Arcylaen’s voice penetrated the rush of blood in Roehn’s ears, giving her pause. If he used her borrowed name, maybe she’d been mistaken and they hadn’t found her out? With hope as her anchor, she forced herself to remain calm, breathe steadily and look the Dragon in the eye.
“What’s going on?” She asked.
His dark, unreadable expression didn’t help combat her overall sense of foreboding. His stiff body language emanated displeasure and concern.
“I think it would be best to let the Councilwoman explain,” he answered.
Roehn didn’t like that response. She didn’t want to talk to any member of the Council. Especially, the one who obviously had bad news. The weight of it hung oppressively in the air; unmistakable.
Arcylaen led her to the large, oval conference table where no one had taken a seat yet. She wondered absently about why the Hawk was still there, standing on the other side with his hands folded behind his back. The Councilwoman stood near the opposite end from where the Dragon’s Head undoubtedly conducted all of his business meetings.
“Miss Leontle, I’m Councilwoman Thaya for the City of Lonnex,” the Golden Eagle greeted, offering her hand.
“Your Honor,” Roehn accepted, her throat drying.
“Since this morning, the Council has received two requests to invoke the Warden Rites over you,” Honor Thaya dropped the bomb without ceremony.
Stunned, Roehn’s head actually jerked back from the force of her surprise. In no galaxy could she ever have guessed at that news!
“Me? Why?” she stammered. “Who would request such a thing in this day and age?”
“I agree, it’s a rather outdated practice, Miss Leontle, but unfortunately it’s still quite legal,” the Councilwoman replied. “And it’s not required that a reason be given for a request, in order for the Council to grant approval-”
“That’s barbaric!” Roehn erupted, looking between her and Arcylaen with utter disbelief. “The Warden Rites were used in cases where foreign dignitaries were suspected of intending harm to a noble born native or their House. I’m just a Conservationist here on a work grant.”
“I’m well aware of the purpose for the Rites, Miss Leontle, and be that as it may, I have no choice but to approve one of the requests by morning session,” the Eagle informed her.
“This can’t be happening,” Roehn denied, turning away. She pressed her hands to her forehead, like that could relieve the insanity of their words. “This is a complete invasion of my privacy! Of my life!”
Honor Thaya sighed quietly, though her expression was sympathetic. “The requests were made by Lord Haraj of House Havirace-”
Roehn’s teeth gnashed, as she whirled on Aryclaen. “No thanks to your phone call, I’m sure!”
Mouth agape, the Eagle’s eyes darted to Arcylaen, surprised by the outburst.
“Continue,” he prompted grimly, not surprised in the least.
“And by Lord Gwyn of House Oryth,” Honor Thaya finished.
“Who in the Ten Stars of Premyss is that?” Roehn demanded, her emotions running too high to remain calm for any reason. Denial was a greasy bile rolling in her stomach, feeding too much adrenaline through her veins.
“He’s a Raven,” Arcylaen frowned.
Brows creased in confusion, Roehn shook her head. “I don’t remember seeing any Ravens at the Gala, and I’ve only been working behind the scenes at the museum since.”
“There weren’t any Ravens at the Gala, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t have allies there,” Arcylaen noted, sharing some kind of hidden message with the Hawk.
Before Roehn could demand an explanation, the Eagle interrupted. “Lord Draea has offered a third option. Should you choose, he’s willing to invoke the Warden Rites, himself. Though he hasn’t filed a formal request with the Council, we can have one drawn up immediately and approved tonight. Normally, requests are approved by order of submission if there’s no contest, but given your particular circumstances, the Council won’t hesitate to override that order.”
“What particular circumstances?” Roehn questioned with narrowed eyes.
A battle waged inside her. Undeniable relief came hard and fast at the mention of Arcylaen being an option, instead of the other two. She knew that stemmed from already being halfway crazy in lust for the Dragon. Rationally, that made him the worst candidate for her survival.
