The morning following Leandros’ injury, Gareth looked up to find Roman standing over him, hands on his hips, and Gareth nearly dropped his book in surprise.
“Are you ready to go?” Roman asked, not waiting for Gareth to recover.
“I— yes? Am I dressed appropriately?” Gareth asked. A lot had happened yesterday, but he thought he remembered Roman saying something about training.
Roman pursed his lips and considered Gareth’s pressed suit. “Sure, I’d say so.”
Gareth had a chance during Roman’s pause to consider him in return. “What the hell happened to you?”
Roman looked the way one might feel after a long night drinking and then getting food poisoning to boot. His hair was all in disarray and he had tired dark bags under his eyes. When he smiled, it lacked its usual magic. A blotchy bruise spread across Roman’s cheekbone from Leandros’ hit.
“Late night,” Roman said. “Let’s go.”
Roman led Gareth out of the house and to Rinehart Park, heading to a secluded grove off the main path. It felt like days ago that Gareth had been here with Leandros, Eftychia, and Eresh.
“What kind of training are we doing, exactly?” Gareth asked him.
Roman flashed a manic grin. “I’m going to teach you how to fight.”
“I beg your pardon?”
Roman held two fists up. “You know, fight. Just a little self-defense.”
“You told me I was dressed appropriately! I can’t fight in this!”
“Gareth, if you’re being attacked, your assailant isn’t going to give you time to run home and change clothes first. If you learn how to fight in a suit, you’ll be ready for anything.”
“Fine, but I’m at least taking off my jacket. Why do I need to fight, anyway?” he asked, neatly folding his jacket and setting it out of the way. “Isn’t that the security team’s job?”
Roman went a step further, slipping out of his waistcoat and shirt and leaving him in only an undershirt, arms bare to the shoulder.
“You’re not going to train in a suit, but you’re going to make me do it?”
“I can already fight in anything. Besides, no one’s making you keep your shirt on.”
Gareth tugged self-consciously at his waistcoat. “You didn’t answer my question.”
Roman sighed. “I wouldn’t rely on the security team, if I were you. Call it a precaution.”
“Still not an answer. You won’t be able to slither your way out of this with vagueness and distractions, Mr. Hallisey. You promised you’d explain things to me.”
“I’ve never slithered out of anything in my life!” Roman said. He raised his fists again and dropped into a defensive stance, growing suddenly serious. “Answers after, Gareth, I promise. Now, show me what you can do. Try and hit me.”
Gareth tried and failed spectacularly. Roman stepped aside, then swept a leg under Gareth, knocking him to the ground. “You compromised too much of your balance with that swing. Get up. Try again.”
Gareth pushed himself to his feet and brushed the grass off his trousers. He swung without any sort of prelude this time, thinking to catch Roman off-guard. But Roman dodged aside again, this time slapping Gareth’s wrist like a parent scolding their child.
“Better,” Roman said. He nudged Gareth’s feet into a wider stance. “Try again.”
It didn’t take Roman long to realize that Gareth had no fighting talent to speak of. He dropped his aggressive teaching tactics once he did, slowing down, showing Gareth how to block certain attacks and how to get around certain types of blocks. He ran drills, corrected mistakes, had them go again and again and again.
It was at least an hour before Gareth finally landed a hit.
Roman stumbled back when he did, clearly surprised. “Now you’re getting it!” he said, rubbing his shoulder. Without preamble, he came at Gareth again, feinting a hit, landing another, and once again sweeping Gareth’s legs out from under him before Gareth could even blink, let alone react. Sounding disappointed, he said, “You let your guard down.”
“You’ve been going easy on me!” Gareth sputtered.
“Of course I have,” Roman said, one hand on his hip. The other, he offered out to help Gareth up. “I don’t want to kill you.”
Gareth batted Roman’s hand away. He wished he could sink into the tall stalks of grass and disappear into the soil.
“Gareth, you’re just getting started. It took me a lot of time, practice, and training to get as good as I am today.”
