The rest of the world was peaceful, hanging on the precipice between summer and fall. The suns shone bright, but the wind brought with it a chill. Laborers still worked the fields, but wore heavier layers than they had a week ago. The leaves were changing colors, but only here and there, reds and oranges and browns creeping along the edges of crisp leaves.
It was the time of year when the world swapped one kind of beauty for another, the time when people looked back to appreciate what they had and looked forward to the promise of things they may get. It was Gareth Ranulf’s least favorite time of year.
He loved the weather, loved the cheer. He loved how the grounds around his estate changed color, and even more so, loved walking them with his wife, the air cold but her arm warm where it was entwined with his own. He loved playing with his daughter in the fallen leaves the servants raked up.
What he hated was the politics.
Every year, Unity hosted a series of conferences where they held public hearings, ruled on legislation, and effectively decided the fate of the world for the rest of the year. All the world’s important people flocked to the capital city of Gallontea for this conference, and Gareth’s sister, a Unity representative herself, insisted Gareth be among them. So every year, he came. That didn’t mean he was happy about it.
“Pardon me,” Gareth said, loudly as he could without sounding 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 even hissing an apology, she moved to let him out.
“Thank you,” Gareth said stiffly.
In the few minutes he’d been on the phone with his wife, the crowd in the square had thickened. Some of this was thanks to the the stream of people trickling out through the iron gate behind Gareth. This gate led to Unity Island, but from where Gareth stood, only the tops of the tallest Unity buildings were visible over the gate’s spokes. This included Unity’s marvelous clock tower, its glowing face cutting against the city’s smog and marking it as just past one.
The main cause of the crowd in the square, though, was in front of Gareth. Directly opposite Unity’s gate was a more 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 skin the texture of birch and bright flowers in her hair sitting behind the counter. A long line flowed out from the booth, reaching almost to where Gareth stood. The line thrummed and shifted, excited energy ruffling through it like a wave that eventually reached Gareth.
Gareth glanced again back at the clock tower, then down the street, and 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 whirled 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 smugly up at him. “Mother said you wouldn’t be fooled.”
“Your mother was wrong,” Gareth said, looking up just as Isobel joined them.
She wore a fondly exasperated smile, and her breathing came heavier than usual. At Gareth’s concerned look, she waved him off. “I’m too slow, apparently,” she explained. “Ofelia rushed me the whole way. We should’ve just taken a cab.”
“Well, your timing was perfect. Any faster and you would have had to stand around and wait.” 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 pale, slender shoulders bare and cinched just above her stomach, round with several months of pregnancy. “Be careful with your compliments, love, or I’m going to think you want something.” She looks over at the ticket booth. “Ofelia’s been begging to come to the festival since we got to Gallontea. I’m glad you invited us, 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 raised a delicate eyebrow. “Whatever for? That’s strange, isn’t it?”
“Extremely,” Gareth said, remembering how abruptly the three Unity Magistrates had turned everyone out of the court room. “A telegram came from Alfheim. Urgent, apparently.”
“But,” Gareth continued, “You won’t find me complaining, if it means I can spend more time with the two of you.”
“There you go again,” Isobel laughed.
Having had enough of being ignored, Ofelia tugged on Gareth’s sleeve. “Do you think that man will be there?” 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 wide eyes. 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 purple’s of the girls 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. 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 paused at every juggler, stilt-walker, and fire-breather that caught Ofelia’s fancy.
“We could sit and watch a show,” Isobel said eventually, giving the benches in front of a stage musician a wistful look. “Ofelia wouldn’t mind, if we get her something to eat. And I certainly wouldn’t mind sitting a while.”
They’d almost reached the edge of the festival grounds when they finally found a show they all wanted to stop for. The stage was the largest they’d seen yet, and while it currently stood empty, the rows of spectator benches in front of it did not. It took some searching, but the trio managed to find open seats near the front and off to the side. Isobel disappeared to buy food while Gareth and Ofelia sat.
The back wall of the stage was shaped like the front of a marble building, regal and old. Gareth turned to the older woman beside him. “Excuse me,” he began, “Do you know when the show’s supposed to start?”
“Any minute now.”
“Oh, wonderful. That’s wonderful to hear. Whose stage is this?”
“They’re called the Webhon Players. A troupe from Shema, I think.”
The name sounded familiar, but Gareth couldn’t place it. “Thank you.”
When Isobel returned, Gareth leaned over to relay what the woman had told him. Before he could, the crowd hushed, shadows shifted in the wings of the stage, and fog began creeping onto its surface in thick tendrils. Paired with the overcast sky above and the stone skene behind, it set a dreary mood. A figure in a deep red cloak stepped onto the stage. When all eyes were on him and all lips had stilled, he took a deep breath. It was like a spell, entrancing and enrapturing; the crowd leaned forward on his inhale, and back with his exhale, swaying as one.
