Chapter 14

Gareth hurried down the stairs. Damn whoever was pounding on his door so early in the morning. Isobel was asleep, Ofelia was asleep, and even the servants were still asleep, but if his impatient visitor kept this up, they wouldn’t be for long. Fortunately, he hadn’t been woken by the noise— he’d been awake, reviewing the readings and manuals Mr. Ochoa had sent his way. Gareth had made the mistake of procrastinating, and now there was a meeting today and he hadn’t yet read any of it.

Gareth opened the door, unable to get a word out before his visitor was pushing his way inside. “Why, Mr. Hallisey!”

“Hello, Gareth! Mind if I come in?”

Gareth shut the door to the cold wind that followed Roman inside then turned to the young man, whatever admonitions he’d had ready dying on his tongue when he got a look at Roman. “Atiuh’s name, son, are you alright?”

There was something different about Roman this morning. There were purple half-circles under his eyes, his eyes themselves too wild and too empty, the black irises too large. That wasn’t it, though— wasn’t what made Gareth take an uneasy step back, away from Roman. He couldn’t say what it was.

Roman offered him a tired smile. “I’m alright, Gareth.”

Gareth frowned, regarding the young man with concern. “Well,” he said, “Don’t apologize for waking me, or anything.”

Roman looked down at Gareth’s dressing gown. “Oh. I’m sorry.”

“Do you have any idea what time it is, son?”

“I thought it was morning,” Roman said, rubbing his eyes. Gareth hadn’t realized the effect those eyes had on his nerves until they were hidden behind Roman’s hands.

“It is. Early morning.”

It took Roman a moment to understand. “Oh, I’m so sorry! The suns are up; I didn’t even think beyond that. Please, Gareth, hit me over the head and send me on my way; I can bother you at a more reasonable time.”

Gareth huffed. “I’ve been awake for some time, anyway. Come on upstairs.” Gareth led Roman up to his sitting room. In the corner sat his writing desk, covered in a mess of files and reports from Ochoa. Apart from slivers of pale sunslight peeking around the edges of the curtains, a delicate lamp with a stained glass shade was the only source of light in the room.

“You don’t quite seem yourself,” Gareth said.

Roman took slow steps into the room, trailing his hand along the back of the sofa as he went. “Funny, I feel like myself. More than I have in some time.”

Gareth felt the same uneasy sensation as before, a prickling at the back of his neck. “Is that so?”

Roman shrugged and grinned, the smile stretching from ear to ear but not touching his eyes. “I’m sorry, Gareth. I didn’t get much sleep last night.”

“That’s alright,” Gareth said weakly. He didn’t like that smile. “Do you…do you mind waiting a moment? I’d like to finish reading this report before I take a break.”

“Of course.”

Gareth sat back down to work, trying to ignore Roman behind him as he first moved to the bookshelf, perusing the titles there, then to the couch. Roman quieted after that, and Gareth skimmed through the report without interruption, turning when he’d finished to find Roman curled up on the couch, asleep. Gareth smiled and draped a blanket over Roman before returning to his reading.


Roman woke hours later on a stiff couch nearly a foot too short for him. His legs dangled off the edge, and when he stretched, a muscle in his back gave a sharp protest. With a groan, he sat up and blinked around at the unfamiliar sitting room, at the morning light now streaming in through open curtains, and finally at the blanket covering him. It took a moment to remember that morning, and with it came memories of the previous night. He pushed the fresh pain away, something he had a good deal of experience doing, folded the blanket, then wandered over to Gareth’s desk.

Roman picked idly through the papers on the desk, most of which had CONFIDENTIAL sprawled across them. He only briefly stopped to think he shouldn’t be doing this— then he found the team roster. He recognized a few of the names when he skimmed over it, and finally, a plan began to form. He needed onto this team.

“Oh, you’re awake,” a startled voice came from behind Roman. Folding the roster and slipping it into his waistcoat pocket, Roman turned to see a maid standing in the doorway, regarding him with open curiosity. She curtsied. “The Ranulfs are taking breakfast out on the balcony; they’ve asked that you join them.”

“Thank you,” Roman said. “Where—,”

“Down the hall and to the right, through the dining room.”

Roman followed the maid’s directions to an empty dining room lit by cold morning light. The balcony doors were propped open, and Roman heard a flute-like laugh drift in through them. Isobel. Roman followed the sound to find Gareth, Isobel, a young girl, and a tired-looking woman with the same nose as Gareth sitting at a table on the balcony, the white ends of the tablecloth snapping and fluttering in the breeze.

“Good morning,” Gareth called. He sat facing Roman, his back to the rooftops of Gallontea and, beyond those, the cliffs of Unity Island and the flat blue ocean horizon. Streaks of color danced through the sky above their heads and for once, Gallontea wasn’t lost under a blanket of smog. Roman had thought he was long past finding beauty in this crooked city, but the view here took his breath away.

“Good morning,” Roman said. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to intrude—,”

“It’s a good thing you didn’t, then,” Isobel said. She gestured at the open seat across from her. “Join us. Help yourself to some breakfast.”

“I didn’t want to wake you; you seemed like you needed the sleep,” Gareth said. “Feel any better?”

“Yes,” Roman said, surprised that it was the truth, even with his discomfort at the Ranulfs’ overwhelming kindness. “Thank you.”

The table was piled high with more food than four people could possibly eat, plates of rolls, bowls of fruit, warm ham and a pot of rich, bitter coffee Roman could smell from where he sat. He felt out of place, though it might be more the familial domesticity than the luxury of it all.

Isobel said, “Roman, this is Gareth’s sister, Representative Moira Ranulf. Moira, this is Roman Hallisey.”

“Pleasure,” Moira said. Her eyes trailed over Roman’s clothes, which, nice as they were, were worn and several seasons out of style. Her assessment ended with Roman’s scarred, calloused hands, and Roman could see her dismissal in the way she turned pointedly away.

“And, of course, our daughter Ofelia,” Isobel continued. “Ofelia, say hello to Mr. Hallisey. He’s a friend of your father’s.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ofelia,” Roman said seriously.

Ofelia stared back just as seriously, brown eyes wide. “How d’you do,” she said through a mouth full of breakfast potatoes.

“Ofelia,” Isobel chided, but Roman only laughed. Ofelia swallowed her food and grinned, amused by his amusement.

“She looks just like you, Isobel.”

“Fortunately for her,” Gareth said.

“She has Gareth’s curls,” Isobel said, tucking a lock of dark hair behind Ofelia’s hair. Ofelia and Roman’s eyes both went to Gareth’s head.

“I choose to shave it, you know,” Gareth said stiffly.

Isobel made a sound that could have been a cough. “How’s Dinara?”

“Hard to say. We, ah…decided to go our separate ways.”

“Oh, Roman, I’m so sorry,” Isobel said.

“It was a mutual decision, really. I’m sad, but not heartbroken,” Roman assured her.

“You seemed so close the other day. What happened?” Gareth asked.

Seemed is the right word for it,” Roman said. He eyed the Representative, who was too thoroughly engrossed by her breakfast not to be paying attention. “It was only the seeming of closeness, and we both realized it.”

“You’re welcome to stay with us a while, if you need a place,” Isobel said, after sharing a look with Gareth. “We have several spare rooms.”

Roman stared at her, and when Gareth nodded his agreement, at Gareth. “I,” he began, then had to stop. He’d resigned himself to cheap inns at best, alley corners at worst. At least until he’d figured out where he was going. “That would be wonderful, thank you.”

“Of course,” Gareth said with a smile, eyes crinkling at the corners. Roman noticed the lines there, left by a lifetime of smiling. “Consider it our thanks to you for saving my life.”

Moira looked up at that. “Saving your life?”

“Didn’t I say? Roman’s the one who saved me that night I was mugged.”

The Representative studied Roman anew, her gaze calculating and interested. It reminded Roman of pain, of a long line of Unity Representatives who’d hurt him and used him and felt no remorse. Roman had no doubt that Moira would do the same, if she could, but he was stronger now.

“You have my thanks, Mr. Hallisey. The Ranulfs are forever in your debt.”

“I appreciate your thanks, but don’t need it. I’m glad I was there to help.”

Moira graced him with an approving nod. From there, the conversation flowed to a more interesting topic, after Isobel asked why Unity’s bells had been tolling so loudly the day before.

“There was a what?” She gasped.

“A prison break. I wasn’t on the island yesterday, but I hear it was quite the sight— the criminals escaped by jumping clear off the prison bridge.”

“How frightening,” Isobel said, sounding more intrigued than afraid.

“It is,” Roman agreed. “Were the criminals ever caught?”

“Not yet, but I have faith they will be.”

Roman covered his smirk with a hand, but not before Gareth noticed. He frowned at Roman, but was distracted by Ofelia complaining about how she wanted to go play. Isobel stood with some difficulty, her hand on her stomach. She scooped Ofelia into her arms and navigated past Moira. “I’ll be back; I’m going to take Ofelia up to her governess.”

“How far along is she now, Gareth?” Moira asked once Isobel was gone.

“Almost five months.”

“How time flies.”

“I’m probably going to miss the birth,” Gareth continued, colder than Roman had ever heard him. He was suddenly reminded that Gareth was from a Unity family, and he felt even stranger about accepting his hospitality.

Moira glanced sharply at Roman, who pretended to be absorbed with his own breakfast, now.

“He knows about the team,” Gareth said.

“Gareth, what part of secret mission don’t you understand?” Moira hissed.

“You know how I am with secrets! If you didn’t want it to get out, then you shouldn’t have put me on the team in the first place. It wasn’t my fault for telling, anyhow; Roman took me to the hospital after the mugging, and they gave me rather strong painkillers. They had me running my mouth something terrible.”

“I hope we can count on your discretion, Mr. Hallisey.”

“Of course,” Roman said innocently. “I have no one to tell.”

This seemed to appease Moira.

Gareth started at the sound of Isobel’s voice, then, calling him upstairs. “I will be right back,” he said, leaving the “play nice” merely implied.

Roman watched him go, then turned to look back at Moira. His plan was beginning to solidify into something real. He was lucky he’d come to Gareth’s this morning. “If it helps ease your mind,” he said with his best ingratiating smile, the kind people like Moira gave and received on the daily, “I worked for Unity for years. I know how to hold onto its secrets. This one is safe with me.”

Moira didn’t bother hiding her surprise. “You did? What did you do, exactly?”

Instead of answering, Roman merely tugged up his sleeve and showed Moira the brand on his wrist. Moira stilled, first, then her eyes went wide, and finally, the color drained from her face.

“You’re—,”

“Yes,” Roman said, cutting her off.

Moira sat silent a moment, staring at Roman’s wrist unseeingly. “You mean you—,”

“I used to,” Roman said. “I’m retired.”

Moira’s eyes darted toward the door. She inched her chair back, just enough to help with a quick escape. “I didn’t think that was something your kind could do.”

Roman’s smile turned sharp. “Your predecessors made an exception for me. Don’t leave, Representative; I only want to talk.”

“About what?”

“I have a request to make of you. I want to join the team to Orean.”

Moira let out a startled laugh. “Or what? You’ll kill me? Kill my family? Well orchestrated, Hallisey, crashing family breakfast to make your point. Do they mean anything to you at all, or was this a game to get to me? I know how your kind works. You breathe threats, extortion, manipulation—,”

“My kind,” Roman repeated softly. “No, that’s not what I was going to say at all. None of that. I like your family, and I didn’t know I’d be crashing breakfast of any kind. I just think you and I can benefit each other.”

Moira eyed Roman. This was familiar territory to her, and it showed in the way she relaxed. “Is that so?”

“I’m curious about the magic, too.”

Moira stilled a moment before scoffing. “You certainly hear more than you should, Mr. Hallisey. What do you know about that?”

“Only that the explosion in Illyon wasn’t accomplished by any weapon Unity’s familiar with. You think Orean somehow harnessed magic, and you want the same ability.”

Moira shook her head. “The Nochdvors insisted it was magic; I’m of the opinion that they were in shock. Magic, weapon, whatever it is, we’re merely curious about how Orean pulled it off. That comes second to finding King Nochdvor, of course.”

“Of course,” Roman said. “I can help you with both.”

“Our team is already assembled, I’m afraid. And why would we want you? You’re retired. For all I know, you were forced out for incompetency.”

“If I was incompetent, I’d be dead,” Roman said. “You know that. In all my time with Unity, I never failed a single mission, and when I left, it was only because they weren’t strong enough to stop me. If you put me on the team, I guarantee I’ll find the information you need.” Roman played his final card. “I went by Egil, in those days.”

Moira blinked. “As in—,”

“Yes.”

“Why should I believe you?”

Roman shrugged. “Check my files; I’m sure Unity still has them. I can corroborate anything you read in them. Quiz me, if you must.”

“What do you get out of this?” Moira asked, staring at Roman with something like awe, now, still calculated and hungry. Roman could practically see the wheels turning: Egil would be her secret, Egil would owe her a favor. He didn’t like it, but at least he had her interest.

He considered his possible answers. He couldn’t say that he didn’t trust Unity to handle this without supervision. He couldn’t say that he’d just been broken up with and needed to get away, do something useful. Couldn’t say he owed Amos Nochdvor his life and wanted to clear his debt. Couldn’t say he was interested in the magic. Couldn’t say he was determined to find it before Unity and get it far, far away from them.

“Satisfaction of my curiosity. I also want Unity’s records of me destroyed,” Roman said. It was a good lie. A solid lie. Enough for this to feel like an even exchange. “In return for helping you with your mission.”

“If you are who you say you are, that’s a big request.”

“This is an important mission. You need the best on your team.”

Moira stood. “I’ll think about it.”

“There’s another benefit to this, you know,” Roman said before she could leave. He heard Gareth’s heavy tread coming down the stairs. “Magic, weapon, whatever it is, I know this mission will be more dangerous than you told Gareth. I do care about him. He’s my friend. I’ll keep an eye on him, keep him out of trouble.”

Moira gave Roman a hard, thoughtful look. “You know, I just recalled that we have an opening on the team. One of our team guards was thrown off a bridge yesterday. Obviously unfit for travel, now.”

Roman raised an eyebrow. “Tragic.”

“Yes, he was injured during the prison break— which we believe was facilitated by someone who knows the prison well. You don’t know anything about that, do you?”

“Not a thing.”

“Well, I suppose his loss is your gain. You’re on the team, Egil, if the information in your file matches up. But you’ll owe me a favor.”

Roman pursed his lips. “You’ll erase my records?”

Moira considered it, then nodded. “Yes.”

“Then you have a deal.”

