Gareth hurried down the stairs. Damn whoever was pounding on his door so early in the morning. Isobel was asleep, Ofelia was asleep, and even the servants were still asleep, but if his impatient visitor kept this up, they wouldn’t be for long. Fortunately, he hadn’t been woken by the noise— he’d been awake, reviewing the readings and manuals Mr. Ochoa had sent his way. Gareth had made the mistake of procrastinating, and now there was a meeting today and he hadn’t yet read any of it.
Gareth opened the door, unable to get a word out before his visitor was pushing his way inside. “Why, Mr. Hallisey!”
“Hello, Gareth! Mind if I come in?”
Gareth shut the door to the cold wind that followed Roman inside then turned to the young man, whatever admonitions he’d had ready dying on his tongue when he got a look at Roman. “Atiuh’s name, son, are you alright?”
There was something different about Roman this morning. There were purple half-circles under his eyes, his eyes themselves too wild and too empty, the black irises too large. That wasn’t it, though— wasn’t what made Gareth take an uneasy step back, away from Roman. He couldn’t say what it was.
Roman offered him a tired smile. “I’m alright, Gareth.”
Gareth frowned, regarding the young man with concern. “Well,” he said, “Don’t apologize for waking me, or anything.”
Roman looked down at Gareth’s dressing gown. “Oh. I’m sorry.”
“Do you have any idea what time it is, son?”
“I thought it was morning,” Roman said, rubbing his eyes. Gareth hadn’t realized the effect those eyes had on his nerves until they were hidden behind Roman’s hands.
“It is. Early morning.”
It took Roman a moment to understand. “Oh, I’m so sorry! The suns are up; I didn’t even think beyond that. Please, Gareth, hit me over the head and send me on my way; I can bother you at a more reasonable time.”
Gareth huffed. “I’ve been awake for some time, anyway. Come on upstairs.” Gareth led Roman up to his sitting room. In the corner sat his writing desk, covered in a mess of files and reports from Ochoa. Apart from slivers of pale sunslight peeking around the edges of the curtains, a delicate lamp with a stained glass shade was the only source of light in the room.
“You don’t quite seem yourself,” Gareth said.
Roman took slow steps into the room, trailing his hand along the back of the sofa as he went. “Funny, I feel like myself. More than I have in some time.”
Gareth felt the same uneasy sensation as before, a prickling at the back of his neck. “Is that so?”
Roman shrugged and grinned, the smile stretching from ear to ear but not touching his eyes. “I’m sorry, Gareth. I didn’t get much sleep last night.”
“That’s alright,” Gareth said weakly. He didn’t like that smile. “Do you…do you mind waiting a moment? I’d like to finish reading this report before I take a break.”
Gareth sat back down to work, trying to ignore Roman behind him as he first moved to the bookshelf, perusing the titles there, then to the couch. Roman quieted after that, and Gareth skimmed through the report without interruption, turning when he’d finished to find Roman curled up on the couch, asleep. Gareth smiled and draped a blanket over Roman before returning to his reading.
Roman woke hours later on a stiff couch nearly a foot too short for him. His legs dangled off the edge, and when he stretched, a muscle in his back gave a sharp protest. With a groan, he sat up and blinked around at the unfamiliar sitting room, at the morning light now streaming in through open curtains, and finally at the blanket covering him. It took a moment to remember that morning, and with it came memories of the previous night. He pushed the fresh pain away, something he had a good deal of experience doing, folded the blanket, then wandered over to Gareth’s desk.
Roman picked idly through the papers on the desk, most of which had CONFIDENTIAL sprawled across them. He only briefly stopped to think he shouldn’t be doing this— then he found the team roster. He recognized a few of the names when he skimmed over it, and finally, a plan began to form. He needed onto this team.
“Oh, you’re awake,” a startled voice came from behind Roman. Folding the roster and slipping it into his waistcoat pocket, Roman turned to see a maid standing in the doorway, regarding him with open curiosity. She curtsied. “The Ranulfs are taking breakfast out on the balcony; they’ve asked that you join them.”
“Thank you,” Roman said. “Where—,”
“Down the hall and to the right, through the dining room.”
Roman followed the maid’s directions to an empty dining room lit by cold morning light. The balcony doors were propped open, and Roman heard a flute-like laugh drift in through them. Isobel. Roman followed the sound to find Gareth, Isobel, a young girl, and a tired-looking woman with the same nose as Gareth sitting at a table on the balcony, the white ends of the tablecloth snapping and fluttering in the breeze.
“Good morning,” Gareth called. He sat facing Roman, his back to the rooftops of Gallontea and, beyond those, the cliffs of Unity Island and the flat blue ocean horizon. Streaks of color danced through the sky above their heads and for once, Gallontea wasn’t lost under a blanket of smog. Roman had thought he was long past finding beauty in this crooked city, but the view here took his breath away.
“Good morning,” Roman said. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to intrude—,”
“It’s a good thing you didn’t, then,” Isobel said. She gestured at the open seat across from her. “Join us. Help yourself to some breakfast.”
“I didn’t want to wake you; you seemed like you needed the sleep,” Gareth said. “Feel any better?”
