A/N: Welcome to book 2 of Fractured Magic! There are no words to express how excited I am to share this next arc of the story with you all. Things are going to get very intense from here on out. As always, comments and shares are very, very appreciated!
Forest covered much of the southeastern corner of Calaidia. Lyryma sat at the center of it like a blemish, different from the foliage surrounding it on every side. Lyryma was an entity of its own, a mystery premised on a simple question: how did it exist? How did it thrive when the climate suited it so ill?
For those with imagination, there was another question: what strange magic sustained it?
Where surrounding forests were sparse and dry with little canopy coverage, Lyryma was dense and humid with a canopy so thick in places that not even sunslight could filter its way through. In cold winters, when snow touched Gallontea to the north and Creae Valley to the south, Lyryma remained warm and green. In long summers without rain, when the surrounding wood suffered, Lyryma saw rainfall of its own that came from nowhere and disappeared just the same.
His own…physical transformations aside, Lyryma was the closest thing to magic Roman had seen in his life.
He’d traveled both through the forest and around many times. The road to Illyon cut through the sparse forest west of the great wood and followed parallel to its border. If Roman were to look east as they traveled, he could see the exact point where the trees transitioned, like a harsh line drawn in sand. That line marked the start of Lyryma.
It had been years since he’d last traveled this road, but he still knew how it should be at this time of year, this time of day. The leaves above their heads changed color, the road twisted and wound, slightly more worn than Roman remembered.
Most things were as they should be, but that made it more obvious that one thing was not: the forest was much too quiet. No insects chirped and no birds sang, and the only sound Roman could really hear— apart from the sounds his teammates made— was the wind rustling through the dry underbrush.
He closed his eyes and tipped his head to the side, straining to listen.
Near him, Gareth and Trinity discussed the merits of different journals popular among modern academics. Eresh and Thea bickered. Across camp, the security team huddled in their usual circle, discussing something in low tones. Roman heard approaching feet crunch in the dry grass and just in the distance, there was something—
Roman opened his eyes to find Leandros standing over him. Due to the warm weather, the alfar had forsaken his frock coat for a simple waistcoat and shirt rolled up to the elbows, the shirt’s shade bringing out the pale blue of his eyes.
“Leandros,” Roman said, surprised. This was the first time Leandros had willingly sought out a conversation with him, and they’d been on the road a week.
Under Roman’s stare, Leandros crossed his arms and looked away. “I could use your help with something.”
“Sure.” Roman rose and followed Leandros through their modest camp— hardly even a camp, right now. The team had stopped for a late lunch, not bothering to unpack their wagons or belongings for the short break. Leandros stopped at his trailer, holding the door open for Roman and avoiding his questioning gaze.
Roman hesitated only a moment before climbing inside. The interior was plain and clean, barely lived in. Even so, and even if it was only a third of the size, it reminded Roman of Dinara’s trailer. His chest constricted a little at the thought.
“Roman,” Leandros said, in a tone achingly familiar. It was part annoyed, part exasperated, but still with some undercurrent of fondness. Or so Roman liked to think, anyway. It reminded him of a simpler, happier time in his life, and the pain in his chest eased.
“Sorry,” Roman said, realizing he’d stopped in the doorway. He moved to give Leandros space to step up, but the trailer barely fit the two of them. Leandros had to turn sideways to get past him. Roman tracked his movements, holding his breath as Leandros brushed against him.
“Why am I here? I thought you didn’t want to talk to me,” he said.
“Who said you’re here to talk?” Leandros asked. He passed a small black bag to Roman. “You’re not going to like my answer.”
With a frown, Roman opened the bag’s clasps and peeked inside. He quickly shut it again. “No, no, no. I can’t help you with this.”
“Roman,” Leandros said, as close to a whine as the alfar could get. “It itches.”
“So get someone else to help! I’m sure there’s someone out there with more experience,” Roman shoved the bag back at Leandros and turned to leave, but Leandros caught him by the wrist.
“Roman, please. I don’t trust any of them.”
The implication there made Roman pause. That Leandros could still trust him with this, after everything he’d done. He sighed, tugged his hands through his hair, and said, “Fine. Fine, I’ll do it. Sit down and take your shirt off.”
Leandros did as Roman said, sitting on the simple cot and shrugging out of his shirt, exposing a chest wrapped heavily in bandages. Roman hadn’t been able to look the last time he’d seen Leandros like this, unable to bear the site of Isobel’s needle and string.
He looked now. It was impossible not to notice how much Leandros had filled out since they were younger, how his shoulders had broadened.
Roman knelt on the ground beside Leandros and gingerly touched the bandage. When he looked up, Leandros was fixedly staring at a point on the opposite wall, his cheeks faintly flushed.
“You want me to…what?” Roman asked. “Take them out?”
Leandros nodded. “Are you going to be alright with that?”
Roman sighed. “I’ll be fine. Can’t say I’ll be as steady as Isobel would’ve been.”
“Steadiness is the last thing I’d expect from you, Roman.”
Roman cringed. “I deserved that.”
