Gareth swept into the parlor for the fourth time in as many minutes, immediately dropping onto his hands and knees to peer under the furniture.
“Has anyone seen my green cravat?” he called, hitting his head on the bottom of the sofa when Isobel’s reply came from much closer than he expected.
“I have it,” she said. Gareth sat back to see her standing behind him, tie in hand. “You left it sitting out; I think Wyndie was just trying to tidy up.”
“Ah, thoughtful girl. Is she up with Ofelia?”
“I gave her the night off,” Isobel said reproachfully. “I told you that.”
“Sorry, Bel, I’ve had a lot on my mind. Where’s Ofelia, then?”
Isobel put on a pair of dangling earrings, their glittering green catching in the light and jingling whenever she turned her head. Her dress was a similar shade, not half as elegant as the one she wore to the Webhon Players’ Performance, with less lace and a smaller bustle. Gareth found he liked it better.
“She should be down soon. She wanted to put her shoes on all by herself. You should have seen her; she was quite insistent,” Isobel said. “Is Roman going to join us? Did you invite him?”
Gareth laughed, remembering the look on Roman’s face when Gareth had invited him to church. “I did invite him. I think he would have accepted just to be polite, but a messenger came and swept him away.”
“A messenger from Unity? Was it about the team, do you think?”
Before they could talk about it further, Ofelia pranced in, whining about how her shoes hurt. Isobel took her hand and led her over to the couch. “That’s because you put them on the wrong feet, silly girl. Let your father fix them for you.”
Gareth smiled at the two of them, feeling his chest constrict. He’d miss them so much. “How pretty you look in your new dress, Ofelia,” he said, kneeling on the ground in front of his daughter and pulling her shoes off one at a time. “How old are you now? Twenty?”
“No, I’m five!”
“What? Five?” Gareth exclaimed. “No, I don’t believe that. You look much too grown up to be only five.”
“I am! Mother, tell him!”
“It’s true,” Isobel said. She managed not to laugh, but Gareth could see the threat of it in her smile. “She’s only five, but she’s almost six.”
“Oh, almost six. That explains it, then.” Having fixed the shoes, Gareth stood. “Are you ladies ready to go? I know Ofelia doesn’t want to miss the songs.”
The Ranulfs rented their carriage with the Carols, another family renting in the same building. All seven of them managed to fit into the cramped interior, and as the driver spurred the carriage into action, leading them off down the bumpy streets, one of the Carols complimented Ofelia’s dress. After Isobel made Ofelia—suddenly turned shy—say thank you, Isobel returned the compliment by telling the Carol women how handsome their sons looked in their new finery.
And that was all the conversation that passed on the short ride to their destination. Soon, the driver was pulling to a stop on a busy street. Gareth climbed out first and helped the women. The Carol boys were content to jump without assistance, one of them landing in mud and ruining his shiny shoes. Gareth caught Ofelia before she could follow their example.
Before them, the bright lights of a church shone down through stained glass windows, setting the street aglow with dancing patches of colors, shining on the heads of people waiting to get inside. Gareth and his family were among these, Gareth and Isobel walking arm in arm and Ofelia winding through the crowd ahead of them. The pointed spires of the building stood dark against the dusky sky.
Gareth expected the familiar peace of an evening church service to descend upon him when he walked through the open doors, but for the first time in his life, it didn’t come. The Gallontean church might be louder and colder than the one back home, but it usually gave him some sort of calm. Tonight, he couldn’t find it beneath thoughts of missing Kings and Unity missions.
They found an open pew in the sanctuary, the church’s congregation arranged in a half circle around a metal spire pointing to the sky. The spire was meant to represent Atiuh – every sect of Atiuhism had different representations of what they thought he looked like. Sometimes he was human, or nymph, or dragon, and then others, he was something fantastical like a five-headed dog with faerie wings and a dragon’s tail. The Gallontean church didn’t give him a shape. Gallontea was too diverse a city—this way, no one argued about which species Atiuh belonged to, even if they all secretly believed it was their own.
The service began shortly after their arrival. Ofelia stopped paying attention as soon as the hymnal singing was done. She had a great deal of patience for a five year old, but even she had a limit. But then, so did Gareth, and more so than usual of late. He had more important things on his mind and there was something about the way the precher spoke on loyalty and faith that made Gareth feel ill. He stayed silent throughout the service, on their way back to the carriage, and even on the entire ride home. He was grateful for the Carols’ presence, as it meant Isobel could do nothing but shoot him worried looks. If she asked him what was wrong, he wouldn’t know how to answer.
“Will you put Ofelia to bed, Gareth?” Isobel asked as the carriage rolled to a final stop in front of their building. Ofelia had fallen asleep on the ride, lulled by the rocking of the carriage and the warmth of her parents on either side of her.
