“So, 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 the people 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 chamber.
Malong was aware of the effect she had; each of the Magistrates had their specialties, and Malong’s was commanding attention. She stood twenty-five hands tall – between that, her low voice, and her prismatic hide, if she wanted to intimidate she could do it well.
But Aaron Biro was used to her flair. Of the three branches of Unity, Biro represented the humans and Malong the dragons. The two had known each other a very long time.
They were back in the Council Hall, the conference crowds long dispersed and even the Representatives, having finished their deliberations, well on their ways home for the evening.
Biro met Malong’s stare coolly, inclining his head in acknowledgment. “This is the decision my Representatives reached, yes.”
“But what do you think, Magistrate?”
“I trust the judgment of my own representatives, Magistrate,” Biro said.
Diomis, the third and final of Unity’s Magistrates, stirred in his seat, and Malong and Biro’s attention immediately turned to him. Diomis’ eyes, round and wide like fish, stared unblinkingly past Biro at the two alfar 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. Usually so restrained, Rheamarie seemed closer to losing her temper than Leandros had ever seen her. He worried it might happen now, in front of the Magistrates of Unity.
He was worn thin, himself. Anyone would be after spending hours trying to convince a room full of politicians that their King was worth saving.
Malong made a low, disapproving noise.
“We need to 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. She stepped forward, into the informal circle the three Magistrates had formed. Leandros twitched forward, as if to stop her.
It was one thing to argue with the Representatives, but it was another entirely to argue with Unity’s Magistrates. Rheamarie was many things, but she had never before been a fool.
“With all due respect, the orinians escalated the situation when they stole my father from me,” she said. “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.”
Leandros tensed, dreading Rheamarie’s response. Fortunately, she 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.”
“Allow?” Rheamarie repeated.
“Yes, allow. Alfheim will not engage with Orean if we say it cannot,” Biro said. He said it like it was truth, the way one might say, “It’s raining outside.”
“Is that a fact?” Rheamarie asked coolly.
“Rhea,” Leandros said, finally stepping forward and laying a hand on her arm. Rheamarie shot him a chilling look, the look of a queen silencing her subject. He’d had more to say, but Rheamarie’s expression was enough to cut him off abruptly.
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 beneath his skirts were angled oddly, just enough to draw his attention to his gait: smooth, like he might have been floating. 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 King Nochdvor’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 killed a room full of nobles with ease, what’s one more? And 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, barely there, but Rheamarie’s shoulders slumped, and Leandros knew she’d been convinced.
Leery as he was to argue, Leandros hadn’t been convinced. Biro may refuse to take credit for the plan his Representatives had devised – a plan to get Amos back using “diplomatic” means, putting together a trained team to negotiate his return – but Leandros had been in that room with them all morning. He’d heard them talking. Biro had been steering them the entire time, and there had to be a reason.
And Diomis had taken to the plan so quickly, now painting it as if it had been conceived for Amos 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. 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 quickly, 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 things 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 more neutral.
Leandros steeled himself before adding, “I’m sure my cousin will show the utmost prudence in assembling the team.”
It had only been a suspicion, before, but the Magistrates’ reactions told him that he’d correctly guessed their objective: whatever they wanted, it had to do with this team.
He may not know what game they were playing, but that wouldn’t stop him from dealing himself in. He figured he could learn as he went along. He’d always been a quick study.
Malong hissed, and Biro said, “We will be assembling the team. 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 and Diomis, eyes wide.
“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 than a full team from Unity.”
Leandros paused meaningfully and pointedly did not look at Rheamarie. He could hear his own heart beating in his ears, fast and frantic. He was about to pull something very foolish.
He continued, “And should Unity insist on taking over the handling of this situation despite Alfheim’s public disapproval, it might even 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 a different matter. Fear, longing, and helplessness — these were all things he knew very well. Things he could hide very 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 can chose its leader.”
Rheamarie stared at Leandros, mouth hanging open slightly. When he met her gaze, she shut it and turned reluctantly back to the Magistrates. “I agree with what my cousin says. If I get to choose the leader, then…I will accept your plan.”
Biro looked like he had something to say. He was turning red from trying to hold it back. 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 the 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, and we’ve disrupted the Conference long enough.”
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 her out.
As the grand doors to the Magistrates’ chambers swung shut behind them, Biro turned on Malong and Diomis. “Why would you agree to that?”
“Mr. Nochdvor was unfortunately astute in his threats. It would appear suspicious if we forced Alfheim out,” Malong said, “Even if this new arrangement is less than ideal.”
“Do not worry,” Diomis said. “This problem can be easily remedied.”
Leandros followed Rheamarie out of the Magistrates’ Chambers, out of the building, and all the way down to Unity Bridge without stopping. There, they were alone, and there, Rheamarie finally whirled to face Leandros.
“What were you doing in there?” she asked.
“They’re planning something.”
“You think I couldn’t see that? That doesn’t answer my question.”
“Someone had to call them on it, and that someone couldn’t be you,” Leandros explained. “You can’t argue with them, Rhea.”
“But you can threaten them? Stop treating me like I’m a child, Leandros. I’m your Queen.”
“Not while there’s still any chance of getting your father back, you’re not,” Leandros said. He sighed. “You misunderstand me, Rhea – you can’t argue with them. It’s not because you’re incapable, but precisely because you are going to be Queen one day. The Magistrates remembers 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 — felt much the same, in fact. Fear, grief, rage — 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 out toward her, dropping it after a moment’s hesitation. “Rhea?”
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 normally 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 could fit in at home when you couldn’t. I could do one thing you couldn’t.”
Rheamarie looked at Leandros again. This time when she laughed, it was sheepish, anxious. “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 watch, 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 was strange— 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. Their plan is a good one, but we just…I can’t trust them to execute it on their own. Someone has to stay 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, and 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, made himself take a deep breath. “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. 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.
“Maybe Alfheim’s politics are ruthless, but at least we’re open about it. I don’t know what the Magistrates were thinking today, and for all your talk, I know you don’t, either.”
“Maybe not, but I have the best chance of finding out. I know Unity’s ways better than most,” Leandros said. Seeing Rheamarie’s frown, he added, “But like I said, I’ll be careful.”
“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 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?” he all but snarled.
“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.”
“Enough, Rhea. Drop it.”
“Fine,” Rheamarie hugged, 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.