Royal Reckoning by Stephanie St. Klaire
Vehicles wereready and waiting when the team landed in Medaro. It was a private airfield near the shore surrounded by grassy bluffs, and men and women dressed in all-black tactical gear, weapons at the ready, were flanking the plane when it rolled to a stop. Ryla’s people. Her allies. They landed as a small team but had their own private army at their disposal, it seemed.
These operatives worked for Medaro, for his father, yet here they were, ready to work against him. That told a tale Eli found interesting. How many more allies would they uncover in his homeland? When he made his way down the stairs, he was met with formal salutes and the respect he didn’t know he deserved.
“They’re all here for you, Your Highness,” Ryla said, somewhat in jest but also with the truth behind the statement.
“Unfortunately, or maybe, fortunately, for them, I will never be their king,” Eli fired back, nodding to each of them as he passed on his way to one of the waiting vehicles. “The monarchy is dated and should be dissolved. There is no need for the people of Medaro to continue supporting an already filthy rich dynasty for no reason other than to toss them money.”
“The people adore their traditions. Do you really think the throne can simply dissolve?”
“Yes. I do. There is no real political purpose, and if people want their traditions to remain intact, so be it. But not the way they’re currently being run.”
Eli put his hand to his ear, adjusting his comms unit. “Everyone online and ready to roll?”
Each of the men answered back as they too filed into waiting SUVs, mission ready. Ryla went over their plan once more as she was running point from a rendezvous point near the castle, offering support to Eli and the team who went with him to distract the king as well as the team running the rescue mission under the cloak of darkness.
“When we hit palace grounds, we will split up. Alpha team will proceed to the commons, where Eli will be formally welcomed, introduced, and announced. Bravo, you will meet up with an ops team already in position awaiting your arrival. They’ve narrowed her possible location to the four main houses that line the palace exterior.”
Eli interrupted. “I have a strong suspicion she’s being held in the structure at three o’clock on your maps, but clear the surrounding premises first so you have a clean path out. Work fast but stealthily. The palace has top-notch security, as you can imagine. Palace police and guards have orders to act first, ask later. Don’t get caught. Ryla has secured a number of friendlies within the palace walls to assist in keeping Bravo Team undetected, but we do not have everyone’s interest in the way we’d like to be ready for anything. Locate, extract, move the package to the bird. Alpha will be right on your heels, and we’ll be out of this God-forsaken place faster than we arrived.”
“Copy,” Ronan said as the head of the extraction team. “Bravo is ready, package on the radar. Already collecting intel with drones up. It should be an easy in and out.”
“I’m perched in the condor’s nest,” Killion said, referring to his position as point for both teams. He was working with Ryla and a few from her team as protection. “I’m filtering intel as quickly as it comes in and dispatching per usual. Bravo has a clear path upon arrival. Alpha, they know you’re here. We’ve gone ahead and alerted the castle to create a distraction. They’re ready and waiting for you. Going as planned. Ears to the ground and eyes wide open, Alpha. Your team has your back.”
A quick flash of anxiety riddled Eli when he learned his father knew he was there. It was gone as quickly as it came, but what had him more anxious was knowing they had a hit on Cally and were going to get to her right away with minimal obstacles. He wanted to be the one to rush in and rush out with her, but his involvement in the rescue itself wasn’t safe, and he didn’t want to put her at any more risk than he’d already done. He’d have to be satisfied with knowing top operatives were on her case – his friends – and that he’d see her soon, back at the plane.
He clung to that as the unease began to settle in his gut. Their plan was solid, clean, clear. But his father wasn’t to be trusted or underestimated. There was no telling if they were being played as well. They were playing the monarchy at this point. He’d have to play a good game, play to his father’s proclivities and let the old man think he was in charge when really it was Eli who held all the pieces in this wicked game of chess. Was he to be the dark knight who clears the king, or the underestimated pawn who was slowly creeping closer, move by move, hiding behind the façade until he was ready to make his final move and overcome the king? Time would tell. The real question was who had a stronger game? The king at the top of his kingdom? Or the dark knight sworn to avenge his betrothed, who was locked in the proverbial tower? Eli’s money was on the dark knight and his army of soldiers. Good. Conquered. Evil.
