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 tracking to something behind Leandros. “Representative Metaxas,” she gasped.
Leandros turned in time to see a stranger in a rich suit enter the room. “That was a great deal of conjecture — Lord Nochdvor, was it?” the man said.
“Representative?” Leandros asked, throat dry. His heart sank to his shoes, then down through the floor completely when he saw the entourage coming in behind the man.
Leandros was too late.
The three Councilors shuffled in behind the man, all looking unusually subdued. Behind them were two more strangers; both were armed, but it was clear neither were local police. The newcomers spread out throughout the room, unwittingly creating an exact reproduction of Wilhara’s vision.
Leandros could have sworn Devikra hadn’t been in the original drawing, though.
“Metaxas is one of Chamaeus’ Unity Representatives,” Penelope explained to Leandros. She turned a cold look on the Representative. “I’m not clear what he’s doing in my home, though.”
“I was in town and heard about your husband’s passing, Lady Miskatos,” Metaxas said with a welcoming bow. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
Penelope spat at his feet. “Heard from whom? The news hasn’t been announced yet. Promise me you weren’t the cause of his death, Metaxas, and I might believe you mean what you say.”
“I would like to hear this as well,” Zerelis said, scowling at Metaxas and the other Councilors.
“Councilor Zerelis, don’t tell me you believe this man’s theories,” Metaxas said. “He’s a southern lordling playing at being a detective — he knows nothing. What business does he have anyway, sticking his nose into Histrios’ affairs?”
“Representative Metaxas,” Devikra said, her voice hard. It seemed to lash out like a whip, then to echo in the crowded room. It surprised Leandros; he’d never heard Devikra speak like that before. “An insult to my agent is an insult to me. 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?”
Representative Metaxas started when he first noticed Devikra, his smarmy smile falling for the first time since he’d walked into the room. “If it isn’t the Oracle of Damael herself,” he breathed. “It’s an honor.”
The expression on Devikra’s face made it clear she didn’t agree.
“Representative Metaxas, where’s Lynn?” Leandros asked, realizing the false maid hadn’t come in with the rest of the group.
“Busy,” Representative Metaxas said, dropping the deferential tone he’d used on Devikra.
“So it’s true. You had her do this — you killed my husband!” Penelope yelled, then rising and pointing an accusing finger at the Councilors. “And you! You betrayed him! How could you do this?”
“Penelope, please understand,” Councilor Pulakis said. “Lord Nochdvor’s summary was right on all counts but one: we had no idea Lynn planned to kill Nikolas. We couldn’t have known, and I promise you we wouldn’t have kept quiet if we had. You have to believe us.”
“I don’t have to do anything,” Penelope snapped.
“She told us the plan was to convince him, the same way she’d convinced us,” Councilor Saratea said. “We just wanted to end this secession. It won’t be good for Histrios. It can’t be, in the long run.”
“That’s quite enough, Councilors,” Metaxas said. Behind him, one of the armed strangers shifted, rested his hand on the hilt of his sword, and Saratea flinched. Metaxas pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. “I wish you would have left well enough alone, Lord Nochdvor. Lady Miskatos, it’s it’s true that we…intervened in affairs here, but I would argue that your husband himself was the cause of it. This secession was foolish and dangerous, my Lady. Surely, you must see that.”
“Damn you,” Penelope spat with a vehemence that surprised Leandros. He felt guilty for ever suspecting her. “My husband was right — Unity is a plague. One day, the world will follow the path Histrios made and you will have finally gotten what you all deserve. I hope I live to see it.”
The Representative only smiled at this. “Others may try, Lady Miskatos, but Unity will always be here to set them on the correct path again.” He turned politely away from her, then addressing the room. “The fact of the matter is: Histrios has done a foolish thing by spurning Unity. It’s unsustainable, especially now that poor Councilor Miskatos is dead, and Unity isn’t feeling very forgiving after this folly.”
