by Stephanie Burke
eBook ISBN: 978-1-60737-842-6
When Prince Taza flees two female sea horses trying to impregnate him, he’s chased by a human who plans to gain immortality by eating him. Astika the Naga god saves him, so Taza pledges himself as a mate to the Naga male and hopes for the best…
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“You are a dick, and I don’t think I like you.”
Chris growled the words while leaning with arms braced on his bar.
“I have a mighty fine dick, thank you very much, and I really don’t care what you think.” Astika stared at the bartender as he answered with all the sarcasm he could muster. “I just need some information and some quiet, and in that order.”
“I can tell you the same thing I told your contacts. I don’t have the information you seek no matter what your family told you”—the bartender began to grin a little maniacally—“but boy, do I have the perfect drink for you.”
“I don’t drink.”
“Maybe you should start.” This came from what must be the bastard of a bartender’s wife, the Nāga decided. She peeked out from behind the swinging doors to the kitchen before she disappeared again, no doubt to fry up some small, defenseless creature for consumption. “It just might soften your disposition a bit.”
Everyone knew that the vampires who operated this bar worked as a team, and it was said that the female was often more trouble than the male.
“I really don’t care if you do or if you don’t”—the vampire shrugged inelegantly—“but I have to agree with her and say that maybe drinking would improve your attitude.” Chris gave him his words back, smiling as a small frown curved down the ends of Astika’s rather thin lips. “You came into my bar tossing your name and title around and demanding things, Nāga, and it is my job as the best bartender in the tristate area to see to it that you leave with exactly what you need.”
“But not what I want.”
“Buddy, haven’t you heard that you can’t always get what you want?” called a youngish female voice.
The reluctant customer felt his frown grow deeper as he looked around the place. There were two small children staring back at him. It was the girl child who had spoken the sarcastic words, her brown eyes glowing as she stared up at him. Her brown hair was styled into two ponytails, and she had the same countenance as Chris, the bearded asshole of a bartender who refused to give him straight answers.
She appeared to be around seven or eight—with vampires it was hard to tell the age of their young ones—but her eyes looked ancient.
The boy child was a bit smaller than her, with dark blond hair and green eyes and looked just like the female who popped out of the kitchen earlier to add sage bits of advice. The family resemblance was stunning.
But the young male vamp said nothing about the antics of the adults, merely shaking his head at their childish behavior. He absently rolled a chess piece between two fingers before boldly reaching out to the board that sat between him and the small female who could only be his sister. He then blithely moved her queen a box over before making his own move. “Checkmate,” he declared, his face looking as innocent as a preacher’s daughter.
“Cheater!” his sister squawked, turning back to their game, and then the familial arguing commenced as the pair proceeded to ignore the adults once more.
“You make that sound like a threat.” The blue-haired Nāga ignored the goings-on of the young ones and focused his attention on the bartender again.
“It sounds like fact to me.” Chris sucked at his front fangs as he reached for a collection of tall bottles and a metal shaker. “You would do well to listen.”
Then with a few deft moves, Chris made the bottles dance.
It was an art form the way the muscular brunet juggled three uncapped bottles, tossing them over his head, behind his back, and twisting them in midair, never allowing a drop to spill where it wasn’t supposed to.
Finally, in short, controlled flicks of his wrist, measured amounts of liquor were poured midjuggle into a tall metal shaker. Once the proper amounts were reached, he flipped the bottles back into their places and took up the metal container.
The bartender capped it and began to shake it gently as he eyed the blue-haired man. After a moment and a few considering looks, he placed the shaker on the bar and retrieved a tall, frosty glass. He poured the pale-colored mixed drink with flourish. And after a final squirt of juice from his bar gun, he whipped out a cherry from its dispenser and tossed it into the glass before he slid the drink in front of the frowning blue-haired man.
“Not impressed?” Chris asked, flashing just a bit of fang from behind his neatly trimmed mustache as he grinned widely at his customer.
