A/N: Warning for graphic violence.
The prison grate didn’t budge when Roman tried lifting it.
“It’s stuck,” he said, disbelieving. He gave it another shove. “No, it’s locked. This wasn’t locked last time.”
“So what do we do?” Dinara asked. “Is there another way into the prison?”
“Let me think.” Roman dropped back down into the water and ran his hands through his hair, his eyes wide and fixed on the ground. Under the thin bars of light shining down through the grate, Dinara was surprised to see how pale he’d gone.
To himself, Roman muttered, “Damn it. This was supposed to be a quick in and out. I didn’t think I’d have to…”
Roman glanced up, caught Dinara staring, and forced a smile. “Oh, it’ll be fine! Don’t look so worried, Dinara.”
“I look worried?” Dinara asked. “Roman, you’re shaking.”
“Chilly down here, that’s all,” Roman said. “Come on, I do know another way in. First thing’s first, though, we need to get up to the island. Let’s find another tunnel.”
They returned to the antechamber, then turned down another tunnel at random. At the end of this one, they found a grate that opened not to the pale light of a building, but to bright sunslight.
“I’ll go up first,” Roman said, peering up through the grate. “I don’t know where this comes out, so we have to be careful.”
It took both Roman and Maebhe shoving at the heavy grate to get it out of the way. Roman gave the girls a half-hearted smile before hauling himself up into the open. Dinara and Maebhe waited, the seconds stretching on too long, and in that time Dinara imaged a dozen and one ways this could have already gone wrong. Then, the grate slid the rest of the way open and Roman’s head popped into view, blocking out the light.
“Dinara, wait ‘till you see where we ended up.”
Dinara took Roman’s hands when he offered them, and with Maebhe helping boost her from below, Roman pulled her out of the sewer. Blinking in the bright light, Dinara moved out of the way so he could help Maebhe. When her eyes adjusted, she saw that they stood in a narrow alley, the grate they’d just crawled out of set against one of Unity’s great, looming buildings. Dinara recognized it immediately, even from the back. It was the theater. They were right beside the stage door, in fact.
“The place is probably empty now that Di’s show’s over, so we needn’t worry about being seen,” Roman said, straightening and squinting up at the theater’s windows.
The trio crept to the end of the alley, until they could see the prison outlined against the rocky coast. It couldn’t be more than two hundred yards away, but open fields and a threatening iron fence separated them from it.
“Dinara,” Roman began, reluctantly tearing his eyes from the prison. His voice was serious, no more of the fake cheer he’d been keeping up since the locked prison grate. “I need you to stay here.”
Roman took Dinara’s hands in both of his own, his grip almost painful. “Dinara, please. Where we’re going, I can’t have you following. I know you’re tough – it’s not you; I just can’t willingly bring you to this place. Stay here and keep an eye on the alley for us. We may need to make a fast escape.”
Dinara frowned. “If I stay, do you promise to explain everything later?”
Roman’s eyes flitted nervously toward the prison, but he nodded. “I’ll explain what I can.”
Dinara would take that, for now. “Be careful. Both of you.”
“We will,” Maebhe promised, but Roman only nodded, expression unreadable.
“Let’s go,” he said to Maebhe. She pulled her hood back up, hiding her ears and birthmarks, and then they were gone.
Maebhe followed Roman from shadow to shadow. They kept to the sides of buildings, never venturing too far into the open or the sunslight.
“Where are we going?” Maebhe asked in a whisper.
“You see that small building beside the prison?”
Maebhe peered past the iron gates. The prison itself was a massive stone tower, windowless and characterless. Beside it sat a second, squatter building, connected to the prison by a single bridge. “I see it,” she said.
“That’s our way in.”
“But that’s past the gate, too.”
“It is,” Roman agreed.
“So don’t we have the same problem as before?”
“The sewage tunnels aren’t the only hidden paths around here.” Roman looked up at the pale, cloudless sky and sighed. “Ah, the secrets this island holds. I only know a fraction of them, and that’s still too many.”
Maebhe had to trot to keep up with him. Slightly breathless, she asked, “So what’s that other building for? Is it part of the prison?”
