The morning following the performance promised a beautiful day. Beams of sunlight streamed in through the doorway and an easy breeze rattled the beads along the door of the old trailer. Outside, the sky was cloudless, nothing obscuring the tandem trek of Calaidia’s two suns across its blue and gold expanse. Inside was warm and comfortable.
Unfortunately, Dinara couldn’t enjoy any of it. Not with the hangover she was sporting. She rolled over to face Roman, who slept quietly beside her. Without opening his eyes, he grumbled, “Go back to sleep.”
Her laugh immediately turned to a groan at her body’s protest. “I feel awful. Roman, let’s get food. Something heavy— it’ll help me feel better.”
“Mmph,” Roman said.
“Then let’s do something fun.”
Roman buried his face in his pillow. After a moment’s pause, he asked, “Like what?” The words came muffled.
“Whatever we want.”
Roman stretched like a house cat before settling back into the mattress and pulling Dinara to him. “Sleep is fun.”
“No!” Dinara said, squirming out of his grip. “I’m finally free of Edith! We need to celebrate.”
“With something fun…”
“It’s spontaneous. An adventure.” Dinara kissed Roman, and he leaned into it with a contented hum. “You love adventures.”
“I do. I love adventures with you,” he said. At Dinara’s answering smile, he blushed and busied himself with flattening his hair. The humidity brought out his curls, and Dinara said a quick thanks to Atiuh for the southern climate. “Do you have any ideas for this spontaneous adventure?”
“Yes, actually. There’s something I’ve always wanted to do, and Gallontea’s perfect for it.”
“Take the demon masks from the costume trailer and go scare people in the market.”
Roman laughed, making Dinara flinch away from the loud noise. “Sorry, Di. That’s just the wickedest thing I’ve ever heard, Di. You sure we won’t get in trouble?”
“If Cahrn gets upset, we’ll tell him we were…advertising the show.”
“Like he’ll believe that.”
“That’s never stopped us before.”
“You’re right.” Roman sat up. “Let’s do it.”
An hour later, they stood outside the costume trailer with full stomachs and several open crates of costumes in front of them. Explaining to the costumer why they needed the masks hadn’t been easy, but they’d convinced him to look the other way.
“This one could be good.” Roman pulled something out of a crate, a flat wooden mask depicting an open-mouthed, snarling face. He slipped the strap around the back of his head and waited for Dinara to look at him.
When she did, she only giggled. “It’s powder blue, Roman. It’s smiling.”
“It’s not smiling, it’s grimacing!”
“It’s hardly terrifying.”
Roman’s hands dropped from where he’d been holding them up, his fingers hooked like claws. The mask tilted to one side as he turned his head.. “It could be if you weren’t expecting it.”
“Not really. This, though…” Dinara pulled on a devil’s mask with a protrusive snout and shadows where the eyes should be. She took a step backward into the path, lifting both arms. “…is terrifying.”
Behind his mask, Roman pouted. “Fine. Yours is better.”
“See? You’re just not scary, Roman, but I— oof.”
Someone slammed into Dinara, knocking her to the ground. For a moment, they were an indistinguishable tangle of limbs, then the other girl rolled away, cursing and apologizing. She pushed wild blonde hair away from her face and sat up, immediately falling back with a surprised yelp when she saw Dinara’s mask.
“It’s only a costume,” Roman said quickly, pulling his own mask up. He held out a hand for both Dinara and the girl. Dinara took it gratefully, but the girl refused, pushing herself to her feet.
She had a tail, long ears, and bold birthmarks swirling across her face. She was orinian.
A whistle blew in the distance, and the girl cast a fearful glance back in its direction. Roman followed her gaze with narrowed eyes. Just as she tried to take off running again, he caught her by the arm. She jerked to a stop.
“Why the rush?” Roman asked.
“Roman,” Dinara scolded, “Let her go. I’m fine.”
“I just want to know who she’s running from. You are running from someone, yes?”
The girl bared her teeth in a snarl. “It’s none of your business,” she snapped, but no amount of bravado could hide the quiver to her voice. She was covered in dirt and scrapes, and Roman was willing to bet that the dark shadows under her eyes were the result of several nights of keeping watch and sleeping in small bursts. Roman knew well the look of someone who’d been living on the streets, and this girl had it.
