Leandros glanced over his shoulder for the fifth time since leaving his hotel. He frowned back at the crowd and increased the length of his strides, only relaxing when he reached Gallontea’s public square. It would be easy to lose a tail, here – the movement of the crowd was enthusiastic, full of moving parts and bright colors. It was restless, everyone always in a hurry and everything so very different from Alfheim.
Leandros was more than ready to leave this place.
He certainly didn’t want to go back to Alfheim, nor could he until he found his uncle, but Gallontea was suffocating in its own way. When he was younger, his life had been different. It was full of change, discovery, adventures. He’d never stayed in one place for long, and he missed that.
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 picked 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? Well, 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 Gallontea 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.
“Yes, I have been known to be—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, madam. 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.”
Eftychia only waved and grinned in response.
The man seemed jumpy, a slight sheen of sweat on his forehead and his eyes wild around the edges. “Looking for me, were you, Ranulf? Is something wrong?”
“Well, yes. I’m afraid that…that is to say…” 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, away from the crowd and away from their teammate. “What’s the matter?”
“Last night, I overheard something terrible and I feel it’s my duty to warn you, relation to the other parties be damned. I hope that you won’t think less of me for the confession, but I was eavesdropping. I shouldn’t have been, but I couldn’t resist, and, well…it was my sister, Mr. Nochdvor. And Magistrate Biro. They, ah…”
“Atiuh’s name, man, out with it!”
“They want you dead,” Gareth blurted. “I heard them say so. They want control of the team and need you out of the way. They…hired someone, asked that someone 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 laughed, the sound empty of humor. “Wonderful. Excellent. Thank you, Mr. Ranulf, for telling me. This is good.”
“Yes, it— wait, good?” Gareth asked, voice pitched high.
“Good that I’ve gotten warning. Now I have time to prepare for it. “Leandros sighed. “I can’t say I’m terribly surprised. I’ve been stepping on too many toes. Who’d they ask to do it? Do you know?”
Gareth, who had been staring wide-eyed at Leandros, dropped his gaze. “I don’t know.”
“Gareth,” Leandros began slowly, “You’re lying. 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. No, that wasn’t true. There was one Gareth had called a friend. How could Leandros have forgotten about him?
The cold sting of dread shot through Leandros like lightning, 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, “It was Roman, wasn’t it?”
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 wall of the bridge in time. The chill of the stone sent goosebumps up his spine.
“He agreed to do it?”
How had it come to this?
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 finally made it!” she chimed, just as the dryad himself appeared at her side.
Leandros stared at them blankly, then shook himself and stood straighter.
“Is everything alright, Captain?” Eresh asked.
“Yes,” Leandros said, trying to tell himself it was true. At least he had time, now. 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 our little tour with the park?”
“Whatever you want, Chia.”
Eftychia grinned and turned on her heel, leading the way. Eresh followed, but before Gareth could do the same, Leandros caught his arm and stopped him. “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 this plot, it’s possible they at least know about it.”
Gareth nodded. With a tight-lipped smile and a pat to Gareth’s shoulder, Leandros left to catch up with the others, Gareth belatedly following. The small group cut through the festival grounds to get to the park, the grounds empty now that the performers had departed with the end of Unity’s conference season. They passed the stage where, not long before, Gareth had seen Roman for the first time.
He’d thought then that something about Roman seemed dangerous. He should have trusted his instincts.
Eftychia skipped ahead of the group, but before they’d even fully entered the park, she turned on Leandros. “I think, Captain, I’d like to figure out your petname now.”
“Petname?” Gareth asked.
Ignoring him, Eftychia asked Leandros, “May I ask you a few questions?”
Leandros raised an eyebrow and gave a wry smile. “Very well, but only a few.”
“That’s too subjective!” Eftychia protested. “I can stretch a few to four, to five. Will you be more specific, or do I get five questions?”
“How storybook of you,” Eftychia said. She pursed her lips and studied Leandros, walking backward beneath the golden leaves of autumn. 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. He looked a little sheepish as he answered, “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. It just doesn’t seem in the spirit of…well, how you settle things there.”
Leandros snorted. “True enough. I got this in Troas. I’m not 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. “Even if I am orinian. My turn: 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. Red dragons, I would say. My father used to tell my cousin and me the most terrifying stories of them.”