The Councilwoman looked puzzled. “Lord Draea informed me that your Echelonite has already chosen him as its Matebond,” she answered hesitantly.
With a heavy sigh, Roehn crossed her arms stubbornly and gave Shursja a reprimanding glance. “Be that as it may, your Honor, it doesn’t change the fact that I just met Lord Draea, that I barely said two words to Lord Haraj and have never even heard of the Raven! Am I the only one here who sees how seriously unjust and archaic all of this is?”
“Your only other option is to have your work grant revoked and get deported back to Meive immediately,” Arcylaen cut her off sternly, his expression growing darker by the second. “After which, you would never be allowed to enter Skaulling again, Leandra.”
What?! Roehn’s heart dropped and the blood drained too quickly from her face, leaving her dizzy. The mangle of injustice and fear was like acid in her throat. “But…I just bought a house here, and started my new job! Arcylaen!”
He crossed to her, something in her tone softening his features minutely. He gripped her hands in his, held them to his chest and gave her an imploring look. “I know, Leandra, I know. That’s why I made the offer. I want you to be able to keep those things,” he said sincerely, pleading with her to believe him. “I don’t want this between us, but it’s the only way I can help you and-”
He cut himself off. Molten lava churned violently under the gold of his irises, fueling the darkness she’d watched him battle all the while. He seemed to struggle for the right words, and when they finally emerged, it was through a tightly clenched jaw.
“-to keep you safely out from under their complete control. Do you understand, Leandra? Complete control.”
Roehn inhaled sharply, as his meaning struck home. They would. Whoever invoked the Warden Rites would have total control over her life, her body…her choices. With a single issued command, they could make Roehn do whatever they wanted and she wouldn’t be able to stop herself from obeying.
Another harrowing thought crossed her mind. What if Arcylaen invoked the Rites and asked her straight out about her connection to the robberies? He’d suspected her all along, so wouldn’t he be tempted to take advantage of knowing she couldn’t lie?
As if sensing her indecision, he added in a desperate whisper, “I have to at least be the lesser of three evils.”
Indeed, he was. Even with the risk of interrogation, Roehn felt she stood a far greater chance retaining choices and a say over her own life with Arcylaen. He was already angry with the situation, and too damn proud to accept her affection any other way but willingly. She didn’t know Lord Oryth, but doubted Haraj’s intentions would never be so noble and more than anything, she trusted Shursja. None of Roehn’s denial could change the fact that deep down, she knew her Echelonite never would’ve chosen the Dragon if he wasn’t worthy of it.
“Arcylaen,” she croaked, her throat full of so many opposing emotions. “I choose Arcylaen, your Honor.”
Though relief washed over his features, the darkness didn’t wane. The Rite would be between them now, where neither of them wanted it to be.
“I have the paperwork right here,” the Eagle nodded, pulling the stack from her briefcase. “Lord Arcylaen Draea of House Draea, do you understand your responsibility as Warden over Miss Leandra Leontle of Meive?”
“Aye,” he nodded, still clutching Roehn’s hands in his.
“Do you understand that from this day until the moment the Trust Bond is forged, Miss Leontle is solely your responsibility? That you will be held accountable for any crimes or offenses committed by Miss Leontle while under your Ward? That such crimes or offenses can and will result in immediate reconciliation from fines all the way up to time in the off-planet prison colony of Holdax Five, depending on their severity?”
“Do you understand that if you fail as the Warden of Miss Leontle, you forfeit your right to ever invoke the Warden Rites over any other individual for the remainder of your days?”
“Lastly, Lord Draea, do you understand the sacrifice for invoking the Warden Rites over another, is the loss of your Echelnoite’s ability to choose its Matebond, until a Trust Bond has been established and the Warden Rites relinquished?”
That was news to Roehn, and she wasn’t exactly sure how she felt about it. About any of it, really. Arcylaen’s fingers flinched a little tighter over hers, before he answered.
