Roman gasped and clutched his heart, staring down at himself, at the sword wedged between his arm and his torso, in horror. For a moment, his lips worked to form words, but all he managed was a dramatic, “I am slain.”
Already on his knees, he lurched forward, then back, then forward and back again before collapsing on the rug beneath him, sprawled out with one arm thrown over his face and the other still holding the wooden sword in place.
Ofelia squealed triumphantly, grabbing the toy sword and holding it up like a commander signaling a charge. Isobel laughed from the other room and bolstered by the sound, Ofelia put a victorious— and surprisingly heavy— foot on Roman’s chest.
“Oh, shi—oot,” Roman hissed as the breath was forced out of him. “Shoot. Ofelia, that hurt.”
“Too close, Mr. Hallisey,” Wyndie, Ofelia’s governess, warned from her spot on the sofa.
“I heard that,” Isobel called. “Gareth and I adore you, Roman, but you’d better not teach our daughter any foul manners.”
“I would never!” Roman said. He winked at Ofelia and held a finger to his lips.
Ofelia giggled. “Momma, he just winked!”
“I did no such thing! Isobel, your daughter doesn’t need me to teach her foul manners; she’s already quite the little liar.”
“Momma!” Ofelia screeched, cutting off her protests when Roman picked his own fake sword back up and the battle began again.
Isobel appeared in the doorway and leaned against the frame. She looked tired, thick strands of black hair coming out of its simple bun to frame her face. But she smiled fondly at them, all the same. “I feel like I have two children, instead of just one.”
“It’s my youthful energy,” Roman said sagely, even while dodging Ofelia’s blows. “I’d share the wealth, if I could.”
“How generous of you,” Isobel said, amused.
Roman fended off a vicious attack from Ofelia. It took barely a fraction of his attention. “Isobel, where’s Gareth?”
“I’m not sure,” Isobel said. “He was acting very strangely this morning. Last night, too. I’m worried.”
Roman looked at Isobel, which resulted in him getting whacked by a heavy wooden sword. He barely seemed to notice. “Strange how?”
“I’m not sure. Jumpy. He wouldn’t tell me what was wrong, which is unlike him.”
“Maybe it’s the upcoming trip. Want me to look for him, see if I can help?”
“No!” Ofelia cried, tackling Roman in a hug. He laughed and rose to his knees, Ofelia clinging to his neck even when her feet dangled off the ground.
“I wouldn’t want to end this playdate,” Isobel said, the worry slipping from her face as she watched them. “It’s so rare that anyone has the energy to keep up with Ofelia.”
“You’re giving me too much credit.” Roman tried to deposit Ofelia in Wyndie’s lap, but the girl wouldn’t let go. Only after a struggle and much giggling on Ofelia’s end was he able to pry her loose. He turned to Isobel when he was finally free. “Not even I have that much energy.”
They all paused at the sound of the door downstairs opening and slamming shut.
“Gareth?” Roman asked.
“Probably,” Isobel said. “I’ll be right back.”
Roman listened to her light tread heading down the stairs, followed by the whispered cadence of urgent voices, then Isobel hurrying back up. She tried to compose her expression when she came back into the room, but her eyes were wide, her breath quick from the stairs.
“Wyndie, would you please take Ofelia upstairs?” she asked. “Quickly, now.”
Roman hurried over to her. There came the sound of more feet on the stairs — two sets, this time. “Is it Gareth?” Roman asked. “What’s wrong?”
“Gareth’s fine, Roman. It’s just…”
They were interrupted by someone appearing in the doorway. Isobel stepped aside for him, but Roman stayed rooted to the spot, finding himself face-to-face with a man he hadn’t seen in a very long time.
“Leandros,” he breathed, searching for the right words to say. But there were no right words; the time for apologies and excuses had long passed. “What are you doing here?”
Leandros stared at Roman, too shocked to respond, at first. Flickers of emotion crossed his face: surprise to hurt to fury. Before Roman had time to process that last one, Leandros wound his arm back and threw all his weight into a punch. They both fell, Leandros having compromised too much of his balance with the swing, and hit the ground hard.
“You asshole!” Leandros snarled, wrestling to get on top of Roman and shove him into the rug. “You let me think you were dead!”
Roman moved to push Leandros off but froze beneath him when his hand came back bloody. He stared at it with wide eyes, then looked up at Leandros. “Are…are you bleeding?” he asked.
