The following morning, Roman joined the rest of the team for breakfast in Uppstad Hall’s grand dining room. He paused in the doorway, blinking against the unexpected sunslight that flooded the hall. He’d forgotten how much the alfar loved their natural light; their architecture was — and always had been — expertly optimized to allow as much in as possible.
Once Roman’s eyes had adjusted and he’d had a chance to take in the layout of the room, he hesitated further. Some of the team — including Leandros — mingled with the alfar that lived in the castle. The security team, as always, sat by themselves, hunched around one in the cluster of small round tables that filled the room. In that moment, joining them seemed more appealing than sitting with strange alfar nobles.
As if sensing Roman’s gaze, Leandros looked up, their eyes locking from across the room. Roman felt his cheeks heat up, the memory of their kiss the night before rooting him to the spot. Briefly, he longed to close the distance between them and tell Leandros everything — why he pulled away, why he couldn’t, in good conscience, kiss Leandros again.
But instead, he ducked his head and made his away to an empty table at the back of the room. He’d barely had a chance to serve himself food before Gareth brought his plate over and dropped into the seat beside him.
“Illyon is beautiful, isn’t it?” Gareth asked, cheerful as always. “I can’t believe I’ve never come here before. I’ll have to bring Isobel and Ofelia once this is all over.”
“Bring them in the summer, if you do. Winters in Illyon can be cruel,” Roman murmured.
“Of course you’ve been here before,” Gareth said. Despite feeling Gareth’s eyes on him, Roman kept his gaze fixed on his own plate. “I heard you weren’t coming with us to Orean; is everything alright? You’ve seemed…unwell, these last few days.”
“No, no, I’m fine,” Roman said, mustering a smile. He’d forgotten how observant Gareth could be. “I just haven’t quite recovered from the other day.”
Gareth raised an eyebrow at Roman, clearly not believing him for a single moment. “So you’re just going to let the Enforcers run wild in Orean? After everything? Sure, that sounds like you.”
The start of a genuine smile touched on Roman’s lips. He glanced around, made sure no one sat within hearing distance before he lowered his voice and said, “Truth is, I’m heading to Orean separately. I’ll meet up with you all at some point, but I wanted to have a look around on my own, first.”
“That’s more like it,” Gareth said, clapping Roman on the shoulder. “If there’s anything I can do for you, please don’t hesitate to let me know. I can even try to distract the security team, if it would help you at all.”
At that, Roman laughed, the sound carrying in the echoing hall. “Much as I’d like to see that, Gareth, I don’t think it’s the best idea.”
“Perhaps not,” Gareth said, chuckling. After a moment, he shook his head. “I still can’t believe I found myself in the middle of my own Egil story.”
“So you did figure it out. Leandros mentioned you’ve been bugging him about it.”
“I don’t know about bugging,” Gareth huffed. “Roman, can I ask you something?”
“Is it about Egil?”
Roman sighed. “I suppose you can.”
“Is Egil a title that gets passed down? Stories about you — or him, whichever it may be — have been around for hundreds of years. Aren’t you sapien?”
“It’s not a title; it’s only ever been me,” Roman said slowly, considering how much he wanted to reveal. “The truth is, Gareth, I’ve been alive a very long time, and I don’t know why. So if you’re looking for an explanation, I’m afraid I don’t have one.
“It was like I hit a certain age and then just stopped growing,” Roman continued. “When I finally realized I hadn’t aged in years, I began my quest for answers. I researched my parents’ bloodlines, though records back then weren’t what they are now and I had little surviving family left to answer my questions. I traveled the continent in search of cases like mine — I am sapien, after all. Almost entirely. I shouldn’t have lived past ninety. But I just…I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
Gareth chewed thoughtfully on a sausage link. “Huh,” he said, between mouthfuls. “I suppose I should stop calling you ‘son.’”
“I don’t actually mind it,” Roman said. “You’re right, though; you’re young enough to be my great-great-great-great-great grandson.”
Gareth groaned and passed a hand across his face. “I don’t want to think about that.”
Roman snickered. “You see, now, why I joined Unity. They promised answers and I had grown desperate. By the time I realized they didn’t know any more than I did, it was too late for me to up and quit. Devikra, too — she drew me in by promising answers. And I think she has them, too, but she certainly isn’t sharing them with me.”
