He tried questioning his brother, but Lammert refused to explain anything or answer any questions until they’d bathed. It made for an unprecedented experience. Bast, Rachel, and Maela were all naked in the basin with him, and he wasn’t inclined to luxuriate. Rien didn’t even object when Bast pulled on trousers instead of the loincloth. Bast must have also been distracted, because he didn’t protest when Maela handed him just a vest instead of a tunic.
They emerged into the living area to find Lammert had made tea. He held a cup out to Rien. Rien stared at it a moment. “You just poisoned a man.”
“Marinus, if I wanted you dead you’d never have made it to your first birthday.” Lammert lifted the cup.
“Right.” He took the cup. “I’m sorry we were too late, Lammert.”
“On the contrary, your arrival was just in time.” Lammert handed cups to Rachel, Maela, and Bast. Then he took one for himself. “Had you not been present, I imagine I’d not have been permitted to walk away from the arena.”
“Probably not.” Rien sniffed at the tea. It smelled pretty good. Then he sighed, and took a deep breath. “Rutger had Phillip kill Jurgen.”
“So you said.” Lammert sat down. “The only way the likes of Phillip could kill Jurgen would be through treachery.”
“We’ll bring charges against Rutger.” Rien drank from his cup.
“Don’t be a fool, Marinus.”
“Lammert…” Rien started shaking his head.
“What charge will you bring?” Lammert took a sip from his own cup. “That Rutger allied with the man responsible for our brother’s death?” He glanced at Bast. “Sir Bastien, would you be so kind as to remind Marinus who he was working with when he took you prisoner?”
“But he —” Rien cut himself off. He made himself take a couple breaths. He’d missed too much already. If he went charging in, he’d end up tripping and falling on his own axe. He sat down in the chair across from Lammert. Rachel sat beside him, and he put his arm around her. “I spoke to Jochem. He said you…” He frowned. “He said you gave your holdings away before…” He looked up at Lammert. “Why?”
“Because the next time I leave these lands, Marinus…” Lammert swirled his tea before taking another drink. “I’ll not be returning. One way or another, they were going to cease to be mine anyway. I’d rather Jurgen’s children have them than Thirza give them to Rutger.”
“They were supposed to…” Buy time. Whoever had left him the keystones had promised they would buy time. Perhaps they had, just not enough of it. He couldn’t blame Lammert for wanting to leave. He sighed. “Damn it.”
“What happened with the dragon?” Lammert raised an eyebrow.
“We found it and…” He hesitated. Then he glanced at Bast, and sighed. “And Bast killed it. The blade bonded to him.”
“That…” Lammert leaned back. “Makes everything more complicated than it should be.”
“No, it’s alright.” Maela spoke up. “It still fits the prophecy, because Rien wields Bast.”
“She’s got a point.” Bast’s voice was resigned. “I owe Rien fealty.”
“I brought the keystone, and led the expedition that got the blade and killed the dragon.” Rien nodded. “That makes me the future king.”
“No, Marinus.” Lammert shook his head. “That makes Sir Bastien there the kingmaker.”
“Bast belongs to me.” Rien frowned.
“For now.” Lammert exhaled. “Until someone finds means of taking him away from you.” He looked up at Bast. “I do not mean to impugn your honor, Sir Bastien. But the fact that you kneel to Marinus proves you have a price, and even if that were not true…” He sighed. “Every man has a breaking point.”
“Bast can’t be bought.” Rien glared.
“You bought him with warning drums, Marinus. Thirza won’t bother to find his price. She’ll have him shattered, smelted, and reforged into whatever manner of blade she feels best suits Rutger’s hand.” Lammert leaned forward. “You’re the heir apparent, Rien, for now. But you are not the king.”
““The blade is bound by honor, not by chain.” Maela spoke up. “The fate of oath and crown are sealed together.”
