A/N: Warning in this chapter for some depiction of violence
Gareth’s cab rolled to a stop in front of a squat building off the public square. He climbed out, careful to avoid the mud puddles pooling over the uneven cobblestone, leftover from the morning’s rain. The air was still crisp, and Gareth paused to breathe it in, eyeing the building in front of him. It reminded him of Unity’s prison, only with more windows.
The cab driver didn’t wait for Gareth to move before taking off, the wheels of his carriage splashing mud and rainwater up Gareth’s trousers.
“Wonderful,” Gareth groaned, surveying the damage before starting up the building steps.
He left his annoyance at the door, opened for him by a valet, and stepped into a foyer that smelled of leather, cologne, and wealth. It reminded Gareth of his father’s old study. The furniture was configured into some sort of waiting room, and glossy, frosted-paneled doorways led deeper into the building. Off to the side, a man stood behind a podium, the emblem on his suit matching the one engraved into the wall.
“Are you a member here, sir?” the man asked. He took in the caked mud on Gareth’s trousers with a sour expression.
Behind him stood a wide archway. A woman’s laugh drifted through it from deeper inside, but when Gareth tried to peek past the man, all he could see was a hazily lit hall, full of dust particles dancing in and out of beams of light. It was still and listless, just like this foyer.
He finally knew where he was, at least. “This is a social club,” he guessed.
“Yes. If you’re not already a member—,”
“I think my sister is. Moira Ranulf? She asked me to meet her here,” Gareth said.
“Oh! Of course, Mr. Ranulf, I’m terribly sorry. I hadn’t known to expect you. Please, follow me.”
He led Gareth down the hallway behind him. Paneled windows on one side overlooked the busy street, but the other was covered with portraits of serious-looking men— all, Gareth noticed, human. He stopped short when they passed a face quite familiar to him. It was his own father, sneering down at them over the top of his glasses. Gareth gawked at the word “Founder” beneath his father’s name.
“He never told me about this place,” Gareth said to the host, who’d slowed when Gareth did. “Where are we?”
“The Metharow Club, founded by your father and several others to create a place for humans with Unity connections to gather, unwind, and form social connections. Your sister has been a member since she was first appointed as Representative.”
The host led Gareth down a few more hallways, then up a set of stairs. They passed a well-dressed group playing billiards in a wide, sunlit room. The group eyed Gareth as he passed, and Gareth matched their stares. Finally, the host stopped in front of a private office. He knocked, and Moira called them in.
“Gareth!” she said when she saw them, “There you are. Come in, come in.”
Gareth did, slipping into the cozy office and settling in the seat across from Moira. “This place came as a surprise,” he said as Moira shut the door behind him.
“I’m sure I’ve invited you here before.”
“Oh,” Moira said. “Well, you’re here now. What do you think of the place?”
“A human-exclusive club, Moira? It seems a bit…old-fashioned.”
Moira shrugged. “In a world that’s constantly changing and evolving to fit the whim of others, Gareth, it’s nice to have something that stays the same.”
Yes, Gareth felt certain this place hadn’t changed since its founding. He didn’t believe that was a good thing. “Why did you want to see me? Your letter said it was important. Does it have to do with Illyon?”
“What have you heard about that?”
“A lot,” Gareth said. “You have to know how the gossip’s flying.”
Moira sighed. “And probably all wrong. I imagine the curiosity is killing you; would you like me to tell you what happened?”
Surprised and eager, Gareth nodded. Moira never told him things when she could just as easily keep them to herself.
“Here’s the truth of it: the King of Alfheim was visiting Illyon on a diplomatic trip when a team of orinians stole him out from under the noses of Illyon’s leaders.”
Gareth’s mouth fell open. “Orinians? Surely they wouldn’t risk—,”
“And yet, surely they did. The Nochdvor’s eyewitness accounts were quite damning. Alfheim wants war, of course,” Moira said, in the same tone she used to discuss dinner plans. “Fortunately, it’s not up to them. Our plan is to send a team of diplomats to Orean to negotiate Nochdvor’s return. If Orean has nothing to hide, then they will surely cooperate.”