Moira smiled, just as Gareth stepped back out onto the balcony. Gareth stopped and looked between the two of them curiously, immediately noticing the shift in tension out on the balcony. Moira slipped past him. “I’m afraid I must go, Gareth; I have some reading to do. I’ll be in touch, Hallisey. Welcome to the team.”

“Wait, what?” Gareth asked, but Moira was already gone.

Roman stood and, with a bright grin, patted Gareth on the shoulder. “I have to go get my things from Dinara today, Gareth, but take good notes at the meeting for me, will you?”

Roman and Moira left Gareth standing speechless on the balcony.


Chapter 13

Roman wandered through a silent forest, feet treading lightly. He stepped over a fallen tree trunk and looked up at the overcast sky, perfectly visible through the leafless branches that shot like lightning into the sky. Roman’s gaze followed the line of the branches down the trunks. Thin, blue, and nothing like the trees of Gallontea.

Dead leaves lined the trail beneath Roman’s boots, hidden under a light dusting of snow. The air was cold, the life of autumn having fully surrendered to winter. Mist gathered around his boots and hung low over the forest.

Roman had been many places. He knew many things. These trees, he knew very well. He knew the path he stood on and knew where it led. He also knew it was the last place he wanted to go, but he walked anyway, compelled forward as if an invisible thread was reeling him in like a fishing line.

A dark shape appeared in the fog, and before Roman was ready, the lonely cabin emerged out of it. It was made from the same pale blue wood of the forest, the ibal tree, so common in Troas. The cabin stood as Roman had last seen it, windows boarded shut and lonely shadows hanging in the open doorway.

He stepped into the clearing. No grass grew on the frozen ground leading up to the cabin. Nothing survived in this cold place. Roman took another step, toward the door, but a movement glimpsed out of the corner of his eye—the rustle of a skirt, the wave of a hand—made him stop. When he turned, all he saw was forest, the sickly trees affording little coverage for anyone hoping to hide.

Someone laughed behind him, and he spun again, surprised to see a figure on the porch. She raised a hand to beckon him closer, but Roman couldn’t move.

“Mother?” he breathed.

Catalina Rosario smiled. Or rather, this distorted dream version of her did. It had been so long since her death that Roman had forgotten what she looked like. The Catalina that stood on the porch was a constantly changing blur, her features warping and shifting every few seconds. In the way of dreams, Roman barely noticed, just knew that she wasn’t real.

Some things about her were clear. Her eyes, lighter than his own. They were the honey-sweet tones of sunshine streaming through a bottle of whiskey. Her voice, always sounding close to laughter.

“Amaimon!” She called, no longer looking at Roman. She ran down the steps, passing Roman, and scooped a child into her arms. The child stared at Roman over his mother’s shoulder, cold black eyes boring into Roman’s.

“Well?” Catalina asked, leaning back to examine the child’s face. “Didn’t you miss your mother?”

“Yes,” the boy said seriously. “Don’t go away anymore.”

Catalina laughed and made no promises not to leave again. “What can I do to make it up to you, sweet boy?”

Amaimon considered this. “Tell me a story?”

“A story, hm? About what?”

“Heroes,” the boy said. “I want to hear about a great hero.”

“Yes, sir,” Catalina said, wide eyes dancing with laughter. The boy seemed to know he was being made fun of and squirmed in his mother’s grasp. “I’ll give you your story, love. Must you be so serious?”

Roman remembered many moments like this. His mother knew a great number of stories, more than Roman knew even today, and was good at telling them. She spoke to Amaimon softly, sweetly, using her free hand to make grand gestures.

“I want to be a hero,” Roman heard his younger self say, the child’s voice only an echo.

They were facing Roman, now, oblivious to his presence. Catalina smiled at her son, but Amaimon wore the same serious expression as before. Catalina was right; he’d always been a serious child. He’d learned to stop taking his life so seriously when doing so made him want to end it.

“A hero? No, son, leave heroism to lesser men. You can do better.”

Roman inched closer, trying to hear the story, when someone else appeared in the doorway, hidden in shadow. All Roman could see of him was a pair of snakeskin boots, but it was enough to force a trill of fear through Roman. The boots stepped forward, and then came pain.

Roman gasped and fell to his knees, suddenly unable to breathe. He felt like a flame burned inside his chest, pumping fire throughout his body with every beat of his heart. Distantly, he registered noises around him. There was a laugh, then he heard Catalina scream. He tried to look, but his muscles were locked tight. Agony coursed through him.

As suddenly as it began, the pain receded. Roman stayed on the ground a little longer, folded in on himself, afraid that it would begin again if he moved. When he finally dared to look up, the world around him had changed. The cabin rotted, the trees darkened, the forest flooded with mist. Black ribbons of something alive and writhing convulsed across the dark sky, and when Roman stood, he looked down to find Catalina dead at his feet.

Roman stumbled toward her and fell to his knees. Amaimon stood on her other side, and there was blood on his hands. The boy touched his face, transferring a streak of red to his cheek, where it mingled with the tears falling freely. When Amaimon looked up at Roman, his eyes were completely black.

“That’s not what happened,” Roman told the boy, told the dream, told himself. He couldn’t remember, could never remember, but he knew something was missing. “I didn’t kill her.”

Amaimon only stared at him, black eyes expressionless. A laugh echoed through the trees. Roman looked toward the sound, and the last thing he saw before waking was glowing crimson eyes and a twisted smile fading into the mist.


Roman sat up, flailing in the streets for a full minute before realizing where he was— away from the cabin, away from Amaimon, away from his mother and whatever killed her. He reached for the other side of the bed, for the warmth of a lover to reassure him that he was really here, that he was safe, but he was alone.

Roman blinked, surprised, and then fell apart all at once.

He wrapped his arms around himself, hoping that might stop the shaking, might protect the raw edges of his soul, exposed like a torn-off scab after visiting those barracks again, after that awful dream ripped him apart and left the pieces to flutter in the wind.

He’d had that dream before, he just never remembered until waking. Never, though, had it come with so much pain. Roman still felt echoes of it, like a poked-at bruise. Like it hadn’t been just a dream.

In time, the shaking subsided, but the wound didn’t close. Knowing that it never would, Roman wiped the tears from his eyes, pushed himself out of bed, and went to find Dinara. As he was about to leave the trailer, a faint thump from above made him pause. He climbed onto the trailer’s handrail, then up to the roof. Sure enough, there Dinara sat, knees hugged to her chest, the moon hanging large and bright behind her.

She turned when Roman joined her, expression betraying all of her thoughts and none of them at once. “What are you doing awake?” she asked.

Roman made his way carefully along the roof to sit beside her. “I’m always awake at strange hours of the night.”

“I didn’t wake you?”

“You didn’t wake me.”

“You had one of your nightmares again,” Dinara guessed.

Roman sighed. “The same one. It’s always the same.” He hesitated, then, knowing he owed Dinara some truth in the face of all the lies, decided to explain. “My mother was killed when I was young. My dreams are always echoes of it. It was different tonight, though. Weirder.”

“I’m so sorry.”

Roman just shrugged, because if he said any more, he might cry. “I’d ask you why you’re up, but I think I already know.”

Dinara frowned and looked away, the moonlight catching on her hair.

“You’re thinking about yesterday?”

“About all the questions left unanswered,” Dinara confirmed.

“I’m sorry if I’m being evasive.”

“Evasive doesn’t begin to cover it, Roman. I feel like I’m worlds away from knowing you.”

“You know me better than almost anyone.”

“That’s not comforting. It’s sad.”

“Probably,” Roman conceded. He took a deep breath. “Dinara, if you really want answers, I can—,”

“Tell me about last time,” Dinara said. “Last time you had to flee the Island.”

Roman’s mouth snapped shut. After a moment’s thought, he said, “Okay.”

Dinara waited for him to continue, but he was lost in thought, staring out over the quiet camp. “I was…a prisoner,” he said, finally. “More in practice than in name.”

“Why?” Dinara asked.

“Why what?”

“Why were you a prisoner?”

Roman took a deep breath. “I killed someone. Accidentally.”

He glanced at Dinara, then quickly looked away again. Digging further into the haze of his memories, he said, “I was homeless, at the time. My parents died when I was young, leaving me with nothing and no-one. I made the mistake of wandering into Gallontea, naively thinking I could find a job, maybe save enough to finish my education. I had no idea what I was walking into, and the police then were even worse than they are now…a week in town, a group of them accosted me while I was trying to find somewhere to sleep. They were beating me, and I just…reacted. I was so sure they were going to kill me. I killed one, wounded two others, and was arrested immediately after.”

Ignoring Dinara’s horrified expression, he continued. “They kept me on the Island for a long time. Eventually, Ivey found me, helped me plan an escape.” Roman sighed. “I had a friend in the…prison. Bellona. Barely more than a kid. She was supposed to get out with me, but when the time came, everything went wrong. The guards tried to stop us, and we had to fight our way out. Bellona, she got caught and carried away by the guards, and I…I just kept going. I had to get out.” Roman squeezed his eyes shut. “I think she’s why I was so keen to help yesterday. Maebhe reminded me of Bellona— spirited, clever, scared. I wanted to do better this time.”

“What happened to Bellona?”

Roman shook his head. “I don’t know. I tried going back for her, but…no luck. I assumed they’d killed her. After the escape, I—,”

“Stop,” Dinara said, looking surprised at herself for speaking. She shook her head. “I don’t think I want to know any more.”

“Good,” Roman sighed. This happened every time. He shared too much and scared them all away. “I don’t think I want to tell any more.”

Tears swam in Dinara’s eyes, but her cheeks were dry. Her voice was even as she said, “Where does that leave us, Roman? If you can’t tell me about yourself, and I can’t hear it? Yesterday, in the middle of all that action, I feel like you were more yourself than I’ve ever seen you, and if you can’t be that person with me…”

Roman rubbed his eyes. He was so tired. “I know. You deserve better than this.”

Now that they seemed to be on the same line of thought, Dinara relaxed. “Probably. But so do you.”

Roman wasn’t so sure.

“You’re still welcome to travel with us,” Dinara said. “You’re part of the family. That won’t change.”

“Actually, I think I’m going to stay in Gallontea.”

“Oh,” Dinara said. Roman pretended not to hear the relief in her voice. “What will you do?”

Roman took a deep breath, met her gaze. “I have to do something about Unity.”

“What about them?” Dinara asked.

Roman looked up at the moon, debated holding his tongue. Speaking the words into existence meant he would have to stand by them, and that was a terrifying thought. But he spoke, and the words flowed easier now that he needn’t fear Dinara’s reaction. The worst had happened, and he’d survived.

“I had to work for Unity, when I was their prisoner. The things I did for them shattered me. You’ve caught glimpses of the broken pieces, but you have no idea…it took years for me to be whole again, and I’m still a badly-patched vase one shove away from hitting the ground and shattering all over again. When I finally got away from them, when I rebuilt myself, I was so focused on not letting them get near me again that I missed them doing the same harm to others. I was selfish, but I think I’m ready to help.”

“Please be careful, Roman,” Dinara begged. “Don’t underestimate Unity.”

“I won’t.” He took her hand in his own. “What about you? What will you do now?”

Dinara frowned, surprised at the question. It was assumed she’d stay with the Players, keep traveling, like she’d always done, but Roman saw the question ignite the possibilities behind her eyes. “I don’t know,” she said, again surprised at the words that left her lips. “Maybe I’ll try something new. I’d like to be a formal actor.”

“You’d be amazing at it,” Roman said honestly. “You shone at the Unity performance.”

“Thank you.”

Roman raised Dinara’s hands to his lips, kissed her for the last time. “I’m going to go,” he said. “I’ll come back for my things tomorrow.”

“Okay,” Dinara tried to say, but no sound came out. “Goodbye, Roman.”

Roman didn’t bother climbing down from the trailer, just jumped, landing easily on the balls of his feet. As he walked away, he felt pain. It was pain like a fire burning over his heart, like the pain from his dream. As he walked away, his eyes turned entirely to black, and slowly, veins of hot-white light spread across his hands and face, setting him aglow.

Roman stopped walking, instead staring down at his hands. It wasn’t with horror, nor fear, nor surprise, but something like frustration. He squeezed his eyes shut, and then he kept walking until they unclouded and the glow faded from his veins. He swayed slightly, when it did, his vision blurring and unease roiling in his stomach. He tried to tell himself that the feral thing that worked for Unity once upon a time was gone. He wasn’t that person anymore.

But then, who knew what the road ahead held. Maybe he would have to be.


Chapter 12

Late that same evening, far beyond Gallontea’s walls, three orinians, a faerie, and a marionite emerged from a wide sewer pipe onto the shore of a small lagoon. The lagoon’s surface gave a broken reflection of an overcast sky, a reflection that shattered when it suddenly began to rain.

“I’d only just dried,” Maebhe whined.

The group left their boots with Ivey and said their goodbyes, then the four escapees began trudging up the hill while Ivey returned to the sewer. Maebhe looked around owlishly, eyes still readjusting to color and light after being back in darkness for so long. Greeting them at the top of the hill was the green of the wild plains that surrounded Gallontea, the tall stalks tamed only by a dirt road cutting down the middle, and the red sky, illuminated by one dusk-soaked sun, the other having set hours ago.

To the south loomed Lyryma Forest, its silhouette cutting into the horizon. In the opposite direction was Gallontea, the spired peak of Unity’s clock tower peeking above the city’s shadow.

“I didn’t realize we’d gotten so far,” Maebhe said. Her curls clung to her head, rain-damp, and made her look smaller.

“We have a long way to go yet,” Drys said. “We need to make it to Lyryma by nightfall if we’re to reach Home tomorrow.”

They pushed through the tall stalks of grass to the road, fortunately empty, for that time of evening. They followed it south until it forked in two directions, one leading east, following the coast to Adriat and several other Unity cities, and the other west, inland, toward the tamer woods surrounding Lyryma and, further on, the Alfheim province. There was no road through Lyryma, and for good reason.

“We’ll camp here for the night, off the road. It might be smart to keep watches,” Kieran said.

They did, setting up their bedrolls out of sight of the road, at the edge of Lyryma. It fortunately had stopped raining, and they kept watch through the night without incident. In the morning, they packed up their things and prepared to enter the forest.

“I don’t know about this,” Íde said. She slung her bag over her shoulder without looking, her eyes on the shifting shadows of the forest.

“I agree with Íde,” Maebhe said, earning a surprised look from Íde.

“It’s just a forest,” Kieran said, his eyes not leaving the trees, either. “Drys, tell them they’re being ridiculous.”

