiskers and wounded dignity. “But you lot would never be able to pronounce it, let alone appreciate its subtlety.”

“You talk mighty fancy for a hopped-up bilge rat,” commented the orc. “I’m Skrall, Yeoman Bo’sun of the Raper.”

We scrambled up a boarding ladder and onto the Vile Raper’s deck, and were immediately the object of two dozen more curious stares.

Vile Raper, huh?” Squitter muttered under his breath. “What’s her sister ship called, the Mother Stabber?”

“Shut up,” I hissed. “Don’t get us in any deeper.”

The crew was, as I said, a mixed bag. But then, since they were swampers, that came as no surprise. The Swamp Lords, for all their pretension, were leaders of a series of foul little settlements along the edge of the Wilds, scraping out subsistence livings while fighting off wolfen, bandit raiders, marsh monsters, orcish tribesmen and each other. If you had too many enemies, too many warrants for your arrest or worse, bounties on your head, the Wilds were the place to go, and the Swamp Lords’ cities were probably the only ones who would have you. Lord Sharpin was just the most recent in a long succession of swampers who appeared, grew powerful, and were extinguished by war, treachery, bad luck or a combination of all three.

Now, we were either captives or guests of one of Sharpin’s captains, and only the gods knew how this was going to turn out. I knew, however, with depressing certainty, that I would never rest easily until I found out what had happened to Li and Theanna and, if possible, try to rescue them.

Rescue Theanna, I hear you saying? Rescue the irritating little elf-bitch who never even gave you the time of day, even as you risked your life for her benefit? Well, yeah, I guess so. I wanted to see her safe, if for no other reason than to rub her prissy elf-nose in the nobility and bravery of a mere human. And as for Li... Well, that pretty much went without saying. Wherever she was, I hoped that she was with Theanna, and that both of them were safe. What horrors, I wondered as I walked painfully across the deck of the Vile Raper, were they witnessing now?

XII

Theanna

Oh, the soft touch of gentle fingers on her skin, the warm sensation of fur against her nipples, the wet heat of a long, flexible tongue in her mouth...

Theanna felt a moan build inside her as Li’s lips and tongue caressed the side of her face, her neck, her shoulders. The Kaitian woman lapped gently, the rough surface of her tongue barely scoring Theanna’s delicate pale skin, yet the sensation shivered through her body.

“Ohhhh, Li...” she gasped, stroking the cat-woman’s hair, feeling the warm and gentle probing of her tongue move across her breast and tease a nipple. “Touch me, please. Touch me everywhere.”

A pair of yellow eyes gleamed up at Theanna, brimming with amusement.

“Isn’t that more a task for your beloved elf-woman, Lothaera? Are you sure you don’t want to call her and have her touch you?”

Theanna wasn’t amused. “I want you to touch me, not Lothaera. Please, Li. She’s not the only one. I think I love her, but I’m not sure. You saved my life, you’ve been my friend, and Lothaera...” She stopped, biting her lip. “She wants me to help the Stormking. You’ve asked nothing of me, Li. I need you now. Please.”

Li blinked, and the amused yellow eyes softened. “They made me a prisoner, Theanna. Offered me to you as a slave. I’d die before I became a slave, and I’d kill anyone who tried to make me one. But I endured it, followed their damned tamer’s orders, because I knew I had to survive. You had to survive. You aren’t the only one who needs someone, Theanna.” She crawled atop the elf-woman, soft fur brushing against Theanna’s flesh, sending tingling waves of pleasant sensation once more rippling through her body. “You need me, Theanna. And I need you.” She kissed Theanna, lingering on her lips for a long moment. “Now, may I make love to you? I’ve made love to a male human and a male wolfen, two things that I’d never have dreamed of doing only a year ago. A female elf is scarcely any stranger to me now.” She glanced down at Theanna’s body, breasts rising and falling, nipples still pink and swollen, belly gently curved. “And besides, you’re far lovelier than either my Wolf or that bastard Tanu.”

“Thank you,” Theanna breathed, feeling a depth of emotion for the Kaitian she hadn’t felt before. “Make love to me, Li. Please.”

Li’s only response was to kiss and lick her way once more down Theanna’s shoulder, back to her breast, and once more softly prick and tease her nipple with sharp white teeth and bristly tongue. Theanna once more felt a moan crawling forth from her throat as one of Li’s hands cupped her other breast and stroked her stiffening nipple.

“Yes, Li, that’s it,” she whispered.

“Wait,” Li whispered. She shifted abruptly. Now, Li’s breasts were suspended above Theanna, while Li continued to nibble and lick at the elf woman’s nipples.

“Touch me, too,” Li said. “You’re not the only one who needs someone.”

Theanna set to work happily, licking, at first tentatively, then with more force, at the hairless pink aureoles, then at the stiffening nubs in their center. As she began to suckle harder at the swelling nipples, Li’s oral adoration of her own breasts grew more aggressive, and a series of deep growls rose from her chest, into her throat.

“Rrrlll, that’s fine, dearest... Yessss... Yrrrr...”

The mutual breast-licking continued for long minutes, and Theanna felt the same heat that had swept through her with Lothaera, and a strange tugging at her emotions, as if now someone else had challenged Lothaera’s seemingly unassailable position in her heart.

Then, without further prompting, Li moved again, crawling on hands and knees, kissing her way from Theanna’s breasts, to her ribs, and across the soft flesh of her belly.

“Mmmmm, Li...” Theanna sighed, realizing what was coming, anticipating the touch of Li’s tongue against her mons and the warm, insistent caress of her mouth. The Kaitian’s soft fur brushed against her nipples, undulating hotly through her body. Theanna returned Li’s touches, bites and licks, ignoring the odd sensation of fur on her tongue, stroking Li’s back and flanks as she moved lower, lower, and lower still.

Li’s hands gently rubbed at Theanna’s thighs, slowly sliding upward, toward the smoldering center of her desire. Theanna stroked the small of Li’s back, and cupped her buttocks, drawing them to her, eagerly opening her mouth as the Kaitian woman’s thighs moved apart, revealing the hairless pink of her vulva. When she finally settled down, the soft flesh of her cunt joining with Theanna’s lips, embracing and surrounding them, she felt hot, intense moisture. When she parted the delicate petals of Li’s outer lips with her tongue, she felt more moisture... Apparently the Kaitian woman was as excited as she was...

And Theanna was excited, truly. Her heart hammered uncontrollably, her breath came in gasps, and the glimmering, throbbing heat of her swelling clitoris seemed to envelop her in a blanket of sensation. Li’s lips and tongue were busy there, as well. The prickle of the alien tongue seemed little distraction — in a way it increased the depth of sensation, providing a rough, abrasive counterpoint to Li’s soft lips and the gentle nip of her sharp predator’s teeth. Li gripped Theanna’s buttocks with the same intensity as Theanna held her’s, muscular hands firm and commanding, driving the elf woman on, thrusting her against Li’s probing tongue and hot, wet mouth.

“Oh, my love... Rwwwllll...” Deep growls mixed with impassioned words as Theanna felt Li tense against her. “Oh, my lovely elf... I’d never... rrrrrlll... Never thought... Oh... Grrrrllll... Ohhhhhhhhh...”

The delectable moisture of Li’s soft, welcoming cunt seemed to redouble, and beneath her stroking hands, Theanna felt the Kaitian’s buttocks tense, then release, then tense again, corded muscle one moment, soft and yielding warmth the next. She was the same way, she knew, going rigid as a wave of sensation built, then relaxing as it receded, all building with taut inevitability to the a final explosion.

When it came, it struck Theanna first, a soundless scream of release, straining every muscle in her body, then releasing her, then exploding again with renewed force. She clung to Li’s buttocks, and licked all the harder, pressing her tongue against Li’s swollen, prominent clitoris, sucking and exploring with mindless intensity and adoration, feeling Li press against her harder with each contraction...

Then Li cried out, a noise of animal lust and pleasure, and Theanna felt a harsh sting against the flesh of her buttocks as Li’s body went rigid and her claws extended, but Theanna did not care, so caught up she was in the mind-numbing pleasure of her climax, and the mental triumph of Li’s orgasm, so lost in sensation, so trapped in a whirl of emotions, from love to anger to pity to sorrow to desire to want to need...

“Li...” the word burst forth from Theanna’s throat. “Li... I... Oh, my love... Oh, Li...”

Li’s yowls were almost incoherent, but through them Theanna heard words, and her heart soared as she listened...

“Oh, my little elf... My beloved... Rowwwwwwwrrrr... Ywwwrr... I love you, my elf... I want you so... Rrrrrwwwww... Oh, thank you, dearest... Thank you... thank you...”

Theanna sighed deeply as the last waves of orgasm slipped from her. “Thank you, Li,” she said. “Thank you, darling...”

Lothaera still dwelled deep inside her. The bond she’d created was not easily broken, and the loyalty Theanna had offered was not easily retracted.

But now, lying in a sweating, contented tangle with this strange, alien creature, as much cat as woman, Theanna felt that the tiniest breach had been created in the granite walls that Lothaera had erected. Li had made it, and for that she was grateful.

For the moment, at least, Theanna still had the hope of remaining free, and of commanding her own destiny.

Soon, however... Soon they would see the Stormking. Theanna hoped that her freedom and hope would survive the encounter.

Wulf

The man who confronted us on deck certainly fit the image of a pirate captain. He was burly, barrel-chested, with long, curly black hair and an embroidered eyepatch. He was dressed richly and with very little in the way of taste, but I wasn’t about to criticize his fashion sense.

“I’m Saquod, Captain of the Vile Raper,” he said, voice booming.

“Pleased to meetcha, Cap’n Squid,” chirped Squitter, marching forward, paw extended.

“That’s Saquod, bilge-rat!” the captain roared, sending Squitter back a couple of paces. “Say that one more time and I’ll feed you both to the sharks!”

“Sorry, sir.” I clamped a hand on Squit’s muzzle and let him squeak indignantly. “I’ll have a talk with him later.”

“And what’s your name, flotsam?” he demanded.

“Wulf will do,” I replied. “And this is Squitter.”

“I think I prefer Flotsam and Jetsam,” Saquod replied, and the crew bellowed with laughter. “Tell me why we shouldn’t just throw you back over the side right now, Flotsam.”

“I’m an able seaman, though no great navigator,” I replied, “and as for this one... Well, I’m sure he’d be good at deck swabbing and bilge cleaning.”

“Deck swabbing?” demanded Squitter through clenched teeth. “I oughta...”

“Shut up,” I hissed at him. “I’m trying to keep us alive!”

“Very well,” grunted Saquod. “We’ll give you a try. If you’re still alive by the time we make port, then you’ll be free to do as you please. Otherwise... Well, them sharks sure looked hungry.”

More laughter greeted Saquod’s jibe.

“Keep in mind that we’re a free corsair in service to His Nibs, Lord Sharpin. If there’s fighting to do, we’ll expect you to do your part.”

I nodded. “I’ve done it before.”

“I haven’t,” hissed Squitter.

“Don’t worry. You can load the crossbows.”

“Enough!” barked Saquod. “You’re crewmen now, and I run a tight ship. Prepare to make sail!”

At that point, a commotion erupted among the gathered crewmen, and a moment later they parted like curtains, respectfully falling silent and letting two individuals make their way through the crowd.

“Woo-woo,” muttered Squitter, ever helpful. “Hot numbers, huh?”

“We heard there were survivors,” said a high feminine voice. “We thought we’d come up and see them.”

“Oh, a ratling! How cute!” said a second voice, equally feminine.

I tried not to look too interested at our two new arrivals, but I don’t think I did a very good job of it. The first was a full-bodied, black-haired woman with striking brown eyes, while the second was younger and somewhat thinner (though not by much), with a picturesque tangle of blonde tresses and a pale oval face. Both looked at us with some amusement, and both were dressed in expensive velvet and silk gowns.

“Dear,” said Saquod, suddenly meek and conciliatory, “I really think you should remain below...”

“Nonsense, Vitto.” The dark-haired woman patted him on the shoulder. “Danni and I are perfectly capable of caring for ourselves. Besides, these two don’t look terribly dangerous.”

“Not at all.” Danni curtsied and smiled coquettishly. “It’s not often we dredge up such interesting salvage.”

Saquod grumbled and turned to me.

“My wife Niali and daughter Dannitara. They are to be treated with the utmost respect and politeness.”

“I’m never less than perfectly polite and respectful,” I replied, “and I think I can assure you that Squitter will be as well.”

“Wow,” Squit whispered, staring up at Niali’s voluminous chest, “look at the size of those —”

I clapped his muzzle shut again, and propelled him from the deck.

“Thanks much, Captain,” I said, “and best wishes to the ladies. Now if one of our fellow mariners can show us to the crew’s quarters?”

“Of course,” said Saquod, sounding almost relieved. “Skrall, see to ‘em, will you?”

“Sir!” barked the bo’sun. “Okay, swabs! Follow me!”

I dragged Squit belowdecks, also relieved to be out of the sun, and away from the twin temptations of the captain’s wife and daughter.

“I know what you’re thinkin’,” Skrall growled. “Take some advice from me — don’t. The last poor bastard what looked crossways at the cap’n’s woman ended up hanging from a long pole over a pool o’ blood eels. The cap’n’s a powerful jealous man, he is.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” said Squitter. “My boy Wulf here, he’s never got caught with another man’s woman.”

“Stop trying to be so damned helpful,” I shot back. “What he means is —”

“Sounds like he means you’re a good man at jumpin’ out the window when the husband arrives. Well, ya try that on board the Raper you’ll find yourself in fifty fathoms of blue water. Take my advice, Flotsam. Hands off the women. Here’s your berth.” He motioned at a hammock slung between two beams. “You’ll have to share, but I suspect you’ll be on different shifts, anyhow.”

“Oh, don’t worry about me,” Squit said. “I’ll just curl up in the rope locker or something.”

“What happened to the last owner?” I asked, warily.

“That’s the man what set lustful eyes on Her Ladyship,” Skrall said, grinning. I saw that both of his front tusks were gold. “Now don’t you follow his example.”

“No fear,” I said. “I won’t. I’ve enough women troubles already.”

Theanna

The room was as still and quiet as a painting, though Theanna feared that the thunder of her heart was audible throughout the fortress.

The Stormking, grim and unfathomable, hidden behind gleaming blue-black armor, the faint glow and flicker of lightning dancing about his horned, demon-visored helm, sat on a stone throne perched atop a dais, regarding Theanna. Behind him stood Lady Lothaera, slender and serene as always, her eyes fixed directly forward, looking neither left nor right. Beside her stood an elf in armor, at attention, holding a red-shafted spear.

Behind Theanna stood several other elves — more of the Stormking’s followers. They were a varied lot, from young decadents to ancient nobles, all united by their opposition to Theanna’s mother, the Silver Lady, ruler of the Elven Isles. They, too, stood motionless in total silence while their leader contemplated Theanna.

Li was there, as well, though she was of little help to Theanna. She kneeled, arms bound behind her, elbows cinched together, forcing her to sit up straight, breasts jutting out, high on her ribs, rising and falling with carefully modulated breath. Her head was held sharply upright by a leather neckstock, equipped with several large silver rings. Once more, she was silenced by a ball gag. Her eyes seemed soft and respectful, but Theanna hoped this was because Li was playing a role, rather than due to any real submission.

Even now, she couldn’t be sure, for the wolfen tamer was there, standing motionless behind her, holding a leather lead, attached to one of the collar’s rings. He was a muscular creature, clad only in a white loincloth, his head like that of a sleek and powerful wolf. He held the lead with calm authority, and the assurance of total ownership. Again, Theanna hoped that this assurance would prove false.

“So,” said the Stormking, his voice deep and resounding, like distant thunder, “you have decided to forsake your loyalty to your mother and all she stands for. You have decided to join us.”

Theanna tried to meet the Stormking’s gaze, but could see nothing in the darkness of the demon-visor. She began to speak, but felt her voice break.

“Go on,” said Lothaera, turning sympathetic eyes on her. “Don’t be afraid.”

“I agree,” Theanna whispered. “I will join with you. I ask that you spare my mother’s life, and those of my siblings, however.”

The thunder rumbled briefly, and it took a moment for Theanna to realize that the Stormking was chuckling.

“Of course, Princess. We are not savages here, like green-skinned orcs, raping and pillaging and killing as we choose. We seek to lead our people out of spiritual bondage, to a future free from the scourge of absolute rulership and outdated tradition. Welcome, Princess Theanna. With your assistance, our victory is assured.”

Theanna swallowed.

“Thank you, My Lord.”

“And has the Kaitian performed to your satisfaction?”

Theanna nodded. “She has, My Lord. I wish her to remain as my servant.”

“So she shall, Princess. She must continue training with the tamer, however, lest she forget the lessons she has learned. Tamer?”

“Yes, Lord?” said Tanu, bowing his head.

“You will continue to train the Kaitian as you see fit.”

“I will, Lord.” Did Theanna detect a note of gratitude in the wolfen’s voice? She did not know. Certainly, Li’s soft-eyed, submissive expression did not change.

“And, Princess?” the Stormking continued.

“Yes, Lord?”

“Tomorrow, I expect to meet with you and discuss the disposition of your mother’s military forces.”

“I know very little of that, My Lord.”

“You know enough, my Princess. And we will also talk of how you will persuade your mother’s few supporters to come over to our side, as well. Is that satisfactory?”

“It is, Lord.” The words galled Theanna and burned deep inside her, but she said them anyway. Her heart still hammered, fueled by divided loyalties, love for her mother, for Lothaera, and for Li. What was she to do?

“Very well, then,” the Stormking said. “You may go. Lady Lothaera wishes to dine with you tonight, and wishes your Kaitian to serve you.”

“That is acceptable, My Lord.”

With that, the Stormking’s court dissolved, and Theanna was once more left alone with her fears.

XIII

Wulf

Life on board the Vile Raper was tolerable, if not luxurious. Squit and I were set to the filthy jobs which no one else wanted, like garbage disposal, sail mending, bilge cleaning, and the like. I was pretty much used to getting the filthy jobs, and Squitter was mostly rat, and so didn’t really mind. I was secretly relieved that we encountered no merchant vessels, and so wasn’t required to participate in any pillage and rapine on my own.

We made our way south, seeking prey as we sailed back toward the Wild and the Raper’s home port. It wasn’t until about a week after being picked up, as we approached tropical waters and the rich Xeshite shipping lanes that anything happened to break the tedium.

As the sun sank in red-gold glory, I caught a faint scent of rain, and glimpsed black clouds on the far horizon. These signs weren’t lost on my new friends, and all were busy stowing cargo and setting foul-weather sails.

“It’ll be a mean one,” Skrall confided. “Early storm season is hell in these parts.”

“So I’ve heard,” I replied, securing a ratline and scanning for any stray loose items on deck. “What should I do? You’re not planning to have me man the rigging, are you?”

“No, you stay below. See to the cargo, and make sure it doesn’t shift. You’d just get in the way during a storm.”

I felt vaguely insulted at this, but was nonetheless relieved that I’d be belowdecks when the storm hit. Squit and I grabbed a quick meal later, and set to inspecting the cargo and gear.

“I’ve never been in a bad storm before,” Squitter said. “The Xura never paid any attention to the weather, what with all those wizards on board to keep the sea calm. Storms were like shows for those people. They’d go up on deck and watch the thunder and lightning and wind tossing the ocean around, staying dry and comfortable the whole time. Stuck up rich bastards.”

I cinched a rope tight around a dozen barrels. “Well, they’re dead rich bastards now,” I said. “Their wizards encountered magic they couldn’t deal with.”

“The Stormking?”

“Yeah. The Stormking. Where the hell is he, and where did he take Li and Theanna?”

“No idea, Wulf. That’s for the future. We ratlings tend to live for the present, anyway, and our present right now involves getting very wet and cold very quickly.”

He had a point, and we set to completing our job. By the time we’d secured, stowed, and checked everything, the Raper was beginning to pitch and roll, and periodic rushes of wind made the rigging creak and the vessel’s joints protest.

