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 the southeastern corner of Calaidia, and Lyryma sat at the center of it like a blemish. Where the surrounding trees were sparse and dry, mostly deciduous, Lyryma was dense and humid year-round. In cold winters when snow covered Gallontea to the north and Orean to the south, Lyryma stayed warm and green. In long summers without rain, Lyryma saw rainfall of its own that came from nowhere and disappeared just the same.
Lyryma forest was an entity of its own, separate from everything around it. It was a mystery premised on a simple question: how did it exist? How could it, when the climate suited it so ill?
To those with imagination, there was another question: what powerful magic sustained it? To Roman, Lyryma seemed the closest thing to magic he’d ever find. His own strange transformations aside, at least.
He’d traveled both through and around Lyryma many times. The road to Illyon, in particular, was familiar to him: it cut west of Lyryma and followed parallel to its border. When Roman looked over, he could see the exact point where the foliage thickened and the trees changed, like a harsh line drawn in sand.
He was familiar enough with this road that he knew exactly how it should be at this time of year, at this time of day. And most was as it should be: the leaves above changed color, the road twisted and wound, though slightly more worn than Roman remembered. But the normalcy of the rest made clear one thing that was missing: the forest was too quiet. No insects chirped and no birds sang: the only sound Roman could hear — aside 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, listening closely.
Nearby, Gareth and Trinity discussed different journals popular among academics. Eresh and Thea bickered. Across camp, the security team huddled in their usual circle, discussing something in low tones. Roman heard the crunch of approaching feet over dead leaves, and in the distance, beyond the circle of their camp, he thought he could hear—
Jolted from his thoughts, Roman looked up to find Leandros standing over him. With the warm weather, the alfar had dropped his frock coat for a simple waistcoat and shirt rolled up to the elbows. The shirt’s hue brought out the pale blue of his eyes.
“Leandros,” Roman said, surprised. They’d been on the road for a week, and in that time, Leandros hadn’t sought him out once.
At Roman’s wide-eyed stare, Leandros crossed his arms and looked away. “I could use your help.”
“Mine? Sure.” Roman rose and followed Leandros through their camp — hardly even a camp right now, really. The team had just stopped for lunch, not even bothering to unpack their wagons for the short break. Leandros paused outside his trailer, holding the door 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 though it was only a third of the size, it reminded Roman of Dinara’s trailer. He felt a pang of guilt at the thought. He’d hardly thought about her since they’d broken up.
“Roman,” Leandros said, in a tone achingly familiar, in a voice Roman had thought about many, many times since he’d run away. It was part annoyed, part exasperated, but still with some undercurrent of fondness. Or so Roman liked to think, anyway.
“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 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. 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 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 much the last time he’d seen Leandros like this, unable to bear the sight 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, though.”
“Steadiness is the last thing I’ve come to expect from you, Roman.”
Roman cringed. “Yeah. I deserved that.”
Carefully, Roman unraveled the bandage around Leandros’ torso, avoiding touching bare skin as much 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 his task. It was a slow process, Roman taking it one stitch at a time and trying not to think too hard about 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, nearly making Roman stab him in the side. After a pause, he finally said, “I don’t know what to talk to you about, Roman.”
Roman’s hands stilled. He remembered a time when conversations between them flowed like rushing water, when they could talk about anything and everything and nothing at all. “How’s your mother?” he asked, deciding that the teasing route was the safest choice. When he glanced up, he saw Leandros biting back a smile.
“Happier, now that you’re out of my life. But vicious as ever, if not more so. She gave up on me entirely after Histrios,” Leandros said, his expression souring. “I don’t want to think about her. 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 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, Roman.”
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.
So that was why the forest had been so quiet. It was awaiting an ambush.
The oanai appeared suddenly. One moment, the forest was quiet, and in the next, looming, shaggy creatures surrounded the camp. Evelyne reacted first, her sword sliding from its sheath with practiced ease while the team began to panic around her. In the chaos, one of the diplomats screamed, but Evelyne barely noticed. After a week of quiet travel, the weight of a weapon in her hand had Evelyne’s blood singing. Without adrenaline in her veins and blood on her blade, she was nothing. No one.
