Leandros glanced over his shoulder for the fifth time since leaving his hotel, frowning and increasing the length of his strides. When he reached Gallontea’s public square, he forgot the urgency and couldn’t help but pause a moment to watch the movement of the crowd. It was restless and urgent, always in a hurry and so very different from Alfheim. Leandros couldn’t wait to leave. He certainly didn’t want to go back to Alfheim, but he couldn’t stay here. When he was younger, his life was motion. It was discovery. He’d traveled everywhere, anywhere, seeing Calaidia’s sights and getting caught in adventures. But there was no point in doing those things alone, so he’d stopped.
Across the square, Leandros noticed a frantic movement. It was Eftychia Jones, sitting cross-legged at the base of Unity’s gate, waving at him with her entire arm. Leandros made his way over to her.
“Hello, Captain!” she called as he approached.
“Ms. Jones. I hope you haven’t been waiting long.”
“No, I don’t think so.”
Leandros tilted his head to the side, studying her. “You don’t think so? I think I’m glad to hear that.”
Eftychia beamed at him and patted the ground beside her. Leandros frowned at the cobblestone, then sat, folding fluidly and settling on the ground like it was a throne. Delighted to see an alfar royal sitting in the dirt, Eftychia laughed and clapped.
“Dear Captain,” she began, “What were you thinking about just then?”
“When you stood across the square. You looked positively mournful.”
“Mournful?” Leandros asked. “I suppose I was. I realized how much I can’t wait to leave this city behind, and then I realized how easily love lost can ruin an adventuring spirit.”
Leandros shook his head. “You asked what I was thinking; you got it. You’ll get no more.”
“How cruel of you,” Eftychia sighed.
“I have been known to—why, Mr. Ranulf! What a surprise!”
Gareth had been about to cross through the gate onto the bridge, but he jumped when Leandros called his name. His eyes cast around for a moment before they spotted Leandros on the ground.
“Mr. Nochdvor, what luck! I was just looking for you—oh, I’m terribly sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
Leandros pushed himself up off the ground. “Nonsense; don’t think of it. Gareth, meet Eftychia Jones, the final member of our team.”
Gareth bowed. “Pleasure, madam.”
Eftychia only waved in response.
“Looking for me, were you, Ranulf? Is something wrong?”
“Yes, I’m afraid. You see…” Gareth trailed off, then glanced at Eftychia. “Might we speak privately?”
With a hand on Gareth’s shoulder, Leandros led him past the gate and onto the bridge and away from the crowd. “What is it?”
“Last night, I overheard something terrible. I feel it’s my duty to warn you, relation to the other parties be damned. I was eavesdropping. I shouldn’t have been, but I couldn’t resist, and, well…it was my sister, Mr. Nochdvor. She, ah…”
“Atiuh’s name, man, out with it!”
“Unity wants you dead,” Gareth blurted. “I heard her say so herself. They want control of the team, and they…they asked someone to take care of it, on the journey. Their plan is to…to frame you. Claim you intended to betray your uncle as soon as we found him.”
Leandros stared at Gareth a moment, then let out a slow breath through pursed lips. “Thank you for telling me, Gareth. This is good.”
“Yes, it— wait, good?” Gareth asked, voice pitched high.
“Your warning has given me time to prepare for it. I can’t say I’m terribly surprised. Who’d they ask to—to do it? Do you know?”
Gareth stared at Leandros, speechless, then dropped his gaze. “I don’t know. I didn’t see.”
“Gareth,” Leandros began slowly, “You’re going to have to practice your lying for this mission. It’s written all over your face. Why go so far as to warn me if you won’t tell me who to look out for? It’s someone on the team, isn’t it? It must be. One of the ones who work for Unity?”
Gareth worried at his lip and refused to meet Leandros’ gaze. Who was he protecting? Most of the other team members were strangers to Gareth, just as they were to Leandros. No, wait. No, that wasn’t true. There was one Gareth had called a friend.