Roman’s expression, which had for a moment cleared, darkened again. “Not technically, but it might as well be. It’s a barracks.”
Maebhe frowned. Unity didn’t have a standing army. She’d never paid much attention in history, but she knew that much—Unity had no army at all. Instead, the kingdoms making up Unity’s territory each had their own, dedicated to help if Unity called on them. “Barracks for who?”
“That’s one of the secrets.”
Maebhe eyed Roman, then guessed, “You’re scared of whoever’s in there.”
Roman sighed. “Something like that. Ah, Maebhe, I’m sorry. I’m not setting a very confident example, am I?” Roman tried to laugh, but it was an empty sound. He kept himself carefully blank, putting up a wall between himself and Maebhe. “My fear could get us hurt. I’ll get a handle on it.
Maebhe didn’t respond, mostly because she had no clue how to. Instead, she looked around and tried to appreciate the beauty of this island, cleaner and grander than all of Gallontea and so different from Orean.
Roman led her away from the buildings and to the cliffside, where a steep path cut through the rocks down to the coast. Maebhe hesitated. She wouldn’t have even noticed the line of it if Roman hadn’t already started down the path. “How do you know about this?” she began.
“Be careful,” was his answer. “If you slip, it’s a long way down.”
Maebhe followed, picking her way easily down the path after Roman. Once they’d descended enough to be out of sight of Unity’s buildings, she let her hood down. “So that’s a secret, too?”
“Yeah. Sorry, Maebhe, I won’t tell you.”
“Because I won’t tell anyone.”
“Not even Dinara?” Maebhe asked, already knowing the answer.
“Not even Dinara.”
“Why not? Aren’t you together?”
Roman’s voice, drifting over the crashing of the waves back to her, was faintly amused. “Are you always such a pest?”
“Yes,” Maebhe answered easily. “Right now, I’m trying to decide if I allied myself with some sort of criminal. Murderer, arsonist, thief. You could be anything. You certainly know a good deal about breaking into prisons.”
Roman snickered. “Arsonist? Really?”
Maebhe smiled to herself, glad Roman had loosened up enough to laugh. Him being on edge put her on edge. She wasn’t afraid— she kept telling herself she wasn’t afraid— but she was certainly uneasy. “If you won’t tell me who you are, what else am I to think?”
Roman stepped onto the rocky beach. “You can think what you want. It doesn’t matter how I know what I know; it only matters that I’m helping you.”
Maebhe rolled her eyes and looked out at the ocean, the low tide lapping at the uneven beach, then up at the cliff face behind them. From where she stood, it seemed unclimbable, but when she looked for it, she could still pick out the faint thread of the path and knew she’d be able to make her way back up.
Together, they continued down the beach. As they circled the island, the strip of beach narrowed and the cliffside got steeper and steeper until it was a sheer face. Maebhe kept looking up as they went, accidentally wading into the water once or twice when the beach got too narrow. Finally, she saw it— at the top of the cliff, the stone walls of the prison, built right up alongside the edge.
“So now what?” she asked. “We scale the wall?”
“Very funny,” Roman said. “A little further, and you’ll see.”
They rounded one last bend, and the beach finally ended. They waded into the water, fortunately still wearing Ivey’s boots, and quickly came upon a hidden cave, clearly man-made.
“This just keeps getting stranger and stranger,” Maebhe huffed.
Roman laughed, but his eyes on the cave entrance were cold. “It’s only going to get worse. Come on.”
Roman slipped into the cave, Maebhe following. The ceiling was lit from above by industrial lights, and at the end was a rusty lift. Roman frowned at it. “That wasn’t here back in my day.”
“Really? It looks ancient.”
Roman shrugged. Instead of going to the lift, he started up the stone steps beside it.
“We’re taking the stairs?” Maebhe asked, dismayed.
“That thing looks loud enough to alert the whole island of our presence,” Roman whispered. “And we have no idea who may be waiting at the top.”
The stairs circled slowly in the direction of the prison and at the end, opened up to what looked like the basement of a building. Roman looked around, hands clenching and unclenching at his sides. He cleared his throat. “Sorry. It’s been a long time since I’ve been here.”
