“That was…” Liam winced. “Something I was hoping to avoid.”
Adaeze was pacing the cabin. “As much as I hate it, I admire it. You’re mine. I claimed you. How better to ensure your complete loyalty to the Ilael and ensure you never act against the best interests of the throne?”
“I think the fact that you saw that and he didn’t…” Uduak’s voice was soft. “Proves that the decision was a good one for multiple reasons.”
“Uduak…” Adaeze blinked.
“I made you a captain for a reason, Adaeze. And it wasn’t because you claimed my son.” Uduak smiled at her.
“I still don’t like this.” Adaeze sighed before sitting down.
Liam wrapped his arm around her, pulling her close to them. “Those who want to rule are rarely those best suited to the task.”
“What are you smiling about?” Diantha went to her husband.
He held up a piece of parchment. “The Queen of Solsthriem just bore the king a second son.”
“Oh?” Diantha sat down. “Did —”
“The boy’s name is Paul.” Jurgen met her eyes.
A small smile came to her face. “Paul.” She slowly nodded.
“Upon Liam’s next visit, I’ll ask him to carry a letter and speak on our behalf. I don’t want to risk it being intercepted, but…” Jurgen nodded. “He’s a good man. I think he will raise good sons.” He exhaled. “Thirza won’t allow it. She’ll be furious enough if she ever learns Liam…” He looked away. “Especially because it’s Liam.”
“When you are king…” She sat down in his lap. “There are things that will change. But in the meantime…” She raised her head imperiously. “I am chief of Valyk. And she does not have a say in who I allow to marry my children. She has no say in my children at all.” She shrugged a little. “Plus I’m reasonably sure that I can call in a navy if I need to.”
“Chief Diantha and Captain Adaeze.” Jurgen started to laugh, then it trailed off and his expression became slightly nervous. “I really don’t see an alliance between you two working out all that well for me.”
“Really?” She put her arms around his neck. “I like the thought of you having to ask permission before leaving my bed.”
Jurgen smiled before wrapping his arms around her tightly and standing to start carrying her toward the bed. “I prefer the thought of you tied to the bed.”
“You…” Diantha twisted to try to get leverage. “And what army?”
He leaped from the balcony with the intention of tackling his brother into a haystack. Liam simply stopped walking, meaning Jurgen went past, missing him completely and landing face first in the haystack himself. Jurgen lifted his head. “Rutger, is he smiling?”
“No.” Rutger however, was clearly snickering.
Jurgen sat up and turned to look at his brother. His eyes narrowed. “Rutger, you lied to me.”
“This isn’t a smile.” Liam shook his head. “It’s a smirk.”
“Right.” Jurgen stood, then glanced at where Marinus and Petrus were right behind Rutger, grinning. “Okay, Marinus, left leg, Petrus, get his right, Rutger —”
“I brought presents.” Liam held up a bag.
Immediately the children flocked to him excitedly. Jurgen sighed. “I’m rather ashamed at how easily the lot of you can be bought.”
“Easily?” Liam put a hand over his heart. “I had to go all the way to Tebotas for these.” He held the bag up and raised an eyebrow at Jurgen.
“I…” Jurgen sighed, then grinned and bounced like the little ones were doing. “What did you bring me?”
Diantha’s fingers caressed the delicate glass tea set. Hers was tinged with green, while Thirza’s was tinged in red. Jurgen reached for one of the cups, and she smacked his hand away and put her arm around it protectively. “How come you never bring me anything this pretty?”
“Delicate stuff like that rarely survives a raid.” Jurgen shrugged.
“Hmph.” She rolled her eyes, then picked up one of the boxes of tea and put it to her nose. “Mmmmmmm…”
“Can I…” Jurgen held his hand out for it.
She lunged to bite at his fingers and snarled. “Mine.”
“Diantha isn’t sharing!” Marinus glared from where he was sitting on the floor with Liam. He looked up at Liam. “She makes me share.”