Gareth scowled. He found a small pebble in the grass and tossed it in Roman’s direction. “Liar. It was probably effortless, like everything you do.”
Roman was silent a moment, then he flopped onto the grass across from Gareth. “In my first fight, I was beat nearly to death and left bleeding in the street. I was fourteen. I think it was another decade before I actually won a fight.”
“Oh,” Gareth said, horrified.
“Don’t look so glum, Gareth,” Roman said with forced cheer cheerful. “I’m sure you’ll beat me someday. We could try—,”
“No more, please. I’m old, Roman. There comes a point where it’s just too late to pick this sort of thing up.”
Roman gave Gareth a strange look, but said nothing. The two of them fell into silence and stayed that way for a while, letting the flush that comes from hours of activity and sunlight fade until they’d recovered enough to enjoy the breeze. Roman ran his fingers through the grass, flattening the blades only to tousle them up again. Gareth watched him, wondering how Roman could go from discussing being beaten bloody to indulging in such childlike distractions.
“Who trained you to fight?” he asked.
“It was mostly trial and error,” Roman said. He sprawled out on the grass and stared up at the two suns occupying the cloudless sky, one arm under his head to prop it up. “Did you know they’re getting closer to each other?”
“The suns.” He pointed. “We orbit them, but they also orbit each other. With each cycle they get closer; we just can’t tell because they’re so far away.”
“Are you an astronomer now, too?”
Roman shook his head. “I had a friend who was. She explained it to me. Something about magnetic activity, I think. She thinks they’re going to coalesce to form one big star, but they’re just as likely to collide, explode, and kill everyone. Either way, it won’t happen for thousands of years.”
“I doubt Atiuh would let the suns explode.”
“That’s assuming Atiuh exists. Or, if he does, that we matter to him.”
“You think he doesn’t? Where do you think all this comes from, then?” Gareth asked, gesturing around them.
“I believe he exists, and that he created ‘all this.’ I just think he’s either dead, gone, or no longer gives a damn.”
Gareth gritted his teeth and looked away, making Roman laugh. “Did I strike a nerve? I’m sorry, Gareth, I shouldn’t have said that, knowing how religious you are. What do you say we avoid the topic, since I’m not going to convince you and you’re definitely not going to convince me.”
“Fine.” Gareth mopped some of the sweat off his brow. He glared up at the suns, knowing his skin would be as red as an osun petal later. Roman probably wouldn’t even show a tan. “Instead, you can tell me why Moira asked you to kill Leandros. Or, while we’re at it, how you convinced her to add you to the team.”
“No, wait, let’s go back to discussing religion.”
“Roman, may I be frank?” Gareth asked. Roman nodded, wary. “I trust you. It’s strange. I trusted you almost as soon as I met you. Now I’m wondering if I was a fool to do so.”
Roman cringed and sat up with a sigh. “I can see why Moira made you a diplomat. Your talent for guilting people is unparalleled. Oh, where to start?”
“From the beginning.”
Roman laughed. “The beginning?Very well. I was born in a small village in Troas to Christian Hallisey and Catalina Rosario-Hallisey. I grew up with my mother while Christian traveled about the continent selling wares—,” Roman paused here and waited for Gareth to interject. When he didn’t Roman said, “This is where you say, ‘Stop being cheeky. I didn’t ask for your life story. Knock it off and answer my questions’.”
“Keep going, I want to hear.”
Roman regarded Gareth for a moment, something vulnerable shifting in his expression. He laid back on the grass and threw an arm over his face so his eyes were hidden in the crook of his elbow. The words flowed easier after that, like he needed the barrier to be able to continue. “Catalina was killed when I was young. I don’t know how, why, or by whom, even though I was right there when it happened. After that, I was hauled off to travel with my father. We settled in Alfheim, where I started school. I was expelled some years later, and Unity hired me not long after that. This is where you’ll start getting your answers.”
