After a great deal of waiting, avoiding uncomfortable eye contact with nervous Orean guards, and more waiting, the gates to Orean were drawn open and Unity’s team was finally permitted to enter the city. Permitted to enter, at least, with the understanding that they would be escorted by not one, not two, but three dozen armed guards.
The guards paid Cathwright particular attention, assigning a third of the escort to her, which everyone on the team knew to be absurd. After journeying with her all the way from Gallontea, they knew she was incapable of even killing mosquitoes when they swarmed her. If anyone on the team should have so many guards assigned to them, it should be Evelyne.
Despite the wary welcome, though, as they passed through Orean’s streets, the city’s orinians regarded them with only wide eyes and curiosity. Leandros had expected more fear. How much did they know about the team’s presence in the city? How much did they understand?
Leandros was used to curious stares from a lifetime in the nobility and barely blinked at the attention. But on one side of him, Thea kept ducking her head, hiding her face, fiddling with her hair. On his other side, Evelyne just glared at anyone with the gall to look at her. They reached Orean’s outer city like that, and at the inner wall, even more guards joined the procession, marching them the rest of the way.
The good news, Leandros thought, was that if all the guards were here, the city would be empty for Roman’s mission. He eyed the black spires reaching toward the sky ahead, his expression darkening. The chances were looking slim, but he really hoped ancient deities weren’t involved in his uncle’s abduction.
Upon reaching the king’s palace, the orinians led the team through tall, arching hallways that echoes with every step to a wide courtyard garden filled with towering hedges and golden-orange trees. Leandros had been keenly aware of its looming presence since leaving Gallontea, but in this garden, it was impossible not to recognize autumn’s chilly touch.
Around them, their escort fanned out, encircling the garden and standing at every exit. The orinian in charge of their escort, a guard with a golden cape Leandros had overheard referred to as Captain Song, stepped forward. “King Whelan would like to speak to you alone first, Mr. Nochdvor.”
Evelyne opened her mouth to protest, but Leandros waved her off. “It’s alright.”
“At least take your assistant with you,” Evelyn said pointedly, nudging a surprised Thea forward. “She’s the only thing that keeps you on track.”
“Hm? Oh, of course,” Leandros said, beckoning Thea forward. He turned to Captain Song and asked, “Can Ms. Fairfax come with me, at least? I really am hopeless without her.”
Captain Song looked Thea up and down. Apparently deeming her not a threat, he nodded. “That should be fine.”
As Captain Song led Leandros and Thea down down long cobblestone walkways, Leandros leaned closer to Thea. “You told Evelyne about your abilities, didn’t you?” he whispered.
Thea jumped. “Oh, I — um, did I? I don’t recall.”
Leandros huffed. “We’ll discuss it later. I want you to read the king’s intentions, if you can. It’ll be nice to know what we’re dealing with going into these negotiations.”
Deep in the labyrinthine garden, they came upon an older orinian in a fine suit sitting on a bench. He wore dark spectacles to protect against the sun, so Leandros couldn’t see his eyes, but his lips pressed into a thin line when he saw the group approaching.
A gasp came from Thea, but Leandros had no time to dwell on it — the orinian king was standing and offering his hand.
“So,” he said when Leandros shook it, “You really have come.”
“You knew we would,” Leandros said. He’d already known as much, but King Whelan’s nod confirmed it. “It’s a pleasure to finally make your acquaintance, Your Highness. We would have been here sooner, but we ran into some complications in Lyryma.”
“If only you’d taken longer. I don’t have your uncle, Mr. Nochdvor.”
“I would hope not,” Leandros said, hiding a twinge of irritation at the blunt greeting. “I’m not here because I expected you to have him. I’m here because I had hoped you might help us find him. It was, after all, an orinian that kidnapped him.”
“There are a lot of orinians in Orean,” King Whelan said with a cold, polite smile. “Come to think of it, there are a lot of orinians outside of Orean, too. I wouldn’t know how to help you.”
“I have a few ideas, if you care to listen to them,” Leandros said, his hands clenching into fists at his side. He could take underhanded remarks and even open hostility, but he hated being dismissed outright.
“I will, Lord Nochdvor, but not right now. We have plenty of time to discuss our options, and I’m sure you’d like to change and rest after your travels.” King Whelan waved the captain over. “Captain Song, come — please escort Lord Nochdvor and our guests to their rooms. They would like to get settled for dinner.”