Ofelia woke slightly during the transition from carriage to bedroom, just enough to wrap her arms sleepily around Gareth’s shoulders as he carried her and then help him get her into a sleeping gown. He sat with her and took all the small pins and clips out of her hair, singing an old hymn under his breath as he did. Ofelia piped in sleepily where she knew the words, or where she thought she knew them.
“Papa?” Ofelia said when he’d finished. “Momma says you’re leaving.”
Gareth almost dropped the hairbrush in his hand. “Yes, he said slowly, “For a little while.”
Gareth struggled to speak past the lump in his throat. He remembered all the times he’d had this exact conversation with his own father, all the times he’d been consoled with later-broken promises. He never thought he’d do the same to his own child. “Not long at all, love. Soon, you and your mother will go back home, and I’ll be there with you before you know it.”
“When are you going?”
“Very soon.” Too soon. Leandros had sent word earlier that day that their final team member had arrived. They were set to leave in three days.
“You’ll bring me back a present, won’t you?”
“Of course,” Gareth said, laughing past the cold dread pooling in his chest. “I always do.”
Ofelia fell asleep while Gareth was brushing her hair. He wrapped her blankets around her, blew out the lamp burning on the table, and backed out of the room, not letting her sleeping form out of his sight until the door clicked shut.
He rested his forehead against the cool wood and tried not to think about the danger of the upcoming mission.
Eventually, he returned to his and Isobel’s room and found Isobel still getting ready for bed. “I think I lost my brooch back at the church,” she said when she saw him. “The one from your mother.”
“Would you like me to go look for it?” Gareth asked, jumping at the opportunity. Anything to save him from thinking about the lies he’d just told his daughter.
Isobel gave him a concerned look, the same she’d given him in the carriage. “You don’t have to do it tonight.”
“No, no, it’s fine. I need to get some fresh air. Besides, there’s another service tomorrow morning—someone will surely find it and take it if I wait.”
“Alright,” Isobel said slowly. “Thank you, Gareth.”
On his way back down to the kitchen, Gareth passed the room they’d had prepared for Roman. The door stood open, the room inside dark. Roman’s meager possessions sat on the bed, their owner still out despite the late hour.
This time, Gareth walked to the church. Unlike that fateful walk back from Eresh Ochoa’s, there was no risk of getting lost. Only a few blocks had come and gone before he reached the cathedral, the lights from inside now dim. The first door he tried was locked, as were the second and third. Only the fourth and last of the church’s doors opened when Gareth pulled the handle.
Slipping inside, Gareth finally felt an echo of that peace he’d been looking for earlier. He wandered through the halls, quiet and filled with the solemnity of night and hollow space. Gareth had never realized how large the church was, how high its ceilings were. It was usually too packed with people to notice much beyond the crowd.
Being here alone made Gareth feel small and insignificant. It was strangely comforting, he found.
Only one or two lamps were lit to guide the way, and with the sharp architecture, shadows pooled at every corner. At the doors to the sanctuary, Gareth paused and looked up, admiring yet another thing about this place he’d never paid enough attention to—the three statues above the sanctuary doors.
Above the largest door was a statute of a black, sharp-edged dragon, its wide, bat-like wings stretching above and over the statues on either side of it. Its mouth hung open in a snarl, rows of intricately carved teeth grinning down at Gareth.
To its right stood a red statue of a woman made from fire. She held a hand toward the dragon, as did the statue on the dragon’s other side—a human male, tall and proud in a full suit of armor, the kind popular around the time of the Great War. All three of Atiuh’s Guardians, created to protect this world, now protecting his sanctuary.
Gareth stared up at Tellaos, and the dragon stared back. According to the scriptures, some of the Guardians had done their job better than others.
Millions of years ago, Atiuh spun the world into being. In one corner of one continent in the vast universe Atiuh created, he made life. He made life in plants, in trees and in flowers, but that was not enough. He made life in animals, from small insects to massive Misenean beasts that stand taller than mountains, but even that was not enough. From them, then, Atiuh created the first intelligent life.
He made three kinds of people: humans, nympherai, and dragons. Over time—thousands and thousands of years— the people grew and changed, and Atiuh changed the world to accommodate them. He spread them across the land, giving them the space they needed to adapt. The various races were born— sapien, alfar, marionite, orinian. Dryad, fae, oanai. Dragons of red, blue, and white. Then, Atiuh again made life from nothing.
Some say he grew tired of his mortals’ flaws, others that they were not enough, in the same way his animals and his plants were not enough. The popular theory, the one Gareth preferred, was that he loved his creations so much, he wanted to ensure they were always watched over. He made three more creatures, these incapable of dying or aging. Three creatures, each a patron of one species. Human Atuos, nympherai Ellaes, and Tellaos, the great black serpent. Atiuh gave all three a fragment of his magic.