“Unity?” Roman guessed.
The girl tried to pry Roman’s hand off her arm, without success. “Yes, alright! But I didn’t do anything, I swear!”
“It wouldn’t make a difference if you did,” Roman said. He grabbed a mask off the top of a stack of costumes and passed it to her. “Wear this. Dinara, find a cloak that’ll hide her tail.”
The orinian narrowed her eyes at Roman. It wasn’t until a whistle sounded again, much closer, that she snatched the cloak and the mask. It was more a helmet, really, painted like a smiling child’s head with red cheeks and single curl on its forehead.
Roman stepped in front of the orinian, partially blocking the view of her from the path, and laughed when he glanced back and saw it. “That’s scarier than both our masks combined, Di.”
Four officers rode up before Dinara could reply, slowing their mounts when they saw the strange group assembled around piles of costumes.
“Have you seen an orinian girl come through here?” One asked.
Roman, the only one without a mask, feigned surprise and pointed down the street. “She ran that way, not a minute ago. Headed straight for the Island.”
The officers took off again, and that was the end of it. Behind her mask, the orinian breathed a sigh of relief.
Roman watched them go for a minute, something dark passing over his expression, before he turned back to the orinian. “Let’s get you somewhere safe.”
They hastily returned the costumes to their crates, then brought the girl back to their trailer, gave her food, a chance to bathe, and a change of clothes. Roman’s clothes fit her better than Dinara’s— she was tall and wiry, nearly as tall as Roman. She told them that her name was Maebhe, and that she’d recently come to Gallontea on holiday.
“I’m Roman, this is Dinara.”
“Great. Pleasure,” the girl said flatly. “Why are you helping me?”
Dinara stood behind Roman, mostly watching. “He doesn’t like Unity. Don’t ask why; he doesn’t tell anyone.”
Roman pursed his lips but otherwise ignored the comment. “I also believe you didn’t do anything.”
“I don’t,” Dinara said. “Four officers wouldn’t chase you like that for nothing.”
“I existed. I suppose that’s not nothing.”
“She’s an orinian in Unity’s capital city when the people are talking about war. Unity’s too paranoid to let her run free,” Roman answered.
“What do they think one girl could do?”
“Protest. Fight. Cause trouble. Espionage and sabotage,” Roman said, ticking off the possibilities on his fingers. He fixed Maebhe with a stern look. “But then, she’s not just one girl. You didn’t come to Gallontea alone, did you, Maebhe?”
Maebhe’s eyes widened. She looked from Roman to Dinara, and all at once, started crying.
“Look what you did,” Dinara hissed at Roman as she hurried to kneel beside Maebhe.
Roman looked horrified. He knelt at Maebhe’s other side. “Come now, Ms. Cairn. It will be alright. I’ll help you, if I can, but I need to know what happened.”
Maebhe nodded, wiping her eyes. “Call me Maebhe,” she says.
“Maebhe,” Roman corrected, “Who was here in Gallontea with you?”
Maebhe took a steadying breath, and then she told them about Kieran and Íde, about her escape and their capture, about how she’d spent the days since flitting from place to place, running from the police and trying to find a way onto the Island that wouldn’t get her caught.
While she told her story, Roman changed. He sharpened, like a wolf bearing fangs or a blade easing out of its sheath. He leaned in toward Maebhe, listening, gaze intent and unblinking.
When she’d finished, Dinara sighed. “I don’t want to believe you, if means that Unity would do something like this, but…I do.”
Roman nodded his agreement. “I knew they couldn’t be diplomatic,” he spat, then stood and started pacing. “I’ve seen them do things like this before. Damn them.”
“You have?” Dinara asked. His quiet anger scared her. It was a raised gun, a finger flirting with the trigger. It was the warning rumble before a storm, and Unity was a metal boat in the middle of a lake; knowing she stood on the shore didn’t make Dinara feel any safer.
