Jurgen nodded to Pauwel. “Things seem…” He gave a cautious shrug. “Better.”
“They…” Pauwel smiled. “They are. Not fast or…” He glanced up at the balcony above. “Koert was teachin Rutger how to read a couple of the other languages. I pointed out just how smart he was, and that maybe he could help her like Koert used to. Taking notes during meetings and all.”
“Sounds like…” Jurgen nodded. “That might be good for both of them.”
“As long as she don’t want to actually read the notes. He’s smart, but he can’t write fast and good at the same time yet.” Pauwel grinned proudly. “He’d getting there. How’s Marinus?”
He laughed. “Petrus started calling him Rien. He likes the name.”
“I named him Marinus.” Pauwel folded his arms.
“It’s a big name for a little boy.” Jurgen shrugged.
“It was my grandfather’s name.”
“Give him time, Pauwel. He’ll grow into it.” Jurgen put a hand on Pauwel’s shoulder.
“He will.” Pauwel lifted his head and gave another proud smile. “He’s the River Dragon, and there ain’t nothing out there can fight a river and win.”
“I’m giving him Winterstar. She’s a mare out of Lavender by Sugar…” His eyes narrowed. “Are you snickering at my horse?”
“Yes.” Pauwel nodded. “Sugarplum. Lammert’s funny.”
“Speaking of Lammert…” He held up a piece of parchment. “Diantha and I are going to inspect Valyk’s holdings on the coast. He’s going to meet us there.” He tucked the parchment away again. “Why don’t you come with us?”
“I…” Pauwel hesitated a moment, the nodded. “Yeah. She’s got stuff to occupy her right now and uh…”
“And you could use some time for you.” Jurgen squeezed his shoulder. “You can bring Marinus as well. Rozenn’s coming along to watch my kids. One more…” He frowned. “I’ll get her a bodyguard.”
Adaeze smiled as she watched Liam patiently showing Mikaere how to tie off the lines. The boy’s command of both Ilael and the trade tongue were improving daily, and he all but wiggled like a puppy every time Liam smiled in his direction.
They’d left the other ships in Thatela, and would meet them there again. The Bard’s current cargo was eclectic, intended to offer a variety of enticements. Liam had taken Mbali into the market, letting the toddler give her opinions on various trade goods. Some of the merchants had been shameless about trying to buy the girl’s attention, hoping to get access to the cargo of coffee and chocolate beans. They’d indulged a few as goodwill gestures.
The goat, ‘Red’, was in her little pen on the deck. Mbali was feeding her a carrot and babbling to her about all the things she’d seen in the market, while the goat made noises back at her. “If I didn’t know otherwise I’d swear they were having a conversation.” Efua chuckled.
“I’m considering calling Liam over to translate the goat’s side.” Adaeze shook her head fondly. She caught one of the lines and looked out. “The mountains there are…” She exhaled. “I’ve not been this far north before.”
“Liam said they’ll get bigger as we go further west. Clan…” Efua tilted her head a little. “Valyk controls the pass, but that’s the clan Jurgen’s wife leads and Liam has already arranged to have them defend the docks.”
“Jurgen will be meeting us at this Wharf Tower.” Adaeze nodded. “And we’ll see if my husband can design decent docks.”
He tapped Diantha’s shoulder and gestured as the ship came into view. “That’s…” Diantha exhaled. “Alright, that’s impressive.”
Jurgen frowned. “It’s not the same ship.”
“How can you even tell?” Diantha glanced up at him.
“The things on the front are different. Last time it was a fire bird. The Phoenix.”
“Like his sigil.” Diantha nodded.
“Yeah.” Realizing that had hurt for just a moment, at least until it had become clear just how much more of a home the ship was to Liam. The idea that something had happened to that ship sent a chill through him. “I hope everyone is okay.” He started down toward the docks.
They reached them almost the same time the ship did. Two of the Ilael sailors swung off ropes to land on the docks and began tying the ship to the stone… Whatever it was Liam had called them. “Blood and ashes, it’s big.” Pauwel’s voice was full of awe. “I mean, it’s like a floating castle.”
“Wait a bit, let them get the ship settled.” Jurgen caught Pauwel’s arm. “The docks are still new and…” He smiled as he recognized the next person to swing over on one of the ropes. Liam was easy to pick out from the other Ilael.
“I want to try that swinging thing.” Pauwel grinned as Liam came toward them. As soon as Liam was close enough to hear, he bounced up on his toes. “Can I swing on the ropes?”
Liam rolled his eyes. “The gangplank is safer.”
“The ropes look fun. Are they fun? They look fun.” Pauwel shook his head eagerly.
“It’s a different ship.” Jurgen raised an eyebrow at Liam. “Is everyone alright?”
“We had a good year. Uduak bought two more. The others are making a run between Gaebli and Solsthriem.” Liam turned to Diantha, and gave her a small bow. “Chief Diantha of Valyk, we bring trade.”
“Can…” Diantha hesitated a moment. “Can I swing on the ropes?”
He exchanged a look with his brother, and they both started laughing.