Leandros stilled with Roman, his gaze dropping to Roman’s bloody hand, and all the fight seemed to leave him at once. He sat back, cringing as if suddenly realizing how much pain he was in, his hand bracing the dark, bloody stain on his shirt.
“What are you doing?” Gareth cried, finally catching up to the situation. Roman hadn’t even noticed him come in. “Leandros, you’re hurt!”
“He deserved it,” Leandros grumbled.
“That doesn’t matter!” Gareth said, helping Leandros to his feet.
“Leandros,” Roman said, voice cracking on the word. “What happened?”
Leandros shot him a glare, a spark of anger in his cold blue eyes. It went out quickly; he sighed and leaned into the supportive arm Gareth offered. “We were attacked.”
“We?” Isobel asked, eyes flicking over to Gareth.
Seeing her worried look, Leandros quickly clarified. “A member of the security team and me. I was being followed and she was kind enough to help me investigate. Your husband was nowhere nearby when it happened, Mrs. Ranulf, I assure you.”
“But he could have been.”
“And if he was, I would have died rather than let any harm come to him,” Leandros said, voice weary.
Gareth coughed, uncomfortable.
Isobel nodded, pursed her lips, then said, “Well, Mr. Nochdvor, we can’t keep you standing there. Roman, is your jaw alright?”
Roman nodded, not trusting himself to speak.
“Good. Could you find one of the servants and have them bring down some old sheets? I won’t have our guest bleeding all over the furniture. Gareth, do you know where I keep our first aid kit?”
Isobel didn’t have to ask twice. Roman darted away, finding one of the Ranulf’s servants all too quickly and relaying Isobel’s instructions. He didn’t follow the man back to the sitting room, hiding instead in a dark hallway and sinking to the ground.
He hadn’t expected this reunion to come so quickly, and after yesterday’s meeting with Biro, he wasn’t ready for it. He’d been intentionally putting it off, in fact. He’d been putting it off longer than most humans even lived. He’d known his will to stay away would break the moment he saw Leandros again.
After a moment, he noticed a strange tingling in his arms. He held up a hand to see his veins set faintly aglow. It spread like magma up his arms and meant his eyes had likely changed as well.
“Don’t you dare,” he said out loud, to himself. “Not now.”
When the glow started to fade on its own, he forced himself to his feet and returned to the sitting room, hands shoved in his pockets. He found Leandros stretched out on the sofa, his shirt off his shoulders and waistcoat still bundled in his hands, pressed against his wound. The once-light fabric was almost completely soaked with blood. Gareth stood over the sofa, worrying at his lip, and Isobel was nowhere to be seen.
Gareth looked up when Roman came in. “Roman! Do you know how to perform stitches? Leandros doesn’t want to call a physician, but I fear we may have to.”
“You really think he’ll help me, Gareth? After what you told me this morning?” Leandros asked, glaring at Roman. Gareth cringed at the reminder.
“What? What did you tell him?” Roman asked.
Leandros snorted and closed his eyes. Dismissively, he said, “Roman’s afraid of stitches, anyway.”
“Not afraid,” Roman corrected. “I’m uncomfortable with them. It’s different.”
Leandros shook his head and looked away. Roman was surprised to find he couldn’t read the alfar’s expression — Leandros wasn’t emotive on the best of days, but Roman remembered a time when he could read Leandros’ every thought.
Isobel, who’d been standing in the doorway watching the exchange, spoke up. “I know how to perform stitches, Gareth.” She had a large bag in her arms, which she held out to Gareth as she approached the sofa. Carefully, one hand on her stomach and the other holding Gareth’s for support, she knelt beside Leandros and then took the bag back from Gareth. “Thank you, love. Could you bring me a bottle of brandy and a bag of ice?”
When Gareth returned, Isobel passed the ice to Roman. “For your face, dear. It’s already started to swell.”
“Oh.” Roman touched his face, surprised. He’d forgotten about the injury, actually, but at Isobel’s comment, the pain made itself known again. He prodded at his jaw gingerly; he was lucky it didn’t break.
Next, Isobel passed the brandy to Leandros. “Have some. Stitches are no easy thing, and we don’t have anything stronger for you– not unless you change your mind about calling a doctor.”
Leandros shook his head and took a long swig from the bottle while Isobel prepared the needle and surgical thread.
“I didn’t know you knew how to do this,” Gareth said, watching her.
“Hector taught me.” To Roman and Leandros, she said, “My uncle was a physician. The Ranulf’s family physician, in fact. I shadowed with him for a few years before I married Gareth.”