“Unity is…it’s this horrible, complex, living thing. It’s a broken amalgam of moving parts and clashing motives. They put one plan in motion while already hatching another. They say they want one thing, but there’s a dozen other wants layered beneath it. Rounding up the orinians serves some purpose to them, I’m sure.”
Roman paced the length of the trailer, the room too small to hold the magnitude of him. He was a being far too large for a space like this, and the air around him felt stiflingly heavy. “How long ago were your friends arrested?”
“A couple of days.”
“We need to rescue them now.” Roman said. He added to himself, almost too quietly for the others to hear, “So much for not getting involved.”
“We?” Maebhe asked.
“I’ll help you get them back, Maebhe Cairn, and then I’ll get you all safely out of the city.”
“What?” Dinara asked. “Roman, what about Unity?”
“What about them?”
“Kono ta’hy lehah, Roman!” Dinara yelled, switching to sheman, her native tongue, so Maebhe wouldn’t understand.
Roman made the switch as well, hesitating and messy. “They can only kill me if they catch me. They won’t catch me.”
“Be reasonable! You can’t smuggle fugitives out of the capital city, Roman. It’s treason.”
Roman shrugged. “Of all the times I committed treason, they only caught me once.” He paused. “Was that right? The tense?”
“You want to talk to me about tenses? You just said you’ve committed treason!”
“Dinara, I’m not asking you to join me, but I’m getting these three home,” Roman said, switching back to a language Maebhe could understand.
“You and I have some things to discuss when this is done,” Dinara said. She made the switch too, then, adding, “But I’ll help. I’ll regret it if I don’t.”
Roman nodded, then turned to Maebhe. “Put that cloak back on. We’re going to visit a friend of mine.”
Roman led them north, out of the park and deeper into the city. He avoided the main roads, never hesitating and never slowing, winding through Gallontea with the confidence of someone who’d lived there all his life. Eventually, they passed into a quiet neighborhood full of identical houses. It was much too close to Unity for any of their liking, Unity’s clock tower looming above them out of the smog.
“Where are we going?” Maebhe asked. Her face was hidden in the hood’s shadows, but she sounded suspicious.
“I know a smuggler who lives near here. He’ll help us get to the island, only…” Roman trailed off, wrinkling his nose.
“Nothing. I hope neither of you have sensitive noses.”
Roman only shook his head, then stopped in front of a narrow brick house fitted neatly between two others of identical build. It was utterly unremarkable from the outside. It could just as easily belong to a doctor or a merchant as a smuggler.
“If Ivey’s not home, we’ll break in and wait.”
“Break in?” Dinara squeaked. She’d been trying not to show her nerves, but there was no mistaking it now.
“He’s not the type to mind.”
The door knocker creaked in protest as Roman used it to knock twice. He paused, then knocked three more times, and the door flew open to reveal a disheveled-looking man with an impossibly red beard and wild eyes. He looked like a large candle, with his light suit and flame-red locks sticking up in every direction.
Roman opened his mouth to speak, but the man cut him off, saying, “Code’s changed.” With that, he slammed the door.
Roman glanced sheepishly at Maebhe and Dinara, then raised his hand to knock again. Before he could, the door opened, the same man standing in the doorway. “Only joking, Aim! How’ve you been? You haven’t aged a day!” Roman stood at least a foot taller than the man, but that didn’t stop him from pulling Roman into a hug. Roman squawked indignantly, “struggled a moment, and then gave in, his whole face scrunching up as he wrinkled his nose.
“Roman?” Dinara asked.
“Roman?” the smuggler repeated, pulling away to study Roman. He looked Dinara up and down next, and when his gaze landed on Maebhe’s cloaked form, a hot curiosity sparked in his eyes. “Come in, come in.”
Dinara exchanged a glance with Maebhe before following the smuggler inside. She stopped in the doorway when she noticed the smell, finally realizing what Roman meant about sensitive noses. The house reeked like old cabbage stuck between a boar’s teeth.
“This is…nice,” Maebhe said, lowering her hood. And it was, once you got past the smell. Certainly more lavish than anywhere Dinara had ever lived.
If possible, the smuggler regarded Maebhe with even more interest. “You’re orinian?”