“They’re not. They’re right to fear Lyryma.”

“Wonderful,” Maebhe muttered. She thought about the stories she’d grown up being told— stories about orinians disappearing into the forest, never to return, stories about monsters the size of houses and dark magics that crept into your soul and took you apart from the inside out.

“Well, we’ve got to get going at some point,” Kieran said, then straightened his shoulders and marched into the forest. The others watched him go.

“Are you going after him, then?” Íde asked Maebhe. “Because I won’t if you won’t.”

“He’s your fiance.”

“And your brother.”

Kieran passed through the initial wall of trees into shadow, then turned and waved his arms at the group. “Look!” he called. “I’m in the forest and nothing bad happened!”

Íde rolled her eyes, but Maebhe snickered. “Want to see something funny?”

Drys answered with an enthusiastic “yes,” at the same time Íde said, “If you’re going to do what I fear you’re going to do, then no.”

One yes was enough for Maebhe. She pointed at Kieran, face twisting into a mask of horror, and screamed, “Kieran, behind you!”

Kieran moved faster than Maebhe thought him capable, whirling so frantically that he slipped and landed flat on his tail. Maebhe doubled over laughing, and Drys joined in, even Íde fighting not to smile. When he realized he’d been tricked, Kieran picked himself up and brushed the dirt off his pants. Maebhe could hear all the curses passing his lips from here.

“I hate you all. You—,” he called, cutting off when something dragged him deeper into the forest, out of sight.

Kieran!” Íde was sprinting toward the forest before Maebhe even processed what had happened, but then she took off after Íde, Drys at her heels. She passed Íde quickly, her longer legs carrying her faster, and scrambled to try to stop mid-stride when Kieran jumped out from behind a tree with a cry of “Hyah!”

She had only enough time to scream before colliding with her twin. He fell, she tripped over him, and they both landed face-first in the mud.

Maebhe recovered before Kieran and tackled him, easily catching him in a headlock. He was laughing too hard to defend himself. She shoved him down into the mud, ignoring his muffled protests, and only released him when Íde ran up. Íde whacked him on the arm, tail simultaneously whipping out to snap against his thigh.

You!” she hissed, “What have I told you about including me in your pranks?”

“Not to do it,” Maebhe chirped, still sitting in the mud.

Don’t,” Íde told her, Kieran yelling, “You started this!”

“I like you all,” Drys said, delighted.

Maebhe used her sleeve to try to wipe the mud off her face and glared at Kieran. As dignified as he could manage, half-covered in mud himself, Kieran said, “Don’t look at me like that. I got you into the forest, didn’t I?”

“You…” Maebhe said. “You bastard.

He was right, though. They were in Lyryma. Maebhe looked around. It looked and felt like any other forest, just magnified in scale. She couldn’t see the tops of the trees, but the roots twisting and crawling over the ground were almost as wide as she was. There was no sense of impending doom, no dark mysteries, no magic. Maybe the stories were just stories.

Once Maebhe and Kieran had collected themselves, the group pressed on. The deeper they traveled into the forest, the more the trees’ canopies blocked the suns’ light, the more the damp, humid air made their clothes cling to their skin. Somehow, Lyryma’s climate was different than Gallontea’s, just north of it andOrean’s, south of it. It didn’t make sense. This forest was impossible.

Drys was the only one who didn’t seem concerned by the strange weather in the forest. They sighed and stretched their wings, the paths between the massive trees wide enough to fit the golden appendages. What little spots of sunslight trickled down to them caught on the depths of their feathers, and Maebhe watched, entranced.

“It’s good to be back here,” Drys said, “It’ll be better to be back in Home.”

“What is Home, exactly?” Kieran asked. “And how long until we get there?”

“You could call it a city, but it’s more than that. There are fae and oanai all over this forest, in small tribes, scattered. There are fae and oanai in other parts of the world, too, but Home is the place we all came from and the place we all return to, eventually. Everyone is welcome there—especially those who aren’t welcome with Unity,” they said. “At this rate, we’ll arrive before sunsset.”

“Oanai,” Maebhe breathed. “We’ll see oanai?”

Drys looked back at her, smiling at her fascination. “Oh, yes. If I may offer a bit of advice: if it’s not on their terms, they don’t like hearing news of the outside world. Keep what you know to yourself unless you are asked.”

Maebhe nodded solemnly.

The group passed into silence again, the orinians busy taking in the sights of the forest. When Maebhe’s gaze inevitably trailed to Drys again, to the bruises on their wrists, the few spots of missing feathers on their wings, she asked “What did you do to get locked up?” So much had been going on that the question hadn’t occurred to her sooner.

Kieran elbowed her. “Don’t be rude,” he hissed.

“Like you haven’t already asked,” Maebhe hissed back.

“I killed a Unity representative,” Drys said.

“Really?”

“No. I only flew over the Island. Unity thought I was stealing secrets.”

“Oh,” Maebhe said.

Drys turned to face her, walking backwards in order to do so. “You sound disappointed,” they teased. “Would you rather I’d killed a Unity representative?”

Maebhe opened her mouth to respond, but then her eyes widened. “Drys!” She gasped, just as Drys ran into a tree.

Drys took a dazed step back, turning to look at the tree trunk in surprise. None of them had noticed it there seconds before, but there it stood. The tree trunk—the crooked, furry tree trunk—moved. It moved several feet back, a cloven hoof bigger than Drys’ head silent as it struck the ground. The matching trunk beside it moved as well.

With growing horror, Maebhe realized they weren’t tree trunks at all. They were legs. Drys looked up at the same moment the owner of the legs bent to examine him, a flat, alien face ending up only inches from their own. Drys yelped and jumped back, accidentally treading on Maebhe’s foot. The creature stood up straight at the noise, what little it had by way of eyebrows drawing together. They all stared at each other, Drys backed into Maebhe, the creature with its hand on its chest, offended, and Íde and Kieran watching with open mouths.

“Hello,” Maebhe squeaked.

“Hello,” the creature echoed, voice softer than Maebhe expected. “I heard your screams and came to investigate.”

“Uh,” Maebhe said. “Sorry. We didn’t realize anyone could hear us.”

Leihlani!” Drys snapped, finally recovering from their surprise. The feathers on their wings puffed indignantly. “You scared me!”

The creature’s face scrunched up as she bared her teeth at Drys. It took Maebhe a moment realize she was smiling. “I didn’t recognize you, Drys; you’ve been gone so long.”

“Don’t be sarcastic, Leihlani, it doesn’t suit you. I haven’t been gone two months.”

Maebhe had never met an oanai in person before, had never even seen photographs. She didn’t know a single person in Orean who had. Back when Unity formed, some parts of the world had refused to join it. Orean was one, Home another. Prior to this mess with Alfheim, Unity had at least tolerated Orean, worked with them when they had to. Because of Orean’s access to resources in the mountains, Unity felt it was necessary to at least maintain a civil relationship.

Unity didn’t extend the oanai and fae the same courtesy. The oanai were seen as lesser creatures, like the dragons before the Great War. It was still common practice to kill an oanai on sight, or at least try. Maebhe thought they’d all but gone extinct; apparently, they were merely hiding in Lyryma.

Leihlani was nothing like Maebhe expected. She was covered in shaggy fur, brown dappled with white spots. Her legs were shaped like a goat’s, making her posture seem unbalanced, like she was leaning forward even when standing upright, and her face reminded Maebhe of a deer without a snout, her wide forehead blending into a flat nose. There was something innocent in the twitch of her nose and the way her eyelashes, which were longer than Maebhe’s entire hand, fluttered.

Even as they stared at each other, two of Leihlani’s ears swiveled away from Maebhe, focusing on something in the forest that the orinians couldn’t hear. They were similar in shape to the orinians’, almost like a cow’s, but she had three on each side, weighed down by a number of small earrings. Her ears were accompanied by a pair of twisting horns atop her head.

When Leihlani looked at Maebhe, Maebhe felt it in her bones. Maebhe had had her fill of unnerving stares lately, first with Roman’s and now Leihlani’s. At least Leihlani’s was different from Roman’s. Roman’s stare made Maebhe feel like she was in a room where everything was on fire, but she wanted to be there. The door was unlocked and she refused to leave.

Leihlani’s gaze was only similar in that it saw you, saw through you, and made you feel—if only for a moment—like you mattered in the grand plot of the world. Leihlani’s eyes didn’t know things like Roman’s did.

“You two know each other?” Íde asked Drys.

“We grew up together,” Drys said.

“Are you bringing them to Home?” Leihlani asked Drys. “Why?”

“Just a stop on the way to Orean. They need to get through the forest quickly, so I’m guiding them,” Drys said. At Leihlani’s inquisitive head tilt, they provided, “I’m repaying a debt.”

Leihlani nodded. She turned and picked her way slowly among the trees; Drys shrugged at the group before following. The orinians hesitated a moment longer, all still staring at Leihlani in awe.

“Orean is a long journey,” Leihlani said. “A week, if there are no complications.”

“Complications?” Kieran asked.

“The forest is dangerous, especially for little ones. Even more dangerous than usual, as of late. We will be able to get you through the forest safely, but safety does require caution. That caution may slow you down.” Leihlani glanced down at the orinians. “What are your names?”

“I’m Maebhe. This is my brother Kieran, and his fiancé Íde.”

“It’s very nice to make your acquaintance.” When Leihlani ducked out of the way of a tree branch, a bird flew out of it and perched on her shoulder, remaining there as Leihlani kept walking. Leihlani’s ears twitched when the bird chirped, but she didn’t otherwise react. “What do your tattoos mean?”

Maebhe subconsciously reached up to touch her dirin.

“They’re not tattoos,” Kieran answered. “We’re born like this.”

“Oh,” Leihlani said. She peered down at them, leaning forward more than usual, and the bird flew away. “We have marks like yours, but we give them to ourselves. They describe us.” She pointed to the markings inked into her shoulder. “Daughter, sister, hunter.”

“I like yours much better,” Íde said softly, staring at the scratch-like markings on her own hand. While the others were turned away, Kieran took her hand and kissed it.

The journey after that passed in silence, as Leihlani wasn’t particularly talkative and the others were struggling to keep up with her long strides. Almost the entire day had been spent walking before Home was finally in sight. When they finally saw it, they forgot their aching feet and their sore limbs. They forgot their stress and their fear and felt only wonder.

They’d been expecting a towering city like Orean or Gallontea. Instead, Home was built into a deep crater; the trees cut off abruptly at the crater’s edge, where the grassy forest floor changed to a muddy downhill slope. Layers of mist hung above the city, but they could still make out the shapes of Home, how massive it was. Bigger than Gallontea, bigger than Orean. Bigger than both cities combined.

“How many oanai are there?” Íde asked, voice stained with awe as she stared out at the hundreds of thousands of clay brick buildings built into the crater.

“Roughly five thousand.”

“But the city is so—,”

“Most of these buildings have been empty since the Great War. Our population still hasn’t recovered.”

“Oh,” Íde breathed. “I’m sorry.”

Leihlani shrugged. “I wasn’t alive to see it.”

The city fit snugly in its nook, as colorful and lively as the forest rooted around it. The buildings were covered in the moss and vines of hundreds of years of growth, spotted with bright flowers. The city streets, more forest floor than paved road, were so far below where the little group stood that the few oanai walking them looked like insects. Melodies drifted up to them from the streets below, luring them down.

“Try not to listen,” Leihlani said, leading them around the crater toward a stone staircase that led down into the city. As far as any of them could tell, it was the only accessible entrance. It was also, they noticed with dread, oanai-sized. Each step would be a jump for them.

“I’ll wait for you all at the bottom,” Drys said, shooting the orinians a smug look before spreading their wings and taking off.

The orinians started the slow journey down the stairs, Leihlani waiting patiently the whole way. Halfway down, the staircase split in two directions, twisting around a stone statute that stood taller than Leihlani. It depicted a woman in an elegant, draping gown, a thousand flames etched into her skin. Her stone gaze seemed to settle directly on Maebhe. Maebhe eyed the flames on the woman’s skin, the marble vines crawling up her dress, and guessed, “Ellaes?”

“Yes,” Leihlani said approvingly. “As Atuos is the patron Guardian for your species, Ellaes is ours. She made this forest for us in the aftermath of the Great War so that we could be safe from Unity and anyone wishing us harm.”

Maebhe turned to stare at the statue as they passed. When they finally reached the forest floor, Drys rejoined them, graceful and smug. “Orinians in Home,” they said, a smile in their eyes, “It must be the end of times. You’re all so terrified of these woods, I would have thought it would have to uproot and come to you before any of you saw the inside of it.”

“Don’t tease; it took a lot of courage for them to come here,” Leihlani said. “Will you go tell Mani and Apa we’re coming to see them?”

Drys bowed and fanned his wings, then took off with a rush of air that made all three orinians step back.

“He likes you,” Leihlani said when he was gone. “You’re lucky. If a faerie dislikes you, there’s no recovering from that. If they’re neutral toward you, that is worse. Who is their debt to?”

“A friend of ours. He rescued Drys from…well, nevermind,” Maebhe said, remembering Drys’ warning not to talk about it.

Leihlani led them straight into the heart of the city, through winding streets and past houses that were made more from plants than brick. The city was untouched by industrialization. There were no lanterns, no factories, no cobbled streets or carriages.

“Are they your parents?” Íde asked. “Mani and Apa?”

“They’re the chieftains of this quadrant. Mani and Apa are their names, not endearments.”

“Oh.”

“But yes, they also happen to be my parents,” Leihlani said, smiling down at Íde.

They turned another corner and saw a small crowd gathered in a grassy, open field. Drys stood between two oanai even larger than Leihlani, one with Leihlani’s red fur, the other with the same twisting horns. Leihlani inclined her head respectfully as they reached the group. The orinians, unsure of how to respond, copied the movement.

“Hello, little ones,” one of the oanai said, bending to examine them. “Drys was just telling us of your arrival. Welcome to Lyryma.”

“Thank you,” Maebhe tried to say, though not much sound came out.

“I hear that you’re in a hurry to get home; I hope nothing is wrong?”

Seeing Drys’ expression tighten, she said, “Nothing at all. We just miss Orean.”

“Well,” the oanai said, doing the same strange teeth-bearing smile Leihlani had attempted earlier, “We will help you forget your homesickness, for tonight.”


That night, Home threw a party for the orinians, complete with music, mist, drinking, and dancing. It was more what the orinians expected of the oanai, given the stories they’d heard: melodies that soothed and entranced, decadent foods, wine that danced on the tongue. None of the orinians were ever able to figure out where the music was coming from, even after they made a game of it. It came from everywhere at once, from above and below, in front and behind. It was complex, ethereal, and unlike anything they’d heard before.

