On December 15, Shana's long awaited twenty-fifth birthday finally arrived. She awoke in the early morning just after dawn to the feel of something cool slowly moving over her skin. Her eyes blinked open and she realized that Rocky was propped up on elbow beside her. Something in his fingers was what she felt as he trailed it over her body. "Gimme!" She sat up and made a grab for his hand as he laughed at her.
He let her catch him, and he smiled when she drew a startled breath. The pendant had been made from a shimmering opal gem that wrapped around a bit of heart-shaped amber. The amber itself was particularly dark, and almost looked black in the dim light. "I thought your Masks looked lonely on your necklace," he told her softly, "so I decided to help. This just seemed like the perfect addition."
She traced a finger over the face of the pendant; she knew full well that only one person could have crafted it. No wonder Rachel had been so busy lately. "Because you are the opal and I am the amber?"
"And you are at the heart of me." He took the pendant from her and leaned closer to affix it to the necklace she always wore. The pendant fit perfectly between both small Masks, and it fell to rest directly over her Flower Mark. "Did you know," he told her softly, "that the best time to hunt amber on Protea is near the palace between twenty-one and twenty-two hours when Delphinium's light shines on it?"
All planets could see at least one other, if not two in all cases except Iris and Statice at the end of each line following the two core worlds. They only saw the planet preceding them while the rest saw the one before and behind, and both Delphinium and Protea also saw each other to the side. Which part of each world saw what part of the other varied across the day, but always between twenty-one and twenty-two hours, the two palaces of Protea and Delphinium could see each other quite clearly given the size of the worlds and their proximity. The others just made small spheres in the sky with minimal landscape detail.
Her eyes looked almost like gems themselves as she smiled at him. "If they're like me, perhaps they only come out to play when their lover calls." Her lashes fluttered closed as his hand curled around the back of her neck, and he drew her closer for a tender kiss. She could feel the pendant pulsing against her Mark and it felt almost like the touch of his fingers. Intimate and loving and so very soothing.
"Happy birthday," he murmured against her lips. He smiled and skimmed his fingers through her hair. "Why don't you go for your morning jog, and I'll start breakfast? You'll need the fuel today."
"Tell me about it." She smiled. After all the anticipation and worry of the past months, she felt suddenly calm now that the day had arrived. "I guess I'm not the baby anymore," she teased. "Our spiritual marriage is no longer illegal or illicit."
"Well, not technically, but we could pretend." He grinned as she laughed and rolled out of bed. He had no worry for letting her go off jogging alone. The last two days had found the bodyguards going from merely day shifts to both day and night in alternating sets. He knew for a fact that at dawn the shift had handed off to Sam and Michael, and they lurked outside the apartment building where no one unsavory could get in without their notice.
Ten minutes later, dressed in shorts and a top over her workout bra, Shana stepped out of the building. She felt no guilt at all about making her bodyguards jog along in her wake. They were young and healthy, and it would never do them any harm. Besides, she never ran at an extremely fast clip, so it wasn't like they could complain about being unable to keep up. They loved her enough to not coop her up entirely, so she adjusted where she could as well.
As she jogged, she felt the comforting weight of the pendant against her heart. It helped calm her when she felt a little off-balance. It had been almost exactly twenty years earlier that she had uncovered her Mask in this life. Almost exactly twenty years since the accident that had taken her birth parents had happened. Almost twenty years since she and Edgar had been made a part of the Toulume family and been given the miracle of another mother to love them with all the power their birth parents had. She looked forward to calling Octavia after the takeover and telling her everything. They had kept her in the dark, too, for her own safety.
She stopped for a brief cool down near a quiet house and was stretching her legs when she felt the premonition of danger moving down her skin. Her head swung around as she heard the familiar sound of squealing brakes. An equally familiar carriage had skidded around the corner and aimed right for her. Her eyes narrowed as she prepared to dodge.
Her muscles had barely tensed before two bodies tackled her and took her safely to the ground well out of reach. The carriage entered the pedestrian space and then up onto the house's lawn itself before skidding to a stop. Shana's eyes lifted and she saw the person behind the wheel. Her mind photographed the face perfectly just before the carriage reversed back into the street and then tore out at top speed.
"Son-of-a-bitch!" Sam snarled. "Tell me you saw the plate!"
"I did." Michael's voice sounded thick with anticipation. "I'd like to see them explain this one!"
"Ahem!" Shana rolled her eyes as they both looked down at her. "As much as I'm sure a good many people in the world would fantasize about being pinned by you two at the same time, you're cutting off my air."