“You underestimate the scope of my questions. I’m sorry to hear about your mother.”
Roman shrugged, best as he could in his position.
“At least you still had your father.”
“I wouldn’t say ‘at least’,” Roman said. “He was a cruel man, made crueler when he decided I was at fault for my mother’s death. On those days, he looked at me and…he saw Catalina. He saw the life he never got to have with her and he saw her dead all over again. I looked too much like her, he always said. Maybe I do. I don’t remember.”
“Her face,” Roman said.
Gareth didn’t know what to say to that. He’d seen glimpses of Roman’s darker sides and had of course picked up on the telltale signs of a difficult upbringing, but Roman seemed happy, friendly and cheerful and kind. Gareth never could have imagined this sadness existed in him.
Roman peeked out from under his arm and laughed, guessing at Gareth’s thoughts. “What you think people are— what they seem to be— is rarely the truth. We all pretend, some of us more than others. Myself, I sometimes feel like everything I am is a construction. I have to be, because whatever’s underneath is a damaged broken thing no one would want to be near.”
“I don’t believe that’s true.”
Roman waved his free hand dismissively.
“What did you mean, you don’t know how your mother was killed?” Gareth asked. Something about the way Roman had said that made him think there was more to it.
“I just don’t remember,” Roman said. “I’ve tried. I’ve tried so many times, but that day is just missing. I remember pieces of it in dreams, sometimes, but I wake up and there’s nothing.”
Gareth sighed. “I can’t imagine how hard that must be. I’m sorry, Roman.”
Roman bit his lip and half-sat up. He eyed Gareth, trying to gauge whether his sympathy was genuine. “It was a long time ago, and things are getting better. Well, they get better and then they get worse—that’s just life— but they always get better again. And for now, I’m doing just fine.”
“Are you?” Gareth asked, considering the bags under Roman’s eyes, the bruise on his cheek, his smile. Gareth could see the sadness behind it now— now that he knew to look for it.
The smile faltered. “I am,” Roman said, not sounding as sure.
“Even with everything going on with Leandros and Unity?”
“I see what you’re doing, Gareth. You’re trying to get your answers. You’ll have them, but I want to explain the situation first. I just…I don’t want you to think less of me, when you hear what I did for them. I was desperate. You can’t possibly understand the things I went through, but I want to give you an idea.
“After leaving school, I found myself homeless and friendless. I tried living in the woods for a time, but—,” Roman cut off with a laugh, shaking his head. “It didn’t go well. Have you ever gone hungry, Gareth? The first week without food is always the worst. You’re in agony, every cell in your body screaming for nourishment. After that, the pain dulls but you can still feel yourself growing weaker every day, getting closer to death. You can think, though, at least. It was a hard winter and this sort of hunger that drove me to Gallontea, where I lived on the streets.
“Living like that, you have to beg or steal to survive. My pride didn’t allow the former, but I also wasn’t a very good thief. There’s nowhere to go, nowhere to rest— if a guard finds you, they beat you and tell you to go away. If anyone else finds you…You’d think we’d stick together, all of us who lived like this, but it’s not so. It’s person against person, fighting over food, shelter, dominance. In the wild, if an animal finds you they’ll only kill you. Desperate, lonely men do much worse.” Roman shook his head as if to clear the thought, “I got in a fight with some guards, got thrown in jail. That’s where Unity found me. They offered me a job with security, a salary, and answers to questions I’d long sought. Of course I took it.”
“What was the job?”
Roman sat back on his hands and blew out a slow breath. “Unity has been manipulating the course of the world for longer than you could imagine, Gareth. If you knew half the things they’ve done…”
“Roman,” Gareth interrupted, “What are you talking about?”
“Give me a minute. I’m trying to figure out how to approach this,” Roman said, running a hand through his hair. “Have you ever thought about where Unity’s power comes from?”
Gareth hadn’t, but he paused to do so now. “Its laws, or the representatives making them.”
