“Pardon me,” Gareth said, loud as he could without being rude. He tapped on the glass pane of the phone booth he was trapped in, and when that didn’t work, shoved at the door. Finally, the dragon blocking his way looked over her shoulder at him, long neck twisting. Without so much as hissing an apology, she moved to let him out.
“Thank you,” Gareth said stiffly, then took a look around.
Currently, the world hung on the precipice between summer and fall. The wind carried a chill in from the east, laborers donned heavier layers than they had a week ago, and the leaves were beginning to change, reds and oranges creeping along the edges of crisp greens. It was the time of year when the world exchanged one kind of beauty for another, the time when people looked back to appreciate what they had and looked forward to the promise of what they may get.
It was Gareth’s least favorite time of year.
He loved how the grounds around his estate changed, and even more so, loved walking them with his wife, the air cold but her arm warm where it rested on his own. He loved playing with his daughter in the fallen leaves the servants raked up.
He just hated the politics.
Every fall, Unity hosted a series of political conferences. All the world’s important people flocked to the capital city of Gallontea to attend and Gareth’s sister, a Unity representative herself, insisted Gareth be among them. So every year, he reluctantly came.
He cast a baleful look at the bridge behind him, which led to Unity Island. From here, Gareth could make out Unity’s marvelous clock tower in the distance, its glowing face cutting against the city’s smog and marking it as just past one. He was free from the conferences for the day – early, too.
Across the square, a crowd gathered around a colorful archway, the words Rɪɴᴇʜᴀʀᴛ Fᴇsᴛɪᴠᴀʟ Gʀᴏᴜɴᴅs painted on the fluttering canvas in friendly lettering. Beneath it sat a striped ticket booth, a nympherai girl with bright flowers in her hair and skin the texture of birch lounging behind the counter. A line flowed out from the booth, reaching almost to where Gareth stood.
Gareth glanced back again at the clock tower, then joined the line.
Nearly half an hour of waiting passed before a small pair of hands grabbed the leg of his trousers and a piping voice yelled, “Surprise!”
Gareth twisted to face the newcomer, a hand flying to his heart in a feint of shock. “Ofelia! By the Three, how sneaky you are!”
A round-faced girl in a neat purple dress grinned up at him. “Momma said you wouldn’t be fooled.”
“Your mother was wrong,” Gareth said, looking up as Isobel joined them.
She wore a fondly exasperated smile, but her breathing came heavier than usual. At Gareth’s concerned look, she waved him off. “Ofelia rushed me the whole way here,” she explained. “I’m too slow, apparently.”
“Well, your timing was perfect,” Gareth leaned in and kissed his wife on the cheek. “You look beautiful, Bel.”
Isobel smiled, pleased. She wore a billowing white dress, one that left her tan, slender shoulders bare and cinched just above her stomach, round with pregnancy. “Careful with your compliments, love, or I’m going to think you want something.” She looked over at the ticket booth. “Ofelia’s been begging to come to the festival since we got here. I’m glad you called, but how did you get out of the conferences?”
“I didn’t,” Gareth said, lowering his voice before saying,’ “The Magistrates dismissed everyone early.”
Isobel arched a delicate eyebrow. “Whatever for? That’s strange, isn’t it?”
“Extremely,” Gareth said. He frowned, remembering how abruptly the three Unity Magistrates had turned everyone out of the room. “A telegram came from Illyon. Urgent, apparently.”
Isobel matched his frown. “Something must be wrong. They wouldn’t cancel the conference, otherwise.”
“Whatever it is, Unity will deal with it,” Gareth said.
Having had enough of being ignored, Ofelia tugged on Gareth’s sleeve. “Do you think that man will be here?” she asked. “The one from last year? With the fire whip?”
“I’m sure he will be,” Gareth said, smiling down at her. She looked like her mother, with dark hair and soft features. In Ofelia and Isobel’s presence, the knot of tension that always found its place between his shoulders during the Unity Conferences began to unwind.
Ofelia nodded. “I hope so. Let’s go find him.”
“We have to get inside first, dear,” Isobel said.
Finally, the three of them stepped up to the ticket booth. While Gareth fished out his pocketbook, the nympherai ticket-girl leaned over the counter and waved at Ofelia. Ofelia waved back, staring with wide eyes at the pinks and purples of the girl’s hair.