“It’s alright,” Maebhe said, trying to sound encouraging. She’d never been good with vulnerable emotions, either expressing them or witnessing them, but she wanted to help.
Roman squeezed his eyes shut, a shudder passing through him. When he opened his eyes again, he seemed different. Harder. Less afraid. He nodded, and they continued on.
Maebhe looked around, not understanding what was so frightening about this place. It looked and felt like any other basement. There were some pieces of old furniture in storage, shelves lined with canned foods, a crate here and there.
Up another stairway, they went, stopping again when they reached the door at the top. Roman tried the handle, pushing the door open gently when it gave without resistance, and peered around the corner.
He slipped through the door and Maebhe followed far enough to peer around the corner. This really did keep getting stranger and stranger. The room the stairway opened up to looked like any other common room. Well-lit from narrow windows placed high up the walls and comfortable, with lush sofas, rows of filled bookshelves lining the walls, and…Maebhe blinked. And a table full of half-assembled weapons at the center.
Roman wandered into the space, one foot placed carefully in front of the other, as if anything less cautious would bring Unity’s wrath down on them. He glanced back at Maebhe, and his eyes widened. “Maebhe!”
She didn’t need the warning. She heard the swish of fabric moving behind her, felt something like fingertips brush the back of her shirt. She dove forward on instinct, hitting the ground and rolling. Roman leaped over her as she did, and by the time she stumbled back to her feet, he was blocking a man at least as tall as him and nearly twice his width.
Maebhe didn’t know what her imagination had worked the inhabitants of these barracks up to look like, but it wasn’t this. This man was handsome, in a forgettable way, and normal, unassuming and plainly dressed.
Then he attacked. Maebhe gasped at his speed, barely processing the attack until after Roman had successfully dodged, slipping out of the man’s range. The man moved faster than anyone Maebhe had ever seen, but somehow, Roman moved faster.
Maebhe knew little about fighting. She was a hunter, not a warrior, but Kieran had occasionally sparred with her, taught her basic self-defense. This was nothing like that. These two were masterful. They were similarly trained, their movements the same kind of swift and efficient, but the stranger relied on size, Roman on speed. It was like they were engaged in a complex dance, and trying to follow the steps made Maebhe dizzy.
Finally, the man managed a hit on Roman. He’d thrown all of his weight into the punch, and Roman stumbled back, straight toward Maebhe. The man pressed his advantage, neither of them seeming to remember her presence. She slipped out of their way, and when she did, noticed something strange about Roman’s eyes.
They looked entirely black.
Roman stopped dodging after that. He blocked the next series of hits, then landed one of his own. Their fight carried them away from Maebhe again, Roman turning so she no longer had a clear view of his face. With a snarl, Roman caught the man with a heave kick, sending him flying back onto the table of weapons. It splintered under his weight and broke, and the man rolled out of Roman’s way before he could land another blow.
When he got back to his feet, he reached for the gun at his hip. But Roman was there, knocking it away and sending it skittering across the floor. At this, Maebhe remembered the gun Ivey gave her and drew it, training it on the two men. After a moment, she lowered it again. They were moving too fast, dancing around each other in a flurry of swinging blows and hits. If she tried to shoot, she might hit Roman.
The man tackled Roman, catching him by the waist, but by the time they’d hit the ground, Roman had somehow flipped their positions. Straddling the man, Roman landed a blow to his jaw that made Maebhe flinch. Then another, and another. The man struggled to buck Roman off, and then he didn’t anymore. And Roman kept hitting.
“Roman!” Maebhe called, trying to keep the horror out of her voice. “Roman, stop!”
Roman stopped instantly. He looked down at his hands, stained with blood, then at the man, and scrambled back, putting distance between them.
Maebhe didn’t dare to move. Roman had also gone still, except for his labored breathing. Maebhe inched closer, jumping back when Roman moved suddenly, turning toward her. His eyes were slightly red, but there was nothing unnatural about them. She must have imagined it.
“Are you alright?” Maebhe asked him.
Roman wouldn’t look her in the eye. “Yes, I— Maebhe, I’m sorry. I—you shouldn’t have had to see that.”
