Maebhe took two steps out of Lyryma and sank to her knees. It was overwhelming— the open air, her home valley, the silhouette of Orean glittering off in the distance. She felt the grass, wild and damp beneath her. The cold of it sank through the muddied fabric of her trousers.
Then, there was a gentle hand on her shoulder as Íde crouched beside her. “Maebhe, are you alright?”
Maebhe grunted and flopped the rest of the way onto the ground. Kieran sat on her other side, Íde joining them after a moment’s hesitation.
Finally, they’d made it home.
The group sat at the top of a long hill, Lyryma at their backs. That strange, magical realm was solidly behind them, now, and Maebhe was glad for it. There was no dangerous foliage out here, no strange songs drifting between dark trees, no red dragons. Ahead of them stretched Creae Valley, its grassy expanse spotted with patches of golden flowers. Across the valley, the horizon was shaped by the tree-covered hills of Rossmor forest.
To their left sat Orean. The city was built in the hills between two mountains and was walled in with the valley’s famous silver brick. From a distance, they made Orean shine. At the other end of the valley sat Illyon, smaller than Orean but made of the same silver brick.
“Why are we stopping now?” Leihlani asked. She lurked at the edge of the forest, wrinkling her nose at the thought of leaving it. “We’re so close.”
“Leihlani, just enjoy having a break from that damned forest,” Drys said.
“I like that damned forest. We don’t have to deal with that,” Leihlani waved distastefully at the smoke rising from Illyon’s chimneys.
“And we don’t have to deal with dragons that are supposed to be extinct,” Maebhe countered.
“Neither do we, normally. There is something wrong, and the problem is not only with Lyryma.”
Kieran stood. “Enough of this gloomy talk; let’s keep moving. The sooner we warn Orean, the more time they’ll have to prepare for Unity’s arrival.”
The others pushed themselves to their feet with minimal grumbling. Maebhe ran to Leihlani and jumped, clambering up the oanai’s sides to perch herself on Leihlani’s shoulder. Leihlani let out an amused snort, and together, the group started down the hill.
The walls of Orean grew taller as they approached, and eventually, even Leihlani had to crane her neck to look up at the battlements. Having seen the massive oanai coming down the hill, a line of officers was already assembled at the gates to meet them, their uniforms and caps making them look identical. Only their leader stood apart, his uniform lined with gold accents. Kieran had the same one sitting in his closet.
He waved a salute to the officers as their leader stepped forward. The man held a hand up to shield his eyes from the suns and squinted at the group, his round face almost entirely covered in swirling birthmarks.
“Kieran, is that you?” he called. “And Íde, too! We weren’t expecting you back until winter! Where’s Maebhe?”
Maebhe waved from her perch on Leihlani’s shoulder. “Hello, Captain Song!”
The orinian captain looked up, eyes widening. “Maebhe! Who, ah…who do you have with you?”
“This is Leihlani and Drys,” Kieran said. “New friends of ours. Song, we need to see the King immediately. It’s important.”
“You know these people?” Leihlani asked Kieran, bending and examining Captain Song with open curiosity. Maebhe took the opportunity to jump down.
“Yes, we work together,” Kieran said.
Leihlani nodded. “Kieran is correct. We need to see your King Whelan immediately.”
Captain Song nodded weakly, trying not to lean away from Leihlani’s scrutiny. He beckoned one of the officers over. “Run ahead and tell His Majesty to expect us.”
The officer nodded and dashed off, the rest of the group following him through the open city gate. Once inside, Maebhe felt a rush of relief at the familiarity of Orean’s streets. The weight from everything she’d seen and done on this journey bore her down, but it eased here in Orean, just a little. It was easier to ignore, at least. She was home, and Gallontea was so very far away.
