112 Years Ago
Year Of Unity 1758
On a day like this, anyone else might appreciate the picturesque, woody landscape that passed them by, but Leandros found his own attention repeatedly straying to his companion’s back. Roman marched along ahead of Leandros, a spring in his step and a knapsack thrown over his shoulder.
Leandros had been traveling with Roman for years and still couldn’t understand how he did this — how he traveled like this, with so much ease. Roman was always certain, always confident that he’d find what he needed eventually. Leandros didn’t have that kind of faith in the road ahead. And if he’d been through half the trials Roman had, he felt quite sure he wouldn’t have any at all.
But traveling with Roman — even if it was at Devikra’s beck and call — had shown Leandros a new world. A free world, where maybe just around the bend, things did get better.
Roman glanced back at him, his long, curly hair draped artfully over his shoulder, and Leandros nearly tripped over his own feet. Roman raised an eyebrow at him and, misunderstanding the alfar’s pensive expression, said, “You’re not still worrying about Alfheim, are you? Your family can do without you for a few days, and getting out will do you some good.”
Leandros murmured an agreement, not having the heart to tell Roman the truth: that his thoughts weren’t on Alfheim, on his father’s still-recent betrayal or the turmoil it wreaked on his family. Instead, they were — as was increasingly the case these days — fixed on Roman himself.
“It can’t be much farther to Histrios, at least,” Roman said. “And we’ll have plenty else to occupy our thoughts once we get there.”
“Yes, of course.”
They traveled northeast from Alfheim, into the Chameus province and toward the city of Histrios. Histrios, despite sitting at the very center of Calaidia, was a quiet and secluded city. While it welcomed visitors, it didn’t invite them. It maintained minimal contact with the outside world. And that was part of Roman and Leandros’ reason for visiting: because it was so hard to get news from Histrios, Devikra kept a contact within the city, someone that updated her on happenings within the city walls.
His name was Nikolas Miskatos, and a month ago, he’d stopped responding to Devikra’s letters. Two days ago, the Oracle had prophesied his death.
It would be a clean death, according to the sketch Wilhara had drawn of her vision. It depicted Miskatos dead in his study, though it hadn’t been clear whether his death was due to natural causes or sinister ones. Roman and Leandros had been sent to find out if it was the latter. And with any luck, they’d also arrive in time to ask Miskatos why he’d stopped writing.
They were making good time for it. They’d traveled by carriage from Alfheim to Lindesholm and had been on foot since. Leandros didn’t mind; out in the countryside like this, he felt more alive than he ever did within city walls.
And the weather was pleasant enough for their journey — it was the kind of humid that precluded a great storm, warm enough that Leandros had to unbutton his shirt partway. Sweat beaded on the back of his neck and dampened his hair only to be chilled by the cool breeze coming up from the south. Fortunately, they’d been climbing steadily uphill for the better part of an hour, and with the increased altitude came more of that relieving wind.
Occasionally, between the trees, Leandros glimpsed one of the famed lakes surrounding Histrios, famed in particular for their clear color, their purity (so pure it was said bathing in them cured certain ailments), and the high bluffs surrounding them. As these sightings grew more frequent, Roman assured Leandros that meant they were getting closer.
And sure enough, the grand city itself soon emerged from among the trees. Leandros wasn’t sure which to gawk at — the lake the city had been built along, its crystalline waters stretching so far it may as well have been an ocean, or the city itself, all smooth marble and stern stature. He settled for both.
As they approached the city gate, two sentries came out, calling for them to stop. Both held rifles trained on the approaching travelers. When Roman held his hands above in surrender, apparently unconcerned by this unexpected twist, Leandros did the same.
“I knew we wouldn’t receive a warm welcome, but I didn’t expect this,” Roman murmured as the sentries approached.
“Is something wrong, do you think?” Leandros asked.
“Dunno. Probably. Guess we’ll find out,” Roman said with a small, excited smile.
“What business do you have in Histrios?” a sentry called when she was about twenty feet away.
“We’re just passing through on our way to Adondai,” Roman bluffed. “Thought we’d stop here to re-stock on supplies. My friend here forgot to pack a coat. I did try to warn him.”
Leandros rolled his eyes.
“Visitors aren’t permitted in Histrios at this time,” the sentry informed them. “I’m sorry for the inconvenience.”
Roman’s eyebrows shot up at that. “What, not at all? What are we supposed to do? We’ve only food enough left for a few days; whether we turn back or go around, it won’t last.”
The sentry who’d done most of the talking looked to the other, then, uncertain.
“If you give us money and a list of supplies, one of us can go to the market and fetch them for you. But no visitors are allowed in Histrios at this time,” the other sentry called.
“Give you my money?” Roman scoffed. “I wasn’t born yesterday.”