There were dozens of oanai present, spread across the grassy field at the center of Home, and even more fae. Watching the oanai dance was a delight in itself; they twirled and stepped to the music like their strange legs had been made to do it, weaving between each other in patterns too complex for the orinians to follow.

“We’re being rude,” Íde announced, standing. They’d been sitting off to the side for most of the evening, watching but not participating, talking only to those who talked to them first. Maebhe was on her third glass of wine. “They threw this party for us; we must tryto enjoy it. Kieran, dance with me.” She held her slender hand out, pulling Kieran to his feet when he took it. Kieran let Íde drag him away.

“I’m coming for you, next!” Íde called back to Maebhe.

“No, she’s probably not!” called Kieran.

“I’ll just sit here alone, then,” Maebhe grumbled to herself.

She was only alone for a minute. Leihlani came and squatted beside her, balled up so she and Maebhe were on the same level. “You seem upset, little one. Do you not like parties?”

“I just don’t feel like celebrating right now. Thank you for arranging this, though.”

Leihlani nodded like this was the most rational thing she’d ever heard. “The fae did most of it. Our good neighbors seize every opportunity to celebrate, and now they have outsiders to perform for. I’d offer to dance with you, but I’m afraid I’d crush you. I take after Apa when it comes to dancing.”

Maebhe looked over to where Leihlani’s father was twirling and hopping about and giggled. “As funny as that would be, I like living.”

Leihlani laughed, her furry nose wrinkling. She dropped onto the ground fully, spreading her long, hoofed legs out in front of her. “Everyone is very pleased to meet you.”

“Really? I feel like we’re intruding. I mean, you’ve all been very welcoming, but Home is so private.”

“You could not intrude here. You’re orinians; you’re one of us, so you’re welcome. We outsiders must stick together, just as Unity’s people stick together. One day, we may need to come to each other’s aid.”

“Do you really believe that?”

Leihlani frowned, tufty eyebrows jutting out. “Of course.”

Maebhe inched closer to the oanai. “There’s a reason why I don’t feel like dancing. Why we’re in such a hurry to get home. My people may be in trouble.”

Leihlani nodded slowly. “I overheard what Drys said to you this morning, about not sharing what you know. If it needs to be said, little one, tell it.”

Maebhe did. She told Leihlani everything. She told her about the alfar king, Kieran and Íde’s arrest, the war-mongering newspapers, and their escape from Unity. Leihlani remained expressionless throughout.

“I must tell Mani,” Leihlani said when she’d finished, moving to get up.

Maebhe stopped her with a hand on her arm, surprised at the softness of her fur. “Don’t. Let them have this party. Let them have tonight.”

After studying Maebhe for a moment, Leihlani nodded. They fell into silence, Maebhe watching Kieran and Íde dance. They looked so happy. Maebhe wrapped her arms around herself.

“Morning, then. But rest assured, Maebhe Cairn: the oanai will stand by you.”

Drys chose that moment to join them, sitting on Maebhe’s other side and holding something out to her. Maebhe took it and examined it. Drys had tied together a chain of pink flowers, closing it in a circle. “What—,”

“It’s a crown. You wear it on your head. Here.” Drys took it back and placed it atop her head.

Maebhe couldn’t help but laugh, adjusting the flower crown. “You made this for me? But what about you?”

“I made one for myself, too, of course,” Drys said, pulling out a second crown and placing it on their own head. The golden flowers matched the feathers in their wings. “I would’ve made one for you, Leihlani, dear, but I don’t think there are enough flowers in all of Home.”

Maebhe laughed.

Drys smiled at her and said, “Dance with me, May-vee.”

It may have been the wine, but Maebhe found herself agreeing.


Chapter 11

It hurt.

The pressure of water closing around her, the impact of water hard as stone hitting the bottoms of her feet, her muscles tensing and locking at the numbing cold of the water— it was too much. Her limbs dragged and her heart beat in her ears as she swam to the surface, swam on and on until she thought she’d never breathe again. She’d die here, so close to freedom but stuck in Unity’s shadow.

She broke the surface of the water with a gasp only for the waves to catch her and push her back down. When she surfaced again, she only managed a few great, heaving breaths before she realized she didn’t see Roman. She spun around, looking for him among the foamy waves. Had he not jumped? Was he still up there? Had that marionite woman gotten him?

“Maebhe!”

Maebhe spun to see Drys perched on a flat rock about thirty feet away, their hand outstretched toward her. Before she could swim that way, Roman finally surfaced in the space between them, gasping and panting.

“Roman!” Maebhe yelled, pointing toward Drys when he whirled to look at her with wide eyes. “Get to the rock!”

Roman reached Drys first, the faerie helping haul him, shivering, out of the water. He helped Maebhe next. The cold was worse in the open air, the breeze hitting their damp skin and clothes. Maebhe huddled in on herself and looked up toward the bridge; she could see the red of the marionite’s hair where she peered over the edge.

Roman started to laugh. After a moment of shocked silence, Maebhe joined in.

Drys gave them a sidelong, bemused look. “Let’s go.”

Drys carried them back up to the Island the same way they’d carried Kieran and Íde, obviously straining under the weight of all three of them. Flying, Maebhe noticed, didn’t feel the same as falling. It was too certain to have the same thrill. While falling took time, the feeling of suspension seeming to last forever, Maebhe’s experience with flying was over too soon. Drys set them down outside the prison gates, where Kieran and Íde waited.

“Are you mad?” Kieran asked before they’d even touched down. His voice cracked in the way it did when he was especially anxious. “Of all the downright stupid things you could have done—,”

Alarm bells sounding from the prison cut him off.

“No time for that,” Roman said with a grin. He was drenched in ocean water and his eyes were wild, and when he took a few steps, it was with a limp. “We have to run.”

Maebhe grabbed her twin’s hand and dragged him after her, sprinting toward the theater. There was no hiding this time; they ran straight through the open fields as behind them, the prison gates began to grind open, a swarm of guards coming through after them.

The group of escapees slipped into the alley where Dinara waited, out of sight of the guards on their heels. Dinara jumped up when she saw them. “You’re back! Are you hurt? Why are you wet?”

“Long story,” Roman said, limping past her to the grate. It was more pronounced, now, after their sprint.

With one arm, Roman lifted the grate off the sewer entrance— the same grate that had taken both him and Maebhe to shove out of the way, earlier, now lifted like a child’s toy. Maebhe’s eyes went wide.

“Everyone in. With all haste, mind you,” said Roman.

Drys went in first, followed by Kieran and Íde. Maebhe was about to drop into the hole when she heard guards’ voices, far too close. They all froze. Dinara moved first, shoving Roman lightly toward the grate. “I’ll distract them so you can get away.”

She moved to leave, but Roman caught her arm.

“I’ll meet you back at Ivey’s. Roman, it’ll be fine.”

Reluctantly, Roman released her. She ran out of the alley, and as Maebhe lowered herself into the sewer, she heard Dinara’s alarmed voice calling out to the guards: “Guards, help! I was just accosted by orinians in the theater! Yes, they’re inside— if you go around, I’m sure you can cut them off!”

Roman dropped into the water after Maebhe. He pulled the grate carefully back into place, then grinned at the assembled group. “Well, that’s the hard part done. That wasn’t so bad.”

#

Distracting the prison guards was easy. All Dinara had to do was throw a bit of a fuss, lead them in circles around the theater’s inner maze, and insist that they’d run into her as she was leaving her dressing room, that she certainly was not making this all up. Several had recognized her from the performance the other night, so not once did they question her presence, nor her involvement.

It was over in under an hour, the guards spreading out to cover the rest of the islands, convinced the group had somehow made it into and then out of the theater. Still, Dinara took much longer than that to make it back to Ivey’s. Truth be told, she dragged her feet. She’d realized, while she’d been waiting in that alley, how terrifying this situation was. She’d also realized that she didn’t want to be a part of it.

Unity, which Dinara had always believed to be good, was rounding up orinians without cause. The people were talking about war, and if this sort of thing kept up, it might happen. And Roman…Roman had secrets she couldn’t begin to guess at. Secrets she didn’t want to guess at. This was already more than she wanted to know and more than she knew how to be a part of.

She knocked at Ivey’s door, remembering only after that Roman had done a special pattern for it. The door opened anyway, Roman standing there and immediately pulling Dinara into a hug. Dinara pushed him away. After the things she’d seen today, she didn’t want him touching her. Not yet. At least not until she had answers. Before Roman could be too hurt, she said, “You’re still wet.”

“Oh, sorry,” Roman said. He stepped back to let her in, and Dinara saw that his arm had been bandaged. A bruise was forming around one eye, but other than that, he seemed unharmed. Dinara slipped inside, and Roman shut the door behind her.

Ivey, Maebhe, and two other orinians were in the sitting room. One of the orinians, blond like Maebhe, was fast asleep on the other’s shoulder. Maebhe sat wrapped in blankets and waved at Dinara when she came in; Ivey gave a salute.

“Wasn’t there another one?” Dinara whispered to Roman. She’d been distracted with the escape, but it would have been impossible not to notice the faerie with the group.

“Drys is showering. Their wings were in a state,” Roman answered. “I was about to go buy supplies for their journey, while we wait.”

“You shouldn’t go anywhere,” Ivey said. “You’re hurt and wet, and you need to take it easy. Just tell me what I need to buy, and I’ll go.”

“I’ll go with,” Dinara offered. She was having a hard time looking at Roman.

“Thank you, but we can’t pay you back,” the other orinian, the one still awake, said, craning her neck as much as she could to look back at them. She was small and delicate, different from the twins all the way down to her dirin.

Roman waved a hand, already taking out his pocketbook and passing Ivey a few laminate bills. “Don’t worry about it. Ivey, do you have pen and paper? We can make a list.”

After Ivey brought his stationary down and Roman wrote up the list, Dinara and Ivey were finally ready to go. They spent half the walk in silence, the awkwardness between them building until Ivey finally asked, “So, are you and Aim—?”

“Why do you call him Aim?” Dinara interrupted.

Ivey started like a rabbit. “Why do you call him Roman?”

“That’s his name.”

“And Aim’s his nickname.”

“But what does that mean? It doesn’t make sense.”

“Nicknames don’t have to.”

“But they at least have stories,” Dinara argued. They’d reached the square, and Ivey led her off to the general store on the corner, walking fast as to escape her questions.

He considered her comment. “He has…good aim.”

Dinara huffed. “Why was he on the Island before? Why did he need to flee? I know you know.”

“It’s not my place to say,” Ivey said. “I hear a lot of secrets, and people trust me because they know I don’t share them. I pride myself on that reputation.”

Dinara sighed, looking around while Ivey passed the shopping list to the attendant. Outside the gritty windows, people passed leisurely by, oblivious to the chaos on Unity Island, to Orean’s struggle. Their thoughts weren’t occupied by smugglers, spies, and dark secrets. They lived normal lives, and they seemed happy for it.

“I will say this,” Ivey began, watching the attendant flit across the store, gathering supplies. “I consider Roman a friend, and I imagine I’ve known him for far longer than you have, but even I don’t know half his story. Only what he had to tell me. I doubt anyone in the world knows all of it.”

“Oh,” Dinara said.

“But he obviously cares for you,” Ivey added. “Maybe with time.”

“Maybe,” Dinara said.

#

They arrived at Ivey’s house about an hour later loaded down with bags and parcels. They found Roman and Maebhe dry, Kieran awake, and Drys among them, their gold wings almost sparkling, except for the few spots wrapped in bandages. Dinara and Ivey dumped the parcels on the dining table.

“Here we are. Food, travel gear, and a change of clothes for each of you,” Ivey said, sorting through the various packages.

“Is this enough food to last us to Orean?” Maebhe asked.

“No, but it’ll last you to Home,” Roman answered.

“Home?” Íde asked. “Isn’t that in—,”

“Lyryma,” Drys said.

Lyryma?” Kieran hissed.

“You should cut through it,” Roman said. “You’ll get back to Orean faster, and you won’t have to take any Unity roads.”

“No, but we’ll have to cut through Lyryma,” Kieran said. Lyryma Forest, the tangle of wood south of Gallontea, was avoided by anyone not born into its secrets— particularly orinians, whose city fell just outside Lyryma’s borders.

Íde bit her lip. “The extra time would be wonderful, but we’d never survive—,”

“It’s safe with a guide, and you’ll have one. I’m calling in my favor. Drys Homeborn, will you see these three safely to Orean?”

Drys bowed low. “I will.”

“Good. Ivey, I need that paper again. I have a letter to write.”

While Roman sat down to write, Ivey addressed the orinians. “There’s still enough light that I can get you out today, but if I were you, I wouldn’t go into those woods at night.”

“Thank you, Ivey,” Kieran said. “The sooner we can get out of here, the better I’m sure we’ll all feel.”

“What…” Maebhe begins, eyeing her twin. “What did they want with you?”

“Good question,” Kieran answered. “Wish I knew the answer.”

“There were almost friendly, at first,” Íde said. “We were in nicer cells, they brought us three meals a day, never hurt us. I could’ve almost believed they were doing this for our safety. But then they started asking questions we didn’t know the answers to, and they got more hostile. Especially so when they found out Kieran’s on the Orean force.”

“What kind of questions were they asking?”

“Whether we were here under orders, why we were sent to Gallontea, what Orean might want with the alfar King.” Kieran ticked the questions off on his fingers. “I don’t believe they knew the meaning of the word ‘vacation.’ After they found out what I do, their questions got stranger. They asked about things like Orean’s defenses, the size of its police force. Weapons’ factories, research centers, magic.

“Magic?” Roman asked sharply, looking up. “What about it?”

Kieran shrugged. “They only mentioned it. In the middle of asking about the kinds of guns and swords we produce in the city, they mentioned magical weapons. I’d assumed they were just trying to unsettle me into giving a real answer.”

“Telling,” Roman muttered to himself, then continued writing. After a minute, he finished, and held up a hastily penned letter, fanning it so the ink dried. “This isn’t the first time I’ve heard mentions of magic from Unity. Their plan, for now, is to send a diplomatic team to Orean and negotiate the return of King Nochdvor, who was abducted under strange, inexplicable circumstances. Magic, the rumors say.”

“How do you know all of that?” Dinara asked.

“I’ve been listening to the chatter,” Roman says, unhelpfully. “This letter explains everything I know— and suspect— about the situation. Give it to your King. Do not open it yourselves.”