“That’s it,” Squit chirped, hopping along the corridor and up a companionway. “If anyone needs me, I’ll be in the mess, hiding under a table.”

The rest of the crew was above, or at their stations throughout the ship. I was alone, the darkness of the hold all around me, the pitch and roll of the ship growing stronger with each passing moment. A rumble of thunder sounded close by. I braced myself against a crate and waited for the storm to hit.

And hit it did, with unbelievable fury. This wasn’t one of the Stormking’s artificial catastrophes (or was it, I wondered?), but it slammed into us like an angry fist. Rain and waves washed the deck overhead, and I heard the echo of falling rigging and spars. We climbed up one mountainous wave and just as suddenly plunged down another, reaching bottom and rising again with bone-jarring suddenness.

Crates and barrels strained against ropes and cargo nets, and I sprang from place to place, making sure that nothing was weakening. If the cargo shifted, the Raper could capsize, and send us all to join the sea gods forever.

An especially enthusiastic buffet sent me slamming into the forward bulkhead, and in the lull between waves I made my way up the ladder to the main deck. If I stayed on the cargo deck, I’d be battered to pieces. I had to hope that everything would stay secured.

The main deck was scarcely better. A hatch had broken, and water poured through it and the companion way. As I sat, panting heavily, a blinding rush of icy salt water slapped at me. I swore bitterly. Overhead, more crashing sounded, amid the shouts of crewmen and the obvious, basso bellowing of Captain Saquod.

Another flood of water scoured me, but this time it carried a passenger. A heavy body, clad in impractically long skirts, soaked to the skin, blundered into me, and by the time I got all the water from my eyes, I saw that none other than Lady Niali, wife of our bellowing, bull-necked captain, lay atop me, awash in frigid water. She was pale; paler perhaps due to the cold, but her dark brown eyes seemed quite warm. Her gown was a velvet, off-the-shoulder thing, revealing what looked like several acres of white breasts. It was probably ruined by the salt water, but Niali didn’t seem terribly concerned.

“Crewman Flotsam,” she said, over the howl of wind outside. “Fancy meeting you here.”

“Lady,” I replied, trying to rise. “You should be in your cabin.”

“Hardly exciting in my cabin, crewman,” she said. She remained atop me, preventing me from rising. “Although I suppose it could be under the correct circumstances.”

Oh, gods...

“Lady, I don’t think you should... I mean, you should let me get up...”

“Why should I do that?” She put her hands on my shoulders, as if pinning me to the deck. “We’d only fall down again.”

As if to confirm Niali’s words, another wave poured down the companionway, drenching us once more.

To my surprise, Niali made a pleasurable noise, eyes closed, lips slightly parted. “Oh, my. You wouldn’t think that cold water was so stimulating, would you?”

“It isn’t,” I said. “Not to me, at any rate.” Images of Livia in the icy waterfall contended with a slowly growing desire to see the captain’s wife naked, and the prospect of ending my life as a meal to a pool of blood eels.

Niali considered this for a moment, then slid a hand down my stomach to my thigh. I felt the touch of fingers on my organ, and the horrified realization that I was actually getting hard.

“It seems to be working on you, crewman,” she whispered in my ear. “Unless it’s my being on top of you that makes you this way?”

“I... I...” Now, I was in trouble. On one hand, I was on a ship pitching like a cork on angry seas. On the other, I had an attractive and apparently lustful woman lying on top of me. On the other hand (that means I have three hands, of course, but what the hell?), her husband was on the deck immediately above us, and would have me skinned alive or worse if he caught me frolicking with his wife.

“You what, crewman? Or should I say, seaman?” Niali looked amused, and despite the freezing cold water, I felt heat through the sopping fabric of our clothing.

Very funny, I thought. Just what I need now. A comedian.

“The quartermaster’s store is just down this corridor,” she hissed again. “It locks from the inside. A little modification I made.”

Gods... Like a man in a trance, I let her help me to my feet and lead me down the hall. More water sluiced over us as she fumbled with the door.

Wulf, said my rational side, you’re letting the small head do the thinking...

Shut the fuck up, brain-boy, snarled the small head. I’m in charge now, you intellectual snot...

The store room was a mess, with barrels and bags thrown every which way. It was freezing and damp, but relatively protected from the unbearable rush of water in the corridor outside. The moment the door was closed and barred, Niali threw herself on me, cold lips opening so that she could thrust a hot, probing tongue into my mouth.

“Now, Flotsam, now!” she cried, pushing me down onto a sack of grain. She yanked down the top of her gown, freeing her two vast, pink-topped mounds, then urgently thrust them into my face. I struggled for breath for a moment, suffocated by the sudden influx of flesh, then found a nipple and began to lick.

“That’s it,” Niali gasped. “That’s it. Love that nipple, Flotsam. Bite it.”

I bit, feeling the soft flesh warm and swell as I massaged her other breast, feeling it grow warm, as well, and her nipple begin to stiffen beneath my fingers.

“Mmmm,” she whispered. “You like to do that?”

“Mmpfphh... Yffllphmmmph,” I replied.

That seemed to satisfy her, for she slid down to her knees and began to loosen my sopping breeches. Though I was still chilled to the bone, and could barely feel her fingers as they slipped around my cock, I looked down and was astonished to see that I was actually hard. Damn, but they’re mysterious fellows aren’t they? Failing when you most want them to work, and working when you most want them to fail. Right now, I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted mine to work, but as another wave hit the ship and tumbled Niali atop me once more, I decided that I didn’t really have much of a choice.

She moved back and started stroking me again, fingers growing firmer each time. Feeling returned with frightening suddenness.

“Oh, my sweet little cock,” she said, speaking directly to my organ, accompanied by the booming crash of surf outside. “You want some attention, don’t you? Don’t you?”

I guess she took silence for assent, for she then began to tease my cock’s now-sensitive underside with her tongue. She kissed her way around its bulging head, which was rapidly flushing dark red.

“What a sweet little darling you are.” She ignored me entirely in favor of my shaft. I rolled my eyes, but she didn’t notice. “You just love to be petted. You love to be sucked?”

Again, I guess the answer was affirmative, since Niali now took my entire organ in her mouth and slid it effortlessly down her throat. Though I was apparently not part of the action, I was impressed nonetheless. I’d have to speak to my cock later to find out how it got such a positive reaction.

Several minutes of wet sucking, and more loud, disturbing pitching and rolling — that enhances oral sex amazingly, by the way — which Niali seemed to enjoy enormously, she finally let me go, hiked up her elaborate skirts, revealing fleshy thighs and dark public hair, and moved astride me.

“I want you in me,” she gasped. “I want to get fucked.”

With that, she sat down, and without any urging or guidance, my cock slid deep inside her. Perhaps women are right — men’s cocks DO have minds of their own. Mine certainly seemed to know what to do.

The roll of the ocean seemed more rhythmic now. Fear gnawed at me that we were coming out of the storm, and that our dear jealous captain and the crew would be coming belowdecks shortly... I would have to come first and beat them to it...

Niali seemed to be ahead of me. Bounding up and down, letting my cock pound into her like a dwarf hammering a tent stake. She threw her head back, wet black hair flying, and howled, fortunately for me, drowned out by the wind.

“Ahhhhhhh...” She went rigid, hands locked onto my shoulders, digging into my flesh. I was on the verge myself, and I kept pumping away even as Niali heaved and her cunt walls contracted around me.

Niali went limp for a moment, then leaped off my cock, just as the last wave of sensation before the explosion shot through me. She applied her hands to my cock, licking at the head, whispering hotly.

“Oh, come, you lovely cock. Come for me. Come on me. Give me your sweet, sweet come...”

I had been on the edge before, so I didn’t take much encouragement. Convulsions racked me, and my cock gushed a load of hot semen, shooting up to strike Niali’s cheek and dribble down her fingers. She grinned and continued talking to the now-spent organ.

“It works so hard, this sweet little cock, doesn’t it?” She licked the sticky fluid from her fingers as I wiped up with my wet breeches and rapidly got dressed.

“My dear,” I said, hurriedly, pulling on my boots, “don’t think it hasn’t been lovely, but I think your husband will be putting in an appearance shortly, and I think I should return to my duties...”

“You think too much, Flotsam,” Niali replied, reclining against another sack. Her breasts were still hanging out of her gown, nipples still hard, and her long white thighs remained exposed. She gazed at me through half-closed eyes. “You do your duties quite well.”

“While I’ve enjoyed this duty immensely,” I said, opening the door and checking the corridor outside, “it might be best that this be my last performance. I don’t relish the thought of living the last few moments of my life as living buffet table for carnivorous sea creatures.”

Niali smiled evilly as I left, then pursed her lips, throwing me a nasty-looking kiss. I swore to myself that I would stay out of her way for the rest of the voyage, then headed back to the hold to see to the cargo.

Shit, Wulf, my rational mind screamed. You are going to be the death of us yet.

Shut up, replied my libido. I’ve got a fucking headache and you’re not helping.

Theanna

She watched the Stormking’s fleet gathering in the harbor below. They still had not told her exactly where this citadel was, but it was located on a deep blue inlet, rimmed with thick green foliage. There were no settlements in sight, and inland all she could see was more trackless wilderness. This was some pirate or warlord citadel taken by the rebels, and no doubt a substantial distance from the Elven Isles and the Silver Lady’s forces. Despite his declarations of strength and the inevitability of victory, the Stormking did not seem to think himself strong enough to challenge the entire elven nation.

Just the same, he was gathering a fleet for something. There were easily a dozen large elven warships, as well as twice that number of smaller vessels — pirate sloops, mercenary cutters, armed merchantmen, and even a converted goblin war-prau, now crewed by blue-clad elves.

The Stormking himself stood nearby, gazing down at the fleet. He still wore his armor — in fact, Lothaera told her that he never removed it. No one knew exactly why, though rumor held that he was cruelly scarred by the Silver Lady’s minions, and would reveal himself only when he ruled in her place.

“It is good,” he rumbled, sparks flickering about the horns and spires of his black helmet. “Soon, we will begin the liberation of our beloved homeland.”

“What do you intend to do?” Theanna asked. They had, indeed, discussed her mother’s forces and their dispositions, a topic of which she was both woefully and fortunately ignorant. Though she had shown as much cooperation as she could, the information she had provided was scant, and she had still not truly betrayed her mother or her homeland.

“You will do far more than I,” the Stormking replied. He curled one black gauntleted hand into an armored fist. “We will proceed toward the Elven Isles, sailing through waters patrolled by your mother’s Sea Griffon fleet. We have many sympathizers among the crew and officers of that fleet, and when they meet us, you will appear to them, calling on them to rebel, to change their allegiance to you, and reject the ancient ways of your mother. Our allies will seize control of many of the Sea Griffon ships, and several others may come over to our side, as well. By this time, we will be upon the fleet, and will be able to crush all remaining loyalists. With our combined fleets, we will fall on the outlying isles, seizing territory and renewing our call to rebellion. Within weeks, we will be strong enough to land on the main Isles, and begin our final assault. Once our troops are on their way, noble after noble will throw in his lot with us. Those who do not will perish.”

Theanna felt her eyes widen. It was foolish, all of it. Given the choice between the ancient and near-divine Silver Lady and her youngest daughter, clearly the puppet of a renegade, faceless sorcerer, no elven noble in his right mind would choose Theanna. Yet, here was the Stormking declaring that he intended just such a thing.

“The first step is your address to the fleet, Princess,” he said. “We shall project your image above them and you will tell them how you have come to turn against your mother. We will discuss your role in the coming conflict after we sail.”

“When do we sail?” Theanna asked, hoping her voice didn’t tremble.

“Once our fleet is complete. Hopefully within the week, once loyal captains and other allies arrive. Do not fear, Princess. Victory is assured.”

She wasn’t worried about victory, but about what she would do when the moment came to finally and absolutely betray her mother and everything she stood for. For Lothaera, she would have done it. But now, Lothaera’s flame and Li’s burned equally brightly inside her, and she truly feared that she would not say the things that the Stormking wanted. Then, she wondered, what would happen?

“Lady Lothaera has sent word,” the Stormking said casually. “Your slave is due for another session with her tamer, and her ladyship wonders if you would care to participate.”

Theanna bit off the urge to snap “no” and stomp from the balcony, back to her room and relative, albeit temporary, safety. But the thought of being with Li while she endured whatever the wolfen did to her made her pause and reconsider.

“Very well,” she said at last. “Send a servant to escort me when it is time.” She turned, fighting the urge to run screaming. “In the meantime, I will be in my quarters.”

XIV

Wulf

We saw action several days later, bearing down on a lone Xeshite merchant. We took her with little difficulty, move her cargo to our hold, freed the slaves, took most of them on as crew, set the captain and officers adrift in a small pinnace, and burned her to the waterline. For our part, Squit and I remained aboard the Raper and made sure that the Xeshite bastards didn’t try and sneak up on us from behind.

With our hold now bulging, and our crew swelled to twice its normal size with vengeful Xeshite slaves, Saquod made for Baytown, chosen stopover for corsairs, pirates and ne’er-do-wells the world over. My hopes rose at this, since making landfall presented both me and Squitter with a prime opportunity to jump ship and get away from Captain Squid and his scary, oversexed wife.

Of course, as always, once we made port my hopes were dashed. As he prepared to go ashore with most of the crew, Saquod called me aside.

“You’re to stay on board, Flotsam. Report to my wife in our quarters. She says she has some tasks for you.” He frowned, grumbling. “Probably wants you to resort the dinnerware or something.”

My heart threatened to leap up my throat, onto the deck and bounce nimbly across the waves to go start a new life as a shopkeeper in Baytown, but I managed to keep it where it was, and nodded.

“Yes, sir,” I said, hoping that I didn’t sound too terrified.

“Oh, don’t be like that, son!” Saquod barked. “She’s quite a kind woman when she’s a mind to be!”

“Yes, sir,” I repeated.

“Ahhh!” Saquod waved a hand at me, and turned away. “We’ll be back by eight bells!”

I turned away, hoping to go hide in the bilge or something when a voice interrupted me.

“Where are you going, sailor? You heard my husband.”

I must have jumped a foot, then turned to face her, probably looking like a guilty apprentice at the magic academy caught conjuring a succubus.

She was there, in all her fleshy glory, swathed in a purple satin dressing gown. She was dry now, and warm, fairly glowing, her black hair gleaming in the morning sun. I looked at her, then back at the bustling port nearby. We weren’t actually at the docks — these were full up; rather, we had anchored a half league or so from shore. Not too far to swim, I thought...

“None of that, Flotsam,” she said, sharply. “You heard the captain’s orders. Now follow me.”

Reluctantly (or, since my stupid libido was starting to kick in, not so reluctantly), I complied, following her down to the stern and the captain’s little love nest. The cabin was cramped. We came in by the main door; doors on either side, and a pair of good-sized portholes opposite us. The bed was small, but seemed adequate for two. I took a deep breath.

“Our dining room is that way,” she said, pointing to the left, “and my daughter’s room is that way. It’s humble but, unfortunately, when my husband drags me off to sea, it’s home.”

“I see,” I replied. “I take it you get bored on long sea journeys.”

“Oh, endlessly. Boredom is a way of life at sea, except when we’re in combat, in which case it’s utterly terrifying.”

“So you’re a neglected wife, husband married to his ship, seeking solace in the arms of his sailors?”

She looked at me curiously. “Hardly, Flotsam. He takes good care of me, and I love him a great deal.”

I frowned. “Then why do you run around shagging innocent mariners like me?”

She smiled, shaking her head. “I’ve my reasons, Flotsam.” Her eyes narrowed. “You know, this morning I realized that you’ve never actually seen me naked.”

“I’m not sure I need to —”

“Shut up, Flotsam.” She untied her sash and slipped with only the briefest of motions, out of her dressing gown.

I gulped. The libido was taking over big time.

“You like these?” she asked, rhetorically, holding her melon-sized breasts out for my inspection.

I’ve never felt confined to the affections of thin, sylph-like women — Narisha’s a damned fleshy woman, and I’m content to get lost in her for a few days at a time (she just smacked me on the back of the head for that comment, by the way). Niali was pale, lovely, and quite substantial, from her two massive breasts to her round belly and generous thighs. She had a single tattoo, a wavy-armed sun high on her shoulder, and right now her eyes were pretty much boring a hole in me.

“Strip,” she whispered. “No sense only one of us being naked.”

Again, almost hypnotized by her voice of authority, her riveting eyes, and the vast pink and white fullness of her breasts, I complied, stumbling out of boots, shirt and breeches.

“Very good,” she said, looking down at my groin, where my cock had already begun to stir. “I’m glad I still have the knack.”

“So am I,” I replied.

“Sit,” she commanded. “On the edge of the bed. My husband said I had a job for you, and I do.”

“Give his wife a gallop?” I asked, sitting down, my erection standing up like a knight’s banner-pole.

“Among other things,” she replied, gliding to her knees before me. She pushed my knees apart and slipped in close.

“Mmmm,” she said, and began rubbing her breasts together, pinching her nipples. “I can tell you like your tits big and soft.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve never had any.”

“Such a smartass. I like smartasses.” She took my now-rigid cock in hand and fitted her overflowing breasts around it. “It’s hot,” she commented.

“Un... unsurprising,” I replied. “Gods...”

“You like tit-fucking?” she asked, sliding my cock up and down between her soft mounds.

“Uh huh,” I said, beginning to feel incoherent. “You’re getting hot, too.”

“I just wanted to make sure this was to your liking,” she said, then released me and began licking, sliding her tongue up and down my shaft. “I want you ready for your job.”

“What job?” I asked.

“You’ll see.” She ran her tongue up the underside of my cock, then slipped her lips around it and began to suck.

“If this... isn’t... the job,” I forced myself to say against the soft, moist sensation of Niali’s lips and tongue, “then what the hell is it?”

An irritated voice cut through my thoughts, interrupting Niali’s labors.

“Mama! You said it was my turn next!”

I looked up with sudden horror.

Yes, it was true.

“Not to worry, daughter,” Niali said, releasing me and standing up. “I was just getting him ready for you.”

Niali turned back to me.

“Flotsam, I believe you’ve already met my daughter Dannitara.”

“My friends call me Danni,” she said, stepping forward. She, too was naked, and was a blonde-haired younger version of her mother, her features softer, her eyes larger, her breasts firmer, higher, and if anything, somewhat larger. Her nipples were enormous, covering nearly a third of each breast, pale pink shading to darker coral at the center.

“Uh,” I said, letting her take her mother’s place in front of me. “Hello. How... Uh, how old are you, Danni?”

“No worries there, Flotsam,” Niali said. “She’s nineteen.”

“And a half!” Danni added enthusiastically. “What are we going to do with him, Mamma?”

Niali looked at me thoughtfully. “I think today you should work on your oral skills first. Take his cock in your mouth and suck him. Don’t let him come, however. We’ve a few more lessons to go before he leaves us.”

“Yes, mama.” Danni took my organ in her hand. “Oh, you’ve gotten him hard for me.”

“I have indeed. Just start sucking. He gets marvelously hard.” Niali looked back at me. “You see, Flotsam, my daughter needs education in various arts which appeal to men. I don’t intend to have her sit around and live off of me and Saquod forever. I want her married off. Or at least, I want her to be the mistress of a rich man. And to do that, well, certain skills are needed. Bear with me, Flotsam. Hopefully this will be as enjoyable for you as it is instructive to Danni.”

“I so want to please my mother.” Danni ran her tongue along my cock, already slick with her mother’s saliva. “Oh, you’re right. I feel him getting even harder.”

“Well done, daughter. Now suck him. Use lots of spit. They love that.”

“Like this?” She stroked her tongue around the head of my shaft, then tilted her head to bite softly up and down its length. She let it go for a moment and let a string of saliva drip down onto its rigid flesh.

“Good, daughter.” Niali beamed. “Tease him first. That’s always a good way to start. I’m proud of you.”

“Mmmm.” Danni enclosed my slick organ in her fist, stroking up and down.

“Tell him how much you want his cock in your mouth. Men like to hear things like that.”

Danni rolled wide eyes toward me, pursed her lips and delicately kissed the head of my cock.

