Gareth spent much of the team meeting puzzling over his bizarre morning – specifically, over Moira, Roman, and what happened when he’d been upstairs. One minute, there’d been an inexplicable tension 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.
But at least he wasn’t the only one not paying attention to the meeting – Evelyne Corscia, the marionite he’d 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 intent than Mr. Ochoa’s logistics lecture deserved.
Gareth was glad when it was over. While the others filed out, he approached Leandros. “Captain? I have a problem I’d like to discuss with you.”
Gareth liked to think he was getting better at reading the alfar’s subtle expressions – Leandros seemed surprised, though given his unchanging expression, Gareth couldn’t point to anything in particular to support that claim.
“Is that so?” Leandros asked.
“Yes. The problem is, we still haven’t gotten those drinks I promised you.”
Leandros raised an eyebrow, unamused by Gareth’s attempt at a joke. “Not since you stood me up, no.”
Gareth’s own smile fell. “Ah. Well, I—,”
Leandros’ lips twitched, and it was only then Gareth realized the alfar was teasing him. “I’m only joking, Mr. Ranulf. As I told you then, I understand. Plans change.”
“Ah, that’s a relief. I didn’t know they taught you how to do that in Alfheim,” Gareth said. “Joke, I mean.”
“They don’t, of course. We have laws against humor of all kind. Anyone who dares to so much as tease is sentenced to hang by the gallows,” Leandros said. His expression was still more suited for the gallows, but Gareth could see laughter dancing behind his eyes. “We’re not in Alfheim, though, so damn them all.”
Leandros began gathering up his things as he spoke. 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 wasn’t joking. “I’d heard he was off the team, but I hadn’t heard why.”
“Moira— Representative Ranulf, that is. My sister—filled the opening he left this morning. A friend of mine took the spot, 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, wondering if he’d revealed something he shouldn’t have. But with Roman on the team, Leandros would have found out eventually, wouldn’t he? “Roman Hallisey. Do you know him?”
Leandros 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. Perhaps he’d spoken too soon, earlier. He still couldn’t read the alfar at all. Even if Leandros didn’t seem it at times, smiling and joking with the team, 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 back up. 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 for an answer. 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. 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, Eresh Ochoa at his heels. The team had been given permission to meet on the island this time, albeit tucked into the back recesses of one of Unity’s underutilized buildings, where no one ever ventured unless they were lost.
It was only when they progressed toward the heart of the building that they started to see people again. The hallways grew taller and wider, 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.
From there, they made it outside and crossed the cobblestone path to Unity’s main office building for a 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.
It had been over a week and people still stared at Leandros wherever he went. The papers had made sure everyone knew who he was – Alfheim royalty, nephew to the missing king, party to a great scandal in the royal family. 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?”
It had gotten so bad that, when he wasn’t on the island, he’d noticed people following him around out of sheer curiosity.
“Right at the end of the hall – oh, look out!”
Leandros stopped so suddenly that Eresh ran into his back. Leandros had nearly collided with a stranger — not just any stranger, but an orinian. The orinian smiled at Leandros’ abrupt stop.
Leandros stared. Partially because there was an orinian on Unity Island, and partially because, well…Leandros generally didn’t 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 orinian’s style was bizarre, 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, leaving her wrists exposed. 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 her slender hand toward Leandros. “Pleasure to meet you, Captain Nightingale. I do believe you’ve been waiting for me.”
“Nochdvor,” Leandros corrected. He shook the orinian’s hand without thinking. This must be their missing teammate. It was no wonder she was so crucial to this mission— she was orinian.
“Oh, it’s just a game she plays,” Eresh said in an undertone, not quietly enough to keep Eftychia from hearing, but quietly 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 without hesitation, “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.
“Yes! 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 tick.”
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 Eftychia’s 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 rewarded 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 together like an excited 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 to catch up on lost sleep.
“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.
“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,” Eresh said 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 barracks were visible on the clean horizon of the Island’s edge.
Leandros turned back toward the Magistrates’ Offices, feeling a surge of confidence. Their team was now complete, and one undesirable new member aside, Leandros felt good about it. It was a competent group, capable of getting his uncle back. He’d been getting along better with the Magistrates since their first meeting, too. Dare he say it, he thought he might even be growing on them.
Finally, he was getting the hang of this.