112 Years Ago
Year Of Unity 1758
Leandros knew that, on a day like this, anyone else would be appreciating the picturesque, woody landscape that passed them by. Instead, Leandros found his own attention straying repeatedly to his companion’s back. Roman marched along ahead of Leandros, a spring in his step and a small leather bag thrown over his shoulder.
Leandros had been traveling with Roman for years now an 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. If he’d been through half the trials Roman had, he felt quite sure he wouldn’t have any at all.
Still, 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. It was one Leandros had difficulty growing accustomed to.
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 there.”
“Yes, of course.”
They traveled northeast of 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, which was actually part of Roman and Leandros’ reason for visiting: Devikra had a contact in the city, a public official 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 — 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 breeze coming up from the south. Fortunately, they’d been climbing steadily uphill for the better part of an hour, and with the increasing 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 color (clear blue), 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 city itself emerged from among the trees. It was a grand walled affair built along the shore of a massive lake. Leandros wasn’t sure which to gawk at — the lake, its crystalline waters stretching so far it may as well have been an ocean, or the city itself, all smooth marble and imposing 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?”
“Dunno. Probably. Guess we’ll find out,” Roman said with a small, excited smile.
“What business do you have in Histrios?” one of the sentries called when they were 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 warm 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 any 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 now. “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, but I’m sure he won’t like that much.”
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, though they regarded Leandros skeptically.
“Do you have any proof you are who he says you are?” the first asked.
Leandros sighed and 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 decided it might be better not to correct her on the mode of address. 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? Please keep close.”
And so, they were escorted into the city of Histrios.
Leandros didn’t know what to expect from the city — after that cold welcome, chaos, perhaps, or some sort of martial state — but Histrios was vibrant and vivacious, the streets flooded with people traveling to and fro. They seemed happy, 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 managed to hail 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 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, 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 lush garden, graceful statues and strange flowers lining the bumpy path. At the center of the garden sat a large gazebo — they passed 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. And as Roman and Leandros were led into the entrance hall, they noticed the aged furniture and simple decorations. Soft fabrics and jewel tones lined the hall, making for a cozy atmosphere.
A single guard in the 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 the subject of it was impossible to discern with the small glimpse Leandros got.
When a response came, and the maid asked them to 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.
Past 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 other 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, each somber, well-dressed, and staring at the newcomers with open suspicion. Leandros sighed. It seemed they were being tossed directly into some sort of Histrios political meeting.
“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.
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 there must be foul play involved.
“Welcome to Histrios, friends. You look a great deal 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, as 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 back, Miskatos flipped his hand over, revealing the old brand seared into Roman’s inner wrist.
“Well, well. A Unity spy,” Miskatos said, 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. The other Councilors began edging away from him.
“There’s a third option,” Roman said, cradling his wrist to his chest as if hiding the brand would erase it from his skin. “I don’t work for Unity.”
“You lie! We all know what that mark means,” one of the Councilors, a frail, balding man, said. “Have you come to finish me off, then? You’re doing a poor job of it.”
“Lynn, call the guards. Now,” Miskatos said.
“Hold on a moment!” Leandros said, stepping to block 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. Alfheim’s always been Unity’s favorite. They’re probably in league with each other,” a fourth Council, a woman in an elegantly draped purple gown, said. “I don’t care who his uncle is. If he’s going to willfully bring this monster into Histrios — into your very home, Councilor Miskatos, they should both be arrested.”
Roman flinched at the word monster.
“How dare you speak about him like that,” Leandros snarled. “You don’t even know who you’re talking to — none of you do. This is Egil. He’s the one you should be welcoming.”
“The sword of Unity himself,” Miskatos mused, regarding Roman with new thoughtfulness.
“That was a long time ago,” Roman said. “I don’t work for them anymore.”
“Oh, I know all about Egil,” Miskatos said, “The sword of Unity turning against its owner in a twist of poetic justice. My wife loves a good Egil story, so I’ve heard most of them. What I don’t understand is why he’d be standing in my study.”
“If you’ve heard the stories about me, you know who I work for,” Roman said. “Someone did send us here, but it wasn’t Unity.”
Miskatos’ eyes widened as the realization hit him. Then, to the surprise of everyone in the room, 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.
“I believe this really is Egil. You can relax, 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.
