Pauwel caught Thirza’s hand before she could slap Lammert again, and pulled her away. Jurgen pulled Lammert away, then pushed him toward her and gave her an apologetic look. Diantha nodded, and grabbed Lammert’s arm as she took him from the room. “I’m sorry.” His voice was quiet.
“Blood and ashes, Lammert.” Diantha shook her head. She pulled him to her and hugged him tightly before guiding him to a chair and making him sit. “If you hadn’t arrived when you did…” Fewer than forty people had been killed in the attack. She didn’t want to think about how many more of her clan would have been lost. Her hand caught Lammert’s chin, tilting his head up so she could take a good look at him. “Toma, get me a healing potion.”
“You’ve got a cut on your side, another on your arm, and you look like you rode all the way here at a full gallop.” She frowned. “You did, didn’t you?” She shook her head. “Toma, get him food as well.” She went to her dressing table and got a cloth, then dipped it in water before returning to wash dirt and blood from his face.
“How many died?” He looked up at her.
“No.” Diantha shook her head. “No, don’t do that to yourself, Lammert. Don’t…” She crouched to look him in the eye. “Lammert…” She put her hand on his. “If not for you, they’d have gotten inside the fortress and killed everyone before the guards realized it was an attack. You saved my people, Lammert. You saved my family. You saved…” She blinked back tears. “Thank you, brother.”
“How is he?”
Jurgen turned at the sound of Pauwel’s voice. “Asleep. Diantha had to give him a bit of poppy in some wine.” He folded his arms. “Thirza?”
“She uh…” Pauwel exhaled. “Yeah. Same. Rutger finally fell asleep to, still cry…” Pauwel wiped at his eyes. “Two seconds faster.” He whirled and punched the wall hard enough to crack the wood. “Two fucking seconds faster and I’d have got there before…”
“You can’t blame yourself, Pauwel.” Jurgen caught his arm before he could do it again.
“Well who the fuck am I supposed to blame then?” Pauwel shook his head.
“Blame me.” Jurgen growled. “I’m the one that stirred the fucking hornet nest.” He laughed bitterly. Liam had warned him.
“Well it ain’t fucking your fault either.” Pauwel glared at him. “So don’t act like that. It’s…” He shook his head. “It ain’t his fault either.”
“Only two people think it is.” Jurgen looked over at the door. “The problem is he’s one of them.”
“She’s just lashing out.” Pauwel sighed. “She loved him. You could see it.” He leaned against the wall. “Hell, some days she doesn’t even remember I’m there, cause…” He swallowed, then looked away, wiping his eyes again.
“I know you loved him too, Pauwel.” Jurgen put his hand on Pauwel’s shoulder. “We all did.”
“Can’t even…” Pauwel took a ragged breath. “Can’t even be mad at him, cause I’d have done the same thing he did. Someone goes after your boy, you…” He sighed.
Pauwel was right. He couldn’t even be mad at Koert for dying because… The problem was Liam didn’t see it that way. “How is Marinus?”
“He takes after his father. Doesn’t know what the hell is going on most of the time.” Pauwel gave a bitter laugh. “Just knows the folks he loves are upset and wishes he had a way to fix it all. He’s with Rutger, snuggling him while he sleeps.” He straightened. “They was after the kids, weren’t they?”
“I think so.” Jurgen nodded. “This…” He sighed. “I have no idea what they were after.”
“That ain’t no way to make war.” Pauwel glared. “They’ve got the honor of leeches.”
“He can see the future?” Diantha stared at her husband.
“I’m not sure how it works or…” Jurgen exhaled. “Yes. That’s how he knew…” Jurgen’s face was bleak. “He told me not to go after the Unitafels. Warned me that…”
“No.” She took a deep breath. “There is enough misplaced blame going around. I’ll not have you…” She stood, then opened the door to check on Lammert. He’s stirred and thrashed in his sleep, and twice already woken to cry out. Then she exhaled and walked back to her husband. “He wasn’t making a lot of sense. I’m not sure what was the poppy, what was his state of mind, and what was just how exhausted he was.”
