Chapter 20

When the orinians left Home, only three days after they arrived, it was without pomp or circumstance. They left at dawn, while Home still slept. Mist hung low over the city, so thick that they couldn’t see the trees of the forest surrounding the strange valley, could barely see ten feet in front of them. Only Mani and Apa were there to see them off, gladly loading the group— mostly Leihlani— down with bags of provisions.

While Leihlani bid her parents goodbye, Maebhe stared blankly at the wall of stairs leading up, out of the city. Her feet still hurt. The thought of climbing all those stairs on top of walking all day made them hurt worse in anticipation.

“I could fly you up,” Drys offered, sidling up to her. They flared their wings a little, drawing Maebhe’s attention. “My wings are doing much better already.”

“Am I that obvious?” Maebhe asked.

“I saw you hit that water. I imagine you’re feeling pretty sore.”

Maebhe considered Drys. They said faeries were never nice just to be nice; they always expected something in return. A trade. And Drys had already been very nice to her. She looked back up at the stairs and weighed her options. “Alright, then.”

Drys grinned and scooped Maebhe into their arms, laughing at her indignant squeak. They gave her only a moment to adjust before taking off.

“That’s just not fair,” Kieran said, scowling after them.

“Don’t suppose you’ll carry me up?” Íde asked as she linked her arm with Kieran’s.

“Íde, I love you, but I don’t think I can even carry myself up.”

“Romance is dead,” Íde sighed, cutting off with an oomph as Leihlani scooped up the two orinians and slung them over her shoulder.

“Allow me,” Leihlani said over Kieran and Íde’s complaints. She only set them down when they reached the top, where Maebhe was out of Drys’ arms and covering her mouth to hide a laugh.

Don’t,” Kieran warned her.

Maebhe laughed.

Maebhe!”

“We should be going,” Leihlani said, staring off into the trees. “We have a long journey ahead of us.”

#

The small group walked all day, taking breaks only when they had to— when the orinians needed rest, that is. Drys seemed able to go on forever, and to Leihlani, their pace was no doubt a leisurely stroll. At night, after the orinians and Drys ate and Leihlani returned from scrounging up her own meal, the orinians set up their bedrolls at the base of a tree with weeping branches, small lights almost like stars at the end of each bough. They fell asleep to the sounds of the forest, some familiar, some new and terrifying, while Leihlani and Drys took turns keeping watch.

Lyryma was dangerous, after all, and many predators lurked in its shadows.

In the morning, they packed their things while still half-asleep and pressed deeper into the forest. It wasn’t as frightening as any of them had imagined— Lyryma was lively and bright during the day, and none of the orinians had ever seen so many colors in one place. Red and orange flowers grew on the trees, the occasional petal falling like a leaf in autumn. The tall plants lining their path were wonderful blends of blues, purples, greens. The trees’ trunks— so thick that if all three of them joined hands, they wouldn’t be able to close their arms around one— were covered in creeping vines.

Even the shortest trees grew taller than Unity’s clock tower, and their collective canopy was so thick it completely blocked out the sky. Despite this, the forest was bright with light. Small flowers on the creeping vines glowed like the suns. The flowers’ lights surrounded the group from every direction, blinding them with the beauty of it.

Maebhe and Kieran alternated asking questions. “How do you tell time here?” Kieran asked.

“We don’t need to,” Leihlani said. “We only come out this far to hunt, and for that, we only need to know morning, evening, night.”

“That being said,” Drys interjected. “There are ways to tell. The flowers point east in the morning, west in the evening. It’s noon now, you see?”

Drys cupped one of the glowing flowers in their long fingers, Maebhe leaning forward to smell it, sneezing after one whiff. Drys laughed at her.

“Oh, that’s awful,” she said.

“You’re smelling pure sunlight. It’s not going to smell pleasant.”

“How does it work?” Maebhe asked.

“Magic,” Leihlani answered, simply.

Maebhe should have known not to expect a better answer. Everything in the forest was magic, according to Leihlani. The group tried to keep walking, but slowed when Leihlani didn’t follow.

“I think,” she began slowly, all ears swiveled in one direction, “We should hide.”

“What—?”

Leihlani picked Maebhe up, cutting off her question, and left the others to follow as she strode to a nearby fern. Leihlani pushed aside the wall of tall stalks and set Maebhe right at the plant’s center, then continuing to hold the stalks aside while Kieran, Íde, and Drys climbed in. This was the third time this had happened on the journey so far— Leihlani heard some approaching threat and made them hide. It never came to anything.

When they were all safely hidden, Leihlani perched outside of the plant’s tall stalks and crouched low, listening.

Maebhe elbowed Kieran. “Gross! What’s that smell?”

Kieran elbowed back, harder. “Fuck off! It’s not me!”

“It’s the plant,” Leihlani’s voice drifted in. “I didn’t want whatever’s coming to smell you. You have very strong scents.”

“She means you,” Kieran said to Maebhe.

“Oh, will you two be serious?” Íde asked, trying to hide her smile. Drys laughed, too, none of them worried that this alarm would be anything but false.

Soon, though, the orinians’ sharp ears picked up the sounds of the approaching creature as well. It started with the birds screeching as they left their perches, fleeing the danger. Then came the even thudding of the creature’s feet hitting the ground, accompanied by the rustle of plants and the cracking of branches as a large body moved through the brush.

“It walks on four legs,” Leihlani said, crouching lower, “And has three hearts. Two possibilities, then: one is harmless, and the other almost certainly means our deaths.”

Maebhe and Kieran exchanged worried looks. All they could see was the inside of the fern, but they heard the creature. It was close, now. Silence stretched on for what felt like forever. Finally, Leihlani’s voice came in a whisper. “It’s alright. Come out, if you want to see.”

Maebhe crept out of the fern first, followed by Kieran and Íde. All three of them froze at the sight of the creature before them. It was a great, shaggy thing nearly twice Leihlani’s height, probably the size of a tree in any normal forest. The orinians didn’t even come up to its knobby knees. It was shaped like a deer, only with different proportions— bigger hooves, a broader breastbone, and more antlers—two whole sets.

It might have been brown, but it was difficult to tell under the moss and vines that grew over its back. It swiveled its long neck to sniff in their direction, revealing a third eye on its forehead, watching for predators from above.

“What is that?” Ide asked.

“Haven’t you ever seen an elk?” Leihlani asked. “This one’s young yet. They’re usually bigger.”

Bigger?” Maebhe repeated, not recognizing the high pitch of her own voice.

The creature lazily swiveled its head toward the group again, blinking at them. Suddenly, it tensed, ears flattening against its head as it stared off into the forest.

“Get down,” Leihlani hissed, just seconds before the elk leapt over their heads, racing into the forest with long strides that made the ground shake. Something else moved among the trees. All frozen in place, they watched for it, trying to catch a glimpse. It barely made any sound; Maebhe’s own beating heart was louder. But with the elk now gone, they could hear it: a jerking, uneven slither through the underbrush.

“It has no heartbeat,” Leihlani whispers.

There, between two branches— the tip of a wing. Then, low to the ground— a feather-tipped tail. It seemed to be circling them. A long snout came out of the darkness, baring sharp teeth blackened with decay. Next was a slit-pupiled pair of glowing crimson eyes, followed by a long neck and scaly body. It was a dragon, larger than any of them had ever seen.

Across its breastbone was a wide, gaping wound. Where bone and fleshy muscle should have been visible beneath, there was instead a strange, glowing sort of magma, swirling across the surface and keeping the dragon from bleeding out.

Its scales were red.

“H-hello,” Maebhe stammered. “How do you do?”

The dragon opened its mouth. It looked like it was smiling, at first, but as it slowly opened its jaw wider and wider, they could see the glow of fire building at the back of its throat.

“Drys!” Leihlani yelled.

Before Maebhe realized what was happening, Drys was sweeping her into their arms and taking off. Leihlani scooped Kieran and Íde up and dove out of the way seconds before a great jet of fire burst from the dragon’s maw. Maebhe could feel the heat of it as Drys carried her up and away.

The fire died out, and for a brief moment, there was silence before the tree the dragon hit began to creak a low protest. Maebhe looked down to see a wash of fire everywhere, scorching the ground and climbing up the vines of the trees. Looking up at them, the dragon began to open its mouth again.

“Fly south! We’ll find you!” Leihlani shouted from somewhere among the flames.

“No—,” Maebhe began, but Drys didn’t listen. They changed their direction middair and swept south, narrowly avoiding another jet of fire launched at them by the dragon. Maebhe could only hide her face in Drys’ shoulder and hold on tight as they wove through the trees.

#

It seemed like hours before Drys finally slowed, dipping lower and lower until they came to a stumbling stop. She knew it couldn’t have been that long, but neither fire nor dragon were anywhere to be seen, and they were alone.

“I can’t believe you just left them!” Maebhe yelled.

Drys blinked. “Leihlani told me to.”

“What if they needed our help?”

I needed my help, too. You can’t fault me for having a sense of self-preservation.”

“But— ugh!” Maebhe turned to face pointedly away from Drys, then dropped onto the ground, crossing her arms.

“Come on. Don’t be petulant.”

Maebhe ignored them.

“You know, Maebhe Cairn, I just saved your life. Some might say you now owe me.”

Maebhe gritted her teeth and continued to ignore them. This was how the others found them, emerging from the woods just half an hour later, looking tired and beaten down. Leihlani walked with a limp and the smell of singed hair followed her.

In lieu of a greeting, she just said, “We should keep going. Get as far from that creature as possible.”

For once, not one of them complained.


Chapter 19

Roman gasped and clutched his heart, staring down at himself in horror, at the sword wedged between his arm and torso. For a moment his lips worked to form words, but all he managed was a weak, “You won.”

Already on his knees, he lurched forward, then back, then forward and back again before collapsing on the rug beneath him, sprawled out with one arm thrown over his face and the other still holding the wooden sword in place.

Ofelia squealed triumphantly, grabbing the toy sword and holding it up like a commander signaling a charge. From the other room, Isobel laughed, and bolstered by the sound, Ofelia put a victorious— and surprisingly heavy— foot on Roman’s chest.

“Oh, shi—oot,” Roman hissed as the breath was forced out of him. “Shoot. Ofelia, that hurt.”

“Too close, Mr. Hallisey,” Wyndie, Ofelia’s governess, warned from her spot on the sofa.

“I heard that,” Isobel called. “Gareth and I adore you, Roman, but if you teach our daughter ill manners, you’ll outstay your welcome.”

“I would never!” Roman winked at Ofelia and held a finger to his lips.

Ofelia giggled. “He just winked!”

“I did no such thing! Isobel, your daughter doesn’t need me to teach her ill manners; she’s already quite the little liar,” Roman said.

Mother!” Ofelia screeched, cutting off her protests when Roman picked his own fake sword back up and the battle began again.

“You two are going to be the death of me, I swear,” Isobel said, appearing in the doorway. She looked tired, thick strands of black hair coming out of its simple bun to frame her face. But she looked fond, too, in the way that she smiled at them. “I feel like I have two children, instead of just one.”

“It’s my youthful energy,” Roman said sagely. “I’d share the wealth, if I could.”

“How generous.”

Roman fended off another surprise attack from Ofelia. It took barely a fraction of his attention. “Where’s Gareth?”

“I’m not sure,” Isobel said. “He was acting so strangely this morning. I’m worried.”

Roman looked at Isobel, which caused him to get whacked by a heavy wooden sword. He barely seemed to notice. “Strange how?”

“I’m not really sure. Jumpy. He wouldn’t tell me what was wrong, which is unlike him.”

“It’s probably the upcoming trip. Would you like me to look for him, see if I can help?”

“No!” Ofelia cried, tackling Roman in a hug. He laughed and rose to his knees, Ofelia clinging to his neck even when her feet dangled off the ground.

“No, I wouldn’t want to end this playdate,” Isobel said, the worry slipping from her face as she watched them. “It’s so rare that anyone has the energy to keep up with Ofelia.”

Roman tried to deposit Ofelia in Wyndie’s lap, but the girl wouldn’t let go. Only after a struggle and much giggling on Ofelia’s end was he able to pry her loose. He turned to Isobel. “Not even I have that much energy.”

They all paused at the sound of the door downstairs opening and slamming shut.

