A/N: Warning in this chapter for some depiction of violence
Gareth’s cab rolled to a stop in front of a large, 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 with it, 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.
He left his annoyance behind him at the building’s front door, which a well-dressed valet opened for him. Instead, his curiosity took over as he stepped into a warm foyer that smelled of leather, cologne, and wealth. It reminded Gareth of his father’s 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, another employee stood behind a podium, the emblem on his suit matching the one engraved into the wall. It wasn’t one Gareth recognized.
“Are you a member here, sir?” the man asked. He took in the caked mud on Gareth’s trousers with a pinched expression.
Behind him was a wide archway. A woman’s laugh drifted in through it, soft and musical. When Gareth tried to peek past the employee, all he could see was a hazily lit hallway, full of dust particles dancing in and out of beams of light. It was still and listless, just like the foyer Gareth stood in. He felt like he was pushing through water.
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! My apologies, Mr. Ranulf. Please, follow me.”
He turned and led Gareth down the hallway behind him. Paneled windows on one wall overlooked the crowded 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 a 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. They watched Gareth curiously as he passed, and Gareth matched their stares. Finally, the host stopped in front of a private office in a quiet hallway. He knocked, and Moira answered, inviting them in.
“Ah,” she said when she saw Gareth. “There you are. Come in, come in.”
Gareth did, slipping into the cozy office and sitting across from Moira. The room had the same languorous feel as the rest of the building, and Gareth found he liked it better than Moira’s office on the Island.
“This place sure came as a surprise,” Gareth said, as Moira shut the door on the host and returned to her desk.
“I’m sure I’ve invited you here before.”
“Oh. Well, good thing I finally changed that. What do you think of the place?”
“A human club, Moira? It seems a bit…old-fashioned.”
Moira shrugged. “In a world that’s constantly changing and evolving to fit the whims and needs 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 wasn’t sure 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?”
Moira frowned. “What have you heard about that?”
“A lot,” Gareth said. “You have to know how the gossip’s flying.”
“And probably all wrong. Shall I just tell you?”
Gareth nodded, surprised. Moira never told him things when she could just as easily keep them to herself. “If you’re so inclined.”
“Here’s the truth of it, as far as we understand: the King of Alfheim was visiting Illyon on a diplomatic trip when an orinian stole him out from under the noses of Illyon’s leaders.”
Gareth’s mouth fell open. “An orinian? Surely they wouldn’t risk—,”
“And yet, surely they did. The Nochdvor’s eyewitness accounts were quite damning, if a bid muddled. They’re in shock, the poor things. Alfheim wants war, of course,” Moira said, in the same tone of voice she used to discuss dinner plans. “Fortunately, it’s not up to them. Our plan is to send a team to Orean to investigate and negotiate Nochdvor’s return. If Orean has nothing to hide, then they will surely cooperate.”
“And if they don’t?”
“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’re being very selective curating this little team of ours, so understand what an honor it is when I say that we would like you to be on it.”
Gareth laughed. “It took you fifty years to develop a sense of humor, Moira?”
Moira didn’t laugh with him. “Gareth, this is no jest.”
“What?” Gareth stood, feeling his heart sink to the soles of his shoes. “Why me? I’m no inspector, to run an investigation. I’m not a diplomat, either. I’m rubbish at navigating careful situations. Moira, you know this! I’ve stepped on toes at every event we’ve ever attended together.”
“Everyone on this team will have different experiences,” she explained patiently. “You have unique 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 shows the faith we have that Orean will behave itself.”
“So I’m a pawn.”
“Of course not. Gareth, please be reasonable. We’ll have people to handle the investigations and negotiations. The team will have heavy security, so you’ll be quite safe.”
“You said you would do anything for Unity, remember? You said you were loyal to Unity. 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 to contribute. Think of it this way: you’ll get to be a part of the story for once, instead of just writing about them.”
When Gareth didn’t speak, Moira continued. “I know it will be hard leaving your family, but think of the stories you’ll get to tell Ofelia— how you prevented a war, rescued a king. You’ll be a real-life Egil, without the danger. You’ll be in no danger, Gareth. None at all.”
“Gareth, please,” Moira interrupted. “Will you join the team or not?”
“I don’t see that you’re giving me a choice.” Gareth sighed. “Can I have time to think about it?”