The cold sting of dread began pumping through Leandros, starting in the tips of his fingers and ending with his heart, which beat faster to compensate. Not recognizing the strangled cast of his own voice, Leandros asked, “Was it Roman?”
Gareth cringed, and that was answer enough.
“I’m sure there’s some explanation,” Gareth said, but Leandros barely heard him past the terror ringing like a chime in his ears, could hardly focus past the tight grip around his heart, threatening to break it. His knees almost gave out, but he leaned back against the stone wall of the bridge in time. The coldness of the stone sent goosebumps up his spine.
How had it come to this?
Belatedly, he realized Gareth was still speaking.
“We’ll talk to him, Mr. Nochdvor. I know him; this isn’t him. There must be some explanation. There has to be some explanation, some way to reason with him.”
“I hope so,” Leandros said, “Because if not, I will be dead before we reach Orean.”
Gareth’s expression shifted from concern to fear. Before he could speak, Eftychia appeared at the gate. “Eresh is here!” she chimed, just as the dryad appeared at her side.
Leandros stared at them blankly, then shook himself and stood straighter.
“Is everything alright, Captain?” Eresh asked, eyeing Leandros suspiciously.
“Yes,” Leandros said. At least he had time, now, time to figure out how this could have happened. Time to talk to Roman, maybe, though the thought had his stomach twisting into even tighter knots. He pushed the feeling aside. He couldn’t push away the anger, though, and felt it settling somewhere just above his diaphragm. “Yes, of course. I was just inviting Mr. Ranulf to join us for our little tour of Gallontea. Isn’t that right, Gareth?”
“Er, yes,” Gareth said. “And I was saying that I’d love to join.”
“Oh, excellent!” Eftychia said. “The more the merrier. Eresh, dear, can we start with the park?”
“Whatever you want, Chia.”
Eftychia grinned and turned on her heel, leading the way, and Eresh followed. Leandros caught Gareth’s arm and stopped him before he could do the same. “I don’t think I have to tell you,” he began, too softly for the others to hear, “To keep this between us. Mr. Ochoa and Ms. Jones both work for Unity. If they’re not actively in on it, it’s possible they at least know about it.”
Gareth nodded, eyes wide. Leandros joined the other two, leaving Gareth to follow. The small group cut through the festival grounds to get to the park, the grounds empty now that most of the performers had departed with the end of Unity’s conference season. The park was breathtaking, the leaves turned gold and red in a way they don’t in Alfheim.
Eftychia skipped ahead of the group, but before they’d even rounded the first bend in the path, she turned on Leandros. “I think, Captain, I’d like to figure out your petname now.”
“Petname?” Gareth asked, but Eftychia talked over him.
“May I ask you a few questions?” she asked.
“Very well, but only a few.”
“That’s too subjective!” Eftychia protested. “I can stretch a few to four, to five. Do I get five questions?”
“Oh, how storybook of you,” Eftychia said. She pursed her lips and studied Leandros. Whenever the path curved, Eresh grabbed her sleeve and guided her, more used to her eccentricities than the others. Finally, she asked, “How did you get that scar?”
“Interesting start,” Leandros said, self-consciously touching the pale scar that stretched from cheekbone to jaw. “A bar fight.”
“Really?” Gareth asked.
“I know; it looks like it should have a more exciting story.”
“No, no,” Gareth said, “I’m just surprised that you have bar fights in Alfheim. I heard you settle your fights with words and politics.”
“There are bar fights in Alfheim,” Leandros said. “Occasionally. This, though, I got in Troas. I’m not really the type to brawl, but the friend I was traveling with at the time caused trouble and I got caught in the middle.”
Eftychia nodded, cataloguing his answer.
“May I ask you a question in return?” Leandros asked Eftychia.
The orinian considered Leandros a moment, then narrowed her eyes and nodded.
“How did you end up in Gallontea?”
“I’ve been here for as long as I can remember. I’ve never even been to Orean before, if that’s what you’re asking,” Eftychia said. “What are you most afraid of?”
