By the time Leandros and Devikra left Roman’s room, the pale light of dawn had broken through the gloom that hung over the silent halls of the dead man’s home. It cast its glow on heavy rugs and high ceilings and made Leandros and Devikra’s path to Miskatos’ study an easy one. Devikra had asked to see the scene of the crime.
As they came upon the room, Leandros was surprised to find the flickering life of lanterns where he’d expected stillness. He peered cautiously 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 duck out of the doorframe himself, a broken voice called, “If you were hoping to see my husband, you’re too late. They just moved his body.”
Leandros sighed and stepped into the study. He eyed the the woman who stood in the middle of the room. Her back was to him, so he couldn’t see her expression. “Lady Miskatos,” he started, “I’m sorry to disturb you. We weren’t expecting anyone to be here.”
“We?” Penelope asked, looking over her shoulder. Leandros had been struck by her beauty upon first meeting her — she had seemed like a painting, all soft lines and strong, silent expression. Now, with her eyes rimmed red, hair all in disarray, and makeup tracked in streaks down her face, it was a more melancholic beauty.
Penelope’s gaze landed on Devikra, just behind Leandros. “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 was so sorry to hear about what happened, dear. Please, tell me if there’s anything I can do for you or your family.”
“The Oracle of Damael,” Penelope said. “He’s told me about you. Why have you come? Why now?”
Devikra sighed. Her voice, when she answered, was laden with grief. “I had a vision about what happened. I’d hoped to arrive before your husband’s passing, to prevent it. Oh, if only this horrid storm hadn’t slowed my journey!”
Leandros watched, curious. He could never tell when 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, her dark eyes widening. She hesitated before the word accident, as if she’d been about to say death instead and found it too distasteful.
“Parts of it. I had a vision of your husband opening a strange letter, and of him dying from some sort of poison. I hadn’t realized the two were connected until Leandros explained what happened,” Devikra said. Leandros was surprised at the lie — he’d seen Wilhara’s drawing himself, and it had only depicted Miskatos on the floor of his study, dead. There was nothing at all about a letter.
Penelope covered her mouth with a delicate hand. “There really was a letter?” she asked softly, after a moment. “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 just so damning.”
“It was unfortunate timing,” Leandros said. “You have my word, Lady Miskatos; I saw the letter as well. Someone must have taken it.”
“But who would do such a thing?” Penelope asked.
“Most likely the same person who left it in the first place. The poison is one that only stays active for a few hours,” Leandros said, borrowing Roman’s words. “Most likely, someone here slipped it into your husband’s daily mail, then removed the letter again to avoid any sort of suspicion — possibly in response to our arrival, as we have a personal history with the Oracle and would know if she’d sent a letter prior to our coming.”
“And I didn’t,” Devikra said, leaning against Miskatos’ desk.
“You said ‘someone here,’ Mr. Nochdvor,” Penelope said. “What exactly do you mean by that?”
“Only myself and the gardener, who left to dispatch a letter to the police, have come or gone since noon yesterday,” Devikra said. “Leandros and I confirmed with it the guard just before coming here. There’s a killer in this house somewhere, dear, but it isn’t Egil.”
“Oh!” Penelope cried, collapsing delicately into Miskatos’ desk chair. “What do we do? I believe you, but I can’t just 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 the house.”
“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 — and he was at his post all evening, until we gave him the order to watch Egil.”
“Thank you, Lady Miskatos,” Leandros said with a low bow.
“Just do be gentle with Lynn — she’s been troubled since she came upon my husband’s body. She was very fond of Nikolas; I think this is hitting her harder than it’s even hitting me.”
“You are very composed, Lady Miskatos. It’s admirable, so soon after your husband’s death,” Devikra observed.
Penelope gave her a sad smile. “I wish it weren’t so, but grief is no stranger to me. It helps, looking forward — right now, I’m looking forward to finding the bastard who did this to my husband,” she said. The coarse language was surprising, coming from such an elegant lady, but Leandros found it made him like her more.