“You like them?” the nympherai asked.
Ofelia nodded and the girl laughed, the flowers swaying with the movement. She passed three tickets to Gareth, then plucked one of the flowers from her hair, reached down, and tucked it behind Ofelia’s ear. Isobel thanked the girl as they continued through the archway, where the path widened and the cobblestone gave way to a dirt trail packed down by thousands of feet over hundreds of years. Gallontea, an amalgam of all the cultures under Unity’s banner, offered plenty of distractions, but none so chaotic as the Rinehart Festival.
A wave of sounds, colors, noises and smells hit the Ranulfs at once. Gareth and Isobel had to pause and adjust, but Ofelia forged ahead, already pointing out all the things that caught her eye. She begged to stop at each of them, only dissuaded by Gareth’s entreaties of, “Let’s just see what they’ve got further along, hm? The gentleman with the fire whip could be just around the corner.” Even still, their small trio lingered at every juggler, stilt-walker, and fire-breather that caught Ofelia’s fancy.
Before long, their feet started to drag and the booths all blurred together. Gareth stopped and bought them all meat pies, the safest of the bizarre snacks the various festival vendors were peddling, and they began searching for a place to sit.
“Gather round, gather round!” someone called. “This is a show you won’t want to miss! The Webhon Players are rising stars in the world of theater, and you can see them here now! Hey, you three!”
The speaker stepped in the Ranulfs’ path and crouched in front of Ofelia. He was dressed in bright colors and a tall, feather-plume hat, fit for attracting the attention of a crowd. “Do you like Egil stories, little one?”
Isobel laughed and covered her mouth with her hand. “Someone in this family certainly does,” she said, quiet enough for only Gareth to hear.
Gareth cleared his throat. “There’s an Egil show happening?” he asked.
“Yes, starting any moment now!” the man said, gesturing grandly to the stage on his right, just off the main path. The rows of benches in front of it were packed, but the man stood and ushered the trio toward them anyways. “There are still seats open on the sides – yes, that’s it, there you go! Enjoy the show!”
Gareth, Isobel, and Ofelia had only just managed to settle in their seats when shadows began shifting in the wings of the stage and fog crept onto its surface in thick tendrils. Paired with the overcast sky above and the stone skene behind, it set a dreary mood. The silence stretched on, and only when the crowd began to show the first signs of impatience, shifting and murmuring, did a figure in a deep red cloak step onto the stage. When all eyes were on him and the crowd had once again stilled, he took a deep breath. It was like a spell, entrancing and enrapturing; the crowd leaned forward on his inhale, back again on his exhale, swaying as one.
When he spoke, the spell crested. The festival sounds, the distant waves crashing against a rocky coast, it all faded into the background. The man’s voice was a clear baritone, rich as a golden-red sky at sunsset with the same gentle melancholy as the keen of a fine violin. Gareth craned his neck, trying to see beneath the hood, but the man’s face was hidden in shadow. The better for it, Gareth thought. If the face didn’t match the voice – and it couldn’t possibly – the illusion would be ruined.
“The days following the Great War were dark, but heroes rose up out of that darkness: heroes who protected the people and brought hope to a world that had long been hopeless. Among these heroes, one stood the brightest: Egil.”
The narrator paused while the crowd cheered, Gareth among them.
“Egil, as you all seem to know,” the narrator continued, dropping the omniscient persona as sarcasm bled into his voice, “Became the symbol the world needed to heal. He saved lives, ended battles, and made mischief as much as he made a name for himself. But as heroes inevitably do, he eventually grew tired from a lifetime of bearing the people’s hope. He decided to seek a place to call home.
“Egil settled in a golden city that has since passed into memory. The city was ruled by a King who had seen the rise and fall of the Great War and who had learned from it. Egil enjoyed peace here, for a time. But when the King fell ill, the people turned on the ruler who made them what they were and Egil could not stand idly by.
“This is the story of how Egil saved a King and lost his sanctuary.”
The narrator backed off the stage as he spoke, and from the other wing, two men walked on. The first was dressed in golden fabrics draped over and around him, secured by delicate fastenings. He was elegant and soft, in stark contrast with the man beside him.
