The drive across the city was a study in silence, though Arcylaen had set his phone aside once the House of Cayen was behind them.
He gently lifted Roehn’s fingertips with his own and studied her, when Ilydan turned down a narrow lane where a small castle stood like an ancient sentry amid modern day mansions. Roehn’s gaze drank in the gold-hued stone decorated with red and green lichen. It was a giant square, the corners made of towers with open battlements. Lead-pane windows were tall and arched with flower boxes nestled at their sills. All, save the giant stained glass window crowning the front entrance, glowing with the Draea Family Crest, just like his skyscraper downtown.
Well, at least their pride is consistent.
At the end of the drive, Ilydan stopped the car and waited for the security gates to slowly swing inward, before pulling into a narrow way. Tall hedges flanked the pavement like walls, until the right side curved away from them, revealing a large parking area complete with a guard tower. A Bear stood on the small stoop outside the arched wooden door, smoking a cigarette. He saluted a wave at the car, as Ilydan passed the garage and continued toward the main entrance. Ground lighting was cleverly tucked into bordering plants, granting plenty of illumination to the cobblestone courtyard, but most were arranged to set the castle aglow in the darkness.
“What, no moat?” Roehn asked.
Arcylaen smirked, yet continued to watch her, as if wanting to gauge her reaction to his home. It was gorgeous, of course, and no less than she’d expect from the oldest Royal family on the planet. The Dragon was just lucky Roehn wasn’t the spiteful type, or she might’ve shown his house the same respect he’d shown hers.
Unfortunately, Rynd’s words kept circling in her mind, tugging at her empathy. The blasted Hawk had nailed it; Roehn was completely ignorant when it came to the history of her own house. She hadn’t dug into any of the reports or articles pertaining to it, because she’d been leery of finding reasons to sympathize with the Dragons. After all, when one was intending to rob someone, it wasn’t a good idea to grow a soft spot for them.
She glanced at Arcylaen and practically rolled her eyes. Who was she kidding? Soft spot was an understatement for what was growing between them. In such a short time, she’d gone from never meeting a Dragon, to being the Ward of one, and somewhere in between an undeniable attraction had taken root. Yet, Roehn didn’t feel swayed from her plans. If anything, her time with Arcylaen had only served to reinforce them. Especially with the ridiculous Rites binding her to his complete control.
After climbing out, Arcylaen ordered Ilydan to assist Rynd with all of Roehn’s luggage, so he could be the one to offer his hand for her to take. She gave him a bemused smile, as she slid to her feet.
“Are you trying to be a gentleman?” She teased mildly.
“I am a gentleman,” he countered confidently.
The undercurrent of lust in his every nuance said otherwise, but who was she to argue when both sides of the man sparked a degeneration of her own ladylike qualities?
To prove himself, Arcylaen kissed the back of her hand–and then ‘gentleman’ took a backseat to Dragon, when rather than placing it on his arm, he entwined his fingers with hers and held tight. At the top of the stairs, the doors opened for them, but Roehn scarcely noticed the Bears on either side of the armored wood. Her eyes widened in awe over the splendor of the grand foyer.
“Arcylaen, this is breathtaking,” she whispered sincerely, her neck craning in attempt to see everything at once.
“Thank you,” he accepted, his smile genuinely pleased.
A grand staircase swept across the space from the right, creating a balcony across the back of the foyer, before curving down the left wall and finishing in a wide, angled welcome. Maplevine was woven through the decorative balustrades, sprinkled with the soft glow of fairy lights. An enormous chandelier hung level with the second story, the very light source behind the stained glass Crest visible from outside. It looked exactly like the fiery bloom of a Dragon’s Breath flower. The chain was molded into the same twisting, vine-like stem, the frosted glass stained sunset orange and crimson for the petals that curved up and then out at the very tips. The stamen spiraled down from the center, each holding a glowing orb of light. The stigma was capped with a multifaceted sconce of crystalline amber, the light dancing in simulation of an actual flame.
A small group of household staff silently gathered, while Roehn took in the décor. She supposed Arcylaen had probably called ahead to let them know about her new–Please be temporary–living arrangements.
“Leandra, this is Emmon, Head of Household staff,” he gestured to the older male Badger first, before moving onto a female Swallow, then a male Raccoon. “Prelei is Head of the Housekeeping staff and Sajyn is the Head Chef in charge of all kitchen staff.”
“It’s very nice to meet you,” Roehn greeted.
“And this is Lyva,” he saved the Dove for last. “She will be your personal attendant.”
Attendant or babysitter? Roehn forced a polite smile for the slightly younger woman. She knew a lot of prominent families still kept personal servants, but Roehn had no need for one. She couldn’t very well say that without hurting the Dove’s feelings, though. To garner a job at House Draea was undoubtedly a coveted position the girl was proud to have.
“My Lord, dinner is ready and awaiting your approval,” Sajyn announced.
“Good, I’m famished,” Arcylaen replied. “Emmon, Lyva, please see to Miss Leontle’s belongings. She can take the Sunset Suite in the west tower.”
“Shouldn’t I go with them?” Roehn wondered quietly, watching the virtual strangers gather her bags and cart them up the stairs. She’d never had someone else tend to her things before and wasn’t exactly comfortable with it.
“Don’t worry, your belongings are in safe, capable hands,” Arcylaen answered. “Besides, you’re hungry, because you haven’t eaten a single bite since Daelyn showed off his culinary skills at lunch.”
Roehn scowled at him. “Do I need to start looking over my shoulder for spies, L-”
His brow rose quickly and a look of challenge crossed his features, daring her to finish that sentence. When she clamped her mouth shut and glared, he chuckled. “Shame,” he mused, his gaze sweeping across her mouth briefly. “Once again, I don’t need to be your Warden to pick up on your more obvious traits, Leandra. You are a workaholic.”