Penelope stood and straightened her skirts. “I’ll leave you to it, then.” She crossed to the doorway, but there, she hesitated. “Mr. Nochdvor? Devikra? Are we in any danger, do you think? ”
“Based on what Leandros told me has been happening in Histrios, it’s likely this was a politically charged murder,” Devikra said. “If that’s the case, the Councilors are the only ones with anything to fear. You should be careful, all the same.”
Penelope nodded, solemn. “I understand. I’m capable of fending for myself, should you prove to be wrong, but I hope you’ll catch this monster sooner, rather than later.”
“We’ll do our best,” Leandros promised. “Do you mind if Devikra and I 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 doing so much to help.”
Devikra raised an eyebrow. “He never locked the study?”
“Nikolas wasn’t one for secrets unless they were absolutely necessary,” Penelope explained. She smiled softly, a sad look overtaking her delicate features. “He was also absent-minded. He had many thoughts plaguing him; locking doors wasn’t high on the list.”
“So anyone could have had access to this room?” Leandros asked.
“Yes, I suppose,” Penelope said. “Though the Councilors were with Miskatos most of the time they were here.”
“I see,” Leandros said.
“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, soft thing. “Not at all. Leandros and just need a full idea of where everyone was last night. It’s a complicated puzzle, solving these issues, and we need to gather every bit of information we can.”
“You’re right, I’m sorry,” Penelope said. “I spent most of the evening in the kitchen with Cook. We were planning the week’s meals. After that, I joined in 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 out of the room, leaving Leandros and Devikra alone in the study.
“I like her,” Devikra said. “Now, where was Miskatos when Egil found him?”
Leandros pointed out where the body had fallen. Now that it had been carried away, though, it was nearly impossible 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 from the inside.
That ruled out his theory about Miskatos seeing someone in the window’s reflection, then. Leandros went to the window next, looking down and wondering what Miskatos could possibly have seen that frightened him so. From the window, 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.
What Leandros couldn’t see, thanks to the tall, shapely hedges scattered about the garden, was the statue Roman claimed to have been standing by. Miskatos might not have even noticed Roman that night.
“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 small corner of parchment, burned at the edges. “I think I found the letter.”
“Is any of it salvageable?” Leandros asked, approaching.
“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 a clue to the whole mystery up in this study, but he was disappointed that he hadn’t, all the same.
“As always, you worry too much, dear,” Devikra said, guessing at Leandros’ thoughts. “Now, let’s keep going. Taking action leaves little room for anxiety.”
Devikra, as it turned out, was right. Together, she and Leandros headed down to the garden. The rain fell as heavily as it did when it started, so Leandros borrowed an umbrella from the stand by the door, and he and Devikra stepped out into the rain. Devikra looped her arm in his and held up her skirts in her other hand, keeping the colorful fabric away from 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 had been standing by when he saw Miskatos.”
As they approached it, they found only vague impressions of Roman’s footprints. Any nuance or detail had already been long washed away by the heavy downpour. It made Leandros doubt 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 could see something promising: muddy tracks trailed across the white marble floor, preserved by the domed roof above. Careful not to leave tracks of his own, Leandros handed the umbrella to Devikra and crouched down just under the protection of the roof to examine the tracks. There were at least three or four different sets, but they crossed over and around each other so much Leandros had trouble distinguishing anything unique about the paths they seemed to take.
Only one set of tracks stood out from the rest. It was a small, light-footed set, and it didn’t interweave with the others. Its owner seemed to have entered the gazebo, stood in place, 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 is the rainy season, here,” Leandros said, thoughtful. He looked up. The study window was perfectly visible from where he stood. If Roman had seen Miskatos, it was likely whoever had stood here saw him as well. “Some of the heavier tracks are still muddy, though — 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 entirely, Leandros 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 little 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. “You shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, Dev.”
