Íde paged through her book, seeking the folded-over corner of the page she’d left off on. She hadn’t planned on getting much reading done over this holiday, considering who her companions were and what they were like, but she’d found morning was a good time for it. Maebhe still slept and Kieran was out for his morning walk— if Íde pretended to sleep until he left, she could avoid being dragged along.
She shifted so her weight wasn’t distributed entirely on her tail and looked up when a movement across the room caught her attention. Their hotel room was small for three adults, and painfully garish with velvet sofas, bold rugs, and striped wallpaper. The movement came from the further of the two beds, where Maebhe, hidden under a mountain of tangled sheets, stirred in her sleep. Íde smiled and returned to her book, barely finishing a page before the door to their room flew open with a bang.
Kieran stood in the doorway, eyes wide and mouth set in a way that had Íde bracing herself for a storm. He marched over to the table, pressed his palms flat against it, and leaned in toward her. “We need to leave.”
This was something Kieran had brought up a few times in the last week, ever since rumors of missing kings and murderous orinians started circulating. Ever since they’d started getting the looks, since they’d been refused service in a small corner shop, since a man spat at their feet as they walked by. The message was clear: Kieran, Íde, and Maebhe didn’t belong in Gallontea, not with times as they were.
Secretly, Íde was beginning to agree with Kieran. Still, she said, “But we—,”
“Spent so much money on this trip, I know. That’s what you keep saying. But it’s just money, Íde. Who cares?” Kieran pulled a rolled up newspaper out of an inner coat pocket. The paper was hot off the presses, if the ink smudging his fingers was any indication. He held it out, his tail whipping back and forth in agitation until Íde took the newspaper from him. She didn’t read it, though, instead regarding Kieran with concern.
“If we have to leave, we’ll leave,” she said softly. Then she looked down at the newspaper, the headline making her eyebrows climb up toward her hairline.
“What does it say?” Maebhe asked from her bed, having woken when Kieran first burst in. She blinked at Íde, her angular features scrunched up in concern. Her blonde hair was piled atop her head, its ends sticking out in every direction; she looked about as hungover as she no doubt felt, and in any other situation, Íde might have laughed. Instead, she held the paper up, its headline reading: “ᴀɴ ᴀᴄᴛ ᴏғ ᴡᴀʀ? ᴡʜᴀᴛ Dᴏᴇs ᴏʀᴇᴀɴ’s ᴀᴛᴛᴀᴄᴋ ᴏɴ ɪʟʟʏᴏɴ Mᴇᴀɴ ғᴏʀ ᴛʜᴇ ᴛᴡᴏ ᴄɪᴛɪᴇs?”
“What,” Maebhe said, voice falling flat. She jumped out of bed and snatched the paper from Íde’s hands. Out loud, she read, “Long-standing rivalries between Illyon and Orean came to a head last week when King Nochdvor of Alfheim was abducted by Orinian soldiers. The King’s nephew, Leandros Nochdvor, reported the event to Unity and remains in the city for reasons yet unknown. Mr. Nochdvor was unavailable for comment. You may remember Mr. Nochdvor from his father’s scandal…blah, blah…” Maebhe skimmed through the article. “Many believe that the kidnapping was perpetuated by Orean as an act of defiance— oh, come on! Illyon’s got all of Unity behind it. Why would we be so stupid—,”
“It’s just nobodies conjecturing, Maebhe. Sensationalist garbage,” Íde reasoned. “It doesn’t mean a thing, and I’d wager none of it’s true.”
“But it’s possible, isn’t it?” Maebhe asked, looking first at Íde, then Kieran. “What if Orean really did—,”
“Why would we be so stupid? Isn’t that what you just said?” Kieran said. “But whether it’s true or not, it’s what everyone in Gallontea is thinking.”
While Maebhe and Íde frowned at the paper, Kieran dropped into an open chair and rested the soles of his boots on the table. Íde batted at him with her tail.
“We eat there, Kieran!”
“On plates! It’s not like you lick the table.”
“Now you see what I’ve had to live with,” Maebhe told Íde. “He’ll be your problem, soon.”
“As if you won’t be over every day, raiding our kitchen and dirtying up our house,” Kieran countered.
Maebhe smiled and shrugged.
“Really, you two,” Íde said. “Is now the time?”
“Íde, love, Gallontea’s talking about war and you’re mad about my boots,” Kieran said.
“Yeah, Íde,” Maebhe joined in. “Don’t you think we’ve got bigger things to worry about?”
Íde huffed and frowned at Kieran. He still looked pale from his news, the thick black markings that stretched and swirled across his face bringing his pallor into sharper contrast. The design of them was concentrated on the left side of his face, but a small swirl curling around his right ear trailed down his neck like a creeping vine, or a bolt of lightning— not really like either, but similar to both. The mark disappeared underneath his shirt collar, but Íde knew how it continued down his entire body.
