The moment Dinara’s feet left the ground, she knew she would fall. Sure enough, when her foot touched back down, her ankle rolled and she hit the ground hard, a jolt of pain shooting up her leg. She groaned, rolled onto her knees, and for a moment, debated just staying down. But her teacher cried her name and that was enough to spur Dinara to stand.
Tabia was already on her way over, worry written plainly across the older woman’s face. Dinara sighed. At least it wasn’t disappointment.
“I’m alright,” Dinara said, flexing her foot. It hurt, but she could still bear weight on it.
Tabia knelt in front of Dinara to check for herself. “Don’t you worry, pet. This happens to everyone,” she said.
Dinara laughed. It sounded manic even to her own ears, and it made Tabia look up. They’d been rehearsing for hours; of course Dinara was bound to fall. She doubted she could land one more jump, with the way her muscles shook from the exertion of just standing.
“Would you like a break?” Tabia asked.
“I’d like to be done.”
“Very well. Let me talk to you some about Edith, then we can end this for the day.”
Dinara nearly collapsed with relief. She didn’t know what more she could possibly learn about Edith, but she’d listen if it meant she could go take a nap. Edith was Tabia’s legacy, anyway, and Dinara wouldn’t take that pride from her. Not more than she already had.
“Go sit. I can tell you everything from here.”
Dinara hobbled to the edge of the stage and sat carefully, holding her injured ankle away from her body. By the time she looked Tabia’s way, the older dancer had tied her tight braids back with a strip of cloth and was flitting through the lead-in steps to the jump Dinara had just botched. She executed it flawlessly, and a sting of jealousy tore through Dinara alongside the familiar awe.
Mortality was a tragedy, Dinara thought. According to their leader, Tabia was too old to keep playing Edith. Dinara hated being the one to take her from Tabia. Tabia stepped forward deliberately, rhythmically, toes pointed outward and arms spread wide like she was greeting an old friend. Fully in character now, she dropped into a low curtsy. There was none of Tabia’s usually jaunty sway in her movements.
“You have the same naivete,” Tabia began, still moving with a grace that ebbed and flowed, “But you’re missing her pride, her fearlessness. Do you understand? Edith’s story is about trusting instinct and doing whatever you must to follow it. You have to feel this with all of your heart if you want to understand Edith.”
She wished Edith wasn’t a young heroine. She wished there wasn’t so much pressure to be perfect. She wished Cahrn could forget historical accuracy and keep Tabia in the role— he would, if they were performing for some hidden village or minor court, but they were performing for Unity. There would be no foregoing accuracy among the most educated, snobbish people on the continent, which is why Tabia had been asked to name a successor.
Dinara wished Tabia hadn’t named her.
“Had Edith believed anything other than this, she would not have discovered the assassination plot. The goddess Ellaes would not have given her the power to stop it. She would not have saved Unity and, subsequently, the world.”
“Have you really met her?” Dinara blurted. It was a common rumor among the Players, but Tabia never commented on it. Dinara figured that if she’d tell anyone, it would be her successor.
Tabia stopped dancing, a smile slipping onto her generous lips. “Yes, I met her. It was a long time ago. Edith was old, much older than I am now, and frail. But her eyes were fierce when she told her story.”
“Did she talk about Ellaes?”
Tabia shook her head. “Ellaes must have been an embellishment. That, or Edith just had to deal with people who believed such for so long that she no longer believes herself. But enough of this,” Tabia held her hands out to Dinara; when Dinara took them, she pulled her back to her feet.
“Don’t be so afraid, Dinara. Even Unity would prefer a passionate Edith to a cold, precise one. Stories aren’t about skill, they’re about feeling. Stories only mean anything if you’re moved by them, in some way or another.”
Dinara nodded, determination renewed. “I’m sorry for complaining, Tabia. I can keep going.”
Tabia waved her off. “You’ll be no good for the performance tomorrow if I wear you out today. Go home and rest. Don’t let the brat keep you up late.”
“He hates when you call him that.”
“I’ll stop calling him that when he stops reacting to it.”