The Nāga just glared.
“Too bad.” He attempted to sound remorseful and failed. “And I gave you the free show and everything.”
“I don’t drink.”
“You will drink this.” Chris chuckled. “After all, it was tailor-made just for you.”
The man reached out with long, thin fingers and tapped at the condensation beading up on the glass before him. He pulled it closer to himself, eyeing the slightly blue liquid, before inhaling deeply. He raised an eyebrow as he again turned to stare at Chris.
“I’m not getting anything out of you until I drink this, right?”
“Smarter than you look.” And from the look in Chris’s eye, his estimation of him put him somewhere between arrogant ass and airhead lackey.
He looked behind Chris to stare at the mirrored wall behind the bar and tilted his head, trying to see what the vampire was seeing.
He had long, flowing deep blue hair—not the electric stuff you find in bottles, but a deep dark blue that had subtle purple highlights. His eyes were beetle black, no light escaping and allowing no emotions to show. His nose was rather aquiline, his nostrils thin and flaring, his face narrow with a slightly pointy chin.
His body gave off a useless-pretty-boy facade as well; he was thin and tall with a model’s body and tight musculature.
But most damning was that he was quite feminine in the face.
He knew he was the epitome of the wordtwink.
He appeared childlike but was saved from being almost too cute to be male by his height, the thin lips, and attitude.
“Gee, thanks,” he deadpanned before lifting the drink to his mouth. “What is this called, anyway?”
“Well, they don’t have a drink called jackass yet, so I did you one better. This, my friend, is perfect for you. It’s called an Absolut fucker.”
“I am not your friend.” The Nāga paused with the drink in his hand, nearly to his lips. “And you may call me Astika.”
He frowned again.
The kids chuckled.
Astika shrugged, lifted the glass fully to his lips, and was just about to take his first tentative sip when the doors to the bar exploded open and a terrified shriek filled the air.
“He’s going to eat me!”
Before the blue-haired Nāga could move off his bar stool, what appeared to be a fall of silver highlighted blue hair slammed into his chest and burrowed beneath his arms, hiding as best as it could.
Astika’s black eyes widened as he stared down at the female—male—creature that was now trying to do its best to burrow under his shirt, shivering in what smelled like fear and…and french fries?
“What the hell…?”
“He’s going to chop me up into little bits and eat me with malted vinegar and salt!”
By now the smaller creature had managed to work its way behind Astika, pulling along with him what had to be yards of hair and a slim, compact body. He somehow managed to get all that hair and his small frame underneath the back of Astika’s shirt.
Astika’s muscles tensed as he caught a wisp of very real fear and cooking oil.
He looked up at the brunet barkeep. Chris’s blue eyes were wide in disbelief, his mouth open enough to show more than a hint of fang as he leaned on the bar. One finger was still in the air as if poised to make a point, and he was bending aggressively forward, his eyes locked on Astika and the thing that was trying its best to burrow into him from behind.
No help there, Astika realized before he began the delicate feat of turning without destroying his human clothing and extracting the little…thing that was now shivering and blubbering behind him.
“Scaler! He had a fish scaler and a fillet knife!”
The Nāga did note that the…creature also carried the tang of the sea and was still damp, something that was made apparent as his white shirt became transparent where the little beast was clutching at his sides.
“Cocktail sauce!” it wailed, burrowing its head in the small of his back. “Cocktail or tartar sauce! He gave me a choice!”
“What…?” Astika began again, only to have his words cut off by the door flying open, and a dark, towering figure raced into the bar.
“The fish-boy is mine!”
The human was mentally off, Astika decided, taking in the scent of the man as his gaze swept the room before dropping to the floor at the doorway. He groaned as he watched those crazed eyes narrow as the human’s gaze followed the damp trail left on the floor where it led over the dark wood and tile, directly to him.
Of course. Trouble never fails to find me.