“Aaror, Eftychia, protect the diplomats,” she ordered. “Ivor, with me.”
Before she could give the command to attack, though, Theodosia Fairfax blocked her path, waving her hands. Her eyes were wide, her hair wild. “Ms. Corscia, wait! They don’t want to hurt us!”
Evelyne hesitated, a belated realization coming to her. With such a flawless ambush, the oanai could’ve already killed them. Instead, they only closed around the camp in a circle, weapons raised but making no move to attack. How had Thea noticed that before Evelyne?
“With all due respect, Ms. Fairfax, they have weapons pointed at us. That sounds like violent intent to me,” Ivor said. Like Evelyne, 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 a wickedly curved blade in each hand.
All Enforcers were built to fight. Ivor didn’t exist outside the thrill of it, either.
Hearing Ivor’s words, one of the oanai signaled, the others lowering their weapons at the command. “The girl is right,” the leader said, stepping forward on long legs like a deer’s. It had been years since Evelyne had faced an oanai. She barely refrained from taking a step back as it approached.
“We know of your mission and come with questions,” the oanai continued. “We’re not here for violence.”
“Don’t listen to them,” Aaror warned, his bow drawn. Behind him, the diplomats were gathered in a tight circle, watching the exchange with wide eyes. “Lyryma nympherai are known to lie.”
“Put that down,” Evelyne said. At the questioning, borderline disobedient look he shot her, she said, “What do you think would happen if you shot now? We’d all be dead. Sometimes the smartest course is to just lower your weapon and talk.”
“That’s very wise. Who taught you that?” a familiar, infuriating voice asked. Evelyne hadn’t noticed Roman rejoin them, but there he was, stepping down from the Captain’s trailer behind Leandros with a smirk on his face. He waved at the oanai, seemingly unbothered by their presence.
“No one that matters. A traitor I once knew,” Evelyne snapped.
Roman’s smirk fell.
“Enough,” Leandros said. Roman stood behind him like a shadow. “Aaror, lower your weapon.”
While Leandros approached the lead oanai, Roman sidled over to Evelyne. “I can’t believe you let them sneak up on us,” he said in a mock whisper.
Evelyne spluttered, momentarily 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. Roman watched the movement, unimpressed, then raised an eyebrow at Evelyne as if challenging her to draw it.
“We’re only passing through,” Leandros said to the oanai. “I don’t know what mission you’re talking about, and we’ve done nothing to harm you or your kin. You need to let us go.”
“I’m afraid we can’t, Lord Nochdvor,” the oanai said.
“You know my name?” Leandros asked.
The oanai nodded. “We know who you are and we heard about what happened to your uncle. We only wish to ask you some questions.”
“This is some way of going about it,” Ivor scoffed. Now that his weapons had been put away, his hands were buried again 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. After some deliberation, the leader said, “No. I’m afraid you must come with us to Home. Our people wish to speak with you.”
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?”
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 back in Gallontea. 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. The diplomats’ safety is our top priority and cooperating with these oversized deer is the only way we can ensure it. Let’s just get this over with.”
“Not you,” the oanai told her. “Just Lord Nochdvor.” His dark eyes then tracked over to Roman, his whiskers twitching thoughtfully. “And him.”
Before Evelyne could think to reply, Eresh grabbed her arm. “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 flatly.
“But Ms. Corscia, they’re the Magistrate’s orders! I thought you’d agree with me!”
“Why? I rarely do.”
Ignoring them both, Leandros asked the oanai, “You’ll let the others go if we join you?”
“And you’ll let Roman and I go once we answer your questions?”
This time, the oanai hesitated before answering. “Yes.”
