“Am I forgiven yet?” Jurgen yanked at the manacles securing him to the column,
then groaned as Torin took him into his mouth again.
“Blood and ashes, woman, I…” He gasped, then gritted his teeth.
Diantha sat on the bed, an arm around Rozenn, while the two women watched Torin take him to the edge again. “You fucked a king, without us.”
“He wasn’t a king when…” His head rolled back, and he heard himself make a small whimpering sound when Torin stopped yet again.
“I don’t think that’s relevant.” Torin smirked up at him.
“I am going to spank you until you can’t walk for a week.” Jurgen glared at him.
“Promise?” Torin gave him a catlike smile.
He had to duck so the toddler riding on his shoulders didn’t bump his head. Petrus was giggling and bouncing, and he could understand the boy’s excitement as he looked at the colts following their mothers. “Which one was yours?”
Petrus pointed at a silvery gray young male, happily kicking his heels up as he pranced about. Jurgen let out a low whistle. Whether by chance or prompting, his boy had chosen the scion of Sugarplum and Lilac, and that little stallion was going to be a beauty. “He’s Flower.”
“He’s…” Jurgen turned to look at Diantha, who just sighed. “Flower?”
“Ah.” Jurgen took a deep breath. “You know, my brother can be a really bad influence.” He smiled. “Though there is good news. In a few months, we’ll be able to retaliate.”
“Retali…” Diantha’s eyes widened before her face broke into a smile. “He’s going to be a father?” She laughed delightedly. “Tell me more of Adaeze.”
“She manages him well. Right mix of firm and gentle.” He shifted Petrus’s weight just a little. “I think you’d like her. She’s…” He chuckled at the memory, then held his hand out to indicate her height. “A tiny little thing. Not sure where he grabs hold of her, but she’s pretty. The Ilael are…” He twitched a shoulder. “It was odd at first, being among them. They look so different than we do, and some of their customs are strange.” He back at Diantha. “You’ll like this. They won’t accept male rulers.”
“A wise people.” Diantha nodded.
“Baako is…” Jurgen took a deep breath. “He’s Liam’s father.”
“Liam?” Diantha blinked.
“Lammert. He’s not Lammert there. After…” Jurgen swallowed. “The Unitafels tortured him, and between that and I guess the language barrier he couldn’t tell them who he was. He said Lammert and they must have heard Liam, because that’s what they call him.”
“Why did they not return him to us?” Diantha folded her arms.
“I asked Baako. He said Lammert wanted to stay and…” Jurgen’s smile was sad. “He doesn’t just live among them, Diantha. He’s one of them. Different as he is, they treat him just like any other Ilael. And Baako and Uduak are his parents. You need only a few seconds of looking to see that. They love him. Uduak…” He looked away, and his voice became quiet. “Uduak would go to war for him.” He looked back at Diantha. “She told me what clan mark the Unitafels wore.”
“Are you going after them?” Diantha raised an eyebrow.
“He doesn’t want me to.” He considered telling her about the staff, but he wasn’t sure he understood that himself. “Said it wasn’t worthwhile.”
She folded her arms. “They tortured him.”
“I know. But…” He took a deep breath. “I think it may be more important for me to respect his wishes than it is to avenge him.”
“I don’t…” Diantha sighed. “Perhaps you’re right.”
Efua smiled. She’d come to check on Adaeze, but it was clear Liam had already handled the matter. Mornings were not always kind to the pregnant woman. Liam had carried her out to the deck, and was now sitting with her near the railing. Both slept, Liam in the pile of ropes and Adaeze curled into his lap with his arms holding her wrapped in a blanket. She brought the tea over to them.
Liam’s eyes opened as she approached. “How is she?” Efua kept her voice quiet so as not to wake the sleeping woman.
“The breeze helped.” He smiled, then gave her a grateful look as she brought a second blanket and arranged it so it covered him as well. He glanced at the tea, then frowned. “It’s too sweet for her.”
“You haven’t tast…” She blinked, then gave him a suspicious look. “You’re that focused on her?” The suspicion changed to concern. When he focused too hard, he tended to miss other things.
“I’m still watching the ship.” Liam glanced up at her before looking down at Adaeze again. “She’ll be able to eat apples and bread, but if she eats the salt pork she won’t be able to keep anything down.” He frowned a little. “Will you make more of the ginger candies with the lemon? They’ll help.”
“I can.” She hesitated a moment. “Liam, the birth…” She put a hand on his shoulder. “She’s a small woman. You are not a small man.”
“She’ll be fine.” He smiled. “This too, will pass soon.” He kissed the top of her head.
“Glad to hear it.” Adaeze murmured, not opening her eyes. “Next time, you do this part.”
“Well struck.” Jurgen looked down at Rutger and nodded.
