Jurgen swallowed as he watched a tear roll down Thirza’s cheek. The worst part was he couldn’t tell her the truth. He couldn’t tell anyone the truth without risking destabilizing King Wendel and thus rendering Pauwel’s sacrifice meaningless. “First my songbird, and now my bear.” Thirza wiped at her eyes.
“I’m sorry, Mother.” He sighed.
“I didn’t…” She exhaled. “He…” She gave a small shake of her head. “I thought of him as a pet. A harmless little puppy I could take in and use as a guard dog and…” She closed her eyes. “Blood and ashes, I never expected to care about him, let alone love him.” She sighed. “How is Marinus?”
“I’m not sure he quite understands yet.” Jurgen glanced out at the balcony. Marinus was juggling three painted leather balls under the watchful eye of Rutger. “He’s still…”
“So young. All of you lost your fathers so young. Do you even remember Gerlach?”
“I…” He blinked. He’d been the same age as Marinus now when his father had been killed. “No. I don’t.” It was a punch in the gut to realize that by the time Marinus was a man, he likely wouldn’t remember Pauwel. Or Koert.
“Gerlach. Koert. Pauwel.” Thirza took a ragged breath. “Blood and ashes, even Levi. I can’t…” She closed her eyes. “I should find another so Marinus doesn’t…” She shook her head. “I can’t…”
“I’ll train Marinus.” Jurgen crouched in front of her, putting a hand on her knee. “He can come to Valyk with me and train with Petrus and…” He swallowed again. “I’ll make sure he knows what kind of man his father was.”
“A good one.” Thirza nodded. “A good…” Her shoulders began shaking as she started crying again. “Oh, Pauwel.”
Petrus both understood and was thrilled to have Marinus staying with them. The two girls were still too young to be interesting. Jurgen smiled down at Diantha’s girl. Alida had inherited Torin’s blond hair, and it curled into adorable ringlets that stuck out of her head in all directions. Rozenn’s daughter, Teuna, had dark brown hair. Toma was currently weaving ribbons through it to create a braided crown. That was a popular style for little girls in Petobae, it seemed. He’d offered the woman the chance to buy her freedom, but she’d chosen to stay to tend the girls.
“Up.” He bent down and picked Alida up at her request. She grinned at him as she held up her toy octopus. “Rawr.”
Jurgen laughed. “Scary.” He looked at Diantha as she came up behind him and put a hand on his shoulder. “You’re alright with having Mari—”
“Do not…” She shook her head at him. “Be stupid. Of course he can stay as long as he needs.” She hesitated a moment. “How is Liam?”
“We thought it best to…” He exhaled. “Probably best no one learn he was there. Thirza still blames him for Koert, and if she had any inkling…”
“Does she blame you?”
“No.” Jurgen shook his head. “I told her we split into two parties for the raid, but Pauwel’s half got hit by reinforcements.” He managed a small smile. “I told her it took forty to kill him. He deserved that much, at least, to be known.”
“Someday…” Diantha hesitated again. Then she shook her head. “I do not know if it can happen while Thirza lives. Likely not. But when you become king, my love, I want you to consider something.”
“What’s that?” He raised an eyebrow.
“Wendel has a son. You have daughters.”
“I…” Jurgen blinked. He looked down at Alida, and bounced her a little on his hip. “I hadn’t thought of…”
“Of course, Wendel will have to do something regarding Solsthriem attire.” Diantha folded her arms. “No daughter of mine is going to have to wear forty pounds of fabric just to walk down the hall to the privy.”
Adaeze put her arms around Liam, letting him lay against her. Mbali slept in his arms. “I’m glad…” Liam’s voice was soft. “That he got a chance to meet her. And you.” He exhaled. “I wish Koert had gotten the same.”
She kissed his hair. “I liked him.”
“He should be a legend.” Liam exhaled. “What he did is…” He closed his eyes. “Songs should be written for such deeds, sung in taverns across the world. In the Wildlands…” He opened his eyes again to look up at her. “That’s how gods are made. Heroes proving themselves more than mere mortals. I haven’t believed that, not in years if I ever did. But if…” He smiled. “If the feasthall of the gods does exist, they are opening those doors for him now.”