Moira pursed her lips. “The first meeting with the team captain will be tomorrow evening, so I’d like it if you can make your decision before then. Talk it over with Isobel, if you need to, and I’ll send you more information later.”
“That’s enough of that for now, don’t you think? Let me show you the rest of the club. You’re eligible for membership, you know,” Moira said, standing. Feeling a bit numb, Gareth followed her out of the office and into the club.
The following evening found Gareth standing before an old, stately manor, its lights brilliant against the darkening sky. It stood alone on a steep hill, a wrought iron fence keeping it apart from the other houses on the block. Through the front room window, Gareth could see the silhouette of someone pacing.
In that house waited Gareth’s new teammates. He hated thinking of them as that, hated being a part of any of this. After his meeting with Moira, he’d talked it over with Isobel, he’d spent all night thinking on it, and until that very afternoon, had been resolute not to join Unity’s team.
And then he and Isobel went out for supper. They were sat near three orinians in a lavish restaurant— Gareth had seen those same orinians arrive in Gallontea just a few days before. They were staying in the same hotel. Gareth hadn’t said a word to them, but he’d watched them talk and laugh and enjoy their evening, and it made Gareth fear for them and for Orean. He didn’t know what would come of this kidnapping, but he knew it couldn’t be war. Gareth had left that restaurant knowing that if he could help keep this thing with Orean from coming to conflict, he’d do it.
Still, he hesitated.
“You’re in the right place,” a soft 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. Everything about her seemed to exude a challenge— the way she stood, her disapproving frown, her brows, furrowed over deep-set eyes. Gareth shivered involuntarily and took a step back.
A feather-textured pattern spiraled across her pale skin in elegant waves. Gareth had met marionites before, of course, another one of Calaidia’s long-diluted human races, but he’d never seen someone with so much obvious marionite heritage. Typically, you 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.
“Oh. Yes, I am.”
The woman beckoned him to follow, then started up the drive. “Unity wants to keep this mission secret, and most of what happens on the Island is public,” she said. “That’s why we’re meeting here. This is one of the team member’s house—it’s too close to Greysdale, I told him. 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 on the team too, then? My name’s Gareth Ranulf. What’s yours?”
The woman glanced back at Gareth curiously, then seemed to think for a moment before saying, “Evelyne Corscia.”
“Pleasure,” Gareth said, awkwardly.
When they reached the front door, Evelyne didn’t bother knocking, just barged straight into the house and nearly ran into a tall, willowy dryad standing in the foyer. He jumped out of the way just in time. “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 large 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 burly man that leaned over and whispered something to her. She nodded and gave him a dry smile in return.
Great. Not only was Gareth late, 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. It was the alfar from last week, the Nochdvor royal that had been with the Princess. His new team Captain.
Gareth couldn’t tell whether the alfar remembered him from the eavesdropping incident on the island, but he graced Gareth with an unexpectedly kind smile. “You’re barely late; everyone else was just early.”
“I understand my home can be hard to find,” the dryad from the foyer said. He sat at Nochdvor’s right hand. “When Unity wouldn’t let us meet on the Island, I knew my dining room would seat us all comfortably, so I volunteered—,”
“Comfortably,” the dragon crouched at the other end of the table scoffed. It didn’t sound like she was saying anything, though— 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 physically 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 working to discover just how different, but dragons couldn’t speak like the other species. They couldn’t make the same sounds.
They had to learn the other species’ languages as well as their own so they could at least understand, and the other species had to learn theirs. The system worked, but historically, it took them all 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. The feathers continued down her neck and tail, their color warning of danger. The rest of her body, by contrast, was covered with pale blue scales.
“We’ll secure better for next time,” Nochdvor said, so confidently that the dragon settled back down without further complaint. “Perhaps we should get started so we can all be on our ways. Mr. Ochoa?”
The dryad from the foyer nodded and ran through a roll call, during which Gareth frantically tried to memorize names. Evelyne, he knew, and now Ochoa. A nympherai woman sat across from Gareth, her hair slicked back and her skin spotted with opalescent scales— Trinity Jones, her name was. Then Cathwright, the dragon, another diplomat. Ochoa started with the diplomats and ended with the security team.
Them, Gareth didn’t study as closely as he did the others. Looking at any one of them for too long had the same disconcerting effect; meeting any of their eyes felt like bugs crawling over skin and a knife point pressed to his neck.
