Vitalia accepted a glass of wine from a tray brought by a servant, and smiled. Madzia had found her early in the visit and whispered to her that Lord Liam of Bohm was in attendance. It seemed as good an opportunity as any to dispense with agents and make the purchase. Things weren’t going exactly as she planned, but she found herself enjoying the company anyway. She’d expected Lord Liam to be a Solsthriem lordling, all prim and proper. The man in front of her was of Jolusth, tall and handsome in a tunic that covered only one shoulder. His other shoulder was bare, the better to show off the tattoo that decorated it. The servant who accompanied him was a tiny, golden skinned exotic with unusually shaped eyes. She’d never quite seen the like before.
“How is it you’ve acquired lands in both Solsthriem and Thatela?” She raised an eyebrow.
“It behooves one to range far.” His accent was a soft drawl. Despite her lands bordering theirs, she’d rarely had the chance to talk with one. Lord Liam was delightfully tall, though slenderer than her husband. “I have interests spanning the world.”
“Your people aren’t known to be merchants.” She sipped at her wine.
“My people are often underestimated.” He took a sip from his own glass. “But pray tell, what interest do you hold…” He frowned as his servant stumbled a little, spilling from the tray he carried. Liam barked something in another language. The servant bowed his head low and hurried off to replace the spilled items. “Manisar’s training routines seem problematic.” He glanced at her, then inclined his head. “Forgive me, duchess. I know the purchase of slaves is not legal in your lands.”
“Tis a shame. Servants are well and good but so difficult to train properly.” She raised her glass in his direction before sending another look in the direction of the servant. She’d really never seen anything quite like him before. “I admire your taste.”
“Is that why you wish to acquire my property?” He smiled at her.
“I think…” She gave Lord Liam a contemplative smile. He was a handsome man, and clearly someone not adverse to more unconventional pursuits. “I have acquired a member of the family that used to hold it. I wish to acquire the property as well, to ensure there are no…” She shrugged. “Behavioral issues.”
Lord Liam laughed. “Duchess, you have expensive tastes. I am curious if this acquisition of yours is worth such a grand price?”
“To be fair, there are also the vineyards.” She took a sip of the wine, peering at him from the rim of the glass. “Wine and sex do seem natural bedfellows.”
“Perhaps you intend to arouse my curiosity?” He raised an eyebrow. “I would be interested in seeing this…” He chuckled. “Acquisition of yours. Perhaps an arrangement can be made?”
She smiled, imagining the look on Ruarc’s face when she ordered him to service a barbarian lord. “You could accompany me back to my estate, judge for yourself?” She allowed his servant to refill her glass. “Then we could come to our bargain. I’m sure, after experiencing my hospitality, you’d be willing to bargain.”
“You offer an interesting enticement.” Lord Liam nodded. “I think there may be business at your estate that could draw my interest.” He rolled his eyes. “And one is often led to wonder why one leaves important work to their agents. Especially when it seems they oft have trouble listening to the simplest of instructions.”
“It does give one an excuse to use a flogger.” She batted her eyes at him.
“You require an excuse?” His grin became mischievous.
“Lord Liam, I think you and I could become friends.” Vitalia laughed.
“The future does tend to play out in the oddest of ways.”
The Wilder prince regained consciousness halfway back to the castle. Fortunately, Gian’s ropes held. The big man thrashed on the makeshift sled they’d loaded him and the other one onto. Ruarc exhaled when the movement woke the blond man. “Stop moving.” The blond man groaned. “You’re making me ill.”
“You tried to steal my horse.” Ruarc glared at the blond man. Gian had cried out when he’d seen the man untying Sita’s reins. Ruarc had sighed, and told Gian he should have just let him. He wouldn’t have been the first would-be thief Sita had stomped into a pulp.
“Alright…” Jurgen sat up as much as the ropes allowed. “I know I’ve seen you somewhere before.” He exhaled. “Which probably means you know who I am.”
“Jurgen Draak.” Ruarc nodded.
“Do you know who I am?” The blond man frowned.
“Should I?” Ruarc narrowed his eyes.