The figure behind him began to tremble harder, whimpering slightly, digging sharp nails into his side. “Mine!” the human roared, rushing toward Astika, fist balled up and drawn back in preparation to strike.
“Oh, I don’t think so!” Chris bellowed, but the human ignored him, completing his headlong rush toward Astika and his own imminent demise.
As he reached him, the Nāga jumped to his feet, forcing the figure clinging to him to back up. Then instinct had the Nāga turning his head to the right and leaning back.
The fist coming toward his face sailed harmlessly past him with a rush of warm air, missing him by several inches, but that left Astika not a very happy Nāga.
He reached out and gripped the elbow of the massive brown-haired man as he slid past his body and jerked, using the man’s own momentum against him.
The human went flying to the ground, landing hard on his stomach with an audible groan, all the breath flowing from his lungs at once.
Astika took a step back, but before he could follow up on his takedown, there was a growl, and the children were on the man, straddling his body as if daring him to move a muscle.
“A positive,” the girl on his legs growled, her eyes gleaming as she bared a conspicuously large set of fangs of her own. “I am sure of it.”
The boy said nothing, but he began to pet the man’s face, his eyes dreamy as if he had just been handed his favorite treat.
“One bite, Papa?” he asked, his voice breezy and whimsical. “He, after all, did invade our kiss…”
“No one comes into my bar and starts shit,” Chris growled, his face reddening in anger, his voice drowning out the noise of his excited children.
Chris nodded, and a huge shadow separated from the back wall, moving slowly toward the human.
“It’s mine!” The man whimpered, cringing from the children who were now snarling in earnest. Their mouths parted enough to show long white fangs made all the more scary by their thin, rose-colored lips darkening to black. Spittle slowly dripped down from the sides of their mouths, splashing near his face as if adding extra insult to their papa’s threatening actions.
“I don’t know what „it’ you are talking about,” Chris snapped. “But whatever it is you think you own, you won’t find it here.”
“You say that a lot,” Astika observed, eyes wide, as the tall, dark, shadowy blob gently shoved the children away. Without a sound, it tossed the human over his shoulder before carrying the now cowering man to the door. The human offered no resistance and almost seemed to float in the dark thing’s arms before the door slid open unaided and the thing unceremoniously tossed him out on his ass.
Astika shifted his weight again, trying to reach behind him to pull the wet…creature out from behind him. But it was stuck fast and too afraid to move. He could feel its claws digging into his skin.
Although it was rather uncomfortable, he refused to acknowledge that small and unusual pain. So he changed tactics. Instead of jumping and twisting like an idiot, he would appeal to a greater power—in this instance, the power of words.
“I say it a lot and I always tell the truth.” Chris snorted his answer as the door silently slid shut and the amorphous blob dissipated. Turning back to his bar as the two pouting vampire children silently made their way back to their seats, grumbling about missed meals, he nodded at the glass still on the bar. “Finish your drink.”
“I would rather you assist me in other matters,” Astika growled, shifting from foot to foot, maintaining his balance despite the small lump hiding under his now partially transparent shirt.
Still attached to his backside was the damp and whimpering squirming form.
“Finish your drink and get the hell out.” Chris threw his hands up in the air in exasperation. “The opening rush is going to start soon, and I don’t need the distraction of you hanging around and whining.”
“Whining…” Astika was trying to sound assured and in command, but that was a wee bit hard when he was dancing from foot to foot while a wet sea creature was clinging like…like a barnacle!
“Whining.” Chris slammed down the bottles he was replacing and glared at the front door as if he expected more interruptions. “You came to me because you wanted to know about any ritual sacrifices going on around here, and I told you that I can’t help you. I don’t follow that kind of thing unless it’s to steer people away from it. So unless you’re looking to be the first on the sacrificial chopping block…?”
“I was told that you were the one to talk to about matters preternatural…”
“You were probably told that I was the one who could guide you toward what you needed.”
