He jumped down the last of the stairs, landing with a loud thump. Just to be sure, he reached up and set the lantern swinging, making it rattle. He also kicked a barrel and counted to thirty in his head. Then, and only then, did he open the door to Mikaere’s chamber. The young man was sitting up in the bed, the blanket mostly to the side covering a lump that was moving slightly with each breath. “I’m heading ashore to discuss the new sails.” And Adaeze hadn’t permitted him to go ashore without Mikaere’s blades since Diantha had told her about the assassination attempts.
“Yes, Aihuroa.” Mikaere slid out of the bed and reached for his leggings. The lump beneath the blankets moved just a little.
“I’ll meet you on deck.” He tried not to look at the blanket. “I’m going to go look for my sister.” Liam turned and headed back the way he’d come. He stopped when he got to the deck, then began counting in his head.
A minute later, Ama came up the stairs behind him. She was dressed, though her hair was still tousled as messy. “We just going to keep pretending —” He shot her a glare, and she snickered. “You know, it’s going to be hilarious when Mbali —”
“Stop talking.” Liam folded his arms but couldn’t quite stop himself from wincing.
Ama just laughed.
“Rien.” Jurgen shook his head before calling out his brother’s name again. “Rien.” He strode into the next room, then sighed. “Rien.”
The younger man blinked up at him sleepily. “Jurgen?” He glanced around, then stared extracting himself from beneath the pile of slumbering, nude bodies. “What…” His eyes suddenly widened. “I’m late.”
“Oh, only by a day.” Jurgen folded his arms.
Rien winced, then begin looking around. He rejected three pairs of trousers before finding his, then grabbed his vest before following Jurgen out of the room. He hopped down the hallway as he pulled his boots on. “I sent Jochem.”
“Clan Girit was expecting to meet with a prince, not a slave.” Jurgen shook his head.
“Jochem’s not a slave.” Rien grinned. “I freed him so he could —”
“Marinus Draak.” Jurgen cut him off. Then he sighed. Jochem had driven a rather impressive bargain, likely better than he would have managed had Rien been present. “You have a responsibility.”
“It got handled.” Rien shrugged. “Sides, you trust Torin to be a steward. What’s wrong with me —”
“Diantha and I oversee Torin and check his work regularly.” Jurgen exhaled. “Tell me what is going on at the vineyards at Saren’s Bluff.” When Rien gave him a blank stare, Jurgen ran a hand down his face. “Did you even know you had vineyards at Saren’s Bluff?” Rien gave a small shake of his head, and Jurgen reached out to smack him lightly in the temple. “Well, get your horse. We are going out to inspect them.”
“But…” Rien glanced over at where people were starting to emerge from the room he’d been in earlier. “Jurgen.”
“Saddle…” Jurgen narrowed his eyes. “Up.”
“Yes, Jurgen.” Rien kicked the floor in front of him before stalking off toward the stables.
Though he didn’t exactly need the spy network, Liam continued building it anyway. His position among the Ilael allowed him to put eyes and ears on the ships as agents of the king, and with some help from Zuri he’d devised a code to allow those agents access to his agents on land. Zuri’s codes allowed them to use shipping manifests as means of confirming authenticity, just by making sure a few numbers were placed in the right order upon the list.
Zuri may have lacked his sight, but her keen mind made up for it. Twice now she’d seen patterns in reports that he’d nearly missed even with his gift. He glanced at where she walked next to him and couldn’t quite keep the pride out of his smile. She caught the expression, and grinned. “Is alright to slip away a bit?”
“Alright is a…” He exhaled. “Strong word.”
“They won’t talk to me if I’m accompanied by guards.” Zuri shook her head.
“Stay in sight of the docks.” He touched her chin affectionately. It wasn’t quite necessary for him to do so to focus his power on her, but it had long become habit.
“Yes, Papa.” She went up on her toes to kiss his cheek before dashing off. Her silk shawl vanished into her bag as she went, and she ducked behind a stall. The girl that emerged a few moments later bore almost no resemblance to the Ilael princess she’d been moments ago. She looked like the urchins she was on her way to join. Ragged children were ignored, but saw more than most realized, and so Zuri built networks of her own. A few coins and gifts of toys and treats, and she could learn more in an hour than his ‘professionals’ could learn in a month.
He glanced at his own guard. “Take your people to the Red Mask and respond the moment you hear the disturbance. Take a couple healing potions with you, and make sure every child that needs a dose receives one.” The man touched his hand to his heart in a salute, then all the guard but Mikaere went to obey the order. Mikaere stayed where he was, a few feet from Liam. “We are heading up the perfumed quarter. Smile at the daughters.”
Mikaere rolled his eyes, then replied in his own tongue. “Last time I did that, one tucked her undergarment into my pocket.”
“And it distracted her father from realizing just how good a deal we were getting on his spices.” Liam chuckled. The pale king of the sea and his golden companion tended to draw considerable attention in Tebotas. But before they could get to proper business, they had a stop to make.
Liam gave a small bow to the man waiting for them in the office. “Lord Hye.”