Maebhe’s markings were exactly the same as Kieran’s, only focused on the right half of her face instead of the left. Íde bore entirely different marks. Hers were thinner, lighter, barely visible against the planes of her face. From a distance, her silver-patterned marks looked like old scars instead of bold tattoos.
These marks were the birthright of anyone with orinian blood. Superstitious orinians believed an orinian’s marks reflected their soul.
“So?” Kieran asked. “Can we leave? I feel like someone should tell Orean about—,” he gestured at the newspaper, “All of this.”
“I don’t want to leave,” Maebhe whined. “We just got here.”
Íde stood and stretched, flattened the folds of her skirts, and looked up to find two identical pairs of gray eyes on her, waiting. Her vote would decide it, then, and whichever way she chose, the reaction wouldn’t be pretty.
Apart from their eyes and their birthmarks, despite being “identical” twins, the Cairns were far from identical. The idea of them was much the same: white-blonde curls, bold dirin layered over ochre skin, angular features, loud voices. Seeing them side-by-side, the differences were clear. Maebhe was sharper— nose, jaw, cheekbones. Kieran was sturdier, with larger eyes and a rounder face.
But then, Íde knew these two better than anyone else, and the differences weren’t obvious to an untrained eye. Right now, their emotions further alienated the similarities between them: while Kieran waited patiently, Maebhe looked angry. She’d already guessed Íde’s answer, then.
“I’m sorry, Maebhe. It’s getting too dangerous to stay.”
Maebhe’s nostrils flared, the only warning Íde and Kieran got before she was yelling. “Of course you’d take his side! It’s so typical.” Then, she was throwing open the door and storming out of the room, barefoot and still in her dressing gown. Íde and Kieran both cringed when the door struck the wall.
“You and your sister,” Íde marveled. “How is your house still standing?”
“What do you mean?” Kieran asked, staring after Maebhe, absently twining his tail with Íde’s.
“You both run around throwing doors open with enough force to knock them off their hinges.”
“There’s not actually any force behind it. We’re just dramatic,” Kieran admitted.
Íde laughed. “I’ve known you both for years. You don’t have to tell me that.”
Kieran pressed a hand to his heart. “You’re not supposed to agree! You’re supposed to say, ‘No, Kieran, Maebhe has many flaws, but you don’t have any.’”
“I’m never going to say that,” Íde tells him, deadpan.
“You know I love your dramatics, most of the time,” Íde said, winding her arms around Kieran’s waist. “You should go talk to Maebhe; calm her down. I’ll start packing.”
Kieran made a face. “Must I?”
Íde ruffled Kieran’s hair and shoved him toward the door. Kieran tried to scowl back at her, but left to find his sister.
Maebhe hadn’t made it far. She stood at the end of the hallway, leaning out an open window. The window was the only source of light in the hallway, and Maebhe was barely more than a shadow outlined against it. She stood still, arms hugged close to her body, and didn’t turn to look when Kieran joined her.
Kieran stood beside her at the window and stared out across Gallontea. He was again struck by how different the buildings here were from Orean, tall and new and strange. Their hotel floor was high enough up that he could see over them to the gray outline of Unity Island, its silhouette seeming to reach like a clawed hand, the clock tower a long finger pointing toward the sky.
“We barely got to see the city,” Maebhe said, winding her arms more tightly across her chest.
“You should put on something warmer, Mae,” Kieran said in reply. Even fully dressed, the morning chill that seeped in through the window had goosebumps raising on his skin.
Maebhe let out a biting laugh and finally looked at her twin. Kieran looked back, and it was like a mirror image, their asymmetrical, swirling markings refracted back on the other’s face. “That’s all you have to say?” Maebhe asked.
“We barely got to see the city,” Kieran echoed back, the words visible on the air in a small cloud, dissipating as another gust of morning wind hit. “The people here are talking about bringing war, and that’s all you have to say?”
Maebhe looked back out at the city. “Yes. Selfish, isn’t it?”
“No,” Kieran said quietly. “It’s fair. This is our first holiday since…since mother and father, and now it’s being cut short by something like this.”
“Yeah,” Maebhe sighed. She turned suddenly to Kieran and pinched him. “This is your fault, you know.”
“Ow! What? How?”
“You’re the one who chose Gallontea. We should’ve gone to the coast, like I wanted.”
“And why is it not your fault for losing the coin flip?”
“Maybe it’s Íde’s fault for suggesting the coin flip in the first place,” Maebhe said.
Kieran considered this. “Fine. Truce. This is all Íde’s fault.”