Carefully, Roman unraveled the bandage around Leandros’ torso, trying to touch skin as little as possible. First sanitizing his hands with the solution provided in the medical supply bag, he then sanitized the tweezers and scissors, feeling the weight of Leandros’ gaze on him the whole time. Finally, he finished by cleaning the area around Leandros’ wound.
“Isobel gave me instructions. Do you know how to do this, or do you need me to find them?” Leandros asked.
Roman studied the wound. It looked much better, ugly as the stitches were. “I know what I’m doing, even if I’d rather not be doing it.”
Leandros sucked in a sharp breath once Roman set about to his task. It was a slow process, Roman taking it one stitch at a time and trying not think about just what he was doing.
Leandros hummed, a cue to continue.
“Talk to me. I need a distraction.”
“Do I really want you distracted when you’re holding scissors near my skin?”
“You do if you don’t want me to be sick,” Roman said.
Leandros let out a sharp laugh, almost making Roman stab him in the side. After a long pause, though, he finally said, “I don’t know what to talk to you about, Roman.”
Roman’s hands stilled. He remembered a time when the conversations between them flowed like rushing water, when they could talk about anything and everything and nothing at all. “How’s your mother been?” he asked, teasing. When he glanced up, he saw Leandros biting back a smile.
“Happier, now that you’re out of my life. But as vicious as ever, if not more so. She gave up on me entirely after Kirkwall,” Leandros said, his expression souring. “I don’t want to talk about her, now or ever. You should know that.”
“I do,” Roman agreed easily. “But it got you talking.”
“I suppose you think that makes you clever.”
Roman laughed, looking up at Leandros from under his lashes. “Among other things.”
Leandros rolled his eyes.
That was enough to get Roman through the rest of the stitches. When they were all out, only a fresh, pink scar remained.
“You’ll still need to take it easy,” Roman warned Leandros.
“I know. Thank you,” Leandros said, once the wound had been cleaned a second time and Leandros was able to pull his shirt back on.
“Don’t push your luck, Hallisey.”
Roman pouted. “I wasn’t going to push anything.”
He would have continued, but a scream from outside cut him off.
Leandros and Roman were both up in an instant, Leandros reaching the door first and practically launching himself out of it. But he froze on the stairs, and Roman was forced to peer over his shoulder to find the source of the commotion.
It wasn’t hard. Quick shapes moved through the trees and in a matter of seconds, a dozen armed oanai had encircled their camp.
Evelyne and the other security team members drew their weapons. After so long of playing nice, the weight of her sword in her hand had Evelyne’s blood singing. The ground steadied beneath her, the world righted itself. Without adrenaline in her veins and blood on her blade, she was nothing, no one, and the time had come for her to be once again.
Before she could give the command to charge, though, Theodosia Fairfax stepped into her path, waving her hands.
“Evelyne, wait! They’re not violent!”
“With all due respect, Ms. Fairfax, they have spears pointed at us. If that’s not violent, what is?” Ivor drawled. The usually slouched, leisurely man had also undergone a transformation at the appearance of the oanai— poised now like a cat ready to pounce, he held wickedly curved twin blades in his hands.
The Enforcers lived to fight. Ivor, too, didn’t exist outside the thrill of it.
But hearing Ivor’s words, one of the oanai signaled and the others lowered their weapons at the command. “She’s right,” the leader said, stepping forward. “We’re here with questions, not for violence.”
Across the camp, Leandros stepped down from his trailer and approach the lead oanai. To Evelyne and the security team, he said, “Put your weapons away.”
Evelyne felt like she was sealing away a piece of her soul, but she obeyed. She did a quick count. There were twelve oanai. For so many of them to be so far from Home, it was no coincidence that they’d run into the Unity team. Home had known they’d be coming, and they’d prepared an ambush.
Even with a dragon on their team, even with four Enforcers plus Hallisey, they didn’t stand a chance against twelve oanai. By the looks of them, these oanai were trained hunters— trained to hunt the beasts that lurked in Lyryma, far more fearsome than even a group of Enforcers could hope to be. Leandros knew they were outnumbered, too, if his worried expression was any indication.
Hallisey stood behind him like a shadow; he and Evelyne made eye contact over the alfar’s shoulder.
“You let them sneak up on us?” Hallisey called to her.
Evelyne’s eyes widened. She spluttered a moment, too shocked to speak. “Let!” she finally spat. “And where were you? What were you doing?”
“What does that matter? I’m not the leader of the security team.”
Evelyne’s hand dropped to the hilt of her sword. It took the Magistrates’ orders echoing through her mind and the warning look Leandros shot her for her to finally release it.
“Roman, do shut up,” Leandros said. He turned back to the lead oanai. “We’re only passing through; we’ve done nothing to harm you or your kin. What’s the meaning of this assault?”
“We wish to ask some questions.”
“Interesting way of going about it,” Ivor scoffed. Now that his weapons were put away, his hands were buried once again back in his pockets, the magnitude of him diminished.
Ignoring Ivor, Leandros said, “If that’s true, ask your questions and let us be on our way.”