“What did he say?” Jurgen frowned.
“He said this wasn’t a raid. That it was a sacrifice. An offering to their gods, and that it hadn’t truly failed, it had just whetted the appetite and…” She frowned. “And that dragons hungered.” Diantha folded her arms. “The Queen won’t take this well. She’ll want war.”
“I think that’s part of what he saw coming.” Jurgen nodded, then leaned back in the chair. “We can’t win a war against the Unitafels. They are even less united than we are, and on their home terrain…” He rubbed his head. “We can’t fight smoke, and…” He winced.
“And the clans won’t accept her going to war over the death of a slave.”
“They attacked —” Jurgen glared.
“She’s right.” Lammert’s quiet voice interrupted him.
“You should be asleep.” Jurgen turned toward him.
“If Thirza goes to war against the Unitafels, she will lose the unity she has built. Divided, the clans will fall in what is to come.” He took a deep breath. “I can’t find a string to cut to unravel the whole. It’s begun.”
“Whatever it is you see, brother…” Jurgen stood. “I won’t believe there is no hope.” He glanced at Diantha, who nodded, then looked back at his brother. “What do we need to do?”
“You need to teach Marinus to fight.” Lammert folded his arms, then leaned on the door. “Teach him and prepare him. He…” He looked up at Jurgen. “He is the Dragonlord.”
“The…” Diantha blinked. “Lammert, there hasn’t been a dragonlord in…” She glanced at Jurgen and saw his eyes wide. “The eclipse.”
“The sun does not shine on the birth of a true dragon.”
“It wasn’t your fault.” Liam blinked at the sound of Thirza’s voice, then turned. She was staring at him, her face furious. “Don’t you think for a moment that I am that foolish.”
He wished that were true. “I wish…”
“I wish it had ended differently. That you are here while he is…” She clenched her fists. “That bolt was meant for you.” She shook her head.
It would perhaps have been kinder to have let Koert take the spear. To let him die proving how much he loved Thirza. “I know.”
“If you hadn’t come back, he might still be alive, but…” She shook her head. “How many others would have died instead?” She exhaled. “I know it wasn’t your fault but…” She straightened. “That scepter. How do I make it work?”
“You want to —”
“I want to stop this from happening again.” Fury crossed her face. “I want…”
“Asrael…” Liam took a couple deep breaths. He knew the risks, but she didn’t know the truth. “From what I’ve learned there are only two ways. You can take the scepter by force, using it to kill the previous bearer.”
“The previous bearer died centuries ago.” She shook her head. “That does me no good.”
“It can be passed willingly over along bloodlines, as the gods who crafted it intended.”
“Then I will pray. Asrael’s blood runs in my veins.” Thirza lifted her chin. “Why?”
Liam blinked. “Why?”
“Why did he die for you?” She shook her head as she stared at him. “Why you?” She took a deep breath. “I know it wasn’t your fault, but I blame you. Why did you come back at all?” She turned, and strode from the room.
She wasn’t expecting to see him on the docks. She’d thought he’d be gone another month, at least. Adaeze stepped onto the dock, and walked toward him. Liam stood, staring out at the water, no expression on his face. She took his hand, and pulled him to look at her before putting her hand on the back of his neck and pulling his head down to touch hers.
They’d stood there for a few minutes before he finally spoke. “I didn’t save Koert.”
“I know you tri—”
“He…” Liam’s voice broke a little. “I stopped him from dying for her, and instead…”
“What good is this gift if I can’t…” He met her eyes. “If I can’t save the lives that matter most?”
“Liam…” She wrapped her arms around him, pulling him close as his shoulders shook. “The lives you saved mattered to someone.”