She took the brandy back from Leandros and poured some carefully over Leandros’ wound to sterilize it. He gasped, long fingers digging into the sofa cushions, dark brows furrowing. Roman tried not to stare, but he couldn’t get over how Leandros had grown. He was all angles and hard muscle, now, any trace of baby fat gone. His hair was shorter, barely past his chin. He’d grown taller, too — Roman hadn’t had much time to notice before Leandros’ hit, but the alfar hadn’t always towered over him like that.
Roman watched Leandros long enough to study the wound but not long enough to see the needle get anywhere near Leandros’ skin. When he looked away, Leandros said, “You don’t have to stay. In fact, this time, I’d actually be happy if you left.”
“Wait,” Gareth said, before Roman could go anywhere. “I want answers, first. How do you two know each other?”
Roman and Leandros’ gazes met, Roman looking away first. “We’re friends,” he said.
“No,” Leandros said coldly. “We were. A long time ago.”
Gareth looked between the two of them with wide eyes. “Friends? Then why would Roman…”
“Why would I what?” Roman prompted when Gareth trailed off.
“Take a job to kill me,” Leandros said, meeting Roman’s gaze. Roman could sense his fury, but there was more to it — sadness, fear, and other emotions Roman wasn’t used to seeing in Leandros’ eyes.
Isobel froze, needle poised over Leandros’ skin. “He what?”
“It’s true. Moira’s in on it, too — she and Magistrate Biro asked Roman to kill Leandros in exchange for putting Roman on the team,” Gareth told her. “I overheard the whole conversation.”
Roman held his hands up between himself and the others. “It’s not how it sounds!” he said. “If I’d refused, they wouldn’t have let me walk away. I’d be dead — or hunted — and they would’ve just hired someone else. Someone who’d actually finish the job. I knew saying yes would give us time to — give me time to tell Leandros or think of some way out of this.”
Leandros pinched the bridge of his nose. “You’re an idiot.”
“It wasn’t a bad plan! I would have told you myself — I didn’t know Gareth was there eavesdropping!”
“Hey, now,” Gareth huffed.
Roman ignored him. “I didn’t mean it. I just panicked. I obviously wouldn’t hurt you, Leandros.”
“We both know that’s not true, though, don’t we?” Leandros asked, making Roman flinch again. He sighed. “Still, I do believe you don’t want me dead, at least.”
“But someone clearly does,” Isobel said.
Leandros nodded, watching her carefully weave his skin back together. It wasn’t a terrible injury, after all— long, but shallow. “Multiple someones,” he said. “The attackers today definitely weren’t with Unity.”
“Do you know who they were?” Roman asked.
Leandros shrugged. “Too many people hate to even hazard a guess. If you want to make yourself useful, Roman, you could find out for me.”
“Okay,” Roman said. “I can do that.”
“We left one alive,” Leandros said. “Eresh Ochoa was going to have them arrested. You could start there.”
Roman nodded and turned to go.
“Roman, may I speak with you privately, before you go?” Gareth asked.
Roman cringed but followed Gareth downstairs. Gareth stopped in the foyer. “Roman…I heard things pass between you and Moira that I didn’t mention in front of the others, but I have questions and I’d like answers, particularly if you wish to continue staying in my home.”
“That sounds fair,” Roman said, avoiding Gareth’s gaze. “I don’t want you thinking badly of me, Gareth, hard as that may be to believe after what you heard. Train with me tomorrow, and I’ll tell you what you want to know.”
Gareth moved away from the door so Roman could get past. “Tomorrow, then. I’ll hold you to that.”
Roman was angry. He shouldn’t be; there was no one to blame but himself. He could try to blame Gareth for eavesdropping, Unity for wanting Leandros dead, or even Orean for abducting Nochdvor and making any of this possible in the first place, but when he tried, he felt ill. He’d spent too much of his life blaming others for his mistakes.
He leaned back, wooden chair creaking in protest, and surveyed the tavern. He sat tucked in a corner near the fire, where the flames’ flickering light couldn’t reach. From this spot, he could see everything— the shifting barkeep behind the counter, the shadows of the open doorway, even the silhouette of a dragon pacing the dock outside the wide window.
Few knew about the existence of this tavern – the Broken Pistol, it was called – and fewer knew where to find it. It was reserved for Gallontea’s most deplorable, a category Roman counted himself among. It was the kind of place where, if someone like Gareth was so unfortunate as to stumble across it, their body would be found floating in the pier a week later, robbed down to their undergarments. Fortunately, even with Gareth’s proclivity for finding trouble, the Broken Pistol’s position— tucked along the docks in Gallontea’s dilapidated northern wharfs— ensured that all visitors came with purpose, even if that purpose was purposelessness.