Beside Evelyne, Theodosia caught Leandros’ gaze, shook her head, and shrugged. Evelyne watched the girl out of the corner of her eye, intrigued. Thea had a 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 and looked around the camp, taking in the dozen or so oanai and the frightened diplomats. “Very well. You’re in charge while we’re gone, Ms. Corscia. Wait here until 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, Eresh. Listen to your Captain’s orders.”
“Leave your weapons here and come with us,” the oanai told Roman and Leandros, turning and starting toward the forest. Four oanai broke off from the circle to follow him.
Evelyne watched dispassionately as Roman and Leandros disappeared among the shadows of the wood. She wondered if they’d make their way back here, after all, or if this was the last time she’d see them. Her job would be infinitely simpler if it was the latter.
She eyed the remaining oanai — six total. Still not great odds for a fight, even given the skill of the Enforcers with her. “You have what you wanted, don’t you? What are you staying here for?” she asked.
“To ensure you don’t follow them,” one of the oanai answered.
“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, watching the oanai out of the corners of their eyes as if afraid to look directly. Most of them had likely never seen an oanai before — and never would again, once this was over.
Evelyne glanced over at a rustle of linen skirts to find Theodosia Fairfax kneeling beside her, her wide eyes fixed on the trees of Lyryma. Evelyne turned away and pretended not to notice the girl’s presence or her worry. Typically, she preferred to ignore others’ emotions unless they could help further her goals, but Thea’s anxiety was loud. Evelyne despised Roman and didn’t care for Leandros one way or the other, but for some reason, seeing Thea’s unease made her want to go into the forest and drag them back out herself.
Thea folded her hands in her lap, long fingers picking nervously at her nail beds. Evelyne’s eyes were drawn to the motion. “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 onto her face. “I know,” she said, “But we aren’t really just going to leave them, are we?”
Evelyne knew what her answer should be. She had orders from the Magistrates, orders she dreaded having to follow, and leaving Roman and Leandros to Lyryma 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. Evelyne couldn’t help but notice how green her eyes were. “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 had taken that tone with her. Or tried to bait her, for that matter. “I know what you’re doing.”
“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 rolled through the camp, uncaring and unaware of the scene it disturbed. It blew Thea’s hair into her face, just the long strands that escaped her messy bun. Upon first meeting her, Evelyne had thought Thea too timid. But seeing her like this, her hair wild and a smirk on her pink lips that both promised and withheld, she couldn’t possibly.
“I’ll be forever grateful to you,” Thea tried, mistaking Evelyne’s silence. She went so far as to pout. “You’ll be my new favorite on the team.”
At that, Evelyne felt a pang of longing. She longed for a world where simple conversations like this came naturally to her, where being the favorite of someone so lovely and naive was within the realm of possibility. That world had been taken from her at a young age. It had been twisted, warped, and bloodied by Unity, and then it had been handed back to her, unrecognizable.
And if Thea Fairfax knew all that Evelyne was capable of, she would fear her.
Still, it was nice to imagine.
“What do you propose I do?” she asked. She didn’t know what Thea saw in her expression, but whatever it was made her eyes widen.
“Rescue them,” Thea said.
Evelyne laughed but clapped a hand over her mouth quickly, surprised at herself. “We’d die in the forest before we ever reached them. None of us know the way to Home.”
Thea’s smirk grew. “Eresh does.”
“Eresh? How do you know that?”
“Because I bothered asking him about himself?” Thea said. “He was born in Home. He lived there until he was sixteen.”
“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 and stood. If she sat with Thea any longer, the girl would have her convinced before she could even collect her thoughts. Upon seeing Thea’s face fall, Evelyne promised, “If they’re not back by nightfall, I’ll consider it.”
She turned to leave but didn’t make it far before a hand caught her arm in a bruising grip. She narrowed her eyes at its owner, a tall man with a quiver of bows strapped to his back.
“Aaror,” she warned in a low voice. “What are you doing?”
“What are you doing, Evelyne?” Aaror asked, lowering his voice to match. “You’re not really considering that girl’s plan, are you?”
