Roehn stared at the table holding all the cushioned artifacts from the Black Dogs of Cayen exhibit. The Dragons had gone all out, leaving nothing to chance with their elaborate trap. Precious metals, jewels, ancient urns, rare woods carved into various items inlaid with all the above. Any other thief would be hard pressed to keep their sticky fingers to themselves, but it was the large, leather-bound tome with gold hardware that Roehn was most interested in. A heavy lock was fastened over the right edge, the old key lying in the crate beside it. The whole thing had been hand stitched, the words painted in gold leafing.
Would she be in it? Had the family who’d hated her so much, they’d plotted to murder her infant self, bothered to include her in the history of their beloved bloodline? A million variations of what it could possibly say raced through her mind. Died of natural causes, stillborn, some rare and incurable disease, but the worst…her biggest fear was that she didn’t exist at all. That she’d been too much of an abomination to even warrant a name.
Roehn suddenly couldn’t breathe. She tried to swallow, but it refused to go down. Blinking through blurred vision, she raced out of the room. In the hallway, she braced her hands above her knees and inhaled deeply through her nose, until the world stopped spinning. Once the tightness in her chest loosened, she stood and leaned her head back against the wall.
“Hey, you okay?”
Opening her eyes, she immediately hid her panic over nearly getting caught in the midst of a mental breakdown. It was second nature, the impassive facade, an automatic defense mechanism. They all had armor; the forgotten ones. The Ferret who’d spoken was Corgan, one of her new coworkers. Ferrets were highly intelligent and brilliant at finding things no one else ever could, which is why most of them worked in the various fields of archaeology.
“Yes, thank you. Just first day jitters,” she assured him. “That’s a lot of priceless history in there and I’m a little nervous about accidentally dropping something.”
He smiled in understanding. “I remember those days,” he said, walking into the room and leaving her to follow. “Don’t worry, it gets easier. Pretty soon, you’ll be handling the artifacts like they’re your own dishes.”
Roehn highly doubted that, but she appreciated his attempt to ease her worries. Besides, her dishes consisted of paper plates and napkins. The purchase of the House of Cayen had drained ninety-percent of her bank account and she wouldn’t get her first paycheck for another thirty days. Fencing her stolen inheritance was risky and took leaving the country to accomplish.
She would need to do that by the next holiday, though, in order to hold up her end of the bargain with the real Leandra Leontle. Roehn’s liquidated inheritance for each trust fund deposit. It was an even exchange that benefited them both.
The sound of the security door being buzzed open down the corridor cut through her thoughts, and was followed by male voices. Roehn recognized Lord Krennys’s immediately, since he was the one speaking. Then the last voice she’d been expecting to hear replied to her boss, just before the door swung open and she found herself staring at none other than Arcylaen Draea.
Her mind leapt into an instant replay of every moment they’d shared at the Gala, before diving right into the disturbingly hot dreams that had plagued her throughout the rest of the night. He looked just as sexy in the gray suit, as he had in a tuxedo. With the threat of a telling blush creeping up her neck, Roehn quickly tore her gaze from his gorgeous features and looked to her boss, instead.
“Alright team, let’s get all the artifacts ready,” Lord Krennys indicated the second long table on the other side of the room draped with a padded cover.
Ah, of course. The Dragons were there for the authentication process, because it had been their trap. With that mystery explained, Roehn pulled on a pair of soft white gloves alongside Corgan so they could begin taking all the relics from their cushioned crates. She tried to ignore the weight of Arcylaen’s gaze following her every move, but his brother did the same, making it nearly impossible. The sooner she removed herself from suspicion, the easier it would be to breathe around them.
Once all the items were laid out, Roehn expected her boss to direct Corgan to bring in a machine or some kind of chemical and light source. She’d seen a few different ways the authentication process could be conducted while interning at the museum in Meive. Instead, Arcylaen came around to her side of the table and gave her a mildly amused expression.
