“So if your father is a baron now, what exactly does that make you?” Rien tilted his head.
“Trapped in a foreign land with a group of mad people.” Bast shrugged.
“True.” Rien looked down at the practice sword. Lammert had tried to steal Bast. Not only did that piss him off, he couldn’t figure out the man’s motive. It wasn’t as though Lammert needed the gold of Bast’s ransom, and since Lammert wasn’t going to be king he had no reason to care about relations with Solsthriem. Unless… “I think Lammert may be allied with Phillip.”
“Such coups have occurred before. Though I fail to see what Lammert stands to gain by such an alliance.” Bast began demonstrating another sword form, then paused. “Unless…”
“Unless he used Phillip to eliminate Jurgen.” Rien growled. “Which would imply Phillip knew exactly who I was when I joined his mercenaries.” He shook his head. “Lammert said if it wasn’t for you, Phillip could have used that to turn Solsthriem against the Wilderfolk.”
“Allow Lammert to eliminate you by having you handed over to Solsthriem. Phillip gets to be the king that defeated the River Dragon’s attack on Solsthriem, Lammert gets to be the king that stopped the resulting war.” Bast went back to demonstrating the form.
“Except neither of them planned on you and your father.” Rien chuckled, then nodded. “Which might be why Lammert wants you out of here. You thwarted him, then kept his assassins from killing me.” He started the form. “Pretty sure you’d have met with some kind of accident on the way back to Solsthriem. Some nice neat event that couldn’t possibly be tied to him.” He adjusted his grip on the blade. “But probably would have tied to me.”
Bast gestured for him to raise the blade a little. “The truth does somewhat favor his version of events.”
“I haven’t killed you.” Rien shook his head.
“You’ve abducted me, tortured me, raped me, enslaved me, and made me wear this ridiculous —”
“But I haven’t killed you.” Rien glared.
“You let your little minxes tie me up and hang me from the ceiling.”
“Oh come on, you enjoyed that too.” Rien waggled his eyebrows. “Twice.”
Bastien read through the text again. The description of the Dragon Lord’s tomb was couched in flowery terms, but it hinted at traps both magical and mundane. He passed the book over to Maela again. “I’m not sure if this is implying a pit trap lined with spikes or spikes coming from the ceiling.”
She frowned at the passage. “Look, here…” She touched a line of text with her finger. “This suggests the spikes come forth.” She frowned again. “Though this…” She shook her head. “Speaks of falling so…”
“So with our luck it’s going to be both.” He took the book back from her. Despite the danger, he couldn’t help but feel just a little excited about the upcoming expedition. Perhaps Rien’s foolhardy nature was rubbing off on him a bit. Though Rien had made it clear he wasn’t bring Bastien along merely for his fighting skill.
“Here…” Rachel passed the scroll she was examining to him. “I found another reference to the keystone.”
The expedition itself was being kept secret. Rien hadn’t been sure how much of his mother’s edict in that regard had been desire to keep anyone from interfering, and how much had been her concern he wouldn’t succeed. He’d thus had to leave the task of determining what exactly they’d be facing at the tomb to Bastien. Fortunately, Maela and Rachel were happy to assist. He looked over the scroll. “I think this is talking about the same mural from the earlier one.”
“No, look.” She pointed. “Toward the bottom, it references a depiction of wolves. The other mural had water.”
“I hope that doesn’t mean more than one keystone is required.” Maela looked up. “Because the story does say four were made.”
“Master Rien said he had a solution for that problem.” Rachel shrugged.
“He told me his solution.” Maela shook her head. “It’s a sack of black powder and a sledge hammer.”
“Yeah that…” Bastien exhaled. “Sounds like Rien.”
“I am going to start the evening meal.” Maela rose. “Master Rien mentioned he wanted apples. I will have to go to the market.”
“Let me get dressed.” Bastien rose. With Lammert’s motives still unknown, Rien was reluctant to allow any of them out of the quarters by themselves. And as Rien’s knight, defending Rien’s property was his duty. Though it was still difficult to think of the women as ‘property’ even though the same word did apply to himself these days. He wasn’t supposed to wear his sword unless he was guarding Rien, but he wasn’t going to allow either of the women to go alone through an area where people wanted to assassinate their master.
“Do you have to?” Rachel batted her eyes at him.
“Aren’t you supposed to be the innocent one?” He glared at her, and she just gave him a coy smile.
“Wear the green vest.” Maela waved a hand at him. “It brings out your eyes.”
“Shameless vixens.” He stalked toward the bedchamber.
“What, exactly, do you intend to do with four kegs of black powder?” Jochem looked over the list.
“I’m just trying to be prepared.” Rien shook his head. “Can you get it or not?”
“Prepared for what? Blowing up a mountain?” Jochem stared at him.
“I haven’t eliminated that as a possibility.” Rien smiled. “Jochem…” He put his hands on the man’s shoulder. “Dragon.”
“I’ve adjusted your testament.” Jochem rolled his eyes. “When you blow yourself up and get eaten, I get the olive groves and the vineyards.”
