Reluctantly, Bastien stepped back as ordered. They did need answers from Lammert. Lammert, for his part, seemed fairly calm about having two crossbows pointed at him. “First question.” Rien tilted his head. “Where is Mikaere?”
“Handling another matter.” Lammert waved a hand.
“He’s hiding it, isn’t he?” Maela shifted the crossbow slightly. “Answer yes or no. Is he hiding the scepter?”
“Yes.” Lammert nodded.
“Why is…” Bastien started to frown, then his eyes widened. He saw Rien’s eyes do the same thing.
“How does one kill a dessicated corpse?” Rachel narrowed her eyes.
“After it got back up for the third time…” Lammert shrugged. “I stabbed it with the scepter.”
“Blood and ashes…” Rien started to stand but sank back into the chair. “Blood and ashes, that’s how…”
“Yes or no.” Maela stood. “Did you put the keystone in the manticore’s den for Master Rien to find?”
Bastien fumbled for a chair before falling backward into it. “That’s how you knew to arrange a spear ahead of time and…”
“How you could tell the baron exactly when and where we would be.” Rien shook his head.
“Find a dragon you couldn’t have known…” Bastien stared.
“But…” Rien rubbed his eyes. “The bearer of the scepter can’t lie. You lie all the time. I mean, you lied about poisoning Ludo.”
“He didn’t.” Rachel shook her head. “Every word he said was true.”
“It’s the way he said them that’s the lie.” Maela glared. “He didn’t say he didn’t poison Ludo. He asked how he could possibly have done it and let that serve as a denial.”
“Clever girls.” Lammert nodded to them.
“You can…” Bastien took a deep breath. “You can see the future. You know what is going to happen.”
“I know what will happen if certain factors do not change. I do not always know what will occur once I change them.” Lammert shook his head. “I am in no way omniscient, or we would never have reached this point in the first place.”
“How long ago did you arrange Rien’s pardon?” Bastien raised an eyebrow.
“Twenty-two years ago, though that was more Jurgen’s doing than mine.” Lammert leaned forward. “We helped him rescue his son.”
“Did Jurgen know of your…” Rien’s voice was quiet.
“Then why…” Rien’s eyes were dark. “Is he dead?”
“I’ve seen all of you die a thousand times, Marinus. There are nights I watch everyone I love be torn apart, watch the world turn to chaos and destruction. As a boy, I used to wake screaming from the things I saw when I closed my eyes. I don’t choose what I see, and I have learned, very much the hard way, what things I can change…” Lammert looked away. “And what things I cannot. Sometimes…” His voice thickened a little. “I have to choose who I can save.”
“You chose wrong.” Rien leapt to his feet. “You chose wrong. Jurgen was ten times the man I am.”
“And he made me promise that if I ever had to choose between him and you that…” Lammert gave a short, bitter laugh. “He chose you, Marinus.”
Rien looked as though he’d been run through. Rachel set her crossbow aside, and went to him. He pulled her into his arms, and buried his face in her hair. The big man was shaking.
“If you knew…” Maela frowned. “To be in the market when Bast was being hurt…” She adjusted the aim of her crossbow slightly. “Why did you let him be hurt in the first place?”
“Because I know what would have happened if I had not. The time he spent recovering kept him out of the way of another attempt by Rutger to eliminate him. Phillip wanted Sir Bastien dead for thwarting his earlier plans.” Lammert turned toward Bastien. “You would have survived the second attempt. Maela would not have.”
“You…” He glanced at Maela. “Made the right choice. Put the crossbow down, Maela.” He waited until she obeyed. He glanced at Rien, and saw tears on the man’s face. Bastien swallowed. “We can…” He exhaled. “Continue this conversation another time.”
“Are you alright?”
Rien looked up to see Bast offering him a goblet. He took it, and a long drink revealed it to contain wine. Rien drained it. “No.” He wiped at his eyes. “He chose wrong.”
“He loved you.” Rachel tightened her arms around him. She was in his lap, just holding him. His left arm was around her, keeping her pressed tight.
“I…” Rien stood, and set her down. “You three stay here.”
“Rien?” Bast raised an eyebrow.