“I want this in my mouth so much,” she said, and damme if she didn’t sound sincere. “I want to suck it. I want to feel it in the back of my throat.”

“Good,” said Niali.

Now Danni wrapped her lips around my cockhead, and slid it slowly into her mouth. I tried unsuccessfully to suppress a moan.

“He’s tastes good, mama,” Danni whispered, letting my cock go for a moment and stroking it with her fingers. “I like the way he feels in my mouth.”

The weirdness of this situation had not escaped me, of course, and part of me had decided that it was just plain sick, but when you’re sitting naked on a bed, and a pretty blonde woman with about an acre of soft pale flesh and breasts large enough to float half the White Imperial Navy is sucking your cock and whispering perverse endearments, it’s unlikely you’ll voice any objections.

“Oh, your cock feels so good in my mouth,” Danni said, directly to me this time, then kissed her way along the length of my slick rod once more. “I’m so glad mama is so concerned about my education.”

I wasn’t so sure, taking a glance over at Niali, who sat in a chair close to the action. She was still naked, I noticed, and continued to watch the proceedings with great interest.

“Ask if he’d like to lick your pussy now,” she advised. “Say you want him to get you ready for his cock.”

“Do you want to lick my pussy?” Danni asked, ever the faithful pupil. “I want you to get it wet so you can slide your cock inside.”

I looked over at Niali.

“Should I say yes, or play hard to get?” I asked. “Or does she need to work on her persuasion skills?”

“Oh, please,” Danni begged, staring at me with those oversized doe-eyes. “Please lick my pussy. It’s wet already, just from sucking you, but I want you to taste it.”

“Excellent, Danni!” Niali declared.

So we changed places, with Danni sitting on the edge of the bed, and me kneeling between her thighs, kissing my way along the highway of soft, yielding white flesh toward the pink flower between them.

“He’s doing it, mama. He’s going to lick me. He’s going to lick my pussy.”

The girl, I thought, spreading her lips apart and discovering that she was, indeed, already sopping, has a real talent for stating the obvious. I ran my tongue across the pinkish protuberance of her clit, and her fists clenched in response.

“Ohhhh,” she said. “I like that.”

I was glad, although common sense continued to suggest that I was licking my way straight into the blood-eel pit. I teased at her for long minutes, sucking at her clitoris as it swelled, nibbling at her inner lips and slipping my tongue inside her as far as I could. I’ve never claimed to be the best at such activities, but none of the women I’ve known have ever complained.

“Mama,” Danni whispered, alternating stroking the back of my head and touching her nipples. “Oh, mama, I want to get fucked now.”

Niali considered this. I didn’t bother to slow down as she did so, since Danni seemed to be enjoying my attentions. I was starting to flag, however — by this time my face was completely slathered in her juices, and my tongue was beginning to grow a little numb.

“You need some work on your rear entry,” said mother dearest, sagely. “Get on your hands and knees and let him take you from behind.”

“Oh, yes, mama!” Danni’s yelp of joy seemed entirely sincere. I had long since come to the conclusion that both mother and daughter were hopelessly twisted women, but I continued to go along, well under the influence of my libido and my demanding, single-minded little head.

Danni complied with her mother’s orders, crouching down on the bed, her pale, fleshy body stretched up for me. I stroked at the rounded smoothness of her buttocks and thighs, then touched the hot flesh of her cunt, still sopping from the attentions of my tongue and her own passions.

“Put it in,” she demanded.

Well, I reflected, she had certainly taken to her lessons like an orc takes to homicide. I spread her cheeks and slipped my cock, still hard and well on the way to its final expression of enjoyment, between her thighs, slipping into her moist, enveloping innermost reaches.

“Oh, mama,” Danni said, rocking forward, then back, sliding herself along the length of my prick. “Oh, mama, he’s fucking me. He’s fucking me hard.”

More of that stating the obvious, girl, I thought, then laid to, gripping the soft, yielding flesh of her ass cheeks and pulling her to me, watching her buttocks vibrate and quiver with each plunging thrust. I stroked in and out for a long time after that, though exactly who was pulling and who was pushing wasn’t certain, so much did she seem to enjoy it. Danni’s voice rose to a keening caterwaul after about the three hundredth stroke or so, and she continued the narration, apparently for mother’s benefit.

“Oh, he’s so hard... He’s so good... Oh, mama... Oh, he’s making me come... Oh... Oh...”

She drove herself onto me, flesh quivering, swallowing my cock to its base, and froze there, voice strangled and high-pitched.

“Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh....” She collapsed onto the bed, and I fell on top of her. “Oh, yes! Yes! Mama... It’s so good... Yes...”

With that she went completely limp, lying contentedly beneath me.

Niali seemed to approve. She sat there, watching with a critical eye, but smiling as she did so. She’d wrapped herself back in her dressing gown, though she hadn’t bothered to sash it.

“Good, dear. Very good. The men will love you.” She looked suddenly serious. “But you must let him finish, dear. He’s worked hard as well.”

Danni rolled over beneath me, my cock slipping out of her.

“What do you want me to do?” she asked, looking straight at me with burning, heavy-lidded blue eyes.

“Let him rub his cock between your titties, dearest,” Niali suggested. “He seems to like that. Play with your nipples while he does it, too. Then let him come all over your breasts. That can be fun if you do it right.”

I agreed silently, slipping astride my young blonde pupil and felt the soft warmth of her skin as she pressed her massive breasts around my rod.

“It feels good.” She looked over at Niali. “He’s all wet from my pussy.”

“That might help things,” Niali agreed as I began to slide my cock in and out of the hot, yielding tunnel she’d created. Again, Danni performed well, moving my hands to press her tits together, then tickling and tugging at her large pink nipples.

“He’s fucking my titties, mama,” she said. I was getting used to this sort of commentary, but I still found it a little disturbing. “He’s going to come all over them.”

Niali nodded. “Be sure and rub it all over your tits when he does. It’s good for the skin, and men love to watch you do it.”

Okay, okay, I thought. Finish this, then jump ship immediately, with or without Squitter. I’m not going to get drawn into this little drama any further.

It was my last rational thought for the next few minutes. I continued to thrust, pressing Danni’s twin mounds together, letting her toy with her nipples, until sensation overwhelmed me.

“I’m going to...” I began, but my body was too quick for me, and the pent-up heat rushed forth, gushing white from my cock. The initial burst splashed across Danni’s face, and she licked it up eagerly, while the rest spilled into the deep hollow between her breasts. She grinned, rubbing the hot sticky fluid across her skin.

“It feels good.” She giggled. “He comes a lot, mama.”

“It’s because you did such a good job, dearest,” Niali said. “I’m very proud of you.”

I slipped off of Danni, my common sense back in firm command, insisting that I get out as soon as possible.

“Well,” I said, swiftly, wiping my mess off on my discarded breeches, “don’t think it hasn’t been lovely, but it’s probably best I get back topside, before the captain —”

I was interrupted by a sound that made my blood run cold.

A heavy step sounded in the passageway outside, along with a bellowing, terrifying voice.

“Niali, my sweet! Wife! Open up! Your husband’s home!”

To her credit, Niali sprang into action without hesitation. She silently shushed both Danni and me, and her daughter, my semen still sticky on her breasts and face, leaped to her feet and padded softly across the cabin, vanishing through her door.

“Hm? Whazzat?” Niali continued in a sleepy voice, moving over to the portholes and quickly undogging one.

“Did I wake you, my love?” Saquod’s words were slurred — it was a safe bet he was drunk as a goblin on payday.

“Mmmm?” Niali replied, motioning me toward the open porthole.

My limbs energized with terror, I sprinted, as quietly as I could, toward my escape.

“I’ll be right there,” she continued. “I need to find my robe.”

“You won’t be needin’ a robe, my little sea urchin. Just come to that door and gimme a look...” A series of heavy thuds sounded, and I saw the cabin door shudder.

I dived for the porthole, dragging my torso through, grabbing at any handhold I could find. I stopped abruptly, and for an instant I was terrified that I was stuck. Then Niali propelled me through with a heavy shove, and I was falling through space, down to the welcoming embrace of mother ocean.

The porthole slammed behind me, but not before I heard Saquod bellow, “Wha’ the hell wazzat???” and propelled myself swiftly toward the hull, ducking out of sight and making for the anchor chain.

I looked even more like a drowned rat than Squitter when I at last hauled myself onto the deck, hoping that no one had seen me, and that I’d be able to find dry clothing.

“Nice dive,” said a gruff voice, and I yelped, blood turning to ice. There, silhouetted against the late afternoon sun, stood the muscular, green-skinned bo’sun, Skrall.

“Uhhhhmm,” I said. “Would you believe there’s a reasonable explanation for all of this?”

The orc grinned ferociously. “I suspect that there is, but it’s probably best you tell it to me in my cabin a’fore the cap’n comes barreling up topside lookin’ for the bastard what dorked his best beloved.”

My fate sealed, I followed the bo’sun down to his tiny quarters.

“I hope you’re not expecting sexual favors in exchange for your silence,” I said, trying to force a grin.

“Perish the thought, pinkskin,” Skrall growled. “I’ve never been much for non-females, if ya get my drift.”

“So why did you bring me here instead of dragging me before the captain?”

Skrall rummaged beneath his bunk. “I’ve a proposition for ya. But first, care to join me for a drink, Flotsam?” he said, pulling out a brown bottle. “Or should I say, Wulf?”

XV

Theanna

The scene before Theanna was disturbing, but at the same time, Theanna’s mind fogged by the influence of the Stormking, and her love for the two women in the room, strangely exciting.

Lothaera, gloriously naked, lay on a low couch, legs spread wide, held apart with her hands on her thighs. Between them kneeled Li, her arms bound behind her at the wrists and elbows, her ankles shackled together by a short chain, her tail lashing with what might have been anger, or possibly passion as her head bobbed and her pink tongue lapped at Lothaera’s sopping labia and clitoris.

Li also wore her collar, and a chain leash led from it, held by the wolfen tamer, Tanu. He was naked, too, though he seemed quite at home without clothes, and his pelt made him seem less exposed than Lothaera. His penis was slightly erect, a sizeable pink shaft that Theanna found oddly appealing. Perhaps, she thought, it was the celebrated “taming” effect that rendered other species’ females helpless. She’d never heard of it working on elves, of course, but there was a first time for everything...

“Dearest little princess,” exclaimed Lothaera in an uncharacteristically hearty manner, “so very glad you could join us.” She broke off with a brief moan. “Ohh... Your slave is very skilled. I asked whether I could observe her being tamed, and Tanu suggested I actively participate. Ohhh, yessss...”

Gripped briefly by the renewed desire to run, Theanna instead stepped forward, approaching Lothaera where she reclined on the couch. Li looked up at her briefly, and their eyes met, but Theanna forced herself to concentrate on the other elf woman. Her small breasts heaved as the Kaitian woman lapped at her, and her nipples began to grow hard even without stimulation.

“Oh, gentle, little Kaitian,” she sighed. “Your tongue is prickly... Not altogether... Oh... Unpleasant...”

Theanna kneeled down beside Lothaera and began to stroke her breasts.

“That’s the way,” Lothaera breathed. “I was hoping for soft hands to stroke my nipples and a soft little mouth to suck at them. It can be... mmm... tedious... doing such things by myself.”

“I want to help,” Theanna said, cupping Lothaera’s small mounds and firmly squeezing both nipples, feeling them grow harder. “I want to help you.”

“Ohhh, that helps, little darling... You stroke my nipples, our slave licks at my cunt, together you make me want to... Oh, yes... Want to come for you...”

“I want you to come,” whispered Theanna, then took one nipple in her mouth, gently biting at the swollen, elongated nipple, sucking, then biting again. “I want you to come because I make you.”

Theanna looked down in fascination and growing arousal to where Li licked and nibbled, pink tongue lapping at the exposed pink cunt-flesh. She must have been at it for some time for her face was sopping, as were Lothaera’s labia. Her clit was a swollen nub of desire, and as Theanna watched, Lothaera convulsed, gasping.

“Oh...” she sighed. “Oh, my pretty princess... I’m so glad you could be here for this... I wanted you to...” Her voice rose again. “I wanted you to... See me come...” She tensed again, face flushing, mouth open. “Your slave... She’s learned well...”

Li looked up from between Lothaera’s thighs, and Theanna could swear she had a sardonic grin on her sopping cat-face. The slave was master now, of this Theanna was certain — the desperate demands of orgasm, the need for release, these made slaves of everyone, noble or commoner, king or beggar.

“Oh, darling Theanna, sweetest little flower,” Lothaera sighed. “Oh, I so want you to join us now. Please, undress for me, darling. Shed that gown and show us your delectable naked flesh.”

Theanna realized that her breath was coming faster, her heart pounding as she stepped back, scanning the room’s other three occupants. Lothaera, naked, flushed, dabbing a sheen of sweat from her forehead, looked at her with an expression that was a riot of emotions from love to lust to hunger and desperate want. Li stared at her coolly, and in her eyes was the restrained fury of the oppressed, but also traces of the same love and desire that Lothaera expressed. Tanu stood silent, arms folded across his chest, his canine face unreadable. But, Theanna noticed as she loosened the laces of her gown and prepared to slide out of it, his cock was now fully erect, standing straight from his loins as prominent as a lighthouse on a rocky promontory.

The desire to please all of them tugged at Theanna, and suddenly the spiteful words of her sisters, and a lifetime of living in the shadow of her mother and the empire she ruled faded, replaced by a genuine belief in her own desirability. Yes, she thought. They think I’m beautiful. I am beautiful. I will show them.

Slowly, she slid one arm from her gown, then the other, carefully holding the fabric against her breasts. Then she slid it down, revealing one pale mound, then the other, then just as slowly slipping it further to reveal the edge of one pink nipple, then the other.

“Want to see the rest?” she whispered, surprised at the husky depths of her voice.

“Darling, I want to see it more than anything right now,” Lothaera said. “I’m thinking about sucking it right now. Please let me see it.”

Theanna revealed one nipple, then the other. With the same agonizing slowness, she pressed her naked breasts together, stroking at her nipples, teasing them until they began to come erect, tingling, exciting sensations passing through them, into her belly and down to her thighs.

Li’s anger seemed to pass, replaced by interest, then a look of desperate wanting. Yes. Both of the women wanted her. She would let them have her, too, but only after she’d teased them a while. The wolfen was more frustrating. Though he was hard as a rock, his expression never changed. Well, Theanna thought, we’ll see to that.

She slipped the gown off her hips and turned so that they could see her buttocks. She leaned forward, stroking them, then at last completely discarded the gown and turned back. She fixed Tanu with an intense stare and beckoned him, crooking one finger.

“Tamer. Come here. We’ll see if you can be tamed as well.”

Though part of her was astonished at what she said, and amazed at the changes just a few days had made in her, other parts were truly excited, reveling in the authority she commanded now. The wolfen dutifully walked forward, and Theanna’s excitement redoubled.

What was it, part of her wondered? Making love to women, to Kaitians, and now to a wolf-headed stranger? Was it the Stormking or his minions? Was it that she was at last free from the strictures of her mother’s society, and the ancient traditions of royalty and succession? What drove her now to step forward and embrace the grey-furred creature, slipping one hand around the slick, pink penis, stroking it, trying to make that icy reserve and unreadable expression change, to break through the tamer’s facade and show him that, though he may have been a holy man among his people, here he served her? What now compelled her to slide down his body, feeling the soft fur tickle her belly and thighs and nipples, and begin to kiss the smooth organ, licking and nibbling softly, at last encircling it with eager, moist lips, and sliding it into her mouth?

Theanna did not know the answers to these questions, but as Tanu’s eyes closed and he tilted his handsome canine head backwards, soft moans issuing from his throat, and his massive organ slid into her hot, willing mouth, out, then in again, she didn’t care. She had the tamer now, and he wanted her as much as the two women. Yes, she thought. I am beautiful. I am powerful. The Stormking does not want me because I am the Lady’s daughter. He wants me because he fears me, and fears what I can do to him.

The wolfen’s organ moved faster now as Tanu began to thrust, and Theanna cupped his buttocks, pulling him in with still more enthusiasm. No, she thought, you can’t come. You can’t. You must keep that for me. I want that inside me later, so you can’t come yet.

The Stormking’s cause was lost and he knew it. Fled here to this tiny outpost, far from the nearest elven enclave, he had no hope of victory. Not until he found her. His plot to kill her had changed, and now he needed her alive and cooperative. That was why Lothaera had taken her and loved her, and that was why she would sail with the Stormking’s fleet.

The great cock slid deeply in to her now, but she did not choke. She swallowed him whole and entire, letting his thickness fill her throat, then as abruptly pull back.

Theanna did not blame Lothaera. In fact, her emotion was genuine. She loved the other elven woman — loved her face and soft lips, her long swollen nipples, her lean limbs and sweet, sweet cunt, and Theanna loved the way she kissed and touched her, the first person to ever truthfully tell her how beautiful she was, to suckle at her nipples and embrace her throbbing clit with willing, loving lips and tongue. No, she loved Lothaera.

She loved Li, too. Golden-eyed, stripe-pelted, with high soft breasts, gentle tongue and lashing tail. She loved her as much as Lothaera, and would do anything to win her freedom. When Theanna wondered what that could be, even as Tanu thrust and filled her mouth with hot, hard flesh once more, she felt a moment of despair. Then she released the wolfen and tugged on the hard, spittle-wet staff with her hands, and knew that she would find a way.

As for Tanu, well... He certainly seemed pleasant enough, but, well... He was a useful servant, nothing more. She would like him well enough, Theanna thought, but her love was divided between the other two women, and would win through the most severe of storms, and the coming bloody war.

“You like what I do to him?” she asked, smiling.

“I do, darling. I do.” Lothaera rose and walked toward her. “Now I want you to do the same to me. We’ll let Tanu keep your kitty amused for a time, then perhaps we’ll share them as well.”

Theanna sighed, and despite the fearful reality of her captivity, and the uncertainty of the future, she embraced Lothaera with unbound joy, and slowly began to explore her warm, endless, beautiful body with lips and tongue and fingers.

Wulf

“I’ve been talking to your bilge-rat,” Skrall said, setting his mug down and wiping his lips with the back of his hand. “He’s really a wealth of information.”

“I warned him not to talk,” I growled. “Wait till I get my hands on his little windpipe...”

“Hang on, pinky,” Skrall replied, holding up a large green hand. He was a magnificent specimen of his race, dark-skinned, muscular, with a prominent jaw and tusks. He was completely hairless, too, with a number of tattoos, including one on his right bicep which read “Mother” and portrayed what looked like a large boar. “He’s a good one, that ratling, and we’ve become pretty fast mates, he and I. He talked ‘cause he trusts me, and frankly, I’m the only one on this tub he can.”

“An orc. The only trustworthy crewmen. Shit, what a world.”

“I should resent the implied racism, but I don’t. I understand you’ve polished off a good number of my fellow greenskins over the years, yourself.”

“Yeah. The Silver Lady gave me a medal for it.”

“He said you were involved with Thrazz’s little indiscretion a few years ago. I didn’t really believe it, but hell, stranger things have happened. Anyway, he tells me that you two are lookin’ for a bloke called Stormking.”

I nodded. No sense in lying at this point. Besides, he could probably beat the truth out of me if he wanted to.

“He’s a renegade elf sorcerer. He took my friends — a Kaitian and an elf woman.”

“Squit told me. Nice pieces, he said. Claims you’d boinked ‘em both.”

I shook my head frantically. “I wouldn’t do the elf-bitch with someone else’s pole-arm. The Kaitian, on the other hand... Let’s just say I’m very fond of her.”

“Always found ‘em dead sexy myself. Never had one, though.”

“You don’t look like the type.”

“Heh. Dontcha know it. I prefer human woman myself. You’d be surprised how many will heave to and consent to boarding, especially by a handsome strapping greenskin like myself.”

I rolled my eyes. “Please, don’t draw me any pictures. I don’t want to think about it.”