Dinara laughed and threw a wave over her shoulder. She stepped down from the traveling stage into the Webhon Players’ camp, which was pitched in the park near the Rinehart Grounds. If Dinara listened, she could hear the sounds of the festival— laughter, cheers, clashing strains of competing musicians.
For being so close to such an important performance, the camp was at ease. Dinara passed Julian, their best musician, tapping idly at a sweet, percussive drum from Vragje. The sound made Dinara homesick. Julian’s wife was nestled on the ground beside him, asleep with her back resting against his legs. Off in the distance, Dinara spotted a group of her friends playing kickup when they were supposed to be dismantling the skene they’d been using for the festival. She slipped away before they could spot her, weaving through the camp toward her trailer.
She climbed its rickety steps, each one siphoning away a bit of her exhaustion. The paint was chipped and the floorboard creaked, but the small wagon was sturdy and cozy. It was Dinara’s home, the only one she had. Her parents built it shortly before they’d married, and since then it had seen a lot of road. Most of Calaidia, in fact.
Pushing past the curtain of beads that served as the door, Dinara did a quick sweep of the narrow room. Her partner wasn’t home, but she hadn’t expected him to be. While he helped with the occasional show, he wasn’t one of them. She didn’t know how he spent his days and didn’t care to. Living on the road as they did, you took privacy where you could find it and gave it in return.
Dinara gave her lover a lot of privacy.
She collapsed onto a bench to unwind the wraps around her ankles. Not much later, the curtains rattled and a face peeked through the doorway. “Di?”
“You can come in, you know,” Dinara called. “This is your home, too.”
He stepped inside. “I’m just surprised to see you; I thought you’d be rehearsing all day.”
“Mm. You’re home early.”
“So’re you. Did you finally snap and murder Tabia?” he asked, after giving her a chaste kiss.
“You know I’ll help hide the evidence when you do,” he said with a cheeky grin.
It almost lifted Dinara’s spirits. Almost. “She let me out early because I kept messing up.”
“Did she say that, or did you just think it?”
“It doesn’t matter if she said it or not. I’m sure it’s true.”
He held a hand out to her and she took it, letting him pull her to her feet. “She chose you as her successor for a reason. You’re amazing.”
“You think?” She asked in a husky voice, slowly pressing close to him.
“Of course,” he said, and Dinara pretended not to notice the way his breath hitched.
She looked up through her eyelashes at him and then, she suddenly pushed him away. “And how would you know? You never stay to watch my shows.”
“Oh, that’s not fair,” he said, catching her arm and pulling her in again. “That has nothing to do with you. You know how I feel about that play.”
“I know, but I don’t understand.”
“I don’t know how to help with that,” he said. Now, it was Dinara’s turn to hold on while he tried to slither away. It was a favorite dance of theirs, a push-pull.
“Talk to me. Explain it. Who doesn’t like Egil stories?”
He smiled, the expression not reaching his eyes, and shrugged. “Someone who’s had bad experiences with Egil.”
“What does that mean? You know he’s not real, right?”
“Was. Hundreds of years ago.”
“Fine. I won’t push.” Dinara put her hands on her hips and offered up a small, apologetic smile. “Now that we’ve gotten our daily fight out of the way, you’re supposed to ask how this morning’s show went. That’s next in our routine.”
He laughed and moved to their bed—just a lumpy mattress on the ground— and sat. “We have a routine, do we?” He patted the spot next to him, but Dinara hiked up her skirts and dropped onto his lap instead, straddling his hips. He leaned in with a wolfish grin and asked, “Is this part of our routine?”
“It usually comes after the fights.”
He laughed. “And this?” It was his turn to look up through his eyelashes, playing the innocent game. He was beautiful and he knew it, and he knew how to make Dinara weak with a look.
But his was the beauty of a predator caught in a moment of peace, innocent now when just that morning he’d been dripping with blood, sated from a violent chase. And the mischievous glint in his eye was the only warning Dinara got before his hands shot out to tickle her sides.
