He managed to escape Teunis unwed, only to run into Drika. “Rutger let slip you’re going after the dragon.”
“Rutger…” Rien looked over his shoulder.
“She was going to find out anyway…” Rutger winced.
“I want in.” She folded her arms.
“I am taking only a small team —”
“I know. I want on it.”
“Drika…” He started shaking his head.
“You promised, if you ever fought an actual dragon, you’d take me with you.”
“You’re going to hold me to a promise I made when I was fourteen and you were naked?” He stared at her.
“Yes.” She narrowed her eyes.
He could feel blood running down his back. As near as he could tell, the lordling wasn’t even bothering to count the blows. Bastien had tried, but had lost the number around thirty. Another blow, and the world was starting to gray around the edges. The lordling signaled again, and then then took a startled step back, his eyes going wide. “Prince —” There was a snapping sound and a scream from behind Bastien.
Rien. Maela had gotten to Rien. The last thing he saw before the world went dark around him was the lordling backing away, clearly terrified.
“Come have a drink with me.” Rutger slapped the back of his hand against Rien’s arm. “We haven’t gotten a single productive thing done today, why change that?”
“Rutger, if I’m going to get drunk and waste the rest of the evening I have much more attractive company to do it in than yours.”
“Speaking of which I still cannot believe Jochem got to them before I did. Twins, Rien. Beautiful, identical twins.” Rutger shook his head. “You know while you were gone I tried hiring him away from you. Raised my offer three times. How the hell much do you pay that man?”
“Nowhere near what he’s worth.” Rien laughed. “I’ll see you tomorrow, brother.” He turned and headed back for his quarters.
Halfway there, he heard a frantic voice. “Master Rien, Master Rien.”
He turned, and his eyes widened. “Rachel?” He started toward her. Her eyes were wet, as though she’d been crying. “Lovely, what…” He reached for her hand. “Are you hurt?”
“No but…” She tugged his hand, pulling him back toward the quarters. “He is. Please, Master Rien, hurry.”
Rien broke into a run, with Rachel beside him. Opening the door revealed one of Lammert’s guards standing just inside. His brother was standing next to the table, his arms folded and his expression furious. And laying facedown on the table was Bast. His back looked as though it had been torn to shreds. A darkskinned woman he recognized as one of Lammert’s slaves was tending to him, carefully piecing his flesh back together. Maela sat on the floor, clinging to one of Bast’s hands. “What the fuck happened…” Rien glared as he started toward his brother.
“Your pet was injured.” Lammert turned toward him, eyes narrowing.
“Rachel?” He turned to the woman holding on to his arm.
“There was an altercation in the market, Master Rien. They tried to take Maela, and Bast stopped them.” Fresh tears came from her eyes. “We were looking for you, then…”
“Lammert brought him.” Maela’s voice was soft. “He hasn’t woken up.” She let out a small sob. “I just wanted to get apples.”
He started toward the table, only for Lammert to hold out an arm to bar his way. “Unless you want your pet ruined by scar tissue, I suggest you not distract Efua.”
“I…” Rien stared at where the woman was working. Strips of flesh were dangled loosely from Bast’s wounds, and he could see places where the muscle beneath had also been torn. “Who did this to him?” He turned to look at Rachel. She gave a small shake of her head before looking at her sister. He looked down at her as well. “Maela?”
“He defended me from Lord Wessel in the market.” Maela’s voice was soft. “And drew blood from Lord Wessel in the process.”
“Wessel did this?” Rien growled. He shook his head and then turned to go looking for the man. He made it two steps before he was suddenly slammed into the wall.
“Sit…” Before he could recover, Lammert half hurled him into a chair. The wooden thing broke when he collided with it, sending him to the floor. “Down.” Lammert shook his head. “And for once in your life think before you act.”
“I am thinking.” Rien stood. “I’m thinking I’m going to kill Wessel. And if you know what is good for you, you’ll get out of my way.”
“You think this was Wessel’s fault?” Lammert waved a hand. “You gave a body-slave orders to kill anyone who laid a hand on your pets, and never once considered the consequences for him if he actually obeyed that order.”