“Just stay here, I…” Rien exhaled. “I’m not going to do anything stupid, I just…” He shook his head. “Stay here. That’s an order.”
Despite being unfamiliar with the castle, it took him only a couple minutes to locate his brother. Lammert was in his own quarters, sitting before the fire with a glass of wine in his hand. He was still dressed as a Solsthriem lord, but his vest was folded over the back of the small couch. “Marinus.”
“Someone tried to kill me shortly after I was born, didn’t they?” He sat down across from his brother. “That’s why you came back the first time.”
“It would have been unintentional. The act of a child who did not know what he was doing. But you would have been just as dead.”
“Did you know then…” Rien shook his head. “About the prophecy and…?”
“All I knew then was you were my brother. At the time…” Lammert shrugged. “That was enough. You were…” A smile came to his brother’s face, and Rien was struck by how much the expression transformed him. It was like looking at a complete stranger. “A very loud child.” He took a sip of the wine. “That part hasn’t changed.”
“I wish…” Rien took a deep breath. “I wish you could have told me. I…” He rested his arms on his knees. “I used to think you cold. Over proud. I didn’t…” He exhaled. “Have I ever really met you, Lammert?”
“What?” Rien blinked.
“My name is Liam. Lammert is…” He picked up the vest from where it lay, and turned it over, examining its markings. “Just a mask I used to wear.” He tossed the garment into the flames.
It caught fire quickly. Rien stared in shock. He’d been given his first vest when he came of age, and it had been one of the proudest moments of his life when he’d chosen the sigil that had been embroidered upon it. Each milestone of his life had added another image to the decoration. The pictures told his story, his entire identity. He swallowed past the lump in his throat as he watched Lammert’s burn. Then he turned back toward his brother. “Hello, Liam.” He held out his hand. “I’m Rien.”
“Alright.” Aurel looked across the table. “They didn’t kill the dragon, Bastien did.” He leaned on the table’s edge, looking down upon the map. “Doesn’t that already thwart their entire plot?”
“It would…” Lammert shook his head. “If that were the only dragon.”
“Then point Bast and I at the next one and we will kill it too.” Rien folded his arms. “Or, just tell us where Phillip is, and we’ll go kill him.” He shrugged. “Or better yet, do both.”
“Phillip is here.” Lammert touched the capital city of Thatela on the map. “As for the dragons…” He picked up markers. “One is here. Another will be here, here, here, here, here…” He continued setting markers. “Here, here, here…”
“Wait…” Bastien shook his head. “How many dragons are we talking?”
“Oh, this is going to be fun.” Rien was starting to grin.
“Gods above.” Bastien sighed.
“Phillip and Rutger seek an artifact they believe will enable them to control dragons.” Lammert tossed the rest of the markers onto the map. “The dragon you slew was only the first to manifest. As long as the cycle continues, others will emerge.”
“Destroy this artifact, the cycle ends?” Aurel looked up.
“Close enough to accurate for the purpose of this conversation.” Lammert nodded.
“So where is the artifact?” Aurel raised an eyebrow.
“Baron, if I knew that I would have dealt with the matter decades ago.” Lammert exhaled. “I don’t know where it is, only how it can be found.”
“Those…” Bastien blinked. “Aren’t the same thing?”
“Blood and ashes…” Rien made a frustrated noise. “That’s what you meant by me being a slim hope. The prophecy says I’m supposed to find the fucking thing, doesn’t it?”
“The dragon and his knight.” Lammert nodded. “You’re ahead in the game. You already have your knight, and he’s already slain a dragon. Rutger and Phillip, however, are already seeking another dragon to slay. That is why Phillip needs Rutger.”
“Did you take the phoenix as your sigil to avoid this whole metaphorical draconian shit?” Rien tilted his head.
“No.” Lammert shrugged. “Though in retrospect, it was one of my better decisions.”
“Can you at least tell us where we should…” Bastien looked down at the map. “I mean, you apparently found all four keystones without anybody realizing it. So why can’t you find this artifact?”
“My control over the dreams is limited.”
“The stories said Asrael could go into a trance and —”
“No.” Efua’s voice cut Bastien off.
Bastien turned toward her. “Efua?”
“The last time I attempted that in regards to the artifact nearly killed me.” Lammert sighed. “Efua has forbidden me from making another attempt.”
