Gareth hurried down the stairs. Damn whoever was pounding on his door so early in the morning. Isobel was asleep, Ofelia was asleep, and even the servants were still asleep, but if his impatient visitor kept this up, they wouldn’t be for long. Fortunately, he hadn’t been woken by the noise— he’d been awake, reviewing the readings and manuals Mr. Ochoa had sent over. Gareth had made the mistake of procrastinating, and now there was a meeting today and he hadn’t yet read any of it.
Gareth opened the door, unable to get a single word out before his visitor was pushing his way inside. “Why, Mr. Hallisey!”
“Hello, Gareth! Mind if I come in?”
Gareth shut the door to the cold wind that followed Roman inside then turned to the young man, whatever admonitions he’d had ready dying on his tongue when he got a look at his friend. “Atiuh’s name, son, are you alright?”
There was something different about Roman. There were purple half-circles under his eyes, and his eyes themselves too wild and too empty, the black irises too large. That wasn’t it, though— wasn’t what made Gareth take an uneasy step back. He couldn’t say what it was.
Roman offered him a tired smile. “I’m alright, Gareth.”
Gareth frowned, regarding the young man with concern. “Well,” he said, “Don’t apologize for waking me, or anything.”
Roman looked down at Gareth’s dressing gown. “Oh. I’m sorry.”
“Do you have any idea what time it is, son?”
“I thought it was morning,” Roman said, rubbing his eyes. Gareth hadn’t realized the effect those eyes had on his nerves until they were hidden behind Roman’s hands.
“It is. Early morning.”
It took Roman a moment to understand. “Oh! I am so sorry! The suns are up; I didn’t think beyond that. Please, Gareth, hit me over the head and send me on my way; I can bother you at a more reasonable time.”
Gareth huffed. “I’ve been awake for some time, anyway. Come on upstairs.” Gareth led Roman up to his sitting room. In the corner sat his writing desk, covered in a mess of files and reports from Ochoa. Apart from slivers of pale sunslight peeking around the edges of the curtains, a delicate lamp with a stained glass shade was the only source of light in the room.
“You don’t quite seem yourself,” Gareth said.
Roman took slow steps into the room, trailing his hand along the back of the sofa as he went. “Funny, I feel like myself. More than I have in some time.”
Gareth felt the same uneasy sensation as before, a prickling at the back of his neck. “Is that so?”
Roman shrugged and grinned, the smile stretching from ear to ear but not touching his eyes. “I’m sorry if I seem strange, Gareth. I didn’t get much sleep last night.”
“That’s alright,” Gareth said weakly. He didn’t like that smile. “Do…do you mind waiting a moment? I’d like to finish reading this report before I take a break.”
Gareth sat back down to work, trying to ignore Roman behind him as he first moved to the bookshelf, perusing the titles there.
Roman made a surprised sound. “There are so many Egil titles.
“Ah. Yes, I study – well, that is to say, I’m a bit of an expert on the subject. Some of those books are mine.”
“You write about Egil?” Roman asked, giving Gareth a strange look.
“Yes, I find him fascinating.”
“I’ve never cared much for Egil stories,” Roman said. “They’re so…fake.”
“Well of course they are,” Gareth said. “They’re stories. But the real figure behind the stories, now he’s interesting.”
“Is he?” Roman asked. He carefully removed one of the books from the shelves, as if afraid it might bite him.
“He was everything the stories say, but he was so much more. Everyone that met him said he seemed haunted by something; he was always on the run, never staying anywhere long enough for whatever he ran from to catch up with him. He helped people with a fervor, like it would kill him not to. Even after he started to go mad, raising an army against Unity, even after he died leading a suicidal revolution, there were people who practically worshiped him. There’s so much we don’t know about his story. Who was he? Who was he running from? Why did he turn against Unity? Roman, how can you not find these mysteries fascinating?”
Roman frowned down at the book in his hands. “You really do know him,” he said flatly, snapping the book shut and returning it to its shelf.
“Hardly,” Gareth said. “I can only get so much from secondhand accounts and old stories. I wish I knew him.”
Roman murmured something like, “You don’t.”
Gareth frowned, an awkward silence falling between them. Finally, Gareth cleared his throat. “I should be getting back to work.”
“Of course. I’ll stop bothering you.”
