Rien fell to his knees and tried not to vomit. The baron was pulling the little girl away before she continued pressing her attack. By the time he got his breath back, one of the servants was guiding the girl back to her room. “You don’t…” He glared. The manacles weren’t heavy ones. He could feel the lock that connected the two wrist cuffs. “Have to find this funny.”
“Yes.” Bast nodded. “Yes, I do.”
“Blood and ashes. I should introduce her to Jurgen’s youngest.” Rien winced as he got back to his feet. “Then we could just sit back and let them take over the world.” He shook his head, then exhaled. “I suppose I had that coming.”
“Duke Harald was a good man.” Bast’s voice was quiet. “A noble in every sense of the world, and he loved his daughter dearly.”
“You don’t have to keep reminding me of how badly I fucked up.” Rien sighed. “Phillip killed Jurgen. He murdered my brother, then I stupidly helped him kill his. I’m trying to make that right.”
“It isn’t us you will need to convince.” Aurel shook his head. “You…” He gestured to the other four knights standing guard in the room. “We lost friends in your attack. Those four armed and armored men you killed were our brothers.” His eyes narrowed. “You put a collar around my son’s neck.” He folded his arms. “Give me one reason not to shove you into an oubliette for the rest of your natural life.”
“I’m cooperating.” Rien squared his shoulders. “Phillip murdered my brother. He conspired with Rutger to take over my people to use us as nothing more than weapons for Phillip’s war. Left to their plan, they will destroy both our peoples.” He took a deep breath and met Aurel’s eyes. “I intend to kill them first. You are my friend’s father, so I would really prefer not to have to go through you to do so. So, I’m cooperating.”
“You are —” Aurel started shaking his head.
“You don’t know me, or you would know that four knights are not a threat to me. So let me be very clear on this matter.” Rien put his full strength to work. The lock connecting the cuffs snapped, and he brought his hands in front of him. The eyes of the knights around him widened as they reached for their weapons. “I am the River Dragon. I am going to kill Phillip. You are not going to stop me.” He took a step forward.
“Rien, enough.” Bast shook his head.
“I —” Rien narrowed his eyes.
“Enough.” Bast folded his arms. “Behave yourself —” He smiled. “Or I’ll hold you to your bet. Right now.”
“You —” Rien turned to stare at him. “You —” He growled. “Fine.” He made himself take a couple deep breaths, ignoring the knights. They were all looking at Aurel as though waiting for instruction. Aurel, however, was merely watching him calmly. It occurred to him in that moment that Aurel was the man who had trained Bast. He turned back to the man. “There is your reason.” He pointed to Bast. “I trust him. I’ll abide by whatever…” He shrugged. “Whatever terms he arranges. He knows the stakes.” He turned and started walking back toward the cell. “And someone bring me a damn book or something.”
“Look, just…” Bastien sighed. “Just let Rachel pick the book and she’ll handle the situation. Just keep in mind if anyone lays a hand on her I’ll remove it.” The servant nodded before heading to obey. Bastien turned toward Aurel. “He will. He’ll keep his word.”
“You sound certain of that.” Aurel sat down in a slightly battered chair. Parts of the castle were still under repair, and not all of the stolen items had been replaced.
“You told me once…” Bastien straightened. “That liars are the first to accuse others of lying. Rien has —” He shook his head. “He trusted me with a sword, to stand guard, shortly after I gave him my oath. Whatever else he may be, Father, he is not a liar or an oathbreaker.”
“No, but he is a murderer, a thief, a raider, and…” Aurel stood again. The warning had come some days after the attack on the castle. If that had been his son’s impetus for the oath, that meant… Bastien was not a man who would have been a cooperative prisoner. “Can you look me in the eye and tell me he never hurt you?” He raised an eyebrow.
“I…” Bastien exhaled. “No.”
Fury filled him. Bastien had been that man’s prisoner for five months. A slave. “He stays in the cell.” And a knight. “Will it be necessary to put you in one as well?”
“I…” Bastien shook his head. “No. He ordered me to protect the girls, and I can’t do that from inside a cell. I’ll…” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I could kill Lammert for putting us in this situation.”
“There are still a thousand questions.” Aurel started for the door. “Let’s see if that man has some answers.”
Bastien followed his father up the stairs to the guest rooms. The guards sat outside the door, where they could keep a close eye on it. “Has he said anything?”
“Nobody has come out since they went in.” The first guard shook his head.
“All three of them in the same quarters?” Aurel raised an eyebrow.
“They are Lammert’s body-slaves.” Bastien turned to his father. “They shared his quarters back in Darodelf. It’s the custom, there.”
“It’s not proper.” Aurel frowned. “There was a woman with them.”
“Efua.” Bastien nodded.
“Tell me of her?” Aurel raised an eyebrow.
“I, uh…” He shrugged. “I actually don’t know much about her. She’s a healer. She treated me when I was injured.” It was probably best not to mention how, though his father would learn eventually. “Kept me from ending up crippled. And she uh…” He glanced at the door. “She knows poison.”
“That is not comforting.” Aurel pinched the bridge of his nose. “The man?”
“Mikaere. He’s from Uhses. He’s tougher than he looks. And he uh…” Bastien rubbed his neck. “Apparently, he thinks Lammert is the manifestation of one of his people’s gods or something. I don’t really understand it.”