Kingmaker. Perhaps it would have been better for everyone if he’d just let the dragon kill them all. Bastien sighed. He and Maela had told them of the prophecy they’d found, and Lammert had laid the situation out for them quite plainly. Rutger had been served a considerable setback, but he was not out of the game and there was still whatever other plans he and Phillip had. Rien had even offered to free him, but Lammert had pointed out that if he did, then Rien was no longer the heir and Rutger would be able to rally the Wilders behind Phillip.
It was a bitter pill to swallow. The only way to see Phillip’s plan undone was to remain Rien’s slave. Rien hung his head. “I don’t…” He sighed. “I don’t know what to do now.” He looked up at Lammert. “Blood and ashes. I should just kill Rutger and leave you the heir apparent.”
“Even if we assumed Thirza would allow me to live long enough for that to matter, I am leaving the Wildlands. Soon, in fact.” Lammert shrugged. “And I will not be returning. I will rule no land. Especially not this one.”
“You don’t…” Rachel gave him a confused look. “Want to be king?”
“Of the Wilders?” Lammert snorted. “I’d rather set myself on fire.”
If Lammert truly had no interest in taking the throne, then… Lammert was older, and it was clear he knew more than they did. Rien had said Lammert ran a spy network, and he had contacts outside the Wildlands. “Will you help Rien?”
“Can you explain why I should?” Lammert lifted an eyebrow.
Bastien frowned. “Rien’s a child of prophecy, Lammert. He has a destiny, and…”
“Marinus is a disappointment.”
“Lammert…” Rien looked as though Lammert had struck him.
“Should I say differently?” Lammert set his cup aside. “For years, every time I returned, you were all Jurgen could talk about. Your strength. Your courage. Your skill. Water is the source of life, in all its glory. And then…” He sighed. “Jurgen has never stopped loving you, Marinus. Never stopped believing in you. Never stopped trying to teach you, to prepare you for what was to come. All your gifts, all your potential, and this…” He gestured at Rien. “This is who and what you chose to become. A wanton hedonist who does his best works by accident, who gained loyalty by enslaving it rather than by earning it. This is the man who would rule the Wildlands?” Lammert gave a short, bitter laugh. “I almost find myself moved to pity the land of my birth.”
It hurt. More than he thought it would. He’d raced back to save Lammert, and this was the thanks he… No. The bitter truth was until Rutger’s confession, he too had blamed Lammert. Rien took a deep breath. “I once asked Jurgen why he went to you for advice. And why those conversations never did end in him breaking your jaw.” Rien looked away. “He said it was because you always told him the truth, no matter how much he didn’t want to hear it.” He shook his head, and exhaled. “I wish I could say you were wrong.” Then he turned back to his brother. “It doesn’t matter. This isn’t about the throne. This is about seeing justice done. Rutger and Phillip both betrayed their brothers.”
“That they did.” Lammert nodded.
“Then will you help me?”
A hundred heartbeats passed before Lammert replied. “Yes.”
“Thank you.” Rien inclined his head. “Let’s start with what you know of this prophecy.”
“It was written by the Dunalith, the people of Asrael. They were lost, and with them their language.”
“So any who know of it are relying on translations.” Maela frowned.
“And incomplete translations at that.” Lammert nodded to her.
“It is a matter of heroes and monsters.” Lammert stood, and walked to the fire. He began making another pot of tea. “And men who are both. There were portents around a birth, though one is unknown to the Magi’s scholars. Those that are known…” He straightened. “Marinus fulfilled them.” He turned back toward them. “As did Phillip.”
“That’s why Rutger needs Phillip, but it doesn’t explain why Phillip needs Rutger.” Bast frowned.
“And where does Bast come in, if he’s the one that claimed the blade?” Maela shook her head.
“The prophecy makes mention of a dragon knight.” Lammert glanced at Bast. “Though in the context, translating it as ‘the dragon’s knight’ would seem to fit.”
“If you knew this…” Rien looked up at him. “Why did you try to convince me to send Bast away, and offer to help him escape?”