Orean had an unusual design: it was, in essence, a city built around another city, though Maebhe had always thought that the outer city looked the way someone who’d never actually seen a city might design one. Everything was planned and compartmentalized the way cities rarely were. And because of the hilly landscape, the streets were confusingly convoluted. To get to the palace, they’d have to walk up hills and down hills, around bends and through neighborhoods. It was a shame Leihlani couldn’t fit in a carriage.
They were paraded through the streets instead, orinians everywhere stopping what they were doing to point and stare at the oanai. When they passed a group of children playing in the street, the children peering up at Leihlani wide-eyed and open-mouthed, Leihlani stopped to peer back.
“They’re so small,” she said to Maebhe, voice soft.
The other unusual thing about Orean was the way it had expanded. Rather than add a third ring to the layers of city— and really, being built on the side of a mountain, there wasn’t much room for physical expansion anyway— Orean built upward. It was an architectural mess, modern buildings stacked on top of old ones, towering new structures scattered about the city.
It certainly created a bizarre visual effect, but Maebhe thought the city was beautiful. She’d grown tired of the browns, grays, and blacks of Gallontea. Orean was colorful. It was more than the red and blue rooftops of the outer city, there was life everywhere— flags, signs, lanterns, even the clothes lines stretching from house to house were colorful, with bright banners and silk ribbons hanging off them. Leihlani had to duck whenever they encountered the latter.
But then there was the old, inner city, dropped right at the heart of the modern one. The old city was walled off from the outer and until recently, when overpopulation demanded they use all the space they had, it had been completely inaccessible to the public.
Still, the old city was mostly a novelty, full of crumbling old buildings that had survived the Great War only to be eroded by time. The buildings that survived were now being used as various political centers, the King’s palace among these.
At the old city’s walls, they encountered more guards. All eyes were on them as Captain Song led them through the gates, then through the weathered streets to the King’s palace. Behind the palace, at the highest point in the city, loomed a building all of Orean liked to pretend didn’t exist. Maebhe glanced at it and looked quickly away, suppressing a shiver. It was a sinister old castle, char-blackened and ancient. The entire eastern wing had been torn away, leaving the building’s innards exposed. The castle’s windows had been blown out, and now ivy climbed up and through them. The place felt lonely. It felt hollow. It wasn’t like the rest of Orean.
Captain Song didn’t so much as glance at it, leading the group inside the palace and down a long echoing hallway lined with cold statues. Surprisingly, the ceilings were high enough for Leihlani, who only had to duck in the dark, twisting stairways. When they reached the throne room, the Captain had them wait outside while he spoke with the King.
Maebhe surreptitiously wiped her palms on her trousers. She’d never met King Whelan before. She’d never done anything this important before.
It hit her all at once, here in the grand halls of the King’s palace. Their whole trip, everything they’d been through, it was all for this. It was all to get here. Finally, Captain Song returned, wordlessly beckoning them inside. Their group was given a double-door entrance, palace guards on either side watching them pass before shutting the doors solidly behind them. Maebhe’s ears flattened to her head.
The throne room was round, with floor-length windows taking up its circumference. Some were open, making soft blue curtains billow in from the eastern side. Even from here, Maebhe could catch glimpses of that blackened castle.
The King himself was settled in an armchair far from those eastern windows. The modern furniture seemed out of place in the otherwise ancient throne room, but the man himself did not. He was an older orinian, his hair streaked with silver and his dark skin highlighted by light birthmarks. He stood when they entered, folding his long hands in front of him and inclining his head in greeting.
Kieran bowed, Maebhe and Íde quickly following. Maebhe could hear her heart beat in her ears.
“Please rise,” King Whelan said in a voice younger than his appearance suggested. It matched the sharp light in his eyes, the sleek fit of his well-tailored suit.
“It’s been a long time since one of the oanai has come here,” he said to Leihlani, who had just wormed her way through the door. “I hope nothing is wrong. What brings you out of your forest?”
Leihlani pressed a fist to her chest and bowed. “The story your subjects carry with them, Your Highness.”
