Leandros lowered his hood as he reached the front porch of the Ranulf’s small rented flat. He risked a glance behind him, at the rain beating steadily down on the dark cobblestone, washing it clean. He squinted against the rain, checking for any suspicious movement, but no one seemed to be minding him at all, too busy scrambling to get inside.
After he rang the bell, one of the Ranulf’s servants arrived to take his cloak and lead him up to the sitting room, where both Gareth and Isobel waited. Isobel was ready for him this time, medical supplies laid out on the table beside the sofa.
Leandros had to step around a large suitcase in the doorway to approach them. “You’re ready to leave, I see.”
Gareth eyed the suitcase. “Physically, at least.”
“You look tired, Leandros,” Isobel said. She knelt beside the couch, same as last time, sterilizing a pair of tweezers.
Leandros was tired. Exhausted, even. “I’m quite alright,” he said, “But thank you for your concern.”
Isobel looked like she didn’t quite believe him. “You’re welcome to rest here a while before you head back to the Island,” she offered. “You look like you could use it.”
“There’s too much work to be done, I’m afraid.”
Isobel pursed her lips, displeased. “Alright. Well, let’s get a look at those stitches. Take your shirt off and lay on the sofa, here.”
Leandros did as she said, carefully laying his things out on a chair before settling on the sofa. Isobel washed his wound, then prodded at it with cold fingers for a minute, tutting to herself. “You haven’t been careful.”
“I’ve tried,” Leandros said. “It’s difficult.”
“It’ll be more so when you’re on the road. These won’t be ready to come out for at least a week. You’re full-blooded alfar, aren’t you? Longer, then, given the way your kind heals. Is there a surgeon on the team?”
“Not officially, but most of the security team has medical training.”
“One of them will have to help you, then,” Isobel said, starting to push herself to her feet. Leandros held out a hand to help her. “Gareth, should I go get—,”
“Yes, thank you,” Gareth said, pointedly avoiding Leandros’ gaze. When Isobel was gone from the room, he said, “I’m terribly sorry about this, Leandros. I hope you won’t be too angry with you.”
Leandros sat up, eyes going to where his coat was folded over the chair, his gun hidden in an inner pocket of the coat. “Sorry about what, Gareth?”
“It’s nothing too bad,” Gareth said, waving his hands, “I promise. It’s just…I’ve listened to him whine for days about how you’re avoiding him, and I can’t take it anymore.”
Leandros heard voices from the hall, and he groaned when he recognized the loudest of them. “Gareth, you promised he wouldn’t be here.”
“Sorry! You need to talk to him, you know, and preferably before we leave for Orean.”
“I can hear you, you know, and I don’t whine,” Roman said, appearing in the doorway with a stranger at his heels. He perched on the arm of Leandros’ couch before Leandros could get up. “How do you feel? How are the stitches? Are they healing alright? You’re being careful, aren’t you? What did Isobel say?”
“Breathe, Roman,” Gareth said.
Leandros cringed at the already-yellowing bruise on Roman’s cheek. He half-sat up and reached out to touch it before he realized what he was doing, then quickly folded his hands in his lap. “That doesn’t look pleasant.”
“What, the bruise? I more than deserved it.”
Leandros closed his eyes. “Don’t do that. You didn’t deserve anything. I’m still angry with you, of course, but I shouldn’t have done that,” he said softly. He knew too well how the people closest to Roman were always hurting him.
“Oh,” Roman said, staring at Leandros with wide eyes.
Leandros couldn’t meet his gaze, so he studied the bruise a moment longer and sighed. “It’s times like these I wish I was sapien. You all heal so quickly.”
Roman’s hand ghosted over the bruise. “It doesn’t feel like it. How are your stitches?”
“Fine,” Leandros said. He smirked and began to tug down the bandages. “Would you like to see?”
“No!” Roman said quickly.
“Are you sure?”
Roman made a face. “Stop it.”
Leandros realized he was smiling and quickly stopped. “Hand me my shirt, would you? I have better things to do than sit around and chat.”
“Whatever you’re about to say, Roman, think it over, and then don’t say it.”
“Wow, you weren’t kidding about them,” the girl who’d come in with Roman said to Gareth.
Leandros frowned at her. She met his glare with a single raised eyebrow and said, “Should Mr. Ranulf and I leave you alone to talk? I don’t mind waiting in the dining room.”
“No, no that’s alright. Wait just a moment longer, Thea,” Roman said. “Leandros, I found out who attacked you.”
Leandros stood, cringing when it jostled his stitches. “How? Who?”
“He was part of the Golden Rose, seeking a fifty triem bounty placed by some member of the Alfheim Council.”
