He led Bast out to the balcony as the sun began to rise, amusing himself by watching the knight trying to hide the fact he was impressed. Finally, Bast just gave up and stared. “The river flows from the ice reaches?”
“It does.” Rien nodded. “From time to time we get to see ice floes go over the falls. It’s always spectacular.” He reached over and caught Bast’s chin, tilting his head to the side. Bast glared, but didn’t pull away. “I should have your ears pierced.”
“I would prefer not.” Bast folded his arms.
“Favored slaves are given jewels to wear, to show their status.” Rien released his chin, then ran his hand down Bast’s chest.
“I’d rather not have my ear torn apart the next time I have to save your ass.” Bast rolled his eyes.
“Fair enough.” Rien chuckled. He tweaked one of Bast’s nipples. “We can pierce these instead.”
“Plume-plucked plebian…” Rien shrugged. “I like that one. Kind of twists the tongue around a little.” He caught Bast by the back of the neck and pulled him back inside. “Leave your armor here. I’ll get it repaired for you but in the meantime I’m going to get you another set. I should get you a new sword as —”
“I would prefer to keep my current sword.” Bast’s voice was quiet.
Rien paused. Bast was looking away from him. He glanced at where the sword lay, then walked over to it. The hilt was decorated but not ornate or overdone. He drew it a few inches from the scabbard, examining it. It was a well-made piece, and it was clear Bast kept it in good condition. “I don’t…” He turned it over, and saw the mark imprinted on the blade. A stylized dog of some kind. “Your family crest is a dog?”
“A hound.” There was a trace of heat in Bast’s gaze.
His gaze went back to the mark on the blade. “Loyal and faithful…” He nodded, then looked up at Bast. “You can hang this one by the fireplace so it doesn’t get ruined. I’ll get you another for using.”
“I…” Bast met his eyes then. “Thank you.”
“Sketch the mark.” He offered the blade back to Bast. “I’ll have the smith add it your shield too.”
Taking breakfast with a queen was an unusual enough experience. Doing so while kneeling next to a chair, being hand fed morsels from a man’s plate gave it an even more surreal quality. As instructed, Bastien remained silent. The fact that he wore neither armor nor sword apparently made him beneath the notice of Lammert, though Rutger apparently was amused. Rutger had his own slave kneeling next to him, a lovely raven-haired woman with exotic features. She wore a fair amount of jewelry and little else.
They were halfway through the meal when the queen glanced at him before looking up at her youngest son. “Marinus, about this slave you’ve acquired…”
“What about him?” Rien ruffled Bastien’s hair.
“I am curious. He is something of an oddity.” She flicked her eyes at him again before smiling at Rien.
“His name is Bastien Kohler.” Lammert moved some food around on his plate. “A knight in the service of Duke Harald until the man’s recent demise, which I believe Marinus played a part in.”
“You allowed an armed traitor into my presence?” Her eyes darkened.
“No…” Rien immediately began shaking his head.
“On the contrary, the young man is considered quite a hero among his people.” Lammert took a bite of his food. “Seems he was the reason the Duke’s daughter escaped to warn the king of the actual traitor, and he was also responsible for Solsthriem being warned of the recent troll incursion in time to defend their Spire. Their king is offering five hundred of their gold pieces for his ransom.” He looked up at Rien. “Tell me, did he swear his service to you in exchange for letting the girl go, or for getting the warning out?”
“The warning.” Rien chuckled. “He did the first one by himself, which is how he got my attention.”
“Impressive.” Rutger gave Bastien an appraising look. “And to think I was questioning your taste.”
“He also came to my aid against the rather large number of assassins who happened to find themselves in my path on the way here.” Rien nodded.
The queen laughed softly, then took a biscuit from her plate. She held it out to Bastien, and after getting a quick nod from Rien, he leaned forward to take it from her. “Well done.”
“Foolish.” Lammert narrowed his eyes. “Next all the nobles will be wanting one of their own.”
“The soft folk…” Rutger started shaking his head.
“You are just as dead smothered by a pillow as you are run through with a sword, Rutger.” Lammert gestured at Bastien. “And I’ll bet you a hundred gold our brother’s new pet could face any four of your guard in the arena and be the last one standing.” He set his fork down. “You should take the king’s offer, Marinus.”