Rutger grinned up at him proudly, then turned toward his father. “Did you see me? Did you see! I tagged him.”
“I saw.” Koert smiled, then took Marinus from Pauwel. “Better watch out. He’s got backup.”
Pauwel lowered his head and growled as he picked up a quarter staff. Rutger grinned as he set his feet. Pauwel charged with a swing that would have looked wild if Jurgen had believed for a moment Pauwel would actually risk hurting Rutger. Rutger moved exactly as Jurgen had drilled him, and caught Pauwel in the leg. The blow wasn’t hard enough to actually trip a warrior of Pauwel’s strength and skill. Pauwel fell anyway, crashing to the ground in a dramatic heap before beginning elaborate death throes.
“That…” Jurgen laughed as he ran a hand down his face.
“I wonned!” Rutger held his staff up triumphantly.
He walked over to stand above Pauwel. “Out of curiosity, have you ever had any dignity?”
“Not nice to speak ill of the dead.” Pauwel grinned up at him. Jurgen had a split second of warning as Pauwel’s eyes turned mischievous, then the man grabbed his ankle and yanked.
Jurgen landed and immediately rolled, coming up just in time to brace himself for Pauwel’s tackle. Still, Pauwel had just enough size on him that he had to shift and redirect some of the force to avoid behind taken off his feet. In strength, Pauwel had the advantage, so Jurgen switched to focusing on leverage instead. He caught Pauwel’s arm, only for Pauwel to manage to stand anyway, lifting Jurgen up with him before deliberately falling backward. Jurgen twisted to avoid having Pauwel land on him, but that cost him the advantageous position he’d had a moment before. He waited for Pauwel to start to rise again, then spun to kick the bigger man’s legs out from under him. Before Pauwel could recover Jurgen had his arms behind his back again, shifting the angle so Pauwel couldn’t get his feet back under him sufficiently to rise again. “This one’s mine.”
“Blood and ashes.” Pauwel uttered a couple more good-natured curses as he struggled, then nodded. “Yes, it is.”
“You two are like a couple of bear cubs.” Koert shook his head fondly, then looked over at Rutger. “You saw what Jurgen did with his legs there?”
“Kicked his legs out.” Rutger nodded.
“Not just that…” Koert shook his head. “How?”
When Rutger frowned in confusion, Pauwel came to his rescue. “If he’d come from the front, I could have leaned forward and kept my balance. So he spun to come from the back.”
“Oh.” Rutger slowly nodded.
“Right.” Pauwel gestured. “You come over here and try it.”
After picking up the staffs, Jurgen sat next to Koert. Marinus immediately shifted to crawl into his lap, and Jurgen set him on his knee. “He’s learning, but the harp sits more naturally in his hands than the staff.”
“That’s why I’m grateful he has you and Pauwel.” Koert nodded.
“I’m not so sure it’s a bad thing, really.” Jurgen shook his head. “Going over the border with Lammert got me thinking and…” He shrugged. “Clan Draak has warriors.” He smiled as Marinus slid out of his lap to start imitating his father’s movements, then he looked up at where Rutger was struggling with the same drill. “Maybe it could stand to have a diplomat.” He hesitated. “Maybe in a couple years, Rutger could go with Lammert on one of his trips. See the world a little, learn how to interact with others in ways that don’t involve weapons.”
“That would…” Koert smiled. “I think he’d love a chance to see those stories firsthand.”
“No.” Thirza shook her head. “They cannot lay hands on a dragon with impunity. They insulted clan Draak.” She squared her shoulders. “They must answer.”
“There were twenty others than just him, Jurgen.”
“Twenty others, who followed Marcel into Unitafels territory, against orders both you and I gave them.” Jurgen shook his head.
“And we’ve tolerated their encroachment into our mountains long enough.” Thirza shook her head. “This affords us the opportunity to reclaim territory. Prove ourselves stronger than they.” She glared. “They built some of their foul shrines on land that should be ours, and we now have cause to drive them from it.” She waved a hand. “Find the one that bears that clan mark, and destroy it. Take as many warriors as you need, but I want it wiped from the map.”
“I…” He exhaled. If he’d thought for a moment that she was doing this for Lammert, the order might have rested easily. She just needed an enemy to prove Draak’s strength, and the Unitafels happened to be convenient. “Understood.”
He walked out of her chambers to find Pauwel nearly bouncing with excitement. Koert’s expression wasn’t quite as exuberant, but it was clear he was pleased. “You’re going after the ones that hurt Lammert.” Koert nodded to him.
“Yes.” He should be happy about this, but Liam’s face was clear in his memory. Liam, who had crowned a king. Liam, who knew how this was going to play out.
“You don’t look happy about this.” Koert frowned.
“Lammert…” He shrugged. “Tried to talk me out of doing this.”
