IAN LEANED over the railing as the morning sunlight warmed his shoulders. A few feet away, Taren wrapped a blanket around the shivering boy, who sat with his knees hugged to his chest. He tenderly ruffled the boy’s fiery red hair. The boy leaned into Taren’s touch and made a satisfied sound much like the purr of a cat.
Not a boy, Ian reminded himself. Bastian. An Anuki. The heavenly brethren of the Ea. A dragon shifter reborn from the ashes. True, this freckle-faced dragon child looked nothing like the full-fledged beast who’d nearly killed them the day before, but they knew little of the Anuki. Had it only been a day since Seria’s men had attacked them and they’d lost Rider to Seria’s bullet?
Ian met Taren’s gaze and his grief eased slightly. Taren smiled back, his warm brown eyes hooded with exhaustion and grief, his shoulder-length hair having dried in a tumble of waves. From where he sat on the deck, Bastian watched Odhrán, keenly interested. The sphere they’d discovered not long after the destruction of the Sea Witch—an egg, Ian now knew—had dissolved beneath the water. Bastian had been choking and spluttering when Odhrán had carried him aboard. Since then, Bastian had done little but watch Odhrán with rapt attention.
Like a baby bird watches its mother. Ian frowned at his folly. How easy it was to forget this pathetic creature had destroyed the Sea Witch and nearly killed them all. If Odhrán hadn’t killed the dragon Bastian had become, they’d all have died. And yet Bastian had been reborn.
Bastian glanced up at Taren, blinked several times, then shifted his gaze back to Odhrán, who spoke in hushed tones to one of his crew. The long blond braid down Odhrán’s back dripped onto the deck and left the back of his woolen jacket sodden. Despite the bright blue of his eyes and his youthful features, Odhrán appeared as exhausted as Ian felt.
“A moment of your time?” Ian said after the crewmember trotted off toward the stairs, leaving the four of them alone on the foredeck.
Odhrán nodded and followed Ian amidships, far enough away that Bastian wouldn’t hear.
“Do you think this is wise?” Ian asked with a quick glance back at Taren and Bastian.
“What would you have me do? Leave him to drown?” Odhrán, too, appeared weary. Ian knew he still regretted having killed the fully transformed Bastian.
“He couldn’t live without Rider.” Taren’s words echoed in Ian’s mind. Rider—Ian’s oldest friend—had taken a bullet in Ian’s stead. There’d been no time to grieve.
“No.” Ian sighed. “Rider would have wanted us to care for him.” Taren would never have forgiven him for suggesting they leave Bastian to drown, and they’d lost too much to even consider it.
Odhrán nodded curtly and turned his gaze eastward. Now calm in the wake of the storm, the water sparkled with sunlight. Nothing remained of the Sea Witch but a few bits of broken timbers floating restlessly on the waves. Later, all of the men now aboard the Chimera would gather on the deck to remember the Witch’s captain, but for just a moment, Ian could almost imagine Rider at the wheel of his beloved ship.
I’ll miss you, old friend. More than you’ll ever know.
Ian shrugged off his dark thoughts and walked back to Taren. “You should get some sleep.” He squeezed Taren’s shoulder. “Odhrán and I will not let Bastian out of our sight.”
Taren pressed his lips together and nodded. How tired Taren must be that he didn’t even argue!
“I’ll join you in a bit.” Ian pressed his lips to Taren’s warm cheek.
Taren retrieved the blanket that had fallen off Bastian’s shoulders and wrapped it around him again. Naked as Bastian was beneath, Ian caught a glimpse of the wings they’d seen when they’d discovered him on the ocean floor. No longer scaled as they’d been when they’d first pulled Bastian from the water, Bastian’s wings were now covered with feathers and shimmered red, yellow, orange, and fuchsia, iridescent in the sunlight.
“I’ll be back later,” Taren told Bastian with a barely repressed yawn. “I promise.”
Bastian’s eyes revealed little understanding. Had he forgotten everything of his former life? Perhaps he was still too overwhelmed from the shock of the past day’s events to fully comprehend his situation. He’d not uttered a word since they’d brought him aboard.
Taren kissed Ian—a fleeting kiss, but one Ian needed to reassure himself that all had not changed—before heading belowdecks to rest.