Leandros watched the back and forth with raised eyebrows, wondering what, exactly, Roman was trying to achieve.
“This is absurd,! Roman said, visibly working himself up. “I won’t be turned away without knowing the reason for it. I demand to speak to a higher authority. Whose orders are these? Take me to them.”
Ah, there it was.
When the sentries hesitated yet again, Roman sighed. He mouthed a quick sorry to Leandros, then, in a haughty voice, called, “Do you even know who this is? This is Leandros Nochdvor, second in line to the Alfheim throne! You do know how important Histrios’ trade relationship with Alfheim is, don’t you? No? Then go fetch someone who does. Better yet, take us to them directly. That is, unless you want to keep Lord Nochdvor standing in the road like a commoner.”
Leandros crossed his arms and tried to look put upon. At the very least, his and Roman’s combined efforts got the sentries to lower their rifles. Clearly, they didn’t know that Histrios’ trade relationship with Alfheim was virtually nonexistent.
“Do you have any proof you are who he says you are?” the sentry asked.
Leandros rifled through his bag until he found his traveling papers. “They don’t exactly contain my entire genealogy,” he said,” he said, handing her the papers, “But the family name and crest will suffice, I think.”
The sentry reviewed the papers and went pale under her helmet. “Should we alert Councilor Miskatos?” she asked the other.
“Miskatos?” Roman repeated, sharing a look with Leandros.
“They’re his orders,” the sentry explained, bowing when she returned Leandros’ papers. “Apologies, Your Highness. We’re only doing as we’re told.”
“Actually, that’s not—,” Leandros began, then deciding the improper mode of address worked in their favor. He cleared his throat. “Take us to him. You’ve wasted enough of my time already.”
Roman hid a smile at Leandros’ sudden imperious tone.
“Yes, Your Highness,” the sentry said. “Minoas, take them to the Councilor.”
“But—,” the second started, only to be silenced by a look from the first. “Of course. If you two would follow me, then. Please keep close.”
And so, Roman and Leandros were escorted into the city of Histrios.
Leandros didn’t know what to expect from the city — after that cold welcome, possibly either chaos or some sort of martial state — but Histrios was vibrant and vivacious, the streets flooded with people traveling to and fro. They seemed content, generally, and didn’t spare Leandros or Roman a second glance if they noticed them among the crowds.
Roman nudged Leandros while they walked, a smirk playing at his lips. “Good to see your title getting us somewhere other than into trouble for once, Your Highness.”
Leandros scoffed. “I don’t think it’s my title that gets us in trouble, Roman; you do a fine job of that on your own.”
Roman laughed loudly enough that the sentry shot them a suspicious look. “You help,” he added under his breath.
The sentry hailed a passing cab as they walked. Once the three of them were settled in the hard seats and the driver had spurred the horses into motion, Roman asked, “You said this Miskatos is a Councilor?”
The sentry nodded. “Yes, sir. One of five. He was elected only a month ago.”
“Ah,” Roman said, sharing a pointed look with Leandros. Miskatos’ last letter to Devikra arrived five weeks ago.
“Forgive me,” Leandros began, “I’m not very familiar with Histrios’ politics. These Councilors, they’re the highest authority in the city?”
Again, the sentry nodded. “The Councilors hear feedback from other organizations and officials at their weekly assemblies, but yes, they have the final say over what happens in Histrios.”
“They’re the reason no visitors are being admitted into the city?” Leandros asked.
The sentry avoided his gaze. “I would rather leave that to Councilor Miskatos to explain, if you don’t mind. It’s a private Histrios affair.”
“Of course,” Leandros said. “I understand.”
The cab fell silent after that, the sentry breaking that silence only to point out the Councilors’ assembly house as they passed. They continued through Histrios, to the center of the city and then beyond, and soon the far gate was visible over the tops of the buildings. Leandros suspected the cab was carrying them straight through Histrios to dump them on the other side, but then they suddenly turned off onto a gravel road.
The cab passed between two marble columns and into a verdant garden, gracefully posed statues and elegant flowers lining the bumpy path. At the center of the garden sat a large gazebo made of painted marble and ornate archways. The carriage rattled past that as well, following the long drive to stop in front of a surprisingly modest house.
While smaller than the buildings they’d seen in the city square, it was constructed in the same stern, trabeated form that characterized the rest of Histrios. As Roman and Leandros were led into the entrance hall, they noticed the aged furniture and simple decorations, unexpected for the home of a city Councilor. Soft fabrics and jewel tones lined the hall, making for a cozy atmosphere.
A single guard in a city uniform stood at the doors. He nodded to the sentry, who bade Roman and Leandros wait while he took Miskatos’ maid aside and explained the situation. The maid, a young marionite woman with her hair all up in a bonnet, glanced Roman and Leandros’ way, her wide brown eyes lingering on both of them before she nodded to the sentry.
