Roman gasped and clutched his heart, staring down at himself in horror, at the sword wedged between his arm and torso. For a moment his lips worked to form words, but all he managed was a weak, “You won.”
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. From the other room, Isobel laughed, 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 if you teach our daughter ill manners, you’ll outstay your welcome.”
“I would never!” Roman winked at Ofelia and held a finger to his lips.
Ofelia giggled. “He just winked!”
“I did no such thing! Isobel, your daughter doesn’t need me to teach her ill manners; she’s already quite the little liar,” Roman said.
“Mother!” Ofelia screeched, cutting off her protests when Roman picked his own fake sword back up and the battle began again.
“You two are going to be the death of me, I swear,” Isobel said, appearing in the doorway. She looked tired, thick strands of black hair coming out of its simple bun to frame her face. But she looked fond, too, in the way that she smiled at them. “I feel like I have two children, instead of just one.”
“It’s my youthful energy,” Roman said sagely. “I’d share the wealth, if I could.”
Roman fended off another surprise attack from Ofelia. It took barely a fraction of his attention. “Where’s Gareth?”
“I’m not sure,” Isobel said. “He was acting so strangely this morning. I’m worried.”
Roman looked at Isobel, which caused him to get whacked by a heavy wooden sword. He barely seemed to notice. “Strange how?”
“I’m not really sure. Jumpy. He wouldn’t tell me what was wrong, which is unlike him.”
“It’s probably the upcoming trip. Would you like 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.
“No, 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.”
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. “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, listening. “I’ll be right back.”
Roman listened to her light tread going down the stairs, followed by the whispered cadence of urgent voices. Then, Isobel was hurrying back up. She tried to compose her expression when she came back into the room, but her eyes were wide, and her breath quick from hurrying up the stairs.
“Wyndie, would you please take Ofelia upstairs? Quickly?” she asked.
Roman hurried over to her, placing himself instinctively between Isobel and the doorway. “Isobel, is it Gareth? Who’s here? What’s wrong?”
“Gareth’s fine, Roman, it’s just…” Isobel trailed off as her attention moved to something behind Roman, a worried furrow appearing between her brows.
Roman turned, freezing in place when he found himself confronted with a familiar face. “Ah,” he breathed. “Leandros.”
Leandros stared at Roman, too shocked to respond. Then, his expression twisted. Before Roman could realize the danger he was in, Leandros wound his arm back and threw all his weight into a punch that caught Roman right in the jaw.
Roman fell, Leandros falling with him, having compromised too much of his balance with the swing. They both hit the ground hard.
“Asshole!” Leandros snapped, wrestling to get on top of Roman and shove his face into the rug. Roman fought to shove him off, freezing beneath the alfar when his hand came back bloody. He stared at it with wide eyes, then up at Leandros.
Leandros stilled with him, 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 against the dark, bloody stain on his waistcoat.
“What are you doing?” Gareth asked, finally catching up to the situation. Roman hadn’t even noticed him join them. “Leandros, you’re hurt!”
“He deserved it,” Leandros grumbled.
“It was still foolish,” Gareth said, helping Leandros to his feet.
“Leandros,” Roman said, voice cracking on the word. “What happened to you?”
Leandros shot him a look, a spark of anger there that went out as he sighed and leaned into the supportive arm Gareth offered. “We were attacked.”
“We?” Isobel asked.
Seeing her worried look at Gareth, Leandros quickly clarified. “A member of the security team and I. 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 before I let any harm come to him.”
Gareth coughed, uncomfortable. Isobel nodded. “Well, Mr. Nochdvor,” she began, “We can’t have you just standing there. Roman, go find one of the servants and have them bring down some old sheets. I won’t have our guest bleeding all over the furniture.”
She 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, though, hiding instead in a dark hallway, closing his eyes, and attempting to calm his breathing. After a moment, he noticed a strange tingling in his hand and held it up to see his veins set faintly aglow.
“Don’t you dare,” he said out loud, to himself. “Not now.”
He pushed off the wall and returned to the sitting room, hands shoved in his pocket, hoping that the glow might fade on its own. He found Leandros stretched out on the sofa, his shirt off his shoulders and bundled up in his hands instead, pressed against his wound. The once-light fabric was almost completely stained 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. “Do you know how to perform stitches? Leandros doesn’t want to call a physician, but I fear we may have to.”
Roman froze. “No. No, I don’t.”
“Don’t tell me you’re still afraid of stitches,” Leandros said, looking at Roman for the first time since he came back into the room.
“I’m not afraid,” Roman said. “I’m uncomfortable with them. It’s different.”
Leandros almost smiled. He looked away before the expression could turn into anything real, but Roman knew Leandros, knew his expressions— even the minute ones, the ones no one else even saw, let alone knew how to read.
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. Very carefully, one hand on her stomach and the other holding Gareth 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?”
Gareth hurried away, and when he returned, Isobel passed the ice to Roman. “For your cheek, dear. It’s already started to swell.”
“Oh.” Roman touched his face, surprised. He’d forgotten about the injury, actually, but Isobel’s comment reminded him of the pain. Leandros had caught him right in the jaw; Roman was lucky it wasn’t broken. He accepted the ice from Isobel.
Next, Isobel passed the brandy to Leandros. “Have some. Stitches are no easy thing, and we don’t have anything stronger for you.”
Leandros nodded and took a long swig from the bottle while Isobel prepared the needle and catgut.
“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 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, but didn’t otherwise react. Roman watched long enough to get a look at the wound but not long enough to see the needle get anywhere near Leandros’ skin. He thought he might be sick.
“You don’t have to stay,” Leandros said. “In fact, this time, I’d actually be happy if you left.”