“Gareth?” Roman asked.

“Probably,” Isobel said, listening. “I’ll be right back.”

Roman listened to her light tread going down the stairs, followed by the whispered cadence of urgent voices. Then, Isobel was hurrying back up. She tried to compose her expression when she came back into the room, but her eyes were wide, and her breath quick from hurrying up the stairs.

“Wyndie, would you please take Ofelia upstairs? Quickly?” she asked.

Roman hurried over to her, placing himself instinctively between Isobel and the doorway. “Isobel, is it Gareth? Who’s here? What’s wrong?”

“Gareth’s fine, Roman, it’s just…” Isobel trailed off as her attention moved to something behind Roman, a worried furrow appearing between her brows.

Roman turned, freezing in place when he found himself confronted with a familiar face. “Ah,” he breathed. “Leandros.”

Leandros stared at Roman, too shocked to respond. Then, his expression twisted. Before Roman could realize the danger he was in, Leandros wound his arm back and threw all his weight into a punch that caught Roman right in the jaw.

Roman fell, Leandros falling with him, having compromised too much of his balance with the swing. They both hit the ground hard.

Asshole!” Leandros snapped, wrestling to get on top of Roman and shove his face into the rug. Roman fought to shove him off, freezing beneath the alfar when his hand came back bloody. He stared at it with wide eyes, then up at Leandros.

Leandros stilled with him, his gaze dropping to Roman’s bloody hand, and all the fight seemed to leave him at once. He sat back, cringing as if suddenly realizing how much pain he was in, his hand bracing against the dark, bloody stain on his waistcoat.

“What are you doing?” Gareth asked, finally catching up to the situation. Roman hadn’t even noticed him join them. “Leandros, you’re hurt!”

“He deserved it,” Leandros grumbled.

“It was still foolish,” Gareth said, helping Leandros to his feet.

“Leandros,” Roman said, voice cracking on the word. “What happened to you?”

Leandros shot him a look, a spark of anger there that went out as he sighed and leaned into the supportive arm Gareth offered. “We were attacked.”

“We?” Isobel asked.

Seeing her worried look at Gareth, Leandros quickly clarified. “A member of the security team and I. I was being followed and she was kind enough to help me investigate. Your husband was nowhere nearby when it happened, Mrs. Ranulf, I assure you.”

“But he could have been.”

“And if he was, I would have died before I let any harm come to him.”

Gareth coughed, uncomfortable. Isobel nodded. “Well, Mr. Nochdvor,” she began, “We can’t have you just standing there. Roman, go find one of the servants and have them bring down some old sheets. I won’t have our guest bleeding all over the furniture.”

She didn’t have to ask twice. Roman darted away, finding one of the Ranulf’s servants all too quickly and relaying Isobel’s instructions. He didn’t follow the man back to the sitting room, though, hiding instead in a dark hallway, closing his eyes, and attempting to calm his breathing. After a moment, he noticed a strange tingling in his hand and held it up to see his veins set faintly aglow.

“Don’t you dare,” he said out loud, to himself. “Not now.”

He pushed off the wall and returned to the sitting room, hands shoved in his pocket, hoping that the glow might fade on its own. He found Leandros stretched out on the sofa, his shirt off his shoulders and bundled up in his hands instead, pressed against his wound. The once-light fabric was almost completely stained with blood. Gareth stood over the sofa, worrying at his lip, and Isobel was nowhere to be seen.

Gareth looked up when Roman came in. “Do you know how to perform stitches? Leandros doesn’t want to call a physician, but I fear we may have to.”

Roman froze. “No. No, I don’t.”

“Don’t tell me you’re still afraid of stitches,” Leandros said, looking at Roman for the first time since he came back into the room.

“I’m not afraid,” Roman said. “I’m uncomfortable with them. It’s different.”

Leandros almost smiled. He looked away before the expression could turn into anything real, but Roman knew Leandros, knew his expressions— even the minute ones, the ones no one else even saw, let alone knew how to read.

Isobel, who’d been standing in the doorway watching the exchange, spoke up. “I know how to perform stitches, Gareth.” She had a large bag in her arms, which she held out to Gareth as she approached the sofa. Very carefully, one hand on her stomach and the other holding Gareth for support, she knelt beside Leandros and then took the bag back from Gareth. “Thank you, love. Could you bring me a bottle of brandy and a bag of ice?”

Gareth hurried away, and when he returned, Isobel passed the ice to Roman. “For your cheek, dear. It’s already started to swell.”

“Oh.” Roman touched his face, surprised. He’d forgotten about the injury, actually, but Isobel’s comment reminded him of the pain. Leandros had caught him right in the jaw; Roman was lucky it wasn’t broken. He accepted the ice from Isobel.

Next, Isobel passed the brandy to Leandros. “Have some. Stitches are no easy thing, and we don’t have anything stronger for you.”

Leandros nodded and took a long swig from the bottle while Isobel prepared the needle and catgut.

“I didn’t know you knew how to do this,” Gareth said, watching her.

“Hector taught me.” To Roman and Leandros, she said, “My uncle was a physician. The Ranulf’s family physician, in fact. I shadowed with him a few years before I married Gareth.”

She took the brandy back from Leandros and poured some carefully over Leandros’ wound to sterilize it. He gasped, long fingers digging into the sofa cushions, but didn’t otherwise react. Roman watched long enough to get a look at the wound but not long enough to see the needle get anywhere near Leandros’ skin. He thought he might be sick.

“You don’t have to stay,” Leandros said. “In fact, this time, I’d actually be happy if you left.”

Roman cringed.

“Wait,” Gareth said, before Roman could even move. “I want answers, first. How do you two know each other?”

Roman and Leandros’ gazes met, Roman looking away first. “We’re friends.”

“Were,” Leandros corrected. “A long time ago.”

Gareth looked between the two of them with wide eyes. “Then why would Roman…”

“Why would I what?” Roman asked, when Gareth trailed off.

“Tell a Unity Representative that you’d kill me,” Leandros said, meeting Roman’s gaze evenly. Roman could see the fury in his eyes, but there was more to it— sadness and fear and other emotions Roman was less familiar with.

Isobel froze, needle poised over Leandros’ skin. “He what?”

“It was Moira. She asked Roman to kill Leandros in exchange for putting Roman on the team,” Gareth told her. “I overheard the whole conversation.”

Roman held his hands up defensively between himself and the others. “It’s not what it sounds like! I panicked. I need to be on this team, and Moira would’ve taken me off if I’d refused. And she would’ve just asked someone else to do it, anyway. So I thought saying yes would at least give us time to— give me time to tell Leandros, or think of some way out of this. And this way, they won’t hire anyone else in the meantime.”

Leandros pinched the bridge of his nose. “You idiot.”

“It wasn’t a bad plan! I didn’t know Gareth was there eavesdropping!”

“Hey, now,” Gareth huffed.

Roman ignored him. “I wouldn’t hurt you, Leandros.”

“We both know that’s not true, though, don’t we?” Leandros asked. “Still, I believe you don’t want me dead, at least.”

“But someone clearly does,” Isobel said.

Leandros nodded, watching her carefully weave his skin back together. It wasn’t a terrible injury, after all— long, but shallow.

“You don’t know who did this?” Roman asked, to change the subject when both Gareth and Isobel looked at him.

Leandros shrugged. “Too many people hate me for me to be able to hazard a guess. If you want to make yourself useful, Roman, you could find out for me.”

“I can do that,” Roman said.

“We left one alive,” Leandros said. “Ochoa was going to have them arrested. You could start there.”

Roman nodded and turned to go.

“Roman, may I speak with you privately, before you go?”

Roman cringed, but nodded and followed Gareth downstairs. Gareth stopped in the foyer, turning to face Roman. “Roman…I heard things pass between you and Moira that I didn’t mention in front of the others, but I have questions and I’d like answers, particularly if you wish to continue staying in my home.”

“That sounds fair,” Roman said quietly. He avoided Gareth’s gaze. “I don’t want you thinking badly of me Gareth, hard as that may be to believe, after what you heard. Train with me tomorrow, and I’ll tell you what you want to know. I have a lot to say, and I have to think about how to approach it, in the meantime.”

Gareth moved out of the way of the door so Roman could get past. “Tomorrow. I’ll hold you to that.”

Roman nodded and slipped out of the house.


Roman was angry. He hated being angry because there was never anyone to blame but himself. Here, he could try to blame Gareth for eavesdropping, Unity for wanting Leandros dead, Orean for abducting Nochdvor and making any of this possible in the first place, but when he tried, he felt ill. He’d spent too much of his life blaming others for his mistakes.

He leaned back, wooden chair creaking in protest, and surveyed tavern. He sat tucked in a corner near the fire, where the flames’ flickering light couldn’t reach. From this spot, he could see everything— the shifting of the barkeep behind the counter, the shadows of the open doorway, even through the window to the silhouette of a dragon pacing the dock outside.

Few knew about the existence of the Broken Pistol, as the tavern was called, and fewer knew where to find it. It was reserved for Gallontea’s most deplorable, a category Roman counted himself among. It was the kind of place where, if someone like Gareth was so unfortunate as to find his way in, their body would likely be found floating in the pier a week later, robbed down to their socks. Fortunately, even with Gareth’s proclivity for finding trouble, the Broken Pistol’s position— tucked along the docks in Gallontea’s dilapidated northern wharfs— ensured that all visitors came with purpose, even if that purpose was purposelessness.

When Roman listened, beyond the clamor of the patrons and the crackle of the fire, he heard the ocean, the crashing of waves against rock an echo of his anger. He licked his bottom lip, still swollen from Leandros’ punch. The action split it open again, the bead of blood that welled up his punishment.

Being in a place like this didn’t help his anger. Everyone was angry here; it built and festered in the stale energy, expanding until it filled every crevice and twisted every heart. This place was a sanctuary for thieves, thugs, traitors, mercenaries, and even an anarchist group called the Golden Rose. Tonight, Roman was particularly interested in the latter of these. The group’s name was a throwback to the Great War, to a group of scholars that turned an entire country of people against its government through peaceful protest. There was nothing peaceful about the modern Golden Rose, but normally, Roman was content to let them be— all they did was target Unity, after all, and Roman didn’t have a problem with that. They’d never targeted a friend of his before.

After leaving Gareth’s, he’d gone to have a chat with Leandros’ surviving attacker in the city jail. They were members of the Golden Rose, trying to take out a Unity official and chase a bounty at the same time.

The organization’s leaders all sat around a table across the pub from Roman. Between him and them, though, was a horde of monsters, most of whom Roman knew by reputation, if not personal history. Beside him, playing cards, were the Wu sisters. They had a dozen famous burglaries around the continent accredited to them, and had a combined bounty of three hundred triems on their heads. Past them, a nympherai assassin sat talking to a half-alfar con artist, and in front of Roman, a surly old sapien ate soup in silence. His name was Abeni Magva; he was Gallontea’s nastiest crime lord. All of Greysdale— no, nearly half the city— belonged to him. He seemed to be eating alone, but Roman had seen the group he came in with. They now sat dispersed at the tables around him, watching for trouble. Then there was Ivey, soliciting business in his usual corner.

Roman downed the last of his drink and headed over to the bar. Behind it, a lined old man with a shock of white hair said something to a patron and smiled, the sharpened points of his teeth glinting in the light from the candles on the bar. Roman slipped into an empty spot at the bar and waited for his attention. When he finally got it, the man frowned at the hood hiding Roman’s face.

“We don’t do that here, stranger,” he said. “We have a policy of honor among thieves— if you get to see their faces, they get to see yours.”

Stranger?” Roman asked, throwing his hood back. “Come, Thane, it hasn’t been thirty years! Don’t tell me your memory is fading as badly as your hair.”

Thane’s eyes widened and he barked out a laugh. “You have some nerve coming here. I don’t think there’s a soul in this crowd who wouldn’t be glad to see Egil dead.”

Leaning across the counter toward Thane, Roman flashed a cheeky grin. “I know you wouldn’t let anyone hurt me here.”

“And you know I’ll let anyone do anything to you in here, for the right price,” Thane said. He owned the Broken Pistol, had for nearly a hundred years. Before that, he’d been a mercenary. Even Roman would’ve shuddered to make an enemy of him, back in the day. Probably still would.