“King Liam.” The trader smiled. His hair had gone completely white years ago, and he could no longer walk more than a few feet without the aid of a cane. His mind, however, was as shrewd as it had ever been. His eyes danced. “I hear the Stone Dragon took a swath of land from the Unitafels. Land that includes sapphire mines.”
“Trade lines through Unitafels territory are still dangerous at best, and the Unitafels aren’t pleased with the people of the wilds. Such trade must still come through Akobul.” Liam nodded.
Hye grinned. Hee was the only person in Tebotas who knew Lammert Draak and Liam Idowu were one and the same, and he knew just as well the value of that piece of information. At the same time, Liam knew the man wouldn’t share the secret. Hye was a business man who lived for the thrill of bargaining and profit, but underneath that, he was a good man. The blackmail was merely a formality, and the information and contacts Hye inevitably provided were more than adequate recompense. Liam reached into his belt pouch, and set a bag on the table, letting some of the contents spill out. Hye picked up one of the star sapphires, examined it briefly, then grinned. “I do so love doing business with your majesty.”
“Don’t…” He glared. “Say it.” When Rutger started to snicker, Jurgen lifted his eyebrow. “And how are you dealing with the flooding at the orchards?”
“Uh…” Rutger swallowed. Then he brightened a little. “If you’re talking about the southern one, last year the embankment was built up so the floodwaters divert into the ravine.”
“Good job.” He inclined his head and saw Rutger smile in response. “What’s this I hear about you getting an expedition together?”
Rutger set his cup down and stood before going over to where the map hung on the wall. “Expedition might not be the right word. I’m considering a trade route for some of the lumber, down to Ocia.”
“Out of the Ebonwood?” Jurgen let out a low whistle. “Rutger, we don’t have —”
“But we do.” Rutger started to grin. “Or rather, we will. I tested it already. Daffodil can haul the sledge, even take it across the river here.” He drew a line down the map. “And she’s not even practiced at that kind of work.”
Jurgen had to chuckle at that. Daffodil, for all her size and strength, was a spoiled pet rather than a beast of burden. “So imagine what would happen if you had a real elephant.”
An elbow hit him lightly in the side, but Rutger nodded in agreement. “But I have to get the elephants before I can get that trade going, which means I need to establish another line first.” He chewed his lower lip thoughtfully.
“That…” He put a hand on Rutger’s shoulder, then smiled. “So you’re getting an expedition together.”
“We’ll take a few wagons in, with some variety, see what sells. See if we can’t pick up a couple elephants this time around…” Rutger stared at the map. “Maybe a breeding pair, or at least a mate for Daffodil.”
“Talk to Lammert.” Jurgen patted his shoulder before turning to look at the ledger. “He helped you with Daffodil, possible he’s got a contact you can use.” He looked over the notes. Rutger appeared to have things well planned. He glanced over his shoulder, then blinked. Rutger was staring at him with an expression of pure fury. “Rutger?”
“I don’t…” Rutger clenched his fists. “Need Lammert’s help.” He reached over to snatch the ledger out of Jurgen’s hand. “Or yours.”
“Rut —” Jurgen started shaking his head.
“You don’t need to stick your nose in everywhere, brother.” Rutger spat the last word. “You’re not king here.” He grabbed the rest of his parchment before stalking off.
He stood, staring after his brother, uncertain of what just happened.
“Your daughter is a captain.” Jurgen sat, staring up at the stars. “And your son is a knight.”
“Your son is a warchief.” Wendel was next to him, half asleep by the sound of his voice. Liam lay down a few feet away, stretched out with his arm over his eyes.
“I’m a grandfather.” Jurgen leaned back, tracing the constellations with his gaze. “A grandfather.”
“And my son will be wed this summer.” Wendel exhaled, then glanced at Liam. “I thought to be a captain, a woman had to be wed?”
Liam shook his head, wincing a little. “No, though Mbali has someone in mind to claim. He will make an able shaman for her.”
“It’s possible we are slowing down a little.” Wendel sat up a bit, then shrugged.
“Speak for yourself.” Jurgen glared at him.
“Oh please.” Wendel shook his head. “Ten years ago, six Natiel raiders would never have been able to —”
“They ambushed me with a net.” Jurgen growled. “You’re the one that got Liam drunk, or we’d have known it was coming.”
“Please keep your voices down.” Liam winced again.
“I thought he’d be able to hold his liquor better than that.” Wendel leaned back to rest his head on the steel bars of the makeshift cage. “So, any idea how we are getting out of this?”
“Uh…” Jurgen sighed. “No.”
“You said you had a plan.” Wendel glared.
“I did have a plan.” Jurgen glared back.
“Ask Liam what to do next does not qualify as a plan.” Wendel shook his head.
“Yes it is.” Jurgen waved a hand. “And it’s a good plan if somebody doesn’t muck it up by ordering him a fourth round of Whisperwine.”
“Liam, do you have a plan?” Wendel turned to look at the prone man.
“Two of them.” Liam’s voice sounded pained.
“What’s the first one?” Jurgen sat up straighter.
“Lie here and die in peace, quietly.”
“No, Liam, we talked about this.” Wendel gave a long-suffering sigh. “That’s a bad plan, and we’re not going to do that.”
“Because we aren’t going to stop talking.” Jurgen nodded. “Now, what’s the second plan?”