“You speak ill of your father all the time. Anyway, it’s not like there’s anyone else around to hear.” Devikra shrugged. “It’s cold. I’m headed back inside — are you coming or not?”
Leandros ducked under the umbrella when Devikra held it up. She was nearly a foot shorter than him, so she had to extend her entire arm to do so. 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 the house long before he found Lynn. The Miskatos’ maid was in the small dining room, setting the table for breakfast. Leandros watched her for a moment; it was such a mundane action, setting the table. Leandros’ own morning had been anything but mundane.
“Excuse me, miss?” Leandros asked, stepping into the room. “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 up my work while I do.”
“Not at all,” Leandros assured her. “I hope you’ll forgive my bluntness, but I’m asking everyone: where were you yesterday evening, following dinner?”
“I was all over the house, sir,” Lynn said. She kept her head bowed as she worked, moving around the table with practiced ease. “I helped Cook a bit with the dishes and served the Councilors drinks in the game room. Mostly, I was prepping the extra guest rooms for the Councilors’ stay.”
Leandros nodded. “Earlier, you mentioned you aren’t from Histrios. Where are you from, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“I’m from Chameus, originally. Further north than here. But I’ve called many places home.”
“And what brought you to Histrios?”
Lynn laughed, short and self-conscious. She was a soft-spoken girl, Leandros noticed, efficient with her work and light on her feet. Despite her gentle appearance, she was sure-footed and had a proud bearing. “I followed a gentleman, sir. But that’s in the past, now.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Leandros said. “Unless it’s a good thing?”
Lynn smiled at him, 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’d moved on to silverware, now, placing various elegant sets around the long table. “Alex Raptis, a businessman here in Histrios, recommended me to Nikolas. I’d still be working for Mr. Raptis, if he’d had the funds to keep me on.”
“He asked me to call him that, sir. On my first day here,” Lynn said. For the first time since Leandros came in, she stopped moving, her gaze settling on the floor. “He was a kind employer, and a good man. If Egil really didn’t do this, I hope you find whoever did.”
“I hope I will, too,” Leandros said softly. He wasn’t one for idle reassurances, especially when he himself didn’t feel confident. “Do you know of anyone who might want him dead?”
Lynn covered her mouth and looked away. After a moment, she shook her head. “Everyone loved Nikolas. The people of Histrios, they all love Nikolas. But I suppose…well, I’m sure there are plenty who’d wish harm upon him. There are some who disagree with this secession of his,” she murmured.
“What do you mean by that? The Enforcers?”
“I don’t know much about that,” Lynn said, avoiding his gaze. She lowered her voice. “The Councilors have been quiet about it. But they’re not as unified as they seem — Pulakis opposed the secession entirely. I know the others have their misgivings, too. I shouldn’t say more, sir.”
“I understand,” Leandros said, turning over this new information in his mind. He’d have to ask the Councilors about that, later. “One more thing…Nikolas and Penelope. Was their marriage a happy one?”
“Oh, yes,” Lynn said, eyes wide. “They were a very happy couple. No fighting, no secrets. Penelope was Nikolas’ top confidant. He told her 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 by Lynn.
“I know what you’re going to ask, sir, and I won’t speak ill of My Lady. I’m sure she wouldn’t harm a soul.”
Leandros smiled, the expression tight. “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. “Does that have anything to do with your investigation, sir?”
“Not at all; I’m just curious,” Leandros said, trying to sound reassuring. “You don’t have to show me if you’re not comfortable.”
“I suppose it’s alright,” Lynn said, unbuttoning her sleeve at the wrists and rolling it up slightly to reveal a sprawling tattoo. She kept her palm down, just showing Leandros the outer half of the design. “I got it when I was young. It has some cultural significance in my home village, but not much meaning anywhere else.”
“It’s a very elegant design,” Leandros commented. “Did it hurt?”
Lynn smiled and shrugged. “It was so long ago I hardly remember it.”
“Well, thank you for satisfying my curiosity,” Leandros said. “And for your answers. They’ve been very helpful.”