“Where’s your pet alfar?” Thane asked. “Oh, right, he works for Unity now, I hear. He’s gone straight. Shame. Well, at least you haven’t, if you’re here.”

“I could never,” Roman said, pressing a hand to his heart. “Not that I thought Leandros could, either. I’m looking into it.”

“Better look quickly. There’s some demand for his neck around here.”

Roman’s smile fell. “What do you mean?”

Thane bent and pulled a heavy leather book out from under the bar, retrieved a pair of spectacles from his waistcoat pocket, and perched them on his nose. He flipped through the yellowing pages, each filled margin to margin with his cramped writing. The book was part of the Broken Pistol’s appeal: a meticulously-recorded ledger book of open bounties, available to anyone who knew to ask.

“There,” Thane said, pointing to a recent entry. “A twenty triem offer from an orinian rights group.”

“That’s not so much,” Roman said, not sounding convinced.

“No,” Thane agreed. He pointed to another entry. “But the hundred triem pledge is another matter.”

What?” Roman asked, half-climbing on the bar to see the entry. “Who offered that?”

“An anonymous guarantor.”

“Thane, won’t you tell an old friend?”

Thane did his strange barking laugh again. “Is that what we are?”

“I certainly thought so.”

“The bounty was placed on behalf of an Alfheim Council member. That’s all I’ll say.”

“Alfheim?” Roman asked, cold dread seeping into his veins. With it, the web of veins in his hands began to glow white, slowly spreading up his arms. He didn’t even notice.

“I don’t think you have to worry,” Thane said. “Even my best mercs won’t go near the bounty, not when it means crossing Unity to do it.”

“Someone tried today,” Roman said, quietly.

Thane raised an eyebrow. “Who was it, the Golden Rose? They were the only ones who seemed interested. Anyway, if memory serves, Nochdvor’s capable of taking care of himself.”

“Yeah,” Roman said, thinking of the long, bloody gash crossing Leandros’ torso. He was lucky he hadn’t died. That’s all it was. Luck.

Roman felt his control slipping. Normally, this was where he withdrew, ran, fought the strange fire coursing through him. For the first time, for Leandros, he embraced it, and the glow of his veins continued to spread. Thane hadn’t yet noticed, but the patrons on either side of Roman were beginning to move away, uncomfortable.

Evenly, Roman asked, “Mind if I make an announcement?”

Thane narrowed his eyes. “If you start a fight, you pay,” he said, as if Roman didn’t know the Broken Pistol’s most important rule. If you caused a scene, you paid for it— literally. It worked as a surprisingly effective deterrent, as Thane’s rates were high and everyone knew he had ways of collecting.

Roman dropped a few heavy coins on the bar. “Is this enough?”

He didn’t actually wait to hear Thane’s response. The last threads of his control were snapping, and he was already climbing onto the bar. By the time he was on it, standing, the glow had reached his face and his eyes had changed to coal black. The strange fire burned through him, invigorating. Roman’s anger took control, helplessness and fear its catalysts.

As the bar’s patrons noticed him standing there, they fell silent, and the silence spread over the anger. They got a taste of his fear.

“Listen to me.” Roman’s voice was a command, everywhere at once, filling the pub. It was in the snap of the fire. It echoed in the rafters. It sank into the shadows. It was in their heads, and it was in their silence. The Wu sisters dropped their cards, the dragon outside stopped its pacing. Somewhere toward the back, a glass shattered on the ground.

They were used to being the monsters. Now, they were prey in their own den.

“I have a message for the Golden Rose,” Roman said, his smile too wide as he locked eyes with the organization’s leaders, one by one. “And for anyone else considering seeking the bounty on Leandros Nochdvor. Hurt him, and you will answer to Egil.”

His name sparked a wave of whispers that spread like a sigh, and Roman forced himself to stand where he was a moment longer, shadows pooling around him. Finally jumping down, he said to Thane, “Spread the message for me.”

Thane, paler than usual, nodded.

When Roman turned to leave, everyone between him and the door tripped over themselves and each other to get out of his way.

Roman slipped out of the pub, leaving their stunned silence behind. He stumbled down the dock, his limbs feeling too heavy and too light all at once, a part of him but completely detached. He wasn’t sure where he ended and the shadows began; they flocked to him, crowded him, and he knew if he wasn’t careful, he could lose himself in them forever.

As his pulse slowed and he remembered how to breathe, his eyes went back to normal and the glow faded from his veins. Finally, the suffocating weight of the fear that this time would be it, that he’d traded his humanity away to this darkness for good, lifted from his chest so he could breathe. And breathe, he did.

No one was around, so he stood out on the docks and took great, heaving breaths. He fought the darkness and the shadows.

No one was around, so no one saw him heave into the green water of the bay, half as much blood coming up as bile.

No one was around, so no one saw Egil sink to the ground and wrap his arms around himself, holding himself together as well as he could while he shook and shivered and waited for the darkness to bleed out of him.


A/N: A lot happened in this chapter, huh? I’d love to hear your thoughts – comment below!


Chapter 18

Leandros glanced over his shoulder for the fifth time since leaving his hotel, frowning and increasing the length of his strides. When he reached Gallontea’s public square, he forgot the urgency and couldn’t help but pause a moment to watch the movement of the crowd. It was restless and urgent, always in a hurry and so very different from Alfheim. Leandros couldn’t wait to leave. He certainly didn’t want to go back to Alfheim, but he couldn’t stay here. When he was younger, his life was motion. It was discovery. He’d traveled everywhere, anywhere, seeing Calaidia’s sights and getting caught in adventures. But there was no point in doing those things alone, so he’d stopped.

Across the square, Leandros noticed a frantic movement. It was Eftychia Jones, sitting cross-legged at the base of Unity’s gate, waving at him with her entire arm. Leandros made his way over to her.

“Hello, Captain!” she called as he approached.

“Ms. Jones. I hope you haven’t been waiting long.”

“No, I don’t think so.”

Leandros tilted his head to the side, studying her. “You don’t think so? I think I’m glad to hear that.”

Eftychia beamed at him and patted the ground beside her. Leandros frowned at the cobblestone, then sat, folding fluidly and settling on the ground like it was a throne. Delighted to see an alfar royal sitting in the dirt, Eftychia laughed and clapped.

“Dear Captain,” she began, “What were you thinking about just then?”

“Just when?”

“When you stood across the square. You looked positively mournful.”

“Mournful?” Leandros asked. “I suppose I was. I realized how much I can’t wait to leave this city behind, and then I realized how easily love lost can ruin an adventuring spirit.”

“Love lost?”

Leandros shook his head. “You asked what I was thinking; you got it. You’ll get no more.”

“How cruel of you,” Eftychia sighed.

“I have been known to—why, Mr. Ranulf! What a surprise!”

Gareth had been about to cross through the gate onto the bridge, but he jumped when Leandros called his name. His eyes cast around for a moment before they spotted Leandros on the ground.

“Mr. Nochdvor, what luck! I was just looking for you—oh, I’m terribly sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

Leandros pushed himself up off the ground. “Nonsense; don’t think of it. Gareth, meet Eftychia Jones, the final member of our team.”

Gareth bowed. “Pleasure, madam.”

Eftychia only waved in response.

“Looking for me, were you, Ranulf? Is something wrong?”

“Yes, I’m afraid. You see…” Gareth trailed off, then glanced at Eftychia. “Might we speak privately?”

With a hand on Gareth’s shoulder, Leandros led him past the gate and onto the bridge and away from the crowd. “What is it?”

“Last night, I overheard something terrible. I feel it’s my duty to warn you, relation to the other parties be damned. I was eavesdropping. I shouldn’t have been, but I couldn’t resist, and, well…it was my sister, Mr. Nochdvor. She, ah…”

“Atiuh’s name, man, out with it!”

“Unity wants you dead,” Gareth blurted. “I heard her say so herself. They want control of the team, and they…they asked someone to take care of it, on the journey. Their plan is to…to frame you. Claim you intended to betray your uncle as soon as we found him.”

Leandros stared at Gareth a moment, then let out a slow breath through pursed lips. “Thank you for telling me, Gareth. This is good.”

“Yes, it— wait, good?” Gareth asked, voice pitched high.

“Your warning has given me time to prepare for it. I can’t say I’m terribly surprised. Who’d they ask to—to do it? Do you know?”

Gareth stared at Leandros, speechless, then dropped his gaze. “I don’t know. I didn’t see.”

“Gareth,” Leandros began slowly, “You’re going to have to practice your lying for this mission. It’s written all over your face. Why go so far as to warn me if you won’t tell me who to look out for? It’s someone on the team, isn’t it? It must be. One of the ones who work for Unity?”

Gareth worried at his lip and refused to meet Leandros’ gaze. Who was he protecting? Most of the other team members were strangers to Gareth, just as they were to Leandros. No, wait. No, that wasn’t true. There was one Gareth had called a friend.

The cold sting of dread began pumping through Leandros, starting in the tips of his fingers and ending with his heart, which beat faster to compensate. Not recognizing the strangled cast of his own voice, Leandros asked, “Was it Roman?”

Gareth cringed, and that was answer enough.

“I’m sure there’s some explanation,” Gareth said, but Leandros barely heard him past the terror ringing like a chime in his ears, could hardly focus past the tight grip around his heart, threatening to break it. His knees almost gave out, but he leaned back against the stone wall of the bridge in time. The coldness of the stone sent goosebumps up his spine.

How had it come to this?

Belatedly, he realized Gareth was still speaking.

“We’ll talk to him, Mr. Nochdvor. I know him; this isn’t him. There must be some explanation. There has to be some explanation, some way to reason with him.”

“I hope so,” Leandros said, “Because if not, I will be dead before we reach Orean.”

Gareth’s expression shifted from concern to fear. Before he could speak, Eftychia appeared at the gate. “Eresh is here!” she chimed, just as the dryad appeared at her side.

Leandros stared at them blankly, then shook himself and stood straighter.

“Is everything alright, Captain?” Eresh asked, eyeing Leandros suspiciously.

“Yes,” Leandros said. At least he had time, now, time to figure out how this could have happened. Time to talk to Roman, maybe, though the thought had his stomach twisting into even tighter knots. He pushed the feeling aside. He couldn’t push away the anger, though, and felt it settling somewhere just above his diaphragm. “Yes, of course. I was just inviting Mr. Ranulf to join us for our little tour of Gallontea. Isn’t that right, Gareth?”

“Er, yes,” Gareth said. “And I was saying that I’d love to join.”

“Oh, excellent!” Eftychia said. “The more the merrier. Eresh, dear, can we start with the park?”

“Whatever you want, Chia.”

Eftychia grinned and turned on her heel, leading the way, and Eresh followed. Leandros caught Gareth’s arm and stopped him before he could do the same. “I don’t think I have to tell you,” he began, too softly for the others to hear, “To keep this between us. Mr. Ochoa and Ms. Jones both work for Unity. If they’re not actively in on it, it’s possible they at least know about it.”

Gareth nodded, eyes wide. Leandros joined the other two, leaving Gareth to follow. The small group cut through the festival grounds to get to the park, the grounds empty now that most of the performers had departed with the end of Unity’s conference season. The park was breathtaking, the leaves turned gold and red in a way they don’t in Alfheim.

Eftychia skipped ahead of the group, but before they’d even rounded the first bend in the path, she turned on Leandros. “I think, Captain, I’d like to figure out your petname now.”

“Petname?” Gareth asked, but Eftychia talked over him.

“May I ask you a few questions?” she asked.

“Very well, but only a few.”

“That’s too subjective!” Eftychia protested. “I can stretch a few to four, to five. Do I get five questions?”

“Three.”

“Oh, how storybook of you,” Eftychia said. She pursed her lips and studied Leandros. Whenever the path curved, Eresh grabbed her sleeve and guided her, more used to her eccentricities than the others. Finally, she asked, “How did you get that scar?”

“Interesting start,” Leandros said, self-consciously touching the pale scar that stretched from cheekbone to jaw. “A bar fight.”

“Really?” Gareth asked.

“I know; it looks like it should have a more exciting story.”

“No, no,” Gareth said, “I’m just surprised that you have bar fights in Alfheim. I heard you settle your fights with words and politics.”

