Royal Reckoning by Stephanie St. Klaire
With Ronan,Ryker, and Wit running rescue, Coy and Israel accompanied Eli and Carter while Killion and Ryla watched over everyone and called shots from afar. It was a perfectly smooth operation with support from Ryla’s teams, making it seamless as they moved through the castle grounds. She’d paved a smooth path with her quick thinking and valuable resources, leaving Eli both grateful and relieved.
It was as if the seas were parting when Eli’s approach landed him closer and closer to his father’s bedside. Groups of people – some he recognized, some he did not – surrounded the king but excused themselves upon Eli’s arrival. Interesting, he thought. Were they simply being respectful and allowing a son time with his ailing father? Or rushing off to warn others and secure a hostage? Coy was already on it and must have assumed the same thing. Eli could hear him warning the others to be ready for incoming – or that was the gist of what he said in the odd code they were all speaking in.
“Father,” Eli said as he approached the king’s side. “I’d say you’re looking well, but…”
The shell of a man who was once worldly and larger than life stared blankly back at him. He was thin and frail, hair gray and sparse, cheeks sunken in, and dark bags under his eyes. It struck Eli in a way he wasn’t expecting. The king was nothing more than a weak and broken man who didn’t seem to know who was standing before him. But who was playing who here? In an instant, a familiar, smarmy smile that reeked of evil and malign intention crossed the man’s face, and Eli thought, there you are, you son of a bitch. King Elias was small and fragile on the outside, but his faculties were recognizably intact – sharp – and wicked as ever. It was evident in that smile.
“My son,” he said, voice hoarse. “I heard rumblings of your return. Why am I only just now seeing you?”
“I didn’t know I was at your beck and call, Father,” Eli said with a rather pompous tone. “I apologize if you were waiting for me.”
He wasn’t sorry. He’d only been in the country a short time, but it seemed that Ryla’s people did a good job laying a backstory that had already made its way through the castle and to the king’s ears. Excellent. It meant Eli didn’t appear too rushed or eager.
“Well, I have been waiting with bated breath, my brother.” A petite woman, the same piercing eyes and dark hair, rushed from the other side of the kings bed and right into Eli’s arms. She whispered, “I’ve missed you so. Please say you will stay.”
Eli held her tight and hesitated to let her go. Penelope grew up in his shadow, idolizing her older brother, and he adored her just the same. She’d somehow escaped the ruthless and relentless behaviors passed down. Penelope, Pen to Eli, was a kind and gentle old soul who thought of everyone else, always. There was something so sweet about her and loving that Eli was nearly brought to tears by her presence. He’d missed her. Had he thought she would be safer anywhere else, under any other circumstances, he’d have taken her with him the day he left and never looked back – but doing so would have put her in harm's way. A target. A pawn.
“I’ve missed you, little Pen,” he whispered back, realizing at that moment just how much he had missed his little sister. Little did she know, he wasn’t staying, but neither was she. Not on his life.
“You must be Carter,” Penelope said as she turned to face him. She offered him a warm embrace and whispered, “Elias…Eli told me about you when he found you. I’m so sorry there are lost years between us. I hope we have a chance to make them up somehow.”
Carter was rigid at first, taken aback by Penelope’s quick reaction and acceptance. But there was something sincere in her words and a sense of something that felt like longing that he believed true. He believed her when she said she wanted to get acquainted and that she was saddened by his status within the family.
Carter eased into her embrace. He’d always wanted a sister and said,“I’d like that too.”
If anything good was to come of this trip, it was that Carter would leave as a part of a family, and Penelope would be safe, protected by her two older brothers. That pleased Eli, even if his father’s presence and look of disgust at their meeting didn’t.
“You look like your mother. So much like her,” King Elias said. “You understand why things had to be the way they were, I’m sure. Why you had to remain…a secret.”
Carter pulled away from his sister and faced the father he’d always wondered about, unimpressed. “No. Not really.”
“Your mother, Madeline, was my one true love.” King Elias smiled as he looked beyond Carter. He was reminiscing or perhaps lost in a moment of mental unclarity. Either way, it disgusted Carter and Eli alike.
“You certainly had a strange way of showing it. I would think at some point we – she – would have seen you again if that were the case.” Carter called him out and wasn’t holding back. The royal decorum and protocols didn’t apply to him, and Eli rather enjoyed this side of his brother.
“I sent her money. Bought her a house,” the king defended. “I’d never let one of my children go without…”
“We had no money and no home to call our own,” Carter fired back.
The king looked down his turned-up nose. “Then you didn’t know your mother as well as you thought.”
Sliding his hands into his pants pockets, Carter shrugged. “Or you didn’t…Your Majesty.”
The king chuckled. “Oh, you are very much your mother’s son. You have her tenacity and sharp tongue with your quip remarks.”