“How is your father this evening?” the second asked. After being so mesmerized by the narrator’s soft voice, this man’s jarred Gareth out of the dream. The man wore an archetypal hero’s ensemble, stage armor with a large sword at his side. This had to be Egil, and the other the young prince Egil befriended, who had the heart of his father yet unmarred by tragedy.
“No better, I’m afraid,” the prince answered. “The Council is growing impatient. I’m worried they’ll take matters into their own hands, soon.”
“I’m certain your father will be better before then,” Egil said. Both hero and prince stopped abruptly as a woman entered from backstage. Different as Egil looked from the genteel prince, both at least belonged in this world – the world of plots and subterfuge, of heroism and hope. This woman was something wholly other. She moved toward Egil as if guided on a breeze, her feet barely touching the ground.
Anyone who’d heard of Egil also knew who this was supposed to be: the woman who flitted at the periphery of all the world’s best stories, heralding strange comings and foretelling events that would come to pass. Egil and the Oracle’s paths wound inextricably together, the Oracle warning of coming troubles and Egil preventing them.
“You!” Egil cried. “What are you doing here?”
“I’ve come with a warning,”
“Of course. My friend,” Egil said to the prince, “Allow me to introduce you to the Oracle of Damael. She’s a dear friend of mine, but I suggest you leave before she speaks her part. Her prophecies are never kind to those who hear them.”
Before the prince could leave, the Oracle stopped him. “Stay. This concerns you, young prince. I had a vision – there is one in the castle who would see your father assassinated. Egil, you must stop him before it is too late.”
The true story began there; Gareth settled in to watch, growing quickly used to this gruff Egil.
Egil stories had always fascinated Gareth. It was something about the complexities of Egil’s character, his righteous anger and its battle with kindness and compassion. It was something about the way people reacted to him, the way the hero Egil was a constant across species, cultures, and banners. Egil was strong, impossible, magical; you knew, logically, that he couldn’t exist – not as he did in the stories, at least – but you wished he did anyway.
Egil’s were the stories that made you dread the ending, when you would have to take a step back and remember that magic and monsters don’t exist and that if you want to be a hero, you have to start small. They were the stories that made you try to do better, to be that hero, to slay your monsters, to learn that magic is real and that it’s in the small things. They were the stories that made Gareth who he was.
But something fascinated Gareth even more than Egil stories, and that was the truth behind them.
Egil existed; the proof was everywhere. However, historical accounts of the man varied drastically from fiction. Gareth would know; he was renowned as a bit of an expert on the subject. He’d read everything he could, compiled collections of stories and cross-referenced them with the historical accounts cataloged and maintained by Unity. He’d written papers, dissected myths, and dedicated years of his life researching this mysterious figure.
And still, he somehow knew next to nothing about the man. It was a mystery Gareth couldn’t resist.
He looked around at the crowd, curious to see their reactions. As a whole, the people seemed to be enjoying the show, but one young man stood out to Gareth. He frowned up at Egil as if annoyed. That was certainly odd, but what really caught Gareth’s attention was the familiar deep red cloak hanging from the man’s shoulders. He’d seen the same one gracing the stage not half an hour ago.
When the Oracle’s actress looked the young man’s way, he made a funny face, the kind Gareth might make to get Ofelia to stop crying. The actress quickly averted her eyes, mouth turned down at the corners like she was fighting a smile.
The narrator laughed, and before Gareth could look away, his eyes met Gareth’s own. Even from that distance, Gareth was struck by how dark they were – dark and cold. He was clearly human, but there was something decidedly other about him, in the same way the Oracle was other.
Gareth couldn’t say which looked away first, but when he finally refocused on the play, he found he had missed a large part of it. He’d heard the story enough times to know what had happened – Egil investigated the plot, discovered it was conceived by the King’s own brother. Though heartbroken over his uncle’s betrayal, the prince promised to help Egil stop him, and together, they’d laid a trap for the traitor. Gareth refocused on the play, trying to ignore the strange chill of the narrator’s eyes on him.
Egil fought the uncle with choreography that danced across the stage. At the fight’s climax, the uncle stumbled, Egil held his hand out, and a shower of sparks shot out from some contraption in the stage floor. Spectators in the front row jumped at the sudden light, but soon cheered.