“Suit yourself. Anyway, down in port we heard tell that some bleeder who calls himself ‘The Stormking’ is recruiting mercenaries and freelance corsairs. Promising ‘em booty and plunder and the treasures of the Elven Isles. He’s taken one of the Swamp Lord fortress-cities about two hundred leagues south of Lord Sharpin’s territories. Gatherin’ a fleet, he is.”

I was suddenly interested. “Openly? He must be planning to sail against the Lady. He must know he hasn’t got a chance against her navy. With all due respect to you corsairs, you wouldn’t last a minute against real elven warships.”

“Hm. We know. Turns out this Stormking is claiming to have a secret weapon. He says that the daughter of the Silver Lady herself is sailing with him and will call on the other ear-boys to join in the rebellion. If that’s true, enough of ‘em might turn to give the Silver gal a run for her money.”

“The Lady’s daughter? Theanna. Oh, Gods. She couldn’t have turned. It must be some kind of trick.”

“I’ll warrant it is, Mister Wulf, and my better judgment tells me to have no part of it. Elves want to kill each other, it’s fine with me. Saves me and my mates the trouble of doing it ourselves, but now. King Gazzakk’s Dick, what a pile of crap! I’m not riskin’ my neck to go rip off the tree-hugging, point-eared bastards, not if I can help it.” Skrall’s eyes narrowed and he looked at me sagely. “However, if I have a chance to rip off the Stormking... Hell, I’ll take that and be glad. Shit the notion of the Silver Lady owing me for something. It would be worth it for that alone?”

“So what are you thinking of doing?” I asked.

“First, getting safe home to port. You’ve been dorking our beloved captain’s wife and daughter, and that’s a crime of the first magnitude. Doesn’t matter that the perverted old hag’s been having her little darling spread ‘em for every half-way decent looking man for a thousand sea leagues... Old Cap’n Squid hasn’t got a clue. He catches you in the act, though, or so much as suspects you’ve even thought about drillin’ his blonde-haired sweetie. Hell, you might as well open your veins and throw yourself over the side for the sharks. I gotta keep you out of the way of any of ‘em just so nothing slips out accidental-like.”

“I’ll drink to that.”

“Then, well, we get our own ship, recruit a crew, and go join up with his Storminess. You and Squit go get your ear-girl and pussy-cat and we grab everything we can before bugging out. Sound like a plan?”

I nodded and raised my mug. “Better than anything I’ve come up with. Does your Lord Sharpin have any long-distance communications items, by any chance? I’ve got a few friends of my own who might want to help out.”

“We’ll look into that once we make port. In the meantime, enjoy yourself. You’re gonna be on lookout in the crow’s nest for the rest of the voyage.”

My heart dropped out of my chest. “Gee, thanks,” I muttered.

Theanna

She lolled in pure sensation, adrift on a warm ocean, surrounded by warm flesh and gentle caresses. Theanna lapped with total devotion at the soft center of Lothaera’s womanhood, feeling the other elf woman’s juices bathe her face, fill her senses. She held Lothaera’s buttocks tightly, pressing the sweet cunt against her face whenever her lover convulsed with orgasm, mercilessly lapping at her clitoris, delicately adoring the wet pink flesh of her inner labia. Theanna remained on her knees, feeling heart-wrenching shocks as behind her the wolfen, growling and snapping, thrust his erect cock into her, again and again, sending his own waves of pleasure through her. She’d come once already, and another orgasm lurked on the horizon. She hoped the idiot wolf-man wouldn’t come before she did...

Lothaera herself was busy. They’d unbound Li, though she retained leash and collar, which Lothaera held absently in one hand as she massaged a swollen nipple with the other. Li crouched atop Lothaera, the elf-woman’s head held between her thighs, allowing Lothaera to tongue her cunt. Again, she scarcely seemed the slave, her hands atop Lothaera’s head, thrusting it against her moist mons, yowling loudly as she thrust rhythmically against it. More than once, Theanna saw the Kaitian tug at Lothaera’s hair, violently compelling her mistress to continue her intense licking.

The tireless thrusting of Tanu’s long, heavy cock drove Theanna forward, increasing the rhythm of her own cunt-licking. Forward and backward she went, breasts rubbing softly against the silken coverlet beneath her. Oh, it was so close, so very close. Soon she would come, and show these women how much she loved them...

Soon Lothaera was completely absorbed in the motion, forward and backward, up and down, groaning, muffled by the wet flesh of Li’s vulva. She squeezed her own nipple harder, until it swelled and lengthened. As Theanna opened her mouth farther, and slid her tongue into the depths of Lothaera’s overflowing cunt, another wrack of orgasm exploded through her, and she cried out, lapping even harder at Li, driving the Kaitian woman over the brink to her own howling, animal climax. Now, it was Theanna’s turn, and another wave of orgasm swept through her.

“Come now, wolfen,” Theanna commanded, looking back, feeling Lothaera’s sweet exudations still wet upon her face. “Come now because I wish it.”

Tanu’s howls rose to join Li’s, he withdrew his cock from her and stroked it to orgasm, jetting hot semen across Theanna’s buttocks and back. Theanna sighed at the sensation, feeling her own power, and a renewed surge of emotion hotter and more intense than the tamer’s orgasm, deeper than any she had felt before.

She collapsed onto Lothaera, and noted that Li now cradled the elf-woman’s head in her lap, stroking her sweat and come-plastered hair and muttering softly.

“I love you,” Theanna sighed. “I love you both.”

Lothaera

The words struck at first like a blow, then sank into Lothaera’s soul. The princess, the pretty little innocent who had shared her body, who had given of herself... She loved Lothaera. Truly. It was not due to Lothaera’s domination, no. There was true emotion in those words.

Lothaera realized, as the wolfen tamer donned his garments and turned to leave, that the Kaitian was stroking her face, murmuring to her. A slave was not to speak in this way, but Lothaera could not bring herself to stop it, so sweet and loving were Shu Li’s words.

“Lovely elf-woman. I’d not be your slave, elf-woman. I’d be your lover. I’d be lover to the dear princess, and lover to my dearest wolf, and lover to that foolish Tanu. I seek vengeance and redemption, but the solace of love I have not felt before this. I want you all, as equals, not as slaves. I want to love you, elf-woman, but I cannot so long as I am held in bondage.”

These words also struck deep at Lothaera. She served the Stormking, served the rebellion, and was dedicated to overthrowing the ancient, oppressive ways of old elf society. Yet now, the Stormking’s way, to become slave-masters, to seek confrontation and to kill and conquer — this way, too, seemed to lead to darkness and extinction. What alternative was there, Lothaera thought, between quietly fading away and drowning in a sea of blood?

She looked up at Shu Li, staring down at her with slitted gold cat-eyes, then down at Theanna, sleepily sated, snuggled against her, breathing slowly and contentedly, and a nagging thought tickled at Lothaera’s mind.

The Stormking offers hate. What of love? What love does the Stormking’s crusade offer?

Lothaera swallowed and fought back tears.

None, she thought. None at all.

XVI

Wulf

A week in the crow’s nest of a pirate ship, with breaks only to answer the call of nature, is hardly my idea of paradise. Even with a wet canvas shade and a few books run up by Squitter, the time crawled by slowly, especially since the Vile Raper failed to sight any more targets during the long haul back to the Swamp Lords’ territory.

Fortunately for me, as far as Captain Squid was concerned, out of sight was out of mind, and he never seemed to suspect my involvement with his voluptuous wife and daughter. Besides, he’d been drunk when he’d burst in to Niali’s cabin and probably didn’t notice anything amiss. I was eager, however, to leave the Raper and get to grips with his majesty, the Stormking.

Not that my time in the crows’ nest wasn’t without incident. The platform was relatively roomy, and I was able to sleep in the fetal position. The weather was mild, so sleeping beneath the stars was actually a pleasant experience. A day or so out of port, when I’d started to relax a bit, I was jarred out of a light doze by the creak of someone clambering up the shrouds. I peeked over the edge, expecting to see Skrall or Squit, but was both surprised and somewhat disturbed to see the smiling, round face of young Dannitara, framed by pale red-gold tresses.

“Hi, Flotsam,” she said, softly. “I asked mother whether I could come up here and thank you for your help last week.”

I gulped. “Danni,” I said, mouth suddenly going dry as she continued to climb toward me, “don’t think it wasn’t wonderful, but, well... Your father probably... I don’t think you should...”

“Silly,” she said, dismissively. “Now, are you going to help me in?”

Damn me all to hell, I obliged, helping her heft her not-inconsiderable body over the lip of the crow’s nest and onto the floor with me. With two of us there, it was somewhat cramped, but there was at least some room to maneuver.

She wore a dark tunic and men’s trousers, but was barefoot. I was impressed — she’d scuttled up the shrouds like an old salt, and showed absolutely no fear of heights. Doing better than me, I thought.

“Thank you, Flotsam,” Danni said, shaking her head, causing her hair to glint in the light of two moons, one full, one a quarter. “I had a lovely time. I’m sorry daddy interrupted.”

“You’re welcome, I guess,” I said. “I don’t usually risk my life when having sex.” Then again, I thought, given my past history, I actually do.

“I liked it when you put your cock between my breasts,” she said, completely shameless. “It felt so good. Especially when you shot your come all over me. I went back to my cabin and licked it all off.”

Gods, I thought, why do I always get the perverted ones?

“Uhh,” I said, unable to come up with any kind of a rejoinder. “Don’t mention it?”

“Oh, but I did,” she said, loosening the laces of her tunic. “I’ve been thinking about you ever since, and now mama said it would be all right to come up here and, well...” With that, she pulled her tunic open, freeing twin pale mountains of flesh. And I do mean mountains — each was bigger than I could hold in both hands, and her huge nipples were of the most delicate pink and coral. “Look familiar?”

“I believe I put my cock between them once,” I said. “Like you said, I think I came on them, too.”

“Oh, you did,” she whispered. “I loved licking it off. I love how your come tastes. I came up here because I wanted some more.”

I was about to comment when she slapped her mouth over mine, our tongues lapping sloppily together, the growing heat from her exposed flesh driving off the evening chill.

Well, I thought, hands going down to massage the vast, warm softness of her breasts, she certainly knew what men liked to hear. I still felt used, but bloody horny nonetheless.

Hell. We were in the crow’s nest. The chances of Saquod catching us were...

Well, if not exactly nil, then very nearly so. Looking at Danni contorting herself so she could remove her breeches, then crouch opposite me like a fleshy, blonde-haired animal, breasts hanging down as inviting as fruit on a branch, I decide that the risk was probably worth it.

Probably.

“You seem to know what you want,” I said, helping her pull my shirt aside.

“Always. Mamma says that a strong woman knows what she wants and gets it.”

We were both naked now, and she moved astride me, thighs apart. She reached down between them, slowly and luxuriously spread her cunt lips apart, stroking herself.

“And right now, I want you again.” She looked down in mock surprise. “Oh, my. What is that lovely hard thing between my thighs?”

“If you don’t know what it is,” I said, “then your mother hasn’t been doing her job.”

“Oh, I think I remember,” she said, teasingly stroking my erection. “It’s called a cock, isn’t it?”

“Among other things.”

“I like that name best, I think.” Her hands lovingly encircled my shaft and stroked. “I think they like to be petted, don’t they?”

I nodded. “I think this one does.”

“They like to be sucked, too, don’t they?”

“One of few animals which actually enjoys being eaten,” I said, smartass to the last.

“Very funny.” She moved backwards, pressing against the wall of the crow’s nest, and bent down, huge breasts brushing my thighs. Her tongue flicked out and delicately traced the length of my cock, then darted around my glans. I twitched at the sudden sensation.

“Like it?”

“Oh, yes,” I breathed. “Very much.”

“Mamma says to use lots of spit,” she said, licking up and down my now painfully-erect length, applying saliva with enthusiasm. “Watch.” With that, she moved above my cock and released a generous gob of spittle, which ran down my hard flesh. She stroked it, rubbing it across my cock’s entire length.

“Mmm, yes. Very good. I think you’re wet enough now.”

She moved back to her original position astride me, spreading the outer lips of her pussy and then reaching down to rub my cockhead against her delicate inner recesses.

“Of course, I’m pretty wet, too.” Slowly, she began to settle onto my cock, enveloping it in the rich, hot moisture of her cunt. “Yessssss. Oh, yes, Flotsam. I do love this cock.”

More coached lines from Mamma, I thought? Yeah, probably. But as Danni came to rest astride my hips, my prick buried deeply inside her soft and yielding cunt, I decided that I didn’t care. Unless Captain Saquod chose to take a midnight stroll that included the crow’s nest, I was probably safe.

All such thoughts vanished in the next moments as Danni expertly rose up on her knees, then plunged down again, sliding me inside her, then out again. Her enormous breasts bobbed freely, her mane of blonde hair tossed wildly, and her belly heaved as she devoured me with her cunt, bouncing up and down with steadily-growing passion.

“Oh, yes, Flotsam... Yes... Fuck me with that cock... Fuck me.”

This, I thought, was either sincere, or the best script-reading I’d ever heard. I responded by rising to her, not allowing her to escape, clamping my hands down on the vast, yielding flesh of her ass, and pulling her to me.

“Ah... Ahhhh...” Danni’s round face contorted into a grimace of pleasure, mouth stretched out in an involuntary grin. She flung her head back, breasts quivering. “Yes, Flotsam. Give me cock. I want cock. Please, yes.”

I responded, jamming my cock into her with renewed enthusiasm. She alternated stroking her clit as I did so with squeezing her vast breasts together, then gathering them together so that she could lick her own nipples. Needless to say, I found this extremely exciting.

This went on for a long time. Danni had reached at least two orgasms before I realized that we our frenzied coupling was actually rocking the boat from side to side. I sat up, facing her.

“Turn around,” I said. “I want you from behind.”

Her eyes locked with mine, and she spoke with passionate gravity.

“Up my ass, Flotsam. Fuck my ass. Mamma says men love to do it, but she hasn’t let me yet. I want to feel everything, Flotsam.”

I frowned. “Are you sure? I don’t know whether I’m —”

“Do it,” she hissed urgently. “Fuck me up the ass or I’ll tell my father what you’ve been doing.”

I suppose I should have been upset, but given my circumstances — naked, with my hard cock buried in the cunt of my captain’s daughter, I wasn’t in any position to argue. I grinned.

“You do know what you want, don’t you?”

She nodded emphatically. “Mamma is a fine teacher.”

Yeah, I thought. Sick as a fallen Kyborist monk, but a good teacher.

Danni disengaged from me, turning away, and leaning over the outer wall of the crow’s nest, bracing herself with her arms so that her breasts and hair hung over into empty space. I gulped, a number of nightmarish scenarios crossing my mind. Accidentally sending Danni falling to her death after a particularly passionate thrust was one — I suspected that while fucking the captain’s daughter was bad, then buggering and accidentally killing her was probably far worse.

“Do it, Flotsam,” she urged, presenting her vast, pale buttocks to me like a ritual offering. “Fuck my asshole.”

I started slowly, stroking her buttocks with both hands, then slowly moving between them. Gods, but she was soft. Finally my finger sought out the puckered surface of her anus and, moistening it from the overflowing fount of her cunt, I slipped a finger in.

“Ah, yes,” she gasped, stiffening. “Yeah. Rub it.”

I obliged, massaging my way into her, slipping my finger deeper and deeper, accompanied by her rising moans.

“Get it wet. Get it wet. Get my asshole all wet and slick. You’re the first, Flotsam. You’re the first man to fuck me up the ass.”

I felt so privileged.

At length, when she seemed adequately lubricated, I began to rub my cock between her cheeks, moving slowly but steadily toward my goal. I was still hard as a rock, which was surprising, considering that I’d just had my life threatened. But then, I suppose I’m one of those guys who gets off on danger...

No, on second thought, I’m not. I just have an overdeveloped sense of self-preservation.

“You ready?” I whispered.

“I was ready the minute you walked on the ship, Flotsam,” she replied. “I’ve been thinking about this ever since.”

So, dearest Niali had turned her daughter into a perverted little minx. As I slowly slipped my cockhead into the tightness of her asshole, I wondered whether mamma’s plans for Danni would backfire. Sure, she’d get married, but would she be satisfied with just one man?

Probably not. Her mother sure as hell wasn’t.

“Oh, I can feel it,” Danni told me. “I can feel you stretching me out. Slide it in slowly, slowly.”

I obliged. My cock was nearly halfway inside her now, and what resistance I’d felt initially was melting away.

“That’s it,” she sighed. “That’s it. All the way now. Fuck me. Fuck me up the ass as hard as you want.”

With a single thrust that caused her to go stiff again, I buried my cock to the hilt in her ass, then slowly pulled out and began to thrust in again.

“So tight,” I said. “Feels so good.”

“Come all over my ass,” she said. “I want to feel it on my ass.”

Okay, I thought. That’s how you want it.

I thrust again, faster this time, and her moans grew in intensity. Hopefully, they wouldn’t reach the deck or, worse, Saquod’s cabin, but such concerns were of only passing interest to me right now. I was busy fucking a lovely, fleshy blonde woman up the ass, and such things tend to cloud one’s better judgment.

“Faster, please,” she said, quite reasonably.

I moved faster. Soon, I was fucking Danni’s tight rear entry as quickly and forcefully as I’d just hammered into her cunt. It seemed to appeal to her.

“Yes. Yes. Fuck my ass. Fuck it hard.” She moved forward and back, meeting my thrusts with equal passion. Her hands gripped the edge of the crow’s nest, white knuckled, and her breasts beat against it, slapping rhythmically with each thrust. “Fuck it hard, Flotsam. Fuck me ‘til it hurts...”

Passion in a woman is a lovely thing to behold, especially under such circumstances, and I obliged, pounding in and out without concern. Danni gave every indication of loving every minute of my attention, so I gave her all I could.

Of course, it couldn’t go on forever, and within moments, her passionate cries, coupled with the sheer eroticism of her tossing hair, clenched fists and pounding breasts brought me to the brink. Images of my little session of voyeurism at Livia’s, watching my unrequited love getting fucked in the ass by an enormous cock came back to me, and suddenly I was coming. I yanked my cock from her anus just in time, and let loose a generous spatter of semen across the endless, soft white expanse of her buttocks. She looked back, eyes wide, lips pursed.

“You coming, Flotsam?” She rubbed one hand across her splattered ass, then licked my come off her fingers. “Did you like fucking my ass?”

“Loved it,” I admitted, falling backwards in a sweaty heap. “You like getting your ass fucked?”

She nodded. “Loved it,” she repeated. “I’m going to want to do it all the time, now.”

“Sure you are,” I said. “Just not with me. I’m leaving when we get to Snakehold.”

Danni shrugged. “I know. I’m used to it. Someday I’ll fall in love with a man who likes to fuck as much as I do. But in the meantime... Well, you just fucked a virgin.”

I considered this. “Virgin by a very narrow definition, I suppose, but virgin nonetheless.”

“Wait until I tell Mamma.”

I held up a hand. “Wait until I’m gone before you tell her. She may take a dim view of my advancing your studies to this extent.”

“Oh, of course,” she said, brightly, gathering up her clothes. “I was only kidding, Flotsam. I’d never have told my father. I just wanted your cock up my ass so badly I’d have said anything.”

Obsessive little vixen, I thought. I kissed her good night and watched her climb back down the rigging. No alarms erupted from the ship below, so as post-coital exhaustion swept over me, I pulled up a blanket and drifted off to sleep, relatively sure that I was safe from the blood-eel pit.

For the moment, anyway.

* * *

We put in at Snakehold ten days later. I was burned to a crisp, my joints ached and I was grateful to feel dry land under my feet once more. As I stepped down the gangplank toward the bandit-city’s teeming waterfront, Niali sidled up to me, smiling broadly.

“Danni said you did nice by her,” she whispered. “If you ever want to drop by again...”

I gulped. “What did she tell you?”

“Up in the crow’s nest. She said you buggered her like a priest with an acolyte. Perhaps someday you could show me how good you are.”

I glared at her.

“You are a sick woman,” I said. “The farther I get away from you, your oversexed daughter, your homicidal husband and his blood eel pit the better.”

She shrugged. “Hm. You’ve no idea how many men have said that.”