“There are bar fights in Alfheim,” Leandros said. “Occasionally. This, though, I got in Troas. I’m not really the type to brawl, but the friend I was traveling with at the time caused trouble and I got caught in the middle.”

Eftychia nodded, cataloguing his answer.

“May I ask you a question in return?” Leandros asked Eftychia.

The orinian considered Leandros a moment, then narrowed her eyes and nodded.

“How did you end up in Gallontea?”

“I’ve been here for as long as I can remember. I’ve never even been to Orean before, if that’s what you’re asking,” Eftychia said. “What are you most afraid of?”

Leandros blinked. “That’s very personal.”

“So was your question. It doesn’t have to be a reasonable fear, if that helps. It can be something silly like, oh, I don’t know…poets.”

Leandros laughed. “I’ve known a few that deserved it, but I’m not afraid of poets. If I have to answer, red dragons. My father used to tell my cousin and me the most terrifying stories of them.”

“How very traumatic,” Eftychia breathed. It was difficult to tell whether she meant it or not; everything out of her mouth sounded so earnest. “Next time he tells those stories, just remember how long the red dragons have been extinct, and everything will be fine.”

“No need. There’ll be no more stories, as he was executed for treason nearly a century ago.”

Eftychia clapped a hand over her mouth.

“It’s alright,” Leandros assured her.

“What happened?” Eftychia asked, tentatively, then said, “No, don’t answer. That’s not one of my questions.”

Leandros waved her off. “I won’t count it. He wanted the throne, tried to kill his own brother for it. A friend and I discovered his plan and talked him out of it at the last minute, but the damage was done. He was branded a traitor. So was I, effectively.”

Gareth remembered the play he’d seen the Webhon Players put on at the Rinehart Festival. The gentle prince, joining with Egil to fight his traitorous uncle and save the golden king. “It’s like the Egil story,” he said out loud.

“Just like it,” Leandros agreed. “All stories have origins somewhere, Mr. Ranulf, and you’ve found the heart of that one. Congratulations.”

“You really know Egil? Or is he really just a myth?”

Leandros’ expression soured. “The Egil you know is a myth. The real thing is much more disappointing, I’m afraid. I’d rather not talk about it, if you don’t mind.”

“Of course,” Gareth said, looking like he’d like to ask another dozen questions.

Eftychia, who’d started this whole thing, tried to change the subject. “I have my third question. Who was your love lost?”

Leandros turned cold. “No. Absolutely not. I’m sorry, Eftychia, but I won’t answer that one.”

“You promised three answers!”

“No, I gave you permission to ask three questions. There’s a difference.”

“So that’s the kind of person you are? Perhaps I should think of a slippery, nasty, tricksy animal for your—,”

Eftychia,” Leandros snapped, like some feral thing. “Enough. You can ask another question instead, but I won’t answer that one.”

They walked in silence after that, Leandros stewing, Eftychia pouting, and Eresh and Gareth too uncomfortable to try striking up a conversation.

“Lion cub,” Eftychia announced, eventually. Her voice was soft, an unspoken apology. “The potential to be a lion is there, but I’m not sure you’ve reached it yet.”

“I think I should be offended,” Leandros said, matching her tone. “But it’s better than an armadillo,” he added, making Eftychia laugh and Eresh scowl.

When the group reached the exit to the park, Eresh stopped them. “Oh,” he said. “That’s not supposed to be here.”

At the corner where their path met the main road was a tree. While the trees surrounding hadn’t yet dropped their leaves, this one already had none. Its wood was white—not spotted like a birch, nor chipped like a sycamore, but flawless bleached ivory. The branches reached high and wide, bending on swollen joints that made it look like bone.

“It’s a caindlewood tree,” Gareth said. Eftychia, Eresh, and Leandros all looked at him. He explained, “There’s a farm of them near my home in Adriat.”

“Do you know what they mean?” Eresh asked him.

Gareth nodded, lips pressed into a thin line. “I think so.”

“Care to enlighten the rest of us?” Leandros asked.

“It’s a grave,” Eresh said. “Or it marks one. But it’s also sort of a casket. It’s also sort of a womb.”

At Leandros and Eftychia’s confused expressions, Eresh smiled faintly and pointed at the tree. “When a dryad dies, they’re buried in the ground and a tree like that grows over them. It stands like that for a few decades until one day, it blooms.” He held up a finger. “Exactly one day after blooming, the tree drops all of its flowers and a new dryad sings its way out of the trunk.”

“A new dryad?”

“A child. From death comes life. For us, at least,” Eresh said. He slowly approached the caindlewood, the others reluctantly following, and caressed the smooth bark. “We view death differently than the rest of you. One person is gone, yes, but they become another.”

“Gareth, you said there was a whole farm of these?” Leandros asked, horrified. “A field of dead dryads?”

“And what’s a cemetery?” Eresh asked. “It can be jarring for a young dryad, singing their way out of the caindlewood only to find themselves alone in a great big universe. You never really recover. I should know; it happened to me. That’s why we keep them all together— so we can watch for blooms and be there when the dryad is born. This one is new. I do hope someone’s keeping an eye on it.”

Eftychia stared at the tree, expression uncharacteristically serious, then shook herself and pouted at the group. “Can we move on? There’s still so much to see!”

Eftychia and Eresh led Gareth and Leandros around downtown Gallontea, Eresh pointing out old and interesting architecture and providing them with historical tidbits while Eftychia gave them a more self-centric tour—“This is my favorite restaurant!” and “Here’s where I got in my first fight!”

After an hour of this, Eftychia looked over her shoulder and hummed thoughtfully. “Lion cub?”

“Yes, Ms. Jones?” Leandros asked, already resigned to the endearment.

“We’re being followed.”

“We’re what?” Eresh asked.

Leandros only nodded. “Noticed that, did you? I believe I’m being followed, actually; it’s been happening since I left my hotel this morning.”

What?” Eresh repeated.

“Have you gotten a good look at whoever it is?” Eftychia asked Leandros.

“Sort of,” Leandros said. “They’re human, with a red beard and a wide-brimmed hat.”

“Let’s go to the warehouse district next, Captain,” Eftychia said. “There are hardly any people around, there.”

“You want to set an ambush?” Leandros guessed.

“Doesn’t it sound fun?” Eftychia asked. “I’ve been planning it since the public square.”

“You’ve known for that long? Why didn’t you say anything?” Leandros asked.

“I wanted to see what he’d do. Surely he wouldn’t approach with so many of us around you, I thought. I would’ve warned you before we said goodbye.”

What is going on? Why is someone following you?” Eresh asked.

“It could be any number of reasons,” Leandros said, waving a hand.

“Mr. Nochdvor, whoever this is, they could be dangerous,” Gareth warned. Leandros met his gaze evenly.

“They usually are, in these situations,” Leandros said. Not a hint of concern made its way into his voice. If anything, he sounded bored. “If they’re as tough as they are subtle, I’m not concerned.”

Eftychia laughed and linked her arm in Leandros’. “This is where we leave you, darlings. It’s a shame we didn’t get to explore more the city together.”

“An ambush, that’s— that’s crazy,” Eresh squeaked.

“I’m going with you,” Gareth announced. Leandros stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.

“No. Eftychia’s on the support team for a reason; from what I hear, she can handle herself in a fight. I won’t have you and Eresh getting in the middle of this.”

With that, they left Eresh and Gareth standing in the street. Eftychia led Leandros along, chatting like they weren’t intentionally laying a trail. They finally reached a less crowded neighborhood, and both Leandros and Eftychia kept a careful watch.

“I hope Eresh was correct about your fighting prowess, Ms. Jones. I think there’s more than one of them.”

Eftychia laughed and touched Leandros’ forearm like he’d told an amusing joke. “Eresh doesn’t know the half of my fighting prowess, Captain.”

“I don’t suppose you happen to have a gun?”

“No, I don’t like guns. They end fights too quickly.”

In unspoken agreement, they doubled back and ambushed the man that had been following Leandros. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, they then found themselves being ambushed by a much larger group.

Leandros wasn’t even entirely sure how that happened, but suddenly they were surrounded by four others, in addition to the man they’d thought was their prey. Leandros and Eftychia shared a look. Eftychia looked delighted, eyes practically sparkling with joy.

“I hope you all realize what, exactly, you’re doing,” Leandros began, lowly, addressing the circle that was slowly tightening around them.

One of the strangers shoved Leandros from behind, making him stumble forward into the man they’d followed. Leandros’ hand flew to the man’s chest as he tried to catch his balance. Eftychia stepped forward to help him, but then Leandros’ hand twisted in the man’s shirt and one of his feet slipped between the man’s legs, hooking the man’s knees into buckling. Leandros put all of his weight on his grounded foot and pivoted, using his grip to throw the man to the ground.

It happened so quickly that even Eftychia took a moment to process it. When she did, she laughed and threw her weight into the nearest attacker. Slender as she seemed, she was an excellent brawler with a true orinians’ strength and agility. She caught the next man to come at her with a haymaker, throwing him back, dazed.

Leandros moved on to the next attacker in the circle, grabbing and twisting the man’s gun arm out of the way before he could direct the weapon. He spun and elbowed the man in the face, grabbing his gun from him and using it to shoot the man charging at Eftychia.

Again, Eftychia laughed, high and bright and delighted. “Captain, you’re ruining my fun!”

Leandros grinned, sharp and feral, as he dodged another blow and dropped the gun.

“You must be a good dancer, lion cub,” Eftychia called, watching his movements when she could. “You’re a very graceful fighter.”

“Oh, I’m very good,” Leandros replied, stepping back and letting Eftychia drag down his next attacker, “When the mood strikes me. Though I admit that happens rarely.”

“What a shame! I’d love to see you dance sometime,” Eftychia said. “I’m terrible, personally.”

A shrill war cry from behind had them both pausing to look for the source. Leandros sighed when he saw that the cry came from Eresh, who was running up with a small knife in hand and Gareth in tow. The final attacked retrieved his companion’s gun from the ground and aimed it at them.

Eftychia stepped quickly between them, prying his arm to the side just as he fired. The bullet narrowly missed her, actually catching the abundant fabric of her sweater. She hit him over the head, and just like that, he fell to the ground.

Just like that, it was over. Leandros ran a hand through his hair, unknowingly spreading a streak of blood through it, and rounded on Gareth and Eresh. “I told you not to come,” he snapped. “You could have gotten yourselves hurt. You could have gotten Eftychia and I hurt, as well. What if she hadn’t been able to protect you?”

“Be easy on them, lion cub,” Eftychia said, kicking at one of the attackers’ bodies. “They only wanted to help.”

Leandros scoffed, and, with a last glare at the cowed Gareth and Eresh, turned to survey the scene. They’d made quite a mess— in the middle of a public street, no less. To Eftychia, he said, “I’m sure you’re not terrible.”

Eftychia blinked at him, confused. Then, she grinned. “Oh, no, I really am. I’m good at freestyle dancing, but when there are steps involved, I’m hopeless. I’m bad with rules.”

“That one’s still alive,” Eresh said, pointing at one of the attackers, who was struggling to stand.

“Bring him to his knees,” Leandros ordered, retrieving the gun from the ground. It was the red-bearded man, the one who had been following him. Leandros looked coolly down at him. “What did you mean to accomplish here?”

The man spat at Leandros but didn’t answer. Leandros trained the gun on his head and asked again. “Why did you attack?”

Instead of answering, the man shoved Eftychia back with one arm and pulled a switchblade out of his belt with the other. He leapt at the alfar. Leandros dropped the gun as the man brought the knife down toward Leandros’ chest— he was already too close for Leandros to use it. Instead, he grabbed the man’s arm, twisted out of the way as best he could, but the knife caught his side in a long stripe down his chest.

Captain!” Eftychia cried, springing to her feet. She tackled the man and pried the knife from his hands with ease, twisting his arm behind his back and catching him in an unshakable grip.

Leandros took a few steps back and stumbled to the ground. He looked down at himself, hand automatically going to the wound at his side. There was already blood everywhere, covering everything– his hands, his clothes, the ground, but there was no pain. It just stung. Why was there so much blood?

Eresh was at his side in an instant, looking rapidly between the injury and Leandros’ face with wide eyes. “Leandros, are you okay? Oh, Atiuh. Oh, no. Atiuh help us.”