“Please follow me,” she said in a soft voice. She led them deeper into the building, down halls and up creaky stairs until finally stopping outside a closed door. When she raised her hand to knock, her sleeve tugged up to reveal the edge of a colorful tattoo — it seemed to circle her wrist and continue up her arm, but Leandros couldn’t discern the subject of it.
When a response came from inside, the maid bade them wait while she and the sentry slipped inside. Several minutes passed before the maid emerged again, informing them that the Councilors would see them.
“Councilors?” Roman asked, but the girl only nodded and stepped aside.
Beyond the door was a comfortable study, clearly well-loved and well-used. Books lined the walls between paintings of the Histrios countryside and maps and official-looking documents covered every available flat surface. The curtains were open, revealing a perfectly centered view of the garden and the dark clouds that loomed over Histrios.
There were more people present than Leandros expected — five total. All were somber, well-dressed, and four stared at the newcomers with open suspicion. Leandros sighed. So much for a quiet talk with Miskatos.
“Thank you for bringing them to me,” one of the Councilors said to the sentry. “You may return to your post.”
While the sentry bowed and retreated, the speaker rose from a plush armchair. Unlike the others, he smiled in welcome. He was a strikingly handsome man, with a strong nose and lines around his eyes left from a lifetime of laughter, and the smile made him all the more striking. It also made it evident that, despite the gray streaks in the man’s dark hair, he was the youngest of the assembled Councilors.
And two days ago, Roman and Leandros had seen a drawing of him lying dead in this very study. Seeing him robust and healthy now, Leandros suspected foul play must be involved.
“Welcome to Histrios, friends. You look like your Uncle, Lord Nochdvor,” he said, holding out a large hand.
Leandros shook it. “Leandros, please. You’ve met my uncle?”
Miskatos nodded. “Only once, when I was younger and had time to travel places as far as Alfheim. Lynn says you’re passing through on your way to Shema?”
The maid — Lynn, presumably — shuffled her feet and ducked her head when Leandros glanced her way.
“That’s right,” Roman said, “We’d hoped to find some lodging in Histrios for the night, but they told us visitors weren’t allowed in.”
“I’m terribly sorry for the inconvenience,” Miskatos said, in the way of a man accustomed to pacifying powerful people. Leandros knew it well, frequently used the very same tone on his own family. “We’ve had to close our borders recently. You’re welcome to stay in my home tonight, and we’ll help you find the supplies you need tomorrow.”
“That sounds wonderful, thank you,” Leandros said. Hopefully, they’d have a chance to speak to Miskatos alone before then.
Miskatos held a hand out to Roman. “I didn’t catch your name.”
“Roman Hallisey,” Roman said, shaking it.
Just before Roman could pull his hand back, Miskatos flipped it over, revealing the old brand seared into Roman’s inner wrist.
“Well, well. A Unity spy,” Miskatos said, his friendly voice gone cold. “And you’re not even trying to hide it. You’re either confident or foolish, after what happened to the last of your kind Unity sent to Histrios.”
Roman pulled his hand back like he’d been burned, but not before everyone in the room had seen the brand. “There’s a third option,” he said, cradling his wrist as if hiding the brand would erase it from his skin. “I don’t work for Unity.”
“Please! We all know what that mark means,” one of the Councilors — a frail, balding man — said. “Have you come to finish me off, then?”
“Lynn, call the guards,” Miskatos ordered.
“Wait just a moment!” Leandros said, blocking the maid’s path to the door. “Roman is telling the truth.”
“And we’re to take your word for it? Do you have any idea what dangerous company you keep, boy?” another Councilor asked.
“Look at his face; of course he knows,” a fourth Councilor, a woman in an elegantly draped purple gown, said. “Alfheim has always been Unity’s favorite. They’re probably in league. I don’t care who his uncle is, Councilor Miskatos. If he’s going to willfully bring this monster into Histrios — into your very home, they should both be arrested.”
Roman flinched at the word monster.
“How dare you speak about him like that,” Leandros snapped. “You don’t even know who you’re talking to — none of you do. This is Egil. You should be welcoming him.”
“The sword of Unity himself,” Miskatos marveled, regarding Roman with new thoughtfulness. “Can it be?”
“That was a long time ago,” Roman said. “I don’t work for them anymore.”
“Oh, I know Egil’s story,” Miskatos said, “The sword of Unity turning against its owner in a twist of poetic justice. My wife loves a good Egil tale, so I’ve heard most of them. What I don’t understand is why he’d be standing in my study.”
“If you know my story, you know who I work for,” Roman said. “Someone did send us, but it wasn’t Unity.”
Miskatos’ eyes widened as the realization hit him. Then, to everyone’s surprise, he laughed. It was a great, bellowing laugh, loud and warm. “Oh, of course! I can’t believe I forgot. She sent you to check on me, did she?”
