The new captain of the Artemis was standing in the middle of his cabin, eyes closed and completely naked, blissfully scratching his testicles.
“Er,” I said, confronted with this sight. His eyes popped open and his face lit with joy. The next moment, I was enfolded in his embrace, face pressed against the red-gold curls of his chest.
We didn’t say anything for quite some time. I could hear the thrum of footsteps on the deck overhead, the shouts of the crew, ringing with joy at the imminence of escape, and the creak and flap of sails being rigged. The Artemis was coming back to life around us.
My face was warm, tingling from the rasp of his beard. I felt suddenly strange and shy holding him, he naked as a jay and myself as bare under the remnants of Father Fogden’s tattered robe.
The body that pressed against my own with mounting urgency was the same from the neck down, but the face was a stranger’s, a Viking marauder’s. Besides the beard that transformed his face, he smelled unfamiliar, his own sweat overlaid with rancid cooking oil, spilled beer, and the reek of harsh perfume and strange spices.
I let go, and took a step back.
“Shouldn’t you dress?” I asked. “Not that I don’t enjoy the scenery,” I added, blushing despite myself. “I—er…I think I like the beard. Maybe,” I added doubtfully, scrutinizing him.
“I don’t,” he said frankly, scratching his jaw. “I’m crawling wi’ lice, and it itches like a fiend.”
“Eew!” While I was entirely familiar with Pediculus humanus, the common body louse, acquaintance had not endeared me. I rubbed a hand nervously through my own hair, already imagining the prickle of feet on my scalp, as tiny sestets gamboled through the thickets of my curls.
He grinned at me, white teeth startling in the auburn beard.
“Dinna fash yourself, Sassenach,” he assured me. “I’ve already sent for a razor and hot water.”
“Really? It seems rather a pity to shave it off right away.” Despite the lice, I leaned forward to peer at his hirsute adornment. “It’s very like your hair, all different colors. Rather pretty, really.”
I touched it, warily. The hairs were odd; thick and wiry, very curly, in contrast to the soft thick smoothness of the hair on his head. They sprang exuberantly from his skin in a profusion of colors; copper, gold, amber, cinnamon, a roan so deep as almost to be black. Most startling of all was a thick streak of silver that ran from his lower lip to the line of his jaw.
“That’s funny,” I said, tracing it. “You haven’t any white hairs on your head, but you have right here.”
“I have?” He put a hand to his jaw, looking startled, and I suddenly realized that he likely had no idea what he looked like. Then he smiled wryly, and bent to pick up the pile of discarded clothes on the floor.
“Aye, well, little wonder if I have; I wonder I’ve not gone white-haired altogether from the things I’ve been through this month.” He paused, eyeing me over the wadded white breeches.
“And speaking of that, Sassenach, as I was saying to ye in the trees—“
“Yes, speaking of that,” I interrupted. “What in the name of God did you do?”
“Oh, the soldiers, ye mean?” He scratched his chin meditatively. “Well, it was simple enough. I told the soldiers that as soon as the ship was launched, we’d gather everyone on deck, and at my signal, they were to fall on the crew and push them into the hold.” A broad grin blossomed through the foliage. “Only Fergus had mentioned it to the crew, ye see; so when each soldier came aboard, two of the crewmen snatched him by the arms while a third gagged him, bound his arms and legs, and took away his weapons. Then we pushed all of them into the hold. That’s all.” He shrugged, modestly nonchalant.
“Right,” I said, exhaling. “And as for just how you happened to be here in the first place…”
At this juncture we were interrupted by a discreet knock on the cabin’s door.
“Mr. Fraser? Er…Captain, I mean?” Maitland’s angular young face peered around the jamb, cautious over a steaming bowl. “Mr. Murphy’s got a galley fire going, and here’s your hot water, with his compliments.”
“Mr. Fraser will do,” Jamie assured him, taking the tray with bowl and razor in one hand. “A less seaworthy captain doesna bear thinking of.” He paused, listening to the thump of feet above our heads.
“Though since I am the captain,” he said slowly, “I suppose that means I shall say when we sail and when we stop?”