Gareth was there next, eyes just as panicked as Eresh’s. Leandros wondered if either had seen an injury like this in their lives.

“Not sure what he’s going to do,” Leandros hissed through gritted teeth. With shaking fingers, he began unbuttoning his waistcoat; Eresh hurried to help, once he realized what Leandros was doing. He then helped Leandros shrug out of it, the alfar swearing under his breath as he had to twist to get the garment off. He bunched up the fabric and pressed it against the wound, the pale blue fabric instantly soaking through.

Leandros closed his eyes, took several deep breaths, then pushed himself to his feet.

“Leandros, you musn’t!” Eresh squeaked. Gareth tried helping Leandros up, but Leandros held a hand out for him to stop.

“It’s fine,” Leandros said. “It looks worse than it is.”

Fine?” Gareth asked. “Leandros, for Atiuh’s sake, you’ve been stabbed!”

“Cut,” Leandros sniffed. “Not stabbed.”

“We have to get you to a hospital,” Eresh cried, talking over Leandros.

“No hospitals. It’s barely a scratch. Once it’s stitched up, it’ll be less inconvenient than if I had a cold.”

“But—,” Eftychia began, biting her tongue when Leandros turned his glare on her.

“No more. I’m your Captain. You will not question me.”

“Fine,” Eftychia said. She pursed her lips and pointed at the man she was all but sitting on. “What do we do with him, Captain?”

Leandros approached, each slow, sure step coiled with anger. “Where’s the gun? Eresh, fetch it for me.”

“Leandros, maybe we shouldn’t—,”

“The gun.”

Eresh pressed the revolver into Leandros’ waiting hand. Both he and Gareth looked away. Eftychia didn’t, instead watching Leandros with open curiosity as he cocked the gun and aimed. He hesitated before shooting, a flurry of expressions passing across his face. Finally, he brought the gun’s heavy handle down like a club on the man’s hand. Eftychia released him as he dropped to the ground, unconscious.

“Leandros! What did you do?” Eresh asked, peeking past his fingers.

“He’s still alive,” Leandros sighed. “We have to figure out what to do with him, though. I’d rather no one know about this attack.”

“But…why not?” Gareth asked.

“Clearly, I have enemies here. I don’t want any of them thinking I can be hurt.”

“But you can be hurt! You are hurt, and we need someone to fix you!” Eresh protested, waving a hand at Leandros’ blood-soaked waistcoat.

“My hotel is close,” Gareth said. “We could get you settled there, then call for a private physician. My family has one we trust.”

Leandros relaxed a little, Gareth’s plan a happy compromise. “That works. Gareth, come here. I need your help.”

When Gareth obeyed, Leandros slung an arm over his shoulder and used him for support, flinching when the movement twisted his torso. “Careful— ow.

“But what about this mess?” Eresh asked.

“Eresh, I need you to do something for me. Please. The police will be here soon— they’ll have heard the gunshot— and I need you and Eftychia to wait here for them.”

“What! But—,”

“Please, Eresh. I’m trusting you with this. When the police arrive, tell them…tell them you were in the area when you heard the gunshot, and when you arrived, you found these men attacking each other. You waited to investigate until it was safe, but it turns out this one,” Leandros nodded at the unconscious man, “Was still alive. Eftychia, you hit him to protect yourself and Eresh”

Eftychia just nodded, but Eresh asked, “What if he wakes up and tells them what really happened?”

“What’s he going to say, that he was trying to assassinate me? You’ll be fine, Eresh. You have money and Unity connections. Even if this man tells the truth, there’s nothing the police are going to do to you. Let Ms. Jones take the lead.”

“Be careful,” Eftychia said.

“We’ll be fine,” Leandros promised, and Gareth nodded. Gareth helped lead Leandros away, slowly, and neither of them looked back.


A/N: Next week, we get to witness Roman and Leandros’ reunion. 🙂 Think it’ll be a pleasant one?

Chapter 17

A/N: Warning in this chapter for bad poetry (no, really, I’m no poet and I tried so hard to poke fun at the lofty poetry of old epic fantasy. I’m not sure it really worked).


In Orean, when she could get away with it, Maebhe spent her time exploring the forests and valleys in the mountains around Orean. She was a hunter — only a hobbyist, but a talented hobbyist— and she felt most herself when she was running, climbing, swimming, hunting. But even with all the training she put her body through, she couldn’t remember the last time she’d woken feeling so sore.

Maybe it was the walking they did yesterday, or the dancing that followed. Or maybe it was because she’d jumped off a building into uneasy waters. The soreness was a pressing concern, of course, but so was the fact that she didn’t actually remember most of the prior night and had no idea where she was.

She was lying on the ground somewhere, enveloped in a warm quilt. Waiting and listening, she tried to rely on the sounds around her for clues. Something had woken her up, and it would make itself known soon enough. Nearby, Kieran snored. That wasn’t it. Beyond a closed door, she heard the shuffle of quiet feet and the rustle of feathers.

She rolled onto her back and opened her eyes. The ceiling above her was high, higher than she could reach even if she jumped. Higher than she could reach if she stood on Kieran’s shoulders and then jumped, and that gave her a clue: Home. Oanai. She was sprawled at the foot of a bed, wide enough for, say, someone with a wide wingspan to sleep comfortably. When she sat up, she saw Kieran and Íde’s sleeping forms curled up in it.

The bedroom’s door slammed open with a bang, making Maebhe jump to her feet like a startled cat, and the room got suddenly much brighter. Sunslight flooded in, haloing the tall figure that stood in the door’s frame. Maebhe groaned and covered her eyes.

“Good morning!” came a deep voice, happier than it had any right sounding.

“Why are you being so loud?” Maebhe grumbled.

“The better to wake you up with, dear, though I see I needn’t have bothered,” Drys said.

They both looked over at the bed. Íde was sitting up and rubbing her eyes, blinking blearily at the both of them. She looked around the room, then over at Kieran, who’d miraculously slept through all the noise Drys made.

“You’re going to have to be much louder if you want to wake Kieran,” Maebhe said. Drys nodded and drew in a breath as if to yell, but Maebhe yelled, “Don’t! Please. My head.”

“Mine too,” Íde said. She passed her hands across her face, then tried to press down some of her bedhead.

“Our wine does tend to have that effect, especially on humans,” Drys said, not sounding particularly sympathetic. “I should have warned you.”

“You should have,” Íde agreed.

Drys’ impish expression turned serious. “I’m not here just to torture you with noise; there’s a High Council meeting happening on the field. They’re going to discuss what you told Leihlani last night.”

“What I told Leihlani….” Maebhe repeated. She thought it over and uncovered a hazy memory of spilling their story to the gentle oanai. “Oh. I told her everything, I think. Oops.”

“She told me as much.”

“What’s the High Council?” Íde asked.

“The elected leaders of the six quadrants of Home, and sometimes those of the surrounding tribes, if they make the journey. The meeting’s open to everyone, though. I thought you might want to attend.”

“Yes,” Maebhe said, sharing a look with Íde. “Yes. We should wake Kieran. He’ll want to go, too.”

There followed a long struggle of shoving, pleading, and eventually, Íde jumping on him before Kieran was awake as well, rubbing sleep from his eyes as Drys led the way outside.

Home felt different in the mornings. It flowed just as freely, awake and alive and untainted, but the streets were calmer, emptier, quieter. The mist hung differently, drifting down to them from the bright, cloudless sky rather than hanging low over the streets like it was borne from the earth. A layer of dew blanketed the ground, and the air was crisp and untouched by smog.

Back home, Maebhe had to journey far into the mountains to taste air this clean. Orean was no industrial force, but Illyon was, and it tainted Creae valley and the sky above both cities.

On the walk, Drys gave them what advice they could. Maebhe tried to follow it, but receiving advice from a faerie was a strange thing.

“These meetings have a tradition of lazy beginnings,” Drys was saying. “Play along and don’t get impatient. Commit their stories to memory, enough that you could repeat them back. Remember who they belong to or risk great slights. A story is a sacred thing. It’s your honor to hear it, but their honor to share it. These cancel each other out, so don’t offer additional thanks, or you’ll offend the sharer. Do not clap.”

“Right,” Maebhe said, glancing at Kieran, beside her. He was looking down at his feet as he walked, nodding to himself like he understood. Maebhe could tell from the look in his eyes that he didn’t, and she felt a little better.

Drys pursed their lips. “If you can’t do that, just be your darling, charming selves. You’re lucky my people don’t usually attend these meetings. They’d be less forgiving of social blunders.”

Drys led the group to the same field they’d danced in the night before. All signs of the previous night’s festivities had been cleared away, and in the morning light, Maebhe noticed how strange the field was. A ring of toadstools enclosed it in a perfect circle, and wove through it in swirling but definite patterns, cutting through long grass that wasn’t just green, but blue and purple, too.

Two dozen or so oanai sat in a circle at the center, talking and laughing. It didn’t look like any sort of meeting Maebhe had ever been to, but Drys stepped carefully over the line of toadstools and approached the group, so Maebhe and the others followed. One oanai with horns nearly as long as Maebhe’s body looked their way as they approached. He frowned, bushy black eyebrows drawing low over blue eyes, and bared his teeth. Maebhe didn’t quite consider herself an expert at reading oanai expressions yet, but she was pretty sure that wasn’t a smile.

“Good morning,” Apa said to the newcomers as the oanai nearest them shifted to widen the circle. Her voice was lower than Leihlani’s, and rougher, and she had more gray fur around her eyes and whiskers. Mani sat to one side of her and Leihlani to the other, with a tall instrument like a twisted harp propped up in her lap. “And how do our guests find themselves, after the excitement of last night?”

“Wholly changed, thank you,” Kieran said with a smooth bow.

Apa smiled, baring sharp teeth. “Sit, please. I’m afraid you’ve missed the beginning, but there’s much still to hear. Let my daughter soothe your aching minds. Leihlani?”

Leihlani nodded, adjusted the instrument in her lap, and began to play.

Maebhe’s legs gave out beneath her, but she barely noticed. Leihlani’s song was like a spell, hypnotic and sweet. The oanai’s long fingers danced across the strings in looping patterns. Their sound was sweeter than Maebhe would have guessed from looking at the instrument, carrying all the way across the circle, all the way across the field. Leihlani’s song felt like bright suns in the early morning and warm wind ruffling through tall grass. Far too soon, it was over.

Maebhe raised her hands to clap, but remembered Drys’ advice just in time, changing the direction of the movement to brush her hair away from her face instead. Beside her, Drys nodded, just once, as Leihlani wordlessly passed the instrument to the next oanai in the circle, who began a song of her own. So it continued, only a few oanai passing the instrument without playing. By the time it reached Drys, Maebhe had half a dozen new songs swimming through her mind, some wordless, others not, some simple, others impossible.

Despite Drys’ advice to do so, there was no remembering them all. The songs being sung were more complex than the best Orean had to offer, and Maebhe didn’t even know the best Orean had to offer. She was more the kind to stand on a bar and join a hearty drinking song than appreciate an aria. The faces of the oanai around the circle, too, were too similar to Maebhe’s untrained eye, and she soon forgot who sang what.

Drys passed the instrument to Maebhe without playing. The wood felt warm in her hands as she passed it to Kieran, but Apa interrupted with, “Know that if you refuse to share, you forfeit the right to speak until you leave this field.”

Maebhe froze. “What if I have no songs to share?”

“Everyone has a song. Even if you do not, you can make one up.”

Maebhe wracked her mind for a song that wasn’t horribly inappropriate. “Uh.”

“Can Maebhe and I sing together?” Kieran asked.

Mani leaned over and murmured something to Apa, who said something back.

“The two of you were born at once, weren’t you?” Mani asked.

“Technically, I’m an hour older,” Maebhe said. Kieran scowled at her.

Apa nodded. “You may share a song. If you don’t know the hearpe, your voice is enough.”

Kieran met Maebhe’s eyes. Without waiting for her to catch on, he began to sing:

O, under the pink morning suns,
I made my way to you.

Maebhe closed her eyes. She should have seen this coming. Of course he’d choose that one. Taking a shaky breath, she joined on the next line. Kieran let her carry the melody, his light voice spinning harmonies around her that she hadn’t known him capable of. She wavered, once or twice, in a way their mother never had when she’d sung this same song.

