Ronan’s call immediately attracted the attention of every delegate in the conference room. Heads turned collectively and most hurried to stand to offer their obeisance. However, the delegations of the Smythe and O’Grady clans stood at a much slower pace than the others.
When they reached their chairs, Landyn and Diarmad stepped aside, leaving Nico in plain sight of the delegates. Some couldn’t suppress their gasp or sharp intake of breath as he gazed around the table and nodded politely. Before he could pull his chair out from under the table, he felt such a burst of hatred and contempt he involuntarily took a step back. Before he could determine the source, it stopped, as if a door had been slammed closed.
Diarmad reached out for Nico the instant he felt him tense, but when he inquired about the matter quietly, Nico shook his head briefly. Seeing Nico eying the Smythe delegation warily, he asked again, "Nico? Is everything all right?"
"Yeah sure, I just kinda, uh, stumbled over my own feet, is all." Only nothing was right. His precog was screaming at him so loudly he’d briefly become dizzy. Something bad was going to happen. He needed to warn Diarmad and Landyn. But how? The negotiations were about to begin. He decided he’d wait for an opportunity to talk to Landyn.
Diarmad frowned, but didn't comment on Nico's obvious lie. When the excited whispering continued, he demanded gently, "Gentlemen, please," his voice carrying over the chatter, getting their attention easily.
After the delegates sat down again and calmed down enough for him to continue, he smiled, tight-lipped. Folding his hands in front of him, he continued, “Your reaction upon seeing Nico here leads me to the assumption you believed the rumor my mate died in the fire in Japan." Diarmad's irritation was almost palpable, and most of the delegation members ducked their heads, wisely refraining from discussing the topic further, except for one.
The council member tried to justify their reaction. "I apologize, sire. After your brief words of welcome yesterday, and your immediate disappearance afterwards, we assumed the rumors were true. Especially when no further meetings to clear up any questions before the negotiations had been scheduled. There was no formal dinner, as is usual on these occasions. We all assumed you cancelled because you were in mourning."
"You assumed.” Diarmad drew out the last word mockingly. “We are not here to discuss rumors, or the reasons they came up in the first place, for we have much more important things to talk about, do you not think?" He looked around for confirmation. "I will say one last thing that is not directly related to the negotiations. My mate and I have rescinded our separation." He took Nico's hand and smiled at him lovingly.
"How wonderful!" one of the council delegates exclaimed and applauded in delight. The other delegates fell in shortly after.
"Why didn't we hear of this before? Where was he yesterday?" one of the Order delegates inquired.
"Why is this of any interest? Maybe he came late," Ivan's younger brother, Seamus, suggested, rolling his eyes at the inquisitive man.
"We need to talk," Nico murmured, almost inaudibly, but Landyn heard him anyway and mouthed ‘Why?’, which prompted an irritated glare from Diarmad. Sho stepped closer to Nico’s chair too.
"One last question, sire." Before Diarmad could decline, the Order member continued, "You being back together means your former separation is nullified?"
Landyn muttered, "It seems someone is a bit slow on the uptake." This got him another glare from Diarmad.
Not really listening anymore, Nico covertly watched the men assembled around the conference table. Some of them he knew, like Cieran O'Connor and the redheaded council delegate, Sean Monaghan, but most of them he'd never seen before.
When he noticed the young man sitting behind the McLean delegation, he mused: Is that Jamie McLean?
At that moment, Jamie looked at Nico pleadingly and practically screamed at him mentally, I didn't do it!
Nico heard him loud and clear. Tuning out everything around him, he concentrated solely on Jamie, and then it was as if a movie was playing in his head.
He saw two groups of young men meet in the restaurant’s bathroom. One guy said something rude, and someone from the other group responded. One word led to another, and a burly man abruptly grabbed the shirt of a tall blond and shoved him against a sink. When the blond pushed back, a gap opened in the small crowd, revealing a young man lying in a pool of blood. His hand curled around the bloody handle of a knife protruding from his stomach.
Jamie hadn't killed Neal Smythe, nor did he know who did. Jamie hadn't even noticed his knife had been stolen until it reappeared as the murder weapon.
Nico became aware of his surroundings again when he heard Diarmad's sharp voice: "... is the presumption of innocence!"