“Then take your present”—he nodded toward Astika’s now lumpy back—“and get the fuck out of my bar.”
The kids chuckled.
Astika glared at Chris, noting that he probably looked ridiculous arguing with the vampire while there was a shivering sea creature clinging to his ass.
“Present?” he asked softly, eyes narrowing as the whining behind his back became more prominent.
“I give people what they need, not necessarily what they want.” Chris’s grin was more than evil, and Astika felt a lump of fear begin to grow in his stomach. It was not fear of what Chris would do to him—he was a nearly immortal Nāga, after all. It was more of a fear of what the vampire would say next.
“And because you are such a nice—and I do mean that despite your gruff exterior—creature, the stars have aligned to give you exactly what you deserve.”
“I was told I was needed here…”
“Whoever told you that lied. There are no great and evil sacrifices being carried out. There are no creatures crying out in distress for you to save…as long as you don’t discount the thing you have clinging to your back. What the hell is it, anyway?”
“How in the name of Shiva’s left nut am I supposed to know?” Astika’s voice was growing uncommonly loud, something he usually fought to avoid. Maybe he needed a vacation.
“You are the fucking prince of the Nāgas!” Chris pointed out. “Why don’t you stick out your pointy little forked tongue and smell what it is?”
Chris was now mopping up the wooden bar, a smirk on his face as he stared at Astika, almost challenging him.
“This is what I get for calling you a no-account, sway-backed, nosy bloodsucker, isn’t it?” He sighed, noting that Chris was now grinning and exposing all of his fangs.
“You reap what you sow, my man.”Cheerywas too mild a word to use for the vampire’s attitude.
Astika stared at him, his face showing he was suddenly at a loss for how to proceed, and then he shook his head, accepting the inevitable.
“And you came in here demanding instead of asking.”
“I’m used to demanding,” Astika pointed out. “In my world, it’s how we get things done.”
Chris snorted, rolled his eyes, and pointed to the still-waiting glass. “Finish your drink. It’ll make you feel good. And pull that poor thing out of your shirt so I can see what you caught.”
“I’m trying!” Astika finally snapped, wiggling and shifting, reaching behind him in an attempt to grasp some kind of flesh or hair. He noted that the sea creature was whimpering so loudly now he probably couldn’t hear a word of the conversation going on around him.
“Hey!” he finally called out, giving in to the urge to swat at the large lump that just had to be the thing’s head.
“Ouch!” it yelped, and then the claws released his sides, no doubt leaving a few welts in their wake.
Astika could feel the tingling, burning scratches, but the pain relief was instant when the little thing let go. And more than anything proved that this creature wasn’t among the common creatures he was used to dealing with in his part of the world. If it could penetrate his thick hide, then it had to be special, maybe even royal, and royal always meant trouble.
“Come out,” he groused. “The big bad human is gone.”
“Gone?” the voice warbled before the back of the shirt was pulled up and out enough to expose huge blue-green eyes peering at him from underneath his arm. “It’s gone?”
“Gone,” Astika assured it, rolling his eyes as Chris tossed down his bar rag and bent over, his laughter filling the bar with the deep, amused sound.
“It won’t eat me?”
“No, but I just may slap the shit out of you if you don’t get out of my clothes,” Astika growled, closing his eyes as his frustration grew.
The shirt dropped, and then he felt a cool draft as the damp body separated from his skin.
He shuddered, hating the idea of anything cold against his skin, and this thing had definitely left a large cool spot as it moved.
“Safe?” the timid voice repeated, and Astika stepped away, yanking his shirt back into place, turning to see what had disrupted his argument with the vampire.
“If you want to call it that,” he drawled, tilting his head to the side, confused as to what he was seeing. “I don’t see why you couldn’t have taken care of that human yourself. You seem to have a pretty good…amount…”
Astika’s words trailed off as he took a good look at what he had inadvertently helped save.
It was gorgeous.
