He took watch. Maela and Rachel both curled by Bast, their heads resting on his torso. Frankly, he considered it a rather heroic act of willpower that he didn’t kick his brother awake and then go pounce on his bed-slaves. They looked rather adorable in their little dog-pile. Early on, Bast had objected to the girls using him as a pillow. The knight had lost that particular battle without the girls even having to call upon Rien for aid. Maela even had hold of Bast’s hand.
They were all in danger. Because of him. He’d had bed-slaves before. The last one he’d kept for almost a year. She’d pleased him well enough he’d told Jochem to free her before he’d left. He’d been fond of her but… He’d been fond of her the way he was fond of his good boots. Rutger had been surprised when he’d stepped between the archer and Rachel. Looking back, so was he. He’d told Bast that Rutger would target the girls to make him and Bast stand down. Frankly, he hoped he was wrong, that Rutger wouldn’t use such a tactic. It was somewhat terrifying to realize if Rutger did, it would work.
Rien was considering pouring himself some tea when Lammert’s eyes abruptly opened. He sat up, then exhaled before pinching the bridge of his nose. Nearby, Efua stirred and looked up at him. “Mi’sala ven adomas?”
“Se cha. Vola drisis non sala.” Lammert shook his head at her.
Efua nodded before laying down and going back to sleep. Lammert however, rose and went to the fire. Rien shrugged, and grabbed a second cup. He filled both before handing one to Lammert. “What language is that?”
“Those are the sea people, right?” Rien nodded. “You know, I’ve never actually heard you speak other languages before. I mean, I guess it’s not a surprise you can, just…” He shrugged. “I don’t know. Suppose I just hadn’t thought about it before.” Rien tilted his head. “How many languages are there?”
“Hard to say.” Lammert shrugged. “Some regional dialects differ enough they may very well be separate languages, and then there are written works that have outlived any speakers of those dialects. Even more have been lost save for a relic or two.”
“This contact of yours, where are we meeting him?” Rien kept his voice quiet, and added another piece of wood to the fire. The fire was small, but there was a chill in the air. Maybe he should start fresh tea.
“He’ll find us, you needn’t worry.”
For a moment, he was quiet. “Did you mean it?”
“Marinus?” Lammert raised an eyebrow.
“When you said…” He sighed. “When you said that this time when you leave, you’re not…” He looked down at his tea. “You’re not coming back?”
“Yes.” Lammert hesitated, then looked up at him. “You offered to stand as my champion.”
“Yeah I…” Rien snorted softly. “Thought you didn’t stand a chance against Ludo and I…” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I was pretty sure I could take him.”
“I appreciated that, little brother. Perhaps more than you can understand.” Lammert was quiet for a moment. “Kindly ask Maela to stop, if you would.”
“Maela to…” Rien blinked, then looked up at Lammert. “You mean you did notice?”
“I would rather Efua not decide she needs to handle the matter.” Lammert shrugged. “I will answer your questions, Marinus, in time.”
“Alright. I just…” Rien shrugged. “You know I don’t actually mind, really. I mean, if you want Maela to…” He looked up. “I could share Bast if you…”
“Sela tenai, Rien…” Lammert began taking items from their food store. “You do realize I’m the same age as his father, yes?”
“Yeah, I guess.” He chuckled. “So…” He shrugged. “Are you and Efua…” He glanced at Lammert’s side of the camp. “Or you and Mikaere…?”
Lammert sighed. “Oh, Marinus.”
“The Vale is the quickest path, and in terms of terrain, the safest.” Rien squared his shoulders and folded his arms. “Rutger will have had the majority of his forces with him in Darodelf.”
“I—” Bastien watched Lammert attempt to speak again, only to be cut off by Rien continuing to state his case.
“Even assuming he scrambled them behind us, they still won’t have reached the Vale quickly enough to set up a decent ambush.” He stared at his brother.
“That —” Lammert rolled his eyes as Rien interrupted him yet again.
“Messenger birds would already be carrying word.” Rien shook his head. “The dragon is dead, and the only folks that know Bast was the one that killed it are all right here so anyone not already completely loyal to Rutger will back me.”
Bastien found himself wishing he had an ale or something as he continued to watch the two men. He was a little curious as to how long it was going to take Rien to figure out Lammert was agreeing with him. Rien continued explaining why they should stop at the Vale, pointing out it was their last chance to resupply and get whatever gear they hadn’t been able to get in their rush. He pointed out they’d need to learn what had happened since they left, and that it was possible someone there had news of Phillip. Lammert tried to speak again. “Mari —”
“And I have friends in the Vale too, you know.” Rien glared. This time Lammert didn’t try to say anything. He just stared at Rien. Nearly a full minute passed before Rien finally shook his head. “What?”
“I am curious to know why you think I am arguing with you.” Lammert tilted his head.