For a time, the Guardians watched over Calaidia, but Tellaos grew resentful of the job he’d been given and the people he’d been made to protect. He started the Great War with his manipulation and his tricks as an act of defiance against Atiuh.
Or so the story went, anyway.
Gareth pushed through Tellaos’ door and into the sanctuary, following the aisle down past rows of pews to where his family had been sitting earlier. He caught the glimpse of green almost immediately—there was the brooch, nestled against the leg of the pew they’d sat in. He grabbed it and turned to go, but his gaze caught on the obelisk at the center of the sanctuary.
Without consciously willing his feet forward, Gareth made his way down the aisle toward it. When he reached it, he touched the metal, feeling its smooth texture beneath his fingers. It was cold, and Gareth felt no peace. He didn’t know why he’d expected anything different.
Voice echoing in the hollow space, Gareth said, “Atiuh, if you’re listening—,”
If, he’d said. When had it become an if?
He continued out loud, “I could really do with your blessing right now. Bring me safely home from this journey, back to my daughter and wife. It’s silly, but I’m scared that I—.” Gareth cut off with a sigh. “I’m being selfish. We could all use your blessing—everyone on the team, King Nochdvor, wherever he is, and all those in Alfheim struggling without his leadership. Even Orean.”
Gareth withdrew his hand from the obelisk, the weight of his fears settling heavily between them. Newspapers pushing war, diplomatic teams with more soldiers than diplomats, scheming governments. It was too much. It pushed Gareth to his knees.
“Things are terrible here, Atiuh. There may be a war, and our leaders are…” Gareth stopped himself before he could speak any treasonous thoughts. “Help us solve this problem in Orean before it gets worse.”
He rested his forehead against the cool bronze. He didn’t expect a response. He didn’t expect a miracle. But the hollow nothingness that he got made him feel foolish. He sat back and stared at the idol, and still, nothing happened.
Eventually, the soft cadence of voices drifted in from outside the sanctuary doors. Gareth wiped his eyes, clearing away tears he hadn’t noticed forming, and made a hasty retreat, slipping out a side door before he was caught in here after dark. Gareth followed the winding hallways of the church and didn’t stop until he was back on the busy street.
He hadn’t recovered by the time he reached his flat, so he ducked around the high-gated veranda of the café next door and slipped into the alley between the two buildings. He lit a cigarette, but before he could raise it to his lips, a familiar voice stopped him cold.
“Just tea for me, and toast if you have it. Anything for you, Hallisey? My treat.”
That was Moira, her proud voice carrying easily over the rest of the café’s chatter.
“Ah, right, you had dinner with my brother and his family tonight, didn’t you? And how was that?”
Gareth put out his cigarette and contemplated what to do. The proper thing would be to announce his presence. Not doing so would be an acute betrayal of both his sister and his friend. But on the other hand, there was no need to unnecessarily startle them. And he was just so curious. This may very well be his only chance to get answers. The thought of finding out why Moira added Roman to the team was too tantalizing to resist.
Gareth pulled his hood up, the one on the new cloak Isobel had brought him for the journey to Orean. Not even Moira had seen him in it yet; he hoped that made him unrecognizable. He inched closer to the veranda and peeked through the thick panels of the fence. Moira and Roman sat in the corner near him, away from the rest of the late night crowd.
“You wanted to meet, didn’t you?” Roman asked. “Urgently? So what is it? I hope you haven’t changed your mind.”
“No, but I have acquired some new information. I believe we need to re-negotiate our terms.”
Roman was quite for a minute, finally asking, “What kind of information?”
“In all of Unity’s history, only one of your kind ever left our services. His name was-,”
“Amaimon Rosario,” Roman said with a heavy sigh. “My birth name. I changed it when I got away.”
“But you kept the other one,” Moira said, lowering her voice. Gareth had to practically press himself against the fence to hear. “The one we gave you.”
“Reclaimed it,” Roman corrected.
“You’re supposed to be dead.”
Roman laughed, completely without humor. “If I had a penny for every time I’ve heard that, I’d be richer than the Magistrates.”
“Ah, the Magistrates. Speaking of…” Moira trailed off. There was a movement – she’d waved her hand at someone across the cafe.
Even through the narrow slits in the fence, Gareth could see how Roman tensed all over. Someone was approaching their table.
“What is this?” Roman asked. Gareth hardly recognized his voice, it was so cold.
“You didn’t think I’d keep this to myself, did you, Hallisey? Once I’d realized who you are? Come sit, Biro. Join us.”
Biro. Gareth only knew one man by that name. Aaron Biro. Unity Magistrate for the human species. A chair was pushed back as someone sat beside Moira. They wore a hood, so Gareth couldn’t see. Then Moira shifted, just enough to reveal Roman – the young man looked toward the street, clearly ready to bolt.
