Leandros glanced back at Roman’s door as he walked away, an uneasy feeling settling in his chest. The guard nodded congenially, unaware of anything amiss, and Leandros managed to smile back before remembering his purpose and running to find Penelope and Devikra. He hoped Lynn wasn’t with them.
He also hoped, of course, that they weren’t too late. That he’d be able to explain the situation to Penelope and they’d still be able to slip away before the Enforcers found them. Still, he arrived at the study fearing the worst, relaxing when he realized the only stranger in the room was a stout man in a constable’s uniform.
He must have been a sight, though — out of breath, suit ruffled, cheeks flushed. It would explain the way Penelop stood so abruptly upon seeing him, surprise plain on her face.
“Lord Nochdvor!” she cried. “What’s wrong?”
“I know what happened last night,” Leandros told them.
The constable looked up from his pen and pad and Zerelis, who stood at the fireplace, finally turned to regard Leandros with open surprise. Devikra, of the four people in the room, had the strangest reaction: she laughed. “It’s about time.”
“Do tell us, 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. But I suppose the chemical test will tell the truth of that bit, at least.”
“Lady Miskatos,” Leandros said, “You have an Enforcer under your employ.”
Penelope went pale and fell right back into her seat. “Explain yourself.”
Behind her, even Devikra looked surprised. “Please do, Leandros. I’d like to hear this as well.”
“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 crossed to the chair across from Penelope and sat, his back now to the doorway. “I will,” he assured her. “I’m not sure where to start, though.”
“I’ll try to be patient, then,” Penelope assured him. “As long as you promise you’ll explain.”
“Yes, but we don’t have time,” Leandros told her, running a hand through his hair nervously. “Roman had useful information about the poison that ended up being crucial: it’s a paralytic. Your husband’s expression, Lady Miskatos— he saw something in the garden that night. Something that terrified him. At first, Devikra and I were unsure of 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 they hoped to pass it off as a natural death, especially since no one would have immediate reason to suspect foul play. We know this person was familiar with Miskatos’ mail schedule, so much so that they knew he and Devikra were in frequent correspondence.”
“And so you think Lynn did it?” Penelope asked.
“Yes. I think she’s an Enforcer. When I spoke to Roman just now, he said he knew her from his time with Unity — it’s evident know that she knows him as well. When Roman and I arrived in Histrios, she panicked. She knew that since Egil is close with the Oracle, he would recognize the letter wasn’t from Devikra. So she came back and burned the letter as soon as she was able, hoping we hadn’t seen it. That couldn’t have been the Councilors, who were playing billiards with you at the time, Lady Miskatos. It couldn’t have been Zerelis, or the gardener, or the cook, who’d 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 last assassination attempt was done to try to prevent the secession,” Leandros said, answering Penelope’s question. “Now that it’s happened, they wouldn’t try again without reason. There’s no point — not when it might only provoke the survivors into doubling down and standing fast. No, Lynn’s role here is more than that of an assassin. She’s been working with the Councilors, slowly winning them back over to Unity’s side.”
“Preposterous!” Zerelis said. “If she’d come to me, I would have said something.”
“Which is why she waited to come to you until she had the others on her side, Councilor Zerelis,” Leandros said.
“The others would never turn against Nikolas like that,” Penelope said, her hands gripping the arms of her chair so tightly that her knuckles turned white.
“No? When I spoke with them earlier, it sounded like Pulakis and the others were wary of the secession from the start. They were only following your husband’s lead, Lady Miskatos. Even Zerelis was beginning to change his position, isn’t that right, Councilor?”
Zerelis balked under the look Penelope turned on him. “Well…”
“That brings me back to Lynn,” Leandros said, rescuing him. “Still worried about Egil’s arrival after burning the letter, she called a meeting with the Councilors under the guise of bringing them drinks in the billiards room. She called them somewhere secluded, somewhere Egil wouldn’t stumble across them.”
“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 very distinct tracks. The other three came from the billiards room. She told them about the poison and the letter, warned them about Egil, but something went wrong — Miskatos had seen them from his study window.”