“What sort of madness is this?” Aurel ran his hand down his face. “And Lammert himself?”
“He’s always treated me with respect. He saved my…” He sighed. “In Darodelf, Rutger tried to set Rien up, provoke him into doing something stupid. The method he chose was to cause an altercation in the market, involving me, while Rien was otherwise occupied. Lammert prevented me from being whipped to death.”
His father went silent. “You were…”
“Efua treated the injuries. There are hardly any scars, even.” Bastien put a hand on his father’s shoulder. “I’m alri—” He was cut off by his father hugging him again. He hugged Aurel back. “I’m alright.”
“That…” Aurel stepped back and glanced at the door. “Makes it somewhat harder for me to be angry at him.”
“He could have been king, if he’d wanted. He found three keystones, somehow, and…” Bastien sighed. “And he put his life on the line to buy Rien and I enough time to kill the dragon. Then he…” Bastien shook his head. “Until you mentioned protection, I thought he had some plan to get us through here without you ever realizing who Rien actually was.”
“Get you through…” Aurel frowned.
“His agreement…” Bastien looked away. “Was that you’d see me again, not that…”
“You’re not free.” Aurel sighed. “I got the chains off you but it doesn’t matter. You’re not free.” Aurel laughed bitterly. “As if I didn’t have reason enough to have Marinus Draak simply killed.”
“Father…” Bastien took a deep breath. “He —”
“He held up his end of the bargain.” Aurel closed his eyes, his expression pained. “I’ll…” He exhaled. “I’ll protect Marinus. I don’t know how, but…” He sighed. “I’ll keep my end.”
“Lovely.” Rien blinked when he took in Rachel’s appearance. “What the —”
“Solsthriem…” Rachel shook her head. “Is trying to kill me.”
“Who —” Rien put a comforting hand on her shoulder. “Lovely, who did this to you?”
She was dressed in a flowing gown, a bodice carefully laced in a manner that concealed rather than enhanced her perfect breasts. The gown was long enough to nearly touch the floor, and the material was heavy enough that it wouldn’t have shown anything had she been standing in front of a bonfire on a dark night. And that was before it had been ruffled. The sleeves were so long they actually hid her hands in gobs of lace. Her hair was covered by a scarf that also hid the neckline of the dress, meaning the only skin that showed was her face.
“Bast told the servants I was to be treated as a noblewoman. Then the serving woman said I wasn’t to be permitted out of the rooms until I was decently attired as a proper young noble woman. I wanted to see you.” Rachel shook her head. She offered him a book. “Bast said to bring this to you.”
“This is what Solsthriem’s noblewomen wear?” He took in the clothing again.
“It took them an hour to dress me.” Rachel’s lower lip trembled. “There is a whole other gown underneath this gown.”
“An…” Rien shuddered. He felt a pang of sympathy. “So that’s how Bast could still be a virgin at twenty-three.”
“Master Rien…” She stared up at him, her eyes watering.
“Oh, Lovely…” He opened his arms. “Come here.”
“Lammert, we need a word.” Bastien looked around the quarters. Efua sat on the sofa by the fire, reading. “Lammert?” He frowned. “Efua, where is Lammert?”
“He and Mikaere had business to attend.” She waved a hand. “They will be back in a couple days.”
“I was clear they were not to leave these chambers.” Aurel narrowed his eyes.
Bastien turned toward Efua again. He blinked. The collar that had been around her neck was missing. He gave the woman a long look. She was old, older than Lammert himself by at least a few years. Her close-cropped hair was steel gray, a startling contrast with her nearly black skin. He still hadn’t learned why one of the Ilael served a Wilder prince, but it appeared that was no longer the case. “Lammert freed you?”
“I have always been free, boy.” Efua turned a page in her book. “We no longer have need of those masks.”
“Then in his absence, it seems you must answer our questions.” Aurel folded his arms. “Starting with how did they get past my guards?”
“You placed your guard upon the door.” Efua shrugged.
“For the…” Bastien ran a hand down his face and turned toward his father. He winced before looking down at the ground. “In Darodelf Lammert got past the guards on the door by —”
“He went out the window?” Aurel raised an eyebrow.
“He went out the window.” Bastien nodded.
“Are all Wilders insane?”
“Yeah and…” He sighed. “It’s a little contagious.” He turned back toward Efua. “Where did they go?”
She turned another page in her book. “I am not going to tell you. However, the fact that I remain should be evidence enough that they intend to return.”
“We need to know where they went.” Aurel glared at her. “You will tell us, now.”
“Or?” She lifted an eyebrow.
Aurel blinked. “Or?”
“You were issuing a threat.” She didn’t look up from her book. “I am curious as to what, exactly, you intend to threaten me with?”
“I…” Aurel frowned. Then he turned toward Bastien.
“We uh…” Bastien rubbed his neck. Then he shrugged. “We could put her in the cell with Rien.”
“That…” Aurel shrugged. “You will tell us where they went or we will put you in the cell with Marinus.”
“Clever.” She shrugged. “How?”
“I…” Bastien blinked. “What do you mean, how?”
“I mean, which of your vaulted and honorable knights will you have drag a defenseless old woman to whom you granted guest right…” She turned another page. “Through the castle and up and down stairs to toss into a cell with a murderous Wilder raider?”
“Gods above.” Aurel turned and stormed out of the room. “I’ll get scouts out after them.”