“I…” Rien blinked. The look on his face was somewhat comical. Like a fish trying to breath outside of water. Bastien tried not to smile, but he was pretty sure he was failing miserably. “Wait, you’re not?”
“One, you haven’t let me speak. Two, I happen to agree with your conclusions.” Lammert gave him a level look. “And three, you are the one leading this farce.”
“I…” Rien’s eyes widened. “I am?”
Lammert stared at him a moment before turning to Bastien. “How have you not stabbed him?”
“I did stab him.” Bastien shrugged. At least he was pretty sure he had. The last little bit of the fight was kind of fuzzy. “Within five minutes of meeting him.”
“Yeah, and then I knocked you out and tossed you over a horse, so…” Rien glared at Bastien before turning back to Lammert. “You’re letting me lead.”
“Do you want me to argue with you?” Lammert raised an eyebrow.
“I uh…” Rien frowned, and rubbed the back of his head. Then he shrugged. “Yes, if you think I’m wrong. I mean…” He swallowed, then sighed. “I remember you and Jurgen arguing whenever you went on raids together.”
“I am your elder brother. It is my duty to provide you with guidance and to help you learn from your mistakes.” The corner of Lammert’s mouth twitched slightly. “I am Jurgen’s younger brother. It is my duty to prick his ego and mock his mistakes.”
“How…” Rien smiled. “Did he never break your nose?”
“Marinus…” Lammert shook his head before turning to finish packing his saddle bags. “He broke my nose seventeen times.”
Despite his earlier words, he felt hesitant when the Vale came into view. The air around them grew warmer as they went into the valley. Last time he’d been here, he’d been concerned about assassins. The more things changed, the more they stayed the same. “So…” Rien started to turn toward his companions. They dismounted, preparing to lead the horses in rather than go in through the road. “We’ll sneak in. And once we are in, try to be polite and diplomatic. We need to make some friends, get people behind us rather than behind Rutger and Phillip.”
A shout rang out, and then more shouts started coming in their direction. “Refresh my memory…” Bast tilted his head. “We were trying to sneak in, yes?”
“Oh, shut up.” Rien yanked his axe out of its harness. He saw Efua grab Maela and Rachel, pulling them back and into cover as Mikaere took up a position next to Lammert. Bast moved into position next to Rien himself. “Alright, let’s politely and diplomatically kill these jackasses.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Bastien saw Mikaere roll and come up on the other side of a man to drive his dagger low into the attacker’s spine. He made a mental note to see if he could get the older man to teach him a few tricks later. Bastien caught a blow on his shield, then took the man’s arm off just above the elbow. The group they were fighting were all Wilders, and not particularly skilled ones.
Then again, Rutger had probably sent his best with Phillip, not expecting Rien to return. Rien was showing he could just about handle this lot on his own. Then again… Lammert was using his spear more like a quarterstaff, and to Bastien’s surprise the tall man twisted and kicked an oncoming Wilder in the head with enough force that the man’s skull actually deformed a little. He fought very differently than Rien did, or any other Wilders Bastien had faced so far.
A couple fired crossbow bolts revealed Maela and Rachel weren’t particularly interested in staying out of the fight. It was over a few moments later. Bastien wiped his sword clean. “I have to imagine Rutger is eventually going to get tired of wasting his soldiers.”
“These weren’t his men.” Rien shook his head, then gestured at the dead man near him. “Clan Varkin. Mercenaries.” Rien sighed. “Cheap ones, and the ones we kill are ones he doesn’t have to pay.”
“Not to mention Marinus has raided Clan Varkin before.” Lammert bent to examine one of the dead, then frowned before standing up again. “Rutger will be able to find many like this, and pay them with promises. Convince them they will benefit if he is king.”
“And by…” Rien frowned, then turned toward Lammert. “By running I give up my chance to convince them otherwise.”
“Marinus, you will not defeat Rutger in a battle of words.”
“I can —”
“Rutger currently operates within the accord of praxis, sanctioned by perceived magisterial authorization to which the monarch will tacitly acquiescence upon consummation.”
“I…” Rien stared at his brother. Then he turned towards where Rachel was standing. “What did he say?”
“He said right now Rutger isn’t breaking any laws or customs and people will think the queen is okay with it.” Rachel frowned at Lammert. “And the queen won’t say anything if Rutger does win.”
“Right.” Rien nodded. “Right, you made your…” He took a deep breath, then turned to Bastien. “Call him something rude.”
Bastien shrugged and complied. “You’re an insolent entity.”
“Well played.” Lammert nodded to him.
“Bast.” Rachel glared. Behind her, Maela was covering her mouth to hide a smile. “You’re supposed to be on Master Rien’s side.”
He set the story straight for Annika, and for a few others. Word would spread. The simple truth was the dragon was dead, and it hadn’t been Rutger who killed it. Once he was able to thwart the rest of Rutger’s plan, that would allow him to claim the throne.