“But why do we listen to the representatives? Why do we obey their laws? Some people do it because it’s easy, or because they believe in the work Unity does, but what happens when that’s not enough? When the damage Unity does surpasses the good, why do we still give them power? What’s stopping us from collectively saying ‘damn them’ and doing whatever we want?”
“Fear of punishment, I suppose,” Gareth said. “Fines, prison—,”
“Torture, execution, or worse,” Roman finished, leaning forward. The suns caught a glimpse of some sharp emotion in his dark eyes. The whites of them seemed to flash in the light.
“Well, yes— wait, what?”
“Unity has been ruling for two thousand years, Gareth, getting greedier and greedier with each passing day. In all that time, there’s not been a single rebellion, revolution, secession. Anyone who speaks out against Unity ends up mysteriously dead, missing, or they just go silent. Why?”
“I don’t know,” Gareth admitted.
“What do you know about the Enforcers?”
“That’s what I thought.” Roman sighed. “You know those dogs that are bred just to be mean? To attack anyone their owner tells them to? You don’t blame the dog for that, right?”
“No, you blame the owner.”
Roman nodded. “That’s what the Enforcer’s are. They’re Unity’s attack dogs.”
“Okay,” Gareth said, slowly.
“They’re soldiers. Or slaves, if you prefer. Unity takes them in as children and molds them, turns them into the perfect killers and spies. They’re taught about poisons, weapons, killing. They learn how to steal into cities, break into strongholds, go anywhere, do anything. They’re trained in diplomacy, too— they can befriend, seduce, blackmail, fool anyone into doing anything— whatever Unity needs.”
Roman watched Gareth’s reaction carefully as he spoke. When Roman continued, he closed his eyes and furrowed his brow, fighting off some dark memory. “Unity tortures them, wears them down, strips away their identities. They take away everything that they are until all that’s left are feral tools, loyal to Unity and no one else. They’re shadows and brute force. There’s no escaping them.”
“It sounds like a fiction,” Gareth said.
“I wish I had the luxury of agreeing.”
“You were one of them,” Gareth guessed.
“But you hate Unity. You don’t work for them now. How’d you get away?”
Roman’s answering grin was feral. “I took one too many beatings and turned on my owner. I fled and hid long enough for them to forget about me.”
“Gareth, you need to listen to me. We’re getting to the important part. I may have gotten out, but the Enforcers are stronger than ever. You know a few of them by now, actually.”
Gareth stared at him. “I what?”
“There are several on the security team,” Roman said. “I haven’t met any of the team yet, so I’m not sure which, but based on what you and Leandros said yesterday, I’d bet that orinian is one of them.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Gareth scoffed. “She’s far too sweet to be an assassin.”
“Did you listen to a thing I just said? She’s trained to be that way. Gareth, what did you think of me when we first met? You trusted me enough to let you drag you wounded to a hospital. You let me near your family, your wife and daughter. You asked me to stay in your house. And I could kill you a dozen different ways, right now, right here, without even exerting myself.”
“I’m not going to,” Roman quickly clarified, “If that wasn’t obvious.”
“But Eftychia’s— she’s a bit loose in the head, I think.”
“That makes it all the more likely. She has to cope with the things Unity’s made her do somehow. I was the same way when I got away from them.”
Gareth stayed silent.
“The Enforcers are Unity’s prized secret, their greatest weapon. It’s a serious mission that takes even two of them away from the Island, so the question is, why are they on the team? I don’t believe that it’s to protect the diplomats. Unity wouldn’t waste even one Enforcer for that.”
Slowly, still trying to process it all, Gareth said, “When you were talking with Moira, you said that Unity wants control of the team.”
“Very good, Gareth. They don’t care about the Nochdvors, given what they tried to do with Leandros, but they still want control of this mission. They’re after something other than the safe return of our dear King Nochdvor, perhaps.”
“The magic,” Gareth guessed.
“You do hear a lot, you nosy thing! How much do you know about that?”