“Representative Metaxas, please. Surely we can—,” Zerelis started, but Metaxas interrupted him.
“We can what, Councilor? Forgive and forget? Move past this? The solution won’t be so simple.”
“What do you suggest we do, Representative? Grovel?” Councilor Pulakis asked, quiet.
“Oh, I would have to consult with my fellow Representatives to devise a remedy,” Metaxas said, tapping his chin in thought. “There is still another matter we must discuss. You currently have Unity’s most dangerous enemy in your custody.”
“Don’t you dare,” Devikra said. “He goes free. You yourself admitted he wasn’t the killer.”
“He’s not your prisoner, Oracle,” Metaxas said. “You don’t get to decide what to do with him.”
“He’s not yours, either,” Leandros countered.
“I never said he was — it’s up to the Councilors to decide what to do with him. I will say, however, that Unity might feel more forgiving toward Histrios if we were to receive something in exchange.”
Leandros jumped to his feet. At the same time, across the room, one of the Enforcers stepped forward, his hand on his sword.
“What are you suggesting, Metaxas?” Zerelis asked, a deep frown settling on his features.
“I’m suggesting that you publicly denounce Egil as the killer and turn him over to Unity for suitable punishment,” Metaxas said, easily.
“Stand down, Metaxas,” Devikra snarled. The fire in the fireplace flared at the same moment; Leandros frowned sidelong at it, but no one else seemed to notice.
“No,” Metaxas admitted, “But I’d rather make an enemy of you and have him than let him slip through out fingers again.”
“Please, Councilors, this is madness,” Penelope said, when none of the Councilors immediately spoke up. “The woman who killed my husband is somewhere in this house, still; you can’t honestly consider putting this on an innocent man instead?”
“We don’t have much of a choice, Penelope,” Zerelis sighed. “It’s one man or the whole city.”
“If it makes you feel better, Lady Miskatos, Egil is far from innocent,” Metaxas said. “He may not have killed your husband, but he’s killed hundreds in his time. He’s a dangerous man — so much so that I believe the only proper method of dealing with him is immediate execution.”
Leandros snarled and took a threatening step toward the Representative, but Devikra caught his arm and held her back. When he looked at her, she shook her head.
“Do we have your permission, then, Councilors?” Metaxas asked, wandering over to the window and pulling the curtain aside. “Good, because it looks like Bellona is ready. Unity thanks you for your cooperation.” He snapped the curtain shut. “Erce, Vella, make sure no one leaves this room. Considering your family, Lord Nochdvor, my Enforcers won’t hurt you, but I encourage you not to do anything rash. Councilors, come with me.”
Devikra continued to hold Leandros while Metaxas and the four Councilors left the room. The two Enforcers took up position by the door, watching Leandros warily.
“I don’t understand anything that just happened,” the constable said.
Leandros glared at him and hurried to the window, throwing aside the curtain. What he saw under the gazebo made his stomach drop. Roman, kneeling, hands tied behind his back and a woman with red hair standing over him, a gun aimed at his heart. There was another Enforcer as well, standing by and watching the proceedings.
“Dev, they’re going to kill him,” he said, desperate. “What do we do?”
When he got no answer, he turned — where there were six people in the room only moments ago, now there were five. “Where did Devikra go?” Leandros asked.
Penelope blinked and looked around. “Did she go out with the Councilors?”
The Enforcers frowned, both looking just as confused as Leandros. One looked at the other questioningly; the second shook his head.
“No matter,” Leandros said. “Lady Miskatos, I’m going to have to ask you to stay out of the way.”
It took Penelope a second to understand, but then she gathered up her skirts and retreated to the fireplace. Leandros picked up a heavy book off Miskatos’ death and hurled it at the Enforcers. It distracted one, but the other saw it coming — she dodged the book and drew her sword, holding it up in a defensive stance.
