By the time Leandros and Devikra left Roman’s room, the pale light of dawn had broken through the gloom hanging over the halls of the dead man’s home. It cast its glow on heavy rugs and along high ceilings.
As they came upon Miksatos’ study, Leandros noticed the flickering of lanterns where he’d expected stillness. He peered through the open doorway, the door still hanging off its hinges from Roman kicking it in, and found that the study wasn’t as empty as he’d hoped.
He signaled for Devikra to back away, but before he could do so himself, a broken voice called, “If you were hoping to see my husband, you’re too late. They just moved his body.”
Leandros stepped inside and eyed the woman at the center of the room. With her back to him, he couldn’t see her expression. “Lady Miskatos,” he said, “I’m sorry to disturb you. We weren’t expecting to see anyone here.”
“We?” Penelope asked, looking over her shoulder. Upon first meeting her, Leandros had been struck by her beauty — she had seemed like a painting, all soft lines and strong, silent expression. Now, with her eyes rimmed leavingred, hair in disarray, and makeup streaked down her face, she bore a more melancholic beauty.
Penelope’s gaze landed on Devikra. “Who are you?”
“My name is Devikra; I was a friend of your husband’s,” Devikra said, sweeping over to Penelope and taking her hand in a motherly, comforting gesture. “I’m sorry to hear about what happened, dear.”
“The Oracle of Damael,” Penelope said. “He’s told me about you. Why have you come? Why now?”
Devikra’s voice, when she answered, was laden with grief. “I had a vision of what happened. I’d hoped to arrive before your husband’s passing, to prevent it. If only this horrid storm hadn’t slowed my journey!”
Leandros watched, curious. He never knew what Devikra’s compassion was real and when it was performative. He thought, sometimes, it might be both at once.
“You saw my husband’s accident?” Penelope asked, dark eyes widening. She hesitated before the word accident, as if she’d been about to say death and found it too distasteful.
“Parts of it. I saw your husband opening a strange letter, then his death. I hadn’t realized the two were connected until Leandros explained what happened,” Devikra said. Leandros was surprised at the lie — he’d seen the Oracle’s drawing himself, and it had only depicted Miskatos dead. There had been nothing about a letter.
Penelope covered her mouth with a delicate hand. “There really was a letter? I hadn’t thought — that is, I hoped it wasn’t Egil who did this. He’s something of a childhood hero of mine. But the evidence was so damning.”
“It was unlucky timing,” Leandros said. “I swear, Lady Miskatos; I saw the letter as well. Someone must have hidden it.”
“Who would do such a thing?” Penelope asked.
“Likely whoever left it in the first place. This poison only stays active for a few hours,” Leandros said, borrowing Roman’s words. Fortunately, Penelope didn’t question it. “Someone here may have slipped it into your husband’s daily mail, then removed the letter again to avoid suspicion — probably in response to our arrival, as we have history with the Oracle and would know if she’d really sent a letter.”
“And I didn’t,” Devikra supplied.
“You said someone here,” Penelope said. “What exactly do you mean by that?”
“Only myself and the gardener, who left to alert the police, have come or gone since noon yesterday,” Devikra said. “We confirmed it with the guard before coming here. There’s a killer in this house, but it isn’t Egil.”
Penelope collapsed into Miskatos’ chair. “What do we do? I believe you, but I can’t have Egil released. We need proof.”
“I hope to find some,” Leandros said. “With your permission, Lady Miskatos, I’d like to question the Councilors and the household staff, as well as have a look around.”
“I can’t speak for the Councilors, but you have my permission to question the staff. We’re a modest household; we only keep a maid, a cook, and a gardener. Oh, and the guard, but he’s new.”
“Thank you, Lady Miskatos,” Leandros said.
“Do be gentle with Lynn — she’s been troubled since finding my husband’s body. She was very fond of Nikolas; this is very hard for her.”
“You yourself are very composed, Lady Miskatos; it’s admirable, so soon after your husband’s death,” Devikra observed.
Penelope smiled sadly. “Grief is no stranger to me. It helps to look forward — for now, I’m looking forward to finding the bastard that killed my husband.” The coarse language was surprising, coming from her, but Leandros found he liked her more for it.
Penelope stood and straightened her skirts. She crossed to the doorway, but there, she hesitated. “Are we in any danger, do you think?”
“From what Leandros told me has been happening in Histrios, it’s likely this was a political murder,” Devikra said. “If that’s the case, the Councilors are the only ones who need fear. You should be careful, all the same.”
“I understand. I can fend for myself, should you prove to be wrong, but I hope you catch this monster sooner rather than later.”
“We’ll try,” Leandros promised. “Do you mind if we stay here to look around.”
“By all means,” Penelope said, waving him off. “My husband never kept this study locked while he was alive; I see no reason to deny you access to it now, not when you’re trying to help.”
