Roman woke slowly, losing his grip on strange dreams that clung to him, begged him to hold on. Remember me, they cried. I’m important. But already, they were turning to smoke in his hands, slipping away from him as he drew nearer to the waking world.
The first physical thing Roman became aware of upon waking was the agony — every muscle in his body burned as if he’d run too far and too fast without training. Second, he wasn’t as uncomfortable as he should be, even despite the pain. He lay in a bed, buried under warm — if scratchy — blankets.
Third, heavy breathing came from somewhere nearby. Roman opened his eyes and rolled over, cringing at the pain, and found himself face to face with a softly snoring Leandros. Roman recognized this cramped, barren room and realized he lay on the narrow cot in Leandros’ trailer. Leandros sat beside the cot, close as he could get without leaning directly over it. He’d done so upon falling asleep anyway, though, his elbows resting on the edge of the bed and his head propped in his hands.
Roman studied him. Leandros looked younger like this, his usually stern expression wiped from his face in sleep. He looked almost like the young alfar Roman had met in Lyryma so long ago. Only his scar served as an obvious reminder that that time of their lives had long passed.
“Leandros,” Roman called.
Leandros hummed and shifted, his eyes flying open when he realized Roman was awake. “Roman! How do you feel?”
“Sore,” Roman answered. “Groggy. How long was I asleep?”
“Almost two days,” Leandros said. “What happened? What did Devikra do to you?”
The mention of Dev’s name brought everything flooding back — the monsters, the magic, everything Devikra said and did to him. Roman felt suddenly sick.
“Roman?” Leandros asked.
Roman shook his head and pushed past Leandros, propelling himself up and out of the trailer just in time to hurl over the edge of the short stairway.
“Atiuh’s name, Roman,” Leandros said from behind him, voice laden with concern. “Sit down; I’ll bring you water.”
“I’m fine,” Roman insisted, stepping down to the ground and looking around.
The team made decent progress while he was unconscious. They left the forest and sat at the very edge of it, Creae Valley ahead and Lyryma far behind. Roman could see the silhouette of Illyon on the horizon, dense plumes of smoke rising from its factories blotting out the sky. The team itself was setting up camp, somber expressions on everyone’s faces. At the edge of the sparse camp, Aaror and Ivor were in the process of digging a deep hole in the ground.
“Morning, sleepy! Welcome back,” Thea said, her usually-bright smile not reaching her eyes. She looked tired. They all did.
“What’s going on?” Roman asked.
“We’re preparing for the funeral,” Gareth said, joining them. He rested a hand on Roman’s shoulder in a fatherly gesture. “Are you alright, son? Maybe you shouldn’t be up and about just yet.”
“The what? Who died?” Roman asked, brushing Gareth’s hand off.
Thea’s smile fell. “Trin. She was on watch when those — those things attacked. They reached her before Aaror could.”
“Is it safe to stop here?”
“We don’t have much of a choice — we’ve been going for almost two days without rest,” Leandros said. “The team needs a break. We’re far enough from Lyryma that it should be safe, but we’ll keep a vigilant watch.”
Roman closed his eyes and took a steadying breath, brushing off the pain, dizziness, and darkness he felt closing in. When he opened his eyes again, the others were regarding him with concern.
“How can I help?” he asked.
It started to rain not long after, but they’d done too much to prepare for the funeral to put it off now. Most of the team attended, standing in a loose circle around the fresh grave. Thea stood at the back, flinching when a drop of rain landed in her eye. When she rubbed it, her hand came back smudged with makeup. She frowned. She didn’t need makeup like she used to, but she’d come to rely on it as a small act of defiance, of self-expression. She didn’t feel comfortable enough around this group to be without it.
She told herself she’d feel better when the rain had passed. When this funeral had passed. A nympherai’s funeral — according to what she’d gleaned from Eftychia — was meant to be a celebration. Under normal circumstances, a nymph would be buried and then a feast held over their grave. Under normal circumstances, family and friends told stories of their lost one, sang songs and speculated about the eventual rebirth. But these weren’t normal circumstances. This funeral was no celebration.