“Miskatos, what is the meaning of this?” the balding Councilor said.
“Everything’s alright, Councilors. Lynn, it seems we don’t need you to fetch the guard after all,” Miskatos said, clapping a hand to Roman’s shoulder in a fatherly gesture. “This really is Egil.”
“What!” the purple-gowned Councilor said. “Miskatos, how can you be sure about this? The brand—,”
“They stories say Egil worked for Unity, once. Of course he’d still bear their brand. It’s alright, Councilor Saratea. The Oracle of Damael is a personal friend of mine. I haven’t had time to answer her letters since my election, so I knew it was only a matter of time before she sent someone to check on me. I just never imagined it would be her right-hand man!”
Miskatos frowned, then, and looked at Roman. “Unless you’re here because of a vision. Did she see something happening to Histrios?”
Leandros couldn’t bring himself to look at the man. Roman cleared his throat awkwardly. “Histrios? No, not as far as I’m aware.”
“But should we really trust—,” the older Councilor began.
“What I believe we should be doing, Councilor Zerelis, is apologizing to our guests for our cold welcome. Perhaps, if we’re convincing enough, we can persuade Egil and Lord Nochdvor to help us once we explain the strange predicament Histrios finds itself in.”
“Predicament?” Leandros asked.
“Allow me to explain over dinner. It’ll take some time to recount it all, and I have a few matters to wrap up with my fellow Councilors. For now, Lynn will show you to your rooms, give you a chance to wash up. Lynn, when you’re finished, ask Cook to set two extra places for dinner.”
Lynn curtsied and led Roman and Leandros out of the study. They passed a set of wide windows, and Leandros was surprised to notice that the storm had finally caught up with them. A steady downpour rained down outside, the patter of it against the glass oddly comforting.
Beside Leandros, Roman stayed quiet. He always got like this when his work for Unity came up: sullen and thoughtful. It hurt Leandros to see. Before he could think to distract Roman, though, Lynn stopped in front of two doors, her face half-hidden beneath her bonnet as she said, “Please let me know if you need anything. I’ll fetch you when dinner is ready.” With that, she left them alone.
Beside Leandros, Roman was quiet. He always got like this when his work for Unity came up and it hurt Leandros to see. Lynn showed them to two guest rooms, her face half-hidden beneath her bonnet as she said, “Please let me know if you need anything. I’ll fetch you when dinner is ready.” With that, she left them alone.
Like the rest of the house, the guest rooms were modest. Leandros stopped in his only long enough to drop off his bag and wash the dust from the road off his face before heading over to Roman’s room.
“Are you alright?” Leandros asked as soon as Roman opened his door.
Roman stepped aside to let Leandros in, closing the door behind him. “What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean,” Leandros said. He hesitated, torn between taking the room’s only chair and sitting on the bed, where Roman had just made himself comfortable. In the end, he thought it best for his sanity if he settled for the former.
Roman watched him curiously. Not for the first time, Leandros wondered if Roman saw what he fought so desperately to hide. “I’m fine, Leandros. I’m used to having to defend myself.”
“You shouldn’t have to be. You haven’t done anything wrong.”
Roman laughed at that. He sprawled back on the bed and held up his hand, studying the brand with a fading smile still touching his lips.
“Roman,” Leandros said, scolding now, “Whatever you did for Unity is in the past. You’re a different person.”
“I’m not sure that grants me absolution,” Roman said with another sad smile.
“It should,” Leandros said, making Roman shake his head.
“We need to go over how much to tell Miskatos,” he said to change the subject. “I don’t think we should tell him about Wil’s vision. There’s nothing either of us can do to stop it, either way.”
Leandros sighed. “I hate that. I wish we had just arrived after it happened. I don’t like looking him in the eye and knowing he’s going to die.”
“I know. I agree.”
There came a knock at the door, then. Leandros rose to answer it; Lynn seemed surprised to find him at the door instead of Roman. She took a small step back and curtsied. “Dinner is being served.”
“Already?” Roman asked from behind Leandros. “Great.”
They followed Lynn back through the dark hallways, passing more paintings like the ones in the study.
“The man loves his landscapes,” Roman observed to Leandros in a whisper.
“It’s a popular art style among the people of Histrios,” Lynn said, the first words she’d willingly spoken to them. “They’re very proud of the lakes and bluffs around here.”
“They?” Roman asked. “You’re not from Histrios?”
Lynn shook her head. “I grew up elsewhere.”
Roman frowned at her back, his thoughts inscrutable to Leandros, as always. Lynn led them to a brightly lit dining room, a long table laden with food at its center. Miskatos sat at the head of the table, the seats on his immediate left and right open. The four Councilors were also present, and opposite Miskatos sat a beautiful woman with dark hair and a heart-shaped face.