King Whelan looked at Kieran, Íde, and Maebhe with a raised eyebrow, his keen stare making Maebhe want to inch behind her brother. Whelan beckoned Kieran forward. “I know you. You’re a captain of the guard, are you not?”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
“What is this story you carry with you?”
Kieran cleared his throat. “You’re aware that the alfar King Nochdvor is missing, sire?”
Whelan’s thin lips pressed together. “I am, yes.”
“You know?” Maebhe asked before she could stop herself, tone accusatory.
Kieran shot her a horrified look, but Whelan only glanced between the twins with mild curiosity. “Your sister?”
Before Kieran could answer, Maebhe took a step forward, dropping into another hasty bow. “Maebhe Cairn, Your Highness. Kieran, Íde, and I just got back from a holiday in Gallontea. Did you know, sire, that your people are being rounded up and thrown in prison there?”
Whelan stared at her, expression unchanging. “Explain.”
Kieran said, “Shortly after the Nochdvors told Unity about their King, we were ambushed in our hotel by Unity officials. Maebhe escaped, but Íde and I were taken to Unity Island, where we were questioned about our purpose for being in the city. They thought we were spies.”
From there, Kieran went on to explain their questioning, their escape, and the journey through Lyryma. When he reached the end of the story, Íde fumbled in her bag for the newspaper they’d brought with them from Gallontea. She offered it up to the King alongside Roman’s letter. King Whelan took the papers with him to one of the windows, his back to the group. Over his shoulder, the whole valley was visible. Maebhe wondered if Whelan had been here, looking out at Illyon, the day the alfar King had been kidnapped.
“That should explain more about Unity’s plans, sire. The man that rescued us, Roman Hallisey, said that Unity would be sending a diplomatic team to Orean—,”
“I see,” Whelan said, calmly as ever. “They can come and Orean will cooperate, but they’ll find the journey was for naught. I don’t know where their King is, nor where to even begin looking for him.” He turned to them. “This letter says Unity thinks we kidnapped Nochdvor with magic. What does this mean, magic?”
“We don’t really know,” Kieran said.
Whelan frowned and kept reading. When he reached the end, his frown deepened. It was another minute before he set the letter down and turned to the group. “This is signed, Egil.”
Maebhe’s mouth fell open. Kieran just blinked at the King. “It’s what?” He asked.
Whelan’s frown deepened. He shook his head. “I’m sorry for all you three have been through. Go home, get some rest, and think on this no more. You can leave this matter in my hands.”
For the first time in weeks, Maebhe felt relief, even when a part of her insisted, “This can’t be it. It can’t be this simple. Can it?”
Whelan turned to Drys and Leihlani, next. “Will you be staying in Orean?”
Leihlani shook her head. “My message has been delivered, and I must return to Home.” Her expression darkened, thick brows furrowing. “I have matters I must report to my people.”
Whelan frowned, but nodded. “I thank you for coming. Know that your people are welcome in Orean anytime.”
Leihlani repeated her salute from earlier. “And know that if you need the oanai’s assistance with Unity, you need only ask.”
Outside the palace, Leihlani said her goodbyes. She crouched so that she was eye level with the orinians, and said in her low, gentle voice, “It was an honor to meet you all. I’ll miss you, little ones. Please come visit us in Home whenever you like.”
Maebhe laughed and threw her arms around the oanai’s neck. “We’ll miss you too, Leihlani. Be careful going back through that forest, please.”
Leihlani pulled back and did her strange, grimacing smile, and that was the end of it. She was led back to the city gates by Captain Song, but surprisingly, Drys didn’t join her.
“Drys, that’s your debt repaid, isn’t it?” Maebhe said to them. “Aren’t you going to go back to Home?”
“Are you trying to get rid of me, Maebhe Cairn? My debt to Hallisey is repaid, but I think you owe me a debt of your own.”
“I’m only teasing. I’d like to explore Orean a bit,” they said, looking around. Their eyes caught on the old black castle.
