Royal Reckoning by Stephanie St. Klaire
“Well,hot damn. This is better than when my Aunt Pat found out Uncle Pat was humpin’ old lady Westburg like a bunny in heat in the town square fountain. I’m gonna need some popcorn for this,” Wit said with enthusiasm. “Dramatics around here are pretty damn interesting.”
“Where exactly are you from where that would happen?” Israel asked with a look of shock.
“Oh, here, there, a little bit of everywhere,” Wit replied, heavy on the twang with a brow waggle. “Plot twist. Old lady Westburg is Aunt Pat’s mama.”
“This is your family?” Israel questioned further. “That was where you…come from?”
“Nah. My family died when I was a kid. Aunt Pat and Uncle Pat just took care of me. Well, until the fountain incident.” Wit winked. “But that’s a story for another day. I’d like to know more about His Royal Highness. Sounds like we’re flying right into a real shit show with prince on the run over here.”
Eli shook his head in disbelief and said in a low voice, “And we put our lives in your hands?”
“Sure do.” Wit winked. “Because you know I got your back at all times and would take a hit for any one of you. Especially now, Your Highness.”
Wit rolled his hand in front of him and bowed from his seat in a gesture of respect – or sarcasm. Both tended to go hand in hand with Wit Meyer.
Eli didn’t doubt that. Wit was overwhelming in many ways, but he was also thoughtful, selfless, and put his team first. He was devoted to the Keepers and a true brother-in-arms. Eli respected him for that and considered him an ally – someone he could count on to have his back no matter the circumstance. Eli also found him annoying as hell. But that was the full package.
“I denounced the throne and stepped away from my role in the family. I will not be taking the role of king when my father passes,” Eli admitted. “I don’t believe in it or support anything it represents.”
“Why?” Israel asked. “The Medaro dynasty is a national treasure. True royalty with a single bloodline that dates back to the beginning. It’s the heart and soul of the country and what literally makes it Medaro.”
“That was precisely why I want nothing to do with it. Why I changed my name even,” Eli said. “I don’t doubt that it was once an honor to be born into the Medaro line, but those days are over. It stands for something entirely different now. Something I don’t support or believe in. My father is a bad man and has abused the role of king like his father before him did. I won’t continue the line of succession.”
“Isn’t that all the more reason to inherit the role and be the change you desire?” Israel continued. “I’m not trying to be combative. I’m genuinely curious. I remember Medaro being something close to a religion for people.”
“It does carry its pomp and circumstance that contributes to making it a desirable brand, if you will. On the outside, it does look glamorous. On the inside, it's nothing but lying, cheating, and manipulating. My father inherited the bad seed, then nurtured it and grew it to the ugliness that resides within the palace walls today. His business practices, his associates…it’s all of the things that would make your stomach churn and sour. It isn’t what it once was. There are more secrets, lies, and deceit behind those walls than those within the darkest and grittiest prisons.”
“It might as well be a prison,” Ryla interrupted. “My family line has stayed true to the dynasty and the royal family. However, it doesn’t carry the same burdens. What Eli says is true. I’ve used my position within the family to establish myself in a place that will one day take down the current reign and likely dissolve the monarchy completely. Some ties run deep with the darkest parts of nations abroad. Medaro is quaint and whimsy, full of dreamy fairy-tale-like imagery on the outside, but the inside is so dark and broken that it will eventually be its own demise. Even if Eli were to take the throne, the expectations and dealings already in place might run too deep to resolve and bring Medaro back to what it once was.”
“Precisely. There isn’t a true governance over the country anyway. There is influence and power, sure, but the real governance is maintained by the democracy that has been in place for quite some time.”
“So, the king is nothing more than a mascot of sorts?” Israel inquired.
“Basically. He can’t do anything without the government's support, and they tend to run their own equally appalling show. It’s all a grand gesture for power, money, control. No one has it, everyone wants it, and the list of deals with the devil is endless in Medaro.”
