IMMORTAL ECSTASY BY LANETTE CURINGTON
Love discovered by the power of…
Disguised as a male, the nymph Daphnis seeks out Leuc to convince him not to aid the threat to her village, but she doesn’t count on falling in love with him. Leuc has never been attracted to another male, but finds himself drawn to Daphnis. He has yet to learn that appearances can be deceiving, especially when a nymph with the power of glamour is involved.
Daphnis entered the tavern where evening sunlight streamed across the dirt-packed floor and dust motes drifted lazily in the air. She stopped just inside and wrinkled her nose. The woody scent of incense didn’t quite mask the lingering odors of burnt food and stale beer. Having adjusted to the dim haze of incense smoke and inadequate lamplight, her gaze swept the small room. A handful of customers sat at uneven, roughly built tables, and a serving maid, carrying food and drink, bustled amongst them.
She had traveled a fair distance in search of the Tychantes, a mercenary band named for one of their patron deities, Tyche, goddess of luck and fortune. Information gathered along the way led her to this tavern in the village of Peneus in Arcadia. A lone man at the far corner table most closely matched the description of their leader, Leucos. For some reason, she had anticipated someone older and far less comely, so she wasn’t prepared for how the sight of him affected her. With a pang of regret that she must be disguised as a man to accomplish her mission, she crossed the room in bold, confident strides until she reached the table.
Deepening her voice, she asked, “Are you Leucos?”
While waiting for him to acknowledge her presence and answer her question, she examined his face. As she looked over his strong brow and jaw, well-defined cheek bones, and sensuous mouth, he raised hooded eyes the color of polished oak to stare up at her.
“Who wants to know?”
His words resonated with warning, and that pleased her. The glamour she’d cast to disguise herself as a male succeeded; he didn’t see her as a woman to seduce and conquer. Her natural feminine state would serve no purpose other than to cloud the issue with lustful tension and prejudice. Fortunately, her mother had given her a name which passed for both male and female, so she wouldn’t have to lie about that.
“My name is Daphnis. I’m looking for Leucos because I want to join the Tychantes.”
She expected laughter from him, but he surprised her by remaining curiously quiet for a moment. She knew joining the Tychantes would not be easy, but the fate of so many relied on her success. One way or another, she could not fail.
His eyes turned cold, and his gaze raked over her. She reminded herself again he couldn’t detect her femininity.
“Go home to your mother,” he growled, lifting his cup and draining it of its contents.
The remark upon her youthful countenance came as no surprise, but she had no way to remedy her appearance without using more energy on the glamour than she could spare. “I’m older than I look. And more experienced.”
His mouth slanted in a sneer of disbelief. “How many wars have you fought? How much blood of those you’ve slain in battle stains your blade?”
Having anticipated such questions as well, she replied, “None. But I’ve trained with the best—Cheiron.”
His eyes widened. “The centaur?”
She nodded without expounding on the glory of the renowned teacher. His reputation spoke for itself.
Then Leucos’ scornful laugh echoed throughout the room. He poured more wine from the small amphora into his cup. “Next you’ll be telling me you’re the son of a god.”
Studying his face and the weathered lines around his eyes crinkling in humor, she hid her surprise. She thought because of his extensive travels and experience he would have already met an immortal or two along the way. Some of them enjoyed mingling with humans and meddling in their affairs.
“Zeus is my father,” she said simply.
She hadn’t originally intended to reveal her divine birthright, but meeting Leucos changed many aspects of her plan. When the time came to reveal her true self—and it would happen, Daphnis had no doubt of it—she didn’t want Leucos able to claim she’d ever spoken a falsehood to him.
Perhaps the sincerity in her voice or maybe something he saw in her eyes checked the laughter on his lips. Eyes narrowed, he tossed back another long draught.
“Is this flea bothering you, Leuc?” a voice boomed near her left ear.
Startled, she turned to find a massive chest less than a hand span from her nose and looked up into flinty gray eyes. The dour smithy had warned her the Tychantes were a huge and fearsome lot.
Leucos released his laughter again, but Daphnis detected no derision in the sound this time. “Polydector, our young friend here wants to join with us.”
The gray-eyed giant glared down at her. “Is that so?”
Daphnis felt no fear or apprehension. Although her divine powers were limited, she felt confident she could extricate herself from any dangerous situation.
