“Come along, Ofelia,” Isobel said, holding the sleepy five-year-old’s hand as they walked along. It was a foggy morning, brisk and still. The first sun had risen only half an hour ago and Gallontea was quiet; they passed only a few others on their way.
“You really don’t have to come all this way, Isobel,” Gareth said.
“We’re seeing you to the city gates,” Isobel said. “It’s the least we can do. Who knows when we’ll see you next.”
Roman, beside them, stayed quiet. When they reached the city gates and Gareth said goodbye to Isobel and Ofelia, he kept his distance. The family had many of these small, intimate moments. Watching them made his heart hurt in a confusingly warm sort of way.
He stiffened in surprise when Isobel hugged him goodbye, whispering in his ear, “Promise you’ll keep him safe.”
“I promise,” Roman whispered back before they broke apart. When they did, Isobel had tears in her eyes.
She wiped them quickly, turning to Ofelia and holding out her hand. “Come on, Fe. Time to go home; we’ll see your father again soon.”
Roman and Gareth watched them disappear back into the city smog. When they were fully out of sight, Roman tapped Gareth’s arm. “The others are waiting. Let’s go.”
Outside the city walls, three half-loaded wagons and horses for the diplomats waited. There were no Unity or Alfheim symbols or banners on any of it, nothing to give away the official nature of their mission. The group looked like any other group of merchants or travelers preparing for a journey.
Thea saw them first, holding her skirts and jogging over, her smile tired but excited.
“Leandros and I have been here for hours already,” she explained with a breathless smile. “It didn’t quite feel real the other day, but it sure does now. Thank you for arranging this opportunity, Mr. Ranulf.”
“Why are you thanking me?” Gareth asked.
“I’ve never left Gallontea, but I’ve always wanted to. Now, I finally have an excuse. Oh! Here, hand me your bags.”
While Thea helped toss Gareth’s bags into one of the wagons, Roman looked around. “This isn’t everyone, is it, Thea?”
“No, I think we’re just waiting on the security team.”
“I forgot you don’t know anyone yet. Let’s see…those are the other diplomats, over there,” Gareth said, nodding at a small group near one of the other wagons. He pointed out Cathwright, a blue dragon and some sort of barrister, Trinity Jones, a blue-scaled, slippery nympherai trained in political negotiations, and Pierce Williams, their wilderness guide. Then there was Eresh Ochoa, speaking in urgent, hushed tones to Leandros.
Gareth excused himself to speak to the other diplomats.
“Hey, Thea,” Roman said in an undertone, “What do you see when you look at them all?”
“Nothing suspicious,” Thea said. “All the diplomats are reserved, but it’s just anxiety.”
“And Mr. Ochoa?” Roman asked.
“Him, I’m not sure about. There’s something flickering under the surface. His motives aren’t what they seem, but they’re harmless, at least.”
“Could he be doing something for Unity?” Roman asked.
“Maybe,” Thea said, not sounding sure.
“Well, there’s plenty of time to dig deeper on the journey. Hey, Leandros!” Roman called, walking up to their little circle.
Annoyance flashed across Leandros’ expression. “Ah, Roman. I was hoping you might oversleep and miss our departure.”
“And lose out on a chance to travel with you again? Not a chance.”
Somehow, Leandros’ expression soured further.
“Oh, you’re Mr. Hallisey! It’s a pleasure. I hear Moira Ranulf personally asked you be added to the team,” Eresh said.
“So he’s alright to be here?” Thea asked, having followed Roman over. At Roman’s questioning look, she explained, “Eresh is angry that Leandros brought me on.”
“No! I’m not angry,” Eresh said, waving his hands. “Was it inconsiderate not to even consult me on the matter? Or to add someone to the team on such short notice? Perhaps. I would have appreciated being warned in advance, so I could have factored having an extra person here into my logistics calculations, but I suppose it’s far too late for that now.”
“I’ll be sure to warn you, next time,” Leandros said.
“You know, I hope that you do! Because it almost feels like you don’t trust me to help you, if you’re finding an assistant! Who even is she? She’s no one!”
“What’s Eresh worked up about this time?” a low, drawling voice asked. A slouched, languid man joined the group and slung an arm around Eresh’s shoulder. This time, it was Eresh’s turn to flinch away. The man was dressed in heavy leather and wore a pistol and a wickedly curved knife at his hips.
