Wendel immediately started shaking his head in denial. “I’m not to be king. I’m the third son.” He then paled more when Uduak just lifted her eyebrow.
“But you are Prince Wendel Jaeger.” She took a deep breath. Under other circumstances, she’d be ecstatic about all the ways she could turn this to her advantage. “One of ours was lost in the process of saving your life, and you decline us the basic courtesy of truth?”
“Forgive me, my lady.” He gave a small bow. “After our experiences of the past few months trust is in short supply. The last group we paid for passage sold us to Manisar upon learning we were noblemen.”
She gave him a sharp nod, then turned to Liam and switched languages. “What else can you tell me?”
“There are false messages being delivered. He knows the truth, having witnessed certain events firsthand, and he’s someone from whom the king will hear the truth. King Sigmund trusts him most of his sons. Calls him the Rock of Ardual.”
“I see.” She gave the young man a considering look, and saw him shift his weight nervously. Then she looked back at Liam.
“And…” Liam met her eyes. “Events are far enough and I can’t…” He took a deep breath. “I can’t focus right now. We need him alive and on the throne, Mother. We need him as an ally.”
“Adaeze, tell the pilot to change course. We’ll take him where he needs to go.” Uduak switched back to the trade tongue. “Prince Wendel, we’ll get you to your destination. I assume you want us to do so…” She gave a small shrug. “In a subtle fashion?”
“It would…” He nodded, though he gave Liam a confused look. “Be appreciated, my lady.
“Captain.” She narrowed her eyes. “My title is captain, and on my ship, Prince Wendel, I am the sovereign.”
“Understood, Captain.” He bowed.
He hadn’t gone far when Wendel moved into step with him. “I’m sorry.” He gave a small nod. “About your friend. He seemed a brave man.”
“He was.” Liam met Wendel’s eyes. “He knew if he went in that he would die. He didn’t hesitate.” He swallowed. “His name was Enu.”
“Enu.” Wendel nodded. “I’ll not forget that name.”
“See that you don’t.” He folded his arms.
“I…” Wendel gave him an uncertain look, then looked over the rest of the ship before looking back at him. “You are not part of the crew?”
“I am part of the crew.” Liam shrugged.
“I mean you’re not Ilael.”
“I am Captain Uduak’s son.” He met Wendel’s eyes levelly.
“You…” Wendel blinked. “Then I think…” He glanced over his shoulder, then back at Liam. “Then I think I owe you gratitude, Lord Liam. I’m not sure how or why you convinced her to help us, but thank you.”
“I’m no lord.” Liam shook his head.
“I have…” Wendel sighed. “Absolutely no idea how rank and caste work among the Ilael. The captain it seems, is queen upon her deck, and if you are her son, I think it best if I consider you a lord at the very least. I —” His eyes abruptly went wide, and he turned bright red.
Liam looked over his shoulder, then frowned before turning back to Wendel. “Is something wrong?”
“I…” Wendel turned to look over the water. “I fear one of your crew has suffered a clothing mishap. Perhaps…”
Liam blinked. He turned to look again and then laughed. “We are out of sight of shore. I think some of the crew just forgot we have guests aboard.”
“You…” Wendel turned toward him before turning away again. “The women are…” He took a deep breath. “The women are wearing breeches and nothing on their —” He winced.
“It’s hot.” He tried to hide the smile, but failed.
“It’s…” Wendel swallowed. “How…” He ran a hand down his face. “Perhaps we should say in our rooms.”
“It gets stuffy when you stay inside.” Liam shrugged. “Fresh air is good for you.”
“Also…” Adaeze came up beside Liam and took his hand. She must have realized the conversation topic, as she’d dispensed with the shore clothing she’d been wearing earlier. Nothing adorned her top but a shark’s tooth necklace. “You and your people don’t have spare clothing. You’ll want to preserve what you have for when you get back to shore.”
“We…” Wendel turned toward them, then immediately turned away again. His face had gone from red to just a little green.
“And if you sweat too much in your clothes, you will end up with fleas.” He tightened his fingers around Adaeze’s hand, and felt her squeeze his hand in return. Enu would have taken great delight in the shore-bound prince’s predicament.