Maebhe grinned, and they both glanced back to ensure the door to their room remained shut.
“I suppose I’ll have to actually listen to you both this time,” Maebhe sighed. “We really should leave.”
“Maebhe Cairn,” Kieran marveled, “I have never known you to agree to an idea of mine so quickly.”
Maebhe laughed, her bad mood vanishing like their breath on the cold air. “Don’t get used to it. I’m only agreeing to this if you promise to take Íde and me on another trip once this all blows over. This time to the coast. And you’re paying.”
Kieran made a face. “As if you could afford to pay even if you wanted to. But speaking of payments, I should go see if we can get a refund on our room.”
“I’ll come with you.”
The hotel lobby, with all of its painted moulding and garish wall pieces, was crowded when the twins arrived. Maebhe rounded the corner first, entering into full view of everyone milling about the front desk, then let out a yelp when Kieran yanked her back into the shadows. Maebhe whirled on him, but he held a finger to his lips. Carefully, both twins peered around the corner.
The small lobby was filled with Gallontean Police. Maebhe leaned back to ask Kieran what was happening, but her attention snapped back to the front desk at the clerk’s next words. Loud enough for his voice to carry perfectly through the narrow lobby, he said, “Room 401.”
That was their room.
Kieran’s grip on Maebhe’s arm tightened, his nails biting into skin as he pulled her further up onto the stairwell, out of sight.
“What are you going to do with them?” The clerk’s voice came again, drifting past the twins into the stairwell. The officer’s reply was garbled, but Maebhe caught “depends” and “cooperate.”
Kieran dragged her all the way back up the stairs and into their room, shutting and locking the door behind him. Pushing Maebhe out of his way, he dragged a chair over to the door, propped it up and hooked it around the door handle. Íde watched with wide eyes, frozen in the act of folding a shirt.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“The police are going to arrest us.”
“They didn’t say anything about arresting,” Maebhe said.
“You’re right. I suppose they could just be here to kill us.”
“No, I’m sure they…they just want to escort us out of the city. That would make sense,” Maebhe said.
“That’s not how war works, Mae,” Kieran said. He’d rushed over to Íde and was now helping her pack. “When you don’t know who’s a friend and who’s a foe, you lock them both up just to be safe. You don’t let them go, especially when they know things your enemies don’t. If Unity thinks a group of orinian soldiers kidnapped Nochdvor, they’re not going to let us run home to warn Orean that they’re planning a response.”
“You’re just being paranoid,” Maebhe said.
“Am I? The same thing happened in the Great War—the marionites turned on the alfar, criminalized alfar living in their city and held them in cells until the conflict between them over,” Kieran said, like he was reciting from a history book.
“But we’re not at war,” Maebhe reminded him.
“If there are really police here,” Íde interrupted, “Don’t you think we can reason with them?”
“I doubt that they’ll listen,” Kieran said, unsure.
Maebhe joined Kieran and Íde, tossing a change of clothes into her lightest bag. “We could sneak out before they get to us,” she said, as if it was really that simple. As if they weren’t on the fifth floor, the police probably coming upstairs for them at that moment.
“Excellent, Maebhe! And how, exactly, do you propose we do that?”Kieran asked.
Maebhe scowled at his tone, and all three orinians froze when someone knocked on their door, sharp and insistent.
“Too late,” Kieran said, breaking the silence.
“It’s not,” Maebhe said. She crossed to the balcony door and threw it open. Stepping onto it, she looked down, then up. They were only one floor up to the roof, and it would be an easy climb, the building’s surface all protrusive bricks and gritty columns. “This is how we sneak out.”
Kieran and Íde shared an identical look, eyebrows raised and mouths drawn into long lines. “You could, maybe,” Kieran said. “Íde and I aren’t climbers,” Kieran said.
“But you’re—,” Maebhe began, interrupted by a more insistent pound at the door.
A voice called out, and the handle jiggled. “In the name of Unity and the city of Gallontea, open up!”
“You’re orinian,” Maebhe finished, desperately. “You can climb one story.”
“Get the keys from the desk clerk,” the voice came again. The pounding continued.
Íde cast a last desperate look at the door, then nodded and joined Maebhe on the balcony, taking Kieran’s hand and pulling him along. Both made the immediate mistake of looking over the balcony rail. Kieran backed away.
“No,” he said quickly. “There must be another way. We’ll talk to them, like Íde suggested.”
They all looked back at the door as their sensitive ears picked up on the sound of keys jingling.
“What if we fall?” Kieran whined, long ears twitching back toward the sound.
Maebhe followed his gaze over the balcony ledge. “You wouldn’t die if you fell from this height.”
“Thanks, Mae! That makes me feel much better.”
