Hitting the water hurt.
The pressure of it closing around Maebhe, the impact of it striking the bottoms of her feet, her muscles tensing and locking at the numbing cold of it— it was too much. Her limbs dragged and her heart beat in her ears as she swam toward the surface, swam on and on until she thought she’d never breathe again. She’d die here, so close to freedom but stuck in Unity’s shadow.
She broke the surface of the water only for the waves to push her back down again. When she surfaced a second time, she only managed a few great, heaving breaths before she realized she didn’t see Roman. She turned, looking for him among the foamy waves. Had he not jumped? Was he still up there? Had that marionite Enforcer gotten him?
Maebhe spotted Drys on a flat rock about thirty feet away, their hand outstretched toward her. Before she could start swimming that way, Roman surfaced in the space between them, gasping and panting.
“Roman!” Maebhe yelled, pointing toward Drys when he whirled to look at her with wide eyes. “Get to the rock!”
Roman reached Drys first, the faerie helping haul him, shivering, out of the water. They helped Maebhe next. The cold was worse in the open air, the breeze hitting their damp skin and clothes. Maebhe huddled in on herself and looked up toward the bridge; she could see the red of the marionite’s hair where she peered over the edge.
Roman started to laugh. After a moment of shocked silence, Maebhe joined in.
Drys gave them a sidelong, bemused look. “We should go, don’t you think?”
Drys carried them back up to the Island the same way they’d carried Kieran and Íde down, obviously straining under the weight. Flying, Maebhe noticed, didn’t feel the same as falling. It was too certain to have the same thrill. And while falling took time, seeming to last forever, Maebhe’s experience with flying was over too soon. Drys set them down outside the prison gates, where Kieran and Íde waited.
“Are you out of your mind?” Kieran screeched before they’d even touched down. His voice cracked on the last word. “Of all the downright stupid things you could have done—,”
The prison’s alarm bells cut him off.
“No time for that,” Roman said with a grin. He was drenched in ocean water and his eyes were wild, and when he took a few steps, it was with a limp. “We have to run.”
Maebhe grabbed her twin’s hand and dragged him after her, sprinting toward the theater. There was no hiding this time; they cut straight through open fields while behind them, the prison gates began to grind open, a swarm of guards coming through after them.
The group of escapees slipped into the alley where Dinara waited, out of sight of the guards on their heels. Dinara jumped up when she saw them. “You’re back! Are you hurt? Why are you wet?”
“Long story,” Roman said, limping past her to the grate. The limp was more pronounced, now, after their sprint.
Maebhe started forward to help Roman with the grate again, but she faltered mid-step when he lifted it single-handedly, effortlessly, like it was no more than a child’s toy. She knew how heavy that thing was. He shouldn’t be able to lift it— with an injured arm, no less.
With one arm, Roman lifted the grate off the sewer entrance— the same grate that had taken both him and Maebhe to shove out of the way earlier, now lifted like a child’s toy. Maebhe’s eyes went wide.
“Everyone in, with all haste,” said Roman.
Drys went in first, followed by Kieran and Íde. Maebhe was about to drop into the hole when she heard guards’ voices, far too close. They all froze. Dinara moved first, shoving Roman lightly toward the grate. “I’ll distract them; you get away.”
She moved to leave, but Roman caught her arm. “Di,” he said.
“I’ll meet you back at Ivey’s. I’ll be fine, Roman.”
Reluctantly, Roman released her. She ran out of the alley, and as Maebhe lowered herself into the sewer, she heard Dinara’s alarmed voice calling out to the guards: “Guards, help! I was just accosted by some orinians in the theater! Yes, they’re inside— if you go around, I’m sure you can cut them off!”
Roman dropped into the water after Maebhe. He pulled the grate carefully back into place, then grinned at the assembled group. “Well, that wasn’t so bad!”
Distracting the prison guards was easy. All Dinara had to do was throw a bit of a fuss, lead them in circles around the theater, and insist again and again that they’d run into her as she was leaving her dressing room, that she certainly was not making this all up, that she’d never do such a thing. Not that they even suspected her. Several recognized her from her performance and didn’t question her presence at the theater once.
They eventually left Dinara, spreading out to cover the rest of the island. Still, Dinara meandered her way back to Ivey’s— truth be told, she dragged her feet. She’d realized, while she’d been waiting in that alley, how terrifying this situation was. She’d also realized that she didn’t want to be a part of it.