The lead oanai murmured something to the others in their own language. Another said something back. “No,” the leader said to Leandros, after some deliberation. “You must come with us to Home. We’ll ask our questions there.”
Evelyne didn’t know the exact location of Home. Few did, outside of the nympherai who were born within the great forest. But she knew, at least, that it was hours out of their way.
Leandros looked to Roman. “What do you think?” he asked.
Evelyne narrowed her eyes at them. It had been clear from the first day of their journey that the two of them knew each other, no matter what lies Hallisey had apparently told Magistrate Biro. She’d warned Biro as much. Roman Hallisey’s word couldn’t be trusted.
“I don’t think we have a choice,” the man answered. “It’s not like we can fight them.”
Grudgingly, Evelyne spoke up, eyeing the circle of oanai around them. “He’s right. Much as I’d love to teach these over-sized deer a lesson, the diplomats’ safety is our priority. Let’s just get this over with.”
“Not you,” the oanai told her. “Just the alfar.” His gaze then tracked over to Roman. “And him.”
Before Evelyne could reply, Eresh spoke up for her. “Leandros, you can’t let them split us up!” he cried. “The mission guidelines from the Magistrates clearly state that we must stay together in any emergency—,”
“It’s the Captain’s decision,” Evelyne said, interrupting Eresh.
“Ms. Corscia! I thought you’d be on my side!” Eresh said.
“Why? I rarely am.”
Ignoring them both, Leandros asked the oanai, “You’ll let the rest of the team go if we join you?”
“And you’ll let Roman and I go once I answer your questions?”
This time, the oanai hesitated before saying, “Yes.”
Beside Evelyne, Theodosia caught Leandros’ gaze and shook her head. Evelyne watched the girl out of the corner of her eye, intrigued. Thea had the habit of knowing things she shouldn’t, and the Captain seemed to trust her judgment almost as much as he did Roman’s.
Leandros sighed. “Alright. You’re in charge while we’re gone, Ms. Corscia. Wait for us until the morning, and if we haven’t returned by then, continue to Illyon without us. We’ll catch up when we can.”
Evelyne nodded, catching Eresh by the collar when he tried to approach Leandros. “The Magistrates aren’t here. Listen to your Captain’s orders,” she told the twitchy dryad.
“Come with us,” the oanai told Leandros, turning and starting toward the forest. Five oanai split off from the circle to follow them.
Evelyne watched dispassionately as they went. Six oanai remained. Six of them against her security team. Still not great odds for a fight. “You have what you wanted, don’t you? What are you staying with us for?” she asked.
“To ensure you don’t try to follow them,” one of the oanai answered peaceably.
“You heard my orders. I don’t intend to break them,” Evelyne said. She dropped back down to her spot beside the fire, the rest of the team uneasily following her lead and settling in to wait. Theodosia Fairfax knelt beside Evelyne, her wide eyes fixed on Lyryma, where any trace of Roman and Leandros had long disappeared.
Evelyne hated Roman, and she didn’t care for Leandros one way or the other. But for some reason, seeing Thea’s unease made her want to fix the situation. Thea folded her hands in her lap, long fingers picking nervously at her nail beds. Evelyne’s eyes were drawn to it.
“They’ll be fine,” she said, voice low so the oanai wouldn’t hear. “If anyone can take care of themselves, it’s those two.”
Thea relaxed at that, a small smile stealing its way onto her face. “I know,” she said. “But we won’t really leave them, will we?”
Evelyne knew what her answer should be. She had strict orders from the Magistrates, and leaving Leandros and Roman to Lyryma would not only fall within the bounds of those orders, it would solve all of her problems. She shrugged. “You heard what the Captain said.”
“I heard what he said,” Thea challenged, fixing Evelyne with a stern look. “But are you really going to listen to him? You’re in charge while he’s gone, aren’t you?”
Evelyne blinked. She couldn’t remember the last time someone took that tone with her. Or the last time someone had tried baiting her. “I know what you’re doing.”
Thea smiled. “Of course you do! You’re smart. And it’s exactly because you’re smart that you know what the right thing to do is.”
A warm, lazy breeze blew through the camp, uncaring and unaware of the scene it was disturbing. It blew Thea’s hair into her face, just the long strands that had escaped her messy bun.
At first, Evelyne had thought Thea too timid. But seeing her like this, her hair wild, her green eyes boring holes into Evelyne, and a smirk on her face that both promised and withheld, she couldn’t possibly.
“Plus, I’ll be forever grateful to you,” Thea added. Then, trying again, “You’ll be my new favorite.”
Evelyne felt a pang of longing at that— longing for a world where easy conversations like this came naturally to her, where being the favorite of someone so sweet and naive was even within the realm of possibility. That world had been taken from her at a young age. It had been twisted and warped and bloodied by Unity and then handed back to her, unrecognizable.
And if Theodosia Fairfax knew all that Evelyne was capable of, she would hate her.
Still, it was nice to pretend, to imagine.
Evelyne considered the girl’s proposition. It certainly would be much easier for her team to accomplish their mission in Orean if Leandros was there to draw attention to him and away from the Enforcers.