Gareth’s expression darkened at the mention of Devikra’s name. “Did she tell you she…” Gareth trailed off and waved his hand vaguely.
“Did she tell me she’s secretly one of Atiuh’s Guardians.”
Gareth choked on his food. “Is she really? Are you sure? The team’s been theorizing, but…”
“I believe she is,” Roman said. He shook his head. “And no, she didn’t tell me. I had no idea she was capable of any of that.”
“Roman, what happened the other night? What did she do to you?”
Roman opened his mouth to brush Gareth off, or maybe change the subject, but an urge struck him to tell the truth, just once. It was a secret he didn’t want to keep to himself. “She came to warn me. She had a vision of me dying in Orean.”
“What?” Gareth asked, so loudly some of the alfar at the nearest table looked their way. He lowered his voice before continuing. “Roman, you can’t go, then! You need to stay here!”
“And let the Enforcers find the orinian Leandros and Rhea saw first?” Roman asked.
“This isn’t worth risking your life. We can figure something else out.”
“We don’t have time. Devikra had another vision, too,” Roman said. “She saw Orean on fire. If I can do anything — even if I have to sacrifice everything — to save a whole city of people, I’m going to do it. Don’t you understand?”
“I suppose I do,” Gareth admitted. He studied Roman with a critical eye. “You know, when I first realized who you were, I was…not disappointed, but certainly surprised. You’re not what I expected Egil to be. I see, now, that you are. You’re exactly the hero I imaged.”
Roman hid his face behind a hand. “Please don’t say that,” he said, embarrassed. “I’m not really a hero.”
“Sacrificing yourself to save people sounds heroic to me,” Gareth said.
“What’s heroic?” Theodosia asked, joining them at the table. When Roman and Gareth only shared a look, her eyes widened and she said, “Oh, I’m sorry, am I interrupting something? I just can’t talk to these Illyon folk anymore! I don’t know how! I keep saying the wrong thing!”
Roman laughed. “Don’t worry, Thea, it’s not you; these nobles have a very strict social code that no one else in the world knows. I’m sure even Leandros is having a hard time with them.”
“You had the right idea, sitting by yourselves,” Thea said, brandishing a fork. “This is the last time I try to meet new people. Their food is good, though. I’ll give them that. But then, maybe I’m just sick of campfire food.”
“Just wait until we get to Orean,” Gareth said.
“Oh?” Thea asked, perking up with interest.
They slipped into a conversation about southern cuisine, Roman mostly tuning out for it. Across the hall, Evelyne rose from her table; Thea lit up like the suns and waved her over. Evelyne’s gaze tracked from Thea to Roman and then back to Thea as she clearly weighed her options. Reluctantly, she approached.
“Good morning, Evelyne!” Thea said cheerfully, ignoring whatever was happening between the Enforcer and Roman. “Have you heard anything from Leandros about when we’re heading to Orean?”
“He was going to make an announcement soon,” Evelyne said, glancing over at where Leandros sat with Eresh. The alfar nobles that sat at his table before had mostly dispersed by now. With another wary glance at Roman, Evelyne pulled out the chair next to Thea and sat, perching on the edge of the seat as if preparing herself to bolt — or fight — at any moment.
Sure enough, it wasn’t much later that Leandros stood and called for everyone’s attention.
“As we prepare to leave today,” he began, “I want to encourage you all to keep open minds. We don’t know what to expect from Orean, and I don’t want to go into this with hostility from the start.”
Roman didn’t realize he was staring until Leandros’ gaze met his, the alfar stumbling slightly over his words. Roman cleared his throat and looked away, and Leandros smoothly continued his speech.
Thea had noticed the awkward moment, though. She leaned across the table and hissed, “Are you two fighting again? I thought you finally made up!”
“We’re not fighting!” Roman whispered back. “We’re friends again. I think.”
Roman raised an eyebrow at her. “You have something to add to this?”
Evelyne scowled and looked very much as if she wanted to stick her tongue out at him, too. “I do. Friends? He’s been in love with you since Histrios. I barely saw him, then, but even that much was obvious.”