Leandros blinked. “That’s very personal.”
“So was your question. It doesn’t have to be a reasonable fear, if that helps. It can be something silly like, oh, I don’t know…poets.”
Leandros laughed. “I’ve known a few that deserved it, but I’m not afraid of poets. If I have to answer, red dragons. My father used to tell my cousin and me the most terrifying stories of them.”
“How very traumatic,” Eftychia breathed. It was difficult to tell whether she meant it or not; everything out of her mouth sounded so earnest. “Next time he tells those stories, just remember how long the red dragons have been extinct, and everything will be fine.”
“No need. There’ll be no more stories, as he was executed for treason nearly a century ago.”
Eftychia clapped a hand over her mouth.
“It’s alright,” Leandros assured her.
“What happened?” Eftychia asked, tentatively, then said, “No, don’t answer. That’s not one of my questions.”
Leandros waved her off. “I won’t count it. He wanted the throne, tried to kill his own brother for it. A friend and I discovered his plan and talked him out of it at the last minute, but the damage was done. He was branded a traitor. So was I, effectively.”
Gareth remembered the play he’d seen the Webhon Players put on at the Rinehart Festival. The gentle prince, joining with Egil to fight his traitorous uncle and save the golden king. “It’s like the Egil story,” he said out loud.
“Just like it,” Leandros agreed. “All stories have origins somewhere, Mr. Ranulf, and you’ve found the heart of that one. Congratulations.”
“You really know Egil? Or is he really just a myth?”
Leandros’ expression soured. “The Egil you know is a myth. The real thing is much more disappointing, I’m afraid. I’d rather not talk about it, if you don’t mind.”
“Of course,” Gareth said, looking like he’d like to ask another dozen questions.
Eftychia, who’d started this whole thing, tried to change the subject. “I have my third question. Who was your love lost?”
Leandros turned cold. “No. Absolutely not. I’m sorry, Eftychia, but I won’t answer that one.”
“You promised three answers!”
“No, I gave you permission to ask three questions. There’s a difference.”
“So that’s the kind of person you are? Perhaps I should think of a slippery, nasty, tricksy animal for your—,”
“Eftychia,” Leandros snapped, like some feral thing. “Enough. You can ask another question instead, but I won’t answer that one.”
They walked in silence after that, Leandros stewing, Eftychia pouting, and Eresh and Gareth too uncomfortable to try striking up a conversation.
“Lion cub,” Eftychia announced, eventually. Her voice was soft, an unspoken apology. “The potential to be a lion is there, but I’m not sure you’ve reached it yet.”
“I think I should be offended,” Leandros said, matching her tone. “But it’s better than an armadillo,” he added, making Eftychia laugh and Eresh scowl.
When the group reached the exit to the park, Eresh stopped them. “Oh,” he said. “That’s not supposed to be here.”
At the corner where their path met the main road was a tree. While the trees surrounding hadn’t yet dropped their leaves, this one already had none. Its wood was white—not spotted like a birch, nor chipped like a sycamore, but flawless bleached ivory. The branches reached high and wide, bending on swollen joints that made it look like bone.
“It’s a caindlewood tree,” Gareth said. Eftychia, Eresh, and Leandros all looked at him. He explained, “There’s a farm of them near my home in Adriat.”
“Do you know what they mean?” Eresh asked him.
Gareth nodded, lips pressed into a thin line. “I think so.”
“Care to enlighten the rest of us?” Leandros asked.
“It’s a grave,” Eresh said. “Or it marks one. But it’s also sort of a casket. It’s also sort of a womb.”
At Leandros and Eftychia’s confused expressions, Eresh smiled faintly and pointed at the tree. “When a dryad dies, they’re buried in the ground and a tree like that grows over them. It stands like that for a few decades until one day, it blooms.” He held up a finger. “Exactly one day after blooming, the tree drops all of its flowers and a new dryad sings its way out of the trunk.”
“A new dryad?”