“It’s okay,” Maebhe said softly, not sure that it was, really. “Is he dead?”
Roman looked at the man, crawled closer to check. Maebhe would’ve expected to feel something after seeing a man die, but all she felt was curiosity. Roman checked the man’s pulse, and Maebhe noticed a brand on the man’s wrist where Roman had tugged up his sleeve, a sort of swirling loop with a sword running through it. “No, he’s alive.” He took a deep breath. “We should go before anyone else shows up, or we’ll be dead.”
“Are there many more?”
Roman gave her a dark look, and that was all the answer she needed.
“Let’s go, then.” Maebhe held out a hand to help Roman up, forgetting about the blood. He apparently hadn’t, because he brushed her off and pushed himself to his feet. Maebhe looked away while he wiped his hands on a handkerchief, giving him a moment to recollect himself.
Together, they continued through the barracks, passing into a hallway filled with empty room after empty room. Maebhe peered into each one, curious. They were all bedrooms, some with small, innocuous knickknacks, all with only a wardrobe and cot for furniture. “Where are the rest of them?”
Roman waved a hand. “Out and about. It’s not unusual for this place to be empty during the day,” is all he said, ignoring all the rooms except one at the end. There, he paused and glanced inside. It was empty as the others, filled only with a cot and a bedside table.
“Did you work here or live here? Maebhe asked.
“Both,” Roman said with a wry smile, not looking at her. “Please don’t tell Dinara. About any of this. She means well, but she…pushes. Right where it hurts. And this is a time in my life I don’t like remembering, let alone talking about. Dinara thinks all wounds can be healed by talking.”
“I get it,” Maebhe said, and she did. Not dealing with things was sometimes the easiest way to deal with them, and she had her own past she hated to remember. “Kieran’s the same way. When I wouldn’t talk to him about our parents’ death, that’s when he found Íde. Someone who’d listen. But I…well, anyway, I won’t tell her.”
For the first time since they left the sewage tunnels, Roman’s smile reached his eyes. “Thanks.”
“I should be the one thanking you, don’t you think? For your help?”
Roman scoffed and turned to leave, casting one last glance at the empty room.
“Do the owners of all these rooms fight like you, then?”
“Maybe not quite as well,” Roman said with a wink. For all his talk of wounds not being healed with words, he seemed more relaxed now that he’d shared some secrets. “But they’re close enough that running into even one more would mean trouble. I’m hoping they’re all out training, or even better, on missions.”
“Missions?” Maebhe repeated. “So they’re what, spies? Secret soldiers?”
“They’re whatever Unity wants them to be. They’re called Enforcers – don’t ask me who came up with the name. Also, don’t ever repeat that. The Enforcers have been kept secret for centuries, and they’d kill you for knowing they exist.”
“As we’ve learned, Unity would kill me just for being orinian, so it doesn’t matter what I do.”
Roman considered this, then shrugged. “Fair enough.”
They reached another staircase and began to climb, Roman stopping them on the third floor landing.
“Hold your hands behind your back, like they’re tied,” Roman ordered. “Perfect.”
They rounded the corner, and Maebhe was surprised at the breeze that greeted her, salty and warm. They suddenly stood outside, on the bridge connecting the barracks and the prison. The two guards posted at the other end tensed when they saw Roman and Maebhe, their hands going to the swords at their hips, but Roman started forward confidently, so Maebhe followed. She peered over the edge as they went, down at the blue-green water. From where they stood, it seemed to be directly beneath them, about a fifty-foot drop.
As Roman approached the guards, he rolled up his sleeve to show them his wrist. Maebhe looked just in time to see a brand there, the same one the man downstairs had, before he tugged the sleeve back up. The guards went rigid at the sight, the blood draining from their faces. They nodded at Roman, but their hands didn’t move from their weapons.
“Where are the other orinians being kept?” Roman asked.
“On the fourth floor,” one of the guards said, not meeting Roman’s eyes, “Sir.”
Roman grabbed Maebhe’s arm and dragged her into the prison, letting go as soon as they were past the guards. The place was just as dreary inside as it was from the outside, damp and cold and dimly lit.