Two other members of the security team came up behind him – Eftychia Jones, draped in bright fabrics and weaponless, as far as could be seen, and a broad, scowling man with a bow and quiver strapped on his back.
“Ivor! I’m not worked up over anything!” Eresh said. “I was just – ah, Ms. Corscia, you’re here, too.”
Thea jumped in surprise when she noticed there a woman standing beside her where there was none before. Evelyne Corscia didn’t look her way, only frowned at Eresh and crossed her arms. As she did, the muscles in her arms shifted, highlighting scars from old battles. She stood nearly a head shorter than Thea but somehow took up far more space.
“We’re ready for final inventory checks, if you’re done here, Eresh,” she said, her voice gentle as ever.
“Yes, of course,” Eresh said.
When he tried to leave, Evelyne held out an arm to cut him off. “Apologize to the girl, first.”
Eresh looked like he’d been slapped. “I’m sorry?”
“She’s Leandros’ assistant. He trusts her. He got permission from the Magistrates to add her to the team. It doesn’t matter who she is, beyond that.”
“Evie,” Eftychia said with a pout, “Go easy on Eresh. I’m sure he didn’t mean any harm.”
Evelyne only raised an eyebrow at Eresh.
“My apologies, Ms. Fairfax,” Eresh said hastily. “Big day, you know. Lots to worry about. Didn’t mean to take that out on you.”
“You’re forgiven,” Thea said. Eresh nodded and, with that, left to perform their inventory checks. Eftychia skipped off after him.
“Tell me if he bothers you again,” Evelyne said, looking at Thea. “Or just give him a fright yourself. It’s not difficult. I’m sure you’ve got it in you.”
“Oh! Yeah. Yes. That was…” Thea stammered, then trailed off with a cough. While she stared at Evelyne, everyone waited expectantly. She finally managed, “Inspirational. You’re very kind.”
Evelyne blinked, surprised, then smiled. It softened the harsh planes of her face, almost overshadowing the hawklike set of her gaze.
“Thank you for intervening, Ms. Corscia,” Leandros said.
Evelyne looked at him, her gaze then moving to Roman beside him. She stiffened, eyes narrowing and lips pursing. Roman only smiled back, politely confused.
“Ms. Corscia?” Leandros asked. “Is there a problem?”
“No,” Evelyne said, a muscle in her jaw jumping. She backed away slowly, not dropping her gaze from Roman’s until she finally turned away. “I’m going to help Eresh.”
Ivor whistled low once Evelyne was out of earshot. “You two have some sort of history?”
Everyone was looking at Roman, now, who shook his head. “I’ve never seen her before in my life.”
“You’re the new one— Hallisey, right?” Ivor asked. “What do you do on this team, exactly?”
Roman opened his mouth to answer, but Leandros cut in instead. “He knows a thing or two about Orean. Ivor, Aaror, can you go help Eresh and Evelyne? I’d like to be able to leave as soon as possible, and we’ll have plenty of time to get to know each other on the road.”
Ivor saluted, heading over to one of the wagons with Aaror on his heels. They both shot Roman curious looks as they passed, but fortunately didn’t ask any more questions. When they were gone, Leandros eyed Roman and asked, “Thea, can you tell when people are lying?”
“I’m not lying!” Roman said.
“I didn’t think you were, Roman, it only made me curious,” Leandros said.
“I sometimes can, I sometimes can’t. It depends on why they’re lying. But if Roman’s lying, I can’t tell,” Thea said, staring over at where Eresh and the security team were working. Her cheeks were faintly flushed.
Leandros hid a smile. “Good. We have a long journey ahead of us and you’ll be in close proximity to Ms. Corscia all the way.” He sighed. “I’d best go help Eresh as well. Everyone’s here and we really do need to leave.”
When Leandros was gone, Thea finally looked over at Roman. “So what’s the story?”
“Hm?” Roman asked.
“You were definitely lying,” Thea said.
Roman took a deep breath. “Thank you for not telling Leandros.”
“You’re trying to protect her,” Thea said. “I can see it. That’s the only reason I didn’t tell.”
“I’ll tell you the story later,” Roman said.
“Liar,” Thea said, smiling.
Roman smiled back. “Only sometimes.”
Less than half an hour, Unity’s team finally left on their journey. The winding road away from Gallontea led them on toward to Lyryma forest – and beyond that, Orean.
A/N: Thank you for reading this far, and let me know what you think in the comments or on twitter!