“Were you eavesdropping?”
“You know your orders. And the price of disobedience.”
“My orders,” Evelyne hissed, lowering her voice so even Aaror had to lean in, “Are to kill Nochdvor before we reach Illyon, if Hallisey hasn’t followed through on his promise by then. I’ll be hard to do that if they’re both in Lyryma, out of my sight. Don’t forget, Aaror, that your orders are to follow my lead. I’m not the one disobeying.”
With that, she tore her arm free and went to sit off by herself to think. By the time the oanai finally departed, leaving the team alone to wait for their Captain’s return, she had reached a decision.
Roman and Leandros followed the oanai deep into Lyryma. The foliage transformed around them as they went: the trees grew taller, wider, stronger. The dry air turned moist, making Roman feel suddenly damp and sticky. Self-conscious, he brushed his curls out of his face, already knowing what this humidity would do to them. It tipped the already warm day into uncomfortably hot.
Despite that discomfort, Roman felt a pleasant sort of nostalgia at being in Lyryma again. He remembered all the times he’d wandered through this forest, so long ago it felt as if it was another life. After he’d escaped Unity, Lyryma had been his solace. The oanai had accepted him, let him live in Home 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 hadn’t realized he’d been stagnating here until one night, a bold alfar invited him back into the world. He wondered if he’d still be living in Home — a bitter, damaged thing with no purpose, blind to the suffering of the world beyond these trees — if he hadn’t met Leandros. He glanced at the alfar out of the corner of his eye, but Leandros seemed lost in thought. Roman wondered if he, too, was remembering their first meeting.
He doubted it. These days, Leandros’ thoughts were only ever turned to the future.
Feeling eyes on his back, Roman turned and scanned the trees. This deep into Lyryma, the foliage offered many places to hide. Roman had sharp eyes, but he couldn’t see anything unusual. He stared a moment longer, though, unable to shake the feeling that the forest had changed. The shadows seemed deeper, the quiet suffocating.
“How long has Lyryma been like this?” he asked, his voice breaking the stillness around them. “It feels sick.”
“I’m surprised Egil noticed so quickly,” the lead oanai said, glancing back. “The forest has been frightened as of late, and that has made it unwelcoming. It’s no longer safe for even our best to hunt alone.”
“I don’t remember introducing myself,” Roman said.
At this, the oanai glanced away, his ears lowering almost sheepishly. “We’ve met. I don’t expect you to remember; it was a long time ago. I’m Noss.”
“Pleased to re-make your acquaintance, Noss,” Roman said cheerfully, “Even given the circumstances.”
“And yours as well, Egil. I hope you’ll forgive my bringing you along. The Council only requested the presence of Lord Nochdvor, but I thought seeing you might ease their concerns.”
“Ah, so we’re off to meet the Council,” Roman said.
Realizing he’d revealed more than he should, Noss pointedly refocused on the path ahead, relaxing only when Roman changed the subject.
They came upon the hidden city several hours later. It seemed entirely unaffected by the gloom hanging over Lyryma: its usual melodies drifted up through the mist, and Roman could see liveliness and motion down on the streets. He recognized a song in the distance from a half-forgotten Council meeting he’d attended. He used to join them just to hear the songs. Storytelling through music was a powerful thing, even if Roman 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 guarded 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! We’d heard news that Unity killed you.”
Beside Roman, Leandros stiffened.
“They tried,” Roman said with a forced smile, silently willing them to change the subject.
“We’re glad that they failed. And young Lord 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. In a cold voice, 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 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 in his shoulders ease.
“Let’s talk elsewhere,” Ioka said. “This conversation should be held privately.”
This surprised Roman. Home didn’t usually care for privacy. Council meetings were public, parties had open invitations, and even the doors of individual homes tended to be left open for neighbors to stop by and chat. That’s not to say that there weren’t secrets: they just tended to circulate quickly.