“I wanted his measure…” Lammert frowned. “And yours.”
“He passed your test.” Rien looked away. “But I didn’t.”
“Correct.” Lammert added tea leaves to the water. “What you found in the tomb are portions of the prophecy…” He nodded to Rachel and Maela. “And an excellent job of translation, by the way. Not many can read the old script.” Rachel lifted her head proudly, but Maela blushed a little at the compliment. “Phillip needs Rutger because dragons feature heavily in the prophecy. Some are actual dragons, like the one slain by you. Others are much more metaphorical.”
“You know about the prophecy…” Rien’s eyes widened. “I always thought you started calling Jurgen the Stone Dragon as an insult of some kind, but it’s part of the prophecy, isn’t it?”
“Well, let’s be fair…” The edge of Lammert’s mouth lifted a little. “It’s not like he isn’t also notoriously hard-headed.”
“What do Rutger and Phillip gain from stealing Master Rien’s destiny?” Rachel put her hand on Rien’s shoulder.
“Naturally.” Rien exhaled. “We can’t touch Rutger, not here, so…” He nodded. “Guess we’re going after Phillip. Besides, if we stay here, then…” He gave Bast a worried look. Lammert was right. His mother would break Bast. He couldn’t let that happen. “Then I guess we’re all leaving the Wildlands together.”
Once Phillip learned the dragon was dead, they’d be coming after him. Which meant they’d be leaving the Wildlands soon. Their best bet was actually to head into Solsthriem, where Phillip was wanted for treason. It seemed he was going home after all. Lammert had apparently intended to head there when he left, and told them he had a contact who’d be waiting for them at the border.
“And you are certain we can trust this contact?” He gave Lammert a skeptical look.
“Yes, Sir Bastien, I am certain you can.” Lammert nodded.
When it came down to it, if there was one person he didn’t trust… “I still don’t understand.” Bastien frowned. “How did you poison Ludo if…”
“I ensured there was a poisoned spear waiting for me in the armory.”
Bastien blinked. That didn’t… “But if the spear was poisoned why aren’t you dead?”
“I took the antidote ahead of time.” Lammert shrugged before gathering his dishes. Rachel took them out of his hands.
“Wait…” Rien sat back and stared at his brother. “You stripped yourself of your holdings, prepped a poisoned weapon, and went…” He shook his head. “Blood and ashes, Lammert, why the hell didn’t you just run?”
“Without me to delay him, Rutger would have gathered men loyal to him and Phillip and gone dragon hunting. He’d have found and killed you, bringing back both trophies and blade, and Phillip would have his Wilder army.” Lammert rolled his eyes.
“Would you…” Rien hesitated before looking up at Lammert. “Would you answer a question for me?”
“That depends on the question.” Lammert shrugged and picked up another dish, only for Maela to take it from him. He gave her an annoyed look.
“Why did you ever come back to the Wildlands?”
“It…” Lammert sighed. “It was where my brothers were, Marinus.”
Rien’s smile trembled for a moment. “I’m sorry. For…” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Bad as things are for us, suppose you’ve got it even worse right now. Your entire life here is pretty much ashes.”
“True.” A ghost of a smile crossed Lammert’s face. “But then again…” He spread his hands. “I am the Phoenix.” Despite himself, he laughed. Rien gave him an irritated look, but Lammert inclined his head toward Bastien.
Maela started to bend to put another log on the fire, then straightened again. She frowned, then tilted her head. Then she gave a small shake of her head before turning toward Lammert. “If you bought time, to delay Rutger…” She bit her lip.
“Good point.” Rien stood. “If you did all that to delay Rutger, then why…” Rien glared. “Why be such a nonpareil about agreeing to help us?”
“Ah, Marinus…” Lammert just shook his head again. “As much as I envy you your ignorance…” He looked up, meeting his brother’s eyes. “There are lessons that must be learned.