“This is your decision?” asked Malong, one of the three Magistrates of the Council of Unity. She arched her long neck, the better to loom over those below her. With the movement, the sunslight streaming through the windows caught on her scales – clear like diamonds, so much so that they bent the light and cast rainbows throughout the chambers.
Between her prismatic hide, her low voice, and her size – she stood nearly twenty-five hands tall – it was hard not to be impressed by the Magistrate. But Rheamarie and Leandros had spent their entire afternoon being postured at by Representatives and Magistrates alike; it stopped getting to them sometime during their hours-long meeting with the human Representatives.
The man beside the Nochdvors, Aaron Biro, didn’t so much as blink at Malong’s display. Of the three branches of Unity, Biro represented the humans and Malong the dragons. Biro met Malong’s gaze, inclining his head in acknowledgment. “This is the decision my Representatives reached. We entrusted it to them, after all.”
Diomis, the third and final of Unity’s Magistrates, stirred in his seat. His eyes, round and wide like a fish, stared unblinkingly at the two alfar. Atop his head sat something like a crown made of kelp.
“I like it,” the nympherai said in his thin, rasping voice. “It’s very…diplomatic.”
Rheamarie pursed her lips. Usually so restrained, she seemed closer to losing her temper than Leandros had seen her in years. He knew the signs, the warning glint in her eyes.
Leandros wished he’d had time to talk her down, but they’d been ushered from the hearing room straight to the Magistrates’ chambers. They’d come to this Island for help, but instead, Unity toyed with them, jerked them around, and left them with no room to breathe.
And Rheamarie’s temper was a vitriolic, disastrous thing. She couldn’t risk losing it in front of the Magistrates of Unity.
“It is,” Biro agreed. “This must be handled delicately. We need to investigate the situation, and we need to do it without escalating it.”
At this, Rheamarie couldn’t keep her silence any longer. “With all due respect,” she began, “The orinians escalated the situation when they stole my father from me. Leandros and I didn’t come here for diplomacy. We came to ask for your assistance – barring that, your permission, to do whatever it takes to get my father back. I fear diplomacy won’t be enough.”
“We understand your fears, Princess,” Biro said. “You’ve expressed them several times over. But Unity won’t sanction a war over one girl’s fear.”
Rheamarie didn’t rise to Biro’s prodding. “We’re not asking you to sanction anything. We’re only asking that you don’t get in the way.”
“Princess, try to understand,” Malong said, her long neck weaving, dipping to get a better look at Rheamarie, “Doing nothing would be seen as a sanction to the rest of the world. If we allow Alfheim to engage in war with Orean, then the next time any conflict emerges elsewhere; we’ll have to do the same.”
Leandros frowned. If the last several hundred years of history showed anything, it was that Unity didn’t take hard stances unless something could be gained from them. “Doing nothing” was Unity’s norm. Interfering, on the other hand…
“Allow?” Rheamarie asked.
“Yes, allow. Alfheim will not engage with Orean if we say it cannot,” Biro said with utter surety, the way one might say, “It’s raining outside.”
“Is that a fact?” Rheamarie asked.
Diomis rose from his seat. Rheamarie, Leandros, and Biro were all tall for humans, but Diomis stood heads taller than all of them. His legs tilted oddly, just enough to draw attention to his gait: smooth, like he might have been floating. Hooves peeked out from beneath his skirts.
He said, “Unity was created to keep the peace, not break it. Biro’s plan holds to that purpose, but I believe it is in your father’s best interest as well. Whoever took him did so for a reason – if not, why not kill him on the spot? The orinian you spoke of could have done it with ease. If we can learn their reason, we may be able to get them back.”
“What’s more,” Biro added, “Orean is clearly ready to use violence – responding with more could push them to extremes. While they have your father, this is not advisable.”
It was subtle, but Rheamarie’s shoulders slumped and Leandros knew she’d been convinced. He, on the other hand, grew more suspicious the longer this dragged on and the more the Magistrates pushed. Biro may refuse to take credit for his Representatives’ plan – a plan to get Amos back using “diplomatic” means – but Leandros had been in that room all morning. He’d heard them talking. Biro had steered them the entire way.