“Miss Leandra Leontle of Meive, do you understand that from this day, until the Trust Bond is forged, you are wholly under the sole Wardship of Lord Arcylaen Draea of House Draea?”
“Do you understand that any and all crimes or offenses committed by yourself while under Lord Draea’s Ward will immediately result in reconciliation from fines all the way up to the Rite being dissolved, your work grant being revoked and your immediate deportation back to Meive following any and all jail time befitting your crimes?”
“Aye,” she swallowed, though it didn’t ease the burn of injustice in her throat.
When Honor Thaya spoke again, her tone was a bit gentler. “Lastly, Miss Leontle, do you understand that as Lord Draea’s Ward, you relinquish all rights and control of your life to him? That you will be expected to live under the same roof as your Warden so that he may be accountable for your whereabouts at all times. That you will not be able to refute any request made by your Warden, unless deemed harmful to yourself or others?”
Roehn’s breath rushed out audibly, both her lungs and heart conspiring against her. Live with him! I have to live with him?! She couldn’t stop the tears from stinging her eyes, but she refused to let them fall. Arcylaen’s gaze zeroed in on hers and his unbidden displeasure increased.
“Miss Leontle?” The Eagle prompted.
What choice do I have? She wanted to scream!
“Aye,” Roehn forced out weakly, instead.
“Very well, please sign and initial where indicated,” the Councilwoman laid the forms out for them.
Once they were finished, they were directed to stand facing each other in front of the Councilwoman. It dawned on Roehn then, that only an hour ago, having her hands entwined with Arcylaen’s for so long would have effected her in so many ways. Yet, the act had been reduced to a mundane form of contact under the civil rituals of an outdated society. Precious experiences stolen by a barbaric, invasive Rite that shouldn’t even exist anymore!
The worst part was knowing all she had to do was open her mouth and reveal her true identity. Roehn Cayen of House Cayen was a native-born citizen of Skaulling whom the Warden Rites could never be invoked upon. Unfortunately, the consequences of that would be far more severe, if not fatal.
“Echelonites, please face one another and remain still,” the Councilwoman commanded.
Shursja sat up and faced the miniature dragon on Arcylaen’s shoulder. Honor Thaya touched a finger to each of the Echelonite’s heads and began invoking the Warden Rites. It was all in Ryttian, the dead language once spoken all over Cauldex thousands of years ago. It was still used in official documents and Rite invocations.
Roehn expected to feel something profound. Something more powerful to signify that she was handing complete control of her life over to another, but there was only a mild connection tightening in her chest. It felt similar to the magnetic pull of Arcylaen’s gaze from across a room.
“The Warden Rite is now in effect and will remain, until such time when your Echelonites have forged the Trust Bond,” Honor Thaya stated, after lowering her hands. “I will get the official request and approval filed with the Council tonight, but it will be on the morning session docket for all the members to review. Lord Draea, I assume you’re prepared for the grievance reports that will be filed thereafter.”
“Yes,” he replied. “I will notify my lawyers first thing.”
“Good,” the Eagle nodded. “For what it’s worth, Miss Leontle, I am in complete agreement with your view on the ancient Rites. Perhaps during your Wardship you’ll be able to convince your Warden to finally take his rightful place as the leader of Skaulling, so he can make some much needed adjustments to the old laws.”
“Thank you, Honor Thaya,” Arcylaen remarked dryly, before Roehn could reply.
Sighing, the woman pointed at the Hawk still standing on the other side of the table. “If you would please sign the witness statement, I’ll be on my way,” she directed.
That explained why the Hawk had stayed. Arcylaen must have asked him to, when Roehn had been momentarily riddled with panic. After all of the documents were finally signed, Arcylaen walked the Councilwoman out, then pointed at the door he was still holding open.
“Wait for us by the elevator,” he ordered their witness.
The Hawk nodded in acceptance and stalked out, leaving Roehn completely alone with her new Warden and the burdened silence that instantly fell between them.
Great. Now what?
© A.C. Melody
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