When Roman listened, beyond the clamor of the patrons and the crackle of the fire, he heard the ocean, the crashing of waves against rock an echo the turmoil in his heart. He licked his bottom lip, still swollen from Leandros’ punch. The action split it open again, the bead of blood that welled up on his lips a sort of punishment.
Being in a place like this didn’t help his anger. Everyone was angry here; it built and festered in the stale energy, expanding until it filled every crevice and twisted every heart. This place was a sanctuary for thieves, thugs, traitors, mercenaries, and even an anarchist group called the Golden Rose. Tonight, Roman was particularly interested in the latter of these. The group’s name was a throwback to the Great War, to a group of scholars that turned an entire country of people against its government through peaceful protest. There was nothing peaceful about the modern Golden Rose, but normally, Roman was content to let them be— all they did was target Unity, after all, and Roman didn’t have a problem with that. Until now, they’d never targeted a friend of his.
After leaving Gareth’s, he’d gone to have a chat with Leandros’ surviving attacker in the city jail. He’d learned that the attackers had been members of the Golden Rose, trying to take out an important Unity player and chase a bounty at the same time. The irony was that they’d have done Unity a favor if they’d succeeded, but how could they have known that?
The organization’s leaders all sat around a table across the tavern from Roman. Between him and them, though, was a horde of monsters, most of whom Roman knew by reputation, if not personal history. Playing cards beside him were the Wu sisters. They had a dozen famous burglaries around the continent accredited to them, and had a combined bounty of three hundred triems on their heads. Past them, a nympherai assassin sat talking to a half-alfar con artist, and in front of Roman, a surly old sapien ate soup in silence. His name was Abeni Magva; he was Gallontea’s nastiest crime lord. All of Greysdale— no, nearly half the city— belonged to him. He appeared to be eating alone, but Roman had seen the group he came in with. They now sat dispersed at the tables around him, watching for trouble. Then there was Ivey, soliciting business in his usual corner.
Roman downed the last of his drink and headed over to the bar. Behind it, a lined old man with a shock of white hair said something to a patron and smiled, the sharpened points of his teeth glinting in the light from the candles on the bar. Roman slipped into an empty spot at the bar and waited for his attention. When he finally got it, the man frowned at the hood hiding Roman’s face.
“We don’t do that here, stranger,” he said. “We have a policy of honor among thieves— if you get to see their faces, they get to see yours.”
“Stranger?” Roman asked, throwing his hood back. “Come, Thane, it hasn’t been fifty years! Don’t tell me your memory is fading as badly as your hair.”
Thane’s eyes widened and he barked out a laugh. “You have some nerve coming here. I don’t think there’s a soul in this crowd who wouldn’t be glad to see you dead.”
“Only a few souls in this crowd know I’m not,” Roman countered. Leaning across the counter toward Thane, he flashed a cheeky grin. “You wouldn’t let anyone hurt me, Thane.”
“I’ll let anyone do anything to you in here, for the right price,” Thane said. He owned the Broken Pistol, had for nearly a hundred years. Before that, he’d been a mercenary and even Roman would’ve shuddered to make an enemy of him. Probably still would.
“Where’s your pet alfar?” Thane asked. “Oh, right, I hear he works for Unity now. Went straight. It’s a shame, that. At least you haven’t, if you’re here.”
“I could never,” Roman said, pressing a hand to his heart.
“There’s some demand for his neck around here, you know.”
Roman’s smile fell. “Leandros’ head? What do you mean?”
Thane pulled a heavy leather book out from under the bar, retrieved a pair of spectacles from his waistcoat pocket, and perched them on his nose. He flipped through the yellowing pages, each filled margin to margin with his cramped writing. The book was part of the Broken Pistol’s appeal: a meticulously-recorded ledger book of open bounties, available to anyone who knew to ask.
“There,” Thane said, pointing to a recent entry. “A twenty triem offer from an orinian rights group.”
“That’s not so much,” Roman said, not sounding convinced.
“No,” Thane agreed. He pointed to another entry. “But the hundred triem pledge is another matter.”
“What?” Roman asked, half-climbing on the bar to see the entry. “Who offered that?”
“An anonymous guarantor.”
“Thane, won’t you tell an old friend?”