When he spoke, the spell reached its peak. The sounds of the festival, the distant ocean waves crashing against the coast, everything faded into the background. The man’s voice was a gentle baritone, rich as a golden-red sky at sunsset and melancholy as the keen of a fine violin. Gareth craned his neck, trying to see beneath his hood, but his face was hidden in shadow. The better for it, Gareth thought. If the face didn’t match the voice— and it couldn’t— the illusion would be ruined.
“The days following the Great War were dark, the pulse of the land’s life dim as its people clung to what little hope survived. But the birth of Unity brought with it a new kind of hope. Heroes grew out of it and changed the world. 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 his persona for a moment as sarcasm bled into his tone, “Became the symbol the world needed to heal. He saved lives, prevented battles and ended others, and made mischief as much as he made a name for himself. For centuries, he fought for us and we loved him for it, but as heroes inevitably do, he grew tired from a lifetime of bearing the weight of the people’s hope. He decided to let others step up to bear it and sought a place he could call home.
“Egil settled in a golden city that has since passed into memory. The city was ruled by a kind king, one who had seen the rise and fall of the Great War and who had learned from it. Egil befriended his son, who had the heart of his father, but yet unmarred by tragedy. He enjoyed peace here, for a time, but can a hero stop being a hero? Egil’s peace was doomed from its start. When the king fell ill, the golden city lost its luster, turned on the king who made it what it was, and Egil could not stand idly by. This is the story of how he 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. That one was a warrior. He had to be Egil.
“How is your father feeling this evening?” Egil asked the young prince. After being so mesmerized by the narrator’s soft voice, Egil’s rough one jarred Gareth out of the dream. He blinked at the stage, remembering this was only a play.
“No better, but no worse,” the prince answered.
The two continued to talk, discussing strange happenings in the city and threats to the King’s throne. The prince entreated Egil to investigate, protect his father, save the city from those who’d plot against it. Egil relented and agreed.
As their conversation unwound, a woman drifted onto the stage. Different as Egil was 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. Her dark skin had been painted with glowing blue markings.
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 must come to pass. When he noticed her, Egil said to the prince, “My friend, allow me to introduce you to the Oracle of Damael. I suggest you leave now, before the witch whispers secrets of your doom.”
The prince started, but Egil laughed, a great booming sound. “I jest. Yet still, it is best you go. This lady never comes with good tidings, and only pains those unlucky enough to hear her.”
The prince excused himself. Only when he was gone did the Oracle approach Egil. “I come with a warning.”
“Ah, what did I say? Tell me what it is, and I will stop it,” Egil vowed.
Egil and the Oracle’s paths wound inextricably together, the Oracle warning of coming troubles and Egil preventing them. Here, the Oracle warned Egil of a vision she had: a plot within the castle’s walls, the plan of one close to the king to poison him and murder the prince.
Egil stories had always fascinated Gareth. It was something about the complexities of Egil’s character, his righteous anger and its battle with his kindness and compassion. It had more to do with the way people reacted to him, the way Egil’s image was one of few constants across species, cultures, and banners. Egil was strong and complex and magical; you knew, logically, that he couldn’t possibly exist, but you wished he did anyway.
His were the stories that made you dread the ending, when you would have to step back and remember that magic and monsters and oracles 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, and to learn that magic is real and that it’s in the small things. They were the stories that made Gareth who he was.
Gareth looked around at the crowd, curious to see their reactions. One young man in particular stood out to him. He seemed upset, frowning at Egil as if annoyed. That was odd, but what really caught Gareth’s attention was the familiar deep red cloak hanging from the man’s shoulders. 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 found 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 refocused, tried to ignore the strange chill of the young man’s eyes on him. He’d missed Egil investigating the plot, discovering it was conceived by the king’s own brother. He’d missed Egil informing the prince, who, though heartbroken over his uncle’s betrayal, promised to help Egil stop him. He’d missed the two of them laying a trap for the traitor.
Already, Egil was fighting the uncle, with choreography that danced across the stage, and soon it was over, Egil finally defeating the uncle with magic. That was another thing Gareth loved about Egil stories—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.
The uncle gave a moving speech begging for his family’s forgiveness as he died, and with that, the show was over. Gareth searched the crowd for the narrator again, only to find him gone.
“That was wonderful,” Isobel said while the crowd stood and cheered and the actors made their bows. Gareth agreed, and together, the three of them wandered back toward the festival entrance. By unspoken agreement, they were all done for the day.