“Leandros!” Penelope called. She grabbed something near the fireplace and tossed it to Leandros — a long iron fire poker. It wouldn’t do for a long fight against an Enforcer wielding a sword, but Leandros’ only thought was to make it past them. He didn’t even stop to consider what he’d do after.
As soon as the Enforcers saw him approaching with a weapon of his own, they went on the offensive. The room wasn’t big enough for an elaborate fight — the Enforcers had nowhere to move while Leandros had the whole room at his back. Still, he wielded only a fire poker. He dodged, danced around the Enforcers, employed every trick and technique Roman had taught him in their years traveling together, and he still couldn’t get an opening. He considered even letting one of them land a hit, if it meant he’d have a chance to slip past them, but that could be fatal.
Behind him, he heard Penelope say, “Enough of this!” There was the sound of a scuffle, the constable shouted, and then there was a boom.
One of the Enforcers cried out and dropped to one knee, clapping a hand over the now-bleeding gunshot wound.
“That was for my husband!” Penelope yelled, still holding the constable’s pistol. “Go, Leandros!”
“Erce!” the other Enforcer cried out.
Leandros seized his chance. He dashed past Erce and the other Enforcer, hearing and ignoring their calls for him to stop. He heard one follow, but he didn’t look back. Through halls, down stairs — Leandros made it to the house’s front entrance 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 was too late.
He had to save Roman.
The Enforcer was close behind him.
He threw open the front door and launched himself out through it. His gaze fell immediately on Roman, across the garden. Roman looked his way, eyes widening in surprise when he saw Leandros. He opened his mouth to call out, but that was the exact moment Lynn fired.
Fury coursing through him like he’d never known, Leandros lashed out at the closest person to him, which turned out to be Representative Metaxas. He abruptly changed course and tackled the tall man to the ground, coming at him with fist and nail. He was distantly aware of a crowd around him, of people trying to pull him off the Representative.
Eventually, they succeeded, two Enforcers securing his arms even as he tried lashing out at him. Councilors Saratea and Pulakis helped Metaxas to his feet — the man was in bad shape, now ruffled and covered in blood, dirt, and scratches.
“That’s enough, Lord Nochdvor!” Zerelis snapped. “Your really must stop this!”
Leandros looked back at the gazebo, desperately hoping the last few minutes had been a dream. What he saw made the fight drain out of him at once — a bloody red stain marked the pristine white of the marble floor, but other than that, the gazebo was empty.
Seeing Leandros’ unusual reaction, the others looked that way as well.
“Where the hell did he go?” Metaxas shouted, turning red in the face. “Bellona, where did he go?”
The red-haired marionite woman gaped at the stain on the gazebo. “I— I don’t know. I shot him right through the heart, Representative. I checked his pulse just now — there was nothing.” She looked around, glaring at the shrubs as if they might be hiding Roman. “Where’s that woman? The oracle? She must have taken him while we were distracted. I give you my word, 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 somewhere dry.”
In the darkened halls of a grand estate in Damael, a laden figure stepped out of 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 draping, translucent wings, each giving off a strange glow of their own. When she folded them behind her, they disappeared.
She knelt, lowering that figure to the floor, and set him down.
“There, now,” the woman said, her voice soft. She held two fingers to his neck, frowning when she felt no pulse.
The man on the ground was perfectly still.
Tentatively, the woman unbuttoned the first few buttons of the man’s shirt, revealing a ghastly wound — fresh, staining the white shirt above it. The woman waited, watching the wound intently. It took several minutes — minutes of complete and total silence while the woman held her breath, not going so far as to even blink — before anything happened. The wound began to heal itself, the body spitting out a bullet as the flesh stitched itself back together.
“Oh, Roman,” Devikra said, sadness heavy in her voice, “I thought this might happen. 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?
(Also, I apologize for any spelling or grammar mistakes in this one – I haven’t had a chance to do my usual rounds of editing. I’ll probably go back in the next few days to do so.)