“Mother made me a cup with the set you brought her.” Rutger tilted his head. “It tasted strange, but I liked it anyway.” He smiled, then ran his fingers over the vambraces Liam had brought him. They were clever things, with a half dozen hidden pockets inside and a sheath that contained a concealed dagger. Jurgen had a pair made in his size as well as a belt that also had hidden compartments and a secret sheath.
“Will you play the tune for me again, Rutger?” Liam smiled at this little brother.
“Oh yes.” Rutger took out the flute and put it to his lips.
“Did you hear about Wendel?” Jurgen raised an eyebrow.
“I did.” Liam nodded as he leaned out over the balcony. “I think Pauwel would be tickled at the notion of a Solsthriem prince named after him.”
“He’d be complaining he can’t ride into Solsthriem to teach the little princes how to fight properly.” Jurgen’s smile was sad. “Marinus will need to know the truth someday.”
“He will.” Liam exhaled. “I, uh…” He smiled. “Adaeze is pregnant again.”
“That…” Jurgen’s eyes widened a heartbeat before he enveloped Liam in a tight hug. Liam just laughed and hugged Jurgen back. “Congratulations. Boy or girl?”
“I don’t know.”
“You…” Jurgen stepped back. “You don’t know?”
“She asked me not to look. Said it should be a surprise for us both.” Liam smiled. “Like Mbali was and constantly is.”
“I wish…” Jurgen sighed. “I wish a lot of things.” He looked back at where the children were playing with their prizes. “I’d ask how you always seem to time your visits for when we are in Darodelf, but uh…” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I sort of realized it was a stupid question.”
“It will be a year before you see me again, brother.” Liam leaned on the balcony, sitting lightly on the edge. “There are…”
“If you need me, Liam, all you ever have to do is ask.”
“Do you want to rule the Wildlands, Jurgen?” Liam looked up, meeting his brother’s eyes.
“I…” Jurgen looked startled by the question. He frowned for a moment, chewing his lip. “I don’t think it’s ever been a question of wanting to. It’s my duty and…” He exhaled. “There are things that need to change, things that should change and…” He turned and waved a hand. “Sometimes those mountains are like an impenetrable wall. Other nations have ambassadors, diplomats, alliances, and…” He looked down before folding his arms. “Wendel and I should be able to be friends without it destroying him. I don’t know if I can change all that, but…” He looked back up. “I’d like to try. So, I guess…” He nodded. “Yes. I do.”
“You would make a good king.” Liam smiled.
“That…” Jurgen smiled. “Actually means a lot, coming from you.” Then he frowned. “Why do you ask?”
“Visions come to me at night. I don’t have control over those.” Liam hesitated, then rubbed his arm. “I put a gag between my teeth before I go to bed, so I do not wake everyone with my screams. Adaeze and Efua help and…” He swallowed. His brother’s body torn apart while Jurgen screamed. Diantha devouring her own children. He started shaking his head.
A moment later his cheek was stinging, and he realized Jurgen had hit him. His brother had a firm grip on his arm. “Liam. Liam, are you…”
“I’m…” He panted. He tried to say he was alright, but the magic that prevented him from lying stilled his tongue. “From time to time, Jurgen, I will ask odd things of you. I need you to —”
“I trust you.” Jurgen nodded. “Whatever is to come…” He hugged Liam. “Your brothers will have your back, Liam.”
“You did not.” Jurgen folded his arms.
Liam rolled his eyes. “You do recall that I cannot lie, yes?”
“There is absolutely no way you fought the basilisk while blindfolded.” Jurgen shook his head. He’d seen Liam fight. Liam wasn’t bad, but it was hard enough believing he’d survived a battle with a basilisk. Adaeze had exaggerated, claiming the thing was thirty feet long. They really were an adorable couple.
For a moment, Liam just stared at him. Then he shrugged and walked over to the weapon rack. He tossed a quarterstaff to Jurgen before selecting one for himself. Jurgen frowned as Liam also grabbed a sash, then walked to the center of the practice ring and began securing the sash over his eyes. “Seriously?” Jurgen frowned.
