King Wendel’s entourage filled most of the courtyard. The king was nearly fifty, but still a sturdy man. His brown hair was half turned to steel gray, but he walked as confidently as his knights. In his youth, he’d been accounted a fair warrior, and Bastien knew the sword that hung at the king’s side was not purely ceremonial. He greeted Nadja, playing the part of a fond uncle rather than the part of a king. Hopefully, that meant he would be in a good mood, though there were the girl’s own feelings on Rien to consider.
Rien stood beside him, uncharacteristically quiet as they awaited what could easily be his trial. It was nearly an hour before the little duchess went back to her studies, and most of the king’s entourage left the hall. Maybe a half-dozen men remained. Only then did the king appear to take notice of Rien. Bastien felt his stomach clench. It was more than just their lives at stake. Even the king’s mercy could result in Bastien himself being banished from Solsthriem entirely, and the disgrace of the newly formed noble house of Kohler.
“King Wendel.” Aurel and Bastien both took a knee. Aurel’s face darkened just a little when Rien did not.
“Rise.” The king gestured. His eyes went to Bastien. “Sir Bastien Kohler, the realm owes you a great debt. I am not blind to the sacrifice you made to keep our kingdom safe.”
“Thank you, Your Highness.” Bastien bowed again.
Then the king turned his eyes once again to Rien. “You are the one they call the River Dragon.”
“I am.” Rien nodded. “And you are King Wendel Jaeger.”
“I am.” King Wendel returned the nod. “Whatever your motives, you assisted Phillip in murdering my beloved cousin. Additionally, you have conducted other raids along my borders, resulting in the deaths of both my soldiers and civilians. You have taken slaves from among my people. And I have been assured that if I do find in favor of your execution I will not incur the wrath of the Dragon Queen.”
His stomach started sinking. It was starting to sound as though the king had made up his mind even before arriving. And the worst part was the man was stating plain facts. Aurel bowed his head. “Your Majesty, I…”
“So, let us be very clear on this matter, Prince Marinus. Your pardon extends only to the crimes previous committed. Any further…” King Wendel’s eyes narrowed. “Malfeasance will not find me merciful.”
Bastien blinked. Aurel looked shocked. Rien tilted his head as if trying to make sense of what the king had just said. “My…” He raised an eyebrow. “Pardon?”
“Your pardon.” King Wendel nodded. “Have his shackles removed. We have much to discuss.” He turned and stalked back to the table.
Rien watched the king walk away. Both Aurel and Bast had flummoxed expressions on their faces. “What exactly just happened here?” Rien glanced at Bast.
“Somehow…” Bast rubbed the back of his neck. “You drove the entire world mad.”
“And malfeasance means…”
“Screw up again he’s going to cut your head off.”
“Right.” Rien nodded. “That’s what I thought it meant.” He rubbed his wrists when Aurel removed the manacles. “Those things are uncomfortable.”
“No…” Bast turned and glared at him. “Really?”
“You never complained.” Rien shook his head.
“I kicked you in the face.” Bast continued glaring. “Bit a chunk out of your wrist, and tried to push you off a mountain.”
“Yes, but you never actually said anything.” Rien folded his arms.
“I said —”
“Can we please focus here?” Aurel’s sharp voice cut into their argument. “Preferably before you give me cause to execute Marinus?”
“Yes, Father.” Bast bowed his head.
“Yes, Baron Kohler.” Rien’s own voice was surprisingly meek. “I, uh…” He exhaled. “I’ve been sort of an ass since, well, ever, and you’ve been, and…” He grimaced. “Alright, I’m just going to apologize before I fuck up again and er…” He sighed. “What happens now?”
“We have dinner with the king and I spend the evening praying you don’t accidentally stab anyone with a soup spoon.” Aurel rubbed a hand down his face. “We figure out what is going on. Then your entire party, minus my son, get as far away from this castle as physically possible.”
“Uh, okay. So, we have plan.” Rien nodded. “I can work with that plan.”
“Gods above.” Aurel winced.
“Rien?” Bast’s voice sounded very confused.
“Bast?” Rien turned toward him, and saw Bast was staring at where the king was talking to his entourage. When Bast pointed, Rien turned in that direction. He frowned. “What am I looking at?”
“The man next to the king.” Bast tilted his head.
“Why am I…” He trailed off as he looked again. The smiling man talking to the king was dressed like one of the Solsthriem nobility, in elegant clothing that fit him well despite his height. And it was the height that clued him in. “Is that…?”
“Gods above…” Aurel’s mouth fell open. “Is that your brother?”
He sat down at Rien’s left, and quickly elbowed the man when Rien started reaching for the wrong goblet. Fortunately, Rien caught on quickly and adjusted. Lammert sat to the right of the king. The clothing he wore would have marked him as high nobility, at least a baron himself, if Bastien hadn’t known better. Then again, did he know better? The man was sitting at the king’s right, directly across from Bastien himself. The Wilder looked at ease in the clothing, as well as comfortable at the table.
And he could tell that it was taking pretty much every ounce of effort Rien could muster to prevent himself from launching over the table to strangle his brother. Aurel sat on Rien’s other side, apparently with the intention of keeping Rien as contained as possible. “I see repairs are well underway.” King Wendel nodded at Aurel.
“Yes, Your Highness.” Aurel nodded. “We should be finished with the repairs to the stonework before winter hits.”