“The wilders burn their dead, don’t they?” She looked down at him.
“When we return to the sea, we shall sail there and drink with him.” She smiled.
“Then we’ll turn pirate, and make such a nuisance of ourselves…” He laughed.
“We will sail upon every storm.” She held him close as they drifted off to sleep.
Diantha smiled as she ran Petrus and Marinus through a swordwork drill. Both had protested, wanting to use axes like Jurgen. Jurgen had settled that issue by dueling her, his axe against her sword. They’d both pointed out a warrior who doesn’t know how a sword is used will have difficulty defending himself against it. Then Jurgen had proved her point for her. In a duel, if she could avoid the axe for at least thirty seconds, she’d win. The sword was simply faster and more versatile.
The axe, however, was impressive, especially in the hands of a warrior of Jurgen’s skill. Dueling him had been fun, and if it weren’t for the boys she’d have dragged him into the bed chamber for a duel of another kind. She shot a glance at where he was sitting with the girls, helping them build a small fort out of mud, sticks, and rocks.
Despite understanding their reasoning, she wished Liam had come back with him. At least long enough to answer a few questions. At their last parting, he’d given her an item to bring back to Valyk and asked her to keep it both secret and safe. Not knowing what exactly the keystone was for was nagging at the back of her mind. He’d fought a basilisk for the thing.
“Well done.” Liam smiled.
Mikaere’s eyes lit up, and he started to bow again before catching himself. He’d pestered Yejide into giving him lessons in Ilael style knife-fighting in an attempt to make himself as useful to Liam as possible. Or rather, to impress Adaeze so she’d decide he’d be a suitable bodyguard. The young man was absolutely miserable everytime Liam left the ship, so he’d begun taking Mikaere ashore with him.
It wasn’t entirely the faith thing. Mikaere understood both Ilael and the trade language, but his accent was often difficult to understand. Liam was the only one he could talk to and be certain of being understood. The young man was intelligent and clever, and having him along wasn’t a hardship. Especially now that he’d stopped going prostrate at Liam’s feet all the time.
He looked out over the ship’s railing at the islands. The queen had demanded the presence of Uduak and her ships. When Mikaere came over to stand by him, Liam squeezed the young man’s shoulder. “Trouble, Aihuroa?”
“What is my name?” Liam glanced at him.
“Liam.” Mikaere gave him an embarrassed look. “I’m sorry, Aih…” He swallowed. “Liam.” He glanced to the left at where The Phoenix sailed in the lead of the three ships. “Is Captain Uduak in trouble?”
“It’s…” Liam sighed. “Yes.”
“Why? She has done good. She saved my people.”
“It’s…” Because of him. “Don’t worry, Mikaere. Go keep an eye on Mbali for me.”
Liam managed not to roll his eyes as the young man rushed off. Hopefully, he wouldn’t do that while they were here. Things were going to be complicated enough as it was.
Uduak couldn’t help but be nervous. There had always been rumors about Liam. Ships gossiped when they got together. Giving captaincy to someone as young as Adaeze was also something to start rumors, but being as Adaeze was also of the royal family it wasn’t that remarkable. Liam had said that they were stepping into a web rather than walking a tightrope. This was going to be trouble, it just remained to be seen how much.
It had been a long time since she’d looked at Liam and seen how different he was. Here, in the islands, coming before the queen, it was obvious. He was almost a foot taller than the tallest of the Ilael, and his pale skin made him stand out even more. They’d dressed ceremonially, and the cape around his shoulders made him look even more imposing than he normally did. Adaeze stood with him, and she smiled when she saw Liam smile down at her. Adaeze stood just under five feet in height, making her short for the Ilael, while Liam was tall even for a Wilder. It made for a pretty picture.
Her smile faded when she saw the queen. She had named her daughter after her mother, but the truth was it had been a long time since she’d thought of the queen as her mother. The woman on the throne had gray hair now. She was getting old. It was almost disturbing to see. “My daughter.” Queen Ama greeted her with an inclined head.