“Is that brand an Enforcer thing?” Maebhe whispered.
Roman pinched her. “I thought I told you not to repeat that name.”
Maebhe and Roman headed up to the fourth floor, only having to pause and hide once while a guard passed by. Roman slipped behind him and caught him around the neck, lowering him to the floor when he stopped struggling, unconscious. He took the keys from the man’s belt and held them up to show Maebhe, jingling them. “Now, let’s find your friends.”
It didn’t take them long. The prison was fairly empty, Unity preferring to use mainland prisons when possible. Roman and Maebhe had just started down one of the fourth floor corridors when they heard a voice.
“Kieran!” Maebhe cried, forgetting to keep her voice down. She rushed to Kieran’s cell, finding him pressed to the door, staring at Maebhe incredulously. His eyes flicked to Roman and narrowed, then widened again when Roman began testing keys to get the door open.
“We’re here to rescue you,” Maebhe said with the cheekiest grin she could manage. It was dragged down by all the exhaustion, fear, and stress, but it still made Kieran scoff and roll his eyes. “Where’s Íde?”
“Across the aisle,” Kieran answered. “Maebhe, how the hell did you get here?”
“There’s no time,” Maebhe said, just as Roman got Kieran’s cell open. He found the key for Íde’s even faster, and soon, Maebhe was hugging both of them at once. “Don’t ever leave me like that again,” she said into their shoulders. Kieran and Íde were both grimy and dirty, Íde’s dress looking worse for the wear, and Kieran had a yellowing bruise blossoming across his jaw.
Maebhe batted at the back of Kieran’s head.
“What were you thinking?” Maebhe asked. “If you try pulling that heroic shit with me ever again, I’ll—,”
“What loyal friends you have,” an unfamiliar, smooth voice said from the shadows of the cell beside Kieran’s.
Kieran jumped at the voice. “Drys!” He looked at Roman pleadingly. “Could you…?”
Roman was already at the cell door, unlocking it. Maebhe shot Kieran a quizzical look.
“Drys was here when we were brought in,” Kieran explained. “There were others, too, but they…I don’t know what happened to them.”
The door clicked open, but the shadowy figure didn’t rise. Roman slipped into the cell and crouched beside them, pulling out the keys again to unlock the manacles on their wrists. Finally, the hulking figure rose to their feet. They were far too large to be human, and when they stretched, a massive pair of wings flared out on either side of them.
They were a faerie. Maebhe tried not to stare.
“Thank you,” Drys said to Roman, seriously, “I owe you a great debt.”
Roman evidently knew a thing or two about the fae, because he didn’t argue, just inclined his head in acknowledgement. The faerie stepped out of the cell and into the light, and Maebhe heard herself gasp. They cut an impressive figure, tall and slender, all willowy curves and muscular lines, but the gasp was for their injuries— a black eye, cuts and dried blood along their wrists where the manacles dug in too hard, and worst of all, the state of their wings. They seemed to be yellow, in some places, but it was hard to tell with how filthy and matted— and bloody, in places— they were.
Drys, standing tall and proud despite their injuries, arched an eyebrow at Maebhe, the dark purple bags under their eyes not lessening the keen glint of the look. Maebhe squared her shoulders and stuck a hand out. “Call me Maebhe,” she said by way of introduction.
“Drys Homeborn,” Drys countered, shaking her hand. A smile played at the corner of their lips, now. “That’s a lovely name, Maebhe.”
“May-vvh,” Maebhe corrected. “It’s a V sound, not a B.”
“My mistake,” Drys said mildly.
“And who are you?” Kieran asked, scowling at Roman.
“We’re doing introductions in the middle of a jailbreak? Really?” Roman asked. He rolled his eyes and dipped into a mock bow. “Roman Hallisey, then, at your service.”
“Mr. Hallisey is right. The longer we linger here, the higher the chance a guard will find us,” Drys said.
Roman led them back the way they came. When they neared the bridge, Roman said, “Maebhe, get Ivey’s gun ready.”
“She has a gun?” Kieran asked. “She doesn’t know how to use a gun!”
“She told me she did,” Roman said.
“I do,” Maebhe said. “In theory.”