“So it really is you,” Biro said, and it was definitely the Magistrate. Gareth had suffered through too many fall conferences not to recognize the man’s nasally voice. “I thought – hoped, perhaps – that Moira was mistaken. My name is-,”
“I know who you are,” Roman said, cutting him – one of the Magistrates of Unity – off. “You must be feeling confident if you left the safety of your island to come see me. How many of them are watching us right now?”
The trio was interrupted by the return of their waitress, who set a cup of tea and some toast in front of Moira.
“None,” Biro said, once she’d gone. “I’m here on good faith.”
“Mr. Rosario, just because we haven’t gotten along in the past doesn’t mean we can’t do so now,” Biro said. “We’re a new generation of Magistrates, and we believe in fair dealing. This is an open negotiation between equal parties: you have something you want, and we have something we want.”
“Whatever your reasons, Biro’s agreed to let you join the team,” Moira said. “That’s what you want, isn’t it?”
There came another pause, ended by Roman’s sigh. “What do you want?”
“We want you back, of course.”
Roman laughed. Gareth didn’t understand why that was funny, but then, he didn’t understand any of what was happening. “I would rather die. Negotiation over. Are we done here?”
“Just one job, Mr. Rosario-,”
“Hallisey,” Roman corrected.
“Pardon, Mr. Hallisey,” Moira said. “We want you for just one job. It has to do with your new team captain.”
Gareth gasped. In the silence that followed, he feared they’d heard him, but when he peeked through the fence again, Roman was still, the line of his back tense. He wasn’t looking Moira’s way, or Gareth’s. “Why?” he asked.
“He shouldn’t have gotten the job in the first place,” Biro sighed. “He’s too close to this, has a known temper, and historically, he’s been too friendly with Orean. We don’t trust him to be objective. He could jeopardize the mission and your teammates’ safety.”
“Don’t pretend you care about that,” Roman said. “What, did he piss you off? Disagree with you? Embarrass you? Or is it just that getting rid of him lets you have control of the team? You get to choose the new Captain, right?”
“If we’re examining motives, one might wonder why you are so interested in rejoining us for this mission,” Biro said. “It wouldn’t have to do with the so-called magic, would it?”
Roman pressed his lips together. “Fine. You want me to kill him?”
Gareth clapped a hand over his mouth, staring at the wood of the fence with mounting horror. He held his breath.
“We would’ve had one of our own do it, if it came to that, but this is so much cleaner,” Moira said casually, like they were discussing the weather or the latest fashion from Troas. “Leandros Nochdvor is trained and dangerous, and if it were to get back to Rheamarie…well.”
Roman was quiet for a minute. When he spoke, Gareth could almost hear the wry smile in his voice. “And this works because I’m not connected to Unity like they are. Even if I fail, or if this does go badly, the blame doesn’t trace back to you.”
“No one else knows your identity, or that we’re having this meeting. Not even the other Magistrates,” Biro said.
“I wouldn’t be so smug about that,” Roman said, “There’s nothing stopping me from leaping across this table and killing you here and now.”
“Like I said, we’re here on good faith,” Biro said, when Roman didn’t move to follow through.
Moira smiled in the same self-satisfied way she did when she beat Gareth at chess. “Are you familiar with Nochdvor’s family history, Mr. Hallisey?”
“You mean his father?”
Moira nodded. “Tried to kill his own brother and take the throne for himself. In the aftermath, Amos took our Captain Nochdvor in, but nearly all of Alfheim thinks he’ll turn out like his father.”
“So, that should be a good enough story for you to work with. Kill him, say you found out he was planning on betraying his uncle as soon as the team found him, and most of Alfheim won’t even question it. They all want rid of him too, I hear.”
“The princess would question it,” Roman said. “She’s threatening to bring war on an entire city-state for Amos, and she always did like Leandros more than her own farther. I’m not sure she’d rest until she knew the truth of what happened to him.”
“Leandros,” Birorepeated thoughtfully. “Not Captain Nochdvor, not Mr. Nochdvor. You don’t know him already, do you?”
“No,” Roman said, and if Gareth didn’t know it was a lie, he wouldn’t have noticed Roman’s slight hesitation. “I just hear the gossip.”
“So? Not a terrible exchange, is it? You’ve done much worse for us,” Moira said.
“If you do this for us, Mr. Hallisey, you have your deal—access to the team and every record we have of you wiped. Amaimon Rosario will no longer exist.”
“Fine,” Roman said, standing. “I’ll do it. But of you’ll excuse me now, Representative, Magistrate, I’m very tired and you’ve given me much to think about.”
Roman left, Biro departing shortly after, and Moira sat alone long enough to finish her tea before leaving as well. Gareth waited until he was sure they were long gone before stepping around the veranda and returning to his flat.
He didn’t understand what he’d heard, but he knew this much: he had to warn Leandros.