“There they are! Come in, come in,” Miskatos said, waving Roman and Leandros over to the table. “Please, sit. I realized too late that I’ve been remiss in my duties as host — I completely skipped introductions. You can call me Nikolas. Here we have Councilors Zervelis, Saratea, Demapoulos, and Pulakis. And of course, my wife Penelope. Penelope, these are the guests I was telling you about.”
“Egil and Lord Nochdvor,” Penelope said, regarding them with open curiosity. Her accent, soft and rounded, sounded familiar to Leandros — with a start, he realized it sounded like Roman’s. “It’s an honor to have you in my home. I wish I’d known you’d be coming; I could have welcomed you properly.”
“We don’t need much welcome, Lady Miskatos,” Roman said, taking one of the seats beside Nikolas. “We would’ve been spending another night on the road if it hadn’t been for your husband’s generosity.”
Penelope apparently noticed the similarity as well, her lovely face lighting up with excitement. “Are you from Troas?”
Roman smiled. “I am, though I haven’t been in a while. I grew up in a village near Sicuatos.”
“I have an aunt in Sicuatos!” Penelope said. “As a child, we took frequent visits there. I’m from Veite.”
“That’s funny,” Roman said, his smile turning genuine. To Leandros, accustomed as he was to reading Roman’s moods, it seemed Roman had finally begun to relax. “Veite is lovely in the summer.”
“I confess I’ve always felt connected to Egil stories,” Penelope said, leaning forward as if sharing a secret. “How strange it is that all this time, we’ve shared this connection as well.”
“What a small world,” Miskatos said. “Here, serve yourselves. As my guests, I’d like you to go first. Our cook is the best in Histrios.”
Leandros served himself right away, but Roman first rolled down his sleeves, buttoning them at the wrist so his brand would no longer be visible. Miskatos watched the action, then said, “Despite my peers’ sour expressions, Egil, we’re glad you’ve come.”
Roman raised an eyebrow. “You changed your tune quickly, then.”
“The truth is, we’re having a problem with Unity’s spies. It’s not a foe we ever imagined ourselves facing, and it’s fraying on all our nerves. I hope you’ll forgive the earlier paranoia.”
“Spies,” Roman repeated, obviously amused at the term. “I’m surprised you even know about their existence. The Enforcer program is one of Unity’s closest-guarded secrets.”
“The Enforcer program?” Councilor Saratea, the purple-gowned woman who’d spoken earlier, asked. “Is that what they’re called?”
Roman nodded, finally loading a few small dumplings onto his plate. “They call themselves Enforcers. You’re right to be nervous. What kind of problems are you having with them, exactly?”
“One of them tried to kill me,” Councilor Zervelis muttered.
“Tried to kill you? When? How?”
“Oh, a month ago, at least. This was before Miskatos was elected,” Zervelis said. “We were in the middle of some…intense discussions with Unity at the time.”
“We managed to catch the spy — Enforcer,” Saratea corrected, “But we weren’t able to get any information out of him before he escaped.”
“Of course not,” Roman said. “He’s trained to withstand any sort of interrogation imaginable. Think of the vilest, cruelest torture method your mind can conceive — I can guarantee Unity has trained them to withstand worse.” Roman paused, then, seeming to remember Penelope. “I’m sorry for the gruesome insinuations, Lady Miskatos.”
“Don’t worry about me. My husband shares all of his work with me, even when it involves…gruesome insinuations,” Penelope said, cutting the food on her pate with a dainty hand.
She handled these matters better than Leandros, then. Each new detail he learned about the things Unity does to its Enforcers made Leandros feel physically ill. Or maybe it was just the knowledge that Roman spoke from personal experience.
“Is the Enforcer still in the city?” Roman asked Miskatos.
“We don’t think so. We believe he made it out before we closed the gates, but we aren’t sure.”
“Here’s some advice, then,” Roman said. “Double your security. One guard won’t protect you. Zervelis, triple yours. If the Enforcers are targeting you, even closed borders won’t help. They’ll find a way into the city just as Leandros and I did.”
The Councilors shared a look. Miskatos ran a hand through his hair. “Is there anything we can do to identify them sooner? Do you have any tips for dealing with them?”
“I might have a few,” Roman said. “Can I ask what you did to get their attention? The Enforcers are Unity’s last resort. The Magistrates wouldn’t send them unless you made them desperate.”
“I was wondering when you’d ask,” Miskatos said, sitting back in his chair and crossing his hands over his stomach. The chair creaked in protest. “Three weeks ago, Histrios declared independence from Unity.”
Roman, who’d just put a dumpling in his mouth, almost choked.
“You what?” Leandros asked while Roman coughed.