Devikra raised an eyebrow. “He never locked the study?”
“Nikolas wasn’t one for secrets unless they were necessary,” Penelope explained.
“So anyone could have had access to this room?” Leandros asked.
“Yes, I suppose,” Penelope said. “Though the Councilors were with Miskatos most the time they were here.”
“One last question, if you don’t mind,” Devikra said. “Where were you yesterday evening, after dinner?”
“Me?” Penelope asked, pressing a hand to her chest. “Am I under suspicion, too?
Devikra smiled, a soothing thing. “Not at all. Leandros and I just need a full idea of where everyone was last night. This is a complicated puzzle, and we need to gather all the pieces we can.”
“Of course, I’m sorry,” Penelope said. “I spend the evening in the kitchen with Cook. We were planning the week’s meals. After that, I joined a round of billiards with the Councilors before retiring for the evening. That was around nine o’clock, I think.”
“Thank you, Lady Miskatos,” Leandros said.
Penelope nodded and slipped from the room, leaving Leandros and Devikra alone.
“Now, where was Miskatos when Egil found him?” Devikra asked.
Leandros pointed out where the body had fallen. Now that it had been carried away, it was hard to tell anything unusual had happened in this study. The only clue was the door, kicked down upon Roman’s entry. Leandros checked that first, finding the lock still in place.
“I thought he never locked this,” Leandros murmured.
Leandros went to the window next, looking down and wondering what Miskatos could possibly have seen that frightened him so. Much of the garden was visible, from the small house at the far wall to the gazebo nearer the estate. The gazebo drew Leandros’ eye the most: from where he stood, he could see into and around it perfectly.
“Leandros,” Devikra called. She crouched by the fireplace, whatever embers had been glowing there the night before long since gone out. She held up a corner of parchment, burned at the edges. “I think I found the letter.”
“Is any of it salvageable?” Leandros asked.
“No, the rest is ash,” Devikra said. She brushed off her hands before standing. “What now?”
“We go look at the garden, I suppose,” Leandros said. He hadn’t thought he’d find the clue to the whole mystery up in this study, but he was disappointed that he hadn’t, all the same. He thought of Roman stuck in his room, of the Enforcers on their way here.
“As always, you worry too much,” Devikra said, guessing at his thoughts. “Now, let’s keep going. Taking action leaves little room for anxiety.”
Together, Devikra and Leandros headed down to the garden. The rain still fell heavily, so Leandros borrowed an umbrella from the stand by the door before they stepped out into the rain. Devikra looped her arm in his and held her skirts in her other hand, keeping the bright fabric out of the mud.
“This is nice,” Devikra said, voice heavy with sarcasm. The air was cold, the falling rain even colder.
Leandros hummed and pointed. “That’s the statue Roman must’ve been standing by when he saw Miskatos.”
As they approached it, they found only vague impressions of Roman’s footprints. Any detail had already been long washed away by the heavy downpour. Leandros doubted their chances of finding any useful clues out here, but he and Devikra continued along the garden anyway, scouring the grounds for clues.
They ended with the gazebo. Even from a distance, Leandros saw something promising: muddy tracks trailed across the white marble floor, preserved by the domed roof. Careful not to leave tracks of his own, Leandros handed the umbrella to Devikra and crouched to examine the tracks. There were three or four different sets, but they crossed over and around each other so much Leandros couldn’t distinguish their paths.
Only one set of tracks stood out from the rest. It was a small, light-footed set, and it didn’t go near the others. Its owner seemed to have entered the gazebo, then turned around and left again. Unlike the other sets, it didn’t pace, didn’t meander.
“I wonder when it last rained,” Devikra said. “I can’t tell whether these tracks are old or new.”
“It’s the rainy season,” Leandros said, preoccupied. He looked up. The study window was perfectly visible from where he stood. If Roman had seen Miskatos, whoever had stood here saw as well. “Some of the heavy tracks are still muddy — they must be recent.”
Devikra made a soft, amused noise. “You’re quite the detective, Leandros. I’ll have to remember that for future missions.”
“I’m just motivated,” Leandros said.
“To rescue Egil, or to impress him?” Devikra asked with a knowing smile. “Or both?”
Leandros scowled at her. Ignoring the question, he said, “I think we’ve found all we can out here. What now?”
“The staff should be awake by now. I say we split up and get these interrogations over with,” Devikra said. “I’ll talk to the cook and ask the gardener about the footprints. You take the maid and see if you can get anything out of the Councilors, once they’re awake.”
“Don’t suppose you’ll question the Councilors with me?” Leandros asked hopefully.
Devikra wrinkled her nose. “No, thanks. I hate politicians. Even Miskatos was only bearable by letter.”