He and Leandros followed the oanai to an old stone building just off the field, Noss trailing a respectful distance behind. Elegant carvings depicting merry festivities lined the building’s stone walls, half-obscured by ivy. Roman couldn’t remember a single time he’d seen this place used.
Inside, the oanai led them to a feast hall of sorts, its long tables clear of anything but the fine layers of dust that coated them. When Ioka closed the heavy doors to the hall, the sounds of the city abruptly cut off, leaving them in silence. It unnerved Roman. Silence and privacy in Home struck him as deeply wrong, wrong like the gloom that hung over the forest.
The Council gestured for their guests to sit at the nearest table. It was oanai-sized, coming nearly up to Roman and Leandros’ shoulders.
“Forgive the secrecy,” a Council member Roman didn’t recognize said. “We’re trying to avoid overwhelming the people more than is necessary.”
“Overwhelming them?” Roman asked. “Why would we overwhelm them?”
“Home has had so much news of the outside world lately,” the Council member explained. “More in the last few weeks than we’ve had in centuries. Since we found out about Unity’s mission, there’s been wild, panicked speculation. We’d like to prevent any more of that until we’ve learned more about this situation.”
“Come to think of it, how did you find out about the mission?” Leandros asked. “It was supposed to be kept secret. Who told you?”
“We were tipped off by a trio of orinians that passed through Home. We’ve been watching for your team’s passing for some time.”
“Oh!” Roman said. After everything that had happened since, he’d almost forgotten about Maebhe and her family. “So they made it okay? Are they still here?”
“Does Egil know them?” Mani asked.
“I’m the one that helped them escape Unity.”
“They’ve returned safely to Orean. Our daughter escorted them and returned just this morning,” Apa said.
“I didn’t know you had a daughter!” Roman said. “What’s her name?”
Leandros elbowed him. “This is your fault?”
It didn’t hurt, but Roman made a show of pouting and rubbing his arm anyway. “In my defense, I wasn’t on the team at the time. And after Unity abducted and arrested them, I felt they had the right to know about the mission.”
Leandros frowned. “Abducted?”
“Unity was rounding up orinians in Gallontea. They interrogated them about magic,” Roman explained.
Leandros’ expression darkened.
“This is where our concern lies,” Ioka said. “We have heard this is a diplomatic mission, but how can we believe that when Unity is the one who said it?”
“It is diplomatic,” Leandros insisted. Roman suspected he was the only one who could hear the note of uncertainty in the alfar’s voice. “The purpose of our mission is to meet with King Whelan and work with him to secure my uncle’s return. That is all.”
“And what if you fail? Or Orean doesn’t have the answers you seek?” Ioka asked. “Unity has shown they’re not averse to taking hostile action against Orean. We don’t want to involve ourselves in this, but we don’t wish to see Orean come to harm, either.”
“Neither do we,” Roman assured him.
“Just by bringing us here, you’ve already involved yourselves,” Leandros said. “I understand your position, but you shouldn’t have interfered. You abducted us in front of a team full of Unity Enforcers. 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 come after you, just as they were with Orean, and you’ve given it to them.”
Roman cringed. Unfortunately, it was a good point. Home had done a foolish thing by drawing Unity’s attention to them like this. Lyryma shielded them from Unity’s wrath, but Unity would give anything to see Orean and Lyryma under its control.
“You know your mission is an excuse as well as the rest of us. Unity doesn’t care about your kin. So why are you going along with them?” Ioka asked Leandros.
Leandros shrugged and met the other’s gaze with an arch look. “It’s an excuse that will get me my uncle back.”
Ioka bared his teeth and Roman found himself anxiously cutting in. “Hopefully, we’ll find Amos before the situation develops. If we do, Unity’s excuse will collapse and 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.”
“Orean is the only lead we have,” Leandros said, the lines of his shoulders tense. “The creature that took my uncle was wearing an orinian uniform.”
Roman frowned. He hadn’t heard that detail before. If you were 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. Or you wanted it to seem like one.