“When in deep water…” Wendel took another deep breath. “It seems it would behoove one to learn how to swim.”
A frown came to her face when she realized Liam wasn’t in the cabin. Fortunately, it only took her a few minutes to locate him. He was on the deck, asleep in a pile of ropes. Adaeze was curled up almost atop him, also asleep. There were still tear marks on both their faces. She couldn’t blame them. It was hard to believe Enu was gone. She was considering waking Liam to send him to bed when he started to mumble and stir in his sleep as he often did.
She was heading in that direction when the sleeping Adaeze simply moved her hand to press the palm against Liam’s shoulder. Liam shifted just a little before… She stared as he simply settled back into sleep instead of waking as he always did when the dreams were disrupted. Efua watched for a few moments more before smiling. Then she found a comfortable place not far from the two slumbering children and went to sleep herself.
“Here.” Adaeze blinked when Liam handed her a folded and sealed piece of parchment.
“What’s this?” She raised an eyebrow, then sat down next to him. “Deal me in the next hand.” She set a few coins onto the makeshift table.
“The deed to one of my holdings.” Wendel gritted his teeth. He and the rest of his men had stripped out of their heavy clothing, though only Wendel himself and a man named Harald had adopted the Ilael style of simple breeches willing. The others had to be ordered by Wendel after Efua and Dumisani had complained about having to treat them for rashes. To her disappointment, after a couple weeks at sea they’d dispensed with most of the blushing. “And I have every intention of winning it back.”
“You’re giving me a castle?” She grinned at Liam before leaning her head on his shoulder.
“No. It’s a manor house and a few acres of vineyards.” He touched his cheek against the top of her head.
“And I’m going to be winning it back.” Wendel glared down at the cards in his hand. Then he growled and put them face down on the table. “Eventually.”
“I would never bet a present in a card game.” She carefully tucked the parchment away.
“I did warn you not to bet it, my lord.” Harald chuckled.
“How far is it from shore?” Adaeze frowned.
“Miles.” Wendel suddenly got a hopeful look. “It’s nearly on the border we share with Thatela and the Wildlands.”
She glanced at Liam, and saw his slight nod. She sat up, and smiled. “I’m sure we can negotiate something.”
“I…” Wendel stared at her a moment. “I’m not going to like this at all, am I?”
“No.” Liam smiled.
Wendel watched the crew. Seeing bare-breasted women still disturbed him just a little, and made it difficult to focus. But they were guests, and Captain Uduak had a point. None would think to look for a prince of Solsthriem blending in among nearly naked seafolk. It wasn’t that unusual for seafolk to take on passengers, though the young man who’d been among his rescuers was an oddity. Not a passenger, but a member of the crew. And not just a member of the crew, but considered one of the people and adopted by the son of the captain.
He’d made an effort to find out more, only to find the Ilael were remarkably close-lipped about the young man. Several of the crew had given him the clear impression that continuing to push for answers would result in him meeting open hostility. As curious as he was, it was a risk he dared not take. And yet somehow, Liam had recognized him on sight.
Thus he’d spend the last couple weeks attempting to befriend the young man. Losing the estate hadn’t been intentional, yet he had a hunch it might yet be worthwhile. He looked toward the rear of the ship and saw Liam talking to the quartermaster. If he was correct, the quartermaster was the captain’s husband, and therefore Liam’s father. The quartermaster, Baako, however, was also clearly Ilael. The taller of the Ilael stood no more than eight inches over five feet, making them a little shorter than his own people. Liam, however, stood a bit over six feet. His natural skin tones were somewhat darker than Wendel’s own, though he was tanned enough it hard to be sure. Still, he was significantly paler than the black-skinned Ilael. And given the youth of both captain and quartermaster, it was increasingly clear Liam was adopted.
As soon as the young man was alone, Wendel walked over and joined him at the railing. “You weren’t born among the Ilael.”
Liam raised an eyebrow. “I doubt it has taken you this long to realize that, so I question why you bring it up?”
“I am absolutely certain you and I have never met, and you don’t have the look of one of my people.” Wendel nodded. “If your hair was long I’d take you for a Wilder.” He caught the faintest glimpse of an expression, and his eyes widened just a little. “You’re a Wilder?”
