“Did you both clean up your rooms and bathroom like I asked?” I bit my lower lip as I looked out the front window for the fifth time in the last few minutes.
“Since that’s the third time you’ve asked us that, I refuse to answer on the grounds that it’d be unhealthy for my sanity,” Mina responded, and threw herself down into a lounging position on the couch; the picture of teenage melodrama. Her hand hovered toward the coffee table.
“Touch the remote and you’ll be pulling weeds for me, for a week.” My voice was level, without menace, but she retracted her hand as though the remote was a radioactive cockroach.
“Why are you so nervous, anyway? You’ve done this a few times,” Talitha said, and mimicked Mina to a ‘t’ when she flopped onto the couch.
The two were cousins through their respective mothers, and were similar in appearance. Talitha was shorter, as to be expected from someone twelve versus fifteen, and all her tones were lighter: hair, eyes, and skin. I’d like to say voice, as well, but with a teen already in the house Talitha had hit the ground running in the attitude department. She did have a shining example to look up to in that regard. She also had a dusting of delicate freckles across her shoulders, shown off by a red tank top, where Mina did not.
Dark Goddess save me from teenagers and their mini-me counterparts: the pre-teen.
I took a deep breath and moved away from the window. I hadn’t wanted to worry them, and I still didn’t plan on letting them in on everything. The last thing they needed was to be drawn into the machinations and drama of the Clans, especially when they would be nothing more than disposable pawns.
I walked over to the couch and leaned over the back of it.
“I just want everything to go well for them. They might be very young, and this could be a scary experience. You both remember what it was like when you first came here, right?” I asked, and looked between the two of them.
Talitha looked between Mina and me, and Mina simply nodded.
“I want you both to keep that in mind when we meet them.”
They both nodded this time and I pushed off the back of the couch. Then the doorbell rang. My heart nearly leapt from my chest and I stifled a gasp. Instead I let the surprise curl my fingers into claws as an outlet for the sudden jump in adrenaline.
The girls sat up as though someone shocked them with electricity, and looked toward the door like a Pointer spotting a small game animal.
Before Danika could chew me over for not answering the door promptly, I briskly walked over and opened it wide. My eyes first caught Danika since she was the one I was expecting, but something I wasn’t expecting was standing there as well, and I didn’t mean a child. It was another Drakken, and a male one at that.
His hair was all-around short cut and ashen blond, which I thought strange since most of the red Drakken had some varying shade of brown like Danika, Mina, and Talitha. Worried and heart-weary eyes that were a blue so dark they were almost black, like the transition of water in the ocean as it became deeper, examined me up and down.
Danika intimidated me due to her sadistic nature and continual torture of me since early childhood, even though she wasn’t much more physically imposing than I was. This man had us both by about six inches in height, but was no more intimidating than the average person. That takes talent. He was lean and muscular, and fluidly shifted from foot to foot like a dancer moving to music only he could hear. And maybe he did.
“You are from one of the blue Drakken Clans, not a red or black,” I said breathlessly, and looked over to Danika. “Why is he here?”
Danika glowered at me and clenched her jaw as though to keep from snarling at me. I shut my mouth, bowed my head, and stepped out of the doorway.
“I apologize for my rude behavior. Will you please come in?” I asked. Danika harrumphed and brushed by me, knocking her shoulder into mine to let me know she would not forget this, and headed to the kitchen.
“Thank you,” the man murmured his appreciation and followed Danika. I saw no child, but with the new development of what Clan he was from this was likely going to take some explanation.
I closed the door and looked over to Mina and Talitha. Mina’s eyebrows were drawn down, letting a hint of her own worry peek through, and Talitha was merely confused. Mina and I locked gazes and I motioned with my head for the two of them to head toward the back of the house. She rolled her eyes but headed toward the Florida room. It was the only place in the house, because of being an enclosed outdoor room, that my charges could not hear what was going on in the house; despite their better than human hearing. The fans and outdoor noises made sure of that.
“Come on, Tally, the grown-ups need to talk,” Mina said, and grabbed Talitha by the hand. Talitha shot one look my way, but I reassured her as best I could with a smile. She gave a weak one in return and followed Mina.
Once the door to the Florida room closed, louder than was necessary, I headed to the kitchen. I’d laid out some more cookies, coffee, iced tea, and little finger sandwiches. I hadn’t known if the child and Danika would be hungry and I wanted to provide a variety, just in case.
“Can I offer you any refreshments?” I asked the two of them, taking the submissive role as I should have after opening the door since they were both full-blooded. Of course in the south I could just claim to be a gracious host, but there was an undertone of necessity, not nicety, in my voice that I’d never been able to mask.
“Well, at least you have coffee this time,” Danika said at the same time the gentleman responded; “That would be wonderful, thank you.”
I set about making them both plates of food, and the man indicated he wanted tea, not coffee. All the while my mind spun, trying to think of an explanation as to why a blue Clan Drakken was in my house.
The Drakken, much like Dragons, had eight distinct colors: blue, black, red, green, grey, white, silver, and gold. Each color had a varying number of Clans, depending on how many different forms of magic or prowess the color was known for. Red, which Danika and half of Mina, Talitha, and me hailed from, were known best for their fire magic and had three primary Clans and a few offshoots. The gentleman in front of me hailed from a blue Drakken Clan, known for their water magic. I couldn’t say how many Clans, greater and lesser, they had, simply because that was information Clans tended to not bandy about.
“I know you have questions, as would I were I in your position, but first let us introduce ourselves. My name is Kieran, and I am here to humbly request your help on behalf of my daughter, Meriel,” he stated, low voice strained with grief and beseeching me to listen.
