“Are you ready to order, sir?”
The sudden voice startled Aleksir. He turned his gaze from the passing crowd to the server standing over him, looking down his nose. “I told you, I’m waiting for someone.”
The server shrugged. “Suit yourself,” it seemed to say. He left Aleksir alone on the restaurant veranda, the chill of dusk settling around Aleksir while he waited. He wasn’t sure how long he’d been sitting here already, but it was too long. One of the two suns had set, and the lanterns lining the street had been lit. His contact should’ve been there by now.
As soon as he had the thought, a peculiar feeling came over Aleksir, like a feather-light touch to the back of his neck. Aleksir spent most of his life on the streets— he’d learned at a young age how it felt to be watched.
It shouldn’t be happening here, though— no one knew he was in the city. That is, no one beside the man he was meeting.
Subtle as he could, he stretched and looked around, first back at the restaurant, then down the street. It was busy for the time of evening, but when Aleksir looked, no heads turned away and no shapes shrank back into shadows. He made himself sit still a few minutes after that, fighting the urge to look again. Then he rose with a huff, complaining loudly about being stood up. He threw his napkin down, left a few coins for the server’s troubles, and slumped off down the street.
He waited until he was a good distance from the restaurant before he ran fast as he could, hoping whoever had been watching him didn’t care enough to chase him. He wove through side alleys and back streets, and when he couldn’t run any further, he ducked into an alley.
In case he was followed, he studied the back wall for an escape route in the shadows. There was a windowsill he could haul himself onto, but the window itself was boarded shut with planks of rotting wood, and Aleksir had neither the time nor leverage it would take to pry them free. Higher up was a balcony, but there was no way its delicate beams could support his weight.
No chance of escape, then. He pried free the leg of a discarded chair, the metal giving way with surprising ease, and faced the mouth of the alley. Then he waited, holding his makeshift weapon ready.
He didn’t expect his pursuer to come from behind.
There was a loud crash somewhere above him. Pebbles fell clanging and clattering all the way to the ground, hitting every possible obstruction along the way. Aleksir watched them fall, almost not noticing the figure hidden in shadows who followed them down, who melted into the alley’s darkness like he’d been borne from it. As the man jumped from the balcony to the windowsill, from the windowsill to the ground, his grace reminded Aleksir of the sure and steady flow of water.
He was like those metal slinky toys— fall, drop. Fall, drop. Fall, drop.
The man landed on his toes, his booted feet making only the softest of sounds when they hit the ground. He straightened out to reveal a tall, lean figure. He was clean for a man that apparently took to running around on rooftops.
He stalked toward Aleksir with the lazy, loping prowl of a predator toying with its food, which made Aleksir the intended meal. Aleksir wouldn’t make more than a light appetizer, though, really, and he debated telling the man so.
“Don’t come any closer,” Aleksir warned.
The man didn’t stop. What little sunslight reached them in the alley seemed to seek him out, touching on a messy mop of black hair and youthful face, conventionally handsome if it wasn’t for the crooked smile and hard, dark eyes. It was the kind of face Aleksir had always been jealous of, growing up— charming and dangerous.
When he didn’t stop, Aleksir did the only thing he could think to do: he swung his cudgel at the man’s head. He didn’t expect the man to dodge, moving faster than Aleksir’s eyes could even follow. Aleksir hit air, his balance thrown off with the force of his swing.
He tried again – the man must’ve gotten lucky. No one could actually move that fast.
This time, the man simply caught the metal bar mid-swing, halting its progress entirely and all at once. Aleksir gasped at the loss of momentum, and the man wrenched the cudgel out of his hand.
“Stop it,” the man said, tossing the weapon into the alley’s shadows. “I’m not here to hurt you.”
Aleksir stilled. The man’s face was friendly enough, and there was something vaguely familiar about it. “Could’ve fooled me.”
“Then let me explain,” the man said, trying a different approach. He smiled, and Aleksir found it hard to breathe. It was warm and kind, understanding in the exact way Aleksir craved to be understood. But with the smile, Aleksir realized where he’d seen the man before: in an old photograph on his boss’s desk, a half-blurred, smiling face, dark eyes unforgettable even past the grainy monochrome of the photograph.
“Oh, shit,” Aleksir gasped. “I know you.”
The man’s smile fell. “Ah, so you do. You are Aleksir Bardon, right? You’re younger than I expected.”
“I could say the same to you.”
“I’d prefer if you didn’t.”
“Well. What, um…what do you want with me?” Aleksir asked, hoping Egil didn’t notice the waver in his voice.