“And if they don’t?”
Moira shrugged. “Then we’ll let Alfheim have its war. Rheamarie Nochdvor won’t be appeased until she either has her father back or has shed enough blood to account for it.”
“Why are you telling me all of this?” Gareth asked.
Moira gave Gareth a searching look before continuing, her expression unreadable. “We would like you to be on the team, Gareth.”
Gareth laughed, but Moira didn’t laugh with him. “It took you fifty years to develop a sense of humor, Moira?”
“This is no joke.”
“What?” Gareth stood, feeling his heart sink to the soles of his shoes. “Why me? I’m not a diplomat! I’m rubbish at navigating careful situations, you know that!”
“Everyone on this team brings different experiences,” Moira said. “You may not be the perfect diplomat, but you have your merits. Your knowledge of Orean and its customs will be invaluable, and the fact that we would send the brother of a Unity Representative on this mission tells Orean we have faith they will behave civilly.”
“So I’m a pawn.”
“Don’t be dramatic. Gareth, please. We’ll have people to handle the negotiations, and the team will have heavy security, so you’ll be quite safe. I promise, no harm will come to you. Does this really sound so bad?”
“You said you were loyal to Unity, remember? We need you for this.”
“I —, ”
“We all have duties we must perform. I’ve been doing mine for years, filling father’s position on the council, and now it’s your turn. Think of it this way: you’ll get to be a part of the story for once, instead of just reading about them. I know it’ll be hard leaving Ofelia, but think of the story you’ll get to tell her— you’ll prevent a war, rescue a king. You’ll be a real-life Egil.”
Gareth stared down at his hands. He did want that. He wanted to be someone Ofelia could look up to, and if he passed on this opportunity because of fear, he wouldn’t be. But if Orean really did kidnap a Unity King, is it so far a stretch to think they might use violence against whoever Unity sent their way?
He sighed. “Can I have time to think about it?”
“The first meeting team meeting is tomorrow, so make your decision before then. Talk it over with Isobel, if you must, and I’ll send you more information later.”
“Thank you, Moira.”
“You’re welcome, Gareth. That’s enough of that, now, don’t you think? Come, let me show you the rest of the club. You’re eligible for membership, you know.”
The next night, Gareth hesitated outside a stately old manor, brightly illuminated against the darkening sky and standing alone on a steep hill. Through the front room window, Gareth saw the silhouette of someone pacing.
In that house waited Unity’s diplomatic team.
After hearing Moira’s proposal, Isobel had advised against going. Gareth had thought it over, and he’d agreed.
Then they went out to dinner, and his mind had been changed.
At the restaurant, they’d been placed beside three orinians. Gareth had seen them all before — they were staying at a hotel near Gareth’s rented flat — but watching them talk, laugh, and enjoy their evening made Gareth fear for them and for Orean. He didn’t know what would come of Unity’s mission, but if he could help keep it from coming to conflict, he would.
Only, now that he was here, he hesitated again.
“You’re not lost,” a quiet voice behind him said. Gareth turned to see a woman with apple-red hair standing on the walkway. A sword hung at one of her hips, a gun at the other. Gareth took a step back. Everything about the woman was aggressive— her stance, her frown, and her brows, furrowed over deep-set eyes.
A feather-textured pattern spiraled across her pale skin. Gareth had met marionites before, of course— they were another one of Calaidia’s human races, like alfar and sapiens. He just didn’t think he’d ever seen someone with so much obvious marionite heritage. Nowadays, you typically only saw the red hair, or the feather-brushed skin, or…As if guessing Gareth’s thoughts, the woman smiled at him. She had two sets of sharp canines on each side.
“Pardon?” Gareth asked, remembering his manners.
“You’re here for the meeting?” she asked in her gentle, lilting voice. It sounded wrong leaving those lips, her teeth glinting with every word that she spoke. It didn’t fit her.
“Yes, I am.”
