Arcylaen’s eyes scanned over the data from the Turvo House robbery, greedy for a single shred of evidence. “Nothing?” he asked. “Nothing at all?”
“Notta,” Brejeir confirmed. “It’s just like the other robberies. No trace left behind.”
“This is really starting to piss me off!” Cylaen raged, tossing the official report onto his desk.
“Well, there is one silver lining,” Brej pointed out. “At least now you know for a fact that Leandra didn’t do it.”
“Yeah,” he ran a hand through his hair. “Maybe. Maybe she’s never been involved, or maybe she’s just never been the one to get her hands dirty.”
Brejeir gave him a look of utter disbelief. “I’m about two seconds away from popping you right in the fucking jaw.”
“I can’t shake it, brother,” Cylaen admitted, as much as it gutted him. “No matter how much I want to, I mean really fucking want to, I can’t shake all the connections. My instincts are screaming that there’s something there. What have we learned about the fence?”
Brejeir sighed, his expression displeased, but he answered anyway. “Hanyx Asher. Daelyn said the team is closing in on him, it’s just a matter of hours or days now. Once Talex copped to it being family, it didn’t take much to track down which one. The authorities have his picture and all routes out of the country are covered, he won’t be able to escape Meive.”
“Good. I want him taken to the Unbinding Chamber as soon as he’s extradited back here to Skaulling,” Arcylaen nodded. “I’m done playing games with these thieves. I want answers now.”
Brej grunted in agreement, cracking his knuckles. Then he took to studying Arcylaen in a way he didn’t appreciate too much. “Okay, and just hypothetically, if you’re right–which, I don’t think you are–and Leandra is somehow involved, then what?”
“Then she goes to Holdax Five just like the rest of the thieves,” he answered, pain lancing through his chest at the mere thought of it. He leaned back against the desk and drummed his fingers on the edge. “You know, I’ve been thinking about the real estate purchase. Her brother, Mantao, has been very absent. It’s just odd. Have Daelyn’s team see if they can track him down while they’re in Meive. I’d like to talk to Mr. Leontle, myself.”
“You’re the boss,” Brej sighed.
Arcylaen’s mouth pulled into a grim line. “Yeah, for now.”
When his brother lingered, Cylaen couldn’t ignore him, but gave him an imploring look to just let the subject rest. Of course, Brej didn’t.
“Cyl, this shit is tearing you up inside. It’s written all over your face,” he commented.
“Then get me the answers that will clear her name, brother,” Arcylaen pleaded. “Help me trust her, so we can end this bullshit Warden bond, appease the twelve other Dragon Houses and put the real thieves on a prison colony where they belong. I don’t know what else to do!”
“Okay,” Brejeir nodded, motivated. “No, that’s a good plan. That’s exactly what we’ll do. Hell, I’ll go to Meive, myself, if I have to.”
“Let’s not get hasty. You’re needed here. Daelyn’s team is already burrowed in the jungles, let them do their jobs,” he said. “And we might have another problem.”
“Dear Divine, now what?”
“You know how I could feel Leandra everywhere for a moment last night? I think…what if it was Lord Gwyn trying to take her while she slept?”
Brejeir’s mouth popped open and his brows furrowed deep. “What?”
“Ravens are ancient metaphysicians, practiced in the working powers of mind and spirit, something that’s quite vulnerable in sleep. Do you think it’s possible he was trying to get to her, because he lost his request for the Warden Rite?”
His brother opened his mouth to respond, but there as a commotion right outside the office door. In a fraction of a heartbeat, Brej was in front of Arcylaen, shielding him from whatever was coming, as the door swung open to a harassed, red-faced Amrya.
“Lords Draea, I tried to stop her–”
“Excuse you, young lady! I am family, there is no stopping me and you’d be wise to learn a thing or two about the House hierarchies before you wind up insulting the wrong Dragon!”
The all-too familiar voice was an assault all its own, as the tall, elegant woman in a tailored traveling suit, hat and fur wrap came into view. Her golden hair was swept up into a fine twist, her jewelry tasteful but expensive. She stormed right past Amrya, glaring her down the whole while, then paused just inside the office and leveled Arcylaen and Brejeir with the same burning, burnished stare. She tapped her clutch against her thigh with impatience, waiting a whole beat for Amrya to take the hint, before cramming it down their poor secretary’s throat.