“Wait,” Gareth said, before Roman could even move. “I want answers, first. How do you two know each other?”
Roman and Leandros’ gazes met, Roman looking away first. “We’re friends.”
“Were,” Leandros corrected. “A long time ago.”
Gareth looked between the two of them with wide eyes. “Then why would Roman…”
“Why would I what?” Roman asked, when Gareth trailed off.
“Tell a Unity Representative that you’d kill me,” Leandros said, meeting Roman’s gaze evenly. Roman could see the fury in his eyes, but there was more to it— sadness and fear and other emotions Roman was less familiar with.
Isobel froze, needle poised over Leandros’ skin. “He what?”
“It was Moira. She 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 defensively between himself and the others. “It’s not what it sounds like! I panicked. I need to be on this team, and Moira would’ve taken me off if I’d refused. And she would’ve just asked someone else to do it, anyway. So I thought saying yes would at least give us time to— give me time to tell Leandros, or think of some way out of this. And this way, they won’t hire anyone else in the meantime.”
Leandros pinched the bridge of his nose. “You idiot.”
“It wasn’t a bad plan! I didn’t know Gareth was there eavesdropping!”
“Hey, now,” Gareth huffed.
Roman ignored him. “I wouldn’t hurt you, Leandros.”
“We both know that’s not true, though, don’t we?” Leandros asked. “Still, I 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.
“You don’t know who did this?” Roman asked, to change the subject when both Gareth and Isobel looked at him.
Leandros shrugged. “Too many people hate me for me to be able to hazard a guess. If you want to make yourself useful, Roman, you could find out for me.”
“I can do that,” Roman said.
“We left one alive,” Leandros said. “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?”
Roman cringed, but nodded and followed Gareth downstairs. Gareth stopped in the foyer, turning to face Roman. “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 quietly. He avoided 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. I have a lot to say, and I have to think about how to approach it, in the meantime.”
Gareth moved out of the way of the door so Roman could get past. “Tomorrow. I’ll hold you to that.”
Roman nodded and slipped out of the house.
Roman was angry. He hated being angry because there was never anyone to blame but himself. Here, he could try to blame Gareth for eavesdropping, Unity for wanting Leandros dead, 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 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 of the barkeep behind the counter, the shadows of the open doorway, even through the window to the silhouette of a dragon pacing the dock outside.
Few knew about the existence of the Broken Pistol, as the tavern 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 find his way in, their body would likely be found floating in the pier a week later, robbed down to their socks. 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 of his anger. He licked his bottom lip, still swollen from Leandros’ punch. The action split it open again, the bead of blood that welled up his 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. They’d never targeted a friend of his before.
After leaving Gareth’s, he’d gone to have a chat with Leandros’ surviving attacker in the city jail. They were members of the Golden Rose, trying to take out a Unity official and chase a bounty at the same time.
The organization’s leaders all sat around a table across the pub from Roman. Between him and them, though, was a horde of monsters, most of whom Roman knew by reputation, if not personal history. Beside him, playing cards, 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 seemed 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 thirty 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 Egil dead.”
Leaning across the counter toward Thane, Roman flashed a cheeky grin. “I know you wouldn’t let anyone hurt me here.”
“And you know 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. Even Roman would’ve shuddered to make an enemy of him, back in the day. Probably still would.
“Where’s your pet alfar?” Thane asked. “Oh, right, he works for Unity now, I hear. He’s gone straight. Shame. Well, at least you haven’t, if you’re here.”
“I could never,” Roman said, pressing a hand to his heart. “Not that I thought Leandros could, either. I’m looking into it.”
“Better look quickly. There’s some demand for his neck around here.”
Roman’s smile fell. “What do you mean?”
Thane bent and 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 did his strange barking laugh again. “Is that what we are?”
“I certainly thought so.”
“The bounty was placed on behalf of an Alfheim Council member. That’s all I’ll say.”
“Alfheim?” 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.
“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, quietly.
Thane raised an eyebrow. “Who was it, the Golden Rose? They were the only ones who seemed interested. Anyway, if memory serves, Nochdvor’s capable of taking care of himself.”
“Yeah,” Roman said, thinking of the long, bloody gash crossing Leandros’ torso. He was lucky he hadn’t died. That’s all it was. Luck.
Roman felt his control slipping. Normally, this was where he withdrew, ran, fought the strange fire coursing through him. For the first time, for Leandros, he embraced it, and the glow of his veins continued 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?”
Thane narrowed his eyes. “If you start a fight, you pay,” he said, as if Roman didn’t know the Broken Pistol’s most important rule. If you caused a scene, you paid for it— literally. It worked as a surprisingly effective deterrent, as Thane’s rates were high and everyone knew he had ways of collecting.
Roman dropped a few heavy coins on the bar. “Is this enough?”
He didn’t actually wait to hear Thane’s response. The last threads of his control were snapping, and he was already climbing onto the bar. By the time he was on it, standing, the glow had reached his face and his eyes had changed to coal black. The strange fire burned through him, invigorating. Roman’s anger took control, helplessness and fear its catalysts.
As the bar’s patrons noticed him standing there, they fell silent, and the silence spread over the anger. They got a taste of his fear.
“Listen to me.” 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. Hurt him, and you will answer to Egil.”
His name sparked a wave of whispers that spread like a sigh, and Roman forced himself to stand where he was a moment longer, shadows pooling around him. Finally jumping down, he 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 slipped out of the pub, leaving their stunned silence behind. 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.
As his pulse slowed and he remembered how to breathe, his eyes went back to normal and the glow faded from his veins. Finally, the suffocating weight of the 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. And breathe, he did.
No one was around, so he stood out on the docks and took great, heaving breaths. He fought the darkness and the shadows.
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!