Ian met Odhrán at the bow. “He’s like a fledgling,” Ian said, inclining his head in Bastian’s direction, “watching you like a bird might his mother.”
Odhrán’s brow knitted. He’d clearly noticed it as well. “I’ve asked Garan to reinforce the enchantments on the ship’s masts and sails. There’s nothing more to be done.”
“Aye. But if Bastian threatens the ship—”
“Then I’ll be forced to subdue him. Not a prospect I relish, although in his current state, he appears far less powerful than before.” Odhrán studied Bastian once again. “For now, at least, he’s content to be in our company.”
“What do you know of the Anuki?”
“They’re much like the Ea in their ability to shift to human form. I met one centuries ago, but he was nothing like this. Not a child. But what happened with Bastian….”
“Reborn from the ashes.” Ian’s heart ached once again for the loss of Rider.
“My time with one of their kind was brief.” Odhrán stared past Ian as if remembering.
Ian didn’t press the issue. Later, perhaps, he’d ask Odhrán about that encounter. “And his memories of his life with Rider?”
Odhrán shook his head. “I don’t know. I suppose only time will tell.”
Ian clenched his jaw. The realization that Bastian might not remember anything of his love for Rider made Ian’s grief that much greater.
“You wish to speak to me about Taren,” Odhrán said.
“Aye.” Ian still dreaded the conversation. “I had hoped that now that you’ve seen my thoughts, you might be more inclined to discuss his future. That you might trust my motivations.”
Ian chuckled and shook his head. Much as Odhrán could read Ian’s thoughts now, Ian had been able to hear Odhrán’s thoughts when Odhrán had transformed. Then Ian had sensed nothing other than Odhrán’s concern for Taren’s well-being and his hope for the same deep friendship with Taren that he’d shared with Treande centuries before.
“What do you find so amusing?” Odhrán asked irritably.
“Your belief that either of us have any say in Taren’s future.” Ian drew a long breath and ran a hand through his hair. “If there’s anything I’ve learned throughout this ordeal, it’s that much as I might wish to direct his actions, Taren will do what he feels is right. I underestimated his strength and his conviction. I won’t do that again.”
“Aye. In that way he is much like Treande was.” The hint of a smile played on Odhrán’s lips, and he relaxed visibly. “It seems I underestimated you too, Captain.”
Ian shrugged. “It’s a lesson I’ve been slow to learn.” He saw nothing lost in the admission. “I’m fortunate he has a forgiving heart.”
“What do you know of Taren’s abilities?”
“Other than his gift of sight, I know very little.” Ian suspected Taren’s gifts stretched far beyond his ability to sense the past, although he’d tried to push those thoughts aside.
“But you’ve sensed his command of the wind.”
“Aye.” Ian’s gut clenched as it often did when he thought of Taren’s powers. He drew a long breath and imagined his fear floating away on the waves.
Odhrán glanced over at Bastian, then back at Ian once more. “Taren was meant to recover the stone and wield it.”
Odhrán spoke the truth Ian already knew in his heart. Still, the words left him cold. “And what of it?” he demanded, more out of fear and exhaustion than out of anger.
“If we’re to reach the Eastern Lands ahead of the storms, we may need his help.”
“The Eastern Lands? You intend to sail there?” Ian had all but expected Odhrán would deposit them on the mainland and return to his island stronghold.
“I have no need to return now.” Odhrán offered Ian a smile, and Ian realized he’d underestimated Odhrán yet again. “Taren believes the answers you seek are in the lands where the dragons once ruled. I’m inclined to agree. Besides, it’s high time I returned to face my past.”
BY THE time Ian headed belowdecks a short time later, Bastian was curled up asleep in a pile of blankets not far from Odhrán’s side, his head tucked beneath a wing like a bird. “I will keep watch,” Odhrán said stiffly. “Should he speak or need Taren’s attentions,” he added as he shifted from one foot to the other and rubbed the back of his neck, “I’ll have one of my men wake you both.”
Ian undressed and slipped naked between the blankets. Taren rolled over and wrapped his arms around Ian, murmuring in his sleep. It was not Owyn’s name Taren spoke, as he had on many an occasion, but Ian’s. Ian sighed and kissed Taren’s forehead.
“We will do this together, love,” he whispered. “You and I.”