Leandros tutted. “Don’t speak ill of the dead, Dev.”
“You speak ill of your father all the time. Anyway, it’s not like there’s anyone around to hear.” Devikra shrugged. “It’s cold. I’m going back inside — are you coming?”
Leandros ducked under the umbrella Devikra held up. They walked back to the house in silence, separating inside to set about their tasks.
“Meet back at the study, when you’re done,” Leandros called.
“Yes, sir,” Devikra said with a smile thrown over her shoulder.
Leandros didn’t have to wander far before he found Lynn. The maid was in the dining room, setting the table for breakfast. It was such a mundane action, setting the table. Leandros’ own morning had been anything but mundane.
“Excuse me, miss?” Leandros asked, stepping forward. “Lynn, wasn’t it? Could you spare a moment?”
“Lord Nochdvor,” Lynn said, setting down the plates in her hand and curtsying. “My Lady said you had questions. I’ll answer what I can, if you don’t mind me finishing my work while I do.”
“Not at all,” Leandros assured her. “I hope you’ll forgive my bluntness. Where were you yesterday evening, following dinner?”
“All over the house, sir,” Lynn said. She kept her head bowed as she worked, circling the table with practiced ease. “I helped Cook with the dishes and served the Councilors drinks in the game room. Mostly, I was prepping the guest rooms for the Councilors’ stay.”
Leandros nodded. “You mentioned earlier that you aren’t from Histrios. Where are you from, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“I’m from Chameus, originally. Further north.”
“And what brought you to Histrios?”
Lynn laughed, self-conscious. She was a soft-spoken girl, efficient with her work and light on her feet. But despite her gentle appearance, she had a proud bearing. “I followed a man. But that’s in the past, now.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Leandros said. “Unless it’s a good thing?”
Lynn smiled, just an amused quirk of her lips. “The latter, sir.”
Leandros smiled back. “And how long have you been in the Miskatos’ employ?”
“Only a month.”
“A month?” Leandros asked. “You’ve only been in Histrios a month?”
“I’ve only been in this house a month,” Lynn corrected. She moved on to silverware, placing elegant sets around the long table. “A gentleman here in Histrios recommended me to Nikolas. I’d still be working for him, if he’d had the funds to keep me on.”
“He asked me to call him that, sir,” Lynn said. Her gaze settled on the floor. “He was a kind employer and a good man. If Egil didn’t do this, I hope you find whoever did.”
“I hope I will, too,” Leandros said. He wasn’t one for idle reassurances. “Do you know of anyone who might want him dead?”
Lynn shook her head. “Everyone loved Nikolas. The people of Histrios, they loved Nikolas. But I suppose some’d wish harm upon him. Some who disagree with this secession,” she murmured.
“What do you mean by that? The Enforcers?”
“I don’t know about that,” Lynn said, avoiding his gaze. “The Councilors are quiet about it. But they’re not as unified as they seem — Pulakis opposed the secession. The others have misgivings, too. I shouldn’t say more, sir.”
Leandros turned this new information over in his mind. He’d have to ask the Councilors about it later. “One more thing: Nikolas and Penelope. Was their marriage a happy one?”
“Very,” Lynn said. “They were a happy couple. No fighting, no secrets. Nikolas told Penelope everything, and I know she helped him work through many a problem when the Councilors were no help.”
“Would Penelope have any reason to—,” Leandros began, only to be cut off.
“I know what you’re going to ask, and I won’t speak ill of My Lady. She wouldn’t harm a soul.”
Leandros nodded. “I see. Thank you for your time.”
“Of course, sir,” Lynn said with a curtsy.
Leandros turned to go, then hesitated. “Lynn? What’s that tattoo on your arm?”
Lynn frowned, something like suspicion flashing across her face. “Is this part of your investigation, sir?”
“Not at all; I’m only curious,” Leandros said, trying to sound reassuring.
“Oh, alright,” Lynn said, unbuttoning her sleeve and rolling it up to reveal a sprawling tattoo. She kept her palm down, showing Leandros the outer half of the design.
“It’s an elegant design,” Leandros commented. “Did it hurt?”
Lynn smiled and shrugged. “It was so long ago I hardly remember it.”
“Thanks for satisfying my curiosity. You’ve been very helpful.”
Leaving Lynn to her work, Leandros left in search of the Councilors. The suns hung well in the sky by this point, and Leandros managed to catch Zerelis just as the Councilor left his room. Zerelis agreed to meet him in the morning room after breakfast, as well as to pass the request on to the other Councilors.
But when the time came, only Zerelis and Pulakis showed.
“The others are still too distraught, you understand,” Pulakis explained as he sat across from Leandros at the small tea table. “What is this about?”
“I’m looking into the events of last night. I have a few questions for you, if you’d be so kind as to answer them.”
