It was still dark when he woke. For a time he just lay there, staring up at the tent canvas above him. With the heightened possibility of danger, he hadn’t bound Bast when bedding him, choosing instead to simply command the man to be still. Feeling him tremble as he forced himself to obey the command was almost as good as feeling him squirm against restraints.
The man still lay next to him. Asleep, he’d curled in on himself a little, and his head rested on Rien’s arm. Gently, Rien kissed his shoulder before trailing a hand down Bast’s body. Bast stirred, turning to look at him. There was no bleariness in his eyes. Bast always seemed to wake fast and alert. Rien smiled. “Feel like sucking my cock to get the morning started?”
“I’m insanely jealous of all the people who’ve had the pleasure of not meeting you.”
“That a no?” Rien grinned before reaching up to flick Bast’s hair out of his face. “Your hair is getting long.”
“I will ask Maela to cut —”
“Nah. I like it this way.” Rien shrugged. “Maybe have her braid it instead.”
“Dankish minnow.” Bast started to sit up, and Rien pulled him back down. “It’s nearly dawn.”
Rien slid his leg over Bast’s. “But it’s not dawn yet.” He caught hold of Bast’s wrist and pinned the man beneath him. Then he tilted his head as he looked down at his captive. “Kiss me.”
“That’s an order.” Bast rolled his eyes before raising his head up and putting a quick kiss on Rien’s cheek. Rien rolled his eyes. “No, Bast.” He shook his head, then slid his free hand beneath Bast’s head. “Kiss me.”
Bast exhaled before raising his head again. Rien used his hand to hold Bast in place as he kissed the man, for once feeling him return the kiss. Bast’s lips were soft, and they parted for Rien’s tongue. He smiled before releasing Bast again. “That’s better.” He stroked a hand down Bast’s body again.
“There is much to do today, Rien.”
He let out a reluctant sigh. “Yeah.” Then he shrugged before using his knee to spread Bast’s legs. “But it’s not day yet.”
Bastien sighed when he caught Maela staring at him, a small smirk on her face. Rien had left several bite marks on his chest and shoulders, which she apparently found amusing. “Help me with the buckles?” He put the breastplate on.
She moved in to assist, her fingers deft. As squires went, he’d certainly worked with worse. “I wish I had time to paint you.” She sighed as she finished the last buckle.
The images that had been on his arms were faded almost to nonexistent. “I’m sorry your last one got —”
Her finger pressed on his lips, silencing him, then trailed it down his throat to touch his collar. “Efua did good work. You only have a few scars. They are almost silvery.” She chewed her lip. “I would incorporate them into the picture. Lightning around a dragon in flight. Make them into trophies.”
He smiled at her, then rubbed his neck. “You’re a good artist.”
Maela smiled up at him. “Come, I saved you breakfast.”
Rien being occupied usually meant he escaped the indignity of being handfed. Usually. Maela held out a bite of sausage to him. He rolled his eyes before taking it from her with his teeth, then he grabbed the plate from her hand. She made a disappointed sound before collecting her own plate. “You and Rachel have adapted to camp life.”
“We were trained to do whatever our master might require of us.” Maela shrugged. “Jochem knew Master Rien raided, so he made sure we knew how to set up and break down a camp.” She smiled. “I like Master Rien. He’s a much better master.”
“You…” He blinked. “He’s not your first master?”
“We were sold to a Manisar broker when we were seven. My father got enough to buy an inn. He promised to name it after us.” She took another bite of her breakfast. “The broker invested a lot into our training, and when we reached menarche he put us on the market. A marquise in Thatela paid our weight in silver for us.” Her smile was proud.
“Slavery is illegal in Thatela.” Bastien shook his head.
“Bast…” Maela laughed softly. “You are so adorable sometimes.” She sighed. “The marquise owned a castle on the big lake. It was a lovely view, and he liked to watch us swim. The river at Darodelf is too cold and fast for swimming.”
“Jochem bought you from the marquise?”