Up near the grave, Eftychia hummed and swayed while Aaror lowered Trinity Jones’ body into the ground, keeping up some hint of high spirits. No one else had volunteered to speak, so Eftychia took that on as well. She talked about Trin’s kindness, her gentle demeanor. She talked about things any acquaintance would know, things anyone could see.
The truth was, none of them knew Trin.
It ended quickly. Trin was laid in the ground, dirt thrown carefully over her, and everyone dispersed. Only Eftychia, Leandros, and Roman stayed. Thea sidled over to Roman, who stood as far as he could from the grave.
“I’ll miss her,” Thea said, quiet so as not to disturb Eftychia and Leandros, who stood together in silence beside the grave. Thea fancied that Eftychia was watching for the first signs of Trin’s caindlewood tree to rise up.
“I didn’t know her well.”
“Me neither, but she was nice the few times we talked,” Thea said. “You told before that this trip might be dangerous. I guess I didn’t believe it until this.”
Roman studied her curiously. He looked better than he had earlier; more life colored his cheeks. “Do you regret coming along?”
“I don’t know. I’ll let you know once we all make it back to Gallontea.”
“Not all,” Roman said, looking over at the grave. “I have a feeling Trin’s not the only one we’ll lose along the way.”
“I know it’s a hard truth to accept, but it’s better to be ready for it.” Roman sighed. It seemed to come from the very tips of his toes, sweeping through him like the great, crashing waves Thea had seen crush buildings back in her hometown. “Moments like these change you. The loss, the grief. Seeing friends die and fearing you’ll be next. Fearing that you’ll fail, that you’ll come and go and it won’t mean a damn thing. That no one will ever really know you. That nine people will attend your funeral.”
Thea didn’t know what to say. “Are you afraid of those things, Roman?”
“Aren’t you?” he countered.
“I am now. Thanks for that.”
Roman tried to smile. “Sorry.”
“I’m just going to…hm, try not to think about it, I suppose. I’m good at not thinking about things, if I put my mind to it,” Thea said.
That drew a small laugh out of Roman. “Teach me your ways.”
“Only if you teach me some fancy sword moves,” Thea said. Not for the first time since he woke up, she couldn’t get a read on his aura. It used to burn so brightly. By comparison, it was now nothing more than embers. It made her uneasy, so she said, “You should go get some food. You probably need it, right?”
He smiled, knowing and weary, and Thea knew with certainty that he saw right through her. “You’re right. Thanks for the reminder.”
With Roman gone, Thea breathed a sigh of relief. Leandros left not long after, disappearing into the forest with a cloudy expression. Thea stayed, letting the rain soak her through. She wasn’t sure how long she’d been standing there when Evelyne came up beside her. Evelyne didn’t say anything, so Thea didn’t say anything back, but she watched the redhead out of the corner of her eye. Evelyne’s expression was grim, her strong eyebrows drawn low and lips curled into a scowl. If Thea didn’t know better, she’d be terrified of Evelyne.
But Evelyne’s aura was soft. It was passionate. It was the most beautiful thing Thea had ever seen. Sometimes, as they traveled, she passed the time just watching Evelyne’s aura change. Right now, the marionite’s sadness and guilt permeated the air around her, making it pulse and shudder with grief. When Evelyne gave her a sidelong look, Thea finally managed to blurt, “Why weren’t you at the funeral?”
Evelyne sighed. “I was keeping watch. Someone had to do it.”
Thea hadn’t noticed it at first, what with the falling rain and the distracting locks of hair that fell into Evelyne’s face, but Evelyne looked tired — more so than the rest of them.
“You should get some rest, Evelyne.” Thea didn’t know when she’d started using the marionite’s first name, but figured Evelyne didn’t mind. Evelyne even smiled at her for it, an expression not many got to see.
Evelyne reached out, then, and Thea caught her breath, thinking Evelyne meant to touch her cheek. But Evelyne stopped before she made it that far. “Your makeup is a mess,” she pointed out.
Thea cringed, causing a pulse of violet regret to surge across Evelyne’s aura. She reached out and caught Thea’s arm as if fearing Thea might run. Thea froze, wide-eyed, and watched the changes in Evelyne’s aura. When Evelyne finally dropped her hand, Thea stuffed her own in her skirt pockets. She wondered at Evelyne’s callused hands, how they got to be that way.