“Actually,” I growled back, “I think I do.”

Squit and I met with Skrall in a waterfront tavern called the Dead Fish a few hours later, squandering the handful of coppers which Captain Squid had deigned to pass on to us.

“I’ve gotten together a crew, and a ship of sorts,” Skrall said. “Promised ‘em first choice of the Stormking’s plunder or, if he wins, their pick of booty from the elven fleet.”

“That covers all your bets, I suppose,” I said, taking a deep swig of the first decent ale I’d tasted in weeks. “What’s this ship like?”

“What’s it called?” Squitter chirped. “The Ugly Fucker?”

Skrall glared. “Shut up or we have rat on a stick for dinner, junior. It’s called the Suicide Squid. It’s the best I could get on short notice.”

“You Swamp Lords are going to have to start giving your ships better names,” I said. “I doubt anyone’ll be frightened of something called the Suicide Squid.”

“My other choices were the Foul Bitch and the Self Sinker,” Skrall confided. “I doubt you’d have liked them any better.”

“When do we leave?” I asked.

“Three days,” Skrall replied. “The Stormking’s taken over a place called Brightwater Castle. It’ll take another few days to sail from here. You fellas can crash with me in the meantime.”

“Got anything to eat?” Squit demanded. “Rotting vegetables, maybe?”

“Sorry, squirt, I’m strictly carnivorous.”

“Yeah,” I muttered, “that’s what your last girlfriend told me.”

“Funny.” Skrall didn’t look amused.

The barmaid strolled by, bringing us another round of ale. She was of the full-bodied, black-haired, wink-and-smile type, the sort that I usually fall for like a knight with a spear through his head. Unfortunately, Niali and Danni had drained me of much of my traditional enthusiasm, and I only returned her smiles politely, then watched as she walked away disappointed. Probably thought that Skrall and I were involved or something.

“What’s your wizard situation here?” I asked. “I want to send some messages if I can. There’s some folks out there who might be able to help us.”

“Try Shardin,” Skrall said. “On Viper Road, about half a league west of here. He’s got sending crystals that rent by the minute.”

I looked into my purse. Not much left. Hopefully it was enough.

I drained my ale mug and set it down. “Okay, show me the way and I’ll do the rest.”

Skrall cast me a dubious look.

“How do I know you’re not up to something? Why should I trust you?”

“No idea,” I replied, “other than the fact that I’ve given my word, and that if you tell Captain Squid what I was up to on board the Raper then I’m deader than Saint Orlan.”

“Well, you got a point...”

“Damn right I do. We need to trust each other from this point on, Skrall. All of us.”

“Why should he trust you?” Squit demanded. “I don’t.”

“Shut up,” I said, “or I’ll tell Saquod that YOU were slipping his wife and daughter the shaft.”

“I wish,” mumbled Squitter.

“I’m surrounded by perverts,” I grumbled.

“Hey, Wolfie, takes one to know one.”

With my obnoxious little ratling’s words still ringing in my ears I ventured out onto the streets of Snakehold. It was one of those filthy, crowded pirate ports where you’re best advised to keep one hand on your purse and the other on your sword hilt. The citizens were an unclean crowd of scarred, glowering nastiness. You know the kind: father stabbers, mother rapers, father rapers. Of course I fit right in, even though I never stabbed or raped either one of my parents. Even if I’d had the inclination to do either it might have proved difficult, considering that I had no idea who they were.

I made my way past the grizzled, mad-eyed, wine-besotted, carnage-obsessed, father-raping throng and found Viper Road, a rude muddy track lined with shops of dubious quality.

“Hey, handsome!” shouted a big-eyed redhead, leaning out from a balcony and baring her breasts. “Want to show a lady a good time?”

I ignored her. Gods, I thought, harlots must use the same lines in every corner of the world and in every imaginable bygone era. I imagined some ancient lizard-man making his way through a foreign cave complex, having females flash their neck-sacs and wave their tails at him.

Halfway up the street I spied a small, narrow shop and a sign reading SHARDIN the SORCERER. Fortunes Told * Potions Prepared * Wands Recharged * Entrails Read * Musical Instruments Tuned * Pets Spayed and Neutered * Reasonable Rates for Communication Crystals.

This apparently was the man I was looking for, and I pushed my way through the badly hung, creaking door. The shop interior was spotless, if somewhat bare, with a counter, a small selection of minor magical items for sale, and a grey-robed proprietor reclining in a chair, tilted precariously against the wall, tall hat pulled down over his eyes.

“Hello?” I said.

“Zzzzhhhssshhhhawwwwwwwww....” replied the wizard.

“Shardin?”

“Grrnnnnawwwwwkkkkkkkkkkkkkk... snort.”

“Uhhhh...” I tiptoed over to the slumbering owner and tapped his shoulder.

The wizard exploded into a flurry of motion, skinny limbs flailing, robes whirling, eventually overbalancing and depositing himself on the floor. Two slightly confused eyes stared at me out of the tangle of robes, arms, legs and beard.

“Hello,” he said, struggling to his feet and dusting himself off. “Please forgive me, sir. Late night last night, don’t you know.”

“I see. Shardin I presume?”

“The same, the same.” He adjusted his tall hat with an air of flustered but self-important dignity. He looked young for a wizard, and about as dangerous as a mangy kitten. “How can I help you?”

“I need a communication crystal. It’s an emergency.”

“And where is your subject?”

“Stoneburg. She has her own crystals.”

“Hm. That will be one kopin per minute.”

I nodded. I had about enough for a five minute communication. It was enough if I was careful.

I handed over a deposit, Shardin escorted me to a small curtained alcove, selected a crystal sphere and set it in an ornate stand.

“I assume you know the basics of crystal communication?” Shardin asked.

“Direct from the Imperial Academy,” I said. “Unfortunately I flunked out in my sophomore year.”

He seemed impressed. “Well, I’ll leave you to it, then.”

I pulled the curtain shut, activated the crystal and concentrated on Livia. For me, of course, that wasn’t difficult, but unfortunately I kept visualizing her naked. I pushed it out of my mind and created another image, of the chaste, white-clad Livia doing sensible, chaste, wizardly things. A few moments later I felt a spark of contact, and an image began to swim into focus in the crystal.

Of course, I should have stuck with my first image of her. Livia was lying in bed, her lovely blonde-framed face and delicate bare shoulders visible. There as always — pale blue eyes, turned-up nose, a light sprinkling of freckles, and pouty, bee-stung lips... My heart twisted in a number of uncomfortable ways.

“Livia!” I almost shouted, and she looked at me in surprise.

“Wulf,” she said, hesitantly, then frowned with rapidly gathering resolve. “As always, you’re the master of impeccable timing.”

“Did I wake you?” I said, apologetically. “I’m sorry. It’s kind of an emergency.”

Her eyes flickered briefly and a mild shudder seemed to pass through her. “I believe it’s always an emergency with you, isn’t it, Wulf?”

“Well in this case, I —” I broke off abruptly as another shudder contorted Livia’s lovely visage. I muttered a command word under my breath, and in the crystal my field of vision widened, taking in the entirety of Livia’s bed, and the pale-skinned expanse of her naked body, as well, from the aforementioned bare shoulders to the sweetly ripe curve of her breasts, downy-furred belly, wide hips and...

Oh, hell...

I should have expected it, given Livia’s proclivities. She wasn’t alone, though all I could see of her companion was a tanned back and long, dark brown hair. Whoever it was — male or female I wasn’t certain — was busy between her thighs, head bobbing, hands hidden but obviously moving with urgent intensity.

Livia, of course, noticed what I was doing, and looked at me, torn between annoyance and insouciance.

“Like it?” she said. “You seem to enjoy being a voyeur lately, don’t you. Oh, my... Right there, darling. That’s so good.”

I swallowed, trying not to notice the sudden return of both libido and erection (and also wondering whether the proprietor was outside, eavesdropping). Dear Livia... We hadn’t touched each other intimately since the waterfall in Kenth, but she could fire my lust unlike almost anyone else. Niali and Danni faded rapidly at the sight of my unrequited love’s object lying naked and exposed, pleasured by a completely anonymous and androgynous partner...

I forced myself to concentrate. “I have to keep this short,” I said. “I’ve only got about four more minutes. This is a secure crystal, isn’t it?”

“Anyone who tries to eavesdrop will find himself turned into a random invertebrate,” Livia assured me, settling back into her pillows and letting her still-unknown lover get back to work. “Now talk, and I’ll listen. And play with my nipples, if you don’t mind.”

Fucking tease, I thought to myself as Livia tilted her head back, wetting her lips with a dart of pink tongue and began to stroke and tickle her own breasts.

“I’m in Snakehold,” I said, “but I need your help.” I raced through the past weeks’ adventures as quickly as possible — the princess, the Xeshite liner, the storm, my rescue, and the Stormking’s current schemes. “We’re getting together a crew and heading for Brightwater Castle. I’m going to need all the help I can get, so I figured I’d call and ask for your assistance. If you were to hire a ship and get down here, I suspect that there would be potential for considerable profit if we nail the Stormking.”

During my monolog, Livia’s breath had begun to come faster, and her nipple-play increased in intensity, until she was tugging at both nubs and squeezing so hard it looked painful. When I finished, she looked at me, eyes smoldering.

“You know,” she said, “I was just wondering what I would do if you were actually here.”

“Livia,” I said, fighting back a renewed rush of desire, “this is hardly the time or the place...”

“Nonsense. You’ve got almost two minutes left. You want me to join you at Brightwater, and we’ll plan how to free your little elf slut and bring down the Stormking.”

“Well, at least rescue Theanna.”

“Good.” She squeezed her breasts together and let a deep moan escape from her lips. “I’ll join you there in ten days. Meanwhile, wouldn’t you love to be here?”

I gritted my teeth. “You know I would.”

“Lick my lovely wet cunt? Put your finger up my asshole?”

I nodded again. I wanted to break off the communication and walk away, but as always my essential maleness kept me glued to the crystal, letting the woman tease and torment me.

“Let me suck your cock? Slide it down my throat and listen to me moan?”

“Yes.”

“I wouldn’t let you fuck me, though. I wouldn’t let you put your cock in my cunt. No, you don’t deserve that. You’d have to earn it.”

“How?” I asked. “I didn’t have to work too hard in Kenth.”

“That was different. I needed a cock, and you were there. Here, you can just lick me and let me suck you.” A sudden convulsion racked Livia and her back bent upward, breasts quivering. “Then I’d make you sit in a chair and watch me play with myself. You could make yourself come while you watched me.”

“I already have,” I said, wondering whether I should attempt to polish my dagger here in Shardin’s booth. I finally decided against it, since I was about to come without any further encouragement.

“I’d watch you shoot your come all over...” she groaned, then grabbed her lover’s head and thrust herself against it. “Yessss.... Oh, darling Wulf... Oh, yes... I’m c... c... com —”

The crystal went suddenly black, and Livia’s flushed, orgasmic image vanished, though it remained seared into my brain.

“Shit,” I muttered, feeling my erection begin to vanish. The need for release pulsed in the back of my mind, and perhaps I’d do something about it eventually, but right now I was torn between hopeless love for the woman and dark, angry frustration. She certainly knew how to manipulate me.

Oh well, I thought, stepping out of the booth, at least she would be helping us.

Fears that Shardin might have been listening in on my little long-distance diddle with Livia vanished when I saw what was going on in the main shop area.

A beefy, balding gentleman with an eyepatch stood calmly while his two companions, a mangy, patch-furred wolfen and a black-scaled jarrek, each held one of Shardin’s arms while the unfortunate wizard struggled feebly.

Bald and beefy looked up as I stepped out of the booth, and spoke to me in a cultured voice.

“Hello, old fellow. We were just having a word with the proprietor of this establishment. It seems he’s a bit behind on some important payments, and our employer has asked us to teach him the error of his ways.”

“Eeep,” whined Shardin, staring at me with pleading eyes.

“Perhaps,” continued the lead thug, testing the edge of a notched dagger, “you’d be so kind as to run along and let us get on with our job?”

I don’t really know what gets into me sometimes. Perhaps it was Shardin’s pathetic stare. Perhaps it was the fact that I don’t like thugs, especially flunky thugs. Then again, perhaps I just have a death wish.

“So you’re telling me to leave so that you can maim this unfortunate wizard just because he didn’t keep up his protection payments to some low-browed ape who thinks he’s the local crime boss?” I asked, and was rewarded by three equally perplexed stares. “I’m not trying to be difficult here. I just want to clarify the situation.”

“We’re tellin’ you,” growled the wolfen, heavily accented and barely intelligible, “to leave before we hafta hurt you like we’re gonna hurt him.”

I nodded. “I see.” My hand crept to my sword hilt. “I really don’t think I like the tone of your voice, dog-boy.”

“Well, sir, neither I nor my friends like the present arrangement of your face,” said baldy. “I think that you should depart forthwith before I decide to have Scar give you a new one.”

“You’ve had your warnin’,” growled the wolfen. “If I were you, I’d get the fuck out right now.”

“If you were me,” I said, drawing my rapier and parrying dagger, “you’d be good looking.”

Rather than grin at my humor, embrace me like a long-lost brother, and invite me to high tea, Scar charged, bounding on all fours, snarling. The fact that I had a weapon and he didn’t made little difference — wolfen are equipped with some pretty impressive personal armament, and many, particularly their damned Primes, fight entirely unarmed all the time, feeling it dishonorable to do so. Now, I doubted that Scar had ever been a prime — they don’t go for the criminal life — I suspected that he didn’t need weapons to hurt me.

He proved it by dodging under my first slash and chomping at my leg with ragged, yellowish fangs. I took a slice at his grey-furred neck, but he danced away again, taking a slash with the broken and dirty, but still serviceable, claws on his hands.

So far, baldy and scaly took no part in the fight, confident that their mangy cohort would finish me. Even if I did finish off the fleabag, I thought, stabbing with my dagger while feinting left and stabbing right with my sword, I’d have to contend with a vengeful lizard-man and a human thug who’d probably seen more fights than a barroom floor.

As I sustained a bite on one arm and retaliated by slashing Scar’s shoulder, I began to wonder how the hell I was going to get out of this one. I’d stepped in on the sleepy sorcerer’s side for some unknown reason, and now I was about to get killed on his behalf, my mission uncompleted, my girlfriend and the woman I was responsible for still held by the evil Stormking.

Fortunately for me, Shardin chose that moment to show his gratitude, twisting suddenly away from the black jarrek, who was focused on my fight with Scar. Shardin’s hand darted quickly to a small shelf nearby, grabbed an earthen bottle and smashed it on the lizard-man’s head. A small cloud of sparkling dust burst free, enveloping the jarrek, who fell, hissing and squealing.

His companion’s sudden fall distracted Scar long enough for me to jam my dagger into his neck and slice him across the belly, sending him falling in a messy, bloody heap.

None of this set too well with baldy who, with a roar of rage, leaped after Shardin, dagger slashing.

Disengaging my blade from the wolfen’s writhing, soon-to-be-corpse, I whirled, scanning the walls, and grabbed a jar similar to the one Shardin had used on the jarrek. I cocked my arm, took aim at baldy, and —

“No! Don’t!” Shardin squeaked, holding out a hand, desperately.

He was too late. The jar was on its way toward the lead thug’s bald pate. It struck with a loud crack, the jar split open...

And baldy was suddenly a bouncing, capering human torch, a black skeleton wreathed in angry orange and yellow flames. His screams were truly impressive.

Shardin and I gaped in horror for a long instant, until I realized that the burning man was now spreading his inflammatory compound all over the shop. Shardin’s curtains, wall-hangings and a desk full of parchments caught, and began to blaze.

“Let’s get out of here!” Shardin shouted, dashing for the exit before it, too, was engulfed in the growing inferno.

Fine sentiment, I thought, bounding after him as the flaming, screaming bald thug continued to dash about, flames pooling around him. We made it to the street just as a massive “whoosh” heralded the shop’s destruction in a massive orange fireball. We dashed away as the flames began to spread to surrounding buildings.

“I suppose,” Shardin puffed as we caught our breath in an alleyway, “I should thank you. Unfortunately, in saving my life, you also destroyed my livelihood and reduced me to utter penury.”

“Picky, picky, picky,” I growled. “Death is worse than poverty.”

“I agree,” Shardin said, listening to alarm gongs and calls for water echo from several streets away, accenting the column of black smoke that now began to rise over the city. “Yet I wonder if I could have been saved with less loss of real property.”

“Sorry,” I said, “but I usually break eggs when I make omelets. Who were those bastards, anyway? They didn’t seem to have much sense of humor about things.”

Shardin shook his head. “Don’t know their names. Hired muscle working for The Manticore.”

“The what?”

“The Manticore. Local crime boss. Calls himself that ‘cause it sounds so scary. He’s actually a middle-aged man with a big gut and lots of gold to hand out. I got behind on my protection payments, and his employees paid me a visit. Of course, now my life isn’t worth a cartload of dead rats at a Rexxaran Revival, since we killed three of his boys.”

I made a face. “Damn. I town only a couple of hours and already the local thugs want me dead. Typical. Say, you aren’t much of a sorcerer, are you? Why didn’t you just fry those guys with a spell or something?”

Shardin frowned. “You don’t know much about magic, do you?”

“A year and one semester at the Imperial Academy. I’m not exactly ignorant.”

“Well, I’m not much of a sorcerer. I take forever to actually say the spell instead of visualizing it instantaneously, which is what you’re really supposed to do. I know spells. They just take a while. And, well, I was never much for studying —”

“Man after my own heart,” I said. “Since I just cost you your business and got a price put on your head, you want to come with me? We’re sailing for Brightwater Castle tomorrow.”

“The Stormking, you mean?” Shardin asked. “You’re going to go join up with that loser?”

“Well, he throws around waterspouts better than you could ever hope to,” I said. “Besides, we’re not going to join him. Hopefully we’re going to fuck him up real good.”

Shardin made a helpless gesture. “I wouldn’t last a day here alone. I’d better go with you. Let’s go pack up my things. Oh, wait a minute.” He snapped his fingers as if suddenly remembering something. “I forgot. I don’t have any things. You burned them all up.”

“I said I was sorry. Don’t make me regret signing you up.”

“Oh, I shouldn’t complain,” Shardin said, philosophically, following me down the street through a steady stream of locals carrying buckets and jars full of water. “It was all for the best. I wasn’t making any money off that damned place anyway.”

* * *

Shardin’s arrival didn’t exactly make Skrall and Squit’s day.

“You’re bringing this fraud along?” the orc demanded. “He couldn’t cast a combat spell to save his own life.”

“Pipe down, Skrall,” Shardin shot back. “I’m perfecting a spell that’ll keep you from dribbling beer down your chin when you drink. You’ll love it.”

“Another shaved monkey,” Squitter complained. “I’m up to my armpits in you freaks!”

“You know,” I told him, “there’s a small island near here that has six rocs living on it. I understand they love rat.”

“Yeah?” Squit demanded. “What of it?”

“Keep talking like that and you’ll find yourself there. Alone.”

“I’m shakin’ in my sandals,” Squit sneered. “I got skills you’re gonna need, so I’m not goin’ anywhere.”

“What skills? Gnawing holes in food crates?”

“Gods,” commented Shardin. “You three are one big, happy family, aren’t you?”

“Ah, don’t mind us,” Squitter said, smoothing his whiskers. “We fight alla time, but we love each other. Don’t we, boys?”

“Yup,” Skrall agreed. “I love you guys like a favorite festering sore.”

“There’s a lot of love in this room right now,” I said. “I’d better go open a window.”

* * *

Despite my companions’ doubts, Shardin stayed with us, and three days later, along with a crew of toughs even less appetizing than those on the Vile Raper we made our way to the docks and there took possession of the good ship Suicide Squid. She was a wallowing tub, leaking from a dozen badly-caulked seams, and her rigging seemed to consist entirely of splices, with no actual rope remaining. When we raised sail, I almost expected to see it patched with the remnants of sailor’s underwear. Fortunately for me, this did not prove to be the case.