I took in a deep breath and sat down a few chairs away from the two of them. The coaster under my tea was already moist from the sweat on the glass, and I carefully thought my next words over.
“My name is Erryn, and I am honored and humbled in return by your request, Lord Kieran,” I said, and bit my lower lip as I paused, keeping my eyes on the glass, “but whatever your problem, surely there is someone in the royal guard more suited to help,” I concluded, my voice barely above a whisper as I looked up at him.
The mood of his eyes turned dark with a flash of anger, like a roiling black cloud over the ocean, when I mentioned his royal guard, but quickly settled back down.
As to be expected we had leaders within in the Clans, usually through bloodlines, and though the titles might vary between the color of Drakken, it was easy enough to tell them apart from someone from a lower bloodline, like Danika. The leader families all had an extra kick, so to speak, about their aura, power, and presence. As much as Danika could intimidate those like me, and others below her rank, with impunity, she could never hold a candle in a hurricane to someone like Kieran. Er, Lord Kieran.
“You have rightly named me, however your statement is not completely accurate. We have found the royal guard, shall we say, wanting in the loyalty department.” Contempt dripped from his words like poison from a snake fang, and he bared his teeth in chilling display of threat.
“I see. Perhaps you might tell me what you will of the situation?” I queried, and kept my voice polite and calm, despite the quivering mass of dread building in the pit of my stomach. I did not like where this was headed.
When he’d spoken, he’d leaned forward as though the offenders were there in front of him, waiting to be murdered for their disloyalty. Now he sat back and smoothed his hands over the dark wood of the table. I could only hope he didn’t release his claws and mark my lovely table up, but it wasn’t as if I could complain if he did.
Even though Clans weren’t always on friendly terms, the lowbies still had to show respect to anyone higher ranking than us in other Clans. Didn’t matter if the blue and red Clans, water and fire, got along as well as their elemental counterparts; Danika would take any opportunity to lay me out and whip the flesh from my back.
“Yes, I will tell you what I can of the situation,” he replied after a moment’s pause. “My daughter, Meriel, is the rightful heir to my Lordship. Her mother passed away at her birth six years ago, and it has only been the two of us since,” he stopped to swallow past the lump of sorrow the words left in his throat. Not a fresh wound, but still saddened by her loss. It was rare enough for leaders to make love matches, and I felt badly for him that such a lucky chance had been taken from father and daughter both.
“About a year ago I heard whispers that my daughter was in danger, a pawn in some nefarious plot ignited by a group of rebels, so I put extra guards with her around the clock. That was when the first kidnapping attempt happened. The only thing that saved her was her full power manifesting,” he said, and the words pained him.
I flinched, and even Danika did as well. Powers for females didn’t start showing up until we started our menses, and even then it was not our full powers. For males it started at roughly thirteen or fourteen. It was a rare occurrence for powers to manifest in ones as young as Kieran’s daughter, at age six, and it was never a good sign. They tended to be the most powerful amongst us, as well as the most short-lived and deranged. A young child’s mind is not prepared for the full brunt of our powers, and as a result they are usually put down like rabid dogs before they can cause damage.
The poor man had lost his wife, and before long he might lose his daughter as well. What was saving her, most likely, was the fact her father was a Lord.
It might bite me on the ass later, but the anguish in his voice compelled me to hear him out.
“Go on,” I said, and he looked up with a flash of surprise and gratitude in his expression.
“After this happened we placed her with a half-kin family; thinking that no one would look for her in such a place.” He kept his tone as neutral as he could muster, but the belief of considering a half-kin as lesser was too ingrained in our culture. Before I could stew on it further, he continued. “Things were going well until they discovered her whereabouts and made an attempt to kidnap her once again. Everyone in the house was killed, attackers and family-members, and it is difficult to distinguish who killed whom,” he finished and slumped back in his seat, the heartbreak weighing him down.
“Now you are trying another unexpected approach; not only a half-kin, but a half-kin from a different Clan, maybe even considered a rival Clan, and across the country,” I said, and sighed.
He nodded, and with nothing else to do but await my decision he picked up a cookie and bit into it. Momentary pleasure swept his face, and I let a smug sense of pride wash through me despite the daunting situation.
Kieran wasn’t offering anymore information than what he’d told me, or what I guessed, and Danika was being surprisingly quiet on the matter. Meaning Kieran and possibly our Clan leader had told her this was completely my decision. Of course, she wouldn’t mind seeing me go splat. I just think she’d prefer to be the one to do it. However, the more I thought about everything, the more it pissed me right off.
“You understand I have two other charges here this would place in danger, not to mention my own life being at risk. I understand half-kins are about as useful and disposable as paper tissue to full-bloods, but my charges are children, and that should mean something no matter what their blood history,” I said, anger heating my words.
At that moment I didn’t care how many vile looks Danika threw my way, or what this Lord might order done to me as a result of my statement. This was serious and seriously beyond my ability to handle. I was a freaking baker, for Goddess’ sake. What in the abyss did they think I could do that an army of guards could not?
“I understand where you’re coming from, and if you say no I will respect your decision,” he said. The words were stiff and he almost choked on them, but he said them all the same. “I would request, however, that you and your charges meet her prior to making a decision, and then the three of you can discuss it. Is that agreeable?” he asked, and once again he’d hit his neutral tone as best he could, in an effort to not sway my decision.
The sane and logical part of my brain gave a resounding, No fucking way on this planet or any other, but the sympathetic part got to my mouth first.
“I would certainly be willing to do that,” I said.
It might be the wrong decision, but what kind of person would I be to turn down meeting a six year-old whose last chance might be me? No better than the ones willing to sacrifice my charges for her safety. Sometimes, morality, you don’t have the good sense Goddess gave a rock.