Roman quieted after that, but Gareth could feel those strange eyes on his back. Gareth made himself skim through the next report, turning when he’d finished to find Roman curled up on the couch, asleep. Gareth smiled and draped a blanket over Roman before returning to his reading.
Roman woke hours later on a stiff couch nearly a foot too short for him. His legs dangled off the edge, and when he stretched, a muscle in his back gave a sharp protest. With a groan, he sat up and blinked around at the unfamiliar sitting room, at the morning light now streaming in through open curtains, and finally at the blanket covering him. It took a moment to remember that morning, and with it came memories of the previous night. He pushed the fresh pain away, something he had a good deal of experience doing.
Still, he felt more grounded than he had earlier. He felt human again. He folded the blanket, then wandered over to Gareth’s desk.
Roman picked idly through the papers on the desk, most of which had CONFIDENTIAL sprawled across them. His eyes caught on a few familiar names and he picked it up to study it more closely. He’d come here to see if he could wrangle any more information about the mission out of Gareth, but upon seeing this list, a new idea started to form.
He needed to join this team. It certainly wasn’t ideal, but perhaps he could appeal to its Captain…
“Oh, you’re awake,” a startled voice came from behind Roman. Folding the roster and slipping it into his waistcoat pocket, Roman turned to see a maid standing in the doorway, regarding him with open curiosity. She curtsied. “The Ranulfs are taking breakfast out on the balcony; they’ve asked that you join them.”
“Thank you,” Roman said. “Where—,”
“Down the hall and to the right, through the dining room.”
Roman followed the maid’s directions to an empty dining room lit by cold morning light. The balcony doors were propped open, and Roman heard a flute-like laugh drift in through them. Isobel. Roman followed the sound to find Gareth, Isobel, a young girl, and a tired-looking woman with the same nose as Gareth sitting at a table on the balcony, the white ends of the tablecloth snapping and fluttering in the breeze.
“Good morning,” Gareth called. He sat facing Roman, his back to the rooftops of Gallontea and, beyond those, the cliffs of Unity Island and the flat blue ocean horizon. Streaks of color danced through the sky above their heads and for once, Gallontea wasn’t lost under a blanket of smog. Roman had thought he was long past finding beauty in this crooked city, but the view here took his breath away.
“Good morning,” Roman said. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to intrude—,”
“It’s a good thing you didn’t, then,” Isobel said. She gestured at the open seat across from her. “Join us. Help yourself to some breakfast.”
“I didn’t want to wake you; you seemed like you needed the sleep,” Gareth said. “Feel any better?”
“Yes,” Roman said, surprised that it was the truth, even with his discomfort at the Ranulfs’ kindness. “Thank you.”
The table was piled high with more food than four people could possibly eat, plates of rolls, bowls of fruit, warm ham and a pot of rich, bitter coffee Roman could smell from where he sat. He felt out of place, though it might be more the familial domesticity than the luxury of it all.
Isobel said, “Roman, this is Gareth’s sister, Representative Moira Ranulf. Moira, this is Roman Hallisey.”
“Pleasure,” Moira said. Her eyes trailed over Roman’s clothes, which, nice as they were, were worn and several seasons out of style. Her assessment ended with Roman’s scarred, calloused hands, and Roman could see her dismissal in the way she turne away.
“And, of course, our daughter Ofelia,” Isobel continued. “Ofelia, say hello to Mr. Hallisey. He’s a friend of your father’s.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ofelia,” Roman said, voice serious.
Ofelia stared back just as seriously, brown eyes wide. “How d’you do,” she said through a mouth full of breakfast potatoes.
“Ofelia,” Isobel chided, but Roman only laughed. Ofelia swallowed her food and grinned, amused by his amusement.
“She looks just like you, Isobel.”
“Fortunately for her,” Gareth said.
“She has Gareth’s curls,” Isobel said, tucking a lock of dark hair behind Ofelia’s hair. Ofelia and Roman’s eyes both went to Gareth’s head.
“I choose to shave it, you know,” Gareth said stiffly.
Isobel made a sound that could have been a cough. “How’s Dinara?”
“Hard to say. We, ah…decided to go our separate ways.”
“Oh, Roman,” Isobel said, eyes widening, “I’m sorry.”
“It was a mutual decision, really. I’m sad, but not heartbroken,” Roman assured her.
“You seemed so close the other day. What happened?” Gareth asked.