“I don’t think—,” Leandros began, but Whelan interrupted him. Another thing Leandros hated.
“I insist. You’d like the rest of your team to be present for for these discussions, wouldn’t you? Besides, this isn’t the place for this sort of conversation.”
“There’ll be time, Mr. Nochdvor,” King Whelan said. “There’ll be time.”
“My uncle has been missing for weeks!” Leandros snapped. “Each and every delay reduces the chance of our finding him!”
King Whelan smiled placidly, barely reacting to Leandros’ loss of temper. “We’ll discuss it over dinner, then. That’s a promise.”
“Mr. Nochdvor,” Captain Song said quietly. Leandros notice him cast a disquieted look toward his own King. “If you’d follow me.”
Leandros huffed. “It seems I have no choice.”
King Whelan’s smile briefly faltered — so briefly that it left Leandros wondering if he imagined it. “Thank you for understanding,” the king said, tone inscrutable. Leandros puzzled over it as Song guided them back to the team. Beside him, Thea bit nervously at her nails, expression troubled.
“Leandros,” she said finally. “About King Whelan. Something’s wrong. He—,”
“Here we are,” Captain Song said loudly, cutting her off.
Unable to go on in the presence on the rest of the team, Thea clamped her mouth shut. Cathwright spotted them before the rest of the team did. “That was fast,” she rumbled. “How did it go?”
“Hard to say,” Leandros said.
Captain Song watched the exchange with wide eyes. He opened his mouth, shut it, and then timidly asked, “What did she say?”
Amusement broke through Leandros’ frustration from the last few minutes. He wondered if any of these orinians had ever seen a dragon before today. “She asked how it went.”
“Ah,” Captain Song said, eyes still wide. He cleared his throat. “If you’ll follow me.”
They had to part with Cathwright, who’d be staying in rooms made for oanai. Then, in a long procession, the team was led out of the garden and up through the palace, every stone and archway signaling how old this palace was, how long it had stood here. Alfheim had gone through an architectural renaissance only centuries before Leandros was born, so he’d grown up around modern cities and modern palaces. All of this was new to him.
They ended up in a long hallway filled with identical doors. Leandros tried pulling Thea aside to ask about Whelan, but Captain Song got between them, ushering Leandros toward one of the doors. Leandros glanced back to see Thea whispering urgently to Evelyne, who nodded, before they were both directed to rooms as well.
“We’ll come fetch you when dinner is prepared,” Captain Song promised. “If there’s anything at all that you need, please let one of us know.”
Leandros barely resisted shutting the door in Captain Song’s face, all the frustration from his talk with Whelan resurfacing. At least the room was nice, for what was obviously a glorified holding cell. It was decorated in an old orinian style, filled with bright, embroidered Orean fabrics considered a luxury anywhere else in the world. A wide window sat on the far wall, giving Leandros a breathtaking view of Orean, of colorful rooftops and vibrant colors sloping ever downward toward the valley.
Leandros waited a few minutes, then cracked the door open, peering into the hallway. As he suspected, multiple guards were stationed down its length, clearly meant to prevent them from leaving. One noticed him and stood to attention. “Did you need something, Lord Nochdvor?”
“No,” Leandros said, the orinian shrinking back under Leandros’ withering expression. “Nothing.”
Leandros shut the door and paced the spacious room, worrying. He’d never expected a warm welcome — this was along the lines of what he’d expected, in fact. King Whelan wasn’t very forthcoming, to say the least, but Leandros hadn’t expected the chill that wracked through him at Whelan’s presence, the sense of wrongness that exuded from the man.
He wondered what Thea had seen.
While Leandros paced, a strange sound came from the window. He nearly jumped out of his skin when he looked over to see a pale face peering through the glass. The face frowned; pale fingers tapped on the glass.
Swearing under his breath, Leandros crossed to the window and pushed it open. “What are you doing?” Leandros asked, moving aside without waiting for an answer.
Evelyne, clinging to the dense vines that covered the walls of the old castle, maneuvered around the glass panels of the window and climbed acrobatically into the room, brushing her hands on her pants and turning to Leandros. “What?” she asked defensively. “This is easier than dealing with those guards, isn’t it?”