Judging from the outraged expressions on the faces of the Order delegates, Nico figured Diarmad must have told them what he thought about their prejudging note.
Thinking about what Diarmad had said a few days ago, Nico cleared his throat. When he had everybody's attention, he cited the Digest, a compendium of Roman law Diarmad had in his library and often referred to. "Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat. The burden of proof lies with who declares, not who denies.
"This is one of the fundamental rights of the accused, and this trial will once again support its purpose, because contrary to the opinion of some delegates, Jamie McLean is indeed innocent. He didn't kill Neal Smythe, nor does he know who did. A fact that everyone with half decent mind-reading abilities could have seen months ago, I might add."
The Order delegate sitting to the left of the secretary of Elders dismissed Nico's statement with a brief flick of his hand. "You mean a rookie could have seen that, First Telepath?" He used Nico's title more like an insult than a sign of respect. "Or what he wanted us to see? He simply projects what he wants us to believe in the foreground and hides what really happened behind his mental shields. It's a well-known trick.”
Nico was hard-pressed to stay indifferent to the man's attitude and only those who knew him well were aware his raised left eyebrow showed his annoyance. "I have indeed never heard of this ‘trick’, as you call it."
The smug smile on the delegate's face quickly vanished; however, as soon as Nico continued, "Not that it would matter. No one can conceal mental shields from me; I would have noticed them immediately." He then leaned back in his chair and continued casually, "If you really believe I could make such a grave mistake, you can't be overly confident in the people who elected me First Telepath of the Seraei." Here he looked pointedly at the three council members sitting opposite him, who promptly bristled at the idea somebody would question their competence.
"However, you are right; Jamie McLean has one mental shield still in place." The Order member grinned triumphantly. "I know what's behind it." Here Nico looked pointedly at Jamie, whose face turned instantly crimson red when Nico winked conspiratorially at him. "But as this has absolutely nothing to do with the case, it is well protected by me."
Then he turned and locked eyes with every member of the Order's delegation in turn. "Never doubt though, your Excellencies, the council didn't err in naming me First Telepath." His grin turned almost feral then. "I can shatter every single mind shield of any person if I wish to. I can also detect the protection shield extended by Cieran O'Connor, and I understand he's doing this because you are human and therefore not able to shield yourselves. I agree it would be an unfair advantage for us to see your thoughts."
Diarmad frowned at his mate, wondering why he was antagonizing the Order delegate. This man was with the secretary of the Elders, the spokesperson of the Order's ruling council. Nico had subtly threatened him to read his mind against his will.
Landyn grinned inwardly at the pinched expressions of the Order delegates, especially the secretary's. Nico had handled the pretentious prick well; it had been about time someone took him down a notch or two.
A loud crackling sound snapped him out of his musings. Immediately, he pressed his forefinger against the small plastic knob in his ear, trying to blend out every other sound around him.
Ronan's frantic voice came through his earpiece. "Two choppers coming in near the house! Speed boats of unknown origin have landed at the waterfront, and two trucks are approaching fast from the street side! One of them is breaking down the main entrance doors as we speak. The guards trying to stop them are being shot at with machine guns! Do you copy?"
"Roger," Landyn barked into his mouthpiece, startling everyone in the room. Ignoring the irritated questions thrown at him, he quickly placed his hand on Diarmad's shoulder. "We're under attack, sire. Unknown assailants. Attacks coming in from air, over country, and from seaside. Orders?"
Diarmad closed his eyes, his lips pressed together into thin lines, before he whispered, "It is finally happening." He turned to Nico. "Did you feel something? Your precog was always better than mine."
Nico nodded reluctantly. "Yeah, after we entered the room." His voice was drowned out by the loud noise of choppers circling over the grounds. Men shouted commands both inside and outside the house, overlaid by sporadic gunfire.
Diarmad rose from his chair. "Secure the perimeter! Barricade the door! We're under attack!" Then he grabbed Landyn's second sword and walked over to the window, to assess the situation outside.
The McLeans hurried to follow his orders and pushed the huge conference table against the door.
"Stay away from the windows, sire!" Sho came over and pulled Diarmad's arm. "It's too dangerous. What if they see you? I'll go." He placed himself at the side of a window and peered outside. "Two trucks are approaching fast. The guards from the house are in position, but I doubt they have a chance."