The road was lone, my bag too heavy,
For you, love, o’er land I flew.

To see your smile, I’d run again.
To hear you laugh, my lark, I’d fly.
And though I may be gone again,
I’ll always return to you.

When they finished, Maebhe closed her eyes. In her memory, she was in her parents’ arms again, holding them after they’d returned from one of their trips. They were singing to her, voices soft and gentle and fond, and Maebhe’s heart was breaking all over again.

Wordlessly, Kieran took the hearpe from her and passed it to Íde.

“That was beautiful,” Mani said gently. “It is a beautiful thing, sharing songs. It’s a way to share joy and wonder and knowledge…and memories, emotions.”

Maebhe nodded and wiped her eyes, opening them in time to see Íde pass the hearpe on without singing. She reached over Kieran and took Maebhe’s hand, and Maebhe held onto it like a lifeline.

Eventually, the hearpe reached the oanai with the long horns that Maebhe had noticed earlier. He strummed a few thoughtful notes, and in a voice deeper than the lowest point of Home’s crater, said, with an awful smile, “I have a song about an orinian. For our guests.”

He started regally, strumming a cascade of flowing notes that reminded Maebhe of a waterfall. Then, he sang:

A girl sang sweet beside the shining pools,
A dragon flew above, was caught,
pulled down, down from the sky. He sought
the song, its source, and as she bathed, he found her there.

The dragon watched her from the bank, and when
she saw, her song drowned out in fear.
“Be calm, my lark,” he called, “And sing
Again. I wish to join your sweet music.”

“You sing, dear beast?” she asked, her fear forgot.
“For you, only,” the beast replied.
The dragon raised his voice, his
Voice like smoke and fire, and joined her song.

their music twined and bound in pale moonlight.
And love, it spread like flames and trees
That night, they fled into the great dark wood

Off to Lyryma to love free
They took their song; t’was all they’d need.

But in our wood, dark magic spreads and
Corrupts in ways sweet songs can’t cleanse. It sank into
Their souls, their hearts, and tore apart —

Enough, Ioka,” Leihlani snapped.

Ioka’s fingers stopped abruptly on the strings with a twang, and all the oanai in the circle turned to look at Leihlani. The young oanai’s voice was colder than the orinians had yet heard it, and all six of her ears were pressed flat against her head. Beside her, Apa tensed.

“You interrupt my song?” Ioka asked. He sounded more amused than insulted. An uneasy wave swept over the assembled council.

“They have all the forest to travel through, yet,” Leihlani said, “And you’re trying to frighten them. You insult our guests.”

“Leihlani,” Apa warned. “Those are bold accusations.”

“She is right,” another in the circle said. “We all know how the song ends. Ioka knows his choice is inappropriate.”

A few others murmured agreement. Maebhe looked at Drys, wanting to ask how the song ends, but they shook their head.

“Enough,” Mani said. He gave Ioka a sharp look. “I believe no one here would intentionally slight our guests, but Ioka, your song is finished. It does not do to speak of the darkness in the forest, with the things we’ve seen of late.”

Drys leaned toward Maebhe. Quiet as a breath, they said, “Ask what he means.”

“Why don’t you do it?”

“I didn’t sing, remember?”

“What do you mean?” Kieran asks the oanai, shooting Drys and Maebhe a look. “What have you seen?”

Mani shook his head, and Apa looked away. Even Ioka seemed cowed, his ears lying flat and hands tightly gripping the hearpe. It was Leihlani who finally answered. “The forest has been restless,” she said. “There’s something dark lurking at its heart, a plague we can’t find, an illness we can’t root out. There are strange creatures here, new monsters and ill omens.”

“Just rumors,” Apa said. “Do not worry, little ones. The path to Orean skirts around the heart of the forest. You will not be in much danger.”

Much,” Kieran repeated.

“We’ll speak of this no more,” Mani announced. “To speak of dark things is to invite them in, and I will not bring that upon Home. Ioka, pass the hearpe along, and let us finish our sharing.”

Ioka did, and the remaining few oanai played, but the songs lacked the earlier spirit, more a chore to be hurried through and less of a celebration. When everyone around the circle had gotten a chance to share, Mani set the hearpe aside. Finally, Maebhe thought, the meeting would begin. And perhaps it did, but the meeting still didn’t feel like a meeting. It felt like the small talk one shared at a party. It felt cowardly and superficial, discussing the roads to Home’s outer tribes and the rainfall in the forest, avoiding monsters in Lyryma and Unity’s plans for Orean.

Maebhe remembered Drys’ advice about slow starts, so she made herself sit patiently and wait. They’d get to the important topics eventually; she just had to wait.

She didn’t let herself get angry until orinians began to leave. It started with Ioka. He sneered at the orinians as he passed them by, several others following at his heels. As they walked away, Kieran blurted, “What about Unity?”

Ioka paused, turning back to face the orinians. “I do not want to speak about Unity.”

“I don’t care what you want,” Kieran snapped. “I don’t want Unity poking around my city, but they’re probably on their way to Orean right now!”

“So you say.”

“Excuse me?” Kieran asked, clearly trying hard to keep his voice even.

“Kieran,” Íde warned.

“Are you calling us liars?” Kieran asked anyway, ignoring her.

In turn, Ioka ignored him. “You may be allowed to speak at our meetings, but you are not on the Council. I am. I adjourn this meeting.”

“Can he do that?” Maebhe asked Drys in a whisper.

It was Mani who answered. “Any Council member can call an end to our meetings. Ioka is within his rights.”

It wasn’t until Ioka was gone that Apa explained further. “Forgive him,” she said, “Like many of us, Ioka is wary and frightened of Unity. He is worried about the story you bring with you, and worry makes him hostile.”

“But you can’t just ignore the things you’re worried about!” Kieran yelled, likely loud enough for Ioka and all of Home to hear.

“In Lyryma, you can. That is why Ellaes made this forest for us. During the Great War, the peoples of this world nearly destroyed us, same as they did the red dragons. When our killers joined together under the guise of stability, we knew things would not be better. So Ellaes helped us hide.”

“And we’ve been hiding for so long, little ones,” Mani said, voice gentle again now that Ioka was gone. “We’re used to confronting problems at our own pace. Your news came as a surprise, and we are not yet ready to discuss it.”

“When will you be ready?” Kieran asked.

“That’s hard to say. When it becomes truly urgent. When we’ve fixed the problems in our own forest. When we know more. You are our guests and we will not insult you, but Ioka is right. This is too large a matter to take you at your word. We will look into the truth of what you say, of this Unity mission, and when we do, then we shall speak on it more.”

“But—,” Kieran started.

“Tell me, would you have cared about the dangers in Lyryma if you didn’t have to journey through it? If it did not personally concern you? Would you have dropped your own problems to solve ours?”

“No,” Íde admitted, answering for all of them.

“Maybe,” Kieran said. “Distantly.”

“We’re interested in your story,” Apa said, adding, “But distantly. If your king were to request our help, that would be a different matter.”

“So if we get him to ask for help, you’d give it?” Maebhe asked.

“Perhaps. But I cannot speak for the other Council members,” Apa said, gesturing at the mostly-empty field. “Drys, perhaps you can show our visitors more of Home before they leave tomorrow morning.”

Maebhe blinked at Apa, at the sudden subject change. She hadn’t realized they were leaving tomorrow, but Apa didn’t seem to be giving them a choice. Drys, Íde, and Maebhe stood, Maebhe giving Kieran’s hair a sharp tug when he hesitated.

“We’ll have everything you need for the journey ready by morning, and Leihlani will be accompanying you to the edge of the forest.”

Leihlani started. “I will?”

“Yes, your punishment for interrupting Ioka’s song.”

Leihlani opened her mouth to reply, then thinking better of it, closed it again.

Mani nodded. To the orinians, he said, “Be at the stone steps at dawn tomorrow. You have a long journey ahead of you.”

Drys led the orinians away after the obvious dismissal. When they were out of the field, Kieran opened his mouth to complain, but Drys interrupted with, “I know how you must feel, but do not forget how good an oanai’s hearing can be.”

Kieran shut his mouth and followed silently behind.


EGIL – I

Present Day

Year of Unity 1870

Egil sat on the roof of a crooked old building, the night cold around him. If he noticed the chill, he gave no indication— none aside from the flush of his cheeks, something that could be explained away as excitement or agitation, given how intently he stared across Gallontea at the glowing face of a clock tower in the distance. The tower’s dark silhouette stood against the gray haze of the city’s smog, like a spectre rising up out of Egil’s nightmares. 

He’d had nightmares about this place, in fact— about being back in this city, about seeing the golden face of that clock looming over him again.

While he stared, the long hand clicked onto the hour and bells rang out, cutting into the night’s quiet. It was two in the morning, and Egil suddenly realized how long he’d been sitting here, watching the minutes pass while the night deepened around him. The rest of the city slept peacefully through the sound, but Egil pressed a hand to his heart. It felt to him as if the deep, low chimes resonated up through his body and cut into his soul. Sleeping through this seemed impossible. But then, the chimes of that clock meant more to Egil than they did to anyone else. To him, each peal was a reminder of the things he’d left behind, the sins he’d committed, and the secrets festering on that island off the coast.

Egil had arrived in Gallontea at just the right time – there was something happening on the Island. The city had been abuzz all day, but no matter how hard he listened, Egil only heard whispers, slippery and indiscernible. It was too much for his curiosity to take.

He straightened out his shoulders, his eyes finally tearing away from the clock as something else nearby caught his attention. It was a dragon flying low over the sloped roofs of the city, the blue scales of its belly glistening from the lights of the gas lamps on the streets below. Twisting around buildings and weaving between the spires of a church, it eventually made its descent toward the green stretch of park along the coast and disappeared between the trees there. It remained blissfully unaware of Egil’s eyes on it the whole time.

They were cold, black eyes, eyes that grew colder when they fixed back on the clock tower. When Egil thought again of the secrets that Island held, secrets this city and all the world around it was built on, he shuddered. For a moment, his control slipped. For a moment, piercing magic flared bright around him, the air shimmering like it couldn’t control Egil’s anger. For a moment, his dark eyes seemed too dark. Entirely dark. Then, whatever that was— whatever darkness had momentarily overtaken him— faded.

He stood and stretched, a few joints popping after his hours of sitting still. Finally, he turned his back on the Island and climbed down from the roof while off in the distance, the clock tower ceased its tolling.


Chapter 16

Gareth swept into the parlor for the fourth time in as many minutes, immediately dropping onto his hands and knees to peer under the furniture.

“Has anyone seen my green cravat?” he called, hitting his head on the bottom of the sofa when Isobel’s voice replied, much closer than he expected.

“I have it,” she said. Gareth sat back to see her standing behind him, tie in hand. “You left it sitting out; I think Wyndie was just trying to tidy up.”

“Ah, thoughtful girl. Is she up with Ofelia?”

“I gave her the night off,” Isobel said reproachfully. “I told you that.”

Isobel put on a pair of dangling earrings, their glittering green catching in the light and jingling whenever she turned her head. Her dress was a similar green, not half as elegant as the one she wore to the Webhon Players’ Performance, with less lace and a smaller bustle. Gareth found he liked it better.

“Sorry, Bel, I’ve had a lot on my mind. Where’s Ofelia, then?”

“She should be down soon. She wanted to put her shoes on all by herself. You should have seen her; she was quite insistent,” Isobel said. “Is Roman going to join us? Did you invite him?”

“I did.” Gareth laughed. “You should have seen the look on his face. I think he would have accepted the invitation, just to be polite, but a messenger from Unity came and swept him away.”

“From Unity? Was it about the team, do you think?”

Before they could talk about it further, Ofelia pranced in, whining about how her shoes hurt. Isobel tool her hand and led her over to the couch. “That’s because you put them on the wrong feet, silly girl. Let your father fix them for you.”

“How pretty you look in your new dress, Ofelia,” Gareth said, kneeling on the ground in front of his daughter and pulling her shoes off one at a time. “How old are you now? Twenty?”

“No, I’m five!”

“What? Five?” Gareth exclaimed. “No, I don’t believe that. You look much too grown up to be only five.”

“I am! Mother, tell him!”

“It’s true, Gareth,” Isobel said. She managed not to laugh, but Gareth could see the threat of it dancing in her smile. “She’s only five, but she’s almost six.”