“Yes,” Maebhe said. “And you’re marionite?”
“Mostly. Name’s Ivey,” the smuggler said. He grinned, revealing a double set of sharp-tipped teeth. Now that Maebhe mentioned it, Dinara noticed the strange feather-dusted texture of his skin.
“This is Maebhe and Dinara,” Roman said.
“I take it Ms. Maebhe needs out of the city? And here I’d hoped this was a social call.”
“Sorry, no,” Roman said, smiling. “But I wouldn’t say no to dinner when this is done.”
“You do owe me,” Ivey said. “Maybe you don’t remember, but you also promised me dinner last time, right before you had to flee the city with a swarm of Unity guards—,”
“Oh, why bring up the past?” Roman interrupted with a nervous laugh. “There’ll be no fleeing this time, hopefully.”
“Do you all need out?”
“Just Maebhe, but we do need to make a brief stop, first.”
“No problem. Where to?”
Roman glanced at Maebhe and Dinara. “Unity Prison. I don’t expect you’ll want to come with?”
Ivey tried to laugh, but it died in his throat when he saw Roman’s expression. “What, you’re serious? Atiuh’s name, Roman, no, I don’t want to come with! Why would you go back there?”
Maebhe and Dinara watched the exchange with wide eyes. Roman carefully avoided their gazes, saying, “Maebhe’s brother and his fiancé were arrested. I’m one of the only ones who could help get them back.”
“Are you sure you can?”
“You tell me. It’s your smuggling route.”
“No, Aim— Roman. What I meant was, are you sure you can?”
Some strong emotion flickered across Roman’s face, but his resolve returned when he looked at Maebhe. “I’m sure.”
“No one knows the place like you, I guess,” Ivey said. “The same route’s still open, but Atuos help you, Roman, be careful.”
“Don’t fret, Ivey. I’m sure we won’t be gone an hour.”
With a sigh and a shrug, Ivey led them down a hallway to the back of the house, where he ushered them into a bare room. The smell was strongest here. Ivey strode over to a closet and opened it to reveal several pairs of heavy boots sitting in an otherwise open space. “You’re all going to want a pair of these.”
“Why? What’re they for?” Maebhe asked, taking the boots that were handed to her. She studied them through narrowed eyes, as if she could find answers inscribed in the leather. She kicked off the shoes Roman gave her— when they’d met, she’d been barefoot— and slipped into the boots.
“They protect you from the sludge,” Ivey answered.
Ivey didn’t explain, just pulled a key out of his pocket with a flourish. He crouched and inserted it into a hidden lock, only Maebhe moving closer to watch. When Ivey turned the key, the back panel of the closet popped out of place, swinging on a center hinge. It almost hit Maebhe, who managed to jump back at the last second.
“Unity would kill me if they knew about this,” Ivey explained. “I can’t be too careful.”
“Where does it lead?” Maebhe asked.
“The sewage tunnels.”
Seeing Maebhe and Dinara’s bewildered expressions, Roman explained, “There’s a maze of sewage tunnels beneath the city. It leads from the Island past Gallontea’s walls. It’s gross, but it works, and we’ll be able to get in and out without anyone seeing us. Ivey, do you happen to have any extra weapons?”
“Just a revolver.”
“Can we borrow it? Maebhe, I don’t suppose you know how to work a gun?”
“I do, actually,” Maebhe said. “Kieran taught me.”
“Perfect,” Roman said. He turned to Dinara. “You’re coming with? You don’t have to.”
“I already told you, I am,” Dinara said.
Roman nodded. “I’d give you a choice to stay back, too, Maebhe, but I’ll need your help identifying Kieran and Íde.”
“I wouldn’t have done it, anyhow,” Maebhe said. She kept shifting with nervous excitement, but she didn’t seem afraid. Neither did Roman. Dinara, on the other hand, had never been so frightened in her life. But more than that, she’d never been able to disappoint anyone she looked up to. She’d face the fear, if it meant Roman would grace her with a proud smile, the way he was now.