Penelope gasped, quickly covering her mouth with his hand.
“It was betrayal that put that twisted expression on his face,” Leandros said.
“So what then?” Penelope whispered.
“Lynn went upstairs to finish the job before your husband could tell anyone — only, she didn’t expect Egil to have arrived before her, nor did she expect that moment in the window to be the exact one her poison took effect. When she entered the study last night and saw the scene before her, she saw a new opportunity and she took it, framing him for the 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 muttered darkly. “Of course, Lynn wouldn’t believe a single guard could hold Egil long, not if he wanted to run, so she called for immediate backup. I believe they can’t be 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?”
Leandros turned to see a stranger in a rich suit enter the room. His heart sank to his shoes, then all the way through the floor the floor when he saw the entourage flooding in behind the man. They were too late.
“That was a great deal of conjecture, Lord Nochdvor,” the man said.
“There was little conjecture involved, actually,” Leandros said, surprised when his voice didn’t shake. “Representative Metaxas, was it?”
“Metaxas is one of the Chameus province’s Unity Representatives,” Penelope explained. She turned a cold look on the man. “I don’t understand what he’s doing in my home, though. I certainly didn’t invite him.”
“Such a dispassionate welcome, Penelope. Is that how your father raised you?”
The others spread throughout the room, unwittingly taking the exact positions Wilhara had drawn them in. The Councilors joined Zerelis around the fireplace. Two armed strangers, too cold and hardened to belong to the local police force, took their places on either side of Metaxas.
Leandros could have sworn Devikra hadn’t been in the original drawing, though.
“I came when I heard the news of your husband’s passing,” Metaxas told Penelope, his ingratiating tone making Leandros grit his teeth. “I’m terribly sorry for your loss.”
“Nikolas’ body isn’t even cold yet,” Penelope snapped. “Tell me, Metaxas, did you only hear about his death, or did you order it?”
To his credit, Metaxas’ smile didn’t even waver. “The former, of course. Don’t be ridiculous, Penelope. I’ve known you since you were a little girl; you know I would never wish harm upon anyone in your family.”
“Look me in the eyes and swear you had nothing to do with Nikolas’ death and I might believe you.”
“I would like to hear this as well,” Zerelis said, scowling at Metaxas and the other Councilors. “You three — you’ve been going behind my back, have you? Speaking to Unity spies?”
“Councilor Zerelis, don’t tell me you’ve fallen for Lord Nochdvor’s theories, too,” Metaxas chided. “He’s a foreign lordling playing at being a detective — what business does he even have, meddling in Histrios’ affairs?”
Leandros met Metaxas’ gaze calmly. He was willing to let the insult slide, but Devikra surprised him by speaking up.
“An insult to my agent is an insult to me,” she snapped. Her voice lashed like a whip, the poor, confused constable beside her flinching away from it. “Nikolas Miskatos was a personal friend of mine, and I was involved in this investigation as well. Will you tell me I have no business here?”
“Lady Oracle,” Metaxas said, surprised. His smarmy smile fell for the first time since he’d walked through the door. “Of course not. I didn’t expect to meet you here, of all places. It’s an honor.”
Devikra’s expression made it clear she disagreed. “As I understand it, you have less of a right to be here than we do, even,” she continued. “Unless the political situation in Histrios has changed so soon after Miskatos’ death.”
“The world moves on, I’m afraid,” Metaxas said. “Histrios is in the process of changing as we speak.”
Leandros was glad Roman would already be long gone, by now. He disliked the greed and the knowing gleam of Metaxas’ smile, didn’t want to know see the plans that churned behind this man’s eyes. But at that moment, Leandros realized someone was missing from the room. “Where’s Lynn?” he asked.
Metaxas smiled, a slow, wicked thing. “Busy,” he said, dropping the deferential tone he’d used for Penelope and Devikra. Leandros felt ill. He glanced toward the door; as if reading his mind, one of the Enforcers took a side step, perfectly blocking Leandros’ path.
