Gareth spent much of the next team meeting puzzling over his breakfast – more specifically, over Moira, Roman, and what happened when he’d gone upstairs. One minute, there’d been an inexplicable enmity between them and the next, Moira was welcoming Roman to the team. Gareth didn’t understand, and he was giving himself a headache trying to.
He wasn’t the only one who wasn’t paying attention to the meeting – Evelyne Corscia, the marionite woman Gareth met at the last meeting, glared at the wall, her thoughts obviously elsewhere. Cathwright the dragon picked at her claws. Even Leandros flipped through other paperwork, expression more intense than Mr. Ochoa’s orientation lecture deserved.
Gareth was glad when it was over. While the others filed out, Gareth approached Leandros. “Captain? I have a problem I’d like to discuss with you.”
Leandros looked up at him. Gareth liked to think he was getting better at reading the alfar’s subtle expressions – he seemed surprised, though Gareth couldn’t point to anything in particular to support that claim.
“Is that so?” Leandros asked.
“Yes. We still haven’t gotten those drinks I promised you.”
Leandros recovered from his surprise with a brief smile, the scar on his cheek warping with the expression. “Not since you stood me up, no.”
Gareth’s own smile fell. “Ah. Well, I—,”
“I’m only joking, Mr. Ranulf. As I told you then, I understand. Plans change.”
“I didn’t know they taught you how to do that in Alfheim,” Gareth said. “Joke, I mean.”
Leandros nodded. “They don’t, of course. There are laws against humor of all kinds, in Alfheim, with sever punishment,” he said, expression serious but eyes dancing with laughter. “They don’t, of course. There are laws against humor of all kind. Anyone who dares make a pun is sentenced to hang by the gallows,” Leandros said, laughter dancing behind his eyes. “But we’re not in Alfheim, so damn them all.”
Leandros began gathering up his things. Gareth noticed the team roster among other papers, and pointed to a name on it. “McDermott’s off the team, right? I hear he was thrown off a bridge.”
Leandros’ eyes widened. “Is that another joke? If so, I don’t understand it.”
“No, no, I would never joke about something like that. He was injured in the prison break yesterday.”
Leandros didn’t seem to believe Gareth was serious. “I’d heard he was off the team, but I hadn’t heard why.”
“Moira— Representative Ranulf, my sister—filled the opening he left this morning. A friend of mine filled the role, actually. I know Roman would have come today, if it hadn’t been for a prior obligation.”
The papers Leandros had been so carefully gathering slipped from his fingers, catching on the air and scattering across the floor. Leandros didn’t even seem to notice. He was staring at Gareth. “Roman, did you say?”
Too late, Gareth remembered the look that had crossed Roman’s face when he’d mentioned Leandros’ name, after the Webhon Players’ performance. “Yes,” Gareth said, slowly, “Roman Hallisey. Do you know him?”
Leandros stiffened. He dropped his gaze, looked around at his scattered papers without really seeing them. “I used to, anyway. He’s on the team now, is he?”
“Yes,” Gareth said, trying to read Leandros’ expression. But perhaps he’d spoken too soon – he couldn’t read the alfar at all. Even if Leandros didn’t seem it at times, he was from Alfheim. When Leandros chose not to show emotion, no emotion could be seen.
“I see,” Leandros said. Finally, he began gathering his papers. Gareth helped, not sure what to say. Leandros asked, “What was his prior engagement?”
“You said Mr. Hallisey had a prior engagement.”
“Oh,” Gareth said, scrambling to make something up. It felt too personal to reveal that Roman was collecting his things from the girl who’d just broken up with him, particularly when Gareth didn’t know the history between Roman and Leandros. “He didn’t say.”
“Right. Well, when you see Roman,” Leandros said, and Gareth couldn’t help but notice the familiar use of Roman’s first name, “Tell him cowardice is unbecoming.”
“Uh,” Gareth said, eyebrows shooting up. “Sure.”
“He’ll know what I mean,” Leandros said with a pleasantly cold smile.
After Gareth and the others left, Leandros made his way upstairs with Eresh Ochoa at his heels. The team was given permission to meet on the island this time, albeit tucked into the back recesses of one of Unity’s less used buildings, where no one ever ventured unless they were lost and where – apparently – nothing ever got cleaned or repaired, even when the paint chipped and the furniture rotted.
The hallways grew taller and wider the closer they got to the heart of the building, but not yet wide enough that when a large white dragon came down the hall toward them, they didn’t have to press themselves to the wall for fear of getting hit by its spiked tail.
They finally made it outside, then crossed the cobblestone path to Unity’s main office building for their meeting with the Magistrates.
Here, things were more crowded. They had to fight their way through the congested traffic of Unity personnel – Leandros had to fight, anyway. Eresh was content to weave through the path Leandros left in his wake.
People still stared at Leandros wherever he went. They knew who he was, the papers had made sure of that – alfheim royalty, nephew to the missing king. Leandros liked feeling important, getting noticed, but this was different. He was just a novelty to them. Ignoring the stares, Leandros looked over his shoulder at Eresh. “Which way am I supposed to be going?”
“Right at the end of the hall – oh, look out!”