The woman beckoned him to follow, then started up the drive. “Unity wants to keep our mission secret. Secrets are hard to keep on the island, so we had to meet here.” She sighed, annoyed, and glanced back at Gareth. “I told them it’s too close to Greysdale. One wrong turn and you’re a dead body in a dark alley somewhere.”
The way she emphasized you’re made Gareth think she meant him, specifically.
“Come on,” she said. “They won’t wait all evening.”
Gareth followed, keeping a careful distance. “You’re right, thank you. My name is Gareth Ranulf. What’s yours?”
The woman seemed to think for a moment before saying, “Evelyne Corscia.”
At the door, Evelyne didn’t bother knocking. She barged straight inside, nearly running into a tall, willowy dryad in the foyer. “Hey! Watch — Oh, Ms. Corscia, there you are! And Mr. Ranulf, I presume. We’ve been waiting for you.”
Gareth barely got a chance to look around before the man was ushering him into a dining room filled with people. He settled in the first open seat, conscious of everyone’s eyes on him. Evelyne sat further down the table, beside a ruffled, sleepy looking man that leaned over and whispered something to her. She nodded and gave him a dry smile in return.
Great. Not only was Gareth the last one in, but everyone else already knew each other.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” Gareth said to the man at the head of the table. His face was bright red, he knew. He wore his embarrassment easily, and that embarrassment worsened when he recognized the man as the alfar from last week, the Nochdvor royal that had been with the Princess. His new team Captain.
The alfar only nodded. “You’re barely late; everyone else was just early.”
“Did you have trouble finding the place?” the dryad from the foyer asked. “Ms. Corscia said people might. But the Magistrates told us not to meet on the island and I knew my dining room would seat us all comfortably, so I volunteered—,”
“Comfortably,” the dragon crouched at the other end of the table said with a scoff. Only, it didn’t sound like she was saying anything — not in the way that humans say things. It was more the sound you’d get from filling a glass jar with rocks and shaking it, only lower and deeper. Her voice was an avalanche.
Gareth understood her, though. Everyone did. Given how different a dragon’s anatomy was from the other two species, it followed that their tracheal structure would differ as well. The performance of autopsies had only been legal for a hundred years or so, so scientists were still studying just how different, but dragons couldn’t speak like the other species. They simply couldn’t make the same sounds.
They had to learn the other species’ language and the other species had to learn theirs — that way, both could understand and respond to what the other was saying. The system worked, but it had taken them a shamefully long time and far too many lost lives to reach this understanding.
The dragon crouched low to the ground, the only way she could fit in the low-ceilinged room. As she spoke, the iridescent orange feathers that ran along the side of her face flared out. They continued down her neck and tail, their color warning of danger. The rest of her body was covered in pale blue scales and knotted with old scars.
“We’ll secure better for next time,” Nochdvor said, so confidently that the dragon settled back down without further complaint. “If we get started, we can all be on our ways sooner. Mr. Ochoa?”
“Oh! Yes, of course,” the dryad said before shifting through a stack of papers. They were all over the table before long, but he finally managed to pull out a single sheet, triumphant. “Roll call.”
While Mr. Ochoa began the roll call, Gareth frantically tried to memorize names. Evelyne, he knew, and now Eresh Ochoa and Leandros Nochdvor. A nympherai woman sat across from Gareth, her hair slicked back and her skin spotted with opalescent scales— Trinity Jones, her name was. She was another diplomat, along with Cathwright, the dragon.
The man beside Evelyne was called Ivor. He was security, same as her. He seemed completely disinterested in the meeting, tipping back in his chair, eyes half-lidded. When Mr. Ochoa called his name, he gave a lazy wave.
Gareth eyed him, curious as to what kind of security this man was supposed to provide. Then Ivor met his gaze and Gareth felt a chill go down his spine.
There was something cold in his eyes in a way Gareth had never seen – no, wait. That wasn’t true. He saw the same cold detachment in Evelyne’s eyes.