Roman stuffed the letter into an envelope, then sealed it. He passed it to Maebhe who, knowing she’d lose it in a day, passed it to Íde.

“We should get going,” Ivey said, watching the exchange curiously.

“Good luck. I wish I could go with you— Home is probably the safest place to be right now. And I do miss it,” Roman said, wistful.

“You’ve been?” Drys asked.

“A long time ago. The oanai took me in when I had nowhere else to go— after Ivey helped me out of Gallontea, in fact.”

“You don’t want to come into the sewers with us?” Maebhe asked with a small smile. “But it’s such a lovely walk.”

Roman laughed. “I’ve had enough for today.”

“This is goodbye, then. Thank you for all your help,” Kieran said.

“Of course,” Roman said. “Stay safe, if you can, and best of luck to you.”

Roman and Dinara waited for the group to leave before seeing themselves out. While they headed down Ivey’s steps, back in the sunslight once more, Dinara said, “I can’t wait to get home.”

Roman nodded his agreement. “I’ll meet you there. I have a few things I need to do first.”

Dinara stopped. “Are you serious?”

Roman slowed to a stop as well. “Sometimes. Right now, yes.”

“Ugh,” Dinara said. She pushed past him, and he made no move to follow. “See you back home, then.”

Roman ran a hand through his hair and watched her go, half-tempted to go after her. He turned on his heel, instead, and his feet carried him further north, to a worn-down inn in a mostly deserted part of town. He climbed to the second floor, made his way to the room at the far end of the dark hallway, and knocked. The door opened a sliver, first, then wider.

“Egil,” Aleksir Bardon breathed. He stepped aside when Roman pushed into the room, Roman taking Aleksir’s gun from his hand and setting it on the dresser before turning to face him. Aleksir, recovering from Roman’s sudden appearance, said, “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised you know where I’m staying.”

“No, you shouldn’t. I have some information that you need to pass on to the Oracle, and I want to know every rumor you’ve heard about magic.”


Interlude

146 Years Ago

Year of Unity 1724

Egil’s first visit to Damael was anything but glamorous. He entered the city with the setting sun, fighting against the steady stream of farmers and villagers leaving after a long day at market. He moved slowly, favoring his left side, flinching away whenever anyone brushed too close. His clothing was caked in mud and— hidden carefully beneath his cloak— blood.

The city of Damael was the only stable point in the entire Eyera Province. The rest was chaotic and disorganized, reeling from the recent dissolution of an empire that had ruled since the Great War. The dying remains of this autocratic empire were making last-ditch attempts to regain control, establishing new outposts in major cities and quelling rebellions where they could.

Unity hadn’t stepped in to make peace yet, so the people fought back.

This, of course, made travelling in Eyera risky. There was always a skirmish between the empire soldiers and the rebels happening somewhere, and the roads were dangerous— deserters and opportunity-seekers took advantage of the lawlessness of the country to steal and fight and extort.

Nowadays, nobody was foolish enough to travel Eyera alone, especially if they were unfamiliar with its roads.

Nobody except Egil.

He’d needed to get away from Alfheim and pass through Eyera to get north. He’d also needed a good fight.

He’d found his fight and— as always seemed to be the case, for him— more than he’d bargained for. He’d been under the impression that Unity hadn’t stepped in to make peace yet and he’d been right. In fact, he’d arrived in Eyera alongside Unity’s Enforcers.

He and the Enforcers didn’t get along well. He’d been lucky to have escaped with his life.

That’s why his first steps into Damael were slow and staggering, why a bruise blossomed along his jaw and a hastily-wrapped tourniquet was tied tightly around his thigh, stopping the blood flowing from a deep gash there.

Damael, Egil quickly found, was a quiet city. It was surprising, given the state of the rest of the province, but Damael was as far from the Empire as possible, almost at the Troas border. And according to the rumors, the city was under…unusual leadership.

Egil didn’t like quiet; when things were quiet, when things were civilized, it was harder to hide the unusual. He gravitated naturally to disorder, so he quickly found it in Damael. He found a bawdy inn, disreputable enough that no one would question his current state, and retreated quickly to his room to tend his wounds. Only when he needed food and could no longer stand his own presence did he venture downstairs.

He settled at a table in the back of the common room so he could watch the people here. Most of the patrons seemed to be regulars, and all acquainted with each other at that. That was unfortunate— it would make him stand out.

The common room was tinted gold, the furniture all made from the same light oak and the glow of the candles casting warmth across the faces of the people here. A group of youths sat near the door, talking and laughing, already well past drunk. There were a couple other small groups scattered across the place, but most of the crowd was gathered at the bar, where a man sat telling stories— just local gossip, from what Egil could hear.

The man was older, with the build of a laborer and marred with scars. A slender woman wrapped in scarlet fabrics sat beside him, listening eagerly to his story. As if she could sense Egil’s eyes on her, she turned and looked his way.

When their gazes met, Egil felt a strange jolt trill down his spine. He quickly averted his gaze, just in time for the waitress to place a plate of food in front of him.

He quickly forgot about the woman. He had too many thoughts in his head, most of which he fought to avoid: the Enforcers, the things he left in Alfheim, what waited for him Troas, after all this time. He let himself think about one thing: the strange rumors he’d heard about Damael.

Apparently, Damael had an oracle. Not some roadside fortune teller, not a rosanin with an unusual knack. A true oracle, ordained by the church and consulted about the future by both Empire and rebellion alike. The oracle ruled the city, no matter what happened in the rest of the province.

Now that Egil was here, he couldn’t not investigate.

He jolted to attention when someone all but fell into the seat across from him, hand moving to the knife he wore strapped to his thigh. It was halfway out of its sheath before he recognized the crimson fabric.

The woman laughed breathlessly, either at herself or Egil’s sudden tension, Egil wasn’t sure.

Now that she sat before him, Egil was surprised at her age. She’d seemed somehow older before, but now he saw she looked about as old as he did. Not that that meant much— especially because this woman was nympherai. She had that feeling of other that they all gave off. Most likely fae, Egil guessed, but likely with some dryad blood.

A faintly glittering pattern twisted across her skin. It was neither the feathery texture of a marionite’s skin nor the tattoo-like birthmarks of an orinian. It resembled flame dancing across her skin.

Her black eyes almost made Egil’s seem warm and inviting.

“You’re new here,” she said. There was a soft slur to her voice and she draped herself across the table as she spoke.

“Is it that obvious?”

The woman responded with a shy smile, tucking a stray lock of shock-white hair behind her ear, which had heavy jewelry hanging off it. The rest of her hair was pulled into a large braid, draped over her shoulder. “I’d remember a face like yours.”

Egil felt a twinge of annoyance. He was tired, sore, frustrated. He hadn’t intended to spend his night talking to a drunk stranger…and yet. Some company could be nice. Conversation, even trite conversation with a drunk stranger, can help chase away the loneliness and things best not thought about. “It’s best if you don’t.”

The woman’s smile grew sweeter. She leaned in, the adornments on her clothes jingling with the movement. “Why not? Will you give me your name?”

“It’s polite to give your own first.”

The woman surprised Egil by actually answering. Usually, this was a much longer game with fae. “Call me Devikra.”

“I’m Egil.”

The woman gasped, her eyes widening. Even her eyelashes were white. “The Egil?” She surprised Egil again by laughing. “I don’t believe you. Prove it.”

Egil’s hand still rested on his knife. “How could I?”

“I don’t know, use your magic. You do have magic, don’t you? The stories say you do.”

Egil smiled at Devikra. “I don’t really have magic, no.”

“Shame. Are you Egil the Hero or Egil the Hunter? There are so many versions of you, I want to know I’ve stumbled across one of the good ones.”

“Tonight? Hopefully neither.” Changing the subject, Egil asked, “Are you fae?”

The woman smiled, bright and guileless. Egil felt himself smiling back. “I get that question a lot.”

“How about a harder one, then: you came here for me, didn’t you? Why? How did you know to expect me?”

Surprise flashed across Devikra’s face— Egil thought it might be the first real emotion he’d seen from her. He could tell good acting from bad, and this woman was good. But she was still acting.

“What makes you think that?” she asked.

“You chose a spot close to the door so you could watch people come in. You lost all interest in whatever’s happening at the bar when you saw me, then waited just long enough to come over so that you didn’t seem eager.”

“Maybe I just find you attractive,” the woman said with one of her cloying smiles. There was an edge to it, now.

Egil studied Devikra. She was clean, pristine, well-dressed. He’d known she hadn’t belonged in this part of town since he’d first laid eyes on her. “I’m covered in dirt and blood. My clothing is torn, worn from travel. I haven’t slept under a roof in a week, and I’m sure it shows. I’m not so vain to believe someone like you would be interested in me in this state.

“What’s more, you weren’t really surprised when I gave my name; you knew who I was before I even said it. I also haven’t seen you with a single drink all night— not when I first came in, and not when I came back downstairs.”

There was a moment of hesitation, as if Devikra might deny it. Then, she pulled herself upright, tall, proud, and sober. She smiled; this one was less flirtatious, less friendly. “Huh,” she said, “You’re good. You should work for me.”

Egil realized when she spoke that her earlier slur was to hide an accent. He couldn’t place it, but it was old, precise.

Devikra continued without waiting for a response from Egil. “If you can figure out who I am, you’ll know the answer to your third question.”

Realization hit Egil at the hint. “You’re the Oracle.”

“Keep it down, won’t you?” Devikra asked mildly, looking around the common room. It had gotten louder, more crowded, and no one was paying them any attention. Her expression was haughty, now; Egil thought it suited her better. “I’m in the business of uncovering secrets, Egil— uncovering and keeping. Maybe you’re not suited for my employ after all.”

“You sound so sure I’m interested. Did you see that in a vision?”

“That’s not how they work,“ Devikra said with a wry smile. “I don’t need visions to tell me we could be of use to each other.”

Egil frowned. He’d been “of use” to people before, and he was done with it. “No,” he said, easily.

“You have questions you’re seeking answers to, don’t you? Procuring answers is my specialty.”

If possible, Egil’s frown deepened. “Someone else made me that same offer, once. They weren’t able to follow through.”

“Unity, right?”

Egil sat back and said nothing.

“I’m not like them. I won’t promise I can deliver, but I can try. In the meantime, I have no intention of possessing or controlling you. We still both have something to gain from working together. Will you hear my proposition?”

Egil considered her. There was something familiar about her— it set him on edge as much as it made him inexplicably trust her. “Fine.”

“Come back to my headquarters with me. We can speak more comfortably there.”

Devikra led Egil out of the dingy corner of Damael he’d settled into, instead taking him deeper and deeper into the city. They turned down a quiet side street near the upper market, small shops lining either side. Down a darkened staircase, then Devikra stopped at a heavy iron door.

The door swung open only seconds after she knocked. An alfar girl stood in the doorway, short for her race, with dark skin and soft brown hair. She stood outlined against a warm glow coming from behind her and tipped her head to the side, regarding Egil only briefly before dropping into a curtsy.

“My handmaiden, Wilhara,” Devikra told Egil, when the girl stepped aside to let them in. “It would be much more lively in here, were it not so late. Did anything happen while I was gone, Wil?”

Wilhara answered with another curtsy. “All was quiet.”

Inside, things were more comfortable than Egil expected. The space was wide and open , a comfortable living space abutted against an open floored kitchen. It was surprisingly warm here, the air heavy with some sort of perfume.

Wilhara dismissed them entirely once they were inside and the door was shut. She dropped down gracefully among the cushioned seats of the living space and pulled some kind of large book into her look. She didn’t so much as glance up at them again.

“I’ll be right back,” Devikra told Egil. “Please, have a seat.”

With that, she disappeared behind past a bearded curtain into an adjacent room. Egil wandered over to where Wilhara sat, taking one of the cushions across from her. The movement jostled the stitches he’d put into his own leg and he cringed.

“You’re hurt,” Wilhara said— like she was telling him, not making an observation. “You got in a fight on the road with Unity.”

Egil blinked. “How’d you know about that?” he asked, subconsciously matching Wilhara’s soft tone. She seem to relax at the sound, meeting Egil’s eye instead of speaking at his shoulder.

“The Oracle saw it. Unity will reinstate the Empire tomorrow. I’m sorry; you didn’t stop them.”

Egil let out a harsh breath. He’d expected as much, really. At that, Wilhara dropped her gaze again. From his new spot, Egil could see the book was a sketchbook covered in heavy charcoal.

“What are you drawing?” Egil asked her.

“I don’t know yet.”

“Right,” Egil said. “Do you mind me watching?”

Wilhara glanced up at him, surprised, then shook her head. When she got back to drawing, she got a faraway look in her eyes. Egil watched quietly, the tension of the last few weeks easing out of him.

It returned with Devikra.

Devikra had removed her jewelry and her heavy wrap, leaving her much more simply dressed in wide, loose trousers and a shirt that exposed the planes of her stomach. She sat beside Wilhara, across from Egil, and lounged back among the cushions to study him.

“So,” Egil began, “Your proposal?”

Devikra nodded, pursed her lips. “How to put this…if people knew the full nature of my business, they might accuse me of being false,” she began. “My visions are true, that’s no lie. I see the future— snapshots of it, always without context. I have no control over what I see or when— you can imagine how inconvenient that is, seeing glimpses of such a great world.”

Egil nodded.

“There’s more to what I do than see the future. For a long time, I struggled with what to do with this gift. I’d see terrible things I didn’t know enough to understand— not until after they came to pass, at least.

“But knowledge, I’ve come to learn, is the key. The more I know of the world and what’s happening in it, the better I can understand my visions before they’re fulfilled. That understanding can— and has— saved lives, prevented disasters.”

“So you see a war break out in the north— if you can get there in time, you can prevent it.”

Devikra shook her head; Wilhara stopped drawing to glance at her.

“My visions can’t be changed, only mitigated. The war still starts, but I might be able to end it faster.”

“And where do I come in?”

“I’m gathering a network. I’ve got people across the continent who supply me with information, information that puts my visions into context. But I’m only one woman; I have too many visions to be able to do something about all of them. I need someone who’ll be able to go out and help— to stop that northern war, if you will.”

“Why me?”

“I’ve been hearing stories about you for a while now, Egil. I know who you were. What you did. I know you want to make up for it. I want to make the world better, Egil, and I want to entrust my visions to someone who shares my values. From what I’ve seen and heard, that’s you.”

Devikra smiled, sharp and wide. “I could also give the calculating answer, say that having you on my side would be gaining a powerful ally. The truth is, though, that it’s a little of both, and that you remind me of someone I used to love, so I trust you.”