“Roman!” she squealed, laughter forced out of her like a punch to the gut. She tried to squirm out of his grip, but he was relentless, fingers finding the ticklish spot just above her waist. “Stop it!”
Roman was laughing as well but stopped the moment Dinara went on the offensive. She went for where she knew he was most ticklish— the back of his neck. For a minute, they wrestled, Roman trying to get at Dinara while protecting himself and Dinara doing the reverse, both of them laughing until they couldn’t breathe.
Dinara ended the battle by pushing Roman back onto the bed and following him down. “Truce?” she asked, sitting up on her elbows so she could look down at him.
“Truce,” he agreed.
“You’re an ass. You know how ticklish I am.”
“That’s what makes it so entertaining,” he said, his bright grin making it hard for her to be annoyed. He reached up to brush Dinara’s hair away from her face.
“What did you do today?” Dinara asked.
Roman blinked, surprised at the question. “Me? Oh, I…” he paused, long enough to remember, or maybe long enough to come up with a believable lie. “I just wandered around a bit. Lots of interesting gossip buzzing around Gallontea today— have you seen the papers?”
“No, I haven’t,” Dinara said. She never kept up with the news, didn’t know what to do about the heartache it gave her. Better not know than know and be unable to do anything, she thought.
“They think Orean is trying to start a war.”
“Oh,” Dinara said. She was about to ask more when she realized how easily he’d slithered out of answering her question. “So you—,” she began, but he slipped further away.
“I’m sure Unity will step in before it gets to that,” he said with false cheer. “Speaking of Unity, your performance is tomorrow, isn’t it? Have you seen their theater yet?”
“Yes, I helped carry some things over today. Oh, Roman, it’s beautiful! Wait until you see it— you are coming, aren’t you? It’s not an Egil story this time.”
“Even if it was, I wouldn’t miss this,” Roman promised, looking up at Dinara.
Dinara was unsettled by his eyes as often as she was struck by his beauty. They were dark, so dark as to appear black. That was fine, that was normal; Dinara’s own eyes were a similar shade. She was sure, though, that her gaze never sent a jolt up anyone’s spine, make their hair stand on end, or set off some distant warning in the back of their minds. Not like Roman’s sometimes did.
It was only like this, when the full weight of his focus landed on her, that she felt it. She dropped her gaze, catching him flinch out of her periphery. When she managed to look at him again, he was staring at the ceiling.
“I’m glad you’ll be there,” Dinara said, trying to pull Roman back to her. More and more since they’d entered Gallontea, she’d been losing him to the murky depths of his thoughts, thoughts she couldn’t begin to guess at. He wasn’t the same Roman she’d known for the last year, and she wanted that Roman back. She kissed him, hoping to lure him out, but he withdrew further, shifting beneath her to push her off.
Dinara changed tactics. She broke the kiss, twined her fingers with his, and pinned his hands on either side of his head. His eyes widened, his attention shifted back to her. She didn’t flinch away from it this time. “It’ll be nice to have you there.”
Roman blinked lazily, trying to think past Dinara’s hands, warmth, and weight to process the words. Dinara didn’t give him a chance. She kissed him again, and when she trailed the kisses down along his jaw, he tilted his head to give her better access.
“I promise not to make faces at you when you’re on stage this time,” he eventually managed, when he could find the words. A breathy laugh followed, and Dinara sat up. He was smiling at her— finally, it reached far enough to crinkle the corners of his eyes, and Dinara recognized him again.
“You’d better not! Cahrn yelled at me for that last time!”
Roman snickered and squirmed, a half-hearted attempt to break out of Dinara’s grip. Dinara only pressed her weight into him more, shifting more of it to her hands and ducking to ghost more kisses along Roman’s jaw.
“It’s not that I don’t appreciate this…whatever this is, Dinara,” he breathed, “But I came home early to ask you something.”
“Gemma invited us out to dinner tonight. They’re all going somewhere nice, to celebrate the end of the festival. I told her I’d ask if you were up to it.”