As if to confirm his statement, the rapid fire of machine guns could be heard. "They're under fire from one of the choppers and retreating back into the house," Sho reported.
By then, most of the delegates ran about the room like startled chickens, or so it seemed at first sight, but then Diarmad noticed the Smythes, the O'Gradys, and the Order delegates had gathered in one corner of the room, remarkably calm despite the fact they were under attack.
Maybe this is not such a surprise for them after all...
Sho went to Nico, holding out his second sword to him. "Not that it would do you any good against guns."
Landyn muttered, "If you mean we're utterly, truly fucked, you're right. This room is like a fucking goldfish bowl, no cover, no chance to escape."
Then none of that mattered anymore. The double doors flung open, the table easily shoved aside, and men clad in black protective armor poured into the room.
"Holy shit," Sho whispered behind Nico, gripping his sword tighter. "This is a whole army!"
Landyn stepped in front of his king, sword held high. "The more the merrier."
"They have guns, idiot," Diarmad hissed.He pushed Landyn out of his way and released an energy blast that threw the first row of intruders back into the entrance hall. "I can't erect a shield and drive them out of the room!" He turned to the McLeans. "Can any of you build an energy field strong enough to deflect bullets?"
"I can do that, but I need time!" Seamus shouted.
"How long to you need?"
"Give me five minutes."
Without looking back, Diarmad released another energy blast. "I’ll see what I can do." Then he commanded the men forming a protective circle around Seamus, "Retreat to a corner in the back of the room and stand behind him!"
The McLeans and council delegate Sean Monaghan looked at each other. Nobody was willing to leave the king to fend against the enemy alone. When they didn't immediately follow his orders, Diarmad bellowed, "Now! That's an order!"
Reluctantly, everyone followed his command, everyone but Nico.
"I’ll stay with you and watch your back." He positioned himself behind Diarmad, watching the Smythes and the O'Gradys. He had a bad feeling about them He tried to scan them, but the commotion was too great; he couldn’t concentrate enough for a clear scan.
"You too!" When Nico still didn't move, Diarmad snapped. "I don't want you here! Go! I don't need you!"
The harsh words hit Nico in the gut. He turned his gaze from the men he was watching and stared at his mate, who ignored him completely after his cruel words.
Therefore, he missed the chair someone threw at Diarmad. It hit his back and effectively interrupted his aim and made him stagger to the side. He lost precious time, enough to allow the attackers to swarm the room.
Nico then saw Ivan's father tackle one of the Smythe delegates. When he tried to restrain him, he was struck down by a gunshot, and then all hell broke loose.
Ivan, who had been standing behind Seamus, ran to his father, knelt down beside him, and tried to staunch the blood welling out of the bullet wound in his neck. It was clear Ivan was rapidly losing the fight for his father's life. Even with the enhanced healing, Duncan McLean couldn’t close the gaping wound in his neck fast enough.
The attackers concentrated on Diarmad, ignoring everyone else in the room. When Nico looked for the Order delegates, he was shocked to see council leader O'Connor still standing protectively in front of the Order delegates, shielding their minds. What are they hiding?
In hindsight, they never had a chance of winning this battle. More and more men invaded the room and surrounded Diarmad like a wall. When Nico noticed the danger, it was already too late.
Diarmad knew the situation was hopeless, but still fought desperately, using his sword and the rest of his energy to free himself and give Seamus the time he needed to erect his shield. He heard Nico yell out a warning, and then something was jammed into his neck. Their eyes locked, and Diarmad’s mind yelled at him, ‘Try to read them! I want to know who is behind this!’ before he slumped down. Two men grabbed him by his arms and dragged him out of the room.
In the meantime, the others had assembled behind Seamus McLean, as ordered.
Nico tried to go after Diarmad, but Landyn held him back. He grabbed Nico's arm. "There are too many. You can't help him at the moment." He tried to drag Nico behind Seamus.
Nico knew Landyn was right. Even using his telekinetic force, he wouldn't be able to push through fast enough to get to Diarmad. He stood there for a moment, staring after his mate, undecided, when two attackers turned around. One of them smiled cruelly, before he lifted his gun and pointed it at his face.