The oanai seemed interested in Leandros’ comment, too.
“Creature?” Apa asked, sitting forward.
“The woman looks like an orinian but felt like something else entirely. Her eyes glowed. She used magic. I’m not even sure she was alive.”
Rather than expressing disbelief, the Council members leaned in and murmured among themselves. Roman and Leandros shared a look, Roman shrugging.
Finally, Mani said, “That sounds like the creature Leihlani saw.”
Leandros’ eyes widened. “When? Where? Was it near Orean?”
Apa shook her head. “It was here, in the forest. While escorting Egil’s friends south, our daughter met with a strange creature. She claimed it was a dragon, but one with no heartbeat. A strange glow filled the space between its open wounds, she said, and it reeked of death.”
Roman looked to Leandros, who’d paled at the mention of red dragons. “Did the orinian you saw have—,”
“Yes. It sounds exactly the same.”
Roman tapped his fingers on the table and thought. So there really was someone or something behind this. He was even inclined to believe the magic rumors, if a red dragon had been seen.
Initially, he’d wondered if Orean was trying to start a war, but now he felt certain they were being framed. Whoever was behind this — the orinian Leandros had seen, perhaps? — kidnapped Nochdvor hoping that might invoke Alfheim’s wrath, but then came Unity with its uncharacteristic response: diplomacy. Or a front of diplomacy, at least, while they secretly threw their Enforcers at Orean in an attempt to find something more valuable than a missing King.
Roman almost laughed. Everyone was getting played.
“If what you say is true,” Apa began, “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 me about the situation, and Unity’s team — without us there to stop them, they’ll try to find the magic and take it. Either they’ll die in the process, which will make Unity furious and almost certainly start a war, or they’ll succeed. 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 among ourselves 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, if you’d just wait in Central Field, we’ll send someone to escort you back to your team.”
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, “That was informative, don’t you think?”
Leandros gave Roman a flat look. “Informative? Is that all you have to say?”
“It’s a lot to process.”
“You don’t have to tell me that. I knew Rhea and I weren’t imagining things!” Leandros said, more to himself than Roman. “This is proof. Something unnatural is happening.”
“I agree,” Roman said. He, of all people, knew magic wasn’t impossible. There was no other explanation for his own strange 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 Creae Valley.”
“I hate that,” Leandros spat, his vehemence surprising Roman. “I’m sick of feeling helpless! I’m sick of political game, 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 that we face makes it more likely that my uncle— that he—,”
“I know you’re worried, but he’s not going to die just because we took a few extra hours getting to him.”
“How do you know?” Leandros snapped.
“Because I was an Enforcer, Leandros. Kidnapping and killing were parts 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 unnecessarily 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 matter. And this particular delay did bring us closer to understanding what’s going on, so that’s progress.” Roman started walking while he talked, Leandros following automatically. “I know how important this 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. Things are going to go 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.”
Leandros sighed. He looked across the field at a group of young oanai, 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 feat 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.
His expression 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. Sometimes, it seemed Roman hadn’t changed in the decades since they’d seen each other.
“Yes,” Roman said.
“I thought you were 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. That he had first seen Roman smile. “Then you got drunk on fae wine and wouldn’t stop talking.”
“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 followed. “I should’ve trusted my instincts.”
“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, 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 seemed to be 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. Both he and Leandros 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?”
Instead of a goodbye, though, Mani approached and said in a somber voice, “We cannot allow you to leave the city.”
“What?” Roman asked, heart sinking. “But what about everything we discussed?”
None of the oanai looked happy about this sudden change — not even Ioka, who Roman assumed would be happy 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. Someone more important to us than Unity has asked that we keep you here.”
“Who?” Roman asked.
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, perhaps. Without thinking about it, Roman took Leandros’ hand, squeezing it so hard that Leandros looked at him in alarm.
When the woman took a step toward them, Roman took a step back.
“Devikra?” Leandros asked, like he couldn’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 asked with a sigh. “It’s good to see you again, Leandros.”
