Lord Cariad of Kenworth kept his focus on the paper in front of him and ignored the busyness of the sailors around him. With the lateness of the day, the beating hot sun wasn’t as much of a danger to his fair skin, and he prized any time he could take on deck. Spending most of the voyage below in the small cabin he shared with two junior officers was depressing, and the confined space was stifling. At least up here there was a cool breeze, even if it was also populated with large men who made him uncomfortable. Not that any of them dared look sideways at him… They all believed he warmed the captain’s bed, which was a ridiculous assumption, given that he was only ever in the man’s cabin alone with him to go over his latest maps. He supposed men didn’t need much time to fuck, although why anyone would seek an activity that made one even more sticky and sweaty was beyond him.
As he hunched over the images he etched on his paper, a shadow fell over them. He stiffened only a moment, then forced himself to relax again. “Good afternoon, Captain.” He only glanced up at the man before returning his gaze to his drawing.
“What is this you do?” There was censure in the tone.
Cariad chose to ignore the disapproval. “It’s important to memorialize what we find.” He did look up now at the captain’s stern face. “When people wonder what the fight with the Swarm was all about, drawings such as these will speak more loudly of the horror than mere words.”
He gazed at his drawing again, his stomach tightening at the images he drew of the death and destruction the Swarm had wrought on the small island village they’d come across the day before. Everything had been decimated, with buildings burned and bodies of mostly fighting-aged men littering the ground. The rest of the inhabitants had vanished, no doubt carried off by the Swarm to become slaves or sacrifices. Even the livestock had been slaughtered and butchered. The sight of so much savagery had haunted his thoughts and dreams all night. He had to do something to help, and this was all he could think of.
The captain grunted. “I should never have let you join my men in their exploration. It was obvious from the wrecked ships that the Swarm had been there. You have too delicate of a nature to see such things.”
“I appreciate your concern, sir, but I am stronger than I look.” Opening the top of his lap desk, he stuck the drawing in with the rest of his sketches and closed it again, hoping it would put an end to the discussion.
The captain chuckled. “I imagine you are…with the right incentive. But soft, as well, yes? Where it counts,” he added, the lecherous implication clear.
Cariad swallowed back a retort. He walked a fine line on this ship, keeping the man in charge at arm’s length while not doing anything that could lead to punishment for insolence. Not that he worried overly much about his own safety… As a nobleman and cousin to the king, he was protected from any overt violence, but his work mattered. If the captain confined him to his quarters, mapping out these waters accurately would become impossible. He needed to see everything around him with a clear view to draw accurate maps.
As he’d found it useful to deflect, he asked a question that kept swirling inside his head. “Sir, how do you suppose the Swarm managed to sink so many boats?” The small island harbor had been littered with broken pieces of wood, submerged sterns and sails torn to shreds.
“I don’t know.” The man’s tone indicated that Cariad had been successful. He was now thinking of his duty and not his loins. “I’ve never seen the like, and I have waged battles on the sea many times. It’s disturbing. If I don’t know what the danger is, I can’t protect my ship and men.”
A letch he may be, but the captain was good at his duty, keeping a tightly run ship with a fair yet firm hand. He hadn’t been indifferent to the death and destruction his men had reported back to him. And he did seem to appreciate the work Cariad did, praising his skill, even if he did so with a leer more often than not.
Sensing that it was a good time to take his leave, Cariad stood. “I should get washed for supper.”
Ambrose’s gaze slid down his body. “An excellent idea, my lord. You have sweated through your shirt.”
Cariad resisted the urge to hunch his shoulders to hide the spots that stuck to the skin of his chest. He didn’t understand why the sight of his skinny frame would be enticing to anyone. As far as he was concerned, he didn’t have the body to interest men…or women, for that matter. He resented the fact that he was supposed to want such attention at all. “Yes, sir. I’ll see you at your table later.”
“Excellent. And afterward I want you to stay with me to go over some of your most recent maps.”
“As you wish, Captain.” As a dance, this was getting tedious. Most every night, the man made up some reason for Cariad to stay later with him. It led to pressure on him to drink and get chummy, with the obvious goal of getting him into bed. The entire effort was tiresome, but there was no way to avoid it without causing significant resentment.
He’d taken only one step toward the hatchway when the lookout’s cry sounded from his perch high up on the mast. “Ship ahoy!” Then he said something that caused Cariad’s blood to freeze. “The Swarm.”
There was a moment when everyone around him froze from the news. The captain was the first to leap into action. “Battle stations!” Grabbing Cariad by the shoulder, he gave him a shove. “Go to my cabin. Sean is there setting my table. Keep him with you. Bolt the door shut and don’t come out, no matter what. Now!” he added when Cariad didn’t move fast enough.
With his heart in his throat, Cariad scrambled to obey, even as his mind reeled at the sudden turn of events. He’d been out in these waters for a long time and never had they spotted a Swarm ship. They were a scouting clipper, meant to be fast and nimble. And while the crew were trained to fight, he thought they would have trouble holding their own against the vicious warriors of the Swarm. Their best hope was to outrun them. But as soon as he had that idea, there was another cry from the lookout. Cariad scanned the other side of the boat before he scrambled down the staircase and nearly stumbled at the sight of a second Swarm ship heading their way.
We can’t fight them both.
He had to swallow his panic as he made his way to the captain’s cabin and practically threw himself through the door. Tossing his portable desk onto the floor, he turned to throw the two bolts that would only slow down any attackers. Then he stood panting as if he’d run a long distance and strained to hear what was happening up on deck.
“What’s going on?” Ambrose’s cabin boy, Sean, came through the archway leading to the captain’s mess. His eyes were wide with fright.
