Durante couldn’t help but stare at the man pacing the cell. He’d heard legends of the Stone Dragon, and had to admit that some of them may well be true. The man was taller and even more muscular than Ruarc. The second man was smaller, though of similar age. He too, was a handsome man, with short blond hair and a warrior’s build. According to the jailer, Ruarc had kept Jurgen Draak in line by threatening that they’d shoot the other man first.
“You want to play.” Vitalia’s voice purred in his ear.
“Some games are too dangerous even for me…” Durante turned to smile at her. “Though I do admit to a certain temptation.”
“He’s unarmed and unarmored.” Vitalia shrugged. “How dangerous could he be?”
“He once torn a troll’s arm off and used said arm to beat another troll to death.” Durante chuckled. “Looking at him, I can believe it.” He hesitated a moment.
“The Dragon Queen may pay well for the return of her heir.” Madzia’s voice was quiet.
“More likely she’d send a horde down on us.” Vitalia shook her head. “We are too near their border.”
“They say she once spent a year torturing one of her husbands to death.” Durante glanced at Vitalia.
“I like her already.” Vitalia smiled, then returned her gaze to the pacing man. “We can always tell the king we were simply interrogating him to learn if there were others near.” She flicked her eyes to the blond man. “And tell our draconic guest that any failure on his part to cooperate will result in his friend bearing the brunt of said interrogation.”
“An interesting notion.” Durante’s smile widened.
“Let us sleep on it.” She shrugged. “Ruarc is occupied. I’ll send for Gian to entertain us.” She headed up the stairs.
He yanked at the manacles securing his wrists. “Try not to injure yourself.” Lammert shook his head at Ruarc. “And we both know these quarters are near sound-proof. Even if someone was willing to come to your aid, they’d never hear you cry out.”
“I’m not —”
“I will not harm you unless you force me.” Lammert held up a hand. “But my brother’s wellbeing is at stake here, and there are other ramifications to consider as well. The duchess has told you that I hold the deed to your lands, yes?”
“You…” Ruarc blinked. “Wait, that part was…” He shook his head. “She said you hold the markers.”
“No. I hold the deed. And the payments you have been sending, in escrow.” Lammert smiled. It failed to reach his eyes. “So, let me be very blunt here. I am offering you the same deal the duchess did. Your service, in exchange for your family’s wellbeing. The difference between the duchess and myself is different on two points. I am not a sadist, and I have no sexual interest in men.”
“How did you know any of this?” Ruarc stared at him.
“She pays your family a three hundred gold a month stipend. I will match that, plus sign over the deed to your family lands to your sister, Kiera. In return, you will free my brother and accompany him and his companion back to Solsthriem. I will meet you there when I have concluded my business here.”
“You…” Ruarc gave him a confused look. “You’re not here to rescue them.”
“I am here to steal something from the duchess.” Lammert folded his arms. “They are…” He gritted his teeth. “Inconveniencing me, something they seem to take an unholy delight in doing.”
“I don’t…” Ruarc took a few deep breaths. Here was a way out. But… “If I free the crown prince of the Wildlands, I will be deemed a traitor.”
“Yes.” Lammert nodded. “I’m afraid that is true.”
“And I won’t fair better in Solsthriem either. If they don’t —”
“I assure you, Ruarc, you will be in no danger from Solsthriem’s government, and you will be given asylum beyond that border.”
“You can’t assure me of —” Ruarc cut himself off. “The marker for my family’s land was sold before I got out of the army. It hasn’t…” He shook his head. “You had to have purchased the land months before I ever met the duchess.”
“You can’t have…” Ruarc took a few deep breaths.
“And yet I did.” Lammert’s smile again failed to reach his eye. “Which should be evidence that I can —”
“No.” He couldn’t leave Gian. Not after. “No. I can’t.”
“You…” Lammert tilted his head for a moment, then half closed his eyes. He grimaced and shook his head, then shook it again. A moment later, he sighed, then focused his gaze back on Ruarc. “I will get Gian out safely.”
“How…” Ruarc’s eyes widened.
“I’ll think of something.” Lammert shrugged. “I generally do.”
“You get Gian out and I’ll rescue your brother and his friend.” Ruarc met Lammert’s eyes. “In exchange for the rest, I can offer my fealty. I have nothing else.”
That time, Lammert’s smile did reach his eyes. “I am coming out ahead on this bargain. You have a deal.” He moved behind Ruarc to unfasten the manacles. Then he tossed them on the bed. “You can have the bed. I need to go conclude my actual business here. If anyone asks, well, I’m sure you can figure out what to tell them.” He headed toward the window. “Make sure you walk funny in the morning, and if you could acquire a few bruises I’d appreciate it.” He climbed onto the window ledge. “I do have a reputation to uphold.” Then he vanished into the darkness.
Despite himself, Ruarc laughed. “Fucking Draaks.” He gave a small shake of his head.
Ruarc started simply trying to get an arm under Gian, then shook his head and simply picked his lover up. Gian was nearly limp in his arms as he carried him back to his chamber. There were bruises all over Gian’s face, and some dried blood on the side of his mouth from where his lip had split. Other bruises and welts decorated his pale, slender form. Ruarc tried to keep control of the rage rising in him. Soon, Gian would be safe. He retrieved one of the stashed potions, then poured it down Gian’s throat carefully. It took a few moments for Gian’s eyes to focus. “Gian…”
“I’m alright.” Gian tried to give him a reassuring smile.
“Gian, when the duchess’s guest tells you to come with him, I need you to do it.”
“Ruarc?” Gian blinked.