She smiled up at the big man. “Yes, it’s true.”
Polydector clapped his hand on her back with such force that her breath briefly left her body, and she stumbled into the table. If she were a mortal woman, the blow would have sent her to the floor and caused bruising and maybe broken bones. Leucos caught the falling amphora and frowned up at the giant, but she righted herself and laughed along with Polydector. She considered it the first small step to acceptance by the group.
When she didn’t take offense at his hearty blow, Polydector tugged at his short dark beard and spoke to Leuc. “He looks too scrawny to wield his sword…either one.”
Leuc’s frown turned to a grin at Polydector’s jibe as the serving maid slid a platter piled high with roasted vegetables and fruits and rounds of bread in the center of the long table.
The maid’s enticing smile skimmed from Leucos to Daphnis to Polydector. “If you need anything else, let me know.”
She emphasized her provocative invitation with the sway of her hips as she left. The men’s gazes followed the woman, and Daphnis looked after her, too. She held no interest in watching a woman walk away, but it seemed the thing for a man to do.
Then Leucos tore off a piece of crusty bread and looked up at Daphnis again with eyes less cold. Perhaps the woman’s presence stimulated him, or he might have had time to think again on Daphnis’ claim as the offspring of a god.
“If you’re hungry, you’re welcome to sit at our table.” He motioned to a chair with his bread. “But we aren’t looking for new recruits.”
Polydector sat beside of Leuc, and Daphnis chose the seat adjacent to him on the other side. “Thank you. It’s been a long day, and I am hungry.”
As they ate, the rest of the Tychantes joined them, and Leucos introduced her to each. Tall and broad, hardened from training and battle, the men made her feel small and in need of protection even though she was quite capable of defending herself. She regretted she wasn’t able to change her size or shape to make her body seem taller and larger. If she had done so and one of them touched her as Polydector had, he could tell the difference. Although she was tall for a woman by mortal standards, each one of the five would tower over her if she stood next to him.
Daphnis chewed her food and scrutinized each in turn.
She started with Leuc. He had turned in his seat and stretched out his long, leather-clad legs toward her. After crossing his ankles, the quaking run of fringe down the outside of his boots finally settled. Her gaze traveled up to the whip coiled neatly beside the sheathed sword at his waist. His sun-browned arms rippled with taut muscle and sinew each time he lifted food or cup to his lips, and the power of her attraction for him surged through her like a tangible force. His large hands with long, supple fingers and clean, trimmed nails revealed more about him than anything else.
He wore more leather—a strap girting his waist, a short, open tunic, and metal-studded protective bands at his wrists and biceps. His thick waves of brown hair, sun-bleached to many hues from gold to bronze, lay bound at the nape of his neck with loose strands framing his handsome face.
Polydector, whom they called Dector, was the most talkative and jovial. He was the largest man she’d ever seen, but there was nothing oafish or cumbersome in his manner, each movement precise and almost graceful. He had a kind face and friendly eyes when not narrowed in suspicion. His long hair hung down to his shoulder blades.
Zarex, his dark blond hair severely drawn back from his face and cool blue eyes the color of a stark winter sky, sat at one end of the table. He flirted shamelessly with the serving maid and laughed a lot, but he hadn’t forgotten Daphnis’ presence nor dismissed her as inconsequential. She caught his wary gaze upon her more than once.
Across from her sat Machaon. Lamplight glinted red in his dark brown hair, and his eyes were a mixture of brown and green. A wicked scar ran from the corner of one eye to his jaw, but the mark enhanced rather than detracted from his good looks. He talked and laughed with the rest, but he was just as aware of her as a potential threat as any of them.
The last one to arrive they simply called the Spartan. His brown hair was cropped short, and his sad black eyes held the most compassion. He didn’t talk except when spoken to. He didn’t laugh at all, but she occasionally saw a hint of amusement in the depths of his dark eyes.
She turned back to Leuc—the others called him Leuc so she would as well to better fit in with them. When her gaze met his across the table, her heart skipped a beat, and her breathing deepened. She had never met a man, human or immortal, who made her react in such a way with a mere glance.
Daphnis quickly looked away from him and finished the last of her bread. A fine group of men, she decided, friends as well as partners. That might make all the difference in the outcome. If she could convince one, he might be able to persuade the others.