“That was the wrong thing to say,” Evelyne murmured, her brow furrowing. “I’m sorry. I’m not very good at finding the right thing, most times. I didn’t mean anything by it — it’s cute, actually. You always look so perfect, but I think I like seeing you flustered.”
“Perfect?” Thea asked, a nervous, squeaking laugh slipping past her lips. “I’m flustered all the time!”
Evelyne raised an eyebrow, her lips quirking up into another smile.
“Thank you, I mean,” Thea said. The rain falling around them was freezing, but Thea’s cheeks were certainly warm. She covered her cheeks with her gloved hands. “Sorry, I’m…very awkward. And bad at taking compliments. Also at talking to people, apparently.”
“That’s fine,” Evelyne said with another soft smile. “I am, too.”
“Ah, that’s a relief because everyone else around here seems to be really good at it.”
Evelyne nodded. “Hallisey in particular, with his artificial charm. He could talk you into killing your firstborn, if he chose to.”
Thea almost laughed at the idea, unable to even imagine Roman trying any such thing, but she stopped when she realized Evelyne was serious. “What’s the deal between you two?” she asked.
“You could say we have a ‘history.’ We’ve both hurt each other deeply in the past.”
“Sounds like you’re even, then,” Thea said, freezing when Evelyne gave her another curious look. “I don’t have the full story though, I guess.”
“I’ll tell you, some other time.”
Thea’s eyes widened. “Okay.”
Evelyne didn’t respond after that. Desperate to keep the conversation going, Thea said, “Um…so, did you know Trin?”
Evelyne looked back out at the grave, her aura turning grief-stricken again. “Not any more than anyone else. But I do feel responsible for her death.”
“How could you be?” Thea asked. “None of us could have predicted what happened.”
Evelyne frowned, her lower lip jutting out in something that looked suspiciously like a pout. “Look, I know you know something about why the security team and I are really here. Don’t deny it — you’re Hallisey’s friend. You’re always whispering with him and Leandros.”
“They haven’t told me many details, but I know a thing or two,” Thea admitted.
“I have strict orders, right? They’re meant to keep this world running smoothly, as it is now. I haven’t broken those orders, but I had a duty to protect the diplomats, too. Trinity relied on me and my team to protect her. We failed.”
“You did everything you could, and so did the rest of the security team,” Thea said, resting her hands on her hips in stubborn defiance. “You protected the rest of us, didn’t you?”
Evelyne shrugged, but to Thea’s surprise, she thought she saw a faint blush on the marionite’s pale cheeks.
“This might not be my place,” Thea began, “But I get the sense you’re not very happy about your orders?”
“Oh, do you?” Evelyne asked.
“It’s just that…you sound like you’re trying to convince yourself they’re important, not me.”
Evelyne considered that a moment. “Maybe I am. Nothing is clear, anymore,” she said, then huffed. “I don’t even know why I’m telling you this.”
“You want someone to tell you to disobey your orders,” Thea said.
Evelyne’s eyes widened, then she laughed. The sound matched her aura, soft and warm. “Interesting thought.”
“It’s not a thought. To tell you a secret…I’m rosanin,” Thea confessed, seeing Evelyne look sharply at her out of the corner of her eye. “I can see people’s intentions. I’m actually here to protect Leandros. I can see ahead of time if anyone is going to try to hurt him. I really shouldn’t be telling you this, though.”
Evelyne stared at her a long moment before looking away. “To tell you a secret back,” she began, voice so quiet Thea almost couldn’t hear her over the rain, “My orders are to kill Leandros before we reach Illyon. Hallisey was supposed to do it, but I knew he wouldn’t follow through. So I’m supposed to kill him, too. But…”
“But?” Thea prompted, when Evelyne trailed off.
“I don’t want to,” Evelyne confessed.
“So don’t,” Thea said, even knowing it wasn’t that simple. “I thought you would’ve jumped at a chance to kill Roman, though.”
Evelyne shook her head, more hair falling into her face. Under the rain, it was a dark auburn. “I don’t actually want to hurt him. I never have.”