That was another thing Gareth loved about Egil stories – their magic. The sheer impossibility of them. They were a break from reality, where magic didn’t exist and never had, where achieving the impossible was only ever a dream.
With the uncle’s defeat, the show was over. Gareth, Isobel, and Ofelia stayed for the curtain call, but by unspoken agreement, they were all done for the day. On their way out of the festival, Isobel asked, “Are we meeting your sister for dinner tonight?”
“I believe so,” Gareth said. “I’ll drop by the island and check. Ofelia, would you like to come and say hello to your Aunt Moira?”
Ofelia blinked at him.
“I think it’s nap time for this one,” Isobel said, smiling down at the six-year-old. “And myself as well.”
“I’ll see you back home, then. Hopefully with Moira in tow.”
Gareth kissed Isobel goodbye and watched her and Ofelia disappear into the crowd. He stood still for a moment, letting the movement of the crowd part and flow around him, still thinking about heroes and history. Finally, he turned and walked toward Unity Island, remembering the more immediate intrigue: the urgent telegram Unity received from Illyon.
Gareth passed through the iron gate onto the Great Unity Bridge, pausing halfway across to lean as far as he could over the wall. He didn’t fear the old stones giving way beneath him; they’d stood for two thousand years and they’d stand for two thousand more. Beneath his hands, they were cold, weathered, and solid.
Hungry black water churned below, the bridge arching high above it, untouched. To Gareth, this bridge marked a passage between worlds. Above, below. Unity, Gallontea. The change started somewhere after the third set of lamp posts; Gallontea fell behind and the bridge stretched ahead until all that remained was Unity, standing alone against a gray sky and an ocean that stretched on without end.
Those who lived elsewhere referred to the two places synonymously – Gallontea meant Unity and Unity meant Gallontea. But anyone who’d seen both places couldn’t possibly think them the same.
Physically, “Unity” referred to an island roughly the size of a small city located off the coast, set apart from the mainland to create an illusion of impartiality. Unity was more than that, of course – a governing body made of a collection of provinces spanning the continent. And even where Unity wasn’t in control it was.
But Gallontea was just a city – one that fell under Unity’s banner, same as countless others.
Gareth passed onto the cobblestone streets of the island, winding his way to the massive building that housed the courtroom and representatives’ offices. Pale sunslight lit the foyer inside, hazy beams that greeted Gareth with tender touches. Some of the crowd from the conferences still lingered here, grouped in clusters and speaking in whispers. Those nearest Gareth looked over as he entered, their conversations cutting off, resuming as soon as they realized Gareth was no one important.
Gareth tried to overhear the whispered conversations as he slipped past but caught only pieces.
“-All the way from Illyon,” one man said to his friends.
At the next group, a nympherai whispered, “It’s the alfar King. I hear he’s sick.”
Passing a third group, Gareth caught only one word: “Orinians.”
By the time he’d passed security and reached the end of the hall, Gareth’s curiosity blazed brighter than before. He hurried up the wide staircase to the representatives’ offices. At the top, the hallway split off in three directions, one for each of Calaidia’s species. The hallway straight ahead was widest and tallest; Gareth doubted even the tallest dragons reached the ceiling there. They didn’t grow much taller than draft horses, usually.
The hallways to the right and left stood at a more reasonable height. Gareth turned left, toward the humans’ offices.
He didn’t make it far before the sound of muffled voices stopped him in his tracks. They came from behind the closed doors of a typically-empty hearing room. He approached and stood on the tips of his toes to peer in through one of the narrow-paneled windows.
Inside sat the human Magistrate and all fifteen species Representatives, three from each of the five Unity provinces. Gareth had known them all since childhood, but at the end of the table stood two people he didn’t recognize. They were all angles, wiry and sharp. Instead of Unity robes, they wore rich suits with bright accents, made in a style Gareth had never seen in Gallontea. He’d only seen clothes so elegant on research trips to Alfheim.
Something about them struck Gareth as familiar. The woman, especially. Her hair, spun like delicate threads of gold, hung in waves around her and fell to her knees, but it failed to hide the strength of her movements. She moved with the coiled grace of a stalking cat and glared at the Representatives, a fire in her gaze that threatened to melt anything in her way.