Then Diomis took to the plan so quickly, now painting it as if it had been conceived for Amos’ benefit all along. They were up to something. Leandros felt like he was watching a strategy game being played – he could see the cards as they were being put down, but he didn’t know the rules and could only guess at the objective. Biro met his gaze.
“You’ve been quiet, Mr. Nochdvor,” Biro said. “How do you feel about your cousin’s warmongering? You used to be quite against this sort of thing, I recall.”
“It’s never been his own family before,” Rheamarie said, answering for Leandros.
Biro only smiled. “Hasn’t it, though?”
Rheamarie’s eyes widened. “You dare-,”
“My Lords,” Leandros said, interrupting Rheamarie before she could say something the Magistrates wouldn’t forgive her for. “Sending a team to negotiate my uncle’s return is an excellent first step. I thank you for not only conceiving a plan that will keep the south peaceful, but for considering my King’s safety in making it.”
Rheamarie looked at Leandros like he’d suddenly sprouted a second head. Quick as always to hide her thoughts, though, she schooled her expression into something neutral.
Leandros pushed back the anxious twist in his gut and said, “I’m sure my cousin will show the utmost prudence in assembling the team.”
Biro twitched and Malong let a low hiss. Their reactions told Leandros everything he needed to know: whatever they were planning, they needed this team for it. He may not know what game they were playing, but that wouldn’t stop him from dealing himself in.
“We will be assembling the team,” Biro said. “Not the princess.”
Leandros frowned, feigning innocence. “Really? While my cousin and I are grateful to Unity for devising a peaceable alternative to war, it seems to me that this problem is Alfheim’s and Alfheim’s alone. I see no reason to drag you all into this further.”
“But what is Unity for, if not assisting in matters like these?” Diomis asked, voice even slimier than usual. His strange eyes were narrowed to slits, focused entirely on Leandros.
Rheamarie looked between Leandros, eyes wide.”I suppose,” Leandros conceded with a small bow. “But then, as you yourself said, it would be unwise to provoke Orean while they have my Uncle. Orean would certainly be more open to receiving diplomats from Alfheim than a full team from Unity.”
Leandros paused meaningfully. He could hear his own heart beating in his ears, fast and frantic, readying for the foolish stunt he was about to pull. He added, “And should Unity insist on taking over handling this situation despite Alfheim’s public disapproval, it might begin to seem like you have…ulterior motives.”
Leandros was met with silence. All three Magistrates stared at him, their anger palpable in the air. Finally, Malong drew herself up, wings fanning out like a predator trying to appear larger. “What are you implying?”
Leandros had always been bad at concealing his emotions, but fear was another matter. Fear, longing, helplessness – these were things he knew well. Things he could hide well. “Nothing, Magistrate. I only mean to say that it will be best for everyone if Alfheim has a hand in the team’s choosing. But perhaps we can come to a compromise – Unity can construct the team as it pleases if Alfheim chooses its leader.”
Rheamarie stared at Leandros, mouth hanging open slightly, then shook herself and turned back to the Magistrates. “I…agree with my cousin. If I get to choose the leader, then…then I suppose I will accept your plan.”
Biro twitched again, his face turning slightly red from holding back whatever he wanted to say. Instead, it was Diomis who spoke, a rueful smile on his thin lips. He addressed Rheamarie, but didn’t look away from Leandros. “And who did you have in mind for this position?”
Rheamarie glanced at Leandros, who met her gaze.
“Leandros,” Rheamarie said without missing a beat.
Diomis’ smile spread and he nodded.
“You’re not considering agreeing to this, are you?” Biro asked him.
“We don’t have time to keep wasting on negotiations with the Princess,” Malong said. “Her compromise is a fair one.”
Biro sighed. “Very well, then.”
“So it is decided,” Diomis said. “Unity will assemble the team and Mr. Nochdvor will lead it. Mr. Nochdvor, we’ll contact you once we begin planning.” Diomis bowed to Rheamarie, next. “Princess, leave this matter in our hands. We’ll see that your father is safely returned to Alfheim.”
Rheamarie bowed without answer, then turned on her heel and swept out of the room. Leandros dipped into a more formal bow before following suit.
As the grand doors to the Magistrates’ chambers swung shut behind them, Malong turned on Biro and Diomis. “Why did we agree to that? I thought the plan was to-,”
“We know, but Mr. Nochdvor was unfortunately astute in his threats. It would appear suspicious if we forced Alfheim out entirely,” Biro said.