Leandros stopped so suddenly that Eresh ran into his back. He’d nearly collided with someone – not just someone, but an orinian. She smiled at Leandros’ abrupt stop.
Leandros stared. He didn’t really concern himself with fashion – neither the flash of Alfheim nor the simpler cuts of Gallontea. He wore what was practical and looked good on him. But this woman’s style was jarring, even for him. She wore a shapeless wool sweater made for someone twice her size and paired it with a long purple skirt decked in bells, glitter, and lace. Despite the sweater’s size, the sleeves were still too short for her gangly arms. She was tall and waifish, with silky dark hair pulled into a topknot and dark, jagged birthmarks cutting like lightning across her face.
Eresh peered around Leandros. “Eftychia! You’re back!”
The woman waved at him, her entire face lighting up, then extended the same slender hand toward Leandros. “Pleasure to meet you, Captain Nightingale. I do believe you’ve been waiting for me.”
Leandros blinked and automatically took her hand. This must be their missing teammate. It was no wonder she was so crucial to this mission— she was orinian. “Nochdvor,” he corrected.
“Oh, it’s just a game she plays,” Eresh said in an undertone, not quietly enough to keep Eftychia from hearing, but quiet enough that she could pretend she hadn’t.
“I like nicknames,” Eftychia said with a shrug, falling into step beside Leandros as they continued walking, “And I like animals. It’s not a game. Dear Eresh is just upset because I’ve dubbed him an armadillo,” she said, looking back at Eresh with a fond smile. “I said ferret first, Eresh, but you didn’t like that either!”
“And I’m a nightingale?” Leandros asked.
“Definitely not,” Eftychia said easily, “I was just trying it out, but that one won’t fit. I’ll keep trying.”
“We’ll have plenty of time for it,” Leandros said.
“Won’t that be wonderful?” Eftychia asked, clapping her hands together. “I love traveling on long journeys with new people. There’s nowhere better to pick them apart and learn what makes them run.”
Leandros gave her a sidelong look, but her expression remained sweet and open.
“I’m sorry you all had to wait so long for me, Captain. I meant to be back last week, but some complications got in my way. Have you been enjoying Gallontea in the meantime?” she asked.
“I haven’t seen much of it,” Leandros admitted. “Most of my time has been spent on this island.”
“Oh, I was hoping you’d say that!” Eftychia chirped, the bells on her skirt jingling as she gave a little skip. “Let me show you the city! I simply cannot let you out of my sight until I figure out your nickname.”
“You’re going to have to,” Ochoa said, checking his watch. “We have a meeting with the Magistrates to get to, and you’re not invited.”
Leandros was surprised at the invitation. Aside from Gareth, no one had made much of an effort to spend time with him socially, and even Gareth had cancelled their plans. Much as he disliked the idea of being picked apart, he was beginning to feel lonely. It had been a long time since he’d been away from Rheamarie and the rest of his family, and even then, he’d never been on his own like this.
“Tomorrow, perhaps?” he asked, and was awarded with a brilliant smile from Eftychia.
“I suppose I can wait ’till then, if I must. Eresh, you simply must come as well. I’ve missed you!”
“I think I could take a day off,” Eresh said, glancing at Leandros for approval. “We’ve had time to get everything prepared while we waited for you, so there’s not much left to do.”
“It’s settled, then,” Eftychia said, beaming and clapping her hands like a child. “Let’s all meet at the bridge tomorrow morning.”
“Thank you, Ms. Jones. Not too early tomorrow, I hope?” Leandros said. He hadn’t taken a day off since he’d arrived, and he’d like to take advantage of it.
“Do you not like mornings?” Eftychia asked. “Oh, let me think, what kind of animal doesn’t like mornings?”
“A sloth,” Eresh suggested, smugly.
“Hush, armadillo,” Leandros said.
Eftychia snickered behind her hand. Their group stopped in front of the grand doors to the Magistrates’ Offices. “We really must go, Chia,” Eresh said.
“Oh, very well. It was a pleasure meeting you, Captain Jaguar. I’ll see you tomorrow!” Eftychia said, flouncing off. Her way of moving was hypnotic, loping and graceful.
“I wouldn’t mind if that one stuck,” Leandros called after her.
Eftychia turned and danced backward, grinning at him. “Still not right, but I’m getting closer!”
“She’s a strange one,” Ereshsaid in an undertone. “Not quite right in the head, but smarter than she seems. She’ll be good to have with us.”
“She’s a part of the security team?” Leandros asked. Behind her cheer, he saw the same hardness in her eyes that he’d seen in the rest of them.
Eresh nodded. “Wait until you see her fight. She’s a bit childish at times, but don’t worry. It’s worth putting up with.”
“I wasn’t worried,” Leandros said. He watched Eftychia disappear into the crowd. High above her head was a wide window, through which the dark silhouette of Unity’s prison and the barracks beside it were visible on the clean horizon of the Island’s edge.
He turned back toward the Magistrates’ Offices, feeling a surge of confidence. He’d been getting along better with the Magistrates since their first meeting. Dare he say it, he thought he might even be growing on them. Finally, he was getting the hang of this.