Wilhara looked up, clearly curious. She stared at Egil a long moment before something like realization crossed her face. When Egil caught her looking, she ducked her head.

Devikra ignored the short exchange, instead saying, “What do you say? You’ll be able to help countless innocent people, working for me. Maybe you’ll finally be able to atone.”

“You mentioned getting me answers,” Egil said.

“I did.”

“Get them for me, and I’ll work for you.”

“Work for me, and then I’ll start looking for them.”

Egil considered Devikra for a long moment. She met his gaze evenly, matched the small smile on his own face. She really did seem strangely familiar. “Fine. I’m in.”


Chapter 10

A/N: Warning for graphic violence and depictions of past trauma.


The prison grate didn’t budge when Roman tried lifting it.

“It’s locked,” he said, disbelieving. He grabbed the padlock keeping the grate shut and gave it a tug. “This wasn’t locked last time.”

“So what do we do?” Dinara asked. “Is there another way into the prison?”

“Let me think.” Roman dropped back down into the water and ran his hands through his hair, his eyes wide and fixed on the ground. Under the thin bars of light shining down through the grate, Dinara was surprised to see how pale he’d gone.

After what felt like ages, Roman took a deep breath. It came out shaky. “I know another way in,” he said.

“Roman?” Dinara asked. “Are you alright?”

Roman shook his head, though he didn’t actually seem to hear Dinara. “We have to get up to the island first,” he said. “Let’s find another way up.”

They returned to the antechamber, Roman looking for all the world like he was leading the procession to his own funeral. They turned down another tunnel at random this time, and at the end of it, found a grate that opened not into the pale light of a building, but to sunslight.

“I’ll go up first,” Roman said, peering up through the slits on the grate. “I don’t know where this comes out, so we have to be careful.”

It took both Roman and Maebhe shoving at the heavy grate cover to get it out of the way. Roman gave the girls a half-hearted smile before hauling himself up into the open. Dinara and Maebhe waited, the seconds stretching on too long, and in that time, Dinara imaged a dozen and one ways this could have already gone wrong. Then, the grate slid the rest of the way open and Roman’s head popped into view, blocking out the light.

“Dinara, wait ‘till you see where we ended up.”

Dinara took Roman’s hands when he offered them, and with Maebhe helping boost her from below, Roman pulled her out of the sewer. Blinking in the bright light, she moved out of the way so he could help Maebhe. When her eyes adjusted, she saw that they stood in a narrow alley, the grate they’d just crawled out of set against one of Unity’s great, looming buildings. Dinara recognized it immediately, even from the back. It was the theater. They were right beside the stage door, in fact.

“The place is probably mostly empty today, so we needn’t worry about being seen,” Roman said, straightening and squinting up at the theater’s windows. They crept to the end of the alley, until they could see the prison outlined against the rocky coast. It couldn’t be more than two hundred yards away, but open fields and a tall iron fence surrounded it on three sides.

“Dinara,” Roman said, reluctantly tearing his eyes from the prison, “I need you to stay here.”

“What? No!”

Roman took Dinara’s hands in both of his own. Dinara stared down at them, surprised to see that Roman’s hands shook. “Dinara, where we’re going, I can’t have you following. I know you can handle yourself. It’s not you; I just can’t willingly bring you to this place. Please stay and keep an eye on the alley for us. We may need to make a fast escape.”

Dinara squeezed his hands. “If I stay, do you promise to explain everything later?”

Roman’s eyes widened and flitted nervously toward the prison, but he nodded. “I promise to explain what I can.”

Dinara would take that, for now. She pulled him close and kissed him. He made a surprised sound, then kissed back all too briefly before pulling away again.

“Be careful. Both of you,” Dinara said.

“We will,” Maebhe promised, but Roman only nodded, expression unreadable.

“Let’s go,” he said to Maebhe. She nodded, pulled her hood back up, and then they were gone.

#

Maebhe followed Roman from shadow to shadow. They kept to the sides of buildings, never venturing too far into the open or the sunslight. They moved steadily farther and farther from the prison.

“Where are we going?” Maebhe asked, whispering.

“You see that small building beside the prison?”

Maebhe peered past the iron prison gates. The prison itself was a massive stone tower, windowless and characterless, so unlike every other building on the island. Beside it was a second, squatter building, connected to the prison by a single,arching bridge.

“That’s our way in.”

“But that’s past the gate, too.”

“It is,” Roman agreed.

“So don’t we have the same problem as before?”

“The sewage tunnels aren’t the only hidden paths around here.” He looked up at the pale, cloudless sky and sighed. “Ah, the secrets this island holds. I know a fraction of them, and that’s too much.”

Maebhe had to trot to keep up with him. Slightly breathless, she asked, “So what’s that other building for? The short one. Is it part of the prison?”

Roman’s expression, which had for a moment cleared, darkened again in an instant. “Not technically, but it might as well be. It’s a barracks.”

Maebhe blinked. Unity didn’t have a standing army. She’d never paid attention in history, but she knew that much—Unity had no army; the kingdoms making up Unity’s territory each had their own. “Barracks for who?”

“That’s one of the secrets.”

“You’re scared of whoever’s in there,” Maebhe guessed.

Roman looked at her, stricken. “Yes,” he admitted. “Of the place itself, rather, and its secrets. But I shouldn’t…I’m sorry. My fear could get both of us killed. I’ll get a handle on it.”

He quickened their pace again, and Maebhe let him take the lead, mostly because she had no clue how to respond. Instead, she did her best to appreciate the island— she tried to appreciate the beauty of the place, cleaner and grander than all of Gallontea and so, so different from Orean.

Roman led her away from the buildings and straight to the cliffside, where a steep path cut through the rocks down to the coast. Maebhe hesitated. She wouldn’t have even noticed the line of it if Roman hadn’t already started down the path. “How do you know about this?” she began.

“Be careful,” came his answer. “If you slip, it’s a long way down.”

Maebhe followed, picking her way easily down the path after Roman. Once they’d descended enough to be out of sight of Unity’s buildings, she pulled her hood down. “How do you know about this? Is that a secret, too?”

“It is. I’m sorry, Maebhe, I can’t tell you.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t tell anyone.”

“Not even Dinara?” Maebhe asked, already knowing the answer.

“Not even Dinara.”

“Why not?”

His voice, drifting over the crashing of the waves back to her, was annoyed. “Are you always such a pest?”

“Yes,” Maebhe answered easily. “Right now, I’m assuming I allied myself with some sort of criminal. Murderer, arsonist, thief. You could be anything. You certainly know a good deal about breaking into prisons.”

Roman snorted. “I’m not any of those things.”

Maebhe smiled to herself, glad Roman had loosened up enough to laugh. Him being on edge put her on edge. She wasn’t afraid— she kept telling herself she wasn’t afraid— but she was uneasy. “You don’t seem like you are, but if you won’t tell me the truth, what else am I to think?”

Roman stepped onto the rocky beach and scowled back at her. “If you’re so absolutely insistent on knowing,” he began, “I used to work for Unity. A long time ago.”

“Oh,” Maebhe said, slightly distracted by the sight of the ocean, the low tide lapping at the uneven beach. She looked up, at the cliff face behind them. From where she stood, it seemed unclimbable, but when she looked for it, she could still pick out the faint thread of the path, and knew she’d be able to make her way back up.

“Please don’t tell Dinara,” Roman continued. “She means well, but she…pushes. Right where it hurts. The place I’m about to take you to…I don’t like remembering it, let alone talking about it. Dinara thinks all wounds can be healed by talking.”

“I get it,” Maebhe said, and she did. Not dealing with things was sometimes the easiest way to deal with them, and she had her own past she preferred to forget. “Kieran’s the same way, sometimes. When I wouldn’t talk to him about our parents’ death, that’s when he found Íde. Someone who’d listen. But I…anyway, I won’t tell her.”

For the first time since they left the tunnels, Roman smiled. “Thank you.”

Maebhe smiled back, and together, they continued down the beach. As they circled the island, the strip of beach narrowed and the cliffside only got steeper, until it was a sheer face. Maebhe kept looking up it as they went, accidentally wading into the water once or twice when the beach got too narrow. Finally, she saw it— at the top of the cliff, the stone walls of the prison, built right up alongside the edge.

“So now what?” she asked. “We scale the wall?”

“Very funny,” Roman said. “A little further, and you’ll see.”

He was right. They rounded a final bend, and the beach finally ended. They waded into the water, fortunately still wearing Ivey’s boots, and quickly came upon a hidden cave.

“This just keeps getting stranger and stranger,” Maebhe huffed.

Roman laughed, but his eyes on the cave entrance were cold. “It’s only going to get worse. Come on.”

Roman slipped through the crack in the wall, Maebhe following. The ceiling was lit from above by industrial lights, and at the end was a rusty lift. Roman blinked at it. “That wasn’t here back in my day.”

“Really? It looks ancient.”

Roman shrugged. Instead of going to the lift, he started up the stone steps beside it.

“We’re taking the stairs?” Maebhe asked, dismayed.

“That thing looks loud enough to alert the whole island of our presence,” Roman whispered. “And we have no idea who may be waiting at the top.”

The stairs circled slowly in the direction of the prison, and when they reached the top, they stopped in front of an open gate that led into what looked like the basement of a building. Roman stopped outside of the gate and stood there, hands clenching and unclenching at his sides. Voice breaking on the word, he said, “Sorry.” He cleared his throat. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been in there.”

“It’s alright,” Maebhe said, trying to sound encouraging. She’d never been good with vulnerable emotion, either expressing them or witnessing them, but she wanted to help.

Roman squeezed his eyes shut, and a shudder passed through him. When he opened his eyes again, he seemed different. Harder. Less afraid. He nodded, and they passed into the basement. Everything was still and quiet here. It looked like any other basement. There was some old furniture in storage, shelves lined with canned foods, a crate here and there.

Up another stairway, they went, and Roman stopped again when they reached the door at the top. He tried the handle, pushing the door open gently when it gave without resistance, and peered around the corner, holding a hand out in warning when Maebhe tried to follow.

Roman slipped through the door, and Maebhe followed only far enough to peer around the corner. This really did keep getting stranger and stranger. The room the stairway opened up to looked like any other common room. Well-lit from narrow windows placed high up the walls and comfortable, with lush sofas, rows of bookshelves lining the walls, and…Maebhe blinked. And a coffee table full of half-assembled weapons.

Roman wandered into the space, one foot placed carefully in front of the other, as if anything more careless would bring Unity’s wrath down on them. He glanced back at Maebhe, and his eyes widened. “Maebhe!”

She didn’t need the warning. She heard the swish of fabric moving behind her, felt something like fingertips brush the back of her shirt. Instead of turning, she dove forward on instinct, hitting the ground and rolling. Roman leaped over her as she did, and by the time she stumbled back to her feet, he was standing in the way of a man a man at least as tall as him and nearly twice his width.

Maebhe didn’t know what her imagination had worked the inhabitants of these barracks up to look like, but it wasn’t this. The man was handsome, in a forgettable way, and normal, unassuming and plainly dressed. Then, he attacked. Maebhe gasped at his speed, barely processing the attack until after Roman had successfully dodged, slipping out of the man’s range. The man moved faster than anyone Maebhe had ever seen, but somehow, Roman was faster.

Maebhe knew little about fighting. She was a hunter, not a warrior, but Kieran had occasionally sparred with her, taught her basic self defense. This was nothing like that. They were similarly trained, their movements the same, swift and efficient. The stranger relied heavily on size, Roman on speed. It was like they were engaged in a complex dance, and Maebhe couldn’t follow the steps.

Finally, the man managed to hit Roman. He’d thrown all of his weight into the punch, and Roman stumbled back, straight toward Maebhe. The man pressed his advantage, neither of them seeming to remember her presence. She slipped out of their way, and when she did, noticed something strange about Roman’s eyes.

They looked entirely black.

Roman blocked the next series of hits. They moved away from Maebhe again, Roman turning so she no longer had a clear view of his face. With a snarl, Roman caught the man with a heave kick, sending him flying back onto the table of weapons. It splintered under his weight and broke, and the man rolled out of Roman’s way before he could land another kick.

When he got back to his feet, he reached for the gun at his hip. But Roman was there, knocking it away and sending it skittering across the floor. At this, Maebhe remembered the gun Ivey gave her and drew it, training it on the two men. After a moment, she lowered it again. They were moving too fast, dancing around each other in a flurry of swinging blows and hits. If she tried to shoot, she might hit Roman.

The man tackled Roman, catching him by the waist, but by the time they’d hit the ground, Roman had somehow flipped their positions. Straddling the man, Roman landed a blow to his jaw that made Maebhe flinch and look away. Then another, and another. The man struggled to buck Roman off, and then he didn’t anymore. And Roman kept hitting.

“Roman!” Maebhe called, trying to keep the horror out of her voice. “Roman, stop!”

Roman stopped instantly. He looked down at his hands, stained with blood, and then at the man, and scrambled back, putting distance between them.

Maebhe didn’t dare to move. Roman had also gone still, except for his labored breathing. Maebhe inched closer, then jumped when Roman moved suddenly, looking back at her. His eyes were slightly red, but there was nothing unnatural about them.

“Are you alright?” Maebhe asked him.

“Yes, I— Maebhe, I’m so sorry. I—I should have stopped—,”

“It’s okay,” Maebhe said quietly. “Is he dead?”

Roman looked at the man, crawled closer to check. Maebhe would’ve expected to feel something after seeing a man die, but all she felt was curiosity. Roman checked the man’s pulse, and Maebhe noticed a brand on the man’s wrist where Roman had tugged up his sleeve, a sort of swirling loop with a sword running through it. “No, he’s alive.” He took a deep breath. “We should go before anyone else shows up, or we’ll be dead.”

“Are there many more?”

Roman gave her a dark look, and that was all the answer she needed.

“Let’s go, then.” Maebhe held out a hand to help Roman up, forgetting about the blood on his own. He apparently hadn’t, because he brushed her off and pushed himself to his feet. Maebhe looked away while he wiped his hands on his trousers, giving him a moment to recollect himself.

Together, they continued through the barracks, passing into a hallway filled with empty room after empty room. Maebhe peered into each one, curious. “Where are the rest of them?”

Roman waved a hand. “Out and about,” is all he said, ignoring all the rooms except one. He paused at one on the end and glanced inside. It was empty as the others, filled only with a cot and a bedside table.

“Did you work here or live here? Maebhe asked.

“Both,” he answered softly, not looking at her. “This was my room, once. A long time ago.” He shook himself. “Let’s keep going.”