Roman gaped at her, shocked she would so openly mention the events of Histrios. Whatever seal had been keeping them from discussing their shared past seemed to have broken. “You— wait, he what?”
Evelyne rolled her eyes.
“I was a little surprised to learn that you two weren’t together,” Thea admitted. “I mean, when I first met Leandros, I really thought you two were exes. The tension between you was just so….so….sensual.”
Floundering like a fish on land, Roman looked to Gareth for assistance, but the man staunchly avoided his gaze.
“He doesn’t have those sort of feelings for me,” Roman said firmly, even while remembering the feel of Leandros’ lips against his the night before, “Even if he…used to.”
Roman realized the corner he’d backed himself into when Thea’s expression lit up. Even Evelyne seemed intrigued by the new information, turning to face him more squarely.
“Leandros!” Gareth loudly proclaimed. They all turned to find the alfar approaching the table, none of them having realized his speech already ended.
“Leandros!” Thea echoed nervously, about an octave higher than Gareth’s greeting. “That was a great speech! Very inspiring!”
Leandros looked around the table — at Thea and Gareth’s guilty expression, at Roman’s flushed cheeks, and at Evelyne’s smug look — and made the obvious decision not to ask.
“Roman, can we speak privately?” he asked.
“Sure,” Roman said with forced cheer. He followed Leandros out of the dining room, ignoring Thea’s snickers behind him.
When they reached the empty hallway and Leandros turned to face him, neither immediately spoke. Leandros opened his mouth once, twice, as if he might speak, closing it again almost immediately.
“So,” he started eventually, when the silence had stretched on to an embarrassing length, “We’re leaving this afternoon.”
Roman nodded. “Be careful, Leandros,” he said.
“I think I should be saying that to you,” Leandros said with a small smile.
“I’m always careful,” Roman countered, making Leandros laugh. And then, because he might not have another chance to say it, he added, “I, ah, think I’m going to try to get some rest before I head to Orean, so if I don’t see you again before you go…goodbye, Leandros.”
Leandros wrinkled his nose. “Don’t say it like that. I’ll see you soon, won’t I?”
Roman managed a weak smile. “Yeah,” he said, unsure whether it was a lie or not. “Of course you will.”
“Good,” Leandros said. He hesitated, then, like he had something more to add. His gaze dropped briefly to Roman’s lips, and Roman found himself wishing Leandros would say — or do — whatever was on his mind. But instead, Leandros only squeezed his hand and said, “I’ll see you soon, then.”
Roman steered clear of the team as they prepared to leave, only emerging from his room to wave goodbye at the doors of Uppstad Hall. He waited until the team was through the gate and out of sight before returning to his room, where he went straight to the balcony.
He watched from there as Unity’s diplomatic team crossed the valley toward Orean, completing the final stretch of their journey. From this distance, Cathwright’s was the only distinguishable shape, the others just dark spots on the grassy valley. Roman turned, ready to make his own trek across the valley, then froze.
Ellaes stood in the center of his room, watching him. She looked like herself again, the living flame having faded back into her skin, the glow of magic gone from around her. Roman realized, though, that he could still sense it there. She looked like an average nympherai like this — or at least, close enough to one. Cautiously, she joined him out on the balcony, her eyes drawn to Orean just as his were.
“What did you do to me, Dev?” Roman asked, moving out of her way as she approached.
Ellaes gave him a sidelong look, one Roman was very familiar with. It meant she didn’t want to answer.
“All this time, you’ve been lying to me!” he said, raising his voice. “Why didn’t you tell me who you are?”
She didn’t even seem to be listening, now. It made Roman want to tear his hair out in frustration. “Fine,” he said, turning away. “Don’t answer me. I was about to leave, anyway.”
“I need to be brief,” Ellaes told him before he could walk away. “I can feel Tellaos’ presence near. Our magic sings to each other.”
Her gaze went again to Orean, and with a sinking feeling in his chest, Roman realized he could feel the songs as well. He felt pulled to her, like two magnets held apart, and he felt a weaker version of that same pull coming from the east. It grew slowly stronger, even as they stood together in silence.
“Can you feel him coming for us?” Ellaes asked Roman, watching him curiously. Roman opened his mouth to ask why she said ‘us’, but Ellaes continued before he could. “This pull is how he caught Atuos, almost a millennium ago, now.”
