“Ruarc.” Gian rushed up and threw his arms around Ruarc’s neck. “You’re safe. You’re safe.”
He held Gian to him tightly. “I was worried about you.”
“About me?” Gian shook his head. “You’re the one who…” Gian trailed off, then pulled back. “Why is the Stone Dragon naked?”
“That’s…” Ruarc started to open his mouth, then sighed.
“Because the more Draaks you involve in a situation…” Markus went over to one of the horses and started checking the saddle. “The less sense that situation is going to make.”
“Wait just a damn minute…” Jurgen turned toward him. “How is any of this our fault? I seem to recall the only reason I’m involved at all is you asked for my help.”
“Yes, well…” Markus took a deep breath, then another one. “Thank you, Jurgen.” There was a coughing sound from the direction of Lammert. Markus took another deep breath. “He looks smug right now, doesn’t he?”
“Yep.” Jurgen nodded.
“We’re about to get another told you so, aren’t we?”
“Yep.” Jurgen nodded again.
“I thought I was very clear in my directions. They were simple. There were, in fact, only two of them.” Lammert stalked toward where an ebony skinned woman and the gold-skinned man from earlier were waiting with horses. “Cut through the woods, and if you see a Manisarian woman steer clear.”
Jurgen blinked. “Wait —”
“Two directions. Two steps. But did you listen?” Lammert started shaking his head.
“Hey now…” Markus turned toward Lammert.
“The two of you can somehow manage to govern, but can either of you follow simple directions?”
“Liam.” Jurgen folded his arms.
“Did you two even listen?”
“Liam.” Markus pointed toward Gian.
“What really was so hard about those instructions?” Lammert glared in their direction.
“Liam.” Jurgen also started pointing at Gian.
“Did you just see a woman and all sense fly from your heads?”
“Liam.” Markus kept pointing at Gian.
“Were they too complicated?”
“Liam.” Jurgen raised his voice and pointed at Gian again.
“Too long? Too comple— ”
“Liam.” The ebony skinned woman touched Lammert’s shoulder and he stopped. She pointed at Gian.
Lammert glanced at her, then turned to look at Gian. Gian glanced at Ruarc uncertainly before looking back at Lammert. Lamemrt stared at Gian for a few more seconds, then turned back toward Jurgen and Markus. “I see how you may have misunderstood.”
“Can I hurt him?” Markus turned toward Jurgen.
“If anyone hurts him…” Jurgen ran a hand down his face. “It’s going to be me.”
Vitalia stared at the remains of her castle. Fire still burned in places. Most of the servants had managed to flee, but few of her guard had survived. According to one, barrels of gunpowder had been placed at all the fall back points. Her loyal men had been near destroyed. Ruarc had to have planned this for some time. She was going to ruin him. There would be no place in Thatela he could hide.
“Come.” Vitalia looked at her men. “We must return to my uncle and tell him what happened.” She began composing the tale as she mounted her horse. Her husband had been secretly conspiring with the Stone Dragon for some time. It had been an attempt to assassinate the king himself, but she’d caught on and they’d been forced to act too soon so they could escape. She’d come out of this a hero.
And as soon as Ruarc surfaced, he’d be executed for treason.
He sat by the fire, with Gian tucked in next to him. Lammert Draak sat a few feet away. Ruarc sent a glance at the men who’d followed him out. “I know I’ve nothing to bargain with, but…” He turned toward Lammert.
“They are your men. If they wish to continue following you, I would be happy to have them in my service.”
“Wait…” Jurgen sat. Thankfully, someone had convinced him to put pants on. He was pretty sure it had been the dark-skinned woman. Efua, Lammert had called her. “These guys work for you?”
“I gained Ruarc’s fealty the moment I signed these documents.” Lammert held up parchment, then offered it to Ruarc. “You may look them over if you like.”
Ruarc took them, then unfolded them and held them so Gian could see as well. Gian’s face lit up in a happy smile. “Your lands. They…” Gian laughed. “They belong to your sister.”
“Kiera will hold them well.” He took a deep breath, then handed them back to Lammert. “My blade is yours.”
“Blood and ashes, you little…” Jurgen rubbed his forehead. “You could have warned us.”
“Jurgen…” Lammert sighed. “What makes you think I was here for you?”
“You…” Jurgen blinked. “You weren’t?”
Lammert took something from the pack near him, then unwrapped it from the cloth. It was a strangely carved stone. “No. But since I happened to be in the area, I decided to assist.”
“That’s another of those keystones.” Jurgen frowned. “That’s the fourth, right?”
“It is.” He wrapped it back in the cloth, then offered it to Jurgen. “Diantha will be in Darodelf when you return. Would you be so kind as to deliver this to her there?”
“Sure.” Jurgen took it from him.
One of the other men came over. “Sir Ruarc, what happens now?”
“What does happen now?” Gian gave Ruarc a worried look.
“We’re traitors, my lord.” Another of the men shifted from foot to foot.
“You can come back to the Wildlands with me, if you’d like?” Jurgen grinned.
The men gave him slightly fearful looks before glancing back at Ruarc. Ruarc exhaled, then looked at Lammert. “You said you could ensure we could find refuge in Solsthriem.”
“You have already ensured you can find refuge in Solsthriem.” Lammert nodded. “I mean, you could, if you so desired, blackmail Solsthriem’s king with your knowledge of the fact he was conspiring with Wilder princes.”
“Remind me again…” Markus glared at him. “Why are we friends? You know, you could have just told them who I was.” Markus shifted his glare to Jurgen. “Instead of nearly getting…”
“If they’d have found out who you really are, we’d be in so much trouble right now.” Jurgen shook his head at Markus.
