“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 him 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 here 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 had lived 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. No one besides his contact, at least.
Subtle as he could, he stretched and looked around, first back at the restaurant, then down the street. It was busy for that 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 in 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 running. He hoped whoever had been watching him didn’t care enough to chase him, but just to be sure, he ran as fast as he could. He wove through side alleys and back streets, and only when he couldn’t run any further,he ducked into a narrow alley.
He studied the back wall for an escape route in the shadows, just in case. 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 on an adjacent wall, was a balcony, but there’s no way its delicate beams could support his weight.
He didn’t have many choices. Instead of planning an escape, 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.
He whirled when a loud crash came from above. 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 like a dancer, his booted feet making only the softest of sounds when they hit the ground. When he straightened out, he revealed a tall, lean figure— 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, making Aleksir the intended meal. He 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 answer; instead, he smiled. 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 his 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 ended up hitting nothing but air, his balance thrown off with the force of his swing. When he’d recovered, he tried again.
The man must’ve gotten lucky. No one could move that fast.
This time, the man held out a hand and 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. He dropped it and kicked it aside.
“I’m not here to hurt you,” he promised, seeing Aleksir about to dive for the weapon.
Aleksir froze. The man’s face was friendly enough, and there was something vaguely familiar about it. Still, Aleksir said, “Could’ve fooled me.”
“You haven’t exactly given me a chance to explain,” the man said with another smile, wider and friendlier. With the smile, Aleksir realized where he’d seen the man’s face before: 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. “You do?”
Surprise flitted across Egil’s face, but he recovered quickly and nodded. “And you’re Aleksir Bardon. You’re younger than I expected.”
“I could say the same to you.”
“I would prefer if you didn’t,” Egil said. His smile was back.
“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 beast, hero of a thousand stories, confidant of the Oracle of Damael and enemy of Unity. Of course Egil noticed. He tipped his head to the side, studying Aleksir. “Are you afraid of me?”
“No,” Aleksir said, 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? Quite the step up.”
“You’re not a criminal.”
Egil sighed. “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, you know. They’re usually at least a little true, no matter how crazy they get. And there’s an awful lot of Egil stories from all over talking about how great you are.”
“There are stories that say the opposite, 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, bright, boyish, and completely out of place. “Alright, fair,” he said, shaking his head. He wrinkled his nose and looked around the alley. “I wish you hadn’t run. That restaurant was much nicer.”
“Sorry, next time I’ll take the time to make sure it’s not Egil tailing me before I react.”
“Or I’ll give you notice and we can avoid this whole game,” Egil said with a grin.
Aleksir nodded. “You never answered my question.”
“Straight to business, then? I’ve been hearing strange whispers all day. Something happened on Unity Island, and I want to know what. I have it on good authority that if anyone can tell me, it’s you.”
Aleksir listened anxiously, his frown deepening as Egil went on. When he first realized who Egil was, he’d thought… “This isn’t about the Oracle?”
The change was instantaneous.
Egil recoiled at the Oracle’s name, falling back a step. 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 friendly young man— seemingly not older than thirty— had almost fooled Aleksir.
But when Aleksir mentioned the Oracle, Egil changed. Aleksir saw the shadows. He saw Egil from those darker stories, someone bitter, angry, tired. Lines of worry and distrust found a home around Egil’s dark eyes, making him look older. Much, much older.
But that wasn’t all. The shadows around Egil’s feet shifted, drawing protectively around him. For a moment, his eyes flashed entirely dark, the whites eclipsed by a cold black that glittered in the fading light. Egil grimaced and turned away, but Aleksir had already seen it: the Egil from the worst stories. The monster.
Aleksir had seen a lot of the world and those eyes were something that didn’t belong in it. They made him feel empty and afraid— he felt it physically, like a bee sting and a bad stomach. Gone was the man he’d been talking to, replaced by someone ancient and dangerous.
Then, Egil blinked and the darkness unclouded from his eyes. His expression cleared.
If Egil man asked again whether Aleksir was afraid of him, the answer might be different.
“What does Devikra have to do with anything?” Egil asked. His tone was strained, forcibly injected with a warped version of his earlier friendliness.
“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 shook his head, a ghost of his earlier smile finding its way back onto his face. “You were on a job for her when I interrupted?”
Again, Aleksir nodded. “I was supposed to meet with my Unity contact.”
Egil considered this a moment, then said, “No, this isn’t about the Oracle.”
“But this is a perfect coincidence, then! She just had a vision—,”
Egil waved a hand to cut him off. “Don’t. Please. I just want to know what’s happening with Unity.”
Egil’s tone left no room for argument. Even though Aleksir wanted to argue anyway, 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 with Egil, 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. “Some alfar showed up on the island today to talk to Unity about it.”
“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 to me, that’s terrifying.”
Aleksir’s smile dropped. “The Oracle says big things are coming. Bad things. Maybe this is it.”
“I don’t care what Devikra says,” Egil snapped. Then he hesitated, worried at his lip, and asked, “What kind of things?”
Apparently not even the great Egil was immune to curiosity. It made him seem more human. Aleksir almost smiled. “That’d mean telling you what she saw. Thought you didn’t want me to do that.”
“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 over. It has been for a long time. 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 up just 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.”