“What!” the purple-gowned Councilor said. “Miskatos, how can you be sure about this? The brand—,”
“They all say Egil worked for Unity, once. It would make sense that he still bears their brand. I know this may be hard to believe, Councilor Saratea, but the Oracle of Damael is a personal friend of mine. I haven’t had the time to answer her letters since my election, I’m afraid, so I know it was only a matter of time before she sent someone to check on me. I just never imagined it would be here 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—,” Zerelis began, but Miskatos interrupted.
“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 the Lord Nochdvor to help us once we explain the strange predicament Histrios finds itself in.”
“Predicament?” Leandros asked.
“Please, allow me to explain over dinner. It will 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 done with that, ask Cook to set two extra places for dinner.”
Lynn nodded and led Roman and Leandros out of the study. They passed a set of wide windows, and Leandros was surprised to find the storm had finally caught up with them. A steady downpour fell just past the window, the patter of it against the glass oddly comforting.
Beside Leandros, Roman was quiet. He always got like this when his work for Unity came up — it hurt Leandros to see. It took Roman years to trust Leandros with the secret of what he did for them, and a part of Leandros wished he didn’t know it.
Evie showed them to two guest rooms, giving a timid curtsy, face half-hidden beneath her bonnet, before softly saying, “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 rooms were modest. Leandros stopped in his only long enough to drop off his bag and wash the dust of the road from off his face before heading over to Roman’s room.
“Are you alright?” Leandros asked, as soon as Roman opened the 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 closely. “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, slightly scolding, “Whatever you did for Unity is in the past. You’re a different person, now.”
“I’m not sure that grants me absolution,” Roman said with another sad smile.
“It should,” Leandros said, making Roman laugh and shake his head.
“We need to go over how much to tell Miskatos,” Roman 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 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 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 along the way.
“The man loves his landscapes,” Roman observed to Leandros in a whisper.
“Most people from Histrios do,” Lynn said, the first words she’d willingly spoken to them. “They’re very proud when it comes to their province.”
“They?” Roman asked, “You’re not from Histrios?”
Lynn shook her head. “I grew up elsewhere.”
Roman frowned at her back, thoughts inscrutable to Leandros as always. Lynn led them into a brightly lit dining room, at its center a long table laden with food. Miskatos sat at the head of the table, the seats on his immediate left and right open. The four Councilors were also seated, and opposite Miskatos, 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 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 lovely wife Penelope. Penelope, these are the guests I was telling you about.”
“Egil and the Lord Nochdvor,” Penelope said, regarding them both with open curiosity. Her accent, soft and rounded, sounded familiar to Leandros — with a start, he realized it was very similar to 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 the seat to Nikolas’ right. “We would’ve been spending another night on the road if it hadn’t been for the generosity of your husband.”
Penelope apparently noticed the similarity as well, her face lighting up. “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.”
“I love Veite,” Roman said. To Leandros, accustomed as he was to reading Roman’s moods, it seemed Roman was finally beginning to relax. “It’s beautiful there in the summer.”
“I’ve always felt connected to your stories,” Penelope confessed, leaning forward as if sharing a secret. “How funny it is that all this time, we’ve shared this connection as well.”
“What a small world,” Miskatos said with a grin. “Here, feel free to serve yourself. As my guests, I’d like you to go first. Our cook is one of the best in Histrios.”
While Leandros started serving himself immediately, Roman first rolled down his sleeves, buttoning them at the wrist so his brand would no longer be visible. Miskatos watched the action, then studied Roman’s face a moment before saying, “You know, Egil, despite my peers’ sour expressions, we’re glad you’ve come.”
Roman raised an eyebrow. “You changed your tune quickly,, then” he said.
“The truth is, we’re having a bit of a problem with Unity’s spies. It’s not a foe we ever predicted ourselves facing, and it’s fraying on all of our nerves. I hope you’ll forgive the earlier paranoia.”
“Spies,” Roman repeated, obviously amused by 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 place. “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, darkly. “Miskatos rescued me, but only barely.”
“We managed to catch the spy — Enforcer,” Miskatos 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. Even the vilest, cruelest torture method your mind can conceive — Unity has trained them to expect worse.” Roman paused, then, seeming to remember there was a lady present. “I’m sorry for the gruesome insinuations, Lady Miskatos.”
“Oh, 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 plate with a dainty hand, seemingly unbothered by the talk of torture.
She was handling it better than Leandros. Each new detail about the things Unity does to its Enforcers that he uncovered made him feel physically ill.