But it was Egil— the great northern wolf, hero of a thousand stories, confidant of the Oracle of Damael and enemy of Unity. Of course Egil noticed. He tipped his head to one side, studying Aleksir. This time his smile was slow, knowing. “Are you afraid of me?”
“No,” Aleksir said, unconvincingly. He repeated, “No. You’re my hero. As a kid, I heard all these stories about you…I don’t think I’d be alive if it weren’t for those stories. I thought, if the the great hero Egil could get off the streets and do some good, I knew I could, too. And look at me now.”
“Holding a meeting with a known criminal in a dingy alley? Yeah, quite the step up.”
“You’re not a criminal. You’re a hero.”
Egil snorted. “You put too much faith in stories, kid.”
“No, I don’t think so,” Aleksir said. “I’ve seen a lot of stories being born. No matter how crazy they get, they’re always at least a little true. There are too many stories about you doing good for them all to be wrong.”
“There’s a difference between doing good and being a hero,” Egil pointed out. “And there are stories that call me a monster, too. What of those?”
“There are less of those,” Aleksir said with a shrug. “That’s telling.”
Egil surprised Aleksir by laughing. The sound echoed in the hollow alley – it didn’t seem to fit in this dark, dingy place. It matched his smile, though. It made Aleksir feel warm. “I like you, Aleksir Bardon. I do wish you hadn’t run from me, though.” He wrinkled his nose and looked around the alley. “That restaurant would’ve been a nicer place to talk.”
Something about Egil made Aleksir want to underestimate him, let down his guard. Dangerous, he knew, but he couldn’t help rolling his eyes. “Sorry, next time I’ll make sure it’s not Egil tailing me before I run.”
“That’s all I ask,” Egil said with a grin.
“You never answered my question.”
“What do I want with you? Fine, straight to business, then,” Egil said with a frown. Even this expression of his seemed too…sweet. Certainly not what Aleksir had expected. “Something big happened on Unity Island today, and I want to know what it was. I have it on good authority that if anyone can tell me, it’s you.”
It was Aleksir’s turn to frown. “Wait, this isn’t about the Oracle?”
The question effected an instant change in Egil. He recoiled, snarling, and the sound went right down Aleksir’s spine and made his hair stand on end. It wasn’t a human sound.
In his life, Aleksir had met with his fair share of demons. He knew how deceiving looks could be, how a bright smile and a youthful face can hide the darkest shadows. This young man— seemingly not older than thirty— had almost fooled Aleksir.
But now Aleksir saw the shadows. He saw the Egil from those darker stories – someone bitter, tired, and angry. Lines of worry and distrust found a home around Egil’s dark eyes, making him look older. Much older. Aleksir didn’t understand how he could’ve ever applied the word sweet to this man.
But that wasn’t all. The shadows around Egil’s feet shifted, drawing near him. For just a moment, his large eyes flashed entirely black, the whites eclipsed by a flat darkness that glittered in the fading light. This was the Egil from the worst stories. The monster.
If Egil asked again whether Aleksir was afraid of him, the answer would be different. Aleksir had seen a lot of the world; those eyes were something that didn’t belong in it. When Egil met his gaze, he felt certain that he was about to die.
But then Egil blinked, and the darkness unclouded from his eyes. The shadows around him sank back down, released by whatever had been drawing them near.
Egil took a steadying breath, then asked, quietly enough that Aleksir almost didn’t hear, “What does she have to do with anything?”
“She’s…she’s my boss.”
Realization passed across Egil’s expression. “That’s how you knew my face?” he guessed.
Aleksir nodded. “She has a photograph of you. You’re—,”
“I know the one,” Egil sighed and passed a hand across his face. The anger seemed to drain out of him with the gesture, leaving only exhaustion in its wake. “I can’t believe she still has it. Were you on a job for her when I interrupted?”
Again, Aleksir nodded. “I was supposed to meet her Unity contact.”
Egil considered this a moment. “I see. Sorry,” he said, “For…what just happened. I, ah, can’t control it. To answer your question, no, this isn’t about Devikra.”
“But this is perfect! She just had a vision—,”
Egil waved a hand to cut him off. “Please. Please, don’t. I just want to know what’s happening with Unity.”
Aleksir wanted to argue, but he did have some sense of self-preservation, despite Devikra often teasing otherwise. “I don’t know what happened, really. They haven’t announced anything about it. Word is, Alfheim’s King’s been abducted.”
“Amos?” Egil asked, eyes widening. “How? By who?”