Leaving Lynn to her work, Leandros left in search of the Councilors. It was well into the morning by this point, and he 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 on the request to the other Councilors.
But when the time came, only Zerelis and Pulakis showed.
“The others are still too distraught, you understand,” Pulakis said as he sat across from Leandros at the room’s small tea table. “Now, what is this about?”
“I’m looking into the events of last night, Councilors. I have a few questions for you, if you’d be so kind as to answer them.”
Zerelis raised an eyebrow. “Looking into?” he asked.
“Egil didn’t commit this crime,” Leandros said firmly, “Which means someone else in the house did.”
Pulakis scoffed. “This is a waste of time. Egil — if he even is really Egil — was found at the scene of the crime, standing over Councilor Miskatos’ body. Where’s your proof? Do you even have any?”
Leandros only smiled, polite as ever. He was used to being bullied by politicians and powerful people; it hardly had any effect on him anymore. “I’m in the process of gathering some.”
“Come, Pulakis, what harm can there be in answering a few questions? After nearly being the victim of an assassination myself, I would like to know if there really is another killer running about the house,” Zerelis said. As Pulakis settled back down into his seat, Zerelis motioned for Leandros to continue.
“Thank you, Councilors. Councilor Zerelis, after retiring for the evening, did you leave your room at all?”
Zerelis shook his head. “Not until I heard the maid’s scream.”
Leandros nodded. “Councilor Pulakis, where were you last evening, following dinner?”
“I wasn’t murdering my friend, if that’s what you’re implying. I thought Egil said Miskatos was poisoned, anyway. What does it matter where I was? What makes you think the killer is even still around?”
Leandros realized, now, why Devikra had lied about her vision. Aside from some charred papers and Roman and Leandros’ word, there was no proof a letter had ever existed. But the Oracle of Damael’s word held more power, so Leandros borrowed her lie. “The Oracle is here. She had a vision of someone hand-delivering the poisoned letter, and as no one has entered or left the building since the letter disappeared, it’s clear someone in the house took it.”
Zerelis looked faint; even Pulakis seemed cowed by this response.
“Now, Councilor Pulakis, please answer the question.”
Pulakis huffed. “I was playing billiards with Demapoulos and Saratea until late in the evening. We were all just about to retire when we heard the commotion.”
That was in line with what both Penelope and Lynn had told Leandros — Lynn had brought them drinks, Penelope had played a game with them and then retired around nine o’ clock that evening. But Roman and Miskatos had been found in the study just past eleven. It seemed, to Leandros, a long time to play billiards.
“Before yesterday,” he began, changing tracks entirely, “Were either of you aware of Miskatos’ relationship with the Oracle of Damael?”
“He mentioned her once or twice,” Zerelis said. “I don’t think any of us were aware the acquaintance was a serious one. I didn’t know they were so consistently in contact, at least.”
Pulakis nodded his agreement.
“Someone sneaking some fancy poison into a Councilor’s study undetected — that sounds like Enforcer work, don’t you think, Lord Nochdvor? Do you think an Enforcer is behind this?” Councilor Zerelis asked.
Leandros blinked. He’d considered it, fleetingly — but that meant there was an Enforcer presently in this house, a fact he didn’t want to think too much about. This was difficult enough with the threat of Wilhara’s second vision looming over his head — they’re coming, he kept thinking to himself. It was the only thing that spurred him on. He didn’t want to believe they were already here.
“I’m not sure,” Leandros admitted. “If it was an Enforcer, I don’t see why they’d target Miskatos and leave the rest of you. If they’re in this house, I’m sure they’ve had plenty of chances at all of you.”
Zerelis shifted in his seat. “I wouldn’t expect you to know this, Lord Nochdvor, but Miskatos was — well, he was the voice of this secession business. We’d been having disagreements with Unity for a while before he was elected, but when Miskatos came in with his grand ideas and the support of the people, things started changing in Histrios. 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, “Though I do think Miskatos got carried away with his radical ideas, now and then, but that’s politics. I was more than happy to follow Miskatos’ lead — he was a brilliant man with brilliant ideas, and the rest of us were at a loss over how to handle the escalating situation with Unity. I supported him more than the others, to be sure.”