“Seemed is the right word for it,” Roman said. He eyed the Representative, who was too thoroughly engrossed by her breakfast not to be listening. “It was only the seeming of closeness, and we both realized it.”
“You’re welcome to stay with us a while, if you need a place,” Isobel said, after sharing a look with Gareth. “We have several spare rooms.”
Roman stared at her, and when Gareth nodded his agreement, at Gareth. “I,” he began, then had to stop. He’d resigned himself to cheap inns at best, alley corners at worst. At least until he’d figured out what he was doing. “That would be wonderful, thank you.”
“Of course,” Gareth said with a smile, eyes crinkling at the corners. Roman noticed the lines there, left by a lifetime of smiling. “Consider it our thanks to you for saving my life.”
Moira looked up at that. “Saving your life?”
“Didn’t I say? Roman’s the one who saved me that night I was mugged.”
The Representative studied Roman anew, her gaze calculating and interested. It reminded Roman of pain, of a long line of Unity Representatives who’d hurt him and used him and felt no remorse. Roman had no doubt that Moira would do the same, if she could, but he was stronger now.
“You have my thanks, Mr. Hallisey. The Ranulfs are forever in your debt.”
“I appreciate your thanks, but don’t need it. I’m glad I was there to help.”
Moira graced him with an approving nod. From there, the conversation flowed to a more interesting topic, after Isobel asked why Unity’s bells had been tolling so loudly the day before.
“There was a what?” She gasped.
“A prison break. I wasn’t on the island yesterday, but I hear it was quite the sight— the criminals escaped by jumping clear off the prison bridge.”
“How frightening,” Isobel said, sounding more intrigued than afraid.
“It is,” Roman agreed. “Were the criminals ever caught?”
“Not yet, but I have faith they will be.”
“I certainly hope so,” Gareth said. “Roman, would you pass the butter?”
As Roman passed the tray to Gareth, his shirt sleeve hiked up to reveal the unusual brand on his wrist. Before he could cover it, Gareth sucked in a sharp breath. “Atiuh’s word, Roman, where did you get that? It looks ghastly.”
“Oh, it’s nothing but an old scar,” Roman said, a little too quickly. He glanced at Moira, hoping she hadn’t noticed.
Moira had gone still, all color drained from her face. She looked up from Roman’s wrist and their eyes met.
“Moira?” Gareth asked. Ofelia interrupted then, saying something about wanting to go play. Isobel laughed and stood with some difficulty, her hand on her stomach. She scooped Ofelia into her arms and navigated past Moira. “I’ll be back; I’m going to take Ofelia up to her governess.”
Moira cleared her throat. Trying to sound normal, not looking Roman’s way, she asked, “How far along is Isobel now, Gareth?”
“Almost five months.”
“How time flies.”
“I’m probably going to miss the birth,” Gareth said. The comment probably would have seemed offhanded if it hadn’t been so cold. It reminded Roman that Gareth was from a Unity family and he cursed himself for getting comfortable here.
“Gareth,” Moira warned, glancing sharply at Roman.
“He knows about the team,” Gareth said.
“Gareth what have you done?”
“You know how I am with secrets! If you didn’t want it getting out, you shouldn’t have put me on the team in the first place. It wasn’t my fault for telling, at any rate; Roman took me to the hospital after I was mugged and they gave me some rather strong painkillers. They had me running my mouth something terrible.”
Moira had, if possible, gone paler.
Before Moira could answer, Isobel’s voice drifted in from down the hall, calling Gareth inside. Gareth looked between Moira and Roman with a furrowed brow. “I will be right back,” he said, leaving the “play nice” merely implied.
Roman watched him go, then turned to look at Moira. She had inched her chair back and was eyeing the door like she might run. It comforted Roman to know she was as uncomfortable in his presence as he was in hers.
She didn’t run, though. She only asked, “Where did you get that?”
Roman rolled up his sleeve, again revealing the brand on his wrist. Moira’s eyes were immediately drawn to it. “What, this?” Roman asked. “Where do you think? It’s hard to forget something only the Magistrates and a few hand-selected Representatives know exist.”
Moira bit her lip.
“Which would be worse, if it was real or fake?” Roman asked.
“I’m not sure, truth be told. But if that’s real, why haven’t I seen you on the island?”
“I’m retired,” Roman said with a wry smile.
“I didn’t think that was something your kind could do.”