The man didn’t expect Nico’s level of desperation. They'd abducted Nico’s mate, killed Ivan's father, and threatened his friends. He lunged forward, caught the hand holding the gun, and slashed his sword against the man's shoulder, almost severing his arm. Then he slammed its handle into the other man's face, before he knocked him flat on his back with a kick to his head.
Landyn grabbed the gun from the fallen man, and then rolled to the side, barely avoiding a bullet. Jumping back to his feet, he shouted, "Get behind Seamus! Now!"
Sho, who now stood beside Nico, deflected a blow directed against his head, then jabbed the man hard on the temple before he slashed his throat. Panting, he dragged Nico after him. "Come, Seamus is almost done. We'll get him back, but you must live, otherwise he'll never forgive us." He risked a glance to his left and saw Ivan still crouched over his father.
Ivan's head snapped up when he heard his mate's voice.
"Ivan! Seamus can shield us! Come on!" Sho looked over his shoulder, but Ivan was still at his father’s side, and his voice became frantic. "Ivan!"
One last look at the pale body at his feet told Ivan all he needed to know. He lovingly closed his father’s eyes. He stood up, drenched in his father's blood, and nodded at his mate, who still looked at him with pleading eyes.
His brother's sharp voice got his attention. "Ready! Quickly now! Come on, come on! Ivan! Sho!"
Landyn had downed another attacker with a well-aimed shot between his eyes, when a bullet clipped his right shoulder. He stumbled briefly before he reached Seamus.
Grimacing at the pain searing though his back, he panted. "Okay. Ready!"
His body tense, hands raised in front of him, Seamus muttered between clenched teeth, "We're waiting for Ivan."
Then the mass of enemies parted as Ivan stumbled in their direction. He had almost reached them when he was grabbed from behind and something was jabbed into his neck, just like what happened to Diarmad.
Sho cried out, "No! Ivan!" He wanted to run after him, but Jamie held him back. Struggling against his arms with a wild, pained look in his eyes, he wailed, "Ivan! Let me go! Ivan!"
They could do nothing without risking their own lives. They had to watch as one of the attackers took Ivan's limp body, threw him over his shoulder, and carried him out of the room fireman-style.
Blood seeping from his head wound, Jamie still clutched Sho in a tight embrace. "There is nothing you can do for him, except survive."
Seamus erected the force field with shaking hands. The man had lost his father, and his brother had been abducted, facing an uncertain fate.
Clutching his bleeding shoulder, Landyn wondered if Seamus could withstand the pressure. He knew he had to do something. "How does it work?"
Seamus shook his head; Landyn's voice had brought him out of his stupor. He answered between clenched teeth, "It feeds off my energy, but every touch from a sword, bullet, or punch will be stripped off its kinetic energy and reinforce the field, this way I can sustain it longer."
Luckily, it worked exactly as predicted; every attacker who touched it was slammed to the ground, withering in cramps until they lay motionless on the ground. Bullets clanked on the floor, losing their momentum the moment they hit the shield.
Someone issued a sharp command, and the attackers retreated immediately. The Order delegates were among the first who left the room, followed by the Smythes and the O'Gradys.
What shocked all of them was that Cieran O'Connor, leader of the council, ran out of the room as if hell hounds were after him, no longer caring about shielding the Order delegation.
Nico was finally able to concentrate. He read fragments of the secretary's mind, '...headquarter. His Eminence—furious—force him to hand over—'
When Simon stormed into the conference room, announcing the attackers were gone, Seamus immediately released the shield and sank exhausted to his knees, shaking violently. Then he curled into a tight ball, spasms running up and down his back.
Landyn stumbled from behind him and fell into Simon's arms as soon as the shield was down. Touching his mate's body, Simon checked him for injuries. Then they pressed their foreheads together, and reveled in the delight of each other's presence.
Jamie released Sho and crouched down beside Seamus, running his hands helplessly over the trembling shoulders of his brother, the new clan leader. One of the guards reluctantly approached them and held out a bottle of water. "Here, let him drink something; it will help him fight his dehydration and calm down."
Nico and Sho knew their mates were long gone, but they still ran outside as soon as they saw Simon. All they heard was choppers in the distance.