“I mean it! I’ve fallen out of taller trees!”
“Yeah? You’ve also broken a lot of bones!”
“Again, but is this the time?” Íde asked. Another bang on the door, louder this time, made her jump. They were trying to break the door down.
Maebhe kicked off her shoes. “Watch me do it, and I’ll be waiting at the top to help pull you up.”
“No,” Kieran said, something in his voice making Maebhe stop what she was doing to look at him. His eyes were trained on the door. When another crash came, it was accompanied by the sound of splintering wood. “Íde’s right. There’s no time.”
“Kieran,” Íde said, “What are you planning?”
Kieran turned to look at them both, and Maebhe’s heart sank. She’d seen that expression on his face before, whenever he’d taken blame for her or caught a punishment that was meant to be hers. “You two go. Get back to Orean and tell them what’s happening. I’ll hold them off while you get away.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Íde snapped, her gentle voice harsher than Maebhe had ever heard it.
“It doesn’t make sense for all three of us to get caught.”
Another crash, more splintering wood. Kieran pulled Maebhe into a hug, startling a squeak out of her. “Go,” he breathed, then released her and kissed Íde, quick and chaste. As he pulled away, he said, “I love you. Both of you. Be safe.”
With that, he marched back into the room.
“Íde,” Maebhe prodded gently. Íde didn’t look at her, just watched Kieran go with wide eyes. “We have to go. We’ll find a way to rescue him—,”
“I won’t leave him,” Íde said, shaking herself. She turned to Maebhe and smiled, then pulled her into a hug, same as Kieran had. “Take the Adriat road home— you’ll be able to avoid Illyon that way. Don’t worry, I’ll take good care of him.”
“What—,” Maebhe began, but Íde backed into the room, shutting and locking the balcony door before Maebhe could get another word out. She tried the handle anyway, debated breaking the glass panels and marching in there, insisting that the three of them not be split up, but a final crash from inside stayed her hand.
“You morons,” Maebhe muttered, half-formed rescue plans already racing through her mind. She didn’t know how she’d pull it off, but she was resourceful.
Maebhe backed away from the balcony door, tried not to listen to the sounds coming from the other side. She clambered up onto the balcony rail and wrapped her tail around it, using the extra grip for balance. Once she was steady, she sank into a crouch and gripped the rail with all five limbs. Then, she turned slowly to face the hotel. She didn’t think about the street behind her.
She tensed, reinforcing her balance by wiggling like a cat about to pounce, and jumped to the overhang. It made a loud clanging noise when her body hit it and inside, things went quiet. As the balcony door unlocked with a click, Maebhe began to climb.
She doubted they’d follow her. She doubted they could. No Gallontean could climb like she could. Orinians might belong to the human species, but they had adaptations Unity humans did not, leftover from a time when the only escape from the large predators that roamed her Valley was up into the trees, into the mountains. Orinians had extra muscles in their legs to make jumping easier, and extra joints in their feet to help with climbing.
And Maebhe, who hunted, climbed, and explored for sport, who used these extra adaptations every day if she could help it, had no difficulty reaching the roof before the officer on the balcony even thought to look up. She hauled herself up onto the shingled surface and paused to catch her breath, peering over the edge just in time to see the officer disappear back into the room.
Only a few minutes later, the guards exited the hotel, dragging a handcuffed Kieran and Íde out with them, and Maebhe covered her mouth with her hands to keep from crying, the weight of the situation finally slamming into her. She felt as if she’d missed her earlier jump and had finally hit the ground.
While the officers shoved Íde into the back of a cab, Kieran risked a look around, eyes running along the rooftops. Maebhe risked a little wave and even from that distance, could see the tension drain out of her twin. Then, he was shoved into the cab as well, an officer climbing in behind him.
Maebhe pushed her panic away, saving it for later. When the driver spurred on the horses, she launched into motion as well. She ran along the rooftop with the speed and agility of a full-blooded orinian, always keeping her eyes on the carriage as she leapt from building to building. Once or twice, she almost slipped on dewey tiles, but she always caught herself, always kept going, even when the horses started to pull ahead.
Her path was blocked, eventually, by a building—too tall to jump to, too uneven to run across. Casting her eyes around the sides of the squat building she stood on, she spotted a fire escape and scrambled down it. From there, she continued her pursuit, but when she stepped into the street, she could no longer see the carriage. She pressed on, anyway, and managed to catch sight of it just as it turned a corner ahead.
Maebhe pushed past passersby, jumped over a stroller, and skidded to a halt once she’d turned the next corner. The carriage was too far to catch, but Maebhe could see where it was going. She watched the carriage carrying Kieran and Íde press on toward Unity Island and the realization that she was now alone in an enemy city loomed all around her.