“So it’s true. She does work for you,” Penelope said. She rose with a rustle of heavy skirts and jabbed an accusing finger at the Councilors. “Which means you betrayed Nikolas! How could you? He trusted you!”
“Penelope, please understand,” Councilor Pulakis said. “Lord Nochdvor’s explanation was correct on all points but one: we had no idea the girl planned to kill Nikolas. Of course we wouldn’t have worked with her if we’d known. You must believe us.”
“Why should I?” Penelope asked. There was a wildness to her eyes, that of a doe caught in a trap while hunters closed in around her. Leandros knew how she felt.
“Lynn told us the plan was to win over Zerelis next, then speak with Nikolas once the rest of us were united,” Councilor Saratea explained. “We just wanted to end this secession. It won’t be good for Histrios. You must see that, Penelope. It’ll be Histrios’ ruin.”
“It’s a good thing you realized it before it was too late. Now there’s the matter of Histrios’ punishment to discuss, but I’m glad you’re beginning to see sense again,” Metaxas said. Behind him, one of the Enforcers shifted, rested his hand on the hilt of his sword, and Zerelis flinched.
“Damn you,” Penelope spat with a vehemence that surprised Leandros. In hindsight, he felt guilty for ever suspecting her of killing her husband. “Nikolas was right. Unity is a plague. One day, all the wold will follow this path that Histrios made and you will have finally gotten what you deserve. I only hope I live to see it.”
The Representative only smiled. “Others may try, Lady Miskatos, but Unity will be there to set them on the correct path again. That starts by making a lesson out of Histrios.” Metaxas turned from Penelope dismissively to address the Councilors. “The fact of the matter is, Histrios has done a foolish thing. As Councilor Saratea said, your little secession is unsustainable, especially now that poor Miskatos is dead. And frankly, Unity isn’t feeling particularly forgiving after this folly.”
“Representative Metaxas, please. Surely we can—,” Pulakis started, only to be interrupted.
“We can what, Councilor? Move past this? Forgive and forget? The solution won’t be so simple.”
“What do you want, Representative? Do you want us to grovel? We’d like to move past this as much as Unity would,” Councilor Zerelis said quietly, “As that seems to be our only choice.”
Leandros felt helpless. How quickly a situation could change. Much as he wished it wasn’t so, he knew there was nothing he could do for Histrios, now. He could only hope to leave this play without bringing Unity’s wrath down on himself and Devikra — and then, if all went well, meet up with Roman outside the city.
“I would have to consult with my fellow Representatives to devise a suitable punishment,” Metaxas said, tapping his chin in thought. “There is still another matter to discuss. You currently have Unity’s most wanted enemy in your custody.”
“He goes free,” Devikra said without missing a beat. “We all know he’s not the killer, Metaxas. You are.”
“That’s not true — Bellona is,” Metaxas said easily. “But that’s beside the point, isn’t it? He’s not your prisoner, Oracle. You don’t get to decide what they do with him.”
“He’s not yours, either,” Devikra countered.
Metaxas held his hands up, palms out, in a placating gesture. “I never said he was. It’s up to the Councilors to decide what to do with him.”
Leandros knew this would go badly before any of the Councilors even spoke.
“And if we give him to you?” Pulakis asked.
Metaxas smiled. “Egil has many past crimes to account for, even if he wasn’t directly involved in Nikolas Miskatos’ death. We would be very grateful if you transfered him into our custody. I dare say we would feel more charitable toward Histrios when the time comes to pass judgment.”
“And what of Lynn – or Bellona, or whatever her name is?” Zerelis asked, a deep frown settling over his lined face. “Will she answer for her crimes?”
Metaxas waved him off. “You already have someone in custody. As I mentioned, Egil has killed many people. He’s a dangerous man — so much so that I believe the only proper method of dealing with him is immediate execution. It would be a small matter to pin this final crime on him and wash our hands of this matter altogether.”
“You’re a monster,” Penelope said.