“You might want to take a step back for this part, Leandra,” he suggested.
She gladly moved out of his way, not wanting him and Shursja anywhere near one another after what had happened the night before. His brother, Brejeir, stepped up to the other side of the table so they were facing one another across all the relics. In awe, she watched as their Echelonites launched into the air from their shoulders and combined into one, larger dragon about the size of a Macaw. It wasn’t quite corporeal and shimmered like gold stardust. From one end of the table to the other, the new dragon flew through and around each of the artifacts at a steady pace.
Fascinated, Roehn looked between the two Dragons, because they stood perfectly still. Both of their eyes had gone completely reptilian, yet remained fixed and unblinking. Were they looking through the eyes of their combined Echelonite? That possibility was immensely intriguing, leading her to wonder just what else the powerful Dragons might be capable of. Then she quickly remembered that she, of all people, should find that alarming not enticing.
The thief and scientist in her battled for supremacy, as the Echelonite finished soaring through the last artifact and rose higher into the air. It split apart again and all the shimmery glow dissipated from the room. Two small dragons returned to their respective perches and the brothers’ eyes returned to normal. Still reptilian, just less so.
“They’re authentic,” Arcylaen announced, looking to Lord Krennys.
“How do you know?” Roehn blurted curiously. “I mean, how does that work? I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
“In ancient times, dragons were treasure hoarders and developed the ability to detect if something was taken or replaced by a fake,” Arcylaen answered. “They never lost that ability, despite being reduced to symbiotic entities.”
“I see,” she accepted, the slight warning in his tone causing her hackles to rise. “And is it customary for dragons to keep treasure that doesn’t belong to them?”
“Excuse me?” He arched a brow.
“Miss Leontle,” Lord Krennys admonished.
Roehn’s pulse kicked up, because she didn’t want to cause trouble with her new boss by any means. She needed her job, desperately. Arcylaen simply brought out the worst in her. She could never seem to keep her thoughts straight in his presence.
“It’s all right, Lord Krennys, I’d like to hear what she has to say,” the Dragon said, his gaze never leaving hers. “Leandra?”
Of course he would use her first name. Why not put her on the spot even more? He watched her expectantly, so she didn’t dare look away.
“If you must know, Lord Draea, I think the Cayen artifacts should be given a permanent exhibit at the museum. All of the other royal Houses of Skaulling have their own, yet this one is only scheduled for a week,” she answered, responding not as a thief looking for access to relics, but as a true Conservationist whose only interest was to inspire future generations. “After which, the artifacts get stuffed back into a bank vault somewhere, never to be seen again. What about all the citizens who miss the opportunity to see the exhibit while it’s running?”
Arcylaen shrugged. “We’ll just have another one later in the year.”
“Really? Are you sure you’ll have any relics left by then? Because, it seems to me you’re having a hard time keeping a hold of them, my Lord,” she countered.
The words were out of her mouth before she could stop them, defiant and unfiltered. Again, she blamed the Dragon staring her down. She saw her boss’s face fall into a mutation of horror and instantly regretted it. She rushed to think of a way to backpedal out of the sticky situation, when a low rumbling laugh started from just beyond Arcylaen and grew increasingly louder.
He turned to peer over his shoulder, allowing Roehn to see his brother standing there with a huge grin on his laughing face and a gleam of appreciation in his eyes.
“Oh, I like her,” Brejeir continued to chuckle. “I like her a lot.”
“Thank you, Brej,” Arcylaen smirked dryly, then looked to Lord Krennys. “Did you put her up to this, old man? You’ve been after the Cayen relics for years.”
“No, Lord Draea,” her boss stammered, face paling further.
“No matter,” Arcylaen dismissed, turning back to Roehn with amusement and that damned smoldering intrigue in his eyes again. “Leandra makes a difficult case to argue. I will consider the permanent donation of some of the Cayen artifacts. For now, we’ll keep the exhibit as is and continue with daily authentication.”