“You too,” Leandros said, not sounding sure.
“Egil,” Devikra began, reaching for Roman. Roman drew back. His heartbeat pounded in his ears, picking up the closer Devikra got. He shook with the strain of keeping calm, of keeping that dark side of him from taking over. He couldn’t lose in front of Devikra. Not again.
And Leandros…Leandros still didn’t know. About Roman’s transformations, about any of it.
“Don’t touch me,” Roman told Devikra. He closed his eyes, afraid of what Devikra and Leandros might 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, protective 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 only to keep you here until things are safe. If you continue to Orean, you’ll both suffer for it.”
“Instructed?” Leandros repeated. “Since when has the Oracle of Damael had any sway of the oanai of Lyryma? Why would they listen to you?”
“Just trust me?” Devikra asked.
“Not until you give me something,” Leandros said. “What do you mean, this is for our protection?”
“The road to Orean only brings suffering,” Devikra said unhelpfully. Her gaze fell upon Roman, softening with something that looked like regret.
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 changed. He kept his gaze lowered, watching the shadows pull to him like a sunflower seeking light.
Roman expected Leandros to follow him, but he didn’t expect Leandros to run ahead of him 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. He had seen the way Roman’s eyes changed; he’d finally seen the monster that Roman was.
It brought on a fresh wave of panic in Roman, carrying the transformation further. He was sure his veins were glowing by now, too.
“Is she following us?” Roman cut him off, unable to bear whatever Leandros had been about to say.
“No. She’s talking to the Council.”
“She’s not looking at me?”
“No,” Leandros said, his voice so steady that Roman risked a peek at them. Leandros met his gaze, his hand finding Roman’s arm and squeezing reassuringly.
“Breathe, Roman,” he said in a low, soothing voice.
Roman hadn’t even noticed how erratic his breathing had grown. He consciously made himself take a deep, steady breath and felt the magic start to recede.
This certainly wasn’t the reaction Roman had expected from Leandros.
“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, his expression darkening as he processed this new information. With how close he stood, the white light of Roman’s veins set Leandros’ pale skin faintly aglow. Leandros pulled Roman abruptly away from Central Field, Roman going along happily.
With each step, the glow faded and Roman found he could breathe more easily, the warmth of Leandros’ hand a tether to reality.
By the time they stopped, well out of Devikra’s sight, he almost felt in control again. The two of them stood in a wide, empty street, oanai homes towering all around him. 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’d rather not talk about it.”
Leandros pursed his lips, but accepted the answer without argument. “Are you okay?” he asked.
“Yes,” Roman said, examining his own hand. It had returned to its usual shade. “This is nothing new.”
Leandros took that information in and nodded, but didn’t ask any more about Roman’s transformation. Instead, he asked, “But what about Devikra? You used to be friends. What happened.”
“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 answer, Leandros made a frustrated noise, but they were interrupted before he could say anything else.
“Egil! Lord Nochdvor!”
Roman flinched, relaxing 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 lodging, as it turned out, was a single 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 only one 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 pistol and belt, 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, wiggling 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 large 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? Worried you’d enjoy it too much?”
Leandros scoffed and 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 still 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 heavy 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 burning until they were plunged into darkness, then settled into the bed with a contented sigh. He’d been sleeping on hard 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 taking back what you said before.”
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 — once they see what you saw today.”
The blankets twisted again as Leandros turned to face Roman. “Does that happen often?” he asked.
Roman shrugged. “It’s been getting more frequent.”
“Does it go any further than what I saw?”
Roman shook his head, though Leandros couldn’t see it. “My eyes change, and there’s that strange glowing…but nothing else really happens. I usually get myself under control before it gets too bad.”
“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 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 closed it again.
“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 is what saved me, I think. But there was more to it. Leaving you there alone wasn’t my choice.”
“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 that night in Histrios. 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 be damned.”
A/N: There was ONLY ONE BED