“He’s not a —”
“He’s a slave, Marinus. Your slave. Wearing your collar, your shackles, and your mark.” Lammert drove a finger into Rien’s chest. “The man you personally enslaved drew the blood of a chief. Be grateful I came upon the scene before your pet took the full hundred lashes, because your ill-advised infatuation for him grants him no protection outside your presence.” Lammert gave a small, almost bitter laugh. “As proud as you are of your little guard dog, Marinus, when he’s off your leash all they see is a vicious animal.”
“Wessel had no right to —”
“He had every right to, Marinus.” Lammert glared. “You spoiled, selfish little shit. How did you manage to reach twenty-seven years of age without learning the law of your own people?”
He looked away, fists clenched, and his gaze ended up back on where Bast was laying. He took a deep breath. “Will he live?”
“Provided he is properly cared for, yes.” Lammert nodded. “I will leave Efua here until he can walk again.”
“I will…” He turned back to look his brother in the eye. “I’ll ensure she returns to you safely.”
“I already dealt with Wessel. You…” Lammert gave a small shake of his head. “Tend to your knight.” He started to turn away, then stopped and looked back at Rien. He exhaled, then put a hand on Rien’s shoulder. “A man who would command loyalty should learn its value.”
His brother was halfway to the door when Rien found his voice. “Thank you, Lam.”
Lammert paused for a moment before nodding. “You are welcome, Rien.”
Waking hurt. His back felt strangely numb, but there was a strange ache in his arms and his ribs felt as though he’d been kicked by a mule. Bastien turned his head a little, trying to figure out where he was laying, and suddenly there was a pressure as someone squeezed his hand. “Master Rien, Master Rien, he’s waking up.”
“Bast?” Rien’s voice came from his other side. Fingers brushed through his hair. “Bastien, can you hear me?”
“What…” The memories flooded back into him all at once. “Maela, is she —”
“I’m right here.” Someone squeezed his hand again.
“Are you hurt?” He tried to shift, to turn toward her, and a fresh wave of pain went through him.
A voice he didn’t recognize spoke from behind him. “Do not move.”
“Stay still, Bast.” Rien’s voice sounded worried. “That’s an order.”
Bastien tried to focus, and looked down at Maela. She was staring up at him, her blue eyes huge. “I’m sorry…” He winced as fire began igniting all over his back. “Your painting got messed up.”
“I’m sorry, Bast.” She pressed a kiss to his hand. “I’m sorry.”
“Shhh…” Rien’s fingers continued petting his hair. “Just be still, Bast. Let Efua tend to you.”
“I…” He bit back a cry as something prodded his back, sending pain shooting through him. Maela’s fingers tightened around his hand. Bast tried to turn, to see what was happening, and Rien caught hold of his other arm, holding him in place.
“Don’t move, Bast. Let Efua work.”
“How bad?” He swallowed. Men had been crippled by the lash.
Rien crouched next to him, and brushed fingers through his hair. “You’re going to be fine. Just be still.”
“Wasn’t Maela’s fault.” The world was going gray around he edges. “Wasn’t Maela’s fault, Rien.”
“I know.” Rien nodded.
“Wasn’t…” The world went dark again.
Rien stood with an arm around Rachel, watching Efua instructing Maela on how to tend to Bast. Bast sat upright, occasionally grimacing as the dressings on his back were changed. Efua claimed the scaring would be minimal and not interfere with Bast’s range of motion provided they were cared for properly. Which unfortunately meant just giving him a dose of healing potion was apparently insufficient.
The whipping had nearly been fatal. If Lammert hadn’t intervened, hadn’t brought Efua, Bast would be dead. Both Bast and Maela wore his sigil, and Maela stated Bast had told Wessel who owned them. And Wessel had very nearly had Bast beaten to death anyway. If he could have found the man, he’d have made sure to inquire why before returning the favor. Wessel, however, had apparently realized just how much trouble he was in as he’d fled the city before Rien could find him.
He turned at the sound of the door opening, and walked over to meet Lammert. “Efua is nearly…” He glanced over his shoulder and noted Rachel was already pouring tea for his brother.
“Sir Bastien will recover?” Lammert raised an eyebrow.
“Efua says he will. She’s…” The woman was certainly skilled. “I’d like to purchase her from —”
“No.” Lammert’s voice was flat.