“Fortunately,” Diomis added, “Our Enforcers are accustomed to secrecy. The plan will still work.”
Leandros followed Rheamarie out of the Magistrates’ Chambers and all the way down to Unity Bridge without stopping. There, finally finding themselves alone, Rheamarie whirled to face Leandros.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she snapped.
“They’re planning something, Rhea.”
“No, you’re just paranoid.”
“You really think that? After everything that went on in there?”
“Yes, I really think that. No matter what they say, you’re not going to trust them. Egil turned you against Unity a long time ago, Leandros. Don’t try to deny it.”
Leandros stilled. “Egil didn’t turn me against Unity,” he said, voice cold. “Unity turned me against Unity. You’re right, I won’t trust them. I’ve seen them do horrible things, Rhea, things you couldn’t imagine. You weren’t there when they-,” He stopped himself then, closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “You know I’m right, you just don’t want to admit it because it scares you They’re planning something, and someone had to call them on it. That someone couldn’t be you. You can’t argue with them.”
“But you can threaten them? Stop treating me like I’m a child, Leandros. I’m your Queen.”
“You misunderstand me – you can’t argue with them. It’s not because you’re incapable, but precisely because you are going to be Queen. The Magistrates remember their grudges – don’t get on their bad sides now.”
“And what about you?”
“I don’t matter like you do and you know it,” Leandros said. He tried to smile at her. “Besides, I’m on so many people’s bad sides I can barely keep track anymore. What’s a few more?”
“You’re an idiot,” Rheamarie hissed. She turned away from Leandros. “I need a moment, after all of that.”
Leandros nodded. He understood how she felt – and felt much the same, in fact. Grief, rage, frustration – they coiled inside him like a ring of strange magical fire, hot anger encircling his heart. It made it hard to think, hard to breathe.
It wasn’t until Rheamarie wiped her eyes that Leandros realized she’d started crying. He reached a hand toward her, dropping it after a moment’s hesitation. “Rhea? Is there anything I can do?”
Rheamarie laughed, the sound half-crazed. “I don’t know what I would have said to them if you hadn’t cut in. When they mentioned your father, I- ugh, don’t look at me. You’re supposed to be the one losing your temper. I’m supposed to be better at this than you.”
She scrubbed at her eyes before continuing. “It’s silly, but I used to be so proud of it. You got to go on all of these adventures, got to get away from Alfheim. I hated you for it, I was so sick with envy, but at least I could restrain myself, I thought. At least I fit in at home when you didn’t. I could do one thing you couldn’t.”
Rheamarie looked at Leandros again. “This is one adventure I don’t envy you. Leandros, are you sure about this?”
She’d grown a lot in the last few days. It hurt Leandros to have to see, so he turned away, looking over the island instead. The last few days had worn on them both. The aftermath of the explosion had passed in a blur, as had the journey back to Alfheim. There, they’d been greeted with fear and anger thinly veiled under a guise of pity, and they hadn’t been given a moment to grieve before they’d been forced on a train to Gallontea to beg Unity for help.
Unity Island was civil and clean and quiet, unlike Illyon and unlike the city just over the bridge. The cobblestone roads winding from building to building were surrounded by fields of flowers- blue like shallow waters in a southern climate. The flowers swayed in the breeze, the same breeze that raised goosebumps on Leandros’ skin.
Leandros pointed at the flowers. “You asked about taurel the other day, didn’t you? There it is. Unity Island is always covered in them. Taurel, old stone, and coral,” he said, nodding at the flowers, the bridge, and the rocky cliffside, respectively. “The rhyme is about Unity.”
Rheamarie glanced dully at the flowers, unimpressed. “You’re changing the subject.”
“I am sure about this, Rhea. Whatever their motives, their plan is a good one. We just…I can’t trust them to execute it on their own. Someone has to stay behind and make sure this mission goes as promised, and you have a kingdom to run.”
“So let someone else stay. I don’t want to go home without you.” Rheamarie’s tone was stern, leaving little room for disobedience. Leandros almost smiled. Perhaps she wouldn’t be so bad a queen after all.
“And what do you think would happen to me in Alfheim without your father’s protection?”