“A pressing question, I see,” Dinara teased, releasing his wrists. “I don’t know. I want to, but…I also don’t.”
“It’ll be fun,” Roman said. “And knowing you, you’ll just stay here and fret over tomorrow if you don’t have something to distract you.”
“There are other distractions than parties,” Dinara purred, ducking her head to kiss Roman.
He let her, but when she pulled away again, said, “We don’t have to stay the whole time.”
“I’m tired,” she groaned. “And my feet hurt.”
A mischievous glint in his eye was the only warning she got before he flipped their positions, then sat up and grabbed Dinara’s leg. She nearly kicked him in the face, thinking he was going to tickle her again, but instead he sat back and began massaging her feet. “I know you’ll regret missing this.”
“Yeah,” Dinara agreed. She hummed, let her eyes fall shut. “Is that why you want me to go so badly?”
“I’m far too terrified of Gemma not to give it a fighting effort,” Roman said, making Dinara laugh. “Plus, it’ll be good for you. If we stay, you’ll fret, I’ll brood, and we’ll fight. Dinner with friends seems like a better option.”
Dinara hummed, held her other foot out for Roman to massage. “But this is going to make me fall asleep.”
“Sleep, then. I’ll wake you in a few hours.”
And sleep, Dinara did.
Gareth’s necktie wouldn’t lay flat. After he’d adjusted it a dozen times, Isobel finally took pity and leaned over to fix it for him. The heavy fabric of her dress ruffled with the movement and brushed against Gareth’s leg. From Gareth’s other side, Moira shot him a searching look. She’d been on edge all evening, obviously wanting to discuss something. And all evening, Gareth had been ignoring her.
The Ranulfs all sat together in a private box at Unity’s theater. Down below, a lively crowd shifted and chattered, eager for the show to begin.
Finally, clearing her throat, Moira prompted, “Well? Are you going to tell me how things are going or not? You’ve been avoiding me since the Club; don’t think I haven’t noticed.”
Gareth raised an eyebrow, surprised she had, actually. “We’re not allowed to discuss details with anyone outside of the team,” he said, as if he didn’t go home after every meeting and recount them to Isobel word-for-word.
“With civilians. You’re allowed to tell me,” Moira said.
“Mr. Nochdvor was quite clear about secrecy,” Gareth said.
“Secrecy about what?” Gareth and Moira’s younger brother Aldous asked, leaning over Moira to join the conversation. Aldous was a successful businessman in the north, but like a child, still hated when his siblings spent time together without him. Upon learning Gareth was in town, he’d taken the first available train to join them.
“Nothing,” Gareth and Moira answered at once, making Aldous narrow his eyes.
Isobel shushed all three of them. “The show’s about to begin.”
Sure enough, attendants went around dimming lights and characters in bright, antiquated gowns stepped onto the stage.
This show followed another story Gareth was familiar with. It was about a girl named Edith Albert, the youngest daughter of a Unity Representative. Centuries before, Edith had learned of a plot to assassinate the Magistrates. After she tried stopping it on her own, the goddess Ellaes came to her in a vision, guiding her, showing her the correct path.
Gareth had seen this story portrayed before, but never with such emotion or skill. It was clear the Webhon Players were putting more into this show than the one at the Rinehart Festival. He recognized some of the actors, reused— the lead, Edith, had been the Oracle in the Rinehart show, the young man who’d played the prince was now a Unity Representative.
Gareth was surprised when the curtains drew shut and intermission began. Time had seemed to fly and he’d forgotten, briefly, about the real world.
While Gareth and the rest of the audience were still waking from the dream, sitting and blinking and trying to reorient themselves with the present, Moira leaned toward Gareth, looking to resume their conversation. Gareth took one look at her, mumbled something about the restroom, and fled out through a side door. Only once he was out of her sight did he slow, struck by his surroundings.
Above his head, elegant figures and scenes were painted across the arched ceilings. Gold candelabras lined the walls between long panels of mirrors and the carpet was a deep red. Gareth was in awe of the Unity Theatre; he’d never been anywhere so garishly luxurious in his life.
