“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 beneath her. With the movement, the sunslight streaming through wide 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 acknowledgement. “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 their seat. Their eyes, round and wide like a fish, stared unblinkingly at the two alfar. Atop their head sat something like a crown made of kelp.
“I like it,” the nympherai said in their 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 could speak with her privately, talk her down, but they’d been ushered from the hearing room straight to the Magistrates’ chambers. Leandros losing his temper was a common thing, formidable but easily diffused. Rheamarie doing so, on the other hand, was rare and cataclysmic.
They’d come to this Island for help, but instead, Unity toyed with them, taunted them, jerked them around. Leandros couldn’t blame Rhea for being frustrated with it all.
“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 our way.”
“Princess, do try to understand,” Malong said, her long neck dipping to get a better look at Rheamarie, “Allowing you to act would be seen as a sanction to the rest of the world. If we allow Alfheim to engage in war, then the next time any conflict emerges elsewhere; we’ll have to do the same.”
“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.
Leandros frowned. In his personal experience, Unity only intervened when they had something to gain from it. They didn’t care about preventing conflict, they only cared to protect their own interests. So what interest could they possibly have in stopping Rhea?
Diomis rose from their seat. Rheamarie, Leandros, and Biro were all tall for humans, but Diomis stood heads taller than all of them. Their legs tilted oddly, just enough to draw attention to their gait: smooth, like they might have been floating. Hooves peeked out from beneath their skirts.
They said, “Unity was created to keep the peace, not help 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, if your story is true, could have done it with ease. If we can learn their reason, we may be able to get him 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 harder the Magistrates pushed.
He knew the plan was a wise one— better than anything Rheamarie would come up with on her own, surely. But the motivations behind it…he wasn’t convinced. Unity didn’t keep the peace; they destroyed it. They crushed rebellions, buried disputes, executed the people he loved and made him watch. He couldn’t believe them capable of such consideration.
Besides, he’d been paying close attention in the earlier meeting. Biro may refuse to take credit for his Representatives’ plan, but Leandros had been watching for it: Biro had steered them the entire way. Then Diomis had taken 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 that 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. “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 control herself, though, she schooled her expression into something neutral.
Leandros pushed away the anxious twist in his gut and said, “I’m sure my cousin will show the utmost prudence in assembling the team.”
The decision, as reached by a quorum of the human representatives: send a small team of diplomats to Orean to investigate the situation and negotiate for Amos Nochdvor’s return.
Biro twitched and Malong let out a low hiss.
“We will be assembling the team,” Biro corrected. “Not the Princess.”
Their reactions told Leandros everything he needed to know: whatever their interest was, it wasn’t in keeping the peace. It was in Orean.
He may not know what game they were playing, but that wouldn’t stop him from dealing himself in.
He 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 pull Unity into this further.”
“But what is Unity for, if not assisting in matters like these? Diomis asked. Their strange eyes were narrowed to slits, focused entirely on Leandros.
“I suppose,” Leandros conceded with a 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 alone than a full team of Unity officials.”
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 this situation despite Alfheim’s open resistance, it might seem to some 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 usually failed to conceal his emotions the way a good alfar should, 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’s best for everyone if Alfheim had a hand in the team’s choosing.”
“That’s not going to happen,” Biro said.
Leandros tried again. “Perhaps we can come to compromise— Unity can assemble the team as it pleases if Alfheim chooses its leader.”
Rheamarie pursed her lips, considering. “I agree with my cousin. If I get to select the leader, then I suppose I will accept your plan.”
Biro twitched again, his face turning slightly red. It was Diomis who spoke, a rueful smile on their thin lips. They 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 answered without missing a beat.
Diomis’ smile spread and they nodded.
“You’re not considering agreeing to this, are you?” Biro asked them.
“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.”
Relief flooded through Leandros.
“So it is decided,” Diomis said. “Unity will assemble a diplomatic team and Mr. Nochdvor will lead it. Mr. Nochdvor, we will 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, Biro turned on Malong and Diomis. “Why did we agree to that? I thought the plan was to—,”
“Mr. Nochdvor was unfortunately astute in his threats. It would appear suspicious if we forced Alfheim out,” Malong said.
“Don’t fret, Aaron,” Diomis said, their smile slow, certain. “This will be resolved.”
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 were you thinking?” she snapped.
“They’re planning something, Rhea.”
“No, you’re just paranoid.”
“You really think that? After everything that happened in there?”
“They gave us no reason not to believe them, you’re just looking for one. Egil turned you against Unity a long time ago, Leandros. Don’t deny it.”
A slap in the face would’ve hurt less. Rheamarie didn’t know— she couldn’t know, he’d never told her— what he’d seen Unity do. He could still hear the gunshots. When he closed his eyes, he could still see the moment Egil fell, like it was etched permanently into his eyelids.
“Unity turned me against Unity. I’ve seen them do horrible things, Rhea. Things you couldn’t imagine,” he said, voice cold. “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, because 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. It’s not because you’re incapable that you can’t argue with them, but precisely because you’re queen now. The Magistrates remember their grudges— don’t anger them so early into your reign.”
“And what about you? If you think you didn’t anger them back there, you’re a fool.”
“I don’t matter like you do and you know it,” Leandros said. He tried to smile at her. “Besides, there are so many grudges against me I can barely keep track. What’s a few more?”
“You are a fool,” Rheamarie hissed. She turned away from Leandros and wrapped her arms around herself. “I need a moment.”
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 metal 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 desperate. “I don’t know what I would have said to them if you hadn’t cut in. When they mentioned family, 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 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. I could do one thing you couldn’t. I fit in somewhere you never would: home.”
Rheamarie looked at Leandros again, her eyes rimmed red. “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. The last few days had worn on them both. The aftermath of the explosion 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.
The island around them 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 bumps on Leandros’ skin.
Leandros pointed out 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.
If Unity really is making plans of their own, someone has to stay behind and make sure this mission goes as promised, and you have a province 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 just because you don’t trust Unity? Or is it just easier to take up some heroic quest for revenge 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 sighed. “You and I grieve in different ways; every moment 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 studied Leandros like she wanted to dissect him, to see if there really was more to it than he claimed. And maybe there was. 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, took a shaky breath. “I’ve always looked up to you. 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, she 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,” Leandros muttered. Seeing Rheamarie’s frown, he added, “I’ll be careful.”
Rheamarie made a frustrated noise. “It’s not that I doubt you Leandros, but…Unity is one thing. That orinian woman? She’s something else entirely. You saw how dangerous she was. Even Unity might be in over their heads. You think one person, or even one team, can stop her? I don’t know if a whole army could. 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 what they saw. 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 immense 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. “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. The rumors—,”
“I saw the execution, Rhea. I was there.”
Rhea’s eyes widened. “You never—,”
“Of course I never told you! None of you ever supported our friendship,” Leandros snapped. He looked away, trying to get his temper under control. He had heard the rumors; they worried him. Not because Egil might be alive, but because that meant…
“If,” he began, “If the rumors are true. If he’s alive and for some reason, he didn’t…didn’t want to come find me, we’re still out of luck. There’s no finding him when he doesn’t want to be found.”
“Fine. You know him best,” Rheamarie huffed. 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 said. Rather than glanced 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.