“Bast is mine.” Rien shook his head. “I won him fair and square.” Frankly, Bastien felt he could have argued the point, but since he wasn’t allowed to speak at the moment, he was left with no option other than to simply roll his eyes. He thought he caught just the faintest look of amusement on Lammert’s face when the man caught the expression. “How did you know about him?”
“You may not know this, little brother, but the word ‘intelligence’ actually has multiple meanings.” Lammert smirked.
“You are such a nonpareil.” Rien glared across the table at him.
“Why thank you.” Lammert raised his glass in Rien’s direction before taking a drink.
“If you two are finished swiping at each other…” The queen narrowed her eyes, and Rien and Lammert’s expressions both became chastened.
“I send you to recover keystones for a reason.” Thirza straightened. “I believe the recent dragon sighting to be a portent. Such beings have always returned to our lands to herald times of danger and glory.” Her eyes focused on his. “There have been dragons in our history before.”
“Aye, the Dragonlord slew one and built Darodelf.” Rutger nodded. “We all know the story.”
“He united our people. And the next time a dragon appeared our people were torn asunder once more. I believe this to be a chance to reclaim our heritage, to make our people what they should be.” She set her hands on the table, folded together. “His blade must be reclaimed.”
A smile came to his face when he realized what she was implying. His brothers, however, seemed somewhat less enthusiastic. “You want…” Lammert rubbed his forehead. “Marinus to go loot a tomb, then kill a dragon with a thousand-year-old blade?”
“The one who wields that blade can unite our people.” She nodded. “That was the other half of the dream.” She narrowed her eyes at Lammert. “A portent that came with dragon wings.”
“Oh, the portent I take seriously.” Lammert nodded. “It’s Marinus I question.”
“Remind me, brother.” Rien glared. “Which of us brought back a keystone?”
“Jurgen didn’t.” Rutger’s voice was quiet, and they all looked at him. He gave a small shake of his head. “I’m not particularly happy about the thought of losing another brother to…” He looked up at Thirza. “Dreams. We can slay the dragon with ballistas, Mother. Marinus need not —”
“You’re asking me to pass up the chance to fight a dragon?” Rien stared at Rutger in disbelieve. “An actual, real, true dragon?”
“And to think…” Lammert exhaled. “I only dropped you on your head once.” He sighed. “Mother, as much as it pains me to say this, Rutger has a point.”
“You will do as I bid you.” Her eyes flashed.
“I will do what is best for my people, Mother.” Lammert glared.
“Does that include having archers take shots at me on my way to the palace…” Rien stared across the table at him. “Brother?”
“Marinus, if I wanted you dead, you would be dead.” Lammert gave him a level look.
“Like Jurgen?” Rutger’s voice was hot as he leaned forward.
“I…” Lammert’s voice went cold, and his eyes turned to stone. “Was not responsible for Jurgen’s death, if indeed he is —”
“Enough.” Thirza’s voice rang out, silencing all of them. “You are all three excused from my table.” She rose. “You have duties to attend. Be about them.”
“Yes, Mother.” They all inclined their heads toward her before rising.
Given what had occurred at breakfast, he expected Rien to be in a foul mood. Instead, the man was appeared utterly thrilled. “A dragon, Bast.” He spread his hands. “We are going to recover my ancestor’s sword and slay a dragon.”
“We?” He blinked.
“What, you don’t think I’d leave you here while such an adventure beckons?” Rien laughed. “To slay a…” He shook his head. “I can’t say I’m enthusiastic about the idea of being king, but to be a dragonlord?”
“I can’t say I’m enthusiastic about the idea of you being king either.” Bastien shrugged.
“What, you don’t want to be the dragon’s knight?” Rien rolled his eyes. “Come. We have errands to be —” He cut off at the sound of a knock on the door.
Rutger entered a moment later, followed by his slave girl. “Did you hear Lammert?”
“I heard him.” Rien shook his head. “Rutger…”
“We need to…” Rutger exhaled. “I don’t know. Do something. You don’t…” He rubbed his neck. “You don’t think Jurgen is actually dead, do you?”
“I…” The idea was unfathomable, and yet… “I don’t want to believe it.”