“I could use a healer of her —”
“You’ve a noted tendency not to take care of your toys, Marinus.” Lammert narrowed his eyes. “You’re quite lucky I was willing to risk loaning her to you at all.” He accepted the tea from Rachel, and took a sip before staring at Rien. “This would not have happened if you’d listened to me in the first place.” He glanced at archway. “Though the gods only know what would happen if you returned him to his people with those marks.”
“I thought…” Rien gave a small shake of his head before raising his gaze to meet his brother’s eyes. “If you were the one who sent the assassins, then you’d not have saved the life of the man who stopped them.”
“Unless by so doing I was able to worm my way into your favor and put him in debt to me, plus disgrace an annoying chieftain and earn Mother’s good graces all at the same time. And in the process, completely throw all suspicion off myself. A very neat plan, with enough benefit in it to me that perhaps I am the one that set up the altercation in the market to begin with.” Lammert gave him a level look. “Be careful what assumptions you make, little brother.”
“You…” Rien clenched his fists. “Blood and fire must you be so…” He glared. “You.”
“One of us has to be the grown up, Marinus.” Lammert shrugged. He raised an eyebrow when Efua exited the room. “Finished?” He handed the tea cup back to Rachel.
“I will check again in two days, but the girl will not be careless with him.” Efua nodded.
“No, the girl won’t be.” Lammert shot a glance at Rien, and Rien looked away. “Come.” He touched Efua’s shoulder as he guided her from the room.
Rien took a couple deep breaths as he watched them go. Then he frowned. Lammert had plenty of servants and a strong sense of propriety. Why then had he happened to be in the market in time to intervene? He exhaled and turned toward Rachel, who was watching him with a worried face. “Come, Lovely. Let’s go check on Bast.”
Bastien looked up to see Rachel and Rien entering the room. Maela made a sound to draw his attention back to her, then held up the tea cup. “I added honey so it won’t taste as bad.” She offered it to him.
“I appreciate that.” He wrinkled his nose as he drank it, only to discover she’d added so much honey it was more syrup than tea. Laughing would just make his ribs hurt. Efua had refused him the healing potions, stating that the rapid healing would result in his back forming a mass of scar tissue. She’d been rather blunt and graphic in her description of the potential complications, resulting in Maela promptly gathering every healing potion off the shelf and locking them into a chest. When he’d pointed out he knew where the key was, she’d dropped the key into her undergarment and given him a challenging look. He’d conceded the argument.
“What’s the tea?” Rien raised an eyebrow.
“Something to dull the pain and prevent infection.” He looked down at it. “And your entire stock of honey.” He exhaled. “I’m sorry, Rien, I —”
“No.” Rien narrowed his eyes. “You have nothing to apologize for, Bast. This was…” He exhaled before nodded. “This was on me. And…” He folded his arms. “I am beginning to suspect it was because of me.”
“The lord…” Bastien slowly nodded. “You think he wanted to start a fight with you?”
“There are rules to govern property. Pay the value of a thing you have taken or damaged, and it is not theft. It can, however, still be taken as an insult, and…”
“And the River Dragon is known to have a temper?” Bastien looked up at him, then laughed. “The look on that lord’s face when you showed up was…”
“It wasn’t me.” Rien looked away.
“Rien?” Bastien blinked.
“I wasn’t the one that rescued you, Bast. I was…” He clenched his fists. “Occupied with trivial matters. Lammert…” He looked down at his hands. “Lammert saved you.”
“Oh.” He glanced at the medications Efua had left. “Efua belonged to Lammert.”
“Yeah.” Rien gave an awkward shrug. “I tried to buy her so she could keep tending you but…” He looked over his shoulder. “One would have an easier time taming a dragon than they would understanding my brother.”
He let out a small string of curses before looking up at Rien. “Rien, you still have to fight the dragon…”
Realization came to Rien’s face, and he let out a few curses of his own. “Whether the lash killed or crippled you, you wouldn’t be able to train me any longer.”
“Except they are wrong.” Bastien smiled.
“You can’t practice with me in your condition.” Rien started shaking his head.
“I can’t.” He turned to look at the woman next to him. “But Maela can.”
She started to smile.