Although Cariad was only a few years older than the boy, he felt responsible, not that there was anything he could do to protect him. “The Swarm have found us. There are two ships,” he added, swallowing hard and looking away from the sheer terror on Sean’s face now.
“We can’t fight two!” the boy wailed.
“What do we do?”
“Stay here. It’s the safest place for us. And we do what we can to protect our people.”
Sean wrung his hands. “How?”
“By keeping our secrets.” So saying, Cariad hurried over to the captain’s desk and started pulling out his own maps and the man’s logs.
“Hey, you can’t touch those.” Sean came and reached out to stop him.
“We have to get rid of all this before the Swarm gets their hands on it. They can’t know how much we’ve learned. It will take away any element of surprise our fleet and the Chainers might have.”
Sean’s expression grew stern. “That’s not for us to decide. You’re only the cartographer, even if you are a lord. The captain will tan my hide if I let you destroy any of this.”
Cariad was certain that the captain would have no chance to mete out any punishment. If he weren’t killed outright, the man would be taken prisoner. They all would. Then they’d learn firsthand the fate of the people from the village, and all the rumors concerning the Swarm would either be confirmed or dispelled. Getting the answers wouldn’t bring them any comfort. Of that, he was sure.
He opened his mouth to explain the obvious to Sean. A loud sound, followed by a rocking motion that made it hard to keep their feet under them, cut his words off. As one, he and Sean raced to the large window on the starboard side of the cabin. One of the Swarm ships had closed in on them. Smoke curled out from open ports on the side of the vessel. As Cariad squinted to see what was there, another loud sound boomed. He jumped back and collided with Sean at the sight of a large iron ball flying toward them. They both lost their footing and tumbled to the floor when their ship shuddered from what had to be an impact.
Sean clutched at his arm. “What was that? How did they make that thing fly? I didn’t see a catapult.”
Cariad’s mind whirled to find an answer. It came to him quickly, and once more he froze with dread. “They’ve weaponized fireworks.”
“What?” Sean cringed against him as another explosive sound whined through the window.
Cariad held the boy in his arms for a moment to give them both comfort, little as it was. “They’ve found a way to create the same kind of explosion needed for fireworks and have upped the power to throw what appears to be an iron ball at us. That explains the destruction in the village harbor. They don’t need the room necessary for a catapult. The balls fire straight at their target.”
There was more violent rocking of the ship, and the screams of the crew as they fought to control it and save themselves were terrible. Cariad wanted to stop-up his ears, but he didn’t have the luxury of giving into his terror. The outcome of the fight was obvious to him now more than ever. He had to protect his people’s secrets, even as he understood that his life, one way or another, was going to be forfeit.
“Come on.” He pushed Sean away, then helped him to his feet. “We need to get rid of these papers.” He scrambled back to the captain’s desk, struggling to stay upright as the ship trembled and swayed with each new onslaught.
“No. We can’t give up hope of being victorious.”
Clutching maps to his chest, Cariad rounded on the boy. “Don’t be an idiot! We have already lost this battle. Soon the Swarm will board us from both sides and take anything of value before scuttling the Intrepid.”
The cabin boy’s lower lip wobbled, and tears pooled in his eyes. But he made no more objection, merely grabbed the captain’s heavy logbook. “How do we destroy them?”
Cariad gnawed on his upper lip. Burning would be best, but there was no way to get to the galley’s fire. Simply tearing the paper up wouldn’t do the trick, because there wasn’t time to do a proper job of it. The solution came to him then. “The privy.” The captain had the luxury of having use of a hole that went straight into the sea instead of a smelly trough. It was the only course of action.
He hurried through the mess and into the privy, Sean at his heels. More explosions sent them careening into walls, but they managed to stay upright. Cariad lifted the cover and stared into the dark churning sea far below. With only a moment’s hesitation, he tossed the maps he’d labored over down into the water. Then he helped Sean toss the logbook after them. They made three more trips until the captain’s papers and all the maps were consigned to the ocean. There was nothing left to do except wait for their fates to play out.
The ship listed to one side, sending them onto the floor and sliding against the far wall. Through the window, they got their first look at the men of the Swarm, as they were finally boarded. Cariad closed his eyes, terrified of the nightmarish view of enormous creatures with deathly pale skin and ink-black hair. If these weren’t demons, he couldn’t imagine who would be.
He and Sean remained huddled together, taking as much courage as they could from each other. The sounds of a pitched battle reached their ears easily enough. It was impossible to block it out, yet worse by far was the sudden silence that told them the fighting was over. There was no doubt as to who the victors were, but it still startled him and nearly made him weep when the door shuddered from the efforts to break it open.
“Come on.” Cariad staggered to his feet and helped Sean do the same. “We mustn’t give them the satisfaction of seeing how scared we are.”
Bold words were followed by a dry mouth and pounding heart as the wood of the door splintered from an ax. When there was a sufficiently big hole, a bloody hand was shoved through to throw the bolts. Then that same hand opened the door to let in the biggest man Cariad had ever seen. As he took in the sight of the enemy—from the long, black hair braided with beads to the stern pale face with high, slashing cheekbones and eyes that looked like they glowed—he couldn’t help but wonder why the gods had designed these demons with such arresting beauty. He blinked rapidly, as if he could clear what had to be a mirage. Surely the beings he feared the most couldn’t cause his heart to stutter for an entirely different reason. Yet as the man approached, he had to struggle to remind himself that this was pure evil advancing on him, someone destined to make the rest of his life a miserable and probably short one.
The Swarm warrior stopped a short distance away and cocked his head as his eyes—now visibly violet in color—bore into Cariad. “Well, well, what do we have here?”