Facing her like this, Leandros realized that he was, for the first time, alone with one of Unity’s Enforcers. The very Enforcer who shot Roman in Histrios, in face. The very Enforcer who’d been told to kill him if Roman couldn’t.
Leandros eyed his pistol, which sat on a delicate table near the door. Regrettably, Evelyne stood between him and it. She smiled wryly. “I know you know who I am, Captain. I know you always have. I have no intention of hurting you.”
Leandros smiled back. “You seem very confident that you could.”
“It would be close, if you had a weapon,” she conceded, then glanced pointed back at the gun and sword sheath beside it. “But you’re unarmed, now.”
“Fair enough,” Leandros said. “If we’re being honest with each other, why don’t you have an intention of hurting me? Are you disobeying Unity?”
“Not…disobeying,” Evelyne said slowly. “I have discretion to reassess any order if a situation changes, and I think it’s safe to say this situation has changed. I’m no fool, Leandros. I know there’s an enemy worse than Orean involved in this mess, and I know you know more than I do.”
“Not that much more,” Leandros sighed.
“All the same,” Evelyne said, “I trust your discretion and I’ll fight if you give the word, Captain.”
“Thank you,” Leandros said. He almost couldn’t believe the words he was hearing.
“Oh,” Evelyne said, “I almost forgot — Thea asked me to come over here. She said to tell you that King Whelan didn’t have an aura. She couldn’t get a read on him at all.”
“Shit,” Leandros breathed. He thought for a minute, then asked, “How did you get her to tell you about her abilities, by the way?”
Evelyne smirked. “We share secrets sometimes.”
“If you’ve just been bonding with her to get information, Evelyne, I’ll—,”
“You really think I’d disobey Unity because of a girl I don’t care about?” Evelyne asked, her eyes narrowing dangerously.
“I thought you were doing this because you trusted my discretion?”
Evelyne hesitated. “I am.”
“I thought it wasn’t technically disobeying?” Leandros pressed.
The pause came longer this time. “It isn’t,” Evelyne said. She huffed. “Forget I said anything. What does it mean that Whelan doesn’t have an aura? Thea said everyone has one.”
“I don’t know, but Devikra didn’t have one either.”
Evelyne’s brow furrowed. “You think they’re the same?”
“No,” Leandros said easily. “But I think they’re connected.”
Evelyne dropped onto the bed. “I think it’s time you caught me up on a few things.”
“I could say the same to you.”
“Me? Being friends with Hallisey, I assumed you knew everything already. He’s always had a way of finding things out. There’s never been an Enforcer like him.” Evelyne shrugged. “I don’t know what to tell you. We — the Enforcers — aren’t here for your uncle, we’re here to find out how that orinian took him.”
Leandros nodded. That, he knew.
“We’ve been told to completely abandon the team if necessary, but to protect the team as long as it doesn’t get in the way of our true mission,” Evelyne said, voice emotionless. “Believe it or not, that’s it — well, that and my order to kill you before we got to Orean.”
“We’re in Orean now,” Leandros pointed out.
“And as we discussed, I’m disobeying,” Evelyne snapped. She sat back on her hands. “You’d be dead already, otherwise. I considered doing it while Hallisey was unconscious, but frankly, after seeing how he looks at you, I’m not sure I want to be the one to evoke his eternal wrath.”
“He doesn’t look at me any way.”
Evelyne scoffed. “Sure.”
“And anyway, Thea asked me not to hurt you. I’m doing this as much for her as I am for you. Catch me up now, will you?”
“I don’t have much to tell you either, I’m afraid. Roman and I believe that…that Atiuh’s Guardians might be involved in my uncle’s kidnapping.”
Evelyne raised an eyebrow.
“I know how it sounds,” Leandros said, “As if a glowing orinian that abducts kings and vanishes into thin air isn’t bad enough. But you saw those creatures in Lyryma. If you’re still determined to investigate on your own, be careful. I’ll tell you more when I know more; you have my word.”
“Thanks for the warning,” Evelyne said, heading back toward the window. “One more thing: is Hallisey really staying back in Illyon?”
“That, I’m not telling.”
Evelyne laughed, the sound sharp. “I’ll take that as a no.”
With that, she climbed back out the window, swinging out of sight.
A/N: We’re back! If you didn’t see my update, Fractured Magic will now be updating every other Wednesday. (And as a reminder, you can get regular updates on the official discord server!)