“A child. From death comes life. For us, at least,” Eresh said. He slowly approached the caindlewood, the others reluctantly following, and caressed the smooth bark. “We view death differently than the rest of you. One person is gone, yes, but they become another.”
“Gareth, you said there was a whole farm of these?” Leandros asked, horrified. “A field of dead dryads?”
“And what’s a cemetery?” Eresh asked. “It can be jarring for a young dryad, singing their way out of the caindlewood only to find themselves alone in a great big universe. You never really recover. I should know; it happened to me. That’s why we keep them all together— so we can watch for blooms and be there when the dryad is born. This one is new. I do hope someone’s keeping an eye on it.”
Eftychia stared at the tree, expression uncharacteristically serious, then shook herself and pouted at the group. “Can we move on? There’s still so much to see!”
Eftychia and Eresh led Gareth and Leandros around downtown Gallontea, Eresh pointing out old and interesting architecture and providing them with historical tidbits while Eftychia gave them a more self-centric tour—“This is my favorite restaurant!” and “Here’s where I got in my first fight!”
After an hour of this, Eftychia looked over her shoulder and hummed thoughtfully. “Lion cub?”
“Yes, Ms. Jones?” Leandros asked, already resigned to the endearment.
“We’re being followed.”
“We’re what?” Eresh asked.
Leandros only nodded. “Noticed that, did you? I believe I’m being followed, actually; it’s been happening since I left my hotel this morning.”
“What?” Eresh repeated.
“Have you gotten a good look at whoever it is?” Eftychia asked Leandros.
“Sort of,” Leandros said. “They’re human, with a red beard and a wide-brimmed hat.”
“Let’s go to the warehouse district next, Captain,” Eftychia said. “There are hardly any people around, there.”
“You want to set an ambush?” Leandros guessed.
“Doesn’t it sound fun?” Eftychia asked. “I’ve been planning it since the public square.”
“You’ve known for that long? Why didn’t you say anything?” Leandros asked.
“I wanted to see what he’d do. Surely he wouldn’t approach with so many of us around you, I thought. I would’ve warned you before we said goodbye.”
“What is going on? Why is someone following you?” Eresh asked.
“It could be any number of reasons,” Leandros said, waving a hand.
“Mr. Nochdvor, whoever this is, they could be dangerous,” Gareth warned. Leandros met his gaze evenly.
“They usually are, in these situations,” Leandros said. Not a hint of concern made its way into his voice. If anything, he sounded bored. “If they’re as tough as they are subtle, I’m not concerned.”
Eftychia laughed and linked her arm in Leandros’. “This is where we leave you, darlings. It’s a shame we didn’t get to explore more the city together.”
“An ambush, that’s— that’s crazy,” Eresh squeaked.
“I’m going with you,” Gareth announced. Leandros stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.
“No. Eftychia’s on the support team for a reason; from what I hear, she can handle herself in a fight. I won’t have you and Eresh getting in the middle of this.”
With that, they left Eresh and Gareth standing in the street. Eftychia led Leandros along, chatting like they weren’t intentionally laying a trail. They finally reached a less crowded neighborhood, and both Leandros and Eftychia kept a careful watch.
“I hope Eresh was correct about your fighting prowess, Ms. Jones. I think there’s more than one of them.”
Eftychia laughed and touched Leandros’ forearm like he’d told an amusing joke. “Eresh doesn’t know the half of my fighting prowess, Captain.”
“I don’t suppose you happen to have a gun?”
“No, I don’t like guns. They end fights too quickly.”
In unspoken agreement, they doubled back and ambushed the man that had been following Leandros. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, they then found themselves being ambushed by a much larger group.
Leandros wasn’t even entirely sure how that happened, but suddenly they were surrounded by four others, in addition to the man they’d thought was their prey. Leandros and Eftychia shared a look. Eftychia looked delighted, eyes practically sparkling with joy.
“I hope you all realize what, exactly, you’re doing,” Leandros began, lowly, addressing the circle that was slowly tightening around them.