“We declared ourselves independent from Unity,” Miskatos repeated. “It was a unanimous decision made by the Councilors.”
“You can’t just do that,” Roman gasped.
“Isn’t it what you did, on a larger scale?” Miskatos asked. “And Orean? They did it, didn’t they?”
“I ran,” Roman said. “They chased me all the way to Lyryma and if they ever catch me, I’ll be executed on the spot. Orean, they were separate from Unity from the start. Unity still hates them for it. They won’t just let you go.”
“Not without a fight, but that, we’re willing to give,” Councilor Zerelis said. Beside him, Councilor Demapoulos — a spindly man with light, striking eyes — nodded.
“I wish you’d join us in that fight, Egil,” Miskatos said. “You of all people should know what Histrios is going through right now.”
“I’m unclear on something,” Leandros said. “Why did you do it? You have to know how much trouble this is going to bring Histrios. Why put the city through that? What did Unity do to you?”
“Unity wants to build a railway station,” Miskatos said.
Leandros blinked at him. “Pardon?”
“Histrios’ location is convenient for them. They made it clear their intentions to build a railway station in the city, one that connects the provinces to a central rail line,” Miskatos explained. “We’re a quiet city, Lord Nochdvor, and we prefer it that way. Not only would this railway station change Histrios as we know it, it would destroy and industrialize our countryside, as well. The Chameus Province would become a wasteland.”
Leandros thought of the beautiful paintings in the halls, the crystalline lakes he’d glimpsed on their way into the city. He couldn’t blame them for wanting to protect it.
“When we made it clear we wouldn’t give them the land they requested, they imposed taxes, cut funding, threatened to do much worse. When those tactics didn’t work, they went for Zerelis,” Miskatos said. “They’re trying to suffocate us into selling our city, and we won’t play their games. They’re ruthless, Lord Nochdvor, and we’ve had enough of it.”
The other Councilors nodded their agreement.
“You seem determined,” Roman said with a sigh.
“We are,” Miskatos said. “Will you help?”
“I’ll think about it,” Roman promised. “I can give you advice, at the least.”
“That’s the spirit!” Miskatos said, clapping Roman on the shoulder. “If this rain lets up, I’ll show you Histrios. Once you’ve seen this city, you’ll see why we can’t let Unity have it.”
As dinner wrapped up, Lynn approached Miskatos and murmured something in his hear. Whatever it was, Miskatos responded with his great, bellowing laugh. “It seems you’re all stuck here for the night,” he told the Councilors. “The rain hasn’t let up. The streets are starting to flood.”
“I was afraid of that happening,” Zerelis sighed. “I hope you didn’t give my usual room away, Miskatos.”
Leandros raised an eyebrow. Is this a common occurrence?”
Miskatos shrugged. “Common enough, during the rainy season. Lynn will prepare your regular room, Zerelis, don’t fret. As for you two—,” Miskatos turned to Roman and Leandros, “—Would you come with me? I’d like to speak privately.”
Miskatos led them back up to his study, closing the door behind them. Leandros watched the Councilor curiously, waiting for him to speak, but Roman was already wandering deeper into the study, taking a closer look around.
“At last, we can speak freely,” Miskatos began. “Tell me, how angry is Devikra?”
“She’s not angry at all,” Leandros said, remembering Devikra’s expression when she’d seen Wil’s drawing. It had been…if not sad, then at least subdued.
“No? Her recent letters have been insistent. I received another from her just this morning,” Miskatos said, gesturing to one of the loose papers on his desk.
“May I?” Roman asked, pointing at it. When Miskatos nodded, he picked the letter up, briefly glancing over its contents, a small furrow appearing between his eyebrows.
“Is it really because of your election that you haven’t been able to write?” Leandros asked.
“It is. Believe me, I value my relationship with the Oracle — especially now, considering Histrios’ need for allies. But it’s been one emergency after another since I was elected. The people rely on me — I hope you’ll keep this between us, but the Council hasn’t always been on their side. I speak for them. Everything I do, it’s for them. For this city.”
“We believe you,” Leandros said, honestly. After the dinner they just sat through, it was clear how much this man loved his city.
“Is being a Councilor something you’ve always been interested in doing?” Roman asked. He’d moved on from the letter and was now leaning casually against Miskatos’ desk.
Miskatos laughed. “I feel like I’m being interrogated. Truth be told, I had often considered it, but hadn’t thought it possible. But this business with Unity — the Council needed a firm voice like mine.”
Roman smiled politely at him. “I’m just trying to understand what’s happening in Histrios as best I can, and that includes determining how this situation came about. So tensions between Histrios and Unity were rising — and I imagine the assassination attempt didn’t help — and then the people elected you to serve on the Council. Are you the one who proposed the secession?”
“Clever. Yes, it was my idea,” Miskatos admitted. “But the other Councilors agreed. Like I said, it was unanimous, though Demapoulos and Pulakis took some convincing.”