“The orinians, if you believe the gossips. I heard they used magic,” Aleksir said, pausing for effect. It was meant to be a joke, but after what he’d just witnessed, it fell flat. Magic was supposed to be a thing of stories— more so, even, than the man in front of him. But Egil just frowned, his expression turning thoughtful. Aleksir added, “Some alfar showed up on the island today to talk to Unity about it.”
“The King’s daughter and nephew, I think. Why?”
Egil flinched. “Leandros is in Gallontea?”
“You know him?”
Aleksir blinked. How many enemies did this guy have?
“What’s Unity going to do?” Egil asked. He spoke slowly, like he didn’t want to finish the sentence if finishing meant he’d get an answer.
“Dunno yet. Maybe you shouldn’t have scared my contact away,” Aleksir said, then shrugged. “I’m sure they’ll figure out a way to get Nochdvor back.”
“I’m sure they will,” Egil agreed. “And that should terrify you.”
Aleksir eyed Egil. “You’re not going to do anything, are you?”
Egil smiled again – it was the same smile as before, finally. The bright one. “That would be foolish.”
“Unity’s not the only one we need to worry about, you know. The Oracle says big things are coming. Bad things.”
“I don’t care what Devikra says,” Egil snapped. Then he hesitated, worried at his lip, and asked, “What kind of bad things?”
Apparently not even the great Egil was immune to curiosity. It made him seem more human, and Aleksir almost smiled. “That’d mean telling you what she saw. Thought you didn’t want me to do that.”
Egil rolled his eyes. “Just get on with it.”
“She wouldn’t tell me everything,” Aleksir admitted. “Just bits. Riots in the north. Assassinations in Alfheim. Red dragons crawling out of Lyryma.”
“The red dragons are extinct.” Egil crossed his arms. “I should’ve known better than to listen to—,”
“Look, you of all people know she’s never wrong. Weird things are happening in Calaidia, weirder than firebreathers coming back from the dead and alfar kings disappearing from guarded palaces. You have more to be terrified of than Unity.”
“And what am I supposed to do about it?” Egil asked, absently kicking Aleksir’s makeshift cudgel into a pile of trash. “Now that you’ve told me, what is there that can be done? If you’re so close with her, you know her visions can’t be changed. Mr. Bardon, whatever friendship or partnership I had with Devikra is long over. I don’t know what she told you, but she and I weren’t nearly as efficient together as the stories like to suggest.”
Aleksir ducked his head. He’d been working with Devikra for nearly six years, and she’d been fighting with Egil long, long before that. Calotype photographs had only been around for—Aleksir wished he’d paid more attention to his history lessons—fifty years or so, and Egil hadn’t looked much younger in Devikra’s photograph than he did now.
Aleksir searched Egil’s face. Devikra was nympherai, a different species. She’d been around for centuries and for her, it made sense. But humans generally came with shorter lifespans. Egil didn’t have the pointed ears and sharp angles of the alfar, not the feather-brushed skin and red hair of the marionites. Egil seemed wholly sapien. Nobody was wholly sapien anymore. Aleksir definitely wasn’t. Even Aleksir was mixed — an alfar great-great-grandmother on his dad’s side, an orinian ancestor or two way back on his mum’s.
Egil clearly wasn’t as human as he appeared to be.
“Can’t I just—,” Aleksir began.
Egil cut him off suddenly. Before Aleksir could ask what was wrong, he was being shoved against the alley wall, Egil holding a finger to his lips and pointing up. Aleksir looked in time to see a dragon fly low over the alley. It was probably blue, given its size, but it blocked out the light from above, leaving its underside all shadow. All that was left to illuminate the alley as it passed over was the single lantern strapped to its belly, pointed right down at Egil and Aleksir.
“It’s just a dragon,” Aleksir whispered.
“A police dragon,” Egil said, watching the last of its spiked tail vanish from sight. He released Aleksir and backed toward the alley’s entrance. “A clandestine meeting in an alley is cause for some questions, don’t you think? I, for one, don’t want to get caught up in questioning. Gallontea’s police are dreadfully slow, horribly inefficient, and brutally unforgiving, something you may want to remember if you’re going to keep poking around in Unity’s business.”
“I’m careful,” Aleksir said.
“I was able to find you, wasn’t I?”
“You’re Egil,” Aleksir said. When Egil kept walking, he called, “Hey! At least tell me how to find you again, in case Dev sees something important.”
Egil smiled back at Aleksir, brighter than the suns that had long since set. “I don’t think I will.”
“You can’t run from fate, friend,” Aleksir called.
“We’re not friends,” Egil threw over his shoulder. “But just watch me.”