“So this is your decision?” asked Malong, one of the Magistrates of the Council of Unity. She arched her long neck to better study one of the four people below her, all of whom had to crane their necks to meet her eye. With the movement, the sunslight streaming through the wide windows behind her caught on her scales, so clear they bent the light and cast rainbows throughout the room.
Malong was aware of the effect she had; each of the three Magistrates had their talents, and Malong’s was commanding attention. She stood a full twenty-five hands tall— with that, her low voice, and her prismatic hide, she couldn’t be ignored.
The man she addressed, however, was unaffected by her flair. He was Aron Biro— of the three branches of Unity, Biro represented the humans and Malong the dragons. Biro met Malong’s gaze coolly, inclining his head in acknowledgment. “This is the decision my Representatives have reached.”
“And what do you think, Magistrate Biro?”
“I think I trust the judgment of my Representatives, Magistrate Malong,” Biro said with a small smile. “It is a good decision.”
Diomis, the third and final of Unity’s Magistrates, sat back in his seat. His eyes, round and wide like those of a fish, stared unblinkingly past Biro, at the two people standing behind him. 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.”
Behind Biro, Rheamarie Nochdvor pursed her lips. Leandros glanced her way but said nothing. There was nothing he could say, here. He still hadn’t quite processed the fact that he was standing in the Magistrates’ presence— all three at once, all discussing a problem his family brought to them.
Malong made a low, rumbling noise. Like Biro, she continued to ignore the Nochdvors’ presence. It seemed she wasn’t convinced.
“We need to further investigate the situation, Malong, and we need to do so without escalating it,” Biro told her.
At this, Rheamarie couldn’t keep her silence anymore. Of course she couldn’t, Leandros thought— she’d never been ignored a day in her life.
She stepped forward, into the informal circle the three Magistrates had formed. “The orinians escalated the situation when they stole my father from me. Whatever course of action we choose, they will have brought it on themselves,” she said.
All three Magistrates turned their gazes on Rheamarie at once. Diomis wrinkled his nose at “we choose.”
Rheamarie didn’t wait for them to respond before continuing. “Leandros and I didn’t come here to talk about diplomacy. We didn’t come here to have you to take over the situation yourselves. We came to ask you for your assistance— barring that, your permission to do whatever it takes to get my father back. I fear your diplomacy won’t be enough.”
“We understand your fears, Princess Nochdvor,” Biro said. “You’ve made them perfectly clear. But Unity won’t sanction a war because of one girl’s fear.”
Leandros’ hands clenched into fists at his side. Rheamarie, for her part, didn’t react to Biro’s prodding. She said, “We’re not asking you to sanction anything. We’re only asking that you don’t get in our way.”
“Which would be perceived by the rest of the world as a sanction,” Malong said. “If we allow you to engage with Orean, then the next time a conflict arises elsewhere, we’ll have no choice but to treat it the same way.”
“Allow?” Rheamarie asked, voice cold.
“You will not engage with Unity if we don’t want you to,” Biro said. He said it so simply, so lightly, the same way one might say “It’s very warm out today.”
“Princess,” Diomis began, “You must understand our position. Unity was created to keep the peace, not break it. Biro’s Representatives have devised a solution, one that’s in both your best interest and your father’s. Whoever took him took him for a reason— if not, why not kill him on the spot? This orinian you spoke of killed the rest of Illyon’s nobles with ease; if she already has a proclivity for violence, responding with violence might push Orean to extremes. While they have your father, that is obviously not advisable. What are your objections to Biro’s plan?”
Rheamarie fell silent. Standing so close beside her, Leandros could see the way she shook. Leandros couldn’t help her— she was the Queen now, if only until they got Amos back.
Three cold, sharp gazes focused on Rheamarie. Leandros couldn’t read them. The people of Alfheim were good at concealing their emotions, but this was different. This was an entirely different level. The Magistrates were all at once simple and complex, hollow and brilliant. There were entire worlds behind their eyes.
Leandros felt like just one piece of a playing board— he couldn’t see the scope of it, but the Magistrates were above, rearranging all the pieces. Biro may refuse to take credit for the plan his Representatives had devised— a plan to get Amos back— but Leandros had been in that room all morning. He’d listened to them talking. Biro had been steering them the entire time. There was something he wanted. There was something he was planning. Leandros didn’t like it.
Biro met his gaze. “You’ve been quiet, Mr. Nochdvor. How do you feel about your cousin’s warmongering? You used to be quite against this sort of thing, if I recall correctly.”
“It’s never been his own family before,” Rheamarie cut in, answering for Leandros.
“Hasn’t it, though?” Biro asked.
At that, Rheamarie reacted. She practically snarled, “You dare—,”
“You want to send a team to Orean to get my uncle back,” Leandros began slowly, cutting his cousin off, “Then let Rheamarie choose your team leader. My cousin worries that diplomacy won’t be enough; let the diplomat be someone she trusts. She’s afraid that Unity is taking too much control; let her have a say in the team.”