“Yes, sir, that’s one thing a captain does,” Maitland said. He added helpfully, “The captain also says when the hands are to have extra rations of food and grog.”
“I see.” The upward curl of Jamie’s mouth was still visible, beard notwithstanding. “Tell me, Maitland—how much d’ye think the hands can drink and still sail the ship?”
“Oh, quite a lot, sir,” Maitland said earnestly. His brow wrinkled in thought. “Maybe—an extra double ration all round?”
Jamie lifted one eyebrow. “Of brandy?”
“Oh, no sir!” Maitland looked shocked. “Grog. If it was to be brandy, only an extra half-ration or they’d be rolling in the bilges.”
“Double grog, then.” Jamie bowed ceremoniously to Maitland, unhampered by the fact that he was still completely unclad. “Make it so, Mr. Maitland. And the ship will not lift anchor until I have finished my supper.”
“Yes, sir!” Maitland bowed back; Jamie’s manners were catching. “And shall I desire the Chinee to attend you directly after the anchor is weighed?”
“Somewhat before that, Mr. Maitland, thank ye kindly.”
Maitland was turning to leave, with a last admiring glance at Jamie’s scars, but I stopped him.
“One more thing, Maitland,” I said.
“Oh, yes, mum?”
“Will you go down to the galley and ask Mr. Murphy to send up a bottle of his strongest vinegar? And then find where the men have put some of my medicines, and fetch them as well?”
His narrow forehead creased in puzzlement, but he nodded obligingly.
“Oh, yes, mum. This directly minute.”
“Just what d’ye mean to do wi’ the vinegar Sassenach?” Jamie observed me narrowly, as Maitland vanished into the corridor.
“Souse you in it to kill the lice,” I said. “I don’t intend to sleep with a seething nest of vermin.”
“Oh,” he said. He scratched the side of his neck meditatively. “Ye mean to sleep with me, do you?” He glanced at the berth, an uninviting hole in the wall.
“I don’t know where precisely, but yes, I do,” I said firmly. “And I wish you wouldn’t shave your beard just yet,” I added, as he bent to set down the tray he was holding.
“Why not?” He glanced curiously over his shoulder at me, and I felt the heat rising in my cheeks.
“Er…well. It’s a bit…different.”
“Oh, aye?” He stood up and took a step toward me. In the cramped confines of the cabin, he seemed even bigger—and a lot more naked—than he ever had on deck.
The dark blue eyes had slanted into triangles of amusement.
“How, different?” he asked.
“Well, it…um…” I brushed my fingers vaguely past my burning cheeks. “It feels different. When you kiss me. On my…skin.”
His eyes locked on mine. He hadn’t moved, but he seemed much closer.
“Ye have verra fine skin, Sassenach,” he said softly. “Like pearls and opals.” He reached out a finger and very gently traced the line of my jaw. And then my neck, and the wide flair of collarbone and back, and down, in a slow-moving serpentine that brushed the tops of my breasts, hidden in the deep cowl neck of the priest’s robe. “Ye have a lot of verra fine skin, Sassenach,” he added. One eyebrow quirked up. “If that’s what ye were thinking?”
I swallowed and licked my lips, but didn’t look away.
“That’s more or less what I was thinking, yes.”
He took his finger away and glanced at the bowl of steaming water.
“Aye, well. It seems a shame to waste the water. Shall I send it back to Murphy to make soup, or shall I drink it?”
I laughed, both tension and strangeness dissolving at once.
“You shall sit down,” I said, “and wash with it. You smell like a brothel.”
“I expect I do,” he said, scratching. “There’s one upstairs in the tavern where the soldiers go to drink and gamble.” He took up the soap and dropped it in the hot water.
“Upstairs, eh?” I said
“Well, the girls come down, betweentimes,” he explained. “It wouldna be mannerly to stop them sitting on your lap, after all.”
“And your mother brought you up to have nice manners, I expect,” I said, very dryly.
“Upon second thoughts, I think perhaps we shall anchor here for the night,” he said thoughtfully, looking at me.
“And sleep ashore, where there’s room.”
“Room for what?” I asked, regarding him with suspicion.