Thane repeated his strange barking laugh. “Is that what we are?”
“I certainly thought so,” Roman said, putting on a good show of sounding wounded.
“The bounty was placed on behalf of an Alfheim Council member. That’s all I’ll say.”
“Alfheim? They’re after him, too?” Roman asked, cold dread seeping into his veins. With it, the web of veins in his hands began to glow white, slowly spreading up his arms. He didn’t even notice.
Unity wanted Leandros dead, and so did Alfheim and who-knew how many others. Protecting Leandros at this point would take more than Roman could do alone. It would take another name, one hesitated to call upon. It would take his best trick.
“I don’t think you have to worry,” Thane said. “Even my best mercs won’t go near the bounty, not when it means crossing Unity to do it.”
“Someone tried today,” Roman said. And when it came out that Unity didn’t care— and it would come out, sooner or later— more would come.
Thane raised an eyebrow, then shrugged. “If memory serves, Nochdvor’s capable of taking care of himself.”
“Yeah,” Roman said, thinking of the long, bloody gash crossing Leandros’ torso. It made the light in his veins spread faster.
He felt his control slipping and looked down at his hands, finally seeing how bright they’d grown. Normally, this was where he withdrew, ran, fought the fire inside him. For the first time, he embraced it and allowed the glow to spread. Thane hadn’t yet noticed, but the patrons on either side of Roman were beginning to move away, uncomfortable.
Evenly, Roman asked, “Mind if I make an announcement?”
“If you start a fight, you pay,” Thane said, as if Roman didn’t know the Broken Pistol’s only rule: if you caused a scene, you paid for it— literally. It worked as an effective deterrent, as Thane’s rates were high and he had ways of collecting.
Roman dropped a heavy coin on the bar. “This enough?”
Without waiting for Thane’s response, Roman climbed up onto the bar. The last threads of his control snapped as he looked out over the tavern. The patrons’ expressions changed from annoyance to fear as they were confronted with a monstrous visage, the eerie glow spreading across Roman’s face as the whites of his eyes faded to flat black. The fire burned through him, consuming, as he grew to fill this dark space, more shadow than form at this point.
Somewhere in the back of Roman’s mind, he knew it had gone far enough. It was time to stop. This thing inside of him fed on helplessness and fear as its catalysts, and he had too much of that inside of him, today. He pushed those feelings away as best he could and focused on the scene before him.
The patrons fell silent, trapped in their own fear.
“Listen up.” Roman’s voice was a command, everywhere at once, filling the pub. It was in the snap of the fire. It echoed in the rafters. It sank into the shadows. It was in their heads, and it was in their silence. The Wu sisters dropped their cards, the dragon outside stopped its pacing. Somewhere toward the back, a glass shattered on the ground.
They were used to being the monsters. Now, they were prey in their own den.
“I have a message for the Golden Rose,” Roman said, his smile too wide as he locked eyes with the organization’s leaders one by one. “And for anyone else considering seeking the bounty on Leandros Nochdvor’s head. Hurt him, and you will answer to Egil.”
His name sparked a wave of whispers that spread like a sigh. Roman stood on that bar a moment longer, shadows pooling around him, letting them stare. Finally, his legs reluctantly obeying his wishes, he jumped to the ground and said to Thane, “Spread the message for me.”
Thane, paler than usual, nodded.
When Roman turned to leave, everyone between him and the door tripped over themselves and each other to get out of his way.
Roman left fear and stunned silence behind him. He stumbled down the dock, his limbs feeling too heavy and too light all at once, a part of him but completely detached. He wasn’t sure where he ended and the shadows began; they flocked to him, crowded him, and he knew if he wasn’t careful he could lose himself in them forever.
He’d never let it go this far before. For a moment, he feared he couldn’t pull himself back.
But as his pulse slowed and he remembered how to breathe, his eyes returned to normal and the glow faded from his veins. Finally, the suffocating fear that this time would be it, that he’d traded his humanity away to this darkness for good, lifted from his chest so he could breathe.
No one was around, so Roman stood out on the docks and took great, heaving breaths. He fought the darkness and the shadows inside of him.
No one was around, so no one saw him heave into the green water of the bay, half as much blood coming up as bile.
No one was around, so no one saw Egil sink to the ground and wrap his arms around himself, holding himself together as well as he could while he shook and shivered and waited for the darkness to bleed out of him.
A/N: A lot happened in this chapter, huh? I’d love to hear your thoughts – comment below!