“You’re not exploring there,” Kieran said sternly, following their gaze.
“Because it’s not allowed,” Kieran said, stifling a yawn. “Drys, you’re welcome to stay with us, but don’t expect us to be gracious hosts. I think I’m going to sleep for the next week.”
Kieran, Íde, and Drys began walking away, heading in a different direction than Leihlani had disappeared in, but Maebhe only stared back at the darkened castle.
“Maebhe?” Kieran called. “Are you coming or not?”
“Yes,” Maebhe said, tearing her eyes away. “I’m coming.”
A shrill bell rang, followed by the clink of metal and a release of steam. Dinara strolled down the train platform with her suitcase in hand, looking for an open car. She was always loathe to leave Gallontea, and neither heartbreak nor treason could change that.
“Hurry up, Di, or we’re going to leave you behind!” Gemma called out an open window. Dinara waved but didn’t pick up her pace — at least, not until the train whistle sounded again. She hurried toward an empty car and nearly slammed into someone, catching their shoulder with her own.
“Oh, I’m sorry!” Dinara said hurriedly. She gasped when she saw the woman’s face. The upper half of it was hidden beneath a veiled hat, but she was clearly orinian— she had the ears, the tail, and striking orange birthmarks carved like craters into her skin. Layers of an almost-liquid orange glow swirled in the gaps, matching the glow of her eyes.
Dinara stared wordlessly, a slow horror creeping over her, but when the orinian turned to leave, she called, “Wait!” and caught the woman by the wrist. Even through Dinara’s gloves, she could feel how cold the strange woman was. It seeped through the leather and crawled up her arm.
“Are you coming or going, ma’am?” she asked. The woman only stared, though, tipping her head down to hide more of her face.
“You shouldn’t go to Gallontea,” Dinara continued. The woman seemed to have been heading toward the station’s exit, and if she made it into the city proper, Dinara wouldn’t be able to help her. “It’s not safe for orinians right now.”
“Why?” the woman asked, tasting the word as it rolled off her tongue. Her accent was unusual. It certainly wasn’t like Maebhe, Kieran, and Íde’s had been. It sounded much older.
“Haven’t you heard? The King of Alfheim is missing. The people think—,”
“No,” the woman corrected, cutting Dinara off. “Why warn me? You’re sapien.”
“That shouldn’t matter. I don’t want you to get hurt if I can help it.”
The woman frowned at Dinara, a delicate furrow appearing between her brows. The impatient screech of the train whistle and the low creak of wheels in motion made Dinara jump. “Oh, I’m sorry! I have to go!” she called, then ran and jumped onto the nearest train car even as it began to move away from her. She landed on the narrow stairs, her heavy skirts whipping around her, and turned just in time to see the strange woman— still watching her— disappear from view as the train rounded a bend.
Dinara shook herself and continued into the cabin, smiling when she saw she’d chosen the car the costume crates had been stuffed into. She recognized the markings on one as containing the players’ masks and tried not to think about the last time she’d rummaged through that crate.
“So much for a quiet trip,” a voice said, and Dinara jumped.
“Oh, Tabia! You startled me,” Dinara said with a laugh. The older actress was nestled between two crates, a book in her hands. “I promise not to bother you too much.”
As they left Gallontea behind, Dinara made her way out to the narrow stairs between cars. Months earlier, when the Webhon Players had wound their way south, the world had been green. Now, while the long grasses were still verdant, the trees knew that autumn approached. The leaves were changed in preparation, like wildfire in color and scope.
It reflected how Dinara felt inside. Changing and adapting, readying for something new. Holding onto the door’s handle, Dinara leaned out of the car as far as she dared. She laughed as the wind tickled her face and tugged her hair. As if in response to her laughter, the train whistled, shrill and loud. The wind was cold, but it was colder where Dinara was going— north to Adondai, the capital of the Sheman province.
There, the whole world awaited Dinara, if she could only gather the courage to chase after it.