Gareth shook his head. “I’ve just heard the rumors. Moira dismissed them as foolish, but I’m not sure I believe anything she’s told me anymore.”
“When the King was kidnapped, Rheamarie and Leandros Nochdvor witnessed an orinian use magic. Unity’s been telling anyone who’ll listen that the Nochdvors were in shock, that they confused some new kind of weapon for magic. But whatever it is, they want it. That’s exactly the sort of thing that Unity would mobilize the Enforcers to investigate.”
“Do you think it really is magic?”
“I have no idea,” Roman said. “I’ll have to ask Leandros what he saw, when he decides to speak to me again. But do you see why I needed to get on this team? There’s something strange going on.”
“What do we do?”
“Wait and see what happens,” Roman said with a shrug. “There’s nothing I can do here, with Unity so close and Orean so far. If it is magic, I’ll decide what to do when I find it. You are to do exactly what you’re supposed to do. The Enforcers aren’t going to harm any of you, and while the diplomatic mission may have been created as a front, it’s still a good idea. If we don’t get Nochdvor back, if you’re unsuccessful, I don’t have a lot of faith in Alfheim’s reasonableness not to bring war. I adore Rheamarie, but she and Leandros can be a tad hotheaded.”
“You know the princess, too?”
Roman blinked at the shift of conversation. He looked away, studying his hands. “And her father. We were close, in a way.”
“I attended the Alfheim Academy for years, until Christian died. After getting kicked out, after working for Unity and escaping, I went back. I figured I’d finished enough of the program that I might as well. Leandros was in the same class as me, then. I was still damaged and angry about what Unity did to me, and Leandros saw that I was hurting. He befriended me, getting more persistent the more I tried to push him away. We eventually got so close that his family had no choice but to warm up to me as well.”
“But your reunion yesterday…what happened there?”
Roman stared off into the park for a long time, then eventually said, “We drifted apart.”
Gareth was learning how to read Roman, by now. He had a certain way of hesitating that meant there was more to a story, and he was doing it now. Gareth waited to see if he’d continue, but instead he shrugged and refocused on Gareth.
“It’s your turn.” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve just told you my entire story, and it seems unfair that I still don’t have yours,” Roman said with a small smile. “And I mean that I’m done talking about myself.”
“I don’t have a story. You were right when you said I couldn’t understand the things you went through,” Gareth said. “We grew up in Adriat, my siblings and I. My father was a Unity Representative, so we were never lacking. But he wasn’t around much, and when he was, he didn’t care to spend time with us.”
Roman took a deep breath. “That’s not what I meant about not understanding. Pain is pain— yours being different than mine doesn’t make it less real. An absent father can sometimes be worse than a cruel one, and I can’t understand what that was like for you, either. But keep going. That was hardly a full story.”
Gareth snorted. “Growing up, I spent most of my time with Moira and Aldous. Moira helped teach and take care of us, at least until my father died of consumption and Moira took his place in Unity. I married my childhood sweetheart, brought my own home near Adriat, and had Ofelia.”
“You and Isobel were childhood sweethearts?” Roman asked with a smile.
“Yes, her father was the rector at my father’s church. The parish was on Ranulf property, so she lived close. I never made my admiration a secret. When we reached marrying age, I called on her so frequently that I might as well have lived at the parsonage. Her father’s influence is why I’m so unlike my siblings, I think. He was kind and gentle and taught me to think about more than myself. But like I said, boring.”
“No, I don’t think so.”
Gareth hummed, grateful for Roman’s assurances. He glanced at the young man and noticed for the first time a long scar on his shoulder. Looking closer, he saw that it wasn’t the only scar— scores of pale lines crisscrossed a pattern into his arms and shoulders, bringing new life to the Enforcer story.
“Did you get all of those when you worked for Unity?” Gareth asked.
Roman looked down at his arms. “Some of them.”
“And the others?”