“A bit much, isn’t it?” Someone asked, coming up beside Gareth.
Gareth saw him in the mirror first, all golden hair and slow, feline movements. Gareth turned and offered the newcomer a bow which was returned with far more grace. “Perhaps, Mr. Nochdvor, but hardly surprising where Unity is concerned.”
Leandros surprised Gareth by laughing. It was a bright, musical laugh, an homage to old songs and forgotten myths. It reminded Gareth of ancient stories about eld alfar dancing on moors among streams of wild magics. It was an insult to everything Alfheim was now, what it had become.
The laughing stopped suddenly, and Leandros took in a sharp breath. “Atiuh above, Mr. Ranulf, what happened to your face?”
Gareth gave a sheepish smile, his eyes flicking to the mirrors. Despite Isobel’s cosmetic touch, there was no hiding the blotchy bruise under his eye. “I was mugged,” Gareth said, preparing to tell the story for the hundredth time. He’d almost been desensitized to the embarrassment by now. Almost.
Leandros narrowed his eyes at the bruise. “That looks a few days old, at least. That didn’t happen after our meeting, did it?”
Some sharp emotion flickered across Leandros’ face, quickly disappearing behind his usual careful expression. The intensity of it surprised Gareth. “This is my fault. I should have insisted on giving you a ride.”
“Nonsense. You couldn’t have known I’d get myself lost. Anyway, no real harm done; someone came to my rescue before the worst could happen.”
“That’s good,” Leandros said, relaxing. “Awfully kind of them.”
“Indeed,” Gareth said. A beat, an awkward pause, and then, “Any word yet on that last teammate?”
Leandros sighed. He looked tired, Gareth realized, more than he had just a few days ago. “None at all. Unity may be allowing me to lead our little expedition, but they won’t tell me any more than they have to. I don’t know who she is, why she’s so important, or when she’ll be back.”
“Well, I’m not going to complain,” Gareth said. “I’m in no hurry to leave my family.”
Down the hall, the bell rang, alerting them to the end of the intermission.
“I should be getting back to my seat, Mr. Ranulf, but what say we get drinks after this? I’d love to hear more about the daring rescue.”
Gareth had never been one to turn down an opportunity to study an interesting personality, and Leandros Nochdvor, with his tightrope walk between cold and kind, with his musical laughter and his flashes of anger, was interesting. Plus, this would be an excellent excuse to avoid his sister. “I’d love to.”
The two men walked back to the theater together, the alfar parting crowds with nothing but a look. He seemed to exist apart from the rest, like they were all ghosts and he was the only solid creature here. He seemed to belong in a place like this – tall, regal, and handsome, his blue damask waistcoat and fitted suit the peak of fashion. He exuded confidence and calm, and Gareth was beginning to wonder how much of that was an act.
Gareth returned to his box, content with the promise of picking the alfar apart over more drinks.
The second act was somehow better than the first. The Webhon Players teased the line between tragedy and comedy; Gareth cried one moment, then cried from laughter the next. The performance got more fantastical as the play went on, the Players incorporating stage tricks like metallurgy to make it more real. Gareth cried again when it was over, not because it was sad, but because it was over.
Isobel hung on his arm, leading him out of the box and downstairs. Gareth searched for Leandros among the crowd, and it was only a prickling sensation at the back of his neck that made him turn around. Instead of Leandros, another familiar figure leaned against the wall by the stage doors, the line of his body tense, his wary gaze on the crowd. He started in surprise when his eyes met Gareth’s.
Without thinking, Gareth grabbed Isobel’s hand and pulled her back toward the doors, moving against the crowd. “Mr. Hallisey!”
Roman responded with a bright smile and a lazy wave.
In a whisper, Gareth explained to Isobel, “He’s the one who helped me the night I got mugged. Roman Hallisey’s his name.”
“What a strange coincidence,” Isobel said.
“I knew he was connected with the Webhon Players, but— hello, Mr. Hallisey!”
“Gareth,” Roman greeted as they approached, “I was wondering if I’d see you here tonight. Your eye looks like it’s healing well.”