Upon the advice of Lammert, he gave a twist to the story. It was still true, just slanted a bit. Phillip was the villain, who had killed Jurgen. Killed the Stone Dragon, and was even now leading Rutger astray. Whatever mad influence Phillip had over Rutger, Rien intended to see it destroyed, and justice done. The story was easy to tell. There was a part of him that desperately wanted it to be true.
They took a room. It was normally the bunk room, but he wanted to keep all of them together. Any of them who wandered off alone would be picked off. Bast frowned when he ordered food brought to them. “What if someone slipped poison into it?”
“That’s not really a…” Rien trailed off, then glanced at Lammert. “Actually, that might be a concern, considering your stunt at the arena.”
“Efua make sure no food poison.” Mikaere began making tea.
“You can do that?” Bast turned toward Efua.
“He still lives, yes?” She nodded in Lammert’s direction.
“Can you teach us?” Rachel looked up at Efua hopefully.
“Oh, yes.” Maela nodded eagerly.
To Rien’s surprise, Efua did not look at Lammert for permission before replying. “I can teach you some.”
“Efua.” Lammert’s voice carried a small note of warning.
“Belis ta aborna si sala. Vala slithria ashera so na —”
“Se cha. Salana sala methona —”
“Ashera. Vhena seladai.” Efua’s eyes narrowed. Lammert looked away from her. “Vhena seladai.”
“Dosemi.” Lammert sighed before nodding.
“Uh…” Rien frowned. “Reasonably sure you aren’t speaking the common tongue.” And that whatever it was they’d just argued, it had been Efua giving an order, and Lammert accepting it. Which made even less sense than the words they’d exchanged. Lammert might not be a prince anymore, but Efua still wore his collar. “What are you two talking about?”
“There was a reason we weren’t speaking a language you understood, Marinus.” Lammert gave a small shake of his head.
“Would you like us to hold Bast down over the cot, Master Rien?” Rachel gave him an evil smile.
Bastien winced. “There are people trying to —”
“That’s not a bad idea.” Rien smiled.
“— kill us that could attack —” Bastien grunted as Rien shoved him toward one of the cots.
“Face down, girls.”
“— at any moment.” Bastien sighed as each of the twins grabbed one of his arms and pulled him down onto the cot. There was only a thin curtain separating their half of the room from where the others were, and Rien and the girls weren’t exactly known for being quiet.
He heard Maela giggle, and she let go of his arm. For a moment, he hoped they were going to be reasonable. Then Rien caught hold of his arm and he realized Maela had only let him go because Rien had handed her the small vial of oil. He felt her weight on his back as she straddled him.
A small gasp escaped him as she inserted her fingers to prepare him for Rien. Then Rien caught hold of his hair, holding him in place as Rien’s mouth came down on his. He felt Rien’s tongue, and parted his lips. After a moment, Rien pulled back, and then used his hair to make Bastien turn his head. Rachel’s lips found his, and she nipped lightly at his lower lip before tasting him with her own tongue. She wrapped one arm around his arm, holding him in place, then her other hand caught his hair.
When his head was turned again, it was Maela holding that arm once more. Her kiss was more tender than her sister’s, and she held his arm with one hand while she raised the other to caress his cheek. He moaned when Rien entered him, and felt Maela’s mouth smile at the sound.
Rien at least didn’t go out of his way to make extra noise, and with the girls taking turns kissing him they weren’t offering their customary cheers and suggestions. At least there was no audience but the girls and that… Strange how that didn’t bother him. He tasted Maela’s lips, then groaned as he felt Rien twitch inside him.
For a few moments, Rien just lay partly atop him. Then he kissed the top of Bastien’s shoulder before withdrawing. “I’m sorry, Bast.”
“You…” He blinked. “Sorry for what?”
“With the fighting earlier I…” Rien sat up and patted his shoulder. “I didn’t give you a chance to finish. Next time.”
The man was apologizing for not… Bastien couldn’t quiet believe what he was hearing. “Well…” Rachel let go of his arm. “I know how you could make it up to him.”
“Lovely?” Rien raised an eyebrow at her.
It was Maela that answered. “You did say if Lammert beat Ludo, you’d get on your knees for Bast.”
“I…” Rien’s eyes widened. “I said that?”
“Yes…” Bastien couldn’t help himself. He started laughing. “You did.”
“But…” Rien looked like he’d just stepped into an icy pond. “I…”
“Don’t worry, Rien.” Bastien patted his shoulder. “I won’t take you up on it…” He grinned. “Tonight.”
“Blood and ashes…” Rien exhaled. “You’re going to enjoy holding that over me, aren’t you?”
“Oh…” Bastien rolled over and reached for a blanket. “You have no idea.”