“Thank you,” Carter said. He’d take what was otherwise intended as a jab as a compliment. His mother was sharp, witty, and tenacious. As was he.
“Well, from what I gather, you’ve had a good life – very successful.”
Carter rolled his neck from side to side and tried to contain his distaste as much as possible. “No thanks to you, Elias.”
Eli snickered. Nobody referenced the king by his first name so casually. It was disrespectful, and there was a time in history when such disrespect came with a severe consequence. Carter was making Eli’s role much easier and was successfully creating quite the distraction as those still within the room were growing increasingly uncomfortable.
“Or every thanks to me,” the king said as he pushed himself up on his clenched fists to sit straighter. Offended was a light description of what was rolling off the frail man’s ego.
“Whatever lets you sleep at night and rest in…peace.” A low blow but an earned one. Carter spent his entire life, unknowingly, as someone’s dirty little secret. Evidence of a royal scandal. At least finding out as he did, he wouldn’t be blindsided publicly by the truth and could control the inevitable narrative. Eli made sure of that.
“Ruthless and unapologetic. I like that,” King Elias said. “Perhaps I chose the wrong son to carry out the legacy that will dangle in the wake of my passing. You have a backbone, son. I wish I had more time. I think we’d get along grand.”
“If you say so,” Carter replied.
Elias’s pleased expression twisted to something more sinister. “We’re more alike than you think.”
“You cheated on your wife and abandoned your mistress and child, then lied to an entire country – make that two – and denied your family any knowledge of me. I’d say we’re nothing alike. I have integrity, good character, and I’m a nice fucking guy. I don’t think we’re the same on any level. Respectfully.” Carter ended with an exaggerated bow to tie up what would be a dysfunctional family reunion for the books.
The king straightened and sized him up. “And you’re here now because? Maybe to try to collect a hefty inheritance?”
“Maybe if I was like you, I would be. I’m here because my colleague…” Carter paused, looking at Eli before turning his attention back to the king. “Brother, actually, needed me. Just like he’d be there for me.”
Eli was flattered by Carter’s answer but not surprised because it was all true.
“And to meet your long-lost sister?” Penelope teased, breaking the building tension.
The old man laughed boisterously. “Happy family – thick as thieves already.”
Carter glared at the man. Eli was right. He did hate the man, and it only took him a brief encounter to decide that to be true. He turned to Eli. “I’ll just wait outside the door. It’s a little crowded in here.”
As Carter walked away, hands casually in his pockets as he made an easy stroll toward the door, he said over his shoulder. “Godspeed, Your Highness.”
It wasn’t lost on Eli that Carter was out of patience and had nothing more to learn about his father, nor did he want to give the man any more of his time. But it was more so because he needed to deal with something he heard come through the comms. There was a hit somewhere on a random device or program of Killion’s, and Carter would address it so Eli could speak his peace in private with his family and buy them more time to execute the mission.
The only information Eli had was that they’d narrowed down where Cally was, had a hit, and they were carefully navigating their way to her in an effort to avoid any chance encounters with an enemy or two. It was coming together far too easy. They’d already located her and with little to no risk thus far. It had to be a trap of sorts, or his father had sincerely lost his wicked touch. Either way, a lot was on the line, and careful was the name of the game. While Bravo team was in the trenches and executing a seamless extraction, Eli was in hell, dancing with the devil.
Once Cally was safely in the hands of the Bravo team and on her way to safety, Eli had a loose end to tie up. If the team really was where they claimed to be – there was a reckoning in the midst. Justice would be served one way or another.
“Lively fella, I’ll give him that,” Elias said. “Not a royal, though. He wasn’t made for this. He couldn’t handle a handful of minutes with me.”
Eli snickered. “You’re kidding me, right? He wasn’t raised royal and only learned of you and his bastard lineage recently. Did you think he would come in here and bow to your diamond-encrusted slippers? Are you mad?”
“No, but some gratitude would be nice.”
“You abandoned him and his mother. What is there to be grateful for?”
The king scoffed. “I made sure they were cared for, sent money, and made arrangements for the best schools for him. It isn’t my fault his mother didn’t use it. Or maybe she did. What did she die of again? Was she an addict?”
“What an awful thing to say about the love of your life,” Eli defended. “And from what I gather, she was a good woman who bent over backward to give Carter a good life. Likely out of guilt and to make up for what you couldn’t be for him.”
“I highly doubt that. And I said, was the love of my life.” The king smiled and winked at a woman who was stationed in the far corner of the room. She appeared to be a maid or someone from the staff.
When Eli traced his father’s stare and saw the woman, he shook his head. “You would. Looks like you have a new love of your life. Some things never change – you never change.”
“And have you?” King Elias quickly fired back. “Do you still denounce your rightful place as the next head of this family? Are you turning your back on duty and country?”