Thea looked down at her hands. At some point during their conversation, Eftychia had left, leaving hem alone. “I know we’ve had different experiences, but I can tell you, it’s always worth the fight, to be able to do what you want to do.”
Evelyne didn’t say anything, but Thea could feel her eyes on her.
“I’ve been fighting my whole life,” Thea said. “My parents are powerful merchants on the west coast. They wanted a perfect son, someone who’d take over their business. Obviously, that’s not me. I hate math, for one thing, and I’m not good with people,” she said, smiling when Evelyne laughed. “I told them I didn’t want anything to do with their business and ran off to Gallontea. They’ve tried to drag me back, but I won’t let them.”
“I don’t think our experiences are as different as you think,” Evelyne said. “You’re braver than I am, though. You and Hallisey, both.”
“I don’t know about that.”
“You don’t seem to have a very clear view of yourself. I’ll think about what you said. I won’t kill Leandros or Roman today, at least, but I make no promises about tomorrow.”
It took Thea a moment to realize Evelyne was joking. She grinned. “Then we can have this same talk tomorrow and I’ll convince you all over again.”
“Please do.” Evelyne stretched, then, leisurely and languid like a cat. Thea forced herself to look away to keep from staring. “I’m going to take your advice and get some rest. You should get out of the rain or you’ll catch a cold.”
“Right.” Thea managed a nod and an awkward wave. “See you later.”
Roman wandered through the woods, holding his lantern aloft. In the time it had taken to get dinner and make it through Gareth’s interrogation about his health, night had fallen around them and Leandros still hadn’t returned to camp.
“Sort of a strange place to sit and think, isn’t it?” he called out to the night, then paused and waited for the night to call back. When nothing came, he sighed and kicked a rock. “I’m going to talk until you answer me. I’ll just keep getting louder and louder until someone from the team comes to investigate. You know how mad she’ll be if it’s Evelyne. How will you feel when she kills me for making too much noise?”
“At peace, perhaps,” came a voice without a face.
Roman pointed his lantern into the trees and found Leandros sitting on a high branch with his back against the truck. “Big talk for someone who was just sleeping at my bedside,” he called. “And you’ll never be at peace, you know. Even when I die, I’m going to come back as a ghost and haunt you.”
“That wouldn’t surprise me,” Leandros said. He held up a hand to block the lantern’s light. “Put that out, would you?”
“Wait, I need the light a minute,” Roman said, studying the path he’d have to climb to get to Leandros.
“Don’t come up here,” Leandros warned. “The branch isn’t sturdy enough for both of us.”
“I don’t weigh much. Will you come down here instead?”
“Yes, fine, just give me a seco—,”
“Too late, I’m already climbing,” Roman said, putting the lantern out and starting the mostly-dark climb up the tree. Some faint light shone on them from the camp — Leandros hadn’t journeyed far from it. “Just be patient. I’ve never been very good at tree-climbing.”
“I won’t help you,” Leandros said, a trace of amusement in his voice. He held out a hand for Roman anyway.
Roman took it, pulling himself up onto the thick branch. When Leandros refused to make room, Roman climbed over him in a tangle of gangly limbs and settled further down the branch. It felt sturdy enough beneath him. “There, this isn’t so bad.”
“You shouldn’t have exerted yourself like that,” Leandros scolded. “You should be resting.”
“I feel fine.”
Leandros studied Roman like he didn’t believe him. Roman couldn’t see the look very well, but he could imagine it perfectly. “How did you know to find me here?” Leandros asked, finally.
“I saw you stomp off in this direction after the funeral. After three hundred years of friendship, I know you get a dramatic flair when you’re sulking.”
Leandros hummed. “And twenty-one.”
“Three hundred and twenty-one,” Leandros said. Roman thought he could hear a smile in the alfar’s voice. “Dramatic flair, indeed. And who do I have to thank for teaching me that?”
“Not me!” Roman protested. “I’d blame your father.”
“No. I’m not like him.”
“No, you’re not,” Roman agreed. “The ‘seeking solace in nature’ part, though — I definitely didn’t teach you that. Must be that eld alfar nature creeping out.”
“Can I ask why you’re sulking?” Roman asked tentatively.