“Scared?” Liam shrugged.
“Whatever. I’m good enough I can probably avoid hurting you while you flail about.” Jurgen twirled the staff in his hand as he entered. “Right. Go.” He sent a light blow to sweep Liam’s legs out from under him.
And his brother jumped over it before sending the butt of his quarterstaff into Jurgen’s stomach. Jurgen barely managed to pull back in time to avoid most of it. “You can do better than that, brother.” Liam smirked.
He twisted, altering his position. Liam blocked his staff, then did it again, then did it again. Jurgen began attacking in earnest, and an amazed smile came to his face as his brother repeatedly blocked or avoided attacks, and returned attacks of his own with unerring accuracy. Two minutes later, Jurgen found himself flat on his back with the butt of Liam’s staff resting on his chest. “You…” Jurgen gave a small shake of his head. “You beat me. You…” He caught the staff and moved it out of his way as he sat up. “You actually beat me.” His eyes narrowed. “How the hell did you do that?”
“I am not without skills.” Liam smiled.
“Seriously?” Jurgen got back to his feet, still staring. He gave a small shake of his head. “I didn’t teach you that.”
“You were not my only teacher, Jurgen.” Liam shrugged. “If you recall, it was Koert who taught me the spear. I have also picked things up on my travels.”
“Teach me how to do that.” Jurgen caught his arm as Liam went to put his staff back.
“I’m only here another day, Jurgen. If you want to learn to do it…” Liam patted his head. “You’re going to have to figure it out for yourself.”
Jurgen glared at him, then tackled him off his feet.
Jurgen exhaled. Thirza was glaring at Liam, who stood calmly beneath her gaze. “You will do as I command.” She lifted her head imperiously.
“It takes years just to season the wood properly to build a boat.” Liam exhaled. “Even if I find boat-builders willing to —”
“I do not care if they are willing. Take them as slaves if needed.”
“Additionally, the northern passage is impassable during the coldest months, and —”
“Every other nation that borders the sea has a navy.” Thirza folded her arms. “If you cannot, then I will place the Wharf Tower in the hands of someone who can.”
“You have no grounds to strip that holding from me.” Liam’s voice was calm.
“He’s right.” Jurgen kept his own voice calm. “Mother, his objections are sound. A navy may be possible but it is not something that will materialize overnight.” He took a deep breath. “We have trade coming in —”
“At the mercy of ships from other lands, with no means to control them.” Thirza turned her glare to Jurgen.
“And who will lead these sea raiders?” Jurgen raised an eyebrow. “Mother, I have been on a ship. It takes years of training just to be able to get one to go in the right direction. I’m not keen to be at the mercy of slaves a hundred miles from land, so we’d have to find those willing to learn to sail.” When her eyes narrowed, Jurgen squared his shoulders. “I’m not saying it’s impossible. I’m saying the time to make it reality spans years rather than weeks.”
“Years ago our ancestors ruled from sea to sea.” She drew herself up to her full height. “My grandchildren will rule beyond even that.” She turned her eyes back to Liam. “See it done.”
“It would be interesting.” Jurgen shrugged. “I mean —”
“I’ll not teach you how to make war on my people.” Liam stopped, turning to glare at Jurgen.
Jurgen blinked. “I’m talking about teaching our people how to —”
“Your people, Jurgen.” Liam shook his head.
“I…” Jurgen frowned. “Liam, I am your brother.”
“You are my brother, Jurgen. That is…” Liam exhaled. “Why I have done as much for the Wildlands as I have. But these…” He waved a hand. “These are…” He sighed. “Remember when you first boarded a vessel, and it went onto the water? How your stomach felt?”
“Yeah.” Jurgen nodded. “Everything was off, having things move beneath my feet like that.”
“That is how I feel on the land, Jurgen. It doesn’t roll and sway with the wind. The air doesn’t taste of salt and…” He rubbed at the back of his neck. “You are a Wilder. I am Ilael.”