As the lights from the castle came into view, Eli watched as two of the vehicles veered to the left and met up with a waiting vehicle that pulled in front and led them off while his small convoy continued. There was no going back now as they passed the first guard station. Four guards were lined up outside the building, saluting as Eli’s team went by.
“Yep, they know I’m here,” he said into the comms. “Time to turn on my royal bullshit and get this done. See you on the other side, Bravo.”
“You got this, Prince Charming,” Wit said from the vehicles going for Cally. “We’ll meet you at the chariot with Rapunzel in no time. Check your teeth for green shit, and don’t forget to stick your nose up. If you come across a fair maiden looking for a dream come true, don’t hesitate to bring her back for me.”
Eli looked at Carter. “Jesus, I’m glad he’s in the other convoy. I can’t believe that was what Cally’s life depends on.”
“I can still hear you.” Wit chuckled.
Eli quickly fired back, “I know.”
“You like me,” Wit said. “Cally does too. You just wait. You’ll be thanking me later when I hand over the package…carrying a package.”
Wit laughed at his own humor, and snickering could be heard through the shared communications device. Eli shook his head. The guy was crude and a little rude, but he did mean well. As much as Wit Meyer irritated him, Eli knew he was a strong operative and didn’t doubt that he’d bring Cally back to him safely. He’d lay down his life to do so.
“Going quiet,” Carter said. “About to disembark. Godspeed, team.”
The vehicles lined up outside, and Eli followed protocol as he recalled it to be. He waited patiently, allowing for the men to exit the vehicles in front and back of him and for his driver to open his door in a formal gesture.
“I can’t stand this shit. People waiting on me,” Eli chided.
“You’re not going in alone, brother,” Carter said, offering assurance. “As soon as we get the all clear from Bravo, we’re out of here. Keep it together, man. It’s almost over.”
“You mean this part,” Eli corrected. “Just this part is over. There’s an entire mystery to solve here, and I don’t know that I have the patience for it.”
“One piece at a time. Remember, this part isn’t about you. It’s about Cally and your son.” Carter landed his grip on Eli’s shoulder and raised his brow. “Can you do this? Can you do this for them?”
Eli’s eyes narrowed, and his glare sharpened. “I’d die for them.”
Carter nodded. “Then let’s fucking do this. I finally get to meet my douchebag of a father. This could get interesting.”
“You’ll hate him,” Eli said as he stepped out of the vehicle and faced a line of stone-faced armed guards with rigid posture saluting Eli in a formal greeting.
Carter stepped out behind him and said, “I already do. What the fuck is this?”
“This is the bullshit I left behind.”
“I can see why. Do they still fire cannons at the dragons here too?”
Eli offered a half-grin as he turned to Carter. “You have no idea. Tonight…we’re the dragons. Prepare to duck and cover.”
Eli crossed the long walkway in formal military-like uniform adorned in medals and ribbons with what looked like gold ropes draped over his shoulder. It was quite different from his usual attire but necessary if he was to pull off the ruse. He was there on official business, or so they were to think. Visiting his ailing father and stepping up as heir. His entourage looked very much like private security in black uniforms and tactical gear. Except for one…Carter. Carter wore a plain suit and marched right in alongside his brother for moral support.
Eli recognized the sacrifice Carter was making on his behalf and that it couldn’t be easy to meet the man who made up the other half of who he was under such circumstances, but he was grateful for the support and friendly face that would pose as a further distraction. Surely, their father knew who Carter was and had kept tabs all this time. Eli was looking forward to making his father uncomfortable with his surprise gift. He wouldn’t show it, but Eli knew the king wouldn’t like his misgivings aired so outwardly and likely publicly.
When word of Eli’s arrival hit the wire, and it would because the team already set it in motion, people would wonder who the man was accompanying the royal incumbent – or was it successor? Eli didn’t care because he was neither of those things – it’s why he left in the first place. But today, he’d play the dutiful son, fulfilling his dutiful role, returning home after years of sowing his royal oats. The king should appreciate that – he sowed plenty even after he was betrothed and then bound by vows he never intended to keep. Carter was proof of that.