"Sorry about that." Sam and Michael released her so that she could sit up. When she had, Sam swiftly ran his hands over her to make sure she was still in one piece. "You're not hurt?"
She sighed. "I'm fine."
"You're sure?" Michael spotted scratches on her arms and legs and scowled darkly. Someone would pay dearly for putting marks on his little sister's skin.
"Yes!" She rubbed the bridge of her nose. She was reluctantly resigned to the fact that both Sam and Michael were only fractionally less possessive and protective of her and Siobhan than Alexandria and Sherry. And, really, Alexandria and Sherry were just as bad about Rocky and Edgar, though they had less of a propensity to overreact.
It wasn't uncommon for a twin to be possessive and protective of their twin's soul mate. After all, twins shared overlapping identical halves of a soul. Even though Shana's soul would only interlock with Rocky's, that didn't mean that she didn't connect powerfully to Sam as well. Or vice-versa with Alexandria and Rocky. The curious thing, the thing that had been puzzling most everyone all along, was the bond between Rocky and Siobhan, and Edgar and Shana. It was normal for the two couples to sense their other half in danger since they acted as Caretakers to each other, but it was not normal for the siblings to sense each other. Between each set of siblings existed elements of both sorts of soul mates, though even Clara had no way to explain why. Because of it, reciprocity extended outward from the siblings to their twins as much it did from the lovers to their twins. There was even some suspicion that the whole convoluted situation was why Shana and Siobhan or Rocky and Edgar happened to be so powerfully close to one another.
Knowing all of that even without understanding any of the 'whys' involved made it easier for Shana to handle having so many overprotective guardians. "Happy damned birthday," she muttered.
Sam lightly tapped the pendant she wore and smiled. His twin was an unashamed romantic, and the symbolism seemed quite blatant. "At least you woke up smiling."
"I often do." She blew out a breath. "Let us pray all the rest of my birthdays are vastly more boring!" She looked at Michael. "Where do we stand on the official front, Mike?"
"With this event, we are more than ready to go. My own eyewitness account combined with Tyson's is damning enough, but once we started digging deeper, we found more and more we could use." He took a long breath and then reached out to tangle his fingers in her hair. "We have enough evidence to arrest all five trustees for three counts of attempted murder against you, one against Edgar, and two full murder charges regarding your parents."
It did actually take a moment for that to sink in. Shana's eyes closed, and she felt Sam wrap an arm around her shoulders. "I always . . . wondered," she admitted softly. "I don't remember that accident at all. I was watching out the windows, and it happened in fractions of seconds. I could hear the squealing brakes, my mother screaming, and Edgar crying out . . . but I saw nothing. I don't think I really comprehended the events until after I woke in the hospital and Octavia told me and Edgar what had happened."
"It honestly did not initially intend to be a course of investigation," Michael told her quietly. "Why would it be? But Suri found something . . . suspicious in some records we obtained. And when we talked to Clara about the incredible difficulty Octavia had adopting you and Edgar—and the trustees' seemingly obsessive desire to have two you in the Care House versus a loving home—it just . . . set off alarms. So we scratched the surface, just to see if it was worth exploring more."
"And you found filth under the surface," Sam surmised.
"Far more than we expected."
"So can I break their arms?"
"Yeah, but then I'd have to arrest you."
"If you catch me."
As they had wanted, and intended, the banter made Shana smile. "Boys!" She shook her head a bit. "Mike, can you delay the arrests until Edgar and I take back the company? I think it fair to say the trustees deserve to go down in suitably spectacular fashion."
"It's already planned. I went ahead and told Suri everything, and she immediately agreed to wait in the hall with me to listen a bit gleefully to you destroy—er, shame, the trustees. She liked the idea of us marching in as a sort of punctuation to the whole thing."
Sam grinned wickedly. "You sure I can't go, Shana?"
She snorted at him. "I don't trust your temper. You'll have to settle for a report from who is going."
* * * * *
Deep in Dragonsbane, the remaining minions stood together in stunned silence. Reggie was the most shaken. How could Jaslyn simply leave them? How could she betray them like this? And yet . . . every single one of them, even Linx, couldn't help but wonder if what she had done was really wrong. They only wanted to belong, to allow dragons to live in the physical plane again. If Jaslyn had found a way to belong, how did they reserve the right to call her wrong for it?
Irimara told them all sweetly, "We can bring her back. Those terrible humans lied and deceived her, and they will only use her. Focus on gathering lifeforce for now, and we can save her when our army is bigger. Everything will work out in the end."
She swept out of the room and the minions shared looks. Reggie still looked so dejected that both Talla and Linx ached for him. They walked over to him and put an arm around his shoulders and waist. "Come on," Talla said softly. "We'll figure something out."