“No. The marquise took us on a hunting trip, and crossed paths with raiders. They brought us to Darodelf figuring they could do better selling us than keeping us for themselves. They even left Rachel alone when they learned she was still a virgin.” Maela drank from her cup. “Jochem bought us almost before we got to the city. He took good care of us while waiting for Master Rien to return.”
For a moment, he stared down at his plate. Then he looked up at her. “They left Rachel alone.”
“Yes, because —”
“But not you.” He met her eyes. Considering how Jochem had praised her skills he was beginning to wonder just how much ‘care’ the man had given her.
“They didn’t hurt me.” She touched his hand. “I pleased them well enough they had no cause to punish either of us.” She offered him another bite of sausage. “It’s sweet of you to worry for me.”
He hesitated a moment before leaning forward to take the sausage from her fingers. She gave him a delighted smile in response.
The next marker was also smashed. And yet, they’d found it. Rien brushed Rachel’s hair back behind her ear before nodding to Bast and Maela. Slowly, the camp was becoming more orderly, but there was murmuring. Bast had been the first to suggest the sabotage came from within. He had not been the last.
Drika walked toward him. “I’ve a dozen reports of people leaving the camp during the night.” She shook her head. “I’d wager most went to take a leak or fuck, but…”
He’d known these people once. Raided with them. Called some of them friends. It was galling to realize that he trusted a bed-slave that had repeatedly tried to kill him more than he trusted any of them. He wasn’t sure if it had been Bast who’d arranged it, or if Maela and Rachel had decided it on their own, but the two of them had quietly joined Bast in keeping a watch while Rien slept. “Keep an eye.” He shrugged carelessly. “Could be Mannes decided to follow and be an ass.”
“Good point.” Drika narrowed her eyes. “I’ll send someone to check our back trail.” She headed over to give the orders.
As she’d been doing since they’d left. He frowned. Then he turned to look at Rachel, who smiled up at him. “Lovely…” He played with a lock of her hair. “If you wanted to keep me distracted, how would you do so?”
Rachel arched an eyebrow before shifting her position just a little. Her new pose allowed him an excellent view of her breasts straining against the leather jerkin she wore, and she gave him a smile that promised all kinds of wicked sin when he finally bedded her. “Distract you from what, Master Rien?”
“I…” He turned to look in the direction Drika had gone before looking back to Rachel. “A very convincing argument, Lovely. Thank you.”
Her position shifted again to one more demure. “You’re welcome, Master Rien.”
It wasn’t as though his foibles were completely unknown. He wasn’t supposed to be in the running to rule, which meant his time could be spent indulging in his pleasures. Lammert pointed out that particular flaw at almost every opportunity. Except he’d always thought it was a flaw Rutger shared. Easily distracted with… He stopped. With trivial matters. Wessel and Rutger had been friends. And he’d told Rutger that he needed Bast only a couple days before Wessel had nearly had Bast killed.
Rutger had no chance of being king. Both Jurgen and Lammert were older than he was, and Rien was far stronger. The only way he could take the throne would be by eliminating his brothers. Now Jurgen was gone and Rien was in the wilderness surrounded by men he couldn’t trust. Be careful what assumptions you make, little brother. Lammert’s words rang through his head. “We’re walking into a bloody trap.”
“Yes, Master Rien.” Rachel nodded. Then she frowned. “Master Rien?”
“Yes, Lovely?” He raised an eyebrow.
“The men who smashed the markers must have read them first. They had to, to get to the next one before us.” She chewed her lip. “Which means they know where the next one should be.”
“I…” He nodded. “Good girl.”
Bastien turned toward Rien. “Eleven dogs.”
“What?” Rien blinked. Then he shook his head. “You said you could take out this ‘rabble’ with ten men.” He pointed at the map. “Where, how, and which ten?”
Either Rien had gone mad, or he had a plan. And then there was the uncomfortable likelihood both were true. “I’d have to scout the exact terrain to find the right spot.”
“What would you be looking for?” Rien leaned on the table.
“A place I could divide your numbers and control your escape routes. Alternately, a place where my forces can remain hidden and yours are unprepared.” Bastien straightened. “Wilders are formidable, but you fight as individuals. As raiders, you have no equal.”