“What do you propose I do?” Evelyne asked.
Evelyne laughed, then cut off abruptly, surprised by herself. “We’d die in the forest before we could even reach them. None of us here know the way to Home.”
Thea’s smirk grew. “Eresh does.”
“Eresh? How do you know that?”
“Because I bothered to ask him about himself?” Thea said. “He was born in Home. He lived there until he was a teenager.”
“I never knew,” Evelyne said. She wondered if the Magistrates did. It wouldn’t be the first time they’d sent her on a mission while withholding crucial information.
“So? What do you think?”
Evelyne sighed. “If they’re not back by nightfall, I’ll consider it.”
Roman and Leandros followed the oanai deeper into the wood. The foliage transformed around them as they went: the trees grew taller, wider, stronger. The dry air changed, too, so that Roman and Leandros felt damp, sticky. Self-conscious, Roman brushed his curls away from his face, knowing what this humidity would soon do to them. It tipped the already-warm day toward uncomfortably hot. Beside him, Leandros rolled his sleeves up further.
Despite the discomfort, Roman felt a pleasant sort of nostalgia at being in Lyryma again. He remembered all the times he’d wandered through this forest, seemingly in another life. After he’d escaped Unity, all those years ago, Lyryma had been his solace. Home had accepted him, let him live there for as long as he’d needed. They’d healed him when he’d been broken, or at least bandaged him up well enough that he’d been able to keep fighting.
But time flowed differently in Lyryma. He’d stagnated there, too withdrawn into himself and his pain to notice the world turning around him. He wondered if he’d still be living in Home— a bitter, damaged thing with no purpose— if he hadn’t met Leandros. He looked over at his friend, but Leandros seemed lost in thought. Roman wondered if he, too, was remembering their first meeting among these very trees, or if his obsession with getting Amos back left him with blinders looking forward.
Feeling eyes on his back, Roman turned and scanned the trees. They were fully in Lyryma now, and the dense foliage offered many places to hide. Roman had sharp eyes, but he didn’t see anything unusual among the trees. He stared a moment longer all the same, unable to shake the feeling that there was something different about Lyryma. The shadows seemed deeper, the quiet stifling.
“How long has Lyryma been like this?” he asked, his voice breaking the quiet around them. “It feels sick.”
“I’m surprised Egil noticed so quickly,” the lead oanai said, neither breaking his stride nor looking down at the humans. “The forest has been unhappy as of late, and that has made it unwelcoming. It’s no longer safe for even our best to hunt alone.”
Roman frowned. “I don’t remember introducing myself.”
At this, the oanai did glance Roman’s way, his ears lowering almost sheepishly. “We’ve met. I don’t expect you to remember, as it was a very long time ago. I am Noss.”
“Pleased to re-make your acquaintance, Noss,” Roman said cheerfully. “Even given the circumstances.”
“And yours as well, Egil. It’s an honor now as much as it was then. I hope you’ll forgive my bringing you along. The Council only requested the presence of Unity’s team leader, but I thought seeing you might ease their fears.”
“Ah, so we’re off to meet the Council,” Roman said.
As if realizing he’d revealed more than he should, Noss pointedly refocused on the path ahead, relaxing only when Roman changed the thread of their conversation. Leandros didn’t speak once for the entire walk.
They came upon the hidden city several hours into their walk. Though the surrounding forest had changed, Home had not. Its usual melodies drifted up through the mist hanging over Home. Roman recognized some from half-forgotten Council meetings he’d attended. He used to join them just to hear the songs; he’d always loved storytelling through music, even if he couldn’t carry a tune himself, and the sweet songs of the oanai had soothed his fractured soul when he’d needed it most.
Noss led them down the stone stairway, the only path in and out of Home for those without wings. They passed the statue of Ellaes that watched over the city and continued on to Central Field. There, a handful of oanai waited, many of whom Roman already knew and recognized as senior members of Home’s Council. They stood when they saw the approaching humans, offering low bows that Roman and Leandros returned.
“Egil!” Mani greeted with a toothy smile. “We had not expected you! It’s good to see you. We had heard Unity killed you. We spent months in mourning.”
Beside Roman, Leandros stiffened.
“They tried, anyway,” Roman said, silently willing them to change the subject.
“I’m glad they failed. And young mister Nochdvor is here, too! It’s been a very long time. I’m happy to see the two of you are still traveling together.”
Leandros ignored the comment. His normally warm voice now cold as ice, he said, “I’d always hoped to return to Home but never thought it would be as a prisoner.”
“Please do not think of yourselves as prisoners,” Apa said. “You’re welcome guests, old friends.”
“Who aren’t allowed to leave until you say so?” Roman guessed.
“You ambushed our camp with a dozen armed hunters and forced us hours out of our way; forgive us if we fail to see civility in the situation,” Leandros said.
“Then don’t,” another Council member, Ioka, said. He looked at Roman, eyes narrowing into slits. “You’re working with Unity again?”
Roman scowled. “You still make too many assumptions, Ioka.”
“So you’re not a part of this mission of Unity’s?” Ioka asked, then nodded at Leandros. “And he’s not leading it?”