“Nothing has changed, and the only thing I am turning my back on is you and everything you stand for. I will always have great respect for Medaro but not you. You are the sole reason I will not assume the role. By birthright, it should be Carter. He was born before me.”
“You have got to be kidding me. He isn’t a royal, and he’s an American. That’ll never happen,” the king said. “He doesn’t have it in him anyway. He’s weak.”
Eli couldn’t believe what he was hearing, or perhaps he could. It was his father, after all. The man could argue both points of any issue depending on what suited his interest at the moment. He was a selfish, self-serving prick.
“Then the throne goes to Penelope. It’s her rightful place upon your passing, and she actually wants it. She’s good at it and stands for everything you don’t,” Eli began. “She’s the kind of royal this country needs and the change it so desperately needs.”
“And she’s a woman.” Elias rolled his eyes.
“All the more reason then. She knows the family business. She has been filling in for you while you’ve fallen ill and doing a grand job. She’s a true royal, through and through.”
Penelope offered a tear-filled look. “Thank you, brother. I’d gladly accept, but only if you are certain you do not want it. It’s yours until you are absolutely sure. Everything royal about me I learned from you, dear brother. I had you to look up to all those years. You’d make a fantastic king.”
“Though I’m sure all that is true,” Archer interrupted. “I have to say I agree with your brother, dear. You would make a fantastic queen. You’re perfect. The public absolutely adores you, and you can bring the monarchy into the next century.”
Archer was Penelope’s soon-to-be betrothed – her arranged fiancé. Eli didn’t know much about the guy, other than what he was able to dig up with Killion’s help, but he seemed harmless. There was distance between him and Penelope, mostly from her, it seemed, but that was understandable. Their impending marriage was nothing more than a brokered deal rendered in some back-room dealings their fathers both likely gained substantially from.
It saddened Eli to imagine his sister in a marriage like that, absent of love, built of obligation. Perhaps that would all change when their father died, but Eli wouldn’t be surprised if she honored the deal. That was just who she was. Despite wanting more for his sister, he was appreciative of Archer’s support. That went a long way with him.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” the king spat. “Is this why you’re here? To make sure my final weeks, days, hours are clouded by this kind of tyranny?”
“This is hardly tyranny, Father. As you like to say, it’s business. Business that will be addressed and decided on with or without you. I’d think the latter is more an appropriate timeline,” Penelope scolded. “You really don’t have much to say about this any longer.”
“My country and legacy will fall in your hands,” he said. “Maybe the American son is a better option after all.”
“It’s time for change, Father. You cry tyranny, but you’re the tyrant. This country deserves a better legacy than that which you have built.” Penelope, sweet, soft-spoken, kind Penelope gritted her teeth and raised her voice to a man she’d never said a cross word to in her life. “My brother and I will decide what is best, and we will do it based on what benefits Medaro, not Eli, not me… Something you could never do.”
Eli was proud of his sister, and he wanted to see this through and make his position abundantly clear, but time was not on his side. Or hers. The team gave the signal, and it was go time. But not before Eli swept the space Cally was held and looked for answers.
As if on cue, the king gasped for air and clutched his chest sending his staff into a frenzy. His nurses pushed past Eli and the others while Jonas, the king's right hand and Eli’s godfather, called for the doctor on standby to come in. It was odd. Eli didn’t feel anything – nothing at all as he watched his father struggle and fight for whatever was left of his life. All he could think of in those brief moments was that he’d never be that kind of father to his own son.
He also felt relief. It was an easy opportunity to excuse himself without drawing attention, and it provided a nice distraction for Bravo to clear the grounds completely. They had Cally, so he could do a little recon of his own to get answers before he left. Send Penelope with another team that was already in her quarters waiting for her.
“Go,” Jonas said to them. “You should all go now. Let the doctors do their work. You shouldn’t see your father like this.”
Jonas was good, which was why Eli never understood why the man stuck around as the king's right hand. They were night and day. However, there was no sense in revisiting that now because there were more pressing issues at hand. Cally had been located, safely extracted, and was on her way to the airplane, and he couldn’t wait to get to her and see that she was okay for himself. And once he did, he’d never let her out of his sight again.
When Eli reached the threshold of his father’s room and the space beyond, it felt like a line in the sand, and he needed to decide which side he was to firmly plant his feet on. His past was behind him, quite literally, dying a slow and seemingly painful death, and his future was just beyond the castle grounds. The choice was rather easy, and he didn’t know what that said about him – good or bad. He didn’t care, though. There was no going back, and he’d likely never see the deceitful monster he called Father again – nor would he step foot in Medaro. There was little to no need.
He paused and looked over his shoulder to see a tribe of medical professionals hovering over the man who he didn’t care lived or died. He was dead to him now, regardless of the outcome of the doctors' efforts.
“Godspeed, Father,” he said and continued through the doorway, steadfast on getting to the only thing that mattered to him now. Cally.