“Besides that, my uncle – his father – is a real son of a bitch. I don’t blame him for not wanting to fill those shoes,” Ryla added.
“At his best, he’s a womanizing prick.” Eli looked at Carter, who understood this better than most as they shared the man as their biological father – even if Carter had only recently learned of such and never met the man. “At his worst, he makes Satan himself cry.”
“Sounds like a real winner,” Coy said. “So, what’s at play here? Daddy took the girl? If so, why?”
Eli nodded. “I believe he is behind it. But I won’t know until we get there.”
“And the why?” Coy asked again. “Isn’t the fact that she’s in Medaro pretty telling?”
“It’s quite telling, yes. But as you well know, nothing is ever as it seems. When you’re dealing with this level of money and power, anything is possible. My eldest brother was to take the throne but died years ago in a training accident, leaving me next in line. We have a younger sister who is a breath of fresh air and what the country and monarchy needs, and she actually wants the job. When our brother died, and I stepped away from the family, it became hers as heir.”
Coy shrugged. “Then what’s the problem?”
“My father loves his daughter, but only as a political pawn. He devalues women and doesn’t want one to take his place at the head of the table.”
“Because she’s a woman?” Israel was shocked. “In this day and age?”
Eli nodded. “He’s a real bastard.”
“Wait a minute,” Ronan interjected. “What about Carter? You dropped that bomb on us the day you landed on the front steps of Watermark. He’s your brother – or half brother. Where does he fit in?”
“He doesn’t.” Ryla shrugged. “He’s just a dirty little secret the throne paid off to remain silent and never claimed as their own. To do so now would be an embarrassment to the country as a whole. Besides that, he’s only a half royal. Penelope, their sister, would come before him. He’s a last resort and only if the dynasty chooses to claim him publicly.”
“Harsh,” Wit said. “That was some twisted shit, man. I’m sorry, Carter. They don’t know what they’re missing.”
Carter grinned. “It’s okay, I don’t want it. I only recently learned of my…lineage, so I’m not too torn up about it. Besides, it’s not exactly my gig anyway.”
“The traditions are old and ridiculous,” Eli said. “And truthfully, a bit barbaric. Our sister is to wed before taking her position at the head of the family after Father dies. Her engagement was arranged years ago despite her heart belonging to another who was deemed less worthy.”
“Arranged?” Ryker’s jaw dropped. “I didn’t think that still happened.”
“Oh, it does in Medaro. It’s brokered like a big money business deal…because it is. She fancied a stable boy. They grew up together as the best of friends, fell in young love as teenagers when they saw each other differently, and then wished to spend their lives together until Father caught wind of it and removed him from the picture altogether.”
“Banished him from Medaro. It’s been years. Sadly, he fell victim to the throne, and despite being out of Medaro, my father saw to it that he could never return. A permanent arrangement.”
The space was silent. Each of them knew what Eli implied, which helped paint the picture of Medaro and what they were stepping into. The king was a murderer, a ruthless dictator, yet Eli was none of those things. He was a man of honor and integrity. He believed in the greater good and in defending those who couldn’t defend themselves. That was why he wouldn’t accept his role as heir. It conflicted with the measures already at play, and undoing them could undo an entire nation. His father had their country so deeply twisted and entwined in an underworld of criminal mayhem that it was literally at the mercy of evil. Should it unravel, the country would too.
The limited political power was of no consequence when you held the key to political influence. It was the greater of the two, really. It was the equivalent of a puppeteer with everyone hooked to a string. You were made to dance at their beck and call or feel the wrath of money and power granted to the man holding all the strings. There was ultimate control and limited liability when someone else’s name was on the dotted lines of a malevolent deal.
“I hate to sound like a broken record here, but what does all this have to do with Cally?” Coy asked.
“She was contracted to do a destination wedding. From what I can gather, she was taken from Spain. I believe my father was the one who lured her there with a faux contract.” Eli paused as the rage and fury he’d been holding at bay threatened to unravel. “I brought this to her. My being close to her is what put her in danger. She became a pawn in a vicious game, and it’s my fault.”