“Ioka,” Apa warned. All three Council members had more gray fur than Roman remembered, the twisting horns on their heads grown even longer with age. “This meeting hasn’t started well. Please, allow us to begin again. We brought you here because we’ve heard one side of the story and simply wish to hear the other. Despite what you seem to think, we have no intention of detaining you for long.”
Leandros’ stony expression didn’t change, but Roman stood close enough that he noticed some of the tension drain out of him.
“Let’s talk elsewhere,” Ioka said. “This is a conversation that should be held privately.”
Roman blinked, surprised. Home didn’t usually care for the notion of privacy. Meetings were public, parties were open to all, and even the doors of individual homes tended to be left open for neighbors to stop by and chat. He and Leandros followed the Council members to an old stone building near the field, Noss trailing a respectful distance behind. It was a beautiful building, with images carved along the stone sidings, half-obscured by ivy. Roman couldn’t remember a single time he’d seen it used.
Inside, they were led to a dining hall of sorts, the tables clear of anything except the fine layer of dust on their surfaces. When Ioka closed the heavy doors, it abruptly cut off the melodies of Home. Full silence descended upon them. The Council members sat around one of the low tables— low for them, at least. When Roman and Leandros sat, it reached almost to their shoulders.
“Forgive the precautions,” a Council member Roman didn’t recognize said. “We would prefer not to overwhelm the people of Home more than necessary.”
“Overwhelm them?” Roman repeated.
“We’ve had so much news of the outside world, lately,” the Council member explained.
“We can see that. You were warned about the team—how? By who?” Roman asked.
Mani nodded. “We were tipped off to Unity’s plans by a trio of orinians that passed through. We’ve been waiting for your team for some time.”
“Oh!” Roman said. With everything that had happened since, he’d almost forgotten about Maebhe and their jailbreak. “So they made it! I’m the one who sent them your way. Are they still here?”
“They made it safely back to Orean. Our daughter escorted them herself and returned just this morning,” Apa explained.
“I didn’t know you had a daughter,” Roman said.
Leandros elbowed him. “This is your fault?”
It didn’t hurt, but that didn’t stop Roman from pouting and rubbing his arm for show. “In my defense, I wasn’t on the team, then. And after Unity abducted and arrested them, I felt they had the right to know.”
Leandros frowned. “Unity what?”
“Therein lies the cause of our concern,” Ioka said. “We were told your mission was a diplomatic one.”
“It is diplomatic,” Leandros snapped. “The purpose of our mission is to meet with Orean and negotiate my Uncle’s return. Nothing more.”
“And then what? What if you fail?” Ioka asked. “Unity has shown they’re not averse to taking hostile action against Orean. We sympathize with Orean and don’t wish to see them come to harm, but we brought you here so that we might understand the full situation before involving ourselves in any way.”
“Just by bringing us here, you’ve already involved yourselves.” Leandros said. “I understand your position. But you shouldn’t have interfered. Unity doesn’t care about me— and they hate Roman— but if anything happens to us while we’re in Lyryma, they’ll take it as a personal insult. They’re already looking for an excuse to fight with you, just as they were with Orean, and by taking us you’ve given it to them.”
Roman cringed. It was a good point, unfortunately. Home had done a foolish thing by drawing Unity’s attention to them. Lyryma served as a shield, for now, but Unity would give anything to see all non-Unity territories destroyed.
“You said your mission is a diplomatic one, but you know it’s an excuse just as well as the rest of us. Unity doesn’t care about your uncle. So why are you helping them?” Ioka asked.
Leandros wavered at this, but eventually said, “It’s an excuse that will get me my uncle back.”
Ioka bared his teeth, and Roman found himself cutting in. “We’re hoping to find Amos before the situation can develop. If we do, Unity’s excuse will collapse. They’ll have to leave Orean alone.”
“That’s assuming he’s still alive,” another Council member mused. “Or that he’s even in Orean.”
“True,” Roman admitted.
“Orean is where we’ll find out answers,” Leandros said. His hands curled into fists at his sides. “It has to be. The creature that took my father was wearing an orinian uniform.”
Roman frowned. He hadn’t heard that detail before. If you were a citizen of Orean about to kidnap a foreign king, why would you wear your nation’s uniform? You wouldn’t, unless it was meant to be an open declaration of war. That, or you were framing them.
The oanai were interested in Leandros’ comment, too.
“Creature?” Apa asked.
“I was there when Amos was taken. I saw the woman who did it. She was orinian, but she was also something else entirely. Her eyes glowed, she wielded magic. I’m not even entirely sure she was alive.”
Rather than immediately expressing disbelief, Home’s Council members began murmuring among themselves. Roman and Leandros shared a look, Roman shrugging.
Finally, Apa said, “That sounds like the creature Leihlani saw.”
Leandros’ eyes widened. “When? Where? Was it near Orean?”
Apa shook her head. “While escorting Egil’s friends south, our daughter met with a strange creature. She claimed it was a red dragon, but one without a heartbeat. A strange glow filled the space between its open wounds, she said, but it still reeked of death.”