One of the strangers shoved Leandros from behind, making him stumble forward into the man they’d followed. Leandros’ hand flew to the man’s chest as he tried to catch his balance. Eftychia stepped forward to help him, but then Leandros’ hand twisted in the man’s shirt and one of his feet slipped between the man’s legs, hooking the man’s knees into buckling. Leandros put all of his weight on his grounded foot and pivoted, using his grip to throw the man to the ground.
It happened so quickly that even Eftychia took a moment to process it. When she did, she laughed and threw her weight into the nearest attacker. Slender as she seemed, she was an excellent brawler with a true orinians’ strength and agility. She caught the next man to come at her with a haymaker, throwing him back, dazed.
Leandros moved on to the next attacker in the circle, grabbing and twisting the man’s gun arm out of the way before he could direct the weapon. He spun and elbowed the man in the face, grabbing his gun from him and using it to shoot the man charging at Eftychia.
Again, Eftychia laughed, high and bright and delighted. “Captain, you’re ruining my fun!”
Leandros grinned, sharp and feral, as he dodged another blow and dropped the gun.
“You must be a good dancer, lion cub,” Eftychia called, watching his movements when she could. “You’re a very graceful fighter.”
“Oh, I’m very good,” Leandros replied, stepping back and letting Eftychia drag down his next attacker, “When the mood strikes me. Though I admit that happens rarely.”
“What a shame! I’d love to see you dance sometime,” Eftychia said. “I’m terrible, personally.”
A shrill war cry from behind had them both pausing to look for the source. Leandros sighed when he saw that the cry came from Eresh, who was running up with a small knife in hand and Gareth in tow. The final attacked retrieved his companion’s gun from the ground and aimed it at them.
Eftychia stepped quickly between them, prying his arm to the side just as he fired. The bullet narrowly missed her, actually catching the abundant fabric of her sweater. She hit him over the head, and just like that, he fell to the ground.
Just like that, it was over. Leandros ran a hand through his hair, unknowingly spreading a streak of blood through it, and rounded on Gareth and Eresh. “I told you not to come,” he snapped. “You could have gotten yourselves hurt. You could have gotten Eftychia and I hurt, as well. What if she hadn’t been able to protect you?”
“Be easy on them, lion cub,” Eftychia said, kicking at one of the attackers’ bodies. “They only wanted to help.”
Leandros scoffed, and, with a last glare at the cowed Gareth and Eresh, turned to survey the scene. They’d made quite a mess— in the middle of a public street, no less. To Eftychia, he said, “I’m sure you’re not terrible.”
Eftychia blinked at him, confused. Then, she grinned. “Oh, no, I really am. I’m good at freestyle dancing, but when there are steps involved, I’m hopeless. I’m bad with rules.”
“That one’s still alive,” Eresh said, pointing at one of the attackers, who was struggling to stand.
“Bring him to his knees,” Leandros ordered, retrieving the gun from the ground. It was the red-bearded man, the one who had been following him. Leandros looked coolly down at him. “What did you mean to accomplish here?”
The man spat at Leandros but didn’t answer. Leandros trained the gun on his head and asked again. “Why did you attack?”
Instead of answering, the man shoved Eftychia back with one arm and pulled a switchblade out of his belt with the other. He leapt at the alfar. Leandros dropped the gun as the man brought the knife down toward Leandros’ chest— he was already too close for Leandros to use it. Instead, he grabbed the man’s arm, twisted out of the way as best he could, but the knife caught his side in a long stripe down his chest.
“Captain!” Eftychia cried, springing to her feet. She tackled the man and pried the knife from his hands with ease, twisting his arm behind his back and catching him in an unshakable grip.
Leandros took a few steps back and stumbled to the ground. He looked down at himself, hand automatically going to the wound at his side. There was already blood everywhere, covering everything– his hands, his clothes, the ground, but there was no pain. It just stung. Why was there so much blood?