Leandros stilled. “Fifty triems? None of them have that kind of money on their own. There must be multiple council members in on it.”
“Aren’t you from Alfheim? You don’t seem very surprised that they want you dead,” the girl said.
Leandros narrowed his eyes at her. “Roman, who is this?”
“I’ll explain in just a second, I promise,” Roman said, stepping between Leandros and the girl. “Just trust me.”
Leandros looked away, a muscle jumping in his jaw. “If you knew how they felt about me, you wouldn’t be surprised, either. They’ve never liked me. A good deal of that is thanks to my father, but I can take some of the blame. I’ve made many mistakes in my youth, following this one being the worst of them,” Leandros said to the girl, nodding Roman’s way at the end.
“Oh, come on. We had fun together, didn’t we?” Roman asked.
“Don’t be cute. You‘re the reason they want me dead.”
“What does Roman have to do with this?” Gareth asked, looking between Roman and Leandros with furrowed brows.
“Oh, that’s all in the past! Whatever the reason, Leandros, I made sure no one’s going to go near that bounty anytime soon,” Roman said. A bright grin spread across his face. “Also, I found you a personal guard! Gareth helped.”
Leandros scoffed. “Don’t be ridiculous. I don’t need a guard.”
Roman scoffed back. “You don’t be ridiculous. I think it’s obvious that you do.”
Leandros relented, pursing his lips. “And where is this guard?”
“Here!” the girl said, holding a finger up. “I would have introduced myself earlier, but…Ms. Theodosia Fairfax, at your service.”
Leandros blinked at the girl. “How old are you?”
“Twenty-five,” Theodosia said, frowning.
The alfar looked at Gareth. “Is that supposed to be a lot?”
Gareth shrugged. “For sapiens? Enough.”
“I have a young face,” Theodosia said, standing taller. She had large green eyes and brown hair piled into a messy bun, emphasizing her large ears, pierced in several places. Her square face was hidden behind a wall of freckles that stretched from the roots of her hair to where her neck disappeared beneath her high collar.
Roman beckoned Theodosia closer. “Thea, tell him what you can do.”
“Do?” Leandros asked.
“I’m rosanin,” Thea said. “I have an ability— that is, I can read people’s auras, and their auras manifest their intentions. You know, whether they’re vengeful, jealous, well-meaning. If they’re doing what they’re doing because of greed or righteousness. Or hurt and love.” Thea glanced between Roman and Leandros, then looked at the ceiling and scrunched up her nose, evidently trying to find a better way to explain it. “Everyone emits a sort of…glow. There’s color, texture, brightness, and that changes based on where a person’s coming from. It’s hard to interpret sometimes, but I’m good at it.”
“It’s different from emotions,” Roman clarified, practically vibrating with excitement. “She can tell when people are going to act a certain way.”
Theodosia nodded. “I see emotion bleeding into action. Someone can hate you and want you dead, but I’ll only see it when they decide to kill you. Or someone could love you, but until they decide to kiss you, I don’t see it.”
Leandros tipped his head to the side, considering. “And if someone tries to kill me because they love someone who wants me dead?”
“People are more than a single motivation. I’d see the love, but the violence would be more immediate.”
Roman grinned. “See? She’s perfect. If someone is going to hurt you, Thea can warn you. Plus, look at her! No one will ever suspect she’s guarding you.”
“Hey,” Theodosia said, resignedly.
“Sorry, Thea,” Roman said, patting her arm.
“Are you sure this is something you want to do? We’ll be gone a month, at least,” Leandros told her. “And it may be dangerous.”
Thea nodded. “I’m sure. Mr. Hallisey told me about everything that’s going on, and I want to help.”
Leandros considered her a moment. “Tell me, what do you see when you look at me?”
“Oh,” Thea said, deflating. She eyed Leandros. “Are you sure you want to know? Some people don’t take it well.”
“I can handle it.”
“If you say so.” Thea looked Leandros carefully up and down. “You’ve got a lot of emotions all mixed up, and they’re playing an important part in driving you forward. It’s more emotion than I’ve ever seen from anyone, actually, let alone an alfar. Most of it is layers of anger.” When Leandros winced, Thea added, “Sorry.”
“What do you see when you look at him?” Leandros nodded at Roman. “Selfishness? Cowardice? Apathy?”
“No…Guilt, mostly. Everything’s weirdly dampered with him, so it’s hard to tell.” Thea sighed. “But I thought I was going to be a bodyguard, not a couples’ mediator.”
At Leandros’ shocked expression, she backtracked immediately. “Sorry! I’m terribly sorry. That was rude. Please don’t fire me.”