“I see. I meant what I said at dinner — I can give you advice, but I can’t fight this battle for you. One other thing I can do is tell Devikra about what’s happening here. She might be able to do more.”
“Will she able to watch Histrios? I know her visions are unpredictable—,”
“She can’t choose the subjects of her visions,” Roman said, shaking his head. “Either she’ll see something happening in Histrios or she won’t. I’m sorry.”
Miskatos sighed. “It’s not your fault, of course. We’re just in a tight spot, here. Thought I’d ask.”
“I understand,” Roman said. “That doesn’t mean she won’t be able to help you in other ways, though. I’ll put in a good word.”
“I appreciate that. Now, you two have been traveling all day — I’m sure you must be exhausted. Don’t let me keep you up any later. I also meant what I said at dinner, by the way. I’m taking you on a tour of Histrios tomorrow. Hopefully, this blasted rain will have passed by then.”
“We look forward to it,” Leandros said. “Thank you again for your hospitality, Councilor.”
Miskatos waved them both off. “Think nothing of it. Goodnight to you both, and I promise I’ll sit down and write a reply to Devikra before I head off to bed myself.”
Neither Roman nor Leandros protested as Miskatos shooed them from his study. They managed to make their way back to their rooms without Lynn’s help — it really was a small house for a city Councilor, even a new one. Leandros thought he already had the lay of it.
He lingered outside his door before heading in, waiting for Roman to look at him. “I think we should tell him,” Leandros announced, when Roman finally did.
Roman sighed. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”
“Why not? He’s a good man. I know we can’t prevent his death, but he deserves to know why we’re here. He can — I don’t know, tell his wife he loves her one last time, wrap up matters of his estate. I don’t like lying to him about why we’re here.”
“You think I do?” Roman asked, then quickly shut his mouth. Leandros looked over his shoulder to find Councilor Zerelis approaching.
“Egil,” Zerelis greeted, “Lord Nochdvor. Are the two of you retiring for the evening?”
“That was the plan,” Roman said, leaning against his door. “And you?”
Zerelis smiled, wry. “The others are spending time in the game room, but I’ve found that at my age, I much prefer to be in bed with a good book. Especially on dreary nights like these.”
“That sounds perfectly reasonable,” Leandros said, reverting to politeness, a habit his mother painstakingly ingrained in him since birth.”
“I think so, too. And…I hope you’ll consider what Miskatos said tonight. He cares deeply about Histrios, you know. We all do. I hope that in your time here, you’ll both come to care for it as well.”
Roman only smiled. “Goodnight, Councilor.”
Once the door to the Councilor’s room had shut behind him, Roman sighed and rubbed his chin. “About telling Miskatos — I’ll think about it. I’ll let you know in the morning.”
“That’s all I ask,” Leandros said.
“IT’s not all you ask,” Roman teased, finally sounding himself again. Leandros had seen too much Egil tonight.
Leandros smiled. “Maybe not, but this is a start.”
With that, they bade each other goodnight, slipping into their respective rooms. Leandros fell asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow, but Roman tossed and turned, listening to the pounding of the rain against the window, thinking of many things and trying not to think of others.
He grew tired of it, eventually — of lying awake, unable to stop the wheels of his mind from turning or the memories of his time with Unity from surfacing. So he stood, dressed, and left his room, careful to ease the door shut so it didn’t make sound.
He wandered through the quiet house, a specter among its darkened hallways. He didn’t know where he was going, didn’t have a destination in mind, but when he reached a side door, he eased himself outside.
The night air refreshed him instantly. It was the kind of warm summer rain you didn’t get further south — it reminded Roman of Troas, of his childhood. He’d play in the woods with his mother during summer storms like this. They both delighted in jumping in puddles, muddying their clothes.
An overhang jutted out from the building, keeping him dry as he walked along beneath it. Even at night, Miskatos’ garden was beautiful, the statues ghostly under moonlight and glinting rain.
Roman scratched absently at his hand.
His mind kept turning over the day’s events — several things stuck out to him as strange, out of place. He wondered about the Enforcer that got away, about Penelope, the foreigner who married a man in love with Histrios, about the letter Miskatos received from Devikra, drawn up in a hand far too precise to be Devikra’s.
Roman sighed. Missing the gleeful innocence from his childhood, he took a deep breath and then stepped out into the rain. It soaked him through almost instantly, but he didn’t mind, instead laughing to himself and approaching the closest statue.
It seemed to stare back at the house, its expression serene, and Roman followed its gaze — only to freeze, surprised. Nikolas Miskatos stood at his study window, staring down at the garden with an expression filled with such abject terror that it sent a shiver down Roman’s spine.