“Why, thank —”
“It wasn’t truly a compliment, Rien.” Bastien shook his head. “Five minutes.”
“I always last longer than five minutes.” Rien glared.
“Oh for…” Bastien took a deep breath. “Your people are raiders who fight as individuals, in surprise attacks. You overwhelm most of those you fight within five minutes.” He straightened. “Any force that can hold against you longer than five minutes is going to kick your ass. This rabble will shatter. You won’t be able to regroup a large enough force for a second attack. I doubt you could even get them all the flee in the same direction.” He met Rien’s eyes. “I’d take Maela and Rachel over any dozen of what you’ve got out there. They know how to cooperate with each other.”
“A fair point. I doubt a dozen of what I have following me could manage to tie you up.” Rien exhaled. “Some of them are traitors. The question is which ones.”
“And what do you intend to do about it when you figure out which ones?” Bastien raised an eyebrow.
“Oh, probably kill everyone.” Rien shrugged. “I do have a reputation to uphold.”
“Let me know how that works out for you.” Bastien rolled his eyes. Maybe he’d been just a bit off on the whole ‘not actually stupid’ evaluation.
“You’re my knight. If I have to kill everyone, you’re going to be right there helping.” Rien pounded him on the back. “I have a plan.”
“I’m struck by a sudden, ominous sense of foreboding.”
“Actually…” Rien turned to give the woman behind him a warm smile. “It’s Rachel’s plan.”
“Oh, well, then…” Bastien shrugged. “What do you need me to do?”
Rien stared at him through narrowing eyes before glancing at Rachel again. “Remind me to flog him later.” She smiled as Rien turned back to Bastien. “Next time I ask which path to take, send me the wrong way.”
“I…” He glanced at Rachel, who nodded. “Alright.”
Rachel had been correct. As soon as he deviated from the course, Drika got a smug expression on her face. That meant several things. First, that the map his minions had crafted was accurate. Second, that Drika worked for Rutger. And third…
“Your rabble has gotten smaller.” Bast’s voice was quiet.
“We are down…” Rien nodded. “Twelve men. Comforting.”
“Comforting?” Bast raised an eyebrow.
“Means Rutger isn’t as good as you are.” Rien folded his arms. “He’ll have plenty of time to position his ambush while we are lost and backtracking.”
“Is this all still Rachel’s plan?”
“Until we get to the actual fighting part.” Rien glanced at Bast. “You know, I do have a reputation as a successful —”
“No, no, you’re probably better at planning the actual fighting part than she is.” Bast nodded.
“Except Rutger knows my tactics.” Rien squeezed the back of Bast’s neck. “That’s why you’re going to plan it.”
“A glorious battle.” Bast slowly nodded.
“Exactly.” He was looking forward to seeing what he and his knight could do in a battle for which they were actually prepared and ready. “We’ll —”
“Skip the fighting part.” Bast started for the tent.
“Wait, what?” Rien shook his head before following. “Bast?”
Maela and Rachel were inside, setting up the tent. They looked surprised to see them enter. Bast gestured. “Hand me the map.”
“Oh, you’re planning the fighting part.” Rachel immediately turned to get the map.
“No, he’s —” Rien frowned.
“We’re skipping the fighting part.” Bast glanced up at Rachel before unrolling the map.
“Oh…” Maela immediately moved to hold the map down. “That’s better.”
“No, it’s not.” Rachel glanced at Rien.
“Listen to Rachel, Rachel is wise.” Rien pointed at her.
“Here.” Maela touched the map.
“Or here.” Bast nodded. “Still a chance of other traitors in the camp.”
“Drika.” Rachel glared. “She’ll probably try to backstab Rien during the fighting part.”
“And we don’t know who is with her.” Maela glanced at her sister.
“Which is why we are skipping the fighting part.” Bast smiled at Maela.
“But I don’t want to skip the fighting part.” Rien folded his arms again. “The fighting part is my favorite part.”
“There will probably still be fighting.” Bast gritted his teeth.
“Alright then.” Rien walked to the table. “What’s your plan?”