“How very traumatic,” Eftychia said earnestly. It was difficult to tell whether she meant it or not; everything out of her mouth sounded 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 a long time ago.”
Eftychia clapped a hand over her mouth.
“It’s alright,” Leandros assured her.
“What happened?” Eftychia asked, tentatively, then waved her hands. “No, don’t answer! That’s not one of my questions.”
Leandros shrugged. “I won’t count it. It’s public knowledge, anyway. He wanted the throne, tried to kill his own brother for it. 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, for being related to him.”
Gareth thought of the play he’d seen the Webhon Players put on at the Rinehart Festival. He wouldn’t have thought of it had they not just walked past the stage, but the similarities were striking. The gentle prince, joining with Egil to fight his traitorous uncle and save the golden king. “It’s like the Egil story,” he said.
Leandros tensed. “Yes, just like it,” he agreed. “All stories have their origins somewhere, Mr. Ranulf, and you’ve found the heart of that one. Congratulations.”
Gareth’s mouth fell open. “But that must have been centuries ago!”
“Not quite two,” Leandros corrected. “I was barely more than a teenager when it happened.”
“Leandros, are you telling me you knew Egil personally?” Gareth asked, excitement coiling within him. He’d been searching so long for firsthand accounts of Egil – he’d always known there had to be someone among the longer-living races who remembered him, but he’d never been able to find them.
And to think, Egil was alive only two hundred years ago…with a few words, Leandros disproved half Unity’s records of the man. Unity claimed he’d been dead for centuries – Leandros was proof that was false! Unity said Egil died in a battle against Unity – how could that be true when Unity hadn’t sanctioned a battle in over five hundred years?
“I knew him,” Leandros said reluctantly.
“What was he like?”
“Disappointing,” Leandros said. “Why are you so interested?”
“I’ve written books about him, but there are so many questions I can’t find answers to! How was he disappointing? What did he look like? Was Egil really his name, or is it a title that’s passed down?”
Leandros gave Gareth a strange look. “I’d rather not talk about him, if you don’t mind.”
“Oh,” Gareth said. “Of course, I understand.”
Seeing Gareth deflate, Leandros sighed. “However,” he began, “I may be able to point you to someone even better suited to answer your questions.”
“Really?” Gareth asked, perking back up. “Someone else who knew him?”
“Something like that. Ask Roman what he knows about Egil,” Leandros said, practically spitting Roman’s name.
Gareth stopped walking. “Roman?”
Eftychia, who’d started this whole thing, sighed and tried to change the subject. “I have my third question, Captain, if you don’t mind.”
Leandros inclined his head for her to continue.
“Who was your love lost?”
“Sorry, Eftychia,” Leandros said, “I won’t answer that one.”
Gareth didn’t say it, but he put two and two together. The bitterness in Leandros’ tone now was the exact same he used to talk about Egil only moments before.
“You promised three answers!”
“No, I gave you permission to ask three questions. There’s a difference.”
Eftychia stomped her foot. “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. His voice was normally controlled, but his volume now made Gareth and Eresh take surprised steps back. “That’s enough. You can ask another question instead, but I won’t answer that one.”
“Fine!” Eftychia said. Unlike Gareth and Eresh, she didn’t seem at all bothered by the alfar’s loss of composure. “I’ll think of something else.”
The group continued in silence after that. Eftychia sulked, Leandros stewed, and Gareth and Eresh felt far too uncomfortable to try striking up a conversation.
“Lion cub,” Eftychia announced, eventually. Her voice was soft, an unspoken apology. “That’s what you are. The potential to be a lion is there, but I’m not sure you’ve reached it yet.”
When Leandros spoke, he matched her tone.”I feel like I should be offended. But I suppose it’s better than an armadillo,” he added, making Eftychia laugh and Eresh scowl.
Eftychia and Eresh started bickering and didn’t stop until they reached the end of the park. There, Eresh froze, eyes going wide. “Oh,” he said, staring at something across the path. “That’s not supposed to be here.”
At the corner where their path met the main road was an unusual 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 it was made of bone.