Diantha tried to stop herself from staring. Jurgen had told her about the Ilael, but… They looked so different. She was taller than all the men, making her feel just a little awkward. Several of the crew greeted Jurgen warmly as they followed Liam up the gangplank.
A lovely woman stood on the deck. Her hair was short and styled into what at first looked like thick curls, and her skin was so dark it was nearly black. She smiled warmly at Jurgen, and Jurgen returned the smile. “Permission to come aboard, Captain Adaeze?” He gave her a small bow.
“Blood and ashes…” Pauwel was staring, wide-eyed. “You’re Adaeze?” He pointed at her.
“You’re so tiny and pretty. Like an ebony doll.” Pauwel beamed at her, then stepped forward to envelope her in a hug.
It was all she could do not to run a hand down her face in embarrassment. Fortunately, Adaeze just laughed. “You’re Pauwel.”
“Yeah.” Pauwel grinned, then blinked. “Wait, he told you about me?”
“A sweet giant of a man…” Adaeze nodded. “Strong as a bear and kind as a puppy.”
“That’s…” Pauwel looked like he was about to cry. “That’s nice. I…” He trailed off and went wide-eyed again as Liam came back over carrying little girl. Then his face broke into a wide smile and he held out his arms. “Mbali.”
The girl looked at him, glanced at her father, then smiled and lunged forward to Pauwel. “Tree!” She giggled as Pauwel caught her. Then she grabbed his vest and began pointing at the designs, babbling in a language Diantha couldn’t understand.
Adaeze blinked and glanced at Liam, who shrugged. “It’s Pauwel. He has that effect on children.”
“No.” Jurgen shook his head. “He’s now Tree.”
“You’re just jealous because it’s a better nickname than yours.” Pauwel bent his head down to the girl and whispered conspiratorially. “He’s just a stinky old dragon.”
Mbali giggled and nodded. “Stinky dragon.”
“Yes.” Pauwel beamed at her. “Stinky dragon.”
“Captain Adaeze.” Diantha rolled her eyes. “Since the men are useless…” She rolled her eyes as Jurgen tried to get Mbali to come to him, only for Mbali to giggle, cling to Pauwel, and poke her tongue out in response. Pauwel gave Jurgen a very smug look. “I’m Chief Diantha, of clan Valyk. I’m looking forward to trading with your people.”
“Chief Diantha, we are honored to —” Adaeze blinked as Pauwel blew a raspberry on Mbali’s belly, making the little girl shriek with glee. “Dispense with the formalities entirely. Welcome aboard.”
“And who is this?” Jurgen raised an eyebrow at Mikaere came over, carrying a jug of water to refill their cups.
“This is Mikaere. He’s…” Liam exhaled. “A very long story. Mikaere, this is my brother, Jurgen.”
“Brother. Jurgen.” Mikaere nodded, his words difficult to understand behind his strange accent. He gave Jurgen a wide-eyed look, then asked Liam something in another language. Liam responded in the same tongue, and the young man asked a couple other questions. Liam began shaking his head, then ran a hand down his face and sighed before responding again in a tired voice. Mikaere looked slightly confused and a little scared, but turned back to Jurgen and pointed at him. “Tauenga?”
“Uh…” Jurgen blinked. Liam started shaking his head again, clearly protesting in the other language while the young man’s expression became even more confused. After a couple minutes, the young man started nodding in understanding. Liam started to look relieved. “What’s going on?”
The young man looked at him and smiled widely. “Maharu. Honored to serve.” He bowed before moving away again. Liam just groaned.
“Liam?” Jurgen gave his brother a confused look.
“Please don’t make me explain.” Liam winced.
“Just the part about whatever it was he called me?”
Another voice came in, almost gleeful with amusement. “If you’re Liam’s brother, then you must also be a god.” Efua put her hand on Liam’s shoulder. “So, which one is he?”
“Wait, what’s this about gods?” Jurgen folded his arms.
“Liam is Auhiroa, the —”
“I am not.”
“— god of fire and prophecy. Mikaere is his high priest.”
“No.” Liam started shaking his head.
“And that makes me…?” Jurgen started to smile. When Liam didn’t respond, he looked at Efua. “Tauenga?”
“Okay, if what I got from an earlier conversation is correct, Tauenga is one of the war gods. Not a very nice fellow. Pretty sure Liam convinced him you weren’t Tauenga, so logically —”
“There is nothing logical —”
“Hush you.” Efua poked Liam. “Logically, you must be the other war god. Maharu. Which makes a lot more sense, actually, cause Maharu was carved out of stone and brought to life by —”
“Efua…” Jurgen tried not to laugh.
“You’re going to need the whole story?” She grinned.
“I’m going to need the whole story.” He nodded.
“He…” Jurgen blinked, then stared at Adaeze. “Did what?”
“Fought a basilisk.” She folded her arms.
“I see.” Jurgen took a deep breath. “May I hit him?”
“Hey now.” Pauwel shook his head. “That’s pretty impressive, him fighting…” Pauwel trailed off, then tilted his head. Then he turned to look at Liam. “You fought a basilisk without us? You…” Pauwel gave Liam a hurt look. “Really?” He shook his head. “That’s just cold.”