Roman looked at Leandros, who’d paled at the mention of red dragons. “Did the orinian you saw have—,”
“Yes. It sounds the same.”
Roman tapped his fingers on the table and thought. So there really was someone or something with magic behind this. It was either Orean, trying to start a war, or a third party framing Orean— presumably, also to start a war. And then there was Unity, with their uncharacteristic response: diplomacy. Or a front of diplomacy, at least, while they also secretly threw a handful of their Enforcers at the city in an attempt to find the magic.
Roman almost laughed. Everyone was getting played.
“If what you say is true,” Apa said, “Perhaps this kidnapper is also responsible for the darkness that’s befallen Lyryma of late.”
“What would they stand to gain from targeting Lyryma?” Leandros asked, brow furrowed. “None of this makes any sense.”
“I have a feeling it won’t until we find whoever is responsible,” Roman said. “But that’s why you have to let us go. No one knows as much as Leandros and I about the situation, and Unity’s team— without us there, they’ll try to find the magic and take it. Either they’ll die in the process, which will make Unity furious and will almost certainly start a war, or they’ll succeed and give the magic to Unity. And Unity can’t be allowed to wield this power.”
“That’s something we finally agree on,” Ioka said.
“A miracle,” Roman replied.
“We need to discuss this further,” Mani said. “Thank you for your answers, even if you’ve left us with more questions. Of course we will let you go. Please, wait in Central Field and we’ll send someone to escort you back to your team shortly.”
Leandros frowned at the blunt dismissal, but Roman grabbed his arm and dragged him out of the strange building and back into the sunlight.
“Well,” he said as they went, “That was informative, don’t you think?”
“Informative?” Leandros gave Roman a flat look. “That’s all you have to say?”
“It’s a lot to process.”
“I knew Rhea and I weren’t just imagining things!” Leandros said, more to himself than Roman, now. “This is proof. Something unnatural is happening.”
“I’m starting to agree with you,” Roman said. He, of all people, knew magic wasn’t impossible. There was no other explanation for his own…transformations.
“But why Amos? What was the point of taking him?”
“And what’s a red dragon doing in Lyryma? The answers won’t come just from wondering, Leandros. There’s not much we can do until we get to Orean.”
“I hate that,” Leandros snarled, his vehemence surprising Roman. “I’m sick of feeling helpless! I’m sick of playing these games, of waiting when I’m told to wait, of wandering hours out of my way because I have no choice in the matter. Every delay we face makes it more likely that my uncle— that he—,”
“I know you’re worried, but he’s not going to die because we took a few extra hours getting to him.”
“How do you know?” Leandros snapped.
“Because when I was an Enforcer, kidnapping and killing were a part of my job,” Roman said flatly, watching Leandros cringe. “You don’t kidnap someone just to kill them weeks later. Either you need them alive, or you kill them immediately. Keeping them around when you don’t need to is more trouble than it’s worth.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?”
“Yes. Either it’s too late to help him, or a short delay won’t make a difference. And this delay did bring us a step closer to understanding what’s going on, so you should be happy.” Roman started walking while he talked, Leandros following automatically. “I know how important this mission is, Leandros. I do. I know better than anyone how important Amos is to you. But I also know you, and you need to stop beating yourself up over every little thing that goes wrong.”
Leandros didn’t look Roman’s way. They passed onto the plush grasses of Central Field, Roman still leading Leandros along.
There’s really nothing we can do right now, so take this moment to relax,” Roman continued. “We’re in the perfect place for it. I, for one, am enjoying being out from under the Enforcers’ watchful eye, if only for a brief time.”
Leandros sighed. He looked out across the field, to where a group of young oanai were gathered, one playing a sweet, trilling flute while the others danced. “I suppose you’re right.”
“That’s the spirit!”
Roman stepped further into the field, his feet moving to the beat of the flute’s song. He wasn’t even consciously aware of doing it, nor was he aware of Leandros’ gaze on him, soft and uncharacteristically vulnerable.
Leandros closed off again when Roman turned to face him. “Do you remember when we first met?” he asked.
Roman smiled wide. It was the same charming, boyish smile that Leandros remembered. Somehow, Roman hadn’t changed in the decades since they’d seen each other.
“Yes,” Roman said.
“I thought you were such an asshole.”
This startled a laugh out of Roman. “I saved your life!”
“You wouldn’t talk to me!” Leandros countered. His eyes again swept over the field. It had been on this spot, too many years ago to count, that his life had changed forever. “Then you got drunk on fae wine and wouldn’t stop talking.”
“And is that when you changed your mind about me being an asshole?” Roman asked. He fell back into the grass, patting the spot beside him.
After a brief pause, Leandros sat. “Yes,” he admitted. Another pause. “I should’ve trusted my first impression.”
“Oh, come on,” Roman said.
Leandros fought back a smile and laid beside him. Together, they stared up at the darkening sky. Roman didn’t know how much time passed like that, in companionable silence, but he knew nightfall would be on them soon. If they had to wait much longer, it would be too late to travel safely through Lyryma. Beside him, Leandros must have been having similar thoughts, because he pulled out his father’s old wristwatch and scowled at the ticking clock face.