“Yes, thank you.” Gareth touched his cheekbone self-consciously
“And this must be the beautiful Mrs. Ranulf,” Roman said, extending a hand. When Isobel offered her own, Roman raised it to his lips and kissed it. “Your husband talks about you a lot when he’s drugged, did you know that?”
“I wasn’t aware. I can’t say I’ve ever drugged him.”
Roman laughed. “Well, he doesn’t do you justice,” he said, with another kiss to her hand.
“Aren’t you cute,” Isobel said. The considering look she gave him didn’t quite match the tone of her words, and when Roman’s gaze again darted over the crowd, she asked, “Are you waiting for someone?”
Roman’s attention snapped back to her, her considering look now mirrored on his own face. “No, no,” he said smoothly, “Crowds just make me nervous.”
Roman lit up, then, and a mischievous grin slipped onto his face. “Would you two like to see something exciting?”
Gareth opened his mouth to decline, but without hesitation, Isobel said, “Of course.”
Roman nodded back at the stage door and opened it for them with a flourish.
“Are we allowed back there?” Gareth asked doubtfully.
“You are if you’re with me. I want to introduce you to someone.”
Roman ushered them through the door. Unlike the rest of the theater, backstage was plain and messy, the Players already beginning their post-show cleanup. People in costumes ran back and forth carrying crates and dismantling set pieces. It was like a dance, one Gareth and Isobel were careful not to get in the middle of.
Roman led them down a flight of steps, stopping so abruptly at the bottom that Isobel nearly ran into his back. He knocked on a plain door— everything down here was plain, so unlike the rest of the building. A moment later, the door opened, answered by the actress that played Edith. She threw her arms around Roman.
“What did you think?” she asked.
“Absolutely enchanting, Dinara,” Roman answered, picking her up and giving her a twirl. “You stole the show.”
Dinara laughed and pulled back, finally noticing the Ranulfs. “Oh, hello,” she said breathlessly, her voice softer than it had been on stage. “Roman, who are your friends?”
“Di, meet Gareth and Isobel Ranulf. Gareth, Isobel, this is Dinara Connell.”
“It’s a pleasure, Ms. Connell,” Gareth said, shaking Dinara’s hand. “Your performance tonight was so moving, I nearly cried.”
“Liar,” Isobel said. “You did cry.”
Dinara tried to hide a laugh. “Thank you. Come in, won’t you?”
The inside of the dressing room was simple and bare, not what Gareth would’ve expected for the star of a Unity show. He took a moment, while Dinara regaled them all about a costume mishap that happened in the second act, to study Roman.
It was different, seeing the young man like this— among friends, not in a darkened alley holding a bloodstained sword. And that’s definitely what Roman was— young, except for his eyes. They struck Gareth as strange, serious when nothing else about him seemed to be. He smiled, he laughed, and his eyes stayed hard and wary.
Dinara, beside him, was stunning, even out of costume and clearly exhausted. She had deep brown skin and her hair, which had been pulled back during the performance, now fell in tight ringlets to her shoulders. She had a gentle air, very different from her portrayal of Edith. Gareth envied the two of them. They had a youthful vivacity that had long escaped him— if he ever had it to begin with— and they were beautiful together.
“We’re all going out to celebrate,” Dinara said. “You two should come.”
“I think we might be overdressed,” Gareth said, nodding at his suit and Isobel’s dress.
“Half the Players will be going in costume,” Roman said. “You won’t be the ones standing out. Come on, there’ll be music and drinking and dancing. It’ll be fun.”
Isobel squeezed Gareth’s hand. When he looked at her, he saw excitement in her eyes. “I told the governess not to expect us back until late,” she told him.
Never able to deny his wife anything and feeling more than a little excited himself, he said, “We’d be happy to join you, then.”
Roman answered with his bright, boyish smile, and Gareth felt he’d made the right choice. Some unidentifiable quality of Roman’s made Gareth want to earn his favor, make him grace Gareth with that smile that promised adventure and mystery.