A sudden feeling of powerlessness and uselessness overwhelmed Nico as he picked up a discarded helmet and threw it after the disappearing helicopters, yelling out his frustration.
Eventually Simon came looking for them. When neither Nico nor Sho acknowledged him, he crossed the yard and touched Nico's arm, then rubbed his hands soothingly over his back. "Come on back inside, Nico; there's nothing you can do here." Then he turned to Sho, who was also staring forlornly in the distance. "You too, Sho. Seamus wants to talk to you."
Nico turned around and let his head sink against Simon's shoulder. "They...." His voice cracked when his throat tightened. A deep pain throbbed in his chest. Instinctively, he pressed his hand against his sternum, wondering why this injury still hurt. It should be healed by now. Only it wasn’t an actual wound. It was Diarmad’s absence. He couldn’t feel his presence anymore.
They walked into the house, and Nico noticed the trail of destruction the fight had left. The entrance door was destroyed and hanging askew on its hinges. The black and white marble tiles in the hall were littered with the debris of destroyed furniture and soiled with stains that looked suspiciously like blood, with the odd helmet or piece of armor scattered around the room. Thank God, there were no bodies.
Sean Monaghan, who had been hurt worse than they'd initially thought, lay on his back on the floor beside the conference room. The remaining council member sat beside him, his hands hovering over his body, and Nico realized he was healing him.
Simon relayed they had managed to capture three attackers alive, but when they saw they couldn't escape, they had triggered some sort of suicide device and died a horrible, but fast, death.
Ivan's brother sat on the floor inside the conference room, his dead father in his lap. When he heard them coming in he lifted his head. "They took Ivan. Why did they take Ivan?"
"I don't know, Seamus, I really don't know." Nico sighed and sat down beside him.
One after the other, their friends came to them. Becca still carried a gun. She had bloodstains all over her shirt, and one pant leg was torn. When she saw Nico, she squatted down in front of him and laid a hand on his shoulder. "I'm so sorry. I saw them dragging the king and Ivan to one of the choppers, but there was nothing I could do."
Nico nodded. "I thought they might. They wouldn't risk us coming after them." He saw her distraught expression and the dark shadows under her eyes. "How is Ronan?"
She smiled wryly. "He got a blow to his head and bled like a pig, but otherwise he's okay; others weren't so lucky, though."
In the meantime, Simon and Landyn talked quietly to Seamus and then helped him carry the body of his father out of the room.
They came back with Ronan, whose hair was still matted with dried blood. Silently, he took one of the overturned chairs and sat it on its legs for Becca, before he took another one for himself.
The council member who had healed Sean Monaghan came back also and asked, "Does anybody else need help?"
Jamie pointed at Sho, who had a light flesh wound on his right thigh and some burn wounds on his shoulder. "He's my brother's intended mate and still human. He can't heal himself."
Nico stood up and paced around the room. "We need to decide what to do quickly. I was able to read the secretary's mind. I believe they took them to the Order's headquarters. Does anyone know its location?"
"It is long-rumored they have a secret headquarter besides the public house of the Order, but we never had any proof. Nobody knows where it is. If they took them there...."
Ronan smiled grimly. "Let me get my laptop." Before the others could ask why, all of a sudden, he needed his laptop, he was already out of the room.
Sean Monaghan raked his hands through his hair before he said quietly, "I can't believe Cieran O'Connor sided with the enemy."
"At least we now know who the enemy is. Since the first assassination attempt on him, the king knew it was only a matter of time before they decided to strike again, and he always suspected it was someone near him, someone with insider information," Landyn stated.
"But Cieran? And the Order? My grandmother was a member of the Order. To think they killed one of their own. How deep runs this betrayal?" Nico asked, agitated.
"What do you think they are going to do with them? Oh my God, last time they tried to kill the king! Ivan!" Sho exclaimed.
While they waited for Ronan, Becca reported except for three guards, all the others were dead. After that, they fell silent.
When Ronan returned, he carried the laptop in front of him. "After the last assassination attempt, Diarmad had me plant a detection device on him. We were warned something like this could happen." He looked at the open page and grinned. "We have a strong and clear signal."
Val suggested I hide....
Thank you for the suggestion, and for everything else