Roehn countered with her own arched brow. “Says the man running an entire country with all the stress and none of the vetoing benefits.”
With an exasperated sigh, he shook his head and led her through the foyer. They had to step down into a hallway that started from under the staircase and continued to their right, ending in an arched doorway framed with more Maplevine and fairy lights. The same bold red carpeting that filled his office started as a runner from the other side of the threshold, leading them into the largest formal dining room Roehn had ever seen outside of a history book. Though it could never take the place of a King’s Great Hall, it was definitely big enough to fit his entire family plus half their neighbors.
Where the left wall ended, the room expanded into a more intimate alcove where a long banquet table of dark wood stood surrounded by no less than fifty throne backed chairs. Miniature Dragon’s Breath chandeliers hung at varying heights, creating a draping appearance over the table, which was adorned with glowing candelabras and fluted vases overflowing with fresh green foliage rather than flowers. Crystal figurines sparkled under the lights, tucked into the center pieces down the middle of an embroidered tablecloth.
Across the other side of the table, heavy drapes were tied back from the four wide and two-story high arched windows in the outer wall, but that wasn’t as mesmerizing as all of the things hanging around the room. Tapestries, swords, shields and the kind of standards one would see flying atop long poles. Roehn bypassed the carved serving cabinet laden with covered dishes, where Sajyn and his staff waited to serve their meal.
She approached the nearest hanging relics and marveled at the dirt stains, the wear of the fabric and frayed stitching. Her fingers yearned to trace the dents and scratches in the shields, smooth over the worn paint. Some held the Draea Coat of Arms, others just depicted a golden dragon. They were all real, well used, had never been crafted for their current decorative purpose. The swords were the only items still in immaculate condition, but that wasn’t surprising. Swords had long been a symbol of one’s status, since only the wealthy had been able to afford the best.
Roehn studied the enormous tapestries, trying to imagine how long and how many people it had taken to complete just one. The first depicted an ancient royal procession with gilded carriages and armored knights on horseback traveling to what appeared to be the very castle keep she was now standing inside of. In the scene, it stood like a stone giant surrounded by meadows and forests, rather than a ritzy, city neighborhood. The other was a well known battle scene between all the Dragon Houses and the Minotaurs, an extinct race.
Roehn turned to find that she’d wandered during her historian daze, drawn further away from the table where Arcylaen waited, holding a chair out for her.
“Sorry,” she blushed slightly. “I can’t help it.”
“I know,” he smiled. “But if you don’t eat soon, I’m worried you’ll fall over.”
As if to verify his concern, her stomach grumbled loudly and her face reddened with embarrassment. “Ugh, it’s pretty bad when you out-vote yourself,” she muttered under her breath.
Arcylaen laughed in a way she was coming to crave. Almost as if her smart mouth had the ability to take him by surprise. He scooted her chair in, then seated himself at the head of the table to her immediate left. Sajyn and his staff moved into action. Some carried dishes to set before them, uncovering them in a flourish of practiced grace, while others filled their crystal goblets with wine. The delicious aromas filled Roehn’s nostrils, triggering her saliva glands and another rumble from her empty stomach.
When the show was complete, Sajyn hustled the staff back into the kitchens to prepare for the next course.
“You know, they’re only doing this for you,” Arcylaen smiled at her in amusement. “We don’t get new guests very often, so they’re taking advantage of this rare opportunity to show off.”
“Oh,” she chuckled, flattered. “Well, I won’t disappoint them. I’m starving.”
“You don’t have to tell me something I already know, kitten,” he sighed, and dug into his own meal.
Heat spread up Roehn’s neck to gather in her cheeks again, only this time it was over the unexpected way his little pet name made her feel. It effected her on a more intimate level than his previous Kitty Cat nickname, though she couldn’t say why.
Rich barley soup was their first course, and Roehn had managed two delicious spoonfuls before the kitchen doors swung open and swished aggressively behind the Dragon who’d stormed into the room with a gruff attitude.
“Well, that happened,” Brejeir huffed, gesturing to Roehn and Arcylaen with a lifted hand.
Roehn watched Daelyn and two more male Dragons file into the room, stalking around Brej for the table. One of them was as golden as Arcylaen and the other was a dark brunette, though he still had the same gold-dusted eyes and matching Echelonite perched on his shoulder.
“Unfortunately,” Arcylaen replied darkly.
Roehn knew they were speaking of the Warden Rites. Arcylaen had most likely texted them while waiting for her to pack. He seemed the type to want to keep his most trusted apprised of every given situation, and there was no one Dragons trusted more than their own blood.
“Leandra, it’s good to see you again,” Daelyn said, before seating himself beside her and pouring his own wine. “Though, I wish it were under better circumstances.”
Roehn lifted her glass. “I’ll toast to that.”
Brejeir grabbed the bottle and lifted it. “Here, here,” he seconded, then poured a glass and downed half the contents. The staff had hurried out of the kitchen to serve the new arrivals, working around the Dragons as they meandered to their seats. “Can’t complain about finally having someone better to look at during meals than this lot, though.”
Roehn’s grin grew brighter, when Arcylan shot him a dark look. Unaffected, Brej claimed the chair directly across from her, and jerked his thumb at the two younger Dragons she’d yet to meet. “This is our second youngest brother, Ryver, and our cousin, Grevys.”
“Nice to meet you,” she greeted.
“Welcome to House Draea, Miss Leontle,” Ryver toasted. “It only gets crazier from here.”
Though Roehn reciprocated, clanking her glass to his, she had a sinking feeling his words rang with more truth than humor.
© A.C. Melody
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