By contrast, the man beside her was cold. He judged the politicians from behind eyes blue like fractured ice and found them wanting. He had the same strong build as his companion, the same catlike grace. He said something in response to a representative’s comment, and Gareth noticed an old scar that stretched from his cheekbone to his jaw.
The two could be siblings. Gareth wondered who they were, what brought them here. He remembered the whispers of Illyon and alfar Kings he’d heard downstairs.
He didn’t notice his sister, sitting near the doors facing Gareth. He was too busy trying to read the scarred man’s lips to notice her excuse herself. As Gareth watched, the man looked up. Their eyes met and Gareth took a surprised step back, and that’s when the door opened into him. A burst of sound came with it, layered voices arguing, that cut off again as the door drifted shut.
“What are you doing here?” Moira whispered.
“Reminding you of your dinner plans,” Gareth said. “What’s going on in there?”
Moira glanced back at the door. Not even a full decade older than Gareth, she already looked haggard, hair graying and exhaustion dragging her movements. Unity’s conference season was always hard on her. “We’re almost done here; are you willing to wait?”
Gareth shrugged. “I’ve nowhere else to be.”
“Wait for me in my office, then,” Moira said, passing Gareth her keys.
Moira returned to the conference room and Gareth continued on to her office, feeling strange unlocking it himself. Everything inside was exactly as their father had left it, except that a few new books sat on the shelves. Being here set Gareth on edge, dragged him back through childhood memories, so he poured himself a drink from the crystal carafe Moira kept filled while he waited.
He wandered to the window and watched the ocean crash against white cliffs.
When Moira finally arrived, Gareth was still frowning out the window. She didn’t greet him, just marched over, took the drink from his hand, and drained it in one go.
“Rough day?” Gareth asked.
Moira ignored him, dropping into her desk chair and burying her face in her hands. Gareth waited a moment before asking, “What happened?”
“Gareth,” Moira began. She lifted her head and fixed Gareth with an intent, considering look. “You’re loyal to Unity, aren’t you?”
Gareth blinked. “Of course.”
“Good. If I recall, you’ve visited Orean before, haven’t you?”
“Uh,” Gareth said, eloquently. He disliked discussing Orean with Moira – their views differed drastically on the subject. Orean was independent from Unity, and Unity didn’t like it. Never had. Moira shared Unity’s opinion on all things, but Gareth was fond of Orean. Under Moira’s hard stare, he conceded, “We visit in the winter sometimes.”
“You know it well, then?”
“Not well, but better than I know Gallontea. Why?”
“Interesting.” Moira sat back, tapped her fingers against her desk. “Oh, no reason, Gareth. Don’t worry about it – Orean came up in the discussion earlier, and I was merely curious.”
“Who were those people?” Gareth asked, unable to contain his curiosity any longer.
“The Princess Nochdvor and her cousin, Leandros.”
“Nochdvor,” Gareth repeated. That explained why the woman looked familiar – she looked like her father. Gareth had met Amos Nochdvor once, as a child. He’d never forget. The alfar had been a vision, just what a young boy imagined a powerful foreign King should look like. “They’re alfar, then?”
“Yes, some of the last full-blooded alfar still alive. I’m surprised that wasn’t obvious.”
It was, in hindsight. Their sharpness, their grace. Gareth hadn’t been close enough to see the subtle features that would have given it away – point-tipped ears, long-fingered hands. Remembering the conversations happening downstairs, Gareth blurted, “The King’s not sick, is he?”
Moira hesitated a beat before answering, “Not sick, no. Not as far as I’m aware.”
“So why were the Princess and Mr. Nochdvor-?”
“You’ll find out soon enough, I’m sure. This isn’t something that can be kept secret for long. But whatever you hear, remember your promise of loyalty. Unity may call on you for your expertise in the near future.”
“What expertise? Can’t you just tell me-,”
“Not yet,” Moira said with a note of finality Gareth knew better than to push back on. “All in good time. Now, what did you say brought you here?”
“Right. I’m terribly sorry, Gareth; I don’t think I’ll make it tonight. How about sometime next week instead?”
“Sure, Moira,” Gareth promised, seeing himself out. In the hallway he leaned back against Moira’s closed door, his mind fighting to understand the implication of her words. It was getting him nowhere, so he eventually pushed off the door and started the trek back to his hotel.