Zerelis raised an eyebrow. “Looking into?”
“Egil didn’t do this,” Leandros said firmly, “Which means someone else in the house did.”
Pulakis scoffed. “This is a waste of time. Egil — if he even is the real Egil — was found at the scene of the crime, standing over Miskatos’ body. Where’s your proof? Do you even have any?”
Leandros smiled, polite as ever. He was used to bullying from politicians and powerful people; it hardly had an effect on him anymore. “I’m in the process of gathering some.”
“Come, Pulakis, what’s the harm in answering a few questions? After nearly being the victim of assassination myself, I’d like to know if there really is another killer present,” Zerelis said. As Pulakis settled back into his seat, Zerelis motioned for Leandros to continue.
“Thank you, Councilors. Councilor Zerelis, after retiring for the evening, did you leave your room?”
“Not until I heard the maid’s scream.”
Leandros nodded. “Councilor Pulakis, where were you last evening following finner?”
“I wasn’t killing my friend, if that’s what you’re implying. I thought Egil claimed Miskatos was poisoned, anyway. What makes you think the killer is even still around?”
Leandros realized, now, why Devikra lied about her vision. Aside from charred papers and Roman’s word, there was no proof a letter had ever existed. But the Oracle of Damael’s word held power, so Leandros borrowed her lie. “The Oracle is here in person — if you won’t listen to me, I can bring her here to tell you herself. She saw someone delivering the poisoned letter in a vision, and as no one has left the building since the letter disappeared, it’s clear someone in the house took it.”
Zerelis looked faint; even Pulakis seemed cowed.
“Now, Councilor Pulakis, please answer the question.”
“I played billiards with Demapoulos and Saratea until late in the evening. We were about to retire when he heard the commotion last night.”
That matched what Penelope and Lynn had told Leandros — Lynn brought them drinks, and Penelope played a game with them before retiring around nine 0’ clock. But Roman had been found in the study just past eleven. That seemed, to Leandros, a long time to play billiards.
“Before yesterday,” he began, changing tracks, “Were either of you aware of Miskatos’ friendship with the Oracle?”
“He mentioned her once or twice,” Zerelis said. “We knew he knew her, but I don’t think any of us knew the acquaintance was a serious one.”
Pulakis nodded his agreement.
“Lord Nochdvor, sneaking poison into a Councilor’s study undetected — that sounds like Enforcer work, don’t you think? Do you think an Enforcer is behind this?” Zerelis asked.
“I don’t know,” Leandros admitted. He’d considered it more than once during this ordeal — the threat of Wilhara’s vision loomed ever over his head. They’re coming, he kept thinking to himself. It was all that spurred them on. He didn’t want to believe they were already here. “If it was an Enforcer, I don’t see why they’d target Miskatos and leave the rest of you.”
Zerelis shifted in his seat. “I wouldn’t expect you to know this, but Miskatos was — well, he was the voice of this secession business. When Miskatos came in with his grand ideas and the support of the people, things started changing. When he called for secession, so did the people. We had no choice but to listen.”
“You don’t sound happy about that,” Leandros said, frowning.
“You misunderstand,” Zerelis said. “I do think Miskatos got carried away with radical ideas, now and then, but that’s politics. I was more than happy to follow his lead — he was a brilliant man with brilliant ideas, and the rest of us were at a loss over how to handle the escalating tension with Unity. I had just nearly been assassinated, so I supported him even more enthusiastically than the others.”
“I heard you opposed the secession, Councilor Pulakis,” Leandros said.
“Who told you that? Yes, I opposed it at first, but like I said, we were out of options,” Pulakis said. “The others were just as wary.”
“I suppose it’s too late to compromise with Unity,” Zerelis sighed. “I’d been ready to fight before, but I’m starting to think this secession has been more trouble than it’s worth. I really am afraid of ending up like poor Miskatos.”
“I’m glad to hear you say that, Zerelis. I do think it’s time to explore other options,” Pulakis said. He looked back at Leandros, “Will that be all, then?”
Leandros nodded. “Yes. Thank you for your time.”
Pulakis stood and swept away, but Zerelis lingered in the room, leaning against a walking stick. “Do keep us updated on what you find, won’t you?”
“I will,” Leandros promised.
When Zerelis had gone as well, Leandros stood, stretched, and yawned. He headed back to the study, passing gloomy, rainy window after gloomy, rainy window. He thought, as he went, of his soft guest bed — of how nice a nap would be. He’d been up nearly all night. He thought, too, of Roman, which brought back all of his fears about the Enforcers.
He found Devikra already settled in the study when he arrived.
“There you are,” she said, waving him in. “Did you find out anything interesting?”