“Stand down, Metaxas,” Devikra snarled. The dwindling fire in the fireplace flared at the same moment, nearly singeing Saratea’s gown. “You don’t want to make an enemy of me.”
“No,” Metaxas admitted, “But I’d rather make an enemy of you and have him in my grasp than let him escape again.”
“Please, Councilors, this is madness,” Penelope begged when none of the Councilors immediately spoke up. “The woman who killed my husband — your friend — is somewhere in this house; you can’t in good conscience put this on an innocent man instead!”
“We don’t have much of a choice, Penelope,” Zerelis sighed. “It’s one man or a whole city. Demapoulos, go tell the guard to bring Egil here.”
“There’s no need,” Metaxas said. “I hope you don’t mind me taking the liberty, but I anticipated your answer and sent Bellona and one of her peers to fetch him.”
Leandros rose so abruptly that his chair fell behind him, hitting the rug with a muted thud. In a moment, he’d passed mere worry into absolute fury. He started toward the representative, his only thought to shut this man up, but Devikra caught his arm and held him back, her strength surprising.
Metaxas watched the interaction with a smirk. “Unity thanks you all for your cooperation. Erce, Vella, make sure no one leaves this room — the rest of you can say your goodbyes to Egil from the window. Considering your connections, Lord Nochdvor, my Enforcers won’t hurt you, but I encourage you not to do anything rash. That goes for you as well, Penelope.”
Penelope and Leandros fixed matching glares on the Representative. One Metaxas’ way out, he paused and murmured to one of the Enforcers, “Take care of the constable when we’re done here. He’s heard too much.”
Devikra continued to hold Leandros’ arm while Metaxas left and the Enforcers took up position by the door. They watched Leandros warily, hands on their swords.
“I don’t understand a thing that just happened,” the constable said, interrupting the tense silence that had fallen on the room.
Leandros rushed to the window, shoving the constable aside in the process. He threw aside the curtain and what he saw in the gazebo made his stomach drop. A woman with flaming hair pushed Roman to his knees, keeping her gun aimed at his head the entire time. Another Enforcer stood by, watching the proceedings.
“Dev, they’re going to kill him,” Leandros said desperately. “What do we do?”
When he received no answer, he turned from the window to seek out his friend — but where there were ten people in the room before, now there were only nine. “Where did Devikra go?” Leandros asked.
The others looked around. “Did she leave with the Representative?” the constable suggested.
The Enforcers shared a look, as confused as the rest of the group. One of them shook her head.
If Devikra was on her way to help Roman, Leandros wouldn’t be left behind. “No matter,” he said, rolling up his sleeves. “Lady Miskatos, I’m going to have to ask you to stay out of the way.”
It took Penelope a moment to understand, but then she retreated to the fireplace in a flurry of skirts. Leandros launched into motion, then, grabbing a heavy book off Miskatos’ desk and hurling it at the Enforcers. It distracted one, but the other, not as well as he would have hoped — when he dashed for the door, she recovered quickly and drew her sword, making him dodge last-minute.
“Leandros!” Penelope called. She grabbed something from near the fire and tossed it to him; when he caught it, the cold iron bit into his hand. He brandished the fire poker like a sword. It wouldn’t do in a proper fight against two Enforcers, but Leandros’ only thought was to get past them. Devikra or Roman would come up with a plan; he need only catch up with them.
When the Enforcers saw him approaching with a weapon of his own, they went on the offensive. The room wasn’t big enough for a full fight — the Enforcers had nowhere to move while Leandros had the whole room at his back. Still, whatever advantage that gave him was offset by the fact that he wielded a fire poker.
He dodged, danced around the Enforcers, employed every trick and technique Roman had taught him in their years together. Roman had always known that the Enforcers would catch up with him eventually, so before agreeing to let Leandros travel with him, he’d prepared Leandros for this exact eventuality.
He couldn’t get an opening, though. He considered even letting one of them land a hit, if it meant he’d have a chance to slip past them, but that choice could be fatal. Behind him, he was distantly aware of the sound of a scuffle, and the constable letting out a surprised shout.