“He didn’t give us much of a choice in the matter,” Pulakis added.
“I heard you opposed the secession, Councilor Pulakis,” Leandros said. Pulakis’ brow furrowed.
“Who told you that? Yes, I opposed it at first, but like I said, we didn’t have many other options. The others weren’t thrilled, either.”
“I suppose it’s too late to compromise with Unity,” Zerelis sighed. “I’d rather not end up like poor Miskatos.”
“Do you think you’re going to try?” Leandros asked, surprised.
Pulakis was silent, at that, watching Zerelis.
“I had been ready to fight, before, but I’m starting to think this secession has been more trouble than it’s worth,” Zerelis said with a wry smile. “Will that be all, Lord Nochdvor?”
“That will be all, Councilors. Thank you for your time.”
Pulakis stood and swept out with only a short bow as a goodbye, but Zerelis lingered in the room, leaning against a sleek walking stick. “Do keep us updated on what you find, lad. Won’t you?”
“I will,” Leandros promised.
When Zerelis had gone as well, Leandros stood, stretched, yawned. He headed back to the study, passing gloomy, rainy window after gloomy, rainy window. He thought, as he went, of his bed — of how nice a nap would be. He’d been up nearly all night.
He thought, too, of Roman and of how he was faring, and that brought back all his worries 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 the broad wooden desk. He tried not to think about the fact that a man had died in this room not twelve hours before, instead focusing on recounting what he had learned — about Lynn, about the interesting dynamic that had existed between the Councilors. In turn, Devikra recounted what she had learned.
From the gardener: the man kept to himself. He lived in the small house at the other end of the garden, and that was where he’d been the night of the murder. He cleaned the gazebo every day and had confirmed that the footprints hadn’t been there before the storm.
From the cook: the cook had served Penelope’s family since Penelope was a girl, until 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 for Troas.
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.”
“If she’s so close with her father, it could be she’s doing 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 central railway station in Histrios,” Leandros said. He was pacing back and forth on the faded rug, now, hands clasped behind his back. “She’d be able to visit her family anytime.”
“So she killed her husband? Come on, Leandros. By all accounts, she loved him,” Devikra said, watching Leandros closely. “It’s not like you to jump to conclusions like this. “What’s going on?”
Leandros groaned and rubbed his eyes. “I’d rather Penelope was behind this than an Enforcer.”
“You’re worried about Egil,” Devikra guessed.
“You said more of them were coming — what if they arrive before I can solve this? They’d kill Roman on the spot.”
Devikra rose and took Leandros’ hands in her own, giving them a gentle squeeze. “Leandros, dear, you need to take a deep breath. We have time. Wil’s vision didn’t tell me much, but I know that it won’t be raining when the Enforcers arrive. Now look out that window — do you think that storm is letting up anytime soon?”
Leandros glanced out the window, then shook his head. “You hadn’t mentioned that detail before.”
“Because I didn’t think it made a difference. It’s still in our best interests if we solve this and get out of here as quickly as possible. But here, you can see for yourself.” Devikra reached into a pocket hidden in the folds of her skirt and pulling out a folded parchment. She handed it to Leandros.
“You brought the vision with you?”
“I thought it might be useful.”
“Thank you, Dev,” Leandros said.
Devikra smiled and patted his head fondly. “Now, no more fretting. Let’s go over what we have so far. We’re close, I can just tell.”
Leandros nodded, then counted on his fingers as he listed off the facts. “Someone left the letter in the morning, then returned after our arrival to burn it. Miskatos breathed in the poison, and it took effect several hours later, when he was standing at the window. The expression on his face indicates he must have seen something terrifying in the garden — the footprints we saw lead me to believe something was happening in the gazebo. But whether that was related to the murder, I don’t know.”