“Is he going to join us?” Pauwel’s face lit up.
“If we need him…” Jurgen smiled. “He’ll be there.”
Jurgen couldn’t help feel just a twinge of satisfaction when his axe spilled the guts of one of the Unitafels warriors. He’d heard the tales, of course. Everyone had. Stories of their ways made it up over the border constantly, but even with what Liam had told him, he’d thought of most of them as stories.
He’d intended just a raid. A small show of strength, a swat on the nose, a few slaves back as trophies. Seeing a child spitted over a fire had changed that. “Leave none alive that take up arms.” His men had seen the same thing he had. Not one argued with the order.
There were prisoners. Men, women, and children locked into a wooden stockade. He’d never seen people so happy to learn they were being taken as Wilder slaves. A dark-skinned man had actually fallen to his knees and kissed Pauwel’s feet when the big man had broken the stockade gate open.
What few Unitafels had survived the Wilder attack hadn’t survived the vengeance of the prisoners. Two old women had beaten an injured warrior to death by hurling rocks at him. “Chief…” Jurgen turned at the sound of Niek’s voice. “Chief, there are no women or children among the Unitafels.”
“I…” Jurgen took another look around the village, then walked over to where the dead were being piled. He frowned. “You’re right.”
“They live apart.” A woman with brilliant red hair looked up from where she was watching a gutted Unitafels bleed to death. “The males and females have separate clans. The young live with the females until they are old enough to breed, then the male ones are driven out to find a male clan to take them.” She looked up at Jurgen as she stood, then her gaze went to Sugarplum before looking back at him. “He tolerates you as his rider. That speaks well of you.”
“You’re of Petobae.”
“I was.” She nodded. “I married an Ocia tradesman.” She looked down at the dying warrior, then put her foot on his hand and began crushing one of his fingers. The man cried out in pain. “This thing ate our daughter.”
“I…” Jurgen nodded. “I’ve got flint and steel, if you’d like.”
Her smile was fierce. “I would.”
Adaeze smiled as Liam laid Mbali in her arms. “A daughter.” She blinked away tears. When Liam sat down beside her, she leaned into him. “We have a daughter.”
He wrapped an arm around her shoulders, then reached out to touch the infant. “She has her mother’s beauty.”
“She’s still squashed.” Adaeze laughed.
“Doesn’t stop her from being beautiful, my love.” Liam kissed the top of her head. He took another look at his daughter. She was lighter skinned than Ama had been at birth. “So, what do you think she’s going to call her first ship?”
“You promised not to look ahead.” Adaeze glared at her.
“And I didn’t.” Liam smiled at her, then gestured again at the infant. “But look at her. She could be admiral of a thousand ships and queen of nine countries.”
“She’s going to call her first ship The Sweet Fool, and tell everyone she named it for her father.” Adaeze shook her head, then looked down at her daughter. Then she shrugged. “She’ll name the second ship after me.”
“The Most Beautiful and Wisest Woman in the World is a bit long to paint on the side.” Liam leaned his head on hers.
“Every now and then, my husband…” She turned to kiss him. “You remind me why I claimed you.”
He checked the fuse on the black powder, then walked over to where Pauwel was holding the other end. The red-haired Petobae woman, Toma, had laughed in the face of Otto when the warrior had tried to claim her as his slave. Jurgen had promised to let the man bring three mares for Sugarplum to stud, then claimed Toma himself. Diantha was going to like the woman. He’d tried to find her husband for her, only to learn the man had been killed in the raid that had taken her. “Alright, hand me the fuse.” He picked up a torch and gestured at Pauwel.
Pauwel stared at him. The man’s lower lip actually trembled a little. Jurgen exhaled, then handed him the torch. Pauwel grinned like a child given his first sword as he touched the flame to the fuse. They’d piled bodies, and those Unitafels that weren’t yet corpses, into the shrine and poured oil over them. The explosion took the shrine apart and ignited the oil, creating devastation that could be seen for miles. Cheers went up among the slaves, and Jurgen couldn’t help but smile when he saw a woman in the tattered remains of noble dress actually grab the warrior who had claimed her and kiss her soundly.
“Today…” Toma’s smile was vicious. “Was good.”
She woke to her husband thrashing his sleep. Instinct caught her, and she got her hand over his mouth a heartbeat before he screamed. “Liam. Liam.” His eyes were wide, staring and terrified. “Liam.” It took a few moments for him to calm. Tears were falling from his eyes. “Liam.”
“Storm’s mercy…” Liam’s face was pale.
“Liam, what…” Adaeze pulled him to her, holding him close. “Liam, what did you see?”
“He didn’t listen…” Liam’s voice broke. “Sea and blood and ashes in the storm…” He swallowed. “He didn’t listen.”