Though they were ugly, Skrall — now, “Captain Skrall” to all and sundry — had picked a good crew. Renegades and criminals from a dozen races, they worked efficiently and professionally. There was a large number of women, too, including an especially voluptuous Cold Islander with a mane of blonde hair and breasts like snow melons. Just like Wulf to notice the hot females first, I thought, watching her scuttle up the ratlines and help reef sails. I wondered what her name was.

We left Snakehold on the morning tide, set sail, and bore south toward Brightwater Castle and our engagement with the Stormking.

“Whatcha gonna do when we get there?” Squit asked, dangling from the rigging beside me as I handled the ship’s wheel.

“That,” I replied, taking a bite of ship’s biscuit and wondering how nutritious weevils were, “is something I haven’t thought about yet, my ratty little friend.”

“You mean you’re gonna improvise?”

“I mean I’m gonna figure it out when we get there.”

“You fill me with confidence, Wulf. Makes me wonder why I ever got involved with you.”

“You said it yourself, whisker-boy. It’s love, plain and simple.”

“Now that is what I call disgusting,” Squit replied, scrambling up the rigging. “What’s this thing I’m climbing on called, anyway?”

“It’s called a ratline,” I shouted up to him.

“No shit,” Squit said, impressed. “How the hell did they know?”

XVII

Theanna

The normally bright blue water of the harbor was an unsettled grey-green today, as the storms surrounding the castle stirred up sediment and caused the sea to heave and roll uneasily. As word of his schemes spread, the Stormking grew more conscious of security, surrounding Brightwater with a ring of dark clouds, lightning and pouring rain, designed to discourage any elven patrols which might happen by. Allied ships were guided through the maze of squalls by the Stormking’s own pilots, and now the harbor was filled almost to capacity, with dozens of vessels flying a bewildering variety of banners and flags.

A gust of wind from the bay ruffled Theanna’s hair, and made Li, walking submissively beside her, naked save for her studded collar and leash, shiver and growl.

“Do you want to go inside?” Theanna asked. “It looks as if one of our leader’s storms might come this way.”

Li shook her head. “I like the weather. It is cold, and it makes me shiver, but it is something real. We face enough unreality each day that even discomfort is welcome.”

“That,” Theanna said as a large, cold droplet of rain splashed between her eyes, making her blink, “is an interesting way of looking at it.”

“On the other hand,” Li said as a wall of rain swept in across the bay, obscuring the ships, “I draw the line at getting soaked, especially when I’m naked. Let’s go inside.”

Theanna agreed, and they darted into her chambers just as the worst of the rain struck the castle. She collapsed on a couch and watched as Li knelt dutifully nearby and gazed at her with a steady yellow-gold gaze.

“You don’t need to behave in this manner around me,” Theanna complained. “You’re only my slave because the Stormking has decreed it. I’d prefer to think of you as my friend.”

Li cocked her head and said softly, “It is best that I play the role assigned me, rather than attract suspicion. Besides, I do not mind playing that role for you.”

Theanna swallowed, feeling a sting of emotion. “Truly?”

“Love can do remarkable things. I perform for Tanu because I must, and because I choose to. For you, I serve because I love you. I would serve only one other in such a manner.”

“Wulf?”

Li nodded. “My dear Wulf. And then I would only do so for a while, until I could stand it no longer.”

Theanna sighed. “Oh, sweet Shu Li. I think your Wulf is dead. Along with that horrid little rat creature.”

“I do not give up hope so easily, lady.”

“You have more than I, then. I serve the Stormking now, and all is lost.”

“You will betray your mother, then?”

“The Stormking wills it, and as he wills, so we all shall do. I’ll not defy the one who holds the power of life and death over me. I suppose a true heroine would die rather than betray her nation — fling herself from the battlements, or fall upon a hidden dagger.” Theanna looked at the floor and spoke sadly. “But I am no heroine. I am a spoiled and arrogant princess who never understood what she needed until it was too late.”

“It’s not too late, lady.”

“Again, Li, I wish I had your spirit. For now, I fear, mine is lost to Lothaera and the Stormking.”

Lothaera

“We have word of two more ships on the way, My Lord,” Lothaera said as she stood beside the Stormking on a broad balcony, looking out over the wind-tossed harbor. His magic protected them — after all, he himself had created the storms; he could protect himself from them.

The horned helmet inclined slightly. “Any others?”

“Not at this time, Lord. There is a fast corsair from Stoneburg, the Skate, under command of a mercenary sorceress named Livia. There is also a pirate vessel called the Suicide Squid, though it doesn’t sound like a front-line warship.”

“It does not matter. With their arrival, our fleet will be complete. Then we will sail for the isles, and our conquest will begin. The Lady and her minions will know the wrath of the subjects they neglected for so long.”

“But the Lady will not be harmed,” Lothaera pointed out. “That was the price of Theanna’s cooperation.”

“We’d have had her cooperation one way or another, sorceress. Our promise was easily given. Whether it will be kept, well... We should see how cooperative the Lady and her family prove to be before we make any further commitments.” The armored figure turned abruptly and marched back into the castle.

“I will need a complete roster of all vessels, their crews and capabilities,” he shouted over his shoulder. “We sail with the first tide after those last ships arrive!”

Lothaera remained on the balcony, even as the Stormking’s protection vanished and the rain washed over her. His words rang in her mind, against images of Theanna’s wide-eyed, fearful countenance, and memories of their intimate moments together.

With sudden clarity, Lothaera realized that the Stormking had no intention of leaving the Silver Lady alive. To do so, allowing his closest and most powerful rival to live, would be madness. His promise had only been to secure Theanna’s willing cooperation, nothing more.

And, a tiny voice asked deep inside her, if the Stormking showed no mercy to the Lady and her children, what were the chances that he would spare Theanna?

Lothaera could not bring herself to answer the question.

Wulf

We sailed south along the Wild Lands coast for several days, passing the squalid realms of the Swamp Lords, riding out squalls, and passing the time as best we could. Progress was slow, for the Squid was an even bigger wallowing tub than the Raper. Skrall commanded well, however, and his crew were sharp, if bloody ugly. I was made first mate by default, but I left most hard work to the bosun, a tatty-feathered black mruti named Kwy, who did double duty as scout, flying ahead of the ship and reporting back.

Perhaps a week out of Snakehold, we beheld a sight which both made my heart leap and sink in quick succession. The gleaming white hull of the corsair Skate sailed majestically into view over the horizon, her sails billowing with a fresh, magical breeze. As we drew close, I spied a familiar figure on the quarterdeck.

“Livia!” I shouted, waving. “Ahoy! It’s us!”

By the gods, she actually broke into a smile when she saw me, and as we drew alongside, I leaped across the railing, sweeping her up in my arms. She was the same as she’d ever been, lithe but voluptuous, face pale and sprinkled with freckles, eyes wide and blue, blond hair bound into a short braid. She was dressed for work, in breeches and blouse, but even now she had to bow to fashion, for her ample breasts were gathered up by a tight bodice, presented to me like a tray of treats I couldn’t eat.

“Finally decided you couldn’t live without me, eh?” I demanded, kissing her. “Couldn’t get that waterfall out of your mind, could you?”

She grinned sweetly. “Someday, Wulf, I’ll meet a man with an ego as big as yours.”

I shrugged. “Something about me has to be big, I suppose.”

“Again with the sex talk, Wulf. Is that all you think about?”

“I know it’s all you think about,” I retorted. “Have any spare lovers chained in the hold?”

“Oh, I never have to chain them up, Wulf. Not unless they beg for it.”

At that moment, Cap’n Skrall chose to swing across on a ratline and land with a thud on the deck nearby. When Livia saw him, green skin gleaming and muscles bulging, her eyes widened slightly.

“Oh, my. Now who is this, Wulf, and where have you been hiding him?”

I threw up my hands in disgust. “My captain, dearest. His name is Skrall. And I’ve been hiding him because I was afraid you’d eat him alive.”

“Lady,” growled the orc. To my surprise, he bowed.

“Phaedra’s belly,” I muttered. “An orc is polite to a lady.”

“Is that so unusual?” Livia demanded, allowing Skrall to take her hand and press his tusked mouth against it.

“Damned right it is. I was expecting the world to end.”

“Fine ship you got here, Lady,” Skrall commented.

“It’s not mine, but I use it sometimes. I’ll give you the tour later,” Livia replied suggestively. Behind Skrall, I rolled my eyes. She gave me a dirty look.

“Hey, gorgeous,” squeaked a bright, annoying voice. “You another one o’ Wulf’s floozies?”

Squitter had arrived.

Livia glanced with amusement at the bright-eyed furball scrambling over the railing.

“And who is this cutie?” she asked as the ratling positioned himself at her feet and looked up at her, whiskers twitching.

“They call me Squitter, though that ain’t my real name.” Squit held up a paw, two fingers crossed. “Wulf and me, we’re like this, ya know.”

“Shut up, Squit,” I said. “She’ll think we’re lovers.”

Squitter looked at me with distaste. “Ew. What kinda pervert do you take me for?”

“I’ve brought another friend of yours,” Livia said. “I found him in the gutter outside the Red Shark.”

My stomach lurched. “No. You didn’t —”

“‘Ey! Wot the hell is dis orc doin’ on deck?”

Yes, it was Udo. The rumpled, tangle-bearded dwarf staggered up from the hold, eyes burning with blood-lust.

“You really know how to hurt a guy, don’t you?” I said.

“Give him a break, Wulf,” Livia replied. “You’ll need fighters, and he’s one of the best.”

“Yeah. No brains, but a good fighter. Just give him an axe, wind him up and point him in the right direction.”

“Orc! Kill!”

I smacked the little drunk between the eyes, sending him tumbling to the deck, swearing.

“Shut up, Udo,” I said. “Skrall’s on our side.”

“But he’s an orc!” Udo said, defensively, trying to get on his feet.

“Udo, I’m your guardian, and I say leave Skrall be. There’ll be plenty of other non-dwarves to chop up later.”

He brightened and flashed a lopsided grin. “Promise?”

“Promise.”

Then the last of our members showed up. Shardin, bleary-eyed and faintly green, staggered up from Squid’s hold and hailed us uncertainly.

“Good morning,” he said. “I think I feel better today.”

I sighed and motioned toward the railing.

“Livia, meet Shardin, a sorcerer of sorts. We rescued him from the legbreakers in Snakehold.”

Livia nodded and smiled sweetly, approaching the rail with her hand extended.

“Pleased to meet you, Shardin,” she said, taking his hand as he held it out from Skate. “Perhaps we could talk shop sometime.”

“Of c... c... course.” Shardin’s eyes bulged as a swell hit us. “Now, excuse me.” He dashed toward the opposite railing and retched loudly.

Great. My crew of misfits — knockabout thief, mangy ratling, tattooed orc, drunken dwarf, seasick magician and oversexed sorceress — was complete. Now all we had to do was infiltrate an evil wizard’s fleet, rescue his prisoners, thwart his plans for world domination, and save the elven nation from defeat.

Piece of cake.

“Okay, Skrall,” I said, stepping back toward the railing. “We’d better get back on board...”

I stopped. Skrall was nowhere to be seen. As a matter of fact, so was Livia.

“Where’d they go?” I asked.

“Oh, they took off while you were talkin’ to the dwarf,” Squit said. “I think she liked him, know what I mean?” He grinned and made a sound like bed springs. “Ee-ee ee-ee ee-ee ee-ee. Woo-woo.”

I glared at him. “You know, my pride is hurt enough without overgrown vermin rubbing salt in the wound.”

Squit shrugged. “Sorry, boss. It’s my nature. So are you comin’ back on board, or would you rather stay here and imagine what she’s doin’ to the orc?”

“Lead on, rat-boy,” I said, turning back to the railing. “We’ve got work to do.”

“So does she, I bet.”

“Just shut up, okay?”

Livia

“Hm,” Skrall grunted, looking around him. “Pretty posh for shipboard, innit?”

“I didn’t bring you here to criticize my decorating skills,” Livia said, sidling up to him. She slid a hand across his muscular chest, and standing on her toes, whispered urgently into his ring-studded ear. “You see, I’ve never had an orc before.”

Skrall turned his gaze back to her. “So that’s it, huh? Thought you’d add an orc to your collection? Hell, lady, we only just met.”

“Oh, you mustn’t look at it like that,” Livia said, stepping back, loosening the laces of her bodice. “Use your imagination. Think of yourself as a merciless orc warlord and I’m your elvish captive.”

“Hm. Never really liked elves all that much...”

The faint trace of a glare sullied Livia’s pale brow. “Don’t like elves? What kind of orc are you? Pillaging, looting, burning, raping... Don’t they mean anything to you?”

“Oh, yeah.” Skrall grinned. “I always enjoyed the pillaging and looting. Especially the burning. I never got much into the raping, though.”

“You sure you don’t have some human in your ancestry somewhere?”

“Sure, it’s possible,” Skrall said thoughtfully. “Don’t know for sure, though. Never did figure out who my dad was.”

Livia rolled her eyes. Her bodice was unlaced and her tunic hung down, tantalizingly revealing the pale globes of her breasts. “My luck to find the one humanitarian orc on all of Thystra.”

“Hey! Watch your language!” Skrall seemed insulted. “I’m no humanitarian. Just cuz I don’t like raping...”

“You’re not really raping me, you tinhead! You’re just pretending! Like in a bad Litharnan novel!”

Light suddenly dawned in Skrall’s yellow eyes. “Oh! Right! Well, in that case...”

A moment later, they were on the bed and he was on top of her, large hands eagerly ripping away her bodice, yanking down her tunic, revealing the soft expanse of her breasts. Already, her nipples were growing hard with excitement.

Yes, Livia thought, this is more like it...

“Oh don’t,” she gasped breathily even as she met his lips with hers and felt the rough caress of his tongue on her face. “Please, stop.” She hoped that it sounded sufficiently sincere.

“Never,” he growled back, yanking her blouse and breeches away with a satisfying rip of cloth. Now she was completely naked beneath him, her breasts pressed down by the insistent, hot pressure of Skrall’s chest. “You’re my captive, and will do as I demand!”

In the back of her mind, along with a brief moment of relief that this wasn’t one of her more expensive outfits, Livia noted that Skrall was already talking like the rugged antihero of one of those damned Litharnan potboiler romances. Perhaps he read them in his spare time. Wouldn’t he hate it if that ever got out to his friends...

Then, as always, idle thoughts were swept away as the orc’s big, strong hands encircled her breasts, squeezing them, making her nipples protrude so that he could easily slap his big, black tongue across them.

“Mmmm.” Livia was unable to mask a brief gasp of pleasure, then returned to her assigned role.

“Oh, what are you doing? Oh, please...”

“Silence, slave!” Skrall barked, and his pointed teeth clamped down on one swollen nipple.

“Ah!” The pain was exquisite, just as she liked it. “Oh, no... Please...”

Now Skrall bit her other nipple with equal enthusiasm.

“Oh... Yes... Yes... Please.” Feigned pleas for mercy became real pleas for more. “Don’t stop, master.”

With that, Skrall levered himself atop her again, pinning her wrists against the bed. She felt the hard pressure of his erection, and hoped that in her excited state she wasn’t underestimating its size. His eyes were hot now, and his voice commanding.

“Who’s your master?” he demanded.

“You are,” she gasped. “You’re my master.”

“Who owns you, slave?”

“You do, master. You do.” Livia’s heart raced at the thrill of the words. Why? She wondered. She’d not be as thrilled were she truly the slave to an orcish warlord, whose cruelty and mercilessness were legendary. Perhaps, however, now in the cabin of her ship, with her willing playmate, she could have the excitement of captivity and ravishment with none of the danger or threat.

Enough, she thought. Back to the game.

“What do you want?” Skrall demanded. His face was twisted into a savage snarl, and the lamplight glinted off his numerous golden earrings. “What does my slave want?”

“I want you to fuck me, master,” Livia whispered, and her sincerity was apparent. “I want you to fuck me as hard as you want.” She felt his erection twitch at that. “And I want to suck you. I want to suck that beautiful huge cock. I want it in my mouth. Please.”

Skrall’s expression did not change. “Please what?”

“Please let me suck your cock. Please fuck my mouth with your cock. I want it so badly.”

“Hm. You beg nicely, slave.”

“For you, master. I beg for you because it pleases you.”

Gods, Livia thought, I do this so well...

Skrall released her, then stepped back off the bed, loosening his breeches.

“On your knees, slave,” he growled. “Suck your master’s cock.”

This is getting cornier by the minute, she thought, dutifully crawling down from the bed, then rising up to her knees, hands sliding up the corded muscles of Skrall’s thighs. Impressed, she gazed for a moment at the orc’s penis, a heavy shaft of greenish flesh standing out from his loins like a Litharnan siege gun. If anything, she’d been overly conservative in her estimate of his size.

“Your cock is so big, master,” she hissed. “Shall I lick it?”

“Yes.”

“Order me to lick it, master.”

“Lick it, slave.”

Livia felt a brief stirring in her stomach, spreading rapidly downward to her thighs and her steadily-moistening cunt.

“Call me a bitch, master. Tell me I’m a bitch.”

“Lick it, bitch.”

“Oh, yes.” She licked up and down the shaft with growing intensity. “Yes. I’m your bitch, master. I’m your slut. I’m your whore. Your whore loves to suck her master’s cock.”

Oh, my... Why did such words excite her so? Forbidden words? Angry words spoken in passion? Cruel words that masked real affection? That even though she played the slave, she was actually the mistress, and could order him to say anything she chose? Livia didn’t know. All she knew was that it made her desire the orcish sailor even more.

Her tongue glided up and down Skrall’s cock, feeling the heat of its engorged flesh. She nibbled gently at the surprisingly soft skin, then licked around his knobby head.

“Mmm,” she said. “More, please. Give your slut more cock.”

Heeding her request, Skrall placed his hand on the back of Livia’s head and pressed it forward, feeding his cock to her with the other. Her lips parted and she felt the hard shaft slide into her mouth. Slowly but steadily she allowed it in, further and further, until it had slipped down her throat and she had swallowed it completely. She held it there for several seconds, teasing it with light nips of her teeth, then let it slide out again, tongue caressing its thick, fleshy length.

“Urrh,” rumbled Skrall. “Good.”

“I’ll give you more,” she whispered, holding the engorged organ in both hands. “Much more.” She fitted her lips around it again, and once more let him thrust deep into her mouth, face tight against the rough bristles of his pubic hair.

“Oh, yeah,” Skrall hissed. “Don’t stop, you little slut...”

Again the master is the one left begging, Livia thought triumphantly. So like a man, first demanding, then begging. Were they really worth all the trouble?

As her head began to bob faster and faster, sliding the great organ in and out, she decided that they probably were. For the moment, at any rate.

A few moments later, Livia squealed incoherently, her face buried in a pillow, as Skrall’s cock pounded into her from behind. His own animalistic sounds joined Livia’s, and soon their voices united in breathless harmony. She felt sweat drip from his forehead down onto her back, and as his pace increased, she rose to meet it, moving backwards with equal enthusiasm as he thrust forward, doubling the almost blinding, numbing sensations of the great prick as it moved in and out, almost an entity in its own right, a heavy muscular rod of inescapable pleasure...

“Ah,” she cried out, feeling tension race through her, the rising fever of oncoming orgasm. “Ah... I’m coming, master... Make me come, please...”

Skrall only snarled in response, roughly grabbing the soft flesh of her buttocks, pulling her to him even faster and harder than Livia had believed possible.

“Oh, your cock, master... I love it... I want it...” Words were torn from her, forced through a constricted throat and savagely bared, clenched teeth. “Fuck me. Fuck me. Fuck me. Fuck me. Make me come. Fuck me, master.”

The merciless pressure of Skrall’s cock only increased, thrusting against the steadily tightening fist of her cunt.

“Want it?” Skrall growled.

“Yes, master, yes!” she wailed back, feeling the faintest edge of final release. “I want it so... so... b... b...”

Then it came, driven over the brink by a final thrust of the thick, heavy cock. Livia collapsed forward, feeling Skrall’s delicious, heavy bulk falling down upon her, his prick slipping out as her cunt contracted, again and again, her cries rising in intensity, then fading off into overheated, weak gasps.