Unity, which Dinara had always believed to be good, was rounding up orinians without cause. People were talking about war, and if this sort of thing kept up, it might happen. And Roman…Roman had secrets she couldn’t begin to guess at. Secrets she didn’t want to guess at. This was already more than she wanted to know and more than she knew what to do with.
She knocked at Ivey’s door, remembering only after that Roman had done a special pattern for it. The door opened anyway, Roman there and immediately pulling Dinara into a hug. Dinara pushed him away. After the things she’d seen today, she didn’t want him touching her. Not yet. At least, not until she had answers. But before Roman could be too hurt, she said, “You’re still wet.”
“Oh,” Roman said. “Sorry.” He stepped back to let her in, and Dinara saw that his arm had been bandaged. A bruise was forming around one eye, but other than that, he seemed unharmed. Dinara slipped inside and Roman shut the door behind her.
Ivey, Maebhe, and two other orinians were in the sitting room. One of the orinians, blond like Maebhe, was fast asleep on the other’s shoulder. Maebhe sat wrapped in blankets and waved at Dinara when she came in; Ivey gave a salute.
“Wasn’t there another one?” Dinara whispered to Roman. She’d been distracted with the escape, but it would have been impossible not to notice the faerie with the group.
“Drys is showering. Their wings were in a state,” Roman answered. “I was about to go buy supplies for their journey, while we wait.”
“You shouldn’t go anywhere,” Ivey said. “You’re hurt and wet, and you shouldn’t be out-and-about after the stunt you all pulled. Tell me what I need to buy, and I’ll go.”
“I’ll go with,” Dinara offered. She was having a hard time looking at Roman.
“Thank you, but we can’t pay you back,” the other orinian, the one still awake, said, craning her neck as much as she could to look back at them. She was small and delicate, different from the twins all the way down to her birthmarks.
Roman waved a hand, already taking out his pocketbook and passing Ivey a few laminate bills. “Don’t worry about it. Ivey, do you have pen and paper? We can make a list.”
After Ivey brought his stationary down and Roman wrote up the list, Dinara and Ivey were finally ready to go. They spent half the walk in silence, the awkwardness between them building until Ivey finally asked, “So, are you and Aim—?”
“Why do you call him Aim?” Dinara interrupted.
Ivey started like a rabbit. He was an energetic fellow, Dinara noticed, and her question seemed to make it worse. “Why do you call him Roman?” he asked.
“That’s his name.”
“And Aim’s his nickname.”
“But what does that mean? It doesn’t make sense.”
“Nicknames don’t have to.”
“But they at least have stories,” Dinara argued. They’d reached the square, and Ivey led her off to the general store on the corner, walking fast as if to escape her questions.
He considered this. “He has…good aim.”
Dinara huffed. “Right. Why was he on the Island before? Why did he need to flee? I know you know.”
“It’s not my place to say,” Ivey said. “I hear a lot of secrets, and people trust me ’cause I don’t share them. I pride myself on that reputation.”
Dinara sighed, looking around while Ivey passed the shopping list to the attendant. Outside the gritty windows, people passed by, oblivious to the chaos on Unity Island, to Orean’s struggle, to the storm in Dinara’s mind. Their thoughts weren’t occupied by smugglers, spies, and dark secrets. They lived normal lives, and they seemed happy for it.
“I will say this,” Ivey began, watching the attendant flit across the store, gathering supplies. “I consider Roman a friend, and I imagine I’ve known him for longer than just about anyone alive today, but even I don’t know half his story. Only what he had to tell me. I doubt anyone in the world knows all of it.”
“Oh,” Dinara said.
“But he obviously cares for you. He’s changed a lot since I saw him last. He was…empty, then. It would’ve taken someone really special to draw him out again.”
Dinara stared at Ivey. “It wasn’t me,” she said. “He was like this when I met him.”
“Oh,” Ivey said, scratching his nose. “Ah, well, he obviously cares about you, all the same.”
“Maybe,” Dinara said.
They arrived back at Ivey’s house about an hour later loaded down with bags and parcels. They found Roman and Maebhe dry, Kieran awake, and Drys among them, their gold wings almost sparkling except for the few spots wrapped in bandages. Dinara and Ivey dumped the parcels on the dining table.
“Here we are. Food, travel gear, and a change of clothes for each of you,” Ivey said, sorting through the various packages.
“Is this enough food to last us to Orean?” Maebhe asked.
“No, but it’ll last you to Home,” Roman answered.
“Home?” Íde asked. “Isn’t that in—,”
“Lyryma,” Drys said.
“Lyryma?” Kieran hissed.