“Lammert met me in Manisar. I had a lead, was actually chasing it and…” Rutger looked at the fire before folded his arms. “I told him about it. He clapped me on the shoulder and wished me luck. Two days after Lammert left, the guide I’d hired was killed in a tavern brawl. The scholar I’d gotten the lead from was poisoned in his own study. His notes were missing.”
“I think he sabotaged my expedition and went after it himself.” Rutger glared. “Just his luck it had been a false lead, I suppose.”
“I never crossed his path.”
“Well, let’s be honest, Rien…” Rutger chuckled. “Who’d have thought your idea of ‘wander about aimlessly and see what I trip over’ would actually pan out?” He sighed. “Ugh, I could use a distraction.” He turned toward his slave girl. “Tyli, go introduce yourself to Bast.”
The slave girl gave him a lascivious smile as she started to walk toward him. Immediately, Rien began shaking his head. “No.”
“Rien…” Rutger chuckled. “The man apparently saved you from getting a couple arrows up the ass. Let Tyli…”
“He’s mine.” Rien shook his head.
Despite the young woman’s beauty, he was relieved. And more than a little irritated about feeling relieved. A flash of anger crossed Rutger’s face, so brief that Rien’s glance at Bastien was enough that he knew Rien had missed it. It didn’t seem to make sense, but perhaps it was a nuance of Wilder culture he didn’t understand. The slave girl gave him a pouting look. “Ugh, brother…” Rutger shook his head. “You are simply no fun anymore.” He rolled his eyes. “I have duties to attend. Be careful, Rien.” Rutger gestured for the girl to follow him before leaving the quarters.
“He is going to be upset about missing a show for days.” Rien stared at the door. “Did you get enough breakfast, Bast?”
“Yes, I…” Bastien blinked. “A show?” His eyes widened. “You mean he wanted…”
Rien laughed. “You really were a virgin, weren’t you?” He nodded. “Yes, Bast. He wanted to watch you and his little minx perform for him.” Rien shook his head. “He won’t be the last to make such an offer, but you are not to partake. No one touches you but me. That is an order, Bast.”
“I have no interest in…” He clenched his fists. “Rutting for the pleasure of an audience.”
“Mmmm…” Based on the expression currently on Rien’s face, maybe saying that aloud had been a mistake. “I’ll keep that in mind.” He shrugged. “But for now, we have errands. Come.”
He arranged more clothing for Bast, and took the man to get measured for another set of armor. Bast was somewhat unhappy with the clothing choices. Rien had chosen a couple vests for him, garments that displayed the knight’s body well. He’d actually turned red when Rien had insisted on getting him some of the more traditional garb of a body-slave. It amounted to little more than a fancy loincloth. Rien was considering making the man wear it for him later just to see him turn red again. He ordered the vests embroidered with his own draconic sigil, then had them add the hound as well.
Then he headed toward the servant’s quarters. The man he’d come to find was waiting for him inside the hall. “Marinus.”
“You know, you could have sent me a letter telling me you were returning. Or perhaps one or two letting me know you were still alive.” Jochem shook his head in disapproval. “I had to scramble to get your quarters ready when I heard you’d entered town.” His steward glared at him, then flicked his eyes toward Bast before glaring at him too, then finally returning to glare at Rien some more.
Odd how much he’d missed the man. “I need —”
“There.” Jochem jerked a thumb over his shoulder. Rien looked in that direction to see a set of blond twins, young and lovely. The one on the left was dressed in green, the other in blue, the tones complementing each other nicely. Both wore leather slave collars. “Let me tell you, keeping them away from Rutger was no easy task. They are both nicely docile and well trained to suit your needs.”
“Well now…” Rien put a hand on Jochem’s shoulder. “I’m still paying you too much, right?”
“Yes, my lord.” Jochem’s mouth twitched just a little in a smile.
“Good. See it remains that way.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Bast, this is Jochem, my steward. Jochem, this is Bast, my knight.” He shrugged. “Bast, unless it conflicts with orders I’ve given you, do what Jochem tells you.”
“Understood.” Bast nodded. And if he wasn’t mistaken, there was just a slightly relieved look on Bast’s face.
“Do they have names?” He raised an eyebrow at Jochem.
“Maela and Rachel. Though…” Jochem shook his head. “I can never remember which is which. I think the blue one is Maela.”