Eresh was at his side in an instant, looking rapidly between the injury and Leandros’ face with wide eyes. “Leandros, are you okay? Oh, Atiuh. Oh, no. Atiuh help us.”
Gareth was there next, eyes just as panicked as Eresh’s. Leandros wondered if either had seen an injury like this in their lives.
“Not sure what he’s going to do,” Leandros hissed through gritted teeth. With shaking fingers, he began unbuttoning his waistcoat; Eresh hurried to help, once he realized what Leandros was doing. He then helped Leandros shrug out of it, the alfar swearing under his breath as he had to twist to get the garment off. He bunched up the fabric and pressed it against the wound, the pale blue fabric instantly soaking through.
Leandros closed his eyes, took several deep breaths, then pushed himself to his feet.
“Leandros, you musn’t!” Eresh squeaked. Gareth tried helping Leandros up, but Leandros held a hand out for him to stop.
“It’s fine,” Leandros said. “It looks worse than it is.”
“Fine?” Gareth asked. “Leandros, for Atiuh’s sake, you’ve been stabbed!”
“Cut,” Leandros sniffed. “Not stabbed.”
“We have to get you to a hospital,” Eresh cried, talking over Leandros.
“No hospitals. It’s barely a scratch. Once it’s stitched up, it’ll be less inconvenient than if I had a cold.”
“But—,” Eftychia began, biting her tongue when Leandros turned his glare on her.
“No more. I’m your Captain. You will not question me.”
“Fine,” Eftychia said. She pursed her lips and pointed at the man she was all but sitting on. “What do we do with him, Captain?”
Leandros approached, each slow, sure step coiled with anger. “Where’s the gun? Eresh, fetch it for me.”
“Leandros, maybe we shouldn’t—,”
Eresh pressed the revolver into Leandros’ waiting hand. Both he and Gareth looked away. Eftychia didn’t, instead watching Leandros with open curiosity as he cocked the gun and aimed. He hesitated before shooting, a flurry of expressions passing across his face. Finally, he brought the gun’s heavy handle down like a club on the man’s hand. Eftychia released him as he dropped to the ground, unconscious.
“Leandros! What did you do?” Eresh asked, peeking past his fingers.
“He’s still alive,” Leandros sighed. “We have to figure out what to do with him, though. I’d rather no one know about this attack.”
“But…why not?” Gareth asked.
“Clearly, I have enemies here. I don’t want any of them thinking I can be hurt.”
“But you can be hurt! You are hurt, and we need someone to fix you!” Eresh protested, waving a hand at Leandros’ blood-soaked waistcoat.
“My hotel is close,” Gareth said. “We could get you settled there, then call for a private physician. My family has one we trust.”
Leandros relaxed a little, Gareth’s plan a happy compromise. “That works. Gareth, come here. I need your help.”
When Gareth obeyed, Leandros slung an arm over his shoulder and used him for support, flinching when the movement twisted his torso. “Careful— ow.“
“But what about this mess?” Eresh asked.
“Eresh, I need you to do something for me. Please. The police will be here soon— they’ll have heard the gunshot— and I need you and Eftychia to wait here for them.”
“Please, Eresh. I’m trusting you with this. When the police arrive, tell them…tell them you were in the area when you heard the gunshot, and when you arrived, you found these men attacking each other. You waited to investigate until it was safe, but it turns out this one,” Leandros nodded at the unconscious man, “Was still alive. Eftychia, you hit him to protect yourself and Eresh”
Eftychia just nodded, but Eresh asked, “What if he wakes up and tells them what really happened?”
“What’s he going to say, that he was trying to assassinate me? You’ll be fine, Eresh. You have money and Unity connections. Even if this man tells the truth, there’s nothing the police are going to do to you. Let Ms. Jones take the lead.”
“Be careful,” Eftychia said.
“We’ll be fine,” Leandros promised, and Gareth nodded. Gareth helped lead Leandros away, slowly, and neither of them looked back.
A/N: Next week, we get to witness Roman and Leandros’ reunion. 🙂 Think it’ll be a pleasant one?