“You can go now,” Lady Aviya Romaea barked. “I need to knock my beloved nephews’ heads together until their brains dislodge from whatever sanity-sucking wormhole they’ve managed to stuff them into!”
Roehn didn’t know what to think of the limousine waiting at the base of the steps when she and Rynd walked out of the museum at the end of the day.
“Uh…where’s Ilydan?” she asked.
“Don’t move, I’ll check,” Rynd replied, pulling his phone out to make the call.
While he did, the driver exited the car and came around their side to open the back door. “Miss Leontle?” he inquired. “Lady Romaea requests your company.”
“She’s not going anywhere, until I speak with Lord Draea,” Rynd stated, grabbing Roehn’s arm to keep her from moving.
A broad brimmed hat ducked into view from within the back of the limo, revealing a beautiful, refined face with the golden eyes only granted to the Draea bloodline.
“I assure you my nephew knows I’m here,” the Lady called out pleasantly. “You’re more than welcome to ride up front with Gaelon, Hawk.”
Rynd ignored her, but not on purpose. His call had finally been answered. “My Lord–” he spoke into the phone. “Yes. I see. Yes, I will.”
He tucked his phone away and nodded at Roehn, escorting her to the car, himself and leaving her no choice but to climb into the back with the wife of the Head of Romaea House, and, she assumed, the sister of Lord Malcaen Draea.
Once inside the limo, Roehn could see that she had nearly platinum hair and that her Echelonite was remarkably similar to Arcylaen’s eyes; both gold and crimson. Had it always been that way, or only once she married, combining to two House colors?
“I hope you don’t mind, dear. I very much wanted to spend a little one-on-one time with you without my eldest nephew’s interference,” the Lady smiled. “Men do love to speak for their women in some unguided sense of chivalry or importance, as if it’s their duty to protect our reputations or their own, but I want to talk to you, not Arcylaen, do you understand?”
“Yes, Lady Romaea,” Roehn accepted.
Every ounce of her was on guard, because she had no idea what the Lady’s opinion was on her presence, the Warden Rites or anything. It was obvious the woman wasn’t shy about being straightforward, but neither was Eleqwyn, so that didn’t help her defenses relax a single bit. Plus, she had a personal investment; Arcylaen was her nephew so her thoughts were bound to be less pleasantry and more direct, if not severe.
“Good. Perhaps, we should start by getting the obvious topics out of the way, set the foundation, as it were, so we can build from there,” the Lady suggested. “I’m sure you’re aware that you’re now a great matter of mystery and speculation. Word travels fast through the cities of Skaulling. So, Miss Leontle, why are you here?”
“My work brought me here,” Roehn answered. “I’m an Exhibit Coordinator and Conservationist for the Museum of Cauldexian Antiquities. Why Skaulling? Because, I believe history should be preserved, which is no longer practiced in Meive by the populace. Preservation is also why I bought the House of Cayen, since that’s the number one question on everyone’s mind and yes, I do realize that no one in this country understands why I would want to preserve anything belonging to the Black Dogs, but as I informed Arcylaen when he also cornered me with the same interrogation, not only was I absent during those unfortunate years, but fully believe that history is more likely to repeat itself if we allow all of the bad parts to get swept under the rug and forgotten. Does that cover your foundation, Lady Romaea?”
“Not quite, dear,” she smiled, her eyes glinting with amusement, which surprised Roehn. “How do you know Lords Haraj and Gwyn?”
“I don’t know Lord Gwyn at all,” she answered. “And I met Lord Haraj at the Gala for the unveiling of the Black Dogs exhibit. He was…charming.”
The Lady was too dignified to snort, but her expression said it all. “Miss Leontle, Griffins are charming by nature, Lord Haraj is a pompous peacock.”
Roehn couldn’t help but grin over that. She studied the older woman and felt a tinge of shame. “I apologize for being so defensive,” she said. “It seems I’ve had so little time to be anything else since I arrived.”
“That’s why I wanted this time with you alone, dear,” the Lady winked. “To see where your current footing is in all this mess. We’ll work on your delivery, because trust me, I’m far from being the last person you’ll have to answer those same questions for. However, it is imperative that you do the answering, not my nephew.”
Roehn nodded in agreement, then shook her head in confusion. “You’re not even angry with me.”
“Why would I be?”