The twins watched them go and then exchanged a long look that communicated without words. They just couldn't believe anymore what Irimara said. Jaslyn wasn't the kind of person to be easily deceived. The only thing they could do was go to Protea and find her, and find out what had really happened. If she really was being deceived, maybe they could convince her to come back.
They left Dragonsbane and hurried back to Protea. Since they knew Jaslyn had been invited to stay with the current High Queen, that made it easy to track her. They just had to figure out where her magic intersected with very powerful Nature magic. It did not take long to find it, though they ended up at a home that actually had Memory magic all over it. They hid around the side of the house to peek into the backyard and found Jaslyn putting up balloons and streamers. Familiar Cultivators ambled around the area to help decorate as well. Shanta and Enaya themselves bickered with the younger Gladiolus Defender over decorating what looked like a truly decadent cake.
"Jaslyn's . . . laughing," Siana whispered. "She looks really happy."
Sicily could see the exact same thing, and she watched in wonder as the former High King of Protea walked by and ruffled Jaslyn's hair as affectionately as if she was a part of the family. Her smile then looked radiant.
Abruptly, and without warning, both twins suddenly felt their feet leave the ground. The sense of weightlessness was very unnerving without wings, and they gulped back yelps as they flailed a bit in their effort to land again. They tried a bit desperately to swim through the air as well, yet they continued to hover.
"Need an anchor?" a girl's voice asked.
"Yes, please!" Siana said fervently, and then blinked. She looked to the side hastily and found that the young High Princess of Protea had come up without being heard, and she wore her full armor and Mask as a Defender. Siana barely swallowed another yelp. "W-where did you come from?!"
"My mother can answer that question better than me," Leslie countered. She propped a hand on her hip, and her other lifted where black and pink magic began to swirl. "You're not supposed to be here." Vines emerged from her fingers and trussed up both twins neatly, and she then used the end of the vines to tow them along through the air and back around closer to the front of the house. "I have them, Delphinium."
Rhya nodded firmly and she released the white and gold magic over her fingers. The weightlessness disappeared, and the twins landed on their butts in the grass. Rhya winced behind her Mask. "Oops. Sorry. I still don't know how to lower someone yet." She crossed her arms as Leslie lined up beside her. "Look, you can leave now, okay, because Jaslyn is ours to protect. We're not going to let you guys hurt her."
"We don't want to hurt her," Sicily disagreed firmly. "We were just trying to see if you had tricked her." Seeing the sudden darkening of temper in Leslie's eyes told her more surely than Jaslyn's happiness that their friend was not being fooled. "Irimara said she was being used by you!"
"Well, of course she did!" Rhya threw her hands in the air. "That's because she's a greedy old dragon who doesn't care about anything but herself! She turned on Jaslyn! She was gonna kill her! So now we're gonna protect her. Even from you. Just because we're kids, don't think we're not true Defenders!"
If anything, both twins felt their hidden scales rippling in a way that meant they sat in the presence of exceptionally strong power. It felt oddly familiar in some way, and certainly more potent than even the Rebirth Era other than the two Apexes. "We're going, we're going!" Siana said, and both she and her sister suited actions to words by disappearing from out of the vines still holding them.
Leslie and Rhya pulled off their Masks, shared a long look, and then ran toward the house shouting for Rachel. It never once crossed their mind to talk to an older Cultivator. Rachel was their Defender, and not for the first time, both princesses felt the curious lack of the rest of the ones named by the planets to be their friends, allies, and guardians.
* * * * *
The trustee meeting for the month had just convened in the Chivanti Corporation building when Edgar and Shana walked into the lobby on the first floor. They were flanked by Nathaniel and Clara as well as Rocky, Alexandria, and Doug. The two heirs and legal advisors wore perfectly tailored suits while the other three wore more casual professional clothing. Chance met up with them just inside the doors and then escorted them to the receptionist.
The older man had worked there since before the previous owners had died. He did not initially recognize who Chance had brought in, and then the siblings removed their sunglasses to reveal their unmistakable protea eyes as pink as the base of the black flower native only to their world.
The receptionist shot to his feet in utter shock. "Edgar! Shana!" His head swung toward Chance. "Why did you bring them here?" he asked urgently. "The trustees will not be happy!"
"How terrible for them." Shana's voice rivaled Doug's element for sheer icy chill. "Wish me happy birthday, Huu. I joined the coveted adult club today."
Huu looked at her a little blankly at first, unsure of the relevance, and then it began to dawn as he recognized the female legal advisor. He remembered her from twenty years before, and he also remembered what most everyone in the company had always known: the heirs would come home when both became adults and controlled the company.
