Diantha looked over the holdings. It was somewhat better than a pittance, but still less than half of what Jurgen had received. Though to be fair, Jurgen had inherited from his father as well. To be even more fair, Levi’s holdings had been confiscated by Thirza, and thus could have been passed to Lammert. “Vulkyr borders the lands attached to Fort Valyk. It’s all wild woods there.”
“You can consider yourself permitted to utilize the land. I trust you to make fair recompense.” Lammert smiled as he looked over the documents. “I’ll need a steward for most of the holdings.” He gave a small frown. “Hopefully the revenue from Kindir will be enough to start the work Wharf Tower.”
“You do intend to hold it?” Diantha gave him a surprised look. “Lammert, it’s years away from habitable.”
“And the docks are poorly designed. They are incapable of handling the very vessels capable of making the trip.” Lammert shook his head. “I think I’d be better served rebuilding than repairing.” He moved to the map. “Clan Valyk has a holding here, yes?”
“Yes.” She looked over the map. “We control a fortress here.”
“I don’t have means yet to keep the builders safe. Would you consider a bargain of trade rights in exchange for protection?”
“You don’t have trade coming in yet, Lammert.” She gave a small shake of her head. “You’re asking me to gamble my people on your success.”
“Until I have success, your people won’t be in danger.” He shrugged.
“I…” She nodded. “Fair point. Valyk pays no tariff for foreign trade.”
“Valyk may use the southern dock without paying tariffs.”
“Done.” She offered her hand to his, and he shook it just as Jurgen walked in.
“Should I be worried about this?” Jurgen raised an eyebrow.
“If your brother can make good on his end, I just got us tariff free trade with Solsthriem and you can tell Clan Merkir to go bugger their ‘safe passage’ tithes.” She smirked, then narrowed her eyes. “Wait until he’s made good on his end though, I don’t want the tithes going up in the meantime.”
“I was hoping you’d just let me conquer them.” Jurgen gave a disappointed sigh.
“Long as they are paying tribute to clan Draak, you can’t.” She looked down at the map again. If Lammert could get the Wharf Tower going… “Solsthriem however, might be an issue.”
“It won’t.” Lammert shrugged.
“You sound pretty sure about that.” Jurgen chuckled.
“The future king owes me a favor.” Lammert moved some of the parchment around. “By the time Wharf Tower is repaired, he’ll be on the throne and we’ll be establishing set routes.”
“You know, when he says things like that it’s really tempting to believe him.” Diantha grinned.
Seeing the look on his brother’s face hurt. Jurgen was shaking his head. “I just got you back.”
“It’s not forever, Jurgen.” Liam leaned on the balcony. “I’ll be back.” Once Wharf Tower was functional, he could return regularly, visit on the end of each trip up the coast. And if The Phoenix could establish trade with the Wildlands, Uduak could be promoted to Admiral. Thirza meeting his mother would not go over well, but Valyk was near enough and that alliance was strong. Tariff money would let him continue improving the docks. He could even set up some ship repair in the sea caves, so the Ilael vessels would be more willing to go all the way north.
And if he could build more alliances, perhaps certain things would not come to pass. Wendel would be king of Solsthriem. As much as that foundation had cost, he was not going to let it go to waste. Enu’s death had stopped a war. Perhaps it could also start the journey toward a lasting peace. The possibility was tenuous, but it existed. Jurgen’s sigh brought his attention back. “But I just got you back.”
“I’m your brother, Jurgen. If you are to be king, then it is my duty to help you build a strong kingdom.” He put a hand on Jurgen’s arm. “And trade alliances will make it stronger.”
“Is that the only reason?” Jurgen raised an eyebrow.
“I…” Liam sighed. “No.”
“You’ve been wandering for three years, Lammert. Can you not rest a while?” Jurgen leaned on the balcony railing next to him, looking out over the river.
“The world is…” Liam looked toward the waterfall. The Breath of Life, the mother of all rivers. It split and joined in many places, crossing the entire world in its journey, sometimes even venturing underground to emerge again. And in the end, it returned to the sea. The balcony didn’t rock the way the ships did, and he felt the loss keenly. “Bigger than I had imagined, looking at the map. I haven’t even begun to see it all.” Adaeze was waiting.