For a few moments, Jurgen was silent. Then he sighed. “And if the Wilders take to the water, then…” He closed his eyes, then gave a small nod. “In that war you would be my enemy.”
“Yes.” Liam swallowed. “I would.”
“Well, in addition to that nightmare…” Jurgen started walking again. “I know you can’t lie, which meant every one of your objections was accurate.”
Liam fell into to step next to him. “I left out that if rumor reached anyone that the Wilders were building a navy…” He shrugged. “Wendel may like and respect you, but you aren’t on the throne. He cannot risk Thirza having naval power, and thus will destroy any shipyards capable of building a war vessel before they get the chance to do so.”
“True. He’s not an idiot.” Jurgen looked down, then back up at Liam. “She isn’t going to be happy that you aren’t cooperating with her scheme.”
“I know.” Liam took a deep breath.
“The Wharf Tower is yours though, and it’s the only place we have right now even remotely capable of launching this. As long as you control it, we should be able to keep this stymied.” Jurgen put a hand on his shoulder.
“I know.” Liam turned to face his brother. “Which is why she’s eventually going to try to kill me.”
“She wouldn’t do…” Jurgen stared at him, then his face took on a pained expression. “I’ll protect you, Liam.”
“I’ll be fine, Jurgen.” He smiled. “Marinus needs you far more than I do. I have the entire ocean upon which to hide.”
She lay with her head on Liam’s chest. Mbali was curled up on his other side, thumb in her mouth. Adaeze reached over to brush one of Mbali’s curls back. Liam made a small sound, but before she could respond to calm him his eyes snapped open. He winced, and pinched the bridge of his nose.
“Liam?” She sat up. “What’s wrong?” When he didn’t respond, she frowned. “Liam, talk to me.”
“I am attempting to find words that will not…” He sighed, then sat up as well, careful to not disturb the sleeping toddler. “I fear that if I tell you, you will not permit me to visit the Wildlands.”
Adaeze swallowed. She wanted to do exactly that, to keep him safe. She also knew that if she did, he would resent her for it, and that too would result in her losing him. She touched her forehead to his. “You are going to defy Thirza, and she will eventually try to kill you.” When he blinked at her, she smiled. “Diantha wrote me. She had a concern you would try to keep that information from me, as Jurgen tried to keep it from her.”
“I’ll not forbid you from going, my husband.” Adaeze took a deep breath. “But I do have some conditions.”
Jurgen couldn’t help but laugh as he watched Liam dive into the river after Marinus. He should be worried, but Liam was probably the strongest swimmer in the Wildlands. He headed to the bank to meet them. Liam was cursing in several different languages as he hauled Marinus out of the water. “I forget how cold that water is.”
“Come on. Let’s get you both to a fire.” Jurgen took Marinus’s hand, then gestured for a couple of the palace slaves to go retrieve Liam’s horse and belongings. “He was pretty excited to —”
“What did you bring me?” Marinus caught Liam’s hand with his free one. His teeth were chattering just a little, but he was bouncing eagerly.
“What makes you think I brought you anything?” Liam smiled down at his little brother.
Marinus kept up a running monologue of everything that had happened the past year. Petrus joined them halfway back to the quarters, taking Liam’s other hand and immediately starting to argue with Marinus over the interpretation of various events. “And I can juggle four balls now and Petrus can’t juggle any!” Marinus smiled proudly before sticking his tongue out at Petrus.
“Well I can throw a spear from horseback and hit the center of the target everytime.” Petrus stuck his tongue out back.
“I can too!” Marinus shook his head.
“Yes, but I can do it without needing a saddle.” Petrus smirked.
“You just got lucky.” Marinus wrinkled his nose.
“Too.” Marinus danced away. “Jurgen, he’s kicking me.”
“You started it.”
“Welcome back, brother.” Jurgen grinned.
“Until I got here…” Liam chuckled. “I had missed you all.” He paused as the horses came into view. “Jurgen, I should probably…”
He stared when he saw Efua with the horses. Then his eyes widened again as he saw the slave style collar around her neck. “We’ll talk in private.”