He calmly pushed a button to unlock the lifter that would reach the top floor. "Welcome home. The first conference room you see on the top floor is where you want to go. I'm sure you remember the way."
Chance personally escorted everyone up to the top tenth floor. Everyone they passed could only stop and stare at the entourage in shock. Those who had been there long enough were able to recognize Edgar and Shana. Those who hadn't just somehow suspected they knew what was about to happen.
Jeremy Eiki had just called for attention in the conference room when the doors swung open. An older man in his late sixties, he could have retired years before if he had not so thoroughly enjoyed his power and prestige as the head trustee. He turned with a scowl as he saw Chance in the doorway. "Is there a problem?"
"Yeah. I resign." Chance tossed a sheaf of papers on the table. "I figured I'd do it in person."
"Ah, but then you're out of a job." Edgar casually walked around him and picked up the papers as the five trustees at the table froze. "Consider yourself hired by new management." He aimed a chilling smile toward Jeremy. "It's been a long time, hasn't it? Twenty years now, I would say. How nostalgic."
Jeremy felt his hands began to sweat, and a shiver work its way down his back. He recognized Edgar, of course, but he saw no vestiges of the quiet and reserved little boy in this grown man. Time and experience had forged him like a blade, and he carried himself with regal dignity. "It has indeed, Edgar. What brings you by? You're always welcome at a meeting now that you're an adult."
"How delightfully generous of you." Shana sauntered into the room with all the grandeur of her High Queen status. Because she knew it would piss the trustees off, she pointedly walked over and sat down in the chair at the other end of the table that was reserved for an owner only. Even Jeremy had not dared to sit there personally. "Does that offer include me as well? I'm an adult as well now, as of nearly nine hours ago. For the next two weeks, Edgar and I are even the same age like real twins! Isn't that so sweet?"
Another trustee cleared her throat. Her face had turned slightly green at the edges. Like Jeremy and the other three trustees, she had easily entered into her sixties in age and would hold off retiring until she no longer had a choice. "I assume, then, that you have decided to claim your share of the company?" A hint of a smirk crossed Shana's face, and the trustee barely bit back a snarl. She refrained only because the tall woman who moved to stand behind Shana looked and felt equally dangerous, and her white eyes held both warning and promise alike.
No snarls would be sent at Edgar either. His bodyguard looked no less capable or dangerous as he casually followed the shorter man toward the end of the table where Shana sat. Edgar eased a hip onto the side of the table beside Shana, and she nearly bared her teeth as she smiled. "Taking our share? Close but no prize as my best friend in Vericity might say. We're taking the entire company." She looked at the door. "Do join us."
Clara walked into the room with Nathaniel and Rocky right behind her, and she got the sheer satisfaction of watching the remaining color leave all trustees' faces. "Hello again. I see you remember me. How delightful. Just to be sure, my name is Clara Castlera, and this is my partner, Nathaniel Matica. We are the legal advisors for the Chivantis. The other gentleman is Rocky Toulume, who has been offering his own measure of expertise in certain things."
Jeremy covered his shaking hands by linking his fingers together. "I can't imagine how you intend to wrest away twenty percent ownership from the trustees. It was placed in our hands by a Chivanti many, many years before we even came to the post personally."
"We've been looking into the bylaws and stipulations set out by every Chivanti owner since the beginning." Nathaniel pulled out the aforementioned documents and five copies. He slid one across the table to each trustee. "I've highlighted and tabbed the page that holds the relevant information. The trustees maintain their job and their twenty percent controlling share of the company so long as they don't act in a manner that is 'incompetent or detrimental to the sanctity of the company'."
Another trustee scoffed. "You can't prove we've done anything wrong."
"I beg to differ." Rocky passed out the copies of the documents he had brought. "Chivanti Corporation has come under the attack of several vicious viruses as well as had their computational security breached multiple times. I managed to track down who had done the piercing of the defenses, and they happily gave me plenty of information about the weaknesses they had exploited. You're lucky they were just curious computational experts and not actually rabble rousers with bad intentions. Based on their information, I discovered the attacks had been executed using ridiculously simple means because the PCM securities have not been upgraded in over a decade. A little digging further, and I found that the funds in the budget to be used to upgrade PCM security had instead been diverted to pay for vacations for top staff. Specifically, the trustees and their assistants."
Jeremy began to sweat. "How did you get that information? If you've been breaking and entering in our systems, then that's a crime as well."
"You don't want to start in on crimes with us." Clara's eyes narrowed sharply. "As a matter of fact, what he did was perfectly legal." For once. "Edgar has held forty percent of this company for almost an entire year now, and with it came all rights to view whatever information he desires and have it assessed by a third party."