“It’s a caindlewood tree,” Gareth said. When the others looked at him questioningly, 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 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 approached the caindlewood, the others reluctantly following, and caressed the smooth bark. “That’s why 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 shrugged. “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. “I’m sure someone is, Eresh. You’re not the only dryad in Gallontea, you know. Can we move on now, please? There’s still so much our dear Captain has to see.”
Eresh gestured for Eftychia to carry on. They proceeded through downtown Gallontea, Eresh pointing out old architecture and providing historical context 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 about an hour of this, Eftychia looked over her shoulder, watching the street behind them a moment, then turned to Leandros. “Lion cub?”
“Yes, Ms. Jones?” Leandros asked, already resigned to the endearment.
“We’re being followed.”
“What?” Eresh asked loudly, Eftychia shushing him. He repeated, lowering his volume only slightly, “We’re what?”
Leandros, for his part, only nodded. “I’m being followed, actually; it’s been happening on-and-off for a few days now.”
“Oh! I thought it might’ve been me,” Eftychia said. “Have you gotten a good look at them?”
“Sort of,” Leandros said. “They’re human, with a red beard and a wide-brimmed hat.”
“Has it been the same one this whole time?”
Leandros shook his head. “They’ve swapped out a few times, now. At first, I assumed they were just people who’d recognized me from the papers and were curious, so I didn’t pay the closest attention.”
“Since they’ve been following you, have you gone anywhere alone?” Eftychia asked, uncharacteristically serious.
“Yes, but I’ve always stuck to crowded places – I only ever go between the Island and my hotel, which is guarded. I assume that’s why they haven’t done anything. What are you thinking?”
Eftychia smiled. “Let’s go to the warehouse district next, Captain. It’s always empty this time of day.”
“You want to see if they’ll attack?” Leandros guessed.
“Yes! Doesn’t that sound fun?” Eftychia asked. “We can set a little trap. 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 try anything with so many of us around, I thought. But don’t look at me like that, Captain. I would’ve warned you before we all said goodbye.”
“What is going on?” Eresh finally asked, his voice raising to a squeak. “Captain, why is someone following you?”
“It could be any number of reasons, really.”
“Mr. Nochdvor…whoever this is, they could be dangerous,” Gareth warned with a meaningful look.
“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, though, I’m not concerned.”
Eftychia laughed and linked her arm in Leandros’. “Come, let’s you and I go. If they’re ever going to act, having you cornered at the warehouse district with only a sweet, unarmed girl at your side will be the perfect chance. Eresh, Mr. Ranulf, this is where we leave you. It’s a shame we didn’t get to explore more the city together.”
“Wait, Eftychia! An ambush, that’s— that’s absurd,” Eresh said, desperately.
“I’m going with you,” Gareth announced. If this had something to do with Roman…but Leandros stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.
“No. Eftychia’s on the security team for a reason; from what I hear, she can handle herself in a fight. But I won’t have you and Eresh getting in the middle of this.”
With that, they split off from Eresh and Gareth. Eftychia led Leandros along, her arm linked with his, chatting like they weren’t walking straight into a fight. The busy downtown gave way to wide streets and quiet factories.
“I hope Eresh was correct about your fighting prowess, Ms. Jones,” Leandros said, keeping his voice low. “There’s more than one of them.”
Eftychia laughed and touched Leandros’ forearm like he’d told an amusing joke. “Oh, Captain. Eresh hasn’t a clue how good I am.”
“Good. I don’t suppose you have a gun?”
“No, I don’t like guns. They end fights too quickly. Here is good, don’t you think?”
Together, they doubled back and ambushed the man that had been following Leandros. Before they could get a word out of the man, thought, it was them who were being ambushed. One moment, it was Eftychia, Leandros, and the man with the wide-brimmed hat, and the next they were surrounded by four others. Leandros and Eftychia shared a look, then raised their hands in surrender. Eftychia didn’t bother keeping the delighted expression off her face.
“Do you all know who you’re dealing with?” Leandros asked lowly, addressing the circle that was tightening around them.
One of the strangers shoved Leandros from behind, making him stumble forward into the man with the hat. 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 his 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 once then promptly threw her weight into the nearest attacker. Slender as she seemed, she was an excellent brawler with a true orinian’s strength. The attacker fell, then she caught the next to come at her with a haymaker.