“It’s Trin. I feel like everything that happened was my fault,” Leandros admitted. He didn’t give Roman a chance to argue, instead saying, “Well, maybe not, but I could have prevented it.”
“I don’t know, I could have pushed the team to go farther before stopping for the night. I could have reacted faster. Done a headcount. I’m getting carried away, imagining all the things I could have done. How do you deal with this?”
“With what, exactly?”
Leandros paused, not entirely sure what he was asking, either. “With the responsibility. With having to make hard choices and knowing that if you make a mistake, innocent people will die. As Egil, you must have faced this.”
“First of all, this wasn’t your fault. Those things were clearly after me and Dev, and they would have followed us anywhere,” Roman said. “But yeah, I’ve dealt with this. I don’t know, Leandros, you just…tell yourself it won’t happen next time, then you push forward and don’t look back.”
Leandros frowned. “I won’t run like you do.”
“At some point, running is just self-preservation,” Roman said. “But suit yourself.”
The silence stretched between them, and eventually, Leandros sighed. “I’m just so angry lately, Roman. I don’t know what to do about it.” He said Roman’s name with the same fervor that a drowning man clung to a life preserver. It was more than Roman felt he deserved.
“At me?” he asked.
“No. Well, yes, but mostly no. I know I’ve been taking it out on you, and that isn’t fair.”
Leandros stared at Roman, or at least in Roman’s direction. Roman wondered how much the alfar could see in the darkness. Could he make out Roman’s face, his eyes, blacker than the night and times more dangerous? Could he see the stars reflected in them, their light closer to Leandros than Roman thought he might ever be again? Would it comfort Leandros to be able to see those things, or would it only make it worse?
“I’m angry at everyone, at everything,” Leandros said. “I’m angry at Unity, at the orinians. I hate them for taking my uncle from me.”
“Is that why you’re doing this?” Roman asked, surprised at the sudden vitriol in his friend’s voice. “Leandros, I understand how you feel. When Catalina—,”
“You don’t know anything about how I feel,” Leandros snapped. “This isn’t about you, Roman! You don’t know who killed your mother. You never had a chance to get her back, or even to avenge her. I have that chance with my uncle. That’s why I’m doing this.”
“No,” Roman said quietly. “I didn’t have the chance, but I would’ve done anything to get it. I know how it feels to have to do something, to feel like you might die if you don’t. But I’m proof that you won’t die, Leandros. No matter what happens, you’ll be able to move past this.”
Leandros sighed, shifting his weight and causing the branch to give a faint creak. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. Promise me instead that you won’t get caught up in this anger. The fact that you feel guilty about Trin is good. It means you still have compassion and perspective. After I’d left Unity, I’d forgotten both of those things. You remember what I was like, don’t you? You were the one who taught them to me again.”
“Thank you. I may need a reminder as well.” Leandros hugged his knees to his chest. “When my father — when he was executed, Amos took me in. My father had just tried to poison him, but he didn’t even hesitate. He protected me all my life and now, without him, all these negative emotions keep boiling inside me and I don’t know how to let anything through, let alone compassion. My people taught me to repress pain, but it’s not working. I’m not like the rest of them, but sometimes I think life would be easier if I was.”
“You don’t really believe that.”
“No, I don’t, but I’m tired of being so angry.” Leandros sighed. “Maybe I should just run.”
“It never works,” Roman said miserably. “The wounds never heal. If you face it all, it’ll still hurt, but it’ll hurt less and less as time goes on. You’ll eventually get breaks from the pain and the anger, and the breaks will get longer until you spend more time happy than you are. But if you run, you’ll just regret it forever.”
“Do you regret running after what happened in Histrios?” Leandros asked.
Roman flinched. He wondered if Leandros could see it in the darkness. “I didn’t run.”
“No?” Leandros asked. “That’s funny, because your body disappeared and twenty years later, new Egil stories were popping up all over the continent.”
“I just don’t understand why you couldn’t at least tell me you were alive. I loved you, Roman! I told you I did! Is that why you ran? You didn’t want to face me anymore?”
“No!” Roman said, holding his hands up between them. “No, Leandros. That night…you surprised me, but it didn’t bother me. I might’ve even said it back one day, if things hadn’t turned out the way they did.”