“You’re not taking the winter lodge?” He blinked.
“No.” Jochem smirked. “That’s going to be my daughter’s dowry.”
“Make sure your son gets the horses.”
The fact that their collars marked them as Rien’s property meant at least half the vendors they passed tried pressing gifts on them in the hopes of securing the favor of the new heir apparent. Maela had whispered that it was customary to accept, and failing to accept could be taken as an insult. It would be up to Rien, however, to decide what to do with the gifts. In the meantime, they apparently didn’t have to actually pay for anything.
Maela was carefully selecting apples when a man dressed in the clothing he’d learned signified someone of rank passed and stopped to admire her. He wasn’t the first to do so. Unfortunately, this one decided to approach. The man started to reach to touch her arm, and Bastien moved to stand between them. A sneer came to the lordling’s face when he noted Bastien’s collar, and he attempted to move around Bastien to get to Maela. “She is the property of Prince Marinus Draak.” Bastien adjusted his own position in response.
“Marinus and I are old friends…” The man gave Maela an admiring look. “He won’t mind.” He gestured to Maela. “Come here, girl.”
There was a trace of fear visible in her eyes as she started to obey the command. Bastien put a hand out to stop her. “My orders are not to allow anyone to touch her.”
The lordling looked Bastien over, his eyes narrowing. “I’ll not be spoken to in such a manner by a slave.” He gestured, and one of the man’s attendants grabbed Maela’s arm and began pulling her away.
Bastien caught the man’s wrist, grinding the bones together to force him to release her arm. “Maela, get back to the palace.”
“Why you…” The lordling lunged for her, and Bastien grabbed his arm and shoved him away. The lordling fell backward, landing on his ass. He snarled, then gestured to the guard standing next to him as another helped him back to his feet. “Take care of that cur.”
The guard drew his sword and lunged at Bastien. Bastien stepped to the side, caught the man’s wrist, and twisted it to take the blade away from him. Then he kicked the guard in the side of the knee to send him to the ground. Behind him, Maela was trying to retreat around the market stall, only to have another of the guards block her path. Bastien shifted to intercept him and allow Maela to escape. “Get back to —”
“Insolent dog.” The lordling drew his own blade and came at them with a wild swing. He deflected the blade away from Maela, then parried the man’s next furious swing again. The man’s third wild attack resulted in Bastien having to counterattack to keep the man from getting to the cornered Maela. The stolen sword cut a gash in the man’s side, and he heard Maela give a terrified cry.
A few seconds later he realized the rest of the lordling’s guards had decided to draw crossbows instead of blades. Bastien shoved Maela behind him. “Bast…” Her voice sounded terrified.
“Drop your weapon, dog, or else.” The lordling held a hand to his wounded side.
“Maela, get back to the palace.” Bastien dropped the sword as four of the guards came over to seize his arms. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her obeying, running as fast as she could.
Despite the animosity that often existed between himself and his brothers, he’d never truly considered fratricide before. They may have all had different fathers, but they were still joined by blood. That had always given them a certain bond even as they competed against each other. The thought of severing such a thing was unimaginable. Let alone severing it by simply picking up his brother and chucking him off the balcony. “Rutger…”
“I swear, I didn’t know…” Rutger started to whisper, then trailed off as the chieftain Teunis began intoning yet another babbled series of blessings. The man was long since become befuddled in his dotage, and retained his position only because of his clan’s genuine affection for the man. His son was the chieftain in all but name.
An offhand comment of Rutger’s, however, had resulted in Teunis deciding a member of his bloodline would make Rien a perfect queen. Ordinarily, Rien would have entertained the notion. Teunis’s clan was stable and productive, one of the few clans that had built much of anything new in the last decade. Except it had apparently slipped Teunis’s mind that the only unmarried female of his bloodline was his seven-year-old granddaughter. Who he apparently had mixed up with an aunt who bore the same name, because he was currently claiming said seven-year-old granddaughter was an accomplished hunter of lions. “Remind me to break your nose later.”
“I said I was sorry.”
He was dragged out of the marketplace. Bastien could hear someone arguing with the lordling, only for the lordling to demand whoever it was get out of their way or face the same. That did not seem to bode well. The green vest was ripped off him as he was dragged into an area with a sand floor. A chill went through him as he realized he was being taken to a whipping post. Bastien began struggling, but the four men held him firmly. He was slammed into the post hard enough that he thought one of his ribs might have cracked.
The men bound his arms to the crossbars of the post tightly enough to hurt before they stepped away. “Cur…” The lordling’s voice was cruel as he circled around to the other side of the post to look Bastien in the eye. “You will learn the penalty for daring to strike your betters.”
“My lord —” Someone spoke up from where he couldn’t see.
“Give him the full lot.” The lordling shook his head, and gave a strangely satisfied smile.
Bastien’s eyes widened when he saw one of the lordling’s guards take an item from a nearby box. He’d expected a flogger, or something similar. The guard was carrying a heavy bullwhip. He took a deep breath as the man walked behind him, trying to brace himself for what was to come.
The first blow tore a scream from him.