“My love…” She took a deep breath. “You chose Wendel over Enu.” She felt him go still in her arms.
“I’ve always known, my love. What you did, and why.” She held him close. “I also know how angry Enu would have been, had you made the other choice.” She felt him shake again, heard the sharp intake of breath. “Give me a name. One name. Who would have died if you had saved Koert instead?”
For a few moments, she thought he wouldn’t answer. Then he took a deep breath. “Liam Arendse si Idowu.”
“Storm’s mercy…” She felt tears welling up behind her eyes. “Oh, Liam…”
“I didn’t see it. He did. He pulled me…” He swallowed. “It was meant for me.”
“Come.” She took his hands in hers. “You need your daughter now more than you need me.” She drew him with her toward the ship.
Mbali gurgled up at him, reaching to grab the shark’s tooth he wore around his neck. “That one’s mine, little blossom.” He touched her lip, then pulled it down slightly to look into her mouth. “You’re growing one of your own.” She caught his finger and put it into her mouth, chewing it happily.
“The Silver Trident is in dry dock. By the time we return…” Uduak sat down across from him. “She’ll be prepared and waiting her captain.” She took a deep breath.
“You’re going to buy the other ship anyway.” He looked up at her.
“I am.” She put her hand on his knee. “Liam, there are seventeen people on the Trident who would be dead if you hadn’t told us where to find them. Seventeen souls plucked from the deep to sail on.” She squeezed his knee gently. “You can’t save everyone, my lamb. No one can. But there are seventeen that still ride the waves.”
“She’s young.” Liam nodded.
“I trust her judgment.” Uduak smiled. “She chose you.”
He looked down at his daughter, the fragile life in his hands. She was still gnawing on his finger, drool running down the sides of her mouth. He blinked back tears. “I didn’t understand. Not until…” He looked up at Uduak before looking back at Mbali. “Kept asking myself why he would…” He smiled down at his daughter. “Look at her.”
“What happens now?” Uduak raised an eyebrow at him.
“I’m still searching for the threads.”
“You’re missing one.” Uduak stood. “And I love you for it.”
Liam looked up at her. “What?”
She leaned forward and kissed his forehead. “Oh my lamb.” She shook her head. “We have time for one more run before we return to the islands. Where to?”
“Jolusth for spices, then to Ocia.” He nodded. “Once we have all the ships, Ocia for peppers, then back to Jolus, then goats to Uhses.”
“I hate running livestock.” She stood. “Can’t we…”
“We have to go to Uhses. Goats are what they need.” He frowned a little. “We’ll also need some medicines. I’ll work with Efua for the list.”
“Don’t move.” She smiled before running her fingernails lightly up his inner thigh. Laughter bubbled out of her when he squirmed. “You’re keeping a secret from me.”
His eyes widened. “Adaeze…” He gave her a pleading look.
Adaeze shifted to straddle him. “You may not cum until you’ve told me whatever you and Uduak were plotting.”
“Please…” Liam started shaking his head.
Slowly, she leaned forward to kiss him gently, letting her breasts brush lightly against his chest. Then she ran her fingernails up his side, making him gasp and squirm again. “Put your hands above your head.”
“You know I can’t…” He put his hands where she’d instructed. “You are taking advantage.”
“Yes.” She began securing them to the bolts she’d placed on the head of the bed for just this purpose.
“I can’t even lie to you.”
“I know.” She grinned as she finished binding his wrists.
“Hush, love.” She kissed him. “And do as I tell you.”
“Spread your legs.”
He obeyed, and she began securing his ankles, making sure he had little room for struggling. “You made me promise not to peek at…”
“And I’m taking advantage of that as well.” She smiled at him as she finished.
She straddled him again, then slowly ground her body against his before picking up another length of rope. His eyes widened as she began wrapping it around his balls. “Just to make sure you mind me.” She felt him hardening in her hands as she placed the knots around his genitals just right to torment him, and saw him smile.