“Is the Enforcer still in the city?” Roman asked Miskatos.
“We don’t think so. We believe he left, possibly to get reinforcements,” Miskatos said.
“Here’s some advice, then,” Roman said. “Double your security. Zervelis, triple yours. If the Enforcers are targeting you, closed borders aren’t going to be much 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 a last resort. Unity wouldn’t send them unless they were getting 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 continued to cough.
“We declared ourselves independent from Unity,” Miskatos repeated. “It was a unanimous decision made by the Councilors.”
“What,” Roman gasped. “You can’t just do that.”
“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. And Orean — they were separate from Unity from the start. Unity still hates that. They won’t just let you go.”
“Not without a fight, but that, we’re willing to give,” Councilor Demapoulos said. He was a spindly man with light, striking eyes. Currently, those eyes were fixed unblinkingly on Roman.
“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, pulling the Councilors’ attention away from Roman. Out of the corner of his eye, Leandros saw Roman breathe a sigh of relief. “Why did you do it? You have to know how much trouble this is going to bring Histrios. Why would you put the city through that? What did Unity do?”
“Unity wants to build a railway station,” Miskatos said.
Leandros blinked at him. “Pardon?”
“Histrios’ location is strategic, to them. They’ve made clear its 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 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.
“When we made it clear to Unity that we wouldn’t give them the land they requested, they imposed taxes, cut funding, threatened to do worse. They’re trying to suffocate us into selling our city, and we refuse to play their games. They’re ruthless, Lord Nochdvor, as I’m sure your friend can tell you, and we’ve had enough of it.”
As Miskatos spoke, several of the 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 some advice, at the very least.”
“That’s the spirit!” Miskatos said, clapping Roman on the shoulder again. “Tomorrow, if this rain lets up, I’ll show you Histrios. Once you’ve spent a day in this city, you’ll see why we can’t let Unity have it.”
After dinner, Miskatos invited Roman and Leandros to his study. Lynn approached before they could leave, murmuring something to Miskatos before stepping away again.
Miskatos laughed, the same bellowing laugh from before. “It sounds like the rest of you are stuck here for the night,” he said to 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. Now, you two, come with me.”
When they reached the study, Miskatos locked the door behind them. Leandros frowned at the gesture, but Roman was already wandering deeper into the study, taking a closer look around.
“We can finally speak privately,” Miskatos said. “How angry is Devikra?”
“She’s not angry with you,” Leandros said, remembering Devikra’s expression when she’d showed them Wil’s drawing. It had been…if not sad, then at least subdued.
“No? Her letters have been getting more and more 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 how much Histrios needs allies. But it’s been one demand after another, one emergency after another, since I was elected. The people rely on me — I hope you’ll keep this between us, but the Councilors haven’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 had just sat through, it was clear how much this man loved his city.
“You made Councilor recently,” Roman observed. He’d moved on from the letter and was now leaning against Miskatos’ desk. “Is this something you’ve always been interested in doing?”
Miskatos laughed. “I feel like I’m being interrogated. Truth be told, I had considered it, but hadn’t thought it possible. Then I rescued Zerelis and everything changed.
Roman smiled. “I’m just trying to understand what’s happening in Histrios as best I can, and that includes determining how this came about. So you rescued Zervelis, and that made the people notice you. You were elected Councilor and then…you proposed the secession?”
“Very clever. It was my idea,” Miskatos admitted, “But the other Councilors readily agreed, though Demapoulos took some convincing.”
Roman nodded. “I meant what I said at dinner — can give you advice, but I can’t fight this battle for you. I’ll have to take this information back to Devikra. She might be able to do more.”
“Can she 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 sighs. “It’s not your fault, son. We’re just in a tight spot, here. I had to ask.”
“I understand,” Roman said. “That doesn’t mean she won’t be able to help you in other ways. I’ll put in a good word.”
Miskatos shook himself. “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. I also meant what I said at dinner, you know. 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. Off with 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. 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.
“I still don’t know if that’s a good idea.”
“Why not? I know we can’t prevent his death, but he’s a good man. He deserves to know why we’re really here. He can — I don’t know, make sure he tells his wife he loves her, wrap up matters of his estate. We can give him time to make peace with it. He’s so kind; I don’t like lying to him about why we’re here.”
Roman opened his mouth to reply then quickly shut it, his gaze tracking to something behind Leandros. Leandros turned to find Councilor Zerelis approaching.