He spent the rest of the meeting stealing glances at the rest of the security team. There were nearly as many of them as there were diplomats, a bad sign for how Unity expected this mission to turn out. The security members were the same, all of them — all armed, all the same kind of unsettling. Meeting any of their gazes felt like bugs crawling over skin and a knife point pressed to your neck.
Mr. Ochoa — the appointed Unity overseer for the mission — finished his roll call and introductions quickly. And when he was done, Leandros spoke.
“I’ll be leading this expedition,” he said. “As you likely all know by now, I’m the missing King’s nephew, so I do have more than an impartial interest in the outcome of this mission. I tell you this in the spirit of full disclosure; I will not let any family ties get in the way of, first and foremost, this team’s safety, and second, attaining our goal – getting the King back peacefully.
“We’re a small team, with five diplomats— including myself— and five support team members, so travel will be light. You’re allowed two bags and no more. You’ll all be expected to contribute, whether that be by cooking, pitching tents, or gathering firewood. If anyone has a problem with that, you can see me after the meeting,” Leandros explained, his tone making it very clear that he would not, in fact, tolerate any argument on this.
“Evelyne Corscia will be our head of security. Ms. Corscia, do you have anything you’d like to add?”
Evelyne pursed her lips. “No.”
“We have some time before we can leave for Orean,” Leandros continued. “We’re waiting on one final team member to arrive. In the meantime, relax, and we’ll contact you when we have more information. For now, meeting adjourned.”
Gareth sat for a minute, watching everyone get up and leave. The security team moved together, left together. Gareth watched, wondering what it was about them all that seemed so…eerily alike. At a loss, he pushed himself to his feet and went to look for his host, peering into a few cluttered, elegant rooms but finding no sign of Mr. Ochoa.
He let himself out without a thank you or a goodbye but stopped on the porch when he found Captain Nochdvor. The alfar stood at the balcony rail, watching the team trickle away, his lean frame outlined against the hazy glow of the city’s streets.
“Captain,” Gareth said, holding out a hand when Leandros turned to him. “Gareth Ranulf. I look forward to working with you.”
Leandros regarded the proffered hand curiously, and too late, Gareth remembered they didn’t do handshakes in Alfheim. They were too intimate. But Leandros surprised Gareth by shaking his hand, even smiling as he did. “Likewise. Ranulf, did you say? I know your sister.” Leandros paused and considered Gareth. “Would you say you’re…much like her?”
“Atiuh’s word, I hope not,” Gareth said, laughing. Again too late, Gareth remembered how Alfheim viewed such open displays of emotion.
But Leandros surprised Gareth again by not seeming offended. Instead, the tension in his posture eased and his smile turned a bit more genuine. It made the long scar on his cheek twist. “I admit I’m glad to hear it. Moira was, ah, difficult to persuade when my cousin and I first asked Unity for help.”
Gareth cringed. “She can be like that. Not very empathetic, I’m afraid. I’m sorry.”
“I don’t hold it against you; we don’t choose our family.” Leandros’ expression shifted, but the fleeting hint of scowl quickly passed. “And you’re certainly the friendliest of the team I’ve met so far.”
“I’ve got to make friends somewhere,” Gareth said, pulling his cigarette case out. He offered it to Leandros. “Would you like one?”
“No, thank you.”
Gareth nodded, took one for himself, and lit it. “The others seem to already know each other, after all.”
“You noticed that too, did you? It’s just the security members and Ochoa, as far as I can tell,” Leandros said. He caught Gareth’s eye, something knowing in his expression. “What else did you notice about them, Mr. Ranulf?”
“Nothing,” Gareth said quickly. “Well, no. That’s not true. Security, they all seem a bit…off.” He didn’t know how else to voice the intense feeling of unease they gave him, or the twisted apathy behind all of their eyes. He didn’t know how to say, “I trust them more to kill me than protect me,” but Leandros gave him that knowing look again, and Gareth thought he understood.
“Something that will hopefully pass the more time we all spend together,” he said, not sounding at all hopeful.