“No.” The blond man immediately shook his head. “No, you shouldn’t.”
“No, really…” Jurgen tested the ropes again as Sita continued moving. “I know I know you.” He glanced at the blond man. “We know him, don’t we?”
“I have never seen that man before in my life.” The blond man’s accent sounded Solsthriem.
“This is going to drive me mad.” Jurgen sighed.
“They…” Gian glanced at Ruarc. “They do not seem upset about being captured.”
“Oh, we’re upset about being captured.” The blond man pulled at the ropes binding him. “This is very inconvenient.”
“Hold up.” Jurgen looked at Ruarc again. “Wait a minute. I had you on the ground. I was winning. Why am I tied up?”
“Gian knocked you out.” Ruarc shrugged.
“Wait…” Jurgen blinked. Next to him, the blond man took one look at Gian and started laughing. “Oh, shut up. A fat lot of help you were. He took you out with one punch.” When the blond man continued laughing, Jurgen glared. “Refresh my memory. Why are we friends?”
“You’re a lunatic.” The blond man snickered.
“Well…” Jurgen twitched a shoulder. “Okay, fair point. So, you, whoever you…” He looked back at Ruarc. “One, where do I know you from, and two, how do I convince you to let us go?”
“You tried to steal my horse.” Ruarc shook his head.
“Look, I’m sure…” Jurgen’s eyes widened. “Wait a minute, you’re the guy that idiot crossbowman shot in the leg.” He broke into a wide smile. “Now you have to let me go. It’s only fair.”
“Only fair?” Ruarc stared at him.
“Yes.” Jurgen nodded. “I let you go.”
“I missed something here.” The blond man glanced at his companion.
“Yeah, this guy beat me once before, except Thatelan crossbows can’t shoot straight so a guy aiming at me shot him instead.”
“And you let him go…” The blond man closed his eyes and gave a small shake of his head before reopening them. “Only to end up his prisoner after a man who can’t weigh a hundred pounds wet and in full armor knocked you unconscious?”
“Yeah, I…” Jurgen suddenly winced. “Okay, what are the odds we can get out of this before he finds out cause if he has to come to the rescue we are never, ever living this down?”
“You two…” Ruarc stared at them. “Are aware you’ve just been taken prisoner by a Thatelan lord, you’re being taken to the castle of the King’s niece, and the King has ordered that any Wilder on Thatelan soil, along with any of found conspiring with them, be executed?”
“Yeah, yeah…” Jurgen shrugged, then glanced at his companion again. “Seriously, he cannot find out about this.”
“Well, I’m not going to tell him. Or anyone. In fact, I’m going to pretend absolutely none of this ever happened in the first place.” The blond man groaned. “Stop moving, you’re making the sled spin.”
“Perhaps we should not have hit them in the head.” Gian glanced at Ruarc.
“I’m not sure it made a difference.” Ruarc sighed.
Getting the two men into the cells was a bit more problematic than getting them into the castle. Jurgen was well aware of his reputation, and unfortunately so were the guards. It was clear that as soon as they unbound Jurgen from the sled, the big Wilder was going to attack. Which meant people were going to die. He’d already sent Gian out of the room. Ruarc hesitated, then drew his blade. If there was one thing he’d learned from the duchess, it was how to threaten a weak point. He met Jurgen’s eyes, then leveled his blade at the blond man’s throat. “You’re not fast enough to get to anyone before I kill him.”
Jurgen’s eyes narrowed. Then he slowly nodded. Ruarc gestured for the guards to get the man into the cell. One advantage of the duchess’s way of running things. It was clear that Jurgen cared a lot more for the life of his friend than Ruarc did about any of the duchess’s toadlings. The blond man kept still, his head up as he glanced at the blade Ruarc was pressing to his neck. As soon as Jurgen was in a cell and it locked behind him, Ruarc glanced down at the other man. “Your name?”
“Markus Haupt.” The blond man didn’t move.
“Ruarc.” Jurgen’s voice was soft and dangerous. “Just so you know, I will kill one of your men for every drop of his blood that is spilled.”