Huge teal eyes dominated the triangular face, eyes the same color as the silky hair that was cut into the longest Mohawk he had ever seen. The ends fairly dragged the ground, covering a body that was clad in sea foam and air.
So…sea foam was the source of the salty smell he’d automatically cataloged as he took a good long look at the body which had been clinging, to him.
Even when not compared to his nearly seven-feet frame, the creature was a tiny thing. It was slender, yet its well-defined musculature gave the impression of delicate strength. It was barefoot and shivering, its full pink lips quivering, its dark complexion seemingly unusual for its hair color, like the bright pink nipples that peeked through the fall of hair.
Its small nose quivered as it looked around the room before those unique eyes landed on Astika again.
“You…you saved me.”
“Huh?” Astika was struck dumb. This whining creature, this pain in his side—it was…unique.
“You saved me!” It smiled.
And Astika was struck mute again even before he could speak, for the sea foam shifted, and he caught a glimpse of the package that was swaying between the thing’s knees.Equine—the word came to his mind as he watched the flesh shake before it was hidden in a layer of sea foam once more.
It was definitely male, Astika thought, blinking at the feelings that seeing that soft swaying flesh evoked within him.
“I…” He blinked and took another step back, feeling as if the hands of fate were beginning to get a stranglehold on his neck.
“You saved me,” he continued, “and according to the law, you now own me.”
“What?” Those words killed the growing admiration rather quickly.
Astika could not believe that particular high-pitched sound which had emerged from his throat any more than he could believe the words the creature just shouted at him. The little beast was happily bouncing and clapping his hands. But those actions combined with his spoken words gave him an evil intent that made Astika want to turn tail and run.
“I belong to you,” the small male called, spinning in a circle, sending damp hair flying all about, allowing his sea foam to play peekaboo with the tender unclothed flesh.
“Chris…Chris and his imps saved you!” Astika stammered, his eyes growing wide as he stared at the creature dancing in front of him.
“He’s not alive.” The small male…thing waved a petite hand dismissively at the vampire. “He does not count.”
“See? I don’t count,” Chris mocked, leaning forward farther on the bar, eyes gleaming with suppressed laughter.
“We’re not alive,” the little girl added, all interest in the game lost again as she stared at the beings around her, her head tilted to the side as if considering the small creature that was trying to wreak havoc in Astika’s life.
“Looks like he’s all yours,” the boy child added, smirking at him, just a little fang showing. “You found a playmate.”
“But…” Astika stammered. “But…but…”
“You felled the hunter!” The creature beamed up at him.
“You defeated him. The undead one just removed him from my presence.” Huge eyes stared up at him, utter adoration in their depths. “You are my savior.”
“What am I ssssuppossssed to do with you?” Astika shouted, tugging at his hair in frustration, not even noticing that his voice was slipping into sibilant tones.
“Well, I understand that my kind make great lovers…”
“Loverssss!” Astika nearly shrieked, his eyes growing huge while his pupils pulled into black vertical slits.
“But I am not meant for that life.”
“Thank the mother goddessss,” Astika said under his breath, his eyes going back to normal dimensions, his heart rate slowing from the racing mode it had jumped into when the creature spoke of lovers.
“No, a mere lover won’t do for one of my pedigree. I am meant for a mate.”
Suddenly some of that innocent and childlike glee fled with the speed of those dissipating sea-foam bubbles.
“Guess who that is?” The small blue-haired thing was leering at him! He was leering, and…and it was waggling its eyebrows!
“Mate?” Astika’s voice was reedy as he again stared, at a loss, at the small blue, suddenly frightening thing. “What are you, anyway?”
“Sea horse!” he supplied, tossing the damp hair of his Mohawk behind him and preening. “And I am a royal too! Eldest son of the king of us all.”
International diplomatic nightmare. Astika paled at the thought.
“And now I belong to you.” He—the insane sea horse—winked at him.