“Well, I have it planned, aye?” He said, sloshing water over his face with both hands.
“You have what planned?” I asked. He snorted and shook the excess water from his beard before replying.
“I have been thinking of this for months, now,” he said, with keen anticipation. “Every night, folded up in that godforsaken nutshell of a berth, listening to Fergus grunt and fart across the cabin. I thought it all out, just what I would do, did I have ye naked and willing, no one in hearing, and room enough to serve ye suitably.” He lathered the cake of soap vigorously between his palms, and applied it to his face.
“Well, I’m willing enough,” I said, intrigued. “And there’s room, certainly. As for naked…”
“I’ll see to that,” he assured me. “That’s part o’ the plan, aye? I shall take ye to a private spot, spread out a quilt to lie on, and commence by sitting down beside you.”
“Well, that’s a start, all right,” I said. “What then?” I sat down next to him on the berth. He leaned close and bit my earlobe very delicately.
“As for what next, then I shall take ye on my knee and kiss ye.” He paused to illustrate, holding my arms so I couldn’t move. He let go a minute later, leaving my lips slightly swollen, tasting of ale, soap, and Jamie.
“So much for step one,” I said, wiping soapsuds from my mouth. “What then?”
“Then I shall lay ye down upon the quilt, twist your hair up in my hand and taste your face and throat and ears and bosom wi’ my lips,” he said. “I thought I would do that until ye start to make squeaking noises.”
“I don’t make squeaking noises!”
“Aye, ye do,” he said. “Here, hand me the towel, aye?”
“Then,” he went on cheerfully, “I thought I would begin at the other end. I shall lift your skirt and—“ His face disappeared into the folds of the linen towel.
“And what?” I asked, thoroughly intrigued.
“And kiss the insides of your thighs, where the skin’s so soft. The beard might help there, aye?” He stroked his jaw, considering.
“It might,” I said, a little faintly. “What am I supposed to be doing while you do this?”
“Well, ye might moan a bit, if ye like, to encourage me, but otherwise, ye just lie still.”
He didn’t sound as though he needed any encouragement whatever. One of his hands was resting on my thigh as he used the other to swab his chest with the damp towel. As he finished, the hand slid behind me, and squeezed.
“My beloved’s arm is under me,” I quoted. “And his hand behind my head. Comfort me with apples, and stay me with flagons, for I am sick of love.”
There was a flash of white teeth in his beard.
“More like grapefruit,” he said, one hand cupping my behind. “Or possibly gourds. Grapefruit are too small.”
“Gourds?” I said indignantly.
“Well, wild gourds get that big sometimes,” he said. “But aye, that’s next.” He squeezed once more, then removed the hand in order to wash the armpit on that side. “I lie upon my back and have ye stretched at length upon me, so that I can get hold of your buttocks and fondle them properly.” He stopped washing to give me a quick example of what he thought proper, and I let out an involuntary gasp.
“Now,” he went on, resuming his ablutions, “should ye wish to kick your legs a bit, or make lewd motions wi’ your hips and pant in my ear at that point in the proceedings, I should have no great objection.”
“I do not pant!”
“Aye, ye do. Now, about your breasts—“
“Oh, I thought you’d forgotten those.”
“Never in life,” he assured me. “No,” he went blithely on, “that’s when I take off your gown, leaving ye in naught but your shift.”
“I’m not wearing a shift.”
“Oh? Well, no matter,” he said, dismissing this. “I meant to suckle ye through the thin cotton, ‘til your nipples stood up hard in my mouth, and then take it off, but it’s no great concern; I’ll manage without. So, allowing for the absence of your shift, I shall attend to your breasts until ye make that wee bleating noise—“
“And then,” he said, interrupting, “since ye will, according to the plan, be naked, and—provided I’ve done it right so far—possibly willing as well—“
“Oh, just possibly,” I said. My lips were still tingling from step one.
“—then I shall spread open your thighs, take down my breeks, and —” He paused, waiting.
“And?” I said, obligingly.
The grin widened substantially.
“And we’ll see what sort of noise it is ye don’t make then, Sassenach