“That’s the spirit, Gareth! Wait till you see how the Webhon Players party.”
Gareth gave him a tentative smile back. “I have to go find a friend of mine, first. I need to cancel our plans.”
Gareth would have plenty of time to get to know Leandros on the road, he reasoned. Roman and Dinara, though, he may never see again and they were both so interesting. He wanted to learn their secrets.
“Bring them along!” Dinara said in her lilting accent, adding, “If they’re fun.”
“I don’t know him well, but I believe he could be. His name is Leandros Nochdvor.”
“Not him,” Roman said, surprising everyone. The smile was gone from his face. “Don’t invite him.”
Gareth blinked at Roman, taken aback by his sudden chill. Dinara frowned as well, brows furrowing. Under the weight of their stares, Roman blinked and shook himself, his suddenly dark expression clearing to something carefully innocent. “I mean…he’s from Alfheim, isn’t he? You know how they are. No fun. And he’s…he’s a noble. I just don’t think wherever we go will be up to his standards.”
Dinara’s brow furrowed further, but if she thought Roman was hiding something— as Gareth did— she didn’t comment. Gareth, too, decided not to push, even if this made him more curious. “I understand. I do need to find him and cancel, though.”
“I’ll catch up with you outside, then,” Roman said. He smiled and kissed Dinara on the cheek, but there was still something tense to him. “I think I left something back at my seat.”
Though there were shared looks, nobody commented as he slipped away.
Gaeth, Isobel, and Dinara made their way to go find Leandros. Leandros understood, as Gareth knew he would, but made Gareth promise to get drinks with him before they left Gallontea.
And as promised, Roman caught up with them when they were about to cross the bridge. He took over leading their group— about twenty or so in total— to a nondescript tavern with a sign of a snarling wolf hanging above the door. Music and laughter drifted out to the street, and the warm glow streaming out the windows greeted them.
“Welcome,” Roman said, gesturing grandly, “To the Hungry Hound, my inn of choice whenever I visit Gallontea.”
A hound, then, not a wolf.
The Hungry Hound Tavern was the kind of place Gareth might write about in a book, for how cozy it was, with the warmth radiating from the wide fireplace, the smell of garlic and spices heavy in the air, the music drifting gently over from the violin being played in the corner. Later in the evening, after everyone had their share of drinks, the group asked the violinist to play a livelier tune, then pushed the tables this way and that to clear a space for dancing.
Isobel couldn’t drink because of the pregnancy, so Gareth didn’t, either. They danced a few songs but spent the rest of their evening enjoying the company of strange and interesting people. Roman and Dinara spent longer on the dance floor, though as the evening wore on and they both had more to drink, their movements could be described less as dancing and more as something that wouldn’t be tolerated in Gareth’s usual sort of establishment.
Roman never crossed the line into drunk, though. Gareth knew because he was watching closely, hoping to even the score after Roman had gotten to see him so high on painkillers the other night. Roman drank as much as the rest, but aside from his flushed cheeks and boundless energy, it barely seemed to touch him. Between dances, he told his own stories— fantastic tales that Gareth had trouble believing— and listened with rapt attention to others. Even Gareth’s, which Gareth didn’t feel deserved such enthusiasm. He made sure the Ranulfs were always included in conversations and demanded that everyone have just as much fun as he was having.
But when a fight broke out between one of the players and another patron, he shed this enthusiasm like a mask. He stepped between them, stopping the fight and moving so quickly Gareth wouldn’t have believed his eyes if he hadn’t been sober. When both parties backed down, Roman slipped the mask back on and returned to Dinara’s arms.
If Gareth had thought this evening would give him insights into Roman Hallisey’s mysteries, he’d been wrong. All he had were more questions.
Still, Gareth couldn’t remember having so much fun in his life. In the early hours of the morning, Gareth carried Isobel home on his back, her heels clutched in her hands, her arms wrapped around his neck. They both hummed their own clashing melodies under their breaths and thought, for the first time in a while, of things more pleasant than missing kings and Gareth’s upcoming departure.