“A few things,” Leandros said, leaning against Miskatos’ broad desk. He tried not to think about how a man died in this room not twelve hours before, instead recounting what he had learned — about Lynn, about the strange dynamic that existed between the Councilors. In turn, Devikra recounted what she had learned.
From the gardener: the man lived in the small house at the other end of the garden and kept mostly to himself. He cleaned the gazebo every day and had confirmed the footprints hadn’t been there before the storm.
From the cook: she had served Penelope’s family since Penelope was a girl. They had both come to Histrios upon Penelope’s marriage. Growing up, Penelope had always been close with her father who, as it turned out, was a Unity Representative.
Leandros ran a hand through his hair, a nervous habit he’d picked up from Roman. “It’s strange that she didn’t tell us herself, isn’t it? That’s a strong motive.”
“Which is probably why she didn’t tell us,” Devikra said. “But that doesn’t mean she’s guilty.”
“But if she’s so close with her father, she could have done this out of loyalty to him. And Dev, if you think about it, of all the people in this house, she stands most to gain from Unity establishing a railway station in Histrios,” Leandros said. He paced back and forth on the faded rug, hands clasped behind his back. “She’d be able to visit her family anytime. She said herself that she misses Troas.”
“So she killed her husband? Come, Leandros. By all accounts, she loved him,” Devikra said, watching Leandros closely. “It’s not like you to jump to conclusions. What’s wrong?”
Leandros groaned and rubbed his eyes. “I’d rather Penelope was behind this than an Enforcer.”
“You’re worried about Egil,” Devikra guessed.
“Of course I am. You said more Enforcers are coming. What if they arrive before we solve this? They’ll kill Roman on the spot.”
Devikra rose and took Leandros’ hands in her own, giving them a gentle squeeze. “Leandros, dear, we have time. Wil’s vision didn’t tell me much, but I know one thing that might help — it won’t be raining when the Enforcers arrive. Now look out that window; do you think this storm will let up anytime soon?”
Leandros glanced out the window and shook his head. “You hadn’t mentioned that detail before.”
“I didn’t think it made a difference. It’s still in our best interest if we solve this and get out as quickly as possible. But here, you can see for yourself.” Devikra reached into a pocket hidden among the folds of her skirt and pulled out a folded parchment.
“You brought the sketch with you?”
“I thought it might be useful.”
“Thanks, Dev,” Leandros said, taking the parchment.
Devikra smiled and patted his head. “Now, no more fretting. Even locked away, Egil is a formidable force. Don’t worry so much about him.”
“That’s easier said than done.”
“I know,” Devikra said. “Here, let’s go over what we have so far. We’re close; I can tell.”
Leandros nodded, then counted on his fingers as he listed off facts. “Someone left the letter in the morning, then returned after our arrival to burn it. Miskatos inhaled the poison and it took effect hours later, when he was standing at the window watching some sort of meeting take place. His expression indicated he was frightened by it, but whether that was related to the murder is unclear.”
Devikra nodded for him to continue.
“There were several people in the gazebo last night, but most have believable enough alibis. Penelope retired early, the maid was preparing guest rooms, Zerelis was asleep, the other Councilors…ah.”
“Ah,” Devikra repeated, smiling.
Just then, Penelope appeared in the doorway. “There you are!” she said, entering the room with Lynn at her heels. “I was looking for you. Have you made any progress?”
“Some,” Leandros admitted. “The pieces are coming together, though there are a few questions that need answering. For example, Lady Miskatos, why didn’t you tell us you were from a Unity family?”
Penelope started. Behind her, Lynn looked up sharply, eyes wide and on Penelope’s back. Had she not known?
“I loved my husband, Lord Nochdvor, and supported his dream,” Penelope said firmly. “I knew you’d suspect me if you knew, but I swear, I haven’t spoken with my family since before the secession. I chose to stand at Nikolas’ side, not theirs.”
Leandros considered her. It may have been a frivolous fancy, but he thought he recognized the look of one who’s ashamed of their family. He knew the look well. “I believe you.”
“Thank you,” Penelope said sincerely.
“You said you were looking for us?”
“Oh! Yes, the police have arrived. They made it through the storm, after all — they’re examining Nikolas’ body just now, but they’ve asked to speak with you once they’re done.”
“Thank you, Lady Miskatos,” Leandros said. “You’ve been generous through this process, but I have one more favor to ask.”
“Of course,” Penelope said. “What is it?”
“Can I speak with Egil? Before I meet with the police? I’d like to hear his thoughts on the information I’ve gathered.”
“The police were quite insistent, Lord Nochdvor…”
“Bring him to me,” Devikra told Penelope. “We can stall while Leandros talks to Egil. I’m sure I could answer their questions as well as Leandros, at this point.”
Penelope nodded. “Yes, alright. I can do some stalling of my own, too.”
“One more question,” Leandros said.