“I won’t fire you,” Leandros said. “I haven’t even officially hired you yet. Do you think you’ll be able to pack your things and wrap up your affairs before the day’s out?”
Thea nodded. “I don’t have many affairs to wrap up.”
“I’ll need you to come with me to the Island to fill out some paperwork— Unity wants records of everyone going on this mission. As far as they’re concerned, you’re my assistant. Understand?” Leandros asked. When Thea nodded again, he continued, “Good. Would you wait for me downstairs? I’d like to speak with Roman for a moment.”
Thea waved a quick goodbye to Roman and hurried off. Leandros stared at Gareth until Gareth took the hint, starting in his seat and stammering some excuse about going to speak to Isobel about supper. Once Roman and Leandros were alone, neither knew what to say.
Roman fidgeted, then broke the silence. “Hopefully, Thea’s assistance won’t even be necessary. I hear there’s word going around that anyone who harms you will have to face Egil.”
Leandros’ expression softened. “Thank you, Roman. I know how difficult it is for you to invoke that name.”
Roman shrugged and looked away. “You’ll like Thea, I think. She’s a lot of fun.”
“It’s a nice thought, but I don’t have time for fun.”
Roman studied him, his expression turning serious. “You’ve changed.”
“If I have, it’s your fault.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“Where did you go?”
“Leandros, I didn’t mean to—,”
“But you did. Amos and Rhea mourned you, you know. They thought you’d died— until new Egil stories started surfacing, anyway. And I couldn’t tell them that you left because I—,” Leandros cut himself off mid-sentence. Thea had been right about layers of anger, and this one sat closest to his heart. He would not be ruled by it. He took a deep breath. “It doesn’t matter anymore, I suppose. Have you been alone all this time?”
“What?” Roman asked, thrown by the sudden shift, his dark eyes going wide. Then he shifted, hid his surprise behind his mask. “Would you be jealous if I said no?”
“I’d be concerned if you said yes.”
“Why? Why even ask?”
“Because, despite everything, I care about you and I know how you are about self-imposed solitude.”
“Can’t you go back to yelling at me?”
“So you have been alone,” Leandros guessed, Roman’s expression confirming it. “You have to know how unhealthy that is, Aim.”
Roman flinched at the old nickname. “I did just fine without you mothering me.”
Leandros huffed and moved to retrieve his clothes. “I don’t know why I bother with you.”
“I don’t know why you do, either. Hey,” Roman said quietly, something about his tone making Leandros stop and look at him. He was glad he did. Roman didn’t look like Roman, in that moment; he looked like Egil. There was a difference, albeit a subtle one— something about the set of his shoulders, the depth of his gaze.
Roman would hate Leandros for saying it, but Leandros sometimes felt that Roman was the mask, and Egil the person behind it.
“There are Enforcers on your team,” Roman said.
“I figured.” Leandros shrugged on his shirt. “I could probably point a few of them out. Do you know what they’re after? It’s certainly not rescuing my uncle.”
“No,” Roman agreed. “They’re after whatever it is you and Rhea saw that day.”
“Magic,” Leandros said. Before Roman could speak, he continued, “Don’t you go doubting me, too. I know what I saw. Whatever that was, there’s no other way of explaining it.”
“I’d never doubt you,” Roman said, honestly. “And even if Unity does, they believe you enough to chase whatever this thing is. That’s another reason it’ll be useful having Thea around— I don’t know what the Enforcers are going to do, or how they’re going to do it. Ms. Fairfax can be our secret.”
“Our? Roman, what are you even doing back in Gallontea? Why are you on this team? After all you did to get away from them, why are you back again? How can you take it?”
“I can’t,” Roman said. Egil’s edge slipped away as he wrapped his arms around himself, as if trying to hold himself together. “But I can’t keep watching Unity grab at power without doing anything. They’d raze Orean to the ground if they had the chance; I can’t let them. I have to find that magic before they do.”
“You’re planning on betraying the team,” Leandros guessed.
“I’ll help you get Amos back first, if I can.”
Leandros shook his head. “No, leave my uncle to me. You’re right to be doing what you’re doing, and I’ll help you, if I can.”
Leandros turned to leave, hesitating in the doorway. “Say you get the magic. What then? You’ve betrayed them with this, betrayed them by not killing me after promising to. You have this magic, this weapon— whatever it may be. What then?”
“I don’t know,” Roman answered. “I haven’t thought that far ahead.”
“You never do,” Leandros said. “You probably should.”
Leandros sighed, shook his head, and waved a goodbye to Roman before going downstairs to find Thea.