They reached another staircase, in time. As they climbed, and Maebhe asked, “Roman, are you quite alright? I don’t mean to pry, but that was scary, and…”

“And your life and your family’s depends on it. I’ll be fine, I think. This place has haunted me for a long time and being suddenly thrust back in is…hard. But the worst has passed.”

They stopped on the third floor landing. “Hold your hands behind your back, like they’re tied,” Roman ordered. “Perfect.”

They rounded the corner, and Maebhe started at the wind and sunslight that hit her. They were outside— more specifically, they were on the bridge connecting the barracks and the prison. Two guards stood posted at the other end. They tensed when they saw Roman and Maebhe, their hands going to the swords at their hips, but Roman started forward confidently, so Maebhe followed. She peered over the edge, down at the blue-green water. From where they stood, it seemed to be directly beneath them, about a fifty-foot drop.

As Roman approached the guards, he rolled up his sleeve to show them his wrist. Maebhe looked away from the ocean just in time to see the brand there, the same one the man downstairs had, before he tugged the sleeve back up. The guards relaxed at the sight, but their hands didn’t move from their weapons.

“Where are the other orinians being kept?” Roman asked.

“Fourth floor.”

Roman didn’t thank the man, just grabbed Maebhe’s arm roughly and dragged her into the prison, letting go of her as soon as they were past the guards. The place was just as dreary inside as it was from the outside, damp and cold and dimly lit. Maebhe and Roman headed up to the fourth floor, only having to pause and hide once while a guard passed them by. Roman slipped behind him and caught him in a headlock, lowering him to the floor when he stopped struggling, unconscious. He took the keys from the man’s belt and held them up to show Maebhe, jingling them. “Now, let’s find your friends.”

It didn’t take them long. The prison was fairly empty, Unity preferring to use mainland prisons whenever possible. Roman and Maebhe had just started down one of the fourth floor corridors when they heard an incredulous, “Maebhe?”

“Kieran!” Maebhe cried, forgetting to keep her voice down. She rushed to Kieran’s cell. He was pressed to the door, staring at Maebhe incredulously. His eyes flicked to Roman and narrowed, then widened again when Roman began testing keys to get the door open.

“We’re here to rescue you,” Maebhe said with the cheekiest grin she could manage. It was dragged down by all the exhaustion, fear, and stress, but it still made Kieran scoff and roll his eyes. “Where’s Íde?”

“Across the aisle,” Kieran answered. “Maebhe, how the hell did you get here?”

“There’s no time,” Maebhe said, just as Roman got Kieran’s cell open. He found the key for Íde’s even faster, and soon, Maebhe was hugging both of them at once. “Don’t ever leave me like that again,” she said into their shoulders. Kieran and Íde were both grimy and dirty, Íde’s dress looking worse for the wear, and Kieran had a yellowing bruise blossoming across his jaw.

“What loyal friends you have,” a dark, smooth voice said from the shadows of the cell beside Kieran’s.

Kieran jumped at the voice. “Drys!” He looked at Roman pleadingly. “Could you…?”

Roman was already at the cell door, unlocking it. Maebhe gave Kieran a quizzical look.

“Drys was here when we were brought in,” Kieran said. “There were others, too, but they…I don’t know what happened to them.”

The door clicked open, but the shadowy figure didn’t immediately rise. Roman slipped into the cell and crouched beside them, pulling out the keys again to unlock the manacles on their wrists. Finally, the hulking figure rose to their feet. They were far too large to be human, and when they stretched, a massive pair of wings flared out on either side of them.

They were a fearie. Maebhe tried not to stare.

“Thank you,” Drys said to Roman, seriously, “I owe you a great debt.”

Roman evidently knew a thing or two about the fae, because he didn’t argue, just inclined his head in acknowledgement. The faerie stepped out of the cell and into the light, and Maebhe heard herself gasp. They cut an impressive figure, tall and slender, all willowy curves and muscular lines, but the gasp was for their injuries— a black eye, cuts and dried blood along their wrists where the manacles dug in too hard, and worst of all, the state of their wings. They seemed to be yellow, in some places, but it was hard to tell with how filthy and matted— and bloody, in places— they were.

Drys, standing tall and proud despite their injuries, arched an eyebrow at Maebhe, the dark purple bags under their eyes not lessening the keen glint of the look. Maebhe squared her shoulders and stuck a hand out. “Call me Maebhe,” she said by way of introduction.

“Drys Homeborn,” Drys countered, shaking her hand. A smile played at the corner of their lips, now. “That’s a lovely name, Maebhe.”

May-vee,” Maebhe corrected. “It’s a V sound, not a B.”

“My mistake,” Drys said mildly.

“And who are you?” Kieran asked, scowling at Roman.

“We’re doing introductions in the middle of a jailbreak? Really?” Roman asked. He rolled his eyes and dipped into a low bow. “Roman Hallisey, then, at your service.”

“Hallisey is right. The longer we linger here, the higher the chance a guard will find us,” Drys said airily.

They continued back they way they came. When they neared the bridge, Roman said, “Maebhe, get Ivey’s gun ready.”

“She has a gun?” Kieran asked. “She doesn’t know how to use a gun!”

“She said she did!”

“I do,” Maebhe said. “In theory.”

Roman only laughed. “The guards don’t know that, so keep your voice down.”

Maebhe grinned at Kieran and kept Ivey’s gun in hand. When the guards turned and saw their group approaching, one opened his mouth to yell out in alarm, but Roman held a finger up, and somehow, that was enough to stay his tongue. Maebhe suspected that it had something to do with the brand he’d revealed.

“Speak,” Roman warned, low and dangerous, “And she shoots. Or worse, I kill you myself. You don’t want that.”

The guards stayed miraculously silent while Roman bound them with their own handcuffs, but when the group was halfway across the bridge, duty outweighed fear and and they began yelling for help. Roman swore and picked up into a run, the others following.

They started down the barracks steps, but barely made it a flight before Maebhe stopped them, barring the way with her arm. Roman gave her a quizzical look, but a second later, heard what her sensitive ears had picked up— light feet hurrying up the stairs.

“Back to the bridge,” Roman hissed, and his tone left no room for questions. They all turned and ran back up to the bridge, taking the steps two at a time.

“Can’t we just push past them?” Kieran asked breathlessly. “It doesn’t sound like there are that many.”

“Terrible idea,” Roman answered. “Your sister saw how just one of them fights.”

Maebhe nodded in agreement.

Out on the bridge, backup had arrived to help the two handcuffed guards. All four guards looked up at the group, the two that weren’t handcuffed drawing swords. Kieran snatched the gun away from Maebhe and trained it on the guards. With the sounds of shouting voices drifting up the stairs behind them, the group ventured onto the bridge.

“Drys,” Roman began quietly, “Can you fly? How many can you carry?”

Drys cringed, but said, “Two, at most.”

When the two guards started toward the group, Kieran fired, shooting one squarely in the shoulder and making the other hesitate. At the same time, two people appeared in the doorway behind them.

Kieran, Íde, and Drys faced the guards, but Maebhe and Roman whirled to face the barracks. One of the new arrivals was the man from before, bloody and swollen but apparently spiteful enough to still be on his feet. The other was a woman with feathery-textured skin and bright red hair who stared at Roman wide-eyed and open-mouthed. She was already pale, but seemed to go paler at the sight of him. “How?” she breathed.

Her companion ignored her, charging toward Roman in a rage, even as she held out an arm to stop him. There was no great fight this time. Roman caught the man’s arm as he ran at him, carrying him into a spin and using the man’s own momentum against him to throw him over the side of the bridge. Maebhe heard him scream as he fell and knew she’dd never forget the sound.

“Drys,” Roman snapped, “Kieran and Íde— now.”

Drys didn’t hesitate. They pulled Kieran and Íde to them and dove over the side, unfurling their wings along the way.

All this happened in the span of a few seconds. The sight of the fae disappearing over the edge spurred the marionite woman into action. “Stay back,” she snapped at the uninjured guard, drawing a short sword.

“Maebhe,” Roman warned, but she was already backing away when the woman leaped at Roman. She didn’t give Roman a chance to do anything but dodge, over and over, as she directed blow after blow at him. The fury in every swing and the force of the hatred in her eyes pushed him slowly back toward the guards. He didn’t have a sword. He didn’t have any weapon, and Kieran still had the gun.

He held up an arm to block one of her blows and she caught him, cutting a sharp line down his forearm. He hissed, and almost fell to the ground when the woman lashed out again, snarling.

Maebhe didn’t just stand and watch this time. She ran to the wall overlooking the ocean and peered down into the water. Slowly, she backed up to the other wall. “Roman!” she called. “Feet first; keep your body straight!”

Roman frowned at her, and even the marionite woman paused to shoot Maebhe a confused glance. Maebhe ran at the wall. She jumped up onto the wall’s embrasure and vaulted herself off it, and then there was nothing beneath her except the water, far below. She could do nothing but fall, revel in the feel of being completely weightless, if just for a moment.

She followed her own advice, remembering the instructions she’d received before doing this same thing with Kieran, years ago, at the falls in the Orinian mountains. She might be jumping to her death. There were so many things that could go wrong. It didn’t feel wrong, though— she’d known terror, today, but this was pure exhilaration.

Then, she hit the water.


Chapter 9

The following morning seemed to promise a beautiful day. Beams of sunlight streamed in through the doorway, an easy breeze rattled the beads along the door of the old trailer, and birds’ songs drifted in, light as air. Outside, the sky was cloudless, nothing obscuring the tandem trek of Calaidia’s two suns across its blue and gold expanse. Inside was warm and comfortable.

Unfortunately, Dinara couldn’t enjoy any of it. Not with the hangover she was currently sporting. She rolled over to face Roman, who snored softly beside her. Without opening his eyes, he grumbled, “Go back to sleep.”

Her laugh immediately turned to a groan at her body’s protest. “Ugh. Roman, let’s get food. Something heavy— it’ll help us feel better.”

“Mmph,” Roman said.

“Then let’s do something fun.”

Roman buried his face in his pillow. “Like what?” The words came muffled.

“Whatever we want.”

Roman stretched like a house cat before settling back into the mattress and pulling Dinara to him. “Sleep is fun.”

“No!” Dinara said, squirming out of his grip. “I’m finally free of Edith! We need to celebrate.”

“With something fun…”

“It’s spontaneous. An adventure.” Dinara kissed Roman, and he leaned into it with a contented hum. “You love adventures.”

“I do. I love adventures with you,” he said. At Dinara’s answering smile, he blushed and busied himself with flattening his hair. The humidity brought out his curls, and Dinara said a quick thanks to Atiuh for the southern climate. “Do you have any ideas for this spontaneous adventure?”

“Yes, actually. There’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”

“What’s that?”

Dinara grinned. “Take the demon masks from the costume trailer and go scare people in the market.”

Roman cackled, and Dinara flinched away from the noise. “That’s the wickedest thing I’ve ever heard, Di. You sure we won’t get in trouble?”

“If Cahrn gets upset, we’ll tell him we were…advertising the show.”

“Like he’ll believe that.”

“That’s never stopped us before.”

Roman sat up. “Let’s do it.”

An hour later, they stood outside the costume trailer with full stomachs and several open crates of costumes in front of them. Explaining to the costumer why they needed the masks hadn’t been easy, but they’d convinced him to look the other way.

“This one could be good.” Roman pulled something out of a crate, a flat wooden mask depicting an open-mouthed, snarling face. He slipped the strap around the back of his head and waited for Dinara to look at him.

When she did, she only giggled. “It’s powder blue, Roman. It’s smiling.”

“It’s not smiling, it’s grimacing!”

“It’s hardly terrifying.”

Roman’s hands dropped from where he’d been holding them up, his fingers hooked like claws. The mask tilted to one side as he turned his head.. “It could be if you weren’t expecting it.”

“Not really. This, though…” Dinara pulled on a devil’s mask with a protrusive snout and shadows where the eyes should be. She took a step backward into the street, lifting both arms. “…is terrifying.”

Behind his mask, Roman pouted. “Fine. Yours is better.”

“See? You’re just not scary, Roman, but I— oof.”

Someone slammed into Dinara, knocking her to the ground. For a moment, they were an indistinguishable tangle of limbs, then the other girl rolled away, cursing and apologizing. She pushed wild blonde hair away from her face and sat up, immediately falling back with a strangled cry when she saw Dinara’s mask.

“It’s only a costume,” Roman said quickly, pulling his own mask up. He held out a hand for both Dinara and the girl. Dinara took it gratefully, but the girl refused, pushing herself to her feet.

She had a tail, long ears, bold dirin swirling across her face. The girl was orinian.

A whistle blew in the distance, and the girl cast a fearful glance back in its direction. Roman followed her gaze with narrowed eyes. Just as she tried to take off running again, he caught her by the arm and she jerked to a stop. “Why the rush?” he asked.

“Roman,” Dinara scolded, “Let her go. I’m fine.”

“I just want to know who she’s running from. You are running from someone, yes?”

The girl bared her teeth in a snarl. “It’s none of your business,” she snapped, but no amount of bravado could hide the quiver to her voice. She was covered in dirt and scrapes, and Roman was willing to bet that the dark shadows under her eyes were the result of several nights of keeping watch and sleeping in small bursts. Roman knew well the look of someone who’d been living on the streets, and this girl had it.

“Unity?” Roman guessed.

The girl tried to pry Roman’s hand off her arm, without success. “Yes, alright! But I didn’t do anything, I swear!”

“I wouldn’t care if you did,” Roman said. He grabbed a mask off the top of a stack of costumes and passed it to her. “Wear this. Dinara, find a cloak that’ll hide her tail.”

The orinian narrowed her eyes at Roman. It wasn’t until a whistle sounded again, much closer, that she snatched the cloak and the mask. It was more a helmet, really, painted like a smiling child’s head with red cheeks and single curl on its forehead.

Roman laughed when he saw it. “That’s scarier than both our masks combined, Di.”

Four officers rode up, slowing their mounts when they saw the strange group assembled around piles of costumes.

“Have you seen an orinian girl come through here?” One stopped to ask.

The only one without a mask, Roman feigned surprise and pointed down the street. “She ran that way, not a minute ago. Headed straight for the Island.”

The officers took off again, and that was the end of it. Behind her mask, the orinian breathed a sigh of relief.

Roman watched them go for a minute, something dark passing over his expression, before he turned back to the orinian. “Let’s get you somewhere safe.”

They brought the girl back to their trailer, gave her food, a chance to bathe, and a change of clothes. Roman’s clothes fit her better than Dinara’s— she was tall and wiry, almost as tall as Roman. She told them that her name was Maebhe, and that she’d recently come to Gallontea on holiday.