Lynn, Penelope, and Devikra all looked at him, curious.
“Where is the game room?”
Penelope laughed, surprised at the question. “Fancy a game of billiards, Lord Nochdvor? It’s downstairs, near the drawing room. You should be able to see it from the window — it’s connected to the garden by those patio doors, there.”
Devikra and Leandros shared a look.
“Lynn,” Penelope said, “Escort Lord Nochdvor to Egil’s room. Let the guard know I’ve approved the visit.”
“Yes, My Lady,” Lynn said with a curtsy, shooting Leandros an unreadable look. “Come with me, sir.”
Leandros puzzled over the final missing piece on the way to Roman’s room — it was clear the Councilors were in the garden last night, but who did that final set of footprints belong to? Zerelis? Did their meeting have anything to do with Miskatos’ death?
Then, as they walked, Leandros happened to glance down and notice something strange. Lynn’s shoes — small, markedly delicate — were caked with mud. Leandros was so engrossed in staring that when Lynn stopped, he nearly tripped over her.
“Terribly sorry,” he murmured, not really feeling the words. Lynn ducked her head and relayed Penelope’s message to the guard before hurrying away.
“Go on, then,” the guard said.
Leandros thanked him and slipped inside only to freeze in the doorway. To his surprise, he found Roman asleep. He was so startled by the sight that all thoughts of the maid flew from his mind; he pressed the door shut behind him with a gentle click and carefully approached the bed.
He’d seen Roman asleep before, of course, but it was a rare sight. Roman rose early and slept late, so much so that it seemed inhuman. He also woke at the slightest sound, so Leandros wasn’t surprised when Roman stirred and opened his eyes.
“Roman,” Leandros greeted softly.
Roman stretched leisurely before sitting up. “Back already?” he asked with a sleepy smile. “Any progress?”
“More than I know what to do with,” Leandros admitted, sitting on the edge of the bed. Roman moved closer, their legs brushing.
“Tell me,” Roman said.
Leandros nodded and cleared his throat, trying not to focus on the warm contact between them. “Devikra and I found muddy footprints in the gazebo — several people met there last night. We think you must’ve just missed them.”
“Four — three that arrived together, one that arrived separately.”
“Four for the four Councilors?” Roman asked.
Leandros shook his head. “I saw Zerelis leave his room just before you were arrested. As it turns out, though, the game room — where the other Councilors claimed to have been playing billiards all night — is directly connected to the garden by a side door. I think they were meeting a fourth person and didn’t want to risk being overheard.”
“Miskatos’ expression would make some sense, then,” Roman mused, bumping his knee into Leandros’. “Seeing your colleagues meeting in secret without you would be cause for concern. Who was the fourth person?”
“I didn’t know until a moment ago, when I noticed the maid’s shoes — they were caked in mud. I just don’t understand what the Councilors possibly could have wanted with Lynn.”
Beside Leandros, Roman went still. Not noticing, Leandros continued to think out loud, “Does the meeting have anything to do with the murder? You said the poison originates near Heartfell, right? That’s marionite territory. Being from that region, it’s possible Lynn knows the poison. And she — Roman, are you alright?”
Roman had gone pale, his eyes wide. “Leandros, which arm was her tattoo on?”
Roman closed his eyes. “I was afraid you’d say that. It’s fake, Leandros.”
“Yeah. I’ve seen the trick before, I just didn’t put it together until now. As long as you don’t look too closely, it’s the perfect camouflage for a scar…or a brand.”
The dread in Roman’s voice started to make sense. Leandros felt it sink inside of him, as well. “You think she’s an Enforcer,” he guessed.
“No,” Roman said. “I know she is. I’m so sorry, Leandros, my carelessness put us both in danger. I think I know her, I just didn’t realize — that is, I haven’t seen her since she was a little girl, and honestly, I thought she was dead. I didn’t expect—,”
“Roman, it’s alright,” Leandros said, not liking the look on his friend’s face. It was pain, it was fear, and it was regret, and Leandros so hated to see Roman hurting.
Roman shook his head. “It’s not, Leandros! She’s the worst Enforcer that could have possibly found us. You don’t understand—,”
“I understand enough. She doesn’t know that we know her, and if she hasn’t made any moves on us yet, I think we have time. We’ll just…break out of here. Run. It won’t be hard to overcome a single guard, right?”
“Right,” Roman agreed, but his breath still came quicker than usual. When Leandros reached out and took his hand, Roman gripped it tightly.
“A little storm won’t stop us,” Leandros said, rubbing slow circles into Roman’s hand with his thumb. “We’ll be gone before Lynn realizes.”
“Right,” Roman repeated, sounding more certain. “But what about the other Enforcers? Wil saw more coming, didn’t she? When will they get here?”