“You should cut through it,” Roman said. “You’ll get back to Orean faster, and you won’t have to take any Unity roads.”
“No, but we’ll have to cut through Lyryma. Isn’t that worse?” Kieran said. Lyryma Forest, the tangle of wood south of Gallontea, was avoided by anyone not born into its secrets— particularly orinians, whose city fell just outside Lyryma’s borders. They had so many stories about the forest that no orinian with any sense would get near it.
Íde bit her lip. “The extra time would be wonderful, but we’d never survive—,”
“It’s safe with a guide, and you’ll have one. I’m calling in my favor. Drys Homeborn, will you see these three safely to Orean?” Roman asked.
Drys bowed low. “I will.”
“Good. Ivey, I need that paper again. I have a letter to write.”
While Roman sat down to write, Ivey addressed the orinians. “There’s still enough light that I can get you out today, but if I were you, I wouldn’t go into those woods at night.”
“Thank you, Ivey,” Kieran said. “The sooner we can get out of here, the better I’m sure we’ll all feel.”
“What…” Maebhe begins, eyeing her twin. “What did they want with you?”
“Good question,” Kieran answered. “Wish I knew the answer.”
“There were friendly, at first,” Íde said. “We were in nicer cells, they brought us three meals a day, never hurt us. I could’ve almost believed they were doing this for our safety. But then they started asking questions we didn’t know the answers to, and they got more hostile. Especially so when they found out Kieran’s on the Orean force.”
“Are you really?” Dinara asked, curious.
Kieran shrugged. “I’m just on the city guard.”
“What kind of questions were they asking?” Maebhe asked.
“Whether we were here under orders, why we were sent to Gallontea, what Orean might want with the alfar King.” Kieran ticked the questions off on his fingers. “I don’t think they knew the meaning of the word ‘vacation.’ After they found out what I do, their questions got stranger. They asked about things like Orean’s defenses, the size of its police force. Weapons factories, research centers, magic.
“Magic?” Roman asked sharply, looking up. “What about it?”
Kieran shrugged. “They only mentioned it. In the middle of asking about the kinds of guns and swords we produce in the city, they mentioned magical weapons. I’d assumed they were just trying to unsettle me into giving a real answer.”
Roman frowned to himself, then continued writing. After a minute, he finished, and held up a hastily penned letter, fanning it so the ink dried. “This isn’t the first time I’ve heard mentions of magic from Unity. Their plan is to send a team to Orean to negotiate the return of King Nochdvor, who was abducted under strange, inexplicable circumstances. Magic, the rumors say.”
“How do you know all of that?” Dinara asked.
“I’ve been listening to the chatter,” Roman says, unhelpfully. “This letter explains everything I know— and suspect— about the situation. Give it to your King. Do not open it yourselves.”
Roman stuffed the letter into an envelope, then sealed it. He passed it to Maebhe who, knowing she’d lose it in a day, passed it to Íde.
“We should get going,” Ivey said, watching the exchange curiously.
“Good luck. I wish I could go with you— Home is probably the safest place to be right now. And I do miss it,” Roman said, wistful.
“You’ve been?” Drys asked.
“Once or twice. The oanai took me in when I had nowhere else to go— after Ivey helped me out of Gallontea, in fact.”
“You don’t want to come into the sewers with us?” Maebhe asked with a small smile. “But it’s such a lovely walk.”
Roman laughed. “I’ve had enough for today.”
“This is goodbye, then. Thank you for all your help,” Kieran said.
Roman said, “Stay safe, if you can, and best of luck to you.”
Roman and Dinara waited for the group to leave before seeing themselves out. While they headed down Ivey’s steps, back in the sunslight once more, Dinara said, “I can’t wait to get home.”
Roman nodded his agreement. “I’ll meet you there. I have a few things I need to do first.”
Dinara stopped. “Are you serious?”
Roman slowed to a stop as well. “Sometimes. Right now, yes.”
“Ugh,” Dinara said. She pushed past him, and he made no move to follow. “See you back home, then.”
Roman ran a hand through his hair and watched her go, half-tempted to go after her. Instead, he turned on his heel, his feet carrying him further north, to a worn-down inn in a mostly deserted part of town. He climbed to the second floor, made his way to the room at the far end of the dark hallway, and knocked. The door opened a sliver, first, then wider.
Roman pushed his way into the room, the young man inside protesting when Roman took his gun from his hand and set it on the dresser.
“Aleksir Bardon,” Roman began, “I want to know every rumor you’ve heard about magic in Illyon.”