“Egil,” Zerelis greeted, “And Lord Nochdvor. Are you retiring for the evening?”
“That was the plan,” Roman said, leaning against his door. “Are 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 very reasonable,” Leandros said, reverting to politeness, a trait his mother painstakingly ingrained in him from birth.
“I certainly think so. 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 Councilor Zerelis’ room was 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 of Egil tonight.
Leandros smiled. “Maybe not, but this is a start.”
With that, they bid each other goodnight, each 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. So he stood, got dressed, and left his room, careful to ease the door shut so it didn’t make any sound.
He wandered through the quiet house, a spectre among its empty 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.
It was immediately refreshing. 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’d 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, staring out into the garden. Even at night, the 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, Penelope, the foreigner who married the man in love with Histrios, 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, Roman stepped out into the rain. It soaked him through almost instantly, but he didn’t mind, instead approaching the closest statue.
It seemed to stare back at the house, its expression serene, and Roman followed its gaze — only to freeze in place. Nikolas Miskatos stood at his study window, staring down at the garden, his 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 and realized that wasn’t right, that the man was staring at something just over the hedge, behind Roman.
Roman dashed around the hedge, finding himself standing before the old gazebo they’d passed on the way in. It was empty. What had Miskatos been looking at? What frightened him so?
Fear gripping him, Roman hurried back to the house, then continued down hallways and up stairs to Miskatos’ room. 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 his back on the ground, a perfect replica of the sketch the Oracle had drawn.
His expression was horrible, frozen in that same terrified sneer he’d worn when Roman saw him at the window. It made Roman hesitate; he’d seen death more times than he could count, but this once-kind face gave him pause.
“Damn,” Roman muttered, rushing to Miskatos’ side. There was no pulse. He wasn’t breathing. He checked the body, trying to determine what the cause of death might have been, but the only clue he found was a rash on Miskatos’ throat, one that trailed down to his chest.
“Damn,” Roman repeated.
And then someone behind him 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, please—, he began, but Lynn was backing away. Roman stood slowly, held his hands up to show he meant no harm.
Before he could step away from the body, though, three others arrived — Councilors Saratea, Demapoulos, and Pulakis. All three cried out in horror when they saw Miskatos’ expression, Saratea, turning and hiding her face in Pulakis’ shoulder.
Next to arrive were Leandros and Councilor Zervelis — like Roman, Leandros swore when he saw the body.
“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, seeming to notice, for the first time, that he was dripping wet.
“He looks as if he died of sheer fright,” Councilor Pulakis murmured.
“Penelope, don’t come in here!” Saratea cried, suddenly, “Lynn, take Penelope away — don’t let her see!”
It was too late, though. Penelope pushed her way through the crowd assembled through the doorway. She screamed when she saw her husband, her knees giving out beneath her. Leandros caught her just before she hit the ground, but she shoved him away.
She collapsed beside Miskatos’ body and reached out, starting to pull him to her chest.
“Don’t!” Roman yelled. “I think he was poisoned. It was a contact poison — until we figure out how he ingested it, don’t touch him.”
Penelope froze and looked up at him, eyes red. “You think someone poisoned my husband?” she asked, voice small.
“Look at the rash on his neck. He must have gotten it all over him.”
Penelope looked down at her husband blankly, then back up at Roman. Then, her gaze dropped to his hand. “You have it, too.”
“What?” Roman asked. When he held up his hand, he found she was right — a rash was spreading up his fingers. It was nowhere near as bad as Miskatos’, not deadly. Roman frowned, wondering what he could have touched that— “The letter.”
“Letter?” Councilor 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 Devikra this morning,” Roman said. “Only, I took a look at it, and it didn’t look like Devikra’s hand. It looked like someone trying to forge Devikra’s hand, even if it sounded like her. 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, I suppose.”
“So where is the letter now? Why isn’t it in here?” Saratea 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 guards,” Saratea ordered. Lynn nodded and ducked out of the room. “We’ll shut him in one of the windowless guest rooms until they get here, make sure someone is watching the door at all times,” Pulakis said.
“Don’t,” Roman said, when Leandros opened his mouth to argue. 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! I’m so sorry this hiatus turned so long – since posting the last chapter, I’ve transitioned to a new job, taken and passed the bar exam in a new state, and caught and recovered from Covid. It’s been a hectic summer!
But now Fractured Magic is 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!