Leandros pulled out the parchment he’d hastily stuffed in his pocked and gave it to Roman. The charcoal was smudged in some places, but the drawing clearly depicted a large group gathered in Miskatos’ study. “Devikra gave me Wil’s sketch. Look, the Enforcers don’t arrive until after the rain stops. We have time.”
“Leandros,” Roman said quietly, urgently.
“What?” Leandros asked. When Roman stayed silent, Leandros noticed the heavier silence that hung around them. He distinctly remembered hearing rain on the room when he visited the night before. Now, there was silence.
It had stopped raining.
Leandros swore. “Well that doesn’t mean they’re already here. Just that they could arrive any minute.”
“That’s supposed to be reassuring?” Roman asked. He took the parchment and studied the drawing. “Including Lynn, there are going to be five Enforcers here. I can’t fight that, Leandros.”
“You won’t have to. Devikra and I are here, too,” Leandros assured him. “New plan: I’ll go to the study — if they’re here already, I’ll distract them. As soon as I leave, you knock out the guard and get as far from here as possible. Dev and I will meet you outside the city gates.”
“I can’t let you do that,” Roman said, dark eyes wide.
“It’s not me they want, Roman.”
“But if you get in their way, they’ll—,”
“You ridiculous creature,” Leandros said, exasperated. He cupped Roman’s face in his hands, making Roman’s eyes go impossibly wider. His skin was warm, soft under Leandros’ fingers. “I love you. Don’t you know that by now? I’d risk anything to keep you safe.”
Leandros released Roman, who remained silent and staring. Leandros didn’t let himself feel hurt by the silence — this wasn’t the time. “Promise me you’ll run.”
The words snapped Roman out of his stupor; he grabbed Leandros’ sleeve as if to keep him from leaving. “Only if you promise you’ll be there to meet up with me afterward.”
“I will,” Leandros promised. “I’ll be with Dev — you know her, she can talk her way out of anything.”
“Okay,” Roman breathed. “Then I’ll run.”
Leandros nodded and, without pausing to think it through, leaned in to press a quick kiss to Roman’s temple. It may have been his imagination, but he thought Roman leaned into it. He left with a final glance back at Roman, an uneasy feeling settling in his chest as the guard closed the door behind him. He didn’t let it slow him down, though, instead hurrying off to find Penelope and Devikra.
He hoped Lynn wasn’t with them. He hoped they weren’t too late. He hoped he’d explain the situation to Penelope and they’d slip away before the Enforcers ever arrived.
He didn’t trust his luck to allow for any of that, though, so he arrived at Miskatos’ study expecting the worst. But apart from Penelope and Devikra, the only other people in the room were Councilor Zerelis and a stout man in a constable’s uniform.
Penelope stood abruptly at the sight of him, disheveled and out of breath. “Lord Nochdvor!” she cried. “Whatever’s wrong?”
“I know what happened last night.”
The constable looked up from his pen and pad and Zerelis turned away from the fireplace to regard him curiously. Devikra smiled. “It’s about time.”
“Do tell us then, sir, because I’m at a loss,” the constable said. “All this talk of poisoned letters and grand conspiracies when it looks to me like the Councilor died of natural causes.”
“Lady Miskatos,” Leandros said, “You have an Enforcer under your employ.”
Penelope fell back into her seat. “Explain yourself.”
Behind her, Devikra looked surprised as well. “Please do, Leandros.”
To Devikra, Leandros said, “There was mud on the maid’s shoes.”
“Oh,” Devikra said, pursing her lips. “Oh, I see.”
“I don’t!” Penelope said. “Please, Lord Nochdvor, I can’t take the suspense any longer. Tell me what you know.”
Leandros sat across from Penelope. “I will,” he said. “I’m just not sure where to start.”
“I’ll try to be patient, then,” Penelope assured him. “As long as you do explain.”
Leandros ran a hand nervously through his hair. “We don’t have much time. Roman gave me crucial information about the poison: it’s a paralytic. Your husband’s expression, Lady Miskatos — we think he saw something in the garden that night. Something that frightened him. At first, Devikra and I were unsure whether there was any connection between that and his murder, but as we investigated further, it became clear.
“We knew someone hand-delivered the poisoned letter to your husband’s office. We knew this person was familiar with Miskatos’ mail schedule and knew he was in frequent correspondence with Devikra. We knew they hoped to pass this off as a natural death.”
“And you think Lynn did it?” Penelope asked.
“Yes. I think she’s an Enforcer — she hides her brand behind a fake tattoo. When I spoke with Roman just now, he recognized her from his time with Unity. It makes sense that she recognized him as well: when Roman and I arrived in Histrios, she panicked. She knew that because Egil is close with the Oracle, he would realize the letter wasn’t from Devikra. So she burned the evidence, hoping we hadn’t seen it yet. That couldn’t have been done by the Councilors, who were playing billiards with you, Lady Miskatos. It couldn’t have been Zerelis, the gardener, or the cook, who’d all already retired for the evening.”