“I’m sure they won’t be much longer,” Roman said.
Some time later, the sound of rustling grass and approaching hooves made him sit up, Leandros joining a little more slowly. They both climbed to their feet as the entirety of the Council approached. “See?” Roman whispered, ignoring the growing suspicion that something was wrong. “What did I say?”
“We cannot allow you to leave the forest,” Mani announced, voice somber.
“What?!” Roman asked. “But what about everything we discussed?”
None of the oanai looked happy about this sudden change— not even Ioka, who Roman assumed would be glad to inconvenience them under any other circumstances. When they didn’t answer, Leandros said, “You’re making a mistake. When Unity finds out about this, they won’t forgive you.”
Apa flinched, whiskers twitching, but said, “The situation has changed.”
“What circumstances?” Roman asked. “What changed your mind?”
Out from behind the Council members stepped a nympherai woman. She’d traded her customary bright colors for a faded traveling cloak, but even so, her face was unmistakable, as were the flame-like markings that licked across her skin.
She smiled at Roman and Leandros, and there was so much false kindness in it that Roman wanted to scream. Or run, maybe. Without quite meaning to, Roman took Leandros’ hand, squeezing it so hard Leandros looked at him in alarm. When the woman took a step forward, Roman took half a step back.
“Devikra?” Leandros asked, like he didn’t believe what he was seeing. He didn’t drop Roman’s hand.
Devikra’s smile turned sad. “It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?”
“What are you doing here? What’s going on?” Leandros continued. “Is this about a vision?”
“Isn’t it always?” Devikra said with a sigh. “It’s good to see you again, Leandros.”
“You too,” Leandros said, not sounding sure.
“Egil,” Devikra began, reaching for Roman’s free hand. Roman drew back. He could hear his heartbeat in his ears, picking up the closer Devikra got. He shook with the exertion of staying calm, of keeping that dark side of him from taking over. It always happened when he lost control like this— and he couldn’t lose control in front of Devikra. Not again.
And Leandros…he still didn’t know.
“Don’t touch me,” Roman said. He closed his eyes, afraid of what Devikra and Leandros would see if he opened them.
“Egil, please, hasn’t it been long enough? How many apologies do I have to give?”
“There aren’t enough apologies in the world.”
Leandros looked between the two of them with wide eyes, then took a decisive step in front of Roman. ”Devikra, explain. Now.”
“I can’t. I need you to trust me, Leandros, and trust that this is for your protection. I’ve instructed the Council to keep you here until I’ve given the all clear. If you continue to Orean, you’ll both suffer for it.”
“Instructed?” Leandros repeated. “Why would they listen to you?”
Devikra only smiled that same sad smile. “Just trust me?”
“Not until you give me something,” Leandros said. “What do you mean, this is for our protection?”
“The road to Orean only brings suwffering,” Devikra said. Her gaze fell on Roman, softened with something that looked like genuine concern.
Unable to listen anymore, Roman tore his hand from Leandros’ and promptly stormed off in the opposite direction. He could feel his control slipping as he walked, felt the pinching pressure behind his eyes that meant they’d transformed. The world was a darker place like this, so Roman kept his gaze lowered, watching the shadows pull to him like a sunflower seeking the light.
He expected Leandros to follow him, but he didn’t expect Leandros to run ahead and cut him off.
He wasn’t able to close his eyes in time, the alfar’s sharp gasp telling him that Leandros had seen. It brought on a fresh wave of panic in Roman, carrying the transformation further. He was sure his veins were glowing by now.
“Is she following us?”
“No. She’s talking to the Council,” Leandros said, his voice so steady that Roman risked a peek. Leandros met his gaze, expression more concerned than afraid.
It certainly wasn’t the reaction he’d expected.
“You aren’t afraid?” Roman asked.
Leandros raised an eyebrow. “Of you?” he asked.
“Devikra was,” Roman said. “When she saw me like this.”
Leandros glanced back at where Devikra waited for them, then took Roman’s hand. The white light of Roman’s veins set Leandros’ pale skin faintly aglow. Leandros pulled Roman abruptly away from Central Field, Roman following his lead easily.
With each step, the glow faded and Roman found he could breathe more easily. Usually, he couldn’t resist the call of the darkness, urging him to give in, but the warmth of Leandros’ hand was a tether to reality.
By the time they stopped, well out of the Council and Devikra’s sight, he almost felt in control again. The two of them stood in a wide, empty street, oanai-sized homes all around them. It must have rained here recently, because small puddles dotted the packed dirt road around them. One of the suns had set, the remaining sun casting Home in its orange-red glow.
“What just happened?” Leandros asked.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
Leandros pursed his lips, but accepted the answer without argument. “And Devikra? You used to be friends. What happened there?”
“I don’t want to talk about that, either.”
Roman’s distress must have been obvious, for how easily Leandros dropped that subject, too. “I don’t need answers now, but I hope you’ll give them eventually,” he said, voice softening. “Can you at least promise you’ll do that?”