“Yes,” Roman said, surprised that it was the truth, even with his discomfort at the Ranulfs’ overwhelming kindness. “Thank you.”
The table was piled high with more food than four people could possibly eat, plates of rolls, bowls of fruit, warm ham and a pot of rich, bitter coffee Roman could smell from where he sat. He felt out of place, though it might be more the familial domesticity than the luxury of it all.
Isobel said, “Roman, this is Gareth’s sister, Representative Moira Ranulf. Moira, this is Roman Hallisey.”
“Pleasure,” Moira said. Her eyes trailed over Roman’s clothes, which, nice as they were, were worn and several seasons out of style. Her assessment ended with Roman’s scarred, calloused hands, and Roman could see her dismissal in the way she turned pointedly away.
“And, of course, our daughter Ofelia,” Isobel continued. “Ofelia, say hello to Mr. Hallisey. He’s a friend of your father’s.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ofelia,” Roman said seriously.
Ofelia stared back just as seriously, brown eyes wide. “How d’you do,” she said through a mouth full of breakfast potatoes.
“Ofelia,” Isobel chided, but Roman only laughed. Ofelia swallowed her food and grinned, amused by his amusement.
“She looks just like you, Isobel.”
“Fortunately for her,” Gareth said.
“She has Gareth’s curls,” Isobel said, tucking a lock of dark hair behind Ofelia’s hair. Ofelia and Roman’s eyes both went to Gareth’s head.
“I choose to shave it, you know,” Gareth said stiffly.
Isobel made a sound that could have been a cough. “How’s Dinara?”
“Hard to say. We, ah…decided to go our separate ways.”
“Oh, Roman, I’m so sorry,” Isobel said.
“It was a mutual decision, really. I’m sad, but not heartbroken,” Roman assured her.
“You seemed so close the other day. What happened?” Gareth asked.
“Seemed is the right word for it,” Roman said. He eyed the Representative, who was too thoroughly engrossed by her breakfast not to be paying attention. “It was only the seeming of closeness, and we both realized it.”
“You’re welcome to stay with us a while, if you need a place,” Isobel said, after sharing a look with Gareth. “We have several spare rooms.”
Roman stared at her, and when Gareth nodded his agreement, at Gareth. “I,” he began, then had to stop. He’d resigned himself to cheap inns at best, alley corners at worst. At least until he’d figured out where he was going. “That would be wonderful, thank you.”
“Of course,” Gareth said with a smile, eyes crinkling at the corners. Roman noticed the lines there, left by a lifetime of smiling. “Consider it our thanks to you for saving my life.”
Moira looked up at that. “Saving your life?”
“Didn’t I say? Roman’s the one who saved me that night I was mugged.”
The Representative studied Roman anew, her gaze calculating and interested. It reminded Roman of pain, of a long line of Unity Representatives who’d hurt him and used him and felt no remorse. Roman had no doubt that Moira would do the same, if she could, but he was stronger now.
“You have my thanks, Mr. Hallisey. The Ranulfs are forever in your debt.”
“I appreciate your thanks, but don’t need it. I’m glad I was there to help.”
Moira graced him with an approving nod. From there, the conversation flowed to a more interesting topic, after Isobel asked why Unity’s bells had been tolling so loudly the day before.
“There was a what?” She gasped.
“A prison break. I wasn’t on the island yesterday, but I hear it was quite the sight— the criminals escaped by jumping clear off the prison bridge.”
“How frightening,” Isobel said, sounding more intrigued than afraid.
“It is,” Roman agreed. “Were the criminals ever caught?”
“Not yet, but I have faith they will be.”
Roman covered his smirk with a hand, but not before Gareth noticed. He frowned at Roman, but was distracted by Ofelia complaining about how she wanted to go play. Isobel stood with some difficulty, her hand on her stomach. She scooped Ofelia into her arms and navigated past Moira. “I’ll be back; I’m going to take Ofelia up to her governess.”
“How far along is she now, Gareth?” Moira asked once Isobel was gone.
“Almost five months.”
“How time flies.”
“I’m probably going to miss the birth,” Gareth continued, colder than Roman had ever heard him. He was suddenly reminded that Gareth was from a Unity family, and he felt even stranger about accepting his hospitality.
Moira glanced sharply at Roman, who pretended to be absorbed with his own breakfast, now.
“He knows about the team,” Gareth said.
“Gareth, what part of secret mission don’t you understand?” Moira hissed.
“You know how I am with secrets! If you didn’t want it to get out, then you shouldn’t have put me on the team in the first place. It wasn’t my fault for telling, anyhow; Roman took me to the hospital after the mugging, and they gave me rather strong painkillers. They had me running my mouth something terrible.”
“I hope we can count on your discretion, Mr. Hallisey.”
“Of course,” Roman said innocently. “I have no one to tell.”
This seemed to appease Moira.
Gareth started at the sound of Isobel’s voice, then, calling him upstairs. “I will be right back,” he said, leaving the “play nice” merely implied.