“Oh, almost six. That explains it, then.” Having fixed the shoes, Gareth stood. “Are you ladies ready to go? I know Ofelia doesn’t want to miss the songs.”

The Ranulfs rented their carriage with the Carols, another family staying at their hotel. All seven of them managed to fit into the cramped interior, and as the driver spurred the carriage into action, leading them off down the bumpy streets, one of the Carols complimented Ofelia’s dress. After Isobel made Ofelia—suddenly turned shy—say thank you, Isobel returned the compliment by telling the Carol women how handsome their sons looked in their new finery.

That was all the conversation that passed on the short ride to their destination, and soon, the driver was pulling to a stop on a busy street. Gareth climbed out first and helped the women. The Carol boys were content to jump without assistance, one of them landing in mud and ruining his shiny shoes. Gareth caught Ofelia before she could follow their example.

Before them, the bright lights of a church shone down through stained glass windows, setting the street aglow with dancing patches of colors, shining on the heads of people waiting to get inside. Gareth and his family were among these, Gareth and Isobel walking arm in arm and Ofelia winding through the crowd ahead of them. The pointed spires of the building stood dark against the dusky sky.

Gareth expected the familiar peace of evening church to descend upon him when he walked through the open doors, but for the first time in his life, it didn’t come. The Gallontean church might be louder and colder than the one back home, but it still gave him some sort of calm. Tonight, he couldn’t find it beneath thoughts of missing Kings and Unity missions.

They found an open pew in the sanctuary, the church’s congregation arranged in a half circle around a metal spire pointing to the sky. The spire was meant to represent Atiuh. Every sect of Atiuhism had different representations of what they thought he looked like. Sometimes he was human, or nymph, or dragon, and then others, he was something fantastical like a five-headed dog with faerie wings and a dragon’s tail. The Gallontean church didn’t give him a shape. Gallontea was too diverse a city—this way, no one argued about which species Atiuh belonged to, even if they all secretly believed it was their own.

The service began shortly after their arrival. Ofelia stopped paying attention as soon as the hymnal singing was done. She had a great deal of patience for a five year old, but even she had a limit. So did Gareth, and more so than usual of late. He had more important things on his mind. He was silent throughout the service, on the way back to the carriage, and even on the entire ride home. He was grateful for the Carols’ presence, as it meant Isobel could do nothing but shoot him worried looks. If she asked him what was wrong, he wouldn’t know how to answer.

“Will you put Ofelia to bed, Gareth?” Isobel asked as the carriage rolled to a final stop in front of their hotel. Ofelia had fallen asleep on the ride, lulled by the rocking of the carriage and the warmth of her parents on either side of her.

Ofelia woke slightly during the transition from carriage to bedroom, just enough to help Gareth get her into a sleeping gown. He sat with her and took all the small pins and clips out of her hair, singing an old hymn under his breath as he did. Ofelia piped in sleepily where she knew the words, or where she thought she knew them.

“Mother says you’re leaving,” Ofelia said when he’d finished, making Gareth almost drop the hairbrush in his hand.

“Yes, he said slowly, “For a little while.”

“How long?”

Gareth struggled to speak past the lump in his throat. He remembered all the times he’d had this exact conversation with his own father, all the times he’d been consoled with later-broken promises. He never thought he’d do the same to his own child. “Not long at all, love. Soon, you and your mother will go back home, and I’ll be there with you before you know it.”

“When are you going?”

“Very soon.” Too soon. Leandros had sent word earlier that day that their final team member had arrived. They were set to leave in three days.

“You’ll bring me back a present, won’t you?”

“Of course,” Gareth said, laughing past the cold dread pooling in his chest. “I always do.”

Ofelia fell asleep while Gareth was brushing her hair. He wrapped her blankets around her, blew out the lamp burning on the table, and backed out of the room, not letting her sleeping form out of his sight until the door clicked shut.

Might be dangerous, Leandros had said the first time they’d met. Might take a while.

He returned to his and Isobel’s room and found Isobel still getting ready for bed. “I think I lost my brooch back at the church,” she said when she saw him. “The one from your mother.”

“Would you like me to go look for it?” Gareth asked, jumping at the opportunity. Anything to save him from thinking about the lies he’d just told his daughter.

Isobel gave him a concerned look, the same she’d given him in the carriage. “You don’t have to do it tonight.”

“No, no, it’s fine. I need to get some fresh air, and besides, there’s another service tomorrow morning—someone will surely find it and take it if I wait.”

“Alright,” Isobel said slowly. “Thank you, Gareth.”

On his way back down to the kitchen, Gareth passed the room they’d had prepared for Roman. The door stood open, the room inside dark. Roman’s meager possessions sat on the bed, but their owner was still out, despite the late hour.

This time, Gareth walked to the church. Unlike the walk from Eresh Ochoa’s, there was no risk of getting lost. Only a few blocks had come and gone before he reached the cathedral, the lights from inside now dim. The first door he tried was locked, as were the second and third. Only the fourth and last of the church’s doors opened when Gareth pulled the handle.

After slipping inside, Gareth finally felt an echo of that peace he’d been looking for earlier. He wandered through the halls, quiet, peaceful, and filled with the solemn gravity of night and hollow space. Gareth had never realized how large the church was, how high its ceilings were. It was usually too packed with people to notice much beyond the crowd.

Being here alone made Gareth feel small and insignificant. Strangely comforting, he found.

Only one or two lamps were lit to guide the way, and with the sharp architecture, shadows pooled at every corner. At the doors to the sanctuary, Gareth paused and looked up, admiring yet another thing about this place that he’d never paid enough attention to—the three marble statues above the sanctuary doors.

Above the largest door was a statute of a sharp-edged dragon, its wide, bat-like wings stretching above and over the statues on either side of it. It was made of sooty gray marble with veins of white and flecks of red minerals spread across its surface. The dragon’s mouth was open in a snarl, rows of intricately carved teeth grinning down at Gareth.

To its right stood a red statue of a woman made from fire. She held a hand toward the dragon, as did the statue on the dragon’s other side—a human male, tall and proud in a full suit of armor, the kind popular around the time of the Great War. All three of Atiuh’s Guardians, protecting his sanctuary.

Gareth stared up at Tellaos, and the dragon stared back. According to the scriptures, some of the Guardians had done their job better than others.

According to those same scriptures, millions of years ago, Atiuh spun the world into being. In one corner of one continent on a planet in the vast universe Atiuh created, he made life. He made life in plants, in trees and in flowers, but that was not enough. He made life in animals, from small insects to massive Misenean beasts that stand taller than mountains, but even that was not enough. From them, then, Atiuh created the first intelligent life.

He made three kinds of people: humans, nympherai, and dragons. Over time—thousands and thousands of years— the people grew and changed, and Atiuh changed the world to accommodate them. He spread them across the land, giving them the space they needed to adapt. The various races were born— sapien, alfar, marionite, orinian. Dryad, fae, oanai. Dr`agons of red, blue, and white. Then, Atiuh again made life from nothing.

Some say he grew tired of his mortals’ flaws, others that they were not enough, just like his animals and his plants. The popular theory, the one Gareth preferred, was that he loved his creations so much, he wanted to ensure they were always watched over. He made three more creatures, these incapable of dying or aging. Three creatures, each a patron of one species. Human Atuos, nympherai Ellaes, and Tellaos, the great black serpent. Atiuh gave all three a fragment of his magic.

For a time, the Guardians watched over Calaidia, but Tellaos grew resentful of the job he’d been given and the people he’d been made to protect. He incited the Great War with his manipulation and his tricks as an act of defiance against Atiuh.

Including a statue of the lost Guardian here was a bit controversial.

Gareth pushed through Tellaos’ door and into the sanctuary, following the aisle down past rows of pews to where his family had been sitting earlier. He caught the glimpse of green almost immediately—there was the brooch, nestled against the leg of the pew they’d sat in. He grabbed it and turned to go, but his gaze caught on the obelisk at the center of the sanctuary.

Gareth made his way down the aisle toward it. When he reached it, he touched the metal, feeling its smooth texture beneath his fingers. It was cold, and Gareth felt no peace. He didn’t know why he’d expected anything different.

Voice echoing in the hollow space, Gareth said, “Atiuh, if you’re listening—,”

If, he’d said. When had it become an if?

He continued out loud, “I could really do with your blessing right now. Bring me safely home from this journey, back to my daughter and wife. I’m scared that I—.” Gareth cut off with a sigh. “I’m being selfish. We could all use your blessing—everyone on the team, King Nochdvor, wherever he is, all those in Alfheim struggling without his leadership.”

Gareth withdrew his hand from the obelisk, the weight of his fears settling heavily between them. Newspapers pushing war, diplomatic teams with more bodyguards than diplomats, angry alfar, scheming governments. It was too much. It pushed Gareth to his knees.

“Things are terrible here, Atiuh. There may be a war, and our leaders are…” Gareth stopped himself before he could speak his treasonous thoughts. “Help us solve this problem in Orean before it gets worse.”

He rested his forehead against the cool bronze. He didn’t expect a response. He didn’t expect a miracle. But the hollow nothingness that he got made him feel foolish. He sat back and stared at the idol, and nothing happened.

Eventually, the soft cadence of voices drifted in from outside the sanctuary doors. Gareth wiped his eyes, clearing away tears he hadn’t noticed forming, and made a hasty retreat, slipping out a side door before he was caught in here after dark. Gareth followed the winding hallways of the church and didn’t stop until he was back on the busy street.

He hadn’t recovered by the time he reached the hotel, so he ducked around the high-gated veranda of the café next door to his hotel and slipped into the alley between the two buildings. He lit a cigarette, but before he could raise it to his lips, a familiar voice stopped him cold.

“Just tea for me, and toast if you have it. Anything for you, Hallisey? My treat.”

That was Moira, her proud voice carrying easily over the rest of the café’s chatter. Roman answered, softly, “No, thank you.”

“Right, you had dinner with my brother and his family tonight, didn’t you? And how was that?”

Gareth put out his cigarette and contemplated what to do. The proper thing would be to announce his presence. Not doing so would be an acute betrayal of both his sister and his friend. But on the other hand, there was no need to unnecessarily startle them. And neither of them were the type to reveal secrets without good cause, so this may very well be Gareth’s only chance to get answers. The thought of finding out why Moira added Roman to the team was too tantalizing to resist.

Gareth pulled his hood up, the one on the new cloak Isobel had brought him for the journey to Orean. Not even Moira had seen him in it yet. He inched closer to the veranda and peeked through the thick panels of the fence. Moira and Roman sat in the corner near him, away from the rest of the late night crowd.

“I take it you read the file,” Roman said.

“I did. It was certainly an interesting read. Horrifying, at times, disturbing at others, always tragic. The file didn’t belong to a Roman Hallisey, though.”

“Amaimon Rosario,” Roman guessed. “The name I was born with. I changed it when I left Unity.”

“But you kept the other one,” Moira said, lowering her voice. Gareth had to practically press himself against the fence to hear. “The one we gave you.”

“Reclaimed it,” Roman corrected.

“Your file said you were dead.”

Roman scoffed. “It wouldn’t have been much of an escape if I hadn’t faked my own death after. Unity would’ve found me within the year.”

“It wasn’t much of an escape anyway, from what I read. Poor Bellona. That was one of the saddest parts of the story. Apparently, they broke her only weeks after you abandoned her.”

Even through the narrow slits in the fence, Gareth could see how Roman tensed at that. He couldn’t see Roman’s face.

“If you really read my files, you’d be careful with what you say next, for your own sake,” Roman said. Gareth hardly recognized his voice.

“If I believed your files,” Moira said. “If I believed Amaimon is really you. But let’s say, for now, that I do believe it. You fled our employ. You faked your own death to get away. You’ve made it perfectly clear, since then, that you’re no friend to Unity.”

“That doesn’t mean I’m an enemy,” Roman said.

“Still, letting you on the team is a risky move on my part. I think you may have to make the deal sweeter.”

“I already promised you a favor.”

They were interrupted by the return of their waitress, who set a cup of tea and some toast in front of Moira.

“What good is that to me?” Moira asked once she was gone. “I have no proof that you’ll follow through. I want you to do something for me now.

“What do you want?”

“We want you back, of course.”