Roman looked away. When he didn’t say anything, Leandros made a frustrated noise, but they were interrupted before he could say anything else.
“Egil! Mr. Nochdvor!”
Roman flinched, but relaxed when only Noss turned the corner. Noss stopped before them and bowed. “Lady E— Lady Devikra has requested that I show you to your lodgings. Please, come with me.”
Without looking Roman’s way again, Leandros sighed and followed Noss.
Their lodgings, as it turned out, were a singular room that reminded Roman strongly of a prison.
That’s not to say the room was cold or dirty; on the contrary, it was a pleasant sort of space, with oanai-sized furnishings and warm, muted colors. But the room had a single window, placed far too high up for either Roman or Leandros to look out of, and an oanai guard stood posted outside their door.
After all of the emotions Roman had cycled through in the last hour, he hated how stifling the space was.
“So much for a short delay,” Leandros sighed.
Roman shrugged. “We’ll figure something out in the morning. They won’t be able to keep us here long.”
He’d escaped the last time Devikra had tried to confine him, too.
Leandros sighed and removed his belt and pistol, dropping the set unceremoniously onto a side table. “There’s only one bed,” he pointed out.
Roman eyed the bed in question. “So there is.”
Leandros emptied his pockets, next, then dropped onto the bed, maneuvering so he could pull the blanket over himself without having to sit back up. “You can take the floor.”
Roman eyed the bed, which was big enough to comfortably fit a full-grown oanai. He’d upset Leandros again. He knew he should keep his mouth shut, so as not to make it worse, but he couldn’t help himself. “What, you don’t want to share?” he asked. “Worried you’d enjoy it too much?”
Leandros scoffed, then muttered something to himself. Louder, he said, “I hate you.”
Roman’s smile fell. “I know,” he said, softly. “You’re right to, probably. But I wish you didn’t.”
A heavy pause followed the admission. Unable to look at Leandros, Roman grabbed a blanket off the end of the bed and laid it out on the ground, preparing to sleep.
“Roman…” Leandros sighed. There came the rustling of fabric, and Roman looked over to see Leandros holding the blankets up. “Just. Come here.”
Roman didn’t wait to be told twice. He climbed into bed, only pausing when Leandros said. “Put that lamp out, first.”
Roman did, turning the wick down into the burner until they were plunged into darkness, then settled down into the bed with a contented sigh. He’d been sleeping on the ground for over a week now, so the plush mattress and Leandros’ warmth beside him had him drifting toward sleep embarrassingly quickly.
“I don’t hate you,” Leandros said in a low voice, startling Roman out of it. “I miss you. I worry about you, and it’s frustrating when you won’t let me.”
There was a pause, then Leandros added, “Do me a favor and pretend you’re asleep so I can pretend you didn’t hear that.”
“Not a chance,” Roman whispered, a smile spreading across his face and something warm sparking in his heart.
Leandros groaned. “Maybe I do hate you.”
“No, no taking back what you said now.”
Leandros reached out blindly, giving him a light shove. It was too dark to see, so Roman hadn’t realized how close they were. Leandros seemed to have the same thought, because he yanked his arm back as if he’d been stung.
“Go to sleep.”
“I’ll tell you everything,” Roman said. “Just not yet. I’m used to people turning on me once they see me— once they see what you saw.”
The blankets twisted again as Leandros turned to face Roman. “Does that happen often?” he asked.
Roman shrugged. “It’s been getting more frequent.”
“Do you know why it happens?”
“I don’t even have theories.”
Leandros made a thoughtful noise. “How long has it been going on?”
Squinting, Roman realized he was beginning to be able to make out the alfar’s face in the darkness. They really were close, both having plenty of space on either side of them they could spread out to.
“You mean since Unity…” Leandros began, trailing off.
Leandros took a deep breath, opened his mouth to speak, then immediately closed it.
“What?” Roman prompted.
“Is that why you did it?” Leandros asked.
“Abandoned me,” Leandros said flatly. “I still don’t understand it. I thought Unity killed you— I watched them kill you. I had to deal with the fallout from Histrios on my own, then found out you were alive as anything, prancing about the continent even as I mourned you.”
Roman cringed. “The magic was part of it. But there was more to it.”
“Oh, good. Because I’d have followed you anywhere, Roman. Magic or not. And I would’ve thought you knew that.”
Unable to face Leandros anymore, Roman rolled onto his back. “I do. I did.”
Leandros was quiet again. When Roman looked at him, his eyes were downcast, dark lashes fanned across his cheeks. “Was it because of what I told you that night?”
Many times, Roman wished he could have forgotten what Leandros confessed to him that night. It hurt too much to remember.
“There was more to it than that,” Roman said.
Catching Roman off-guard, Leandros laughed. It was a cold sound. “Right. And are you ever going to tell me what that was?”
“Forget it,” Leandros said. He sat up suddenly, throwing the blankets off both of them. “I’m not doing this.”
“What? What are you doing?”
“We’re breaking out of here. Devikra’s warning be damned.”
A/N: There was ONLY ONE BED