Roman laughed. “Well, the guards don’t know that, so keep your voice down.”
Maebhe grinned at Kieran and kept Ivey’s gun in hand. When the guards saw their group approaching, one opened his mouth to shout, but Roman held a finger up, and somehow, that was enough to stay his tongue. Maebhe suspected that it had something to do with the brand he’d revealed.
“Speak,” Roman warned, low and dangerous, “And she shoots. Or worse, I kill you myself. You don’t want that.”
The guards stayed miraculously silent while Roman used their own handcuffs on them, but when the group was halfway across the bridge, duty outweighed fear and they began yelling for help. Roman cursed and picked up into a run, the others following.
They started down the barracks steps, but barely made it a flight before Maebhe stopped them, barring the way with her arm. Roman gave her a quizzical look, but a second later, heard what her sensitive ears had picked up— light footsteps hurrying up the stairs.
“Back to the bridge,” Roman hissed, and his tone left no room for questions. They all turned and ran back up to the bridge, taking the steps two at a time.
“Can’t we just push past them?” Kieran asked breathlessly. “It doesn’t sound like there are that many coming.”
“Terrible idea,” Roman answered. “Your sister saw how just one of them fights.”
Maebhe nodded in agreement.
Out on the bridge, backup had arrived to help the two handcuffed guards. All four guards looked up at the group, the two that weren’t handcuffed drawing swords. Kieran snatched the gun away from Maebhe and trained it on the guards. With the sounds of shouting voices drifting up the stairs behind them, the group ventured onto the bridge.
“Drys,” Roman began quietly, “Can you fly? How many can you carry?”
Drys cringed, but said, “Two, at most.”
When the guards started toward the group, Kieran fired, shooting one squarely in the shoulder and making the other hesitate. At the same time, two people appeared in the doorway behind them.
Kieran, Íde, and Drys faced the guards, but Maebhe and Roman whirled to face the barracks. One of the new arrivals was the Enforcer from before, bloody and swollen but apparently spiteful enough to still be on his feet. The other was a woman with feathery-textured skin and bright red hair who stared at Roman wide-eyed and open-mouthed. She was already pale but seemed to go paler at the sight of him.
“You’re alive,” she breathed.
Her companion ignored her, charging toward Roman in a rage, even as she held out an arm to stop him. There was no great fight this time. Roman caught the man’s arm as he ran at him, carrying him into a spin and using the man’s own momentum against him to throw him over the side of the bridge. Maebhe heard him scream as he fell and knew she’d never forget the sound.
“Drys,” Roman snapped, “Kieran and Íde— now.”
Drys didn’t hesitate. They pulled Kieran and Íde to them and dove over the side, unfurling their wings along the way.
The sight of the fae disappearing over the edge spurred the marionite woman into action. “Stay back,” she snapped at the uninjured guard, drawing a short sword.
“Maebhe,” Roman warned, but she was already backing away when the woman leaped at Roman. She didn’t give Roman a chance to do anything but dodge, over and over, as she directed blow after blow at him. The fury in her swings and the hatred in her eyes pushed him slowly back toward the guards. He didn’t have a sword. He didn’t have any weapon, and Kieran took the gun with him.
He held up an arm to block one of her blows, her sword cutting a sharp line down his forearm. He gasped and almost fell to the ground when the woman lashed out again, snarling.
Maebhe didn’t just stand and watch this time. She ran to the wall overlooking the ocean and peered down into the water. Slowly, she backed up to the other wall. “Roman!” she called. “Follow me! Feet first; keep your body straight!”
Roman frowned at her, and even the marionite woman paused to shoot Maebhe a confused glance. They both watched as Maebhe ran at the wall, jumped up onto the embrasure, and vaulted herself off it. Then there was nothing beneath Maebhe except the water, far below. She could do nothing but fall, revel in the feel of being completely weightless, if just for a moment.
She followed her own advice, remembering when she’d done this for fun with Kieran, years ago, at the falls in the Orinian mountains.
She tried not to think about how she might be jumping to her death. There were so many things that could go wrong. It didn’t feel wrong, though— she’d known terror, but this was pure exhilaration.
Then, she hit the water.