He refrained from pointing out these weren’t his men. The threat had made all of them pale. “Get him up.” Ruarc nodded to Markus. “And put him in a different cell.” He took a deep breath, then nodded to the jailer as soon as the other cell door closed. “Don’t get within arm’s reach of the cells.”
“I know my —” The jailer started to sneer at him. He’d locked Ruarc in the cells a few times.
“That man is the one they call the Stone Dragon.” Ruarc shook his head as the blood drained from the jailer’s face. “Do not underestimate him.”
“Or I’ll eat your liver.” Jurgen smiled cheerfully before chattering his teeth at the jailer.
“Must you taunt our captors?” Markus sighed.
“Do you have anything better to do at the moment?” Jurgen raised an eyebrow.
“Well…” Markus shrugged. “You don’t want the liver of that one. You can smell the rotgut coming out of his skin from here.” He jerked his head at the youngest of the guard. “That one is far more tender.”
Ruarc looked from one to the other and shook his head again. Maybe Gian had a point about hitting them in the head. He sighed, and left the cells.
Vitalia stared. “You…” She laughed softly. “You what?”
“It was chance, my lady.” Ruarc kept his head bowed.
“Oh, my darling.” She couldn’t quite help herself. She grabbed the front of his tunic and pulled him to her for a kiss. “My sweet boy.” Her husband had captured the Stone Dragon. No one would ever dare cross her again.
She’d had her guests shown to their rooms. Considering the Wilder Prince’s reputation, offering Ruarc to Lord Liam for a night might just be enough to secure her the lands by itself. No, better. Perhaps she could negotiate some exclusive trade rights with Jolusth. Her uncle would rue the day he’d dismissed her from the court. “I am glad I have pleased you, mistress.” He smiled at her.
“You have. And I have just the reward.” She took his arm as they walked to the bedchamber. “I’ve been making the final arrangements to pull your family’s property out of arrears.”
He smiled at that. “Thank you, my lady.”
Inside the bed chamber, she gestured for Gian. “Gian, take Ruarc to the east wing master bedroom and see to it he is prepared to entertain our guest.”
“Mistress?” Ruarc blinked.
“He hasn’t yet made the decision to sell, my darling.” She caressed Ruarc’s cheek, and smiled at the despairing look in his eye. This was perfect. He’d accomplished something that benefited her immensely, and she had the perfect opportunity to remind him that he was still hers to do with as she pleased. “I suggest you please him well, Ruarc. I’ll be displeased if he raises the price.”
“Yes, mistress.” Ruarc bowed his head again.
Gian picked up the manacles and hesitated. Ruarc had stripped out of his tunic and boots, but left the breeches on. He put his hands behind his back so Gian could secure them to the bed post. When Gian didn’t move, Ruarc raised an eyebrow. “Gian?”
“I could offer to stay instead.” Gian shook his head. “So, you don’t…”
“You think I’d rather you be hurt?” Ruarc glared.
“I think…” Gian swallowed. “I think I hate it when any hands but mine are on you.” He kissed Ruarc tenderly before securing his hands, then kissed him again. “I’ll come for you in the morning, and tend you.”
“I know.” He returned Gian’s kiss. “You always do.” He smiled. “Go, before anyone comes.” He watched Gian scamper out of the room. His stomach churned a little. Once again, the duchess was making a whore from him. Bad enough she offered him to Durante and Madzia, but to be offered up, helpless, to a Jolusth barbarian made him sick. At least with Durante and Madzia he knew what to expect, however cruel.
The lord didn’t light the candles when he entered. He walked to the bed stand, ignoring Ruarc, and set a couple items on it. One of the items was a spear. Then he exhaled. “Simple instructions. If you see a Manisarian woman, stay clear.” The lord was unusually tall. He gave a small shake of his head. “Tell me, Sir Ruarc, do you regret your decision?”
“Regret my…” Ruarc’s eyes widened as the man stepped into the light. If he hadn’t just captured the Stone Dragon, it was possible he could have walked by this man without recognizing him in the Jolusth style clothing. “You.”
Lammert Draak smiled. “My brother has gotten himself into another fine mess.” Lammert shrugged. “You’re going to help me get him out of it.”