Roehn wished she knew if that was supposed to be a warning stemming from his suspicions, or a promise that he was going to be a regular nuisance. Either way, she kept her features schooled, refusing to give him any kind of reaction.
The Dragons stayed to supervise while she and Corgan returned the relics to their crates, then loaded those onto wheeled carts to take out to the display cases. Roehn eyed the large book all the while, still struggling between wanting to read it and the fear of what she might find inside. She wouldn’t get another opportunity until morning, anyway and there was some kind of relief knowing it could put off that much longer.
“Now, that’s done,” Corgan said, while their boss continued talking with the Dragons a few feet away. “Get these back to storage, and then meet me in the Ancient Kingdoms Hall for your official ‘First Day’ tour.”
“Okay, see you there,” Roehn smiled, genuinely excited.
After returning the carts to the storage room, she waited for security to buzz her out, then paused to make sure the door closed all the way behind her. Turning, she ran right into Arcylaen, her palms landing on the expensive material covering his hard chest. Her yelp of surprise turned into something breathless between her throat and mouth. Heat swirled pleasurably low in her gut.
“Don’t you make any noise when you walk?” She demanded accusingly, immediately backing away from him.
Her pulse and lungs were working overtime, making her insides feel over-stimulated like an adrenaline rush.
“When I want to,” he smiled mischievously.
In a blink, his hand was pressed into the small of her back and guiding her halfway down the corridor. He paused and looked toward the ceiling in both directions, then smiled pleasantly.
“That’s about right,” he said, giving her his full attention again. Had he been checking to make sure they were out of camera range? Anxiety quivered through her stomach. “What time do you take lunch?”
Roehn eyed him warily. “Why?”
“I’d like to take you to lunch,” he replied.
“Why?” She repeated, just as cautiously.
“Are you always this apprehensive?” He teased. “Or is it just me?”
If he only knew. The answer was sadly, yes. Caution equaled survival. She’d grown up sleeping with one eye open and a weapon clutched in her hand; apprehensive didn’t even begin to cover it.
“I don’t think-“
“Then don’t, Leandra,” he cut her off, once again backing her into a wall merely by stepping into her personal space. “Just say yes.”
“Arcylaen or Cylaen, for the love of the Divine, woman. You had no trouble saying it last night.”
Roehn laughed shortly. “We have two completely different definitions of trouble, Lord Draea. The answer is no.”
“No?” He questioned skeptically.
“No,” she repeated firmly. “No lunch and no first names. I think we should keep this professional.”
His laugh unnerved her, because it wasn’t arrogant. It was assured. “I think that ship’s already sailed, Leandra. Unless you’ve forgotten that your Echelonite has already expressed her opinion on the matter?”
Shursja perked up mildly, but appeared more content to remain half-asleep. Roehn, on the other hand, felt the blood drain from her face at the reminder. “That was a misunderstanding,” she rushed out.
“No, it wasn’t,” he countered. “Echelonites don’t misunderstand and they never make mistakes.”
Unless, they’re not real! There was no way to use that in her defense and honestly, a part of her felt wrong even thinking it. Though it was true that Shursja was merely the result of her own magic, she was still the only Echelonite Roehn had ever had. They’d spent the last five years forging a bond that was just as strong as any Divinely appointed one.
“So what? It doesn’t mean anything,” Roehn tried to shrug off, but she knew deep down that it must. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have felt that potent surge of lust when it had happened and Arcylaen wouldn’t be bringing it up now. “It can’t mean anything.”
His expression and voice remained calm, yet there was no mistaking that core of confidence. “Denying something doesn’t make it any less true, Leandra,” he said. “You should know, I have no intentions of keeping this professional. I’ll see you at noon.”
He was nearly to the door, before her brain remembered how to work. “Stating something doesn’t make it any more true, either, Lord Draea,” she called after him.
Flashing a knowing smirk over his shoulder, he continued onward, but his warning rang loud and clear in his wake.
© A.C. Melody
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