The Magistrates stared at Leandros. Rheamarie did, too. Even Leandros felt surprised at himself for speaking– he hadn’t intended to, but now that the words had left his mouth, he knew exactly where this was leading. He shared a look with his cousin, and she seemed to understand as well.
She said, “If I get to choose the team leader…then I’ll agree to this plan.”
“Absolutely not,” Biro said.
The other two, however, didn’t immediately back him up. Malong considered Rheamarie a moment. “Princess Nochdvor, is this the only way you’ll agree to Magistrate Biro’s plan?”
“It is,” Rheamarie said.
“And who did you have in mind for the role?” Diomis asked— he spoke to Rheamarie, but he looked at Leandros as he spoke, a sly smile playing at the corner of his lips.
The Nochdvors shared a look. Leandros nodded.
“Leandros,” Rheamarie said.
“You’re not considering agreeing to this, are you?” Biro asked.
“We don’t have another day to waste negotiating with the Princess,” Malong said. “We’ve disrupted the conferences for long enough.”
A long silence paused as the three Magistrates considered the conditions they’d been presented with. Just as Rheamarie and Leandros were able to communicate with nothing but looks, so, too, were the Magistrates. After a minute, Biro sighed. “Very well, then.”
“Welcome to our team, Mr. Nochdvor. Stay in the city; we’ll be in contact once we begin our planning,” Diomis said. “Princess, leave this matter in the hands of your cousin and Unity. We’ll see that your father is safely returned to Alfheim.”
Rheamarie bowed and, without another word, turned on her heel and swept out of the room. Leandros gave a more formal bow before following her out.
Once they were both gone, Biro turned on Malong and Diomis. “Why would you agree to that?”
“It is less than ideal,” Diomis began.
“But nothing we can’t take care of,” Malong finished.
It was hours later that the two alfar finally made their way off Unity Island. Leandros made it all the way to the bridge before he realized Rheamarie was no longer following him. He looked back at her, confused.
“I need a moment,” she said, not turning to face him. She waved back at the Island. “After all of that.”
Leandros nodded. He understood how she felt. He felt much the same way, in fact. Fear, grief, rage— they coiled inside him like a ring of strange crimson fire, hot anger encircling his heart. It was hard to sleep, hard to think, hard to do anything that wasn’t actively working toward getting Amos back.
Rheamarie carefully approached the wall of the bridge. She faced away from Leandros, so it took him a moment to realize that she was crying. When he did, he was at her side in an instant, his hand hovering hear her shoulder.
After a moment’s hesitation, he dropped it. “Rhea?”
Rheamarie only shook her head, hiding her face behind her hands.
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 anger and fear thinly veiled under a guise of diplomacy, and they hadn’t been given a moment to grieve before they’d been forced onto the train to Gallontea to beg Unity for help.
“I’m sorry,” Rheamarie said reflexively, wiping her face with her sleeve. “I should stop. Someone will see.”
“You know I’m the last person to care about that,” Leandros replied. “Besides, you’re not in Alfheim. Here, you’re allowed to cry.”
Rheamarie sniffed and nodded. Still, she wiped her eyes again and stood taller. She’d grown a lot in the last few days. It hurt Leandros to have to watch, so he turned away, looking over the island instead.
Unity was strange— civil and clean and quiet, unlike Illyon, unlike Orean, even 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.
Thinking to change the subject, he pointed out the flowers. “You asked about taurel the other day; 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’s about Unity.”
“Oh,” Rheamarie said, looking around. “Taurel’s pretty. Leandros…” She stopped. “I don’t want to go back without you. Where did that come from, back there? With the Magistrates?”
Leandros couldn’t meet her gaze. “I think their plan is a good one, Rhea. I just don’t trust them to execute it on their own. Someone has to stay and make sure they do as they promised, and you have a kingdom to run.”
“So let someone else stay,” Rheamarie’s tone was stern, leaving little room for disobedience, and Leandros almost smiled. Perhaps she wouldn’t be so bad a queen after all.
“You would have me return to Alfheim without your father’s protection?”
Something wavered in Rheamarie’s expression, and for a moment, Leandros feared she might cry again. But she was out of tears. She’d always been better at controlling her emotions than Leandros, and he’d always envied her for it.
“You want to stay here,” she accused.
“Yes,” Leandros said. “I do.”
“Why? Unity is capable of handling this on their own.”
“They’re capable of handling it their way, yes, but I’m not convinced that’s the best way.”
“Is that really what this is?” Rheamarie asked. “Or is it just easier to take up some romantic quest for revenge than to return home without him?”