For a moment, Roman thought Miskatos was staring at him. He squinted through the rain, though, and realized that wasn’t right, that Miskatos stared at something just over the hedge behind Roman.
Roman dashed around the hedge, finding himself in front of the gazebo they’d passed on the way in. It was empty. Roman looked around, but found nothing of interest. What had Miskatos been looking at? What frightened him so?
When he looked up at the window again, Miskatos was gone.
Fear gripping him, Roman hurried back to the house, then continued up to Miskatos’ study. It was locked when he reached it, so he pounded on the door. “Councilor Miskatos? Is everything alright in there?”
Cursing under his breath, Roman stepped back and heave-kicked the door down. He found what he both feared and expected in equal measure: Nikolas Miskatos, collapsed on the ground, a perfect replica of the Oracle’s drawing.
Miskatos’ expression was horrific, frozen in that same terrified sneer he’d worn when Roman saw him at the window. It made Roman hesitate in the doorway; he’d seen death more times than he could could count, but this gave him pause. A chill ran down his spine.
“Damn,” Roman muttered, kneeling at Miskatos’ side. There was no pulse. He wasn’t breathing. Roman checked the body, trying to determine what the cause of death might have been, but the only clue he found was a light rash on Miskatos’ throat, one that trailed down to his chest.
“Damn,” Roman repeated.
And then someone screamed.
It was the maid, Lynn — she stood in the doorway, her hands clasped to her chest and her eyes wide. Roman realized, then, how he must look.
“Lynn, wait—,” he began, but Lynn backed away. Roman stood slowly, holding his hands up to show he meant no harm. Before he could step away from the body, Councilors Saratea, Demapoulos, and Pulakis arrived, crying out in horror when they saw Miskatos’ body.
Next to arrive were Leandros and Councilor Zervelis. Like Roman, Leandros swore when he saw the body.
“What happened?” Leandros gasped.
“What have you done,” Councilor Zervelis gasped.
“I haven’t done anything,” Roman snapped. “I was just outside. I saw him collapse at the window and came up to find him like this.”
The Councilors eyed Roman, noticing for the first time that he was dripping wet.
“It looks like Nikolas died of sheer fright,” Pulakis murmured.
“Penelope, don’t come in here!” Saratea cried, suddenly. “Lynn, take Penelope away! Don’t let her see!”
She was too late, though. Penelope pushed her way through the assembled crowd and screamed when she saw her husband, her knees giving out beneath her. Leandros caught her before she hit the ground, but she pushed him away. She moved over to Miskatos’ body and reached out to pull him to her chest.
“Don’t!” Roman yelled. “I think he was poisoned. Until we figure out how he ingested it, don’t touch him.”
“You think someone poisoned my husband?” Penelope asked, voice small.
“The door was locked; he was fine just a few hours ago. Look at the rash on his neck — was that there this morning?”
Penelope looked down at her husband blankly, then back up at Roman. Then, her gaze dropped to his hand. “You have one, too.”
“What?” Roman asked. When he held up his hand, he found she was right — a similar rash spread up his fingers. He frowned, wondering what he could have touched.
“The letter,” Leandros supplied.
“Letter?” Saratea asked. “What letter?”
Roman spun wildly, looking for the letter that had been on Miskatos’ desk.
It wasn’t there.
“Miskatos said he received a letter from the Oracle this morning,” Roman said. “Only, I took a look at it and it didn’t look like Devikra’s writing. It looked like someone forging her hand. The poison could have been contained in the letter.”
“Poisonous letters?” Zerelis sneered. “You expect us to believe that?”
“It’s true,” Leandros said. “I saw the letter, too. It was sitting right on his desk.”
“So why don’t you have the same rash?” Saratea asked.
Leandros scowled at her. “Because I didn’t pick the letter up to examine it.”
“So where’s the letter now? Why isn’t it in here?” Pulakis asked.
“This is absurd,” Leandros said. “Surely, you can’t be accusing us of—,”
“We’re not accusing you. We’re accusing him,” Zerelis said, nodding at Roman.
“Lynn, go fetch the guard,” Saratea ordered. Lynn nodded and ducked out of the room. “We’ll shut him in one of the inner guest rooms until they get here. Make sure someone is watching the door at all times.”
When Leandros opened his mouth to argue, Roman said, “Don’t.” His expression was blank, carefully closed off. “It’s alright, Leandros. I’ll go willingly. Just…figure out who really did this, won’t you? I know you can.”
Leandros shut his mouth, the words dying in his throat. “I will,” he promised as the Councilors led Roman away.
A/N: And we’re back! (With what is possibly the most important Egil Interlude of the entire series!) You may have noticed that this is only part one – in the next few parts, we find out just what happened between Roman and Leandros that tore them apart 🙂 Hope you’re all excited to read it, because I’m VERY excited to hear your thoughts!