Roman watched him go, then turned to look back at Moira. His plan was beginning to solidify into something real. He was lucky he’d come to Gareth’s this morning. “If it helps ease your mind,” he said with his best ingratiating smile, the kind people like Moira gave and received on the daily, “I worked for Unity for years. I know how to hold onto its secrets. This one is safe with me.”
Moira didn’t bother hiding her surprise. “You did? What did you do, exactly?”
Instead of answering, Roman merely tugged up his sleeve and showed Moira the brand on his wrist. Moira stilled, first, then her eyes went wide, and finally, the color drained from her face.
“Yes,” Roman said, cutting her off.
Moira sat silent a moment, staring at Roman’s wrist unseeingly. “You mean you—,”
“I used to,” Roman said. “I’m retired.”
Moira’s eyes darted toward the door. She inched her chair back, just enough to help with a quick escape. “I didn’t think that was something your kind could do.”
Roman’s smile turned sharp. “Your predecessors made an exception for me. Don’t leave, Representative; I only want to talk.”
“I have a request to make of you. I want to join the team to Orean.”
Moira let out a startled laugh. “Or what? You’ll kill me? Kill my family? Well orchestrated, Hallisey, crashing family breakfast to make your point. Do they mean anything to you at all, or was this a game to get to me? I know how your kind works. You breathe threats, extortion, manipulation—,”
“My kind,” Roman repeated softly. “No, that’s not what I was going to say at all. None of that. I like your family, and I didn’t know I’d be crashing breakfast of any kind. I just think you and I can benefit each other.”
Moira eyed Roman. This was familiar territory to her, and it showed in the way she relaxed. “Is that so?”
“I’m curious about the magic, too.”
Moira stilled a moment before scoffing. “You certainly hear more than you should, Mr. Hallisey. What do you know about that?”
“Only that the explosion in Illyon wasn’t accomplished by any weapon Unity’s familiar with. You think Orean somehow harnessed magic, and you want the same ability.”
Moira shook her head. “The Nochdvors insisted it was magic; I’m of the opinion that they were in shock. Magic, weapon, whatever it is, we’re merely curious about how Orean pulled it off. That comes second to finding King Nochdvor, of course.”
“Of course,” Roman said. “I can help you with both.”
“Our team is already assembled, I’m afraid. And why would we want you? You’re retired. For all I know, you were forced out for incompetency.”
“If I was incompetent, I’d be dead,” Roman said. “You know that. In all my time with Unity, I never failed a single mission, and when I left, it was only because they weren’t strong enough to stop me. If you put me on the team, I guarantee I’ll find the information you need.” Roman played his final card. “I went by Egil, in those days.”
Moira blinked. “As in—,”
“Why should I believe you?”
Roman shrugged. “Check my files; I’m sure Unity still has them. I can corroborate anything you read in them. Quiz me, if you must.”
“What do you get out of this?” Moira asked, staring at Roman with something like awe, now, still calculated and hungry. Roman could practically see the wheels turning: Egil would be her secret, Egil would owe her a favor. He didn’t like it, but at least he had her interest.
He considered his possible answers. He couldn’t say that he didn’t trust Unity to handle this without supervision. He couldn’t say that he’d just been broken up with and needed to get away, do something useful. Couldn’t say he owed Amos Nochdvor his life and wanted to clear his debt. Couldn’t say he was interested in the magic. Couldn’t say he was determined to find it before Unity and get it far, far away from them.
“Satisfaction of my curiosity. I also want Unity’s records of me destroyed,” Roman said. It was a good lie. A solid lie. Enough for this to feel like an even exchange. “In return for helping you with your mission.”
“If you are who you say you are, that’s a big request.”
“This is an important mission. You need the best on your team.”
Moira stood. “I’ll think about it.”
“There’s another benefit to this, you know,” Roman said before she could leave. He heard Gareth’s heavy tread coming down the stairs. “Magic, weapon, whatever it is, I know this mission will be more dangerous than you told Gareth. I do care about him. He’s my friend. I’ll keep an eye on him, keep him out of trouble.”
Moira gave Roman a hard, thoughtful look. “You know, I just recalled that we have an opening on the team. One of our team guards was thrown off a bridge yesterday. Obviously unfit for travel, now.”
Roman raised an eyebrow. “Tragic.”
“Yes, he was injured during the prison break— which we believe was facilitated by someone who knows the prison well. You don’t know anything about that, do you?”
“Not a thing.”
“Well, I suppose his loss is your gain. You’re on the team, Egil, if the information in your file matches up. But you’ll owe me a favor.”
Roman pursed his lips. “You’ll erase my records?”
Moira considered it, then nodded. “Yes.”
“Then you have a deal.”
Moira smiled, just as Gareth stepped back out onto the balcony. Gareth stopped and looked between the two of them curiously, immediately noticing the shift in tension out on the balcony. Moira slipped past him. “I’m afraid I must go, Gareth; I have some reading to do. I’ll be in touch, Hallisey. Welcome to the team.”
“Wait, what?” Gareth asked, but Moira was already gone.
Roman stood and, with a bright grin, patted Gareth on the shoulder. “I have to go get my things from Dinara today, Gareth, but take good notes at the meeting for me, will you?”
Roman and Moira left Gareth standing speechless on the balcony.