Devikra nodded for him to continue.
“They all have believable enough alibis. Penelope was with others until she retired for the evening, the maid was turning over guest rooms, the gardener was nowhere near the house, the Councilors…ah.”
“Ah,” Devikra repeated.
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 starting to come together, though there are a few big 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. Was it possible the maid hadn’t known?
“I loved my husband, Lord Nochdvor, and I 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 well before the secession. I chose to stand at Nikolas’ side, not theirs.”
Leandros considered her a moment. It may have been a frivolous fancy, but he believed he could recognize the look of one who’s ashamed of their family, by now. He knew the look well. “I believe you.”
“Thank you,” Penelope said.
“You said you were looking for us?” Devikra asked.
“Oh! Yes, I came to tell you 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. You’ve been so generous through this and I thank you, 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.”
“They were quite insistent, Lord Nochdvor…”
“I’ll go down with you,” Devikra told Penelope. “I’ll speak to them and stall while Leandros talks to Egil. I’m sure I could answer their questions almost as well as Leandros could, at this point.”
Penelope considered them a moment, then nodded. “Yes, alright. I can do some stalling, too.”
“One more question,” Devikra said.
Lynn, Penelope, and Leandros all looked at her, curious.
“Where is the game room?”
Penelope laughed, surprised at the question. “Fancy a game of billiards, Lady Oracle? It’s down on the ground floor, near the drawing room. You should even be able to see it from the window — a set of glass patio doors connect it to the garden.”
Devikra and Leandros shared a look, Lynn glancing between them, curious.
“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 his new discovery on the way to Roman’s room. He understood what it meant, but he didn’t see how it helped him in the greater picture. He solved — or at least, partially solved — the mystery of the garden meeting, but what about the murder?
Then, as they were walking, Leandros happened to glance down and notice something strange. Lynn’s shoes — small, markedly delicate — were caked with mud.
He was so engrossed with staring that when Lynn stopped, he nearly tripped over her.
“Terribly sorry,” her murmured. Lynn ducked her head when she noticed him staring and relayed Penelope’s message to the guard before hurrying away. Leandros stared after her until the guard cleared his throat.
“Go on, then,” the man muttered.
Leandros thanked him and slipped inside where, to his suprise, he found Roman asleep. He was so startled by the sight that all thoughts of the maid flew from his mind. He’d seen Roman asleep before, of course, but it was a rare sight. Roman was always early to rise and late to fall asleep, so much so it was almost inhuman. He also woke at the slightest sound, so it didn’t come as a shock to Leandros when he stirred and opened his eyes.
“Roman,” Leandros said softly, approaching the bed.
Roman stretched leisurely before sitting up. “Hey, Leandros,” he said with a sleepy smile. “Any progress?”
“More than I know what to do with,” Leandros confessed, sitting at the edge of the bed. “Though I think I just discovered the missing piece.”
Roman raised an eyebrow. “Tell me.”
“Several people met in the gazebo last night. Devikra and I found muddy footprints that the gardener confirmed hadn’t been there before the storm.”
“I must have just missed them.”
Leandros nodded. “Dev and I thought so, too. As it turns out, the game room — where three of the Councilors claimed to have been playing billiards all night — is directly connected to the garden, just off a path in the opposite direction than the one you came from.”
“You think they slipped away for a clandestine meeting?” Roman asked. “Miskatos’ expression would make some sense, I guess — seeing your colleagues meeting without you under a gazebo at night would be cause for some concern. But why wouldn’t they have just talked in the game room?”
“They were meeting a fourth person,” Leandros said. “I didn’t know who until just a moment ago, when I noticed the maid’s shoes were caked in mud. It makes sense: she’s only been in Miskatos’ employ for a month. She’s not from here originally — Heartfell is a marionite city, isn’t it? It’s possible she knew of the poison because she’s from there. She — Roman, are you alright?”