“For getting Arcylaen into this mess.”
The Lady laughed wholeheartedly. “Darling, if there’s one thing I know beyond a shadow of a doubt, it’s that Draea men will find their own messes to get into, with or without our help. Arcylaen, especially. He reminds me so much of my brother, always charging headfirst into battle, as if his view on what’s right will be enough to shield him from his enemies.”
“But, it’s not,” Roehn whispered.
Lady Romaea shook her head. “No, it’s not. And unfortunately, this battle has been a long time coming. You have simply given the opportunists the excuse they needed to see it begun. That’s why it’s so important for you to understand just how precarious and vital your position is now. You’re either the key to Arcylaen’s success or the weapon to his downfall. How you proceed from here will determine which one you’ll claim in the end.”
“I don’t want that,” she said. “I already told him I would rather return to Meive than be the reason for him losing everything he’s worked so hard for.”
“Even though your Echelonite has already chosen him for its mate?”
“Yes,” Roehn confirmed, holding the woman’s gaze. “But he won’t let me go.”
Lady Romaea was quiet for a moment, before she sighed. “No, darling, I’m afraid he never will. Giving up something that matters, something they want, that’s not in a Dragon’s nature.”
“Treasure hoarding syndrome?”
“Precisely,” the Lady smiled. “Besides, that opportunity has already passed. If you were to leave now, it would only confirm the wrong kind of speculations and disappoint the right ones. Whether it’s justified or not, your guilt or innocence is no longer based on facts alone, but public opinion and that is a very fickle thing.”
Roehn tried not to grind her teeth, because she knew that was true despite how wrong it was. “My Lady, aren’t you afraid of what might happen if Arcylaen’s Echelonite chooses me in return?”
The Dragon studied her for a moment, her expression thoughtful as she tapped a finger to her chin. “That’s a very good question,” she replied. “The truth, which has been conveniently forgotten, is that left to their own devices, the Echelonites very rarely choose mates outside of their own species. The tradition of uniting Houses founded centuries ago, was never meant to ensure that, but to combat undesired inbreeding within each House. Of course, that gave rise to a system of arranged marriages, rather than love. Not to say that you can’t find happiness or even love in an arranged marriage, but it can never compare to finding the one the Divine has chosen for you.
“So, to answer your question directly, Miss Leontle; no,” she concluded. “I’m not afraid, because I would much rather see my nephew happy and in love, than forced to be with someone he may never find those things with. Maybe, it’s easier for me to say as such now that they’re grown, because I know him so well and Eleqwyn Turvo well enough to know that neither love nor happiness would never be found between those two. The Divine creates mates for a reason, and I think it’s high time we stopped trying to interfere with that.”
Roehn mulled that over for a moment, thinking about Rynd’s warning regarding the Turvos’ stance. “Would you have given up your position as the wife of a Head of House, if you’d had the choice between the arrangement and your true mate?”
“Before, yes,” she answered without hesitation. “Now, well…I hope I never meet my mate, to be honest. I love my husband dearly, because he’s a damn good man and a doting father to my children. I regret nothing.”
Roehn could appreciate that view, but it didn’t ease her concerns. Perhaps, because she worried if Shursja’s vote truly counted at all in the grand scheme of the Divine, even though her feelings for Arcylaen seemed to be growing deeper by the minute.
“I don’t want Arcylaen to give up his position,” she stated, her chest squeezing with the mere thought of it. “I can’t imagine anyone better suited for it. There are so many good things he wants to do for this country, that he’s already doing. I don’t understand why he hasn’t just grasped the reins, already. Why he’s left himself in this vulnerable state of being unofficial.”
“Oh, sweetie, that’s easy,” Lady Romaea sighed. “He’s afraid the power will corrupt him, like it did the Black Dogs. Not just him, but all of the Dragons. He doesn’t want this world to trade one reign of terror for another.”
“But the Dragons have always reigned in one capacity or another, and are still currently running the cities of Skaulling in all the ways that count. The Black Dogs were never voted into office,” Roehn argued, then shook her head with frustration. “I’m sorry, I just…I’m very worried for him. This is all happening so fast and the meeting is only seven days away.”
“That’s why I’m here,” the Dragon smiled. “Over the next week, we will turn this mess into the biggest, grandest political campaign this country has ever seen, or my name is not Aviya Draea Romaea.”
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