“I’m Roman, this is Dinara.”

“Great. Pleasure,” the girl said flatly. “Why are you helping me?”

Roman shrugged. “I don’t like Unity.”

Dinara stood behind Roman, mostly watching. “Don’t ask why; he doesn’t tell anyone.”

Roman pursed his lips but otherwise ignored the comment. “I also believe you didn’t do anything.”

“I don’t,” Dinara said. “Four officers wouldn’t chase you like that for nothing.”

“I existed. I suppose that’s not nothing.”

“She’s an orinian in Unity’s capital city when the people are whispering of war. Unity’s too paranoid to let her run free,” Roman answered.

“What exactly do they think one girl could do?”

“Protest. Fight. Cause trouble. Espionage, sabotage,” Roman said, ticking off the possibilities on his fingers. He fixed Maebhe with a stern look. “But then, she’s not just one girl. You didn’t come to Gallontea alone, did you, Maebhe?”

Maebhe’s eyes widened. She looked from Roman to Dinara, and all at once, started crying.

Dinara hurried to kneel beside her, hitting Roman’s arm as she passed. “Look what you did,” she hissed at him.

Roman looked horrified. He knelt at Maebhe’s other side. “Come, now, Ms. Cairn. It’ll be alright. I’ll help you, if I can, but I need to know what happened.”

Maebhe nodded, wiping her eyes. “It’s just Maebhe,” she says.

“Maebhe,” Roman corrected, “Who was here in Gallontea with you?”

Maebhe took a steadying breath, and then she told them about Kieran and Íde, about her escape and their capture, about how she’d spent the days since flitting from place to place, running from the police and trying to figure out a way onto the Island without getting caught.

While she told her story, Roman changed. He sharpened, like a wolf bearing fangs or a blade easing out of its sheath. He leaned in toward Maebhe, listening, gaze intent and unblinking.

When she’d finished, Dinara sighed. “I don’t want to believe you, if means that Unity would do something like this, but…I do.”

Roman nodded his agreement. Secretive as he was about his past, he’d never been quiet about his distaste for Unity. “I knewthey couldn’t be diplomatic,” he spat. “I’ve seen them do things like this before, damn them.”

“You have?” Dinara asked. His quiet anger scared her. It was a raised gun, a finger flirting with the trigger. It was the warning rumble before a storm, and Unity was a metal boat in the middle of a lake; knowing she stood on the shore didn’t make Dinara feel any safer.

Roman didn’t answer. Instead, he stood and paced the length of the trailer, its cramped space too small to hold the tension radiating off him. The others felt it weighing them down, pressing against them on all sides. The air felt stiflingly heavy. “How long ago were your friends arrested?”

“A couple of days.”

“How many?”

“Three.”

“We need to rescue them immediately.” Roman added to himself, “So much for not getting involved,” then straightened and smiled at Maebhe. “I’ll help you get them back, Maebhe Cairn, and then I’ll get you out of the city.”

“What?” Dinara asked. “Roman, what about Unity?”

“What about them?”

Kono ta’hy lehah, Roman!” Dinara yelled, switching to sheman so Maebhe wouldn’t understand.

Roman made the switch as well, his halting hesitation messier. “They can only kill me if they catch me. They won’t catch me.”

“Be reasonable! You can’t smuggle fugitives out of the captial city, Roman. It’s treason.”

Roman shrugged. “Of all the times I committed treason, they only caught me once.” He paused. “Was that right? The tense?”

“You want to talk to me about tenses? You just said you’ve committed treason!”

“Dinara, I’m not asking you to join me, but I’m getting these three home,” Roman said, switching back to a language Maebhe could understand.

“You and I have some things to discuss when this is done,” Dinara said. She made the switch too, then, adding, “But I’ll help. I’ll regret it if I don’t.”

Roman squeezed Dinara’s hand, then turned to Maebhe. “Put that cloak back on. We’re going to visit a friend of mine.”

Roman led them north, out of the park and deeper into the city. He avoided the main roads, never hesitating and never slowing, winding through Gallontea with the confidence of someone who’d lived there all his life. Eventually, they passed into a quiet neighborhood full of identical houses. It was much too close to Unity for any of their liking, Unity’s clock tower looming above them out of the smog.

“Where are we going?” Maebhe asked. Her face was hidden in the hood’s shadows, but she sounded suspicious.

“I know a smuggler who lives near here. He’ll help us get to the island, only…” Roman trailed off, wrinkling his nose.

“Only what?”

“Nothing. I hope neither of you have sensitive noses.”

“Why?”

Roman only shook his head, then stopped in front of a narrow brick house fit neatly between two others of identical build. It was utterly unremarkable from the outside. It could just as easily belong to a doctor or a merchant as a smuggler.

“Here we are. If Ivey’s not home, we’ll break in and wait.”

“Break in?” Dinara squeaked. She’d been trying not to show her nerves, but there was no mistaking it now.

“He’s not the type to mind.”

Roman pushed open the gate and climbed the shallow steps to Ivey’s door. The knocker creaked in protest as Roman used it to knock twice. He paused, then knocked three more times, and the door flew open to reveal a disheveled-looking man with an impossibly red beard and wild eyes. He looked like a large candle, with his light suit and flame-red locks sticking up in every direction.

Roman opened his mouth to speak, but the man cut him off, saying, “Code’s changed.” With that, he slammed the door.

Roman glanced sheepishly at Maebhe and Dinara, then raised his hand to knock again. Before he could, the door opened, the same man standing in the doorway. “Only joking, Aim! How’ve you been? You haven’t aged a day!” Roman stood at least a foot taller than the man, but that didn’t stop him from pulling Roman into a hug. Roman squawked indignantly, struggled a moment, and then gave in, his whole face scrunching up as he wrinkled his nose.

“Roman?” Dinara asked.

Roman?” the smuggler repeated, pulling away to study Roman. He looked Dinara up and down next, and when his gaze landed on Maebhe’s cloaked form, a hot interest sparked in his eyes. “Come in, come in.”

Dinara exchanged a glance with Maebhe before following the smuggler inside. She stopped in the doorway when she noticed the smell, finally realizing what Roman meant about sensitive noses. The house reeked like old cabbage stuck between a boar’s teeth.

“This is…nice,” Maebhe said, lowering her hood. And it was, once you got past the smell. More lavish than anywhere Dinara had ever lived.

If possible, the smuggler regarded Maebhe with even more interest. “You’re orinian?”

“Yes,” Maebhe said. “And you’re marionite?”

“Mostly. Name’s Ivey,” the smuggler said. He grinned, revealing a double set of sharp-tipped teeth. Now that Maebhe mentioned it, Dinara noticed the strange feather-dusted texture of his skin.

“This is Maebhe and Dinara,” Roman said.

“I take it Ms. Maebhe needs out of the city? And here I’d hoped this was a social call.”

“Sorry, no,” Roman said, smiling. “But I wouldn’t say no to dinner when this is done.”

“You do owe me,” Ivey said. “Maybe you don’t remember, but you promised me dinner last time, right before you had to flee the city with a swarm of Unity guards—,”

“Oh, why bring up the past?” Roman interrupted with a nervous laugh. “There’ll be no fleeing this time, hopefully.”

“Do you all need out?”

“Just Maebhe, but we do need to make a brief stop before we get her out.”

“No problem. Where to?”

Roman bit his lip. “Unity Prison. I don’t expect you’ll want to come with?”

Ivey tried to laugh, but it died in his throat when he saw Roman’s expression. “What, you’re serious? Atiuh’s name, Roman. No, I won’t come with! Why would you go back there?”

Maebhe and Dinara watched the exchange with wide eyes. Roman carefully avoided their gazes, saying, “Maebhe’s brother and his fiancé were arrested. I’m one of the only ones who could help get them back.”

Ivey pursed his lips. “Are you sure you can?”

“You tell me. It’s your smuggling route.”

“No, Aim— Roman. What I meant was, are you sure you can?”

Some strong emotion flickered across Roman’s face, but his resolve returned when he looked at Maebhe. “I’m sure.”

Dinara wanted to hug Roman. She didn’t know why, but she felt his anxiety, knew he needed it, so she slipped over to him and wound an arm around his waist. He stiffened, at first, then slung an arm over her shoulders and returned the embrace.

Ivey watched them uncertainly. “No one knows the place like you, I guess. The same route’s still open, but Atuos help you, Roman, be careful.”

“Don’t fret, Ivey. I’m sure we won’t be gone an hour.”

With a sigh and a shrug, Ivey led them down a hallway to the back of the house, where he ushered them into a bare room. The smell was strongest here. Ivey strode over to a closet and opened it to reveal several pairs of heavy boots sitting in an otherwise open space. “You’re all going to want a pair of these.”

“Why? What’re they for?” Maebhe asked, taking the boots that were handed to her. She studied them through narrowed eyes, as if she could find answers inscribed in the leather. She kicked off the shoes Roman gave her— when they’d met, she’d been barefoot— and slipped into the boots.

“They protect you from the sludge,” Ivey answered.

“Sludge?”

Ivey didn’t explain, just pulled a key out of his pocket with a flourish. He crouched and inserted it into a hidden lock, only Maebhe moving closer to watch. When Ivey turned the key, the back panel of the closet popped out of place, swinging on a center hinge. It almost hit Maebhe, who managed to jump back at the last second.

“Unity would kill me if they knew about this,” Ivey explained. “I can’t be too careful.”

“Where does it lead?” Maebhe asked.

“The sewage tunnels.”

Seeing Maebhe and Dinara’s bewildered expressions, Roman explained, “There’s a maze of sewage tunnels beneath the city. It leads from the Island to far past Gallontea’s walls. It’s gross, but it works, and we’ll be able to get in and out without anyone seeing us. Ivey, do you happen to have any extra weapons?”

“Just a revolver.”

“Can we use it? Maebhe, I don’t suppose you know how to work a gun?”

“I do, actually,” Maebhe said. “Kieran’s on the police force. He taught me.”

“Perfect,” Roman said. He turned to Dinara. “You’re coming with? You don’t have to.”

“I already told you, I am,” Dinara said.

Roman nodded. “I’d give you a choice to stay back, Maebhe, but I’ll need your help identifying Kieran and Íde.”

“I wouldn’t have taken it, anyhow,” Maebhe said. She kept shifting with nervous excitement, but she didn’t seem afraid. Neither did Roman. Dinara, on the other hand, had never been so frightened in her life. But more than that, she’d never been able to disappoint anyone she looked up to. She’d face the fear, if it meant Roman would grace her with a proud smile, the way he was now.

Ivey returned with a pocket lantern and a revolver wrapped in a leather case. “It’s cleaned and loaded,” he said, passing Roman the revolver, first. Roman passed it to Maebhe. “You remember how to get to the Island, then?”

“I’ll never forget.”

With that as their goodbye, Roman took the lantern from Ivey and started down the darkened corridor with Maebhe and Dinara at his heels. Once they were all in, Ivey shut the door behind them, sealing them in with the darkness. They started down a sloped passage. Dinara studied Roman’s profile, half-illuminated by the glow of the lantern. “You’ve fled Gallontea before?” she asked.

“Yes,” Roman said curtly, stopping when the hallway ended. The thin bar of the lantern’s light fell upon a hole in the ground, just large enough for a single person to fit through. The first prongs of a ladder were visible, leading down into more darkness. Roman looped the handle of the lantern around his wrist. “Down we go.”

With that, he began the climb down. Maebhe and Dinara leaned over the hole to watch him go and saw the faint glimmer of light hitting water at the bottom.

Shit, that smells,” Dinara said, covering her nose.

“’Shit’ is probably right,” Maebhe said.

It startled a laugh out of Dinara, but she shook her head. “I don’t know if I can do this.”

“If I can handle Kieran after he takes his boots off, I can handle this,” Maebhe said, making Dinara laugh again. She offered Dinara a tentative smile. “You can, too. After you?”

One at a time, they followed Roman down the ladder. When Dinara reached the bottom, wiping her hand on Roman’s jacket as a disguised caress, she found herself in a narrow tunnel. It wasn’t as dark as she expected— even without the lantern, they could have made their way. The water wasn’t as deep as it looked from above, either. A few inches at most.

“The tunnel gets wider when we get further in,” Roman said to Maebhe. The two of them had to stoop to avoid hitting their heads. “Let’s go.”

After a few minutes of silent walking, Dinara grumbled, “I think I’m going to be sick.”

“If you throw up,” Roman began, “Rest assured that it probably won’t be the worst thing to have gone into this water.”

“I’m not sure that helps.”

Maebhe laughed. “So,” she said, “We’re really about to break into the highest security building on the continent?”

“Do you want your family back?” Roman asked.

“Yes.”

“Then yes.”

One tunnel flowed into another, this one wider and deeper. Dinara worried about it flooding her boots until Roman redirected them again, this time into a tunnel with a high ceiling but little water. There was no light here, beside that from the lantern.

“We’re under the bridge, now,” Roman said quietly, so his words didn’t echo. “Deep underwater.”

“How did they build this?” Maebhe asked, matching Roman’s whisper.

“Dragons worked on it, mostly. They’re remarkably good swimmers.”

Maebhe gave a wistful sigh. “I didn’t get to talk to a single dragon on this trip. I was ready for it, too; I took draconic as an elective in school.”

Dinara took Maebhe’s hand and gave it a light squeeze. “I’m sorry about all of this. I’m sure war isn’t as close as the papers would like us to believe.”

Maebhe smiled at her, the expression soft in the gentle flickering of the light. Roman stayed silent, pressing on.

“How does Ivey not get lost doing this?” Dinara asked him.

“He helped design these tunnels.”

“But that must’ve been—,”

“Hundreds of years ago. Ivey’s not all marionite, but he’s marionite enough. They live even longer than the alfar. He knows these twists and turns better than he probably knows his own house. Quizzed me relentlessly when we were planning my escape so that I did, too. If you don’t know the way, it’s possible to wander for days and never find a way out. That’s why Ivey’s the only one who can pull off this job. It’s also why he’s never been caught.”

“What did he mean earlier, when he asked if you could do this?”

“Oh, it’s nothing,” Roman said. He was going for light, but his laugh sounded hollow, echoing in the tunnels. More to himself than Dinara, he added, “It was a long time ago.”

The tunnel started to climb gradually upward, and soon, Dinara could see hints of natural light peeking through the storm grates. The trio reached an antechamber with a series of darkened tunnels branching off it. Roman led them down one of the larger ones.

“This will take us right into the heart of the prison,” he said, whispering again. “Are you ready?”