“What are you up to, Hallisey?”
Roman raised an eyebrow. “Up to?”
“You must be up to something. What do you want from me?”
“Well, if you’re asking, I don’t suppose there are any openings on the Orean team?”
Moira blinked, then let out a surprised laugh. “What if I say no? You’ll kill me, right? Kill my family? Well orchestrated, crashing breakfast to make your point. Do they mean anything to you, or was it a game to get to me? I know how your kind works. You breathe extortion, manipulation-,”
“My kind,” Roman repeated. “Again with that. I didn’t orchestrate any of this, believe it or not. I like your family, and I didn’t know I’d be crashing breakfast of any kind. But I take advantage of opportunities when they come up, and I think you and I could benefit each other.”
Moira settled into her seat at that. This was familiar territory for her, and it showed. “Is that so?”
“I know what Unity is after. I can help you find it.”
Moira almost smiled. “Oh? And what are we after?”
Whatever amusement was on Moira’s face vanished. “How do you know about that?”
Roman waved his wrist, showing off the bandwagon. “How do you think? I’ve been well trained.”
“Well, you certainly hear more than you should, Mr. Hallisey. What do you know?”
“Only that the explosion in Illyon wasn’t accomplished by any weapon Unity’s familiar with. You think Orean somehow harnessed magic, and you want the same ability.”
Moira shook her head. “The Nochdvors claimed it was magic. I’m of the opinion that they were in shock. Magic, weapon, whatever it is, we just want to know how Orean pulled it off. That comes second to finding King Nochdvor, of course.”
“Of course,” Roman said.
Moira eyed Roman’s wrist. “You know more than you should, and given your background, you shouldn’t be allowed to live, let alone roam free. What’s stopped me from siccing every office and soldier in this city on you?”
“The same thing that’s stopped me from going straight to Orean and finding the magic before your team even gets there. If the Nochdvors are right, I can’t do this alone – and neither can your team.”
“And you’ll be some great help? You say you’re retired, but for all I know, you were forced out for incompetency.”
“If I was incompetent, I’d be dead,” Roman said. “You know that. In all my time with Unity, I never failed a single mission, and when I left, it was only because they weren’t strong enough to help me.”
“And what do you get out of this?” Moira asked, staring at Roman, keen interest replacing the earlier fear.
Roman considered his possible answers. He couldn’t say he didn’t trust Unity with this mission. He couldn’t say he’d just been broken up with and he needed to get away, do something useful. Couldn’t say he owed Amos Nochdvor his life and wanted to claim the debt. Couldn’t say he was interested in the magic, wanted to reach it first and get it far, far away from Unity.
“My reasons are my own,” Roman finally said, then added, “I just want to see Orean safe.”
“And I’m still not clear: what am I supposed to get out of this?”
“Besides my guarantee that I’ll make this mission a success?” Roman counted on his fingers. “I’ll be your secret. I’ll owe you a favor. Most importantly, I know this mission will be more dangerous than you told Gareth. I do care about him. He’s my friend. I’ll be there to protect him.”
Moira gave Roman a hard, thoughtful look. “You know, I just recalled that we do have an opening on the team. One of our security staff was thrown off a bridge yesterday. Obviously, he’s unfit for travel now.”
Roman’s expression didn’t change. “Sounds tragic.”
“Yes, it happened during yesterday’s prison break – which we believe was facilitated by someone who knows the prison and Enforcer barracks well. You don’t know anything about that, do you?”
“Not a thing,” Roman said, ignoring the uneasy feeling growing in his stomach. Moira knew too much already. He wasn’t as in control here as he’d like to be, and he knew this deal was shaky.
Moira stood. “I suppose his loss is our gain. Welcome to the team, Hallisey. I’ll be in touch with more information.”
Moira moved to the door just as Gareth re-entered the dining room.
Gareth stopped and looked between the two of them curiously, immediately noticing the shift in tension out on the balcony. Moira slipped past him. “I’m afraid I must go, Gareth; I have some reading to do. I’ll be in touch, Hallisey. Welcome to the team.”
“What?” Gareth asked, but Moira was already gone.
Roman stood and, with a smile that didn’t reach his eyes, patted Gareth on the shoulder. “I have to go get my things from Dinara, Gareth, but take good notes at the meeting for me, will you?”
Roman and Moira left Gareth standing speechless on the balcony.