“Was this to do your sister’s wedding?” Ryker asked. “I think we’re all still missing something here, Eli. She was in Spain to scout wedding locations, okay. But I think you have a few dots to connect still, brother.”
“There’s an entire staff to arrange my sister’s wedding. This wasn’t for her. I believe it was all a ploy, and there was no wedding. Spain is convenient. Easy to grab her and get her to Medaro. As Israel has mentioned, the logistics are relatively close, and it would be much easier than taking her from right under my nose in the States.”
“And you’re sure she’s in Medaro now and not just avoiding your calls?” Ronan asked.
“I’m positive. Her surroundings in the pictures and video I received were familiar. It only took a short moment to realize she was in my former home. The place where I grew up.”
“He means the castle,” Ryla corrected. “I’ve reviewed the images and confirmed his suspicions. As head of intelligence of Medaro, I’m there often despite my base being in the US.”
“A real castle.” Wit slapped his leg. “You just can’t make this shit up, can you?”
Eli turned to him and said in a mocking tone with an awkward twang, “Yes, a real castle.”
Despite the burn, Wit chuckled and found Eli’s response amusing.
“I recognize the space as the staff quarters. Those within the castle walls or proximity. That means someone close to my father is helping him by holding her.”
“Or he isn’t involved at all, and it’s something else equally sinister,” Israel chimed in. For the most part, he was quiet, an observer, but when he did join the discussion, it was usually with a perspective others didn’t have. “Who else has motive?”
“Everyone.” Eli let out an exaggerated chuckle. “My…our…sister is likely in danger as well. Father has taken ill as of late. It’s too sudden, and he’s too young for it to be natural, so I believe there is more at play where his health is concerned. I don’t buy that his illness is natural. Not one bit.”
“Are we talking poison?” Killion asked. “Something slow and unassuming?”
“Precisely,” Eli agreed. “And probably small enough quantities making it virtually undetectable as well.”
“If he’s being poisoned, we have people who can and will find it.” Killion went to work on his computer as if Eli had just tasked him with his next challenge.
“We will first land in Spain…” Eli began.
“Hoo Wee. I ain’t never been and always wanted to go.” Wit slapped his leg as he often did when going off on one of his overexcited tangents. “I hear the food is better than sex, and every day at noon, you nap. And the women are better than the food and fun to nap with.”
Ryla turned to Eli and Carter with a look of disgust. “Who brought him?”
Carter shrugged it off. “He’s mostly full of shit. Just gets antsy and talks a lot.”
“My mama called it a gift.” Wit smiled.
“Surely because only a mama can love that kind of behavior,” Ryla mocked, her sincerity both honest and edgy.
“You like me,” Wit said in a low timbre with a smoldering look.
“I definitely feel something for you,” Ryla assured, her expression telling the group exactly what she felt for Wit.
“Just be quiet for now, Wit. It’s late. Everyone’s tired and learning a lot of heavy shit right now.” Carter leaned forward and clapped his hands together and rested his head against the fist it created. “When it’s time to get serious, he gets really fucking serious.”
“Damn right.” Wit flashed a megawatt smile.
Coy dropped his head back and let out a deep sigh. The more information they received, the more questions they had, and his hadn’t been answered. The stakes were being raised with every claim, and it was becoming obvious that at least Coy recognized there was a bigger secret than Eli had let on.
“Okay. Now that we have all of that out of the way, can we get back to Cally? She’s the case, right? She’s the extraction and our focus. I’ll ask once more so we know exactly what we’re walking into here…why her? I knew you two were a thing but didn’t know it was so serious she was a means to you and that Medaro had heard.”
“I don’t discuss my relationships – clearly, having heard all of this – so I can see why you’d think that. I have a very private life, so the fact that Medaro knows anything at all about her is interesting. They had to look hard to find anything. Really hard because we aren’t very public at all,” Eli explained.