“I am of the Ilael.” Liam narrowed his eyes.
“But you were born in the Wildlands?” Wendel leaned on the railing.
“Why do you ask?” Liam frowned at him.
“You knew who I was. Not only who I was, but I’m fairly certain you know my mission. I can think of no other way you could have convinced the captain to aid us.” Wendel took a deep breath. “I mean you no harm, Liam. But however you found out…” Wendel sighed, and rubbed his thumb into his palm. “It’s a weakness I need to fix or a potential network I could use. Either way, I need to know.”
For a minute, the younger man was quiet. Wendel took a second look. For all his height, Liam was little more than a boy. But then, the Wilders became men at an absurdly young age, and he didn’t know how the Ilael recognized such things. Then Liam leaned on the railing next to him, facing the other direction to look out over the water. “I’m sorry.”
“I know you want to get to Solsthriem in time to save Klaus. I’m sorry. He was dead before we were out of sight of Manisar.”
“I…” Wendel stared, then shook his head. “You don’t know that. We —”
“I do know that. We’ve both lost brothers to your quest already.” Liam met his eyes. “You think you can trust Rolf, but he has already betrayed you. He’s not loyal to Torsten. Torsten has his son hostage. If you can free him, Rolf will come back to your side, and he’ll bring you the information you need to be sure.”
“If you…” Wendel turned to look over the side of the ship. Dolphins swam alongside, occasionally leaping. “Torsten has Linus?”
It seemed absurd. Beyond imagination. And yet… “Where?”
“He holds the small islands off the north shore, including the old fort at Valthin.”
“There is no way in there save by sea, and if he sees any of my ships coming…” Wendel trailed off. Then he turned toward the captain’s cabin and stared at the door. “What will it cost me?”
“A king’s gratitude.”
That could… Stopping the war with Thatela would do him little good if he embroiled his people in a civil war. And if Klaus was dead, then… “Any favor she asks.” He hesitated a moment. “Liam…”
If the boy were right… He took a deep breath. “Thank you.”
The seafolk ship was allowed into those waters and was able to dock without question. Now she just had to do a little light training before going to pick the others back up. Uduak couldn’t help but feel just a little nervous about embroiling her crew in a plot. If not for Liam’s assurances that it was necessary, she’d have refused. Even with the opportunity to have a grateful king in her debt. She liked Wendel well enough, but this was her crew she was risking.
A half dozen knights and a dozen of her crew. And the part that terrified her most was Liam was accompanying them. “Tell me I’m doing the right thing.”
Baako put his arm around her waist. “The prophecy said if we returned the gemstone, gifts would be bestowed upon the Ilael. And if you cannot trust the sky, my love, trust Liam.” He touched his forehead to hers. “His gift has a purpose, Captain.”
He kept a tight grip on his spear as they moved through the tunnels. Wendel had instructed one of his men, Oskar, to stay close to him and act as a bodyguard. Oskar apparently took that duty seriously. Liam gestured. “The door there is locked. There is a bell that will ring to alert guards if any come through it.”
“Is there a way around?” Wendel didn’t question how Liam knew. Just trusted that he did. He knew the man wanted an explanation, but at the moment he wanted to get his people safe much more.
“No, but the door is old. With our knives, we can take the pins out of the hinges and get in that way.” Liam drew his knife and went to the door. He couldn’t see what he was doing, but he didn’t need to. With Efua’s help, he’d gone through the visions and knew what was needed. The hinge at the bottom he removed without making a sound. Then he adjusted the door just a little. The upper hinge landed silently on the small pad of cloth he’d place to catch it.
When he rose, Harald and Wendel moved the door. Efua removed the bell just to be safe, and they moved up into the dungeon. From there, rescuing the boy was easy. They freed the dozen other prisoners as well, and took them back through the tunnel into the sea cave as quietly as they’d come. “How long before anyone figures it out?” Wendel touched Liam’s shoulder.
“Two hours before they figure out the prisoners are gone. A couple days before they realize they got off the island.” Liam nodded. “You have the time you need.”
Wendel smiled, then it faded. “Who are you, Liam?”
“I’ll tell you about it next time we meet.” Liam shrugged.