Something wavered in Rheamarie’s expression, and for a moment, Leandros feared she might cry again. “You want to stay here,” she accused.
“Yes,” Leandros said. “I do.”
“Is it really because you don’t trust Unity? Or is it just easier to take up some romantic quest to feel like a hero than to return home without him?”
“Rhea, this isn’t a game. It’s not some adventure. I owe your father everything and I’m willing to give everything – even my life, if I must – to get him back.” Leandros paused. “Besides, you and I grieve in different ways; every moment that I don’t act feels like a waste. I have to feel like I’m doing something to get him back, and I won’t get that in Alfheim.”
Rheamarie stared at Leandros like she wanted to dissect him, to see if there was more to it than he claimed. And maybe there was. Maybe he was being selfish. Maybe he was doing this for glory or spite, because of guilt or to make reparations. Even if so, Leandros couldn’t explain it to himself, let alone someone else.
Finally, Rheamarie spoke again. “You’d better not give your life for this, Leandros. And if you repeat what I’m about to say to anyone, as your new Queen, I will have you executed.” She paused and took a shaky breath. “I’ve always looked up to you, Leandros. You know I have.”
Leandros hid a smile and nodded.
“I’ve lost my father, possibly for good, and I’m closer with you than I ever was with him. I can’t lose you, too.”
“Rheamarie,” Leandros said gently, “I will be careful; you have my word. I know you’re worried, but trust that leading this team is something I can do.”
“Promise you’ll be more careful with the Magistrates,” Rheamarie said. As if afraid of being overheard, they both looked back at the Island, but there was no one there. Just Unity’s buildings, looming above them, the clock tower standing tallest of them all. “If they really are up to something, they won’t take well to you getting in the way.”
“I know. I know Unity’s ways better than most,” Leandros said. Seeing Rheamarie’s frown, he added, “But I’ll be careful.”
“It’s not that I doubt you, Leandros, but…Unity is one thing. That orinian? She’s something else entirely. You saw how dangerous she was. Even Unity might be in over their heads, here. You think one person, or even one team, can stop her? I don’t know if a whole army could stop her. We don’t know who or what she is, and I don’t like the idea of you getting near her until we do.”
Neither of them had said it out loud, but the word was at the forefront of their minds: magic. Strange, fantastic things happened all the time, but nothing so impossible as that. That woman was magic and magic wasn’t supposed to be real.
But they both knew what they’d seen, despite the scores of Illyon officials, Alfheim leaders, and now Unity Representatives telling them that they’d been under pressure, that they must be in shock, that they misunderstood what they saw.
“Someone has to. I’d rather it was me than anyone else,” Leandros said.
Rheamarie pursed her lips and blew out a slow breath. “I have something to say that you’re not going to like.”
“Okay,” Leandros said, slowly.
“What about Egil?”
Leandros felt like he’d had a bucket of ice water dumped over his head. “What about Egil?”
“Leandros please,” Rheamarie said, half-reproachful, half-apologetic. “If anyone could stop that woman, it’s him.”
“It’s a shame he’s long dead.”
“You don’t believe that any more than I do.”
“Dead to me, then. Even if he were alive, even if we could somehow find him when he doesn’t want to be found, it wouldn’t be good for any of us if he got involved.”
“Fine,” Rheamarie huffed, crossing her arms. In that moment, she looked less like a queen and more like a petulant child.
At the sight, Leandros smiled, pulled his younger cousin close, and kissed her forehead. “Please, Rhea, stop worrying. Unity and I will find that orinian and rescue your father, and I’ll be back in Alfheim before you begin to miss me.”
“Fool,” Rheamarie said through a smile. “I’ll miss you the moment I board the train.”
“Speaking of trains,” Leandros began. Rather than glance back at the clock tower, he pulled his old watch out of his pocket. “Yours leaves in little over an hour. We’d best get moving if you’re to make it on time.”
They didn’t speak after that, had nothing more to say. When they reached the station, there were no tearful farewells. Alfheim guards waited there to escort the queen; it wouldn’t do to show that sort of weakness in front of them, not so early in her reign.
All she said was, “Good luck, Leandros. Bring my father back. Make Alfheim proud.”
Leandros responded with a low bow. After the train had departed, he walked back to Gallontea alone and the anger coiled around his heart tightened its grip.