Roman laughed. Gareth didn’t understand why that was funny, but then, he didn’t understand much of what he was hearing. Eventually, Roman said, “Absolutely not. Not for a thousand favors.”

“We only need you to solve one little problem for us, Mr. Rosario—,”

“Hallisey,” Roman interrupted.

“Pardon, Mr. Hallisey. It’s a small problem, and you’re the perfect person for it. It has to do with your new team Captain.”

Gareth gasped. In the silence that followed, he feared they’d heard him, but when he peeked through the fence again, Roman was still, the line of his back tense. He wasn’t looking Moira’s way, or Gareth’s. “Why?” he asked.

“He shouldn’t have gotten the job in the first place,” Moira sighed. “He’s too close to this, and historically, he’s been too friendly with Orean. We don’t trust him to be objective. He could jeopardize the mission and your teammates’ safety.”

“Don’t pretend you care about that. It’s political. Just say so.” Roman sat forward, blocking Moira from Gareth’s view. “Let me guess: Alfheim was threatening war, so you came up with this clever little team. But then they surprised you by insisting they lead it. You agreed, because if the leader they chose happened to get caught in a tragic accident on the journey, you get to pick the replacement. You get what you want: control.”

Roman sat back again, so Gareth could see Moira’s scowl. “You’re much smarter than your replacements.”

“I’ve had a long time to shake off your training. Don’t think, don’t ask questions, don’t be a real person,” Roman said with a sigh. “It took a while. So you want me to kill him?”

Gareth clapped a hand over his mouth, staring at the wood of the fence with mounting horror. He held his breath.

“We weren’t going to risk it. Not with one of our own,” Moira said, casually like they were discussing the weather or the latest styles. “Leandros Nochdvor is trained and dangerous, and if it were to get back to Rheamarie…well.”

Roman was quiet for a minute. When he spoke, Gareth could almost hear the wry smile in his voice. “And this works because I’m not connected to Unity like they are. Even if I fail, or if this does go badly, the blame doesn’t trace back to you.”

Moira smiled in the same self-satisfied way she did when she beat Gareth at chess. “I haven’t told anyone about you. Not who you are, or why I chose you for the team. You’re wholly unconnected. Are you familiar with Nochdvor’s family history?”

“You mean his father?”

Moira nodded. “Tried to kill his own brother and take the throne for himself. In the aftermath, the King took our Captain Nochdvor in, but nearly all of Alfheim thinks it unwise. They worry he’ll end up like his father. I hear Alfheim’s Council is irate the Princess gave Nochdvor the position without consulting them.”

“So?”

“So you kill him, say you found out he was planning on betraying his uncle as soon as the team found him. Most of Alfheim won’t even question it.”

“The princess would,” Roman said. “She’s threatening to bring war on an entire city-state for revenge, and she always did like Leandros more than her own farther. I’m not sure she’d rest until she knew the truth of what happened to him.”

Leandros,” Moira repeated thoughtfully. “Not Captain Nochdvor, not Mr. Nochdvor. You don’t know him already, do you?”

“No,” Roman said, and if Gareth hadn’t already suspected otherwise, he wouldn’t have noticed Roman’s slight hesitation.

“If you do this for us, Mr. Hallisey, you have your deal—access to the team and every record we have of you wiped. Amaimon Rosario will no longer exist.”

“Fine,” Roman said, standing. “I’ll do it. If you’ll excuse me now, Representative, I’m very tired, and you’ve given me much to think about.”

Roman left, and Moira sat alone long enough to finish her tea before leaving as well. Gareth waited until he was sure they were long gone before stepping around the veranda and returning to his hotel.

He understood this much: he had to warn Leandros.


Chapter 15

Gareth didn’t take any notes for Roman. He still didn’t understand why Roman was on the team at all. He puzzled over it during the meeting, coming up with a dozen and one fantastic conspiracies to explain how Roman won Moira over so quickly.

He also didn’t take notes because he didn’t pay attention; about halfway through the meeting, Gareth had glanced around and realized that no one was paying attention but him, so he’d stopped. Evelyne Corscia, the marionite woman Gareth had spoken with at the last meeting, glared at the wall, her thoughts obviously elsewhere. Cathwright, the dragon, picked at her claws. Even Leandros flipped through other paperwork, expression more intense than Mr. Ochoa’s orientation lecture deserved.

Finally, the meeting was over. While the others filed out, Gareth approached Leandros. “Captain? I have a problem to discuss with you.”

“Is that so?” Leandros asked.

“Yes. We still haven’t gotten those drinks.”

Leandros recovered from his surprise with a brief smile, the scar on his cheek warping with the expression. “Not since you stood me up, no.”

Gareth’s own smile fell. “I—,”

“I joke, Mr. Ranulf. I told you then, I understood. Plans change.”

“I didn’t know they taught you how to do that in Alfheim,” Gareth said. “Joke, I mean.”

“They don’t, of course. There are laws against humor of all kind. Anyone who dares make a pun is sentenced to hang by the gallows,” Leandros said, laughter dancing behind his eyes. “But we’re not in Alfheim, so damn them all.”

Leandros began gathering up his things. Gareth noticed the team roster among other papers, and pointed to a name on it. “McDermott’s off the team, right? I hear he was thrown off a bridge.”

Leandros looked up at Gareth, wide-eyed. “Is that another joke? If so, I don’t understand it.”

“No, no, I wouldn’t joke about that. He was injured in the prison break yesterday.”

Leandros didn’t seem to believe Gareth wasn’t joking. “I’d heard he was off the team, but I hadn’t heard why.”

“Moira— Representative Ranulf, my sister—filled the opening he left this morning. It’s a friend of mine that took the job, actually. I know Roman would have come today, if it hadn’t been for a prior obligation.”

The papers Leandros had been so carefully gathering slipped out of his fingers, catching on the air and scattering across the floor. Leandros didn’t even seem to notice. He was staring at Gareth. “Roman, did you say?”

Too late, Gareth remembered the look that had crossed Roman’s face when he’d heard Leandros’ name, just two days before at the Webhon Players’ performance. “Yes,” Gareth said slowly, “Roman Hallisey. Do you know him?”

Leandros stiffened, eyes dropping from Gareth’s. He looked around at his scattered papers without really seeing them. “He’s on the team now, is he?”

“Yes,” Gareth said, trying to read Leandros’ expression. But even if the alfar didn’t seem it at times, he was from Alfheim. When Leandros chose not to show emotion, no emotion would be seen.

“I see,” Leandros said, and began gathering his papers back up. Gareth helped, not sure what to say. “What was his prior engagement?”

“What?”

“You said Mr. Hallisey had a prior engagement.”

“Oh,” Gareth said, scrambling to make something up. It felt too personal to reveal that Roman was collecting his things from the girl who’d just broken up with him, particularly when Gareth didn’t know the history between Roman and Captain Nochdvor. “He didn’t say.”

“Right. Well, when you see Roman,” Leandros said, and Gareth couldn’t help but notice the familiar use of Roman’s first name, “Tell him cowardice is unbecoming.”

“Uh,” Gareth said, eyebrows shooting up. “Sure.”

“He’ll know what I mean,” Leandros said with a pleasantly cold smile.


After Gareth and the others left, Leandros and Ochoa made their way upstairs together. The team had met on the Island this time, albeit tucked into the back recesses of Unity’s main office building, where no one ever ventured unless they were lost, and where nothing ever got cleaned or repaired, even when the paint chipped or the furniture rotted.

The hallways slowly grew taller and wider, but not yet wide enough that they didn’t have to press themselves against the wall when a white dragon came down the hall toward them, for fear of getting hit by its spiky tail. The further into the building they got, the more they had to fight their way through the congested traffic of Unity employees—the more Leandros had to fight, at least. Ochoa just followed in the path the taller alfar made for him. “Which way am I going?”

“Turn right at the end of the hall,” Ochoa said cheerfully.

Leandros had been looking back to speak to Ochoa, and when he turned back around, he stopped suddenly, finding himself face to face with an orinian. She smiled at Leandros’ abrupt stop; her smile widened when Ochoa ran into Leandros’ back.

Leandros didn’t concern himself with fashion—neither the flash of Alfheim nor the simple cuts of Gallontea. He wore what was comfortable, practical, and looked good on him. But this woman’s style was jarring, even for him. She wore a shapeless wool sweater made for someone twice her size and paired it with a long purple skirt decked in bells, glitter, and lace. Despite the sweater’s size, the sleeves were still too short for her long arms. She was tall and slim, with silky dark hair pulled into a messy bun and dark, jagged dirren cutting across her face.

“Eftychia!” Ochoa said, peering around Leandros. “You’re back!”

Eftychia waved at him, her entire face lighting up, then extended a slender hand toward Leandros. “Pleasure to meet you, Captain Nightingale. I do believe you’ve been waiting for me.”

Leandros blinked and automatically took her hand. He finally understood why this last teammate was so important— she was orinian. “Nochdvor,” he corrected.

“It’s a game she plays,” Ochoa said in an undertone, not quietly enough to keep Eftychia from hearing, but quiet enough that she could pretend she hadn’t.

“I like giving nicknames,” Eftychia said, falling into step beside Leandros as they continued walking, “And I like animals. It’s not a game. Dear Eresh is just upset because I’ve dubbed him an armadillo,” she said, looking back at Ochoa with a fond smile. “I said ferret first, Eresh, but you didn’t like that either!”

“And I’m a nightingale?”

“No,” Eftychia said easily, “I was just trying it out, but that one won’t fit. I’ll keep trying.”

“We’ll have plenty of time for it,” Leandros told her.

“Won’t that be wonderful? I love traveling on long journeys with new people. There’s nowhere better to pick them apart and learn what makes them run.”

Leandros gave her a sidelong look, but her expression remained sweet and open.

“How have you been enjoying Gallontea, Captain?” she asked.

“I haven’t seen much of it,” Leandros admitted. “Most of my time has been spent on this island.”

“Oh, I was hoping you’d say that!” Eftychia chirped, the bells on her skirt jingling as she gave a little skip. “Let me show you the city tomorrow! I simply cannot let you out of my sight until I figure out your nickname.”

“You’re going to have to,” Ochoa said, checking his watch. “We have a meeting with the Magistrates to get to, and you’re not invited.”

Leandros was surprised. Aside from Gareth, no one had made much of an effort to spend time with him socially, and even Gareth had cancelled their plans. Much as he disliked the idea of being picked apart, he was beginning to feel lonely. It had been a long time since he’d been away from Rheamarie and the rest of his family, and even then, he’d never been alone like this.

“I would love to join you, Ms. Jones. Thank you.”

“Eresh, you simply must come as well. I’ve missed you!”

“I suppose I could take a day off,” Ochoa said, glancing at Leandros for approval. “We’ve had time to get just about everything prepared while we waited for you, so there’s not much left to do.”

“It’s settled, then,” Eftychia said, beaming and clapping her hands like a child. “Let’s all meet at the bridge tomorrow morning.”

“Not too early,” Leandros said. He hadn’t taken a day off since he’d arrived, and he’d like to take advantage of it.

“Do you not like mornings?” Eftychia asked. “Oh, let me think, what kind of animal doesn’t like mornings?”

“A sloth,” Ochoa suggested, smugly.

“Hush, armadillo,” Leandros said.

Their group stopped in front of the grand doors to the Magistrates’ Offices. “We really must go, Chia,” Ochoa said.

“Oh, very well. It was a pleasure meeting you, Captain Jaguar. I’ll see you tomorrow!” Eftychia said, flouncing off. Her way of moving was hypnotic, loping and graceful.

“I wouldn’t mind if that one stuck,” Leandros called after her.

Eftychia turned and danced backward, grinning at him. It’s not right, but I’m getting closer!”

“She’s a strange one,” Ochoa said in an undertone. “Not quite right in the head, but smarter than she seems. She’ll be good to have with us.”

Leandros frowned. “She’s a part of the security team?”

Ochoa nodded. “Wait until you see her fight. She’s a bit childish, at times, but don’t worry. It’s worth putting up with.”

“I wasn’t worried,” Leandros said. He watched Eftychia disappear into the crowd. High above her head was a wide window, through which the dark silhouette of Unity’s prison and the barracks beside it were visible on the clean horizon of the Island’s edge.