“First you let my husband have a royal playmate and I don’t get one…” Diantha narrowed her eyes. “Then you fight a basilisk without us.”
“Seriously, Liam.” Jurgen glared. “A basilisk, and you couldn’t even…” He ran a hand through his hair. “I would have gotten us all new axes for a fight like that.”
“I think…” Adaeze stared at them. “We may all be talking in the trade tongue but I’m not sure we are speaking the same language.”
Liam chuckled. “I did warn you.” Then he looked up at Jurgen. “I brought you back the fangs.”
“Alright. You’ve gotten yourself out of the beating.” Jurgen nodded. Then he laughed. “Let’s go ashore. I want to show you what we’ve built to go with Wharf Tower.”
“That would…” Liam caught himself, and turned toward Adaeze. She raised an eyebrow at him expectantly. “Permission to go ashore?”
Her eyes narrowed. “Take Efua with you.”
“Yes, Adaeze.” He nodded meekly.
Jurgen and Pauwel gave him strange looks. Diantha was starring at Adaeze. Jurgen gave a small shake of his head, then shrugged. “Right, let’s go.”
“You go ahead.” Diantha waved her head. “I’ve got some questions for Adaeze.”
“Questions for…” Adaeze blinked.
Diantha sent a pointed look toward Liam before looking back at Adaeze. “Teach me, wise one.”
“Oh.” Jurgen started shaking his head and grabbed Diantha’s arm. He started dragging her toward the door. “No. No no no no no.”
“So you are Efua.” Diantha gave the woman an admiring look.
“And you are Diantha.” Efua returned it.
Liam stopped in his tracks. He turned to look at Efua, then at Diantha, then back at Efua. “No.” He shook his head. “No, no, no…” Jurgen grabbed his arm and dragged him off, still protesting.
Pauwel shook his head and gave the women a confused look. “I missed something.”
Efua laughed, then looked him over before glancing at Diantha. “What do you feed your menfolk, because…” She let out an admiring whistle.
Diantha let out a laugh of her own as Pauwel actually blushed in response.
He smiled as he watched Pauwel with Mbali. The big man sat cross legged by the goat pen, listening attentively as Mbali told him all about her adventures with Red. Liam closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Pauwel had hugged Adaeze again when he’d learned the name of the ship, and was already making plans for Mbali and Marinus to have adventures together. It hurt that the man wasn’t going to get to see it.
“Talk to me.” Jurgen’s voice came from behind him.
“He doesn’t care at all that he’s not her grandfather…” Liam nodded. “Because he’s her grandfather.”
“He’s the same with Petrus, Alida, and Teuna.” Jurgen laughed. “When Marinus has kids, he’s…” He must have caught the expression on Liam’s face, because he trailed off. His eyes closed, and he took a ragged breath. “Can I stop it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Blood and ashes, Liam.” Jurgen shook his head. “It’s Pauwel. It’s…”
“I saw Enu and Koert’s deaths years before they happened. I tried. I altered factors, changed…” He hung his head. “I could have saved Enu at the cost of war. I prevented one death for Koert only for another to find him. The threads weave all over and weights hang from them and…” He sighed. “I don’t know.”
“You saved Marinus.”
“I had to come back to do so. Which led to me bringing you to Uduak, which led to her telling you which tribe, which led to the attack, which led to…” He shook his head. “If I’d let Marinus die…”
Jurgen’s hand caught his shoulder and spun him around so they were facing each other. “Don’t.” Jurgen glared at him. “Don’t you ever, ever go down that path, Liam. You…” He exhaled, then lifted his head. “Tell me what happens.”
“I can’t find the single thread that leads there. There are multiple paths.” He took a deep breath. “The river an army cannot cross. He stays behind to stand, to hold the line and he does. He holds and…” He exhaled. “He guarantees victory at the cost of his life. Just like…” He wiped at his eyes. “Like Enu did.”
“Liam.” Jurgen’s voice was gentle. “Liam look at me.” It took him a moment to be able to raise his head and meet his brother’s eyes. “It’s not your choice to make. You know that. Enu made his choice. Koert made his choice. Pauwel will…” He took a ragged breath of his own. “Pauwel will make his. Someday, I will make mine. You can warn us and help us, but in the end, little brother, the choice is ours, and it always will be.”
“Liam.” Jurgen put his hands on both Liam’s shoulders. “I don’t care what Mikaere thinks. You are not a god. You do not decide. You told me once that you’d warned Enu. You told him what would happen, and he went anyway. I know that if Koert had known ahead of time what would happen that day he would have made the exact same choice he did in that moment. Don’t you…” He shook Liam lightly. “Don’t you ever dishonor them by thinking otherwise. Don’t you ever, ever, take the blame or credit for the choices we make. Do you understand me?”
“I…” Slowly, Liam nodded. “Yes.”
“Good.” Jurgen released his shoulders. “So you done being stupid now?”
“Well…” Liam managed a small laugh. “Probably not.”