“We’ll meet again?” Wendel raised an eyebrow.
“Yes.” Liam tilted his head, then nodded again. “A few times. Let me go ahead and apologize now for…” He shrugged. “You’ll see.”
“I…” Wendel gave a small shake of his head. “Am I going to hate it?”
“Well…” Liam gave a small laugh. “Yes. A lot.”
“You should probably kill me while you’ve got the chance.” He twitched a shoulder.
“What?” Wendel gave him an aghast look, then shook his head. His voice was wary when he spoke again. “Are you stating you’re going to be my enemy…?”
“No.” Liam smiled. “No, your highness. I’m sorry, but I’m afraid you and I are going to be friends.”
“You’re a strange man, Liam.” Wendel chuckled. “But I think I like you anyway.” He got into the rowboat, then smiled again. “I’m not sure how long it will take to get things settled, but once they are…” He looked over the crew. “I hope we all meet again. Your ships will always be welcome in my ports.”
He put Petrus on his hip, then went out to the balcony. Petrus made a soft cooing noise. A moment later, the sound of a footstep made him turn. “Pauwel.” Jurgen smiled.
“Mornin.” Pauwel nodded, then made a face at Petrus. The infant giggled and buried his face in Jurgen’s shoulder before looking back at Pauwel and giggling again. “Takin your daddy out for a walk?” He poked Petrus’s belly, making the infant giggle again. “How come he ain’t walking yet?”
“He’s only six months old, Pauwel.” Jurgen chuckled.
“Won’t be long then. Boys in my family all start climbing things around seven months.” Pauwel nodded. “Can I hold him?”
Jurgen gave Pauwel a bemused smile, then passed the infant over. Pauwel immediately started with the goofy faces again, and soon Petrus was a symphony of happy noises. The fact that Pauwel marrying his mother didn’t make Pauwel his father had been lost on the man, despite Pauwel only being a couple years older than Jurgen himself. Then again, Pauwel was so delighted at the notion of being a grandfather he couldn’t really bring himself to argue the point. “I hear someone was foolish enough to pick a fight with you.”
“Ass tried laying hands on Koert.” Pauwel shook his head. “Lucky I got to him afore the Queen did.”
“Is Koert alright?” Jurgen blinked. Thirza could go to war over a threat to her family, but Koert was a slave. Her responses would be limited by law, and that made Koert more vulnerable than the rest of them. And he was fairly sure Thirza wouldn’t take the law into consideration when dealing with someone who’d hurt her lover. He wasn’t so sure he would be either. Koert was the closest thing to a father he had. Fortunately, Koert was wise enough not to go anywhere unaccompanied by guards.
“Got a bruise on his arm from where the guy had hold of him. We uh…” Pauwel gave a small shrug. “Though we told your mother that I got a little too amorous in the tub and it was my fault rather than get her all worked up.” He smirked. “Don’t think they’ll try that again.”
“Course.” Pauwel gave him an innocent smile. “Everyone knows I’m too dumb to know you’re not supposed to kill folks for touching slaves, and that I’m so daft you can’t talk your way out of the ‘misunderstanding’ cause I’ll just misunderstand worse. And that I ain’t always so good at avoiding damaging folks on the laterals.”
“Dam…” Jurgen laughed. “You mean avoiding collateral damage.”
“Oh, yeah, that too.” Pauwel nodded before blowing a raspberry on Petrus’s belly. The infant squealed with glee.
“Pauwel…” Juren patted his shoulder. “Don’t ever change.”
He woke, crying out behind the gag and fighting the tether. Efua’s arms went around him, soothing. “Liam. Liam.”
For a few moments, he stared at her blankly before he finished waking. “The River’s Dragon.” He blinked a few times.
“What?” Efua removed the gag before going to untangle him from the tether.
“They try to come through the pass, but the river sweeps them away. Blood flows, churning dirt into mud. The army is washed away before the river.” Slowly, he started to come back to himself, shaking his head. “The River’s Dragon.”
“What does it mean, my lamb?” Uduak sat down behind him, rubbing his shoulders.
“It means…” Tears pricked the back of his eyes as he turned toward her. “It means I have to go back.”