“Well, you’re beyond the point of casual. That’s been made obvious,” Coy said. “Something tells me there isn’t a simple answer here, and that’s why you haven’t answered the question.”
“You’re right,” Eli admitted. He stalled, searching for the proper words and explanation. It wasn’t easy to discuss his private matters, but they were entitled to information if he was going to ask them to walk through the flames of hell with him.
Sensing Eli’s hesitation and personal struggle with coming to terms with what was really at stake, Killion took over and did what he did best. Spit facts. “The intel suggests the royal succession is being threatened. Should the line of current heirs denounce or…die…the monarchy is up for grabs. There is a more modernized democratic government in place now, so it isn’t to run the country in a literal sense, but there is power, money, and influence involved, and someone wants that for reasons unknown.”
Ronan chimed in, “Isn’t power, money, and influence enough motive?”
Eli snorted. “The Medaro family is filthy rich, and that’s what’s up for grabs. But there’s more up for grabs.”
“Maybe if we were talking about a country that held substantial weight in the free world. Medaro is small, and it isn’t a threat or even a powerful ally. There is something else someone wants – that above the law sense of freedom and control for. And we don’t know what. Not yet anyway. All I can conclude, thus far, is it’s a really great sovereign nation to hide in. It’s protected and can’t be challenged, and they do not extradite.”
“A safe place for criminals,” Coy deadpanned. “The devil's playground. But if the devil himself is on his deathbed, who needs that kind of protection or is affiliated with those who would?”
“That is what we don’t know yet. It could be anyone at this point. As long as they have money or do dirty deeds for those with money. And given the shit we’ve seen of late, nothing and no one would surprise me,” Killion added. “It’s only a matter of time, however, before we gain that piece of the puzzle. Until then, we have a rescue mission on our hands and a monarchy to protect until the monarchy itself decides how to proceed.”
“You said the Medaro monarch,” Wit began, emphasis on Medaro, “is nothing more than a mascot. It’s starting to feel like an unruly one, like a wolverine.” He paused and grinned, looking at Eli. “I can see you as a wolverine. They’re pretty badass little terrors and can rip a person to shreds. Why are you ripping someone to shreds for this girl, Prince Charming? What secret does she hold that you haven’t told us?”
Eli turned crimson red, and Wit wasn’t the source of his anger – it was something more. Much more.
“It’s a play for the throne. Eliminate the heirs…” Killion tried to break the tension, giving Eli the proper lead-in he needed. It wasn’t Killion’s explanation to give, but he’d lay the path for his friend to fight through the rage consuming him and find his way to the other side of it. “All of the heirs.”
“Cally isn’t an heir…” Coy said.
Eli began to riffle through the bag at his feet.
“Jesus, Eli.” Killion didn’t show frustration often, but when he did, it changed the tone of the room. Eli wouldn’t say what Killion already suspected, and he’d given him ample time to do so, delicately. “You aren’t going to say it, are you? I’ve run the data, collected variables, looked at different models trying to determine who would have first rights to the throne and who would likely succeed. Not only to find potential suspects but also to determine who else might be in danger. There’s one model I can’t create with the data I have access to. One theory left on the table without an algorithm. Regardless of the data at my disposal, only one reason could put Cally in danger as it relates to a play for the throne. Isn’t there, Eli?”
Eli looked up at his friend, and the lividity and rage that was once present now suddenly resembled something of defeat and hurt. There was an emotion behind his eyes none had witnessed – a vulnerability they didn’t think lived in Eli Clayton. Only one thing could bring a man of his nature straight to his knees in a broken mess of confusion and heartache. A look of pleading flashed, and Killion saw it.
With a quick bob of his head, Killion acknowledged the plea and would finish what Eli couldn’t. “Cally is carrying the next heir to the throne. Isn’t she?”
Eli nodded, and his expression lightened as he pulled out a small box. “She is. Cally is pregnant. I’m going to have a son, and he will indeed be the next heir – succeeding my sister even.”