“Oh, Skrall...” she said, faintly, rolling onto her back, feeling sweat streaming from her breasts, pooling on her belly. “Oh, you fucked me so very, very well...”

“Not finished yet,” the orc said, moving astride her, cock still hard, gleaming with her cunt’s warm residue. “Not yet, slave.”

Oh, yes... That “master” business... Livia had to remind herself, since most of her male partners raised no objection to simply being pushed out of bed and told to go finish themselves off by hand once she had had her way with them. Still, she’d started this game and, sated and exhausted though she was, it was her responsibility to finish it.

“Yes, master,” she whispered, pulling a pillow up behind her head and letting Skrall slide his hardness between her lips and thrust into her mouth once more. Oh, well... Perhaps this wasn’t so bad, she thought, feeling her libido soar again as the thick organ began to move in and out of her, encircled by thick, pouting lips, caressed by her long and agile tongue. She sensed the taste of her own cunt along the great cock’s lovely expanse, and it excited her again.

How lovely I taste, she thought. Oh, how sweet it would be to make love to myself. Not simple masturbation, of course — she was well familiar with that. But to actually touch, and kiss, and taste and stroke to another body, one identical to her own... Perhaps there was some kind of magical solution... Livia mentally filed away the notion, and applied herself to Skrall’s waiting erection.

Fortunately for Livia’s neck, the orcish sailor was well along on the road to climax, and the tenor of his moans told her that he didn’t have much farther to travel. She bobbed her head forward and back, stroking the wet shaft with her fingers, groaning with real excitement as he grew closer and closer, feeling the growing throb of her own stimulation as she moved him closer and closer to his final explosion.

You want this so much, she said silently, unable to speak for the thick organ in her mouth. I’m giving you what you want, I’m controlling you, my dearest orcish warlord... Making you give me that lovely hot load, making you fill my mouth with proof of your utter devotion to me... I’ll make you come...

She released the cock, pumping it with her fists. “Come for me, master. Come for your little slut. Show your little whore how much you want her...”

Then she sucked him again, grabbing his buttocks, pulling him in.

“Oh, yes...” he groaned, throwing his head back.

Yes, she thought, yes. Show me now...

Then he came, a hot gush of semen exploding into her mouth. Livia sucked at the pumping organ, swallowing the orc’s copious load, feeling it slide down her throat, feeling the his feverish, convulsive spasms. She sucked at the warm dregs of Skrall’s orgasm and felt the softening prick slip from her mouth, leaving behind a fine trail of semen, and the orc collapsed beside her.

Weakly, idly stroking between her legs and massaging a deliciously sore breast, Livia rolled onto her side to gaze at Skrall. She felt a trickle of the last vestige of Skrall’s semen trickling from one corner of her mouth, but she made no move to wipe it away.

“Oh, my,” she breathed. “You are such a lovely orc...”

Rather than replying, Skrall snored loudly.

Livia frowned in sudden annoyance.

“Stupid fucking male,” she muttered, then rose, wrapped herself in a robe and stalked angrily from her cabin.

XVIII

Wulf

We took on a pair of guides a day out of Brightwater. Two dragonmen wheeled lazily out of the sky, and one alighted on the deck of each ship.

“I am your pilot,” it said, sibilant and polite, like all of its race. “The Stormking bids you tell me the names and races of your crew, your vessel’s capabilities, and allow me to guide you through the maze of storms which my master has created.”

Skrall grunted. “You’re welcome to the wheel, dragonman. As for my crew, I’m damned if I know all their names. I’m Skrall, captain.”

I swallowed. “Chuma,” I said. “First mate.”

The dragonman quietly listened as our crew gave their names, then Skrall sang the Suicide Squid’s praises. I had to leave at that point, since referring to that tub as a “sloop of war” almost sent me into gales of laughter.

Our pilot proved efficient, and two hours later, as the sun sank low on the horizon, Squid led Skate into the unsettled, crowded waters of Brightwater Bay. With our names and the vessel’s ludicrous capabilities committed to his inscrutable draconic mind, he then leaped gracefully into the air, and dwindled, finally disappearing onto the ramparts of a grim gray castle that crouched on a craggy promontory above us.

“Home to our nemesis the Stormking, no doubt,” I muttered to Skrall.

Skrall nodded. He had looked somewhat weary ever since Livia had returned to the Skate. I didn’t have to guess why.

“Quite a fleet he’s got, too,” the orc commented.

“Yeah,” I said, scanning the variety of vessels resting at anchor around us. “I think the Stormking favors quantity over quality, though.”

Skrall agreed. “Might be enough to put a dent in the Sea Griffin fleet, though.”

“Only a dent. He can’t possibly hope to win. What the hell is he thinking?”

“We’re gonna find out real soon.” He looked back up at the castle. “You think your elf-girl is up there?”

“Best place to start,” I said. “Only, I can’t be —”

I bit off my words. Something tickled at the back of my brain — the last time I’d felt it had been on the Princess Xura, when Theanna was being menaced by the Xeshite and his phony priest. I’d commented that Theanna’s allies might have linked us in some way, then had forgotten all about it. Now, the sensation was back, and I knew.

“She’s up there,” I said, quietly. “I can feel her.”

Skrall looked curious. “I guess I’ll have to take your word on it.”

I gritted my teeth. If Theanna was there, where was Li? Was she even alive?

“I need to get a message to her,” I said. “Or at least find out what side she’s on.”

“Hm. Plannin’ on runnin’ the gauntlet to get in? Or maybe you should have Livia give her a call.”

I considered this. I suspected that I could get into the castle — getting out again might be a challenge. And Livia could probably find and communicate with Theanna, while setting off every ward and magical alarm in the castle. Neither course of action was likely to end with me alive and healthy.

“I have a better idea. Hey, Squitter!”

Our resident hairball appeared a moment later, gnawing on what looked like a week-old turnip.

“Yeah, boss?” he chirped, brightly.

“Can you get into that castle?”

“Can I?” He turned and started to scamper toward the railing. “Watch me!”

Skrall grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and dragged him back, his legs still pumping furiously.

“Not yet, hotshot,” he said. “Don’t you want to know what we want you to do there?”

“Who cares?” Squitter replied. “I just wanna get off this barge.”

“Get into the castle and find Theanna,” I said. “Remember her?”

“The snotty elf-bitch? Sure. Ya want me to off her, boss?”

“No!” I barked. “I want you to find out whether she’d being held prisoner or is cooperating with the Stormking.”

Squitter looked confused. “Then should I off her?”

“No. Find Li. Remember Li?”

“The striped pussy? Sure.”

“See if she’s okay. Tell her I’m here if you can. If you can’t, get back here and report.”

“I don’t get it. Don’t I get to off anyone?”

I shook my head. “Scouting mission only, cheese-head. Now get going.”

Squit stepped back and saluted. “Righty-o.”

I was just about to find the bosun and unship the skiff when Squit scampered back to the rail and plunged over the side.

“Squit!” I shouted. “You don’t have to swim all the way!”

“It’s okay, boss! I need a bath anyway!”

Then he was gone in a swirl of dirty water.

“He’s actually swimming in it,” I noted to Skrall. “He’s braver than I thought.”

Squitter

The ratling scrambled up the breakwater at the base of the castle, his small mind running with a dozen different, often conflicting, thoughts.

Darkness had fallen, and clouds obscured the moons, but the air was redolent with smells — the tang of the sea; the sweat of thousands of humans, elves, orcs and others; the sharp scent of freshly-oiled metal; the musk of horses; the heavy odor of leather... And best of all, the delicious essence of rotting vegetables.

After months at sea, Squitter was in heaven.

He gazed up at the soaring walls of Brightwater, grim and grey, obviously built for defense.

“Imposing,” he muttered. “What’s an honest rat to do?”

Nearby, he spied a trail of dirty water, cascading down the wall from a narrow spout. The sewage and waste systems of the castle must simply exit onto the sea. Hardly the route an invading army would take.

But for a large, very intelligent rat...

“What the hell,” Squitter said to himself, jumping nimbly from rock to rock, toward the wall, scanning it for handholds. “I’ve done worse things.”

Slowly, he crawled upward, hands, feet and tail seeking purchase. The nearest spout was a good 30 feet off the ground, so he moved with care.

“Worse things, yeah,” he grunted as he drew nearer to his goal. “I’m sure I’ve done ‘em, but I just can’t remember when right now.”

* * *

It was nearly a half-hour later when a sodden, stinking mass of matted fur crawled painfully out of the kitchen waste floor drain, muttering blackly to himself.

“Go to the castle, he says. Find the elf-bitch, he says. Tell the pussycat that she’s my ‘ittle snuggy-wuggums. And you, you stupid little rat — you listen to him. Bah.”

Moments later, however, Squitter’s frustrations were forgotten as he crept through the empty kitchen, gnawing on discarded foodstuffs. At last, he located a pile of rags and cleaned himself as best he could.

“Good idea,” he muttered. “Elf-boys’ll smell me ‘fore they see me.”

With that, Squitter darted from the kitchen, easing through shadows.

The castle was vast and, even though most of its inhabitants slumbered, Squit still had to dodge patrols on several occasions. Squit had wandered through Brightwater’s labyrinthine corridors for over an hour before he heard the sound of voices.

Yellow light spilled into the corridor from a large conference chamber, where several elves sat around a table, inspecting parchments and talking animatedly. Squitter lurked in an alcove, noting that two grim-looking creatures in the form of black suits of armor flanked the doorway. Dreadguard, Wulf had called them. Not the sort of thing Squit wanted to cross. Besides, he was close enough to hear them. Ratlings, he was proud to remind himself, had excellent hearing.

“Our fleet numbers seventy vessels,” said a tall officer in blue-green sea-elf armor. “Of those, perhaps a third are first-line warships capable of standing against elven craft. Without reinforcement, the Sea Griffin fleet can defeat us easily.”

The individual at the head of the table made Squit shudder. At first he thought it was another Dreadguard, but when a muffled but clearly elven voice echoed from within the gleaming, demonic helm, he realized that there was a living being inside the armor.

“My storms will aid us. Even now they draw together into a great maelstrom. Our fleet will advance with the storm, in the eye where the sea is calm. Though the Lady’s sea-mages will be able to dispel much of the storm’s force, it will nonetheless damage some enemy vessels. Our agents in the Sea Griffin fleet are ready to take command of their ships at the given time, and the Princess’ plea should cause others to come over to our side, or at least waver. I will also summon allies to aid us in battle. Though it is sure to be a near-run thing, we will emerge victorious.” The demon-helm turned to face a tall, slender elven woman. “Lady Lothaera, is Princess Theanna still willing to cooperate?”

The woman replied quietly. “She harbors doubts, My Lord. Nonetheless, I believe that she will do what you ask, if only to spare the lives of her mother and sisters.”

Squit’s ears pricked up at this. Theanna, cooperating with the helmet-boy? Hm. Maybe he would have to off her, after all.

A motion in the corridor behind him caught Squitter’s attention. Glancing into the gloom, he was, for once, shocked at what he saw.

A tall, muscular wolfen walked down the corridor, a leather strap in one hand. Behind him, walking slowly, head down, bound up in a variety of leather straps and buckles, shuffled none other than Wulf’s beloved little cat-girl.

Squitter bit back the urge to squeak “Fuck me,” and instead padded after the pair, hoping he was far enough back for the wolfen not to smell him.

Well, at least she wasn’t here voluntarily, Squit thought.

The wolfen led Li down a side hall, at the end of which a wooden door was guarded by two more of the black-armored horrors. More Dreadguard, Squit thought? Must be important. Maybe her nibs.

The door creaked open, and Theanna appeared, silhouetted in warm light.

“I bring your slave back to you, Lady,” growled the wolfen.

“Thank you, Tanu,” said Theanna, accepting the leash and leading Li into the chamber. The door closed, and the wolfen returned the way he’d come. Squitter ducked away as the wolfen walked past, but the canid’s pace did not slack. A moment later, he was gone.

Squitter sat and fumed for several minutes after that. Damned little elf-bitch... She had gone over to the enemy! And she was keeping the cat-girl all tied up and handing her over to that smelly dog-boy. Squit was forced to admit, with considerable reluctance, that he actually liked Li. Certainly more than the ice princess...

Logic told the ratling to report back to Wulf, tell him that the elf had turned traitor, and that his beloved kitty was held in thrall by the bad guys.

Instincts fought with logic. Squitter fingered the dagger at his belt, and considered the enormity of the elf-princess’ betrayal.

No. He couldn’t go. Not now, with Li bound up and forced to do gods-knew-what. Not now, with the princess for whom Wulf had risked his life ready to stab him and everyone else in the back for her precious Stormking...

The chamber behind Theanna had looked luxurious. Surely, it had its own privy or bath chamber. And that chamber had a drain. Gathering up his resolve, Squitter stood and moved back along the hall, searching for a route to the enemy’s lair. A route, he thought grimly, to vengeance.

Theanna

“Did he hurt you?” she asked, sympathetically as she removed Li’s gag and collar.

“No,” Li replied. “It is beginning to get somewhat tedious, however. I live for the day I can have him bound up, following my orders.”

“There’s that optimism again, love,” Theanna said, helping Li to her feet. “Now, do you care to come to bed?”

Li yawned and stretched, belly rippling, breasts bobbing. “I think I will.”

Theanna opened a chest at the foot of the bed and pulled out a silken garment. “Nightgown?”

“I think not. Ancestors, though, I think these elves have broken me of the habit of wearing clothes. I feel much freer and less encumbered.”

Theanna chuckled. “You’ll be popular in some lands with that outlook.”

Li kissed her lightly on the cheek. “Come to bed, dearest.”

Theanna was about to oblige when a small, blurry form shot from the shadows, squeaking and chittering.

“Bitch! Traitor! I’ll kill you!”

Shock and confusion raced through Theanna’s brain, and she scarcely perceived the nature of the filthy, furred creature atop her, and did nothing to resist as a gleaming, metal blade described a short, murderous arc toward her throat...

Then the weight lifted from her, and when she looked up, Theanna saw a dirty ratling, dagger clasped in one paw, struggling, suspended in the air by Li, whose eyes glowed with feral rage.

“Drop the weapon or die, ratling,” she snarled. “You’ll not harm the elf-woman.”

The ratling stammered a reply. “B... b... but... She’s a traitor! She made you a slave! She’s gonna stab Wulf in the back...”

Then the ratling fell to the floor, and Li was atop him, unsheathed claws held to his throat.

“Wulf? You come from Wulf? Is he still alive?”

“Yeah, yeah,” sqeaked the intruder. “Dontcha remember me? I’m Squit? We helped you get off the ship when the storm hit.”

“Squitter?” demanded Li, releasing him and stepping back. “The little rat from the liner?”

“The same, lady,” he said, grooming himself with an air of annoyance. “Gods. I come to help get you out and you try to gut me.”

“Squitter,” repeated Theanna. “Oh, dearest little thing... I’m so sorry. You misunderstood...”

“Theanna’s no traitor,” Li told him. “She’s cooperating to save her own life, and those of her family.”

“Hm. Come to think of it, I heard the Stormking say something like that a few minutes ago.”

“You saw the Stormking?”

“Not too close. I just hid in the corridor and listen. He’s gettin’ ready to put to sea and take your mother’s fleet down.”

“I know,” Theanna said sadly. “I’ve agreed to support his cause if he spares my mother and sisters.”

“Confidentially, lady, I’d trust that fucker as far as I could throw the White Emperor’s palace.”

“We know,” Li said. “Unfortunately, we’ve no choice right now.”

Between the two of them, Li and Theanna explained events since the storm.

“So it seems that Li was right all along,” Theanna concluded. “Our protector is still alive.”

“Yeah, and he’s down in the harbor along with two ships full of toughs, come to save you and tear the Stormking a new asshole. He’s got some kinda sorceress, too. Blonde babe from Stoneburg.”

“Her name wouldn’t be ‘Livia,’ would it?” Li asked, the faintest trace of a growl in her voice.

“Yeah, that’s her. Livia. One hot mama, if ya know what I mean. Course, I like my women with six tits, ‘stead of just two, but I can appreciate her all the same. She was screwing the captain, I think. Wulf didn’t seem to like it.”

A snarl rumbled deep in Li’s chest. “I look forward to meeting this sorceress.”

“Ooooh, catfight.” Squitter rubbed his paws together with relish. “Can I watch?”

“You’ve got to get word back to Wulf,” Theanna said. “We’re sailing with the tide tomorrow. The Stormking’s flagship is called the Conqueror and he will be commanding from there. If Wulf and his friends can get aboard, they might be able to stop him.”

“I’ll let him know.”

Li sniffed delicately. “Not to pry too much into your professional secrets, ratling, but exactly how did you get in here past the dreadguards.”

“Believe me, sister, you don’t know, you don’t need to know and you don’t want to know,” Squitter replied. “The things I do for that guy. Sheesh.”

“Well, you’re going to have to reverse your route shortly,” said Theanna. “Tell Wulf that I will do whatever I can, though I guarantee nothing. We may not be able to communicate again, but at least we know he’s safe.”

“And you’re not a traitor,” Squitter noted, jamming his dagger back into his belt. “Sorry ‘bout the misunderstanding, yer ladyship.”

“Never mind. Just get to Wulf.”

“And tell him I love him,” Li said.

“He says he loves you, too, by the way,” Squit said. “I forgot to tell you.” Though Wulf had not actually mentioned such a message, Squitter felt it was only right. He was gratified when Li smiled.

“I knew it. I knew he would return. Tell him we’ll fight. We won’t let him down.”

“Good,” Squit said, standing and bowing briefly. “Now, if you will excuse me, I’m outta here.”

Theanna sat wordlessly after he vanished.

“So you see that sometimes hope is rewarded,” Li told her. “Now, at least we have a chance.”

“Yes,” Theanna replied. “If we have the courage to take it. Gods only know whether I do.”

“You will take it, beloved. For me. For Wulf. For your mother. You will take it.”

“Will I?” Theanna asked, forlornly. “Will I truly?”

Wulf

“So she’s goin’ along for the time being, but she’s not sure what she’s gonna do when the time comes.”

I took the news as calmly as I could. Squitter was a dripping mess, but had insisted on reporting immediately.

“He’s right.” Skrall handed me a parchment. “We just received orders to sail with the tide tomorrow morning.”

I resisted the urge to express wonder that Skrall could actually read, and instead replied, “That means we don’t have much time. Better have someone wake up Livia. Tell her it’s council of war time.”

“I’ll go,” offered Skrall.

“Nope,” I told him. “Send Kwy. If you went into her bedroom, you’d never come out.”

Skrall growled in protest, but agreed. Moments later, our mruti bo’sun was winging his way toward the Skate and I was gathering the rest of our leaders.

As Skrall and I made our way to his cabin, collecting the still-greenish Shardin on the way, I wondered how we would ever get out of all this. Our meeting wasn’t to plan strategy so much as to see if anyone had any better ideas than I did.

Tomorrow, we would sail, ready or not, and ride toward an uncertain destiny. How it would end, and whether we had the faintest trace of a chance against the Stormking remained to be seen.

At this point, I thought with a sinking heart, I had no reason to be optimistic.

Lothaera

Sleep eluded the elvish sorceress. Images of the faceless Stormking and of the wide-eyed vulnerability of Princess Theanna swam in her mind, with her master’s words an echoing counterpoint.

“We’d have had her cooperation one way or another, sorceress. Our promise was easily given. Whether it will be kept, well... We should see how cooperative the Lady and her family prove before we make any further commitments.”

Lothaera knew the truth of it... Once she was no longer useful to him, Theanna would die, along with her mother and sisters.

Suddenly, she was bolt upright, her mind filled with sudden resolution.

Lothaera stepped out of bed, wrapping herself in a robe, and strode deliberately from her bedchamber.

Theanna

Lothaera’s expression was troubled, ominous.

“Don’t worry,” she whispered urgently. “The Stormking can’t hear us now. I’ve cast a minor ward to protect us. Besides, I think he’s sleeping now.”