When the maid arrived with another amphora of wine and took away the empty platter amidst flirting with them all, Daphnis felt Leuc’s eyes settle upon her. Belly full and the maid now out of sight, the cold glint returned to his eyes and unsettled her. Unaccustomed to a man watching her as he would another man with caution and suspicion, it was refreshing to see something other than lust or protectiveness in a man’s eyes and manner.
Another thought came unbidden. Daphnis wondered what Leuc’s eyes would look like darkened with passion and desire, his sun-browned skin slick with sweat…oh, now was not the time. She tried to push the thought to the farthest corner of her mind, place it in an amphora and seal it with wax, but her attraction to Leuc was much stronger. She stifled a sigh. Men did not make sounds of longing.
Suddenly, Leuc banged his cup on the table, silencing the conversation. “You’ve all met Daphnis.”
She now felt all eyes upon her—gray, cool blue, green-brown, and black—but her gaze never wavered from Leuc’s.
“Daphnis,” Leuc continued, “wants to join with us. He comes with the highest recommendations. He says he’s been tutored by Cheiron and claims to be a son of Zeus.”
A murmur rippled around the table then Dector laughed out loud. “Sired by divinity and trained by legend. Your imagination exceeds your experience, I’ll wager.”
“I told him we weren’t interested, but it’s really up to the rest of you.” Leuc dug into a small pouch tied at his waist and brought out two pebbles, one white and one black. “Let’s put it to a vote.”
Daphnis looked around the table, at all of the skeptical faces. At this time, none of them would vote for her to stay. “May I speak?”
Leuc set aside his pebbles and nodded.
“I admit I have no experience in warfare, but I’ve trained with the best, and I am not without my talents. If I can prove myself to you right now, will you allow me to travel with you to your destination before you put it to a vote?”
Daphnis knew they were bound for Thelxis, her village in West Locris and a solid five days’ journey by foot and ferry. If she persuaded them to allow her to accompany them, she could use the time to change their minds about their task in Thelxis, and the vote on her joining them would never have to take place. Her proposal should prevent them from feeling pressured into making a definite decision right then.
“Sounds fair to me.” The Spartan surprised her by speaking first, his dark eyes almost friendly when she glanced at him.
Following the Spartan’s lead, the rest agreed if somewhat reluctantly. Even Leuc.
“How do you plan to convince us of your talents?” Leuc’s face was a mask of skepticism.
Daphnis smiled. “May I have your whip?”
“Mayhap the youth has more spunk than I thought,” Dector said with a laugh.
Leuc ignored his friend’s attempt at humor, but surprise and puzzlement crossed his face. He hesitated before unhooking the braided leather and tossing it to her. “I never allow anyone to touch my weapon, but since you ask so nicely…”
She made as if to examine it, but she was really concentrating, gathering her energy. At the end of a long day, keeping up both glamours—the one on herself and one on the whip—would tax her strength if she weren’t careful.
“A good piece of work that should serve you many years,” she commented when she was ready. She threw the coiled whip high into the air.
At its highest point, the braid no longer resembled a whip. To Leuc, the others at the table, and anyone else who might be watching, the whip uncoiled and now appeared to be a snake with cross-striped markings to match that of the braid. Leuc’s eyes grew wide as he caught the snake just behind its head, but when he dropped it to the table, it was again nothing more than a whip.
He stared at Daphnis, his pale brown eyes wide in shock, but he spoke to his companions. “Did you see—?”
“Yea, I did.” Dector poked at the leather braid. “But I still don’t believe it.”
“How did you do that?” Zarex asked, amazement in his voice.
“A magician never reveals his tricks,” the Spartan commented.
“Nor a sorcerer,” Machaon added.
“Neither,” Daphnis countered. “I inherited the talent from my father.”
“Zeus.” Leuc didn’t sound quite as doubtful as before.
“I think we’re all in agreement that Daphnis can travel with us,” the Spartan murmured as he stood.
The others rose as well, draining their cups, even though none of them had verbally agreed. Leuc looked at her, and she knew all he saw was an untried youth, barely more than a boy, who somehow succeeded in joining them when he fully anticipated unanimous rejection.
“We leave at dawn.” Leuc dropped plenty of bronze on the table to pay for the meal then followed the others from the tavern without a backward glance.