“Right,” Gareth said. He got the feeling he was missing something. It was the same feeling he got around Moira sometimes, or at Unity functions, like there was a game being played and he hadn’t been told the rules. “Who are they?”
“I don’t know. The diplomats are open about their stories, but Unity wouldn’t tell me anything about the security members. They’re supposed to be the best Unity could find,” Leandros continued. “Skilled, smart, and of course, loyal to Unity.”
“I must say,” Gareth began, “I’m a bit worried. Now you, I’m sure you do this sort of thing all the time, but I—,”
“I don’t,” Leandros interrupted. “Do I seem like I do?”
“Why, yes. Very much so. You’re so…self-assured.”
Leandros snorted at that and shook his head. “If only I were. The mission itself is easy, but may I tell you a secret, Mr. Ranulf? I’ve never led anyone before. Certainly not a group like this. I keep worrying I’ll say something wrong and everyone will know I’m only pretending. I only agreed to do this because — well, I suppose that doesn’t matter. I’m glad I seem self-assured; I hope you won’t think less of me now that you know the truth.”
“On the contrary,” Gareth said, “I think more highly of you — and I’m certainly more comfortable knowing I’m not the only one who doesn’t know what they’re doing.”
“No,” Leandros agreed with a small smile, “You’re definitely not, at that.”
Gareth cleared his throat and put out his cigarette. “Well, it was a pleasure meeting you, Captain, but I suppose I’d best be getting home before my wife misses me.”
Gareth started down the steps, Leandros calling after him, “Do you need a ride?”
“No, thank you,” Gareth said. He took a deep breath; the night air was cold and refreshing, just what he needed after a meeting like that. “It sounds like we’re going to be doing a lot of walking on this journey, so I’d be wise to start getting in shape now.”
Leandros smiled at him. “A good idea, perhaps. Goodnight, Mr. Ranulf. Enjoy your walk.”
Gareth waved and left Mr. Ochoa’s home behind, heading in the direction he’d arrived from. Soon, the estates of Ochoa’s neighborhood fell away to dull brick buildings and abandoned storefronts. He passed a tawdry public house and told himself he was still on the right path, that he had to pass through an unfashionable part of town to reach Main Street. This was just the way. He remembered it from the cab ride here.
So he kept walking, past the distrustful glances thrown his way, past the grimy children yelling “Sweep! Sweep!”, past street vendors and their carts until he passed into a small, run-down marketplace.
Gareth didn’t remember passing any marketplaces on the ride. He’d been watching out the window the whole way, but it was possible he’d looked away for a moment. He could’ve blinked and missed it. He continued on with more caution. Soon, the cobblestone turned to mud and the air filled with the smells of food and spices, only barely masking the stench of smoke, rot, and human waste.
When Gareth passed a sign that said, “Now Entering Greysdale,” he began to panic.
A small chimney sweeps bumped into him and deposited a thin layer of soot on his coat, the dusty ash standing out against the black fabric. Gareth frowned down at the ash and the boy, who cast too pitiable a figure to really be annoyed with. “Do you know the way to Kramer Street?” He asked, handing the boy a small coin.
After mumbling his thanks, the boy shook his head and ran off. As Gareth watched him go, he noticed a nearby street vendor watching him. He worked his way over to the man, a shopper breaking away from the vendor’s cart and bumping into Gareth on his way past, hastily offering an apology before continuing down the street.
“You’re gonna want to check you still have your purse,” the vendor suggested.
Gareth glanced over his shoulder to check that the man was speaking to him. “Me? Why wouldn’t I?”
The vendor looked up at the sky, as if asking Atiuh what he did to deserve his fate. “That fellow didn’t accidentally slam into you. It’s a con,” he explained, adding under his breath, “One I thought everyone knew.”
Gareth checked the inner pocket of his coat and breathed a sigh of relief to find his pocketbook still in it. He inched closer to the man’s cart. “Thank you, I should have seen the trick for what it was. Can you help me? I’m afraid I’m lost.”
The corner of the man’s mouth turned up in contempt. Or bitterness, perhaps. “Are you?”