“What’s wrong?” Theanna asked, sleepy and uncertain. Beside her, the cat-woman slept soundly — Lothaera had taken pains not to wake her.

Lothaera’s eyes brimmed with tears, and in a few moments, her fears came spilling out.

“I don’t think he will keep his promise to you. I don’t think he will save your mother or your sisters. And...” She faltered. “I think he means to kill you, as well. He is not so foolish as to leave potential rivals alive.”

Theanna felt a faint trace of shock, but her lover had simply confirmed what she had long suspected.

She did not reply immediately, only gazed thoughtfully around the room.

“What do you advise I do?” she asked at last.

“I don’t know, dearest,” Lothaera replied sadly. “We are both his prisoners, truly, and without friends.”

Theanna’s eyes narrowed. Her heart urged her to trust Lothaera, though common sense screamed otherwise. At last, she made her decision.

“I have friends, Lothaera,” she said. “They are in the harbor. Perhaps they can help us.”

Wulf

I was just in the middle of arguing with Skrall over whether we should just snatch Theanna and Li then run like scared rabbits or die heroically trying to single-handedly defeat the Stormking. You can probably guess which position I was advocating.

“That flagship is going to be sewed up tighter than a monk’s asshole,” I said, using my natural talent for vivid description. “I say we sneak on board tomorrow when the fleet’s at anchor, grab the women, and get the hell out.”

“Gods dammit, Wulf,” snarled the orc. “We’re in it for the profit, aren’t we? What the hell point is there in sneaking around in the dark then leaving before the real battle begins?”

“Well, let me think,” I said, counting on my fingers. “One, we’ll still be alive. Two, we’ll still be alive. Three...”

Livia interrupted me, pointing. “Wulf! Look!”

A silvery shimmer swirled in the center of the cramped chamber. Shardin jumped up, yelping in surprise and fear, while Squit bristled and squeaked angrily.

Before I or our two sorcerers could react with a counterspell, the shimmer resolved itself into a familiar form, one which I hadn’t seen in weeks. Though she was only a magically created image, I felt relieved and almost — gods help me — glad to see her.

“Wulf!” cried Theanna, eyes dancing with glad recognition. She was clad in a silken robe, and her eyes were red with tears, but otherwise she looked healthy.

“Princess!” I felt a sudden rush of emotion that I hadn’t expected. “I never thought you’d actually be glad to see me.”

“More than glad,” she replied, urgently. “I’m sorry for everything I’ve said and done to you, but time is short, and we can discuss that later.”

“Is Li there?”

“Yes. She is well and sends her love.”

I nodded and waved a hand around my room. “My friends. Introductions can come later, too.”

“Yes. Please, listen closely. We’ve little time.”

We listened as she raced through the last few weeks’ events. My apprehension grew as she described the Stormking’s plans for the Sea Griffin fleet.

“Damn,” growled Skrall when she finished.

“We’ll never be able to stop him,” commented Shardin. “I think you’re right, Wulf. We need to get the women out and get the hell away from here.”

“No!” barked Skrall and Udo in unison.

“I wanna kill elves!” the dwarf complained.

“Then you’re dumber than you look,” replied Squit. “I’m with Wulf. Leave the ear-boys to kill each other.”

Theanna’s voice cut through the hubbub. “Wait! I have a plan!”

We fell silent, looking at the princess’ image as it hovered and sparkled in the center of the room.

I shrugged. “One plan’s as good as another. Let’s hear it, highness.”

When she finished, I didn’t feel terribly reassured.

“Whaddya think?” Skrall asked eagerly. “It should work.”

“Yeah, right,” I said dubiously.

“I must go now,” Theanna said. “The Stormking might discover that I’m talking to you. You may do as you wish, Wulf, but regardless of your actions, I will do what I said I will do. My honor demands no less.”

I stood, anger and frustration surging.

“You’ll be killed if you act on your own! You can’t —”

“I must go. Follow your heart, Wulf.”

Then she was gone, and we were left gaping.

Livia looked at me. “I guess that’s it. If we don’t help, she’s going to get herself killed. Her only chance is if we help her.”

“A slim chance,” I said, gloomily. “And if she’s killed, so is Li.”

“But if we fail, we’re all dead.” Shardin’s voice rose with panic. “What she’s suggesting is suicide!”

Suicide, ha!” Udo made a fist. “Suicide is for cowards. We die in battle like good warriors! That’s not suicide! That’s glory, and we’ll all drink in the gods’ ale-hall after! Come on, orc! I’m with you even if these cowards aren’t!”

“I’m captain here,” Skrall said, with grim finality. “And I say we follow the elf-woman’s plan. It’s all we have.”

I knew better than to argue. The thought of jumping ship and sailing off with Livia crossed my mind as the meeting broke up, but I knew that I wouldn’t.

My honor, to quote Theanna, demanded no less.

* * *

The fleet sailed out the next morning, riding at the eye of a great storm, heading northeast toward the ancient Elven Isles.

“The last time I headed this way, I almost ended up dead,” I told Skrall. “Let’s hope history doesn’t repeat itself.”

“Hmf,” snorted Skrall. “I heard you killed a lot of Thrazz’s boys. I always hated that fucker.”

I sighed inwardly with relief.

“You ready for this?” I asked.

Skrall patted the double-bladed battle axe which hung at his side. “I was born ready, human.”

“Yeah, yeah,” I grumbled. “Do you think we’ve got any chance at all?”

“Hm. We don’t think that way, Wulf. Either we live or we don’t. And if we don’t, well, I guess we’ll all meet in the mead hall of the gods and get drunk together.”

“You sound like a Cold Island berserker, Skrall. I’ve never managed to be that fatalistic. I like living too much.”

“You prefer life in this world to life with the gods, Wulf? Why?”

I shrugged. “The gods hate me now. What are the odds that they’ll like me any better after I’m dead?”

Skrall looked puzzled. “You are one weird motherfucker, Wulf, you know that?”

I threw up my hands. “Great. I’m getting called ‘weird’ by a damned orc.”

Skrall grinned. “Don’t worry, Wulf. All my friends are weird.”

XIX

Livia

Night fell over the fleet. Lights twinkled, illuminating the motley assemblage of rugged pirate sloops, converted merchants, and the handful of real warships which now sailed to battle the ships of the elven queen. The Stormking’s maelstrom swirled around them, sheltering them as they advanced. Livia reflected that it was impossible for the elves not to be aware of the Stormking’s approach, given the hurricane’s unnatural trajectory. The Sea Griffin fleet was certain to be on its way to intercept.

And then...

She sighed. Theanna had revealed much of the Stormking’s plan, though several gaps remained. Who were these mysterious “allies” whom the Stormking intended to summon? What other forces did he hold in reserve?

Theanna had not known the answers. What she had known, however, was significant — the identity of all the elven vessels that harbored traitors. Robbing the Stormking of his turncoats in the Sea Griffin fleet might be a telling blow, and swing the battle decisively against him. If the traitors succeeded, Wulf’s chances of success would be much less. The desperate attempt to take the Stormking’s flagship might fail, and with it...

Livia shuddered, both at her fear for Wulf, and for her own growing realization that she truly cared about what happened to the ragged outlaw.

Gods damn it, she thought to herself. I refuse to fall in love again. I refuse to bind myself to anyone, to rely on others. I am Livia, and I swore that I would never depend on another as long as I lived.

But Wulf, urged a tiny voice inside her. Wulf loves you, though you don’t want to truly believe it.

Yes, she thought. Wulf loves me, and would never deny me anything. Such devotion and loyalty could not be ignored. She had to help him as much as she could. It was the least she could do for someone she...

Her mind choked on the next word, and Livia thrust such concerns out of her mind.

“All right, Shardin,” she said abruptly. “You got that spell ready?”

The thin wizard stepped from the shadows, nodding.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked. “You’ll have to swim all the way through the maelstrom and find the elven fleet. There are orcas and sharks out there, you know.”

“I’m not stupid, Shardin,” she snapped. “I’m just not very good at transformational magic yet. That’s why I asked for your help. Now are you going to do it or not?”

“I don’t know, Livia. I’m not sure whether I can... I mean, I don’t think I’m good enough.”

Livia rolled her eyes. “Damn straight you’re good enough, Shardin. I can smell potential a mile away, and if you put your mind to it you will be one hell of a mage. What is your problem, anyway?”

“I’m just not sure of myself, Livia. My father wanted me to stay home, be a cooper. Said I wasn’t cut out to be a wizard and live like a vagabond. I guess all these years I’ve secretly thought he was right.”

“Well it’s time that you started considering that he was wrong, Shardin. We’ve got a battle coming up that might change the world, and you’re one of the few people who can affect it. You want the Lady to win as much as I do. Now cast the spell or get the hell out of my life, got it?”

Shardin nodded with sudden resolve. “Okay. It’s against my better judgment, but...” He didn’t finish the sentence, instead holding his hands out and beginning a series of spellcasting gestures. “Now prepare yourself, please.”

Livia took a deep breath, closed her eyes briefly, then shed her robe, standing naked on the foredeck, the dark sea behind her.

Shardin spared only an instant to admire her. Despite his apparent cowardice, the wizard was a professional, and knew what he had to do.

Mystic syllables writhed from his lips, combining with the glowing lines sparking from his waving fingers, and an instant later, a cocoon of brilliant light encircled Livia. Burning sensations streaked up and down her skin, making her cry out. She felt her body elongating, stretching into a new form, her limbs shortening and fusing, her head vanishing into a smooth grey cylindrical body.

When the spell was almost complete, Livia threw herself over the railing, and the black water rushed up to meet her. She struck it and plunged downward, feeling a million new sensations and the caress of the sea against her new flesh.

“Good luck, Livia!” Shardin cried. “I’ll tell Captain Kamaz that she’s in charge until you return.”

A rude squeaking sound replied, and the slim, graceful form of a dolphin streaked away from the Skate.

“Good luck, Livia,” Shardin repeated, softly. “I hope my father was wrong about me.”

Theanna

The night was a wilderness of velvety black, save for the faint twinkle of lights from nearby ships. Theanna’s view was limited to a small porthole in Lothaera’s cabin, amidships on the Conqueror, and her heart was so heavy, she did not care to even look at the fleet, lest she be reminded of the slaughter to come and lose her nerve.

Besides, Lothaera was here, making love to her with a fierce resolution, far stronger and more passionate than she had ever done before. Already, Theanna’s nipples ached from the intense attentions of Lothaera’s teeth and fingers.

“Mmmm, my pretty princess,” Lothaera murmured, stroking open Theanna’s thighs, touching the blooming petals of her vulva with insistent fingers. “I’d no idea I’d love you so much.”

“I’d no idea either,” Theanna gasped, cupping her breasts and squeezing her still sore nipples as the other woman’s long fingers urgently caressed her soft flesh, trailing between her moist outer lips and touching the sensitive surface of her inner reaches. Theanna’s clit began to throb uncontrollably, fired even more by the deep emotions she felt.

“Please, please, put your fingers in me,” she said, pressing her breasts together and stroking. “Please, please, Lothaera.”

Lothaera sighed, but did not comply, simply stroking the outer lips faster and more firmly.

“Oh, pretty princess, I want you to remember this, and to remember me. I want this night to echo in your thoughts when you are queen and the lands of the elves bow down to you.”

“I’ll never be queen,” Theanna replied. “I’ll never rule anyone. I don’t want them. I want you.”

“You want me?” Lothaera smiled up at her between the white expanses of her spread thighs. “Me and no one else?”

“I want Li, too,” Theanna admitted. “I want my tiger-woman, too. But I don’t want her now. I want you now. I want you to make love to me now, and never, ever stop.”

“I fear even I can’t fulfill such a request,” Lothaera said, regretfully. Her fingers moved faster now, occasionally touching the burning nub of Theanna’s desire, sending shocks from her clitoris to her head and back again. “We’ve only tonight, you and I. Then, for better or worse, we must part.”

Theanna wanted to reply, to beg the elven sorceress to stay with her, to live with her and Li and leave the pain of the world behind, but she could not. All she could manage was a deep, heart-felt moan as Lothaera’s middle finger finally penetrated her, cleaving aside wet, clinging tissue and stroking deep inside her.

“Ahhhhh...” The sound rose up unbidden, and Theanna felt her back arch and hips thrust, moving to meet Lothaera’s thrusts. “Ah, Lothaera... Oh, I love that so much...”

Lothaera grinned wickedly. “Then you’ll like this.” A second finger joined the first, sliding in and out of Theanna’s sopping cunt, then a third.

“You like it, my sweet?” Lothaera hissed, mouth open, lips wet, eyes locked with Theanna’s. “You love it?”

“Yes, Lothaera.” The words were barely coherent, intermingled with an underlying moan of desire. “Yes, I love it. Put your fingers in me.”

Lothaera complied, thrusting the three fingers in and out for several long minutes, pressing against the steadily-tightening resistance of Theanna’s cunt. The throb of her cunt grew to near unbearable intensity, and the timbre of Theanna’s moans grew to a razor-edged cry of heartfelt longing.

“Oh, Lothaera, Lothaera. Oh, please...”

“Want more?” Lothaera asked. “More fingers in your cunt?”

Theanna stiffened, sensing her coming orgasm, and wanting it to last forever. “Yes. Put them all in. Put your whole hand inside me.”

Four fingers, now, tightly pressed together by Lothaera’s sopping, ever-tightening inner reaches. Lothaera’s hands were long, slender and delicate, typical of her race, but now they seemed to fill Theanna deeper than she had ever been filled.

“M... m... more. More, please...”

Then at last, grinning fiercely, Lothaera slipped her thumb into the pink softness of Theanna’s cunt, hot juices slathering her hand. The younger elf’s cunt clamped down upon her hand, muscular contractions almost painful. She pulled out, then thrust her hand in once more, feeling the tightness recede slightly. Another thrust... Each time, Lothaera’s hand slipped further inside Theanna, until...

“Oh. Oh. Oh, Lothaera...!” Her last portal breached, Theanna bucked and writhed again, clawing at her breasts, squeezing her nipples, face frozen in a grimace of pleasure, eyes screwed shut, lips pursed, pale cheeks flushed pink, sweat beading on her forehead, dripping from her golden hair...

Lothaera’s hand vanished completely up to the wrist between Theanna’s cunt lips, and deep inside her, the princess felt her lover’s hand ball into a fist, filling her completely, straining the walls of her cunt, sending her tumbling at last into a bottomless pit of release, her muscles contracting, shocks of agonizing pleasure streaking through her...

“Ohhhh... OHHHHHHHH... I... I... I love you, Lothaera...” Theanna’s lips trembled, her eyes flickered wildly. “I love you so, Lothaera... I... I...” She went limp, collapsing on the bed like a cast-off rag, cunt still filled with Lothaera’s hand.

She cried out once as Lothaera pulled out, then threw her arms around the older woman’s shoulders, raining kisses on her face, holding her close. Lothaera’s small breasts and their knobby, swollen nipples pressed against Theanna’s large, pink-topped mounds, and their bodies intertwined like two ancient trees.

“I love you, Lothaera,” Theanna repeated, voice trailing off as exhaustion swept over her. “I love you. Never leave me. Never.”

“I won’t, darling,” Lothaera assured her, holding her as she slid off into unconsciousness. “I will always be with you.” Her voice grew lower, laced with sorrow, as if she knew that she was lying, but did so nonetheless. “I’ll always be with you.”

Livia

Admiral Nae’mitz of the Sea Griffin fleet stared curiously at his visitor. He was an old elf, millennia old, with deep grey eyes and silver hair. He wore enchanted leather armor embossed with the images of octopi and bore a sword called Nulethrea, or Ocean’s Treasure.

The visitor was a human woman and, if you liked that sort of thing, quite attractive. She stood, naked and shivering before him, white skin tinged bluish, nipples hardening in the cold air, then smiled gratefully as a mariner brought her a cloak. His crew had fished her out of the water as the fleet advanced on the mysterious maelstrom, and she had demanded to see him. Naked and clearly unarmed, she posed no obvious threat, and his sea-mages assured him that she was what she appeared, though until recently she had apparently been a dolphin.

“You wished to speak with me, human?” Nae’mitz asked, standing in what he hoped was an impressive pose upon the forecastle of his flagship, the Kraken.

“Yes, My Lord,” the woman said in passable elvish. “My name is Livia, and I am a sorceress. I come bearing a warning of grave danger.”

“I imagine that it relates to the great maelstrom which my fleet is at this time tracking.” Nae’mitz gestured toward the whirling column of black clouds that filled the horizon, blocking out the light of the rising sun.

“It does, my lord. The maelstrom conceals the fleet of the usurper you call the Stormking.”

Nae’mitz stared in sudden horror. “If you are lying, woman —”

“I speak the truth. Tell your mages to dispel the clouds, ask the merfolk. They will confirm my story. I sailed with the Stormking, but I am no friend of his. I bring you information that may save your fleet.”

The admiral looked skeptical, but bade her continue.

“There are traitors on some of your ships, My Lord. When the Stormking sends word, they will take over their vessels and turn them against you. Combined with the Stormking’s magic, this may be enough to defeat your fleet.”

“No.” Nae’mitz’s denial was emphatic. “My mariners are loyal.”

“Most are, Lord, but a few traitors lurk in your midst, in important positions. They plan to take over the ships Waverunner, Gullwing, Sea Dragon, and six others. That is nearly a third of your fleet, Lord, sufficient to cripple you.”

Nae’mitz did not reply, but turned away to gaze at the oncoming storm. At length he turned and barked an order to the Kraken’s captain, who stood nearby, resplendent in her aquamarine sea-elven chain and orca’s-head helm.

“Have the human give you a complete list of the vessels she claims will be attacked by traitors,” he said. “Send their captains to me, and be quick. The storm will be upon us in a few hours.”

“Thank you, Lord,” Livia said, bowing, surprisingly dignified and proud despite her nudity.

“Don’t thank me yet, woman.” The admiral’s voice was grim. “If you are lying, or if you are an agent of the Stormking sent to cast unwarranted suspicion on loyal vessels, you will pay for your deceit.”

“You will find that I speak the truth, Admiral,” Livia said, and a shiver ran through her, raising goosebumps, and her nipples poked alluringly against the pale silk of her wet cloak. “Now, would it be at all possible to find me warmer clothing? I feel no shame at my condition, but I am damnably cold.”

Nae’mitz nodded. “Of course, Lady. Forgive my rudeness.”

Damn him, Livia thought. The elf seems completely unmoved by me.

Bloody ear-boys.

Wulf

Grey dawn leaked through the wall of clouds which surrounded the fleet. Dragonmen fell from the sky, dropping precipitously, exhausted by climbing above the storm to observe the enemy fleet. They swarmed to land upon the Conqueror, the Stormking’s black flagship, which sailed less than a half-league distant.

We were about as ready as we were ever going to be. Suicide Squid moved ponderously through the waves, while Skate glided gracefully along beside us, a lithe cheetah beside a wallowing hippo. All around us, our rag-tag fleet prepared for battle.

I scanned my companions, running over the plan in my mind once more. The Squid’s crew stood about, arrayed with a motley collection of weapons and armor, while their captain stood beside me, bare-chested, clad in breeches and boots, legs spread wide against the roll of the deck, his great axe poised. He grinned at me.

“Ready, Pinkie?”

“I was born ready, tusk-face.”

“Yeah!” grunted Udo. He was clad in impractical chain mail and helm, clutching an ugly warhammer. He reeked of liquor, and I hoped he would be steady enough to board the Conqueror without going straight into the drink.

Squit clung to the rigging nearby. Like Skrall, he was traveling light, in ragged black breeches, with a brace of daggers jammed into his rope belt.

“Whatcha lookin’ at, Wolf-boy?” he chittered angrily. “You just watch yourself and don’t make me come and bail you out!”

“Don’t worry, furball. I’ll save all the cheese I find for you!”

“Aw, fuck off,” he spat back which I concluded was as close to “Be careful, my friend” as he was capable of coming.

My armor was somewhere between Squit’s and Udo’s, consisting of a leather breastplate, greaves, parrying glove and rapier, and I had taken the liberty of preparing a couple of minor spells that would at least keep my limbs attached to my body.