“Are we still on for dinner with your sister tonight?” Isobel asked.
“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, now that I think about it.”
“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, letting the movement of the crowd part and flow around him, still thinking about heroes and traitorous plots. Finally, he turned and walked toward Unity Island, remembering the more immediate intrigue: Unity’s urgent telegram from Alfheim.
Gareth paused halfway across Unity Bridge 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.
Below, hungry black water churned. The bridge arched high above it, untouched by its force. The bridge marked a passage between worlds. Above, below. Unity, Gallontea. The change started somewhere after the third set of lamp posts, Gareth thought, and was so subtle that he often found himself on the island without realizing how he got there. Gallontea fell behind and the bridge stretched ahead, and soon all that remained was Unity, standing alone against a gray sky and an ocean that stretched on without end.
Anyone who’d never visited in person 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 consisting of a collection of provinces spanning across the entire continent. And even where Unity wasn’t in control, it was. Gallontea, on the other hand, was just a city— one that fell under Unity’s banner, same as countless others.
Gareth passed onto the cobblestone streets of the Island, then wound his way over to the building that housed the main court and all of the 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 together and speaking in hushed voices. Those nearest Gareth looked as he entered, their conversations cutting off abruptly.
Only two steps in the door, Gareth was hit by the nervous energy reverberating through the place. He tried to hear 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, “No, it’s the alfar King. I hear he’s sick.”
Passing a third group, Gareth caught only one word: “Orinians.”
By the time he reached the end of the hall, Gareth’s curiosity blazed brighter than before, and 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 could reach the ceiling there. They didn’t grow much larger than draft horses, usually. The hallways to the right the left were more reasonably sized. Gareth turned left, toward the humans’ offices.
He didn’t make it far, stopped by the muffled voices coming from behind the closed doors of the conference 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 human Representatives, three from each of the five Unity provinces. Gareth knew them all, 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 like those on visits to Alfheim.
Something about them struck Gareth as vaguely familiar. The woman, especially. Her hair, spun like delicate threads of gold, hung in loose curls around her and fell to her knees, but it failed to hide the strength of her movements, the power behind each gesture. She moved with the coiled grace of a prowling 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 he found them wanting. He had the same 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.
Despite the differences between them, the two could be siblings. Gareth wondered who they were, why they were here. He remembered the whispers of Illyon and alfar Kings he’d heard downstairs.
Moira sat near the conference room doors, facing Gareth, and spotted his face in the window. Gareth 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 in her movements. Unity’s conference season was always hard on her. “I’ll tell you when we’re done, if you’re 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 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 still 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 the white cliffs. It would have been a gorgeous view, if it hadn’t been obscured by Unity’s prison.
Every building on this Island was an architectural marvel— except that one. The prison was a plain stone building, squat and windowless, enclosed by a sharp-tipped gate circling it on three sides, a sheer-faced cliff the fourth border. Various representatives had tried to get the place torn down, over the years— Unity had prisons in most major cities, why deface their Island with another? None had ever succeeded, so there it still stood.
Gareth was still frowning out the window when Moira arrived minutes later. She didn’t greet him, just marched over, took the drink from his hand, and drained it in one go.
“Rough day?” Gareth asked dryly.
Moira ignored him, dropping into her desk chair and burying her face in her hands. Gareth waited another minute before asking, “What happened?”
Moira lifted her head and fixed Gareth with an intent, thoughtful look. “Gareth, you visit Orean on occasion, don’t you?”
“Um,” Gareth said, eloquently. Orean wasn’t a topic he enjoyed discussing with Moira— their views differed drastically on the subject. Orean was independent from Unity, and Unity didn’t like it. Moira shared Unity’s opinion on all things, but for Gareth’s part, he loved Orean. He visited frequently to get away from Unity and Moira. 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?”
“No reason. Orean came up in the discussion earlier, and I was curious.”
“Who were those people?” Gareth asked, his curiosity unable to be contained any longer. “Were they from Alfheim?”
“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, when he was a child. He’d never forget. The alfar had been a vision, exactly 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. He hadn’t been close enough to see the 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—?”
“Don’t worry about it, Gareth. It’s nothing to concern yourself with,” Moira said, managing a smile. “Now, what did you say brought you here?”
“Right. I’m terribly sorry, Gareth; I don’t think I’ll make it, after all. How about sometime next week instead?”
“Sure, Moira. Next week,” Gareth said, holding back a sigh.
“Wonderful. I’ll be in contact. Give my regards to Isobel and Ofelia, will you?”
“I will,” Gareth promised.