Roman sat up and shifted onto his knees. He held his arms up so Gareth could see. “See these?” He pointed to the barely-noticeable circles of pink skin on his hands and forearms. “Chemical burns. Back in my day, schools weren’t as concerned with student safety as they are now.”
“I’m sure it had nothing to do with recklessness on your part,” Gareth said, wondering how long ago ‘Roman’s day’ was. It couldn’t have been long.
Roman laughed. “I wasn’t reckless. Curious, maybe.” He looked over his arms again. “I don’t remember how I got most of these, to be honest.” He lifted his undershirt and pointed at a long, jagged pink scar running along his side. “This one, though, is from the first time I tried to hunt on my own. I had to stitch this up with the supplies I managed to steal from the nearest village, so it never healed right. It actually got badly infected— not sure how it didn’t kill me. This one—,” He pointed to a scar above his navel, “—Is from the time I got stabbed.”
“You heard me.”
Gareth pointed at the strange, round scar just above Roman’s heart. He’d noticed it a few times peeking out from above Roman’s shirt. It was the size of an orange, at least, getting darker as it approached the center. “What about that one?”
Roman tugged up his shirt, smile falling. “That one’s a long story.”
“Ah,” Gareth said awkwardly, and a silence fell between them.
It was getting late, Gareth realized, and his muscles ached. He still had work to do and his things to pack. He didn’t realize he’d sighed out loud until he noticed Roman studying him with a frown.
“You’re not old, you know,” Roman said. It was the last thing Gareth had expected to hear.
“Beg your pardon?”
“You called yourself old earlier.”
“So? We were joking. I was joking with you.”
“That’s not the first time I’ve heard you say something similar, though. I’m starting to think it’s more than a joke to you. Every time you say something bad about yourself, you really believe it. By repeating the lie you’re changing the way others see you, too. Gareth, you’re not old, not boring, not useless. None of it’s true. You’re clever and sharp and trustworthy— I mean it. I don’t spill my secrets easily. I didn’t even tell Dinara most of that, but I trust you the same way you trust me. And I think you could be something amazing if you stopped holding yourself back.”
Gareth opened his mouth to respond, then shut it. Looking at Roman now, Gareth could see Roman’s pain, gaping wounds stitched by kindness and hoped. His mask had cracked, the facade dissolved. His pain was timeless.
It wasn’t a child’s terror in the face of murdered mothers and cruel fathers, a fresh wound still bleeding. It wasn’t a young man’s burns hidden behind a false smile, thinly repressed horrors tugging at the memory, every movement jostling and sending a wave of familiar pain coursing through the body. It wasn’t a grown man’s resentment as he copes with the chronic aches of an injury never fully healed. It wasn’t the accompanying oppressive depression. It wasn’t even an old man’s understanding, the calm that comes from finally surrendering to the hurt of so many years ago and knowing that it would soon be over.
Roman’s pain was all of these at once, at war within a man who was both young and old, naive and wise. The hurting, the repressing, the resenting, the accepting. The young, the old, and somewhere in between.
Gareth saw all of it in Roman’s eyes.
“Roman, how old are you?” he blurted. “The way Moira talked about you…the way you talk about yourself sometimes, it makes me wonder.”
“That’s a rude question, Gareth, and I don’t think I feel particularly inclined to answer,” Roman said brightly. The mask was going back on.
Gareth let it drop, but the question burned brighter in his mind than before. “Have you looked into who attacked Leandros yesterday?”
Roman relaxed at the subject change. “It wasn’t Unity; it was someone else.”
“Someone else wants Leandros killed?”
Roman nodded. “Leandros won’t be safe until we’re out of Gallontea, and who knows, maybe Unity will end up siccing one of the Enforcers on him anyway, in case I fail the job.”
“I have an idea that could help,” Gareth said. “Wyndie has a friend in the city, a rosanin with an ability that might be of help to Leandros. Come, let’s go talk to Wyndie.”
A/N: Oh, Roman…