Shana got up to start walking slowly around the table. "Chivanti Corporation is supposed to be the parent to Lux's landmass, benevolent and willing to let there be plenty of freedom but always with the ability to pull back as needed. Twenty years ago, people flocked to us for help with everything from setting up their own businesses to getting advice to seeing the latest new inventions. When was the last time we released a new invention?" She made a disgusted noise. "One of my own friends hesitated to pursue her dream of owning her own business because you had made it so terrifying to apply, let alone possibly fail." She made a gesture. "Not to mention the fact that you recently lost a huge business deal with the company that oversees Vericity's landmass because they worried about your security."
"How did you know that?" Jeremy demanded sharply. Even the world leaders did not yet know about the failed agreement.
Her smile turned savage. "Let's just say I have friends in High places." She stopped next to Jeremy and leaned down to look him dead in the eye. His was the face she would never forget. "If losing a deal of that size because you just had to have a vacation isn't incompetence, then I don't know what is."
She straightened to walk away, and he realized that everything had begun to fall apart around him. The heirs had every advantage. Age: they would be around for far longer than any trustee. Intelligence: they had inherited their father's head for business and their mother's shrewd planning skill. Resources: they had pulled in some of the best in the world to help get all of the documentation needed to remove the trustees entirely.
His temper snapped and he lunged out his chair toward Shana. "You should have died three times by now!" he shouted. "Maybe the fourth time is the charm! I'll do the deed with my own hands!"
He took no more than a step before the blue-haired woman smoothly interceded with his path and slammed her fist into his nose. Bone crunched and blood spurted as the old man fell backwards onto the ground.
"If anyone dares lay a hand on her," Alexandria snarled as she swept a burning gaze across the table, "I will kill you!"
Sweetly, Shana said, "You should see the mess she made of the last person to harass me."
Doug barely hid a grin as the door suddenly swung open, and Michael sauntered into the room with his partner and several uniformed legal officers. "You're late," the Commander told his friend dryly.
Michael smirked. "On the contrary, I am right on time." He lifted a brow as the trustees stared at him in horror. "I'd take some notes on what I'm about to say; it's quite a list. You've been busy people! You're all under arrest for three accounts of attempted murder against Shana Chivanti, one account of attempted murder against Edgar Chivanti, and two accounts of premeditated murder against Randall and Georgiana Chivanti. You may come with us peacefully, or the officers can take you in forcefully."
Jeremy's eyes shot toward Shana, and her own narrowed with satisfaction. "By the way," she said softly, "my 'rubber brain' allows me to memorize near instantly just about anything and everything—including faces. The man who witnessed the second attempt on me easily matched details on the carriage to one you had bought, and just this morning, you actually dared to use the same machine again. In my existence, I've found myself threatened by all manner of things, but you by far have to be the dumbest threat I've ever known."
The trustees showed more intelligence then than they had all along. They went peacefully with the officers and filed out of the room. Michael and Suri alike stayed behind to talk to Edgar and Shana. "You certainly had impeccable timing, Mike," Edgar told his twin dryly. "Just how long were you outside the door?"
"The entire time." Michael lifted a brow at Shana. "Were you deliberately provoking him?"
"Of course I was." She shrugged one shoulder casually. "I had a feeling he would say something stupid that you could use against him. How nice of him to help prove his guilt and add an additional fourth threat to his repertoire!" She shot a grin at Alexandria. "You made my year by punching him in the nose!"
"Hey, he's lucky that's all I did, all things considered." Had it been known that Shana was in fact the High Queen of Protea, Alexandria would have been well within rights as a Defender to have more permanently removed the threat. Hence why Virginia had kept everyone under strict order to not act.
"How's your hand?" Rocky asked Alexandria.
"Please. I've hit your hard head and survived."
Clara hid a smile as she looked at Suri. "I expect Alexandria will not face repercussions for her action in the defense of Shana?"
Suri laughed. "Well, even if we disregard that she very clearly acted in self-defense of another, I doubt Eiki will at all have time to consider filing an assault charge since he will soon be busy trying to prove himself innocent of other wrongdoing."
"I'll represent you if he does, though," Nathaniel told Alexandria solemnly.
"Gracious of you, Nate."
Suri smiled as she looked at the group before her. Michael had told her everything, so she felt very honored to have been able to give her service to the Ruler Cultivators of the world she loved. She would regret never seeing the kingdoms rise again, but perhaps she could be reborn and enjoy it in another life. Until time itself ended, she would consider it an honor to help keep Protea safe in the only way she could.