“My queen.” Uduak bowed, as did those with her.
There were formalities to get through, and then, to her surprise, the queen dismissed the majority of the court. “Your ships have done well, Uduak. Better than any in generations. The Phoenix is becoming legend among our people for how often it has come over the horizon when a ship is in need, and there are many of our people who would have gone to the cold and dark were it not for you.”
“We are all children of the sea.” Uduak nodded.
“Yet there are other rumors. You’ve involved yourself in politics that are of no concern to us. A concern despite the fact you’ve forged alliances and shipping paths where none existed before.” Her eyes went toward Liam, and Uduak fought the urge to step between her queen and her son. “I remember the day you brought this boy to us and claimed him as a son. He promised to take to the sea, and yet I hear he has returned to his people.”
“The Ilael are my people.” Liam’s voice was firm and quiet.
“Are you not a prince of the Wildlands?” The queen folded her arms. “Second in line to their throne?”
“I am not a contender for that throne. The Wildlands will be ruled by a dragon. I am not a dragon.” Liam squared his shoulders.
“It is said, Uduak, that this man is the one that guides the ships to go where they need.” Ama unfolded her arms and leaned one elbow on the armrest of her throne. “Is that true?”
Liam had told her not to lie. “It is.”
Adaeze fought the urge to grab her husband’s hand and drag him from the chamber. “You had no right to keep this secret, Uduak.” Queen Ama was glaring. “First you misled me about his true identity, and then…”
“What did it matter that he was a son of —”
“What does it matter?” Queen Ama shook her head. “For the first time in a hundred years we have a port in the Wildlands and trade rights there.”
“Yes, because of him.” Uduak nodded.
“It is something I should have had say in. I should have dealt with the Dragon Queen directly.” Ama’s eyes narrowed, then she turned toward Liam. “You will arrange this.”
“I will not.” Liam shook his head.
“You…” Queen Ama stared at him for a moment, then nodded. “Because the Dragon Queen would be offended that we took one of her sons.”
Liam exhaled before reluctantly nodding. “Yes.”
“There is also the matter of Solsthriem, and the personal debt you are owed by it’s king.” Queen Ama shook her head. “This too, I should have had say in.”
“It has worked out to our advantage, my queen.” Uduak smiled.
“Has it?” Ama exhaled. “We have King Jaeger’s good will, but no actual treaty. Our ‘rights’ are subject to his whim rather than to law.” She looked down before looking up again. “And then there is the matter of how these things came to be in the first place.” She rose and walked toward Liam. Adaeze had to stop herself from stepping between them. “There is a rumor you have the gift of spirit eyes. That you see the future.”
“The rumor is…” Liam nodded. “True.”
“You kept this from me.” Queen Ama slowly turned toward Uduak. “Something this valuable, and you kept knowledge of it from me.”
“He was a boy, my queen, not —” Uduak started shaking her head.
“A boy. A boy with a gift worth more than a ship full of gold. At the very least, he should have been presented to me. His skill with language alone is…” Ama stalked back toward her throne. “You claimed him, making him my grandson. I had the right to decide how he was crewed and who had leave to claim him.”
“He’s mine.” Adaeze spoke up, squaring her shoulders as she stepped in front of her husband.
“Adaeze…” Ama gave her an impatient look.
“I belong to Adaeze.”
“I will not accept the claim of another. I will belong to none but Adaeze. I bend to no will save hers.” Liam raised his head. “I know what I am, Queen Ama. I have slain a basilisk and crowned a king. I am the bearer of Asrael’s sight. I am Ilael, and proudly. I can be your ally, Queen Ama. You do not want me to be your enemy.”
“No.” Ama sat down again. “I do not. Which means, for the good of the Ilael, there is only once choice I can make now.” She looked her eyes on Adaeze’s. “Adaeze Idowu, Captain of The Bard…” Ama took a deep breath. “Granddaughter, I name you my heir.”
As soon as she got her husband back to their cabin, she was going to kill him.