“I’m trying to get to Kramer Street?”
The man thought a moment, then nodded. “Go on down this street and at the first chance, turn left. It’ll look like an alley, but don’ let that stop you. The other end opens up onto main street.”
Gareth thanked the man and followed his instructions, hesitating when he reached the mouth of the alley described. It was exactly the sort of place common sense told him to avoid: dark, with large objects obscuring the view to the other end. When he looked up, though, he could see the spires of a church he knew to be on main street.
Gareth held a handkerchief to his face to block the smell, so foul it brought tears to his eyes. It didn’t help much, but he plowed into the alley anyway. It would be worth it, to get out of this place.
He’d made it about a third of the way through when a heavy hand landed on his shoulder, making him jump like a startled cat. He bit his own tongue to keep from shouting.
“Sorry to scare you,” the man said— it was the vendor from before, the one who’d given Gareth the directions. He wiped a hand across his mouth to cover a smile. “You dropped this, I think,” he said, holding out Gareth’s cigarette case.
Gareth reached out to take it, frowning when the man only pulled it closer to him.
“You should be careful walking around this place at night, sir. With your clothes and your fancy way of speaking, you’re asking to get robbed.”
It was impossible to miss the threat there, even for Gareth, who’d never found himself in a situation like this in his life. He readied himself to run. He could replace the cigarette case. The same could not be said of his life. But when he turned, he found another man standing behind him, this one with a long knife in his hand. It glittered in the sliver of moonlight that fought its way down to them.
It was the shopper that bumped into him earlier, Gareth realized. He looked so much like the man with his cigarette case that they had to be related, and Gareth cursed himself for not noticing it before.
He glanced toward the mouth of the alley. It had been so dark from the street. No one would see them. His mind shut down, left him unable to think anything besides “Atiuh, no,” or “please don’t do this.”
Gareth had always imagined that, being well-educated and reasonably clever, he’d react rationally in emergencies. He hated stories where the hero froze at a crucial moment. He hadn’t understood then the paralyzing effects of fear, the powerlessness that chilled your bones, that whistled through your blood with every beat of your heart. He understood it now, as the man’s knife danced along the back of his neck.
“Call for help and my brother will cut your throat faster than you can piss yourself.”
Before Gareth could feel a fresh wave of fear at that, the brother behind him held both of Gareth’s arms behind his back and the vendor slammed his knee into Gareth’s groin. Gareth grunted, the air leaving his lungs in a staccato burst, and he fell to the ground, barely registering the pain of his knees hitting the hard dirt.
“Take my money, just leave me be,” Gareth gasped when his breath finally returned to him. He wondered, briefly, what his father would think of him begging like this. This was not how Ranulfs behaved, even to save their own lives.
The vendor slammed his fist into Gareth’s face, and Gareth flew back at the blow, falling against the alley wall, the back of his head hitting the brick. Lights burst before Gareth’s eyes.
No one would see them and no one would hear them. Gareth retrieved his pocketbook with shaking hands and threw it at the vendor’s feet. The vendor rifled through it, pulled out Gareth’s Unity identification, and held the laminate papers to the light. “What’s this?”
“Looks like junk,” the other suggested.
“What’s it say?” the vendor asked Gareth. He sneered when he saw Gareth trying to inch his way down the alley. “Tag, stop him.”
He returned to studying the papers while Tag grabbed Gareth by the collar and pulled him back. “That’s Unity’s seal, right there. I bet we can get a good price for whatever this is. Search him, see if he’s hiding anything else.”
It was now or never.
“Help!” Gareth shouted as loud as he could. He thought he saw a shadow hesitate at the mouth of the alley but knew it must just be a hallucination brought on by wishful thinking. No one could see them.
He looked back at Tag in time to see a fist speeding toward his face and couldn’t even cringe when the blow struck, so intense was the pain. It was everywhere. It was numbing. He fell back against the wall again, and everything went black.
A/N: A wild sword lesbian has appeared! You guys are going to LOVE Evelyne.