“No.” It was time to take control of this situation. Crossing his arms, Astika glared at the smaller male—sea horse—trying to instill a little fear into the creature. “I don’t think sssso.”
“Well, I do!” the sea horse insisted, his voice growing hard.
“Look.” Astika pointed at him, nearly jabbing him in the chest. “Whoever you are, I am not in the market for a mate. Sssso you are jusssst going to have to find ssssome other fool.” Arms akimbo now, he leaned downward in a suitably intimidating manner, making his feelings known.
“I don’t think so.” The cute expression left the sea horse’s face altogether. In fact, he started to look quite…feral. “You saved me, you own me, deal with it, in that order.”
“Oh I don’t think ssssoo!”
“Well, I do!” the sea horse insisted, stepping forward, reaching up and poking a finger into Astika’s chest, his suddenly serious eyes glaring hard as he actually managed to move the large male back a few steps.
“That is the way things work where I am concerned. You won me; you got me!” He eyeballed Astika from the toes of his shiny wing tips to the top of his multifaceted blue-haired head before he demanded, “Get over it.”
“Why would I want a half-drowned, whimpering little…pissssant of a ssssea horsssse?” Astika hissed, recalling the step he had given and taking another for good measure, getting right into the little male’s personal space. “You look like a female, you whine like a bitch in heat, and now you think to tell me what I am going to do with my life? Kid, you have another think”—he nearly choked on the word—“coming.”
The more he spoke, the more upset Astika became. He had finally gotten some control over of his life, and he refused to let anyone or anything take that away! This was his final job for a long time, and then he could retire…or at least take a long vacation. And his plans did not include a small, Mohawked, sea-colored menace!
“I do not look like a female,” the menace growled, exposing… Astika blinked. Were those tiny little fangs? They were almost cute in a curiously odd way. When combined with those huge eyes, they gave him the look of a feral puppy.
“When I’m dressing like a woman, I’m whorishly commanding!”
“You aren’t dressssed like anything!” Astika shouted. “You are practically naked!”
“Practically.” The sea horse grinned. “But only you are allowed to see all of me.”
“But…but I don’t want to ssssee all of you!” He threw his arms up in the air. “Don’t you understand what I am ssssaying to you? I don’t want a mate!”
“Un-huh.” The sea horse nodded, smiling, eyes wickedly arrogant. “My name is Taza, mate of mine. Taza of the fifteenth dynasty of Coushrin, heir to the power throne of Coushrin. Your mate for life, lest there be war between our two peoples.”
“War!” Astika shrieked. It was his job to prevent wars, not start them! And with the power behind the title that the little one bandied about…and with his own high-placed position as the heir of the High Nest of Shiva’s blessed Nāgas, theonlyprince, no less… “But…but…I don’t want to be mated!”
“Tough luck, my tall, blue-haired twinkie…”
“Twinkie!” he wailed. He knew he fit the description of a twink in most circles, but that didn’t mean he wanted a tiny sea horse to point it out. “I am sssseven feet tall! How am I a twinkie?”
“Looks like a girl in the face, looks young enough to have the undead one arrested for having you in here without proper ID, looks like you’ve never been laid in your life… You, my mate, are a twinkie!”
Taza even winked at him as he laid down the truth as he saw it.
“Argh!” Astika threw his hands up in the air again, bemoaning the matrimonial chains he felt tightening around his neck.
“My mate!” Taza crowed, clapping his hands and jumping in place as if the whole matter had been settled. “And if you behave, I’ll even let you top me sometimes.”
“I think…” A grinning Chris interrupted, picking up the drink and sliding it across the bar toward the blue-haired sea horse. “Yes, I really I think that this was meant for you.”
“Thank you.” He nodded politely before picking up the drink and downing all sixteen ounces in one shot.
“Tasty, just what I wanted, just like it was made for me.”
Chris and the kids laughed before Chris informed him, “It’s called an Absolut fucker.”
He knew from this moment on, life as he knew it would never be the same.
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