Leandros moved counter-clockwise to Eftychia, on to the next man in the circle. He grabbed and twisted the man’s gun arm out of the way before the weapon could be directed, then spun and elbowed the man in the face. While he flailed back, Leandros took his gun and used it to shoot the man charging at Eftychia.
Eftychia, who’d been preparing for the blow, pouted. “Captain, you’re ruining my fun!”
Leandros grinned, sharp and feral, as he dodged another blow. “Apologies,” he said, dropping the gun. His heart beat fast, his senses on high alert, and he felt alive for the first time since that explosion in Illyon.
“You must be a good dancer, lion cub,” Eftychia called. “You’re a 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. She took a moment to roll her shoulders and crack her neck. “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. While Leandros and Eftychia were both distracted, the only attacker still conscious retrieved his companion’s gun from the ground and aimed it at Eresh.
Eftychia stepped quickly in front of the gun’s barrel, prying the man’s arm to the side just as he fired. The bullet narrowly missed her body, catching the abundant fabric of her sweater and shooting a hole right through it. She shoved him to the ground and stepped on his hand until he cried out and released the gun.
Leandros ran a hand through his hair, unknowingly spreading a streak of blood through it, then rounded on Gareth and Eresh. “I told you not to come!” he snarled. “You could have gotten yourselves hurt! You could have gotten Eftychia and I hurt. 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. He took another deep breath, trying to get his anger under control. Finally, he said, “I’m sure you’re not terrible, Ms. Jones.”
It took Eftychia only a moment to catch up to what he meant. When she did, her whole face lit up. “Really, I am! I’m good at freestyle dancing, but when there are steps involved, I’m hopeless. I’m bad with rules.”
“What are you talking about?” Eresh asked. He pointed at the man with the hat, who was struggling to stand. “Aren’t you worried about him?”
“Bring him to his knees,” Leandros ordered, retrieving the gun from the ground. As Eftychia did as he asked, Leandros moved to stand in front of the man. “Why have you been following me? What did you mean to accomplish here?”
The man spat at Leandros in lieu of an answer. Leandros trained the gun on his head and asked again. “Why did you attack?”
With a snarl, the man shoved Eftychia back with one hand and drew a switchblade with the other, then leapt at the alfar. Leandros dropped the gun as the man brought the knife up toward Leandros’ chest— he was already too close for Leandros to use the weapon effectively. Instead, he grabbed the man’s arm, twisted out of the way as best he could, and gasped as 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 he felt no pain, only stinging. But there was so much blood.
Eresh was at his side in an instant, looking rapidly between the injury and Leandros’ face with wide eyes. Gareth was there next, just as panicked as Eresh. Leandros wondered if either had seen an injury like this in their lives.
“Leandros, are you okay? Oh, no. Atiuh help us,” Eresh breathed, a dozen quick prayers leaving his mouth.
“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 said.
“No hospitals. It’s barely a scratch. Once it’s stitched up, it’ll be less inconvenient than if I had a cold.”
“Lion Cub, you really—,” 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 step coiled with anger. “Where’s the gun? Eresh, fetch it for me.”
“Leandros, maybe we shouldn’t—,”
“The gun,” Leandros said, his voice frighteningly calm even to his own ears. “Now.”
Eresh cringed and 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. Leandros’ hand shook and he hesitated before shooting, a flurry of expressions passing across his face. Finally, he changed his grip and 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. “But now we have to figure out what to do with him. I’d rather no one know about this attack.”
“But…why not?” Gareth asked.
“Clearly, I have more enemies in the city than I thought. I don’t want any of them thinking I can be hurt so easily.”
“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. “Very well. 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 gunshots— and I need you and Eftychia to wait here for them.”
“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 shook her head. “I can’t stay, Lion Cub. I work for Unity, but I’m still an orinian, and that’s not a good thing to be when Gallontea police are around.”
Leandros swore under his breath. “You’re right. Eresh, can you do this alone?”
“What if he wakes up and tells them what really happened?” Eresh asked.
“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.”
“Be careful, Eresh,” Eftychia said, giving Eresh a tiny peck on the forehead before skipping away. “Good luck, lion cub!”
“We’ll be fine,” Leandros promised, and Gareth nodded. Gareth helped lead Leandros away 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?