Leandros brushed off the question. “You and I grieve in different ways, Rhea. I need 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, see if there was more to it than he claimed. And maybe there was— it was mostly impulse that led him to make that suggestion to the Magistrates. He felt he had to, in that moment. Even so, Leandros couldn’t explain it to himself, let alone someone else.
Finally, she spoke again. “You know I don’t compliment you often, so I’m only going to say this once. If you repeat it to anyone, as your new Queen, I will have you executed. I’ve always looked up to you, Leandros. You know I have.”
Leandros hid a smile and nodded.
Rheamarie took a shaky breath. “I’ve lost my father, possibly for good, and I’m closer with you than I ever was with him. I don’t want to lose you, too.”
“Rheamarie,” Leandros said gently, “You’re not losing me. I know you’re worried, but trust that leading this team is something I can do. You know who trained me— you know the things I’ve been through.”
“It’s not that I doubt you, Leandros, but…you saw that woman. You saw how dangerous she was. 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 inexplicable 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. “Fine. I still don’t understand why you’re set on this, but I won’t drag you back with me. If you won’t hear my suggestions, at least heed my advice: be careful with Unity.”
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.
“Maybe the politics in Alfheim are rigid and warped,” Rheamarie continued quietly, “But at least we’re open about it. I don’t know what those representatives were thinking today, when they agreed to help. I just know that my father never trusted them, so I don’t, either.”
“I know Unity’s games better than most,” Leandros said darkly. “Like I said, I’ll be careful.”
“Don’t make things hard for them,” Rheamarie continued.
Leandros smirked. “You think I’d make things hard for the most powerful people on the continent?”
“I’d be amazed if you didn’t.”
Leandros pulled his younger cousin close and kissed her forehead. “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.”
Together, the two alfar wound through the city of Gallontea. Not long into the walk, Rheamarie spoke. “You know…I thought of someone else who might be willing to help.”
Leandros frowned and looked at his cousin. She seemed apprehensive, leaning slightly away from Leandros as if waiting for him to snap. “Who?” he asked.
Leandros felt like he’d had a bucket of ice water dumped over his head. He all but snarled, “No.”
“Leandros,” Rheamarie said, half-reproachful, half-apologetic, “He could help.”
“You’re wrong,” Leandros said. “I hope he stays far away from here. It wouldn’t be good for any of us if he got involved.”
“Enough, Rhea. Drop it.”
They didn’t speak after that, had nothing more to say. When they reached the station, there were no tearful farewells. Alfheim guards waited to escort the queen and 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 bowed to his Queen. After the train had departed, he walked back to Gallontea alone and the anger coiled around his heart tightened its grip.
Egil sat on the roof of a crooked old building, the night cold around him. If he noticed the chill, he gave no indication— none aside from the flush of his cheeks, and that could be explained away as excitement or agitation, given how intently he stared out across Gallontea at the glowing face of a clock tower in the distance. The tower’s dark silhouette stood boldly against the gray haze of the city’s smog, like a spectre rising up out of Egil’s nightmares. He’d had nightmares about this place, in fact— about being back in this city, about seeing the golden face of that clock looming over him again.
While he stared, the long hand clicked onto the hour and bells rang out, cutting into the night’s quiet. It was two in the morning, and Egil suddenly realized how long he’d been sitting here, watching the minutes pass while the night deepened around him. The rest of the city slept peacefully through the sound, but Egil pressed a hand to his heart. It felt to him as if the deep, low chimes resonated up through his body and cut into his soul. He felt it in his heartbeat. Sleeping through this seemed impossible. But then, the chimes of that clock meant much more to Egil than they did to the rest of the city. To him, each peal was a reminder of all the things he’d left behind, and all the secrets festering over on that island off the coast.
There was something happening on the Island. The city had been abuzz all day, but no matter how hard he listened, Egil only heard whispers. It was too much for his curiosity to take. He had to know what was happening over on Unity Island.
He straightened out his shoulders and watched the clock until something else nearby caught his attention. It was a dragon flying low over the sloped roofs of the city, the blue scales of its belly glistening from the lights of the gas lamps on the streets below. Twisting around buildings and weaving between the spires of a church, it eventually made its descent toward the green stretch of part along the coast and disappeared between the trees there. It remained blissfully unaware of Egil’s eyes on it the whole time.
They were cold, black eyes, eyes that grew colder when they fixed back on the clock tower. When Egil thought of the tower’s secrets, secrets this city and all the world around it was built on, he shuddered. And for a moment, his control slipped. For a moment his dark eyes seemed too dark. Entirely dark. The air around him shimmered like it couldn’t contain his anger, and the shadows pulled closer to him. Then, whatever that was— whatever darkness had momentarily overtaken him— faded.
He stood and stretched, a few joints popping after his hours of sitting still. Egil turned his back on the clock tower and climbed down from the roof while off in the distance, the clock tower ceased its tolling.