“He’s right.” Lammert shrugged.
“I…” Markus exhaled. Then he bowed his head. “Thank you, Jurgen.”
“You’re welcome…” Jurgen smiled, then glanced at Ruarc before looking back at his friend. “Wendel.”
Ruarc waited until the others were sleeping before going to where Lammert was looking over some parchment. “You didn’t need my help.” He swallowed. “You needed a decoy.”
“I fear your reputation in Thatela is finished.” Lammert nodded. “Duke Ruarc Orso will be considered guilty of treason, arson, murder, and other crimes.”
“So, I’m finished as a knight.” Ruarc swallowed. “I can’t go back home or…”
“Your family lands are returned. Your family can visit you, if they have a mind. Your sister will find trade partners among the Ilael, and they will prosper.” Lammert met his eyes. “But yes. You are finished as a Thatelan knight.”
“I owe you fealty.” Ruarc bowed his head. “Do I go with your brother then, and…” He shook his head. “I can’t ask my men or Gian to be Wilder slaves.”
“This was always going to happen. Me coming here to retrieve the keystone. Had you taken Jurgen up on his offer, Jurgen would be bringing Gian back with him to the Wildlands now, and you would have met her there.” Lammert exhaled.
“He…” Ruarc turned toward the sleeping Gian.
“Your men won’t be slaves. I have holdings in Solsthriem. They are in need of a steward. I think Gian will suit well. They are also in need of a guard. I would name you my guard captain, and your men will remain yours. Under your command. I will pay you well.” He raised his head. “And I will protect you. Thatela will not dare retaliate.”
“Because Wendel is king of Solsthriem.”
“No.” Wendel’s voice came from behind them. Ruarc turned toward him. Wendel nodded at Lammert. “Because he’s Liam Odowu. King of the Ilael.”
When Ruarc just stared at the man he owed fealty to, King Liam just shrugged. “And that, Sir Ruarc…” Liam smiled. “Is why I needed a decoy.”
“You’re…” He shifted position, going to one knee. “By the Gods above, I swear fealty to my lord. I will be true and faithful, love all that he loves, shun all that he shuns, and never, by will nor by force, by word nor by work, do ought of what is loathful to him; on condition that he keep me as I am willing to deserve, and all that fulfill that our agreement was, when I to him submitted and chose his will.” He looked up at Liam.
“Then by storm and sea I pray to be worthy of your trust and fidelity. You will always be protected by my aid, welcome at my table, and at home within my home.” King Liam inclined his head and smiled. “Guard Captain Ruarc.”
Gian was complaining about the state of the estate, how the tapestries were dusty, the floors needed to be swept, and the bathhouse was in complete disarray. The servants were working at his direction. Ruarc smiled. “I’ve never seen him happier.”
Liam returned the smile. “I don’t use this estate often. I told her she may do with it as she likes and gave her a fund.” Liam shrugged.
Ruarc started to nod, then contemplated Liam’s words for a moment. Then he glanced back at Gian. Despite the short hair, Gian was already dressed in a flowing robe again. The dress swirled around his ankles, and Gian had been beside himself with glee when he’d been told the robe was his. “You don’t mind that Gian…”
“Gian may dress however she likes. She’s not of Solsthriem and neither am I, so she need not be beholden to its fashion.” Liam shook his head. “Have you heard from your sister?”
A smile came to his face. “Twice already. They’ll be visiting soon. She…” His smile only partly faded. “I have been found guilty of conspiring with a Wilder prince to assassinate the king. No one seems to have put together that you’re involved at all, and since the lands came to Kiera via her winning them in a bet with an Ilael princess…” He chuckled. “You really were telling the truth, weren’t you?”
“I can’t lie.”
“And you can see the future.” Ruarc slowly nodded. He then rolled his eyes. “Things worked out for Vitalia. As long as I’m alive, she’s still technically married. The king can’t saddle her with a husband.”
“That does mean you cannot marry either.” Liam folded his arms.
“Gian doesn’t mind that part.” He realized he’s said the words aloud and blushed. “I mean…”
“One of the downsides of my gift.” Liam let out a long-suffering sigh.
“Wait, you mean you know about…” His eyes widened. “About all of —” He swallowed. “I…” Then he felt a smile trying to come to his face. “Jurgen and Wendel slept in the same tent.”
Liam winced. “Please don’t remind me.”
“Then…” His jaw fell open.
“I said please.”
“Right. I…” Ruarc started laughing. “What now, my lord?”
“Get this place defensible. We are still a couple years off from the worst of the trouble, but…” Liam straightened, then his gaze went to the sky. “My brother is going to need an army.”
“Jurgen has an army.” Ruarc frowned.
“I wasn’t talking about Jurgen.” Liam shook his head, and headed into the keep.
Ruarc squared his shoulders, and followed.
The bed bounced as Gian pounced onto it. “I can have a garden.” Gian’s voice was filled with glee. “A garden of my very own. And I can have bees if I want, to make honey.”
Ruarc smiled. “Does that mean I’ll get more of your taf—” He was cut off when Gian flung himself at Ruarc and started kissing him.
“Ruarc. My brave, strong Ruarc.” Gian caught hold of Ruarc’s wrists, and Ruarc let Gian pin him to the bed. “My knight in shining armor.” He kissed Ruarc again.
“Oh, Gian…” Ruarc smiled as he returned the kiss.
“I will be a good mistress to you.” Gian lowered his head to nibble at Ruarc’s neck. “And I will take such good care of you.”
“Shhh…” Gian grinned up at him, then reached to where a couple silken cords of rope were sitting on the nightstand. “Give me your wrists.”
“Yes…” Ruarc offered up his wrists. “Mistress.”