“This really is quite absurd. If Lynn is an Enforcer, she’s had thousands of opportunities to kill Nikolas — to kill any of the Councilors,” Penelope said. “Why him? Why now?”
“Now, hold on. What’s an Enforcer?” the constable asked.
Penelope waved him off. “Soldiers of Unity.”
“The first assassination attempt was made to prevent a secession from happening,” Leandros explained. “From what I hear, Zerelis was the most vocal anti-Unity voice on the Council before Miskatos.”
“Now that Histrios has seceded and the Council knows about the Enforcers, Unity has to be more careful in its approach. There would be no point in bold moves — not when they’d only provoke the Council into doubling down and standing fast. Lynn’s role here was more than that of an assassin. She’s been speaking with the Councilors, slowly winning them back over to Unity’s side.”
“Preposterous!” Zerelis said. “If she’d come to me, I would’ve told Nikolas.”
“Which is why she didn’t come to you, Councilor Zerelis. She was waiting until she had the others on her side and Miskatos out of the way,” Leandros said.
“The others would never turn against Nikolas like that,” Penelope said, her hands gripping the arms of her chair so tightly her knuckles had turned white.
“You can’t be sure. When I spoke with them earlier, it sounded like the others have been wary of the secession from the start,” Leandros said. “Pulakis seemed interested this morning when you mentioned compromising with Unity, did he not, Councilor?”
Zerelis balked under the look Penelope turned on him. “He did ask me about it again afterward…”
“That brings me back to Lynn,” Leandros said. “Still worried about Egil’s arrival after burning the letter, she came up with a pretense to speak to the Councilors by bringing them all drinks. She called them to a private meeting somewhere secluded, somewhere Egil was unlikely to overhear.”
“The gazebo,” Devikra filled in.
“Exactly. When Devikra and I explored the garden this morning, we found several sets of muddy tracks in the gazebo: one belonged to Lynn, whose small feet leave distinct tracks. The other three came from the billiards room. She warned them about Egil, but something went wrong — Miskatos saw them from his study window. It was betrayal that put that expression on his face.”
Penelope covered her mouth with her hand. “So what then?”
“Lynn didn’t know when her poison would take effect, so she went to finish the job before your husband could tell anyone what he saw. She didn’t expect Egil to arrive before her, nor did she expect that moment to be the exact one her poison set in. When she entered the study and saw the scene before her, she saw an opportunity and took it, framing Egil for murder.”
“How terrible,” Penelope said, her beautiful face twisted into something cold and angry. “We’ll bring her here, have her answer for her crimes directly.”
“We may not have time,” Leandros said.
“What do you mean?”
“There’s more to the story,” Leandros supplied. “Of course, Lynn wouldn’t believe a single guard could hold Egil long, not if he wanted to run, so she called for backup. I believe they aren’t far, Lady Miskatos. More Enforcers are coming.
Penelope opened her mouth to speak, but then her eyes widened, gaze falling on someone behind Leandros. She rose quickly to her feet. “Representative Metaxas,” she gasped. “What are you doing here?”
Roman counted to ten after Leandros left, the only sound in the room the beating of his own heart. He missed the sound of the rain, if its absence meant more Enforcers were coming. The Enforcers had been after him since he’d escaped Unity. He’d had close calls before, had even come face-to-face with them once or twice, but none so close as this. To think that the Miskatos’ young maid was Bellona, the girl he’d trained and left behind with the Enforcers. He could kick himself for not immediately recognizing her.
He shook himself; wallowing in old guild wouldn’t help him now. He knocked lightly on the door, calling out, “I don’t suppose you’d mind escorting me to the restroom? Or am I supposed to stay shut up in here indefinitely?”
As soon as the door opened, Roman sprang into action. He threw his weight into the door, throwing off the balance of the guard on the other side. As the man righted himself, Roman stepped forward, shifted his weight, and caught the guard with an elbow to the neck, making him collapse, unconscious.
As soon as the door opened, Roman sprang into action. He surged into the door, throwing off the balance of the guard on the other side. As the guard righted himself, Roman pressed forward and caught the guard with an elbow to the neck, making him collapse, unconscious.
But when Roman turned to leave, he found himself looking down the barrel of a gun.
He fell back a step, the woman holding the gun coming into sharp focus. He recognized her now, with her long hair falling around her shoulders and that silly bonnet removed. Those pale brown eyes — last time Roman saw them, they’d been full of fear.
“Bellona,” he said, holding his hands up in surrender.
Bellona cocked the gun. “Don’t speak,” she said. “Just come with me.”
Faced with her anger, he had no choice but to obey.