He pulled Gian to him, holding him close. “He’s going to get you out of here.”
“I’m not going without you.” Gian immediately started shaking his head.
“I’m coming to. I’ll be meeting you in a day or so. We’ve got a plan.” He rubbed Gian’s back.
“He’s not who he says he is. And he never laid a hand on me. It was a ruse to get a chance to talk to me in private.” He debated what to tell Gian, then exhaled. “I know him, Gian.”
“Ruarc…” Gian clutched at him tightly.
“Gian, please.” He kissed Gian. “Trust me.”
“But…” Gian’s eyes were wide.
“I love you, Gian. Please. Go with him.” He brushed his fingertips over Gian’s cheek before kissing him again.
“I…” Gian blinked back tears. “You better catch up with us, or I’m coming back to rescue you.” He threw his arms around Ruarc’s neck. “I love you.”
Vitalia couldn’t help but be a little surprised. “You wish to purchase Gian?” She raised an eyebrow at Lord Liam. “Why?”
“Returning to Manisar anytime soon to make a purchase would be more complicated than I’d like.” Lord Liam shrugged. “And while my current servant certainly has his uses…” Liam smiled as he flicked his tongue over his upper lip. “His training as a slave to a noble house was lacking.” He leaned forward. “You had an interest in purchasing my property. As it happens, my initial reason for purchasing it has just about come to fruition. Once that matter is concluded, I have no compunctions against relinquishing it. Provided certain considerations are met, of course.”
Gian’s recent behavior had been problematic. And perhaps parting him from Ruarc was best. It would be a delightful twist, using Gian to gain control of Ruarc’s lands. “I will part with Gian in return for the right to first refusal on the property.”
“The moment I decide to sell the property, yours will be the first offer I consider.” Liam nodded.
“We have a bargain, then.” She held out her hand to Liam.
He took it, and kissed the back. “I do thank you for inviting me to your castle, my lady. I found the visit most satisfying.”
Hiding his expression as he watched Gian leaving with the Wilder they called ‘The Phoenix’ was more difficult than he anticipated. He said a silent prayer that he was doing the right thing. Now he just needed to figure out what, exactly, the right thing was going to entail. The guard wasn’t loyal enough to him to just let him walk out with Jurgen and Markus.
It took Ruarc a moment to realize what it was Durante and Vitalia were discussing. Then he stared in disbelieve. “You want to…” He shook his head. “You do realize how dangerous that man is?”
“How dangerous can he be?” Vitalia reached over to run her hand down his face. “You defeated him twice.” She laughed. “Besides, we do still need to find out what he was doing here. Why not have a little fun at the same time?”
Any hesitation he had about helping them escape vanished. Enemy forces or no, he didn’t like the idea of anyone else being at their mercy. Jurgen Draak had behaved honorably toward him at their last encounter, even seeing to it that he’d been healed. Bringing them to the castle had clearly been a mistake. A slight chill went through him. The duchess was talking about torturing Jurgen, and Jurgen’s brother had just left with Gian. Gian had paid the price often enough for their games. He wouldn’t let that happen again. “I’m certain the king will want him in one piece. He’ll want to use him for —”
“Come now, Ruarc…” Durante put a hand on his shoulder, and Ruarc fought the urge to break the man’s wrist. “We’ve been playing with you a while now, and you’re still in one piece.” He smirked. “I think you enjoy it.”
“Let’s go have a word with our guests.” Vitalia started for the stairs into the dungeon.
Ruarc swallowed as he went after her.
She was standing only a few feet away from one of the most dangerous men in the world. Vitalia knew Jurgen Draak was twice her husband’s age, but he didn’t look it. The Wilder Prince was slightly larger than Ruarc, and had a more savage look to him. His bare chest showed a few scars, but nowhere near what she would have expected from a warrior who had fought as many battles as he had. That alone made her both wary and intrigued. This was a dangerous game. He stared back at her from behind the heavy iron bars, his face looking as though he were almost amused at the situation. “Are you enjoying our hospitality, Draak?” She raised an eyebrow.
“Oh yes.” Jurgen nodded. “Mostly the way your guards piss themselves every time they get within five feet of these bars. Getting a bit bored with that though.” He looked past her at where Ruarc stood. “Ruarc, was it? You game for a rematch? I’ve got a silver and black Petobae bred stallion I’ll match against that mare of yours. Winner take all.”
“It is tempting to get the chance to watch the two of you do battle.” It was more than a little tempting. Particularly if they went hand to hand. “But I think we can find other ways to entertain ourselves with you.”
His eyes narrowed just a little. “That doesn’t sound particularly hospitable.”
“It’s a simple choice.” She gave a pointed glance at the other prisoner. The other prisoner’s face darkened. Then she turned back to Jurgen. His eyes had gone cold. “If you’d prefer not to play, we can play with him instead. The king will want you alive. But I’m sure he won’t be too upset if a conspirator dies under questioning.”
“Put it that way…” Jurgen gave a small shake of his head. “The moment this cell door opens I’m killing everyone.”
“I wouldn’t want your friend to get lonely. So, I’ll leave a couple crossbowmen in here with him. They’ll be nice…” Vitalia smiled. “As long as you are.”
“Jurgen…” The other prisoner was shaking his head. “You —”
“Blood and ashes…” Jurgen glanced over at his friend. “Don’t you ever shut up?” He turned his gaze back to her. “You keep a Manisarian slave. I’m guessing when you say games, you aren’t talking anything with dice.”
She held up a set of shackles. “Step up to the bars. Turn around. Put your hands behind your back.”
He glared at her again. And then he obeyed.