“Efua…” Rien gestured at her. “Has forbidden…” He turned back toward Lammert. “You? But isn’t she your…”
“The slave collar was a convenient disguise, one that kept any from looking too long in her direction. She and Mikaere are not my slaves, and never have been.” Lammert twitched a shoulder.
“Yeah, but…” Rien frowned.
“On this subject, the Stone Dragon was in full agreement with me.” Efua’s eyes narrowed.
“Oh.” Rien nodded.
“Rien…” Bastien took a deep breath. “If Rutger and Phillip find out about Lammert, then…” He straightened, folding his arms. “Which I think he already knows, because he stole the scepter back and had Mikaere run off to hide it somewhere.” He saw Rien start to nod.
“They can work around getting ahold of you, but if they cotton on to the scepter, then one way or another they need to get to him.” Rien nodded. “Well, I think your father is still kind of annoyed at him. Baron Kohler, would you mind tossing my brother into a cell and sitting a bunch of guards on him?”
“I can do that.” Aurel nodded.
“Uh…” Bastien hesitated, then sighed. “Lammert, did you plan for that particular scenario?”
“Oh.” Rien frowned. “Shit. Baron, don’t do that. Just, uh, forget I said anything.”
“Thatela is backing Phillip, which means he has access to Magi scholars.” Lammert removed the markers from the map, then placed four of them in different spots. “Relics tied to this particular artifact have been found in ruins in these locations. It is likely one of them will be your starting point, but this is information Phillip has as well.”
“We either have to go through the Wildlands or Thatela to get to any of those.” Bastien shook his head.
“Unless you go by boat.” Aurel pointed. “Past Gaebli and into Lethiun.”
“Finally, something resembling a plan.” Rien smiled.
Rien looked up from the map he was examining to see the little duchess glaring at him. He still didn’t quite know what to say to the girl. He hadn’t been responsible for the death of her parents, but he had taken part in the raid. “I…”
“You’re going to kill my uncle Phillip.” She folded her arms.
“Yes.” Rien nodded. “I am.”
“If you don’t…” She narrowed her eyes. “I don’t care what the king says. I’m going to cut your head off. And if you don’t take good care of Sir Bastien…” She lowered her head. “I will cut your head off.”
“Duchess, from anyone else, I would consider that an empty threat.” He gave her a small bow.
“Everything will be alright, Nadja.” Bast’s voice came from another section of the library. He emerged from the bookshelves, and set the tome he was carrying onto the table. “We will stop Phillip.”
“Good.” Nadja smiled at Bast, then tilted her head to look at the man walking in behind him. “Lord Liam.” She grinned widely. “Thank you for the puppets.”
“You are most welcome, Duchess Nadja.” Lammert… Liam inclined his head. “Rien had one at your age. He was so entranced by it he walked backward off a ledge and landed in a pile of —”
“You’re really going to tell her that story?” Rien glared at his brother.
“— steaming horse droppings.” Liam ignored his interruption. “His big brother had to —”
“You are such a nonpareil.” Rien shook his head. “Stop talking.”
“I sort of want to know how this story ends.” Bast smiled.
“You’re a nonpareil too.” Rien waved a hand at Bast.
“You say that like it’s bad.” Nadja frowned at him.
“Well, yes, because…” He saw Bast’s face abruptly turn innocent, and the corners of Liam’s mouth were twitching. “It’s not?”
“No.” Nadja shook her head.
“It doesn’t mean asshole?”
“No.” Nadja looked taken aback.
“Then what…” Rien took a deep breath. “Does it mean?”
“It means they are the best, with none to equal them.” Nadja gave him a confused look. “Paragons.”
“So, every time I’ve called them that…” Rien stared at her. “I’ve been…” He took a deep breath. “Complimenting them?”
“You are really…” Nadja tilted her head up at him. “Kinda stupid.”
“I…” Rien slowly turned to look at Bast, who was looking anywhere but back at him. Then he heard a sound he’d never heard before. He turned to see his brother laughing. “You…”
Bast broke, his shoulders shaking as he too started laughing. “That was…” He choked a little on his laughter.
“Everything I’d hoped.” Liam finished.