Rien started to open his mouth, then shut it again before Bastien could elbow him. Then he exhaled. And to Bastien’s dread, opened his mouth again. “I will write to my steward, Jochem, and have him provide funds toward those repairs.”
King Wendel gave a slight nod. “That is welcome but unnecessary. Lord Liam has already provided enough funds to see the restoration through.” He glanced at Lammert. “As an apology for treading on the good will of my newest nobleman.” He narrowed his eyes. “That was unnecessary.”
“I fear we must agree to disagree on that matter.” Lammert took a sip of his wine.
“I think it’s time we discussed just the dragon matter.” The king set his fork down.
“Sir Bastien…” Lammert nodded to him. “Kindly show the king your new sword.”
Bastien hesitated before drawing the dragonblade from the sheath on his back. In his hand, it started to glow. King Wendel sat back in his chair, and exhaled. “And you swore fealty to Marinus Draak?”
“Yes, Your Majesty.” Bastien replaced the sword.
“Gods above, old friend…” King Wendel turned toward Lammert. “You realize…” He sighed. “No, of course you realize. I hate this.”
“I told you that you would.”
“I should have killed you when I had the chance.” King Wendel shook his head, but he smiled.
Lammert shrugged. “I told you that too.”
A small snort of laughter came from the king. “That you did.” The smile faded. “Phillip claims to have killed the Stone Dragon.” King Wendel bowed his head a moment, in a gesture that looked surprisingly respectful. “I didn’t think any man could.”
King Wendel had known Jurgen? He exchanged a look with Rien, and saw that Rien was just as confused as he was. “Rutger and Phillip make a habit of treachery, Your Majesty.”
“And they have allies in Thatela providing them with funding in an attempt to destabilize my kingdom. Lord Liam assures me that the best way to solve that particular problem is to take this particular problem…” King Wendel nodded toward Rien. “And let him be Phillip’s problem.” He exhaled. “Sir Bastien, at least, I have some confidence in.” He turned his eyes toward Bastien. “You’ve thwarted Phillip twice already.”
“We will do all we can, Your Majesty.” Bastien nodded.
“I expect no less.” King Wendel rose from the table. “You…” He pointed toward Lammert. “A word before I retire.”
“Of course.” Lammert rose and followed the king out of the room.
“That…” Bastien watched them go. “Could have gone…” He shook his head before turning toward Rien. “Did you know your brother knew the king?”
“Do you think beating the shit out of Lammert qualifies as, what was it…” Rien tilted his head. “Malfeasance?”
“Probably.” Aurel’s leaned forward to look at Bastien. “Which is why I think I should do it.”
“Bast…” Rien smiled. “I think I’m starting to like your father.”
“So, you’re not going to be executed?” Rachel beamed up at him. She was still wearing entirely too many clothes for his liking, but she’d found a way to lace the bodice that pushed her breasts up rather than strapping them down. The effect was rather enthralling.
“The night is still young.” Rien hugged her to him before planting a kiss on her nose. He started to slide his hand into the bodice and she giggled before dancing back playfully.
“And that means Bast’s father isn’t in trouble.” Maela smiled. “He’s so nice.”
“He threw me in a cell.” Rien frowned.
“He got me a lapdesk and said I could use the library whenever I wanted.” Maela shook her head. “And he gave me a copy of Linden’s sonnets for my very own.”
“What’s a sonnet?” Rien frowned.
Maela just rolled her eyes. Bast chuckled. “It’s a type of poem. Maela’s been reading them to me.”
“Oh, you poor man.” Rien gave him a sympathetic look.
“I happen to like them.” Bast glared at him.
“Have you recently taken a blow to the head?”
“You liked it when I sang you that one.” Rachel looked up at him.
“Honestly, I just like the way your breasts move when you sing.” Rien shrugged, then laughed when Rachel lightly punched him. He caught her hand and kissed her fingers. “Lovely, your singing voice could make one of Jochem’s ledgers sound beautiful.” She blushed.
The door clicked open a moment later, and Lammert entered. He was still dressed in Solsthriem style, and he’d come alone. There was no sign of Mikaere or Efua. Rien narrowed his eyes. “You let me sit in a cell while you…”
“I thought it best to keep you out of trouble until I’d had a chance to settle matters with the king.” Lammert shrugged.
Rien moved over to a chair, and sat down. Rachel went to sit next to her sister. “You could have told me.”
“Marinus, you have a tendency to open your mouth and let words fall out. Phillip had spies within the Duke’s household, and I needed to control what they reported back to him.”
“That was a shit thing to do to my father.” Bast’s voice was soft.
“Yes.” Lammert nodded. “It was.”
“So, you have a…” There was a clicking sound. He turned to see Maela had just pulled the string back on a crossbow, and was now pointing the bolt at Lammert. Next to her, Rachel copied the action. “Uh…”
Bast frowned. “Maela, Rachel, what are you doing?”
“There are some questions he needs to answer.” Maela narrowed her eyes. Her voice was cold.
“And he is going to actually answer them.” Rachel nodded. Unlike her sister, she sounded furious.
“This is…” Bast started to move between the girls and Lammert.
“Stay where you are, Bast.” Rien leaned forward.
“Rien?” Bast turned toward him.
“That’s an order.” Rien narrowed his eyes. “Lammert, the girls have some questions for you. I suggest you answer.” He turned toward his brother. “They are very good shots with those things.”