While Ochoa progressed through the group, Captain Nochdvor sat back and studied them. Gareth wondered if he, too, was trying to memorize names, or if there were other thoughts running through his head. His expression was carefully blank, betraying nothing. Finally, he spoke. “My name is Leandros Nochdvor, and I’ll be leading the expedition to Orean. In the interest of disclosure, I am the missing King’s nephew, so I have more than an impartial interest in the outcome of this mission. However, my first priority will always be to this team.
“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 food, helping pitch 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 anyone arguing with him on this.
After Leandros’ speech, Eresh Ochoa introduced himself as the appointed Unity Overseer for the group. He was a willowy dryad, with burled green skin and long hair made of hyacinths. Without even giving the group time to process the fact that they were going to be overseen by Unity, he launched into complicated Unity protocols that Gareth knew he would forget before he even left this house.
Fortunately, Leandros cut Ochoa off before he could confuse them all too much. “Perhaps we should save this for future meetings. Ms. Corscia— Evelyne Corscia will be our head of security— do you have anything you’d like to add?”
Evelyne raised an eyebrow. “No.”
“Well, then. We have some time before we leave for Orean; we’re waiting on one final team member to return from a visit to Shema. In the meantime, relax, and we’ll contact you later with information on our next meeting.” Leandros graced them all with a final smile, cold and diplomatic. “Meeting adjourned.”
Gareth sat for a minute, watching everyone get up and leave. The security team moved together, left together. Gareth wondered what it was about them all that seemed so 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 at the sight of 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 proferred hand curiously, and too late, Gareth remembered they didn’t do handshakes in Alfheim. It was too intimate, they said. 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, letting out a bark of laughter. Again too late, Gareth remembered how Alfheim viewed open displays of emotion.
Leandros didn’t seem offended, though. 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 must admit that 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 with another smile. “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 team and Ochoa, as far as I can tell. The others are as new to this as you or I,” Leandros said. He caught Gareth’s eye, something knowing in his expression. “What else did you notice about them, Mr. Ranulf?”
“Nothing,” Gareth said reflexively. “Well, no. That’s not true. The security team, they seem a bit…off.” He didn’t know how else to voice the intense feeling of unease they gave him, or the same twisted apathy that lurked 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. “Or not. We’ll see.”
“I suppose we will,” 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.
“They’re supposed to be the best Unity could find,” Leandros continued, and it took Gareth a moment to realize he meant the security team. “Skilled, smart, and of course, loyal to Unity.”
“Yes, well, that is some comfort,” Gareth said, clearing his throat and putting out his cigarette. “ I suppose I’d best be getting home, before my wife misses me.”
Gareth started down the steps, Leandros calling, “Do you need a ride?” after him.
“No, thank you,” Gareth said. He took a deep breath; the night air was cold and refreshing, exactly 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 best start getting in shape now.”
Leandros smiled at him. “A good idea, perhaps. Goodnight, Mr. Ranulf. Enjoy your walk.”
Gareth waved and left Ochoa’s home behind, heading in the direction he was certain he’d arrived from. Soon, the estates of Ochoa’s neighborhood fell away to dull brick buildings and abandoned storefronts. He passed a tawdry and loud public house, and told himself 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 and moving into a small, run-down marketplace.
Gareth didn’t remember passing any marketplaces on the ride. He tried to tell himself that this was okay. He thought he’d been watching out the window the whole ride, but it was possible that he’d looked away for a moment. He could’ve blinked and missed it. Still, he watched for anything recognizable and 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.
One of the 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 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 that you still have your purse,” the vendor suggested.
Gareth glanced over his shoulder to check that the vendor was speaking to him. “Me? Why wouldn’t I?”
The man 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, then adding under his breath, “One I thought everyone knew.”
Gareth frantically 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. “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 the Lackless Inn on Kramer Street?”
The man thought a moment, then nodded. “Go on down this street a little further and at the first chance, go 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 Gareth 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 cursed himself for his reaction and 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 unless it was, “Atiuh, please,” or “don’t do this.”
Gareth had always imagined that, being well-educated and reasonably clever, he’d react rationally and calmly in emergencies. He hated stories where the hero froze up 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 with the knife 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.
No one would see and no one would hear. Gareth retrieved his pocketbook with shaking hands and threw it at the vendor’s feet. The vendor first pulled out Gareth’s Unity identification, holding 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.”
“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.