He didn’t have time to pay it any attention. The Enforcers were pressing him back, guiding him into a corner.
But then, something shocking happened. Leandros didn’t even see her sneak up behind the Enforcer, but suddenly Penelope was there, swinging the constable’s heavy bludgeon right at the closest Enforcer’s back.
The woman fell forward and cried out in pain, her sword falling from her grasp.
“Erce!” the other said, whirling to take stock of this new attacker.
“Go, Leandros!” Penelope yelled.
Leandros seized his chance. He darted between Erce and the other Enforcer, ignoring their calls for him to stop. He heard one follow him out the door, but he didn’t stop, didn’t slow. Through halls, down stairs — Leandros made it to the front doors in a matter of mere seconds, but it felt like a lifetime. His heart beat loudly in his ears, and he feared it would stop entirely if he arrived too late.
He had to save Roman.
The Enforcer was close behind him, now. He threw open the door and launched himself out through it, into the sunlight. His gaze fell immediately on Roman, across the garden. Roman looked his way at the sudden sound, resigned expression changing to one of horror. He opened his mouth to call out, tell Leandros to stop, go back, but that was the exact moment Lynn fired.
“No!” The cry tore from Leandros’ throat with a flash of pain, his voice breaking from the strain.
Roman collapsed onto the stainless marble of the gazebo, a pool of blood spreading from where he lay.
Fury coursed through Leandros like he’d never known, his entire world narrowing to the gazebo ahead of him. He lashed out at the closest person, which turned out to be Representative Metaxas. He launched himself at the tall man and tackled him to the ground, coming at him with fist and nail. He was distantly aware of a crowd around him, of strong hands trying to pull him off the Representative.
Eventually, they succeeded, two Enforcers securing his arms even as he struggled to break free. The redheaded woman — Lynn, Bellona, whatever she called herself — helped Metaxas to his feet. The man was in bad shape, now, his expensive suit ruined and his face covered in blood, dirt, scratches.
Leandros looked back at the gazebo. What he saw made the fight drain out of him at once — a bloody red stain still marked the pristine white of the marble floor, but other than that, the gazebo was empty.
Seeing Leandros’ unusual reaction, the others followed his gaze.
“Where the hell did he go?” Metaxas shouted. He spat out a tooth, which seemed to infuriate him even more. “Bellona, where did he go?”
Bellona gaped at the stain on the gazebo. “I don’t know. I shot him right through the heart. I checked his pulse just now — there was nothing.” She looked around, glaring at the shrubs as if they might be hiding Roman. “Where is that woman?” she asked. “The Oracle? She must have taken him while we were distracted. I give you my word, Representative, he was dead.”
Leandros felt numb.
“For your sake, I hope you’re right,” Metaxas snarled, angrily brushing dirt and grass off his suit. “Take Nochdvor inside. We’ll deal with him shortly.”
In the darkened halls of a secluded estate, a laden figure stepped out from shadows, appearing as if out of thin air. Living flame flickered across her skin, casting an eerie glow across the face of the limp figure in her arms. On her back were two elegantly draped translucent wings, each giving off a strange glow of their own. When she folded them behind her, they disappeared.
She knelt, lowering the young man she carried to the floor, and set him down.
“There, now,” the woman said, her voice soft with a motherly affection. She held two fingers to his neck, frowning when she felt no pulse.
The man on the ground lay perfectly still.
Tentatively, the woman unbuttoned the first few buttons of his shirt, revealing a ghastly wound. The woman waited, watching the wound intently, unblinkingly. It took several minutes — minutes of total silence — before anything happened.
But then, the wound began to heal itself, the body spitting out a bullet as the flesh stitched itself back together.
“Oh, Roman,” the woman sighed. “I thought this might happen.”
She leaned down, her lips nearly touching his cheek when she breathed, in a voice as old as time, “Wake up.”
A/N: That’s the end of our little murder mystery! 🙂 I’d love to hear your thoughts – were you expecting that ending?