Ivey returned with a pocket lantern and a revolver wrapped in a leather case. “It’s cleaned and loaded,” he said, passing Roman the revolver, first. Roman passed it to Maebhe. “You remember how to get to the Island, then?”
“I’ll never forget.”
With that as their goodbye, Roman took the lantern from Ivey and started down the darkened corridor with Maebhe and Dinara at his heels. Once they were all in, Ivey shut the door behind them, sealing them in with the darkness. They started down a sloped passage. Dinara studied Roman’s profile, half-illuminated by the glow of the lantern. “What was all that, Roman? You’ve fled Gallontea before?” she asked.
“I have,” Roman said curtly, stopping when the hallway ended. The thin bar of the lantern’s light fell upon a hole in the ground, just large enough for a single person to fit through. The first prongs of a ladder were visible, leading down into more darkness. Roman looped the handle of the lantern around his wrist. “Down we go.”
With that, he began the descent. Maebhe and Dinara leaned over the hole to watch him go and saw the faint glimmer of light hitting water at the bottom.
“Shit, that smells,” Dinara said, covering her nose.
“’Shit’ is probably right,” Maebhe said.
It startled a laugh out of Dinara, but she shook her head. “I don’t know if I can do this.”
“If I can handle Kieran after he takes his boots off, I can handle this,” Maebhe said, making Dinara laugh again. She offered Dinara a tentative smile. “You can, too. After you?”
One at a time, they followed Roman down the ladder. When Dinara reached the bottom, wiping her hand on Roman’s jacket as a disguised caress, she found herself in a narrow tunnel. It wasn’t as dark as she expected— even without the lantern, they could have made their way. The water wasn’t as deep as it looked from above, either. A few inches at most.
“The tunnel gets wider when we get further in,” Roman said to Maebhe. The two of them had to stoop to avoid hitting their heads. “Let’s go.”
After a few minutes of silent walking, Dinara grumbled, “I think I’m going to be sick.”
“If you throw up,” Roman began, “Rest assured that it probably won’t be the worst thing to have gone into this water.”
“I’m not sure that helps.”
Maebhe laughed. “So,” she said, “We’re really about to break into the highest security building on the continent?”
“Do you want your family back?” Roman asked.
One tunnel flowed into another, this one wider and deeper. Dinara worried about it flooding her boots until Roman redirected them again, this time into a tunnel with a high ceiling but little water. There was no light here, beside that from the lantern.
“We’re under the bridge, now,” Roman said quietly, so his words didn’t echo. “Deep underwater.”
“How did they build this?” Maebhe asked, matching Roman’s whisper.
“Dragons. They’re remarkably good swimmers.”
Maebhe gave a wistful sigh. “I didn’t get to talk to a single dragon on this trip. I was ready for it, too; I took draconic as an elective in school.”
Dinara took Maebhe’s hand and gave it a light squeeze. “I’m sorry; this must be so hard on you. I’m sure war isn’t as close as the papers would like us to believe.”
Maebhe smiled at her, the expression soft in the gentle flickering of the light. Roman stayed silent, pressing on.
“How does Ivey not get lost doing this?” Dinara asked him, after another minute of walking.
“He helped design these tunnels.”
“But that must’ve been—,”
“Hundreds of years ago. Ivey’s not all marionite, but he’s marionite enough. They live even longer than some nympherai. He knows these twists and turns better than he probably knows his own house. Quizzed me relentlessly when we were planning my escape so that I did, too. If you don’t know the way, it’s possible to wander for days and never find a way out. That’s why Ivey’s the only one who can pull off this job. It’s also why he’s never been caught.”
“What did he mean earlier, when he asked if you could do this?”
“Oh, it’s nothing,” Roman said. His laugh sounded hollow, echoing in the tunnels. More to himself than Dinara, he added, “It was a long time ago.”
The tunnel started to climb gradually upward, and soon, Dinara could see hints of natural light peeking through the storm grates. The trio reached an antechamber with a series of darkened tunnels branching off it. Roman led them down one of the larger ones until they reached a dead end, a grate above letting pale light stream down in thin bars.
“This will take us right into the heart of the prison,” he said, whispering again. “Are you ready?”