Roman had gone pale, his eyes wide. “What arm was that tattoo of hers on?”
Leandros frowned. “The left.”
“I was afraid you’d say that,” Roman said. “It’s a fake, Leandros.”
Roman nodded. “I’ve seen the trick before. As long as you don’t look too closely, it’s perfect camouflage for a scar…or a brand.”
Leandros’ breath caught. “You think she’s an Enforcer.”
“I know she is. I’m an idiot for not seeing it sooner. Leandros, I — I think I know her. Her name is Bellona.”
“It’s alright, Roman,” Leandros said, not liking the look on his friend’s face at all. It was pain, it was fear, and it was regret, and Leandros hated to see Roman hurting. “She doesn’t know we know, and she hasn’t made any moves yet. We’ll just…we’ll just break out of here, run. It won’t be hard to overcome the single guard, right?”
“Yes,” Roman said, breath coming more heavily than usual. When Leandros took his hand, Roman gripped it tight. “You’re right. But what about the other Enforcers? Dev saw more of them, didn’t she?”
“Oh!” Leandros said, remembering the parchment he’d hastily stuffed into his pocket. He pulled it out and showed Roman. “Devikra gave me the vision. She said the other Enforcers don’t arrive until after the rain stops, so we have time.”
“Leandros,” Roman said, quietly.
“What?” Leandros asked. When Roman stayed silent, Leandros noticed the even heavier silence that hung around them. He distinctly remembered being able to hear the rain on the roof when he’d visited the night before. Now, there was silence.
It had stopped raining.
Leandros swore. “Alright, new plan. They may already be here, so I’ll — I’ll go distract them. As soon as I’m gone, you knock out the guard and get as far away from here as possible. Dev and I will meet you outside the city gates, on the road we came in from.”
“I can’t let you do that,” Roman said, dark eyes wide.
“It’s not me they’re dying to get their hands on, Roman.”
“You ridiculous creature,” Leandros said, cupping Roman’s face in his hands. It got Roman to fall silent, his eyes growing impossibly wider. “I love you, don’t you understand that by now? I would do anything to keep you from getting hurt.”
Leandros released Roman, who only stared in shock.
Leandros tried not to be hurt by his silence. It wasn’t the time. “Tell me you’ll run as soon as I leave this room,” he said firmly.
“I will,” Roman promised.
“Good. I’ll see you soon, alright?” Leandros asked.
“Alright,” Roman agreed.
Leandros nodded and hurried to the door, glancing back at Roman one last time before the guard shut the door.
Roman waited some long moments after Leandros left the room, the only sound in the room the beating of his own heart. He missed the sound of the rain, if its silence really meant that more Enforcers were coming.
It had been a long time since he’d escaped Unity and the Enforcers had been after him all that time. He’d had some close calls before, but none so close as this. To think that young maid was Bellona…it had been so long since he’d seen her, and she’d been so young, then. Still, he could kick himself for not recognizing her immediately.
He shook himself; wallowing in old guilt wasn’t going to help him now. He knocked lightly on the door, calling out, “Guard? I don’t suppose you’d mind escorting me to the bathroom? Or am I supposed to stay shut up in here indefinitely?”
As soon as the door opened, Roman sprang into action. He surged forward, into the door, throwing off the balance of the guard on the other side. When the guard righted himself, Roman stepped forward, shifted his weight, and caught the guard with an elbow to the neck.
The guard collapsed.
Roman rose, turned to leave, and 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, not that he saw her head on. Those pale brown eyes — last time he saw them, they were full of fear.
“Bellona,” he said, holding his hands up in surrender.
Bellona cocked the gun. “Don’t say a word,” she said, pulling off the maid’s bonnet with her free hand. Her long red hair fell loose around her shoulders, making her look much more like the little girl Roman had trained back on Unity Island. “Just come with me.”
Faced with a loaded gun — one held in the hand of someone who knew his every trick and tactic, no less — he had no choice but to do as she said.