“But you’ll be back.” Jurgen put a hand on his shoulders.
“When you need me…” Liam turned to look at his brother. “I’ll be there.”
Jurgen was surprised to find Pauwel saddling a horse. “You’re coming with?”
“Course I am.” Pauwel grinned, then slapped Lammert on the back, making the thinner man stumble forward a step. “You don’t think I’d let my boys ride off without a proper send off?” The smile faded, and he looked up toward the royal quarters. “An since Koert can’t, well…”
“You truly do care for him, don’t you?” Lammert raised an eyebrow at Pauwel.
“Pretty clear marryin your mother meant marryin him too.” Pauwel shrugged. “Ain’t hard to love two people.”
“I like you, Pauwel.” Lammert smiled. “A great deal.”
“I…” Pauwel looked honestly touched by the simple words. “Thank you, Lammert. I like you too.”
He gave a fond shake of his head. Koert’s eyes had been filled with tears when he’d made his goodbyes to Lammert. It wasn’t often he thought of Koert as a slave, but a slave couldn’t ride freely. Thirza couldn’t come to see Lammert off, not with Marinus still so small. And it was clear Lammert didn’t want a full entourage anyway.
They spent most of the ride playfully teasing each other. Jurgen and Pauwel both discussed arranging a marriage for Lammert, while Lammert pointed out that a marriage ceremony would require him to actually show up and he had no intention of doing anything of the sort. “You need a woman to take care of you.” Pauwel shrugged at Lammert.
“Are you suggesting Queen Thirza takes care of you?” Lammert raised an eyebrow.
“Oh, she’s a lioness.” Pauwel started nodding, a huge smile on his face. “She —”
“Pauwel.” Jurgen laughed. “You are aware she’s our mother, right?”
“Oh.” Pauwel blinked. “Right.”
“I find it difficult to believe you are embarassed by anything.” Lammert glanced at Jurgen.
“What makes you say that?”
“You were…” Lammert tried to hide a smile. “Well, I believe the conversation that woke me last night involved ‘untie me this instant’ and ‘put that cand —”
“Oops.” Jurgen winced. “We, uh, aren’t used to having anybody but our bed slaves around.”
“Yes. I believe it was Rozenn whose intentions regarding said candle had you concerned.” Lammert gave him an innocent look.
“What, do you only like it when it’s dark or something?” Pauwel raised an eyebrow.
“Yeah.” Jurgen nodded. “Let’s go with that.”
Both Jurgen and Pauwel nearly cracked his ribs when they parted ways. “You sure you’ll be safe?” Jurgen shook his head. “Solsthriem isn’t exactly the friendliest place toward Wilders.”
“It’s not the least friendly place either.” Liam smiled. “I’ll be fine, Jurgen.”
“You better be.” Pauwel nodded. “Or I’m kicking all their asses.”
“From anyone else…” Liam gave a fond shake of his head. “I’d dismiss that as an empty threat.”
Jurgen hugged him again. “Come back soon, little brother.”
“I’ll try.” Liam returned the hug. He mounted his horse, then watched the two of them ride back toward the Wildlands. He’d have loved a couple more days, but a dream had come. He took a deep breath, then turned Tulip southeast.
“Bloody hell.” Wendel cursed. His horse tried struggling back to her feet, but her leg was broken. He was lucky the fall hadn’t broken his bones as well. “I’m sorry, girl.” He lifted his sword, and put an end to her suffering. Then he wiped it clean and started moving. The assassins would be on him again soon. He should never have sent Harald and the others west, but he hadn’t seen Roland for a traitor. Only luck had gotten him past the first assassination attempt.
Roland knew if Wendel made it out of the woods, Roland was a dead man. He’d turned half his army out after him. And unfortunately, Wendel was not the best woodsman. He kept moving. If he stopped, they’d find him. He hadn’t gone far when he heard a sound. He turned to see a crossbow pointed at him. “Prince Wendel…” The soldier sneered. “Fancy meeting —”
A spear butt came out of nowhere, knocking the crossbow away. The bolt went flying, striking a tree some feet from Wendel. The spear was twirled, and the sharp blade opened the soldier’s throat. The man put both hands over the wound as blood gushed, and fell to his knees. A tall young man stepped into view. “Prince Wendel.” Liam smiled. “Fancy meeting you here.”