Leandros stayed silent. In the faint glow from the camp, Roman could see his eyes were wide.
“I didn’t run, after Histrios,” Roman repeated. Without warning, he began to unbutton his shirt.
Leandros sat forward. “What are you doing?”
Instead of answering, Roman took Leandros’ hand and brought it to his heart — more specifically, to the thick scar just above it, the size of an orange.
“There. That’s where they shot me,” Roman said. Before Leandros could even ask, he said, “I don’t know how I survived. I shouldn’t have. But I woke up in Devikra’s headquarters in Damael, locked in a room that was no better than a cell. By that time, the wound had completely healed.”
“But I asked Devikra. She said she had nothing to do with your disappearance,” Leandros said, his hand warm against Roman’s skin.
“She lied. She wouldn’t let me leave, Leandros. She’d seen me transform after Histrios and — I don’t know, she didn’t want to unleash me on the world, or something. And I can’t even blame her. Leandros, I’m a monster. You’ve seen me change. There’s something dark inside me, and it terrifies me.
“I didn’t understand, though, at the time. I broke out while Dev was elsewhere, but when I did, I found out fifteen years had passed. I was unconscious for fifteen years.
“I looked for you, Leandros, I really did. But after all that time, you’d settled back down in your uncle’s court. I…I figured you were better off without me. It was a mistake to love me then, Leandros, and it would be a bigger one to do so now, considering what I’ve become,” Roman said. He let out a bitter laugh. “Not that I think even you could. There’s nothing left of me but frayed nerves and darkness.”
“Bullshit,” Leandros said. “Something is obviously wrong, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fixed. Once we have Amos back, you and I can track down Devikra. She obviously knows more than she’s told either of us. Maybe she’ll be able to help.”
“I suppose.” Roman managed a smile. “Does that mean you forgive me, at least?”
Startled by the question, Leandros laughed. “I suppose I must. I don’t think I can stand another day without your friendship, Roman. I miss you.”
“I miss you, too,” Roman confessed. “You can redirect your anger at Evelyne instead. She’s the one who shot me and made all of this possible, after all.”
Leandros’ mouth fell open in shock. “That was Evelyne?”
“You mean Lynn, the soft-spoken marionite Enforcer masquerading as Miskatos’ maid? The one who hated me from the start?” Roman asked. He laughed. “Yeah, of course it was Evelyne.”
“I’ve forgiven her,” Roman said with a shrug. “She was just following orders, and after the things I’ve done to her, she deserved to shoot me at least once.”
“Roman,” Leandros scolded.
“It is what it is. Don’t worry about it, Leandros, she’s obviously not about to shoot me again. She would have done it already,” Roman said. “Tell me, what have you been up to these hundred years? Besides, you know, revenge missions?”
At the question, Leandros laughed, sudden and loud, making Roman jump. That made Leandros throw his head back and laughed even harder.
“I don’t see how that was funny,” Roman said, a tentative smile creeping onto his face. The question — no, their entire situation — was a bit funny, in hindsight. Beside him, Leandros shook with laughter. “Leandros! It wasn’t that funny!”
When Leandros kept going, though, Roman laughed, too. He couldn’t help it. As Leandros’ laughter finally died down, he managed to say, “I haven’t been up to much, apart from, you know, revenge missions. My mother’s been unbearable. Alfheim’s been boiling in politics, as usual. I adopted a cat. Rhea’s watching her while I’m gone.”
It was Roman’s turn to laugh this time, and Leandros quickly joined. When they’d calmed enough to speak again, they didn’t speak of Roman’s leaving, or of Leandros’ anger. They spoke of the things they’d seen and done since the last time they saw each other, and soon it felt like they hadn’t been apart at all. Eventually, they ran out of things to speak about, and then together, they returned to the camp.
For a moment, Roman considered asking Leandros if he could join him in his trailer. Not for anything untoward, just to stave off the nightmares. Leandros’ presence was a soothing balm, one Roman desperately needed.
But the rest of the team would notice if he spent the night in Leandros’ trailer, and besides, Roman couldn’t bear to hear Leandros say no. So he simply waved, called goodnight, and settled down in his own small tent to think.