“Caught Atuos?” Roman asked.
“Atuos made the mistake of settling somewhere for too long,” Ellaes answered flatly. “Tellaos found him, tried to convince him to undo the binding we placed on him during the Great War.”
So the story of the Guardians Roman’s mother told him was true, then. Runderath publicly defeated Tellaos, but Ellaes and Atuos bound him and his magic. Roman filed that information away for later. “What happened then?” he asked.
“Tellaos killed everyone Atuos loved, and then Tellaos killed him,” Ellaes said. Roman got the sense there was more to the story, but Ellaes wouldn’t look him in the eyes. She still stared out at Orean.
“Atuos is dead?”
“Yes, for a very long time, now. Almost a millennium.” Moving on, Ellaes said, “I came here to apologize for how the other day went, dead. I came to you with too much emotion in my heart, and you all suffered for it. Now, I owe you explanations.”
“Yes, you do,” Roman agreed.
“Tellaos still can’t access much of his magic. You don’t need to worry about him.”
“I didn’t realize I was worried.”
“Who did you think was behind all of this? The kidnapping? The monsters? Not Orean, surely.”
Roman’s breath left him in a huff. Leandros had been right. “You’re lying,” he said. He didn’t believe it, but it made him feel better to say.
“I’m a Guardian. I cannot lie.”
“Bullshit. You’ve lied to me plenty before.”
Ellaes tilted her head to the side, considering. “I’ve…omitted. There’s a difference. When I tell you Ellaes is planning something and I don’t know what it is, that is not a lie. I swear to you, it’s the truth.”
Roman stared at her, trying to process everything she was telling him.
“Rosanin abilities don’t work on the Guardians, which is why Tellaos was so easily able to change Wilhara’s visions. She can’t predict anything he does until the exact moment he decides to do it. I thought that by warning you not to go to Orean, I’d be able to change them as well. I should have known you wouldn’t let it be so easy,” she said, giving Roman a small smile. He didn’t return it.
“If Tellaos is so harmless, how did he kidnap Amos Nochdvor? How did he create those monsters?”
“He’s not entirely harmless. He found a workaround to his bindings — he can give mortals small pieces of his magic. It’s easiest to give it to the dead. His wife, Mercy, died during the Great War — Tellaos has been keeping her alive by feeding her magic ever since. It must be where he got his idea to create those creatures we saw the other night.”
Roman suppressed a shiver. “Is that what you did to me?”
Ellaes hesitated. “I…did give you magic,” she said. Roman got the sense that she was omitting again. “Just know that Tellaos won’t be able to hurt you, now. No one will.”
Roman frowned, his brow furrowing. “Does that mean…that I’m dead?” Roman asked. It made Ellaes laugh.
“Of course not,” she said. “I said it was easier to give magic to the dead, but it’s not impossible to give it to the living. Do you understand what I just told you? You no longer have to worry about Wilhara’s vision.”
Relief like Roman had never known washed over him. For centuries, he’d cursed his long life, but confronted with his own demise, he’d realized for the first time that he didn’t want to die.
He frowned. “Except for the part about the destroyed city,” he pointed out. “I still have to worry about that.”
“Except for that part,” Ellaes agreed.
“When this is over, will you be able to fix this? Fix me?”
Ellaes looked away from Roman again, a little too quickly. “It may be too late for that.”
Getting frustrated, Roman asked, “I asked you this same question long ago, much longer than any human should be able to live. I asked it when I thought you were just Devikra, the Oracle, and now I’m asking you again. Do you, Ellaes, know what’s wrong with me? Why I don’t age? Why I can’t die?”
Ellaes pursed her lips. “I’m not sure I do, anymore. But I have some theories.”
“I’m sorry, Egil, but that will have to wait for another time. I have to leave before Tellaos comes to find me. I’ll see you soon.”
With that, she disappeared in a flurry of wind, leaving Roman alone. He looked out at Orean again, at the black spires of the darkened castle that stood at the center of the city, and shuddered. Relieving as it was to know he wasn’t about to die, the more he thought about what waited for him in Orean, the more afraid he felt.