“Lord Liam.” Wendel gave a small shake of his head, but returned the smile. “You’ve a knack for showing up when I’m desperate. I don’t suppose —”
“That I have an extra horse?” Liam raised an eyebrow. “Three. Taken from Roland’s soldiers, but they are beyond complaining.”
He laughed softly. “I’m going to have a lot of questions for you later, but for now…”
“Follow me. I’ll get us through safely.” Liam led him to the horses.
To his surprise, the young man started east. “Liam…”
“Trust me, your highness.” Liam looked back over his shoulder. “Please.”
“I…” East was where the bulk of Roland’s forces should be, but… But this young man had lead him through Valthin as though he’d known the place like the back of his hand. “Alright, Liam.”
Avoiding the soldiers was easy enough. And to his surprise, it took little convincing to get Prince Wendel to keep going east. “I don’t know how, Liam…” Wendel took a deep breath. “But you’ve not taken me down the wrong path yet.” He laughed. “I prayed to all three gods. I’m just curious which one sent you.”
“I ride the wind, your highness. Wherever the sea sends it.” Liam smiled.
“Your horse is Wilder-bred.” Wendel followed him. “Beautiful.”
“Glad you think so. I’ll need to leave her with you when I go back to sea.” He patted Tulip’s neck. “I trust you’ll take good care of her.”
“You save my life, and all you ask is for me to take care of your horse.” Wendel just chuckled as they rode. “She’ll have the finest oats in the land.”
“I also will want to talk to you about some trade routes up in Winter’s Bay, but that can wait a couple years.” Liam shrugged. “Until you’re actually the king and I have the docks built.” He pointed. “There.”
“My loyal men.” Wendel took a deep breath, then glanced at him. “You’re certain?”
“I am.” He nodded.
“Then thank you, my friend.” Wendel held out a hand, and when Liam offered his own Wendel gripped his arm above the wrist. A knight greeting a knight. By Solsthriem custom, a gesture used only by men who considered themselves equals. “The debt I owe you grows larger, Lord Liam.” He hesitated. “We will meet again, won’t we?”
“Next time…” Liam shrugged. “Next time, your highness, will be interesting.”
“Define…” Wendel released his hand. “Interesting?”
“I must request that as tempting as it may be…” He inhaled. “That you not kill my brother.”
“Your broth —” Wendel blinked. Then he went slightly pale. “You’re a Draak.”
“And by brother you mean…” Wendel gave a small shake of his head.
“The Stone Dragon.” He nodded. “Jurgen Draak, Crown Prince of the Wildlands.”
“You’ve saved my life twice, and my kingdom twice.” Wendel met his eyes. “If that is what you ask of me, I will see it done.”
“Then until we meet again, your highness.” Liam dismounted, and handed Tulip’s reins to Wendel.
“Strangely…” Wendel returned the bow. “I find myself looking forward to it. If for no reason other than a hope to one day get answers from you.”
He grabbed his saddle bags, and kept heading east.
She sat on the bowsprit, looking out over the shore. They were turning south again after this stop, going back to Ocia. Captain Uduak planned to go upriver again, to trade and to look for him where they’d left him. It seemed unlikely. Finding one man when they didn’t know where to look. They’d have to leave a message for him, telling him where to meet them.
Adaeze hadn’t expected to miss him this much. Three months seemed endless, and it would take nearly two before they were back in… There was a figure standing on the docks as they headed into the port. It took her a few moments to fully comprehend what she was seeing. Then her face broke into a wide smile. “Uduak. Uduak. Captain!”
The ship hadn’t even come to a stop before she grabbed a rope and swung out onto the deck, landing a few feet from him. He caught her as she threw herself into his arms, holding her close. “Adaeze.”
“Liam.” She rested her forehead against his chest. “Liam.”