As they made their way down the long corridors, up various sets of stairs, through the richly carpeted spaced draped in crystal and gold chandeliers, something clicked for Eli. He’d summoned his inner royal from the universe, and the universe replied. Suddenly, he wasn’t anxious and angry. He felt wicked and cunning. The dread that rested in his gut was now drive – a drive to see the man he loathed, to challenge him, to stare him down and force him to see Eli for who he was. A threat. A royal threat, if you will.
“You okay?” Carter said as they approached the end of a long hall as it opened up to an expansive space. “You have a stupid grin on your face.”
“More than okay, brother.” Eli’s unruly grin turned to a sinful smile. “Are you ready to meet our father?”
“Shit. You better not blow this.” Carter stopped and shook his head. “You better have it together, Eli.”
“Oh, I have it together. I’m looking forward to this. Might I apologize in advance, though?”
“For using you this way? I cannot wait to see the look on the old man’s face when he realizes who you are and that you’re walking freely about his castle and country.”
“Ah, hell, Eli. You go rogue, and you don’t just risk the team. You risk Cally and your unborn child.”
Eli began to walk on. “I’ll put nobody in danger of anything…except the asshole in a crown. I’ll make my mark, but not until we are in the air and far from here but mark my words. I’m going to make his skin crawl with truths he thought were long since buried.”
Referring to Carter’s deceased mother in such a way wasn’t meant to be hurtful, and though Carter had to know that, his pinched expression still followed Eli’s words. When all was said and done, and they were safely distanced from Medaro, Carter would want this too. He would want vengeance too and seek justice in exposing the king for who he really was. A real son of a bitch.
They stopped just outside a set of heavy dark wood doors dressed in lavish – some would say tacky – gold hardware probably worth more than most people made in a lifetime. A guard posted to the left of the entrance looked at Eli and nodded, as did the one on the right. Friendlies. Good. Depending on how things went, they might need the assistance of such to get out of there unscathed.
“Is there a dungeon in this place?” Carter asked, then swallowed hard.
“Of course, there is. This structure is older than time.”
Carter tugged at his collar, his face turning crimson as he cleared his throat again. “Should we just head there now, or do you have this under control?”
Eli snickered. “It’s a wine cellar now. You up for a celebration, mate?”
“Jesus.” Carter shifted where he stood.
He was notably and understandably uncomfortable. What Eli couldn’t decide was whether it was nerves or rage he saw radiating just below Carter’s collar. Maybe both.
“We’re here,” Coy said into his comms. “His Highness is about to enter the king's quarters.”
Eli turned and gave Coy a side-eye glance.
“By the book, sir,” Coy said with a grin. Eli hated the elevated attention, and Coy enjoyed how much he loathed it. Coy raised his voice so anyone on the other side of the door might hear him. “Dinner plans have been secured in thirty, Your Highness.”
Eli nodded. “Then I guess we better make this quick.”
He let out a deep breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. Dinner plans secured was code. It meant they were on to the last unit to search. They’d managed that quickly. “Sounds like the new staff was efficient tonight and worked ahead to…fit us in?”
Coy looked at his watch as a message crossed. “Indeed, sir. Very few obstacles tonight.”
“Let’s keep an eye on things,” Eli said into his comms. “Those reservations were just a little too easy to secure. No surprises – I’m…hungry.”
“Copy that,” Coy said. “I’ve let the advance team know.”
Coy shrugged while Eli rolled his eyes and said under his breath, “I can’t wait to get out of this fucking place.”
He nodded to the guards, letting them know he was ready to be announced and enter his father's chambers. Getting this over with was high priority because, as if everything else wasn’t bad enough, talking in code and putting on airs was just fucking irritating. He preferred to communicate with his weapons wielding, wreaking havoc, and a lot less words. And no suit.
“Your Majesty…” a man on the interior space started. “Announcing Your Royal Highness, Elias Cla—”
“It’s just Eli, mate.” Eli cut the man off and caught him off guard. He was off to a good start.
“Uh, Prince…Eli.” The man shrugged before he scurried from the room, frazzled.
The men with Eli fell back and stood at the door, some facing out and some watching the show about to go down. Eli advanced, stepping farther into the space, with Carter at his side.